The only sound permeating the silent, country road was the soft hoot of a barn owl. The countryside was completely vacant, save for the car abandoned on the little road's shoulder and the quiet wood surrounding it. The stars twinkled golden in the chilled night air –promising a crisp autumn day when the sun finally rose-
A loud slam shattered the quiet, sending the owl airborne on silent wings.
"We are so dead!" a man with a loud, worried voice stood outside the lifeless vehicle, staring at it, as if willing it to revive itself. He looked around, casting about in search of some form of a lifeline. . . .
"Tony!" an extremely irritated female voice sounded from inside the stilled car. The resounding slam of the driver's side door emphasizing the extent of her agitation. "We are not dead," she hissed over the car roof. "We are merely lost and carless."
"Which, Zee-vah, we wouldn't be if I had driven! You wore the engine out with your crazy illegal driving technique!"
"So this is my fault, yes?" she roared, her voice echoing in the darkness.
"The only thing, Tony, that I am at fault for is giving you the map! We have no thought of where we are because of you!"
"One," he yelled, holding up his hand so she could see him counting on his fingers, "It's 'we have no idea where we are.' Two, it wouldn't matter if I had the directions or not, you were driving so fast the road signs were a blur!"
Rolling her eyes, she spat vehemently, "Anything else you want to add?"
Tony, dropping his hand, lowered his voice and said, "Yeah. Three, us yelling at each other isn't gonna make the car restart, nor is it gonna get us unlost. So . . . . ." He trailed off, thinking about his next course of action.
Walking around to his side of the car, Ziva surveyed her surroundings. There were no lights anywhere, which meant no civilization nearby. She opened Tony's door, leaning across the seats and hitting a button on the steering wheel. The headlights flickered to life. When Ziva had extracted herself from the front seat and straightened up again, she met Tony's questioning gaze. "At least," she said stiffly, "we can see."
Tony sighed. "You wanna look under the hood?"
Ziva met his question with a bewildered expression, prompting Tony to explain hurriedly, "Under the car hood, Zee! Where the engine is!" And he couldn't help grinning when his partner's mouth formed a perfect little 'o' in comprehension.
After four minutes of struggling with the aforementioned car hood, the pair were soon peering down at the exposed engine and tangle of automotive parts. "So," Tony said, uncertain, "any idea what the hiccup is?"
Ziva's chocolate eyes slid over to Tony. She blinked and said slowly, "Cars do not get hiccups, I do not think."
Tony sighed again. "It's an-"
"Expression," she finished, bobbing her head in understanding.
He nodded and they lapsed into silence. Tony's ocean eyes staring forlornly at the machinery in front of him, while Ziva opted to glare spookedly with narrowed eyes before letting out a string of various choice curses in Hebrew.
"You don't have any Mossad tricks for dead engines, do you?" Tony asked teasingly.
Ziva ceased muttering and turned her glare to Tony. "I am not McGee, Tony."
"Which is good," he replied, flashing his patented smile at her, "because, by now, I would have gagged the Probie and stuffed him in the trunk . . . . We have cell phone service yet?"
"I do not know . . . ."
"Could ya check?"
"My cell phone is on my seat in the car. I will go get it-" Ziva began to maneuver herself from under the hood as Tony said, "Mine's in my back pocket."
"Of course it is," she sighed, sliding her hand into her partner's jeans pocket and withdrawing his phone. "No lines, no service."
Tony mumbled an incoherent curse before adding, "And they're called 'bars' not 'lines.' Haven't we been over this before? 'Cause I think we've been over this before."
Exasperated, the Israeli straightened up, asking, "Do you have anything to do beside correct my –Argh!" There was a dull thud as the edge of the hood connected with her head and she staggered backward.
Tony carefully ducked out from under the hood and went to investigate his partner's injury. "You okay, Zee?" he asked, concerned at the sight of her standing near the passenger door, clutching her temple. She muttered something darkly in Hebrew before grounding out an, "I am fine."
"Let me see."
"It is fine."
"It is fine." But he ignored her, taking her hand away from her head, running his fingers over the tender area.
"Take your hair thing out," he ordered –he was having difficulty checking for blood when his partner had her hair tied back tightly in a ponytail. Grimacing at the unwanted –and unneeded- fussing, Ziva yanked at the scrunchie, freeing a cascade of black curls. "Thanks," Tony murmured, parting at her hair. "Yep, you've got a good sized lump."
