It wasn’t the hand clamped around his good arm, steering him, maneuvering him into the passenger seat of McGee’s car that kept Tony together. It wasn’t the flash of blue eyes or the way Gibbs folded him into the seat and then reached across to fasten his seatbelt. It wasn’t the throbbing of his right arm cradled within its sling against his chest. And it certainly wasn’t the grim look on the older man’s face as he slipped away, Ziva in tow, leaving Tony swallowing harshly and watching his rigid back walking away. No – it was none of those things. It was that same painful focus, the cold control practiced and polished by the years, by the teams and cities and departments – and families - that held Tony there, silent and still, the cold glass of the car window pressed against his forehead. It tightened around him, reinforcing his stubbornness, and thickening his skin until he was, again, unassailable. Invulnerable. Alone.
It was the warmth of one slim hand on his shoulder, Abby’s kiss on his cheek, and McGee’s gruff acknowledgement, the respectful nod as McGee drove slowly through the DC streets that reached behind his mask and demolished him.
“I miss Kate,” Abby breathed against his skin from the backseat. “Every day, Tony. Every day.”
He reached up and covered her hand with his.
“Me, too.” McGee stared straight ahead, but the strain showed in the way his hands gripped the wheel, in the thrust of his chin, and in the sighing of his voice.
Tony only trusted himself enough to nod.
“We were all still grieving when Ziva came,” Tim added hoarsely. “You, me, Ducky. I guess even Gibbs.”
Tony turned to stare at his teammate, his thoughts twisting and plummeting, unfettered by hard-won wisdom or careful detachment. Tony remembered Gibbs’ icy rejection, his dismissal. After one last sail, one last talk in front of Gibbs’ fireplace, one last sharing of griefs and painful burdens just days after her funeral. One last word of comfort, a firm hand that had shaken him from a nightmare filled with hot splashes of blood and dead brown eyes. In the morning, the morning before Ziva’s return, Gibbs had showed Tony the door and then locked it behind him.
“I hate what Gibbs did to you, Tony.” Abby leaned forward, holding her cheek against his, her arm reaching over the seat to press against his chest, just over his heart. “Your grief, all the pain and hurt and stupid, stupid loss when Kate died – he made you grieve twice - for both of them.”
Tears spilled over – he felt each one as it dropped over his lashes and down his face. Nowhere to hide, no mask to cover the pain, Tony let them fall.
“I guess I’ve never been all that observant, huh?” McGee flashed a grim smile his way. “I mean, I knew you respected him, wanted his approval. But, well, I didn’t get that he’d kinda abandoned you. That the nasty things he said to you were … that they hurt you. Honest, Tony.”
Abby’s fist banged into McGee’s shoulder. “What would you have done if you knew, Timmy?”
The probie’s mouth opened and closed, eyebrows furrowed. “I don’t know – but I might have realized sooner that something was wrong with the way Ziva was acting – and that the Boss didn’t notice.”
“Didn’t care,” Tony heard himself answer.
Abby’s hand clutched tighter. “We care, Tony.”
McGee blew out a breath. “Yeah, we do.” The admission promised that in the future, in other company, the younger man might deny it, but it would always remain a firm foundation between them.
Caring – caring was good, Tony admitted. “But will you still respect me in the morning?” he asked quietly, trying to lance the depth of his need with humor.
“Don’t be stupid,” Abby answered, digging her pointy chin into his shoulder. “You’re still you.”
“Very Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo,” Tim quipped, flashing a smile Tony’s way.
The iceberg sitting on Tony’s chest eased up, just a little.
“And we should have seen what she was doing sooner. I can’t believe I’ve been such an idiot to trust everything she said.”
Tony looked back and forth, that icy weight slowly thawing with each word, the fear of exposure no longer beating like a kettle drum against his ribs.
Abby grabbed at his chin and turned his face towards her, her mouth tight with fury, eyes blazing. “And the Boss is an idiot for pushing you away. ‘Protecting you.’ Huh. Talk about stupid.”
Ziva was waiting in the garage when they arrived, pacing back and forth in front of the elevator, hands buried deep in the pockets of her coat. Dark eyes watched McGee drive in and park; watched them as they walked towards her, and then flashed with something like regret when she noticed how close they stood, how Abby twined her arm with Tony’s and leaned on his shoulder; how McGee walked just behind his injured side. She straightened then, her pale face showing no trace of the calm serenity of a controlled foreign agent.
“Gibbs has gone ahead to speak with the Director,” she stated evenly, gaze locked with Tony’s. “He asked that we wait for him in Abby’s lab.”
“Sounds cozy,” Tony replied as Abby pressed the button and the elevator opened. Before he could move forward, Ziva raised one hand, being very careful to make sure she didn’t touch anyone.
“I would like to speak with Tony alone.”
Not exactly a request, more like a thinly veiled order, as if their compliance was something she could take for granted.
“Oh, I don’t think so-”
Tony cut her off. “It’s okay, Abbs.”
