Disclaimer: Mine! Mine! All mine!

Yes, doctor. I'll come along quietly. You don't need the white jacket with the sleeves that cross…

A/N: I'd like everyone to know that this story came about because someone with the lovely nic of cflat made mention of wanting an NCIS/Numb3rs crossover. I immediately told myself, "no way," and then couldn't stop thinking of how to make it happen. This takes place before 'Frenemies', where Charlie and Penfield are rather less cordial toward each other…

Each Other's Back

By OughtaKnowBetter

"That, McGee," Tony DiNozzo announced to the bull pen, "is the very pinnacle of pitiful. It doesn't get much lower than that. A disgrace to single men across this great nation of ours. I can't believe you're actually going to something like that, on a Friday night, no less."

It had been a long week, a week filled with stake-outs that called for caffeine-laden nights and a finale that included a knife fight that had left Leroy Jethro Gibbs one-handedly pecking at the keyboard to finish his report. Director Vance had offered to hijack a clerical worker from the pool to take dictation; Gibbs had declined hurriedly.

It wasn't that Gibbs didn't play well with others…well, yes, it was, McGee reflected. Gibbs barely tolerated his team let alone clerical workers, substitute NCIS agents, and G-men from any other branch of the government. About the only people he could get along with were fellow Marines and his boat, and the boat didn't talk. Maybe it did, but McGee couldn't hear what it said…

Not so DiNozzo. McGee's fellow agent could talk to anyone and everyone. Whether he said something intelligible was another story, but the senior NCIS agent could talk someone's ear off until they confessed. The man was everything that Timothy McGee had grown up envying and despising: suave and handsome, physically adept, with a gift at charming the opposite sex.

DiNozzo knew it, and knew that McGee was the exact opposite. Women? McGee stuttered. A jock? McGee lived in fear that someone would decide that he needed to retake the physical fitness qualifying tests over again, only this time McGee wasn't about to say that he would pass. McGee could dash through cyberspace with the best of them, but put his feet to the track with a stopwatch and things came to a screeching halt. There was a reason that McGee was a novelist: the four minute mile was a great deal easier to achieve if it was done with a surfeit of verbiage.

And now this. McGee summoned his best riposte: "Yes, Tony, that is exactly what I intend to do. It happens to be on a Friday night, and I intend to go as soon as I finish here."

Ziva chimed in, coming to his rescue. "I think it's admirable of McGee to attend this mathematics lecture, Tony. He is improving his mind. You? Do you ever improve your mind, Tony?"

It would have sounded better to McGee if he thought that the Mossad officer really meant it. No, the reason that Ziva had leaped to McGee's defense was more personal for the woman: it was a chance to snipe at DiNozzo. Still, McGee appreciated the effort. "Thank you, Ziva."

"You're welcome, McGee." She turned her gaze upon him. "You are taking a woman to this event, McGee? Perhaps meeting her there?"

"Of course," McGee lied stoutly.

"Oh, ho!" DiNozzo laughed, smelling blood and going after it with shark-like gusto. "The geek version of a date, McGee?"

"She happens to be a very attractive young lady," McGee told his fellow NCIS agents, making it up on the spot. He was a novelist, wasn't he? Creativity was the hallmark of the profession. He should make it sound good while he was at it. If he was careful, he could turn this fictional female into an all-purpose get-out-DiNozzo's-jokes free card. "She recently finished her master's at MIT." There. That should shut DiNozzo up.

Not yet. DiNozzo guffawed. "I suppose you met her online, Probie?"

Hand it off. "As a matter of fact, I did," McGee admitted, trying to make it sound plausible and something that they might believe. "Tony, my own master's from MIT is in computer science. Can you think of a better way to meet a woman with matching interests?" There. Take that.

DiNozzo did, and handed it back with icing on the side. "That is the saddest thing I've ever heard, McGee. Don't you know that you've just made a date with a vice cop? It's probably a fifty year old guy with bad breath."

"In which case, I'll discover that at this math lecture," McGee said firmly, wonderfully pleased that the date was fictitious only. With McGee's luck, it would have indeed turned out to be a grizzled vice cop with a grungy beard and cauliflower ears from too much boxing practice. Wouldn't that have been a wonderful thing to explain to not only DiNozzo, but Gibbs as well? Gee, boss, she—or he—sounded so good online. "I'll let you know how it goes, Tony."

