Abigail Scuito slogged quietly through a small mountain of paperwork. She contemplated listening to a Scottish Dirge, but couldn't muster the energy to trudge over to the stereo. Jimmy had even said something about her pig tails looking wilted. Come to think of it, Jimmy was the only person still talking to her, besides Gibbs, who didn't count because he doesn't really talk much anyway.
McGee won't talk to her because she punched him, right on the eye. A little to the left and she could have broken his nose. She felt horrible and he was mad at her. She couldn't just apologize and fix it because Tony was still not Tony and McGee might say something else that would make her hit him
And she couldn't ask Not Tony to help her fix it, neither could she go to Ducky or Ziva or even Gibbs.
Duck-man was angry and irritable the last time she tried talking with him. He couldn't even get through one of his classic Duck-man stories because of his unusual agitation. Ziva – well, Abby's kind of afraid of Ziva right now. Being interrogated is so not fun, and Ziva is really good at it.
And it really wouldn't be fair to Gibbs for her to start whining about Tony to him. She'd called him when he failed to drop in with her morning Caf-Pow! only to be informed that he was forgoing all of his coffee breaks because he didn't an unsupervised Trio of Doom.
Abby sniffled into her lacy black handkerchief.
"My dear girl, this is truly miserable, isn't it?"
Abby looked up, surprised. There was the Duck-man, looking as depressed as she'd ever seen him. His bowtie was even crooked. With another snuffle for emphasis, she nodded in agreement with Ducky's statement. Being on bad terms with all of her favorite friends truly was miserable.
"Yes, well…" Ducky sighed. "I suppose we all could have handled yesterday a bit better." Again she nodded. "You know, this reminds me of the time when… ah, well, it doesn't really matter I suppose. Perhaps -"
Ducky's half hearted attempt at a 'normal' conversation was interrupted by the shrilling of her telephone. She stared at it a moment with complete apathy.
Why should she answer the phone? Ducky couldn't even bring himself to finish a story, what did it matter if she answered the phone? The only person who could fix this mess needed to be fixed himself – and Gibbs had already confessed to having no luck in the Tony department.
"I do believe you are supposed to answer that, my dear," Ducky prompted kindly. She turned her sullen stare to the ME. Abby didn't want to answer the phone. As if it had heard her thought, the underappreciated contraption stopped ringing.
"What's the matter with you, Abbs?" A completely unexpected, cheerful, wonderful voice called from the doorway. "You love answering the phone."
** * ** * ** * **
Tony didn't even have time to brace himself. Before he'd even finished his thought his arms were full of Abby. Glancing up from the sobbing bundle of goth, he noticed that Dr. Donald Mallard was wearing the single goofiest grin he'd ever seen on the distinguished Scottish gentleman.
Well, hell, I really screwed up this time. Jimmy was right. They needed him. It wasn't entirely their fault that they didn't know what to do without him. Tony smirked. Apparently, he was that good. Well, time to fix his little mess.
As if on cue, Abby pulled away from him, scowling.
"Anthony DiNozzo, where have you been?!?" she demanded.
Tony raised his eyebrow lazily. He and Jimmy had decided not to bring lunch back to the office, but they'd been back on time.
"You left and this – this crazy pod-person, serious you came and did things that you never do. And he didn't tease Ziva or McGee once! And then I punched McGee and –"
"Abbs." Tony gently cut her off. A glance from Ducky told him that he agreed with Abby, despite her rather… curious phrasing. "I'm sorry, okay? But I'm back now."
"Really?" Abby gave him a look. Tony started to nod seriously, but thought better of it. Instead, he turned on his cheesiest grin and laughed.
"Who else can keep you all out of trouble, huh Little Missy?" He slipped into a fake Western accent. "I reckon' you could use a hand there." He nodded towards the paperwork piled on her desk.
Abby's eyes widened. Of course, even Serious Tony wouldn't do someone else's work. Abby looked worried. Ducky made a small sound of protest, but nevertheless stepped out of Tony's way.
The field agent approached the desk as if it were a live thing. Then, suddenly, with a gallant sweep of his arms the offensive mass of paper landed in the trash can next to Abby's desk. Both of the lab rats (although Tony would never call them that to their faces) sighed in relief.
