He trudged the whole way from the elevator to his desk without looking up from the floor.
The carpet was slightly threadbare beneath the cubicle partitions and worn in a fairly neat path between the desks. If this were a crime scene he would be making summations about the mental state of the office's occupants, citing clear evidence they paced far more than could be considered healthy.
He stopped his eyes from following the pattern upward to take in the rest of the room as he neared his desk. Looking up would mean seeing what was not there. Looking up would mean remembering why it was not there. He couldn't face that scene again, even in his own mind, not until he had had time to make up a pros-and-cons assessment of the current situation and chart himself into complacency. He could update the flow chart of his career while he was at it, a nice thick black line dipping off the bottom edge of the page into nothingness.
He reached his work station, his back to the silence of the squad-room. He had just put down his coffee and bagel when he realised that not canvassing his surroundings had been a tactical misstep.
Jumpy with tension, he pivoted too quickly to face that deceptively easy, neutral greeting and- shocked by what he saw- nearly overbalanced. He tried not to make a spectacle of himself as he staggered for equilibrium and gaped, fish-like at the sight before him, but it was a losing battle.
Tony was sitting at Gibbs' desk.
Paperwork was strewn about him in an unfathomable mess, which no doubt made perfect sense in what passed for the DiNozzo mind. He looked utterly calm; his person was neat but relaxed, his posture erect but casual, and he was groomed within an inch of his life. McGee may not have known much about fashion, but he knew a ludicrously expensive, hand-tailored suit and a fifty dollar haircut when he saw one. The overcompensation was more than a little worrying, but what truly disquieted him was the way that Tony was looking up at him as if nothing could possibly be more boringly normal, more mundane and commonplace than his sitting in that verboten chair.
His eyes sliding away from Tony's disturbingly mild expression to follow the line of his shoulder down his arm to the surface of the desk, McGee noticed- with a terrible feeling of impending doom- that a Mighty Mouse stapler now occupied the place where Gibbs' Swingline had once lived.
"Hey, Tony," he said, the timbre of his voice only slightly elevated.
"Trying to get ship shape around here, so to speak..." Tony seemed vaguely unnerved by his own choice of words, staring a moment into the middle distance. He shook off the reverie, but the facsimile of his usual energy injected into his next words was not quite convincing, "Ready for your close-up?"
At McGee's bemused nod, Tony ran the end of his pen along a line of type in the report he held, his manner abruptly business-like, "When were your last physical aptitude and firearms proficiency exams?"
McGee wondered if he was in hospital and this was his brain's idea of a fever dream. It would make more sense than the alternative. That last night was real, that this was real. "Couple months ago, why?"
Tony's grey-green eyes shone almost jade under the glare of the desk lamp, but he only looked up for a split second before they were shaded by his eyelashes. "Gotta pass the full monty on Friday or they can't take you off probationary status for a special circumstances promotion. I'll run some drills with you tomorrow if I have time, but I booked the firing range for sure 0700 on Wednesday, be here by six."
There were few things he had expected less than this. The fact that his sometime mentor, frequent tormentor was speaking to him in the civilised, respectful tone which he usually reserved for the Director was totally secondary to the fact that he had not been called anything but his name throughout this conversation. In McGee's experience, Tony only completely cut the shit under very specific circumstances: something very bad had happened, was happening, or would happen shortly.
"What?" it was all he could manage at the moment.
"They're pretty brutal with probies bumped up before their time and you're slow on the draw with your right hand. I know you can't fire six times in six seconds. They'll nail you on that, flexibility, sprinting speed, and endurance. Your form could use some confidence overall, but that's not going to make or break you, they'll figure I can handle that." Somehow, Tony was able to give this criticism without the slightest hint of insult in his voice. This was particularly remarkable given he could usually make observations about the weather sound like grounds for a blood feud. "And I'm going to teach you to track cover better. They barely scratch the surface at FLETC."
