“Forget me, beautiful child. And may God be with you.”
July 13, 1985. South Hampton, New York
Eleven-year old Tony ran as hard as he could.
It was a late summer evening. The boy had been perched on top of his favorite pine tree when he spotted his father’s limousine two hills away. Without a care for life or limb, he climbed down swiftly and recklessly like only kids could. The DiNozzo estate stretched across acres and acres and his pre-teen legs could only carry him so fast. But he wouldn’t give up, adamant to not miss this rare opportunity to see his father.
By the time he reached the house, his baby blue t-shirt stuck to his back and he was panting so hard he could barely speak. He didn’t stop though and barged right through the doors of the mansion, looking around fervently for his dad. He finally found him in the library.
“Ah, Junior! There you are!” His father called out with a smile. Tony’s face broke into a wide grin mirroring his dad’s. But before he could find the breath to respond, Senior turned away.
“Come here, meet your new stepmother.”
That’s when Tony noticed the presence of two strangers in his home. One was a stern looking woman sitting in one of their antique straight-backed armchairs. She looked older than his mom. Actually, she looked older than his dad too. She had black hair pulled up into a tight bun, and blood red lipstick lined her thin, pursed lips. She was dressed in an elegant black dress that went all the way down to her ankles and split open mid-thigh, giving Tony a glimpse of a black lace garter that he found more interesting than the woman herself.
So this was the woman his father had married. Sure he’d been told about it, by the housekeeping staff, but he hadn’t been invited to the wedding so it was his first time meeting her. He’d figured (after getting over the shock of it all) if Senior needed another wife to get over the loss of his first wife, then so be it. Maybe if Senior was happy again, he’d be willing to spend some time with Tony again.
“This is Baroness Jannelli, all the way from Sicily. Can you tell us where Sicily is, Junior?”
Tony blinked, still processing everything that was going on. “Uh, Italy?”
Senior grinned proudly, although mostly he looked relieved that Tony hadn’t given the wrong answer. “Atta boy, come here, give your mother a kiss.”
All Tony wanted was to do was jump up into Senior’s arms and cling to him with all his might. Instead, the moment he walked into his father’s reach, Senior shoved him towards the Baroness, who scanned the unkempt little boy drenched in sweat from head to toe and did not look too happy at the prospect of being touched by him. They got through the formality and Tony stepped back quickly, looking up at his dad with hopeful eyes. Maybe he could get a hug now?
“Come here,” Senior ushered him towards the other end of the room where stood another tall individual, a young boy, way older than Tony but way younger than the grown-ups. “This is Sebastian Jannelli. He is nineteen years old, and he’s your new big brother. Didn’t you always want a big brother, Junior?”
Senior ignored that and pushed Tony closer to the other boy, who looked down the length of his nose at Tony with a strange, crooked smile. It was the way Ethan, that jerk in seventh grade, would smile just before ramming Tony hard against the lockers. Sebastian had the same jet black hair as the Baroness. And he was dressed in an equally formal black tux with white shirt and a black bow tie. He stood buck straight with his hands clasped behind his back.
“Pleasure to meet you, Junior.” He drawled in a slightly foreign accent and held out a hand. Tony didn’t like being called Junior by anyone other than Dad, and scrunched up his nose. Senior cleared his throat reminding Tony of his manners. Reluctantly, he put his smaller hand in Sebastian’s larger one, allowing it to be shaken lightly.
Sebastian smirked again. “I see the boy has been climbing some trees in your absence, Father.”
Tony scowled harder. No one called his father ‘Father’ except him. No one! At least, they were not supposed to.
Senior chuckled again. “Ah yes, I’m afraid my various enterprises have kept me too busy to see to the boy’s discipline. But we’ll be fixing that pretty soon, don’t you worry, S-Sebastian.”
At least his father hadn’t called the rascal ‘son’, although for a second, it’d seemed like he was going to.
