*does an insane little happy dance* I was starting to think that this was never going to end. Every time I thought I was getting finished, another idea would pop into my head and after almost 3 full months of posting - never mind the amount of time it's taken to write - it's finally finished. This chapter was by far the closest I've come to not finishing on time, so I didn't get a chance to respond to all of the signed reviews individually, so I apologize for that. I do need to thank all of you for your continued support through the best and the worst of this story - especially given that it was based on such a sensitive subject.
Also, that being said, you all need to thank Kylen for making me finish this once I decided with her help that no it wasn't done and yes it needed to have a lot of things added to it to make it better. There were at least several times when I wanted to figuratively throw this whole thing at a wall and give up on it, but she didn't let me. Even when I had at least six other plot bunnies begging for attention.
Without further ado, here's the end of Running the Gauntlet.
WARNING: To reiterate, most of this story will center on the subject of child abuse and Tony's past. Anything in the chapter is by far less concerning than any of the other chapters except maybe the first one, but still contains the threat of abuse.
Chapter 13 – Surviving the Run
Chapter 13 – Surviving the Run
TONY: My father left me in the Maui Hilton for two days once. He didn't even realize I was missing until he got the room service bill.
~ Honor Code 3x07
The pins and needles that dug deeply into his frozen skin were excruciating and Tony wanted nothing more than to escape from this new form of punishment. He could hear his father's deep toned voice but couldn't make sense of the words. He didn't care about being strong and taking his punishment like a man, he didn't care that struggling would only make the abuse last that much longer and leave that much more of an impression. All he wanted was for the pain to go away. He'd suffer whatever consequences that brought later. As his teeth slowed their chattering and his eyes began to slip closed again, he began to realize that this time he might not escape by letting the darkness take him. All his father needed was an excuse to go too far – it wasn't like Tony was actually part of the family anymore. Determined to beat the older man, the boy fought to free himself from the grasp that held him close.
His father responded by tightening his grip. It didn't take a genius to see that the lanky boy in his arms was completely delirious and the waxy look to Tony's face reminded the older man far too vividly of the complexion that both his oldest son and his wife had shared in their coffins. He couldn't lose Anthony now, not when the boy was all he had left of them. He called out frantically for the drenched security guard that had pulled Tony from the water to get an ambulance, and could only hope that the last of his family wasn't being ripped away from him.
"DiNozzos do NOT pass out, Anthony. Do you hear me? Stay with me. Please, Son. Please stay with me." His voice cracked on the sheer amount of vehemence that even he could hear in his tone – the fear had quickly turned to anger and the man settled back into familiar patterns to try and make sense of the chaos of the night.
It was no use ordering Tony when he was this far gone. The petrified father could only watch as his son's eyes slipped shut and the boy lay still in his arms.
The steady beeping of the monitor was something that Tony would learn to dread hearing in his adult life. The smell of antiseptic and the bleach-white walls would be clues that he was in a hospital again. Hospitals meant horrible food, pain meds that left him fuzzy and the butt of far too many jokes as his body rebelled against the strong opioids, and nurses who flirted with him unabashedly even as they – in his mind anyway – took perverse pleasure in treating him like a pin cushion. For now they were comforting enough to let him know that he was no longer stuck in the freezing waters. The mound of blankets that cocooned him had long ago taken away the last of the chill and Tony could still feel the warmed saline that was coursing through him. It was an odd feeling and was what finally nagged at him enough to open his eyes.
A nurse was checking the machines to his right and he turned a lazy smile on her as she noticed him. Even at thirteen he wasn't above turning on the charm for the ladies.
"You gave us all quite a scare, Anthony. But you're getting better now. I'll get your doctor."
"Your father wasn't there when you woke up?" Gibbs seethed yet again as he thought about what he would give for one more moment with Kelly. To even think about not waiting with bated breath by her bedside if she had ever been that sick or injured was incomprehensible. He could remember with stark clarity just how little she had looked in the hospital bed after getting her tonsils out and how he and Shannon hadn't moved or breathed for fear that it would have changed something. When she had finally opened her eyes and whined about the sore throat – asking for promised ice cream even before she was fully awake – well, Gibbs would have given her the world if she'd wanted it.