"They do it better at the Police Academy?" McGee tried to keep from sounding incredulous, but Tony's incongruous behaviour and that nagging (he could admit, slightly self-important) scepticism he could never control around DiNozzo made it difficult.
"No, that's about the same," Tony granted, his voice even and no trace of irritation in his face, "but they do at Rhode Island Military Academy."
McGee stared openly. Tony's eyes stayed on the page in front of him, his hands spread placidly against the desk. There was a brief stand-off of mutually feigned calm before McGee decided to leave that perspective-shattering bombshell the hell alone and face what they were carefully not saying.
"Gibbs isn't coming back, is he?"
"What gave you that idea, Probie! His ridiculous macho bullshit passing of the torch, his list of meaningless platitudes or his dropping that tired catch-phrase he's spectacularly failing to live up to?" Tony raised his voice so rarely that this sudden, vicious outburst rendered him almost totally alien to the junior agent. He caught himself off McGee's wide-eyed paralysis as he stopped for breath and he visibly reigned in his vitriol, one hand rising to cover his eyes. He sighed and there was a bone weariness in the sound, a note of defeat disconcertingly out of character for him. "Sorry, kid, it's not your fault."
Knowing it wasn't the time or the place, but not particularly caring, McGee felt his hackles rise. "I'm not a kid, DiNozzo." Maybe he was the last time he'd received that apology from Tony, the last time their world had been shattered, but he'd seen too much in the intervening year since then to be called one now.
Tony stood from behind the desk, for once not slouching, or leaning, or hunching, and McGee remembered for the first time in a long time what a big man the senior agent really was. He refused to shrink back from the unexpected physical intimidation, something he was used to from Gibbs, but which he now realised in contrast that Tony had almost always avoided before, even with suspects. Standing straight long enough to see McGee bristle slightly, Tony then leaned across the desk, his eyes sharp, appraising, "How long have you been in law enforcement, McGee?"
"Four years," McGee said firmly, proud and not backing down.
"Mmhmm," DiNozzo crossed his arms over his chest deliberately, calling attention to their difference in build, "I've been in for twelve."
Lifting his chin, McGee met the stony expression on Tony's face with one of his own, "I know I'm here to learn from you, I know I'm still green, but that doesn't mean that I don't deserve respect."
"Do you know that, Probie?" Tony shook his head as if confused, "I mean, I wonder sometimes, do you really know that? I seem to recall myself always acknowledging that I can't do what you do, but I don't remember that going the other way. Am I forgetting something?"
McGee's mouth opened, but he thought better of tossing out a quick retort. His point stood, but he also couldn't really argue with that. The fact was, it was on both of them, though he did have to maintain that Tony started it. Tony set off razing him the day they met and he'd consequently mistrusted nearly every interaction they'd had since, frequently to the point that McGee suspected real praise, ignored genuine admiration, and failed to notice the respect he had earned. He was a civilian, unused to the parlance that they, the veterans, seemed so instinctively to understand. Uncomfortable with hazing as a training tool after too many years of petty, objectless bullying. He knew this, intellectually, but day-to-day he couldn't prevent it from getting to him and sometimes he found himself lashing out in retaliation disproportionate to the crime. He'd never said a wholly positive word about Tony's uncanny, unconventional talents and the reverse was certainly not true, now that he thought about it.
It didn't make it right, it didn't mean he should have to learn to differentiate between Tony's smokescreen of obnoxiousness and when he really meant something, but this was probably the worst possible moment to call him on that particular character flaw. They all needed their coping methods.
Nodding at McGee's thoughtful expression, probably thinking he'd won that round, Tony sat back down. "This isn't play-pretend any more, I am all you've got and you need to accept that."
McGee brushed the ultimatum aside for the moment, unprepared for it and first needing to regain a foothold on reality, "You really went to military school?"
Tony made a dismissive gesture, accepting the non-sequitur without pressing the issue, "I really did."
"And the Director is putting you in charge of the MCRT with just me and Ziva?" he couldn't help how unbelievable it sounded.