“The Livorno Naval Academy has been an absolute blessing for my Sebastian over the years,” the Baroness spoke for the first time, addressing Senior directly. “Surely, Anthony should have the same privilege and opportunity, don’t you think, darling?”
If Tony looked alarmed, he didn’t know it. He did see a flicker of hesitation cross his dad’s face, but Senior suppressed it immediately. “Excellent idea, darling! This country has some very prestigious military academies of its own. I’ll have someone put together a list of options tomorrow.”
“You mean, like a boarding school?” Tony asked, not sure he was following.
Everyone laughed, except him, but no one bothered to explain or even answer his question. Sebastian interrupted with a question about one of the paintings on the wall and everyone started yapping about some guy called Rembrandt that Tony couldn’t care less about.
The child felt dizzy. He couldn’t believe what he’d just heard. First his dad brings home a new wife and a new…son. And now he was thinking of sending Tony away?
Gingerly he walked up to his dad, who by now had one arm around Sebastian’s shoulder and was laughing very loudly about something the teenager had just said. Tony bit his lip and raised a trembling hand to tug at his dad’s sleeve.
Senior turned, looking a little annoyed. “Junior? You look like a street rat! Why don’t you go wash up and get ready for dinner?”
Tony swallowed. “Dad, I-I don’t want to go to military school.”
Senior’s face hardened, prompting Tony to rush to explain. What could he say to make that furious look go away? What could he do to make dad not send him away?
“I-I just think Mommy wouldn’t like it. She was always talking about how the military was bad and guns were bad and…”
His father’s eyes softened at first, but then quickly turned to stone. “Enough, Junior. Do as you’re told.”
With that he turned his back to Tony once again, calling for Betsy, the nanny, to come and take the boy away. Tony was dismissed.
The eleven-year old bit his lip hard to keep the sobs at bay. He knew how much his dad hated it when Tony cried in his presence. He couldn’t stop the tears from rolling down his eyes though. Fortunately, Senior wasn’t looking at him anymore so it wasn’t a problem.
As he was led out, Tony caught the threads of a new conversation between the Baroness, who would never be his mother, and his dad. “Darling, is this how it’s going to be? Living with constant reminders of your first wife in this house so stiflingly full of her memories?”
“Oh n-no, no, we don’t have to stay here, darling! I’ll take you to Long Island tomorrow to show you my other estate. I’m sure you’ll love it – it’s bigger.”
Tony felt helpless and angry and would have very much liked to throw a fit, except, those things stopped working long time ago when mom died. His tummy felt weird and his eyes wouldn’t stop tearing up and it wasn’t pain like from a scraped knee or a broken arm. But it hurt, very, very much. He didn’t know what it was called, or why he couldn’t explain it or even express how he felt to anyone. Who’d listen anyway? There was no one.
In the decades that followed, many stepmothers (and step-siblings) came and went, but Tony never returned to that house in the Hamptons he grew up in, ever again.
Years later, Anthony DiNozzo would look back at that moment and know the exact words to describe what he’d felt that late summer evening. He would know that was the moment he had been truly abandoned by the one person who was supposed to love him forever.
He would also remember craning his neck back one last time, one last hope brimming in his eyes, to seek out his dad. Instead he’d found Sebastian, staring back at him with a spiteful and triumphant sneer curling around his lips.
January 7, 2008. Washington D.C.
Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs donned his coat and glanced around the bullpen. The lights were out, and he was the only one left in the building, other than security. He’d allowed his team to leave early to recover from a long injurious week, for once letting reports be pending for another day or two.
He smiled as he looked over at Timothy McGee’s desk – the tech expert on his team had been striving so hard to work around (or despite) his dislocated shoulder. Good thing McGee wasn’t a slave to his mouse like the rest of them; he’d figured out all those… whatever the hell he called it, oh right, keyboard shortcuts. But it had to be annoying – that one-handed typing. Hell, two-hand typing wasn’t all that appealing to Gibbs to begin with.
