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Illusions Lost

Chapter Text

Our experience is composed rather of illusions lost than of wisdom acquired.
Joseph Roux

 

“Tony. Nice to see you. Please, sit down.”

Oh God. She was going to demote him. That was the first thought that darted through Tony’s mind, but given how things were going in the MCRT, it seemed reasonable. However, DiNozzos never let people see ‘em sweat, so Tony plastered on a smile. “Thank you, Director.”

“How are you settling in as team lead?” The director sat back down in her chair, and Tony chose the one right across the desk from her and tried to project confidence.

“It’s rough, but we’ll work through it.” That was as close as Tony could get to the truth. Did everyone do their job? Yes. Did they do anything directly insubordinate? No. Did any of them act like they trusted Tony for one second? Not a chance in hell. They all acted like four years as Gibbs’ second in command meant nothing and he knew nothing.

“That’s good to hear. Do you have the final paperwork on the Grant case?”

Tony had never missed Gibbs so much in his life. Tony had never dealt with political pressure to close cases because usually those requests went to Gibbs, and Gibbs was utterly unaffected by anyone else’s requests. “Yeah, but I’d like more time to work on it. We never found the money, and Captain Grant insists he didn’t open the account used to channel the funds.”

Director Shepard leaned forward. “You have the witness, yes?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She sighed. “Tony, you’re my lead investigator on my top team. Please, call me Jenny.”

Tony gave a weak smile. “Jenny, then. We do have a witness, but Tim hasn’t found the money and I’d like a little more time.”

“I appreciate your thoroughness, but the Navy has insurance on the money and I need you on another case.” She slid a classified folder across the desk at him. “I think you’re uniquely qualified to handle this case. It’s undercover work, and Gibbs always said you were the best he’d ever seen.

Tony felt a little twinge of pride. He was damn good at undercover, and right now he needed a job that he could finish and finish well. He opened the file and started reading. “Arms dealers?”

“One arms dealer. Rene Benoit has been diverting weapons from naval installations. I want him.” Tony could hear the determination in director Shepard’s voice. When he’d first suspected that Sheppard and Gibbs had a sexual relationship in the past, he’d been surprised. But when he looked into Jenny Shepard’s eyes right now, he saw the cold and unrelenting agent who would’ve been an equal to Gibbs.

Tony whistled when he read the suspected scope of Benoit’s operation. “This is huge.”

“And I want him in my interrogation rooms. I trust you to put him there.” Again, Tony felt that rush of self-worth that been entirely too lacking lately.

“What’s the cover?” Tony started flipping through the files to find the details. As much as he hated to say it, he hoped that director Shepard was bringing in additional manpower for his backup. McGee had been distant and strange lately. Tony understood Abby’s grief. He could even sympathize with Ducky’s pain and the way he withdrew from the team. However, McGee hadn’t even been particularly close with Gibbs. Tony had no idea why Gibbs’s absence was having such an effect on Tony’s Probie. But it was. He was distracted and quick to leave the office the minute he was off the clock. It was like he was working a second job, and if Tony was undercover, he wasn’t sure he wanted McGee in charge of the surveillance. But telling Director Shepard that felt like throwing a teammate under the bus.

“You’re going in as a professor of film studies.”

Tony laughed. “That’s a cover I can get behind.”

“I thought you might enjoy it.”

Tony kept flipping through the pages. “I don’t see location listed. Where are we going to work out of?”

“This isn’t like other undercover work you’ve done. This is a long-term operation, and honestly it has a low probability of success. That means we have to minimize how much we extend ourselves. In phase I, you won’t have any contact with Benoit or his operation. You are to establish yourself.”

“So it’s not twenty-four seven?”

“No. You’ll work with your team on cases during the day, and before you go home you will spend a little time frequenting places where your secondary target has been seen. Sit. Take your laptop and play movies. Grade essays. A lot of this is going to be boring work because you need to establish that you are Tony DiNardo. Once you start to establish that cover, I will pull you from the team at random times. Record all the time you spend working on the case, and I will sign off on overtime or you can save it up as comp time and have a nice vacation after we bring La Grenouille down.”

Tony could already feel himself getting into the headspace. Tony DiNardo. Professor Tony DiNardo. There was a lot of himself in this character. DiNardo was going to be a laid-back sort of man. He was quick to smile make a joke, and he didn’t let things get to him. He worked for an online university because he didn’t like the politics that came with a brick and mortar school. He wanted to teach—not argue over funding. DiNardo was idealistic and enthusiastic. Tony wanted to be him. “Exit strategy? Surveillance?” Those pages were missing from the paperwork .

“Like I said, low risk, low expenditure. I’ve set up a cell phone for you.” Shepard opened a drawer and pushed a phone across the desk. “No matter where I am, I will answer calls from this phone. If something is going on, if you need extraction or if you spot Benoit, then you call me. I will dispatch a team to your position immediately.”

Tony couldn’t be hearing that right. She was suggesting that he wouldn’t have any surveillance. “Ma’am?”

The director sighed and leaned back in her chair. “Please, call me Jenny. I feel so old when people call me ma’am. Undercover work was my bread-and-butter; hell, Gibbs taught me. Back then we didn’t have satellite surveillance and tracking of cell phones. We set up long-term operations and sat and waited. All these other agencies have tried to bring Benoit down, but he knows our game plan. He knows how to spot electronic surveillance. He has some of the best technology people in the world on his staff. So I’m taking a play from Leroy Jethro Gibbs’ playbook. We are running this old school. No surveillance. No wiretaps. No computer forensics. And I understand how dangerous this is, because any undercover operation can go south. That is why I am promising you that I don’t care if I’m in a meeting with the President of the United States, I will take a call from that phone. I will stop everything and make sure that I always have your back. But I have one asset that none of these other agencies have. I have an undercover agent trained by Gibbs. You can do this Tony. You can go old-school and bring this bastard down.” Not only did Jenny give an impassioned speech, but Tony could tell that she meant him. She trusted him to get the job done when others couldn’t.

When she smiled, Tony smiled back. “Old school, huh?”

“Old school, just like me and Jethro in Paris. Read through the background and talk to me about your thoughts and concerns, but I want to get moving on this because developing this avenue could take years.”

“I’ll do that, Jenny.” The name felt strange. Tony stood and tucked the file under his arm.

“And Tony,” Jenny said, “this is strictly classified. Your team does not have the clearance to know any of it, so keep that under lock and key.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Tony agreed, but he had to force himself to smile. He couldn’t tell his team about a case he was on? Rule fifteen. Always work as a team. Tony wasn’t sure he wanted to leave himself out in the cold. Hell, that setup led to more than one agent getting screwed over in cold war movies. Tony could feel his heart start to pound. But he would read the file cover to cover, and then maybe Jenny could alleviate a few of his concerns.

Chapter Text

Tony regretted asking to meet in a night club the second he pushed through the doors. The music pounded at his bones, but it was one of Garcia’s favorite places. If Tony was going to break the law by revealing classified intel, he wanted to at least make sure he was limiting himself to other federal employees with appropriate clearance levels.

A man with glitter eyeshadow rubbed up against Tony. “You got the hot Daddy going for you,” he yelled in Tony’s ear.”

Daddy. Great. Tony’s ego was never going to recover. “I’m looking for my girl,” Tony shouted back. The moue made the man’s displeasure clear, but he turned and danced away, leaving Tony free to push his way toward the slightly quieter back of the club. That’s where Garcia would be. She was a watcher, a trait that Tony greatly appreciated in her. Where Abby was always dragging him out on the dance floor, Garcia was equally happy dancing or sitting in a dark corner studying everyone.

Tony just hoped that their tentative friendship would handle the amount of stress he was about to put on it. Garcia had come out clubbing with him and Abby a few times, and Tony had been to her house for a barbeque that had included half the forensic technicians in town and most of the BAU. It’d been a little surreal. But as much as he liked her, they weren’t bosom buddies, and he was going to ask for a big favor.

He just didn’t know who else to talk to. Abby’s grief was making her a little unpredictable, and where he normally would have talked to Ducky, the ME was emotionally shut down after Gibbs’ hasty exit and lack of any respect for a twenty year friendship.

“Hey! Tony! Here we are!” Garcia was bouncing up and down, like Tony might miss her. Even in this club, she stood out. Tony headed for the back booth she had claimed, but halfway there he noticed she had company. Ignoring the flash of guilt that made him feel like he’d been caught out late after curfew, he hurried to greet her.

“Garcia! My computer goddess!” Tony caught her in a big hug.

“Tony! My Italian Gigolo of male perfection!”

Tony laughed. No matter how foul his mood, Garcia could always make him smile. “I never should have told you what Mrs. Mallard calls me.” The familiar teasing made a world of grief slide off his back.

“I would have thought it anyway,” Garcia promised. She turned to the other person at the table. “Tony, you know Derek Morgan.” Tony hid a wince and smiled at the agent.

Morgan stood. “Hey, man. Nice seeing you again.”

“Yeah, it’s great seeing you.” Tony looked over at Garcia, and he could see the tight way she held herself and the worry on her face. She was worried because this wasn’t some random coincidence. She had brought Morgan intentionally. Tony frowned. “Garcia, did you bring back-up to a date?”

“This is a date?” Morgan looked suddenly uncomfortable.

Garcia punched Morgan in the arm. “Not a date-date. You know I avoid dating anyone who does field work. My heart cannot take it, not when I worry about you guys all the time. But Tony, you sounded all weird on the phone. It almost sounded like you were trying to avoiding telling people you were talking to an FBI analyst and you called me Penny. No one calls me Penny.”

“I was distracted,” Tony said, which was a pretty weak defense. Garcia was no Penny. Sure, she was a good Penelope after a few drinks, but Penny didn’t quite fit. “It’s just been a bitch at work lately.”

“You’re a supervisory agent over at NCIS, right?” Morgan asked.

“Yeah,” Tony said, and he could hear the uncertainty in his own voice. He was giving this profiler way too much information, and that was going to complicate things. “Garcia, I was hoping we could talk, just you and me. You know, catch up.”

Morgan raised his hands. “Don’t mind me. Garcia just thought you sounded off, so I tagged along to see if there was anything I could do to help, but I don’t want to cramp your style. I’ll just get us some drinks. What’s your poison, Agent DiNozzo?”

“Rum and coke, heavy on the coke,” Tony said. He’d like to down about a gallon of rum, but it wouldn’t help anything.

“You got it.” With a nod, Derek vanished into the mass of people on the dance floor, and Tony had the feeling he’d be gone a while. It was a good man who took a subtle hint to get lost without even showing an ounce of annoyance.

Garcia sat on the bench seat and patted the space next to her. “Okay, my love, you sit down and tell momma all about it because something has you tied up in knots.”

“I’m fine.”

Garcia snorted. “Do I have to call Abby?”

“No!” Tony snapped far louder than he intended. Garcia considered him with wide eyes before she caught him by the hand and pulled him down next to her on the bench.

“Okay, spill. You’re worrying me.”

Tony ran a hand over his face. Why had he come here? “I shouldn’t put you in the middle.”

“Oh please. I put myself in the middle so much that I can’t even tell how many middles I’m in the middle of. You tell me what’s going on, and I’ll decide for myself whether I’m getting involved in your middle too.”

Tony watched the undulating masses on the dance floor. He wanted to strip off his badge and gun, take off his clothes, and vanish into the crowd like the main character in that old British series who had walked into the ocean and then washed ashore a different man. Tony wanted to be a different man with a different life, and he didn’t know how to get there. He just knew that the more he had read that file, the worse he had felt. And maybe he would have swallowed all that discomfort, but Jenny’s answers had been too vague and her promises of backup were too passionate for complete sincerity. Jenny’s order that he leave his team out had cut off some of Tony’s support, but the team’s lack of interest in doing anything more than the minimum finished the job. If Garcia couldn’t help him, Tony was going to have to either take this job blind or risk pissing off the director.

He studied her for a minute, before he caught her hand in his. Her big flower ring poked his fingers. “If this is too much, you have to tell me. I will never forgive myself if I drag you down with me.”

She leaned forward. “You tell me what is going on right now or so help me, I’m hacking your computer and replacing all your Tony Bennett and Dean Martin with 50 Cent tracks.”

Tony knew a losing hand when he got dealt one. “Fine, but seriously, you need to consider telling me to fuck off.”

“I will as soon as you tell me why you called.”

“I need you to hack NCIS.”

Garcia reared back like she’d seen a snake.

“Forget it. It’s fine.” Tony tried to stand, but Garcia caught his arm and pulled him back down.

“I won’t forget it. Are you trying to get intel over your clearance level or is this part of some practical joke? What are you looking for?”

Practical joke. Yep, he was DiNozzo the clown—good for nothing for comic relief. “Do you really think I’d ask you to hack a federal agency for a joke?”

Garcia had the grace to look chagrined. “No, but in my defense, if you did, you wouldn’t be the first. And worse, I actually took the dare. But that’s a story of a Garcia long ago and far away. What do you need and why do you need it, and do not even try to leave without giving me those details.” As if to make her point, Garcia tightened her hold on his arm.

“I need to know if NCIS has an open investigation on an arms dealer named La Grenouille, aka René Benoit.”

She looked at him for a second, her expression making it clear that she was waiting for the rest of the story, but that was it. “And you can’t ask your director? You’re a supervisory agent now.”

Tony ran a hand over his face. “Director Shepard asked me to go in undercover with René Benoit’s daughter, but the mission specs don’t include any backup.”

Garcia’s eyes got large and her mouth fell open.

“It’s not completely unheard of for long-term, low-risk positions. With daily check-ins and a panic signal, I would have some support.”

“Low risk? Low risk?” Garcia’s voice rose. “Arms dealers are not low risk.”

Tony leaned close and hushed her. “This is need to know, and you don’t, so could you at least pretend that I didn’t violate my confidentiality agreements by reading you in on a classified piece of intel?”

Garcia slapped a hand over her mouth and then leaned closer. “Are you asking me to get the file and find out why you aren’t assigned any backup?”

“No, no that’s too dangerous. I just want you to check the general logs and find out if NCIS even has an active case officially on file.”

For a long time Garcia was silent. She considered Tony with tragic eyes, and he felt about two inches tall. He was putting her right in the middle because he couldn’t handle his own shit. Gibbs wouldn’t have needed to bring in outsiders to get answers. Finally Garcia said softly, “You think Shepard is running off the books operations.”

Tony looked out over the crowd. “Maybe,” he finally admitted.

“Oh boy.” Garcia’s words were little more than a whisper nearly lost in the thump of the music.

“Look,” Tony quickly added, “I don’t want a team of FBI profilers getting in the middle of an undercover situation. Agent Morgan knows something is up, so if you have time, there is a second favor that you could tell him about if he pushes.” Tony pulled a piece of paper out of his small notepad and wrote a name and bank number on it. “We just sent a case to the prosecutor’s office. Renny Grant stole a million bucks from a Navy credit union. We have a witness and my computer guy tells me the money trail is solid, but he couldn’t find the money, and I don’t know computers well enough to check his work.”

Tony had a little niggle of a doubt on the Renny Grant case. He had been planning to close the case, but he needed a cover or Morgan was going to find out about the Benoit case.

“You couldn’t ask Abby to check it?”

For some reason, that hit Tony like a punch to the gut. A month ago he would have bet anything that he could always turn to Abby, but time had disproven that.

Garcia wrapped her arms around him in an awkward sideways hug. “Hey, no, it’s okay. Tracing money is like a hobby for me. I track down politicians’ illegal slush funds all the time, and I didn’t just tell you that. Forget I mentioned it, and tell me what’s going on with Abby.”

“Nothing. She just…”

“Misses Gibbs and is emoting all over everyone,” Garcia said firmly before she finally let Tony go. “I get that. But if she’s not doing her job, then you should pull her aside and tell her to get her head out of her very perky ass. I love her, but I’m not blind to the fact that she’s not handling this well, and as someone else who doesn’t handle change or accept new people quickly, I get it. But if she’s refusing to help a team leader, that’s over a line. And until her head and ass separate themselves, I have your back.”

Tony wished it had been something as concrete as Abby not doing her job. No one said or did anything that taken singularly could be considered disrespectful or insubordinate, but still, Tony felt like he was suffering a death by papercuts. “She said I was undermining Tim’s confidence and that a good team leader wouldn’t assume that the computer genius screwed up the computer work. She then told me that my gut didn’t justify hurting Tim and that I needed to stop trying to be Gibbs with his famous gut and be Tony, the guy who loves and trusts his team.” Funny, Tony didn’t feel much love or trust, but according to Abby, that’s who he should be.

“She accused you of being Gibbs because you have a gut feeling? Seriously?” Garcia sounded almost amused.

“She’s upset,” Tony said. He might be pissed at Abby, but he didn’t want anyone else taking shots.

“Oh sweetie, every cop, fed, and spook I’ve ever met has talked about his gut, and I’ve known a whole lot. Maybe I should invite Abby over for dinner and let her have a good cry and get all this out because she has a logic circuit that’s come loose somewhere.” Garcia nodded toward the bar. “Look, here comes my chocolate dream.” Garcia took the paper with Renny’s information and slipped it into her bra.

Tony snorted. And people accused him of being unprofessional. He wished he worked somewhere that let him talk like Morgan and Garcia without assuming it meant he couldn’t do his job. “So, do you two want some privacy?” Morgan asked.

“Nope!” Garcia said. “I have the two most beautiful men in this place, and I plan to play queen and lord my riches over all the lesser beings while you guys talk shop.”

“I don’t want to take over the conversation,” Morgan said as he set all three drinks down and slid into the seat on the far side of Garcia.

“Oh please,” she said. “Get two feds together and sooner or later they start comparing scars or near-death experiences. By the way, Tony will win that, and I don’t want to hear another description of his near death by pneumonic plague, so move on to the biggest bad-ass you’ve ever taken on. Tony, you’re first up. Go.” Garcia brought her hand down as though starting a race. Tony started laughing, but he did start the story of Ducky, Vincent Hanlon, and the meat puzzle.

Chapter Text

Tony was sprawled over his couch when the doorbell rang. For a second he considered ignoring it because he was too tired to get up. He put in fewer hours without Gibbs around to drive everyone into the ground and Jenny throwing every damn case at the MCRT, but Tony still somehow ended up more exhausted than ever.

He didn’t handle interpersonal conflict well. That’s why he joked—to put everyone at ease. Only now the strategy seemed to have backfired on him. When the bell rang again, Tony forced himself to cross the room and check the peephole. Agent Morgan was in his hall.

When Tony opened the door, Morgan smiled and held up a sealed envelope. “Hey, Garcia is caught up in a case, and she asked me to bring over some paperwork.”

“Hey thanks.” Tony was about to reach for it, but Morgan put the paperwork at his side. Raising his eyebrows, Tony studied Morgan.

His smile grew wider. Yep, he was playing Tony and not even trying to be subtle. “Mind if I come in?” If Morgan had tried to charm his way in, Tony would have made an excuse, but this open, unvarnished bribery with the paperwork was unexpected. It was enough that Tony was curious.

“Sure, come on in.”

Morgan passed Tony and spent a little time walking the living room and checking out the view. “Nice place you got.”

“Yeah, well when the last tenant gets shot in the living room, it drives the price down into range for a civil servant.”

Morgan laughed. “Not a bad trick. I renovate homes on my off time. I might keep that in mind.”

“Yeah, but make sure you have a good buyer. You have to disclose that information, and a lot of people do not want to go to sleep ten feet from where someone bled to death.”

Morgan nodded slowly. “I imagine not.” Apparently the small talk portion of the evening was over because Morgan leaned back against the wall and crossed his arms. Tony imagined that the posture was intended to look less threatening, but Morgan was a large, well-armed federal agent, so he couldn’t exactly make himself look like a fluffy bunny. “So Garcia tells me you just got a promotion to team lead. Good for you.”

Tony felt that same stab of discomfort that showed up every time someone mentioned his promotion. “Yeah. It’s been three weeks now.”

“I turned down an offer for a team. FBI teams are larger, and I was not ready for that responsibility.” Morgan’s honesty was completely unexpected.

Tony got the feeling there was more there that Morgan wasn’t saying, but it seemed rude to say something. “It’s not easy,” Tony admitted. He wondered if Morgan was telling the truth or if he was saying what he had to in order to get Tony to feel comfortable enough to open up. But if it was a lie, it was a dumb one. As a fed, Tony could find that information easy enough.

“I bet not. But Baby Girl says you’re one of the best. I was Chicago PD, and she says that those of us who used to walk a beat have our feet more firmly on the ground.”

“She has a rare respect for cops,” Tony said, bitterness in his voice. When he’d tried to say something about his ten years of experience, McGee had actually corrected him. Corrected him. And then Ziva had accused him of exaggerating because Tony only had four years on the job, as if NCIS were the only place investigations took place.

A frown briefly crossed Morgan’s face. “Not many people do these days. It could be worse, though. Hotch is a lawyer. Now there’s a cross I wouldn’t want to bear.”

Tony laughed dully. It was expected after a line like that. “True enough. I don’t know many who like them. Do you want a beer?”

“Actually, I’d love some water if you have it. It’s been a bitch of a day, and if I start drinking, I am going to want to take my shoes off, put my feet up and fall asleep in front of the closest television.” Morgan followed Tony into the kitchen and parked himself at the island before he asked, “So, how long were you a cop?”

“Six years in three different police forces, including making homicide detective in Baltimore.”

Morgan whistled. “Baltimore is not an easy beat. I did four years in Chicago, but that included eighteen months deep undercover.”

Tony handed over a glass of water. “I did undercover work in Philly. It’s miserable work.”

“Hell yes. After that, I started taking psyche classes and applying at federal agencies. I might have sent my resume over to NCIS at one point. How long have you been with them?”

Tony leaned back and studied Morgan. “You’re less subtle than you think, and I’ve had four years at NCIS. Do you need anything else to complete your profile?”

“It’s not like that.”

“Then what is it like?” Tony leaned against the counter and pinned Morgan with his best Gibbs’ glare. While he didn’t expect to intimidate the man, he did want to make it clear that he had a limited patience when it came to game playing in his own home.

“Baby girl says that your team is giving you a rough time. I got to looking at the structure over in your building, and I realized you don’t even have a special agent in charge of the office. The team leads are on their own unless they want to take a problem all the way up to the director. It’s a hell of a position for a new team lead.”

For a second, Tony considered bluffing. If he had one person in his life that had shown a fraction of this concern, he might have, but he felt like he was running on melting ice and about to take one hell of a fall into a freezing water. If some fed got a preview of the disaster that was about to be DiNozzo’s career, he couldn’t find the energy to care. He shrugged and admitted, “I’m not the best team lead.”

“That so?” Morgan’s voice was utterly devoid of emotion or judgment. The man was definitely a profiler, and he knew how to work the emotional angles.

Tony gave a mirthless laugh. “Yeah.” If he had more leadership skills, he would know how to get out of the hole he found himself in.

Morgan put the envelope on the counter close to him, and leaned his elbows on the granite. “So, give me the rundown. Throw some ideas out and I’ll give you a straight up assessment.”

“Of what?”

“Of your leadership, of your team, of how you can step up to the plate. I don’t promise to give perfect advice, but sometimes you just need someone on the outside looking in. And my Penelope thinks you’re about perfect, so I know you’re a good agent. She has a thing for people who right all the wrongs in the world, and she has your name on that list.”

“Lately, I’m not so sure.” If Jenny had her way, Tony would be spending his time trying to emotionally manipulate a doctor into betraying a father she rarely even saw.

“So, who’s on your team?” The question was factual and without emotional connotation at all.

“Is this an interrogation? You have a nice technique there,” Tony said.

Morgan grinned. “I wouldn’t even try to get something by you, Agent DiNozzo.”

“Tony. Just call me Tony, and my team includes agents McGee and Michelle Lee and Officer Ziva David.”

“Okay, so give me assessments. How do you see each of them fitting into the team?”

Tony snorted. “I might reassess your interrogation technique. That’s a quick jump into difficult and emotionally loaded territory.”

“If you were a suspect, I would have worked my way up,” Morgan said, which was as good as admitting that this was a planned attack. But it was also someone offering to help, and someone trustworthy, and one of Garcia’s friends. Hell, anything Tony said was probably part of the general scuttlebutt already. The top investigators at any agency tended to keep an eye on each other. If it wasn’t out of a worry that another team might step on an active investigation, then it was a desire to poach good people from a rival agency.

“Come on, you fix an engine by taking it apart and looking at the pieces. So give me the parts and let’s see if we can’t talk this out.”

Logically it made sense, but Tony wasn’t sure he wanted the team’s dirty laundry hanging out for the FBI to dissect. On the other hand, Tony didn’t see an exit strategy, and any lifeline looked good to a drowning man.

“Agent Lee was prelaw and had started law school before joining NCIS’s legal department. She’s rigid in her thinking and overly concerned about following policy, but a solid agent, even if she’s greener than grass.”

Morgan laughed. “It sounds like you just described Spencer, although he has degrees in psychology, sociology, philosophy, chemistry, engineering, and mathematics. But for all those books smarts, when he first started, he couldn’t spot the obvious truth two inches in front of his nose unless someone wrote it down in one of the many languages he speaks. He’s gotten better—a lot better—but I do remember when he was so green you’d get grass stains standing next to him.” Morgan shook his head fondly.

“He’s the skinny one, right?”

“We can’t get that kid to gain weight no matter what we do. Rossi feeds him Italian, I take him weight lifting, and Garcia slips him chocolate all day, and that’s the heaviest he’s ever weighed.”

“When he came to Garcia’s barbeque, he was wearing his sidearm, and I remember thinking that it was nearly as heavy as he was.”

“Oh God. Don’t even talk to me about how he handles weapons. I will trust him at my six every time, but do not ask him to make a difficult shot.”

“That’s McGee,” Tony said. He stopped laughing. Morgan was laughing fondly, that was obvious. He liked his teammates and the stories were a sort of sibling exasperation. But Tony found his own laughter had a darker edge the second he brought up McGee.

“Okay, so tell me about McGee,” Morgan said softly.

“Don’t try your Jedi BAU mind tricks on me,” Tony said in an effort to recapture the easy joy, but neither of them laughed. “He came on the team two years ago, but he worked at the Norfolk Naval Base before that, and he helped us with a number of cases. He’s good with computers.”

Morgan nodded. “But he only has two years in investigations. How about your last team member?”

“Ziva? Yeah, she doesn’t have much experience.”

“Does she have less than McGee?”

“Let’s see. She started in October. It’s now June, so yeah. Yeah, she does have less experience. She’s a liaison officer from Mossad.”

Morgan’s eyebrows went up an inch. “On an investigative team? Seriously? What the hell? You guys are the premier team over there. Are you telling me that you’re the only seasoned investigator on the whole damn team?”

“Hey, McGee can hold his own.””