"She gave me one week off active duty and three 'soft' cases to assess your fitness and make whatever adjustments; then, if she thinks we're up to par, we'll be back on high rotation."
"You're going to assess our fitness?" McGee found himself imagining this would involve bar hopping and movie trivia more than draw speed drills and tactics.
Tony's expression was flinty, though his tone remained light, "Yes, Agent McGee, I am your commanding officer. I've been your immediate superior and primarily responsible for keeping your hide on this side of the dirt for three years now, no one knows your weaknesses better than me. No, not even him. You are an invaluable resource to this agency, you have skills I don't even understand, but you are miles away from where you need to be to do my job. Reality check? It's about survival first and science second. You're here because you had goods to give and you didn't let us bully you and I respect that, but I don't outrank you by accident. It's because I'm better at this than you. Are we clear?"
McGee didn't really mean it like that. He thought he didn't anyway, things always seemed to come out wrong for him and it was a pretty feeble joke given the context of the conversation and the apparent thinness of Tony's patience. So he nodded without argument, "Sure thing." He'd say something about ego trips and not-being-Gibbs when they weren't all riding on their last nerve.
Tony grimaced, seemingly pained by McGee's non-confrontational reaction. "It'd all be so much easier if Kate were here."
The name hung heavily on the air between the two men. They didn't talk about her, they didn't wonder what she would have thought or said or done. They tried desperately not to know how different things would be if she were still with them. They tried to pretend to each other that they didn't miss her, that her shade didn't haunt the features of every female victim they processed, they tried to pretend McGee didn't still sometimes see blood and tears streaked on Tony's face. He tried to pretend he didn't still feel that warm spray.
McGee stumbled for something to say to break the spell, "H-how so?"
"C'mon, Probie," a muscle leapt in Tony's cheek at the second slip in formality, but he pushed on, "You're being bumped from G1 to NASCAR in one day. If she were here..."
His angular features were sharply shadowed by the single light source of the desk lamp, his distant expression rendered starkly dramatic, and McGee suddenly felt as though he were in an old movie. The way Tony's eyes glittered, he wished there were a cinema screen separating them. "But she's not. And Ziva can't be my second because she's Mossad... among other things. It's tricky her even being here, never mind wielding sovereign power over American agents. It's gotta be you, McGee, and given a recommendation from your commanding officer and some extenuating circumstances, ta da, you're a senior agent." Tony flashed a grin, but it was a poor thing.
"You don't seem happy."
A surge of insecurity rose in Tim along with the words, bubbling out before he could stop them. The old doubts about whether he was really cut out for this sort of insanity given his utterly pedestrian background and how it stacked up (or rather, didn't) with those of his team-mates. His perfect test scores repeatedly failing to transfer into perfect reactions out in the field. Did Tony see whatever Gibbs had seen in him? Did he think Tim was ready for this challenge or was he just trying to salvage a broken team and keep their ramshackle family together? Was he just in it for the promotion? McGee had spent so much time trying to one-up, ignore or dismiss his senior agent, he realised he had no idea where Tony stood on anything.
Tony had studied him levelly during this little panic attack, his index finger under his bottom lip. Finally, he shrugged as if in dismissal, but his voice was both serious and sincere as he answered, "It's not exactly how I imagined awarding you this promotion, Tim."
That brought it home like nothing else had yet. This was it, this was really happening; everything had changed. This wasn't some crisis-situation they'd resolve in a few hours, this was it. Gibbs was gone and Tony was his number one, the law, subject to scrutiny only from the Director. He realised two things: he had learned more about his superior in the last five minutes than in two years, and that being under his command would not be at all like he expected.
"How did you?"
A smile, small and genuine, "I imagined watching you earn it first."
In a fleeting moment of unprecedented understanding, Tim returned the smile, his bright green eyes shining.
Something dear and irreplaceable had been lost yesterday, but maybe they'd be okay.