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by: Xanthe (Send Feedback)
Series: - No Series - #1
Chapters: 004 Word Count: 84818
Character(s): Jethro Gibbs, Tony DiNozzo
Category(ies): Action/Adventure, Alternate Universe, Angst/Drama, First Time, Hurt/Comfort, Romance
Summary: Most people never touch another person's soul...but when a 20 year old Leroy Jethro Gibbs meets an 8 year old Tony DiNozzo, it sparks an event that links them forever.
Author Notes: This story is set in an AU based on Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials series of children's books where everyone has an external soul in animal form, called a "daemon" (pronounced 'demon'). This story is not a crossover and no characters from the books appear in it - it's all Gibbs/DiNozzo all the way through. This story is NOT set in one of the worlds Pullman wrote about. The universe in this story is structured very like our own, except for the fact that people in this universe have daemons. These daemons are broadly similar to the ones in the Pullman novels, but I have embellished them or tweaked them a bit to suit my own purposes and put my own spin on them.
Pullman established that daemons take animal forms that are a representation of a person's soul, or inner being, or gut instinct. They can talk. They have to be in close proximity to the person they belong to as it causes huge distress if they are separated. Daemons are usually the opposite gender to the person they belong to. Children's daemons take various different forms until they reach adolescence when they settle into one form which they keep for the rest of their lives. Daemons have names (although he doesn't establish if they're born with them or given them!). If you are hurt your daemon feels it too, and if your daemon is hurt you feel it. It is a deep taboo to touch another person's daemon with your bare hand. Daemons can touch each other, and you can touch your own daemon, but not somebody else's. When a person dies, their daemon turns to dust. Daemons are corporeal - you can touch them - but they don't appear to need food or drink or medical treatment. Their physical condition reflects your own - so if you've got a sprained ankle, they limp too. This goes both ways to a certain extent - if another daemon (or even a person) hurts your daemon then you feel it. I have added a few minor tweaks of my own.
As I was writing this, I became aware of lots of questions Pullman never answers about daemons. I'm afraid I don't know the answers, either. I could guess, but in keeping with the spirit of the universe I'm not going to try and explain away some of the logical, practical and logistical issues I have with the concept of daemons. I hope people go along with it as a magical fantasy kind of AU and enjoy it on that level.
Even if you've never read the Pullman novels, or seen the movie version of the first book -The Golden Compass - you shouldn't have any difficulty understanding this story once you've got your head around the concept of daemons! It is all explained in the context of the story. I had great fun thinking up what each character's daemon would be. You might think I got it wrong or got it right, but I DID give it a lot of thought!
I haven't read any other NCIS fanfic stories that feature Pullman's concept of daemons, so I hope this is truly original within the fandom, but if not, I'm sure there's room for another take on it!
I've stuck broadly to canon, but as this is an AU I have tweaked some elements of canon to better fit this particular universe. Therefore, some things happen differently in this story to the way they happened in canon, and dates, times and events might not tally precisely.
Thank-yous: A huge thank you to Tejas for beta. Thank yous also to Taylorgibbs, Haggy, Dinkydi, Nikitariddick and Bluespirit for audiencing. You have all been terrific, and your help absolutely invaluable.
Dedication: For Nikita. I wouldn't have written more than 2000 words of this story if you hadn't said it was worth doing more and then nagged and nagged at me until I did. Thank you so much for your encouragement and support.
Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4
"Leroy – did you clear out the old stock items?" Jackson's voice wafted down the basement stairs.
"Yes, Dad," Leroy growled, wiping sweat from his forehead with a dusty hand as he piled up some boxes in the corner of the basement.
"Leroy! Did you hear me? I asked if you've cleared out the old stock items."
"YES! I told you I did!" Leroy shouted back up the stairs.
"No need to take that tone with me, son." Jackson appeared at the top of the stairs. He had a worried frown on his forehead, and his daemon, Meldra, a plump red hen, clucked at Leroy disapprovingly.
"And I replied! It's not my fault you're going deaf." Leroy hobbled his way up the stairs and pushed past his father, Tessa limping at his side.
His father's disapproval was evident from his tone of voice. Leroy ignored him – and the pain in his knee – as he tried to stalk angrily out of the store and succeeded only in limping rather pathetically as far as the door. He had to hang onto the door handle for a moment when he got there as the pain in his left knee suddenly stabbed at him viciously, making him gulp for air.
He heard his father behind him. "I thought if I kept you occupied it would take your mind off it, son," Jackson said, reasonably enough. "Look…it's not for long. In a few weeks you'll be better, and you can go back to your unit. In the meantime, we have to rub along with each other. We can do that, can't we, Leroy?"
There was a cajoling note in his voice. Any minute now he'd offer him an ice cream to placate him, the way he always used to when he was a kid. Leroy knew he was being truculent, but he couldn't help himself. He'd outgrown this place – this town, the people in it, and even his own father. He just didn't want to be here; that was why he'd left in the first place.
Tessa sat down beside him and gazed up at him solemnly. "Patience," she advised. She had never been a very talkative daemon which suited him fine.
"I need some air," Leroy growled over his shoulder at his father. "I'll be back to help with the delivery later."
He hobbled out of the store and down the road with Tessa at his side, limping on her back left paw.
He stopped at the dress store where he had first met Shannon, gazing longingly through the window as if he thought she might appear – which was stupid as he knew she was back home with her mother. If only she was here then maybe Stillwater wouldn't seem so stifling.
"She'll be here in a few days," Tessa said reasonably. "Then you'll have the whole weekend together."
"Right now, a few days feel more like a year," Leroy muttered. His knee gave way, and he grimaced and limped to the kerb to sit down. Tessa shuffled along with him, her back left paw hardly touching the ground, and settled at his feet.
Leroy sat there in the afternoon sun, watching the small town go about its business. He felt like he'd been doing this his entire life. Hell, Stillwater had been his entire life until two years' ago when he'd joined the Marines. He had never intended to come back – and he wouldn't be here right now if it wasn't for this damn knee injury.
"It will mend," Tessa told him. He felt calmed by her strong, serene presence and unruffled sense of reason. His father's fussing, although well-meant, always rubbed him up the wrong way.
"I know." Leroy sat back, resting the palms of his hands on the dusty sidewalk behind him.
He watched as a sleek, expensive car with black tinted windows drew up beside him. The driver's window was wound down, and he found himself looking at a man with handsome, chiselled features. He had dark brown hair and cool blue eyes, and his daemon was a hyena with a watchful, unblinking stare. She turned her head purposefully to look at Leroy, and Tessa's hackles started to rise, and a low growl emanated from the back of her throat. Leroy frowned – Tessa didn't usually react this way to other daemons.
"There a motel around here somewhere, son?" the man asked.
"Just up the road." Leroy pointed.
"Thanks." The man was about to wind up the window again when there was a sound from the back of the car. Leroy couldn't hear what was being said but the man looked irritated. "Can't it wait?" he barked. The answer was obviously 'no'. The man turned back to Leroy. "My kid needs to use the bathroom. Says it's urgent. Is there a restroom nearby?"
"My dad won't mind – he runs the store." Leroy levered himself off the ground, gasping slightly as his knee jabbed him. He wasn't much inclined towards acts of charity in his present mood, but it wasn't the kid's fault he needed to go to the toilet.
"Much appreciated." The man turned a megawatt smile on him and it was like the sun coming out; you could lose yourself in the warmth of that bright smile. Tessa growled again, and Leroy nudged her with his toe. He felt uneasy about the man already – he didn't need her warning.
The back door of the car opened, and a child slid out onto the sidewalk. His daemon, a riotous golden retriever puppy, scampered over to Tessa and touched noses with her. Leroy was as surprised as Tessa – other daemons were usually put off by her 'don't come near me' vibe.
Leroy and Tessa both went very still as the puppy licked her ear playfully. It felt strange but not unwelcome. Children's daemons were often much less inhibited than they became as adults, and this daemon had an aura of such sweet innocence that it was impossible to be annoyed with her.
"Thanks for letting me use your restroom, Mister!"
Leroy turned his attention to the child who had emerged from the car. He was about eight years old, with sandy brown hair, clear green eyes, and a set of straight, white teeth. He was clearly his father's son, in looks at least; Leroy had never seen a prettier child.
"Hurry up, Tony," the man in the car said. "I don't have all day to wait for you."
"We've been driving for hours and hours, and I wanted to go so bad!" Tony said to Leroy, doing an extravagant little dance, pressing his legs together for dramatic effect. "Dad didn't want to stop. He's on a deadline." The kid looked up at him with a big, bright smile, his green eyes endearingly puzzled. "What's a deadline?"
"Time to get something done by," Leroy told him curtly, refusing to respond to that bright smile. If the kid was anything like his dad the smile was just for show anyway. "This way; the store is just over here. You can use our bathroom."
Tony scampered along beside him as they walked – or at least Tony walked, Leroy limped. "What happened to your leg, Mister?" Tony asked curiously.
Leroy fought down a wave of irritation. "Got shot," he grunted in reply.
"Really?" Tony's eyes were wide as saucers, and his daemon changed from the energetic puppy into a colourful butterfly and promptly flitted into the air.
Daemons didn't usually settle into one form until a child hit puberty – Tessa had been an exception to that rule. She had been a sleek grey wolf more often than not from the day of his birth, and by his tenth birthday had ceased being anything else.
"You got shot?" Tony looked almost comically intrigued by this information. "How?"
"You ask a lot of questions." Leroy looked down on the kid, and the boy looked back up at him, eyes shining.
"That's what my mom used to say!" He looked pleased. "But Dad says I talk too much and none of it is worth hearing. He says that in his day kids were seen and not heard. He says…."
"Here." Leroy ushered the kid into the store and pointed him in the direction of the bathroom. Tony smiled at him gratefully and disappeared.
"Is someone there?" Jackson emerged from the back room with Meldra fluttering behind him. "Ah, Leroy, I'm glad you came back. Thought we could have some supper together later. If you're not doing anything?" His eyes were anxious.
Leroy sighed, hating himself for causing the anxiety but irritated by it all the same.
"What would I be doing?" he replied, in a more sulky tone than he'd intended. It was hardly as if Stillwater was teeming with nightlife, and he'd never had many friends here. He'd always kept himself to himself. He didn't make friends easily, and his unforgiving nature meant he didn't keep those he did make. They usually let him down in one way or another at some point, and Leroy never forgot a betrayal, however minor. "Oh – there's a kid in the bathroom," he told his father. "Didn't think you'd mind. Said he was desperate."
"Of course I don't mind. Is it young Johnny Mason? He's a terror for…"
"It's not anyone we know. It's newcomers," Leroy interrupted abruptly. "Guy in a fancy car and his boy."
The toilet flushed and a few seconds later Tony emerged from the bathroom. His daemon was back in puppy form, and she saw Meldra and ran over to her excitedly. Meldra hopped up onto the counter and gazed down on the puppy from amused eyes. The puppy did a little dance, chasing her own tail, going round and round in circles until both Tony and the puppy were dizzy and cross-eyed.
"Shanti, stop it!" Tony said, giggling. He ran after the puppy, and she jumped into his arms and licked his nose, then turned into a butterfly again and perched on top of his head.
A shadow fell over the door, and Leroy looked up. The boy's father was standing there, his daemon watching hungrily from the shadows behind him. Leroy felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end, and he could feel Tessa stiffening from where she was standing, as always, by his side.
"I need to use the phone to make an urgent call," the man said. "Would you mind? I'll pay." He opened his wallet and rifled through more cash than Leroy had seen in his life.
"Sure," Jackson said easily.
"Thank you. I'm Anthony DiNozzo – and you've already met my son." DiNozzo nodded curtly in Tony's direction.
Leroy wasn't sure why, but for some reason he felt compelled to put a hand on the child's shoulder. Tony's restless body language changed, and he calmed instantly beneath the touch. Leroy looked down on the child, puzzled by the sense of connection he felt. Shanti fluttered down and perched on one of Tessa's ears.
DiNozzo embarked on his phone call, while Jackson got a soda and handed it to Tony. Tony took it with a polite "thank you" and guzzled the contents immediately.
"I'm thirsty. Dad doesn't like me drinking sodas in the car. He says it makes me pee. He doesn't like having to stop along the way," Tony explained, having made short work of the soda.
Leroy glanced over at where DiNozzo was barking something into the phone; he didn't look happy.
Shanti, turned into a white cockatiel and flew over to where Meldra was sitting on the counter. Meldra clucked at the cockatiel, and the white bird spread her feathers, stuck her chest out, and made a preening sound, squawking loudly and basically showing off.
"Shanti! Don't!" Tony laughed.
There was such a beautiful sense of ease between himself and his daemon that it was a joy to watch them together. Leroy knew that he had a similar – if less exuberant – harmony with Tessa. Neither of them needed to speak to know the other was there, and Tessa was always just within touching distance. They rarely ever actually touched though – it wasn't necessary and neither of them liked being touched.
DiNozzo finished on the phone and swung around, still looking annoyed by his phone conversation. He caught sight of his son's daemon sitting on the counter, showing off, and his lip curled up. Without warning, his hyena daemon leapt up onto the counter and bit down hard on Shanti's wing.
Shanti gave a squawk and fell onto the floor. Tony let out a wail of distress while Leroy and Jackson looked on in shocked silence. They were too stunned to say anything as DiNozzo turned on his son.
"Where are your manners? Don't let your daemon inconvenience these people! Keep her under control, or I'll have Nala do it for you."
"Sorry, Dad," Tony whispered, looking pale. He rubbed his arm at about the same spot where Shanti had been bitten on the wing. Then he crouched down and reached out his hand towards her. She fluttered over to him and changed back into her puppy shape the minute she got close. She cowered behind Tony, looking scared.
"Here's some money for the phone call," DiNozzo said abruptly, placing a few dollars on the counter in front of Jackson. "How much do I owe you for the soda?"
"Oh, that's okay," Jackson murmured. "I gave it to the child for free."