“Yeah, no, he can’t. Garcia told me about your fishing expedition and your gut feeling that he had dropped the ball. He did. And if you had ignored your gut, you would have been just as guilty of negligence.” Morgan slid the envelope across the counter to Tony. Tony opened it and started reading. He wasn’t halfway through the first page before the nausea set in. Renny was innocent. The logs were falsified, and Garcia hadn’t even required fancy hacking to prove it. A high-quality forensics software identified areas where the logs had been altered, and Garcia had simply had to go through the code line by line. Even Tony could have spotted the mismatched dates once the software had dug the information out of the encrypted program and translated it into useable data. Renny had been in Iraq when the money had vanished. And Tony had signed off on the case. He had put his name down on a report that condemned an innocent man.

“Who?” Tony asked weakly.

“Don’t know,” Morgan said. “My guess is you know where to start looking.”

“Lieutenant Grady signed a sworn statement and agreed to testify that Renny Grant opened the account. And since this is on a military base, I need to check up the chain of command. Renny was an officer and if he didn’t help set this up, someone higher up the food chain than a lieutenant must have.”

“Sounds like you have a good place to start,” Morgan said. “So tell me, were you comfortable signing off on that case? And did you sign off on it?”

Tony knew his answers damned him, but he wouldn’t lie, not after what he’d nearly done. “I had a few doubts, but not enough to go up against the director and my team. If Gibbs had been here, I would have told him that I didn’t feel good about it, but instead I signed off on the investigation.”

“What would Gibbs have told you?”

Tony thought about that. He’d been trying so hard to avoid thinking about how Gibbs ran cases that it took him some time. “He would have told me that feelings weren’t evidence and to come back with evidence. I would have then threatened or bullied McGee into finding the evidence.” Tony sighed as he suddenly realized the problem. “But I didn’t want to bully my team, and I don’t know how to give an order and have them follow it without doing exactly that. When I was a teammate, it didn’t matter.”

“But it does now,” Morgan said softly.

Tony looked at the Renny file and his gut was so tied in knots that it hurt. His chest ached with the weight of the mistake he’d made. “I don’t know how to lead this team.”

“Do you trust them?”

Tony wanted to say he did, but he just wasn’t sure, not anymore.

Morgan sighed. “I can’t give you answers. I can only tell you to follow that gut. It seems to lead you right. If you trust your team, talk to them. If you don’t, ask for a transfer.”

“And if I don’t trust myself?” Tony asked without looking up from that damning file.

“Work in an office with an agent in charge who can help you develop some leadership skills, the first among those is to trust yourself. If NCIS won’t accommodate that request, the FBI sure as hell will. You have a good reputation, DiNozzo. You’re the one who makes Gibbs play nice with others. You have a way with investigations. Hell, get about twenty hours of deviant psychology under your belt and I’ll advocate for you to join the BAU.”

Tony looked up. Trying to get Tony to change agencies was a long leap from one botched case. However, one piece of information would make that a logical jump. “You know about the undercover assignment.”

Morgan nodded. “My baby girl is worried, and when she worries, she comes to me to fix things. But the fact that you figured that out so fast is why I know you’d be one hell of a profiler. Both of us want you out of NCIS because the op isn’t sanctioned. It looks like the CIA has an active case and has flagged any activity with Benoit, so your director would be sending you into the crossfire between an arms dealer and the CIA. Garcia is sick over the thought of you taking this assignment.”

“I won’t,” Tony said firmly. He hadn’t trusted himself on the Renny case. He’d taken easy answers because it made everyone uncomfortable when Tony pushed. Tony wasn’t Gibbs. He might not ever be as good as Gibbs. However, he couldn’t keep second guessing himself and trying to stay in the shadows to avoid conflict. “I’ll tell Director Shepard that I am too concerned with my team to take time running an op. This is exhibit A.” Tony tapped the file.

“How are you going to explain where you got it?”

And this was the part where Tony ruined any chance at staying on Shepard’s good side. “I’m going to tell her the truth. Abby refused to run the computer work a second time so I took it to another agency and asked them for help.”

“She’s going to be pissed.”

Tony snorted. “She’s going to be in a long line of people who are going to want my head, although she’ll get the first spot.” Tony was throwing himself and the whole team under the bus, and getting shown up by the FBI was the cherry on the shit sundae. “No offense, but I really need a little time to get my thoughts together.”

“I hear that.” Morgan stood. For a second he stood there like he was going to say something, but Tony turned to the refrigerator. He wanted for footsteps as Morgan left, but instead Morgan said, “You’ve got one hell of a day tomorrow, but listen, under the suits, we’re both still cops. If you need me to have your six, you let me know.”

Tony nodded mutely. Only then did Morgan leave.

Chapter Text

Tony stood outside of the NCIS building and dialed McGee’s number. If he tried taking on the terrible duo together, he was going to have a war on his hands. He had charted out his attack plan, and McGee was the weakest link, or in this case, the member of the You’re-Not-Gibbs brigade who was most likely to see the truth when it hit him in the head. “Hey McGee, are you close to work?”

The voice on the other end of the phone was annoyed. “Yes, Tony. I’m only five minutes out. Don’t assume I’m going to be late.”

Tony took a deep breath to calm his nerves. “I wasn’t. I was going to invite you to go for a coffee before work.”

“Yeah. Right.” McGee laughed.

“McGee,” Tony said slowly and deliberately. Then he fell silent and waited.

“What?” McGee finally asked.

“Do you want to go out for coffee or do you want me to reserve a conference room so we can have a private conversation in the building?” Tony hadn’t intended to get into the bossy portion of the conversation so quickly, but the McGee of his imagination hadn’t been such a pain in the ass about grabbing a coffee.

“What are you talking about?”

“I gave you two choices. Pick one.” Tony pretended this was an undercover job, and he was Supervisory Special Agent DiNozzo, a calm and cool boss who handled issues quickly, decisively, and without ever forgetting that he held all the power. Sadly Tony had less in common with this character than he did with Professor Tony DiNardo.

McGee sighed dramatically. “This had better not be a setup for some elaborate joke.”

“Agent McGee, I promise you that this is not a joke, and I won’t ask you again.”

“Geez. Fine. I’m pulling into the lot now. We can go for a coffee.”

Tony hit the disconnect button and took a deep breath. Had he ever talked to a boss like that? Then again, had he ever had a boss who put up with even a fraction of that disrespect? And yet Tony’s stomach was in knots. He knew how to confront bad guys, but confronting good guys who were acting like shits was so much harder, especially when he actually liked the shitheads in question. And speaking of shitheads, McGee came around the corner.

Tony didn’t want to have a conflict so he started walking toward the Navy Yard coffee shop. McGee was cutting it close this morning, so the place was fairly quiet. People were checking in with teams and starting work, so the coffee shop would be quiet for a short time. Let people get settled, and a second wave would be down for refills. Tony wanted to be done by then.

“So, what’s so important that we can’t get settled at our desks?” McGee asked. “I have a search going on the Anderson case.”

“We need to talk about the Renny Grant case,” Tony said.

McGee stopped six feet from the coffee shop door. “I am not going to listen to you imply I can’t do my job. When you want to talk about a real case, come and get me.” McGee turned around.

Tony had to raise his voice, which unfortunately made them the center for too much attention, but Tony had to take charge quickly. “Agent McGee, you will come back or I will write you up for insubordination.”

McGee whirled around. “You wouldn’t.”

Tony held up the file folder he held. It wasn’t a standard NCIS folder and he counted on McGee’s curiosity, even if McGee didn’t have a healthy respect for Tony’s willingness to use the internal disciplinary system. “After reading this, I would, so we can talk about this or I can file the paperwork with the director’s office.” And with that, Tony turned and headed into the coffee shop. Two secretaries had heard, and both watched them with open curiosity, but when Tony gave them his best imitation of a Gibbs glare, they both took their coffees and left. Tony was going to need antacids by the truckload before this was over. He was starting to understand why Gibbs cultivated his second-b reputation.

“Fine. I’m here,” McGee said as he got in line behind Tony. Tony finished order his order for coffee before holding the folder out. He didn’t trust himself to talk so he accepted his coffee and headed for a table.

“You had someone check my work?” McGee demanded loudly. Clearly he hadn’t gotten that far into the file because he had his indignation going strong. “I can’t believe you.” Abandoning the coffee counter without ordering, he came over to the table Tony had chosen. “What sort of power trip are you on? You pulled in the FBI? Did you even have the director’s permission?”

“Nope,” Tony admitted easily. “But then I’ve picked up one or two tricks from Gibbs, like rule 18. I’ll ask for forgiveness for my sins, but I suggest you keep reading.”

“Why? So you can prove that someone else found the damn money you were so hot to find? Christ, Tony, no one expects you to be Gibbs. You don’t need a confession, a smoking gun, and a bow tied around every case, okay?” McGee practically threw himself into the chair across from Tony.

“You done?”

McGee slammed the file down on the table. “Yeah, I am. Get over this inferiority complex you have, Tony. You don’t need to be Gibbs.”

“Read the file.”

“I’m going to work.” McGee went to stand, but Tony slammed his hand down on the table, startling him before he could rise.

“I’m not Gibbs, which is why I’m on the verge of filing official insubordination paperwork that Gibbs didn’t even know where to find. Your supervisor has ordered you to read a file with paperwork relating to a case and you will follow that order or you will suffer a very black and white charge of insubordination.”

McGee stared at Tony, and there was this huge part of Tony that wanted to smile, to say it had all been a joke. That way Tony would never need to damage his friendship with Tim. Sure, it wasn’t a great friendship, not now anyway, but Tony liked Tim and his gut churned at having to play the heavy. However, the alternative was that more suspects like Renny Grant could end up getting railroaded. Tony wouldn’t purchase his own peace of mind at that cost. And if he found out about Renny by accident, that was just one more reason for him to step up to the leadership plate now before something horrible happened. So he was playing Supervisory Special Agent DiNozzo and he couldn’t afford to break his cover.

McGee reached for the folder, a scowl on his face. After one last unhappy glare in Tony’s direction, McGee settled down to read.

The worst part of all of this was that McGee wasn’t trying to be disrespectful. He just honestly thought Tony was being unreasonable and that Tony’s instincts weren’t worth following. Tony considered that the team just might be too broken to put back together. When Gibbs came back, and Tony knew he would, Gibbs was going to head slap Tony into the next century.

McGee flipped a page, and sat up a little. His gaze darted across the paper and he flipped faster and faster. “Oh my God,” he started saying softly at first and then louder as he continued reading. “Oh my God. Oh God. I didn’t—” McGee looked up with anguished eyes. “I never thought… If I’d had any idea.” McGee stopped, his mouth still open.

“I know Tim. You didn’t mean for any of this to happen, but we need to talk before Director Shepard gets that report.”

“I’m dead.” McGee’s fingers twitched as though desperate for something to do. “She’s going to kill me for missing this.”

“No, she won’t.”

“Tony, you don’t get it. I should have followed the money. You asked me to keep going, and I decided I’d done enough work. Director Shepard is going to kill me.”

“No, she’ll kill me,” Tony snapped.

McGee’s gaze snapped up. “What? Why would she blame you?”

And that was the perfect example of what was wrong. Tim still saw them as equals: equally competent, equally culpable. Tony leaned forward. “She would blame me because I am your boss. It is my responsibility to make sure that screw ups like this don’t happen. Because I have ten years of experience to your two, I should have done more.”

McGee reared back in the chair and stared at Tony like he’d grown a second head.

Tony kept his tone neutral. “When I asked you to keep tracking the money, why did you tell me that it wasn’t necessary?”

“We had a witness. The money went through Grant’s account. It seemed like overkill.” McGee threw up his hands. “Tony, now is not the time to try to play boss. We can talk to the director about this together.”

Tony grimaced. “Every time you offer to help, I start thinking one of us needs to transfer off the team. We aren’t equals and we won’t do anything together. I am the senior supervisory agent whose name is on that report.” Tony forced the words out even though he wanted nothing more than for the two of them to be teammates dealing with a cranky Gibbs. But that world was gone. Gibbs had ripped that away by leaving with nothing more than a “you’ll do” and Tony was moving past being hurt by that betrayal and quickly developing a good case of rage.

Despite that, Tony had to take charge because Morgan had been right about one thing—a failure to fix this was nothing less than negligence. The next time Tony looked Morgan or Garcia in the eye, he wanted to be able to say he’d stepped up and acted like a leader. He wanted that more than he wanted to be friends with Tim, and so he braced himself to dish out ugly truth.

“As your supervisor, I never ordered you to continue the computer search. That is my mistake. Now I need to figure out where we stopped communicating well and I need to make sure it doesn’t happen again, or we cannot work together on a team.”

McGee leaned forward. “Tony, you’re freaking me out a little,” he whispered.

Tony ignored the comment. “Why did you disagree with my request that you continue searching?”

When McGee looked around the room nervously, Tony braced himself for something truly damning. “I had somewhere to be,” McGee finally said, which seemed a little anticlimactic for all the nervous tics he was displaying.

“Where?”

“That’s personal!”

Tony leaned back. “How can I trust your judgment if you think going on a date is more important than a case?”

McGee’s expression turned dark. “Oh, that’s rich, Tony. You’re going to accuse me of womanizing? Seriously? Have you even looked in a mirror lately?”

Tony stared at McGee, and slowly twin red spots started appearing on McGee’s cheeks. Only then did Tony speak. “I have never left work because of a date, but you’re right that my various complaints about having to cancel dates were unprofessional. Your criticism is duly noted. Now, did you leave the Grant case because of a date or were you simply so unimpressed by my request that you didn’t think it important?”

“I thought you were trying too hard to be perfect,” McGee said.

Tony let the silence continue. There was more to the story, and Tony had more patience than McGee. Ten years of stake outs and interrogation rooms had given him skills McGee couldn’t match, just like McGee had technical and computer skills Tony had no hope of developing. McGee started fidgeting after three minutes. At six minutes, his neck was red and the blush was deepening on his face. At eight minutes, he cracked.

“I’ve been doing some work on the side, and I had something to finish, but I would never leave an active investigation. I thought you were trying to prove you were as good as Gibbs, and another night I probably would have stayed just to make you happy, but I was cutting it close on an important deadline.”

Tony wasn’t sure where to even begin with that mess, but he was undercover, so he let that persona he’d created take over. Supervisory Special Agent DiNozzo calmly and efficiently got the job done, and Very Special Agent Tony would go home and process the fact that Tim had zero respect for his investigative skills later. “Have you filed paperwork with personnel letting them know the nature of your additional income?”

That seemed to flummox McGee. “What?”

“There are policies about outside work, Agent McGee. Have you filed the correct paperwork with the personnel department?”

“Um, no.”

Tony nodded. “Do that this morning. Also set aside four hours this afternoon to work on SFA paperwork. As of today, you will do all paperwork related to the SFA position or you will use the four hour window to write Director Shepard a letter resigning your promotion so that you have more time for outside projects. It goes without saying that you need to make sure to file your paperwork with the personnel office before you give the director anything referencing that work.”

McGee stared at Tony with his mouth open. “What? We have the Anderson case.”

“Which will be solved by noon. It’s not a difficult case, McGee, and how your time is allotted in the office is at my discretion not yours. Those four hours this afternoon are non-negotiable.”

McGee crossed his arms. “So I can do that entire mountain of paperwork you didn’t finish before Gibbs left?”

“It doesn’t matter what was or wasn’t done when Agent Gibbs resigned,” Tony said emphasizing the last word. In reality he had neglected some paperwork because he’d been chasing down terrorists, but that was the nature of the SFA position. Some months he had lots of down time, and other months it felt like he was constantly racing the clock and working so late he didn’t bother going home. “You are SFA, and all SFA paperwork is your responsibility.”

McGee started to shake his head. “Oh no. You do everything you should have done up to the day my promotion came through, and then I’ll take over.”

“Is that your final answer, and before you say ‘yes,’ keep two things in mind. First, I will write you up. Refusing to do a task as directed by a supervisor is over the line. Second, there is every chance that Director Shepard will either fire or transfer me when she sees this report.” Tony actually figured that she would be more upset about his refusal to go undercover as DiNardo, but McGee didn’t deserve to get dragged into that clusterfuck. Tony still felt guilty that Garcia was involved and texting him every two hours to make sure he was safe and not going after arms dealers by himself.

“She wouldn’t,” McGee was quick to say, but he sounded unsure. At least that was a start. McGee was beginning to understand the depth of the shit they were all swimming in.

“She would,” Tony said. “She may demote me back to the SFA position, in which case you will have done all my paperwork. It’s unfair, and you really don’t have a choice because I’m your boss now and I’m ordering you to do it. Her other option is to put me on probation and transfer me to a team that handles less sensitive caseloads.” Tony got the feeling Morgan was actually in favor of that. He talked like Tony needed a mentor, and while Tony would put his investigative skills up against anyone, he was starting to think he might need more support to develop comparable leadership abilities.

“McGee,” Tony said as gently as he could, “you’re damn good with computers and you learn new skills faster than anyone I’ve worked with. One day you are going to be one of the best agents in NCIS. But you aren’t that good right now. If I’m off the team, the new lead is going to expect a lot. We have to get you up to speed on as much of this as possible before that happens. If you run to me asking for help filing the month-end reports or asking for names with the local LEOs because you don’t have contacts, that’s going to put your promotion in danger. Technically we shouldn’t have counted your time at Norfolk as field experience, so a new team lead might decide that your lack of experience doesn’t even qualify you for the job.”

“You’re talking like everything is going to change.” McGee looked truly upset now, so maybe he got it.

“I’m giving it 60-40% odds that it will, and those odds are not in our favor. We didn’t just fuck up a case, we proved that we are incapable of working together efficiently. Our teamwork resulted in a clusterfuck of epic proportions.” Tony tapped the file. “The program the FBI used, do we have access to it?”

“Financial crimes would,” McGee admitted after a second.

“And I didn’t ask that question before closing the file,” Tony said unhappily. “One last question. Did you tell Abby that she should refuse to check your work?”

“What? No!” The indignation was real, but then Tim slowly started sagging. “Although I might have said that you make me feel like a kid who can’t be trusted to walk down the street without holding his mother’s hand.”

Tony winced. That was not a ringing endorsement of Tony’s leadership style.

“I resented you for making me feel like that, because that’s how Gibbs used to make me feel,” McGee quickly added. “We used to get along better, and I didn’t like that I got out from under Gibbs only to have you start hovering the way Gibbs did.”

“And yet you never refused to do work he asked you to do,” Tony said. “And if you had, he never would have accepted ‘no’ for an answer.”

McGee didn’t have an answer for that. Tony stood and reclaimed the damning file. “Do not brief Ziva on this discussion. Tell her that personnel is all over you about screwing up paperwork. Tell her about your second job even if you don’t trust me enough to tell me what it is.”

“It’s not like that!” McGee protested.

Tony held up a hand. His new cover persona wouldn’t care about McGee’s motives—only his results. “It’s not my business, but at twelve-thirty sharp, you will be at your desk, lunch finished, ready to do every bit of SFA paperwork. Make sure you take notes so you can complete it all without me next month. If you want me to arrange an informal barbeque and invite some of my law enforcement contacts, let me know and I’ll introduce you around. Between the Anderson case and this, do you have enough work to keep you busy while I deal with the director?”

McGee stood. “Tony, we’re team. You don’t have to be like this.”

Tony sighed as he studied his probie. “Look at the mess we made Tim. We both have to change or we’re not giving the victims the justice they deserve. Now stay away from Abby’s lab until I have a chance to talk to her, and like I said, do not read Ziva in on this situation.”

McGee nodded mutely and Tony headed out the door. Once he was in the street he realized he’d left his coffee behind, but he was too damn tired to care. Being Supervisory Special Agent DiNozzo took more effort than Tony had anticipated.

Chapter Text

“Hey, Abby.” Tony walked into the church of the almighty Gibbs. Pictures of the man were set up on the wall of the lab like a shrine. Tony had seen one or two set ups like this one in the homes of serial killers.

Abby whirled around. “Tony! What are you doing here? Do you have another case? More evidence? Gimme! My babies are ready, willing, and able to hunt down all doers of evil.” She was so joyful, and lately that wasn’t common. Tony had to fight his own instinct to smile back and pretend that everything was okay. Honestly, he probably would have except he now had evidence of his culpability in nearly convicting an innocent man.

“No new case,” Tony said. He wasn’t sure how to transition into the rest.

She gave him a little frown. “Then why are you here? You must have closed the Anderson case by now. If we have any more evidence against him, my lab is going to collapse under the weight of it and we’ll have a black hole down here.”

Tony crossed the room and caught her by the hands. “I need to talk to you, and I need you to put on your all-science, all-about-the-facts lab coat for this.”

“Oh, that doesn’t sound good. Tony, what’s wrong?” Abby squeezed his hands.

“Just promise me you’ll read the whole thing before reacting.”

She pulled away and gave him a suspicious look. “What? Why?” She made a grab for the file Tony was carrying under his arm, but he jerked it away before she could claim it.

“No, you don’t get this until you make that promise and pinky swear it.”

Abby planted her hands on her hips, which was never a good sign. “Hand over the… whatever it is you have.”

Tony mentally girded his loins. “No. I need your word.”

Abby went from hands on hips to arms crossed. “I’m not making a promise like that without knowing what you’re asking me to read. Now stop being annoying.”

The direct approach wasn’t working. After a second, Tony admitted, “You’re going to read about how I screwed up a case.” Oh, Tony knew that McGee and Abby both had their hands in this mess, and he resented that neither of them had gone the extra mile for him the way they would have for Gibbs, but in the end, he was the lead agent. He could have ordered Abby to check McGee’s computer work, but again, he’d been too afraid of damaging friendships. To be honest, he was afraid she’d pick McGee and he’d have to face the fact that Tony DiNozzo was not nearly as important to others as he liked to pretend.

Abby’s face contorted with sympathy. “Oh Tony. You’re new. Sometimes things happen.” She closed in on him as if to hug him, and Tony backed away fast. Then he looked over that the shrine to Gibbs plastered over a good quarter of the lab.

“Did it happen to Gibbs?”

She rolled her eyes. “Well of course not to Gibbs, but he’s Gibbs. You’re like Trainee Gibbs, and you’ll one day be as great, but for now, you’re going to make mistakes sometimes. I make mistakes sometimes. It’s okay.” Her encouragement was going to drive him to therapy.

“Abby.” Tony sighed. He had no idea how to be undercover Supervisory Special Agent DiNozzo with her, and if he tried, he was going to hurt her feelings. Worse, she would emotionally gut him and leave his body out as a warning to future team leads to not fuck with Abby. The woman was like a big teddy bear stuffed with napalm and shrapnel. “I need you to look over these results. Promise to read the whole report before you say one word.”

She stood up a little straighter and drew a cross over her heart. “I swear I will read every word, and I’m guessing that afterward I’m going to take you out for drinks so I can remind you that you are still Very Special Agent Tony and awesomer than the awesomest of awesome superheroes.” She then held out her pinkie.

Tony solemnly pinkie shook before handing over Garcia’s report. While Garcia’s name wasn’t on it, it was from the FBI, and Abby knew her friend’s writing style. She might figure it out, so Tony pulled out his phone and started texting while Abby read.

--McGee is chagrined, he texted.

He got back a series of symbols, and it took Tony a second to realize they were a narrowed eyed side look via emoji. Clearly Garcia was not impressed with chagrin. Abby’s frown was reaching epic proportions and she backed up to sit at her evidence table. When she looked up, Tony held up his pinky to remind her that she’d given her word. She huffed and went back to reading.

--Abby knows I got FBI help

--Team leads do that.

Garcia definitely wasn’t showing much sympathy. Tony hoped that didn’t damage Garcia’s friendship with Abby. The two women enjoyed each other’s company and Tony would never want to make either of his girls unhappy.

--You okay? Garcia texted.

--Peachy

--That bad?

--Waiting for explosion

--Keep fire extinguisher handy

Tony didn’t have an answer for that, so he stared at the text without responding. It was so weird to be relying on two FBI agents for reality checks, but lately it was as if he couldn’t talk to his own team without seeing this twisted up version of himself. Maybe he played the class clown, but he was a damn good investigator. But every word that came out of Tim or Ziva or Abby made him start to question that. He had actually signed off on the Renny case even though his gut had told him something was off. It hadn’t helped that Shepard wanted him available to work on her undercover op, that’s for sure. At least she had respect for his abilities. Either that or she didn’t care if he died in a shootout between the CIA and arms dealers. The jury was still out.

Abby’s frown had deepened and she was reading faster now. Tony felt like he was sitting on a bomb and watching the timer tick down.

When Abby turned over the last page, she looked over at him, horror on her face. “Oh poor Timmy. What are we going to do? We can’t let the director see this.”

“What?” That was so far outside what Tony had anticipated that he didn’t even know how to answer.

Abby clutched the folder to her chest. “You’re the team lead now. You have to channel your inner Gibbs and protect your team. Oh God, and we can’t let Tim see this. Well, maybe we’ll have to, but only after we build up to it slow, and it’s good that the FBI analyst didn’t find the money because we can have Tim do that part and it will help him get his mojo back. Tim can’t be mojoless. You have to fix this.”

Tony stared at her, his mouth open.

“Tony!” she cried, her voice wavering with emotion. “You have to save Timmy.”

Tony reached some critical mass that he hadn’t known he was approaching. Rage was a hot poker sinking into his skin and searing his flesh. “I’m far more concerned about Captain Grant—the man sitting in a prison cell right now.”

Abby reared back. “Are you suggesting I don’t care about Grant?”

“I don’t know. All you’re talking about is McGee.”

Abby punched him in the arm. “Because I trust you to make sure Captain Grant doesn’t go to prison, and I’m worried about McGee. Don’t you dare make it sound like I’m a monster who doesn’t care about justice. I swear, I don’t know you anymore.”

Tony felt something inside break. She was worried about Tim—she wanted Grant freed—but so far she had shown zero interest in him. Either she was just like McGee and never had and never would think of him as a team lead or their friendship didn’t mean much. Tony’s head suggested the first was true, but his heart worried over the second. “If you were so worried about McGee, why didn’t you do anything to head off this disaster?”

“Me?” Abby sounded indignant.

“Yes, you. You were the one who refused to do this work that I had to take to the FBI.”

“So if I don’t double check everyone, then it’s my fault if there’s a mistake in processing evidence?” Abby pressed her lips together in an angry line.

“If the team lead asks you to check the processing and you refuse, then yes. You refused to do this work. Worse, you never went to McGee and said, hey, your team lead really wants this computer work done. Maybe you should take a couple of hours and do it.” Tony’s voice had grown louder until he was nearly shouting. He took a quick step back and slowed his breathing. Supervisory Special Agent DiNozzo. He had to channel the part.

