Tony rolled his head from side to side, trying to work out the kinks in his neck, while they got him wired up in the back of an FBI surveillance van. He wasn’t surprised that the Assistant Director of Criminal Investigations had approved Tony for this job—after all, he had the best chance of getting any information out of Senior. It was a little surprising, however, that he was sitting in the back of the van with Patrick Sheppard.
For all that Tony had been raised around money and influence, it wasn’t at the level of Patrick Sheppard’s, who could call the President’s private cell if he so chose. And apparently that level of influence got a civilian in the surveillance van.
Fornell had managed to include Gibbs as well, and that was reassuring to Tony. He’d be going in alone, but it helped to know that Gibbs was on his six.
Last night had been beyond surreal. All Tony had wanted to do was retreat to his home and get his head together in private, but he saw the look on Patrick’s face at the prospect of being separated from him so soon, and he’d caved like a cold soufflé. Tony had felt like it would be cruel to do anything but stay with him. Because for all that Tony was thrown off-kilter, he knew this had to be more difficult for the Sheppards. Or maybe Tony just wasn’t dealing with it yet. He had a fucking PhD in not dealing.
“You sure you’re ready for this, DiN– Tony?” Fornell asked awkwardly, highlighting the issue that Tony’s legal name was not DiNozzo. It wasn’t even Tony. But he sure wasn’t ready to be Alex Sheppard. Still, he’d have to sort out the name legalities sooner rather than later.
“I got this, Fornell. It’s not my first rodeo.”
“Yeah, but this is your– the man who raised you.”
Tony laughed mirthlessly. “Right. The man who raised me.”
“Son?” Patrick asked, looking concerned.
He just shook his head, not wanting to get into it. Everyone would understand soon enough, and Tony didn’t need to psych himself out. Pulling open the door to the van, he started to get out, but Patrick laid a hand on his arm. He raised a brow in inquiry.
“Please be careful.”
He forced himself to smile reassuringly. “It’ll be fine.” He hopped out of the van, not really surprised that Gibbs was right behind him. Meeting the older man’s heavy stare, he murmured, “The things you’re gonna hear…”
“Don’t matter,” Gibbs interjected. “Rule 5, Tony.”
Feeling himself relax a little, he gave a short nod.
He jogged across the street and entered the Manhattan high-rise. DiNozzo Enterprises used to take up several floors in this building, but now were confined to a small set of offices on the seventh floor. He got in the elevator and tried not to fidget.
“Keep it simple, Tony,” Fornell’s voice came over his earwig.
“You need to let me be the expert on Senior,” Tony said lowly in response. “And don’t be yapping at me while I do this.” He steeled himself for the utter shit he was about to put himself through. After all these years, Tony knew how to play Senior. It just wasn’t going to be pleasant for him.
When he entered the offices, he didn’t recognize anyone, which wasn’t surprising; he hadn’t been to these offices since he was a teenager. He asked to see DiNozzo Senior and explained that he was the man’s son. The receptionist looked skeptical but made the call. Senior was obviously playing a power game because he made Tony wait for almost fifteen minutes before he was allowed back. As tempting as it would be to charge into Senior’s office and get pissy, that wasn’t how to play the man.
The secretary met him at the door. “Mr. DiNozzo only has a few minutes today,” she said curtly.
“I promise to be brief,” Tony responded with a smile.
She gave him a suspicious look, but opened the door and waved him inside.
Senior didn’t even look up for several long moments, just stayed focused on whatever paperwork he was reviewing. Finally, he glanced up and gave Tony a quick once over. “Junior,” he acknowledged. “You don’t seem any the worse for wear.”
“Meaning?” He noted that Senior didn’t offer to let him sit, but he felt better on his feet, so he didn’t push the issue and kept a careful distance.
Senior made a vague gesture. “They called me and said you were dying. But you don’t look like you were at death’s door.”
Though there’d been a host of minor injuries recently, there was only one time that he was at death’s door. “That was six months ago. I’d either be recovered by now or dead. But I see the outcome wasn’t of much concern.”
Waving it away, Senior replied, “Well if you had died, I assumed they would have called again, so everything must have worked out.”
“Right.” Tony fought back the lifetime of hurt simmering under the surface and kept up his nonchalant demeanor. “Well, law enforcement isn’t without its dangers.”
“You could come to your senses at any time and come work for me. Despite your atrocious choices in educational pursuits, I’m sure I could find a way to make you an asset.”
“Ringing endorsement if I ever heard one. I like what I do, and I don’t regret my field of study.” All Senior knew about was the sports science bachelors, and, really, nothing else was his damn business. Tony hated getting into this personal shit, but he had to play this in a way that wouldn’t make the old man suspicious.
“I told you when you chose to go to Ohio State and play those foolish games that I was cutting you off until you came to your senses. If you don’t like the situation you find yourself in, that’s not my concern.”
Tony felt annoyance rise up in him. “That’s a bit of historical revisionism, don’t you think? You disowned me when I was twelve. Why the hell would I factor your wishes into my educational decisions?”
Senior made a dismissive gesture. “You know I didn’t mean that. I was just angry that you had created that ruckus with the police in Hawaii.”
“What the hell was I supposed to do?” Tony snapped. “You forgot me! I was twelve and alone—I couldn’t live in that hotel room by myself indefinitely. Someone was eventually going to figure it out!”
“I’d have remembered eventually,” Senior retorted defensively. “There was a deal that needed to be taken care of first, and I’d have sent for you when I finished. But you were always weak and whiny—even when you were an infant. Sending you to military academy was to teach you a lesson about standing on your own two feet! But you wasted it and chose to play sports.”
“And you trying to seize my educational trust from Grandpa Jasper was what? Another lesson?”
“I wasn’t going to pay for you to throw balls around for four years!”
“It wasn’t your money,” Tony countered. “You wouldn’t have been paying for anything.”
“Your grandfather coddled you, but I refuse to have any son of mine playing sports, or living his life as a civil servant. I don’t know why you’re here, Junior, but until you’re ready to rethink your choices, I won’t have any part of it,” Senior declared, looking back at his papers.
“Now, see, that’s the thing… I’m not, am I?” he threw out, waiting to see how Senior responded.
“Not what?” Senior asked without looking up from his work.
“I’m not ‘Junior’.”
Slowly, he lifted his head. “Meaning?”
“I’m not really your son, am I?” Tony asked without any inflection.
Senior leaned back in his seat and threw the pen on the desk. “So you found out you’re adopted. Did one of your mother’s idiot family members tell you?”
“Adopted?” he asked incredulously. “Is that what you’re calling it?”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Senior snapped, losing a bit of his cool.
“Adoption implies something that’s legal. We both know my adoption was anything but.”
Senior narrowed his eyes. “What are you implying?”
“I’m not implying anything. I’m flat out saying that there was nothing legal about how I came to be in your care. What’d you do… buy me?”