DiNozzo gave a tight-lipped smile. "What do you say, Tony?"
"Thank you," Tony whispered. All the life seemed to have gone out of him, and he kept rubbing his arm. Shanti's tail was between her legs, and she was limping slightly on one of her front paws. Leroy fought down a wave of anger.
DiNozzo opened the door and gestured with his head at the child who scuttled through it, the puppy running at his heels, both of them looking scared.
Tony turned back. "Bye," he whispered, giving Leroy a little wave.
Much to Leroy's surprise, Tessa walked over to the door and touched noses with Shanti in farewell. Tessa never normally interacted with other people's daemons – the only daemons he'd ever seen her touch before were Meldra, and Shannon's daemon, Pell.
The DiNozzos left, and Leroy turned to look into his father's troubled blue eyes.
"I did not like that," Jackson murmured. "I did not like that at all."
"No." Leroy exchanged a glance with Tessa. "Me neither."
Tony stirred sleepily and blinked, wondering where he was. Shanti was balanced on his head, as a butterfly, wings folded. He glanced over to the window, gazed at the unfamiliar drapes for a few seconds, and then remembered. He was in a motel room with his father. He turned over, and Shanti dropped reproachfully to his side and transformed into a puppy. They both looked at the sleeping mound in the next bed.
"Ssh," Shanti said. "Don't wake him."
Nala muttered something in her sleep, her ears twitching. She was lying at his father's feet, where she always was during the night.
"Why are we here?" Shanti asked. "And where is here?"
"Something water. I don't remember. Clearwater? Bluewater?" Tony frowned and wrapped an arm around Shanti.
"Ditchwater?" she suggested, and he giggled. She snuggled into him and licked his nose. "What are we doing here?" she asked.
"I don't know. Something to do with Dad's business." He liked being with his father in the big car with the tinted windows. His father sometimes let him chatter on as they drove, and Tony had invented a whole game about the people they passed who they could see but who couldn't see them. "It's an adventure!" Tony told Shanti happily. That's what his father had said anyway, and he was just pleased not to have been left behind on this particular business trip.
"That's only because he couldn't find anyone to look after you," Shanti said.
"Maybe he brought me along to spy on people!" Tony grinned.
Shanti wagged her tail. "Yes – you're his secret weapon! Nobody would expect a kid to be a spy. Spy kid!"
They were silent for a moment. "I miss mom," Tony said suddenly, and Shanti's tail stopped wagging. She snuggled in closer.
Tony's mother had died a few months previously. She'd been getting paler and thinner for weeks, and Tony knew something was wrong but nobody would tell him what. Doctors came and went, and his father grew more and more short-tempered, so Tony took to tip-toeing around the house to avoid his outbursts. Then, one night, Shanti had woken up with a howl…and Tony had run along to his mother's room to find her lying there, unmoving, a little pile of dust by her side, and her daemon, Keddon, nowhere to be seen.
His father had been quiet and sort of angry ever since – he shouted at Tony a lot, as if his mom's death was his fault. Maybe it was. Tony wasn't sure why people died, and he had been pretty naughty his entire life. Maybe that was what killed her.
Shanti nudged him with her nose. "That doesn't kill people, stupid."
"I dunno. Bugs."
"Bugs? Like wasps and flies?"
"No…bugs like the ones that get into your blood and make you sneeze."
Tony sighed. The adult world was hard to understand sometimes. He was glad he was here with his dad though – if he could help his father pull off this business deal then maybe he would smile again and things might be a bit more like they were before his mom died.
He got up quietly and got dressed, so he'd be ready when it was time to go out and "do business" as his dad described it. When his father got up a little while later, he looked at Tony and laughed.
"Where are you going so early?"
Nala nudged Shanti with her nose, and Shanti turned into a butterfly and flew up onto Tony's head.
"Um…I don't know. I thought I was going with you – to see the mine owner?" Tony replied.
His father laughed out loud, and Nala made a "harrumphing" sound and jumped up and aimed an amused swat in Shanti's direction.
"Take you with me to do business? Don't be an idiot, Tony. No, you can stick around here. I won't be long – a few hours. You can watch TV."
Tony's heart sank, and Shanti walked slowly down his arm and settled dejectedly in the curve of his elbow. Much as he loved watching TV, he didn't want to be left alone in a strange motel room in a strange town to do it.
His father got ready and left, and Tony sat in front of the TV. After an hour he was bored. It was a beautiful day outside, and the sun was bright in the summer sky. He didn't want to be stuck in this stuffy room.
Shanti fluttered over to the open window and perched on it. "We could go out," she suggested.
Tony wrinkled up his nose uncertainly. "Dad said to stay here."
"But it's boring. And stuffy. And…ooops!" She deliberately fell out of the open window.
"Shanti!" Tony felt that familiar, wrenching sensation at being physically too far away from his daemon. Shanti was only on the other side of the window, but Tony couldn't let her stay there. He had to go outside, didn't he?
He ran out and the door slammed shut behind him, and it was only then that he realized he didn't have the room key.
"Can't go back now then!" Shanti said, doing a happy, flitting dance above his head. He grinned and scampered after her. "Let's go over here!" She changed into a puppy and ran towards some woods over in the distance.
Tony followed, enjoying a chance to be able to stretch his legs and run around. He spread his arms and tried to soar, like an eagle, and Shanti changed into a cockatiel and flew around over his head.
They were so busy playing airplanes that Tony didn't look where he was going, and suddenly he crashed into something – or, more accurately, someone. It was the man from the store who had let him use the restroom. The man toppled over on his injured knee and landed on his back with a growled "oomph", Tony spread-eagled on his stomach. Shanti and the man's wolf daemon lay in a mass of entwined feathers and fur to one side.
"Sorry, Mister," Tony said, as a pair of furious blue eyes glared at him. He scrambled off the man and held out a hand to help him up.
The man took it and got up with a grimace of pain. "Why the hell don't you look where you're going?" he snapped.
He sounded just like Tony's dad, and Shanti turned into a puppy and slunk over to Tony, tail between her legs, shivering. She hid behind his knees.
"Sorry," Tony muttered again.
The man was giving him a strange look, as if surprised by his reaction. His wolf daemon shook out her fur and gently swiped a lick over Shanti's ear.
"Why are you out here on your own, Tony?" the man asked, in a kinder tone of voice.
Tony bit on his lip. "Don’t tell my dad. He said to stay in the motel room but I got bored, and Shanti fell out of the window so I ran outside, and I don't have the key so I can't go back."
"Your dad left you on your own?" The man looked scary again. Shanti gave a little whine and pressed up close. "Where is he? When is he due back?"
"I don't know." Tony shrugged. "He was going to see the man who owns the mine to 'do business'. What does 'do business' mean exactly, Mister?"
"Leroy," the man said, his blue eyes flashing irritably.
"No – just Leroy. So your dad just went off and left you on your own in a strange town, and you don't know when he's coming back?"
Tony nodded slowly. "Did I do something bad?"
"Not you," Leroy muttered tersely. "Okay – I'm out for a walk so you can come along if you want."
"I can hang out with you? Cool!"
Shanti soared into the air in cockatiel form and made wild cheering sounds while batting her wings excessively. Tony found himself grinning from ear to ear.
Leroy walked slowly, limping heavily.
"Why are you out walking if your leg hurts so bad?" Tony asked curiously.
"The doctors say I have to do exercises and walk every day to strengthen it."
"How did you get shot? Did it hurt? Did you kill the person who shot you?"
"I'm a Marine," Leroy said shortly. "Yes, it hurt. And no, I didn't – it was an accident. This way."
He began limping into the woods, and Tony ran alongside him, occasionally leaping into the air to pretend to catch Shanti and laughing when she flew away. Tony kept up a running monologue the entire time, pausing for breath every so often and then continuing again. Leroy didn't say much – and his daemon trotted along without so much as a word.
"If you're a Marine, why aren't you wearing a uniform?" Tony wanted to know.
"Because…" Leroy looked like he was going to snap out a reply, but then he took a deep breath, and continued in a nicer tone of voice. "Because of my injury. I have to stay here until I get better."
"And then you can go back?"
"What if it doesn't get better?" Tony asked curiously.
Leroy glanced at him sharply, and Tony saw a flash of anxiety in his eyes.
"It has to," Leroy said grimly. "Being a Marine is all I ever wanted."
They reached a clearing by a small creek, and Leroy sat down awkwardly. Tony sat down beside him, and Leroy pulled a brown paper bag out of his pocket.
"This is my lunch," he said. "Do you have any lunch?"
Tony shook his head. His father hadn't mentioned anything about lunch. Leroy sighed and gave him one half of his sandwich without saying a word. Tony ate it ravenously and then sat back and glanced at the man beside him. Leroy had dark hair and a sort of wolfish quality to him. He looked like he was angry all the time, and he spoke gruffly, but his actions towards Tony had always been kind, so Tony decided that he was nice despite appearances to the contrary.
Also, Tessa didn't seem to mind it when Shanti, in puppy form, snuggled up beside her under the sun. In fact, Tessa seemed to really like Shanti and occasionally licked her ears. Tony was so used to his dad finding Shanti a nuisance that it was nice to meet someone who liked her.
"Can I ask you something, Leroy?" Tony said.
"You can ask. Don't promise to answer."
That was good enough for Tony. "What happens to someone's daemon when they die?"
Leroy turned to look at him. "Why do you ask that, Tony?" he said quietly.
"Because when my mom died, her daemon, Keddon, just turned into dust. Keddon was a big black cat, and he was nice to Shanti. Then he was gone – and so was my mom."
"That's the way it works, Tony. When you die, Shanti dies too – same for me and Tessa, and everyone else. Your daemon is a part of you – that's how they know what we're thinking most of the time." He gazed at Tony thoughtfully. "When did your mom die?"
"A few months ago." Tony gazed at his own feet. He didn't like how it felt when he talked about his mom but that didn't stop him wanting to talk about her all the same, which was confusing.
"My mom died when I was about your age – maybe a little bit older," Leroy said softly.
Leroy moved his arm so that it was gently resting against Tony's arm, and Tessa put her head on her paw, next to Shanti's muzzle. It felt nice. Comforting.
They sat there for a bit, and then Leroy put a hand on Tony's shoulder. "Let's float boats down the stream."
"Boats? What boats?" Tony scrambled to his feet looking around for the boats.
"First we have to make them – then we float 'em!"
"Make them with what?"
"This." Leroy produced a knife seemingly from nowhere. "Never go anywhere without a knife, Tony," he said firmly. “That’s rule number nine.”
“You have rules?” Tony asked, wide-eyed.
“Sure – everyone needs a code to live by,” Leroy said with a grin.
“What’s rule number one?” Tony asked.
Leroy paused in cutting some branches off a nearby tree. He wiped a hand across his sweaty forehead.
“Rule number one is the most important rule,” he said, glancing over at Tessa who was sitting nearby, her chin on her paws. She looked up at him, a smile in her eyes. “Rule number one is ‘always listen to your daemon’, Tony. ‘Cause she knows best.”
“She does?” Tony turned around to look at Shanti, and she immediately changed into a cockatiel, flew onto his head, and began doing a little dance on his hair.
“Shanti knows best! Shanti knows best!” she proclaimed loudly. “Tony – do as I tell you!” She batted his forehead with her beak, making him giggle.
Leroy rolled his eyes. “Well, mostly they know best. See, Tony – sometimes Tessa has a bad feeling about something, and if I listen to her and follow her advice it always turns out better than if I don’t.”
“Supposing she tells you something you don’t like?” Tony asked thoughtfully.
“Well, that’s the hard part.” Leroy gave a rueful smile. “I never said it was easy. But being true to your daemon is what becoming a man is all about, Tony.”
“It is?” Tony pondered that. He was pretty sure his father would say being a man was about outwitting your opponents and making more money than them, but instinctively he felt that Leroy was closer to the truth.
Leroy was good with his hands, and the wood he whittled slotted together seamlessly to create little boats. They attached tissues to the masts of each one for sails and then got on their stomachs, put them carefully in the water, and watched them sail downstream.
Tony decided that Leroy wasn't much more than a big kid at heart – he whooped when his boat sailed over a ridge and battled its way downstream, and half-limped, half-ran to follow the race. Tony cheated by leaning into the water to give his boat a shove when it looked like it was losing, and Leroy laughed his head off at that.
Looking up at him, this strange, moody man who did kind things, Tony thought he'd never had such a good friend. Shanti got into step beside Tessa's furry flank, and the wolf and puppy trotted along together, side by side.
It was late afternoon when Leroy took Tony back to the motel. He saw Mr. DiNozzo's big, black car with the tinted windows in the parking lot and winced. They'd been gone a long time, and he'd seen enough of DiNozzo to be wary of the man's temper. He wasn't scared for himself, but he was concerned for Tony after having seen how the father's daemon liked to bully Shanti.
He knocked on the door, determined to take any flak handed out himself, in order to spare Tony. DiNozzo opened it, and it wasn't even evening but he looked half cut already. His shirt was open to the waist, his eyes were bloodshot, and he reeked of liquor. Then Leroy remembered that the man had recently lost his wife, and he felt a tiny bit of compassion for him.
"I've brought Tony back," he said.
"Yeah. Right. You have a good time, son?" DiNozzo cast a bleary glance at Tony.
Leroy was surprised that the man didn't seem angry, but his reaction annoyed Leroy in another way; DiNozzo had left his son alone all day and didn't look remotely worried by his absence. What kind of a dad was he? Leroy had plenty of arguments with his own father, but Jackson Gibbs had never neglected him.
"It was great! We made boats and sailed them down the stream!" Tony said.
"Boats huh? Great."
Leroy had a feeling that if Tony had said they'd cut off their own heads and sailed *them* down the stream that his father's response would have been the same.
Tony ran into the motel room, with Shanti fluttering around his head in butterfly form.