Officer David, over at the diagonally opposite end of the squad room, had fared better, which of course she ought to. Gibbs thought back to events of the day before inside the hospital room, how she’d stopped a delirious and rampaging Werth in his tracks with just a look. Gibbs smiled; guess there were a few tricks he could still teach Ziva after all. And she was learning fast, he mused proudly.
On his way out, he crossed his senior field agent’s desk and paused. “DiNozzo”, he muttered under his breath with exasperation, as always. That dislocated nose would do nothing to abate the kid’s vanity, but it sure would be cause for hell for the rest of them. DiNozzo on painkillers… Gibbs shook his head again and then remembered something.
Coming around to behind DiNozzo’s desk, he tried the lowest drawer. It was unlocked. Half-drugged as he’d been, the younger agent probably forgot how zealously he usually guarded the contents inside. Pulling it open, Gibbs scattered the neatly stacked boxes around until he found the one he wanted. His Silver Star, the third highest military award designated solely for heroism in combat. He shut the drawer carelessly and stalked out, mentally planning the shortest route to Maryland at this hour of the night.
Gibbs knew it’d be awhile before DiNozzo discovered the missing medal, and so what if he did? They were his winnings after all; he could do whatever the hell he wanted with them. And right then, all he could think of was a wounded marine, a fallen hero, someone who deserved that medal more than a file cabinet did.
Gibbs convinced himself DiNozzo wouldn’t care.
Twenty-five minutes later, he was at Bethesda Naval hospital, walking into Corporal Damon Werth’s room with stealth and purpose. The latter he had plenty of, the former he thought he’d have no issues with. Served him right to try and sneak up on a marine, even a barely conscious one.
Damon stirred and looked up at him just as Gibbs was placing the medal on his bedside table. Their eyes met and no words were needed. The NCIS agent knew a kindred spirit when he met one, and he hadn’t met one for decades, not since Franks. The young marine had struck a chord closer to home than Mike ever did. He was driven and focused, rebellious and patriotic. Loyal to a fault. Desperate to the point of self-destruction.
Gibbs saw in his eyes the same fire that had once fueled him as a youth. Sure they may have both started out wanting nothing more than to prove themselves to their fathers. But that was not why they stayed with the Corps. That was not why they put their lives and limbs, their very sanities at risk, over and over again.
“Agent Gibbs,” the soft husk of a voice stopped him before he could turn to leave. “I-I… need to hear you say it.”
Damon’s eyes watered. “No such thing as an ex-marine, right?”
Gibbs swallowed, hard. “That’s right, son.”
With a rare suppression of his usual anti-social instincts, he settled into the chair next to Damon’s bed. “No such thing.”
Gibbs knew what it felt like to have the ground snatched away from under one’s feet, which is what the Corps was to a marine. He stayed by Werth’s side all night, unwilling to let him wake up alone to a world he was not going to like very much.
Tony shouldn’t have been driving, he knew that. Gibbs would know it too, and probably head-slap him all the way into next week and back for it. But that was perfectly okay, the head-slapping, it was more than his own dad ever did for him, no matter how reckless he got trying to catch his attention.
No wonder Tony grew up to be such a pest, he thought sardonically. He tried to snigger through the haze of pain surrounding his face, neck and head, but quickly gave it up. It hurt too much.
DiNozzo on painkillers was never a good idea. They made him loopy and light-headed and swoon-ready, which might be a good look on women but surely not on a 'manly' man like him. He was never sure of where he was, or what he was doing, or saying to whom. Just yesterday, he’d walked up to Madame Director and told her how alluring she looked despite her uncanny resemblance to Peter Pan. He didn’t even want to think of what he might have said (admitted? promised?) to Ziva to make her smile so very sinisterly at him all day.