"Nah. He was in the middle of buying out a company and had a 'make or break' conference call the morning after that he had to prepare for. He sent me in the ambulance with one of the staff so that he could go over his notes again."
Despite everything that had been revealed and worked through in the past two days, Tony's tone of voice was still far too accepting of his father's attitude and it churned at Gibbs' gut. He didn't know what else he could do or say to get through to the young man that wouldn't send him running back behind his array of masks. In the end, all Gibbs could do was hope that someday Tony would trust him enough to believe that his father had been so wrong in his treatment of his youngest son. Gibbs clung to that hope.
"Tony," Gibbs' voice was gentle, "your father was…"
Tony cut him off. He didn't want to hear it, didn't want to think about what could have been or what should have happened. "It doesn't matter now. He did what he did and whether or not he should have done something differently doesn't change anything."
Gibbs couldn't let it go. "But he was wrong."
DiNozzo shook his head in a quick dismissal before he dropped his eyes guiltily to his coffee mug. When he spoke again, the words were muffled and nearly silent as if he was physically fighting not to admit to them. "It's not like anyone else has shown me any differently. Family doesn't care."
Gibbs sharp hearing heard the admission clearly and shut his eyes. DiNozzo really didn't see it, did he? The younger man was helpless to see past his father's indifference to how a family should act. Tony couldn't see that his team cared for him far more than his father ever had. Did the countless hours they'd all spent at his bedside keeping him occupied as he recovered from that day in the factory when his heart had stopped and the vigils they'd all kept after he'd been stabbed chasing down a suspect mean nothing to him?
The television above his bed had long ago been turned off. There was nothing to watch during the day anyway, and the boy never understood how people could actually watch soap operas. They were all just so unbelievable and overly dramatic. As if the eighth grader didn't have enough drama in his life. How many kids his age could say that they'd nearly drowned in a pond on their own property because they'd moved too many times to even know it was there? How many kids had to miss their basketball team's last regular season game because they were unconscious in a hospital bed?
Tony's team had lost the game and therefore ended the season and any playoff hopes the boys had held onto. The teenager knew that it was his fault, that if he'd only been able to keep his temper in check and submit to being his father's whipping boy, the team would have had their point guard for the game. As it was, no one from the team had even felt the need to send him a card, much less stop by. Tony had no doubts in how unimportant he was in the grand scheme of things. He had plenty of evidence of that from well hidden scars – both physical and mental. But to have it proven to him beyond a shadow of a doubt that his team didn't care that he'd almost died? That no one from school missed him?
The boy looked up eagerly as he heard footsteps at the door. Maybe he was wrong – maybe they just hadn't been allowed in to see him. He had been pretty sick after all, and hospitals were pretty strict on that kind of thing.
Tony's face fell when his nurse came in the room once more. He pasted a grin on his face and tried not to grimace when his lungs wanted to expel themselves from his chest again. He wanted to get out of here more than anything, and no one was going to let him go home if he sounded like a barking dog. When his nurse checked on his monitors and jotted down some notes, he wouldn't meet her eyes and studied his hands again.
"What's the matter, Anthony?" Her soft voice reminded him of Marie and the vague memories of her hugging him after his father's lessons and rubbing his back when he was sick almost brought him to tears. She was the last person that he could count on to never forget him. Tony would have given up anything and everything if she would just walk through the door.
But she wasn't ever going to walk through anywhere again. And that's all your fault, so don't go feeling like you'd deserve to see her anyway, Anthony. His self-recriminations echoed loudly in his ears and the teenager almost forgot that he'd been asked a question. His father would pound the tar out of him if he had ever dared try that at home.
"Nothing, ma'am. But I don't like being called Anthony." Tony's voice was quiet and couldn't quite hide the regret and pain choking him.
