Title: Picture Perfect
Author: Jo. R
Category: Ziva/Abby friendship, drama, humour, case-file, romance, general friendship
Pairings: Abby/Gibbs, McGee/Ziva, Tony/OFC.
Spoilers: General knowledge of the show.
Summary: Ziva and Abby go undercover to catch a murderer.
Author's Notes: Charlotte 'Charlie' Pearson is an original female character of my own creation in 'Superstition'. Other than Charlie, this story is in no way connected to that one.
Special Agent Tony DiNozzo stopped mid-step, his eyes growing wide as he looked at the photographs on the large plasma screen next to his desk. A beautiful brunette posed provocatively, pouting at the camera in each of the three glossy shots.
"Woah." He dropped his bag next to his desk and walked closer to the screen. "She's hot."
"She's dead." The head-slap was expected, the response not so much. Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs stood beside his agent, staring at the photographs with a critical eye. "Jessica Harlow, twenty-nine. Daughter of Admiral James Harlow, a close and personal friend of Director Vance."
Tony whistled, tearing his gaze away from the screen long enough to look at his boss. "Guess that means the case is ours, huh, Boss?"
"You guess right, DiNozzo." Gibbs walked over to his desk and picked up a flash drive, throwing it to Tony without warning. "Crime scene photos are on there. Load 'em up. I need coffee."
Knowing better than to argue, Tony slid behind his desk and booted up his computer. He looked up when he heard familiar voices greeting Gibbs, a grin spreading across his face as he caught sight of not only his two teammates, Ziva David and Timothy McGee, but also the Director's assistant, Charlie Pearson.
"What is Gibbs' problem?" Ziva asked with a frown, dropping her bag onto her desk before catching a glimpse of the photographs – and McGee's reaction to them. "Who is the babe?" She questioned, shrugging when both McGee and Tony stared at her while Charlie unsuccessfully attempted to hide a smile. "She is a babe, yes?"
"Can't say I'd noticed," Tony responded, throwing Charlie a charming smile. "Brunette's aren't my type."
Ziva snorted. "I thought female and breathing was your type, Tony. Though McGee did tell me that you once..."
"Ah, ah, ah!" Tony glared at McGee as Ziva smiled smugly, having a sinking suspicion what she'd been about to say. "Probie. Gibbs wants these photos uploaded ASAP. Crime scene photos."
"The woman is dead?" McGee glanced at the smiling face on screen even as he took the flash drive from Tony. "Who is she?"
"I think that's my cue to leave," Charlie interrupted, obviously wanting to get to the safety of her office before the crime scene photographs were displayed. "I'll catch you later, Ziva. Let me know if you and Abby have to cancel lunch."
"I will." Ziva returned Charlie's smile, her gaze slipping from her friend to Tony as the blond woman walked away. "You can stop drooling now, Tony."
"I was not!" Tony protested, though his hand moved to wipe his mouth hen her back was turned. "Charlie's single, right? She's not seeing anyone...?"
Ziva ignored him, stowing her belongings away in her desk drawers. She looked up when she heard McGee mutter something under his breath. "McGee?"
"Photos coming up on screen," was all McGee said, his face pale but his eyes flashing with an anger both of his teammates recognised from cases where a particularly cruel murder had taken place.
The three agents assembled around the plasma screen and McGee pressed the button on his hand held remote, showing the others what had caused his reaction.
Gone was the beautiful temptress; in her place was a broken doll. Bruises and burns marred her once flawless complexion, dried blood matting her once shiny hair.
"I have heard the term beaten to a pulp..." Ziva commented, shaking her head in disbelief as she crossed her arms over her chest, hands gripping her arms. "Who is she?"
"Jessica Harlow," Tony recalled, running a hand through his hair as he stood staring at the image. "Daughter of an Admiral. A friend of Vance."
McGee clicked the remove and a wider shot appeared on screen, one of the dead body and the crime scene. He frowned at the background, so much white, no visible furniture. "I can't make out where she is. Some kind of lab, maybe?"
"Close, McGee." Gibbs arrived behind them soundlessly, a cup of steaming coffee in his hand. He, too, stared at the screen. "She was found in a studio belonging to a photographer called Nathan Adams. Ms. Harlow was a model."
"Figures." Tony looked away from the screen to glance at Gibbs. "What does the Director want us to do? Crime scene's obviously been documented, investigated by someone else?"
"Metro police investigated. They've come up blank, all leads gone cold. The Director and Admiral Harlow are hoping we'll find something fresh to follow."
"How do they want us to do that?" McGee, too, turned his attention to his boss. "What do they want us to do?"
Gibbs looked grim, his hand tightening around his cup. "They want us to catch her killer. Whatever it takes."
"Undercover? Cool!" Tony bounced on the soles of his feet, his enthusiasm unrepentant. The team stood in Abby Sciuto's lab, preparing to create new identities for – in Tony's opinion – the lucky agents chosen for the job. "Hey, Abs, think you could create a programme like the one used in 'Miss Congeniality'?" He ducked Gibbs' head slap. "It's a viable technique, Boss! It'd help us find the hottest agents!"
"You have watched 'Miss Congeniality', Tony?" Ziva smirked at him, an eyebrow arched. "I did not think your enthusiasm for movies spread to bird flicks?"
"Chick flicks," Tony corrected with an eye roll. "And I only watched it because Abby made me. Didn't you, Abs?"
Abby shook her head, pigtails dancing, and grinned at him in obvious amusement. "It was your night to pick, Tony," she told him sweetly. "Just admit it, it appealed to your softer, feminine side."
Tony gave her a dark look. "I had a thing for Sandra Bullock!"
A sigh from Gibbs put an end to the conversation. "We don't get to choose which agents go undercover, DiNozzo. Apparently the modelling agency we'll be working with have strict guidelines on what is and isn't acceptable. Director Vance has already sent them images of all available agents. They said they'd email the photographs of those they'd chosen to Abby this morning."
"I got nothing yet, boss-man." Abby moved like a whirlwind across the room, checking her email account on the computer in her office before returning to the computer station in the main part of her lab. "How are we supposed to create profiles when we don't know who we're sending undercover?"
"I'll give the Director a call," Gibbs answered with another sigh, running a hand through his hair in obvious frustration. "All I know is we're looking at two women. The agency was very clear on that."
"Damn." Disappointment evident, Tony shook his head. "How come the girls get to have all the fun on this one?"
Gibbs gave him a look but didn't respond. He grabbed Abby's phone and pressed the button for the Director's office, just as Abby's computer beeped.
"Oooh, we've got mail!" Abby skipped over to the computer. "You can cancel the call, Gibbs. I've got our wannabe models right here. Forwarding them on..." She skipped back to the computer station, grinning at the team. "Can I get a drum roll, please?"
Tony and even McGee looked to be considering it but were stopped by a classic Gibbs look. Ziva gave Abby a mildly sympathetic smile and shrugged.
"O-kay. Tough room." Abby glanced at Gibbs, an eyebrow arched at the faintly annoyed expression on his face. "And our winners are... Oh."
Her own image appeared on screen, alongside that of the one and only Ziva David.
"This is a joke, right, Gibbs?" Abby turned to Gibbs, only to find him reaching for the phone again, a dark expression on his face. "Okay. Not a joke. But a mistake. It has to be a mistake. Ziva, I understand." She shrugged at the look her friend gave her. "What? You're gorgeous! And you have the whole exotic beauty thing going on. I saw the photos of you in your bikini. You're hot!"
Ziva didn't react to the compliment, meeting Abby's shocked gaze with a calm stare of her own. "You cannot be oblivious to your own beauty, Abby."
A light blush stole over her face as Abby glanced from Ziva to Gibbs, her foot tapping impatiently as she waited for him to get through to Director Vance. "I'm not model-pretty. I don't *want* to be model pretty. Never have. Not that there's anything wrong with that – there isn't. But I'm..."
"Director." Gibbs' voice cut her off mid-speech. Ziva and Abby watched him curiously while McGee and Tony tried not to stare at the photographs on the plasma screen. "Yeah, we've had the email. I'll clear Ziva but not Abby... She's not a field agent, Director. She has no experience..." His jaw clenched and his hand tightened around the phone. "Yes, Sir. Right." He hung up, not missing Abby's wince as he all but slammed the receiver down.
Tony interpreted the conversation with one glance, looking to Abby with a shrug. "Looks like you're going undercover, Abs."
One look at Gibbs' face told her arguing wouldn't get her anywhere. He was clearly as displeased as she was and that thought was almost enough to make her want to do it – to prove to him she could. Abby squared her shoulders and looked at Ziva, catching a glimpse of a reassuring smile before it was hidden behind a professional mask.
"Let's create profiles and identities, then," Abby said with a sigh, motioning for Ziva to approach the computer. "Anything you've ever wanted to change about yourself, now's the time to do it."
"McGee, DiNozzo. With me." With the thunderous expression still on his face, Gibbs motioned for his two male agents to leave the lab. "Call me when you're done," he told Abby and Ziva gruffly. "You've got an appointment this afternoon with a photographer to get your portfolios started."
Abby held her tongue until she heard the elevator doors close, turning to Ziva with a frown. "What's with Gibbs?" She asked, unwittingly repeating Ziva's question first thing that morning. "He's in an even worse mood than normal."
"I believe he is not happy with the assignment," Ziva answered with the shrug of her slender shoulders. "From what I understand, Director Vance did not give him a choice in the matter."
"It wouldn't be his first choice of case," Abby mused, inclining her head in agreement. "Let's hope it's over quickly, then. I'm not even gone yet and I'm already missing my lab."
Ziva patted her arm sympathetically. "You will be back before you know it, Abby. In the meantime, we should try to enjoy ourselves, yes?"
"Enjoy having our hair and make-up done by professionals so we look hot, getting to wear clothes we'd never even dream about buying, maybe sneak in a pamper session or two..." The thought had Abby's expression brightening, her green eyes sparkling with mischief. "It could be fun," she decided, her imagination already going into over-drive. She'd seen the photographs of Jessica Harlow before she'd died, remembered how stunning – how sexy – the other woman had looked and grinned. "Yeah, it could be fun."
The two women got to work, almost eager to get their assignments started.
Gibbs, meanwhile, was not so happy. The way the Director had given his team the assignment was galling anyway – to be told that he had no choice in the matter, that he and his team would get written reprimands if he refused had done little to soothe his temper. Adding to that the fact that not only had an important member of his team been chosen in the form of Ziva but they'd also decided upon Abby, his forensic scientist and someone he considered integral to every investigation he ran – someone whom the Director had had no right to submit for the assignment, certainly not without consulting Gibbs, her boss...
He wasn't sure if it was anger for the way Vance had handled the whole thing or concern that not one but two of his team were going to be used as bait but Gibbs was beginning to wish he could have a do-over and start the day afresh.
"DiNozzo, I want you to go through everything in the files concerning Jessica Harlow's murder. Review everything, see if you can spot something the Metro cops missed. McGee, work with MTAC. I want eyes and ears on Ziva and Abby the whole time. Be discreet," Gibbs added unnecessarily. "Anyone they come into contact with might be a suspect and I don't want them being tipped off to the investigation."
"On it, Boss."
He stalked away within seconds of their acknowledgement. Gibbs could feel them watching him and knew he'd be the topic of conversation as soon as he was out of earshot.
Part of him was tempted to double-back like he sometimes did, to take the stairs up to the top level then take the elevator back down so he could listen to them with them being aware of his presence.
The other, bigger part, however, hungered for a confrontation with the Director ad Gibbs was in no mood to deny it.
He paused long enough to give Charlie an apologetic smile, not wanting to get the blond into any trouble for his unannounced arrival. She shook her head and caught herself just before rolling her eyes – either she'd been spending too much time with Abby or he wasn't as intimidating as he thought he was.