Leroy was about to go when DiNozzo grabbed his arm and pulled him back. Leroy stiffened, and Tessa growled at Nala; Leroy didn't like being touched. DiNozzo released him and drew his wallet out of his pocket.
"Look, kid – it was good of you to take care of my boy today. Here's something for your time."
He stuffed a handful of money into Leroy's top pocket, and Leroy glared at him. He hadn't asked to be paid; he'd enjoyed spending time with Tony, and he'd had nothing better to do while his damn leg healed.
"Could you do it again tomorrow?" DiNozzo asked. "And for the next few days? See he gets fed. Maybe take him to the movies – he loves the goddamn movies. See, I'm in the middle of a pretty tight business deal, so I won't be around much. I'll pay you well."
He flashed his wallet full of money in Leroy's direction. Leroy wanted to tell him where to stuff his damn money, but Tessa nudged her head against his leg, and he knew what she was thinking. He liked Tony, and his father didn't need him at the store; they just argued constantly. What harm was there in taking this man's cash and keeping the child amused for a few days? If he didn't do it then Tony would no doubt be left on his own, and Leroy didn't want that for the kid.
"Okay," he said stiffly. "But only until Friday. My girl arrives on Saturday, and I want to spend the weekend alone with her."
"Sure, sure." DiNozzo nodded eagerly, and Nala's face stretched into a disturbing semblance of a smile, her teeth bared.
Leroy returned home to find Meldra strutting up and down on the sidewalk outside the store, and his father sweeping compulsively inside the store, by the door.
Meldra let out a little squawk when she saw him, and she fluttered over and gave Tessa a quick peck on the paw.
Jackson hurried over behind her. "Where have you been, son? You've been gone all day, and I was worried about you. I thought you might have fallen down in the woods on that bad leg of yours and not been able to get up again. I was just about to come looking for you."
Leroy was about to snap out an irritable reply, but then he paused to consider the irony. Tony's father had left his eight year old son alone all day and hadn't given a damn when a strange man had brought him home – in fact he'd hired him as a babysitter without knowing the first thing about him. His own father, on the other hand, had clearly been fretting about his twenty year old, trained Marine of a son all afternoon.
Leroy swung an arm around his father's neck and pressed a quick kiss against his cheek.
"It's okay, Dad. I ran into young Tony down by the woods, and he needed me more than you did today, so I spent the day with him."
He explained the situation to his father over supper and was surprised to see Jackson looking at him with a strange expression in his eyes as he spoke.
"What?" he asked, as Jackson was uncharacteristically silent when he finished his story of the day's events.
"Just…seeing you through different eyes, Leroy," Jackson said quietly. "Feel like my boy is all grown up."
"Because I took care of some kid for the day?"
"Because you're hurting right now, and worried sick about your future, but you put that aside to look after someone else who's hurting more," Jackson said. "That's something a man does, not a boy."
Leroy often found his father's folksy, homespun way of looking at the world unbearably simplistic, but on this occasion something about what he said struck a chord.
"Yeah. Well…" he said, feeling embarrassed. He ducked his head down and gazed at Tessa, and she looked back at him steadily. "I like the kid," he muttered.
"And he's good for you – you were wasting away in the store every day. It'll be good for you to get out and about with that young lad. It'll do you both good, especially if the father is paying for it, and you can take the child places."
Jackson reached over and patted Leroy's shoulder gently. Leroy half stiffened, the way he usually did at human contact, but then he relaxed and smiled at his father instead.
The next few days went by far more quickly than his time back at Stillwater had done to date. Tony was fun to be with – he was a cheerful, talkative kid, who seemed happy just to be having some one-on-one attention.
He pestered Leroy for more information about his hurt leg, wanting to see the scar and hear all the grisly details of how he'd come by it. He seemed disappointed that Leroy hadn't been shot in a war zone, or as part of some black ops mission, but instead had sustained the injury during a training accident. Not that it had been Leroy's fault, and he knew the guy in his unit who had caused the injury was upset and embarrassed about it, but that didn't make it any the less unfair.
"So, what do you DO in the Marines?" Tony asked one day, jumping up to run his hand over Leroy's buzz cut hair. "Do you do a lot of marching? Do you have to kill lots of people?"
Leroy laughed out loud at Tony's notion of what being a Marine was like. "No. Not yet anyway. I'm still training. When I'm done, I want to be a sniper."
"A sniper?" Tony's eyes went round again, like a startled owl. Then he frowned. "What's a sniper?"
Leroy laughed again. He wasn't sure when he had last laughed so many times in one day, but Tony was a funny kid.
"Someone who goes behind enemy lines on his own and shoots at them from a long way off."
Tony wrinkled up his nose. "Isn't that kind of lonely?"
Leroy sat back and glanced at Tessa. "I don't get lonely. I like my own company. Did you know that forty-three per cent of snipers have wolf daemons, like Tessa here?"
Tony looked intrigued. "No! I didn't know that!"
Shanti, in cockatiel form, perched on Tessa's head and pulled at the wolf's fur with her beak, grooming her gently. Tessa, as surprisingly tolerant as always where Shanti was concerned, just endured it.
"I wonder what shape Shanti will be when I grow up," Tony said thoughtfully.
Leroy glanced at Shanti who was still busily pestering Tessa. "Well, so far she seems to be mainly a dog, a butterfly, or a cockatiel – so probably one of those."
"Can I choose?" Tony asked, and Leroy wondered if this child's parents had ever sat down and had a conversation with him in his life. These were pretty basic questions. Then again, they were also quite intimate questions, and some people didn't like talking about daemons – their own or anyone else's.
"No, you can't choose," he replied. "It just one day…sort of happens. In most cases your daemon spends more and more time in one form as you get older until one day she just stays that way."
"Why are boys' daemons female and girls' daemons male?" was the next question.
Leroy pressed his fingertips to his forehead. Next thing the kid would be asking him about sex, and he really didn't want to have that conversation with him!
"Nobody knows," he replied. "It's not always the case, but it is for most people."
"When did your daemon settle?" Tony asked curiously. "How old were you?"
"Not much older than you, I guess."
"But…that's really young!" Tony looked surprised – most people were when he told them that. "I thought it didn't happen until you were much older – like 14 or 15."
"That's how it is for most people but it wasn't that way for me." Leroy shrugged. "I guess I was always…kinda definite. That's enough questions. Let's go do something."
"But why doesn't my daemon need food? Why is it that when I'm hurt she hurts, and the other way around too. Why does it hurt when she gets a bit too far away from me? Why…?"
"I said no more questions!" Leroy slapped the back of his head playfully, and Tony's face lit up in delight for no reason Leroy could fathom. Shanti changed into puppy form and batted Tessa's head delightedly with her paw, and Leroy found himself rolling his eyes but laughing too.
At the end of their week together, Leroy dropped Tony off at the motel as usual. Whatever business Tony's father was doing didn't seem to be going well, and the man was as preoccupied as ever.
"Mr. DiNozzo – I just wanted to remind you I can't look after Tony tomorrow or Sunday," he said politely as the man gave him a handful of money. "I did tell you about it."
"I'm not seeing you tomorrow?" Tony looked up at him, and Shanti's puppy tail drooped disconsolately.
"No, buddy." Leroy crouched down in front of the boy. "I told you that my girl was coming to visit. Shannon's going to be here tomorrow morning, and we're going to spend the weekend together." Alone. And hopefully pressed up against each other out on a blanket in the middle of the woods, doing 'what comes naturally to young folks', as his father would embarrassingly say.
"Can't I come too? I want to meet Shannon!"
Nala shoved at Shanti with her nose, causing the puppy to fall over with a startled yelp.
"Leroy's got better things to do than look after you this weekend," DiNozzo said. "Like he said, his girl is coming to visit." DiNozzo gave Leroy a sly, knowing wink that Leroy didn't appreciate at all. "Don't whine, Tony. You know I hate whiners."
"Yes, Dad. See you, Leroy."
Tony walked sadly into the motel, and Leroy felt for the kid, but he wasn't altering his plans for anyone. He was desperate to see Shannon again. She was the only person in the world who he felt comfortable touching him. It was so easy being around her, and she didn't expect him to talk – yet at the same time, talking to Shannon came so easy that it wasn't a problem the way it was with some other folk.
When Tony woke the next morning Shanti was a cockatiel, sleeping with her head tucked under one wing.
She roused sleepily and gazed at him. “No Leroy today,” she said sadly.
“No. No Leroy.” Tony wrapped his arms around his body and gazed at his father’s sleeping form in the bed beside him.
“He’s always in a bad mood at the moment, and it makes me want to be… I want to change at night the way I could back home,” Shanti whispered to him, hopping onto Tony’s pillow and smoothing his hair with her beak.
“Ssh,” Tony said quickly. “Not here. Nobody can see you like that.”
“I don’t like being held in!” Shanti spread her wings and flapped them indignantly. “I feel cooped in, bottled up…there are things I want to let out. There are times when I want…”
“I know. But it’s our secret – yours, and mine, and Mom’s.” Tony pulled Shanti against him and kissed her soft feathered head. “So you can’t. It won’t be for much longer. Just until we get home. Then you can change into whatever shape you like at night when we're alone in my room.”
“You know what I want to change into,” she muttered sulkily, pecking at him reproachfully with her beak.
“Yes, but remember what Mom said. Dad doesn’t like it, so we have to keep you under control. We can’t let him see you that way again.” Tony smoothed her ruffled feathers.
“If Nala has a go at me one more time…” Shanti said threateningly.
“Just turn into a butterfly and fly out of reach!” Tony told her. “Mom said to just get out of the way and not make it worse.”
“I just want to *be*.” Shanti sighed.
“And you can – when we’re alone together, just you and me – completely alone, where nobody can see us. So you can’t change like that again until we’re back home in my bedroom.”
“Okay,” she agreed, but she didn’t look too happy about it.
“We’ll have a nice day – maybe Dad will take us somewhere,” Tony whispered. “Remember how much fun he can be when he’s not working?”
Shanti nodded her white head and changed into a puppy. Her tail started to wag. “Maybe we’ll go somewhere fun. When Nala’s in a good mood she chases me and makes me laugh.”
But his father seemed to have forgotten that Leroy wasn’t looking after him today; he got ready in his work suit as usual and then tousled Tony’s hair and made to leave.
“Aren’t you spending the day with me?” Tony asked in surprise.
“Can’t. I’ve got to do business,” his father told him brusquely.
“But it’s Saturday!"
His father turned to glare at him, and Tony bit on his lip. Shanti turned into a butterfly and flew out of reach before Nala could nip her.
“What the hell has that got to do with it? Damn it, Tony, I’m doing this for your benefit! The food you eat and the clothes on your back don’t come out of thin air. I have to damn well work for them.”
“I know that, Dad.” Shanti disappeared up his shirt sleeve.
“Your mom’s death screwed things up in the business…I don’t have any capital backing now because of her stinking family who never liked me anyway and…” His father looked angry with himself, as if he’d said too much. “Life goes on and money doesn’t damn well grow on trees, Tony,” he growled, and then he left.
“What are we gonna do now?” Shanti said, crawling down his arm and settling disconsolately on his wrist.
“Have fun anyway,” Tony said defiantly. Shanti laughed and turned into a puppy. She zoomed around the room, her tail wagging. “We can have fun by ourselves,” Tony told her. “C’mon. Let’s go have an adventure.”
Leroy was at the station early to meet Shannon, and he spent an hour pacing up and down the platform. When her train finally arrived, he saw her cloud of red hair floating out of an open window, and her leaning out, waving at him frantically.
His inclination was always to be shy and even less talkative than ever when he first saw her again after even a brief time apart, but she, as usual, wasn’t having any of it. Her daemon, a small but feisty kestrel called Pell, flew around in circles above Tessa’s head, teasing her, until Leroy protested, saying Pell was making them both dizzy. Shannon laughed at him and pulled him down for a kiss, even though he hated doing private stuff like that in public, where people could see.
“Idiot. It’s been a week – that's five whole days since I saw you last. There’s no way I’m not going to kiss you and kiss you!” she told him when he protested. Then she nestled in beside him as they walked back to the store. He carried her suitcase in one hand and put his free arm around her, and it felt like he was whole again.
His father made a fuss of Shannon as usual, but all Leroy wanted to do was get her out into the woods so they could talk and make love. He grabbed a blanket and the basket containing the picnic he’d packed earlier, and then he took hold of her hand and wrenched her away from where she was exchanging pleasantries with his dad.
It was a beautiful day and his knee didn’t hurt as much when he was with her.
“How is it? Is it getting better?” she asked as they walked towards the creek. “It seems better. You’re not limping as much.”
“Because you’re here.” He grinned at her.
“I only ever see you walking on it when I’m here,” she pointed out logically. “And it’s definitely better this weekend than last.”
“I’ve been exercising more. Trying to keep up with Tony has helped.”
“Who's Tony?” she asked as they spread the green and red checked blanket out and sat down on it.
He explained as they ate, and she listened to him, smiling as he talked.
“What?” he asked as he finished. She was giving him a look similar to the one his dad had given him when he’d first told him about Tony.
“Well, firstly, I've never heard you talk for that long before!” She poked his side, and he gave a grudging little laugh. “And secondly, I was just thinking what a good dad you’d make.”
“Oh shit.” He looked over at her. “There’s nothing you want to tell me, is there?”
Now it was her turn to laugh. “Nothing like that, no! I’m just saying – one day. After we’re married.”
“Definitely.” He wanted kids as much as he knew she did. One day. Just not now. “And I don’t exactly view Tony as a son! He’s more like the kid brother I never had. Or a friend.” He frowned as he said that.
“That surprises you, doesn’t it?” Shannon rolled onto her side and propped her head up on her hand.
“Well yeah. I mean he’s a lot younger than me and…” He shrugged.
“And?” she prompted gently.
“And you know what I’m like. I’ve never exactly been good at making friends. I never know what to say to people. But with Tony it’s easy – for a start he does enough talking for two. And he’s kind of funny. He makes me laugh.”
“I’d like to meet this Tony kid."
