by: Xanthe (Send Feedback)
Series: - No Series - #1
Chapters: 004 Word Count: 84818
Character(s): Jethro Gibbs, Tony DiNozzo
Category(ies): Action/Adventure, Alternate Universe, Angst/Drama, First Time, Hurt/Comfort, Romance
Summary: Most people never touch another person's soul...but when a 20 year old Leroy Jethro Gibbs meets an 8 year old Tony DiNozzo, it sparks an event that links them forever.
Author Notes: This story is set in an AU based on Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials series of children's books where everyone has an external soul in animal form, called a "daemon" (pronounced 'demon'). This story is not a crossover and no characters from the books appear in it - it's all Gibbs/DiNozzo all the way through. This story is NOT set in one of the worlds Pullman wrote about. The universe in this story is structured very like our own, except for the fact that people in this universe have daemons. These daemons are broadly similar to the ones in the Pullman novels, but I have embellished them or tweaked them a bit to suit my own purposes and put my own spin on them.
Pullman established that daemons take animal forms that are a representation of a person's soul, or inner being, or gut instinct. They can talk. They have to be in close proximity to the person they belong to as it causes huge distress if they are separated. Daemons are usually the opposite gender to the person they belong to. Children's daemons take various different forms until they reach adolescence when they settle into one form which they keep for the rest of their lives. Daemons have names (although he doesn't establish if they're born with them or given them!). If you are hurt your daemon feels it too, and if your daemon is hurt you feel it. It is a deep taboo to touch another person's daemon with your bare hand. Daemons can touch each other, and you can touch your own daemon, but not somebody else's. When a person dies, their daemon turns to dust. Daemons are corporeal - you can touch them - but they don't appear to need food or drink or medical treatment. Their physical condition reflects your own - so if you've got a sprained ankle, they limp too. This goes both ways to a certain extent - if another daemon (or even a person) hurts your daemon then you feel it. I have added a few minor tweaks of my own.
As I was writing this, I became aware of lots of questions Pullman never answers about daemons. I'm afraid I don't know the answers, either. I could guess, but in keeping with the spirit of the universe I'm not going to try and explain away some of the logical, practical and logistical issues I have with the concept of daemons. I hope people go along with it as a magical fantasy kind of AU and enjoy it on that level.
Even if you've never read the Pullman novels, or seen the movie version of the first book -The Golden Compass - you shouldn't have any difficulty understanding this story once you've got your head around the concept of daemons! It is all explained in the context of the story. I had great fun thinking up what each character's daemon would be. You might think I got it wrong or got it right, but I DID give it a lot of thought!
I haven't read any other NCIS fanfic stories that feature Pullman's concept of daemons, so I hope this is truly original within the fandom, but if not, I'm sure there's room for another take on it!
I've stuck broadly to canon, but as this is an AU I have tweaked some elements of canon to better fit this particular universe. Therefore, some things happen differently in this story to the way they happened in canon, and dates, times and events might not tally precisely.
Thank-yous: A huge thank you to Tejas for beta. Thank yous also to Taylorgibbs, Haggy, Dinkydi, Nikitariddick and Bluespirit for audiencing. You have all been terrific, and your help absolutely invaluable.
Dedication: For Nikita. I wouldn't have written more than 2000 words of this story if you hadn't said it was worth doing more and then nagged and nagged at me until I did. Thank you so much for your encouragement and support.
"Leroy – did you clear out the old stock items?" Jackson's voice wafted down the basement stairs.
"Yes, Dad," Leroy growled, wiping sweat from his forehead with a dusty hand as he piled up some boxes in the corner of the basement.
"Leroy! Did you hear me? I asked if you've cleared out the old stock items."
"YES! I told you I did!" Leroy shouted back up the stairs.
"No need to take that tone with me, son." Jackson appeared at the top of the stairs. He had a worried frown on his forehead, and his daemon, Meldra, a plump red hen, clucked at Leroy disapprovingly.
"And I replied! It's not my fault you're going deaf." Leroy hobbled his way up the stairs and pushed past his father, Tessa limping at his side.
His father's disapproval was evident from his tone of voice. Leroy ignored him – and the pain in his knee – as he tried to stalk angrily out of the store and succeeded only in limping rather pathetically as far as the door. He had to hang onto the door handle for a moment when he got there as the pain in his left knee suddenly stabbed at him viciously, making him gulp for air.
He heard his father behind him. "I thought if I kept you occupied it would take your mind off it, son," Jackson said, reasonably enough. "Look…it's not for long. In a few weeks you'll be better, and you can go back to your unit. In the meantime, we have to rub along with each other. We can do that, can't we, Leroy?"
There was a cajoling note in his voice. Any minute now he'd offer him an ice cream to placate him, the way he always used to when he was a kid. Leroy knew he was being truculent, but he couldn't help himself. He'd outgrown this place – this town, the people in it, and even his own father. He just didn't want to be here; that was why he'd left in the first place.
Tessa sat down beside him and gazed up at him solemnly. "Patience," she advised. She had never been a very talkative daemon which suited him fine.
"I need some air," Leroy growled over his shoulder at his father. "I'll be back to help with the delivery later."
He hobbled out of the store and down the road with Tessa at his side, limping on her back left paw.
He stopped at the dress store where he had first met Shannon, gazing longingly through the window as if he thought she might appear – which was stupid as he knew she was back home with her mother. If only she was here then maybe Stillwater wouldn't seem so stifling.
"She'll be here in a few days," Tessa said reasonably. "Then you'll have the whole weekend together."
"Right now, a few days feel more like a year," Leroy muttered. His knee gave way, and he grimaced and limped to the kerb to sit down. Tessa shuffled along with him, her back left paw hardly touching the ground, and settled at his feet.
Leroy sat there in the afternoon sun, watching the small town go about its business. He felt like he'd been doing this his entire life. Hell, Stillwater had been his entire life until two years' ago when he'd joined the Marines. He had never intended to come back – and he wouldn't be here right now if it wasn't for this damn knee injury.
"It will mend," Tessa told him. He felt calmed by her strong, serene presence and unruffled sense of reason. His father's fussing, although well-meant, always rubbed him up the wrong way.
"I know." Leroy sat back, resting the palms of his hands on the dusty sidewalk behind him.
He watched as a sleek, expensive car with black tinted windows drew up beside him. The driver's window was wound down, and he found himself looking at a man with handsome, chiselled features. He had dark brown hair and cool blue eyes, and his daemon was a hyena with a watchful, unblinking stare. She turned her head purposefully to look at Leroy, and Tessa's hackles started to rise, and a low growl emanated from the back of her throat. Leroy frowned – Tessa didn't usually react this way to other daemons.
"There a motel around here somewhere, son?" the man asked.
"Just up the road." Leroy pointed.
"Thanks." The man was about to wind up the window again when there was a sound from the back of the car. Leroy couldn't hear what was being said but the man looked irritated. "Can't it wait?" he barked. The answer was obviously 'no'. The man turned back to Leroy. "My kid needs to use the bathroom. Says it's urgent. Is there a restroom nearby?"
"My dad won't mind – he runs the store." Leroy levered himself off the ground, gasping slightly as his knee jabbed him. He wasn't much inclined towards acts of charity in his present mood, but it wasn't the kid's fault he needed to go to the toilet.
"Much appreciated." The man turned a megawatt smile on him and it was like the sun coming out; you could lose yourself in the warmth of that bright smile. Tessa growled again, and Leroy nudged her with his toe. He felt uneasy about the man already – he didn't need her warning.
The back door of the car opened, and a child slid out onto the sidewalk. His daemon, a riotous golden retriever puppy, scampered over to Tessa and touched noses with her. Leroy was as surprised as Tessa – other daemons were usually put off by her 'don't come near me' vibe.
Leroy and Tessa both went very still as the puppy licked her ear playfully. It felt strange but not unwelcome. Children's daemons were often much less inhibited than they became as adults, and this daemon had an aura of such sweet innocence that it was impossible to be annoyed with her.
"Thanks for letting me use your restroom, Mister!"
Leroy turned his attention to the child who had emerged from the car. He was about eight years old, with sandy brown hair, clear green eyes, and a set of straight, white teeth. He was clearly his father's son, in looks at least; Leroy had never seen a prettier child.
"Hurry up, Tony," the man in the car said. "I don't have all day to wait for you."
"We've been driving for hours and hours, and I wanted to go so bad!" Tony said to Leroy, doing an extravagant little dance, pressing his legs together for dramatic effect. "Dad didn't want to stop. He's on a deadline." The kid looked up at him with a big, bright smile, his green eyes endearingly puzzled. "What's a deadline?"
"Time to get something done by," Leroy told him curtly, refusing to respond to that bright smile. If the kid was anything like his dad the smile was just for show anyway. "This way; the store is just over here. You can use our bathroom."
Tony scampered along beside him as they walked – or at least Tony walked, Leroy limped. "What happened to your leg, Mister?" Tony asked curiously.
Leroy fought down a wave of irritation. "Got shot," he grunted in reply.
"Really?" Tony's eyes were wide as saucers, and his daemon changed from the energetic puppy into a colourful butterfly and promptly flitted into the air.
Daemons didn't usually settle into one form until a child hit puberty – Tessa had been an exception to that rule. She had been a sleek grey wolf more often than not from the day of his birth, and by his tenth birthday had ceased being anything else.
"You got shot?" Tony looked almost comically intrigued by this information. "How?"
"You ask a lot of questions." Leroy looked down on the kid, and the boy looked back up at him, eyes shining.
"That's what my mom used to say!" He looked pleased. "But Dad says I talk too much and none of it is worth hearing. He says that in his day kids were seen and not heard. He says…."
"Here." Leroy ushered the kid into the store and pointed him in the direction of the bathroom. Tony smiled at him gratefully and disappeared.
"Is someone there?" Jackson emerged from the back room with Meldra fluttering behind him. "Ah, Leroy, I'm glad you came back. Thought we could have some supper together later. If you're not doing anything?" His eyes were anxious.
Leroy sighed, hating himself for causing the anxiety but irritated by it all the same.
"What would I be doing?" he replied, in a more sulky tone than he'd intended. It was hardly as if Stillwater was teeming with nightlife, and he'd never had many friends here. He'd always kept himself to himself. He didn't make friends easily, and his unforgiving nature meant he didn't keep those he did make. They usually let him down in one way or another at some point, and Leroy never forgot a betrayal, however minor. "Oh – there's a kid in the bathroom," he told his father. "Didn't think you'd mind. Said he was desperate."
"Of course I don't mind. Is it young Johnny Mason? He's a terror for…"
"It's not anyone we know. It's newcomers," Leroy interrupted abruptly. "Guy in a fancy car and his boy."
The toilet flushed and a few seconds later Tony emerged from the bathroom. His daemon was back in puppy form, and she saw Meldra and ran over to her excitedly. Meldra hopped up onto the counter and gazed down on the puppy from amused eyes. The puppy did a little dance, chasing her own tail, going round and round in circles until both Tony and the puppy were dizzy and cross-eyed.
"Shanti, stop it!" Tony said, giggling. He ran after the puppy, and she jumped into his arms and licked his nose, then turned into a butterfly again and perched on top of his head.
A shadow fell over the door, and Leroy looked up. The boy's father was standing there, his daemon watching hungrily from the shadows behind him. Leroy felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end, and he could feel Tessa stiffening from where she was standing, as always, by his side.
"I need to use the phone to make an urgent call," the man said. "Would you mind? I'll pay." He opened his wallet and rifled through more cash than Leroy had seen in his life.
"Sure," Jackson said easily.
"Thank you. I'm Anthony DiNozzo – and you've already met my son." DiNozzo nodded curtly in Tony's direction.
Leroy wasn't sure why, but for some reason he felt compelled to put a hand on the child's shoulder. Tony's restless body language changed, and he calmed instantly beneath the touch. Leroy looked down on the child, puzzled by the sense of connection he felt. Shanti fluttered down and perched on one of Tessa's ears.
DiNozzo embarked on his phone call, while Jackson got a soda and handed it to Tony. Tony took it with a polite "thank you" and guzzled the contents immediately.
"I'm thirsty. Dad doesn't like me drinking sodas in the car. He says it makes me pee. He doesn't like having to stop along the way," Tony explained, having made short work of the soda.
Leroy glanced over at where DiNozzo was barking something into the phone; he didn't look happy.
Shanti, turned into a white cockatiel and flew over to where Meldra was sitting on the counter. Meldra clucked at the cockatiel, and the white bird spread her feathers, stuck her chest out, and made a preening sound, squawking loudly and basically showing off.
"Shanti! Don't!" Tony laughed.
There was such a beautiful sense of ease between himself and his daemon that it was a joy to watch them together. Leroy knew that he had a similar – if less exuberant – harmony with Tessa. Neither of them needed to speak to know the other was there, and Tessa was always just within touching distance. They rarely ever actually touched though – it wasn't necessary and neither of them liked being touched.
DiNozzo finished on the phone and swung around, still looking annoyed by his phone conversation. He caught sight of his son's daemon sitting on the counter, showing off, and his lip curled up. Without warning, his hyena daemon leapt up onto the counter and bit down hard on Shanti's wing.
Shanti gave a squawk and fell onto the floor. Tony let out a wail of distress while Leroy and Jackson looked on in shocked silence. They were too stunned to say anything as DiNozzo turned on his son.
"Where are your manners? Don't let your daemon inconvenience these people! Keep her under control, or I'll have Nala do it for you."
"Sorry, Dad," Tony whispered, looking pale. He rubbed his arm at about the same spot where Shanti had been bitten on the wing. Then he crouched down and reached out his hand towards her. She fluttered over to him and changed back into her puppy shape the minute she got close. She cowered behind Tony, looking scared.
"Here's some money for the phone call," DiNozzo said abruptly, placing a few dollars on the counter in front of Jackson. "How much do I owe you for the soda?"
"Oh, that's okay," Jackson murmured. "I gave it to the child for free."
DiNozzo gave a tight-lipped smile. "What do you say, Tony?"
"Thank you," Tony whispered. All the life seemed to have gone out of him, and he kept rubbing his arm. Shanti's tail was between her legs, and she was limping slightly on one of her front paws. Leroy fought down a wave of anger.
DiNozzo opened the door and gestured with his head at the child who scuttled through it, the puppy running at his heels, both of them looking scared.
Tony turned back. "Bye," he whispered, giving Leroy a little wave.
Much to Leroy's surprise, Tessa walked over to the door and touched noses with Shanti in farewell. Tessa never normally interacted with other people's daemons – the only daemons he'd ever seen her touch before were Meldra, and Shannon's daemon, Pell.
The DiNozzos left, and Leroy turned to look into his father's troubled blue eyes.
"I did not like that," Jackson murmured. "I did not like that at all."
"No." Leroy exchanged a glance with Tessa. "Me neither."
Tony stirred sleepily and blinked, wondering where he was. Shanti was balanced on his head, as a butterfly, wings folded. He glanced over to the window, gazed at the unfamiliar drapes for a few seconds, and then remembered. He was in a motel room with his father. He turned over, and Shanti dropped reproachfully to his side and transformed into a puppy. They both looked at the sleeping mound in the next bed.
"Ssh," Shanti said. "Don't wake him."
Nala muttered something in her sleep, her ears twitching. She was lying at his father's feet, where she always was during the night.
"Why are we here?" Shanti asked. "And where is here?"
"Something water. I don't remember. Clearwater? Bluewater?" Tony frowned and wrapped an arm around Shanti.
"Ditchwater?" she suggested, and he giggled. She snuggled into him and licked his nose. "What are we doing here?" she asked.
"I don't know. Something to do with Dad's business." He liked being with his father in the big car with the tinted windows. His father sometimes let him chatter on as they drove, and Tony had invented a whole game about the people they passed who they could see but who couldn't see them. "It's an adventure!" Tony told Shanti happily. That's what his father had said anyway, and he was just pleased not to have been left behind on this particular business trip.
"That's only because he couldn't find anyone to look after you," Shanti said.
"Maybe he brought me along to spy on people!" Tony grinned.
Shanti wagged her tail. "Yes – you're his secret weapon! Nobody would expect a kid to be a spy. Spy kid!"
They were silent for a moment. "I miss mom," Tony said suddenly, and Shanti's tail stopped wagging. She snuggled in closer.
Tony's mother had died a few months previously. She'd been getting paler and thinner for weeks, and Tony knew something was wrong but nobody would tell him what. Doctors came and went, and his father grew more and more short-tempered, so Tony took to tip-toeing around the house to avoid his outbursts. Then, one night, Shanti had woken up with a howl…and Tony had run along to his mother's room to find her lying there, unmoving, a little pile of dust by her side, and her daemon, Keddon, nowhere to be seen.
His father had been quiet and sort of angry ever since – he shouted at Tony a lot, as if his mom's death was his fault. Maybe it was. Tony wasn't sure why people died, and he had been pretty naughty his entire life. Maybe that was what killed her.
Shanti nudged him with her nose. "That doesn't kill people, stupid."
"I dunno. Bugs."
"Bugs? Like wasps and flies?"
"No…bugs like the ones that get into your blood and make you sneeze."
Tony sighed. The adult world was hard to understand sometimes. He was glad he was here with his dad though – if he could help his father pull off this business deal then maybe he would smile again and things might be a bit more like they were before his mom died.
He got up quietly and got dressed, so he'd be ready when it was time to go out and "do business" as his dad described it. When his father got up a little while later, he looked at Tony and laughed.
"Where are you going so early?"
Nala nudged Shanti with her nose, and Shanti turned into a butterfly and flew up onto Tony's head.
"Um…I don't know. I thought I was going with you – to see the mine owner?" Tony replied.
His father laughed out loud, and Nala made a "harrumphing" sound and jumped up and aimed an amused swat in Shanti's direction.
"Take you with me to do business? Don't be an idiot, Tony. No, you can stick around here. I won't be long – a few hours. You can watch TV."
Tony's heart sank, and Shanti walked slowly down his arm and settled dejectedly in the curve of his elbow. Much as he loved watching TV, he didn't want to be left alone in a strange motel room in a strange town to do it.
His father got ready and left, and Tony sat in front of the TV. After an hour he was bored. It was a beautiful day outside, and the sun was bright in the summer sky. He didn't want to be stuck in this stuffy room.
Shanti fluttered over to the open window and perched on it. "We could go out," she suggested.
Tony wrinkled up his nose uncertainly. "Dad said to stay here."
"But it's boring. And stuffy. And…ooops!" She deliberately fell out of the open window.
"Shanti!" Tony felt that familiar, wrenching sensation at being physically too far away from his daemon. Shanti was only on the other side of the window, but Tony couldn't let her stay there. He had to go outside, didn't he?
He ran out and the door slammed shut behind him, and it was only then that he realized he didn't have the room key.
"Can't go back now then!" Shanti said, doing a happy, flitting dance above his head. He grinned and scampered after her. "Let's go over here!" She changed into a puppy and ran towards some woods over in the distance.
Tony followed, enjoying a chance to be able to stretch his legs and run around. He spread his arms and tried to soar, like an eagle, and Shanti changed into a cockatiel and flew around over his head.
They were so busy playing airplanes that Tony didn't look where he was going, and suddenly he crashed into something – or, more accurately, someone. It was the man from the store who had let him use the restroom. The man toppled over on his injured knee and landed on his back with a growled "oomph", Tony spread-eagled on his stomach. Shanti and the man's wolf daemon lay in a mass of entwined feathers and fur to one side.
"Sorry, Mister," Tony said, as a pair of furious blue eyes glared at him. He scrambled off the man and held out a hand to help him up.
The man took it and got up with a grimace of pain. "Why the hell don't you look where you're going?" he snapped.
He sounded just like Tony's dad, and Shanti turned into a puppy and slunk over to Tony, tail between her legs, shivering. She hid behind his knees.
"Sorry," Tony muttered again.
The man was giving him a strange look, as if surprised by his reaction. His wolf daemon shook out her fur and gently swiped a lick over Shanti's ear.
"Why are you out here on your own, Tony?" the man asked, in a kinder tone of voice.
Tony bit on his lip. "Don’t tell my dad. He said to stay in the motel room but I got bored, and Shanti fell out of the window so I ran outside, and I don't have the key so I can't go back."
"Your dad left you on your own?" The man looked scary again. Shanti gave a little whine and pressed up close. "Where is he? When is he due back?"
"I don't know." Tony shrugged. "He was going to see the man who owns the mine to 'do business'. What does 'do business' mean exactly, Mister?"
"Leroy," the man said, his blue eyes flashing irritably.
"No – just Leroy. So your dad just went off and left you on your own in a strange town, and you don't know when he's coming back?"
Tony nodded slowly. "Did I do something bad?"
"Not you," Leroy muttered tersely. "Okay – I'm out for a walk so you can come along if you want."
"I can hang out with you? Cool!"
Shanti soared into the air in cockatiel form and made wild cheering sounds while batting her wings excessively. Tony found himself grinning from ear to ear.
Leroy walked slowly, limping heavily.
"Why are you out walking if your leg hurts so bad?" Tony asked curiously.
"The doctors say I have to do exercises and walk every day to strengthen it."
"How did you get shot? Did it hurt? Did you kill the person who shot you?"
"I'm a Marine," Leroy said shortly. "Yes, it hurt. And no, I didn't – it was an accident. This way."
He began limping into the woods, and Tony ran alongside him, occasionally leaping into the air to pretend to catch Shanti and laughing when she flew away. Tony kept up a running monologue the entire time, pausing for breath every so often and then continuing again. Leroy didn't say much – and his daemon trotted along without so much as a word.
"If you're a Marine, why aren't you wearing a uniform?" Tony wanted to know.
"Because…" Leroy looked like he was going to snap out a reply, but then he took a deep breath, and continued in a nicer tone of voice. "Because of my injury. I have to stay here until I get better."
"And then you can go back?"
"What if it doesn't get better?" Tony asked curiously.
Leroy glanced at him sharply, and Tony saw a flash of anxiety in his eyes.
"It has to," Leroy said grimly. "Being a Marine is all I ever wanted."
They reached a clearing by a small creek, and Leroy sat down awkwardly. Tony sat down beside him, and Leroy pulled a brown paper bag out of his pocket.
"This is my lunch," he said. "Do you have any lunch?"
Tony shook his head. His father hadn't mentioned anything about lunch. Leroy sighed and gave him one half of his sandwich without saying a word. Tony ate it ravenously and then sat back and glanced at the man beside him. Leroy had dark hair and a sort of wolfish quality to him. He looked like he was angry all the time, and he spoke gruffly, but his actions towards Tony had always been kind, so Tony decided that he was nice despite appearances to the contrary.
Also, Tessa didn't seem to mind it when Shanti, in puppy form, snuggled up beside her under the sun. In fact, Tessa seemed to really like Shanti and occasionally licked her ears. Tony was so used to his dad finding Shanti a nuisance that it was nice to meet someone who liked her.
"Can I ask you something, Leroy?" Tony said.
"You can ask. Don't promise to answer."
That was good enough for Tony. "What happens to someone's daemon when they die?"
Leroy turned to look at him. "Why do you ask that, Tony?" he said quietly.
"Because when my mom died, her daemon, Keddon, just turned into dust. Keddon was a big black cat, and he was nice to Shanti. Then he was gone – and so was my mom."
"That's the way it works, Tony. When you die, Shanti dies too – same for me and Tessa, and everyone else. Your daemon is a part of you – that's how they know what we're thinking most of the time." He gazed at Tony thoughtfully. "When did your mom die?"
"A few months ago." Tony gazed at his own feet. He didn't like how it felt when he talked about his mom but that didn't stop him wanting to talk about her all the same, which was confusing.
"My mom died when I was about your age – maybe a little bit older," Leroy said softly.
Leroy moved his arm so that it was gently resting against Tony's arm, and Tessa put her head on her paw, next to Shanti's muzzle. It felt nice. Comforting.
They sat there for a bit, and then Leroy put a hand on Tony's shoulder. "Let's float boats down the stream."
"Boats? What boats?" Tony scrambled to his feet looking around for the boats.
"First we have to make them – then we float 'em!"
"Make them with what?"
"This." Leroy produced a knife seemingly from nowhere. "Never go anywhere without a knife, Tony," he said firmly. “That’s rule number nine.”
“You have rules?” Tony asked, wide-eyed.
“Sure – everyone needs a code to live by,” Leroy said with a grin.
“What’s rule number one?” Tony asked.
Leroy paused in cutting some branches off a nearby tree. He wiped a hand across his sweaty forehead.
“Rule number one is the most important rule,” he said, glancing over at Tessa who was sitting nearby, her chin on her paws. She looked up at him, a smile in her eyes. “Rule number one is ‘always listen to your daemon’, Tony. ‘Cause she knows best.”
“She does?” Tony turned around to look at Shanti, and she immediately changed into a cockatiel, flew onto his head, and began doing a little dance on his hair.
“Shanti knows best! Shanti knows best!” she proclaimed loudly. “Tony – do as I tell you!” She batted his forehead with her beak, making him giggle.
Leroy rolled his eyes. “Well, mostly they know best. See, Tony – sometimes Tessa has a bad feeling about something, and if I listen to her and follow her advice it always turns out better than if I don’t.”
“Supposing she tells you something you don’t like?” Tony asked thoughtfully.
“Well, that’s the hard part.” Leroy gave a rueful smile. “I never said it was easy. But being true to your daemon is what becoming a man is all about, Tony.”
“It is?” Tony pondered that. He was pretty sure his father would say being a man was about outwitting your opponents and making more money than them, but instinctively he felt that Leroy was closer to the truth.
Leroy was good with his hands, and the wood he whittled slotted together seamlessly to create little boats. They attached tissues to the masts of each one for sails and then got on their stomachs, put them carefully in the water, and watched them sail downstream.
Tony decided that Leroy wasn't much more than a big kid at heart – he whooped when his boat sailed over a ridge and battled its way downstream, and half-limped, half-ran to follow the race. Tony cheated by leaning into the water to give his boat a shove when it looked like it was losing, and Leroy laughed his head off at that.
Looking up at him, this strange, moody man who did kind things, Tony thought he'd never had such a good friend. Shanti got into step beside Tessa's furry flank, and the wolf and puppy trotted along together, side by side.
It was late afternoon when Leroy took Tony back to the motel. He saw Mr. DiNozzo's big, black car with the tinted windows in the parking lot and winced. They'd been gone a long time, and he'd seen enough of DiNozzo to be wary of the man's temper. He wasn't scared for himself, but he was concerned for Tony after having seen how the father's daemon liked to bully Shanti.
He knocked on the door, determined to take any flak handed out himself, in order to spare Tony. DiNozzo opened it, and it wasn't even evening but he looked half cut already. His shirt was open to the waist, his eyes were bloodshot, and he reeked of liquor. Then Leroy remembered that the man had recently lost his wife, and he felt a tiny bit of compassion for him.
"I've brought Tony back," he said.
"Yeah. Right. You have a good time, son?" DiNozzo cast a bleary glance at Tony.
Leroy was surprised that the man didn't seem angry, but his reaction annoyed Leroy in another way; DiNozzo had left his son alone all day and didn't look remotely worried by his absence. What kind of a dad was he? Leroy had plenty of arguments with his own father, but Jackson Gibbs had never neglected him.
"It was great! We made boats and sailed them down the stream!" Tony said.
"Boats huh? Great."
Leroy had a feeling that if Tony had said they'd cut off their own heads and sailed *them* down the stream that his father's response would have been the same.
Tony ran into the motel room, with Shanti fluttering around his head in butterfly form.
Leroy was about to go when DiNozzo grabbed his arm and pulled him back. Leroy stiffened, and Tessa growled at Nala; Leroy didn't like being touched. DiNozzo released him and drew his wallet out of his pocket.
"Look, kid – it was good of you to take care of my boy today. Here's something for your time."
He stuffed a handful of money into Leroy's top pocket, and Leroy glared at him. He hadn't asked to be paid; he'd enjoyed spending time with Tony, and he'd had nothing better to do while his damn leg healed.
"Could you do it again tomorrow?" DiNozzo asked. "And for the next few days? See he gets fed. Maybe take him to the movies – he loves the goddamn movies. See, I'm in the middle of a pretty tight business deal, so I won't be around much. I'll pay you well."
He flashed his wallet full of money in Leroy's direction. Leroy wanted to tell him where to stuff his damn money, but Tessa nudged her head against his leg, and he knew what she was thinking. He liked Tony, and his father didn't need him at the store; they just argued constantly. What harm was there in taking this man's cash and keeping the child amused for a few days? If he didn't do it then Tony would no doubt be left on his own, and Leroy didn't want that for the kid.
"Okay," he said stiffly. "But only until Friday. My girl arrives on Saturday, and I want to spend the weekend alone with her."
"Sure, sure." DiNozzo nodded eagerly, and Nala's face stretched into a disturbing semblance of a smile, her teeth bared.
Leroy returned home to find Meldra strutting up and down on the sidewalk outside the store, and his father sweeping compulsively inside the store, by the door.
Meldra let out a little squawk when she saw him, and she fluttered over and gave Tessa a quick peck on the paw.
Jackson hurried over behind her. "Where have you been, son? You've been gone all day, and I was worried about you. I thought you might have fallen down in the woods on that bad leg of yours and not been able to get up again. I was just about to come looking for you."
Leroy was about to snap out an irritable reply, but then he paused to consider the irony. Tony's father had left his eight year old son alone all day and hadn't given a damn when a strange man had brought him home – in fact he'd hired him as a babysitter without knowing the first thing about him. His own father, on the other hand, had clearly been fretting about his twenty year old, trained Marine of a son all afternoon.
Leroy swung an arm around his father's neck and pressed a quick kiss against his cheek.
"It's okay, Dad. I ran into young Tony down by the woods, and he needed me more than you did today, so I spent the day with him."
He explained the situation to his father over supper and was surprised to see Jackson looking at him with a strange expression in his eyes as he spoke.
"What?" he asked, as Jackson was uncharacteristically silent when he finished his story of the day's events.
"Just…seeing you through different eyes, Leroy," Jackson said quietly. "Feel like my boy is all grown up."
