Don awoke with a yelp. Someone—several someones—were lifting him into the air and it hurt!
The package! Don reached for it, whole-heartedly panicking when he couldn't feel it. Hell, if he'd dropped it and let the powder laced with smallpox leak out…
"It's all right, Eppes. I've got it." It was Gibbs, and his voice was mere inches away from Don's ear. "It's not going anywhere that it's not supposed to."
There was something covering Don's hand, something to protect the world from the stuff that his finger had been stuck into. Don relaxed, only to yelp once more when something was jabbed into his shoulder.
"Just a smallpox vaccination, Agent Eppes," someone unfamiliar said. "A booster shot, since you were exposed. Everyone will be getting them within the hour."
"You just relax, hero." A different voice, and Don struggled to identify it, wishing that his eyes would work as they were supposed to. Fornell? What was he doing here? The cavalry must have arrived.
The stretcher felt uncomfortable under his back, but Don couldn't summon the energy to object. Someone put a plastic mask over his nose, and another prick announced the arrival of intravenous fluids laced with morphine. Someone moaned somewhere in his vicinity, and Don wasn't about to say for sure that it wasn't him.
"The site's secure, Eppes," Fornell continued, clearly not certain if Don was still aware enough to comprehend what was being said. Fornell was correct to be uncertain, Don thought. I'm not certain…either…
Not bad, but Special Agent Don Eppes could do without the present state of affairs. Quarantine had just been lifted, and he almost felt as though he could once again pass his physical and get back out onto the street where he belonged. Not that this hadn't been nice, he thought, steadfastly ignoring the twinge of pain that his leg scolded him with. He'd spent a lot of time on this sofa, loafing in front of the tube, protesting every time any of his team or Gibbs's waited on him. Personnel was limited in this housing; exposing additional people to the threat of smallpox wasn't sensible and so the healthy members of the FBI and NCIS teams performed as many of the duties as possible. After sleeping away the first couple of days, he'd grown to appreciate the difference between hospital and home, especially when someone thoughtful in the upper ranks of the FBI added a pretty good chef to the ranks and sent in high end meals for the FBI and NCIS teams who were stuck here.
After this many days, though, it was getting old. It was time to get back to real life, and that included Los Angeles. Gibbs had mentioned something about the Navy springing for an all-expenses paid trip back home tomorrow in a military jet reserved for the purpose, a little gratitude for his role in retrieving an errant NCIS agent, not to mention saving the world from disaster. Probably just a junior pilot who needed a few more hours of flight time, but still…
He heard voices outside the door, and prepared himself. All five of them—Gibbs, DiNozzo, Officer David, as well as his two—had bolted from the house once the medical officer had told them that infecting the world with smallpox was no longer a possibility. He couldn't blame them. The NCIS people had plants to water, and this would be the last chance that David and Colby would have to revisit D.C. for a long time. After this little episode, Don didn't intend to get within a hundred miles of this part of the country for as long as he could manage.
Don himself could have gone with them, but his leg was still bothering him. That would go away in another week, that NCIS medical examiner had told him. What did they call him? Ducky? The man was just like the rest of the NCIS bunch: loony on the outside but with a lot of smarts inside. Look at Goth-Girl; Don had been put off by her appearance but the chick showed some heavy duty skills. Gibbs was wise to value her contributions to his cases.
Don tried to adjust himself on the sofa, hissing when his leg told him he really wasn't ready to go back to work. Back to his apartment in L.A.: yes. He might even be allowed to ride a desk next week if he behaved himself, but right now he was having difficulty riding a sofa. He sighed. Whoever was coming in the front door had better not be from the underbelly of life, because not only was Special Agent Don Eppes not armed, but getting his piece from the back bedroom was so not happening. The only thing he had to defend himself was the now vanished threat of plague.
"Eppes!" someone called out, and Don relaxed. It was the Israeli agent, Ziva. "We've brought guests."
Good. Don was getting bored, and the tube had long since given up any pretense of entertainment. "In here," he called, as if the woman and the people she was with hadn't stayed in this place along with him. There weren't all that many rooms.
It sounded as though she was with several other people.
"C'mon, McGee. How much weight did you put on in the hospital?"
"Anthony, Timothy is still recovering from his injuries. I suspect that he is mildly underweight at the moment."
"Over there." Gibbs was one of the people supporting his agent, DiNozzo the other. Gibbs indicated one of the recliners. "Get a move on, DiNozzo."
