NOTE: Okay, I promise this is probably the last Season Three-Four gap story I write—there's just something about Tony as team leader that I can't resist.


Lesson number one, post-Gibbs: Apparently, if you were a team leader in the midst of a sudden mental breakdown, saying, "Tag, you're it," to your senior field agent on your way out the door was not actually a valid method of promotion. There was paperwork. There were rules. And when you put his record, Gibbs's record, and a bunch of red tape into a filing cabinet and shookit, what you got when you opened the drawer—or who you got, actually—was—

Well, not anyone named Tony DiNozzo, that was for damned sure.


At least the Director had had the decency to introduce Roger Blackburn as "your interim team leader." Of course, then she scuttled off back to MTAC, where she wouldn't have to face Ziva's death glare or McGee's kicked puppy eyes—all of that craziness was Tony's to deal with. He hadn't wanted to be the older brother in a movie about plucky-but-disreputable orphans, but he didn't seem to have much of a choice. He turned up the smile and stuck out his hand.

"Hi. Tony DiNozzo."

Blackburn shook. Not a bad handshake—not damp, not limp, and not trying to crush Tony's hand like an anaconda tried to crush a zebra, or whatever lived in South America, Tony couldn't remember the movie all that well—and so he could have been worse. Tony sort of hated him, by the default of him not being Gibbs, and he was definitely not going to call Blackburn "boss," but he wasn't loathsome. (Unlike the movie Anaconda, let alone the sequel, which, shit, now he would absolutely not be able to stop thinking about, particularly with Ziva giving Blackburn her best half-lidded snake eyes.)

"This is," Tony said, determined to be polite, "Mossad Officer David—Ziva—and Special Agent Tim McGee."

"Hi," McGee said. He at least shook hands, too—Midwestern politeness default, Tony thought smugly.

Ziva had no such default—she did not budge from her desk, and instead gave the coldest nod Tony had ever seen, and Director Morrow had once nodded at Tony after Tony had inadvertently compared him to Dr. Evil. Oh boy.

Blackburn said, "David is an unusual last name."

"Not in Israel," Ziva said.

Okay, so cultural sensitivity wasn't Blackburn's strong point. They would order Indian for lunch or something and McGee could tell them all again about how he spent a gap year in Bombay—which wasn't even that interesting a story, and how could anyone spend a whole year in India without seeing a single Bollywood film?—and Tony could toss of a witty bon mot in Spanish, and then another in Italian, and they could all learn to appreciate each other's heritage and differences.

"You're from Israel?"

Tony pressed his hand to his head.

Ziva smiled—and yeah, he definitely could not Anaconda out of his head now, he had a vision of her unhinging her jaw and eating Blackburn alive.

Behind Blackburn's back, McGee mouthed, "He's a complete moron," at Tony, who couldn't help but agree, because even in addition to all of the above, Blackburn was looking at Ziva's smile without running away in terror.

Blackburn's record for leading their team: six hours, forty-seven minutes. He left crying.


"It's not that I'm saying you were wrong," Tony said. "I mean, I've never seen a grown man who wasn't watching Brian's Song cry quite that much, but I'll give you that he may have been the single stupidest person who ever lived, let alone outranked me in a federal agency."

Ziva put her head to the side and brutally mimicked Blackburn, "'But aren't you very far from home?'"

Tony held up his hands. "I admitted it, okay? I admitted that he was several crayons short of a Crayola box, definitely no burnt sienna or robin's egg blue, definitely a moron."

"You wanted us to work for him," she said, disgusted, and, torn between drowning her sorrows in peanuts or drowning them in beer, chose both at the same time, with a slight gargling sound that disturbed Tony on a very real emotional level.

"Ziva, I don't want us to work for anyone who isn't Gibbs. But Gibbs isn't here, and sadly, I still have to pay my electric bill."

"Then," she said, with the over-enunciation of someone who was already well on her way to drunkenness, "we should be working for you, not Blackburn."