"He's alone," was all Charlie said, motioning to the door with a sigh. "If he asks, I was away from my desk chasing up a requisition form."
Gibbs smiled at her, liking her all the more in that moment, and made his way to the office door.
All traces of the smile were gone as it slammed behind him, the noise in no way helping the headache he could feel behind his eyes but the look it produced on Director Vance's face making it worthwhile.
"Agent Gibbs." His hands crossed over his desk, Director Leon Vance didn't stand to greet the senior agent. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"Tell me why you sent Abby Sciuto's photograph to the modelling agency." Gibbs strode across the room, bracing himself against the desk with his palms flat against the grain. He stared down at Vance, his blue eyes cold. "She's not a field agent. She doesn't have the experience. You had no right including her image..."
Director Vance quirked an eyebrow. "I have every right, Agent Gibbs. She works for this agency and I am still in charge of it. Unless there's something you'd like to tell me...?" Vance waited a beat. "I told the tech in MTAC to send images of all available female employees. I didn't specify field agents only. However," he continued swiftly before Gibbs could respond, "I won't apologise for it. Ms. Scuito has proven herself capable of taking care of herself and has performed admirably on an undercover assignment before – one arranged by you, if the reports I've read are correct. And I can think of no one better to work closely with Officer David on this. They'll watch out for each other."
"Any agent would watch another's back," Gibbs retorted through gritted teeth. "You could've said no when they requested Abby."
"I could have, yes," Vance agreed conversationally. "But the modelling agency is reluctant to work with us on this investigation, Agent Gibbs. Their reputation and their livelihood are on the line if they fail to impress their clients. It came as a surprise that they chose someone with Ms. Sciuto's... alternative taste in appearance, shall we say, but she is an attractive woman and they understand the market better than you or I."
"Attractive or not, Abby shouldn't be going on this assignment." Gibbs leaned forward, a warning flashing in his eyes like fire. "If anything happens to her, I will be holding you responsible, Leon. You better start hoping nothing does."
He stared the Director down for a few more moments, turning on his heel and striding out of the room a few seconds later without waiting for a response. He couldn't and didn't resist slamming the door behind him as he left, hoping it would help to get the message across.
Two of the most well dressed women Abby had ever seen stood before her and Ziva, one peering through dark rimmed glasses while the other squinted through what she thought were obviously coloured contact lenses – no one's eyes were naturally that shade of violet. They wore extremely fitted suits – no ill-fitting tailoring for these women – in contrasting shades of red that matched the colour of their manicured nails perfectly.
"Hmm." The first woman – the ash blond who'd identified herself as Bernie – studied Abby critically, hazel eyes sharp behind the lenses of her glasses. She reminded Abby of a wolf circling its prey as she made her way around her, appraising her from top to bottom, from all angles. A slightly over-plucked eyebrow was arched when she came back to face Abby. "You look different in person but I suppose you'll do. Nice height, though we'll have to do something about your fashion sense. You can't show up for an appointment dressed like that. The pigtails are a big no-no. Take them out. Now," she added sharply when Abby hesitated, her green eyes almost desperately seeking out Ziva's.
"The tattoos could be a problem," the second woman, Veronica with the violet eyes, commented with an almost disgusted air.
"Retouching will take care of them." Bernie waved a dismissive hand. "It's the weight that causes me most concern. Oh, you're slim enough," she added with a thin smile at the small noise that escaped Abby – and one of the three men watching – in protest. "But you're not exactly shapely, are you, dear? Never mind."
"It goes with the jaw line," Veronica pointed out. "It isn't very feminine on its own but, as a package, it seems to work."
Abby ran her fingers through her hair, biting her lip to keep herself from responding to the critique. It was only Ziva's reassuring smile and the indignant expression on Gibbs' face that kept her from saying something that would no doubt jeopardise the whole assignment before it'd even begun.
It was Ziva's turn to be scrutinised next and Abby gratefully stepped aside to allow her friend the opportunity to take her place in the lime light. Returning to Gibbs' side, she let herself be comforted by the hand that touched her back momentarily, and by the twin glares on Tony and McGee's faces aimed at the two modelling agency representatives.
"A little on the short side," Veronica mused, circling Ziva as Bernie had done with Abby. "It's a good thing we won't be marketing you as a runway model."
"Oh, I agree," Bernie nodded vigorously. "She wouldn't work for runway. Not at all. The features are good, though. Delicate and feminine. She'd be good for beauty shots."
Ziva's fists clenched at her sides but she bore their observations in silence, resisting the urge to point out that 'she' was in the room and did have a name.
"Is the exotic look still in, I wonder?" Veronica murmured, too loudly to be just to herself. "I know a lot of places are going for European models. Tall, thin, pale..."
Bernie shook her head and let a perfectly manicured hand rest against her protruding hip bone through the material of her skirt. "There's always someone who prefers the exotic," she pointed out. "I think if we market her well..."
"The hair..." Veronica frowned and reached out as if to touch it. Only a glare from Ziva had her dropping her hand back to her side. "The curls are a little unruly. Perhaps straightening...?"
"It'll depend on the client and on the shoot." Bernie shrugged her shoulders. "I'll call Jason and tell him we want a combination of shots for the portfolios."
Gibbs took advantage of the temporary pause to clear his throat, catching the attention of both of the agency reps. They turned to him with a smile, seemingly surprised when he didn't return it. "Jason would be the photographer we came here to meet...? Is he available now or should we come back tomorrow?"
The two women exchanged a glance before Bernie turned back to Gibbs with a wide smile. "Jason has a studio downstairs. He does all of our promo shots. Veronica will take you downstairs now if it's convenient, Agent Gibbs, and I'll call ahead to brief him on what we need."
"That's fine." Gibbs didn't return the smile, nor did he thank her for her time – much to her disappointment. He motioned for Veronica to go ahead, then followed with Abby at his side. Tony followed with a smug grin but lowered eyes while McGee waited until Ziva fell into step beside him, glancing at her out of the corner of his eye.
"Unruly hair," Ziva muttered, a scowl on her face. "At least is it all natural, yes? I do not have to resort to a wig unlike some!"
"It's nice hair," McGee found himself saying, mortified when he realised the words had slipped out instead of just being in his head. He felt heat flood his cheeks and fixed his gaze on Tony's back, grateful the other agent was a little too far ahead to hear.
Ziva's scowl was gone by the time he risked glancing at her again. In its place was a small, pleased smile. "I am glad you think so, McGee."
They walked the rest of the way in silence, catching up with the others in front of the plush elevator waiting to take them down to the photographer's lair.
The man waiting for them was older than they'd all been expecting and greeted the women with a big smile. There was something about him that immediately put both Abby and Ziva at ease, so neither minded when Gibbs told them he, McGee and Tony would head back to work.
The first photo shoot was a joint one, with both ladies dressing in the casual clothes they'd been told to bring with them. They took turns in sitting on the cream leather sofa, with the other standing behind them, laughing and lounging around. Jason Green, their photographer, told them to act as though he wasn't there and pretend they were at home having a girly chat. It was easier than they'd expected, much to Ziva's surprise in particular, and it wasn't long before Jason told them to get changed into their next set of outfits.
They were shown to a new set, one with a large photograph of a desert road as its background. In the centre of the small stage was a vintage motorcycle, painted in striking red.
"Oh, she's beautiful." Abby, comfortable in the leather pants and leather jacket she'd been instructed to wear, didn't hesitate in walking up to the bike, running her fingers over the handlebars and the smooth leather seat. "Does she really work or is she just a prop?"
"She works." Jason looked at her over the top of his camera, an eyebrow arched. "You ride?"
"Not really." She gave him an impish smile and shrugged her shoulders. "I always wanted to, though. My brother had a bike like this when we were younger. I was allowed to ride it, like, once but because it came back with a teeny, tiny scratch on the paintwork, he never let me touch it again."
A grin spread over his face, his dark eyes sparkling in amusement at the look on her face. "Maybe if you're good, I'll let you take her out for a spin. I can't remember the last time I let the old girl out of the studio."
"That's a crime," Abby told him seriously. "Something like this should not be kept locked up inside. Don't you think, Ziva?"
Ziva let her gaze fall from Jason, wondering if Abby could read the interest in their photographer's eyes when he looked at the raven-haired woman or if it was something only she could see. She smiled at her friend and approached the bike. "It is beautiful," she agreed admiringly. "I can imagine you riding it, Abby. Though I think Tony would have a heart attack if you turned up at work with it."
"Tony's not the only one." Abby grinned, a mischievous glint in her green eyes. She motioned to her clothes with a wicked smile. "I'd love to see Gibbs' reaction to me turning up to work in this get up."
"He would tolerate it," Ziva replied with a shrug. "You are his favourite, yes? There is little he would not let you get away with."
Abby tilted her head to the side, considering Ziva's comment. "Maybe. I'd still love to see his reaction, though."
There was an edge to her voice, something melancholy and wistful. Ziva gave her a curious glance but was stopped from saying anything by Jason clearing his voice, his hand resting on the top of his camera.
"Which one of you ladies would like to go first?" He asked, gaze flittering between them.
Ziva glanced down at her outfit. Like Abby, she was dressed in a clingy black top but unlike Abby, she was wearing a knee-length leather skirt with a long slit at the side. She eyed the bike warily, wondering how she'd be able to straddle it without flashing too much at the camera.
"You don't have to get on it," Jason told her helpfully. "Just lean against it, stand next to it. Whatever you feel comfortable with. I'm gonna put on the fans to make it look like you're really outside, too, so if you want to let your hair down and shake it out, feel free."
The first comment was aimed at Ziva, the second at Abby.
"I will go first," Ziva said with a sigh. She ran a hand through her hair, fingering the curls she'd so far managed to hang on to. She waited until Abby had moved to the side before approaching the bike, leaning against it experimentally to check the brake would support her weight.
Jason, she noticed, moved around the studio with practised ease, comfortable with the equipment and space despite the fact there were two strangers occupying it. She supposed it was an almost every day occurrence for him, an occupational hazard of sorts. She closed her eyes when she felt the air stir around her, the cool breeze blowing her hair away from her face, cooling skin she hadn't realised had heated with an almost embarrassed flush.
"Just do what feels naturally," Jason advised, having taken his place back behind his camera when she opened her eyes. "You can be sexy, sad, happy, seductive... Whatever you feel like. Just remember the camera's here, the light is at your right and you have to feel whatever you want to convey. The eyes are more than the window to the soul. Your eyes are what's going to sell the picture. If you don't look convinced, no one else will be."
Bearing the advice in mind, Ziva leaned more firmly against the bike. She turned her face up to the light as though it was a burning sun and half-closed her eyes, tilting her head so she could gaze at the camera lens with a soft, knowing smile on her face.
"Good, that's good." The camera clicked, the shutters closing and opening in less than a second. "Now move your body round a little bit more towards me. Yeah, that's it. Lean your hip against the bike." Another click, another image caught on film. "Okay. Now lean back a little. Move your right arm. Put your hand against your face, like you're blocking the sun." Click. "Now ease back a little more. Don't worry about the skirt, it's fine. Just move your legs a little, cross them at the ankles if you can. That's it. That's perfect. You're a natural, Ziva."
She didn't feel like a natural; she felt like a fake. Still, she threw herself into each pose, each move with everything she had. It was a job, after all, just another assignment. Ziva was used to adopting different personas, becoming one character after the next to achieve her goal.
She'd been raised that way, mouldable like clay. Just the way her father had wanted.
Tears stung her eyes but she refused to let them fall. Instead she used them. She turned so she could lean over the handle bars of the bike, hands gripping onto the cool metal as she glared at the camera, imagined it was her father.
