Author's notes: the story explores some of the issues mentioned in "psychological autopsy", it takes place right after "collateral damage", and makes some references to this episode, but there is no mention of major plot points.

Reviews, Comments and suggestions are very much appreciated.

Disclaimer: NCIS and the characters are the property of CBS and D. Bellisarius. No copyright infringement is intended.


Default Setting

Chapter 1

"Is everything all right, boss?"

The softly uttered question pulled Gibbs out of his thoughts. He looked at his Senior Field Agent who was wearing a serious and focussed look that he hadn't seen for most of the last two days.

Tony added a bit hesitantly, "You just looked a bit distracted since yesterday.."

At Gibbs' raised eyebrow, he quickly amended, "you don't do distracted, I know.. it's more like preoccupied.."

"I am just surprised that you noticed anything these past few days, you were kind of busy with your comedian act, DiNozzo."

Tony tried to look affronted, but his heart wasn't in it, since he agreed somehow with Gibbs' assessment.

"I would go easy on the chocolate if I were you," Gibbs added pointedly.

"Who told you about that? Wait…. Vance has been talking to you .. not that you need to do that, or that I am doubting your "all knowing" reputation,""

Gibbs interrupted Tony's rambling with a weary "DiNozzo!" that carried a slight warning.

The two men were on their way out at the end of the day. Thankfully the case was wrapped up, but Gibbs had a lot more on his mind than Tony imagined. He was battling with thoughts, emotions and regrets that were consuming him. However, even as preoccupied as he was, he hadn't failed to see the way DiNozzo has been acting during the last few days. His antics have been silly rather than funny, and his whole demeanour, at the beginning of the case, was unfocussed and half-hearted. Gibbs has restrained himself on one or two occasions from giving him either a biting comment or a head slap-he actually hasn't done that for a while now. However, their little recent talk was still fresh in his mind, and he was reluctant to shake the fragile balance they have managed to reach. On the other hand, his own little talk with Vance has left him with a new set of worries, this time, mostly for DiNozzo. He turned to face him, and asked him in a tone that demanded a real answer,

"Do you want to tell me what was going on in that head of years?"

"Well, if you ask Ziva and McGee, they would swear that there is absolutely nothing going in my head, at any given time!" Gibbs' lips twitched a bit, but he looked at Tony and replied in a serious tone, "I know better, DiNozzo."

Tony sighed heavily, all levity leaving his face, and started in a quiet voice, "Remember that little "talk" we had a few days ago?"

Gibbs simply nodded, this talk won't be easily forgotten by either of them.

"Well, I gave some thought to what you told me about McGee, and how it is possible to see disrespect in the way I tease him, so I tried to have a little talk with him as well.." Tony trailed off.

"It didn't go well?"

Tony snorted, "I don't know if you can say that, really, because the key word here is "I tried," when I told him that we needed to have a little talk, he looked at me suspiciously, but as soon as he heard me say "seriously talk", he almost fell on the floor laughing. Ziva joined in and they started to ponder, " Tony made quotation marks with his fingers, 'the unlikely odds of DiNozzo wanting to have a serious talk', McGee was totally convinced that I was playing some kind of elaborate and creative trick to embarrass him."

"It has happened before, DiNozzo."

"Yeah well.. but it doesn't mean that I'm not capable of having a serious conversation, boss!"

Gibbs shook his head, laughing a little sadly, "so you went ahead to prove them right in the next day, by clowning around more than usual?"

Tony frowned a bit, thinking about what Gibbs said. He had told the man the other day that anger is his default setting, and Tony knew himself well enough to recognize what his own default setting was, and how he reverted to it, without thinking, whenever he was unsettled or unsure of himself. Ironically, he ended up confirming what others already thought of him. He had just maintained a childlike hope that his teammates would see through his act when he needed them to.

Gibbs didn't wait for Tony's answer, he had his own way of dealing with failed expectations and disappointment, but he doubted that it would benefit Tony. Actually, he doubted that it benefited him either, but that was another story. However, there was one piece of wisdom he could impart before leaving, "The point is, DiNozzo, you build up a reputation for years, you have to live with it."

