AN: Here's part two! It took a bit longer than expected (with school starting), but I finally got it done! If you've forgotten about this story, hakuna matada! Don't feel guilty about having to re-read the first chap. Goodness knows I did!
Thank you for the show of support through alerts, favorites, and reviews! It fueled this story and boosted my confidence tenfold.
Shout-out to my reviewers:
Tango Eight, Keydazy, violetwarnercobalt, aloha94, adagio67, Spica Celeste, scousemuz1k, diana teo, Mulderette, GuiltyPleasuresAndDeadlySins, janet brown, ihearttony, julie250, XX-Samantha-XX, Meilea2010, TinTin11, vanishingp2000, ILoveMyCousinSM3, angeleyes46, sarahsrr, combatcrazy, pandi19, NickTonyK
Hope you all enjoy the final chapter!
Gibbs used his usual speed and stealth to follow Tony out of the building without him noticing. Then, he climbed into his car and tailed the man a few car lengths behind, curious when Tony surpassed the turn that led to his apartment block.
"Where the hell are you going to, DiNozzo?" Gibbs whispered to himself. The empty car had no reply.
. . .
Gibbs waited a minute or so before pulling onto the side street where Tony had parked. As soon as the engine shut off, he swiftly pulled out the keys and exited the car, closing the door as quietly as possible.
He followed Tony's slightly hunched form across the street and through the entrance of a small park. The area was 20 minutes or so from Tony's home, having a humbly quaint feel to it. A line of bushes bordered one side of the park, while the opposite side faced the river. A simple pathway led through the open area, and at this time of day, a few joggers were making their way through the park. Between the pavement path and the riverbank a few hundred feet away, two benches sat back-to-back; one facing the river, one facing the bushes. Both were currently unoccupied.
Gibbs wove his way through the bushes before settling into a small patch of dead grass with a great view of the rest of the park. And with the overhanging tree branches, he was confident that it'd take a keen eye to spot him.
He narrowed his eyes as Tony made his way slowly to the benches. He was a bit surprised when Tony sat heavily down on the one nearest him, the one with its back facing the flowing river. In fact, Tony didn't seem aware at all of his surroundings. He sat stiffly with a protective arm around his ribs, and an expression of deep thought on his face.
Should've had Ducky wrap his ribs, Gibbs thought as he saw the pallor of Tony's complexion.
It shocked Gibbs to see Tony so vulnerable, both physically and emotionally. The limp arm cradling his ribcage was a rare display of physical pain which Tony usually avoided at all costs. But here he was, open to the world, using only the involuntary restraint that had been conditioned into him since boyhood.
Judging by the faraway, desolatelook on his face, it was apparent that Tony thought he was sitting unobserved. So Gibbs watched, and with each passing moment, Tony looked more and more like a lost child.
Tony ran his free hand through his hair, and suddenly froze. Gibbs did as well, holding his breath. But the moment passed and Tony shifted on the bench, wincing slightly as he did so. Then, he sighed deeply, wincing again, and pulled his phone out of his pocket, dialing nonchalantly.
Leaning slightly forward, Gibbs squinted, trying to decipher the numbers, but knowing it would be impossible to tell from his distance. Concentrating deeply, he quieted his thoughts so he could hear at least one side of the conversation. Tony put the phone to his ear and Gibbs held his breath.
And then, without warning, Gibbs's attentive eavesdropping was interrupted by the shrill ring of his own phone. He jumped slightly and snatched it from his pocket. He shook his head, grinning at the caller ID. DiNozzo.
As he flipped the phone open, Tony look right at him and grinned. Before Gibbs spoke, Tony's voice came wafting through the speaker.
"Practicing your stalking skills, Boss? I gotta say, discretion is something you might wanna work on."
Gibbs rolled his eyes and snapped the phone shut, making his way to Tony. Within seconds, he was standing before the man.
Gone was the wistful, far-off look. Now the eyes sparkled with vitality. From where this life came from, Gibbs had no idea. The spark was so convincing, the Boss himself was second-guessing what he'd seen only minutes ago.
Though the stiffness of the shoulders remained, the protective arm around his obviously aching ribs was quickly drawn away, left to awkwardly grip the arm of the bench. Tony's movements were smooth in covering up the throb of his chest, but under Gibbs's scrutiny, the tight, short breaths were noted.
"So did you follow me here or is this a total coincidence? Something tells me you didn't choose this day to break Rule 39, but I could be wrong," Tony said, smirking.
Gibbs just shrugged. "In the neighborhood. Is there a reason you're taking a stroll through the local park instead of sitting in your apartment, icing your ribs?" He questioned bluntly.
Tony's smile faltered. With a small laugh, he said, "Well, thanks for the concern, Boss, but it gets pretty lonely around there. As timeless as Magnum marathons are, sometimes I'd rather be among the non-fictional characters of the human race." The tone was sarcastic, but something in the self-consciousness of the voice made Gibbs think that the statement wasn't far from the truth.
