Summary:

A seemingly straightforward case turns into a nightmare.


Rated: FR15
Categories: General, General > Horror, General > Suspense
Genre: Dark, SciFi/Supernatural/Fantasy
Warnings: Disturbing Imagery
Challenges: NCIS Titular Challenge, Question Challenge
Challenges: NCIS Titular Challenge, Question Challenge
Series: None
Story Notes

Written for the Titular Challenge and the Question Challenge.

Disclaimer: All recognizable characters are the property of their respective copyright holders. No infringement intended. The original characters and places mentioned are the product of the author's imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to those living, dead, or undead is completely coincidental.

"Where is it?"


Darkness settled over the small, unkempt space where a lone figure sat hunched over a large laptop computer, typing rapidly, sweat and tears mingling on his pale face. His green eyes flicked back and forth, studying the code, looking for the key to break through the locks and find the information he so desperately wanted to discover. He knew he was running out of time, another point of pressure in an already high-stakes situation. He paused for a briefly moment, reaching up to wipe the stinging sweat from his eyes before continuing with his task which he feared would prove to be impossible.


"Come on, come on, it's here somewhere, I know it…" His voice was low and rough, evidence of long hours, no sleep, and cold terror that he would fail so many that depended on him accomplishing what he had set out to do so many hours ago. He glanced at the clock, horrified to discover that he had mere seconds left, and dug deep within to find the strength to work faster…


A strident tone caught his attention and he felt all of the blood drain from his face. He watched as the information on his screen suddenly vanished, a sign that time had finally run out.


He had failed.


He lowered his shaking hands and stared at the screen, the reality of what he had been unable to do crashing down over him. So many people….all his fault….


He rose on shaking legs and walked unsteadily to a small safe. He slowly turned the dial, the routine so familiar that he completed the task without even thinking about what he was doing. He opened the door and removed what lay within: a cold, steel, instrument of death.


Thirty seconds later, a gunshot shattered the stillness of the night.


XXX


Tim McGee stepped off the elevator and walked to his desk with a decided spring to his step. He whistled jauntily as he sat down at his desk and started to go through the daily accumulation of emails.


"What's got you in such a good mood, McWhistle?"


Tim grinned. "It's a beautiful spring day, Tony. What other reason do I need?"


Tony sent him a rather salacious grin of his own. "Let me guess: something to do with the lovely Delilah?"


"I don't kiss and tell, Tony."


"Ah, so there was kissing. Anything else you'd like to share?"


Tim just rolled his eyes and went back to reading his email. It was true that he had spent an enjoyable weekend with her, and the fact that she had left to visit her parents for a week hadn't yet dampened that mood. She had hinted that she and her family were going to be having a very important discussion, one that almost certainly involved the not-so-subtle hints he had been giving her that weekend…


Ellie soon joined them, sending Tim an odd look when she noticed Tim's mood. She studied him for a few minutes and smiled.


"Good weekend?"


"Yep."


"Not for everyone," Gibbs remarked as he headed for his desk and retrieved his badge and weapon. "Gear up. Dead Petty Officer at Pax River."


The rest of the team grabbed their bags and followed Gibbs to the elevator. Gibbs and Ellie took the sedan while Tony and Tim followed in the truck, soon leaving the heavy traffic behind as they headed south. Tony tried several times to get Tim to tell him the reason for his good mood, but he just grinned and shook his head. The truth was he was worried he'd jinx it if he did reveal what was going on and decided he'd tell Tony once what he hoped would happen became official.


Finally they reached their destination, a small apartment complex two miles from the base. After they had unloaded the scene kits Tony and Tim passed one of them off to Ellie and the three agents followed Gibbs to the second floor of the apartment building. An officer was positioned outside one of the doors and admitted them.


