“You wanna tell me what the hell is going on?”
Gibbs’ words seemed to echo in Tony’s mind, reverberating off the sides of his skull and distorting themselves until they were nothing but growl and roar, sound and fury. Tony struggled to grasp their meaning, lost in his own headspace.
The fear, adrenaline, and panic had chewed through him and left him wrung out and hollow. He was tired and sore and wanted nothing more than to crawl into some hole and pull it in after him. He stared at the fire, not really seeing the flames for themselves but rather how they swirled into shapes like the faces of all the people he’d lost or failed to save, like secrets not even whispered in the lonely darkness that was his apartment most nights, like the regrets that squeezed his heart until he thought it might burst.
God, he was so tired.
He felt the weight of all his secrets pushing down on him, as if they were trying to pin him to the ground. And here was Gibbs, glaring at him, obviously confused and concerned and trying to hide it behind his brusque, no-nonsense demeanor, but Tony had learned to read Gibbs years ago. The worry in Gibbs’ eyes was trying its best to hide behind anger, and it was losing.
And suddenly Tony didn’t want to fight him anymore, didn’t want to hide himself back in his safe little space and be miserably fine. God, he was so sick of that word. It was automatic. “I’m fine” would be a fitting epitaph on his tombstone; despite what Ziva thought, they would probably wind up being his dying words as he bled out on the pavement somewhere.
He just hoped he didn’t die alone.
For all his seeming joviality and devil-may-care attitude regarding his own health and possible death, Tony really didn’t want to be checking out any time soon. He intended to rage against the dying light when his time came; who knows, perhaps his feeble struggles against the scythe will buy him some overtime.
Shaking his head at the sudden macabre direction of his scattered thoughts, he pulled his gaze away from the fire and finally met Gibbs’ glare. He had to blink away the spots that danced in front of his eyes, residue from staring too long at the flames. Gibbs sat in the way soldiers stood at attention, all stiff lines, heavy tension, and sharp angles. He looked like he was gearing up for a war.
The man didn’t know that Tony had already raised the white flag. His surrender was without fanfare; no jokes or quotes or comments accompanied it. Tony simply sighed and capitulated.
“Ask your questions, Boss, and I’ll do my best to answer them.”
He saw Gibbs blink in surprise, and some small part of him smiled wearily at the fact that he could still shock the man after all these years. He was sure that Gibbs had been planning various ways to coax the truth out of him, and now it was all unnecessary. Tony was done hiding from him.
“Why did you run, Tony?” Gibbs asked quietly.
Tony sighed again as he thought of how to answer the question. There was the obvious answer - that he had panicked and was oh-so sorry and it won’t happen again, Boss - but that wasn’t really the truth, or at least not all of it. Gibbs would know it, too, but at least it was a good starting point.
“I may have panicked a bit, Boss. Not one of my finer moments, I know,” Tony said.
Gibbs raised an eyebrow at that, and Tony took it as a sign to continue. He just wasn’t sure how. He thought for a moment, then decided it would just be best to start from the beginning.
“I was six years old the first time I went camping. Mom and I walked to the edge of our property on Long Island and pitched a tent. We had our sleeping bags and campfire and slept overnight with the fly off so we could see the stars - well, as well as one can see stars on Long Island, which admittedly isn’t that great of a place to stargaze. Anyway, I fell in love with the idea right then and there.
“Mom and I loved to watch old movies together, and in a lot of them people were going to exotic places and doing amazing things - African safaris, pirates on the open seas, stuff like that. Camping was like a movie adventure, and I wanted to do it all the time. She would take me when the weather was good enough and she was sober, which was less and less as time went on. We never left our property, but to a little boy it was as wild as the deepest jungle.”
Tony paused and swallowed thickly, struggling not to get lost in the faded, bittersweet memories that still managed to choke him up after all these years. He couldn’t bear to make eye contact with Gibbs; the pain of that little boy he had been was still too raw, even now.
“When she died, it was like my whole world fell apart. The funeral was a blur, but I can remember coming home and running into the woods near where we had camped and refusing to come out. I climbed one of the old pine trees and spent the night there, cold and lonely and so desperate to have my mother hold just one more time. I didn’t really understand what was happening, but I knew she wasn’t coming back. Camping and movies were all I had left of her.”
