"Commander McGee. How's Tim?" Gibbs had booked into a hotel for the night to sleep off the exhaustion of the flight and was now at the hospital looking for information.
"Is he awake, Sir?"
"He woke briefly yesterday. . .enough to know we are here and to make it clear he is not happy about the fact."
"I'm sorry, Sir. How is Mrs McGee taking it?"
"She's a very strong lady, Agent Gibbs. . .she will soon work her maternal magic on Tim," the Commander explained with a grin that Gibbs returned.
"I don't doubt it, Sir. . .and what do the doctors say."
"They are taking him back to the OR today. They were unable to operate on the femur before because of an infection in the wound. Now they have that under control they can pin the fracture and close up the wound. . .it's going to be a slow healing process, Gibbs."
"And his head?"
"No sign of any new trauma but the radiologist did find evidence of an old skull fracture."
"Let me guess, six or seven months old!"
"So the coma?. . ."
"Wasn't really a true coma. I spent a long time with the psychiatrist and Officer Brady yesterday trying to piece together Tim's last few months."
"Dr Mathews thinks that essentially Tim just shut down. . .a sort of system overload. . .he just couldn't cope with another trauma."
"So what now?"
"Well, we wait for him to recover from the surgery and then we will help him through this."
"Could I speak to this Officer Brady?"
"Of course." The Commander fished out a card from his pocket and handed it over. "I should tread carefully, Jethro. I get the impression that Officer Brady has developed quite a soft spot for Tim. . .seems he took him under his wing. . .thinks we must have treated him badly for him to have run off like he did."
"Hell, we did!"
Gibbs called a cab to take him to the bookshop and while he waited for the Officer to arrive he ordered a cup of best Columbian. Brady was late but Gibbs didn't begrudge him the time, it allowed him to take stock of his surroundings and observe the locals; he picked up a book off the shelf and found a quiet corner table.
"Special Agent Gibbs?" The Officer's greeting was curt.
"Brady. Pleased to meet you." Gibbs proffered a hand in greeting and the two men sized each other up over a slightly too long, too firm handshake.
"Why are you here, Gibbs?"
"Wanted to see for myself where Tim's been hiding."
No! Not here in the bookshop. . .I mean here in Alaska? I can understand his parents dropping everything but you. . ."
"Tim's one of my team. . .and I don't leave my men behind. I let him down and that doesn't sit well with me."
"So this is about your own guilty conscience!"
"Hell, no. This is about Tim."
"But he made pretty damn sure to get away from you. Wasn't his choice clear enough?"
"Look, we all make mistakes. How much do you know?"
"Only what I learned from Commander McGee and from talking to your Dr Mallard."
"Tim never explained it to you?"
"Not about his past, no. I knew he came here to escape and I was pretty sure he wasn't on the run. . "
"Guess your gut is failing you. . .he's evaded NCIS, the FBI and Metro PD!"
"I didn't even realise he was using an alias until I tried to trace his prints for the doctors. He never gave any hint that he was a Fed or that he was in law enforcement. He said he was I writer and I believed him."
"He is!" Gibbs turned over the book on the table and pointed to the photo on the dust cover. "Look familiar?" he grinned.
"Oh, my God."
"Tim is a highly successful author. . .this is his second bestseller. Albert Ross wasn't his first alias. . .he also goes by the name of Thom E Gemcity," Gibbs explained.
"What the hell happened, Gibbs? Why did he leave all this behind?"
"He was ill. . .that's the long and short of it. He was ill and none of us realised it until it was too late. He cracked under the strain and he didn't come to us for help. He tried to deal with it on his own and it all spiralled out of control. He vanished and we have spent the last seven months trying to find him. It wasn't until a couple of weeks ago that we had any indication that he was still alive."
"I think I can claim the credit for that. I sort of bullied him into contacting his family."
"Thank you for that. It was a huge relief for all of us. . .even if it didn't help us find him."
"What happens now, Agent Gibbs?"
"Depends what Tim wants and what the doctors say. We don't know for sure if he'll wake up as Tim or Albert!"