“Well you won’t – I told his dad I wasn’t available for babysitting duties this weekend. I want it to be just you and me. We have a lot of catching up to do.” He moved towards her, his eyes fixed on her lips.
“Do we? I wonder what kind of catching up you can mean?” she giggled – and then she closed the distance and kissed him passionately as their lips met.
Pell flew over to Tessa and began gently stroking her with his beak, and Tessa dipped her head to gently nudge him with her nose in return.
Leroy pushed Shannon down onto the blanket and slid on top of her, caressing her through her blouse. He opened a few buttons and nuzzled her breasts through her bra with his mouth. Then he pushed up her skirt, and she moaned as he slipped his fingers into her panties. She opened her legs, pulling him down against her warm, soft body…and then she screamed.
“What the hell…?” Leroy pulled back, startled.
“There’s a kid over there…watching us…” she said, looking shaken. She smoothed her skirt back down, and Leroy turned around angrily – and then sighed as a cockatiel flew over and hovered uncertainly above Tessa’s head.
“Tony – why the hell are you spying on us?”
Tony emerged from behind a tree. “I wasn’t spying!” he said defensively. “I was playing boats in the stream and then you guys came along so I hid.”
“And spied on us!” Leroy growled.
Tony bit on his lip. “I like seeing what people are doing, that's all. My dad says I’m nosy, but my mom said I was just naturally curious. Is that your girl? She’s pretty. Hi, I’m Tony.” He said it all in one continuous stream, not pausing for breath.
“So you’re Tony!” Shannon sat up, buttoning her blouse quickly. She held out her hand, and Tony took it. “Nice to meet you, Tony.”
“And you. Leroy talks about you all the time. He’s got it bad.” Tony stuck out his tongue at Leroy and then hopped out of head-slapping range. Shanti rose up high into the air and flapped her wings around. Pell joined her there, and he and Shanti did a little dance in midair.
“You’re such a little show off,” Leroy muttered.
Tony just grinned at him, and Shanti kept dancing until she lost her bearings and crashed to the ground in a heap of squawking feathers and wounded dignity.
“What are you doing here, Tony?” Leroy asked impatiently. “I told your dad I couldn’t look after you this weekend.”
“I don’t need looking after. I’m not a kid,” Tony said defiantly, despite all evidence to the contrary. Shanti turned into a growling little bear – a shape Leroy hadn’t seen her take before.
“Where’s your dad?” Leroy demanded.
“Working.” Tony gathered the bear in his arms, and she changed into a puppy again.
“On a Saturday?”
“What’s that got to do with anything? The food I eat and my clothes and stuff don’t come out of thin air. He has to damn well work for them.”
Leroy gazed at him, perplexed. “You sound like you’re parroting someone else.” And he could guess who.
Shanti predictably turned into a brightly-coloured parrot and flew over and tugged on one of Tessa’s ears, keeping one eye fixed nervously on Pell the entire time.
Shannon gazed at Shanti and Tessa curiously. Pell soared down from where he was perched on a nearby tree branch, sat on Shannon’s shoulder, and whispered something in her ear. She nodded thoughtfully.
“I’ve never seen Tessa so comfortable with another daemon touching her,” she said. “I mean, apart from Pell. She’s not even that comfortable when Meldra touches her.”
“Tony’s a kid – I like kids,” Leroy muttered.
“I know – but I’ve never seen Tessa let her guard down like this before. I like Tony.” She gazed at the boy approvingly.
“Can I spend the day with you then?” Tony asked cheekily.
Shannon spoke at the same time as him. Leroy glared at her and jerked his head meaningfully at the blanket.
She just laughed at him. “Later – you can sneak into my room tonight,” she said with a wink.
“My dad will hear. You’re a screamer,” he reminded her in a whisper.
“Your dad knows anyway! And he doesn’t mind. He’s got that weird thing about ‘young folks doing what comes naturally’," she reminded him.
Leroy groaned. “Don't. It’s so damn embarrassing.”
“Can I spend the day with you then?” Tony asked.
Leroy knew when he was outnumbered. “Okay,” he agreed reluctantly.
Shanti promptly turned into a puppy and chased her own tail around and around excitedly until she got so dizzy she fell over. Leroy sighed.
Tony joined them on the blanket and immediately stole some of the left-over picnic.
Leroy wondered if his father ever thought to leave him any food – or at least any money for food. For all that DiNozzo liked to flash his money around, Leroy had a suspicion that was just for show; he doubted that Tony saw much of it. It seemed to be very important to DiNozzo that people think him wealthy – which made Leroy suspect that he wasn’t anywhere near as well off as he made out.
Of course, it could also be that the father simply wasn’t used to keeping track of his son’s needs – even those as fundamental as company, supervision, and food. The man looked like he had other things on his mind; this business deal of his certainly seemed to be preoccupying him.
“What kind of a business deal is your father working on, Tony?” Leroy asked curiously.
Tony glanced up, stuffing a sandwich into his mouth at the same time. “I don’t know," he said between mouthfuls. "He's meeting with the man who owns the mine. He said stuff about ‘capital’ and ‘investment’.”
“Right.” Leroy nodded slowly. It sounded as if Tony’s father wanted Frank Winslow to invest his capital in some scheme or other. If so, Leroy suspected he’d be disappointed; Winslow was a hard-nosed businessman and unless the deal DiNozzo was offering was very good indeed, Leroy doubted he’d be interested.
"Does your dad always bring you on his business trips?" Shannon asked curiously.
Tony flushed an interesting shade of bright red, and Shanti turned into a porcupine and curled up into a ball, covering her face. It was so funny that Leroy actually laughed out loud.
"No," Tony admitted. "Only…he can't find anyone to leave me with back home…because…uh…well, I can be kinda…naughty." He gave a charming smile but his eyes were bright with a combination of mischief and guilt. "Babysitters don't stick around long. It was okay when mom was alive 'cause she looked after me when he was away on business, but now…" He trailed off, and Shanti turned into a little field mouse and crept onto his lap. He stroked her gently.
"I was sorry to hear about your mom," Shannon said softly. "Jethro told me she died a few months ago."
"Who's Jethro?" Tony frowned.
Shannon smiled. "It's Leroy's second name. I like to use it as kind of a pet name for him. I think it suits him better than Leroy."
Tony gave a broad grin and turned to Leroy. "Can I call you Jethro?" he asked.
"No," Leroy replied automatically.
"It's just for me and him," Shannon said.
"Like a secret?" Tony looked intrigued. "I have a secret." Then he bit on his lip, looking annoyed with himself, and Shanti, still in mouse form, nipped his finger with her teeth.
"What kind of a secret?" Leroy asked, looking at the boy searchingly.
"Nothing. Mom said to keep it secret, so…it's my secret – mine, and Mom's, and Shanti's."
He clammed up then, and Leroy knew they wouldn't get anything more from him. Tony, it seemed, would happily talk about anything under the sun but when he had a real secret to keep nothing would induce him to talk about it.
They spent a pleasant afternoon in the woods, and then they walked back towards Main Street. Leroy had one hand on Tony's shoulder and was holding Shannon's hand with the other, and he was aware of feeling strangely at peace with himself.
Tony ran over to a nearby tree, and Shannon joined him to peer at the markings on the trunk.
Content, Leroy thought as he watched them.
Tessa looked up at him. "Because you have pack," she said. He looked at her questioningly. "Being a lone wolf is fine, but you need a pack to be truly happy," she explained. "Now you have one." He looked at the two people standing over by the tree in surprise. He had a mate, and…what was Tony to him? Not a cub, or a litter mate, but something nearly as important. "Your second. Always by your side," Tessa said.
Leroy liked that idea. One of the attractions of being a Marine had been acquiring an instant pack, but this was different. This felt more personal somehow and more special. He felt connected to Shannon and Tony in a way that went much deeper.
"But Tony will be leaving soon," he said to Tessa.
She gave a dismissive flick of her head. "So? He will always be pack."
Tony and Shannon returned to the trail and they continued on. They had just reached the edge of the woods when Tessa stiffened, growling softly.
A few seconds later, Chuck Winslow came into view with his coyote daemon trotting along beside him. Chuck was a tall, gangling youth about Leroy's age. He was Frank Winslow's son, and he seemed to think that because his father owned half the town that meant he did too – and the people in it. He and Leroy had been enemies for as long as Leroy could remember.
"Hey, Leroy – you out skulking around in the woods again?" Chuck shouted, an ugly sneer on his face.
"Free country. I can walk where the hell I like, Chuck," Leroy said, gripping Shannon's hand firmly, and tightening his grasp on Tony's shoulder. He was aware of Tony looking up at him with a question in his eyes, and Shanti turning into that little brown bear he'd seen earlier.
Pell came and perched on Shannon's shoulder, looking his usual fierce self.
Leroy could see the irritation in Chuck's eyes as he looked at Shannon. Chuck Winslow got a lot of dates because of who he was, but he didn't seem to be able to hang on to any of the girls he went out with. Shannon had once turned him down, and Chuck had never forgotten that. No Stillwater girl ever turned him down – but Shannon wasn't from Stillwater, and nobody told her what to do – or who to date.
Chuck's coyote daemon slunk over to Tessa and sat down right in front of her – too close – deliberately getting in her space.
"People have been talking about the amount of time you've been spending all alone with that kid," Chuck said. "Do you like hanging out with little kids, Gibbs? Or is he the only person in town who'll be your friend?"
"I'm not little," Tony said fiercely, and Shanti gave a low growl. It made Leroy smile – of course Tony wouldn't take a comment like that without protesting.
"I've been looking after Tony while his father does business with your father," Leroy said calmly.
"That what you been doing? Or maybe you bring the kid into the woods for some other reason?" Chuck said, his mouth twisting upwards in a nasty little smile.
Shannon gripped his hand more tightly. "Leave it, Jethro," she said quietly.
Chuck glanced at her dismissively. "I see your whore is back in town, Gibbs."
"What did you call her?" Leroy felt a familiar red mist rising inside. His father had always chided him about his temper, but that never stopped him getting into fights – and he'd had more fights with Chuck Winslow over the years than anyone else in town.
"Well, I figure she has to be a whore as no girl would sleep with you without getting paid," Chuck said with a leering grin. "Did you have a threesome?" he asked. "You, your whore, and the kid? All alone out in the woods with nobody to see?"
Leroy swung his fist without even thinking and landed a hard blow on Chuck's jaw that sent him flying. At the same time, Tessa descended upon the coyote and sank her teeth into her, making Chuck's daemon scream loudly. Tessa released her and stood back, watching closely, ready to attack again.
Chuck got to his feet. "That the best you can do, cripple?" he taunted. He came at him with all his force and managed to land a punch on Leroy's cheek that sent him toppling over on his injured leg. Leroy growled under his breath – there was no way Chuck Winslow could take him in a fair fight when he was fit, but he wasn't.
He tried to get up – too fast – and his wounded knee protested, sending a sharp stabbing pain through his entire leg. Chuck loomed over him and grabbed the collar of his shirt, his fist raised high in the air, and Leroy was suddenly aware that this was one fight he wasn't going to win.
He cursed himself for being such an idiot; Chuck had probably been waiting for the right time to strike ever since he'd come home to recuperate. They had plenty of old scores to settle, and Chuck knew he stood a chance of getting even with him because of his leg injury. He'd probably picked today on purpose to show him up in front of his girl.
Chuck's fist came down, and Leroy fell sideways from the force of the second blow. He shook his head in confusion, bracing himself for more – but instead all hell broke loose.
It all took place so quickly, and the trail was so dusty, that Leroy wasn't even sure what happened. Chuck was standing over him, kicking him in the ribs, and Leroy was trying hard to get up again but his knee just wasn't co-operating.
Shannon had gone the deadly kind of silent she always went when she was furious – she was bashing Chuck over the head with her fists while Tony was throwing himself at Chuck repeatedly, yelling at him to stop. Chuck was just shoving the child out of the way every time he got near, easily swiping him aside like he was a puppy.
Leroy saw Pell dive-bomb the coyote daemon with his usual deadly accuracy, pecking away at her, but still Chuck's assault on him didn't let up any. Beside him, Tessa was lying on the ground, desperately trying to get up while the coyote snarled and snapped at her.
Then suddenly, out of nowhere, a massive, angry roar ripped through the air, deafening him and drowning out everything else.
The coyote gave a shriek of terror and when the dust cleared Leroy saw her slinking off with her tail between her legs, with Chuck limping along behind her, rubbing his bruised jaw. He paused only to glance back in their direction with an expression of bemused hatred on his face, as if he wasn't quite sure what had happened. He looked furious that his plan to take Leroy down once and for all hadn't worked.
Leroy looked up to see Tony standing over him, protecting him, arms still outstretched, fists at the ready. Shannon was standing beside the child, red hair full of dirt, looking just as fiercely protective. Pell was flying directly overhead, patrolling the skies above them, and Shanti was a little brown bear, hackles raised, brown eyes defiant and determined.
Tessa picked herself up from the dust and sat down beside him. She looked a little frayed around the edges but fine apart from that.
"It's like I said," she murmured. "Pack."
Leroy accepted Shannon's hand to help him up and leaned heavily on Tony's shoulder as his knee almost gave way beneath him. He looked down on the pair of them.
"Yes," he said to Tessa. "Pack."
When Tony woke up the following day he was still feeling restless and angry inside. Shanti was a brown bear beside him which was unusual – it wasn't one of her normal shapes.
"I'm angry," she said, in a little growl of a voice.
"I know. Me too." He remembered that man the previous day, taunting and mocking them and then punching Leroy into the dust. Tony had been overcome by his emotions back then – and that protective rage was still coursing through his veins.
"Because it can't get out," Shanti told him, her fur bristling.
"It did get out, and you saw what happened."
"It wouldn't be like that if I could be that way more often. It's just because it's all locked up and hidden away."
"We'll go home soon and then everything can go back to the way it was."
