“What have we got?” Gibbs stared through the window at the man in the interrogation room. He was sitting very still, eyes front, but Gibbs had the sense that he was perfectly aware of everything around him.
That kind of alertness was useful in battle. It was less useful in a civilian setting.
Gibbs - and everyone else - was wondering if that soldier-alertness had led to the corpse on Ducky’s table down in the morgue.
Tony cleared his throat. “Lieutenant Aiden Ford, United States Marines -”
“I read his dog tags, thanks,” Gibbs said.
“Went MIA back in 2005 from a research base in Antarctica.”
Gibbs raised his eyebrows. “Antarctica?”
“And his commanding officer was then-Major John Sheppard, now Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard of the United States Air Force.”
“Air Force?” Gibbs spun to look at Tony.
Tony shrugged. “That’s what we dug up. Lieutenant Ford’s only known relatives are his grandparents in Brooklyn and his sister in Boston. Ziva got on the phone to them. They haven’t heard from him since 2004 when he told them he was shipping out to a classified posting. They learned he was MIA in 2005 when the Air Force sent them a video recording of him basically saying goodbye.”
“What has he been doing for the last four years?”
“The Air Force presumed he was dead,” Tony said.
“Well, the Air Force presumed wrong.” Gibbs turned to study Aiden Ford some more. He certainly didn’t look like a marine. His hair was too long, unkempt. His clothes were clean but ill-fitting, likely stolen. There was some scarring around his left eye that looked like claw marks. He was sitting so, so still.
“What does his CO have to say about him?” Gibbs asked.
“Colonel Sheppard couldn’t be reached for comment, but Chief Master Sergeant Harriman was kind enough to take a message.”
Gibbs glanced at his watch. “What time is it in Antarctica?”
“We did some digging, and Chief Master Sergeant Walter Harriman is stationed at Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado,” Tony said. “The little airman who put me on hold when I called McMurdo transferred me to Colorado.”
“Colorado’s only a couple of hours behind us. Get someone on the phone, someone who can give us real answers,” Gibbs said.
“On it, Boss.”
Tony turned to go and came up short when he saw McGee, fist raised to knock.
“Hey, Boss,” McGee said, “Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard is here to see you.”
Gibbs glanced at his watch again. “When did you call McMurdo?”
“Two hours ago, Boss,” Tony said, wide-eyed.
“He’s who he says he is,” McGee said. “He’s got the dog tags, and he matches the photo in his service jacket. Ziva and I looked it up.”
“Well, let’s go talk to Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard.” Gibbs gestured for Tony and McGee to precede him. He wanted to get the measure of the other man before engaging. Tony and McGee headed out into the bullpen. Tony made a beeline for his desk, and McGee went to speak to -
How the hell did a man like that make light-bird? John Sheppard was tall and slender, with non-regulation hair that was nothing but cow-licks. He wasn’t even wearing a uniform, was wearing dark jeans and a black turtleneck sweater, and looked like the kind of man Gibbs would have shot, had his daughter brought him home to dinner, handsome and too aware of it to be safe.
“Agent Gibbs will be with you in a moment, Colonel Sheppard.”
Sheppard inclined his head politely but said nothing, just leaned against the divider between Ziva and Gibbs’s cubicles with his hands in his pockets.
Sheppard was scanning the room, Gibbs realized. The slouchy posture was genuinely casual, but he was alert and aware. Battle aware. What was going on in Antarctica these days? Ziva, Gibbs noticed, was appreciating the lean lines of Sheppard’s form out of the corner of her eye.
Gibbs strode into the bullpen, straight for Sheppard.
“I’m Special Agent Gibbs.”
Sheppard straightened up, offered a hand. “Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard. I was informed by a staff officer that you have Lieutenant Aiden Ford in custody.”
“That we do.”
“Is he being charged with a crime?”
“He’s a person of interest.”
Sheppard’s expression was unreadable, but he cleared his throat. “Is he all right?”
