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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.
Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4
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Tony lay on his back, gazing up at the sky through the dappled canopy of trees in the small wooded area at the bottom of the school sport field. It was a hot day, and Shanti was lying beside him, the sun warming her golden fur.
“DiNozzo! Hey…DiNozzo!” He could hear them calling for him in the distance, but he ignored it.
“You’ll get into trouble,” Shanti told him, nibbling on one of her paws.
“Don’t care.” He turned his head and grinned at her.
“When you get paddled, I feel it too,” she reminded him crossly.
He just laughed. “Last time you roared so hard they had to call in two housemasters to stop you killing the headmaster’s daemon.”
“I don't like you being hurt, and the headmaster’s daemon is an idiot. Anyway, why are you hiding down here?” she asked.
“Dunno…I feel…weird. Been feeling it all day. Kinda jumpy…restless…anxious…like something big's about to happen.”
“Nothing big ever happens,” she said sulkily, laying her head on his chest. “But you’re right about the feeling. I keep wanting to howl, and I have no idea why.”
“Me neither.” Tony continued gazing up at the sky, one hand gently stroking Shanti’s cheek. He rubbed behind her ear, and she purred.
If he closed his eyes he could imagine he was in his happy place, by the creek in the woods at Stillwater. Jethro was there, sitting on that green and red checked blanket with Tessa by his side, and Shanti was romping around in puppy form, happy and carefree.
Tony opened his eyes. “D’you think you’re gonna stay a lion?” he asked Shanti, tweaking the ear he’d been rubbing.
“I have no idea.” She turned into a cockatiel to illustrate that point and flew up into a nearby tree. “I like being able to fly!” she called down to him.
He closed his eyes again and allowed himself to experience flying through her eyes. She swooped through the air towards him and landed on his forehead. She strutted around on his head and then hopped off and changed into a dog. She wasn’t such a small puppy these days but mid-sized, her paws enormous compared to the rest of her. They were both always tripping over their own large feet.
“Why do you think my feet grow faster than the rest of me?” he asked her.
“Do they?” She trotted around him, sniffing at his hands and feet. “I think all of you is growing fast. You’re tall. Like your father.”
He fell silent at that, feeling sullen. He was about to say something biting in reply when a wave of the most intense joy spread through him.
“Oh my God!” He sat up. “Do you feel that?”
“I do!” Shanti got up and ran around in circles. “Oh…that’s…it’s so beautiful!” She jumped up into the air in lion form, changed into a butterfly in mid-air, fluttered her wings, changed into a cockatiel, flew onto his shoulder, and jumped down to the ground as a dog.
Tony gazed at her in wonder. “Such happiness…so much joy…what is it? Why do I feel like this? What does it mean?”
“I don’t think it’s you. I think you are feeling someone else’s joy,” Shanti said quietly, becoming a lion again and sitting down beside him.
“Who? My father?” he said that with a snort. “I haven’t even seen him in months. And hell, I never know what he’s feeling even when I’m with him and can see him with my own eyes. Although *that* doesn't happen very often.”
“Not your father.” She gazed at him solemnly.
He felt his breath catch in his throat. “Jethro?” When they were alone they often talked about that time, five years ago, and what had happened in Stillwater. They would mention his name in whispers, as if it was sacred, and share a memory of him.
“Jethro.” Shanti nodded. “That urge to howl I felt…”
“Why would I feel what he’s feeling? Why would you feel what Tessa’s feeling? I don’t feel what anyone else is feeling,” Tony said, frowning. “It doesn’t make sense.”
“He touched me with his bare hands,” Shanti said quietly. Tony went very still, remembering that terrible night in the motel room, when Jethro had touched his daemon so gently and kindly to bring him back to life. “I think…we are somehow connected now.”
The sensation of joy slowly faded, and Tony found he missed it. “I wish I could hang onto it,” he whispered. “I wish I could just hang on to a tiny piece of *him*. Why now? Why did we suddenly feel him NOW, after all this time?”
“Maybe because the emotion was so strong?” Shanti nuzzled at his neck. “So much joy,” she said wistfully. “So much happiness.”
“What do you think it was? Why was he so happy? First he was anxious, restless – that’s what I was feeling all day; then that explosion of joy.”
“A newborn cub?” Shanti suggested. “I wanted to howl at the moon and welcome a new daemon to the world. I think that is what Tessa was feeling.”
“A baby? Jethro and Shannon had a baby?”
“It would make sense.” Shanti rested her head on his chest again, and suddenly he felt lonelier than ever before, separated from the only person he had ever felt he belonged to. Yet he had no rights over Jethro. They weren’t blood kin. Jethro had his own family; and he had his.
“Jethro will be a good father,” he muttered, and he couldn’t keep the hint of bitterness out of his voice.
“DiNozzo! Anthony DiNozzo!" the housemaster's voice yelled angrily in the distance. "This is the last time we’ll call for you – get your ass back here, right now! You’ve missed the entire day’s lessons!”
Tony turned to look at Shanti, a twisted little smile on his lips. “How long has it been since I last saw Dad?”
“Over a year,” she replied. “Last summer he sent you away to camp, and then you came straight back to school after. You didn’t see him at all. And you spent Christmas here with Mr. Mongoose and all the ugly little mongooses.”
‘Mr. Mongoose’ was Shanti’s uncomplimentary title for the headmaster; she hated his mongoose daemon with a vengeance, and she loathed his brood of small children and all their annoying little daemons too.
“Well, maybe it’s time we forced him to pay us a visit,” Tony told her.
She raised her head and looked at him questioningly. “You’re going to do something stupid, aren’t you?”
“Yup!” He grinned.
“If they hit you again, I don’t think I’ll be able to stay quiet,” she warned.
He laughed out loud. “Oh, I’m counting on it!”
Half an hour later, he found himself being dragged by his shirt collar across the quadrangle and into the school building; trust his father to find the most ludicrously old-fashioned boarding school in the entire country to send him to, complete with headmasters and housemasters and a level of discipline that wouldn’t be out of place in the military.
He spat and cursed the entire time, throwing out as many insults and curses as he could remember. Beside him, Shanti was a lion, roaring as the housemaster’s rottweiler dragged her along in her big, solid jaws.
They were deposited in an unceremonious heap on the headmaster’s carpet. The headmaster sighed and surveyed Tony over the top of his glasses, while his mongoose daemon leaped onto the desk and gave Shanti a disappointed glare. Shanti hissed at her, and Tony laughed out loud when the mongoose took a startled jump back.
The headmaster stood up, looking seriously annoyed. Tony winced – this was the part of the plan that was always going to be the hardest – but his courage didn’t fail him. He was going to see this through, come what may.
“You missed an entire day’s lessons?” Mr. Mongoose looked furious. “And you used obscene words to Mr. Woodford when he eventually found you?” He glanced at the housemaster.
“He didn’t find me. I turned myself in.” Tony smiled sweetly. “He deserved it anyway. He’s a fuckwit.”
“What did you say?”
“I said he’s a fuckwit. Just like you.”
Tony braced himself and sure enough, seconds later he found himself face down over the headmaster’s desk taking ten from the paddle, while Shanti roared and hollered from where she was being cornered by both the rottweiler *and* the mongoose. Unable to contain her, the headmaster called for another housemaster to join them, and his raven demon pecked at Shanti repeatedly to keep her still.
This wasn’t enough though – Tony had to take it further to get what he wanted. He resisted the punishment, struggling against the headmaster’s hand where he was trying to hold him down. He wasn’t going to take this punishment like a good boy. He screamed, yelled, wriggled and twisted as each stroke fell, and he could hear Shanti roaring at the top of her voice.
Then all hell broke loose; Shanti managed to bite the mongoose’s ear – hard – and Tony used the ensuing mayhem to kick the headmaster’s shin and make a break for it. He was pursued by one of the housemasters and found himself being lifted up bodily and flung into a room…without Shanti. The door was locked behind him, and he heard Shanti’s roars of distress as they got her under control and herded her away from him, along the hallway.
Tony was panic-stricken – this wasn’t what he’d intended. He’d just wanted to make enough trouble that they sent for his father, so at least he got to see him again. Instead, they were dragging Shanti further and further away from him, and it was starting to hurt. It hurt far more than the headmaster’s stupid paddle, and he screamed and flung himself against the door.
“Stop! Please! I’m sorry! Shanti…please…I’m sorry!” He bashed his fists against the door, over and over again, and then fell to the floor, feeling weak, lost, and horribly, desperately alone. “Shanti!” he whimpered, feeling the connection between them stretched so taut it made every fibre of his being ache. “Shanti…Shanti…please…please…I need her…”
He sensed her changing into a butterfly to try and escape from them, but the raven caught her in her beak. She changed into a mouse to run away, but the rottweiler easily caught her between her big jaws and shook her. She was thrown into a room somewhere and the door was locked behind her. She scuttled towards the door in beetle form to crawl under it, only to find they'd thrown something in front of the gap to prevent escape.
In a state of frustrated anguish she changed back into a lion again, and he heard her wild, keening roars of agony at being separated from him. She was out of her head with anxiety, as scared and desperate as he was right now.
Shanti roared for over an hour as he sat there, pressed up against the wall closest to where she was being held; his fingers were splayed against it, his cheek pressed up against the hard surface.
It hurt so much. He needed to be near her, to feel her under his fingertips. She was his daemon… surely they couldn’t keep him from his own daemon?
Leroy rocked his newborn daughter in his arms, feeling exhausted but happy. It had been a long day, although Shannon had obviously endured the worst of it. At one point it had been touch and go, but his daughter had been delivered safely an hour ago, and he really did think he was the happiest man alive.
He placed little Kelly back in her crib and then looked down on Shannon where she was lying fast asleep. He smoothed Shannon’s red hair away from her pale face; she looked tired but content. Pell was fast asleep, perched on the headboard above her, his head under his wing.
Leroy sat in the chair beside the bed, and gazed at his newborn daughter with her tiny, perfect pink fingers and toes. Next to Kelly, a tiny white rabbit daemon lay fast asleep.
“She is beautiful,” Tessa said, gazing into the crib too. “And her daemon is perfect too.” She nuzzled the little white rabbit gently and it changed into a turtle and then back into a rabbit again, in the lighting fast way of small babies' daemons. Kelly gave a soft little murmur, her fingers curling in the rabbit's soft fur.
“Yes, she is.” Leroy gazed at her proudly. “I’m a dad,” he said. “Can you believe that, Tessa?” He shook his head in astonishment, feeling a surge of fierce, protective love for this newborn creature. “I won’t ever fail you, sweetheart,” he said, putting his hand in the crib and stroking her cheek gently. “I promise.”
He wondered what her daemon’s name would be. That was something only she could tell them, when she was old enough to talk. Daemons seemed to be born with their names, and each child instinctively knew the name of their own daemon.
He withdrew his hand and closed his eyes, deciding to grab a nap while he could – and then opened them again as he felt a wrenching sensation inside.
“Tessa!” He looked around for her blindly. Damn it, where was she? Why wasn’t she here? Where had she gone?
“I am here,” she said, nudging his leg with her head.
“Shit…” He wrapped his arms around her to reassure himself – something he hadn’t done since he was a kid. “Then why does it feel like you’re gone?” It was the same sensation he’d had when Tessa had got locked in a cupboard by accident when he was a kid, and he couldn’t get her out. It hurt, and yet she was here, safe and sound.
“I do not know.” Tessa pushed her head against his and rested it there, and they held on tightly to each other.
Leroy glanced at Shannon and at Kelly, but they were both fine. What the hell was this? Where was this sensation coming from?
“I am thinking of Shanti,” Tessa told him quietly. “She is in my mind.”
“Tony’s daemon?” Leroy hadn’t talked about Tony in years. Tessa knew how he felt about the pack member he’d lost – there was no need to discuss that particular sadness. They both carried it with them every single day. “Is Tony in trouble? If his father is beating up on his daemon again…”
“What would you do?” Tessa asked. “You don’t even know where he lives. I do not think he is in danger though – just very unhappy.”
Leroy knew that Tessa was right – he didn’t know where Tony lived and besides, he had more pressing responsibilities right now, with a new baby to take care of.
"I'll give it tonight – but if this sensation gets any worse, or I think Tony is in real danger, then I don't give a damn how hard it is – I WILL find him."
Day turned to night, and nobody came to give Tony food or water. He could hear Shanti crying inconsolably along the hallway, and he hated that he’d done this to her with his stupid damn plan. He began shaking uncontrollably, going into shock from the distress of being separated from her, and he knew she was feeling it just as much.