Abby’s face was ashen, but she had twin red spots in her cheeks, which was a clear sign she was angry. Angry, not remorseful or regretful or even chagrined. “Ever since Gibbs left, you run around and make everyone feel bad about themselves. I don’t like to say that because I love you, but it’s true. You’re focused on being negative and I’ve tried to stay out of it because I know you’re hurting with Gibbs leaving us. He was like a father to you, and that means I’ve tried to be patient, but if you don’t stop criticizing everyone, then people aren’t going to like you very much.”

Supervisory Special Agent DiNozzo. Supervisory Special Agent DiNozzo. Tony chanted that in his head before he answered. “What you perceive as negative, I perceive as directing my subordinates to complete work that should have been done correctly the first time. Did you or did you not refuse to complete the computer forensics work I requested?”

“Because you were being negative and making Timmy feel all insecure. He was stuttering again.”

“So I should ignore a possible miscarriage of justice because my senior field agent has hurt feelings?”

Abby pointed her finger at him. “Don’t you dare turn this around on me or Tim. You have no idea how devastated he’s going to be. We have to figure out how to talk to him about this. Then again, maybe you shouldn’t. You’re all negative Nancy, and he’ll need more positive energies around him.”

Tony rarely got angry, but right now he was using every bit of self-control and every undercover skill he possessed to avoid doing or saying something completely unprofessional. Abby was telling him that he had no right to even speak to the agents on his own team. There was no way she would say that to any other team lead, but she was so focused on Tim and his fragile feelings that she couldn’t see anything else. Tony might love Abby, but right now he also hated her a little bit.

“He’s not as incompetent as you’re painting him. He was upset; however, he also understands his mistake and he’s committed to being a better SFA.” At least Tony hoped that was true. If Abby and Ziva got to him, they would probably convince him that Tony was the center of all his problems and he’d be fine with any other team lead. Newsflash, he wouldn’t be. Gibbs wouldn’t have put up with this behavior for one day.

“You told him?” Abby sounded horrified.

“I ordered him to read that same file.”

The bright red marks on Abby’s cheeks got a little redder.

“But I didn’t write Tim up despite the fact that he admitted that he didn’t do the additional work because he had something else to do that night. Instead I’ll take the blame for this. I didn’t order Tim to stay and finish. I didn’t order you to do a second forensics examination of the computer. I asked both of you for those things, but I didn’t sit you down and point out that as a team lead I have every right to assign the work I want done on a case. And because I didn’t make it an order, I will take every bit of blame for this.”

Tony felt like he was putting his soul out on a table to bleed, but Abby rolled her eyes. “Don’t be so dramatic. You aren’t the computer person, so no one is going to blame you.”

“I’m the team lead. I’m responsible for everything my team does, and the responsibility for this does land on my doorstep. Director Shepard very well may suspend or demote me.”

“No she wouldn’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because Tim made the mistake. Now stop being so selfish and focus on protecting your team. We should have Tim go back and use this information to recreate the decrypting. Then we could say that Tim reconsidered your request and found this on his own.”

“So we should falsify federal evidence,” Tony said flatly.

Abby punched his arm again, this time harder. “I would never do that. This would be more like a replication study, and in a replication study, both sets of data are equally valid.”

Tony detoured around Abby and picked up the file. “If you keep treating Tim like he’s some little boy, he’ll never develop the balls he needs in this job.”

“Wait, where are you going? We haven’t decided what do to about Tim.”

Tony reached the door and turned around. “I have a meeting with the director. At this meeting, she will rip me a new asshole for being unable to run my own team. She may or may not demote me. She may or may not suspend me. I don’t think she’ll fire me, but I’ve been wrong before. Meanwhile, Tim is finishing the Anderson case and working on SFA paperwork. If you want to help him, stay away from him until Director Shepard decides how angry she is. If you want to sabotage his career, go running up there and in front of Ziva and every other agent offer to protect him from all the bad things in life that he can’t handle. I’m sure Ziva will get a good laugh out of that even if the other agents don’t. And after Director Shepard comes down on my head, don’t show up and offer your sympathy because I’m too angry at you to want it.”

“Tony DiNozzo, you’re just being mean!” Abby said with fury in her voice.

“Yep,” Tony agreed. He didn’t know how to be nice and get the job done, so he couldn’t disagree. As he left he heard the common refrain that if Gibbs were here things would be different. Tony headed out the door and checked his watch. He had twenty minutes before he had to speak to the director.

By the time he reached the bullpen, Tim was already on the phone, his face bright red. “No, seriously, it’s okay.” Tim gave Tony a ‘help me’ look that Tony ignored. Supervisory Special Agent DiNozzo did not get involved in stupidity.

He stopped in front of Ziva’s desk and dropped the file in front of her. “Read fast, we only have a few minutes.”

She gave him an odd look, but then she opened it and started reading. In some ways she would be easiest because she saved her worst machinations for when he wasn’t around. He still had no idea what her game was. Sometimes he thought she got off on playing emotional and sexual games with people. Other times he thought she was so wounded herself that she didn’t know any other way to relate to human beings. It was rare that he couldn’t get a read on someone, but in the end, he supposed it didn’t matter.

“Abby, no!” Tim said loudly. “I’m not the one to feel sorry for.” Tim covered the mouthpiece of the phone and looked at Tony. “Could you—”

“Nope,” Tony said. He’d already fought and lost that battle.

Tim cringed, and part of Tony wished he knew what Abby was saying. Part of him wished he could move to Alaska and take up ice farming.

“So, Renny Grant is not guilty. Are we taking the case back?” Ziva asked.

“I don’t know. I just know the director will not be pleased with us.”

Ziva closed the file. “I was not involved with the inadequately processed evidence.” She glanced over toward Tim. Luckily he was too busy fielding Abby’s crazy to notice his partner shoving him under the bus.

“No, that was Tim, and I was the one who failed to give a direct order that he should dig deeper. Clearly Tim and I need to make changes in our handling of cases.”

Ziva looked smug. Tony had no idea if he was still going to be the MCRT lead in an hour, but if he was, he was going to put himself in a better position as a leader. When he saw Morgan next, he was going to be able to say he'd taken steps to fix the mess he'd helped create.

“So, from now on when I tell you to bag and tag out to eighty feet, you will not refuse, you will not cite the standards from the handbook, and you will not tell me I am unreasonable. The quality of your field work will return to the level it was at when Gibbs was here, and if you come up short on another bag and tag, I will personally stand over you as you do a full fingertip search on your knees. I need to be more authoritative, so this is your official warning. I am the boss until Director Shepard says otherwise. Every time you disagree, I will write you up until you either transfer and are someone else’s problem or until you learn to respect chain of command.”

Ziva stood, her face dangerous in its lack of emotions. “So you plan to be an aristocrat?”

Tony took a second to run that through his Ziva filter.

“I don’t plan on marrying a princess, but I do plan on turning into an autocrat, although dictator would be the more common term. Tim, do you have any problems following my orders?”

Tim looked up and then hit the mute button. “Honestly? I probably will screw up and forget you’re the boss. But maybe you could stick with verbal reprimands until I can get myself turned around. I don’t need a stack of written reprimands in my file. Are you sure you can’t talk to Abby?”

Tony snorted. “I already did. That’s why she’s that mad.”

“And you think you can tell us what to do?” Ziva demanded. Tony took the file back from her desk.

“As long as I’m the boss? Yes. Yes, I do. When I’m not the boss, someone else will come in here and tell you what to do. That’s what it means to be on a team where you’re not the team lead. And since my name is already Mudd after nearly playing a part in convicting an innocent man, I can write you up fifty times a day without looking any more inept as a leader than I already do." Tony turned his attention to McGee. "Tim, you’re the SFA, please remember that and don’t let forensics techs take all your time when you have work to do.”

Tim's eyes got big. “Right. Okay. I can do that.” McGee looked at the phone like it was a snake that might bite him. He was a federal agent and the SFA on the top team in the building. He’d figure it out or he wouldn’t, but Tony had other business. He headed upstairs feeling like he was walking to his own funeral.

Chapter Text

Tony took a deep breath, put on his Supervisory Special Agent DiNozzo persona and pushed the door to Director Shepard’s office. She stood when he walked in and he tried to start off on a good note. “Director Shepard, thank you for seeing me.”

Her smile was warm and open. “I told you to call me Jenny. And I understand that this undercover assignment is different from anything you’ve done before. I’m here to help you transition into this assignment in any way I can.” Smile still in place, she came around the desk, making Tony the center of attention in the room.

Rather than continue with the strange dance they had going, Tony went for the heart of the matter. “Actually, I don’t think I have the time to spare from the team. Something has come to my attention, and I’ve filed a supplementary report on the Grant case. I wanted to give you a briefing before the JAG caught wind of this.” Tony held out the file.

She gave him a curious look before taking it. “What is this?” When she opened the file, her good humor quickly started to fade.

“I had a new computer search done on the Grant fraud.”

Shepard sighed as she flipped to the second page. “Tony, I told you that finding the money was not a priority. I appreciate your diligence, but sometimes efficiency demands that we move on without finding every puzzle piece.”

“I understand that; however, I was uncomfortable dropping the case. I apologize because I should have been more direct with you about that.” Tony didn’t add that he would forever live with the guilt of not being uncomfortable enough to actually follow up on the Grant case. He would have allowed Renny Grant to get railroaded. Luck and a little nagging discomfort had led him to give Garcia that name when he needed a case to cover for his request she look into the Benoit investigation.

Shepard turned another page. “Who completed this work?”

Tony knew that Garcia would be sending an official report for use in court, so he couldn’t hide her name forever. “Penelope Garcia.”

“Who is?”

And here was where the shit and the fan had an up close and personal meeting. “She’s the analyst for the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, unit four.”

Shepard’s head snapped up. “The BAU? SES Erin Struss’s unit?”

Only after asking Garcia for the favor had Tony considered the politics of it. But he wouldn’t apologize for finding the truth. “Yes,” he said without apology.

“You asked an outside agency to investigate one of our crimes?”

“I asked a friend to look into a case,” Tony said.

“And why didn’t you ask Agent McGee?”

Tony took a breath and centered himself. He wanted to throw a fit and throw Tim so far under the bus that he’d have asphalt between his teeth, but the fact was that Tony carried his share of the blame, and he had to accept that. Tim was a kid who screwed up because he lacked experience. Tony was the supervisor. It was just that admitting it to Shepard felt a little like he was having to cut his own switch. “I actually did ask Agent McGee. He felt it was unnecessary. I take full responsibility for not taking a more direct approach. This was our first case without Gibbs, and I was too slow to take charge.”

Director Sheppard sighed and took the file back to her desk. “I have a phone conference and I need time to review this. Perhaps we could discuss it in say, two hours.” Her smile was considerably colder now.

“Of course. I’ll be finishing the work on the Anderson case.” Tony turned and headed out of the office. Events were in motion and he could do nothing to stop them. But still, the waiting was far worse than any punishment. Rather than head back down to his desk, he asked Cynthia if she would mind if he used one of the conference room computers on the upper level. It gave him a quiet place to get work done, but two hours later he was still poking at his various reports instead of actually filing them. He shut the computer down and headed back to the director’s office.

He wondered if she’d truly had a meeting or if she was simply reminding him of the way things worked. If he played her game, he would get right in. If he made her life difficult, she would leave him waiting for hours. It was a rather unsubtle reminder of her power.

After being waved past by Cynthia, Tony went into the office for the second time. “Director.” Tony stood by the door and waited to see if he even rated an invitation to sit. Director Shepard didn’t get up from her seat this time. “Tony, leadership is a difficult skill, one that requires as much time to develop as investigative skills. You have a learning curve in front of you, one I am sure you will master.”

“And I appreciate you saying that.”

She sighed. “However, I can’t have my agents going outside NCIS. As much as this work is exemplary, it hurts the agency because it makes it appear that we need the assistance of the FBI to do our jobs. You should have taken this work to Abby.”

It was a valid political concern, but Tony had no intention of apologizing, not when his choice to talk to Garcia saved Captain Grant from years of prison. “I asked Abby to look into the computer system, but she felt uncomfortable redoing McGee’s work. Again, the fault is mine because I didn’t insist on it.”

“Her refusal is a serious breach of policy that should have come to me.”

“Director, you have far more pressing matters, and I didn’t have any additional reasons for wanting the work done. I was simply uncomfortable. You had already asked for the case to be closed, and again, I was not confident enough in my judgment to make a coherent reason for keeping it open. I definitely need to take a more forceful stance as a team leader.”

Something in Tony’s words caught her attention because she leaned back in her chair and gestured for him to take one of the guest seats. “More forceful how?” she asked.

Tony forced himself to put on a relaxed air he didn’t feel. “I’ve already spoken to both Tim and Ziva. I’ve allowed them to question me to the point that I’m questioning myself, but I am trying to correct course here.”

“Tony, make sure you don’t overcorrect. You have good people working for you. Don’t spend too much time second guessing them.”

The fact that she would say that when the Renny Grant file was on her desk shocked Tony. His team was made up of good people and even good computer techs, but they weren’t good investigators, and the definitive evidence for that was on Shepard’s desk. “No one on my team is experienced with investigations. Tim honestly believed that a witness’s testimony and the evidence we had gathered was sufficient, and that’s because he hasn’t seen enough cases where the evidence has been doctored and he still takes facts at face value. I need to take more control here.”

“Trust me, you don’t want to turn into Gibbs. He was so directive that he had to be involved in every aspect of a case.” Shepard laughed and shook her head as though amused by Gibbs’ antics. “Let your people develop more independence.”

Tony leaned forward. “Jenny, I tried. It resulted in Captain Grant being sent forward for prosecution. Ziva has a few months of experience, Tim has less than two years, and Michelle Lee is so new she squeaks. She still hasn’t passed the firearms live range testing. She’s down there today working on it.”

Director Shepard took a long time before she answered, and Tony couldn’t even guess what was going on in her head. Now that he’d said all that out loud, he was starting to wonder if she was setting him up to fail. He needed more investigative experience on the team or he needed to ride herd on every decision the others made.

Shepard pursed her lips before saying, “Perhaps Agent McGee is a little unseasoned for the position of SFA, especially when you’ll be dividing your time between the team and undercover work. There are a number of qualified investigators who are not committed to a particular office at this time. Lara Macy was an investigator for JAG and retired as a major before moving to NCIS and Vivian Blackadder has really proved herself in the Sigonella office and might be ready to come back to the MCRT.”

Tony nearly choked at the idea of adding Viv back into this mess. Viv and Ziva would circle each other like angry spiders before they tried devouring each other’s heads. He didn’t know anything about Macy, but the fact that the director was putting her in with Viv concerned him. However, he couldn’t deny that more experienced eyes would improve the chance that another clusterfuck like the Grant case never happened again.

“I would like to see Macy’s file, although I don’t think Viv is a good fit for the team as it currently stands.” And if Gibbs came back, he might shoot her. He had a long memory. At least he had one before that bomb had ripped it away.

“I can see if Macy is interested in transferring.”

Tony nodded even though that wasn’t what he had said. “As the SFA or as the team lead?” He was a bandage off fast kind of guy, so it was best to know up front if the director planned to demote him, Tim, or both of them.

“I won’t demote you, Tony. However, if you feel that team lead would require more time than you have given the Benoit case, I will support your choice to step down. Just know that I do have every faith in your skills. I believe you can excel in both jobs.” And her bright and motherly smile was back.

“Director, I am not comfortable taking an undercover job at this time.” He didn’t add that he planned to never take a job from her without evidence it was officially sanctioned.

She studied him as though honestly confused by his answer. Tony had no idea why because even without Garcia’s background information, Tony would have hesitated to take a job without a clear plan for backup. Shepard tapped her fingers on the Grant file before saying, “We both know that this is a long-term assignment. It will require only a few hours a week, and you may be at it for years.”

“With the team this unsettled, I don’t believe this is the right choice for me right now.”

“Tony, you have made a number of mistakes, including going around me after a case was closed to ask another agency to assist you.” Her voice turned hard. “You have a bright future at NCIS, but you need to make wise decisions based on what will reflect best on you as an agent.”

Tony understood exactly what threat hung in the air, but he couldn’t put his own promotion ahead of doing the right thing for victims. “Right now, I believe that this Grant case has shown deficiencies in my leadership, and I need to address those.”

“Certainly Lara Macy has the leadership you see yourself as lacking. Serving as her SFA would give you someone to emulate. After all, Jethro’s techniques are not easy to duplicate.” And there was the threat.

Tony nodded and ignored the hard knot of pain in his gut. Demoted it was. “If you think that’s best.”

“It would give you more time for the Benoit case.”

“I’m afraid I still have to decline the undercover position,” Tony said firmly.

“This error with Grant has no bearing on your undercover skills. I would think you would like a chance to prove yourself in an area where, by every report, you are quite talented.”

“Undercover work requires a certain frame of mind. I don’t think I’m in the right mindset to handle it right now.”

Shepard fell silent, and Tony kept his body loose and still as he channeled his inner supervisory special agent self. Ironically, in trying to step up and being equal to the job, he might lose it. “Take a few days to think about it, Tony.” Translation: call and agree to do the undercover if you want to keep your promotion. The words were practically carved into the air.

“Director, my answer will not change. The team… I’ve had too many difficult choices in too short a period of time. I’m not grounded enough to handle an undercover assignment.”

“But you see yourself as fit to handle cases in the field?” Shepard’s threat against Tony’s active agent status was a tactic Tony hadn’t expected, but he couldn’t react. If she knew how much he feared being chained to a desk, that would give her leverage.

He said as calmly as he could, “I believe so, but after the Renny Grant case, I can see where that might be in doubt, I won’t deny I made a mistake. I can only promise you that improving my leadership skills and preserving the integrity of the MCRT is my first priority, which is why I have to respectfully decline the undercover position. Thank you for considering me for it, and I do consider it a complement that you asked me.” If she took him from active duty, that would trigger a psyche evaluation, and Tony was almost sure he could not only pass but make the director look like a fool for questioning him. However, this dance had turned into more of a fencing match, so she might take it that far. Director Shepard had left subtle behind and was going for trying to wear him down through sheer obstinacy. Yeah, he could now see how she and Gibbs would have meshed at one point. They were both stubborn bastards.

Just when Tony expected to lose his agent status altogether, she leaned back in her chair. “I see. And can anything change your mind?”

“No, Director.”

She nodded slowly, but Tony could see the fury in every tightly controlled gesture and the strain lines at the corners of her mouth.

“As far as taking evidence outside the chain of command and potentially damaging a prosecution by bypassing our forensics lab, that is a clear violation of policy. You will receive a three day suspension without pay.”

“Understood.” Tony waited, but Shepard didn’t speak or give any sign the meeting was finished. Tony suspected that he was supposed to beg forgiveness or ask her to reconsider or show some sign of anger that would tell her how to best proceed. If he didn’t give her any emotions to work with, she couldn’t know which direction to take any manipulation.

“The suspension will start tomorrow. Before the end of day, Cynthia will have the paperwork.”

Tony took that as a dismissal and he stood. “Yes, director.” He hesitated a second. “Do you plan to bring Macy in as the supervisory agent for the MCRT?”

Shepard pressed her fingertips together. “You made a serious error in judgment.” She looked down at the file. Tony wasn’t sure if she was referencing the failed investigation into Grant or the use of the FBI computers.

“I understand that and I accept that I should have made different choices.”

A small frown crossed her face. “I have to think about making the best choice for NCIS.”

Tony nodded.

“I still believe you have great potential, Tony.” Her voice carried something of maternal disappointment now, and Tony suspected she knew how to use that button. Maybe it was a director thing because Director Morrow could do one hell of a disappointed uncle act.

“Thank you,” Tony said. At this point they were both just playing parts in this farce, but Tony could only end it by letting her know that he’d found out the op was unsanctioned. To do that he would have to admit that he had broken laws for handling classified intelligence. “If you bring in Macy, will I be her SFA or will I move to another team?”

“You’ll stay on the MCRT,” Shepard said quickly, “and right now I’m leaning toward leaving you as the team lead, but I made the decision to promote you rather quickly, and this time I need to consider my decision. I’ll have an answer when you come back from your suspension.”

Tony nodded, and when Shepard turned to her computer, he took that as a dismissal. He could almost see the wheels turn in Shepard’s head. She hoped Tony would come back desperate to impress her, and impressing her would require him to take the Benoit job. Hell, even though he knew the whole truth, he still felt a nagging urge to make her happy. He was damn good at undercover—better than he was at leading. A legitimate undercover job would be welcome at this point. Handcuff him to an antiquities thief and let him run around the countryside and he’d almost be happy.

Tony nodded at Cynthia on his way past. Suspensions were supposed to be private, but if Tony disappeared for three days right after the Grant case fell apart, it wouldn’t take a genius to put two and two together. So his best way forward was head up and unemotional.

McGee jumped up from his desk when Tony came around the corner. “How’d it go?”

“Three days of suspension starting tomorrow, so get to lunch so we can get the SFA paperwork done before I’m gone.”

Ziva frowned. “You are suspended? Why?”

“Because I didn’t handle the Grant case correctly and because I went to an outside analyst instead of ordering McGee to do the work.”

“I should be suspended for at least as long as you,” Tim said. Tony was happy to see his probie wasn’t trying to throw him under the bus.

“If you had refused an order, I would have suspended you for a lot longer. However, this was my fuckup and I’ll take the hit. Now go, shoo. Get lunch and be back here ready for work. I assume you’ve finished the paperwork on the Anderson case.”

“Yeah. I found all the dummy identities he used and tracked the IP addresses.”

“Good. Ziva, is your field report done, and before you say yes, did you actually proofread it after putting it through your translation program?”

“Of course I did,” she said unhappily.

"Good, because if the report is unreadable, I will not fix it, and I will not mark your errors for you.”

“Why are you being so unreasonable?”

“If Director Shepard brings in Agent Macy to run the MCRT, she’s going to want a team that is up to speed. Fix your report or I don’t want to see it, Agent David.”

Tony turned and walked away before she could argue with him. Tony had one more person to talk to. While Ducky wasn’t part of the team or part of the problem, he would certainly suffer some of the fallout from all this.

Chapter Text

In the elevator, Tony texted Garcia. --3 day suspension

--Y?

--misuse of outside resources, end run around dir.

--I’m thinking words I can’t say! Lunch?

--Still playing SSA DiNozzo

--???

Yeah, Tony had no way to explain his self-imposed undercover mission to fake leadership until it was more natural. Instead he texted back the name of a restaurant, and Garcia countered with a time. Tony could talk to Ducky and make it in time, so he agreed.

Her last message came with a series of borderline obscene emojis that made Tony smile. Leave it to Garcia to turn sexual texts into therapy. Tony got off on the morgue level and headed toward Ducky’s domain. Inside, Ducky was at his desk, working on the omnipresent paperwork that existed at all levels of federal work. “Hey Duck.”

Ducky looked up. “Anthony. I must say I expected to see you earlier. When Abigail called, she suggested you might be coming to see me and requested that I instill some reality into your perception.”

“Did she?” Tony reined in his temper because Ducky didn’t deserve it.

Ducky closed the file he’d been working on. “She appeared quite distraught, but I’m more interested in your perception, Anthony. What in the world is going on upstairs?” Ducky gestured toward his second chair.

Tony took the seat, but he honestly didn’t know what to say.

“Oh dear. I take it that it is more serious than I’ve realized.”

“There’s a lack of respect for my position as team lead,” Tony admitted. The very fact that Abby had gone running to Ducky to complain proved that. No way would she get away with that if the team lead in question were Paula Cassidy or Chad Dunham, but Tony DiNozzo didn’t get the same level of professional respect.

“Are we speaking of Abigail or the team more generally?”

Tony studied Ducky and wondered how far he wanted to push this. “I think the lack of respect is almost universal.”

Ducky straightened up in his chair. “I certainly hope you aren’t including me in that.”

“Intentionally, no, but on the Anderson case, when I asked you for cause of death, you suggested that I try to avoid acting like Gibbs.”

Ducky frowned. “I had simply meant that I could not yet determine the cause, and showing the same sort of impatience Jethro so often showed would likely lead you to have the same difficulties Jethro often encountered. He made his own professional life more challenging than it had to be.”

“I wasn’t trying to be Gibbs. Any team lead is going to ask about most likely cause of death on scene. But I didn’t get the same response any team lead would have gotten.”

Ducky looked down at his desk and rearranged a few pieces of paper. It was a rather unsubtle play for time, so Tony waited. “I can certainly see where my words could be taken that way.” Ducky then looked back up at Tony. “However, I did not intend them to be taken such. I have every faith in your abilities, and my only concern is that you not allow Jethro Gibbs’s poor example to lead you astray. I apologize for ever implying otherwise.” Every time Ducky criticized Gibbs, Tony could still see the pain in the man’s face. The loss of that friendship had struck deep, so Tony was more inclined to forgive and forget.

“I’m just hearing that too much. Either I am trying to be Gibbs or I’m doing things Gibbs wouldn’t have done, which makes those things wrong. I can’t win.”

“These are growing pains. Given the changes in the team and the lack of any time to adjust, I am unsurprised.”

“We can’t afford growing pains, not when innocent people’s lives are in our hands.”

“That sounds rather specific,” Ducky said, his voice neutral. The very lack of judgment invited Tony to continue, as Ducky no doubt intended.

“Renny Grant.” The very name made Tony’s guts tie themselves into knots.

“I’m afraid I don’t remember the case.”

“You never had a body. Captain Grant worked at the Navy Savings and Loan when a million dollars went missing.”

“Ah.”

Part of Tony wanted to avoid ever talking about the damn case again, and another part of him—a masochistic part—wanted to pick at that scab until it bled. He wanted to find random strangers on the street and tell them about Tony DiNozzo’s big fuck up. And Tony hated that part of himself almost as much as he hated the part of himself that wished none of this had come to light. Tony had enjoyed his ignorance in this instance. He took a deep breath and tried to get his thoughts in order. “A retired colonel’s credentials were used to transfer money out of various accounts, ten dollars at a time. We found that Captain Grant had access to the old profiles and passwords, and then we found a witness who saw Grant accessing one of the fraudulent accounts.”

“It sounds rather straightforward,” Ducky said when Tony let the silence continue for too long.

Tony nodded. “It did. I was uncomfortable that the money vanished, and I asked McGee to pull all the financials and go through them again.”

Ducky sighed. “And from Abigail’s rather less coherent version of this story, I take it that young Timothy declined.”

“He has some side project he wanted to get to, and he thought tracking the money down wasn’t important. He actually told me that if he hadn’t been busy, he would have stayed and done the work if only to keep me happy. The worst part is that he doesn’t seem to understand that his answer was disrespectful in and of itself. You don’t humor a boss. You do the work you’re assigned.”

“Only in this case, he did not,” Ducky said. “And Abigail also refused you.”

“Yeah,” Tony said, “only she added a healthy dose of accusation. Apparently I was only trying to impress the director by recovering the money, and I was willing to bully and belittle McGee to do it.”

“Oh dear. Anthony, you know she did not mean that. She loves you like a brother, but she is so averse to change that Jethro’s departure has robbed her of some good judgment when it comes to his team.”