"Al. He calls himself Al." Grady asserted. "He's made a life for himself here Gibbs. What will you do if he decides to stay here?"
"Nothing. I'm not going to bully him into coming back. . .besides it's not up to me. He's going to have to jump through a whole heap of hoops if he wants to come back. His disappearance caused a mess of trouble, not just for the team but for the Agency and the FBI."
"Would you have him back? After all the trouble he caused."
"In a heartbeat. . .if its what he wants. He's a damned fine agent."
"But one who broke under the strain."
"Well, we were all part of the problem and we didn't look out for him like we should. . .the whole team want to make it up to him," Gibbs explained.
"You know he could have a good life here. A man of his experience and education would be an asset to the city and the state. Hell, the principle of the high school has already offered him an open invitation to teach the seniors Math, science and IT."
"Al was helping the kids with homework and projects; the Principle came along to see why the class average suddenly took a hike. . .he was also worried about this stranger taking a sudden interest in the teens and asked me check him out. It was clear to me that Al only ever interacted with the kids here in public and that nothing inappropriate was going on."
"Don't growl at me, Gibbs, I was just doing my job. Anyway, Al was adamant that he wouldn't apply for a job in the school or even volunteer. . .said he was too busy writing. Now I know about the alias I realise . . ."
". . .he couldn't risk the background checks!"
"The fingerprint checks would have given him away and blown his cover."
"I need to talk to Tim."
"How long can you stay?"
"As long as it takes. . .I have years worth of leave to take. I'll stay until we know what Tim wants to do."
"When will he be out of surgery?"
Gibbs looked at his watch. "He should be done by now."
"Finish up then and I will give you a ride. . .save you a taxi fare."
It was another three days before Gibbs got a chance to speak to Tim. In the interim he made use of the time to find out as much as he could about the life his young agent had been living. He visited some of the local sites of interest, spending hours at the harbour talking to the fishermen and seeking glimpses of the local wildlife, even splashing out on a small digital camera to preserve images to take back home. The locals, particularly those in the bookshop were wary of him at first until he managed to reassure them that he wasn't there to cause trouble for their young friend.
On the morning of the third day Commander McGee greeted him as usual at the nurses' station.
"Sir. How is Tim today?"
"Doing better. He's still on heavy painkillers and antibiotics and they need to keep the drain in his wound for a few more days but the surgeons are pleased with his progress."
"And the Shrinks?"
"Dr Mathews has been consulting with Dr Avery and they are actually quite encouraged. Now that Tim has accepted that his cover is blown they are hopeful that he will continue to improve. Thankfully, Tim continued to take his medication so his depression is at least under control. They have done CT scans and EEG's and the severe headaches he has been suffering from do not appear to have a physical cause. The Doctors believe they are most likely stress related."
"And has he given you any indication of what he plans to do next?"
"No, but he has asked to talk to you," the Commander explained kindly.
"The physical therapist is with him at the moment. . .he will need to rest for an hour or so when he's done. . .he still tires very easily."
"I'll go grab a coffee while I'm waiting." Gibbs turned to go and then stopped and turned back.
"Commander. I'm sorry for all you and your family have been through the last few months. I know what it's like to lose a child. . .I'm more pleased then I can say that you got your son back. . .and whatever happens from now. . ."
"I know, Agent Gibbs. . .I hope you get him back, too!"
"Agent Gibbs," the formality of the response was a jolt but Gibbs covered it well.
"How are you feeling?"
"Like I've been knocked over and stomped on by a Grizzly!"
"Were you?" Gibbs grinned.
"No. . .just clumsy. . .some things never change!"
There was an uncomfortable silence and Tim fiddled with the tubing from the drain in his thigh to mask his discomfort.
"Tim, I'm sor. . ."
"NO! No don't, Gibbs. Not that. . .please!"
"Tim. I need to own up to my own mistakes."
"You don't believe in apologies. Don't say it if you don't mean it."
"Hell, Tim. I've been sorry every minute of every day you've been missing!"
