AN: I have a canon I usually stick to in my stories; never kill, or permanently maim, physically or mentally, any member of the team. Never break up the team. It's been strangely liberating to break away from that, but ow, ow, I'll never do it again.
Thanks to everyone who's stuck with me; I hope the ending's OK, friends! There will be a couple of sequels because ultimately I can't not...
Thanks to the unsigned-in reviewers; a special mention to earthdragon, who's given me some very thoughtful comments to mull over.
I own nothing, not even the original idea, but it's been a blast in an odd sort of way.
Sideways and Forwards
Dr. Lishman shook Jenny's hand, and clung to it for rather a long time. "Thank you, Director Sheppard... thank you again for everything. I was expecting just another year of being told the same thing... please thank the team who... found..." he couldn't go on. Jenny dropped formal, and squeezed the slightly trembling hand between both of hers.
"I've said I would," she assured him gently, "and I promise I will."
"The senior agent who was injured during the arrest..."
"Will be fine. He's one of my best – I trusted him for a result, and he didn't let me down, he or his team. He's taken the day off to recover, or you could have met him, but I assure you he came to no permanent harm. I hope today compensates in some way for all the years you've waited." She walked with him to the outer door of Cynthia's office, where an agent waited to escort him, and after a few more murmured words of gratitude, the murdered Marine's father went on his way.
Tim came up from a trip to the lab to see the doctor's departing back, and Jenny Sheppard leaning over the balustrade watching him go. "Director, was that Dr. Lishman?" He'd seen the man arriving, and being escorted up to the mezzanine just before Gibbs had dropped his bombshell, and he'd wondered then.
Jenny started down the stairs as she answered him. "Yes, it was. If there'd been any of you around I would have introduced you. You did a good job."
"How is he?"
Jenny didn't treat it as a silly question. "He's just as I'm sure you can imagine, Tim. Pleased, satisfied, and very sad at the same time. I told him what I could of the interlinked case; he asked me to see if Sam Neville would be prepared to contact him; he wondered if a talk might help them both."
Tim frowned, and Jenny wrinkled a puzzled brow. "It may be a very good thing," the young agent said thoughtfully. "But if he's thinking 'substitute family'... well, sometimes it doesn't work. Maybe the expectations are too high."
She'd reached the bottom of the stairs, and hearing the regret in his voice she came to face him. "Has Gibbs spoken to you?"
"He... he's told us of his intention to take some time." He looked down at his shoes sadly, then met her eyes again. "I don't want him to go – but I don't want him to be here, the way he is and getting worse. I want him to heal."
"I knew he was going to tell you; but that's not what I meant, Tim. A form from him just arrived on my desk requesting me to confirm your promotion to Senior Field Agent on the MCRT. Gibbs didn't tell you?"
Tim found he was neither surprised nor offended at being left out of his own loop; he was beginning to understand better the law unto himself that Gibbs was just now. He was happy to get the recognition – don't be egotistical, it's unbecoming – the acknowledgement that he was doing the job well enough to get the confirmation.
"That's good," he said slowly.
"Is it? You sound doubtful." There was something probing about the Director's tone, and he wished he were as good as Tony at hearing unspoken words. Tony. That was it.
"Gibbs said he wouldn't be getting the team back; I was sad, and I was relieved as well. We can't do it all over again. Er... who will I be working for, Director?"
She regarded him steadily. "You know very well who I have in mind, Special Agent McGee," she said flatly. "And he wouldn't have it taken away again this time either. I simply haven't asked him yet. Can you work with him again? Do you want to? Will he want to work with you?"
To her great pride, he answered at once. "Couldn't speak for Tony, Director... but given the choice I don't want to work for anyone else." She still looked at him quizzically, and he went on. " I enjoyed working with him this last few days – "
"Anything was preferable to Gibbs?"
"Not exactly." He actually chuckled briefly. "No, that's really not it! It wasn't easy working for Tony the first time round. We gave him a hard time because he wouldn't let us wallow in a... a puddle of abandonment, and he gave us a hard time because we wanted to wallow, and we wouldn't toe the line. It got better as it went along – for us, at least. Tony never spoke of how it was for him, and until Abby got on his case when he finally gave in and left us, I realised I never gave it a thought either. It'll be different this time. I... er... I think we like each other better after this last case." He looked anxious. "D'you think he'll say no?"
