Gibbs doesn't bother with hello when he enters the motel room Tim and Tony holed up in. Instead, he walks right up to Tim, doesn't stop until their toes are almost touching. Somehow though, Tim doesn't find it to be so much intimidating as it is reassuring.
Gibbs studies Tim's face, tilting his head this way and that to check him from different angles. Finally, he steps behind him to see the sealed bullet hole beneath Tim's left ear. Gibbs reaches out a hand and probes it like Tony did. Tim leans his head forward in submission, granting greater access.
Tim's legs tremble, so he locks his knees. The rest of his muscles seem to tighten uncomfortably at his vulnerability despite the level of trust he feels for this man. He catches a faint whiff of Gibbs' aftershave, clinging to his collar maybe. It's Old Spice, just like Tim's dad uses. He concentrates on that bare whiff of recognition, focusing hard to track the scent as Gibbs maneuvers in and out of sensory range behind him.
Finally, Gibbs circles back around, stares him right in the face. "Start at the beginning," Gibbs demands.
Tim blinks what must be half a dozen times in quick succession. He feels his lips start to quiver, and tightens his jaw in hopes he can to make it stop. "I, um," he shakes his head. "The first time I, uh, died was just under two years ago," he begins and then stalls right away. He clears his throat, shifts his balance. "I'd been accepted as a candidate, but I was still finishing my masters and couldn't enter FLETC yet," he glances up to Gibbs and peeks towards Tony while he's at it.
Tim flinches under Gibbs' unwavering focus as he bids Tim without words to get on with it already. McGee's eyes skitter away involuntarily.
"It was just an accident," Tim shrugs, pursing his lips. "A huge pile-up on the interstate," he has to swallow hard to keep it in sequence, his mind already on the squeal of the tires, the screech of metal on metal, the scent of gasoline…the fire. "There was a tanker. We—" he pinches his eyes shut, and neither one of the other men says a single word, but Tim can feel the expectation in the room, can hear it in the swish of their clothes as the older agents shift in place and in their almost undetectable grunts that just barely escape them as they fight to keep themselves from speaking through Tim's silence.
"I died," Tim gets to the point. "I remember it really vividly. It was so hot. I could barely breathe through the smoke, and the smell—" he grits his teeth to keep his stomach from turning over. "I couldn't catch my breath, and when I started blacking out, I had this…flash of knowledge come to me, and I knew I was suffocating."
"Were you scared?" Tony's voice is a raspy whisper coming from the direction of the door. He can't have moved since he let Gibbs into their room.
"No," Tim shakes his head once, probes his cheek with his tongue. "I was relieved that I wasn't going to burn to death," he confides, and even though his eyes already aren't quite level enough to look at the two other men, he lowers his gaze still more.
"They must have found your body, you know," Tony shrugs just as Tim looks up to see him, "afterward."
Tim holds his gaze this time. "The accident was pretty massive. It took them days to sort through it. By the time they found me, I was alive again."
"Alive and healed," Gibbs question comes out as a statement, a request for clarification.
"They had to have pulled you from the car, seen how badly burned it was," Gibbs points out.
Tim shakes his head. "I'd already broken a window and climbed out through the wreckage by the time they made it to the car. It was almost easy for me to get out once the fire was mostly gone." He twitches, turning the involuntary motion into a shrug. "EMS thought I'd escaped the car in time. They treated me for shock 'cause they couldn't see anything else wrong with me and couldn't figure out another reason I might have stayed so close to the crash site." He swipes his forehead with his thumb and forefinger. "I left the hospital without giving them my name. It wasn't my car that crashed. It was a last minute trip. No one else even knew I'd gone with him."
"With who?" Tony asks haltingly.
Tim bites his lip to keep it from quivering, just barely spits out between clenched teeth, "My cousin, Denny." And there's so much Tim wants to add to that—how Denny was almost four years younger than Tim, how he'd always been his and Sarah's favorite cousin, how Denny'd been a reckless driver, how they might have avoided the crash entirely if Tim hadn't given in to Denny's insistence that they take the younger man's car. How Denny's mother cried so desperately over his closed casket afterward, and Tim never even said a word of what he knew about it.
Gibbs takes a step toward Tim, stopping just within reach. "You made the right call leaving like you did," Gibbs offers a reprieve, but his praise just makes Tim wince. "Hey," Boss softly cups Tim's shoulders, and Tim flinches from the touch, from the comfort he wants to take in it. He doesn't deserve to be consoled over this. "It was the only choice you could make, Tim."
