A/N: Finally, we're at the end. It took me forever to write this. I tried to balance everything. Not sure I succeeded. Please read and let me know what you think. I hope you join me for a story again real soon! Sheila

Surviving Winter

Chapter 21

He sat in the sand, toes buried deep, and watched the surf move gently back and forth. There was a nice breeze that keep the heat at bay. It would be different later on, but right now, it was perfect. Footsteps in the sand are largely silent so he was a little startled the older man appeared next to him and handed him a longneck. Tim took it with a sigh, "Really, Mike? It's 10 a.m."

Franks nodded. "It's always happy hour somewhere, McGee."

Tim leaned the bottle next to him. Keeping up with Franks' drinking was proving to be miles beyond his capabilities, but it was useless to argue with the old man. Eventually, Franks would finish his own beer and then grab McGee's in a fit of frustration. It was a sort of Kabuki theatre that the two played out several times a day.

"What are you thinking about today, kid?"

McGee sighed. "I have tried too hard to be Gibbs and Tony and by extension, you. What's the alternative to being the toughest guy in the room?"

Franks shook his head. "You're a goddamn philosopher, McGee. Don't think so deep."

McGee winced. "I can't shake it though. I went to do this thing that would prove myself. Then I got swallowed up. If they hadn't come to get me, I'd be dead by now."

Franks tipped his head back and swallowed half of his beer. "You don't think that happens to a hard ass? You don't think I've had to be pulled out of situations 'cause I went in too deep? Relax, kid, it happens to the best of us."

"Why didn't I see through Winter?"

"Cause you acted like a good Marine. You can't be all things at once. Not possible. You either move forward with conviction or you question. You made a choice and you followed orders. Saved lives at it too."

"You got all these easy answers, Mike. Why can't I see it like that?"

Franks took another swig, emptying the bottle in his hand. "Boy, you're not questioning your actions as much as you're questioning your mortality. You got way too close to your own death. It's got to be unsettling. Remember what I asked you to do yesterday?"

"You asked me to make you a list of all the times I chose poorly during my time in Afghanistan."

"And what did you bring me?"

McGee nodded. "I went over each of my decisions and decided that I wouldn't have changed any of them."

"You made good, solid decisions. Those decisions didn't get you in trouble. It was that frickin' Winter and his Machiavellian designs. There was no way for you to guess his meanness."

McGee nodded and then turned back to the water. For a few minutes, the two men sat in silence. Finally, Mike reached over and snatched McGee's beer. Tim smiled while Mike mumbled words of discontent about the waste of good Mexican beer. After Mike had a good drink, he elbowed McGee. "Like I said before, this is about your mortality. Getting so close to the end forces you to re-evaluate everything. Makes you really look at your life. What do you see, McGee?"

McGee brought his knees up and sighed. "I see a man held captive by his own insecurities."

Franks nodded. "You're trying to be something you're not. You can't be Gibbs."

"Tony is like Gibbs."

"So Gibbs appreciates Tony more than you because the two of them have more in common?"

McGee shrugged.

"If Gibbs is a man worth admiring, then surely he's capable of appreciating more than what resembles him."

Tim turned his head. "Not bad, Mike."

Franks took a swig. "Just be McGee. I reckon that's more than good enough for anybody with a lick of sense."

"McGee's kind of a soft guy."

"Not so soft that you wouldn't chase a bad guy straight through the gates of hell. I know what you did in the 'Stan. McGee, in my eyes, they don't get any tougher than you."


Mike finished the beer and got up. "I'm thirsty."

McGee rolled his eyes. "Of course you are."

Franks pointed a finger. "Respect your elders, boy."

McGee stood up, brushing sand off his shorts. "I'm going to call Tony."

Franks' brows rose. "You sure, Tim?"

"You've left him at the resort long enough."

Franks smiled. McGee showed up four days ago with DiNozzo in tow. When Franks got a sense of the work ahead, he'd banished Tony to a local resort so as to reduce any distractions. A bored and boozy DiNozzo called several times a day.

"He's alright, McGee."

"just want to make sure that he didn't get into any trouble over there."

Fornell leaned over to Gibbs in MTAC. "I know you called her."

Gibbs shrugged. "She's a single person."

"She's too young for you."

"What do you care? You think I'd care if you asked Ziva out?"

Fornell furrowed his brow. "Not the same thing!"

"Seems like it to me." Gibbs acted like nothing was more important than the blank screen ahead of him.

A dark head appeared. "Who wants to date me?"

Fornell rolled his eyes. "Nobody."

"I was just telling Tobias here that I wouldn't have a problem if you dated him."

Ziva frowned. "You are not satisfied with Maggie?"

Fornell shook his head. "What is wrong with you people? I'm not dating anyone, and if I were, the last person I would date would be a former Mossad agent with a lack of respect for federal laws. I'm still in meetings over that nonsense you pulled with Hussain and his men."

"But you would date Maggie," she insisted.

"She works for me!"

"I asked her out for Friday night," Gibbs said casually.

"Well, she's not going!" Fornell blurted out.

"She said she was free."

"She's not!" Fornell barked. He pulled out his phone and stalked over to the other end of the room.

"Do you think it worked?" Ziva hissed at Gibbs.

Gibbs smiled. "He can't live with the idea that I might like her."

"Please tell me that poor Maggie is more than a pawn in your plan?"

"Oh yeah. She knows what's going on…although I have wondered what she'd look like with red hair."

Ziva punched him lightly. "Leave her alone. She's lost on that poor man."

"Five dollars says that he asks her out for Friday."