A flash of detachment took Tony away for a split second before he continued, "I like it here. It's quiet. Helps me think." He looked down at his hands, clearing his throat, suddenly very aware of how pansy-ish that had sounded.
Gibbs noticed the discomfort. "What's bothering you, DiNozzo?"
Tony gave another hollow laugh before replying, "Nothing, Boss. Just been a long day, I guess."
"You guess? DiNozzo, I just watched you-"
"-stalked me," Tony interjected. A sharp glare from Gibbs shut him up.
"-watched you sit on a park bench for twenty minutes, practically semi-comatose. I don't think you'd have snapped out of it if Tom Selleck his damn self had walked by. Unless you were mediating, I'm pretty sure that's a sign that something's eating at you."
Tony raised his eyebrows. "And if I was?"
With an eye roll, Tony replied exaggeratedly, "Meditating! What if I was practicing my Transcendental Relaxation Techniques? They're quite good for-"
"That dumbass charm never worked on me before. What makes you think it would now?" Gibbs interrupted with a hint of frustration. "Talk. What's got you so off?"
Tony shifted uncomfortably, but replied hotly. "I'm fine, Boss. Just a little tired and sore. Didn't realize that was a crime."
Sighing, Gibbs looked at the weary face before him. "You can't hide forever, DiNozzo," he said simply.
There was a short pause before Tony gave a weak smile. The kind of smile that lifted his features only slightly, showing an almost sarcastic show of happiness. There was an irony in the way that Tony managed to smile, yet look utterly unhappy at the same time. And Gibbs was completely taken aback by the fact that he'd never noticed it before.
With the joke of a smile still shadowing his face in mock happiness, Tony raised his eyes to Gibbs's face. And spoke two simple words.
The impact of the statement dissolved any frustration Gibbs was feeling. And looking at his agent now, finally seeing him...Gibbs realized how badly he'd screwed up.
"Tony..." Gibbs began, unsure of what exactly he could say to make things right. To understand his agent, and to get Tony to let him in.
Tony cut the uncomfortable silence and said casually, "I should head home. It'll be dark in a few hours, and I definitely do not want to be caught on a park bench in the middle of the night. That's just asking for trouble…"
"You've got time," Gibbs said, his tone leaving no room for argument. His voice softened as he looked at Tony's uncomfortable posture and constantly flicking eyes. "What's wrong, Tony?"
Tony sighed with a mixture of sadness and frustration. His foot tapped up and down lightly, creating a staccato rhythm that matched his inconsistent gaze. After a few moments, his tapping slowed and his eyes locked with Gibbs's.
When he finally spoke, his words sound strained, as if the effort of speaking them was causing serious distress. "Boss…I honestly don't know. I just feel off. I wish I knew why, but I don't."
From what Gibbs could tell, Tony was being honest. The words were genuine, as if Tony was unsure of his own emotions.
Desperate to make Gibbs believe him, Tony continued. "I'd tell you if I understood it, Boss. You know that. This whole case just has me turned upside down. With this freaking inconsistency, I'm ready to get my freaking period or something!" Tony laughed nervously before brushing off the confession. "But it'll pass. No worries." Another false grin lit up his face.
Gibbs didn't respond right away, instead choosing to scrutinize his agent even further. No doubt, Tony honestly didn't know why he was reacting so adversely to the case. But Gibbs had an idea. And he also had a theory as to why Tony couldn't see what was laid out fairly obviously before him.
Taking a risk, Gibbs voiced his thoughts, unsure of how Tony would respond. "Maybe you don't know what's wrong because you don't want to know. Ever think of that, DiNozzo?"
Tony's brow furrowed as he looked at his boss. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
Gibbs took a deep breath. "It means that…maybe you're not facing what's bothering you, because maybe it'd mean you'd have to face yourself."
"That makes no sense whatsoever," Tony said sharply. His gaze returned to his hands, now in his lap. He massaged and rubbed them together, as a nervous child sitting in the dentist's office would do.
After a few moments of tense silence, Tony said quietly, voice a rough whisper, "The kid didn't deserve that, Boss."
"No," Gibbs agreed. "He didn't." Then he added somewhat hesitantly, "Neither did you."
"What?" Tony's eyes shot to Gibbs's face, and for once, emotion poured from them. The thin walls over the cloudy hazel were visibly crumbling, and Gibbs counted himself lucky. Because in that moment, he knew that the sight his eyes beheld was not one often witnessed—if ever. He wasn't seeing the Tony people saw every day. He was seeing the Anthony. He was seeing the Junior. Part of him wondered if anyone else had gotten as far as he was this very moment.
