"Some people think only intellect counts; knowing how to solve problems, knowing how to get by, knowing how to identify an advantage and seize it. But the functions of intellect are insufficient without courage, love, friendship, compassion and empathy." - Dean Koontz
"Hey, Abby -"
Tony halted one step into the lab, as soon as he raised his eyes from Justin Farris' file. Abby was bent over her table, her back to the door, hands spread wide over Lt. Sullivan's busted up computer as if she was performing some kind of a blessing. Or exorcism.
"Not now, Tony. I'm busy."
Definitely 'snitchy,' he thought. What was it with everyone? Ziva was all over him, wasting no opportunity to tell him how much he didn't matter, how irrelevant he was, standing there at a bloody crime scene rubbing his nose in his demotion as if their missing sailor held no interest for her. McGee - yeah, that little scene the squad room was just lovely, wasn't it? Tony'd needed McGee's help while he was on the phone, and McGee had decided that he was just too good to follow orders. Finding their injured Navy lieutenant before she was killed should have had the Probie's inner clock tick-tick-ticking away, anxious to do his job. But, no, McGee couldn't see past his own ego, didn't want anything but for Tony to bow down and lick his boots. Petty. Vindictive. "You'll never rate your own team." Nice. And here Tony thought they might have been friends once. Forget about 'snitchy'. Decidedly unfriendly and unprofessional. Those were the words Tony'd use to describe his teammates today.
Yes, it was a change. Gibbs was back, Santa Claus mustache and all, telling McGee what a good job he was doing every time he turned around. Throwing snide comments at Tony right and left. Sauntering around with a cup of coffee in one hand and an attitude as big as Mt. Vesuvius just waiting to blow, that little smile hovering around his lips.
Tony'd told Jenny he wanted to wait. To make sure Gibbs was one hundred percent before he took the promotion. Before he headed out to Rota for sun, surf, and a way up the NCIS ladder and out of this nightmare. It didn't look like Gibbs - or anyone else on the team - was going to make it easy for him to stay. Easy for him to go, maybe.
There was just enough of 'team leader' left in Tony ("temporary team leader," he heard McGee hiss in his memory) to make him stride into Abby's lab and stand beside her.
"We need to check that index fingerprint you found with Farris'. See if we get a match."
She hadn't moved, but was still standing, hunched over, her gloved hands spread wide over the computer's guts. Okay, it looked like she'd done a lot of work already. Put much of it back together again. If not all of it. But the back was still off, screws laying in a weird pattern alongside it. So, what was she waiting for?
"Sh! Tony! Don't mess up my vibes!"
Okay, Tony was nothing if not a team player. "Sorry, Abs. Do I need to stand at one point of a pentagram? Outside the sacred circle? Take my shoes off? Hum? Chant? Give me something, here."
Abby spun to face him, fists on her hips. "Anthony DiNozzo. You of all people should be helping me out here."
"Why, 'me of all people,' Abs?"
"Because the mojo is off. The vibes are in disharmony," her hands spoke along with her, moving in the air, painting pictures only she could see. "You can feel it, I see it in your face, even when you're trying to hide it." Her stern expression softened. "Oh, Tony." She lunged forward, hugging him tight. "Tony, Tony, Tony."
Stunned, Tony froze, his mind whipping up scenarios and plots, any reason Abby would be in 'fix-it' mode, especially as it had to do with him. She couldn't have heard about the Director's job offer, could she? Or the undercover op he'd been working on every night and weekend. She had Gibbs back, which was everything she'd ever wanted, so what the heck was going on? And why was she being all sympathetic Abby, with hugs and sad faces?
She leaned back and punched him.
"Ow!" Tony dodged backwards, out of reach, one hand on his shoulder. "What the heck?"
"Don't try to pretend with me, Mister! I know. And you know I know. And I know that you know that I know, so just stop it!"
"Okay, Abs. How about if we start this again - with less punching!" Tony was not in the mood for this. And he wasn't team leader anymore - as everyone kept reminding him - so he didn't have to deal with her moods or her 'trainee' stickers or her demands. "We have a missing sailor and a fingerprint to check. Now, what do you say we stop worrying about our 'vibes' and start getting to work?" He held up one hand as she opened her mouth to shout at him again. "No. No more yelling, no more punching. This is from Gibbs, not from me, so you'll want to get on it right away."