Gibbs frowned. “My people haven’t mistreated him.”
“I wasn’t suggesting they had,” Sheppard said. “It’s been three and a half years since I’ve seen him, and when we last parted ways he wasn’t in very good shape.”
Three and a half years. That was half a year after Ford had been declared MIA.
“He’s unharmed,” Gibbs said.
“Can I see him?”
Gibbs was surprised by the request, had expected Sheppard to demand or cajole or charm his way in to seeing Ford. “Where were you last night at 3AM?” Ducky had given Gibbs a tentative window on TOD.
Sheppard raised his eyebrows. “3AM? I was asleep at my brother’s house in Virginia,” he said. “I’m home on leave.”
And yet McMurdo had transferred Tony to Cheyenne Mountain. “Can anyone confirm your alibi?”
“My brother. He has anti-boyfriend cameras all over the house after my nephew’s boyfriend tried to sneak in a couple of months back. I’m sure he’d let you check the footage.”
That was a very convenient alibi.
Gibbs glanced at McGee, who nodded. “I’ll need someone to check that before I let you back to see him.”
Sheppard nodded and fished into his pocket for a simple flip phone. Given that he was wearing designer jeans and a fancy sweater and the kind of shoes that would make Tony jealous, the simplicity of his phone was odd. He prodded the buttons slowly, with the kind of hesitant slowness Gibbs was all too familiar with, and then he said, “I can give one of your agents my brother’s number.”
“McGee,” Gibbs said, because he didn’t want Sheppard charming Tony or Ziva, “escort Colonel Sheppard to the conference room and bring him a beverage and a snack while we run his alibi.”
McGee nodded. And talk to him was implicit in Gibbs’s request.
Ziva, who’d averted her gaze from Sheppard’s form as soon as Gibbs started talking to him, glanced up and smiled at Sheppard as McGee led him away. As soon as Sheppard and McGee were out of earshot, she beckoned Gibbs over. She still had Sheppard’s service jacket up on her screen.
He was a chopper pilot, had a black mark on his record for disobeying an order and attempting to rescue a fellow soldier in Afghanistan. He’d failed and the other soldier had died. He’d been transferred to McMurdo flying transport - a glorified cab driver in the sky, definitely a punishment - and then his status had been shifted to classified, and there was - nothing. Except commendations, combat pay, hazard pay, and a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel and military commander of the base.
Promotion right around the time young Lieutenant Ford was listed MIA.
Tony was on the phone to David Sheppard, asking about his brother’s whereabouts. Tony spun it well, about ruling John Sheppard out as a suspect, and soon he had the footage from the anti-boyfriend cameras.
“Alibi checks out,” Tony said after he and McGee scanned it. “Apart from getting up in the middle of the night to get a drink of water and spending some time in the den reading War and Peace - he’s jet-lagged, according to his brother - Colonel Sheppard is clean.”
“He knew about the cameras, though,” Ziva pointed out. “Look at his service record. He has pararescue training. He’s been drawing combat pay for the past five years. Surely he could evade the cameras if he was aware of them.”
“Maybe he could, but he’s on-camera during the TOD window,” Tony said. “If he weren’t on them, that’d be one thing, but he’s a soldier, not a hacker, and I doubt he’d have the skills to pre-record a video, loop it into his brother’s anti-boyfriend camera feed, and then fix the time stamps so no one would notice.”
“Not even if he received his masters in topological combinatorics?” Ziva asked.
Tony blinked. “Bless you.”
“Advanced mathematics,” Ziva said. “Colonel Sheppard is a very intelligent man.”
“Lieutenant Ford received his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering,” Tony added.
Ziva glared at him - so she’d been the one to pull service jackets. She typed rapidly. “Look - Colonel Sheppard’s second-in-command is Major Evan Lorne, who received his masters in geophysics. Major Anne Teldy has a degree in chemistry. Colonel Samantha Carter, who was Colonel Sheppard’s CO for a year, has advanced degrees in astrophysics.”