She stared at him from big, brown eyes. "But I don't want to go home," she said, turning into a puppy again. "I want to stay here, with Jethro." She snuggled up next to him.
"Jethro?" He raised an eyebrow.
"That's what Shannon calls him. She's right, it suits him better – and it's what I want to call him too."
"I know." He hugged her close, feeling unhappy. He was angry about the fight yesterday, and he wanted to go home so Shanti could relax and be herself, but at the same time he wanted to stay here, close to Jethro.
"Even if we did stay, Jethro won't be here much longer," he told Shanti sensibly. "When his leg gets better he'll go back to the Marines. He'll still see Shannon because she's his girl, but I'm not…I'm not part of his life," he said miserably. He'd felt so lonely since his mother died, but being with Jethro had changed that, and he'd started to feel happy again in the past week.
Shanti licked his nose, and they clung onto each other. There didn't seem to be any answer to it, and Tony felt upset and confused. His mood didn't improve when his father told him to get dressed in his best clothes.
"We're going to lunch with Frank Winslow," he said when Tony mulishly asked an insolent "why?"
"Why?" Tony asked again, feeling out of sorts and irritable.
His father glared at him. "Because I'm doing business with him, but he's a hard nut to crack. So I'm taking him out to lunch today to show him what a decent, honest, family man I am – that's why you're coming too. And wipe that look off your face! You're going to be polite and not show me up. Keep your damn daemon under control; I don't want her showing off and making a scene. Got it?"
"Got it," Tony said sullenly.
He hated dressing up in his suit and wearing a tie to go to the restaurant on Main Street. His father kept a firm hand on his shoulder as he steered him across the road, and Tony glanced miserably in the direction of the woods. He would far rather spend the day there with Jethro and Shannon than sitting in a stuffy restaurant with his father's boring business acquaintance.
Shanti ambled along beside him in her brown bear shape, representing just how grouchy he felt about this. His father took no notice of his sullen mood though, and Nala even nipped Shanti's flank when she was too slow, making her yelp.
They were shown to their table in the restaurant, and Tony froze. There, sitting at the table, was the man from yesterday – Chuck. His face was bruised, and his lip had been split in the fight, but there was no mistaking the coyote daemon beside him. The coyote bared her teeth at Shanti, and Shanti gave a little growl and puffed up her fur angrily.
Chuck was sitting next to a much older man, who Tony guessed had to be his father – the man his own father had been doing business with all week.
Frank Winslow got up and shook his father's hand heartily. They made boring adult conversation that Tony ignored; he was too busy glaring at Chuck. His father motioned to him to sit down, and, reluctantly, he took his seat. Shanti sat down next to him, and Nala sank down beside her.
"Now, you'll have to excuse Chuck's appearance," Frank said. "There's a bad kid in town – thought we'd got rid of him, but he's come back. Always causes fights wherever he goes. Chuck tried to reason with him but this kid talks with his fists. He's a bad lot."
Was he talking about Jethro? Tony gazed at the man in astonishment, and Shanti sat up, her ears flicking angrily.
"That wasn't the way it was," Tony said, unable to stop himself.
His father turned to glare at him, and Nala bit Shanti's ear – hard. Tony fought back a yelp, but he was too angry to be subdued.
"Is that so, young Tony?" Frank Winslow had a cold look in his eyes.
Tony knew he was supposed to shut up. He knew he was supposed to be polite and nice and make everyone like him so his father's business deal went down well, but he couldn't do it.
"Yes it is," he said firmly.
"The kid doesn't know what he's talking about," Chuck said smoothly. His coyote daemon opened her mouth and actually laughed in Shanti's face. Shanti stood up on her hind legs and snapped her jaws at her. Tony's father glared at Shanti and gave Tony a nudge under the table, but Tony was too angry to pay any attention to him.
"I do! I was there!" he said defiantly.
Shanti gave a loud growl, and Nala immediately shoved Shanti's face onto the floor and held her paw over Shanti's muzzle. Tony fought for breath, feeling stifled.
"Leroy Gibbs has been trouble since the minute he was born," Frank Winslow said, leaning back in his chair. His possum daemon went over and sat down next to his son's coyote, and they both glared at Shanti. "I've known him all my life, and he's a bad'un."
"I'm sure he is. I got a bad vibe off the kid the minute I met him," Tony's father said, much to Tony's astonishment. "Now, shall we take a look at the menu?" he added, in a clear attempt to move the conversation on.
Tony bit down hard on his lip and tried to look at the menu. Opposite him, Chuck gave him a nasty grin that just made things worse. Tony really did try and sit there and not say anything, but in the end the words just came tumbling out.
"Leroy isn't bad. He's been nicer to me than anyone else in this town, and Chuck started it!"
"That's enough." His father got up, grabbed hold of his neck, yanked him to his feet, and propelled him out of the restaurant. Nala followed, with Shanti held loosely in her jaws. "What the hell do you think you're playing at?" his father hissed, shaking him. "I told you to play nice with these people. Who the hell cares what they think of your new friend? It doesn't matter."
"It matters to me!"
His father shook him again. "Don't be an idiot. You just go along with people like this. You make them think they're the big 'I am' even when you think they're idiots. You wear a big smile, say what they want to hear, and charm the socks off them."
"I don't want to," Tony said sullenly.
He felt his father's temper rising and braced himself for the slap – that never came. His father released him, visibly regaining control of his temper, and Nala dropped Shanti to the floor. "I don't have time for this. We'll deal with it later. Now, if you can't behave then I don't damn well want you going back in there. You'll screw up this entire deal for me. So fuck off and leave me to repair the damage you've done."
His father shoved him onto the sidewalk and then turned and stalked back into the restaurant without looking back.
Tony stared after him uncertainly. On the one hand, he was glad he didn't have to spend a few hours being polite to people he hated. On the other, he knew his father wouldn't let this drop and there would be hell to pay later.
That was later though. Now was now, and Tony possessed the ability to keep the two entirely separate in his head.
"We have the day free! We can go and find Jethro and Shannon!" Shanti said happily, circling him excitedly in puppy form.
Tony made his way to the woods, with Shanti running along beside him, tail held high in the air. He walked towards their usual spot…and then paused as he got close.
Shannon was sitting on a blanket, with Tessa beside her. Shannon looked very relaxed and happy and her hair was all mussed up – but that wasn't what caught Tony's attention. He was transfixed by the sight of her *stroking Tessa's fur with her bare hand*. Leroy was kneeling beside her, with Pell perched on his bare hand, and he was gently touching Pell's head, making Pell croon in delight.
Tony stopped dead in his tracks, feeling scared. You didn't touch another person's daemon. It was a huge taboo. He'd only experienced it a couple of times but it had made him feel physically sick. He put out his hand, and Shanti turned into a mouse and climbed up his arm and into his shirt, trembling at the memory of when she'd been touched. Daemons could touch each other, and people could touch each other, and you could touch your own daemon – but you didn't touch anyone else's.
Tony didn't know what to do. As he watched Leroy gently stroking Pell's wings, he felt another emotion; envy. Leroy looked so happy, and Pell was making those little crooning sounds. Tessa was lying on her side, panting happily – she didn't look distressed by Shannon gently combing her fingers through her fur. On the contrary; she looked relaxed and completely content.
Leroy brought Pell up to his face and gently kissed the kestrel's head, and Tony was aware that he'd intruded on a very intimate scene. He'd never seen his father touch his mother's daemon, and now that the shock was wearing off he felt a sense of longing.
He must have made a sound – maybe a sigh – because Leroy suddenly looked up. Pell flew up into the sky, and Tessa moved back to his side, out of Shannon's reach.
"Sorry. It's just me." Tony edged towards them, suddenly feeling shy. He'd never been shy with them before, but what he'd just seen had changed their easy friendship.
"It's okay, Tony," Shannon said gently, beckoning him over. He went slowly and sat down on the edge of the blanket, with Shanti pressed close against his heart. Shannon glanced up at Leroy, with a worried expression.
Leroy knelt down on the blanket beside Tony. "Did you see something that scared you?" he asked.
Tony shrugged and hugged Shanti tighter. She stuck her nose out of his shirt and then pulled it back quickly out of sight.
"It's okay. I'm not going to touch her," Leroy told him with a surprised little laugh.
Tony looked up, feeling confused. That wasn't the problem. He didn't mind the idea of Leroy touching Shanti – and that was what was confusing him.
"I saw you touching Pell!" he blurted. "People shouldn't touch other people's daemons with their bare hands! It isn't nice!"
Leroy nodded thoughtfully and sat back on his knees. "It's true that usually when someone touches your daemon it makes you feel like you’re going to throw up, or pass out, or both at the same time. But sometimes…not often, but it can happen, that when you love someone, and…um…trust them…then it feels…good…um…natural…to touch their daemon."
He was clearly floundering, and he looked at Shannon for help.
"Did your mom ever touch your daemon – when you were sick maybe?" she asked.
Tony frowned, trying to remember. "Once, I think she did. I had a fever, and she was trying to wake me."
It wasn't common even for parents to touch their child's daemon with their bare hands. It just wasn't something you *did*. Even for a parent, it could be considered abusive to touch a child's daemon; it was such an intimate act. Tony remembered when a kid at school had grabbed Shanti's head, and how he had howled and almost passed out from the sensation. The kid had been expelled – that's how serious it was to touch another person's daemon with bare hands. Sometimes accidents happened, and someone rubbed up against your daemon by mistake and apologized to you profusely. But usually that was just a split second of nausea that quickly passed.
Shanti poked her head out from his shirt again and looked around cautiously.
"You'll understand when you get older," Shannon said, smiling.
"You mean it's a sex thing?" Tony said scornfully. "I know all about sex stuff. I watch a lot of TV, and once I saw my mom and dad doing it."
Leroy made a snorting sound in the back of his throat, and Shannon laughed out loud. Shanti crawled out of his shirt and sat down beside him in puppy form.
"It's not a sex thing, Tony," Leroy told him firmly. "It's not physical and it goes much deeper than that. It's soul deep. It's like touching another person, *knowing* another person right down to their soul. A lot of people never feel that way about someone else, so they go through their lives never touching another person's daemon. Most people don't like having their daemons touched at all, even by those they love most. But if you can find someone you're connected to, on some level beyond words and bodies…it's just…" He broke off and glanced at Shannon. "The most incredible feeling," he finished.
Shannon got up and went to kneel beside him. "I think that's the most I've ever heard you say in one go, Jethro, and it was beautiful. Thank you." She kissed him gently on the mouth, and Pell landed on Tessa and smoothed her fur with his beak.
"Yuck!" Tony made a face, and Shanti turned into a porcupine and hid her eyes with her paws. Shannon and Leroy both laughed.
"You look kind of over-dressed for a day in the woods, Tony," Leroy said, glancing at his stiff grey suit.
Tony shrugged, remembering the scene at the restaurant, and Shanti turned into a bear beside him and gave a little growl. "Dad wanted me to go to lunch with the guy he's doing business with – but when we got there that Chuck person was there, and…well, I kind of got angry," he explained.
"Angry about what?" Leroy asked.
Tony flushed. "They said bad things about you. So I got angry," he said sullenly.
Leroy looked at him for a moment and then gave a big, wide smile – Tony had never seen him smile quite like that, and he was fascinated.
"Thanks for standing up to them, Tony, but I hope you didn't get in any trouble."
"No." Tony crossed his fingers behind his back.
"Not yet anyway," Shanti murmured in an undertone, and he knew she was afraid of what kind of a mood Nala would be in when they went back to the motel later.
"The suit is very nice. Makes you look grown up and handsome," Shannon said, and Tony grinned and got up and pranced around a bit, milking it for all he was worth. Beside him, Shanti turned into a peacock, spread out her glorious display of feathers, and began strutting around proudly.
Shannon laughed out loud. “You do know it’s only the peacock that has all that bright plumage, not the peahen, right?” she asked.
Shanti just kept on parading around, ignoring the fact that the form she was mimicking wasn’t gender appropriate. It wasn’t one of her daemon forms – she was just having some fun with it, like a child dressing up.
"You are such a show off," Leroy said, rolling his eyes. "Trying to charm the lady, huh?" He nodded in Shannon's direction.
Shanti turned back into a puppy again and sat down abruptly beside him. Tony felt annoyed.
"It wasn't for Shannon," Shanti said sulkily, too quietly for them to hear.
"I know. It was for Leroy," he replied just as quietly.
He wasn't even sure why he wanted to impress Leroy so much; he just knew that he did. He liked Shannon, so that wasn't the problem. It was something else that he didn't really understand.
Tony wanted the day to last forever, if only to delay the moment when he'd have to go back to the motel and face his father. He knew that Leroy wanted the day to last forever too, because he was going to be taking Shannon to the station to catch her train in the evening.
There was something special about that last day they all spent together; something almost magical. Shanti felt it too. The sun shone for most of the afternoon, and later, when there was a sudden rainstorm, Leroy held the blanket over their heads as they ran at his limping pace all the way back to the store.
They left the sodden blanket at the store, airing over a chair in front of the fire. Leroy picked up Shannon's bag, and Tony accompanied them both to the station. He stood by while Leroy and Shannon kissed, and then Shannon turned to him. She looked so pretty with her white skin and long red hair. She pressed a little kiss to his cheek and then smiled.
"It was great meeting you, Tony. Look after Jethro when I'm gone!"
At that moment the sky went dark and it began to rain again. Tony felt a shiver run down his spine, and Shanti gave a little wail. Tony opened his mouth to reply, only to find that his throat had gone completely dry.
"I will," he croaked. "I promise."
She looked surprised by the heartfelt sincerity in his tone and gave a little laugh. "Hey, I'll be back next weekend," she said, tapping him under the chin with her finger.
"Yes. I know." He lowered his head and gazed at Shanti who gazed back at him from troubled brown eyes. Shannon would be back, yes, but somehow he knew that he would never see her again.
He stepped forward and touched her hand. "Bye," he whispered. "I…gotta go now. My dad will be waiting for me." He squeezed her hand tight, for just a brief second, and then turned and ran out of the station.
