Chapter 1: Prologue
Tim McGee sat at the computer terminal, typing furiously as he followed the data trail he had discovered. He had been working for nearly eighteen hours straight, barely speaking as he peeled back the layers of encryption which obscured the identity of the saboteur. He ignored the cacophony around him as he broke through another level to access the final piece of information he needed. He delved deeper into the data and came up with a name.
He turned to the man behind him. “I found him, Boss. Petty Officer Scott Corwin, quartered on the C deck, berth 213. He’s the one who has been altering the navigational, communication and electrical systems, which accounts for all the problems the crew has been having with the ship. Mystery solved.”
“That’s good work, Tim,” his boss said with a rare smile. Gibbs turned to one of the security officers waiting for his command. “Let’s go get him.” Both men left the control room and McGee turned back to his computer where started to dig through the records he had just uncovered, hoping to find a motive. Suddenly he froze, wide-eyed as a new and distressing set of information rolled across his screen.
He sprang to his feet and yelled for the captain, who rushed over.
“What is it, Agent McGee?”
“We need to abandon ship!” He pointed to the information on his screen. “Corwin wasn’t just sabotaging the systems, he wants to take down the entire vessel. He planted explosives throughout the ship and--” He checked the screen. “—they’re set to go off in less than five minutes. We’ve got to get everyone off, now!”
The captain let out a stream of invective and began barking orders as he sounded the alarm. McGee pressed his com. “Boss? Are you there?” There was no response. “Boss? Damn it!” He felt a hand grip his shoulder and turned to find the captain.
“Let’s go, Agent McGee.”
“I can’t. I need to tell Gibbs--”
“He’ll hear the alarm. Come on.”
McGee followed the captain to the deck and watched the group preparing the lifeboats for launch. He stood back as most of the crew boarded the boats, scanning the crowd for the lead agent but he didn’t see him. He was left with the captain and two other officers as the last boat was lowered. He looked around in panic, hoping to see Gibbs and the security officer emerge with their prisoner but the deck remained empty.
“I can’t go without--” He was interrupted by the sound of gunshots.
He disregarded the captain’s yells and ran towards the sound, ignoring the churning of his stomach as he made his way to the rear of the vessel. He arrived at the scene just in time to see Corwin point his gun at Gibbs who was crouching near the rail, the body of the security officer slumped against him. McGee raised his own gun.
Corwin swung his arm towards McGee and the agent fired, striking the man in the chest. The petty officer fell to the deck and McGee ran to his boss’s side.
Gibbs nodded and lowered the security officer to the deck, checking for a pulse. He sighed and looked up at McGee, shaking his head.
“Boss, we have to go. Corwin wired the ship with explosives. They’re going to--”
The sudden blast rocked the ship, causing McGee to stumble and fall against the railing. Before he could catch himself, he overbalanced and tumbled over the side. He barely had time to let out a cry of surprise before he hit the water and, with the wind knocked out of him, he started to sink into the black depths.
Just as consciousness was beginning to fade he felt something grab his arm and drag him upward. His head broke the surface and he gasped for air, sputtering and gagging as some of the salty water entered his throat. He started to struggle against whatever was holding him but relaxed when he heard a voice in his ear.
“I gotcha, McGee.”
“We have to swim. If we’re too close to the ship when it goes down--”
“It will take us with it.”
The two men started to swim away from the damaged vessel and McGee flinched as each explosion shattered the night. Finally they turned to look back at the blazing hulk just as it disintegrated and sank, leaving behind a few burning pieces of flotsam.
McGee continued to tread water as he turned to his companion, barely visible in the distant firelight.
“You, too McGee. I think we’re even this time.”
McGee gave a faint nod and watched as the flames diminished. He scanned the area and searched for one of the lifeboats, hoping for a rescue that seemed more unlikely with each passing moment.
*thirty-two hours earlier*
McGee stepped off the elevator, carefully balancing a tray of drinks and a bag of food for the team. He had made the lunch run for the day, mainly because he was part of the half of the team that wasn’t currently injured (and Gibbs didn’t do lunch runs), but also because he felt guilty. If he hadn’t been arguing with Tony that day then maybe Gibbs wouldn’t have been distracted and would have seen the drunk driver before he T-boned the sedan. Tony had suffered a concussion, broken both bones in his lower leg, and had minor internal bleeding. Ziva, who had been sitting behind Tony, has sustained a broken arm and badly bruised ribs. McGee had a few cuts and bruises, and Gibbs had walked away with just a black eye from the air bag impact. None of the rest of the team had said anything, but McGee saw accusation in his boss’s silence over the two weeks that passed before first Ziva and then finally Tony were cleared for desk duty.
“McGoo, it’s about time. I’m feeling faint with hunger.” Tony placed a hand to his forehead and pretended to swoon as Ziva rolled her eyes.
“You had a donut only an hour ago, Tony. You cannot be that hungry.”
“Hey, I’m on the mend. That takes a lot of energy, which comes from, you know, food.”
“Here you go, Ziva,” said McGee, ignoring Tony’s whining as he placed her order on her desk.
“Thank you, McGee.”
He turned to Tony and put the older agent’s sandwich and drink on his desk within easy reach and without comment. Tony picked up the sandwich and made a big show of checking to see if it was what he had ordered and McGee returned to his own desk where he picked at his own sandwich without enthusiasm.
The relative quiet of the bullpen was soon interrupted by the arrival of Abby.
“Where’s Gibbs?” she asked, bouncing on her heels, the obvious effect of too many Caf-Pow!s for the time of day.
“I think he’s up in the Director’s office,” said Tony with a sideways look at McGee. “Something about the accident report.”
McGee felt a twist in his stomach. That day had produced too many memories he didn’t want, including the vision of his teammate unconscious and bleeding.
“No, that was not why the director wanted to see him,” said Ziva when she noticed McGee’s expression. “I believe he might have a case he needs us to work on.”
“All of us? ‘Cause really, I’d love to have something to do than review ten year old cold cases.”
“I would as well.”
“Sorry to disappoint you, Ziva. McGee, finish up what you’re working on and go home to pack. Transport leaves in 2 hours,” Gibbs announced as he strode through the bullpen to his desk.
“Where are we going, Boss?”
“A navy research vessel is being sabotaged. We’re going to find out who’s behind it.”
“Oh, man, now I’m glad I’m not going. I still remember what happened the last time we got stuck on a research ship.”
“You mean when you were freaking out over cute little rats, Tony?’ asked Ziva with a smirk.
“At least I didn’t think there was a lion-headed dragon goat on board,” Tony snapped. His expression morphed into an evil grin when he addressed McGee. “Better pack lots of Dramamine, McBarfbag.”
“I don’t need it, Tony.”
“Yeah, I use a patch now. It works a lot better.”
“You better hope so.”
“How far away is the ship?” asked Abby, worry crossing her features. “And how soon will you be back?”
“We’ll be back when we’re finished, Abby,” said Gibbs, his tone less harsh than before but still terse. “The ship is currently about 300 miles east of Miami.”
“Smack dab in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle,” Tony finished with a grin. “Oh, man, McGee, I’m really glad I’m not in you shoes.”
“The Bermuda Triangle? I have heard of that. It lies between Bermuda, Puerto Rico, and the southern coast of Florida. That is where ships disappear mysteriously, yes?”
“Ships, planes, even lighthouse keepers, Ziva. It’s a scary patch of ocean, that’s for sure.”
“It’s a myth, Tony.”
“Of course it is, McSkeptic. Just keep telling yourself that.”
“It’s not a myth, McGee. There really have been a lot of unexplained disappearances in the area. Remember Flight 19?”
“There’s a reasonable explanation for that, Abby.”
“Yeah, right. Five planes disappear on the way back from a mission, and the lead pilot reportedly couldn’t find the landmarks he needed and his compass failed. There are weird magnetic fields in that area that affect navigational instruments, you know.”
“That’s never been proven. Besides, there have been studies made of the radio transmissions from that flight. It’s not as mysterious as you’re making it out to be.”
“Oh yeah? How so?” asked Tony, ignoring his boss’s glare at their continued distraction.
“It happens to pilots sometimes when they’re flying in low visibility. The lose sight of landmarks or the horizon and can’t get a fix on their direction, so they think they’re someplace they’re not. The lead pilot for that flight thought he had flown over the Keys and into the Gulf of Mexico, so he flew east to correct for it. In reality he had flown over the northern Bahamas and then flew out over the Atlantic where the planes ran out of fuel and most likely went down about 200 miles east of Palm Beach.”
“OK, so that’s one case, but there have been a lot of others since then. Got any theories for those?”
“Plenty. And they don’t include sea monsters or alien abductions,” McGee replied with a pointed look at Abby. She grinned.
“Aw, c’mon, McGee. The truth is out there.”
“Would be nice if it were in here,” barked Gibbs. “Are you done?”
“Yes, Boss,” said McGee and quickly returned his attention to his work.
Gibbs turned to glare at the other participants in the discussion. Tony’s grin faded and Abby nodded sheepishly. “Was there something you needed, Abbs?”
She filled Gibbs in on the recent tests she had done and he nodded in approval. Her grin returned and she waved to them all before heading back to the lab. Gibbs left a few minutes later, and McGee managed to finish his task with enough time to get ready for their trip. As he rose to leave, Tony caught his attention.
“Be careful out there, McGee. You never know what might happen.”
“I’ll be fine, Tony. It’s just a tech job. What could go wrong?”
“Never ask that, McJinx.”
*six hours later*
McGee carefully followed his boss down the ladder from the helo and breathed a sigh of relief when his feet were firmly on the deck of the ship. He paused for a moment to orient himself and was happy to note that the scopolamine patch he wore behind his ear really seemed to be working. He rushed to catch up with Gibbs and followed him to the bridge of the ship where the captain waited.
“Captain Aherns?” The man nodded. “Special Agent Gibbs, and this is Special Agent McGee. I understand you need our help.”
“I just hope you can help, Agent Gibbs. Follow me.”
The two agents accompanied the captain to the control room. “Everything is working at the moment, but that can change rather quickly. We’ve had multiple brief system failures, apparently at random. I need to know how it’s being done, and who is doing it. Why it’s being done isn’t a priority, but I expect you to figure that out anyway. I don’t like it when things don’t go as planned on my ship, Agent Gibbs. I need this to stop before someone gets hurt.”
“Understood, Captain. Any theories on where to start?”
“All systems are controlled by computer, but there are several access points. We haven’t been able to catch anyone red-handed, so I’m hoping you can trace it through the logs. We’ve tried to access them but someone had installed some sort of program that blocks out attempts. It’s exceedingly frustrating. Our chief systems specialist, Petty Officer Haywood, will get you and your man started. We’ll need to monitor your access due to security clearance issues.”
“We both have top level clearance, Captain.”
“I’m sure you do. However, this mission is need to know and frankly, you don’t.”
“I don’t work that way, Captain. If we’re going to solve this, I need access to anyone and everyone on this ship, including you, and Agent McGee needs complete access to the computer system.”
Aherns sighed. “All right. Just don’t go poking into things you don’t absolutely have to see, understood?” Both men nodded. “You better get started.”
McGee spent the next few hours familiarizing himself with the computer network and how the various systems were interfaced with the network and each other. Finally he admitted that he couldn’t do more without at least a couple of hours of sleep and after he was shown to the guest quarters and settled in, he was asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow.
He was awoken a couple hours later by the sounds of yells and running feet in the corridor outside. He stumbled out of his bunk and when he opened the door Gibbs was standing there.
“Navigation systems are going haywire. Better get up there and see what you can do to track it.”
He rushed to the control room and started to work furiously. He quickly managed to find the code that had started the problem and set up a disable command. Soon the systems were back on track and there was a collective sigh of relief.
“Good work, Agent McGee,” said Aherns as he clapped the younger man on his shoulder.
“Glad I could help,” he absently replied as he started to work on tracking the insertion of the code into the system. He barely noticed as almost everyone left, leaving only Petty Officer Haywood.
“That was pretty impressive,” he said, his tone sincere.
“Thanks. Now if I could just figure out how this guy is doing it…”
He worked for another hour in silence, not even noticing the comings and goings of other people in the room. Finally the smell of coffee reached his nostrils and brought him back to reality. He accepted the cup Haywood was practically holding under his nose and leaned back with a sigh.
“Your boss works you pretty hard, doesn’t he? You’re used to focusing like this, I can tell.”
“Yeah, he does, but it’s necessary. You lose concentration for one second and…” He winced. “You can lose too much, too fast.”
“Sounds like personal experience.”
McGee ignored his question and went back to his work.
“So you really think it’s a person doing this?”
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
McGee let out a soft snort. “Don’t tell me you believe that stuff about this place.”
“Hey, I’ve seen plenty of weird crap in my day, and not just out here. I can’t say I disbelieve it at least.”
“You and my co-workers would get along, I think,” McGee muttered as he continued to work through the lines of code to find the intrusion.
“Well, I know there are supposed to be logical explanations for it all. I’ve heard the reasons for the disappearances, everything from rogue waves to methane gas eruptions in the sea floor that reduce the density of the water above, causing boats to sink. It’s just…us sailors are superstitious, you know?”
“Yeah, I know. My dad was in the Navy.”
“And you’re a Navy cop. How did that happen?”
“I, uh, always wanted to be in law enforcement, and my dad wanted me in the Navy. We compromised.”
“Huh. And where did you pick up these computer skills?”
“MIT. Master’s in computer forensics.”
“Yep. It’s been useful, trust me. Most of the time at least.”
“But not all?”
“I…I know my skill set, and that also means I know my limits…most of the time. Sometimes my limits are where they shouldn’t be…like knowing when not to…distract others from their job.”
“Was that a hint? You want me to leave?”
“What? Oh, no. I wasn’t talking about you. It was me. My fault.”
“The reason the rest of my team isn’t here.”
“Oh…” Haywood thankfully remained silent and McGee continued his search, never noticing the silent figure just outside the door that eventually moved way, leaving the agent to his work.
*dawn, the next day*
McGee slowly dragged himself from the depths of slumber and barely managed to open his salt-crusted eyes enough to take in his surroundings. He could feel the motion of the waves, he could tell he was laying on his side something hard and flat, and there was something damp and solid at his back, but he didn’t immediately have the strength to raise his head and get a better look. He blinked and as the dark shape in front of his face came into view, his brow creased in puzzlement. It looked like a burlap-wrapped bale of hay, but it definitely didn’t smell like hay, although it did smell vaguely familiar. He blinked again and saw that the object was butted up against the large flat piece of metal upon which he was laying. Finally he tried to sit up and reach out to touch the object but he was brought up short by a familiar voice.
