A/N: This fic was borne through a series of MSN conversations between wildpeace and myself, as a way to distract ourselves from the shared boredom and near-insanity of forced confinement (though for different reasons and worlds apart). If you haven't read her wonderful stories, I can't recommend them enough. In fact, I'd go so far as to fix you with a Gibbs-stare and order you to go read them unless you want your head slapped. ;)
Set during Season 7, around the same time as the Halloween ep 'Code of Conduct', but it's safe to say we're approaching semi-AU (or at least parallel-canon) territory. References to canon events may be made as things progress. Obviously, I/we do not own any of the characters, we're just twisting them to suit our own ends and will dust them off and return them in almost-new condition when we're done.
Hope you enjoy! :)
Healing, strangely enough, begins with tights. But nobody can accuse them of doing things like normal people, just like you cannot fit a square peg in a round hole, or pigeonhole a dark-lipped, dark-clothed woman as the storm clouds rather than the sun.
They are broken and flailing and in need of something to pull them all back together, and so it is fitting that it takes scraps of spandex to both reveal all and hold all until they re-learn the shape of things for themselves.
It's late afternoon, and Tony has been out in the field since 0700, cataloguing evidence and chasing up leads without so much as a minute to stop and smell anything, let alone the fish.
He and McGee spent the morning interviewing workers at the fish market where Petty Officer Jackson – their latest case – was found at first light, flayed and cold and very nearly de-scaled like the bed of salmon that had served as both icebox and grave. A prime example of why Tony is glad that murderers seem to be getting sloppier by the day – the killer might as well have chained himself to the body and waited for NCIS to arrive, given the amount of evidence he left behind.
They've got the hook, McGee found the line that ties together victim and suspect, and Tony's down in the Labby now in hopes that Abby is about to provide the MCRT with the sinker. He's ready for this day to be over, if only so he can scrub the lingering stench from his skin… and possibly burn his clothes. Ermenegildo Zegna shirt be damned.
"You smell like you've been at sea for months, Tony. They don't have showers in the gym for nothing, you know. And before you ask, Major Mass Spec is still working on your samples. But… guess what arrived by courier today?" Abby says, her excitement evident despite her wrinkled nose.
Tony can't help but smile. His mood lifts by measurable increments when she is like this, her cheer spreading through his weary flesh like a drug that you can't buy on any kind of market. Abby is intoxication by osmosis.
She holds something in her black-tipped fingers; a flesh-coloured offering. Soft spandex and cotton rather than crumbling wafers and sweet watery wine. Her face is sunshine-bright and hopeful, perhaps a little bit wicked. Tony stares at her blankly, a deer blinking in headlights. Blood roars in his ears like the purr of an oncoming vehicle, and he is frozen with incomprehension for a split second. Behind him, the mass spectrometer sends a sharp warning ringing through the air.
"Abs, do I need to hassle Maintenance about getting you some better ventilation in here? Clearly, you're higher than Willy Wonka after testing his snozzberry wallpaper if you think I'm wearing that in public. This DiNozzo does not wear spandex."
The lapsed Catholic in him wants to cross his arms to show he does not want her offering, but her smile makes it impossible to accept merely a blessing. He will take whatever she has to give, because she gives it so freely and expects little in return.
"Oh, they're not for you," Abby says slyly, shaking them a little and beaming. "These are Ziva's." Tony hopes his relief is not too obvious, and yet he can't shake the vague twisting sense that the other shoe is yet to drop.
From silly songs about goats and faint thready hope to the leaden final thud of there were no survivors. Because that's how it goes, like a happily-never-after fairytale.
In the present, Abby's other hand thrusts a scrap of forest green toward him, and Tony curses himself for not having anticipated the inevitable. Has he learnt nothing from Gibbs over the years?
"I thought you might want a little extra room in yours," Abby says, and he pulls the fabric apart with both hands, stretching, testing. She unzips a hanging garment bag and pulls out a tunic and belt, waving it in front of him like a NASCAR flag.
"It's gonna be a little cold with only one ankle covered," Tony mutters, resisting the urge to catapult the tights across the room. He looks carefully at the proffered costume. "Also, I'm not really sure I want to ask -- but why am I moonlighting as Robin Hood? Did the Director of Rottingham decide to enforce a new dress code?"
She laughs, but it is bittersweet. "Not Robin Hood," she says, her eyes flicking over towards a familiar photograph tacked to bulletin board near the window. Dark hair and dark eyes, a smooth forehead as yet unmarred by holes or tears or mortuary putty. "Peter Pan." He doesn't understand the connection, but her gaze turns pleading. "You promised, Tony!"