It was raining hard, and he paused by the station awning because this time he didn't have Leroy with his blanket to keep him dry. It was also nearly dark, and he'd stayed out far later than he should. He watched the rain come crashing down, as lightning streaked across the sky. It showed no signs of letting up so eventually he decided he'd just have to get wet. He began to run, covering his head with his arms, Shanti in puppy form sticking close by his side.
"Hey – Tony!" He heard a voice and turned to see Tessa loping into sight with Leroy behind her. "You okay? You left in a hurry."
"I don't like goodbyes," Tony muttered. "And it's late. I need to get home. Dad…" His father was already in a bad mood with him, and he dreaded how much worse it might be if he'd gone out drinking after lunch.
Leroy stood there, the rain plastering his dark hair to his head, his blue eyes concerned.
"You going to be okay, Tony?" he asked. "With your dad, I mean?"
Leroy always knew the things Tony never said; he could read him better than anyone had ever done, even his mom. Maybe that was why Tony liked him so much.
"Yes. I'll be fine." Tony crossed his fingers behind his back. "Did Shannon's train come?"
"Yes, she's gone. I thought I'd see if I could catch up with you. Is something wrong?" Leroy pressed.
Shanti turned into a mouse and ran up to sit on his shoulder. He didn't have the words to explain it, but something had happened back there with Shannon; something dark and frightening.
"No. Nothing's wrong," Tony replied quickly. "I'll see you."
And then he turned and ran back down the street.
Leroy watched Tony disappear into the rainy night.
"Something feels wrong," Tessa said quietly.
"I know. It’s like how it feels before a storm, only the storm's already here." Leroy glanced up at the angry black clouds overhead. It was bucketing down, and he was already soaked through.
He limped back to the store, but he couldn't shake the sensation that something bad was going to happen.
His father took one look at him when he got in and began clucking around, throwing a towel over his wet head and scolding him for going out without a coat or umbrella.
"Supper's nearly ready," he said.
Leroy glanced over at the table and saw that three places had been laid.
"I thought young Tony might be joining us," Jackson explained.
"No." Leroy glanced at Tessa who seemed unsettled and agitated. "He said he had to get back to his dad. So it's just us two."
"Makes a change." Jackson tousled his damp hair – something that Leroy really hated. It had been bad enough when he was a kid, but as a twenty year old man it was even more annoying. "Seems like we've had guests at the dinner table a lot this part week – either Shannon, or Tony, or both! Not that I mind! I'm delighted." He rambled on as he walked into the kitchen. "Always wanted you to bring friends home when you were a kid, and you never did. Been nice having young people around to talk to…"
Leroy sat down at the table, his wet shirt sticking to his cold skin. Tessa sat down beside him and then got up again and turned around in a circle. She tried to sit down again but was clearly unable to settle. She gave a little whine and looked up at him.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Something feels wrong. I think one of your pack is in trouble."
"Well it's not Dad. He's fine. So is it Tony, or Shannon?"
He hadn't even realized that he'd named the people he viewed as members of his pack; his pack, under his protection, even when he wasn't physically near them.
"Shannon's train…" he began.
Tessa shook her head. "I do not think it is Shannon."
The motel room was dark when he got back. Tony didn't have a key, so he knocked on the door. He half hoped his father wasn't back yet – then he could walk back to the warm, welcoming lights of the store, and sit down for one of Jackson Gibbs's home-cooked suppers that always tasted so good.
He heard a crashing noise inside the motel room, and he winced; that didn't sound good. When his father was sober he could be strict and mean, but Tony could handle both those things. It was when his father was drunk that he became truly scary.
A light went on, the door was opened, and he found himself gazing into his father's bloodshot eyes.
"So you've come back at last, have you?" he slurred.
"Yes Dad. Sorry Dad," Tony whispered, sidling into the room with Shanti pressed up against his legs.
"You damn well should be! Because of you, I lost the business deal I was working on!"
His father slammed the door shut behind him, and Tony froze. Because of him? Had he screwed that up for his father just by sticking up for Leroy at lunch? Was that how business deals worked?
"Sorry, Dad," he whispered again, going over to his bed. If he lay down and pretended to be asleep his father might let it drop. He'd no doubt bring it up again in the morning, but Tony wasn't so afraid of him when he was sober.
"You don't fucking understand, do you?" His father suddenly loomed over him. "We needed that deal. Your mom's money is all tied up in trust funds and…" He caught himself. "My business doesn't have any capital, and if I can't find an investor then we stand to lose everything. Do you understand *that*, you little shit?"
Tony shook his head, but that just made things worse. His father reached out, grabbed his arms, and squeezed so tight it made him whimper. Shanti gave a growl and threw herself at Nala, who opened her big jaws, snapped them tight around Shanti's puppy neck, and held her down on the floor.
"No! Please! No!" Tony wheezed, struggling to breathe. "Let Shanti go!"
His father's face broke into a grim, drunken smile. He released his grip on Tony's arms and turned to look at where Nala had Shanti pinned down.
"I told you to keep her under control back there, but you didn't. And if you can't control your daemon, then I'll have to do it for you."
He went over to Shanti and yanked her out of Nala's jaws. Tony screamed as wave after wave of nausea rolled through him. His father was touching his daemon! He was holding Shanti in his hand, by the scruff of her neck, and it made him feel so ill he threw up.
"Doesn't feel good, does it?" his father asked viciously as Tony puked up onto the floor. "Like losing a fucking business deal when you're this close. *This fucking close*!" He shook Shanti violently, and she gave a scream of terror. Tony fell onto the bed, screaming with her.
"Please stop…please…" He clawed at his own throat, trying to breathe, but all he could feel were his father's hands on Shanti, squeezing and shaking.
"You're a brat. I raised a brat. Your daemon is the evidence. I should have done something about it before," his father said ominously. "I should have made you control yourself, but I've been too easy on you. Soft. Like your mom. You're a spoiled brat, Tony."
He turned and hurled Shanti against the wall. She slammed into it and fell to the floor, but the minute she landed Nala was upon her, snarling at her and biting her. Tony fell back onto the bed, writhing in pain. He was dimly aware of his father going over to Shanti and drawing back his leg, and then he landed a kick on her exposed belly, and another, and then another.
Tony gasped for air, doubled over, clutching his stomach. Shanti was screaming, and he was screaming with her, desperate to reach her but in too much pain to move.
His father leaned down and picked her up by the scruff of her neck again, and Tony threw up again, instantly. He writhed in agony, wondering if maybe this was what it felt like to be dying.
His father slapped Shanti around the face, while she called for him, over and over again, but he couldn't get there. He managed to fall off the bed and onto the floor, struggling to reach her. He tried crawling across the room but it all hurt too much.
Then suddenly the room lurched and everything was upside down. He thought he saw his mother's daemon, Keddon, a big black cat, coming towards him.
"Call for help," Keddon urged.
Who could he call? His mom was dead and there was nobody else nearby.
"Call!" Keddon told him urgently. "He will hear."
Tony opened his mouth and screamed: "Jethro!"
Leroy pushed his plate away.
"You not hungry, son?" Jackson asked.
"No. I mean yes…but no." Tessa’s agitation was getting even worse, and he knew he couldn’t ignore it anymore. It was making him feel physically ill in the pit of his stomach. "I think…I have to go do something."
"Do what?" Jackson was watching him, perplexed. Meldra went over to Tessa and gently pressed her feathers against Tessa's fur, but Tessa moved away.
He didn't hear the sound out loud, but the scream reverberated around his head all the same. "Jethro!"
"I have to go!"
Leroy wasn't sure where he was going exactly, but he had run out of the house and was halfway down the street before he realized he was on his way to the motel.
"Tony is in trouble," Tessa told him.
"Yes, I know."
He ignored the pain in his knee, ignored the rain pouring down from above, and ran as fast as he could.
He could hear angry sounds emanating from the motel room as he got close, and he threw himself the last few steps and crashed through the partly open door. Then he stopped, shocked by what he found there.
Tony was lying on the floor, completely comatose, while a drunken DiNozzo held Shanti down with his bare hands and slapped her over and over again.
Leroy didn't say a word. He threw himself at DiNozzo, yanked him away from Shanti, and delivered one solid upper cut to the man's jaw. That was all it took. DiNozzo went out like a light, falling down on the bed, dead to the world. Nala keeled over immediately beside him.
Leroy went over to Tony and crouched down beside him. There wasn't a mark on the boy – his father hadn't touched him; he'd terrorized his daemon instead.
"Tony?" Leroy gently stroked Tony's hair away from his forehead, but the child didn't move. "Hey…Tony…I need you to wake up," he said softly. He'd heard of people being traumatized when their daemons were attacked, and he knew how serious it could be.
Still Tony didn't move. Leroy glanced over at where Shanti was lying on the floor by the far wall, still in puppy form, eyes closed, unmoving.
Tessa went over to her and licked her face, but she didn't stir. Tessa sat back on her haunches and gave Leroy a despondent look.
"I can't wake her. We must try something else."
"What?" Leroy was at a loss as to what to do.
"You must try to reach Shanti."
Leroy took a deep breath and nodded. He went over to where Shanti was lying and knelt down beside her.
"Shanti," he said softly, gazing down at the little puppy. "I have to get Tony to safety, so I need you to wake up."
She whimpered, but still she didn't move or open her eyes. Leroy glanced at Tessa, and she nodded. "Do it."
"Hush, Shanti…you're okay. You're okay now." Leroy reached out a trembling hand towards the daemon. He had only ever touched Pell before, and once, many years ago, when he was a child, he'd touched Meldra.
It should have felt strange, but it didn't. The minute his fingers came into contact with her soft, golden fur, he felt as if everything was going to be okay. She felt silky soft beneath him, and warm, and somehow familiar, as if he'd known her his entire life.
"Does she mind?" he asked Tessa. "I don't want to make things worse."
The wolf shook her head. "She trusts you. You are not trying to harm her, and she is pack," Tessa reminded him. "She does not mind."
"Shanti," he said, still gently stroking the daemon.
Touching her filled his mind with thoughts of Tony. He saw a black cat – and the name 'Keddon' came instantly to his mind. The cat was the daemon of a woman with long blonde hair and bright green eyes. Then he saw himself, as Tony saw him…dark hair, blue eyes, a pronounced limp…and safe. Images of home, family, and kindness filled his mind…and then there was Shannon. He saw her red hair and pale skin…and he felt himself shiver with foreboding. Beneath his fingers, Shanti began to shake.
"Sssh…come back to us, Shanti," he said, unable to make sense of all the images and emotions swirling through his mind. It all felt so vivid and overwhelming. It was a glimpse into Tony's soul, and it was so intimate he felt as if he was intruding. Yet he needed Shanti to recover if he was going to stand any chance of reaching Tony and hauling him back to consciousness.
"Shanti, it's okay, you're safe. I promise. You'll always be safe with me."
She was shaking more violently now, and he saw Tony's father looming over her, grabbing her by the neck, and throwing her against the wall. His own fury rose up inside him, and he wanted to go over to the unconscious man and punch him all over again.
"That will not help," Tessa told him calmly. "Stay here, with Shanti. She and Tony need you."
Leroy nodded and kept gently talking to the stricken daemon, stroking and calming her, urging her to wake up.
"I'll keep you safe. I'm here…it's me, Leroy," he told her.
"Jethro," Tessa said. He glanced up at her. "That is who you are to her. To him." She glanced over at Tony.
Leroy didn't understand that, but he was acting on instinct now. "It's Jethro," he whispered to Shanti. "Your friend, Jethro. Come back to us, Shanti."
He saw Tony screaming his name and then falling down comatose, while his father continued to beat up on his daemon.
"I'm here. I came. I'm here," he told her. "It's me, Shanti. It's Jethro. I heard. I came."
Shanti's shaking slowly began to subside, and then she made a whimpering sound in the back of her throat and her eyes opened. She lay there, on her side, looking up at him from scared eyes.
"Hush…it's okay now, Shanti. It's okay, little one." He gently stroked her muzzle, and she feebly flicked her tongue over his fingers.
"He said I was bad. That I had to be controlled," Shanti whispered.
"You're fine just as you are," Leroy told her firmly. "Nobody should control you."
She nodded uncertainly and licked his hand again. Leroy smiled down on her. "Can you stand?"
She gave a little whine, but she managed to sit up, with Tessa's help. Then Tessa nudged her onto her paws, and she stood, swaying unsteadily.
Leroy glanced over at Tony. The boy's eyes were open, and he was gazing at him blankly. Leroy saw the pile of vomit beside the bed and on the child's clothes, and he fought down another wave of blind fury.
"Tony comes first," Tessa told him, calming the rising red mist of his temper.
"I know," he replied shortly.
Leroy went over to the boy and crouched down beside him. He reached out a hand and stroked Tony's hair, the way he'd just stroked Shanti.
"Can you walk, Tony?" he asked quietly.
Tony didn't say a word. He looked completely out of it, like a boxer who'd been knocked around the head once too often.
"Okay. I'm going to carry you. I'm taking you home with me. Understand?"
Tony looked around blearily, and his gaze came to rest on his unconscious father. His eyes widened in panic.
"It's okay – he's out cold. He won't wake up for awhile. You're safe now," Leroy told him. "Can you put your arms around my neck?"
Tony nodded mutely and reached his arms up. He clung on to Leroy's neck, and Leroy strained to lift him. Tony wasn't very heavy, but Leroy's injured knee nearly gave way as he stood.
"It will hold," Tessa told him.
"It has to," Leroy replied, as he began limping towards the door with Tony in his arms. Tessa picked up Shanti, holding her gently in her jaws, and followed on behind.
The walk up Main Street in the pouring rain with Tony in his arms seemed to take forever. Leroy could feel the sweat running down his face as his injured leg protested, but he continued on, holding the child tight against his chest, trying to protect him from the worst of the rain.