The recliner would be a good thing, Don realized. McGee—Don had just seen him the once, in the basement of the mansion—was only making a pretense of walking, his arms over the shoulders of his fellow agents. Gibbs and DiNozzo had a choice: they could lower the man onto the recliner gently, or they could let him flop on the floor. Going anywhere under his own power was clearly beyond Special Agent McGee's abilities. The man's head was already listing to one side.
"Get him down." Gibbs's voice took on that gentle but demanding tone that Don recognized from his own brush with death. The two NCIS agents swiftly maneuvered their fellow agent onto the recliner, pushing the seat down until McGee's legs were up and color starting to seep back into his face.
"Ducky, McGee's going to be all right, right?" Goth-girl—Abby, Don had to remember her name—insisted. "Ducky?"
"Yes, Abigail, he will, but only if we let him rest," Dr. Mallard told her querulously. "Some water, if you don't mind," he added, as McGee broke into a spate of coughing.
"That's…that's better," McGee gasped to Abby, holding the cup to his lips. "Thanks."
"Just a touch of pneumonia," the doctor informed the crowd, unsuccessfully hiding the hint of worry in his eyes.
Don's own brother was next. Don allowed Abby to help prop him up on the sofa so that he could see the spectacle.
David and Ziva had equally as much trouble hefting the mathematician in through the door. There was a lot less of the man to work with, but there was a lot more verbiage.
"Look, I really need that laptop back." Charlie's mouth was working non-stop. "I didn't have the opportunity while we were at the mansion, but I could have done a lot in the hospital if only you'd let me have it. Do you realize how bored I was? The code wasn't the only thing they gave us. Dr. Levenger had put the names and addresses of at least forty of the foreign agents that she'd contacted for our services—" he broke off. "Uh-oh."
"Uh-oh?" There was a note in Charlie's voice that Don didn't like. It wasn't one that he heard often, and it didn't sound good.
"Get him down," Dr. Mallard instructed the FBI agents. "There, on the sofa. That's right, legs elevated. Just a bit too long on his feet, I'd say. For both of them," he added, pretending to glare. Fingers slipped to Charlie's wrist, checking the rhythm and harrumphing. "Neither Timothy nor Dr. Eppes has any business being out of the hospital. Leaving too soon," he grumbled. "In my day—"
"Ducky," Gibbs warned, but it wasn't to stop the medical examiner's story. There was a newcomer at the door. Gibbs didn't bother a smile for this one. "Tobias."
"Jethro," Special Agent Tobias Fornell greeted him, walking in without an invitation. The man looked exactly the same as when Don had seen him last, trench coat flapping around his legs, hands stuffed in his pockets. Almost the same; now he dangled a black laptop case from a strap over his shoulder, and Don wondered how Fornell had gotten hold of it. He'd thought that the NCIS folks were doing the velcro thing to the one piece of equipment that had really made the difference. "Professor Eppes. McGee. Good to see the pair of you out of the hospital."
Two sets of eyes, both set in extraordinarily pale faces, followed the little black case like addicts in search of a fix.
All agents present noted the geek-fixation, and none were best pleased.
"Fornell, my brother has literally just gotten out of the hospital—"
"McGee will not be solving your case for you—"
"Hey, hey! Hold on a second." Fornell threw up his hands in protest, setting the case down on the table. "Look, I waited until they were out—"
"Only because we wouldn't let you in," DiNozzo snarled.
"Why do you think we posted guards at the door?" Sinclair added. "The case was over. The danger was past."
"Just because you couldn't get anything more from the hard drive doesn't mean that you can come over here to force Agent McGee and Charlie to help," Don put in.
"I could kill him," Ziva announced to the world at large. "No one would ever know. My methods would be untraceable."
"I could find out how you did it."
"Perhaps. Perhaps not, Abby."
"Maybe I wouldn't bother," Abby said, glaring at Fornell.
"Look, guys, I've a job to do, just like the rest of you," Fornell said, trying for mollification. "We're getting precious little good intelligence from this little slice of life. There's more data on this laptop, and our best hasn't been good enough."
"Levenger isn't talking?" Don was getting interested despite his concern over his brother.