"Beautiful," Jason breathed. "Absolutely breath-taking. One more shot and I think we're done." Click. "That's a wrap." He stepped out from behind the camera and beamed at her. "That was amazing. You sure you haven't done this before?"
Ziva blinked, covering her reaction with an overly bright smile. Jason didn't appear to notice but from the frown on Abby's face, her friend certainly had. "I am sure," she answered demurely, stepping away from the bike with more than a little relief.
Jason shook his head almost as if he didn't believe her, and then glanced at Abby with a winning grin. "Give me five minutes to reset and we can get started."
"Thanks." Abby gave him a distracted smile, reaching for Ziva's arm as the Israeli tried to brush passed her to go back to the dressing room. "Are you okay, Ziva?"
Ziva hesitated for a second before inclining her head. "I'm fine. Really. It is just more work than I imagined."
Abby didn't look convinced but was called onto the set before she could protest. "Abby? I'm ready for you now." Shooting Ziva a look that told her it wasn't over, Abby walked towards the small set. "I'm going to tell you the same thing I told Ziva," Jason told her as Ziva slipped away into the dressing room. "Just do what comes natural. It's up to you to control the mood, the emotion. Just feel it and you'll be great."
Abby took his advice seriously and waited until he'd disappeared behind the camera before straddling the bike, wrapping her hands around the handles as she leaned forward, giving into the laughter that threatened to escape as the fan blew her hair around her face wildly.
"Beautiful," Jason murmured. "Just beautiful." The shutters snapped shut and he grinned at her from around the camera. "Okay. I want to try something new. When you look at the camera, pretend you're looking across the room at a guy you're really into. You want him to leave whoever he's with and come across to you. Give him that look. You know the one I'm talking about."
She did but she still hesitated in doing it. She closed her eyes for a moment, summoning an image of the guy he was talking about. Blue eyes, silver hair and a grin she didn't see half as much as she'd like to took up immediate residence in her mind.
With that image in mind, she opened her eyes and fixed her gaze on the camera, her smile sultry, her pose seductive.
"Perfect," Jason murmured, snapping away with the camera as she shifted position, tilting her head and body first one way, then to the other. "Absolutely perfect."
It took another two hours for the shoot to be finished. Abby and Ziva then received instructions from Veronica and Bernie on the type of clothes they should have with them when they went for appointments on behalf of the agency – various items by various designers, most of which the two women had never heard of before. They returned to the Navy Yard, clutching their lists in one hand.
"Hey," McGee was the first to notice their arrival, his eyebrows rising when Ziva all but collapsed into her chair. Abby sat herself down in Gibbs' vacant chair, slumping over the desk with her head facedown against the cool grain. "Long afternoon?"
"The longest." Abby's reply was muffled by either her arms or the desk; McGee couldn't be sure.
"Being a model is exhausting," Ziva chimed in, her eyes sliding shut as she leaned back in her chair. "And we now have to go shopping for clothes neither of us can afford."
"By designers we haven't heard of," Abby added with a groan. "I'm gonna look like a Barbie," she complained, lifting her head just enough to be heard. "I don't wanna look like a Barbie."
"They're not asking you to dye your hair, are they, Abs?" The question came from Tony, who followed Gibbs back into the squad room from the direction of the elevators. "Not that there's anything wrong with being blond," he added hurriedly, catching sight of a particular blond taking the steps down from the upper level. "Nothing at all."
Gibbs walked around to his desk but made no attempt at dislodging Abby from his chair. He touched her shoulder to get her attention, sitting on the edge of his desk when she sat up straighter in the chair. "You okay?"
"Tired," Abby pouted. "Gotta go shopping and I don't want to."
"Shopping?" Gibbs arched an eyebrow. "For what?"
"They've got shopping lists from the agency," McGee answered helpfully when neither Abby or Ziva volunteered the information. He rolled his eyes when Tony completely ignored the conversation in favour of watching Charlie's arrival at Ziva's desk. "They said something about designer clothes they can't afford."
Gibbs shrugged and looked down at Abby again. "NCIS will pay for it. Just get what you need and fill in an expense form."
Abby didn't look any happier, her pout turning into a frown. "Not the point, Gibbs. They want me to dress like... like a..."
"A Barbie! I'm not allowed to wear my hair in bunches or pigtails and I've got to try and hide my tattoos and I'm not allowed to wear my skirts or my boots or my cute little shirts and t-shirts..." Abby paused to take in a breath, noticing Charlie's appearance for the first time. "Oh, hey, Charlie."
"Hey." The blond glanced up from the list she'd taken out of Ziva's hand. "I thought you guys were looking forward to this."
"Not anymore," Ziva muttered darkly. "We need to have all of these items for our first meeting tomorrow. They called it a go-something."
"Go-see." Abby sighed softly. "It's a job interview for models."
"You have one tomorrow?" Gibbs picked up the sheet of paper crumpled by Abby's hand and scanned the list of contents. "You need all of this for then?"
Ziva replied as Abby groaned and slumped forward again, resting her forehead against Gibbs' knee. "We have three go-see's tomorrow morning and two in the afternoon. We have a list of things we need to take to each, including bathing suits and high heels."
"First one is at nine. Our portfolios are being couriered here at eight." Abby lifted her head again and looked helplessly at Gibbs. "We've gotta get all of that stuff before then."
"It's late night closing at the mall," Charlie told them quietly, handing the list back to Ziva. "You should be able to find most of that stuff there."
Abby and Ziva looked at one another, identical expressions of pained reluctance on their faces. "Would you come with us?" Ziva asked, tilting her head to the side in consideration. "You are well dressed. You would be able to help us find what we need, yes?"
Charlie shrugged a shoulder, bushing prettily at the compliment. "I'd love to but it's too short notice to call in a sitter. Luke would be a nightmare at the mall. It'd take twice as long with him, I'm afraid," she said apologetically. Luke was Charlie's five year son.
"I could take care of him." The suggestion came from Tony, who looked as surprised as everyone else that he'd offered though he quickly covered it with a charming smile when Charlie glanced at him in question. He shrugged a shoulder and ran a hand through his chair casually. "I've met the kid before. He seems okay."
"Have you ever taken care of a five year old before?" McGee asked sceptically.
Tony gave his teammate a quick glare. "Sure I have. Besides, you'll be there to help, Probie. We could meet the ladies at the mall for dinner when they're done."
"If you're sure..." Charlie looked doubtful but hopeful at the same time. When Tony nodded, she gave him a bright smile and handed the list back to Ziva. "Then it's settled. I'll get Luke dropped off here, then we can go straight from work if you want."
"Great." Tony gave her another charming smile as she left, his eyes fixed on her as she made her way back up the stairs to the Director's office. Turning back to the team, he met their surprised and knowing expressions with an innocent expression on his face. "What?"
"You have it bad, Tony." McGee shook his head, a glimmer of a grin on his face.
Tony ignored him, leaning against the partition around Ziva's desk with a satisfied look on his face.
"Did you find anything in the case file?" Ziva asked after a long pause, distracting herself from the thought of having to spend her evening shopping. "Anything that might lead us to Ms. Harlow's killer?"
"Nothing really." McGee returned to his desk, picking up a folder they were all becoming familiar with. "There's a couple of people we're trying to track down to re-interview. A few models and the photographer whose studio she was found in. They're all out of the country on a photo shoot at the moment."
"Memorise their names," Gibbs half-suggested, half-ordered. "You'll probably meet them over the course of the investigation and they might open up more to a fellow model than the cops."
At a nod from Gibbs, McGee and Tony ran through the list of suspects, bringing their details up on the screen for Abby and Ziva to memorise.
"I feel like I'm in 'Pretty Woman'," Abby complained, skulking into the shop behind Ziva and Charlie. She hadn't felt comfortable in any of the stores they'd been into and was convinced that she would have been either completely ignored or forcefully removed from each of them if not for the two women who flanked her. She wasn't used to feeling self-conscious about the way she dressed or behaved; the kind of stores she frequented were full of people who either knew her or respected her individuality. The ones they were forced to go into to get the items on the list from the modelling agency weren't. "I'm going to be asked to leave any minute now or someone's gonna refuse to serve me."
"If they refuse, I will get out my gun," Ziva told her, only half-teasingly as she glanced around the store they'd just stepped into and glared at the lone shop assistant who dared to give them a disparaging look.
Charlie laughed a little nervously. "Your badge would have a greater effect," she advised quietly. "And the credit card Director Vance gave you will have an even bigger one."
The credit card in question had seen more use in the last hour than it had done in the three months since it had been activated for NCIS. Each of the three women carried half a dozen paper bags with expensive brand names splashed on the sides – Charlie having volunteered to carry some so she didn't look or feel left out. The Director himself had complained about having to take it out of his personal safe in the first place but the agency had insisted that all of their models needed to be properly attired and prepared for any eventuality. Most designers would provide their own clothes but first impressions – and appearances – were vital in the modelling agency and it could damage their reputation beyond repair if their models turned up in unsuitable clothing.
"What is it we need in here?" Ziva asked, having entrusted Charlie's organisational skills to take care of their shopping list and make sure they bought everything they needed.
After a quick glance at the list, Charlie's grimace didn't go unnoticed. "It's the one you're not looking forward to, Abby. Bathing suits and bikinis."
Abby blanched noticeably, moving a hand over her stomach almost defensively. "I have a perfectly good black one-piece at home. I've never used it but I'm sure it'll do."
"Not according to this." Charlie gave her a reassuring smile. "You'll look great, hon. You've got an amazing body."
"Huh." Snorting indelicately, Abby rolled her eyes and scowled. "Not according to Bernie. Or maybe it was Veronica. Whatever. One of the witches said something about not being shapely."
"So now is the chance to prove them wrong." Ziva cajoled her lightly, shooting another glare at the assistant who gave them an obvious once-over.
Unconvinced, Abby reluctantly allowed them to lead her further into the store. Half an hour later, she was pleased to be able to leave, a new shopping bag added to her collection. The black and silver bikini would never see the light of day if she had her way, while the flame red one-piece was one she would wear only if she really had to.
Luke Pearson was easily amused, much to McGee's relief. It helped, McGee thought, that he and Tony seemed to be on the same wavelength though it felt as though he was babysitting both of them instead of helping Tony look after the little boy.
They played games in the arcades that McGee wasn't sure were entirely suitable for a five year old but both Tony and Luke complained loudly when he suggested they move onto something else. When they found a basket ball game, Tony and Luke quickly paired up against McGee.
Tony effortlessly lifted Luke so he could get the ball through the basket, trading high-five's with his mini partner as McGee watched, trying to hide his amusement.
"We should go to the food court," McGee interrupted after another moment of manly bonding between his two charges, glancing meaningfully at his watch. "Your Mom will be waiting, Luke."
"I wanna play some more," Luke protested. He turned big brown eyes onto Tony, gazing up at the agent with a puppy dog expression on his face. "Can't we pay some more?"
Obviously torn between wanting to say yes and playing some more to indulge his inner child and wanting to leave to go indulge his inner adult by flirting with Luke's mom, Tony shook his head after a short pause and crouched down to look the little boy in the eye. "We'll come back some time," he said, not quite making it a promise but not sounding as though he was feeding the kid a line, either. "Maybe we could talk your Mom into it and show her what a great basketball player you are."
Luke considered it for a second before nodding his head in agreement, a smile lighting up his face. "Okay. I'm hungry now."
"Then let's go eat." Tony lifted the little boy into his arms, drawing a giggle out of him, and led the way out of the arcades towards the food court.
The portfolios arrived at NCIS Headquarters before the members of his team. Gibbs walked into the bullpen to find Charlie stacking them neatly on his desk, the blond assistant jumping in surprise when he cleared his throat.
"Agent Gibbs." She gave him a small nod. "These arrived for Abby and Ziva. I thought I'd leave them here so you can make sure they take them to their appointments."