“Tony, I’m really not sure-”
“Probie – I’m pretty sure her sneaky ninja skills won’t do her much good right now. I don’t think the Boss will believe her if she comes back with some story about how I just happened to strangle myself with the elevator cables or shoot myself in the head with her gun. Not today, anyway.” Tony added grimly, the unconditional acceptance from his teammates fading as he faced the reality of their damaged team and Gibbs’ continued rejection. What exactly was going to change? He cocked his head, letting his gaze wander over Ziva’s tight features and awkward pose and was surprised to find a slender thread of curiosity unfurling within him. He wanted to know what she had to say, how she would explain herself – or if she would even try.
Abby left another dark imprint of her lipstick on his cheek and McGee did his best to threaten Ziva with a geekily fierce stare as Tony motioned the Mossad agent into the elevator. He smiled his gratitude at the two, standing so stiffly, so worried on his behalf, as the doors closed, and then he quickly flicked the stop button.
Tony sighed and leaned tiredly against the metal wall of the small car. It was barely 0900, but he felt as if he’d been awake for days, running, dodging, scrambling for purchase, every muscle screaming its painful defiance at keeping him upright and moving. He locked his knees and tried to blink the haze from his eyes. And waited.
Listening to the silence, he traced the signs of stress on Ziva’s face, examining the tiny indications of her mounting distress, of her confusion, and the anger that seemed to be the woman’s knee-jerk reaction to the unknown. Finally she turned to face him, the familiar shutters back up to guard her eyes.
“I will not apologize for following my training.”
“I never expected that you would,” Tony replied. Apparently an apology was a sign of weakness for more than just hard-headed Marines.
“I … misunderstood the situation between you and Gibbs. My research told me that you were the weak link, the one I could target with the most ease and the best odds for fulfilling my mission.”
Shifting to ease the burning ache in his arm, Tony half-shrugged. “I don’t think you misunderstood anything, Ziva.” She was the one with all the information, the intel; she’d watched Gibbs’ harsh dismissals and destructive sarcasm, saw the fall-out of his withdrawal of his friendship. “As a spy, you made the right choice.”
“But not as an NCIS team member.”
“Because a team,” her brows furrowed, dark eyes now searching for answers, “a teammate would never seek to use another’s weakness, to exploit it.” She shook her head. “And yet both you and Gibbs do so every day.”
“That’s different,” Tony snapped.
“How?” Ziva stepped closer, her frantic pursuit of the solution radiating from her in waves, nearly burning him in its intensity. “How is it different? You mock McGee, Abby teases you, Gibbs slaps at everyone. Tell me, Tony, how is it different?”
He dropped his chin, lips tight, memories threatening to unravel him again. Silly taunts. Head slaps. Pranks. Verbal barbs aimed slightly too close to home. The strange, hard, deep, incomprehensible dynamic of Team Gibbs. What on Earth did it resemble more than a family?
Over-indulged, youngest daughter. Smart, geeky teenager. Tony was still the first-born son. Jock. Heir to the family business. Expected to protect his younger sibs, to remind their dad of his weaknesses and to shore up his strengths. Gibbs had reminded him of that not that long ago. Senior Agent. He’d given Tony back the rights and responsibilities of being his second, his partner. Every member of Team Gibbs slotted neatly back into place. Sort of.
“The difference, my dear Ziva,” Tony raised his head, gaze softening, lips curving upwards in wry admission, “is the foundation. Our foundation. Team Gibbs is based on more than just this job, more than a sense of justice or fairness. It’s a family. A dysfunctional family, I’ll admit. But, then again, you should find that pretty familiar.”
“And nothing can remove one from this family?”
Tony shook his head, ignoring the bite of regret, the still painful longing for more. “No. You might lose your standing. Might be in the doghouse for life.” He was so tired, so very tired of trying to figure this all out. “Might be treated like the unwelcome cousin, the family reject. The foster kid. But, see, that’s the thing. Even then, you’re still family.”
Ziva narrowed her eyes. “Even now?”
“Oh, I’ll admit you managed to rock that foundation; gave it a good shaking,” Tony laughed dryly, “but you saw the results.” He leaned in. “And you know why? I’ll tell you why. Because our foundation is a hard-assed, committed, never-leave-a-man-behind Marine.”
She held her ground, staring back with equal determination. “And yet Gibbs left you behind, Tony,” she whispered.
Tony ground his teeth. “That’s personal – it has nothing to do with the team.”
She let her eyes fall to half-mast, pursed her lips, and looked him up and down. “You are sure of that?”
Was he? Doubt and hurt and loneliness crowded into the small elevator car, smothering, numbing, teasing the pain like he would a broken tooth. Gibbs had shut him out, shut him down, and become an oblivious co-conspirator in Ziva’s schemes. But Tony’d be damned if he’d give the Mossad agent the satisfaction of admitting it. “Yeah, Ziva. I’m sure.” And the mask slid smoothly back into place.
A long moment later, Ziva reached out and flipped the switch, sending the elevator up towards the lab. She faced front again, avoiding his eyes, her shoulders hunched as if in surrender.
“As for my ‘misunderstanding,’” she continued, “I have been told that appliances can be deceiving.”
Tony frowned. “‘Appearances,’ Officer David.”
