Gibbs thought he might actually be on the verge of throwing up.
He swallowed convulsively in an effort to keep his insides where they belonged. He hadn’t felt this unsettled about the details of a crime since his probie days. It was seriously pissing him off.
It certainly wasn’t the worst case he’d ever heard of, nor were the details particularly graphic. It was just that this was Tony who was recounting his abusive childhood to him. He was so calm, laying the gut-wrenching shards of his prepubescent self out like he was talking about the weather.
Perhaps too calm, Gibbs realized. There was too little inflection in Tony’s voice; he was a bombastic storyteller who thrived when sharing too many details with an attentive audience. This was almost clinical, laying out facts like they were the everyday minutiae of life, not pieces of a secret he’d been keeping for decades. His body language was closed-off and tense, though he was trying to hide it.
The biggest red flag, though, was the fact that Tony wasn’t making much eye contact. Tony was one of the few people Gibbs had ever met that could meet and hold his stare for long periods of time. It was one of the reasons he’d hired him in the first place; Gibbs needed an SFA who could stand up to him.
This version of Tony, however, was the one that came out when he wasn't sure of his place. This was the Tony who was just waiting for the other shoe to drop, for Gibbs to finally have had enough. This was the version of Tony that made Gibbs want to hunt down every person in the younger man's life who had ever hurt him, abandoned him, or made him feel less than worthy and do things to them that would make even Ziva blanch. God help them all if he ever laid eyes on Senior because he'd be taking Abby up on her offer to help him hide a body.
Gibbs knew his Senior Field Agent well enough not to let his inner turmoil show. Tony needed Gibbs to be his rock right now - the same implacable, hard-nosed boss he'd always been - so that's what Gibbs would be. There would be time to unleash his rage later. Besides, knowing Tony, the younger man would probably interpret that anger as being directed at him rather than for him. Even after all these years, Gibbs knew that Tony still doubted how much Gibbs cared about him and that the loyalty between them went both ways.
Well, Gunny, perhaps you should work on that. Speaking the words won't actually kill you.
And if Gibbs was going to start tearing into people who had hurt Tony, he'd have to start with himself. He knew he hadn't been in his right mind when he'd gone haring off to Mexico, but that didn't excuse the fact that he'd abandoned Tony and failed protect him from Jenny and her vendetta. The fallout of that fiasco had been another albatross around Tony's already overburdened neck. Her death a year later had been an additional hammer blow against Tony, and Gibbs had not been fast enough in reassuring his SFA that it was not his fault. Jenny knew exactly what she was doing and went out on her own terms, but Tony had taken Gibbs' silence to be condemnation rather than grief and regret. The fact that it had taken him four months to get Tony off his stint as Agent Afloat had just been the icing on top of that particular cake of crap.
Gibbs had tried his best to make it up to Tony when he chose him over Ziva in Israel, but the younger man was still reeling over killing Rivkin and the subsequent consequences. It had hurt to leave Ziva behind, but not nearly as much as losing Tony would have. There was no doubt in Gibbs' mind that bringing Ziva back would have had Tony leaving his resignation on his desk before Gibbs could have finished briefing the Director.
Then, four months later, they were hauling Ziva out of that hellhole in Somalia, and the team was whole again. Sure, Ziva was currently still trying to stitch the pieces of herself back together, but she was alive. After weeks of thinking she was dead, even the sight of just how horribly she’d been treated was a relief. Tony, especially, had lost that patina of rage and grief that had colored his every interaction during the interim between leaving Ziva and finding her again.
Still, all the quiet atoning in the world wouldn’t undo what Gibbs had done, and he’d never actually talked to the younger man about what had happened. Listening to Tony relay his horror-story childhood only reinforced to Gibbs just how badly he had dropped the ball. He vowed to himself that he would fix this. It wasn’t too late.
Please don’t let it be too late.
Just as Gibbs was processing that thought, he heard Tony’s succinct, horrific comment.
“Neither of us had any idea that he had just thrown me to the wolves.”
Gibbs felt his muscles tense in reaction. God, the look in Tony’s eyes… It took every ounce of strength Gibbs possessed to keep his body seated and his gaze steady. Tony had fallen silent, and Gibbs’ gut was screaming a call to battle stations.
“What happened at boarding school, Tony?” Gibbs’ voice sounded strained even to his own ears, but it was all he could do just to get the words out through the worry and rage that squeezed his throat half-shut.
Tony’s continued silence did nothing to calm Gibbs down, and the sudden lack of eye contact almost had Gibbs on his feet again. Gibbs knew, just knew, that things were about to get a whole lot worse before they got better. He swore to himself that he would remain calm, no matter what.
Man up, Marine. The last thing Tony needs is for you to fall apart now.
Just as Gibbs managed to shore up his emotional walls again, Tony began to speak.
“You know how in prison movies there is always that one scene where the new prisoners arrive and walk down the corridors to their new cells while the inmates threaten them? Boarding schools have their own version of that, but instead of hardened inmates it’s a bunch of teenage boys. Given the choice between them, I think I’d rather deal with the inmates.
“I was one of the youngest students there. I was pretty small for my age, too. The other students were like sharks that smelled blood in the water, and I was fresh meat. Instead of having to deal with just my father, who as scary as he could be was still only one person, I had a whole school of potential threats to monitor. It wasn’t like I could go home at the end of the day and get away from them, either, nor did I have a parent at home who gave a damn enough to call the school and get me help that way. I was on my own.