"Tony then. I'll bet you still don't feel well. I'm going to go and check with your doctor, okay, Hun?" She was out the door before he could stop her.
Nothing he can do to make me less forgettable. The boy started as he realized that that was exactly what he was. For all of his recent athletic achievements and for all of his academic success, when it came down to it, he was just another face in the crowd – just another kid who could blend in with the background and move through his days unnoticed. While it had served him well in the past before his latest growth spurt, and while he knew that being invisible occasionally kept him out of his father's line of sight, Tony didn't want to be forgotten by anyone else. He just wanted to be remembered by someone.
In the three days he'd been awake, the only people who had crossed the threshold of his room were employed by the hospital. Tony had hoped that the memories of his father's words were more than just dreams, but it seemed that they were back to status quo. He could hear the pitying comments from the nurses as they walked by, knew he looked pathetic – "the pale little thing" clutching the teddy bear he'd woken up with. Every time someone walked by his door and pitied him, Tony felt even worse. No one cared that he was stuck in the hospital room, so why should he bother to fight to get out? Tears leaked down his cheeks and he buried his face in the bear's soft fur. He knew he was too old for stuffed animals – especially ones dressed in a sailor's uniform – but he didn't care. Someone would have had to have brought the bear for him and it was the only thing at the moment that reminded him that he wasn't completely alone. That someone somewhere remembered that he existed and that he was still alive. The boy would gladly endure the humiliation of being seen clutching the bear like a homesick six-year old if only someone would just walk through that door and visit him, if his father or even his step-mother would let him know that he was still welcome at home.
When one of the housekeepers came to pick him up after he was discharged, Tony had all but given up on ever seeing his bedroom again. As he walked in to find everything in boxes and ready for moving, the boy just shuddered and made sure his record player was safely stowed away as well.
Several other boxes were systematically checked and restacked near the door. He'd seen his belongings packed and repacked so many times in the past few years to avoid the close scrutiny of ex-wives that it all looked the same after awhile.
Except this time there was an extra box. This wouldn't have sparked his curiosity under normal circumstances, but it was labeled "PICU427" in big flowing letters. That had been his hospital room. Tony stared at the cardboard for a few minutes as if it was going to reach out and bite him before he extended his hand slowly. If anyone had seen him, they would have thought the box was a frightened dog that Tony was trying to placate as opposed to an inanimate object.
Once he'd gotten the box down from the stack, Tony took no time in pulling off the packing tape. If there was one thing he'd learned in the past few years that was relevant here, it was that waiting didn't make anything change. Whatever was still in the box was going to be there whether or not he was hesitant about opening it.
The haphazard pile of cards that filled the bottom of the shoebox was the last thing the teenager expected to see. He hadn't seen a single one of them when he'd been trapped in that room and hadn't even known there were any waiting for him. The boy tore into the envelopes like it was Christmas morning, but each card dampened his enthusiasm more and more. Each card was more generic than the last, signed by members of his team with no personal note inside and nothing to suggest that they even cared. What he'd thought in the hospital had been right. He was simply forgettable.
Tony shoved the cards back into the box and jumped to his feet as he heard his father's heavy steps come into the room.
"You weren't supposed to find those."
Tony met his father's glare and returned it. "They were in here when I got here. They should have been in my room at the hospital."
"I didn't think they'd do you any good. Thought that you'd feel worse knowing that your team lost because you weren't there." The man's voice was oddly soft and it grated on Tony's ears.
"That's a lie and you know it. You weren't thinking about me getting better, were you?" Tony tensed as if he expected to get hit.
"Of course I was. I'm your…" The older man was cut off by Tony's reaction.
"Don't say it. You didn't care enough to visit me once, so don't go playing that you're my father and we're family. We're not." Reckless abandon filled him once more and Tony was prepared for a fight either way.
"I had an important business…" Tony cut him off again.
"Most people think that their sons are more important than their business deals. But I guess I know where I stand with that anyway, so you don't need to make excuses." Tony's hands were fisted at his side as he waited for his father's response.