“And if I had, so what? People do it all the time.” He gave a dismissive wave as if illegally purchasing a baby was no big thing.
“That’s true, it does happen all the time. But that doesn’t exactly make it legal, now does it?”
Senior scoffed. “Do you think people like me concern ourselves with petty regulations?”
Tony had a feeling Senior was being deliberately obtuse, and he decided to go with his intuition. “Tell me why. Why buy a kid you clearly never wanted?”
“Had to have an heir. Claire’s father insisted on us having a child before he’d loosen his stranglehold on her trust fund. But Claire was infertile, and those legal avenues were problematic.”
“Because mom was a fucking lush,” Tony snapped. He’d cared for Claire DiNozzo, but he wasn’t blind to her faults.
“She had a drinking problem, yes, but that was no one’s business but ours!”
Tony gave a mirthless laugh. “So there you are, saddled with a kid you didn’t want, but what the hell… I was mom’s responsibility, right? But then she died and Grandpa Jasper pulled his financial support.”
Senior’s face twisted into a snarl. “That old bastard blamed me for his daughter’s death.”
“Well, you were behind the wheel, and you were drunk.”
“Bu that’s not in any reports, now is it?” Senior retorted with a little smirk.
“No, it sure isn’t. You bought your way out of that vehicular manslaughter charge, didn’t you?” Tony said almost lightly. “Were you disappointed that my injuries were only minor? That I didn’t go with her?”
“What is it that you really want, Junior? If you just came here to have an emotional bloodletting over the fact that I never cared about you, well, frankly I don’t have the time.”
“You think it’s news that you didn’t give a shit?” Tony asked incredulously.
“I think you were always whiny and needy, and clearly nothing has changed.” The old bastard just had to seize any opportunity to get another barb in.
“Right. Well, I’ll get out of your hair after you answer my question.”
“And what question would that be?” he asked, sounding almost bored.
“Did you actually solicit my kidnapping, or did you just not want to know how I was acquired?”
Senior’s hands twitched and his expression went blank.
“Seriously, Dad,” Tony said mockingly, “did you know I was an abducted child and just not care? Or did you actually have someone kidnap me.”
“I did not solicit any child to be abducted,” Senior said carefully. “I was told a young mother didn’t want the child.”
“Do you think that’s going to make a difference? We both know that you were fully aware that you weren’t getting a baby through volunteer placement. You knew that I had been abducted.”
Senior scoffed. “Let’s say that’s true. So what?”
“It’s called accessory to kidnapping, and it carries the same penalties as the actual kidnapping.”
“That was thirty-two years ago. There’s the statute of limitations.”
Tony decided not to enlighten Senior yet about there being no statute of limitations in Virginia for felony abduction. “You really don’t care that you took someone else’s child, do you?”
“They’re lucky they didn’t have to deal with you and your incessant whining and weakness.”
“How’d you do it?” Tony pressed.
“You think it’s difficult?” He laughed, as if it were a trivial matter to just take a child whenever you wanted one.
“How?” Tony wasn’t going to be deterred.
Senior snorted in amusement. “Why do you want to know so desperately?”
Tony knew he had to make it seem like he wanted the information for some pathetic personal reason. At least, that’s the way Senior would see it. “I want to know who was responsible for taking me from a family that might have actually cared about me.”
“You’re so weak, Junior. No one was going to care about you.”
“Who abducted me?” he demanded again.
“Why do you care?”
“I want to know!”
Senior scoffed. “You think I know the names of petty criminals? Paul took care of those details.”
“So that smarmy attorney friend of yours, Paul Albright, was responsible?”
“He knew people. The kind of people who could seize an opportunity when the moment was right.”
Something wasn’t adding up to Tony. Senior wasn’t stupid. The Sheppard baby kidnapping had been all over the papers and the news. Alex Sheppard’s birthday was the 12th of June, but Tony’s fake birth certificate said the 9th of June.
“And when did you seize me?”
“Don’t forget, I didn’t do any of the seizing, Junior.”
“Just answer the question,” Tony snapped.
“You don’t get to demand anything from me!”
“I want to know when you got me,” Tony persisted.
“I’ll have you removed, Junior,” Senior warned.
“Right. The police are going to do something about your son, the federal agent,” Tony said with a laugh.
“June 16th. We were told you were a week old, so June 9th was the date on your birth certificate.” There was something off in Senior’s tone, though.
“So, out of curiosity, what is it you had against Patrick Sheppard?”
“DiNozzo!” Fornell exclaimed in his ear just as Senior lunged to his feet, features twisted in anger before the affable mask was back in place.
“What are you on about, Junior?”
“I mean, it’s obvious that you must have had some kind of grudge against him. What’d he do? Turn you down for a business deal?”
Senior suddenly rounded the desk and got right in Tony’s face. “I did not know you were his son!”
Tony smirked. “I didn’t say I was his son. I just asked what you had against him. You dug your own hole on that one.”
Senior swung at him, but Tony had a lot of experience ducking Senior’s fists. Although, he had to admit that the man was usually drunk when he lashed out, so Tony didn’t turn away quite enough from the blow and got more on the jaw than he expected.
He shoved Senior back, watching the man stumble. He should just put him in cuffs, but he needed to maintain the illusion that this was between them for now. “You know that’s assaulting a federal agent, right?”
Breathing hard, Senior glared at Tony, fists clenched. Then he smirked. “You used to dodge better than that.”
Tony picked up the thread of the confrontation. “It was all over the news, wasn’t it? Every freaking newspaper—you couldn’t have missed it. And two days later, there’s a baby who looks damn close to the picture in the paper. You expect me to believe you didn’t know exactly whose kid you had?”
Senior snarled, “I didn’t know.”
“But you suspected.”
“Yeah. But suspicions aren’t a crime!”
Tony was sort of grateful Senior’s knowledge of the penal code was so sketchy. When it came to contract law, the man was top notch, but apparently he thought he was above having to pay attention to criminal law. “Whatever you want to call it, you had strong reason to believe you had Patrick and Emma Sheppard’s baby, and you kept that information to yourself.”
“Why should I give a damn about that son of a bitch! Besides, he had two other sons—decent sons.”
Cocking his head to the side, Tony asked, “Seriously, did he turn you down for a loan or something? I mean, what the fuck? What could he have done that was so awful that, in your mind, it justified keeping his child?”
“He wouldn’t even see me!” Senior roared.
Tony huffed, not exactly surprised by the revelation. “And that is the greatest sin in your mind, isn’t it? You do hate being ignored, don’t you, you narcissistic old fuck.”
Senior pointed at Tony. “You don’t talk to me that way, Junior. You owe me some respect!”
“I owe you exactly NOTHING!” Tony yelled, feeling like he was finally starting to lose his cool and therefore his control of the situation.
Senior had just taken two steps toward Tony when the door slammed open. Gibbs, Fornell, and two other FBI agents stormed in and converged on Senior. The man started to rage, threatening lawsuits and trying to bluff his way out of it as he was handcuffed by Fornell.