He wondered how she would take it if he touched her hair. It was all askew, almost down into her jealously-guarded bowl of peanuts, and also, he loved her. In the end, he kept his hands to himself. "I think it's safe to say that we're not working for Blackburn anymore—"

"Then you?"

"Then whoever," he said quietly, because the Director hadn't implied he was much in the running when it came to replacing Gibbs. "And you need to not scare people off with your ninja skills and deceptively soft voice, okay? We need people to like us."

Ziva snorted, obviously unconcerned with the whole notion of being liked. Then she leaned her head on his shoulder and appeared to go to sleep, which fooled him for all of three seconds, until he tried to steal some of her peanuts and she almost took his hand off with a knife she pulled out of nowhere.


Next up—Special Agent Amanda Rachel Gladden. She introduced herself like that. Tony could not figure out if she had two first names or one middle name and a passion for thorough introductions. Still, at least she beat Blackburn's record by getting entirely through her opening statements without a single weird cultural faux pas. (Tony had had it out with the Director in a series of increasingly unprofessional emails about whether Blackburn had been intentionally insensitive or just too dumb to live, though both, obviously, could have been true.)

She programmed her computer wallpaper to have kittens on it, which was obviously weird, but she did nothing blatantly awful. Tony was prepared to live with her.

"I don't like her," McGee said over lunch, once the three of them had stopped squabbling over what appetizer to order and given in to Tony's obviously correct assertion that the mozzarella sticks were the only real possibility. "She mixed up Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine."

Tony could think of nothing to say to that.

"I have nothing to say to that," Ziva said, God bless her.

"They have similarities," McGee said. "Science fiction shows, space stations, quality plotting—but still, no real fan would ever mix them up. She's faking it."

"Like in When Harry Met Sally," Tony said, because he had to add something to the conversation, whether it was relevant or not.

"Maybe she likes you, McGee," Ziva said. Tony could not decide if she meant this or was only using the suggestion of potential between-the-sheets action to distract McGee while she stole his share of the mozzarella sticks. "She is jamming you up."

"Buttering," Tony said, swatting her hand as she went after marinara sauce. "And why does it matter?"

"Did you take my mozzarella sticks?"

"Focus, Probie, there's a limit to how much I can discuss your potential sex life, and we're approaching that in three, two, one—"

"Would you want to date someone who faked liking movies?"

"No," Tony said, because he would tolerate a lot for the sake of good sex, up to and including the antics of one girlfriend in college who had been very slightly prone to smoking cigarettes in bed and accidentally setting the sheets on fire in a very non-metaphorical way, but faking liking movies? Definitely not. So he supposed he could see McGee's point, except, "Films are very different from whatever it is you were talking about, though."

"You did," McGee said. "You did eat my mozzarella sticks."

Technically, he hadn't, but as senior field agent, he had to protect his team from infighting, so to distract everyone from the situation, he blew his straw wrapper at McGee.


Amanda Rachel Gladden lasted two and a half weeks, with McGee getting increasingly twitchier about her getting science fiction details wrong until she imploded under his strange dislike and, according to office scuttlebutt, told the Director that she would rather work afloat on a raft in the middle of the Bering Strait than deal with people who were so obviously unhinged when she'd thought they were nice. The first thing Ziva did after she was gone was erase the kitten wallpaper.

Tony sighed. "You do realize that we need a team leader, right?"

"It's not my fault," McGee said.

"It is," Tony said. "It's very much your fault. You bit her head off because she said that resistance was useless."

"Because it's not," McGee said. "It's futile."

"They're synonyms!"

"Kittens," Ziva said. "Playing with balls of yarn. And one which was dangling from a tree, in her screensaver, and it said, 'Hang in there.'"

She let that fall heavily into the silence.

"Fine," Tony said. "Fine, okay? But both of you, Thing One and Thing Two—you need to let the next person settle in a little first before you try to murder them for liking you or kittens." He thought that sentence over and added, on the basis of that last part, "Okay, the two of you are probably sociopaths."

"Yes," Ziva said, "and we work for you."