Shanti's angry, bellowing roars turned to lonely howls as the night wore on. Then they became the anxious, quivering yelping of a terrified puppy. Tony kept calling to her, his voice hoarse as he croaked out words of comfort that he knew didn't convince either of them.
He didn’t get any sleep during that long, lonely, painful night, and he was still lying against the wall, aching and shivering, when they finally unlocked the door the next morning. All the fight had been crushed out of him; he just wanted to be reunited with his daemon and stop hurting like this.
Mr. Mongoose had to know how he felt; it had to be obvious from his tear-streaked cheeks, shaking body, and desperate eyes, but still he refused to let Tony go. He marched him back into his study and stood in front of him, looking down on him while his mongoose daemon strutted around importantly, tutting to herself and shaking her head.
“Please, let me see Shanti,” Tony begged. "Please! I'll do anything." She could obviously hear him because she started roaring all over again, her voice raw with the pain of their prolonged separation.
“You can see her when you’ve apologized and not before.”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have called you names. I shouldn’t have said or done any of those things yesterday. Now please…I have to see Shanti,” Tony begged weakly. He hated himself for that weakness, but if it relieved the terrible aching inside and helped Shanti then he’d do just about anything.
“We called your father last night. He will be here shortly to take you home. You’re expelled,” the headmaster told him.
Not the result he’d been aiming for – he’d only been angling for a suspension – but he didn’t care right now. No doubt his father would find another school to take him, and while he was looking they’d get to spend some time together. It wasn’t much, but it was all that was on offer so Tony would take it. He tried to look suitably contrite, but he was pleased with the result – at least he would get to see his father again.
The headmaster appeared satisfied with his contrition. He left the room with his horrible mongoose daemon and walked along the hallway. Tony heard a door being opened, and then Shanti was barreling her way along the hallway towards him in lion form. He ran to meet her, and she threw herself into his arms, knocking him over.
A wave of the most intense relief flooded through him as he hugged her against his chest, and the aching in his body subsided. She turned into a dog and wagged her tail like it was about to fall off, licking him all over until he could hardly breathe from the happiness of being close to her again.
When his father arrived he ushered Tony silently to his car. Nala tried to bite Shanti’s flank, but Shanti turned into a lion and snarled at her, and she backed off. Tony smiled to himself; he wouldn't allow his father to bully him anymore.
“The headmaster told me what you did,” his father said as he got into the car beside him.
“Yeah?” Tony gazed sullenly out of the window. “Well, I wanted to see you. This seemed the only way.”
“You could have just called,” his father replied, starting the car and driving towards the school gates.
“You’re never in – and they’re always taking my phone privileges away.”
“Because you’re a pain in the ass, and you can’t control your daemon,” his father said, glancing at Shanti, his lip curling in distaste.
“I can control her. Just sometimes I choose not to.” Tony pulled Shanti onto his lap and held her tight.
His father gave a dry laugh. “You’re a damn nuisance, Tony."
“I know.” Tony glanced at him. “But you’re stuck with me for the next few weeks until you find somewhere else to warehouse me.”
His father sighed. “Fine. How about we go on a vacation together?”
“You mean it?” Tony turned to look at him, feeling happier than he had in a long time. “A vacation? Just you and me? Together?”
His father nodded. “Yup – I was thinking…how about Hawaii? I’ve heard it’s a good place to do business.”
Tony’s heart sank at the dreaded words ‘do business’, but it was better than nothing. When his father was in a good mood, he could be a lot of fun.
“Sounds good.” He held Shanti close and rested his chin on her doggy head.
“Shanti hasn’t settled into one form then?” his father asked, glancing at her. “Won’t be long now. Any idea what she’ll be?”
“Nope.” Tony stroked her silky ears.
His father looked at him. “You’ve grown. My boy is growing up.”
And you aren’t around to see it, Tony thought to himself, but he said nothing. His father seemed to be in a good mood despite the fact he’d got himself expelled, and they were going to Hawaii on vacation.
“Was it worth it then?” Shanti asked him quietly as his father tuned on the radio and began humming along to his favourite jazz station.
Tony thought of the terrible night spent shivering in that room, lost and alone, separated from her. Had it been worth it, just to spend some time with the father who barely seemed to notice he existed most of the time?
“I don’t know,” he told her. “I really don’t know.”
Leroy couldn't sleep all night. The initial sharpness of the sensation dissipated until it was a dull ache, but it was too distressing for him to get any rest. He worried about Tony, wondering what kind of ordeal the child must be going through to feel like this. He glanced over at his own sleeping child; he would do his best to make sure she never suffered anything like this. He would be a better father to her than Tony's father had ever been to him.
When the morning came, Leroy felt a burst of joy and then the ache disappeared as fast as it had come.
“Well, we said we wouldn’t forget him,” Tessa murmured softly, pressing her head into his hand. “And he is making sure that we don’t!”
“Sounds like Tony,” Leroy said with a wry chuckle. “You think he’s okay now?”
“Do you think it had anything to do with Kelly?” Leroy gently stroked his daughter’s soft, baby head.
Tessa looked puzzled. “You think Tony’s distress last night could be connected with Kelly’s birth? I do not see how.”
“Neither do I.” Leroy shook his head. “Just…seems like a coincidence, and I don’t believe in coincidences.”
“We might never know. But Tony and Shanti are both fine now.” Tessa nuzzled at his hand again. “I think we would feel it if they were not. All is well.”
Tony bounced the ball across the court, leapt up high in the air, and threw the ball into the basket. A load roar went up from the watching crowd. He showed off mercilessly, milking it for all he was worth as his team mates mobbed him. He was on fire tonight! He was winning this game almost singlehandedly.
The Ohio State supporters in the crowd watching the game went into a frenzy, chanting his name. He played up to them, bowing repeatedly and doing a little victory dance. Shanti loved it – she bounced up into the air and threw herself around, milking it shamelessly until she crashed into the benches in a surfeit of exuberance and banged her head.
Tony rubbed his forehead ruefully and looked into the crowd. He could see Jason Elliot sitting next to Sarah McMillan, and he let his gaze wander from one to the other, trying to figure out which one of them he’d sleep with later. He’d been pursing them both for the past few weeks, and he was sure that tonight was the night; he just didn't know which one he’d finally persuade to tumble into bed with him.
Sarah had long dark hair and laughing brown eyes, and he loved the way she liked to tease. Jason was more serious, with short blond hair and earnest grey eyes. Finally getting him into bed would be an achievement. Tony always loved it when the quiet ones gave in – they were usually the most uninhibited in bed once you got them there. He hadn’t told Jason or Sarah that they were rivals – he liked to have more than one potential conquest on the go at any one time so that if he failed with one there was always a back up.
He took another bow, to the combined cheering and catcalls from the crowd, and then ran back to start playing again. Damn it, but he was smokin’ tonight!
“And also modest!” Shanti laughed.
“Hey – why shouldn’t I be full of it? I’m winning this game all by myself. I’ll be the hero of Ohio State by the end of the night – and I’ll get laid,” he told her with a wink.
“You get laid all the time,” she said. “Twice as much as your friends.”
“Well, that’s one of the advantages of being bi.” He grinned. “Twice the number of potential mates.”
“Anyone would think being bisexual was a seduction strategy on your part, not a sexual orientation.” She lolled her tongue out at him, and he laughed and chucked her under the chin.
“You love it as much as I do,” he told her, leaping up to wrest the ball away from an opponent and then bouncing it expertly across the court.
“Yes, I do!” Shanti was by his side, matching him leap for leap, full of exuberance.
Tony paused, ready to spring up and claim another basket, but just as he launched himself into the air his opponent slammed into him, knocking him sideways. He fell awkwardly, heard a popping sound, felt a ripping sensation, and then he was completely overwhelmed by the terrible pain in his left knee.
Beside him, Shanti went down like a felled tree, toppling over and landing next to him, howling in pain. As he lay there, clutching his knee and whimpering, she managed to move her head and lick his cheek. “I do not think,” she said solemnly, “that you will be getting laid tonight after all.”
Tony managed to somehow laugh and cry at the same time while a crowd gathered around him, watching as he rolled around in agony. The team doctor rushed onto the court, pushing through the throng to reach him. Tony blinked the sweat out of his eyes – there, in the crowd gathering around him, he could make out Jason’s worried grey eyes, and Sarah’s concerned brown ones.
He moved his head and winked at Shanti. “Wanna bet?”
Leroy stayed holed up in his foxhole for most of the day. He was deep behind enemy lines, and it wouldn’t be safe to move until night fell.
Luckily, he had the perfect temperament for being a sniper. He could wait patiently for days if need be, ready to move swiftly when the need arose. He was quiet, stealthy and deadly – just like the wolf daemon by his side.
He leaned back in his foxhole and took off his helmet. There, nestled inside under a piece of elastic, was a photograph. He pulled it out and gazed at it happily. It was a bit the worse for wear from being stuck inside his helmet, but he ignored the tattered edges and smiled at the two people smiling back at him.
Kelly was seven years old, with her daemon, Evan, perched on her head in sparrow form. Shannon had one arm around Kelly, while Pell was sitting on her shoulder, where he usually was.
“We will see them soon,” Tessa said calmly.
“Yeah. I know. Seems like it’s been a long time, that’s all.” Leroy replaced the photo in his helmet and stuck it back on his head. He glanced up at the darkening sky. “Dusk. Might be a good time to make a move; we’ve got some distance to cover tonight.”
Tessa nodded. “I agree. We want to be in place by dawn.”
Leroy shouldered his pack, grabbed his rifle, and then began climbing out of his foxhole – only to stop when a terrible pain shot through his knee.
“Fuck it!” he hissed, falling back down.
Tessa fell beside him and began gnawing on her back left leg. “Hurts,” she whimpered.
“I know. Damn it…I thought this old knee injury healed years ago!” He rubbed his knee over and over again, trying to ease the pain. “I know it still aches when it’s raining, but nothing like this…shit…”
The pain began to subside a little, and he leaned back in his foxhole. “I don’t get it. I wasn’t even doing anything. Why did it go like that? I didn’t even hear it pop.”
Tessa paused in her gnawing and looked up. “Concentrate,” she said. He raised an eyebrow at her. “See – there – it does not feel like our pain,” she said. “I don’t think it’s your knee that has been injured.”
“Shannon?” he asked, blinking sweat out of his eyes.
Tessa thought about it. “I am not sensing Pell,” she said.
“How about Shanti?” Leroy asked. It had been years since he had last felt anything from Tony, but that didn’t mean he’d forgotten about him; he thought about the kid a lot.
“He’s not a kid anymore,” Tessa told him.”He would be twenty now – the same age you were when you first met him.”
“And also the same age I was when my knee got busted up,” Leroy pointed out.
Tessa looked up at him in surprise. “There is a synchronicity between you,” she murmured. “This is like the night Kelly was born, and we both felt that something had happened to Tony and Shanti.”
The pain in his knee began to ease, but he couldn’t risk going anywhere just yet, with this unknown variable. “I’m going to hunker down here for the night,” he told Tessa. “I’ll radio in and tell them I won’t be making the rendez-vous until tomorrow night.”
Tony lay back on his bed, grimacing. He had spent half the night at the hospital having X rays taken and receiving treatment for his injury. A dislocated knee had been diagnosed, and his patella had been strapped into place with a brace. He had an icepack on his knee, and the doctor had told him to keep it elevated, iced, and rested. Apart from that there was nothing to be done but wait for it to heal.
“Damn it – and everything was going so well,” he told Shanti with a sigh, gazing mournfully at the crutches beside his bed.
She settled down on the bed beside him, her back leg sticking out awkwardly.
“Looks like I’m out for the rest of the season.” He rubbed her ears sadly, and she leaned into him.
“I’m sorry. I know how much you like throwing that stupid little ball around.”
“Hey!” He pinched her ear and his own tingled in response. She laughed at him, and he managed a little chuckle too.
There was a knock on the door, and then it was pushed open and his roomie, Matt, poked his head around it. “Hey – there’s a couple of people here to see you.”
“It’s nearly 2 a.m!”
“I know, but they’ve been waiting for you to get back from the hospital.” Matt winked at him and his dragonfly daemon batted her wings cheerfully. “This should be fun,” he said, opening the door to reveal Sarah standing there…with Jason.
“Oh shit.” Tony winced.
“Yeah – that sounds about right,” Sarah said, striding into the room. Jason followed her, and Matt made a completely insincere “I’m sorry!” face at him and then shut the door, laughing hysterically the entire time.