For all he knew it might even be genetic, considering that’s what his mom died of: a prescription drug overdose. The vodka did her no favors either. He could see how feeling so… disjointed from reality might have appealed to his poor hippie mother, stuck among the nouveau-rich snobs in the Hamptons instead of some organic flower-farming, vampire-worshipping cult in Oregon or wherever the hell else she’d longed to be.
At least he was smart enough to not take the damn pills before he got behind the wheel of his rental car, an imperial blue 2008 Chevy Impala. He hadn’t found his new dream car yet. His 1966 Mustang was a tough act to follow, and she wasn’t exactly the wisest decision he’d ever made either. But no one ever accused DiNozzo of being rational.
Hey, if anything it was Gibbs’ fault! He knew what a fucked up little shit Tony was inside (and out, sometimes). He wasn’t fooled by Tony’s always-in-control smart-aleck front, and he’d hired him still. Nothing ever escaped Gibbs’ astute powers of observation, much like Tony’s, if he could say so himself. The boss clearly noticed how his subordinate would hang onto his every word. Every scarce look, be it in affection or irritation. Every rare word, be it of praise or admonishment. And every fleeting touch, be it to reprimand or to comfort…
Gibbs knew the effect he had on Tony, knew Tony looked up to him as a father figure. And Tony knew that Gibbs knew.
“Which is why Gibbs would be expecting me,” Tony assured himself, as he turned the last corner towards his boss’ house. “Can’t disappoint the old man now, can we?”
It wasn’t easy parallel-parking when his neck protested being turned so much as an inch in either direction. Once he finally managed it, he closed his eyes and rested the back of his pounding head against the leather seat.
Something was off.
Tony blinked his eyes open and looked at the familiar house. A second later, he realized what was different about it tonight.
“Why do you always leave the porch light on, Boss?” Tony asked, stepping down the stairs into Gibbs’ basement with a six-pack in one hand and his jacket in another.
The older man suppressed a smile, though not quite all the way as he looked up at his visitor. Gibbs’ house was never locked, and no one had made more use of the fact than Tony in the short span of time he’d been at NCIS. It was almost a year to the day Gibbs practically pushed DiNozzo into the Recruitments center with a gentle pat on his face, and a fatherly one to his butt.
“To keep unwanted visitors away, not that it works,” he grumbled jokingly. Gibbs was sitting at his desk, peering down at what looked like blueprints for a boat.
“Ooh, unwanted? Ex-wife number two making booty calls again?”
Gibbs glared and Tony backtracked. “That’s none of my business of course, but usually it’s the other way around, right. Porch light ON means you’re at home, and taking visitors.”
“Maybe I keep it on so next time you come by blind drunk, you don’t stumble into the neighbor’s house again.”
Tony’s goofy grin stretched from ear to ear. “So it’s for me, then?”
Gibbs simply harrumphed and turned away to study his notes again. Tony did not need any more confirmation than that, and continued to grin until Gibbs walked past him and deftly whacked the back of his head.
Tony sighed, dejected, as he looked away from the house shrouded in darkness. It was two in the morning, and he had a pretty good idea where his boss might be. He winced at the burning agony in his battered face, remembering the way Gibbs had looked at Corporal Damon Werth, called him ‘son’ at the end of the interrogation.
The two had so much in common. He bet when Gibbs was younger, he was just like that super-intense, super-enigmatic, super-powered steroid junkie, minus the steroids of course.
Tony wondered if he should go in, maybe grab a couple hours of sleep in that second bedroom upstairs like he used to, and leave before Gibbs returned. A year ago, before Gibbs went away on his ‘hiatus’ he might have even done it. Hell, Tony used to crash here almost every second night while Gibbs was in Mexico. He told everyone it was so he could keep an eye on the place. Would have been so utterly pathetic to admit he only did it because he missed the old man so much.
But things had changed in the past year. Too much had happened, too much deception and distrust…
Tony sighed again, turned on the engine and pulled onto the road to head back to his apartment.