"I said no yelling!" Tony yelled. Facing off, they stood there, breathing hard, muscles tensed. And then one look at Abby's stricken face, her teary eyes, had him backing down. As usual. "I'm sorry. Sorry, Abs. I just," he rubbed one hand over his face and sighed. "It's just -"
"I know, Tony." Abby said, moving forward gingerly like she would approach a strange dog until she could touch him. Pet the shoulder she'd hurt. Turn into the curve of his arm against him. "I'm sorry for punching. But, see, that's just it. Our vibes are off. Just like when Gibbs left. It took time to get into our new rhythm, you know? With our stalwart new leader." She nudged him. "To get all of our circuits humming along together. With Gibbs back, well, it's the same thing only reversed. We didn't have a chance to slow down and change tracks so we're kinda falling all over ourselves. And each other."
"You think so?" Tony heard the sorrow in his own voice, a little self-pity, a soupcon of regret. "I thought it was just me."
"No. That's not true. Don't put this on you." Abby's arm curled around his waist and she set her head on his shoulder. "Everyone is giving off a nasty aura. Everyone. Even Ducky. Even me. And Gibbs -" she shook her head, "Gibbs isn't right."
Tony laid his head against hers, at a loss for words.
Happily, Abby had enough for both of them. "He's nice and then he's too nice. And then he's mean. He looks through me one minute and then seems like our usual grumpy-pants the next. It's like he doesn't remember why he left, or that he left, like he expected all of us to be frozen in time, not living or breathing or growing or anything while he was away."
"Like we aren't real," Tony muttered. "Like, when we're out of his sight we cease to exist." He played back Gibbs' actions. The strafing gaze that took in everything in the squad room - that noted each and every change, every tiny thing out of place, and then demanded that it be put right. Right according to Gibbs' shredded memory. It hadn't felt good, finding all his files, all his stuff dumped on his old desk, the act of an alpha wolf taking back his territory, putting Tony 'in his place.' But watching Michelle Lee stand there, her arms full of the symbols of her place - hard-won - on the MCRT, her eyes wide with disbelief - that had been gut wrenching.
McGee's open-mouthed shock quickly morphing into snarling superiority as he watched Tony struggle was the icing on that particular cake.
Abby's head came up almost fast enough to smack him in the chin. Her dark eyes stared into his. "Does he even remember us?"
Something with hundreds of tiny cold feet crawled up Tony's back. Gibbs had a lot to remember. To deal with. His first wife and daughter's deaths. His grief. Explanations and excuses for his actions could build a tower that reached the moon and yet … And yet. Did all of Gibbs' heartache give him carte blanche to treat people badly? To make them feel as if they weren't important? Just pieces on his chessboard? As if all of their own pasts and emotions, their losses and hopes and dreams couldn't possibly measure up?
He sighed into Abby's hair. "Gibbs would never forget you, Abby. No one could ever forget you." Tony, on the other hand …
"Maybe that's it." Abby squeezed him tighter. "Maybe he does remember, but only a little. He remembers to bring me a Caff-Pow, to kiss me on the cheek, but there's still something missing behind his eyes. He seems okay with Ziva - a little wary, maybe. Professional. Like he doesn't think he's missing any pieces of their relationship." She leaned into Tony and then moved away, her innate energy taking over again, forcing her to move, to walk, wave her arms, to process her thoughts with her entire body.
"Ducky is struggling. He's mad. Hurt. Really, deeply upset that their friendship didn't ever go both ways. And Gibbs has no idea."
Ducky had been quiet when Gibbs left. His stories had ended, his fascinating quips absent from their crime scenes. The older man hadn't fallen apart, he'd just fallen inward. Crumpled. As if his friendship with Gibbs had taken up a lot of room inside his chest and that loss had left him empty. Tony hadn't begrudged Ducky his grief - he had tried not to take it personally when he was given the brush-off, or reminded that 'Jethro would not have done it that way.' Ducky had known Gibbs for a long time, worked with him for over a decade. It always hurt to find definite evidence that a friendship wasn't as deep as you needed it to be.