"We've had 'the talk' about alcohol-fuelled promises, Abbs. They're better forgotten immediately, just like that time you danced on the – "
She cuts him off hastily with a double-handed Lycra-laden wave. "You weren't drunk. And we don't talk about the Oriental Hotel incident, like we don't talk about Commander Voss and your adventures in transsexual intimacy. " Ouch. For a moment, Tony imagines having this conversation with someone else. Serve and volley and return, taunts flying across the net of space between desks. He pushes the thought away so forcibly he can almost feel the jagged hole it leaves behind.
"What exactly did I promise, Abby?" he asks. A touch edgily perhaps, but it's been a long day and Tony's tired of games, or just plain tired. He reaches up to run his hand through his hair and thinks better of it when the smell of fish reaches his nose.
A missed scale shimmers beneath the nail of his index finger and he flicks it absently and watches it fall to the ground. As the Senior Field Agent, he really shouldn't have to go hauling bodies from crates of fish. That's what the two probies are for, even if McGee is technically no longer a probie and Ziva is only labelled one because Gibbs said so and Gibbs' word is still law, however absent he might be of late.
And yet… this morning found Tony knee-deep in fish and icy slush and Ziva off somewhere with Gibbs, while McGee sketched and photographed and provided a steady stream of observations. Maybe Tony's the only one who can't break the habit of trying to goad her to a reaction, a tantrum, something other than that odd half-smile and guarded stance. Ducky's mostly given up, or at least backed off. McGee usually acts like the last few months never happened, though occasionally Tony catches him looking at Ziva as if he can't believe she's really there, solid rather than spectre.
Gibbs – he doesn't know what Gibbs is thinking, really, except that he's conspicuously withdrawing from the team, holing up with Vance and muttering in corners while Tony takes the lead. Whether he likes that or not, Tony hasn't decided.
Abby looks at him evenly, a hint of compassion shading her gaze. Rather than answer, she lays the costumes carefully on the shining silver tabletop and crosses to her computer workstation in three long heavy-booted strides. She pulls a pearl-coloured envelope free of the tape that secures it to the side of the monitor and hands it to him without a word.
"CNMC cordially invites you to attend their annual Halloween Spectacular," he reads, blinking. "What's – "
"Children's National Medical Centre," Abby supplies quickly, her tongue tripping over the words as if the sheer speed of them will convince him. "Ducky did some consulting for them awhile back, got friendly with the pathologists over there, and during one of their poker games – "
"Ducky plays poker?" Tony interjects, then mimes zipping his lips at her glare.
" – Anyway, he swung us all an invite. Or… volunteered us. That part wasn't clear."
"Okay," he says slowly, "So, Ducky loses a few games because he can't keep himself from telling the story of the time when he had this exact same hand back in Wherever and Whenever, and what? Bets that these NCIS agents he knows can't hobnob with a bunch of stuffy docs for a night?" Tony thinks about it for a minute. "Wait, is this Vance's doing? Are we meant to be undercover or something, because if we are, I shotgun being Bond. No place to hide my Sig in – " He cocks his head at the mess of green poly-cotton and tulle lying limply on the table " – that. You can be my Bond girl, if you like."
"Hold up, James," Abby says, biting her lip. "As much as I want to play at being a field agent, we're not going to… hobnob. Nice Ducky-like word, by the way. It's not that kind of party." It's not often that Abby looks uncertain in a way that's not followed by a 'but I'll find out how to do that for you, sir yes sir' expression of determination.
He looks at the invite again, grasping at straws. "Hot-nurses-only party?"
Abby sighs, her pigtails whipping as she clicks open a dialogue box on one of the computer screens and starts typing with speed that puts his own two-fingered hunt and peck to shame.
"It's a party for the patients and families, Tony. Sort of a charity thing, a fundraiser. They get volunteers to dress up and run games every year, and there's punch and glitter and the kids are super sweet, really, you'll just love – " Her voice trails off as they simultaneously remember Tony's spectacular attempts at winning over the children they've encountered through the years. "Please?"
"Hot moms?" Tony tries, though the words are a hollow attempt at channelling long-abandoned ways. Later, he won't be able to explain what made him agree, but the smile she turns on him is oddly hypnotizing, and he finds he has to feign indifference. "I'll check my schedule."
