Everyone You Know
season four, spoilers up to "Dead and Unburied"
- - - - -
Tony slung his backpack over his shoulder and stood; McGee stuck his chopsticks back in the box of pork-fried rice and used a soy sauce-splattered napkin to flag Tony down. He wasn't surprised that Tony was leaving earlier than usual—by this time, all of them had heard about the auspiciously named Brandy and her fondness for weekend winetastings—but he at least wanted to lay claim to Tony's egg roll before Ziva could return from the head.
"The leftover wonton goes to Ziva," Tony said as he forked the egg roll and passed it over. McGee intercepted it with his chopsticks and delivered it to his rice. "Don't steal it. Takeout food is about giving, McGee, it's all in the spirit of Communist China."
He fixed the straps until they went over both shoulders and headed for the elevator. McGee called his name and tossed him his fortune cookie—he was proud of the throw, the way it arched up perfectly at the midpoint and then dropped into Tony's open hands.
As the elevator doors closed, McGee watched Tony crack open the cookie and start to smooth out the little curl of paper inside. Then the doors shut and Tony disappeared.
- - - - -
No one told McGee what had happened until Saturday morning. He was in the middle of attempting to pour a bowl of Cheerios and squint at the expiration date on the orange juice carton at the same time when he got the phone call. It was Ziva. There was something wrong with her voice. She told him to turn on the news. He held on to his breakfast and moved to the living room. He dropped down to the chair and picked up the remote.
She said, "Any of them."
He pressed power.
McGee's television was old: Tony's face was just a diamond at the center of the screen before the picture expanded. At first McGee did not recognize him. It was not the same man that he had last seen through the gap in the elevator doors. The clothes were the same—much more rumpled and much dirtier, but the same—but the face was older. He still had the same spots of takeout grease on his cuffs but all the rest of him had changed: he looked at the camera without smiling, jaw set, and only his right eye open. His left was swollen shut.
He felt the carton of orange juice slide out of his hand. He did not hear it hit the floor.
"It's on every channel," Ziva said. "Choose one."
- - - - -
The name was French—La Grenouille. McGee consulted an online translator and found out that it meant "The Frog." That, more than anything else, frustrated him. It made no sense. He could not see a connection. How could he understand what Tony had done if he didn't even understand this? The news anchors on every channel—Ziva had been right—seemed adamant that he could. He was bombarded with bullet points and pointed fingers and American flags, all inextricably linked, it seemed, to that single stone-faced photograph of Tony. The picture that did not look like Tony at all.
McGee sat and watched. His cereal dissolved into the milk.
There had been a terrorist cell. Last night, when McGee had watched Tony disappear behind the sliding steel doors of the elevator, there had been a terrorist cell; this morning, when McGee watched Tony on the news, the terrorist cell did not exist anymore. That was how quickly things could change.
He brought stain remover into the living room and set it down next to the soggy orange juice carton. He did not open it. He forgot that it was there. The stain swelled.
That was how quickly things could change.
They interviewed Director Shepard. Six months, she said. McGee thought that he had heard her wrong so he switched to the next channel, to the same interview, and listened again. He switched on closed captioning and moved his mouth along with hers so that there could be no mistake. He sat on the edge of the cushion with his hands on his knees and waited.
"How long was Special Agent DiNozzo undercover?"
She said, McGee said, the caption said, "Six months."
McGee went into the bathroom and threw up. Rinsed out his mouth. Brushed his teeth. He called Ziva and said, "I watched the news."
"You should come to the hospital," she said. "He's been asking for you."
"Ziva," he said. "Six months. I never knew."
"No." Her voice was clipped. "Neither did I."
- - - - -
Tony had a broken arm, a blackened left eye, a gunshot wound to the shoulder, and enough assorted scrapes to use up an entire box of Superman Band-Aids—McGee knew that for sure, because Abby had carefully applied all of them and then shown off the empty box. When they arrived, he had already collected a dozen signatures on his cast and was complaining that if he had to have a broken arm and a bum shoulder, it would have been better to have both on the same side—being fed had never been one of his many kinks. Abby did the best she could with the Jell-O. She was cooing over his bruises.