Abby wasn't finished. "Gibbs has been nice to McGee - too nice." She huffed, bitter and angry. "Like he thinks Tim is still a green little Probie who's never been to a crime scene and wasn't your SFA for months. Like he hasn't been standing on his own two feet for a long time now."
Tony grumbled. "Yeah, there's an understatement."
Her thick platform boots came to a squeaking stop in front of him. Tony raised his head to meet eyes sparking with anger. "Whoops."
"What did McGee do now?"
Tony made a face, waving one hand between them as if to make the whole situation disappear. "Not important."
"I know that voice, Mister. That's Tony's 'I'm hurt but not surprised' voice. And, frankly, I've been hearing it a lot too frequently over the past few months. Way too frequently." Hands on her hips, Abby cocked her head to one side. "It's been my fault sometimes, and I'm sorry. But Tim -" her head shook slowly back and forth, "I don't know what happened, but he's different. I'd like to blame it all on Gibbs but I don't think I can. Not in his case."
"You want to blame Gibbs?" Surprised was too mild a word for what Tony was feeling. Shocked. Amazed. Scandalized. He needed a thesaurus and he needed it now.
"I can blame Gibbs. I can be happy he's back and blame him at the same time. I'm totally emotionally flexible, Tony."
He put one hand on his still throbbing shoulder and decided to let that one go. For now.
"What did McGee say - and don't you lie to me, Anthony DiNozzo. Or say it doesn't matter. Or that 'sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you' because that is about the dumbest thing anyone could ever tell a child!" Abby stepped in close again. "Please? Maybe I can help?"
"Abby," Tony sighed, hands in his pockets. "The words aren't important - not very. I mean, we all know what Timmy thinks of my leadership skills - my skills in general, especially when contrasted with his own towering intellect." He shrugged. "The problem isn't that he hurt my feelings, but that, given his snooty and superior attitude, how I'm supposed to trust him to follow any orders I give him."
He flinched when Abby reached out but she only placed her hand against his chest, right over his heart. "Trust is important, Tony. Super important. If you really feel that way -" Her eyes were teary again. "If you think you can't trust him - Tony." She sneaked a couple of inches closer. "Tony, are you leaving us?" Her voice shook, her words barely audible.
Tony imagined saying yes, telling her about Rota. And then imagined her tears, her very real grief at losing another part of her family when she'd just gotten one back. Her watery smile at his promotion, trying to be happy for him while her world fell apart. Again. And then he tried to imagine saying no. And he couldn't.
"Gibbs resents me, and I can't quite figure out if it's because I held the team together or because I didn't do it well enough. Ziva I can deal with. She's always been haughty. So secure in her own skillset that she doesn't have much use for anyone else's. But, McGee? McGee sees their anger, he hears the digs and snide slams and insults, and adds it to his own ego and Gibbs' constant attaboys and wonders why I'm on Gibbs' team at all."
"She offered you your own team."
He laid his hand over hers and held on tight.
"Of course she did. You did a good job, Tony. A great job." She blinked. Sniffed. "Even if Gibbs will never say it, I will. You deserve to hear it."
Warmth spread out from their joined hands, making his skin tingle, his heart beat a little more easily. "That - that feels really good, Abby. Thanks. Thank you."
They held on to each other for another moment, snatched a few seconds from the day to stand together, to renew their friendship. No promises were made, and none expected. Maybe Tony would take the transfer. Maybe he'd stay. Either way, he and Abby were going to be okay.
It was Abby who broke away first. "You have a fingerprint for me?"
~ ~ ~
Tony stood rooted to the spot, staring at Lt. Sullivan sitting on the edge of the ambulance. Alive. Bloody and beaten, but alive. His mind was spinning. He'd asked Gibbs if he'd missed this. Missed the warm feeling in his gut after a case was closed. A victim rescued alive. The dirt bags taken down without a shot fired. Every team member healthy and whole. That feeling was what had kept Tony going for the past four months.
Gibbs answer had been - what? "A couple of minutes."
What the hell had that meant? And then Gibbs had continued. "That's the difference between putting the lieutenant in a body bag or an ambulance."