Tony stopped talking again, staring into the fire. As hard as this part was, he knew what was coming would be worse. He wasn’t sure how Gibbs would react; he hoped the man wouldn’t interrupt him because he wasn’t sure that he would be able to finish it if he did.
The silence stretched out for longer than was comfortable, but Gibbs seemed content to wait for Tony to pick up the story again.
“Dad changed after Mom died. He wasn’t home all that much before, but when he was he was… pleasantly tolerant of my presence. He had adored my mother, and though he drank in his office most evenings, I don’t really remember him being drunk. Once Mom died, he was home even less, and when he was he was drinking a lot.
“Turns out Dad is a mean drunk. I guess he was trying to cope with losing the love of his life, and he never really did know how to relate to me. I was hurting and lonely and a pain in the ass, and he couldn’t deal with that on top of his own grief.
“The first time he hit me was a surprise to us both.”
He heard Gibbs suck in a deep breath at that revelation, and he risked a glance in his direction. Gibbs had a blank look on his face, but Tony could see the way he clenched his hands into fists. The Boss was furious but trying to hide it. Unsure of what to do with that, Tony just kept going.
“I don’t think he really meant to do it at the time, but it shut me up and that’s what he wanted. I scurried away as fast as I could and he went back to drinking and brooding. I didn’t see him again until right as he left for his next business trip. By then the bruise on my cheek had faded and he could pretend nothing had happened.
“The next time he was home I must’ve been making too much noise in the hallway by his office or something, because one moment I was playing with my toy cars and the next I was being hauled into his office by my arm. He started ranting about respect and ‘children are seen and not heard’, and soon his fists were flying. I think that was the time I lost a tooth. Good thing it was one of my baby teeth.
“That was pretty much his M.O. for the next four years. He’d stay away on business, then come home and drink himself stupid before laying into me for being too annoying. You know the sound a belt makes when it clears the loops on your pants? I still hear that in my nightmares sometimes.
“I don’t think he really remembers much of this. He was so out of it all of the time, and it didn’t take me long to learn how to avoid him. I was like a ghost in my own house, wandering the back halls that he didn’t use and staying in my room or running into the woods to get away from him. He never followed me; he’s not a fan of the great outdoors. I was safe there. I’d raid the kitchen for some food and water and dress in my warmest sweaters and pants. By the time I was ten, I had several hidey-holes stocked and waiting for me in case he came home unannounced.
“It didn’t take him long to figure out that it was easier to send me away than to avoid me at home, especially once the step-mothers started showing up. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent at various summer camps. I loved summer camp. I got to spend lots of time out-of-doors, and it reminded me of Mom. I couldn’t talk about her with Dad. I made that mistake once, and he beat me so hard I thought he was going to kill me. He told me never to mention her to him again, so I didn’t.
“It came to a head when I was twelve. He was home from yet another trip, and I managed to piss him off with my existence yet again. When he laid into me that time, something in me just snapped. I actually hit him back. I was a skinny kid, so it didn’t do much damage, but it certainly caught him off-guard.”
Tony laughed darkly then, remembering how the look of drunken rage on his father’s face had twisted into something between confusion and absolute fury at his brazen counter-attack. It had been a lucky hit; he’d caught his father right in the nose at the apex of his swing. He didn’t break it, but it had to have stung.
Gibbs didn’t laugh, though. He didn’t even twitch. He just kept his piercing stare on Tony, riding out the moment of black humor. Tony used that gaze to ground himself again before his laughter could turn into the tears that were buddying up with his panic. Clearing his throat, he returned to his story.
“That’s how I got disowned, you know. Dad said that if I thought I was man enough to take a swing at him, then I was man enough to take care of myself. The next day I was in a car and off to boarding school.
“I was actually glad he sent me away. I thought that anything had to be better than staying in that house with an angry father and the memory of my mother haunting the place. When I showed up on the steps of the boarding school du jour, I felt like it was my chance to really start living.”
Tony stopped talking, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. He could feel the panic kicking up again, and he had to take deep, even breaths to keep himself under control. As bad as the story had been thus far, it was nothing compared to what was coming. Gibbs has no idea what he’s getting himself into.
Tony turned towards Gibbs a bit, shifting his weight again and making eye contact. Gibbs held his gaze, encouraging him without words to keep going, keep telling his story. Tony took a deep breath and dropped the bomb.
“Neither of us had any idea that he had just thrown me to the wolves.”