- Explicit Sex
Tony walked into his apartment at a more civil time than he’d done most evenings since Gibbs had dumped the team into his lap. Everybody always commented at how unreasonable the man was with his team, how demanding, especially when they were on a case.
Turns out things were no better with the second B for bastard gone either – at least not for Tony. He ended up with even more work piling on his desk and basically living at NCIS to not let their standards drop. The only reason he was home already tonight was that Shepherd had come into the office after a meeting and insisted he go home and get some rest. She had, of course, had no suggestions to offer on how he should finish everything she expected from him at the same time.
So Tony was home and put his backpack on one of the dining table chairs, where his laptop was set up. He’d already put some files in there to take home before Shepherd swanned in, so he had at least those to work through tonight to have a head start tomorrow.
Coat and shoes put up in the closet he crouched down in front of his fishbowl and sprinkled some of the flakes in to feed the goldfish. “Ah, Kate, I sure miss you at times like these. For all your flaws, you always knew where the critical line was and did your best to pull your weight.” He watched the little fish snatch up flake after flake, swimming a few happy circles in between until his thighs started to protest the position and he got up with a sigh.
A look into his freezer showed it pitifully empty but now that he was home, he had absolutely no interest to leave his sanctuary again, and he was tired of anything he could order. So he pulled his iron reserve, the last portion of self-made spaghetti bolognese out and made a mental note to fit in some grocery shopping the next day. Somehow. He couldn’t even dream of actual cooking, but ready-made food was better than none.
He set his microwave to thaw and heat his dinner before he collapsed on the couch. Just one moment of comfort and doing nothing sounded like heaven.
The beeping of the microwave startled him back awake, and he wearily ran his hands over his face. There surely wasn’t enough sleep in the world to make him stop feeling tired at this point.
With his food and a soda he felt he deserved as he surely didn’t need alcohol for his already exhausted mind, he settled in at the table and booted up the computer. He used the time while he ate to read over some of the more mundane reports he needed to be aware off but not really do anything about.
The rest of the evening, he couldn’t really do anything more constructive than work on his undercover persona for the op Shepherd and he had been planning. It was pretty close to starting, though he had concerns left that he needed to address sooner rather than later.
He pulled out the notebook he kept for every bigger persona he set up. They were all labelled as if he was working on a movie script idea and never mentioned the name he would actually use for the persona, but writing the details down was a necessary step for him to eliminate the risk of contradictions and get a solid basis for each role. The rest was natural talent and a lot of improvisation.
Tony already knew all the facts in this notebook by heart but reading through them now, they felt distant and almost foreign, not at all like something he could easily embody in contact with other people.
With a sigh, he got up, and after cleaning up his dishes, he started on an exercise he hadn’t needed in a long time. Beginning with his music collection, he tried to pick out the kind of music Tony DiNardo would like or dislike, what would be old favourites, guilty pleasures, or songs he’d reflexively turn off on the radio. He skipped the movie collection due to the job they’d picked for DiNardo and went to his bookcase next. Lastly, he went into his closet and went through the content trying to get a feeling of how DiNardo would approach clothes.
Doing this in his own home, with his own things was a limited approach, but still usually useful. It gave him content to work with that he was already familiar with and he normally ended up with a list of things to add, music to buy or nowadays download from the internet, library sections to look through for titles that his persona might enjoy, trips to the mall to find the right style of clothing.
This time though, he came up with worryingly little.
Yes, they’d kept it close to home on purpose because the op was designed to run long term and staying close to his real personality always made that less problematic. But that should make it easier to find the headspace for DiNardo, it should make the transition for Tony more natural. Instead, he looked over the choices he’d made over the last hour or so and knew that every single one of them had been an intellectual deliberation. None of them had come from his gut, and that was a problem.
It was also a problem he wasn’t really used to. A big part of his talent for undercover ops was the ease with which he could slip into the headspace of other people, be they real or made up. But Tony DiNardo kept eluding him.
Short on ideas how to tackle this problem, he glanced at his watch and decided he could still spend some quality time with his piano. One of the major advantages of his apartment and the structure of the building was that the only neighbour who could hear him was Mrs Dupont next door, and the old lady never went to bed before midnight and loved to hear him play, so he could play long into the evening when in other apartment buildings he’d long have gotten annoyed neighbours knocking. It was incredibly useful as besides being relaxing, focusing on the music had helped him unravel plenty a puzzle over the years.
He was on his fifth piece, one of Chopin’s études, when his swirling thoughts ground to a hold, and his fingers followed suit. He let the realisation that had just hit him percolate for a moment, twisted it this way and that to see if it actually held up to scrutiny and then buried his face in his arms crossed on the piano with a groan.
No wonder he couldn’t get into character for the operation! He was struggling to just be Tony DiNozzo already. Gibbs leaving had thrown the whole dynamic of the MCRT and support staff into complete disarray, and Tony was fighting to keep everything working and together. It was in his nature to adjust his behaviour to make situations work for others, and normally, it wasn’t a problem. It came easy to him, and he was damn good at it, mostly making people comfortable or prodding them into whatever was needed from them without them even noticing.
But lately, none of it was working, and he was flailing about with little to show for it. Had he lost his touch?
That was a scary thought as much of his career depended on this skill, not just the outright undercover ops. He used it to put witnesses and victims at ease, encourage LEOs to cooperate, or make suspects underestimate him and dig their own grave. But now that he thought about it, all of that was still working just fine. So why were his people wrangling skills suddenly failing him in the office?
He made the executive decision that this level of analysing the mess that was the team at current required a very nice scotch and once that was acquired, made himself comfortable on the couch to stare off into nothing while he sipped the smooth alcohol and pondered.
