The motto is not always WWGD. WWGD is brought out at half-time when the center just sprained his ankle and the other team has that one guy who has to be at least seven feet tall. Most of the time, Tony gets by on various second-string techniques.
He does campfires, or brings them presents from Germany, or plays Trivial Pursuit to lose—Genius edition with McGee and Ducky, '90's with Abby, Baby Boomer with Ziva (because at least then neither of them know what they're doing), and Pop Culture with nobody (Tony knows his strengths). He considers and rejects the more standard methods of team-bonding, because there is no way he's going to play paintball with Ziva (who would slaughter him) or play truth or dare with McGee (who probably has boring secrets anyway), or play any trust games at all with the only people that he's sure he believes in.
So what he is left with, most of the time, is an oddball assortment of things that don't quite fit, and aren't quite understood, but which usually work. He likes it that way.
Agent Lee is competent, efficient, intelligent, and easy on the eyes. Tony is secretly convinced that she won't last the week. She's too normal. She eats things that are good for her, balances work and play, obeys the rules, and doesn't freak out over spiders (McGee) or dust bunnies (Ziva) or Celtic music (Tony's not admitting to anything). She just isn't crazy enough. She's so well-balanced that she makes the rest of them look bad, like there's something wrong with being grab bags of neuroses and homicidal rage and loyalty.
Also, she doesn't go with them to see Snakes on a Plane.
He could just order them to come to the movies with them - - at least, he's pretty sure that he could if only because they wouldn't know that he couldn't - - but he just reread Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and is in the mood to believe that the journey is the fun part. He decides, instead, to tackle them one by one, because: a) divide and conquer, and b) his team is made up of angry, emotionally fragile people that like individual attention.
Abby first, because she's the easiest: "Hey, Abs, how do you feel about the midnight showing of Snakes on a Plane?"
"Awesome," she says, and bounces into a hug with him. She keeps bouncing, and her pigtails thump him in the chin. He doesn't mind. "I feel awesome about it, Tony. Do you think they'd mind if I brought a stuffed snake to hug during the scary parts?" She grins, all bright and sparkly and more Abby than he's seen in a month. "Because, hello irony."
"Bring it," he says, and kisses the top of her head. "Who's going to argue with you, huh?"
There's something to be said for this. He leaves her humming and spinning and talking to herself, and he really does think that there's something here. Popcorn flicks as emotional therapy, maybe. Schlock instead of sentiment.
Then he gets Palmer, because Palmer is easy, too:
"Palmer! Snakes on a Plane, midnight premiere."
"Yes, Tony, absolutely," Palmer says, and knocks something over.
Then he tackles Ducky, not because Ducky is easy, but because Ducky was standing right next to Palmer when Tony handled that, and there's something to be said for proximity. For Ducky, Tony has to agree to listen to Ducky later explaining just how horrifically wrong the movie deaths are and how snake venom would never do what the movie just made it do. They come to a compromise: Tony will stay while Ducky is talking, as long as Ducky doesn't go to a lot of trouble to determine whether or not he's actually paying attention. They shake on it.
"Hey, McGee, you've heard of Snakes on a Plane, right?"
"Yes, Tony. I'm alive and I have internet access."
"Come to the premiere with me."
McGee temporarily stops whatever non-Snakes on a Plane-related thing he was doing with his computer and says, "You're not going to, ah, pay for my ticket or anything, are you? Because I know you haven't had a lot of time to date since you were promoted, but - -"
"McGee, I like the new relaxation thing, but smart-ass to me and I'll head-smack you with a stapler."
He can see McGee weighing the odds before deciding upon, "I'll order the tickets online, boss."
McGee is a very smart man.
He tells Ziva that Snakes on a Plane is a re-released American cinematic classic and that Ziva will never understand American culture unless she comes with them and also buys Tony popcorn and Jujubes. Never one to go down easily, Ziva tells Tony that his left eye twitches when he makes things up off the top of his head and also, Jujubes are disgusting and will only end up gluing his teeth together. Tony compliments her on her return and he serves again: how could Ziva not want to see a movie with snakes, violent death, and the ultimate triumph of good over evil? Also, he knows that Ziva has a crush on Samuel L. Jackson, but he saves that in case he needs a trump card.
He only tries Agent Lee once. "Snakes on a Plane?"
"Is it required?"
He blinks at her. "Is it required?"
"Required viewing. It is about a terrorist attack, isn't it?"
"It's about snakes on a plane," Tony says.
Michelle Lee wrinkles her nose. "I don't really like snakes, sir."
"But," Tony says, "they're on a plane."
She doesn't get it.
He goes ahead and writes her a sterling letter of recommendation. He's sure she could work with Fornell.
"Rock, paper, scissors on which one of you does measurements. Best two out of three. Ziva, please remember that McGee has a degree in applied mathematics and can probably determine the exact statistics of what you'll choose and when you'll choose it. McGee, please remember that Ziva has lost the last four times we've done this, and she might break your fingers if she has to do measurements again."
Translation: "McGee, measure the scene."
Tony has always been verbose.