Jenny shook her head wryly. "We'll just have to wait and see... Have you spoken to Ziva?"
"No. She disappeared around the same time Gibbs went for coffee, like...ten minutes ago; I've not seen either of them since. They weren't together though; they spoke outside the elevator but Ziva didn't follow him into it."
Jenny nodded. She smiled inside; she was pretty sure being aware of your surroundings was one of DiNozzo's fledgling list of rules... Maybe neither agent was even aware that it had rubbed off one onto the other. She returned to her original subject, since there was no way that she could speak of Ziva's choice if the Mossad officer had not mentioned it.
"We won't have to wait very long, Tim; Alex called and said Tony intends to come back to work tomorrow." She began to turn away, but Tim spoke with an odd mix of urgency and diffidence.
"Director... er... where will this leave Special Agent Dominguez?"
"She's Tony's probie... there's no need to change that, is there?"
"No... I think they're a good partnership." No need to mention that the Latina and the Israeli were going to have to sheath their claws if they were going to work together. They'd managed it the past few days, it'd be OK.
Jenny nodded briskly, and went back up to her office. As she walked into Cynthia's realm, she was surprised to see Ziva sitting calmly on the comfortable chair opposite her PA's desk. She stood up as the Director entered, but didn't speak, politely leaving that to Cynthia.
"Director, have you a moment to see Officer David? I suggested she should wait until you returned."
"Of course. Come in, Ziva." She closed the door and waited.
"Jenny, I have thought about your offer. I believe I would be effective as part of the anti-terrorism team."
"I'm sure you would, Ziva." She waited.
Ziva frowned. "That is all I wanted to say, Jenny. I would like to go to the Pentagon team. When would I join them?"
"As soon as possible. But you haven't taken all the time I gave you to think about it... does Gibbs' news have anything to do with your decision?
The Israeli shrugged eloquently. "Things are changing. It seems a good time for a change for me also."
"It makes sense," Jenny agreed. "Ziva, I should tell you that I'm going to offer Tony the leadership of MCRT again, this time permanently. Would that be likely to change your decision?"
"No!" Ziva said instantly and vehemently, and Jenny looked at her with raised eyebrows. "I had almost made my decision, and when Gibbs said he was taking leave I made my mind up. Tony is not a factor in my desire to do something new."
I don't believe you're fooling anyone but yourself, Ziva, but it's none of my business. "Monday, then. I'll begin the paperwork right away. I'll ask the team leader to come over and meet you later this week; if he's in DC, of course. Do you need any time off to make preparations?"
"Such things do not take long. The weekend will be sufficient."
Jenny nodded. "If you're sure, Ziva. I'll speak to you again when I've something to update you with. Good luck."
Ziva returned to her desk; Tim looked up but she didn't seem to want to say anything, so he returned to work. Gibbs came out of the elevator a minute or so later; he'd brought coffee for them both, which he set on their desks without a word. They thanked him, but apart from that they all worked on in a strained and bewildered silence for the rest of the afternoon.
Gibbs was puzzled, and wondered just how much he didn't know the people he worked with. He'd gone for coffee, (and was her in the habit of bringing it back for them?) so they could talk about his leaving without his having to listen, call him whatever they wanted to and discuss what they were going to do next, who'd replace him, that stuff... but it was obvious from the way they were sitting stiffly, the way they hadn't sprung apart and stopped in mid-conversation with guilty looks, that they hadn't done so. He didn't understand... but hey, their problem.
It was heading towards six o'clock, and since nothing new had been called in Gibbs was just ready to call time, when Tim's phone buzzed. He bit his lip and squared his shoulders before answering.
"Abs, how are you doing?"
"I'm fine, Tim!"
"Yes, really! Honestly, Timmy, I won't try to get out of this course again, it's good! It's inspirational! Well maybe I've just got a good bunch of students, or maybe everyone else had horrible ones or said it was boring because they don't like teaching, but they listen and they give me good answers and they're learning quickly and I get as much out of teaching as they get from learning!"
When he'd sorted out all the 'they's, Tim said tentatively, "You're two days in, Abs, are you sure you –"
"Of course I can keep it up for nine weeks, Tim! I think I just needed a change, to get a different perspective! But just for a while, not for ever! I called the Director, and told her she was right, and I'll see things differently when I come back – you have to here, there are all sorts of rules like they have to call me Ma'am, which is silly, but there are good rules too, and I can't go bending them to suit me... and I miss you all, Tim, and I'll see you all at the weekend, and maybe I'll be able to talk to Tony and d'you think he'll forgive me for hitting him? Even Gibbs told me I was wrong... is he all right? Is Gibbs all right? And Ziva?"
