Six days, twenty-three hours, fifty-three minutes.
Gibbs didn’t need to look at his watch to know how long it had been. He could feel it, body and soul, as though each second pulled at his heart.
Ziva and McGee both looked pale. They shot nervous glances at Gibbs every now and then, but for the most part, they just looked lost.
Six days, twenty-three hours, fifty-four minutes.
Gibbs slammed his hand down against his desk, hard, making both his agents jump.
McGee shrank back at his bark, looking more like a first year probie than a seasoned agent with five years of experience. Gibbs couldn’t care less.
“I—uh, I’m sorry, boss – there’s nothing,” McGee said, stumbling over the words in his haste to get them all out.
“There has to be something,” Gibbs said.
McGee swallowed visibly. “There isn’t. I’ve checked his credit cards, his telephone, e-everything. He hasn’t used any of it. He’s just—gone. Like the others.”
Six days, twenty-three hours, fifty-five minutes.
With every passing second, the chances of finding Tony alive lessened. With every passing second, the likelihood grew that Tony would become another body on Ducky’s autopsy table.
“There is the chance that he’s already—”
Ziva fell silent as Gibbs directed a murderous glare at her, daring her to finish her sentence.
“All I’m saying is—”
“We’ve heard what you have to say, Officer David,” Gibbs said.
Six days, twenty-three hours, fifty-six minutes.
He stood, grabbed his cup of coffee – there was little left of it, but he’d down the last drop – and stalked away from the bullpen. He didn’t give them an explanation and he could feel their frustration and worry radiating from them in waves as he left. He knew he should be supportive, a better boss, or he’d end up stranded without a team at all when they both quit, but he couldn’t bring himself to it. He’d been a better boss when Kate died, and being that way again would mean that he’d given up.
He took the stairs down to Abby’s lab, forgoing the elevator for the chance to move.
Abby’s lab was silent, which was never a good sign. Walking into the lab, Gibbs almost turned and left again, seeing the multiple photos Abby had taped all over the walls. There were photos of Tony making faces, of Tony leaning over Ziva’s desk with a mad grin, of Tony and Abby together – and one, taken of an unaware Tony, where he looked calm and contemplative, fully focused as he watched something.
Six days, twenty-three hours, fifty-seven minutes.
He found himself with an armful of Abby as she threw herself at him and hugged him close.
“Tell me you’ve got something,” she said against his chest.
“Sorry, Abs,” Gibbs said. “Came down to ask you the same thing.”
Her face crumbled as he said the words, and she squeezed her eyes shut. “He can’t be dead, Gibbs. He can’t be.”
His throat felt thick, and he could find no words to comfort Abby with. He wanted to believe that Tony was still alive – six days, twenty-three hours, fifty-eight minutes – but time was against them.
“We need to find him,” Abby said, pulling back and starting to pace. “There’s got to be something we’ve missed!”
He didn’t stop her; who knew, she might come up with something that they hadn’t thought of. It seemed unlikely – they had tested everything that could possibly be tested already. Tony’s car had been turned inside out in their hunt for evidence to point them in the right direction. If – when, he made himself think – they did find him, Tony would be pissed off about the state of his car.
Six days, twenty-three hours, fifty-nine minutes.
“Let me know if you find something,” Gibbs said, words perhaps a bit harsher than necessary. He spoke around the lump in his throat – a lump he refused to acknowledge as tears, because he did not cry.
Abby gave him a look filled with compassion and understanding, and she nodded, brow knitted with fear for her best friend.
Gibbs headed back up the stairs, but stopped before he reached the level of the bullpen. He stood still in the stairwell, hand gripping the railing so hard his knuckles turned white. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw Tony’s face looking back at him, smile easy and warm. He couldn’t remember feeling his way about any other agent who’d been in danger – and they had all been there. But Tony more often than any other, getting kidnapped, chained to a serial killer, getting sick with the plague, getting shot at, beaten up, risking his own health to save Gibbs—
And every time, Gibbs’ heart raced, his fear for Tony’s life simply more than his fear for anyone else. Everything about his feelings for Tony was more than for anyone else.
Tony’s carefree grin met him each time he closed his eyes, and he did so, wanting that image, wanting that fantasy of Tony being safe and sound and on Gibbs’ six, as he should be. Wanting Tony to look at him that way, to be more than just a team member, to be more of everything.
The painful realization hit him hard, and he opened his eyes, gasping for breath – and then he stared.
He must be going mad.
But he blinked, and stepped back, nearly falling down the flight of stairs but catching himself in time – and yet he was still there, standing in front of him.
There was something off – the way the light reflected off Tony, the way Gibbs could see through him here and there—he must be going mad.
“You’re not here,” he said, rubbing at his eyes.
“You fantasize about me a lot then?” Tony asked.
Gibbs looked at him, wondering just how much around the bend he had to be going to have a hallucination appear and talk to him.
Then again, for a hallucination, it was a nice one. Tony looked the way he did when Gibbs last saw him – eyes twinkling with mischief, dressed in a grey sweater and dark pants. The hallucination regarded him silently, perhaps waiting to see if it passed inspection.
Then Gibbs shook his head – as nice as the hallucination was, he really didn’t have time for it. He had to find the real Tony, before time ran out. Before hallucinations were the only images of Tony he’d see.
He turned and stalked up the rest of the stairs, and when he looked back, the hallucination was gone. Gibbs tried to pretend that it didn’t stab at his heart.
“Anything?” he snarled as soon as he was in the bullpen. He knew he hadn’t even been gone ten minutes, but he still asked.
“N-no, boss,” McGee stammered.
“What about Commander Mahoney? Lieutenant Johnson? Lieutenant Miller? Petty Officer Davis?”
The four bodies currently down in autopsy were all male, all handsome men – and although Ducky had been able to determine the causes of death, there had been little else of use for them to go on.
“There’s nothing, Gibbs,” Ziva said, annoyance obvious. “There is not a single piece of evidence we haven’t tracked down. There is nothing for us to do – we are simply waiting for the next—”
She snapped her mouth shut.
“Waiting for what, Officer David?” Gibbs asked, moving to stand too close to her. She did not fidget under his hard gaze.
“His next victim,” she said, and somewhere below the fear and frustration, Gibbs felt a sliver of pride that she could and would stand up to him. But it took a backseat now, because they all feared that the next victim they were waiting for was Tony.
They stared at each other, Ziva’s dark eyes blank and hard. Even after years of working together, Gibbs couldn’t always tell what she was thinking.
By the time the clock reached eight, and the office had emptied out, Gibbs sighed.
“Go home,” he snapped finally, the order for both Ziva and McGee. “If you’re not here at six thirty tomorrow, you can look for a new job.”
Ziva gave a short nod. They were usually there by seven in the morning, and even earlier than that when they had a hot case – but then they also had the best crime-solving statistics at NCIS.
Within five minutes, both McGee and Ziva had left. Gibbs returned to his desk, sitting down heavily. He wished for something to do, someone to interrogate and break, to get the information he so badly needed. But breaks did not come easy in this case – they still had no idea of the murderer’s identity. The victims had nothing in common except their ages, gender and good looks, and that they all worked for the Navy, one way or the other. The latest victim, Lieutenant Johnson, had worked at Bethesda Naval Hospital, while the others had been home from tours. They had few visible injuries – some had marks around their wrists and ankles, likely from handcuffs, but none of them had fatal wounds. Ducky had determined the cause of death to be Propofol overdoses, although the murderer hadn’t so much as attempted to conceal the fact. Post-mortem, they had been meticulously cleaned, leaving no traces of the killer behind.
“You should go home, boss.”
Gibbs looked up, to find Tony—no, to find the hallucination standing on the other side of the desk. Gibbs rubbed his eyes – when a hallucination told him to rest, it was probably time.
“You should listen to me.”
“Yeah, I should listen to a mind-reading ghost,” Gibbs muttered, and then snapped his mouth shut, because he was not about to engage a hallucination in conversation, no matter how much it resembled his missing agent.
“Don’t need to read your mind to know what you’re thinking, boss,” it said. “Gotten pretty good at reading you.”
The bullpen was thankfully empty, so that no one was around to see Gibbs look up into the empty air, staring at something only he could see. He stubbornly refused to answer the hallucination.
“Oh, come on, boss,” it said, sounding exasperated. “What did I do?”
Gibbs tried to focus his attention on his computer, but the words jumbled together into a mess that he couldn’t decipher. The hallucination still loomed on the other side of the desk, as the real Tony sometimes did, awaiting instructions. Gibbs frowned up at it, wondering how his mind could supply him with such an extremely accurate image – everything, from the exact color of his hair to the shape of his hands fit. Did he really have such a keen eye for detail, that he was able to recreate it in his mind? Obviously, he thought.
“You know, you aren’t usually talkative, but this is quiet even for you,” it said.
“You’re not real,” Gibbs snapped.
“Am too,” it said. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“You’ve been missing for a week,” Gibbs said.
“Missing?” it asked, confusion written over the all-too-familiar face. “But I’m right here.”
It reached out to lean on the desk, closer to Gibbs – only to sink straight through it.
Gibbs looked at the hallucination, which was displaying genuine shock over not being corporeal. Gibbs wondered how a hallucination could be shocked over something that Gibbs already knew: that it wasn’t real. It was supposed to be produced by Gibbs’ mind, and as such know the same things as Gibbs did.
“Gibbs—why can’t I—what’s going on?” it said, eyes wide. It looked so much like Tony that it was all Gibbs could do not to believe that it was, in fact, him. There was innocence in those eyes – Tony’s innocence – that he hadn’t thought his own mind capable of producing, even in a hallucination. He simply wasn’t innocent that way.
The hallucination backed away and Gibbs ran a hand over his face. He felt drained in a way he hadn’t in a long time.
Gibbs looked away, shaking his head. “You’re not real.”
When he looked up again, the image of Tony was gone.
He poured a glass of bourbon as soon as he got in the door. He had refrained from drinking so far, since DiNozzo had been kidnapped, because he needed to be at his sharpest to find him – but the events of the day had him going for the bottle. Tony’s disappearance had passed the one-week mark – and Gibbs had obviously become desperate enough to conjure up an image of him to talk to.
He headed downstairs, changing into a grey t-shirt on the way, and started working on his boat. It was nearing completion, this small boat that had no name yet, but he would keep polishing it until it was perfect.
Feeling the wood beneath his fingers calmed him, and he worked until he was sweaty, taking swigs of bourbon instead of water when he got thirsty. It probably wasn’t a good idea, but he didn’t care. He needed to get away from his own mind, away from the sharp stabs of pain that threatened to overwhelm him every time he thought of Tony. Where was he? What were they doing to him? Who were they? Was he still alive at all? His body hadn’t been found yet, but that didn’t mean—
He sanded the boat, focusing on the grains of the tree, trying to distract himself from his thoughts.
He didn’t jump when he heard the voice, but that was only because he was a Marine who wasn’t surprised easily.
“Boss, I think I need your help.”
Gibbs looked up, finding the hallucination on the steps – or rather, a few inches above the steps, floating. He wondered why a hallucination would float.
“You figured out you’re not real?” he said, mostly because the bourbon had taken the edge off and talking to a hallucination didn’t seem like such a bad idea anymore.
“I’m real, boss – I’m just not—” it trailed off, floating down the stairs and slumping down into a sitting position.
“You’re not real,” Gibbs said. “You’re missing.”
“You said that before,” it said. “But I’m right here.”
It held its hands out, but all that served to do was to show just how much it wasn’t there – it’s right hand went straight through the wall and disappeared. It gasped upon seeing this, and pulled back, tucking its arms around himself.
“You’re a figment of my imagination,” Gibbs said roughly and began working on the boat again.
“I’m not a fantasy!” it exclaimed, and then added, “But it’s nice to know that you think of me sometimes.”
There was silence, stretching but not uncomfortable. The hallucination’s brow was drawn together in a frown, as Tony’s was sometimes.
“What do you mean ‘missing’?” it asked. “Where did I go?”
Gibbs ignored him, continuing to work on smoothing the wood beneath his fingers.
“Oh, come on, boss,” it said. “Give me something to work with. If I’m not real, then see it as—I don’t know, thinking out loud?”
“You’re not real,” Gibbs snapped.
“Just tell me what happened,” it said.
“He took you,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs refused to look at it, staring intently at the wood instead. He wasn’t crazy, he was simply thinking out loud.
“If I knew, I wouldn’t be here.”
Gibbs saw it’s shoulders slump slightly. “Where, then?”
“Bethesda Hospital,” Gibbs said. “Parking lot.”
Gibbs looked at it. There was a tug at his heart, just like what he always felt when Tony – the real, live Tony – was in the room; a need to take care of and protect, to love, albeit from afar.
“What can I do to prove to you that I’m not a fantasy?” it asked.
Gibbs snorted. “Nothing. Anything I know, you know.”
“Fine,” it said, “then I have to give you something that doesn’t have to do with you.”
It looked thoughtful, and Gibbs shook his head. The hallucination was going to prove to him that it wasn’t a trick of his mind. Gibbs had to hand it to himself – his mind was certainly more inventive than he’d first thought. He probably ought to seek psychological help – or sign himself into a psychiatric care facility – but still, he had to be impressed.
“Ziva left someone behind in Israel,” the hallucination said. “A man. She has a picture of him in her desk.”
Gibbs rolled his eyes. “She left her father and some unresolved issues with him behind, and she put the photo of the man in her desk so that Tony would find it, since she knew he would be going through her desk.”
The hallucination stared at him. “She didn’t! She didn’t know I would—Okay, fine, maybe she did. Um, something else—”
Gibbs looked at it, and wished that it was real, that Tony was sitting with him on the stairs while he worked on the boat. He wished Tony was safe and sound. It felt as though someone reached inside of him and twisted his heart around hard, because he knew Tony wasn’t safe, and probably not sound either.
“Abby has dolls that represent each of us,” the hallucination said. “She uses some good kind of voodoo on them to keep us safe.”
“How is that supposed to convince me?” Gibbs asked, not stopping his woodwork.
“Call her,” it said. “Call her and ask.”
For a second, Gibbs considered it. He could call and tell her that the voodoo protection was obviously doing a crappy job, because Tony was still gone.
But when he looked up again, to take in the sight of the hallucination, because no matter what it was, it was still a comfort amidst all the pain, it was gone.
He swallowed hard. It didn’t matter if the hallucination was there or not – he wouldn’t stop thinking about Tony either way.
He worked until three in the morning, the hallucination not coming back despite him downing several more glasses of alcohol. He didn’t make it up to his bed to sleep, but slept on the hard surface beneath the boat in restless sleep filled with images of Tony being tortured.
Chapter 3: Chapter two
Despite being back at headquarters at five thirty in the morning – because he couldn’t sleep for long, and there was no point in staying at home – there was little he could do. The building was quiet, no one but the cleaning crew and the mailman coming through the bullpen so early.
The elevator dinged at ten past six, and McGee entered. Gibbs noted the shadows around his eyes; they were becoming more pronounced with every passing day. There was a slump to the young agent’s shoulders that hadn’t been there before.
He perked up when he saw Gibbs. “Anything new, boss?”
Gibbs shook his head, and McGee’s face fell.
McGee settled in at his desk, the computer chiming as it turned on. A few minutes later, Ziva arrived. Her hair was pulled back in a neat ponytail, but Gibbs saw the traces fear and worry had left on her as well. Ziva hid it better, but her eyes were expressive when she didn’t guard herself.
“Anything?” she asked as she put her bag on her desk.
Gibbs shook his head again.
Ducky came up, brow drawn with anxiousness just like the rest of them. He tried his best to be reassuring when Gibbs told him they had nothing.
“You’ll find him, Jethro,” Ducky said.
“Duck—” Gibbs said, because he didn’t think the faith the doctor held him in was deserved. Kate had died on his watch, and Jenny had died on his watch. He was far from infallible.
“You’ll find him,” Ducky said again.
Just then, Gibbs’ cell phone rang. With trepidation, Gibbs picked it up – it was the Director on the other end.
“Another body,” Vance said.
He could barely hear over the pounding of his heart.
“No ID yet,” Vance said. “Pennsylvania Ave, I’ll send you the exact address.”
Gibbs snapped the phone shut without saying goodbye, as always.
“Body in Georgetown,” he said, voice even more clipped than usual.
McGee turned whiter at his words, and Ziva’s eyes grew big. Ducky looked at him with worry, but didn’t say anything. They didn’t have to – all feared what they would find upon arriving.
Gibbs didn’t need to bark an order about grabbing their gear – they were already up and hurrying towards the elevator when Gibbs strode past their desks. He couldn’t get another word out; he feared his voice would break if he tried to speak. His mouth felt dry and some part of him hated Tony for making him feel this way.
He drove even faster than he usually did; Ziva and McGee hung onto whatever they could grab. Ducky and Palmer followed in the ME’s van, but it didn’t matter to Gibbs if they arrived later than he did; Gibbs didn’t need a doctor to tell him if the body belonged to Tony, or someone else.
The body had been dumped in an alley between buildings, an anonymous location. Gibbs didn’t even turn off the car before he was out of it, hurrying towards the officials standing around.
“Who are—” began one of them, trying to stop him.
Gibbs flashed his badge but didn’t stop to say anything more. The swarm of people straight ahead of him told him where the body was.
What was Gibbs going to do if it turned out to be Tony? God, hadn’t they been here enough times, thinking Tony to be dead? Tony must have used up all of his chances, all of his extra lives – even if he was part cat, he should probably be dead by now.
Gibbs’ hands were balled into fists as he strode closer, his knuckles white. He tried his best to school his face into a mask of indifference when he felt anything but.
It wasn’t Tony.
Gibbs felt his legs buckling and only the fact that he was standing close enough to a building to lean on it kept him upright.
Before him lay an unknown man, naked and wiped clean just as the other victims had been. He had his face to the side, eyes staring sightlessly, and was lying on his stomach. His skin looked bluish, pale white, blood creating dark spots on his back, butt and backside of his legs, suggesting he’d been lying on his back, at least in the hours after his murder.
He saw, and felt, Ziva and McGee come up beside him. They both let out breaths of relief upon seeing that the body belonged to someone other than Tony, and they went about their jobs as they were supposed to – taking measurements and photos, collecting any and all evidence they could find.
They hadn’t worked a crime scene since Tony disappeared – other than securing the site where Tony had been kidnapped – and it felt wrong in a way Gibbs couldn’t have anticipated to not have him there. Tony brought lightness and jokes to the scenes, and it always soothed the severity of the cases they dealt with. Of the agents on Gibbs’ team, Tony also had the most experience, and was the one with the best instincts.
“There are guards doing rounds here each night, courtesy of one of the companies in the building,” McGee said. “They didn’t see anything. One round, no body, the next—this. There are security cameras, and I’ve asked them to get me the tapes.”
“They found the body at five forty-five, on one of their routine rounds,” Ziva filled in. “They noted nothing unusual.”
“There’s a body,” Gibbs said. “I’d say that’s unusual.”
He headed over to Ducky. The ME sat hunched at the side of the body, which had been turned over so that Ducky could stick the thermometer through the pale white skin of the dead man.
“The body temperature isn’t giving me much,” Ducky said. “He’s been cooled off, like the others. But I’d estimate he’s been dead three, four days.”
All the victims so far had been placed in some sort of cooler after death. Although it did serve the purpose of making it harder to determine a time of death, Ducky had shared with Gibbs that he doubted it was the reason for the cooling.
“I believe we are dealing with a killer who wants some time to look at his prizes before letting them go,” Ducky had told him after they’d found the third body. “He cleans them, not only to remove traces of himself, but also for the cleanliness itself.”
“OCD, Duck?” Gibbs had asked.
“Possibly,” Ducky had nodded.
Gibbs looked down at the latest body – the fifth one they’d found – and briefly, the unidentified man’s face changed into Tony’s familiar one. He felt his stomach churn at the thought. Tony had already survived more things than most had to deal with in several lifetimes, and the likelihood of his luck finally running out made Gibbs’ blood run cold.
“You finished, Duck?” Gibbs asked, voice strangled and harsh to his own ears.
Ducky glanced up at him knowingly. “Yes. Let’s get this poor boy back home.”
“McGee, you’re staying here until you have those security tapes in hand,” Gibbs said.
“Yes, boss,” McGee replied promptly.
Gibbs headed to the car, Ziva hurrying after him, camera around her neck and a box of supplies in hand. They avoided the flashes of the photographers and the questions of the journalists standing on the other side of the road. The media had followed each step they’d taken since the second body had showed up. A clip of Tony and Gibbs refusing to answer questions as they left the third crime scene kept running on CNN, together with imaginative commentary about what could have happened and who the murderer was, as well as a shot of Tony with the text ‘next victim?’ written in large, bold letters.
“Do you have any leads?” yelled one of the women, holding out a microphone in Gibbs’ general direction.
“Do you have any leads on your missing agent?"
Gibbs sent her a scorching glare that had no effect. New questions rained over them.
“Do you know who the murderer is?”
Gibbs wanted to snap that if they knew, they wouldn’t be here, but he refrained. He knew it would do more harm than good; his relationship with the media had never been particularly positive; they always chopped up his answers to their own liking.
He got into the car, and Ziva seated herself quietly in the front seat next to Gibbs. They headed back to NCIS in silence.
Gibbs hated feeling helpless, but as the hours dragged on, the feeling grew. The newest victim had no traces on him of his killer, just like the others. Cause of death was an overdose of Propofol. There were no defensive wounds. Post-mortem, the man had then been cooled down and cleaned off.
“I didn’t find anything on the tox screen, other than the Propofol,” Abby said when he came to her lab for an update. She sounded as though she was about to cry. “I’m running the finger prints through AFIS right now.”
“So nothing new?” Gibbs asked.
She looked crushed, and Gibbs knew it was because she hadn’t found anything that could help them find Tony. Of all of them, she was probably the most affected by his disappearance – or at least, the one who showed it outwardly the most. She had looked the same way on several earlier occasions – when Kate died, when Jenny died, and some semblance of it when Tony had been Agent Afloat, far away from NCIS headquarters.
“I’ve figured out the way he was positioned after he died,” Abby said, her voice softer than her usual babbling loudness. “From postmortem lividity.”
“He wasn’t lying down?”
Abby shook her head. “No, he was lying down, just—spread out. It just doesn’t seem like a natural way to be lying, and he must be lying on something, because a lot of blood pooled in his feet and the lower part of his legs, which means they must’ve been lower. His upper body on the other hand seems to have been raised, almost sitting up. It’s just not a way you’d sit in a chair or anything.”
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t know yet,” Abby said. “But I’m going to make a computer model of it. The other victims haven’t been in the same positions at all, but I’ll check over the marks Ducky’s given me, and I’ll see if I can find a pattern.”
Gibbs nodded. “Okay.”
It didn’t help much, but Abby was doing the best she could with the little material they gave her to work with. So far, none of the blood tests and other screenings they’d run the victims through had turned up anything that could be of any use. Knowing that the murderer set his victims up in specific positions was of little help, other than to cement the fact that they were dealing with one sick bastard.
His hands became hard fists as he thought of DiNozzo in the hands of the madman. They had checked other possibilities, other persons who would want Tony kidnapped and hurt, but there had been no ransom notes and no calls, and Gibbs’ gut told him that nothing of the sort would show up.
“Gibbs—” Abby said, getting him back to the present.
“You don’t think he’s—” she trailed off, perhaps realizing that she didn’t want to know if Gibbs did think Tony was dead.
She hugged him tightly, shaking against him. He ran a hand up and down her back, trying to soothe her.
When she pulled back, he said, “Let me know when AFIS gets a hit.”
He headed out, but stopped in the doorway. He looked back at Abby, remembering something. He didn’t believe it, he knew it wasn’t possible, but—a part of him had to ask.
“Do you have dolls?”
He felt stupid, even uttering the words.
“What?” she said, having returned her attention to the search on her computer.
“Dolls,” Gibbs said. “Of us. For—protection, or something.”
She gave him a long look, brow knitting in a frown. “Yeah. How’d you—did Tony tell you?”
Gibbs’ heart pounded a little faster, but he forced himself to stay calm and unresponsive on the outside. Abby might believe in ghosts, but Gibbs didn’t, and he couldn’t tell Abby what he’d seen. Tony must have mentioned the dolls at some other time, that was the only reasonable explanation for this.
“Yeah,” Gibbs said. “Keep him protected, Abs.”
She nodded slowly, looking at him with a piercing gaze. Finally, she returned to her computer, and Gibbs headed out.
“Believe me now?”
Only Gibbs’ sniper training kept him from jumping a mile in the air upon hearing the voice.
“Tony must’ve told me,” Gibbs muttered, striding past the hallucination.
“No, I didn’t,” it said. “Well, not until last night. Abby asked me not to – she was worried the others might think it was stupid.”
“He must’ve mentioned it.”
Tony strode past him, floating up right in front of him – and Gibbs walked straight through him. It felt odd, like walking through a sudden patch of cold, the air a bit denser for just a second. He must be imagining this hallucination as more real than he’d first thought.
“Boss, please – I need your help.”
Gibbs’ step faltered. The voice – it sounded so much like Tony, and Gibbs’ heart broke at the sound. Tony asking for help – how many times had that happened since he started working at NCIS?
He turned and looked back at the hallucination. The face, the one that looked so much like Tony, had crumbled with unhappiness. Hazel eyes gazed at him, pleading. Could a hallucination really hold so much emotion? Gibbs wouldn’t have thought it possible – but then, he wouldn’t have thought it possible for him to hallucinate in the middle of the day, while he was sober and perfectly awake, either.
“I’m real, boss,” it said. “What do I have to say to convince you?”
“Start with being solid,” Gibbs said.
He headed into the men’s room, and stood in front of the mirrors by the sink. Splashing cold water on his face, he hoped it would clear his mind enough for the hallucination to stop. He wasn’t crazy.
When he stood up, he saw nothing in the mirrors, and thought he was safe – but then, when he turned, it was there again.
“I don’t have a reflection,” it said. It floated up to the mirror, but it was blank, showing only the empty bathroom.
“Good, less time for you to spend on looking at yourself,” Gibbs said, and then he forced himself to shut up, because he was not interacting with this figment of his imagination.
“Can’t help it if I’m cute,” it said, flashing a grin that was so much like Tony, it headed straight to Gibb’s groin.
He rubbed his eyes. “You’re not real.”
It came up to him walking, but not quite because it floated above the floor.
“I’m real, Gibbs,” he said. “Please. You have to help me. Something’s wrong.”
“He’s gone,” Gibbs said, muttering to himself. “Tony’s gone, and now I’m imagining this because I can’t—”
He trailed off – even to himself, he refused to admit too much. He opened his eyes to find it looking at him, eyes wide.
“What do you mean, gone?” it asked. “Am I—dead?”
Gibbs sighed, and decided that although it wasn’t real, although this wasn’t Tony that was standing in front of him, it did look like him, and it sounded like him, and if Gibbs talked to it then maybe he’d deal better with everything afterwards. Perhaps this was his mind’s way of sorting through his emotions, or some such crap. Any psychologist would have a field day.
“We don’t know,” Gibbs said hoarsely, hating that he had to admit that he didn’t know. “You disappeared last week. You’ve been gone for seven days and fourteen hours, and we have no leads. You tell me.”
It looked distraught at Gibbs’ words. “But I can’t be—dead. And even if I was – why would I be haunting you of all people?”
“You’re not real,” Gibbs said, again. “You’re not haunting me.”
“Gibbs, come on,” it said. “I know you’re a stubborn son of a bitch, but—I told you about Abby’s dolls, and you didn’t know that before, because I never told you, and she never told you. I could tell you stuff about McGee too – you know, his birthday for example, because you sure don’t care enough to have checked that. Or Ziva, I can tell you she has this tattoo that you can’t know about, because you haven’t been under covers while undercover with her and it’s definitely not listed in her file. Come on, Gibbs – I’m real. Please, believe me.”
Gibbs regarded it, throat thick. “He never pleads.”
“I never have to!” it said, exasperated. “I have to now, because something is wrong and I need you—”
And then it disappeared, the sound simply dying as it vanished, silence filling the room. Gibbs stared at the spot where it had just been, swallowing hard.
It couldn’t be; it just couldn’t.
“The latest victim is Lance Corporal Kyle Westin,” Ziva said as soon as Gibbs came into the bullpen. “Abby got a match from AFIS. He disappeared on his way to work nine days ago; the wife was the last one to see him.”
“Go talk to her,” Gibbs said. “Work?”
“Worked as a data network specialist,” Ziva said. “Lived in Kensington.”
“Would’ve passed Bethesda on his way to work,” Gibbs said. Since Tony had disappeared there, it was as good a place as any to check out. Then again, they had already checked, and found nothing.
Ziva nodded. “Abby also asked me to tell you that Dr. Mallard found a residue on the man’s face; she’s running it now.”
Gibbs gave a curt nod. “After you’ve talked to the wife, go over Westin’s medical records,” Gibbs said. “See if he’s ever been to Bethesda Hospital.”
There probably wouldn’t be any such lead. They had checked the other victims’ medical histories in search of a common denominator to do with the hospital after Tony disappeared, but as McGee had pointed out anyone could get into the hospital parking lot where Tony had been kidnapped.