"I'll do that." Gibbs waited until she moved away from his desk before setting his coffee down next to the leather-bound books. "Did they get everything they needed last night?"
Charlie smiled and gave him another nod. "Eventually," she answered. "Abby hated every second but I think Ziva was enjoying herself by the end of the night."
"And DiNozzo took care of your son?"
"Oh, yeah. Agent Tony is now Luke's favourite person." The affection she held for her son was obvious and Gibbs couldn't help but wonder if some of it was reserved for his agent, too. "It's all Luke would talk about last night and this morning when I dropped him off at the sitter's."
Gibbs allowed himself a small grin and a shrug. "It's nice for DiNozzo to hang out with kids his own age occasionally. He probably enjoyed it, too."
She laughed her agreement and ran a hand through her blond hair. "Kids will be kids." She smiled at him again. "I've got to go get Director Vance to sign off on the credit card slips from last night. Tell Ziva and Abby I said good luck for today."
"I will." Gibbs watched her leave before sitting at his desk. He liked her, he decided. She'd be good for Tony – a nice change from the women he usually went after. Once he was alone, he took a sip of his coffee and glanced at the portfolios on his desk.
Telling himself it was his job to take an interest in the work of the two women working on the case, he opened the first one and started flicking through the pages, admiring the photographs of Ziva as his agent alternatively smiled and glared at the camera. She was obviously comfortable in her own skin and the camera, cliché as it was, loved her. He was certain she'd prove a hit with the same people who'd hired Jessica Harlow and hoped it would lead them to the Admiral's daughter's killer.
Opening the first page of Abby's portfolio, Gibbs found himself momentarily stunned. He'd always known she was a beautiful woman but it wasn't until it was on the page staring up at him, undeniable in glossy prints that he allowed himself to really admit it. Her eyes stared up at him from the page, even as her lightly glossed lips parted laughingly at something Ziva had apparently said. He swallowed and turned the pages, gaining new insight into his quirky forensic scientist and friend with each new photograph. He stopped when he reached the final shot, staring at it blindly for several moments.
Abby gazed back, green eyes sparkling suggestively, her pose provocative but not overtly so. Her lips were slightly parted, her hair falling about her shoulders as she leaned over the motorbike flirtatiously.
He tensed subconsciously, fighting the urge to tear the page out of the portfolio. It was a side to Abby he hadn't seen before and one he didn't want anyone else to see, either. He hadn't felt that was about Ziva's photographs, having been able to appreciate the photos in her portfolio as being just those of a gorgeous woman but with Abby's... He didn't like the thought of anyone else seeing them. He felt... Not jealous, per se, but almost... protective but it was more than that. The word 'possessive' took shape in his mind but he shook himself mentally, a frown on his face.
Abby wasn't anybody's, let alone his. And he was happy with that. Or so he thought.
The ding of the elevator made him shut the portfolio, hurriedly pulling Ziva's atop of it as he leaned back in his chair and reached for his coffee. He was sitting at his desk as normal, sipping from the cup when Tony and McGee arrived, too engrossed in their bickering to notice him at first.
"Hey, Boss." Tony grinned at him and sat down at his desk – not before glancing up towards the Director's – and Charlie's – office, Gibbs noted. "Are our supermodels here yet?"
"Not yet." Gibbs took his time in looking up at his agents. He saw McGee glance at the portfolios on his desk, obviously interested in them, and found himself wondering who's book the younger agent was more interested in – Abby's, or Ziva's.
The elevator arrived again, bringing a number of agents spilling into the bullpen. Some kept their heads down as they made their way to their desks; others threw Gibbs' team smiles as they walked passed. The two people who approached at first didn't register with Gibbs; it was Ziva he recognised first, in fitted black pants and a short, tailored jacket while Abby trailed behind her, delicate heels gracing her feet as she made her way across the room in close-fitting blue denim jeans and an off-the-shoulder top in white.
"Don't laugh," Abby warned, a scowl on her face as she pushed her loose hair back from her eyes. "I know I look stupid."
"You look great, actually." Tony stood and moved to wrap an arm around her waist, giving her a reassuring hug.
Gibbs was surprised to find his jaw clench and forced himself to look at Ziva before his expression gave anything away. "You have everything you need for your appointments?" He asked her gruffly.
"Everything but our portfolios, yes." Ziva tugged at the hem of her jacket and eyed the black books on his desk warily. "They are here."
"They are." Gibbs held her gaze, hoping it didn't show that he'd looked through them. "McGee's going to drive you to your appointments. He's going to be your back up on this."
The order came as a surprise to McGee but to his credit, he didn't react to it. He just stood and grabbed the jacket he'd so recently shed, shrugging back into it without comment.
"Have fun, ladies." Tony gave Ziva a grin and Abby a kiss on the cheek, dropping his arm from the latter's waist to let her leave.
"Do I really have to do this?" Abby, walking away from Tony, fixed Gibbs with a pleading look as she approached his desk. "I don't wanna go be stared at by a bunch of strangers, Gibbs."
He didn't want her to, either, but the choice had been taken out of his hands and they were too far into the assignment to pull back now. Gibbs stood and handed Ziva one portfolio, holding the other out to Abby. For a split-second, their fingers brushed and he found himself fighting back a sigh. "Just be careful," he told her softly, appreciating the discretion of his agents as they allowed him a moment with Abby. It was no secret she was his favourite, or that he would worry more about her than one of his experienced team members. "If you're uncomfortable with anything, let Ziva or McGee know ASAP."
"I will." Abby took the portfolio and hugged the book to her chest. "We'll be okay, Gibbs. I might need therapy by the time this is over or some form of cosmetic surgery but we'll be okay."
Gibbs allowed a small smile to show as she waved at him before leaving with McGee and Ziva, the smile slipping as soon as they were concealed by the sliding steel doors.
"Your gut bothering you, Boss?" Tony moved to stand by his desk, a concerned frown on his face. "If you think Abby and Ziva are in trouble..."
He shook his head, not wanting to get into it. He didn't want to admit that his gut was bothering him and while it was related to Abby, it wasn't entirely related to the case. "Just keep your guard up, DiNozzo. Be ready if they call."
McGee waited in the car during the first go-see but, when both women returned subdued, he decided to accompany them inside for their second appointment. He sat next to Abby as she clutched her portfolio against her chest, fidgeting with her fingers and chewing on her bottom lip anxiously as she waited for Ziva to come out so she could go in.
"You okay, Abby?" He ignored the glances - and the glares – of the other waiting models and focused on his friend. She looked paler than normal, which for Abby said quite a lot.
"Fine." She didn't look at him, just stared at her denim clad thighs. After several moments of silence, McGee looked up when he heard the rustle of material that signalled she had shifted position. "Do you think I'm fat, McGee? Unattractive?"
For a moment, all he could do was gape at her. "Of course not! Abby! What..." His surprise changed to thinly veiled anger and he reached out to take her hand, his eyes cool. "Who told you that?"
"It doesn't matter." Abby looked down at their hands, biting her bottom lip again. "I just wondered."
"You're beautiful, Abby. You know you are." He gave her hand a squeeze, waiting until she looked up at him before giving her a grin. The Abby he knew was confident and didn't care what anyone else thought about her; the Abby he'd dated knew she was attractive though had never let that go to her head. "Anyone who says otherwise is blind or stupid or both."
She gave him an almost shy smile and leaned forward to kiss his cheek gently. "Thank you, Timmy." Abby sighed and let her head rest on his shoulder for a moment, drawing away to sit up straighter when the door opened and Ziva stepped out.
"You can go in now," Ziva told her, a reassuring expression on her face as Abby stood to pass her. "She's not as bad as the first one," she whispered conspiratorially, pleased to see a relived smile break out across Abby's face before she squared her shoulders and strode into the studio just off from the waiting room. Taking the seat Abby had vacated, Ziva leaned back with a weary sigh. "I do not understand this culture, McGee. Why women would voluntarily put themselves through this, I do not know."
"Is it really that bad?" McGee shifted in his seat to face her. "Abby was upset before you came out. Asked me if I thought she was fat."
Anger heated Ziva's dark eyes instantly. "These people are irresponsible and insensitive. They do not care for the person, only for their appearance." She shook her head and inhaled slowly as if to calm her temper. "The woman we spoke to at our first appointment was worse than both Bernie and Veronica combined," she confided. "She offered only criticism and no compliments. I believe she upset Abby by implying she should seek an alternative means of employment unless she was willing to undergo surgery to enhance her body." Her hands, McGee noticed, were clenched into fists. "Abby is far more attractive than half of the women in this room, is she not? How dare someone who has changed her appearance so much by fakery and surgery criticise someone who is not only far prettier but also as sensitive as Abby?"
Several of the woman glared at her for her comment but none of them were brave enough to say anything or else they'd risk her ire turning on them, too.
"They don't know Abby like we do," McGee pointed out, not wanting to play devil's advocate but feeling as though someone should. "It's the industry, Ziva. Most people know what they're getting themselves into when they want to join it. And those that don't... Well, it's the price they have to pay for following their dreams, I guess."
"It is still barbaric," Ziva murmured, arms folded over her chest. "There is more to a woman than how she looks."
"I know that and you know that but the modelling industry is all about looks, just like the writing industry is all about words." He shrugged and gave her a small, understanding smile. "It'll be over soon," he added quietly, so that no one else could hear him. "You've just got to put up with it for a bit longer then I'll let you beat the crap out of me in the gym, okay? I won't even fight back, I promise."
She gave him a sidelong look, considering his offer. "You would do that, McGee? You would let me hurt you so I no longer feel so frustrated?"
He shrugged and looked away from her. "If it makes you feel better, sure."
He was surprised when her head came to rest on his shoulder for a few brief moments, just as Abby's had earlier. "Thank you, McGee. You are a good friend."
A good friend. McGee stifled a sigh and held himself perfectly still until she moved. It wasn't what he really wanted but it was a good enough start.
There was time for a quick lunch before their afternoon appointments. The first was the one Abby was dreading the most – the one where they'd been requested to bring bathing suits.
So far, the go-sees had been an uncomfortable experience. She was used to excelling at job interviews, able to inject a sense of humour into the proceedings, confident that her qualifications and experience spoke volumes about her suitability for the role she'd applied for.
The same couldn't be said for the interviews she'd had for modelling jobs. She was asked questions about the designers whose clothes she was wearing and was grateful to Charlie and Ziva for encouraging her to remember some of their names. She was expected to strip and change outfit in front of the interviewer and their assistant, something she wasn't entirely comfortable with when she knew they'd be scrutinising and criticising every single move she made. She had to demonstrate her walk, even though she'd been assured by both the modelling agency and by Gibbs that she wouldn't need to worry about tripping on a catwalk and she had to answer their questions about the photographs in her portfolio, trying to make it sound as though she was a professional and knew what it was she was talking about.
The only good thing about the go-see was that the photographer and designer had asked to see both Abby and Ziva at the same time, which cheered her up a little to know she wouldn't be facing them alone.
They were shown to a changing room while McGee was permitted to stand at the back of the room with the two men conducting the interview – permitted to stand in silence but not to speak as his companions as they poured over the portfolios murmuring to each other and jotting down notes.
Having been instructed to don their bikinis, Abby and Ziva had no choice but to do so. Ziva wore one of striking emerald green with matching heels while Abby squirmed as she stood in her black and silver bikini, hands moving anxiously from her stomach to her hips and back again.
"You look wonderful," Ziva murmured reassuringly. "The colours suit you."
"What little of it there is," Abby muttered in response. She ordinarily wasn't shy about showing off her body; she loved her skirts to be short, her tops to be skimpy. Around the right guy, she had no problem wearing barely-there lingerie. But she did feel uncomfortable parading around in a skimpy bikini in front of two men she'd only just met. She played with the straps of her bikini top and took a deep breath before following Ziva into the studio.