"You do that, McPitiful," DiNozzo told him, "but do it on Monday." He preened. "I have a date. A real date," he clarified. "Dinner. Movies; they have a series of black and white Bogart flicks playing at the Sherman. With a woman who doesn't wear a lab coat, especially cleaned for the occasion."

"Mathematicians don't wear lab coats, Tony."

"Details." DiNozzo waved that objection away. "The only numbers I'll be working with are one and two. Three is definitely too much for me."

"You can say that again," Ziva sniggered. "Advanced concepts in arithmetic!"

"Ha, ha," DiNozzo told her, well aware that he had offered the straight line. "I—"

He broke off, noting Gibbs's hand with the pristine white dressing rising in the air, the other engaged in holding the phone to his ear. The team went on alert, and all three—DiNozzo, Ziva, and McGee—strained to listen in.

"You need us to work the scene—?" Groans from the peanut gallery. It had been a long week, and they were looking to go home.

"Interesting—" That got their attention.

"The media is a flash drive. Got it." A flicker of a question toward McGee from their boss: what the hell was a flash drive? McGee held up a small data stick of his own, indicating that this was what Gibbs's unseen caller was talking about. Gibbs nodded his head in understanding, not missing a beat on his call. "I'll have my people wearing their pagers," he told his caller, apparently unaware that NCIS hadn't used pagers in nearly ten years, that cell phones performed the same actions with the added capability of speech.

The caller was clearly as familiar with Gibbs as his team, for the caller let the line slide by without so much as a comment, preferring instead to get to his or her own weekend pursuits. The call ended, with Gibbs hanging up the phone to glower at his team. McGee cynically wondered if those pursuits from the caller included additional work on the case that had just been handed over to the NCIS team or if the word 'dump' featured prominently in the headlines. McGee started to estimate how much time he could afford to spend in the office tonight before admitting that attending the math lecture wasn't going to happen. He sighed.

A small smile played over Gibbs's lips, suggesting that his boss had read the cyber-whiz's mind. "Keep your cells handy," he instructed his team, ignoring his own previous comment about pagers.

"Boss?" DiNozzo did the talking for them all.

"It's not ours, yet," Gibbs reassured them. "NSA just misplaced a message, had it taken off of a dead body that they were fond of."

"NSA, you said," DiNozzo said, relieved. "Not any of ours." Meaning that it wasn't an NCIS case.

"No, but the message was important enough that their boss called our boss, and a few more bosses including the FBI, CIA, and the Secretary of State."

"That is indeed important," Ziva observed. "What did the message say?"

"Classified, Ziva," Gibbs told her. "Sounds like a message that even the writer wasn't allowed to know what he was writing about." Gibbs leaned back in his chair. "Not our problem. Not at the moment," he added. "The FBI is handling the murder end of it. Everyone's hoping that the dead body will lead them to recovery of the code, and the FBI is in the best position to investigate."


"It's a big country," Gibbs said cryptically. "When they pinpoint it, they'll want to scramble and scramble fast. Anyone near the scrambling point is going to get called, no matter what they're in the middle of, DiNozzo," he added pointedly. "Even a Bogart flick." Leaving out what else DiNozzo could be in the middle of.

DiNozzo had the grace to redden. "Right, boss." He turned to McGee. "Even in the middle of adding two plus two, McGee."

McGee let the senior agent have his moment. "Right, Tony."

No matter what it looked like, it wasn't fear of flying.

No, Don Eppes, Special Agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, had no fear of flying. The nervous flicker of the fingers, playing at the seat belt wrapped loosely around his middle, had nothing to do with the fact that they were some thirty thousand feet in the air with only a thin sheet of metal keeping him from falling.

He shouldn't be nervous, he told himself, casting an envious glance at the passenger beside him. His brother wasn't nervous, and he was about to do the same thing.

