A nice long chunk to finish up with!
Huge thanks to everyone who has been reading and reviewing - you make me want to keep on writing.
Tim McGee came jogging down the steps, the huge smile on his face belying the fact he'd been up for over 36 hours and had worked straight through the night. "I'm just going out for coffee and then we'll be ready to give you the full-run down. Any orders?"
Callen grabbed a Post-It note and began to scrawl down requests, while Hetty contacted the missing members of the two teams and called them back in. This was something they all needed to hear.
"You're buying?" Sam asked, wondering if he dared ask for a pastry and a breakfast burrito.
"I'm buying," Tim confirmed, deciding to get himself a red-eye. Normally he preferred his coffee not to have to high a caffeine content, but today was different. Today he had made possibly the most valuable contribution of his working life. Today, the team of Beale and McGee had done it, they'd broken through a mystery that had been puzzling the IT world for months and finally solved Operation Frankenstein. And if that didn't quality for an extra jolt of caffeine, he didn't know what did.
They had worked all night, analysing the data, revisiting the facts, trying to make some sense of things. Time ceased to have any meaning at all and the only time they took a break was through absolute necessity, diving out to the men's room and then rushing back. Fuelled by adrenalin and the desperate need to "That breach back in March," Tim said slowly, his outward calm belying the fact his mind was racing. The IT world had been rocked to its core by the announcements from RSA that an integral part of secure logons had experienced a monumental breach. US national security had been a hair's breadth away from disaster. Everyone with access to secure servers used that technology to verify their credentials as the first stage of getting access.
"Don't remind me." Eric shook his head at the memory: with a possible compromise to the NCIS systems, he'd been working overtime for weeks. "Commonly reckoned to be coming from China. Nobody was willing to speculate – officially, at any rate – that it might have been state-sponsored."
"Maybe it was. Only by rogue agents working within the US." The ramifications were growing worse. "What if that was just the test-run?"
"Some test." Eric thought of the chaos that had resulted, with every single system being tested for possible unauthorised entry. The hack had proven that the seed data within existing SecureID tags had been breached, but the encryption logins provided an additional layer of security. Nevertheless, thousands of new tokens had been issued, at massive cost to the company. "But it showed it could be done. And it diverted attention, didn't it? Everyone was so busy looking for the original breach and plugging the hole, we weren't looking at what was happening right in our own backyard." Crap, that had been sneaky: everyone had been so worried about identifying any previous breach and mindful of the ongoing threat to remote operated drones being used by troops, they hadn't thought that this could all be a ruse, possibly the biggest hoax ever perpetrated on the security services. And that had provided an open door…
"And meanwhile, Operation Frankenstein was moving into high gear. The original chip we recovered was just a prototype. If we're right, then the one implanted in EJ is the newest version. With some major modifications." Ones that circumvented the normal controls and allowed a user to hijack an identity without requiring any of the normal encryption codes that controlled access. The new chip allowed a user to breeze into the most secure systems in the world without alerting anyone.
"Whoever did this, they were good. I couldn't do that sort of programming – could you?" It was sheer genius, allowing remote access under the guise of an authorised user – because it over-rode the protocols and fooled the system into believing all the correct logins and verifications had been successfully completed.
"Given it would never occur to me, probably not." Tim still felt a vague frisson of unease whenever he illegally authorised another system, even when doing so under direct orders (usually from Gibbs, who had a somewhat cavalier attitude to such things) and with due cause. He'd never have had the nerves of steel to perpetrate a major hack, although he had good reason to believe that Eric did not share his scruples. This was the guy who had 'broken' the internet, after all and who was a legend in his own lunchtime.