The air of defeat in his father's voice stunned him and cooled down the anger burning in his stomach.
"Think what you want, Anthony. I've tried to do my best by you. You're going to move up to Middletown to live with a cousin of mine for the rest of the school year and next year you will attend St. George's School in Rhode Island. You will stay there until you are accepted into the military academy out there and from there where you go is on your head. It's the best I can do for you now."
Tony wasn't sure what he was expecting from his father after his outburst, but the impersonal cards, the thought of being out from under his father's abusive rule, and finally the gentle hand on his shoulder that wasn't meant to hurt or demean was so foreign that it brought tears that he couldn't stop.
The bright red and white banners that heralded the start of his freshman year welcomed the lost little boy like nothing had in a long time. St. George's School represented the chance for Tony to make the most out of what he could and not have to worry about his father's reactions. He knew that actually living in the boarding school would be a change for the better, and the fourteen-year old knew he wouldn't be going back to his father's house again. His home had been long forgotten in the turmoil of death and pain, and the old house in Long Island was as much a distant memory now as was the concept of family.
Tony let out a breath as the muscles in his shoulders relaxed and he took the first few steps into his dorm room. His roommate hadn't moved in yet, and the sheer amount of privacy and sanctity of the small room settled him and made the boy feel far safer than any of the spacious rooms in his father's houses. For the first time since before his brother died, Tony was free.
"The last time we spoke, I was on my way to Ohio on scholarships and he told me that if I wanted to spend the rest of my life as a dumb jock, then he never wanted to hear from me again." Tony smiled as he continued. "Guess he thought that would really hurt me or something. Like pretending that he didn't exist would be such a stretch of my imagination."
The young man paused again. This time when he spoke, it was much quieter and far more reflective. "I've always been good at pretending."
"Not as good as you might think, Tony." Gibbs forced DiNozzo's eyes to meet his. "The people who you let in can always tell."
The snort was coupled with an almost frantic attempt to look away. "Just because you've got this superhero ability to figure me out doesn't mean that everyone else can too."
Gibbs just shook his head and sighed. "You think Abby can't tell? Or Ducky?"
Tony didn't have a response, and just shrugged.
"You play the part well, and you use it to your advantage, Tony. But it's just a mask. It doesn't…"
Tony cut in quickly. "And you honestly think Kate sees more than what I spent my time doing at Ohio? That my degree was all playing sports and no real classes? That despite the fact that I was a two-sport athlete at a highly competitive Division I school – which not very many people can pull off by the way, what with the season overlap and all – clearly all I did was act out some bad college movie about frats? Come on, Gibbs."
"If she were as smart as she'd like us to believe, she'd have figured out that in another life you could put that degree to work and be a teacher or a coach real easy, DiNozzo. But you won't let her see that, will you?"
"Yeah, well I guess I really am a du…"
The smack to the back of the head was not unexpected, nor was it unwarranted. But the look that crossed Gibbs' features as he stared almost uncomprehendingly at his hand unsettled DiNozzo more than he'd like to admit.
"Tony, why do you let me do that?" The voice was quiet, and the gaze still locked on the palm of his hand – almost as if the appendage was going to jump out on its own and bite him.
"Do what?" The responding tone was quiet; guarded.
"Smack you upside the head like that."
"Oh. That." He paused, almost sounding relieved that it wasn't something more difficult. "I don't know. Never really thought of it before."
The pause was long enough, however, for Gibbs to know that Tony had thought of it, and probably more than once.
"Really?" The word was drawn out and painfully sarcastic.
"Well why shouldn't I let you?"
"Because it's what your father did. You shouldn't just let…" Gibbs knew the simple idea of Tony being a pushover would light the fire, so to speak.
"Let's get one thing straight. I don't let people get away with anything I'm not okay with. I…" he trailed off and glared as he realized he had been roped into answering. Gibbs' smug smile didn't make it any better.
"Well, what do you mean when you do it?" Two could play at this game.
