It was the noise that woke her: a strange whistling, whining, grinding sound like nothing she’d ever heard before. Stephanie sat bolt upright in her bed, staring into the darkness for a moment with her heart pounding before she finally thought to look at the digital alarm clock on the bedside table. It was just after four AM.
Clambering out of bed, she fumbled carefully in the dark for the gun she kept in the bedside drawer, not wanting to alert her intruder that she was awake by turning on the light. She crept into the other room on quiet feet, adrenaline and blood still pumping in her ears. Luckily she hadn’t taken the safety off yet, though, because when she stepped into the room to find an enormous blue phone booth sitting in the middle of it, she almost dropped the gun.
She did drop it when the door opened, and out stepped the last person on Earth she’d ever expected to see in her apartment in the middle of the night. “Doctor?”
The Doctor opened his mouth to answer but whatever he’d been about to say was interrupted by the emergence of another man from the skinny blue box, one she also recognized: tall, with curly white hair, pleasant features, primly proper in an Admiral’s dress blues. “You found him!” Stephanie blurted out.
The Doctor grinned cheekily at her. “Said I would, didn’t I?”
Only her training prevented her from sprinting across the room and pulling the Admiral into an enthusiastic, grateful hug. Instead, she forcefully gathered her wits together and snapped to attention, giving him probably the best and most proper salute she’d ever given anyone who wasn’t her grandfather. “I thought…how…?”
“That, Lieutenant,” the Admiral said gravely, but with a twinkle in his eye, “is rather a long story. However, there’s a role for you in it, if you like.”
As if the words had been some sort of cue, several more people than should have fit into the tiny space piled out of it–Agent Gibbs, Agent DiNozzo, Miss Sciuto–who’d fingerprinted her, Jacobs and the Marines–and a young woman she’d seen talking with the Doctor as she left NCIS headquarters after her last interview. Then, through the open door, she caught a glimpse of something unbelievable: a room within the box that was probably larger than her living room. It was as if she were staring through the wardrobe door into Narnia.
Heart pounding in her chest, Stephanie looked in amazement at the force that had invaded her apartment from the impossible space. “I think I need a cup of coffee. Do any of you want one?”
There were several murmurs of agreement: Stephanie counted heads silently and made a mental note to check and see if she had more than one coffee pot.
She fled to the kitchen and started throwing open cupboards, already having an idea what she would find–or what she wouldn’t, really–but it gave her something to do to occupy her spinning thoughts. It was almost unbelievable how recently Lieutenant Taylor’s condition had been the most remarkable thing she’d ever seen.
“Can I give you a hand with that?” an unfamiliar voice asked.
Stephanie turned to meet the smiling brown eyes of the one person from the group in her living room that she didn’t know. The young woman smiled. “We never did get a chance to meet properly–I’m Martha.”
“Stephanie,” she answered, returning the smile as well. “And yeah, help would be great. This might take a while–all I have is this little Mr. Coffee.”
Martha chuckled. “Well, it’s a bit early for a morning cuppa, but if you’ve a teapot, I’m sure the Doctor and Harry wouldn’t mind.”
“I thought that was just a stereotype,” Stephanie answered.
“It is.” Martha’s eyes twinkled. “I’ve a mate back home who can’t bear the taste of tea. But most of us don’t mind that particular stereotype too terribly.”
“In that case, cupboard above the sink, bottom shelf, right hand side.”
Martha immediately zeroed in on the cupboard in question, withdrawing the teapot and then following Stephanie’s guidance to locate the tea bags, milk, sugar and mugs. They worked silently side by side for a moment before Martha spoke again.
“I notice no one’s really given much thought to how all this must be for you,” she stated quietly with another sympathetic smile. “I mean…it’s a bit much to take in all at once, isn’t it?”
“It is.” Stephanie was a bit surprised by how relieved she was to have someone to admit that to. “I think my world has been turned upside down more times in the past five days than ever before in my life. But…” She smiled again as something settled in her heart. “I don’t really mind. The world’s turned upside down, yeah, but it’s also gotten bigger and more beautiful. I can’t regret that.”
There was a knowing look in Martha’s eyes as she met Stephanie’s. “Yeah. I know what you mean.”
“Boss, you got a minute?” DiNozzo asked quietly.
Gibbs looked up at him, carefully keeping his expression neutral. “Problem, Tony?” He watched the gears start to turn in DiNozzo’s head as the younger man processed the all-too-rare use of his first name.
His hesitation only lasted a moment, though. “Actually, yeah. Are you sure this is a good idea? I mean…covering things up like this?”
Gibbs almost smiled, but managed to hold back at least until there would be no witnesses. That was DiNozzo all right: for a womanizer, he had a surprisingly broad streak of integrity in his make-up. That, plus the brilliance at his job that Tony hid behind the playful exterior, was why Gibbs had hired him in the first place.