What the hell question had Gibbs been answering? Because, it sure as hell wasn't Tony's. Had he even been listening or was he still trying to figure out all the voices from inside his own head? Just how far gone was the Gibbs he knew, that used to lead this team with such certainty and skill? That warm feeling in Tony's gut was certainly gone, replaced by ice cold doubt about his decision. Until a moment ago, he'd been planning to accept Jenny's job offer. To take the promotion and run - run away from Ziva's attitude, McGee's ego, and Gibbs' resentment and towards a new city, a new team, a new adventure. Embracing the change. He was good at that.
Now, his shoes riveted to the pavement, Tony couldn't help but imagine the worst. Gibbs talking to himself. Walking away as if he'd had the last word and it was at all rational. Leaving the team standing here. Doing their jobs. Ziva was helpful and kind, coaxing Lt. Sullivan's story out of her. McGee was stern and calm, writing down every word the criminals said. And Tony was left here, in between. Between the mustached man that used to be their boss and his teammates. How the hell could he leave now? How could he leave Ziva and Tim with the man who couldn't even answer a simple question or remember their names?
What the hell was he going to do?
Tony clenched his teeth and got on with it. He urged Ziva to ride in the ambulance with their victim. Helped McGee get the suspects into the transport van so the other NCIS team could get them back to the Navy Yard. Gibbs had already gone, taken the car, so he and Tim processed the truck, followed the Metro cops through the hotel, collecting evidence, cataloguing and taking pictures. They worked silently, side by side, each, apparently, caught up in his own thoughts.
Finally finished, standing outside the hotel loading dock in the pre-dawn hours, Tony sighed and checked his watch. He was long past the deadline the director had allowed him. He knew she would still be at her desk, checking to make sure each member of her agency made it back safely. She was probably going over the undercover mission, prodding her sources, trying to make sense of the intel Tony had already collected. Every spare minute would find her poring over those files.
Tony had flip-flopped on his decision time and time again while he'd processed the scene. Every time he considered ordering McGee to do something, to double-check something, to get more bags or swabs from the truck, to rendezvous with Metro, he'd stopped himself and gone and done it himself. And every time his teammate grunted, or sighed, or muttered something under his breath, Tony's hackles had gone up. And, every time, every time he second guessed himself, his anger grew.
He turned to watch McGee, standing a few paces away, talking on his phone in an undertone that even Tony's ears couldn't pick up. One thing in this whole mess was certain - if McGee was done with him, if he wasn't going to respect Tony, if Tony wasn't able to trust him to follow orders, it was time to move on. He'd give his evidence to Jenny, tell her all the ways Gibbs didn't add up to a hundred percent, but he would not let McGee and David walk all over him on their way to the top.
He waited until his teammate hung up and then started towards the truck. "You ready?" he flung over his shoulder.
"Not quite," McGee answered.
Tony turned back, eyebrows raised. What the hell now?
McGee was the picture of dejection. Shoulders hunched against the chill, his expression grim, Tim looked like he was chewing on lemons, skin and all.
"I need to tell you something."
"Okaaaaay," Tony started, "but could we do it in the nice warm truck? Or, even better, at the Sheetz three blocks east over some hot coffee and a bacon and egg sandwich?" His stomach growled its agreement with that plan.
McGee lifted his gaze to meet Tony's. "Gibbs likes the way you've reorganized the truck. He said it was a good idea and to leave it, not change it back."
Huh. "Well that's - surprising."
Tony's response seemed to make McGee's eyes narrow. "I know. I thought so, too. I mean, he threw your stuff back on your desk and he seems to take every opportunity to tell you how much you screwed up, or aren't doing it right. So, I figured, it would all go back."
Tony cocked his head and took a step towards his teammate. "So, you're confused. Since I don't have what it takes to be a leader, or any skills worth talking about, really, you don't understand why Gibbs would leave even something as unimportant, as trivial, as changes to the truck in place."
"No! I mean, yes! I mean, I don't know, okay?!"
He waited while his teammate tried to get a hold of himself. It didn't take long.
"That was Abby on the phone. She told me that, whatever I said to you, I should get my head out of my ass and apologize."
Tony turned away again. "Not if you don't mean it, Pro- McGee. You know what the boss says about apologies."
