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Earning the Title

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Epilogue artwork

Epilogue – Three Weeks Later

It had been a long day. A long week. Tony stood on the balcony overlooking the bullpen, feeling the exhaustion in every bone and muscle, from his hair to the soles of his feet. Even so, he didn't lean, he didn’t brace both hands on the rail to stare down at the agents below like some kind of bird of prey. Like Vance had done. It wasn't Tony DiNozzo's style. And it wasn't like he was the new director, lording it over his peons. Deputy Director – Interim Deputy Director – was as high in the NCIS stratosphere that Tony ever wanted to climb. Higher, even.

Strategy meetings. Digging deep into files Tony never had the clearance to see before. Filtering personnel through the heaviest screens the DOD could muster. Reorganization from the top down. Tony had spent the past week following the thinnest threads Vance's web-spinning had shot out into intelligence communities all over the world. He'd tracked them through time and distance and in and out of all of the maze-like structures of federal agencies. He'd hunted out Vance's connections, those he'd used and those he'd abused and those he would be trying to explain for the next few years as he rotted in federal prison.

Carruthers and the Inspector General had been behind Tony's abrupt advancement. Securing Davenport's resignation as SecNav after Vance's meltdown had left the upper echelons of the agency so hollow that you could hear the wind whistling through the ivory towers. Nobody was on hand to step in or step up as director. And nobody – from the ground floor up – wanted another slapdash, hurry-up candidate like Vance to come in with his big stompy boots and hidden agenda. Not again. So Tony and Gibbs were tackling the job of unwinding Vance's puppet strings while keeping the agency running. Gibbs had the name recognition and years of service – and the reputation as a hard ass who took exactly no shit from anyone – to represent NCIS with the other players while Tony stayed in the background doing what he did best: figuring it all out.

Tony turned, eying the door to the director's suite behind him. It was a different life. Challenging, yes. It used all of Tony's investigative skills and deep-rooted suspicions, his wild theories and logical jumps. But it wasn't field work. He raised one hand to touch the healing incision along his throat. Until his doctors signed off, until he'd given his body time to recover from the surgery to repair his pharynx, to see if there would be any long-term complications, Tony DiNozzo's feet had been nailed to the floor. So, all in all, considering that he could be dead, or permanently impaired and kicked out on his ass, Tony shouldn't complain.

But he did. Quietly. And only among his closest friends. Because too much talking was still out.

The DCIS agent had come by Tony's hospital room looking like the weight of the world had been taken off his shoulders. Vance's assault on and attempted murder of Tony took precedence over any other charges. Carruthers had managed to appear appropriately concerned for Tony's injuries while at the same time he looked like he wanted to kiss him. Now all of Gibbs' recordings and Tony's notes had become evidence in a much more straight-forward trial and Leon Vance became the concern of the FBI.

No one deserved him more.

There weren't too many sad faces about that around the alphabet soup of DC. Even as high level visitors had trailed past Tony's hospital bed while he was drugged to the gills, wishing him well and hoping for a speedy recovery, he'd heard what they didn't say. "Thanks for being our stalking goat, DiNozzo. We appreciate that your face managed to get in the way of the damage." Maybe they hadn't done it on purpose. Maybe Vance had really slipped their tails, acted before the Inspector General could collect him. Gibbs had been convinced of it. Tony, well, he kept his suspicions – and his bitterness – to himself.

Suit coat flung over one shoulder, Tony rolled down his sleeves, buttoning the cuffs, as the teams below moved back and forth in the same old song and dance of investigation. Jameson's team was just schlepping back from a crime scene in the boonies, wet and cold and dragging bits of leaves and mud from their boots along the carpeting. Rita Roman, Jameson's SFA, was waving a couple of black trash bags towards her team, chastising them like the mother hen she was. Tony smiled, catching her glance and sharing an eye-roll.

In the far right corner, Tony watched Dolores Bromstead leading the next group of recruits through their paces. Tweed suit, white shirt tied in a loose bow at the neck, sensible shoes. Dolores used to be Tony's bogeyman in HR, the one who regularly questioned his expense reports and seemed to live to make taking his annual leave a Herculean task. One button still undone, he paused to watch her. Watch her stand up to the ego-tripping, shoulder-chipped new agents who thought that carrying a gun and a badge meant they were better than the likes of her.