“Stop moving around, McGee. You’ll tip us over.”
“You expecting someone else?”
“What…” Suddenly he remembered. “The ship…it blew up.”
“And we…we barely found enough pieces to keep us afloat.”
“Lots of stuff floating around out here, McGee. We made do with what happened by.”
“And this…stuff, it’s…?”
“Yep.” He could almost hear Gibbs’ smirk. “Don’t inhale.”
McGee let out a shaky laugh as he turned his head to look up at the lightening sky. “Reminds me of a book I read once.”
“A woman’s husband pushed her off a cruise liner…she survived until she was rescued by hanging on to a bale of…uh, ’Jamaica’s Finest’.”
Gibbs chuckled. “Why?”
“Well, it was there…I guess.”
“No, why did her husband push her off?”
“Oh…uh, to get her money. She inherited several million from her parents.”
“Jumping in after me.”
“You already thanked me for that, Tim.”
“Yeah, I know, but…”
“It wasn’t your fault, McGee. The accident.”
“Heard you talking to Haywood. It’s not your fault Tony and Ziva weren’t here, too.”
“Guess it was a good thing they weren’t though, huh?”
Gibbs didn’t reply and McGee sighed. Of all the ways to die, this wasn’t one he expected.
“Keep afloat, wait for the search crew.”
“Boss, uh, that might be a problem.”
“When Corwin sabotaged the systems…he erased the navigation logs and changed the records of the ships’ heading for the last twenty-four hours before…the explosion. He sent that information back to the base, so when the people at the base access those records to try and find the ship…”
“They’ll be looking in the wrong place.”
Both men lapsed into silence and without the distraction of conversation McGee soon noticed how thirsty he was.
Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink…
He also started to think about the other problems they would soon face: starvation, storms…predators. He vividly remembered watching a Shark Week program just a few weeks ago and now sincerely wished he had just changed the channel.
If Tony was here he’d probably humming the theme from Jaws…and then I’d have to dump him overboard.
He managed a small smile as he imagined the older man’s likely reaction to that, and then sobered. The rest of the team would soon learn of the ship’s disappearance and that their leader had been lost at sea. He thought of his last words to Tony.
“What could go wrong?”
He was right. I never should have asked. Maybe I really am a jinx…
He drifted off to a restless and uneasy sleep, unaware of the gathering storm clouds far to the east. The first tendrils of a nightmare began to creep into his brain, but before they could take hold, he was awoken by a loud cry.
“Ahoy there! Men overboard!”
A/N: The Flight 19 case is a real disappearance that occurred on December 5, 1945. The explanations for that disappearance as well as the other phenomena in the Triangle have been gleaned from various sources.
The book McGee refers to is Skinny Dip, by Carl Hiaasen.
*later that day - the Navy Yard*
Tony clicked on the PRINT icon and leaned back in his chair with a sigh. He hated paperwork under the best of circumstances, but in light of the fact that he couldn’t do anything else, he really really hated paperwork. He was bored, cranky, and, as much as he hated to admit it, he missed his partner. If nothing else, McGee could be relied on to find some interesting website to relieve the tedium associated with cold case review, or to display some idiosyncrasy that Tony could mock, and thus receive some mocking in return. Without the younger man’s presence, Tony felt adrift, which left only one, albeit hazardous, option.
“Hey, Ziva,” he called in a stage whisper. “When do you think Gibbs and McGee will be back?”
“I do not know, Tony.”
“I hope it’s soon. I still have a lot of sympathy points I need to cash in with McGuiltTrip.”
“Tony, you should not be doing that to McGee. He feels bad enough as it is.”
“I believe he thinks the accident was somehow his responsibility.”
“That’s…nuts. Even for McGee.”
“Still, it is the way he thinks. We were injured, he was not, therefore he feels guilty.”
“Huh. That’s a bad habit to have.”
“But one that is very hard to break.”
The two lapsed back into silence, working their way through more case files. Tony found himself once again hoping for the rest of his team’s quick return. Maybe he’d ask the director for an update…
Tony noticed movement on the catwalk and looked up to see two men in naval officer’s uniforms striding towards Vance’s office. Vance met them at the door and they quickly disappeared inside.
“Wonder what that was all about?”
“What what was all about?”
“Nothing. Just observing, Ziva.” He almost expected to hear some retort from the boss and had to remind himself that the man wasn’t around to hear. He decided to take a break and check his email, and when nothing interesting popped up he sent one to Abby, asking if she had heard from Gibbs or McGee.
He soon got a reply that said she hadn’t heard from them but she hadn’t expected to because they were out in the middle of nowhere and sometimes ship to shore communication could be difficult but she wasn’t worried because she was very sure they were fine, busy but fine and there was nothing to worry about now why was he asking? Tony sighed. Even through email Abby could wear him out. He sent a briefly reply intended to keep her from freaking out and returned to his work.
“Agent DiNozzo, Agent David. When was the last time you heard from Agent Gibbs and Agent McGee?”
They looked up at the director who was standing on the staircase, his normally neutral expression creased with worry.
“Not since they left, Director. Is something wrong?”
Vance descended to the bullpen, walked over to stand between Tony and Ziva’s desks, and spoke in a low voice.
“Communications with the ship they were on, the Raptor, have been spotty over the past two days. Last night, at 2200 Atlantic Time, Norfolk lost contact and they were unable to reestablish a connection. They attempted to locate the ship through satellite imagery early this morning and were unable to find it within a two hundred mile radius of its last recorded coordinates.”
Tony felt as if the floor beneath him had suddenly given way and a sickening sensation twisted through his gut.
“What are you saying, Director?” he asked, even though he already knew the answer.
“It appears that the Raptor, along with her entire crew and our agents, has vanished.”
*earlier that day – somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle*
“Ahoy there! Men overboard!”
Gibbs felt McGee jerk awake and held his breath, hoping their improvised raft wouldn’t tip in response to the sudden movement. When it remained upright, he raised his head to see who had called and saw a sailboat about a hundred yards away. He could see four people standing on deck, two men and two women, and one of the men had a pair of binoculars in front of his eyes. Gibbs heard the voice again carry out over the water.
“Oy! One of them’s alive…both of them are! Get the dingy ready.” The man put his hand to his mouth and yelled. “Hang on, mates! We’re coming!”
Gibbs chuckled in relief and looked over his shoulder at McGee.
“Looks like we lucked out, Tim.”
Ten minutes later, an inflatable dingy pulled up along side their raft. After some careful maneuvering both men were on board and the small craft headed back towards the sailboat.
“You’re lucky we came along when we did, mates. It looks like you were about to get company.” Gibbs turned towards the horizon and saw a dark, triangular fin cutting through the water about a hundred yards away. He heard McGee groan and saw that the younger man had his eyes tightly shut and was curling in on himself in the bottom of the dingy. The two men who had come to their rescue glanced at each other and pushed the boat to go faster towards their goal.
As they approached, Gibbs got a chance to examine the vessel. It was a ketch, about forty feet in length, and while it was obviously an older model it looked well cared for. Its hull was sparkling white, and when they reached the stern he saw that the name and port of call were painted across the expanse in bright blue.
Hamilton , Bermuda
Gibbs helped McGee climb aboard and then followed. The younger man staggered to one of the gunwale seats and collapsed, his fear and exhaustion quite apparent even though Gibbs could see he was still trying to hide it.
One of the women brought Gibbs a wet cloth and he began to wipe the salt from his face after he saw that she had offered one to McGee as well.
“No worries, luv. Welcome aboard.”
The two men finished securing the dingy across the bow and turned to their new passengers.
“How are you feeling?” the shorter of the two asked. He was deeply tan, his dark hair was streaked with blond from the sun, and his crystal blue eyes showed genuine concern.
“Better now,” replied Gibbs. “Thanks again.”
“What happened?” asked the other man. He was equally dark, but his black eyes and broader features indicated that the tan was likely his natural color.
“Ship blew up.”
“Bloody hell,” said the first man. “Was it the engine? Or a bad fuel line?”
“Are you two the only survivors?” asked the woman who had given him the cloth. She was similar in appearance to the younger man, with green eyes instead of blue.
“The rest got to the lifeboats,” said McGee, finally breaking his silence. “At least most of them did.”
Gibbs let out a soft sigh of relief. He knew how much it would affect his agent if the crew hadn’t survived.
“Lord have mercy.”
The other woman Gibbs had seen on deck earlier had returned with two mugs which she handed to each of the agents. “Just water, but you look like you need it. It’s easy to get dehydrated out here.” She smiled at McGee as he gratefully accepted the mug. “I’m Alice Owens.” She pointed to the taller man. “My husband, Brigham.” She waved her hand in the direction of the other couple. “Jack and Nerys Jones.”
“Jethro Gibbs,” said Gibbs and jerked his head towards McGee. “Tim McGee.”
Suddenly a head adorned with a mop of curly brown hair appeared through one of the open hatches and deep green eyes regarded the newcomers with surprise.
“This is Artie Hudson,” Alice offered. “He’s Nerys’ brother.”
A hand emerged from the hatch, waved, and quickly disappeared along with the rest of him.
“Nice to meet you,” McGee said in a husky voice, and took another sip from his mug.
“So what happened?” asked Alice. “I heard you say your ship blew up.”
“Navy vessel. It was a bomb.”
“More than one,” muttered McGee before he caught his Boss’s look and fell silent.
“American Navy? You’re sailors?”
“NCIS. Civilian employees of military law enforcement.”
“Cops?” Brigham’s face broke into a broad grin. “Guess that wasn’t your ganja, then.”
Gibbs chuckled. “Nope.”
“Good thing you didn’t suggest we rescue it,” said Jack.
“What do you mean, I didn’t suggest it?
“Shut it, Brig.”
“Boys!” Nerys barked, and then laughed. “God, I sounded just like Mum. Anyway, we’re glad you two are all right. This is a bad place to be stranded.”
“Yeah, kinda figured that. What are you all doing out here?”
“Ah, the grand adventure,” Jack replied. “I’d love to tell you about it, but first, you two must be right uncomfortable. Come on, we’ll find you something dry to wear and then we can gab.”
“Best idea I’ve heard in a long time,” muttered McGee and Jack laughed.
“Yeah, I’ll bet. Come on. You can use the port forward cabin to get changed, Tim. Jethro can use the starboard one.”
They followed Jack below deck and Gibbs looked around in surprise. It was a lot roomier than he had expected, and he could see the relief on McGee’s face at the prospect of not being stuck in a small space for any length of time.
The cabin that Jack indicated for Gibbs to use was plain but neat, and after the younger man had produced some dry clothes for both men to wear, he handed a set to Gibbs and started to leave.
“Just bring your wet things up on deck. We’ll hang them up to dry.” He gently shut the door, leaving Gibbs alone. He quickly changed and then sat down on his bunk with a sigh, imaging the Director’s reaction when they returned to NCIS. He really wasn’t looking forward to that conversation…
*later that day - the Navy Yard*
Ziva could not believe what she had just heard.
“Gibbs…and McGee, they are…?”
“Commander Farnsworth has assured me that they will not stop looking and they are extending the search. However, they will only be able to a so for a limited time. There is a tropical system forming about seven hundred miles to the east and it is expected to pass through the area in the next twenty-four to thirty-six hours.”
For once, Tony was silent. The shock and pain evident on his face worried Ziva simply for the fact that it was evident. His usual masks were gone in the wake of the director’s news.
“Is there anything we can do?” she asked as she fought to remain calm.
“Pray?” Tony barked, his anger overtaking every other emotion. “You sent them out on this mission, and all you can say is--”
“Agent DiNozzo!” Vance cut him off. “My agents were well aware of the risks, for this mission and for any job they are assigned. This isn’t the time or place to try and lay blame. Have I made myself clear?”
“Yes, Director,” said Ziva and glanced at Tony, whose stormy expression had not faded.
“Good. We will keep you informed. In the meantime, I ask that you not discuss this with anyone else. We don’t need to raise the alarm if it proves unnecessary.
“Understood, Director,” Ziva replied. Tony said nothing, and after one more pointed look at the senior agent, Vance ascended the stairs to the catwalk and disappeared into his office once more.
A few minutes of silence passed as Ziva tried to absorb what they had just learned. Suddenly Tony slammed his fist on his desk.
“Damn it! I told McGee to be careful. You know what that last thing he said to me was? ‘It’s just a tech job. What could go wrong?’, and then I called him a jinx.”
“You had no way of knowing, Tony. Besides, we do not know that they…are gone. The search crews still might find them.”
“It’s the freaking Bermuda Triangle, Ziva.”
“Yes, I know, but I am surprised that you would give up on Gibbs that easily. He would not let anything happen to McGee if he was there to stop it.”
“And what if he wasn’t?”
She didn’t answer. It was something she really did not want to think about…
McGee, barefoot and dressed in a pair of knee length swim shorts and a lightweight cotton shirt, emerged from the cabin and made his way back toward the ladder which led to the deck. He stopped half way when he saw another man hunched over the radio equipment. He recognized the unruly curls and took a moment to remember the man’s name.
The man turned and gave him a wary look. “That’s me.”
“I’m Tim. What are you working on?”
“Ah, this bloody radio. It hasn’t been working for two days. All I get is static.”
“The radio’s out? So Gibbs hasn’t been able to send a message about us?”
“Oh. Well, maybe I can take a look at it.”
“Be my guest.”
Artie moved out of the way and Tim sat down in front of the vaguely familiar equipment. He tried several adjustments and then carefully pulled the face off the receiver box to check the wiring. Nothing looked damaged or out of place. After fiddling with it for nearly an hour, he had to admit defeat.
“I’m sorry, I have no idea what’s wrong.”
“I’ll tell you, it’s buggered all to hell, that’s what.”
“Yeah, it kind of looks that way.”
For the first time, Artie grinned. “Don’t worry mate, no one here expects a miracle. It’s gone out on us before. We’ll just get a replacement at the next port.”
“Where will that be?”