Sarah glared at Tony. “See, Jason and me, we both thought we’d come back here to wait for you to get back from the hospital. We wanted to see if you were okay. And then we got talking…”
“And it would appear,” Jason said, coming over to the bed, “that you’ve been stringing us both along at the same time.”
Tony could feel himself flushing, and Shanti covered her eyes with her paws in embarrassment.
“What can I say?” Tony gave his most charming smile and spread his arms helplessly. “You’re both gorgeous and, you know, I thought if one of you didn’t work out then the other would.”
“You didn’t even tell me you were bisexual!” Sarah scolded.
"Well…you never asked!" Tony said, and that sounded lame even to his own ears.
"I'm surprised I didn't notice," Sarah mused, glancing at Shanti.
There was no particular stigma attached to it; it would be hard to hide your sexual orientation while walking around with a daemon, so people were accustomed to different kinds of sexuality.
"Well, Shanti's always been a good undercover agent," Tony replied, smiling softly at a memory.
Sarah didn't look impressed. “Luckily Jason's daemon is easier to read. Jason's bi too – and he's cute. I like him. A lot.”
Jason’s crow daemon puffed up her feathers, looking very pleased with herself. Sarah’s frog daemon rolled his eyes a little.
“So we thought up a way to punish you,” Jason told him, placing a hand on Sarah's hair and stroking. Sarah pulled him in close and kissed him on the lips. He moved his hands down to her hips and slid up her skirt to reveal her long, toned legs. Tony swallowed.
"You can watch," Sarah told him. "But you can't touch or join in. That's your punishment."
Sarah pushed Jason down on the foot of the bed and undid his jeans. Then she slid off her panties, crawled on top of Jason, and kissed him again.
Tony sighed and leaned back on his pillow, putting his hands behind his head so he could get a good view. He winked at Shanti as Sarah began riding Jason hard, just out of reach of him and his damn sore knee. Tony was a player, and he knew when he’d been outplayed; he didn’t hold a grudge. Besides, they looked good together, and he got to have a ringside seat.
“You know, as punishments go, I’ve had worse,” he chuckled, reaching into his pants to free his own rampant erection.
Leroy sat back in his foxhole and gazed up at the stars. The pain in his leg had receded considerably after the first shock. Now he could definitely tell that it wasn’t real – at least not real for him. Once he realized that, he was able to rationalize it and handle it better. He was sure he’d be able to block it out completely before long.
Tessa rested her head in his lap, and he was surprised to realize just how horny he was. His cock was hard and aching.
“Uh…I think…seeing as there’s nobody here…” He undid his pants and then stopped. “Oh shit – this is him too, isn’t it? The horny little devil! Damn it, why am I so open to what’s going on with him right now?”
“I think the pain made you more aware of him,” Tessa told him. “It will fade.”
“Why do you think it happened?” he asked her. “I mean…I know we went through that one intense experience but it was years ago. Why do I still keep feeling him?”
Tessa looked thoughtful. “You are connected. I think what happened that night in the motel room somehow opened you up to each other and that is what linked you. The intensity of the experience, the manner and circumstances in which you touched his daemon, his age at the time…maybe they all worked together to create a permanent link between you."
“But…I don't feel it when something goes on with Shannon, and I've touched her daemon too. Isn't it a bit weird that I feel what's going on with this kid that I only knew for a week all those years ago?”
"There was something different about Tony," Tessa mused. "I have never known a child able to control their daemon's shape the way he did with Shanti. He also had a curious form of empathy. He believed his dead mother's daemon told him to call for you when his father was hurting him – so he called your name, and we heard." She gave a little shiver. "That is why we went to the motel room that night."
"You're saying Tony's psychic?" Leroy gave her an incredulous look. "You know I don't believe in that crap, Tessa."
"Well, I don't have any other explanation." Tessa rested her chin on her paws, looking supremely unconcerned. “And maybe it's not important anyway. It is what it is.”
“It’s damn inconvenient. Also…” Leroy wrinkled up his forehead in a frown. “How can he possibly have busted his knee *and* be getting laid all in one night?”
“Well, he IS Tony!” Tessa replied, and then she threw back her head and laughed. He stared at her for a moment, and then he couldn’t help joining in.
“Damn kid, trapping me in a foxhole behind enemy lines with a busted knee and a raging hard on! When I see him again, I’m gonna slap his head so hard for this!”
It was just a normal afternoon in his student life. Tony had slept late, gotten rid of his conquest of the night before with a big smile and a completely insincere "I'll call you!", and he was now sitting on the couch in his underwear eating a bowl of Captain Crunch while watching re-runs of Magnum on TV.
Shanti was lying on the couch beside him, her tail wafting across his toes every so often. He was talking to her, eating, and doing impressions of Tom Selleck all at the same time.
There was no warning. One minute he was eating and the next he was puking. There was a roaring sound in his head and everything hurt so much he could hardly breathe. He felt desolate; it was like looking into a black hole and being sucked straight in. The next wave of grief was so strong it sent him spinning off the couch onto the floor.
"Shanti?" he screamed. "What’s happening?"
Shanti didn't answer. She just put back her head and howled like her world was coming to an end.
Something was shattered inside. Tony felt broken, and he couldn't move. It was like someone had slammed their fist into his chest and ripped out his heart.
He lay on the floor panting, struggling to breathe and cope with the huge tidal wave of emotions he was experiencing at the same time.
"This isn't me," he gasped to Shanti, pulling her close. "This isn't me feeling this way, Shanti."
"Then it can only be Jethro," she replied, shivering as the aftershocks rocked through them both.
He buried his face in her fur and held on tight. "What's happening to him? Is he dead?"
"I don't think we'd still be feeling like this if he was."
"Injured then? Is he hurt? He’s a Marine; maybe he got shot again."
"It's not physical pain…" Shanti closed her eyes and concentrated. "Tessa is distraught. It's Pell!" She opened her eyes and gazed at Tony, looking stunned. "Pell has gone."
"Shannon is dead?" Tony remembered her red hair and beautiful eyes. He'd only known her for two days, but she'd been kind to him, and Jethro loved her so he had loved her too; life had been much simpler back then. "Jethro must be going insane," he said, feeling like he was going to throw up again. "Shit, Shanti. We have to find him. We have to go to him."
He struggled to get to his feet, pushing away the waves of intense emotion that he knew were not his.
"And do what? "Shanti asked, slowly getting up. "You haven't seen him in thirteen years, Tony. How do you know that he even remembers you?" Her brown eyes held a bitter expression. "Why should he remember you? Or care? What are you to him?"
She had a point. His own father had done his best to erase him from his life – why would Jethro be any different?
Tony shoved away the voices of doubt. "I made a promise," he told Shanti. "To Shannon. At the railway station."
He remembered Shannon looking down at him, smiling. "Look after Jethro when I'm gone!"
"She didn't really mean anything by that," Shanti pointed out reasonably. "Besides, you have no idea where Jethro is."
"I can *find* him," Tony insisted. "I'm good at finding stuff out."
"Well, you're good at finding out what time certain pretty girls finish their classes, and where certain pretty boys work in the evening. Finding Jethro will be harder than that," Shanti told him with a snort.
He pulled up short and turned on her. "Do you really think I can't do this? Because if even you think I'm a worthless shit who only wants to get laid and have a good time then I might as well give up now. Do you think as little of me as everyone else, Shanti?
She blinked in surprise and then nuzzled his hand. "You are my everything," she said softly. "And don't I know, better than anyone else, how you like to hide who you truly are?"
He gave a wry shake of his head at that, remembering how he used to make keep her lion shape hidden. He stroked her soft ears gently. "I'm sorry. I should never have made you do that."
"You made a promise to your mother. I understood – even if it was uncomfortable at times." She gave him a rueful smile. "You still keep the best of yourself hidden, just as you always did – but not from me. You have never fooled me."
She sat back on her haunches and looked up at him with an uncharacteristically serious expression on her face.
“Listen to me, Tony. I know that when you are really determined, you can do anything you want. If I did not think that, I would have stayed a butterfly and flitted wherever my mood took me, never settling down to any one task.”
He smiled, remembering the butterfly she’d once been, fluttering from one thing to the next and hardly stopping still for a second.
“And I know that you are far more than a frat boy who only thinks about getting laid, or I would have stayed a cockatiel, laughing and teasing all the time, never being serious,” Shanti continued in the most serious tone of voice he'd ever heard from her.
“And what happened with your father could have made you bitter, and I would have become a growling bear, always angry with the world." She paused to give a little growl. "Or I could have stayed a golden retriever – loyal and faithful and true, a constant companion. All of those forms are elements of you and in you, but I didn’t take any of them, Tony.
He looked down on his magnificent lioness of a daemon, so big, and brave, and beautiful, and understood what she was trying to tell him. He leaned down, took her head between his hands, and kissed her soft fur.
"Thank you, Shanti. Thank you for believing in me."
Then he turned and ran up the stairs to get dressed.
Leroy stared out of the window at the roses in the back yard. They needed pruning. When had he last been home? Why hadn’t he pruned them then?
People were moving around in his house behind him, whispering and casting furtive glances in his direction. He ignored them.
Tessa sat beside him, leaning into him for support. Every now and then she let out an involuntary whine, but he didn't comfort her. How could he? He couldn't make anything better.
Other people's daemons were hushed, under firm control. Birds stayed perched on shoulders, dogs and cats stuck close to people's sides, and mice, rabbits, beetles and various other smaller daemons were tucked into coat pockets.
It was cold outside, even for February. There was talk of snow. He never thought he'd miss the heat and sweat of the Gulf, but now he found he did. He didn't want to be here, in this house they'd once shared. He couldn't be here, all alone.
"Not alone," Tessa said softly.
"You know what I mean," he replied.
She dropped her nose to the floor and found one of Kelly's colouring pencils that must have rolled under the table. She nudged it forward and then rested her chin on the floor and gazed at it glumly.
"We cannot stay here," he told her.
"No. We cannot stay here," she agreed.
They had flown him back from Iraq on compassionate leave to bury his family. He had gone straight to the morgue to identify the bodies; Major Ryan had accompanied him.
"You don't have to do this, sir," he had said. The major's huge eagle daemon had folded her wings and gazed at him steadily from her fierce dark eyes.
"Not letting you go in there alone, Gunny. Never left a man behind yet. Don't intend to now."
That was as much as the major would ever say about their friendship, but Leroy understood.
He had seen dead bodies before, plenty of them. He knew what dead people looked like. Even so, nothing prepared him for seeing the dead bodies of his family. Shannon was badly injured; she looked like a china doll shattered into pieces, completely broken. Kelly wasn't though. There was hardly a mark on her, although her internal injuries had been severe. What struck him most of all, as he looked down on them lying there, cold and unmoving, was that they didn't have their daemons.
Pell had always been close by, sitting on Shannon's shoulder, grooming her hair with his beak. Evan had been energetic and changeable, like all kids' daemons. Sometimes he had been a sweet-natured rabbit hiding in Kelly's sweater; or a turtle with a tough shell, trying to keep the world out when Kelly was feeling vulnerable; or a brightly-coloured canary, flying around the room, singing sweetly at the top of his voice.
Now they were gone. It was only in that moment, seeing his wife and daughter without their daemons, that Leroy fully grasped the fact that they were dead. He'd been walking around in a numb haze ever since.
Major Ryan's wife had organized the funeral and the wake. He'd just turned up, wearing his dress uniform, every button sparkling. Tessa kept bumping into things, so lost in grief that she was unable to see what was in front of her face.
Now they were back at the house he’d once shared with his family, and although it was full of people he’d never felt more alone.
Leroy saw his father's daemon out of the corner of his eye. She was bumbling towards him, and he wanted to go and kick her across the room. His anger and grief was white hot, and there was only one person in the room he loved enough to launch it at. That sounded insane, even inside his own mind, but at times like this it was only family you could really be yourself with, however ugly that self was right now.
"Pack," Tessa said quietly.
He felt Jackson's hand on his shoulder. "I'm so sorry, son."
He turned, his grief honed to a fine white point. He glanced over Jackson's shoulder at the date he'd brought to the funeral, like it was some kind of social event.
"I can see that," he sneered.
His father's blue eyes were unwavering, and he squeezed Leroy's shoulder. Meldra tried to rub her feathers against Tessa's fur, but Tessa snapped at her with her jaws, pushing her away.
"What will you do now, son?" Jackson asked gently.
"Now?" Leroy looked out of the window at the roses that needed pruning and then down at the floor at Kelly's lost colouring pencil. "Now I'll go back to Kuwait and fight. I'm a Marine; that's what Marines do."
