"And what was before Philly? I forgot. Pittsburgh?" (Kate)
"Peoria. And it doesn't matter how long. All that matters now is that I'm here. At NCIS." (Tony)
Fragments: Two Years
'High Seas' Episode Summary: Gibbs' former Senior Field Agent, Stan Burley, calls up his old boss to ask for help solving a mysterious Meth overdose of a crew member aboard the carrier where he's currently serving as Agent Afloat. Much ado was made regarding Tony's propensity for switching jobs at the two-year mark. Given that he celebrated that particular anniversary in the previous episode, I thought it odd that Gibbs, Abby and Ducky all seemed to go out of their way to extol the virtues of Tony's predecessor.
If you ask me, somebody's got some 'splainin to do.
A/N: Standard disclaimers. Not my characters, and no profit but my own evil glee. Story is two chapters and an epilogue, and will be posted as soon as I can get around to it. It is a holiday weekend, after all.
"But Gibbs . . ." Abby's teeth worked nervously at the hangnail on her thumb as she stared across her lab table into the blue eyes of the man she was pretty sure she'd do anything for.
Gibbs heaved an impatient sigh. "You got something to say, Abs?" he pressed, hoping the answer was 'no'.
"It's just, are you sure this is a good idea? You know how he gets." She looked up at him from under dark lashes, her worry etched clearly in her gaze.
"I explained it to you already. Burley called me this morning, so we'll be heading out there later today. The timing is right for what I need to do." He pulled out a bigger gun. "Ducky's already on board."
Abby narrowed her eyes at this information, surprised that Ducky would agree to what seemed to her to be an unnecessary and possibly cruel plan. She dug her figurative heels in a little harder.
Gibbs noticed the stubborn look cross her face, and worked at hiding his smile. The look was one he'd seen often on the face of his daughter, who had most definitely inherited her stubborn streak not only from her father, but her mother as well – after all, Shannon's hair hadn't been red by accident. He raised an eyebrow in an unspoken question, awaiting the lab tech's capitulation.
Abby pouted. "I don't wanna."
"Duly noted, Abs. But will you anyway?" he found himself smoothly wheedling, much the same way he'd done with Kelly.
She hesitated, and he was afraid he was losing ground with her. Not for the first time, he questioned the wisdom of his plan. Maybe she was right, maybe it was a bad idea. But he pushed aside the doubt and stood firm, admitting out loud the reasoning that was going through his own mind. "It's been two years, Abby," he said quietly. "I need to know."
Abby searched his gaze and was surprised to see the flash of vulnerability that marred his features, gone almost before it began. She knew at that moment she'd be giving in, despite her misgivings.
"Okay, Bossman. Count me in."
"That's my girl," he affirmed, stopping long enough to kiss her cheek on his way out of the lab.
Her eyes followed him as he strode to the elevator, leaving her alone with her mechanical companions. She turned to Major Mass Spec. "And he calls himself an investigator? Tony would do anything for him. He should know that by now." She shook her head sadly and tried to ignore the hinky feeling in her stomach.
Gibbs had to give Abby credit – despite her initial reluctance to help with his plan, she jumped right in the minute Tony walked into the bullpen, commenting on how much she missed Burley and how cool Tony's predecessor had been. While Ducky joined the conversation with the Cricket commentary and his glowing opinion on Stan's athletic ability, Gibbs treated Abby to a warm smile as she leaned over and played with his keyboard. He shook his head slightly when he saw what she had typed – 'I still think this is a bad idea'. But she didn't miss a beat, and he made a mental note to compliment her undercover skills the next time they had a minute alone.
When his two accomplices sidled off arm-in-arm, still bespeaking their mutual affection for the missing Stan Burley, Gibbs stood and grabbed his duffle. "Okay. C.O.D.'s waiting for us."
"C.O.D.?" Kate parroted, apparently unfamiliar with the military term.
"Carrier Onboard Delivery," Tony informed her before Gibbs could reply. Gibbs internally gave him credit – Tony had taken almost no time at all in learning the multitude of military acronyms when he'd joined NCIS.
