Epilogue

"You've been avoiding me," Jimmy said as he slid into the booth at the bar that had become their regular meeting place since that night during the counterfeiting case so many months before.

"Yep," Tony agreed, not looking up from the menu.

Jimmy set his jacket on the bench beside him and studied the agent sitting across from him.

Tony looked tired. Not as tired as when he'd been injured and fighting a respiratory infection and dealing with a tough case and coddling a cranky team. But tired, still.

"And I know why, Tony," Jimmy said, his tone conveying that he wasn't angry about the avoidance.

The agent's eyes closed and he let out a soft sigh. "I guess that means we're gonna talk about it now?" Tony asked, opening his eyes and studying Jimmy right back.

"Do you want to—" Palmer stopped. He shook his head and smiled. "Of course you don't."

Tony's mouth twisted into a small, grim smile.

"But will you?" Jimmy asked, genuinely concerned for his friend. "I really think you should talk about it."

After a slow, deep breath, Tony nodded once, his eyes roaming the somewhat crowded bar as if the words he should say could be found written on the walls. He gave up after a moment and gave Jimmy a wary, almost pleading look. "I can't just start talking about my feelings," he muttered at the table. "I'd have to yank my own man card."

Palmer rolled his eyes. "Fine. We'll play interrogation. You be the suspect. I'll be Agent Palmer."

Tony's mouth twitched.

It wasn't quite a smile, but it was close enough to encourage the young assistant. Jimmy leaned forward slightly and asked the question that had been on the back of his tongue for the past week.

"How do you feel about Gibbs being back?"

"What can I get you boys tonight?"

The waitress chose that exact moment to bounce up to their booth, and Jimmy kicked Tony in the shin when the agent mumbled something that sounded like "I like her question better."

They ordered burgers and drinks, and when the woman was out of earshot, Tony sighed and said, "I could have done with just a drink… or six."

Palmer frowned. "Guess that answers my question," he said sympathetically.

Tony flashed a mechanical smile that still would have dazzled any woman in the room. "Good. Then we're done here?"

Jimmy didn't buy it. "Not even close, suspect DiNozzo," he said, shaking his head. "You're not going anywhere until you tell me at least how your talk went."

"Talk?" Tony said, arching an eyebrow. "You think we talked? Have you met Gibbs?"

"He had to have said something. What exactly did he say when he told you he was back for good?" Jimmy asked, frowning harder. He turned the expression into a polite smile as he thanked the waitress for the drinks she set on the table.

"What," Tony said, taking a deep pull on his scotch. He set the now half-empty glass back down with a dull thud, his expression far too bitter to be called a smile.

"What did he say, you know, when he told you he was staying?" Jimmy repeated, slightly annoyed at the waitress' interruption. He didn't want to repeat the question because he was afraid the phrase "when he demoted you" might slip out. He knew his issues with controlling his mouth.

"What," Tony said again, though it didn't sound like a question.

Jimmy huffed a sigh. "You can't just keep repeating the question, Tony."

"I'm not," Tony replied, a hint of amusement touching his tired eyes.

"I'll just keep asking," Jimmy threatened, trying to sound intimidating. He wasn't sure if he was successful or not. "What did he say?"

"What," Tony said again. He held up a hand. "I'm not being difficult, Palmer, and I'm not doing a poor imitation of 'Who's on First?' either. I'm telling you what he said. He dumped our stuff back on our old desks—and Michelle's in a damned box—and he sat at his desk like he'd never left—like he'd grown that damned mustache overnight—and he looked at us and said, 'What?' Like we had no reason to be staring at him like idiots."

Jimmy took a moment to try to digest that. It wasn't easy.

"So, Sigmund Palmer," Tony joked even though his eyes were frighteningly serious, "analyze that for me, would you?"

Jimmy blinked several times, taking a sip of his drink to buy time to calm down. He knew his voice would be a squeak of outrage if he tried to talk right away. "Gibbs has been back for weeks now," he said, proud that he sounded more steady than soprano, "and that's all he said to you about it?"

Tony shrugged, his eyes scanning the bar as if looking for someone.

"That's…" Jimmy tried, failing to find the right word for what he was feeling. It seemed Tony wasn't the only one having trouble expressing emotions tonight.

"That's Gibbs for you," Tony said, abandoning the scanning and focusing on Jimmy again. The intensity in his eyes was troubling, especially considering how casual the agent's tone had been.