He took a moment to observe his brother, Professor Charles Eppes, sitting in the airline seat beside him, cool as a cucumber and twice as bored. Charlie had his eyes closed, apparently finding sleep a better alternative to whiling away the five hours that it took the jet to cart them from Los Angeles to D.C. His kid brother was in one of his 'short' phases, with the dark curls not quite long enough to hide his forehead. He was dressed comfortably, feet encased in cross-trainers, the perfect rendition of today's professional: a mixture of comfort and professionalism. When had jeans become the new business uniform? Don himself had a sports coat tucked away in the overhead compartment, harking back to when the dark suit was the mandatory dress code. Skirts weren't optional, they had been forbidden, as had women back in the day…

Don could just bet that they hadn't had training classes like this, either. Not when J. Edgar was running things, a few decades ago. Don didn't mind training classes—liked them, in fact. There was one big problem, however, with this one: Don was the scheduled speaker.

And he hated speaking in public.

Off the cuff remarks to the press: no problem. Talking to his team: no problem. Talking to a crowd of over two hundred well-trained and knowledgeable FBI agents, all waiting for him to make a mistake or stutter or trip over his own shoes: big problem.

He could always ask Charlie how he did it, how he always spoke so knowledgeably on the spur of the moment to people so powerful that they could change the world with a single snap of their fingers. Unfortunately, he knew the answer that he'd get because he'd already asked Charlie that same question a couple of years ago: 'just know your stuff', was Charlie's response.

That was not the answer that Don needed. Don knew his stuff, knew it backwards and forwards and could even recite it sideways, but it wasn't helping. The butterflies in his gut were growing teeth and sitting still was only possible because the seatbelt limited his movement.

"Just pretend like you're talking to David and Colby."


"They're going to be right there in the audience," Charlie pointed out. "That's what you were thinking about, right? I could see it in your face."

"I thought you were sleeping."

"I was. You were thinking too loudly."

"I was thinking too loudly?" Keep this up, and Don was going to regret getting a seat next to Charlie. This was supposed to be a chance for a little bit of brother bonding. Fat lot of bonding going on with Charlie sleeping. And now this: "Chuck, I was not thinking too loudly. In case you hadn't noticed, thinking is a silent process."

"It was on your face," Charlie told him.

"Charlie, I've got a great poker face. My poker face can beat your card counting any day."

"Yeah, but you're not nervous when you play poker," Charlie said. "You blink when you're nervous."

"I am not nervous."

"Yes, you are." Charlie settled himself into the moderately wide expanse of the first class seat, both well aware that Professor Eppes's frequent flyer miles had enabled him to bump up Don's own business class accommodations for the trip. "Don, you face down criminals with guns and you come out grinning and trying to make Dad and me feel better about it. You used to look at fast balls coming at you at ninety miles per hour without blinking, and knock 'em out of the ballpark. There's only one thing that can make you jumpy, and it's—"

"Public speaking," Don finished for him, shaking his head. "And here I thought I was doing a good job of covering up."

"You were. It's just that you blink really fast—"

"I'll have to remember that," Don interrupted. "You got any more 'useful' hints for me?"

"Just know your material—"

"I already got that," Don interrupted a second time. "I know my material. I've got my speech written out."

"Then there should be no problem." Charlie leaned back, satisfied. "You've got all bases covered."

"So why am I still nervous?"

"Think of it as adrenalin, upping your reflexes," Charlie advised. "It's helping you to function better. Kind of like better able to jump out of the path of a speeding bullet."

Don gave him a sour look. "Thanks, Charlie. I needed that." He altered the subject. "How about you? I thought you were going to work on your own speech on the flight. We're almost to D.C."

"Oh. That." Charlie played with a small smirk.

"Yeah. That. You slept the whole way. You going to make up the speech on the spot?" Don wouldn't put it past his kid brother. Talking to the most influential mathematicians in the world, all flying into D.C. just for this conference, and Charlie hadn't prepared a damn thing.

"All done."

"Really? When?"

Bigger smirk. "Before we ever took off. I had the outline done two weeks ago, and filled in the blanks last Monday."

"Then why did you tell me you still had stuff to do?" Don asked, aggrieved.

Charlie shrugged. "Didn't want to make you feel bad."

Don glared at him. "This is gonna be a long weekend, Chuck."

The airliner loudspeaker clicked on. "All passengers, return to your seats and buckle your seatbelts. We'll be landing in Washington, D.C. in eight minutes. The weather is clear, sixty three degrees, and traffic is, as usual, busy."