Gibbs’ heart rushed at the thought of Tony, as he was unable to shake the sense that what he’d just interacted with had not been a hallucination after all.
He sat down, taking a steadying breath before he focused on the computer screen. Ziva was grabbing her stuff to leave to talk to Mrs. Westin, and he swallowed. He had no idea of how to ask what he was about to, so—
“Do you have a tattoo?”
Ziva stopped, frowning at him. “I do.”
“One only Tony’s seen?”
There was some color rising in her cheeks. “Yes. What—”
Gibbs didn’t hear her, if she said anything beyond that. He definitely hadn’t known about her tattoo; although it was probably teasing fodder between the two of them, it had never come up in conversation.
He found Ziva staring at him. “Gibbs, are you all right?”
He managed to nod and wave her off, giving her no explanation to his probably very strange line of questioning. She glanced at him as she left, but made no move to ask anything else. When the elevator doors shut behind her, Gibbs let out a soft sigh.
Tony was real. Tony the ghost was real.
And with that, another set of unpleasant realization came crashing down on him – if Tony’s ghost was haunting him, that should mean that Tony was—
The pencil he’d been holding in his hand broke suddenly.
Had Tony realized that he was dead? He’d asked about it. He’d said something was wrong – but the first time he’d—appeared he hadn’t even known he was incorporeal. It wasn’t until the second ‘visit’ in the bullpen that he’d realized as much.
And where was he now? Was he coming back? Or had Gibbs sent him away, banished him so that he wouldn’t return, by refusing to help?
His mind also ran through a couple of lines of, am I crazy? He was actually starting to believe in the idea that what he’d seen earlier was actually Tony – albeit not live, in the flesh.
He couldn’t work this way, he decided, and without further ado – because neither Ziva nor McGee was present – he stood and headed out. Coffee was a definite necessity right now.
Half an hour later, he had downed one cup of hot black liquid, and carried another back to headquarters. He pretended that he wasn’t looking around, trying to catch a glimpse of golden hair and a thousand watt smile.
Perhaps he had imagined the whole thing after all.
McGee had returned and was looking through surveillance footage of the street when Gibbs returned. They already knew the body had to have been dumped between four forty-five and five forty-five – those were the times when the guards had passed the location – but it was still an hour of footage from two different camera angles for McGee to go through. The footage wasn’t the best, as it wasn’t supposed to film the street, as much as it filmed the entrance of the business building.
McGee greeted him with a nod and a ‘boss’, and Gibbs gave what could only constitute as a grunt back. He was preoccupied; his mind was running wild, bouncing back and forth, from I’m crazy to it was really Tony, and a variety of in-betweens.
“McGee,” he snapped after half an hour of silence, unable to stand it any longer. He had to do something – talk, scream, whatever – lest he go mad.
McGee jumped. “Yes, boss?”
“Uh, I—um,” said McGee, in an reversion back to the old probie-stuttering of a few years ago. Perhaps worry and sleeplessness in combination with fear of Gibbs’ wrath did that, although Gibbs knew it wouldn’t have had any effect on Tony. Now that Tony wasn’t there, acting as a buffer between Gibbs and McGee, he really did need to be nicer.
He couldn’t bring himself to it.
“Spit it out.”
“Uh, well, I looked through the footage,” McGee said, the words spilling out on top of each other. “There’s one that stands out.”
“It’s a white van with tinted windows,” McGee said. “Uh, no readable plates, and according to the database search I just did, there are about nine thousand vehicles that fit the description just in this county.”
“And the driver?”
“Invisible,” McGee said, and upon Gibbs’ look, he hastened to add, “Either he was lucky, or he knew where the cameras were and parked beyond them. There’s a shadow to indicate movement, but it’s dark and there isn’t much—”
“Send it to Abby,” Gibbs said.
“Yes, boss,” McGee said.
Ziva returned less than five minutes later.
“The wife is as clueless as the other wives,” she said, placing her bag on the floor and coming over to stand by Gibbs’ desk. “Distraught and of little help – and apparently pregnant with their first child.”
Gibbs darkened at the mention; yet another child who would have to grow up without knowing his or her father, all because some sick bastard was playing games.
“Lance Corporal Westin left their house at about seven a.m. last Wednesday, and she hasn’t seen or heard form him since,” Ziva said. “She reported him missing on Thursday.”
“Why are we only hearing about this now?” Gibbs asked. “From now on until we catch this bastard, I want to know every time someone misses so much as an hour of work, understood?”
Both Ziva and McGee mumbled, “Yes, boss.”
Gibbs looked at them, gaze traveling over their tired forms. Under his stare, they quickly returned to work, Ziva’s eyes flitting over the screen and McGee immersed in something, typing quickly. Gibbs couldn’t help but let his gaze wander to Tony’s desk; it still felt so wrong, so very, very wrong to not have Tony sitting there, cat-napping or working studiously on an angle neither of the other two agents had thought of, grinning and teasing them all the while.
He rubbed his temples and took a long swig of coffee, feeling the liquid run down his throat and warming him even though he felt cold to the bone.
He looked up, finding Tony standing there, right in front of his desk.
Gibbs stopped himself from saying Tony’s name, but he did stand abruptly. It caused Ziva and McGee to look up, and if he’d needed any evidence that he was the only one who could see Tony, he got it now; they both looked in confusion at Gibbs, McGee’s gaze inches from going straight through Tony.
Gibbs headed out without a word.
He walked into the nearest empty conference room, and locked the room behind him. Glancing around, he made sure none of the recording equipment was turned on – then he turned to Tony.
“You’re real,” he said.
“Look who’s finally catching on,” Tony said. “Who said I couldn’t teach an old dog new tricks?”
“Boss, I’m just trying to lighten the mood,” Tony said, voice quieter. “I’m obviously a ghost. That means I must be dead, right?”
Gibbs inhaled sharply, even though he’d come to the same conclusion earlier. Tony looked down at his feet, which were clad in a pair of expensive-looking shoes, floating a few inches above the floor.
“Don’t assume things,” Gibbs said, getting his voice back.
Tony glanced at him, a smile that couldn’t be described as anything but sad on his lips. “Don’t hope for things that are unattainable.”
“That’s not one of mine,” Gibbs said.
“Might as well be,” Tony said.
It was true; Gibbs couldn’t argue with it. Hope had never been his strong suit, even less so after his wife and daughter had been murdered.
“There has to be a reason why you’re here,” Gibbs said.
A part of him still couldn’t believe he was having a conversation with a partly see-through version of his second in command, but that part had been squished down beneath gratefulness over actually speaking to Tony again, no matter how bittersweet it felt. He’d feared he never would get to talk to Tony again. He also decided that if this did, in the end, turn out to be his imagination playing tricks on him, then he was very nearly okay with it – anything to get to hear Tony’s voice again.
“Maybe I just have to haunt you in death like you haunted me in life,” Tony said.
“I never haunted you, DiNozzo,” Gibbs said.
“Call it what you will,” Tony shrugged. “Is ‘riding my ass’ better?”
“DiNozzo,” Gibbs growled.
“I know, boss,” Tony said, and reached up and head-slapped himself. “I’ll do it for you, since you can’t right now.”
Gibbs wished he could reach out and cuff Tony upside the head. Wishing wasn’t something he usually spent time doing, but he couldn’t help himself. He wanted Tony to be real, solid, warm and there – not this only partly opaque version.
“What happened to me, boss?” Tony asked.
“You tell me,” Gibbs said. He motioned at Tony. He might as well test his Senior Agent’s memory while he had the chance.
Tony frowned. “There was the serial killer, right?”
Gibbs gazed at him, studying him. He realized that the first time Tony had appeared, he hadn’t realized he wasn’t really there. Tony must lack memory of some of the things that had happened lately. “How much do you remember?”
“I remember the killer,” Tony said. “The victims were clean, naked, and all males between twenty-four and forty-two. Four of them, right? Some kind of drug overdoses, few other marks.”
“Yeah,” Gibbs said. “What about the night you disappeared?”
Tony’s frown deepened. “I was—out walking. I was on the phone?” He looked at Gibbs for confirmation, but Gibbs schooled his expression to give nothing away; he wanted Tony to remember, not to piece things together from outside clues. “I think I was. But I don’t remember why I stopped talking or what happened next. It’s all—dark.”
“He grabbed you while you were on the phone with me,” Gibbs said. He could still remember his blood running cold at the sudden, mid-sentence silence. The sound of a body falling had come next, and the crack of the phone hitting the pavement. There had been no voices, other than Tony’s grunts of pain.
“Gibbs,” was the last breathed word Gibbs had heard, before the call had been ended. They had found the car and the phone in the Bethesda Naval Hospital parking lot, but it had led nowhere.
He flashed back a few years ago, when Tony was drugged and kidnapped. At least they’d found him, dirty and smelly but still alive, rather quickly that time.
Not so much now.
“I don’t remember what happened,” Tony said. “Why can’t I remember?”
“I don’t know,” Gibbs said, although his mind supplied him with the possibility that Tony couldn’t remember anything beyond that, because he’d died soon afterwards. He refused to say those words out loud.
“You and I—we were talking about the killer’s pattern, weren’t we?” Tony said, brow creasing. “Have there been more bodies?”
“One, today,” Gibbs said. “There’s been no time-pattern as far as when the bodies show up – anywhere from a few days to three weeks between each dumping. They’ve been missing for anywhere between four to eight days before their bodies appear, dead for most of that time. It’s been over two weeks since his last dump before the one today.”
“Maybe I disturbed him,” Tony said.
Gibbs nodded. “Possibly. You’re good at disturbing.”
“You know, that’s not a very nice thing to say to someone who might be dead,” Tony said, but he looked relieved at the comic relief.
“Second ‘b’ for bastard,” Gibbs said, shrugging. Still, Tony’s words made something Gibbs’ gut twist painfully.
“Yeah,” Tony said.
And then, just like that, Tony was gone, the image of him fading at the blink of an eye. Gibbs was left sitting in an empty conference room, staring at the wall behind the spot where Tony had just been standing.
He rubbed his eyes. Although Tony did seem very real indeed, it was still messing with his mind. Was Tony dead? Was he alive? Where did he go when he disappeared this way? Was he coming back, or was this it?
He would have to ask Tony next time, not simply be blinded by relief at seeing him again.
He exited the conference room, returning to the squad room, his head still feeling heavy.
“Boss,” McGee said, “There are three people that have missed work today.”
“One of them fits right in with the other victims,” McGee said. He hit a few keys on his keyboard, and a service record and a picture of a sailor came up. “Petty Officer Gregory Williams. Thirty-one years old and, uh, attractive, I guess.”
“Definitely,” Ziva said, standing beside Gibbs and cocking her head to the side as she studied the picture on the screen. “Very.”
The man had striking blue eyes and blond hair cut short, Navy style.
“He hasn’t been reported as missing yet,” McGee said, “but he fits right in. I’ve tried his cell and work phones, got nothing. His wife answered at home, and she’s been unable to contact him since this morning too.”
“All right,” Gibbs said. “Let’s focus on Petty Officer Williams, then. Ziva, go check out the house, find out how he gets to work, and follow that trail. McGee, get me phone records and credit card statements, and once Ziva knows the route he takes to work, I want whatever video you can get of it.”
Gibbs felt someone watching him, and looked up to find Director Vance on the second floor. Without a word, he headed up.
“Director,” he said.
“Where are you at?” Vance asked.
“We just found a new suspected victim,” Gibbs said.
Vance frowned. “That would make six victims?”
“Seven,” Gibbs said. “But one of them hasn’t turned up dead yet.”
“Gibbs, I need this bastard caught,” Vance said. “Sec Nav’s breathing down my neck and the media is going crazy.”
“We’re working every angle we can, sir,” Gibbs said. He didn’t add that he had also been having conversations with the not-yet-turned-up-dead victim.
“Good,” Vance said. “Keep me posted.”
By the time the clock chimed midnight and Gibbs headed home, they were no closer to finding Petty Officer Williams. There had been some surveillance on the man’s route to work, but all that had told them was between which cameras he had disappeared; the cameras had picked up nothing of interest. One camera, he was there, the next, he was not.
Gibbs’ mind was still working in overdrive. Seven victims in as many weeks – this was a vicious serial killer. Not the worst he’d ever dealt with, but they were racing against time to find Williams before he turned up dead.
He sighed upon seeing the clock turn to one minute past midnight. A new day; Friday had turned into Saturday.
He resisted the urge to down a glass or three of bourbon before going to bed. He doubted he’d be able to sleep – he had hardly slept since the first body had showed up nearly two months ago, and even less in the last week.
He was in the bathroom brushing his teeth when Tony returned.
“Oh, good, I’m here again.”
“DiNozzo, I’m in the bathroom,” Gibbs said.
“Can’t seem to help it, boss,” Tony said. “I just show up wherever you are.”
Gibbs glared, then spit, rinsed and left the bathroom. Tony trailed after him, into the adjoining master bedroom. Gibbs’ king-sized bed was as perfectly made as ever; even in the middle of a hot case, he didn’t let go of his military training.
“Where do you go when you’re not here?” Gibbs asked, as it was one of the burning questions on his mind.
Tony frowned. “What do you mean?”
“You’ve been gone for nearly twelve hours,” Gibbs said. “Your ‘visits’ are sporadic at best.”
“I—uh,” Tony said. “I don’t know. Was it really twelve hours? It didn’t feel like it.”
“It was twelve hours.”
Gibbs glared at him as he stared off into space. “So where were you?”
Tony shook his head. “I don’t know, boss. It’s—foggy. And not just as in ‘foggy memories’, but as in—fog. It’s just kind of grey, nothing there.”
Gibbs hated not understanding, and he didn’t understand this, that was for sure. But then, he normally didn’t talk to ghosts or whatever the hell it was DiNozzo had turned into. Ghosts were supposed to be a thing of storybooks – not something he had to deal with on the job, all because one of his agents had a particularly hard time keeping out of trouble.
“You’re almost more trouble than you’re worth,” he muttered, turning away from Tony.
“Almost? What do I have to do to cross the line?” Tony asked, and Gibbs could hear his smile.
“Actually die,” Gibbs snapped, and then regretted it. It was far too likely a scenario to joke about it.
“You’re such a happy person, boss,” Tony said, grinning. “Love you too.”
Gibbs turned back to look at Tony, shooting him a glare. Then he stopped short, because he saw the smile on Tony’s lips, but also the pain in his eyes. Gibbs knew that as frustrating as this was for him, it had to be at least ten times worse for Tony. Tony may or may not be dead at the moment; Tony was the one who couldn’t touch anything or anyone.
“I need to sleep,” Gibbs said gruffly.
“Then I should—uh, leave,” Tony said, but he looked thoughtful.
“Um,” Tony said. “I don’t know if I can leave.”
“What do you mean?” Gibbs asked. “I just told you, you’ve been gone twelve hours.”
Tony studied the floor. “Not like that, I know that. But—I don’t know why, but like I said, I show up wherever you are. I don’t know if I can go anywhere where you’re not.”
Again, Gibbs despised not understanding. He wanted to know what Tony was, what the rules were – and why Tony returned to him every time, instead of anyone else. Why could Gibbs see him, and not McGee, Ziva, or for that matter, Abby? Abby was far more likely to be open to this sort of thing, and Ziva – well, Gibbs had seen the looks she and Tony had shared. He pushed the thought away as jealousy flared within.
“Try,” he said.
Tony nodded, biting his lip. “Okay, here goes.”
He closed his eyes, Gibbs watching all the while – and then he faded away. It wasn’t like when he disappeared for hours, because then he simply vanished in a millisecond; now he faded slowly into nothingness.
A part of Gibbs wished he hadn’t sent Tony away. He was already missing him, already worried about what could happen to him.
Tony was a ghost, Gibbs reminded himself. Ghosts couldn’t get hurt.
Although he didn’t know that either, not really, because he didn’t know the rules.
He turned to the bed, pulling back the covers to get in. He’d be able to get perhaps three hours of shut-eye before he’d jerk awake and return to NCIS headquarters all too early.
“Okay, that was weird.”
He looked back to find Tony standing behind him, in the spot he’d faded from.
“What?” Gibbs asked.
“I can leave,” Tony said. “I went to my apartment. But there’s this—this pull. It starts out fine, but then after a while, it gets stronger and stronger, and then I can’t stay any longer, and I’m brought back here.”
“Here?” Gibbs echoed.
Tony nodded. “To you, I guess.”
Gibbs had to say the word that filled his mind. “Why?”
Tony looked away, and Gibbs thought he saw a hint of red in his cheeks. “I don’t know.”
Gibbs’ gut told him Tony was lying, but he didn’t want to get into it at the moment. Even though he wouldn’t be able to sleep for long, he was tired.
“I’m going to sleep,” he said.
Tony nodded, but looked indecisive. “I’ll just—uh.”
“You can stay,” Gibbs said. “I can put on a movie in the living room if you want to.”
“You have movies?” Tony asked, surprise obvious.
“Two DVDs,” Gibbs said. “You forgot them here last time you had to stay here.”
Tony grinned. “I knew you wouldn’t have bought any yourself. But really, boss, it’s okay. I’ll just—I’ll practice going other places. Perhaps that can be useful.”
Gibbs nodded. He didn’t ask what Tony was going to do in between trips. A part of him wished Tony would stay – it was the same part that wished Tony could get in bed and sleep next to him, in his solid and real form. But those were thoughts that were quickly squashed down, and he figured Tony would spend his time in the living room, or perhaps in the basement.
“Night, boss,” Tony said. “Sleep well.”
Gibbs didn’t respond, his head resting heavily on his pillow. He hadn’t slept well since the start of this, even less so since Tony disappeared. He wondered if he’d ever sleep right if Tony’s body turned up.
Tony was still there when he woke up, four hours later. Gibbs felt far from rested, but he was certain he wouldn’t get back to sleep.
“Sleep well?” Tony asked easily, floating a few inches above the chair standing in the corner. Gibbs wondered why Tony chose to ‘sit’ in the chair, when he could obviously hover unhindered anywhere, but he supposed it had to do with a sense of normalcy.
He grunted his reply to Tony’s question.
“I would’ve made coffee if I’d been able,” Tony said, “but solid things are a bit out of reach for me these days.”
Gibbs rubbed his eyes. It was far too early in the morning for this kind of thing – although he wasn’t sure what a good time for ghostly discussions was.
He headed into the kitchen, and Tony trailed behind.
“I’ve been practicing going other places,” Tony said.
“Yeah?” Gibbs said, putting on a pot of coffee.
Tony nodded, leaning slightly too far against the counter as he tried to look normal, sinking just a little bit into it. He didn’t notice, and Gibbs didn’t see the need to point it out.
“Saw McGee and Ziva,” Tony said. “And Abby.”
Gibbs raised an eyebrow at him. Had it been a bit later, and things had been a bit less—bad, with the risk of Tony being dead, he might have mocked Tony about being a voyeur.
“I could stay a little longer each time,” Tony said continued. “I mean, it wasn’t much to see – they were all sleeping. I’ve gotta say – Probie looks exhausted and Abby—um, well, she has pictures.”
“Pictures?” Gibbs asked, ignoring the quip about McGee. He knew McGee was tired; they were all tired – it just showed more on McGee, because he hadn’t learned to hide it as efficiently yet.
“Of me,” Tony said, and Gibbs wondered how it was possible for a ghost to blush.
“Yeah. In her lab too,” Gibbs said.
He grabbed a cup and poured coffee into it. He sighed with some contentment as he sipped it. He caught Tony staring at him, and raised an eyebrow.
“Can’t offer you any,” he said.
“What? No,” Tony said. “No, I know.”
They were silent for a few seconds, regarding each other. There was pain in Tony’s eyes and Gibbs could only guess that it was the same thoughts that Gibbs was having. Was Tony dead? Was this an interlude, someone dangling his life in front of their eyes, just to show what they could never again have?
Gibbs shook himself free of the depressing thoughts, and glanced at the clock. “This is the longest you’ve stayed.”
“It’s getting longer,” Tony said. “The first time was just a minute.”
“Don’t suppose you’ve figured out why?” Gibbs asked.
Tony shook his head, looking at the floor. “Working on it. But there aren’t really any books I can check – and even if there were, well—can’t turn a page.”
Gibbs drank his coffee quietly.
“You know,” Tony said, “I don’t know how many times this’d have been useful. I mean, imagine the stuff I can get to see now – bad guys making deals, never knowing I was there to watch and that kind of stuff.”
“Yeah?” Gibbs said. “And how’d you prove you were there?”
Tony rolled his eyes. “It’s so you, to just see the problems and not the possibilities.”
Gibbs smiled slightly. With coffee back in his system, he felt slightly better; the liquid fought off some of the black depression that threatened to overwhelm him when he thought of Tony and why he was currently standing slightly see-through in his kitchen.
“I’m going to—”
He stopped, when he realized that Tony had just vanished once more.
It was Saturday, but that didn’t matter to Gibbs. Two people were missing – they needed to find both Tony and Williams.
McGee did look exhausted, Gibbs thought, although he didn’t lighten the youngest agent’s burden. Gibbs wanted every bit of information about Williams he could possibly get – they needed to find the link between the victims. So far, two of the victims had served on the same ship, and another two had worked for the same commander at different times, but there was absolutely nothing that tied them all together. The Bethesda Hospital angle Ziva had run down had led nowhere.
“Uh, I mean, nothing that we’ve found so far,” McGee stammered when he shared this information with Gibbs.
“Has to be something, McGee,” Gibbs said.
“Yes, boss, of course,” McGee said, but lingered. “It’s just that—I’ve checked through everything I can think of.”
Gibbs didn’t want to think about the idea of a crazy person randomly picking people from the streets; it would make things even more difficult than it already was to figure out the murderer’s next step. Besides, the victims weren’t random – they were all males, all attractive, all about the same age.
“Check it again,” he said.
McGee nodded. Gibbs would have expected some sort of sigh of boredom or irritation, but he got none. He studied McGee as inconspicuously as he could, and saw him glance at Tony’s desk every now and then. There was pain on McGee’s face, easily readable because unlike the rest of the team, McGee didn’t hide behind a mask. Tony did – he always had, his playboy persona his way of dealing with the world, only letting the real Tony out on occasions like when Kate and Paula, and Jenny, died, and other brief glimpses of honesty.
Ziva had always hid behind her cool mask of indifference. Gibbs had seen her slip on few occasions – when she’d had to kill her brother, and when she’d been undercover and almost killed just a few months ago – but she was nearly as good as Gibbs at keeping her feelings under wraps.
Gibbs himself had hid behind his bastardly exterior since Kelly and Shannon had been killed, and he was no longer certain that it was a mask at all; he was pretty sure it had become him.
“Boss,” McGee said, and Gibbs realized he’d lost himself in thoughts, all the while staring at Tony’s empty desk.
“Uh—I was just looking at the map of where we’ve found the victims,” McGee said. “Did you know that the sites form a straight line?”
Gibbs frowned. “What?”
McGee hit keys on his computer, and the screen by Gibbs’ desk came to life with a map. Red dots marked where the five bodies so far had been dumped. McGee was right; the sites did form a line, from the latest on Pennsylvania Avenue, to the first body in Riverdale Park. The second body had been a slight bit off the line, found just off Rhode Island Avenue, just as the fourth body had been. The third body had been found nearer the first one, in Edmonston.
“What does that mean?” McGee asked.
Gibbs had no idea, and he had no answer for McGee.
Ziva strode into the bullpen. “I just spoke to Abby. She has made computer models of how the victims must have been positioned after being killed. She wanted you to come down. What’s this?”
“The victims were dumped in a nearly perfectly straight line,” McGee said.
“Why?” asked Ziva.
“We don’t know,” Gibbs said, “but you’re going to find out. Get me an answer.”
Ziva nodded, even as she frowned at the screen. Gibbs left the squad room and took the elevator down to Abby’s lab.
“What’ve you got for me, Abs?”
“Still no news?” she asked, turning to him. She had music on, but it wasn’t as deafening as it usually was.
He shook his head. “Did you get anything out of the residue? And Ziva mentioned models?”
Abby swallowed, and then nodded, changing into work mode. Gibbs appreciated her ability to do so, to leave the hurt and worry behind, even though she tended to wear her heart on her sleeve.
“The residue was make-up,” she said. “It’s a foundation from Maybelline. Can be found in every store that has makeup. Sorry, Gibbs, I can’t get anything else out of it. I mean, I can’t work miracles. Like the frame McGee sent me yesterday – I can’t do anything with it. It’s just—all I can get is a shoe.”
She clicked a few times, and the grainy surveillance photo came up. McGee’s description of a ‘shadow’ had been accurate; Gibbs was, as usual, impressed that Abby could even make out the shoe.
“It’s a regular Nike shoe, as far as I can tell,” Abby said. “They made about three hundred thousand of the kind last year.”
Gibbs held back a sigh; another dead end. “What about the models of the bodies?”
Abby made a face. “I don’t know what to make of it – but they’ve all been placed in different positions, and they seem pretty specific.”
She showed each victim and the way they’d most likely been positioned. The latest victim had been sprawled out over something, just as Abby had described. The victim before him, Lieutenant Henry Johnson, hunched over in a sitting position, head leaning in his hand. The third victim that had appeared, Commander Lucas Mahoney, was kneeling.
“I think his hand was outstretched for some reason too,” Abby said. “There are these marks on his hand, that would’ve been possible to get if he’d been tied up before the blood had stopped settled, and the tie around his hands hindered the blood.”
“What does it all mean, Abby?” Gibbs asked.
Abby shrugged miserably. “I don’t know, Gibbs. That the murderer is insane?”
“Already knew that,” Gibbs said.
“Yeah,” Abby said. Quieter, she said, “Do you think he’s dead?”
He felt the unfamiliar feeling of a lump in his throat. “I don’t know, Abs.”
There was rage, fear, and worry keeping him going so far. It would keep him going until they found this madman and brought him down. What would happen after that, Gibbs didn’t know. It had been hard enough to lose Kate – to lose Tony would a whole different story, for so many reasons, most of which he didn’t want to think about.
Abby hugged him, head under his chin, and he held her close for a couple of seconds, before the restless need to keep going made him pull away.
“It’s good work,” he said.
“Not good enough,” she said softly.
“Then keep at it,” Gibbs said, two fingers raising her chin. “Okay?”
She nodded mutely, tears shining in her eyes but not falling. He kissed her forehead, and then he left, wishing for Tony to return – preferably alive and well, solid and opaque, but even his ghostly form would be appreciated.
Ziva’s rundown of Williams’ route to work had at least given them Williams’ car, which was currently being turned inside out by a team downstairs. So far, nothing had turned up – Williams’ cell phone had been found in the car, but no fingerprints and no signs of struggle. No calls had been made, and his credit card had not been used since the disappearance.
When the clock showed six p.m., Gibbs sighed.
“Go home,” he said. “Rest.”
“Boss?” McGee asked.
Gibbs hated admitting defeat, but right now, they weren’t getting anywhere. A second run through the histories of the victims had revealed nothing to McGee, and Gibbs hadn’t found anything either, when he’d looked through the files. It seemed everything was one big coincidence, and Gibbs hated coincidences.
To top it all off, he hadn’t seen Tony all day. Worry had turned into a physical ache.
“Go home,” he said again. “I’ll call you if anything comes up.”
“But—” Ziva said.
Gibbs knew what she was about to say. “There’s nothing we can do.”
He wished there was – but every bit of evidence had been searched and checked thrice over, and it wasn’t pointing them even in the general direction of Tony. They had no idea how the victims had been abducted, no idea why the specific ones had been chosen, no explanation for the way they’d been placed—
They had no answers.
Ziva stared emptily at Tony’s desk. Gibbs pretended not to see it, making a show of stacking papers instead.
“She misses me!”
Gibbs’ head snapped up to see Tony standing in front of him.
Ziva turned to look at him, confusion evident in her eyes, and McGee’s eyes rose above his computer screen.
“Gibbs?” Ziva asked.
“Nothing,” Gibbs said, nearly growling. “Go home.”
“Don’t they have work to do?” Tony asked. “They should work – you guys need to find me.”
McGee and Ziva stood, and Gibbs picked up on their reluctance. He sighed, ignoring the steady stream of words the ghostly version of Tony was sending him.
“There’s nothing we can do tonight,” Gibbs said. “Maybe after a night’s sleep we can see things from a new perspective.”
He couldn’t manage to sound hopeful, because he wasn’t. It was obvious, even as McGee dredged up some semblance of optimism, that neither he nor Ziva felt anything even remotely like it either. Still, they nodded, mumbled their goodnights, and disappeared into the elevator.
Gibbs leaned back, looking at Tony. Feelings warred within him – relief, because Tony was there again, but also anguish, because Tony wasn’t truly there. It felt like someone was taunting him. With each passing second, the likelihood that Tony was dead grew.
“They’re gone,” Tony said. “You can talk to me.”
Gibbs looked around. He wouldn’t have any kind of lengthy discussion with a ghost that only he could see here – ghost-Tony wouldn’t show up on video surveillance, and Gibbs certainly didn’t need to be deemed unfit and sent off to the psych ward, at least not while Tony was still missing.
“Not here,” he muttered.
“Oh, you’re afraid someone might think you’re crazy,” Tony said, with odd delight. “Well, I hate to break it to you, boss, but I think most people here already know you’re crazy.”