Tony was back.
"Erm." Ducky cleared his throat sternly. Abby quickly moved to his side, tapping her foot and frowning with disapproval. "You, my lad, have a terrible mess to clean up." Tony's grin faded a bit. "One which you'd best see to now."
Gulping, Tony nodded. He wasn't quite sure if he was ready to face Ziva and McGee – and, oh hell, Gibbs too.
** * ** * ** * **
Ziva was working on her fifth eraser since lunch. She had already carved through all the spares she usually kept in her desk, and had used her lunch break to buy more. Yes, she was wasting resources, but she feared that if she did not vent her anger somehow, someone would get hurt. People were more important than material resources, right?
Well, maybe not Tony.
She jabbed the eraser vehemently, twisting the tip of the letter opener to 'gut' the helpless bit of rubber. It was a new one, with crisp white edges. She growled a bit.
As a joke, after the first time Tony had caught her mauling erasers, the agent had taken up a collection, harvesting all the bullpen's sad, used erasers to keep the 'Psychotic Eraser Mauler' happy. Since then, she'd been supplied with enough erasers to indulge in her stress relieving habit without having to go out of her way – like buying a pack of erasers.
How could Tony just change like he did, without any warning or reason? Why would he not tell them what was wrong? Surely it could not be that embarrassing or personal. This was Tony, after all.
He was still Tony, correct?
Something wet hit her shoulder causing Ziva to start, automatically spinning around in the direction it had come from.
McGee was frowning sourly, fingering a wet patch on his shoulder.
All right, where had the 'wet' come from?
Lightening fast, she swiveled.
Gibbs' eyebrow was arched, but he did not seem to know where the water – Ziva was fairly sure it was only water – had come from. That was extremely odd.
Not a second later Tony strolled in, and Ziva wished that she could blame the mysterious water bombing on him. She sighed – his hair was still wrong.
Nevertheless, she eyed DiNozzo with a strange combination of suspicion and hope. His entrance was rather coincidental… and she tended to agree with Gibbs' opinion about those.
Nothing ordinary happened, however.
Tony carefully set down his Styrofoam cup at the edge of his desk, before settling back into the rather monstrous stack of triplicates that had been growing steadily all day. Sighing with disappointment, Ziva turned her attention back to her erasers.
Not five minutes later, it happened again. This time she registered the little white ball of paper that accompanied the disgusting wet splotch. Again, she reacted instinctively, looking up in the direction the missile had come from.
Ziva's eyes narrowed as she registered that he was reaching for something – but, no, he was just adding another form to the 'complete' pile.
She growled her frustration and got up to prowl around for the trickster.
No one pranked her except Tony.
** * ** * ** * **
Gibbs snorted to himself when Ziva got up to 'hunt' for the spitballer.
He'd been surprised and unutterably relieved when DiNozzo had swaggered into the bullpen – somehow managing to attract only his attention – and immediately began harassing his teammates.
In fact, he'd been so relieved that he hadn't even thought about yelling at the other man for using his partition as cover. Instead, he'd merely raised an eyebrow at McGee and Ziva's suspicious glares.
Gibbs observed Tony carefully.
As if sensing his scrutiny, Tony glanced up and met Gibbs' gaze directly – with a smirk.
An honest to God, I'm-up-to-no-good, DiNozzo # 7, cat-got-the-cream smirk.
Gibbs sent one of his more paternal glares DiNozzo's way. He was grateful Tony was back to normal – he'd have to start treating Jimmy much better – but the young man was still going to get an earful for pulling this shit in the first place.
The smirk wilted a little and Gibbs knew that he had gotten his message across.
Basement after work – we will talk… He glanced meaningfully in Tim and Ziva's directions …after you fix this.
DiNozzo nodded resignedly before cautiously raising a straw to his lips.
** * ** * ** * **
McGee saw gray with blurry edges, and he only partially blamed his still swollen right eye.
He had spent the last hour re-formatting his resume, making sure it was up to date and up to snuff – something he only did after he'd screwed up royally or was unreasonable depressed.
