Title: Facing Forward
Rating:T (mild language)
Beta:I didn't have one, so any errors are mine. :)
Disclaimer:I don't own NCIS. The thought of owning NCIS makes me giddy, though. And drinking a small glass of wine makes me giddy. So, by that logic, if I drink a small glass of wine and become giddy, does that mean I own NCIS?
Author's Note: I want to thank everyone who stuck this out with me. I apologize for the delays between these last few chapters. I didn't want to say anything before, as I didn't want to jinx it, but I quit smoking in the process of writing this story and needed to spend some time away from my laptop (hence the delayed chapters). However, it's been two and a half months, and I'm feeling more comfortable in my environment now. For those who knew and gave me encouraging words... thank you. For those who have reviewed this story as it went along, it's been appreciated. I hope you enjoy the final chapter.
X X X
From the previous chapter…
"I tried to, Gibbs. But then something happened, and it was just too much. Call it the final straw."
At the older NCIS agent's questioning look, Tony shrugged, and said, "You locked your door."
X X X
"I locked my door," Gibbs repeated, the incredulous look on his face making Tony feel more than a little ridiculous. And maybe embarrassed. And maybe kinda like a foolish kid. "The same front door for which you have the only spare key?"
"Well… yeah," the former agent meekly replied, trying to ignore the flaming of his cheeks. "That door."
"Well, hell, DiNozzo, why didn't you just use the damn key?" Gibbs asked.
From his former boss's tone, Tony figured he had two choices. One, explain in a more coherent manner, so that he and the man who'd once been mentor could mend their broken ways (and yes, perhaps have that Movie of the Week moment in a non-gay kind of way). Or two, he could babble.
In times like this, a few people could make the former NCIS agent's brain turn off. One stood in front of him, with a raised brow, awaiting an explanation.
"See, Boss, it's like this…" And the rush of embarrassment that had overwhelmed, settled bone deep, and Tony began to talk. It took him three minutes, the topic of neuroses (particularly those required to work for NCIS), and a head slap to take a breath.
"Stopping," he muttered, rubbing the back of his head.
In the past, he would've warily watched the older man set him straight – either with a reprimand, a smile, or in some other tangible manner. After all the Gunny could be tough, but fair.
It wasn't until Gibbs sank back into the arm chair, tilted his head up to the ceiling and sighed aloud that Tony suddenly saw the changes the years had made.
Whether it was the light streaming in through the windows or the way his own aged eyes perceived, Tony saw age – the way his former boss's hair showed just a little more white and a little less silver; the slightly more pronounced lines around the lips; the age spots starting to appear lightly on the neck (and they hadn't been there before).
That realization grounded Tony in a way nothing else could. And in the midst of the ensuing silence, his gut settled.
"I spent most of my life knowing I'd never measure up," he quietly explained. When Gibbs turned his gaze back to the younger man, he continued, "It had nothing to do with you, although towards the end I felt like I'd let you down, too. Everything had fallen apart, starting with Kate. It seemed like feeling crappy was just the way I was supposed spend my life. My penance."
When Gibbs opened his mouth, the younger man quietly interjected, "Let me finish."
After the NCIS agent nodded brusquely, Tony continued, "I spent years with every crap thing happening to me. Plague. Dead friends. Deceit. Pain. Wounds. Loss. So damn much loss." He stopped his recitation as a soft cough swept through him. It didn't help he choked on the list, and bile rose in his throat. So he closed his eyes and breathed in deep. Once he'd settled, he quietly said, "It seemed like I'd earned it all – run the gamut. And I was okay with that, because I'd grown accustomed to it. But then we found that little boy, and…"
Unable to find the right words, he paused, searching in vain; but he needn't worry about it. Because Gibbs provided them well enough.
"You felt good," Gibbs said, his face showing a dawning understanding of just how far down the dismal path his former agent had gone.
"I felt great," Tony clarified. And he had. The moment he'd found that kid, something in him turned on for the first time in so long, it had blinded him. Thinking of the child, he smiled sadly and added, "It was the most amazing feeling. It also faded as quickly as it arrived, and I had to wonder."
