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The Immortals

Chapter Text

Seaman McDonald had been found dead on the bottom of the ocean, heavy chains holding him down. What could have been a straight case of suicide turned out to be a little more involved. Not least of all because the team’s profiler had not been able to profile passed her own prejudices.

Back at his desk in the pumpkin hell of NCIS’ headquarters in Washington DC trying to write his report, Tony finally had a moment to truly make sense of it all.

Tony scratched his head and stared at his monitor. Their transport back from the vessel had taken the better part of the night and while Gibbs did not order them straight to their desk to finish the paperwork, Tony actually preferred doing so while the events where fresh in his mind. Also he liked late nights and early mornings in the bullpen. The light was muted, the sounds were toned down. Fewer agents bustling to and fro – mainly those working on different time zones, like the Middle Eastern desks in from his position the right far corner and a core staff for emergencies.

Gibbs would spent only the absolutely needed amount of time at home to shower and change, maybe grab one of those Marine cat naps, before he was good to go for another long day at the office.
If the Supervisory Agent of the MCRT would not be expected to jump over some red tape today, he would not have bothered to go home at all. But Tony knew that Gibbs would have to defend the team’s actions with Director Morrow and quite possibly SecNav later that day. A bomb had detonated on board a Navy vessel, while a team of special agents were on board to investigate a suspicious death. Both events interlinking.
Gibbs would need to explain why the bomb had not been found before it destroyed the skipper’s sea cabin and had thus caused an as of yet unknown sum of damages to naval and private property, electronic and data lines and worst comes to worst the integrity of the vessel itself. It would be out of commission until the overhaul was completed, thus probably interfering with some more or less top secret missions. Which also amounts to an as of yet unknown sum of damages. All tax payer’s money and thus the inquisition waiting for Gibbs.

Most people forgot that Tony was Gibbs’ Senior Field Agent and that he was very much aware of all those hoops the team leader had to jump through. But his motto of “work smarter, not harder” did not amount to only having his paperwork done on time. It was also used to anticipate the mood of the team leader any given moment on any given day depending on the amount of BS he had to suffer through by the higher ups.
Today would be a pain in the ass, hence why Tony had already placed a cautionary phone call to the owner of that little coffee cart Gibbs was so fond of. To have an extra supply of Marine coffee ready. Extra revenue for the guy, but always with the adrenaline rush of ending up on the wrong side of the former Gunny.

All that was currently left to do for Tony was getting his report straightened out – all I’s dotted and all T’s crossed – before the first meeting was scheduled. In his experience it went a long way in smoothing things when the boss could enter the director’s office with something tangible in hand.

But Tony found himself stumped. Oh, his side of the investigation was fairly straightforward. Initial background search, first contact with victim’s next of kin and initial questioning….
His mind wandered at this point and he knew better than to try and keep himself overly focused on the task at hand. It was the way he came up with leaps of intuition, as someone once coined it.

Kate had been nervous about delivering the news to the mother, so Tony had bullshitted her into believing that it was the first time for him too. Simple strategy. Building of confidence by showing her that no one needed to be perfect, if only they tried their damned best.
Naturally Tony had delivered negative news to all kinds of people so many times he lost count a long time ago. He had been a cop for eight years before joining a federal agency. He had walked the beat and had been a Homicide detective. He had seen more mothers break down upon the news that their only child had died than he cared to remember. It never was pretty, it always was heart-wrenching and the day it stopped hurting, was the day he knew he should hand over his resignation.
But Kate had been Secret Service until just a short couple of months ago. She had protected the President – as she never got tired of telling everybody – and while technically being trained in pretty much the same scenarios as other federal agents, including the obligatory course on crime scene investigation, she never had to apply any of that. She had vetted journalists, had developed plans for wide range coverage of their target, may or may not have stood in the line of the fire a couple of times. But she never had to interact with the next of kin of victims in a professional capacity. And the way she behaved during that case on Air Force One, neither did she privately.

