If Tony DiNozzo tries hard enough, he remembers what Hell Week used to mean. Heading back to Long Island to spend Christmas break with his father and the stepmonster du jour. Achieving alcohol poisoning in a grungy fraternity basement. "Volunteering" to pick up every shift as the new guy on the police force. Struggling to determine his newest girlfriend's name before she figures him out.
However, none of that really compares with the one week a month the MCRT spends on-call. During that time, the team lives, eats, breathes and sleeps—only if they're lucky—cases. Those seven days Tony often forgets he has a life that doesn't revolve around reports and evidence and interrogations.
At least, Tony thinks that's how it used to be. Lately, he can't recall how things used to be before Hell Week stretched into Hell Month and then, just never ended. For some reason, Gibbs continues to pick up extra cases, extra shifts, extra anything and everything to keep his team working. And working.
Tony uses a lone chopstick to poke at the row of Chinese takeout containers on his desk. They stand shoulder to shoulder like they're part of a line-up. Except Tony doesn't remember which one is dinner and which is garbage. And if he can't walk the fine line between delicious and food poisoning, he sure as hell doesn't want to touch the pile of casefiles. Maybe if ignores them, the reports will just write themselves. He pictures himself waving a magic wand like the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella and his computer whirs to life, sending fully written and proofread reports to the printer.
Before he catches himself, he points the chopstick at the monitor and murmurs, "Bippity-boppity-boo."
At his desk, Gibbs looks up from a file. "You say something, DiNozzo?"
The Bullpen goes suddenly silent. With the cacophony of typing suddenly gone, Tony recalls Tim and Ziva are here too. Right now, they're rubberneckers, staring at their teammate who is about to get mauled. Tony struggles to take a breath. It's though the oxygen was just sucked out of the room.
"DiNozzo?" Gibbs barks.
Tony shakes his head. "Quiet as Gus Gus, Boss."
Seeming to decide he doesn't want Tony to explain the mouse from Cinderella, Gibbs returns to his casefile. Tony still feels his teammates' eyes boring into him, openly searching and pleading with him to soothe their savage boss into setting them free for the night. Just one night off, that's all they need.
But what power does Tony have over Gibbs anyway? He did once…or rather, as senior field agent, he likes to think he did. He likes to remember those days. Back when Gibbs used to give Tony that look to check that he agreed, to solidify their partnership. But it's not like Gibbs glances at him—or for that matter, listens—anymore. Hell, he stopped paying attention a long time ago; just started taking advantage in knowing that Tony and the team would have his six. Until now, Tony is just like the rest of them: hoping to keep his head down long enough to see his apartment again.
Ignoring his teammates, Tony stares on his computer. He adds an entire paragraph to his half-written report before realizing it's the wrong case. Making a face, he deletes it and starts over.
When Gibbs' phone chirps, Tim and Ziva visibly flinch.
"Yeah," Gibbs answers before he pauses. "On our way." He doesn't even breathe before announcing: "Navy lab had a break-in. Grab your gear."
Only Tim is suicidal enough to speak up. "Boss, I kinda have plans tonight. My sister moved overseas and she's home visiting for the week. I haven't seen her for – "
"Reschedule," Gibbs snaps.
Tim wilts. "Yeah, right. On it."
While Tim and Ziva gather their gear, Tony can't bring himself to move. Even if he wanted to, his muscles don't seem to work anymore. After a quick glance at his calendar, he swallows hard. It's only Tuesday evening and he was sure, so damned sure it was Friday. He can't stomach clearing another crime scene, writing another report, taking yet another evidence box to an overly caffeinated, melodramatic, and sleep-deprived Abby.
Tony's heart drops because he knows what is coming. It's like watching the countdown timer on a bomb and knowing, no matter what you do, it's about wipe you off the face of the Earth.
He stands up. "Do you think Barrows' team could take it, Boss?"
Gibbs targets his glare on Tony.