Tony took a few deep breaths and tried to tune out Senior’s ravings about being set up and how he would be calling his attorney.
Gibbs stepped in front of him, expression neutral, but Tony could see concern and sadness in his eyes. He gave Tony an assessing look, then turned Tony’s head to the side, peering at the red area. Finally, he dropped his hand and gave Tony a faint smile. “You did good, Tony.”
“Thanks, Gibbs,” Tony replied, not feeling like this was a ‘Boss’ kind of moment. “Rule 16.”
Gibbs’ lips twitched. “You need to get downstairs,” he said lowly so that only Tony could hear. “We barely managed to persuade Sheppard that he could hurt the case if he interfered, but I don’t think they’ll be able to keep him down there much longer.”
Tony felt like everything was suddenly catching up to him. He really didn’t want to have to face Patrick after all the shit Senior had spewed.
“Go, Tony,” Gibbs prompted. “It’ll be okay.”
He blew out a breath, trying to get his bearings, then left the office, mentally leaving everything DiNozzo behind him for good.
– – – –
Filled with a helpless rage, Patrick paced the sidewalk outside the office building. Two FBI agents were guarding the door like he couldn’t be trusted not to go inside. And perhaps he couldn’t. He didn’t want to harm the case against the man who he saw as responsible for Alex’s abduction, but listening to that horrible conversation was one of the most difficult things he’d had to endure in a long time. He just wanted to take his son home and never let anything hurt him like that again. Because for all of his clear-headed command of that situation, Patrick had no doubt that Alex had been grievously wounded by DiNozzo.
He was mentally preparing himself to not overreact when Alex reappeared; years of fights with John and Matt, and even David to a degree, had finally taught him that being overbearing with his protectiveness just drove his sons away.
The doors to the building opened, and Patrick stopped his pacing as Alex stepped out. His son looked wary, and Patrick knew this wasn’t the time to ask all the questions that were running through his mind. He moved closer and reached up to touch his son’s jaw, which was clearly going to bruise in short order.
Pushing his anger aside, he just smiled and said, “I’m really proud of you.”
Alex’s eyes widened and he looked oddly vulnerable for a moment before all the emotions seemed to get locked away. “Sorry you had to hear all of that,” he finally said.
“You never have to apologize for anything that man says or does.” Patrick took a steadying breath. “Do you have to stay? Can I take you home?”
“I’ll need to write a report, but it can wait until Monday,” Alex replied, though he looked a little bit surprised for some reason.
“Then let’s go. The driver’s waiting and the jet’s ready to depart whenever we arrive.”
“Yeah… okay.” Something about Alex’s body language struck Patrick as defensive, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on why that might be. Patrick was just relieved Alex was letting him take him away from this mess. Alex suddenly looked over his shoulder just as Gibbs exited the building, as if he had some weird sixth sense about the man’s presence. “Just a sec,” he said absently, then turned and went over to talk to his boss.
Patrick was perfectly willing to admit he envied the way Alex looked to Gibbs. He couldn’t even articulate what his son was seeking from the other man, but there was no doubt he trusted Gibbs. But envy or no, he was glad Alex had someone he felt he could rely on considering what his adopted father had been like.
The two had a very brief conversation, then Alex surrendered the earwig and wire he’d been wearing. When he returned, his expression was still closed off, but he seemed lighter despite no obvious outward change.
Once they were in the car and on the way to the airport, Patrick broke the silence. “I can’t imagine any of that would be easy to talk about. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to know everything about your childhood.” Alex flinched a little. “But I won’t push you. That said, if you ever want to talk, I want you to know that I’ll listen.”
“It’s fine, you know? It could have been worse,” Alex replied vaguely.
Patrick turned on the seat to more squarely face his son. “I will never stop trying to care for your hurts just because they could have been worse.”
Another moment of vulnerability showed in Alex’s eyes before it was closed off again. He gave a nod, but didn’t say anything.
Smiling faintly, Patrick said, “I really will try not to push about your childhood, but I do have a question, if you don’t mind?”
“All right,” he replied cautiously.
“You almost died recently?” There was nothing easy about anything he’d heard over that wire, but that particular piece of information had been alarming. The idea that Alex could have died six months before their quirk of fate nearly undid him.
“Pneumonic plague,” his son replied succinctly.
Patrick blinked several times in astonishment. “Plague?”
“It was sent in an envelope to the office. I opened it and got covered in this white powder,” Alex offered neutrally, as if it were an everyday occurrence.
“I don’t understand. How did they get around the irradiation of federal mail?”
Alex huffed a little, then explained the method used to get around postal irradiation. It was ingenious, but it scared him that Alex was exposed to that level of risk on a daily basis. And his son didn’t seem to have much reaction to it at all.
“Pneumonic plague is certainly rarer and more difficult to treat than Bubonic,” Patrick mused, wondering why Alex had nearly died. “Were they unable to find an effective antibiotic?”
“It wasn’t that… the bug was bioengineered to be resistant to antibiotics.”
Patrick forced himself not to react to the terror that was rising up in him. He had to remind himself that the danger was already past, but the idea of someone having to recover from plague without antibiotics was almost unthinkable. “The pneumonia must have been horrible. How are your lungs?”
Alex stared at him, then suddenly laughed.
“I think I missed the punchline,” Patrick offered wryly.
His son just shook his head. “Sorry, something just struck me as strange. It’s hard to explain.” He looked like he was considering something, then seemed to come to some decision. “My lungs are scarred, and I have to do exercises every day to maintain the lung function I have.”
Patrick’s stomach twisted in knots. “Have you seen a specialist?”
“I’m fine, Patrick, there’s no reason to worry, okay? But, yes. They’re quite curious about my progress since there aren’t many cases of pneumonic plague anymore. And not many who have survived it without antibiotics.”
He reluctantly nodded, even though he wanted to spirit his kid off for medical tests right this instant.
Alex cocked his head to the side. “It’s driving you up the wall isn’t it?”
“Having to rein in the paternal thing,” Alex observed astutely.
“Yes!” Patrick took a breath, then laughed a little. “It’s so difficult not to try to take you away and protect you from everything.”
Nodding, Alex looked thoughtful. Finally, he said, “I need you to understand that I’m not used to this. I don’t know how to react when someone asks me if my lungs are okay, or if I’m seeing the doctor. This—the whole thing—is going to take some time to get used to.”
Patrick could hear the plea for patience in the words not said. He wondered if his son realized what he’d revealed. How is it that Alex could nearly die due to his work, and no one was asking how he was recovering?
“Take things at your pace. The last thing I want to do is drive you away, but I won’t be able to help pushing a little sometimes. But if you tell me no, I’ll respect that. Okay?”
“Yeah… yeah, that’s good. Thanks.”
“I should have asked before now, but what do you want me to call you?” Patrick asked cautiously.