“We’re headed for St. Thomas. Gonna spend a couple of days there, then on to St. Kitt’s, St. Lucia and then Barbados. After that we’ll head back into the Caribbean to Jamaica and Grand Cayman, then around to Key West and up through the Bahamas. After that we’ll probably head home.”
He chuckled. “It is if you’re into the whole ‘life at sea’ thing. Me? I’d rather be on land, but Nerys insisted. She said I don’t get out enough.”
“Yeah…I get that too, sometimes.” He felt a pang as he remembered his team back in D.C. “Right now I’d just be happy to be back home.”
“I hear ya, mate. Why don’t you head topside? Get your own togs dry and enjoy the sea air.”
“Yeah, I guess I should. I’m just glad…well, I usually get seasick. Guess the treatment is still working.”
“Good thing. Don’t want to be chumming, eh?” He winked.
“No, definitely not.”
“All right, then. See ya.”
McGee finally made it to the top deck, still carrying his somewhat damp clothes. Alice noticed him immediately and smiled.
“Here, Tim, let me takes those for you. They’ll be dry in no time.”
“Yeah, they will,” said Brigham. “The breeze has picked up a bit since earlier this morning.”
“I hope we’re not in for another storm,” said Nerys. “The last one about did me in.”
“We won’t be out too much longer, so hopefully it will hold off until we get to St. Thomas.”
McGee looked around for Gibbs and saw him standing near the bow of the ship, apparently deep in conversation with Jack. Nerys noticed his expression and grinned.
“They’ve been talking boats ever since Jethro came up on deck. Seems like Jack has found a kindred spirit.”
“I, uh, need to talk to him. Gibbs, I mean. I’ll be right back.”
McGee carefully climbed up onto the top deck and made his way to the bow, holding on to anything he could for dear life. When he reached the two men, Jack headed back the way McGee had come and Gibbs turned to face his agent.
“Uh, Boss, we have a problem. The radio is out, and--”
“Yeah, I know. Jack told me. He said we’re about a day and a half from St. Thomas, so we’ll call once we reach port.”
“There’s another problem, then. No passports.”
“We’ll figure it out, McGee. How are you holding up?”
McGee was surprised by the sudden show of concern. “I’m fine, Boss.” Gibbs stared at him and he blushed. “Not seasick, yet anyway. I’ve got less than a day left on the patch, though.” After studying the younger man for a moment, Gibbs nodded and started back towards the stern. McGee followed.
“Hey Jethro, hey Tim. My husband was just telling us about your boats, Jethro. Jack has built a couple from kits himself.” Nerys shook her head. “If he had his way he’d stay at sea forever.”
“Yes, I would. And you all would be right there with me,” he said with a knowing grin.
“That we would,” laughed Alice. “How about you, Tim? What do you do for fun?”
“Oh. Well, I, uh…computer games, mostly. Paintball and laser tag. I used to write, but I haven’t for awhile now.”
“Really? I always thought I might want to try my hand at that,” said Brig. “Been too busy, lately, though.”
“What do you do…for a living?”
The group chatted informally about their work, how they had saved up for years for this trip, and how one day they all hoped to sail around the world.
“Jack’s done it once, before we met,” explained Nerys. “He promised me he’d take me along next time. Unfortunately all we could manage this go-round was the Caribbean.”
“Always thought I’d want to try that, myself,” said Gibbs, surprising McGee once again. “Maybe after I retire…for good this time.”
Their conversation continued until the rising sun started to warm the deck to more uncomfortable levels. The women stripped down to their swim suits and went to stretch out on the bow, and Brigham went below deck only to return a few moments later with fishing poles.
They spent the next several hours casting lines and reeling them in, with a few moments of excitement when they managed to catch something. They took a break for lunch, which was surprisingly good given the limited kitchen space used by Alice and Nerys to prepare it. Artie made an appearance, but the youngest member of the group was apparently not much of a fan of the bright sunlight and disappeared below deck as soon as he politely could.
McGee kept glancing at Gibbs, who seemed much more relaxed than the younger man had ever seen him. He decided he was getting a rare glimpse of what the man had been like before fate had taken its toll on him, and he felt a twinge of sadness. As he pondered what had brought them all here, McGee started to relax a little himself and he pushed his worries to the back of his mind. There wasn’t much he could do about it, anyway. He’d have to wait until they got to port…
As the day wore on, the cloud cover on the eastern horizon grew thicker, and McGee noticed Brigham scanning the skies, a worried look on his face.
“Are we in for a storm?” McGee asked, his stomach starting to churn uncomfortably.
“Probably.” He caught the agent’s expression and grinned. “But don’t worry. This old girl has weathered plenty of them.”
“I, uh, wasn’t worried about the boat…”
“You’ll be fine. The bunks in the aft cabin have netting to keep you falling out of bed. Have enough rum with dinner tonight and you’ll never even notice.”
“Not much of a drinker, especially if it’s going to come right back up.”
“Ah. Hang on, I’ll be right back.” He went below deck and returned a few moments later. “Here, let me see your arm.” McGee held out his hand and Brigham tied a hemp bracelet with a single bead woven into it, which he positioned on the underside of McGee’s wrist. “My mum swears by this. She says the pressure helps keep the seasickness at bay.”
“No worries, mate.”
They returned to the group and sat down. Artie had joined them once again and Jack was telling stories about the first time he took Nerys and Artie out on a boat.
“I let Artie steer for awhile. He was doing pretty well, until he tried to overcorrect and the boom went swinging. Near knocked Dad right off the boat. I thought he was going to have a coronary.”
McGee started to feel some pity for the man, but Artie just grinned. “Yeah, and then he told us you had done the same damn thing the first time he let you steer. He said he should have learned the first time where not to stand.”
“Dad’s spent most of his life on boats, too. He and Mum both,” said Jack, and McGee saw a sad expression cross the man’s face.
“He had a right fit when he heard where we were going on this trip, though,” said Alice, shaking her head.
“Why?” asked Gibbs, breaking the silence he had been keeping for most of the evening.
“’Cause it’s the bloody Triangle, mate,” said Jack with a grin. “Growing up on Bermuda, we’ve heard all the stories.”
“So why did you decided to sail through it?”
“It’s all a bunch of nonsense. Besides, scariest thing I’ve seen out here was Artie with his kit off.”
“Ah, shut it,” said Artie, goodnaturedly. “I’m nowhere near as scary as the storms, waterspouts, sharks…”
“Yeah, but you get those anywhere.”
“Still not anywhere near as scary as Gibbs without his coffee,” said McGee without thinking and immediately ducked in anticipation of a headslap. I guess there is such a thing as too relaxed.
To his great surprise Gibbs just laughed. “Or maybe you with too much coffee, Tim.”
McGee blushed. “I thought Tony was never going to let me live that down…”
“Another member of my team,” explained Gibbs.
“So you investigate crimes for the Navy?”
“Ooh, sounds interesting. Hey, what was the strangest case you’ve ever had?” asked Artie.
Gibbs and McGee looked at each other and Gibbs chuckled.
“Kinda of hard to pick just one…”
Four hours later, after Gibbs and McGee had shared the rather sanitized version of some of their more interesting cases, dinner was finished, and the group was relaxing. The problems they would be facing tomorrow found their way to the surface of McGee’s mind. He turned to Gibbs and spoke in a low voice.
“What are we going to do, Boss?”
Gibbs seemed to know immediately what he meant.
“Get a message to NCIS and wait for the bureaucrats to work out the paperwork. Corwin’s dead and the record of everything he did is gone. When we get back we’ll have to figure out why he did it.”
McGee nodded and let his mind wander to the next item of concern, which he unconsciously spoke aloud.
“Abby’s probably worried sick about you, Boss.”
Gibbs turned to look at him. “Just me?”
“Well…no, but she does worry more about you. You’re always the first person she asks about if something goes wrong, not me.”
“Because you’re usually good at avoiding trouble.”
“Hey. It could have been worse, Tim.”
Before Gibbs could respond the rest of the group started to stir. They bid the agents good night and soon all but Jack, McGee, and Gibbs had turned disappeared below deck. Jack stared at the eastern sky with concern, and after a brief conversation with Gibbs the two men shortened the sails and secured as much as they could on deck. When they were done, Jack turned to McGee.
“Looks like it might be a rough night. Make sure you secure the netting over you, Tim.”
“Will do. G’night.” McGee made his way down to the aft cabin and once inside chose the bottom bunk. He climbed in, secured the harness over himself, and tried to go to sleep, but it wasn’t until Gibbs had joined him in the cabin and settled into the top bunk that he finally drifted off to sleep.
A sudden lurch which knocked McGee into the side of his bunk woke the man and he tried to rise up but the netting kept from doing so. The ship shifted to the other side and he found himself hanging on for dear life. He also realized that the bracelet didn’t stand a chance of working in those conditions and groaned.
“Yeah, Boss, still here. Looks like Brig and Jack were right.” The boat lurched again and McGee barely managed to control his nausea.
“Stay put. I’m going to go see if I can help.”
He saw Gibbs climb out of his bunk and start for the door of the cabin, but another sickening shift sent the older man flying back against the wall, where he sank to the floor and lay still.
“Boss? You OK?” He leaned over as far as he dared and saw a dark stain slowly forming at the back of the older man’s head.
“Boss? Can you hear me?” He started to free himself from the netting but as soon as he could sit up, the boat suddenly dipped forward, slamming his head into the top of the bunk, and the world faded into blackness.
*the next morning – the Navy Yard*
“Agent DiNozzo and Agent David.”
Tony and Ziva looked up towards the catwalk where the director was standing.
“Yes, Director?” the responded in unison.
“Meet me in MTAC, as quickly as you can.” He turned and headed towards the secure communications area. Ziva rushed towards the elevator, and Tony managed to get to his feet and hobbled as fast as his crutches would allow after her. They soon arrived at the top level and hurried towards MTAC, only pausing long enough to use the retinal scanner before slipping inside the large room.
“What is it, Director? Have you heard anything about--”
“A Navy cutter spotted three lifeboats very early this morning and they’re bringing the passengers in now. From what I understand it’s the crew of the Raptor.”
“Oh thank God,” exclaimed Tony as he felt a flood of relief. “How are Gibbs and McGee?”
“I haven’t heard. The captain will be available for a video conference shortly and I imagine you would like to stay to hear his report.”
Tony and Ziva moved to the seats in front of the big screen and sat down to wait. Soon the screen flickered to life and on one half of the screen they saw the grainy image of a haggard-looking man whom they guessed was the captain.
“Captain Aherns,” said Vance without preamble. “Tell us what happened.”
“Yes, Director Vance,” the man said, his voice rough. “Agent McGee discovered the identity of the saboteur, Petty Officer Scott Corwin. Agent Gibbs and Petty Officer Taylor went to retrieve him and shortly after they left Agent McGee found evidence that Corwin had planted explosives on the ship which would detonate in less than five minutes. We sounded the alarm and launched the lifeboats. Most of the crew had made it to safety and were waiting for Gibbs and Taylor to return with Corwin when we heard gunshots.”
Tony felt a chill creep down his spine. Suddenly something told him that this story wasn’t going to have a happy ending.
“Agent McGee was concerned for Agent Gibbs’ safety and went to find him. He ran towards the other side of the ship where the shots had come from. I was going after him when I heard more shots and then…the first bomb went off and the blast knocked Agent McGee overboard. Before I could respond, a second blast hit and…I don’t recall what happened after that. I woke up in the lifeboat, and my lieutenant informed me that we had just barely been able to get away before the ship went down.”
“What about Agent Gibbs and your two petty officers?”
The captain just shook his head and Tony felt the blood drain from his face. He couldn’t believe what they had just heard.
“What about recovery efforts?” asked Vance, obviously shaken by the news but still maintaining his veneer of professionalism. He turned his attention to the man on the other half of the screen. “Commander Farnsworth. Have you--?”
“According to Lieutenant Stevens, the ship’s position was roughly 250 miles southeast of was what in the altered logs sent to the base. Unfortunately the tropical system that was concerning us earlier has fully developed into a storm and it is passing through that area now with another rapidly forming behind it. Visibility has been reduced too much to use satellite searches, and any air searches will have to wait until the storms pass. I don’t think I need to tell you the chances of recovery, Director. I am sorry.”
The room was silent. Tony turned to Ziva and saw that her face was unnaturally pale, her eyes wet with unshed tears, and the knuckles of her good hand were white where they gripped the arm of the seat. Before he could say anything to her, to voice denial towards what they had been told, Vance spoke.
“Captain Aherns. Was Agent McGee able to determine a motive for Petty Officer Corwin’s actions?”
“Not that he mentioned, Director.”
“Thank you, Captain Aherns. Commander Farnsworth?”
“I will need all records concerning Petty Officer Corwin sent to this office, immediately.”
“I’ll make sure you get them. Anything else?”
“Please keep us informed on the search efforts.”
“Of course, Director.”
Captain Aherns cleared his throat and Vance’s attention returned to him.
“Director, let me just say how sorry I am for your agency’s loss. Agent Gibbs was a good man, and Agent McGee…if he hadn’t discovered the bombing plot I seriously doubt we would have had time to get off the ship. I…we owe him a lot, Director. Please let me know if there’s anything I can do.”
“Thank you, Captain. We will.” After the feed was cut, Vance turned to face the two stunned agents. “I’ll need you two to work through those records as soon as we receive them. Until we know Corwin’s motive, we won’t know if he was working alone, or if other ships or agents are in danger.”
“I just lost two of my best men, DiNozzo. I’m not going to lose any more. Is that understood?”
“With all due respect--”
“Is that understood, Agent DiNozzo?”
Tony barely managed to control his anger at the man’s apparent callousness. “Yes, Director,” he said through clenched teeth. Vance glared at him for a moment before continuing.
“I will get more agents on this case to do the field work, but you will be in charge of the case until it is resolved. You will get Corwin’s records as soon as they are received. Dismissed.”
Ziva stiffly rose from her seat and walked towards the door. After levering himself to his feet, Tony hobbled after her on the now detested crutches. If it hadn’t been for these, I would have been with them, and…
“You would be lost, too, Tony,” whispered Ziva as they left the room.
“You were thinking that you should have been with Gibbs and McGee.”
“How did you…?”
“I know you, Tony… and I was thinking the same thing.”
They reached the elevator and stepped inside. Once the doors closed, Tony hit the switch and turned to Ziva.
“What do we do now?”