"Go back…?" Jackson looked horrified. "Son, I don't think that's wise. Surely the Corps can give you some time off? It can't be right that you go back into a war zone in your current frame of mind. You might…" he broke off, looking anxious.
"Might what?" Leroy raised an eyebrow, deliberately trying to goad his father into the argument he wanted so badly, as an outlet for some of the anger he was feeling right now. It wasn’t Jackson’s fault that Shannon and Kelly were dead, but he was here, and Leroy needed to let some of it out.
"You might get yourself killed, son," Jackson said softly. "Please…think it through. I'm worried about you."
"Don't. I'm going back to Kuwait to be with my unit. My *family* – the only one I've got left now, anyway." Leroy chose the words deliberately, intending to wound his father, and he knew he'd succeeded. Jackson took a step back, his mouth opening and closing in shock.
Major Ryan came over and stood beside him, unobtrusively giving his support.
"Major – surely you don’t think it’s right that Leroy should go back to the war after this," Jackson said desperately. "I can’t be a good idea in his current mental state!"
"If he passes a psych evaluation then I think it'd be best for him," Ryan said firmly. "He's a Marine – he should be doing what he does best."
At least nobody said the phrase "it'll take his mind off it", as if this was some kind of minor disappointment and not his entire life falling apart. For that he was grateful.
"Son…" his father began again, in that 'reasonable' tone of voice he always adopted whenever he was about to tell him he was wrong and should listen to his old man.
"Those roses need pruning," Leroy said abruptly.
He grabbed some shears from the cupboard, opened the door, and went outside into the freezing yard with Tessa shivering by his side.
Tony tried Stillwater first. He tracked down the number of the store and spent a couple of days calling it, but there was no reply. He didn't have enough money to pay for gas, and his car was held together by rubber bands and rope, so he hitch-hiked to get there. He used that big smile and the charm he had inherited from his father to get rides; it was slow-going, but he got there.
It felt strange being back after all these years. Main Street seemed much shorter than when he'd been a kid. Then it had seemed to stretch on forever, especially when he'd been returning from a long day messing around in the woods with Jethro, and he knew that one of Jackson's home cooked meals was waiting for him at the store.
His heart sank as he went up to the store this time and found that it was all locked up.
He stood there for a few minutes, wondering what to do next. Shanti looked up and down the street. "Maybe we should ask? Someone might know where he is?"
Tony went into the dress shop nearby and plastered his most charming smile on his face. The young woman behind the counter melted immediately.
"Jackson Gibbs? Yes, he had to close up to go to visit his son. Family tragedy." Her voice dropped, and she leaned forward and spoke in a whisper. "His daughter-in-law and grand-daughter were killed in a car accident a few days ago. Terrible thing." She shook her head.
Tony put his hand down and found Shanti's head reassuringly nearby. Jethro had lost his child as well? He could still remember the day the baby had been born and that feeling of intense joy. No wonder Jethro’s grief had been so intense; to lose his entire family in one go like that...
"His daughter-in-law used to work here, you know," the girl continued. "One summer, about ten or twelve years ago. She did the job I do now." She looked shocked that anything bad could happen to someone who'd worked in her store.
"Do you know when the funeral is taking place?" Tony asked.
The girl glanced at her watch. "Right about now. In DC." She made a sad little face. "Poor Jackson. He was always talking about his family – he loved that little grand-daughter of his so much. He used to show me so many photographs of that little girl. Kelly her name was – she was such a pretty little thing; big blue eyes…."
Tony managed to charm the address from the girl, and then he went back outside with Shanti.
He took off immediately, hitch-hiking to DC, and made his way to the address he'd been given. It was an old house, mostly plain but with decorative touches in the wood and the window glass. So this was where Jethro lived.
Tony stood outside the door, his heart beating too fast. Now that he was here he didn't know what do or say. Would Jethro think he was crazy to come beating on his door after all this time? Would he understand why he was here? And what the hell use did he think he'd be anyway? The man had just lost his wife and daughter. Why would he want to see Tony, of all people, at a time like this? Tony had absolutely nothing to offer except his condolences.
"You've come this far," Shanti said. "Might as well knock."
He took a deep breath and did as she said and then waited. And waited. There was no reply. The house looked locked up, and all the drapes were closed.
"Maybe he's out," Shanti said.
"Maybe." He sat down on the step, wondering what the hell to do next. He sat there for a couple of hours, waiting for someone to come home, but nobody appeared. Then, finally, a neighbour emerged from the next door house.
"You looking for Leroy Gibbs?" The man's mouse daemon scuttled over to them, stood up on her hind paws, and looked at them curiously.
"Is he here?" Tony got to his feet.
"Left a few hours ago."
"When will he be back?" Tony asked. "Can I stay here and wait?"
The man snorted. "You can, but you'll be there a long time. He's gone back to Kuwait."
Tony stared at him. "He's fighting out there? In Desert Storm?"
"Yup." The man nodded. "Took off with his commanding officer earlier today to go back."
"But…after what happened?" Tony put his hand down and stroked Shanti's head.
"I know. Damn shame. She was a nice lady, and the kid was a little sweetheart." The man shook his head. He leaned towards Tony, a conspiratorial look on his face. "They say it was murder."
"What?" Tony blinked. "I thought…I heard it was a car accident."
The neighbour shook his head. "Mrs. Gibbs witnessed a drug killing a couple of weeks ago. I heard she was in the car with the federal agent investigating the case, and he was shot – that's how the crash happened."
Tony felt Shanti's head nudging his hand for reassurance in the face of this shocking news.
"How was Leroy?" he asked. “How did he look when you saw him leave?”
"Like he was going to kill himself, or the rest of the world, or both," the man replied. "I pity those Iraqis. I reckon he's a one man killing machine right now."
"I can believe that. Okay…well…thanks." Tony left, with one hand resting lightly on Shanti's head as they walked.
"You can’t hitch-hike to Kuwait," she told him firmly.
"I know." Tony stopped and took one last look at the house. "I tried to keep my promise, Shannon," he said quietly. "I did try."
He thought he saw a kestrel out of the corner of his eye, flying around in circles above his head, but when he looked up he saw it was just the branches of a tree, shaking in the cold February wind.
The next few weeks were a blur. He fought hard – he relished the fighting – it was all that was keeping him sane. He enjoyed the slippery feeling of blood on his rifle and the sensation of killing. He knew that Major Ryan was worried about him, knew they all were, but he didn't care.
He didn't care about anything, least of all himself. It didn't matter if he lived or died now. He could see that with absolute clarity. He wouldn't take his own life – Tessa wouldn't allow him to do that – but if died serving his country, then that'd be fine by him.
He volunteered for every single dangerous mission going and succeeded in every single damn one of them. He lost count of the number of men he killed, and the numbers of daemons that turned to dust in front of his eyes. He was anger, rage, pain and grief all rolled into one, and he wanted his enemies to know how that felt.
Then one day he was running stealthily across the desert when a loud, booming sound rocked him back. Next thing he knew he was flying through the air with Tessa by his side. He saw that her fur was smoking and heard her screaming in pain – and after that the whole world went dark.
Tony awoke with the scream dying in his throat. Beside him, Shanti was howling.
“Is the house on fire? Are we burning?” It felt that way. His face and hands felt blistered. He looked around, but everything was quiet. He felt another brief flash of searing pain and then…nothing. Nothing at all. “Jethro.” He grabbed Shanti’s head and looked into her eyes. “Can you feel Tessa?”
“No.” Shanti shook her head.
“Then he's dead?”
“No!” she protested.
“How do you know?”
“Because we would feel it,” Shanti said stubbornly.
“Why? He’s just a guy I knew for a week when I was a kid. Maybe I built it all up in my head to be more than it ever was. Just one week. That’s how long I knew him.”
“No. He’s Jethro. He saved us that night…” She shivered, and he put his arms around her neck and hugged her tight. Neither of them liked thinking about that night. “Tessa said we were pack.”
“You’re right.” He got up and started pulling on his clothes.
“Where are we going?” She jumped off the bed and padded over to him.
“I made a promise to Shannon, and this time I’m going to keep it. I don’t *care* if I have to hitch-hike all the way to Kuwait. We’re going to find him, and we’re damn well going to make sure he’s okay.”
It felt good here. Dark. Peaceful. Quiet.
“You always did like quiet,” Tessa said.
Over there, in the distance, was a bright light, but he was too far away and couldn’t reach it. And over there, behind him, was the way he’d come, and he had no intention of going back there. Ever.
If they stayed here, they would be fine. It was like being wrapped in a big blanket; everything felt dark, muffled and warm.
“We will stay then,” she said. He couldn’t see her, but he could feel her in his mind. He imagined her putting her chin on his leg and resting it there.
“Yes. There’s nothing to go back for.”
“Once we had pack,” she whispered sadly.
“Once. Not anymore.”
He was estranged from his father, and he’d lost his mate and cub.
Nobody needed him now. There was no reason to return.
Tony smiled at the nurse, and the man’s sheep daemon fluttered her eyelashes at Shanti. With much perseverance, he had tracked Jethro down to Bethesda Naval Hospital, and he was damned if he was going to be turned back now, when he was so close.
“Look, I just need to see him,” he said beseechingly.
The nurse was clearly attracted to him, but he was also, just as clearly, someone who didn’t like breaking the rules. “Are you a relative?”
“Yes,” Tony said firmly.
“Really?” The nurse looked sceptical. “Can you prove it?”
“No. I mean…look, it’s complicated.”
“If you’re not a relative then I can’t let you in there.”
Tony glanced along the hallway. Just behind that door over there was a man he hadn’t seen in thirteen years but was desperate to see now.
“Can you at least tell me his condition?” he asked.
The nurse shook his head. “Confidential.”
“But he’s in a coma?”
The nurse frowned and looked at his notes. “How do you know that?”
“I can feel it,” Tony replied honestly.
The nurse looked up, an intrigued expression in his eyes, and Tony decided that for once, honesty might be better than a lie, or a scheme, or one of his father’s con tricks.
“He touched my daemon once, when I was a child,” he explained. The nurse’s eyes widened in horror. “Oh, it was a good thing!” Tony said hurriedly. “He’s a good man. He saved my life that day, and…well, I’d like to return the favour, if I can.”
The nurse looked at the notes again and then back at Tony. “I shouldn’t tell you this, but I’m going to anyway. He IS in a coma, but nobody knows why. His injuries aren’t severe enough to keep him unconscious like this for so long. He’s got a broken leg and some burns, and he had a mild concussion, but nobody knows why he won’t wake up.”
“I know why,” Tony said. “Please…let me see him.”
Shanti leaned forward and pressed her nose against the sheep’s black nose.
“Please,” Tony said again.
The nurse took a quick look around, and then he gave a swift nod. He took hold of Tony’s arm and led him along the hallway. He opened the door to Jethro’s room and pushed Tony inside.
“You’ve got five minutes. I’m going to go to the restroom. If anyone catches you here, tell them you gave me the slip. I’ll deny that I let you in. Understood?”
“Yes. Thank you!” Shanti swiped a lick over the sheep’s ear, and the nurse walked back down the hallway.
Tony shut the door and stood there in the semi-darkness. The lights from the machine around the bed lit it up, casting blue and red dots over the man lying there, and the huddled shape of his daemon beside him.
Tony walked slowly towards the bed. Thirteen years…it was a long time. Was he right about this? Maybe Jethro didn’t even remember him.
“He remembers,” Shanti said quietly.
“That’s just what you hope – you don’t know that.”
He reached the side of the bed and looked down on the man who’d rescued him all those years ago. Jethro’s hair had smudges of silver at the temples. His eyes were closed, and there were some painful-looking burns on his face. He looked old – old, and tired, and sad.
“He’s only thirty-three,” Shanti said. “He’s not *that* old.”
“When I last saw him he was younger than I am now, and he seemed so grown-up to me back then. I still feel like a big kid, but he never seemed that way.”
“You *are* still a big kid,” she said.
He made a face at her. “Thank you, Shanti.”
Tessa looked smaller now than he remembered her as a child. He’d always thought her huge, but he realized he’d been looking at her from a child’s perspective. She was still a big daemon but lying here, on this hospital bed, she looked squashed and diminished. He realized then that it was partly the force of her quiet but determined personality that had made her seem so big.
Shanti leapt soundlessly onto the bed. She sniffed Tessa’s burnt fur, and then she lay down beside the wolf, curling up close to her. She gently touched her mouth to Tessa’s head and then flicked out her tongue and licked one of Tessa’s ears.
There was no reaction; Tessa didn’t so much as flick her ear in response.