So many scientist-soldiers all in one classified program. Gibbs scanned Sheppard’s record further.
“Geeks with guns,” Tony said. “Guy’s got style, for a geek. McGee only wishes he was that styling.”
“You only wish you’re that styling,” Ziva muttered.
Tony got that look on his face like he was going to stick his tongue out at her as soon as Gibbs turned his back.
“What now, Boss?” Ziva asked.
“Let Sheppard back to see Ford,” Gibbs said.
Tony went to summon McGee. McGee and Sheppard emerged from the conference room. McGee shrugged ever so faintly - he hadn’t gotten anything useful from Sheppard. Sheppard looked unruffled by the delay, instead followed the entire team back to the chat room where Ford was still waiting.
Gibbs had the honor of unlocking the door and showing Sheppard into the room.
Ford was on his feet in an instant, in perfect parade ground posture, saluting. “Sir!”
If Gibbs hadn’t believed Ford was a Marine before, he knew Ford was one now, but he couldn’t imagine any self-respecting Marine reacting to a Chair Force officer with such energy.
But Sheppard definitely was an officer. He had textbook posture, and his salute in return probably made the Air Force guardian angels weep with joy.
“At ease, Lieutenant,” Sheppard said, and Ford sat down.
Sheppard sat opposite him. Both of them sat with their hands on the table in front of them, posture very careful. Both showing they were unarmed. Why was that necessary? Sheppard had his back to Gibbs, which was a little irritating - Gibbs wanted to be able to read his face - but Ford looked relaxed, marginally, with a familiar face.
“What’s going on?” Sheppard asked. “Why are you here? How are you here?”
“I could ask the same thing of you.”
“I’m still listed as your CO.”
Ford raised his eyebrows. “Still listed -?”
“You were alive when I saw you last, and you saved me and my team,” Sheppard said. “I wasn’t going to let them list you KIA. All of the teams had standing orders to report back with any leads on you.”
Ford sat back, and his shoulders relaxed a fraction more.
Sheppard cleared his throat. “You look -”
“Like you’ve been clean a good long while.”
Ford huffed. “Actually, I probably really need a bath. If McKay were here, he’d be slathering himself in homemade sanitizer that smells like tropical pineapple or something.”
Sheppard said nothing, and Ford’s amusement faded.
“Yeah, I’m clean. Took about a year, but I did it.”
“On your own?”
“Had to keep running. I was on to them, but they were on to me. I heard about what you did, with Michael and Todd and some of the others, and I tried to help on my end, but I’m just one guy. I’m certainly no John Sheppard.”
Gibbs knew more than one soldier had fallen under the sway of narcotics to numb the horror of combat. Given Sheppard’s record, his trying to save a friend in Afghanistan, Gibbs wasn’t surprised Sheppard had refused to give up on a soldier who’d become an addict and gone AWOL. However, the evidence at the scene where they’d found the anonymous man’s body didn’t have the marks of a drug deal gone wrong.
“You’re a good soldier, and a good Marine,” Sheppard said. He sat back, posture also more relaxed. “That doesn’t tell me how you got here, or why you’re in NCIS lock-up.”
“You know I majored in engineering, right? In college.”
“It’s been a long time since I read your file, Ford.”
“I wasn’t anything like McKay or Zelenka, but I was smart enough to fix up what I needed to get home.”
“But I thought you needed - that only our base had -”
“No, not by a long shot. Finding what I needed was hard, don’t get me wrong. Took me years. But I found one, and once I found it - well, I never forgot our address. It was something we all learned under the Mountain with Dr. Jackson. Always, always be able to phone home.”
Our address, Ford said. Gibbs raised his eyebrows. Had he and Sheppard been -? Sheppard had spoken so casually about his nephew’s boyfriend.
Sheppard, who was an Officer of the United States Air Force. Sheppard, who’d almost died trying to rescue a fellow soldier, who’d covered for the addiction and AWOL of another.