"I think he already has, Abs... they're fine..." He stopped, tongue-tied; he had no idea how to go on, and he should have known better; the Abby radar went off instantly.
"Tim! What aren't you telling me?"
"Abby's rule number one – do not lie to Abby! Come on, Timmy, or I'll drive up right now, only I'll have my dinner first and take my time and arrive on your doorstep at 1am and ruin your sleep. What's going on?"
Tim sighed; by now Ziva and Gibbs were watching, but he didn't put it on speaker. "We solved both cases –"
"I know, I got your text. What didn't you tell me?"
"Tony got hurt. Not very much. I bet he'll be back at work tomorrow." He became seriously aware of strange noises emerging from his phone that he'd disregarded before, but they were getting louder. "Abby, what's that I can hear in the background?"
"Nothing. I don't know what you mean. What happened to Tony?"
"He got stabbed in the arm. He's fine. Abby, what's going on? It sounds like a puppy!"
"No it's not! It's seagulls! A puppy would be so against the regulations here. I haven't got a puppy! Why would you think that? Now, how's Gibbs? Tim? Tim!"
"Gibbs is fine Abs –"
Gibbs squared his shoulders. It wasn't fair to expect McGee to deal with this. "Tell Abs to give me fifteen minutes to get home, and I'll call her. Go home yourselves." He got up and headed for the door.
"Abs – "
"I heard. Take care of yourself, Timmy, I'll see you at the weekend."
"'Kay. Bye, Abs." I'm sure that was a dog I could hear...
"Gibbs! What's wrong? Is Tony really all right? Timmy wasn't telling me something..."
"DiNozzo's fine, Abs. Least, I don't think McGee would lie, ya know?"
"No, he wouldn't. I don't think he can. Gibbs, what's going on?"
The Marine sat down heavily on his basement steps, shaking his head to himself. Notwithstanding her sideways and downright childish behaviour since his return, which he'd not actually discouraged he reminded himself, she was very dear to him – he wished he could remember the half of why... he didn't want to send her into another spiral.
"Got something to tell you, Abs. Was gonna wait until the weekend..."
Her voice was absolutely level. "You're going away again."
"Yeah, Abs, I am. Thing is..." He spoke, in short, awkward bursts for maybe five minutes, telling her about Tony's determined reasoning out of the case in the face of his obstruction; Abe, and his growing conviction that something needed to be done. Apart from the odd quiet 'mm-hmm' to let him know she was still there, Abby never said a word. "... so that's what I'm going to do."
"You'll get well," she said finally, with certainty. Her voice was desolate, but firm as she went on, "Tell me you will be back."
"I will be back."
"That's good enough for me then. You don't lie to Abby. I love you, Gibbs."
Tony sat on the edge of an autopsy table, shivering without his shirt, and mumbling around a thermometer. "M'temp'ture's fine, Du'y..."
"We'll decide that when I've taken the reading, Anthony. Alex said she thought you were a little feverish last night..."
"Hnhh... ri... shho Dom'nguez ratted me out," he finished clearly as Ducky extracted the device from between his teeth.
"You're not supposed to chew it, Anthony. Now, let's see that shoulder... yes, fine, healing very cleanly..." he put a clean, lightweight dressing over the wound. "You can put your shirt back on now."
Tony slid off the table, and was reaching for the garment, hung neatly over a chair, when the door swished open.
"Good morning, Ducky; have you heard from – oh, he's here." Jenny tried not to run her eyes over her newest Supervisory Special Agent too obviously; although it was after all a Director's right to reassure herself that her people were fit. "Good morning, Tony. Special Agent Dominguez wasn't sure where you were. I'd like to speak to you in my office right away, please – I just need a brief word with Ducky."
Tony finished putting his shirt on, awkwardly with the limited use of his left hand, and hastily – it wasn't often that a guy got checked out by his director!
When he'd disappeared through the door, struggling into the sling Ducky knew he'd take right off again, Jenny handed the slim file she'd been carrying back to Ducky. "Thank you for your insight; you managed to tell me a great deal about Jethro and Abe, without actually giving away any doctor-patient privilege. Very shrewd, Ducky!"
