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Soul Deep

by: Xanthe (Send Feedback)

Series: - No Series - #1
Chapters: 004 Word Count: 84818
Rating: MATURE
Character(s): Jethro Gibbs, Tony DiNozzo
Category(ies): Action/Adventure, Alternate Universe, Angst/Drama, First Time, Hurt/Comfort, Romance
Pairing(s): Gibbs/DiNozzo
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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Pretence

Gibbs returned to NCIS to get paperwork issued for Tony, to check on the progress of the autopsy, and to do some research on their dead Marine. Then he went home to grab a couple of hours sleep, take a shower, and get changed.

“Why didn’t you tell Tony?” Tessa asked him curiously as he shaved.

He looked at her in the mirror. “Tell him what?” he asked, swiping the razor over the foam on his face.

She gave him her disapproving glare, and he winced. He hadn’t seen that expression in her eyes since the last time he got married, and he never liked provoking it.

“Why didn’t you tell him you can feel what's going on for him sometimes – that you felt it when he experienced emotional anguish and also when he hurt his knee?”

“You think I should have told him that I had a hard on in a foxhole that time because *he* got lucky too?” Gibbs raised an eyebrow.

Tessa gave a little chuckle. “Oh, I can see why you didn’t tell him *that*. But why not the rest? Why not tell him that you’ve been connected all these years?”

“Have I?” Gibbs raised an eyebrow at her. “Or is it just that you’ve been connected to Shanti? You always did like her, Tessa – right from the moment she scampered up to you and touched your nose. And you usually hate being touched. Always surprised me you took to her so easy.”

Tessa looked at him quizzically in the mirror. “Your daemon likes his daemon. All that means is that you like him, and you did from the start. You might not recognize it, because you are human and complicated even though you think you are straightforward. I work on a much simpler and more instinctive level. I see the things that you often do not want to see. I believe that is why we have rule number one.”

“Oh, don’t invoke rule number one with me!” He grinned at her in the mirror. “You just use that to win arguments!”

“Do you remember what it felt like when I was touched by another’s bare hands against your will?” Tessa asked.

Gibbs shuddered, remembering a time in combat when an enemy soldier had grabbed Tessa and tried to throttle her. There had even been a time when his father had tried to touch her when he’d been ill as a kid, and it had made him want to throw up.

“I remember,” he said quietly.

“Shanti didn’t feel that way when you touched her back in the motel room. She trusted you and felt safe with you,” Tessa pointed out.

“Yeah, but I didn’t know back then that I was creating some freaky link between us! And Tony didn’t have a choice – he didn’t consent to me poking around in his soul like that all those years ago,” Gibbs growled at her, toweling his face dry. “So no, I didn’t mention it to him. I didn’t want the kid to feel obligated to me in some way, or like I’d intruded into his damn life!”

“I think you’re missing the point,” Tessa said, getting up as he strode into the other room.

“And that is?” He turned to glare at her.

“The fact that his daemon welcomed your touch,” Tessa said quietly. “Shanti trusts you because Tony trusts you. I don’t think he’d mind being linked to you like this.”

“There’s a reason we don’t go around touching other people’s daemons!” Gibbs snapped. “I shouldn’t have done it. Tony was just a kid, and he didn’t give me permission.”

“You saved his life.”

Gibbs sat down on the bed and gazed moodily at the wall. “Damn it, Tessa, have you ever heard of a link like this being created between people as a result of touching their daemon? I touched Pell several times, but me and Shannon didn't end up being linked this way. I’ve never heard of anything like it. If someone told me about it, I’d think they were nuts.”

"I have an awareness of it, but it is rare."

"If it's so damn rare, why the hell did it happen to me and Tony?"

"We have talked about this before. I think that when you met him you recognized him immediately as pack, and that somehow it was the trauma and intensity of the terrible night in the motel room that has kept you linked ever since."

"It's weird – I feel like I KNOW him, but he's just this kid I once helped out, years ago."

Tessa sat beside him and rested her chin on his knee. “Very few people get anywhere near you, but those tiny few you allow into your soul get in deep. That is what Shannon did, and it’s what Tony did too.”

“But why?” Gibbs asked helplessly. “Hell, even Kelly didn’t get in this deep.”

“She was your cub, not your soul-mate."

Gibbs looked at her in surprise. “It’s not like you to talk that kind of crap.”

Tessa laughed. “It is very like you to reject it though. And yet here you are, linked soul deep to this man all the same.”

Gibbs sighed. “I met him for a week when he was a child, and I only just saw him again. How can he be my…soul-mate?” He said the phrase with distaste.

“I had not seen Shanti for twenty-three years, yet when I saw her tonight I knew her immediately. Your daemon knew his daemon, instantly, as a friend. It was the same the first day we met. I just knew I liked her and felt at ease around her. Don’t ask how…just accept that it is. I love Shanti.”

“Are you saying I love Tony?” Gibbs raised a quizzical eyebrow at her. “As what? A brother? Friend? Pack member?”

Tessa laughed. “I will leave you to figure that one out for yourself.”

Gibbs got up and began getting dressed. “Might take a hell of a long time,” he muttered under his breath as he pulled on his pants.

“With you, that’s exactly what I’d expect,” Tessa growled back at him, going to sit by the door.

Gibbs was surprised when he got into work at 08:00 to find Tony already there waiting for him, still wearing the clothes he’d been in the previous night.

“I thought I said nine?” He raised an eyebrow.

“I know, but I was too hyped to sleep! I went back to the police station instead,” Tony said, bouncing along behind Gibbs as he walked towards the squad room. Shanti was dancing along beside him – she might look like an enormous lioness, but when Gibbs looked at her he saw that overly excitable puppy from years ago. “I did some digging on our dead guy.”

“You did?” Gibbs threw his jacket on the filing cabinet and turned back to Tony who had taken up position in front of his desk as if it was his natural home.

“Yes! I found out that our dead Marine – Paul Watson – was an all round good guy. All his friends liked him, and he was a damn fine Marine. Great service record – been decorated a couple of times – hey, were you ever decorated? Don’t answer that, of course you were.”

Gibbs picked up the remote control on his desk and pointed it at the plasma. Watson’s service record came up. “Found all this out myself last night,” he told Tony.

“Oh.” Tony looked crestfallen. Shanti stopped bouncing around and lay down on the floor, putting her head disconsolately on her paws. Tessa swiped a reassuring lick over one of her ears.

“Watson went AWOL two weeks ago,” Gibbs told him. “Nobody saw or heard anything from him until he showed up last night.” He handed Tony the dead Marine’s personnel file.

“Doesn’t seem the kind to go AWOL,” Tony mused as he flicked through the file. "I mean he's popular, good at his job, responsible, decorated…"

Gibbs picked up the Autopsy report that Ducky had left on his desk and began reading it. One thing in particular stood out, and he frowned.

“What? What is it?” Tony asked eagerly.

“You were right,” Gibbs said grimly, making his way to the elevator.

“About what?” Tony asked, hopping along behind.

The elevator doors shut behind them, and Gibbs turned to face Tony. “The remains of Paul Watson’s daemon weren’t at the crime scene, and they didn’t blow away.”

“So he must have been killed somewhere else and just dumped there.”

“No.” Gibbs shook his head. “Ducky’s report says he was definitely killed there – the amount of blood loss is consistent with Watson being killed where we found him.”

“Then how come there’s no trace of his daemon? That doesn’t make any sense. It’s not possible!”

Gibbs reached out a hand to touch Tessa’s head, feeling sick inside. “There is one explanation.”

~*~

Tony followed Gibbs into a large autopsy suite, where they found the man he’d met the night before busily scrubbing down his tables until they were gleaming. His owl daemon was perched on an overhead lamp, and they were holding what appeared to be a long, involved conversation.

Ducky looked up when they came in. “Ah, Gibbs, I was expecting a visit…and I see you’ve brought Detective DiNozzo along with you.”

Morag swooped down onto a table and gazed at Shanti quizzically. Shanti sat down on her haunches, went very still, and allowed the inspection.

“Not a detective anymore. He’s Agent DiNozzo now,” Gibbs said with an impatient wave of his hand in Tony’s direction.

Tony gave him a look of surprise. “Uh…already? I mean…I have a notice period, and I have to go to FLETC, and…”

Gibbs glared at him. “I need you here. The director can figure out the details, but you’re mine. You’re not going anywhere.”

Tony grinned at the idea of being Gibbs’s, and Shanti got up and did a little dance around his legs. Of course he belonged to Gibbs – he pretty much had since he was eight years old anyway.

Tony was getting a clear idea of how his new boss operated. Clearly Gibbs didn’t give a damn about rules and regulations; he had a direct and straightforward approach to his job. Tony liked his style. He briefly wondered how Gibbs could get away with it, but he figured he must be highly regarded at NCIS if even the agency director was prepared to pull strings for him.

“I looked at the report, Duck, but I want to hear the details from you,” Gibbs said.

“I thought you would.” Ducky gazed at them owlishly through his spectacles. “It’s a bad one, Gibbs, as you’ve gleaned. I haven’t heard of a case like this since the cold war. We heard rumours, of course, but I never wanted to believe them. In fact, the whole thing reminds me of…”

“Duck!” Gibbs rapped out, and Ducky nodded and went over to a line of steel cadaver storage units. He opened one and pulled out the occupant.

“Poor bastard.” Tony looked down on their dead Marine, who was naked with a row of sutures running down his chest from where Ducky had performed the autopsy. He glanced up to see Ducky and Gibbs gazing at him. “Uh…just…you know…kind of feel sorry for him. Got to know him a bit, seeing as how I spent most of last night with him, one way or another…although not in *that* way, obviously!” he added, panic-stricken.

Ducky glanced at Gibbs. “Is he always going to be like this?”

Gibbs reached out and slapped the back of Tony’s head. “Yeah. I’m pretty sure he is,” he replied. Tony grinned.

“Well, our poor bastard…” Ducky cast an amused glance in Tony’s direction, “Was in very poor physical condition when he died.”

“But he had a physical a month ago, and he was in good physical shape then,” Tony said, glancing at the file Gibbs had given him.

“Well, at the time of his death all his major organs were compromised, and he was a very sick man.”

“Compromised how, Ducky?” Gibbs asked.

Ducky shook his head. “Under severe stress and not functioning well. The poor man would have felt terrible – his entire body was shutting down.”

“And I think we know why that was,” Gibbs muttered.

“Yes indeed. I’ve read the studies, but I’ve never seen an actual case before.” Ducky shook his head sadly. “Poor fellow.” He reached up his arm, and Morag flew down and settled on it. He stroked her head gently, holding her close against his chest.

“What studies?” Tony asked blankly.

Ducky turned to him. “I’m very much afraid, Agent DiNozzo, that our poor Marine was forcibly separated from his daemon in the weeks prior to his death.”

