I should have knocked on wood after the last chapter... I bring you this chapter from my new laptop that I had to order when my own suddenly crashed right before Christmas. Do you know how long it takes for a new laptop to be delivered when you have to order it right before Christmas???
Also, have to add... Flesh and Blood was the most incredible episode *ever*. No contest. It brought my muse rushing back...
And lastly, my eternal thanks to those that reviewed! :) Let me know what you thought about this one too.
"So you came to me for advice?"
Tony could feel his annoyance rising steadily as he bounded up the stairs to the Directors office. Now that he knew what was going on, he was also consciously aware of all the staring and the whispers that were permeating the bullpen. He studiously avoided looking towards the area where his teammates were; not wanting to see the expressions on their faces.
Damn the Director. He had asked her to keep the Rota assignment between them for a reason, and he thought she respected him enough to go along with that decision. But apparently, she simply wanted to cause problems.
Although, why would Jenny spread the news about the promotion offer after Tony had already turned it down?
Maybe to make sure you'll be completely humiliated, a bitter voice in his head spoke up, making him wince as the full ramifications of this... this rumour hit him. From what little Mick had been able to tell him, it was apparent that the majority of the agency believed that he would soon be leaving Washington to take up the mantle of Supervisory Special Agent in Rota, Spain.
At least Tony now finally had an explanation for all the congratulations that had been coming his way all day, but he felt no satisfaction in that discovery. He had already turned down the promotion; what would people say when they realized he was staying in DC? Would the vicious rumours start up again, bringing with them the thinly veiled barbs about his work ethics and general competency? Tony didn't know if he would be able to handle that all over again. Things had just started to die down before this had happened.
And what would McGee and Ziva say? Not to mention Gibbs. Judging by their actions over the last few days, all of them obviously felt that he was undeserving of his own team. He didn't dare wonder what their reactions had been when the rumours had reached them, although it did explain the strange behaviour from this morning.
But even if Tony was able to handle the backlash from the agency that these rumours would surely cause, he didn't know if he would be able to handle the increase in the verbal onslaughts from those he called friends that would no doubt occur.
Heck, McGee had been quite vicious with his opinions of Tony's leadership skills already, and that had been before this extra ammunition he had received, courtesy of Director Shepherd.
As he reached the Directors office, Tony tried to get his anger under control. Nodding curtly to Cynthia in greeting, Tony didn't bother to wait for permission to enter the Directors 'inner sanctum', not even noticing that his actions made Cynthia shake her head fondly, thinking about the countless times that Gibbs had done that exact same thing.
"What the hell were you thinking," Tony hissed angrily the moment the door slammed shut behind. Tony couldn't help but feel a petty sense of satisfaction at both the loud bang that the door made, and at the surprise etched on the Directors face when she looked up.
"Tony?" she asked curiously, gesturing to the chair in front of her in a clear offer to sit. "What are you – "
"Oh, don't even try and pull that one on me, Jenny," Tony scoffed angrily, narrowing his eyes in a glare as he stood in front of her desk, refusing to sit down. "You know exactly why I'm here. At the very least, I'm sure you would have heard the rumours by now."
"Ah," Jenny responded in realization, putting her pen down and focusing all her attention on the furious agent in front of her. She supposed she should have realized what this was about the moment Tony stormed in, but she had expected Tony to have worked out what she had done after one of his teammates confronted him, and therefore should have had some time to cool off before he came to confront her. Obviously, Tony had found out from another source.
"'Ah?' Is that all you have to say?" Tony asked, disbelievingly, running his hand through his hair. "Do you have any idea what it's going to be like for me after they find out that I haven't been promoted?"
"That you turned down the promotion," Jenny corrected. "There's a massive difference."
Tony snorted and said bitterly, "Not to them there's not." He gestured towards the door, as though clarifying who 'them' were.
"There will be," Jenny said firmly. "But at the moment, they're preoccupied with the fact that you're not going to be around for much longer."
Tony's eyes narrowed slightly in confusion as he collapsed into the chair that Jenny had gestured to earlier. His eyebrows rose as the realization hit him.
"Oh, you have got to be kidding me," he said scathingly. "You wanted to make them realise what they're missing? Make them think about how 'important' I am to them?" His voice became more mocking as he continued the sentence, his mind supplying images of the countless movie and television plots that encompassed this very ideal.
