The Sorcerer's Apprentice

by Domenika Marzione

“What are you doing working with these bozos?” is not what Tony would call a world-class pitch line. In fact, it takes him the better part of a week to realize that it is a pitch line and not just an indication that NCIS Special Agent Gibbs doesn't think he's quite as inept as his colleagues. Which he's still not sure about because it certainly seemed like Gibbs is glaring at him as much as everyone else.

Nonetheless, when they solve the case and Culinary Specialist Third Class Robertson is being hauled off to wherever the Navy puts its drug-dealing, informant-killing, hash-slingers, Gibbs hands him a card.

“You can do better than this,” he says.

Tony's reaction is to stow the card in his breast pocket and forget about it until the next time he has to pull together a load for the dry cleaner, whereupon it moves to the top of his dresser with his coin change and his frequent flier card for the frozen yogurt place and gets forgotten again because it's November and he's not buying much frozen yogurt.

It's late on a Wednesday when Monroe calls to tell him that their lieutenant is going to ignore the fact that Bolger and Jefferson just racked up another appearance before the civilian complaint review board. The complaint -- officially harassment, but it would be brutality if they could get actual sworn statements -- is getting trashed because if either of them get another note in their files, they'll get fired for cause.

Monroe's pissed because he'd rather work that much harder for their shift being down two murder police than to have Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum in the squad room making the rest of them look stupid and ugly by association. Tony can't come up with anything to make his partner feel better about working with a couple of losers who are only different from the men they arrest by the fact that they carry cuff keys. There's a hiring freeze because the city is broke, but the city is always broke. They are supposed to be able to rise above no matter what, but they're not. County's murder rates are going up because Charm City can't keep the body count down; the muckrakers are starting to write depressing features in the national newsmagazines again, and, at this rate, David Simon will never be looking for work ever again.

But Tony might be. A couple of weeks later, there's an ad for the Marine Corps during the Wake Forest-Duke game and he suddenly remembers the card Gibbs gave him. He's on nights this week, so he can call first thing Monday morning and ask what he has to do to apply. Which turns out to be not much because he's already got an open HR file that has a recommendation in it from Special Agent L. J. Gibbs.

His lieutenant is completely unsurprised that he's thinking of moving on. “Been here longer than your last job, DiNozzo,” he says. “I knew you were on borrowed time.”

There's probably some kind of academy, or at least a training course, that Tony's supposed to be going to as a brand-new agent operating under a brand-new set of rules, but he's not. Instead, he's got a desk in Gibbs's section of the floor and a lot of homework.

There'd been a copy of the UCMJ on Tony's desk on his first day. “Have that down by the end of the week,” Gibbs told him. Tony's read it every night, focusing on Chapters Two (apprehension and restraint) and Ten (punitive articles), since those are where the fun is if you're in his line of work. His current favorite is Article 114 (dueling), but it changes depending on his mood. Chapter Ten is kind of fun, actually, because in addition to all of the usual Ten Commandments kind of rules against rape and murder and drugs and theft, there are all of the rules and regulations relating to military service and the conducting of war. There is little chance of the Navy chugging into battle these days, but it does remind Tony of the parts of being at RIMA that didn't suck.

(And by the time the Navy does chug into war, along with the entire Marine Corps, Tony's got the damned thing memorized backward and forward. Including the fact that blowjobs are illegal, which is just depressing even if they don't enforce it.)

“I don't want them filling his head with garbage,” Gibbs tells the Director when someone makes the novel suggestion that Tony maybe take the (required) class on the UCMJ and how it relates to civilian laws and, you know, learn the ropes before they toss him into the deep end. “He's not going to 'learn the ropes' by sitting in a conference room listening to some JAG officer. He'll learn the ropes by handling them. He's been a cop; he knows how to do that already.”

Gibbs does, however, agree to send him to the Welcome to the Department of the Navy class, which doesn't surprise Tony at all because the other books on his desk are about Navy and Marine Corps uniform regulations, etiquette, protocol, and a primer on Navy vessels. He doesn't think all of this is nearly as important – he's never going to be in a position where anyone's fate is decided by his ability to tell a Spruance-class from an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer at any distance and while, yes, he needs to be able to tell an engineman from a quartermaster by the insignia on their sleeve, there's no real urgency to memorize the NEC and MOS codes. Or the ribbons and medals. Or the rules about when a marine can wear his sleeves rolled up and when he does or does not salute indoors.