Palmer didn't buy the casualness for a second.

But he also didn't have a clue what to say. Tony deserved a thank-you—at the very least—for the way he had stepped up in Gibbs' absence to not only lead the team but also hold its members together. But Jimmy knew the gratitude wouldn't mean as much coming from him. It should come from Gibbs.

I'd have better luck getting Dr. Mallard to use his "guests" as puppets than getting Gibbs to actually say those words, Jimmy thought, shaking his head.

The agent, of course, saw the movement and raised an eyebrow in question. Palmer frowned at the Gibbs-like nature of it. "Will you at least admit that sucks?" Jimmy asked, not really expecting an answer.

But Tony surprised him by nodding. "Yeah. It sucked," he said, his tone as blank as his face as he continued. "I wasn't expecting much from him by way of an explanation, but I think the team deserved a little warning. Lee, especially."

"Agreed," Jimmy said, trying not to think about how upset Michelle had been that night. "And I think you deserved a thank-you—and an explanation."

Tony just lifted an infuriatingly calm shoulder. But Jimmy was learning to read him—slowly. Tony's eyes were flat, but his left hand tapped a steady beat against his glass. Palmer decided to just spit it out.

"He doesn't deserve you," he said, studying Tony's face for a reaction.

All he got was a half-smile that held no humor. "We're not a couple, Palmer," Tony said, rolling his eyes.

"No," Jimmy countered, his tone firm, "but you do have a relationship. Gibbs might have forgotten some things, but he has to remember that."

Whatever Tony might have said to that was erased by the arrival of their waitress, who set plates down in front of them and asked if they needed anything.

How about five more drinks and a way to get through a stubborn agent's thick skull? Jimmy thought. But he just nodded after Tony ordered another drink and the waitress looked pointedly at his own empty glass.

The waitress left, and Jimmy started to ask a question.

But Tony beat him to it.

"What did Michelle say about it, anyway?" the agent asked, taking a bite of his burger.

Jimmy gave him an exasperated look, immediately recognizing the distraction tactic, but he decided to answer anyway. The more drinks Tony downed, the better, he figured—even though he knew from several experiences now that DiNozzo could hold his liquor. Jimmy shuddered as he remembered the only real outburst of emotion he had seen from Tony had come only when the agent had been suffering from unimaginable pain—and gunshot wounds.

"She was upset," Jimmy said, continuing when Tony gave him a very clear "no shit" look. "And confused—especially once she found out she was going back to legal. She thought she was doing a decent job in the field."

"She was," Tony said. He set his burger down and sighed, unable to meet Jimmy's eyes anymore. "I meant to talk to her. I will. To tell her she didn't do anything wrong. That she was doing a good job."

Jimmy ignored the choppy sentences that gave away Tony's distress for just a moment to bask in some boyfriend pride. He still sometimes couldn't believe the pretty agent wanted to be with him, and he shoved aside the feeling that she might be using him for … something. "I told her she would be great," he said, beaming as he dismissed the silly fear as insecurity on his part.

Tony smiled back, briefly. "She has this," he stopped, frowning as he searched for the right word, "poise that I wouldn't have expected. For a probie, she can be pretty cool under pressure."

Jimmy realized he was still grinning.

"Maybe that whole timid-as-a-mouse thing was just an act," Tony said.

The grin went flat. "Why would she do that?" Jimmy asked.

"Oh, I don't know," Tony said, starting to smile again. "Maybe so as not to scare off a certain autopsy gremlin she wanted to get her little paws on?"

Jimmy blushed and ducked his head.

"Things still going okay with you two?" Tony asked, the question genuine. "You haven't talked about her much this week."

"Everything's fine," Jimmy said, munching a French fry. "Better than fine, actually. She's really great. I just figured…"

"You didn't want to upset me by reminding me she's not on my team anymore?" Tony filled in, voice calm as he sipped his drink like punctuation at the end of his sentence.

Blushing even redder, Jimmy nodded. His happy thoughts of Michelle melted into the back of his mind, though, as he studied Tony's tired eyes.

"Hmmm?" Tony asked, easily reading the change.

"I kinda want to punch Gibbs in the face."

"Really?" Tony said, arching an eyebrow and setting down the fry he was about to eat. "I know you have muscles under those scrubs, but it's probably not the best of ideas to go toe to toe with the great white, Gremlin."