Gibbs drove as they made their way to the airbase and their awaiting flight. Unsurprisingly, Tony and Kate were squabbling over some television series he had never seen and had no interest in, so he tuned them out with the ease of long experience. He was glad to see the two of them going at it. Kate had been a good addition to the team, and it was important to Gibbs that she and DiNozzo got along. She'd help keep the young agent on his toes.
Though it was nothing against Kate, Gibbs still found that he preferred the days when he and Tony had been a two-man team, not that he would ever admit that out loud. On the other hand, Gibbs never failed to be amazed at how his Senior Field Agent only seemed to improve his already impressive skills when there was a sense of competition. All Gibbs had to do was imply someone else might be better equipped for an assignment than Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo, and suddenly, he was getting DiNozzo effort at one hundred and ten percent.
And while the bastard in him did enjoy the perks of putting DiNozzo into that position, that wasn't entirely what this little exercise was about. Tony had said it himself only last week . . .
DiNozzo finished rattling off the specs on the cargo pod that contained the mummified remains of their Navy pilot, sounding distinctly like an owner's manual for an F-14. Gibbs would have complimented him if he hadn't come to expect such information from his younger team member.
"I'm impressed," Kate said, with no hint of the sarcasm that often laced her comments.
"Didn't become an NCIS agent yesterday, Kate," Tony replied, only a touch of smugness in his tone. "As a matter of fact, tomorrow . . ."
"It'll have been two years." Gibbs could have bit his tongue for finishing Tony's statement. He hadn't intended to let DiNozzo know he was keeping track.
"Well, that's kind of touching, Gibbs – remembering the day you hired me." Tony made it sound like it was no big deal.
"Yeah, well. Seemed like a good idea at the time." The put-down served a dual purpose. Not only would it force Tony to keep on his toes, it also deflected the agent from questioning why exactly Gibbs knew it was the anniversary of his hire.
It was a day Gibbs had been dreading for more than six months. He, better than anyone, knew of Tony's job history and commitment issues. The longest the overgrown frat boy had stayed in any one area had been his four years at Ohio State, when for the first time in his life he'd found himself fitting in. Before and after that time, he'd never lasted anywhere more than two years.
Gibbs hated the thought that Tony's time at NCIS might be coming to an end. DiNozzo was more than just the best agent he'd worked with to date. He wasn't afraid to get in Gibbs' face when necessary, standing his ground for something he believed in, or calling him out when he thought Gibbs was wrong. There weren't many people in Gibbs' world that would do that for him. Most bowed to his force of personality out of fear or respect.
Trouble is, Gibbs only respected the ones who wouldn't bow to him.
Tony was one of those people. He was sharp, thorough, dedicated to the job and willing to take risks. He was a damn fine investigator, he excelled at undercover work and he made intuitive leaps that most others missed. He also had this uncanny ability to read Gibbs' mind and anticipate his needs before the older agent was even fully aware of them himself.
To lose any one of those things would be difficult enough. But over the past two years, Tony had also become a friend.
The younger man had simply wormed his way in under Gibbs' formidable defenses, refusing to be put off by the 'No Trespassing' sign Gibbs continually transmitted. He smiled at the insults and bounced right back for more, never taking to heart the attempts to put him off. In some ways, he was worse than a stray Golden Retriever – fiercely loyal and desperate for whatever scraps of attention Gibbs threw his way.
Gibbs wasn't ready to lose that. Not now, after he'd spent two years molding and shaping the younger man – and there was still work to be done. Tony could be the best there ever was if he had a few more of his rough edges sanded off. He was Gibbs' biggest project to date, and one he wasn't nearly finished with.
He knew odds were against Tony sticking around long enough to become the man Gibbs knew he could be. Which was why he was pushing him now. Six months of uncertainty on Gibbs' part was more than enough, so he made a plan that would likely prove him to be the bastard the spelling of his name designated. That uncertainty was why he was going to throw Burley into DiNozzo's face at every opportunity. If Tony was going to run, it should be enough of a catalyst. Gibbs was fairly certain he wouldn't; that Tony was made of tougher stuff than that. He hoped that this plan wouldn't backfire on him as Abby obviously feared. He hoped Tony would stay, even if Gibbs couldn't bring himself to ask him to.