Sheppard leaned in. “Did anyone follow you?”
“No. I made sure I was on a - somewhere deserted before I dialed home.”
“But you left behind the means -”
“No one else knows the address. And there are a lot of possible combinations.”
“Thirty-million, two-hundred and sixty thousand, three hundred and forty.”
“You made my point for me, sir.”
“I rigged the gate to blow after I was through.”
Sheppard sat back. “Like I said, you’re a good Marine.”
“Been a long time since I was a Marine.”
“No such thing as an ex-Marine, as I understand it,” Sheppard said. His voice was - kind. He wore kindness awkwardly, but Ford was responding like he thought Sheppard was sincere.
“I knew you didn’t completely hate us jarheads.”
“Hey now, hate’s a pretty strong word,” Sheppard began, and Ford laughed.
He looked younger when he laughed, brighter. “I’m just messing with you.”
Sheppard leaned back. “How did you get here, though? I mean, how did no one notice? If you dialed straight home - there are only two ways to get through. And you’d need the garage door opener. With the right code.”
Gibbs knew those pauses, those elisions. They were talking around something classified.
“You know how you can calculate the number of possible phone number combinations in an instant?” Ford asked.
“I didn’t realize you knew I could do that,” Sheppard admitted.
The corner of Ford’s mouth curved up in amusement. “I suspect not a lot of people do. Well, you can do that, and I can figure out how to configure a scoopy thingie to scoop me up and then un-scoop me when I want it to. On the other side.”
“You...really?” Sheppard sounded impressed. “That’s - damn. How?”
“Don’t tell McKay, but I actually listened to him most of the time when he was talking.”
Sheppard huffed. “Yeah, your secret is safe with me. So, what do I need to do to spring you from this joint? Because you can bet a whole bunch of people want to talk to you.”
“Well, I was looking for General O’Neill, so I could talk to him.”
“Ah, DC. Makes perfect sense.”
“I figured you were - well. Still posted overseas.”
“A fair assumption.”
“Otherwise I’d have come looking for you.”
“I was looking for a place to nap - I’m used to roughing it - and someone else thought the same place would be a great place to commit a murder. So -”
“So stop talking and I’ll run it up the chain, see if we need to get you a JAG officer or other lawyer type,” Sheppard said. He stood up, and Ford rose as well.
“It was good to see you again, sir,” Ford said.
“And you, Lieutenant. We still have a lot more catching up to do,” Sheppard said. “Teyla had a baby, by the way.”
“Really? Good for her!” Ford lit up again, then paused. “Wait, did you two -?”
“No, no! One of her own people, a guy she was sweet on for a while. But she named him after me. Torren John.”
“That’s really great. And McKay?”
“Is dating the CMO,” Sheppard said.
Ford gaped. “McKay and Beckett?”
“Ah, no. New CMO. Jennifer. She’s - trying to tame him.”
Ford snorted. “McKay? Tame? Please.”
Sheppard shrugged. “Well, sometimes he’s a little nicer, a bit more that’s not entirely idiotic instead of You’re going to die in a fire of your own making, Fumbles McStupid.”
“What happened to Beckett?”
“It’s - complicated. But I’ll tell you the whole story sometime. Just -” Sheppard made a twirling gesture. “Little pitchers, big ears.”
Ford nodded. “Right. Later, Colonel.”
“Later, Lieutenant.” Sheppard turned and knocked on the door, and at Gibbs’s nod, Tony went and opened the door.
Sheppard stepped out. “Thank you for letting me speak to him. Are you going to let him go any time soon?”
“We don’t know. Our investigation is still pending,” Gibbs said.
“If you do let him out before someone else from the Air Force comes for him, call me, so he can stay with me,” Sheppard said.
It was Ziva who said, “Let me take down your contact information.”
Sheppard nodded and followed her back to her desk.