"About whether or not the job was worth it?" Gibbs asked.
"No – about whether or not I really cared if I lived or died anymore," he replied. "And that scared the shit out of me."
"Then why didn't you come talk to me?" Gibbs asked, exasperation evident in his tone.
"I tried. Your door was locked," Tony replied. "And while I may have had the key, I'd never used it before. I'd never needed to, 'cause your door's never locked." Very quietly, he said, "I didn't know if you'd just boot my ass out the door. I don't think I coulda taken that, boss. Not sure I would've made it home with my SIG still fully loaded."
That statement, so softly spoken, hung in the air between the two men. For his part, Gibbs tried to gain and hold Tony's gaze, while the younger man did his best to stare at the floor, his hands, just about everywhere except the NCIS agent. It wasn't until Gibbs quietly said, "Well, hell, Tony… I don't know what to say," that the younger man finally looked up.
"There wasn't anything you could say. I hit the end of what I could take. And as much as I may have needed the support, I needed more than you could give," he sorrowfully replied. "I needed to stand on my own two feet, and it gave me the kick in the ass I needed to make some changes."
At that point, Emily flew in the front door, laughing loudly at something Abby had said, and pranced into the room like a typical pre-teen, caught in her own world between the teenage world and still being his little girl. Smiling, Tony reached out to hold the younger girl's hand as he glanced at Gibbs and wryly said, "Most days I think they're the best changes in the world."
X X X
After baring his soul, Tony climbed up the stairs to his bedroom. Atop the house, the crow's nest looked out like a lighthouse. Most wouldn't care for the exposure. Tony had hidden everything so deep, he didn't mind the world being able to see within the confines of his private space.
Besides, if he really wanted a little privacy, he closed the drapes.
Dropping into his recliner, he kicked his feet up, leaned back, and dropped a blanket over his legs. The chair sat positioned in his favorite spot, with his favorite view. Crystals hung from every window in the round room, courtesy of Emily. As a small child, she'd loved to look at rainbows.
The older she got, the more she loved them. They were a remnant of her life before – a special piece of continuity, as Emily had inherited her love of their shine from her mother.
He heard her shoes first, as she clomped up the last few spiral steps, and smiled.
"I've missed you," Abby simply said, walking over and settling into Tony's bed. With her hands behind her head, she turned her head and grinned wickedly when she said, "I always knew you'd make beautiful babies."
Tony snorted a laugh before replying, "Uh, Abs, in case you didn't notice, they're not exactly mine."
"Don't you dare say that again, mister!" she retorted, indignantly. "Of course they're yours."
He rolled his eyes when he said, "You know what I mean."
"Yeah, I do. But they're still yours, and they're beautiful," she said. Tony could practically hear the squeal in her voice when she added, "And Em calls me 'Aunt Abby'. How cute is that?"
Chuckling, Tony tipped his head back, closed his eyes, and let himself relax into the recliner. As he slowly let general tiredness take over and draw him into sleep, he couldn't help but think Abby was right. He really did make beautiful babies.
X X X
Ducky, Abby and Curtis left within a week. Not that anyone had seen much of the elderly medical examiner. Michaela had taken him into town at one point, introduced him to a couple of old fishermen who loved to tell tales of their younger days, and no one had seen the man except when he popped in to check on Curtis (now mostly healed), and Tony (who was recovering more rapidly than expected).
The police chief had wanted to drive his kid to the airport, but had been stopped cold when the young Marine had refused. So instead, Tony and the girls stood on the front porch as Ian loaded the bags into the jeep and slid behind the wheel.
"You'll visit," Abby stated. The look she gave him dared him to argue. Tony had no doubt she'd do something drastic if he didn't, and nodded. Her look softened when she hugged him in a death grip and loudly whispered, "Bring the girls."
As she sniffled pitifully, she waved her hand in front of her face, gave each of Tony's daughters a quick, gentle hug, and nearly ran for the jeep.