"Oh, come on, Gibbs. . .you don't have to lie to make me feel better." McGee said tiredly
"Damnit, McGee. . .we never stopped looking for you. It takes a damn good operator to vanish so completely. . .you impressed Ziva!"
"I learned something from the team then, "Tim replied bitterly.
"Tim did I ever give you the impression you weren't up to the job?"
"You didn't need to. . .it was glaringly obvious!"
"Not to me," Gibbs assured him
"I kept getting things wrong, screwing things up. . .all the time I was waiting for you to kick me off the team or down to cybercrimes. . .I tried so hard to justify your taking me on the team and the harder I tried the worse it got. . ."
"Why didn't you come to me, Tim?"
"I didn't know I could!" he said with absolute sincerity
"I didn't know I could," Tim repeated. "All those rules and not one says 'show your weakness'"
"Couldn't you have talked to Tony or Abby or Ducky?"
"Tony! Yeah right. . .as if my life wasn't crap enough!"
"For god's sake, Tim. . .our job is hard. . .damn hard and nobody can do it alone."
"Except you! You're the boss. . .I was following your example!"
"Not a good role model, McGee."
"No, I see that now. . .I guess at the time I was too close and too low to realise that you have your boat and your basement. I had my writing but after a while that became part of the problem."
"McGee, did you plan to run away?"
"No. . .at least not consciously. Now I've had time to think about it I can see I got me and McGreggor all mixed up in my head. I was plotting his getaway and my research for that paved the way for my own disappearance. . .made it easy!"
"What do you remember of that day?"
"Just flashes," Tim shrugged.
"Do you remember the takedown? Do you remember getting hit?"
"No." The response was immediate but his hand went to the back of his head. "They hit me?"
"They thought they had taken you out! When they realised they hadn't they came after you intending to finish you off," Gibbs explained.
"So I got out just in time?"
"We would have protected you, Tim. . you didn't give us the chance."
"I'm sorry," Tim yawned. "And I'm sorry I hit you. . .I do remember that. . .it plays over and over in my memory. . .I remember being so-so angry. . .feel my fist hitting your jaw. . .and-and seeing you laid out on the floor.. .I never meant to do that, Gibbs. . .am I in trouble for that?"
"Apology accepted. . .and , no, you are not in trouble. . .perhaps you should have done it sooner. . .after the Mikel fiasco, maybe. . .I guess I did deserve it then and I'm sorry for that whole damn mess. I handled it badly," Gibbs admitted.
"You did, Gibbs," Tim acknowledged.
"So am I forgiven for that. . .and for not being perfect?"
"I guess if you can forgive me for knocking you on your ass, it's the. . .it's the least I can do," Tim mumbled, his eyes flickering closed.
Whatever else Gibbs planned to say next was cut short. Between one blink and another McGee was asleep.
A flare-up of the infection in his wound kept Tim bedbound for another few days. Gibbs sat with him for an hour every afternoon. They talked about Alaska and Gibbs boat and about Tim's latest story; the one thing they didn't touch on was NCIS or Tim's future.
Every evening Gibbs called the office to fill them in on his progress and every time he had to field their demands about when they were both returning and it pained him to have to admit that he had no answer to give them.
Then came the afternoon when he arrived at the ward to find Tim's room empty. He beat a hasty path to the nurses' station.
"He'll be back soon. Agent Gibbs," the senior nurse assured him.
"He having more tests?"
"No, Sir. He had an important meeting," she explained.
"With who? Doctor's rounds are in the morning, aren't they?"
"Yes, Sir. He will be back shortly." Gibbs recognised that he wasn't going to learn anymore and huffed as he headed towards the doctors' lounge to snag some coffee. Before he got to the door he was halted by a group emerging from the room. Commander McGee was backing out of the door, manoeuvring an unwieldy wheelchair followed one step behind by his wife who was pushing an IV stand. In the chair Tim was holding himself rigid, his face pale and sweaty. Gibbs stood back and allowed them to wheel Tim back to his room and get him settled into bed.