Special Agent Timothy McGee inhaled deeply, looking around the lobby of the third Convention Center arena, feeling a sense of peace settle into his soul. All around were people bearing the stamp of intelligentsia, people who routinely turned down offers to join Mensa because other, more interesting pursuits took up their time. He couldn't honestly call the place crowded, but there were still enough scholars present to satisfy his sense of being among kindred souls, people who were here for the opportunity to listen to one of the premier mathematicians of the century discuss his research. There were a couple of other lectures that he'd like to get into—that one by Professor Marshall Penfield on Discrimination Between Partial Populations sounded as though it might have uses on the job—but McGee was really hoping to get a front row seat to the lecture on the Eppes Convergence. It was why he was early. It was why he had fretted about getting out of the office without getting caught by an incipient case.

No matter; he was here. He set his worries about his job to one side, concentrating on the sense of academic awe that he'd enjoyed during his years at MIT. Applied science in the form of tracking down suspects in the Name of Good and Righteousness was all very rewarding, but tonight McGee was after another sort of satisfaction.

He conscientiously set his cell on vibrate, noting the lack of messages lurking on the screen. Mixed blessing: no calls summoning him back to the job, but no calls from any eligible females, either—not that he expected any. McGee sighed. He didn't need a different chick on each arm every night of the week like Tony apparently went after, but it would be nice to have someone semi-permanently in his life. Abby might fit the bill, if only she'd look at him with something other than a 'colleague in the pursuit of Knowledge'. He sighed again; as much as he might like to, breaking the rules with respect to dating fellow office workers wasn't in his nature. No, if he wanted to get serious about Abby, he'd have to put in for a transfer and then he'd have to answer all sorts of embarrassing questions, and then what if Abby said no? Better to stay where he was and to gape at her from afar. Sort of. Gape at her from across the room. Sit next to her in front of a computer. Whatever.

Maybe he could find someone here at this convention? Always a possibility. He scanned the crowd: a fifty-fifty mix of genders, indicating the growing number of women entering the math and computer fields. This could work in his favor.

McGee made his way toward the main stage, intending to score a seat close to the front. There was no reason to do so—Professor Eppes's image would be transmitted onto the huge screen behind him on the stage. McGee would be able to count every pore in the man's face, if he so chose, from any seat in the house—but there was just something special about sitting close to the stage, as though he'd scored some front row seats to a ball game.

He paused by a singleton chair, next to a young woman with a notebook. DiNozzo, he thought, wouldn't have given her a second look: unremarkable dark brown hair that needed some scented hair product to tame it into submission, eyes that were fixed on her notes for a lecture that hadn't even started. There was one thing that McGee noted that he was certain that DiNozzo automatically looked for: no ring. Nothing to indicate that this woman was taken by anything more than a fancy for some higher learning.

McGee cleared his throat. "Excuse me. Is this seat taken?" he asked.

Nice smile. "No."

McGee himself rendered a return smile, and seated himself next to the girl. "Is this the first time you've listened to Dr. Eppes?"

"Yes. You?"

"Yes. I'm looking forward to hearing his views on some of the rebuttals to his work on Convergence Theory."

"So am I," she confided. "Perhaps he'll even answer a few queries on his ongoing research. I understand he's currently working on cognitive emergence."

"Should be interesting." McGee settled himself comfortably into his seat. It was going to be an enjoyable next few hours, dividing his attention between the lecture material and his next-seat companion.

"You look fine," David Sinclair soothed, distracting Don from his appearance in the mirror.

Don wasn't so sure. "I look like an idiot," he muttered. "I feel like an idiot. How did I ever let myself get talked into this?"

"It probably had something to do with the Director telling you that you weren't going to turn down the opportunity," Colby Granger suggested cheerfully.

Cheerful. It wasn't Granger's ass that was going to get laughed at, up on stage, talking into a mike that squealed. Except for the fact that throwing a punch would mess up his suit, Don really wanted swing a wild one.

"Think about how Charlie would be preparing right now," David suggested. "He's been doing this sort of thing for a long time."

Right. Take a hint from the annoying little brother who single-handedly destroyed Don's childhood, just like every other little brother did for every other big brother. Only, in Don's case, it wasn't just sibling rivalry, it was sibling rivalry on a logarithmic scale. Once the genius factor got added in, the annoyance factor shot up to the sky and beyond.

David hadn't had the challenge of up growing up with a certified genius, but he still tried to be sympathetic. He tried for distraction. "You have your notes?"