Jimmy swallowed a prideful "You don't think I could take him?"—because he knew he couldn't and didn't see the point in making Tony admit it. So he settled for a different truth.

"I know Gibbs has forgotten a lot of things about the team he left," Jimmy said, "but he has to know that there wouldn't be a team left for him to come back to if it weren't for you."

Tony was silent as he stared at the fry in his hand.

A small blob of ketchup plopped onto the plate below.

"He has to know that, Tony," Jimmy tried again.

Tony set the fry down and let out a long breath. "I don't know what he knows, Jimmy," he said, picking up the fry again and making red swirls on the half-empty plate. He did not look up from his food art as he continued, "He confuses me with McGee. He told me to order dinner from the place that closed down two years ago. He called Ziva 'Kate' yesterday."

Jimmy winced in sympathy at the raw pain in Tony's voice as he forced out that last sentence. "I'm sorry," he said sincerely. "That must have hurt."

"Hurt like hell," Tony said, surprising him again with the admission. "But not as much as when he looks at me like he's not sure who I am. We cleared a house yesterday, looking for a suspect, and he kept looking back at me, like he didn't trust me to have his back."

"He'd probably trust you completely if he knew how you held the team together when he quit," Jimmy observed, a thought forming in the back of his mind.

But Tony just shook his head. "Don't, Palmer," he said quietly. "It's a nice idea, but it's not a good idea."

Jimmy wanted to ask why not—and how Tony had known exactly what he had been thinking about doing almost before the plan was developed. But he just said, "I won't." He paused, watched Tony poke at his dinner. "Even though I want to."

"Thank you for choosing not to take on the great white," Tony said with a wry smile.

But Palmer heard the real gratitude beneath the slight sarcasm. He frowned at his plate for a moment before lifting sad eyes to Tony's.

"He's never going to thank you for what you did," Jimmy said, feeling resigned.

There was a small flicker of some fleeting emotion on the agent's face, but his voice was blank when he said, "I did my job."

"And then some," Jimmy pressed, not looking away. "He might never say thank you, Tony, but you deserve to hear it. You held the team together, and he's lucky he has a team to come back to. I wish he would tell you that, but I know it won't happen. And I know it doesn't mean as much coming from me, but you should be proud of what you did. You're a hell of a leader, DiNozzo."

Tony just stared at him, unsure of what to say. He swallowed several jokes, and simply nodded. "Thanks, Palmer." He felt a smile start to tug the corner of his mouth upward. "Couldn't have done it without you, Gremlin."

Jimmy grinned. "Autopsy Gremlin would make a pretty good superhero sidekick, don't you think?"

Tony considered that as he chewed. "Special Agent Man and his trusty sidekick, Autopsy Gremlin. I like it."

"Do you think Dr. Mallard would mind if I started running around in a cape?"

"Depends on if there's anything under the cape," Tony said, grinning as he polished off his drink and signaled the waitress for another round.

Jimmy laughed, shaking his head. "Are we getting drunk tonight?"

Tony shrugged. "Why not? It's Friday. You got anywhere to be in the morning?"

"Nope," Jimmy said, downing his drink. "Michelle and I have a date tomorrow night, some art gallery opening at this weird, out-of-the-way place she's been talking about for a week. I swear she's always surprising me."

"That's good," Tony said. He frowned a bit and then seemed to make up his mind about something. "I have a date, too."

"Yeah?" Jimmy prodded, excited that he was being let another step further into Tony's private little world. "Tell me more."

"She's a doctor," Tony said, grinning at Palmer's impressed expression. "And for some reason, she seems to like me. She works at the university hospital—Monroe—and she's smart and pretty and funny and—"

"And you really like her," Jimmy said, watching Tony's face change as he talked about her. There was an odd flicker of something there that Jimmy couldn't read, despite his months of recent practice. He chalked it up to the possibility that this girl was someone really special.

"I do," Tony said, picking up the drink the waitress delivered and downing half of it.

Jimmy raised an eyebrow. "We really are getting drunk tonight." He shook his head, smiling. "So what's her name?"

Tony hesitated again for the barest fraction of a second before grinning and saying, "Her name is Jeanne Benoit."

Jimmy smiled back and lifted his glass. "Here's to you and Jeanne."

Tapping his glass against Jimmy's, Tony said, "And to you and Michelle. We're super duo Special Agent Man and Autopsy Gremlin, what could possibly go wrong?"

They downed the drinks. And then ordered two more.

End