“You think of me as Alex, don’t you? Tony doesn’t even register.”
Patrick winced a little. “Yes. I’m sorry about that. I can’t imagine how unsettling this is for you. But you look so much like Em and your brothers, I look at you and I see my Alex. But I’ll do my best to respect your choice about how you’d prefer to be addressed.”
Alex nodded, gaze vacant as if he were lost in thought. Clear green eyes eventually fixed on Patrick again. “Look, I don’t know how to be your son. Lately, I’ve started thinking I don’t even know how to be Tony anymore.” He huffed a little and dragged his hands through his hair, causing it to stand on end, which was so like John it sort of unnerved Patrick. “The thing is, if we leave it up to me, we’ll move at a glacial pace. I normally do everything I can to hide it, but I…” He trailed off and looked away. “It’s hard to be close to people. I’ve got issues by the buttload, not the least of which is major daddy issues,” he shot Patrick a speaking look, “that are now compounded almost beyond my ability to comprehend. I guess the point is, that you’re gonna have to push some. Because I don’t think I can.”
That was all delivered in a casual manner, but Alex’s tone was almost brittle. There was a sort of dissonance between the way he was acting and the words coming out of his mouth. It made Patrick infinitely sad that his son had been hurt so often.
“I can do that. But when it’s too much, tell me.”
He nodded shortly. “And you can call me Alex if it’s what you want. I’m not sure how the name thing is going to shake out, but I– you calling me that is okay… fine… yeah.” Shrugging one shoulder, Alex looked uncertain of himself.
“Thank you, Alex,” he said sincerely. “You can call me Patrick as long as you need to, but if you ever feel comfortable, I want you to know, I’d welcome being Dad.”
Alex shifted in his seat and cracked his neck. “Yeah… Okay.”
There was one other thing he really wanted to know about, and was considering asking, when his phone vibrated. He pulled it out and sighed when he read the message. “Your brothers have arrived. They’re waiting at the house.
“What?” Alex asking, sounding a little strangled.
“I’d hoped they’d wait for tomorrow, but I can’t say I’m truly surprised. They both really want to meet you.”
Alex stared, round-eyed and then huffed out a breath. “I guess we haven’t really had much time to talk. Other than their names, I don’t really know anything about them.”
“John’s the oldest, we named him after my father, and he’s thirty-five. In fact, his birthday is just two days after yours. I didn’t mention it before but he’s an Air Force Major on classified assignment. We have high hopes that he’ll be able to come home soon.” And that was a sticky situation. He was going to need to ask George for permission to read Alex in on the Stargate program. The idea of everyone in the family knowing but Alex being the odd man out was quite uncomfortable.
“His master’s is in applied mathematics.” Patrick pulled out his wallet and retrieved the picture of John. “Of all your brothers, I think you have the strongest resemblance to John.
Alex’s brows went up. “Uh, yeah. Wow.”
“David is thirty-four—born on July 28th. His undergrad studies were in electrical engineering, but he chose to pursue an MBA for his post-graduate work.” He handed over the small photo of David.
“Strong family resemblance, but he looks more like you,” Alex observed. “He runs JADEM Aeronautics & Aerospace, right?”
“Out of curiosity, why choose the family initials for the name?”
Patrick found himself smiling. “So few people catch that.”
Alex quirked a brow. “It’s my job to notice things.”
“Em is the one who came up with the idea for Sheppard Industries to move into aeronautics and then eventually into aerospace as well. When it came time to choose a name, I was feeling… sentimental, I suppose. And all of your initials work well together.”
“And what about Matthew? How old is he?”
He passed over the photo of his youngest. “Matthew was born on the 2nd of April in 1976, so he’s twenty-nine. He finished his master’s in mechanical engineering when he was twenty-three. He went his own way for a few years designing engines, but joined JADEM two years ago.”
Alex touched the edge of the photograph, looking oddly uncertain. “There really is a strong family resemblance with everyone.” He handed the pictures back. “I know you have a Ph.D., but not what your field of study was.”
“Chemistry. I’m afraid you got the math bug from you grandfather James—Emma’s father. Just like John. He’d have been quite proud to have his namesake follow in his footsteps.”
Alex’s head jerked up. “What?”
It took him a second to determine the source of the surprise. “I confess that I looked up some basic information about you.” He quickly held up a hand. “Not because I was looking for anything, but because I want to know about you and didn’t want you to feel overwhelmed with questions.”
“I…” He gave a short laugh. “I want to be annoyed, but considering that I’ve run background checks on every person I’ve worked closely with for the last five years and two of my neighbors, I guess I can’t be throwing stones.”
“You can be annoyed if you want, Alex. Checking into your coworkers isn’t exactly the same as investigating on your family.”
Alex shrugged one shoulder, looking uncomfortable. “So you know about the math degree?”
Patrick frowned. “Yes. And that you finished your master’s this summer. Was it a secret?”
“I just don’t talk about it. Not really relevant to what I do.”
“I’m not sure I understand…” Patrick trailed off.
“Look, let me explain it some other time. It’s part of a bigger story.”
“All right,” he conceded, sensing this was not a subject on which he should push.
Obviously ready to jump on the subject change, Alex said, “Anyone married?”
“John was married for a short time. David was engaged for a year, but it ended abruptly, and he has never discussed why. Matt…” he sighed. “Well, you’ll find out. But suffice it to say that Matt has no interest in settling down at the moment. What about you? I know you’re not married…”
“I was engaged a few years ago. She left me at the altar,” he said bluntly.
“I’m so sorry, son.”
Alex crossed his arms. “I’m just going to be blunt. I certainly don’t talk about this at work, because I don’t want to get killed, but I’m bisexual. These days, it’s more likely that I’d bring a guy to dinner. If that’s an issue, we should get it out now.”
Patrick understood why this would be a defensive topic, but he quickly set out to reassure his son. “It truly doesn’t matter to me, Alex.” Well, it did matter, in the sense that his two bisexual sons were in careers where it could get them killed, but he’d learned the lesson about fighting that battle with John. He wasn’t going to make the same mistake with Alex. “I don’t care who you love, as long as they treat you well.”
Alex blinked a few times, looking astonished.
“Why does that surprise you?”
“Well, that’s like a parental response that I thought only existed in movies,” he admitted.
Giving a huff of laughter, Patrick replied, “I made mistakes, Alex, a lot of them. Particularly with John. I sometimes think the second half of life is a test to see if you learned from the mistakes you made in the first half.”
Alex made a noncommittal noise and seemed to be looking for something as he studied Patrick. After a minute or two, he nodded. “So the bisexual doesn’t bother you?”
“It doesn’t change my opinion of you in any way, if that’s what you mean. It worries me with your line of work considering the antiquated notions about sexuality that are pervasive in law enforcement and the military—of which you are basically involved in both.”
“Yeah, okay. Fair enough.”