“What?” Tony stared at him, aghast. “That’s…I’ve never even heard…I mean…that’s obscene.”

“When a person is separated from their daemon, it leaves them very open to suggestion,” Ducky continued. “I very much suspect that this Marine was captured for a reason and separated from his daemon on purpose in order to coerce him into doing something against his will. The forcible separation placed considerable stress on his body. It’s possible his captors told him he would be reunited with his daemon if he gave them the information they required or performed some task for them. It looks like he held out for quite some time…poor man.”

“And then, when they got what they wanted, they killed him,” Gibbs said.

“So he never saw his daemon again?” Tony went cold inside. He knelt down and pulled Shanti against his body, holding her tight. He remembered that night he’d spent without her at boarding school all those years ago. She’d been in the same building though – he couldn’t imagine what it would feel like if she was taken miles away and kept forcibly from him. He shivered, and she pushed her nose into his hand.

“It’s okay. I’m here," she whispered.

Tony looked up, feeling embarrassed, hoping they weren’t judging him for being so affected by this – only to see that Tessa was practically sitting on Gibbs’s feet, and Morag was still nestled against Ducky’s chest.

“Tony – with me,” Gibbs said briskly, breaking up the mood in the room. “We have to find whoever did this and take the bastard down.”

“Oh, I’m on your six, Boss!” Tony said, in a heartfelt voice. He’d been a cop for nine years, and he’d never come across anything so sick.

Gibbs took him to a lab where a very pretty girl with a very weird taste in clothing was busy working. She twirled around as they came in and said "Gibbs!" in a loud, excited voice.

"So who is *this*?" Tony asked, taking in a pair of sparkling green eyes and some very kissable red lips.

Gibbs slapped his head – hard. "*This* is out of your reach, DiNozzo," he told him firmly.

The pretty girl giggled and held out her hand. "I'm Abby," she said, in a deep, throaty voice.

Tony grinned at her. "I’m Tony DiNozzo – and I wasn't hitting on you, honest!"

"Yeah, you were!" Abby laughed. "But that's okay. Gibbs is kinda like a dad to me," she whispered to him under her breath as Gibbs turned to look at the plasma screen. "So no funny stuff!"

Tony nodded thoughtfully. He was pleased Gibbs had someone in his life to fill a little of the gap that his lost daughter had left, but he made a mental note that Abby was out of bounds. He never usually dated anyone he worked with anyway – his relationships were so transitory that it was always a mistake. You ended up having to see your ex – or several exes – every day at work, which was just one of the many ways that things had gone badly wrong for him at Philly. Tony had learned that one the hard way.

Abby's daemon was a very energetic, capuchin monkey. He was swinging up and down on Abby's lab equipment, dashing from one piece of tech to the next. He jumped excitedly over to them and hung himself around Abby's neck, staring at Shanti inquisitively from a pair of intelligent brown eyes. He seemed quite fascinated by the big lioness that had suddenly entered his domain. Shanti stared back serenely, looking supremely unconcerned by the scrutiny.

"Don't stare, Ben. It's rude!" Abby chided. Ben kissed her cheek and then jumped down onto the floor in front of Shanti. He tiptoed forward, one step at a time, and then suddenly reached out, grabbed a handful of Shanti's whiskers, and tugged.

"Ow!" Tony rubbed his cheek.

Ben gave a chittering laugh and released his grip on Shanti's whiskers. "Just checking they're real," he said, grinning at her.

"Of course they're real," Shanti grumbled, but her eyes were alight at the prospect of a new playmate. Tony knew his daemon all too well – Ben looked liked he enjoyed mischief, and Shanti was always ready to abandon her feline dignity and be completely silly.

"Work, people!" Gibbs clicked his fingers, and Tessa made a snapping sound with her jaws. Ben fled back to the safety of Abby's shoulder, his tail curling possessively around her neck, his hands resting on her head.

Shanti came over to sit beside Tony, and they turned their attention to the forensic evidence that Abby had picked up off the dead man's clothes. As Tony stood beside Gibbs, snapping off theories and going over the evidence, he was struck by the craziness of his life. Was he really standing here, next to this man, after all those years apart? How the hell had this even happened?

"I mustn't screw this one up," he told Shanti later that night when they were alone. Gibbs had given him a measly six hours to go home, get some sleep, and get back to the office to start working on the case again.

"You won't," she told him firmly.

"I've screwed up every single other job I ever had. No reason why this one should be any different."

"There's one very important reason why it'll be different," she said. "Jethro."

"Yeah…all the MORE reason why I'm nervous. I mean…he's *Jethro*, Shanti. He's been part of my life for years without him even knowing it. He's the last person I want to disappoint."

Shanti threw back her head and gave an impatient roar. Tony put his hands over his ears. "Okay, okay, I get the message!" he told her when she was done. She licked his cheek and then snuggled down on the bed beside him.

"You will be fine."

He pulled her close and rested his face against her thick, soft fur, the way he always did. She was right. She always was, if he really listened to what she had to say.

They spent the next three days working crazy hours, chasing down every lead they could find. Watching Gibbs in action was fascinating to Tony; all the facets of his character that Tony had known as a boy were still there, just deeper now and more intense somehow.

Their investigation into the Marine’s murder led them to a warehouse in Fairfax. They had just got out of the car when Tessa gave a low growl. Gibbs stopped immediately and put a hand on Tony’s arm.

“Draw your gun before we go in. I have a bad feeling about this,” he whispered, drawing his own gun.

“Did you hear something?” Tony frowned, doing as he was ordered anyway.

Gibbs shook his head and glanced at Tessa. Her fur was standing up on end and her eyes were alert, her ears pricked up. “Nope. Didn’t hear anything. Just listening to Tessa.”

“Rule number one?” Tony gave a wry grin.

“Yeah – rule number one. That’s the reason I’m still alive.”

Walking into the warehouse with Gibbs, gun drawn, Tony wondered why it felt like he’d always been here, walking beside this man, even though he’d been working with him for less than a week.

“Because it's where you belong,” Shanti told him sensibly in reply to the unasked question.

Tony smiled. It really did feel like he’d come home, after years in exile.

At that moment shots rang out, and he found himself acting on instinct, throwing himself on Gibbs to get him out of the way of the fire. They rolled over on the hard cement floor, ending up behind the cover of a huge shipping container. Tony’s gun flew out of his hand, and he found himself spread-eagled on Gibbs’s stomach, looking into a pair of very pissed off blue eyes. He had a flash of memory of their second meeting, that day in the woods years ago, when he’d crashed into Gibbs and sent him flying, but he was soon distracted from that thought by a sharp, stabbing pain in his knee.

“Fuck!” he screeched, grabbing his leg in his hands.

“Damn it, Tony – get off me. That’s my knee your leg is on!” Gibbs growled at him.

Tony rolled sideways, and the pain in his knee slowly reduced to a dull throb. He glanced up at Shanti to find her shaking his head, and he realized he hadn’t hurt his knee – he was feeling the pain that Gibbs was experiencing. Gibbs’s pants were torn over his knee, and Tony could see the jagged scar from that old gunshot wound.

Tony reached for his gun, but the sound of running footsteps disappearing into the distance, and then a car’s revving engine, made it clear their assailant was long gone.

They both got up and began limping towards the door. “You busted your knee too, huh Tony?” Gibbs asked wryly, nodding at his limp.

“What? Oh…uh…yeah…dislocated my knee playing basketball twelve years ago. Sometimes flares up again,” Tony replied, which wasn't exactly a lie, but wasn't the cause behind the pain in his knee right now.

“Really…dislocated knee huh?” Gibbs looked far more interested in that information than Tony thought it warranted.

“Yeah, hurt like crazy! But man, what a night I had after that! See, there were these two people I was kind of dating at the same time, and they found out about each other so they made me watch them make love as a punishment for two timing them. Only then they took pity on me because of my knee and let me join in and man, that turned out to be one of the worst and best nights of my life…uh…this is probably far too much information, Boss!” Tony said, flushing wildly.

Gibbs surprised him by giving a shit-eating grin that spread from ear to ear. He didn’t say anything, but he and Tessa looked at each other, and then they both burst out laughing.

“So now we know,” Tessa murmured.

“Oh yeah!” Gibbs said, still laughing.

“Was it something I said?” Tony whispered to Shanti, but she seemed as bemused as he was.

As Tony watched Gibbs limping towards the warehouse door, he had a sudden flashback to him limping away from him in the rain all those years ago. He shook off the residual pain in his knee and ran to catch up; there was no way he was walking away from this man ever again.

They had only just got back to the Navy Yard when the elevator door opened, and a man stepped out into the squad room with his fox daemon slinking along beside him. Tony saw Gibbs bristle and stand up straight.

“Gibbs…looks like you’ve had a bad day.” The man nodded his head in the direction of Gibbs’s torn pants. His fox daemon came over to Shanti and circled her warily. Shanti stood up, growling in the back of her throat. “So who’s the new guy?” the man asked, without even looking at Tony.

Gibbs sighed. “Tony – meet Agent Fornell, FBI. Fornell, this is Tony DiNozzo; he works for me now. What are you doing here, Tobias?”

Tony watched Tessa, but despite the combative tone of the conversation Gibbs and Fornell were having their daemons seemed completely at ease with each other. Clearly the antagonism was more for surface show – it didn't go deep.

“I’m here to take something away from you.” Fornell grinned. “Won’t be the first time!” he winked.

“Oh, you didn’t take Diane, Tobias,” Gibbs retorted. “I was glad to be rid of her.”

Fornell grunted, but Tony thought he actually relished the trash talking. He gave Gibbs a sly grin and then disappeared in the direction of the director’s office, his fox daemon slinking along beside him.

“Diane?” Tony raised an eyebrow.

“One of my ex-wives,” Gibbs replied.

“Ex-wives – plural? How many are there?” Tony asked, intrigued.

Gibbs glared at him. “Three. Now get back to work.”

Tony watched as Gibbs and Tessa limped off after Fornell. He found himself idly appreciating the view of Gibbs’s ass as he walked up the stairs, and he mentally shook himself. This was Jethro, not some random piece of ass, however fine that ass was!

“Three?” he said to Shanti in disbelief when Gibbs was out of earshot. “He got married three times?”

“Four,” she pointed out. “He has three ex-wives – but we know Shannon was killed. He’s been married four times.”

“Looks like he hasn’t found what he’s looking for then,” Tony said. “I know the feeling.”

“He did find what he was looking for, and he lost it. I don’t believe he cared for any of the women he married after Shannon – if he had, I think we’d have felt it,” Shanti said.

“Shannon was a hard act to follow.”

“And once you have known one soul-mate, nothing less will do.”

Tony raised an eyebrow. “Soul-mate?”

