Chapter Notes: Some creative manipulation of timing and circumstances. I forgot—when I was composing this in my head at 5:00 AM Wednesday morning—that Tony implied that he hadn't realized his father had called until the morning, for example. Other than that, it's as canon as I can make it. Oh, and I borrowed some dialogue.
Episode tag for Broken Arrow.
When an early morning phone calls jars him from sleep, Tony expects death.
He tells himself that it will be a sailor. Killers, after all, do not plot their deeds on a timetable convenient for slumber; and this is hardly the first time he has been pulled from bed at awkward hours. But life has made him wary.
Lurking in the back of his mind is the fear that this time, it will be a friend.
So when the glowing numbers spell out his father's name instead of Gibbs's, relief makes him hesitate. He flips open the phone on impulse, but the pause is too long. The number flashes one last time. The screen goes dark.
He should call back, Tony knows. His finger hovers over the button. There is the possibility, however slim, that it could be an emergency.
But it isn't.
DiNozzo seniors, unlike their sons, are too wily and self-interested to deliberately put themselves in danger. DiNozzo seniors do not seek their sons when they are trouble, do not call when they need something.
Only when they want something.
Tony can count on one finger the number of times in the last thirty years that his father has called simply to chat, and the attempt ended in one of the most toxic tirades that Tony has ever endured. He knows better, by now, than to think he has ever been his father's first priority.
Some days, he wonders if he was ever a priority at all.
And yet the impulse to be as his father wants him to be is almost too strong to resist. Fury at that injustice—that after a lifetime of disappointments, he still seeks approval—spurs Tony to a decision. Snapping the phone closed, he hurls it onto the floor.
He has been at his father's beck and call long enough.
The cell clatters as it hits the ground. Instantly, anger is replaced by guilt. His defiance is paid for tenfold in a sleepless night, interrupted by fitful dreams of his mother's funeral.
But he doesn't pick up the phone until morning.
Ziva, of course, is the first to react to his mood. As always, her method of interrogation is blunt force trauma—usually to some exquisitely painful section of the hand. In this case, she settles for emotional bludgeoning.
"I do not understand you," she complains, one hip hitched onto his desk.
Fathers, for her, have always been distant creatures; men concerned with matters of national security, matters far more important than the contentment of their children. To expect otherwise is foolishness, and Ziva has always taken foolishness as a personal affront. "First you are angry that your father called, and now you are frustrated because he is not calling you back. What is it that you want?"
He doesn't know what he wants, other than not to be put through the wringer of her inspection. "I want him safe," he snaps, and it is the truth, but only part of it. "Safe and back in New York where he belongs." He shoves in his desk drawer with enough force to make his computer wobble, and hopes for the sake of all that is good in the world that the answer is enough for her.
Fate, of course, has other plans for him.
"You are being irrational," Ziva informs him firmly, crossing her arms. "I'm sure your father wants to see you. Personally, I find him quite charming."
A muscle in Tony's jaw clenches involuntarily. Only the knowledge of her own extensive paternal issues—and the fact that she is his friend, and truly does mean well—keeps his hot words in check.
Ziva's father left her to die in Somalia. The myriad transgressions of Anthony DiNozzo Sr. pale in comparison to that unforgivable crime. Tony knows this as well as anyone; fury at Eli David on both he and Ziva's behalf has kept him awake more nights than he can count. Still, the greater wrongdoing does not abolish the lesser, and he'd half expected an ally in his confusion.
Not so. Here, their shared pain does not unite them. For all of her many virtues, expressing empathy has never been Ziva's strongest suit. Time has softened her edges, but it has not abolished them, and in this case she is unable—or unwilling —to understand that flirtatious jokers of fathers can also leave wounds too deep for healing.
So Tony stands before he says something he will regret, and flees to the relative safety of the shadowy evidence locker, where ninja chicks with phobias about ghosts seldom follow.
Ironically, McGee is the most understanding of his teammates. The inability to relate is not generally a path to sympathy, but there is something to be said for knowing the value of what you have. Tim of the white-picket-fence-2.5-kids-minivan-driving-Star-Trek-loving-chess-tournament-attending parents (okay, so no one willing to let McGenius's geekiness reach such alarming extremes can be entirely normal) cannot possibly know what it feels like to be a grieving eight-year-old shipped off to boarding school.
He does know what it is like not to be.
So when McGee teases his Senior Agent about stepmothers and expulsion, Tony takes the words in the spirit they are meant. In a way, though nothing save a near death experience—or the influence of the mildest painkillers—could force Tony to admit it, he is grateful. The gentle barbs mean normality, an assurance that, childhood demons aside, their peculiar relationship has not changed.
Abby is another matter. Mournful grey-green eyes outlined with black smears track his and his father's every move, as through they are breaking her heart with their conflict.
It makes him jittery. Considering that tension already has him vibrating as convulsively as a meth junkie forced into withdrawal, her worry does nothing to improve an already rotten day. Worse, Tony can't even bring himself to be annoyed at her furtive attends to mend a relationship shredded by years of near indifference. Like Ziva, Abby truly wants him to be happy—though Ziva's concern manifests itself as frustration, and Abby's tends towards weepiness and hugs.