Patrick directed the conversation to lighter topics, finding out that his son was interested in the history of Ancient Greece and Rome, and that movies and music were his primary hobbies. He was curious about his son’s musical interest. Emma had been passionate about music, and though all his sons played one instrument or another, none of the others had her passion for it.
After they boarded the Sheppard Industries jet for the short flight to DC, and were in the air, Patrick decided to push on one thing he rather desperately wanted to know about. “Would you be all right telling me about Hawaii?”
Alex didn’t respond for the longest time, and Patrick was about to withdraw the question, when he shrugged one shoulder and replied, “You know it was a long time ago, and it doesn’t really matter now, but, uh… Mom died when I was eight. Sorry, Claire, died when I was eight. I went to boarding school the first four years after her death, but I was home during the summers. The summer I turned twelve, Senior took me with him to Hawaii—the guy he was doing a deal with had a kid about my age. I woke up one day and he was gone. Found out later he forgot I was there. He’d just left the room key for housekeeping, gotten in a taxi, and headed for the airport. I put up the do not disturb sign, so they never knew and didn’t process his checkout. I lived on room service until his accountant called after a couple days to ask about fraudulent charges. The hotel called the police.”
Patrick felt physically ill. Alex delivered the facts like it wasn’t a big deal to forget that your child was traveling with you and leave them behind. Even worse, the bastard apparently never noticed since his accountant blew the whistle. “What happened to you?”
“Eh. The police were pretty nice once they figured out what was going on. They didn’t even send me to a group home. One of the detectives let me stay with him while they tracked down Senior. The state of Hawaii planned to press charges for child abandonment, and possibly child endangerment, but the charges just went up in smoke after Senior and his lawyer showed up. Danny, the cop I was staying with, was enraged, but it wasn’t like anyone consulted him about it.
“Senior was furious with me for the clusterfuck, and ‘disowned’ me as he shipped me off to a year-round military academy. Next time I talked to him was when he found out I’d accepted a sports’ scholarship to Ohio State.” He shrugged casually as if none of it was important.
“I… see. Um.” What was he supposed to say to that? If Alex’s affect had been at all congruent with the story, it might have been easier, but his son acted as if it didn’t matter. “Was Danny why you wanted to be in law enforcement?” he finally asked.
“Yeah.” Alex actually smiled sincerely. “He and his partner Steve were really good to me, and set an impression of what cops were supposed to be like, and the good they could do.”
“Do you know what happened to them?”
“Both still live in Hawaii. Retired now. We exchange letters a couple times a year since I went to RIMA.” He glanced away, looking lost in memories. “I wanted to be that kind of cop, ya know?”
“I’m absolutely certain that you are, Alex.”
– – – –
Tony paid more attention as the car approached the gates to the Sheppard family home this time. He’d been so tired last night, and just numb, that he hadn’t noticed much about the house or the grounds, other than to note that they were big. Considering how wealthy the Sheppards were, it certainly could have been bigger, but Patrick didn’t strike Tony as someone who had a lot of shit he didn’t need or couldn’t use.
The grounds were well tended and fairly minimalist, but Tony wouldn’t have really expected much different from a house that was primarily full of men. When he caught himself trying to identify the type of trees lining the drive, he had to admit that he was mentally distracting himself from his nerves about meeting his brothers.
Patrick touched his arm. “You have nothing to worry about.”
Turning his gaze away from the landscaping, Tony contemplated his father’s expression for several beats. He appreciated that Patrick was trying to make this easy, but absolutely nothing was going to accomplish that. “I don’t have any experience with this.”
“Family,” Tony countered. An expression of sadness flashed over Patrick’s face, and Tony looked away just as the driver pulled up in front of the main doors.
“Alex,” Patrick called as Tony was getting out of the car, “no one expects you to be anything but who you are.”
He looked back and nodded briefly then got to his feet and shut the door behind him. Staring at the house, he was aware when Patrick rounded the car and stepped up next to him, waiting in silence.
Before Tony could finish steeling himself to go inside, the front door opened and Matt came out. His expression was tight and he only hesitated briefly before jogging down the steps and coming to stand in front of Tony. Without pause, he pulled Tony into a hug, ignoring the way Tony gave a start of surprise.
“Welcome home,” he whispered. He pulled back, hands clasping Tony’s upper arms. “I wasn’t going to wait in there while you worked yourself up. God knows I’d be freaking out in your shoes. ‘Cause seriously, man, this is some surreal shit. Now come inside and tell me all your bad habits. I have a bet with Dave that I have more vices in common with you than he does.”
Tony barked out a startled laugh. “You’re already at one.” He could tell Matt had noticed the bruise still forming on his jaw, and appreciated that he hadn’t asked about it.
Matt tugged at Tony’s arm and started leading him up the steps. “Oh? Which one?”
“Levity makes everything better.”
Flashing Tony a blinding smile, Matt retorted, “We are going to get along so well. And I just know Dave is going to have to loan me his car for the week.”
“’67 Shelby Mustang.”
“Okay, yeah, I need to win a bet with David,” Tony remarked making Matt laugh. He was aware that Patrick was following as they crossed the threshold.
David was pacing the foyer, but halted when they entered. “Hey,” he said, sounding a bit stilted. “I didn’t want to overwhelm you out there. Mattie’s a force of nature sometimes.”
“I’m good,” Tony replied as he faced his older brother. And that was such a strange thought he didn’t even know how to slot it into place.
“Is there anything you…” David trailed off, looking uncomfortable. “Yeah, I can’t do this.” He crossed the few feet between them and pulled Tony into a bone-crushing hug. “I’m so glad we found you.” When he finally let go, Tony noted that David’s eyes were wet with unshed tears, and it made him feel odd. “I remember holding you as a baby,” he murmured, his gaze moving over Tony’s face, lingering briefly on his jaw.
And really, Tony didn’t know what to do with David’s memories of him, but Matt stepped in and started herding everyone further into the house. “I already got one on you, David.”
“That doesn’t mean anything, baby brother. The game is just beginning.”
An hour later, Tony felt thoroughly interrogated, but the subjects were so innocuous it allowed him to relax. Plus, he got to find out about his new family in the process. He was relieved that neither of his brothers had asked about what happened in New York. Although, Tony was not at all naïve, he knew they would discuss it when he wasn’t around.
“I win!” Matt declared consulting his notes.
“If John were here, he’d win,” David countered.
“John did not enter into this bet, Dave. Deal with it.”
“You won by two, Mattie. It’s not a landslide.”
As soon as Matt opened his mouth to counter, Patrick said, “Boys,” in this really dad tone that sort of made Tony feel weird things he couldn’t identify.
Both immediately let it go, and Tony found himself the focus of their attention again. After a few more benign questions, Matt asked, “In the sunlight, I noticed that scar on your neck. Do you mind if I ask how you got it? Because David’s crap with a straight razor, and I might need to place another bet with him about who has the most skills in common with you.”