"I'll get hold of Hetty. We need to get that chip fully analysed before we can start to put new protocols into place." Eric's fingers were flying over the keyboard as he sent out a series of alerts. It wasn't too late: the stable door might well be open, but the horse was still secure in its stall, the only mistake had been trying to implicate Nell. Without that, things could have been a whole lot worse. If it had been anyone but Nell, then there was no way he would have worked so long or so hard to try to get to the bottom of things, to find the root cause. And that didn't bear thinking about. They were getting out of this by the skin of their teeth and it could so easily have all gone wrong. The consequences of failure did not bear contemplating. "Nice work, partner."
"Any time. I couldn't have done it without you. We make a good team." Tim stood up and stretched: it had been a long night and his muscles felt as if they were locked into place. "How about I go get us some coffee?"
"Sounds good. There's a great place a few blocks away that does amazing donuts." All of a sudden, Eric was aware that he was starving.
"You want donuts? I'll even buy you one with sprinkles on top." Tim was feeling in an expansive mood. And besides which, he could do some with some fresh air, after being cooped up in Ops for over 12 hours. Sunshine and sea breezes sounded amazing. What was the point in being in California if you couldn't take full advantage of the climate?
"This better be good," Kensi said grumpily, only too aware that there were at least six rollers in her hair. "Because I was mid-way through an appointment with my hairdresser." She patted the top of her head self-consciously and treated her team-mates to a look that suggested that even a single throw-away remark would be one comment too many.
Nell beckoned her over. "Let me sort that out for you." It was disconcerting to see how good Kensi looked even when she wasn't at her best.
"I think you'll want to hear this, Ms Blye. And then you can enjoy your honeymoon in the sure and certain knowledge that Operation Frankenstein has finally been ended."
"Plus McGee's getting us all coffee and snacks," Tony added. "Any occasion where he volunteers to spend money has to be celebrated."
"It's really over?" Kensi let Nell carefully unwind her hair from the rollers and then shook the resulting curls free, hoping she didn't bear too close a resemblance to Medusa, although she was none too sanguine. Marty looked at the riot of waves and tried not to think about how amazing they would look tumbling down her bare back… and he was at work. He had to concentrate.
"All over bar the shouting – and the final denouement. You dno't want to deny Eric and Tim their moment in the sun, do you? Plus there's the small matter of tidying things up, sending out alerts – and the paperwork." Marty had a nasty feeling that was going to take at least a couple of days. Still, it was better than starting a new op right before the wedding.
"So what are we waiting for?" If they got this over quickly enough, Kensi reckoned she might still make the appointment with the caterer; which was followed by a meeting with the florist. And then that left only a trip to the dress designer and then she just had to check to make sure the marquee was going in the right place and that the dog groomer had done something to Bobby so that he no longer resembled a perambulating and rather smelly haystack. But once all that was done, she could collapse in a gibbering heap. Next time, she was definitely hiring a wedding planner. Except there wouldn't be a next time. This was it. This was definitely it – the once and forever. Kensi had no doubts about that at all.
"Not what – who." Gibbs looked at his watch impatiently. The mere mention of the word 'coffee' and he was practically pacing the floor. It would be good to have this mess finally finished, he thought. Apart from anything else, it would mean he could take Allison Blye for that moonlight drive with a clear conscience. And who knew what would happen after that? "How long does it take to get a couple of cups of coffee?"
DiNozzo refrained from pointing out that McGee was actually getting coffee for eleven people. Somehow, it didn't seem to be either the time or the place. If they got things tidied up here, then maybe he and Ziva could go to Magic Mountain tomorrow? A few hours spent getting scared out their wits on rollercoasters seemed the ideal way to unwind.
"Maybe he needs a hand?" Ziva suggested, pulling out her cell and firing off a quick text.
"Yeah – getting that wallet of his open. It doesn't often see the light of day."
Marty got to his feet and looked at Kensi. "How about we go find McGee? Just in case he's got lost." And that way they could have a few moments together and he could tell her how gorgeous she looked and how he couldn't wait to be married to her.
Eric was leaning against one of the old, whitewashed wall, face tilted up to the sun and trying to resist the temptation to jump up and down with joy.