Except then Gibbs catches a robber posing as a marine by looking at grainy closed-circuit footage of the guy buying Gatorade at a gas station. “Lance Corporal Merula” was wearing his uniform wrong, which lent some credence to Lance Corporal Merula's insisting that he'd never left Norfolk. (He hadn't; his wife's lover, hoping to resume the privileges he'd enjoyed while Merula had been at sea by getting his rival tossed in the brig, had used his spare uniform to commit the crimes.)

Tony, who'd been feeling very Daniel Larusso to Gibbs's Mister Miyagi with the random pop quizzes about Marine regiment home bases and what the abbreviation for machinist's mate is, goes to the class without complaint.

When he gets back from the course, which was all of three days at Norfolk, the desk to his right is empty. It takes Tony until the following Monday to realize that Agent Pearl is not actually on vacation, but is instead gone. Gone where, he doesn't know. He asks Nicodemus, whose desk is across from Tony's, but all she says is “Gibbs turned him down.”

Tony isn't sure what that means – did Pearl propose marriage while Tony was in Norfolk? Was he on some kind of double-secret probation and failed to make the cut?

Gibbs didn't seem to have any real dislike of Pearl, although there was definitely some disdain. But not necessarily any more disdain than Gibbs routinely showered upon Tony and Nicodemus. Pearl was quiet, mouselike, and never left his desk except to eat or pee; he seemed to exist only to play Magic Mirror for Gibbs, who'd bark out requests for information, sometimes readily available (for someone less technophobic than L. Jethro Gibbs) and sometimes requiring serious research, and then glower until Pearl gave him what he wanted.

But Pearl, unlike Nicodemus, would say hello to Tony in the mornings and goodnight in the evenings and sometimes would ask him how he was doing. So Tony eventually goes and asks Barkley the Lab Guy, who tells him that Pearl was never actually Gibbs's subordinate, that Pearl actually worked for Mearing, and when Mearing finally got fed up with Pearl's unofficial secondment and offered Pearl to Gibbs, Gibbs turned him down.

“So he's off to Guam,” Barkley concludes with a wry grin. “Which just goes to show you that being unloved by Gibbs is more than just its own reward.”

“Tell that to Nicodemus,” Tony retorts. Nicodemus is Gibbs's other (actual) subordinate and, by the laws of the jungle and every athletic and professional team Tony's ever been on, has the near-legal obligation to make Tony's life miserable by forcing him to do all of the scutwork. But she doesn't (Gibbs, however, does). Nicodemus – Tony's not allowed to call her Claire – is a decent investigator and has a sharp eye at crime scenes and probably has plenty of knowledge of both the job and of Gibbs that she could pass on to Tony, but she doesn't. She barely talks to him, not at all outside of the professionally necessary, and Tony'd feel more peeved about that than he is if it weren't for the fact that the frost between her and Gibbs is even colder than than whatever ice front she threw at Tony the first day they met.

“Gibbs doesn't have a problem with Nicodemus,” Barkley says, shaking his head as he moves samples from machine to machine. “She gets treated no better or worse than Burley did. She's just an unhappy soul. I don't know if she wants Gibbs to pat her on the head or sleep with her or what. But she's counting down the days until her performance review so she can get rated for independent status and get out of here.”

Burley is Tony's predecessor, more or less. He's an agent afloat somewhere, having graduated the School of Gibbs with flying colors, and he is the platonic ideal that Gibbs compares both Tony and Nicodemus to and finds them wanting. There was apparently a small army of potential baby Burleys between the original and Tony's arrival, none lasting more than six weeks, and Tony wonders if Nicodemus won't let him call her Claire because she thinks he'll be gone soon, too.

He uses her first name at the seven week mark and she tells him not to do so again.

At the nine-month mark, Tony is told that he needs to do a rotation at sea. Gibbs tells him to pick a submarine, since that'll get him everything he needs to know about being the law aboard ship and it's the shortest rotation. He doesn't tell Tony that it's the shortest for a reason, that nobody wants sub duty, and that you have to be a certain kind of crazy to be happy as a submariner. (It's a different kind of crazy than is required to be happy as a marine. Tony's mastering all the different kinds of crazy that are required to work here.) But Gibbs, being Gibbs, is ultimately correct. Life aboard the USS Boise is certainly a crash course in both Navy life -- everyone, including the NCIS agent, has to participate in fire control drills -- and NCIS-at-sea life.

“That'll get you out of your next sea duty,” Gibbs tells him when he gets back, right before pointing to his backpack and gesturing that he should get moving because Nicodemus is already in the van.

Nicodemus finally gets her wish – freedom from Gibbs – shortly after Tony's eighteen-month mark. He's feeling a little pleased with himself as well, this being pretty much his record for not even thinking about changing jobs, and decides to suggest to Nicodemus that they go out for a drink on Friday, purely above-board, to celebrate. But Nicodemus is already gone, desk cleared out, and no goodbyes.