“It doesn’t excuse refusing to do work, and I didn’t demand the respect I deserved. I let them get away with the shit.”

“I have to admit I’m confused. If the computer work was not done, then how did you find out that Captain Grant is innocent, or did I misunderstand that part of Abigail’s tale? I must admit that she was difficult to follow at times, despite the fact that I am a fan of a rambling tale.”

“I went to a friend in the FBI and they did the work.”

“Oh.” Ducky cringed.

Tony shrugged. “Political suicide, I know. But I don’t have the technical skills to do the work, and the two people who could… it felt like they were conspiring against me. I was starting to question my own judgment, but it was my gut that was right. I respect their skills, but they have so little respect for mine that I had to stick my neck out with another agency just to get the information. Hell, I was sure it was going to come back saying that Renny was guilty, they were right, and I was being unreasonable.”

“And yet you sent the work out. Give yourself credit for having enough faith in yourself to do that,” Ducky said. He couldn’t know how those words were a knife twisting in Tony’s guts. Tony wished he had followed up on the Grant case rather than finding all this by accident. “How did our good director take this news?” Ducky asked.

“I’m suspended for three days. I won’t protest the discipline because I failed to direct my subordinates to complete work and I sent evidence to another agency without authorization.”

“That seems rather harsh. While it’s admirable for you to take responsibility for failing to provide adequate leadership, that does not absolve young Timothy in this. Perhaps I should speak to the director.”

Ducky looked ready to gird his loins and go to battle, but Tony held out his hand to stop him. “There might be other reasons the director is upset.”

“Ah.” Ducky leaned back. “And are these reasons you can discuss?”

“No.”

For a time, Ducky stared at him, but Tony wasn’t about to share anything about the Benoit case. His gut told him that the director was not about to be reasonable when it came to Rene Benoit, and it was time for Tony to start listening to his own instincts. Eventually Ducky said, “That is a conundrum. Is there anything I can do in order to assist you?”

“Honestly, I don’t know how you can. I laid down the law with both Ziva and Tim, and there’s nothing else I can do.”

“How did they take that?”

“Tim sees the problem,” Tony said. He wasn’t entirely sure McGee could fix his attitude, but at least he was willing to listen. The Renny case would probably haunt McGee’s dreams nearly as long as it would haunt Tony’s. “There is one thing you could do.”

“Anything, my boy.”

“Talk to Abby.” Tony just knew she was going to show up all tears and apologies once she heard about the suspension, but Tony shouldn’t have to clean up her emotional messes. “She insisted McGee was in trouble and that we should all rally around him.” He snorted in disgust.

“Which left you hanging out in the cold, as the saying goes,” Ducky finished for him. “In her defense, I have no doubt she believed Timothy was the only one in danger. Gibbs always weathered such storms without a mark, and he sheltered you rather fiercely, but she sees young McGee as having less protection.”

“So she assumes I would throw him under the bus and selfishly protect my own position,” Tony summarized.

“I suspect it is less a matter of throwing anyone under a bus and more a symptom of Abigail’s inability to truly grasp that the situation has changed.”

“She should have listened to me and respected my opinion. I understand how field operations and how that bull pen run, and she doesn’t. It comes down to that, Duck. If she can’t have faith in my abilities when it comes to my area of expertise, then I don’t see how we can have any sort of relationship. I certainly don’t want her to show up at my house demanding that I comfort her when I’m the one on suspension.”

Ducky gave a decisive nod. “I assure you she will not bother you. She has done quite enough harm, and I will impress upon her that she must take some time for introspection before she seeks you out. I will also suggest that actions speak louder than words and until she can show you the respect she would for any team lead, she must maintain her distance. Her words of support would be at dire conflict with her actions right now, which would add to your stress.”

“Yes, it would,” Tony said. “And she needs to know that the director is thinking of bringing in someone else for the MCRT.” Tony doubted that Shepard would want someone with too much experience coming in to lead the team. After all, if Agent Macy was as good as Shepard said, there was a chance that she would notice something amiss if Tony took the undercover job, and Shepard probably anticipated that Tony would cave on the issue. No, Shepard would bring in someone good enough to be SFA, but someone who lacked the experience or personality to challenge the director if Tony vanished for long periods of time during the day on some mysterious case that never got logged into the system. A good SFA would also free up Tony from having to supervise the others as closely, and he knew what the director would like him to be doing during that time.

“Does she have someone specific in mind?” Ducky asked.

“She mentioned bringing in Agent Lara Macy to lead the team, but she also said she would like to leave me in the lead and that she might bring in a more experienced SFA.”

Ducky nodded. “Ah. You always smoothed over the edges of Jethro’s harsh leadership style. It’s possible that the director will bring in an enforcer to play the disciplinarian, leaving you free to continue playing the role of the diplomat of the team.”

“Maybe.” Tony disliked the idea because it felt too much like admitting he couldn’t ever learn to discipline his own people. “But if Tim does get demoted, Abby needs to keep her accusations away from me because I will file a complaint if I have to deal with one more round of ‘blame Tony for everything.’” Tony made his tone as uncompromising as possible.

“I quite understand, and I would actually encourage you to follow through on that threat if she cannot respect your boundaries. Abigail may need a more forceful reminder that Jethro’s departure requires us all to adapt and change. However, I will attempt to convince her to take a more reasoned approach to the situation. Have you talked with Timothy?”

“About the fact that one or both of us might lose our promotions? Yep. He took it better than I thought, but that might be because he doesn’t believe it will happen.”

“Just remember that Jethro cast a large shadow, and all of us are having some trouble adjusting to its absence.”

“And I have to remember that people like Captain Grant can never be allowed to suffer because of it,” Tony said firmly.

“Agreed.”

Tony cut his visit with Ducky short in order to head over to the restaurant, and in the time it had taken to fill Ducky in on the drama, he had missed two calls from Ziva, one from Jenny, and a very confused text from Michelle Lee who asked if she was being sent back to the legal department. Tony texted her a reassurance that she was not, but warned her that the director was thinking of changing the leadership of the team. He left if vague whether it was his neck or McGee’s on the chopping block, and she didn’t text back any questions.

She was the only team member who didn’t question him, but in the long run, he recognized that her lack of curiosity was a problem. Investigators were diggers. They were nosy bastards who always wanted answers and would resort to invading teammates’ privacy to get it. Even Ziva had that underlying annoyance when faced with a mystery—that’s why he believed she had the instincts to be a good investigator one day, even if her current training was skewed a little in the lethal direction. Michelle seemed perfectly content to sit in the same room as a mystery and never peek under the cover. It was a bad sign.

Despite that, he was not about to give his probie back to the legal department. She could learn to be a valuable team member even if she would likely never rise to being a team lead. Besides, some days she was the only one he could look at without developing new ulcers.

By the time Tony got to the restaurant, he was five minutes late and Garcia and Morgan were both there. “Hey,” Morgan offered while Garcia took one look at him and wrapped her arms around him. She held on so tightly that Tony actually had trouble breathing.

“He’s turning blue,” Morgan observed.

“Sometimes a person just needs the stuffing hugged out of them,” she said unapologetically before she sat.

Tony rubbed his sternum. “And sometimes a person needs oxygen, but today the hug was more important.” He took the seat across from Morgan and picked up his menu.

“Okay, spill. Three days? For what? Doing your job?” Garcia demanded.

“Baby girl,” Morgan said, his tone clearly warning her to take it down a notch. She glared at him.

“Hey, I’m taking this as a win,” Tony said. “The director gets her pound of flesh to punish me for going outside the agency, and I get three days to practice the SSA DiNozzo act.”

“The act?” Morgan asked.

“SSA DiNozzo is calm in the face of emotional coworkers, firm in the face of insubordination and unflinching in the face of writing people up when they refuse direct orders. I’m of the ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ school of thought.”

“Good school,” Morgan said.

“Are the others listening?” Garcia asked. And that was the crux of the matter.

“It’s too soon to tell. I’m working with McGee on SFA paperwork this afternoon. If he can kill a forest with paperwork without accusing me of personally trying to make his life hell, I’ll have some hope.”

Morgan shook his head. “I still can’t believe your director is this upset about another agency running a test.”

“How would your boss feel if you had Abby run your forensics?”

For a second, Morgan seemed to think about it. “He’d ask why. If I had a good answer, Hotch wouldn’t question my judgment. If I didn’t, he’d rip me a new one in his utterly calm voice. It’s weird how he can sound like he’s shouting when he whispers.”

“It’s a talent. That and making a person feel two inches tall when she really screws something up.” From the look on Garcia’s face, whatever she was remembering had been bad. Morgan patted her arm. The easy emotional comfort between them made Tony ache for Kate. She’d been such a puritanical pain in the ass, but when the chips were down, she was the annoying little sister who had never left his side.

“Yeah, well,” Tony said, “NCIS has the little brother syndrome.”

“They don’t want to get shown up by bigger agencies.” Morgan nodded. “I get that. I thought with Gibbs gone, it might be a little better. The way Fornell tells it, that man had a hate on for the FBI.”

“Just slightly,” Tony agreed. “Of course it didn’t help that you guys kept trying to prove I was a murderer.”

Morgan threw his hands up. “Don’t lump me in there. I would have told them you don’t profile as a killer.”

“I’ll call you as a character witness next time Fornell puts me in a jail cell.”

“He did what?” Garcia’s voice grew shrill.

Tony put a hand on her arm. “Hey, he was doing his job, and he kept me away from all the other prisoners while he and Jethro figured out who had framed me.”

Garcia gave a huff that made it clear she was not going to forgive Fornell any time soon.

Morgan opened his menu. “Yeah, but I’ve heard the stories about how you stole a body from him the first time he met you. He never did get over that.”

Tony laughed as he remembered the case. “When he opened the body bag and found me instead of the victim, you should have seen his expression.” Tony didn’t mention that Fornell had then dropped Tony out the back of the ambulance. There were some things Garcia would not forgive. From the amused look Morgan gave Garcia, Tony suspected he’d heard the rest of the story already.

The waitress came over and they ordered. Tony wondered if Morgan was using the lasagna and salad to profile Tony. He also wondered how hard it was to maintain friendships when people were constantly worried about being profiled.

“So, is your director moving on the Grant case?” Morgan asked once the waitress left.

“I assume so. I filed an addendum to my report.” Tony hadn’t even considered that Shepard might bury the evidence. Either Morgan was paranoid or he had heard some really negative scuttlebutt about her. “If I don’t hear about Grant getting freed in a day or two, the defense will get a copy anonymously.”

Morgan said in a near-whisper. “It’s hard when you can’t trust your superiors to do the right thing without checking on them.”

Tony suspected they weren’t talking about the Grant case as much as the Benoit investigation. “I’m not a rookie to accept without verifying,” Tony said, despite the fact that he’d come damn close to making that very error. “At least I won’t make that mistake again in the near future.”

“We all screw up,” Morgan said easily. “That’s how you know you’re human. If you were perfect, the powers that be wouldn’t let you stay on the planet and show up the rest of us imperfect creatures.”

“Enough shop talk,” Garcia said loudly. “I want to hear about your new house.”

Morgan looked at Tony. “I don’t know that Tony wants to spend his lunch talking about my molding choices and the color scheme in the bathroom.”

“Hey, it sounds like a good time to me.” Tony welcomed any conversation that didn’t circle around the same point. He was starting to feel like the Renny case was the drain that had been pulled in some giant cosmic sink and Tony was circling it, dropping ever lower as the water vanished, and pretty soon he was going to hit bottom. Tony just wasn’t sure what that would look like. But he’d upended his life before. He’d reinvented himself. He’d found a new job and new friends, and in the end it always worked out. Tony had to believe that would happen this time, too. So he focused on Morgan and his tale of 1950s plumbing gone bad. The rest could wait.

Chapter Text

By day two of Tony’s suspension, he was bored. His apartment was spotless, he’d cooked enough food for the week, and he was tired to dodging phone calls. Luckily, Abby had only come to his apartment once. After he ignored her for an hour, she either decided that he was out or that he was too angry to answer the door.

McGee had been better about respecting Tony’s time. Tony had told him to treat the three days like a practice run for being someone else SFA. After all, most team leads expected their senior field agent to work independently. McGee had been uncomfortable, but he’d seemed willing to listen and try it Tony’s way. He was also unhappy about doing it Tony’s way, which was a little less comforting.

And Ziva was just… he had no idea what to think. She watched everything, but he could not get a read on what she thought of any of it. He did know she didn’t want another agent to come in and boss her around; she made that abundantly clear. However, until they got back into the field, Tony didn’t know if that would translate into her doing her damn job without bitching and being sent back to do the work over. She wanted Gibbs. Tony suspected that she would consider anyone else a poor substitute.

The doorbell rang, and Tony turned off his movie and went to check the peephole. He’d braced himself for a second visit from Abby, like she was doing to make a daily pilgrimage to his apartment or something. Instead Aaron Hotchner stood in the hall.

For a second Tony was too shocked to react, but curiosity got the best of him fairly quickly. He opened the door. “Can I help you?”

Aaron Hotcher had an immaculate suit on, custom tailored although not a designer label. He didn’t pause before asking, “Agent DiNozzo?”

“Yes.”

Hotchner held out his hand, shaking firmly when Tony offered his in return. “I’m SSA Aaron Hotchner from the BAU. I was hoping we could speak.”

The first hints of apprehension started to flutter in Tony’s stomach, but he stepped back and gestured toward the room. “Come on in.”

“Thank you. I’ll be brief.” Hotchner walked to the middle of the living room and turned. His every move was unhurried, and yet Tony got the sense that this man didn’t waste a single gesture. The sense of efficiency he projected was probably reassuring when he worked with victims and various police departments, but Tony found he was a little uneasy at having the man in his house. “For reasons which don’t matter, I monitor Garcia’s computer use, so I am aware that she used FBI resources to help you on the Renny Grant case.”

Shit. A lump formed in Tony’s throat as he realized that he’d gotten Garcia in trouble with her boss. “I apologize, and the misuse of FBI resources is entirely my fault.”

Hotchner held up a hand. “You misunderstand me. Captain Grant’s release and reinstatement makes any small outlay of effort on Garcia’s part entirely justified. However, I am also aware that she made inquiries about the La Grenouille case.”

“Like I said, it won’t happen again,” Tony hurried to say.

“Why not?”

The question startled Tony. “Excuse me?”

“I have a very incomplete picture here, but I have done some research. It seems that checking into the operation was a reasonable action on your part. Your director has a personal connection to La Grenouille, and Garcia found that NCIS did not have an officially case open, but that Director Shepard had a large number of restricted and highly classified CIA files on her personal computer.”

“What?” Tony’s brain was having trouble making sense out of that. The CIA did not share classified material with NCIS, not when asked nicely, not when presented with subpoenas, not even when Sec Nav got involved, so there was no way the CIA had given up files to a brand new director with little political leverage. Well, they might if she knew where someone had buried a metaphorical or literal body, but that would mean Shepard was way off the reservation.

Hotchner studied Tony for a second. “Clearly Garcia didn’t tell you that last part.”

Tony shook his head. “No, no she did not.”

“Did she tell you the CIA is running an investigation already?”

“Yes, which is why I turned down the director’s request that I go undercover.”

“I suspected Director Shepard had asked you to either investigate or go undercover. I take it that’s why you sent Garcia on a fishing expedition.”

Tony sat down. “Look, Garcia shouldn’t get in trouble for this.”

After another brief pause, Hotchner settled himself on the far end of the couch. “I will file a reprimand because she didn’t come to me with this. She had a federal agent who required information in order to check the legality of an action he’d been ordered to take. She should have known to bring that to me, both as he team lead and as the lawyer on the team.”

“I asked her to avoid getting anyone else involved. I had been directed to not read anyone in on the program.”

“And would you take this action again if the circumstances were the same?”

When bosses asked questions like that, they wanted some reassurance that a subordinate would avoid making the same mistake in the future. But the fact was that Tony would make the same choice. He’d been suspended and given himself ulcers playing SSA DiNozzo, but Tony had also avoided getting involved in an unsanctioned op, and Renny Grant had avoided years in prison for a crime he hadn’t committed. “Look, no offense, but I’m not in your chain of command. I made my choices, and now I’m taking my lumps. But none of that involves Garcia, who did nothing more than act on a request for information, and she had no way to know that anything hinky was going on.”

“If you believe that, you’re underestimating Garcia and her ability to put information together.”

Tony grinned. “Well that’s me. I act without thinking. It’s the lack of education.”

A small almost-smile appeared on Hotchner’s face. “Psychology of adolescence, coaching the young athlete, psychology of delinquency, the sociology of gangs—for someone who claims a lack of education, you’ve taken interesting undergraduate work.”

“You left out adolescent parenthood and sexuality around the world. I’m not even going to ask why that’s one of the available electives, but it’s all part of the Bachelor of Science in Physical Activity and Coaching.” There was some irony in the idea that the famed Aaron Hotcher was citing the very classes McGee always dismissed as irrelevant. It was more interesting that Hotchner had looked up Tony’s background. “Is there a point here?”

“You took more psychology classes than required. You seemed to have gravitated to those electives.”

“At the time, I was starting to think I was less interested in coaching kids than I was in figuring out why they turned into little criminals.” Tony could tell that Hotchner was paying far too much attention to Tony’s answers. Something was going on, but Tony wasn’t sure what. He decided to poke and see if Hotchner poked back. “And during that first class, I was a little shocked to learn that some psychologists argued I was still in adolescence at twenty-two. Kalat gave me hope.”

“Oh? Why?”

“Because I was screwed up and I hoped that if he was right, I would figure it all out when I grew up.” Tony gave Hotcher a huge grin, but the man didn’t even react.

“How did that work out?”

“I’ll let you know when I grow up.”

For a long time, Hotchner stared at Tony. Maybe he thought it was an intimating move, but Tony just stared right back. Working for Gibbs had given him a thick skin for implied threats. Finally Hotcher said, “You’ve invested a lot in this persona of yours.”

Tony had not expected that. Most people never saw through his façade, but he couldn’t remember anyone who had ever seen the act and called Tony on it so quickly. Well, in a for penny…. “You know, I really have. It keeps suspects from clamming up.”

“And the professionals you work with should put more stock in your Master of Science in Criminology from the University of Pennsylvania.”

“That’s the assumption.” Tony was starting to develop a few hypotheses. There were a limited number of reasons SSA Hotchner would have done this much research on Tony’s past.

“You leaned toward the psychology electives there as well: race and criminal justice, law and social policy, clinical neuroscience approach to understanding violence.”

“Professor Newton. She was one hell of a teacher.”

Hotchner nodded. “I’ll let her know you said so. I always enjoyed her classes.”

Tony leaned forward. “What dance are we doing here? Did Garcia ask you to cheer me up or is this the strangest job interview in the history of law enforcement?” The third option was that Hotchner planned to bring criminal charges against Tony for breaking the laws controlling the sharing of classified information. If nothing else, a legal mess would make it impossible for him to get a job in law enforcement elsewhere.

“Derek did say you were unexpectedly direct with him.”

That implied that Hotchner had reasons to expect Tony to be less than direct. “I play games when I have a reason to.”

“Like entertaining yourself in the office?”

Tony knew that there were those who disliked his relationship with Gibbs and the team, but Tony wouldn’t apologize for it. “Like loosening people up when Gibbs is putting so much pressure on them that aneurisms are a foreseeable and predictable consequence, but quite frankly, I don’t care about your assessment of my professional ethics or behavior, not unless you are offering me a job because I might be looking for one soon.”

“You have a lot of course work in adolescent psychology, and you have intentionally developed a non-threatening persona. I don’t think that would fit in my unit.”

His unit. That phrasing almost begged Tony to ask the obvious question, “But you have a unit you think I would fit in?”

“The BAU crimes against children unit is always looking for good people. I’m not going to lie. It’s the hardest unit to work for because of what they see, but your background and demeanor would work well given the victims they often encounter. And if you ever decided to show your age more and get psychology coursework in adult deviance, it would be an easy transition to BAU counterterrorism.”

Hotchner was not that subtle with what he was putting between the lines. “But not your unit,” Tony summarized for him.

“If you stayed in DC, I would ask that you not apply to the crimes against adults unit. Unfortunately you have already involved Garcia in a legally difficult situation, and she is clearly invested in protecting you. I’m afraid that would threaten the integrity of our team.”

“If you think I’d threaten your team’s integrity, why would you think I would fit into another unit?”

“I’m not saying that I wouldn’t enjoy seeing you at a team dinners or support your move to the FBI. I’m simply concerned that Garcia is too invested in this persona you’ve developed. She wants to protect you because, like your team, she sees this façade of a playboy hiding a wounded heart.”

“And what do you see?” The second Tony asked, he was sorry. He didn’t want to see himself through Hotchner’s eyes.

“I see a federal agent, someone abandoned young who developed an extraordinary ability to cultivate identities in order to maximize his chance of success,” Hotchner said. That hit too close to home, but Hotchner continued without giving Tony a chance to react. “You are remembered as imminently competent as a police detective, yet you present a non-threatening front around Gibbs, a man whose inability to handle male competition is famous in certain circles. It allowed you to work with him for years when few others could. I also suspect that you never intended for so many people to believe this image, and now you’re feeling trapped.”

Tony stared at Hotchner. The scab Tony had spent days picking at the edges of was now gone, leaving a raw and bleeding wound behind. Tony had defined himself by Gibbs. He had sacrificed some of his ability to interact with others in order to fit in with a bastard of a boss who couldn’t relate to most people. And now that boss was gone, and Tony was left with a stunted version of himself. It left him angry and resentful that everyone treated him like the part he had played for Gibbs. It left him angry at himself for continuing to play the same role after Gibbs was gone. After a long and awkward silence, Tony said, “You’re good.”

Hotchner dropped his gaze to the floor for a second. Then he gave Tony a wry smile, and his tone was pensive when he said, “Most people disagree when I profile them.” Hotchner stood, and Tony did as well. Hotchner reached into his suit pocket before holding a card out to Tony.

Tony took it and saw an unfamiliar name. “What is this?”

“The team lead for the crimes against children BAU is Agent Cole. She hates being called Katherine; she prefers Katie. She knows you might call, and I believe Fornell forwarded her a copy of your NCIS file, although I am trying to avoid thinking about how he obtained it. Have a good evening, Agent DiNozzo.”

With that, Hotchner headed out the door, leaving Tony reeling, not only at the job offer but at the mirror he’d just been shown.

How sad was it when someone Tony had known for ten minutes had cut through more bullshit than people who had worked with Tony for years? Tony looked down at the card.

 

FBI: National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime

Behavioral Analysis Unit 3

SSA Katherine Cole

 

Well hell. This was a choice he hadn’t anticipated.

Chapter Text

“Tony, welcome back,” Director Shepard said when Tony walked in.

“Director.” He nodded politely.

She sighed. “I hope this has not damaged our working relationship. As much as you made an error, you are still one of the best agents in this building, and I would still prefer it if you called me Jenny. After all, we will be working closely together.”

She kept her words vague enough that they could refer to either the Benoit case or Tony’s work with the MCRT, but it no longer mattered. Not only had Katie gotten him in for an interview the same day, but she was a boss he felt comfortable calling by her first name. He’d been honest about his failures in leadership and his strengths in thinking outside the box. She’d been brutally frank about the emotional toll the unit took on people and the importance of having good people willing to pay that price to bring down pedophiles and child predators. Tony would run a field team, but she was also clear that he would answer to agents who coordinated the largely online efforts to track pedophiles.

Tony was comfortable with that. Katie’s field teams worked under the online teams, which was a different setup from most crimes where the online activities were secondary to the real life interactions. Tony didn’t have the technical skills to run the online half of the operation, but Katie also encouraged him to upgrade his computer skills so he was eligible for promotion. It was strange to meet coworkers and have the boss introduce him as someone with great potential.

Shepard started the meeting with, “I would like to review the disciplinary action before discussing your team.”

“Director, there is an issue that I would like to discuss first,” Tony said before she could launch into some song and dance about how he should feel guilty. He did feel guilt and likely always would. It was a reminder that he needed to put the job first or others would pay a steep price. However, hearing Shepard reprimand him was too hypocritical for him to handle first thing in the morning on a Monday.

“Oh?” Shepard leaned forward, her body language inviting him to confide in her.

Tony pulled an envelope out of his pocket. “My leadership skills suffered because I played the part of the class clown with the MCRT and changing direction is difficult.”

“We all make mistakes,” Shepard said.

Tony hadn’t called his act a mistake. His act had allowed him to get along with Gibbs, who—looking back—was antagonistic with anyone he perceived as a threat. Hotchner had thought Gibbs aggressive with males, but when Tony remembered how Gibbs had verbally struck out at dozens of people, Tony could safely say that Gibbs was an equal opportunity abuser.

Abuse was the wrong term. Gibbs was equally distrustful. He was equally wary. He didn’t want people to have power over him, and he struck out equally at everyone who did. Rumor had it that Morrow had eliminated the Agent in Charge position in the DC office because Gibbs had undermined the man so badly that he couldn’t function. Morrow had kept hands off Gibbs’ team, allowing Gibbs to run cases and his team however he saw fit. Hell, they'd even taken cases and run the team when it was just the two of them, which was a clear violation of protocol for the MCRT teams. And while Morrow might have bugged Gibbs about having a full team of four, he’d never required it. When Shepherd refused to back down to Gibbs and had made what Gibbs considered a bad call, Gibbs had even walked away and moved to Mexico. Gibbs and authority were not a good mix, which was ironic considering that he had been military. But then he had more respect for military people.

When it came to civilians, Gibbs didn’t trust anyone to know as much as him. And that meant he wouldn’t take shit from anyone. If Tony had come off as a threat, Gibbs would have slapped him down so hard that he might not have recovered. So Tony didn’t consider his class clown act a mistake, and that act had allowed him to shield teammates from the worst of Gibbs’ bad humor. More importantly, it kept suspects off guard. In fact, Tony still planned to use it when appropriate. As far as he was concerned, chewing on a tie and playing Tetris while in an interrogation room with a gang-banger was good investigative technique.

Tony slid the envelope across the table at Shepherd. “I need a chance to start over with a new team where I can establish myself as a leader without carrying the baggage of the years I worked with Gibbs.”

“I don’t have any team lead positions open right now.” Shepard took the envelope, but she didn’t open it. Instead she stared at Tony as though trying to figure him out.

“You misunderstand me. Assuming my final background check goes well, I’m joining the FBI. That’s my letter of resignation."

Shepard straightened up. "Excuse me?"

"I am giving two weeks' notice and I would like to finish the Renny Grant case, but if we can finish that one early, I would like to request to use my vacation and comp pay for any remaining notice."