Ziva stood in the corner with her arms crossed. McGee was not sure what she was thinking.
Tony pursed his lips and nudged the spoon from his mouth. "I single-handedly bring down a terrorist cell and all you can do is ask about Gibbs? You know, Probie, you never get a second chance to make a first impression."
Tony had sat at the desk next to McGee for six months. He had met his eyes during conversations. They had talked about a million things—about everything from cases to eighties music trivia to women to the best way to launder bloodstains out of field jackets—and Tony had never hinted. Had never given anything away. He had never looked down or to the left when he talked about what he would be doing over the weekend. He had never hesitated. He had never changed his stories. The same Tony who let his emotions show on his face, the same Tony who had no tact, the same Tony who kissed and always had to tell—he had lied every day and every night for six months, had lied about everything, and they had never known. Had never even guessed.
McGee looked at the scribbled names on the cast. "First impressions are always wrong."
"So true," Tony said. "Gibbs went for pizza."
Everyone else was very quiet. McGee did not know what they expected him to say. All he could think about was the first time he had met Tony—how Tony had made sweat prickle on the back of his neck, how Tony had made him nervous, how he had always suspected that Tony was one step ahead of him and only gaining velocity. Tony had been something frightening and incomprehensible, a rocket launcher shot into McGee's neatly ordered life—a trickster god with a gun and a grin, someone that might think anything was funny. A rubber band tugged out so far that it could snap at any moment. Then he had known Tony better and he had forgotten that initial unease, because Tony ate microwave burritos and watched AMC at three in the morning and got smacked upside the head and went with McGee to see Kate's body. There was nothing there to make him nervous.
Except now Tony just smiled at him, like nothing had ever happened. He sat propped up in his hospital bed with one arm in a sling and the other in a cast, with a smear of chocolate pudding in the corner of his mouth, and he offered no excuses and no apologies. He had casually lied to all of them for six months straight and they had never suspected—Tony was the scariest person McGee had ever known. His second impression had been wrong.
"When are they letting you out?" He tried to keep his tone light. He didn't say that he hoped it would not be for a long, long time. Long enough for him to come to terms with this.
"A few days. The whole lack of mobility thing."
Abby let her hand flutter down to his good shoulder. "Gibbs says they might give him the Presidential Medal of Freedom." She sounded bright, sounded warm—fresh pink cotton candy. Maybe she hadn't watched the news, maybe no one had told her how long Tony had been with La Grenouille. Or maybe she was just better than he was. Better at finding the silver lining.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom.
McGee said, "They gave that to Kate."
He didn't know what he meant or why he said it, but Tony looked down at his plate and bit his lip, and for a long time no one said anything at all.
- - - - -
"In Mossad," Ziva said, "we couldn't always tell our families what we were doing."
McGee took another bite of his sandwich. Chewing gave him more time to think. He tried to think about how to explain the difference between a special agent and a secret agent, and how time and proximity should have made him privy to Tony's secrets. The best he could do, after he had swallowed very slowly and after she had grabbed his hand as he reached for his coffee cup, was say, "I thought you were with me on this. I thought it made you angry."
She let go of his hand. "I am always angry," she said. "But you're supposed to be smarter."
No one was who they were supposed to be. He wanted to blame Gibbs for starting it all, but he had barely known how to talk to Gibbs before and he had no idea how to do it now. He thought that maybe they were all growing into each other and twisting up; if Tony could not be Tony anymore, it was because they had all gotten under each other's skin. He was not the smart one. Not anymore. Someone smarter would have done better. Would have seen more. Would have acted.
He thought about the orange juice stain on his floor and moved his coffee cup away from the edge of the table. Six months, he thought, because that was all he ever wanted to say anymore. He kept losing people. He was starting to think that it might be his fault.
He said, "They're going to give Tony the Presidential Medal of Freedom."
"I know," Ziva said. Her eyes were kinder than he remembered. "I was there too."
"You never said anything."
She picked up her paper plate and moved to the trash can. "You might have learned from my good example."