Moment of panic, as Don couldn't feel the thick wad of three by five cards stuffed into his jacket pocket. "I—there they are." His fingers clenched around the three dozen lifelines, and he could feel the sharp stab of adrenalin dissipate.

"When this is all over, we'll take you out to some over-priced Washington bar and get you drunk, man," Colby promised. "They're calling your name, Don. Get out there and knock 'em dead. In the figurative sense," he added hastily.

Don could hear the loudspeaker reverberating: "I'd like to introduce Special Agent Don Eppes, of the Los Angeles department…"

Oh, shit.

"I'd like to introduce Professor Charles Eppes, of CalSci. Dr. Eppes is well-known for the Eppes Convergence, as well as contributions to the world of Mathematics in the fields of…"

McGee let the voice drone on, tuning out the words, in order to concentrate on the man walking across the stage. He didn't need to listen; Dr. Eppes's accomplishments were listed in the program that McGee had clutched in his hand. Charles Eppes was shorter than he'd imagined, slender and with a mop of curls that McGee was certain that Ziva and Abby would see in their dreams for months if they should be fortunate enough to meet the man. Clearly athletic, Dr. Eppes moved easily toward the podium, the giant screen behind him magnifying every move. Large brown eyes scanned the crowd as if hunting for someone that he knew; small crinkles in his face suggested that several such individuals were present. McGee found himself comparing this man to the picture of the other guest speaker, a Professor Marshall Penfield, who would be speaking a bit later in the evening on Discrimination Between Partial Populations. Penfield was much taller—McGee had seen the man in the distance, conversing with some early guests in the lobby—with short and straight mousy brown hair. Penfield was far more the conventional picture of the studious math professor but in math, as in computer science, it was the outcome that mattered. Penfield was well-respected in the field, but Eppes was revered. Not that Eppes seemed to realize it: he bestowed a smile upon the audience with a suggestion of "how 'bout we get together afterward for a cup of coffee?"

Not what McGee was interested in; McGee was eager to get to the lecture itself. He could feel the woman in the seat next to him lean forward, drinking in every word.

"They tell me to start my lecture with a joke," Dr. Eppes began, "but every joke I tell seems to go over about as well as a mathematician at a psychic's convention." Mild murmur of polite laughter. "So I'll get right to the heart of the Convergence." Sigh of anticipation. "The focal point of the convergence lies in the concept of…"

McGee inhaled every word. He wouldn't be able to say that he understood all of the Convergence—it was, after all, math rather than computer science—but enough of it got through that he thought he'd be able to explain the gist of it to Abby. None of the others would understand it—get real. Ziva would nod politely, DiNozzo would crack a smart remark, and Gibbs would stare at him as though he'd grown two horns in the middle of his forehead—but Abby would coo and screech, 'of course, McGee! The man's a genius! If I'd only known that when I was trying to pull out the evidence on the Dark Angel case.'

Professor Eppes darted all around the stage during his presentation, gesturing up at the screen which alternated between his blown up image and the slides that he'd prepared to enhance his lecture and then dragging himself back to his podium in a salute to conventional public speaking techniques. The man clearly knew his topic and was prepared to answer any and all questions, including the rather pointed one aimed at him from someone in the front row—was that Penfield himself? Sure looked like it. McGee had heard that there was no love lost between the two—where Eppes easily parried the thrust.

Then it was over. McGee blinked, wondering where the time had gone. Eppes had already clambered down from the stage and was chattering animatedly with a small group including the guy that McGee had already identified as Dr. Penfield.

Penfield towered over the small genius, but didn't seem to stop Dr. Eppes. The hands were still waving just as much as when he was lecturing on stage, and the mouth was moving almost non-stop with only a brief pause to allow the next question to edge its way into the discussion. Ah, small blush there, and McGee deduced that Dr. Eppes had just been asked a question about that little tome he'd published for the mathematically dis-inclined, something about relationships. Well, had to bring in the bucks somehow, and McGee knew that the average college professor made much less than he could in industry. Though he'd thought that Professor Eppes, in demand as he was, could command much higher wages through various projects and consultancies; McGee sighed. Here he was, thinking like an investigator, wondering about a man's sources of income.