Tony obviously didn't like that succinct statement. "That sounds so final, Gibbs, not to mention depressing."

Gibbs just shrugged, he had a lot of experience dealing with things that were both final and depressing.

He turned to leave, but stopped a short distance away, and called, "Hey, DiNozzo, just do me a favor, stay away from vending machines .. and from Vance."

Tony frowned again, but dutifully answered, "you got it, boss."

He actually got it about the vending machines, but Vance?? May be Vance has been talking to Gibbs, or, he thought, may be Gibbs is just being his overly suspicious self, though Tony had to admit that the incident at the vending machines was not his finest moment. His memory supplied him with other moments, but he refused to let his mind go back once more to the whole mess in L.A., and to Jenny's death. He didn't need anyone else's condemnation, his conscience was doing that job perfectly well on its own.

Next Day, Bullpen, 8:00 a.m.

McGee was looking suspiciously at an innocent cup of coffee that Tony has just deposited on his desk. It was hot, smelled good and was apparently bought from his favorite coffee shop-in short, it was too good to be true!

"What is that exactly, Tony?"

Tony just rolled his eyes, "What does it look like McGee?"

"Looks like coffee, and we all know that you only bring coffee to Gibbs.."

"There is a first time for everything, McGee," Tony said patiently, still standing in front of McGee's desk.

"Well, I don't know what's going on with you, Tony," McGee muttered, "but there is one way to find out."

Tony watched incredulously as McGee picked the cup, removed the cap and spilled the coffee in the trash can, as the last drops drained from the cup, he frowned a bit, "it really looks like coffee, though.."

"Agent McGee!"

They both turned to find Vance looking at them intently, "I want to see you in my office," he added, gave Tony a disapproving glance, as if blaming him for McGee's odd behavior, and then left without waiting for an answer.

Tony threw his hands in the air, "I swear this man is developing Gibbs' knack to appear exactly at the wrong time.."

"which is most of the time when it comes to you, DiNozzo!" Gibbs strode through the bullpen, carrying his own cup of coffee. He approached McGee's desk, saw the trash can and his nose twitched a bit, he raised an eyebrow and looked questioningly at Tony.

"This is just the result of the second, and probably the last, attempt at a serious conversation with McGee, the probie has developed paranoia in his old age.."

"Unforgivable!" Gibbs shook his head, looking a bit chagrined, though Tony was almost sure that the sympathy was directed at the spilled coffee.

"It could have been worse, though.. " he added with a little smirk, "he could have thrown the coffee at you, DiNozzo,"

"Speaking from experience here, boss?" Tony threw over his shoulder as he quickly retreated to his desk, but not before catching the lethal glare Gibbs sent his way. The phone ringing on Gibbs' desk saved him from a head slap or worse.

Ziva has been following the "show" with some amusement, but she now turned to watch Tony carefully. He had a strange look on his face, a mixture of disappointment and resignation, however the look was gone in seconds, and the wide, and sometimes irreverent grin was back in place.

"Get the car, DiNozzo, we have a possible kidnapping, McGee… where is McGee?"

"Director's office, boss."

Gibbs had a strange expression on his face as he looked up towards MTAC, but he simply nodded, "I will get him, you two go ahead to the car, we will catch up."

They both moved to grab their gear and headed for the elevator, as they waited, Ziva asked with a smile, "so, that really was coffee, DiNozzo?" Tony rolled his eyes, and answered sarcastically, "Gibbs would vouch for that, didn't you see how his nose twitched?"

"So was that a bribe, or an apology?"

It was actually a spur of the moment thing, inspired somehow by Gibbs. Tony liked to take care of Gibbs, in his own way. The man was definitely not receptive to that particular sentiment, but he wouldn't object to a cup of coffee, and other little gestures that Tony has been doing, without fuss, for years. McGee was a much more sensitive guy, he was supposed to be able to get the hint, and understand the gesture, wasn't he? Though the probie has started to use sarcasm like a pro recently … and then, it just hit Tony, McGee was starting to act more like him, and he was starting to act like McGee!!