Tony reached out and touched Jethro’s hand. “Hey…Leroy…Jethro…oh, hell, I don’t know what to call you. Look, it’s me. Tony. Remember me? Because I sure as hell remember you!”
There was no reply. Jethro didn’t move – he didn’t even twitch. Tony *did* remember. He remembered this man trying to rouse him from his traumatised, unconscious state thirteen years ago, and how he hadn’t been able to reach him. And he remembered what Jethro had eventually done in order to bring him back.
“I have to touch Tessa,” he told Shanti. “Is that okay?” The taboo against touching another person’s daemon was so strong, and this man lying here on the bed looked like such a stranger to him, that it felt wrong.
“You have no choice,” Shanti replied. “I can feel Tessa in there somewhere, but she is far away, and I do not believe that they ever intend to come back.”
Tony took a deep breath and then, without hesitating, he gently placed his hands on Tessa’s body.
It felt strange. It had been thirteen years since he’d last touched another person’s daemon with his bare hands, when Tessa had licked him goodbye back in Stillwater. Now, her fur felt dull and coarse under his fingers. He paused for a second, wondering what to do next. What had Jethro done all those years ago?
“Tessa,” he said softly. “I need Jethro to wake up.”
Tessa whimpered but didn’t move. "Hush, Tessa…you're okay. It’s me, Tony. I’m here. You’re safe."
A flood of images and emotions suddenly overwhelmed his senses. He was screaming in the desert and then standing by a graveside. It was freezing cold, and he was pruning rose bushes. Once he started, he couldn’t stop, and he kept on cutting them until they were nothing more than stubs sticking out of the soil. Then someone came and led him back into the warmth of a house.
“Come back now,” Tony said. “Come back from wherever you are. Let me lead you back home.”
A deep sense of loss shook him to his core as he said the word ‘home’. He felt Shanti’s tongue on his cheek, reminding him that she was there, grounding him. He took a deep breath and stroked Tessa’s fur, allowing her essence to wash over him again.
It was dark, and he was alone here, just him and Tessa. There was no point in going back, because they were dead. He had no pack to go back for…
“You have me,” he said softly. “I’m pack.”
He felt her sense of questioning.
“Come back for me. I’m here. I’m pack,” he repeated urgently.
There was a noise in the hallway, and he knew he was running out of time.
“Jethro!” he said desperately. “It’s Tony! Come back! Please!”
There were voices outside the door – he could make out the nurse talking to someone with a deep, strong voice. He saw the fluttering of a bird through the shaded glass, and his heart soared in hope. Maybe Jackson was here with Meldra. Maybe between them they could make Jethro see sense.
The door opened and that hope disappeared again. There was a man standing there in a Marine uniform, with a huge eagle daemon hovering above his shoulder. Tony could see from his insignia that he was a major.
“Who the hell are you? Get away from him!” the major ordered. “Damn it, you’re touching his daemon! What kind of a sick bastard, are you?”
He ran over to the bed and yanked Tony’s hands off Tessa’s body. Tony felt the abrupt separation from her consciousness and almost fell over from the suddenness of the dislocation.
“You don’t understand. I know him!”
He twisted in the major’s grasp as he was manhandled out of the room. Behind him he could hear Shanti whimpering as the massive eagle grabbed one of her ears in her beak and dragged her out of the room too. The major released him, and Shanti bounded into his arms. Tony crouched on the floor, his back against the wall, trying to get his breath back.
“What the hell were you doing?” the major demanded.
“Trying to bring him back! I knew him once…a long time ago…” It sounded ridiculous, even to his own ears.
The major crossed his arms over his chest and frowned down on him. “I should call the police, but hell, you’re just a kid. You say you know Leroy?”
Tony nodded, stroking Shanti’s sore ear repeatedly to soothe the pain. The eagle daemon flew around his head threateningly, her huge wingspan blotting out the overhead lighting.
“You’ve got two minutes. Explain.”
Tony tried to do just that. He crammed everything he could into his explanation, but he doubted it made much sense. Who would believe that he and the man lying in that hospital bed were linked in some strange way because of one incident, a long time ago, however traumatic that incident had been? It sounded bizarre, like some ludicrous, made-up story.
“And you say you tracked him down after not seeing him for thirteen years?” The major was giving him a look of grudging admiration. Tony nodded, slowly. “I like your perseverance, kid, insane though this whole thing sounds. You’d make a good Marine – or a cop.” He grinned. “Look – no harm’s been done, and you seem sincere enough, if a little crazy. Get out of here now, and I won’t call the police.”
Tony glanced beseechingly at the door to Leroy’s room. “Can’t I just…”
“I mean it! Beat it.” The major nudged him with his boot, and his eagle daemon flew down and pecked Shanti’s rump. She gave a growl and swatted the eagle away, but the point had been made.
Tony knew he didn’t have a choice. He got up, and, with one last glance at the closed door, he and Shanti left.
Light. Leroy opened his eyes a fraction and then closed them again.
“I am here.” Her voice was barely more than a strained whisper. He moved his fingers and felt a sense of peace descend on him as his bare skin came into contact with her familiar fur.
“Where…are…we?” His own voice sounded hoarse.
“Gunny?” Someone was standing beside him. He opened his eyes again and saw an eagle daemon, circling overhead. “Gunny – you okay? Here.” Major Ryan pressed a glass of water to his lips, and he drank from it eagerly. “Damn it, Gunny, you gave us a scare.”
“Where…?” Leroy looked around. He was missing something important, but he had Tessa. What else was there? What was missing?
“You’re at Bethesda. We flew you back a few days ago. You’re going to be fine. Got a busted leg and a few burns and bruises, but you’ll be fine.”
“What happened?” Leroy croaked.
“You don’t remember?”
Leroy shook his head and then wished he hadn’t as a spike of pain shot through his skull. Tessa whimpered and pressed against his fingertips.
“You were caught in an explosion. Got a concussion. The doctors said you probably wouldn’t remember the actual incident.”
“Don’t. Just remember the dark…and someone calling my name,” Leroy whispered. “Must'a been you.”
Major Ryan gazed at him thoughtfully. “Well, could be…”
“I quit.” Leroy interrupted him.
“What?” Ryan’s eagle swooped down and landed on the major’s shoulder. She was too big to perch there, so she hovered just above it. Ryan leaned in close. “Look, Gunny, you’ve been through a tough time, but…”
“I’m leaving the Corps,” Leroy repeated firmly. “I’m a liability out there, sir, and you know it. One of these days I’ll get the whole unit blown up, not just me. I’ve put in the years. Let me go.”
Leroy closed his eyes. It didn’t matter what Ryan said. They’d let him go. He was a Marine in his heart, and he always would be, but right now he wasn’t a very good one, and he had no intention of hurting his unit or disgracing the Corps. His father had been right all along, damn it; he needed some time out.
Tessa rested her chin on his thigh. “You’re doing the right thing.”
He didn’t know what the future would bring, but he felt more at peace now than he had since Shannon and Kelly had been killed. They were gone. He could kill every enemy soldier who crossed his path but it wouldn’t change anything. They would still be gone. He would just have to find something else to live for now.
He fell asleep and dreamed of a child chasing his puppy daemon through the woods.
Tony returned to his old life, but something had changed. It was like he'd proved something to himself that he'd always known but never tested before. He could have ignored what Jethro was experiencing and just gone on with his empty, pleasure-filled life, but he hadn't. He'd risen to the challenge instead of avoiding it.
"He helped you once, and now you have helped him in return," Shanti said, resting her head on his lap.
"Yeah…maybe that's it," Tony said, idly scratching her behind the ears. He liked the way his own ears tingled in response. "Maybe that's what this whole thing has been about, and now the circle has been squared or something and it's all over."
"You don't think we'll feel him and Tessa again?" She didn't look too happy about that thought.
"I dunno. Maybe. I just wish I'd got to speak to him, but the major's daemon was very intimidating."
Shanti threw back her head and roared at the top of her voice, taking him by surprise. Tony put his hands over his ears, and gazed at her, startled. She stopped roaring and turned back to him.
"Your daemon can be intimidating too," she said quietly. "You just don't like letting people see that."
"Maybe I haven't changed as much as I thought, huh?" he said, remembering how he'd kept her hidden as a child. He wished he knew how to access this side of himself without scaring everyone away – hell, without scaring *himself*.
"You should just accept what you are," Shanti replied, in that way daemons had of suggesting something that sounded very simple and yet was incredibly difficult to actually *do*.
Tony didn't have a reply for her but when he made his annual phone call to his father he found that he did at least have the answer to a different question.
"I hope you've got a job lined up, Tony," his father said, sounding like the same old broken record. "Because when you leave college you won't be getting another dime from me. I had to make my own way in life, and you'll have to do the same. So you'd better damn well figure out what you're going to do."
"I have," Tony replied. Shanti glanced up at him in surprise. Tony remembered how good it had been to track Jethro down, and wheedle his way into his hospital room, and he remembered what that Marine major had said to him. He smiled. "I'm going to be a cop."
When they finally released him from Bethesda, he went straight to the cemetery where they were buried. He swung his way to their graves on crutches, Tessa limping heavily by his side.
Immediately after they'd been killed, he'd been too out of it to take much in. He'd gone back to Kuwait to take his revenge, instead of directing it at the person who deserved it most.
"Revenge… well, you *were* looking for something to live for," Tessa murmured.
"It'll do," he said, staring down at their gravestones.
Tessa leaned against him. "For now.”
He glanced down at her. “You think I’m doing the wrong thing?”
“No.” Her eyes were stone cold as she gazed back up at him. “If I thought you were doing the wrong thing I’d tell you.” The expression in her eyes changed, becoming full of grief. “Someone killed Shannon and Kelly!” She let out a broken howl that summed up exactly how he was feeling. “Someone killed Shannon and Kelly, and they must pay for it. And when it’s over…” She shook out her fur in an approximation of a shrug.
“Yeah.” He put his hand on her head and stroked gently, just once.
He couldn't think beyond the immediate future. If revenge was all there was to live for then he'd take it, and to hell with what happened after. If he had to spend the rest of his life in prison then he would. It wasn't as if his life meant that much to him now anyway.
NIS agent Mike Franks had slicked back dark hair and a sharp, pointed nose. His daemon was a squat, scrappy mongrel of a dog with white fur that looked grey in places – Leroy couldn’t tell if that was a darker fur colour or just plain dirt. She had bandy legs, one ear that listed over as if it had been bitten, and a pair of small, beady, dark eyes. She was definitely not the kind of daemon you’d like to meet down a dark alley one night.
Franks showed him the battered, blood-stained car his family had died in, and Leroy clamped down hard on his emotions and took in everything the NIS agent told him. Revenge was a dish best served cold; he couldn't allow his hot temper to interfere with his goal.
"Your wife witnessed the murder of a Marine. Drug related," Franks said, taking a long drag on his cigar. His daemon found a discarded soda can on the ground, picked it up in her mouth, and crunched down on it hard with her teeth. The can was instantly crushed between her squat jaws.
"I assigned an NIS agent to protect her…sniper shot him while he was driving the car, causing the crash that killed them." Franks blew out the cigar smoke like he was spitting teeth, and his daemon took another crunch on the soda can. "Can't tell you how sorry I am, Gunny," he said, and Leroy believed him. "Apologising's a sign of weakness, so you won't hear me say it again, but your wife was a brave woman and damn helpful to us. Whole thing stinks."
"Who did it?" Leroy didn't need the man's apologies. "I want a name."
Franks looked at him for a moment, as if weighing him up, and then sighed. He threw the cigar on the ground and stubbed it out with his foot. "Pedro Hernandez."
He took Leroy back up to his office, talking about the case as they walked, flicking through the file in his hand.
"So this bastard has fucked off back to Mexico and there's nothing the hell NIS can do about it?" Leroy snapped as Franks closed his office door behind them.
Franks's daemon came over to Tessa and stood in front of her, nose to nose, studying her. Tessa looked that squat mongrel straight in her gimlet eyes and didn't back down. Franks grunted. Then he threw the file down on his desk.
"That's about it, Gunny. Hernandez is out of our reach."
Leroy gazed at him stonily. "But you know where he is."
"Yeah. We know where he is." Franks gave a slow, deliberate glance at the file on his desk.
"Aw, Gunny, you know I can't tell you that."
"I'm not asking you to tell me." Gibbs glanced at the file and then back at Franks.
Franks gave him one last, searching stare and then nodded. "I need to take a leak. We'll talk about it some more when I get back."
He left the room, and Gibbs picked up the file and memorized the details. He was long gone by the time Franks got back.