Shanti nodded. “That is what she was to him. You saw the way they touched each other’s daemons that day in the woods. Most couples don’t do that, however close they are. What Shannon and Jethro had was special. I think he has looked for it ever since, but he has never found it.”

“Well, I guess most people are lucky if they meet one soul-mate in their lifetime, huh?” Tony said, turning back to his work. “Two is probably asking for too much.”

Shanti looked at him for a moment, her brown eyes annoyed, although Tony didn’t have a clue what he’d said to upset her. Then she turned her back on him, walked over to Gibbs’s desk, and sat in the spot Tessa usually occupied. She didn’t say another word to him for the rest of the day.

~*~

Fornell was deep in conversation with Morrow when Gibbs entered the director’s office.

“Ah, Gibbs – I didn’t think it’d take you long to get here,” Morrow said, beckoning him in. His bat daemon was hanging upside down from the cupboard in the corner. Gibbs eyed her warily; he’d long ago realized that you had to watch her very closely to catch the tiniest hint of what might be going on with Morrow. The director was always well dressed and urbane, and it was hard to get much of a glimpse of what was going on beneath the surface.

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to hand over your current case to the FBI,” Morrow told him.

“The hell I will!”

Morrow’s bat daemon folded back her wings, making a faint rustling sound. Morrow sighed. “I thought you’d say that, but it’s part of a wider investigation they’re already conducting. They’ve thrown considerable amounts of time and money at it already, so it makes sense that they take over this case.”

“The dead guy’s a Marine,” Gibbs said stubbornly. “That makes him ours.”

“And he was separated from his daemon before being murdered and dumped,” Fornell said. “This isn’t an isolated incident, Gibbs. We've seen it happen in various states over the past few years."

"Some kind of serial killer who gets off on torturing someone before killing 'em?" Gibbs raised an eyebrow. It would take a very sick, twisted individual to forcibly separate someone from their daemon, but he'd come across plenty of sick, twisted individuals in his time, so nothing shocked him anymore.

"Could be. Or it could be a form of coercion – like that prostitution ring we busted a couple of years ago. We don't know yet."

Gibbs remembered that case from the papers; the women involved were separated from their daemons while they were working and only reunited with them for sleeping to keep them from shutting down completely. Their pimp had said it kept them docile but seeing photos of the women, Gibbs had thought they looked half-dead.

"Whatever it is, it's way out of your league," Fornell added.

Tessa growled, and Gibbs bristled at the implication.

“Hand the case over, Gibbs. Fornell’s people will take it from here,” Morrow told him firmly. “And you look terrible by the way.”

“No sleep for days, not enough agents on the ground, and being shot at will do that,” Gibbs snapped at him.

“Then get more agents on your team!” Morrow told him. “You do a good job, Gibbs, but you’ll be useless to me if you’re exhausted. Give the case to Fornell, and go hire some damn recruits!”

Gibbs had to concede that he had a point. A couple of months ago he’d had a team of three, but Langer had left to join the FBI, and Burley had wanted to be an agent afloat for some reason. Now he had Tony, but he needed at least one more agent, maybe two, to really get his team back up to speed.

Fornell grinned at him, and his fox daemon laughed in Tessa’s face. “You win some, you lose some, Gibbs,” he said silkily, before leaving.

Gibbs stomped back down the stairs, still limping on his bad knee, in a thoroughly bad mood. He hated having cases taken away from him.

Tessa went over to where Shanti was lying in her spot by Gibbs’s desk. She didn’t stand and glare like she usually would if anyone was in her spot. She just sat down beside Shanti and leaned into her. Shanti moved her head and gently nuzzled her ear. Gibbs barely gave them a second glance.

“Bad news, Boss?” Tony was by his side in seconds. Gibbs felt somehow soothed by Tony’s presence, although he wasn’t sure why. He might be in a bad mood but there was something about having Tony around that just made him feel better.

“Yeah – we lost the damn case.” Gibbs explained what had happened to Tony, who looked just as pissed off about it as he was.

"Rule number two – never trust the FBI?" Tony suggested.

Gibbs couldn't help laughing at that. "It's not rule number two, but it sure as hell should be a rule!"

"Where did the rules come from, Boss? Did your dad teach them to you?" Tony asked.

Gibbs felt his smile fading. "No," he said shortly. "It wasn't my dad."

Gibbs saw the realization in Tony's eyes that it was Shannon who had first given him the idea of making rules. So far, Tony hadn't mentioned her – and Gibbs wanted to keep it that way.

"We need more people on the team," he said briskly. "Go down to HR and get me some resumes."

"Uh, what kind of people are we looking for, Boss?"

"People who won't damn well annoy me, DiNozzo!" Gibbs snapped.

Tony nodded and made a swift exit towards the elevator. "How the hell are we gonna find anyone fitting that description?" Gibbs heard him mutter to Shanti as he went.

Tessa came over to sit beside him. "He does have a point."

"You think I'm grouchy?" He briefly rubbed one of her ears.

"Hell yeah!" She laughed at him, and he smiled down at her ruefully. "Don't worry – I'll never let you take yourself too seriously, even when everyone else is scuttling around in fear of you."

He raised an eyebrow. "'Scuttling around in fear of me'?"

She tilted her chin upwards, a 'don't even *try* and fool me' expression in her eyes.

He sighed. "Okay. I'll be nicer to Tony."

"Well, that would be good, but he isn't one of those who are afraid of you. He understands you. He always did, you know."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

She sat back on her haunches with a sigh. "Imagine you're an eight year old boy, pretty much all alone in a strange town, and you bump into a moody, short-tempered Marine with an injured paw."

"Leg," he corrected. "And what's your point?"

"My point is that most eight year olds would have run a mile. You were in a permanently bad mood while your knee healed."

"I was worried my career had come to an end. And living with Dad was driving me nuts."

"I know." She gave an impatient shake of her fur. "But Tony didn't see the wolf with the sore paw – what he saw was the man who let him use the restroom in his father's store, and played boats with him in the woods, and who knew how it felt to lose a mother."

"Oh." Gibbs sat back in his chair and glanced across the room to where Tony usually sat, with Shanti lounging on the floor beside the filing cabinet next to him. Tony had been with him for less than a week, and yet Gibbs felt like he could barely remember a time when he and Shanti hadn’t been sitting across the room from him.

"Like I said..." Tessa lay down, put her muzzle on her front paws, and closed her eyes, "he understands you."

~*~
2003

As far as Tony could see, Gibbs's recruitment skills were really lousy. It wasn't so much the recruitment itself – Gibbs managed to hire people. He also managed to fire them pretty quickly too – if they didn’t quit first.

Tony sat at his desk and watched a procession of people come and go. There were so many he could hardly keep track of them: Agent Dobbs, Agent Petiflower, Agent Markham. Agent Viv Blackadder held out for six months, which was the longest any of them stuck, but then she screwed up an undercover mission in Spain and that was the end of her and her weird armadillo daemon, Henry.

Then – finally! – along came Caitlin Todd. She was a secret service agent on the president’s protection detail, and at first Tony didn’t pay her much attention. It was Tessa who kept looking at her, and who eventually nudged Gibbs’s hand and told him that he’d found his new agent.

Kate had an intelligent but bumptious daemon called Mo. Mo was a black goat with very sharp horns – as Tony could testify because it seemed that one thing Mo enjoyed doing more than anything else was jabbing those horns into Shanti's ribs.

"Ow! That hurts!" Tony complained on one occasion as Kate returned to her desk from a visit to the rest room.

"It was supposed to," Kate told him. "That's for sneaking into my bag and going through my address book."

Tony grinned down at Shanti who did a little skip and hop into the air. "It was worth it to find out what I found out," he told Kate infuriatingly.

"And what did you find out?" She stood there, arms folded across her chest. Mo glared at Shanti.

"Well that would be telling!" Tony said, going back to his desk.

"What would be telling, DiNozzo?" Gibbs asked, striding into the squad room.

"Uh, nothing, Boss." Tony sat down at his desk and pretended to be working. Then he sneaked a glance up to find Kate and Mo still glaring at him.

"Gibbs – I came back from the restroom to find Tony going through my bag," Kate complained.

Gibbs glanced up. "Yeah, that sounds like Tony. He does stuff like that."

Tony flushed, remembering how he'd once spied on Gibbs making out with Shannon in the woods.

"Well it's annoying," Kate said. "Can't you make him stop?"

"Tony. Stop." Gibbs gave him a fierce look.

"Yes, Boss. Sorry, Boss." Shanti gave a little hum of amusement, and he nudged her with his foot. Then he sneaked a sideways look at Gibbs as he so often did during his working day. He enjoyed getting a glimpse of those vivid blue eyes, especially when Gibbs didn’t know he was looking at him.

"We want to keep this one. She doesn't screw up too often," Gibbs added, jerking his head in Kate's direction.

"Oh, thank you very much!" Kate huffed, and they all laughed.

Tony loved watching Gibbs laugh. He had learned every nuance of the man's body language over the past two years, and he liked seeing Gibbs look happy. It didn't happen very often.

"He's been unhappy for too long," he told Shanti in the privacy of his apartment later that evening.

"Well, now he has a new pack, so he *is* happy," she replied. "Well, happier than he was anyway."

Tony threw himself onto the bed in his boxer shorts. "You think that's what it is?"

"Yes. Finding you again was his turning point." She jumped onto the bed beside him, and he rested his head on her warm, soft shoulder. She began to purr. "Have you noticed that he hasn't got married again since you returned to his pack?"

"Hmmm." Tony thought about it. "You're right. Good thing. That was a terrible habit. He should do what I do and keep it casual."

Shanti turned to look at him. "Does that really make you happy?"

Tony blinked in surprise. "Well…it means I get laid a lot, and that makes me happy, so…"

Shanti's bony tail thwapped against his leg in annoyance. He sighed. "Okay…I just don't want to risk it, Shanti. You know that."

Everyone he loved had left him. His mom had died, his father had bullied him and then abandoned him; even his schools had thrown him out with some degree of regularity – although Tony thought he'd probably deserved that.

Shanti nuzzled against him reassuringly. "You want love to be safe, but nobody can ever have a guarantee. Look at Jethro. He had Shannon, and a daughter he loved, but he lost them."

"And it hurts," Tony said, remembering how his mom's daemon used to sit beside Shanti, purring soothingly until Tony finally dropped off to sleep at nights. "Why would I want to put myself through that pain, Shanti? I don't want to end up like Jethro, all numb and frozen inside."

"He does not have so much of a hard shell now," Shanti said quietly. "It has softened in the last couple of years. I feel much more from Tessa now."

"Probably just 'cause you see her all the time," Tony muttered drowsily.

"And besides, not everybody who loved you left you," Shanti said. "Jethro didn't. You left him."