He grinned at Gibbs, who glared over his glasses at Tony.
“Come on, Gibbs,” Tony said, throwing his hands up. “Smile. Just a little. Wouldn’t kill you.”
Gibbs wondered what he could possibly have to smile about.
Frustrated, and needing to be able to respond to Tony, Gibbs threw what little he needed to bring back home into the pockets of his jacket. He grabbed the files on the victims, taking them home with him, hoping that he might find something they had missed upon reading them the first four times.
“So, we’re going home?” Tony asked conversationally once Gibbs had jabbed the garage button in the elevator.
“I’m going home,” Gibbs snapped, wishing he could reach out and strangle Tony for worrying him so much, for placing this icy rock of fear in his stomach. It wouldn’t bulge; it was there, all the time, making his gaze flit over to Tony’s desk, making him wish for Tony’s easy smile and silly movie references.
Or, perhaps, he wanted to press Tony against the wall of the elevator and ravish him.
It didn’t matter – his hands would pass straight through Tony, and any attempt at pushing Tony against the wall would be unsuccessful.
“Damn it, Tony,” Gibbs swore, slamming his fist against the wall.
Tony’s voice was timid when he spoke again. “Still here, boss.”
Gibbs glanced at him. He choked slightly on the words, cursing himself. “No, you’re not.”
“Are we back to that?” Tony asked, eyebrows rising. “I thought we—”
“Not that, DiNozzo,” Gibbs snapped. “I know it’s you. But you’re not here.”
It took less than a second for Tony to process his words, and then his expression fell. “Oh. You mean that.”
“Yeah,” Gibbs said.
They walked through the garage to the car, and Gibbs wasn’t sure why Tony got into the car – without opening the door, simply floating straight through – but he did. They didn’t speak; there was a bit of a mishap as the car moved and Tony didn’t, but soon, he had a sense of how fast he needed to be going to come along with Gibbs as the car sped down the streets.
It was dark outside, as was Gibbs’ house. Gibbs unlocked the door, and Tony was waiting for him inside.
“I might be handy for undercover ops,” Tony said. “Don’t even need to go in undercover.”
“And who would you report to, DiNozzo?” Gibbs asked.
Tony rolled his eyes as Gibbs passed him, heading to grab a bottle of beer in the kitchen.
“You need to see the possibilities, not just the negatives,” Tony said. “And you should eat something.”
Gibbs shot him a look.
“What?” Tony asked. “You never eat during cases. I know, because we never get to eat.”
“You get coffee,” Gibbs said.
“You know, this,” he said, motioning at his own body, “wasn’t built with coffee.”
Gibbs took the brief moment of permission to let his eyes rake over Tony’s body. Hard, muscled planes hid in ghost form beneath the sweater and pants.
He sat down heavily on the couch in the living room, the files on the dead marines slamming down on the table. He took a swig of beer, but it didn’t stop the feelings of helplessness that threatened to overwhelm him.
“Gibbs?” Tony asked.
“You just look like you’re about to go out and kill someone,” Tony said carefully.
“I am,” Gibbs said, gripping the bottle tightly.
“The Director might frown upon that,” Tony said. “Who’re you gonna kill?”
“You,” Gibbs snapped.
Tony frowned, floating closer. “Me? What did I do?”
“You got yourself kidnapped,” Gibbs said. “Again. Wasn’t once enough?”
“Once?” Tony asked. “Oh, you mean that time.”
Gibbs didn’t respond; he had the memories of running through the sewer system in search of Tony clear in his mind. He remembered the terror, the fear, the worry that everything might already be too late. He remembered the phone call, the chill of dread it brought.
Tony’s unconscious form morphed into other times; images he’d run through so many times in the last week – sickly blue skin and purple lips drawing painful breaths through the plague, wincing and rubbing the back of his head after Franks knocked him out cold, nose bleeding after an undercover operation gone wrong. Tony took the brunt of all the wrong.
He had taken everything that had gone wrong far too often.
Tony ‘sat’ on the couch, legs drawn up. He looked at Gibbs, and when Gibbs gazed at him, he saw faith in the hazel eyes.
“You’ll find me, boss,” Tony said.
Gibbs’ throat hurt; he couldn’t find the words. He couldn’t assure Tony that he would succeed – at least not before it was too late, if it wasn’t already.
“Gibbs,” Tony said, and with a bit more force to it, he repeated, “You’ll find me.”
“Yeah,” Gibbs muttered, and looked away, unable to meet Tony’s wide, trusting hazel eyes. “Gonna work on the boat.”
He felt Tony’s gaze on him as he stood, took a swig out of the bottle, and headed downstairs.
The phone rang at an ungodly hour, not long after Gibbs had finally managed to go to sleep. Opening one eye, he found the cell phone with his hand and answered it.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Gibbs!” came Abby’s overly enthusiastic voice. “Oh, did I wake you?”
Gibbs looked at his alarm clock, the numbers bright red in the dark room. Five sixteen. “What is it, Abs?”
“I couldn’t sleep,” Abby said, “so I went to work. I was looking over the computer models when Ducky came here – he couldn’t sleep either, and I guess he figured his time was better spent here, too, and it really was, Gibbs, it really was.”
“It’s a painting, Jethro,” came the less hyper but nonetheless enthusiastic voice of Ducky. “An old classic – The Raft of Medusa by Theodore Géricault.”
Gibbs was suddenly wide awake – this was the first breakthrough they’d had since Tony disappeared.
“I’m coming in,” he said. He ended the call.
“They’ve got something?”
“You’re still here,” Gibbs said, and he wasn’t entirely sure what he felt about Tony watching him sleep a second night in a row.
Tony shrugged, unfolding from the chair. He stretched, arms over his head, and Gibbs wondered briefly if ghosts got kinks in their backs too.
“What did Abby say?” Tony asked.
“Something about a painting,” Gibbs said. “Tag along and you’ll find out.”
Tony smiled. “I’m bound to you, boss. I’m tagging along with you whether you want me to or not.”
Gibbs ignored the way his heart flipped at Tony’s words. Tony being bound to him – there was a distinctly pleasant sound to that.
Outwardly, he shrugged. He headed downstairs, grabbing his jacket and the car keys on the way. Tony followed, showing off by sliding through the door once it had closed, and grinning at Gibbs’ glare. Tony really was far too good at ignoring Gibbs’ glares.
“I’m getting coffee,” Gibbs said, and then stopped himself, because he’d been about to ask if Tony wanted some too.
Tony’s gaze was understanding. “It’s okay, boss. Don’t exactly get thirsty.”
It didn’t help matters that he looked so real, sitting there, right beside Gibbs in the car like he’d done a million times before.
Gibbs sipped his coffee as he twisted and turned through the very light early morning traffic, and parked smoothly in the NCIS garage. Tony was already standing by the elevator by the time Gibbs got out of the car.
“How far can you go?” Gibbs asked, quieter now in case anyone was in the garage – he didn’t need a reputation of talking to himself. They got into the elevator.
“From you?” Tony asked, floating upwards as the elevator moved. “I don’t know. I guess I can go as far as I want, it’s just—I told you, there’s the pull. It just gets stronger, the farther away I go and the longer I’m gone.”
Gibbs nodded, pretending to understand.
The elevator pinged as they reached Abby’s lab. He strode in there, and tried to ignore Tony’s presence. He couldn’t look at Tony, or listen to him if he spoke – if he did, he’d be distracted and either Abby or Ducky, or both, would notice. Still, he heard Tony’s muttered words: “Wow, she really does have pictures of me here too.”
“What’ve you got, Abs?” Gibbs asked.
Abby was smiling, which was a first since Tony disappeared. On the large screen behind her, there was a painting.
“Ducky’s the man,” she said.
Ducky, who was sitting on Abby’s chair, chuckled. “Well, I don’t know about that – I simply know a bit of art history.”
“What’s this?” Gibbs asked, nodding towards the painting.
“As I said on the phone,” Ducky said, “this is The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault, an artist who lived from 1791 to 1824 in France and Italy. The Raft of the Medusa, or Le Radeau de la Méduse as is its original title, is his masterpiece. It was painted after the French ship La Méduse went under in 1816, and its incompetent captain left the crew to die whilst he took one of the few life boats to safety. The crew built a raft, and they lived on it for thirteen days. Only fifteen of the one hundred and forty-nine crew members survived – and five of those died after they reached land.”
“What’s this got to do with the case?” Gibbs asked.
He risked a glance at Tony, who was staring at the painting with wide eyes, before focusing back on Abby and Ducky.
“Everything,” Abby said. “The murderer is making his own raft. Check this out.”
She brought the digital figures of the victims up on the screen, and placed each of them on the painting. They each had a perfect match on the nineteenth century painting; the latest victim was the young man spread out in the lap of an older man, the young man obviously dead, the older mourning. The older man’s position was a match to Liutenant Henry Johnson’s position.
“There are at least nineteen people in this painting,” Gibbs said, after a quick head-count.
“Yeah,” Abby said, less hyper now. “If he plans to do the whole thing, then we’ve got some big trouble ahead.”
Gibbs gave the painting one last look, then turned to Abby. “I want everything there is to know about this painting, and I want a list of every whack-job artist wannabe within the nearest thirty miles of the dumping grounds. And get McGee and Ziva in here.”
Abby nodded resolutely, fingers already flying across her keyboard.
Ducky followed Gibbs out. “Jethro—”
Gibbs stopped and looked down at Ducky. “Yeah, Duck?”
“It’s said that the artist – Géricault – went to the morgue and collected dead bodies to study,” Ducky said. “This murderer seems to have taken it to the next level.”
“Yeah, Duck. I can see that.”
Ducky looked as though he wanted to say more, and Gibbs had the feeling that he wanted to assure Gibbs, again, that they’d find Tony – but it no longer seemed very likely, ten days after he’d disappeared. Instead, Ducky sighed, placed a hand briefly on Gibbs’ arm, and then turned and left.
Tony was leaning a bit into the wall, looking pale even for his ghostly form.
“I’ve seen that painting,” he said.
Gibbs didn’t ask; there were cameras in the corridors, and Abby’s lab was still close enough for her to hear anything he said.
“It’s all fuzzy,” Tony said. “But I’m sure you’re on the right track. I mean, you probably already know that, but—”
Tony trailed off, shaking his head. He looked at Gibbs, their eyes meeting and threads of unnamed feelings swirled between them. The intensity in Tony’s eyes made it impossible for Gibbs to look away, and for a moment, he was almost thankful that Tony was a ghost, because if he hadn’t been, Gibbs would have kissed him right there, in the hallway.
And then Tony was gone again.
“The Raft of the Medusa is based on the real events of when the frigate Méduse sank,” McGee said. “It sank in 1816 after striking the Bank of Arguin off the coast of Mauritania. The captain, an ill-liked but politically chosen man named Hugues Duroy de Chaumereys, ordered the crew and passengers to leave the ship – however, there were only six lifeboats.”
McGee flipped through sketches and paintings of the events of the screen.
“Because not everyone could fit in the lifeboats, they made a raft of some of the ship for the rest of the crew,” McGee continued. “A hundred and thirty-three of the crew got on the raft – but they didn’t have fresh water and other necessities. Twenty people had been killed by the first night, by the fourth day there was cannibalism, and by the eight day, the strongest ones started throwing the weakest and hurt overboard.”
It was an unpleasant story, no doubt about it. Without needing to glance around, Gibbs knew there were other agents listening in to McGee’s story. For once, Gibbs didn’t stop McGee’s detailed review – there may be clues in the painting’s history, even if it happened nearly two hundred years ago.
“By the time the Méduse’s sister ship Argus by chance sighted the raft after thirteen days, only fifteen of the crew were still alive,” McGee said. He brought the painting up, and pointed to a dot on the horizon. “Géricault painted the Argus here, still far away, so that there’s the sense of desperation still in the picture, because the crew doesn’t know whether they’ll be saved or not. They were saved, but five of the crew died within a few days of getting back on land.”
“He’s good at storytelling,” Tony said, standing next to Gibbs all of a sudden.
Gibbs only glanced at him, as inconspicuously as possible. He didn’t say anything. It had been a few hours since Tony had vanished outside Abby’s lab; his return was sooner than it usually was. Gibbs wondered if that was good or bad.
He also wondered when he’d started thinking of a ghost as normal.
“Géricault was only twenty-five when he decided to do the painting,” Ziva said, taking over from McGee. “He made sketches of bodies in the morgue of the hospital, and he even brought severed, decaying limbs back to his studio to study. He also used some of his friends as models.”
“Yeah, I’m thinking our psycho’s taken over the dead-bodies part,” Tony said, making a face.
Ziva turned to Gibbs. Her brow was drawn together in a light frown.
“Yes?” Gibbs asked.
She hesitated, frown deepening for a second, before she schooled it away. “Nothing. I just—thought I heard something.”
Gibbs kept his surprise carefully off his face. What had Ziva just heard? She couldn’t possibly have heard Tony, could she? She obviously couldn’t see him – she’d have had more of a reaction than a light frown if she could.
She waited a beat longer than necessary to start up again. “The people in the painting are divided into four groups – the dead or dying in the foreground, those that are rising, the standing and strong in the background behind the mast, and finally, the three men signaling the Argus. The raft is painted to seem unstable, as a way to ‘heighten the dramatic tension’, apparently. It is also drawn according to a line, or even a triangle – from the dejection and death of those lowest in the painting, to those with hope and strength at the top.”
Gibbs started at her words, standing up straighter. His heart pounded faster, his gut twisting with instinct. “McGee, get the map of where we’ve found the bodies up on the screen.”
“Yes, boss,” McGee said.
“What is it, boss?” asked Tony.
Tony floated up to stand just behind Ziva, as he had done on so many occasions. Gibbs noted as Ziva shuddered, taking a minute step away from Tony, to the side. Tony didn’t seem to notice.
McGee had put the map on the screen.
“Where’s the line in the painting supposed to go?” Gibbs asked.
“Uh, according to the books, here,” McGee said, and drew a line from the dead, sprawled man at the bottom, to the man holding the flag at the top.
“The murderer is putting his victims out at the same line,” Gibbs said.
McGee’s eyebrows rose. “You’re right, boss.”
Gibbs didn’t bother dignifying that with an answer. He was finally getting somewhere – they had a lead, even though they didn’t know what it meant or what it would lead to.
“Get me surveillance of every bit of the streets that are affected by that line,” he snapped. “Up and down, I want it now.”
“Yes, boss,” McGee and Ziva both said, hurrying to work.
“You’re good, Gibbs,” Tony said. “I’d have figured it out, of course – I was right behind you.”
Gibbs rolled his eyes, and immediately hoped no one had seen him doing so.
“Surveillance coming up within the hour, boss,” McGee said.
“They have thirty minutes. Get me that list of artists and wannabes in the area.”
“Already done,” McGee said, pulling up another map on the screen. There were small, red dots scattered across. “All galleries and artists in the area.”
“Start going through them,” Gibbs said.
“What am I looking for?” McGee asked. Gibbs glared at him, and McGee swallowed and nodded. “I’ll figure it out.”
Gibbs strode out of there, hoping Tony would follow without instruction. He was in luck; Tony stood right behind him when they reached the conference room.
“What do you remember?” he asked as soon as the door closed behind them.
Tony looked at him. “All work and no play makes Gibbs such a—”
“I’m trying to save your ass here, DiNozzo,” Gibbs growled.
Tony had the decency to look abashed. “Sorry, boss.”
“What do you remember?” Gibbs repeated.
“I just know I’ve seen the painting,” Tony said, rather unhappily. “Or some version of it. Perhaps I’ve seen the psycho’s version of it. But I don’t remember anything else, Gibbs. It’s all dark.”
Of course, it’d be far too easy if Tony could just remember what the murderer looked like and point him out in a photo – but there were other things they hadn’t tried yet.
“See if you can find your body,” Gibbs said, and wanted to slap himself – those were not words that should come out of his mouth. It sounded like a fantasy novel.
“Find my body?” Tony echoed, looking confused.
“Yeah,” Gibbs said. “Your body. You’re supposed to have one.”
“You’re such great help, boss,” Tony said.
But he seemed to get the gist of it, because with a sigh, he closed his eyes. Gibbs watched as he began to fade – but then he returned again, without having completely left.
They didn’t communicate with words; Tony’s puzzled gaze told Gibbs what he needed to know. Tony tried again, with the same result. He looked more crushed this time, and when he failed a third time, his face had fallen completely.
“I can’t do it,” he said.
“Doesn’t mean you’re dead, DiNozzo,” Gibbs said.
“Sure doesn’t mean I’m alive,” Tony countered.
“You’ve known where you’re going the other times,” Gibbs said, trying his best to use his analytical skills on the situation, without much hope, because he didn’t even have the basic understanding of how the ghost thing worked. “This time you’re going in blind.”
“It’s my body I’m trying to find,” Tony said. “Shouldn’t be that hard.”
“Shouldn’t be that easy,” Gibbs said.
Their eyes met, Gibbs trying his best to convey assurance and confidence that he didn’t feel. He’d never been good with support, least of all to Tony.
Tony sighed. “Go back to work, boss. Find me.”
“You sticking around?” Gibbs asked.
“Might go down to see Abby,” Tony said. “For a while, until the whole unable-to-communicate thing gets me down too much.”
Gibbs nodded. “Tell me if you remember anything.”
Gibbs didn’t know what to do about the crestfallen look on Tony’s face. Obviously, the idea of trying to find his body had been a bad one – but Gibbs had had to ask, they’d had to attempt it, even though he didn’t know what to say now that it hadn’t worked.
Tony faded, going down to Abby as he’d said. Gibbs left the conference room, striding back to the squad room. Ziva and McGee were both hard at work.
“What’ve you got?”
“Well, uh,” McGee said, “it hasn’t been much time, but there’s this—”
He trailed off, and with a few clicks, a file appeared on the big screen.
“Alan Richie,” McGee said. “Runs a gallery in Somerset, is an aspiring artist himself. Served a two year sentence for beating a guy almost to death, and has had a few other run-ins with the cops.”
Director Vance chose that moment to stride into the bullpen. “Agent Gibbs. How are things going?”
“Got a lead,” Gibbs said. “Going out.”
“No, you’re not,” Vance said. “Sec Nav wants a briefing.”
“It can wait,” Gibbs snapped.
Vance shook his head. “It can’t. Up in M-TAC, now.”
Gibbs nearly growled at him. Then he turned to Ziva with an air of great frustration. “Ziva, go check out Mr. Richie.”
She nodded, grabbing her gear.
Gibbs didn’t like sending Ziva out on her own – interviewing family, as she had done with Williams’ wife, was all right, but not this kind of thing – but he had little choice. With Tony gone, he needed to keep one person in the bullpen, and in this case, it made more sense to keep McGee, who could continue his search for possible suspects.
Ziva didn’t look particularly worried about going on her own.
Gibbs followed Vance up to M-TAC.
Ziva had been gone over an hour and a half, and Gibbs’ gut was churning. The talk with Sec Nav had been dull and pointless, as he had little more to report than the last time, despite the latest breakthrough with the painting. Gibbs wanted to strangle Vance for it; he knew Vance would have been perfectly capable of handling Sec Nav on his own – Vance simply wanted to flex his muscles and show Gibbs that he was the boss.
“McGee, get Ziva on the phone,” he said, trying to keep his worry out of his voice. One of his agents had already been taken by the psycho, and he wanted to slap himself for letting Ziva go alone.
McGee nodded, and made the call.
Tony materialized in front of him. He was shaking his head. “I never understood any of the stuff Abby does in her lab, and now, after over an hour down there, I understand even less.”
“She’s not answering, boss,” McGee said. “But she’s at Richie’s, according to her cell’s GPS.”
“Damn it,” Gibbs swore.
Tony’s smile had disappeared. “What’s wrong?”
Gibbs didn’t have time to go to the conference room. Instead, he grabbed a pen and scrawled on a piece of paper – ‘find Ziva’.
Tony read the two words, and he gave a pale nod before fading away. Gibbs grabbed his gun, holstering it, and McGee was already grabbing his gear.
“Think she’s in trouble?” McGee asked.
Gibbs didn’t answer; he grabbed the car keys and strode towards the elevator. They rode down in silence, the ride impossibly long and near suffocating as Gibbs’ mind ran through the possibilities of Richie being the murderer, and him grabbing Ziva as he had taken Tony.
He was marching towards the car when Tony faded into view again.
“Boss, she’s in trouble,” he said before he’d even become completely visible. “I don’t think the Richie guy is our serial killer, but I think he’s got other stuff going on and when Ziva came asking questions—”
Gibbs looked at him, but couldn’t ask, because McGee was three feet away from him.
“She’s tied up and he’s ‘questioning’ her,” Tony said. “She didn’t look too good – she was bleeding.”
“Damn it,” Gibbs muttered.
McGee shot him a questioning look. They got into the car, Tony floating into the back, and then they were off. McGee only barely managed to fasten his seatbelt amidst the twists and turns as Gibbs hit the gas on the way out of the garage. He took the turns on two wheels, following McGee’s breathless directions towards Richie’s address.
The area, rundown but filled with little shops and galleries with cheap art, was a maze. They managed to get through it quickly enough because Gibbs swerved between the other cars without ever moving his foot to the brake. Upon reaching Richie’s gallery, Gibbs parked the car illegally, not caring even a little bit.
Guns drawn, they went into the little gallery. It was more like a shop, with posters and paintings mixed and mashed. There were no customers, for which Gibbs was glad.
Behind the counter, there was a narrow corridor to a little room, and to the right, there was a staircase.
“Up there,” Tony said.
Still, they had to clear the room, and only once that was done – there was no one in there either – did Gibbs and McGee, with Tony already ahead of them, move up the stairs. They were met with a door, which Tony floated right through.
The sound of a man yelling floated through the door. Gibbs heard someone groan.
Tony came back out.
“Two men, one on the right with a gun, one hitting Ziva,” he said.
Gibbs nodded to McGee to stand on the other side of the door. He saw McGee swallow and focus, and he knew he’d rather have Tony as backup, but there was little to do about that. Besides, Tony was doing good for being incorporeal.
He kicked the door open with one efficient foot, and both men inside jumped and leveled their guns at Gibbs and McGee. Without having to think much, Gibbs put a bullet through the man on the right’s shoulder, and he dropped his gun on the floor, screaming. Another shot rang off, and the one that had been hitting Ziva fell to the floor, a pool of blood spreading from a chest wound. Guttural noises came from the man, drawn-out seconds passing before he stilled.
“He was going to shoot you, boss,” McGee breathed, gun still trained on the man.
“You did good, McGee,” Gibbs said.
He hurried inside, gun still pointed at the one he’d shot, and Gibbs cuffed the bastard tightly. No matter how much he needed to tend to Ziva, he first needed to make sure they were safe and secure, that both men were down for the count, and that there were no others in the room, coming to surprise them. With two fingers to the man McGee had shot’s neck, he concluded the man was seconds away from death. He wasn’t breathing anymore, and the large pool of blood empathized the fact.
“Call for backup,” he instructed McGee. “And get an ambulance here.”
“Gibbs?” Ziva’s voice floated across the room.
“This place is clear,” Tony said, floating over after having done a quick sweep.
Gibbs took his word for it; he would have done so if Tony had been corporeal, so why not when he wasn’t?
He kneeled in front of Ziva. Her hands were tied behind her back, and he undid them by cutting through the rope with his knife. She was conscious and breathing, but bleeding from a wound on the back of her head. Her face was a mess of bruises, her lip split.
“It was not him,” she said softly. “He did other things—I believe he murdered a woman. I should work, Gibbs—I need to—”
She didn’t seem completely coherent, which wasn’t unexpected with the combination of a hit to the head and blood loss. Even with her training, which had most likely included lessons on getting through torture, she wasn’t immune to her body’s reactions upon getting hurt.
“You did fine, Officer David,” Gibbs said. “Now just sit still and stay awake, and the ambulance will be here soon.”
“Ambulance on its way, ETA is two minutes,” McGee said, looking worried. “Is she okay?”
Gibbs didn’t get a chance to answer, because Ziva lifted her head and looked up. Her face wrinkled in a frown.
She was staring at the space just behind Gibbs. Tony was standing there, his face the picture of surprise, his mouth hanging open. Gibbs glanced at him very briefly, pretending not to see anything, for McGee’s benefit.
Tony floated forward and kneeled by Ziva.
She reached out, but her hand went straight through him.
The EMTs rushed in at that moment, gurneys carried between them. The perpetrator that Gibbs had shot would need to go to the hospital as well, though he’d go with his hands cuffed and a police officer by his side at all times.
When they attempted to move Ziva onto the stretcher, she protested.
“I do not need that,” she mumbled. “I am fine.”
“Ma’am—you’re bleeding,” began one of the EMTs, but Ziva didn’t listen. She just kept protesting, weakly fighting off the personnel.
“Come on, Ziva,” Tony said. “It’s for your own good. Just go with them.”
She frowned at him, a deep grimace beneath the layers of bruises that were starting to turn blue.
“Tony,” she said.
“I’ll stay with you, if you don’t talk about me, okay?” Tony said.
Gibbs watched them interact, trying to focus on Ziva so that McGee and the EMTs didn’t start to wonder.
“Who’s Tony, sir?” asked one of the EMTs, looking around.
“Uh, team mate,” McGee responded, when Gibbs didn’t. “He’s missing.”
“Well, ma’am,” said the EMT, “we really need to get you to the hospital.”
Tony smiled encouragingly at Ziva. “I’m coming with you, and I hate hospitals, so you should go there just to annoy me.”
She smiled weakly at that, and finally gave up her fight against the EMTs. Gibbs listened as Tony kept instructing her not to talk about him, even as they took her down the stairs and out to the waiting ambulance.
The local LEOs took care of the dead body, although Gibbs knew there’d be paper work for both McGee and himself because of the shots fired. There was always paperwork.
He flipped his phone open and hit speed dial number four. Ducky answered on the second ring.
“Ziva’s going to Bethesda,” he said without preamble.
“Oh dear,” Ducky said. “What happened?”
“She was following a lead,” Gibbs said. “Stumbled across something else.”
“She didn’t have backup?” Ducky asked.
“No,” Gibbs said, snapping even though he knew it was far from Ducky’s fault that Ziva had gotten into the situation.
He heard Ducky sigh. “I’ll meet you at Bethesda.”
Gibbs hung up, slipping the phone back into his pocket.
McGee looked up from talking to one of the police officers. He came over, looking pale and anxious. The shadows of tiredness had increased.
“We’re going to Bethesda,” Gibbs said. “This isn’t our case.”
One was dead an the other one was injured – as far as Gibbs was concerned, he didn’t care much about what crimes they had committed. He’d ask Abby to run their names and fingerprints through the databases to see if he got any hits, but he knew he had to focus on getting his team back, rather than run off on some stray case.
He drove almost as fast to the hospital as he had driven to Richie’s gallery.
“She has a concussion,” Ducky said once they were all in the hospital’s waiting area. “They’re keeping her overnight for observation, but she should be fine. They did a head CT and found no bleeding.”
“She was confused,” Gibbs said.
“That is to be expected,” Ducky said. “Disorientation, confusion and dizziness are all associated with concussions. She will need rest, but she’ll be fine, I assure you.”
Gibbs paced back and forth. He couldn’t settle – hatred towards himself for his failures grew within. Past failures welled up, and he saw Shannon and Kelly flashing before his eyes, smiles and giggles turning into blood and death. He remembered Tony’s blue lips as he struggled to breathe in the isolation chamber of Bethesda, life hanging by a thread. He remembered the feeling of Kate’s warm blood on him, his own body growing cold even as she fell to the ground, moving in slow motion. He saw Jenny’s broken body, red hair and red blood.
He saw hazel eyes staring sightlessly at him from a limp body, imagination supplying him with the image of what Tony would look like when they finally found him.
“Jethro,” said Ducky, a hand landing on Gibbs’ arm. “This isn’t your fault.”
Gibbs didn’t respond, the sound escaping him more of a snarl than anything civilized. Ducky drew back, frowning deeply at him.
“I’ll go check if we can see her yet,” Ducky said softly, although his gaze was disapproving.
Gibbs continued to pace, the room feeling entirely too small. McGee sat on one of the plastic chairs, appearing uncomfortable and trying not to look at Gibbs at all. McGee’s face was as white as the walls behind him, and even from a distance, Gibbs could see his hands shaking. Gibbs wondered if he felt guilty as well.
“They’ve bandaged her up good,” Tony said, appearing in front of Gibbs. He looked drawn, with lines of anxiety creasing around his eyes and mouth.
Gibbs gave a very small nod, continuing to pace. He couldn’t respond, not here, where McGee sat a few feet away, other visitors sat waiting for news, and doctors and nurses passed.
“She saw me, boss,” Tony said, quietly. “She could see me. Hear me. She looked right at me and talked to me. And then after a while, she just—couldn’t anymore.”
He sounded desolate, as though he’d lost something. Gibbs supposed he had – Ziva being able to see him, if only briefly, was dangling more of the world that he couldn’t interact with in front of him.
Ducky returned. “We may see her for a few minutes. She’s been medicated, and will likely fall asleep soon.”
“Where?” Gibbs asked.
“Room three-sixty-four,” Ducky said.