Hazel still clinging desperately to his own blue eyes, Gibbs continued. "I'm not an idiot DiNozzo. I may not have gone to MIT, but I can put two and two together. Dead mother, bastard father…makes for a lonely kid. Makes for a rough childhood. No kid deserves that."
"Boss, I don't-"
"Don't even try, DiNozzo. It's me," Gibbs interjected. Tony's eyes lowered to hands once more. "The kid reminds you of…you."
Tony sighed deeply, expelling millions of emotions in a single puff of air. With that single exhale, years of neglect, hardship, sadness, and loss poured out, allowing Gibbs to see just a fraction of what was inside the man he calls Anthony DiNozzo. That one sigh told so much, yet at the same time kept so much still hidden within.
"Guess I didn't really think about it," Tony said weakly.
Gibbs shrugged. "Maybe not consciously."
"So what, now you're Dr. Phil?"
"Nah, still got hair," Gibbs replied, smirking.
Tony laughed for a few moments before falling silent once more. Then, quietly, he said, "But what difference does it make? I'm not a kid anymore, Boss."
"Tony, you're the biggest kid I know."
Gibbs regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth. By the time the sentence was finished, Tony's eyes had clouded over, walls rebuilt in seconds. But not fast enough to hide the deep flash of hurt residing within. The disappointment was palpable, and Gibbs cursed his lack of communication skills.
"Dammit, that's not what I meant, Tony. I just mean, we're all kids, you know? As much as we try to ignore it, our childhood becomes a part of us, and we carry it around for the rest of our lives. As much as we want to sometimes, we can never shed that kid inside of us…"
And that's when Gibbs got it. That's when he really got it. Up until this moment, Gibbs had thought he understood his agent. Not as the goofy, juvenile, grinning playboy, but as the hardened, brooding man beneath. He prided himself in knowing this part of Tony. Everyone else saw the jokes, the smiles, the screw-ups. But he…he was different. He saw more. He saw the underlying anger. The sadness. Tony's desire for more than the life he had.
But now, he realized there was a whole part of Tony even he didn't know. The part he'd overlooked. He'd seen the playboy. He'd seen the troubled man. But he'd overlooked the one part of Tony that no one saw. And like a shot to the heart, Gibbs realized it was this part of Tony that had always been overlooked.
The neglected child.
Because, as Gibbs himself had said, everyone carries their childhood around with them wherever they go, for the rest of their lives. That inner child…it stays with you no matter what. As much as you wish otherwise, you can never shake this kid. Each and every single childhood event accumulates into a being, a presence…and you're stuck with that being, that presence, that kid forever. No do-overs. No not pass go. Do not collect $200.
And Tony had to live with this affliction every day. This sad, lost, lonely little boy inside…Tony carried him around 24/7. And nobody noticed. Ever. As it had always been. Part of Tony was desperate to keep it this way, hiding behind his mask, that mask of a clown that Gibbs himself had named…But another part of Tony, perhaps weaker than the first, was just as desperate to be revealed. To let people in.
But that part never wins. And with a sinking feeling, Gibbs realizes that it never will if nothing changes.
Guess it's time for something to change, Gibbs decided.
As Gibbs pondered this, Tony was thinking as well. After a few moments of introverted thought, he grinned wearily, perhaps the first genuine—albeit weak—smile Gibbs had seen in a long time. "Well, I gotta say, Boss. Raising this inner kid of mine is—for lack of a better term—no walk in the park."
Gibbs smiled knowingly. "Nothing wrong with sharing the burden, Tony."
Still smiling, more to himself than anything, Tony nodded. "Yeah," he said, smile growing a tiny bit wider. "Guess you're right, Boss."
"I'm always right, DiNozzo," Gibbs retorted. Tony raised an eyebrow. Gibbs glared. "Let's go. Some beer and an ice pack should help those ribs of yours."
Tony stood up from the bench. "My place or yours?"
"Up to you."
Tony grinned mischievously. "With those newfound stalking skills of yours, I think I'll just go and see if you can you follow me."
A swift slap to the back of the head made Tony laugh heartily. "Your place it is then."
And with that, the two made their way to their respective cars. Tony's mask was back in place, but this time, there was a slight disturbance in the smooth porcelain. A tiny crack allowed something inside to peak through. Almost undetectable, but most definitely there. Small progress.
But maybe, just maybe, the surface of the mask could be broken, one fracture at a time. And with each snap and splinter, the Anthony would come closer to the surface. With each scrape and split, the Junior would see some light. And the Tony could finally close the curtain and end the act.
Perhaps, one crack, one fracture, one hug, one thank you, one sleepover, one compliment, one Gibbs slap at a time…The mask could be destroyed forever. It wouldn't be easy. It wouldn't be quick. It wouldn't be simple. Long story short, it damn sure wouldn't be a walk in the park. But between the heartbreaks, the misunderstandings, the loneliness, the loss, and the struggle to move on from the past without denying it…what life is?