"A duck egg, yes?"
"Whatever. Will I live, Doctor DiNozzo?" she asked, sweetly sarcastic.
"I think it will take more than a bump on the head to kill a kick-butt ninja like you," he said with a slight fondness. Ziva offered a small grin and was rewarded with another disarming smile.
Putting her hands on her hips, she ran her eyes over the rather dismal scene. Thinking out loud, she said, "We have two cell phones, but no cell phone service; and, by now, I am sure, a very, very angry Gibbs." Both agents suddenly envisioned their silver-haired boss, ever stoic as the palm of his hand connected with the backside of his agents' heads. Tony winced involuntarily at the recentness of the memories. "We are hammered," Ziva said, defeated in a sigh.
"The term is 'we are screwed.'"
"We don't have many options here, Miss David. We can wait here all night and maybe they'll find us in the morning-"
"Or," she finished, "we can start walking."
Nodding, Tony interjected, "At least we have a flashlight."
Senior Field Agent Anthony DiNozzo was not a happy man. It was late on a Friday night –or early on a Saturday morning- and while he should be back at his flat, sprawled on his couch, watching a late run of old James Bond reruns in perfect contentment, he was currently trekking along some forsaken countryside behind a mad woman who seemed to have no understanding of a conservative stride. . . .
Mossad Officer Ziva David was extremely displeased. At 0146 on a Saturday morning, she should be in her bed, asleep, recharging her internal battery for the unknown events that would unfold later in the day. Instead, she was unsure of her exact location, walking along an unknown terrain – which made her uneasy. As a Mossad operative, an alien landscape should not unsettle her –she was trained extensively to anticipate any situation in any location- and while she was beyond capable of handling said circumstance, it stilled caused her unease. And an uneasy Ziva was an irritable Ziva, and an irritable Ziva was dangerous. . . . .
She had decided against turning on her flashlight, it would be wiser to conserve her battery –besides Tony had his light beaming behind her, illuminating the path ahead. And her senses were acute, her night vision almost as good as Gibbs had been in his sniper days. So she kept her flashlight at her belt, the bulkiness hitting her right thigh every step she took.
Ziva had her omnipresent knife in her left hand, Tony could tell. She also had her windbreaker tucked behind the holster at her waist, her gun within easy reach –which reassured her, he knew. So he trudged after her, warily, holding his flashlight like a beacon, following his partner's svelte form farther and farther from the car, now abandoned in the opposite direction.
A tall, coffee-skinned man stood on the mezzanine overlooking the semi-dark squadroom below. At 0154, the entire room should be vacant of all signs of life –the two people huddled at one of the many desks should have already clocked out and gone home. In fact, Vance contemplated, chewing a toothpick, so should he.
From his perch, Director Leon Vance surveyed the odd pair. Abigail Scuito, the resident forensic scientist, was standing behind one junior agent and computer guru, Timothy McGee, her head resting on his shoulder, her ebony pigtails spilling across his chest. McGee was typing something on his computer, the click of the keys filling the quiet of the bullpen. He watched them a few moments more before retreating back into his office to the sound of McGee's voice quietly murmuring something Vance couldn't hear.
There was a bright ding from across the room, and the steel elevator door opened to reveal a tall, silver-haired man holding a Styrofoam cup.
"Gibbs!" Abby shrieked, removing her chin from McGee's left shoulder, her crimson lips pulled up into a huge, welcoming grin.
"Abs," Gibbs acknowledged with a nod of his head, favoring her a small quirk of his mouth. He made his way over to his chair, setting his steaming mug on his respective desktop.
"McGee!" he barked suddenly, sending an already frazzled McGee nearly airborne.
"Y-yes, boss?" the younger man asked uncertainly, looking up meet the steel blue gaze of his team leader.
"Have you found DiNozzo and David?"
McGee floundered, his gaze flickering from his boss to Abby and back. "Um," he stammered, only to receive an icy glare that prompted him into answering, "They haven't called and I can't trace their cells-"
"Well, because, they're either out of range or they have their cells off-"
Abby interjected hurriedly, "Which is probably the former. Tony and Ziva always –always- have their phones on –Always. They probably pulled a Palmer and got lost or something." Gibbs remained silent, McGee relieved, so the Goth continued reassuringly, "Gibbs, Tony is an experienced and excellently trained senior field agent and Ziva is, well, Ziva is Ziva. They're fine-"
"I know they're fine," Gibbs said bluntly.