Tony had high hopes for Special Agent Reynolds. He had an excellent math and biochemistry education that Tony could not personally understand and he'd had a really abnormal number of weapons discharges on the job—so perfect for McGee, perfect for Ziva, and anyone with a pulse and a steady respiration rate would, at the moment, have been perfect for him, since the Director had told him in no uncertain terms that they were beginning to get a bad reputation—unworkable, untenable—and that if they didn't shape up soon, she would have to split them up. She still added, "Until Gibbs gets back," but she looked increasingly less convinced by what she was saying.

So Tony was optimistic about Reynolds, because he had no other choice, and also because he had very explicitly and vividly threatened to murder McGee and Ziva if they broke Reynolds's brain.

At the very least, he prided himself on having scared them enough that they shook hands and said their names almost as if they were people and not complete and utter monsters.

"I've seen your records," Reynolds said, nodding to both of them. "They speak for themselves. I'm looking forward to working with you."

Tony frantically tried to communicate the idea that see, Reynolds was nice, Reynolds liked them, and then offered his own hand. "Tony DiNozzo."

Reynolds shook. "Read your record too," he said.

Oh. Well, shit.

The thing was, Gibbs and paperwork had had a tenuous acquaintance with each other at best. Tony wasn't sure Gibbs had ever seen an employee evaluation form, let alone filled one out with managerial suggestions for improvement and ratings for competence. When Tony had done something right, Gibbs had told him so, or else hinted at this elusive occurrence with raised eyebrows and an almost-smile. When Tony had screwed up, Gibbs had hit him in the back of the head. There was no real record of his time at NCIS at all, aside from a weird tendency to flinch anytime someone walked up behind him. Which meant that Ziva had evaluations from Mossad, and the Director; McGee had them from Norfolk; and Tony had them from—

About, to Reynolds's eyes, a half-dozen different cities where he'd stayed only just long enough to make a bad impression.

Well, there was no way to get around it, so he'd just have to go through it. "I look better in person."

Reynolds said nothing.

Great. Fantastic.


"I don't like him," Ziva said.

McGee said, "I don't either."

"New rule," Tony said. "The next time either of you says that you don't like someone, you have to give me your crab Rangoon."

Ziva lifted her chin. "I really do not like him, though."

Tony held out his hand and, to his surprise, actually got her crab Rangoon. That was unexpected.

McGee didn't say anything. Ziva glared at him.

"I agree with Ziva," McGee said.

Tony held out his hand.

"I didn't say it."

"It's a technicality."

"I really like crab Rangoon!"

Tony settled for one of his egg rolls. "Fine. But we are keeping Reynolds. We only have so many chances at this, you know. We don't want to end up being like—a three-legged dog that no one will take out of the shelter because it bites, or something."

"Because it bites or because it has three legs?"

"It is a very strange metaphor," Ziva said.

McGee put his chopsticks down. "He doesn't like you, Tony."

Tony wanted to hug them.

Instead, he shrugged. "I grow on people. Look at how much the two of you love me."

"I am taking back my crab Rangoon," Ziva said.


He did not, in fact, grow on Reynolds.

He was willing to concede that part of this might have been his fault—whenever he was that painfully conscious of someone disliking him, he tended to go a little overboard in his attempts to charm them into submission.

"If you keep this up," McGee said, "he's going to accuse you of sexual harassment, and the thing is, Tony, he's not going to be wrong."

"I know," Tony said. "I can't stop. I don't know what's wrong with me."

"We could start spraying you with water," Ziva said. "Like a bad cat."

"I think the fact that I'm not entirely dismissing that idea proves how desperate I am," Tony said. He put his head down and announced to the room at large that if he saw anyone's hand, no matter how dainty and ladylike—and yes, by that he meant McGee's—creep towards his meatball sub, he would stab it with the fork that had been inexplicably provided with his sandwich.

"Well, he is being a little whiny about it," McGee said. "You sexually harass us all the time and we don't complain about it."

"I don't—"

"Quoting Deliverance at someone is sexual harassment," McGee said. "I looked it up."

"Of course you did, you sexy librarian, you."

