Author's Note: In earlier episodes, it is mentioned several times that McGee gets severe seasickness. This story makes mention of that, even though it seems to have been forgotten in the more recent seasons.
Sharks Feed At Night
He moves quietly to the back of the boat, even though it takes energy that he would really rather conserve. He doesn't want to be standing up; he would much rather be lying down, praying for this day to be over and for them to finally be back on land. But he has to get away from their disapproving glances and snide comments. He needs air.
He leans on the rail and looks out over the vast expanse of Atlantic Ocean, black as ink in the darkness. A single strip of moonlight illuminates a path directly behind the boat. It's a beautiful sight, but he can't appreciate it right now. He's about to vomit. Again.
None of them understand that days like this are absolute torture. Trying to do your job when you can barely stand up. His naval officer father never understood his lack of enthusiasm when it was time for a father-son fishing trip. His teammates seem to think he should just suck it up and get back to work. He tries, he really, really does, but it's always a hellish experience. Seeing a bit of sympathy from any of them might help.
He sees a string of red lights dotting the black water. Lighted buoys, meant to guide vehicles towards land and keep larger ships out of the shallow costal waters. They were getting closer. Still not close enough.
He leans over as the heaving starts. But he's been throwing up all day, and there is nothing left. His sides spasm painfully as he heaves up nothing but air. Sweat drips off his forehead, even though it is March and still cool outside.
Dizzy...he has leaned over too far. He tries to correct, but the boat hits a bump. He is suspended in air, then he slams into the water with a deafening "pop."
The water is icy cold, and the cold grabs him instantly. He is confused, disoriented. What happened? Why am I wet? Which way is up? He kicks and swings his arms frantically, in a near-panic, until natural buoyancy takes over and pushes him back to the surface.
He gasps. Coughs. Wipes the water from his eyes. Where is the boat? There...already a hundred yards away and getting smaller all the time. He shouts, screams desperately, trying to get their attention. His arm is heavy, his jacket full of water, but he wrestles it free from the grip of the ocean and waves wildly.
It's no good. They're not turning around. They didn't see him fall, and now they're gone and he is alone.
He watches until the boat is out of sight and the sound of the engine has faded. Stars twinkle overhead. The water is the same color as the sky. He feels tiny now, and alone. A lump rises in his throat. For a moment he wants to sob, like a child. But he swallows it back; sobbing will do no good. He fumbles in his pocket until he finds his cell phone. He punches buttons, over and over, but it's waterlogged and useless now. He keeps it anyway, in the vain hope that it still might be giving off a GPS signal that can track him.
His legs are already tired from treading water. He can't possibly stay afloat until they come back. He is still nauseated and sick and weak.
A new sound breaks through the night stillness.
Clang. Like a heavy bell, sounding through the night air, not too far off. Clang. Coming from behind him.
He turns and sees one of the buoys he had noticed earlier, bobbing on the water a couple hundred yards away. Red light and clanging bell, beckoning like a savior. It's not much, but it's all he has.
He kicks off his shoes. They're new and expensive, and now they're going to sink to the bottom of the ocean. He is surprised that he can even care at this point.
Despite his lifelong battles with seasickness, he still managed to become a good swimmer, at least in swimming pools and ponds. Swimming against the waves is much harder. His jacket is weighing him down and he stops to shed it. His stomach is still churning, and he's disoriented. Keep going, press on, don't stop. Smooth, even strokes. Make as little noise as possible.
"Sharks feed at night, Tim. You don't even want to go into the water at night, for any reason."
His father's words keep circling through his mind. Salt water burns his eyes and stings his lips. A wave smacks him in the face, and the salty water goes down his throat. He coughs and sputters and spits it back out. Drinking salt water won't help his dehydration any.
He stops to catch his breath and check his progress. The buoy doesn't look any closer than it did before.
Sharks feed at night. Sharks feed at night.
He can visualize them, circling underneath him. He kicks harder, not caring about the noise now. Just get to the buoy. Get out of this water. His arms burn and his head aches. His energy is almost gone. He is about to admit defeat when the buoy suddenly looms over him.
It is bigger than he thought it would be, circled by steel rings, tapering towards the bell and red light on top. It's not going to hold your weight. But what else can he do? He reaches up with a shaking arm and grabs one of the steel rods circling the buoy. The entire thing leans towards him until it is nearly lying flat in the water. He tries to swing one leg over the base, but he can't get his leg up high enough. He tries again, but the metal slips from his wet hand. The buoy swings up and away, mocking him.
He closes his eyes and breaths deeply. This has to work. There is no other option, except drowning or being eaten alive by sharks.
Again, he reaches up and pulls the buoy down. He will not let go, no matter what. One leg is up. He wraps the other around the other side. The buoy is on top of him now, pressing him down into the water. Trying to drown him. He swallows back panic and heaves his weight forwards. The weighted buoy flies up, righting itself and him. He is upright, out of the water, sitting on the bottom ring of steel.
He closes his eyes. With shaking arms, he hugs the buoy gratefully. He rests, leaning his head against the cool metal until his breathing returns to normal.
Grab your gear. We're meeting the transport at the docks in twenty minutes.
He knew it would be a bad day as soon as he heard those words.
"What's the first rule of boating, son?"
"Always wear a life jacket."
"And the second rule?"
"Stay on the boat!"
He has somehow managed to break both rules in the same day. In the same moment, really.
Stay on the boat.
How could he be so stupid and clumsy?