"Yikes," Tony muttered softly when he took in the scene in front of them. The body of the sailor lay just in front of a desk that was covered with computer parts and wiring, about ten feet from the front door. A dark hole at his right temple was spattered with red stains and a pistol lay near the body's right hand, similarly spattered. As they looked around the rest of the apartment, they noticed that more computers and parts covered a table, and two large bookshelves flanked the table, stuffed with books and technical manuals, as well as hardcover and paperback novels. Tim noticed that he and the petty officer shared their tastes in authors, a fact that elicited a twinge of pity for the unfortunate young man.


The senior police officer on the scene was waiting patiently to be acknowledged and Gibbs finally turned to face him.


"What can you tell me?"


"Call to dispatch around 4 AM, neighbor heard the gunshot and tried to check on the deceased, but didn't get an answer. We found him like that. Looks pretty open and shut to me. Suicide, right?" Gibbs just stared and him and he blushed slightly before continuing. "Apartment is rented to Petty Officer Cedrick Riordan."


Gibbs nodded to Tim and he carefully crouched next to the body, pulling on gloves and placing the man's thumb on the fingerprint scanner.


"It's him. Been stationed at Pax for the last six months. Systems information tech."


"A geek," Tony added as he surveyed the apartment. Gibbs sent him a glare just as Ducky and Palmer arrived, with Ducky making his usual comments and Palmer silently agreeing with the older man. Gibbs directed the rest of the team to process the scene while he escorted the officer out of the apartment, presumably to get more information about the witnesses.


As he was mentally cataloging the computer equipment, Tim noticed a large, rather expensive -looking laptop sitting open on the desk. He bend to examine it, noticing that the letters on the keys were almost worn down to the point of being illegible. Based on the wear and tear, he suspected it was either second hand or Riordan's primary computer. He made a mental note to check through it for a note or other possible motive regarding the man's apparent final act of violence against himself.


Two hours later Tim was back at NCIS. Tony and Gibbs were talking to Riordan's C.O. while he and Ellie were running down background information and financial records. After several more hours of searching, Tim had to admit that he hadn't found anything in Riordan's personal information that would indicate a motive for his actions. He decided to take a break and check on Abby's progress.


She wasn't there so he started to examine the array of computer equipment that he had collected from the apartment. His gaze settled on the large laptop and he decided to check it out. After making a copy of the system as it was before he altered it by rebooting the computer, he raised the screen and started a basic analysis. He quickly found that the information was password protected and he started to work on cracking it.


"McGee!"


Tim blinked and looked up to see Gibbs glaring down at him.


"Boss, sorry, I was just taking a break, figured I'm come and check on…" He noticed that it was dark outside and quickly checked his watch: it was well past 2100. What in the hell? How did I not notice…? "Sorry, I didn't realize it was so late."


Gibbs continued to stare at him for several moments before finally speaking.


"Find anything?"


"I, uh...no, not yet. Riordan's files are heavily encrypted, and...I haven't cracked them yet. Still working on it."


"Tomorrow. Go home, Tim."


Tim's eyebrows rose in surprise. Gibbs actually sounded a bit concerned.


"I'm fine, Boss. I can get a couple more hours in on this…"


Gibbs all but sighed in frustration. "One hour, then head home. Need you awake tomorrow. Clear?"


"Yes, Boss."


Gibbs left and Tim glanced around the lab, surprised to find that Abby had already left. He stood and stretched, wincing as he felt the crackling along his spine before he sat down in front of the computer. He checked back through to see what he had done, planning a new mode of attack as he went. When the hour was up, he stood and started to lock the computer.


Help.


Tim blinked, not sure he has seen what he thought. A single word had appeared on the screen, just for a flash, but now it was gone. He blinked and shook his head. Guess Gibbs is right, I need sleep. He finished locking the computer and headed out of the lab, unable to shake the feeling of unease that had settled over him.


XXX


"Man, McGee, how late were you here last night?" Tony asked as McGee stumbled to his desk and sank into his chair.


"2200. I was working on Riordan's laptop." He didn't mentioned that he had gotten very little sleep that night, his dreams plagued by shapeless, dark figures that whispered words he couldn't completely discern yet filled him with unquestionable horror.