But Tony keeps going. "We need a break, Boss. We've been working around the clock for months. You're running us into the ground."
When Tony finally meets his coworkers' eyes, their expressions are a mix of terror and gratitude. Gibbs swivels to glare at the younger agents and somehow, they manage to school it away. Neutral, stone-faces stare back at their boss. Tony gnaws at the inside of his cheek.
"You two agree with DiNozzo?" Gibbs growls.
While Ziva doesn't react, the color drains from Tim's cheeks. He manages an almost imperceptible nod. Whether Gibbs chooses to ignore it or doesn't even notice, Tony isn't sure. But the team leader turns back to Tony with a hard glare that seems to say, It's only you, DiNozzo.
"None of you work hard enough." The scathing look in Gibbs' eyes turns Tony's blood to ice. "Especially you, DiNozzo. I expected more from all of you."
Those words are like a punch to the gut. And in that moment, Tony understand the long hours, the constant sacrifices, and the lost time aren't enough. Nothing he ever does will be.
When Tony silent reaches for his creds and Sig, Gibbs grabs his own. Tony pauses to rub his thumb across his badge, but the raised letters NCIS grant him no comfort. He always thought if he tried hard enough, someone might grow to appreciate him. But now, he is learning that isn't the case. Not his father, not his previous bosses, not even Gibbs. He will never be good enough.
He crosses the room to stand in front of Gibbs. He holds the badge and Sig out as a peace offering.
"Is that what you really think, Boss?" he asks tentatively.
Gibbs half-shrugs. "Don't like it? Get out."
Tony carefully places his gun and badge on Gibbs' desk. The hollow thud of metal on metal resonates through the Bullpen like a gunshot. Tony scoops up his backpack before leaving for the final time.
Behind him, Gibbs barks: "If either of you feel the same, go."
By the time he reaches the elevator, Tony is a little light-headed, a little giddy and more than a little nauseous. He doesn't even know where to start with his new-found freedom. Reach out to his contacts to find another job? Drink himself into a stupor with the stiffest Scotch in DC? Sleep until next year?
He slides into the elevator for the last time. With a heavy heart, he punches the Door Close button. Before they close fully, someone else hops into the car.
Tony does a double-take. "What the hell are you doing, McGee?"
Tim wears the expression of a childish co-conspirator on the way to the principal's office. His smile is broad and relieved, albeit nervous. He looks like he got away with something big. Seeing him now, Tony hadn't realized just how beat down the younger man appeared while he was hunched over his desk. While he seems to savor the view of the elevator, Tim removes his tie. He stuffs it into his jacket pocket, then starts to clench and unclench his hands. He is probably hopped up on adrenaline and no sleep.
"I've never done this before, Tony," he blurts out. "What happens next?"
Tony shrugs. "We find another job."
Tim's face falls. "That's it?"
"Well, I owe Fornell a call," Tony says flatly. "I'm sure you could get a cushy job doing something with computers. Like building firewalls or something?"
"You don't build firewalls, Tony. But – " Tim deflates " – yeah, cybersecurity. That would be great. Really, really great…"
"I guess I could ask if the Feebees need some help in their IT department. Maybe they could use someone like you." Even though Tony keeps his tone light, the offer is serious. As Tim's mentor, Tony still feels responsible for him. "I bet they'd take us on as a package deal. Like a buy one, get one free? They have offers like at Wal-Mart, right?"
Tim wrinkles his nose. "I wouldn't know."
"Sure, you don't, McBargainShopper." Chuckling, Tony tilts his head. "Getting a job at the FBU would be a great way to stick it to Gibbs."
Tim chokes on air. "He is going to kill us."
"Not us. Fornell."
That's enough to make Tim grin again. By the time the elevator doors open, Tony feels keenly aware of the possibilities laid before him. For the first time since he left Baltimore, he has a chance to start over. He won't squander this chance. This time, it's for him and only him. And, he thinks he finally learned what he deserves.