"Because I took care of some kid for the day?"
"Because you're hurting right now, and worried sick about your future, but you put that aside to look after someone else who's hurting more," Jackson said. "That's something a man does, not a boy."
Leroy often found his father's folksy, homespun way of looking at the world unbearably simplistic, but on this occasion something about what he said struck a chord.
"Yeah. Well…" he said, feeling embarrassed. He ducked his head down and gazed at Tessa, and she looked back at him steadily. "I like the kid," he muttered.
"And he's good for you – you were wasting away in the store every day. It'll be good for you to get out and about with that young lad. It'll do you both good, especially if the father is paying for it, and you can take the child places."
Jackson reached over and patted Leroy's shoulder gently. Leroy half stiffened, the way he usually did at human contact, but then he relaxed and smiled at his father instead.
The next few days went by far more quickly than his time back at Stillwater had done to date. Tony was fun to be with – he was a cheerful, talkative kid, who seemed happy just to be having some one-on-one attention.
He pestered Leroy for more information about his hurt leg, wanting to see the scar and hear all the grisly details of how he'd come by it. He seemed disappointed that Leroy hadn't been shot in a war zone, or as part of some black ops mission, but instead had sustained the injury during a training accident. Not that it had been Leroy's fault, and he knew the guy in his unit who had caused the injury was upset and embarrassed about it, but that didn't make it any the less unfair.
"So, what do you DO in the Marines?" Tony asked one day, jumping up to run his hand over Leroy's buzz cut hair. "Do you do a lot of marching? Do you have to kill lots of people?"
Leroy laughed out loud at Tony's notion of what being a Marine was like. "No. Not yet anyway. I'm still training. When I'm done, I want to be a sniper."
"A sniper?" Tony's eyes went round again, like a startled owl. Then he frowned. "What's a sniper?"
Leroy laughed again. He wasn't sure when he had last laughed so many times in one day, but Tony was a funny kid.
"Someone who goes behind enemy lines on his own and shoots at them from a long way off."
Tony wrinkled up his nose. "Isn't that kind of lonely?"
Leroy sat back and glanced at Tessa. "I don't get lonely. I like my own company. Did you know that forty-three per cent of snipers have wolf daemons, like Tessa here?"
Tony looked intrigued. "No! I didn't know that!"
Shanti, in cockatiel form, perched on Tessa's head and pulled at the wolf's fur with her beak, grooming her gently. Tessa, as surprisingly tolerant as always where Shanti was concerned, just endured it.
"I wonder what shape Shanti will be when I grow up," Tony said thoughtfully.
Leroy glanced at Shanti who was still busily pestering Tessa. "Well, so far she seems to be mainly a dog, a butterfly, or a cockatiel – so probably one of those."
"Can I choose?" Tony asked, and Leroy wondered if this child's parents had ever sat down and had a conversation with him in his life. These were pretty basic questions. Then again, they were also quite intimate questions, and some people didn't like talking about daemons – their own or anyone else's.
"No, you can't choose," he replied. "It just one day…sort of happens. In most cases your daemon spends more and more time in one form as you get older until one day she just stays that way."
"Why are boys' daemons female and girls' daemons male?" was the next question.
Leroy pressed his fingertips to his forehead. Next thing the kid would be asking him about sex, and he really didn't want to have that conversation with him!
"Nobody knows," he replied. "It's not always the case, but it is for most people."
"When did your daemon settle?" Tony asked curiously. "How old were you?"
"Not much older than you, I guess."
"But…that's really young!" Tony looked surprised – most people were when he told them that. "I thought it didn't happen until you were much older – like 14 or 15."
"That's how it is for most people but it wasn't that way for me." Leroy shrugged. "I guess I was always…kinda definite. That's enough questions. Let's go do something."
"But why doesn't my daemon need food? Why is it that when I'm hurt she hurts, and the other way around too. Why does it hurt when she gets a bit too far away from me? Why…?"
"I said no more questions!" Leroy slapped the back of his head playfully, and Tony's face lit up in delight for no reason Leroy could fathom. Shanti changed into puppy form and batted Tessa's head delightedly with her paw, and Leroy found himself rolling his eyes but laughing too.
At the end of their week together, Leroy dropped Tony off at the motel as usual. Whatever business Tony's father was doing didn't seem to be going well, and the man was as preoccupied as ever.
"Mr. DiNozzo – I just wanted to remind you I can't look after Tony tomorrow or Sunday," he said politely as the man gave him a handful of money. "I did tell you about it."
"I'm not seeing you tomorrow?" Tony looked up at him, and Shanti's puppy tail drooped disconsolately.
"No, buddy." Leroy crouched down in front of the boy. "I told you that my girl was coming to visit. Shannon's going to be here tomorrow morning, and we're going to spend the weekend together." Alone. And hopefully pressed up against each other out on a blanket in the middle of the woods, doing 'what comes naturally to young folks', as his father would embarrassingly say.
"Can't I come too? I want to meet Shannon!"
Nala shoved at Shanti with her nose, causing the puppy to fall over with a startled yelp.
"Leroy's got better things to do than look after you this weekend," DiNozzo said. "Like he said, his girl is coming to visit." DiNozzo gave Leroy a sly, knowing wink that Leroy didn't appreciate at all. "Don't whine, Tony. You know I hate whiners."
"Yes, Dad. See you, Leroy."
Tony walked sadly into the motel, and Leroy felt for the kid, but he wasn't altering his plans for anyone. He was desperate to see Shannon again. She was the only person in the world who he felt comfortable touching him. It was so easy being around her, and she didn't expect him to talk – yet at the same time, talking to Shannon came so easy that it wasn't a problem the way it was with some other folk.
When Tony woke the next morning Shanti was a cockatiel, sleeping with her head tucked under one wing.
She roused sleepily and gazed at him. “No Leroy today,” she said sadly.
“No. No Leroy.” Tony wrapped his arms around his body and gazed at his father’s sleeping form in the bed beside him.
“He’s always in a bad mood at the moment, and it makes me want to be… I want to change at night the way I could back home,” Shanti whispered to him, hopping onto Tony’s pillow and smoothing his hair with her beak.
“Ssh,” Tony said quickly. “Not here. Nobody can see you like that.”
“I don’t like being held in!” Shanti spread her wings and flapped them indignantly. “I feel cooped in, bottled up…there are things I want to let out. There are times when I want…”
“I know. But it’s our secret – yours, and mine, and Mom’s.” Tony pulled Shanti against him and kissed her soft feathered head. “So you can’t. It won’t be for much longer. Just until we get home. Then you can change into whatever shape you like at night when we're alone in my room.”
“You know what I want to change into,” she muttered sulkily, pecking at him reproachfully with her beak.
“Yes, but remember what Mom said. Dad doesn’t like it, so we have to keep you under control. We can’t let him see you that way again.” Tony smoothed her ruffled feathers.
“If Nala has a go at me one more time…” Shanti said threateningly.
“Just turn into a butterfly and fly out of reach!” Tony told her. “Mom said to just get out of the way and not make it worse.”
“I just want to *be*.” Shanti sighed.
“And you can – when we’re alone together, just you and me – completely alone, where nobody can see us. So you can’t change like that again until we’re back home in my bedroom.”
“Okay,” she agreed, but she didn’t look too happy about it.
“We’ll have a nice day – maybe Dad will take us somewhere,” Tony whispered. “Remember how much fun he can be when he’s not working?”
Shanti nodded her white head and changed into a puppy. Her tail started to wag. “Maybe we’ll go somewhere fun. When Nala’s in a good mood she chases me and makes me laugh.”
But his father seemed to have forgotten that Leroy wasn’t looking after him today; he got ready in his work suit as usual and then tousled Tony’s hair and made to leave.
“Aren’t you spending the day with me?” Tony asked in surprise.
“Can’t. I’ve got to do business,” his father told him brusquely.
“But it’s Saturday!"
His father turned to glare at him, and Tony bit on his lip. Shanti turned into a butterfly and flew out of reach before Nala could nip her.
“What the hell has that got to do with it? Damn it, Tony, I’m doing this for your benefit! The food you eat and the clothes on your back don’t come out of thin air. I have to damn well work for them.”
“I know that, Dad.” Shanti disappeared up his shirt sleeve.
“Your mom’s death screwed things up in the business…I don’t have any capital backing now because of her stinking family who never liked me anyway and…” His father looked angry with himself, as if he’d said too much. “Life goes on and money doesn’t damn well grow on trees, Tony,” he growled, and then he left.
“What are we gonna do now?” Shanti said, crawling down his arm and settling disconsolately on his wrist.
“Have fun anyway,” Tony said defiantly. Shanti laughed and turned into a puppy. She zoomed around the room, her tail wagging. “We can have fun by ourselves,” Tony told her. “C’mon. Let’s go have an adventure.”
Leroy was at the station early to meet Shannon, and he spent an hour pacing up and down the platform. When her train finally arrived, he saw her cloud of red hair floating out of an open window, and her leaning out, waving at him frantically.
His inclination was always to be shy and even less talkative than ever when he first saw her again after even a brief time apart, but she, as usual, wasn’t having any of it. Her daemon, a small but feisty kestrel called Pell, flew around in circles above Tessa’s head, teasing her, until Leroy protested, saying Pell was making them both dizzy. Shannon laughed at him and pulled him down for a kiss, even though he hated doing private stuff like that in public, where people could see.
“Idiot. It’s been a week – that's five whole days since I saw you last. There’s no way I’m not going to kiss you and kiss you!” she told him when he protested. Then she nestled in beside him as they walked back to the store. He carried her suitcase in one hand and put his free arm around her, and it felt like he was whole again.
His father made a fuss of Shannon as usual, but all Leroy wanted to do was get her out into the woods so they could talk and make love. He grabbed a blanket and the basket containing the picnic he’d packed earlier, and then he took hold of her hand and wrenched her away from where she was exchanging pleasantries with his dad.
It was a beautiful day and his knee didn’t hurt as much when he was with her.
“How is it? Is it getting better?” she asked as they walked towards the creek. “It seems better. You’re not limping as much.”
“Because you’re here.” He grinned at her.
“I only ever see you walking on it when I’m here,” she pointed out logically. “And it’s definitely better this weekend than last.”
“I’ve been exercising more. Trying to keep up with Tony has helped.”
“Who's Tony?” she asked as they spread the green and red checked blanket out and sat down on it.
He explained as they ate, and she listened to him, smiling as he talked.
“What?” he asked as he finished. She was giving him a look similar to the one his dad had given him when he’d first told him about Tony.
“Well, firstly, I've never heard you talk for that long before!” She poked his side, and he gave a grudging little laugh. “And secondly, I was just thinking what a good dad you’d make.”
“Oh shit.” He looked over at her. “There’s nothing you want to tell me, is there?”
Now it was her turn to laugh. “Nothing like that, no! I’m just saying – one day. After we’re married.”
“Definitely.” He wanted kids as much as he knew she did. One day. Just not now. “And I don’t exactly view Tony as a son! He’s more like the kid brother I never had. Or a friend.” He frowned as he said that.
“That surprises you, doesn’t it?” Shannon rolled onto her side and propped her head up on her hand.
“Well yeah. I mean he’s a lot younger than me and…” He shrugged.
“And?” she prompted gently.
“And you know what I’m like. I’ve never exactly been good at making friends. I never know what to say to people. But with Tony it’s easy – for a start he does enough talking for two. And he’s kind of funny. He makes me laugh.”
“I’d like to meet this Tony kid."
“Well you won’t – I told his dad I wasn’t available for babysitting duties this weekend. I want it to be just you and me. We have a lot of catching up to do.” He moved towards her, his eyes fixed on her lips.
“Do we? I wonder what kind of catching up you can mean?” she giggled – and then she closed the distance and kissed him passionately as their lips met.
Pell flew over to Tessa and began gently stroking her with his beak, and Tessa dipped her head to gently nudge him with her nose in return.
Leroy pushed Shannon down onto the blanket and slid on top of her, caressing her through her blouse. He opened a few buttons and nuzzled her breasts through her bra with his mouth. Then he pushed up her skirt, and she moaned as he slipped his fingers into her panties. She opened her legs, pulling him down against her warm, soft body…and then she screamed.
“What the hell…?” Leroy pulled back, startled.
“There’s a kid over there…watching us…” she said, looking shaken. She smoothed her skirt back down, and Leroy turned around angrily – and then sighed as a cockatiel flew over and hovered uncertainly above Tessa’s head.
“Tony – why the hell are you spying on us?”
Tony emerged from behind a tree. “I wasn’t spying!” he said defensively. “I was playing boats in the stream and then you guys came along so I hid.”
“And spied on us!” Leroy growled.
Tony bit on his lip. “I like seeing what people are doing, that's all. My dad says I’m nosy, but my mom said I was just naturally curious. Is that your girl? She’s pretty. Hi, I’m Tony.” He said it all in one continuous stream, not pausing for breath.
“So you’re Tony!” Shannon sat up, buttoning her blouse quickly. She held out her hand, and Tony took it. “Nice to meet you, Tony.”
“And you. Leroy talks about you all the time. He’s got it bad.” Tony stuck out his tongue at Leroy and then hopped out of head-slapping range. Shanti rose up high into the air and flapped her wings around. Pell joined her there, and he and Shanti did a little dance in midair.
“You’re such a little show off,” Leroy muttered.
Tony just grinned at him, and Shanti kept dancing until she lost her bearings and crashed to the ground in a heap of squawking feathers and wounded dignity.
“What are you doing here, Tony?” Leroy asked impatiently. “I told your dad I couldn’t look after you this weekend.”
“I don’t need looking after. I’m not a kid,” Tony said defiantly, despite all evidence to the contrary. Shanti turned into a growling little bear – a shape Leroy hadn’t seen her take before.
“Where’s your dad?” Leroy demanded.
“Working.” Tony gathered the bear in his arms, and she changed into a puppy again.
“On a Saturday?”
“What’s that got to do with anything? The food I eat and my clothes and stuff don’t come out of thin air. He has to damn well work for them.”
Leroy gazed at him, perplexed. “You sound like you’re parroting someone else.” And he could guess who.
Shanti predictably turned into a brightly-coloured parrot and flew over and tugged on one of Tessa’s ears, keeping one eye fixed nervously on Pell the entire time.
Shannon gazed at Shanti and Tessa curiously. Pell soared down from where he was perched on a nearby tree branch, sat on Shannon’s shoulder, and whispered something in her ear. She nodded thoughtfully.
“I’ve never seen Tessa so comfortable with another daemon touching her,” she said. “I mean, apart from Pell. She’s not even that comfortable when Meldra touches her.”
“Tony’s a kid – I like kids,” Leroy muttered.
“I know – but I’ve never seen Tessa let her guard down like this before. I like Tony.” She gazed at the boy approvingly.
“Can I spend the day with you then?” Tony asked cheekily.
Shannon spoke at the same time as him. Leroy glared at her and jerked his head meaningfully at the blanket.
She just laughed at him. “Later – you can sneak into my room tonight,” she said with a wink.
“My dad will hear. You’re a screamer,” he reminded her in a whisper.
“Your dad knows anyway! And he doesn’t mind. He’s got that weird thing about ‘young folks doing what comes naturally’," she reminded him.
Leroy groaned. “Don't. It’s so damn embarrassing.”
“Can I spend the day with you then?” Tony asked.
Leroy knew when he was outnumbered. “Okay,” he agreed reluctantly.
Shanti promptly turned into a puppy and chased her own tail around and around excitedly until she got so dizzy she fell over. Leroy sighed.
Tony joined them on the blanket and immediately stole some of the left-over picnic.
Leroy wondered if his father ever thought to leave him any food – or at least any money for food. For all that DiNozzo liked to flash his money around, Leroy had a suspicion that was just for show; he doubted that Tony saw much of it. It seemed to be very important to DiNozzo that people think him wealthy – which made Leroy suspect that he wasn’t anywhere near as well off as he made out.
Of course, it could also be that the father simply wasn’t used to keeping track of his son’s needs – even those as fundamental as company, supervision, and food. The man looked like he had other things on his mind; this business deal of his certainly seemed to be preoccupying him.
“What kind of a business deal is your father working on, Tony?” Leroy asked curiously.
Tony glanced up, stuffing a sandwich into his mouth at the same time. “I don’t know," he said between mouthfuls. "He's meeting with the man who owns the mine. He said stuff about ‘capital’ and ‘investment’.”
“Right.” Leroy nodded slowly. It sounded as if Tony’s father wanted Frank Winslow to invest his capital in some scheme or other. If so, Leroy suspected he’d be disappointed; Winslow was a hard-nosed businessman and unless the deal DiNozzo was offering was very good indeed, Leroy doubted he’d be interested.
"Does your dad always bring you on his business trips?" Shannon asked curiously.
Tony flushed an interesting shade of bright red, and Shanti turned into a porcupine and curled up into a ball, covering her face. It was so funny that Leroy actually laughed out loud.
"No," Tony admitted. "Only…he can't find anyone to leave me with back home…because…uh…well, I can be kinda…naughty." He gave a charming smile but his eyes were bright with a combination of mischief and guilt. "Babysitters don't stick around long. It was okay when mom was alive 'cause she looked after me when he was away on business, but now…" He trailed off, and Shanti turned into a little field mouse and crept onto his lap. He stroked her gently.
"I was sorry to hear about your mom," Shannon said softly. "Jethro told me she died a few months ago."
"Who's Jethro?" Tony frowned.
Shannon smiled. "It's Leroy's second name. I like to use it as kind of a pet name for him. I think it suits him better than Leroy."
Tony gave a broad grin and turned to Leroy. "Can I call you Jethro?" he asked.
"No," Leroy replied automatically.
"It's just for me and him," Shannon said.
"Like a secret?" Tony looked intrigued. "I have a secret." Then he bit on his lip, looking annoyed with himself, and Shanti, still in mouse form, nipped his finger with her teeth.
"What kind of a secret?" Leroy asked, looking at the boy searchingly.
"Nothing. Mom said to keep it secret, so…it's my secret – mine, and Mom's, and Shanti's."
He clammed up then, and Leroy knew they wouldn't get anything more from him. Tony, it seemed, would happily talk about anything under the sun but when he had a real secret to keep nothing would induce him to talk about it.
They spent a pleasant afternoon in the woods, and then they walked back towards Main Street. Leroy had one hand on Tony's shoulder and was holding Shannon's hand with the other, and he was aware of feeling strangely at peace with himself.
Tony ran over to a nearby tree, and Shannon joined him to peer at the markings on the trunk.
Content, Leroy thought as he watched them.
Tessa looked up at him. "Because you have pack," she said. He looked at her questioningly. "Being a lone wolf is fine, but you need a pack to be truly happy," she explained. "Now you have one." He looked at the two people standing over by the tree in surprise. He had a mate, and…what was Tony to him? Not a cub, or a litter mate, but something nearly as important. "Your second. Always by your side," Tessa said.
Leroy liked that idea. One of the attractions of being a Marine had been acquiring an instant pack, but this was different. This felt more personal somehow and more special. He felt connected to Shannon and Tony in a way that went much deeper.
"But Tony will be leaving soon," he said to Tessa.
She gave a dismissive flick of her head. "So? He will always be pack."
Tony and Shannon returned to the trail and they continued on. They had just reached the edge of the woods when Tessa stiffened, growling softly.
A few seconds later, Chuck Winslow came into view with his coyote daemon trotting along beside him. Chuck was a tall, gangling youth about Leroy's age. He was Frank Winslow's son, and he seemed to think that because his father owned half the town that meant he did too – and the people in it. He and Leroy had been enemies for as long as Leroy could remember.
"Hey, Leroy – you out skulking around in the woods again?" Chuck shouted, an ugly sneer on his face.
"Free country. I can walk where the hell I like, Chuck," Leroy said, gripping Shannon's hand firmly, and tightening his grasp on Tony's shoulder. He was aware of Tony looking up at him with a question in his eyes, and Shanti turning into that little brown bear he'd seen earlier.
Pell came and perched on Shannon's shoulder, looking his usual fierce self.
Leroy could see the irritation in Chuck's eyes as he looked at Shannon. Chuck Winslow got a lot of dates because of who he was, but he didn't seem to be able to hang on to any of the girls he went out with. Shannon had once turned him down, and Chuck had never forgotten that. No Stillwater girl ever turned him down – but Shannon wasn't from Stillwater, and nobody told her what to do – or who to date.
Chuck's coyote daemon slunk over to Tessa and sat down right in front of her – too close – deliberately getting in her space.
"People have been talking about the amount of time you've been spending all alone with that kid," Chuck said. "Do you like hanging out with little kids, Gibbs? Or is he the only person in town who'll be your friend?"
"I'm not little," Tony said fiercely, and Shanti gave a low growl. It made Leroy smile – of course Tony wouldn't take a comment like that without protesting.
"I've been looking after Tony while his father does business with your father," Leroy said calmly.
"That what you been doing? Or maybe you bring the kid into the woods for some other reason?" Chuck said, his mouth twisting upwards in a nasty little smile.
Shannon gripped his hand more tightly. "Leave it, Jethro," she said quietly.
Chuck glanced at her dismissively. "I see your whore is back in town, Gibbs."
"What did you call her?" Leroy felt a familiar red mist rising inside. His father had always chided him about his temper, but that never stopped him getting into fights – and he'd had more fights with Chuck Winslow over the years than anyone else in town.
"Well, I figure she has to be a whore as no girl would sleep with you without getting paid," Chuck said with a leering grin. "Did you have a threesome?" he asked. "You, your whore, and the kid? All alone out in the woods with nobody to see?"
Leroy swung his fist without even thinking and landed a hard blow on Chuck's jaw that sent him flying. At the same time, Tessa descended upon the coyote and sank her teeth into her, making Chuck's daemon scream loudly. Tessa released her and stood back, watching closely, ready to attack again.
Chuck got to his feet. "That the best you can do, cripple?" he taunted. He came at him with all his force and managed to land a punch on Leroy's cheek that sent him toppling over on his injured leg. Leroy growled under his breath – there was no way Chuck Winslow could take him in a fair fight when he was fit, but he wasn't.
He tried to get up – too fast – and his wounded knee protested, sending a sharp stabbing pain through his entire leg. Chuck loomed over him and grabbed the collar of his shirt, his fist raised high in the air, and Leroy was suddenly aware that this was one fight he wasn't going to win.
He cursed himself for being such an idiot; Chuck had probably been waiting for the right time to strike ever since he'd come home to recuperate. They had plenty of old scores to settle, and Chuck knew he stood a chance of getting even with him because of his leg injury. He'd probably picked today on purpose to show him up in front of his girl.
Chuck's fist came down, and Leroy fell sideways from the force of the second blow. He shook his head in confusion, bracing himself for more – but instead all hell broke loose.
It all took place so quickly, and the trail was so dusty, that Leroy wasn't even sure what happened. Chuck was standing over him, kicking him in the ribs, and Leroy was trying hard to get up again but his knee just wasn't co-operating.
Shannon had gone the deadly kind of silent she always went when she was furious – she was bashing Chuck over the head with her fists while Tony was throwing himself at Chuck repeatedly, yelling at him to stop. Chuck was just shoving the child out of the way every time he got near, easily swiping him aside like he was a puppy.
Leroy saw Pell dive-bomb the coyote daemon with his usual deadly accuracy, pecking away at her, but still Chuck's assault on him didn't let up any. Beside him, Tessa was lying on the ground, desperately trying to get up while the coyote snarled and snapped at her.
Then suddenly, out of nowhere, a massive, angry roar ripped through the air, deafening him and drowning out everything else.
The coyote gave a shriek of terror and when the dust cleared Leroy saw her slinking off with her tail between her legs, with Chuck limping along behind her, rubbing his bruised jaw. He paused only to glance back in their direction with an expression of bemused hatred on his face, as if he wasn't quite sure what had happened. He looked furious that his plan to take Leroy down once and for all hadn't worked.
Leroy looked up to see Tony standing over him, protecting him, arms still outstretched, fists at the ready. Shannon was standing beside the child, red hair full of dirt, looking just as fiercely protective. Pell was flying directly overhead, patrolling the skies above them, and Shanti was a little brown bear, hackles raised, brown eyes defiant and determined.
Tessa picked herself up from the dust and sat down beside him. She looked a little frayed around the edges but fine apart from that.
"It's like I said," she murmured. "Pack."
Leroy accepted Shannon's hand to help him up and leaned heavily on Tony's shoulder as his knee almost gave way beneath him. He looked down on the pair of them.
"Yes," he said to Tessa. "Pack."
When Tony woke up the following day he was still feeling restless and angry inside. Shanti was a brown bear beside him which was unusual – it wasn't one of her normal shapes.
"I'm angry," she said, in a little growl of a voice.
"I know. Me too." He remembered that man the previous day, taunting and mocking them and then punching Leroy into the dust. Tony had been overcome by his emotions back then – and that protective rage was still coursing through his veins.
"Because it can't get out," Shanti told him, her fur bristling.
"It did get out, and you saw what happened."
"It wouldn't be like that if I could be that way more often. It's just because it's all locked up and hidden away."
"We'll go home soon and then everything can go back to the way it was."
She stared at him from big, brown eyes. "But I don't want to go home," she said, turning into a puppy again. "I want to stay here, with Jethro." She snuggled up next to him.
"Jethro?" He raised an eyebrow.
"That's what Shannon calls him. She's right, it suits him better – and it's what I want to call him too."
"I know." He hugged her close, feeling unhappy. He was angry about the fight yesterday, and he wanted to go home so Shanti could relax and be herself, but at the same time he wanted to stay here, close to Jethro.
"Even if we did stay, Jethro won't be here much longer," he told Shanti sensibly. "When his leg gets better he'll go back to the Marines. He'll still see Shannon because she's his girl, but I'm not…I'm not part of his life," he said miserably. He'd felt so lonely since his mother died, but being with Jethro had changed that, and he'd started to feel happy again in the past week.
Shanti licked his nose, and they clung onto each other. There didn't seem to be any answer to it, and Tony felt upset and confused. His mood didn't improve when his father told him to get dressed in his best clothes.
"We're going to lunch with Frank Winslow," he said when Tony mulishly asked an insolent "why?"
"Why?" Tony asked again, feeling out of sorts and irritable.
His father glared at him. "Because I'm doing business with him, but he's a hard nut to crack. So I'm taking him out to lunch today to show him what a decent, honest, family man I am – that's why you're coming too. And wipe that look off your face! You're going to be polite and not show me up. Keep your damn daemon under control; I don't want her showing off and making a scene. Got it?"
"Got it," Tony said sullenly.
He hated dressing up in his suit and wearing a tie to go to the restaurant on Main Street. His father kept a firm hand on his shoulder as he steered him across the road, and Tony glanced miserably in the direction of the woods. He would far rather spend the day there with Jethro and Shannon than sitting in a stuffy restaurant with his father's boring business acquaintance.
Shanti ambled along beside him in her brown bear shape, representing just how grouchy he felt about this. His father took no notice of his sullen mood though, and Nala even nipped Shanti's flank when she was too slow, making her yelp.
They were shown to their table in the restaurant, and Tony froze. There, sitting at the table, was the man from yesterday – Chuck. His face was bruised, and his lip had been split in the fight, but there was no mistaking the coyote daemon beside him. The coyote bared her teeth at Shanti, and Shanti gave a little growl and puffed up her fur angrily.
Chuck was sitting next to a much older man, who Tony guessed had to be his father – the man his own father had been doing business with all week.
Frank Winslow got up and shook his father's hand heartily. They made boring adult conversation that Tony ignored; he was too busy glaring at Chuck. His father motioned to him to sit down, and, reluctantly, he took his seat. Shanti sat down next to him, and Nala sank down beside her.
"Now, you'll have to excuse Chuck's appearance," Frank said. "There's a bad kid in town – thought we'd got rid of him, but he's come back. Always causes fights wherever he goes. Chuck tried to reason with him but this kid talks with his fists. He's a bad lot."
Was he talking about Jethro? Tony gazed at the man in astonishment, and Shanti sat up, her ears flicking angrily.
"That wasn't the way it was," Tony said, unable to stop himself.
His father turned to glare at him, and Nala bit Shanti's ear – hard. Tony fought back a yelp, but he was too angry to be subdued.
"Is that so, young Tony?" Frank Winslow had a cold look in his eyes.
Tony knew he was supposed to shut up. He knew he was supposed to be polite and nice and make everyone like him so his father's business deal went down well, but he couldn't do it.
"Yes it is," he said firmly.
"The kid doesn't know what he's talking about," Chuck said smoothly. His coyote daemon opened her mouth and actually laughed in Shanti's face. Shanti stood up on her hind legs and snapped her jaws at her. Tony's father glared at Shanti and gave Tony a nudge under the table, but Tony was too angry to pay any attention to him.
"I do! I was there!" he said defiantly.
Shanti gave a loud growl, and Nala immediately shoved Shanti's face onto the floor and held her paw over Shanti's muzzle. Tony fought for breath, feeling stifled.
"Leroy Gibbs has been trouble since the minute he was born," Frank Winslow said, leaning back in his chair. His possum daemon went over and sat down next to his son's coyote, and they both glared at Shanti. "I've known him all my life, and he's a bad'un."
"I'm sure he is. I got a bad vibe off the kid the minute I met him," Tony's father said, much to Tony's astonishment. "Now, shall we take a look at the menu?" he added, in a clear attempt to move the conversation on.
Tony bit down hard on his lip and tried to look at the menu. Opposite him, Chuck gave him a nasty grin that just made things worse. Tony really did try and sit there and not say anything, but in the end the words just came tumbling out.
"Leroy isn't bad. He's been nicer to me than anyone else in this town, and Chuck started it!"
"That's enough." His father got up, grabbed hold of his neck, yanked him to his feet, and propelled him out of the restaurant. Nala followed, with Shanti held loosely in her jaws. "What the hell do you think you're playing at?" his father hissed, shaking him. "I told you to play nice with these people. Who the hell cares what they think of your new friend? It doesn't matter."
"It matters to me!"