Still…a man didn’t survive three divorces without learning all the shades of gray in the world inside and out.
Truth and justice didn’t always go hand in hand. Sometimes the truth didn’t set you free; sometimes it just clouded the issue. That was why he’d bent the rules almost to the breaking point more than once. Why he’d covered for Franks, and why he’d never felt the need to tell anyone how the drug lord responsible for Shannon and Kelly’s deaths had really died.
“You got a better idea, DiNozzo?” he asked frankly.
DiNozzo grimaced. “Not really, no. We were kinda hoping…you would.”
We? Gibbs looked over in Abby’s direction, who was watching the conversation with interest. Figured. Not because DiNozzo couldn’t come up with the concern on his own just fine, but it was more Abby’s style to expect him to fix it.
“Sorry to disappoint,” he drawled.
“I’m not disappointed,” Tony assured him hastily. “I just…hate having to lie to Ziva and McGee.”
“We could erase your memory too, if you want,” Gibbs suggested, giving DiNozzo a hard look.
DiNozzo shook his head, as always living up to Gibbs’ pretty damned high expectations when it really counted. “Tempting as that idea is, I think I’ll pass.” He smiled crookedly. “You and Abby and Ducky have more than enough private jokes already. No way am I going to get voluntarily left out of another one.”
Gibbs did smile that time, but Lieutenant Sawyer and Martha chose that moment to emerge from the kitchen, distracting DiNozzo. By unspoken agreement, the entire party moved into the living room.
“Tomorrow morning,” Admiral Sullivan began the promised explanation once they’d all settled, “when he awakes, your commanding officer will remember the events of the past few days in the following manner: a week ago, an unidentified craft was spotted and intercepted apparently on course to Norfolk. Presuming hostile intent when all attempts at communication were rebuffed, the craft was shot down.”
Lieutenant Sawyer nodded.
Admiral Sullivan continued, and suddenly his story began to diverge from the facts. “The craft was unmanned, and upon crashing, the wreckage seemed to dissolve, leaving no evidence as to its origin. However, in light of this incident, the United States government has demanded greater participation in the Unified Intelligence Task Force. I was sent both to brief the highest levels of power in the US Armed Forces, etcetera, but also to select certain individuals from all branches of your military to act as UNIT liasons out of the New York office.” He set down his coffee and looked at Sawyer. “So, Lieutenant. How would you like to come to New York?”
For a second the Lieutenant looked like she was going to drop her cup. “Me, Sir?”
“Why not?” he asked. “You’ve already proven yourself to keep a clear head in extraordinary circumstances. That’s precisely the sort of individual we need at UNIT.”
“So, what, the fact that an admiral of a foreign government went missing for a day on my watch is just going to be conveniently forgotten?” she asked in disbelief, glancing over at Agent Gibbs, who was nursing his own cup of coffee like it was his best friend.
“Yep,” he drawled with no little irony in his voice, keeping his face as stony as ever.
“It will be believed that I spent the past few days attempting to sway one or more of Agent Gibbs’ subordinates away from his side,” Admiral Sullivan provided the elaboration that would not be forthcoming from Gibbs.
“Y’know, even all things considered? I still don’t know how keen I am on that idea,” Abby chipped in, frowning.
“Me too,” Martha confessed. “I mean…I understand the whys and wherefores, but still it seems a bit…”
“Dicey?” Abby finished for her.
Martha nodded, as did both Sawyer and DiNozzo. The sentiment seemed echoed on every other face in the room, except the Doctor’s.
“It certainly seems preferable to the alternative,” the Doctor answered blithely, not seeming to pick up on the general mood of discomfort.
Glances were exchanged all around, Gibbs being careful to reveal nothing in his even though he knew his people already knew his answer. “Yes,” Admiral Sullivan broke the uncomfortable silence. “I suppose it is.”
“Will I have to forget again too?” Sawyer blurted out, as if the idea had just occurred to her.
“Not at all,” the Doctor said, flashing her a broad grin. “I think you’ve more than proved your good will, not only to us but also to the hipocra.”
“Hence the job offer,” Admiral Sullivan chimed in with a smile of his own. “So, what say you, Lieutenant?”
“I don’t think I could go back if I wanted to,” Stephanie said. “So I guess I might as well go forward.”
“That’s the spirit!” The Doctor exclaimed.
“So that’s it, then? Crisis over?” DiNozzo asked.
Gibbs answered before the Doctor could, his words clipped and his tone firm: “That’s it.”
DiNozzo nodded, his mouth twisted into a rueful frown, then summed things up with his own unique brand of honesty: “Well…that was anticlimactic.”