Authors note: This story was written for the NFA 2009 Secret Santa exchange, as a gift to the awesome Enthusiastic Fish. It contains spoilers for the season 7 premiere "Truth or Consequences." Your reviews are appreciated!
Timothy McGee had never felt so tired in his entire life.
His limbs were lead weights; his eyelids heavy bags of sand as he trudged wearily up the stairs. Even with all the distance they had traveled, from Washington to Ireland, Ireland to Somalia, and back again, somehow the distance from the apartment building entryway to his own front door felt the longest. The hallway seemed to darken and stretch on for miles as he stood at the end. He blinked, and his vision returned to normal.
Just a little farther... Then he could collapse in to bed and not think for a while. A lot had happened in the past four days. He was the type of person who needed to process everything, to replay it over and over like a film, so that it could be analyzed and stored away for future use. He didn't want to think about the last four days, but his logical mind kept flashing images and sounds at him. Pictures of strange men with automatic rifles, of the gun right next to his head, and the sounds of gunfire and bombs assaulted him non-stop. Accompanying the images were feelings of tension, pain, fear...
Stop it. I don't want to think about it right now. All he wanted was sleep. He hadn't really slept in the past four days. He was too nervous, and too busy trying to act like he wasn't nervous going into the mission. The first night at the military base in Somalia, before they left to start looking for the camp, he couldn't stop thinking about home, and family, and wondering if this was going to be the last night of his life. He hadn't slept at all. Not that night, and certainly not while being held prisoner, and not much on the plane.
Tim finally made it to his front door. He clumsily fished his keys out of his jacket pocket, thanking God that they were there and not back at work. Gratefully, he turned the key in the lock and pushed the door open.
Another image flashed before him. Opening the door of the interrogation room. Trying to escape. Expecting to be blown away any second...
No. You're home now. It really was his apartment, just the way he left it. A beautiful sight.
But something was wrong. Maybe it was left-over adrenaline from the mission, or maybe he was simply too tense, but somehow he knew.
Someone was there, in his apartment.
Tim tensed and automatically reached for his sidearm. He didn't usually bring it home, but something had made him want it close by today. Someone was moving, in the bedroom. He raised the gun and stood ready as soft footsteps moved from the bedroom into the living room.
The intruder froze. They eyed each other warily for a moment. Her eyes grew wide in disbelief. "Tim?"
"Sarah." Tim relaxed and quickly lowered his weapon, feeling horrified. I could have shot her.
She stared in amazement, then slowly walked towards him. Her steps quickened until she was practically running. She reached him and threw her arms around her big brother's neck.
He froze for a moment, his brain momentarily unable to process such a gesture. To be here, in his home, with not just a familiar face, but a family member... it was almost too much. He returned the hug, wrapping his arms around her tightly. His knees were suddenly weak, and he had to swallow away the baseball-sized lump lodged in his throat. The gun clattered noisily to the floor, forgotten.
The moment didn't last nearly long enough. She pulled away, and her expression changed from relief to anger. She clenched her fist and socked him solidly on the arm, like they used to do when they were kids. Only she wasn't a little kid anymore.
"What the heck, Tim? I mean, what the heck?!"
"Owww," he moaned, rubbing his arm. "You hit a bruise."
"Good!" She marched to the counter, grabbed a piece of paper lying there, and marched back, waving it in his face. "What is this?!"
"You found the letter," he said, realizing why she was so upset.
Sarah held the hand-written letter up and began to read in a sarcastic tone.
"Dear Sarah. I know I told you I was going out of town for work for a few days, but that's not entirely true. I am going out of the country, as part of a mission. It's dangerous, and I don't know when I'll be back. Or if I will be back at all.
Please keep an eye on my apartment while I'm gone. Make yourself at home; you always do anyway. Sarah, if I don't come back, please tell Mom and Dad that I love them."
Her voice shook a little as she finished reading the note.
"I feel very lucky to have been a part of our family. I never could have accomplished anything without their love and support. I love you too, Sarah. Hopefully I will see you again soon, and this will all be for nothing. Love,Tim. P.S.- you can have my car."
She glared up at him, incredulously. "Seriously, Tim? 'You can have my car?!'"
He shrugged. "Well, I know you've always like it, and you need a reliable vehicle for when you graduate..."
"Tim!" she shouted.