"It's working," Jenny responded calmly, her quiet voice a stark contrast to Tony's harsh tone.
"Yeah, right," Tony snorted in disbelief. "They're probably all thrilled that they are finally going to get rid of me."
Jenny leaned forward to deliver her next words, keeping eye contact with Tony to make sure he understood her words clearly, "Then why are Ziva and McGee so desperate to find some hint that you aren't going to leave them? Why has Abby been so bad tempered all day? And why did Gibbs just up and leave in the middle of the day?"
Tony just stared at her, his mind blank of retorts for the first time since that night that Gibbs had placed his gun and badge into his hands.
It was nearly an hour after leaving the Directors office that Tony strode into autopsy, carrying an extra-large coffee cup filled with Jamaican Mocha. It was perhaps the first time since Gibbs' return that he had bought the coffee, despite the fact that he had become hooked on it since Jimmy introduced it to him during his first case as the team leader. However, he had wanted to avoid any similarities to Gibbs and so had avoided drinking any coffee, period.
However, what with everything that had happened today, Tony decided that he needed the hit that the caffeine would give him. The short walk to the coffee shop also allowed him some time to organise his thoughts; not to mention a way to keep avoiding his teammates.
He still didn't have a clue what he thought about Jenny's last words to him before he'd left her office. He had glanced towards their area of the squadroom when he walked out of the Director's area, and had seen that McGee and Ziva weren't even bothering to hide that they had been watching the office. He had wondered briefly whether they had tried to get Cynthia to eavesdrop for them, but knew that the secretary wouldn't do that to him. She enjoyed the flowers he sent her too much.
But, his cynical side still couldn't help but wonder whether their interest in his 'leaving' really meant that they didn't want to see him go. Maybe they just wanted confirmation that they were finally going to get rid of him.
The remembrance of the friendships they had forged over the last few years made him want to dismiss that thought, but his self esteem had taken such a severe hit over the last week or so that he couldn't help but think that it might be true.
Heck, none of their actions since Gibbs had returned pointed to them being pleased that Tony was still around. Tony knew that he was being quite childish; he, too, had missed Gibbs; but couldn't they have shown any appreciation about the last four months? He had worked damn hard to try and prove that he was a worthy replacement to the ex-marine, barely sleeping and generally only eating when one of the team ordered take-out, or on the rare occasion that Jimmy dragged him out to some restaurant.
Shaking his head as though to remind himself why he was here, Tony looked around the morgue looking for the man that had improbably become one of his friends over the last four months.
"Hey, Jimmy, come out here, I need to talk to you," he called out, eying the different storage rooms and wondering which one Jimmy might be in. He knew that Ducky was out on his lunch break, and he usually took the opportunity to check how his mother was doing. Jimmy usually stayed behind, taking his lunch break afterwards, so that there was always somebody in the morgue should something be needed. "I know you're in here, Palmer!"
"Uh, one second," Jimmy called back after a slight pause, his voice muffled by the thick doors of the store room.
Tony smirked, recognizing the slight breathlessness of Jimmy's voice. Taking a swig of coffee, he called out neutrally, "I want to talk to you in here, so tell Agent Lee to hurry up and get out."
Tony chuckled when there was no response, glad for the light hearted moment which took his mind off his dilemma, if only for a moment. He hoisted himself up to sit on one of the autopsy tables as he waited, drumming his fingers on the metal surface.
He gave a small finger wave at Michelle Lee as she edged out of the store room, face red, obviously trying to avoid eye contact with her former boss. She nodded in greeting and power walked out of autopsy, pausing only to grab the files she had dropped on Ducky's desk.
"So, uh, what did you need?" Jimmy asked, obviously trying to avoid talking about what had just happened.
Tony couldn't help but laugh at the medical students blush, but then turned thoughtful again as he asked, "Have you heard the rumours flying around about me?"
"It's difficult not to," Jimmy snorted, sounding highly relieved that they were going to ignore the fact that he had been in a storage room with Michelle Lee. "But I thought you turned down the Rota assignment?"
"I did," Tony agreed, "Jenny made it seem like I took it. And now people have gone nuts."
"They don't want to see you leave," Jimmy told him, not really knowing why Tony had come to talk to him about this. "Are you worried about what will happen when people realize you're not leaving?"