McGee joked timidly, "Unless Ziva killed Tony." A statement that was met with another withering glare.
"Special Agent Gibbs," a voice drawled from the catwalk, three pairs of eyes swiveling upward to the figure leaning against the railing. McGee groaned inwardly at the sight of Director Leon Vance as Abby's heavily mascaraed eyes narrowed (Vance was not her favorite person) while Gibbs leaned back in his chair, nonplussed, sipping his coffee, acknowledging, "Director." Then, "I thought you went home."
"I was gonna say the same thing to you three. You closed your case a hours ago and your team is not on duty, or call, tomorrow. . . . Why are you still here?"
McGee and Abby exchanged a glance before looking at Gibbs, who in turn, replied vaguely, "We're just tying up some lose ends."
Vance remained unconvinced and fully aware that two desks had been vacant since the return of the team after the apprehension of a killer . . . . which was troubling. "I haven't seen Agent DiNozzo or Officer David all evening."
Gibbs shrugged, lying smoothly, "No? DiNozzo left a few hours ago, 'bout 2330. David left a few minutes before. You sure you didn't hear them?"
Abby, cottoning on, added helpfully, "Ziva was threatening Tony with office supplies. I heard them all the way down in my lab."
Vance, still skeptical, now irritated, ordered them all home before returning to the confines of his office. When the trio was certain he was out of earshot, McGee asked, "What do we do, boss?"
Gibbs stood up, tossing his empty coffee cup into the waste basket, tugging on his coat. "Go home, get some rest. They'll call or turn up eventually."
"But what if they're hurt or in danger-"
"Abs," Gibbs placated, kissing her pale cheek, "I would know."
The wind had decided to pick up around two a.m., its icy breath nipping at Ziva's exposed skin, running its frozen fingers through her thick tangle of curls. She had already turned up the collar of her windbreaker, and it did help lessen the numbness some. . . . She and Tony had not spoken since she threatened to castrate him after his persistent, and annoying, movie references. In fact, the only noise, beside the rustle of leaves, was Tony's slight panting and occasional grunt.
Suddenly, the flashlight beam vanished, plunging the world into darkness. Ziva halted, gripping her knife handle tighter in her palm and suppressing a shiver.
"I'm coming up behind you, so don't stab me or shoot me," Tony's sarcasm floated from Ziva's left. "The battery died."
"Thank you for that obvious statement," she snapped coolly. Then, more gently, "I am sorry, that was snitchy."
Tony sighed, his voice devoid of satire, "Don't apologize, it's-"
"A sign of weakness, I know."
"You could apologize forever, but you will never be weak, Zee." She smiled at his compliment and allowed him to steal the flashlight at her waist. "Are you okay," she queried as Tony began beating the flashlight against his palm violently, muttering obscenities under his breath.
He sighed again, dropping his arms to his sides, dangling the flashlight limp in his hand, defeated. "Your battery is dead."
"Oh. . . . That is not good."
"No, that is not good. It's cold, it's dark, we're lost, the car is somewhere-" Tony gestured vaguely in the opposite direction "-over that way, I'm cold, you're cold, I'm exhausted, you're at least tired, I'm hungry, you've gotta be hungry, my feet are killing me, and now we have no flashlight."
"You forgot that we also do not have cell phone service."
Both stood staring at the other, their breaths mingling in a white plume around them. Another breeze stirred the air, sending a stray lock of hair across Ziva's face. Without thinking, or consider the possible forms of mutilation in which she could inflict upon him, Tony reached out, capturing the onyx curl, tucking it behind her ear. He withdrew his hand quickly, impressed that she didn't flip him onto his backside, shocked that she simply said, "Your hands are cold." And then she began walking again, Tony keeping pace with her strides.
"Do you know," she said a few minutes later, "what my least favorite thing is about this country?"
"The traffic laws?"
"No. Though they do make my top ten."
"Tony!" she exclaimed, genuinely horrified. "You are one of the things I like best in America."
He grinned inwardly, but continued guessing, " Lawyers. American idioms. Rednecks. Am I getting close?"
Ziva sighed, shaking her head. "Let me . . . .rephrase? The question. Do you know what I miss most about Israel?" When her partner remained silent, she answered, "The warmth."