"SHIT! What the hell was that?" Tony was in the shower, getting ready for a hot date when he felt a sensation of darkly grim satisfaction combined with a stab of such raw pain that it took his breath away. He stepped out of the steaming water and looked at Shanti, who was pacing around the bathroom in an agitated state.
"Revenge," Shanti said bleakly.
"Jethro." Tony sat down beside her and grabbed her head for reassurance. She nuzzled in close against his neck. "Oh fuck. What did he go and do, Shanti?"
"I think he killed someone." Her expression was one of shock but not surprise.
"Jethro?" Tony frowned. "Jethro isn't a murderer, Shanti!"
She pulled back and looked at him. "Revenge…whoever he killed was the person he held responsible for the death of his family."
"Oh." Tony leaned back against the bath tub, one hand resting on her neck. "Maybe I did the wrong thing, bringing him back," he said softly. "Shit, Shanti – did I do the wrong thing? Maybe he was better off in a coma."
"But supposing he gets caught? He could spend the rest of his life behind bars – or worse."
"I think…" Shanti paused. "Knowing Jethro, I think he is the only one who knows about this. I doubt he'll get caught."
"We know." Tony gazed at her. "Damn it, Shanti – I'm going to become a fucking cop!"
"But you will not tell anyone," Shanti said, a wry expression in her eyes.
"No." Tony kissed her soft forehead. "I won't tell anyone."
Leroy experienced one brief moment of intense satisfaction as Pedro Hernandez’s head exploded and blood spat out all over the truck’s shattered windshield, but then the moment passed. Almost immediately the grief flooded back in again, taking him by surprise, and he turned away from what he'd done and screamed at the top of his lungs. Beside him, Tessa threw back her head and howled.
After they'd both finished howling, they huddled together, side by side, riding out the storm of emotion.
"I thought taking revenge would make me feel better," he told her.
"I know. But it doesn't." She gave a whine in the back of her throat.
"They're still dead," he said bleakly.
"Yes – and it still hurts."
He hauled himself to his feet and glanced at the shattered truck, but he already knew that his aim had been true, and Hernandez was dead.
"At least there's one less scumbag out there." He gave a satisfied grunt.
“He will not be missed,” she agreed as they walked away, leaving the bloody body of Pedro Hernandez in his truck far behind.
"So now what?" she asked, as he returned to the empty house he'd once shared with his family. "Now that the revenge is over…what do we find to live for now?"
"Justice," he replied, and she nodded, understanding immediately, as he'd known she would.
Killing Hernandez had awoken a passion for justice in him that he hadn't even been aware of. Looking back, he realized it had always been there but his greater passion for the Marines had overshadowed it. Losing Shannon and Kelly had simply sharpened it to a finer point, and made it a greater priority in his life.
Mike Franks glanced up when he knocked on his office door. The NIS agent knew that he'd killed Hernandez; Leroy could see it in his daemon's gimlet eyes.
"Back again, Marine?" Franks raised an eyebrow, and Leroy could see him clearly wondering what the hell he was doing here. The job was done – the last thing Franks wanted was some kind of tearful confession.
"Not a Marine anymore."
"Once a Marine always a Marine," Franks said sharply.
"True." Leroy grunted. "I'm not in the Corps anymore though. That's why I'm here."
"Ah…you're looking for a job!" A sneaky smile spread over Franks's face. "You've got good timing; I'm looking for a new probie."
"Probationary agent. Need someone to schlep my bags and get my damn coffee. You up to that, Gunny?"
"Gibbs," he replied sharply.
"I don't care what the hell you're called as long as you do a good job." Franks stared at him from narrowed dark eyes.
His daemon was only half Tessa's height, but she barreled over to Tessa and stood in front of her, baring her teeth. She made a growling sound in the back of her throat, and Tessa went down on her paws with only a slight whine of protest. Gibbs accepted the chain of command, always had. He'd be this man's probationary agent and carry his bags and get his coffee – and that way he'd learn from the best.
“I will, Boss,” Gibbs said firmly.
Franks gave a laugh. "Yeah, I think you will. Hell, I like you, Gibbs. You're a pain in the ass, but I understand what makes you tick. We'll do just fine together."
He left the office with a job offer in his pocket and a whole new identity waiting for him. He had months of training ahead of him but when they were done he'd be Special Agent Gibbs.
He wasn't 'Gunny' anymore. He wasn't Leroy anymore, either. He'd left his unit and deliberately turned his back on his old friendships. Hell, he'd even turned his back on his own father. There was nobody left who called him Leroy now.
And as for Jethro…only Shannon was allowed to call him that, and she was gone.
"And Tony," Tessa told him softly.
He glanced down at her, surprised, but could feel himself hardening inside. "Haven't thought about Tony in a long time, and I doubt he's thought about me, either. The kid's probably forgotten I even exist. It was years ago, Tessa. Past's over; time to move on."
"He is pack," Tessa said stubbornly.
Gibbs felt his jaw tightening. "I don't have a pack anymore," he growled at her.
Tony was long gone, his family was dead, and he was estranged from his father.
He was a lone wolf again.
Tony pulled the collar of his coat up around his neck and blew on his hands. Damn it, he was freezing his balls off out here.
He was standing on the Baltimore docks in a foot of snow, in front of a dead body. There had been a red stain on the snow beside the body but so much fresh snow had fallen that it had obscured the stain. Even the body was half buried under the snow now.
Tony stood there, guarding the crime scene, while his captain made a call. There was some kind of brief argument, and then the captain snapped his phone shut and strode back over, his terrier daemon trotting along beside him.
"Problem, Captain?" Tony gave the man his biggest, most charming smile. The captain glared at him, and Tony sighed. Somehow, he had a feeling he'd never be able to worm his way back into his boss's good books; although that wasn’t entirely surprising given the circumstances.
"No problem," the captain growled, and his terrier daemon snapped her teeth at Shanti. "This one isn't ours." The captain nodded in the direction of the dead man who was slowly disappearing under a blanket of snow.
Tony frowned. "I don't understand. Are you saying you don't want me to start processing the crime scene?"
"Yup, that’s exactly what I’m saying. This guy's a Marine." The captain held up the dog tags he'd removed from the corpse. "So he's not our problem. NCIS are gonna send a team down."
"NCIS?" Tony raised an eyebrow. "Who the hell are they?"
"Naval Criminal Investigative Service. They investigate Navy crimes. This one is theirs."
"Aw, come on! He got killed on our turf!" Tony protested. "We can swing it that we take lead on this, can't we?"
The captain shook his head. "It's not worth the hassle, DiNozzo, trust me. I've met the head of their major crimes unit before, and he's a bastard. I do not wanna get into a pissing contest with him."
"So we just hand him over?" Tony looked at the dead marine.
"No –*you* just hand him over. You can stay here, guard the crime scene, and do the handover when the NCIS team gets here.
"Me? What about you?" Tony asked. Shanti glanced up, the snow settling on her thick eyelashes.
"Me?" the captain chuckled. "I'm going home! It's late, and it's freezing out here. No point keeping a grunt and doing the hard work myself, huh, DiNozzo?" He slapped Tony's arm heartily, while his terrier daemon gave a bark of amusement. Shanti growled softly in reply.
"Got that, DiNozzo?" the captain demanded, in a more menacing tone.
"Yes, sir. Got it." Tony sighed. "I'll just…wait here…in all this snow…until NCIS get here to take over."
"Good boy!" The captain gave him a nasty little smile. "They shouldn't be more than…" he glanced at his watch. "Well…usually I'd say an hour, but in this?" He looked up at the sky. "More like two! Hope you're wearing your thermals, DiNozzo!"
He gave another barking laugh and then turned and went back to his car. Tony watched as he disappeared into the swirling snow.
"Thanks, sir. Love you too," he muttered sarcastically.
There were a few uniformed officers over in the distance, guarding the entrance to the docks, but basically he was on his own; just him and the dead Marine. He leaned against a nearby lamp post, wrapped his arms around his body, and stamped his freezing cold feet.
"So remind me, Shanti, why *did* I decide to become a cop?" he sighed.
She settled down at his feet, the snow coating her fur. "Because you wanted to impress possible sexual conquests with stories of your heroic exploits," she replied, glancing up at him with a teasing expression on her face.
He snorted and rolled his eyes. "Well, that *was* part of it," he admitted with a grin.
"And also because of something someone once said to you," she said in a more serious tone of voice.
His grin faded as he remembered the Marine major with the eagle daemon that night back at Bethesda ten years ago.
"You did a good thing that night," Shanti said.
"Fat lot of good it did me. I didn't even get to talk to Jethro."
"You did – he just didn't get to reply. But you brought him back. I felt Tessa wake up before we'd even left the hospital."
"I should have turned around and gone back, forced them to let me in…" Tony muttered, blowing on his cold fingers again. "I'm an idiot."
"You were scared."
"Of the major's daemon? Well, she was a massive eagle, and, as I recall, she did keep pecking your ass and that hurt like hell." Tony gave a bitter little laugh.
"No. You were scared that Jethro wouldn't remember you," Shanti said quietly, leaning against his leg.
"Yeah." Tony stared into the swirling snow. "Yeah, there was that."
"And you have lost too many people you loved. You didn't want to lose him too."
Tony thought of his mom dying, and his father's many repeated abandonments and various forms of rejection. He couldn't have handled it if Jethro hadn't known him, or cared about him, or wanted him around.
"Makes me a coward then," he murmured.
Shanti gave an impatient little roar. "You are not a coward. But you are an idiot."
Tony laughed out loud and crouched down to hug her. "Ah…what would I do without you?" he asked, snuggling her ears.
"You would be dead," she replied pragmatically.
"There is that." He laughed again and kissed her forehead. "Been awhile since we last talked about Jethro."
"Yes…he is…hard to sense these days." Shanti licked his face, and he loved the warmth of her tongue on his skin. "If Tessa was not already settled in her shape, I could imagine she had grown a shell, like a tortoise."
"I can't imagine Jethro with a tortoise for a daemon," Tony chuckled. "When did we last feel anything from him, Shanti?"
"A few years ago…I think he got shot."
"Yeah." Tony remembered a swift, physical pain in his arm, but it had disappeared almost as soon as he’d felt it. Shanti was right – Jethro was all closed up these days and not much bled through. A thought occurred to him. "Do you think he feels me, Shanti? I mean, all these years I've had these moments of feeling what's going on with him. Do you think it works both ways?"
"I have no idea."
Tony felt like he was turning into a block of ice. He jumped up and down, trying to get warm.
"What would he have felt from me anyway? Nothing big ever happened to me. Nobody died, and I didn't get blown up in an explosion while fighting in a war. Man, he's led an interesting life."
"And a sad one," Shanti pointed out.
"Yeah. Poor bastard. I wonder if he got married again. Maybe he had more kids?"
"If he did, then we did not feel it. But you could look him up and find out. You are a cop," she reminded him.
"I know, and you know how tempted I've been to do just that. But it feels kind of creepy. Stalkerish."
"Yes." She shook her head from side to side to dislodge a little blanket of snow that had formed there.
“Damn it. It’s cold.” He leaned back against the lamp post and closed his eyes, trying to find his happy place in his mind. It was hard imagining himself back in the woods in Stillwater on a sunny day when he was freezing his ass off out here. He hugged his arms around his body and rocked back and forth, trying to get warm.
Stillwater was always the same in his mind, just as he’d left it. He ran through the woods with Shanti by his side until he reached the clearing by the creek. He had a sudden vivid sense of looking at the water, and he turned, slowly, and smiled as he saw Jethro sitting on the green and red checked blanket with that old picnic basket belonging to his father. His smile faded; Jethro didn’t look the way he remembered him. He was much older, his hair was completely silver, his face was thinner, and he looked a little gaunt.
It was so vivid that he felt as if he was there, and then the moment ended abruptly, and he was back in the freezing cold docks in Baltimore again. His feet felt like blocks of ice, and he stamped them to try and thaw them out.
“I’m bored,” Shanti said.
“Yeah…hey – why don’t we work the crime scene anyway? Give this bastard the captain’s so scared of a head start when he arrives?”
“The captain said not to touch the crime scene,” she said doubtfully.
“And since when do I do as I’m told?” He grinned at her.
“Well, not often – but that’s why it didn’t work out for you in Philly, or Peoria,” she pointed out.
“And it’s not working out for me here, either. So who cares?” He grabbed his bag and got out his evidence bags, sketch pad, and camera.
“It WOULD be more fun than just standing around,” Shanti agreed. She jumped up in the air, chasing snowflakes, and he gave a delighted laugh.
