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.
Final author's notes: 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. I've read each and every one of the comments posted and I want to give you all great big hugs for sharing your thoughts on it.It's been fun ;)
First off, a big thank you to Triskellion, who betaed this monstrosity.
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.