"You need—God—so much help."

Tony straightened up and looked forlornly at his meatball sub. It was a sad day when even it couldn't make him feel any better.

Of course, he was still going to eat it.

With his mouth full, he said, "Reynolds doesn't like me very much."

Ziva patted him on the arm.

"You two do, though," he said.

Ziva retracted her hand.

"I thought we were having a moment," he said, hurt.

"When you've swallowed," McGee said.

"Oh." He gulped down his mouthful of sub and gave them a grin that hopefully wasn't stained red with tomato sauce. "Is the moment back?"

"Can we drink at lunch?" McGee wondered aloud.


Of course, he should have known better than to show a soft underbelly to McGee and Ziva. His fatal flaw was not realizing how much of their inherent craziness had been held in check by Gibbs's ability to terrify them into a sort of quasi-military obedience: in his absence, they treated Tony as a preferred but fundamentally benign babysitter whose orders they could subvert at a whim if they chose, for example, to start coloring on the walls or eating nothing but sugar. He should never have mistaken their affection for allegiance, but basking in the warm sunlight of their reluctant sort-of caring about him, he had let his guard slip, and then, of course, he had to pay the price.

A fact that confronted him on Monday morning, when Ziva somehow lost the ability to speak English and McGee—also pretty much lost the ability to speak English. And started wearing those emo glasses with the thick black frames.

That was his first clue, before Reynolds even arrived, that they were in trouble. "Your eyesight is perfect," he said. "It's almost as good as mine. Why are you wearing glasses?"

"How can my eyesight be 'perfect' and yet still not as good as yours?"

"That's not important," Tony said, and would have pressed the issue further had Reynolds not come in.

Tony, in an attempt to improve his credibility with Reynolds, had given up on talking at all in his presence, since everything that came out was either flirtatious, a movie reference, or a flirtatious movie reference, so he just shut up and headed back to his seat, only giving a nod to Reynolds's "good morning."

McGee bolted up. "We're having some technical problems this morning patching the interface into the correct receptors without the transfer creating a feedback loop. I can stabilize it, but we may have to reverse the polarity."

"Shalom," Ziva said.

Reynolds blinked.

Tony decided that if he talked now, there was a better than even chance that he might sound sane by comparison and therefore vault into the position of office favorite: "I love the smell of napalm in the morning!"

Son of a bitch.

Reynolds glared at him. Tony didn't blame him, he'd glare at him, too.

"I mean 'good morning,'" he said, shaping the words carefully so that they didn't unexpectedly turn into something else. "Good, napalm-free morning."

Reynolds ignored him. "What's the technical problem again, McGee?"

"A transference feedback loop on the patched interface's receptors," McGee said. "It's damaging the mainframe, but with a reversed polarity, I can remotely reboot the system and force a safe mode reboot that will optimize the encoding speeds for future data storage. Of course, there may be installation problems affecting the partitions on the hard drive, but I can reverse-engineer a command chain that will resolve that, provided we're up-to-date on all relevant security packages."

If a sailor died right then, they wouldn't have to spend the whole morning like this.

Ziva said something in French. It ended suspiciously. Tony's French was limited to the kind you didn't use in public, so the thought of understanding her made him nervous.

"Do we have a case?" Tony asked. Please say yes.

"No," Reynolds said. "Not as of yet." He looked at Tony with that same oh-you're-still-here dislike, and Tony considered just falling to his knees and begging Reynolds not to be a jackass so that he could save himself from the wrath of a technobabble-fueled Probie and a Ziva who had once made the drunken boast of being passably fluent in click language, for God's sake, and then Reynolds said, "You know, we probably won't need you for the day. I might loan you out to a field office for a while. Just running basic investigative refreshers, you know, keep you in shape."

Tony's smile froze on his face. "I was a homicide detective," he said.

"Well," Reynolds said, "NCIS is a very specialized investigative branch. It's not necessarily for everyone."

Tony, still smiling, thought, Reynolds, just in case you were wondering—this is when I decided to wash my hands of you.