His father shook him again. "Don't be an idiot. You just go along with people like this. You make them think they're the big 'I am' even when you think they're idiots. You wear a big smile, say what they want to hear, and charm the socks off them."
"I don't want to," Tony said sullenly.
He felt his father's temper rising and braced himself for the slap – that never came. His father released him, visibly regaining control of his temper, and Nala dropped Shanti to the floor. "I don't have time for this. We'll deal with it later. Now, if you can't behave then I don't damn well want you going back in there. You'll screw up this entire deal for me. So fuck off and leave me to repair the damage you've done."
His father shoved him onto the sidewalk and then turned and stalked back into the restaurant without looking back.
Tony stared after him uncertainly. On the one hand, he was glad he didn't have to spend a few hours being polite to people he hated. On the other, he knew his father wouldn't let this drop and there would be hell to pay later.
That was later though. Now was now, and Tony possessed the ability to keep the two entirely separate in his head.
"We have the day free! We can go and find Jethro and Shannon!" Shanti said happily, circling him excitedly in puppy form.
Tony made his way to the woods, with Shanti running along beside him, tail held high in the air. He walked towards their usual spot…and then paused as he got close.
Shannon was sitting on a blanket, with Tessa beside her. Shannon looked very relaxed and happy and her hair was all mussed up – but that wasn't what caught Tony's attention. He was transfixed by the sight of her *stroking Tessa's fur with her bare hand*. Leroy was kneeling beside her, with Pell perched on his bare hand, and he was gently touching Pell's head, making Pell croon in delight.
Tony stopped dead in his tracks, feeling scared. You didn't touch another person's daemon. It was a huge taboo. He'd only experienced it a couple of times but it had made him feel physically sick. He put out his hand, and Shanti turned into a mouse and climbed up his arm and into his shirt, trembling at the memory of when she'd been touched. Daemons could touch each other, and people could touch each other, and you could touch your own daemon – but you didn't touch anyone else's.
Tony didn't know what to do. As he watched Leroy gently stroking Pell's wings, he felt another emotion; envy. Leroy looked so happy, and Pell was making those little crooning sounds. Tessa was lying on her side, panting happily – she didn't look distressed by Shannon gently combing her fingers through her fur. On the contrary; she looked relaxed and completely content.
Leroy brought Pell up to his face and gently kissed the kestrel's head, and Tony was aware that he'd intruded on a very intimate scene. He'd never seen his father touch his mother's daemon, and now that the shock was wearing off he felt a sense of longing.
He must have made a sound – maybe a sigh – because Leroy suddenly looked up. Pell flew up into the sky, and Tessa moved back to his side, out of Shannon's reach.
"Sorry. It's just me." Tony edged towards them, suddenly feeling shy. He'd never been shy with them before, but what he'd just seen had changed their easy friendship.
"It's okay, Tony," Shannon said gently, beckoning him over. He went slowly and sat down on the edge of the blanket, with Shanti pressed close against his heart. Shannon glanced up at Leroy, with a worried expression.
Leroy knelt down on the blanket beside Tony. "Did you see something that scared you?" he asked.
Tony shrugged and hugged Shanti tighter. She stuck her nose out of his shirt and then pulled it back quickly out of sight.
"It's okay. I'm not going to touch her," Leroy told him with a surprised little laugh.
Tony looked up, feeling confused. That wasn't the problem. He didn't mind the idea of Leroy touching Shanti – and that was what was confusing him.
"I saw you touching Pell!" he blurted. "People shouldn't touch other people's daemons with their bare hands! It isn't nice!"
Leroy nodded thoughtfully and sat back on his knees. "It's true that usually when someone touches your daemon it makes you feel like you’re going to throw up, or pass out, or both at the same time. But sometimes…not often, but it can happen, that when you love someone, and…um…trust them…then it feels…good…um…natural…to touch their daemon."
He was clearly floundering, and he looked at Shannon for help.
"Did your mom ever touch your daemon – when you were sick maybe?" she asked.
Tony frowned, trying to remember. "Once, I think she did. I had a fever, and she was trying to wake me."
It wasn't common even for parents to touch their child's daemon with their bare hands. It just wasn't something you *did*. Even for a parent, it could be considered abusive to touch a child's daemon; it was such an intimate act. Tony remembered when a kid at school had grabbed Shanti's head, and how he had howled and almost passed out from the sensation. The kid had been expelled – that's how serious it was to touch another person's daemon with bare hands. Sometimes accidents happened, and someone rubbed up against your daemon by mistake and apologized to you profusely. But usually that was just a split second of nausea that quickly passed.
Shanti poked her head out from his shirt again and looked around cautiously.
"You'll understand when you get older," Shannon said, smiling.
"You mean it's a sex thing?" Tony said scornfully. "I know all about sex stuff. I watch a lot of TV, and once I saw my mom and dad doing it."
Leroy made a snorting sound in the back of his throat, and Shannon laughed out loud. Shanti crawled out of his shirt and sat down beside him in puppy form.
"It's not a sex thing, Tony," Leroy told him firmly. "It's not physical and it goes much deeper than that. It's soul deep. It's like touching another person, *knowing* another person right down to their soul. A lot of people never feel that way about someone else, so they go through their lives never touching another person's daemon. Most people don't like having their daemons touched at all, even by those they love most. But if you can find someone you're connected to, on some level beyond words and bodies…it's just…" He broke off and glanced at Shannon. "The most incredible feeling," he finished.
Shannon got up and went to kneel beside him. "I think that's the most I've ever heard you say in one go, Jethro, and it was beautiful. Thank you." She kissed him gently on the mouth, and Pell landed on Tessa and smoothed her fur with his beak.
"Yuck!" Tony made a face, and Shanti turned into a porcupine and hid her eyes with her paws. Shannon and Leroy both laughed.
"You look kind of over-dressed for a day in the woods, Tony," Leroy said, glancing at his stiff grey suit.
Tony shrugged, remembering the scene at the restaurant, and Shanti turned into a bear beside him and gave a little growl. "Dad wanted me to go to lunch with the guy he's doing business with – but when we got there that Chuck person was there, and…well, I kind of got angry," he explained.
"Angry about what?" Leroy asked.
Tony flushed. "They said bad things about you. So I got angry," he said sullenly.
Leroy looked at him for a moment and then gave a big, wide smile – Tony had never seen him smile quite like that, and he was fascinated.
"Thanks for standing up to them, Tony, but I hope you didn't get in any trouble."
"No." Tony crossed his fingers behind his back.
"Not yet anyway," Shanti murmured in an undertone, and he knew she was afraid of what kind of a mood Nala would be in when they went back to the motel later.
"The suit is very nice. Makes you look grown up and handsome," Shannon said, and Tony grinned and got up and pranced around a bit, milking it for all he was worth. Beside him, Shanti turned into a peacock, spread out her glorious display of feathers, and began strutting around proudly.
Shannon laughed out loud. “You do know it’s only the peacock that has all that bright plumage, not the peahen, right?” she asked.
Shanti just kept on parading around, ignoring the fact that the form she was mimicking wasn’t gender appropriate. It wasn’t one of her daemon forms – she was just having some fun with it, like a child dressing up.
"You are such a show off," Leroy said, rolling his eyes. "Trying to charm the lady, huh?" He nodded in Shannon's direction.
Shanti turned back into a puppy again and sat down abruptly beside him. Tony felt annoyed.
"It wasn't for Shannon," Shanti said sulkily, too quietly for them to hear.
"I know. It was for Leroy," he replied just as quietly.
He wasn't even sure why he wanted to impress Leroy so much; he just knew that he did. He liked Shannon, so that wasn't the problem. It was something else that he didn't really understand.
Tony wanted the day to last forever, if only to delay the moment when he'd have to go back to the motel and face his father. He knew that Leroy wanted the day to last forever too, because he was going to be taking Shannon to the station to catch her train in the evening.
There was something special about that last day they all spent together; something almost magical. Shanti felt it too. The sun shone for most of the afternoon, and later, when there was a sudden rainstorm, Leroy held the blanket over their heads as they ran at his limping pace all the way back to the store.
They left the sodden blanket at the store, airing over a chair in front of the fire. Leroy picked up Shannon's bag, and Tony accompanied them both to the station. He stood by while Leroy and Shannon kissed, and then Shannon turned to him. She looked so pretty with her white skin and long red hair. She pressed a little kiss to his cheek and then smiled.
"It was great meeting you, Tony. Look after Jethro when I'm gone!"
At that moment the sky went dark and it began to rain again. Tony felt a shiver run down his spine, and Shanti gave a little wail. Tony opened his mouth to reply, only to find that his throat had gone completely dry.
"I will," he croaked. "I promise."
She looked surprised by the heartfelt sincerity in his tone and gave a little laugh. "Hey, I'll be back next weekend," she said, tapping him under the chin with her finger.
"Yes. I know." He lowered his head and gazed at Shanti who gazed back at him from troubled brown eyes. Shannon would be back, yes, but somehow he knew that he would never see her again.
He stepped forward and touched her hand. "Bye," he whispered. "I…gotta go now. My dad will be waiting for me." He squeezed her hand tight, for just a brief second, and then turned and ran out of the station.
It was raining hard, and he paused by the station awning because this time he didn't have Leroy with his blanket to keep him dry. It was also nearly dark, and he'd stayed out far later than he should. He watched the rain come crashing down, as lightning streaked across the sky. It showed no signs of letting up so eventually he decided he'd just have to get wet. He began to run, covering his head with his arms, Shanti in puppy form sticking close by his side.
"Hey – Tony!" He heard a voice and turned to see Tessa loping into sight with Leroy behind her. "You okay? You left in a hurry."
"I don't like goodbyes," Tony muttered. "And it's late. I need to get home. Dad…" His father was already in a bad mood with him, and he dreaded how much worse it might be if he'd gone out drinking after lunch.
Leroy stood there, the rain plastering his dark hair to his head, his blue eyes concerned.
"You going to be okay, Tony?" he asked. "With your dad, I mean?"
Leroy always knew the things Tony never said; he could read him better than anyone had ever done, even his mom. Maybe that was why Tony liked him so much.
"Yes. I'll be fine." Tony crossed his fingers behind his back. "Did Shannon's train come?"
"Yes, she's gone. I thought I'd see if I could catch up with you. Is something wrong?" Leroy pressed.
Shanti turned into a mouse and ran up to sit on his shoulder. He didn't have the words to explain it, but something had happened back there with Shannon; something dark and frightening.
"No. Nothing's wrong," Tony replied quickly. "I'll see you."
And then he turned and ran back down the street.
Leroy watched Tony disappear into the rainy night.
"Something feels wrong," Tessa said quietly.
"I know. It’s like how it feels before a storm, only the storm's already here." Leroy glanced up at the angry black clouds overhead. It was bucketing down, and he was already soaked through.
He limped back to the store, but he couldn't shake the sensation that something bad was going to happen.
His father took one look at him when he got in and began clucking around, throwing a towel over his wet head and scolding him for going out without a coat or umbrella.
"Supper's nearly ready," he said.
Leroy glanced over at the table and saw that three places had been laid.
"I thought young Tony might be joining us," Jackson explained.
"No." Leroy glanced at Tessa who seemed unsettled and agitated. "He said he had to get back to his dad. So it's just us two."
"Makes a change." Jackson tousled his damp hair – something that Leroy really hated. It had been bad enough when he was a kid, but as a twenty year old man it was even more annoying. "Seems like we've had guests at the dinner table a lot this part week – either Shannon, or Tony, or both! Not that I mind! I'm delighted." He rambled on as he walked into the kitchen. "Always wanted you to bring friends home when you were a kid, and you never did. Been nice having young people around to talk to…"
Leroy sat down at the table, his wet shirt sticking to his cold skin. Tessa sat down beside him and then got up again and turned around in a circle. She tried to sit down again but was clearly unable to settle. She gave a little whine and looked up at him.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Something feels wrong. I think one of your pack is in trouble."
"Well it's not Dad. He's fine. So is it Tony, or Shannon?"
He hadn't even realized that he'd named the people he viewed as members of his pack; his pack, under his protection, even when he wasn't physically near them.
"Shannon's train…" he began.
Tessa shook her head. "I do not think it is Shannon."
The motel room was dark when he got back. Tony didn't have a key, so he knocked on the door. He half hoped his father wasn't back yet – then he could walk back to the warm, welcoming lights of the store, and sit down for one of Jackson Gibbs's home-cooked suppers that always tasted so good.
He heard a crashing noise inside the motel room, and he winced; that didn't sound good. When his father was sober he could be strict and mean, but Tony could handle both those things. It was when his father was drunk that he became truly scary.
A light went on, the door was opened, and he found himself gazing into his father's bloodshot eyes.
"So you've come back at last, have you?" he slurred.
"Yes Dad. Sorry Dad," Tony whispered, sidling into the room with Shanti pressed up against his legs.
"You damn well should be! Because of you, I lost the business deal I was working on!"
His father slammed the door shut behind him, and Tony froze. Because of him? Had he screwed that up for his father just by sticking up for Leroy at lunch? Was that how business deals worked?
"Sorry, Dad," he whispered again, going over to his bed. If he lay down and pretended to be asleep his father might let it drop. He'd no doubt bring it up again in the morning, but Tony wasn't so afraid of him when he was sober.
"You don't fucking understand, do you?" His father suddenly loomed over him. "We needed that deal. Your mom's money is all tied up in trust funds and…" He caught himself. "My business doesn't have any capital, and if I can't find an investor then we stand to lose everything. Do you understand *that*, you little shit?"
Tony shook his head, but that just made things worse. His father reached out, grabbed his arms, and squeezed so tight it made him whimper. Shanti gave a growl and threw herself at Nala, who opened her big jaws, snapped them tight around Shanti's puppy neck, and held her down on the floor.
"No! Please! No!" Tony wheezed, struggling to breathe. "Let Shanti go!"
His father's face broke into a grim, drunken smile. He released his grip on Tony's arms and turned to look at where Nala had Shanti pinned down.
"I told you to keep her under control back there, but you didn't. And if you can't control your daemon, then I'll have to do it for you."
He went over to Shanti and yanked her out of Nala's jaws. Tony screamed as wave after wave of nausea rolled through him. His father was touching his daemon! He was holding Shanti in his hand, by the scruff of her neck, and it made him feel so ill he threw up.
"Doesn't feel good, does it?" his father asked viciously as Tony puked up onto the floor. "Like losing a fucking business deal when you're this close. *This fucking close*!" He shook Shanti violently, and she gave a scream of terror. Tony fell onto the bed, screaming with her.
"Please stop…please…" He clawed at his own throat, trying to breathe, but all he could feel were his father's hands on Shanti, squeezing and shaking.
"You're a brat. I raised a brat. Your daemon is the evidence. I should have done something about it before," his father said ominously. "I should have made you control yourself, but I've been too easy on you. Soft. Like your mom. You're a spoiled brat, Tony."
He turned and hurled Shanti against the wall. She slammed into it and fell to the floor, but the minute she landed Nala was upon her, snarling at her and biting her. Tony fell back onto the bed, writhing in pain. He was dimly aware of his father going over to Shanti and drawing back his leg, and then he landed a kick on her exposed belly, and another, and then another.
Tony gasped for air, doubled over, clutching his stomach. Shanti was screaming, and he was screaming with her, desperate to reach her but in too much pain to move.
His father leaned down and picked her up by the scruff of her neck again, and Tony threw up again, instantly. He writhed in agony, wondering if maybe this was what it felt like to be dying.
His father slapped Shanti around the face, while she called for him, over and over again, but he couldn't get there. He managed to fall off the bed and onto the floor, struggling to reach her. He tried crawling across the room but it all hurt too much.
Then suddenly the room lurched and everything was upside down. He thought he saw his mother's daemon, Keddon, a big black cat, coming towards him.
"Call for help," Keddon urged.
Who could he call? His mom was dead and there was nobody else nearby.
"Call!" Keddon told him urgently. "He will hear."
Tony opened his mouth and screamed: "Jethro!"
Leroy pushed his plate away.
"You not hungry, son?" Jackson asked.
"No. I mean yes…but no." Tessa’s agitation was getting even worse, and he knew he couldn’t ignore it anymore. It was making him feel physically ill in the pit of his stomach. "I think…I have to go do something."
"Do what?" Jackson was watching him, perplexed. Meldra went over to Tessa and gently pressed her feathers against Tessa's fur, but Tessa moved away.
He didn't hear the sound out loud, but the scream reverberated around his head all the same. "Jethro!"
"I have to go!"
Leroy wasn't sure where he was going exactly, but he had run out of the house and was halfway down the street before he realized he was on his way to the motel.
"Tony is in trouble," Tessa told him.
"Yes, I know."
He ignored the pain in his knee, ignored the rain pouring down from above, and ran as fast as he could.
He could hear angry sounds emanating from the motel room as he got close, and he threw himself the last few steps and crashed through the partly open door. Then he stopped, shocked by what he found there.
Tony was lying on the floor, completely comatose, while a drunken DiNozzo held Shanti down with his bare hands and slapped her over and over again.
Leroy didn't say a word. He threw himself at DiNozzo, yanked him away from Shanti, and delivered one solid upper cut to the man's jaw. That was all it took. DiNozzo went out like a light, falling down on the bed, dead to the world. Nala keeled over immediately beside him.
Leroy went over to Tony and crouched down beside him. There wasn't a mark on the boy – his father hadn't touched him; he'd terrorized his daemon instead.
"Tony?" Leroy gently stroked Tony's hair away from his forehead, but the child didn't move. "Hey…Tony…I need you to wake up," he said softly. He'd heard of people being traumatized when their daemons were attacked, and he knew how serious it could be.
Still Tony didn't move. Leroy glanced over at where Shanti was lying on the floor by the far wall, still in puppy form, eyes closed, unmoving.
Tessa went over to her and licked her face, but she didn't stir. Tessa sat back on her haunches and gave Leroy a despondent look.
"I can't wake her. We must try something else."
"What?" Leroy was at a loss as to what to do.
"You must try to reach Shanti."
Leroy took a deep breath and nodded. He went over to where Shanti was lying and knelt down beside her.
"Shanti," he said softly, gazing down at the little puppy. "I have to get Tony to safety, so I need you to wake up."
She whimpered, but still she didn't move or open her eyes. Leroy glanced at Tessa, and she nodded. "Do it."
"Hush, Shanti…you're okay. You're okay now." Leroy reached out a trembling hand towards the daemon. He had only ever touched Pell before, and once, many years ago, when he was a child, he'd touched Meldra.
It should have felt strange, but it didn't. The minute his fingers came into contact with her soft, golden fur, he felt as if everything was going to be okay. She felt silky soft beneath him, and warm, and somehow familiar, as if he'd known her his entire life.
"Does she mind?" he asked Tessa. "I don't want to make things worse."
The wolf shook her head. "She trusts you. You are not trying to harm her, and she is pack," Tessa reminded him. "She does not mind."
"Shanti," he said, still gently stroking the daemon.
Touching her filled his mind with thoughts of Tony. He saw a black cat – and the name 'Keddon' came instantly to his mind. The cat was the daemon of a woman with long blonde hair and bright green eyes. Then he saw himself, as Tony saw him…dark hair, blue eyes, a pronounced limp…and safe. Images of home, family, and kindness filled his mind…and then there was Shannon. He saw her red hair and pale skin…and he felt himself shiver with foreboding. Beneath his fingers, Shanti began to shake.
"Sssh…come back to us, Shanti," he said, unable to make sense of all the images and emotions swirling through his mind. It all felt so vivid and overwhelming. It was a glimpse into Tony's soul, and it was so intimate he felt as if he was intruding. Yet he needed Shanti to recover if he was going to stand any chance of reaching Tony and hauling him back to consciousness.
"Shanti, it's okay, you're safe. I promise. You'll always be safe with me."
She was shaking more violently now, and he saw Tony's father looming over her, grabbing her by the neck, and throwing her against the wall. His own fury rose up inside him, and he wanted to go over to the unconscious man and punch him all over again.
"That will not help," Tessa told him calmly. "Stay here, with Shanti. She and Tony need you."
Leroy nodded and kept gently talking to the stricken daemon, stroking and calming her, urging her to wake up.
"I'll keep you safe. I'm here…it's me, Leroy," he told her.
"Jethro," Tessa said. He glanced up at her. "That is who you are to her. To him." She glanced over at Tony.
Leroy didn't understand that, but he was acting on instinct now. "It's Jethro," he whispered to Shanti. "Your friend, Jethro. Come back to us, Shanti."
He saw Tony screaming his name and then falling down comatose, while his father continued to beat up on his daemon.
"I'm here. I came. I'm here," he told her. "It's me, Shanti. It's Jethro. I heard. I came."
Shanti's shaking slowly began to subside, and then she made a whimpering sound in the back of her throat and her eyes opened. She lay there, on her side, looking up at him from scared eyes.
"Hush…it's okay now, Shanti. It's okay, little one." He gently stroked her muzzle, and she feebly flicked her tongue over his fingers.
"He said I was bad. That I had to be controlled," Shanti whispered.
"You're fine just as you are," Leroy told her firmly. "Nobody should control you."
She nodded uncertainly and licked his hand again. Leroy smiled down on her. "Can you stand?"
She gave a little whine, but she managed to sit up, with Tessa's help. Then Tessa nudged her onto her paws, and she stood, swaying unsteadily.
Leroy glanced over at Tony. The boy's eyes were open, and he was gazing at him blankly. Leroy saw the pile of vomit beside the bed and on the child's clothes, and he fought down another wave of blind fury.
"Tony comes first," Tessa told him, calming the rising red mist of his temper.
"I know," he replied shortly.
Leroy went over to the boy and crouched down beside him. He reached out a hand and stroked Tony's hair, the way he'd just stroked Shanti.
"Can you walk, Tony?" he asked quietly.
Tony didn't say a word. He looked completely out of it, like a boxer who'd been knocked around the head once too often.
"Okay. I'm going to carry you. I'm taking you home with me. Understand?"
Tony looked around blearily, and his gaze came to rest on his unconscious father. His eyes widened in panic.
"It's okay – he's out cold. He won't wake up for awhile. You're safe now," Leroy told him. "Can you put your arms around my neck?"
Tony nodded mutely and reached his arms up. He clung on to Leroy's neck, and Leroy strained to lift him. Tony wasn't very heavy, but Leroy's injured knee nearly gave way as he stood.
"It will hold," Tessa told him.
"It has to," Leroy replied, as he began limping towards the door with Tony in his arms. Tessa picked up Shanti, holding her gently in her jaws, and followed on behind.
The walk up Main Street in the pouring rain with Tony in his arms seemed to take forever. Leroy could feel the sweat running down his face as his injured leg protested, but he continued on, holding the child tight against his chest, trying to protect him from the worst of the rain.
Jackson was waiting for them on the porch, Meldra clucking anxiously by his side, peering through the storm for sight of them. Leroy staggered the last few steps towards the store, and Jackson ran out into the street.
For once, Jackson didn't make a big fuss. He was often like this in a crisis. He'd tell Leroy off for something small and stupid, like being late home, and go on and on about it for hours, but when something big happened he was solid as a rock. He took one look at Leroy's face, and then at the almost comatose Tony in his arms, and his mouth settled into a grim line.
He moved forward to take Tony, but Leroy gestured him away with an impatient flick of his head. His knee hurt like hell, but he wasn't going to surrender Tony to anyone, not even his own father.
"Hurry then. We need to get you both dried off. And the child needs a bed," Jackson said, running back to the store and holding the door open.
Jackson didn't ask what had happened. Instead, he busied himself lighting the fire in the hearth, putting a pan of milk to warm on the stove, and running upstairs to fetch towels.
Leroy placed Tony on the rug in front of the fire and began stripping off the boy's sodden, vomit-stained clothes. He took the towel his father gave him and dried the child, and then dressed him in one of his own tee shirts that Jackson had given him. It was big enough to come down almost to Tony's knees. Finally, he wrapped Tony in a blanket and sat him down in front of the fire, placing one arm around him.
Jackson brought them both warm milk, and Leroy was relieved to see Tony at least rousing enough to sip it. Beside them, Shanti was stretched out in front of the fire, her damp fur steaming a little, while Tessa washed her gently but thoroughly with her tongue, from the top of her puppy head to the tip of her tail.
Tony's skin was paper white and almost translucent. There were dark shadows under his eyes, and he looked exhausted. Leroy kept one arm around him, holding the boy close, warming him with his own body in addition to the heat of the fire.
Leroy had no idea what was going to happen next. He did, however, possess the ability to live in the here and now, and just deal with the crisis at hand.
"You need to get some rest, Tony," he said, watching as Tony's eyelids drooped. Now was not a good time to have a discussion with the boy about what had just happened. Tony made a visible effort to open his eyes, and Leroy smiled down at him. "I'm going to take you up to my room and put you in my bed. Nobody will harm you there. Understood?"
Tony nodded sleepily, and Leroy levered himself up, ignoring the stabbing pain in his now thoroughly protesting knee.
"Do you want me to carry him?" his father asked, hovering anxiously close by.
Leroy shook his head, feeling an overwhelming surge of protectiveness that he couldn't explain.
He picked up the child again, and Tessa nudged Shanti onto her feet, and they made their weary way up the stairs.
His father had placed a hot water bottle in the bed to warm it. Leroy slid Tony between the sheets, and Tessa helped Shanti onto the bed. The puppy crawled into the safety of Tony's arms and settled against his chest.
Leroy turned on the lamp on the nightstand; he didn't want the child waking in the night and freaking out because he was in a strange room. He was about to tiptoe out of the room when Tony spoke for the first time.
"I knew you would come," he whispered, his voice barely audible. "Keddon told me to call you. I knew you would hear."
"Keddon?" Leroy turned back with a frown.
"My mother's daemon."
"Your mother…? Your mother's dead, Tony," Leroy said gently, sitting on the bed beside the boy and smoothing his hair back from his forehead.
Tony blinked, looking confused. "Yes," he said softly. "But he told me to call for you, and I did, and you came."
Leroy couldn't make any sense of that, so he just smiled and smoothed the boy's hair some more until he thought Tony was asleep. He got up to go, but Tony reached out a hand and touched his arm, his green eyes beseeching.
"I'm not going anywhere. I'm just going to get changed out of these wet clothes, and then I'll be back. Okay?" Leroy told him.
Tony nodded, his eyelids drooping again, and he was asleep before Leroy even reached the door.
Jackson was waiting for him outside with a clean pair of shorts and a tee shirt.
"Do you know what happened?" he asked as Leroy quietly undressed and towelled his damp skin and hair.
"When I got there, his father was stinking drunk and…" Leroy paused, fighting his own emotions. "He had hold of Shanti. He was slapping her around. Tony was almost comatose on the floor. He'd thrown up a few times.
Jackson looked stunned. "He was attacking the child's daemon? The child's own father was beating up on his daemon?"
Leroy gave a taut nod and then retched as the full force of the memory struck him; it was obscene.
"The poor child. No wonder he looked like a drowned rat when you brought him home. But, Leroy…how did you know it was happening? The way you took off – it was as if you could feel that the boy was in trouble."
"I could, somehow. Tessa felt it too." He thought about what Tony had said about calling him – he'd definitely heard the child's voice, screaming his name in his head, but he didn't have an explanation for it. "Tessa says…" he paused, trying to find an explanation that made more sense.
"Tessa says it's because Tony is pack," he said, at last, ducking his head in embarrassment because he had never talked to his father about pack before.
Jackson nodded thoughtfully. "I think I understand, son. See, your daemon is a wolf, so you think in terms of pack, but mine's a bird, and we have flock." Leroy looked up, startled. "I've never talked to you about this before, son, because it's a private thing, between a person and their daemon, but when I look at you I see flock. And I know you don't like me clucking over you, but I can't help it; it's in my nature. And it seems to me that maybe pack isn't so different to flock – you just express it a little differently." Jackson gave a little chuckle. "Listen, Leroy – we might have had our ups and downs, but I want you know that I'm proud of you, son."
Leroy felt himself flushing, and he ducked his head again.
"You always got into such a lot of fights as a kid, and it worried me that you never brought any friends home. I guess you're just not as sociable as me." Jackson shook his head, chuckling to himself. "But I always knew you had a good heart in there, even if others never saw it. I'm proud of how you helped Tony. You're a good boy, Leroy, even if you never want anyone to know."
Leroy rolled his eyes, but he felt warm inside all the same. No matter how different they were, and how many arguments they had, he loved his father and had always wanted him to be proud of him.
He got changed into the clean, dry clothes his father had brought him and then stood up again.
"I'm going to sleep in there with him. I need to…watch over him," he said, not understanding the compulsion but going with it all the same.
"I understand, son." Jackson nodded, patting his arm. "Good night. Sleep well."
Leroy let himself quietly back into the room, Tessa at his side, and then paused in shock.
There, sitting on the bed beside Tony, was a large lioness, with fierce, brown eyes. She wasn't full-grown, but she was far larger than a child's daemon usually was.
"Shanti?" Leroy whispered incredulously. She bared her teeth at him, and Tony turned, whimpering, halfway between asleep and awake, eyes open and looking a little wild. "Shanti – it's me, Leroy," he said, edging cautiously towards her.
"Jethro," Tessa corrected. "Shanti – it's Jethro."
Shanti blinked in acknowledgement and relaxed. She looked massive and regal sitting there, beside Tony, watching over him.
"You're his secret," Leroy guessed. "The one he couldn't talk about. You're the secret shape of his daemon that he doesn't want anyone to see."
Shanti nodded solemnly. "I was wrong," she said, in a much lower, deeper voice than he'd ever heard from her before. "He told me to stay hidden, because he feared his father's temper. I shouldn't have listened. If we had allowed his father to see me like this more often, then maybe tonight wouldn't have happened."
"You…" Leroy remembered the fight the previous day. "You're what scared Chuck Winslow away. I heard this massive roar, but I couldn't see anything, and then when I could you'd changed back."
Shanti's lip curled up in disdain. "He was hurting you. You are our friend. Tony would not stand by and let a friend be hurt."
"But he stood by and let himself be hurt this evening," Leroy said. "You could have changed – you could have challenged his father, stood up to him…in this form, I think he'd have thought twice about attacking you."