But, now, he just couldn't deal with all the stress – not that he was actually serious about finding another job, but it felt nice to pretend that he had an escape route. The job itself was hazardous enough – but now he was dealing with the raw and unpredictable and dangerous personalities of his coworkers.
Seriously, within the last 36 hours, Tim had discovered all sorts Scary Things about this group of people that he had begun to think of as a second family. Gibbs was actually prone to unreasonable and unexplainable meltdowns that could be triggered by even the most innocent of stimuli – such as McGee and Ziva being a measly seven minutes late. Ducky, whom he had thought was a patient and mild-mannered soul, bottled up his negative emotions and every once in a while indulged in releasing them on unsuspecting victims – by chasing McGee out of Autopsy in response to a mostly innocent question, for example. Abby had a mean right hook – the Forensics extraordinaire who wouldn't hurt a fly if she could help it. Or so he thought. Even Ziva had had a surprise for him – he'd walked in on the ex-assassins' interrogation of someone she had more than once referred to as a friend. Maybe the assassin can be taken out of the Mossad, but the Mossad can't be taken out of the assassin.
And then, of course, there was Tony.
McGee looked over at the empty desk of his 'partner'.
Fun, annoying, goofy, big-brother Tony was actually cold, morose, and depressing. It just didn't make any sense. Why had he changed?
McGee hit the 'enter' key with a little more force than necessary.
Sure, Tony had been a pain in the butt, but they had worked around that. They, the team, had a very, very fragile equilibrium. With Tony out of whack, they were all acting up. Couldn't Tony, for once in his life, do the responsible thing and not make things more complicated than they already were?
No. Of course not.
McGee sighed again – and flinched when something wet 'shlopped' into his shoulder. Grimacing, he dislodged the massive spitball by peeling the wet part of his shirt away from his skin and flapping it a bit.
Belatedly, he glanced around for the perpetrator, eyes automatically going to Tony's empty desk. Another wet smacking sounded and he glanced over to see Ziva staring in his direction suspiciously. Tim tried to look innocent.
Minutes later another spitball found it's mark, this time causing Ziva to glare in Gibbs' direction. Ziva was just getting, supposedly to hunt down and kill whoever was behind the attacks, when Tony strolled in casually.
Something was different.
McGee could tell.
Tony still wore his "Serious" expression. His hair was still fixed weird, and he was still wearing funeral colors.
Even so, Tim sensed a change.
He kept watch out of the corner of his eye, inadvertently witnessing a very strange exchange of looks between Tony and Gibbs. It was almost like they were talking. Need to watch for that in the future, he thought. It was a disconcerting thought, that Tony and the Boss knew each other well enough to communicate without words – especially with his Tony's original personality traits.
Tony nodded and McGee looked down at his desk quickly, and up again just fast enough to catch Tony launching a spitball at the back of Ziva's head.
Tony was back!
Ziva swiveled to face him with cat like agility, glaring at him murderously from over the top of the partition.
Gulping, McGee sent a pleading look in Tony's direction.
Tony was busily sorting through the numerous white, yellow, and pick triplicates strewn over his desk. Gibbs was openly smirking his amusement.
Ziva stalked over to Tim's desk, casually snatching the letter opener from her desk as she passed it.
"McGee," she hissed threateningly, leaning forward over his desk and deliberately invading his personal space. "You will –"
She stopped mid sentence, snapping her gaze to Tony, who, again, was innocently sorting triplicates. She made a sound that was halfway between a yowl and a croak.
Tim would have laughed if the Isreali wasn't less than three inches from his face.
Disgruntled, she leaned back, but refocused on the computer geek.
This time Tim heard the wet smacking sound of the spitball hitting its target.
Ziva turned purple.
Tim ran for cover, vaguely registering that his boss held the elevator door open for him.
** * ** * ** * **
Ziva was seething.
She glared intently at the younger agent, willing him to dissolve into a quivering puddle of goo.
How dare he so blithely take up Tony's role as trouble maker. She had not given up on Tony yet – they would fix him. Tony was her teammate and no matter how annoying and incontinent his immature behavior could be, he always had her back.
She did not know why he was lying to them – to her, but she would find out. And then she would yell at him. And then she and Gibbs and McGee would fix it.