"Jethro doesn't love me." Tony grinned at the thought of his tough, no-nonsense boss loving him. "I mean, I'm pack to him, yes. I'm his second. He probably thinks of me as a beta wolf or something."

Shanti sighed and rested her head on her paws and closed her eyes.

~*~

2004

Gibbs glanced over at his newest team member with a sense of satisfaction. Probationary agent Tim McGee completed his team, giving him the technical expertise that he needed in an increasingly technological world. He watched as McGee methodically worked his way through the background checks he'd given him, his squirrel daemon sitting on the desk beside him, her fluffy tail twitching slightly as McGee worked. Her name was Angela, which seemed to amuse Tony for some reason, and Gibbs's errant senior agent was forever making jokes about it.

Gibbs wondered if it was his imagination or whether he was having to slap Tony's head more often lately. It seemed like they'd all got into a very comfortable groove, and Tony's genius for putting clues together came hand in hand with a compulsion to be a complete idiot at times.

"He just wants your attention," Tessa murmured to him.

"Either that or he *likes* getting his head slapped," Gibbs replied, getting up and going upstairs for coffee.

"At least as much as you like slapping it," Tessa said.

Gibbs paused on the stairs and looked down on the squad room to find Tony wearing his smartest suit for some reason. He probably had a date later – Tony's revolving door of a love life never ceased to amaze him.

"You can talk," Tessa said. "With all your ex-wives."

"I know, they were all wrong for me, and I should have listened to you."

"Exactly. Why didn't you?"

"I don't know. It just seemed like a good idea at the time."

"Every single time?" Tessa's look of exasperation was almost comical. "Just because they had red hair? Oh, and Stephanie had a sparrowhawk daemon that reminded you of Pell."

“Yeah, that’s about right.” Gibbs gave a rueful shrug.

“You listen to me about work, but not about the other stuff,” she observed. “You always listen to me about work and when am I ever wrong?”

“Never. You’re always right.” He patted her head patronizingly, and she nipped his hand with her teeth. He laughed.

They reached the squad room, and she fell silent. Gibbs had just returned to his desk, ignoring all the chatter from his team who seemed to be amusing themselves with some kind of conversation about a letter that had been delivered…when suddenly Tessa stood up and began barking.

Gibbs was on his feet immediately, in time to see Tony inhaling a fine white dust as it billowed up into the air from the letter he'd just opened.

Gibbs immediately initiated evacuation procedures and watched as Tony left the room, his hair dripping wet from the water he'd swilled over his head to clear the dust.

"I have a bad feeling about this," Tessa said as they followed his team to the decontamination showers, and Gibbs knew she was right. He felt that protective surge of energy he always felt when any of his pack was in danger and swung immediately into action.

The next few hours were a blur of showers, and Ducky talking about something called ‘y pestis’ which basically boiled down, horrifyingly, to the plague. Tony and Kate were dispatched immediately to Bethesda, with Shanti and Mo arguing and shoving each other the whole time as usual.

Gibbs was given the all clear. Only one member of his team had been infected, and Gibbs didn't need the results of the tests to tell him which one; he could already feel the rasping in his lungs.

~*~

Tony smiled at the pretty nurse and took the antibiotics she gave him. The isolation unit at Bethesda was a state of the art facility, but that didn't make him feel any better about being here.

"Why thank you, Nurse Emma." He gave her his most charming smile, ignoring Kate's snort from the other end of the isolation unit. "So…Brad Pitt…tough break going through life with a name like that," Tony said to the doctor.

Dr. Brad Pitt grinned, and his ferret daemon sat up on her haunches and studied Shanti intently. Shanti gave the ferret a broad wink, and the daemon blinked, looking surprised.

"Yeah – hard to compete when the *other* Brad Pitt is the best looking guy in the world," the doctor said as he checked through Tony's medical notes. His daemon jumped onto the bed and inched closer to Shanti, examining her watchfully.

"Oh…I think you're doing just fine in the looks department," Tony purred flirtatiously. Shanti rubbed her jaw against the side of Dr. Pitt's daemon. The ferret seemed both skittish and amused – she patted Shanti's nose and then jumped up onto Dr. Pitt's shoulder.

"Okay, Tony…I'm going to chase those test results. You make yourself comfortable."

"Oh, I WILL, Brad, I will." Tony grinned, waving to the doctor as he left.

"You are disgusting," Kate told him when they were alone. “You don’t even know if Dr. Pitt is bisexual, and you’re hitting on him.”

“Oh, it’s my experience that everyone’s at least a little bit bi if you just talk to them in the right way.” He winked at her.

"Seriously, Tony, how can you be thinking about sex at a time like this?"

Tony rolled onto his side and looked at her more searchingly. She was talking tough, as usual, but she had her arms around Mo, and he was snuggled up against her, looking scared.

"Surely now is precisely the time to be thinking about sex," Tony said, resting one hand lightly on Shanti's head where she was lying on the bed beside him.

"You mean, in the face of imminent death?" Kate raised an eyebrow.

"Exactly! It's an affirmation of life!"

"Except you think about sex all the time," Kate pointed out. "Not just in life or death situations."

Tony grinned. "What can I say, Kate? I like sex."

"But to flirt with your doctor *and* your nurse in virtually the same breath? That's cheap, Tony, even for you."

Tony glared at her. "No, Kate, it's pragmatic. They’re both cute, and if Emma doesn’t wanna sleep with me then Brad might – or vice versa. Hey!" He felt his mood brightening. "I wonder if they'd be up for a threesome?"

A pillow was launched across the room at him. "Like I said – disgusting," Kate sniffed.

"Spoken like one who's never had a threesome." Tony smirked. He knew he was annoying her – but at least it was taking her mind off their situation. He hoped she wasn't infected. It was his fault; he'd rushed to open that envelope, and he didn't want her suffering for his mistake. "You don't know what you're missing, Kate! I once had this amazing threesome. It was the night I busted my knee…Sarah and Jason…I wonder if they ended up together? They were both so hot."

"Oh shut up." Kate pulled a pillow over her ears. "I don't to hear one more thing about your ridiculous sexual exploits, DiNozzo."

"Aw…I'm just trying to educate you, Kate." Tony bit back the cough he could feel at the back of his throat. Shanti raised her head to gaze at him. "It's okay," he whispered to her. "It'll be fine."

"I feel hot. My throat burns," she confided in him.

"I know, sweetheart. I know." He turned his back on Kate, pulled Shanti close, and buried his face in her thick, soft fur. "You know, if this is it…I'm glad you're here with me."

"Where else would I be?" Shanti asked, looking puzzled.

Tony gave a little shiver. "Just remembering that poor bastard from a couple of years ago – you remember – Paul Watson, my first case at NCIS. The one they wouldn't let us solve. He died all alone, separated from his daemon." He shivered again, but this time he couldn't suppress the cough that came out.

Shanti rubbed her head against his, and he could hear the breath rattling in her chest.

~*~

Fifteen per cent.

Just fifteen per cent of those infected with y pestis survived. The number reverberated around in Gibbs's head as he gave the bitch who'd infected Tony to Agent Yates for her to deal with, so that he could go be with his agent.

He ignored the tightness in his chest, the pounding in his head, and the persistent urge to cough; he knew they were just bleed-through from Tony.

"He's scared," Tessa said, as they reached Bethesda. "He feels so ill. He's sure he's going to die."

"Like hell he will," Gibbs growled, striding into the isolation unit. He wasn't going to lose Tony. He couldn't.

The doctor tried to keep him out, but Gibbs told him brusquely that the y pestis contained a suicide chain, and Tony wasn't infectious anymore. Then he brushed past the man and went over to Tony's side.

Tony was lying in a hospital bed, looking like hell. His hair was dark with sweat, his skin paper white, and his breathing was coming in hard, guttural gasps. Gibbs had a sudden vivid flashback to a child whose daemon had been attacked. He'd had the same pale skin and dark circles under his eyes, and he'd looked just as frail and vulnerable as Tony did right now. Damn it, how the hell could this be happening again?

Fifteen per cent made it. Eight-five per cent died. Why would Tony be in the lucky fifteen per cent?

"Because he has something to live for," Tessa said, jumping up on the bed to sit beside Tony.

She lay down on Tony's other side, opposite Shanti, but Shanti didn't move to welcome her. The daemon was quiet and unmoving – which was all wrong because Shanti was never still like this. She was the most energetic daemon Gibbs had ever known. She was always dancing around the squad room, poking her nose into people's desk drawers and bags, and generally being a complete nuisance.

Gibbs leaned forward and placed his hand on Tony's shoulder. "Tony…it's me – Gibbs."

Tony's eyes were closed, and there was no reply.

"He's unconscious," Dr. Pitt told him quietly from over by the door. "There's nothing more we can do for him. That's what I was trying to tell you; he isn't going to make it."

"Get out," Gibbs snapped. Dr. Pitt blinked, uncertainly. "I said get out!" Gibbs roared, and Tessa sat up and growled at the man's ferret daemon. Dr. Pitt backed nervously out of the isolation unit, and Gibbs turned his attention back to Tony.

"Tony – you will not die," Gibbs ordered firmly. There was no sign that Tony had even heard him. Gibbs delivered a sharp tap to Tony's head, but Tony remained still and unmoving. "Damn it! I will not lose you!" Gibbs ran his hand gently through Tony's thick, damp hair. "D'you hear me, Tony? I can't lose you. Not after…" He drew in a ragged breath. "You're pack, Tony. I can't lose you."

He stroked Tony's hair repeatedly, looking for a response, any kind of response, but Tony remained unconscious.

Tessa glanced up at him. "Maybe he doesn't know that it's you," she said. "Use your name."

"Tony – it's me…Jethro." Gibbs looked at Tessa, but she shook her head. "Damn it, DiNozzo!" Gibbs smoothed Tony's damp hair again. "It's Jethro. D'you hear me?"

Tessa looked at him anxiously, and he knew she could feel Tony slipping away from them. "I will touch him," she said.

He nodded to her, and she gently rubbed her muzzle against Tony's bare hand. Gibbs took a deep intake of breath as his daemon touched another person's bare skin, expecting to feel the rush and tumult of Tony's consciousness – but instead he felt only darkness.

~*~

Tony looked around and then smiled as he realized that he was standing in the woods in Stillwater. Over there, he could see the creek where he and Jethro had sailed their handmade boats. And over there, a green and red blanket was stretched out on the ground, and he could see the remains of a picnic. He went and sat down on the blanket. The sun was glimmering through the trees, and it was a beautiful summer's day. He lay down on his back and soaked up the sun.

It felt good here. He wasn't coughing, and his body didn't ache. The sun warmed him, and he felt at peace. This was his happy place, where he went to escape whenever times were tough. He'd been here many times before in his day-dreams, but never had it felt as real as it did now.