"Tony made a promise to his mother. He's been trying very hard to keep it," Shanti said quietly.
"A daemon's shape isn't in a child's control!" Leroy protested.
Tony stirred uneasily, whimpering again, and Shanti gave a low, warning roar. "It isn't easy, but I can do it. Besides, Tony made a promise to his mother, so we kept it."
Leroy got the impression that Tony had loved his mother very much, and he felt sorry for the child all over again for his loss. He knew how it felt.
"Why this particular shape?" he asked. "Why do you only hide the lion?"
Shanti shook her big head, growling softly to herself. "I was in this form one day, and his father found me particularly annoying. There was a big argument." Shanti's brown eyes sparked angrily. "After that, his mother thought it wise that I keep this form hidden, in order to keep the peace. His father doesn't like impudence and when I am in this form I am a challenge. I…roar." She gave an embarrassed little smile. "I answer back. I am..."
"Strong," Leroy finished. "And threatening. And…beautiful." He couldn't help it – she really was.
"Thank you," she said, with a low, rumbling chuckle. She gave a yawn and then rested her head on her large paws. They were too big for her body, as if she still had some growing to do, just like Tony.
This then, was a representation of his true self that Tony had tried so hard to keep hidden, out of a misguided attempt not to antagonize his father. Leroy suddenly understood, on some level, why he had been so drawn to Tony and felt such an immediate sense of connection with the boy; he might have the playfulness of a puppy, the teasing mischief of a cockatiel, and the flitting mind of a butterfly – but he also had the heart and courage of a lion.
"I'm not sure Tony needs us, with you watching over him," Leroy said. "I can go sleep downstairs…"
"No. He wants you here. He has never had a true friend before," she said solemnly.
Leroy gave a little laugh at that. "Yeah, well, neither have I. I mean, I've got my girl, but that's different." He couldn’t explain it, but he felt sure that Shanti somehow knew what he meant; his friendship with Tony went deep – soul deep. He’d touched Tony’s daemon with his bare hands but instead of making the situation worse, or causing Tony to feel sick, it had been healing, restorative and peaceful.
He slid into the bed beside Tony, and Tessa took up position beside Shanti. They looked beautiful together, the wolf and the lioness, lying side by side.
Leroy looked at the child beside him, slumbering uneasily in the lamplight. Tony looked so young and vulnerable, and yet he had this big, proud, brave daemon beside him. It was hard to reconcile the two.
Leroy reached out and smoothed Tony's damp, tousled hair, and the child relaxed at his touch, just as he had the day he’d first met him. He became more at ease and his breathing deepened.
What would happen to him, this strange little boy who had somehow wormed his way into his heart? Leroy couldn't take care of him, and the child's father would no doubt come looking for him tomorrow.
"Sleep. We will watch over you," Tessa told him calmly. "And the morning will take care of itself."
Tony woke to find himself snuggled up against Shanti's solid, reassuring form.
"Hey," he whispered, stroking her sleek golden fur. "You okay?"
She bent her big lion's head down to nuzzle him gently. "I am fine."
"He was…" Tony felt his stomach clench as he remembered her being thrown against the wall, and kicked, and slapped, and how he'd been unable to reach her. "I'm sorry…I'm so, so sorry…it was my fault he hurt you."
"Hush. You'll throw up again and that stank," she told him, with a familiar gleam of mischief in her eyes. "Also, you’re in Jethro's bed, and I don't think he'd like it."
"Oh hell." Tony sat up suddenly. "Jethro…he mustn't see you like this."
"He already did." She blinked solemnly. "Last night. He slept in here – to watch over you. He got up about half an hour ago. I let him stay because you were tossing and turning; you are calmer when he’s near."
"You also let him stay 'cause you like snuggling up to Tessa," Tony pointed out with a knowing grin. "You've got some weird Tessa-crush going on. You think she's the best daemon in the whole world."
"She is very cool," Shanti agreed, her lion mouth curving up in a semblance of a grin.
"So he saw you…looking like this?" Tony wasn’t sure how he felt about that.
"Your mother wouldn't mind, Tony," Shanti told him softly. "She would understand."
There was a knock at the door before he had a chance to reply to that. Shanti changed into a puppy just as Jackson opened the door and poked his head around it.
“You awake, son? How are you feeling?”
“I’m fine, Mr. Gibbs.”
“Hey, it’s Jack – or Jackson if we’re being really formal. Don’t know how many times I have to tell you that, Tony!” Jackson gave him a big smile, and Meldra strutted into the room and fluttered up onto the bed. She went over to Shanti and examined her closely.
Jackson chuckled. "We heard that Shanti is good at undercover operations!"
"Undercover opera…" Tony caught on and laughed. "Like on the TV? Like being a cop?" he exclaimed.
"Or a spy," Jackson said, coming into the room. "Guess she's still in hiding, yes? That's a shame – I'd liked to have seen that lion. Damndest thing, a child being able to control his daemon's shape like that."
"I can't control any of her other shapes," Tony told him, as Shanti turned into a butterfly and perched on Meldra's head to illustrate the point. "I just don't like her taking that one when anyone can see her. It's…private."
"Well, you shouldn't have to keep any part of yourself disguised, Tony." Jackson's lips thinned into a straight line of disapproval. "Now, I've brought you your clothes. All washed, dried and ironed overnight by yours truly!" He placed the clothes on the bed. "Get dressed and come downstairs – I have pancakes and bacon cooking – and then we'll see what's to be done about this whole situation."
Tony wasn't sure he liked the sound of that, but from the look in Jackson's eyes it was unavoidable. Jackson shut the door, and Tony dutifully got dressed. Then he went down the stairs with Shanti in puppy form running along at his heels.
"Here's our little secret agent!" Jackson said as he took his place at the dining table.
Leroy was already sitting there, looking even more brooding than usual. His blue eyes flashed at Jackson's words, and he looked at Tony and then, searchingly, at Shanti, who immediately became self-conscious and fell over her own paws. She planted her rump firmly on the carpet and then placed her paws over her eyes to avoid that penetrating gaze. Tony didn’t blame her – Leroy had the most unsettling stare of anyone he'd ever met.
Jackson handed him a plate of delicious smelling food, and Tony was suddenly aware how ravenous he was after throwing up so much the previous night.
"So," Jackson said, sitting back in his chair with Meldra perched on his lap. "I'm going to go take a walk down to the motel in a bit and have a chat with your father, Tony."
Tony glanced up, his mouth full of bacon, feeling panicked.
"What I say to him depends a lot on what you say to me right now," Jackson said.
"What you say to him?" Leroy flared. "Damn it, Dad – the man attacked his own son's daemon! A child's daemon! You have no idea how many times I woke up in the night and wanted to go down to that motel room and take that hyena of his in my hands and wring her neck to show him how it damn well feels!"
"Yes, well, we all know about your temper, Leroy," his father said calmly.
"You see, this –*this* – is what I find so annoying about you!" Leroy flared. "This is a simple case of right or wrong, and you find some way to sit on both sides of the fence."
Jackson sighed. "Not all of us see the world in such stark shades of black and white as you, son."
Leroy flared up again immediately. "That man shouldn't be allowed to have a kid! Nobody should be allowed to beat up on their kid's daemon like that! It's abuse, plain and simple. And Tony's been neglected since he got here! If I hadn't found him roaming around in the woods on his own that first day then who knows what the hell might have happened to him!"
"You'll have a hard time proving that to the authorities, son," Jackson said. “And what do you suggest we do? You can’t just steal away the man’s child – they have a law against that – it’s called kidnapping.”
"Maybe Tony has a relative he can stay with – an uncle or aunt," Leroy suggested. "But he can't go back and live with that bastard. Who knows what will happen if I'm not around to look out for him? He was lucky this time. Last night could have ended differently."
Tony felt a wave of anxiety at all this talk of him living with someone else. "I love my dad," he said quietly.
Leroy and Jackson both turned to look at him.
"He was drunk last night. When he's drunk he gets mean," Tony told them.
"When he's sober he can be pretty mean too – his daemon is always bullying Shanti," Leroy pointed out.
"It's not always like this; only when he's doing business. When he's made a good business deal he can be a lot of fun. He takes me places, does stuff with me."
"Are you saying you want to stay with him?" Leroy demanded incredulously.
Tony doubted that many people would argue with Leroy Jethro Gibbs when he looked like this, but he had to. He took his courage in his hands.
"Yes," he said firmly. Beside him, he was aware of Shanti changing. He put a hand on her head and stroked her soft lion fur. "He's my dad," he said helplessly.
Leroy looked furious. Shanti bared her teeth at Tessa.
"My mom's dead. There's just the two of us. Him and me," Tony said in barely more than a whisper. "It might not be easy between us, but I love him. I can't lose him too."
That seemed to hit home. Leroy glanced at Jackson, and Tessa gently nudged Meldra with her nose.
"Can you understand that?" Tony asked Leroy beseechingly. Leroy looked away, his hands curled into tight fists.
Jackson got up and patted Tony's shoulder. "Oh yes, he can understand that, son," he said softly. Jackson reached for his coat and put it on, then turned to go. "I'll go talk to your dad, Tony. We'll make this right, I promise you."
Leroy watched his father go, feeling too angry to speak. Then he felt something warm nudging his leg, and he looked down to see Shanti, still in lion form, gently licking Tessa's paw beseechingly with her big, pink tongue.
Leroy sighed and felt his anger dissipating. "Okay, Tony," he said quietly. "I'll let you do this – but on one condition."
Tony's green eyes were round and scared, but he nodded.
"You once made a promise to your mom – now I need you to make a promise to me," Leroy told him fiercely.
Tony's eyes widened even more, and he nodded again.
"I mean it – you have to promise me this," Leroy insisted.
"I do. Whatever you want – I'll promise."
Leroy almost smiled despite himself; Tony trusted him enough to commit to a promise without even knowing what it was.
"You have to let Shanti take her lion form whenever she wants," Leroy said.
Tony shook his head, mutely.
"Look, I know about the promise you made to your mom, but that was a long time ago," Leroy told him urgently. "Things have changed now, and your mom wouldn't want you to keep that promise after what just happened. I know that."
"How do you know?" Tony asked, in a very small voice.
"Because I know she loved you very much and wanted to keep you safe."
"How will Shanti being a lion keep me safe?" Tony asked. "You don't know my dad, or how he can get when he thinks I'm answering back. Shanti's got this roar and…"
"Oh, I've heard Shanti's roar. It frightened Chuck Winslow away, remember? And it stopped me getting my ass totally kicked into the bargain." He gave a self-deprecating little grin. "But the thing is, Tony, I think your father needs to see that side of Shanti too. He's been bullying her for far too long. And when you stand up to bullies, they usually back down."
Tony bit on his lip uncertainly.
"I won't let you go back to your father unless I'm sure he won't hurt you again, the way he did last night," Leroy said firmly. He knew that he had no such authority over Tony's life, but he doubted that Tony knew that. Besides, Tony was pack – he felt that the boy's life was somehow under his protection, and he had a suspicion that Tony felt that way too.
"Let Shanti be whatever she wants to be?" Tony said in a scared voice.
“Yes. Shanti – is that what you want?” Leroy asked.
Shanti nodded. “I told Tony that I don’t like it when he makes me hide. It feels…itchy.”
“There see, and what’s rule number one?” Leroy asked Tony.
“Always listen to your daemon,” Tony said, and Shanti nuzzled his hand with her big head.
"That's right. Promise her, Tony. Promise her that she can be who she is, and that you won't hide her again."
Tony nodded. "I promise," he said solemnly. "I'm sorry, Shanti. I promise I'll never ask you to hide again."
"Good!" Leroy grinned at the boy. "And let her roar if she wants to. Hell, the louder the better! Tessa – you show her how."
Tessa went over to Shanti, sat in front of her, put her head back, and howled. She howled as if it was night and there was a full moon outside. She howled fit to wake the dead. Shanti sat and watched her, a bemused look on her face, and then, suddenly, she threw back her big head and joined in. Her roar was loud and deep compared to Tessa's higher pitched howling, but the two sounded fantastic together.
Leroy gave a laugh of delight and jumped up and grabbed Tony's hand.
"C'mon – let's join in!" he said, and he threw back his own head and yelled at the top of his lungs. He shouted out his anger about his wounded knee, and his irritation at being back home with his dad instead of out being a Marine, which was all he'd ever wanted to be. He howled about hating Chuck Winslow and the terrifying joy of loving Shannon, and he howled out his fury about what Tony's father had done to him.
Tony looked at him as if he'd gone insane but then his green eyes lit up, and he threw back his own head and joined in. The minute he did, Leroy felt as if they were all joined – all four of them –the two humans and their daemons.
He remembered touching Shanti last night and how that had given him a glimpse into Tony's soul. And in Tony's roar he heard the sound of the child's deep grief at the loss of his mother; he heard his fear of his father – and his enduring love for the man too; and he heard something else, something about belonging, and hero-worship, and Shanti having a crush on Tessa that made him laugh out loud even as he howled up at the ceiling.
The howling and roaring descended into giggling, and Leroy grabbed hold of Tony and threw the boy over his shoulder and ran around the room with him. Shanti turned into a cockatiel and rode around on Tessa's back, squawking at the top of her voice – and that was how they were when Jackson returned to the house with Tony's father.
Leroy went quiet and placed Tony on the floor. Shanti turned into a puppy, and Tony leaned down, scooped her up, and held her protectively against his chest.
His father had a big bruise on his jaw and his eyes were bloodshot. He looked as if he'd been crying, and Tony had a suspicion that Jackson was responsible for that.
"Tony…son…I'm sorry," his father said in a choked voice. Nala slunk into the room behind them, her tail between her legs. "I did a terrible thing last night. I was drunk, and I feel ashamed of myself."
"Will you do it again?" Tony blurted. "Next time you're drunk?"
His father took a deep breath. He was a proud man, and he looked embarrassed – and also a little irritated – about having to do this in front of Jackson and Leroy Gibbs. "No," he said shortly.
Tony gazed at him uncertainly.
"I really won't. I promise," his father said, taking a step towards him.
Shanti immediately turned into a lion and growled at him, and his father stopped dead in his tracks.
"This is what Shanti wants to look like sometimes. And she likes to roar," Tony said defensively, looking at Leroy for support. Leroy stepped forward and put a hand on his shoulder, and Tessa came and sat beside Shanti. “She’s loud. Really loud,” Tony added. “I've been keeping her hidden when she's like this, but I’m not going to do that anymore, Dad.”
Nala came over and sniffed at Shanti inquisitively, and Shanti glared at her. Nala gave a little whine.
"If you ever try and lay a finger on her again, then my bet is that you'll be dealing with *this* Shanti, and not that little puppy from last night," Leroy said coldly.
His father's eyes flashed, and Tony was aware of some subtle shift in power happening between them. He didn't really understand it, but he knew it had happened.
"There won't be a repeat of last night," his father said firmly. "I'll make sure of that."
He gave them that bright smile of his, the one that always made Tony feel happy and uneasy at the same time, and Nala wagged her tail and nudged Shanti playfully with her nose.
"Okay, Tony?" His father held out his hand, and Tony gazed at it. Leroy still had his hand on his shoulder, and he squeezed, as if to make it clear that he'd back any decision Tony wanted to make.
Tony knew what he wanted to do though. He ignored the outstretched hand and threw himself into his father's arms instead. His father picked him up and hugged him tight, and Shanti turned into a puppy and ran excitedly around the room.
Tony saw Leroy turning away, and the look of distrust that Tessa gave to Nala, but he tried not to let it get to him. He loved his father, and his father had promised him he wouldn't hurt him or Shanti again. Everything was going to be fine. He tried to ignore the little voice at the back of his mind, reminding him what his father had said the previous day at the restaurant.
"You just go along with people like this…you wear a big smile, say what they want to hear, and charm the socks off them."
Nala glanced up at him, and there was such a happy, genuine look in her hyena eyes that Tony pushed his doubts away. Everything was going to be fine; he was sure of it.
"Let's go home," his father said, putting him down. "Huh, Tony? Let's drive home and make a fresh start. What do you say? You and me together – just the two of us. Yes?"
Tony nodded and held on to his father's hand, chattering away happily, pleased at the idea of going home. Then he realized it would mean leaving Leroy, and he turned back, feeling a wave of sadness.
"I'll go get the car. You say your goodbyes, son," his father told him.
The next few minutes were a haze to Tony. He remembered hugging Jackson tight, all the while looking at Leroy over Jackson's shoulder and wondering why it hurt so much to think he wouldn't ever see him again. He buried his face in Jackson's neck and tried not to think about it.
When Jackson finally put him down, Leroy had disappeared. Tony looked around in panic.
"He's not very good at this kind of thing," Jackson told him gently. "Don't take it personally, Tony."
"I'm not leaving without saying goodbye to him!" Tony ran out of the store and found Leroy stomping off up the road, limping heavily. Tony ran after him, and Shanti, in puppy form, caught up with Tessa and sat down on the sidewalk in front of her, forcing her to a standstill.
Leroy paused and stood there, his back to Tony, every muscle in his body taut, his shoulders shaking.
"Goodbye, Jethro," Tony said softly. "And thank you. I'll never forget you."
Still Leroy didn't turn around. Tessa did though. She limped over to him and sat down in front of him. "We will not forget you. You are pack," she said firmly. Tony wasn't entirely sure what that meant, but it sounded important.
Then she leaned forward and licked Tony's hand with her tongue. Tony froze, aware of the great honour being bestowed upon him. You didn't touch another person's daemon – and yet last night Jethro had touched Shanti, and today Tessa was touching him, and both times it felt right.
As Tessa licked him, he had a sudden understanding of what it was like to be Leroy Jethro Gibbs. He felt a wave of loneliness and experienced a pang of fierce, protective love. He saw a woman he didn't know, and her cat daemon – a big ginger tom, not a black cat like Keddon. He knew instinctively that the cat daemon belonged to Leroy's mom, and he was momentarily surprised that their moms’ daemons had shared the same form.
Then he saw himself, and Shannon and Jackson, all gathered close together looking back at him. He realized that he was seeing them as Jethro saw them, as all the people he loved. These were all the people who were under his protection: they were his pack. Now Tony understood what it meant.
"Take care, Tony," Tessa said. She gave him one last lick, and then she turned and followed Leroy up the street.
Tony walked slowly back to the store, feeling strange inside. His father's car was parked outside the store, and Tony said one last goodbye to Jackson and then got in.
The car pulled away, and Tony peered out of the tinted glass window to catch one last glimpse of Jethro as they drove past. Jethro had his collar turned up against the lightly splattering rain, and anyone looking at him would see a moody, limping man with a dark glare on his face. That wasn't what Tony saw though; he had touched Jethro's soul, and he knew the fiercely protective, passionate man within. It hurt to think he'd never see him again.
Tony stayed gazing out of the window until long after Jethro had faded from sight. They left Stillwater and set out on the open road, and then Tony's father looked into the mirror and stared straight at him.
"I can't have you hanging around when I do business, Tony," he said. "It's not working out. I'm going to send you away to boarding school."
Tony heard the words through a haze and slowly came to. "But I thought…you said it was a fresh start – just the two of us."
Nala gave her hyena smile, and his father's words at the restaurant came back to him.
"You wear a big smile and say what they want to hear…"
There was no point in arguing. He turned in his seat, gathered Shanti in his arms, and buried his face in her lion's fur. She licked his face gently, soothing him.
He might have won the battle to be his true self, but somehow he'd lost the fight anyway. Shanti could take this shape whenever she liked, but his father was going to send them away so that he didn't have to see her.
Leroy walked in the rain for a few hours until his wet clothes and throbbing leg forced him to turn back towards home.
"I have a bad feeling," Tessa said.
"Yeah. I don't think I did the right thing, letting him go."
"You had no choice but to give him back to his father. It was what he wanted."
"It just feels wrong."
"Yes." Tessa nodded. "But you will see him again."
Leroy looked at her sharply. "How do you know that?"
"Because he is pack," she replied simply. "And because you touched each other's souls. You are connected now, and you will see him again, one day. That is what I choose to believe – and you can choose to believe it too."
Leroy placed his hand on her damp fur and gently stroked her head.
"Yes," he said. "One day."
Tony lay on his back, gazing up at the sky through the dappled canopy of trees in the small wooded area at the bottom of the school sport field. It was a hot day, and Shanti was lying beside him, the sun warming her golden fur.
“DiNozzo! Hey…DiNozzo!” He could hear them calling for him in the distance, but he ignored it.
“You’ll get into trouble,” Shanti told him, nibbling on one of her paws.
“Don’t care.” He turned his head and grinned at her.
“When you get paddled, I feel it too,” she reminded him crossly.
He just laughed. “Last time you roared so hard they had to call in two housemasters to stop you killing the headmaster’s daemon.”
“I don't like you being hurt, and the headmaster’s daemon is an idiot. Anyway, why are you hiding down here?” she asked.
“Dunno…I feel…weird. Been feeling it all day. Kinda jumpy…restless…anxious…like something big's about to happen.”
“Nothing big ever happens,” she said sulkily, laying her head on his chest. “But you’re right about the feeling. I keep wanting to howl, and I have no idea why.”
“Me neither.” Tony continued gazing up at the sky, one hand gently stroking Shanti’s cheek. He rubbed behind her ear, and she purred.
If he closed his eyes he could imagine he was in his happy place, by the creek in the woods at Stillwater. Jethro was there, sitting on that green and red checked blanket with Tessa by his side, and Shanti was romping around in puppy form, happy and carefree.
Tony opened his eyes. “D’you think you’re gonna stay a lion?” he asked Shanti, tweaking the ear he’d been rubbing.
“I have no idea.” She turned into a cockatiel to illustrate that point and flew up into a nearby tree. “I like being able to fly!” she called down to him.
He closed his eyes again and allowed himself to experience flying through her eyes. She swooped through the air towards him and landed on his forehead. She strutted around on his head and then hopped off and changed into a dog. She wasn’t such a small puppy these days but mid-sized, her paws enormous compared to the rest of her. They were both always tripping over their own large feet.
“Why do you think my feet grow faster than the rest of me?” he asked her.
“Do they?” She trotted around him, sniffing at his hands and feet. “I think all of you is growing fast. You’re tall. Like your father.”
He fell silent at that, feeling sullen. He was about to say something biting in reply when a wave of the most intense joy spread through him.
“Oh my God!” He sat up. “Do you feel that?”
“I do!” Shanti got up and ran around in circles. “Oh…that’s…it’s so beautiful!” She jumped up into the air in lion form, changed into a butterfly in mid-air, fluttered her wings, changed into a cockatiel, flew onto his shoulder, and jumped down to the ground as a dog.
Tony gazed at her in wonder. “Such happiness…so much joy…what is it? Why do I feel like this? What does it mean?”
“I don’t think it’s you. I think you are feeling someone else’s joy,” Shanti said quietly, becoming a lion again and sitting down beside him.
“Who? My father?” he said that with a snort. “I haven’t even seen him in months. And hell, I never know what he’s feeling even when I’m with him and can see him with my own eyes. Although *that* doesn't happen very often.”
“Not your father.” She gazed at him solemnly.
He felt his breath catch in his throat. “Jethro?” When they were alone they often talked about that time, five years ago, and what had happened in Stillwater. They would mention his name in whispers, as if it was sacred, and share a memory of him.
“Jethro.” Shanti nodded. “That urge to howl I felt…”
“Why would I feel what he’s feeling? Why would you feel what Tessa’s feeling? I don’t feel what anyone else is feeling,” Tony said, frowning. “It doesn’t make sense.”
“He touched me with his bare hands,” Shanti said quietly. Tony went very still, remembering that terrible night in the motel room, when Jethro had touched his daemon so gently and kindly to bring him back to life. “I think…we are somehow connected now.”
The sensation of joy slowly faded, and Tony found he missed it. “I wish I could hang onto it,” he whispered. “I wish I could just hang on to a tiny piece of *him*. Why now? Why did we suddenly feel him NOW, after all this time?”
“Maybe because the emotion was so strong?” Shanti nuzzled at his neck. “So much joy,” she said wistfully. “So much happiness.”
“What do you think it was? Why was he so happy? First he was anxious, restless – that’s what I was feeling all day; then that explosion of joy.”
“A newborn cub?” Shanti suggested. “I wanted to howl at the moon and welcome a new daemon to the world. I think that is what Tessa was feeling.”
“A baby? Jethro and Shannon had a baby?”
“It would make sense.” Shanti rested her head on his chest again, and suddenly he felt lonelier than ever before, separated from the only person he had ever felt he belonged to. Yet he had no rights over Jethro. They weren’t blood kin. Jethro had his own family; and he had his.
“Jethro will be a good father,” he muttered, and he couldn’t keep the hint of bitterness out of his voice.
“DiNozzo! Anthony DiNozzo!" the housemaster's voice yelled angrily in the distance. "This is the last time we’ll call for you – get your ass back here, right now! You’ve missed the entire day’s lessons!”
Tony turned to look at Shanti, a twisted little smile on his lips. “How long has it been since I last saw Dad?”
“Over a year,” she replied. “Last summer he sent you away to camp, and then you came straight back to school after. You didn’t see him at all. And you spent Christmas here with Mr. Mongoose and all the ugly little mongooses.”
‘Mr. Mongoose’ was Shanti’s uncomplimentary title for the headmaster; she hated his mongoose daemon with a vengeance, and she loathed his brood of small children and all their annoying little daemons too.
“Well, maybe it’s time we forced him to pay us a visit,” Tony told her.
She raised her head and looked at him questioningly. “You’re going to do something stupid, aren’t you?”
“Yup!” He grinned.
“If they hit you again, I don’t think I’ll be able to stay quiet,” she warned.
He laughed out loud. “Oh, I’m counting on it!”
Half an hour later, he found himself being dragged by his shirt collar across the quadrangle and into the school building; trust his father to find the most ludicrously old-fashioned boarding school in the entire country to send him to, complete with headmasters and housemasters and a level of discipline that wouldn’t be out of place in the military.
He spat and cursed the entire time, throwing out as many insults and curses as he could remember. Beside him, Shanti was a lion, roaring as the housemaster’s rottweiler dragged her along in her big, solid jaws.
They were deposited in an unceremonious heap on the headmaster’s carpet. The headmaster sighed and surveyed Tony over the top of his glasses, while his mongoose daemon leaped onto the desk and gave Shanti a disappointed glare. Shanti hissed at her, and Tony laughed out loud when the mongoose took a startled jump back.
The headmaster stood up, looking seriously annoyed. Tony winced – this was the part of the plan that was always going to be the hardest – but his courage didn’t fail him. He was going to see this through, come what may.
“You missed an entire day’s lessons?” Mr. Mongoose looked furious. “And you used obscene words to Mr. Woodford when he eventually found you?” He glanced at the housemaster.
“He didn’t find me. I turned myself in.” Tony smiled sweetly. “He deserved it anyway. He’s a fuckwit.”
“What did you say?”
“I said he’s a fuckwit. Just like you.”
Tony braced himself and sure enough, seconds later he found himself face down over the headmaster’s desk taking ten from the paddle, while Shanti roared and hollered from where she was being cornered by both the rottweiler *and* the mongoose. Unable to contain her, the headmaster called for another housemaster to join them, and his raven demon pecked at Shanti repeatedly to keep her still.
This wasn’t enough though – Tony had to take it further to get what he wanted. He resisted the punishment, struggling against the headmaster’s hand where he was trying to hold him down. He wasn’t going to take this punishment like a good boy. He screamed, yelled, wriggled and twisted as each stroke fell, and he could hear Shanti roaring at the top of her voice.
Then all hell broke loose; Shanti managed to bite the mongoose’s ear – hard – and Tony used the ensuing mayhem to kick the headmaster’s shin and make a break for it. He was pursued by one of the housemasters and found himself being lifted up bodily and flung into a room…without Shanti. The door was locked behind him, and he heard Shanti’s roars of distress as they got her under control and herded her away from him, along the hallway.
Tony was panic-stricken – this wasn’t what he’d intended. He’d just wanted to make enough trouble that they sent for his father, so at least he got to see him again. Instead, they were dragging Shanti further and further away from him, and it was starting to hurt. It hurt far more than the headmaster’s stupid paddle, and he screamed and flung himself against the door.
“Stop! Please! I’m sorry! Shanti…please…I’m sorry!” He bashed his fists against the door, over and over again, and then fell to the floor, feeling weak, lost, and horribly, desperately alone. “Shanti!” he whimpered, feeling the connection between them stretched so taut it made every fibre of his being ache. “Shanti…Shanti…please…please…I need her…”
He sensed her changing into a butterfly to try and escape from them, but the raven caught her in her beak. She changed into a mouse to run away, but the rottweiler easily caught her between her big jaws and shook her. She was thrown into a room somewhere and the door was locked behind her. She scuttled towards the door in beetle form to crawl under it, only to find they'd thrown something in front of the gap to prevent escape.
In a state of frustrated anguish she changed back into a lion again, and he heard her wild, keening roars of agony at being separated from him. She was out of her head with anxiety, as scared and desperate as he was right now.
Shanti roared for over an hour as he sat there, pressed up against the wall closest to where she was being held; his fingers were splayed against it, his cheek pressed up against the hard surface.
It hurt so much. He needed to be near her, to feel her under his fingertips. She was his daemon… surely they couldn’t keep him from his own daemon?
Leroy rocked his newborn daughter in his arms, feeling exhausted but happy. It had been a long day, although Shannon had obviously endured the worst of it. At one point it had been touch and go, but his daughter had been delivered safely an hour ago, and he really did think he was the happiest man alive.
He placed little Kelly back in her crib and then looked down on Shannon where she was lying fast asleep. He smoothed Shannon’s red hair away from her pale face; she looked tired but content. Pell was fast asleep, perched on the headboard above her, his head under his wing.
Leroy sat in the chair beside the bed, and gazed at his newborn daughter with her tiny, perfect pink fingers and toes. Next to Kelly, a tiny white rabbit daemon lay fast asleep.