Three pairs of male eyes watched them enter the room. McGee swallowed hard but gave them both a positive, reassuring smile that helped settle their nerves a little.
The two men conducting the interview said little, though the photographer licked his lips and inclined his head in approval.
"We want to take a few practise shots," the designer told them, drinking in the sight of them eagerly. "Then I'd like you to change into some of my designs to see how they suit you."
"That is fine." Ziva answered for them both, positioning herself unconsciously in front of Abby as the photographer continued to stare unabashed. "Would you prefer individual shots or a group shot?"
"Both." The photographer looked up from his study of them and met her gaze for the first time, though she noticed his eyes dropped back to her chest after he gave her a wolfish grin. "You can go together first. Then I'll do the one-on-ones."
He led them over to a small white screen, where the lights were already set up. Ziva and Abby moved to stand in the centre of the small set, the warmth of the lights helping chase the chill from their bare skin.
They posed together as they'd been instructed by Jason Green, leaning into one another's personal space, trying to relax and look as though they were having fun even though they were both counting the seconds until it was over.
Abby had her individual shots taken first, the smile on her face forced as the photographer made comment after comment about her body and long legs. She was notably relieved to be able to leave the set and accompany the designer over to the rail of bikinis and swimsuits, trusting the slightly older man more than she did the photographer currently leering at Ziva.
"You're gorgeous," the photographer murmured, barely paying attention to the act of photographing her as he stared unabashed over the top of his camera. He licked his lips again and ran his gaze over her body – eyes stopping just south of her face and north of her knees. "Have you ever considered modelling topless?" He asked casually, quietly, though, so the designer couldn't hear him. "I've got my own studio, if you're interested. I could give you a call some time, set something up." He grinned at her when she arched an eyebrow but said nothing. "You could bring your friend if you want. I'd have no objection to doing you both."
Ziva's smile was dangerous but the photographer didn't seem to notice. "I would love to," she all but purred, "but my husband has a gun and I think he would object." Her gaze shifted from the photographer to McGee as she stepped off the set, motioning to McGee with a hand. He approached warily, barely managing to conceal his surprise when she wrapped a bare arm around him and pressed her bikini-clad body against his, the fingers of one hand trailing suggestively over the buttons of his shirt. "Wouldn't you, darling?"
"Sure. Of course." Falling into the role after a split-second of confusion, McGee moved his jacket deliberately, letting the photographer see the gun holstered at his hip. "It's loaded," he added with an easy grin at the suddenly pale photographer. "Wanna see?"
The photographer shook his head and busied himself with the camera in his hands, unable to look either of them in the eye.
Ziva gave McGee a quick smile before leaning in to kiss him softly – for the photographer's benefit, McGee was sure – slipping out from under the arm he'd wrapped around her bare waist a few moments later so she could join Abby and the designer at the rack of clothes.
The rest of the appointment passed without incident, with the photographer barely uttering two words to either Ziva or Abby. When it was over, they had the promise of the designer that he would be getting in touch with their agents soon and a dozen new photographs for their portfolios.
The final appointment of the day passed quickly, much to their relief, and it wasn't long before the three were head back to the Navy Yard to report on their day.
Chinese takeout was ordered and eaten at their desks. They moved their chairs in a loose circle in the centre of their area of the squad room, with Abby claiming a seat between Ziva and Gibbs, her heels discarded as she curled her legs underneath her body.
"The photographer was a jerk," Ziva muttered, stabbing a piece of chicken viciously with a chopstick. "If he has any connection to Jessica Harlow, I would put him near the top of our suspect list."
"I'll make a note of his name and see if there's any link there," Tony told her – and Gibbs – between a mouthful of noodles. "So how'd you get him to leave you alone? You can't exactly hide four weapons when you're wearing a bikini, can you?"
Ziva shrugged her shoulders and gave McGee a quick look. "I told him McGee was my husband," she announced matter-of-factly. "And McGee showed him his gun."
Tony laughed around a mouthful of food while McGee blushed and Gibbs hid a smile behind his carton of soup. "Way to go, Elf-lord."
"It seemed like the right thing to do," McGee mumbled, embarrassed.
"It was a good idea," Gibbs added thoughtfully. He looked between Ziva and McGee with a nod. "That's your cover story from now on. McGee's your husband and has a vested interest in your modelling career. Feel free to show your weapon if you need to, McGee, but don't let on you're a federal agent."
Abby sipped from her Caf-Pow, her head tilted to the side. "Can we say McGee's my brother? So he can shoot people if they look at me funny?"
"You can say whatever you want to, Abby." A knot of the tension that had been in his stomach all day eased a little at her suggestion and Gibbs gave her a quick smile, one that faded when she didn't smile back.
"I'm gonna go check on my lab," Abby announced before he could call her on it. She set her untouched noodles down but took the bright orange container of Caf-Pow with her as she stood. "Night, guys. See you all tomorrow."
"See you, Abs."
The agents lapsed into silence as she left, waiting until she was safely ensconced within the elevator before talking about her.
"It was a tough day for Abby," Ziva commented, answering Gibbs' question before he had a chance to ask it. "There were a lot of comments made about her shape and her tattoos. She does not have a typical body type for a model."
"Someone said she was fat," McGee added, shrugging when Gibbs glared at him as though he was responsible for saying it. "She wouldn't tell me who, just asked if I thought it was true. I told her it wasn't, of course, but she's sensitive. I don't think she realised how sensitive she can be until today."
"Abby's always been confident about the way she looks," Tony responded calmly. "She knows she's hot."
"Her confidence has taken a punch," Ziva retorted.
"A knock," Gibbs corrected softly. He put his own meal to the side and stood up. "Go home when you're done eating. Get some sleep and be back here tomorrow morning."
He strode towards the second set of elevators before they could wish him goodnight, his destination obvious.
"He'll take care of her," McGee murmured, giving Ziva a reassuring smile when she looked at him. "Gibbs won't let her dwell on what they said."
"He's right, Ziva," Tony agreed when Ziva continued to worry her bottom lip between her teeth. "Gibbs always knows what to say to Abby."
Ziva allowed herself to be swayed by their conviction and relaxed enough to enjoy the rest of her meal. "So, Tony... What is going on with you and Charlie?"
"Yeah, Tony, what are your intentions?" McGee joined her line of thought immediately, knowing it was an opportunity both to rib their friend and take their mind off the case at hand. "You seemed very cosy with her son..."
Tony waved away their questions but couldn't keep the grin from turning up the corners of his mouth. "He's a great kid. She's a great woman. I like her."
"We know that, DiNozzo." Ziva rolled her eyes. "She is not your normal type, though."
"Why not? She's beautiful, smart, sexy..." Tony's grin widened. "Totally my type."
"She's a mother. A single mom with a five year old kid," McGee reminded him unnecessarily. "You always go for no strings. A kid is strings, Tony. A whole lot of strings. He's going to get attached to you..."
Tony shrugged, entirely unfazed. "I'm attached to him, too," he admitted quietly. "He's a great kid," he repeated quietly.
McGee and Ziva traded a surprised look at his reaction, both wondering what it meant for the former lothario of NCIS.
Settled in her lab, surrounded by her machines and equipment with Bert the stuffed hippo settled on her lap, Abby finally felt comfortable in her own skin. This was her domain, the place where she belonged. She could feel the confidence returning to her bones as she looked around the lab, taking deep, calming breaths.
"Good to be home?" The voice made her jump and the smile that curved up her lips was immediate.
"What have I told you about sneaking up on me, Gibbs?" She chided softly.
Gibbs walked further into the lab, an eyebrow arched at the uncharacteristic darkness. "There a problem with the lights, Abby?"
"Only in that I haven't turned them on," Abby admitted quietly. She looked up at him as he approached, the smile disappearing. "Which one told you I was upset?"
"Both." He didn't try to deny it. Lying to Abby had never been something he was comfortable with. He moved to stand behind her, his hands coming to rest on her shoulders. "You know better than to listen to other people, Abs."
Abby sighed, her shoulders slumping beneath the gentle pressure of his fingers. "I know. It's just hard when I'm not dressed like me. It's like I don't have my armour, my shields. Kind of like you without your gun and coffee. That's me without my make-up and my collar."
"It's temporary," Gibbs murmured, the tip of one finger brushing the skin of her neck. If he felt her shiver, he didn't react. Nor did she. "We'll catch whoever killed her and have you home as soon as we can. Here. Where you belong."
Abby added the words in her mind, wanting to hear them.
Gibbs added the words in his mind, wanting to say them.
"I hope it's soon," Abby spoke aloud, her hands resting over the soft toy in her lap so she couldn't give in to the impulse to lift them and cover his own. "I don't like being a model."
"You might not like it but you're good at it." He rubbed her shoulders for a few moments more in silence. "You looked good."
Her hands stilled in her lap, Bert going ignored for a few moments. "You looked at my portfolio?"
Abby exhaled softly, tilting her head backwards so she could look up at him. "You don't think I looked..."
"No, Abs." Gibbs moved to stand in front of her, his eyes in shadow and impossible to read. "You're beautiful." A hand rose to her cheek, touched it in a feather-light caress before he let it drop to his side. "Don't let anyone ever tell you otherwise."
Struck wordless, by both his words and the gesture, Abby could only watch as he left, her heart pounding in her chest, his touch still burned into her skin.
Out of the five go-sees they'd had, both Ziva and Abby had secured two bookings. One, for the swimsuit designer, was a joint booking and would take them to the beach at Sandy Point State Park. The others were individual assignments and would require them to go their separate ways.
It was decided that McGee would stay with Ziva and they would continue their cover story that he was her over-protective, gun-toting husband. As for who would go with Abby, the matter wasn't up for discussion – it was silently agreed that Gibbs should have the honour and that, as both women and their escorts would be wired for sound and, in Gibbs and McGee's case, video, Tony would stay at NCIS and observe the goings on from either MTAC or Abby's lab, recording and noting any notable behaviour that could pinpoint their murderer.
Their individual assignments took place first, with Ziva posing for adverts for a new perfume while Abby's image was used to promote a new line of jewellery. While the former was dressed in expensive evening dresses and ball gowns, the latter was dressed in nothing but a man's shirt in one set of photographs and a white sheet in the other.
McGee watched Ziva appreciatively, admiring her curves beneath the silk and satin dresses she was put into. He did his best to ignore Tony's comments about how good she looked, reminding himself that he was the one who was her acting husband and that Tony's affections were occupied elsewhere.
"She's gorgeous," the designer commented to McGee as the photographer snapped a dozen frames in less than a minute. "You're a lucky guy."
"Don't I know it," McGee responded, searching for and meeting Ziva's gaze as she smiled at him from her position on the makeshift balcony set. "Don't I know it."
*Little bit of wistful thinking there, McGee?* Tony sounded amused and McGee felt his cheeks flood with heat. While Ziva and Abby had both taken out their ear-pieces and couldn't hear what was being said, he knew that it was all being recorded to be processed later.
The worst thing was that McGee couldn't even respond as the designer had taken to standing at the back of the crowd of people working the shoot, right beside him.
"Have you guys been married long?" The designer enquired, his gaze never once leaving Ziva.
McGee nodded, mind working rapidly to work out how long he and Ziva had known each other. The best lies, the most convincing ones, were based loosely on the truth. "Four years in September."
The designer whistled. "Hold onto her," he advised, patting McGee companionably on the shoulder before moving off to take a closer look at the images on the computer screen not more than a few feet away.
"I intend to," McGee murmured, forgetting for a moment that he wasn't as alone as he thought.
Tony, to his credit, remained silent.