He sighed wearily. "Sarah, I'm sorry for worrying you-"
"-and lying to me? You email me, say you're going out of town and ask me to bring in your mail. I found this note three days ago. For three days, I've been worried sick, not knowing what was going on. I called NCIS, and all they would say was that you were 'in the field.' They wouldn't tell me anything. And then you finally come back, looking like you got in a fight and lost, and your clothes are all dirty and torn, and...and...your face, Tim...." She finally paused for breath and reached her free hand up towards the angry red cuts and bruises on the left side of his face. He pulled back, knowing any touch would make the still-fresh wounds sting.
"What happened to your face?"
"Rifle butt," he admitted sheepishly.
"A rifle-butt? Tim, where were you? What happened? Why did you go away?"
The images were flashing through his mind again. The lead weights were back, and the sandbags were pulling his eyes shut again. "Sarah, can we talk about this later?"
"No," she insisted, reminding him for a second of Abby. "I want to talk about it now."
"Sarah, I..." the room was nearly spinning now. He took a cautious step forward. "I'm really....tired..."
He was barely aware of her putting his arm over her shoulders. Her tiny frame tried its best to support him. Somehow, she managed to lead him to his bedroom, to the foot of the bed.
He was asleep before he hit the mattress.
The dirt floor was hard and pressed harshly into his shoulder blades. He could taste dust and sweat in his mouth, feel it on his dry cracked lips. He could feel the ties cutting into his wrists.
Tony was talking. Droning on and on, like the Teacher in an old Peanuts cartoon. "Waah waah waaaah..." His voice was slower and deeper than it should have been. Tim didn't know what he was saying; just that Tony's talking was going to save them. If he could keep talking long enough, they would be rescued.
He heard the knife clatter to the floor. Automatically he moved towards the sound. He could see it, gleaming in front of him, just out of reach. Everything slowed, for a second.
The then gun was there, black and monstrous, beside his head. Saleem grinned. He heard Tony, screaming, his voice normal again. "Stop! Stop!"
But Saleem didn't.
Glass, the world, and his head shattered into a thousand pieces.
He was shaking. There was intense pressure against his head, and he was shaking hard. No, someone was shaking him. He heard his name from far away, then closer. "Tim!"
"Tim, wake up!"
The pillows and blankets came into focus, and finally the scene made sense. He was home, in his bed, trying to wake up from a nightmare. He was lying on his stomach, hands clamped against his head hard, as if trying to burst his skull. Sarah was shaking him and nearly shouting his name.
He pried his hands away and rolled over on his side. "It's OK," he gasped. "I'm awake. I'm here."
She stared at him anxiously. "Where were you, just now?"
He looked around, still trying to get his bearings. Sarah had thoughtfully removed his jacket and boots, and covered him with an extra blanket. "Somalia. The terrorist camp. Tony was talking, and Saleem had the gun..."
She stared, still confused. He was still breathing hard. Sweat glistened on his forehead. Without a word, she turned and marched into the bathroom. He heard the sink running, then she returned with a glass of water.
He took it gratefully and drained the glass in one long drink. She set it on the bedside table, then sat down on the edge of the bed. "Now, tell me what's been going on. Please, Tim... I was worried about you, and now you're kind of scaring me."
"Don't be scared," he mumbled. "It's all over now. We're back, and we succeeded. Everything's fine now."
"Succeeded at what? Tim, please tell me. And start from the beginning. You're not making sense."
His breaths were coming slower now. He hesitated, not really sure how to begin or how much to tell her. "We had intel about a terrorist camp in Somalia, ran by a man named Saleem. Our mission was to infiltrate the camp-"
"Why?" she interrupted. "Since when is it your job to infiltrate terrorist camps? Isn't that a military mission?"
"Well, yes. We were supposed to get taken prisoner so that the military would have an excuse to come and take down the camp."
"Wait. You were supposed to get taken prisoner? By terrorists? That's...that's just stupid, Tim!"
Damn. He had already told her too much. She would have figured the whole thing out anyway. Sarah was almost as good as their father at ferreting out information. Sometimes he thought she should have been the investigator.
"I know it doesn't make a lot of sense. But that was our mission, and we carried it out. There's really not much else to tell. We were captured, and the military came in and got us out and, well, took care of things."
She processed the information for a few moments, still looking suspicious. "How long were you there?"
"A day or so." Felt like months.
"And that's it? That's all that happened?"
He shrugged, not meeting her eyes. "Sure."