"Find anything?"


"Not yet. It's encrypted."


"Huh. So maybe there's more to all this than meets the eye."


"Yeah, maybe… What did Ducky say?"


"All indications point to suicide. Guess all that's left now is to determine why."


"Got anything on that, DiNozzo?"


"Not yet, Boss. Riordan was well liked, even if he was described as a 'geek'. He wasn't working on anything classified or even sensitive. Just your basic computer tech."


"Bishop?"


"No discipline problems or other infractions. Not a top-rated sailor but not in the bottom tier, either. Seemed pretty average, although he was noted for occasionally bragging about his hacking skills. No indications that he ever applied those skills to retrieve protected data."


"McGee?"


"Nothing unusual in his financials, no outstanding debts or indications of excessive spending. Lived within his means. No deposits outside his normal paycheck."


"What about his computer?"


"I didn't have any luck with the encryptions last night." He caught Gibbs' glare. "I'll get back on it."


"You do that. Let me know as soon as you find anything."


"And don't disappear for hours like you did yesterday," Tony chimed in, earning him a glare from Gibbs.


"Sorry about that. I guess I just lost track of time." He headed for the lab, surprised to find that Abby wasn't there before he remembered she was at court this morning. He settled down in front of the laptop and got back to work.


It took Tim longer than he expected to crack the encryptions and Riordan's computer but he finally managed to unlock the last level and gained full access. As he started to scan through the information he felt a sinking sensation in his stomach. A lot of the files appeared to have been corrupted, with only fragmentary information left behind. He began the process of trying to recover the files and had managed to reconstruct one of them when a small window popped up on the screen.


Help.


Tim froze. It wasn't his imagination this time. He started to check the network connection to see where the message originated and was startled to discover that the connection was disabled.


Help me.


Tim blinked and shook his head. Some sort of pre-programed message, activated by his access? He started to search for the source of the pop-up program, but nothing jumped out at him. He closed the window and waited to see if it would appear again.


Help them.


Who? Tim typed into the dialog box, hoping to get some clue as to how this program was working.


They're going to die. You have to save them.


Who is going to die?


"McGee!"


Tim jumped and looked up from the laptop. Tony was standing in the doorway to the lab, a worried look on his face.


"What do you want, Tony?" Tim asked, a strange sharpness in his voice the caused Tony's eyes to narrow.


"What is with you today? You're even more McGrouchy than usual."


Tim glanced down at the screen and saw that the window was gone.


"Nothing. I'm trying to get what we need for the case."


"Any luck?"


"Not yet. The data have been corrupted and I'm trying to restore what I can."


"Well, time for a break. Gibbs wants us to go talk to Riordan's parents. Overnight trip."


"Can't he send Bishop? I'm-"


"Tim, Gibbs says we need to go, as in you and me. Come on. The laptop will be there when we get back."


Tim let out a soft huff. "Fine. Let me get my gear."


Tony held up his bag. "Way ahead of you, McGee. Let's go."


Tim shut down the laptop, left a note for Abby to tell her what he was doing and not to do anything with it until he got back before he followed Tony out of the building to one of the waiting sedans. He remained silent as Tony guided the car off base and onto the highway leading north. Once they were clear of the city Tony turned to his partner.


"OK, McChatty, tell me what's going on."


"Nothing."


"Are you… I don't know, identifying with Riordan or something?"


That startled Tim enough that he looked up and met worried Tony's gaze. "What? What are you talking about?"


"I mean...he was a geek. You saw his apartment. It looked a lot like-"


"I'm not identifying with him, Tony. Besides, his apartment didn't look that much like mine."


"Yeah, it did. It looked exactly like yours did a few years ago when you first joined the team."


"No it didn't."


"OK, fine, you don't want to see it. But don't tell me he didn't remind you of-"


"He's not me, Tony. OK? End of story."


"Fine. So what is bothering you? Is something going on with Delilah?"