But he needed to find out for sure.
Abby sat at her computer, her legs dangling off the stool, her chin held firmly on her hands with her elbows planted on the table in front of her. She was the picture of dejection as she stared at the image on the screen in front of her, the photo taken of Tony and her last Halloween. He'd gone Goth in her honor, dressed in full black, borrowing a collar and bracelets and even allowing her to go so far as to smear some of her dark eyeliner under his eyes. Gibbs had gone ballistic, and Tony had to change into his spare set of clothes before the team leader had gotten his second cup of coffee, but Abby had loved it and snapped a picture before the outfit had disappeared. It was one of her favorite photos, and she stared at it forlornly, hoping she wasn't right about this. She turned as she heard someone entering her lab.
The Caf-Pow! Ducky handed her was greatly appreciated with her normal supplier off on an aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean.
Ducky took in the picture at a glance, immediately guessing where Abby's thoughts had wandered. He laid a comforting hand on her shoulder. "Still second-guessing this, my dear?" he asked softly.
Abby leaned into him, grateful for the support. "Can't help it. You know how insecure Tony can be."
Ducky nodded. "Indeed I do. I also know, and perhaps you do not, how insecure Jethro can be."
Abby looked at him in surprise. "Bossman? No way! He's not even a tiny bit insecure. He, like, exudes confidence. His picture is next to the definition in the dictionary."
"In most things, you are correct. However, personal relationships are a different wicket altogether. Of the people in his life, he has driven away far more than he has successfully retained. Three marriages, three ex-wives. Countless agents who couldn't cut it working for him, including Mister Burley himself, regardless of the fact that he lasted longer than most."
"I guess," Abby said as she thought about it. "Burley was here quite a while, but Gibbs never cared about him the way he cares about Tony."
"Exactly. But Burley's leaving was still difficult for Jethro, despite the fact that they weren't as close as he and Anthony are. In fact, if he hadn't had that case in Baltimore just a short time later where he and Anthony met, I imagine it would have been quite a while longer that he remained without a team. Can you imagine what will happen if he loses Tony?"
"So, what," Abby began, growing angry, "he's going to push Tony away too? He can't do that, Ducky! Tony's my friend!"
"And mine as well. Which is why we must hope, for all our sakes, that his ego is not as easily damaged as we both fear."
Gibbs had a moment's remorse for his plan as they walked to the waiting aircraft, so when Tony gave him an opportunity to make it up, he jumped in, joining as DiNozzo took it upon himself to teach Kate the finer points of navigating an aircraft carrier. He caught the gleam of appreciation in Tony's eye when he glanced over at him, knowing how much the young man enjoyed it when Gibbs let his playful side surface as long as Tony wasn't the one caught in the line of fire. Ganging up on their probie was a sure-fire way to boost Tony's spirits, and the two of them did their best to ensure Kate would find navigating the carrier as confusing as possible.
It was back down to business the minute the stepped on board the carrier. Stan was waiting for them on the deck, and Gibbs busied himself with their bags to avoid the possibility that his former agent might do the unthinkable and try to hug him. They stowed their flight suits and followed Stan through the corridors. He smiled as he overheard the conversation between Stan and Tony.
"You the one at my desk now?" Burley questioned.
Tony looked at him appraisingly. "That's right. Gibbs must have told you about me."
"Actually, no. Abby mentioned it in passing. Just assigned?"
Gibbs turned long enough to see the two men giving each other the once over. He could almost see Tony's hackles rising, and he bit back a smile. Looked like Stan was on board with the plan as well, even if he didn't know a thing about it.
He had to give DiNozzo credit for sticking to business as they entered Stan's work area, but it was time to shake him up a little. He turned to Burley. "You're looking good, Stanley," he said truthfully, giving the other man an honest smile.
"Appreciate you coming, Boss."