He did a thorough search of the area before all the evidence disappeared under the snow. It wasn’t easy, and his fingers were frozen from scrabbling around. He took a break and looked down on the dead Marine, with his open eyes and ice cold skin.
“Poor bastard. I wonder what your daemon looked like,” Tony mused. He reached into the guy’s overcoat pocket and pulled out a wallet. There was a driver’s license inside, with the Marine’s photo on it. The Marine’s name was Paul Watson, and he had an earnest expression on his face – one that was shared by his wolf daemon. “Interesting,” Tony mused, a faint memory stirring. “I wonder if our dead Marine was a sniper?”
Shanti dug around in the snow with her nose and then looked up, a puzzled expression on her face.
“What is it?” Tony asked, getting up and going over to her.
“It’s…I might be wrong – it has been snowing very hard – but…I can’t find any trace of his daemon.”
Tony frowned and looked around. “Well there must be a pile of dust around here somewhere. Like you said, it’s been snowing pretty hard. Let’s go take a wider look.”
Gibbs finished his plastic cup of orange juice with a grimace; the stuff tasted bad, but he was, technically, still on duty until 22:00…which was in five minutes.
"Enjoying the party, Gibbs?" Director Morrow asked, coming over to him, his bat daemon hanging upside down from his arm.
"Not a party without bourbon," Gibbs grunted, screwing up the little plastic cup and throwing it in the nearest trash can.
"Which is Gibbs-speak for you're going to miss him," Morrow said, glancing over at where Stan Burley was standing, surrounded by a little gaggle of colleagues. It was Stan’s going away party – one last drink in the squad room before he left to take up a new job as an agent afloat.
"Well sure. I'll have to get my own damn coffee until I can find a replacement," Gibbs retorted.
Morrow laughed. "You can have your pick of agents. What about Pacci?” He motioned to where Chris Pacci was involved in deep conversation with Stan. Pacci’s lemur daemon was sitting on his shoulder, her long, striped tail wrapped around his neck.
Gibbs shook his head. “Pacci’s a good agent, but he’s on Vance’s team and there’s no way Leon will let him go without a fight.”
Gibbs glanced at Leon Vance, who was standing to one side, watching proceedings with his usual intense stare, a toothpick sticking out of his mouth. His daemon, a chameleon lizard, was standing beside him, watching just as intently. Her tongue occasionally darted out, mimicking the toothpick.
“True,” Morrow conceded. “Vance has assembled a good team there, and he’ll want to hang on to them. He’s ambitious.”
“Oh yeah.” Gibbs shot his boss a mischievous glance. “You should watch out, sir. He’ll be after your job one day.”
Morrow laughed out loud. “The way I feel some days, he’d be welcome to it!” His bat daemon folded her wings and gave Tessa an inscrutable look. “Okay then – why not promote that probie from the Norfolk office?" Morrow suggested.
"Pike? Can't stand him," Gibbs said moodily, watching as Stan's hare daemon hopped out of reach of the chameleon lizard’s darting tongue.
"I have a feeling you won't like anyone who isn't Stan," Morrow said.
Gibbs grunted again. "Just got used to him."
"After five years, I'd hope so!" Morrow grinned, and his bat daemon fluttered down onto the ground and sat on one of his shiny shoes. "And Langer left just a few weeks ago too – any luck replacing him?"
"No," Gibbs said shortly. "I keep hiring people, and they keep leaving."
"I wonder why?" Morrow asked. Gibbs glared at him. "Time to train someone new, Gibbs," Morrow told him an undertone. "Don't drag your feet. I know you don't like it, but suck it up, Marine."
Gibbs gave a wry grin. "Yes, sir!" He shot a mock salute in Morrow's direction.
A call came through from dispatch, and Gibbs glanced over to where Stan was standing by the elevator, saying his final goodbyes.
"Problem?" Morrow raised an eyebrow.
"Dead Marine – Baltimore docks."
"Burley is, technically, still on duty."
"Yeah, but he has to report to Norfolk for his new posting tomorrow – and that dead Marine isn't going anywhere. I'll log the call as coming in at 22:01 and handle it myself."
"Going soft in your old age? I thought the second 'b' was for bastard?"
Gibbs gave a little laugh. "Oh, it is. Ducky left for home an hour ago – he'll have just gotten there. I'm gonna call him and have him haul his ass out to Baltimore."
He flicked open the phone and made the call, chuckling at Ducky's grumbles of annoyance.
"Very well, Gibbs, but in these weather conditions I cannot promise a speedy journey."
"Body's not going anywhere, Duck. I'll meet ya there."
"Be prepared for a long wait. I have to fetch the truck, and I do not possess your lack of self-preservation when driving in dangerous conditions. In other words – I drive slowly when it’s snowing."
"I'll see you there, Duck."
Gibbs grinned and closed the phone. He glanced up at the clock. Twenty-two hundred hours. Stan was now, officially, no longer on his team.
"You and Dr. Mallard can't work the crime scene alone," Morrow said. "At least take an agent from the pool with you."
Gibbs thought about it, but then he felt Tessa's nose pressing against his hand, and he shook his head. "Be faster alone. Don't want anyone I'm not used to getting in the way." He couldn't explain that he'd just lost Stan, and the lone wolf in him wanted to lick those wounds alone.
He grabbed his gun and badge, picked up his gear, and went over to his old probie.
"So long, Steve." He gave Stan a sly smile and batted him awkwardly on the arm.
"You've got a job?" Stan glanced at his crime scene bag.
"Call just came in."
Stan looked anxious – Gibbs was used to that look after five years working with him. Stan's hare daemon, Molly, stood up on her back paws, her ears flicking nervously.
"You want me to come with you?" Stan asked.
Gibbs laughed. "No. Go home, get some rest. You’re starting a new job tomorrow. I can handle this by myself." He looked at the ground and then back at his former protégé. "Take care, Stan. Don't do anything stupid."
“You too, Boss,” Stan said softly. “You too.”
Tessa nudged Molly with her nose for the briefest of seconds and then she followed Gibbs into the elevator. The doors closed behind them, and Gibbs leaned back against the wall with a sigh.
"It was time for him to move on," Tessa said.
"I know!" he snapped at her.
She glanced up at him, a wry look in her eyes. "I know you know."
He rolled his eyes but nudged her ever so slightly with his knee all the same.
“Where the hell did the years go, Tessa? Seems like only yesterday Franks was slapping my head and yelling at me, and now another of my own probies is flying the nest.”
Her tongue lolled out of her mouth as if she was laughing at him. Maybe she was. He gave a grunting laugh of his own.
“Just wish I could find someone I like to take his place; someone I can trust,” he said. He'd never found it easy making friends and finding people he could trust to have his six and do a good job was just as hard. Trust didn't come easy to him.
“You will.” It was always the same with her; such a calm simplicity. She was like a tonic; she never failed to make him feel better, even when she said the things he didn’t want to hear.
The conditions on the road were treacherous, but Gibbs made short work of the drive out to the Baltimore docks all the same.
"One day, you will get us killed with your driving," Tessa told him.
"Well, we all have to die somehow," Gibbs replied with a shrug. He wasn't going to actively seek death, but he knew he'd welcome it when he came. It wasn't as if he had a whole lot to live for. He was surprised he’d lived this long – after his family had died he’d never thought he’d make old bones himself. He took too many risks and cared about himself too little.
"Do you regret coming back?" Tessa asked curiously. "That time when you were in the coma…do you regret it?"
Gibbs thought about it. All he could remember about being in that coma was darkness, warmth and a sense of being at peace. He’d been happy to stay there right up until that nagging voice had started talking to him. He never had been able to remember what it said, but he knew it had given him a convincing reason to return. Someone had wanted him to come back, but he had no idea who, or why.
"No," he said finally. "I don't regret it."
Gibbs pulled up at the docks and flashed his badge at the uniformed officers guarding the entrance. They waved him through, and he peered through his windshield to find the crime scene. The snow was relentless; the entire landscape had been turned into a white wilderness and it was difficult to see anything. Dispatch had told him that a Baltimore detective had been left in charge of the body and would perform the handover, but he couldn’t see any sign of him.
"Wonder who the poor bastard pissed off to get that assignment?" Gibbs drove the car down towards the water's edge, wanting to get as close as possible.
He got out of the car and took a deep lungful of freezing cold air. "Shit, it's cold," he muttered to Tessa, as she scrambled out beside him. He took a look around and then froze. Over there, by the water’s edge, a man was kneeling in the snow, disturbing *his* crime scene.
“Hey!” he yelled, striding over there. “What the HELL do you think you’re doing?”
The man looked up, his face hazy amid the swirling snow. Gibbs could just about make out the shadowy shape of his daemon, standing behind him in the dark.
“This is my damn crime scene, and…” Gibbs paused as a sudden shiver passed up his spine; all the hairs on the back of his neck were standing on end.
The man stood up, and from behind him there emerged a massive lioness, her ears pressed flat against her skull. The man and his daemon both stood perfectly still in the snow, looking at Gibbs and Tessa, and Gibbs and Tessa stood just as still, looking back them.
Then the lioness let out a deafening roar, and, without warning, she began running across the snow towards them. The sound of her roaring was so loud that it drowned out everything else. Gibbs wondered why this man’s daemon was attacking them, and he was about to draw his gun when suddenly Tessa raced out from by his side, like a streak of lightning.
“Tessa!” he yelled after her, but she took no notice – she was too busy giving the kind of excited, high-pitched yelps that he hadn’t heard from her in years. She ran forward to meet the lioness, yelping her head off as she raced across the snow.
Tessa met the lioness in mid-bound, and they threw themselves at each other joyfully. The lioness was going crazy, roaring, baying, and throwing herself up into the air. Tessa jumped on her, and they rolled over and over together in the snow, bellowing with excitement.
Gibbs took a step forward, and then another, peering into the swirling snow, trying to get a better view of the man in the distance. And as he walked, the man walked slowly towards him.
They met somewhere in the middle…and stopped. Gibbs found himself looking into a pair of green eyes that he remembered from a very long time ago.
“Tony?” he whispered, his warm breath clouding the cold air in front of him. “Is it you?”
Those green eyes lit up – and Gibbs remembered a small boy excitedly asking him how he’d got himself shot.
“You remember me, Jethro?” Tony’s voice was octaves deeper but the inflections were still the same, and the surprise in his voice made Gibbs ache. “After all this time? You know who I am?”
“Of course I remember you.”
Gibbs stood there, staring, completely shocked. He didn’t know what to say. He’d become accustomed to the dour drudgery of his life since he’d lost his family. He had never expected that anything good could actually happen to him again, after all this time.
“Jethro.” Tony was gazing at him as if he couldn’t believe this was happening either. “How is this possible? I mean, what are you doing here?”
“I’m the NCIS agent here to collect your dead Marine – and you, I’m guessing, are the poor bastard left here to hand him over.”
“Yes, but…it’s *you*. After all these years…it’s YOU. And why here? Why now? I mean, it’s so random…”
“Don’t know, don’t care.” Gibbs shrugged.
He held out his hand in greeting, and Tony took it. They were both wearing gloves and it felt cold, impersonal, and somehow not enough. Tony suddenly moved forward, pulling Gibbs in close, and wrapped his arms around him, enveloping him in an unexpectedly warm hug. Gibbs usually hated people touching him, but, much to his surprise, he found himself returning the hug. He held on tight for one long moment, and then he pushed Tony away so that he could get a good look at him.
Tony had grown into a big man; tall, broad, and strong. He was handsome, like his father, but unlike his father his smile was warm and genuine, and reached all the way to his eyes. “Damn it, Tony…you went and grew up!”
“And you. You’ve gone grey.” Tony grinned at him. “You’re getting old, Jethro.”
Gibbs slapped the back of his head for that, and Tony’s entire face broke into a delighted grin.
He laughed out loud and did a little jig in the snow, and Shanti danced around him, her chest heaving with deep, rumbling purrs.
“I always wondered what shape she’d take when she settled,” Gibbs said, watching the lioness romp. “Thought it might be this one; the one you tried so hard to keep everyone from seeing.”
“Can’t stop them seeing her like this now,” Tony said ruefully. “Although sometimes I’d like to, ‘cause people see this giant lioness coming towards them and freak out. I have to get Shanti to chase her own tail and jump in the air after butterflies to convince them she’s just a big pussycat really.”
“Oh, I think she’s a hell of a lot more than a big pussycat,” Gibbs said, looking at Tony searchingly.