They'd learn, Tony smiled to himself. They'd learn that those who controlled the paperwork and the red tape were strong and clever warriors – and without people like Dolores the agents couldn't do their jobs. Not to mention that they'd never get their tax forms on time.

"Ready to go?"

Tony flashed a smile at Jimmy Palmer. His friend had stopped halfway up the stairs, waiting out Tony's moment of brooding. What the hell would Tony have done without Palmer? He looked over his best friend - the open smile, the clear, intelligent gaze. What made people – people like Gibbs and Ziva and McGee – brush off a guy like him? Consign Palmer to the background, as not quite up to their level? Find him wanting of whatever qualities they decided made up a person of consequence?

"If not but for the grace of God," Tony murmured. He'd been that guy, once upon a time. The guy who didn't look past his tight group of friends, of co-workers. Who didn't bother with the 'little people.' Somewhere along the way, however, Tony had opened his eyes and found that the only one standing beside him had been Palmer. Tony would try to make it up to him. Some day. Somehow.

He finished buttoning his cuff and tugged his coat on, trotting down the steps to walk side-by-side with his friend.

"Abby is going to catch a ride with Doctor Mallard."

Tony twitched his eyebrows up and down. "No hearses allowed?" he quipped.

Palmer snorted. "I'm still not going to tell you."

Damn it. It was usually easy to get Jimmy to spill. Secrets and the talkative medical student were not good friends. Unfortunately, the guy was still just a little bit afraid of Gibbs – scared enough to follow the man's rule about secrets. And Abby, Tony's other source, had been left in the dark. Gibbs was altogether too pleased with himself that no one was talking, that Tony was going to be walking into whatever his boss had planned without clue one.

Today was the first day Gibbs hadn't plastered himself to Tony's side, a self-proclaimed bodyguard and nursemaid all rolled into one. Gibbs had been staying close. Practically moved into the hospital with Tony until he was on the road to recovery. Brought him clothes and books and movies from his apartment – the apartment that had been turned into a crime scene. Again. At least Tony knew who to call to get blood out of hardwood floors. When he'd been released – finally – from his hospital prison, Jimmy's apartment had been too small for Tony to crash in – not to mention that Tony would be a third wheel between Jimmy and Breena. Tony had been biting his fingernails, sure that Gibbs would insist that Tony sleep on his old, uncomfortable sofa, stuck with a tiny black and white television that only got the Farm Report until he could get back home. Surprisingly, his boss had driven Tony out to Ducky's formidable home where he found the ME had set him up with an entire suite all to himself with all the creature comforts – including Tony's fish, Kate.

"After all," Ducky had chuckled, "Kate did very nearly save your life, my boy."

Apparently plastic filter tubing from his fish tank had been just what the doctor needed to complete the tracheotomy that let air into Tony's starving lungs. That had kept him alive after Vance had crushed his windpipe. And Kate didn't seem to mind sharing.

It had been awkward at the Mallard home at first. Ducky had wrung his hands and dithered, offering more pillows, gallons of tea, his usual stories and jokes dying on his lips before he'd gotten too far. Tony had almost wished for a visit from the ghost of Victoria Mallard, insisting that Tony show her his knickers and threatening him with the knife in her bra. Between Tony's medically prescribed silence and Ducky's natural chatty nature, they'd finally gotten through it. Through Ducky's sincere apology. His full mea culpa for his attitude towards Tony for all these years. His long, involved stories of a friend named Angus and the psychological ruts a man's thoughts can fall into.

Tony had accepted the ME's repentance without hesitation. Ducky was a good man – he'd never doubted that. And, now, he was willing to admit that maybe Tony was one, too.

"Good to see you getting out of here early, Agent DiNozzo."

He nodded to Irvin, the security guard on duty at the gate, and let Jimmy answer.

"Tony has an appointment this afternoon. And," Palmer added, turning to stare down his nose at Tony, "he will be taking the rest of the day. Because he knows he's not Superman and he did just get out of the hospital a week ago."

Tony opened his eyes comically wide and raised both hands in surrender. "Wow. Back off, there, Black Lung," he chuckled. "I'm all yours."

Jimmy blushed and hurried them off towards his car.

"So, did you ever get the explanation you wanted from Doctor Mallard?" Jimmy pulled out into the heavy Friday afternoon traffic, cutting across multiple lanes to head west on M Street. "You know, about the cricket bat?"