Gibbs turned and caught the look of confusion on DiNozzo's face. "You waiting on something?" he asked shortly, clamping down on the voice within him that said he really was a bastard.
Tony's mask slid back in place in seconds. "No," he answered, already moving. "No, I'm gone."
Gibbs eyes followed him as he hustled off down the hallway, and he hoped to God that statement wasn't going to come true.
Tony tried not to take out his anger at Gibbs on the rack he was currently tossing, but it seemed to be a losing battle. He flung Shrewe's mattress to the floor and shoved the curtain to the side. He was looking for evidence of drug use, but all he could see was the smile on Gibbs' face while the older agent patted Wonder-boy Burley's cheek just because he'd gotten them a room to watch the flight deck tapes. Not once in two years had Gibbs given Tony that same look of pride. He could count on one hand the number of 'Good job, DiNozzo's' he'd gotten – and he'd probably have four fingers left over.
"Always anticipating, my ass," he muttered to himself, hoping none of the watching petty officers were close enough to hear the words. "If you've got a hundred hours of flight deck tapes to view, of course you're going to set up a place to watch 'em. Not exactly rocket science. Gibbs makes it sound like he invented sliced bread."
He pulled down a small plastic box and examined it without breaking his mental stride. "I anticipate. I do more than anticipate – hell, I finish the man's sentences for him, but does that get me anywhere? No! I'd like to see Butterball Burley do that." He heard a change in breathing patterns and felt eyes digging into his back.
"Something I can help you with, Petty Officer?" he asked without turning to acknowledge the new arrival.
He went a few rounds with the enlisted man, pointing out the inconsistency in his claim that his crew didn't do drugs when two of them were currently in sickbay for overdosing on Meth. He came away the winner, but it didn't help him feel any better, and he stalked out of the compartment after completing the search and coming up empty.
Why the hell Gibbs thought Stan Burley walked on water was beyond him. It was like there was some sort of conspiracy going on to make Tony aware that he was failing to fill the shoes of the agent who'd walked his path before him. To make Very Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo aware that he wasn't so special after all.
Like he didn't already know that.
Gibbs stood in the ready room, eyes glued to the monitor, Stan at his side in the position that he'd come to think of as Tony's. He fought down the juvenile emotion that Burley didn't deserve to be there now.
They watched as the petty officer on screen danced around the flight deck just prior to his erratic behavior and subsequent collapse.
"Got ants in his pants?" Stan questioned the obvious.
"Question is, who put them there," Gibbs responded.
"Well, Rota was our last liberty port after we hit the Gulf."
"This tape was done before they hit Rota."
"Well, maybe they stocked up in Naples or Nice," Burley proposed.
"Is that the best you can do, Stan? After working under me for five years?" The question was rhetorical, but the disappointment was real.
Stan crossed his arms and raised his eyebrow. "Well, at least I don't taint evidence when I bag and tag," he retorted, smirking.
Gibbs irritation rose exponentially. If DiNozzo had made a comment like that, he'd have slapped him upside the head while trying to hide a smile. With Burley, it was just damn annoying. Stan never could tolerate the headslaps.
"I tripped," Gibbs pointed out. "One time."
"As I remember, it was because you had your eyes glued to some little . . ."
Now he was getting seriously pissed. "Do you mind if we get back to the tape here? We do have a job to do, remember?"
"I do, Boss," Burley agreed amiably.
Gibbs couldn't help but notice hearing those words just wasn't the same coming from Stan.
Kate hated to admit it, but it bothered her to see Tony hurting. She had no idea why Gibbs was being such a bastard to him, other than that he just was a bastard on general principle. This seemed worse somehow. It was almost like Gibbs was purposely shoving Burley in Tony's face, constantly comparing the two and making sure Tony knew he came up wanting. Though DiNozzo could be totally annoying and insanely irritating to her the majority of the time, there were also times he seemed to have this vulnerability about him. Just when she'd be ready to kill him for invading her privacy, he'd go and do something nice, like step in to deflect the wrath of Gibbs when it was directed her way.