Tony smiled, breathing heavily into his hands, rubbing his palms together briskly before jamming them into his pockets. "I figured you had to be freezing. Aren't your hands numb? Put your knife up, Ziva, we're in the middle of nowhere and the only ones here –no one is gonna ambush you."
Ziva's eyes slid over to Tony. Slowly, she explained, "In Mossad, you anticipate anything. If you do, you live another day –if you do not, you die." Then in a sudden and fluid motion, she returned the blade to its sheath at her waist, startling Tony.
"I thought you said-"
"I am too tired to care." She attempted warming her hands in the same manner her partner had, but it improved very little.
"Here," Tony said, withdrawing his hands from his pockets. "Allow me." And taking her hand in his, he began rubbing her fingers vigorously, massaging the feeling back into her skin. Ziva's initial reaction was to stiffen her muscles, but at her partner's encouraging fingers, she relented and relaxed. It surprised her, this sudden bravery –they had never crossed the, rather blurry, line that had been drawn, most likely by her, across the sand. She and Tony had always had an odd relationship: they teased and bantered and bickered, hands and shoulders occasionally, casually touching, innocently brushing . . . . But this deliberate, sought out contact –it honestly baffled her.
"Zee? Zee-vah? Hello?" Tony's voice brought her out of her reverie.
"I am sorry, I toned out."
"Your hand any better?"
"Yes, yes. Much better. Thank you."
They walked along in companionable silence for several minutes, each quietly contemplating the other. "You know what I'm thinking of?" Tony suddenly asked, almost excited.
"A movie I have never heard of?" Ziva asked wryly.
"Why is it that every time I open my mouth, people automatically assume I am referencing a movie?"
"Because you are hopeless?"
"This is true," hr amended.
"So which movie does this remind you of?" she asked, prodding him back onto his original train of thought.
"Huh? No, no not a movie. . . . This reminds me of a case I worked with the Baltimore PD. We were in pursuit of this guy . . . ." as Tony babbled on, reliving a distant memory, Ziva redirected her attention to her surroundings, acutely aware of every miniscule sound. She knew that putting her knife up could have been a grave error –in any other scenario. Out here, in the bowels of nowhere, she didn't need her knife as comfort. Or protection. Strangely, her partner's voice and his hand in hers, were enough.
Tony wondered absently how long they had driven down this stretch of road when the car was functioning properly –surely it hadn't taken them the two hours it currently was to walk it . . . .
When Abby had called at 2000 to inform Gibbs that the DNA was a match, Gibbs, McGee, Ziva, and himself had been dispatched to the location of the man responsible for a naval lieutenant's death. They apprehended him without much of a struggle and Gibbs had taken pity on poor McGee and made Tony ride back to base with Ziva . . . . And even as much trouble as the partners had found themselves in, he doubted Gibbs would ever imagine this.
Tony had to be honest with himself –being lost with his partner was not the most gruesome fate he could have been dealt. Granted, she could be irritable and downright terrifying at times, and, truthfully, he could be immature and egotistical – a trait which inevitably came out in her presence, but, it seemed, was always sent scurrying back as she made him eat his words. . . .
When Tony met Ziva three years ago, he was attracted to her, but loathe to let her join the family that had formed amongst Gibbs' –his- team. In fact, it was after they went undercover and been locked together in a metal shipping container for several hours, somewhere in the wake of Gibbs' retirement, he noticed that he had begun to value her companionship . . . . Two months ago, he was an agent afloat, stranded in a metal ship that seemed to shrink everyday, where the food was awful and the company worse. . . .And it wasn't his spacious apartment, or pepperoni pizza, or beer, or even dry land that he missed the most . . . . It was his team, and movie night, every Friday, like clockwork, with his partner.
"Do you know what we are missing, Tony?"
He blinked, not realizing that the conversation had slacked off. "What are we missing, Miss David?"
"Movie night," Ziva said forlornly.
Tony smiled at the disappointment in her voice. "Yeah," he said, wistfully. "I had picked one you would have loved. . . . You ever seen 'National Treasure'?"
She thought briefly before replying, "I do not think so. . . . How about a rain check?"
" Rain check. . . .Yeah. Can I cash it in tonight?"
"It's past 2400, officially Saturday morning."
Ziva sighed, "And I have officially been conscious for thirty-one hours."
"Tony! International House of Pancakes!"