Abby's squeal echoes around the lab, reverberating off walls and skittering across the floor. He can't help but grin, then something occurs to him as he examines the tangle of costumes more carefully. Shades of forest and grass and apple fall in soft waves among delicate tulle and glitter, and he thinks of animated remnants of childhood, protesting at his female cousin's choice in videos and his father's stern reminder about guest etiquette.
"Wouldn't have picked you as the Tinkerbell type," he says, resisting the urge to touch the shimmering fabric. The tights he leaves well alone on the corner of the bench, as though he can block out the inevitable by sheer force of will.
Somehow, he knows what she's about to say before the words bubble out.
"I'm not. It's for Ziva." Abby abandons the computer and spins around conspiratorially. Her fingers, untainted by fish and flesh, stroke the material gently. "I was looking for your Pan costume when I saw this on the same website, and I couldn't resist getting it. Do you think she'll like it?" She's like a child on Christmas morning, waiting for her mom to ooh and aah over the painted macaroni necklace or two dollar comb set.
"Yeah," he says slowly, and she bounces on the balls of her feet to a chorus of jangling chains. "Just one thing, though." She raises her eyebrows, waiting. "Who's going to tie her up and drug her to get her into it?"
He regrets the words as soon as they come out, but they hang in the air like the look that Ziva sometimes isn't quite quick enough to hide. Wonder and old ghosts and a hint of regret.
"I'm sure she'll wear it for you, Abbs," he offers, a small sickly attempt at comfort in the face of harsh truth. Anything to wipe the stricken look from her face.
Abby has not forgotten Rivkin and Israel and Somalia, even though technically she saw none of those things. She sees not the places, but the memories of them, like an old movie reel projected onto their everyday interactions in flickers and spurts. The strange antagonism in their once easy banter. The way Tony shakes out the muscles in his shoulder surreptitiously on cold mornings or the small thready scar on the bridge of Ziva's nose. McGee's sudden nerves about being in enclosed spaces for any length of time.
"Hey; if I'm Pan and Ziva's Tinkerbell, what's Probie? McTickTock?"
"You'll find out on Saturday," Abby says mysteriously, avoiding his eyes. "And don't bother looking for the costume bag, I've got it hidden in a special secret place."
"That sounds most intriguing, dear Abby," Ducky pipes up from the doorway, chuckling at their surprised looks. "Clearly I am channelling Jethro's stealthy approach today. I'd assumed I would find him here, but obviously I was mistaken." He steps through the door and studies the evidence table carefully with a knowing twinkle in his eye. "Are those – "
"Not evidence in our case, and not what they should be doing," Gibbs says pointedly as he strides through the door, nodding at the medical examiner as he crosses the lab. "Came to see what was taking DiNozzo so long."
"Boss, I was just – "
"Don't ask, don't tell, Dinozzo. I'm not gonna ask why you have pantyhose in your hands and you better damn well not tell me."
"They're for – "
"Whaddya got, Abbs?" Gibbs continues without breaking stride as his hand meets the back of Tony's head in reprimand. Tony doesn't flinch, but he makes a face because he knows some reaction is expected.
"Costumes, oh fearless leader. Which reminds me, did you pick up – " Abby trails off at his expression. "Getting back to the case. I matched the hair and tissue samples Ducky took from Petty Officer Jackson to the samples McGee collected from Mr Loxton, so it looks like Tony was right and – "
Gibbs merely takes the proffered sheet of paper and turns on his heel without a word. Abby pouts and adopts what Tony has come to think of as her 'Gibbs voice' – a hint of gruff impatience that sounds odd spilling from her mouth as she fills in the silence that Gibbs left behind.
"Wow, Abbs, good work on that one, and so fast too, you must have been working all day with no break for so much as a Caf – "
"Better move that cup before Peter Pan ends up wearing red-stained pantyhose," Gibbs calls from just beyond the door, and three heads turn as one to blink at the Caf-Pow on the burnished aluminium counter. "And I would never say 'wow'."
"They're tights," Tony mutters as soon as he hears the elevator doors open, glaring at the empty doorway. "Very manly. Laurence Olivier wore them in Macbeth. Christopher Reeve wore them in Superman. Christian Bale – okay, he had the whole rubber Batsuit and Kevlar thing going on, but you'd want something underneath to stop the chafing and…"
Abby snorts wickedly around her straw, and he's sure Ducky is stifling a laugh.
"When you're done justifying, we've still got a case to close. You can get your superhero on when your report's on my desk and you've been through the decon showers. Twice. You stink like fish guts."
Tony sighs. "Coming, Boss."
Somebody has to be the comic relief for the gruff hero-type, after all.
Comments, thoughts and concrit welcomed and appreciated.