Gibbs passed him, nodding his thanks, and possibly including a bit of an apology in his stance. He heard McGee shuffle to stand and walk behind him, but didn’t wait for him to catch up.
As Tony had said, Ziva had been bandaged. There was gauze covering half her face, and the other half was bruised and blue. She looked groggy, not quite aware of her surroundings. It was highly unusual to see her this way; her Mossad training hardly ever allowed her to relax.
Tony had already moved to stand beside her. She turned her head to look at Gibbs as he came in, but he noticed that she’d been looking at Tony before.
“Gibbs,” she said, her voice thick.
Gibbs could see that she was fighting to keep her eyes open. He reached out and squeezed her shoulder in reassurance.
“Relax,” he said. “We’ve got you.”
She frowned, grimacing at the pain it brought on. “We?”
She looked to the other side, gaze traveling over Tony. Tony in turn looked nervous beneath the intensity of her eyes. Finally, without turning back to Gibbs, she allowed her eyelids to drift shut, and within moments, she was sleeping.
Gibbs heard McGee standing in the doorway.
“Find out what’s happening to the bastard I shot,” Gibbs said, without turning around. “I want him locked up.”
“Y-yes, boss,” McGee said.
The look on McGee’s face made Gibbs’ stop short. He didn’t praise his agents very often, but McGee looked on the verge of falling apart. Gibbs had to remind himself that McGee wasn’t like the rest of them – he didn’t kill and shrug it off.
“McGee,” he said, and McGee raised his gaze.
“Yeah, boss?” McGee said softly.
“You did good today,” Gibbs said. “You did exactly what you were supposed to.”
He wished it wasn’t so hard to say the words; sometimes, he wanted to be able to give support as easily as he could give someone a dressing down.
But the words seemed to work as they were intended – McGee’s shoulders relaxed just slightly, and some of the anguish faded.
“Thank you, boss,” McGee said.
He left, the door shutting behind him. Gibbs sat down heavily in the chair, the adrenaline leaving him.
“She told me part of her Mossad training was to be open to things she couldn’t see, or even understand,” Tony said. “Back on the Chimera. When we thought there were ghosts.”
Gibbs remembered, even though Ziva had said little out loud about it when he was present. She obviously knew what he thought of supernatural explanations, and had kept them to a minimum. He wondered what he would have thought about the situation on the Chimera now, with the ghost of Tony standing right across from him. Though he didn’t like it, he might have to be more open minded now.
“I scoffed at her when she said it,” Tony continued, a rueful smile on his lips. “Things have changed since.”
“Yeah,” Gibbs said, finally in closed off enough quarters to be able to respond to Tony.
“At least I was of some use today,” Tony sighed. “This incorporeal thing is kind of annoying, but—well, walking through walls—practical on occasion.”
“Yeah,” Gibbs said again. He couldn’t find the words, didn’t know what to say. Today, Tony’s ghostly abilities had proven very useful, but Gibbs would give pretty much anything to have him back to normal.
“You’ll find me, boss,” Tony said quietly.
“Didn’t say anything,” Gibbs said.
“Didn’t have to,” Tony replied. There was a tiny smile at the corner of his mouth, but although Tony’s eyes were filled with trust, there was little hope in them. The two obviously battled for dominance in Tony’s head – his confidence that Gibbs could do anything, which didn’t seem to have diminished at all since Tony started working at NCIS nearly eight years ago, versus the knowledge that the longer a person was missing, the more likely it was that he or she would turn up dead. Besides, he was a ghost. It seemed kind of a requisite for him to be dead for that to happen.
Gibbs exhaled in a sigh, gaze passing over Ziva, resting peacefully, to Tony, who looked distraught rather than calm.
“Don’t send them out without backup again, boss,” Tony said softly, his eyes too trained on Ziva.
“Don’t intend to,” Gibbs said. “When you’re here, I want you to regularly check up on everyone on the team.”
Tony nodded. “No problem. As long as those are the only ones I should check.”
“What?” Gibbs asked, brow furrowing.
Tony gave a very small shrug. “I tried to go see my dad. You know, no traveling cost, wouldn’t have to deal with actually talking to him and listen to how much of a failure he thinks I am—I just thought I’d see him.”
He trailed off, and Gibbs raised an eyebrow in question, silently communicating him to continue.
“I couldn’t get to him,” Tony said. “I just kind of bounced back, like when I tried to find my body.”
“He wasn’t just too far away?” Gibbs asked. This was yet a new curveball in the rules and regulations of ghosts. Gibbs liked rules, especially his own, and he liked breaking others’ rules, but for that, he needed to know them. In this case, he didn’t.
“No, I don’t think so,” Tony said. “After that, I tried just going to see a friend of mine in town. Didn’t work.”
“So who can you go to?” Gibbs asked.
“You, obviously,” Tony said. “Ziva, McGee, Abby, and Ducky. I tried Palmer too, and I managed for a really short time, but he seems to be the outer limit to this thing.”
“But you could go to your apartment?” Gibbs asked.
Tony nodded. “My apartment and headquarters, even without any of you there. But those are the only places, otherwise I’m bound to you guys.”
Gibbs sighed. “I need a rulebook.”
“You and me both,” Tony said, smiling slightly. “And I’m still waiting for the superpowers to kick in. I mean, what’s the use of being a ghost if I don’t have superpowers? I’d really like some x-ray vision, or maybe super strength—”
“DiNozzo,” Gibbs snapped.
Tony grinned. “What kind of super power would you like?”
“The ability to slap incorporeal smartasses,” Gibbs muttered.
Tony chuckled. “I’m sure you’d like that, but I’m taking advantage of this.”
“I noticed,” Gibbs said.
Tony grimaced suddenly, as though something was hurting him. He looked up at Gibbs.
“Back later,” he said, and then he was gone, the room suddenly empty.
Gibbs forced away the dull ache Tony’s sudden departures always left. It felt like he had failed a little each time; each time Tony disappeared was another few hours spent without finding him, without getting necessary answers. They needed answers – more answers, better answers, than what they had.
Gibbs stood, gazing out the window at the darkening skies outside. The sun stood low, and watching Ziva in silence, Gibbs felt as though the dark shadows were eating away at the light. They were being swallowed whole by something larger, and he hated the helpless feeling that swept over him with the knowledge that he had failed to protect two of his team members.
He closed his eyes briefly and then left, leaving Ziva to rest and get well.
By Monday morning, Ziva had been released from the hospital. Her face was still a patchwork of bruises, and the wound on the back of her head had been stitched together and was covered in gauze, but she was on her feet and back at NCIS.
“You really should take a day’s leave, my dear,” said Ducky, standing in front of her desk.
“I am fine, Doctor,” she said. “They woke me several times throughout the night, and I was not disoriented – so they discharged me. Is that not enough evidence?”
“I’m fairly certain they gave you instructions to go home and rest for the day,” Ducky said. “I once knew of a young lad who fell and hit his head, concussing himself rather badly – he refused to rest afterwards and—”
Abby came bounding into the bullpen, and threw her arms around Ziva. Gibbs noted that even Abby was starting to look quite haggard, despite her heavy makeup. There were lines that shouldn’t be on Abby’s face, and she looked pale, even for her.
Gibbs saw Ziva’s wince, but she hid before Abby drew back to look at her.
“I was so worried,” Abby said. “When McGee told me that you’d been hurt—he said you’d be fine, but I didn’t know and I had to see for myself and with Tony already—I just—I’m so glad you’re okay.”
Her voice broke several times as she spoke. Gibbs realized she was holding back tears. McGee, who’d been watching from his desk, stood and came over. He pulled Abby gently by the shoulder.
“Let’s give Ziva some room,” he said, voice soft.
Abby looked up at McGee, and she looked on the verge of saying something else – something scathing – but then her face crumbled and she buried her head in McGee’s shoulder, letting the tears fall in quiet sobs. McGee wrapped his arms around her.
Ducky patted her back as well, murmuring gently to her. Gibbs thought about standing up to console her as well, but he knew it would make little difference. There was only one person Abby really wanted right now, and he wasn’t there. He felt the stabs at his own heart at the thought, the thick feeling in his throat.
“I’m sorry,” Abby said after a few minutes, once her sobs had turned into hitched breathing, fresh tears still falling but quietly. “I shouldn’t have—”
McGee kissed her forehead, still holding her and looking like he definitely didn’t want to let go.
“It’s okay,” he said.
“Yes, yes,” Ducky said quietly. “It’s quite all right. It’s what we’re all feeling.”
Abby looked slightly doubtful. “I just want him back.”
McGee ran a hand over her cheek, fingers wiping away the tears. He surprised Gibbs by saying, “Yeah. We all do.”
Gibbs had never doubted the love his team had for each other. They had shown their bonds of trust and camaraderie on many occasions, and when one of them had been gone, for one reason or another, it had been noted. Tony when he’d been on sick leave after the plague, Kate when she’d died, and then all of them when Director Vance had split them up and sent them to the four corners of the earth. When McGee and Ziva had been returned but Tony’s desk still stood empty, his absence had been sorely noted.
Still, they had never been vocal about it. Tony’s relationship with McGee had always been one of Senior Field Agent versus the Probie, and the pranks pulled had been merciless. As McGee developed, as a field agent and as a human being, he managed to stand up more and more to Tony, their teasing getting more on the same level.
But Gibbs hadn’t once heard McGee say that he so much as liked Tony.
Abby sniffed, wiped away the last of her tears – her makeup was running down her cheeks – and pulled away from McGee. Gibbs chose that moment to snap at them.
“McGee, what happened with the bastard I shot yesterday?”
“Time for us to go, my dear,” Ducky said, and he and Abby walked out of the bullpen, leaving Gibbs with Ziva and McGee.
McGee returning to his computer to get a photo of the man on the plasma. “He, a Mr. Henry McCord, was treated for a gunshot wound to the shoulder at Bethesda. He’s still in recovery with guards posted outside the door. When he’s recovered enough, he’ll be transferred, to await trial for money laundering and assault. Maybe more; the LEOs are looking into it. He’s already been convicted and served time twice for battery and assault.”
Gibbs glanced at Ziva, who was looking blandly at the photo of her attacker.
“David,” he said. “What happened yesterday?”
She straightened. “I went there to interview Alan Richie. When I came inside and showed my badge, he turned hostile and refused to answer anything. I was going to leave, to report back to you, when something hard hit me over the head. It must have been McCord, coming from behind. I blacked out, and when I woke again, I was tied up in the room where you found me. They wanted to know what I knew.”
“About what?” McGee asked.
“As far as I could tell, a money laundry ring,” Ziva said.
She didn’t sound like herself. Gibbs knew she didn’t like perceiving herself as weak – no one did, but most especially not Ziva David, Mossad Officer. She also rarely got hurt. When she’d been undercover with Tony, he had taken the hits, and when the drugged up Corporal had taken a swing at her, she had been the one of them, other than Gibbs, who’d gotten the least hurt. Nearly getting murdered at Hoffman’s hand had shaken her to the core, and she had gotten hurt over the summer, at the end of the undercover mission that had ended with her getting blown up in a bar – perhaps she was truly starting to face her own mortality. It might be a good thing, as long as she didn’t start doubting herself, as she had with the Hoffman case.
“We’re going to let the LEOs take care of that,” Gibbs said. “There’s nothing for us.”
“I would like to know what happens with it,” Ziva said.
“You’ll know,” McGee said. “They’ll call you to the trial for your testimony.”
Ziva nodded, and then hid a wince at the pain the motion caused.
“Do we have any other suspects?” Gibbs asked.
“The serial killer?” McGee asked.
“No, McGee,” Gibbs snapped, “for the Easter Bunny.”
“Uh, um, sorry, boss,” McGee said. “There are a couple. Nothing that really stands out.”
“Go check them out,” Gibbs said. “Together. I don’t want either of you to go anywhere without backup right now, got it?”
McGee nodded. “Got it.”
Ziva stood, albeit gingerly. She wore a long-sleeved shirt, but Gibbs saw the bruises around her wrists, left by the tight rope that had bound her hands together.
They left, their pace a bit slower than usual. Gibbs didn’t growl at them for it.
He had already begun to worry about Tony’s absence when the man appeared. It was nearing eleven thirty, and Ziva and McGee had been gone for an hour and a half. Gibbs hadn’t seen Tony since the previous evening at Bethesda, which was the longest he’d gone without the ghost since he’d first appeared.
“Is Ziva all right?” he asked, before he’d even faded in completely.
Gibbs nodded, as inconspicuously as he could, just in case someone was watching him work on the computer. Vance had a tendency to watch him and his team on occasion, from the second floor. The directors of NCIS seemed to have the bad habit of poking their noses in where they didn’t belong, lately.
“Good,” Tony breathed. “I was worried. I mean, she looked okay last night, but—”
“You were there?” Gibbs asked, whispering very quietly. Tony picked the words up; his ghost had as good a hearing as the solid version.
“Yeah,” Tony said. “You were sleeping when I—you know, popped in. So I checked on the others, like you asked me to. Ziva was sleeping – they woke her up and asked her questions, and she was answering them just fine. Couldn’t see me anymore either. Then I went to Abby, and—she wasn’t alone.”
Gibbs’ gaze was on the computer, but his attention was on Tony. He frowned slightly in question at Tony’s words.
“McGee was there, boss,” Tony grinned. “All cuddled up with her in the coffin. Geek love all ‘round. Can you imagine what kind of IQ their kid’ll have? We’re talking genius. Nerdy genius, probably – although with Abby as a mom—”
Gibbs glanced up, the glare brief but enough to get the point across.
“Shutting up, boss,” Tony said, though he was still smiling. Gibbs had to admit that the idea of McGee and Abby finally finding their way back to each other was smile-worthy, but he’d never say so out loud, ever. Besides, it explained the easy comfort McGee had managed to give Abby earlier.
Gibbs stood, striding over to the back elevator. He had used the conference room enough times to know it was time to go some place else, or someone might get curious.
He flipped the emergency switch on the elevator, Tony materializing beside him.
“Guess you want to be able to talk, huh?” Tony asked.
Gibbs wanted to be able to do a lot more than that. He had lost count of how many times he’d imagined flipping the emergency switch with Tony in the elevator, to be able to push him against the wall and ravish him.
He pushed the thoughts aside; they didn’t help.
“Can you give me anything to work with?” he asked instead.
“I told you, it’s all fuzzy,” Tony said apologetically.
“You could tell when you were about to leave yesterday,” Gibbs said. “Just give me something.”
He didn’t like the pleading note in his own voice, but he couldn’t help it. They were nowhere, and they were running out of time. Within days, the body of Gregory Williams would show up, and Tony’s body could turn up at any given moment. It was just a phone call away; one dreaded, horrid phone call.
“The leaving thing—it’s just like something’s kind of dragging me away,” Tony said. “It pulls at me, and then it takes me. I just had to learn what it felt like. I’m new to the whole ghost thing too.”
Gibbs wanted to slam his fist into the wall of the elevator again. The last time, it had left a dent in the wall. This time he managed to restrain himself. God, they needed help. They needed help, they needed information, and they needed it all now. Gibbs needed to know more about Tony being a ghost, because perhaps that held clues that they could use. He didn’t even know where to start to look for such information.
“We need something, DiNozzo,” he said. “We’re running blind.”
“I wish I could help, boss—”
“Then help!” Gibbs exclaimed.
“How?” Tony snapped back, anger flaring in his eyes. “Tell me how, and I’ll help you, Gibbs. Just say the word. I’m the ghost here – I’m the one who’s missing and probably dead – do you really think I don’t want to help?”
He was yelling at the end of it, chest heaving, and Gibbs wondered if ghosts needed to breathe. They were standing close, inches apart, but Tony’s ghostly being emitted no warmth.
“Damn it, DiNozzo,” Gibbs swore, pulling back, fingers clenching into fists.
Tony’s shoulders slumped, and when he spoke again, it was barely more than a whisper. “I wish I could help, boss. I really do. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever wished for anything more in my life.”
He fell silent, and they looked at each other for several long moments. Gibbs couldn’t read Tony; a mess of emotions swirled in the hazel eyes – anger, despair, fear. Tony’s hope was waning, just as Gibbs’ was. The likelihood that they’d find Tony alive was so small by now it should be down to single digit percents.
“Sorry I failed, boss,” Tony said quietly. “I know you wouldn’t have been taken the way I did. You’d have realized someone was there. But I never had your instincts.”
Gibbs frowned. “You have better instincts than any other agent I’ve ever worked with.”
Tony’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “Praise, boss? I must really be dead.”
“Don’t joke about it,” Gibbs snapped.
Tony held up his hands in surrender. “Sorry.”
They were silent for a few moments, the tension having lessened slightly.
“You should probably go back,” Tony said. “Someone else might want to use the elevator.”
“There are stairs,” Gibbs said.
“Yeah, well, people apparently like to be able to use the elevator,” Tony said, flashing a quick grin.
Gibbs flicked the switch. He knew people got pissed with him for using the elevator as a conference room, but people got pissed with him for so many things that it had never mattered.
“You sticking around?” Gibbs asked as the elevator began to move again.
“For now, I guess,” Tony said. “Can’t really tell until a few seconds before I leave.”
Gibbs nodded. “Go check on the Ziva and McGee.”
“One useful thing with this,” Tony said, smiling slightly one last time before fading out.
Gibbs wondered if he’d ever get used to that; it was so far beyond the rules of his reality. People were supposed to be either alive or dead, not anything in between, and especially not some partly opaque version of in between.
The doors opened at the level for Abby’s lab, and Gibbs decided that he might as well stop by. He found Abby by the computer, fingers flying across the keys.
“Abs?” he said, walking in.
“Gibbs!” she said. “I don’t have anything for you, I didn’t call you.”
“I know,” Gibbs said. “Just checking up on you.”
Abby smiled at that, but Gibbs noted that the smile was still watery. He wrapped his arms around her, holding her close.
“Where’s Ziva?” she asked.
“Out,” Gibbs said. “Checking out a few galleries.”
“Not alone, right?” Abby asked, eyes widening. “Not after yesterday, you didn’t leave her alone, did you?”
Gibbs shook his head. “McGee’s with her.”
Abby took a deep breath. “Oh. Good.”
“What are you working on?” Gibbs asked.
“Another case,” Abby said. “Just trying to find as much information as I can on a specific kind of beetle that they found on the scene.”
Gibbs frowned. Abby was searching for information – something she was extremely good at. Abby knew a little bit of everything, she had an open mind, and if there was anyone Gibbs knew who could find things out, it was her.
Perhaps she was the place to start for him to find some of the information he needed.
“Abby,” he said.
He took a deep breath. “What do you know about ghosts?”
Abby’s eyes widened. “Ghosts?”
Gibbs would have felt stupider asking had it not been for the fact that he’d been conversing with a ghost for the last few days, and he’d relied upon said ghost to clear a crime scene.
“Yeah, Abs,” Gibbs said. “Ghosts.”
“You’re telling her?”
Tony’s shocked voice came from just behind him, but Gibbs managed not to jump.
“Tony?” Abby asked.
“She can see me?”
Gibbs frowned. “You can see him?”
“What?” Abby asked. “No! Is it—are you serious? Tony’s here? As a ghost?”
Gibbs wanted to slap himself. She was an extremely intelligent forensic scientist who was more than used to putting two and two together, and out of all the people at NCIS, she was probably the most open minded. Of course she’d figure it out without a problem. He sighed; this wasn’t the way he’d planned on introducing the whole thing. Not that he’d had much of a plan to begin with, given that he’d chosen it about sixty seconds ago.
Finally, he nodded, because he couldn’t get out of it now.
“Oh my god,” Abby said. “Really? How—and you can see him? And—can you prove it? You know, tell me something you shouldn’t know or something?”
“Everyone wants evidence,” Tony muttered, rolling his eyes.
Gibbs sighed. “Abs—”
“I don’t think you’re crazy, Gibbs,” Abby said quickly, eyes still wide. “I just—please? I just want to know for sure—”
“That I’m not crazy,” Gibbs said.
Abby thought about it for a moment, and then gave a light shrug. “Well—”
Gibbs sighed. “He told me McGee spent the night at your apartment last night.”
Abby’s mouth dropped open, and a series of expression passed over her face – in rapid succession, she went through surprise, shock and astonishment. Finally, her brow knitted together into a frown of annoyance.
“What was he doing in my apartment?” she asked, hands on her hips.
“Boss, did you have to pick that bit?” Tony whined.
“I told him to check up on everyone,” Gibbs said evenly, because he had and Tony had simply been following orders, and right now, Tony couldn’t defend himself as he usually did when they teased each other.
“I didn’t stay,” Tony said. “I just checked that you were both safe.”
“He didn’t stay,” Gibbs relayed to Abby. “After he found Ziva yesterday, I told him to keep track of everyone, because we’re spread thin.”
Abby’s eyes widened. “Tony found Ziva?”
“Mm-hmm,” Gibbs said.
“McGee told me there was something hinky about it,” Abby said. Gibbs gave her a look. “Not hinky with you, bossman! Just hinky with how quickly you jumped to her being in trouble and then he said you knew where the bad guys were and McGee said Ziva—oh, this explains—”
And then, just like that, as though a light bulb turned on in her head, her face crumbled into agony. Understanding dawned in her eyes, and they filled to the brim with tears that would fall the second she blinked.
“Oh god—is he dead?”
Gibbs glanced at Tony, who looked just as crushed as Abby, but Gibbs didn’t think it was because of the question. Instead, Gibbs suspected that it was because Tony hated causing Abby pain.
“Don’t cry, Abs,” Tony said, and he reached out a hand that was dropped equally quickly, as he reminded himself that he couldn’t touch her.
“We don’t know,” Gibbs said, voice rougher. “We need information.”
She sniffed. “Information?”
“Yeah,” Gibbs said. “Rules. About ghosts.”
“Information,” Abby said. “Information. I can do information. I’m good at that. No, I’m great at that. I will find you information. Every bit of information there is to find on ghosts, I will get you.”
She drew in a deep breath, and straightened her shoulders.
“Good girl, Abs,” Gibbs said, placing a kiss on the top of her head.
“But he’s here?” Abby asked, the fragile façade of strength dropping away again. “And you can talk to him?”
“Yeah,” Gibbs said. “He’s standing over there. He doesn’t want you to cry.”
That didn’t seem like the right thing to say, because new tears welled up in Abby’s eyes.
“Oh Tony, I miss you.”
Tony reached out to place his hand on her cheek. It went through, his fingers melting into her skin. “Miss you too, Abs.”
She startled, eyes widening. “Did he touch me?”
Gibbs’ eyebrows rose in surprise, and he nodded. Could Abby actually feel Tony?
“It felt—prickly,” Abby said. “On my cheek.”
She looked at Gibbs, and then reached out her hand, very slowly, into the space next to Gibbs where Tony was standing. Gibbs could see that her hand was shaking, and she closed her eyes.
Gibbs watched Tony’s face, which was open and vulnerable, eyes wide and mouth slightly open. Perhaps there was a bit of fear of what would happen when Abby touched him – Gibbs knew that the fear was that she wouldn’t be able to feel him, that the touch to the cheek had been a onetime thing.
Abby gasped the moment she came in contact with Tony’s ghost, her fingers moving back just slightly, to move carefully up and down the contours of the body she couldn’t see. With her eyes still closed, she sensed her way up his arm, over his shoulder, up his neck and to his face. She was breathing fast, tongue darting out to moisten dry lips. She let her fingers move across his face, and Tony watched her, not so much as blinking. She felt his cheeks, his nose, light fingers running across his lips and his eyes.
Time seemed frozen, nothing existing but the two of them – Gibbs felt like he was watching an incredibly private moment, but he couldn’t bring himself to look away. He wondered what it would feel like to run his own hands across Tony’s face, to draw the lines of Tony’s face with his fingers. His heart beat loudly in his chest.
Finally, Abby opened her eyes, and there was a brief second of disappointment – although she could feel him, she still couldn’t see him.
“He’s really there,” she breathed.
Gibbs couldn’t find his voice, so he simply nodded.
She kept staring intently at the space where she now knew Tony was standing. “Why can only you see him?”
“Don’t know,” Gibbs said. “It’s one of the things we need you to figure out. And he can only visit the team and you, Ducky and Palmer. We don’t know why.”
She swallowed, and then nodded, finally looking away. “I’ll find everything I can.”
Gibbs nodded, and then turned to leave.
“Tony?” Abby said, and Gibbs stopped.
“Yeah?” Tony answered, even though he knew she couldn’t hear her.
“He’s listening,” Gibbs said.
“Touch me whenever you’re here, so that I know,” Abby said. “And come by often.”
Tony smiled. “I will.”
There was an odd sting of jealousy at the edge of Gibbs’ mind upon Tony’s words, and he realized that in the last few days, he’d gotten used to being the only one Tony really wanted to be around.
Still, he relayed Tony’s words to Abby, and then he left, Tony trailing behind him quietly.
McGee sighed, standing by Gibbs’ desk.
Gibbs heard Tony sigh too, and held back one of his own. They were getting nowhere.
“We looked at three galleries and spoke to the managers about the artists,” Ziva said. “We do not seem to be on the right track; they said nothing suspicious.”
She looked exhausted, even though she tried her best to hide it. There was a weariness that made her shoulders slump, and shadows around her eyes. The bruises did nothing to help her appearance.
Gibbs stood. “We’re going to start over.”
“Again?” McGee asked, and then turned red. “I mean—of course, boss.”
Ziva looked at him with hollow eyes. “Perhaps it is already too late.”
Gibbs fixed her with a glare, his gut churning at the thought. He had thought the same thing too many times already. It was the first time Ziva had actually finished her sentence, even though she’d tried saying as much since five days after Tony disappeared.
“And what then, Officer David?” he asked, tone chilly. “Do you think we should give up?”
“Gibbs, come on,” Tony said softly. “It’s just her way of dealing with everything.”
Ziva didn’t look away from Gibbs’ hard gaze, and he saw the sadness and grief in her eyes. “No, Gibbs. We will keep looking.”
Gibbs nodded, anger abating. He knew Ziva wouldn’t give up; none of them would. They were family; they would keep looking, keep searching, until all hope had been extinguished.
“Let her rest,” Tony said. “She’s been through the ringer.”
Gibbs considered Tony’s words, knowing they were true, but battling with the need to have his team near to continue their search for Tony and the serial killer. Still, there was little they could do now, other than go over the evidence they had already collected.
“Go lie down in Abby’s lab, Ziva,” he said.
He remembered after the plague, when he had told Tony the same thing. Tony had looked bad then, but he hadn’t had sorrow in his eyes; he had simply been happy to be back to work. That had changed soon enough when Kate—
“I can work,” Ziva said, interrupting Gibbs’ thoughts.
“It wasn’t a suggestion,” Gibbs snapped.
Ziva glared at him defiantly, but finally bowed her head slightly in defeat. She picked up her jacket and left the squad room, taking the elevator down to Abby’s lab. Gibbs glanced at Tony, and gave a very small nod towards Ziva. Tony understood, and faded away, going after her to see that she’d be okay and actually rest.
McGee sat nervously by his computer, already following Gibbs’ orders on going over the evidence again. Gibbs sat down to the same task, even though he was painfully aware that they had already started over twice, going over every clue with a fine-toothed comb, without finding anything. Without holding much hope, Gibbs thought that perhaps they could see something new, now that they had uncovered the killer’s intent to recreate The Raft of the Medusa.
They spent three hours on the clues they’d already gone over, McGee checking through the phone records of all the victims while Gibbs tried in vain to connect the victims with each other – and they both came up with nothing. Gibbs didn’t think his heart could grow any heavier – at this point, he seemed to do nothing but wait for the phone to ring, to tell them that there had been another body, and that it was Tony’s.
Tony mostly stayed down in Abby’s lab with Abby and Ziva, only coming up every now and then. Gibbs didn’t know if it was because he wanted to see to it that Gibbs and McGee were safe too, or if it was simply to keep the pull that dragged him back to Gibbs under control. Gibbs hoped it wasn’t the latter.
“Ziva’s still sleeping,” he told Gibbs when he returned the next time. “And Abby – she can really feel me. She can’t hear me, but—I swear, I can almost feel her touch.”
Jealousy festered in Gibbs’ mind at Tony’s awed tones, but he didn’t say anything. What could he say? He couldn’t ask Tony to stand still so that Gibbs could see if he could feel Tony as well; beyond the head slaps, they had never been particularly physical. To ask to touch now would raise questions.
“She’s done some ghost research, though,” Tony said. His tone became lighter. “You know, I don’t think there’s anything she couldn’t find out. Add that to the whole she-can-kill-without-leaving-a-trace thing, and she really makes for a very scary person.”
Gibbs had already stood and was heading towards the elevator, to go down and see what she had found. After the doors closed, he reached out and smacked Tony’s head – or the spot where Tony’s head ought to be, anyway.
It wasn’t so much because Tony had gone off on a tangent – though he had – but more to see if he could actually feel Tony at all.
Tony hadn’t winced, but he had fallen very silent, regarding Gibbs.
Gibbs wondered if he had imagined the prickling feeling, if he simply wanted it to be there so badly that he made up the sensation. He would need to touch Tony for a longer period, caress him the way Abby had, to be able to tell.