“The first year was pretty bad. I got beat up, had my belongings stolen, got locked into storage closets, had schoolwork destroyed - you know, all the fun stuff. Eventually I made friends with a kid who was pretty high up the social ladder, and the other kids moved on to easier targets. There was still the occasional run-in, but it wasn’t too bad. I hit a growth spurt around thirteen or so and suddenly discovered that I was actually good at sports. That really helped.”
Tony had stilled again, and Gibbs’ heart almost broke at the desolate look in his eyes. Gibbs knew that McGee had been through more than his share of bullying, but DiNozzo acted like the jock that he was in his later years was who he had always been. Just another mask, I guess.
As bad as Tony’s story was so far, Gibbs knew that Tony hadn’t yet delved into the worst of his past. Tony was holding something back. Part of Gibbs didn’t want to push his agent any harder; what he had heard already was enough to sponsor Gibbs’ sleepless nights for weeks to come. However, Gibbs knew that if he didn’t press Tony now, he’d never hear the rest. Tony would clam up with the sunrise, and no amount of prying would reopen him.
Gibbs had never felt more like a bastard than he did in that moment.
“What aren’t you telling me, Tony?” Gibbs asked softly.
As pushes go, it wasn’t a hard one, but it was enough to send Tony toppling over the edge and into the abyss of painful memories that waited below. One moment, Gibbs was looking at his Senior Field Agent, a capable and competent adult who caught bad guys and faced innumerable dangers without blinking, and the next he was looking at a broken, vulnerable boy who had been thrown away and devoured whole by a world full of cruelty and the worst that human nature had to offer.
Tony had started to shake, fine tremors running through his body that Gibbs couldn’t help but notice. Every paternal instinct in him wanted to rush over and embrace the younger man, but Gibbs knew that it would be more than either of them could handle. One wrong move and Tony would be gone, bad ankle and all. He saw Tony swallow hard and felt his own stomach twist in nauseous sympathy.
“There was this one kid, Donovan, who walked around like he owned the place. His dad was on the board or something, so he could pretty much do whatever he wanted and get away with it. He had two cronies, Max and Jake, who went everywhere with him - typical capo and crew setup. Donovan was sixteen, Max and Jake fifteen. They were a lot bigger and stronger than I was, and they took real pleasure in messing with me.
“Donovan was a real psychopath in the making. God, the kid was terrifying. He knew how to read people and how to fake emotions and proper responses. He had all the teachers and administrators wrapped around his little finger, and the student body both feared and obeyed him. None of them were willing to risk sticking their neck out for a loser like me.”
Gibbs started a bit at Tony’s self-description. It was surreal to hear his SFA label himself with such negative terminology; if anything, Tony was prone to over-exaggerating how great he was. Gibbs knew it was a way to mask his insecurities and didn’t read too much into it, but for him to actually come out and say something like this was pretty rare.
There had been glimpses of this version of Tony when the younger man was talking about his father; the way he had made excuses for Senior’s behavior - most likely subconsciously - had not escaped Gibbs’ notice. It was as if Tony really believed that he had deserved such horrible treatment. Gibbs wouldn’t be surprised if he did; such responses were hardly atypical of abuse victims.
Gibbs snapped back to attention, forcing his mind to focus on what Tony was saying. He was working his way to something big, and Gibbs wasn’t going to fade out now that he was so close to the core of whatever was wrong with his SFA.
“One day about halfway through the school year, Donovan and his cronies managed to corner me in an empty classroom. It was pretty late in the day; the teachers and other students were already gone. I had misplaced something and was retracing my steps to try and find it. Turns out Donovan had Jake swipe it when I wasn’t looking, knowing that I’d go there trying to track it down. They were waiting for me.
“At first I wasn’t sure what was going on. I was expecting them to do something to mess with me, but I had no idea how bad it was gonna be. Jake and Max grabbed my arms, so I was expecting a beatdown. It’d happened before, and it wasn’t anything that I couldn’t handle. But that’s not what they did.
“When Donovan started taking my pants off, I knew I was in trouble. I wasn’t completely clueless, and being in an all-boys boarding school meant I overheard a lot of talk that would probably fall under the category of The Birds and the Bees. I struggled as best I could, but three against one is bad odds in any situation, let alone when you’re being held by guys much bigger than you.”
Here Tony started to stutter, and it was so jarringly different from any version of Tony that Gibbs had ever seen that for a moment he thought he was looking at somebody else.
“I r-remember them laughing, B-boss, like i-it was so-some big joke or so-something. They b-bent me over a d-desk, and…” Tony broke off with a shudder, unable to articulate exactly what had happened, but Gibbs understood.
Gibbs didn’t remember consciously making the choice to move. One moment he was watching his SFA start to break down, and the next he was on his knees in front of Tony with his arms around him, pulling Tony’s head and chest into the crook of his neck and shoulder.
“I’ve got you, Tony, I’ve got you,” Gibbs murmured over and over again, holding Tony as the dam broke and the emotional torment he’d been keeping a secret for close to thirty years came pouring out. Gibbs felt his own heart squeeze tight at the sound of Tony’s breakdown, and if some tears of his own dripped down his face to mix with Tony’s soaking into his shirt, well, nobody but the two of them needed to know.
Somewhere in the sobs that shook his agent, Gibbs could hear his whispered confession.
“They r-raped me, Boss. They raped me.”