"No, she's fine. We're good. And I'm fine, Tony. I swear. Some of us don't feel the need to talk all the time, you know?"


"Yeah, Tim, I work for Gibbs. I know that."


"I just need a good night's sleep, that's all."


"Well then it will be your job to find us a hotel."


"Fine. Where are we going?"


"Warrensville, Pennsylvania."


"On it."


"Should take us about four hours to get there. You've got plenty of time."


Tim ignored him and started to search for a place that fit within their budget. After securing a room in nearby Williamsport, he tucked his phone into his jacket pocket, leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes, hoping to get some rest before they reached their destination. Unfortunately, sleep eluded him. His mind kept returning to what he had seen on the laptop before Tony showed up. Surely it was some sort of program, designed to give the illusion of intelligent responses, but the effect had been rather disturbing. He was anxious to get back and figure out just what was going on and felt a little irked by the interruption. Sometimes he really had to wonder what was going through his boss's mind…


To Tim's surprise, Tony actually let him 'sleep' and a few hours later they arrived at a modest home on a quiet, tree lined street. Two cars were parked in the driveway: a newer model sedan and an older station wagon.


"Looks like they're home, at least," Tony commented as they approached the front door.


"Looks like it." Tim rang the doorbell and soon they heard the sound of approaching footsteps. The door opened and an older woman looked out, her eyes showing evidence that she had been crying.


"Mrs. Riordan?"


"Yes, who are you?"


"NCIS, ma'am. Agents DiNozzo and McGee. May we come in? We'd like to talk to you about-."


"My son. Of course, please, come in." She opened the door wider to admit them and they stepped into a narrow foyer before following her to the living room. Two men were sitting in wing chairs in front of a bay window and both rose as the agents entered. The younger of the two bore a strong resemblance to their dead Petty Officer.


"Mr. Riordan?" The man nodded. "I'm Agent DiNozzo, and this is Agent McGee. We're from NCIS."


"You're here about Cedrick." He turned to the other man, whom Tim noticed was wearing a clerical collar. "Thank you for stopping in, Father."


"Actually, we'll like to talk to you as well, if we may," Tim added, ignoring the look his partner was giving him.


"Of course." He returned to his seat. Mrs Riordan joined her husband and he guided her to the chair he had just vacated and stood behind her, his hand on her shoulder.


"We're very sorry for your loss," Tony began, and they nodded as tears started to leak from Mrs. Riordan's eyes. She reached for her husband's hand on her shoulder and he covered it with his other hand.


"What they're saying, that he...that he killed himself. They're wrong. It's impossible," Mr. Riordan declared and their priest nodded in agreement.


"Cedrick knew that suicide is a mortal sin. He would never do such a thing."


Both agents glanced at each other. "I'm sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Riordan, but the evidence points to-"


"I don't care!" Mrs. Riordan snapped, her voice breaking. "Your evidence is wrong!"


"Is there anyone that...maybe could have made it look as if he took his own life?" Tim ignored the look Tony was giving. "Someone who may have wanted to hurt your son?"


"Not that we know of. Cedrick was well liked by his shipmates, and he talked about them like they were family. He never said anything to us about anything like that."


"What about you, Father? Did he ever mention any problems?"


The priest chuckled softly, but there was no humor in the sound. "You know if he did, what's said in confession is private, but no, he never indicated to me that he...had made someone hate him enough to do that to him. It's been several months since I last saw him, but I can't even imagine anyone bearing him such ill will. Cedrick was a good person. I've known him all his life, and nothing could convince me otherwise." He met Tim's gaze. "This must be a mistake."


"That's what we're trying to find out," Tim assured him. "You said he never mentioned problems with any of his shipmates. What about before he joined the Navy?"


"No. Cedrick was never in trouble and he got along with everyone."


"Are you sure?"


"He attended private school, one of my best students," the Father replied. "So yes, we are sure."


"Are there any of his old classmates still around? We'd like to get their perspective as well."