“We…we investigate the case as Vance instructed. We will do it for Gibbs and McGee, because…because we owe it to them and we cannot do anything else.”
Tony slammed his fist against the wall of the elevator. “Damn it!”
“I…I can’t believe…”
“I know.” She flipped the switch and they descended to the bullpen. “I cannot believe it either.” She angrily swiped at a tear that had started to fall. “They cannot be gone.” Tony raised an arm to offer comfort, but she stepped away from him, towards the doors. “But right now we must focus on finding if there are others who are responsible.”
The doors opened and they headed for their desks. They sat in silence for several moments before Tony let out a dry, humorless chuckle.
“Talk about the ultimate irony: a man who used to build boats in his basement, and a man who can’t step on a boat without getting seasick both get lost at sea.”
He heard a loud gasp and turned to find both Abby and Ducky standing behind him with horrified expressions on their faces.
*earlier that morning – somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle*
Gibbs awoke with the mother of all headaches and let out a stifled groan. Gingerly he reached up to feel the back of his head, where the pain was most intense. His hand came away sticky, and when he checked it was stained with congealed blood. He checked again and noted that the wound did not seem to be bleeding further.
Gibbs looked around the cabin and registered that the room was tilted slightly towards the side of the boat. He turned to the side and saw McGee’s arm hanging limply over the side of his bunk and immediately crawled over to check on his agent. McGee was tangled in the netting, one arm pressed across his chest, and his face and free arm were bruised. Gibbs reached out and placed two fingers on McGee’s neck to check his pulse, sighing in relief when he felt a steady beat beneath.
The younger man didn’t stir, and Gibbs gently turned McGee’s head to the side to check for damage. He found an egg-sized knot near the top of McGee’s head and hissed in sympathy. It looked like they would both be sporting a headache for the foreseeable future.
Gibbs gave McGee’s face a hard pat and spoke in a louder voice. “McGee.”
McGee’s eyes snapped open and immediately scrunched shut in pain.
“You with me, McGee?”
“Boss?” His eyes opened again and soon filled with panic. “What…why can’t I move?”
“You’re kinda tied down. Hold on a minute.” Gibbs managed to locate his knife and he quickly cut McGee free from the netting. A look of relief crossed the younger man’s face when he could finally rise up in his bunk.
“What happened? Are you OK?”
“I’ll live. I think we’ve run aground.”
“What about the rest?”
“Gonna go check on them now.” McGee swung his legs over the side of the bunk and tried to stand, but Gibbs gently restrained him. “You stay here. I’ll be back as fast as I can.” His agent nodded and sank back onto the bunk before closing his eyes.
Gibbs left their cabin and started to make his way down the length of the boat. He called out the names of the crew as he walked but heard only silence in return. As he passed through the galley, he saw that some of the cabinets had obviously come unlatched during the storm and the floor was littered with cooking utensils, food, and assorted other items. He replaced some of the items as he went, but he was more interested in finding the rest of the crew. He knocked on the door of the port forward cabin, and when he received no answer he pushed it open. The floor was strewn with bedding and clothing, but otherwise the cabin was empty. He tried the other cabin and found it equally deserted. He headed back towards the stern and was met by McGee.
“Are they OK?”
“They’re not in the cabins. You OK to go topside?”
“Yeah, I think so.” He followed Gibbs up the ladder and when they reached the deck they both stopped to look around. Gibbs felt a chill creep down his spine when he saw that the deck was empty.
“Jack? Brigg? Anybody?” called McGee. The only thing they heard was the slap of the waves against the side of the boat. Gibbs carefully climbed over the ruined sails that lay strewn across the deck to examine the rest of the boat. It was lodged against a line of rocks protruding out of the water, likely the top of a reef. The reef was about two hundred yards from a beach that curved away from the rocks towards the rising sun, and sloped upwards from the water to the base of a steep rock wall.
The tip of the boat’s bow had broken off and the mizzenmast was snapped in half. The main mast was intact, but when Gibbs looked over the raised side of the boat he saw a large gash in the hull that was just above the water line. He turned back to examine the rest of the deck and noticed that the dingy was missing.
“Do you think they abandoned ship, Boss?” asked McGee, worry clear in his voice. “I didn’t think they would leave us behind, but…”
“I don’t think they did, McGee. Look.” He pointed to the dingy that was floating about fifty yards farther out to sea and appeared to be empty. Gibbs opened the storage benches and saw that the lifeboats were still inside. “They didn’t take any of the other boats.”
“Maybe they made it to shore?” asked McGee.
Gibbs turned and scanned the nearby island, but there was no sign of the others. He turned back to McGee and shook his head.
“HELLO!” yelled McGee, and then called out for each member of the crew in turn. “JACK? NERYS? BRIGG? ALICE? ARTIE? WHERE ARE YOU?”
There were no answering replies. The two men were completely alone.
*later that morning – the Navy Yard*
Ziva saw the expressions on the faces of her co-workers and her heart sank. Of all the ways they could have learned about Gibbs and McGee, this was one she would not have wished on them at all. She rose from her desk and walked over to them.
“I am sorry…”
“No! Tony was just joking, right? He meant that it would be ironic if they were lost at sea, but they’re not. They’re fine, of course they are, there’s no reason—”
The frantic woman turned to Tony, who had made it to his feet and hobbled over to them before trying to get her attention.
“Not here, Abby. We can’t talk here.” He glanced up at the catwalk just as Vance emerged from MTAC. “Ducky, can we--?”
“Of course. Come, my dear, let’s go somewhere more private so Anthony and Ziva may explain what exactly is going on.”
They all headed for the elevator and held the door until Tony was able to join them. As soon as the doors closed Ziva flipped the emergency switch and turned to address the group.
“One of the crew members of the ship that Gibbs and McGee were on had planted explosives on board. Most of the crew made it to the lifeboats, but Gibbs and McGee…they did not.”
“But they’re going to search for them, right?”
“No! They have to find them! I mean, your ship went down, Ziva, and they found you!”
“I was not on the ship when it sank, Abby, You know this.”
“Gibbs went to look for the suspect and before the bombs went off the captain heard gunshots. McGee went to help and…” Tony took a deep breath. “The first bomb blast knocked him overboard.”
“So he wasn’t on the ship when it sank, either, and I bet Gibbs jumped in to help him. They could still be out there!”
“Abigail, surely you must understand, the chances that they could have survived…”
“But Ducky, it’s Gibbs! He can survive anything, and he wouldn’t let anything happen to Tim. He wouldn’t give him permission to… They have to be alive!”
Ducky sighed and turned to Ziva. “Are they searching the area for survivors?”
“There is a storm there now, and another will follow. They have been searching as well as they can, but they have had to stop until the weather clears. I am sorry, Ducky.”
He nodded sadly. “I understand, my dear.”
“I can’t believe you are giving up!” yelled Abby, obviously furious. “They’re your team! They wouldn’t give up on you, would they?”
Ziva looked away. She knew she didn’t need to answer that question.
“We know they wouldn’t, Abbs, but right now…it doesn’t look good.”
“Anthony is right. We will hope for the best, but we must be prepared for the worst, Abby.”
She crossed her arms and glared at the group. “I’m not giving up on them. I just can’t.” She turned her back on them and flipped the switch. Before the doors opened, they heard her whisper, her voice breaking on the last word. “I just can’t…”
*earlier that morning – somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle*
McGee could feel the first tendrils of panic starting to wind their way into his brain.
Where did they go? Did they get swept overboard during the storm? Did someone find the boat and take them hostage? But they would have checked below deck and found us, too, though? Right? People don’t just disappear, well, except…
“The Mary Celeste,” he said, barely realizing he had spoken aloud.
He turned to see Gibb staring at him like he did when the computer expect had started to ‘geek speak’.
“Oh, sorry, Boss. Just thinking aloud.”
“What is the Mary Celeste?”
“It’s, uh, a ship that was found abandoned. The crew and passengers had disappeared without a trace.”
“Kind of like this, then.”
Gibbs just shook his head and headed for the stern of the ship. He climbed down the short ladder and started to lower himself into the water.
“Boss? What are you doing?”
“I’m going to get the dingy, McGee. We need to get off this boat and I don’t feel like swimming all the way to shore.” He gestured towards the eastern horizon, where storm clouds were gathering once again. “We don’t have a lot of time.”
McGee followed his gaze and immediately understood. “Got it.”
“Start gathering up as much stuff as you can to take to shore. I have no idea how long we’ll be stuck here, so we better be prepared.”
McGee winced. It didn’t feel right, taking things that belonged to the people that had rescued them.
He turned to Gibbs, who was looking at him with one a strangely understanding expression.
“I don’t think they’ll mind, Tim. Now get going.”
“Yes, Boss. Be careful.”
Gibbs just smirked and started swimming towards the small craft. McGee watched until he made it to the dingy and climbed aboard before he set about his task.
He went back below deck and started to gather up the supplies that weren’t ruined by seawater or dented beyond recognition. Soon he had a rather large pile gathered at the top of the ladder, and then started to check the cabins for anything else they might be able to use. He found the clothes he and Gibbs had been wearing when they were rescued and added those to the pile, along with a spare set for them each. He found what had probably been Artie’s tool kit, as well as a larger tool box, two large folding knives and several lengths of rope that he added to the pile. He checked the port aft cabin, which he now knew had been used by Brigg and Alice, and found a small collection of paperback novels in a waterproof bag. He tucked that into a larger duffel bag he had found and continued to search the room. He gathered a few more necessities and. after a moment’s hesitation, he cut the netting from the wall of the bunk and stuffed it into the duffel as well. You never knew when something like that could come in handy…
When he retuned to the deck, Gibbs had already inflated one of the lifeboats and was loading it with supplies. The two men worked in silence until they had everything loaded. Gibbs made one final check and then he and McGee climbed into the dingy and attached the tow rope of the lifeboat to its stern. Gibbs started the motor and they headed for shore.
After both boats were on dry land and out of reach of the tide, both men set out to explore the island. It wasn’t large, perhaps three miles long and two miles across, and there were no buildings or other signs of habitation present. The rock wall they had seen from shore sloped down to the opposite side of the island, and they found a small cave about half way up the slope that would offer sufficient protection from the coming storm.
They were finishing their circuit of the island, trudging along the sandy beach on the northwestern edge, when McGee stumbled over something in the sand. He stopped to check and froze, his eyes widening in horror. Gibbs noticed that McGee was no longer following him and turned to check on him.
“McGee? What’s wrong?”
“Uh, Boss? I think we have a problem…”
*later that day – the Navy Yard*
Leon Vance placed the phone back on he receiver and leaned back with a sigh. He really hated making these phone calls. His first had been to Stillwater, to explain to an ex-Navy pilot that his only son was lost at sea. The man had not given much outward reaction to the news, but Vance could guess that he had barely been able to hold it together. He didn’t know Jackson Gibbs all that well, but if he were anything like his son, he would not have wanted to show weakness to a man in Vance’s position. Vance had promised to keep him updated, but had also conveyed the seriousness of the situation, and had refrained from giving any false hope. Both father and son deserved better than that.
The second call, to McGee listed next of kin, had been much worse. Vance would have rather faced an army of gunmen rather than one hysterical woman, and the fact that she was the younger sister of a man that he worked closely with for several years didn’t help. She had voiced denial when he had delivered the news, and then anger which nearly matched that of her brother’s supervisor on that had been displayed on several occasions. Vance had listened to her ranting which soon dissolved into broken sobs. He had made an attempt to console her but he knew his efforts were in vain. He had heard how close the two had been and, reflecting how one of his children might act in a similar situation, had barely been able to keep his composure for the remainder of the call.
Now he had to deal with the rest of his agents’ “family”, the one under his supervision. He knew that they likely hated him for his seemingly callous response to their loss, but he knew that he had no choice. It was the downside to being at the top: making the hard decisions, putting the safety and integrity of the agency above all else, but he hadn’t had another option. To allow those agents to succumb to their grief instead of finding another outlet for their energy would be a disservice to both them and the agents he had lost. He knew they would eventually come to terms with it, but the interval between that point and the present would be difficult indeed.
Finally he allowed himself a brief moment to think about his loss. While he and Gibbs had almost never seen eye to eye, he had admired the man in his ability to do a job and get results that few could. He also had to admit that he envied the man and the loyalty his people gave him. Vance had never known such devotion and he doubted he ever would. He was content, at least, in knowing that it did exist. He was saddened, however, that such loyalty had apparently led to the loss of another agent, a loss that he felt equally severely. He had probably worked more closely with McGee than any other agent. He had seen a bit of himself in the younger man and had tried to promote it, but in the end he saw that the young agent was more like his first mentor than Vance had wanted to admit. Nevertheless, he had expected McGee to go far in his career, and maybe one day to rise above all the others to take the top position at the agency. The fact that he would never have that chance hurt more than Vance had expected, or would ever admit to anyone other than himself.
The phone on his desk rang, drawing him back to reality and again he sighed. It was time to get back to work.
*later that day – somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle*
Gibbs crouched down to examine what had drawn McGee’s attention and grunted softly in disgust. The smooth, round dome of bone had been broken by a single hole drilled directly through the center. He gently nudged the skull to the side and noted the larger, rougher hole in the back, straight in line with the one in the front.
“Large caliber, probably a .45, shot at close range.” He stood up to examine the layout of the rest of the skeleton. “Looks like an execution-style shooting.”
“How long has it been here?”
Gibbs turned to the other man with a faint hint of annoyance, more at the reminder of whom he was missing than the other agent. “Do I look like Ducky, McGee?”
“Sorry, Boss.” McGee crouched down to examine the bones more closely. “Looks like they’re pretty dry and there are some signs of weathering.”
“Which in this place could mean weeks or years.”
“True.” McGee looked up and down the beach for other signs of disturbance. “What do we do? The people who did this might come back tomorrow, or never.”
“We can’t draw attention to ourselves, and we’ll have to keep a close watch so they don’t surprise us.”
“Which also means it’s going to be harder for anyone else to find us, isn’t it?”
“So, now what?”
“Now we get out of the weather, and we make do until we can get out of here. Understood?”
“Yes, Boss. I do know one thing, though.”
“If we do make it out of this alive? I’m never getting on another boat again for as long as I live.”