Tony watched while Shepard ripped open the envelope and started reading. Her mouth drew up into a tense line, but he suspected she was more upset about her unsanctioned op. Now that he'd taken a few days to get away from the situation, he could see how idiotic this whole plan was. If Benoit was watching his daughter, Shepard's cover identity wouldn't protect Tony. No matter how deep the cover went on paper, Tony would have to leave Jeanne Benoit and go to his own apartment, where the mortgage was under the name DiNozzo. He would go from her hospital straight to the Navy Yard. Tony knew how to spot a tail, but could he keep up that level of awareness and paranoia for the months or years required for the op to pay off? Tony doubted it.

And he knew that the other team leads in the yard would turn down the job. Tony had been the only one desperate for some way to prove himself. And he had nearly made a tragic error because of it.

"Let's talk about this, Tony. You're telling me that you feel like you need to develop stronger leadership skills, yet you plan to take a position in one of the most difficult positions in the federal government. If you had made an error similar to the one with Renny Grant, the consequences could have been disastrous."

Tony's stomach soured because he did understand the danger. "Yes, ma'am, I have spoken to SSA Cole about my weakness in leadership. I will have a team to rely on and other team leaders who will call me out if I fall back into bad behaviors." Tony had no intention of ever playing class clown again, but he also knew the mask had become habit and he might fall back into old habits. That's why he had been so honest with Katie about his need to have a supervisor who would kick his ass if he backslid.

"The sort of cases they handle... That unit has chewed up more than one highly experienced team leader."

Tony nodded. "SSA Cole was brutally honest about that and about the other positions available if the crimes against children position proves to be too much."

"And you're willing to take the chance?" Shepard asked. She didn't specify whether Tony was taking a chance with his career or taking a chance with the lives of the children.

"I think this is the best choice for my career." Tony decided to ignore the veiled references to him not being good enough to work the position.

"Because of Ziva and McGee?" Shepard asked.

Tony frowned. "This has nothing to do with the team." However, the fact she asked the question suggested she knew a lot more about the conflicts than Tony had assumed. Perhaps she was giving him time to find his feet as a leader, but Tony wondered if her need for the undercover assignment had influenced her decision to allow the team's dysfunction to continue. After all, the more desperate Tony was to prove himself, the less likely he was to question her on it.

"Doesn't it?" Shepard sighed and gave him a compassionate look. "Changing the team and getting new subordinates won't change the most important aspect of your leadership.”

“Myself,” Tony said without flinching. “I need to change myself, but I feel that changing would be nearly impossible at NCIS. My skills, including my undercover skills, will be best utilized in SSA Cole’s unit.” Tony let his own veiled reference to Benoit hang in the air before he added. “They have a lot of people to play the part of pedophiles or victims online, but very few of their agents have the experience working ops in the real world. I would fill a valuable need there in addition to running my own team.”

“So you would be doing largely what you’re doing here. I don’t see why you need to change agencies for that.” Shepard smiled. “In fact, I talked to Agent Baumgartner in LA, and he is very interested in moving here. He would be a strong SSA, and if you feel the need for additional changes, there is a temporary working group on counterterrorism. I could assign Ziva to work with them for a month, which would give you time to make adjustments to your leadership style. I know she can be very obstinate.” Shepard said that last line in a tone that suggested she and Tony were old friends sharing their exasperation. The manipulation was so overt that Tony wondered if she had ever been good at undercover. If she had, she’d lost the knack. She overplayed her hand too much.

“I am sorry, but I have already made a commitment to SSA Cole, and I would like to finish the Renny Grant case with the current team. We made that mistake together and we need to fix it together.”

Shepard made a steeple out of her fingertips, and Tony could almost hear the wheels grinding in her head. She still wanted to find a way to fix this. “And when Gibbs comes back?” she asked.

“What about it?”

“Transitioning back into the team might be difficult for him, and you know how Jethro refuses to ask for help. You always got past those defensive walls he maintains to carefully.”

Tony nodded. That was true, and he did worry. Gibbs would push himself too hard, and his memory had been Swiss cheese when he left. However, he couldn’t base his life about tending the emotional needs of a man who pushed him away. And the more Tony showed his competent side, the more Gibbs was going to push, so it wasn’t like Tony could do a whole lot to control Gibbs. “I hope you do bring in a strong SSA and team lead. If Gibbs comes back, he could use the support.” Tony looked right at Shepard.

They both knew Gibbs would never accept help, especially not from strong investigators who would push him. As far as Tony was concerned, this was as close as he was going to come to telling Shepard that she and Gibbs could fuck off. It wasn’t his job to cover for them.

And Shepard got the point. She pursed her lips and her eyes narrowed. If Tony hadn’t already secured another job, he’d worry about what sort of damage she might do to his reputation. “I see,” she said.

“I would request that the team go off rotation until you can bring in a replacement. I would hate to be in the middle of a case and have to leave because my two weeks’ notice had come to an end.” Tony let her translate that. Not even an active case would keep him from walking out. It was another polite fuck you.

Shepard picked up a pen and tapped it against her desk a couple of time. “That would be inconvenient.”

Tony nodded his head toward her. It had been so many years since he had let his teeth show that he felt good about getting in his own digs. He would have to watch that urge. After so many years, he had a lot of pent up indignation and his new team didn’t deserve that. Now his old team? Yeah, they deserved a little taste of his ire. He might have failed as a leader, but they failed as a team.

“You will need to do exit paperwork.”

“I’ll take care of it today. I’ve already asked McGee to find the missing money, and I plan to go out with Ziva to pick up Lieutenant Justin Grady. His testimony is the most damning piece of evidence against Captain Grant, so he’s now our primary suspect. I want to get to him before he finds out the case against Grant fell apart.”

Shepard was quiet for a time, and Tony knew that she wanted to scream at him; he could feel it in the negative energy that swirled around them. “I’ll hold off filing your severance paperwork for those two weeks. Given some time, you may find you change your mind. In the meantime, focus on the Grant case.” Without discussing the discipline that had ostensibly been the reason for meeting, Shepard dismissed him by simply turning her attention to her computer.

Tony stood and actually got a head rush. He wondered if he had been holding his breath or it was the sheer joy of dropping an act that he had been playing for too long. Either way, he felt light headed as he headed out of the office. He had rushed through the bullpen without doing more than issuing a few orders—Ziva to find out where Lieutenant Grady was and McGee to get on the paper trail. Now he had to tell his team that he was officially their soon to be ex-boss.

He had no idea how they were going to take it, but he found that with every passing minute he cared less.

Chapter Text

"Hey, Probie, how are you doing with the money trail?" Tony asked as he came down the stairs. Verbally sparring with Shephard had felt good in part because the old Tony—the class clown—never would have done it. Tony felt like he was shedding a too-small coat and just starting to really enjoy the freedom.

Tim looked up from his computer. "You've only been gone forty minutes," he complained.

Well his resolve to do better hadn't lasted long. Tony stopped in front of Tim's desk and stared at him. After a few seconds, Tim's face started to turn red.

"I'm still working on identifying the terminals used to alter the logs," Tim said. "Whoever made the changes knew the system. I asked Garcia to send me the software she used to identify the altered dates. I'm making some headway."

Tony nodded. That was a better answer. "You don't have a lot of experience with banking records. Get someone from financial crimes if you need it." Tony could see in the way Tim pressed his lips together that he didn't want to do that, and he was fighting an urge to argue about it. Gibbs had given Tim a chance on a field team, but he had also encouraged Tim to become too insular. As a cop, Tony had turned to anyone with resources to help. The problem was that Gibbs was just so damn good that he rarely needed the help, but the rest of the universe lacked the ability to intimidate a suspect into telling the truth. It was funny, but when Tony had tried to use Gibbs' tactics, suspects usually laughed at him. But the most hard-nosed marine took one look at Gibbs and decided that Gibbs wasn't bluffing.

Tony went to his desk and secured the disciplinary paperwork he'd picked up from Cynthia in his top drawer. "Tim, with me," Tony said as he headed toward the hall that led to the conference rooms. He didn't look to see how Tim was taking the order because he didn't want to see it if Tim rolled his eyes.

Tony got to the conference room a good minute before Tim. "I really am working on this as hard as I can," Tim said as he came down the hall. Tony gestured toward the room. "Seriously. I will ask for help if I hit a wall, but this is going to take time," Tim said as he headed into the room.

Ignoring Tim's insecure defensiveness, Tony said, "I took a job with unit three of the BAU." He closed the conference room door and turned to find Tim staring at him open-mouthed. "Way to look clueless McFishface," Tony said drily. He didn't need someone else acting like he couldn't handle a job in a top unit.

Tim snapped his mouth shut. “The BAU? The FBI's BAU? Seriously?”

“Consider how offensive your tone is before you say anything else,” Tony said. “I will only be your boss for two more weeks, but I can still file a reprimand.”

Tim glared. “Way to be insecure, Tony.”

Tony crossed his arms. “Really? And if Gibbs were here announcing that he had taken a position at the FBI would you use that tone?”

“Gibbs at the FBI? Yeah, yeah I would.”

“To his face for the same reason?” Tony asked.

Tim had the grace to blush. He knew the difference, and trying to gaslight Tony wasn’t cool. “It's just that they're profilers and doctors of psychology and you're more of a working in the field agent.”

“I can work in the field and still have a lot of hours in psychology. In fact, I do have a lot of psychology coursework. When I first started getting interested in the criminal mind, I took a number of courses in adolescent deviance offered as part of my PE degree.”

Tim gave him an incredulous look.

“Always check, Probie. You assumed a PE degree had electives in basket weaving, but a hell of a lot of coaches work with underprivileged and delinquent youth. I've been offered a job leading a field team for the crimes against children division.”

“But you don't even like children.”

“And...?”

Tim opened his mouth and then closed it again without saying anything. Tony raised his eyebrows and waited. Eventually Tim threw his hands up. “And I don't know. You are springing all this on me, and my brain is a little stuck. I mean, I know you’re good at your job. If you weren’t, Renny Grant would be on trial right now. So yeah, you’re good.”

“That's not the only case I've solved in ten years,” Tony said dryly. Either he was irrationally irritated with Tim or everything the man said had an undercurrent of disrespect. Tony was good because he solved one case as opposed to being good because he had brought down gun runners and terrorists. He was one of the youngest detectives in Baltimore and had completed undercover assignments that would have chewed up and spit out other cops. Sure, Tony had regrets and mistakes in his past, some of which haunted him, but he was a damn good investigator and agent.

“Of course not. I just mean that you were right when the rest of us were wrong, so you have better instincts.”

“I have more experience and more training in criminology and criminal psychology,” Tony corrected him.

“Are you going to take everything I say the wrong way?” Tim asked without hiding his aggravation.

Tony sighed. “Maybe. I’m still struggling because as much as I failed as a leader, you failed to have my back. You dismissed my concerns and had me convinced that I was being an unreasonable bastard for asking you to do your job.”

“God, I know. I kept expecting the director to call me up and suspend me for three days.”

“Not her call. I work for her, but you’re under me. I should have ordered you to finish that search.”

“And I should have done it without the order, but that’s water under the bridge. I know we can work together. I know I can change my attitude, so you don’t have to go taking a job with kids.”

“I’m pretty sure I’ll be working with adults.”

Tim threw his hands up before collapsing into a chair. “You know what I mean. You don’t like kids, and you’re going to be in the crimes against children unit. That can’t be a comfortable fit.”

“It actually is, Probie. Again, you have to stop assuming. Why do you think I hate kids?”

“Um, because you always say you hate kids and you make me do the interviews with them.”

Tony sighed. He was uncomfortable around most kids because they were spoiled. They didn’t know what really mattered in life, and they assumed the world revolved around them. Tony had given up that delusion when he’d outgrown the sailor suit his mother used to show off her picture perfect son. The suit and the illusion that a child could be perfect had both gone out with the garbage. Clearly Tim hadn’t noticed that pattern, though. Of course it wasn’t easy since Gibbs tended to hover over any children. “I know how to work with young victims, Tim. And they deserve justice as much as the military victims we serve now. I’m looking forward to a new challenge.”

Tim looked down at the table. “You’re looking forward to working with a new team.”

“Maybe a little,” Tony admitted. The look of shock on Tim’s face made it clear he had expected Tony to reassure him. “I’m looking forward to being myself without having to live in Gibbs’ shadow or act a certain way because that’s what people expect. You never saw through my masks, Tim, and that worries me. You’re an investigator. Don’t take everything at face value. Now, get back to work.”

“Tony.” Tim’s voice was colored with guilt.

Tony held up a hand to stop him. “Nothing more to say. You have work to do, and I have people to tell because within a day, this is going to be all over the damn building.”

“Oh God. Abby.” Tim turned ashen.

“Yeah, exactly,” Tony agreed. “But first I need to tell Ziva.” They hadn’t worked together as long, so Tony didn’t know how she might take it.

“I’ll go get coffee so you have some privacy,” Tim offered. At first Tony didn’t understand why he felt the need, but then it occurred to him that Ziva would probably refuse to go to a conference room without Tony explaining the reason why he wanted to talk to her privately, and that would make the conference room moot. Ziva was an interesting one.

“Thanks,” Tony said with a smile. Tim nodded and headed out. If Tony had decided to stay, Tony figured they could have worked it out. At least half their problem was that Tony had worn his clown mask for so long that it was indistinguishable from the real Tony DiNozzo. Sure, Aaron Hotchner could see under the illusion, but Tim wasn’t a profiler. Tony resented Tim for not noticing that there was more to him, but Tim didn’t have the experience, the psychology background or the undercover work to recognize a cover story when he saw it. Tony needed to forgive and never forget the lesson he’d learned during this clusterfuck.

And one of the lessons he’d learned was to fix his problems. That meant telling Ziva before heading down to deal with Abby in person. He was not looking forward to that drama. He nodded at Cooper as he headed back to his desk. Ziva was clicking through something, a look of utter disinterest on her face. Tony had thought she might volunteer to work with Michelle on handgun qualifying, but she hadn’t shown any interest and Tony hadn’t wanted to order her to go. After all, Michelle didn’t deserve a resentful Mossad officer hanging over her shoulder.

“Can we talk?” Tony asked. He grabbed his chair and pulled it around the desk so he could sit closer to her.

She raised an eyebrow. “You are talking now, yes?”

“Yes, yes I am.” Tony took a deep breath and tried to figure out where to start. Eventually Ziva turned her chair and started to study him curiously.

“Talking requires talk.”

“And again, you’re right. You’re a part of the team—my team—so I wanted to tell you that I’ve taken an offer to run a field team for the BAU.”

Ziva narrowed her eyes. “The BAU?”

“The Behavioral Analysis Unit of the FBI. I’m going to work on becoming a profiler, and in the meantime, work with profilers and run a unit.”

“I do not understand. You failed at your position, earned a suspension, and yet a more prestigious organization has recruited you?” The way Ziva lined up all those facts, they did sound strange. “Is this not illogical?”

“Well apparently the FBI feels I have skills to bring to the team.”

“That is a suggestion that we did not respect your skills, yes?” Ziva asked. “Despite what you might think, I was not opposed to your leadership. I would prefer you to stay.”

Of all the things she could have said, that was the one Tony had not prepared for. “Really? Because you did a good job of not doing your job.”

“I never refused an order,” Ziva said in an offended voice.

“You never carried my orders out the same way you carried out Gibbs' orders.”

“Everyone said Gibbs was unreasonable. If I am to work for you, is it not in my best interest to ensure that you do not become equally as unreasonable?” Ziva clearly admired her own logic. She had a self-satisfied look on her face that nearly drove Tony to homicide. She had intentionally manipulated and undermined him in order to improve her working conditions.

“So, your minimal effort had nothing to do with the fact that you have no respect for me?”

She shrugged. “I would not say I have no respect. Your investigative skills are superior although in other areas you lack necessary talents.”

“That is what we called damned with faint praise.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means that I have ten years of experience, and you damn well should have respected me. You should have talked to me about your work effort instead of trying to manipulate me into giving you a lighter workload.”

“It is difficult to respect someone who plays boy.”

Tony had no idea if she meant he was a playboy or that she was complaining that he acted like a child, but he found he didn't care. "A good investigator would have seen through my facade."

“I am well aware of your skills.” Ziva’s sharp tone made it clear that she resented his implication that she had missed something. “However, in Mossad, we do not allow such insincere or immature behavior. I find it unbecoming.”

Tony stood and pushed his chair back to his desk. He was not going to get through to her, not ever. She thought of him as a man child. She might flirt with him, undermine him, or partner with him, but he would never get an ounce of deference or respect out of her. “Well good for you. If you keep talking about Mossad, someone is going to suggest you go back there if you like it so much.”

“I did not say I wished to return there.”

Tony sat behind his desk. “Then stop trying to compare everything and find a way to be an investigator instead of a Mossad agent.”

Ziva bolted out of her chair. “You are being unpleasant because you do resent that McGee and I made you look less than competent.” She stood in front of his desk and crossed her arms.

“I made myself look less than competent. I'm being unpleasant because your choices contributed to Renny Grant nearly going to prison.”

“I did not do the computer search.”

Tony leaped to his feet. A little voice in the back of his head whispered about all the people who were watching and listening, but he had crossed some line into a land of no longer giving a fuck. “No, but you were part of the general attitude around here. You encouraged McGee's bad behavior. You forgot that this job is not about us, it's not about what's easy for us, it's not about having a reasonable boss or predictable hours. This job is about victims. You have to do whatever is best for them.”

“You often complained that Gibbs was unreasonable,” Ziva said in an accusatory tone.

“He was,” Tony nearly shouted. “I still did my damn job. And yes, sometimes what is best for victims is having an investigator who has gone home and gotten enough sleep to think straight. But I will tell you right now, Ziva, if I stayed, I wouldn't have continued to put up with your attitude.”

“It is easy to say one will change. I do not think it will be that easy for you to put off this boy thinking.”

“Change is hard, and that's why I'm leaving. But when the new boss comes in, just remember what I said about making this about the victims.” Tony turned to walk out, and he found a good quarter of the investigators all looking at him. Most of them stared with wide eyes, but Cassie Yates gave him a thumbs up. Great. With the audience they had up here, Tony had milliseconds to get to Abby and talk to her before the scuttlebutt reached her. He kept his chin up and tried to avoid making eye contact as he hurried toward the stairs.

Chapter Text

Tony stopped in the door of the lab and listened to the heavy beat of Abby’s music. If Renny Grant was the last case he worked, that meant he would never again bring Abby evidence. That made his heart ache a little. He loved Abby’s individuality. He admired her willingness to be herself even as he hid behind layers of obfuscation. He waited until the music had a natural lull and then he shouted, “Hey Abby.”

She whirled around, her pig tails flying. In a heartbeat, she turned her music off and flew toward him. “Tony! You're here,” she said as she caught him in a bear hug. “I'm so sorry, and I know Ducky said that I should show I'm sorry instead of saying it, but you're here, and you don't have evidence. Because I would totally slip you in ahead of anyone else if you needed evidence processed.” She backed off and gave him a hesitant smile.

“No evidence, Abs.”

“Then I can only say I'm sorry, and Ducky is right that it's not enough.” Her gaze dropped to the floor for a second before she looked up at him. “I never thought you'd get in trouble.”

Tony knew she meant that as an apology, and part of him wanted to take it and hug Abby and have everything go back to normal. But he couldn’t be that guy who laughed off disrespect, and Abby’s apology did imply a lack of respect. “Because you never thought of me as a team leader,” Tony said. He tried to keep his tone neutral, but she had to see the condemnation in his words.

She cringed back. “That makes me a bad friend, huh?” She bit her lip, but she didn’t defend herself.

“It makes you...” Tony sighed. “You're not good at change.”

She wrinkled her nose. “Not even a little. But if you tell me when I'm being bad at it, I will totally throw everything I have into changing. And if you say the word, I know how to make the ventilation system to the director's office smell like skunk, and no one will ever trace it back to us.”

“As much as I appreciate the offer of vengeance, it's not necessary.”

She raised her chin and studied him. Abby always had been able to see past his bullshit, which is why it hurt more when she ignored the investigator behind the mask. But right now, Tony was more concerned that she was already getting suspicious. “Something is hinky. What's hinky?” She narrowed her eyes more as she considered him.

Tony took a deep breath and jumped in the deep end. “I put in my resignation, Abby. I agreed to stay for two weeks to give the director time to move someone else over to MCRT, but I've taken another job.”

For a time, she simply stared at him, her mouth open. He had a mental countdown going in his head but she jumped his guestimate by a good three seconds by shouting, “What? No!”

“I already turned in my letter of resignation.”

“But… you can’t. I mean, you can’t leave us. Leave me. Just because I was totally off base and didn’t treat you right, but I apologized and you can’t leave now when we’re just getting back to being better.”

“This has nothing to do with you,” Tony said as gently as he could.

“But the team. You can't leave them. The director is so new and Gibbs is gone. And Gibbs! You totally know Gibbs is going to come back, and he gave the team to you, and you're supposed to take care of them.” Her anguish was starting to fade into anger. Tony knew exactly how he could soothe her and make this better. He would promise to think about it and give her time to process the idea of him leaving. She would nag him to stay and he would provide reasons for why the move was best for him, but each time he would promise to consider staying. And after a week or so, she would slowly come around. He just wasn’t sure why it was his job to ease her into change. And when had he taken on the task to sacrifice his peace of mind for hers?

Tony girded his loins and sailed right into the thick of the storm. “I'm not their father. They're all grown up and they can take care of themselves.”

“Tony!” Abby gasped, her mouth open in horror. “What would Gibbs say?”

“That if they can’t do their jobs they should find other work.” Gibbs might not talk that way to Abby and Tony doubted he’d be that blunt with Ziva, but the rest of them had all gotten variations on that speech, and that included Viv.

“He would not!” Abby put her hands on her hips. “Don’t even try to pretend that this is what Gibbs would want because he wouldn’t. He’s hurt and suffering and trying to deal with all the bad that hit him at once, and he trusts you to keep his work family together for him until he can come home.”

Tony crossed his arms. “You’re reading a lot into ‘you’ll do.’”

“You know how Gibbs has trouble with compliments. You know it. You know Gibbs!” Abby poked a finger in his direction. “But he trusted you to keep the team together and lead them. And I was wrong for not supporting you well enough, but if you walk away, you’re more wrong-wrong-wrong.”

Tony did know Gibbs. If Tony had fucked up, Gibbs would have made him suffer. However, if Tony managed to turn this around and become a successful team lead, Gibbs would make him suffer more. Hotchner had nailed Gibbs on his overly competitive nature. Sure, local cops and feds fussed about how they didn't want to work together, but Tony had never seen anyone in law enforcement actively sabotage another agency's case. Gibbs had several times.

"I have a good opportunity that meets my career goals. I can't plan my life around a supervisor who isn't even around to know what I'm doing.” Tony was proud of the fact that he kept his voice calm.

She stared at him, her eyes large and shining with unshed tears. Tony felt like a shit, but he couldn’t go back to being class-clown DiNozzo, not when it compromised his ability to be an investigator. “Are you going to ask me about my new job?” Tony asked.

“No!”

Tony ignored the outburst. He didn’t want to lose Abby as a friend, and if he walked out right now, he didn’t know if he could forgive her. So instead he plowed ahead like nothing was wrong. Tony ‘fake it til ya make it’ DiNozzo—that should be his name. “I was offered a team lead position with the BAU.”

Abby’s mouth fell open. “The BAU? The FBI’s BAU? But you hate the FBI! Now I know something is wrong. What are you not telling me, Tony DiNozzo because you would never, ever work for the FBI.” Abby was such a strange mess of complete cluelessness and sharp insight that Tony figured she was one of a kind.

“First, I don’t hate the FBI. I hate Agent Slacks, but he’s not the whole bureau.”

Abby closed in on him fast, poking him in the chest with her finger. “Don’t change the subject on me, mister. You love NCIS, and you are all anti-FBI guy, so if you’re changing your tune, something happened. What did Madame Director do? Because you know, I can kill her and hide all the evidence.”

“And as much as I appreciate you’re offering to coming a capital crime for me,” Tony said as he captured her hand and held it. Her pokes hurt. “I am leaving because they offered a better position.”

Abby jerked her hand away. “Garcia did this, didn’t she? She talked you into going over to her team, and I’m going to show her what happens when you poach from Abby Scuito.”

“Hey!” Tony caught her arm just as she was wheeling around to her computer. The last thing he needed was to end up in the middle of a geek war. “I’m not even joining Garcia’s unit. SSA Katie Cole from Unit 3 hired me to run one of the field teams. I would get to be a leader, but I would be part of a much larger team, so there would be more support for me as I develop my skills.”

“More support? So you’re still blaming Tim for this? It’s his fault for not supporting you?”

“No! God, no. Tim has two years under his belt. He’s so new he squeaks, so I don’t expect him to be able to support me in a leadership position. But there will be other team leads I can work with.”

“You have team leads here.” The tears had faded away and now Abby was getting angry. Part of Tony preferred the anger. If he left when she was hurt, he’d feel guilty. But he knew Abby. For all her tantrums, she had a good heart. Sure, her heart led her to give him a “trainee” sticker when he tried to do his job as a team lead, but she didn’t mean harm even as she emotionally gutted him. And if she got angry, she would feel bad later. Tony felt like an ass, but he was done being the poo boy for this damn team. This time, she would get to carry her own damn guilt.

“Team leads here don’t really work with me because they’re used to Gibbs’ team being an island. I don’t want to live on an island, and starting over is too hard because people are too used to me following Gibbs’ rules. I need to step out where I can be an investigator on my own terms.”

“So now this is Gibbs’ fault?” Abby’s voice was low and dangerous. Okay, Tony didn’t mean to make her that angry.

“Of course not,” he said. “This is me saying I need something different. The job is an important one. I’ll be working in the crimes against children division—tracking pedophiles, working child abductions and trafficking cases, going undercover, and working with local law enforcement. These cases are important.”

“And protecting the men and women of the armed forces is just as important!”

“Yes, it is,” Tony agreed. “But I’m not the best person for the job.”

“Of course you are! You are awesome. You are Very Special Agent Tony DiNozzo. And if you’re leaving because you think you’re anything less than perfect for this job, I’m going to drag you to therapy so someone can tell you how amazing you are.” Abby nodded her head so vigorously that her pony tails bobbed. Her good heart definitely had not caught up with reality. Tony sighed as he tried to figure out another way to get her to see the truth.

“I’m an incredible investigator. I have good instincts, but the fact is that I have a lot more coursework in adolescent psychology than adult. Add to that my own lack of experience with military culture, and the BAU is a better fit for me. The MCRT needs someone with a military background to effectively communicate with the people they’re likely to encounter.”

“Don’t do that!”

“Do what?”

“Talk like you’re already gone. You aren’t. We can fix this. Just tell the director that you’re staying and then ask for a new probie—someone who was in the military. Then it’s all fixed, and you know Michelle Lee wasn’t going to fit in anyway.”