"A couple. Most of them have moved on, but there are at least two still in town." The Father pulled a notepad and pen from his pocket and wrote down the information. "I am fairly certain they will tell you the same thing: Cedrick didn't have enemies."


Tony took the offered sheet of paper, glanced at it and tucked it into his pocket. "Thank you." He held out one of his business cards. "If you happen to remember something, anything at all, please, call me." Mrs. Riordan took the card and nodded.


"Thank you for your time," Tim added as he and Tony headed for the door.


Once they were back in the car, Tony turned to Tim.


"What do you think?"


"They seem pretty convinced he wouldn't have killed himself. I guess we better see if their perceptions are accurate."


"What do you think?"


Tim sighed. "This is one of the few times I wish we were wrong, but since we haven't found anything that says otherwise…"


"Yeah. I feel bad for the parents. Hell of a thing."


"That's one way of putting it. Come on, let's go find these two people and see if they have anything to tell us."


Unfortunately, they didn't. Riordan's two high school classmates had told them the same thing as the parents and the priest: there was no way their old friend had committed suicide, and they didn't know of anyone who would have set him up. It looked like they were back to square one.


"Come on, let's get some shut-eye. Of course, someone got their beauty sleep on the way up here."


"I wasn't sleeping, Tony, I was thinking."


"About what?"


"The case. How to get the information off of Riordan's laptop. Important stuff."


"Right. So did you? Figure it out?"


"Not yet."


"Well, then sleep should help."


"Right…"


They found the hotel without too much trouble, checked in, and then went to find a place to have dinner. Two hours later they were back in the hotel and ready for bed. Tony had called Gibbs to give him an update and promised they'd be back as soon as possible.


"Better get some shut-eye. We'll be heading out bright and early."


"Great. Good night, Tony."


"G'night, McGee."


Tony turned off the light and Tim rolled over to face the window as he closed his eyes and tried to sleep. Finally he drifted off, but his dreams were no less unsettling than the night before.


XXX


They managed to make it back to NCIS before 1000, and after learning that they had nothing that would shed light on their cases, Gibbs sent McGee down to work on the laptop. Abby was apparently in court again, so McGee returned to the table where he had left the computer resumed his work. After several hours his frustration was at its peak. Why couldn't he break through? He'd never had this much trouble before.


Suddenly his phone vibrated in his pocket and he pulled it out to answer.


"Yeah, Boss?"


"Gas the truck, McGee. Got another case."


"On it." He ended the call and sighed. Another long day, and he had nothing to show for it that would help improve Gibbs' mood.


By the time he had the truck ready to go Tony had joined him, and Gibbs and Ellie had already left in the sedan.


"What's the case?"


"Dead Marine at Quantico. They're telling us it was a training accident."


"Wonderful."


"Well I see your time in the lab hasn't improved your mood at all. No luck with the laptop?"


"No. Toughest encryption I've ever seen. Really makes me wonder what Riordan was hiding."


"You'll figure it out. You always do."


Tim just nodded and leaned back, closing his eyes. He hadn't gotten much sleep the night before. Hopefully this new case would be as straightforward as the base officers had claimed.


It was almost midnight by the time the team returned to the Yard with enough evidence to indicate that the base commanders had been right in their assessment, but Gibbs had ordered them to be back at work the next morning by 0700 to do the usual background checks. Tim barely made it home, exhausted by the day's work and lack of sleep. He immediately went to bed but couldn't rest, his thoughts returning to the earlier case and his frustrations with the encryptions. By 0300 he realized he wasn't going to get any more sleep so he got up and headed in to work.


He dropped his bag off at his desk before heading down to the lab. He opened the laptop and got back to work, determined to crack the damn encryptions before the rest of the team arrived. He had started to make some progress when a dialog box popped up on the screen.


Hello, Agent McGee.


Tim gasped in surprise. He checked the network to see if it had somehow reconnected but it hadn't, unless there was some hidden access point he hadn't managed to find. After a few moments he typed a response into the dialog box.


Who is this? How are you doing this?