"I never even told my family I was there with him," Tim's face collapses in on itself. "They never even knew why Denny was on that road at all," he tries but can't quite shrug off Gibbs' hand as he yells, tries to get them to see how wrong it all was. How wrong Tim had been. "It was just for a stupid book signing. There was no reason," and the uselessness of it all strikes him anew, hitting him as hard as it did when he woke up beside Denny's barely recognizable corpse.
Gibbs shakes his head, refusing to give up contact with Tim. "McGee, I need you to focus," he orders, adding pressure to his grip on Tim's shoulder.
Tim nods, tries to bring himself back into the moment he's in. His explanations are long overdue, and if he can't offer them to his family, then the least he can do is offer them to Gibbs. And Tony. Tim swipes at his eyes, just realizing how blurry his vision's gotten.
"Did it happen again before today?" Boss demands, eyes searching Tim's, boring right through.
Tim clears his throat and squints. "Yes," Tim shakes his head as he remembers the incident. "It wasn't bad, though. Just a stabbing. I was mugged about fourteen months ago. The guy got me in the back before I could even turn around."
"Did the mugger know that you died?" Gibbs insists.
McGee blinks, confused at the line of questioning. "I don't think so," he searches his memory. "I don't think he could have. He pulled me into the alley right beside us, and I died between an HVAC service van and a dumpster."
"So it's just the three times?" Gibbs tucks his chin just a little.
Tim shrugs even through the added weight of Gibbs hands pushing hard into his shoulders. "I've died three times, but I've been injured a lot more. I don't think anyone's witnessed me healing though," Tim adds, suddenly seeing where this conversation's going. "It's faster than it used to be, though, so the chances of getting caught are slimmer."
Gibbs finally lets go of Tim's shoulders, taking a step back. It just allows Tony to step right into Tim and start demanding his own answers.
"So how fast do you heal? Is it Wolverine-fast?" Tony waves both hands at him.
Tim almost grins at Tony's excitement, "Not at first, no," he admits, his own enthusiasm for his body's new tricks slowly peeking past the heaviness of the guilt he carries with him. "I was dead almost a whole day with the stabbing, but then I figured out that increasing my potassium intake along with adding a lot of complex sugars and diuretics magnifies this healing ability and speeds it up to the point where it's almost undetectable in small wounds. I don't even have time to bleed a lot of the time before the wound completely disappears!" and it's still incredible to him, despite how much he's tested this fantastical healing ability, that it continues to work every single time.
Gibbs moves back in on Tim, sharing the space directly in front of him with Tony. "You've been hurt on the job, then?"
"Dozens of times, at least," Tim waves his hand. Most of the times probably could have been avoided, but each incident added that much more data to the ambiguously labeled charts on his thumb drive, and it's not as though the pain was too terrible anyway. "I thought for sure Abby caught me getting electrocuted once, but I wasn't even burned at all by the time she'd crossed the room."
"What about the poison ivy?" Tony points out. "You had a pretty wicked case of it."
Tim nods, his excitement with his self-experimentation bubbling over now that he can finally share it with somebody. "I still get sick, too. Nothing very bad and not for long. In fact, I wasn't even getting sick at all anymore after my first death—not until I started the first massive doses of potassium, which leads me to believe that intracellular fluid is critical to the general healing process, but an excess thereof can actually be slightly detrimental to fighting off normal allergic irritants, viruses, and bacteria."
"Potassium?" Tony squints at him. "That's why you eat all those bananas!" Tony snaps his fingers at the realization. "It was driving me crazy!"
McGee scrunches his nose, "No, actually I just like bananas. The doses of potassium I'm taking are far too massive to be satisfied with simple dietary changes. In fact, I was kind of surprised every day during the second week of the experiment that my heart didn't just give out from the lack of ionic charge."
Gibbs and Tony both squint at Tim incredulously. Then they each extend an arm and smack him hard on the back of his head.
"Hey!" Tim rubs his noggin, but it's mostly just for show as he actually finds himself reveling in that small return to normal.
"How did you even figure out about the potassium?" Gibbs asks.
"I over-hydrated at FLETC," Tim admits. "I had a pretty rough time on the obstacle courses so I drank a lot of water before, during, and after, hoping it would help me keep up. I noticed shortly after I finished the second run on that first day I'd tried it that I didn't have a single bruise on my skin even though I'd run into anything and everything on my way through the course." Tim shrugs. "After that I started experimenting with lowering my sodium levels, trying higher and higher dosages of potassium, noting that every time I dropped my electrolytes down, my healing ability jumped up, and even though my sodium levels have to be pretty miniscule inside my body, I don't even get so much as a charlie horse."
