by Nix
(crimsonquills AT gmail DOT com)

Tony had to admit--to himself if no one else--that he'd backed himself into a corner, figuratively speaking. Although, in his defense, how could have been expected to think this far ahead when he was twelve?

Or rather, when he was fourteen, because it had taken him well over a year before he figured out that behaving like a rich kid got you nowhere fast when you didn't actually have the money to back up the posturing. Kids who had been willing to tolerate his behavior when he could bring cash to the table were suddenly impatient with him. Money didn't just open doors for adults and, just like adults who'd lost everything, Tony soon discovered that money had been the only thing opening doors for him.

He needed another in.

Brains weren't going to do anything for him. Not in high school. For one thing, he was smart, but he wasn't at the top of his class. For another, geeks had their cliques, but they didn't have any pull outside their narrow circles. Tony was looking for broader appeal.

Fortunately, his family had passed along something other than money: good looks. Maybe fourteen was a little early to playing on that, but it wasn't early enough to be cause for serious concern. And it meant he was ahead of the other guys when it came to attracting attention, interest, and favor.

Of course, trading on being pretty meant he actually had to play down his smarts. Being pretty and smart would just piss people off. Tony knew people well enough to know they could handle you smart if you were plain and they could handle you pretty if you were stupid, but if you were both they'd find reasons to hate you. Jealousy was a powerful thing. But there was no harm done, really. No one had to see his report cards, and that's the only place he needed his brain to show.

By the time he graduated from high school he had the formula down to a science. A lot pretty, a little dumb, and a goofy sense of humor that made people feel superior even as they laughed. Nothing softened people up like feeling they were one step ahead of you. It got him back into the parties and onto the teams, anyway.

The only problem was that the kids in his school--Hell, in the whole city--knew he came from money even he didn't flash it around so much anymore. Tony couldn't get away from that resentment. Not until he graduated, anyway. Finding a college out of state would take care of that.

But a guy with a family as wealthy as Tony's didn't get bursaries. The awarding groups didn't care that he'd been cut off from the money. If his family had it, he must not need it. His grades weren't high enough for academic scholarships. Sports were his only shot.

Ohio State hadn't offered a full ride, but they'd come closer than anyone else. Between that and a series of summer jobs, Tony could make it work. Once he got that settled, it was just a case of playing up the persona he'd built in high school.

And it wasn't like it wasn't fun. He liked seeing the admiration in women's eyes. He liked making people laugh, even if they were laughing at him as much as they were laughing with him. He liked being liked.

Nor, as it turned out, was the role as far from his personality as it could have been. He did enjoy sports and women and parties. He did have more fun with movies and cars than with class work. He loved the frat. And he had to keep up his marks up above a certain threshold to keep his scholarship, so he had a ready made excuse for the hours he spent studying.

The problem was, the persona didn't change over time. Tony did.

It hadn't seemed important at the time. So a few more of his dates were fabricated than they had been before. So he had to play down his overtime and play up his recreational activities. It wasn't a big deal. Not at first.

But the scales kept shifting. Once Tony realized that the persona was more of a lie (although not entirely a lie) than it was the truth, he knew he had to get out of it. Only to discover that after twenty years of building the damn thing, it had taken on a life of its own.

Tony wasn't quite sure how McGee rationalized the fact that Tony was in earlier than he was, stayed later, and was almost invariably the first one in when they got paged on weekend with his faith in Tony's active personal life. It didn't seem to matter how crazy his antics were, McGee bought into them. Ziva should have known better. She didn't have any preconceived notions, after all. But she seemed to be taking her lead from Gibbs and McGee.

It probably didn't help that some things had become so ingrained in his behavior that Tony couldn't seem to shake the habits. He caught himself bragging about non-existent dates all the time now. Hell, he couldn't even seem to be serious anymore. Every comment came out with a half leer or a raised eyebrow.

Tony wasn't sure what worried him more: the fact that he couldn't stop, or the fact that he didn't quite know what would be left if he did.