Furthermore, Abby has her own daddy issues, though hers stem from an entirely different source. Her parents loved her fully—deeply, unconditionally—pouring wells of affection into the raising of their only daughter. The sensitive Goth has never said so around him, but Tony knows it is true.
Their adoration is written in every line of her smile.
But grief for a dad snatched from her in early adulthood—through complications of the same disorder that took his hearing—diverts her normal protectiveness of her almost-brother. Wistfulness paints her a picture of misunderstanding, rather than guilt. Her kindness doesn't let her forget Tony's hurts, but her anxious gaze still pleads with him to reconcile.
Abby thinks everything can be solved with a heart-to-heart.
She doesn't know the half of it.
Yet her face lingers in his mind long after he has gone for the day, stirring up half-buried, bittersweet memories. She is wrong. But he wonders if there is—just maybe—a grain of truth behind her faith in family.
For the first time in years, Tony finds himself half-hoping for a chance to find out.
Lame explanations are his father's bread and butter. When a dinner invitation is discarded with the careless wave of a hand and a shiny new excuse, the bitterness of familiarity nearly shatters Tony's nerve. But an operation that flirts with disaster—and nearly succumbs to its charms—brings him to a realization.
The risk of silence is higher than he thought.
On the drive back to his father's apartment, Tony loses count of how many times he almost opens his mouth. It feels like a dream—the kind where tongues are leaden and no muscle does quite what it is expected to. He courts heartbreak, Tony knows, with this unheard of vulnerability. The flavor of rejection, unlike his father's favorite Italian wines, does not improve with age.
But if DiNozzo Sr. dies tomorrow, Tony will regret not trying for the rest of his life.
All the same, Tony's resolve nearly crumbles in the face of an actual confrontation. His father's blunt comment on his strange behavior comes as a relief, allowing him to acknowledge there is an elephant in the room, but there his courage fails him.
Then DiNozzo Sr.'s face goes slack. "You aren't sick, are you?"
Astonishment—because illness was the last thing on his mind, because he's never told his father about the plague, because the concern in the question is palpable—unfreezes his throat. His quick denial wipes the fear from DiNozzo Sr.'s face, but when they sit down, surprise has rearranged Tony's brain.
The words stick, then burst out without warning. Tony knows he is babbling, but somehow he can't stop. Desperation for some semblance of honesty—determination that he, at least, has tried to bridge this unbridgeable gap—keeps them tumbling forth, a parody of coherent speech.
Until DiNozzo Sr. chooses—just this once—to advertise his mistakes, and turns the world on its head.
"Is this about me being bankrupt?"
The explanation is simple, and direct, and completely unlike any interaction Tony can remember having with his dad.
Except he can.
A day ago—a minute ago—he would have denied it. But the rules of the game have changed, and maybe he isn't the only who wants something more.
So this time, Tony says the truth, and it feels like he is ripping out something deep inside himself.
"Sometimes I wish we could rewind back to the last time we had a normal father-son relationship."
It is suddenly hard to breath. He cannot look at his father. If the response is an insistence that their relationship is normal, Tony doesn't even know what he will do.
But DiNozzo Sr.'s slow query doesn't bear even a hint of dismissal. He sounds, in fact, almost afraid to hear the answer. "When was that?"
Tony still can't bring himself to look up, save for a brief glimpse of the wrinkled face that tells him nothing. He knows—he knows—that his father will not remember the fishing trip. Yet the foolishness of hope has no bounds; his mouth, traitor to every sensible impulse, betrays him. When the older man moves to sit next to him without speaking, Tony struggles to prepare them both for the explanation he knows is coming.
The faded photograph nearly undoes him.
It doesn't solve everything. Preservation of a memory does little to ease the sting of a thirty-year absence. He thinks a part of him will always be an lonely twelve-year-old, heartbroken and abandoned in a lavish Hawaii hotel. But the well-worn crease tells a story untainted by his father's smooth words, and so does the gentle pressure on his shoulder.
"From now on, we talk."
It is a delicate promise. Leopards, Tony knows, seldom change their spots; and more seldom still, perhaps, do wayward fathers. Words are no guarantee of anything, and Tony knows the man he will turn to when he's next in trouble is nowhere near this room.
All the same, a fragile warmth builds in his chest, thawing some tiny part of him. A tiny, private smile curves Tony's lips.
The rift isn't healed, and maybe it will never be.
But it's a start.
Story Notes: I know, I should be posting the next chapter of A Question of Honor, but I had to get this out. It's somewhat out of my short-story comfort zone, so I really hope you liked it. :) I feel like there was so much in that final scene I couldn't even analyze—such a well-written episode!
Oh, by the way—I would have liked to include Gibbs, but my thoughts on their interactions in this episode are far too complicated to sum up in a little story like this. :D Plus, I need to save my Gibbs and Tony dynamic for a Question of Honor.