Title: Strangers and Friends
Genre: Gen
Rating: Safe
Length: 2,800 words
Summary: Sometimes you find friends in the strangest places.

NCIS Ficathon assignment – (I chose to work both quotes into the story.)
"Without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other good." – Aristotle

"Never was and never will be. You don't know how you betray me, and somehow you've got everybody fooled." – Evanescence

A/N: Even larger quantities of thanks than usual to Cha Oseye Tempest Thrain, who not only calls me on my errors, but inadvertently twicked this idea in the first place. (I cut the 'saids' by half, adapted your title suggestion, and re-worked the ending but good. Hope you like it!) And yes, the pun in the summary is intentional!

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

Gibbs had a bad feeling about this. It was never a good thing to find Abby and Ducky rushing towards his desk, especially not when he was just going to pack it in for the night. "What is it, Ducky?" he asked.

"Oooh. Growling with resignation," Abby noted, "Something only Gibbs can achieve!"

Ducky got right to the point, not wishing to rile Gibbs since his help was presently needed. "Mr. Palmer did not come to work today, Jethro."

"Tell him I hope he gets well soon," Gibbs said dismissively, sliding closed his desk drawer, pocketing his phone and holstering his sidearm.

"I would, but the boy hasn't called."

"Fire him," Gibbs said sharply, standing to make his exit.

"Gibbs, you don't understand," Abby jumped in. "You know how much Jimmy loves his job. He wouldn't do this."

Ducky nodded. "Yes, very true. Only one time in the last year has he been absent, and then he called. Repeatedly. He called from the dentist's office after they injected him with novocaine."

Gibbs rubbed his eyes tiredly. "What are you telling me, Ducky?"

"I'm afraid something has happened to him, Jethro."

"You've called his house?"

"Yes, several times, and his cell, and his pager. No response."

DiNozzo wandered closer to Gibbs' desk and looked at his boss expectantly.

"McGee," Gibbs barked, "pull up Palmer's employee file and get the number for his emergency contact. Call them and find out if they know where he is."

"I don't want to alarm his parents," Ducky protested. "It may be nothing, after all."

"We've got to call them, Ducky."

"Perhaps I should do it myself."

"McGee, give the number to Ducky," Gibbs said with gruff indulgence. He placed his gun and phone back in the desk. Something told him this wasn't going to be that straightforward.

Ducky used the phone on McGee's desk. Abby, Tony and McGee gathered around. "Mrs. Palmer? This is Dr. Donald Mallard; I work with Jimmy. Yes, it's very nice to talk to you as well. Mrs. Palmer, Jimmy is out of the office today, and I forgot to ask him for the number where he could be reached. I seem to have misplaced an important file, and I do need to speak to him about it. Would you happen to know where I might reach him? Oh, I see. Well, thank you very much."

Before Ducky even set down the receiver, Gibbs was giving orders. "McGee, call the local hospitals. DiNozzo, local P.D. Ducky, Abby, what do you know about his personal life?"

"Not much, unfortunately," Ducky answered. "He lives alone, reads a good deal. He's never mentioned any friends or activities."

"Abbs?"

"I've got nothing, Gibbs."

"C'mon, Abby! You know everything about everyone. Are you telling me you know nothing about Jimmy's personal life?"

Abby twisted her fingers together nervously, reluctant to admit the truth. "I've kind of been avoiding him since the whole Super Glue incident."

Gibbs looked to DiNozzo, who shrugged his shoulders apologetically and carried on with his calls.

"Me either, Boss," McGee said when Gibbs' gaze fell on him.

"He's been avoiding him since the poison ivy incident," Abby whispered loudly. McGee glared at her, then went back his assignment.

"Just great. This guy's been working here a year, and a whole team of people paid to be observant knows nothing about him?"

"What about you?" Abby asked. "Do you know anything?"