A short while later Gibbs slipped into Tim's room and sat at the window until the sleeping patient stirred. "Everything OK, McGee?"
"Anything you want to share?"
"No, Sir," Tim croaked, tiredly.
Recognising that he would get nothing further from the patient, Gibbs turned to the Commander. "Sir?"
"It's for Tim To tell you when he's ready, Agent Gibbs. . .I have to respect his privacy on this."
"Is it his health? His leg?"
"Not directly. No, please don't ask any more for now. Tim will tell you everything you need to know when he's ready."
The next day Gibbs was turned away when he came to visit.
"Why, Dr Mathews? Why won't he see me?" Gibbs asked the psychiatrist.
"It's not just you, Agent Gibbs. Tim has refused all visitors today. . .including his parents. He wants some time to think. . .he's a very private man and he is used to his own company. He has some important decisions to make and he needs the time and the privacy to do that," the doctor explained gently.
"Is he getting better?"
"Yes. I'm very pleased with his progress from a psych point of view."
"His surgeon is cautiously optimistic that he can regain full use and function of his leg, though she cautions that his recovery will be slow."
"And when will he be fit enough to travel?"
"Why, is he going somewhere, Agent Gibbs?"
"Well, I presume he will want to go back home. . .his life is back in DC."
"As I said, he has some big decisions to make!"
"How's it going Tim?" Gibbs examined him with his usual ruthless gaze, missing nothing.
"The physio got me standing earlier, just for a few seconds. . .made me dizzy. Now I'm just tired," Tim admitted
"Can we talk?"
"I thought we were."
"No. We've been dancing around every topic under the sun except the one we really need to talk about!"
"Go ahead then. . .say what you need to. . .you have a captive audience."
"Look, I can't hang around here much longer. I need to know what you intend to do?"
"I see. What do you want me to do?"
"I want you back on my team. . .where you belong!"
"I'm not on your team any longer. The Director made it quite clear that I am no longer a field agent."
"What! When did you speak to the Director?"
"Video conference the other afternoon," Tim explained
"Damnit, why didn't you tell me, I would have stuck up for you."
"I don't need anyone sticking up for me, Agent Gibbs. . .and I requested the interview. I needed to know what the situation was before making a decision."
"And what did the Director say?"
"I was given options to consider," Tim explained.
"They'd better be options that all involve you being back at your desk under my nose," Gibbs growled
"That would be your preferred option?"
"Damn right it would. . .that is the only acceptable option."
"And if I told you that's not what I want right now?"
"You saying you'd rather piss your time away up here in the wilderness!"
"It has worked for me so far, Agent Gibbs!"
"For God's sake, you can't waste your potential up here. . .you're too good at what you do. Hell, if it's me and the team you can't work with I can ask the Director to transfer you to Agent Miles team."
"Gibbs, you already have a full team. After all the trouble I caused I can't just slip back in as if nothing has happened."
"I'm still short of a field agent."
"You're telling me my desk is still empty?"
"Not exactly. We have a young cybertech on the team. . .but he's not and never will be a field agent. When you come back we will be a five man team."
"Gibbs, when you go back, I won't be going with you." Even as Tim said it Gibbs realised that it was what he was expecting. . .but that didn't mean he was prepared to accept it.
"And is this just another of those crazy-assed, half-cocked decisions like the one that had you running away to play hermit in the wilderness!" Gibbs spat out in frustration.
"No. No. Look at me, Gibbs" Tim said kindly. " Look at me. It is going to be months before I am fully fit. . .I'm going to need crutches or a wheelchair for weeks, maybe even months. If or when I go back to DC it will be as a fully certified field agent or not at all."
"You could do desk work."
"You already have someone to do that. . .and I'm not going to be able to manage living on my own until I get my mobility back."
"We'd help you. . .the team would be so pleased to have you back they would be falling over themselves to pander to your every whim."
"I don't want pity even under the guise of friendship.
"Then what the hell do you want, McGee?"