He is shaking all over, from the cold. His ears hurt and his head still aches. His hands are numb and shaking, making it hard to hold onto the buoy. Thoughts of his mistakes, and replays of the whole miserable day filter through his mind, over and over again.
How long have I been sitting here? An hour, at least? He tries to look at his watch, but the movement makes one hand slip from the steel ring. His weight shifts, tipping the whole buoy over, putting him dangerously close to the water. He gasps and grabs it again, desperately, fingers gripping despite their numbness. He is shaking from cold as well as fear.
"This is for you, Probie."
He opens the paper bag. "It's empty, Tony."
"Not for long!"
He had laughed at his own joke, and he was probably laughing now. Had they even missed him? They would probably get back to shore before they even noticed he was gone. They would have to turn around and come all the way back. Maybe radio for back-up, organize a search party. How long would all that take? By that time he would have succumbed to cold and exhaustion. His grip would loosen, and he would slip quietly into the water...it would close over his head, pulling him down...
He jerks his head up, awake again. He had almost dozed off. Can't fall asleep...can't let go...sharks feed at night. He is surprised they haven't found him already.
"They say sharks don't like the taste of humans, Tim. That doesn't mean they won't take a bite out of you, though."
To his right, he hears a soft "woosh." Out of the corner of his eye, he sees movement. Something smooth and dark breaking the surface of the water, visible only because it happens to be in that one strip of moonlight. His breath catches in his throat. Sharks.
Woosh. There it was again. That sound, like air being expelled. Sharks don't expel air. Another movement. Smooth and graceful. Woosh. He can actually see a spout of water spray up into the air, the individual drops glinting in the moonlight.
Dolphins. Not sharks. Were dolphins supposed to bring good luck? He can't remember. He is transfixed, watching them play in the silver light. He feels calmer than he has in hours. Has he really been here for hours?
Sharks feed at night.
Stay on the boat.
Grab your gear.
He is starting to feel warm again. Warm and drowsy. Maybe a little nap would be a good idea. The dolphins have moved on...he can barely hear them anymore...come to think of it, he can't really hear anything over that humming noise. It's been growing steadily louder for several minutes now.
He blinks, forcing his heavy eyelids to stay open. Something is moving across the water, fast.
Hang on, McGee.
Hang on, son.
He closes his eyes and tightens his grip. He listens to the sound of the engines, getting closer and closer. Finally the engines cut out, leaving him in silence again.
McGee opens his eyes. He can see the boat. Can see powerful searchlights beaming out across the water. Close but still far enough away that they won't be able to see them. He feels defeated. How can he get their attention when it's too dark to see?
In desperation, he looks up. The top of the buoy stretches above his head. He reaches up, and his fingers brush the bottom of the bell.
Clang. Very soft. He hits it again, and it sounds, much louder this time. Clang.
He is too tired and cold and numb to make an SOS, but he remembers that three of anything means a distress signal.
Clang. Clang. Clang.
Clang. Clang. Clang.
The lights swing around, towards him.
Clang. Clang. Clang.
The boat moves closer, engines on lower power. He sees that the lights are coming from the deck. Powerful flashlights, held by the crew members. Sweeping the water. Looking for him.
Clang. Clang. Clang.
One of the lights sweeps over him. Past him. Then back again.
The voice is familiar, but far away. This time, the light stays.
"Hang on, McGee. We're coming."
He sighs, relieved. They're nearly on top of him now. They're coming. His body sags with relief. He relaxes. Too much. His cold tired fingers release the steel. He falls into the water.
He barely notices the cold this time. He is already freezing; how much colder can he really be? He feels light, suspended in liquid. Suspended in time. It's so much easier, to just lie here and let the water surround him that to be up there in the cold night air, clinging with aching hands and feeling his strength leave him little by little. Here he could just be...it was easier...
He feels something brush his head. Then it touches his chest. The sharks are finally here. One of them wraps itself around his chest and pulls... that can't be right...sharks don't have arms...
He breaks the surface, coughing and gasping for air. Someone has him in a firm grip, arm around his chest, and he does not fight it. He lays back and lets himself be pulled through the water, because he is too tired and confused to do anything else. They bump into the edge of something large that is floating in the water. Then more hands and arms, reaching under his armpits and pulling him up onto a solid surface.
He doesn't fight, or try to help. Just stays limp and lets himself be carried along. Through a door, inside a lighted cabin. He is placed on the floor. He is aware of someone tugging at his wet clothes. Of someone saying his name, urgently. He is too tired to respond. He closes his eyes and lets himself drift again.
Gradually, he becomes aware again. Of the movement of the boat. Of the fact that he is warm. Someone has removed his clothes and wrapped him in warm blankets. He feels comfortable and safe. His headache is beginning to recede. He opens his eyes and blinks at the lights overhead.
A face comes into view. Concered blue eyes stare into his.
"Boss," he sighs. Automatically he begins to apologize. "I-"
"I'm sorry, McGee."
He blinks, surprised, and fully awake in an instant. "Wh-what?"
"We didn't know you fell. I should have paid more attention. We came back as fast as we could. We called Abby. Had her track the last known position of your cell phone. Worked our way to you from there."
He squints, confused. Not what he expected to hear. He turns his head to the side and sees Tony and Ziva watching quietly from across the cabin. There is anxious concern in their eyes. Not the mocking judgment that he had feared.
"You came back."
Gibbs looks at him, incredulous. "You thought we wouldn't?"
He shrugs, not sure how to put into words what he has been feeling all day.
Those blue eyes pierce into his. "Of course we came back, Tim. We're a team. We never leave a man behind."