Gibbs, meanwhile, was doing his best not to look at Abby, knowing if he did, Tony would be able to see everything he could. It was difficult, though, especially when he heard two assistants on the shoot talking about her.
"I've not seen her before," one of them said in a half-hearted whisper. "She's gorgeous."
"She's new," the second one responded. "Nice, too. Not like the others. She actually thanked me when I got her a glass of water."
*That's our Abby. Nice to everyone. How's she holding up, Boss?*
"She's fine, DiNozzo." Gibbs kept his voice quiet, just loud enough to be heard by the mic on his lapel but not loud enough for anyone else to overhear. "Keep your eyes open and your ears peeled."
*I'm tryin', Boss, but you're not giving me much to work with here. I need to see the people around her. They're the ones who have access, who could've killed Jessica.*
Sighing because he knew Tony was right, Gibbs turned his body around to face the set where Abby was working. He rolled his eyes at the quick in-take of breath and low whistle in his ear, wishing he could shut out Tony's reaction to the sight of Abby wrapped up in a white satin sheet.
She sat in the centre of a bed, bare legs visible to the camera, one hand holding the sheet against her chest while the other ran through her tousled hair. Diamonds and emeralds glinted and caught the light, a delicate white gold bracelet around her slender wrist with a matching ring on the hand holding the sheet. A tear-drop necklace drew attention to her cleavage while matching earrings hung from her ears.
*Damn but she's gorgeous. Anyone who can't see it should be shot.*
Gibbs agreed but wouldn't say so. He instead watched, hands clenched at his sides, as the over-friendly photographer moved to the bed and rearranged the sheets tangled around her body, saying something that made Abby smile. She looked up suddenly, in his direction, but glanced away just as quickly, her cheeks flushed as the photographer once again began taking pictures.
Their joint assignment would require them to stay overnight at a hotel near the location for the shoot. The client for the modelling agency would pay for Abby and Ziva's hotel rooms while NCIS would have to foot the bill for accommodation for Gibbs, McGee and Tony.
It was decided that Tony would accompany them and keep watch from one of the hotel suites to make sure back up was easily available should it become necessary. McGee would maintain his cover story and stick to Ziva while Gibbs was to stay with Abby.
"I don't like the sun, I don't like the beach. What makes anyone think I'm going to enjoy standing out in both in a swimsuit?"
No one answered her but Abby wasn't surprised.
She was alone in her assigned hotel room, lying face down on her bed with her head buried under the pillow she'd woken up clutching. The persistent knocking that had disturbed her slumber continued and she kicked the blankets aside in frustration, stalking over to the door and swinging it wide open.
She didn't know who was more surprised; her to find Gibbs with his hand raised as if to knock on thin air or Gibbs to find her standing in nothing more than a dishevelled nightshirt, hair all over the place and face still creased from sleep.
Silently, she turned and walked back into the room, leaving him with no choice but to follow in her wake. Abby sat back down on her bed, pulling the blankets up and around herself so only her face was showing, green eyes glaring at him as though the bad mood she'd woken up in was all his fault.
Looking crumpled with lines on her face from the pattern on the pillow, her hair sticking up in tufts and smudges of mascara her nightly cleansing process hadn't quite erased under her eyes, she had no right to look so adorable.
Gibbs was momentarily taken aback, staying outside of the room for a few moments too long as his mind tried to process her appearance. He'd seen Abby in all sorts of states before – upset, caffeinated and hyper, in her court clothes, in her lab coat, in her red NCIS jumpsuit... Not to mention the clubbing clothes, the short skirts, tight jeans, little dresses and wild assortment of tops...
"Ziva was concerned when you didn't join her and the other models for breakfast," he said eventually, realising she had no intention of speaking first. "She told McGee, who told me... You're supposed to be ready for hair and make-up in half an hour, Abs. You can't start the day with no food."
"I didn't think models ate," Abby muttered sulkily.
Gibbs felt his eyebrows rise almost of their own accord as his stomach lurched uncomfortably. "Abby... You're not... You know there's nothing wrong with the way you are. I know you've had to put up with a lot of unfounded criticism..."
Abby blinked owlishly, the blankets slipping down over her head to rest on her shoulders. She tilted her head to the side, a lock of black hair falling over her eyes. "I'm not anorexic, Gibbs. I don't care what they said about me. They're all idiots, anyway." She sighed and shrugged her shoulders. "Do you know how easily I burn? Because that's what I'm going to do. I have to stand out there baking in a flimsy slip of material I wouldn't ordinarily be caught dead in and I'm going to burn. I've spent my whole adult life avoiding the sun..."
"And you can continue avoiding the sun," he interrupted her tirade, taking a few steps forward to sit on the bed beside her. "There are two photographs working the shoot. Two groups. One is outside, whether Ziva's gonna be. The other's inside at the inside pool. I checked the list. You're inside."
"I'm inside?" She blinked again, frowning at him suspiciously. "In the pool?"
"With two of the models that were on Jessica Harlow's last shoot," Gibbs informed her. "The photographer you've got is Jason – the guy from the agency. Ziva's stuck with the one from your original go-see with the designer."
"Craig something-or-other," Abby supplied, her nose wrinkling. "He was creepy. He's why Ziva said she was married to Timmy."
While he wouldn't wish the photographers attention on anyone, Gibbs couldn't help but be glad Abby would be spared the experience. He was in no doubt that she could handle herself around the sleazy photographer but he would prefer it if she didn't have to. Ziva would be fine – in fact, he suspected she'd enjoy making the man's life miserable for a while – and it would be better all around if he wasn't put in a position where he could make a scene and jeopardise the case.
"You've got ten minutes, Abby. We've got to make this look believable so you can't be late for the shoot." Still, he was strangely reluctant to leave her to dress, wanting to postpone the inevitable himself if it meant keeping anyone else from seeing his lab tech in such an extreme state of undress. "I'll meet you here after I'm wired. Don't leave your room without me."
"I won't." She tried a smile but he noticed it didn't reach her eyes. She was clearly dreading the experience and he couldn't blame her; if their situations were reversed, he knew it'd take a hell of a lot to get him out of the hotel room.
He left her a moment later, heading to the room Tony had set up his observation equipment to have his microphone and mini-cam fitted. Ten minutes later, he returned to Abby's hotel room to find her ready and waiting, a familiar look of steely determination on her face.
"Let's get this over with."
Though modelling was reputed to be a glamorous profession, glamour was not the word that came to mind. Ziva shrugged her shoulders beneath the terry-cloth robe she had one, attempting to relieve herself of the tension being forced to wait for her turn had created within her. She pulled a strand of straightened hair away from her glossed lips and turned her face into the breeze, turning her face towards McGee in the process.
She bit her bottom lip to keep back a smile at the blush that appeared on his face and the way he suddenly averted his gaze. He'd been acting strangely around her ever since Tony had suggested – quite sensibly, she thought – that he should share her hotel room since they were supposed to be a married couple. He'd refused to share the king-size bed even though she'd offered and despite having fallen off the couch at least three times that she knew about in the middle of the night had stubbornly stated on their way to breakfast that he would take the couch again that night.
"You do not look comfortable, Tim," she told him softly, deliberately using his first name – for both the benefit of those around them and for the obvious affect it had on him. "Is there anything wrong?"
McGee gulped, a flicker of annoyance crossing over his face before he answered. DiNozzo, Ziva guessed, whispering in his ear. "I'm fine," he answered after a short pause. "I don't like waiting around."
"Neither do I." Ziva glanced over at the model currently having her photographs taken, a beautiful blond she recognised from the photographs she'd been told to memorise at NCIS headquarters. The model was laughing flirtatiously at something their photographer, Craig Tony, had said. Ziva scowled and shook her head. "I do not understand these women. I respect them for wanting to work and earn their own money but I do not understand why they are willing to put up with men like him to do so."
"In this business, the photographers have all of the power, honey." The answer did not come from McGee as she'd been expecting but from another model who had moved to stand beside them. The dark-skinned woman took a long drag on her cigarette and turned her head to exhale a cloud of smoke away from Ziva's face. "Get on the wrong side of one of these guys and they can make your life hell," the model advised dryly.
The woman – Meredith Casson – was another from the group Ziva had memorised. "I thought it was the other models I had to look out for," she commented, only half jokingly.
Meredith chuckled, her dark eyes glinting with mirth as they looked at Ziva, something else when they flickered towards McGee. "Most models are bitches but few really use their claws. There's a couple who'd indulge in a real catfight – like Monica, the blond flirting with Craig – but few of them would risk injury by indulging their whims. Black eyes and bloody lips don't make you popular in this game."
An image of Jessica Harlow sprung to mind, bruised and bloody. Ziva tried to smile but her churning stomach refused to let it stay on her face for long.
"Good, the bitch is done." Meredith's eyes narrowed but she smiled brightly at the blond model as she passed. "Great shoot, Mon. You look fabulous!"
Monica acknowledged her with a cool smile but walked passed them without saying a word.
"I believe it is my turn now," Ziva murmured, feeling bad about having to excuse herself and leave McGee with only Meredith for company.
"Don't worry, doll, I'll look after your husband." Meredith sidled up to McGee, the smile she gave him far more sincere than the one she'd given her colleague. "You don't mind keeping a girl company, do you, handsome?"
Ziva ground her teeth together, any feelings of friendliness she'd considered having towards Meredith Casson dying in an instant. She herself moved closer to McGee, resting a hand on his arm as she leaned in to kiss him softly – for the benefit of their cover, she told herself firmly. "I will not be long," she promised, her voice low.
"Okay." McGee's eyes told her to hurry back and Ziva felt a surge of satisfaction as he took a step away from Meredith's reaching hands.
She heard Meredith purr as she walked away, her hands clenching into fists in the pockets of her robe."Have you ever considered modelling yourself?"
Shucking off the robe, Ziva fixed her gaze on McGee and Meredith as she took her place in front of the camera, her eyes meeting McGee's as Craig glanced over his shoulder as if to check that the armed husband was present.
"We'll start standing up," Craig murmured a little nervously. "Don't want you getting covered in sand too soon." He snapped a few shots of Ziva and watched it appear on the small screen set up next to him. "Nice," he mumbled. "The green really suits you. Try turning just a little, towards the sun. Tilt your face up. Yeah, yeah that's good." Another stream of shots taken. "Try pouting a little. Keep your body turned away from the camera but your face towards me..."
Ziva followed his instructions, her eyes automatically seeking out and finding McGee's whenever she was ordered to look in the right direction. He smiled at her when he noticed her watching him but not before she saw the blatant admiration in his eyes first. She watched in satisfaction as Meredith moved on after a few minutes, obviously disgruntled at not having received the reaction she'd wanted from him and found herself considering their sleeping arrangements once more.
If he was to be expected to protect her, Ziva mused to herself, he couldn't afford another night of disturbed sleep. It was fortunate then, she decided, that the bed in their room was more than big enough for two. Now if only she could convince McGee that that was the case...
While Ziva's shoot required her to both stand on the beach and lie on the sun-warmed sand, Abby's required her to lounge at the side of the pool on cold, wet tiles and figure out how to pose actually in the pool without drowning or looking like a drowned lab rat.
Added to that, she had to do it in front of Gibbs, which made it far more difficult than she thought it should be.
She was aware of every look, every glance. Even without looking at him herself, she knew when he was watching her. She was almost grateful for the cool temperature in the swimming pool, hoping the goose bumps that rose on her skin would be blamed on that rather than anything else.
"You're a natural, Abby," her photographer, Jason Green, told her admiringly. She was glad he was the one doing her shoot, more comfortable around him than any of the other photographers she'd worked with. He was complimentary and sweet, not lecherous or critical. "Try sinking a little further under the surface, then stand up slowly."