Maybe she would have to threaten some woman's husband or take care of a bookie or steal an incriminating document, but she would do it.
And then Tony would be normal again.
Wearing her most intimidating scowl, Ziva leaned into McGee's personal space.
"McGee," she bit out, "You will-"
Something wet smacked her left shoulder.
Instinctively, she spun in the direction of the 'threat'.
She blinked slowly.
Tony was working quietly, the picture of innocence. None of his usual 'tells' were present. He was not hunched down in a defensive posture; he wasn't focusing too intently on the form in front of him. Tony wasn't even fidgeting or acting as if he was ignorant of the drama going on around him.
There was no way McGee could have made that shot – but there was no way Tony did it either. Tony was not that good of an actor.
McGee must have an accomplice.
She turned back to her partner, glowering even more fiercely –
And did not even get out one word of her threat before she was hit again. This time she was sure the missile came from Tony's direction.
Her eyes narrowed.
What game was DiNozzo playing?
She grit her teeth and slunk over to his desk, barely registering that both McGee and Gibbs had retreated to the elevator.
Tony was a dead man.
"You." Ziva put as much anger into that one word as she could muster.
Tony looked up and grinned.
Ziva's anger melted away and her stomach did a hopeful little flip.
"Hiya, Z. What can I do for you?" He was being cheerful – and ingratiating.
Ziva tried to glare at him.
"You launched wet balls of paper at me," she accused. Having the normal, smiley DiNozzo back so abruptly was unsettling.
"They're called spitballs, Ziva." Tony rolled his eyes.
"You are –" She stopped. What was happening?
Had Tony fixed his 'problem' whatever it was? Had he been in danger?
Would he lie to her again?
All of the sudden, her righteous anger came rushing back.
"You lied to me." Mossad agents lied to each other and double crossed their partners. NCIS agents did not – she did not want to believe that Tony was anything other than the man she had come to tolerate over the last few years. Tolerate – and, more recently, appreciate.
Her throat tightened with an emotion that was not anger. She tried to push it back – anger was safe, disappointment was dangerous.
"Ziva –" Tony's expression softened. "It's not like that."
"Yes, it is!" She slapped her hand on his desk vehemently, for once not caring whether or not she had an audience watching her control slip. "You were in trouble-" She jabbed a finger into his chest. "And you did not tell me. You lied."
Tony's eyes widened and he shook his head.
"You were worried." He looked surprised.
"What did you think?!?" Ziva was practically snarling. "You stopped irritating Gibbs, pestering McGee, and even talking with Abby. You were like a mummy!"
"Uh, Ziva, calm down. People are staring." Tony made a soothing gesture with his hands that just mad her madder.
How could he tell her to calm down? He was an imposter. He'd betrayed her, lied to her.
"I do not care." She gripped the edge of his desk tensely and leaned forward. "You. Lied."
"No. Ziva…" Tony sighed, looking for all the world like he had accidentally ran over her cat. "Ziva, I was just trying to make a point. I wasn't in trouble or anything like that."
"I do not believe you! Still, you lie!" She snatched her hands back from the desk as if she had been burned.
"No! Ziva, listen –"
Ziva did not want to listen. She did not care was the liar had to say.
Spinning on her heel, she stormed out of the bullpen, fuming under her breath. She had made it to the edge of the elevator, almost to the stairs, when his hand closed around her arm.
Ziva barely restrained herself from just reacting and taking off his arm.
"Let. Me. Go."
"No." Tony did not even flinch at her black look. "You will hear me out. Elevator now."
Without waiting for a response, he marched over to the elevator and pushed the button. Almost immediately, the ding sounded and the doors opened.
Ziva followed him inside, unsurprised when he pushed the emergency stop button.
"I can't believe you think I would lie to you about something important." Ziva blinked. Tony sounded angry.
He had no right to be angry.
"You think –"
"No." He cut her off firmly. "I told you nothing was wrong. I was trying to prove a point, Ziva. I can be serious when I need to – I know how to be professional and I know how to do my damn job. I know I act like a jack-ass most of the time, but you and McGee are supposed to know better by now. That act's for other people. I'm tired of you and McGee acting like I'm only good for a joke here and there."