He sneaks up on them now sometimes, just like McGee wears casual clothes now sometimes. The truth is that they're doing the best they can and the lie is that their personalities are in their job descriptions: senior field agent goofs off, plays computer games, and flirts; boss drinks too much coffee, wears monochromatic gray, and pretends to be omniscient. It's fun. Wrong, and a little sad, but fun, too.
But Tony knows enough about inevitability to know that if he keeps it up, wrong-and-sad-but-fun will start to describe way too much of his life.
He keeps two letters inside a desk drawer that he keeps locked.
One letter is addressed to McGee. It is four pages long, single-spaced, and contains all the helpful minutiae that Tony can remember. Most of it he would never say aloud. Procedural details are interspaced with You've become an excellent agent and instructions for how drunk to get at Tony's wake are cut in two by Try not to be so hard on yourself. He was very slightly drunk when he wrote it and is shows in how his handwriting goes up and down the lines in waves.
The other letter is addressed to Gibbs. It consists of a single typed paragraph.
He was stone sober when he wrote it, and it contains nothing that Gibbs couldn't have already known.
Tony has not made a Venn diagram that details how his management style relates to Gibbs's, but that he hasn't done it is more of a surprise than that he's thought of doing it: in this new, post-Gibbs world, all of them are big on lists and diagrams and flowcharts. In a desperate effort to figure out why they were going insane, Tony emailed a friend-of-a-friend who did armchair psychology, and was told that either they were doing their best to create order in the vacuum they had been left in, or they had all read the same article on cubicle decorations.
Tony discovers this during the second week, when he walks in and finds that McGee has covered his computer with yellow and green Post-it notes and had bought the economy-sized pack of colored Sharpies.
"McGee," he says slowly, "are you actually getting geekier?"
McGee takes a step back and looks at his own desk. He has red Sharpie on his hands up to his wrists. "Could be, Tony."
"Okay," Tony says. "I can handle this. You will not break me."
Tony looked at him. "You say people's names a lot when you think they're crazy, don't you?"
"I think I might, Tony."
The next day, Ziva makes a list of all the evidence they need, crosses off all the evidence they have, and put asterisks next to all of the evidence that is really, really important. McGee looks at Tony nervously; Tony massages his temples a lot and compliments Ziva on her organization skills. He finally loses it when he catches himself making a flowchart of his career moves. He turns control over to McGee and goes to Abby to sulk.
Abby, who is tallying up the number of times they have all been injured in an effort to reassure herself that they are very durable people, says, "Tony, you can either destroy your quirks or you can embrace them."
"Thank you," Tony says. "Oh, and McGee just gave himself a paper cut, if you want to factor that in."
She gives it one-quarter tally mark.
Tony strategically embraces their collective insanity and buys everyone Post-it notes, glue sticks, graph paper, pens, pencils, rulers, and big pink erasers. "I hope you're happy now," he tells them while McGee grins at him and Ziva tries to bounce her eraser up and down on her desk. "Now the other teams will always make fun of us."
"No," McGee says. "They're too scared of you, boss."
It's the first time anyone calls him that without wincing.
Early in the second month, a suspect manages to pistol whip Ziva across the mouth.
Tony knows that he gets the guy down to the ground and he knows that he gets the cuffs on him, and he knows that this happens very quickly, but that really is the sum of his knowledge: he is preoccupied with the inarticulate rage that tightens all of his muscles and locks up his vocal cords. He wants to kill. He wants to rip this guy apart with his bare hands. Never mind that one trip to the emergency room will make Ziva okay again, never mind that they've all had worse. What matters is that someone made her bleed, someone hit her, someone hurt her. He wants badly to be able to say this, to pull this guy's head up off the parking lot and explain that no one hurts Ziva, no hurts McGee, no one hurts Abby, no one hurts Ducky, no one hurts Lee—they're his. They're all his and if they're bleeding, so is he.
He can't say any of this, though. The best he can do is breathe hard and yank this guy up with him, because he's honest-to-God too angry to even yell at someone.
He gets Ziva to the emergency room as soon as he can, but they have to wait. He sits with her in the emergency room and thinks about patting her hand, but knows she won't let him.
She is very quiet, and he thinks he knows why.
"I was angry," he says. He knows that he should have been more like Gibbs, that he should have shoved his Sig into the base of the guy's spine and told him all about the paralysis he could look forward to if he touched one of his people ever again, but he wasn't Gibbs. And he hadn't been able to say anything. So now he needs to reassure her, needs to let her know that he wanted to yell, wanted to threaten, wanted to kill, but that he just couldn't.
"I was," he says again. "Ziva, I really was, and I know it didn't look like - -"
"I thought that you would kill him," Ziva says quietly. The words are mushy; her mouth is swollen. "We were scared for you. You don't know how you looked."
"Like Gibbs," she says, and tries to smile. Pats his hand. "Only not so used to it."
Rule 19: We are not actually naming the incidents. If Special Agent McGee says that we are naming the incidents, he is wrong, and should be reminded of the Exploding Highlighter Incident. Shut up, McGee. Ziva, stop laughing. Abby, why are you here?