Gibbs looked at Abby with an unreadable expression. "He plays guitar. He's an amateur photographer. Buys his books at Barnes and Noble."

"He told you all that?" McGee asked.

"Nope."

"But you…"

"It's called observation, McGee. As I said, it's what we're paid to do. I'm going for coffee. You find me some answers."

&&&

"Local police have nothing on him, Boss," DiNozzo called out from behind his desk as Gibbs came off the elevator.

"None of the local hospitals have him either," McGee reported.

"Alright, McGee, get the address; Tony, get the car. We're going to check out his place."

"I'm coming, too," Ducky insisted, as McGee and Tony Yes, Boss'd and disappeared.

"Fine," Gibbs called over his shoulder, already halfway to the elevator. "Abby, hold down the fort. We'll call you if we find anything."

"Holding it down, Gibbs." Abby gave a mock salute at his back before returning to her lab.

&&&

McGee knocked on the door, waited a few moments and knocked again. Gibbs, Tony, and Ducky gathered behind him. As McGee reached to knock a third time, a fist came from behind and pounded on the door.

"He's not in there," Gibbs said without waiting for a response to his attack on the door. He slipped a small case from his pocket and leaned down to pick the lock. Suddenly, he stood straight, put the picks away, and reached for the knob. "Lock's been forced," he whispered, fingering his gun. Ducky stepped back as Tony and McGee drew their weapons.

Gibbs flung open the door and his team entered. They quickly cleared the room, then the rest of the small apartment. "All clear, Ducky," Tony called.

The men spread out and began examining the room. "Nothing looks out of place," McGee commented.

"This place is as neat as a girl's apartment," Tony muttered, moving through the kitchen. He opened and closed the refrigerator, shaking his head.

"Seems like you were right about the photography, Jethro," Ducky said, scanning his eyes over the dozens of framed photographs covering the walls. "Landscapes. Quite good."

"Do you recognize this spot, Duck?" Gibbs asked, pointing out an image of a rocky cliff and wide blue sky.

Ducky contemplated the image for a moment. His eyes widened with recognition. "That's Shenandoah National Park, where we found that poor Marine eaten by coyotes."

Gibbs nodded. "And this?" he asked, gesturing to another.

Ducky nodded. "The farm where that young petty officer met with her untimely demise. Quite a lovely angle, isn't it?"

"Boss, looks like you were right about the guitar, too." McGee held out a framed photo from the mantelpiece. Jimmy stood in front of a small stage, holding an acoustic guitar and flanked by two pretty young women.

Gibbs squinted at the photo. "What does that sign behind him say?"

McGee squinted, too. "Can't tell. I'll bag it for Abby."

"Gibbs is three for three!" Tony held up a Barnes & Noble bookmark for all to see.

Gibbs picked up a piece of paper off the coffee table. "Never was and never will be. You don't know how you betray me, and somehow you've got everybody fooled," he read. "What the hell is this?"

"Evanescence," McGee replied with surprise.

"And that is?" Gibbs asked with strained patience.

Ducky peered over Gibbs' shoulder to look at the paper. "It's the quality of being fleeting or gradually vanishing, but what that has to do with…"

"It's a rock band," Tony interrupted, passing as he walked into the bedroom.

Ducky harrumphed quietly. "Well, with lyrics like this, I can understand why they chose the name."

"Whoa, look at this," Tony called.

Gibbs, McGee, and Ducky made their way into the bedroom. Clustered on a shelf above a small television were five silver frames. In them were candid photographs of their team. Gibbs eyes scanned them one by one ­– Abby in her lab, grinning at something on her computer screen; McGee working on his PDA; Tony leaning back in his chair with his arms behind his head and a wide smirk; Ducky frowning absently, as though lost in thought; Kate smiling at the camera.

"When did he take these?" McGee asked.

"I don't know," Tony answered, "but it's kind of creepy."