A warm body settled down beside him, and he reached out and ran his hand through a soft, furry coat. He smiled, feeling completely at peace.

A big, sloppy tongue began washing his cheek, and he screwed up his face.

"Shanti! Stop it!"

He didn't want to open his eyes, but she was persistent. He tried to bat her away but when that didn't work he sat up in annoyance, opening his eyes…and found himself staring at Tessa.

"Where's Shanti?" he asked, bewildered.

"She's here, but you can't see her," Tessa told him. "She's unconscious – just like you. She's lying beside you, and Jethro is keeping her safe. He's watching over her – he's watching over you both. Why don't you come back and join us?"

"I don't understand. How can I be here if she's not?"

"You're dying," Tessa said bluntly. "Your body is very sick. If you stay here then you'll die, and Shanti will be gone."

The thought of Shanti being gone was enough to galvanise Tony into action. "Which way is back?" He got up and looked around. All he could see was trees and more trees.

"This way." Tessa began loping off towards the darkest section of the woods. They were so dark and sinister that Tony hung back. Tessa turned and looked at him. "Don't be afraid, Tony."

"I'm not. Not when the danger is something I can face…but this…" The trees here were gnarled and twisted, their branches bare. Every step he took away from his happy place seemed to hurt.

"I know. And Shanti is your courage, but you can't feel her right now. Let me be your courage instead."

She came back and nudged him with her nose. He took some strength from that and walked slowly through the twisted, sinister shapes all around him.

Tony froze – ahead of him was something bad. He wasn't sure what it was, but he knew it was painful, and he didn't want to go there.

"It's okay, Tony. I'm with you," Tessa told him.

He rested his hand on her head – it felt familiar, like having Shanti with him. He could see a motel room through the trees, and he didn't want to see what was in it.

"You have to come with me," Tessa said.

"But it hurts." He wrapped his arms around his body and shivered. It wasn't sunny anymore; it was dark and had started to rain.

"I'm here," Tessa said, and he knew he would follow her anywhere. She would always keep him safe; she always had.

"On your six," he whispered, following on behind.

She led him to the motel room, and he faltered. Inside, he could hear raised voices, and he hesitated, not wanting to go in there.

"You have to," Tessa told him insistently.

He paused, hand outstretched, listening to the sounds of an old memory playing. He didn't like this memory. He didn't want to go back there, to the place where that memory lived. He was about to turn and run back to his happy place when he heard a yelp of pain.

"Shanti – that's Shanti!" Now he didn't hesitate anymore; he pushed open the door and saw his father slamming Shanti against the wall. She was just a puppy, so small. He could hardly remember a time when she'd been that small. "She's hurting…I have to stop him hurting her!" Tony ran forward and tried to grab his father's arm, but he seemed to have no substance. His father didn't even know he was there. His father dropped Shanti onto the floor, and she lay there on her side, screaming in pain.

"Go to her," Tessa said, nodding at Shanti. The puppy was barely conscious, her paws moving feebly as if she wanted to run.

"It'll hurt," Tony whimpered.

"Yes," Tessa said implacably.

He would do anything for Shanti. He didn't care how much it hurt. He went over to her and gently touched her fur and the next thing he knew he was inside her, and she was him, and he was her – the way it always had been. Then he was lying on his back, struggling to breathe, looking up at the isolation room ceiling at Bethesda…and Shanti was lying beside him, gazing at him.

"Thank you." She licked his face gently.

"You should thank Tessa," Tony coughed. He could feel the blood on his lips, but he didn't feel as bad as he had before. Shanti was nestled under one of his arms, and Tessa under the other – and Jethro was leaning over him, guarding him, like Tessa had said.

"You back with us, Tony?" Gibbs asked, and Tony thought he looked tired, his face etched with lines of worry.

"Yeah." Tony managed a weak smile.

"Good, because you don’t have my permission to die.” Much to Tony's surprise, he ran his hand gently through his hair. "You never have my permission to die, Tony," he said gruffly.

He stayed there, beside Tony, for the next couple of hours, and every time Tony woke he could feel Shanti lying next to him on one side, and Tessa on the other. It felt good. He felt safe.

At some point Dr. Pitt returned and pronounced him out of danger. Then and only then did Gibbs get up to leave. He took Tony's cell phone out of his pocket and pressed it into Tony's hand, returning it to him.

"You should change the number. People keep calling for 'Spanky'." He grinned at Tony and then left, with Tessa by his side.

~*~

"Why did you say that?" Tessa asked as they walked away from the hospital. "That thing about his lovers calling for him?"

"Wanted to give him something to help him get well. Remind him what he has to live for," Gibbs replied, opening the car door. She gave him a look of absolute disgust. "What?" he asked.

"He already has something to live for," she muttered, "you already gave him that." She got into the car and sat down with her chin on her paws, looking annoyed. He seemed to be annoying her a lot lately, and it always seemed to centre around Tony.

Gibbs drove back to NCIS to find a message on his desk from HR. He supposed Director Morrow must have told them what was happening because HR had left him the phone number for Tony's father.

He sat and stared at it for a long time. It was NCIS protocol to contact a listed family member in the case of an agent being hospitalized. He remembered DiNozzo Senior and his hyena daemon all too well, and he baulked at the thought of contacting the man.

"Then don't," Tessa said, her fur bristling. "I don't like him."

"I know. But Tony does." Despite everything, he knew that Tony still cared for his father. "It's not up to me to decide this for him. He's ill – he might appreciate a visit from his dad."

"If his father isn't too busy," Tessa said tartly.

Gibbs picked up the phone tersely and dialled the number. A voice he remembered from a long time ago answered.

"Mr. DiNozzo? This is Agent Gibbs from NCIS – I'm your son's boss."

He wondered if DiNozzo Senior remembered him from all those years ago. Had Tony told his father that he was working for the man who had rescued him from that motel room?

"Oh yes. Is there a problem?" It wasn't possible to tell from the man's tone of voice, but then again, DiNozzo Senior always had been adept at hiding behind a smile and an urbane attitude. "Is Tony okay?"

"No. He's been seriously ill. He'll make it, but it was a close thing."

"Oh well. That's good. He's going to be fine."

"He nearly died."

"But he's fine now."

"Yes." Gibbs could feel his temper rising. "But he could do with a visit."

There was a long pause. "I'd love to," came the eventual reply. "But it's impossible right now. I'm doing business at the moment."

Gibbs snapped. "Did you hear me? He's been seriously ill. He had the damn plague! He almost damn well died!"

"I heard you." The reply was smooth, unruffled. "You also said he was going to be fine. I'll get my secretary to send flowers. Tony's a big boy; he hates being fussed over."

"He wouldn't know what it's like, because you never gave a fucking damn about him, you selfish fucking bastard," Gibbs growled, and then he threw the phone down.

"I told you so," Tessa said.

"I know, but I had to try, damn it!"

Dr. Pitt had said Tony could be released from the hospital in a few days – but he'd need a couple of weeks to recuperate, and Gibbs wasn't leaving him on his own in his apartment to do that. He knew Tony well enough to know that spending all that time alone with his thoughts, unable to be active, would be a kind of purgatory for him. But it wasn't as if Morrow would let him have two weeks off to play nursemaid to his agent.

"There is another option," Tessa said quietly.

"Yeah." Gibbs gazed at the phone moodily.

"You can do it. For Tony." She put her head on his lap.

"I don't know that I can. Not even for Tony."

"You just don't want to face up to the fact that you might have been wrong and that you acted harshly and hastily."

He glared at her, but she just stood there, gazing back at him steadily. Looking down into her calm brown eyes, he knew he didn't have a choice. This was just one of those occasions when you had to suck it up and be a man.

He reached for the phone again.

~*~

"I'm staying with you?" Tony asked, horrified, as Gibbs wheeled him out of the hospital. "But…you'll be at work all day, and you don't have a DVD player – what the hell will I *do*?"

"I've taken care of that," Gibbs said brusquely.

"You hired a nurse?" Tony glanced up at him, feeling his mood brighten a little. "Is it someone hot?"

Gibbs slapped the back of his head – gently. "At least you're behaving like your usual self, even if you do look like shit," he said as he helped Tony into the car.

Shanti got in beside him, with Tessa's aid, and immediately sank down onto the back seat, breathing heavily. Tessa got onto the seat beside her. Tony liked having her there, next to Shanti – it made him feel safe.

"You have a terrible bedside manner," Tony griped, taking a look at his reflection in the side mirror – and then grimacing. "But you're right. I do look like shit."

He sank back in the car seat and closed his eyes, completely exhausted by the short excursion.

He heard Gibbs get in beside him, and then they drove off. Perhaps in deference to his sick passenger, Gibbs didn't go *quite* as fast as usual, but Tony was glad he had his eyes closed all the same.

"So," Tony murmured after ten minutes or so of silence. "What did he say?"

"What did who say?"

Tony opened his eyes and glanced at Gibbs. "My father. I know you called him. His number is listed in my personnel file, and it's NCIS protocol to call next of kin after something like this."

"*I* am listed as your next of kin," Gibbs told him firmly.

Tony smiled and sank back in his seat, closing his eyes again. "Yeah, but he's the only family member on my file. Come on, Boss, I know you called him. What did he say? No, wait – I already know. He's sorry I'm ill, he really is…and you know, it almost sounds like he means it – if you didn't know him better, which we both do. So, he's sorry, but he's too busy 'doing business' right now. He'll send some amazing flowers though."

There was no reply. Eventually he opened his eyes and glanced sideways at Gibbs. His boss was sitting there, back rigid, eyes fixed on the road.

"Yes?" Tony said.

Gibbs turned to glance at him. "Yes, Tony," he said quietly. He never had been one to sugar-coat the bad news any, and it was a character trait Tony appreciated.

Tony gave a hollow little chuckle. "What's the saying – the more things change the more they stay the same? Never mind. He'd have made as lousy a nurse as he did a father. An agency nurse will be better."

"I didn't hire an agency nurse, Tony. I asked someone else to help out."

Tony frowned. "Who? Shit, I hope you didn't go through my address book, Boss, because…uh….some of those relationships didn't work out so well and…"

"Don't be an idiot, Tony." Gibbs rolled his eyes. "I wouldn't leave you with anyone I didn't trust."

"But you don't trust anyone," Tony said blankly. "Well, except maybe Abby and Ducky. Is it Ducky?"

Gibbs didn't get a chance to reply as Tony was suddenly seized by a fit of vicious coughing. His entire body shook, and he coughed so hard it felt like he was going to bring up his lungs through his mouth. Afterwards, he was so shattered he could barely move, let alone think about whoever Gibbs had assigned to play nursemaid to him.

They pulled up at his house, and Tony just sat there, feeling too tired to make the short journey into the house.

