73. Portland, North Dakota, Kansas
The dream of the nineties might still be alive in Portland, but neither of them saw any proof of that.
What Abby did learn, and granted this was something she had a somewhat firm handle on, but had never really seen in action, is the fact that Tim might be a certifiable genius.
It’s not a shock or anything. The guy’s a federal agent, bestselling author, and a computer wizard. Tim is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an intellectual lightweight.
But there’s the two of them talking geek to each other, which usually leaves the rest of team NCIS in the dust, and then there’s Tim with Steve and Dan.
They lived together for a year while at MIT. Tim getting his MS in forensic computing, Steve was getting his PhD in pure mathematics, and Dan was working on a MS in computer learning.
About ten minutes into a mind-blowing dinner (and not just for the conversation. The sushi and sake is beyond excellent. Abby’s not the only one who looks like she wants to lick the plate.) the conversation’s ranging from Beal’s Conjecture to machine learning, to Tim’s own sandbox, forensic computing, and back again into esoteric math, with a smattering of string theory, and some astrophysics to round things out before they got into the intricacies of MMORGing.
Abby’s no slouch in the science department, and she’s got brains coming out the ears (and the MENSA certification to prove it.) But even she got a little lost when the three of them got talking about Dan’s current project. She understood they all thought it was sexy as hell and beyond awesome, and she got the basic idea, feed the program a problem with a ton of variables. Then the program crunches the numbers in a bunch of different ways. Pretty straightforward. Then it somehow figures out which of the answers were the best. So it combines the programs that got the best answers, mates them with each other to come up with even better answers. And keeps doing that. On its own. Supposedly, eventually coming up with the ultimate version of whatever formula would answer the question it had originally been asked. But when Tim and Dan got talking shop on the actual programming she and Steve just sat there and stared.
Finally Steve said, “They used to do this for hours. I’d finish my homework, they’d be talking and messing with their computers. I’d go to bed. I’d get up the next morning, they’d still be at it.”
“Nah, we just did that to mess with you,” Dan said. “We’d break off for Warcraft when you went to sleep. That’s why we always had better gear.”
Tim just smiled, and the conversation slipped to life in academia, which Tim and Abby didn’t know much about first hand, but didn’t have any trouble keeping up with.
Finally Dan asked, “So how’s being a Fed? Did it work the way they promised?”
Tim nods. “Pretty much. Better really. Met her my first year.”
Steve just stared at her for a moment and then said, “You’re a cop?”
“No. I’m a forensic specialist.”
“She runs our lab.”
Steve grins. “Good, the world makes sense again. No one as smart and sexy as you should be a cop.”
Abby smiles at Tim, “He’s a cop.”
“And he’s nowhere near as sexy as you are,” Dan finishes.
Tim whips out his cell phone. “Lots of sexy at NCIS.” And shows them pictures of Ziva and several other co-workers.
“Damn, if I had known all the beautiful women were Feds, I would have taken them up on their offer,” Dan said.
“We both got offers from Federal Agencies,” Tim adds to explain Dan’s comment.
“Machine learning was pretty hot for the FAA and all four branches of the military. But CMU gave me a better deal, so I went with them. I’m still surprised Tim didn’t end up with the CIA or IRS, they gave him way better offers than NCIS.”
He shrugs a little, Abby staring at him. “The CIA was willing to pay for my doctorate as long as I got it overseas and paid close attention to the people around me while I did it. IRS offered a ton of money and a car.”
“Why did you take NCIS?” Abby asks. She knows about the thing with his Dad, and wonders how it actually went down.
“You ever meet Nick Armstrong?” Tim asks.
She nods, he was an agent out of the Mike Franks mold. After he lost an eye and was taken out of field work, he became a recruiter for NCIS.
“He asked me if I was John McGee’s kid. I said yes. And he said, ‘Screw this behind a desk bullshit. Come with me, you’ll put real bad guys in jail, carry a gun, and get the girl, while using your computer skills.’”
Abby looked amused. “Yeah, he would have said something like that.”
“It took ten years, but he was right.”
“So they do let you carry a gun?” Steve asks.
“Yeah. I’m actually really good with one now.”
“Huh.” Dan looks really surprised. “We took him shooting once, and he flinched every time the gun fired. He did manage to hit a target, but not his own.”
He looks at Abby, “Remember when I told you that Jim Nelson got me through FLETC? That was the help I needed. I couldn’t shoot to save my life.”
“Not a problem anymore,” she says with a little smile.
“If he’s showing off, he’ll shoot a smiley face in the target at 200 meters.”