*that evening – an island in the Bermuda Triangle*
It took three trips, but Gibbs and Tim managed to move their supplies up to the cave before the outer bands of the storm reached the island. The cave itself was about fifteen feet deep, and once they had stacked the supplies at the back wall, there was enough room for both men to stretch out and still be out of the weather. Gibbs dug a fire pit near the entrance and Tim went out to gather as much dry wood as he could find before the rain started. Once they had a small fire going, and Tim had constructed a frame to hang the cooking pot to warm up their dinner of canned beans, both men sat down with their backs against the opposite walls, facing each other.
In the semi-darkness, Gibbs studied the younger man. It was obvious that he was exhausted and still in pain from his head injury, but he had never made a complaint. Tony, Gibbs mused, would have been expressing his opinion of their situation, or likening it to some movie, and speculating what could be done, however unlikely, to get them out. Tim, on the other hand, appeared to have quietly accepted his fate. Gibbs wondered, not for the first time, what had formed the foundation for Tim’s habit of stoicism. He had gleaned a little of Tim’s background from overheard conversations between his team, but he knew there was quite a bit he didn’t know. He smiled inwardly as remembered that his agent was probably as much of a mystery to him as he himself was to his agent.
After they had eaten and set the cookware out in the rain to rinse the remnants of the meal away, the two men each made themselves a bed out of the material Tim had gathered from the Whirlwind. Tim settled onto his back and closed his eyes and soon Gibbs did the same. He had almost drifted off when he heard a soft voice from the other side of the cave.
“It’s not right…”
“What’s not right, McGee?”
“Oh…sorry, Boss. I thought you were asleep.”
“Not yet. What did you mean?”
He heard a sigh, followed by several moments of silence. He figured Tim must have fallen asleep but finally the man spoke.
“If we don’t…if we never make it off this island, then everyone back home won’t ever know what happened to us…and then there’s Jack and the rest. Their families won’t ever know what happened to them. Not knowing…it’s worse than anything. It’s not right that they should go through that.”
Gibbs nodded and realized he knew what McGee wasn’t saying.
“That sounds like the voice of experience, Tim.”
He was silent for a moment. “Well, you know, Boss. When…when we didn’t know what had happened to Ziva, it was bad.”
“Yeah, I do know. But there’s something else.”
The minutes ticked by. Finally, McGee broke his silence.
“Yeah, there is. I do know…from personal experience.” Gibbs remained silent and after a couple more minutes, Tim continued. “You’ve, uh, noticed that there’s quite a difference in age between me and Sarah?”
“We…I had another sister…Jana. She was only four years younger than me. She…when she was nine years old, she disappeared. She’s never been found. We still don’t really know what happened to her, and…that feeling that comes from that never goes away.”
Gibbs nodded. He knew loss, and the pain that didn’t vanish, but at least he had some closure. He had a hard time imagining what is must have been like not to have that.
“Who handled the case?”
Another sigh. “The local police didn’t call in NIS until two days after she had disappeared. NIS called the FBI, and they did manage to work together, but by that time…”
“The trail was cold.” Gibbs felt a surge of anger at the incompetence that had ruined the case. He had seen it before, and it never failed to infuriate him.
“Yeah. It was cold even when the police started, really. Nobody realized she was missing until several hours after she disappeared.”
“That was…a long story.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Tim let out a short huff of laughter. “I guess not…”
The younger man remained silent for a long time. Gibbs was almost ready to ask again before McGee began to speak.
“I was in high school, which was next door to the elementary school that Jana and Sarah attended. Sarah was in kindergarten, and only for half the day, so Mom would leave her with a sitter. I would meet Jana after school and we would walk to the sitter’s house to pick up Sarah before going home, where I would watch them until Mom got home from work. Dad was deployed at the time, so it was just us. On that day…right after Mom got to work she received a call from a hospital near where my grandmother, Mom’s mother, lived. They told her Nana had been in an accident and they needed my mom to be there. Mom called the sitter and told her to tell us what had happened when we came to get Sarah and to stay there. We couldn’t afford a cell phone at the time, so there was no way to contact Mom after she left for the hospital.”
“I…you know I had problems with bullies, right?”
“There was one at this school, worse than all the others, and he…I don’t even know what set him off but he found me just as I was getting ready to leave campus and…threw me against a wall hard enough to knock me out. I was out for over two hours, they told me, and when I could finally think straight I remembered Jana was waiting for me. They sent someone over to the elementary school to pick her up but she wasn’t there, and one of the teachers said she had seen Jana leave with a group of her classmates. She wasn’t supposed to walk home without me, but…we had gotten into a fight that morning, and I guess she was still mad at me…I don’t even remember what we were fighting about.”
“Did they have any leads?”
“Not…no. No one had seen her, except her classmates who said she had been walking towards our house the last time they saw her. The police put search teams out, but…nothing. I couldn’t even help with the search since I had a concussion and could barely stay awake for the next several days. My sister was gone and…”
“It wasn’t your fault, Tim.” Gibbs heard a soft, humorless chuckle.
“Yeah…I know that now, but at the time…I felt like I had to make up for it, and…I guess that’s when I decided to go into law enforcement. I didn’t want anyone else to go through what my family went through. My mother…she never really got over it and it changed my Dad, too. I couldn’t measure up after that…I’m sorry, Boss, I don’t know why I’m telling you all of this.”
“I asked, and I think you needed to tell someone.”
“I…I guess I did.” McGee lapsed back into silence. Nearly an hour passed, and Gibbs suspected that McGee had finally fallen asleep. He had almost reached the point himself when he heard the younger man’s soft voice once more.
In the darkness, Gibbs smiled. “No problem, Tim.”
*two days later – the Navy Yard*
Tony leaned back in his chair and rubbed his eyes to relieve some of the strain. He had been reviewing Scott Corwin’s records and had not been able to find any reason for his actions. The Petty Officer looked like an upstanding citizen except for the fact that he had conspired to blow up a Navy research vessel.
Ziva shook her head. “I cannot find any connections to known or suspected terrorist cells. I have gone through all of my contacts, and there is nothing that suggests Corwin was a sympathizer.”
“Maybe it was a home-grown group.”
“In that case, our job just got a lot harder.” She glanced over at the empty desk next to Tony. “I never realized how much easier things were when we had McGee doing this sort of thing. What is it they say? You do not truly appreciate something until it is gone.”
“They’re still searching for them, Ziva. They’re not officially gone yet.”
“Yes, I know…but it has been nearly five days since the ship went down. There has been no trace.”
“Yeah, I know,” he snapped. He hated it that she was right. It felt like betrayal to admit that he had started to lose hope after the first report. He glanced up at Ziva and winced when he saw her expression. “I’m sorry, Ziva.”
“Rule number six, Tony.”
He managed a weak smile. It was almost a comfort that even though the man himself wasn’t around, Gibbs’ rules were still on their minds. His smile faded when he remembered his first introduction to those rules.
You don’t waste good.
Gibbs had been good. McGee had been good. All that had been wasted by some bastard who had decided to blow up a ship with those two men on it. The important thing now was to find out why, to try and save those who could be saved, and honor what the team had lost. With renewed determination, Tony returned his attention to his computer and got back to work.
Another hour passed before his task was interrupted, this time by the director.
“Agent DiNozzo. Do you have any thing to report?”
“Not yet. We’re not giving up, Director.”
Vance raised an eyebrow. “Good. Security at Norfolk has completed their sweep of all ships in port and has not found any sign of further problems. Other bases have reported negative results as well.”
“So this may have been an isolated incident? Directed at just that ship, or maybe the work being done?”
“It is possible, Agent David.”
“Have you heard anything about…?”
“The search teams have not located the wreckage, or anything else.”
“And they don’t expect to, do they?” asked Tony as he fought to push down his resentment of the man before him. He still couldn’t shake the initial, albeit irrational idea that all this was Vance’s fault.
“No. I received word from Norfolk that they are planning a memorial for Petty Officer Taylor and have asked to include one for Gibbs and McGee, to be held next Saturday at the base. I accepted their offer and I assured them we would all be there. I also wanted to inform you that Agent Gibbs will receive the meritorious civilian service award, to be presented at that ceremony, and Agent McGee will receive the Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor, the civilian law enforcement version of the Medal of Honor.”
Tony felt a lump in his throat. He remembered how many times McGee had stood by and watched other receive awards. Now it was his turn and he wouldn’t even be there.
“Thank you, Director. We will be there,” said Ziva after shooting Tony a look.
“Good.” He turned and headed up the stairs without another word.
“We still have work to do, Ziva. That’s one thing that’s not going to change.” Tony once again returned his attention to his computer screen, and after a few moments, Ziva followed suit. Nothing else was said for the rest of the day.
*earlier that day – the Island*
Tim awoke to find himself alone in the cave where he and Gibbs had been holed up for the last two days. He glanced toward the cave entrance and when he saw that the weather had finally cleared he sighed in relief. Although the cave was not cramped, he had hated being confined to the relatively small space for that length of time. He quickly made his way to the entrance and stepped out into the sunlight, squinting at the early morning brightness reflected off the water surrounding the island.
He looked around for Gibbs and saw him down on the southern side of the island, fishing. Another cause for celebration, Tim reflected with a slight grin. He was not that big of a fan of canned food, and the potential for something fresh was welcome indeed.
His mood sobered quickly when he turned and walked over to examine the northern side of the island. Remnants of the Whirlwind were visible strewn along the beach where they had been brought in by the tide, but the reef where the vessel had run aground was empty. The boat had been completely destroyed, and their last link with the outside world was gone.
Tim sank down to the ground and sat, staring out towards the northwest, towards home. He wondered if he would ever see it again. He turned and looked a little further to the east, where he believed, hundreds of miles away, lay the island home of his rescuers. He felt a wave of sadness as he remembered that they would never see home again. He thought about what he had said to Gibbs a couple of nights ago. It really wasn’t right that their families would never know what had happened to them, and it certainly wasn’t right that such good, honest people had been lost at all.
“I really liked you guys…”
“I liked them, too, Tim.”
He turned in surprise to find Gibbs standing behind him. He hadn’t even heard the man approach.
I guess some things never change…
“Hey, Boss.” He looked at the oddly shaped object in Gibbs’ hand. “What’s that?”
“Stingray. Got rid of the stinger, though.”
“Uh, right. I guess I should get the fire going.” He heard Gibbs’ chuckle as he headed back to the cave. The task occupied his mind for the next few minutes and once he had the fire started he wandered over to where Gibbs was working on cleaning the fish. It wasn’t a job he envied. After a few minutes, he headed towards the closest grove of trees to take care of necessities, then started to gather more wood for the fire. By the time he got back, Gibbs had the fish arranged over the fire and was working on a pot of coffee.
Tim grimaced. He didn’t want to think what would happen when they ran out of that precious commodity.
When the food was ready, they sat down outside in the shade to eat. McGee had to admit that the fish wasn’t bad, meatier than he expected, and much more filling than their meals over the past two days. His headache was also finally gone, and he felt almost human again. For the first time since the ship had gone down, he wasn’t completely filled with a feeling of dread. Maybe they could survive this after all…
The rest of the day was spent exploring the island. The highest peak was about five hundred yards from the cave, and would serve as their lookout point, for both wanted and unwanted visitors. They located a small spring near the center of the island, which was a great relief: they wouldn’t have to rely on rainwater. They discovered a grove of mango trees, along with another small group of trees that bore fruit similar to bananas, although much smaller than the commercial fruit Tim was used to seeing. The palm trees on the southern slope of the island were coconut palms, and area just above the beach was full of vines with fruit that resembled large grapes. Gibbs tried one and pronounced it edible, although the large pit in the center was a little off-putting.
The island’s fauna was varied as well. The southern end was a nesting area for pelicans, gulls, and cormorants. They didn’t encounter any snakes, but the sight of several iguanas sunning themselves on the rocks elicited a chuckle from Gibbs. When Tim sent him a puzzled look, Gibbs told him about Tony’s encounter with one of the beasts on a trip to Gitmo, and the younger man couldn’t suppress a grin, however brief. It was something to use to tease the senior agent, if they ever saw him again.
That evening, after they had finished off another ‘catch of the day’ and the sun had started to set, Gibbs sat down to whittle on a piece of hardwood, and Tim made his way up to the summit. Once there, he stretched out and looked up at the night sky. The first stars of the evening gradually started to appear, and he called them out softly.
“Vega…Altair…Deneb: the Summer Triangle. Arcturus…the Big Dipper…Polaris…
“Cassieopea…spends half the year on her head.”
Startled, Tim looked over to see Gibbs lower himself to the ground a couple of yards away. The older man sat in silence, looking up at the sky. After a few minutes, he spoke.
“There’s a nature center and planetarium in Rock Creek Park…something besides dead petty officers there, surprising, I know. We…Shannon and I, we took Kelly there a couple of times.”
Tim could only stare at the man in shock. He had never heard Gibbs mention his family, at least not so willingly.
“Kelly loved the planetarium, almost had the program memorized and recited it whenever we went out at night…funny, the things you remember. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to be an astronaut, or a concert pianist…Shannon said with her drive, she’d probably hold a concert on the moon some day…Guess that’s not really possible, is it? The sound wouldn’t travel.”
“I don’t think so…”
“It doesn’t matter anyway.”
The two men sat in silence, staring up at the night sky. Tim thought about what he knew, about Gibbs’ family, and what he had done in the aftermath of their murders. He had not said anything at the time, when the whole Reynosa mess had gone down. Even now, he wasn’t certain he could pass judgment.
Gibbs didn’t reply, but Tim was pretty sure he was waiting for an explanation.
“The police had a suspect, in Jana’s disappearance. He was arrested when he was caught trying to kidnap another girl. She was the same age and…general appearance. They were able to connect him to two more assaults, and eventually five murders. Five little girls, and he…brutalized them. He hinted that he had…that he had taken Jana, but he never told the police where to find…her body. My mother, she kept hoping he would tell, but…if he knew, he took the information to his grave. I wanted to kill him myself, Boss, for what he did. I’ve never…almost never felt that way again, but at the time, I did.”
“But you didn’t…kill him, I mean. You’re a better man than I’ve ever been.”
“I’m not sure I believe that, Boss.”
“You should. And I’m glad you didn’t kill him, Tim. It’s a hell of a thing to live with.”
“You know, I lied. To Paloma. I said I never regretted what I did. But…the pain, I thought it would go away as soon as I pulled the trigger. What came next was worse. So yeah, I’m glad you didn’t.”