“She is beautiful,” Tessa said, gazing into the crib too. “And her daemon is perfect too.” She nuzzled the little white rabbit gently and it changed into a turtle and then back into a rabbit again, in the lighting fast way of small babies' daemons. Kelly gave a soft little murmur, her fingers curling in the rabbit's soft fur.
“Yes, she is.” Leroy gazed at her proudly. “I’m a dad,” he said. “Can you believe that, Tessa?” He shook his head in astonishment, feeling a surge of fierce, protective love for this newborn creature. “I won’t ever fail you, sweetheart,” he said, putting his hand in the crib and stroking her cheek gently. “I promise.”
He wondered what her daemon’s name would be. That was something only she could tell them, when she was old enough to talk. Daemons seemed to be born with their names, and each child instinctively knew the name of their own daemon.
He withdrew his hand and closed his eyes, deciding to grab a nap while he could – and then opened them again as he felt a wrenching sensation inside.
“Tessa!” He looked around for her blindly. Damn it, where was she? Why wasn’t she here? Where had she gone?
“I am here,” she said, nudging his leg with her head.
“Shit…” He wrapped his arms around her to reassure himself – something he hadn’t done since he was a kid. “Then why does it feel like you’re gone?” It was the same sensation he’d had when Tessa had got locked in a cupboard by accident when he was a kid, and he couldn’t get her out. It hurt, and yet she was here, safe and sound.
“I do not know.” Tessa pushed her head against his and rested it there, and they held on tightly to each other.
Leroy glanced at Shannon and at Kelly, but they were both fine. What the hell was this? Where was this sensation coming from?
“I am thinking of Shanti,” Tessa told him quietly. “She is in my mind.”
“Tony’s daemon?” Leroy hadn’t talked about Tony in years. Tessa knew how he felt about the pack member he’d lost – there was no need to discuss that particular sadness. They both carried it with them every single day. “Is Tony in trouble? If his father is beating up on his daemon again…”
“What would you do?” Tessa asked. “You don’t even know where he lives. I do not think he is in danger though – just very unhappy.”
Leroy knew that Tessa was right – he didn’t know where Tony lived and besides, he had more pressing responsibilities right now, with a new baby to take care of.
"I'll give it tonight – but if this sensation gets any worse, or I think Tony is in real danger, then I don't give a damn how hard it is – I WILL find him."
Day turned to night, and nobody came to give Tony food or water. He could hear Shanti crying inconsolably along the hallway, and he hated that he’d done this to her with his stupid damn plan. He began shaking uncontrollably, going into shock from the distress of being separated from her, and he knew she was feeling it just as much.
Shanti's angry, bellowing roars turned to lonely howls as the night wore on. Then they became the anxious, quivering yelping of a terrified puppy. Tony kept calling to her, his voice hoarse as he croaked out words of comfort that he knew didn't convince either of them.
He didn’t get any sleep during that long, lonely, painful night, and he was still lying against the wall, aching and shivering, when they finally unlocked the door the next morning. All the fight had been crushed out of him; he just wanted to be reunited with his daemon and stop hurting like this.
Mr. Mongoose had to know how he felt; it had to be obvious from his tear-streaked cheeks, shaking body, and desperate eyes, but still he refused to let Tony go. He marched him back into his study and stood in front of him, looking down on him while his mongoose daemon strutted around importantly, tutting to herself and shaking her head.
“Please, let me see Shanti,” Tony begged. "Please! I'll do anything." She could obviously hear him because she started roaring all over again, her voice raw with the pain of their prolonged separation.
“You can see her when you’ve apologized and not before.”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have called you names. I shouldn’t have said or done any of those things yesterday. Now please…I have to see Shanti,” Tony begged weakly. He hated himself for that weakness, but if it relieved the terrible aching inside and helped Shanti then he’d do just about anything.
“We called your father last night. He will be here shortly to take you home. You’re expelled,” the headmaster told him.
Not the result he’d been aiming for – he’d only been angling for a suspension – but he didn’t care right now. No doubt his father would find another school to take him, and while he was looking they’d get to spend some time together. It wasn’t much, but it was all that was on offer so Tony would take it. He tried to look suitably contrite, but he was pleased with the result – at least he would get to see his father again.
The headmaster appeared satisfied with his contrition. He left the room with his horrible mongoose daemon and walked along the hallway. Tony heard a door being opened, and then Shanti was barreling her way along the hallway towards him in lion form. He ran to meet her, and she threw herself into his arms, knocking him over.
A wave of the most intense relief flooded through him as he hugged her against his chest, and the aching in his body subsided. She turned into a dog and wagged her tail like it was about to fall off, licking him all over until he could hardly breathe from the happiness of being close to her again.
When his father arrived he ushered Tony silently to his car. Nala tried to bite Shanti’s flank, but Shanti turned into a lion and snarled at her, and she backed off. Tony smiled to himself; he wouldn't allow his father to bully him anymore.
“The headmaster told me what you did,” his father said as he got into the car beside him.
“Yeah?” Tony gazed sullenly out of the window. “Well, I wanted to see you. This seemed the only way.”
“You could have just called,” his father replied, starting the car and driving towards the school gates.
“You’re never in – and they’re always taking my phone privileges away.”
“Because you’re a pain in the ass, and you can’t control your daemon,” his father said, glancing at Shanti, his lip curling in distaste.
“I can control her. Just sometimes I choose not to.” Tony pulled Shanti onto his lap and held her tight.
His father gave a dry laugh. “You’re a damn nuisance, Tony."
“I know.” Tony glanced at him. “But you’re stuck with me for the next few weeks until you find somewhere else to warehouse me.”
His father sighed. “Fine. How about we go on a vacation together?”
“You mean it?” Tony turned to look at him, feeling happier than he had in a long time. “A vacation? Just you and me? Together?”
His father nodded. “Yup – I was thinking…how about Hawaii? I’ve heard it’s a good place to do business.”
Tony’s heart sank at the dreaded words ‘do business’, but it was better than nothing. When his father was in a good mood, he could be a lot of fun.
“Sounds good.” He held Shanti close and rested his chin on her doggy head.
“Shanti hasn’t settled into one form then?” his father asked, glancing at her. “Won’t be long now. Any idea what she’ll be?”
“Nope.” Tony stroked her silky ears.
His father looked at him. “You’ve grown. My boy is growing up.”
And you aren’t around to see it, Tony thought to himself, but he said nothing. His father seemed to be in a good mood despite the fact he’d got himself expelled, and they were going to Hawaii on vacation.
“Was it worth it then?” Shanti asked him quietly as his father tuned on the radio and began humming along to his favourite jazz station.
Tony thought of the terrible night spent shivering in that room, lost and alone, separated from her. Had it been worth it, just to spend some time with the father who barely seemed to notice he existed most of the time?
“I don’t know,” he told her. “I really don’t know.”
Leroy couldn't sleep all night. The initial sharpness of the sensation dissipated until it was a dull ache, but it was too distressing for him to get any rest. He worried about Tony, wondering what kind of ordeal the child must be going through to feel like this. He glanced over at his own sleeping child; he would do his best to make sure she never suffered anything like this. He would be a better father to her than Tony's father had ever been to him.
When the morning came, Leroy felt a burst of joy and then the ache disappeared as fast as it had come.
“Well, we said we wouldn’t forget him,” Tessa murmured softly, pressing her head into his hand. “And he is making sure that we don’t!”
“Sounds like Tony,” Leroy said with a wry chuckle. “You think he’s okay now?”
“Do you think it had anything to do with Kelly?” Leroy gently stroked his daughter’s soft, baby head.
Tessa looked puzzled. “You think Tony’s distress last night could be connected with Kelly’s birth? I do not see how.”
“Neither do I.” Leroy shook his head. “Just…seems like a coincidence, and I don’t believe in coincidences.”
“We might never know. But Tony and Shanti are both fine now.” Tessa nuzzled at his hand again. “I think we would feel it if they were not. All is well.”
Tony bounced the ball across the court, leapt up high in the air, and threw the ball into the basket. A load roar went up from the watching crowd. He showed off mercilessly, milking it for all he was worth as his team mates mobbed him. He was on fire tonight! He was winning this game almost singlehandedly.
The Ohio State supporters in the crowd watching the game went into a frenzy, chanting his name. He played up to them, bowing repeatedly and doing a little victory dance. Shanti loved it – she bounced up into the air and threw herself around, milking it shamelessly until she crashed into the benches in a surfeit of exuberance and banged her head.
Tony rubbed his forehead ruefully and looked into the crowd. He could see Jason Elliot sitting next to Sarah McMillan, and he let his gaze wander from one to the other, trying to figure out which one of them he’d sleep with later. He’d been pursing them both for the past few weeks, and he was sure that tonight was the night; he just didn't know which one he’d finally persuade to tumble into bed with him.
Sarah had long dark hair and laughing brown eyes, and he loved the way she liked to tease. Jason was more serious, with short blond hair and earnest grey eyes. Finally getting him into bed would be an achievement. Tony always loved it when the quiet ones gave in – they were usually the most uninhibited in bed once you got them there. He hadn’t told Jason or Sarah that they were rivals – he liked to have more than one potential conquest on the go at any one time so that if he failed with one there was always a back up.
He took another bow, to the combined cheering and catcalls from the crowd, and then ran back to start playing again. Damn it, but he was smokin’ tonight!
“And also modest!” Shanti laughed.
“Hey – why shouldn’t I be full of it? I’m winning this game all by myself. I’ll be the hero of Ohio State by the end of the night – and I’ll get laid,” he told her with a wink.
“You get laid all the time,” she said. “Twice as much as your friends.”
“Well, that’s one of the advantages of being bi.” He grinned. “Twice the number of potential mates.”
“Anyone would think being bisexual was a seduction strategy on your part, not a sexual orientation.” She lolled her tongue out at him, and he laughed and chucked her under the chin.
“You love it as much as I do,” he told her, leaping up to wrest the ball away from an opponent and then bouncing it expertly across the court.
“Yes, I do!” Shanti was by his side, matching him leap for leap, full of exuberance.
Tony paused, ready to spring up and claim another basket, but just as he launched himself into the air his opponent slammed into him, knocking him sideways. He fell awkwardly, heard a popping sound, felt a ripping sensation, and then he was completely overwhelmed by the terrible pain in his left knee.
Beside him, Shanti went down like a felled tree, toppling over and landing next to him, howling in pain. As he lay there, clutching his knee and whimpering, she managed to move her head and lick his cheek. “I do not think,” she said solemnly, “that you will be getting laid tonight after all.”
Tony managed to somehow laugh and cry at the same time while a crowd gathered around him, watching as he rolled around in agony. The team doctor rushed onto the court, pushing through the throng to reach him. Tony blinked the sweat out of his eyes – there, in the crowd gathering around him, he could make out Jason’s worried grey eyes, and Sarah’s concerned brown ones.
He moved his head and winked at Shanti. “Wanna bet?”
Leroy stayed holed up in his foxhole for most of the day. He was deep behind enemy lines, and it wouldn’t be safe to move until night fell.
Luckily, he had the perfect temperament for being a sniper. He could wait patiently for days if need be, ready to move swiftly when the need arose. He was quiet, stealthy and deadly – just like the wolf daemon by his side.
He leaned back in his foxhole and took off his helmet. There, nestled inside under a piece of elastic, was a photograph. He pulled it out and gazed at it happily. It was a bit the worse for wear from being stuck inside his helmet, but he ignored the tattered edges and smiled at the two people smiling back at him.
Kelly was seven years old, with her daemon, Evan, perched on her head in sparrow form. Shannon had one arm around Kelly, while Pell was sitting on her shoulder, where he usually was.
“We will see them soon,” Tessa said calmly.
“Yeah. I know. Seems like it’s been a long time, that’s all.” Leroy replaced the photo in his helmet and stuck it back on his head. He glanced up at the darkening sky. “Dusk. Might be a good time to make a move; we’ve got some distance to cover tonight.”
Tessa nodded. “I agree. We want to be in place by dawn.”
Leroy shouldered his pack, grabbed his rifle, and then began climbing out of his foxhole – only to stop when a terrible pain shot through his knee.
“Fuck it!” he hissed, falling back down.
Tessa fell beside him and began gnawing on her back left leg. “Hurts,” she whimpered.
“I know. Damn it…I thought this old knee injury healed years ago!” He rubbed his knee over and over again, trying to ease the pain. “I know it still aches when it’s raining, but nothing like this…shit…”
The pain began to subside a little, and he leaned back in his foxhole. “I don’t get it. I wasn’t even doing anything. Why did it go like that? I didn’t even hear it pop.”
Tessa paused in her gnawing and looked up. “Concentrate,” she said. He raised an eyebrow at her. “See – there – it does not feel like our pain,” she said. “I don’t think it’s your knee that has been injured.”
“Shannon?” he asked, blinking sweat out of his eyes.
Tessa thought about it. “I am not sensing Pell,” she said.
“How about Shanti?” Leroy asked. It had been years since he had last felt anything from Tony, but that didn’t mean he’d forgotten about him; he thought about the kid a lot.
“He’s not a kid anymore,” Tessa told him.”He would be twenty now – the same age you were when you first met him.”
“And also the same age I was when my knee got busted up,” Leroy pointed out.
Tessa looked up at him in surprise. “There is a synchronicity between you,” she murmured. “This is like the night Kelly was born, and we both felt that something had happened to Tony and Shanti.”
The pain in his knee began to ease, but he couldn’t risk going anywhere just yet, with this unknown variable. “I’m going to hunker down here for the night,” he told Tessa. “I’ll radio in and tell them I won’t be making the rendez-vous until tomorrow night.”
Tony lay back on his bed, grimacing. He had spent half the night at the hospital having X rays taken and receiving treatment for his injury. A dislocated knee had been diagnosed, and his patella had been strapped into place with a brace. He had an icepack on his knee, and the doctor had told him to keep it elevated, iced, and rested. Apart from that there was nothing to be done but wait for it to heal.
“Damn it – and everything was going so well,” he told Shanti with a sigh, gazing mournfully at the crutches beside his bed.
She settled down on the bed beside him, her back leg sticking out awkwardly.
“Looks like I’m out for the rest of the season.” He rubbed her ears sadly, and she leaned into him.
“I’m sorry. I know how much you like throwing that stupid little ball around.”
“Hey!” He pinched her ear and his own tingled in response. She laughed at him, and he managed a little chuckle too.
There was a knock on the door, and then it was pushed open and his roomie, Matt, poked his head around it. “Hey – there’s a couple of people here to see you.”
“It’s nearly 2 a.m!”
“I know, but they’ve been waiting for you to get back from the hospital.” Matt winked at him and his dragonfly daemon batted her wings cheerfully. “This should be fun,” he said, opening the door to reveal Sarah standing there…with Jason.
“Oh shit.” Tony winced.
“Yeah – that sounds about right,” Sarah said, striding into the room. Jason followed her, and Matt made a completely insincere “I’m sorry!” face at him and then shut the door, laughing hysterically the entire time.
Sarah glared at Tony. “See, Jason and me, we both thought we’d come back here to wait for you to get back from the hospital. We wanted to see if you were okay. And then we got talking…”
“And it would appear,” Jason said, coming over to the bed, “that you’ve been stringing us both along at the same time.”
Tony could feel himself flushing, and Shanti covered her eyes with her paws in embarrassment.
“What can I say?” Tony gave his most charming smile and spread his arms helplessly. “You’re both gorgeous and, you know, I thought if one of you didn’t work out then the other would.”
“You didn’t even tell me you were bisexual!” Sarah scolded.
"Well…you never asked!" Tony said, and that sounded lame even to his own ears.
"I'm surprised I didn't notice," Sarah mused, glancing at Shanti.
There was no particular stigma attached to it; it would be hard to hide your sexual orientation while walking around with a daemon, so people were accustomed to different kinds of sexuality.
"Well, Shanti's always been a good undercover agent," Tony replied, smiling softly at a memory.
Sarah didn't look impressed. “Luckily Jason's daemon is easier to read. Jason's bi too – and he's cute. I like him. A lot.”
Jason’s crow daemon puffed up her feathers, looking very pleased with herself. Sarah’s frog daemon rolled his eyes a little.
“So we thought up a way to punish you,” Jason told him, placing a hand on Sarah's hair and stroking. Sarah pulled him in close and kissed him on the lips. He moved his hands down to her hips and slid up her skirt to reveal her long, toned legs. Tony swallowed.
"You can watch," Sarah told him. "But you can't touch or join in. That's your punishment."
Sarah pushed Jason down on the foot of the bed and undid his jeans. Then she slid off her panties, crawled on top of Jason, and kissed him again.
Tony sighed and leaned back on his pillow, putting his hands behind his head so he could get a good view. He winked at Shanti as Sarah began riding Jason hard, just out of reach of him and his damn sore knee. Tony was a player, and he knew when he’d been outplayed; he didn’t hold a grudge. Besides, they looked good together, and he got to have a ringside seat.
“You know, as punishments go, I’ve had worse,” he chuckled, reaching into his pants to free his own rampant erection.
Leroy sat back in his foxhole and gazed up at the stars. The pain in his leg had receded considerably after the first shock. Now he could definitely tell that it wasn’t real – at least not real for him. Once he realized that, he was able to rationalize it and handle it better. He was sure he’d be able to block it out completely before long.
Tessa rested her head in his lap, and he was surprised to realize just how horny he was. His cock was hard and aching.
“Uh…I think…seeing as there’s nobody here…” He undid his pants and then stopped. “Oh shit – this is him too, isn’t it? The horny little devil! Damn it, why am I so open to what’s going on with him right now?”
“I think the pain made you more aware of him,” Tessa told him. “It will fade.”
“Why do you think it happened?” he asked her. “I mean…I know we went through that one intense experience but it was years ago. Why do I still keep feeling him?”
Tessa looked thoughtful. “You are connected. I think what happened that night in the motel room somehow opened you up to each other and that is what linked you. The intensity of the experience, the manner and circumstances in which you touched his daemon, his age at the time…maybe they all worked together to create a permanent link between you."
“But…I don't feel it when something goes on with Shannon, and I've touched her daemon too. Isn't it a bit weird that I feel what's going on with this kid that I only knew for a week all those years ago?”
"There was something different about Tony," Tessa mused. "I have never known a child able to control their daemon's shape the way he did with Shanti. He also had a curious form of empathy. He believed his dead mother's daemon told him to call for you when his father was hurting him – so he called your name, and we heard." She gave a little shiver. "That is why we went to the motel room that night."
"You're saying Tony's psychic?" Leroy gave her an incredulous look. "You know I don't believe in that crap, Tessa."
"Well, I don't have any other explanation." Tessa rested her chin on her paws, looking supremely unconcerned. “And maybe it's not important anyway. It is what it is.”
“It’s damn inconvenient. Also…” Leroy wrinkled up his forehead in a frown. “How can he possibly have busted his knee *and* be getting laid all in one night?”
“Well, he IS Tony!” Tessa replied, and then she threw back her head and laughed. He stared at her for a moment, and then he couldn’t help joining in.
“Damn kid, trapping me in a foxhole behind enemy lines with a busted knee and a raging hard on! When I see him again, I’m gonna slap his head so hard for this!”
It was just a normal afternoon in his student life. Tony had slept late, gotten rid of his conquest of the night before with a big smile and a completely insincere "I'll call you!", and he was now sitting on the couch in his underwear eating a bowl of Captain Crunch while watching re-runs of Magnum on TV.
Shanti was lying on the couch beside him, her tail wafting across his toes every so often. He was talking to her, eating, and doing impressions of Tom Selleck all at the same time.
There was no warning. One minute he was eating and the next he was puking. There was a roaring sound in his head and everything hurt so much he could hardly breathe. He felt desolate; it was like looking into a black hole and being sucked straight in. The next wave of grief was so strong it sent him spinning off the couch onto the floor.
"Shanti?" he screamed. "What’s happening?"
Shanti didn't answer. She just put back her head and howled like her world was coming to an end.
Something was shattered inside. Tony felt broken, and he couldn't move. It was like someone had slammed their fist into his chest and ripped out his heart.
He lay on the floor panting, struggling to breathe and cope with the huge tidal wave of emotions he was experiencing at the same time.
"This isn't me," he gasped to Shanti, pulling her close. "This isn't me feeling this way, Shanti."
"Then it can only be Jethro," she replied, shivering as the aftershocks rocked through them both.
He buried his face in her fur and held on tight. "What's happening to him? Is he dead?"
"I don't think we'd still be feeling like this if he was."
"Injured then? Is he hurt? He’s a Marine; maybe he got shot again."
"It's not physical pain…" Shanti closed her eyes and concentrated. "Tessa is distraught. It's Pell!" She opened her eyes and gazed at Tony, looking stunned. "Pell has gone."
"Shannon is dead?" Tony remembered her red hair and beautiful eyes. He'd only known her for two days, but she'd been kind to him, and Jethro loved her so he had loved her too; life had been much simpler back then. "Jethro must be going insane," he said, feeling like he was going to throw up again. "Shit, Shanti. We have to find him. We have to go to him."
He struggled to get to his feet, pushing away the waves of intense emotion that he knew were not his.
"And do what? "Shanti asked, slowly getting up. "You haven't seen him in thirteen years, Tony. How do you know that he even remembers you?" Her brown eyes held a bitter expression. "Why should he remember you? Or care? What are you to him?"
She had a point. His own father had done his best to erase him from his life – why would Jethro be any different?
Tony shoved away the voices of doubt. "I made a promise," he told Shanti. "To Shannon. At the railway station."
He remembered Shannon looking down at him, smiling. "Look after Jethro when I'm gone!"
"She didn't really mean anything by that," Shanti pointed out reasonably. "Besides, you have no idea where Jethro is."
"I can *find* him," Tony insisted. "I'm good at finding stuff out."
"Well, you're good at finding out what time certain pretty girls finish their classes, and where certain pretty boys work in the evening. Finding Jethro will be harder than that," Shanti told him with a snort.
He pulled up short and turned on her. "Do you really think I can't do this? Because if even you think I'm a worthless shit who only wants to get laid and have a good time then I might as well give up now. Do you think as little of me as everyone else, Shanti?
She blinked in surprise and then nuzzled his hand. "You are my everything," she said softly. "And don't I know, better than anyone else, how you like to hide who you truly are?"
He gave a wry shake of his head at that, remembering how he used to make keep her lion shape hidden. He stroked her soft ears gently. "I'm sorry. I should never have made you do that."
"You made a promise to your mother. I understood – even if it was uncomfortable at times." She gave him a rueful smile. "You still keep the best of yourself hidden, just as you always did – but not from me. You have never fooled me."
She sat back on her haunches and looked up at him with an uncharacteristically serious expression on her face.
“Listen to me, Tony. I know that when you are really determined, you can do anything you want. If I did not think that, I would have stayed a butterfly and flitted wherever my mood took me, never settling down to any one task.”
He smiled, remembering the butterfly she’d once been, fluttering from one thing to the next and hardly stopping still for a second.
“And I know that you are far more than a frat boy who only thinks about getting laid, or I would have stayed a cockatiel, laughing and teasing all the time, never being serious,” Shanti continued in the most serious tone of voice he'd ever heard from her.
“And what happened with your father could have made you bitter, and I would have become a growling bear, always angry with the world." She paused to give a little growl. "Or I could have stayed a golden retriever – loyal and faithful and true, a constant companion. All of those forms are elements of you and in you, but I didn’t take any of them, Tony.
He looked down on his magnificent lioness of a daemon, so big, and brave, and beautiful, and understood what she was trying to tell him. He leaned down, took her head between his hands, and kissed her soft fur.
"Thank you, Shanti. Thank you for believing in me."
Then he turned and ran up the stairs to get dressed.
Leroy stared out of the window at the roses in the back yard. They needed pruning. When had he last been home? Why hadn’t he pruned them then?
People were moving around in his house behind him, whispering and casting furtive glances in his direction. He ignored them.
Tessa sat beside him, leaning into him for support. Every now and then she let out an involuntary whine, but he didn't comfort her. How could he? He couldn't make anything better.
Other people's daemons were hushed, under firm control. Birds stayed perched on shoulders, dogs and cats stuck close to people's sides, and mice, rabbits, beetles and various other smaller daemons were tucked into coat pockets.
It was cold outside, even for February. There was talk of snow. He never thought he'd miss the heat and sweat of the Gulf, but now he found he did. He didn't want to be here, in this house they'd once shared. He couldn't be here, all alone.
"Not alone," Tessa said softly.
"You know what I mean," he replied.
She dropped her nose to the floor and found one of Kelly's colouring pencils that must have rolled under the table. She nudged it forward and then rested her chin on the floor and gazed at it glumly.
"We cannot stay here," he told her.
"No. We cannot stay here," she agreed.
They had flown him back from Iraq on compassionate leave to bury his family. He had gone straight to the morgue to identify the bodies; Major Ryan had accompanied him.
"You don't have to do this, sir," he had said. The major's huge eagle daemon had folded her wings and gazed at him steadily from her fierce dark eyes.
"Not letting you go in there alone, Gunny. Never left a man behind yet. Don't intend to now."
That was as much as the major would ever say about their friendship, but Leroy understood.
He had seen dead bodies before, plenty of them. He knew what dead people looked like. Even so, nothing prepared him for seeing the dead bodies of his family. Shannon was badly injured; she looked like a china doll shattered into pieces, completely broken. Kelly wasn't though. There was hardly a mark on her, although her internal injuries had been severe. What struck him most of all, as he looked down on them lying there, cold and unmoving, was that they didn't have their daemons.
Pell had always been close by, sitting on Shannon's shoulder, grooming her hair with his beak. Evan had been energetic and changeable, like all kids' daemons. Sometimes he had been a sweet-natured rabbit hiding in Kelly's sweater; or a turtle with a tough shell, trying to keep the world out when Kelly was feeling vulnerable; or a brightly-coloured canary, flying around the room, singing sweetly at the top of his voice.
Now they were gone. It was only in that moment, seeing his wife and daughter without their daemons, that Leroy fully grasped the fact that they were dead. He'd been walking around in a numb haze ever since.
Major Ryan's wife had organized the funeral and the wake. He'd just turned up, wearing his dress uniform, every button sparkling. Tessa kept bumping into things, so lost in grief that she was unable to see what was in front of her face.
Now they were back at the house he’d once shared with his family, and although it was full of people he’d never felt more alone.
Leroy saw his father's daemon out of the corner of his eye. She was bumbling towards him, and he wanted to go and kick her across the room. His anger and grief was white hot, and there was only one person in the room he loved enough to launch it at. That sounded insane, even inside his own mind, but at times like this it was only family you could really be yourself with, however ugly that self was right now.
"Pack," Tessa said quietly.
He felt Jackson's hand on his shoulder. "I'm so sorry, son."
He turned, his grief honed to a fine white point. He glanced over Jackson's shoulder at the date he'd brought to the funeral, like it was some kind of social event.
"I can see that," he sneered.
His father's blue eyes were unwavering, and he squeezed Leroy's shoulder. Meldra tried to rub her feathers against Tessa's fur, but Tessa snapped at her with her jaws, pushing her away.
"What will you do now, son?" Jackson asked gently.
"Now?" Leroy looked out of the window at the roses that needed pruning and then down at the floor at Kelly's lost colouring pencil. "Now I'll go back to Kuwait and fight. I'm a Marine; that's what Marines do."
"Go back…?" Jackson looked horrified. "Son, I don't think that's wise. Surely the Corps can give you some time off? It can't be right that you go back into a war zone in your current frame of mind. You might…" he broke off, looking anxious.
"Might what?" Leroy raised an eyebrow, deliberately trying to goad his father into the argument he wanted so badly, as an outlet for some of the anger he was feeling right now. It wasn’t Jackson’s fault that Shannon and Kelly were dead, but he was here, and Leroy needed to let some of it out.
"You might get yourself killed, son," Jackson said softly. "Please…think it through. I'm worried about you."
"Don't. I'm going back to Kuwait to be with my unit. My *family* – the only one I've got left now, anyway." Leroy chose the words deliberately, intending to wound his father, and he knew he'd succeeded. Jackson took a step back, his mouth opening and closing in shock.
Major Ryan came over and stood beside him, unobtrusively giving his support.
"Major – surely you don’t think it’s right that Leroy should go back to the war after this," Jackson said desperately. "I can’t be a good idea in his current mental state!"
"If he passes a psych evaluation then I think it'd be best for him," Ryan said firmly. "He's a Marine – he should be doing what he does best."
At least nobody said the phrase "it'll take his mind off it", as if this was some kind of minor disappointment and not his entire life falling apart. For that he was grateful.
"Son…" his father began again, in that 'reasonable' tone of voice he always adopted whenever he was about to tell him he was wrong and should listen to his old man.
"Those roses need pruning," Leroy said abruptly.
He grabbed some shears from the cupboard, opened the door, and went outside into the freezing yard with Tessa shivering by his side.
Tony tried Stillwater first. He tracked down the number of the store and spent a couple of days calling it, but there was no reply. He didn't have enough money to pay for gas, and his car was held together by rubber bands and rope, so he hitch-hiked to get there. He used that big smile and the charm he had inherited from his father to get rides; it was slow-going, but he got there.
It felt strange being back after all these years. Main Street seemed much shorter than when he'd been a kid. Then it had seemed to stretch on forever, especially when he'd been returning from a long day messing around in the woods with Jethro, and he knew that one of Jackson's home cooked meals was waiting for him at the store.
His heart sank as he went up to the store this time and found that it was all locked up.
He stood there for a few minutes, wondering what to do next. Shanti looked up and down the street. "Maybe we should ask? Someone might know where he is?"
Tony went into the dress shop nearby and plastered his most charming smile on his face. The young woman behind the counter melted immediately.
"Jackson Gibbs? Yes, he had to close up to go to visit his son. Family tragedy." Her voice dropped, and she leaned forward and spoke in a whisper. "His daughter-in-law and grand-daughter were killed in a car accident a few days ago. Terrible thing." She shook her head.
Tony put his hand down and found Shanti's head reassuringly nearby. Jethro had lost his child as well? He could still remember the day the baby had been born and that feeling of intense joy. No wonder Jethro’s grief had been so intense; to lose his entire family in one go like that...
