Tim promised he was going home to sleep. And he did. He'd fallen asleep with his head on Delilah's chest as she carded his hair repeatedly with her strong, gentle fingers and Grace's words on repeat in his head:
"All the dangers that you've faced over the years, Tim. That experience was put to the test down there. And you passed with flying colors. So, whatever lies ahead, you're more prepared to deal with it than you've ever been in your life."
Exhaustion had finally pulled him under at some point and although it wasn't the 100% restful 20 hours of REM sleep he'd needed, he had gotten in a good 5 hours uninterrupted sleep. That was certainly a good start. The trouble with waking up from a solid sleep where the monsters have gone into hiding for a change, is that when you finally pull all your senses back online upon waking next, that stupid or cruel thing you said or did the day before to the person who deserved the least, comes back and hits you like a slap in the face. And the mental self-flagellation begins. Oh my God! TELL me I did not say that to him!
Which is why, 0530 finds Tim dressed, coffee in hand, heading out early, leaving a note for his still peacefully sleeping wife instead of waking her up two hours earlier than she needs to be up for her own job. Driving in to the Navy Yard, his thoughts are all over the place. Everything from Gibbs getting shot two years ago when he and Tony were chasing a case overseas, to snippets of what he and Gibbs just went through in Paraguay and a dozen different points of close calls in between.
He recalls the fear he felt for the boss as he watched Gibbs collapse in the squad room when he came back to work too soon after getting shot. The memory of being tied up and having to watch Gibbs be tortured over and over in Paraguay slams front and center into his thoughts too. Stop going there!
Drawing in a deep breath as he drives onto the Navy Yard, Tim works to slowly let it out. Every time that memory comes back it hurts. Not being able to do more to help Gibbs down there than he had while the man was being so badly treated still sticks in his gut like a knife. Guilt twists the blade every time he sees him now. But, there's no way in hell he was gonna tell the shrink that, hell he can't even talk about it at all. No amount of "it wasn't your fault" or "Let's talk about that." is gonna make it go away.
On any given day, Tim McGee knows himself to be kind, honest, polite and sensitive to others and what they've been through. Thinking back over what he said to the man the other night in the man's basement, Tim doesn't recognize the person he's become. And he questions if the two-different people he seems to be in the middle of, will ever reconcile back into one that he can live with and still look himself in the mirror with pride, or at least sleep at night.
"Boss, we can't all be you, okay? You came home from Paraguay like it was nothing but maybe I can't do that. And you had it worse than I did. and you're cracking jokes and smiling like you never have before..."
Guilt lances through him as the man's response to what was basically an accusation, comes back to him in vivid replay now.
"Just because I'm crackin' jokes, Tim, doesn't mean I'm okay. I'm okay... enough... maybe."
Broke Rule 8 on that one! Tim's conscience plagues him now as that thought filters through the mayhem. But, it's true and it was over the line he never should have crossed. Who is he to tell the man how to feel or act, shared crisis or not? Why can't he just be relieved that Gibbs seems to have come back with a new lease on life? Would he rather the man be drinking himself into oblivion every night in his basement?
He parks in the employee lot and shuts his car off. Glancing at himself in the rear-view mirror the only question that comes to mind is where the hell was that well-mannered, sympathetic and sensitive, Tim McGee in that conversation?
"Wow." Tim mutters to himself as "I really am screwed up if assumptions and accusations, intentional or not are all I've got for him instead of enjoying the fact that he's happy to be alive. No one deserve to be happy more than Gibbs."
Shame fills his gut now, alongside the resident guilt. Miserably, he scrubs a hand across his face. Feeling lower than low, he slumps back in his seat, letting the cushion of the driver's seat take the hit as his head thumps against the head rest.
The boss' surprised voice startles Tim, his hand dropping to his lap as he glances at the man. With a to-go cup of coffee in each hand, the man's obviously been here for a few minutes already. Tim is speechless at the moment, even though he came here this early, intent on trying to fix what he shouldn't have screwed up in the first-place.
The concern in the older man's quiet tone twists the knife in Tim's gut even more. He can barely smile for reassurance as he answers him. "Yeah, I'm okay."
"If that were true, you wouldn't be here this early." The boss reminds him knowingly. "Just sittin' in your car."
Tim swallows hard around the lump in his throat but can't think of a suitable response.
Into the uncomfortable silence, the boss digs a little deeper. "What's goin' on, Tim?"
Sighing deeply, Tim rolls up the window, get out of his car, locks the door and leans back against it. He looks the older man in the eye as he's handed a cup of coffee. "Thanks."
Gibbs nods as he patiently waits the younger man out.
Tim sighs as he realizes the boss is waiting for an answer and he's not going to wait very long. "Boss, the other night...."
"Let it go, Tim. It's done." Gibbs waves his hand dismissively, his eyes going back down to his own cup as he too rests against Tim's car, his back against the door, savoring the liquid energy.
It's obvious, he doesn't want to talk about that night. Tim doesn't blame him. He's certain that Tim's words cut him, coming from the one person he's just survived months of captivity and torture with and worked with to survive and escape. But he wasn't himself and they both knew that. Maybe. Just maybe, that knowledge, that certainty of Tim's disheveled state of mind helped heal that wound almost as soon as it was handed out?
Tim can only hope so, But even with a little rest under his belt, he's not on the same page about that conversation as the boss. That much he can see now. But he still can't let it go. Hopefully, this time, he can communicate the problem better and still get the boss to understand that all Tim really came here to do was apologize. And he can't leave until the boss gets that apology. "That's just it, Boss. I can't. Just let it go, I mean."
Gibbs looks at him with intent silence, giving him the conversational floor.
"I can't let it go because I shouldn't have..., especially after everything.... ever. I mean there was no excuse.... for..." Tim pauses as if struggling to find the words.