“Scar?” Patrick asked, getting up from his wingback chair and moving over to the loveseat Tony was occupying.
Tony covered the scar with his hand, mind whirling. It was a very faint mark now. Barely an inch and a half, though it had been longer—one end of the slice healed completely scar-free, but the deeper end had left a permanent mark.
Patrick sat next to him. “May I see?”
“It’s very tiny and faint,” Tony protested.
Patrick just raised his brows and Tony dropped his hand with an eyeroll.
“Seriously, Alex, “ Matt began, “I didn’t mean to bring up anything uncomfortable.”
He felt Patrick’s touch on the side of his neck briefly as he replied, “It’s okay. It’s just something that happened at work.”
Matt and David both immediately frowned, and Patrick asked, “What about your work could put a scar like that on your throat?”
Tony looked at Patrick. “Look, suspects don’t always cooperate. I do the best I can to be safe, I promise.”
Patrick’s eyes narrowed. “That is a thin scar… it looks like it was done with a razor or a knife.”
Not sure how to navigate what was starting to feel like a minefield, Tony cautiously replied, “Knife.”
Patrick paled so abruptly that Tony was a little worried. “A criminal had a knife to your throat?”
One of his brothers made an odd sort of strangled sound, but Tony kept his attention on Patrick. “It’s not a big deal. It was an undercover assignment and the suspect got suspicious. And when he tried to get rid of me, I handled the situation. I’m fine.”
“Alex… someone tried to kill you.”
“Don’t go down that path, okay? My work is dangerous, but we do a damn good job of mitigating the risk. And serial killers aren’t every day fare.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Tony could have headslapped himself. Because that sure as hell didn’t help things.
“A serial killer tried to murder you,” Patrick repeated woodenly.
Tony opened his mouth, but wound up just snapping it shut again. After a couple beats, he said, “There’s no way for me to gracefully dig myself out of that. I just… this is my job. I’m good at it, but sometimes it is dangerous.”
“Do you deal with serial killers a lot?” David asked, his tone much more flat than it had been thus far.
“No. There’s just been like four since I joined NCIS.”
“Four?!” a trio of voices said in stereo.
“You’ve only been at NCIS four and a half years,” Patrick bit out.
“All right, we have gone too far down this path. I am the Senior Field Agent for NCIS’s flagship Major Case Response Team. My team has the second highest solve rate in the alphabet soup. I’m also one of NCIS’s best undercover assets. Those are just the facts. And they add up to sometimes there’s danger. But I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in if I wasn’t good at it. You need to have a little faith in me.” Tony knew every word was true, but he spent so much time downplaying his abilities at work, it actually felt odd to verbalize his competencies.
“Oh, Alex, this isn’t about having faith in you. I completely believe you’re the best at what you do.” Patrick looked truly stricken, and he reached out and gently touched Tony’s scar again. “You’re my son. I don’t want you to ever be hurt. I can’t help but imagine losing you to a serial killer’s blade, and I just want to do everything in my power to protect you.”
“It doesn’t work that way,” Tony managed to say, feeling incredibly off-kilter.
“I know,” Patrick replied, sounding infinitely sad. “I struggle with John’s military service for the same reason. I just…” he paused and took a deep breath. “I’m not trying to pull you away from your career, okay? But I’m never going to be sanguine about you being hurt. Certainly not by a serial killer! And before you get it in your head to hide the danger or injuries from me, that would just make it worse. It’s easier to deal with facts than whatever the imagination can conjure.”
Tony wanted to protest, though he wasn’t even sure why. He just wasn’t used to anyone really caring if he came home hurt at the end of the day. He made a mental note to talk to Danny about it the next time they managed a phone call.
Patrick seemed to read something in his expression and offered a faint smile. “I’ll try not to be a lunatic about your safety, but please be honest with me if you get hurt.”
Somewhat reluctantly, Tony nodded, but he’d have to see how that shook out. He couldn’t imagine calling Patrick after a bad day and saying something like he sprained his knee tackling a suspect. It was just too weird.
“Come on,” Matt interjected suddenly, “let’s watch a movie. I want to test Alex’s movie trivia knowledge.” Tony noted that Matt’s smile was a little strained, and he appreciated the effort to change the subject.
They went down to a truly amazing home theater room, and David prompted, “John Huston.”
Tony bit back a smile. “American director, screenwriter, and actor. Directed more than forty feature films. His feature film debut was The Maltese Falcon in 1941. Arguably, his best film is The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, 1948. Disturbingly, he’s also well known for Annie in 1982.” Tony made a face. “And in Casino Royale, 1967, he directed the scenes in James Bond’s home and the castle in Scotland.”
Matt and David just stared at him, and Patrick started laughing. “I don’t think your idea to bet on movies with Alex is a sound plan, Matthew.”
“Uh, no!” Matt agreed, coming out of his stupor. “Okay, then. Since you say Sierra Madre is the best, and I’ve never seen it and I doubt Dave has…” At David’s agreement, he asked, “Dad?”
“I’ve seen it, but Alex is right, it’s a great movie, so I’m in. And then we’ll have dinner after.”
Movies were something Tony was completely comfortable with, so he settled down to watch, accepting how he was maneuvered to sit between David and Matt.
About forty minutes into the movie, he wasn’t enjoying it like he usually would. He hadn’t stopped to consider the theme of the film—the adoration and addiction to wealth. The central issues of greed and self-entitlement were making him feel ill. All he could think about were a lifetime of Senior’s words, his ambitions and aims, and how Tony was never important enough. How Senior’s search for gold had led him down the path of taking Tony from his family, and then leaving him behind over and over. Tony’s life was a casualty of greed and ego, and the movie parallels were just too much. It was like being slapped in the face with everything he hadn’t been thinking about or dealing with since Fornell stepped off the elevator last night.
He realized he was on his feet and Matt was scrambling to pause the movie.
“Alex?” Dave asked.
“I have to go.” He felt like if he didn’t get out of this house, right now, he’d lose his ability to keep his emotions under wraps. “I’m sorry… I just need some time to think.”
“Alex,” Matt began.
“It’s okay, son,” Patrick interjected, speaking to Tony. “Will you call me tomorrow, let me know how you’re doing?”
“Yeah… yeah, I can do that.”
“All right. Your car is still at the Navy Yard. Do you want me to take you, or you can take one of my cars to the Yard, and I’ll arrange to pick it up later?”
“The car,” Tony replied feeling hemmed in. Under normal circumstances, he would just take a cab, but he couldn’t wait the half hour or more that would take, and he didn’t see the Sheppards letting him leave on foot. “I don’t want to…” talk, he wanted to say, but winced. He felt like he was letting them down. Letting everyone down. But he needed some time to think without needing to be Alex Sheppard.
“That’s fine. Come on, then. We’ll get your coat and the keys to my Audi.”
