The problem, he decided one night while listening to the soft scrape of sandpaper on wood, was how easily he allowed the definitions to get blurred. Had he been paying closer attention, perhaps he would have been able to stop it, to see the pain he was headed toward, or at least slow the frightening velocity at which he was moving.
It had gotten him into trouble before, he realized now. The implication had been clear, then, when "mark" had come to mean "love", and "assignment" had too easily been misconstrued as "relationship". Then, of course, he had been in more control, at least at first. He knew it was a mistake, but she had been sweet and soft and could look him in the eyes without wishing he was someone else. It had been a blessedly rare event in those painful days, when everyone he knew said his name with a hint of poorly disguised disappointment. When "Tony" had morphed cruelly into "not Gibbs" and "not enough", which were oddly synonymous. Jeanne had made him believe there was some merit in being the person he was. He had needed it more than he cared to admit, at whatever the cost.
Ironically, he thought after, she hadn't even known the person he was. At the time he tried, with some success, to convince himself that she did, that she knew enough of his personality to know the real Tony, the one that existed behind the badge and the jokes and the mask. She knew the important things, and the rest, Dinozzo or Dinardo, was extraneous.
It had been the biggest lie of the whole situation, and one he had perpetrated against himself. No, too much of what he was was defined by the badge. He was the job, and he was the people he worked it with. But pretending had its merits, and he'd had few complaints.
Now, sitting on the third stair from the bottom (a spot both he and Gibbs had implicitly deemed his) smelling sawdust and coffee and Jack (a bizarrely soothing combination) Tony thought about inevitability.
Because, in reality, the lines had begun to blur long before Jeanne, before Mexico, before Ziva and Ari were names he knew, before "Kate" became a forbidden word. Yes, he was lost the second "team" had distorted into "family". When "boss" had lost the connotation of fear and had gained a novelly reverent affection. He had sealed his fate when he had allowed "work" to grow to mean "life" and "life" to mean "pretending" and "Tony" to cease meaning anything at all when not paired with "Gibbs" or "Abby" or "Ziva". And this, he learned too late, was a painfully dangerous thing. Because if life had taught him anything, it was that loss was very much real, and very much to be feared.
He knew, because he had named the fear. The words "Jenny" and "Jeanne" and "Kate" had adopted the meaning and left his lips bleeding and sore. And he'd yet to find a drink strong enough to totally rinse the bitterness from his tongue.