"Levenger is dropping hints that she can finger half the spooks in D.C.," Fornell confirmed. "She's looking at a charge of treason, and is desperate to avoid the chair. She's trying to cut a deal. It was a pretty clever set up," he admitted. "She planned to kidnap Professor Eppes here as well as Professor Penfield and force them to work for her, deciphering codes and selling them to whoever could pay. This was not a one shot deal. She expected to build up her business just like it was the corner drug store, then sell out to the highest bidder after she'd earned enough money to keep her living in style in an island somewhere."
"It almost worked," Sinclair said. "If it hadn't been for their mistake in taking Agent McGee instead of Penfield, you might not be here, Charlie."
"It did," Gibbs agreed. "She almost got away with it. Even her people mistaking McGee for Penfield didn't really slow her down."
"Speaking of whom, where is he?" Charlie asked. "Marshall Penfield isn't one to leave a problem unsolved. Was he one of the people you asked to try to open up this laptop? Password recovery isn't one of his strongest suits. He's much better with theoreticals."
DiNozzo grinned. "I happened to mention to him that we'd just been released from quarantine." He shrugged. "Funny. He didn't seem eager to stay after that. Muttered something about being needed back for his classes."
"Yes, well, we didn't need him," Fornell said. "We've got nets out for the five people who put in bids for the code you were working on, Professor Eppes, but from the hints that Levenger is dropping we think there may be as many as thirty more. We're lucky this message didn't get out to the general intelligence community. Someone would have grabbed that package and stashed it where we couldn't find it. We could have started a world-wide epidemic."
"Not lucky," Charlie disagreed. "We owe our lives to Agent McGee. If he hadn't gotten me out of there—"
"It was your standing up to the kidnappers that kept me alive, Charlie." McGee was thrilled to be on a first name basis with one of the world's greats.
"Gibbs was the one tracking you down, Charlie," Don pointed out.
"So who stuck his finger into the package?" Gibbs asked.
"All right, all right!" Fornell threw up his hands. "I'll put you all in for medals. Satisfied?"
"You can't put me in," Charlie pointed out. "I'm not a Federal agent." He looked around. There was someone missing from the group. "Where's Colby? Didn't you tell me that he got shot, too?"
"Right here, Charlie." Colby appeared at the door to the kitchen, one arm still in a sling. He draped his good arm over Ziva's shoulders in a more than companionable fashion. "Just winged me. More embarrassing than anything else." He turned to the Israeli officer. "You ready?"
"I am," she assured him.
DiNozzo looked puzzled. "Ready? Ready for what?"
Colby beamed. "Ziva's gonna show me around town. Hey, it's our last night here," he protested, "and I haven't had a chance to see the sights; been stuck in quarantine. Can't a guy play tourist every now and again?" He winked. "See you guys later." He headed out through the door, Ziva at his side.
DiNozzo shook his head and sighed. "He's in for it. Ziva's knowledge of the tourist sites in on a par with her knowledge of American slang."
Don grinned. "DiNozzo?"
"Yes, boss? I mean, Special Agent Eppes?"
Don grinned again. "Colby spent a year in D.C. right after Quantico. He's seen all the D.C. sites that he wants to. I think he's a little more interested in the Israeli ones."
DiNozzo stared after the pair. "Ziva? And Granger?"
"Stranger things have happened, DiNozzo," Gibbs reproved him.
"Yeah, but Ziva?" DiNozzo shook his head once more. "Hey, McGee. Uh, McGee?"
The recliner where they'd dropped the NCIS geek was empty. Not only that, but the sofa that had once held a recuperating mathematician was also empty.
The laptop that Fornell had brought was no longer in its case. It was out and sitting on a table, Charlie and McGee huddled over it, Abby Sciutto standing behind them, all three drinking in the rays from the screen.
"This ought to be a really easy password to crack. Levenger had no training in ciphers."
"That's assuming that she was the one to put in the password, Professor."
"I keep telling you: call me Charlie. Can you get this thing to perform some Rosewood Assymptotes?"
"Sure, but it will take forever. This CPU is pretty slow. How about applying the Dickenson Diversion?"
"Disproved almost a year ago. Let's just hammer it out."
Abby looked up at the room, her eyes shining. "Do you even realize how way cool this is? This is like a Beethoven Symphony for cipher forensics!"
Fornell removed his trench coat and tossed it over McGee's recliner. He dropped his backside on the abandoned sofa and grinned. "Mission accomplished. I should have the rest of the intel on that computer pretty soon." He glanced at his watch. "Any bets on how long it will take?"