Tony couldn’t say what he said or did on his way out the door. He kept a distance between him and everyone, said something in the way of goodbye, and climbed into the silver Audi S8 Patrick pointed him to. He knew Patrick was concerned, but he couldn’t deal with that right now. And certainly couldn’t absorb what was going on with his brothers.
Mind blank, he drove the short distance to the Navy Yard and retrieved his own Mustang. Under normal circumstances, he’d have delighted in driving the Audi, but he barely registered anything about it. Behind the wheel of his own car, he headed for home, needing solitude and time to get his head together. He couldn’t be so weak!
He realized he was sitting and staring vacantly out at the twilight sky. Looking around, he was surprised to find that instead of going home, he’d driven to Gibbs’. The truck was in the driveway, so he knew his boss was home. Torn about whether to stay or go, he clenched his hands on the steering wheel until they started to ache.
Uncertain how much time had passed, he only knew that it was now dark, Tony pried his hands off the wheel and got out of the car.
– – – –
David watched Alex drive away, feeling incredibly conflicted. Had they pushed him too far on something? He and Matt had talked about keeping the subjects light and giving Alex time to get acclimated. They’d agreed not to even ask about the confrontation with Mr. DiNozzo. But maybe their efforts weren’t enough.
“What happened?” Matt asked as the door front door was finally shut, blocking the chill December wind. “Everything seemed to be going fine.”
His father looked tired and older than his years all of a sudden. “I don’t think it has anything to do with this afternoon. Come up to my study and we’ll talk about it.”
David wasn’t surprised that his dad had some insight into what might be going on with Alex. Although, to be fair, he’d had his life turned upside down the last twenty-four hours, on top of spending a week trying to get cleared of murder charges. It probably wouldn’t take much to suddenly be too much.
He and Matt settled on the small sofa in Dad’s study, while Dad took one of the chairs.
Mattie immediately asked, “Did we push too hard? I know he said he was okay with being called Alex, but maybe we should be calling him Tony? I want him to be comfortable, so I’ll call him whatever makes this easier for him. Hell, I’ll call him Robert if he wants, and you know how I feel about men named Robert.”
“Matthew,” Dad interjected, briefly making a face at the mention of the guy who had harassed Mattie through grad school, “I don’t believe you pushed too hard. I think it’s a combination of reaction to this morning’s events and just the sheer difficulty of the situation.”
“Any idea what set him off?” Dave asked.
“I think the movie was the tipping point. I didn’t think about it, and clearly he didn’t either, but the themes of the movie might be troublesome after what happened this morning.”
“You want to fill us in, then?”
Dad sighed. “That man, DiNozzo, he bought Alex, but he knew Alex was my son.” He clenched his hands into fists and then deliberately stretched them out, a telltale sign that he was angry. “I’d apparently refused to hear some business proposal of his at some point. The man’s ego and self-entitlement is appalling. I think when he realized the baby he’d purchased was likely my son, he felt I deserved it for refusing to meet with him.” Dad looked away, jaw tight.
“Jesus,” Dave whispered. “He admitted all that?”
“More or less. Your brother was excellent at pushing the right buttons to get him to admit who arranged the transaction, and that, yes, he was aware of whose child he had.”
Dave was horrified. He already knew the basics about Alex’s upbringing—that his “mother” died when he was eight, he went to boarding school for four years, then off to military academy in Rhode Island—but beyond basic biographical facts there was no real information.
“Tell me this DiNozzo freak at least treated Alex well? I mean, he wanted a kid badly enough to buy one. Did he care for him?” Matt asked.
Dad just shook his head. “I noticed you both avoided asking about that bruise forming on his jaw—that was not related to his work. DiNozzo gave that to him this morning, and it was clearly a habit.”
Mattie abruptly got to his feet. “I’m going for a run. Dad, I’ll talk to you about it later.” And just like that, his baby brother was out of the room.
“I hope Matthew knows he can’t have the man killed,” Dad remarked calmly. “That’s my job.”
“Dad,” Dave said with exasperation.
“If that man isn’t convicted, I will handle it.”
Dave couldn’t really say anything to that, because he completely agreed. With his family, Dad had always been very different than he was with the rest of the world. You couldn’t run a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate and not be cutthroat when necessary—which was most of the time when he wasn’t dealing with family.
“Tell me what else happened today.”
Dad sighed and looked sad. He then gave Dave a summary of the things he’d learned about Alex’s life. The plague really worried him and increased his anxiety about Alex’s job. Serial killers and biohazard attacks, and he had no doubt Alex dealt with terrorists, too. But the Hawaii thing made him so angry he could barely see straight. What kind of sick bastard forgets his child, travels nearly five-thousand miles away, then acts like it’s the kid’s fault when he’s discovered?
Of his brothers, Dave was typically the one with the cooler head, but he was having a hard time finding that sense of equanimity right now.
Deciding he needed a change of subject, he asked, “Have you heard anything yet about the Daedalus?” Okay, maybe talking about anything tangential to John wasn’t the best idea.
“No, but it’s not due in Pegasus until Monday. I’ll call George in a little bit to see if there’s an update. When the news about Alex gets out, the hubbub could draw attention to Sheppard Industries and all our current ventures. It’s unlikely anyone would look too closely at JADEM, but we need to be prepared.”
“When will the press release happen?” Dave let himself shift into work mode. There would be a lot of PR issues to deal with. Technically, since Dave ran JADEM and the furor was more likely to affect Sheppard Industries, most of this would fall to his father, but Dave was fully briefed on everything major happening at SI, and he would help his dad in any way he could.
“The SI PR team is working with the Bureau, and they’re going to hold it as long as possible to give us time to adjust before the media circus begins. But I doubt we’ll have more than four or five days. A week at most.”
Dave began mentally running through all the things they’d need to handle this week, letting the familiar rhythm of work distract him from just how angry he was.
– – – –
Like he had many times, Tony walked down the steps into the basement and watched Gibbs sand the boat.
“Wondered when you’d get here,” Gibbs commented after several smooth passes of the sandpaper over wood. He looked up at Tony and then frowned. Setting the sandpaper on the bench, he reached for the jar of nails and screws.
“No,” Tony said, not wanting bourbon. “Normally it’s good, but I can’t model his coping behaviors. Not tonight.”
Gibbs moved a couple pieces of wood off two saw horses and pointed Tony at one of them.
He sat and just stared around the basement, feeling lost and confused.
“Talk to me, Tony.”
“You hate talking,” Tony countered immediately.
“I hate talking about stupid, pointless shit. This is not that.”
Tony found that oddly heart-warming. “I met my brothers.”
“And they’re great. David is a middle child, but he definitely is what I always thought an older brother would be like.”
Tony looked up sharply, but he probably shouldn’t be at all surprised that Gibbs was up to speed on the Sheppards. “Total baby brother.”
“Um… no. Not from what I could tell. But definitely indulged by everyone around him, no doubt. He’s charming and very likeable.”
“Sounds like it went okay.”
“You didn’t ask about John.”