- - - - -
The first time Gibbs mentioned it was when he accepted one of McGee's neatly-typed reports. It was casual then and obviously just a suggestion. It was still early—they had all started to consider leaving the office at eight to be checking out early—and maybe McGee would like to go see Tony. He had limited use of one arm now and was cleared for outside food. Maybe McGee wanted to bring him a pizza. McGee thought of the way Tony had cracked open his fortune cookie and then vanished and said no. No, he didn't think so. Not tonight.
It was less of a suggestion the second time. Gibbs actually let him clock out at five. "Abby and Ducky are going to help Tony move back into his apartment tonight. They could use an extra set of hands."
McGee said, "I heard Palmer is coming with them. They should be fine."
When Tony had been infected—even after they had all been reassured countless times that he was going to live—every last one of his jagged coughing fits had made McGee feel sick from guilt. He had tried to worm his way out of a few of their regular visits but Gibbs had never let him—whether or not McGee held himself responsible for Tony opening that envelope was his business, how he allowed it to affect his behavior towards Tony was not.
The old Gibbs would never have let him get away with what he was doing now. McGee didn't want to get away with it. Stop me, he thought. Make me see him. Prove that something is still the same. Don't let me do this to him.
"Three should be fine," Gibbs said. He put McGee's report in a file.
Six months, McGee thought. He didn't say it out loud. He didn't trust Gibbs to understand him anymore. Maybe he wasn't who he used to be, either. Maybe none of it mattered anyway.
- - - - -
Abby had put streaks of red into her hair and McGee was too tired to focus on anything else. The licorice look, she called it, red and black strands all twisted into a million little braids. McGee's fingers twitched with wanting to unravel them the way he had unraveled shoestring licorice at his sister's softball games. He put his hands into his pockets instead and tried to hear what she was saying. The licorice strands moved when she bobbed her head.
"Tony's always done undercover work, McGee. It's his specialty."
"I know that," he said, and he did. He had seen Tony slip back and forth between personas before and it had never bothered him—most of the time disguise was just a matter of degree, anyway. When the situation demanded more than that, they were all more cautious. McGee had seen Tony come down from bad undercover assignments before and it was never pretty—he would be quiet and sullen for days and not touch anyone for a week, as if he were afraid that his cover had assumed him and not the other way around. But it had never hurt like this.
"I know that," he said again. "But he's always told us."
That was wrong. That was a shortcut. It bothered him that he had not been told and it bothered him that he had not suspected; but what bothered him most of all was that Tony didn't seem to mind any of it. He was not afraid to touch or be touched. He talked easily. He offered no explanations and no excuses and he did not apologize. He acted like the La Grenouille op had just happened. Like six months of undercover work in a terrorist cell had been casual. Like six months of lying hadn't been a strain.
Like maybe he was always lying anyway and it was only the lie that ever changed.
Abby said, "Maybe he couldn't tell us."
"Maybe he could have been a little worse at not telling us," McGee said, and he looked at her hair instead of her eyes because he didn't want to make contact with anyone right now.
"You know Tony," she said, except he really, really didn't. "He never does anything halfway."
He rolled his chair a little closer to hers and she let him put his head on her shoulder, let him touch the red streaks in her hair. She rested her hand between his shoulders. He did not know Gibbs and he did not know Tony. And if Tony had died undercover with La Grenouille, McGee would never have understood how or why and would never have been able to stop it from happening. And he didn't know when it had all started to snowball, when their lives had started to pick up speed and get bigger and colder and more complicated, but he could see the bottom of the hill in front of him and he knew that he would have to do something.
"You're an idiot if you don't talk to him," Abby said.
One of the rubber bands had popped off the end of a braid; McGee began to redo it. His vision was blurry. Six months.
"I don't know him anymore, Abby."
She sighed. "You never do anything halfway either."
"Is that bad?"
"At least halfway is a start," she said. She kissed the corner of his mouth. "It's better than nothing."