Dan and Steve just stare at him, and he can see the image of him they have in his mind, twenty-three years old, all three of them at the range, flinching each time anyone fired, and not having anything that anyone would ever consider a good time.
Tim shrugs. “You get to a point where just head shots aren’t very challenging.”
Dan’s shaking his head. “Wow.”
Tim grins. “So tell us about Tokyo, you did a fellowship there, right?”
“Where are you?” Tony asks the next day over the video connection. It always surprises Tim how different MTAC looks from this side of the connection.
“What the hell is in Montana?”
“No speed limits.” Tony looks irked by that, but Ziva smiles. “So what’s up?”
Tony begins to fill him in on the case and how they’d hit a snag trying to get through the suspect’s firewall.
“Okay, let me patch into my work computer. I’ll have something for you in a few hours.”
|To the earth we return.|
DC in January has nothing on North Dakota in October. There were a few ghost towns Abby wanted to see, so, since they had the time, and it was in the right general direction, North Dakota went on the itinerary. Real ghost towns, the stuff of so many legends, how could that not be awesome?
But he’s not exactly having a grand time. It’s too cold, too dead, too ruined, and with the wind howling away, not nearly quiet enough.
As they stood on a windswept plain, flurries dancing around them, a barn, a church, a feed lot, two houses, and a forgotten crossroads all slowly being eaten by the prairie, Abby said, “How about we head south from here?”
“That sounds like a really good idea to me.”
They were sitting on a bed in a hotel room in Aberdeen, South Dakota, Tim writing an email, Abby updating their Picasa album, when she said, “I got a good one of you.”
He came to a stop a minute or so later and looked up. “Let me see.”
She flips her computer around to him, and he looks. “Not bad.” It’s not so much of him, as a picture he happens to be in. It’s from the second ghost town they had seen, Reslin. Once upon a time, round about 1900 close to three hundred people had lived there. Now it was just wind, a few buildings, and grass that spread out forever.
He’s standing in front of the church, because all of these little towns had churches, and though the homes and barns and farms and schools all slowly fell apart, people kept going to the churches. Every one of those towns they saw, the church was the building in the best upkeep, because it was the last thing abandoned.
But no one had lived in this town since 1952, and even the church was listing about thirty degrees shy of vertical.
He’s standing in front of it, the only thing in the shot upright. The church, the ground, rolling in long soft swells, and the three houses still standing in the background were all at different sloping angles. The wind was whipping around, fast and hard, pulling on his coat. Standing there, staring into what looked like endless of miles of nothing that had ever been touched by the hand of another man, he could understand how wind could drive a person mad.
So, it’s not any sort of happy picture. It’s mostly shades of weather beaten gray and brown, dead grass yellow. His coat is khaki, so he sort of blends into the color scheme. And he’s not looking at her as she took it, his face is in profile, eyes far away as he scans the horizon. But yeah, it’s a good picture.
“I like it.”
She smiles at him. “Thanks.”
“Any other good ones?”
She flicks through a few of the other shots, mostly the prairie going on forever and ever with tiny little hints that humans had been there, and vanished, sticking out like wind beaten tombstones.
He goes back to his email, updating Sarah as to how the trip was going, and then finished up. He stands up, stretches, and looks out the window. Downtown Aberdeen isn’t precisely a metropolis.
“So, what are you thinking, check out and hit the road, or have some dinner and sleep here?”
Once they got east of the mountains they went back to driving at night. With the moon only a few days past full, the views of the sky were amazing, even if the actual prairie was a bit dull.
“How about we head on? Maybe make St. Louis by morning?”
“Sounds good.” He closes up his computer and begins to pack up his gear. When he finished, he sat next to her, and saw she still had that picture up on her computer.
She looks at him looking at it and kisses his cheek.
“What time is it?” Abby asks.
He gets her asking, they’re tearing along an empty road, millions of acres of dried corn stalks all around, top down, sky wide and bright above them, full moon waning amid millions of stars, now is not a good time for her to look away from the road to check the clock.
“Good.” She hits the break and pulls them over.
“Okay,” he says, wondering what was going on. There isn’t anything special he could think of for this time of night.
Once the car stops, she unbuckles and crawls into his lap, straddling his legs and wrapping her arms around his neck.
“Hi,” Tim says, looking fairly puzzled.
“It’s 11:24, October 23rd.”
“Yep.” He’s nodding, hoping she’ll let him in on what’s up soon.
“You have no clue why this is important, do you?”
He’s shaking his head. “Not a one.”
She laughs. “Think hard.”
An idea hits, and he squints a little. “I thought that was next week.”
“It’s today. This time a year ago, you were telling me you loved me over a milk shake.”