Addendum to Rule 19: Only Special Agent DiNozzo can name the incidents.
The official incidents include: the Exploding Highlighter Incident, the Ziva's Unexpected Soy Allergy Incident, the Don't Touch That Incident, the Curiously Zen Marine Sergeant Incident, and the Admittedly Heartwarming but Decidedly Unmentionable Flowchart Incident.
It happens the day before he leaves for the security conference.
He's nervous about leaving them alone for two weeks and so spends the entire day veering back and forth between extreme irritation to extreme sentimentality. He eventually gets tired of wanting to hit them and hug them at the same time, so he slouches behind the stairwell, drinks coffee, and scowls at anyone who looks like they might approach. He puts up with his own bad mood until he hears them talking - - not about work, that would be too much to ask - - and then he rounds out and stalks into their little watering hole. He thinks bad thoughts about dumping his coffee on McGee's head.
They immediately hide what they are doing.
Now he wants to dump his coffee on all of them.
McGee is a little too good at looking innocent, but Ziva is pretty terrible, and Abby only looks up at him through her eyelashes like that when she wants to play him.
"You have five seconds to show me what you were drawing on the back of the take-out menu," Tony says. "McGee, if this is another one of those things where you're trying to figure out how many people have to die for you to become director, you will be coming with me on the plane to the conference, and you will be shoved out of an airlock somewhere over the Atlantic."
Abby raises her hand. "Do our five seconds start now? Because it took you a while to say all of that, so I'm not sure how much time we have left."
Tony growls, snatches the menu away from them, and flips it over. It looks an awful lot like McGee's Big Chart of Death, but he isn't convinced. He tilts it to a different angle and squints, which earns him a "Right the first time, boss" from McGee, who must honestly want to get a coffee shower, and then levels it again. He has to be missing something. It makes no sense. It isn't the Big Chart of Death and unless some freak biological accident made him father McGee, Ziva, Abby, Ducky, Lee, and Palmer, he's sure it isn't a family tree.
Okay. Not even Gibbs understood everything all the time.
He can ask for help. They aren't going to think that he's stupid just because he doesn't understand the big twisty chart.
"It's a flowchart of revenge," Abby says. McGee and Ziva nod enthusiastically.
Tony tries to remember that these people are well-educated, full-grown adults who help him solve crimes. They help protect the nation.
"Wow, are we screwed," he says absently. He brings the paper closer to his face. "It's a flowchart of revenge? And I'm - - taking revenge on all of you?" There are arrows leading from their names back up to his, too, and so he flips the chart around and points those out, just for good measure. "And you're taking revenge on me? Isn't this a vicious circle situation? Shouldn't we just give peace a chance or something?"
"Not revenge on," McGee says. "Revenge for."
"It's like that movie," Ziva says proudly.
She deflates. "We didn't actually - - we were just sure you'd know one."
"No," Tony says. "Nothing that is happening right now reminds me of anything that has ever happened in a movie. Movies make sense. Well, not David Lynch movies, but most movies."
Then, just as he's working himself up into a crescendo about Blue Velvet, he gets it. He just looks down and he gets it. Revenge for, not revenge on.
He thinks about how he snapped so hard and so fast when Ziva was hurt, and how he would do the same for any of them just because they were his. How he could never breathe easily again, never again for the rest of his life, because he had to be sure that they would be okay. He understands the branches, understands the not-really-but-sort-of family tree that connects him to his team, that places him on top of them, between them and whatever else is out there waiting and watching.
He gets that.
What he doesn't get, what takes him longer, is why there are lines going from them back to him in a big loop, in his vicious circle, because he's on the top and there's no one for him. There was no one for Gibbs and there's no one for him, but they've drawn all these arrows anyway, and he doesn't know why.
Then he gets that, too.
"Oh," he says.
They've tied themselves back to him. He protects them and they protect him and the arrows really do go all the way around and it isn't a movie and he doesn't know what to say.
He tries again. "Um," he says.
McGee shrugs. "You know, just in case."
"Because you are very accident-prone, Tony," Ziva says. She grimaces. "Do we really have to discuss this? I don't want to have a campfire right now."
"No. No campfire." He feels like he has to blink a lot more than usual. "All right. McGee, you're in charge while I'm gone. Try not to use up all of the Sharpies. Ziva, don't let him get power-hungry and make another chart of death. Abby, watch the sugar intake."
He slides the take-out menu between two folders.
"I'm just going to keep this."
"We can call it the Awkward Flowchart of Revenge Incident, boss," McGee says.
"Addendum to Rule 19, McGee." He considers it. "The Admittedly Heartwarming But Decidedly Unmentionable Flowchart Incident."
He can tell by their faces that they think his name is totally lame, but they're too nice—for this single moment in time—to tell him so.
"That's really lame, Tony," Abby says. Ziva and McGee nod in agreement.
Well, it was a nice moment while it lasted.
He doesn't know how Gibbs could have ever left them, but he knows that he'll never do the same.