"I think it's rather nice," Ducky contradicted. "Obviously, he considers us as friends. The shame of it is that we haven't considered him so. You know, Aristotle once said, 'Without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other good.'"

"You don't think he…" McGee trailed off.

"Killed himself?" Ducky thought for a moment. "No, I don't think so. I may not have been as close to Jimmy as I might, but I do believe I would have noticed if he were that troubled." He sighed and turned to Gibbs, who was still staring at the photos. "We have to find the poor boy, Jethro."

Gibbs's reached out and brushed his fingertips over the framed picture of Kate, then quickly pulled away. "We will. We are not going to lose another member of this team." He turned and stormed out of the room, shouting orders as he went. "Fingerprint the door, and get what we've got to Abby. Then talk to the neighbors; see if they saw anything suspicious or know any of his friends outside work. Let's get moving, people."

&&&

Ducky and McGee hovered around Abby's lab while she processed the evidence. "I keep thinking about those photos, Ducky," McGee said. "Why do you think there was no photo of Gibbs?"

"If I had to guess, I'd say Gibbs caught him trying to take one and threatened his life."

"You'd guess right," Gibbs said as he walked through the door. "Abby, what have you got?"

"Good news and bad. Isn't that always the way?" Gibbs glared at her impatiently, and she continued without the usual banter. "Okay, bad news: the only fingerprints from the doorknob and the surrounding area were yours and Jimmy's."

"And the good news?" Gibbs prompted.

"I've got a name off the sign in the photo. It was taken at a local club called eXhale, and it says 'open mike night'. Jimmy might be a regular."

"Good work, Abbs. McGee, take the photo, get DiNozzo and you two go check it out."

"Jethro," Ducky called as Gibbs strode out of the lab. He allowed McGee to pass, then came back in. "It's Monday," Ducky stated.

"Yes, it is. Is there some reason you're bringing it to my attention?"

"Jimmy could have been missing for three days already. Do you think he's alright?"

"I don't know, Ducky."

"Yes, but what does your gut tell you?"

The mixture of trust and concern in Ducky's voice was enough; Gibbs didn't need to see his expression to know he needed any reassurance possible. He turned his eyes to the wall. "Let me ask you a question. Who would want to hurt Jimmy?"

"I can't imagine anyone having a reason to hurt him."

Gibbs clapped Ducky on the shoulder and left the room.

&&&

Gibbs leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. It was getting late. DiNozzo and McGee had been gone over two hours and hadn't checked in. Sending those two to a nightclub without a chaperone might not have been his wisest decision. Just as he was about to call Tony's cell phone – despite the fact that he would feel like an overprotective father on a school night – the elevator door opened.

"We've got a lead, Boss," McGee called out excitedly. As though they had radar, Abby and Ducky came down the hall.

"What've you got?" Gibbs asked, though the sound was of a demand. He sat up straighter in his chair, a posture that said he was ready to go chase down whatever lead they had.

"Jimmy is in a band, and they play the club regularly on open mic night." McGee sat down at his computer and rapidly began to type.

Tony picked up where McGee left off. "We didn't find out who the hotties in the picture were, but we tracked down one of Jimmy's band mates. He said on Friday night the band was practicing at Jimmy's cousin's house. He didn't have the address, but he gave us a name."

McGee grabbed a sheet of paper off the top of his printer. "And I've got the address now."

"Let's roll," Gibbs said. Looking over his shoulder, he called, "You coming, Ducky?"

"Yes, thank you!" Ducky rushed to catch up.

Abby watched the men leave. "I'll just hold down the fort," she said to the empty office.

&&&

As they turned onto the street, Ducky pointed out Jimmy's car – the only vehicle parked in front of a sprawling Ranch-style house. The driver's side door was slightly ajar. They parked and checked it out. The keys were in the ignition.

Gibbs signaled for them to survey the house. McGee and Tony circled around, checking the windows, and saw nothing out of place. Gibbs tried the front door and found it unlocked. "Ducky, maybe you better stay out here," Gibbs said quietly.