Jackson was waiting for them on the porch, Meldra clucking anxiously by his side, peering through the storm for sight of them. Leroy staggered the last few steps towards the store, and Jackson ran out into the street.
For once, Jackson didn't make a big fuss. He was often like this in a crisis. He'd tell Leroy off for something small and stupid, like being late home, and go on and on about it for hours, but when something big happened he was solid as a rock. He took one look at Leroy's face, and then at the almost comatose Tony in his arms, and his mouth settled into a grim line.
He moved forward to take Tony, but Leroy gestured him away with an impatient flick of his head. His knee hurt like hell, but he wasn't going to surrender Tony to anyone, not even his own father.
"Hurry then. We need to get you both dried off. And the child needs a bed," Jackson said, running back to the store and holding the door open.
Jackson didn't ask what had happened. Instead, he busied himself lighting the fire in the hearth, putting a pan of milk to warm on the stove, and running upstairs to fetch towels.
Leroy placed Tony on the rug in front of the fire and began stripping off the boy's sodden, vomit-stained clothes. He took the towel his father gave him and dried the child, and then dressed him in one of his own tee shirts that Jackson had given him. It was big enough to come down almost to Tony's knees. Finally, he wrapped Tony in a blanket and sat him down in front of the fire, placing one arm around him.
Jackson brought them both warm milk, and Leroy was relieved to see Tony at least rousing enough to sip it. Beside them, Shanti was stretched out in front of the fire, her damp fur steaming a little, while Tessa washed her gently but thoroughly with her tongue, from the top of her puppy head to the tip of her tail.
Tony's skin was paper white and almost translucent. There were dark shadows under his eyes, and he looked exhausted. Leroy kept one arm around him, holding the boy close, warming him with his own body in addition to the heat of the fire.
Leroy had no idea what was going to happen next. He did, however, possess the ability to live in the here and now, and just deal with the crisis at hand.
"You need to get some rest, Tony," he said, watching as Tony's eyelids drooped. Now was not a good time to have a discussion with the boy about what had just happened. Tony made a visible effort to open his eyes, and Leroy smiled down at him. "I'm going to take you up to my room and put you in my bed. Nobody will harm you there. Understood?"
Tony nodded sleepily, and Leroy levered himself up, ignoring the stabbing pain in his now thoroughly protesting knee.
"Do you want me to carry him?" his father asked, hovering anxiously close by.
Leroy shook his head, feeling an overwhelming surge of protectiveness that he couldn't explain.
He picked up the child again, and Tessa nudged Shanti onto her feet, and they made their weary way up the stairs.
His father had placed a hot water bottle in the bed to warm it. Leroy slid Tony between the sheets, and Tessa helped Shanti onto the bed. The puppy crawled into the safety of Tony's arms and settled against his chest.
Leroy turned on the lamp on the nightstand; he didn't want the child waking in the night and freaking out because he was in a strange room. He was about to tiptoe out of the room when Tony spoke for the first time.
"I knew you would come," he whispered, his voice barely audible. "Keddon told me to call you. I knew you would hear."
"Keddon?" Leroy turned back with a frown.
"My mother's daemon."
"Your mother…? Your mother's dead, Tony," Leroy said gently, sitting on the bed beside the boy and smoothing his hair back from his forehead.
Tony blinked, looking confused. "Yes," he said softly. "But he told me to call for you, and I did, and you came."
Leroy couldn't make any sense of that, so he just smiled and smoothed the boy's hair some more until he thought Tony was asleep. He got up to go, but Tony reached out a hand and touched his arm, his green eyes beseeching.
"I'm not going anywhere. I'm just going to get changed out of these wet clothes, and then I'll be back. Okay?" Leroy told him.
Tony nodded, his eyelids drooping again, and he was asleep before Leroy even reached the door.
Jackson was waiting for him outside with a clean pair of shorts and a tee shirt.
"Do you know what happened?" he asked as Leroy quietly undressed and towelled his damp skin and hair.
"When I got there, his father was stinking drunk and…" Leroy paused, fighting his own emotions. "He had hold of Shanti. He was slapping her around. Tony was almost comatose on the floor. He'd thrown up a few times.
Jackson looked stunned. "He was attacking the child's daemon? The child's own father was beating up on his daemon?"
Leroy gave a taut nod and then retched as the full force of the memory struck him; it was obscene.
"The poor child. No wonder he looked like a drowned rat when you brought him home. But, Leroy…how did you know it was happening? The way you took off – it was as if you could feel that the boy was in trouble."
"I could, somehow. Tessa felt it too." He thought about what Tony had said about calling him – he'd definitely heard the child's voice, screaming his name in his head, but he didn't have an explanation for it. "Tessa says…" he paused, trying to find an explanation that made more sense.
"Tessa says it's because Tony is pack," he said, at last, ducking his head in embarrassment because he had never talked to his father about pack before.
Jackson nodded thoughtfully. "I think I understand, son. See, your daemon is a wolf, so you think in terms of pack, but mine's a bird, and we have flock." Leroy looked up, startled. "I've never talked to you about this before, son, because it's a private thing, between a person and their daemon, but when I look at you I see flock. And I know you don't like me clucking over you, but I can't help it; it's in my nature. And it seems to me that maybe pack isn't so different to flock – you just express it a little differently." Jackson gave a little chuckle. "Listen, Leroy – we might have had our ups and downs, but I want you know that I'm proud of you, son."
Leroy felt himself flushing, and he ducked his head again.
"You always got into such a lot of fights as a kid, and it worried me that you never brought any friends home. I guess you're just not as sociable as me." Jackson shook his head, chuckling to himself. "But I always knew you had a good heart in there, even if others never saw it. I'm proud of how you helped Tony. You're a good boy, Leroy, even if you never want anyone to know."
Leroy rolled his eyes, but he felt warm inside all the same. No matter how different they were, and how many arguments they had, he loved his father and had always wanted him to be proud of him.
He got changed into the clean, dry clothes his father had brought him and then stood up again.
"I'm going to sleep in there with him. I need to…watch over him," he said, not understanding the compulsion but going with it all the same.
"I understand, son." Jackson nodded, patting his arm. "Good night. Sleep well."
Leroy let himself quietly back into the room, Tessa at his side, and then paused in shock.
There, sitting on the bed beside Tony, was a large lioness, with fierce, brown eyes. She wasn't full-grown, but she was far larger than a child's daemon usually was.
"Shanti?" Leroy whispered incredulously. She bared her teeth at him, and Tony turned, whimpering, halfway between asleep and awake, eyes open and looking a little wild. "Shanti – it's me, Leroy," he said, edging cautiously towards her.
"Jethro," Tessa corrected. "Shanti – it's Jethro."
Shanti blinked in acknowledgement and relaxed. She looked massive and regal sitting there, beside Tony, watching over him.
"You're his secret," Leroy guessed. "The one he couldn't talk about. You're the secret shape of his daemon that he doesn't want anyone to see."
Shanti nodded solemnly. "I was wrong," she said, in a much lower, deeper voice than he'd ever heard from her before. "He told me to stay hidden, because he feared his father's temper. I shouldn't have listened. If we had allowed his father to see me like this more often, then maybe tonight wouldn't have happened."
"You…" Leroy remembered the fight the previous day. "You're what scared Chuck Winslow away. I heard this massive roar, but I couldn't see anything, and then when I could you'd changed back."
Shanti's lip curled up in disdain. "He was hurting you. You are our friend. Tony would not stand by and let a friend be hurt."
"But he stood by and let himself be hurt this evening," Leroy said. "You could have changed – you could have challenged his father, stood up to him…in this form, I think he'd have thought twice about attacking you."
"Tony made a promise to his mother. He's been trying very hard to keep it," Shanti said quietly.
"A daemon's shape isn't in a child's control!" Leroy protested.
Tony stirred uneasily, whimpering again, and Shanti gave a low, warning roar. "It isn't easy, but I can do it. Besides, Tony made a promise to his mother, so we kept it."
Leroy got the impression that Tony had loved his mother very much, and he felt sorry for the child all over again for his loss. He knew how it felt.
"Why this particular shape?" he asked. "Why do you only hide the lion?"
Shanti shook her big head, growling softly to herself. "I was in this form one day, and his father found me particularly annoying. There was a big argument." Shanti's brown eyes sparked angrily. "After that, his mother thought it wise that I keep this form hidden, in order to keep the peace. His father doesn't like impudence and when I am in this form I am a challenge. I…roar." She gave an embarrassed little smile. "I answer back. I am..."
"Strong," Leroy finished. "And threatening. And…beautiful." He couldn't help it – she really was.
"Thank you," she said, with a low, rumbling chuckle. She gave a yawn and then rested her head on her large paws. They were too big for her body, as if she still had some growing to do, just like Tony.
This then, was a representation of his true self that Tony had tried so hard to keep hidden, out of a misguided attempt not to antagonize his father. Leroy suddenly understood, on some level, why he had been so drawn to Tony and felt such an immediate sense of connection with the boy; he might have the playfulness of a puppy, the teasing mischief of a cockatiel, and the flitting mind of a butterfly – but he also had the heart and courage of a lion.
"I'm not sure Tony needs us, with you watching over him," Leroy said. "I can go sleep downstairs…"
"No. He wants you here. He has never had a true friend before," she said solemnly.
Leroy gave a little laugh at that. "Yeah, well, neither have I. I mean, I've got my girl, but that's different." He couldn’t explain it, but he felt sure that Shanti somehow knew what he meant; his friendship with Tony went deep – soul deep. He’d touched Tony’s daemon with his bare hands but instead of making the situation worse, or causing Tony to feel sick, it had been healing, restorative and peaceful.
He slid into the bed beside Tony, and Tessa took up position beside Shanti. They looked beautiful together, the wolf and the lioness, lying side by side.
Leroy looked at the child beside him, slumbering uneasily in the lamplight. Tony looked so young and vulnerable, and yet he had this big, proud, brave daemon beside him. It was hard to reconcile the two.
Leroy reached out and smoothed Tony's damp, tousled hair, and the child relaxed at his touch, just as he had the day he’d first met him. He became more at ease and his breathing deepened.
What would happen to him, this strange little boy who had somehow wormed his way into his heart? Leroy couldn't take care of him, and the child's father would no doubt come looking for him tomorrow.
"Sleep. We will watch over you," Tessa told him calmly. "And the morning will take care of itself."
Tony woke to find himself snuggled up against Shanti's solid, reassuring form.
"Hey," he whispered, stroking her sleek golden fur. "You okay?"
She bent her big lion's head down to nuzzle him gently. "I am fine."
"He was…" Tony felt his stomach clench as he remembered her being thrown against the wall, and kicked, and slapped, and how he'd been unable to reach her. "I'm sorry…I'm so, so sorry…it was my fault he hurt you."
"Hush. You'll throw up again and that stank," she told him, with a familiar gleam of mischief in her eyes. "Also, you’re in Jethro's bed, and I don't think he'd like it."
"Oh hell." Tony sat up suddenly. "Jethro…he mustn't see you like this."
"He already did." She blinked solemnly. "Last night. He slept in here – to watch over you. He got up about half an hour ago. I let him stay because you were tossing and turning; you are calmer when he’s near."
"You also let him stay 'cause you like snuggling up to Tessa," Tony pointed out with a knowing grin. "You've got some weird Tessa-crush going on. You think she's the best daemon in the whole world."
"She is very cool," Shanti agreed, her lion mouth curving up in a semblance of a grin.
"So he saw you…looking like this?" Tony wasn’t sure how he felt about that.
"Your mother wouldn't mind, Tony," Shanti told him softly. "She would understand."
There was a knock at the door before he had a chance to reply to that. Shanti changed into a puppy just as Jackson opened the door and poked his head around it.
“You awake, son? How are you feeling?”
“I’m fine, Mr. Gibbs.”
“Hey, it’s Jack – or Jackson if we’re being really formal. Don’t know how many times I have to tell you that, Tony!” Jackson gave him a big smile, and Meldra strutted into the room and fluttered up onto the bed. She went over to Shanti and examined her closely.
Jackson chuckled. "We heard that Shanti is good at undercover operations!"
"Undercover opera…" Tony caught on and laughed. "Like on the TV? Like being a cop?" he exclaimed.
"Or a spy," Jackson said, coming into the room. "Guess she's still in hiding, yes? That's a shame – I'd liked to have seen that lion. Damndest thing, a child being able to control his daemon's shape like that."
"I can't control any of her other shapes," Tony told him, as Shanti turned into a butterfly and perched on Meldra's head to illustrate the point. "I just don't like her taking that one when anyone can see her. It's…private."
"Well, you shouldn't have to keep any part of yourself disguised, Tony." Jackson's lips thinned into a straight line of disapproval. "Now, I've brought you your clothes. All washed, dried and ironed overnight by yours truly!" He placed the clothes on the bed. "Get dressed and come downstairs – I have pancakes and bacon cooking – and then we'll see what's to be done about this whole situation."
Tony wasn't sure he liked the sound of that, but from the look in Jackson's eyes it was unavoidable. Jackson shut the door, and Tony dutifully got dressed. Then he went down the stairs with Shanti in puppy form running along at his heels.
"Here's our little secret agent!" Jackson said as he took his place at the dining table.
Leroy was already sitting there, looking even more brooding than usual. His blue eyes flashed at Jackson's words, and he looked at Tony and then, searchingly, at Shanti, who immediately became self-conscious and fell over her own paws. She planted her rump firmly on the carpet and then placed her paws over her eyes to avoid that penetrating gaze. Tony didn’t blame her – Leroy had the most unsettling stare of anyone he'd ever met.
Jackson handed him a plate of delicious smelling food, and Tony was suddenly aware how ravenous he was after throwing up so much the previous night.
"So," Jackson said, sitting back in his chair with Meldra perched on his lap. "I'm going to go take a walk down to the motel in a bit and have a chat with your father, Tony."
Tony glanced up, his mouth full of bacon, feeling panicked.