Tony bites his lip and the way he won't quite look at Tim tells the younger man Tony's about to ask Tim about today. "So why'd you have me hold your head together?"
And it's just as well that Tony can't look at him because now Tim can't look back either. "Because it helps me heal faster when my body doesn't have to regenerate new material and because I wasn't sure what it might do to my brain to lose grey matter."
Both Gibbs and Tony look Tim over in alarm.
"Did you—" Tony wiggles his fingers beside his own head, "lose anything?"
"No, I don't think so," Tim shakes his head and watches as the other men's shoulders drop in relief, "and I'm not sure if that's because I have an increased redundancy in my brain or because I just didn't lose enough tissue to really matter," Tim shrugs as he recognizes the last possibility, "or it could be that I did lose something, but I just can't tell it's gone."
Tony runs his hand through his hair and sits on his bed, head low and resting on his hands, but posture screaming with a definite sense of relief.
"No one else knows about this?" Gibbs prods.
Tim shakes his head. "No one," he confirms.
Gibbs takes a deep breath, walks a few steps away to gain a bit of distance before looking right back at Tim. "Anything more related to it?"
Tim looks down and away, even as he knows he's projecting a major tell. "No," he lies through his teeth.
But Tony and Gibbs catch it right away. Both men glare at Tim, waiting for the younger man to spit out the truth he's withholding.
McGee winces and pulls on his ear. "Okay, so there might be one more thing, but I'm not really sure."
Gibbs waves his hand in a circle, prodding him to tell them more.
"I think," Tim tilts his head, wince growing a touch, "I think there may be others like me."
"You think?" Gibbs crosses his arms over his chest and widens his stance.
"Maybe?" Tim feels his brow furrow under the force of Boss' glare. "I just—I don't know."
Tony stands, moves a touch closer to Tim. "So why do you think there might be others?" he asks curiously.
Tim licks his lips, afraid he might be giving too much away just in the way he looks back at Tony. "I can feel them when they're close by."
"What do they have to say about it?" the demand comes from Gibbs this time.
Tim shakes his head. "Nothing really," and then he forces himself to drop his eyes. "I don't think all of them know."
"How could they not know?" Tony asks in amazement, and it's killing Tim that this question comes from him.
His tone forces Tim to look back up at the older man. "I was normal until the first time I died. I healed the same as everybody else. I got sick the same as everybody else. I think there's something about that first time I died that," Tim winces, hating that he's having to speculate at this point, "I'm not sure, it might have triggered a dormant gene in my DNA. That's my best guess, anyway." He ducks his head as he guesses further, "maybe everybody has this gene, but it just doesn't achieve expression in most people."
"Have you talked to any of the others like you?" Gibbs stares right into Tim, and it feels like he stares right through him.
"Um," Tim bites his lips, trying not to be caught in a lie again. "The ones who seem to know about it get away from me as fast as they can. The first one just said, 'I don't want to fight' and the second one kept repeating that he's 'not in the game'."
"'Not in the game'?" Gibbs questions. "What does that mean?"
Tim shakes his head. "I have no idea."
"What about the ones who don't seem to know?" Gibbs prods. "What is it about them that makes you think they're different?"
Tim locks his jaw, locks his eyes with Gibbs'. "It feels different," Tim confesses, "softer somehow. The feeling's not as strong when I'm around him."
"Him?" Gibbs latches onto the word immediately.
Tim squeezes his eyes shut, covers them with his hand for good measure.
"Who?" Gibbs demands, his hands on Tim's forearms, pulling, but Tim shakes his head.
"No!" McGee yells and yanks himself out of Gibbs' grip. "What if I say something to him, and he does something stupid! What if he gets himself killed thinking he's going to wake up again! I can't take the chance that I'm wrong! I won't risk that!" Tim pleads his case.
"You can still tell us! It's not like we're going to say anything!" Tony hollers back, seeming to find insult in Tim's reticence—and wow—the irony.
Gibbs lays a hand on Tony's bicep, calming him by a hair. "Except we wouldn't have to say anything," Gibbs eyes Tim a little more shrewdly, "because it's one of us. Isn't it, Tim?"
Tony glances between Gibbs and Tim in disbelief, obviously not buying into Gibbs' theory. "Wh—" he nearly guffaws until he stops and really looks at Tim, really sees the broken expression Tim knows is spilling across his own face.
Tony shrugs off Gibbs' light fingers, ducks his head just a little and moves into Tim's space—not enough to be an intrusion, but just enough to make Tim focus his total attention right on Tony. "Is it me?" Tony begs, his voice a wisp of air barely making it to Tim's ears.