"Then why are you having nightmares? And why do you have cuts on your face? And your ribs...Tim, when I took your jacket off, your shirt got pulled up. You've got bruises all over your side."
"We got roughed up a little. It's no big deal.."
"No, Tim, it is a big deal. And it's stupid, and wrong... You're supposed to investigate crimes. You're supposed to sit behind a computer and hack systems, and track people remotely, and crack codes. You're not supposed to go off to foreign countries to get taken prisoner and beat up by terrorists. It's not you, Tim. You're not G.I. Joe."
He felt angry all of a sudden. "That's what you think, isn't it? That I'm just the geek in the computer lab. That that's all I do." He stood up quickly and winced as the blood rushed from his head. His limbs felt even stiffer than before.
"Forget it," he said, brushing past her. "I'm going to take a shower."
It was remarkable, the power in a simple hot shower. The water cascaded down his body, washing the dirt and dried blood away and making him feel alive again. Tim lathered up a washcloth with soap and scrubbed his skin harshly, trying to remove every last trace of Somalia still on his body.
As he watched the dirt and grit circle the drain, he reflected on Sarah's comment. It shouldn't have surprised him or bothered him so much. Tim had been the geek, the awkward computer nerd his whole life. Becoming a federal agent and joining NCIS hadn't changed that in most people's eyes. It didn't seem to matter what he did, how much he grew and came out of his shell, or how many bad guys he caught. It didn't matter that he had gone to a foreign country and risked his life in a dangerous mission to save a friend.
I'm always going to be the geek to them. Nothing more.
If even his own family couldn't see beyond that, what was the point in trying?
Tim toweled off and donned some comfortable track pants and a t-shirt before venturing back into the living room. Sarah was in the kitchen, digging around in the cabinets.
"When was the last time you ate anything?" she asked suspiciously.
Tim shrugged. "I don't remember."
"I figured." She dumped some potato chips on a plate for herself, then tossed the bag to him. "I put a frozen pizza in the oven, too. Should be ready in a few minutes."
Tim nodded. "Sounds good," he said through a mouthful of chips. And it did sound good. The chips somehow tasted better too, like they were extra crispy and delicious. Amazing how small things like hot showers and salty snacks now seemed magnified, fresh and new again.
Sarah eyed him warily, nervously, from behind the counter. She opened her mouth, then closed it again, unsure of what to say next.
Tim sighed. "Just spit it out, Sarah. What is it?"
She shrugged. "I was just going to say that, if you want to talk, I'm here. I still feel like you're not telling me everything, but I shouldn't have pushed you. I get impatient, sometimes."
Tim raised his eyebrows in mock-surprise. "You? Really?"
She threw a wadded-up paper towel at him, which he easily caught.
"Actually," he said more seriously, "I didn't tell you the best part. We found her, Sarah."
"But I thought you said she died in a shipwreck."
"That's what we thought. But she was alive. We found her at the camp." Tim couldn't keep the smile off his face. "We got her out and she's here now. Safe."
Sarah looked concerned. "Is she...OK?"
Tim thought for a long moment before answering.
"She will be."
Sarah nodded. "Well, I'm glad. I'm glad she's alive, and I'm glad you're OK. It sounds like you're a real hero, Tim."
He started to disagree, but she continued. "What I said earlier; I didn't mean to insult you. I know your job is more than just hacking computers. I know that it's dangerous, and I don't like that. I wish you were just a computer geek, because you'd be safer that way. But that doesn't mean I don't respect what you do. Or that I'm not, you know, proud of you."
Tim hesitated, surprised at this outpouring of honestly from his younger sister. Usually she teased him or made sarcastic comments to cover up how she really felt.
"Well...thanks," he finally managed to say. "That's good to hear. You have no idea how good."
The oven timer dinged loudly then, startling them both. Sarah pulled on an oven mitt and pulled the hot pizza pan out of the oven.
"Did you put extra cheese on it?"
"You know it."
They were munching contentedly when the phone rang. Tim glanced at the caller ID.
"Mom and Dad. Did you tell them what was going on?"
"No, but they tried to call a couple of times. I didn't answer, but I'm sure they're suspicious by now.
Tim sighed and grabbed the receiver before the machine could get it.
"Hello? Hey, Mom. I know....I've been out of town. Yeah, for work...yeah, she's here..."
The lump was forming again in his throat. Tim took a large swallow of soda as he listened.
"Crying? No, I just...it's just really good to hear your voice, Mom."