The doors opened and she threw a glance over her shoulder. “Exactly.”
Ducky insisted on examining his wound again, in full view of the team, of course, clucking over the hot, swollen flesh, and calling in a prescription for an antibiotic cream to chase away the infection.
“I’ll send Mister Palmer out to pick it up directly, Anthony,” he said as he re-wrapped Tony’s arm. “Right now he’s a bit busy shifting the four drowning victims that washed up last weekend so that he can clean the autopsy drawers.” A sly smile danced across his face. “Again.”
“Yuck,” Abby responded from her place pressed against Tony’s side, Bert clutched tightly in her arms.
“Yes, well, that should help him understand the importance of knowing one’s place within the team,” Ducky commented, glancing towards Ziva who stood removed from the group beneath the window.
“Poor Palmer,” McGee murmured, face unnaturally pale.
“What about Mister Palmer?”
Tony was facing the doorway. He’d heard the tap of the Director’s heels against the floor and had been watching when she entered the lab with Gibbs at her side, her newly shorn hair gleaming copper in the overhead lights. Ducky carefully finished with Tony’s wound, hands cool and gentle against his skin as he urged the long-sleeved shirt back up into place over Tony’s shoulder, and then smiled up into his eyes before turning to face the unknown quantity that was Jennifer Shepard.
“Mister Palmer is hard at work, Director, as he should be,” the medical examiner answered, truthfully if not completely honestly. Tony appreciated the subtle protectiveness in the elderly man’s tone and in the way he stood between Tony and the door, blocking him as he fumbled to do up the buttons of his shirt, to hide his vulnerability.
Shepard raised one eyebrow and scoured the group with a glance, but Tony had already dismissed her scrutiny, knowing that, as always, Gibbs was in charge here, it was his lead that the others would follow. He found himself straightening, breath held in his chest, unconsciously readying himself for the next blow, the next swipe against his thinly stitched armor. His eyes widened in shock as Gibbs caught his floundering gaze and strode quickly to his side, steady hands tucking Tony’s arm back into the sling and reaching around his neck to fasten it securely. Tony’s held breath left him all at once and he nearly missed Shepard’s remarks.
“Officer David, you’re expected in MTAC in fifteen minutes for a conference between this agency and Mossad in order to address the … specifics … of your assignment here at NCIS.”
Ziva shifted forward, her head up, eyes wary. “And will I continue on Special Agent Gibbs’ team?”
Gibbs didn’t glance her way. “We’ll see,” he answered, still smoothing the strap against Tony’s neck.
“Very well.” Her voice seemed smaller somehow.
“As for the rest of you,” Shepard continued. “I’m sure you can find something to do. Something work related,” she added before turning on her heel.
Ziva followed after a moment.
The silence was broken by the beeps and whines of Abby’s machines, the shuffling of feet, and rustling of clothing. Tony felt trapped, too hot, exposed, and wanted only to escape the blue eyes that never looked away, the closeness and power of the man too close beside him.
“What do you think is going to happen, Bossman?” Abby swiveled back and forth on her stool.
Tony kept his head down.
“Oh, I figure Director David is gonna take the blame, play the ‘she was following orders’ card, and make it clear that Ziva is to now consider herself working within the command structure of NCIS and not Mossad.”
“Even though that will not really be the case,” Ducky added.
“No,” Gibbs laughed.
“Will you let her stay on the team?” McGee demanded bluntly.
Tony felt Gibbs’ shrug. “That depends on her,” was Gibbs’ only answer.
Tony stood within his dark apartment, leaning against the window, staring out into another rainy night. The clouds had filled up the sky as the day progressed, crowding out the blue with their greys and blacks, tumbling and struggling against each other in the rising wind. Another ride home from a teammate in exhausted silence, less awkward, less pointed – the warmth of offered compassion and the foundation of family helping to assuage the lingering sensations of loss and strain. The team was still unsettled, tense, feelings still raw and nerves exposed. But a healing – of sorts – had already begun.
He really should turn on a light. Order some dinner. Check the movie station. ‘October Sky’ was on tonight. One of his modern favorites. Jake Gyllenhaal’s son to Chris Cooper’s father. He smiled to himself. Yeah. Tony was nothing if not predictable.
John – the father – a brave and brusque coalminer, is injured rescuing other men, putting his life on the line. Stands between a boy and his violent, drunken father. The son, Homer, the prodigal, wants to pursue his own dreams. His father doesn’t understand. Tony lifted the beer bottle to his lips, Homer’s lines reverberating through his mind as the tense scene played across his memory.
“Dad, I may not be the best, but I come to believe that I got it in me to be somebody in this world. And it’s not because I’m so different from you either, it’s because I’m the same. I mean, I can be just as hard-headed, and just as tough. I only hope I can be as good a man as you. Sure, Wernher von Braun is a great scientist, but he isn’t my hero.”
And, of course, in the end, father and son face the future together. “Only in the movies,” Tony muttered.
The knock on the door came, as expected. He could imagine the six pack of beer swinging from one hand, the blue eyes shadowed with regret, maybe an apology tucked back behind some casual words.
Tony lifted his beer again and stared out into the rain.