"I want to clear up this mess. . .I made it on my own and I need to deal with it. As much as I appreciate what you all did for me. . .searching for me. . .not giving up on me, I have other more important matters to reconcile before I can deal with the team."
"Yes, what I put them through was unforgivable.. . "
"And yet they have already forgiven you. . .it's what parents do."
"I know but now I have a more difficult task. . .I have to learn how to forgive myself!"
"So what other options have you considered?"
"I'm going to stay with my parents on base in San Diego. I can get my medical care and rehab at the base hospital. When I'm fit enough to go back to work I will be assigned to the field office there. They are implementing an overhaul of the IT systems in the San Diego and LA offices. . .I will help with that."
"I thought you didn't want a desk job?"
"I don't. . .not in the long run but I'm not going to be running any time soon. . .and as my surgeon and the physio keep telling me, this is about small steps and not instant marathons."
"And what about Dr Mathews?"
"You mean, does he still think I'm a nut job," Tim joked.
"I hope he puts it more professionally than that!"
"He does. Look, Gibbs, I know that when I left things were really bad. . .but even on my worst days I still managed to take my meds. . .I may still be screwed up but I am no longer living under a perpetual dark cloud. I still have the problems and the character flaws I have always had but now at least I recognise them for what they are... .and I know I can work on them. These last few months have, in some ways, been the happiest of my life. It's the first time that I have slowed down enough to listen to what 'I' want and what I need. All my life I've moved from one high-pressure situation to another and I'm not blaming anyone for that. . .but in working my way up to being Special Agent McGee, Timothy got trampled on in the process. I needed this time here, away from the pressure and the noise and the unrealistic expectations, to reconnect with myself.
"I'm sorry for what I put you all through Gibbs and you will all get my apologies when I can do it in person. . .but I'm not ready to go back yet."
"OK, Tim, if that's your decision."
"But tell me one thing McGee. . .all this time, why didn't you let anyone know you were OK?. Didn't you know how much hurt that would cause?"
"I blocked it out. . .I had to. I had to keep myself in the present. . .looking back was too painful."
"And if Officer Brady hadn't pushed you?"
"I would probably have got there eventually. If it hadn't been for the accident forcing the issue, I think Dan is stubborn enough that he would have kept pegging away until I gave in and made the call. . .he reminds me of you in that sense, Gibbs."
"He's been a good friend to you."
"He has. I've been lucky."
"You do realise that if I go back without you, the team is going to lynch me!"
"I don't doubt you can keep them in line with a head slap and a growl, Gibbs."
"Abby will burn the airwaves until she has talked you round."
"Don't have a laptop or a phone. . I think I'm safe."
"From Abby! You sure you're not still one sandwich short of a picnic, McGee? I'm surprised she hasn't jumped on a plane already."
"I asked the Director to keep her and the team too busy!"
"It's not that I don't want to see them, Gibbs. . .but it has to be on my terms. . .If they want to come visit me in San Diego then they'll be welcome but. . ."
"I understand, Tim."
"I'll be staying with my parents. . .I won't be out of contact and I will keep in touch.
"And will it be Albert Ross who keeps in touch or will it be Tim McGee."
"Oh, I think Albert Ross has been firmly laid to rest. . .his life was short but meaningful, at least to me. . .and now I think he can rest in peace."
"Just one more thing then McGee," Gibbs said, standing up and extending his arm for a hand shake. When Tim reciprocated he was pulled slightly forward and Gibbs rapped him sharply on the back of the head.
"Thanks , Boss," Tim grinned and Gibbs caught a glimpse of the young agent who had joined his team with such childlike enthusiasm.
It was the first time in over eight months that Tim had called him 'boss' and that, more than anything, gave Gibbs hope.
"You work hard and you come home soon, Tim. We'll be waiting.
Shireling Jan 2010
A/N Many thanks to those who have stayed with me for the ride. I would also like to extend my very sincere thanks to those readers who were kind enough to take a second and leave feedback. . .your comments are very much appreciated . . .without feedback from readers it is difficult to maintain the enthusiasm to share the stories.