"His daughter-in-law used to work here, you know," the girl continued. "One summer, about ten or twelve years ago. She did the job I do now." She looked shocked that anything bad could happen to someone who'd worked in her store.
"Do you know when the funeral is taking place?" Tony asked.
The girl glanced at her watch. "Right about now. In DC." She made a sad little face. "Poor Jackson. He was always talking about his family – he loved that little grand-daughter of his so much. He used to show me so many photographs of that little girl. Kelly her name was – she was such a pretty little thing; big blue eyes…."
Tony managed to charm the address from the girl, and then he went back outside with Shanti.
He took off immediately, hitch-hiking to DC, and made his way to the address he'd been given. It was an old house, mostly plain but with decorative touches in the wood and the window glass. So this was where Jethro lived.
Tony stood outside the door, his heart beating too fast. Now that he was here he didn't know what do or say. Would Jethro think he was crazy to come beating on his door after all this time? Would he understand why he was here? And what the hell use did he think he'd be anyway? The man had just lost his wife and daughter. Why would he want to see Tony, of all people, at a time like this? Tony had absolutely nothing to offer except his condolences.
"You've come this far," Shanti said. "Might as well knock."
He took a deep breath and did as she said and then waited. And waited. There was no reply. The house looked locked up, and all the drapes were closed.
"Maybe he's out," Shanti said.
"Maybe." He sat down on the step, wondering what the hell to do next. He sat there for a couple of hours, waiting for someone to come home, but nobody appeared. Then, finally, a neighbour emerged from the next door house.
"You looking for Leroy Gibbs?" The man's mouse daemon scuttled over to them, stood up on her hind paws, and looked at them curiously.
"Is he here?" Tony got to his feet.
"Left a few hours ago."
"When will he be back?" Tony asked. "Can I stay here and wait?"
The man snorted. "You can, but you'll be there a long time. He's gone back to Kuwait."
Tony stared at him. "He's fighting out there? In Desert Storm?"
"Yup." The man nodded. "Took off with his commanding officer earlier today to go back."
"But…after what happened?" Tony put his hand down and stroked Shanti's head.
"I know. Damn shame. She was a nice lady, and the kid was a little sweetheart." The man shook his head. He leaned towards Tony, a conspiratorial look on his face. "They say it was murder."
"What?" Tony blinked. "I thought…I heard it was a car accident."
The neighbour shook his head. "Mrs. Gibbs witnessed a drug killing a couple of weeks ago. I heard she was in the car with the federal agent investigating the case, and he was shot – that's how the crash happened."
Tony felt Shanti's head nudging his hand for reassurance in the face of this shocking news.
"How was Leroy?" he asked. “How did he look when you saw him leave?”
"Like he was going to kill himself, or the rest of the world, or both," the man replied. "I pity those Iraqis. I reckon he's a one man killing machine right now."
"I can believe that. Okay…well…thanks." Tony left, with one hand resting lightly on Shanti's head as they walked.
"You can’t hitch-hike to Kuwait," she told him firmly.
"I know." Tony stopped and took one last look at the house. "I tried to keep my promise, Shannon," he said quietly. "I did try."
He thought he saw a kestrel out of the corner of his eye, flying around in circles above his head, but when he looked up he saw it was just the branches of a tree, shaking in the cold February wind.
The next few weeks were a blur. He fought hard – he relished the fighting – it was all that was keeping him sane. He enjoyed the slippery feeling of blood on his rifle and the sensation of killing. He knew that Major Ryan was worried about him, knew they all were, but he didn't care.
He didn't care about anything, least of all himself. It didn't matter if he lived or died now. He could see that with absolute clarity. He wouldn't take his own life – Tessa wouldn't allow him to do that – but if died serving his country, then that'd be fine by him.
He volunteered for every single dangerous mission going and succeeded in every single damn one of them. He lost count of the number of men he killed, and the numbers of daemons that turned to dust in front of his eyes. He was anger, rage, pain and grief all rolled into one, and he wanted his enemies to know how that felt.
Then one day he was running stealthily across the desert when a loud, booming sound rocked him back. Next thing he knew he was flying through the air with Tessa by his side. He saw that her fur was smoking and heard her screaming in pain – and after that the whole world went dark.
Tony awoke with the scream dying in his throat. Beside him, Shanti was howling.
“Is the house on fire? Are we burning?” It felt that way. His face and hands felt blistered. He looked around, but everything was quiet. He felt another brief flash of searing pain and then…nothing. Nothing at all. “Jethro.” He grabbed Shanti’s head and looked into her eyes. “Can you feel Tessa?”
“No.” Shanti shook her head.
“Then he's dead?”
“No!” she protested.
“How do you know?”
“Because we would feel it,” Shanti said stubbornly.
“Why? He’s just a guy I knew for a week when I was a kid. Maybe I built it all up in my head to be more than it ever was. Just one week. That’s how long I knew him.”
“No. He’s Jethro. He saved us that night…” She shivered, and he put his arms around her neck and hugged her tight. Neither of them liked thinking about that night. “Tessa said we were pack.”
“You’re right.” He got up and started pulling on his clothes.
“Where are we going?” She jumped off the bed and padded over to him.
“I made a promise to Shannon, and this time I’m going to keep it. I don’t *care* if I have to hitch-hike all the way to Kuwait. We’re going to find him, and we’re damn well going to make sure he’s okay.”
It felt good here. Dark. Peaceful. Quiet.
“You always did like quiet,” Tessa said.
Over there, in the distance, was a bright light, but he was too far away and couldn’t reach it. And over there, behind him, was the way he’d come, and he had no intention of going back there. Ever.
If they stayed here, they would be fine. It was like being wrapped in a big blanket; everything felt dark, muffled and warm.
“We will stay then,” she said. He couldn’t see her, but he could feel her in his mind. He imagined her putting her chin on his leg and resting it there.
“Yes. There’s nothing to go back for.”
“Once we had pack,” she whispered sadly.
“Once. Not anymore.”
He was estranged from his father, and he’d lost his mate and cub.
Nobody needed him now. There was no reason to return.
Tony smiled at the nurse, and the man’s sheep daemon fluttered her eyelashes at Shanti. With much perseverance, he had tracked Jethro down to Bethesda Naval Hospital, and he was damned if he was going to be turned back now, when he was so close.
“Look, I just need to see him,” he said beseechingly.
The nurse was clearly attracted to him, but he was also, just as clearly, someone who didn’t like breaking the rules. “Are you a relative?”
“Yes,” Tony said firmly.
“Really?” The nurse looked sceptical. “Can you prove it?”
“No. I mean…look, it’s complicated.”
“If you’re not a relative then I can’t let you in there.”
Tony glanced along the hallway. Just behind that door over there was a man he hadn’t seen in thirteen years but was desperate to see now.
“Can you at least tell me his condition?” he asked.
The nurse shook his head. “Confidential.”
“But he’s in a coma?”
The nurse frowned and looked at his notes. “How do you know that?”
“I can feel it,” Tony replied honestly.
The nurse looked up, an intrigued expression in his eyes, and Tony decided that for once, honesty might be better than a lie, or a scheme, or one of his father’s con tricks.
“He touched my daemon once, when I was a child,” he explained. The nurse’s eyes widened in horror. “Oh, it was a good thing!” Tony said hurriedly. “He’s a good man. He saved my life that day, and…well, I’d like to return the favour, if I can.”
The nurse looked at the notes again and then back at Tony. “I shouldn’t tell you this, but I’m going to anyway. He IS in a coma, but nobody knows why. His injuries aren’t severe enough to keep him unconscious like this for so long. He’s got a broken leg and some burns, and he had a mild concussion, but nobody knows why he won’t wake up.”
“I know why,” Tony said. “Please…let me see him.”
Shanti leaned forward and pressed her nose against the sheep’s black nose.
“Please,” Tony said again.
The nurse took a quick look around, and then he gave a swift nod. He took hold of Tony’s arm and led him along the hallway. He opened the door to Jethro’s room and pushed Tony inside.
“You’ve got five minutes. I’m going to go to the restroom. If anyone catches you here, tell them you gave me the slip. I’ll deny that I let you in. Understood?”
“Yes. Thank you!” Shanti swiped a lick over the sheep’s ear, and the nurse walked back down the hallway.
Tony shut the door and stood there in the semi-darkness. The lights from the machine around the bed lit it up, casting blue and red dots over the man lying there, and the huddled shape of his daemon beside him.
Tony walked slowly towards the bed. Thirteen years…it was a long time. Was he right about this? Maybe Jethro didn’t even remember him.
“He remembers,” Shanti said quietly.
“That’s just what you hope – you don’t know that.”
He reached the side of the bed and looked down on the man who’d rescued him all those years ago. Jethro’s hair had smudges of silver at the temples. His eyes were closed, and there were some painful-looking burns on his face. He looked old – old, and tired, and sad.
“He’s only thirty-three,” Shanti said. “He’s not *that* old.”
“When I last saw him he was younger than I am now, and he seemed so grown-up to me back then. I still feel like a big kid, but he never seemed that way.”
“You *are* still a big kid,” she said.
He made a face at her. “Thank you, Shanti.”
Tessa looked smaller now than he remembered her as a child. He’d always thought her huge, but he realized he’d been looking at her from a child’s perspective. She was still a big daemon but lying here, on this hospital bed, she looked squashed and diminished. He realized then that it was partly the force of her quiet but determined personality that had made her seem so big.
Shanti leapt soundlessly onto the bed. She sniffed Tessa’s burnt fur, and then she lay down beside the wolf, curling up close to her. She gently touched her mouth to Tessa’s head and then flicked out her tongue and licked one of Tessa’s ears.
There was no reaction; Tessa didn’t so much as flick her ear in response.
Tony reached out and touched Jethro’s hand. “Hey…Leroy…Jethro…oh, hell, I don’t know what to call you. Look, it’s me. Tony. Remember me? Because I sure as hell remember you!”
There was no reply. Jethro didn’t move – he didn’t even twitch. Tony *did* remember. He remembered this man trying to rouse him from his traumatised, unconscious state thirteen years ago, and how he hadn’t been able to reach him. And he remembered what Jethro had eventually done in order to bring him back.
“I have to touch Tessa,” he told Shanti. “Is that okay?” The taboo against touching another person’s daemon was so strong, and this man lying here on the bed looked like such a stranger to him, that it felt wrong.
“You have no choice,” Shanti replied. “I can feel Tessa in there somewhere, but she is far away, and I do not believe that they ever intend to come back.”
Tony took a deep breath and then, without hesitating, he gently placed his hands on Tessa’s body.
It felt strange. It had been thirteen years since he’d last touched another person’s daemon with his bare hands, when Tessa had licked him goodbye back in Stillwater. Now, her fur felt dull and coarse under his fingers. He paused for a second, wondering what to do next. What had Jethro done all those years ago?
“Tessa,” he said softly. “I need Jethro to wake up.”
Tessa whimpered but didn’t move. "Hush, Tessa…you're okay. It’s me, Tony. I’m here. You’re safe."
A flood of images and emotions suddenly overwhelmed his senses. He was screaming in the desert and then standing by a graveside. It was freezing cold, and he was pruning rose bushes. Once he started, he couldn’t stop, and he kept on cutting them until they were nothing more than stubs sticking out of the soil. Then someone came and led him back into the warmth of a house.
“Come back now,” Tony said. “Come back from wherever you are. Let me lead you back home.”
A deep sense of loss shook him to his core as he said the word ‘home’. He felt Shanti’s tongue on his cheek, reminding him that she was there, grounding him. He took a deep breath and stroked Tessa’s fur, allowing her essence to wash over him again.
It was dark, and he was alone here, just him and Tessa. There was no point in going back, because they were dead. He had no pack to go back for…
“You have me,” he said softly. “I’m pack.”
He felt her sense of questioning.
“Come back for me. I’m here. I’m pack,” he repeated urgently.
There was a noise in the hallway, and he knew he was running out of time.
“Jethro!” he said desperately. “It’s Tony! Come back! Please!”
There were voices outside the door – he could make out the nurse talking to someone with a deep, strong voice. He saw the fluttering of a bird through the shaded glass, and his heart soared in hope. Maybe Jackson was here with Meldra. Maybe between them they could make Jethro see sense.
The door opened and that hope disappeared again. There was a man standing there in a Marine uniform, with a huge eagle daemon hovering above his shoulder. Tony could see from his insignia that he was a major.
“Who the hell are you? Get away from him!” the major ordered. “Damn it, you’re touching his daemon! What kind of a sick bastard, are you?”
He ran over to the bed and yanked Tony’s hands off Tessa’s body. Tony felt the abrupt separation from her consciousness and almost fell over from the suddenness of the dislocation.
“You don’t understand. I know him!”
He twisted in the major’s grasp as he was manhandled out of the room. Behind him he could hear Shanti whimpering as the massive eagle grabbed one of her ears in her beak and dragged her out of the room too. The major released him, and Shanti bounded into his arms. Tony crouched on the floor, his back against the wall, trying to get his breath back.
“What the hell were you doing?” the major demanded.
“Trying to bring him back! I knew him once…a long time ago…” It sounded ridiculous, even to his own ears.
The major crossed his arms over his chest and frowned down on him. “I should call the police, but hell, you’re just a kid. You say you know Leroy?”
Tony nodded, stroking Shanti’s sore ear repeatedly to soothe the pain. The eagle daemon flew around his head threateningly, her huge wingspan blotting out the overhead lighting.
“You’ve got two minutes. Explain.”
Tony tried to do just that. He crammed everything he could into his explanation, but he doubted it made much sense. Who would believe that he and the man lying in that hospital bed were linked in some strange way because of one incident, a long time ago, however traumatic that incident had been? It sounded bizarre, like some ludicrous, made-up story.
“And you say you tracked him down after not seeing him for thirteen years?” The major was giving him a look of grudging admiration. Tony nodded, slowly. “I like your perseverance, kid, insane though this whole thing sounds. You’d make a good Marine – or a cop.” He grinned. “Look – no harm’s been done, and you seem sincere enough, if a little crazy. Get out of here now, and I won’t call the police.”
Tony glanced beseechingly at the door to Leroy’s room. “Can’t I just…”
“I mean it! Beat it.” The major nudged him with his boot, and his eagle daemon flew down and pecked Shanti’s rump. She gave a growl and swatted the eagle away, but the point had been made.
Tony knew he didn’t have a choice. He got up, and, with one last glance at the closed door, he and Shanti left.
Light. Leroy opened his eyes a fraction and then closed them again.
“I am here.” Her voice was barely more than a strained whisper. He moved his fingers and felt a sense of peace descend on him as his bare skin came into contact with her familiar fur.
“Where…are…we?” His own voice sounded hoarse.
“Gunny?” Someone was standing beside him. He opened his eyes again and saw an eagle daemon, circling overhead. “Gunny – you okay? Here.” Major Ryan pressed a glass of water to his lips, and he drank from it eagerly. “Damn it, Gunny, you gave us a scare.”
“Where…?” Leroy looked around. He was missing something important, but he had Tessa. What else was there? What was missing?
“You’re at Bethesda. We flew you back a few days ago. You’re going to be fine. Got a busted leg and a few burns and bruises, but you’ll be fine.”
“What happened?” Leroy croaked.
“You don’t remember?”
Leroy shook his head and then wished he hadn’t as a spike of pain shot through his skull. Tessa whimpered and pressed against his fingertips.
“You were caught in an explosion. Got a concussion. The doctors said you probably wouldn’t remember the actual incident.”
“Don’t. Just remember the dark…and someone calling my name,” Leroy whispered. “Must'a been you.”
Major Ryan gazed at him thoughtfully. “Well, could be…”
“I quit.” Leroy interrupted him.
“What?” Ryan’s eagle swooped down and landed on the major’s shoulder. She was too big to perch there, so she hovered just above it. Ryan leaned in close. “Look, Gunny, you’ve been through a tough time, but…”
“I’m leaving the Corps,” Leroy repeated firmly. “I’m a liability out there, sir, and you know it. One of these days I’ll get the whole unit blown up, not just me. I’ve put in the years. Let me go.”
Leroy closed his eyes. It didn’t matter what Ryan said. They’d let him go. He was a Marine in his heart, and he always would be, but right now he wasn’t a very good one, and he had no intention of hurting his unit or disgracing the Corps. His father had been right all along, damn it; he needed some time out.
Tessa rested her chin on his thigh. “You’re doing the right thing.”
He didn’t know what the future would bring, but he felt more at peace now than he had since Shannon and Kelly had been killed. They were gone. He could kill every enemy soldier who crossed his path but it wouldn’t change anything. They would still be gone. He would just have to find something else to live for now.
He fell asleep and dreamed of a child chasing his puppy daemon through the woods.
Tony returned to his old life, but something had changed. It was like he'd proved something to himself that he'd always known but never tested before. He could have ignored what Jethro was experiencing and just gone on with his empty, pleasure-filled life, but he hadn't. He'd risen to the challenge instead of avoiding it.
"He helped you once, and now you have helped him in return," Shanti said, resting her head on his lap.
"Yeah…maybe that's it," Tony said, idly scratching her behind the ears. He liked the way his own ears tingled in response. "Maybe that's what this whole thing has been about, and now the circle has been squared or something and it's all over."
"You don't think we'll feel him and Tessa again?" She didn't look too happy about that thought.
"I dunno. Maybe. I just wish I'd got to speak to him, but the major's daemon was very intimidating."
Shanti threw back her head and roared at the top of her voice, taking him by surprise. Tony put his hands over his ears, and gazed at her, startled. She stopped roaring and turned back to him.
"Your daemon can be intimidating too," she said quietly. "You just don't like letting people see that."
"Maybe I haven't changed as much as I thought, huh?" he said, remembering how he'd kept her hidden as a child. He wished he knew how to access this side of himself without scaring everyone away – hell, without scaring *himself*.
"You should just accept what you are," Shanti replied, in that way daemons had of suggesting something that sounded very simple and yet was incredibly difficult to actually *do*.
Tony didn't have a reply for her but when he made his annual phone call to his father he found that he did at least have the answer to a different question.
"I hope you've got a job lined up, Tony," his father said, sounding like the same old broken record. "Because when you leave college you won't be getting another dime from me. I had to make my own way in life, and you'll have to do the same. So you'd better damn well figure out what you're going to do."
"I have," Tony replied. Shanti glanced up at him in surprise. Tony remembered how good it had been to track Jethro down, and wheedle his way into his hospital room, and he remembered what that Marine major had said to him. He smiled. "I'm going to be a cop."
When they finally released him from Bethesda, he went straight to the cemetery where they were buried. He swung his way to their graves on crutches, Tessa limping heavily by his side.
Immediately after they'd been killed, he'd been too out of it to take much in. He'd gone back to Kuwait to take his revenge, instead of directing it at the person who deserved it most.
"Revenge… well, you *were* looking for something to live for," Tessa murmured.
"It'll do," he said, staring down at their gravestones.
Tessa leaned against him. "For now.”
He glanced down at her. “You think I’m doing the wrong thing?”
“No.” Her eyes were stone cold as she gazed back up at him. “If I thought you were doing the wrong thing I’d tell you.” The expression in her eyes changed, becoming full of grief. “Someone killed Shannon and Kelly!” She let out a broken howl that summed up exactly how he was feeling. “Someone killed Shannon and Kelly, and they must pay for it. And when it’s over…” She shook out her fur in an approximation of a shrug.
“Yeah.” He put his hand on her head and stroked gently, just once.
He couldn't think beyond the immediate future. If revenge was all there was to live for then he'd take it, and to hell with what happened after. If he had to spend the rest of his life in prison then he would. It wasn't as if his life meant that much to him now anyway.
NIS agent Mike Franks had slicked back dark hair and a sharp, pointed nose. His daemon was a squat, scrappy mongrel of a dog with white fur that looked grey in places – Leroy couldn’t tell if that was a darker fur colour or just plain dirt. She had bandy legs, one ear that listed over as if it had been bitten, and a pair of small, beady, dark eyes. She was definitely not the kind of daemon you’d like to meet down a dark alley one night.
Franks showed him the battered, blood-stained car his family had died in, and Leroy clamped down hard on his emotions and took in everything the NIS agent told him. Revenge was a dish best served cold; he couldn't allow his hot temper to interfere with his goal.
"Your wife witnessed the murder of a Marine. Drug related," Franks said, taking a long drag on his cigar. His daemon found a discarded soda can on the ground, picked it up in her mouth, and crunched down on it hard with her teeth. The can was instantly crushed between her squat jaws.
"I assigned an NIS agent to protect her…sniper shot him while he was driving the car, causing the crash that killed them." Franks blew out the cigar smoke like he was spitting teeth, and his daemon took another crunch on the soda can. "Can't tell you how sorry I am, Gunny," he said, and Leroy believed him. "Apologising's a sign of weakness, so you won't hear me say it again, but your wife was a brave woman and damn helpful to us. Whole thing stinks."
"Who did it?" Leroy didn't need the man's apologies. "I want a name."
Franks looked at him for a moment, as if weighing him up, and then sighed. He threw the cigar on the ground and stubbed it out with his foot. "Pedro Hernandez."
He took Leroy back up to his office, talking about the case as they walked, flicking through the file in his hand.
"So this bastard has fucked off back to Mexico and there's nothing the hell NIS can do about it?" Leroy snapped as Franks closed his office door behind them.
Franks's daemon came over to Tessa and stood in front of her, nose to nose, studying her. Tessa looked that squat mongrel straight in her gimlet eyes and didn't back down. Franks grunted. Then he threw the file down on his desk.
"That's about it, Gunny. Hernandez is out of our reach."
Leroy gazed at him stonily. "But you know where he is."
"Yeah. We know where he is." Franks gave a slow, deliberate glance at the file on his desk.
"Aw, Gunny, you know I can't tell you that."
"I'm not asking you to tell me." Gibbs glanced at the file and then back at Franks.
Franks gave him one last, searching stare and then nodded. "I need to take a leak. We'll talk about it some more when I get back."
He left the room, and Gibbs picked up the file and memorized the details. He was long gone by the time Franks got back.
"SHIT! What the hell was that?" Tony was in the shower, getting ready for a hot date when he felt a sensation of darkly grim satisfaction combined with a stab of such raw pain that it took his breath away. He stepped out of the steaming water and looked at Shanti, who was pacing around the bathroom in an agitated state.
"Revenge," Shanti said bleakly.
"Jethro." Tony sat down beside her and grabbed her head for reassurance. She nuzzled in close against his neck. "Oh fuck. What did he go and do, Shanti?"
"I think he killed someone." Her expression was one of shock but not surprise.
"Jethro?" Tony frowned. "Jethro isn't a murderer, Shanti!"
She pulled back and looked at him. "Revenge…whoever he killed was the person he held responsible for the death of his family."
"Oh." Tony leaned back against the bath tub, one hand resting on her neck. "Maybe I did the wrong thing, bringing him back," he said softly. "Shit, Shanti – did I do the wrong thing? Maybe he was better off in a coma."
"But supposing he gets caught? He could spend the rest of his life behind bars – or worse."
"I think…" Shanti paused. "Knowing Jethro, I think he is the only one who knows about this. I doubt he'll get caught."
"We know." Tony gazed at her. "Damn it, Shanti – I'm going to become a fucking cop!"
"But you will not tell anyone," Shanti said, a wry expression in her eyes.
"No." Tony kissed her soft forehead. "I won't tell anyone."
Leroy experienced one brief moment of intense satisfaction as Pedro Hernandez’s head exploded and blood spat out all over the truck’s shattered windshield, but then the moment passed. Almost immediately the grief flooded back in again, taking him by surprise, and he turned away from what he'd done and screamed at the top of his lungs. Beside him, Tessa threw back her head and howled.
After they'd both finished howling, they huddled together, side by side, riding out the storm of emotion.
"I thought taking revenge would make me feel better," he told her.
"I know. But it doesn't." She gave a whine in the back of her throat.
"They're still dead," he said bleakly.
"Yes – and it still hurts."
He hauled himself to his feet and glanced at the shattered truck, but he already knew that his aim had been true, and Hernandez was dead.
"At least there's one less scumbag out there." He gave a satisfied grunt.
“He will not be missed,” she agreed as they walked away, leaving the bloody body of Pedro Hernandez in his truck far behind.
"So now what?" she asked, as he returned to the empty house he'd once shared with his family. "Now that the revenge is over…what do we find to live for now?"
"Justice," he replied, and she nodded, understanding immediately, as he'd known she would.
Killing Hernandez had awoken a passion for justice in him that he hadn't even been aware of. Looking back, he realized it had always been there but his greater passion for the Marines had overshadowed it. Losing Shannon and Kelly had simply sharpened it to a finer point, and made it a greater priority in his life.
Mike Franks glanced up when he knocked on his office door. The NIS agent knew that he'd killed Hernandez; Leroy could see it in his daemon's gimlet eyes.
"Back again, Marine?" Franks raised an eyebrow, and Leroy could see him clearly wondering what the hell he was doing here. The job was done – the last thing Franks wanted was some kind of tearful confession.
"Not a Marine anymore."
"Once a Marine always a Marine," Franks said sharply.
"True." Leroy grunted. "I'm not in the Corps anymore though. That's why I'm here."
"Ah…you're looking for a job!" A sneaky smile spread over Franks's face. "You've got good timing; I'm looking for a new probie."
"Probationary agent. Need someone to schlep my bags and get my damn coffee. You up to that, Gunny?"
"Gibbs," he replied sharply.
"I don't care what the hell you're called as long as you do a good job." Franks stared at him from narrowed dark eyes.
His daemon was only half Tessa's height, but she barreled over to Tessa and stood in front of her, baring her teeth. She made a growling sound in the back of her throat, and Tessa went down on her paws with only a slight whine of protest. Gibbs accepted the chain of command, always had. He'd be this man's probationary agent and carry his bags and get his coffee – and that way he'd learn from the best.
“I will, Boss,” Gibbs said firmly.
Franks gave a laugh. "Yeah, I think you will. Hell, I like you, Gibbs. You're a pain in the ass, but I understand what makes you tick. We'll do just fine together."
He left the office with a job offer in his pocket and a whole new identity waiting for him. He had months of training ahead of him but when they were done he'd be Special Agent Gibbs.
He wasn't 'Gunny' anymore. He wasn't Leroy anymore, either. He'd left his unit and deliberately turned his back on his old friendships. Hell, he'd even turned his back on his own father. There was nobody left who called him Leroy now.
And as for Jethro…only Shannon was allowed to call him that, and she was gone.
"And Tony," Tessa told him softly.
He glanced down at her, surprised, but could feel himself hardening inside. "Haven't thought about Tony in a long time, and I doubt he's thought about me, either. The kid's probably forgotten I even exist. It was years ago, Tessa. Past's over; time to move on."
"He is pack," Tessa said stubbornly.
Gibbs felt his jaw tightening. "I don't have a pack anymore," he growled at her.
Tony was long gone, his family was dead, and he was estranged from his father.
He was a lone wolf again.
Tony pulled the collar of his coat up around his neck and blew on his hands. Damn it, he was freezing his balls off out here.
He was standing on the Baltimore docks in a foot of snow, in front of a dead body. There had been a red stain on the snow beside the body but so much fresh snow had fallen that it had obscured the stain. Even the body was half buried under the snow now.
Tony stood there, guarding the crime scene, while his captain made a call. There was some kind of brief argument, and then the captain snapped his phone shut and strode back over, his terrier daemon trotting along beside him.
"Problem, Captain?" Tony gave the man his biggest, most charming smile. The captain glared at him, and Tony sighed. Somehow, he had a feeling he'd never be able to worm his way back into his boss's good books; although that wasn’t entirely surprising given the circumstances.
"No problem," the captain growled, and his terrier daemon snapped her teeth at Shanti. "This one isn't ours." The captain nodded in the direction of the dead man who was slowly disappearing under a blanket of snow.
Tony frowned. "I don't understand. Are you saying you don't want me to start processing the crime scene?"
"Yup, that’s exactly what I’m saying. This guy's a Marine." The captain held up the dog tags he'd removed from the corpse. "So he's not our problem. NCIS are gonna send a team down."
"NCIS?" Tony raised an eyebrow. "Who the hell are they?"
"Naval Criminal Investigative Service. They investigate Navy crimes. This one is theirs."
"Aw, come on! He got killed on our turf!" Tony protested. "We can swing it that we take lead on this, can't we?"
The captain shook his head. "It's not worth the hassle, DiNozzo, trust me. I've met the head of their major crimes unit before, and he's a bastard. I do not wanna get into a pissing contest with him."
"So we just hand him over?" Tony looked at the dead marine.
"No –*you* just hand him over. You can stay here, guard the crime scene, and do the handover when the NCIS team gets here.
"Me? What about you?" Tony asked. Shanti glanced up, the snow settling on her thick eyelashes.
"Me?" the captain chuckled. "I'm going home! It's late, and it's freezing out here. No point keeping a grunt and doing the hard work myself, huh, DiNozzo?" He slapped Tony's arm heartily, while his terrier daemon gave a bark of amusement. Shanti growled softly in reply.
"Got that, DiNozzo?" the captain demanded, in a more menacing tone.
"Yes, sir. Got it." Tony sighed. "I'll just…wait here…in all this snow…until NCIS get here to take over."
"Good boy!" The captain gave him a nasty little smile. "They shouldn't be more than…" he glanced at his watch. "Well…usually I'd say an hour, but in this?" He looked up at the sky. "More like two! Hope you're wearing your thermals, DiNozzo!"
He gave another barking laugh and then turned and went back to his car. Tony watched as he disappeared into the swirling snow.
"Thanks, sir. Love you too," he muttered sarcastically.
There were a few uniformed officers over in the distance, guarding the entrance to the docks, but basically he was on his own; just him and the dead Marine. He leaned against a nearby lamp post, wrapped his arms around his body, and stamped his freezing cold feet.
"So remind me, Shanti, why *did* I decide to become a cop?" he sighed.