McGee's hand on his elbow stopped him. "I was going to. The minute you walked away from my desk I called out. You heard me. You waved the folders over your head, but you heard me."
"I really wasn't in the mood to hear any more about how useless I am, Tim. Thanks, anyway."
"I know." This time McGee didn't seem angry, or petulant, just serious. Intent. "I was way out of line, Tony. I don't exactly know why, but it seemed like piling on, kicking you while you were down, while everyone else was taking a shot was a good idea at the time. I'm not very proud of myself."
"And it only took you how many hours and how many phone calls from Abby to come to this conclusion?" Tony was not going to make this easy. Why should he? It wasn’t the first time McGee had stood up on the pedestal of his intelligence and looked down his nose at Tony, a mere jock-turned-cop.
His mouth turned down like an upside-down smiley face, McGee nodded. "I realized right away. It was like I finally tuned into what I was saying after you'd walked off. And then Gibbs -"
How did Gibbs fit into this? Tony rolled his eyes. Whatever his Boss said, it could only have added to McGee's self-importance.
"Gibbs had been listening. He sat on the edge of my desk and asked me what his first partner still called him. I guess that's Mike Franks, right?" Tim nodded, answering his own question. "He still calls Gibbs 'Probie.'"
"Yeah." Mike Franks. Asshole extraordinaire and, apparently, the only one Gibbs could remember from his past. A guiding light in the storm of Gibbs' screwed up memories. Tony was so glad Gibbs was comparing him to Franks.
"So, I'm sorry. I guess I never thought of it that way. I always felt like you calling me 'Probie' was your way of putting me in my place. Telling me I wasn't your equal." Tim nodded again. Mission accomplished. Like he could finally get Abby off his back.
Oh, I don't think so, Tony thought to himself. "You aren't my equal, McGee."
"No, I mean, yes, you have more experience and years of service, I know that. Just like Franks had more than Gibbs -"
The anger that made Tony's skin crawl slammed into overdrive. "There's something Gibbs left out of this oh-so-flattering comparison. Something you're both leaving out. I can understand with Gibbs. Let's face it, he is not firing on all cylinders, even you must see that, McGee -"
That brought the man's frown back. "Yes. I agree. He's not himself, but -"
"Good. At least that's one thing we agree on. Maybe the last thing for a while. Because, and I want you to listen, Tim, and listen hard. This?" Tony pointed one finger and waved it between them. "This problem between us? This isn't about a nickname. And I'm sorry that's what you and Gibbs have made it into. Yes, Mike Franks was Gibbs' partner - eventually. They worked together, true. But what Mike Franks was to Gibbs? Was his boss." Tony knew his eyes had gone cold, his voice as brittle as cold iron. "It doesn't matter that Gibbs is back, it wouldn't matter if he'd never left. And your proud degrees? They really don't matter either. I'm the SFA. I am your boss. And, if you don't realize that, if you can't believe that and are going to continue to question my orders and flat-out refuse to respect me or them? Well, tell me now, because, believe it or not, I have some choices to make."
McGee's eyes widened, his face turning cherry-red, dark and dangerous under the faint stars. It was almost as if Tony could see that computer-brain of Tim's working, analyzing, leaping from word to word, from fact to fact, each and every emotion along the way displayed in living color across his skin. Rage. Denial. Bitterness. Resentment. Confusion. Denial again. Hurt.
"Wait, you think - you think that we can't work together anymore? That I'd do something - that I wouldn't follow you in the field? Why - why would you think that?"
Tony made a show of crossing his arms and rubbing at his chin as if deep in thought. "Gee, McGee. Why on earth would I think that you'd hesitate to follow my lead? How could I ever have come up with that one? Could it be you telling me that I'm not a leader? That there's no way in hell anyone would be stupid enough to put me in charge of a team? Because, I've got news for you, Agent McGee," Tony stabbed his finger into McGee's chest, hard enough to rock him backwards, "I am in charge. When Gibbs isn't in the room? I'm in charge. When he's left us at a crime scene? I'm in charge." He kept pressing, kept poking, following McGee as he stepped backwards again and again. "When he goes to Mexico to drink Coronas on the beach with his old boss Mike Fucking Franks, I'm in charge. Do you understand?"