"What are you thinking, feeling, portraying, or whatever when you smack me?"
"That you're better than whatever you're doing. That you don't need to act a certain way to be important." Gibbs' frankness was only present because of the amount of alcohol consumed between the two of them.
"You never do it so that you can feel better about yourself? Or to belittle me? Or to prove that I'm just another possession? To show me that I'm worthless? You never do it for you?"
Gibbs looked down into his own coffee cup. That wasn't meant to be responded to.
"It's not the same, Gibbs. It's not even remotely the same and after the first few times you did it back in Baltimore, I got that. I let you do it because I can. Because it's my choice and I know for a fact that if I ever asked you seriously not to do it that you wouldn't. I have never seen what my father did and what you do in the same light. Not once."
"It's who you are, Boss. It's how you show…it's not a problem."
"But you deserve better than that."
Tony snorted. That's up for debate.
"Boss, if you start hugging me in the office, I'm gonna be really weirded out and people are going to talk." The attempt at humor was sketchy at best, and didn't fool Gibbs for a second.
"He tell you that you don't deserve anything like that?"
The nod was minute; most people would have missed it. Gibbs had never been most people.
"Who do you believe? Deep down - where no one sees - who do you believe?" The feeling of voyeurism was creeping in again as he thought about just how much alcohol had been consumed by his Agent. It wasn't a question he had meant to ask aloud, and he was already cursing himself for putting the lost look onto Tony's face. Gibbs could tell that the young man was too far gone to censor his answer.
Tony looked directly into Gibbs' eyes for only a moment before sighing and dropping his gaze back to the floor. It was all it took to show the elder Agent that for all the progress they had made, Tony's formative memories were still holding strong and doing damage.
"I try, I really do. But then something happens and all I can hear are his words. 'You're going to end up in the gutter.' 'I didn't even know you were gone.' 'You're no son of mine.' It's hard when you're battling all of those memories with what I've got now."
Tony looked down and away from his boss, realizing somewhere in the dark recesses of conscious thought that he was being more honest than he had ever intended with anyone. "Most of the time I get it. People show that they care in different ways, ya know? You smack my head; Abby hugs me even though she knows it makes me feel awkward. My father…he didn't get that. He saw dollar signs and made himself feel better with success that other people praised him for. He needed that – especially when he had nothing else. He couldn't see that maybe other people…me…I…needed something different. Twelve years of seeing that the only thing I was good for was disappointment was too much for him. Twelve years of me trying to figure out if being a son meant more than failing to live up to expectations and suffering his lessons for that. Then two years of him completely ignoring my existence when he didn't want to take his day out on me. And finally four years of being shipped off out of his sight so that he wouldn't continue and eventually kill me. Doesn't do much for your outlook on life, ya know?"
Gibbs was silent with his eyes closed, trying to keep the hot fury at a dull roar.
"I've only been here a little while. Peoria, Pittsburgh, Baltimore. It's not like I've had a lot of experience with anything different."
"You've been here a little over two years now, DiNozzo. You got any plans?"
Tony's head jolted up at the question. He smiled and tried to deflect. "It is a record. Extenuating circumstances or not."
Gibbs shook his head.
"I keep…I – I kept…kept losing people. It was easier to push them away before they left. It was easier to…if I don't let myself…if…"
"You don't get to choose stuff like that, DiNozzo. It's one lesson your father never could have taught you because I don't think he knows it himself. You honestly think that if you took off for somewhere else, Abby wouldn't hunt you down and pester you for the rest of your days? That Ducky wouldn't keep in touch to make sure you were living on more than pizza and take out? That…" he paused; making sure that Tony was paying rapt attention. "That I would wash my hands of you and be done with it? It doesn't work that way. At least, it's not supposed to. You don't get to push us away, Anthony."
"I'm yours and you're keeping me?" Tony borrowed the line from Abby, but the tone was hesitant and questioning.
Look for Expectations, a one-shot tag to Hiatus Part I to be up sometime before I leave for camp on Friday afternoon!