Tony sighed. “I want to leave, Abby. I’ve enjoyed my time at NCIS, but I’ve never stayed this long anywhere, and I’m ready to move on. The director is already considering people for the head of MCRT.” Tony didn’t tell her that Shepard had threatened to bring in a new head investigator even before Tony had retired. Abby really might kill the woman, and Tony didn’t want to testify against her at a trial. Besides, there’s no way he would be able to explain her emotional involvement in his career. Usually people had to sleep together to get this emotionally tangled in each other’s business.

She gave him a wounded expression. “Why aren’t you fighting this?”

“Fighting what? I took a new job, that’s all. I’m even staying in town, so we can still go out clubbing sometimes.” And that time would be in the distant future because Tony did not want to spend time with her until she had come to terms with his decision. He felt sorry for whoever took the MCRT lead position because Abby would take out all her frustration on that person.

“Madam Director did something. You wouldn’t be leaving us unless you had to. Are you protecting us from something? Did she threaten you?” Abby’s stab in the dark was dangerously close to the mark.

Rather than react to her accusations, Tony reached for her hand and held it for a second. “I screwed up. I earned the three-day suspension, and it made me realize I need to make a change. This is the best change for me.”

Abby drew back like she’s seen something disgusting. “So you only care about yourself? You’re abandoning all of us because Tony DiNozzo is selfish and wants what he wants. Well if you don’t care about us, then you can just go to hell. I don’t know why I ever trusted you. When Gibbs comes back, he’ll tell you exactly what he thinks of you for abandoning your post. That’s what you are… an abandoner.”

Tony nodded. That was the tipping point he’d been waiting for. He didn’t deserve to carry the guilt for this, so when Abby realized how unreasonable she was being, she could do the carrying. And while Tony had every intention of forgiving her eventually, he figured he would let her haul around that bucket of guilt for a while. Without a word, he turned and walked out. Behind him, Abby cried out his name, but Tony headed for the elevator.

He rode to the morgue level with another agent who spent an unreasonable amount of time staring at Tony, so the news of his resignation had definitely hit the rumor mill. This place was worse than a high school.

Tony headed into the morgue and ran into Jimmy filling out paperwork at the desk. “Autopsy Gremlin, how’s life?”

“Tony!” Jimmy got up and crossed the distance between them and lowered his voice to a whisper. “Is it true? Are you going to the FBI?”

“The BAU—I’m getting my own field team,” Tony said.

Jimmy’s face lit up. “Wow. The BAU. That’s awesome! How excited are you?”

“Excited, nervous, you name it, I feel it,” Tony confessed, “but the head of the unit is amazing. I think this is going to be good for me.”

“Hey, I will miss the hell out of you.”

Tony slapped Jimmy on the arm. “I’m going to miss you too. Is Ducky around?”

Jimmy used his thumb to point to Ducky’s office. “Abby called.”

Tony cringed.

“Yeah, it wasn’t pretty. Ducky decided to take it in the office.”

If Tony needed more evidence that it was time for him to leave, Abby was providing it. In other workplaces, this sort of gossip and complaining would have led to a write up. Hell, Tony would get written up if he spent half as much time complaining about Abby.

“Don’t disappear without letting me take you out for a congratulatory drink,” Jimmy said. “But I’m going to run some trace down and see if some forensics won’t distract Abby.” He turned back to his desk and took a pile of evidence bags before heading out of the morgue. Tony waited a couple of minutes before heading back toward Ducky’s office. The door was open a crack, so Tony pushed it a little until he could see Ducky sitting at his desk.

“… position, my dear,” Ducky was saying. “This is an excellent opportunity for young Anthony.” Ducky looked over at Tony and smiled as he listened.

Tony nodded.

“Yes, well, I’m sure we’ll speak later,” Ducky said. “Anderson needs that trace run quickly, Abigail.”

He listened for a moment longer.

“Of course. Goodbye, my dear.” Ducky hung up the phone before turning to Tony. “She is quite distraught.”

“I think angry is a more accurate word.”

“Yes, well her anger will burn out when she has a chance to think about her reaction. But you, young man.” Ducky stood. “The BAU? Good for you, Anthony. They are fortunate to get such a perspicacious young investigator.”

“Not so young, Ducky. Today I’m feeling older than ever.”

“No doubt. Change is difficult.” Ducky gestured toward his sofa. “Come, sit. Would you like some tea?”

“No thank you. Ziva and I are going to go pick up a new suspect in the embezzlement case, but I wanted to be the one that told you about my new job. I just didn’t get here quick enough.” Tony shrugged and leaned against the door frame. By telling Abby first, he figured his odds weren’t good, but then Ducky was less likely to take offense at being put lower on the priority list.

“Indeed. You would have needed supersonic speed to beat Abigail’s dialing finger.” Ducky wiggled his index finger. “But I do hope you know that her attitude does not reflect on you. I quite understand why you are seeking a change. Her belief that you are acting irrationally is, in itself, irrational.”

Tony ducked his head. “No lecture about how Gibbs is going to be disappointed in me?”

“Ah.” Ducky sank down in his office chair again. “I suspect Jethro will be quite put out. I don’t believe he has ever had a team member leave without his express permission. He prefers to be the one in control of his relationships, to the point that he often undermines them. You were so accomodating that I had hoped he would learn to relax some of that iron control around you.”

“But he never did. He always had to stay in control and keep me in my place until he walked out with a ‘you’ll do.’” Tony still remembered the Atlas case. He’d been locked in a stone prison with a starving marine, fighting his own panic and fear and trying to convince Bill Atlas to fight for his own life. Gibbs had been an ass all day. Kate had even commented on how Gibbs never treated either of them with respect, and she rarely complained about Gibbs even on his worst days.

Tony had gotten out of that locked room and taken their killer on a game of cat and mouse through a maze of tunnels before Gibbs had shown up. Near the end of the case, Gibbs had called Tony irreplaceable. Tony still remembered the rush of pride that he had finally done something, anything, to impress Gibbs. He could have walked on air.

Then Gibbs turned to McGee who’d been sitting at Tony’s desk and implied that he’d already picked the computer guy to replace Tony by saying, “Forget about it, McGee. He's still alive.” The emotional whiplash had nearly made Tony quit. However, the next day Kate and Gibbs had acted like nothing happened, and Tony had started to doubt his feelings. He thought maybe he had imagined just how brutal that insult had been.

But now that Tony saw the exit—the escape—he could look back and say that it had been so shitty that no agent could excuse treating another that way. And if Gibbs came back, he would do exactly the same thing. If Tony found his feet as a leader, and Tony had no doubt that he would, then Gibbs would make sure to drop him hard and fast and make sure that Tony didn’t get back up until he’d learned to stay in his place as the class clown. “If I’m here and doing well as a leader, how do you think Gibbs will react?” Tony asked.

Ducky sighed. “Unfortunately, I believe he would be very threatened and would likely attempt to take control back in your relationship. However, something has changed you. I doubt you would be willing to be placed back into that subordinate position.”

“What changed is that I’ve seen some of the options out there. It’s time for me to move on.”

Ducky smiled. “Indeed it is, my friend. This weekend, come over and I will fix you a gourmet meal and we can discuss this new job opportunity.”

“Thanks, Ducky.”

“Of course. I hope you always count me as one of your friends, even when I make mistakes.”

“We all make mistakes,” Tony said. “I’ve made enough that I don’t have room to complain about other people. But I have to go pick up our new suspect. I’ll see you later.” Tony turned and headed out, and surprisingly, he already felt more like a team lead. He didn’t wonder if Ziva would approve of his decision to question Justin Grady. He didn’t worry that Tim wouldn’t track down the money. His people would follow his orders or he would write them up. The realization that he had the power was freeing.



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I don't know how many of you are aware of the fact that I write pro-fic, but I do. Spirit animals and magic and murder victims, oh my... My next book is out. Go here to check it out if you're interested: https://www.amazon.com/Deductions-Aberrant-Magic-Book-1-ebook/dp/B01HDQF7JC/

Chapter Text

“Hey, my man, I brought beer.”

Tony stared at Derek Morgan as he held up a six pack of beer. Then Garcia pushed past him. “And I brought food, so step aside,” she ordered him. Tony knew an invasion when he saw one, so he moved aside before Garcia bowled him over. She headed straight for his kitchen with a pile of Tupperware dishes.

“Um, hey,” Tony said, not certain why he was being invaded.

Derek came into the apartment. “Garcia got a nasty email from your girl, so she said we had to come convince you to not listen. Man, your tech… she has a temper on her.” Derek whistled through his teeth.

“You read her email?” This was so not good.

“Garcia was too pissed to talk, and I wanted to know what had my baby girl so twisted up. So grab some glasses, let’s crack open some beers, and Garcia brought her famous bean dip and homemade chips. She doesn’t break that out for just anyone you know.” Derek held up the beers.

Tony closed and locked the door. “I feel honored.”

“You should,” Garcia shouted from the kitchen. “And do not listen to Abby. You know I love that girl, but sometimes she needs a good spanking. I mean, she really needs someone to put her over a knee and spank her until all those emotions come up and she can handle things more logically.”

Tony followed Derek into the kitchen in time to see Derek leaned down to give her a kiss on the cheek. “Baby girl, there are some things about your sex life that I do not need to know.”

“Then never make the mistake of hurting friends with childish outbursts,” Garcia said. “And get me a beer.”

“Your wish is my command,” Derek said with an elaborate bow. “Where do you keep the glasses?” he asked Tony. Tony grabbed three glasses and put them on the island. The oven light was on and Garcia had dug a casserole dish out of a cupboard. She was currently dumping layers of food into the dish and the largest bowl was open to show chips.

Derek put out three of the beers, and Tony started pouring them into glasses while Derek put the other three into the fridge. “So, I hear you took the job with SSA Cole,” Derek said.

Garcia added, “And your friends will be happy for you as soon as they get over being hurt by the idea that the universe does not revolve around them.”

“Yeah, I know,” Tony said. He understood Abby, and he knew she would come around, but he didn’t want to talk about it. If their friendship was as important to her as it was to him, she would have tried harder to understand his point of view. And maybe he was being unreasonable, but he wanted to hold onto his unreasonable resentment for a little while. “So, let’s talk about something else. Any new beaus in your lovelife, Garcia?” Tony asked. Her gaze darted toward Derek for a second, but Tony didn’t know them well enough to understand the subtext. He did know that Garcia was very popular when they went out to the clubs. The subby boys all gravitated to her and her big personality.

“Not really,” Garcia said coyly. Tony assumed that meant she was still enjoying being footloose and free. Hopefully she wasn’t being secretive because Derek disapproved. But then again, it could be that she had finally set her cap for someone she couldn’t get, not that Derek looked averse to a little Garcia love. “And how about you? Have you given anyone a second date lately?” She raised her eyebrow in a clear challenge. Yeah, Tony knew he was as bad as her. Sex was fun, the chase was exciting, but settling down sounded like a level of hell.

“You know me. I gotta keep my options open.”

She snorted.

Derek confiscated the casserole dish and put it in the oven. “How about we avoid anyone’s dating life? So, how did your director take your resignation?”

“She thinks she can change my mind.” Tony paused. “Either that or she’s wondering if she can sabotage my final background checks.” He really hoped he was reading her wrong on that.

“I hope so,” Garcia said with a sort of malicious glee.

“Excuse me?” Tony had to have heard her wrong.

“I talked to Agents Cole and Hotcher, and if your final background check goes wonky, then Agent Cole is going to ask me to do a little digging into the NCIS computers, and then I’m going to officially find the files on Director Shepard’s computer, and then she can explain that. So if you hear on the news that the director of a federal agency was arrested for mishandling classified material, you can assume that she tried to block your transfer.”

“But Hotchner knows about those files now.”

“Not officially, he doesn’t,” Derek said. “For him to tell anyone about those files, he would have to admit that you two were off the reservation.”

Garcia nodded. “Yep, officially I was written up for doing the work on the Renny Grant case without permission, which actually makes Hotch look worse than me. I mean, he comes off like some sort of red-tape loving bureaucrat who cares more about interagency paperwork than justice.”

“And that is not Hotch,” Derek said fiercely, “although he does sometimes put up this front that makes people wonder.”

“Yep,” Garcia agreed. “But if Shepard pushes, then there would be a legitimate reason for Agent Cole to wonder why someone with glowing reports suddenly had red flags. It won’t end well for Shepard if she tries.”

Derek slapped Tony’s arm. “We got your back. So, how is the Grant case looking?”

Tony appreciated the change of subject. As much as he appreciated that someone did have his six, he couldn’t escape the thought that it shouldn’t be Derek and Garcia. Ziva should have his back. Sure, they’d worked together less than a year, but he was her partner. And McGee should have his back. He’d taught McGee everything he knew about crime scenes. In order to get McGee a spot on the MCRT, Tony had gone to Gibbs and offered to babysit the geek until he could handle himself on the streets. So a change of topic was more than welcome.

“I spent today tracking down the assholes who framed Renny Grant. I have one of them, a lieutenant, dead to rights, but I still think one of the higher-ranked officers is involved. Either that or the officers in charge are all incompetent.”

Derek stole one of Garcia’s chips. “Either is possible.”

“True. I’ll get to the bottom. So what were you up to today?” Tony asked. The Grant case wasn’t exactly improving his mood.

“I had court today. Walter Kern.” From Derek’s grimace, it was a bad case.

“He’s the killer who went dormant for years, right?” Garcia asked.

“Yeah. He nearly died in a car accident and it left him physically disabled. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.”

“He wasn’t disabled enough. It’s horrible what he did to those women.” Garcia wrinkled her nose, and Tony finally placed the case. The Keystone Killer had targeted women in Philadelphia. He’d gone quiet from the eighties until just recently.

Tony had worked his share of murders, but the MCRT rarely worked anything as exotic as a serial killer. “I don’t know how you can do it, working so many sexual cases. The majority of serial killers are sexually motivated, right?”

“Anger, criminal enterprise, ideology—they’re all motives, but sexually-based motivation is one of the largest categories. But it’s like what your future unit does with the crimes against children—we do it because it’s got to be done.”

“But it’s icky,” Garcia added. “I am instituting an official ban on anything disturbing or nightmare inducing. We are here to provide positive emotional support, and we are not talking about people who clearly did not get enough love as children. So someone tell me a happy story, and I do not mean happy in that only a few people got killed.” She poked a finger in Derek’s direction. He put his beer down long enough to hold his hands up in surrender.

Tony laughed. Garcia did know how to command a room. “Okay, I saw Renny Grant today. The man was deliriously happy that we figured out who really took the money, and if the lieutenant ever gets out of prison, he’d better make sure to stay out of Grant’s way.”

“See? Justice done.” Garcia held her hand up for a high five, and Tony obliged. “That’s a good story. Oh, I know what would be a good story. What did Abby’s face look like when you told her off?”

And there went Tony’s happy. “I didn’t tell her off.”

“Oh please, I got her email, and from just her side of the conversation, I can tell you shared painful reality with that woman. And I can tell she deserved every word of it. So tell me, what did you say and what did she say?”

“Abby has a good heart,” Tony said, and he felt like he was damning his friend with faint praise.

“Oh, I know that. And I love Abby, but if I don’t get to spank her, I just want to hear about someone verbally smacking her down. So, how did she take it?”

“Maybe we should talk about something else,” Derek suggested.

Tony answered before anyone could actually change the subject. He wanted someone who knew both of them to be on his side, and Tony had seen enough divorces to know that was supremely shitty, but he didn’t care. “She vacillated between near-crying and fury,” Tony said.

“That sounds healthy,” Derek said dryly.

Garcia patted his arm. “Abby is just in touch with her emotions, not that I don’t appreciate the stoic and beautifully enduring front you put up for us.”

“I think I might be offended.”

“No you aren’t. I’ve said way worse,” Garcia told Derek with confidence. Derek gave Tony a shrug while Garcia asked, “So did she end on crying or angry?”

“Angry.”

“Good,” Garcia said firmly. “She comes around faster when she’s angry, and she will come around. Give her a week or two and she will start thinking about everything she said, and the guilt will start. You watch. I’m right.”

“I know you are.” Tony wished he knew how he was going to react with as much certainty.

“So how did your other teammates take it?” Derek asked.

“Ziva’s pissed. She admitted that she was trying to train me to be an easier boss so she didn’t have to deal with over-the-top demands, like the ones we got from Gibbs.”

Derek snorted. Ignoring that, Tony added, “And McGee is trying to change. He decided somewhere along the line that he knew more than me, so he’s struggling to get his head out of his ass.”

“He thinks he knows more than you?” Derek looked from Garcia to Tony and back, confusion on his face.

Garcia rolled her eyes. “That little subby boy thinks he’s perfect, but then Abby has spent all their time together telling him how perfect he is. That’s what happens when two subs try to have a relationship with each other. The ratio of emotional support to honesty drops dangerously low.”

Derek held up a hand. “Whoa, okay, I do not need to know which federal agents are crawling into which other federal agent’s beds.”

“Coffins,” Tony corrected Derek. It was a little sadistic, but then Tony always had enjoyed his jokes more than he should.

“Coffins?” Derek asked, his voice cracking.

“Yep,” Garcia answered him. “But it’s a beautiful custom made coffin. Does that make it better?”

“No,” Derek said firmly. “No, it does not. Are you serious that she sleeps in a coffin?”

Tony shrugged. “When McGee’s there, I’m not sure they sleep much.”

“Nope,” Derek held his hand up again. “I do not want to hear it.”

Tony looked at Garcia and they both cracked up.

“You two,” Derek said, his pointing finger waving between them. “You two are not safe to be around. You’re bad influences on each other.”

“Yep,” Garcia said. “Now who wants some of my famous layer dip?” She grabbed the potholders off the counter and turned toward the stove.

Tony had to admit that this was a good day. Maybe his time with NCIS was over, but that didn’t mean his career or his life had to suffer.

Chapter Text

Lara sighed. When Director Shepard had asked her to take over Gibbs’ old team, she’d thought it was some sort of sign. After all, as a major, she had buried evidence that Gibbs had killed Pedro Hernandez. Coming to save his team from the inept leadership of an agent who had been asked to leave the agency seemed like divine intervention.

She was quickly reassessing that. If DiNozzo was such a poor leader, the FBI wouldn’t have hired him. She had a few other theories about why the team was falling apart.

“Agent McGee?”

“Boss?” McGee asked. Lara sighed. She had asked him to call her Mace or ma’am or even major, but not boss. She had heard too much about Gibbs to be comfortable with this team calling her by his chosen title.

“How did you gain access to the suspect’s house?”

McGee turned red. Well fuck. She crooked her finger in his direction and then headed for one of the small conference rooms. She had a very good idea about what had happened, but she needed to document it. She’d already written up both David and McGee once, and she had hoped that would curtail this behavior. Clearly she was wrong.

Stan Burley looked up from the SFA desk, but she gave him a small head shake. She needed to handle this officially and asking her SFA to talk to them unofficially was nothing less than dereliction of duty. McGee followed her into the office, and she hadn’t done more than close the door before he started in.

“Ziva said that she heard someone inside, and we were afraid someone in there needed assistance,” McGee rushed to say.

“So, you felt you had exigent circumstances,” Lara said. She kept her voice neutral.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Lara nodded and leaned back against the door as she waited for the truth. McGee started shifting from foot to foot.

“I told her that I didn’t hear anything and that we should call in for a search warrant,” McGee finally said. The sad thing was that Lara believed him. She didn’t know which was worse—Ziva who kept violating suspects’ rights with a casual disregard that indicated she didn’t understand the significance or McGee who understood and still didn’t change his behavior.

“Were the exigent circumstances listed in the report?”

“No, ma’am,” McGee said unhappily. “We didn’t end up finding anyone in there.”

“But you did find the evidence that implicated Ensign Cooper.”

“Exactly,” McGee said, and he actually had the nerve to look happier. Lara was going to kill him.

“And after you revise your report to include the questionable exigent circumstances and the illegal entry, how long do you think it will take a defense attorney to get Cooper off?”

All the color left McGee’s face. “But, I can’t do that.”

“Oh, you can and you will, Agent McGee, because on my team, the reports are complete. Did you turn in half-assed reports to Agents Gibbs or DiNozzo?”

McGee looked away. Lara had no idea if that meant he had or he hadn’t. DiNozzo had been a brand new team leader trying to deal with these idiots, and she had certainly heard one or two things about Gibbs playing fast and loose with the rules, and she knew from experience that the man didn’t value the law as much as justice. If she’d had any idea that he would end up in law enforcement, she might have done a little less to bury the evidence on the Hernandez murder. Maybe a shadow of doubt on his record would have kept him out of NCIS.

“Agent McGee, you attended FLETC. You are a full agent and Officer David’s superior on this team. You must enforce all laws, not pick and choose which you find convenient.”

“It wasn’t like that,” McGee protested.

“Oh?” Lara waited for this explanation. McGee needed to grow some balls and stand up to not only David, but anyone who broke the law. Right now she was uniquely unimpressed with his lack of a spine.

“Ziva insisted she heard something. If someone was in there…” McGee let the words trail off.

“Was that worth letting Cooper go on the assault charges? Because that’s what you’ve done, Agent McGee. Because you tainted the evidence, a man with a known history of racial profiling and violence is going to be allowed back into the marines, back onto the streets.”

“But the evidence…”

“Is all gone!” Lara said. She would talk to the director about giving the initial crime to another team and having them investigate without the illegally seized evidence. Maybe they could find some new avenue that led to Cooper because David and McGee had fucked the case up so bad that Lara didn’t see how to save it.

“I never meant…” McGee let his words trail off, and then he stood up straight and looked her in the eye. “I apologize Agent Macy. I should have stopped the search the moment I realized there weren’t exigent circumstances.”

“Yes, you should have,” Lara said without any sympathy. McGee cared about cases, and there was still a chance she could save him from his own stupidity. She had planned to bring in a new probie when she finally talked Director Shepard into moving David onto a counterterrorism taskforce, but now she was starting to think she needed another experienced investigator who could help train McGee. Burley was ready for his own team, so he wasn’t going to stick around forever. He’d only come back as a favor to her once she’d discovered the dysfunction on the team. “You will receive a second official reprimand for dereliction of duty in the field. Agent McGee, your career will not survive many more black marks. Is that understood?”

“Yes, ma’am,” McGee said. At least he met her gaze and took the discipline like a man. Lara wondered if she should track down Agent DiNozzo and ask for his input on his former teammate. However for now she had a more onerous task. Despite Director Shepard’s personal interest in David, Lara could not have her on the MCRT anymore. Leaving McGee to consider the many ways he’d fucked up, Lara headed upstairs.

She asked Cynthia for the first open appointment, and for the thousandth time, she wondered why the office didn’t have an agent in charge. Discipline within a team didn’t seem like an issue for the director. However, no one had asked Lara’s input on the matter. Cynthia made a quick call and then waved Lara straight into the director’s office. Clearly Shepard had fewer meetings than Morrow. Then again, as the first woman in charge of NCIS, it was possible that the other directors were shutting her out. Lara had seen that sort of sexism more often than she cared to remember.

“Lara,” Shepard said as she stood and gestured toward a chair.

“Jenny,” Lara said. She was uncomforting calling a superior by a first name, but she was more uncomfortable disobeying a direct order.

“What can I do for you?”

“I wanted to informally warn you before I filed paperwork on David and McGee.”

Shepard frowned as she sat. “That sounds ominous. What happened?”

“They compromised all of our evidence on the Cooper assault. I’m hoping you can assign the original case to someone else and they can find something linking him to the attacks, but my whole team was privy to illegally obtained information, and our investigation will not hold up in court.” Lara mentally edited out all the curse words she wanted to say. She wanted to yell that they had fucking compromised the god damned evidence after being fucking warned to never again illegally enter any premise, and they chose the fucking Cooper assault to lose their heads up their asses. That’s what Lara wanted to say. And the worst part was that Cooper was the sort of scum that had no place in Lara’s marines, and she had no way to protect the corps from him because of David and McGee.

“I see.” Shepard said it slowly. “Is there a way for me to soften the impact on the case?”

Lara raised an eyebrow. “No, ma’am. David illegally entered Cooper’s residence, and all our investigative leads came from the computer McGee confiscated while there. There’s no way to undo that damage.”

Shepard leaned back in her chair. “That’s a problem.”

“Permission to speak freely?” Lara had been military long enough that she was uncomfortable getting nasty with superiors, but she sure as hell knew how when required. Shepard nodded, and Lara took a deep breath. “David is a disaster on an investigative team. She does not have FLETC training, her divided loyalties call the chain of evidence into question every time a case intersects with her interests as a Mossad officer, and she is not only unaware of basic civil rights, she seems utterly uninterested in learning. I cannot have her on my team.”

“Surely you understand that she is struggling to transition,” Shepard said in a disappointed voice.

“I understand a violent racist is going free because she failed to listen the last time I wrote her up,” Lara said. “At this point, I refuse to put her in the field. If you won’t transfer her, I will put her on permanent desk duty.”

“Do you really think that’s the best use of her skills?”

“No,” Lara said, “but it’s the best way to avoid having another case compromised. I cannot have any contact between her and either evidence or suspects.”

“I see.”

Shepard spent a lot of time saying that. Lara was starting to think it was either a stall for time or Shepard’s profanity-substitute. Someone else substituted ‘fudge’ for ‘fuck’ and Shepard substituted ‘I see’ for ‘you raging bitch, you are making my life difficult.’ Well if that was the case, Lara didn’t care. The damn lab tech already accused her of being on a personal vendetta. Lara’s demand that the lab be secured while her evidence was in process was not unreasonable.

“I’m also filing a second complaint against McGee. If you’re going to suspend him, I need to know because as of now, McGee, Burley and I are the only field-approved agents on the MCRT, so losing one of us for any length of time will pose a difficulty.” Lara waited for the explosion. After all, Shepard had made it clear that David had her backing to stay on the team. Lara couldn’t change that, but there was no way in hell Shepard could tell her how to run her damn team.

“I’ll take that under consideration,” Shepard said. “Is there anything else?”

“Not at all. Thank you, Jenny.” Lara left the office without knowing how the director planned to handle her team’s latest clusterfuck. Either Gibbs had been a fucking miracle worker or DiNozzo had been. Without those two, this team was an unexploded ordinance sitting in the middle of a highway. However Lara wasn’t about to throw herself on this bomb. Nope. Her and Burley were doing this by the book. McGee and David could either shape up or ship out.

Either that or Lara was going to quit and take up ice fishing in the most remote place on Earth. She wanted to, but she’d never backed down in the face of a challenge, and she wasn’t about to start now. When she got back to her desk, she saw David typing away.

“Stan, would you get us a couple of coffees?” she asked.

“You got it, Mace. Anything for you, Ziva?”

“I am fine,” she said, gesturing toward her own cup.

McGee was out of his seat so fast he broke land records. “I’ll go with you.”

