Deployed for Christmas

A/N: No, I didn't fall off the face of the Earth, I'm just deployed to Kuwait :/ While that should give me plenty of time for writing, my muse seems to have been left back in the States. I came up with this short ditty in hopes of bringing it back.

December 23, 2020

NCIS Special Agent Kim Cunningham opened the back seat of the SUV and immediately began working on the car seat straps of a very impatient and squirmy toddler. "Squid, Jack," she said to the other two kids, still engrossed in their books. "We're here. Time to get out of the car." Jack, always the more obedient of the two, immediately unbuckled and stepped out of his booster seat, but his older sister hadn't moved, her eyes still on her book. "Sydney Elizabeth Cunningham," Kim said, this time forcefully. "Put down your book and get out of the car, or I'm leaving you here. And this car is staying in the motor pool when we leave for the airport, so you might be here awhile."

Sydney gave a put-upon sigh as she unbuckled her seat belt and opened the door, her eyes still on her book, unwilling to let even the action of getting out of the car interrupt her from her story. She began to close the door behind her in her distraction, before Jack gave a short shout to remind her that he was there.

Never a dull moment with those two. She wished she remembered what she was thinking when she decided a third one would be a good idea.

She finally got Pup out of the car seat, earning an immediate command of, "Down," from the strong-willed toddler.

"Not until we're inside, Pup," Kim replied, herding the two older kids toward the door as she carried the youngest, barely managing to lock the door as they walked away from the vehicle.

The retinal scan into the building was blessedly quick, and then she again herded children, this time into the stairwell, with the hope that the two flights of stairs would help tire them out in anticipation of the cross-country flight they had that afternoon.

Once on the main floor of the NCIS building, she finally set Pup down, only to have her run in the completely opposite direction of where she needed them to go. To be fair, she couldn't have expected the two-year-old to know that they were headed for MTAC, not Kim's office in the back of the massive cubical farm.

"Looks like you have your hands full," Special Agent Tony DiNozzo, the supervisory field agent of the Major Crimes Response Team, commented as the four Cunninghams made their way past his desk.

"You want one?" Kim asked, exasperated. "Or maybe all three?"

"Nope," he replied quickly. "My one is more than enough. Headed up to MTAC?"

Kim nodded. "We're already two minutes late. Hopefully CJTF-OIR keeps the line open for a couple more minutes. Kids, go up the stairs there."

The two adults watched the three kids for a beat, seeing Squid in a rare moment of helpfulness grab her sister's hand to help her in the right direction. "How's Cunningham?" DiNozzo asked.

"He just got back to Kuwait from Syria," Kim replied, then rolled her eyes. "In other words, he has it a lot easier than here."

DiNozzo smiled at the joke. "Tell him we said hi. And to keep himself safe."

This time, Kim snorted. "Like he knows how to keep himself safe," she scoffed as she began following her children. By this point, the pediatrician's tendency to get himself in situations no pediatrician should ever be in was famous throughout the agency.

She grabbed Pup when she caught up to her on the stairs, earning a noise of protest, which she ignored. At the top of the stairs, it was another retinal scanner, and then the four entered the large space to see a familiar face on the large screen. "Daddy!" all three exclaimed.

"CJTF-OIR is on," the tech said needlessly.

"Thanks, Prisk," Kim said in response before smiling up at the screen. "Hey, Babe. Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas," Captain Jeff Cunningham said from Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. "You're missing quite the party here. Complete with all the near-beer a person could desire." He held up the green bottle of O'Doul's in his hand as an example.

"Mmm," Kim said dryly. "Fake beer. Yum. Nice sweater."

He grinned as he glanced down at the makeshift ugly Christmas sweater, complete with tinsel and what appeared to be a printout of a picture of General Best, made to look as Santa in a sled, and pinned to his sweater. "No Christmas party is complete without an ugly sweater."

"Of course not," she agreed.

They had four months down and five more to go of the deployment, Jeff's first since starting his infectious disease fellowship ten years ago. Serving as the Command Surgeon for the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, he covered all of the medical aspects of the U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq and Syria, mostly from the relative safety of Kuwait, but with far more trips into Iraq and Syria than Kim was comfortable with him taking. Although the bulk of ISIS—or ISIL, or Daesh, depending on who Kim was briefing at any given time—had been defeated during the big push in 2016-2017, there were still pockets of insurgents that were causing many more headaches than they should have been, mostly in Syria. Aleppo was still a problem—based just on Jeff's report of the medical situation in Aleppo, it would remain so for a while—and Raqqa had been labeled by the media as ISIS' last stand.

"Are we ready for presents?" Jeff asked, clearly as excited to see the kids open their gifts as they were to receive them.

"Sure," Kim replied. "Who do you want to go first?"

"Who's been causing you the least problems?" Jeff asked. Kim snorted.

"Well, Pup's two," Kim pointed out. She got another noise of protest from the toddler and a grin from Jeff. She smiled back at him as she brushed aside Pup's blond hair and gave her a kiss on the forehead. "And Squid's been getting in fights at school, so Jack wins that contest by a landslide."

"It's not my fault!" Squid insisted.

"Danny DiNozzo?" Jeff asked from Kuwait.

"Of course," Kim said with a sigh.

"He's awful," Squid said emphatically. Jeff was rapidly losing his battle to not smirk at the words. Kim just rolled her eyes and grabbed Jack's present from her bag.

She already knew what it was, of course, since he wasn't allowed to ship wrapped presents from Kuwait, but she couldn't help being just as excited as Jeff as she watched their son open it. "What is it?" Jack asked with a frown, turning the old brass object in his hands.