That doesn't matter. We have your family. Tell no one, or we will kill them.


Tim froze. How…? He started typing again as he tried to keep a lid on his anger.


I don't believe you. Who is this?


An image popped up on the screen and he froze in horror. It was a short video of Sarah, tied to a chair and blindfolded, tears streaming down her cheeks as a black-clad and hooded figure held a knife to her throat. Two more videos flashed on the screen, Penny and his mother, both in similar situations to Sarah.


Believe it now?


Tim's hands were shaking as he typed a reply.


What do you want?


Show us how good you are, Agent McGee. Track us. Find your family and we'll let them go. You have four hours. If you can't find us or them, they die. Let's hope you're better at this than cracking the encryption on this laptop.


Tim grimaced at the jab and typed in a question. Why are you doing this?


Because we can. Don't even think about alerting anyone. You do, we'll know, and they'll die. Understand?


Tim swallowed convulsively as he tried to calm his pounding heart. Yes.


Good. Let the fun begin.


The video feeds appeared again at the top of the screen. There was no sound, but he could see how terrified they were. A few seconds later a countdown clock appeared, the seconds ticking down. Tim ran a hand over his face and got to work, desperately trying to find the link to explain how someone had access, and to follow it back to the source in time to save his family.


XXX


Sweat trickled down the back of Tim's neck as his fingers flew over the keyboard in his desperate attempt to find his tormentor. The clock on his screen continued to count down, and no matter how much he tried to avoid watching he couldn't help to be aware of how quickly his time was running out.


Tsk, tsk. Less than an hour left. Maybe you need some more motivation.


Another window flashed up on the screen and when Tim glanced at it he froze, feeling as though he had been doused in ice water. Delilah, bound and gagged like his family, was struggling against her bonds as much as she could, only ceasing to fight when a dark figure stepped up behind her and pressed a knife to her throat.


"Oh, God…"


Tim managed to snap himself out of it and started to work faster, his eyes flicking back and forth across the screen in near panic. He would find the source. He had to…


We thought you were better than this, Agent McGee. Can't find a simple little connection. Can't save your family...just like you couldn't save your father. Or Jim. Or Paula. Or Kate. Or Erin. So completely incompetent that you killed a cop. You've had to rely on your boss to save your ass too many times to count. You should be in jail. Or dead. You're living on borrowed time, Timmy.


"Shut up," Tim whimpered, barely aware that he could almost hear the voice behind the words on the screen.


He sensed someone enter the lab but he never looked away from the screen or acknowledged their presence. They soon left and Tim redoubled his efforts, trying every trick he could think of, but nothing was working.


Time's almost up, Timmy.


"No, no, I can find it! I'll find it…"


The number on the clock glowed blood red as the last few seconds flew by. Tim tried one last, crazy, desperate measure to find the connection.


Nothing.


The last digit hit zero, flashing for a moment before the clock disappeared.


You failed.


"No, please…"


Tim watched in horror as the hooded figure behind Sarah yanked her head back and drew a knife across her throat, dark spatters hitting the screen and almost obscuring the image. The action was repeated on the screens showing his mother and grandmother. Tim's gaze flew to the final window. The dark figure behind Delilah whipped the blindfold from her eyes and she stared in wide-eyed horror, her gaze locking with Tim's before the knife appeared and killer performed the deadly ritual.


"No!"


The screen went blank, and Tim collapsed in his chair, shaking.


He had failed.


He hardly noticed the tears flowing down his face as he struggled to stand. His hand drifted to his hip and to his surprise he felt his gun in it's holster. He hadn't even remembered to lock it in his desk before he came down to the lab.


Incompetent...idiot...murderer...you killed your family...you killed Delilah...no one will forgive you...you have nothing


Tim nodded and slowly pulled the gun from its holster.


XXX


"Where's McGee?" Gibbs snapped when he saw the empty desk after returning from a coffee run. Tony shrugged.


"No idea, Boss. Probably down in the lab working on Riordan's laptop."