(He runs into her a few years later, at NAS Sigonella, and doesn't even recognize her. She's cut her hair short and she's laughing and smiling and she greets him with a “Tony!” and a quick hug. She's horrified to learn that he's still working for Gibbs, but promises him that life really is so much better away from “that hell.” He doesn't tell her that he's kind of enjoying himself and still doesn't understand what her problem was back then because he spent the next year getting told “Claire would've had that already.”)

After Nicodemus goes, Tony isn't sure if Gibbs is going to pull in another veteran or start the process of finding a new probationary agent. He's certainly not going to ask Gibbs, although he maybe does do the puppy-dog eyes thing around Ducky until Ducky lets slip that Gibbs is currently in the Director's office with the other senior agents going through the files of the latest fresh meat.

Tony is relieved to be losing his spot at the bottom of the totem pole and, after spending a year and a half with the Ice Princess, he's rather looking forward to being a big brother, to imparting the pearls of wisdom he's learned by trailing after Gibbs, to passing on the Gibbs Rules.

There are nine junior agents who sit in Nicodemus's chair before any of them are even there long enough to need to sharpen their pencils. And then the first one who does stay is Viv Blackadder, who is fun and totally willing to watch hours of Rowan Atkinson with him and Abby... and then she has to go all bunny-boiler on the case with the JAG lawyers and then they're back on the merry-go-round with the Newbies of the Week.

There is a temptation to hold back on the friendship thing until any of the candidates prove that they'll be here long enough for his efforts to reap rewards, but Tony's not that kind of guy. He's a social creature and he likes having someone to talk to; working alone with Gibbs is a very solitary environment and he hates being quiet for long stretches. Plus, he totally loves having little siblings, even if they're foster kids who'll be gone the minute they fail to impress Gibbs. He is an only child and he's never been at any job long enough to be one of the veterans before. He's not sure how much of a veteran he is here, either, except for the fact that he's managed to last a couple of years at Gibbs's side, which is sort of like being the championship bull rider but without Debra Winger waiting for him at the end. Whether he's lasted because he's good or because he's too stupid to quit, he can't tell and Gibbs won't say. Either way, Tony tries to greet each potential teammate as the one who will stick, offer them advice and show them the ropes so that if they fail, it won't be because of something easily correctable.

(How and why each of the newbies manage to earn Gibbs's bootprint on their suit bottoms is sometimes obvious, sometimes not. It's never as spectacular as Viv's exit, but sometimes it seems totally random, like maybe Gibbs didn't like their shoes. Tony doesn't think anyone's actually gotten transferred because of shoes, but Kierson did wear heels that rarely came below three inches, so that might have really been why she got turfed.)

While he'd like to think that he's maybe learning Gibbs's preferences and foibles, the fact is that Gibbs remains a total enigma except for the way he likes his coffee, the fact that he expects more out of NCOs than anyone else, and that just because he's criticizing you doesn't mean he's not pleased. (Although sometimes it just means he's pissed). Also, for a guy who has spent so much of his life living by strict rule sets (his own, the Corps's, the UCMJ), he is extremely willing to bend, break, and ignore them if it means getting the job done.

Which is why Tony's a little proud of himself for totally seeing the offer to Caitlin Todd coming.

Kate is not quite willing to be the junior partner, never letting Tony think for a minute that he's got anything except more time in the saddle than her. They get along anyway and he can't help think that this is what it should have been like with Nicodemus.

Except not for how it ends. Tony'd give anything to be able to run into Kate on some random naval base and have her marvel at how he's still working for Gibbs. But he can't. Instead he walks past her name on the list of fallen agents on the plaque in the hallway, says hello to her in his head, assures her that Gibbs is still comparing them all unfavorably to past subordinates, and fills her in on McGee's latest misadventure and Ziva's latest malapropism. (He's not sure if the two of them would have gotten along; he suspects not, although it would be a professional thing and not a personal one.)

Kate's name isn't the first one he recognizes on the wall and it certainly isn't the last. By the time Paula Cassidy is posthumously honored for her bravery and commitment, Tony's high enough on the headquarters totem pole that he gets a seat in the front two rows. He's a veteran now; he's led his own team and he's running a covert op (that he's not doing the former anymore is proof of his dedication to Gibbs; that he's doing the latter may mean that it's a moot point because Gibbs might never forgive him) and he knows, with all of the certainty of the words being spoken in Cassidy's memory, that this is where he belongs.

feed me on LJ?

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15 August, 2009