"Here," Kim said. The folded telescope easily expanded, as did Jack's eyes. "Cool!" he exclaimed, looking at everything in MTAC through the telescope. "Thanks, Dad. Can I take this to Washington to look at the stars?"

"Of course, buddy," Jeff said with a grin. "Who's next?"

"Squid will probably need some time to work on hers," Kim replied, handing the eight-year-old her present.

"Thanks, Dad," she said slowly after she had removed the paper, turning the wooden box shaped like two fish in her hands.

"It's a puzzle box," Jeff explained at Squid's look of confusion. "There might be something inside, if you can get it open."

"And while she's working on that, let's let Pup attack hers," Kim said, setting the toddler down to remove the last box. As expected, Pup immediately ran to the front of the room, only to come running back at the sight of the box in her mother's hands. Having just celebrated her birthday seven weeks before, she understood the concept of opening presents, and it wasn't long before she was holding a ridiculously soft stuffed camel wearing a boonie.

"Camel!" she said proudly, holding it up for her father to see.

"That it is, Pup," he said with a laugh.

"Got it!" Squid exclaimed as the last piece slid away to reveal a small collection of coins.

"Those are from Kuwait, Iraq, and Syria," Jeff explained as she studied them.

"Thanks, Dad," she said again, her eyes still on the small coins. Kim frowned slightly as she studied her oldest daughter. She had been very fortunate for a military child in that she made it her first eight Christmases with both parents, and Kim wasn't quite sure how much she grasped of why her father wasn't coming home for this one; she didn't know if Squid fully grasped it yet, or if she somehow expected Jeff to be meeting them at the orchard in Washington. Both Kim and Jeff had tried explaining it, but she still didn't know how much it had sunken in. She probably wouldn't know until Christmas came and went in a couple of days.

The kids continued excitedly talking to their father until Kim glanced down at her watch and saw the time. "We're going to have to wrap it up," she said reluctantly. "Weather is terrible," she said to Jeff. "We're getting a ride to the airport, but I don't know how long it's going to take."

"You should get going, then," Jeff said, just as reluctantly. "Thanks for calling in from MTAC. Hopefully I'll get to talk to you on Christmas. I love and miss you guys."

"We miss you, too," Kim said, surprised at the sudden thickness in her voice. She had grown up a military brat; she knew what Christmases and holidays away from loved ones was like, but it was still hard. It had been almost exactly 15 years since she had met Jeff; she could still remember the 29-year-old lieutenant with the shorn blond hair, shivering in the frigid Iraq night as he sat on the short T-wall after losing a patient at his first MASCAL. Even that first Christmas a few days after that night, when he was still engaged to someone else and a relationship was the furthest thing from either of their minds, they had spent the day together in the clinic at Camp Fallujah.

"I went through Fallujah about a month ago," he said, as if knowing what she was thinking. "The camp is completely gone. It's almost spooky how different it looks. Good, but spooky."

"Progress," she replied with a smile.

"Yeah," he agreed. "I'm heading back up to Syria right after the new year; my red packet was just approved. I'll try not to let any bad guys kidnap me," he said with a smile, not even letting her make her own joke. "Safe travels. Let me know when you get to the orchard. I'll see you in February."

"I'm looking forward to it," she said honestly. A ten-day whirlwind tour, flying into and out of Kuwait and involving stops in Syria in Iraq. It was going to be exhausting, but it would be ten days with Jeff, and that more than made up for it. "Stay safe. I love you."

"I love you, too. And I love you, too, munchkins. Be good for your grandparents, and for the love of God, Squid, stop fighting with Danny at school."

"It's not my fault!" she insisted again.

"It takes two to fight," Jeff reminded her firmly. "If Agent DiNozzo and your mother can get along, there's no reason why their kids can't, too. I love you, and I'll miss you if your mother kills you out of frustration, so don't let it get to that point, okay?"

"Okay," she said sullenly. Both Kim and Jeff had to fight from grinning.

"Get back to your party," Kim said with a smile. "Give General Best my best." He rolled his eyes at her joke and promised he would, and then they signed off, and the screen went blank.

Kim took a deep breath to fight the sudden sting of tears. "Okay, kids, let's go," she said in her best commanding voice. "Officer Gasper is giving us a ride. Let's not keep him waiting."

She gathered Pup back up and checked behind them to ensure they hadn't left any Christmas presents or wrapping paper behind in MTAC, and then left the room and descended the stairs. "How's Cunningham?" DiNozzo asked as he walked toward the copier.

"Having far too much fun at the Christmas party," Kim said with a smile.

"Office Christmas party with no beer? That doesn't sound like fun at all," he replied.

"I know, right?" she agreed. She glanced out the windows and sighed. "I really hope the airline was being truthful when they said our flight is leaving on time."

DiNozzo also turned his gaze toward the snow falling outside. "It's supposed to get worse through Christmas," he commented. "If you do end up stuck here, the Gibbs-Gracy invitation still stands."

"Thanks, but I hope it doesn't come to that," she said. "For one, our kids can't be in the same room without punches flying." Both of them rolled their eyes at that, having had too many calls to the elementary school for too many parent-teacher conferences about the violent interactions between Danny and Sydney. "Anyway, merry Christmas. I'll see you in about a week."

"Safe travels," he replied, returning his attention to the copy machine.

Four hours later, Kim checked Pup's seatbelt on the plane before glancing behind her, seeing both Squid and Jack with their noise-cancelling headphones on, both fast asleep and looking tiny in the first-class seats she purchased with miles. She smiled at the sight, at the fact that asleep, at least they were getting along.

They were going back to the orchard for Christmas, a tradition she hoped they could continue for years to come, but without Jeff, it hardly seemed like Christmas at all.