She did as she was told, fighting the urge to look down and check her bikini top was in place as she did. She looked passed Jason to Gibbs, her breath catching in her throat at the look on his face. His blue eyes were a slightly darker shade, the expression on his face encouraging a shiver that had nothing to do with temperature to make its way down her spine.
She was relieved when the shoot was over ten minutes later, swimming towards the side of the pool when Jason told her it was okay to do so. She heaved herself out of the water, a smile on her face in preparation for the assistant who kept hold of the warmed towels for the models but the assistant didn't materialise for her. Gibbs did instead, the look on his face suggesting he'd warned the male assistant away as he himself wrapped the warm towel around her shoulders and began to rub her skin dry.
"Do you think they need me for the rest of the day?" Abby asked softly, letting him lead her away from the set. She watched him remove the earpiece and disable the mic and camera from his collar and top button, watching him slip them all into his pocket after a final order to Tony to start processing the images they'd recorded.
"You're done for the day," Gibbs informed her. "DiNozzo's going to start going through the tapes. I told McGee and Ziva to hang around a bit longer to see if they can find out anything about Jessica without being obvious about it."
"What about me?" She pulled the towel tighter around her shoulders, tilting her head to the side curiously. "What do you want me to do?"
He hesitated for a split second, the answer in his mind different to the one that left his lips. "Work with DiNozzo. Ducky's come up with a profile of our killer. We need to see if anyone here matches up."
Telling herself she wasn't disappointed at his response, Abby gave him a small, sloppy salute. "Yes, Sir."
The group had room service in Tony's suite for dinner, going through the footage recorded of the day's events, much to Ziva, Abby and even McGee's embarrassment. Abby joined in with Tony's merciless teasing of the newlyweds to distract from her own awkwardness at having them sit through the video of her photo shoot footage, hoping the longer they spent dissecting their kiss, the less time they'd have to go over her scenes.
"It looks convincing to me," Tony commented slyly, nudging a red-faced McGee in the ribs. "Shame, Probie. You could've hooked up with the model."
"He's already married to one model," Abby pointed out with a wink at Ziva. "A way more beautiful one at that. What would he want with another one?"
Ziva crossed her arms over her chest and shook her head, refusing to be drawn into the conversation.
"You should have wedding rings if you're married," Abby continued, tilting her head to the side. "If this is going to continue any longer, you should really make it convincing."
"Ha, knowing McGeek, he'd get one that makes Ziva's finger turn green."
"And you would not?" Ziva did chime in then, responding more to the desperate look on McGee's face than to the teasing from Tony. "Or are you instead implying that McGee would not as easily recognise cheap gold as you, Tony? You are used to buying it for your girlfriends, yes, where as Tim would buy the real thing?" She gave Abby a conspiratorial smile before continuing swiftly, not giving Tony the chance to object. "I believe we should warn Charlie, Abby. Do you not think so?"
Pleased the conversation was moving away from their photo shoots, Abby nodded enthusiastically, her hair back up in the pigtails she'd been starting to miss. "Oh, yeah. I don't want her coming into work with green fingers or marks on her neck. That so wouldn't go down well with the Director."
Accepting the teasing in good humour, Tony rolled his eyes and held his hands up in defence. "We've not been on a date yet and you're already talking rings... Does that mean she's mentioned me? Huh? Has she said she's interested...?"
"DiNozzo." Gibbs sighed his name, giving his senior agent a look that worked just as well as a traditional head slap. "Back to the case."
Knowing what was next, Abby groaned and let her head fall forward. "Do I have to here for this?" She asked softly. "There's a late session at the spa downstairs..."
"That sounds like fun." Ziva answered before Gibbs could. She stood up and gave Gibbs a look when he looked like he was about to protest. "You can review the footage without us, yes? And we can see if there are any of the other models around to talk to. We will be careful, Gibbs."
"We'll just be downstairs." Abby joined in, the look on her face pleading as she also got to her feet. She batted her eyelashes and gave him the half-pouty, half-puppy dog look she used whenever she wanted to get him to agree to something. It only occasionally worked but even a poor success rate was better than most people got where Gibbs was concerned. "And there'll be loads of people about and you can come and get us if you get a lead... Please, Gibbs. We deserve a break."
Gibbs sighed softly and fought the urge to roll his eyes. "You've got two hours. No more than that. And you don't split up."
Abby gave him her second sloppy salute of the day while Ziva nodded her agreement. The women left the hotel room laughing with one another, arms linked. Gibbs shook his head as the door closed behind them, turning his attention back to his two remaining agents just in time to catch them trading wide, knowing grins.
"Nothing, Boss." McGee tried to give him an innocent look but the blush on his cheeks gave him away and forced him to drop his gaze as Gibbs stared at him intently.
Tony just kept on grinning when Gibbs turned the glare on him. "So next we have Abby's photo shoot. Probie, it's a good thing Ziva's no longer in the room because I guarantee she'd make you sleep on the couch if she caught you drooling over your ex."
It was McGee's turn to glare, arms crossed defiantly over his chest. "I'm sleeping on the couch anyway, Tony. We don't all use undercover assignments as an excuse to cop a feel."
"Your loss, McLoser," Tony retorted instantly, his grin cheerful. Gibbs, he noted, continued to glare at him. "So this is what we caught on the Gibbs!cam..."
There were several models taking advantage of the on-site spa in the basement of the hotel, Monica and Meredith amongst them. Abby and Ziva shared a look that promised they'd stick together and went to the changing rooms, emerging a short time later in swimsuits with towels wrapped around them.
"I didn't think you'd volunteer to wear a bathing suit so soon after today," Ziva murmured to Abby as they made their way across the tiled floor towards the sauna.
"That was work. This is pleasure." Abby rolled her shoulders and untied the knot holding her towel up when they reached the small, enclosed space. She could already feel the dry heat from underneath the door where the seal wasn't quite airtight. "It's been too long since I went to a spa."
Ziva tilted her head, a thoughtful expression on her face as she hung up her own towel beside Abby's. "I do not believe I have ever been to one," she said after a short pause. "I have used the gym and pool facilities of various hotels but never the spa."
Abby grinned at her, her eyes lighting up. She grabbed Ziva's hand and drew her towards the sauna door, opening it and ushering her friend inside as a wave of heat hit her. She tried to avoid the sun wherever possible but had no objections to the dry heat a sauna could offer. "You'll love it," she promised, closing the door behind them.
They were unaware they were watched walking into the sauna, unaware they were watched through the fogged up glass door by someone sitting not far away on the heated stone seats in the relaxation area.
Just over an hour later, the three male members of their party were surrounded by printed out stills from the video footage they'd recorded that day. They had Ducky's notes, the original crime scene photographs and the original case file spread out on almost every available surface around them.
Gibbs ran a hand through his hair, his gut telling him that their killer was somewhere in the documents scattered around him.
"It could be that our killer is the obvious suspect. The photographer whose studio she was killed in. In which case, we're not gonna find anything here," Tony pointed out, but the expression on his face seemed to suggest he didn't believe what he was saying.
"If Nathan Adams was the killer, the cops would've arrested him before now." McGee argued the other side of the argument. "He was the prime suspect in the original investigation but there was no evidence linking him to Jessica Harlow – other the fact her murder took place in his studio."
Reaching for the original case file, Gibbs flicked through it until he reached the list of names of those who'd been present at the studio at the time of Jessica Harlow's death. "He wasn't the only photographer working the shoot," he mused, mostly to himself. "And four of the models there are also staying in this hotel." He closed his eyes momentarily and brought up a hand to rub his temples. "Our killer's here somewhere. We just need to find a motive."
"Jealousy," McGee suggested after a moment's hesitation. He shrugged when Gibbs and Tony looked at him. "Jessica was a popular model. She had a lot of assignments coming up that any of the other girls might've killed for. The agency said she stood to make half a million dollars in the next six months due to a major contract she'd just landed. Maybe one of the other models wanted in on it."
"Maybe." Gibbs gave a slow nod. "Work that angle, McGee. See if you can find out who got the contract after she died."
McGee pulled his laptop onto his lap and began typing away.
"What if it wasn't one of the other models?" Tony moved his neck first to one side, then to the other to relieve the crick in it. "What if it's someone else who had access to her? The photographers and their assistants, the designers, the tech support... She was popular with designers because she was beautiful, popular with the agency because of the revenue she brought in but from what I've read about her, she wasn't so friendly with everyone else behind the scenes. Maybe there was someone with a long-standing grudge who took advantage of the opportunity to get even with her."
"Another good idea. Get on it. Look back at the beginning of her career. See if there's anyone she pissed off enough to hold onto a grudge for five, ten years." Gibbs turned his attention back to the original case file, the wad of paper heavy in his hands.
Time to read it again, he decided with a sigh, and hope something new jumped out at him.
It was panic, pure and simple, that served as motivation.
They were getting too close, spending too much time around those that knew. They weren't going to drop the investigation into Jessica's murder and it was only a matter of time before the money ran out, before she told them what she knew.
Fate brought them to the same hotel, on the same assignment. Fate and fortune, that's what banished any lingering doubts or second thoughts.
It was meant to be. Meant to happen like this.
She was easy to take care of, alone in the steam room. She looked up when the door opened, momentarily tensing before a sly smile spread across her face and she patted the bench beside her in welcome.
"Here to discuss your next payment?" Meredith asked with a smirk. Her eyes were glassy from the wine she'd consumed at dinner – wine poured into her glass by a scheming hand. "I know your fee from this shoot is pretty high... Fifty percent of it sounds reasonable to me."
"I'm not giving you anything. I'm done paying you to keep quiet."
Meredith laughed, rolling her eyes derisively. "You'd rather I tell your dirty little secret? You want to go down for murder?"
"No. I'm not doing that either." The towel was damp with sweat and steam but would still work. Just a little bit closer, just a little nearer without her realising... "I'm through playing games. I'm not giving you a cent more..."
Meredith laughed gaily, leaning her head against the wall of the steam room. She made the mistake of closing her eyes, of falling into the same trap Jessica Harlow had fallen into.
Her inebriated mind took a few moments to process the towel being wrapped around her neck, a few precious seconds that meant the difference between life and death. Her manicured nails clawed at both the material and the hands pulling it tighter around her throat but it did little good.
Her body was left for an unsuspecting guest of the spa to find.
McGee found a trail of money leading into Meredith Casson's bank account at the same time as Tony discovered a similar trail leading into Jessica Harlow's. It took a tense half an hour to find the origin of the money, a further five minutes to confirm the identity of the person it belonged to.
"Why would Jason Green be paying both Jessica Harlow and Meredith Casson?" Tony asked aloud, the three men already making their way out of the hotel room to the elevators.
"The money didn't start going into Meredith's account until a week after Jessica's murder," McGee pointed out. "Maybe she knows he killed Jessica and started blackmailing him?"
"Maybe." Stepping into the elevator a split second behind Gibbs, Tony winced when his boss jabbed viciously at the button for the basement level of the hotel. "But why was he paying Jessica in the first place? What did she have on him if it was blackmail?"
Gibbs stared grimly at the metal doors as they closed, his foot tapping impatiently on the floor. "We'll ask him when we find him."
Her stomach hurt from so much laughing, her jaw beginning to ache, but Ziva didn't care; she couldn't remember the last time she'd had so much fun. She and Abby had moved from the sauna to the Jacuzzi, picking up a complimentary glass of champagne from the front desk at the spa on their way. They'd been pleased to find the hot pool of water vacant and had submerged themselves almost completely in its depths, sipping their champagne as they giggled over McGee's reaction to Tony's teasing and Tony's reaction to seeing McGee and Ziva's kiss on screen.
"He is a good kisser," Ziva chuckled, her cheeks flushing when she realised what she'd said. Another giggle escaped her, the bubbles of both the champagne and the Jacuzzi going to her head after leaving the heat of the sauna. "I am surprised that you and he are no longer together."