But Kate was supposed to be a profiler. She should have been able to see the tells. It was not like Tony had tried to hard at obfuscating his natural behavior. He had prepared himself for a distraught relative and potential witness statement and not to drop himself into some undercover persona.
He knew he was good at that. If he ever needed a reminder, he would take out the card the Operations Manager of the OSP in LA had handed to him during the last time she had been to headquarters and think about the implied message: “We could need someone like you.”
Flattering as that was, he knew he probably would terribly clash heads with their resident genius, G Callen. Something about that man rubbed him wrong. Maybe it was just the lack of information available about him. Or the lack of a proper name.

Back to the case at hand. Kate had immediately jumped on board the good Catholics don’t kill themselves bandwagon.
Everybody had their prejudices and points of references in life, but Tony had seen suicide victims from all walks of life. If he was to make a bet, he would say Catholics might even lead the statistic. Something about the whole “condemned if you do and condemned if you don’t” thing did not allow for a lot of ways out for those religious types.

After the mother, a field trip had been in order. Onboard the destroyer USS Paul F Foster answers would probably be found that could not been given by anyone on shore. But no one seemed to know the guy that well apart from him doing his job. But then people lie all the time.
A clue was the officer’s sword the seaman had on him when he was found. Since none was missing on board, he would have needed to have obtained it somewhere else. Hence Tony finally got to cross out Puerto Rico from his bucket list, even if only for six hours.
And here it was that Tony’s recollection of things got murky. Not because he could not remember events, but because he simply was not there to see certain steps being undertaken.

He knew that while he was able to ascertain the way the seaman obtained the ceremonial sword, he should have not been able to buy, Gibbs and Kate had searched the destroyer for places where McDonald could have taught himself how to use the weapon. They found a room with obvious signs of distinctive wear – forensics would be able to conclusively proof if the metal shavings on the sword and in the room matched, otherwise the team later had been able to get a witness statement to that fact – which Tony was informed off by Gibbs during his telephonic progress report.
Before Tony returned to the destroyer, Kate and Gibbs had been busy pouring over personnel files of the enlisted to find those who had reported with suspicious injuries to sick bay, since they by now figured that the seaman needed to have a sparring partner. They happened upon one name and he was taken for an interview. Tony’s job upon return was to search the rack and personal effects of the possible suspect. Which is how they came unto the sharpened ceremonial sword of Petty Officer Zuger and he admitted to have taken the game to the next level.

Now in the quietness of early morning headquarters Tony realized that this should have been their major clue. But he had only just returned and the pieces were not as fast to fall into place as they should have. Or maybe he didn’t have all pieces yet. But Tony was there when the Petty Officer clearly stated that it had been McDonald’s idea to cross the line from virtual game to reality.

Tony was not a psychologist or profiler, but like anyone on the force he majored in layman’s psychology within months of joining the force. And someone leaving the safe confines of something imaginary and having it cross over into real life should have raised all kinds of red flags. Those were more often than not the guys that went postal, killing themselves and innocents in the process due to some kind of delusion. No matter what caused these delusions in the first place. Some mental health issue, snapping into amok mode, or drugs – Tony had encountered all. The most harmless of those “just” ended up committing suicide, sometimes by cop. Others ended up on the news big time.

Tony leaned back on his chair and stared up to the huge skylight. Closing his eyes, he tried to make sense of why the team had not been able to see the connection then instead of when it had been to late. And the bomb going off, even when no one had gotten seriously hurt, was too late!

He tried to think himself back into the situation, recounting each event individually.

They had known about the game before Tony headed to Puerto Rico. In fact Abby briefing them about forensics had led to his side trip, because she had ascertained that a second sword needed to have been in play. Then she had started on trying to find the right game in case there might by additional evidence to be found by the virtual footprint the seaman left. This had discovered the in-game diary.
But he was getting ahead of himself again. After Abby’s briefing, Gibbs had called Ducky, who was right in the middle of the autopsy. But so far he had been able to determine that McDonald had been alive when he had went into the sea. Also he had discovered more forensic evidence under the young man’s finder nails, which he believed Abby would discover to be dirt from the ocean floor.

