Gibbs had been gone about a month before it happened.
The team was in the middle of a frustrating investigation—a suspected money launderer had been found dead, along with stacks of cash, and there were no witnesses, no leads. And no one could come up with a reason to kill a guy and leave $100,186 in an open briefcase beside his beaten, bloody body. The cash looked, felt and even burned like real money, but Abby's machines were chewing on it anyway.
All while McGee and Ziva both decided to chew on Tony—separate snubs, one personal, one professional, but both within about five minutes of each other.
And when Tony went down to see Abby simply to talk to someone without being mocked or told "You're not Gibbs," she had given him nothing more than an impatient shake of her pigtails and a sour, "Gibbs never bugged me before my babies were ready" before sending him on his way.
So much for just talking without being reminded he wasn't Gibbs.
And no shit.
Tony knew he didn't have the magical gut of Leroy Jethro Gibbs. He didn't have his hard-earned authority, and he didn't have the respect their former boss had so easily commanded. He didn't have Gibbs' hair, either—Thank god for that, Tony thought, leaning against the wall outside the lab and trying to smile.
But he was going to have more gray hairs than their AWOL leader if this kept up.
Most days, Tony enjoyed being in charge. He was a natural leader—he knew when to give his junior agents gentle prods, when to kick their asses and, perhaps most importantly, he knew when to back off of them and make himself step up.
And stepping up was exactly what he needed to do now. But he had no idea where to go in the investigation. And even brash very Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo had his moments of self-doubt, when he wondered if Gibbs had been stone-cold wrong in his sudden assessment of "You'll do."
Tony closed tired eyes—only to have them pop immediately open to stop the onslaught of smoky, charred images of his current recurring nightmare. But it was too late. He knew the images like he knew his own face: the team trapped in a burning building, screaming at him for help, while Tony stood outside with his shiny new fireman's helmet in his hands and no idea how to reach them.
He straightened from the wall, knowing he needed to get back upstairs. He needed to put on a happy face and not let his team know how much those insults had stung his already raw emotions. He needed to help his team find the dirtbag and bust him, just like old times.
Really, though, he needed someone to tell him that what he had told the team was true: "We're going to figure this out. All of it." But being team leader meant giving reassurances, not needing them.
Tony practiced his smile, running a hand over his hair and wincing at the thought of those dreaded gray hairs sprouting. He headed for the elevator, trying to distract himself from the fact that he was now the oldest member of the team—when he realized he wasn't.
He swung around and made his way toward autopsy, hoping Ducky had some answers for him. Hell, he'd even take a nice, long story right about now. And just maybe a tiny little bit of that reassurance he kept telling himself he shouldn't need.
He paused outside the double doors for only the barest fraction of a second before stepping through with his trademark grin firmly in place. He found only Jimmy inside but he didn't let the smile slip.
"Jimbo, my man!" he called, watching the assistant jump. "What's shakin'?"
Palmer stood stock still, staring down at his mop for a moment as if to be certain the floor wasn't trembling beneath him. "Nothing?" he said.
Tony raised an eyebrow. "That a question or a statement, JP?"
"Uh, J… P?" Palmer nodded with an embarrassed little smile as he recognized his own initials. "And it was more of a question." He pushed his glasses up his nose slightly. "Dr. Mallard didn't come in today."
Tony picked up a scalpel, holding the sharp blade up to the light. "He call?" he asked casually, even though his stomach tightened with dread. He wasn't sure his battle-weary little platoon could handle any more casualties.
Tony gave him a look—and then recognized the Gibbs-like behavior and asked, patiently, "Did he say why he wasn't coming in?"
"His mother. He said the autopsy was done and I could handle anything that came up today." Jimmy blinked nervously, his voice rising slightly. "Has something come up?"
Only the arrogance of my junior agents, Tony thought.
He gave Jimmy a reassuring smile. "Still haven't solved yesterday's case," he said, frowning as he tapped the blade on the back of his hand. It reminded him of his piano teacher whacking him with a ruler after discordant notes, and he could still hear the disappointment in her craggy old voice as she corrected him. It was the same disappointment he figured Gibbs would be feeling, knowing his chosen replacement was floundering like the catch of the day.
Gibbs would have solved the case by now, he thought, hitting himself a little harder. And built a boat or two by now, too.
"You should probably stop that?" Jimmy said, wincing in time with the slaps of the blade.
"Comparing myself to Gibbs?" Tony asked, so lost in his thoughts he spoke without realizing he said it out loud. He looked up at Jimmy's silence and found sympathy behind the round frames.
"Doing that," Jimmy said. He continued, his tone soft, "You're going to hurt yourself."