She could see this was a big deal to him. In the short time she'd been a part of NCIS, it had become glaringly obvious that Tony had a pretty big case of hero worship going on where Gibbs was concerned. She'd have found it amusing if she hadn't also noticed that the two men were more alike than she'd have thought humanly possible. It was almost as if they were related, though she wasn't sure either man would willingly admit to the similarities between them.
And while it might be true that Tony had Gibbs up on a sort of pedestal, it wasn't worship from afar. In Tony's case, it was an honest desire to emulate someone he admired, almost the way a son looks up to his father. The profiler in her wondered what sort of home life Tony had come from, and what his relationship was like with his own dad.
When Gibbs made sure to rub it in that Stan was still watching the footage after eighteen hours before heading off to check on the Agent Afloat, she couldn't take it any longer. She had to say something.
"It's not the same thing, you know."
Tony, being Tony, played dumb. "What?"
"You and Gibbs . . . Burley and Gibbs."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"It was a different dynamic, you know? A different time. You can't compare the relationships."
Tony's body language immediately went defensive. "Who's comparing?"
"All I'm saying is that things on the surface are not always the same as when you put them in context with the way they actually developed. You know. Under the surface. Kind of."
The perplexed expression on Tony's face no doubt mirrored her own. "I have no idea what you said," he admitted honestly.
She smiled at him. "Neither do I," she confessed. "But the intent was sincere."
The honest grin she received from Tony made her glad she'd made the effort.
Tony tried not to let it throw him. Kate was being nice to him? Oh, God. It must be worse than he thought.
Not that he didn't appreciate her efforts. But if Gibbs' treatment of him was obvious enough for her to not only notice, but to comment on without her jumping all over him, then he couldn't just brush it off as a figment of his overactive imagination.
He'd been trying so hard to ignore it, that itch that started in the back of his mind right around this time, every time. Other people could hold onto a job. Other people could stay in one place for longer than two years. Why the hell couldn't he?
For a while, he'd really thought this was it. He'd felt like he fit, in a way he hadn't since he met his fraternity brothers. He was making himself a home at NCIS, finding himself a family to replace the one he'd never had. Abby was the first woman he'd known that he had been able to maintain a purely platonic relationship with, and he was closer to her than he'd ever been to another female. She was the little sister he'd never had, and he found himself looking forward to the hugs she bestowed upon him – something almost no one else had been allowed to do, and certainly not on a recurring basis.
Ducky was like some slightly eccentric uncle. Tony had quite a few of those, but Ducky was one he enjoyed spending time with, even if the older man could get rather long-winded at times. Verbose or not though, Ducky always had a way of making Tony feel welcome and wanted. He always saw the best in Tony and didn't hesitate to let him know that.
Though Kate was new to the team, Tony enjoyed their relationship much more than he'd done with Vivian. The back and forth banter, the give and take, even the one-upmanship always left Tony feeling good. It had never been that way with Blackadder. There had been an edge to her, and her comments were biting more often than not. With Kate, underneath it all, there was a mutual respect, even if they did their best to keep it hidden.
And Gibbs. Tony didn't quite know what role Gibbs played in his pseudo-family. Too young to be his father, even if he didn't know the man's exact age, Gibbs still filled a gaping hole that had been left in the life of young Anthony DiNozzo by the lack of his own father's involvement. Anthony DiNozzo Senior had been a busy man – far too busy to spend time with the son he'd wanted in name only, but not in practice.
When Tony's two-year anniversary had rolled around two weeks ago, he had thought maybe the curse was broken. He'd even thought about making the ultimate commitment, and retrieving the items he still kept in a storage unit, moving them into his apartment. There weren't many things – a few pieces of furniture, a blanket his grandmother had made for him, and an old trunk that was filled with precious few happy mementos of his childhood. A few pictures, his first baseball glove, his Matchbox collection. None of these items had ever made it to his apartments in Peoria, Philly or Baltimore. Tony knew it was superstitious, but he couldn't help it. Bringing everything home seemed too much like setting down roots, and he hadn't been sure he was ready to do that, to make that kind of commitment.
Now it looked like he might not get the chance.
To be continued . . .