While not conclusive at this point, the available evidence at this point strongly hinted at suicide. The fact that he was alive when going overboard, his get-up, the chains and how they had been fastened, the fact that the seaman practically grabbed onto the floor to stay under – it spoke a pretty clear language.
Obviously their job was not done until it was proven conclusively, which would have been easiest by finding some kind of suicide note or by being able to exactly reconstruct the last hours of the seaman’s life.
Additionally the find of an officer’s sword with the body had raised another set of questions, that while technically not the task of the MCRT still related to its investigation. So Tony went to Puerto Rico, found the source and a description of another buyer, and upon return learned how the sword played into the seaman’s death. Which again tied into this online game.

Okay, now that Tony was back on steady ground and had a moment to relax a bit, his brain asked a persistent question.
Why did Abby have to play through a number of levels of an online game to get confirmation of a certain character even existing in it?

Obviously Tony knew that Abby often did things her way instead of the regular one and mostly her results were up to snuff. Also at this point no one could have suspected that they were operating on some kind of time constraint. But her tackling one online game after another on a whim practically amounted to a shot in the dark. And in the end it was lucky that she found the right game that early.
So why not involve the legal department, to simply ask all known game hosters – or whatever the intellectual owners and distributors of such things were called – for a list of their character names? Without additional information about the actual players that should not even be too hard concerning privacy laws. Once the name had been found on any list, they also could have subpoenaed access to the account. Those lawyers could work scarily fast.

Tony opened his eyes and righted himself again. Already practically feeling the wrath of Gibbs once he read it, he added an annotation to his report with this question.
He loved Abby dearly, but even he had begun to see, how she started to take more and more liberties with standard lab procedures. Had this seaman’s death turned out to have been a murder, her way of getting a hand on his diary might make it not admissible in court on a technicality. Since she technically had hacked the seaman’s gaming account. And thinking about it, she must have hacked more than one account, because that character sheet they had found had not even been for the seaman’s character but for that of his rival.
Now, Tony’s head hurt contemplating it. He rather felt the wrath of his boss for a couple of minutes for even suggesting to involve lawyers than ever consciously risking a case.

Still that did not answer the original question of why Gibbs’ famous gut, a seasoned investigator and a freaking profiler were too slow in discovering the bomb.

The game had turned out to be called “The Immortals” of all things. Another bright red flag. And now Tony remembered that even before he had boarded the helo, they had already operated under the assumption that the game had turned real.
During his six hours of Caribbean island experience, Gibbs and Kate found the sword fighting sight and the possible second swordsman though medical reports of suspicious injuries. Immediately upon his return, Tony had been sent to search the guy’s bunk and found a sharpened officer’s ceremonial sword in his rack. He held onto the evidence as per Gibbs’ demands until such a time the boss thought it convenient to confront the possible suspect with it during the unofficial interrogation. At that time the Petty Officer admitted to it having been the Seaman’s idea to make the gaming experience more real. Thus confirming their previous assumption.

When Tony returned to their accommodation, Kate was pretty far along reading a print out of McDonald’s diary. He had not questioned her doing it, thinking that Abby had pulled a miracle and Gibbs had naturally assigned the task to the one with the profiling chops. And there had been no indication of that not being exactly what had happened while the SFA had been away.

The only hiccup in simply accepting this as a “shit happens” thing was that Tony was there when Gibbs told Kate clearly that he thought her judgment to be clouded by her religious morals. He also heard her justifying her “gut feeling” with his diary, his absolute need to win the game.
The moment when Tony not only should have seen the red flags but should have heard the blaring of the horns.

Kate still wanted to prove that it could not have been suicide. Only now instead of using his religious background, she used his gaming personality. Her profiling training should have enabled her to separate that and the real person as two distinct entities. One virtual character come to life with the absolute will to win at any costs, the other a real life person, who was a deeply troubled individual with possible mental health issues.

Tony had listened to Kate, because Gibbs had listened to her. Next thing he knew he had been sucked back in normal investigative stuff. Background check for Petty Officer Zuger and before anything more could have happened, Kate came unto the Seaman’s last entry which indicated a threat to the entire vessel.
Now they were under time constraint, with only about one hour left until the allotted time indicated by the Seaman’s words ran out. Things became pretty hectic then.