Stunned, Ziva tried to form a response.
He was angry at her for underestimating him.
She frowned. It was true, she often wondered why he was still on Gibbs' team. She thought about all of the lucky cracks Tony had had over the last few years. What if it was not luck, but skill?
Yesterday, Tony had done some really skillful acting. Perhaps he was telling the truth – she had underestimated him and he wanted to change that.
She wanted to believe him. Anything but losing faith in her partner, in her team.
She squared her jaw. She wanted to believe him, but she would not allow herself to be duped.
"Damn it, Ziva, say something."
Ziva watched him rake a hand through his hair in agitation. When she just stared at him blankly, her face devoid of emotion, he began to pace ridiculously.
Two steps, turn, two steps, turn.
He would get dizzy in a minute. She might have been amused, if she was not so sure it was all an act. He is a liar, she reminded herself, just like your family back home. His act was good, but she would not be fooled. She laughed cruelly.
"You are just like Mossad –"
"I am not like Mossad."
Again, Ziva was taken aback.
Tony no longer sounded upset. His words were not defensive or offended.
He sounded sad.
He sighed, no longer pacing, and ran his hand through his hair again. By this point it was no longer neatly gelled, but tousled, making him look more like his usual self.
"I'm sorry, Ziva. I never meant to give you a reason to doubt me."
There was no way she could doubt the sincerity of his words. He meant them with all his heart.
She believed him.
He was no liar.
Ziva grinned in relief.
Tony was back.
** * ** * ** * **
Tony followed Ziva out of the elevator, rubbing his shoulder where she had hit him with completely unnecessary force while threatening to do worse if he ever pulled another stunt like that again.
And she didn't mean the spitballing. Apparently, he still had it coming for that.
In front of him, Ziva slowed and Tony realized that he could hear McGee's voice coming from Abby's lab.
"Yup. Tony's back," Abby replied confidently.
"Young Anthony certainly does his best to keep us on our toes." Tony thought he detected a hint of reproof in Ducky's casual comment. He bit back a sheepish groan.
"Nah, Duck. He just wants to make sure we see him."
Once again, Gibbs hit the nail on the head.
This team was his family, and Tony wanted – no, needed to be understood and accepted.
A soft hand squeezed his own briefly, breaking into his thoughts. Looking up, he met Ziva's unusually sincere, open gaze.
"I see you, Tony," she said softly.
Ziva would never know how much that meant to him. Gibbs either, probably, but that didn't matter. He had been stupid to think he needed to prove himself to the team. They didn't want some serious, by the book, professional snob – they wanted him, Tony DiNozzo.
They did appreciate him, even if they didn't realize it half the time. He was a necessary and vital member of the team and each and every one of them trusted him with their lives on a daily basis. They were a family, and he had been a fool to doubt them.
Jimmy had been right – Tony felt a swell of gratitude go out to the autopsy gremlin and he vowed to adopt Ducky's geeky assistant as his kid brother, right next to McGee.
Even with all that to think about, Tony was reluctant to be too serious. He didn't want to scare anyone again, so he turned to Ziva and smirked mischievously.
"You say that now," he teased loudly, deliberately catching the attention of the others in Abby's lab, "but you didn't earlier when I nailed you right behind the ear with the perfect spitball. I thought you were going to disembowel poor, innocent McGee."
The response was instantaneous.
"You will be lucky if I do not disembowel you with a paper clip," Ziva stated threateningly.
"Tony! You let Ziva give me a heart attack!" McGee's complaint was half-hearted at best. He sounded more like a kid in a candy store. Or a nerd at a scifi convention.
"What is 'the' perfect spitball?" Abby sounded mildly curious and Tony knew he was forgiven. She had probably even already patched things up with McGee.
"Spitballs, my boy." Ducky tutted at him. "When I was young, we used to give our enemies wet willies. Of course, I was still a school boy then. I will never forget…"
The rest of the jumbled responses were drowned out by a resounding headslap.
He was back.
** * ** * ** * **
A/N:Whew! I'm done! I want to thank you all for your patience and absolutely great reviews! I'm eager to hear what you guys think about this story (even if it's just constructive criticism), so drop me one last review!