For a while, Tony thought it had been a dream. Part of his 'not quite enough oxygen to stay conscious' fantasy. Tiny Donald Mallard hitting Leon Vance upside the head with a cricket bat – he would have loved to have seen that. "Yeah, Ducky was really upset that part of his gift for me has been taken into evidence for Vance's trial." Tony dug a piece of hard candy out of his pocket. "He told me how he wanted me to have it – the bat he'd used in his last tournament at Eton." He shook his head. "And now he wants to take me to a cricket match. You do know that those things can last an entire weekend, right?"

Jimmy watched the road, making a right onto New Jersey, frowning. "He feels bad," he finally stated. "And he has no idea how to make it up to you for years of what he describes as benign neglect."

"Ducky's never neglected me," Tony argued. He sucked on the candy – something he'd gotten addicted to lately. "And you're going to miss the turn onto I Street if you don't get into the left lane."

"Oh! You're right." Jimmy signaled and turned, flashing a smile at Tony. "I don't usually go this way."

"Uh huh. Because you don't usually drive to Gibbs' house, I get it." Tony dangled out the bait, hoping to get a nibble.

"No, but we're not going to Gibbs' house. We're going to – hey!"

Tony laughed, snapping his fingers. "This close." He held up his thumb and forefinger, barely a millimeter apart.

"Be quiet and let me drive," Jimmy admonished, tuning the radio to Tony's favorite oldies station. "And no singing! You're not ready for singing yet."

Knowing he was beaten, Tony laid his head against the head-rest and closed his eyes, humming along with Old Blue Eyes as the warm sun slanted across his face.

Half an hour later, Tony sat up like a shot as Jimmy pulled up to a guard post at the Pentagon. The Marine on duty took both of their IDs and Tony's credentials, made a check against his clipboard, and then handed them back, gesturing for his partner to open the gate.

"Thank you," Jimmy said sweetly.

"No, thank you, sir." Tony stared as the Marine caught his gaze, snapped to attention, and saluted.
"What the –"

"Sh," Jimmy insisted. "I'm nervous enough. Just keep still while I find the right – oh, there it is."

Tony managed to keep his mouth from hanging open as Jimmy pulled up at the sidewalk where a strange welcoming committee appeared to be waiting for them. Three uniformed Marines, the Inspector General, Gibbs, and Tom Morrow, of all people, stood watching him. Him. Very Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo.

"Time to go, Tony," Jimmy whispered, putting his car in park. His eyes glittered. "You ready?"

"I have no idea," Tony murmured in reply, his mouth dry. He smoothed one hand through his hair and stepped out of the car and into a hearty handshake from his former director.

"Good to see you up and around, Tony," Morrow stated. He gestured, inviting Tony to walk at his side up the steps and through another security checkpoint. Morrow kept up a running commentary on life, DC, and his work at Homeland as they walked.

Tony kept shooting Gibbs insistent glances, but his boss never met his eyes, an annoying smile hovering around his lips as he and Morrow and Tony removed and registered their firearms before being allowed to return them to their holsters. A half-mile walk and two different elevators later and the group finally reached its destination.

Flags stood on either side of the double doors. A Marine captain waited in full dress uniform, his heels clicking together as he stood to attention, saluting, before he stepped to one side and allowed Tony's group to go inside.

Tony found himself stepping through first, Morrow's hand on his elbow guiding him. Inside was a large meeting room, eight rows of chairs to either side, leaving a carpeted aisle down the middle. Tony cleared his throat, adjusted his jacket, and squared his shoulders before moving slowly towards the front. The chairs were filled with people in Marine and Navy uniforms, some civilians, and a few faces that seemed familiar, but right now Tony wasn't sure if he'd be able to recognize his own mother.

And then he made it to the front row. Abby, black-gloved hands clapping together in excitement sat on the end. Next to her was Ducky, his bow tie as sharp as usual, waving Palmer into the only empty seat on his right. Beside him sat Tim McGee, smiling, looking no worse for wear for being stuck back at FLETC for a mandatory retraining course before he could get back to the MCRT. Towards the end of the row Tony recognized a few more faces from NCIS. Balboa. Nikki Jardine. Abigail Boren of CGIS. Even Fornell was sitting there dressed in his Sunday best. Tony managed a nod and a smile for most of them before he glanced to the other side.