Then the computer virus practically killed McDonald’s opponent in the game. But neither MCRT member made the connection with the great plague. And Tony did not hear the line about cutting of the head, so the body would die until 5 minutes to the deadline.
Kate even stated how “we were assuming”, when the only one working on that thing had been her and Tony had only been able read a couple of jumbled lines while she was pouring over it again on the screen at combat station. By the time it finally clicked for her that McDonald had issued two separate threats, they only barely had time enough to clear the skipper’s sea cabin before the explosion occurred.

Only on the transport back to DC Tony got to hear from Kate that she had not in fact had been tasked to go over the diary on her own. That she had volunteered to do so when Abby had called in to report that it was now available.
Ever since then Tony had felt uneasy about the entire case and with the team’s probationary agent. Uneasy about what he was supposed to put into the official report, the very one he would have to hand to Gibbs in only a couple of short hours so that the man could go and defend the team’s actions to his boss and everyone up the ladder who might feel entitled.

Mistakes happened. It was the nature of the job. One worked with humans on very human issues. The trick was to keep the consequences as minimal as possible for everyone involved, but especially the victims, and to learn from it and move on.

In this case the initial victim had had nothing left to loose. Seaman McDonald had been dead by his own hand, no matter if someone had played to his delusions or not.
So the next victim needed to be considered. The Seaman’s mother, who would need closure above all else. She would be informed about her son’s delusions and how that caused his death. In reaction the Navy would probably implement new regulations for gaming and psychological testing for especially this kind of mental health issue.
Petty Officer Zuger would face at least a disciplinary hearing for misappropriation of Naval equipment for private playtime and for feeding the Seaman’s delusions, thus attributing to his death. If criminal charges could be levied was up to the good people at JAG. Thus concluding everything pertinent to Seaman McDonald’s death.

Remained the little matter of a bomb being hidden on a Navy vessel and its explosion. The Navy really did not like stuff like that. It would have consequences and the ire would trickle down to NCIS. Especially since the MCRT had all evidence pointing to the existence of such a devise in hand hours before the blast. But had only been able to pull it together in a coherent way until it was too late to stop events.

Tony sighed. The cursor still blinked on the virtual piece of paper awaiting his official report. He now knew all pertinent facts and had been able to coherently order events in his mind. But he knew that writing it all down exactly like it happened, could quite possible see them a team member short in the very near future.

It all came down to Kate.
One could say that she had made a judgment call in taking over the task of reading the diary. She was the ex-Secret Service agent with the profiler training and thus best fitted for that. But she was also first and foremost the Probationary Agent on the MCRT. Probationary agents don’t get to make judgment calls. They follow orders coming down the chain of command.

Wherein lied another problem. Gibbs had told Kate expressively during their last case – which was only the second she ever worked for NCIS – that Tony did not tell her what to do, but he did.
While Tony had not been present for that particular exchange, he had been given the play by play by Gerald when the man had looked for Ducky’s reserve overall for him.

Tony got it. Really. Some LEO had just run rampant over a crime scene, possibly destroying evidence in the process, then committed perjury and possibly investigation tampering on camera. Gibbs needed an outlet and the easiest had been Tony for the last nearly two years. But Tony had to handle the journalist, so he was targeted in absence. Revoking the SFA’s orders to the probie resolved the tension and gave Gibbs the added bonus of doing what he loved best at crime scenes apart from looming. Taking pictures.
Tony got it. Really. Problem was that Kate was too green in reading Gibbs to understand it. She only got the “putting Tony down” part and with her general “women are better than men anyway” attitude read it as “he’s not my superior even though he holds the title”. Wham! Instant problems.

Tony still tried to get a handle on that woman. She was not shy to work hard, but she did not easily accept help from male co-workers. Hence he had pushed her and Abby together on the first case. Hoping against hope that his friend might listen to him and impart certain knowledge into the new female agent. Thus far Abby had still to deliver.

Normally Tony would say to let it go. It was early days for Kate working on an investigative team. She still needed to acclimate to everything and to see the reality of not every man being out to put her down as a woman.
But this was a possible loss of life scenario, that could have been completely avoided. Breaking the chain of command seemed to become a recurring theme with the young agent. And Tony, no matter if he hated it right now or not, was her direct supervisor.
Unprompted Gibbs would do nothing either way. It had been the same with Viv. Training of the newbies was in Tony’s purvey. The boss lacked the patience for hand holding and drilling the rule book into their heads. He however excelled in challenging them to do the best in all things physical. In the gym, on the shooting range, etc. He was after all a former Gunnery Sergeant.
This dichotomy worked well for the two men. Helped that they both could read each other practically blind. But Kate had upset that too with her repeated complaints about sexism, just because she had to endure the law enforcement typical hazing. Or because they interacted with military types, who simply operated with a different rule book.