- - - - -
Tony made him coffee. McGee offered to take it black so Tony wouldn't have to fumble around with adding milk when his right arm was still in a cast, but Tony claimed to have already worked out the mechanics of adding his own sugar and hazelnut one-handed and without anyone's help, so it didn't matter. Tony sat at the kitchen table with his chair tilted back and McGee stood, back braced against the counter. He could think of a thousand things he wanted to say but not a single opening that would get him there. He had always depended on Tony to start conversations.
He said, "Is this your last day of sick leave?"
"Second to last," Tony said. "I'm back on desk duty on Wednesday. I doubt I can do a lot of one-handed typing, though, so I'm not sure how much help I'll be."
The coffee was too bitter. "It'll be good to have you back."
"Will it," Tony said.
They would all be at the bottom of the hill in seconds. McGee put his cup down. "Do you know how to get an orange juice stain out of hardwood floor?"
"You don't have hardwood floors, McGee," Tony said. He sounded tired. "Your landlord lied to you when you took the tour. You have unbelievably cheap, unbelievably embarrassing floors that you should hide beneath carpet as soon as humanly possible—that's the best way to get rid of a stain. Just cover it up."
Now, more than ever, McGee believed that Tony was too smart to give him an opening like that accidentally. The only question was whether or not he wanted to take it. Maybe it was too easy and maybe he didn't deserve easy. Maybe he wanted easy anyway. He said, "Do you do that a lot?"
"Please tell me you're talking home improvement."
"You know what I'm talking about."
"Orange juice," Tony said, his voice as bitter as the coffee. "I implied that you maybe didn't want me to come back, you came out left field with orange juice, I got us back in the game, and now I'm making it hard for you just because I can. So maybe what I know, Probie, is that I've been home a week and you only just now deigned to grace me with your presence. So thank you for the privilege of making your coffee and I'm so glad we could clear up that floor thing—which has been bothering me for a while, really, it keeps me up at night—but maybe you should just leave. And on Wednesday, I'll pretend that this never happened."
"No," McGee said. He was too young for this. It seemed like everything that happened to him always happened all at once and he could never keep track of any of it. MIT could have been this morning. Kate could have been an hour ago. "I don't want to do that anymore."
"But you're so good at it," Tony said. "It's all right. I'm not bad myself."
"Is this about Gibbs?" He hadn't thought that it was but he supposed it could be, if only because so many other things were.
Tony did not answer. "You came here, McGee," he said. "Maybe you should give the answers."
He swallowed. "I was trying to see when the orange juice expired. I was making breakfast. Ziva called and said that I should turn on the news. It didn't matter what channel."
Very softly, Tony said, "I always wanted to make the news."
"Every channel," McGee said. It was funny. It shouldn't have been funny, but it was. He put his head down and laughed. "And then they said—the Director said—that you had been undercover for six months. And everyone ooh-ed and aw-ed and kept repeating the interview because that's . . . that's a really long time, Tony."
"There was only ever a sliver of a chance that I could pull it off," Tony said. "If I had involved anyone else, you would have made it your number one priority. Wiretaps and backup and no one ever getting any sleep. I made the call to keep it quiet, not the Director. I knew what you would have done and it was never your responsibility to protect me. If you and Ziva had known—if my cover had been blown—all of you might have—" He stopped. "I couldn't take that chance. Not after Kate. Not after Gibbs. I don't do backup anymore."
Without meaning to, McGee said, "Tony, that's stupid."
"Yeah? You always thought I was."
"No," McGee said, because whether he had or whether he hadn't, or whether he only had sometimes—none of it mattered. There were some things that he knew. Some things that he understood now, that he hadn't understood before. "I'm the one that's stupid. I'm the one that didn't notice that anything was wrong."
"There was nothing to notice," Tony said. "I'm good at what I do."
"Would it make you feel better if I'd been worse? What if I'd slipped up with La Grenouille instead of with you? At least you'd know that it wasn't an act. I'm sure your peace of mind would be very comforting to me as I bled out in some—"
"Stop it, Tony. Please."
Tony shook his head. Quietly, he said, "I can't stop it, McGee. I can't change anything. And I wouldn't if I could."