"No. Well, yes," Tony corrected himself before continuing, "But what I mean is, are they sorry to see me go, or are they glad they're going to see the back of me?"
Realization dawned on Jimmy that right now Tony didn't really care about the rest of the agency, but rather wanted to know what his own team was thinking. Jimmy knew that Tony had reason to think that way; the team hadn't exactly been kind to him lately. But he also knew that they all did appreciate Tony, and he had to admit he was glad that the news about Tony's promotion had gotten out, because it gave the team a much needed push to tell Tony that they needed him, and enjoyed his company.
"They are not thrilled to see you leaving," Jimmy replied firmly, trying to inject confidence into his voice. He had never been good at sounding convincing even when he was sure of himself, but he thought that this time he'd managed to do it. "From what I've seen, they look very unhappy. Agent Gibbs, in particular, seemed upset when he came down here."
"You really think so?" Tony asked quietly, staring into space and not focussing on anything. He and Gibbs had been quite close before the damn explosion, and the distance that the older man had been keeping since his return had hurt the ex-cop.
"Have you even talked to them?" Jimmy asked, knowing the answer.
"Well, no, but," Tony started, but before he could properly defend himself, Jimmy interrupted.
"No buts. Even if they have been pretty stupid the last couple of weeks, they're still your friends and you shouldn't just write them off. Besides, at the very least you should reassure them that you're not going to just up and leave like Agent Gibbs did." And it will give them the chance to show you that they don't want you to leave, Jimmy added to himself silently, knowing that the whole team was hoping for that exact opportunity.
"Yeah," Tony replied softly. "Maybe you're right." He still wasn't sure that they were really upset over the thought of him leaving, but Jimmy was right. They were still his friends. Besides, he wasn't Gibbs. And no matter what had happened over the last few weeks, he didn't want his team to ever think that he would just abandon them.
Tony hopped off the table, deciding to go up to Abby's lab. If anyone would miss him, it would be her. She might give him some idea of how wanted he really still was at NCIS. After that, he could work out how to talk to Ziva and McGee. And, of course, Gibbs. That would probably be the most difficult. Was he sure that the older marine really still wanted him around?
As though sensing his thoughts, Jimmy added, "I'm telling you, Tony, I have never seen Agent Gibbs as upset as he was when he came down here."
Nodding his thanks to Jimmy, Tony strode out autopsy, calling back over his shoulder, "By the way, you should tell Agent Lee that she left her bra behind."
McGee looked through the wide array of objects that were in front of him, wondering what on earth he should get. Since they didn't have a case, McGee had taken advantage of the lack of work to go out to a store to try and find something for Tony. But what exactly did one get in order to apologize to a friend for being so ignorant of their feelings?
He also wouldn't mind trying to find something that would show Tony that he didn't want him to leave.
McGee sighed as he turned to peruse the next aisle, having to resist banging his head because of his stupidity.
He had known Tony for over three years. He knew Tony was a damn good investigator. He had been proud that Tony had made him his senior field agent, despite his lack of experience. And he felt like such a damn idiot for projecting his anger onto Tony for no reason at all.
Ever since he had been a child, Gibbs had loved working with his hands. For him, it was a way to get away from the real world; when he was working he thought about nothing but what he was shaping with his bare hands. It was why he never used power tools, they required much more concentration and didn't allow him to achieve that same peaceful mind space.
But today, even his favourite hobby wasn't helping him. His mind was filled with memories. Memories that four months he had been almost prepared to kill for, but today would do anything to forget.
Multiple images of Tony showing his unwavering loyalty to Gibbs were flashing through his head, serving to make him feel even guiltier. He cursed the damn explosion for starting all of this, but knew that things never would have escalated so much if he had handled things properly. If he hadn't screwed up so much with one of the few people left on this earth that he actually cared about.
He cursed out loud, wanting a release of anger that he knew he wouldn't get. He paused in his work for a moment, not willing to do anything that might damage this particular project. It was far too important to work out his anger on.
Thinking about the way he'd treated Tony, Gibbs knew he'd screwed up. But whoever had said that admitting your problem was the first step to a solution was an idiot; because Gibbs still didn't have a damn clue how to fix things.
So... what did you think? The hardest part by far was the talk with Palmer, so, please, let me know what you thought about it!