“I just…I wish there was something I could have done.”
“I know, Tim. I know.”
*ten days later – Norfolk Naval Air Station*
Ziva sat in one of the pews of the base chapel, between Tony and Abby, listening to the memorial service for Petty Officer Ryan Taylor, Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, and Special Agent Timothy McGee. She had kept an eye on both of her companions and had tried her best to remain strong, but it was, without a doubt, the hardest thing she had ever done.
She glanced at Tony, and saw the muscles jump in his clenched jaw as he, too, tried to remain stoic. She noticed the wetness on his cheek and quickly looked away, lest the sight would prompt her own tears to fall.
After a few moments, when she had managed to collect herself, she looked toward her left at the woman seated there. Abby was pale, even more so than normal, but her eyes were dry. She had never conceded that the two men were lost, and it had taken a great deal of cajoling to convince her to come to the service at all. Her lack of emotion worried Ziva more than the woman’s earlier hysterics. She knew it was not healthy, especially for someone who was always so open with her feelings. She vowed to keep a close watch on the forensic scientist, because if something happened to Abby on her watch, Gibbs would find some way to come back and headslap her into the afterlife. She almost smiled at the ridiculous thought. Gibbs was gone. McGee was gone. She would have to work through her own pain and carry on, for their sakes. She owed them that.
She turned her attention to the front of the church. The entire crew of the Raptor was seated in the front, their heads bowed as they, too listened to the accomplishments of the three men. As the awards were presented the men stood at attention and saluted. Ziva could not see Jackson’s expression as he accepted Gibbs’ medal, but his body language told of the great loss that weighed on him. Sarah was stiff and stoic, and served as a painful reminder of the man she was honoring.
Ziva finally turned to the oldest member of the “team” and his assistant. Jimmy looked much younger than she had seen him appear for a long time. He looked unsure of himself, and how to offer comfort to his mentor. Ducky, on the other hand, looked years older. He had known Gibbs better than any of them, and Ziva knew he had come to admire McGee more over the past few years as well. She could see that Ducky had been robbed of his usually vitality because of their loss, and her heart ached for him.
Finally the service was over, and the group began to file out of the chapel. They had planned to meet later on, to remember their friends in their own way, and Ziva suspected that memorial would be even more draining than this one had been.
As she headed for her car, she caught sight of Sarah standing at the harbor by herself, the folded flag and box containing the medal gripped tightly to her chest as she stared out towards the sea.
“Sarah?” She turned, and Ziva saw that her face was streaked with tears. Anger flashed briefly in her eyes when she saw the older woman and Ziva paused. “Are you OK?”
“No. I’m not OK. Why did this happen?”
“Why weren’t you there? Tim said you always have his back, and you didn’t. Why?”
“I am sorry.” She lifted her arm, still in its cast. “I could not go. I would have been there is I could.”
Sarah just shook her head and turned away. Ziva took a deep breath and tried again to comfort the younger woman.
“I know what it is like. I, too, have lost a brother.”
“No, you don’t know what it’s like. You don’t know what it’s like to wonder what happened, to not know for sure. I still think…there’s something inside telling me he can come back, he’s not gone, and yet everything I’ve been told says he’s dead. That…uncertainty: it hurts, Ziva.”
Ziva sighed. This girl should not be alone, not now. “Where are your parents?”
Sarah let out a humorless bark of laughter. “For being such a wonderful investigator, you don’t know anything. Where are my parents? My father is dead. Didn’t you ever ask Tim about him? No, of course not. As for my mother, she refused to come here today. She couldn’t deal with losing another child. She shouldn’t have to.”
“Guess you didn’t know about that, either. Maybe you should ask Tim. Oh, wait, you can’t!”
“Just leave me alone. All of you.” She brushed past Ziva, who turned and stopped to stare in surprise at the gathered group behind her. Sarah marched past them as well without a backward glance. They all turned to watch her leave and then looked back at Ziva.
“We heard,” said Tony, his voice rough. “I’m sorry, Ziva.”
“I do not need an apology. There is only one of us who does, and we cannot give it to him.”
“No. But we can remember him, Ziva,” said Ducky. “What we did know about him, and what we loved about him. I think he would appreciate that.”
She simply nodded. Tim would have forgiven them, because that was his nature. That realization was why it suddenly hit her how much they all had lost, and why her tears finally started to fall.
*two months later – the Navy Yard*
Tony walked into the bullpen, coffee in hand, but the spring in his step that he had possessed just three months ago had not returned. He should have been happier: he had finally been cleared for field duty, they had a case, and he could get back to a job that would help to keep his mind off the events of the past few months. Unfortunately it was those events which had upheaved his life and he had not yet had time to recover.
He moved to Gibbs’, no, his desk, and started to check his email. Ziva was already seated, and soon they were joined by the newest members of the MCRT. Agent Robert Finnegan was Tony’s age but most would have assumed he was much older. He had a dour expression that never changed and an unflappable mindset that, while good for an investigator, meant he displayed almost no personality. Tony had never met a more boring person in his life.
Agent Ashley Tyler sat at the other end of the spectrum. She was almost as hyper as Abby had been before they lost Gibbs and McGee. She seemed to only speak techno-babble, despite his constant reminders to use layman’s terms, and she cheerfully related the plots of every sci-fi show she had ever watched to all who couldn’t escape her ramblings.
Tony sighed. He wondered if Vance has specifically chosen this bunch to punish him.
“Finnegan.” The man looked up at him, expressionless. “Finish going through Sergeant Atwood’s financials. See if he has any connection to Lieutenant Tanner or Sergeant Peters.”
“Rose,” she said with a hopeful grin.
“That’s not your name and I’m not calling you that.” Her face fell. “Go help Abby with the encryption on Atwood’s laptop.”
“Ms. Sciuto…she, uh, she hates me.”
“And what brought you to that conclusion?”
“She won’t talk to me.”
“Well maybe you need to talk to her first. Now go.”
The woman hurried towards the elevator and Tony just shook his head.
“Go make sure Abby doesn’t kill Agent Tyler, and then go check with Ducky to see if he has anything to add to his initial report.”
Ziva nodded and headed for the stairs.
Tony turned his attention to their victim’s service records. He hadn’t found anything in his first pass through them, but it never hurt to take a second look.
The two men remaining in the bullpen worked in silence for the next twenty minutes before Ziva returned and gave Tony Ducky’s additions to the report. Another two hours passed before Agent Tyler returned with a stricken look on her face.
“I tried to do what you said, sir. I tried to talk to Ms. Sciuto, and she yelled at me. A lot. I stayed and got the encryption cracked, but…”
“I’ll talk to her. Get back to work, Agent Tyler.”
“Uh, doing what, sir?” He sent her a glare and she blushed. “I’ll find something.” She scurried back to her desk, her face pink, and started to type.
Tony headed down to Abby’s lab and found the forensic scientist staring at her computer screen, apparently absorbed in the data the scrawled across it. The lab was silent except the sounds of the machines as they went about their tasks. Abby hadn’t played her music here since Gibbs and McGee had been lost.
She turned to him, her expression oddly blank. “I don’t have anything for you yet, Tony.”
He glanced towards the far wall, which held two large pictures and a post-it with a number written on it. He remembered Gibbs telling him that she had done the same thing when the team had been split up, and sighed.
“Abby, this isn’t healthy,” he said, pointing at the wall.
“I’m just keeping track, Tony, so no one forgets.”
Her tone said she wasn’t going to budge from her stance, so Tony decided to address another issue instead.
“Why did you yell at Agent Tyler?”
Abby actually growled. “She deserved it. She came in and started chattering away like everything is just fine. I told her she doesn’t belong here. She’s not part of my team. She’ll never be--”
“She’ll never be Tim. I know, Abbs, but you have to work with her. She’s part of my team now, just like you.”
She glared at him for a moment before she stepped up to him, wrapped her arms around his torso, and laid her head on his shoulder. He returned the hug and continued to hold her for several minutes before she finally spoke.
“I miss them, Tony. I want everything back the way it was. Why can’t we have our old team back?”
Tony didn’t respond. He had been both wanting and wondering the same thing.
*that same day – the Island*
Gibbs cast the line into the surf and settled back to wait for a bite. This had become part of his routine since they had been on the island: he was out here every morning and evening, as long as weather permitted, and often it didn’t. On those days, he spent time in the cave, usually reading one of the books or playing cards with the deck that Tim had rescued from the boat. Sometimes they played chess or checkers on the rough game board Gibbs had made from a sufficiently flat piece of driftwood. The two of them had built a lean-to shelter which they slept in during fair weather, since the cave was not all that comfortable, but during the storms they retreated to the secure place with solid walls.
Gibbs had lost count of how many days (and weeks) they had been on the island, but he was pretty sure Tim knew. The younger man had developed his own routine, but it meshed so well with Gibbs’ that he didn’t really need to think much about it. Their situation reminded him of his retirement, the months he had spent at Mike’s house in Mexico, with more thought going to survival than anything else. He did think of home, and the people he had left behind, but in the spirit of pragmatism he had admitted that there was not a lot he could do about it. He had confidence in Tony and Ziva that they would be able to carry on in his absence. He knew Ducky was wise enough to accept what fate had sent. His Dad would face what had happened, although he hated the though of the pain the older man would be hiding from others, as he always had. It saddened him that he and his Dad had been separated, just when they were getting to know each other again, but he knew the older man would be taken care of by what was left of Gibbs’ team.
Of all of those he had left behind, Gibbs was most worried about Abby, who felt too strongly and didn’t have the hardened shell to repel to worst that life had to offer. He knew the others would pick up where he couldn’t and he hoped she would be able to accept that.
Then of, course, there was another family to worry about: Tim’s. The man had shared more about his background after those first awkward conversations, and Gibbs felt as if he knew the man’s family almost as well as the one he had lost. He knew that Tim was worried, especially for his mother, and while Gibbs had never excelled at talking through anyone’s problems, he had offered silent support, just as Tim had done for him we he started to think too much about those back home.
Gibbs caught sight of the subject of his most recent thoughts and chuckled softly. The younger man had proven amazingly adept at adjusting to their situation, other than those few tense days after the coffee had run out, but his quirks were still apparent. He had taken that enthusiasm and intelligence that had so often been focused on technology and had focused it on adapting to a new set of problems, one of which was his sensitivity to the sun. After suffering from bad sunburn, and near heat stroke from the strong tropical rays beating down on him, Tim had set out to create some better protection. After several failed attempts, he had managed to construct a wide brimmed hat, which reminded Gibbs of the ones worn by rice paddy workers in Asia, and now wore it whenever he was out during the day. It looked a little ridiculous, but it served its purpose. Gibbs had even been tempted to request one of his own, but he imagined Tim’s sense of propriety would have been strained too much upon seeing such a creation adorning his former boss’s head.
“Any luck?” Tim had finally reached Gibbs. The net he used as a bag when he went out foraging was sufficiently full for a couple of day’s worth of meals. He had taken over that part of their survival needs without being asked, and was quite good at finding and managing the best sources off fruit the island had to offer. A good thing, too, especially since he had not been at all thrilled with the “you catch it, you clean it” rule.
“Not yet. It’s early.” It was rare when Gibbs didn’t catch something. He and Tim had managed to construct a crude bow and set of arrows, and when the fishing failed they put those to use, but mostly they survived on the bounty from the sea.
Tim looked up at the eastern horizon. “Looks like we’re in for another storm.”
They had weathered several storms, some of which Gibbs suspected had been actual hurricanes. It was always a concern, whether or not they would be prepared, but that, too was just part of their new routine.
*Thanksgiving – the Navy Yard*
Ziva stepped off the elevator and walked into the bullpen, completely unsurprised to see Tony sitting at his desk – his old desk.
“What are you doing?”
“Working, Ziva. What does it look like?”
“Then should you not be at you own desk? Or is Agent Finnegan’s computer now more to your liking?”
Without a word, Tony stood up and moved to his current desk before sitting down and starting to type at his keyboard.
“I’m busy, Ziva.”
“It is a holiday, Tony. You are supposed to be observing it, not working.”
“Sorry, I just don’t feel all that thankful right now.”
She sighed. “But you did promise Ducky you would attend his dinner this year, did you not?”
“He should not have to understand, Tony. You should be there.”
“Yeah, and I can think of a couple of other people who should be there, too.”
She leaned over his desk and met his eyes. “All the more reason for you to be. Ducky lost a very close friend this year. He thinks he does not have all that many friends, or years left.” Tony winced and she continued. “We are all feeling this loss, Tony. We should appreciate what we have.”
“Yeah, and we should have appreciated what we had.”
“That is true. It does not change the fact that we want you to be with us today. All of us.”
“Ducky invited Jackson. He did not think he should be alone this year. None of us should.”
Tony sighed. “What about Tim’s family?”
“They were invited. They sent their regrets. Some…bridges take longer to rebuild. Everyone else will be there. We need you to be there, too.”
He looked up at her and she gave him her most winsome, wide-eyed expression. He managed a soft chuckle. “OK, you twisted my arm.” He grabbed his coat and headed towards the elevator.
She smiled as she followed him. “If I had done that, we would be going to the hospital.”
*Thanksgiving – the Island*
Tim stood back to admire his handiwork. The meal he had prepared was ready, and now all he had to do was wait for Gibbs to return from his afternoon swim. They were going to have a sit-down dinner, or as much as such a thing was possible given their situation. He just hoped it measured up. There was only so much he could do with what the island provided.
Tim had made a conscious effort to keep track of the passage of time. While dates didn’t mean much when you were living day to day, he felt it allowed him a connection with the outside world. A world that looked less and less likely that he would see again.
He and Gibbs had taken turns watching for ships, planes, and the unwanted visitors who had used this island for nefarious purposes. They had seen none of the latter, and very few of the other two. Tim had spotted a cruise ship, far off in the distance just a few days ago. It had been too far away to signal, but it served as a reminder that the holidays were approaching, and more ships would be moving through these waters and the chance that they would be seen would increase. He only hoped that their luck would hold out until then, and that the drug runners wouldn’t find them first.
“What’s all this?”
He turned towards the voice and saw Gibbs approaching, damp and disheveled, but with a slight grin on his face.
“Happy Thanksgiving, Boss.”
“Is it? Damn, I really have lot track of time. Good thing you didn’t.”
Gibbs walked over to inspect the spread and stopped when he saw the main dish. “Iguana?”