Not why Timothy McGee was here. He surveyed his handwritten scribbles on the lecture notes, not remembering in the slightest how they'd gotten there. He glanced again at the group surrounding Professor Eppes, seeing Professor Penfield taking his leave of them to prepare for his own lecture due to start in a few minutes. McGee took that as his cue to make his way out of the lecture hall and into the room next door. Penfield's lecture wouldn't be as enjoyable as Eppes's, but it still had the potential to improve McGee's skills.

Don groaned, sinking his head in his hands. "I'm never going to be able to appear in public again. I can't believe I did that!"

"Did what?" Colby asked, honestly bewildered. "Don, you did great! They loved it! Didn't you see all the D.C. directors smiling and nodding their heads?"

"Didn't you hear me?" Don demanded. "I said 'east' for the McMasterson case, and I should have said 'north'. It screwed up the entire logistics."

"I don't think anyone noticed, Don," David told him. "They were concentrating on the slides that you had up on the screen. The animation really got their attention."

"Yeah, well, Charlie's good for something," Don grumbled. "I ran that part by him, and I let him punch it up a little. But just a little," he added quickly.

"Shows the power of knowing when to use a consultant," David told him. "Speaking of whom, are we picking him up later, or what?"

Don glanced automatically at his watch. "Charlie said not to bother, that he'd probably get roped into an all-night bull session. Said that Penfield would be there, so there'd be some hot and heavy debating going on after the formal lectures."

"So we'll get him tomorrow morning?"

"Nope. There are a couple of NSA types—or maybe Pentagon, I can't keep 'em straight where Charlie's concerned—who need a hush-hush with him tomorrow."

"Saturday," Colby noted. "Big?"

"Aren't they all?" Don hoped that he didn't sound petty. What the hell—his team knew the score. They all appreciated Charlie's genius, and knew that the power-mongers behind several governments likewise appreciated what Charlie's genius could do for them. It was sheer luck that Don happened to have been born into the same family and could borrow some of that genius on a moment's notice, and at bargain basement prices. Consultants such as Charlie didn't usually come cheap.

He pulled himself back on track. "We'll pick him up after his meeting, do the D.C. tourist thing for a couple of hours—got any requests?—and then catch the flight back to L.A."


"Boss?" DiNozzo, ignoring the rules of the road which prohibited putting a cell phone to his ear while driving, negotiated a smooth left hand turn using only one hand on the wheel.

"I got the word. Things are heating up. FBI thinks they've got a lead on their missing code and they think it may be in our backyard."

"I'll be at the office in ten minutes."

"Not yet, DiNozzo. Wait until the lead comes through. Just keep your cell handy. And, DiNozzo?"

"Yeah, boss?"

"Tell your date that she might have to find her own ride home tonight."

McGee had been right; the Penfield lecture had been solid but lacking in the fireworks that Eppes had displayed so effortlessly. The difference between brilliant and genius, he decided, emerging from the second, smaller lecture hall.

He glanced around, hoping to find the young woman that he'd sat next to in the Eppes lecture, wondering if he could be smooth enough to talk her into a cup of coffee and a rehashing of the lecture. That would be a good way to finish off the evening, and give details to the story that he'd concocted back at the office to get Tony off his back. And maybe, just maybe, he'd find someone compatible enough to pursue a relationship with, a relationship that wouldn't interfere with work.

No such luck. The lobby was clearing out, the crowd—and he used the term loosely—dissipating rapidly as the patrons headed for home to put in a long night on their computer game of choice. It was the new Friday night activity for geeks: devising muscle-bound oafs to hack and slash at electronic foes, the screen-generated muscles in direct proportion to the mental muscles that each had developed through long and hard effort, no steroids required. His intended victim had apparently scooted for the door shortly after Penfield's lecture—he'd spotted her sitting in the middle of the crowd, but hadn't been able to get a seat near hers—and he'd lost her in the general exodus. He sighed; would have been nice, but wasn't going to happen. McGee glanced at his watch, wondering idly how long it would take him to get home. He'd get out early, compared to the rest of the crowd. He'd parked in the next-door hotel parking, one of the upscale places that had attached itself to the conference center for an entirely indoor experience. He ambled along the corridor, noting the bright city lights that shone through the large bay windows lining the walls.