Lara had hoped McGee would stay and face down Ziva, but she also had to admit that she didn’t understand the dynamic between the two of them. It could be that Ziva had torn now McGee’s confidence enough that he would never have the balls to confront her. That’s why Lara needed to trim Ziva’s wings for her. She came over and sat on the edge of Ziva’s desk while the other two left.

Ziva glanced up before continuing to type something in Hebrew. For not the first time, Lara wondered if Ziva wrote reports for Mossad. “Can I help you?”

“Tell me the circumstances under which you entered the Cooper residence.”

Ziva’s typing faltered. “I have submitted the report.”

“And I’m asking you to clarify that point. It was overly vague in both your report and McGee’s.”

Ziva stopped and turned to face Lara. “I heard someone inside. I grew concerned and entered.”

“Using your lock picks,” Lara said.

Ziva tilted her head to the side. “In order to secure the safety of any civilians inside, we had to enter quietly. We were concerned given Cooper’s temper.”

Calling Ziva a liar wouldn’t work, so Lara decided to take every bullshit statement as truth. “When you entered the residence, did you find any civilians?”

“No,” Ziva admitted. At least that should have been an admission. Instead it sounded defensive. Lara had no idea what sort of crap Ziva had endured because of her father’s position in Mossad, but she couldn’t allow this disrespect for the law to continue.

“The last time you illegally entered a location, we talked about how you should handle yourself. The second you established that no one was present, what steps should you have taken?”

“I did not illegally enter. I had exigent circumstance,” Ziva said firmly.

“Assuming that’s true, what should you have done the second you realize there was no one present?”

“Since I entered legally, the rules did not apply to this situation.”

“Oh, but they did the second you realized there was no civilian present. Why did you take the computer?”

“It was in plain sight.”

“Irrelevant.”

“Anything in plain sight may be seized.”

Lara wondered if she misunderstood the law or was simply trying to twist it around on itself. “The evidence in the computer was not in plain sight. You had to search for it. Did you believe there was a civilian in need inside the computer?”

Ziva stood, and Lara quickly followed. “You are making fun of me,” Ziva accused her.

“I am pointing out that exigent circumstances could not have applied to the computer search.”

“Then discuss that with McGee. He did the computer search.”

“I’m discussing it with you. As a member of the team that went to the Cooper house, you should have immediately called for a search warrant.”

“I am not an NCIS agent. Tony insisted that such legal issues must go through an agent.”

“Is Tony here?” Lara asked, although that was actually the sanest rule she’d heard yet.

“No.” Ziva barked the word out and narrowed her eyes. She’d made it clear she considered Lara a distant second to DiNozzo, and Lara was getting tired of the disrespect.

“I gave you a direct order to obtain search warrants and avoid entering any suspect’s space without prior authorization.”

“The circumstances were different,” Ziva said before sitting and starting to type again. She clearly considered the issue over. Well Lara had dealt with hard-headed Marines and she could deal with a hard-headed Mossad officer.

“Officer David, you are now restricted to your desk during working hours. You are not to interrogate suspects under any circumstances. You are not to go into the field under any circumstances. You are limited to completing computer searches, and I will be writing you up for your involvement in the Cooper investigation. If you leave this office for any reason other than to go home at the end of the day, I will write you up for insubordination. Are these orders clear?”

Ziva was on her feet before Lara got halfway through her speech.

“You cannot do that.”

“I can and I have. Agents Burley, McGee, and I will handle all fieldwork from this point on. If you are interested in having a more active role in the agency, I suggest you start looking for open positions and request a transfer.”

Lara turned and headed back to her desk. Damn that felt good. Maybe she hadn’t pulled the team out of the mud yet, but at least she was on the right track.

Chapter Text

Phillip was near the end of his rope with Shepard. She had the backing of some powerful politicians—the first woman to head the agency and all that. Add that to the fact that he’d been new to his own position when Morrow buggered off to Homeland Security and Phillip had gotten stuck with a pig in a poke on this one. The woman was a disaster.

“Explain this,” he slid David’s file across the desk.

Shepard brought her hand down on it, but she made no move to open it. “I know that the FBI believes she killed Abdul Wazir, but I know Officer David.”

“Yes, you know her,” Phillip said. Shepard knew her too damn well. He wondered if the two women were in bed together, either metaphorically or literally, because there wasn’t another logical reason to have a damn Mossad officer in his agency. But when the request had first come across his desk, Phillip hadn’t wanted a pissing match so early in his tenure. Now he was ready, especially given the recent troubles. “Do you want me to believe that she’s not capable of killing someone?”

Shepard took a slow breath. “Mr. Secretary, Ziva is very capable of an executive action; however, she came to DC to get away from that world. She would not assassinate someone on the streets of DC.”

“So, it was coincidence that she was present at the bombing of an Israeli enemy and the two FBI agents guarding him.” Phillip couldn’t believe she was going that route. Then again, Shepard had more balls than most men he knew. After all, she looked him right in the eye despite the persistent rumors that she was using her office to investigate her father’s old contacts. What a clusterfuck. If his internal audit found one document with Benoit’s name on it, he was going to boot her to the curb so fast that her head was going to spin. The cynical part of his brain had even connected the dots between Ziva and Shepard’s obsession with Benoit. He wondered if she wasn’t trading favors with Mossad to get some intel on Benoit.

Shepard was cool as a cucumber as she said, “I suspect someone is setting Ziva up.”

“Do you really think that’s more likely than Eli David ordering his daughter to take care of Wazir? And how did the Israelis even learn he was in town?” Phillip had his theories about that, although he couldn’t prove anything since the FBI and not NCIS had been involved in that case.

“Eli is not interested in starting an open conflict.”

Phillip questioned Shepard’s intelligence if she believed that. Then again, he supposed it depended on the definition of open. Israel didn’t openly undermine US interests—they preferred to do it quietly. However Shepard had better connections in that part of the world, so Phillip didn’t have the evidence to challenge Shepard’s conclusions. So he decided to focus on the part of this snafu that was documented down to the millimeter.

“I want to know why David was on an investigative team in the first place.”

“She wanted to learn a new set of skills.”

“Apparently the skill she’s learning is to warm a seat. She’s not allowed to leave the office.” That hit a nerve. Phillip could see Shepard’s eye twitch, and it should. From the reports Phillip had read from both DiNozzo and Macy, David was a disaster in the field who needed to be benched. He would have preferred an honest assessment from Gibbs. After all, DiNozzo was too young and too civilian for Phillip to completely trust, and Macy was a woman. She had a reputation as one hell of a marine, but Phillip had enough chauvinism in him that he would prefer to have a male marine’s assessment of the situation. However David wasn’t technically in his chain of command, so Gibbs hadn’t made one comment on her performance in any paperwork Phillip could find.

“That situation will be resolved.”

“Resolved?” Maybe she thought Phillip had walked into this meeting unprepared, but he had already talked to a half dozen team leads. They had a variety of impressions of David ranging from a damaged soldier trying to escape a bad situation in Mossad to a cold-blooded killer who undermined her team. However, not a one of them was willing to work with her, and that was assuming that Shepard could get David out of the murder charges hanging over her head. Phillip was determined to make sure he personally ensured Shepard stayed inside the lines, legally speaking.

“I have the agency in hand,” Shepard said, her voice carrying a bit of ice. She didn’t like being micromanaged. Well tough shit. Phillip sat in the big chair.

“Do you know where David is right now?”

Shepard sat up. “Of course not.” She had all her offended mannerisms in place now.

“The FBI would like to ask that directly.”

“Excuse me?” Now Shepard looked alarmed.

“You brought a foreign agent into NCIS. You are keeping her on a field team despite the fact that her own team leader banned her from the field. You worked with her overseas. Is it any wonder that the FBI is wondering how far this friendship goes?” Phillip didn’t bother pointing out that with two FBI agents dead, they were out for blood. Phillip’s first instinct had been to protect Shepard, but the CIA rumors and the intel he’d found when he’d done a little digging made him think this might be a good time to hang her out to dry.

Shepard considered him, her body language all outraged angles and sharp elbows. “Do you really believe the head of a federal agency would abet a suspect in a murder case?”

“Considering that you insist David was framed, I don’t know what to think. I mean, if you were using good judgment around this woman, you would have transferred her off a field team.”

“Macy is new and overreacted to something in the field.”

“Overreacted?” Phillip said dryly, his tone challenging her to defend that bit of stupidity. Shepard blushed. “When the Judge Advocate General of the Navy knows how badly you fucked up a case, it’s hard for a team lead to overreact.”

From the quick twitch, Phillip assumed that Shepard hadn’t heard the Vice Admiral himself had thrown a fit at the blatant disregard for law that had torpedoed another JAG case. Every investigator screwed up from time to time, but two cases thrown out on blatant rights violations from a foreign national working for a federal agency had raised a few extra flags. “Get her off that MCRT team. Now.” Phillip said slowly and deliberately.

The red spread to Shepard’s neck.

“And I don’t want the FBI seen coming here to question you like a suspect. It’s bad for the agency. You will go to FBI headquarters and meet with the director.”

“I have other meetings.”

Phillip doubted that. More than one agency had cut her out of the loop, and she didn’t seem to care much. Everything took a backseat to her focus on international arms, and Phillip had once assumed it was because she did so much overseas work as a field agent. Now he wasn’t so sure. Besides, as director she shouldn’t be so quick to leave domestic issues in others’ hands.

“Tell your secretary to reschedule anything personal, and I’ll be staying here to keep the seat warm and take any meetings that absolutely can’t be rescheduled,” Phillip said in his warmest voice. He assumed that would annoy her even if she was smart enough to hide the reaction.

“I’m sure you have more important matters to attend to.”

“I do,” Phillip agreed. He made a production out of checking his watch. “My assistant will be here in ten minutes and I gave your secretary orders to allow him in. By then you should be headed to FBI headquarters. Have your driver contact me when they finish questioning you so I can close up any work that you don’t have clearance to see before you come back.” For example, Phillip would not want Shepard to see his computer expert searching her personal files on her computer.

“This is unnecessary. Secretary Davenport, I apologize that this entire situation has gotten out of control, but I assure you that my agents will do everything they can to help the FBI find Ziva, and I give my personal assurance that if she contacts me, I will inform the agent in charge of this case.” Her body language softened and her voice grew more melodious. Phillip suspected that worked most of the time.

“Go tell that to the FBI director and the investigators,” Phillip said. He stood. “And I have a lot of work to do, so move your shit off the desk so I can get some of it done.”

Now Shepard paled significantly, but with Phillip standing a foot away, there wasn’t much she could do. He watched carefully as she sorted a number of files, shoving some in her case and others in her desk. “The fact the FBI is demanding this shows a lack of respect for the work NCIS has done.”

“I think it’s just a lack of respect for you,” Phillip said with brutal honesty. She slammed the desk drawer shut and then backed up as Phillip moved into her space and commandeered her chair. For a second she seemed at a loss as to what to do, but then she closed her briefcase and walked to the door.

“And Shepard,” Phillip called. She turned around. “If there’s some dirt that the FBI is likely to find, I suggest you start writing your resignation letter during your ride over.” And with that, Phillip turned his attention to his own briefcase, refusing to look up. He heard the door close as Shepard left, and a smile tugged at the corners of his lips. Oh yes. This just might work out perfectly. If his guy could find some evidence, she would assume the FBI had dug up the dirt and he wouldn’t have to out his source in the CIA. Sometimes luck did work in his favor.

Chapter Text

Katie smiled as she watched Tony and Art double team Derek to get the ball away from him. Derek spun around, but Tony slipped in and stole the ball anyway. Tony hadn’t dribbled even halfway down the court before Derek stole the ball back and then passed it to JJ. She took a shot, but it didn’t even touch the rim. Her whole team groaned.

Katie glanced over when Hotch sat next to her. “How’s he working out?” Hotch asked.

She smiled. “He’s a good agent. He cares about the victims.”

“Too much?” That was the danger. Agents who cared too much burnt out all the quicker.

“He talked everyone into coming out here to defend unit 3’s honor against you guys.” Katie nodded toward the game as one of the analysts, Kevin something from unit 4, tried to block Tony. Tony passed to Robin, who promptly lost the ball to Derek. She’d never considered challenging another BAU team to competitive sports, but she could feel the improved energy in the office after one of the games. She wasn’t interested in playing, but she had to admit that watching the others brought her stress down.

“The teams need to blow off steam,” Hotch said. “I sometimes forget that.”

“Yeah, me too. We get focused on the crimes and don’t look at our team.” Katie didn’t bring up Agent Greenaway. Elle had been so damaged by the attack that had nearly killed her that she never had recovered. Everyone had heard about how she had unraveled. It was a team lead’s worst nightmare—to have someone on the team so mentally compromised that they were unable to continue working.

“It seems like you have an ally in making sure you remember to pay attention to your team.” Hotch nodded toward the game.

“NCIS were morons for letting him go.” Katie had trouble understanding how the head of a federal agency could so fundamentally misunderstand one of her agents. She had failed to back Tony on any leadership issues, all to back him into an undercover assignment. And knowing Tony, he would have put his soul into it and then paid too high a price. The man did lead with his heart, even if he joked around and tried to hide it.

Hotch watched the game for a time. “I get the feeling the new director didn’t understand what DiNozzo brought to the table,” he eventually said.

“Definitely not,” Katie agreed. She still wished that Shepard woman would have tried something before letting Tony leave. If she had filed one unfavorable report or raised one red flag, Katie would have been very happy to let the world know about Shepard’s attempt to send an agent on an unsanctioned op with no backup. As it was, she had quietly informed a friend from the CIA, and she had to trust the grapevine to slowly disseminate the information around the intelligence community.

The court had fallen quiet. The players were gathered around the water station now. She could hear the laughter, but not the specific words. This seemed like a good time, so she turned to really look at Hotch. “So why are you out here?”

Hotch gave her a knowing smile. “Maybe I just want to see if my team is upholding the unit’s good name.”

Katie snorted. Not only was Derek their only decent player, but Hotch was not the sort to socialize. Sometimes Katie worried that he would poach Tony from her because he needed someone with Tony’s social skills just as much as she did. High stress teams needed an outlet. They needed someone inside who could break through the walls that everyone put up. Then again, Hotch had Garcia. And if he tried to take Tony, Katie planned to put up one hell of a fight.

Hotch lowered his voice. “The FBI put out an APB for Ziva David. They want her in connection to the murder of a Syrian national in DC. Rumor is they want to question Director Shepard in relation to Officer David fleeing from the scene.”

“Shit,” Katie blurted out. She had no idea how Tony would take that. She didn’t know if he was still close to his team, but he had enough loyalty to get himself in trouble. “Do you think she’ll ask him for help?”

“Have they been in contact?”

“Derek would know better than I would. Tony makes a show out of being close to everyone, but he doesn’t really let many people in.”

Hotch nodded. “I noticed that.”

Katie lowered her voice to a near whisper. “I don’t want him dragged into her mess.”

“Understood. That’s why I wanted to warn you as soon as I saw the alert.”

Katie shook her head. It did seem like Tony attracted bad luck, but part of that was his own unwillingness to tell people to fuck off. He was working on it, but his heart was still bigger than his common sense. Of course, Katie preferred that to the hard-assed agents who had too little heart. Hotch handed her a folder.

“I’ll talk to him,” she promised.

“If you need any help…”

“I’ll call,” she promised.

“I can find a reason to request him on our next out of town case if he needs some distance.”

Katie smiled. “I appreciate that and I might take you up on the offer.”

Without another word, Hotch got up and left. That was just like him—to come in and offer help and then disappear without a word about what it might cost it to provide it. She hoped his wife appreciated what a unique man Hotch was.

When Tony next looked over, Katie signaled for him to join her. He tossed his towel at JJ, who promptly wadded it up and threw it at his head, but Tony was already trotting away, laughing. “Jerk!” she yelled after him, but she was laughing.

“Hey, boss,” Tony said cheerfully, but then he stopped right in front of her and his smile faded. “Oh crap. That’s your ‘bad shit is going down’ look. What happened?”

“I have a look?” Katie found most people couldn’t read her emotions.

“Hell yes. Now what happened, and do I have permission to hunt the bastard down?” It was a reasonable request, especially since Tony was one of their best trackers in the real world. His insecurities with computers was slowing him down a little on some of the more technical aspects of the job, but he was starting to really develop those skills as well. Katie hadn’t considered it, but he actually might want to hunt David down, either to help or to turn her in. “Katie?” Tony prompted her.

“It’s your old team—”

“Dead?” Tony immediately jumped to.

“No, nothing like that. Ziva David has been implicated in a triple homicide.”

Tony’s eyebrows went up. “Okay.” He drew the word out to show his uncertainty with the issue, but then he gave her a crooked grin. “Usually I’m the one getting framed for murder. I guess she inherited that dubious honor when I left.”

“Two FBI agents were guarding a Syrian wanted by Israel. A bomb killed all three, and David was seen leaving the scene. Her car was found nearby.”

Tony sank down onto the bench. “Okay. I can see why it looks bad, but I would point out that David is very capable of killing someone without being seen or being stupid enough to leave her car there. That feels more like a setup. It could be that Daddy David is trying to force Ziva back into the fold.”

That sounded reasonable, and Tony did have a good gut for how an investigation would break, but Katie still didn’t want her people in the middle of this disaster. If the agency tracked David down, someone was going to die. Tony usually appreciated directness, so Katie came right out and asked, “Will she come to you?”

Tony blew out a breath and looked over to where most of the players were leaving. They’d packed their stuff, and some headed to cars while others went toward the building where the FBI gyms had showers. “I honestly don’t know.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning Ziva always ran hot and cold with me. One day she would talk about her favorite porn and laugh. The next, she would have a team dinner and invite everyone but me.”

Katie couldn’t imagine how confusing that would be. “And how did you react?”

“Probably not well. I was still reeling from losing Kate, and Kate was all…” Tony’s voice cracked. “She was all Catholic morality and sexual repression.”

“So you played the sexual card with Kate.”

Tony nodded.

“Did you ever tell her that you were trying to get her to build an emotional wall that let her deal with shocking sexual cases?”

Tony gave her a cocky grin that covered the pain she knew he hid. “You’re assuming that’s why I did it.”

“I am. You did the same thing with Robin, and like I told you then, I don’t have a problem with using humor as a coping mechanism. You do need to be honest with people up front and give them a chance to tell you to stop.”

The smile slowly faded from Tony’s face, and Katie assumed the mix of confusion and pain was the real Tony DiNozzo. “I don’t think I was honest with Kate, Ziva or myself. But with Ziva, it all got tangled up. I could never figure out if she was working me like a target or if she liked me and was doing some ninja version of pulling my pigtails because she was so screwed up by her life. Some days I was certain it was the first, but then I would see some vulnerability and…” He stopped for a second and took a breath. “I never knew where she stood or how I was supposed to react to her. My own psyche got a little turned around.” He circled his finger in the air.

“And if she contacts you?”

“I will smile and play nice until I can send out a 911, because I have no doubt that I would lose any fight I started.”

“Do you feel any loyalty to her or desire to help her?” If Tony said he did, so help her God, she was shoving him on Hotch’s BAU jet.

“Help her get a good lawyer? Sure. Hell, I’d call a frat brother right now if she wanted. Help her evade the FBI?” Tony laughed. “Oh hell no. I do not need to jump into that fire.”

Katie dialed down her own concern a little. So she didn’t have to make him leave town, but he still might appreciate a little distance. “Hotch said you can go with them on their next case if you need to get out of town.”

“You two are closet mother hens. Do you have any idea how much I love you for that?”

“Love me?” It wasn’t the word that surprised Katie as much as the affectionate tone Tony used. “You have some low standards if that’s all it takes to earn love.”

Tony nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, I do. But the fact that you will put all my cases on hold to protect my sanity, I think that’s a pretty big thing. So my low standards don’t even come into play here. That said, I’m fine. They aren’t my team anymore. I may still have an occasional beer with Tim or Jimmy, I might sometimes go dancing with Abby, but I don’t owe them.” Tony’s voice grew a little harder. “I certainly don’t owe Ziva who hasn’t said one word to me since I left NCIS.”

And then Tony smiled and he was right back to his affable personality. Sometimes he shifted so fast that she worried about him, but like Hotch had told her, he had learned to wear personalities so young that he could do so without even blinking an eye. And right now he was back to happy-go-lucky Tony. “So, I’m good. You don’t need to patch any emotional holes, and I really need a shower. Derek is a badass on the basketball court.”

Katie decided to let this one go. He’d let her see his real pain and confusion, so she trusted that he would come to her if he needed something more. Following Tony’s change of topic, she looked over to where Derek was the last person left by the basketball court. “He is. You’re not too bad yourself.”

Tony got up and trotted backward toward the building. “You should have seen me before I got the plague!”

He turned and ran off, and Katie shook her head. She had the feeling he’d been amazing, but then in so many ways, Tony still was an amazing man, plague-scarred lungs or not. She looked over, and Derek stood with his gym bag, not even hiding the fact that he was watching.

She turned toward her car and walked off, secure knowing that Derek was going to track Tony down and ask about the conversation. If Tony did need any minor emotional patch jobs, he had the support network to provide it. Despite sometimes playing at having a broken wing, Tony DiNozzo did not need her mothering. However, there was a list of victims on her caseload who did. Now that she’d had her own mental health break, she needed to get back to them.

Chapter Text

Jethro knocked on Fornell’s door. His attempts to help Ziva had been badly curtailed by his lack of any credentials. He wasn’t an agent, and clouds floated through his mind, hiding and revealing information at random periods. But when Ziva had called, telling him that Tony and Jenny were both gone and she was wanted for a crime she didn’t commit, he couldn’t turn his back.

Tobias opened the door and leaned against the doorframe. “Look who the cat dragged home.”

For some reason, his memories were clearer around Tobias, although when he tried to remember Tobias’s wife, he got a terrible headache. He rubbed his temple. “Long day. You got a beer?”

That surprised Tobias, but he stepped back. “Sure. Is there a particular reason you smell of smoke, maybe you were standing too near an explosion recently?”

Jethro didn’t bother with a lot of background. As he headed into Tobias’s house, he said, “The explosion was a set up. Namir Eschel wanted to make it look like Ziva tried to blow herself up.”

“Namir Eschel?” Tobias sounded doubtful, but he already had out one of those little phones that was more like a computer. Sometimes reality slapped Jethro in the face hard enough to remind him of all the years he had lost—years that had only returned to him in pieces. Seeing Tobias typing into his little phone was one of those moments. So Jethro headed for the kitchen to grab his own beer. Tobias followed, his gaze still locked on his phone.

“Hate to tell you, but Eschel is dead,” Tobias said.

“Being dead makes for a good cover.” Jethro had said the exact same thing to Ziva when she’d shown up in his basement asking for help. Going with her to the Mossad safehouse had turned out to be a mistake. “He was at the safehouse Ziva knew about. He wanted to kill her and make it look like she’d committed suicide when she got trapped. That’s why someone gave the FBI an anonymous tip.” Jethro was guessing about the tip being anonymous, but it made sense.

Tobias took the beer Jethro held out. “Are you telling me you’re abetting a suspected murderer?” Then he took a deep swig, so he clearly didn’t see himself as on the clock.

“She left information for me to find,” Jethro said. “She didn’t have a lot of options since NCIS has apparently fallen apart since I left.” Part of Jethro felt a twisted sense of pride in that. The damn agency deserved to fall apart after letting the men on that ship die. The more logical part of his brain couldn’t figure out how so much could change so fast. “What the hell happened with Jenny?”

“Ex Director Shepard?” Tobias asked with a laugh. Jethro didn’t find any of this humorous and his glare made that clear. Unfortunately, Tobias was immune. He took his beer and headed for the couch. “The rumors run the gamut. Some people think she was in bed with Eli David. Literally. They say that’s why she brought Ziva into the unit. Another rumor is that she was using vigilante justice—going after anyone she couldn’t make a legal case against. A few people in that camp think she got caught when her primary hit man was blown up and lost a few decades of memory, leaving her short one head enforcer.” Tobias looked at Jethro.

“Nope, not true,” Jethro said as he settled in on the far end of the sofa. If she’d had a specific case and a specific reason they couldn’t make a legal case, he might have considered it. Might. However, Jethro also knew that going that far outside the legal lines caused a lot of trouble and generally didn’t bring the relief a person might hope for.

Tobias shrugged. “Had to ask. That seemed the most reasonable one to me. Anyway, other rumors include her running black ops in some personal vendetta, her being in bed with organized crime and selling protection, and one very determined and very small group that thinks she was removed when she refused to go along with the plot to sell the planet out to the aliens.” Tobias rolled his eyes at that last one. “But in the end, who knows?”

“And DiNozzo?” Jethro asked. Thinking of Tony made him intensely uncomfortable. He could remember the many jokes, the inappropriate comments and descriptions of movies. Each memory seemed to suggest that Tony took everything too far. He was a clown. But Jethro never would have put up with that sort of behavior, much less had a clown as his second—the man he trusted with his team. The dissonance of it made Jethro want to grab a bourbon and not stop drinking until he’d finished the bottle.

A malicious grin spread across Tobias’ face. “DiNutzo is a real FBI agent now.”

Jethro felt the fury roll through his guts. Tobias shoved him in the arm. “I wouldn’t have helped steal him if I knew you were coming back. I know he’s your boy.”

The words sent a jolt of shock and confusion and fear through Jethro’s spine. “I’m not gay.”

Tobias gave him an odd look. “Yeah, I figured that by how many times you kept getting married. Whoa. Did you think I was saying that you and DiNutzo?! Hell no. I’m pretty sure even he’s not that masochistic.”

“What?” Jethro hated this feeling like the words and the world in general was sliding past too fast for him to catch it all. “If you have something to say, then say it.”

“Fine.” Tobias put his beer on the coffee table. “DiNozzo followed you around, always playing second and never demanding the sort of respect that another agent would have. He followed your orders to help steal a corpse from federal custody, if you remember. He was your boy and everyone in DC knew it.”

“Clearly not because he let Lara Macy take over my team.” She had been the only person to come close to nailing him on the Hernandez murder. That day was burned into his memory so brightly that no cloud every obscured it. He remembered the dust in his mouth, the sun glinting off the truck, the absolute anguish when he realized that killing the man did nothing to ease the pain of losing his family.

“Shepard put Macy in charge. DiNutzo didn’t.”

Jethro brought his hand down on the coffee table so hard that Tobias’ bottle fell over and he grabbed for it before the beer all spilled. “I left DiNozzo in charge!” Jethro yelled. It wasn’t logical, but he wanted the pieces in the same places they had been when he left. Too much had changed and he had too little to hold onto. If he was honest with himself, he shouldn’t have come back from Mexico, but he had to. Ziva needed him, and no one else had the loyalty to help her. Gibbs had another moment of vertigo. He remembered someone laughing and telling Gibbs he was lucky to have such a faithful St. Bernard in Tony. Who had said that?

“That team of yours was destroying him! They nearly convicted an innocent man.”