He smiles. “Best decision I ever made.”
“I’ll second that. I have something for you.”
“Really?” His eyebrows shoot up.
“Yeah.” She tugs her purse out from behind his seat.
“I don’t have anything for you. Thought I still had a week.”
“You think our anniversary is Halloween?”
He shrugs. “Well, for the sex part of it. I guess the date part happened on the 30th.”
She looks like she wonders how he could have lost a week, so he says, “We got dressed up in costumes; we went out. I wasn’t paying all that much attention to the date. Paying much more attention to the beautiful woman I was with.”
“You are forgiven. For the record, it’s the 23rd into the 24th.”
“Am making a mental note.”
She found her MP3 player. Then took a moment to disconnect his and hook hers up to the car stereo. A second after that she noticed that it wasn’t going to play with the key in the off position, so she reached over to turn it to on.
“It’s nothing big. Just… I suck at poems, and this said it better than I did the nine times I tried. So…”
“You wrote me a poem?”
“I tried. Then I set them on fire.”
“No.” He sounds pained at that. The idea that Abby wrote him a poem really appeals to him. “Don’t do that. I would have liked to have seen them.”
“They were bad, really, really bad.”
“They were yours.” He pets her face and kisses her.
“They were still really bad.”
“So was the first one I gave you.”
“No, Tim, it wasn’t. It was just young and enthusiastic. And the stuff I was coming up with, it was bad, really bad, objectively bad. Breena and Ziva both told me they were bad, too. And not, oh-that’s-so-cute-bad, but oh-god-what-the-hell-is-wrong-with-you-that-you’d-even-try-that-bad.”
“I doubt that.”
“I bounced the last one off Jimmy, and he winced.”
“Ewww.” Okay, that probably meant it really was bad. “I still would have liked to have seen them.”
“If I ever try again, I’ll keep that in mind. Anyway, this isn’t bad.” She shifts so she’s sitting across his lap, feet in the driver’s seat, her head on his shoulder, his arms around her, and hit the play button.
Music that was very un-Abby eases out of the speakers. Though, as he listens he thinks it’s not so much un-Abby as just not something she’d usually listen to. There’s a sweetness to it that does remind him of her. Soft piano, gentle and almost tentative sounding. A woman’s voice, breathy with a bit of country sound began to sing.
Inside my skin
There is this space
It twists and turns
It bleeds and aches
Inside my heart
there’s an empty room
It’s waiting for lightning
It’s waiting for you
And I am wanting
I am needing you here
Inside the absence of fear
Muscle and sinew
Velvet and stone
This vessel is haunted
It creeks and moans
My bones call to you
In a separate skin
Make myself translucent
To let you in, boy
I am wanting
I am needing you here
Inside the absence of fear
There is this hunger
This restlessness inside of me
And it knows that you’re no stranger
You’re my gravity.
My hands will adore you through all darkness and
They will lay you out in moonlight
And reinvent your name
For I am wanting
I am needing you here
I need you near
Inside the absence of fear.
And then the song drifted off, leaving them on a quiet road in the middle of Kansas, a bit of wind and dried corn stalks rustling against each other in the background.
“I still have all of them, you know? Every poem you’ve ever written me. They all live in that little mahogany box with the jade rim. And I wanted to do that for you, or something like it. I wanted to give you that feeling, that someone loved you enough to find the right words and lay them at your feet. But my own words weren’t working and the harder I tried the worse they got and--”
“Shhhh.” He kisses her lips, stilling her flood of nervous words. Then he took the MP3 player from her and hit the repeat button. “It’s beautiful. What is it?”
“Jewel, Absence of Fear.” She kisses him. “You make me fearless, Tim.”
He kisses her. “Thank you.” He smiles, glowing at her with the joy of this. “And those are the perfect words.”
For Abby: Fearless Under the Stars
We drive at night
Because we belong there.
In cool dark
and gleaming starlight
touched by time eternal
Glistening silver and blue
The stars are fire
Collected and shared with us by the moon
And the car is earth shaped by man
We are water given form and set walking
And the wind dances around us, flows over your skin
We are not eternal
Will not be
Though the light is
Traveling millions of years
Millions of miles
To touch your face
I would be the light for you
Born of a star
Traveling to the end of the galaxy and beyond
To touch your skin
And you the moon for me
Sharing that caress
Letting the rest of the universe see love made light
Together we’ll light the dark
And find a few seconds of immortality.
The last day of the trip saw them going over the Blue Ridge Mountains. Sunset into night, a crescent moon hanging over hundreds of miles of flame colored leaves.