Looming out of the darkness was a bright neon sign bearing the acronym IHOP in front of a dimly lit, nearly vacant parking lot. Inside the establishment, Tony could barely make out the movement of a waitress delivering a tray to a lone man in a booth. He had never been so relieved to see a twenty-four hour breakfast place.
The basement was poorly illuminated, a fine layer of sawdust covering the concrete floor, the scarred workbench. The room was silent aside from the rhythmic scraping of the sanding block at the hand of Jethro Gibbs.
He was building a boat. In his basement. His fourth.
There was something therapeutic about carpentry, a conclusion Gibbs had reached years ago when his insomnia had climbed to a new extreme. He supposed it was the stress of the job, his shattered past, all he had lost in recent months. Tonight, though, the concern for his missing people was wearing his already fragmented psyche thin.
Gibbs paused sanding to take a swig of bourbon from a mason jar that had previously held nails (the nails being relocated to a disgraceful heap on an already overcrowded workbench).
A cell phone chirped from its perch on the shelf overhead. Any other time, under any other circumstance, the retired marine would have been extremely putout with a phone call at 0319, but as he checked the little screen that identified the caller to be DiNozzo, he decided to just be relieved.
Snapping the phone open, he demanded, "Where the hell are you?"
Tony's voice sounded tired and wary, as if he was bracing himself for his boss' wrath. "At an IHOP."
"Well whataya doin' there?"
"We got lost and then the car broke down and of course, we're in the middle of freaking nowhere and there's no cell phone reception, so we had to walk and the flashlight went out and the temperature dropped and my feet are a bloody mess because my new shoes-"
"DiNozzo," Gibbs interrupted, "are you two okay?"
"Other than my feet, the bump to Ziva's head, the sure frostbite, exhaustion, and emotional scars-"
"Tony," Gibbs growled in warning.
"Yeah, boss, we're fine."
Gibbs snatched his car keys off the worktable, grabbing his coat slung over a sawhorse, and barked into his phone for the directions to retrieve his stranded agents.
Tony passed the phone to a waitress, who supplied the necessary information and Gibbs hung up.
The waitress watched the couple tucked away into the far corner booth. They had shuffled in about a quarter past three, looking like they'd hiked all the way from Albany. Both had on navy windbreakers bearing the letters NCIS –not that she even knew what that was supposed to stand for – and she could tell that the attractive man had a gun holstered at his hip. She hoped they were cops.
He had slid into the booth after the woman, pulling out a cell phone and having a relatively quick conversation which ended in the waitress having to supply directions to a grumpy sounding man. Then a plate of waffles and two hot coffees had been ordered before the woman nodded off against the wall. The man had left her there, snoring slightly, and gone to the restroom, but returned before their food arrived.
They ate in silence, save for the brief, hushed conversation. And when the waffle had vanished and the dish collected, the pair sat back in their booth, nursing their individual coffees. The waitress drifted over to refill their mugs twice, each time receiving a 'thank you' and breath taking smile from the man.
Eventually the woman fell asleep again, her head resting against her partner's shoulder, her dark hair fanning across his chest. He slid his arm around her shoulders, his fingers toying absently with her curls. His tired green eyes watching the door, waiting.
He stifled a yawn, tossing a worried glance at the woman, hoping he didn't disturb her. She sighed, mumbling, "Tony," sleepily.
When a silver-haired man entered at 3:32, Tony smiled, looking genuinely relieved, and attempted to arouse the woman.
"Good morning, sir," he called cheerily, his exhaustion momentarily forgotten. He was still shaking his companion's shoulder and she was still devoutly asleep.
"Problem, DiNozzo?" the older man asked, a slight grin tugging at his mouth.
Tony smiled uncertainly, "Yeah, well, she's a bit hard to wake-"
The woman startled, bolting upright, her dark eyes flying open. "Gibbs," she said in calm acknowledgement."
Gibbs smirked, grunting, "You two coming or not? I got the heater in the car running."
The pair stood up, filing out before Gibbs. As the trio neared the door, a weathered hand shot out suddenly catching the younger two agents by surprise as they each received a deft and well dealt head slap. Tony turned around, massaging the back of his skull. "Thank you, boss!"
And as the three were swallowed up into the predawn darkness, the waitress wondered what kind of boss would drive out here to the country to retrieve his charges at 3:30 on a Saturday morning. . . .