Tony flushed and looked away. “I wasn’t sure if she’d go with the golden retriever or the lion,” he said, shuffling his feet. “She swung both ways for a hell of a long time before settling when I was about sixteen.”
Gibbs watched as Shanti and Tessa trotted around each other, roaring and howling in pleasure as they played in the snow.
Then he glanced up at the skies. The snow was still falling – not as heavily before, but most of the crime scene was now obscured.
“It’s late, and I’m freezing my ass off here,” he said. “My ME should be here soon. In the meantime, why don’t you help me process this crime scene so we can get outta here and catch up properly?”
“Me? You want me to help process your crime scene?” Tony sounded stunned.
“Well yeah, Tony. Seeing as you already made a start without my permission, you might as well continue with it.”
Tony grimaced. “Uh…sorry about that…I was just bored, and it was a long wait, and damn it, I needed something to do. Although the captain did warn me you’re an ornery bastard who doesn’t like sharing jurisdiction.”
“I never share jurisdiction if I can damn well help it.” Gibbs grunted. “But I could do with a hand, and you seem to know what you’re doing.”
“I do!” Tony picked up his camera and sketch pad and began working. It wasn’t easy in the snow, but the two of them moved around the crime scene methodically, doing their jobs.
Gibbs was impressed by Tony. His crime scene sketches were excellent – some of the best Gibbs had seen.
“There was one thing that Shanti noticed – we couldn’t find the remains of the dead guy’s daemon,” Tony told Gibbs.
Gibbs glanced around the crime scene. “Well it has to be here.”
“I can’t find it, either,” Tessa told him, looking up from where she was snuffling around in the snow. Tessa had always been extremely good at sniffing out the remains of a dead person’s daemon, so that was unexpected.
“Look again,” Gibbs rapped out.
Tony exchanged a glance with Shanti, but he did as ordered, without question.
“Something bad happened here,” Tessa told Gibbs quietly. He looked down on her with a raised eyebrow. He always trusted her opinion on crime scenes – he’d long since realized he did his job better when he listened to what she had to say and followed it.
“What kind of bad?”
She gave a shiver, the snow shaking off her thick fur coat. “Something obscene. An abomination.”
It wasn’t like Tessa to use such words, and Gibbs gave her a curious look, but she was unable to explain further.
“I thought our dead guy might be a sniper,” Tony said.
“What makes you think that?” Gibbs knelt down beside the dead man.
“This.” Tony showed him a photo ID. “He had a wolf daemon – and someone once told me that forty-three per cent of snipers have wolf daemons.”
Gibbs rocked back on his heels and looked up at him quizzically. “You remember that?”
“I remember everything,” Tony said quietly.
The dead Marine’s wrists were tied tightly behind his back with a piece of rope. Technically he should wait for Ducky to deal with the body, but in these conditions, who knew how long it'd be before the ME arrived? Gibbs leaned forward to try and untie the rope, but his gloved fingers slipped on the frozen knot. He reached into his jacket to get his knife…and stopped when a knife appeared, as if by magic, in front of him. He looked up.
“Never go anywhere without a knife,” Tony told him softly. “Rule number nine.”
Gibbs took the knife with a rueful shake of his head. “I had no idea I made such an impression on you.”
“Are you kidding? I was eight years old, and you were this scary Marine with an exciting bullet wound in his leg. I’d never met anyone like you.”
Gibbs laughed softly to himself. He removed the rope from the victim’s wrists and examined the stab wound in his back.
“Any luck on finding the remains of the daemon?” he asked Tessa. She glanced at Shanti, and they both shook their heads. Gibbs exchanged a grim look with Tony. “Was the wind strong enough to disperse the remains before anyone got here?”
“Nope. There hasn’t been much of a wind all night,” Tony told him. “Maybe he was killed somewhere else and dumped here?”
“Maybe,” Gibbs said thoughtfully. “Let’s keep working.”
“On it!” Tony returned to his search.
“So, what did you do to piss off your captain?” Gibbs asked as they worked.
“What?” Tony looked up, a guilty smile on his face. Shanti covered her eyes with her paws, and Gibbs remembered how she’d once turned into a porcupine and done the exact same thing. He raised an eyebrow.
“You sure as hell pissed someone off to be left guarding a dead guy for hours on end on a night like this.” Gibbs grinned. “So what did you do, Tony?”
Tony’s face went a deep shade of pink. “Uh…well…I might have seduced his daughter,” he muttered, kneeling down in the snow, avoiding Gibbs’s gaze.
Gibbs shook his head, amused. “Oh yeah. That’d do it.”
Tony looked up, wincing. “And also his son,” he added.
Gibbs stared at him. Maybe he should have been surprised to find out that Tony was bisexual, but somehow he wasn’t. It seemed very…Tony. He let out a loud guffaw. “Aw hell, Tony, when you screw up, you really screw up, don’t’cha?”
“They were both in their twenties, so I wasn’t cradle-snatching or anything!” Tony protested. “And man, they were cute. Both blondes. Big blue eyes. Much cuter than their old man. Of course it didn’t end well. Then again, it never does.” He gave a rueful grin. “Uh…how about you?” he asked. “You…uh…married?” He gave Gibbs a searching look.
“Divorced,” Gibbs grunted. “More than once.” Tessa came over and sat down beside him. She nudged her nose against his boot.
“Right.” Tony chewed on his lip, looking thoughtful. Gibbs hoped he wouldn’t mention Shannon; he hoped he’d assume she was one of his divorces.
He was saved from any further conversation on the topic by Ducky drawing up in the NCIS refrigerated truck. Not that they exactly needed the refrigeration on a night like this.
“My dear Gibbs, what a simply abominable night to be out working!” Ducky said, getting out of the truck, his owl daemon swooping eagerly over to the dead body. “I cannot believe how long it took me to get here. And who is this young man with the rather striking daemon?” He glanced at Tony and Shanti, who were standing over the corpse.
“Ducky – this is Detective Tony DiNozzo, and his daemon Shanti. Tony – this is Ducky – our ME, and his daemon Morag.”
Tessa looked up at him as Ducky and Tony exchanged pleasantries, and Gibbs smiled back down on her. He could feel an ache inside his chest easing, as if he'd been holding his breath for years, and now, finally, could release it.
After ten long years, he wasn’t a lone wolf anymore. He had a pack again.
They finished up at the crime scene, and Gibbs’s ME drove away with the corpse and evidence in his truck.
Tony turned, not wanting this reunion to end. He could still hardly believe this was happening.
“Coffee,” Gibbs said, jerking his thumb in the direction of his car. Tony got in beside him, still in a daze. “Anywhere open this time of night?”
“There’s an all night coffee place down over there.” Tony pointed.
The warm air of the coffee shop felt so good after standing around in the freezing cold for hours on end. Tony took off his coat and gloves and unwrapped his scarf from around his neck, and then he sat down and waited while Gibbs got them coffee. Now they were alone together, and the first joy of the reunion had worn off, he felt strangely shy.
“Idiot,” Shanti told him, nudging him with her head.
“Yeah, I know.” Tony gave a rueful grin.
“Why did he lie about Shannon?” Shanti asked.
“I don’t think he did – he just allowed me to put two and two together and make five,” Tony replied thoughtfully. “I got the impression he didn’t want to talk about her – but one thing’s clear.” Shanti gave him a questioning look. “He doesn’t know that we know anything about his life,” Tony told her. “It’s like I said earlier – we might have felt all this stuff that’s been going on with him, but I don’t think it worked both ways – and he doesn’t know I know.”
“He definitely doesn’t know that you brought him back from the coma, or that he got his revenge on whoever killed his family."
"Ssh!" Tony glanced around anxiously.
"So what should we do?” Shanti asked. "Should we tell him?"
“Fuck no! It’s freaky enough knowing all this stuff about him as it is; like I’ve been eavesdropping on his life or something.”
“You didn’t do it on purpose.”
“I don’t think that matters.”
Shanti shook her head. “He once told you that you didn’t have to hide who you truly are. I don’t think you should hide this now.”
“Damn it, Shanti – I’ve only just met up with the guy for the first time in twenty-three years! Let’s just drop it.”
She gave him a disapproving glare and then placed her head on her front paws with a resigned sigh.
Gibbs returned to the table with two steaming mugs of coffee, and Tony took a happy sip and then sighed. “Damn that’s good. I was freezing my ass off back there.”
Gibbs sat back in his chair and looked at him over his coffee mug. “So tell me about it, Tony.”
“It?” Tony said stupidly.
“It – you, your life, all of it. What happened after you left Stillwater?”
Tony dug a spoonful of sugar out of the little bowl on the table and stirred it into his coffee. His life. His stupid fuck up of a life. He wished he could say something that would make this man proud of him, but all he had was a career he kept screwing up and a trail of broken hearts and bad love affairs that he’d left in his wake.
“Not much to tell. I’m a cop – you know that. Not married – you know that.” Tony shrugged.
“What happened with your father?” Gibbs asked quietly.
Tony closed his eyes, remembering that terrible night when his father had attacked his daemon. Beside him, Shanti started to shake. Tessa licked her cheek gently, and Tony opened his eyes again.
“Well, you were right of course,” he said bitterly. “There was no fresh start or ‘just the two of us’. He was making plans to send me away to boarding school before we had even left Stillwater.”
He looked up in time to see the flash of fury in Gibbs’s eyes.
“I barely saw him for the next ten years. Occasionally I’d get myself suspended or expelled on purpose, so he’d be forced to spend some time with me. We *did* go on some interesting holidays together.” Tony laughed out loud. “Like the time we went to Hawaii when I was twelve, and he took off to ‘do business’ and left me behind on my own in the hotel room for days on end.”
“Sounds like the same old bastard he always was,” Gibbs growled. “He was leaving you to fend for yourself when you were eight.”
“He is who he is.” Tony shrugged. “How’s your dad?”
“Wouldn’t know. Haven’t seen him in years.” It was Gibbs’s turn to shrug.
Tony wondered what the hell that was all about. He sensed there was something there, but he could tell by the way Tessa was sitting, her ears pricked up and her body stiff and anxious, that it wasn’t a good idea to pursue it. It was a shame – he’d always liked Jackson Gibbs, finding in him the warmth and affection that he'd never received from his own father. But even back then it had been clear that things were tense between Jackson and his son, for whatever reason.
“Well, what about you, Jethro? What have you been doing?” Tony held an anxious breath, wondering if Gibbs would tell him anything about Shannon and the child he’d lost, or about being injured in action.
“Was a Marine until ’91. Left and joined NCIS.” Well that answered that question.
“Sounds dangerous. You get shot again?” Tony tried to turn it into a joke.
Gibbs gave a wry grin. “Took a bullet to the arm a few years ago. Not much more than a flesh wound though. You? Any, uh…injuries?” He looked almost embarrassed as he said that.
“Me? Nope.” Tony shook his head. Gibbs made a little grunting sound and took another sip of his coffee. “I thought about you sometimes. Wondered how you were doing,” Tony said, which was such an understatement that Shanti shot him a look of incredulity. He nudged her with his toe.
“Yeah.” Gibbs took a sip of his coffee. “Me too.”
Tessa sat up and looked at him, but Gibbs ignored her and concentrated on drinking his coffee. Tessa gave an annoyed little whine. She turned her back on Gibbs and gazed at Shanti expressionlessly. Shanti sighed heavily and rested her head on her paws again.
Gibbs finished his coffee and then glanced at his watch. “Well, it’s late, and you should get home. I’ll be expecting you at the Navy Yard at 9 a.m. sharp.” He got up and began shouldering himself into his coat.
“Uh…you will? Why?” Tony frowned.
“Because I need a new second on my team, and you’re a damn good crime scene worker,” Gibbs said with a shrug, wrapping his scarf around his throat.
“Wait…are you offering me a job?” Tony asked, stunned.
“What does it sound like, DiNozzo?” Gibbs grinned at him. “It’s not like your career at Baltimore PD is going anywhere by the sounds of it, and I don’t have any offspring for you to seduce. So the sensible thing is for you to come work with me.”
“You mean it?” Tony felt as if he’d burst from sheer happiness. Shanti threw back her head and roared loudly to show her approval.
Gibbs put his hands over his ears. “Yeah – but I hope my eardrums can stand working with ya.”
Tony laughed out loud. He grabbed Shanti and kissed her nose, and Gibbs shook his head, chuckling to himself.
“Thank you! Thank you, Jethro…Leroy…Gibbs…uh…what should I call you?” Tony asked in confusion.
Gibbs grinned and slapped the back of his head. “Boss,” he said. “You can call me Boss.”
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MTAC - NCIS Fic