"Yes, he is," volunteered Ellie. "I was just down in the lab, but I didn't want to disturb him. He looked really into what he was doing."


"Yeah, he's been working on that thing for days. Never saw anything that gave him that much trouble before."


"Gave who trouble?" Abby asked as she walked into the bullpen from the elevator.


"Court again, Abbs?"


"Yeah. This should be the last day of testimony. I just stopped by to update the Director. What's giving who trouble?"


"A computer from one of our cases. McGee's been trying to crack the encryption and he hasn't been able to do it."


A puzzled look crossed Abby's face. "What case? And which computer?"


"The suicide we caught a couple of days ago. McGee found an old laptop and was trying to break into the files. He hasn't had much luck."


Abby's eyes grew wide. "That big one? With the worn keys?"


"Yeah."


"And he's been working on it?"


"Every spare minute he has. Why?"


Abby turned and ran for the stairs as fast as her high-heeled feet could carry her. Tony and Gibbs exchanged looks before following her, with Bishop not far behind. When they reached the lower level Abby ran into the lab and they heard her scream.


"McGee, what are you doing?"


The rest of the team burst into the lab and froze in shock at the sight in front of them. Tim was standing by his usually spot at the workbench, the laptop open in front of him. He was deathly pale and shaking, with dark circles under his eyes which were leaking tears.


He was holding his gun to his head.


"McGee!"


He turned to them, his eyes haunted. "I'm sorry…"


"Tim, please, put the gun down," Abby begged, starting to cry herself. He shook his head.


"My fault… They're all dead… My fault…"


"Who's dead, Tim?" Gibbs asked, keeping his voice low. He noticed Tony edging towards Tim and shook his head. Tim's finger was still on the trigger and what Tony was planning was too risky. Gibbs needed to talk him down first.


"My family. Delilah."


"How? Tell me how, Tim. Why do you think it's your fault?"


"I couldn't find them. I tried...I tried..."


"Find them where? What happened?"


He swallowed, his finger tightening slightly on the trigger. "They...someone took them. Told me if I could track the signal they'd let them go. I couldn't do it… I failed them…"


"What signal, Tim?"


With his other hand he shakily pointed at the laptop. "Riordan's computer. They got through...while I was trying to crack the encryption." More tears slipped down his cheeks. "Couldn't do that either. Couldn't do anything..."


"Tim," Abby whispered, her eyes wide. "That computer doesn't work at all."


All eyes were suddenly on Abby. "What?"


"The hard drive is fried. It wouldn't even turn on when I tried to check it out. It's...it's dead."


"But...I saw…it was working! I've been working on it for days! You've seen me…"


"No, Tim, I haven't. I haven't been here. Remember?"


"But what...how…?" He started to lower the gun, much to everyone's relief, but the look in his eyes was far from sane. "I know what I saw!"


Suddenly Ellie let out a cry of surprise. "Look!"


A dark mist emerged from the laptop, surrounding McGee. He didn't seem to notice it as his eyes lost their focus and he pressed the barrel of the gun to his head again. The rest could only stare in horror as the mist started to solidify around the agent.


A gunshot shattered the silence of the lab and Abby screamed as the laptop exploded. The mist turned fiery red and vanished with an inhuman shriek loud enough to crack every pane of glass in the lab.


Gibbs blinked. Tim was still standing, his gun still pressed against his head. As they watched he started to collapse and Tony lept forward, managing to catch both McGee and the gun as it fell from his hand. It hadn't been fired.


"What in the hell?" Bishop exclaimed, her gaze focused on the doorway. They turned to see Vance, gun in hand and pointing at the remains of the laptop.


"Leon?" Gibbs asked as he tried to comprehend what he was seeing. "What…?"


"Is McGee OK?"


Tony lowered the unconscious man to the floor and knelt next to him as he checked him over, his own hands shaking while he felt for a pulse in McGee's neck.


"He's alive."