“Then DiNozzo should have brought them to heel.”

“How?” Tobias threw his hands up. “You ruled them through intimidation so that the minute you were gone, they were the peasants leading a revolt.”

“A leader knows how to step into the role. Maybe DiNozzo wasn’t up to it.”

“Maybe you left him a team that couldn’t do their jobs.”

Jethro jumped to his feet. “Excuse me?”

Tobias got to his own feet. “You had two probies. Shepard added a third probie to the damn team. Tell me, would you have gone into the field if it was you and three half-trained privates?”

Jethro reared back. He wouldn’t have, but he knew his team was good at what they did. He knew it. “The team was fine if DiNozzo just knew how to handle them.”

“Really? He had a SFA with two years in the field and marginal shooting scores, an investigator who hasn’t attended FLETC and who had a couple of months of experience with investigations and more experience with international espionage, and Shepard added a law-school dropout who didn’t know how to wipe her own nose.”

“I didn’t tell Jenny to give him another probie. He should have stood up and demanded a more experienced SFA.” After all, Macy had that one agent, the one who had been Jethro’s second years ago. The name escaped him.

Tobias snorted. “Yeah, and Shepard was really on top of shit. That’s why they brought in that Vance guy, because Shepard was handling the agency so very well,” he said sarcastically.

Normally Jethro would have fought until the world ended, but his certainty that this was DiNozzo’s fault was wavering, and he didn’t have the memories to make a good argument. Instead he changed the topic back to Ziva. “Maybe if Shepard was still there, someone would listen to reason. Ziva is not going to leave her car at the scene of an assassination if she’s the guilty party.”

“I figured.” Tobias took his beer and sat back down.

For a second, Jethro stood there, but then standing over Tobias felt rude in the man’s home. He sat. “I figure someone hired Eschel to frame her.”

“You’re not the only one who’s brought up the possibility,” Tobias said. “The FBI does have one or two people capable of thinking their way out of a paper bag. For example, we have DiNutzo.”

“He’s on this?” Jethro demanded. If he was, Jethro was going to slap that boy into the middle of next week for not covering his partner’s back.

“No. He with the BAU,” Tobias said slowly as if not sure how Jethro might react. The BAU. They were some of the FBI’s top agents, but DiNozzo was a clown. He joked all the time. Jethro could remember trying to avoid laughing from some of the antics, and he resented that DiNozzo could have gotten even him off track. The office was not a place for jokes. And yet Jethro could remember a few he pulled.

Jethro sank down into the armchair and rubbed the side of his head.

“Look,” Tobias said, “I’ll make sure someone looks into Eschel, and we do know that there’s a good possibility that someone is either framing David or she did it and someone is planting evidence that she would be too smart to leave behind. We’re on it.”

Jethro took a phone out of his pocket. He’d been planning on talking to McGee, but he wasn’t confident he knew how the computer expert would react without DiNozzo around, and he didn’t want to pull Abby into this with a new director in the office. He tossed the phone at Tobias. “The last incoming all on that was from Eschel.”

Tobias’s eyes got comically large.

“Put out a BOLO for Eschel. You’ll get a hit,” Jethro said. He wasn’t an agent and he couldn’t do anything more for Ziva. But he did know another agent. Maybe he should plant a few more seeds. He stood up to go.

“Jethro. You look like hell. Why don’t you stay here for the night?”

“Got stuff to do.” Before Jethro could get to the door, Tobias was there in front of him.

“Jethro.” Tobias didn’t say anything else, and Jethro didn’t know what to say to him. So he didn’t say anything. He detoured around Tobias and headed for the exit. He needed to find DiNozzo. Most of his conflicting memories were centered around the man, and he needed to know if DiNozzo had his partner’s back. He knew she hadn’t called DiNozzo because she believed he would turn her in, but Jethro’s gut told him that DiNozzo was less pedantic about the law than that.

Now Macy? That woman would never bend the law long enough to let an old woman jaywalk. What the hell had happened to his agency since he left for Mexico? Jethro stopped onto the front porch and took a deep breath. DC was home, but Jethro wasn’t sure he still had a place here.

Chapter Text

Tony was in the bathroom when he first heard the commotion. When he came out, he saw Garcia pulling Abby over her lap and delivering several swats. Thank God Derek hadn’t come with them tonight. His head would have popped off because Tony was almost sure that the two women were sleeping together. He didn’t think they were exclusive or long-term, though. There was too much exaggerated flirtation and too few longing looks.

Either way, he was glad they had each other. Abby, in particular, needed the emotional anchor right now.

“Apologize,” Garcia ordered her. She delivered another smack, but Abby was laughing too hard to say anything. Then the hiccups started, and she laughed even harder. Garcia held Abby for another few seconds before she devolved into giggles and let Abby crawl to the next couch cushion and settled into soft chuckles. Tony took the seat next to Garcia.

“What was her crime?”

“She accused me of buying off the rack,” Garcia said. “At Sears,” she added with a baleful look in Abby’s direction. Abby snickered harder. Tonight’s alcohol was getting to her. Either that or she was emotionally drunk from temporarily getting away from the pressure cooker that was NCIS. Vance was on the warpath, Ziva was wanted for murder, and Gibbs was haunting the investigation without calling Abby. She was hurt by his absence, but Tony suspected Gibbs was trying to keep her out of the line of fire. God knows he could be charged with aiding and abetting. He’d tried to tell Abby that, but in the end, he’d settled for getting her on the dance floor long enough to distract her.

Tony wouldn’t step into that quagmire, but he’d been happy to hear that Gibbs had gone to Fornell the night before. Hopefully someone would untangle the Ziva case. He might not like his own feelings and how tangled they got around Ziva, but she had been his partner.

“I should go home,” Abby said. She was half sitting-half laying on the end of the couch, one arm dangling off the edge.

Tony exchanged a look with Garcia. He could see his own concern reflected back.

“If we could get Tony to buy a bigger bed, we could have one hell of a threesome,” Garcia said. Tony wasn’t sure if she was teasing or not, but Abby devolved into another round of giggles.

“No more zombies for you,” Tony said. Those drinks might taste fruity, but they were knocking Abby on her ass.

“Zombies!” Abby said, her fist raised as if going to war, but her face was still pressed to the arm of the couch and right after, she hiccupped loudly.

“Alright, to my place it is,” Garcia said. “Tony, do you want to come along?” She wiggled her eyebrows, and maybe she meant that as an honest invitation, but Tony was not about to get in bed with a drunk pseudo-sister. There was just so much damage therapy could undo, and sex with Abby would not be fixable.

“I’ll pass. You know how jealous Derek gets,” Tony said with a wink. “However, I will help you get this one poured into your car.” Abby still had her fist raised, and Tony stood and grabbed it, pulling Abby to her feet.

“Pooper of parties!” Abby complained.

“Some of us have work tomorrow,” Tony said.

“I do too.”

“Some of us are horrible at hiding a hangover.”

Abby was almost to the door and she stopped and looked at Tony. “You really are bad at that. The trick is sugar. Lots and lots of sugar.”

“That just makes me hyper and hungover,” Tony said as he maneuvered her out of his apartment. Garcia had grabbed both their purses and now she slipped ahead to press the elevator button. The hair on Tony’s arm stood up, and he checked both ends of the hall. At the far end, near the stairs, he saw a hint of movement. He whispered, “Garcia, get on the elevator and get 911 on speed dial.”

Thank heavens he hung out with FBI because she didn’t question him. She stood facing the elevator, not showing any sign of alarm until the doors opened, and then she yanked Abby inside, and hit the door closed button.

“Hey!” Abby complained.

At the last second, Tony put his arm between the closing doors to stop them. “Nevermind,” he said as the figure came out of the shadows. “I know who it is.”

“Are you sure?” Garcia leaned forward and looked down the hall, but she wasn’t in position to see Gibbs.

“Yeah. Still, get Abby out of here,” Tony said.

Garcia nodded. “I’m calling and checking on you later.”

“Give it an hour,” Tony said. By then, either he would have killed Gibbs or he was going to be in need of intensive psychotherapy. He pulled his arm clear and let the elevator doors close with the two women inside. Abby had sobered up significantly, and she was frowning, but Garcia had her in hand.

Tony turned to face trouble. “Gibbs.”

“DiNozzo.”

And that was it. They stared at each other across this void that Tony wasn’t sure how to cross anymore. He’d given up his Gibbs-wrangling handbook. “Do you want to come in?” he asked. His door still stood open, and Gibbs glanced that way.

“Abby was drunk,” Gibbs said. Tony couldn’t tell if that was a comment or an accusation. He decided to take it in the best possible light and avoid confrontation.

“Yep. She had a good time, and she had two sober friends to make sure she was safe, so she let her hair down.”

Gibbs looked at the elevator, worry making him frown.

“The other woman is part of Aaron Hotchner’s team and besties with Derek Morgan. She’s good people,” Tony said, answering Gibbs’ unasked question, and he then went inside his apartment, leaving his door open. Dealing with Gibbs was a little like having a stray cat around. You put out the food and left the doors open so they had a clear path of retreat. Sure enough, Gibbs followed, standing at the open door while Tony picked up the glasses and turned the television off.

When Tony headed into the kitchen, he heard the front door close, and Gibbs followed him. Gibbs stood silent while Tony loaded the dishwasher, but the second Tony closed it, Gibbs announced, “Ziva was accused of murder.”

“Yep, I know.”

“She was set up.” Now Gibbs had that confrontational edge to his tone.

Tony turned around to face him. “I know that too. I advised Agent Sacks who came to see if Ziva had contacted me. I argued that she was too good to get caught like that. I hear you had a name for Fornell.”

Gibbs narrowed his eyes, but Tony had expected no less. Gibbs always wanted his agents to be two steps ahead of everyone. Everyone but him. Gibbs didn’t like it when they knew more and made a point out of showing that knowledge. In the past, Tony would have tiptoed around that, but he decided to pull the Band-Aid off fast.

“They found Eschel in Woodbridge, Virginia. They’ve connected him to Balash Sassanid, an illegal from Iran who came in on a student visa. The current theory is that Iranian intelligence is setting this up as a wedge between the US and Israel, and the CIA is involved. I shouldn’t have told you any of that, but I know you like to be in the loop.” Tony waited for the explosion, the hard put down or some counter-attack with Gibbs presenting some impossible to know piece of information—Sassanid’s handler or something. Instead, Gibbs frowned and stared at Tony like he was confused. His gaze seemed unfocused.

Tony took a step forward. “Gibbs? Are you okay?” Maybe the mustache and the long hair was covering some deeper problem.

After a second, Gibbs blinked and then seemed to focus again. “Fine,” he said gruffly.

Of course Gibbs would shut him down. Tony had expected no less, but it still hurt. He focused on the case since that’s what Gibbs seemed to want to talk about. “Okay. If Ziva comes in now, she might be held as a witness, but I don’t think anyone sees her as a suspect anymore.”

“Why aren’t you leading the team?” Gibbs asked with far less anger than Tony had expected.

Tony leaned back against the counter and considered his options. “It was time for me to leave.”

For a second, Gibbs had that vacant expression, and then he focused on Tony. “You usually leave after two years.”

The quick burst of laughter that slipped out of Tony clearly startled Gibbs. “Twice. I left two jobs, both because I had better opportunities. I don’t have a rule about leaving after two years.”

Gibbs narrowed his eyes. “You left for a better opportunity?”

“Hell, yes,” Tony said. It was a lie, though. He’d left to get out of the toxic environment, and in the process of leaving, he’d discovered the BAU offered more.

“Ziva said you were insufferable.”

Tony threw up his hands. “Well then, if the sainted Ziva said it, it must be true.” Tony tried to push past Gibbs, but Gibbs caught his arm. Tony stopped and looked down at the hand holding him. “You don’t want to assault a federal agent, Gibbs.”

“It’s not an assault.”

Tony ripped his arm free. “Touch me again, and it will turn into one.” Tony could tell he’d shocked Gibbs that time. He’d thought Tony would fall back into their old patterns, but Tony had left that persona behind. He stormed into the living room and stood near the piano as he waited for Gibbs to follow. It took longer than Tony expected, but eventually Gibbs stood near the bookcase with that same confused expression. It was hard to stay mad when it was clear that Gibbs wasn’t firing on all cylinders. Tony knew the doctors had told him to stay near familiar placed and people—and Mexico didn’t qualify. No wonder his brains were still scrambled. Tony sighed and offered an olive branch. “I was your SFA for four years. Ask me a question, and I’ll give you an honest answer.”

Gibbs moved toward the couch, but he stopped near the back, resting his hands on it. “Why did you leave?”

“Because I couldn’t lead them.”

Gibbs frowned. “Was Ziva right that you were insufferable?”

Tony gave a rough laugh. Of course Gibbs would take her side. “From her point of view, probably. She was told that your expectations were unreasonable, so she was determined to train me to be more malleable, and that included hour-long lunches in the middle of investigations, and arguing whenever she was asked to go above or beyond the NCIS handbook.”

“But…” Gibbs let his voice trail off, but now that Tony had started, he didn’t plan to stop.

“And McGee was just as bad. Good was good enough for him. He refused to keep going on a case because he thought there was enough evidence. My gut wasn’t reason enough for him to spend any extra time on the case when he had other plans. And because I didn’t make it an order, McGee missed an electronic trail that an FBI agent spotted in less than an hour.”

Gibbs’ hands tightened on the couch, pressing into the cushion. “You took evidence to the FBI?”

“After Abby refused to run more tests, yes. She said that by insisting that McGee do his job, I was picking on him.”

“Abbs wouldn’t do that,” Gibbs argued.

“Oh, wait until she sobers up, and she’ll tell you how she was out of line. She apologized, and we’re past it, but I wasn’t strong enough to stand up for myself, and they didn’t care about the job or me enough to listen to me without direct orders.”

“So it’s their fault?”

“Actually, I have a fair share of that blame for not putting my foot down, but then I should have done that long before you got blown up.”

Gibbs’ expression turned dark now. Yeah, he’d figured out that Tony was laying some of the blame at his feet, and Gibbs didn’t like that. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means our team was screwed up long before you left, Gibbs. I couldn’t hold it together because I had no respect from them, and you set up that dynamic.” If Tony was only going to get one chance at come catharsis, he was going to take it and run. “You were so busy trying to punish me that you didn’t notice what the hell was going on in your team.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Gibbs fisted his hands and looked ready to stroke out, but his mental state wasn’t Tony’s problem, not anymore.

“Ziva!”

Gibbs pressed his lips together and narrowed his eyes in a truly murderous expression.

“That look,” Tony continued. “That’s what I’m talking about. I told you I didn’t trust Ziva, and from that point on, you had to punish me for disagreeing with the great Jethro Gibbs.”

“I have reasons for trusting her.”

“Yeah, I get that. Something happened between you and her and Ari, and whatever it was, it was enough to convince you that Ziva is on your side. But that doesn’t mean she’s on my side or NCIS’s side.”

“Enough!” Gibbs shouted. He still thought he could run the show when he was in Tony’s house. Some things never changed.

“Oh, now you’re showing that old Gibbs fire,” Tony said derisively. “If your subordinate disagrees, just shout him down. But the problem is that I’m not your subordinate anymore, Gibbs.”

“I’d listen if you had a real reason as opposed to you just thinking with your dick.” Gibbs’ contemptuous expression hit every one of Tony’s buttons.

Tony took a deep breath. “You know, around Ziva, I sometimes do. It’s hard when she’s playing sex kitten one day and ninja the next. And I try to keep that ninja persona in mind, but when she rubs up against me or barges into the men’s room when I have my dick in my hand or talks about her favorite lesbian porn, it’s hard.”

The anger vanished, and Gibbs just looked confused. “She what?”

“Exactly. You would have seen some of that if you’d been looking, but I told you I had a problem with her on the team, and you were so offended by my refusal to trot after you and accept your word as law that you dug in. You became part of the problem, and after we’d been partners for years, that hurt more than I want to admit.”

Gibbs took a step back, which revealed more than he probably meant to. Tony had never seen him so unsure, but his words were still confrontational. “So now I’m the problem.”

“Hell yes.” Tony moved to the armchair and sat. “Let’s play a little game. You’re a gunnery sergeant and you have a unit of six men you’re going to take into the field next week. Five of the men get together for a team night and intentionally leave the sixth man out. Then the next day, during training for a mission where they are all going to put their lives on the line, they make a big deal about telling the sixth man they didn’t want him there. As the gunnery sergeant, do you A) discipline the five men. B) transfer the sixth man out as he’s clearly not gelling with the team. C) ignore the whole mess. D) tell the sixth man you were at that team meal too and it was great not having him around?”

Gibbs had backed up to the bookcase and he rested one hand against a shelf. “What?”

“Oh,” Tony held up a finger. “I left out a part. When the big reveal happened, the sixth man was actually wounded. It was a minor injury, but it had been caused when one of the five panicked and fired wild, hitting him. So, how do you handle that gunny?”

The blank stare told Tony everything he needed to know. Gibbs didn’t remember any of this, or he didn’t remember it enough to put the pieces in order. He didn’t have an answer, but Tony remembered well enough.

“No answer? Let me answer for you. You took the last option. I would have been happy enough for either A or B. I would have accepted C. And you know, it’s not healthy that I would have accepted C, but I would have. But you had to choose D. You stood in that office while I had stitches in my arm from Ziva’s wild firing and you told me how great it had been at Ziva’s dinner. I should have quit then.” Tony shook his head at his own stupidity.

“You quit because you couldn’t handle getting left out?” If Gibbs had said that in an angry tone, Tony would have thrown him out, but he just sounded confused.

“I left because I can’t trust any of you at my back. And then Ziva is all ‘I’ll make it up to you. I just wanted you alone’ and I don’t know who to trust, but that’s the day it all started to slide. You were so openly dismissive and disrespectful that Ziva had permission to take shots at me all day, and Tim stopped listening altogether. You destroyed that team before I inherited it.”

Gibbs shook his head. “I wouldn’t have done that.”

“Newsflash, Gibbs. You did exactly that. Go ask the new director to let you review the notes on the Lake counterfeit case, and while you’re at it, check to see how you handled one of your agents firing wild inside a closed container. Did you give her desk time? Did you send her for retraining or make her take a FLETC course? Did you require her to see a counselor about her claustrophobia?”

A bit of anger returned to Gibbs’ voice. “Don’t play games. What did I do?”

Tony laughed and looked up at the ceiling. “I don’t know. When I talked to you, you told me it was none of my business. That’s pretty much the day I stopped being your SFA and became the schlump who does your paperwork.” Tony looked at Gibbs again. “And the worst part is that I put up with it.”

“If I was that bad, you wouldn’t have.”

“Yeah, yeah, I really did. You see, for three years, you were the best mentor, the best boss, the best partner I ever had. You were a bastard in the office, but I’d show up at your house, and you’d make cowboy steaks and you’d talk to me. You’d explain things. You see, I got through a lot of life pretending that I knew everything. You were the first person I could ask stupid things, and you still treated me like I was worth something. And then the first time I substantially disagreed with you, you cut me off.”

“So it’s my fault? The team falls apart, and even though I’m in Mexico, I’m to blame?”

“Yep. You knew me. You knew Tim. You knew Ziva, and from there, your actions had predictable outcomes.” Tony didn’t even sugar coat it. Yeah, he could have derailed that dysfunction and he should have, but it was Gibbs who put the train in the tracks.

For a long time, Gibbs stared at him, and Tony figured the man was trying to get his own memories in order. Who the hell knows what was and what wasn’t still rattling around in the brain. Gibbs certainly wasn’t recovered. After a time, Gibbs came down on the side of sounding confused. “Why would I sabotage my own team?”

“You’re asking me?”

“You seem to have all the answers, so sure. You tell me why the hell would I do that?” Gibbs came forward again, stopping at the back of the couch.

Tony shrugged. “Hell if I know. Maybe we’d become so much of a family at work that you thought you’d bring your family issues to work with you.”

That flipped the switch to anger. “You leave Shannon and Kelly the hell out of this! You hear me!”

“Yeah, I hear you,” Tony said softly. He could only imagine the pain Gibbs was going through having to grieve for his family again. “But I was talking about Stephanie and Diane and Rebecca. I was talking about the drinking and the golf clubs swung at your head and you avoiding your house. I was there for the Stephanie divorce. I was the one fielding calls from her when you wouldn’t pick up your phone. I was the one who took her calls after you divorced her and then showed up at her hotel for a quickie that left her in tears, do you remember any of that?”

Gibbs just stared at Tony.

“Jesus, you don’t, do you? Well, just take it from me, you’re as bad at relationships as I am. I watched you do this push pull thing with Stephanie, and you’d think I would be smart enough to transfer away when you started in on me.”

“Are you calling yourself my ex-wife?”

Tony laughed. That was probably the closest analogy to their current relationship, but Tony didn’t want to end with the sort of hatred and bitterness he’d seen in the ex-wives. “I don’t know what we have anymore, Gibbs. I just know I can’t take it. You didn’t have an ounce of respect for me when you left, and that carried over to the team. We nearly convicted an innocent man because they didn’t trust me. They wouldn’t put in the extra mile.”

Gibbs moved to the side of the couch. “I wouldn’t have had you on my team if I didn’t respect you.” He almost sounded sure of it.

“But you don’t remember why you did,” Tony guessed.

“I didn’t say that.”

“I’ve known you too many years, Gibbs. You can’t bluff me. So, how much is gone?”

“It’s not gone,” Gibbs said defensively. But then he sank down onto the couch. “It’s just all jumbled. I remember you playing jokes on McGee in the office. And there were pictures. Kate in a bathing suit and you with a gay man.”

“Hey! The gay picture was photoshopped,” Tony said. The last thing he needed as a law enforcement officer was rumors about his sexuality, especially when he worked the pedo BAU. There were too damn many bigots who associated gay men with pedophiles.

“The Kate one, on the other hand, was completely real, although she was in a wet t-shirt, not a bathing suit,” Tony continued. Gibbs had a thoughtful look, and Tony decided to take a risk and remind Gibbs of a few of their better times. “Do you remember me hiding in a body bag to fool Fornell into believing he had a DB long enough for you to get the actual body back to NCIS? Do you remember me going in undercover with a serial killer? We thought he was an art thief at the time, but I spent many a long, long day handcuffed to him until we could find the missing art, and at the end, I had to kill him. Jeffery. I liked him. He was sweet in a twisted, damaged sort of way, and when I showed up at your house afterward, you told me about Taavetti Gruzdev who you liked all the way up until you had to put a bullet in his head.”

“I told you about him?” Gibbs sounded shocked.

Tony nodded. “I took charge of the team when you decided to give yourself as a hostage to a kid with a bomb, and when the director ordered me to have snipers take their shot, I went up against her because you wanted to save the kid. Before that, when William Ryan developed delusions and stole a bunch of money, you tried to help your old CO. I went up against the FBI to get you intel you needed, all the way up to the point the FBI arrested you. And honestly, Abby and I were coming up with plans to get you out, although I’m not sure they would have worked.”

Gibbs was rubbing the side of his head and staring at Tony’s floor. “But you didn’t help Ziva,” he said in an unsure tone.

“First, I don’t have the history with Ziva I have with you. Second, I would have helped her. I would have found her a good lawyer and then busted my ass to figure out who framed her. But she didn’t come to me.”

“She called you insufferable, but then she said you were better than Lara Macy.”

“My replacement? Yeah, I hear she’s kicking some asses. Abby got a write up for evidence handling, and when she tried to complain to me, I tore her a new one, followed by Garcia tearing her a new one, followed by Abby realizing that she was so out of line that she couldn’t see past her own grief and her own belief that everything she did was right.”

Gibbs looked up at him. “Garcia?”

“The woman who was taking Abby home. They’re good friends.”

Gibbs chuckled, “And sometimes only a good friend can get away with tearing you a new asshole.”

For a long time, Tony stared at Gibbs and tried to figure out what the man was thinking. Eventually, he said, “True.”

“Abby’s that way because of me.” Gibbs sounded distraught at the thought. There was a little mean part of Tony that wanted Gibbs to hurt and wanted to heap coals on that fire. But it wasn’t true.

“Maybe in part. You spoiled her, but I actually think the real problems came from getting caught between you and Sheppard.”

“Sheppard?”

“She came in and tried to change everything. She brought in Chip, the lab assistant, and required business attire and set rules for lab security that were tighter than Abby had been using.”

Gibbs frowned and Tony could see the anger starting to return. “Chip. He tried to frame you.” Gibbs sat up straighter.

“And you stopped him. It was a pretty close thing, though. I really thought I was going to prison.” Tony could still remember the cold panic at the idea of spending the rest of his life behind bars.

“I made Jen back off.” Gibbs looked at Tony as though wanting confirmation.

“Yep, you did. Abby got to work alone and wear goth clothing and loosen up all the security around her lab.”

Gibbs shook his head. “Wait. That doesn’t make sense. Lab security is important.”

“But you were focused somewhere else, so Abby took the fact that you made the good director back off as permission to do what she wanted. You didn’t tell her different.” Tony waited as Gibbs clearly fought with his own memories.

“Ari,” Gibbs finally said.

“Yep.”

“I was obsessed with getting him.”

Tony nodded. “I sometimes think your name should be Gibo because the last O for obsession fits you even better than the second B for bastard.”

Gibbs ran a hand over his face and head. “Christ,” he whispered. Tony figured this was a lot to take in at once.

“Want a bourbon?” he offered.

Gibbs closed his eyes and leaned back on the couch. “I’d rather have a beer.”

“I’ve got one of those.” Tony headed into the kitchen, picking up his cell phone on the way. A quick text to Garcia would prevent her from bringing in the troops. After ensuring they’d get a little privacy, Tony brought two beers to the living room, offering one to Gibbs. He took it silently. “You know, you don’t have to remember everything tonight,” Tony said.

“There are all these puzzle pieces in my head.”

“It’s going to take time. And Gibbs, I’m not there to cover for you at work. You really shouldn’t go back on active duty.”

“With the new director, there’s little danger of that, not unless you’re offering me a job at the FBI,” Gibbs sat up and took a long drink.

“First, I’m not in hiring, and second, no offense, Gibbs, but hell no.” Tony figured the FBI’s mental health benefits weren’t good enough to cover that sort of damage.

“Jethro,” Gibbs said.

“Huh?”

Gibbs looked Tony in the eye. “We’ve known each other for years. If we’re not working together, you could at least call me Jethro.”

Tony sank down into the chair. “Jethro,” he said, feeling out the name. It was weird. Then he looked right at Gibbs and warned him, “I’m still pissed at you.”

Gibbs nodded. “Seems like you have good cause. How did we meet? I get this feeling that you hit me.”

Tony laughed at that memory. “Tackled you, and you set me up for that because you were trying to set your cover.” He leaned back in the chair and started to tell the story of Baltimore and rule five.

 

Our experience is composed rather of illusions lost than of wisdom acquired.
--Joseph Roux