"Well, I know it will only be used to help Jethro, so I don't have too much conscience about it. Tell me, are you going to make the offer to Tony now?"
Jenny smiled. "Not so much an offer this time, more a 'you'll damn well do as I say'..."
Ducky beamed. "I may expect him back down here before the end of the day, then."
"You may indeed." Jenny left with a smile, and rode up in the elevator to find Tony politely waiting in her outer office. When they'd entered her sanctum, she turned without preamble and said "Gibbs is taking leave of absence. I want you to take over MCRT."
He was absolutely silent for a stunned moment, then said, "No, Jen. Hell, no way. No!"
"And why not?"
"Oh, I so enjoyed it last time Gibbs came back and kicked me to the kerb... I can't wait to do it again. No way, Jen, never."
"I wouldn't do that to you again, Tony," she said reprovingly. "I thought you'd have realised that. And you were the one who turned down Rota, remember."
"Gibbs agrees, 'all the change that needs to be done gets done now'... so does Special Agent McGee – speaking of you – 'given the choice I wouldn't want to work for anyone else'."
"Oh... What about Gibbs then? You said 'leave of absence'. Will he come back? I mean, how is he? He won't tell me..."
Jenny suddenly felt desperately sorry, in a way she hadn't before, for the agent whose loyalty had been kicked about like a football. "Come and sit down, Tony." He was reluctant, looking as if he'd bolt first chance he got, but she took the time to explain exactly what had transpired on the one eventful day that he'd been absent.
"So... you think he will come back, in the end."
"Yes, with his head on straight, he says. But not to MCRT. That's yours now. With Tim."
"And I can keep Alex." He paused. "You've not said anything about Ziva."
Jenny shook her head. "You should talk to her. Now, Tony, I'm telling you. Take on MCRT."
"OK." He tried to smile.
His legs felt like rubber as he walked slowly down the stairs. Only Tim was at his desk, and he read the unreadable look on Tony's face as he glanced over at Gibbs' empty desk. He got up and went to meet him.
"You did say yes, right?" The other man hesitated. "Tony, don't tell me you have some misguided idea that it's not the right thing to do!"
"I hear you want to work for me, McGee. My SFA?"
"Yeah. Dammit, do I have to plead?"
"Hell, no. Don't even think about it!"
"It'll be different this time – "
"Hey. I know. I said yes. Just... didn't ever want it this way. Sideways..."
Tim decided to go for it. He reached out and gripped Tony's good shoulder. "It's sideways and forwards. It'll be OK."
Gibbs and Ziva came out of the elevator, deep in conversation at that moment, and Tony made to move away from the bull pen, but Gibbs stopped in front of him. "Today's Wednesday, DiNozzo. Tomorrow I'll be clearin' my desk. Earliest you can have it's Friday. Not today."
The younger man smiled; that easy-going grin that he used as a mask. "Just talking to a friend, Gibbs." He lowered his voice. "Boss," he said softly, "you will be back, right?"
"Not your Boss, DiNozzo." Gibbs didn't bother to lower his voice. "Why don't ya just quit botherin' and hasslin', and worry about your life, and let me worry about mine?"
Tony just looked at him steadily. "Something you need to remember, Gibbs. I've always had your six, and I always will. You'll never get rid of me." He walked quietly away to his own desk, hearing Gibbs' 'hmph' behind him; he tore the sling off his arm with a little more impatience than was necessary, and dropped it on the floor.
Alex was next out of the elevator, carrying the usual breakfast sack. She raised an eyebrow at the expression on her Boss's face as she passed his food over to him. He shook his head. "Let's enjoy breakfast, then I'll tell you. Will you want the good or the bad news first?"
"How bad is it?" she asked, her voice going up to an alarmed squeak.
"Nothing dire... just... I feel –"
"Tony, may I have a word with you?"
Ziva had sat at her desk, thinking again what she'd been thinking on the journey in. She'd called Jenny to ask if Tony knew of her decision, to be told no, talk to him. She didn't want to, she wished the Director had done it for her... he had feelings for her, she knew; it was going to be difficult to tell him she was leaving, he'd ask her to stay, and she'd have to be firm and not let him try to persuade her. If he pleaded she'd have to have some gentle put-down ready, and so far she hadn't thought of one. It was best to get it over with.