What it came down to was respect and authority and the lack of both he was afforded.
While Abby would call herself Tony’s friend in a heartbeat and even mean it, her idea of friendship was one where she knew best, and everyone should just graciously give in and follow her demands – however ridiculous they might be. Tony wasn’t sure when it had happened, because she hadn’t always been like that, but she had lost her respect and honest care for other people’s opinions and wishes. Tony didn’t even think that she still respected Gibbs at this point, just feared rejection from him too much to rock that particular boat too much.
With McGee, the issue was that he had never really figured out how the leadership dynamic between Gibbs and Tony worked and what that meant for Tim’s placement on the team. And maybe they had both miscalculated his personality as well, built up his self-esteem too far without developing both self-reflection and appreciation in teamwork and procedures. And the last one would have been entirely Tony’s own failing as he’d never had illusions about Gibbs’ own shortcomings in those regards. Whatever the reason, in little more than two years, McGee had gone from a painfully shy computer geek to an arrogant agent driven by ambitions his skill set couldn’t really back up.
And where to even start with Ziva. Tony had known she’d be a problem pretty much from the start. There was so much wrong with her placement on the team, the liberties given to her despite her lack of formal qualification for the job, her personal relationship with Shepherd, the way she tried and often succeeded to play Gibbs, her hot and cold flirting with Tony only to eviscerate him verbally in the next moment. Tony wasn’t sure she respected anything or anyone, not even herself in many ways. If pushed, he’d say her worldview was put together entirely by how useful someone or something was to her or whatever mission she was truly on. Tony hadn’t figured it out yet, but he didn’t buy the company line about her interest in NCIS.
He wasn’t entirely sure why he ranked especially low on her list, whether she really thought so little of him or if she saw him as a threat and tried to discredit him or get him mad enough not to take too close a look at her. It largely depended on how much stock he put into her profiling skills. Most of the time, that judgement didn’t come down in her favour.
No, that Ziva challenged him left, right and centre didn’t surprise him at all. When the cat’s away and all that.
But nothing of this was new, and he’d managed it just fine before, it wasn’t like you could really call Gibbs’ intimidation factor leadership qualities. The waters should be calmer without him around. So what had changed so dramatically?
He was no longer the mostly invisible power behind the throne, that’s what had changed. He’d always known that not being in the spotlight was an advantage for his style of managing people. Almost like a good magician, he relied on distracting their attention away from what he was doing in their interactions. It was subtle and a very weak manipulation that he didn’t feel guilty about at all. Hell, advertisers laid it on much more heavily all the time.
But the change from SFA to team leader had thrown a wrench into that system. He was now the focus of attention and ire, and nobody had stepped up to act as a buffer the way he had done for Gibbs. McGee was a bigger problem than help in that regard.
The way Gibbs had dumped the team into his lap certainly hadn’t helped, but given the circumstances, Tony couldn’t find it in him to be mad at the man. Disappointed and frustrated? Yes, absolutely. But not mad. He had always known about Shannon and Kelly and had seen over the years how the man had dealt with that loss – or not dealt with it as the case might be. He’d seen the fresh, raw pain in Gibbs’ eyes as the amnesia made that wound fresh and bleeding again. While there were many faults Tony could lay at his boss’ feet, he understood why Gibbs had needed to get away from everyone that belonged to the life after his girls.
So, yes, he’d become team lead under difficult circumstances. But with a tightly knit team like theirs, you’d typically expect an especially supportive start as a result. And there was absolutely nothing of that kind anywhere in sight.
Instead, everyone seemed to work against him.
Well, everyone was slightly overstating things. Balboa’s team had stepped in with little things to take away from this load as their own cases allowed. Jimmy had been a sheer godsend of friendship over the last months, many times being the only one to make sure Tony even got something to eat. And Ducky was simply lost in his own head and disappointment but did his work as solid as ever without blaming Tony for anything. He may have been the one best suited to help contain the mess the others were making, but that wasn’t actually part of his job description.
No, that part belonged to Shepherd. Now that he thought about that, her habit of putting her nose into everything around the MCRT but not getting involved where it was appropriate seemed odd. The way the DC headquarters were structured, she was their direct superior and should get involved when the team wasn’t working properly. But nothing of that kind had happened, not even when he finally had had enough and started writing Tim and Ziva up for tardiness and insubordination. Instead of disciplinary actions, his complaints had gone nowhere.
He’d worry about his job as his current performance wasn’t all that impressive if it wasn’t for this undercover op that the director had asked him to take on and personally planned with him. The trust implied in that was a balm to his ragged self-confidence.
“DiNozzo, you idiot,” he chided himself when the penny dropped. Everything about this op was wrong, wrong, wrong. His mental step to the right made it blatantly obvious, but he’d been too distracted by the daily struggles and too desperate for a success to see it before.
It would need a bit more careful digging to determine what level of wrong this was, but he knew down to the marrow of his bones that he needed to keep the fingers from this op.
He drained what was left of his scotch and put the tumbler in the sink, turning off lights on the way to his bedroom. If he wanted to tackle the director herself starting tomorrow, he really needed a good night’s sleep to be on the top of his game.
He crouched down in front of Kate’s bowl again.
“What did I get myself into this time, Kate? How could I have not seen this coming? It’s almost like she let everything go FUBAR so I’d be too distracted to ask the right questions. Damn, that’s exactly what she did, didn’t she? I suddenly feel groomed for whatever game she’s really playing.” He shuddered at that thought. Fish Kate just started on another lazy circle around her bowl and Tony decided to try and wash away the day with all the nasty realisations of the evening with a nice hot shower.