Gibbs went around to his side of the car and opened the door. He put a strong arm under Tony's shoulder and helped him out of the car. Then he slowly guided Tony into the house, with Tessa just as slowly helping Shanti behind them.

It was warm and welcoming inside; there was a fire burning in the grate, and the place looked clean and homely. Tony could even smell something baking in the oven. He'd been to Gibbs's house a few times, and it was never usually like this. Usually it was like a home without a heart, but it didn't feel that way right now.

"What happened here?" he whispered, and then the kitchen door opened, and an old, blessedly familiar voice spoke.

"You're here! I thought I heard the car."

A plump red hen ran towards Shanti, and Tony gazed at the man in front of him in disbelief. His hair was all white now, but those kind blue eyes were the same as Tony remembered them.

"Jack?” he whispered.

"Tony…I'd know that daemon anywhere! Never saw a lioness so big! How ya doing, Shanti? And you, Tony…" Jackson stood in front of him, shaking his head from side to side, his blue eyes looking suspiciously glassy. "Tony…I can't believe I'm seeing you again, after all this time. Look how big you got!"

He wrapped his arms around Tony and pulled him into a gentle bear hug. Tony closed his eyes and hung on tight, relishing the simple human comfort of the gesture.

Jackson pulled back and gazed at him. "You look terrible, son. Leroy told me what happened to you…said you needed looking after, and let me tell you, I've always wanted to look after you since you were that little waif and stray Leroy brought home all those years ago. If ever a boy needed some looking after, it was you. Still do, by the look of things! Leroy never would let anyone take care of him, much as I tried – used to rile him up so much – so you'd be doing me a favour to let me have someone to cluck over."

He took hold of Tony's arm and helped him into the living room. Tony noticed that Jackson was walking none-too-steadily himself these days, but with Gibbs on the other side propping them both up, nobody was in any danger of falling.

They sat him down on the couch beside the fire. Then Gibbs disappeared to take Tony's bag up to his room.

Jackson sat down beside Tony on the couch. "Sorry – I've been going on, saying too much as usual. But I really do hope you don't mind me taking care of you for the next couple of weeks, son. Leroy doesn't trust you with anyone else, and I've got a youngster helping me out in the store – he's more than capable of taking care of things up there for me. Leroy asked me if I'd mind, and I said, 'mind? I'd drop everything to get a chance to do something for that boy again.’ Always felt I didn't do enough for you last time around, you see, Tony."

Tony didn't have any words. He just rested his head on Jackson's shoulder and allowed the old man to put an arm around him and hug him tightly, the way his own father had never done.

~*~
Gibbs arrived home from work the following night to a warm, welcoming house. He shook off his irritation at having people in his place, getting in his way, because it was actually pretty nice to come home to find two of his pack sitting in front of his fire.

Tony and Jackson were facing off over a game of checkers, and Tony looked tired and ill – which was to be expected – but also relaxed and happy, which was more of a surprise.

Tessa immediately trotted over to where Shanti was resting on her side in front of the fire, and she nosed the lioness to check her condition. Shanti looked too tired to get up, but she nuzzled Tessa reassuringly.

"You're in good time, son. Supper's almost ready," his father told him, glancing up at him.

His father's sharp blue eyes never missed anything, and Gibbs knew he was being scrutinized and examined. It always annoyed him – he hated being watched. Every night as a kid when he'd come home from school, his father had looked at him for a sign of how his day had gone. Then they'd sat out on the porch while Jackson asked him a bunch of questions about it. Gibbs wasn't sure why it had annoyed him so much, but he'd always responded with a series of monosyllabic grunts that had served to leave his father frustrated and as much in the dark about his son's life as if he hadn’t made the effort to ask.

"Good." Gibbs went over to the gun safe and stowed his gun away. "Thanks," he managed to mutter by dint of supreme effort. "I'll just go get changed."

He ignored Tony's glance of curiosity at the strained atmosphere between them and went upstairs with Tessa loping beside him.

"You'll have to talk to him at some point, you know," she pointed out reasonably. He'd barely spoken to his father since Jackson had arrived. He'd brusquely told him about Tony but turned down all attempts his father had made to catch up on the thirteen years of his life he'd missed – including all three of his failed marriages.

Gibbs took a shower and changed into a pair of sweats. Usually he'd go and work on his boat, but tonight some kind of social interaction would be required of him, and he felt himself becoming irritable in anticipation.

"They're your pack. Just relax and enjoy being with them," Tessa told him. He wished he found it that easy.

He went downstairs and was about to push open the door when he heard Tony speaking to his father, and he paused.

"So what's the story, Jack? You and Leroy look like you're walking on eggshells around each other."

He heard his father sigh, and he knew he should stop eavesdropping and enter the room but a part of him was curious to hear the response.

"With Leroy and me it's complicated. We're like oil and water, and I know I rub him the wrong way."

"I get the impression you two haven't talked in a long time."

"I tried." Jackson's voice faltered. "See, Tony…me and Leroy's mom, there was a lot of love there but we never did find a way to live together and be happy. We separated when Leroy was a kid, and he went to live with his mom. She died a couple of years later, so he came back to live with me, but I think he always blamed me on some level for not loving his mom the way he loved her, and not mourning her the same way, either. Leroy's emotions…they're well hidden, but they can be intense."

"Yes. I know that," Tony said softly, and Gibbs was surprised by that. Tony joked around so much he forgot how perceptive he was. He rarely missed anything at a crime scene, so it was hardly surprising he didn't miss anything that was going on with the people on his team, either.

Gibbs pushed open the door and walked into the room. "How ya feeling, Tony?" he asked brusquely, fighting off an urge to run his hand through Tony's hair, the way he'd done back at the hospital. Tessa had no such inhibitions. She went over to Shanti, settled down beside her, and began grooming her.

Tony looked up at him with an easy smile, and Gibbs realized with a pang that he was completely at home here, as if it was where he belonged.

"Bit tired, Boss, but Jack's been great. Made me take a nap a couple of times, brought me good food, made conversation, and he doesn't mind being repeatedly thrashed at checkers!" Tony grinned. "He's not a sore loser, or overly competitive like some people," he added pointedly.

Gibbs grunted, but he couldn't help but notice how contented Tony looked, and it suddenly hit him just how much Tony had been neglected as a kid. Now he was lapping up all the care and attention, having clearly been starved of it his entire life. He hid it well, beneath all the joking around and the entirely too graphic descriptions of his sex life, but Gibbs suddenly saw that underneath it all, Tony really did just crave the love and attention he'd never had as a kid.

This time he didn't stop himself. He rested his hand on Tony's head and tousled his hair gently. Then he noticed his father watching him, the way he always did, and he moved his hand away guiltily. He wasn't sure why – he just felt he'd given too much away somehow.

After dinner, Tony fell asleep on the couch in front of the fire while Jackson and Gibbs remained seated at the table, finishing their coffee.

"I…uh…wanted to say thanks," Gibbs muttered. "For dropping everything to take care of Tony. Appreciate it."

"It's been my pleasure. I always did feel I had unfinished business with that kid. I can't believe you two ran into each other again after all these years!" Jackson gave a little laugh. "Tony told me all about how you met up again at some crime scene in the snow a few years ago."

"Four," Gibbs said absently. "It was four years ago. Glad to have him back. Always felt like pack. Tessa always said he was."

"Hmmm." Jackson stirred his coffee, a thoughtful look on his face. "I think it makes you happy – having him around. It always did. I never saw Tessa take to another daemon the way she took to Shanti. I used to despair when you were a kid – Tessa growling at other kids' daemons the whole time, and parents calling me to complain."

"I just take time to get to know people." Gibbs shrugged.

"Not Tony."

"No. Not Tony."

"You ever thought why?" His father's gaze was searching, and Gibbs fought down a familiar surge of annoyance.

"No."

"Maybe you should," his father said mildly.

"Tony's pack; he's just a kid…” Gibbs tried to find the words to describe the exact place Tony occupied in his life.

"He looks like a grown man to me," Jackson said, glancing over at the couch where Tony was sitting fast asleep, his head slung back, snoring gently. "He's not a cub – and I know he doesn't view you as his father. He looks up to you as a leader and a mentor, sure, but he's also clearly crazy in love with you."

Gibbs laughed out loud. "That's absurd!"

"Is it?" Jackson nodded at where Shanti and Tessa were curled up together, in front of the fire, bodies entwined, muzzles touching. "Your daemons tell a different story. Some things you can't hide, son. Question is – why would you want to?"

"It's not…look, I don't know why Shanti and Tessa like each other so much. I've never thought about it," Gibbs replied, feeling out of his depth with all this talk about love.

"Is it because of Shannon?" his father asked.

Gibbs felt like every sensitive nerve inside him was being twanged, and he didn't like it.

"Do you feel you shouldn't have something that good again, Leroy? 'Cause last time I saw Tessa behave like that around another daemon it was Pell."

"I preferred it when you just used to interrogate me about what kind of day I'd had," Gibbs growled. Tessa raised her head and looked at him questioningly.

Jackson laughed out loud. "Oh, I know you always hated those conversations I forced you into, son, but I was at my wit's end. I didn't know how to get my own boy to talk to me. Getting information out of you was like pulling teeth."

"I don't like talking about myself, Dad. I'm not you."

"I know. And I learned to see how you felt in the tilt of your head and the light in your eyes. I learned that it was what you did and not what you said that mattered. You see, you're a hard study, Leroy, and yet that young man over there…" Jackson nodded his head in Tony's direction. "He seems to understand you without putting any thought into it at all."

Gibbs looked at Tony again, and this time he noticed the surge of something deep and strong inside. He felt an urge to put his arm around Tony and hold him tight, and he found himself wondering what it would be like to silence that teasing mouth by kissing it hard. He wasn’t prepared for the sudden rush of desire that caused, and he cut off the thought, feeling angry.

“I'm not in love with DiNozzo!" he snapped.

"Is it the fact he's a guy?" Jackson asked. "I know you've always gone for women, Leroy, so is that it?"

Gibbs stared at him mutely. He didn't give a damn about sexual orientation, but falling in love with anyone else felt like a betrayal of what he’d had with Shannon.

"You're allowed to be happy, son," Jackson said quietly, leaning over the table to pat him on the arm. "Just like I was allowed to move on and date other people after your mom died. Doesn't mean you don't feel anything, or you didn't care – just means you're human."

"I moved on. Damn it, Dad, I've been married three times since Shannon!"

"I heard about your marriages on the grapevine; tried to keep up with your life even when you were doing your best to shut me out. And it always seemed to me that those women were you either trying to find what you had with Shannon, or punishing yourself for not being here when Shannon and Kelly died. What they weren't, in any respect, was you moving on.” He sat back in his chair and gazed at Gibbs keenly. “If you'd moved on, you'd have invited me to meet all those wives of yours, and you didn't. Fact is, the only person you were prepared to let me back into your life for was Tony."