“Hey, it’s supposed to taste like chicken, right? Closest I could get to a turkey.”
Gibbs threw back his head and laughed. “Not bad, Tim…not bad at all.”
They settled down to eat. Tim was surprised that the iguana was actually not bad, although it was a bit of a stretch to say it did indeed taste like chicken. He decided it had almost been worth the effort it had taken to clean the damn thing, which had been a thoroughly disgusting job. While the meal was nothing like the traditional repasts he had always had back home, either with his own family or his adopted one, it was a marked improvement over his earlier cooking efforts.
After they had finished the two men started a game of checkers, but Tim knew they would switch to chess later. Gibbs was a surprisingly challenging opponent and Tim enjoyed the opportunity to focus his mind on something other than survival or the slim chance of a rescue. As they played, they reminisced about their friends back home and wondered what they were doing. Gibbs guessed that Ducky would have invited everyone over for dinner and Tim believed the group was likely listening to Tony and Ziva argue about football, egged on by Abby, as Ducky sat and prattled on about sporting events he had attended in his youth.
Suddenly Tim felt a welling of homesickness. He missed his family, and he missed his friends. The moments of doubt, where he almost couldn’t hope he would see them all again, were few and father apart than they had been. When they did hit, like he had just experienced, the pain was almost unbearable, and often followed by a surge of guilt. He should just be happy to be alive, especially considering those who weren’t…
He looked up at Gibbs and saw understanding in the older man’s eyes, a look which made him feel just a bit better.
Tim managed a smile. “Thanks, Boss. You, too.”
*three weeks later – Gibbs’ house*
Ducky pushed the key into the lock, twisted it and heard the tumblers click before he turned the knob and pushed the heavy door inward. He stepped into the foyer and paused to listen, but the house was silent. He had an idea where he might find the current resident and headed to the basement, and sure enough, he found who he was looking for.
Jackson Gibbs had decided to stay here after Ducky had invited him down for Thanksgiving, under the guise of settling his son’s affairs. Ducky knew, however, that the older man had needed the comfort of Jethro’s adopted family and he had made a special effort to spend time with his old friend’s father.
“Jackson? Is everything all right?”
The man let out a low humorless chuckle. He was sitting at the workbench which contained an assortment of tools and wooden toys in various stages of completion. He didn’t even turn around when Ducky approached, and the M.E. could see that he was holding one of the toys in his knarled hands.
“Leroy was always better at the fine detail work than I am. These old hands aren’t worth much more than to rough things in.” He turned his head and looked up at Ducky. “I don’t think I’ll be able to hold up my end of the job this year, to get these toys finished.”
The expression in those blue eyes made Ducky’s heart ache. “It’s important to you, isn’t it? That Jethro’s obligation is met?”
“Leroy has never been much for holiday celebrations, especially Christmas, but he does keep the spirit, you know. He…would have wanted those kids to have something.”
Ducky sat down next to Jack and put a comforting hand on his shoulder. “Then we will make sure that promise is kept. I am not much for woodworking myself, but I am sure we can find someone to assist.”
“Thanks, Duck.” He sighed. “It’s a terrible thing.”
“No parent should outlive their own child, even someone as old as me. When Leroy left to join the Marines, I tried to prepare myself. Every time I heard on the news that there was fighting, and the troops were sent in, I always wondered, would my boy come home?” He sighed. “I know his team always thought he was indestructible, and over the years I had almost come to think about him that way, too. I guess it was just an old man’s folly.” He met Ducky’s concerned gaze. “Still doesn’t seem right, though.”
Ducky nodded. “Although I have no children, I do know what it is like to lose those closest to us before their time. Jethro did indeed seem like he would always be here, and I agree that it never seems right, the loss of a loved one.”
Jack just shook his head. “Guess I’m being a little selfish. I know you, Leroy’s team, and Tim’s family are all dealing with this. I’m not alone.”
“You’re not being selfish, Jackson, and although it is true that we are all dealing with a tragedy, we must also learn to accept comfort, when it is offered. You are not alone. You have a family here, and we are always willing to help when we can.” He gave Jack one of his trademark smiles. “Now let us see if we can make the holiday a little better for those in need.”
Jack returned the smile and focused on the project in front of him, while Ducky pulled out his cell phone.
“Mr. Palmer? I need to ask for a favor…”
*earlier that day – the Island*
Gibbs set down his knife and carefully examined the wooden object he held in his hands. This was the last piece in the set and he felt a sense of satisfaction as he turned the chess man over and ran a thumb over the points in its crown. It was the black king, carved from a larger piece of dark wood that he had scrounged from the beach a few weeks ago. He wasn’t sure why he had started the set. He hadn’t been thinking about the approaching holiday, or even the exchange of gifts associated with it. He’d just thought it would be nice for him and Tim to have real pieces for their daily games. Almost immediately after he’d started, however, he knew that it would make a nice gift for the younger man, and had kept his project a secret.
Gibbs had tried harder to keep track of time, and he knew that Christmas was only about a week away. It was hard to imagine that they would be here for that holiday, that Tim wouldn’t have the chance to be with his family, and that he himself would not be able to fulfill his own obligations to others in need.
He was nearly lost in these thoughts when a sudden sense of wrongness hit him. Something on the island was out of place, he could feel it. After months of relative isolation, something had changed, and he knew in his gut that it was likely not for the better.
He slowly stood, turned, and faced the forest just as a figure stepped from the shadows, pointing a gun directly at him.
Tim made his way toward the southwest corner of the island with a smile on his face. He had finally found enough flat, round pieces of rock to complete the set of checkers he was making for Gibbs. He had started collecting them a few weeks ago, almost unconsciously and had later decided that they really should have better playing pieces for their daily games. He knew that Gibbs preferred the game to chess, and had decided that, since it looked like they were still going to be stuck on the island for Christmas, it would be nice if he could give the older man something in accordance with one of that holiday’s associated traditions.
He had polished the stones using beach sand and water, and with these last additions he would have the complete set of light and dark pieces. He wasn’t completely certain of what Gibbs would think of the gift, but it was the thought that counted, right?
He stepped out of the forest and stopped, frozen in surprise. A small sailboat was beached about fifty yards away, hidden from the summit by one of the large rock formations that he had seen on his many trips to this portion of the island.
He carefully made his way over to the boat and noticed only one set of footprints leading away from it towards the far side of the island. Did this boat belong to a weekend sailor, out for a pleasure cruise, or was this an intruder who used the island for illegal pursuits?
When he reached the boat, he noticed that the deck was occupied by a large object covered by a tarp. He flipped the canvas off the object and bit back a curse before turning and heading back towards the forest at a run.
I have to warn Gibbs…
He ran through the forest, towards the north. He knew that Gibbs would be in his usual spot this time of day, and he had to get to him before the drug smuggler did. Neither of them had a gun, and although each man wore a knife strapped to his ankle, those wouldn’t do either of them much good if the smuggler was armed. Tim knew Gibbs could hold his own in hand to hand combat, but if he were taken by surprise…
Damn it! I should have kept a better watch! That was my job, and--
The quiet was shattered by the sound of a single gunshot. Tim doubled his efforts to reach the source of the sound and soon was within sight of the beach. He could see Gibbs grappling with another man, larger and younger than his opponent. Tim pulled out his knife and wished that he had something better. During the quiet times, while he had been on watch and Gibbs had been elsewhere, he had practiced his knife throwing. He had tried to remember the instructions Ziva had given him, and he had gotten better than he had been when she had held an impromptu lesson in the evidence garage. Now, he wasn’t at all confident he could hit his target and not Gibbs.
Suddenly the smuggler gained the upper hand and threw Gibbs to the ground. He quickly retrieved his gun and started to raise it toward the older man. Tim felt the acid rise in his throat as he took a step forward and tried to distract the man from his murderous intent.
The man turned, swinging his gun toward Tim. With hardly enough time to aim, Tim threw the knife at the man and ducked, hoping to avoid the path of the bullet as the man pulled the trigger. He hit the ground, sure he had felt something whiz by his ear, and rolled into a crouch a few feet away. He looked up just as the smuggler sank to his knees, and barely registered the presence of a knife sticking out of the man’s chest before he fell, face down, into the sand.
“Boss! You OK?” He turned towards where Gibbs had fallen and sighed in relief when he saw the older man rise and start walking towards him. Gibbs stopped to stare down at the smuggler and then none-too-gently rolled him over with his foot. The man was quite clearly dead.
“Nice throw, Tim.” He pulled the knife out of the corpse, wiped it on the ground, and handed it back to the distracted man.
“Boss, I’m sorry, I never noticed the boat. I should have kept a better watch, and—“
“I let my guard down. I know better than that. So, thank you.”
“You mentioned a boat?”
“What? Oh! Yes, over on the southwest beach, next to one of the big rocks. It’s a sailboat…I guess that’s why we didn’t know he was here, we didn’t hear him come in.”
“Probably. Let’s go take a look.”
Tim saw Gibbs bend down and retrieve a small, dark object from the sand and shove it in his pocket. He then retrieved his knife and started walking towards the opposite shore.
When they reached the boat, Gibbs climbed aboard to inspect it. He checked under the tarp and smirked.
“Better get rid of that.”
“Probably best to burn it. Make sure we’re upwind when you do.”
The two men dragged the cargo down the beach about a hundred yards and as Tim got the fire going, using the small kit he had taken to carrying with him, Gibbs began to check the maps and charts that he had found in one of the bench seats.
Once the pile of drugs was ablaze, Tim retreated to the boat where Gibbs was busy checking out the condition of the vessel. Tim stood quietly by, almost afraid to hope what this new possession could mean for them.
Finally Gibbs stood up, an unreadable expression on his face.
“I have good news and bad news.”
Tim’s heart did a flip in his chest. “I think I’ll take the good news first.”
“Turns out this island is only about seventy five miles from the closest port, and these weather reports, which look recent, say it’ll be clear for at least the next two days.”
“That’s…that’s great! So what’s the bad news?”
Gibbs grinned. “You’ll have to get on a boat again, Tim.”
*two days later – the Navy Yard*
Leon Vance stood in front of the large black and white print on his office wall, staring at the image but not seeing it. His thoughts were on end of the year paperwork, a definite downside to his position of Director, but he knew there were worse things. He had already dealt with those this past year.
He was startled from his thoughts by the ringing of his desk phone and he walked over to answer it.
“Director, you have a request for a video conference call from a Captain Vachon in Aguadilla.”
Vance paused to absorb this information. Aguadilla was a tourist town in northwest Puerto Rico, but there was also a Coast Guard base there. He had worked with their search and rescue unit on numerous occasions.
“Thank you, Pamela. Put him through.” He pressed the button to activate the video phone connection and was soon rewarded with the grainy image of a man in a Coast Guard uniform. “This is Director Vance.”
“Director, this is Captain Oscar Vachon. I have some new information for you on the two NCIS agents lost at sea four months ago.”
Vance sighed. It figured that they would receive such news, likely a confirmation of the two men’s demise, just days before Christmas.
“Thank you, Captain Vachon. What can you tell me?”
“Well, sir, it might be better if I just showed you.” Before Vance could respond, the image shifted, and suddenly he was staring at a pair of tanned, scruffy, and shockingly familiar faces. His eyes widened in surprise as he stared at the image, and finally let out a rough chuckle.
“Well, I’ll be damned. Agent Gibbs, Agent McGee, I trust you have a good explanation for your extended absence?”
Gibbs smirked. “We do, Leon.”
“Uh, yes, sir. We were…stranded. No communication equipment available.”
“For four months?”
“Yes, sir. Four months.”
“Think you can get us home any time soon, Leon? We’ll give you a full report…in person.”
“This might have escaped you, Gibbs, but it is almost Christmas. We are short staffed and flights are booked.” He saw a stricken expression cross McGee’s face and he couldn’t keep up the charade. “Get packed, I’ll have you on the next flight out. And I do expect that report as soon as you arrive.”
“Yes, sir,” said McGee, obviously relieved. “Thank you, sir.”
“Don’t thank me, Gibbs. I suspect I’d have a mutiny on my hands if I didn’t get you two back here ASAP.”
“I don’t doubt it, Director.”
After the call disconnected Vance leaned back in his chair, a thoughtful expression on his face. After a couple of minutes he picked up the phone and called his secretary.
“Pamela, I need to see Agents DiNozzo and David, Ms. Sciuto, Dr, Mallard, and Mr. Palmer in my office, immediately.”
Vance put the handset back on its cradle and smiled. It was about damn time he’d be able to deliver some good news to his people.
The group was assembled in less than five minutes, anxious expressions on their faces. The absolute joy he saw on those same faces a few moments later made the amount of paperwork he would be doing because of all this absolutely worth it.
*Christmas Eve – Gibbs’ house*
Gibbs sat back and watched the antics of the group assembled in his living room with a smile on his face. He and McGee had arrived in D.C. less than forty-eight hours ago, and already things seemed to be falling back into place. They had been flown in from Puerto Rico on a private jet (and he didn’t even want to think of the strings Leon had yanked to pull that one off) and had been greeted by Vance, Jack, and McGee’s family first, followed by the rest of their team. Gibbs had acknowledged Vance’s subtle display of understanding of his agent’s state of mind with a simple nod as Jack embraced him, and the expressions he had seen on the faces of McGee’s mother and sister were ones he would never forget. He thought he had even seen a trace of a tear in the eyes of the habitually stoic young man and had wiped away the suspicious wetness in his own eyes, hopefully unnoticed.
The restraint of that first meeting was definitely lacking from the next. He could still feel Abby’s bone-crushing hug, one she had halted only long enough to treat McGee to the same. The others had been only slightly less enthusiastic in their greetings, although Palmer had drawn the line, apparently, at hugging the lead agent. He had received an affectionate cuff to the head from Tony in return.
Both men had been shocked to receive news of their awards and had accepted them from Jack and Sarah rather reluctantly, knowing what this would mean for their desire to keep their return home low key. Vance had honored their wishes to keep their return out of the press, at least for the time being. Gibbs had seen the expression on Tim’s face as he took the flat black box from his sister and opened it, and the older man hoped that Tim would learn to accept his contribution that had earned him that medal, without the associated guilt for the lives he hadn’t saved, in time.
A burst of laughter startled Gibbs from his reverie and he returned his attention to the group.