"What I say to him depends a lot on what you say to me right now," Jackson said.
"What you say to him?" Leroy flared. "Damn it, Dad – the man attacked his own son's daemon! A child's daemon! You have no idea how many times I woke up in the night and wanted to go down to that motel room and take that hyena of his in my hands and wring her neck to show him how it damn well feels!"
"Yes, well, we all know about your temper, Leroy," his father said calmly.
"You see, this –*this* – is what I find so annoying about you!" Leroy flared. "This is a simple case of right or wrong, and you find some way to sit on both sides of the fence."
Jackson sighed. "Not all of us see the world in such stark shades of black and white as you, son."
Leroy flared up again immediately. "That man shouldn't be allowed to have a kid! Nobody should be allowed to beat up on their kid's daemon like that! It's abuse, plain and simple. And Tony's been neglected since he got here! If I hadn't found him roaming around in the woods on his own that first day then who knows what the hell might have happened to him!"
"You'll have a hard time proving that to the authorities, son," Jackson said. “And what do you suggest we do? You can’t just steal away the man’s child – they have a law against that – it’s called kidnapping.”
"Maybe Tony has a relative he can stay with – an uncle or aunt," Leroy suggested. "But he can't go back and live with that bastard. Who knows what will happen if I'm not around to look out for him? He was lucky this time. Last night could have ended differently."
Tony felt a wave of anxiety at all this talk of him living with someone else. "I love my dad," he said quietly.
Leroy and Jackson both turned to look at him.
"He was drunk last night. When he's drunk he gets mean," Tony told them.
"When he's sober he can be pretty mean too – his daemon is always bullying Shanti," Leroy pointed out.
"It's not always like this; only when he's doing business. When he's made a good business deal he can be a lot of fun. He takes me places, does stuff with me."
"Are you saying you want to stay with him?" Leroy demanded incredulously.
Tony doubted that many people would argue with Leroy Jethro Gibbs when he looked like this, but he had to. He took his courage in his hands.
"Yes," he said firmly. Beside him, he was aware of Shanti changing. He put a hand on her head and stroked her soft lion fur. "He's my dad," he said helplessly.
Leroy looked furious. Shanti bared her teeth at Tessa.
"My mom's dead. There's just the two of us. Him and me," Tony said in barely more than a whisper. "It might not be easy between us, but I love him. I can't lose him too."
That seemed to hit home. Leroy glanced at Jackson, and Tessa gently nudged Meldra with her nose.
"Can you understand that?" Tony asked Leroy beseechingly. Leroy looked away, his hands curled into tight fists.
Jackson got up and patted Tony's shoulder. "Oh yes, he can understand that, son," he said softly. Jackson reached for his coat and put it on, then turned to go. "I'll go talk to your dad, Tony. We'll make this right, I promise you."
Leroy watched his father go, feeling too angry to speak. Then he felt something warm nudging his leg, and he looked down to see Shanti, still in lion form, gently licking Tessa's paw beseechingly with her big, pink tongue.
Leroy sighed and felt his anger dissipating. "Okay, Tony," he said quietly. "I'll let you do this – but on one condition."
Tony's green eyes were round and scared, but he nodded.
"You once made a promise to your mom – now I need you to make a promise to me," Leroy told him fiercely.
Tony's eyes widened even more, and he nodded again.
"I mean it – you have to promise me this," Leroy insisted.
"I do. Whatever you want – I'll promise."
Leroy almost smiled despite himself; Tony trusted him enough to commit to a promise without even knowing what it was.
"You have to let Shanti take her lion form whenever she wants," Leroy said.
Tony shook his head, mutely.
"Look, I know about the promise you made to your mom, but that was a long time ago," Leroy told him urgently. "Things have changed now, and your mom wouldn't want you to keep that promise after what just happened. I know that."
"How do you know?" Tony asked, in a very small voice.
"Because I know she loved you very much and wanted to keep you safe."
"How will Shanti being a lion keep me safe?" Tony asked. "You don't know my dad, or how he can get when he thinks I'm answering back. Shanti's got this roar and…"
"Oh, I've heard Shanti's roar. It frightened Chuck Winslow away, remember? And it stopped me getting my ass totally kicked into the bargain." He gave a self-deprecating little grin. "But the thing is, Tony, I think your father needs to see that side of Shanti too. He's been bullying her for far too long. And when you stand up to bullies, they usually back down."
Tony bit on his lip uncertainly.
"I won't let you go back to your father unless I'm sure he won't hurt you again, the way he did last night," Leroy said firmly. He knew that he had no such authority over Tony's life, but he doubted that Tony knew that. Besides, Tony was pack – he felt that the boy's life was somehow under his protection, and he had a suspicion that Tony felt that way too.
"Let Shanti be whatever she wants to be?" Tony said in a scared voice.
“Yes. Shanti – is that what you want?” Leroy asked.
Shanti nodded. “I told Tony that I don’t like it when he makes me hide. It feels…itchy.”
“There see, and what’s rule number one?” Leroy asked Tony.
“Always listen to your daemon,” Tony said, and Shanti nuzzled his hand with her big head.
"That's right. Promise her, Tony. Promise her that she can be who she is, and that you won't hide her again."
Tony nodded. "I promise," he said solemnly. "I'm sorry, Shanti. I promise I'll never ask you to hide again."
"Good!" Leroy grinned at the boy. "And let her roar if she wants to. Hell, the louder the better! Tessa – you show her how."
Tessa went over to Shanti, sat in front of her, put her head back, and howled. She howled as if it was night and there was a full moon outside. She howled fit to wake the dead. Shanti sat and watched her, a bemused look on her face, and then, suddenly, she threw back her big head and joined in. Her roar was loud and deep compared to Tessa's higher pitched howling, but the two sounded fantastic together.
Leroy gave a laugh of delight and jumped up and grabbed Tony's hand.
"C'mon – let's join in!" he said, and he threw back his own head and yelled at the top of his lungs. He shouted out his anger about his wounded knee, and his irritation at being back home with his dad instead of out being a Marine, which was all he'd ever wanted to be. He howled about hating Chuck Winslow and the terrifying joy of loving Shannon, and he howled out his fury about what Tony's father had done to him.
Tony looked at him as if he'd gone insane but then his green eyes lit up, and he threw back his own head and joined in. The minute he did, Leroy felt as if they were all joined – all four of them –the two humans and their daemons.
He remembered touching Shanti last night and how that had given him a glimpse into Tony's soul. And in Tony's roar he heard the sound of the child's deep grief at the loss of his mother; he heard his fear of his father – and his enduring love for the man too; and he heard something else, something about belonging, and hero-worship, and Shanti having a crush on Tessa that made him laugh out loud even as he howled up at the ceiling.
The howling and roaring descended into giggling, and Leroy grabbed hold of Tony and threw the boy over his shoulder and ran around the room with him. Shanti turned into a cockatiel and rode around on Tessa's back, squawking at the top of her voice – and that was how they were when Jackson returned to the house with Tony's father.
Leroy went quiet and placed Tony on the floor. Shanti turned into a puppy, and Tony leaned down, scooped her up, and held her protectively against his chest.
His father had a big bruise on his jaw and his eyes were bloodshot. He looked as if he'd been crying, and Tony had a suspicion that Jackson was responsible for that.
"Tony…son…I'm sorry," his father said in a choked voice. Nala slunk into the room behind them, her tail between her legs. "I did a terrible thing last night. I was drunk, and I feel ashamed of myself."
"Will you do it again?" Tony blurted. "Next time you're drunk?"
His father took a deep breath. He was a proud man, and he looked embarrassed – and also a little irritated – about having to do this in front of Jackson and Leroy Gibbs. "No," he said shortly.
Tony gazed at him uncertainly.
"I really won't. I promise," his father said, taking a step towards him.
Shanti immediately turned into a lion and growled at him, and his father stopped dead in his tracks.
"This is what Shanti wants to look like sometimes. And she likes to roar," Tony said defensively, looking at Leroy for support. Leroy stepped forward and put a hand on his shoulder, and Tessa came and sat beside Shanti. “She’s loud. Really loud,” Tony added. “I've been keeping her hidden when she's like this, but I’m not going to do that anymore, Dad.”
Nala came over and sniffed at Shanti inquisitively, and Shanti glared at her. Nala gave a little whine.
"If you ever try and lay a finger on her again, then my bet is that you'll be dealing with *this* Shanti, and not that little puppy from last night," Leroy said coldly.
His father's eyes flashed, and Tony was aware of some subtle shift in power happening between them. He didn't really understand it, but he knew it had happened.
"There won't be a repeat of last night," his father said firmly. "I'll make sure of that."
He gave them that bright smile of his, the one that always made Tony feel happy and uneasy at the same time, and Nala wagged her tail and nudged Shanti playfully with her nose.
"Okay, Tony?" His father held out his hand, and Tony gazed at it. Leroy still had his hand on his shoulder, and he squeezed, as if to make it clear that he'd back any decision Tony wanted to make.
Tony knew what he wanted to do though. He ignored the outstretched hand and threw himself into his father's arms instead. His father picked him up and hugged him tight, and Shanti turned into a puppy and ran excitedly around the room.
Tony saw Leroy turning away, and the look of distrust that Tessa gave to Nala, but he tried not to let it get to him. He loved his father, and his father had promised him he wouldn't hurt him or Shanti again. Everything was going to be fine. He tried to ignore the little voice at the back of his mind, reminding him what his father had said the previous day at the restaurant.
"You just go along with people like this…you wear a big smile, say what they want to hear, and charm the socks off them."
Nala glanced up at him, and there was such a happy, genuine look in her hyena eyes that Tony pushed his doubts away. Everything was going to be fine; he was sure of it.
"Let's go home," his father said, putting him down. "Huh, Tony? Let's drive home and make a fresh start. What do you say? You and me together – just the two of us. Yes?"
Tony nodded and held on to his father's hand, chattering away happily, pleased at the idea of going home. Then he realized it would mean leaving Leroy, and he turned back, feeling a wave of sadness.
"I'll go get the car. You say your goodbyes, son," his father told him.
The next few minutes were a haze to Tony. He remembered hugging Jackson tight, all the while looking at Leroy over Jackson's shoulder and wondering why it hurt so much to think he wouldn't ever see him again. He buried his face in Jackson's neck and tried not to think about it.
When Jackson finally put him down, Leroy had disappeared. Tony looked around in panic.
"He's not very good at this kind of thing," Jackson told him gently. "Don't take it personally, Tony."
"I'm not leaving without saying goodbye to him!" Tony ran out of the store and found Leroy stomping off up the road, limping heavily. Tony ran after him, and Shanti, in puppy form, caught up with Tessa and sat down on the sidewalk in front of her, forcing her to a standstill.
Leroy paused and stood there, his back to Tony, every muscle in his body taut, his shoulders shaking.
"Goodbye, Jethro," Tony said softly. "And thank you. I'll never forget you."
Still Leroy didn't turn around. Tessa did though. She limped over to him and sat down in front of him. "We will not forget you. You are pack," she said firmly. Tony wasn't entirely sure what that meant, but it sounded important.
Then she leaned forward and licked Tony's hand with her tongue. Tony froze, aware of the great honour being bestowed upon him. You didn't touch another person's daemon – and yet last night Jethro had touched Shanti, and today Tessa was touching him, and both times it felt right.
As Tessa licked him, he had a sudden understanding of what it was like to be Leroy Jethro Gibbs. He felt a wave of loneliness and experienced a pang of fierce, protective love. He saw a woman he didn't know, and her cat daemon – a big ginger tom, not a black cat like Keddon. He knew instinctively that the cat daemon belonged to Leroy's mom, and he was momentarily surprised that their moms’ daemons had shared the same form.
Then he saw himself, and Shannon and Jackson, all gathered close together looking back at him. He realized that he was seeing them as Jethro saw them, as all the people he loved. These were all the people who were under his protection: they were his pack. Now Tony understood what it meant.
"Take care, Tony," Tessa said. She gave him one last lick, and then she turned and followed Leroy up the street.
Tony walked slowly back to the store, feeling strange inside. His father's car was parked outside the store, and Tony said one last goodbye to Jackson and then got in.
The car pulled away, and Tony peered out of the tinted glass window to catch one last glimpse of Jethro as they drove past. Jethro had his collar turned up against the lightly splattering rain, and anyone looking at him would see a moody, limping man with a dark glare on his face. That wasn't what Tony saw though; he had touched Jethro's soul, and he knew the fiercely protective, passionate man within. It hurt to think he'd never see him again.
Tony stayed gazing out of the window until long after Jethro had faded from sight. They left Stillwater and set out on the open road, and then Tony's father looked into the mirror and stared straight at him.
"I can't have you hanging around when I do business, Tony," he said. "It's not working out. I'm going to send you away to boarding school."
Tony heard the words through a haze and slowly came to. "But I thought…you said it was a fresh start – just the two of us."
Nala gave her hyena smile, and his father's words at the restaurant came back to him.
"You wear a big smile and say what they want to hear…"
There was no point in arguing. He turned in his seat, gathered Shanti in his arms, and buried his face in her lion's fur. She licked his face gently, soothing him.
He might have won the battle to be his true self, but somehow he'd lost the fight anyway. Shanti could take this shape whenever she liked, but his father was going to send them away so that he didn't have to see her.
Leroy walked in the rain for a few hours until his wet clothes and throbbing leg forced him to turn back towards home.
"I have a bad feeling," Tessa said.
"Yeah. I don't think I did the right thing, letting him go."
"You had no choice but to give him back to his father. It was what he wanted."
"It just feels wrong."
"Yes." Tessa nodded. "But you will see him again."
Leroy looked at her sharply. "How do you know that?"
"Because he is pack," she replied simply. "And because you touched each other's souls. You are connected now, and you will see him again, one day. That is what I choose to believe – and you can choose to believe it too."
Leroy placed his hand on her damp fur and gently stroked her head.
"Yes," he said. "One day."
Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4
MTAC - NCIS Fic