Tim shakes his head and sees Tony's expression fall for half a second before he says, "I won't tell you."
"I have a right to know if it's me," Tony wraps both hands around Tim's upper arms. "If it's me I could have done something. I was on that roof with Kate today, and I could have—"
"No!" Tim hollers and shoves Tony away. "That's exactly why I can't tell you who it is. You both take too many chances as it is, and what if I'd said something, and it didn't work like I thought it would?" he huffs, "I'm not even sure it'll keep working with me every time, and I have no idea if I'm right about why I can," McGee literally bites his tongue, "why I can feel one of you. And what if I am wrong, Tony?"
Tony shifts his feet, and his voice is soft, almost tear-filled, no doubt thinking of Kate and the million what-ifs that could have happened today, "I would take that chance, Probie."
"But I won't," and McGee feels steel lining up his back like it rarely does, like it rarely matters enough to do.
And Tony's eyes are hurt, his lips pinched. He turns to Gibbs, obviously hoping to find an ally in the older man, but Gibbs only offers a hard look that tells them he's siding with McGee. Tim lets out a breath of relief, not sure how he might have fared against both men if they'd combined their efforts. Tony offers them his back, slams the door open and zooms right out, his whole body screaming even as his mouth stays shut.
Gibbs gently closes the door behind Tony. He glances out the window, apparently following Tony's progress as the other man walks away from them.
"You were right not to tell him," Gibbs speaks softly as they both watch Tony stalk outside. "He'd go off half-cocked all the time if he knew it was him."
And Tim breathes a sigh of relief—glad Gibbs was able to guess it, glad Gibbs knows he shouldn't hope for the sort of second chances that keep coming Tim's way. "I'm sorry it's not you," he tells his Boss, even though a part of Tim's really not sorry at all.
Gibbs turns back to Tim and smiles. "I'm not," he shakes his head. Then Gibbs points his hand towards the bed Tim claimed and moves over with him to sit across from him on Tony's bed. "There's something else we need to talk about."
Tim furrows his brow.
"Ari thinks you're dead. I want him to keep thinking that."
Tim shakes his head, "Boss, I'm the only one who's truly safe against him," he argues, a knee-jerk response.
"No," Gibbs shakes his head, "you're the one who has the most to lose if he finds out about this," Gibbs points his palm at Tim's body. "I want you and Tony to hide out for a while."
"I gave the investigation into Kate's death to Balboa's team."
"What?" McGee yells. "You can't! She's—"
"I know," Gibbs lays a calm hand on Tim's knee, silencing the younger man at once. "But the living have to take precedence over the dead, and I won't lose another one of you to him."
"Tony's going to be so mad at you," Tim leads, knowing the argument won't begin to change Gibbs' mind but hoping anyway.
"Tony will understand that I need him here with you right now," Gibbs squeezes Tim's knee. "And he needs to be here with you," Gibbs points out, making Tim's new orders implicit with those few words.
Tim nods, though reluctantly. "I'll have his six," McGee acknowledges the tacit command.
"I know you will," and when Tim looks up at Gibbs' words, he sees the older man's confidence in him. It makes Tim sit up a little straighter.
Gibbs stands up, and Tim follows him to the door. "It'll be over soon," he promises Tim, and then Gibbs walks outside and over to Tony where he's standing by Gibbs' car, ready to go.
The conversation the two men have isn't long, and much to Tim's surprise, he can see in Tony's body language how quickly the senior agent capitulates to Gibbs' request. Tim watches as Gibbs drives away, and Tony jogs back to the room.
"We need to change hotels," Tony orders Tim the moment he steps back inside.
Tim nods. "Okay," he says, and he feels the tension in his spine release all at once. He doesn't know if it's because Tony's taking charge of the situation, easing the pressure from Tim's shoulders and letting him breathe again or if it's because Tony seems to have accepted Gibbs' decree as well as Tim's secrets—both the secret Tim shared and the one he wouldn't tell.
"Hey," Tony stops Tim from moving towards his bag of bloody clothes with a light touch on Tim's forearm. Tony's face scrunches, and Tim can almost see the myriad of things his partner wants to say but doesn't. "I've got your back, Probie," he finally tells McGee.
"And I've got yours," Tim levels his gaze at his friend.
Tony holds that stare a moment, and then he smiles, "Yeah, I know you do," and there's so much trust in that statement that Tim can almost pretend Tony already knows the last big secret Tim holds close against his chest and away from Tony.
Tim blinks away and purses his lips together. Tony'll figure out how much he and Tim have in common soon enough without Tim saying a word about it. Tim only wonders how long he can possibly keep his mouth shut.