"Because you knew him back then! Because…" Gibbs shook his head, feeling exasperated by his inability to navigate these complex emotional waters.

"Because you're in love with him, but too thick-skulled to realize it. And too scared."

"Damn it, Dad, I'm not scared!"

Jackson chuckled. "Oh, son, you've always been scared of anyone getting too close. Look how many people have managed it your entire life – two. Shannon and Tony. That surely tells you something."

"You're wrong." Gibbs got up and went around the other side of the table to where his father was sitting.

"Am I?" Jackson raised a sceptical eyebrow.

"Yeah. It's three." Gibbs pressed a kiss to his father's white hair. "Always was, Dad."

Jackson looked up at him with an expression of such genuine delight in his eyes that Gibbs knew he'd done the right thing. It was the closest he would ever come to saying he was sorry for shutting his father out of his life all this time. But he knew that his father knew that.

Jackson put a hand over his, where it was resting on his shoulder. "Welcome home, son," he said softly. "Welcome home."

~*~

Tony was sorry when it came time to leave Gibbs's house. The two weeks he'd spent being looked after by Jackson Gibbs were some of the happiest in his life. He hadn't been the focus of anyone's undivided attention in that way since his mom died, and he hadn't even realized he'd been craving it. He slept well at night – far better than he did at home – but his favourite part of every day were the evenings, when Tessa lay next to Shanti and they dozed together in front of the fire. He never felt more at peace than during those moments.

All too soon he was back in his lonely apartment, and back at work, and then he was standing on a rooftop with Kate's blood all over his face. One minute her daemon, Mo, had been strutting around as usual, slamming his horns into Shanti's ribs whenever he saw the opportunity, and the next he just disappeared in a flash of flame, leaving only a pile of dust behind. And Kate…Kate was lying on her back, with a deep, dark hole in her head.

Shanti leapt into the air with a roar, filling the sky with her bellow of grief, while Tessa ran around the rooftop growling and snarling, looking like she wanted to tear the entire world apart with her teeth.

The next few days were like walking through a nightmare. He was dead on his feet, his body still recovering from the plague, while Kate's killer took pot shots at them all through the Navy Yard windows. Tony had never seen Gibbs so driven, and all he could do was stay in his boss's slipstream, always on his six, looking out for him while Gibbs pursued his revenge. Sometimes Tony wasn't sure if he was feeling his own grief or Gibbs's, as their intense emotions continuously bled through to each other.

It was a relief when it was finally over, when they'd killed Kate's killer and laid Kate's body to rest in the ground.

Then, suddenly, there was nothing. Silence. All the rushing around was over, and Tony found himself staring at Kate's empty desk when they returned from the funeral, with not even thoughts of revenge to ease the working day.

He buried himself in his report, but finally he had to go home. He was exhausted, but he couldn't sleep. It hurt too much – his pain, Gibbs's pain – it didn't matter; they both felt her loss. Nowadays he could barely tell where his own emotions ended and Gibbs’s began.

Tony tossed and turned for half the night before Shanti nudged him out of bed and told him to get dressed. He did as she instructed and then followed her out of the apartment, down the stairs, and into the car.

Shanti guided him all the way to Gibbs’s house, but this time it wasn't the warm, welcoming place it had been while Jackson was here; it was cold, and the feeling of grief hanging in the air was almost palpable.

Tony knew where Gibbs would be. He went along to the basement, opened the door, and walked wearily down the stairs.

Gibbs was lying under his boat, gazing up at her. He wasn't even working; he was just looking at the boat's wooden underbelly. He took no notice when Tony came down into the basement. Tony went over to the workbench and grabbed the bottle of bourbon off the shelf. Then he got down on his hands and knees and crawled under the boat. He took the lid off the bottle, took a swig, and handed the bottle to Gibbs.

Gibbs took a long draught and handed it back to Tony, and they didn't say a word to each other all night. They just stayed there, under the boat, drinking the bourbon until it had all gone. Beside them, Tessa and Shanti watched wordlessly.

At some point Gibbs fell asleep – or passed out – Tony wasn't sure which. Then Tony put the bottle aside, rested his head on Gibbs's chest, and joined him.

When he awoke several hours later, he was aware of Gibbs's hard chest under his head – and a different kind of hardness in his own pants.

"Oh shit," he whispered, looking up to see Shanti looking back at him.

Tony put his head back down on Gibbs's chest; Gibbs was so warm and solid and safe. He could hear the man's heartbeat through his ribcage, and he wanted to stay here forever.

"I love you," Tony whispered. "I fucking love you, Jethro."

It wasn’t a revelation. Maybe it should have been, but now that he'd said it, it was so blindingly obvious. He lifted his head to look at Shanti again. "You knew, didn't you?" he said accusingly.

Shanti rolled her eyes. "Well, yeah."

"Since when?" Tony looked at Gibbs's sleeping form. Beside Gibbs, Tessa was also slumbering, her ears flicking as she dreamed.

"Since you were eight years old," Shanti replied, "when I turned into a peacock to show off for him."

"But I was just a kid!" Tony protested.

“And then when you met him again as an adult all you could think about were his blue eyes and how good his ass looked when he bent over to examine evidence at crime scenes.”

“I didn’t…oh, yeah, I did.” He sighed. “But…I thought that was just because he’s such a good looking guy. I didn’t think…I mean…love?” He buried his face in his hands. “I’ve never done love, Shanti. I have no idea how it goes.”

“I don’t think it’s something you have much choice about. And as for how it ‘goes’, you’ve been doing it pretty successfully for the past four years.”

He thought of the many conversations he’d had with her about Gibbs, and his unending fascination with the man. How had that not been a clue to him? Why had he been so dense all these years?

“I just thought that was because of the weird link thing,” he said.

“He touched your soul, and you liked it. You love him,” Shanti replied simply.

"Shit, what do I do now? I can't…he can't know." He sat up suddenly, groaning, all his muscles stiff and aching from the night spent under the boat. "Shanti." He leaned forward and grabbed her head in his hands. "You can't let him see how I feel. He mustn't know," he told her urgently. “You need to stay away from Tessa. You can’t keep cuddling up to her the way you do.”

She blinked at him, her brown eyes anxious. "No. You told me I'd never have to hide again. You promised me, Tony!"

He gazed at her helplessly, remembering how he'd once stopped her taking her true form. He couldn't do that to her again. And she was right – he *had* promised.

"But this is Jethro. He'll slap me stupid if he figures it out. He'll send me away."

"He wouldn't do that." She nuzzled his hand with her head. "You think you can't have him, don't you?"

Tony wrapped his hand in her thick, golden fur. "I think he's still mourning what he lost, and even if he wasn't, I don't think he's looking for a bed-hopping idiot like me."

"That's not what you are – it's just what you want everyone to think you are," Shanti told him. "And I don't think it ever fooled Jethro."

"Also, he's not bisexual," Tony pointed out.

"How do you know?" Shanti nuzzled against his hair.

"Because…all the marriages." Tony waved his hand in the air.

"I thought it was you who said that most people are at least a little bit bi if you talk to them in the right way." Shanti grinned at him.

"Well…it's my experience that few people turn down a really well planned seduction." Tony grinned back. Then his grin faded. "But I couldn't seduce Jethro. I mean, it’s not like that. I wouldn’t want to. He’s too important."

"I agree." She rested her head on his shoulder with a regretful sigh. "You must talk to him," she said.

"No!" Tony was horrified. "He doesn't think of me that way, Shanti. When he looks at me, he just sees that annoying kid he used to babysit. He doesn't even know we're connected because of what happened that night in the motel room. He doesn't know that I know about Shannon and Kelly, or that I know he took his revenge for what happened to them. He doesn’t know that when he hurts, I hurt. That time when that bastard Haswari shot him in the shoulder…" He shuddered. "Man that hurt!"

"It was painful," Shanti agreed.

"He doesn't even know it was me who pulled him out of that coma after he was wounded in Kuwait." Tony grimaced. "And I'm sure as hell not going to tell him."

"You keep saving each other's lives. The motel room, the coma, the plague… doesn't that tell you anything?"

"That’s just the weird link thing between us." Tony shrugged. "That's all. Nothing more. He's not in love with me, Shanti. This is a one-way street. Trust me to fall in love with the ultimate in unobtainable."

"So what do we do now?" she asked.

"Nothing." Tony shrugged helplessly.

She gave a heavy sigh. "Like we've been doing for years then?"

He glanced down at Gibbs's sleeping face. "Yes," he said firmly. "Like we've been doing for years."


~*~

2006

Gibbs emerged from the director's office with a sigh. He missed Director Morrow – meetings with his successor, Jenny Shepard, always seemed to end with her flinging their long-past liaison in his face while at the same time insisting that their relationship was purely professional. That made for some very confusing meetings. Gibbs didn’t like whatever game it was Jenny was playing with him. Hell, he didn’t understand it half the time! But at least she couldn’t fault their work on this occasion.

He suppressed a smile as looked down on the squad room. Abby's monkey daemon, Ben, was busy riding around on Shanti's back, screaming like a banshee, while Abby was riding piggy-back on Tony, the pair of them charging around the squad room like idiots. They'd been working a long case which they'd just successfully wrapped, so he cut them some slack. He knew that both Abby and Tony needed to let off steam after a case, and they could get a little exuberant.

Tim McGee was busy stuffing a nutter butter bar into his mouth, his daemon's cheeks bulging as he ate. And Ziva David…she was sitting at her desk, looking around the room as if everyone had gone crazy. Gibbs bit back a laugh; Ziva was still relatively new to their team, and she hadn't quite figured out the way things worked around here.

Tony paused by Ziva's desk and dropped Abby to the floor. Ben jumped up onto Abby's shoulder and clung on around her neck, as usual.

"So…have *you* seen him, Abby?" Tony asked, glancing at Ziva.

"Seen who?"

Tony grinned. "Ziva's daemon."

Gibbs rolled his eyes as he descended down the stairs. Tony had an ongoing obsession with finding out what Ziva's daemon looked like; so far, none of them had caught a glimpse of him.

"Maybe she doesn't have one!" Abby said excitedly. "Maybe that's the way Mossad breed them. Maybe she's a soulless killer!" She grinned at Ziva who gave a little smirk in return.

"I am a killer. I am not soulless," she said. "Of course I have a daemon!"

"Then where is he?" Tony leaned forward over the desk and peeked down the front of Ziva's blouse.

"Hey!" Gibbs slapped the back of his head, and both Tony and Shanti fell forward from the force of the blow.

"Oh, hey Boss. It’s not what it looked like!" Tony protested. "I was just looking for Ziva's daemon. He has to be *somewhere* on her person."