Tony looked almost afraid to speak, which was unusual. He could be wary, especially when someone had spilt Gibbs’ coffee, and he could hold back, if there was the possibility of Gibbs hurting, but he was never afraid.
“What?” Gibbs snapped, just as the elevator doors opened. He stepped out and Tony followed.
Tony swallowed visibly, tongue darting out over his lips. “Try—try to touch me, boss.”
Gibbs’ heart beat faster, the ka-thump loud in his ears. A thousand thoughts swirled through his mind; emotions meshing with reasoning about as well as oil meshed with water. For once, he was at a loss for words, and his hands hung limply at his side.
Finally, he settled on two words. “Not here.”
Tony’s eyes were wide, but he seemed to process the words slowly before nodding.
Gibbs turned, trying to calm himself before he entered Abby’s lab. With Tony’s ghost looming behind him, and a million thoughts running through his head – every one of those thoughts to do with his hands on Tony’s smooth skin, his lips against Tony’s, their bodies moving together – it didn’t work very well.
When Gibbs entered Abby’s lab, Tony was suddenly in front of him, having faded out and in to stand just behind Abby. His hand ran down her arm, and she shivered visibly, smiling slightly but saying nothing, because Ziva was on the floor beneath a blanket, eyes open. The Mossad Officer still looked a bit pale.
As Gibbs strode in, Ziva scrambled to her feet.
“Easy,” Gibbs said, grabbing her arm as she stumbled, lightheadedness hitting her.
“Gibbs,” she said. “I did not mean to sleep so long.”
“It’s fine,” Gibbs said. “I told you to rest.”
Ziva nodded. “I am rested. I shall go up and see if McGee needs any help.”
Though not an apology out loud, it was still one, for the words spoken earlier about Tony. Gibbs doubted she’s say anything else; they all thought about it, they all knew the possibility, but none of them needed to hear it out loud.
She left, and Gibbs waited until he’d heard the elevator doors close behind her.
“What’ve you got?” he asked Abby.
“Nice to see you too,” Abby said. “You know, I can’t hear Tony, but even as a ghost, he’s still better at pleasantries than you.” Gibbs gave her a look, and she backtracked. “Not that you’re not nice. You are. You’re just not—you know, you don’t do the ‘hi, how are you?’ thing. You’re nice in other ways.”
Her blabbering came to a halt and she took a breath. “I’ve done a little ghostly research.”
She didn’t continue, and Gibbs wondered why it was that she could never simply tell him. “I’m not going to do a drum roll.”
“You never do,” Abby said, a bit sadly. Then she continued, in work mode. “I started with Wikipedia, because it just rules.”
“Wikipedia?” Gibbs echoed.
“Oh, Gibbs,” Abby said. “There’s a whole cyber world of information out there, just waiting for you. Wikipedia is this online encyclopedia, where anyone can do articles on anything.”
“Then how do you know what’s correct?” Gibbs asked. “Never mind. What did you find?”
“Wikipedia says that ‘a ghost is the apparition of a deceased person, frequently similar in appearance to that person, and usually encountered in places he or she frequented, the place of his or her death, or in association with the person’s former belongings’,” Abby said, reading from her notes.
“So I’m dead?” Tony asked, and there was only a hint of a crack to his voice.
“He’s dead?” Gibbs asked.
“I wouldn’t draw that conclusion from information of Wikipedia,” Abby said. “We aren’t dealing with something similar in appearance to Tony – we’re dealing with Tony. Besides, like it said further down – it’s a vexing subject, and even those who do believe in ghosts have different theories about it.”
Gibbs sighed. “Did you find anything of use?”
“Not really,” Abby said. “There is this other site, Ghost Study, which says there are different kinds of ghosts – ectoplasms, vortex, shadow ghosts, apparitions. Really, apparitions are the ones that sound the most like Tony – ‘They show up in a transparent human form and wear the clothing of their period. They normally appear faint and disfigured as in being incomplete.’”
“Hey!” Tony said. “I’m not disfigured.”
Gibbs had to smile, very slightly, at Tony’s indignant protest. Abby caught it, and she frowned for a second before putting two and two together.
“He’s not disfigured, is he?”
“Nah,” said Gibbs. For a brief moment, he wondered how he would have reacted if Tony had been disfigured upon appearing before Gibbs the first time. He pushed it aside before the thought had time to fester.
“Good,” said Abby. “Sorry, Tony. I guess you’re not an apparition either.”
“He is slightly see-through,” Gibbs said.
“Oh,” Abby said. “Well, I think I’ll have to go to the Magic Box later on.”
“The Magic Box?” Gibbs echoed doubtfully, the same words leaving Tony’s lips.
“It’s a shop,” Abby said. “They sell all sorts of magic stuff – spell books, ingredients, orbs, herbs, statues of gods and goddesses. They helped me when I wanted to make the protection dolls. This old guy owns the shop, he’s great. He’s British, and he has these stories – you know, maybe I should introduce him to Ducky.”
Gibbs shook his head, tuning her out. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know. He had enough of a hard time believing in a ghost, singular, and he didn’t need to add other forms of magic to the mix. He just wanted to find out the rules that Tony adhered to – although most of all, he needed to find the real Tony, the one with the body, who could touch and interact with the world.
At least Abby seemed happier now that Tony was around to reassure her. Gibbs wasn’t sure why she was so reassured by a ghost, but he was glad she was. They all needed every bit of happiness that they could gather right now.
“You might want to tell Ziva,” Abby said, breaking into Gibbs’ thoughts. She was looking at him intently; he’d lost himself in his internal monologue for a while.
“Why?” Gibbs asked.
“Because she thinks she was crazy yesterday, seeing Tony,” Abby said.
Perhaps that was one more reason why she had said Tony might be dead. Seeing him when she was weak and concussed couldn’t have been easy.
Still, he settled on a, “We’ll see,” to Abby. Ziva was not as open-minded as Abby, and though Gibbs trusted Ziva with his life, there was still something that held him back. It was even more so with McGee – Gibbs trusted him implicitly, but of his team, McGee would certainly be the hardest to convince that ghosts existed. But then, Gibbs wasn’t planning on telling McGee, so that was a moot point anyway.
The phone rang at five fourteen the next morning, rousing Gibbs from an uneasy sleep. Normally, he rarely had nightmares, but at the moment they wouldn’t leave him alone; Tony’s face kept flashing by, mixing with the faces of Kate and Jenny, of Shannon and Kelly, of Marines dead in his arms and enemies dead at his hand. Waking was almost a relief, a short break in the long line of death he had experienced in life.
“Gibbs,” he muttered.
“A body,” Director Vance said. He too sounded a bit tired.
Gibbs’ breath hitched. “DiNozzo?”
“They didn’t say,” the Director said. “No ID yet.”
The Director gave him the address. It was the first body dumped on the other side of the Anacostia River, but if Gibbs’ estimates were right, it was still in line with the rest of the victims.
“I will inform McGee, David and Ducky,” Director Vance said.
Gibbs didn’t respond; he couldn’t find his voice. His heart pounded a mile a minute, the pressure rising inside until he felt like he was on fire. He wanted to scream, to shoot, wanted to know that it wasn’t Tony he was going to find upon getting to the crime scene.
Tony’s ghost was nowhere to be seen; he’d disappeared just after Gibbs had left Abby’s lab the afternoon before and hadn’t been back since.
Gibbs flew down the streets in his car, tires screeching as he cut corners and broke the speed limit. There was hardly any traffic out, the sun having barely risen above the treetops.
He knew he must look like hell, but he had never given much thought to his appearance and he wasn’t about to start now. He’d dressed quickly in whatever was at the top of the drawers.
“Gibbs, NCIS,” he said, identifying himself to the cop at the edge of the crime scene. There were two police cars.
The young woman nodded. “The victim is male, thirty to thirty-five, found naked a little over half an hour ago. We haven’t identified him as a Marine yet, but since he fits the profile of the serial killer on the news—”
Gibbs nodded briefly.
“But sir, I have to warn you – this body has been mutilated,” she said.
Gibbs didn’t stop to ask; he would find out soon enough. He pushed past the other two police officers – and then black dots started dancing across his vision as familiar hair became visible. He drew deep shuddering breaths, forcing himself to stay on his feet, even as agony washed over him in heavy waves.
It couldn’t be.
He took another step forward, to get a better look.
He fell to his knees as he realized that although the man in front of him had the same color hair as Tony, it wasn’t Tony. It was Petty Officer Gregory Williams; Gibbs recognized him from the photos they’d pulled.
“Damn it!” he screamed, slamming his fist into the pavement.
It wasn’t Tony, but they had still failed, again. He had still failed; a man was dead because Gibbs wasn’t good enough at his job. They hadn’t been fast enough and a sixth man had been forced to lay down his life for the madman.
Anger rolled off him in waves, and the police officers wisely stayed away.
Gibbs flipped open his phone and dialed speed dial number two.
“Not DiNozzo,” he told Ziva.
He didn’t wait for an answer and he didn’t call McGee. Ziva would call McGee; one phone call was enough for Gibbs.
The female police officer had been right, though – Williams’ body had been mutilated. It had been ripped in two; the upper part ended just below the ribcage. Both parts had been dumped together, laid out with only a few inches between them, making for a macabre picture.
His hand hurt from where he had smashed it into the ground, and he reveled in the feeling. It grounded him, made him feel like he was still part of the world, even when everything seemed to be falling apart at the seams.
“Oh, this is new,” said Ducky upon taking a look at the body. “Poor boy.”
Gibbs growled at him, just as he did at McGee, Ziva and Palmer once they’d all arrived at the scene. McGee and Palmer cowered, doing their jobs and stuttering more than usual. Ziva tried her best to appear calm and collected, but Ducky finally grabbed Gibbs and pulled him aside.
“Calm down, Jethro,” he said. “Nothing will be any better if you manage to alienate your team because you are worried.”
“They need to work harder,” Gibbs ground out.
Ducky gave him a stern glare. “They are working themselves into exhaustion as is. You know that as well as I do. They are just as worried about young Anthony as you are, as we all are.”
Gibbs didn’t know what to say. His thoughts and feelings were in turmoil, indecipherable and frustrating. He had been here before – after the call that had delivered the news of the deaths of his wife and daughter. He had been here with Kate, with Jenny—he had been in this state more times than he cared to count, although not all of them had been as bad.
This was bad.
He wanted to kill someone now.
“Jethro,” said Ducky, gentle voice taking him back to the present. “Let me look at your hand.”
“It’s fine,” Gibbs snapped.
“From the way you’re cradling it, it doesn’t look fine,” Ducky said. “You may have broken something. What did you do?”
“Ran it into the pavement,” Gibbs said. He didn’t think Ducky would appreciate dishonesty.
“Oh,” said Ducky. “Perhaps not your smartest move.”
He took Gibbs’ hand in his own, turning it over and prodding. It hurt, but Gibbs doubted anything was broken; he had had broken bones before, and knew what it felt like.
“It’s a bit swollen, but I don’t think you managed to break anything,” Ducky said, agreeing with Gibbs without knowing it. “Still, probably a good thing you did not pick your gun hand.”
Gibbs didn’t answer. He stared over Ducky’s head at McGee and Ziva taking pictures and measurements of the crime scene. Palmer was working on the body, preparing it for the move back to the morgue. They worked efficiently, even under the cloud of despair and fear.
“Don’t alienate them, Jethro,” Ducky said. “You need them, as they need you.”
Gibbs nodded. He would try, even when he couldn’t promise anything.
They walked together back to the crime scene. McGee flinched visibly when Gibbs opened his mouth to speak.
“A few days ago,” Ducky said. “Three, four perhaps. When did he go missing?”
“Five days ago,” said Gibbs.
“Then I’d venture he was murdered not long after that,” Ducky said. “The look of the separation of the upper and lower part suggests it was made post-mortem. No apparent cause of death, but if I may assume, I believe we will find he OD’d on a dose of Propofol, as the others. Of course, I will perform a careful autopsy to make certain the fact. I will also try my best to identify the method used to—separate him.”
Gibbs nodded. The mutilation of the body was new, but Gibbs had no doubt that they’d find that it had something to do with the painting. The killer’s MO hadn’t changed since the first victim showed up; there was no reason to assume that it would have changed for this young man. But Gibbs knew the danger in assuming, and he knew Ducky did too. They’d check and re-check, if for nothing else than the risk being rather high of a copycat killer imitating the murders based off what the media reported. It wouldn’t be the first time.
“McGee, report,” he said.
“I—uh, we’ve taken photos and measurements,” McGee said. “The security footage is being brought back to HQ as we speak. This exact part of the street wasn’t monitored, but the streets around here were, so hopefully we’ll see something.”
“Ziva?” Gibbs asked.
“I have spoken to the police,” she said, coming up to stand beside him, notepad in her hand. “They had little to tell me; they were alerted by a call that came in at four thirty-seven. The caller was a Miss Isabelle Drake; she was on her way to work. I spoke to her and she seemed upset, but hadn’t seen anything other than the body.”
Gibbs held back a sigh; the killer seemed as methodical and well-planned in how, when and where he dumped the bodies as in the kidnappings and murders.
Tony’s voice came from just beside him; Gibbs turned his head just slightly to see him fade into view. There was no need to give a verbal answer to Tony’s question – the body that Palmer was currently covering up was more than enough.
“Holy hell,” Tony said, horrified, upon seeing the body in pieces. “You okay?”
There was something funny about a ghost asking him that. There was also no way for Gibbs to answer him out here, not when the police was milling about, his team was a few feet away, annoying media people were filming and photographing every second of it, and bystanders were starting to crowd just outside the police tape. Then again, that might be just as well, because he had no idea what he was supposed to say. Okay? He hadn’t been okay since Tony disappeared. The dry feeling in his mouth had yet to go away and the panic from before, when he hadn’t known whether he would find Tony’s body or someone else’s, was still fresh in his mind.
Ducky and Palmer left the scene, the body loaded into the back of their van.
“Ziva, McGee, go talk to the wife,” Gibbs said roughly once they had finished up. “Meet you back at the office.”
They nodded mutely, both worn and weary, and left in Ziva’s car. Informing loved ones of deaths was always an ordeal; Gibbs had done it enough times – hell, he’d even been on the other side of it. There were never any words that were the right ones, no words that could ever bring back the deceased loved ones, no phrases that would bring any comfort.
“Boss?” said Tony, and Gibbs realized he’d been staring into nothingness for a few moments too long.
He headed to the car, knowing Tony would follow him.
When they returned to headquarters, Gibbs headed straight into one of the conference rooms. Tony followed without a sound – no soft footfalls, unlike when he was human and solid, when he always had a presence to himself that Gibbs could pinpoint at any time.
Gibbs closed the door, locking it. Then he stood indecisively, for once with little idea of what he was supposed to do. He wanted to grab Tony, to pull him close and hold him, wanted to know that the other man was safe.
He couldn’t, because Tony wasn’t safe.
“Boss?” said Tony, the first word he’d uttered since they’d left the crime scene.
Gibbs leaned on the table, all his weight on shaking arms. He wondered when they were going to give out, when it was all going to give out. He could feel time running away from them even as he stood there, still, just focusing on breathing. It shouldn’t be so hard to breathe.
Gibbs wondered for a brief second what it would have been like, if it had been Tony’s body they’d found today. What would that have meant? Tony dead – where would that leave him? For a second, he thought that perhaps it would have been better – at least then he’d know, and then he would be able to focus solely on finding Tony’s murderer and kill him – but he banished the thought just as quickly.
He felt a tingling sensation on his shoulder, through the shirt he wore. He looked up, finding Tony beside him, gazing at him with compassion and sadness.
Gibbs looked away again, unable to look into those eyes that reminded him of everything he didn’t have.
“Do you feel my touch?” Tony asked, a whisper but so loud in the quiet room.
Gibbs nodded, incapable of finding his voice, still studying the grains of the wood of the table.
“Touch me,” Tony said.
Gibbs drew a shuddering breath. “Can’t.”
“If you can feel me, then you can touch me,” Tony said softly. His hand remained on Gibbs’ shoulder, like a buzz of electricity, like the chill of falling snow.
Gibbs stood. Tony floated beside him, too close for comfort and yet not close enough at all. Gibbs saw need in Tony’s eyes – the need for human contact. Tony had always been a physical being.
Gibbs didn’t trust himself the way Abby did. He had his gut and he trusted it but this was far beyond that; this meant believing in something that should be impossible. He didn’t dare close his eyes to let his senses guide him for fear that he would fail, that he would open his eyes and find his hand far from Tony. He relied on his eyes – despite his eyesight getting worse, he knew what his eyes told him wasn’t a lie.
He stopped an inch from Tony’s shoulder, barely daring to go further.
“It’s okay, boss,” Tony said.
Gibbs told himself to get it together. He was a Marine, he had fought in wars; he had killed and he had saved people. He had seen things others would never would, had lived through things he barely wanted to think about. He dared to do this, he dared to touch Tony. It was simple enough.
He somehow managed to keep his hand steady as it traveled the last inch.
And he could feel it.
It was the same tingle as before. It didn’t feel like when he had passed through Tony, when he still thought him to be a hallucination – perhaps he had been too closed off then, too unaware of himself, too wrapped up in the notion that Tony wasn’t real. He remembered thinking that the air felt different, but not this way; not as though the molecules of the air were put together differently, as though there was a fine mist of something that wasn’t wet, but simply there.
He didn’t even realize that he’d moved his hand to cup Tony’s face in his palm until Tony exhaled, sound coming out – a light ‘ahmm’ – but no air moving, no warmth over Gibbs’ hand. Tony’s gaze was on Gibbs, steady but filled with mixed emotions. Gibbs could see happiness, contentment – but also pain and suffering. It made the hazel eyes swirl in a way that seemed almost hypnotizing and Gibbs found himself wishing for a way to erase the hurt.
When Tony moved in, Gibbs’s fingers and hand sinking through him because he hadn’t been prepared for Tony to come closer, he felt as though he was in a dream. The world around them didn’t exist; only he and Tony existed, together in a vacuum where serial killers and dead bodies were peripheral, where other things were more important.
Feeling Tony’s lips on his own was—odd, for the lack of a better word. Unusual. Tony wasn’t warm, wasn’t solid, the lips not hot and soft against his own. Instead it was tingling, miniature fireworks going off against Gibbs’ lips, in a way that could only be described as astounding. He realized he had closed his eyes, enjoying the feeling, the knowledge that Tony was kissing him even in this dreamlike world which felt nothing at all like—
Reality broke in with the harsh ring tone of Gibbs’ cell phone.
Tony drew back, looking dazed, with a slight flush to his cheeks. He didn’t look as ravished as Gibbs had always imagined he would be, had Gibbs gotten his hands on him. But then Gibbs hadn’t gotten his hands on Tony, so that explained that.
He growled into his phone. “Yeah?”
“I believe I may have some insight to shed,” Ducky said. “Could you come down to autopsy?”
Gibbs schooled his voice to calmness. “Be there in a minute.”
He ended the call, and gazed at Tony. “Ducky’s got something.”
Tony nodded, but instead of replying, he said, “I’ll go check on McGee and Ziva. Meet you down there.”
“Later, Gibbs,” Tony said softly. “We’ll talk, but now we have work to do.”
He faded out and Gibbs was left with lips that still tingled and a mind filled with questions. Forcing himself to focus on the present, he unlocked the door and stalked down the stairs to autopsy, because thinking about the case – the goddamn case – was still better than thinking about the fact that Tony had just kissed him.
“What’ve you got, Duck?” Gibbs asked as soon as he passed through the doors to autopsy.
Palmer and Ducky were both bent over the body, examining it closely. Gibbs walked over to them, staring down at the unfamiliar face. His mind supplied him with the image of Tony’s face in place of the stranger’s.
“Ah, Jethro,” said Ducky, and Palmer chose to back away. The boy looked wary and Gibbs didn’t miss the look Ducky sent Gibbs because of it.
“Are you finished already?” Gibbs asked.
“No, no,” said Ducky. “Haven’t opened him up yet. Well, no more than he’s already open, at least.”
“Then what is it you wanted to tell me?” Gibbs asked.
“Mr. Palmer and I studied the wounds and the way the body was torn apart,” Ducky said. “We believe that a saw of some kind has been used for the initial separation – but there are also teeth marks.”
“Cannibalism?” Gibbs asked, his mind immediately going to work.
“No,” Ducky said. “The thought did cross my mind, too. I remember, there was this case I worked on when I was a mere med student—”
“What did I miss?” Tony appeared next to Gibbs, effectively pulling Gibbs’ attention away from Ducky’s tirade. Gibbs wondered if Tony had always looked so positively edible. “Ziva and McGee are both fine, they’re on their way back.”
Gibbs gave a barely perceptive nod. To Ducky, he all but snapped, “Duck.”
Ducky gave him a look. “Yes, yes,” he said. “Well, in this case, I don’t believe it was a case of cannibalism. These are canine teeth marks.”
“A dog chewed on the petty officer?” Gibbs asked, frowning.
“It would seem so, yes,” Ducky said. “And a fairly big dog at that. But only on the upper part, on the open wound.”
Ducky walked over to his desk and picked up the copy of The Raft of the Medusa that Abby had printed for him.
“I believe our killer used Petty Officer Williams as a model for this man,” he said and pointed to the man in the lower left corner. The man was on his back, one hand in the stormy water and the other only just visible. None of his lower body beneath the ribcage could be seen.
“You’ll have to check, of course,” Ducky said, “but I believe Mr. Géricault used this man to show the cannibalism that happened on board the raft, without it being too obvious – the painting is obviously a highly romanticized version, given how strong and healthy the men look. After twelve days on a raft with little food and less water I can assure you, you would not look this healthy.”
Gibbs studied the painting as well. He had long since decided he hated the painting, because was a painting of his failures – but if he tried to look at it in a purely aesthetic point of view, a small part of him could appreciate the craftsmanship.
“Our killer chickened out on biting into the flesh himself,” Gibbs said. “Had the dog do it for him.”
“Yes,” Ducky said. “I believe so.”
“That is gross,” Tony said, making a face.
He was floating above them so that he could look down at the print of painting as well. It was highly distracting to Gibbs to have Tony actually and obviously flying, rather than pretending to be bound by the same earthly laws as everyone else was as he usually did – but Gibbs could hardly snap at him with Ducky a foot away. Besides, the flying wasn’t the only way Tony was distracting Gibbs; his mere presence made Gibbs want to grab him and kiss him again. He couldn’t, for more reasons than one.
“I hope there’s no dog chewing on me,” Tony muttered.
That made Gibbs’ stomach churn. “So we’re looking for a madman with a dog.”
“Hey,” Tony said, frowning suddenly. “I remember—there was a dog. Pretty big one too.”
Gibbs’ mouth went dry – were they about to catch a break in the case? After six dead men and one missing, were they going to get anywhere?
“Got to go,” Gibbs said, walking out of autopsy, leaving a bewildered Ducky behind. It didn’t matter; he needed to hear what Tony had to say now.
The elevator doors closed, and Tony stood, still frowning, beside him.
“It was a big, black dog,” Tony said. “You know, one of those really fit, cool dogs – they’re in movies.”
“You’ll have to be more specific,” Gibbs said.
Tony’s brow was still pinched. “It’s on the tip of my tongue – it’s the same breed that Zeus and Apollo of Magnum PI.”
“Zeus and Apollo?” Gibbs asked.
“Yeah, the two guard dogs at Robin’s Nest,” Tony said. “Anyway. It was friendly. I think I petted it, it just came straight up to me as I was talking to you. And then—there was this—I think there was a man—a needle? Was I drugged?”
Gibbs wished he knew the answer. With the other victims dying from Propofol overdoses, it was fairly likely that Tony had been drugged, but he certainly couldn’t say for sure.
The night Tony had been abducted played before his eyes; they were on the phone. Tony had called Gibbs, coming from a meeting with Henry Johnson’s CO. Johnson had been the fourth victim, and at the time, they had still been working on the idea that the four victims had something in common. Tony had been walking back to his car when there was sudden commotion and the last thing Tony said, in more of a labored breath than a word, had been Gibbs’ name.
He still felt cold, just thinking about it.
“Does it help at all?” Tony asked.
Gibbs snapped back to the present. “Every detail helps put the puzzle together.”
Tony nodded; he knew that. Even that which seemed insignificant could be of great importance in the long run.
They entered the bullpen and Gibbs strode to his desk. He grabbed a sheet of paper and started writing things down, hoping to find some kind of clue – any kind of clue – amongst the words. He wrote ‘dog’ and ‘how are the victims chosen?’, he scribbled ‘Raft of the Medusa’ and ‘sailors’, amongst a mess of other words. It had been a while since he did this kind of unordered mind-map but then it had also been a while since he’d had a case as bad as this.
“And there’s no connection between the dead sailors?” Tony asked, reading the words as they were spewed onto the paper.
‘No,’ Gibbs wrote, because if anyone ever saw these writings, they wouldn’t react to two letters among a hundred others.
“Maybe the murderer’s a pissed off sailor,” Tony said. “Got fired or something from the Navy, wants to become infamous, is a whack job. Decides to go with a Navy themed painting that he can copy, with real bodies as models. Doesn’t care who the victims are, as long as they’re sailors.”
‘How do we find him?’ Gibbs wrote because it was a perfectly legitimate question to put down on the paper.
“You agree with me, boss?” Tony asked. “Huh, this no-one-but-you-can-hear-me-talk thing might not be so bad after all, if it means you’re actually going to listen.”
Gibbs sent a brief glare Tony’s way, one that could not be misinterpreted. Tony grinned at him and Gibbs wasn’t sure whether he wanted to smack him hard over the head or if he wanted to kiss him again. Possibly both – but neither could be done right now.
He wondered briefly what they were going to say to each other once they had a chance to talk about what had happened earlier but pushed it aside – he couldn’t think about that now.
“Well, he’d need some place to store the bodies,” Tony said. “Weren’t they all cold, as though they’d been kept in a freezer or something? Then he needs a big freezer. Can’t really stuff a Navy Commander into a mini-freezer.”
‘Not much help,’ Gibbs wrote.
“I’m doing the best I can,” Tony said, rolling his eyes.
McGee and Ziva chose that moment to enter, both looking subdued. Gibbs could imagine the tears their visit had brought Mrs. Williams.
“McGee, find out what dogs were on Magnum PI,” Gibbs said.
“Apollo and Zeus,” Tony said. “’The lads’.”
“Boss?” McGee said, sending him a look that clearly said he thought Gibbs was crazy.
“Just do it,” Gibbs said. “Apollo and Zeus. And then cross reference with any sailors that have been dishonorably discharged from the Navy.”
“Uh, if you don’t mind—um,” said McGee. “Why?”
“A dog chewed on Petty Officer Williams,” Gibbs snapped.
“A Magnum PI dog?” Ziva asked while McGee went to work. “I did not know you watch TV.”
“He doesn’t,” Tony said, even though he couldn’t be heard.
“Why the cross reference?” Ziva asked.
“Because the killer is targeting sailors but there are no connections between the six victims,” Gibbs said.
“You’re taking all the credit,” Tony said, sniffing dramatically.
“Apollo and Zeus were Doberman Pinschers,” McGee said.
“That’s it!” Tony said. “Dobermans, of course – how could I forget?”
“Cross reference,” Gibbs said.
“How do you know it was a Doberman that chewed on Petty Officer Williams, if you do not even know the name of the breed?” Ziva asked.
There were a few occasions when Gibbs wished his people were a little slower on the uptake. He ignored her, not even glancing at her. He didn’t want that question; he couldn’t answer it. “McGee.”
“Well, there isn’t really a registrar for dog owners,” McGee began, but was interrupted by Gibbs’ intense glare. “I’ll figure it out.”
Gibbs turned to Ziva. “Talk to Abby, see if she’s got anything off Williams yet. Then help McGee with whatever he finds.”
She nodded, and picked up the phone.
Momentarily satisfied, Gibbs sat back. He looked at the mind map, the mess of words this way and that. Finally, they were getting somewhere. But at the same time as he felt relief for finally being on the move towards a possible end of this horrific drama, there was also a feeling of cold dread pressing on him. What if they found the killer, and Tony’s body with him? What if Tony, the ghost, finished his ‘unfinished business’ or whatever it was Abby had said, upon the team bringing down his killer? What if he left?
Gibbs swallowed hard, glancing at Tony, who was standing right beside Gibbs with a small smile on his lips.
What would Gibbs do without him?
“Gibbs, I think I’ve got something.”
Gibbs had waited to hear those words since the first body had appeared, but until now, no one on his team had said the magic words. An hour had passed since he had given out his orders. Tony had vanished again, and McGee and Ziva had both worked studiously.
“Yeah, McGee?” Gibbs said, managing to keep his voice level.
“Well, uh, I was wrong – there is actually a dog registry,” McGee said. “Every dog over the age of six months has to get registered.”
“And?” Gibbs demanded.
“And I got a list of all the Dobermans registered in DC,” McGee said.
“You’d better have more than a list,” Gibbs said.
“Uh, yeah,” McGee said. “I do. I checked the list for all Navy personnel – there were a lot, which isn’t all that strange since—uh, well, never mind. But there were three of them that stood out.”
Gibbs didn’t ask; he let his glare speak for him.
McGee hit a few keys on his computer, and three mug shots came up on the plasma.