Giving Tony a wide smile, the ME stepped forward and offered both hands with which to affectionately grip both of the police chief's hands. The twinkle in his eye didn't fade as he sternly said, "Next time, my boy, just ask me to visit. Don't go getting yourself sick or injured."
"Thanks, Duck," Tony replied with an warm smile. Squeezing the older man's hands lightly, he added, "And give Jimmy and his family my best."
"Ah, yes. Young Mr. Palmer will soon have his own little ones to watch over," Ducky said. "Such a happy time for your young 'Autopsy Gremlin'. I believe that's what you call him."
With that last bit, Ducky moved off at a more sedate pace. Tony wasn't worried about seeing the medical examiner again, as the chief had already heard rumors that one of the old men down at the docks had offered a trip out onto the rough waters – a chance for two old codgers to relive their youth. That had been planned for late in the summer.
Shaking his head in amusement, Tony turned to Curt, and a lump formed solidly in his throat. And much to both of their embarrassment, he pulled the Marine into a tight hug, kissed him solidly on the cheek, and felt a couple droplets run out of his eyes and down his cheeks.
"Geez, Pops," the young man muttered. "I'm only going back to Norfolk. It's not like it's on a different planet or anything."
Tony rubbed his hands over his face, trying to wipe away any sign of sudden bout of weeping, and gave his kid a watery laugh. It only took a deep breath to calm his nerves, before he looked the young man in the eyes, put his hands on his shoulders, and squeezed gently.
"You've made your parents proud," Tony said, gulping back the slow swelling of emotion that threatened to rise again.
"I know my mom and dad are proud of me," Curtis quietly replied. "But it means even more that you're proud of me."
Before either man could do something ridiculous, like fall into each others arms and weep uncontrollably, Mary stepped between them, gaining both their attention.
"I'll miss you," she said, wrapping her arms around her big brother's waist, laying her head on his chest, and murmuring, "Be safe."
As she stepped back, Emily took her place. The youngest didn't deal well with farewells. She never had, and for a moment, Tony held his breath in fear she'd break down as she had when Curt first went off to Basic Training. It was with a great deal of pride, though, that he watched his eleven-year-old cross her arms and start giving orders.
"You'll write every week."
"Yes, ma'am," he solemnly replied.
"You'll call whenever you can."
"You'll be safe."
"I'm a Marine," he said. "I'll be as safe as I can be; but I'll do my duty."
"Okay," she replied. "Then I'll let you leave."
Laughing, Curt bent down, picked up his sister, swung her until she squealed and set her back on her feet. Before he let go, though, he whispered, "I love you," and walked away.
Settling into a wicker chair in the mid-morning breeze, Tony watched the jeep pull away, heading down the drive, over a small hill, and out of sight. Maybe life could settle back down again. One thing the police chief had come to appreciate was how quiet life could become. Out in the middle of nowhere, he had time to spend with his family, watch movies on a whim, and just rattle around town. Very different from his NCIS days, when he hadn't had time to breathe.
Where else could a man live, where a family emergency could cause an entire town to agree to reschedule the prom, just so the police chief's daughter could attend?
Smiling, Tony closed his eyes and inhaled deep, thinking of how happy Mary had been when Tommy had told her of the plans – how everyone agreed that it didn't matter when it happened, and just wanted her to be happy. In fact, Mary's boyfriend had been at the house for dinner just the night before, going over the plans once again. He knew his daughter would be getting out the dress, making sure she had everything for the big day.
Slowly stretching, Tony sauntered into the house, thinking about the rite of passage that was the prom, knowing full well half the town would tell him should Tommy so much as look at her wrong. He burst out laughing, though, as he closed the door. Because Mary must've brought the dress downstairs.
"What do you think, Uncle Gibbs?" Mary asked, pulling the protective covering off the stunning garment, smiling at the man the girls had dubbed family.
Gibbs nearly choked on his coffee before muttering in response, "You're wearing a sweater with that."