"Oh, I know what you were doing, DiNozzo." Gibbs glared at him; it always made him angry when Tony flirted with other people.

"I was a spy, DiNozzo!" Ziva said in an exasperated tone. "I could hardly have been a successful spy with an enormous lion following me around!" She glanced at Shanti pointedly.

"It's just freaky, that's all." Tony rubbed the back of his head ruefully. "I mean…it looks like you don't have a daemon...and that's just wrong." He gave a theatrical shiver. "Like those spooky horror movies where people's daemons turn against them and kill them."

"I am sure Shanti sometimes feels like killing you." Ziva smirked.

"Ow. That's low." Tony sloped back to his desk, one hand on Shanti's head for reassurance. She licked his hand obligingly. "At least tell us his name!" he implored as he sat down, but Ziva just grinned and shook her head. “I don’t understand how you can sit there all day and not even talk to him.”

“What I have with my daemon is private. We talk when we are alone together,” Ziva replied sharply. “Just because you and your daemon do not ever shut up does not mean we must all behave that way with our daemons.”

Tony went suddenly quiet, a wounded expression in his eyes. Gibbs thought they were probably both missing the point; Ziva had obviously never considered how much of Shanti’s chatter and playfulness was to distract people from the basic fact that she was a very big and highly intimidating lion. Tony, on the other hand, didn’t seem to understand that Ziva was just doing what he was doing, only in a more subtle way; both of them were keeping their true selves hidden to a degree.

"Okay. We're done here. The reports are fine, and the director signed off on the case. So you can all go home," Gibbs told them.

McGee glanced at him, a surprised look on his face. "Uh…already, Boss? It's only four p.m." His squirrel daemon jumped on his shoulder, her bushy tail brushing his hair endearingly out of place.

"I know, but you've worked non-stop for the past week, and you're due some downtime. So go home – start the weekend early. I don't want to see you again until Monday morning."

His team didn't need telling twice. Only Tony shot a forlorn look in his direction, but then even he grabbed his bag and made a run for the elevator.

Gibbs shouldered himself into his jacket, cast a satisfied look around the squad room, and then took the elevator down to the parking garage. He'd just bought a new consignment of lumber for the boat he was building in his basement, and he was looking forward to an entire weekend working on it.

He was about to get into his car when he paused. Somewhere in the distance he could hear Ziva and McGee chatting as they walked over to their own cars, their voices reverberating around the parking garage.

"McGee, I have a question for you," Ziva said. "I was wondering – are Tony and Gibbs a couple?"

Gibbs stood there, one hand on the car door.

"Uh, no…um…why do you ask?" came back McGee's rather shocked-sounding reply.

"It's just that Gibbs does not like being touched, and Tessa really does not like other daemons getting too close – you must have noticed how she growls. And yet Shanti often lies next to her, and they even groom each other. I have only seen this behaviour in the daemons of people who are very much in love."

Gibbs didn't hear McGee's reply as they were out of earshot by then. He got into the car beside Tessa and sat there for a moment, thinking about it.

"Why *do* you and Shanti do that?" he asked eventually.

"Because you are in love with Tony," she replied bluntly. "And he is in love with you."

Gibbs laughed and started the engine.

Tessa sat up and gazed at him crossly. "Jackson was right. You are too scared to move on. You lost Shannon, and you are too afraid of love to risk something so terrible happening again."

"Bullshit." He reversed the car out of the parking space.

"I don't think that refusing to admit you're in love with Tony changes the fact that you're in love with Tony." Tessa shrugged. "So if you lose him it would hurt just the same as it did when you lost Shannon. It hurt enough the first time, losing him when he was eight, but although you loved him then you weren’t in love with him as he was just a child. Now you are."

“Damn it, Tessa…"

"And Tony is too scared of rejection to make the first move. He thinks you'll send him away if he does, and you know how he feels about being sent away."

"What? That's just crap." Gibbs turned to glance at her.

"If you say so." She put her front paws on the dashboard and gazed out of the window, as if she didn't have the slightest interest in the conversation. "You can deny it all you like, but you can't hide how you feel and neither can he; Shanti and I are proof of that."

Gibbs was still lost in thought on the subject when he arrived home and walked into his house. He was so distracted that he didn't hear the soft footsteps behind him, and by the time he was aware there was an intruder in his house it was too late – and the sharp prick of a needle into his neck sent him falling, unconscious, to the floor.

~*~

Tony was bored. Once he'd caught up on his sleep it was just him, Shanti, and the DVD player. He felt restless.

"Most people enjoy having time off," Shanti said, from where she was pacing around the room.

"I like being busy."

"You like watching movies too." She nodded at the big TV hanging on the wall. It was a state of the art plasma, and Tony loved it, but after watching it for ten hours straight even he was bored.

"Might go clubbing later," he said.

"What's the point? You never bring anyone home anymore," Shanti pointed out. "Not since…"

"Not since I woke up plastered to Jethro and finally figured out I was in love with him. No. Nobody else has seemed that appealing since then." He sighed. "See – this is another reason why love sucks so much."

"If you'd just tell him…"

"He'd tell me to take a hike, and I don't handle rejection well, Shanti. You know that."

"So you want to be at work today just so you can be with him."

"Yup. Kinda sad, isn't it? But I just like being around him. It feels nice when you and Tessa are…" Tony paused and flushed. "Curled up together."

"We are only doing what you and Jethro want to do." She paced around the apartment irritably. "I find you very annoying, Tony."

"I know. Me too." He grinned at her.

She came over and rubbed her head against his hand. "Sorry…I didn't mean that. I just…I want to be with Tessa all the time, and because you and Jethro are so incredibly stupid, I can't."

"We could go visit him, I guess," Tony mused. "Just how weird would he think it was if I went over there and hung out?"

"I don't care – let's do it!" Shanti made a bounding leap towards the front door, with Tony close behind her.

Tony stopped to pick up a pizza and six pack of beer on the way. When he arrived at Gibbs's house, the door was unlocked as usual. Tony let himself in and walked along the hallway to the basement door. He was pretty sure that's where Gibbs would be on a Saturday night.

"The man has no social life," Tony muttered.

"Neither have you," Shanti pointed out.

"I go clubbing!" Tony protested.

"You *used* to go clubbing. Now you sit at home and watch DVDs. Or jerk off. Or both."

“Ssh!” Tony opened the basement door and peered down on the half built boat below – but there was no sign of Gibbs.

"Maybe he does have a social life after all." Tony sighed. "What do I do with the pizza?"

"Eat it?" Shanti suggested. “Good pizza should never go to waste!”

Tony returned to the living room and looked around. The place felt empty and that sense of sadness was still all-pervasive. He remembered how different it had felt when he had spent those two weeks here recuperating from the plague. Jackson had somehow transformed the house into a home – it seemed to be a knack he had.

"I wonder where the hell Jethro is. Not that he has to account to me for his movements."

Tony noticed that Gibbs's gun safe was open – and empty. He frowned. When he'd been living here, Gibbs had always gone over to the safe and put his gun in it the minute he got home. He only took it out again to go to work.

“If he’s working a case without me…” Tony took out his cell phone and called the office, but the duty agent informed him Agent Gibbs wasn't working that weekend.

"Weird," Tony murmured.

"Yes." The fur on Shanti's back was standing on end. "Something doesn't feel right," she said.

"Yeah. I know." Tony put the pizza down and glanced over at the doorway. "His car was outside, wasn't it?"

"Yes." Shanti nodded.

"Where would he go with his gun and without his car?"

Tony walked around the house, looking in every room, but he already knew Gibbs wasn't there. He could sense it.

"Can you feel Tessa through the link?" he asked Shanti. "Is she in danger?"

Shanti shook her head. "I don't feel anything." Then she paused and sat down on her haunches.

"What?" Tony asked urgently. "Has Jethro been hurt? Are they in trouble?"

"No…I feel nothing…that's the point." She looked up at Tony, her brown eyes troubled.

"I don't understand." Tony crouched down beside her. "What does that mean?"

Shanti gave a little growling sigh. "It's just…usually I can feel her. Not just when something big is happening – when Jethro has been injured for example. Nowadays I can feel her all the time…sort of like a constant background hum."

Tony rocked back on his heels, frowning. "Since when?"

"Since you had the plague. She's been closer to us since then."

"Why the hell didn't you tell me?"

"Because you don't want to hear!" Shanti snapped. "You never do. Not when it's about Jethro. You're all closed off about it. You get anxious. Also…" she paused and then continued. "I thought you might make me stay away from Tessa if I told you."

Tony stood up. "Damn it, Shanti – I *told* you I wouldn't do that again."

She blinked. "Are we arguing? We never argue."

Tony sat down beside her and pulled her close. "No. We snipe, but we don't argue. I'm sorry." He kissed her fur. "Okay…so you say you can usually feel Tessa but right now you can't. Is it…Jethro isn't dead, is he?"

"No," she said firmly. "I would definitely feel that. This is like an absence more than anything else. Something that should be here just…isn't."

"Right." Tony got up and went back down the stairs again. Shanti ran over to the front door and snuffled around on the ground. Tony followed her. "Have you found something?"

"I'm not sure. Just…here is where it feels wrong."

Tony looked around. The door looked normal, and there were no obvious signs of a struggle. Tony got down on his hands and knees and examined the floor closely. He was about to give up when he saw it. It was only small – a tiny patch of dried blood, no bigger than a quarter, and a slight smear stain around it.

"As if someone fell down and knocked his head," Shanti said.

Tony nodded. He looked up at her and read the same bleak expression in her eyes that he knew was in his own. "And then he was dragged away."

~*~

When he came to, the first thing he was aware of was a fierce, aching sensation in his body and a feeling of nausea in the pit of his stomach. He couldn't locate any one source of the aching pain – it seemed all pervasive. It was so strong that he almost passed out again immediately. It felt like anxiety, but magnified a thousand times so that it was a physical pain, combined with that tight, burning sensation in the belly that kicked in just prior to throwing up.

Gibbs opened his eyes, blinked blearily, and looked around. He was in a dark, almost empty room. He was lying on a mattress in one corner, and he could just about make out a table and two chairs in the centre, and a toilet and basin in another corner.

He reached for his daemon, groping around in the darkness, wanting to feel the reassuring softness of her fur under his fingers…but he couldn’t find her.

“Tessa?” he whispered.

He shuffled around on his hands and knees, searching for her. He scoured every inch of the small cell with his fingertips – but to no avail.

She wasn't here.

Gibbs threw back his head and howled. He waited for the answering howl somewhere nearby, waited to hear her, or to feel that she had heard him…but all he could hear was the sound of his own desperate howls echoing back at him.

"TESSA!" he screamed, but only silence answered.

She wasn't even nearby. He couldn't hear her, or feel her presence.

She was gone.

And he was all alone.

~*~

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MTAC - NCIS Fic