Gibbs hand is on Tim's shoulders in a supportive gesture before Tim even takes his next breath. "Tim."
Tim looks at him again. " I'm sorry."
Gibbs shakes his head slightly. "Nuthin' to be sorry about."
"You were just trying to help."
"And you were just looking for answers I didn't have, Tim." Gibbs reassures him. "Nuthin' wrong with feelin' out of sorts. So long as you get help. And ya did."
"I should never have accused you of faking it. Or presumed to tell you how to deal with everything. Ever." Tim argues quietly. "So wrong of me... I just...."
"What would you rather have said to me, Tim?" Gibbs asks, finally understanding that Tim needs more from him than a simple word or two of forgiveness here. He needs to know that stepping over the line in the face of such uncertainty and feeling of being off-balance isn't the be all and end all their strong relationship or the trust between them. He needs a nurturing shoulder to lean on and a willing ear to hear him out and help him continue to find his way.
"How do you do it?" Tim's question is quiet, yet somber, still full of the lost sense the young man's been carrying around since he's been back. "Life has handed you so much crap and... you're still ...heck, you're happier now than I've ever seen you the whole time I've known you. I just..."
Gibbs breathes out a heavy sigh as he uses one hand to point towards the park bench in the distance. 'C'mon. Let's sit." He quietly urges him.
Tim does as the boss asked him and cooperatively walks to the bench with him.
As they walk, Gibbs thinks back to what he told Grace.
I... feel.... happy.... Yeah....to be alive. Grateful.... I feel like I just wanna ...savor being back.
Concerned now at the realization that for some reason, Tim isn't anywhere near that, Gibbs watches the younger man as they both sit down on the bench close enough to each other to keep the conversation private.
"Now, take a good look around. Whattaya see?"
As Tim opens his mouth to start reeling off what his eyes are taking in when he does as Gibbs asked, the boss shakes his head.
"Don't tell me, Tim. Tell yourself. Whattaya seein' now that you thought we'd never see again? Whattaya been seein' these last few days? On the Yard? At Home? People we never thought we'd see again? Your wife and baby?"
Tim swallows hard. Yeah, there is that way of looking at it. Is that how Gibbs has put himself back together so well? Quietly, he admits as much around the lump in his throat. "I hear ya, Boss. And I get it. We are lucky to be alive. To be back home. And I know that. I really do."
"Then what's the problem, Tim?"
"It's like I told Grace. " I just wish I could quite obsessing about what lies ahead. And I think I actually can do that now. But, I don't know how to..." Tim looks away as his eyes begin to blur.
"How to what, Tim?" Gibbs pushes
"How to stop seeing them treat you that way." Tim shudders as he launches himself to his feet, needing to move.
Gibbs is startled, though not completely shocked. Still his gut is telling him that as rare as it is for Tim to be this upset, there's got to be more to it. He fishes for more. "This is more than the images you can't shake."
Tim nods but says nothing.
"Can't help if you don't let me in." Gibbs pushes.
"Haven't I done enough damage?" Tim quips with clear self-loathing.
"Damage?" Gibbs asks sharply, not happy that the younger man is clearly blaming himself for more than he'd realized. He looks closely at Tim for a long silent minute before he speaks again. "You're blamin' yourself because we were outnumbered and outgunned and that got us captured."
Tim's throat is closed off on him and he can barely breathe as the truth hurls its angry self through his thoughts in full riot gear now. It's almost as if he's back there watching them be overtaken and hauled into their cells like unwanted animals all over again. A stinging head slap has him reeling away from the guilt momentarily, focusing on the boss again, surprised to find that he's become angry now.
His tone as angry as the look on his face, Gibbs lets it rip. "You don't get to blame yourself for what they did, Tim. That's on them. You know that!"
"Is it?" Tim asks agitatedly, his eyes finally locking on to the boss'. "I made the choice to not leave you down there alone! I decided that I was enough help for that mess, that I could be the one to make sure you got to come home! And where did that get you?" Tim wipes angrily at the wetness beginning to trail down his cheek.
"With someone I trust with my life there to watch my back and help me make it home, Tim. That's where it got me!"
Gibbs sighs heavily as he watches Tim try to pull himself back together. He's relieved as hell to finally be able to get Tim to air what's been eating at him. Relief also comes from knowing that the answer to the young man's question is not even debatable. Sure, he remembers what he'd told Grace the other day: I thought it was over
But the truth of the matter is hitting him square in the face right here and now. The reason it wasn't over, the reason they made it back alive, is because he wasn't down there alone. Tim had his back. Even when it seemed like he was acting like a whiney little brat, the bottom line on everything Tim said and did was their survival. Tim pushed for that constantly and without him there, Gibbs doesn't know that he wouldn't have just laid down and quit. Sure, there were moments even with Tim watching his back that he still thought it was over, but not very many and certainly not enough to quit fighting.
Shocked and calmed all in the same breath, Tim steadies his breathing and looks over at the boss. "You really mean that."
"Damn right, I mean it!"
Looking over at the boss, he offers a small smile. "Thanks, Boss." Drinking the last of the luke warm coffee down, Tim tosses the cup in the trash can and takes a minute to wipe his face with his hands, in turn wiping his hands on his pantlegs.
Gibbs nods as he steps back to give Tim room to head back in front of him. As the two of them return to the building in silence, the uncomfortable aura lifts away, leaving in its' place one of familiarity, trust and camaraderie even, one that's never quite been there before. When the two of them continue their trek to their floor in the otherwise empty elevator, the silence continues without either of them breaking it.
It's only when Tim steps towards his desk that Gibbs finally speaks again. "And Tim?"
"The other night?
"Forgiven before you even left my basement."