“What do you think, Boss?” Tony asked in a low voice.
“I think,” Gibbs said, “that they’re both hiding something, and I want to know what it is.” Sheppard had spoken like it was a given that someone else from the Air Force was going to come and fetch Lieutenant Ford. It probably was. “So let’s find out.”
They found out two things: the dead man from the alley was one Marine Sergeant Ryan Billick, and Ford probably hadn’t killed him. No GSR on his hands, no gun found at the scene. He wasn’t much of a witness, having been asleep, then concealing himself for his own safety during the struggle he overheard. But there was something he wasn’t saying, and Gibbs needed to get to the bottom of it to figure out who’d killed Billick. Abby and Ziva might soften the guy up, get him to open up. Gibbs was hoping he opened up before the Air Force sent someone to collect him. Which they did.
John Sheppard in class A blues with sunglasses was the kind of movie lone wolf pilot that audiences loved but who realistically shouldn’t have made it much past captain in the real world. But he had with him a major who looked like the poster boy for Air Force protocol - uniform perfectly pressed, shoes so shiny Gibbs could see his reflection in them (he actually glanced down and checked) and regulation hair. Sheppard also had with him a dark-skinned, dark-haired woman who moved like Ziva and whose smile was perfectly sweet and pleasant, designed to set people at ease; Gibbs suspected her smile could turn razor-sharp in an instant. The fourth member of the Air Force’s babysitting squad was a veritable giant of a man wearing a button-down shirt and slacks and sporting definitely non-regulation dreadlocks. The man gave off an air of barely-leashed tension, a tiger pacing a cage. The way he deferred to Sheppard, though, said something about Sheppard.
“Agent Gibbs,” Sheppard said. “We’re here for Lieutenant Ford.”
“I’m surprised it’s you and not the Marines,” Gibbs said.
“I’m still technically Ford’s CO.” Sheppard shrugged.
“Well, your boy’s been cleared.” Gibbs nodded at Tony, and Tony ducked away to fetch Ford from the conference room where he’d been set to watching Abby’s collection of Harry Potter DVDs.
Ford emerged from the conference room, and his eyes went wide when he saw who was waiting for him.
“Aiden, it is so good to see you again,” the woman said.
Ford stepped toward her, and Gibbs thought they were going to hug, but instead they pressed their foreheads together, some kind of ritual greeting.
Ziva raised her eyebrows, surprised. Not a custom she knew, then.
“Hey, Ronon,” Ford said to the giant man, looking chagrined. “Where’s McKay?”
“Waiting with the car,” Sheppard said. “Thank the nice agents at NCIS for their hospitality, and then get ready for the longest briefing of your life.”
Ford winced. “I’ll bet.” He eyed the major. “I don’t think we’ve met.”
“Just once. You shot me and left me unconscious in hostile territory with known enemy combatants on the loose, but I woke up eventually.”
Ford blinked. “Oh, I - I’m sorry.”
“I’m still here. No harm, no foul. Major Evan Lorne.” He offered a hand.
Ford shook it warily. “Lieutenant Aiden Ford.”
“Glad we finally found you, Lieutenant. There’s some coffee and fresh pastries in the car. You’ll be needing them before you see General O’Neill. When I was kidnapped, I was only gone for seventy-two hours, and I’m pretty sure my debrief lasted twice as long as that. Welcome back to the bureaucracy of the armed forces.” Major Lorne clapped Ford on the shoulder and headed for the elevator.
Gibbs watched them go and felt like he had more questions than answers, but the only answers that mattered were the ones about Sergeant Ryan Billick’s death.
The elevator doors slid closed, and Gibbs turned back to his team. “All right, where are we on Ryan Billick?”
“Boss,” McGee said, with that nervous note in his voice like he was afraid Gibbs wasn’t going to like what he said next.
“Four years ago, Sergeant Ryan Billick was assigned to McMurdo in Antarctica, and his CO was Major Evan Lorne.”