Ziva studied him closely. "I'll take that bet."

"Feed's ready, Gibbs." Brownie said.

Abby and Ducky came through the door and Gibbs nodded. "I was just about to call you two."

Ducky quickly dismissed him with a wave of a hand. He'd barely said two words to his old friend since Gibbs authorized the Franks therapy trip.

The screen came up showing Franks standing on his beach in the sun, breeze blowing at his back.

Gibbs smiled. "Hi Mike!"

"Good to see ya', Probie."

"Where's McGee and Tony?"

He gestured with his head. "They'll be here in a minute. Thought I'd catch you up in the meantime."

"How is he, Mike?"

"He's going to be fine. Has to learn to live with the trauma he suffered. Worried that all those feelings make him weak. He wants to be like you. I worked on two messages: One, he's not you and shouldn't try to be and two, ain't nothing about him that ain't just as tough as you are."

Gibbs nodded. "That sounds good."

Ducky stepped forward. "Is he sleeping? Eating well? How is his health?"

"Hi Duck, I heard you weren't too crazy about this plan. I get it. I ain't much for nurturing anybody."

"Is he okay?" Ducky insisted.

"He wakes up at night still, but he handles it. As for eating, he likes rice and beans just fine."

Ducky made a face but nodded.

Gibbs gestured. "I want to talk to 'em."

Mike shifted from one foot to the other. "Well, ah, it's not the same time here as it is there. You gotta' allow for time difference, ya' know. Besides, we had some celebrating to do."

Gibbs rolled his eyes. "Tell me they're not drunk, Mike."

A man burst on the camera behind Mike and ran into the surf. He was bushy-headed and appeared to be naked. Two other figures wearing shorts chased after him.


Mike watched the two clothed men wrestle the naked one in the surf. "I didn't invite him."

"Who is that?"

Mike grimaced into the camera. "Some spook named Dunham. Ya' see, I sort of banished DiNozzo to this resort so I could have some alone time with McGee and he got bored and some calls were made and then he brings this Chad character onto the property yesterday. He seems to be an amiable sort until you pour some hooch down his gullet. Man parties like a fool. I ain't ever had to hide liquor before, but I'm thinking about doing just that."

"I want to see McGee and DiNozzo now!" Gibbs pretended that Ducky wasn't glaring at him.

Mike turned and started hustling them up from the beach. It took a couple of moments to secure Dunham in Mike's trailer. Along the way, all of MTAC saw more of Chad Dunhman than they'd ever needed. Finally, Mike dragged DiNozzo and McGee to the camera, seawater dripping off them from head to toe. DiNozzo, to his credit, looked fairly good save some blue eyeshadow tattooed on one cheek. McGee, on the other hand, was sunburned and his eyes were unfocused.

Gibbs winced. "McGee, are you okay?"

McGee searched for the camera and smiled. "I'm good, Boss! This trip was a real good idea, Boss."

"Looks like you've had a bit to drink."

"Yeah," he grinned, draping his arms around Tony's neck. "I'm not much of a drinker, but Tony and Chad and Mike helped me."

"DiNozzo, I told you to watch over him."

Tony grinned sheepishly as he struggled to stay upright with McGee hanging off one shoulder. "We're just having a little party. It's the only one, Boss. He's doing better. Seriously."

"I'm good, Boss!" McGee shouted.

"Hi Timmy!" Abby popped up and waved.

McGee's face softened on the big screen, and a smile of pure love grew on his face. The whole room could feel the emotion. Ziva shivered involuntarily.

"I love you, Abby. You're so pretty! And you're smart and you're brave and you're the most perfect woman ever!" The lack of inhibitions laid open his heart to all who were watching.

Abby bit her lip and clapped. "Come home, Timmy! I love you too!"

McGee turned to Tony. "Let's go home, Tony. We need to go home."

Tony nodded and patted his head. "I got us booked on a flight for tomorrow, Probie."

Still smiling, Tim started sliding off DiNozzo's shoulder. Startled, Tony grabbed him around the waist and held on.

McGee swung his head up at the camera. "I'm good, Boss!"

Gibbs had to stifle a curse in his throat. "Tony, we had news for McGee. Not sure he's capable of much comprehension just now."

"Pass it on, Boss. Probie just needs a nap."

"I'm good, Boss!" McGee barked, his head lolling on Tony's shoulder.

Tony sighed. "We'll be back tomorrow afternoon. And it looks…bad, but really, Boss, he's doing good. He's relaxed and he just wants to be McGee."

Gibbs nodded. "Well, when he's coherent again, you tell him that Hussain took the deal and turned State's evidence. Winter took a plea. He's going to do 10-15 years in Leavenworth."

"Seriously?" Tony's eyes bugged.

"Wouldn't lie about a thing like that. Fornell was just here outlining the deal but it looks like he got wrapped up…in a phone call."

"I'm good, Boss!" McGee shouted into the sleeve of Tony's shirt as he clung to his partner's arm.

Gibbs pointed at DiNozzo. "Do not allow him to ingest any more alcohol! Do you hear me!"

Tony nodded. "Yes Boss!"

McGee slid off his shoulder again, but this time there was no way to grab him. He slithered down DiNozzo's leg and wrapped his arms around Tony's thigh. Head bobbing slightly, he turned to the camera as if startled to still find it there. He let go of the leg with one hand and gave Gibbs a sideway thumbs up and blurted out, "I'm good, Boss!" before closing his eyes and breathing heavily into Tony's kneecap.

Gibbs grinned finally and shook his head. "Bring him home, Tony. We got work to do."

"You got it, Boss!"

The End