“These three were all dishonorably discharged from the Navy in the last five years,” McGee said. “Andrew Thompson, served time for assault, Joseph Monroe, served time for fraud, and James Doherty, also served time for assault.”
All three men stared at Gibbs from their pictures. Thompson and Monroe both looked like unpleasant people, but Gibbs had long since learned that appearances could be deceiving. Doherty had broad shoulders and almost boyish good looks; he did not look like someone who would serve time for assault.
“Are you saying one of these is our killer?” Gibbs asked.
“Um,” McGee said.
Ziva, who’d been working while McGee talked, said, “Thompson is dead. Died eleven months ago in cancer.”
“Well then, uh, that one is out,” McGee said. “I guess the list I’ve got is old.”
“Ya think?” Gibbs snapped.
“Monroe is working at a law firm,” Ziva continued, reading from a piece of paper. “How ironic – he is working on cases to do with fraud.”
“First hand knowledge,” McGee said.
“Indeed,” Ziva said. She smiled, ever so slightly. Gibbs realized that she hadn’t smiled at all since Tony disappeared. Gibbs was not the only one affected by them finally getting somewhere.
“Find out if he has an alibi,” Gibbs snapped. “What about Doherty?”
“I cannot find him,” Ziva said. “He was released from prison two years ago and he seems to have gone out of the radar for at least a year.”
“Off the radar,” McGee corrected.
“Yes,” Ziva said. “That.”
“Find him,” Gibbs said harshly.
His body was buzzing with adrenaline, built from the thrill of the chase, the dread of what they were going to find, and the anticipation of the finally being eye to eye with the madman and perhaps getting a chance to put a bullet between his eyes. He wasn’t sure what he’d do if – when – they found the murderer. Killing him almost seemed to easy, too clean a way out. Gibbs wanted the murderer to suffer the same way he had made Gibbs suffer – the same way he had most certainly made Tony suffer.
He headed downstairs to Abby, unable to stay still.
“Do you have anything for me, Abs?” Gibbs asked.
“I was just going to call you,” Abby said. “I think I found the kind of saw the killer used.”
“You think?” Gibbs asked.
“Well, I can’t say exactly which kind,” Abby said. “But it is your garden variety saw, pretty rough. He didn’t want any sharp, clean edges.”
“He wanted to recreate the cannibalism onboard the raft,” Gibbs said.
“Yeah, Ducky told me,” Abby said, making a face. “You’ll catch him, right, Gibbs?” She didn’t leave him time to answer. “I also matched the teeth marks Ducky gave me. They belong to—”
“A Doberman Pinscher,” Gibbs said.
Abby glared at him. “I hate it when you do that.”
“So how did you know?” she asked. “Even you couldn’t have told from the look of the bite.” She paused and smirked. “I know. Tony told you.”
“Yeah,” Gibbs said. “He remembered that there was a Doberman on the night he was kidnapped.”
His words sobered Abby up, her face falling. She looked very young, and Gibbs felt old by her side. “Is he okay?”
“His ghost or—”
“Both,” Abby said. “Please tell me he’s okay.”
“I can’t do that,” Gibbs said softly.
She bit her lip, looking at the floor. For a moment, Gibbs thought she was going to start crying again but then she took a deep breath and seemed to force it down. He was glad; although Abby was the one person he felt comfortable comforting he didn’t want to do it right now. His own emotional state was far too messed up, what with the events in the conference room, the bodies currently residing in autopsy, and the stress and pain of not knowing where Tony was or if he was alive at all.
“I went to the Magic Box,” Abby said after a moment of collecting herself. “Asked about ghosts.”
“And?” he asked, before he could stop himself.
“The owner, Mr. Giles, didn’t seem to think that my description of Tony fit with the definition of a ghost,” she said, voice a bit thick still. “For one thing, it apparently usually takes a lot longer than a week for a ghost to become visible to humans. And when it does manage, it usually can’t chose to just be visible to one person. For another, ghosts are supposed to be bound to a place, not a person.”
Gibbs frowned. He hated this magic stuff – he lived in the real world, not some fantasy where spells worked and ghosts existed. Then again, with Tony’s appearance, he might have to rethink his stance on what was ‘real’ and what was not.
“Then what does Mr. Giles think Tony is?” he asked.
“A spirit,” Abby said. “A soul, separated from his body.”
“How’s that different from a ghost?” He tried to follow, but didn’t.
“Lots of ways, according to Mr. Giles,” Abby said. She swallowed. “But what was important is – it’s possible for a soul to be separated from its body, without the body being dead.”
Gibbs’ breath hitched, his fingers tightening into fists. He could hear the beat of his own heart in his ears. Tony could still be alive? His incorporeal presence wasn’t conclusive proof of him being dead?
He realized that he had held onto the notion of Tony still being alive even as the days passed and the likelihood grew smaller. The pessimistic side of him told him Tony was dead – but a part of him refused to believe it. That part now rejoiced, as though Abby’s words somehow made it more likely that Tony was still alive, even though nothing had really changed.
He had to ask to make sure he hadn’t misunderstood. “He can still be alive?”
She gave a very small nod, eyes watering. “He’d have to be in a coma, or something like it, but—yeah.”
Gibbs pulled her in, molding her body against his own in a crushing hug, and she held on just as tightly, burying her face in her neck.
They stood still, together, both shaking, the world not quite existing around them. Gibbs knew he’d have to pull himself together and he would do it soon, but for now he just wanted to feel what he hadn’t felt in what felt like forever – hope.
He finally pulled back, schooling his face into one that didn’t so openly show his emotions. Abby’s makeup had run down her cheeks again, and she wiped at them.
“I’ll get back to work,” she said thickly.
He nodded. “I’ll send him down if he comes back today.”
She smiled slightly. “Thank you.”
He kissed her forehead. “Thank you, Abby.”
“He is simply gone,” Ziva said, obviously frustrated, pacing back and forth between the desks in the squad room.
“Doherty?” Gibbs asked as he stalked into the room.
“Yes,” Ziva said. “He is nowhere.”
“We checked the last known address – an apartment, but it’s been sold three times since Doherty moved out last year,” McGee said. “He left no forwarding address.”
“We have also tried finding telephone records, emails, bank statements, credit cards – and there is nothing,” Ziva said. “It’s like he doesn’t exist anymore.”
Gibbs almost smiled; it was as though she was taking the man’s disappearance as a personal offense. He stopped the smile before it had even begun to form – it wouldn’t do, not now – but also realized that like Ziva, he hadn’t really smiled in nearly two weeks. It was Tuesday; Tony had been gone twelve days. The thought made any and all positive feelings evaporate.
He stared up at the photo of Doherty on the screen. The boyish looks suddenly turned into something sinister, the dark brown eyes becoming nearly black. In his mind, the photo came to life and he saw Doherty walking down a dark street, street lights illuminating the world in tones of yellow. Before him, Tony walked, speaking on the phone. Doherty was waiting for his chance to strike. A black Doberman Pinscher walked beside him, obedient, ready to play its part.
“What about the dog?” Gibbs asked.
“What about it?” Ziva asked.
McGee frowned. “A dog needs to be walked – or at least have a garden of some kind. Trust me, they’re not happy if they have to stay inside all the time.”
“But what does that give us?” Ziva asked. “The list you received from the dog registry is obviously hardly new – and someone wanting to disappear would not register his dog. People walk dogs everywhere – we can hardly ask if anyone’s seen a man walk with a dog.”
Ziva was right.
“Put out a BOLO,” Gibbs said. “We have his mug shot; let’s see if someone recognizes it.”
“In two years he will have changed his looks,” Ziva said.
“Do you have any other ideas?” Gibbs snapped.
“What about his parents?” she asked, not quite snapping back but definitely not far from it. She met Gibbs’ gaze squarely, not backing down.
McGee’s fingers flew over his keyboard. “Parents are alive, they live in DC. Mother’s a nurse, father’s a dentist. No criminal records, except for a few parking tickets on Mr. Doherty.”
“Go talk to them,” Gibbs said.
“Now?” McGee asked.
“No, let’s wait until tomorrow, I’m sure DiNozzo won’t mind,” Gibbs snapped.
Unlike Ziva, McGee paled visibly at his words, and Gibbs gave himself a mental slap. McGee was stressed out enough as it was – they all were. Ducky was right, they didn’t need more crap from him.
He sighed. “Unless you come up with something vital, you can go home afterwards. Sleep, come back tomorrow morning.”
McGee swallowed, perhaps on the verge of saying something, but then stayed quiet. He and Ziva grabbed their gear and headed out side by side.
Soft footfalls alerted Gibbs to Director Vance, standing right standing behind him, perhaps thinking Gibbs hadn’t heard him come. There were very few people who could get near Gibbs without him knowing it and Vance was not one of them. Only people Gibbs trusted could sneak up on him; Vance would never be one of those select few.
“Got a lead?”
“Maybe,” Gibbs said.
“Care to share?” Vance asked, in a tone that said that it was not a suggestion.
“Found Williams this morning,” Gibbs said. “In two pieces. The upper part had been chewed on by a dog. Abby identified it as a Doberman Pinscher. McGee ran a check on owners of such dogs.”
“One man we can’t locate,” Gibbs said.
“Does he have a name?” Vance asked, toothpick hanging from his lip.
“James Doherty,” Gibbs said.
“And Officer David and Agent McGee left just now to—” Vance trailed off in a question.
“Speak to Doherty’s parents,” Gibbs said. “They might know where he is.”
“Do you expect them to tell your agents?” Vance asked.
“I expect my agents to pick up the clues,” Gibbs said. He gave Vance a look that said he didn’t have anything more he wanted to share. Vance met the glare squarely, not backing away.
“Good,” Vance said. “Something to tell Sec Nav. I was worried I might have to take your team off the case, after Officer David’s—problem.”
Gibbs only barely refrained himself from snarling at Vance. Problem? Was that what Ziva getting beaten up had been? A problem? He wanted to tell Vance where he could shove his toothpicks but made himself stay quiet, because although he normally said exactly what was on his mind, there was the risk of Vance taking him off the case if they got into a pissing contest. Gibbs did not want to be taken off – not now, not when they were finally getting somewhere.
“Are we done?” he asked as politely as he could manage.
“Yes,” Vance said. “For now.”
He left in an air of superiority. Gibbs glared holes into his back.
“How do you even know I was kidnapped by the serial killer?” Tony asked, cocking his head to the side.
Gibbs ran a hand down the wood of the boat, feeling for any roughness. It ran smoothly beneath his fingers.
“We searched your car,” Gibbs said without looking at Tony. Tony was sitting on the steps, having appeared there a moment earlier. “Turned up nothing. We found your cell phone on the ground. Nothing. We waited for a ransom note, any kind of contact. Nothing.”
“And anyone but the serial killer would have said or done something?” Tony asked.
“You tell me,” Gibbs said.
Tony pondered it for a moment. “I guess most kidnappers would contact someone. Not much point otherwise. Unless they wanted to sell for slavery, or something.”
Gibbs didn’t answer, he simply continued working on the boat, evening out rough edges. With every stroke, he tried to let some of the fear out, some of the aggression, some of the hurt. It didn’t work. He could still feel each of his failures, as fresh as if they’d just happened. Each step he’d taken that had been the wrong one ran across his mind, fleeting but painful.
He heard Kelly’s pearling laughter; it mixed with the echoes of Kate’s voice.
“Boss, you’ve got to talk to me at some point,” Tony said.
Gibbs glanced over at him, giving him a look that clearly said, ‘No, I don’t’, before continuing to work on the boat. Tony rolled his eyes. He stayed seated – or floating just above the surface at least. He seemed to be getting better at judging where the ground was, making him look even more real as he wasn’t disappearing into the wall or hovering a foot above the step.
“Or not,” Tony muttered when Gibbs continued to ignore him.
Gibbs heard him take a breath and Gibbs wondered if a ghost – or a spirit, or whatever Tony was – needed to do such a thing. Perhaps it was just a habit.
“I had to do it.”
Gibbs paused at Tony’s words, but only for a second. He hid a frown, wondering what Tony meant but not willing to ask. Tony would continue, of that Gibbs was certain. He could feel Tony’s gaze on him, steady and penetrating, drawing him in if he didn’t concentrate on studying the wood instead.
“I had to kiss you at least once,” Tony said softly.
Gibbs let his hands drop to his side. They were sore from working on the boat for too long but he wasn’t tired enough to sleep yet, even though he could count the hours he’d slept the night before on one hand. He couldn’t bring himself to relax.
“Why?” he asked, because Tony sat silent.
Tony cocked his head to the side again, a frown appearing and then disappearing as quickly again.
“I’m in love with you,” he said. “How did you not figure that out, boss?”
Gibbs couldn’t find any words that would fit as a response to what Tony had just said. His mind whirled – how long? Why? And why now? Why now, when it was all too likely that it was far too late?
“Couldn’t die without stealing a kiss from you,” Tony said. “I was even thinking that might’ve been my unfinished business, but I’m still here, so I guess it wasn’t. Don’t know what else is left – I even got to talk a little to Abby. Kind of. Maybe I have to catch my killer, or something.”
It was a ramble and Gibbs recognized that Tony’s brave, honest admission hid great nervousness. Tony’s gaze kept flitting between his hands, the boat, and Gibbs, never staying long on any one. Gibbs found himself unable to look away from Tony; he couldn’t remember the last time Tony had looked so open, so vulnerable.
At least Tony’s rambling had answered one of Gibbs’ questions. He could understand taking the last chance to do such a thing – he hoped he’d have done the same, had the situation been reversed. He doubted he would have dared.
“So, why aren’t you all grossed out about it?”
Tony’s voice was quiet.
Gibbs fought to find an answer that would work; preferably one that wasn’t completely honest, because the completely honest answer would leave him exposed and Gibbs hated that feeling. Yet Tony looked at him gently and that made it impossible for Gibbs to produce a lie.
“Didn’t mind,” he said, voice rough.
Tony’s eyebrows rose slightly. “Huh. Too bad I didn’t figure that out when I was still alive.”
Gibbs frowned. “Might not be dead yet.”
He wondered why his voice sounded so choked.
“Hmh?” said Tony, understanding not yet having dawned.
“You might not be dead,” Gibbs said. “Abby talked to—someone. Something about spirits and how the body could still be alive, even when the spirit had been separated from it.”
Tony stared at him, hazel eyes large. His hair fell softly, the same way it had when he’d disappeared. Perhaps the spirit automatically took on the last appearance it remembered. Gibbs didn’t linger on the thought, other than to think that Tony looked damn good.
“I might not be dead?” Tony asked softly. “Oh.”
“That’s all you have to say?” Gibbs asked.
“I’ve been more talkative than you tonight,” Tony said, voice still quiet and a bit rough. “I’d almost—I’d started getting used to the thought of me being—dead. I was dealing with it.”
Gibbs frowned. “How?”
Tony thought for a moment. “Just—coming to terms with it. Accepting that it was the way it’d be. That I’d lived my life and though there were some things I might’ve changed if I’d had the chance, I was still fairly happy with how it turned out. I figured I could have a bit of fun, be of some use, while I got to stay here. Say my goodbyes. Tell Abby I love her. Kiss you. Stuff I should’ve done – should do, if I’m still alive.”
Gibbs throat hurt; it felt as though something large and painful had lodged there. He forced it away, pushing down the emotions as he had done so many times before, to a place where he wouldn’t have to deal with them.
“But I guess there’s still a risk that I’m dead?” Tony asked, hiding, just like Gibbs did, behind a shield of indifference.
Gibbs nodded. “Yeah.”
Tony’s expression turned thoughtful. “I think this sucks worse. Not knowing. If I knew – one way or the other – at least I’d be able to deal with it. I’d have to accept it. But this? It’s like—limbo.”
Gibbs wanted to apologize, as though it was his fault. He didn’t – after all, he didn’t believe in apologies and he knew that this wasn’t his fault. Well, other than the part where he should have protected Tony better – that, he’d blame himself for forever.
“Do you think I’m alive, boss?” Tony asked. “What does your famous gut tell you?”
Gibbs didn’t know. For once he couldn’t tell what he wanted to be true apart from what he really believed. He wanted Tony to be alive; he wanted it with all of his heart, all of his being. But did he believe it? No. So far, life had done nothing to prove itself to be fair – and ripping Tony away from him now, when he had finally started realizing what he had felt all along, that seemed right up fate’s ally. Shannon and Kelly had been stolen from him and Kate had been killed right in front of his eyes. Tony had already survived more things than most people could ever dream of; his luck should be running out.
“I’ll take that as a no,” Tony said, making a face. He stood up. “Well, like I said – I’m coming to terms with it. I’ll—well, I won’t live, but I’ll be okay. I guess it’s another adventure, to see what comes next.”
“Don’t,” Gibbs said, but then stopped, because he didn’t know what else to say. He didn’t want to hear Tony talk about dying, no matter how likely it was. He didn’t care that Tony might need to talk about it – the mere idea of hearing it made him hurt.
“I hope it’s nice,” Tony said softly, ignoring Gibbs. “Warm. Welcoming. Gandalf said there were white shores – I hope he was right. Perhaps I’ll see Kate. And Paula, and Jenny.”
Their names stabbed at Gibbs’ heart, a blow that felt almost physical. White hot pain seared through Gibbs and an anguished cry escaped him. He didn’t recognize his own voice. He felt his legs grow weak and he supported himself on the boat, leaning heavily against it.
He felt a tingling on his arm, and then his other, and then against his back, and when he opened his eyes – when had he closed them? – he found Tony’s arms wrapped around him.
“I’m sorry,” Tony whispered, kissing his temple. Gibbs saw tears rolling down Tony’s cheeks. “I didn’t mean to.”
“You’re not dead,” Gibbs said roughly. “Damn it, DiNozzo, you are not dead.”
There was a hint of a smile on Tony’s lips. “I’ve followed your orders on that subject before.”
“And you will follow them again,” Gibbs whispered hoarsely. His eyes burned with unshed tears; a blink, and they’d be falling. Gibbs drew deep, shuddering breaths.
Tony ran a hand over Gibbs’ arm, fingers surrounding Gibbs’, squeezing in a way that didn’t feel like a squeeze, but just a minute tightening of the tingles.
“I’ll try my best,” Tony said. “My very best.”
They stood still, and Gibbs wondered when Tony had become comfortable enough to actually attempt to soothe Gibbs this way. Perhaps it was because Tony didn’t believe himself to be alive; he was taking these as his last chances at physical contact with someone. Perhaps Gibbs let him only because he might be dead, because this might not be real at all.
Gibbs’ mind turned back to Tony’s earlier revelation. Had he really been in love with Gibbs for—well, he’d never said for how long, but it sounded as though it had been a while. Gibbs couldn’t put his finger on when his own feelings of pride and happiness to have Tony around had turned into something more; perhaps Tony couldn’t either. It didn’t matter in the long run.
His thoughts darkened again – perhaps it wouldn’t matter at all. They might never get a chance to explore anything. Perhaps Gibbs would never get a reason to weigh rule number twelve against having a relationship with Tony; they might never get the chance to kiss for real. Perhaps Tony was already dead, perhaps he had been so since the moment Tony’s ghost showed up.
“Come on, boss,” Tony said, voice just next to Gibbs’ ear. “You should go to sleep. You need to rest.”
Gibbs realized he was shaking with the effort to stay standing. Reluctantly, he pushed himself up to stand without the aid of the boat. Tony slid away from him, staying a foot or so from Gibbs.
The stairs felt long and heavy but he made it up. He brushed his teeth and shed his clothes, almost sleepwalking, and climbed into bed. The linens were cool against his skin and he shivered, pulling them tighter around himself.
“Tony?” he asked, looking around in the darkness.
“Here,” said Tony. “Not going anywhere.”
He looked more ghostly in the darkness, with only the moonlight spilling in through the window to illuminate the room. Tony’s skin looked nearly blue, not unlike what he’d looked like in Bethesda when he’d barely been able to breathe.
“Not dead,” Gibbs said, reaching out for Tony, sleep already overtaking him.
He felt the tell-tale tingling of Tony’s presence on his forehead. He glanced up through half-lidded eyes, finding Tony hovering above him.
“Awfully distracting, that,” Gibbs said sleepily.
Tony lowered himself to lie on the bed next to Gibbs, the sheets not wrinkling because a ghost, a spirit, didn’t weigh anything, didn’t quite exist. “This better?”
Gibbs nodded, eyes closing. “Mm-hmm.”
He was asleep seconds later.
Returning to work at six fifteen the next morning, Gibbs felt better rested than he had in a while. He wondered if falling asleep with the real, solid Tony would have the same calming effect on him that falling asleep with the ghost had. Then again, if he had the real Tony, alive and healthy in his bed, then there might not have been all that much sleeping involved.
He was surprised to find Ziva by her desk already, working so diligently that she barely raised her gaze to look at Gibbs and greet him.
McGee and Abby arrived mere minutes after Gibbs, together. Abby didn’t come by the bullpen but Tony told Gibbs after doing his regular tours around the team.
“Ducky’s on his way in too,” Tony said and then he grinned, “And Palmer overslept but is in a hurry to get here.”
Gibbs wondered why it didn’t feel odd between them. Tony didn’t appear to mind Gibbs’ breakdown the night before at all, nor did he make any passes at Gibbs. It felt strangely normal.
Gibbs turned to McGee.
“Did you get anything at Doherty’s parents yesterday?” Gibbs asked.
“Ask Ziva,” McGee said. “She thought she did.”
“Ziva?” Gibbs asked.
“Yes,” Ziva said. “One minute, and I will tell you.”
“McGee,” Gibbs said. “Coffee.”
He had already downed one cup and now needed a new one. McGee left the bullpen to get some.
Tony shook his head. “You shouldn’t drink so much caffeine, boss. ‘s not good for you.”
Gibbs sent him a brief glare, one that wasn’t suspicious because Gibbs did occasionally send angry glares at the world in general.
“There!” Ziva said, hitting a final key on her keyboard.
A driver’s license came up, with a photo of a familiar man with an unfamiliar name looking back at them. James Doherty had created himself a fake identity.
“Good job,” Gibbs said.
McGee returned, carrying three cups of coffee. His mouth dropped open upon seeing what was on the plasma.
“I saw a letter when I snooped around yesterday,” Ziva said.
“When did you—” McGee started, frowning, but then he realized. “You went to the bathroom.”
“I said I went to the bathroom,” Ziva said, smirking. “I took a look around instead. On the nightstand in the bedroom, I found a letter addressed to Mrs. Doherty, and the sender was a Mr. Theodore Cault. It seemed odd for a wife to keep the letter from another man on her nightstand, but also, the name is—”
“An English version of the name of the artist of the Medusa,” McGee said, eyes widening.
“Yes,” Ziva said. “So I ran the name through the database and I came up with this.”
“McGee, find me everything on him,” Gibbs said. “I want to know every part of his fake ID and most importantly—”
“An address,” McGee said. “On it, boss.”
Gibbs glanced to his side, finding Tony staring at the picture. He realized that Tony hadn’t yet seen the picture of the suspect; he’d been gone for the parts of the previous day when they’d found out about James Doherty.
Grabbing a pen and a paper, he wrote, ‘look familiar?’
Tony didn’t notice his writing at first, as he held it as inconspicuously as possible for Tony to see. Instead, his gaze was glued to the photo on the screen. There were emotions flitting across his face but they were too fast, too small, for Gibbs to be able to identify.
“I’ve seen him,” Tony said, brow creasing into a frown. “It’s right there at the edge of my memory – but I can’t get it—but I know I’ve seen him.”
Gibbs fought two widely different urges – one, to snap at Tony and order him to remember, and two, to reach out and lay a comforting hand on Tony’s shoulder. He could do neither in the middle of the bullpen.
“Theodore Cault works at Bethesda,” McGee said. “He’s a janitor. He’s been working there the last five months.”
“Lieutenant Johnson worked at Bethesda,” Ziva said.
“And Tony disappeared when he was coming back from interviewing—”
They had checked hospital employees several weeks earlier. With the drug overdoses, it seemed likely that the person worked at a hospital, but too many people worked at the hospitals nearby, and the search had turned up nothing.
Gibbs could feel his heart speeding up at the thought of finally getting to the bastard.
“Address?” Gibbs asked, a rush of adrenaline pumping through him.
“Coming up,” McGee said. He hit another few keys, and on the screen, the address popped up. “It’s an old house in Somerset, boss. Doherty is renting it.”
“Gear, now,” Gibbs said. “McGee, get the car. Ziva, tell the Director what’s going on.”
“Boss—we don’t have any cause to enter the house,” McGee said.
“We’re just going there to talk to him,” Gibbs snapped.
“We are?” McGee asked.
“Yeah, McGee,” Gibbs said. “We are.”
He grabbed his own gun and holstered it.
McGee swallowed visibly, obviously understanding Gibbs’ version of ‘talking’ to Doherty.
His gun felt as though it was burning against his side, whispering to him – God, Gibbs wanted to put a bullet through the asshole’s knees, wanted to bring him pain like what he’d brought Gibbs.
And while his body filled with adrenaline, his heart filled with dread of what they were going to find upon getting there. What horrors would they get to see? What had the bastard put Tony through? Was Tony alive at all?
He saw Tony standing in front of the screen, still staring at Doherty. He looked pale, even for his ghostly form. Gibbs couldn’t speak to him and even if he could he had no idea of what to say.
He headed towards the elevator, McGee already out of there to bring the car out front. Ziva hung up and hurried after Gibbs, getting into the elevator just before the doors closed. Her face was set in a concentrated scowl and Gibbs felt the same combination of adrenaline, fury and fear emanating from her. He saw her hand go to her gun, ghosting over it to make sure it was there. None of them said a word.
McGee had already seated himself in the back of the car when Gibbs and Ziva came out. Unlike Ziva, he didn’t look angry – he looked pale and drawn and deeply focused on the task at hand, but he had never been the killing machine Gibbs and Ziva were. Still, Gibbs knew that he could trust McGee.
“Boss,” McGee said, voice barely holding. “I just got a call from the grocery store nearest the house. They said there’s a man who looks like the BOLO photo that comes in like clockwork once a week with his Doberman.”
The tires screeched as Gibbs hit the gas. McGee stopped talking to grab hold of the ceiling handle, his face white. Gibbs’ heart pounded loudly in his ears, adrenaline making his heart rush.
The streets flashed past them.
He came to a stop only once they were in front of Doherty’s house. Gibbs parked with no finesse, and stepped out of the car, his heart beating a hole through his chest. He forced himself to take a deep breath to calm himself, even though he usually never had to do such a thing.
But this wasn’t their usual case.
“There you are,” said Tony, appearing next to him. “This it?”
They both looked up at the house. It looked, like McGee had said, old – the fence was in need of a new layer of paint and the house itself looked worn. The yard was far from as well-kept as the surrounding ones.
Gibbs gave Tony a hardly perceptible nod.
“McGee, in the back,” he said. “Be ready to call in backup.”
McGee nodded, though Gibbs caught the look in his eyes – the one that said, ‘yeah, we’re just here to talk’.
“Ziva, with me,” Gibbs said, though it wasn’t necessary. Ziva was walking up just behind him, one hand on her gun.
“I’ve been here before,” Tony said. “It was dark when I got here the last time, but I was here. It feels like—like a dream.”
“Go to McGee,” Gibbs ordered, unable to concentrate with Tony next to him.
“I thought you said—” started Ziva, and Gibbs cursed under his breath.
“Not you,” Gibbs snapped.
Gibbs gave her a look. He knew it wouldn’t keep her from asking questions – he just hoped that it was enough to keep her from asking them right now. They didn’t have time; they had other things that were far more important, far more pressing.
He knocked on the door, three quick taps.
There was no answer, and he knocked again.
“Mr. Doherty,” he said. “NCIS. We’d like to talk to you.”
There was a sudden sound from inside, sharp and unmistakable – a gunshot, ringing loud and clear.
It shocked Gibbs into action, as a million pictures of what had just happened inside the house flashed before his eyes – Tony, broken, bleeding, shot, dead—
He kicked in the door, briefly glad the house was old because the door gave way immediately.
Ziva was behind him, clearing the areas with him. McGee came in right in front of them, through the back-porch and he was sweaty, hands shaking with the kick of adrenaline. They went through each of the rooms, securing them as they found them empty. The house was clean, not just in a vacuumed and neat way but sterilized, not a single thing out of place. It didn’t look like anyone had lived in there at all.
“Clear,” McGee said, voice almost steady.
“Basement,” Gibbs said.
There was a smell that started just outside the kitchen. It grew steadily worse as they entered the kitchen and found the stairs down to the basement through a door. It wasn’t an unfamiliar smell – rather, it was an all too familiar one.
“Boss, you need to get down there. He’s built the raft—”
Tony appeared before him and he looked paler than usual. He looked as though he was going to be sick any moment.
They descended the stairs, guns drawn. The stench of decay was heavy, even in the cold, dark basement. The stairs creaked beneath their feet as they descended.
Suddenly, the door behind them slammed shut loudly. Gibbs heard it click as it locked. He swore, but there was nothing he could do about it now. Everything around them was pitch black, so dark he couldn’t even see his hand as he held it up before his eyes. Taking a step forward, onto the floor, Gibbs nearly stumbled over something hard and wooden.