Abby shook her head, a giggle of her own escaping. "We broke up a long time ago." She waved her hand enthusiastically – thankfully not the hand holding the champagne glass or Ziva would've been sporting a black eye at best. "It was good but we're better as friends, you know? The connection is there but it's not in a physical sense. It's... He's... I dunno, he's McGee. Timmy! I love him completely but he doesn't make my heart go crazy or my mouth go dry."
"Unlike Gibbs," Ziva added slyly.
"Yeah, unlike Gibbs... Hey!" The hand holding the champagne glass came perilously close to hitting the tiled side of the Jacuzzi as Abby clamped her other hand over her mouth. "You tricked me into saying that!"
"I did not!" The giggle that accompanied the denial did little to add conviction to it. "I merely suggested it and you agreed, yes? Besides, there is nothing to be embarrassed about, Abby. McGee makes my mouth go dry and my palms get damp as Gibbs does to you. We do not need to tell them." She leaned across the water to pat Abby's shoulder comfortingly.
Still pouting, Abby sunk further beneath the surface of the water. "At least you stand a chance with McGee. He's totally got it bad for you. Like Tony and Charlie. Gibbs doesn't realise I'm a woman sometimes. He sees me as a lab rat and nothing more."
Ziva snorted indelicately. "If you believe that, you are truly delusional, Abby."
A loud commotion interrupted Abby's response and both women hauled themselves out of the hot water. Their champagne glasses were forgotten at the side of the Jacuzzi, one of them breaking and shattering but neither noticed.
Ziva reached for her gun before realising it wasn't there, wrapping her towel around her chest. She passed Abby her own towel and the two women walked in the direction of the screams.
"She's dead. Meredith's dead." The blond model was hysterical, one hand pressed against her mouth, the other against her stomach. "Oh, god. Oh, god. She's dead."
Another model neither Ziva nor Abby recognised stood leaning against the wall, tears sliding down her cheeks s hotel staff did their best to keep them from entering the steam room. Gibbs, McGee and Tony arrived, guns in hand.
"It's Meredith Casson," Ziva told them. "She is dead."
Gibbs looked towards the steam room grimly. "She was blackmailing Jason Green. We think she knew he killed Jessica Harlow."
"Have any of you seen Jason Green?" Ziva demanded, turning her attention to Monica and the other model.
"I saw him head towards the gym." Monica wrapped her arms around her bikini clad frame, her eyes red and puffy from crying. "I said hello but he just walked on by. Like I wasn't even there."
"Okay." Gibbs motioned for Tony and McGee to head in the direction Monica had indicated. "Ziva, you and Abby stay here."
Ziva took a step forward, mouth open to protest. She glanced down at her attire when Gibbs arched an eyebrow and crossed her arms over her chest defiantly. "I can still help."
"Yeah. You can. Keep Abby and the others safe," Gibbs retorted, throwing her a sharp look before following McGee and Tony towards the gym.
The hotel security guards accompanied by the police swarmed into the small enclosed area. Ziva told them briefly what had happened and was forced to watch as several of them secured the scene while the others went after the NCIS agents.
"Can we go wait somewhere else?" Abby asked quietly, her gaze flittering from Ziva's face to the steam room where Meredith's body was being examined. "I feel like I'm just getting in the way."
The way to the elevators was blocked but Ziva recalled seeing a stairwell near the pool. She gave Abby a reassuring smile and led her towards the swimming pool with an arm around her waist after telling the cop in charge of the scene which room they could be reached in.
They made it half-way around the pool side when the hair on the back of her neck stood on end and a blurred shape ran at them from the stairwell they'd been walking towards. The force of his body sent both her and Abby flying, with the latter ending up in the pool with a splash, followed by the man who'd ran into them.
Jason Green, Ziva noted as she sat up, rubbing her head groggily where it had hit the tiled floor. She watched him swim towards Abby, her friend trying to swim to the side of the pool before he could reach her.
Hostage, she thought grimly, and dove into the pool without a second thought.
Hands gripped her ankle and pulled her backwards. Abby gasped, getting a mouthful of chlorinated water for her trouble as she kicked in an attempt at freeing herself. Nails dug into the skin of her foot and she was sure they'd drawn blood from the way it started to sting.
She heard another splash as Ziva entered the pool, then found herself dragged beneath the surface of the water, hands and legs flailing wildly as she tried to get back to the surface to fill her lungs with much needed air.
She spluttered when she was finally able to break the surface of the water, coughing and choking at the same time as trying to inhale deeply. She tried to get enough air in her lungs to scream or shout for help but found herself dragged back beneath the water before she had a chance.
Dots appeared in front of her eyes and she saw the darkness encroaching at the edges of her vision. Panic made her kick harder but the hand around her ankle had a firmer grip that she'd anticipated and refused to budge. Her chest hurt, her lungs strained and she felt her body grow heavier and heavier as the bottom of the pool got closer and closer.
The hand around her ankle was wrenched away suddenly but she wasn't aware of it. Her eyes were unseeing as her body floated upwards, face down in the water.
The sound of Ziva shouting brought them running into the pool. They'd followed Green from the gym to the emergency stairwell, which had linked to that from the swimming pool. Ziva's shouts had told them which direction to go in.
Gibbs burst through the doors first, slowing his pace as his eyes took in the scene before him. His heart stopped for a moment, his breath catching in his throat. Ziva was fighting the photographer in the pool and looked to be winning but it was the figure floating face down in the water that caught his attention.
He didn't hesitate, divesting himself of his jacket as he dived into the pool, shoes still on his feet. He heard a splash as someone entered the water behind him, no doubt going to Ziva's aid, but his mind was completely focused on Abby.
He turned her body over, wrapping an arm under her chin as he swam back to the side with her. Her lips were tinged with blue, her face pale and her chest didn't seem to be moving though he could have sworn he felt a pulse in her throat against his arm.
Tony helped him get her onto the tiled floor and Gibbs glanced over at his other two agents to see them holding up an unconscious Jason Green between them. Satisfied that the killer had been apprehended, he turned his attention back to Abby, climbing out of the pool to kneel beside her head as Tony began chest compressions.
Gibbs leaned down and pinched her nose, easing her mouth open and pressing his lips against hers as he exhaled deeply. He pulled back and watched her face anxiously, dread coursing through him when there was no change.
He and Tony worked together to bring her back to them as Ziva and McGee dragged Green from the pool, restraining him securely before leaving him in the capable hands of the police so they could join their friends.
When she finally spluttered and turned her face to the side, all four of them breathed an audible sigh of relief. Abby blinked up at Gibbs, her expression confused as her body greedily inhaled all of the air her oxygen-starved lungs could hold.
"Hey, Gibbs," she mumbled, her voice husky as her eyes slid shut. "Had the weirdest dream."
"Really?" Gibbs stroked her hair back from her face, gazing down at her intently as Tony rocked back on his heels and let his shoulders slump in relief.
"Dreamt you kissed me," Abby continued drowsily. "Was nice but a bit wet."
A grin he couldn't control broke out across his face, even as he heard a muffled chuckle from one of his agents. He leaned down to speak to Abby and only Abby, his lips close to her ear as he murmured his reply. "Next time'll be better, Abs."
Abby didn't open her eyes but a small smile curved up the corners of her mouth. "Okay."
Jason Green admitted everything within half an hour of his interrogation at NCIS Headquarters beginning. Jessica Harlow had discovered that he had a rape conviction stemming from the beginning of his career and had threatened to reveal it to everyone if he didn't pay her. It hadn't mattered to her that he insisted he was innocent; it mattered that he was a professional, well respected photographer who would pay to keep his reputation and career intact.
He hadn't realised that she'd confided in Meredith Casson and he hadn't realised that Meredith had been taking a cut of the money he'd been paying Jessica. He admitted that she'd been winding him up on her final photo shoot, making comments in front of the other models and photographer, Nathan Adams, that he feared would lead to them to discover his past. He'd killed her on the spur of the moment, a crime of passion.
Meredith Casson had contacted him a few days later and the cycle had begun again.
The only thing that made it possible to walk out of the interrogation room without any broken bones was his genuine concern for Abby and his repeated apologies. He'd wanted a hostage, not another victim. He'd been desperate, hadn't meant to hurt her.
Still, it took a look from Gibbs to keep Tony from punching him and a glance at the two-way mirror where Gibbs knew Abby was standing to keep himself in line.
With the case wrapped up, the agents were glad to leave it behind them. Tony left the Navy Yard with Charlie, grinning ear to ear as he talked animatedly to her about the souvenir he'd brought back from the hotel gift shop for her son.
McGee waited by Ziva's desk until she was ready to go, noting the portfolio she carried beneath her arm and asking her what she intended to do with it. She just smiled at him and said nothing, leading the way to the elevators in silence.
A surprised almost-squawk could be heard as the doors slid shut, followed by the clunking sound of a heavy book being dropped to the floor as the couple shared their first non-staged kiss of many.
Gibbs waited at his desk for Abby to leave her lab, flicking through the portfolio that had somehow made its way back to his desk. He got to the photograph of her wrapped in the sheet, a blush on her cheeks and small smile on her lips. Her eyes, he remembered, had been locked on him at the time the photograph had been taken. He glanced up to check there was no one around before removing the photograph from the protective plastic covering it was in.
He folded it once, making sure the crease line was nowhere near her face, and slid it into the inside pocket of his jacket.
A shadow falling over his desk made him look up, a guilty look on his face as Abby gazed down at him, a shy look on hers.
"You could've just asked." She motioned to the open portfolio. "I'm probably going to throw them away or put them in the back of my closet till I forget they're there."
Gibbs closed the portfolio and unlocked his bottom drawer, stowing the leather-bound book away safely before locking it again. He arched an eyebrow when she looked at him in surprise. "You might want them someday."
"I don't think so but I appreciate the thought." She waited for him to collect his things, walking with him to the elevator bank. One of the two elevators, she noted, was stuck between floors but she couldn't hear any alarms. "I'm glad it's over but I think I'm gonna miss working so closely with you guys," she told him quietly as the second elevator arrived and its doors opened. "It sounds stupid but I do miss you when you're not around."
"Miss you, too, Abs, but I'd prefer it if you stayed here for a while." Gibbs let her step into the elevator first, following with a hand at the small of her back. "Give me a while to get over seeing you in that pool then I'll consider taking you out in the field again."
The doors slid shut as she glanced at him. "It was scary," she admitted. "And cold and wet."
A ghost of a smirk played on his lips but Gibbs said nothing, just watched her out of the corner of his eye.
"Something else was wet, too," she continued in a none-too-subtle hint. "You said the next time wouldn't be like that," she reminded him. "I'm still waiting for you to make good on that promise."
Gibbs hand moved quickly, hitting the emergency stop before she realised his intention. He turned to face her, a spark of humour in his blue eyes. "So you are." He advanced on her slowly, giving her ample time to move away.
Abby stood her ground.
His lips were gentle at first, pressed against hers in a teasing caress. He allowed her to deepen the kiss after a moment, wrapping his arms around her waist as one of her hands tangled itself in her hair.
"Better?" He asked when they parted, his lips hovering over mere millimetres above hers.
"Much." She smiled up at him, resting her head against his shoulder when he kept his arm around her waist even as he moved to activate the elevator again.
They made it to the ground floor just after the first elevator, both attempting and failing to suppress a smile as Ziva and McGee walked ahead of them, oblivious to their presence, walking so closely there was little if any space between them.
The security guards on duty said nothing as first McGee and Ziva left, followed by Abby and Gibbs. They'd already said goodnight to DiNozzo and the Director's assistant and couldn't help but share a confused look as the two couples made their way out of NCIS Headquarters, a perfect picture of contentment.