You stay the hell away from my job.

"Probably!" he said brightly. "You know what? I'm going to go get us all coffee. I'll be back in about half an hour and in the meantime, McGee, Ziva—I trust that while I'm gone you'll both demonstrate the impeccable high standards of work ethic and team loyalty that I know you've displayed in the past."

In other words—sic him. Kill.

He left smiling. He only bought three coffees, since Reynolds would undoubtedly be gone by the time he got back.


"To Special Agent Reynolds," Tony said, raising his glass. "Eight days and four hours, God bless him, and he shouldn't have threatened my job."

"To Reynolds," Ziva said.

"Reynolds," McGee said, and they all bumped glasses.

Tony felt very amiably drunk. "How long did it take?"

"Seventeen minutes and forty-two seconds," McGee said.

"What broke him? The click language?"

Ziva swore softly. "No, I did not have the time. I had expected him to demonstrate a little more perseverance in the face of adversity. No, it was maybe the ninth time McGee had suggested that we reverse the polarity of—something."

"You know," Tony said, "even I know that's not a real thing."

"I was running out of made-up science," McGee admitted. "I was maybe thirty seconds away from quoting whole sections of Star Trek." The emo glasses hung crookedly on his nose. He looked, Tony thought, approximately twelve, and not at all like someone who could cavalierly aid in the orchestration of not one but two mental breakdowns in his superiors. He was like a secret weapon.

Ziva, on the other hand, sort of did look like the kind of person who could do that. His cavalry.

"You know," Tony said, "there's an office pool on how long we'll take to kill, maim, madden, or otherwise incapacitate our next team leader."

"Are you in on it?"

"Don't be ridiculous, McAdjectiveNoun." He wasn't sober enough for clever nicknames. "That would be entirely unprofessional."

"So you—made your bets through Abby?"

"Ducky," Ziva guessed.

"Palmer," Tony said.

"I thought you were the reasonable adult in all this who just wanted us to go along to get along… something," McGee said, also very much not sober, and now listing heavily to port. Tony caught him by the shoulder and held him up.

"Yes," Ziva said. "You were a fuzzkill."

Tony thought about that. "No, I wasn't," he said.

McGee laughed. "Fuzzkill."

"I still think we should stop destroying people," Tony said. "I'm just saying that I don't think it's likely and I'm not going to put any money on it."

"I have a plan," Ziva said.


"Plans are fun," McGee announced to Tony's shoulder.

"You are a total lightweight, you know that? This low tolerance is what comes of spending college studying instead of doing keg stands like a normal person."


"I'm listening, Ziva."

She held up one finger. "We go to the Director." Two fingers. "We tell the Director that we will work for you or for Gibbs."

"Preferably Gibbs," McGee said.

"Your support means the world to me, Probie," Tony said. "Stop drooling on my jacket."

"I mean, no—you, too, but also Gibbs, because he was first and you're, you know, kind of annoying. But comfy."

"Ziva, you should know that right now I like you so much better than him," Tony said. "But the fatal flaw in your plan is that the Director, while sympathetic to our concerns, has this little theory that letting the lunatics run the asylum might be not such a good idea."

"Which brings me," she said, "to point three. If Jenny does not put you in charge until Gibbs returns, if Gibbs returns—then we," with a pause that may have been for either dramatic effect or another shot of tequila, "leave."

"Oh, and we start a private detective agency," McGee said.

"Okay," Tony said. "So we've established that you are both unbelievably sentimental drunks."

"Your voice just did something weird," McGee said.

"No, it didn't, shut up."

"We would fight crime," Ziva said.

He called them all a cab, whereupon they piled into the backseat and McGee fell asleep on him and Ziva fell asleep on McGee and he thought that he would settle for being the second choice sine qua non, for being kind-of-annoying-but-comfy. There were worse things to be, and he had been them.