She settled down at his feet, the snow coating her fur. "Because you wanted to impress possible sexual conquests with stories of your heroic exploits," she replied, glancing up at him with a teasing expression on her face.
He snorted and rolled his eyes. "Well, that *was* part of it," he admitted with a grin.
"And also because of something someone once said to you," she said in a more serious tone of voice.
His grin faded as he remembered the Marine major with the eagle daemon that night back at Bethesda ten years ago.
"You did a good thing that night," Shanti said.
"Fat lot of good it did me. I didn't even get to talk to Jethro."
"You did – he just didn't get to reply. But you brought him back. I felt Tessa wake up before we'd even left the hospital."
"I should have turned around and gone back, forced them to let me in…" Tony muttered, blowing on his cold fingers again. "I'm an idiot."
"You were scared."
"Of the major's daemon? Well, she was a massive eagle, and, as I recall, she did keep pecking your ass and that hurt like hell." Tony gave a bitter little laugh.
"No. You were scared that Jethro wouldn't remember you," Shanti said quietly, leaning against his leg.
"Yeah." Tony stared into the swirling snow. "Yeah, there was that."
"And you have lost too many people you loved. You didn't want to lose him too."
Tony thought of his mom dying, and his father's many repeated abandonments and various forms of rejection. He couldn't have handled it if Jethro hadn't known him, or cared about him, or wanted him around.
"Makes me a coward then," he murmured.
Shanti gave an impatient little roar. "You are not a coward. But you are an idiot."
Tony laughed out loud and crouched down to hug her. "Ah…what would I do without you?" he asked, snuggling her ears.
"You would be dead," she replied pragmatically.
"There is that." He laughed again and kissed her forehead. "Been awhile since we last talked about Jethro."
"Yes…he is…hard to sense these days." Shanti licked his face, and he loved the warmth of her tongue on his skin. "If Tessa was not already settled in her shape, I could imagine she had grown a shell, like a tortoise."
"I can't imagine Jethro with a tortoise for a daemon," Tony chuckled. "When did we last feel anything from him, Shanti?"
"A few years ago…I think he got shot."
"Yeah." Tony remembered a swift, physical pain in his arm, but it had disappeared almost as soon as he’d felt it. Shanti was right – Jethro was all closed up these days and not much bled through. A thought occurred to him. "Do you think he feels me, Shanti? I mean, all these years I've had these moments of feeling what's going on with him. Do you think it works both ways?"
"I have no idea."
Tony felt like he was turning into a block of ice. He jumped up and down, trying to get warm.
"What would he have felt from me anyway? Nothing big ever happened to me. Nobody died, and I didn't get blown up in an explosion while fighting in a war. Man, he's led an interesting life."
"And a sad one," Shanti pointed out.
"Yeah. Poor bastard. I wonder if he got married again. Maybe he had more kids?"
"If he did, then we did not feel it. But you could look him up and find out. You are a cop," she reminded him.
"I know, and you know how tempted I've been to do just that. But it feels kind of creepy. Stalkerish."
"Yes." She shook her head from side to side to dislodge a little blanket of snow that had formed there.
“Damn it. It’s cold.” He leaned back against the lamp post and closed his eyes, trying to find his happy place in his mind. It was hard imagining himself back in the woods in Stillwater on a sunny day when he was freezing his ass off out here. He hugged his arms around his body and rocked back and forth, trying to get warm.
Stillwater was always the same in his mind, just as he’d left it. He ran through the woods with Shanti by his side until he reached the clearing by the creek. He had a sudden vivid sense of looking at the water, and he turned, slowly, and smiled as he saw Jethro sitting on the green and red checked blanket with that old picnic basket belonging to his father. His smile faded; Jethro didn’t look the way he remembered him. He was much older, his hair was completely silver, his face was thinner, and he looked a little gaunt.
It was so vivid that he felt as if he was there, and then the moment ended abruptly, and he was back in the freezing cold docks in Baltimore again. His feet felt like blocks of ice, and he stamped them to try and thaw them out.
“I’m bored,” Shanti said.
“Yeah…hey – why don’t we work the crime scene anyway? Give this bastard the captain’s so scared of a head start when he arrives?”
“The captain said not to touch the crime scene,” she said doubtfully.
“And since when do I do as I’m told?” He grinned at her.
“Well, not often – but that’s why it didn’t work out for you in Philly, or Peoria,” she pointed out.
“And it’s not working out for me here, either. So who cares?” He grabbed his bag and got out his evidence bags, sketch pad, and camera.
“It WOULD be more fun than just standing around,” Shanti agreed. She jumped up in the air, chasing snowflakes, and he gave a delighted laugh.
He did a thorough search of the area before all the evidence disappeared under the snow. It wasn’t easy, and his fingers were frozen from scrabbling around. He took a break and looked down on the dead Marine, with his open eyes and ice cold skin.
“Poor bastard. I wonder what your daemon looked like,” Tony mused. He reached into the guy’s overcoat pocket and pulled out a wallet. There was a driver’s license inside, with the Marine’s photo on it. The Marine’s name was Paul Watson, and he had an earnest expression on his face – one that was shared by his wolf daemon. “Interesting,” Tony mused, a faint memory stirring. “I wonder if our dead Marine was a sniper?”
Shanti dug around in the snow with her nose and then looked up, a puzzled expression on her face.
“What is it?” Tony asked, getting up and going over to her.
“It’s…I might be wrong – it has been snowing very hard – but…I can’t find any trace of his daemon.”
Tony frowned and looked around. “Well there must be a pile of dust around here somewhere. Like you said, it’s been snowing pretty hard. Let’s go take a wider look.”
Gibbs finished his plastic cup of orange juice with a grimace; the stuff tasted bad, but he was, technically, still on duty until 22:00…which was in five minutes.
"Enjoying the party, Gibbs?" Director Morrow asked, coming over to him, his bat daemon hanging upside down from his arm.
"Not a party without bourbon," Gibbs grunted, screwing up the little plastic cup and throwing it in the nearest trash can.
"Which is Gibbs-speak for you're going to miss him," Morrow said, glancing over at where Stan Burley was standing, surrounded by a little gaggle of colleagues. It was Stan’s going away party – one last drink in the squad room before he left to take up a new job as an agent afloat.
"Well sure. I'll have to get my own damn coffee until I can find a replacement," Gibbs retorted.
Morrow laughed. "You can have your pick of agents. What about Pacci?” He motioned to where Chris Pacci was involved in deep conversation with Stan. Pacci’s lemur daemon was sitting on his shoulder, her long, striped tail wrapped around his neck.
Gibbs shook his head. “Pacci’s a good agent, but he’s on Vance’s team and there’s no way Leon will let him go without a fight.”
Gibbs glanced at Leon Vance, who was standing to one side, watching proceedings with his usual intense stare, a toothpick sticking out of his mouth. His daemon, a chameleon lizard, was standing beside him, watching just as intently. Her tongue occasionally darted out, mimicking the toothpick.
“True,” Morrow conceded. “Vance has assembled a good team there, and he’ll want to hang on to them. He’s ambitious.”
“Oh yeah.” Gibbs shot his boss a mischievous glance. “You should watch out, sir. He’ll be after your job one day.”
Morrow laughed out loud. “The way I feel some days, he’d be welcome to it!” His bat daemon folded her wings and gave Tessa an inscrutable look. “Okay then – why not promote that probie from the Norfolk office?" Morrow suggested.
"Pike? Can't stand him," Gibbs said moodily, watching as Stan's hare daemon hopped out of reach of the chameleon lizard’s darting tongue.
"I have a feeling you won't like anyone who isn't Stan," Morrow said.
Gibbs grunted again. "Just got used to him."
"After five years, I'd hope so!" Morrow grinned, and his bat daemon fluttered down onto the ground and sat on one of his shiny shoes. "And Langer left just a few weeks ago too – any luck replacing him?"
"No," Gibbs said shortly. "I keep hiring people, and they keep leaving."
"I wonder why?" Morrow asked. Gibbs glared at him. "Time to train someone new, Gibbs," Morrow told him an undertone. "Don't drag your feet. I know you don't like it, but suck it up, Marine."
Gibbs gave a wry grin. "Yes, sir!" He shot a mock salute in Morrow's direction.
A call came through from dispatch, and Gibbs glanced over to where Stan was standing by the elevator, saying his final goodbyes.
"Problem?" Morrow raised an eyebrow.
"Dead Marine – Baltimore docks."
"Burley is, technically, still on duty."
"Yeah, but he has to report to Norfolk for his new posting tomorrow – and that dead Marine isn't going anywhere. I'll log the call as coming in at 22:01 and handle it myself."
"Going soft in your old age? I thought the second 'b' was for bastard?"
Gibbs gave a little laugh. "Oh, it is. Ducky left for home an hour ago – he'll have just gotten there. I'm gonna call him and have him haul his ass out to Baltimore."
He flicked open the phone and made the call, chuckling at Ducky's grumbles of annoyance.
"Very well, Gibbs, but in these weather conditions I cannot promise a speedy journey."
"Body's not going anywhere, Duck. I'll meet ya there."
"Be prepared for a long wait. I have to fetch the truck, and I do not possess your lack of self-preservation when driving in dangerous conditions. In other words – I drive slowly when it’s snowing."
"I'll see you there, Duck."
Gibbs grinned and closed the phone. He glanced up at the clock. Twenty-two hundred hours. Stan was now, officially, no longer on his team.
"You and Dr. Mallard can't work the crime scene alone," Morrow said. "At least take an agent from the pool with you."
Gibbs thought about it, but then he felt Tessa's nose pressing against his hand, and he shook his head. "Be faster alone. Don't want anyone I'm not used to getting in the way." He couldn't explain that he'd just lost Stan, and the lone wolf in him wanted to lick those wounds alone.
He grabbed his gun and badge, picked up his gear, and went over to his old probie.
"So long, Steve." He gave Stan a sly smile and batted him awkwardly on the arm.
"You've got a job?" Stan glanced at his crime scene bag.
"Call just came in."
Stan looked anxious – Gibbs was used to that look after five years working with him. Stan's hare daemon, Molly, stood up on her back paws, her ears flicking nervously.
"You want me to come with you?" Stan asked.
Gibbs laughed. "No. Go home, get some rest. You’re starting a new job tomorrow. I can handle this by myself." He looked at the ground and then back at his former protégé. "Take care, Stan. Don't do anything stupid."
“You too, Boss,” Stan said softly. “You too.”
Tessa nudged Molly with her nose for the briefest of seconds and then she followed Gibbs into the elevator. The doors closed behind them, and Gibbs leaned back against the wall with a sigh.
"It was time for him to move on," Tessa said.
"I know!" he snapped at her.
She glanced up at him, a wry look in her eyes. "I know you know."
He rolled his eyes but nudged her ever so slightly with his knee all the same.
“Where the hell did the years go, Tessa? Seems like only yesterday Franks was slapping my head and yelling at me, and now another of my own probies is flying the nest.”
Her tongue lolled out of her mouth as if she was laughing at him. Maybe she was. He gave a grunting laugh of his own.
“Just wish I could find someone I like to take his place; someone I can trust,” he said. He'd never found it easy making friends and finding people he could trust to have his six and do a good job was just as hard. Trust didn't come easy to him.
“You will.” It was always the same with her; such a calm simplicity. She was like a tonic; she never failed to make him feel better, even when she said the things he didn’t want to hear.
The conditions on the road were treacherous, but Gibbs made short work of the drive out to the Baltimore docks all the same.
"One day, you will get us killed with your driving," Tessa told him.
"Well, we all have to die somehow," Gibbs replied with a shrug. He wasn't going to actively seek death, but he knew he'd welcome it when he came. It wasn't as if he had a whole lot to live for. He was surprised he’d lived this long – after his family had died he’d never thought he’d make old bones himself. He took too many risks and cared about himself too little.
"Do you regret coming back?" Tessa asked curiously. "That time when you were in the coma…do you regret it?"
Gibbs thought about it. All he could remember about being in that coma was darkness, warmth and a sense of being at peace. He’d been happy to stay there right up until that nagging voice had started talking to him. He never had been able to remember what it said, but he knew it had given him a convincing reason to return. Someone had wanted him to come back, but he had no idea who, or why.
"No," he said finally. "I don't regret it."
Gibbs pulled up at the docks and flashed his badge at the uniformed officers guarding the entrance. They waved him through, and he peered through his windshield to find the crime scene. The snow was relentless; the entire landscape had been turned into a white wilderness and it was difficult to see anything. Dispatch had told him that a Baltimore detective had been left in charge of the body and would perform the handover, but he couldn’t see any sign of him.
"Wonder who the poor bastard pissed off to get that assignment?" Gibbs drove the car down towards the water's edge, wanting to get as close as possible.
He got out of the car and took a deep lungful of freezing cold air. "Shit, it's cold," he muttered to Tessa, as she scrambled out beside him. He took a look around and then froze. Over there, by the water’s edge, a man was kneeling in the snow, disturbing *his* crime scene.
“Hey!” he yelled, striding over there. “What the HELL do you think you’re doing?”
The man looked up, his face hazy amid the swirling snow. Gibbs could just about make out the shadowy shape of his daemon, standing behind him in the dark.
“This is my damn crime scene, and…” Gibbs paused as a sudden shiver passed up his spine; all the hairs on the back of his neck were standing on end.
The man stood up, and from behind him there emerged a massive lioness, her ears pressed flat against her skull. The man and his daemon both stood perfectly still in the snow, looking at Gibbs and Tessa, and Gibbs and Tessa stood just as still, looking back them.
Then the lioness let out a deafening roar, and, without warning, she began running across the snow towards them. The sound of her roaring was so loud that it drowned out everything else. Gibbs wondered why this man’s daemon was attacking them, and he was about to draw his gun when suddenly Tessa raced out from by his side, like a streak of lightning.
“Tessa!” he yelled after her, but she took no notice – she was too busy giving the kind of excited, high-pitched yelps that he hadn’t heard from her in years. She ran forward to meet the lioness, yelping her head off as she raced across the snow.
Tessa met the lioness in mid-bound, and they threw themselves at each other joyfully. The lioness was going crazy, roaring, baying, and throwing herself up into the air. Tessa jumped on her, and they rolled over and over together in the snow, bellowing with excitement.
Gibbs took a step forward, and then another, peering into the swirling snow, trying to get a better view of the man in the distance. And as he walked, the man walked slowly towards him.
They met somewhere in the middle…and stopped. Gibbs found himself looking into a pair of green eyes that he remembered from a very long time ago.
“Tony?” he whispered, his warm breath clouding the cold air in front of him. “Is it you?”
Those green eyes lit up – and Gibbs remembered a small boy excitedly asking him how he’d got himself shot.
“You remember me, Jethro?” Tony’s voice was octaves deeper but the inflections were still the same, and the surprise in his voice made Gibbs ache. “After all this time? You know who I am?”
“Of course I remember you.”
Gibbs stood there, staring, completely shocked. He didn’t know what to say. He’d become accustomed to the dour drudgery of his life since he’d lost his family. He had never expected that anything good could actually happen to him again, after all this time.
“Jethro.” Tony was gazing at him as if he couldn’t believe this was happening either. “How is this possible? I mean, what are you doing here?”
“I’m the NCIS agent here to collect your dead Marine – and you, I’m guessing, are the poor bastard left here to hand him over.”
“Yes, but…it’s *you*. After all these years…it’s YOU. And why here? Why now? I mean, it’s so random…”
“Don’t know, don’t care.” Gibbs shrugged.
He held out his hand in greeting, and Tony took it. They were both wearing gloves and it felt cold, impersonal, and somehow not enough. Tony suddenly moved forward, pulling Gibbs in close, and wrapped his arms around him, enveloping him in an unexpectedly warm hug. Gibbs usually hated people touching him, but, much to his surprise, he found himself returning the hug. He held on tight for one long moment, and then he pushed Tony away so that he could get a good look at him.
Tony had grown into a big man; tall, broad, and strong. He was handsome, like his father, but unlike his father his smile was warm and genuine, and reached all the way to his eyes. “Damn it, Tony…you went and grew up!”
“And you. You’ve gone grey.” Tony grinned at him. “You’re getting old, Jethro.”
Gibbs slapped the back of his head for that, and Tony’s entire face broke into a delighted grin.
He laughed out loud and did a little jig in the snow, and Shanti danced around him, her chest heaving with deep, rumbling purrs.
“I always wondered what shape she’d take when she settled,” Gibbs said, watching the lioness romp. “Thought it might be this one; the one you tried so hard to keep everyone from seeing.”
“Can’t stop them seeing her like this now,” Tony said ruefully. “Although sometimes I’d like to, ‘cause people see this giant lioness coming towards them and freak out. I have to get Shanti to chase her own tail and jump in the air after butterflies to convince them she’s just a big pussycat really.”
“Oh, I think she’s a hell of a lot more than a big pussycat,” Gibbs said, looking at Tony searchingly.
Tony flushed and looked away. “I wasn’t sure if she’d go with the golden retriever or the lion,” he said, shuffling his feet. “She swung both ways for a hell of a long time before settling when I was about sixteen.”
Gibbs watched as Shanti and Tessa trotted around each other, roaring and howling in pleasure as they played in the snow.
Then he glanced up at the skies. The snow was still falling – not as heavily before, but most of the crime scene was now obscured.
“It’s late, and I’m freezing my ass off here,” he said. “My ME should be here soon. In the meantime, why don’t you help me process this crime scene so we can get outta here and catch up properly?”
“Me? You want me to help process your crime scene?” Tony sounded stunned.
“Well yeah, Tony. Seeing as you already made a start without my permission, you might as well continue with it.”
Tony grimaced. “Uh…sorry about that…I was just bored, and it was a long wait, and damn it, I needed something to do. Although the captain did warn me you’re an ornery bastard who doesn’t like sharing jurisdiction.”
“I never share jurisdiction if I can damn well help it.” Gibbs grunted. “But I could do with a hand, and you seem to know what you’re doing.”
“I do!” Tony picked up his camera and sketch pad and began working. It wasn’t easy in the snow, but the two of them moved around the crime scene methodically, doing their jobs.
Gibbs was impressed by Tony. His crime scene sketches were excellent – some of the best Gibbs had seen.
“There was one thing that Shanti noticed – we couldn’t find the remains of the dead guy’s daemon,” Tony told Gibbs.
Gibbs glanced around the crime scene. “Well it has to be here.”
“I can’t find it, either,” Tessa told him, looking up from where she was snuffling around in the snow. Tessa had always been extremely good at sniffing out the remains of a dead person’s daemon, so that was unexpected.
“Look again,” Gibbs rapped out.
Tony exchanged a glance with Shanti, but he did as ordered, without question.
“Something bad happened here,” Tessa told Gibbs quietly. He looked down on her with a raised eyebrow. He always trusted her opinion on crime scenes – he’d long since realized he did his job better when he listened to what she had to say and followed it.
“What kind of bad?”
She gave a shiver, the snow shaking off her thick fur coat. “Something obscene. An abomination.”
It wasn’t like Tessa to use such words, and Gibbs gave her a curious look, but she was unable to explain further.
“I thought our dead guy might be a sniper,” Tony said.
“What makes you think that?” Gibbs knelt down beside the dead man.
“This.” Tony showed him a photo ID. “He had a wolf daemon – and someone once told me that forty-three per cent of snipers have wolf daemons.”
Gibbs rocked back on his heels and looked up at him quizzically. “You remember that?”
“I remember everything,” Tony said quietly.
The dead Marine’s wrists were tied tightly behind his back with a piece of rope. Technically he should wait for Ducky to deal with the body, but in these conditions, who knew how long it'd be before the ME arrived? Gibbs leaned forward to try and untie the rope, but his gloved fingers slipped on the frozen knot. He reached into his jacket to get his knife…and stopped when a knife appeared, as if by magic, in front of him. He looked up.
“Never go anywhere without a knife,” Tony told him softly. “Rule number nine.”
Gibbs took the knife with a rueful shake of his head. “I had no idea I made such an impression on you.”
“Are you kidding? I was eight years old, and you were this scary Marine with an exciting bullet wound in his leg. I’d never met anyone like you.”
Gibbs laughed softly to himself. He removed the rope from the victim’s wrists and examined the stab wound in his back.
“Any luck on finding the remains of the daemon?” he asked Tessa. She glanced at Shanti, and they both shook their heads. Gibbs exchanged a grim look with Tony. “Was the wind strong enough to disperse the remains before anyone got here?”
“Nope. There hasn’t been much of a wind all night,” Tony told him. “Maybe he was killed somewhere else and dumped here?”
“Maybe,” Gibbs said thoughtfully. “Let’s keep working.”
“On it!” Tony returned to his search.
“So, what did you do to piss off your captain?” Gibbs asked as they worked.
“What?” Tony looked up, a guilty smile on his face. Shanti covered her eyes with her paws, and Gibbs remembered how she’d once turned into a porcupine and done the exact same thing. He raised an eyebrow.
“You sure as hell pissed someone off to be left guarding a dead guy for hours on end on a night like this.” Gibbs grinned. “So what did you do, Tony?”
Tony’s face went a deep shade of pink. “Uh…well…I might have seduced his daughter,” he muttered, kneeling down in the snow, avoiding Gibbs’s gaze.
Gibbs shook his head, amused. “Oh yeah. That’d do it.”
Tony looked up, wincing. “And also his son,” he added.
Gibbs stared at him. Maybe he should have been surprised to find out that Tony was bisexual, but somehow he wasn’t. It seemed very…Tony. He let out a loud guffaw. “Aw hell, Tony, when you screw up, you really screw up, don’t’cha?”
“They were both in their twenties, so I wasn’t cradle-snatching or anything!” Tony protested. “And man, they were cute. Both blondes. Big blue eyes. Much cuter than their old man. Of course it didn’t end well. Then again, it never does.” He gave a rueful grin. “Uh…how about you?” he asked. “You…uh…married?” He gave Gibbs a searching look.
“Divorced,” Gibbs grunted. “More than once.” Tessa came over and sat down beside him. She nudged her nose against his boot.
“Right.” Tony chewed on his lip, looking thoughtful. Gibbs hoped he wouldn’t mention Shannon; he hoped he’d assume she was one of his divorces.
He was saved from any further conversation on the topic by Ducky drawing up in the NCIS refrigerated truck. Not that they exactly needed the refrigeration on a night like this.
“My dear Gibbs, what a simply abominable night to be out working!” Ducky said, getting out of the truck, his owl daemon swooping eagerly over to the dead body. “I cannot believe how long it took me to get here. And who is this young man with the rather striking daemon?” He glanced at Tony and Shanti, who were standing over the corpse.
“Ducky – this is Detective Tony DiNozzo, and his daemon Shanti. Tony – this is Ducky – our ME, and his daemon Morag.”
Tessa looked up at him as Ducky and Tony exchanged pleasantries, and Gibbs smiled back down on her. He could feel an ache inside his chest easing, as if he'd been holding his breath for years, and now, finally, could release it.
After ten long years, he wasn’t a lone wolf anymore. He had a pack again.
They finished up at the crime scene, and Gibbs’s ME drove away with the corpse and evidence in his truck.
Tony turned, not wanting this reunion to end. He could still hardly believe this was happening.
“Coffee,” Gibbs said, jerking his thumb in the direction of his car. Tony got in beside him, still in a daze. “Anywhere open this time of night?”
“There’s an all night coffee place down over there.” Tony pointed.
The warm air of the coffee shop felt so good after standing around in the freezing cold for hours on end. Tony took off his coat and gloves and unwrapped his scarf from around his neck, and then he sat down and waited while Gibbs got them coffee. Now they were alone together, and the first joy of the reunion had worn off, he felt strangely shy.
“Idiot,” Shanti told him, nudging him with her head.
“Yeah, I know.” Tony gave a rueful grin.
“Why did he lie about Shannon?” Shanti asked.
“I don’t think he did – he just allowed me to put two and two together and make five,” Tony replied thoughtfully. “I got the impression he didn’t want to talk about her – but one thing’s clear.” Shanti gave him a questioning look. “He doesn’t know that we know anything about his life,” Tony told her. “It’s like I said earlier – we might have felt all this stuff that’s been going on with him, but I don’t think it worked both ways – and he doesn’t know I know.”
“He definitely doesn’t know that you brought him back from the coma, or that he got his revenge on whoever killed his family."
"Ssh!" Tony glanced around anxiously.
"So what should we do?” Shanti asked. "Should we tell him?"
“Fuck no! It’s freaky enough knowing all this stuff about him as it is; like I’ve been eavesdropping on his life or something.”
“You didn’t do it on purpose.”
“I don’t think that matters.”
Shanti shook her head. “He once told you that you didn’t have to hide who you truly are. I don’t think you should hide this now.”
“Damn it, Shanti – I’ve only just met up with the guy for the first time in twenty-three years! Let’s just drop it.”
She gave him a disapproving glare and then placed her head on her front paws with a resigned sigh.
Gibbs returned to the table with two steaming mugs of coffee, and Tony took a happy sip and then sighed. “Damn that’s good. I was freezing my ass off back there.”
Gibbs sat back in his chair and looked at him over his coffee mug. “So tell me about it, Tony.”
“It?” Tony said stupidly.
“It – you, your life, all of it. What happened after you left Stillwater?”
Tony dug a spoonful of sugar out of the little bowl on the table and stirred it into his coffee. His life. His stupid fuck up of a life. He wished he could say something that would make this man proud of him, but all he had was a career he kept screwing up and a trail of broken hearts and bad love affairs that he’d left in his wake.
“Not much to tell. I’m a cop – you know that. Not married – you know that.” Tony shrugged.
“What happened with your father?” Gibbs asked quietly.
Tony closed his eyes, remembering that terrible night when his father had attacked his daemon. Beside him, Shanti started to shake. Tessa licked her cheek gently, and Tony opened his eyes again.
“Well, you were right of course,” he said bitterly. “There was no fresh start or ‘just the two of us’. He was making plans to send me away to boarding school before we had even left Stillwater.”
He looked up in time to see the flash of fury in Gibbs’s eyes.
“I barely saw him for the next ten years. Occasionally I’d get myself suspended or expelled on purpose, so he’d be forced to spend some time with me. We *did* go on some interesting holidays together.” Tony laughed out loud. “Like the time we went to Hawaii when I was twelve, and he took off to ‘do business’ and left me behind on my own in the hotel room for days on end.”
“Sounds like the same old bastard he always was,” Gibbs growled. “He was leaving you to fend for yourself when you were eight.”
“He is who he is.” Tony shrugged. “How’s your dad?”
“Wouldn’t know. Haven’t seen him in years.” It was Gibbs’s turn to shrug.
Tony wondered what the hell that was all about. He sensed there was something there, but he could tell by the way Tessa was sitting, her ears pricked up and her body stiff and anxious, that it wasn’t a good idea to pursue it. It was a shame – he’d always liked Jackson Gibbs, finding in him the warmth and affection that he'd never received from his own father. But even back then it had been clear that things were tense between Jackson and his son, for whatever reason.
“Well, what about you, Jethro? What have you been doing?” Tony held an anxious breath, wondering if Gibbs would tell him anything about Shannon and the child he’d lost, or about being injured in action.
“Was a Marine until ’91. Left and joined NCIS.” Well that answered that question.
“Sounds dangerous. You get shot again?” Tony tried to turn it into a joke.
Gibbs gave a wry grin. “Took a bullet to the arm a few years ago. Not much more than a flesh wound though. You? Any, uh…injuries?” He looked almost embarrassed as he said that.
“Me? Nope.” Tony shook his head. Gibbs made a little grunting sound and took another sip of his coffee. “I thought about you sometimes. Wondered how you were doing,” Tony said, which was such an understatement that Shanti shot him a look of incredulity. He nudged her with his toe.
“Yeah.” Gibbs took a sip of his coffee. “Me too.”
Tessa sat up and looked at him, but Gibbs ignored her and concentrated on drinking his coffee. Tessa gave an annoyed little whine. She turned her back on Gibbs and gazed at Shanti expressionlessly. Shanti sighed heavily and rested her head on her paws again.
Gibbs finished his coffee and then glanced at his watch. “Well, it’s late, and you should get home. I’ll be expecting you at the Navy Yard at 9 a.m. sharp.” He got up and began shouldering himself into his coat.
“Uh…you will? Why?” Tony frowned.
“Because I need a new second on my team, and you’re a damn good crime scene worker,” Gibbs said with a shrug, wrapping his scarf around his throat.
“Wait…are you offering me a job?” Tony asked, stunned.
“What does it sound like, DiNozzo?” Gibbs grinned at him. “It’s not like your career at Baltimore PD is going anywhere by the sounds of it, and I don’t have any offspring for you to seduce. So the sensible thing is for you to come work with me.”
“You mean it?” Tony felt as if he’d burst from sheer happiness. Shanti threw back her head and roared loudly to show her approval.
Gibbs put his hands over his ears. “Yeah – but I hope my eardrums can stand working with ya.”
Tony laughed out loud. He grabbed Shanti and kissed her nose, and Gibbs shook his head, chuckling to himself.
“Thank you! Thank you, Jethro…Leroy…Gibbs…uh…what should I call you?” Tony asked in confusion.
Gibbs grinned and slapped the back of his head. “Boss,” he said. “You can call me Boss.”
PretenceGibbs 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."
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.
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.
"No. Not Tony."
"You ever thought why?" His father's gaze was searching, and Gibbs fought down a familiar surge of annoyance.
"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."
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.
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.
PrideTony called Director Shepard, and then he called in the team. Gibbs's team. Now they were his team. For the first time in his life, he was in charge.
"You'll be fine," Shanti said, pacing to and fro around Gibbs's living room. "We'll find him. I know we'll find him."
"How can we find him if we can't feel him?" Tony snapped.
Shanti came over to him and nudged his hand reassuringly with her head. "Because you're good at finding things. You always have been. You're a cop, Tony – forget that it's Jethro and do what you do best.
Tony bit on his lip. "If I screw up, then we could lose him forever.”
"You won't screw up," she told him firmly.
“He was there for me, when I needed him most.” Her eyes whirled with anxiety, and he knew they were both remembering that night in the motel all those years ago. “I can’t let him down, Shanti.”