No, if Tony wanted something to be done, he would need to make it happen himself. Kate could shape up into a good agent. Never great though. While she had balls like no other, she lacked the open mind that would allow her to look deeper, to develop a “gut” of her own.

Hints that Tony was dropping left and right, about things not being just like they seemed, never triggered Kate’s curiosity. Never got her to investigate. Not when he suddenly switched from fast paced multi-fingered typing to only two fingers, not when he gave her only the “I smiled” answer to how he became an NCIS agent, not when despite all evidence for him being a competent investigator are right there and she still only sees a chauvinistic pig, who shouldn’t be an agent.
Okay, so maybe Tony was starting to get a little bitter about that last one. But really how else was he supposed to prove to an, oh so mighty, Secret Service Agent, that while pictures are all fine and dandy but did not give points of reference? Best way to do it is with a picture and the one right there had been that swim suit magazine. Not his problem that such things were openly laying around on Air Force One. He still had proven his point.

Also, Tony never in his career had to leave any job for breaking any kind of fraternization rule! And now he just was starting to get pissed.

After a couple of deep breaths, Tony tried to look at it objectively again. He was her supervisor, he had to be able to trust her in the field, but also in the office. What if she was assigned a certain task and simply decided something else caught more her fancy. A BOLO could end up not being send out, a pertinent background detail might go unnoticed. It were often the small things that made or broke the cases.
Tony also could not have her argue every assignment on the general principle of “Gibbs said”. Gibbs could be an asshole and he often was, but if he was not angry he would be the first to quote the “In my country, on my team, working my cases, my people don't bypass the chain of command" spiel.

Slowly, but with ever increasing speed Tony started to finally put his report into words. An hour later Gibbs entered the bullpen and got handed the readied folder by his SFA, just like he expected. A raised eyebrow ordered the tired man to take the rest of the day off. Tony’s answer constituted of a slight nod of the head, before grabbing his bag and ambling towards the elevator.

He knew, that Gibbs would keep himself busy with his own report and reading the work of his SFA in preparation for his 7 am meeting, by which time the boss expected the youngest team member to have made an appearance, so that he could put her to work on her report before heading upstairs. He also knew that he would have to answer some painful questions once Gibbs had decided that Tony had slept enough, but in the end he trusted his boss to have his six.

As for Kate, Tony felt a small pang or regret. One he tried to cover with internal reassurances, that she probably would only receive a slap on the wrist, maybe some additional training. But in the end Tony knew that she had already started at NCIS with a black mark on her jacket. Even though her resignation had stopped any investigation into her misconduct, it was an open secret what had triggered her jump to another federal agency. It might appear unfair, but it was important to know about the reliability of applicants.
Tony was certain that without Gibbs endorsement, Kate would have been transferred to some Resident Unit at one of the many small naval bases. If she would even have been hired. Her being given the coveted spot on the MCRT had come as a surprise even for Tony. But then Director Morrow had been on their case to fill the desk after Viv’s blunder and Kate had already experienced the second b in action.
No, it was not her – very flawed – profiler training that got her that position. Gibbs and Tony had done just fine without a so called expert on the team, between the famous gut and ample life experience. They also rarely handled serial killers or rapists and if they stumbled across the need for a full profile, they were allowed to call in experts. Even if that meant to work with the FBI.
It had simply come down to luck for her.

Luck had run out. Tony was realistic. Kate would be asked to defend her actions in forgoing the chain of command, in making a judgment call above her station and then she would face disciplinary action. If she had been a green young agent fresh off college, she might only receive a stern talking to, a written reprimand and maybe a refresher course. But as a woman with experience at a federal agency, she would quite possibly loose her job. No other agency would hire her after that.

Leaving headquarters, finding his car in the parking lot and getting into it, Tony sighed. He had really liked Kate.