Gibbs was just settling into the first seat, wearing the best suit Tony had ever seen the man in. Morrow, after another encouraging press of Tony's arm, moved to sit beside him. The Inspector General sat next to him.

And then Tony was alone, standing in front of this crowd of friends, family, and people he didn't know. Waiting beside the podium stood General James F. Amos, Commandant of the United States Marine Corps and Acting Secretary of the Navy. Holy –

Amos' chest was filled with medals and ribbons, the fruit salad of a long career as a Naval Aviator. His eyes were ice blue, but the creases beside his mouth betrayed a penchant for laughter. He gestured, welcoming Tony to his side and then faced the room.

"Since its inception in 1992, the Honorary Marine Program has awarded the title, Honorary Marine, to individuals in the civilian community who have made extraordinary contributions to the Corps."

“The title of Honorary Marine is different from actual Marine,” the Commandant continued. “They’re not receiving a paycheck or housing allowance but a title of respect for doing amazing things for Marines. The Marine Corps has awarded the title to 71 individuals ranging from the flag raising on Iwo Jima photographer, Joe Rosenthal, to philanthropist and famous actor, Chuck Norris."

The general paused, letting his gaze light on the uniformed men and women in the room. “Everyone knows how difficult it is to become a Marine, so to be called an Honorary Marine is even greater.”

Tony figured he was stuck back there, lying on his bedroom floor, his brain slowly dying of oxygen deprivation. That was the only explanation that made sense. He couldn't help it – he turned to look at Gibbs, looking to his Boss, his mentor, for answers as he had so many times before.

This time Gibbs met his gaze. He jerked his chin up – just the tiniest movement, barely visible to anyone who wasn't looking, his face open and honest. Tony got it. His shoulders straightened. He lifted his head. Ready. Got it, Boss.

"According to Marine Corps Order 5060.19B, only commanding generals, commanding officers, officers-in-charge and retired general officers are authorized to nominate individuals deemed deserving of the title Honorary Marine. That is the only reason that this award has taken so long to be awarded. Since his first day as an NCIS agent, Anthony DiNozzo, Junior has amassed more commendations, more requests for this award, than any other civilian in recent memory. Unfortunately, none of these requests were made by an authorized individual."

General Amos glanced to the side, smiling. "Today, an exception is being made."

A female Marine Major stepped to the general's side with a folder. She saluted, the general returned the salute and took the folder. Amos turned to face Tony.

"The following individuals have each written the Commandant's office, requesting that Anthony DiNozzo, Junior be awarded the title of an Honorary Marine. Major Danny O'Donnell. Sergeant Bill Atlas. Medal of Honor recipient Corporal Ernest Yost, deceased. Major Ken Meyers. JAG officer Josh Cooper, son of Colonel Frederick Cooper, deceased. The tactical team leads of the Somali strike team, Major John L. Simons and Captain Nate Stalwert. And Gunnery Sergeant Leroy Jethro Gibbs."

 

Tony was frowning, blinking hard to keep the moisture from his eyes. Danny O'Donnell, the man he and Kate had saved from his crooked CIA handler all those years ago. Bill Atlas, targeted by a crazy waitress and chained up in the sewers to die. Ernie Yost, the guilt-laden man who had introduced Tony to whiskey and buttermilk. Ken Meyers, father of Cody Meyers, a mixed-up kid who had taken his schoolroom hostage. Josh Cooper, whose father had died from a bomb on a golf course.

And Jethro Gibbs. Boss. Mentor. Bastard. Mother Hen. Friend. A man who doled out praise with a teaspoon, who Tony thought he'd never please. Gibbs had done this.

Amos closed the file and set it down on the podium. He looked over Tony's right shoulder into the crowd. "Gunnery Sergeant Gibbs?"

And then Gibbs was beside him, shaking Amos' hand and accepting a replica of the Marine Corps symbol, the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor, attached to a blue and white ribbon. Amos then stepped back, ceding his place to Gibbs. Gibbs moved to face Tony, holding the ribbon with both hands.

A voice from the back of the room spoke out loud. "Attention!"

The crowd rose to their feet.

Gibbs held Tony's gaze easily. "Anthony DiNozzo, Junior, you are hereby considered an Honorary Marine." He settled the ribbon around Tony's neck and stepped back. Applause rose up around them, but Tony only heard two words, whispered in his ear.

"Semper Fi."