"Don't let Hetty see that," Marty cautioned as they passed by, catching a whiff of the distinctive aroma coming from the cigarette.
"Leave him alone – he's got to come down from that high sooner or later. Nice work, by the way." Kensi flashed a quick grin at Eric and then lengthened her stride as her partner marched ahead. "Slow down, will you?"
"Coffee," Marty said succinctly. "It's like a siren cry, pulling me forward."
Outside the walls of the Mission complex, the world was carrying on as normal; all the people going about their daily lives, with no idea of what went on in the apparently derelict building and little comprehension that one of the biggest potential invasions into national security had just been averted. It was probably best that way. There would be no announcements, no public commendations, but that was never the point. The greatest glory was in knowing that they'd all worked together, had worked for months to get to this point. Every single person had played their part and ultimately, they had triumphed as a team. Together they had splintered Operation Frankenstein into a thousand fragments and now the world could continue on its self-absorbed pace in safety for another few days. Until the next threat. And there was always another threat, another danger. You could never let your guard slip for one second.
Kensi spotted Tim walking slowly along the sidewalk, trying to balance the trays of coffee at the same time as holding onto a large carrier full of pastries, and waved at him, getting a joyful grin in response. The traffic was light and he stepped onto the crossing, oblivious to the fact that just around the corner a light coloured car had been waiting for just this moment. The driver accelerated rapidly and Tim jumped to one side, as the coffee went flying in one direction and the bag of pastries in another. He never saw the gun pointing out of the window, but he did hear the sharp retort as it fired three times in quick succession and he most certainly felt the bullets hit his body as he crashed down onto the road.
Staring up at the sky, Timothy McGee noticed that there was not one single cloud to mar the clear cerulean blue. It was another perfect California day, he thought and wondered vaguely if the leaves were turning into a vibrant medley of autumnal hues back east in Washington. It was funny, but he felt no pain, no pain at all. That was strange, because you would have thought that getting shot at close range would hurt like hell. He closed his eyes in resignation.
"Hang on, McGee."
That was Deeks' voice, Tim realised and he opened his eyes to see Deeks in extreme close up, bending over him and with the most curious look on his face.
"Tell the boss… " Tim was finding it hard to concentrate and even harder to speak. "Tell him I'm sorry… I spilt his coffee." Nothing was more likely to piss Gibbs off and Tim had the very definite feeling that he'd really messed up this time. And it had been such a great day. He really didn't want it to end like this.
"You can apologise later." Gibbs said, squatting down in the road and gripping onto his agent's hand firmly, determined that he was not going to let another life slip through his fingers.
It was a struggle, because the edges of his consciousness were starting to contract into darkness, but Tim managed to look up at Gibbs. "Thanks, boss. Thanks for everything. It's been so great."
And it had been, he realised. All the earlier doubts were gone and Tim realised the best years of his life had been spent with Gibbs and his team. Despite everything, he wouldn't change a single thing. Except maybe for the small matter of dying on a road in Santa Monica. That really wasn't so great. But everything had to end at some point, whether you were ready or not. You could only cheat fate for a finite amount of time after all. What mattered was that you were ready when the end came.
"Don't you dare die on me, McGee." Gibbs was shouting now and Tim wanted to tell him that it wasn't so bad, it didn't hurt at all, but it was no use. He was ready now, so he closed his eyes and surrendered. And it felt so easy and so very right, almost like it was meant to be.
To be continued in
Such Great Heights
I hope you enjoyed reading the eighth instalment in my K/D universe, because it's been a blast writing it. It will continue, because we haven't even got to the wedding yet! Not to mention there is the small matter of poor McGee left lying in the road. Blame evil plot bunny for that, not me… I am a mere pawn in his twisted little paws.
The hack into the RSA seed data that the SecureID logon devices use really did happen earlier this year. Some things even devious plot bunny cannot make up. All the rest is pure imagination and speculation, of course. But stranger things have happened.