"Good." Vance holstered his weapon. "Keep an eye on him. And I suggest you not mention any of this to anyone outside this room."


"What the hell was 'this'? What was...that?"


"You sure you really want to know?"


They all nodded and he sighed. "Let's just say there are things out there that make terrorists look friendly. Luckily they're rare. Unlucky for McGee to come across one of them."


"So that was...a demon?" Abby whispered.


"Evil spirit, probably, since it was vanquished with iron rounds. Demons usually take a little more work."


"How the hell do you know about this?" Tony demanded, gently pulling McGee into his lap and wrapping a protective arm around him.


Vance smiled. "I had some interesting experiences growing up in Chicago. Met some interesting people along the way. One of them saved my ass and filled me in." He chuckled. "Seeing is believing."


"Ya think," Gibbs muttered, but without his usual fire. "Is McGee going to be OK?"


"We'll know when he wakes up. In the meantime…I suspect we need to have a talk." Gibbs sent him a glare. "My office, when McGee is ready. Until then I'll make sure this remains need to know." He covered his holster with his jacket and left the lab. After several moments the silence was broken by a wry laugh from Tony.


"I think we might know what happened to Riordan." He rubbed a hand over his face. "And it almost happened to Tim."


Abby sat down next to Tony and rested her hand on Tim's face. "We got to him in time." She shuddered. "And if we hadn't…"


"Bishop, check on Tim's family and Delilah. We better make sure they're OK."


She nodded and quickly dialed a number. "Delilah? Yeah, I'm fine. I just wanted to check in." Her gaze flicked to McGee. "No, he's...he's fine. We're all fine. OK. OK, I'll tell him. Thanks." She ended the call and turned to Gibbs. "She's OK. She'll be back in D.C. tomorrow so she wanted me to remind Tim."


"Check on his family."


"Got it. Abby, can I…?" She tilted her head towards Abby's office.


"Yeah, go ahead." Ellie hurried over to use the computer, returning a few minutes later.


"They're all OK, too. What Tim thought… It didn't happen. That must have been horrible for him."


"Well, yeah Bishop. He wouldn't have been pointing a gun at his own head otherwise." Gibbs reached up and smacked the back of Tony's head. "Sorry, Boss."


"But he'll be OK now, right? That...thing is gone."


Before Gibbs could reply Tim groaned, shifting slightly in Tony's lap as his eyes slowly started to open.


"McGee? Tim? You alright?"


He opened his eyes, blinking a couple of times before a confused expression surfaced on his face. "Boss? What…?" Suddenly he gasped and tried to sit up, only to be held in place by Tony.


"It's alright, Tim. You're fine. Everything's OK."


"My family…"


"They're fine, Tim. Delilah, too. None of it was real, I promise."


"Not real?" Tony loosened his grip enough for Tim to sit up and he started at the remains of the laptop. "But… I don't understand. I saw them. On video…"


"You couldn't have seen anything on that laptop, McGee. It doesn't work at all, remember?"


"Then I'm crazy."


"No, McGee, it wasn't your fault. You were set up."


"How?"


The rest of the team glanced at each other. "I think Vance is going to have to explain this one."


"Vance? Why?" The blood drained from Tim's already too-pale face. "He knows what I did? What I almost did?"


"He saved you, Tim. None of us had any idea what was going on." Gibbs tilted his head towards the remains of the laptop. "I think he'll understand."


Tim stared at the pile of shattered plastic and his eyes widened. "What did he do?"


"Shot it."


Tim's eyebrows rose. "Was he taking a page out of your book, Boss?"


Gibbs chuckled and squeezed his shoulder. "Glad to have you back, McGee. You ready to talk to Vance?"


"I… I guess.”


Gibbs and Tony helped him to his feet. He swayed a little and Tony draped one of Tim’s arms over his shoulder and wrapped his own arm around Tim’s waist for support. “Come on Tim, I got ya.”


 


Tim merely nodded and allowed his team to lead him out of the lab and towards the elevator.


XXX


 


 


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