Special Agent Mary Ross was their last chance. Tony knew that because when the Director brought up the subject of their new team leader, she'd said, "Special Agent Mary Ross is your last chance," and Tony was trained to interpret evidence like that. He crossed his hands behind his back, wondering how seriously he could take Ziva's plans to revamp them all as loose cannon private investigators and, furthermore, whether or not working as a PI would be anything like being in a film noir movie, and whether that would be better or worse than being in the screwball comedy his life had lately become. He also thanked God that a career that kept shunting him into the practice of pretending to be someone else for unreasonably long stretches of time had given him the strength not to just blurt out every passing defiant thought that went through his head.

"Yes, ma'am," he said. "And after her, you may want to go really off-script and promote me."

He'd gotten used to not being slapped, that was the thing. It took the caution out of him.

"Tony," the Director said, and dammit, he liked her, he did, she was eminently polite and reasonable in barring him from the one thing he really wanted. "This isn't personal. I haven't promoted you—"

"Because my record speaks for itself, ma'am. I know. I'm aware. Reynolds made the same point." Before McGee and Ziva chewed the meat from his bones.

"Is that what you think?"

"Scuttlebutt was," he said.

"You don't accept scuttlebutt when it comes to your team, Agent DiNozzo," she said. "You demand answers from the person in charge."

"It wasn't an implausible theory."

"But it was, in fact, a wrong one." She leaned back against her desk. "Your record as having served under Leroy Jethro Gibbs for an unprecedentedly long tenure—one which might have driven any number of lesser team leader candidates, some of whom you've met and reduced to tears by now—does speak for itself. I know Gibbs, and he doesn't tolerate incompetence, sloppiness, indecision, or disloyalty. His recommendation of you meant, absolutely, that you would be the best and most qualified leader of your team in his absence."

"That's a more ringing endorsement than he offered."

"Well," she said, with a small smile, "Gibbs is Gibbs, and neither one of us is him, are we?"

No. He was the second choice, he knew that, but they still would have left their jobs for him, and that meant something, or everything, and if there was a point she was making that he didn't already know, he wasn't seeing it.

"If I'm such a great runner-up," Tony said, "why am I still stuck with the silver medal after Gibbs quit the team?"

"Because he might come back," she said.

"He hasn't yet." And Tony had stopped hoping for that after Amanda Rachel Gladden. If someone putting fluffy kitten wallpaper on Gibbs's computer hadn't somehow sent him the signal to return, he wasn't going to, and nothing could bring him back.

"It hasn't even been a month. His life was up-ended."

"With respect, so were ours."

"And I'm trying to stabilize that with a temporary solution. Tony. I know what Gibbs saw in you, and I know what he didn't think of. He didn't think of coming back. I can't ask you to take a promotion that you won't keep."

"Who says I wouldn't keep it?" He raised his chin. Shouldn't do that, not in a boxing match—it was a blatant exposure of vulnerability. It gave someone such an easy way to knock you out, if they wanted to. And Jenny did.

"You would stay with your team," she said. "I know that about you even if I don't know anything else."

He started to say that of course he would stay with his team, they were his, and besides, nobody else would ever have them, food-stealing sociopaths with absolutely no conscience when it came to interpersonal relations—and then he realized her point, her knockout blow. "You mean that they would want Gibbs. Over me."

Well, of course they would. Who wouldn't?

He said, harshly, "That's still not anything I don't know."

"I didn't mean that," the Director said. "I meant that you would stay with your team. And your team includes Gibbs."

"That's a nice shine to put on it."

"Beauty is truth," she said, "and truth beauty."

"Just so you know?" Tony said, leaving. "I always hated Keats."


The good thing about Special Agent Mary Ross was that she was—well, perfect. She was the youngest team leader in NCIS history. She had an impeccable record. She knew six different forms of martial arts and eight different languages. She was polite, charming, and funny. She brought them all coffee and blueberry muffins—the good kind with the sweet crumbled stuff on top. There was absolutely nothing wrong with her, no personal or professional flaw.

They hated her.

"Might as well call her Special Agent Mary Sue," McGee said.

"You know, I only ever understand about fifteen percent of what you're saying."

Ziva licked her fingers. "The muffins are good."