The crowd had separated itself into those headed for the exit and a smaller group that seemed to be convening in one of the back salons in the attached hotel. McGee spotted Professor Eppes showing his credentials to the doorman and receiving permission to enter. There weren't many inside, McGee realized, deciding that in the target salon would be the post-lecture debates. The lecturers would congratulate each other on a successful talk, and then the heated tearing down of theories would begin. McGee longed to be a fly on the wall in that salon. He loved what he did but there were times when he really missed the intellectual give and take of new theories in the making.

He hadn't been able to find the girl in the audience, but he did spy something else: an identification card. It was the conference identification card for Professor Penfield, to be exact. McGee pounced on it, certain that the card had dropped from Professor Penfield's shirt. Dr. Penfield would need it to get inside the salon, McGee knew. The doorman was efficient, only letting in a favored few: McGee recognized Jeanne Boen-Tylock from Yale. Dennison Parker, the professor from GW, was also there.

Penfield would need the identification card returned to get inside with his colleagues. McGee approached the doorman, intending to turn the card in.

The doorman glanced at the card and gave another bored glance at McGee's own face. "Go ahead," the doorman invited, leaching all warmth from the statement and holding open the door.

McGee started to protest—he wasn't Professor Penfield—then bit his tongue. He hadn't realized that his own features were fairly close to that of Professor Penfield's. Given the blurriness of the photo, he could pass. Professor Penfield's darker hair could be set down to photographic inaccuracies.

McGee smiled. He could sit in the back of the room and listen. Penfield would get in; the man would simply produce real credentials from his wallet, and would walk in as if McGee wasn't there. McGee could then proffer the ID badge to Dr. Penfield and perhaps even be invited to remain.

Heaven. A debate worthy of the gods. It was worth a small deception to attend something as elite as this. McGee walked in, holding the ID badge in his hand like a talisman from Dungeons and Dragons.

Eppes was in one corner of the room, arguing amiably with Dr. Boen-Tylock, something involving Diophantine Equations. McGee edged closer, trying to listen in without being intrusive.

He didn't have to worry; both debaters were so engrossed in their topic that someone could have shot down the giant crystal chandelier above their heads and not one of the participants would have noticed.

"It's inherently unstable," Boen-Tylock told Eppes. "You've postulated a p significance of zero point zero five, but anything greater than that will lead to a Type One error."

"True, but when are you going to demand a higher p level?" Eppes wanted to know. "The results will be valid more than ninety five percent of the time. I've used it in real-life applications with excellent results. I'm sure that there will come a time when it won't be valid, but if I can apply it ninety five times out of one hundred, that's a useful application. It's the difference between theoretical and applied mathematics. I can use a different approach for those times when the significance is too great."

Lovely. McGee drank it in. The lectures had been a balm for his intellect, and this was the honey poured over his soul. He almost resented the waiter who paused at his elbow and insisted that he take up a glass of wine.

Then he felt guilty for taking it. He couldn't drink it; Gibbs could call at any moment, letting him know that the code had been located and that all agents of all stripes were closing in and why the hell wasn't McGee closing in with them? Showing up with alcohol on his breath would be a fast track to a short and inglorious career. Worse: he hadn't been invited to this little soiree. He didn't deserve to be here, let alone drink something that his nose told him was considerably better than wine from a box.

All right; he could simply hold the glass in his hand and pretend to sip every now and again. That would prevent the waiter from pushing another glass onto him, and he could listen to Eppes and Boen-Tylock verbally spar.

Someone within eyesight yawned, and McGee found himself yawning along with the man. The yawn traveled around the room, avoiding only Eppes. The math professor set his half-empty glass down, preferring instead to snatch up the napkin that came along with it and jotting a rough drawing to illustrate his point. "Look right here: all the points fall into the positive quadrant, in a mildly logarithmic curve. Doesn't that prove my point?"

"Mm." Boen-Tylock yawned widely, seemingly unable to resist. "But…" Another yawn interrupted her. "Charlie, can we continue this another time? I'm suddenly very tired. It must have been a long day." She staggered, reaching out to the back of an upholstered sofa and easing herself down onto it. "So…tired…"

All around the room, people were sinking onto chairs. One man, not close enough to a sofa, tried propping up the heavy drapes. It didn't work; he slid down onto the floor and toppled over sideways. Eppes himself put a hand to his forehead, staggering drunkenly.