They were both breathing hard, now. But where Tony was angry, focused, intent on making his point for once and for all, for ending this thing, getting back to the Navy Yard, and hoping that Jenny still had that transfer form on her desk, McGee was floundering. Mouth opening and closing, he'd paled until Tony couldn't tell where his beige trench coat ended and his skin began.
"No - you can't believe - maybe you can. But I never - Tony, I didn't -"
Disgusted, Tony turned his back and walked towards the truck. "Save it. I'm done. Just -" he paused at the driver's side door to look back at his partner, "just watch out. Gibbs isn't back. Not completely. Don't let yourself get hurt because the powers that be think he's ready to take over the team again."
"So you're really leaving." It wasn't a question. And, somehow, it didn't feel like McGee was exactly jumping for joy at the idea.
Tony smiled. "Believe it or not, some people think I do rate my own team."
McGee stayed silent as the doors closed, as Tony let the engine warm up in the chilly pre-dawn of a DC October. It wasn't until Tony'd made it to the beltway that he found his voice.
"Just, for the record, I think you were a good team leader. And, given more time, and maybe a team that wasn't already pretty messed up, you'd probably be a great one. And I'm sorry that my own doubts, my own uncertainty about what's going on had me saying otherwise." McGee cleared his throat, staring straight ahead through the windshield. "I didn't mean it. And, saying that, I know there's no reason for you to believe me, but it's true. I'd follow you, Tony."
In his peripheral vision, Tony saw that Tim turned towards him. "I'm not an easy person to lead, I know that, my brain gets in the way of my instincts, and I'm touchy and not very diplomatic, but, if you do take your own team, I think I'd put my name in and hope that you'd take me along with you. I still have a lot to learn and I think I'd learn it better from you than from almost anyone else."
"I know that, if I'd said something to Gibbs like I said to you, if I treated him the same way I treated you, I'd either have a black eye or a demotion back to Norfolk before I could blink. Or both. I've screwed up our friendship at least, and our teamwork, and, if you stay, I'd work on that. On both. Because I don't want to - I'd rather -" he lowered his head for a second, chewing over his words, "I don't want this to be the end for us. That you pack up your desk and walk out and I never get to make up for the mistakes I've made. That I never hear 'Probie' again or get a wadded up piece of paper to the head to break the tension during a hot case."
"What about having your hands superglued to your keyboard?"
"Maybe I could do without that," McGee chuckled.
Tony listened. And he thought about it. McGee sounded sincere. He sounded like this was maybe a wake-up call, one that he'd learn from and remember. He thought about it all the way back to the Navy Yard.
After he'd parked the truck, as he and Tim lugged box after box of evidence into the lock-up, and Tony filled out pages of forms and waiting not-so-patiently as the evidence techs put him through the usual song and dance, Tim was waiting for him at the elevator.
"I don't know where your promotion is taking you, but, please promise to keep in touch." He grimaced. "Abby's going to kill me if you don't."
Tony stepped inside and turned, facing their reflections in the smooth steel of the closing doors. "I still don't know if I'm going to take it."
McGee sucked in a breath. "Because of Gibbs?"
"He's not right, McGee."
"I know. And it's going to be rough on us if you leave us with him. On all of us. Not just me. Okay, probably not Ziva. But especially Abby. And Ducky-"
Tony laughed, bumping his shoulder against his partner's. His friend's. "Nice guilt-trip, McPadawan."
"I've learned from the master," Tim smiled.
Sighing, Tony put one hand on Tim's shoulder. "And you still have oh so much more to learn."
Tim met his gaze. "I do, Tony. I'm not joking."
When the doors opened on the bullpen level, McGee walked out before realizing that Tony wasn't following. "Tony?"
"I’m late for a meeting upstairs," Tony said, jerking his chin towards the team's empty desks. "Won't take long."
Tim pressed his lips together and straightened. "Okay. I'll wait right here."
"You don't have to -"
"I'll be here. I'll even take you out for coffee after and you can tell me all about it."
"You sure? It's late." Tony still didn't know what he was going to do. If he would go or stay.
"It's not too late to start being a better friend," Tim stated.
"Well, how about that?" Tony said to himself as the elevator doors closed.