Gibbs smirked a bit. “He’s on classified assignment. No way you met him.”
“You and your contacts are really annoying sometimes.” When there was no response but a quirked eyebrow, Tony huffed. “I get the sense there’s some tension about John, but it wasn’t clear to me why, and I wasn’t going to poke at that when I haven’t even known these people a day.”
“Mm hm.” Gibbs murmured. “Why aren’t you with your family, Tony?”
He felt all the feelings from earlier rush up and nearly overwhelm him again.
A strong hand settled on Tony’s shoulder, giving a reassuring squeeze. “What happened?”
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I just… I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to be Alex Sheppard. I’m thirty-two years old and I don’t know how to be someone’s son.”
“You just be yourself.”
Tony scoffed and got up, pulling away from the supportive touch. “And who would that be, Gibbs?”
Gibbs frowned. “Tony–”
“No! Seriously. Who am I? Am I the clown I’ve become for NCIS, because I sure as hell wasn’t that way before Kate.”
At Gibbs’ expression, Tony threw up his hands. “Fuck, Gibbs! You used to know that was all bullshit.” He laughed derisively. “I guess I should have known you’d forgotten when you started telling the junior members of the team that they didn’t have to follow my orders.”
Gibbs’ brows shot up, and he opened his mouth, but Tony didn’t want to talk about it.
“Forget it. Doesn’t matter. But that sure as hell wasn’t me!”
“I know that, Tony,” Gibbs said softly. “I’m not referring to whatever persona you put on. I’m talking about the brave, compassionate, intelligent man who has dedicated his life to getting justice for others.”
Tony deflated and slumped against the workbench. “I can’t do this.”
“You can. The question is: Do you want to? Do you want be to be Patrick Sheppard’s son?”
Staring at the floor, Tony shrugged his shoulders. Actually, he knew the answer. He did want to be Patrick’s son, he wanted it desperately, but he didn’t think he could say the words. Instead of addressing the question head on, he said, “I hated that you and Patrick were listening to that shit this morning.”
“I don’t want you thinking of me that way.”
“Tony…” Gibbs sighed. “Would you think less of me if you knew I’d had a painful experience?”
Tony froze for a beat, because he knew all about Gibbs’ painful experience. “Of course not.”
Gibbs’ eyes narrowed, and he cocked his head to the side, obviously studying Tony. He met the man’s gaze squarely. “You know, don’t you?”
Tony nodded. “It’s not hard to find, and I checked into you before I came to work at NCIS. I figured you had your reasons for not discussing them, so I never brought it up.”
“Right.” Gibbs ran his fingers through his hair, looking supremely uncomfortable. Finally, he met Tony’s eyes again. “I want you to listen carefully, Tony.”
At his nod, Gibbs continued. “I can tell you that there is nothing in the world more painful than losing your child. Patrick Sheppard suffered the worst thing a parent can possibly endure, and now he has a second chance—an opportunity I would kill for. You may be a grown man, but you’re still his son, and I promise you, that’s all he cares about. That DiNozzo voice in your head telling you that you’re not good enough needs to shut up. Whether you were really DiNozzo’s son or not, he was full of shit. Considering what you grew up with, that you turned into a such a good man, says a lot about you. And if you were my son, I’d be incredibly proud of you.”
Tony glanced away, blinking furiously.
“I am proud of you, Tony. Every damn day.”
And fuck if that didn’t make Tony feel nearly broken. He wanted to ask why Gibbs’ always withheld that approval, but he also didn’t want to know.
But Gibbs’ seemed to have his psychic decoder ring on, because he added, “I’m sorry I never told you that before.”
“Fuck.” Tony pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes, as if it could push back the emotion he was drowning in.
When he thought he had himself under control, he asked, “So I should give them a chance?”
“No,” Gibbs replied softly. “You should give yourself a chance.”
“Gibbs…” Tony trailed off feeling choked up.
“Let your family love you—whoever you choose to be. You deserve it.” He stepped close and set his hands on Tony’s shoulders. “But whatever you decide, I’ve got your six.”
All the emotions he’d been compartmentalizing came to the fore and Tony gave himself permission to fall apart.
– – – –
Tony opened the door to the apartment in the wee hours of the morning. After the emotional bloodletting was over, Gibbs had offered Tony the couch, but he wanted time alone, for all that he really appreciated Gibbs’ support. He also felt oddly out of step with Gibbs, even though he felt more supported by the man than he ever had before.
After shedding his coat, he found himself sitting at the piano. His mother’s piano. Except she wasn’t his mother.
They’d shown him Emma Sheppard’s piano earlier today. He found it peculiar that both of them loved the piano. Because of Claire, he’d grown up with a passion for piano, which now might make him seem more like Emma than he actually was.
Claire DiNozzo was a lush, and usually neglectful, but he had loved her and been devastated when she’d died. He wanted to believe she had no clue that he had been kidnapped, but there was no way to be sure, and it cast an even bigger shadow over his memories of her—moreso than the drinking and strange behaviors.
He sat thinking about his mothers for a long time, wondering what kind of woman Emma Sheppard had been. Would they have been close? Tony was about eleven when she died. Would losing her have been harder than losing Claire? He let himself indulge in “what-if.” What if he had grown up a Sheppard? What would be different? Of course, there was no way to know, but he was pretty certain he would have been happy.
Anger at his “adoptive” parents rose up in him as he realized everything they’d taken from him. He felt powerless to do anything to remedy the pain he was feeling and he hated being like this.
After long moments, lost in his thoughts, absently touching the piano, he realized his face was wet. Disgusted with himself, he muttered, “DiNozzo’s don’t cr–” He broke off and felt so many of the rules he’d had pounded into him crumble into dust.
“Dammit!” he yelled as he grabbed the nearest thing, a crystal vase, and threw it at the wall. He stood there breathing hard, furious with Senior and Claire and their fucking voices in his head.
When he had wrestled himself under control again, he struggled to figure out what to do. He knew he wouldn’t sleep, and he couldn’t think of anything that would help.
Well, that wasn’t strictly true. There was something he wanted, but he knew he shouldn’t. It was two in the morning.
Despite knowing it wasn’t the right thing to do, he found himself dialing the phone.
“Alex?” his father’s voice came over the line on the second ring. “Is everything all right?”
“Yeah.” He paused. “No. I don’t know. I just wanted…” he trailed off, not even sure how to say that he wanted to, for the first time in his life, reach out for his father and have him be there.
“Can I come to you?” Patrick asked carefully.
He should say that Patrick didn’t need to do that, that he’d see him another time, but what came out was, “That’d be good.”
“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”
After he hung up, he went to get the dustpan and the broom and let the monotony of cleaning up the broken crystal occupy his mind. He’d done it badly, but he’d reached out for help from his father, and he was actually getting it. He felt infinitely sad and wrecked inside, but his father was coming, and, for once, Tony wasn’t going to have to be alone at the end of another bad day.
– – – –