"I want to come with you," Ducky insisted again.

"Alright," Gibbs conceded, "just stay back and let us check things out first."

The three agents entered the house silently, moving swiftly and purposefully to clear each room. Ducky followed at a distance. Toward the back of the house, Gibbs stopped and raised his hand, effectively bringing everyone to a halt. There was noise coming from the basement – music, soft singing.

Carefully, weapons drawn, they approached the basement door. Gibbs tried the handle and found it locked. He turned the lock slowly, noiselessly, then signaled that he was about to enter. Moving with precision, the agents stormed the room.

Sitting on a couch in the center of the basement, guitar in hand, Jimmy blinked in amazement. "Special Agent Gibbs!"

Gibbs holstered his gun and stared back at Jimmy. It was McGee who spoke. "Are you alright?"

"Yes, I'm fine… Dr. Mallard!" Jimmy exclaimed, spotting Ducky on the stairs.

"Jimmy!" Ducky said delightedly, relieved to find his assistant alive and in one piece. He was too used to finding people in just the opposite condition.

"You found me," Jimmy said almost reverentially, looking to each of them in turn.

Gibbs rolled his eyes, and growled, "What are you doing here, Palmer?"

"Oh! I, uh, I locked myself in. My cousin agreed to let us use her place while she's out of town – she's a flight attendant. You know they used to call them stewardesses, but…"

"Palmer!" Gibbs snapped, attempting to get him back on track.

"So, after the band left, I went out to the car, and then I realized I'd left my guitar down here."

"And you came back to get it and got locked in the basement," Tony supplied.

"The exterior door is padlocked from the outside, and the key to the door leading into the house is on my key ring in the car."

"And your phone?" McGee asked.

"In the car, with the keys," Jimmy nodded. "I tried yelling for a while, but no one could hear me. My cousin would have been back tomorrow."

"So you've been down here since Friday night?" Ducky asked sympathetically.

"Uh-huh. Thankfully, there's a bathroom and running water."

"You must be starving."

"Yes, I am," Jimmy said enthusiastically.

"Well, my boy, let's find you something to eat." Ducky reached out a hand in Jimmy's direction to indicate he should come along. Jimmy stood up and began to place his guitar in its case.

"Should I hazard a guess as to why the lock on your apartment door had been forced?" Gibbs asked wryly.

Jimmy blinked up at him, and Gibbs realized he did that a lot. Jimmy had an almost perpetual look of surprise. "I locked my keys in the car and had to get into my apartment to get my spare set. You were in my apartment?" When Gibbs turned away and started toward the stairs, Jimmy asked McGee. "You were in my apartment?"

McGee nodded. "Nice place."

"Thanks," Jimmy said cheerfully, picking up his guitar case and almost tipping over with the effort.

"Gimme that." Tony gruffly took the case from his hands. "Go get some food in you, before you hurt yourself."

"Ah, Jethro, we have a bit of a problem," Ducky said from the top of the stairs.

"Nope." Gibbs calmly climbed the stairs and guided Ducky back a few steps. He pulled out his gun and shot the lock off the door. "No problem at all." Gibbs pushed the door open and walked through.

Ducky brushed little wooden splinters from his sport coat as he moved to hold open the door. If he was taken aback by Gibbs' assault on lumber, it didn't show. He smiled down at Jimmy. "Come now, let's see about that food."

McGee and Tony followed a wobbly Jimmy up the stairs. "You can tell us about your band," McGee suggested, as he ushered Jimmy out into the kitchen.

Tony paused in the doorway, a slow smirk spreading across his face. "And you can tell us who the hot girls in that photo are!"

Jimmy paused and turned to look at each of them again. "I can't believe you found me."

Ducky put an arm around his shoulder, and began to guide him down the hall. "That's what friends are for, my boy," he said. "That's what friends are for."