Then, just as abruptly, lights came on. Strong, blinding lights that had Gibbs’ eyes tearing up and made him squeeze them shut, even though he knew the danger in doing so. Slowly, he opened them, squinting against the bright light. They came from every corner of the room, and all were pointed at them, at the space where he, McGee and Ziva were standing. It was a large space, with a structure built on the ground – the bit Gibbs had stumbled on was the corner of a bigger, wooden deck of some kind.
“Boss, this—it’s the raft,” McGee said. “It’s a live version of it.”
They slowly stepped further onto the floor, guns drawn and ready. The place was eerily silent.
Then a shot rang out and McGee cried out in pain. He staggered back, dropping his gun loudly on the floor before falling himself. His hands went instinctively to his side, where blood already started soaking through his shirt.
“McGee!” said Ziva.
“Get back,” Gibbs snapped. He looked around, for any kind of cover, but couldn’t see anything. They were in the bull’s eye, with bright light on all sides, except for the stairs – but those led only to a locked door. Still, getting up there would give him a greater view point—
“Stop right there.”
The unfamiliar voice was shaking, unpleasant – Gibbs hated it without hesitation. He leveled his gun in the direction of the sound. He tried his best to ignore McGee’s hitched breathing, mewling sounds of pain escaping him. Ziva had dropped to McGee’s side, and was pressing her hands against his side.
“NCIS,” said the voice.
“Show yourself,” Ziva said angrily.
“You already know what I look like, if you’ve gotten this far,” the voice said.
“James Doherty,” Gibbs said, with barely controlled rage. He wanted to shoot but he couldn’t, not without knowing where the target was or what it was doing. For all Gibbs knew, Doherty was using Tony as a shield. For all he knew, the voice was computer animated and Doherty wasn’t standing where they thought he was. From the angle McGee had been shot, Gibbs could assume where he would have had to be a few moments ago but he could have – should have if he was smart – moved since.
“I don’t go by that name anymore,” Doherty said. “I’m Theodore. Theodore Cault. Mother understood when I changed my name. Said she knew all along that I wasn’t a regular James. She said that Father wanted that name for me, not her.”
He was moving around, shuffling this way and that in the darkness. Gibbs followed the sound of the voice with his gun, all the while squinting at the darkness. He needed to see beyond the bright lights, had to but couldn’t because if he moved, if any of them moved, Doherty was more than likely to shoot again. They had nothing, no way to—
Except, they did.
He had an agent who could move without being seen.
He didn’t have a way to communicate with Tony without alerting the others – but he found it impossible to care. Ziva had already seen him, albeit when she was dizzy from her concussion and McGee would simply have to question Gibbs’ sanity later. For there to be a later for McGee – because a gunshot wound to the stomach ran a high risk of being fatal if it stayed untreated – Gibbs would have to do it.
“Tony, what’s going on?”
He could feel Ziva’s and McGee’s gazes on him, questioning, wondering if he’d finally cracked.
“You’re talking to me?” Tony asked. “In front of them? Cool. I think.”
“DiNozzo,” Gibbs snapped.
Tony didn’t say anything; he merely moved quickly beyond the lights.
“Don’t come any closer,” Doherty said. “I have someone here that you probably don’t want hurt any further.”
“Tony,” Ziva breathed.
McGee’s gaze shifted from the darkness to Gibbs and back again. “Boss—what’s—”
“Not now,” Gibbs snapped.
Tony was very pale when he returned. Gibbs frowned, wondering if it was the bright lights of the basement that led to that effect, or if it was something else.
“He’s got me,” Tony said. “Your two o’clock. Gun to my head. I’m not conscious. Boss, I think I might be—”
“No,” Gibbs snapped.
“No, what, boss?” McGee asked, between pained breaths of air. Gibbs saw the sweat on McGee’s forehead, his face pale, and he knew they were running out of time. McGee was going into shock.
“What do you want?” Gibbs asked instead, louder, directing the question to Doherty.
“To finish my piece,” Doherty said. “You’ll be in it, you’ll fit right in, Gunnery Sergeant. You know, I looked you up after you were on TV. You and your team. Agent DiNozzo isn’t a sailor but I figured he’d fit in—he’s handsome, isn’t he? When I saw him on the news I just knew I had to have him in my picture.”
Gibbs wanted to take some solace in that Doherty was still talking about Tony in a present tense, but he couldn’t. Doherty was obviously mad, and could be saying anything.
His heart pounded loudly.
“Backup—on its way,” McGee said, breathing harsh.
Gibbs nodded and spoke to Doherty. They needed to get this over with. “Let him go. Let Agent DiNozzo go and I might let you live.”
“We all have guns, Gunnery Sergeant,” Doherty said. “Who says I won’t shoot you first? I know where all three of you are and one of you is already wounded. You just have my voice to follow.”
“Two o’clock, boss,” Tony said. “Just beyond the lights.”
“Can’t shoot you,” Gibbs said, quieter.
“Better me than all of you,” Tony said.
“No,” Gibbs snapped.
“Gibbs?” asked Ziva.
“My two o’clock,” Gibbs said.
She didn’t ask how he knew and he was glad. She would later, of that he had no doubt, but for now she trusted him. She moved to go closer to Doherty.
“I said don’t come any closer,” Doherty said, a hint of hysterics coloring his voice. “I will shoot. I’ll start with your agent here.”
“Get him to let go of you, DiNozzo,” Gibbs said.
“How?” Tony asked. “I’m incorporeal. And my body obviously isn’t of much use.” Gibbs glared at him. “I’ll figure it out. Right. I can touch you and Abby, so why not the madman who’s the reason for all this to begin with.”
He faded into the darkness beyond the lights, out of Gibbs’ view, but Gibbs could still hear him muttering. It was a good sound to listen to, instead of Doherty’s ramblings.
“Okay, boss, here goes nothing,” Tony said. “I’ll just try to—I don’t know. Go through him and do something on the way, I guess.”
Gibbs didn’t answer, and he hoped Tony took the silence for the affirmative it was.
“On three,” Tony said. “One—two—three.”
A second passed, long and dragged out, an eternity of heartbeats and harsh breaths. Then a scream pierced the air, a horrid sound, and the thump of something heavy hitting the ground.
His heart pounded loudly in his ears, his entire body focused on only one thing – getting to Doherty, killing him before he could kill anyone else.
Doherty stumbled back and Gibbs could barely see because the light had been so bright and now the dim illumination was near complete darkness to him. But he could make out the outline of Doherty, leaning against the wall, regaining momentum. He looked up and their gazes met for just a second, Doherty raising his gun and then Gibbs fired, once, twice.
Doherty stared at him as though he couldn’t quite believe it. He staggered, blood already pouring from the chest wound, one step, two steps, a gurgling sound coming from him. Another step and then his legs gave out and Doherty crashed to the ground, breaths coming irregularly at painful intervals. Gibbs kept his gun leveled on Doherty as flowing blood formed a pool. Doherty drew a few more breaths, eyes on Gibbs, still looking surprised and hateful even as death claimed him.
Just like that it was over. Just like that, Doherty was dead.
Tony’s voice floated through the darkness. “Boss.”
It woke Gibbs, and he stood up straight, letting the gun fall to his side.
“David, get the paramedics down here,” he said. “McGee?”
“F-fine, boss,” McGee said, but his voice was too soft and weak for Gibbs’ liking.
He saw Ziva go – reluctantly letting go of McGee. Her hands were bloody. From his viewpoint beyond the lights, Gibbs could see just fine into the space where they had been standing.
“Over here, boss,” Tony said, sounding choked.
Gibbs looked over and saw Tony standing by a body. Gibbs stalked over, and fell to the ground. Dark blond hair, pale skin—
Pulse, pulse, pulse.
Weak, but there it was, a thread of a pulse as Gibbs held his fingers to Tony’s neck. He was warm, breathing softly when Gibbs put his ear to Tony’s face, but undoubtedly unconscious.
“Not dead,” Gibbs said and Tony the ghost slumped to his knees in relief.
The real Tony lay naked on the ground. Gibbs ran his shaking hands over Tony, feeling for bruises, bleedings, injuries and swellings. He was no doctor but he’d dealt with enough injured people in his life to know. He found bruises on Tony’s chest and a bump on his head, but there were no bullet wounds and no bleedings of any other kind.
“Tony,” he said, touching his shoulder lightly, careful, hoping there was no neck injury.
There was no response.
Gibbs shrugged off his jacket, covering Tony as much as possible with it.
“Tony!” said Ziva, coming up next to them, face white. “Is he—”
“He’s breathing,” Gibbs said.
Ziva nodded. “What can I do?”
“Stay with McGee,” Gibbs said. She gave another short nod and after a long look at Tony she turned and went back to McGee.
“Why can’t I just—go in? Why am I still here—” Tony the ghost mumbled and Gibbs looked up to find wide hazel eyes shining with what had to be tears.
Then there was chaos, as the paramedics strode into the room, coming down the stairs with gurneys and equipment. One team surrounded McGee, and Gibbs wanted to split himself in two to keep an eye on both his fallen agents, but he couldn’t. He stayed by Tony’s side as three medics started working on Tony, their hands rapidly running across warm skin to assess any injuries, placing a collar around Tony’s neck, checking his pulse and breathing.
“Ziva, go with McGee,” Gibbs ordered.
“What about this place? It is a crime scene,” Ziva said.
“Get Ducky, Palmer and one of the other teams over here,” Gibbs snapped. “We have two agents down:”
Local police had already come too, their techs heading over to Doherty’s dead body.
“You do not touch that,” Gibbs snapped.
“But sir, we have to—” started the young policeman.
Gibbs glared hotly. “My ME is coming. You do not touch him before he gets here.”
The policeman looked terribly nervous but finally nodded.
“On three,” said one of the paramedics, grabbing hold of Tony and ordering his team. “One, two, three.”
It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes since Tony said the same thing, since Tony passed through Doherty to get to him.
He looked at the unconscious Tony before him, heart constricting. “You do not die.”
A soft response came from the ghost, who was staring down at his own body as well. “Got it, boss.”
Their gazes met, a brief second of clear understanding.
McGee had already been whisked away and Gibbs listened to the sirens as they faded away, rushing to the hospital. The paramedics carrying Tony headed out and Gibbs followed. Just as they came to the top of the stairs, he heard a police shout, “Here’s another body.”
Gibbs hesitated. He had his car here and could follow Tony to the hospital in a few minutes, after he found out who the other body was.
“Gibbs?” asked Tony. He looked at Gibbs and then down at the crime scene. “You can’t do anything for me anyway. Stay here until Ducky gets here.”
Gibbs wasn’t sure it was the right decision but working seemed a better choice than pacing a waiting room. There wouldn’t be anything for him to do at the hospital – here, he could get some answers. He could focus on something else, be productive. Nodding shortly to Tony, he headed downstairs again. The paramedics were already out and Tony stared after them.
Tony gave a humorless laugh. “I guess there isn’t really anything I can do either.”
He followed Gibbs down, floating through the air rather than down the stairs.
“What’ve you got?” Gibbs snapped.
The police who’d shouted about the body looked up at him. She was older than the one Gibbs had talked to earlier and seemed surer of herself.
“Who are you?” she asked.
Gibbs flashed his badge. “Special Agent Gibbs, NCIS.”
She inspected the badge, then said, “Male, thirties. Gunshot seems to have killed him.”
“Leave the COD to my ME,” Gibbs said. “Where?”
“Down the hallway.” She pointed in the general direction. “They’re taking the dog away now.”
“Dog?” Gibbs asked and then realized – the Doberman Pincher Tony had told him about, the one that had led them to Doherty.
“Great big Doberman,” she said. “Doesn’t seem dangerous but you never know. With that kind of owner—”
Gibbs gave a brief nod of thanks and headed to the hallway he hadn’t even noticed before. Then again, he reasoned, he had been pre-occupied with other things. The hallway was narrow and dark, and Gibbs found doors to small rooms on both sides. Five doors in total, two to the left and three to the right, all but one leading into tiny rooms that could only be described as cells. The fifth room, at the end of the hallway to the left, was slightly bigger.
It smelled of detergent but that couldn’t hide the smells of urine, decay, blood and death.
In the first room to the left, he found the police, working around a lifeless body that bathed in a pool of blood lying on a bed. There was a hole in the dead center of his chest. He was naked, just like the rest of the victims had been.
Gibbs felt dread pass through him. The shot they’d heard before going down into the basement – this man was who Doherty had shot. His blood ran cold at the thought of him doing the same thing to Tony – but it seemed Tony had always been the man’s backup plan, keeping him alive in case things went to hell.
Gibbs hoped the bastard had gone to hell.
He hoped Doherty was burning in hell.
He glanced to his side, finding Tony staring at the dead body. He was pale, eyes wide, and his silence spoke volumes of how he was feeling.
“Ducky?” Gibbs asked quietly because Tony shouldn’t be here. It couldn’t possibly be good for him to see this.
Tony licked his dry lips and nodded. He faded.
Gibbs took in the room before him. It consisted of the bed on which the victim was lying and around it, medical equipment. There were IV’s and needles still stuck into the dead body’s arms. The walls around were white, the floor clean and there were no windows.
Doherty had kept this man here for a while, if the lack of muscle mass on the body was any indication. Gibbs wondered how they could have missed this person.
“He’s coming now,” Tony said, returning to his side. His voice was quiet and he stared at the room. “I was in one of these.”
It wasn’t a question. Gibbs wanted to reach out to put a hand on Tony’s shoulder, to comfort. But he couldn’t, not here.
Gibbs could pick out the sound of Ducky’s footsteps amongst the chaotic sounds of the basement, as the ME came up behind him.
“Jethro,” said Ducky. He looked shaken. “Ziva said something about Timothy, and Anthony?”
“They’re both on their way to the hospital,” Gibbs said. “Doherty shot McGee.”
“Oh dear,” said Ducky. “Will he be all right?”
“I don’t know,” Gibbs snapped.
Ducky gave him a look, but as much as it was a reprimand, it held understanding as well. Ducky understood the strain Gibbs was under.
Ducky went to work, taking care of the victim before Doherty. Gibbs turned and left, checking out the other rooms. He found them to be near identical to the first as far as size and cleanliness went. All three rooms on the right side of the corridor had beds but only two of them had medical equipment. Gibbs wondered just how much Doherty had stolen from Bethesda and how long he’d been planning his actions, to escape notice.
On the other side were two rooms; one with a large fridge, which had no doubt been where Doherty had kept the dead bodies to keep them fresh longer. There was also a cupboard filled with cleaning supplies of all imaginable kinds.
The second room was slightly larger. Stepping into it was like stepping into Doherty’s mind.
There were maps on all sides, taped up in perfect order. There was a bookcase filled with books on art, and some on medicine and drugs, and on a small desk was a book on The Raft of the Medusa by an author by the name of Lorenz Eitner. Doherty must have read it over and over again, because it was torn and worn. Beside the book sat a wooden box, opened, with at least thirty tubes of oil color in it, all in perfect order from black to white and the colors in between. Next to the colors, brushes were laid out in perfect order, with exactly an inch of space between each brush.
The maps on the walls covered all of Washington DC from the river to four-ninety-five. A long line had been drawn out, the same line McGee had drawn linking where the victims had been dumped. Doherty’s maps had more dots than McGee had had though – red ones, the ones that NCIS had found, numbered from one to six, and then blue ones that were numbered from seven to twenty-one, and Gibbs could only assume that those were the ones Doherty had planned on killing and dumping.
The madman had really planned on doing the whole painting.
With each red dot was a photo of the victim in question, taken in random everyday situations – Lieutenant Johnson leaving Bethesda Naval Hospital, Lieutenant Miller picking up groceries— Doherty had been spying on each of his victims before kidnapping and murdering them. Still, even with the photographs, there was no indication on how Doherty had chosen his victims, other than the need for each of them to be in the Navy. Tony was there too, photographed at one of the crime scenes while sitting crouched beside the victim. Gibbs’ hands clenched into tight, shaking fists as he thought of Doherty having watched them.
The woman Gibbs had spoken to earlier came up next to him.
“I want this whole room photographed and brought back to Abby Sciuto at NCIS,” Gibbs said. “And if I find a single inch of it missing—”
“We’ll take care of it, Agent Gibbs,” she said.
He nodded, and turned to the room on the other side of the corridor; the other room with medical equipment. It smelled strongly of urine, vomit, and something else, something Gibbs could only call despair.
He fought to stay standing, looking at the bed on which Tony had obviously been kept for the last two weeks. Questions ran through his mind – why had this happened, why had he taken Tony, why had they not found him sooner? The bed sheets hadn’t been changed in too long and Gibbs could only imagine the bacteria that could have infected Tony. Just because he’d been alive when they’d found him, didn’t mean he would stay that way.
“Jethro, perhaps you should go to the hospital.” Ducky came up next to him, face drawn with concern. “Mr. Palmer and I can finish up here and Special Agent Gillman is already here with his team.”
Gibbs nodded. He was of no use here. His mouth felt dry and his heart was still beating quickly.
“Are you safe to drive?” Ducky asked.
Gibbs shot him a look.
“Point taken,” Ducky said. “Are you any worse at driving than usual, then?”
“I’ll be fine,” Gibbs said, hating the roughness of his voice.
Ducky gave him a long, assessing look and then nodded. “Please keep me updated.”
“Yeah,” Gibbs said.
He stayed for a moment longer before walking away, stalking up the stairs. Tony followed him silently and Gibbs wondered how he could manage to look so pale now, when a ghost – a spirit – should have no blood flow to speak of.
But he didn’t ask. They didn’t talk at all as Gibbs drove at breakneck speed toward the hospital.
He hadn’t been forced to pace the hallway. When he and Tony came into the hospital, he found Ziva sitting there looking pale as a sheet but standing upon seeing Gibbs.
“Status,” Gibbs said.
“McGee is in surgery,” Ziva said shakily. “They have to get the bullet out but I do not know what kind of damage it did. He was conscious last I saw him.”
Consciousness was a good sign, at least.
“DiNozzo?” he asked, swallowing hard.
“They have yet to update me,” Ziva said. “But he was not conscious.”
Gibbs hadn’t expected him to be – the presence of Tony’s spirit seemed like proof that Tony wasn’t awake yet.
A doctor approached them. He was Ducky’s age and his face was set in a serious frown.
“Special Agent Gibbs?” he asked.
“Yes,” Gibbs said.
“I’m Dr. Kelby,” he said. “I’ve treated Special Agent DiNozzo.”
“How is he?”
Dr. Kelby sighed. “There were no injuries that needed more treatment than some gauze and band aids. We did a scan and found no internal damage.”
“Then why is he still unconscious?” Gibbs snapped at the doctor.
“He’s been drugged, Special Agent Gibbs,” Dr. Kelby said. “He’s a four on the Glasgow scale – he reacts somewhat to painful stimuli but otherwise—”
“Then do something,” Gibbs snapped.
“We have to wait for the drugs to clear from his system,” Dr. Kelby said. “We’re monitoring his liver and kidney function as well as his heart, blood pressure, temperature and oxygen levels, but until the drugs have cleared, giving him more will only put further strain on his body.”
“What kind of drugs?” Gibbs asked.
“We are running the blood tests now,” Dr. Kelby said.
“The other victims were killed with overdoses of Propofol,” Gibbs said.
The doctor nodded. “How long has he been drugged?”
“Thirteen days,” Gibbs said.
Dr. Kelby nodded thoughtfully but didn’t comment. Gibbs demanded the room number and the doctor gave it to him, obviously smart enough to realize that Gibbs would find Tony whether or not the doctor told him.
Once sitting down by Tony’s side, Gibbs couldn’t keep from reaching out and touching Tony. Feeling the solid, warm skin beneath his fingers was almost surreal after a week of interacting only with the incorporeal version of Tony. Tony was still, not even his eyelashes fluttering in dreams as they did in sleep. But then Tony wasn’t sleeping. A heart monitor beeped steadily, keeping track of Tony’s blood pressure and heart rate.
Tony’s spirit stood by the window, staring out with an air of helplessness surrounding him. There was dejection on his face that hadn’t been there before. Gibbs looked at the solid hand in his own and then up at Tony’s incorporeal form – it was like there was nothing that tied the two together. It was like the connection between them – the body and the spirit – had been severed.
“I don’t want to die.”
Gibbs’ mouth felt like it had been rinsed with sand. “You’re not going to.”
At least here he could talk to Tony under the guise of speaking to the comatose form before him.
Tony turned and looked at him. “You don’t know that, boss.”
“Damn it, Tony,” Gibbs said. “You’re not giving up. Not now.”
“I’ve had all my nine lives and then some,” Tony said softly. “I should be out of luck.”
Tony’s eyes were swirling with emotions. “I can feel myself fading, boss. I don’t want to but I—there’s nothing I can do.”
“You can fight!” Gibbs said. “You’re not supposed to give up.”
He hated this. He had never been an inspirational speaker and his heart pounded loudly in his ears at the hopeless misery emanating from Tony. The look in Tony’s eyes made his gut churn.
Tony winced. “I’m sorry, boss.”
He held out his hand in front of himself, looking at it with desolate wonder. It was slowly fading. Gibbs held onto Tony’s real hand, tightly, squeezing, trying to physically keep Tony with him.
Tony looked at Gibbs, his body starting to fade as well like a cloud of nothing slowly eating away at him, erasing him from the picture.
“Last chance, I guess, so here goes,” Tony said, very softly. “Love you.”
“DiNozzo!” Gibbs said, so choked it barely passed his lips.
But Tony faded completely, his gaze steady on Gibbs all the while – and then Gibbs was left alone with the still body.
The world felt empty, as though something was missing. Gibbs knew exactly what that something was.
Tony shouldn’t be lying still and inanimate on the white hospital bed. He should be up and about, making silly movie references and taunting McGee, getting himself into trouble and smiling his way out of it. Tony was never supposed to be still. Even when he’d had the plague, he’d never been still – there had always been movement, even though it had been involuntary, shaking and coughing.
The blood tests had shown traces of Ketamine and Propofol in Tony’s system. They were slowly clearing out of his system but Tony had yet to wake up. Each second ticked by, longer than the last, feeling like forever. Gibbs wanted to do something, to scream or shoot at something, because action had always been better than just waiting around.
Gibbs’ mind returned again and again to the last two words Tony had uttered.
They made his heart ache, made him hold onto Tony’s hand tighter.
He left Tony briefly to go check on McGee when he came out of surgery. Still knocked out by the anesthetics, McGee looked impossibly young and vulnerable, dressed in the light blue hospital gown. He was far too pale, the circles beneath his eyes a dark contrast.
Gibbs’ gut churned but he pushed the thoughts of failure away. McGee knew the risks of going into the field. They all knew the dangers. The risk of getting hurt always hung over them.
Yet guilt welled up.
“We were able to remove the bullet and its fragments, and repair the damage,” the surgeon told Gibbs after Gibbs asked and flashed his badge. “The CT revealed that the bullet had ruptured the spleen and we had to perform a partial splenectomy. We managed to save and repair some of it, and stopped the internal bleeding.”
“How long will he be out?” Gibbs asked.
“Another few hours, probably,” the surgeon said. “He’ll have to stay here for five to seven days, but then if he heals well, we’ll release him. I’ll give my recommendations after I’ve seen how the wound heals. The normal recovery time is four to six weeks.”
Gibbs nodded. “Keep me updated. I want to know when he wakes up.”
“I’ll have a nurse tell you,” the surgeon said readily. “Now, if you don’t mind, there’s some paperwork that needs to be filled out.”
He smiled and left, and Gibbs wondered what there was to smile about.
Further down, in the waiting area, he found Ziva still sitting. She looked like she needed a bed just as much as Tony and McGee needed theirs.
“McGee’s out of surgery,” Gibbs said. “He’ll be better in a few days.”
She exhaled, some worry leaving her. “And Tony?”
“Still unconscious,” Gibbs said. He placed a hand on her shoulder, and she looked up. “Go home, Ziva.”
“Are you going home?” she asked.
He shook his head. “No. But you look like you need some sleep.”
“Have you looked at yourself in the mirror lately, Gibbs?” she asked.
“Go home,” Gibbs said. “It’s an order.”
“I just need to see them first,” Ziva said softly. “Please.”
Gibbs thought about it for a moment but he could do nothing but say yes. He understood her need to see her team mates; he wouldn’t want it any other way. Ziva might have been thrown into his team by Jenny, but she had become a part of it, just like McGee and Tony, and by extension Abby, Ducky and Palmer, were.
“Okay,” he said.
They were just about to head down when a clatter of heavy heels sped towards them.
“Gibbs!” exclaimed Abby. “Ducky said Tim—McGee—he’s hurt? Is he hurt? Oh god, please tell me he’s not—I couldn’t take it if he’s—Gibbs?”
“He’ll be fine,” Gibbs said. “He’s just got out of surgery and he’s still under, but he’ll be happy to find you with him when he wakes up.”
He found himself with an armful of Abby as she hugged him. He kissed the top of her head and held her. Ziva watched and Gibbs saw a hint of longing in her eyes. He couldn’t see her wanting to be hugged the way Abby did, though; she saw such displays as weaknesses.
“Oh, Gibbs!” Abby said, hiding her face. “What about Tony? Ducky said you found him.”
“We did,” Gibbs said. “He’s still unconscious.”
“Oh God,” Abby said, choking.
Ziva stepped forward. “We were just going to see them. Would you like to come with us?”
“Of course!” Abby said, pulling away from Gibbs. “Go!”
She grabbed Gibbs’ arm and pulled. They walked down the hall, heading to McGee’s room first.
Like Tony, McGee had a pulse monitor, an IV drip, and a set of other lines and machines that Gibbs didn’t know and didn’t care what they were. He could see the gauze wrapped around McGee’s middle beneath the hospital gown.
“Oh Tim,” Abby said softly, and reached out to touch McGee’s cheek. He didn’t stir but that didn’t deter Abby, who kept her hand to cup his face. She then turned to Gibbs. “I can’t be at two places at once. Where’s Tony?”
“Room one-eleven,” Gibbs said. “It’s just five doors down from this one.”
“You’ll come get me if he wakes up?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Gibbs said.
Ziva stood in the doorway still. She watched Abby and McGee, and there was yearning in her eyes. When she realized Gibbs was watching her, she shook it off. They headed out together and walked to Tony’s room.
Nothing had changed since Gibbs left – Tony was as frozen as he’d been before. His chest rose and fell ever so slightly with each breath and there was the beep of the machines, but other than that, it was like a still photograph.
Ziva stood at the end of the bed, hesitating. “I do not know what to say, or do.”
“I don’t either,” Gibbs said. The doctors said Tony – or comatose patients in general, anyway – might be able to hear things said but that didn’t make it any easier. What were they supposed to say? Gibbs knew Ducky would have no trouble at all with the idea, but then he talked to dead people on a daily basis.
Ziva worried her lip, frowning slightly, and then she looked at Gibbs. “You will keep me updated?”
“Yeah,” Gibbs said.
She nodded. “I will be at home.”
“Get some rest,” Gibbs said.
“I will try,” Ziva said.
Then she left, sending Tony another long look before finally disappearing.
Gibbs sat down, gaze on Tony willing him to wake up.
It didn’t work.
McGee still looked worse for wear the next morning, his face far too pale and because they had him on painkillers, he was a bit foggy. He smiled floppily at Abby, though. She had stayed by his side, curling up on his un-injured side and sleeping there. The nurses weren’t thrilled with it, but Gibbs kept them away. He knew McGee would prefer Abby to be there. McGee’s sister had been by to hover anxiously, but she was in class now. McGee’s parents had been informed and were coming, but it would take them another day to get a flight to DC.
Gibbs spent most of his time by Tony’s side, sleeping for minutes at a time, and then wandering the hallways up and down because he couldn’t sit still and simply wait.
Ziva returned at eight, two hours before official visiting hours started. She looked unusually uncertain of herself but by the looks of it she’d gotten at least a few hours of sleep and made time for a shower.
“Any change?” she asked.
Gibbs didn’t answer; he knew Ziva would understand his silence.
“And McGee?” Ziva asked.
“Abby’s with him,” Gibbs said.
“Will he be all right?”
“He’d better be,” Gibbs said.
She nodded, and they walked together to McGee’s room. He was awake, or some version of it, looking groggily around the room. One arm was wrapped around Abby’s sleeping form. He didn’t look to be in pain but that was probably more because of the drugs than because his body wasn’t hurting.
“Boss,” he said softly, voice rough with disuse. “Ziva.”
“McGee,” Ziva said.
“Doctor said they r’moved m’ spleen,” McGee said.
“Yeah,” Gibbs said. “You lost some blood and needed transfusions. The bullet ruptured your spleen, so they had to take a part of it out.”
“Oh,” said McGee. He didn’t seem very bothered.
Abby stirred, turning her head to look at Gibbs. “Gibbs.”
“Hey, Abby,” he said.
She didn’t move, resting her head on McGee’s shoulder, still carefully avoiding touching him near the area where the bullet had entered. He didn’t seem to mind her cuddling.
“Tony?” she asked.
“Still no change,” Gibbs said.
“’s Tony okay?” McGee asked softly.
“He’s unconscious,” Gibbs said.
Abby hid her face in McGee’s shoulder and she held onto the fabric of his hospital gown a little tighter. “He’ll wake up. He has to.”
“Yeah,” Gibbs said.