Tony nodded and put down the knife, feeling suddenly overwhelmed by everything that had changed in such a short period of time.
Jimmy saw his struggle and joked, "Good. You sure don't want me playing doctor with you."
Tony raised an eyebrow and Jimmy blushed.
"Uh," he stammered, shoving his glasses up his nose a little more ruthlessly. "That didn't come out right."
Tony smiled the saddest fake smile Jimmy had ever seen. "You always just say what you're thinking, Jimster?"
Jimmy did not smile back. He reached up and removed the glasses, watching the agent's tired eyes narrowing slightly at him. Palmer did not always have complete control over his mouth. But his actions were always carefully measured. He knew—contrary as it may seem—that he looked more serious without the round spectacles.
"Tony," he said, lowing his volume and, with it, the tone of his sometimes high-pitched voice. "Do you ever just say what you're thinking?"
Jimmy saw the slight flash of what he guessed was anger—he had little experience with an angry Tony, he realized.
"Good talk," DiNozzo said tightly, taking measured steps toward the door even as his left hand flicked furiously at his side.
"Wait," Jimmy called, swallowing his shock when DiNozzo immediately complied.
"Do you need something, Jimmy?" Tony asked, all emotion wiped from his face, his tone.
Jimmy blinked at the change and nodded, suddenly wondering why he often envied the agent's iron-fisted control. "Dr. Mallard told me to give you his report." He picked up a file and extended it warily to Tony. "We found ink under Jansen's fingernails. Magnetic ink."
Tony flipped through the file, frowning. "So our dead money launderer is also a counterfeiter?" he thought out loud. He sighed, finding it hard to think while Palmer was studying him like a particularly interesting exhibit at the Smithsonian—likely one on ancient embalming techniques. "Explains how Jansen was living the high life on a petty officer's salary. Thanks, Jimmy," he said, giving his nose a quick rub as Jimmy continued to stare at him even as he headed for the doors.
"Wait," Jimmy called again, waiting until Tony turned around. "You didn't answer my question," he said, a tiny shake in his voice contrasting with the defiant lifting of his chin. "I did just help answer one of yours."
Tony opened his mouth to make a joke but stopped at the seriousness in Jimmy's eyes. "I say stupid things all the time," Tony said carefully.
The assistant smiled—the patience in his expression reminding Tony strongly of the absent doctor.
"That wasn't what I asked," Jimmy said, watching Tony with slightly narrowed eyes. He was thinking the agent looked as calm as a long-condemned man making his final walk to the chamber. But Jimmy knew better. "Don't," he said sharply when Tony reached again for the scalpel. "And stop trying to distract me." He shook his head as Tony raised eyes showing zero emotion to his. "I swear you're the most controlled person I've ever met."
Tony raised an eyebrow. "Have you met Gibbs?"
Jimmy smiled a little but he said, "Gibbs wouldn't bite his tongue to spare someone's feelings." He cocked his head to the side. "You would."
There was no acknowledgment of that—but Tony didn't leave, Jimmy noted.
"Gibbs has never thanked me for anything," Jimmy continued, gathering courage as he spoke. "You always do. He probably wouldn't trust me to be here without Dr. Mallard. But you do. Gibbs would never hang around and listen to me simply because I asked him to wait. You did. Twice."
Tony eyed him warily. "I see you've joined the 'You're not Gibbs' bandwagon."
"Is that really so bad?" Palmer asked, pausing. "You're here. He's not," he said, wondering if he was overstepping his place. But he knew Tony was under a lot of pressure—and he also knew the team wasn't making things any easier on their new leader.
Tony didn't say a word, his eyes still on the blade on the tray beside him.
Jimmy bit his lip, searching the agent's face for some sign of that turmoil. He couldn't find a trace. "You know, you'd make a really great spy, Tony."
Tony looked up finally, recognizing the comment for what it was—a way out of the current conversation—and he appreciated the gesture. Wanting to return the small kindness, he said, "So would you."
At Jimmy's dubious look, Tony continued, smiling and feeling some of the tension ease from his knotted shoulders. "Autopsy gremlin is a hell of a cover."
"Bond, Gremlin Bond," Jimmy said, not caring that he was butchering the accent.
Tony grinned. "Gives a whole new meaning to 'dead drop'."
Jimmy winced and flicked a nervous glance at the empty table. "It's my worst fear," he said, his tone so serious, so reverent that Tony burst out laughing.
It felt slightly foreign, but surprisingly good.
Tony recovered quickly and headed for the door, feeling much more ready to face his team. He paused, looking back at Jimmy, who was smiling down at his mop. "We should get a drink sometime, Gremlin."
Jimmy's smile stretched wider. "Sure, Tony. Anytime."