Tony said "Sure, Zi," and rose from his seat. As he followed her to the nearest conference room, he rcalled Tim's warning. "Ziva's got something on her mind." Jenny had told him to talk to her, she hadn't said anything of Ziva's feelings about him as leader. She was leaving, he concluded. He wondered if she'd decided before or after Gibbs had given them his news. He wondered if the fact that he'd be the new team leader was a contributing factor, and decided that was one question he'd never ask. He couldn't take the answer either way. He waited.
"Tony... I have something to tell you. Jenny has offered me a new position, and I have decided to take it." She waited for his reaction, watching his face closely.
He looked thoughtful and nodded slightly. "What will you be doing?"
"I... I am joining an anti-terrorism team. I will be based at the Pentagon."
He smiled. "That's marvellous news," he said. "You'll be great in anti-terrorism, and we're all here, just across the river if you ever need us. Congratulations, Ziva!"
This wasn't what she had expected. "You are pleased?"
"I'm happy for you. I'd have been happy for you to stay on MCRT too, but hey, I want you to be happy, and this could be the thing..." He bent and kissed her forehead. "Good luck. And don't forget we're here, OK?"
"No... of course not, Tony." Ziva left the conference room ahead of him, feeling as if the wind had been taken right out of her bellows... or whatever it was. Tony followed, feeling every shade of regret and pain at the whole situation; he just had to believe McGee was right... it'd be different this time...
There was an email from Abby when he got back to his desk.
Tony... I should have mailed before, but honestly, I have been so busy – did Tim tell you I like teaching here? That doesn't mean I don't want to come back, because I do, but I'll do my job here first. And I thought it might be good to let you cool down a bit before I asked you if you'd forgive the way I was. No excuses, I was so mixed up – but of course that's an excuse and I said no excuses!
I'm so sorry I hurt you. It means I'm down here when I should be up there looking after you guys now Gibbs won't be there to. I've told Timmy to look after you – he told me about Ziva too, well it seems as if everyone's going but I'll be back soon. Please look after him, and yourself, and I'll see you soon, and we'll all keep tabs on Gibbs, wherever he is.
He rattled off a quick reply. Missing you already... will phone tonight. And he would. He dashed one off to Alex: How would you like to be my probie on the MCRT? He sat grinning at her incredulous reaction as she read it.
He'd spent the day, the first of his leave, buying supplies for the boat. He'd rooted out his life-jacket, and checked it was still in good condition, but he bought a new GPS chip and beacon for it to be on the safe side.
Abby rang at intervals, in morning break time, lunch time, afternoon break; she was full of reassurances that they wanted him to come back to them safely, that the break would do him good, that she wasn't mad at him. She didn't say whether she was driving back that evening or leaving it until she'd had a night's sleep, but as he wandered around his basement disconsolately putting things away, the end of an era... he had a thought that made him feel guilty. It'd been difficult enough dealing with her on the phone; he couldn't cope with her face to face tonight. At her quietest she was like a hurricane, and he truly needed peace right now. When night fell he made up his mind. He felt mean, as he went up the stairs, switched all the lights above basement level off, and locked his front door.
Back to being aimless in the basement... he ran his hand over the ribs of the new boat; he had no idea when he'd work on it again. He had no desire to touch it tonight. He wished he could talk to DiNozzo. Where did that thought come from? He sat on a saw-horse with his hands dangling between his knees, looking at the stairs, wondering if he saw the younger man sitting there. A memory or making it up? Had he actually thought enough of the guy once that he'd let him down here? He wished he understood...
He didn't know how long he'd been sitting there when he heard the front door rattle. He didn't make a sound, annoyed that he hadn't heard a car draw up, but reminding himself that Abby's hearse was very quiet. There was another rattle, and then silence. Gibbs breathed a sigh of relief that she hadn't got mad enough to kick the door down. A moment later he heard an engine start up, and he froze. A big engine... an unmistakeable classic Ford V8... a Mustang. DiNozzo had a Mustang...
Gibbs knocked the saw-horse over as he leapt to his feet. He ran up the stairs and through the house as if the devil was after him. He fumbled with the lock in his haste; when he needed a steady hand it shook and failed him. He raced out of the door and down the short path, in time to see the tail lights fading, and hear the sound of the big engine dwindling. He stood in the middle of the street, arms hanging, defeated.
At the end of the road the tail lights flared suddenly; there was a harsh sound of brakes... and the Mustang came back up the road faster in reverse than it had gone down it.