McGee looked immensely betrayed. "You like her?"

"No, she is—awful. I just meant the muffins are good."

They all took a moment to acknowledge that the muffins were good, and then Tony, still smarting from his unexpectedly depressing pep talk with the Director, said, "Guys, you have to let it go."

"They were really good, though, I—"

"Not the muffins, McGlutton! God! The muffins were great, I'm not saying they weren't. I'm saying that the two of you have got to stop sabotaging everyone that comes in here. This is it, okay? If Gibbs comes back, he comes back, and that's what happens, but if he doesn't, then he doesn't, and this is what we have, and you aren't making things better for anyone, and you're not protecting me, and you're not helping me. The Director is never going to promote me. And whatever wacky plans the two of you make when you're drunk about how, oh, we're going to throw a giant hissy fit, we're going to leave, we're going to go be Nick and Nora and some third person, I can't think of any detective trios, okay, that is stupid. It's not what we're going to do, because that's not who we are, and anyway, private detectives don't even make that much money."

McGee and Ziva stared at him.

"All right," he said. "I admit that that speech kind of lost something towards the end, but I'm older than you are, and—having health insurance matters to me." This was still going out with a whimper much, much more than it was going out with a bang, so he just said, "I'm not Gibbs. I can't be whoever you want me to be."

"We know that you are not Gibbs," Ziva said. "We did not know, admittedly, that you were on the cusp of a mental breakdown, but yes, we did know that you are not Gibbs. We don't expect you to be Gibbs, we expect you to be Tony. Which you have been."

"And also," McGee said, with the air of someone gathering himself up to make a grand proclamation, "you have too many issues about measuring up to people generally and Gibbs specifically."

"And other issues," Ziva added hastily, in case Tony got the idea that he was sane outside of that.

"Right," McGee said. "Many, many other issues. But this thing you have, about how we should just go along with whoever we get because if it's not Gibbs, it doesn't matter who it is, that's just—it's just really stupid, Tony. It's like Gibbs is Aral Vorkosigan and you—oh, that doesn't work, because you're obviously Ivan. Give me a second."

"Okay," Tony said, "maybe I only understand twelve percent of what you're saying."

That was a lie, though. He'd understood all of it until the part with the funny names.

"I'm never going to buy you muffins, though," he said, just so everyone was clear on that.

"Life entails sacrifices," Ziva said.


He went to the Director in the morning. "There was something I wanted to tell you," he said. "Yesterday, when we talked, I forgot to say it."

"And what is that, Tony?"

"You should promote me anyway."

"I thought I had explained—"

"You did. You explained it perfectly. It made complete sense. But you're wrong. You should promote me because it's what Gibbs wanted and it's what I want and it's what my team wants, and if you think I'm going to keep standing idly by while you ignore my team's wishes and marginalize their input into the decision about who they can trust in this situation, well, you're wrong about that, too, because I'm not going to put up with it anymore." He thought that overall this was going fairly well, much better than his speech to McGee and Ziva, and that he would actually pull it off if he didn't somehow kill it at the last minute. "And if you don't put me in charge, the three of us are going to leave and start a private detective agency."


He rallied. "Also, we've had Ross for one day, one hour, and twenty-seven minutes, and I know you had that in the pool, so if you promote me now, I think you get about six hundred dollars out of it."

When arguing with the director of a federal agency, and in doubt as to the merits of one's argument, always appeal to the office pool. Everyone liked winning the office pool.

So Tony, newly promoted and empowered to tell Special Agent Mary Ross to return to the land of gorgeous, multilingual ninjas from whence she came, sauntered back downstairs into the bullpen to deliver the news to his loyal team.

"Three days," Ziva said.

"No, you're underestimating him. Four days and thirty minutes." McGee checked his watch. "Counting today, since it's not even nine yet."

"I choose to believe," Tony said, "that you're betting on how long it will take me to cement your allegiances forever and start naming your prospective children after me."

"That is not what we are doing," Ziva said. She was grinning.

"But," McGee said, shrugging, "if it makes you feel better."