McGee started forward, alarmed. The situation wasn't hard to read: there was something in the drinks beside the usual strength of alcohol. Date rape drug? Possible. What would be the point—

Four men pulling dark masks over their faces barreled into the room. The few people still conscious drew back in fear before being overcome by the drugs in their drink, and McGee hurriedly imitated their actions—to do otherwise would be to invite death from the intruders. He was unarmed; he hadn't expected to need his weapon at this lecture. McGee let his head loll against the pillowed sofa. As an added touch, he allowed the glass to slip from his fingers, splashing the wine onto the thick carpet, the liquid soaking into the fibers. Hah. The men with masks will never be able to tell that I'm sober. Or awake. McGee feigned unconsciousness. He listened carefully, keeping his eyes closed but his ears open.

Four men. He could hear them quartering the salon, checking the sleeping inhabitants.

A high-pitched squeal, and a grunt. "This one's awake," one of the men announced grimly. Sounds of a struggle; McGee eased his eyes open just enough to see the man shove a cloth over the woman's nose and mouth, forcing her to inhale. She collapsed in his arms, and he eased her silently to the carpet. Not any more, she's not.

This was clearly a well-planned mission. These men were professionals, and they had the tools of their trade with them. They'd somehow spiked the drinks, and came prepared to deal with anyone who hadn't imbibed. McGee had no doubt that they were armed, although he doubted that they wanted to use their guns. Guns, even guns with silencers, made noise and left blood spatters. This group wanted covert silence.

What were they after? The answer was clear in moments. "This is Eppes," one of them announced in hushed tones, examining the body. "He's out cold."

"Start moving him out," another advised. "You find Penfield yet?"

"Nah. Wait a minute; this might be him."

McGee felt someone prying at this hands, and remembered that he was still holding on to Professor Penfield's conference identification badge. His heart sank.

"Got 'im. Geez, this place takes a crappy picture. Barely looks like him."

"We're not here to get prom pictures," the first told him. "Wrap him up, and let's move. We don't know how long we can keep people outside from getting suspicious."

The four worked in silence, but McGee—as an unwitting participant—had no trouble following what they were doing. They wrapped a heavy harness under his arms and around his chest, and he heard the clink of a metal D-ring snapping into place. Another moment, and he almost yelped aloud when the harness began to drag him up against the outside wall. McGee barely managed to prevent any noise from emerging as he was pulled up and out through the window to the salon into the cool night air. An unseen crack of the eyelids told him that Professor Eppes had undergone the same routine.

Two more men pulled his 'unconscious' form into a room one flight above, sliding him upward along the outside wall of the hotel. They worked silently and efficiently, unhooking the snaps and removing the harness. McGee briefly debated trying to overpower the pair—surprise could be a powerful tool, if used properly—but then they snapped plastic ties around his wrists, tightening them just so. McGee held the grimace inside. Too late now for a surprise attack. Even an unexpected dash for the door wouldn't get him anywhere; another set of plastic ties went around his ankles, cutting into the skin.

Still, they hadn't gagged him. McGee was grimly curious as to how this group expected to get Professor Eppes and himself out of the hotel. In a trunk? Trite, but it would work unless one or both came suddenly awake. Gagging was risky; people suffocated on gags, unable to drag sufficient oxygen into their lungs. This group was clearly out to kidnap Professor Eppes and Professor Penfield, and they wouldn't want to chance one or both dying inside a makeshift coffin.

Speaking of which: they thought that McGee was Penfield. Flattering, but patently untrue. Sure, McGee supposed that there was a superficial resemblance but anyone who knew Dr. Penfield would be able to see at a glance that a mistake had been made.

That mistake would likely end up in McGee's swift demise, which meant the longer he could keep up the charade the longer he'd be alive. Chancing yet another look through slitted eyelids to make sure that the pair were busy with McGee's fellow captive, McGee eased his wallet with his NCIS badge out of his hip pocket—thank goodness I put it there. I'd never be able to get it out of my jacket, not with my hands tied—and slid it under the edge of the flounce hiding the legs of the chair that he was propped against.

Back to the original question: how did this group expect to get Eppes and 'Penfield' out of the hotel conference center?

He soon had his answer: one of the men rolled up McGee's sleeve, inserting a slender needle. McGee bit his tongue against the sudden burn inside his elbow, fighting to keep himself limp and 'unconscious'.

In moments, pretense was no longer an issue.