La Grenouille had been shipping weapons, supplying terrorist rings all over the globe with everything from bolt-action rifles to unfinished nukes. According to the report that Tony had filed with the Director, La Grenouille had also been planning a massive assault on three unnamed federal targets. It had been a deadly, calculating, smoothly-run organization that Tony had carefully infiltrated and then blown apart. If he had been anyone else—anyone other than his own too flexible, too indefinable self—the operation would have failed. McGee believed that. Tony needed to be able to lie.
"I don't know how to make you feel better," Tony said. "I can leave, if you want."
McGee said, "It's your house."
"I don't mean the house," Tony said gently. "I mean . . . when Gibbs came back, the Director offered me another position. The offer went away but there could be another one. You were a good senior field agent." The edges of his mouth twitched. "The best one I ever had."
McGee did not have time to think about what the rest of it meant. He knew that he didn't have much time at all and didn't trust himself to think of anything better, so he just said, "I want to be your senior field agent. Not Gibbs's."
It was true, and he knew that it was true. Maybe he didn't need to know Tony to know that. Maybe Abby was right. Maybe halfway was at least a good starting place. And if he could trust Tony without knowing him, maybe he could do the same with Gibbs, too. Maybe they could all meet each other halfway. After all, he had been right, too—six months was a really long time to be alone.
He thought about Gibbs suggesting instead of demanding, Ziva always being angry, Kate still being dead, Abby streaking her hair to look like licorice. Maybe they could all change. Maybe they wouldn't need to.
"I don't want you to leave," he said.
"Yeah," Tony said. "I picked up on that." He went to the counter, took a sip of McGee's coffee, and made a face. "I never really wanted to leave anyway."
"Did you know that it was going to happen, the night you left?"
Tony shrugged. "I gave you my egg roll, didn't I?"
"You always give me your egg roll."
"So I wasn't always sure," Tony said. "It would have seemed significant in retrospect."
He had never thought about the egg roll again. When he had thought about that night, he had always remembered Tony's hands extended to catch the fortune cookie, Tony cracking upon the hard shell to get at the mystery inside. He told him that and Tony passed it off as a backup plan, secondary significance in retrospect, and McGee started to feel that they could maybe be okay sooner rather than later.
"What was your fortune?"
"What you sow you shall also reap," Tony said. "It wasn't really a fortune. Also not particularly Chinese. I was very disappointed." He shook his head again, as if frustrated by the universe and its inability to create retrospective significance, and then held out his right arm. The cast had started to turn a little gray. "You never signed."
He found a marker in one of the drawers. "What do you want me to write?"
"I know you led a very sheltered childhood, McGee, but I'm sure one of your friends fell off a jungle gym at least once. You must have done this before. Your name and a wish for my good health would be the traditional thing. Some people get more creative."
McGee paused. "They gave John Wayne the Presidential Medal of Freedom, too," he said. "And Gregory Peck."
"And Kate," Tony said.
"Lots of good company. Gives you something to live up to, Probie."
McGee knew it. He only hoped that he could. He uncapped the marker and leaned closer, upset that a blank piece of plaster on a cast could give him writer's block.
"Just your name is fine," Tony said, apparently willing to take pity on him. "It's not like I don't know who you are. You can provide me with stunning insights and witty remarks on a day-to-day basis. You don't have to write them down."
Just his name. Like that was enough for any of them. Then again, that Tony was Tony was the only thing McGee really knew about him and so—
He signed his name. The ink glistened.
"It'll be good to have you back," he said again. They could do better this time.
"Yes," Tony said. "It will."
He added sugar to McGee's coffee and moved it out of his reach; the two of them went back to the table and sat down. The sunlight made the kitchen warm. McGee laid his chin on his hand and closed his eyes. He knew that Tony wouldn't blame him for falling asleep. Six months was a very long time and it felt like he hadn't slept for any of it.
"What you sow you shall also reap," he said.
"It's not a fortune." Tony sounded irritated by that.
"It's good enough," McGee said. He could still taste the coffee in his mouth and he didn't need any more. "It'll get us there."