Abby looked up at Ziva. “Ziva, come in. We don’t bite. Well, he doesn’t, anyway.”
“I do not wish to disturb,” Ziva began but Abby interrupted her.
“You’re not. Come on.”
Gibbs left then, returning to his vigil at Tony’s bedside. Abby and McGee would make Ziva feel comfortable again, better than Gibbs would ever be able to.
He sat down in the chair, leaning forward with his elbows against his knees. He gazed at Tony, noting the rise and fall of his chest with every calm breath he took. His skin had regained some color but he was too thin. He had lost weight in the time he’d been gone, his muscle mass decreased noticeably. Of course, without the steady, questionably healthy intake of junk food, it was natural that Tony would lose weight. Gibbs studied the structure of Tony’s face, from the slight upturn of his nose, to the high cheekbones and full lips. Long, dark lashes created shadows on his cheeks.
Only because he was studying Tony so closely, did he notice the flutter of lashes, the movement beneath closed lids. A sign of awareness, of a person within the shell.
Of a spirit, returned to its proper place.
“Tony?” He tried to keep hope out of his voice in case he’d imagined it, in case it wasn’t a positive sign as he hoped.
Another flutter, and when Gibbs took Tony’s hand in his own he felt a minute tightening, fingers wrapping themselves around Gibbs’ ever so slightly. Gibbs’ heart raced, adrenaline coursing through his veins at once.
He had no idea how long it took from those first tiny signs of awareness, until the moment when Tony’s eyelids actually opened, not fully, not even halfway, but enough for Gibbs to see familiar hazel, even though the gaze was groggy and disoriented.
Dry, cracked lips moved silently, and Tony closed his eyes again, briefly, until he managed to get them open again, struggling against the obvious fatigue and unconsciousness that nagged at him.
Eventually, he managed a weak, “’oss…”
“DiNozzo,” Gibbs said roughly. “Took you long enough.”
It seemed to take forever for Tony to be able to focus on Gibbs. When his gaze finally did land on Gibbs, it nearly made Gibbs’ heart stop. He had forgotten the intensity, the rawness those eyes could express, and seeing them once more, alive and real, was nearly enough to break him.
A doctor entered followed by two nurses. Tony’s return to awareness had not gone unnoticed by the equipment he was stuck to and the doctor – not the same one that had taken care of Tony the night before – shone lights into his eyes and asked him to nod if he understood what was being said. Tony gave a small nod and it seemed to take everything out of him; his eyes were already closing again.
If the slowing heart rate was anything to go by, Tony was asleep within seconds.
The doctor turned to Gibbs. “It’s looking good, Agent Gibbs. His liver and kidney functions are surprisingly good, all things considered.”
Gibbs nodded, unable to find words.
“I’ll be back to check on him in an hour,” the doctor said. “Push the emergency button if anything happens before then.”
The doctor left, and Gibbs returned his attention to Tony. He realized he was still holding onto Tony’s hand and had done so while the doctor and nurses were in the room. He decided he didn’t care. This was their second chance – or fifteenth, perhaps, considering how many times one or both of them had been in mortal peril – and he intended to make the most of it. Tony had already said the words, had already kissed him. Gibbs knew that if Tony got out of this alive and all right, it was up to him to show Tony that he wanted the same things. He wasn’t sure how – he’d never been all that great at romance – but he would. He had to. He would not lose Tony again.
Ziva came by to check on Tony and there was a relieved smile on her lips when Gibbs told her he had been awake for a few minutes.
“Good,” she said. “Good.”
She had the same kind of trouble that Gibbs had with finding the right words.
Gibbs had sent her back to the office to check what Ducky and Palmer had found on the other victim in Doherty’s basement, and if Gillman’s team had come up with anything. Gibbs made a face – Gillman had gotten everything in a neatly wrapped package after Gibbs’ team had done the work and faced the dangers.
But he wouldn’t have changed it. If the day before had been done all over again, he still would have given the case to Gillman so that he could go to the hospital and make sure both his agents survived. There was nothing more important. He had never cared about getting credit and fame – if he had, he would have joined the FBI instead.
Four hours had passed since Tony woke the first time, when he stirred again. Gibbs sat up straighter, leaning forward.
“Tony?” he said.
Tony’s eyes opened slowly and he blinked against the light, pupils slowly adjusting to the brightness. He licked his lips and Gibbs stood, grabbing a chip of ice.
“Want some?” he asked.
Tony slowly focused on Gibbs and when he saw what was being offered, he nodded. It wasn’t the first time Gibbs held an ice chip to Tony’s lips – he’d done the same thing after the plague.
Gibbs wetted Tony’s lips gently, making sure Tony wasn’t going to choke on it before letting it slip into his mouth.
The moisture made it easier for Tony to find his voice. “’anks.”
Gibbs shrugged his response.
Tony closed his eyes and Gibbs wondered if he was about to fall asleep again, already. With the drugs in his system, it wasn’t unlikely – but Tony opened them again, soft gaze on Gibbs.
“Wha’ happ’ned?” he asked.
Gibbs hid a frown. “You don’t remember?”
“R’member talkin’ to—Johnson’s CO,” Tony said. “And there ‘s a dog—and a cell—he drugged me. Ev’ry time I woke up—he drugg’d me more. I dreamed, I think. How long?”
The question at the end didn’t register with Gibbs at first; his mind was running a mile a minute with the realization that Tony didn’t seem to have any memory at all of being a ghost. The things Tony had just described – those were the things his ghost hadn’t been able to remember, at least not without some help.
“Two weeks today,” he answered distractedly.
Tony’s eyebrows rose. “Two weeks? Doesn’t feel ‘ike it.”
“We felt it enough,” Gibbs said.
“Where’re the others?” Tony asked.
“Ziva is at headquarters,” Gibbs said. “Abby’s probably gone back there too. She sends her hugs and will be back as soon as work lets her.”
Tony waited for a beat. “McGee?”
“In a room just down the corridor,” Gibbs said.
Tony’s eyes widened slightly, his shoulders stiffening. “What happ’ned?”
“Doherty – the bastard who kidnapped you – shot him,” Gibbs said and he couldn’t help but let the hatred seep into his voice.
“He okay?” Tony asked, worry obvious.
“He’ll be fine,” Gibbs said. The doctors had assured him of as much. “He’ll be out for a few weeks.”
“Oh,” said Tony. “And me?”
“You’ll stay here for monitoring for a few days,” Gibbs said. “They don’t know what kind of damage the drugs have done to your body yet. So far it looks pretty good. You’re lucky, DiNozzo.”
Tony closed his eyes, breathing in slowly. “It was like a nightmare.”
Gibbs realized that perhaps ‘lucky’ wasn’t the best description for Tony right now. He reached out and grabbed Tony’s hand, squeezing it in reassurance because he couldn’t find the words. He’d never been any good with words.
Tony looked down at their clasped hands. Gibbs couldn’t read his expression – it seemed to be a mixture of longing and sadness, of need and of happiness. It didn’t make much sense, except—
—except if Tony was in love with Gibbs but didn’t think Gibbs knew. Perhaps Tony thought that Gibbs was only here to make sure his Senior Field Agent didn’t kick the bucket, rather than because he cared.
A nurse came into the room, breaking the moment. Tony looked away and with another squeeze, Gibbs let Tony’s hand go. The nurse checked Tony’s vitals, ignoring or not noticing the air of discomfort around the two men.
By nightfall, everyone had gathered in McGee’s room. They wheeled the bed with Tony in it from his room to McGee’s, the equipment coming with him. Both agents were still pale and lacking in their usual energy, but as Tony came into the room, he started joking with McGee.
“Won’t even leave me alone in the hospital, will you, Probie?” he said.
McGee rolled his eyes. “Yeah, that’s exactly why I’m here.”
Abby grinned at them both, sitting curled against McGee’s side. She’d been bouncing back and forth between Tony’s room and McGee’s room since returning to Bethesda after work.
“Both my boys in the same room,” she said with a smile. “So much easier to keep an eye on you, so you don’t do anything stupid.”
“Like what?” Tony asked innocently.
“Like get kidnapped,” Abby said. “Or shot.”
“Anything to be special,” Tony said, smiling. Gibbs could see the hurt in his eyes even as he said it but stayed silent. They needed their teasing.
Ziva sat on a chair between beds. “You are already more than special enough.”
“Aw, thanks Ziva,” Tony said. “What happened to you, anyway?”
Ziva touched her face self-consciously, where the bruises were still blue. “Nothing.”
Tony gave her a searching look, but didn’t push. Instead he said, “So, did you miss me?”
She gave him a look. “Hardly.”
“She did,” Abby said. “She totally did. We all did. We’ve been so worried. You’re not allowed to get kidnapped ever again, do you hear me?”
Tony chuckled. “I hear you.”
Abby got off the bed and came over to Tony, wrapping him up in a big, tight hug. She whispered something in Tony’s ear that Gibbs didn’t catch and Tony’s eyebrows rose, and then he frowned. Tony said something back, and she kissed his forehead before parting with a few final words. She returned to McGee.
Gibbs hid his frown, wondering what that had all been about. He looked up to find Tony gazing at him, a curious confusion on his face.
Ducky and Palmer entered the room.
“Ah, everyone in one place once more,” said Ducky. “Anthony, we’re all very glad to have you returned safely and soundly, of course.”
“Me too, Ducky,” Tony said.
“And Timothy, you gave us all a scare too,” Ducky said.
McGee looked almost sheepish. “Sorry.”
“We have stuff with us,” Palmer said brightly. “Magazines and movies. And some autopsy results—”
“Mr. Palmer, perhaps now is not the time to discuss work,” Ducky said.
“Oh, no, perhaps not,” Palmer said. “Well, like I said, we have movies and magazines.”
“What movies?” Tony asked, looking like a kid on Christmas. Gibbs wondered if he was the only one who could see past the mask to the aching pain. He doubted it; at least Abby must have noticed it too.
Gibbs pulled Ducky aside when Palmer handed Tony the bag of movies. They left the room for the relative privacy of the corridor.
“Anything on the autopsies?” he asked.
Ducky shook his head. “Not really. I’m sure Abby already told you the results of the tox screen on Mr. Doherty’s victim in the basement – Ketamine and Propofol, about the same levels as Anthony. Other than a few bruises on his arms and torso, possibly given while Doherty was manhandling him to get him into the basement, there was nothing. Cause of death was exanguination due to the gunshot wound to the chest. I estimate he was dead within two minutes of getting shot, which was perhaps twenty minutes before I arrived.”
Gibbs wondered how twenty minutes could feel like forever. It had felt like it when they’d been down in the basement.
“ID?” he asked.
“Abigail matched his prints to a former Lieutenant by the name of Connor Maddox,” Ducky said. “He’s been missing for nearly three months.”
Gibbs wondered how they’d missed that. Ducky offered no explanation. They’d have to look into it later.
“What about Doherty?” Gibbs asked.
“Your shots killed him,” Ducky said. “I found a tumor in his brain, possibly the cause of some of his actions – not all of it and it is certainly no excuse, but it might offer some explanation. He wouldn’t have had more than a few months to live without treatment. He must have suffered headaches.”
“Don’t care,” Gibbs said. He hoped the bastard had suffered. He hoped he was still suffering.
“I know that, Jethro,” Ducky said. “I’m simply relaying the facts.”
“Yeah,” Gibbs said. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” Ducky said. “Now, let’s go back – we’ve waited long enough to see everyone back together. We deserve a night off from work.”
Gibbs sighed and nodded before following Ducky back inside. Ducky was right; they did deserve some time together, to be happy and relieved that they were all still alive.
He watched Tony as inconspicuously as he could. As they smiled and laughed, teasing each other as they always had, Gibbs found himself with a smile on his lips as well. He sent thanks to the powers that be, the ones he usually didn’t believe in, glad that they were allowed to be together again. His family.
He looked up, finding Abby watching him. She wore a secretive smile, the one that suggested she knew something Gibbs didn’t – but then it was gone. He stored it away in his mind, but for now he decided just to enjoy the moment.
Tony discussed some movie with Palmer, Abby offering up comments here and there. Ziva looked content to sit back and relax, only adding her opinion on occasion but smiling throughout. Ducky spoke to McGee about how he was feeling. Gibbs felt whole, in a way he hadn’t in the last two weeks – his family was safe. The madman had been caught, they had found Tony and he’d live, and McGee would be all right in a couple of weeks. He hadn’t failed the way he’d feared; he hadn’t lost Tony.
When McGee began nodding off and Tony started looking tired, Ducky ushered the visitors out of the room. Tony was returned to his room, because McGee’s room wasn’t really made for two, and Ziva, Ducky and Palmer left. Abby stayed with McGee, and Gibbs followed Tony.
“Don’t have to babysit me, boss,” Tony said.
“Really think I do,” Gibbs said. “Not letting you out of my sight.”
Tony’s eyes were half-shut, but he smiled. “How’re you going to do that when we’re out on cases?”
Gibbs glared at him.
The smile was soft and sleepy. “Not that I’d mind.”
Gibbs took Tony’s hand and squeezed it. “I know.”
Tony’s eyes opened to look at him. There was something guarded, but curious, in his gaze. “Boss?”
“What did Abby say to you?” Gibbs asked.
Color tinted Tony’s cheeks. “Nothing.”
Gibbs gave him a look.
Tony studied his hands, brushing them over the cover to straighten it. “Look, it was nothing. It was just—Abby being weird. It was nothing.”
“So you keep saying,” Gibbs said. “Did she say anything about your ghost visiting us in the last week?”
Tony’s eyes rose, and with a frown, he muttered, “You’re both crazy.”
“I thought so too,” Gibbs said, smiling slightly with a shake of his head. He could still remember hid disbelief and now that the spirit was gone, back where it belonged, he could wonder if it had happened at all.
“She said spirit,” Tony said. “I don’t know what you’ve been sipping, but—” He trailed off. “Didn’t think you believed in that kind of stuff, boss.”
“I didn’t,” Gibbs said. “But you convinced me.”
Tony looked up, eyes wide. “You’re—it’s crazy, Gibbs.”
“Trust me, I know,” Gibbs said. “Took some convincing for me to believe you. But I did. You told me about Abby’s voodoo dolls and about Ziva’s tattoo. And then when Ziva was hurt, you helped clear the place – and you made Doherty let you—your body go.”
It felt insane to say it, to ask someone else to believe in something that had taken so much out of Gibbs to believe in. It felt even odder that Tony’s ghost had fought to convince Gibbs and now Gibbs was trying to convince Tony. But the things had happened, there was no denying that. It hadn’t just been Gibbs’ imagination. His heart raced at the memories, at what they’d been through. The terror when Tony first disappeared, the fear when Ziva was hurt, the pain when he thought he’d already lost Tony, that his ghost was proof of Tony’s death.
He remembered how Tony’s last words tore at his heart; how he believed they’d never get a chance at happiness after all.
Tony’s eyes were full of disbelief. “Boss, I—”
Gibbs leaned closer to Tony, and Tony looked at him, pain, concern, love, trust all mixing into one swirling, hypnotizing gaze. Without a word, Gibbs placed a gentle hand on the side of Tony’s face and angled it toward his own. Then he pressed his lips against Tony’s.
He could feel Tony’s shock, Tony’s lips warm but still beneath his own. They were still dry and slightly cracked, but they felt warm and good and real against Gibbs’, not just the tingle of sensations he’d felt when he kissed Tony’s spirit.
Tony melted beneath him and suddenly, he kissed back, as the shock released its hold and he breathed into the kiss. Hesitantly, Tony’s tongue ran over Gibbs’ bottom lip, silently asking permission.
Gibbs lost himself in the sensations of the kiss, his other hand coming up to cup Tony’s face as well, and running down his neck and shoulders making sure that Tony was there, was real, was warm and alive.
They pulled apart, panting, and Tony’s hands fisted weakly in Gibbs’ shirt, holding him in position so that he couldn’t leave.
“I kissed you,” Tony said. “When I was a ghost—I remember. I remember fading in and out—and I remember Ziva—and Abby, she could feel me—and the basement.”
He choked and Gibbs found tears in Tony’s eyes when he looked up. Gibbs pulled Tony close, wrapping him against himself, holding him tight.
“I thought I was dead,” Tony said, his voice rough with tears. “I thought I’d—I thought I’d never get to tell you—and—”
“Shh,” Gibbs said, running a hand up and down Tony’s back. “It’ll be okay. Shh.”
Tony shook against him, body wracking with quiet sobs. Gibbs could only sit there, holding him, being the lifeline Tony needed, whispering quiet nothings in Tony’s ear. There was nothing he could say to make it better; Tony would have to get through the pain of the trauma and the fear of being dead on his own. Gibbs could only offer support, no matter how much he wished he could share the pain. No words would help, not right now, but Gibbs hoped his presence was comforting at least.
They sat there in the quiet hospital room and Gibbs held Tony until his sobs became shuddering breaths. Then finally, he relaxed and fell asleep in Gibbs’ arms.
They hadn’t been a full team in six weeks and when McGee finally made it through the doors of the elevator and walked into the NCIS bullpen, it was almost an odd feeling.
“McGunshot Survivor!” said Tony as McGee walked in.
“Hey, Tony,” McGee said, grinning happily. He still moved more carefully than he normally would, even though the wound had healed nicely and there had been no post-op complications.
“McGee,” Ziva said. “Welcome back.”
McGee grabbed her and pulled her into a hug before she could protest. “Thanks.”
She smiled. A moment later, Abby came bounding in. “You’re back! You’re back! Everyone’s back!”
Even Gibbs had to smile at her enthusiasm.
“Don’t you get enough of seeing him at home, Abs?” Tony asked. “You’re stuck with him now, you know.”
Abby grinned brightly. There was a new ring on her finger, which had made its appearance about two days after McGee got out of the hospital. They had yet to announce anything, but Gibbs knew McGee had realized the fleetingness of life after Doherty shot him. It was a bit sooner than expected, but no one was surprised he had asked Abby to marry him. Even less surprising was her agreement.
Gibbs stood, and shook McGee’s hand. “Good to have you back.”
“Good to be back, boss,” McGee said. “Is Doherty’s case closed yet?”
“Yep,” Tony said. “Gillman’s team has checked out everything on those maps and came to the same conclusion that our infallible leader came to after three seconds of looking at the maps. The blue dots were planned victims and the red ones were the ones already dumped.”
“And the drugs?” McGee asked.
“Stolen from Bethesda,” Ziva said. “They are updating their security.”
“Good thing nothing serious has to happen before they do that,” Tony said sarcastically with a roll of his eyes.
McGee sat down by his desk. He was still a while away from a hundred percent and would be desk bound for at least three weeks. After that, he would need to pass a physical and re-qualify on the shooting range, before being declared fit for active duty again. Abby moved to stand behind him, hand on his shoulder.
“Boss, I just have one question,” McGee said. “What happened in the basement? Who were you talking to?”
Tony hid a smile behind his hand and Gibbs held back a groan.
“Yes,” Ziva said. “And how did you know about the Doberman when Abby’s test had not come back yet?”
“Gut feeling,” Gibbs said, though he knew it made no sense.
McGee gave him a disbelieving look. “You spoke to a gut feeling?”
“Probie, don’t ask the Master such inane questions,” Tony said. “You know how much he loves being mysterious.”
Gibbs glared at Tony but he was grateful for Tony’s interference. He had no idea of how he was supposed to tackle Ziva’s and McGee’s questions.
Ziva’s gaze was suspicious, looking at Tony. “Do you know what happened?”
Tony’s face was the picture of innocence. “Me? Of course not. I was unconscious.”
McGee sighed. “Fine. We get it. You’re not going to tell us.”
“No, we’re not, McGeek,” Tony grinned. “Team leader/Senior Field Agent confidentiality. If we told you, we’d have to kill you.”
McGee shook his head, rolling his eyes at Tony’s antics. Glancing between Gibbs and Tony, he finally shrugged and changed the subject. “So how did Doherty choose his victims?”
“Random,” Tony said. “Whoever caught his interest, as long as they were sailors. Except me, that is. Me, he saw on the news. Lucky me.”
He added the last part with a shrug, but Gibbs knew better. After four weeks of near constant company, Gibbs could tell every nuance of feeling in Tony’s voice. While Tony would be fine physically, the kidnapping had taken its toll on his psyche. He hid it well beneath the façade of grins and jokes, but it was still there. They would keep working at it. At night, Tony slept by Gibbs’ side, wrapped in Gibbs’ tight embrace, so that when the nightmares started, Gibbs was there to ground him.
Gibbs watched his team as they interacted. McGee looked rested and well. He glanced at Abby’s ring every now and then and a smile would turn the corners of his mouth upwards. Gibbs was happy for McGee and he knew he couldn’t hope to find a better man for Abby. McGee would take care of her, as she would take care of him.
Abby’s hands ran up and down the back of McGee’s neck, fingers ghosting over his skin. Gibbs understood her; he had the same need to touch Tony, to make sure he was still there. He couldn’t do it in the middle of the office, though – he had to wait until they got home. Home – Tony had moved most of his things over to Gibbs already because after his hospitalization, the doctors recommended that someone kept an eye on him. Gibbs didn’t mind at all.
Ziva stood leaning against her desk, a content smile on her lips as she sparred verbally with Tony and McGee. She had been subdued in the last few weeks, especially when she was alone with Gibbs. Tony had been forced to stay at home for ten days after leaving the hospital and after that, Gibbs had only allowed him in the office for a few hours a day. They hadn’t really worked cases – Vance refused to let them take on anything more than two cases of drug use among midshipmen – and Ziva had looked lost without her co-workers.
Tony grinned at something Ziva said and it made Gibbs’ heart leap.
“What about the painting?” McGee asked.
The others fell silent in an instant.
“In the evidence lockers downstairs,” Gibbs said.
McGee hesitated. Gibbs knew what he was going to ask. “Can I see it?”
Ziva had seen it; she’d been there when they had delivered it. Gibbs had seen it, once, because he wanted to have looked upon the thing that had almost claimed Tony’s life, and which had claimed the lives of seven men. He had expected Tony and McGee to want to look at it once, and they deserved to do so if they wanted to, but once they were done with this, he’d order it to be locked away where no one would find it. He refused to let the media find out about it; he didn’t want Doherty to gain infamy even after death. Doherty deserved to rot and be forgotten.
The elevator ride down to the evidence garage was quiet. McGee looked paler than he had when he arrived, and Gibbs noted Abby grabbing McGee’s hand. Gibbs’ own hand landed gently on Tony’s back, where no one could see it. Tony sent him a grateful look.
The garage was silent and dark. Abby flicked the switch to turn the lights on and then they followed Gibbs to a locker in the far back. No one commented on a new case being stacked so far away.
Gibbs unlocked the locker and they stepped inside.
The painting had been covered with a white sheet and Ziva helped Gibbs take it out. Gibbs left the sheet on until the painting had been placed against the wall. It was large, nearly five feet tall and ten feet wide, and heavy in Gibbs’ hands.
“Ready?” he asked.
Tony and McGee both nodded.
He pulled the sheet off in a movement that was neither fast nor slow, because he didn’t want to add to the dramatics and at the same time, he didn’t want it to look like he paid the painting any respect.
He stepped back, gazing at the unfinished painting.
The background was fully painted, from the wave coming in from the left to the tiny Argus on the horizon. The sky was as stormy as in the original painting. The raft had been fully detailed as well, leaving empty spots for where the people he had yet to paint were supposed to be.
Doherty had changed the faces of the men from the original paintings. Gibbs recognized the victims: Petty officer Davis, hair blonde instead of the darker red color of the original, hands holding up invisible, not yet painted hopefuls, waiting for their rescue. Lieutenant Miller, both hands outstretched towards the skies, and Commander Mahoney beside him, brown hair instead of black, his features finer than those of the man in the original painting. Lieutenant Johnson, leaning over with another dead body in his arms, the one of Lance Corporal Westin, and beyond them, the bloody upper body of Williams, face contorted in fear, even in death.
If there was any beauty to the painting, Gibbs would never admit to seeing it. In his eyes the seas turned red, into a burning inferno of hell, grabbing innocent men in its insanity. It would never be beautiful.
He saw the reactions of his team. Ziva’s expression was carefully controlled, but beneath it he saw stormy eyes burning with anger. McGee’s face was of pale horror, next to Abby’s quiet tears and Tony’s fierce determination to get through this trial as well.
When he felt they’d had enough, Gibbs placed the sheet back over the painting and lifted it back into its place, where it would hopefully be forgotten.
Ziva bowed her head, turned and left, heels echoing against the cement floor.
McGee gazed at Abby, their hands still linked tight.
“Go,” Abby said. “I’ll be up in a minute.”
McGee looked from her to Tony and Gibbs. “Okay. See you upstairs.”
Abby leaned in and kissed his cheek. It made him smile shakily and he left, lumbering away with carefully controlled movements. Abby watched him go, smiling softly.
Tony cocked his head. “Something you want, Abby?”
Abby turned to them. “Just to say I’m happy for you. I’m glad you figured it out.”
Tony and Gibbs both frowned. “Figured what out?”
Abby smiled. “That you love each other. Mr. Giles told me – your ability to interact with someone as a spirit is based on feelings. Really, really strong feelings. Like, you and Gibbs love each other, so he was the only one who could see you.”
Tony’s mouth dropped open. Gibbs kept his expression in check, but he felt the same surprise.
“And you obviously love me,” Abby said, grin wide. “And I love you, otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to touch each other.”
“So—the limits I discovered—why I was pulled back to Gibbs all the time—”
“Is all based on love, yeah,” Abby said. “If you’d really tried, you could probably have interacted with Ziva and Tim too.”
“I did interact with Ziva,” Tony said.
“When she was barely conscious – I’m not sure it counts,” Abby said. “Though you should probably tell her, so she doesn’t think she was going completely mad.”
“And I don’t love Probie,” Tony said, wrinkling his nose.
Abby stood on her toes and kissed his cheek. “Of course you don’t.”
“Wait, what about Doherty?” Tony asked. “I—interacted with him.”
“Yeah,” Abby said. “I know. Like I said, feelings. Love works. Hatred does too, if a spirit just wants to hurt.”
Tony swallowed and Gibbs placed a hand on the small of his back, a quiet support.
Abby squeezed his hand. “I’ll see you upstairs.” With a wink, she added, “Don’t stay down here too long.”
Tony stood agape for a second before the frozen shock released him and he chuckled. She left, a bounce in her step. Gibbs watched her until she rounded a corner and disappeared and then he turned to Tony.
Tony leaned in, catching Gibbs in a searing kiss. It was filled with need and hunger, comfort and love that took Gibbs’ breath away. Warm hands ran up and down Gibbs’ upper body, pulling him closer. Tony’s hands nestled in under Gibbs’ shirt, and the feeling of skin against skin made Gibbs’ pants uncomfortably tight.
Tony pulled away, panting, smiling. “Love you, Gibbs.”
“Jethro,” Gibbs said.
“We’re at work, you told me I couldn’t call you—”
“When we’re doing this, I’m Jethro,” Gibbs grumbled.
Tony chuckled and it was music to Gibbs’ ears. They would be all right.
“And now Abby’s spilled the beans, so I know you love me too,” Tony said, grin reaching from ear to ear.
“So help me, I do,” Gibbs said, and pulled Tony back into another kiss.
They stayed in the basement slightly longer than necessary.
(Longer AN's than usual) Well, that brings us to the end of this slightly epic thingamabob. Comments are welcome and appreciated. I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey as much as I have – I know I’ve loved both writing this and posting it.
First off, a big thank you to Triskellion, who betaed this monstrosity. It wouldn't have been nearly as good without her help.
As for the fic, I’m very proud of it. I wrote it in a very short time and I’m still not sure where I got all the ideas from. I knew I wanted a serial killer (because they make good stories) and from somewhere, the idea of using a painting popped up. Some of you have said you’ve learned a bit of art history while reading the fic – I know I learned a bunch of new stuff as I searched for the perfect painting and then for information about the Raft of the Medusa.
The story is essentially made up of two things that I wanted to write. For one thing, I wanted to write a hurt/comfort fic with Gibbs/DiNozzo, but go a different way than I’ve done before. With ‘The Deepest Significance’ I’d already written the whole post-plague problem and I wanted this to be something new.
The second thing was me wanting to write something with a supernatural element to it. The hurt/comfort and the ghost/spirit idea worked perfectly together and it also created suspense throughout the story, because of the lack of knowing whether Tony was alive or dead (I must admit, now that we’re at the end of it, that I had never ever intended for Tony to be dead – it just wasn’t the way I’d planned it).
Telling the fic entirely out of Gibbs’ POV was a challenge, but it made the most sense. I’m not fond of switching POV’s (I don’t ever switch POV’s in the middle of a scene; sometimes I do it between scenes, as I did in ‘The Deepest Significance’), and writing this out of Tony’s POV would have been very strange and not as effective as far as the fear and worry goes.
Feel free to ask questions. I may have an answer for them, or maybe not. Trying to keep this whole thing together has been tough, and I have a whole separate document with research, as well as a bunch of maps with the dumping sites marked and such, all to make this as real as possible. I hope I managed and I hope I entertained you.
Finally, a big thank you to all my readers who've enjoyed, reviewed, whined and screamed at me for leaving you hanging. It's been fun ;)