“Come on, McGilligan, I know you really didn’t turn into the Great White Iguana Hunter.”
“I managed, Tony.”
“Gilligan? Shouldn’t he be The Professor?” asked Palmer and grinned at Tony’s reaction.
“Yeah, but then he would have been building radios out of coconuts or something, right?”
Tim just shook his head. “Whatever you say, Tony, but if I’m Gilligan, does that mean Gibbs is the Skipper?”
Gibbs silently walked up behind his senior agent. This was just too good of an opportunity to miss…
“Makes sense to me. The Skipper was always whacking Gilligan over the—” Tony winced and automatically scrunched his head down between his shoulders as Gibbs’ hand connected with the back of his head. “Thanks, Boss.”
“I think if Gibbs had been captain that boat never would have been stranded,” said Abby.
Gibbs noticed a flicker of sadness cross Tim’s face and stepped in.
“Can’t fight a storm, Abbs,” he said, and gave her a pointed look. She blinked sheepishly.
“No, I guess not…”
There was an awkward silence followed as they all remembered the story Gibbs and McGee had told them about crew that had saved the lives of the two men. Finally the moment was broken by the arrival of Ducky and Mrs. McGee to tell them that dinner was ready.
They all gathered around the tables that had been arranged in Gibbs’ dining room and were now loaded down with a large assortment of traditional holiday foods.
“Man, this looks awesome,” exclaimed Tony. “We should do this more often.” He caught the multitude of glares from his companions and managed a rather embarrassed grin. “Well, you know what I mean.”
They filled their plates and glasses, and when everyone was seated, Ducky proposed a toast.
“To good friends, and good family: may we always have them in our thoughts and in our hearts.”
“And in our lives,” added Ziva as she smiled at Gibbs and McGee.
“Hear, hear!” said Tony and Palmer.
“And God Bless us, every one!” said Abby. The entire group turned to look at her and she grinned. “Aw come on, at least I got the holiday right this time!”
“That you did, Abbs,” said Gibbs.
After the dishes had been cleared and most of the group was settled in the living room, swapping stories of past gatherings, Tony slipped out the back door and sat down on the steps. He looked up at the darkening sky and sighed. It had been one hell of a year.
He had been sitting there for only a few moments when felt another presence and turned to find Gibbs watching him silently from the doorway.
Gibbs walked over and sat down next to him. He remained silent for several minutes before finally speaking.
“You OK with that, Tony?”
“OK with what?”
“Me, being your Boss again?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
Gibbs chuckled softly. “Twice now you’ve picked up the slack when I’ve been gone. You managed just fine without me. You sure you don’t want to stay in the Boss’ chair?”
Tony turned to study the older man. He hadn’t had much of a chance to do so before now and he did notice that Gibbs was a little different, although couldn’t put his finger on what exactly it was.
“Yeah,” he said after a few moments. “I’m sure.” Gibbs turned to him, eyebrow raised, and finally Tony continued. “When I had to take over…the first time it was your choice, but this time it wasn’t. I’d much rather it be your choice.”
“But not yours?”
“Boss…as long as you can do this job: that is my choice.”
Gibbs continued to stare at him, a technique he recognized that the lead agent used when he wanted more of an explanation.
“It felt wrong, Boss. Not just because you weren’t there, but…”
“McGee wasn’t either.”
“Yeah. I kind of got used to you guys having my six. You, because, well, you’re you, and McGee because…”
“He’s the most dependable person you know.”
“Yeah…” Tony chuckled. “It’s amazing what you take for granted.”
“Why I have rules against that, Tony. One thing I learned…over the past few months, you should always appreciate what you have, and always make sure someone knows it.”
Tony thought for a minute, and then nodded. “Loud and clear, Gibbs, loud and clear.”
Gibbs clapped him on the shoulder. “Come on, I think Ducky mentioned something about desert.”
Tony grinned. “Sounds good to me…Boss.”
After almost everyone had left, Gibbs, Jack, Ducky, and Palmer made one last trip of the night. The wooden toys that had been finished were packed up and taken to the Children’s home, were they were appreciated beyond measure. Gibbs had been impressed at the quality of the work done to finish them, and Palmer had blushed under the restrained yet sincere praise he received for his contribution.
After their mission, the group had separated. Gibbs and Jack returned to the house, while Palmer was headed to his girlfriend’s, and Ducky back to his townhouse to take care of his guests. McGee’s family was staying there for the night, and they would be traveling home with McGee in tow the next day. He had planned to stay with them for a couple of days before returning to go apartment hunting and settling his paperwork to return to NCIS.
Gibbs and Jack were headed to Stillwater in the morning. He planned to help his father get the store ready to re-open, and then he would spend a few days catching up and keeping an eye on the older man until Gibbs was satisfied that Jack was ready to be by himself once again. He had a good idea what a strain everything had been on his father, and he didn’t want to risk something happening to him.
It was almost 11:00, and Gibbs was sitting in front of the fire, nearly asleep, when he heard a soft knock at the door. He got up and walked over to answer it, and was only slightly surprised to find McGee waiting on his front step, bundled up against the cold.
“Door’s unlocked, McGee. No need to knock.”
Gibbs stepped aside to allow the younger man to step inside. “What do you need, Tim?”
“I, uh…I wanted to give you something.” He pulled a box from his pocket and handed it to Gibbs. “I made these for you, on the island. I didn’t get a chance to give them to you before, and…you probably don’t have much use for them now, but…”
Gibbs couldn’t help but smile. “Come in, have a seat. I’ll be right back.” He set the box on the coffee table and went to retrieve an early gift from Jack as well as the box he had carried with him all the way from the Caribbean.
When he returned, Tim was staring into the fire, apparently lost in thought. He quickly noticed Gibbs and gave him an embarrassed smirk as he pointed at the fire.
“Just like old times, huh?”
“Yep.” Gibbs placed Jack’s gift, a beautifully crafted wooden game board on the coffee table. Tim raised an eyebrow. “How did you…?”
“I told Jack about our games, and he bought it for me so he and I could play. I figured it would be a good place for you to try these out.” He handed Tim the box. “Made ‘em for you while I was on the island. It passed the time.”
Tim opened the box and gasped. “Boss, these…these are really nice.” He pulled out one of the delicately carved chessmen and examined it. “Wow. Thank you.” Suddenly, he blushed. “I, uh…what, I made, it’s not…”
Gibbs opened the box Tim had given him and smiled. He picked up one of the polished white stones, one of a set of twelve, and then picked up one of the black stones. “Checkers. Nice, Tim. These will work great. Thank you.”
“Which do you want to play first?”
Tim grinned, obviously relieved. “Up to you.”
Gibbs set out the checkers and they started to play, falling quickly into their old routine. It was more comforting that Gibbs had expected, and he found him self starting to relax, really relax, for the first time since they’d left the island.
They finished the game and had started to set out the chess pieces when the old clock on the mantle struck the hour. It was midnight. They both looked up at the clock and then looked at each other, slight smiles on their faces which soon blossomed into grins.
“Merry Christmas, Boss.”
“Merry Christmas to you, too, Tim.”
*ten days later – the Navy Yard*
Stepping into the bullpen at NCIS was most definitely a relief. The past few days had flown by, with a series of reunions between Tim and his family and friends, followed by a search for a new place to live, moving his stuff from storage, and completing the mound of paperwork required to be reinstated at NCIS. He had spent time with his teammates and they had filled him in on what he’d missed, including the resolution of the bombing case. It turned out that Corwin had been working for someone else, someone who had a personal vendetta against the lead scientist in the still classified research project. He had changed the navigation data as a distraction while he stole data and to prevent the Navy from recovering the ship after he destroyed it. The plan had been to escape while the rest of the crew was occupied with the emergency, a plan that had been foiled by Gibbs and McGee. The information the Corwin was supposed to have given to his employer had never been recovered, meaning that the project was safe, and the instigator was now awaiting sentencing. It had been at least somewhat of a relief to Tim that the whole mission had not been in vain.
He made it to his desk and sat down, glancing around at the familiar surroundings. The walls around his old desk were now bare, but Tim still felt like he was finally at home. It had been more of an adjustment than he expected, returning from the isolation of the island. Tony had given him a recording of ocean wave sounds as a joke (so he had said), but Tim had quickly realized he actually needed that link to his residence of four months. He was still adjusting the cold, the layers of clothes and the solid shoes he now needed, but he figured he would adjust soon enough. It was what he did.
Tim turned to face his computer monitor and simply stared at it, almost reluctant to turn it on. He had surprised himself by avoiding contact with technology as much as possible, and there were times when he actually yearned for the simplicity he had left behind. It had been quite a shock at first, but once again, he told himself he just needed time.
“Don’t tell me you’ve actually forgotten how to turn that on.”
He looked up to see Tony standing in front of him, an odd expression on his face which quickly morphed into one of his trademark grins.
“Come one, tell me, how bad were the withdrawal symptoms, McAddict?”
“I…actually not too bad. I learned to embrace the lifestyle fairly quickly.”
“Whatever you say, McGoneNative.”
Tim just chuckled and turned on his computer. He glanced up at Tony again as was startled by the expression on the senior agent’s face.
“What’s wrong, Tony?”
“It’s, uh…good to see you sitting there again, Tim.” Tony turned back to his desk to avoid the younger man’s scrutiny and Tim managed a smile. He had a pretty good idea how hard it was for the other man to admit that.
“Sorry I worried you. I...”
“You know what it’s like, not knowing what happened to someone you…care about.”
Tim’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Wait, what…?”
“Sarah kind of mentioned that you…that your mother had lost another child. I, we looked into it.”
“Oh.” Tim blushed. He wasn’t sure he wanted all of them to know abut Jana. Telling Gibbs had been a surprise, but under the circumstances…it had felt right.
“Anyway, we, Ziva and I, that is, we looked into the case. We…”
“We wanted to see if we could bring at least one child home,” finished Ziva as she joined them.
“Thanks, guys. I appreciate that you tried.”
“There wasn’t much, though.”
“I know.” He met their surprised gazes. “I’ve checked it myself. I made sure the information is out there. I called in favors, made sure the case is in the NCIC database, ViCAP, NamUs, even CODISmp. I sent family reference samples to the Human Identification Center in Texas. I’ve just been waiting, hoping that the information I need gets put in the right system. Maybe one day…one day I’ll know. We’ll know.”
“When you do…we will be there for you, McGee.”
They all returned to their work as Gibbs entered the bullpen. He walked over to McGee and leaned over to look him in the eye.
“How are you doing, Tim?”
“Good, Boss. I’m doing good.”
Gibbs smirked and walked over to his desk to start on the stack of paperwork awaiting his attention. The group worked in relative silence, and when Gibbs left, presumably for coffee, Tony turned to Tim and spoke in a conspiratorial tone.
“So, McVanished, did you figure out the big mystery?”
“You mean of the Triangle?” Tim let out a soft snort. “Believe it or not, Tony, there was a rational explanation for everything that happened: explosions, storms, all of that. Nothing that needs any paranormal qualifiers.”
“I was talking about the bigger mystery, Timmy: the one that is known as Leroy Jethro Gibbs. You two had time to bond. What did you and the functional mute talk about?”
“Nothing shocking. Just, you know, normal stuff.”
“Yeah, right.” Tony thought a minute. “I bet you were wishing for your own Wilson, right McGee?”
“Oh trust me, Tony, Gibbs is a lot more interesting to talk to than a painted volleyball. He’s not that much of a mystery, though. You just have to…understand his interests.”
“And what would those me, McKnowItAll?”
“Paperwork,” said Gibbs as walked to McGee’s desk and deposited a cup of coffee before returning to his own seat. “Get back to it.”
McGee raised his cup to Gibbs and took a sip, grimacing slightly at the taste: something else to get used to again. His desk phone rang and he paused a moment before answering.
“There is a discrepancy between the report you and Gibbs prepared and the one I received from the base in Aguadilla,” said Vance, sounding like his normal annoyed self. “I’m sending the reports to both you and Gibbs. Check them and get back to me, ASAP.”
“In trouble already, McGoo?”
Tim ignored him and opened the file Vance had just sent him. He scanned the reports and after several minutes of searching, he found the difference between the USCG report and the one he and Gibbs had written. The USCG report said:
“…the agents were transported from the vicinity of the wreckage of the Raptor to their reported location by an unknown private vessel, whose crew was reported lost at sea before the vessel ran aground and was later destroyed by a storm. No remains have been recovered…”
Tim felt a surge of anger. How could they miss the name of the boat? He had told them specifically, and now this meant that none of the families of the crew would have been notified. He planned to rectify that as soon as he could, but why hadn’t they checked the information he had given?
He quickly accessed the internet and searched for the name and port of call of the vessel, as well as the names of the passengers. He quickly found a notice.
Jonathon “Jack” Jones, 31, Nerys Hudson Jones, 30, Arthur Hudson, 26,
Brigham Owens, 32, Alice Martin Owens, 30.
These individuals set sail from Hamilton aboard Jones’ vessel Whirlwind on the 3rd of August, and were last seen leaving Cat Island Harbour in the Bahamas on the 14th of August, bound for St. Thomas Island. Anyone having any information about this vessel or crew should contact Mr. David Allen Jones, Esq.
The notice included a picture and the sight of it made Tim’s heart ache. The group was perhaps a bit less tan, and a lot less rumpled, but they were the same people that had saved him, and Gibbs from a terrible fate.
With new determination, he pulled out his cell phone to dial the number listed. Just before he pushed the first button, something else on the notice, a bit of information he has missed, caught his eye and he froze in disbelief.
That’s impossible…it must be a mistake.
He checked for more information, more notices, and the few pieces he found only confirmed what he had read.
The Whirlwind, and her crew of five, had vanished en route to St Thomas, somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle…five years ago.
“What’s a matter, McGee? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
You have no idea…
“Uh, Gibbs? I need you to take a look at something.”
The lead agent walked over to McGee’s desk and leaned over his shoulder. “What?”
Silently McGee pointed at the screen and Gibbs started to read the information. He heard the older man suck in a sharp breath and he turned to him with wide, questioning eyes.
Gibbs remained silent for several moments. Finally he turned to McGee and said in a low voice. “It looks like the base’s report is going to be the official version. Better fix our report.”
“But Boss, what…I mean, how…?”
Gibbs let out a soft, humorless chuckle. “Well, Tim, I guess there’s still a mystery out there, after all.”