She got up on her hind legs and thwapped one of her paws across his head, hard. “Be who you are – who you really are. Have *pride*, Tony.”
She had never spoken to him like that before, and he felt a sense of purpose rush through his veins and a hard, cold fury rise in his chest.
Someone had taken Jethro. Some bastard had hurt the person he loved most in the world. He would get Jethro back, and he would make that bastard pay. They would regret the day they’d ever laid a finger on someone he loved.
Tony threw back his head and roared.
The cell was dark. There were no windows, and the one door was locked. His watch had been removed, along with his gun, cell phone, badge, wallet and any other identifying signs. He had no way of knowing how long he had been here.
The pain radiated out in waves from his gut, making him aware, every single second, of the fact that he had been forcibly separated from his daemon. The sense of loss hurt so much he could hardly stand it. Sweat trickled into his eyes, and he was aware of the almost constant need to touch her, speak to her, and hold her close.
He tried to concentrate. They'd had a case like this once – it had been the first case he and Tony had worked together, before that bastard Fornell had stolen it from him.
There had been a dead Marine called Paul Watson. Fornell had said the case was linked to several other crimes involving people who’d been separated from their daemons, but he hadn't given any details.
What was it Ducky had said back then? It was five years ago, but the case had been so horrific it had made a lasting impression. Ducky had said that Watson’s internal organs had been compromised by the enforced separation. People weren't supposed to live without their daemons. People *couldn’t* live for long without their daemons.
Tessa was his guiding star; his light, his soul, his inner voice – his gut. When he listened to her it always worked out so much better than when he didn’t.
He smiled as he thought about that. She had been adamant that he shouldn’t marry each and every one of his three ex-wives, but he hadn't listened. And she'd been right.
She'd been equally adamant about his feelings for Tony, and he'd been ignoring her, or laughing at her…damn it, why hadn't he listened to her? If he could have her back now, he'd listen to her. He’d hang on every word she said, and he'd do anything she asked. If only he could have her back…
Right now was when she'd usually cut into his thought process with a wry comment or a sly dig at him, and he felt that savage sensation of loss all over again, so strong it made him cry out loud. He doubled over, clutching his belly.
He tried to get his head back onto the case again, but it was hard. Why was it so difficult to concentrate? His head was fuzzy, and his mind wandered so easily.
Paul Watson…he'd been abducted, he'd been separated from his daemon, and then he'd been murdered. Was the same fate awaiting him? To be kept away from his daemon for weeks and then murdered? To never see Tessa again before he died?
What kind of a bastard would do that? It was horrific. Like pulling the wings off a fly and watching it die for the pleasure of it. He'd heard of some sick serial killers before – he’d even tracked down a few – but he'd never heard of one who killed in such an obscene way.
He heard the sound of a key turning in the door, and he struggled to his feet. He ached all over, but he was still strong; if he could somehow overpower his captor…
The door opened and something scuttled into the room. Gibbs recoiled as he found himself looking at a daemon so grotesque that it made him feel physically sick. He couldn't stop himself; he bent over and threw up all over the floor.
The daemon scuttled up the wall, moving fast, and Gibbs eyed it warily, every fibre of his being protesting. This wasn't a normal daemon. It didn't have any kind of recognizable animal shape. Instead, it looked like a whole bunch of different forms had been melted together to create an ugly, misshapen mess.
It had one black wing, like a crow, but just a claw on the other side of its body where its second wing should have been. Its head was brown and slimy, like a slug but on a much bigger scale, and emerging from it were a set of pincers, like a stag beetle. It had one normal eye, on the same side as its solitary wing – that eye was small and yellow, like a crow's eye. Its other eye was sunk deep in its slug-like flesh and was much bigger; it was white with a black centre, like a fish’s eye, and it looked cold and dead.
The daemon didn't have legs – it had some kind of little clicking, scuttling things that enabled it to move surprisingly fast. Everything about it was wrong. It was a twisted abomination of a daemon, and it looked like it had scuttled straight out of a horror movie.
Gibbs's reaction to the daemon was so strong and immediate that he barely noticed the man who had entered the room with it. Then the door was shut and locked, and he was aware of someone leaning over him.
The man looked normal enough. He was about six feet tall, with dark hair, broad shoulders, and brown eyes. If it wasn't for his misshapen daemon, you wouldn’t know how sick he was inside.
"You don't like Darsha?" The man looked up at his daemon and crooned: "He doesn't like you, Darsha!"
The daemon laughed, a strange, squawking sound, and scurried down the wall and onto the man's arm. She sat there, gazing down on Gibbs, her big eye flat and dead while the little one blinked repeatedly.
"Doesn't like me?" She spoke through a stubby, misshapen beak of a mouth, and he saw that she had two sharp canine teeth, like a dog. "Aw…shame. His daemon didn't like me either; she tried to bite me, so I had to sting her. Then she howled! She howled and howled, and I laughed and laughed!" The daemon threw back her head and cackled loudly.
Gibbs saw the small, curved scorpion's sting sticking out from the daemon's underbelly, and he felt a surge of anger that it had been used to hurt Tessa…followed swiftly by a sense of shock.
"I didn't feel anything. If you hurt Tessa then why didn't I feel anything? Where is Tessa? What have you done with her?"
"Ah…it's a terrible thing when a man loses his own soul, isn't it?" The man shook his head in mock sympathy. "Sit down, Agent Gibbs, and I'll explain everything."
He gestured in the direction of the table, but Gibbs ignored him. He wished he could think straight. It must be possible to escape. If he could just get himself together, he could fight this man, steal the key, get out of here, and go and find Tessa. She couldn’t be far away, surely? If only he could feel where she was…
"I'm sure you're thinking about escape. That would be a mistake."
The man smiled at him, and Gibbs saw, for the first time, that he had a tazer in his hand. He waved it, and Gibbs knew that he had no choice but to sit down at the table. He pushed himself away from the wall and staggered over to it.
"Who are you?" he asked as he sat down, trying to sound normal so that his captor wouldn't know how much he was hurting right now.
"My name is Hunter. Richard Hunter."
"Can I call you Dick?"
Hunter laughed. "It's funny how often they try to pretend it doesn't matter in the beginning," he said, taking a seat opposite Gibbs at the table. "By the end, they're begging to be allowed to see their daemon again, but at the beginning they try to convince themselves that they'll be okay." He leaned forward. "They're wrong. You aren't okay, Gibbs – and it only gets worse from here on in."
"Why?" Gibbs leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest, refusing to let this man see his fear and pain. "Why are you doing this?"
Hunter shrugged. "It's business."
"Someone is paying you?" Gibbs asked incredulously. "Why?"
"I'm a facilitator." Hunter gave a little grin and gently skritched his daemon on the mess of slime and feathers under her chin. She made a throaty little sound that put Gibbs's teeth on edge. "People pay me to get certain things done – I identify the right people to do them and then apply enough leverage to make them comply."
Gibbs nodded thoughtfully.
"Ah, you thought I was some kind of serial killer who got off on separating people from their daemons!"
"I wondered." Gibbs shrugged. "On that subject – where is Tessa? Is she okay?" He hated himself for asking, for giving this man any more power over him than he already had, but he had to know.
"She's fine – and you're wondering why you can't feel her." Hunter's daemon gave a delighted little whistle and rubbed her claw against the side of his head, as if skritching him back.
"Even if you're holding her some distance away, I'd still be able to feel her…but I can't. And I'm conscious, so she can't be unconscious…"
"She isn't. Many great things came out of the Cold War, Agent Gibbs. One of them was a particular substance – if painted on the walls of a prison cell where a daemon is being held, it insulates a daemon completely from the person she belongs to, so they can't feel each other."
Gibbs felt himself grow cold at the thought of Tessa being held in a prison cell. Had this bastard chained her? Was she lying there, chained up and in distress, unable to move?
"I haven't heard of this substance," he managed to growl out.
"It's got some fancy scientific name, but I like to call it Daemonite." Hunter laughed at his own joke.
Gibbs stared at him, trying to get a measure of the man holding him prisoner. Hunter was clearly insane – that much was evident just by looking at his daemon. But his daemon was also high functioning – she could talk and interact with him – so clearly Hunter was intelligent and not to be under-estimated.
"What do you want from me?"
"I thought you'd never ask." Hunter grinned. "See, I have a very specific job for you, Agent Gibbs. This is a very special commission, and, because of the difficult nature of the task, these people were prepared to pay for the very best – that's you, by the way."
"I first noticed you when you got so very close to finding me a few years ago. You remember –when you were investigating that dead Marine. You nearly caught up with me in that warehouse in Virginia. I had to shoot my way out of that one which was a little too close to comfort. I was impressed though!"
"Thanks." Gibbs inclined his head sarcastically.
"And then they gave the case over to good old Agent Fornell at the FBI, and he's good, but let's face it, not as good as you. I gave him the slip, lay low for a bit – even thought about retirement – and then this commission came along, and I couldn't refuse. The money's too good for a start – and the nature of the commission intrigued me. I knew you were the man for the job before I even accepted it."
Gibbs raised an eyebrow. "And the job is?"
Hunter gave a delighted laugh. "Ah, Agent Gibbs, this is the good part! You see, what you're going to do for me, if you ever want to see your daemon again, is to kill someone."
"I don't think so." Gibbs gave an amused grunt. "I don't kill to order."
"We both know that isn't true. You used to kill for your country. You were the best Marine sniper of…well…you were the best Marine sniper ever! I've read your service record. I even interviewed some of your old comrades – I didn't tell them why I wanted to know about you, of course. I kept Darsha hidden in a bag, and they thought I was interviewing them for a feature on your career for the NCIS magazine."
Gibbs managed a wry, mirthless laugh at that. "And of course you told them not to tell me you’d been asking questions – and they didn't because they knew how much I'd hate anyone writing an article like that about me."
"Exactly!" Hunter beamed. "I've been researching you for some time, Agent Gibbs, and I know I've got the right man for the job."
"You still haven't told me what that is." Gibbs raised an eyebrow. "Just who, exactly, am I supposed to kill?"
"Oh, that's the good part!" Hunter's daemon fluttered her one wing up and down excitedly. "You see, Agent Gibbs, the person you're going to kill – no, the person you are going to *assassinate*, is the President of the United States."
Ziva and McGee arrived first. Tony immediately ordered them to start working the area like a crime scene. They hesitated at first, and he could see their confusion at his change from annoying co-worker into hard-nosed, focused, boss, demanding their best work. He could also see they were worried about Gibbs – and, to a certain extent, lost without his firm leadership. His first job was to make them look to him for that firm leadership instead.
"Do it!" he ordered, and Shanti gave a roar that sent them scurrying into action.
Director Shepard arrived at Gibbs's house next. She swept in, her chipmunk daemon chittering away anxiously on her shoulder.
"Sit rep," she ordered, and Tony immediately told her all he knew and what he suspected. She looked concerned. Tony knew there had been some kind of relationship between her Gibbs once; but he also knew that while it was long since over for Gibbs, there was still some lingering, unfinished business on her part. Her chipmunk daemon liked to tease Tessa, and the big wolf clearly didn't appreciate that judging by the way she growled and sulked about it afterwards.
"I'll get my best team onto this," Shepard said. "I'll lead the investigation myself."
"We *are* the best team," Tony snapped at her. "And with Gibbs gone, I'm their leader. *I* will lead the investigation."
"You?" She looked torn between laughing and outrage. "You, with the overgrown kitten of a daemon who chases her own tail and dances around the squad room nosing into people's purses the whole time?"
Tony went very still, and Shanti put her head back and roared at the top of her lungs. It was deafening. Shepard put her hands over her ears and stared at Tony; she'd never seen Shanti behave as anything other than a very excitable pussy cat, and she looked astonished.
"Me," Tony told her firmly. He leaned forward. "Shanti's a lioness, Director – a gigantic lioness. That scares people, so she acts like a big kitten to seem less threatening, but that doesn’t change the fact that she's a lioness. Think about what that means."
He watched the director's face as she figured that one out. Lionesses were strong, brave, cunning, stealthy, and ruthless. They were also highly protective. Tony might well have allowed the playful side of his nature to be all that most people saw, but those who scratched the surface, like Tessa, knew the real Shanti.
"Very well. You can have the lead on this," Shepard said. "But I expect results, DiNozzo."
Tony almost laughed out loud. "This is *Gibbs*," he told her. "Do you think there's any way I'll give it less than everything I have?"
She studied him for a moment and then nodded, slowly. "I believe you. I think, Agent DiNozzo, that I might have underestimated you."
"Yeah, well, I don't blame you." Tony gave a rueful smile. "Look, Director, I've been thinking, and for some reason I keep remembering the first case I worked on with Gibbs, five years ago."
"Is something about this case similar to that one?"
"No." Tony grimaced. "It's just…more a feeling."
"You want to waste your time chasing up what could be a blind alley on a *feeling*?" Shepard raised an eyebrow, and Tony fought down a wave of frustration.
"Rule number one – always listen to your daemon," he replied, and Shanti sat up and looked the director square in the eye. "I know you don't think much of Shanti, but you don't really know her. Nobody does. Not really. Well, nobody except Gibbs."
"I've seen the way Shanti throws herself all over Tessa," Shepard said, looking irritated. "I never understood why Tessa puts up with that."
"It's a long story, and you don't know any of it," Tony said, trying to keep a lid on his temper. "Look, Shanti thinks something might have happened to Tessa, and that's why I was reminded of that Marine back at the Baltimore docks."
"Shanti *thinks* something might have happened to Tessa?" Shepard's tone was incredulous. "Based on what?"
"Based on…” Tony shook his head. There was no way he could explain this without making himself appear insane, and then Shepard would take him off the case for sure. “Look, I don't have time to explain, but Shanti knows Tessa very well, and she says that something is wrong."
"Because she can feel it? She feels there is something wrong with Tessa?" Shepard looked as if she was at least trying to understand.
Tony sighed. "No – because she *can't*." He saw Shepard's eyes widen and shook his head. "You need to trust me, Director, and I need you to order Agent Fornell from the FBI to get his ass over here and to bring everything he has on Paul Watson and any other similar cases he's investigated."
Shepard opened her mouth, looking as if she was about to protest, but Tony turned away from her purposefully and strode back over to his team.
"Now, Director!" he snapped as he went. Shanti stood up on her hind legs and gave another loud roar before following him.
Two hours later, Agent Fornell was on the doorstep with a box full of files.
Gibbs wrapped his arms around his body, trying to get warm. Hunter had left him here, alone in the dark, to consider his next move.
There was no way he was going to assassinate the president of all people, even if it meant he got to see Tessa again – and he was pretty damn sure that wouldn't happen. No, once his usefulness was over Hunter would kill him – just like he'd killed Paul Watson.
Although it didn't make sense that he'd killed Watson and left his body in such a public place, out on the docks for anyone to just stumble across. Hunter struck him as someone who laid meticulous plans, and that didn't fit his modus operandi. Something was wrong about it, and he knew if Tessa was here he'd be able to identify what, but she wasn't and his brain wasn't working the way it should. The constant, searing pain didn’t make concentrating easy. He wished the aching sensation would subside for just a few seconds, but instead it seemed to get worse the longer he was separated from her.
Ducky had said that after prolonged separation from their daemons, people became highly suggestible. Was that what had happened to Watson? Had he started out defiant, but eventually caved in and agreed to carry out whatever crime Hunter had told him to commit?
Gibbs shivered. He couldn't imagine that happening to him, but he already felt terrible. How would he feel in a week's time? Or two? Would he be ready to cave then?
Damn it, he needed Tessa. Whenever he thought about her, he felt a wave of intense anguish that made him want to howl. He needed her. He couldn't figure out any of this on his own; he felt adrift.
He raised his hand and gazed at it to reassure himself that he was solid flesh. He felt like a ghost, pale and without substance.
What was he without her? Who was he? She had always been here, by his side, his confidante and best friend. She was wise and calm – she soothed him when he got angry and counseled him when he was troubled. He didn't know what to think now she was gone. How could he trust himself to get it right without her?
She was his gut instinct and his touchstone.
He was lost without her.
“What the hell happened?” Tony growled at Fornell as they strode into the squad room. “When you took this case off us you said it was because you had better resources, that this case was linked to other cases, and that you had leads, damn it!”
He dumped the box of case files he was carrying on the floor beside his desk and looked up. Fornell appeared shaken, and his fox daemon slunk away from Shanti miserably.
“We did have leads!” Fornell protested. “But after Watson, this bastard just vanished. There were no more disappearances and no more reports of people being separated from their daemons. The trail went cold.”
“What does this bastard want?” Tony asked. “Is he a serial killer? Is he getting off on the power trip?”
“He’s not a serial killer in the accepted sense of the term, but is he getting off the power trip? You bet,” Fornell said grimly. “But he’s not doing this just for kicks, DiNozzo.” Fornell took a file out of the box and threw it on the desk. “Paul Watson – he was a Marine sniper, just like Gibbs. And he was a good man. He sure as hell wasn’t a cold-blooded killer. But look here.” He pointed to a grainy image, clearly taken from a security camera. “This was taken the day before Watson’s body was found.”
Tony gazed at the photograph searchingly. It showed Watson, looking pale and gaunt, his face haggard and his eyes shadowed with pain. He was walking into a building – and his daemon wasn’t with him.
“What am I looking at?” Tony demanded.
“A woman was shot from that building. She worked in the law firm office opposite.”
“You think Watson killed her?”
“Yes. She was the lead attorney on a case that was about to come to court. We think someone paid to have her killed – but it was Watson who was forced to actually do the killing.”
Tony looked up. “This bastard kidnapped Gibbs because he wants him to kill someone?” Shanti gave an appalled roar.
Fornell gave a grim nod and got out another file. “Sean Williams. He was a security specialist. He broke into a bank in 1998 and got away with $5 million. It was completely out of character – but people in the bank at the time reported that they couldn't see his daemon, and he kept talking to himself, like he'd gone insane. He disappeared immediately after the bank raid and nobody saw him again until his body turned up three years later. It was well hidden – and would have stayed that way if it wasn’t for a new road they started digging through a field. And this one.” He threw another file on the desk.
“Janine Petrowski. She worked in the restaurant where Senator Taylor was poisoned back in 1995. She went missing a week before it happened, then showed up for work looking ill and refusing to say where she’d been. She had a mouse daemon which she said was in her pocket, but he used to be a friendly, interactive kind of daemon, and nobody ever saw him again when she returned. She only returned for half a day; after the senator died she disappeared too. We never found her body. ”
“Gibbs won’t do it,” Tony said firmly. “I don’t care what this bastard does to him. Gibbs won’t kill anyone for him.”
“Can you be sure?” Fornell asked. “Can any of us be sure if it comes to that, DiNozzo? If you were separated from your daemon, how long do you think you’d last?”
Tony found his hand going automatically to Shanti’s head. He couldn’t imagine Gibbs without Tessa by his side. It hurt to even think about it. He thought of that limping, sullen young man he’d met all those years ago, and Tessa was an integral part of that memory. She was a vital part of what made Gibbs…Gibbs.
“I don’t know,” he replied to Fornell’s question. “But this is Gibbs we’re talking about. He won’t give in without a fight.”
“But he will give in,” Fornell said quietly. He pointed to the files spread out on the desk in front of them. “They always do.”
"So…have you had enough time to think?" Hunter entered the room, and Darsha flapped and scuttled her way over to where Gibbs was lying on the mattress. "It's been over a week, Gibbs. That's more time than is usually required, but I knew you'd need more. I factored that into my plans. You're a very strong-willed individual; I knew you’d be tough to break."
Gibbs blinked at him, trying to remember who this man was and what he wanted from him. Darsha began climbing up his leg, her claw digging into his pants.
"She could be your daemon, if you want," Hunter said. "Would you like that, Gibbs? You must be missing your daemon by now. Surely any daemon would do? Darsha is a very good daemon."
Gibbs looked down on the strange, twisted daemon clambering on him. There was something about her that he used to find repulsive, but he wasn't sure what that was now. He just wanted his daemon back.
"Would you like to touch her? Would you like to feel her touching your bare skin?" Hunter smiled at him. "I'll let you do that, Gibbs, if you just agree to take on this job I have for you. I need a man with your skill, you see – a trained sniper who always hits his target."
Hunter crouched down in front of him and stroked his sweat streaked hair away from his face. Gibbs flinched instinctively. He didn’t like being touched; at least he remembered that much about himself.
"I know it's hard for you to focus, isn't it? It's hard for you to remember things. But one thing you do remember is that you're a sniper. You know that because it's not what you are, it's *who* you are. It's the lone wolf in you – I read somewhere that nearly half of all snipers have wolf daemons."
"Wolf daemon? T…Tes…" He couldn't remember her name. He could remember the softness of her fur against his fingers, and the brush of her whiskers on his face when he leaned down to talk to her, but he didn't know what she was called. Had she even belonged to him? Or was it the other way around? Did he belong to her?
“The wolf has gone. Don’t think about her. You have another daemon now – someone better suited to you. See – this is Darsha. She’s your new daemon.”
Gibbs blinked, trying to focus. He missed his daemon. He ached for her. He wanted to touch her, and hold her, and talk to her.
“That’s right,” Hunter cooed in his ear. “You can have Darsha. She can be your daemon now.”
Darsha’s yellow eye gleamed in the darkness. She climbed up his shirt and then reached out with her claw to touch his face.
Gibbs got a glimpse of something so repulsive that it made him howl. He brushed the foul creature away from him in horror. He was still howling as he struggled to his feet and kicked her across the room. Then he sank back down on the floor, panting from the brief moment of exertion.
Hunter and Darsha both screamed at the same time, the shrill sound piercing his aching head. Hunter ran across the room and rescued his daemon. He tucked her into his shirt, crooning to her as he rubbed her belly. Then he returned to Gibbs’s side, and Darsha poked her ugly, misshapen head out from Hunter’s shirt and hissed at him.
“Keep that stinking, piss poor excuse for a daemon away from me,” Gibbs growled.
“You’re not a wolf, you’re just a fucking dog!” Hunter snapped. “A mutt. A cur. You’re nothing, Gibbs. You don’t even have your own daemon!”
He grabbed a handful of Gibbs’s hair and slapped his face repeatedly, yelling at him the entire time. Gibbs fought back as best he could, but the constant pain had sapped his strength, and he didn’t have it in him to put up much of a struggle. He collapsed, and then all he could do was endure the blows as they rained down on him. It hurt, but not as much as being separated from Tessa.
Tessa. That was her name. His beautiful Tessa.
“You can’t take her from me,” he told Hunter. “I won’t forget her name again. I’ll keep her here, inside me.” He pointed at his chest, blinking the sweat out of his eyes as he gazed up at his captor.
Hunter released his grip on his hair and threw him back down onto the floor.
“Oh, you’ll forget her. In another few days you won’t even remember her name. I own you now, Gibbs.” He gestured to Darsha. “*We* own you.”
He laughed out loud, and he was still laughing as he left the room, locking the door behind him.
Gibbs wrapped his arms around his body and held himself tight. He rocked himself like he’d once rocked a newborn baby to sleep many years ago.
“Tessa." He said her name over and over again. “Tessa…Tessa…Tessa….”
He had to hang onto her. He couldn’t let himself forget who he was.
Tony sat at Gibbs’s desk trying to think, hoping to get inspiration from sitting where Gibbs usually sat.
Gibbs had been missing for nearly two weeks, and every single lead they chased down led to a dead end. There had to be something in these files Fornell had given him, but he'd been through them all, over and over again, and if there was, he couldn't see it.
"You need to get some rest," Shanti told him.
He'd barely done more than catnap since this nightmare began, but he couldn't sleep. Not when Gibbs was out there, being held captive…and not when Tessa was so incredibly absent. It was that part of this puzzle that brought him out in cold sweats. Gibbs was tough – he could handle all kinds of physical pain, but separation from his daemon? Who could withstand that? Wherever Gibbs was, Tony was absolutely sure that he was enduring the worst kind of torture possible.
"Not yet," he told Shanti, soothing her head gently with his hand. "There must be something here. Something we’ve missed."
His gaze fell on the members of his team. McGee was sitting at his desk, his head resting on his hands, snoring gently. His squirrel daemon was slumbering beside him, resting her sweet little head on his shoulder. Ziva was lying on the floor behind her desk, fast asleep. Who knew where her daemon was? Tony had never even caught a glimpse of him. He had to be small enough that he could hide somewhere in her clothes, but Tony had no idea what form he took.
Abby was sitting in his chair, dozing fitfully, her monkey daemon muttering uneasily as he slept beside her. And he knew that Ducky was down in Autopsy, fretting and waiting for news, Morag flying anxiously around the room. His new assistant, Jimmy Palmer, and his badger daemon Phyllis were with him at least, so the ME wasn't alone.
How could someone disappear so completely? And why couldn't he feel what Gibbs was feeling, the way he'd been doing since he was eight years old? Why?
Gibbs sat up when the door opened. He didn’t like it when the door opened. He wasn’t sure why, but he knew bad things happened when that door opened.
A shadow fell over him, and he looked up at the man who sometimes visited him. The man’s daemon scuttled over to him and looked at him from one blank, dead eye, and one beady yellow eye. Gibbs cringed away from her.
“Don’t you recognize your own daemon?” the man asked derisively. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
Gibbs stared at the creature in front of him. “She’s mine?” he whispered. “She’s my daemon?”
“That’s right. She’s the only daemon you’ve got now.”
Gibbs shook his head. He didn’t recognize her as any part of him. He didn’t think she could be a part of him. “I don’t think she’s mine,” he said hoarsely.
The man crouched down beside him. “Oh, she’s yours. Look around you – do you see any other daemons in here?”
Gibbs looked around. The man was right – she was the only daemon here. “No,” he whispered. “Just her.”
“Then she must be your daemon.”
It did make sense. Gibbs watched as the daemon scuttled closer. He was so lonely. He ached to have a daemon. Maybe the man was right, and she was his.
"Are you a sniper, Marine?" the man barked authoritatively, and Gibbs felt an old certainty kicking in.
"Yes, *sir*!" he replied. "I'm a sniper, sir."
"And do you follow orders, Marine!"
"Yes sir. I follow orders."
The man looming over him didn't look like Major Ryan, but Gibbs wasn't sure of anything right now, so he might be wrong.
"Your daemon has an order for you, Marine." The man gestured with his hand, and the daemon slowly crawled up his leg and then onto his chest. She was dark, and the wrong size and shape, but the man had said she was his daemon. Maybe she was… What was her name?
"Tasha? Dessa?" he whispered, looking down on her. Was she really his? He wished he knew.
Suddenly the daemon reached out with her claw and grabbed his chin. He screamed as his bare skin came into contact with her for the first time. A black shadow swept through his mind and a swirling pit of fetid darkness opened up in front of him. He had been touched by something so repulsive that he could hardly breathe. He wanted to pull her off and throw her across the room, but she was his daemon, wasn’t she? He couldn’t do that to his own daemon.
"Good. There, see, she can be your daemon too. We can share her," the man said soothingly.
The daemon moved her claw and fastened it around his throat. In his mind’s eye he saw himself as a wolf, and this daemon had put a spiked collar around his neck and pulled it tight. He struggled against that tight band around his throat, trying to rip it away.
The man loomed over him, grinning. "Wolves are just wild dogs you know, Gibbs. All you have to do is put a collar on one and tame it, and it will do whatever you say. Now, are you ready to obey me?"
Gibbs tried to pull away, but the daemon tightened her grip, bruising his throat.
"You will obey me. You’re going to do whatever I say," the man insisted.
"Whatever he says," the daemon echoed, her voice halfway between a cackle and a squawk.
"Yes?" the man said, and that tightness around Gibbs's throat intensified to the point where he couldn't breathe.
"Yes!" Gibbs gasped finally. "Yes."
Only then did the pressure ease, and he rolled onto all fours, panting and gasping for breath.
"That's good. A few days of this and our big, bad wolf will be a tame puppy dog, eager to do our bidding."
The man straightened up and held out his arm, and the daemon scrambled onto it and scuttled up to sit on his shoulder. Gibbs felt as if a terrible weight had been lifted from him, and yet he ached all the same. He ached for a daemon. He wanted his daemon so much.
He lifted his head and gazed at the dark, twisted creature sitting on the man's shoulder.
"Are you really mine?" he asked her blankly.
She laughed and flapped her wing energetically. "No, you're mine!" she crowed. “You’re mine! You’re mine!” The man laughed and petted her, crooning to her, and then he turned and left the room, taking her with him.
And Gibbs was alone again.
The answer lay at the Baltimore docks; Tony was sure of it. He'd been to the warehouse in Fairfax where they were shot at five years ago, but found nothing. He'd been to a dozen different places following the leads in Fornell's files, but still nothing.
He'd even been back to the docks once already, but he was sure he must have missed something. The answer had to be there; Shanti was convinced of it.
"It's just a feeling," she told him. "But I can't shake it." She looked tired; her fur was coarse and her eyes dull. He knew that she was as exhausted as he was.
It had now been nearly three weeks since Gibbs had first disappeared, and they were running out of time. Paul Watson had been found dead two weeks after he went missing; Gibbs surely didn't have much longer.
Tony had given his team the night off to catch up on some sleep. They were all dead on their feet. He was too, but he couldn't sleep for more than an hour or so at a time. Not when Gibbs was out there, suffering who knew what kind of torture.
"I miss him," Tony told Shanti as he drove to the docks. "All these years I've known he was there…he was always with me, even when I didn’t see him for years on end. It’s been that way ever since that night at the motel room, and now he's gone. I can't feel that link we used to share – I didn't even realize it was such an everyday presence until it wasn’t there anymore."
"It wasn't always that way," Shanti said softly. "It grew that way when we saw him every day, and when he started to fall in love with you."
"At least he wasn't in love with me when I was eight years old." Tony managed a wry smile at her. "That would be freaky." He’d stopped arguing with her about whether Gibbs was in love with him. Rule number one seemed more important than ever now, and if she said he was then maybe he was.
"No…he always loved you, but I think he fell *in love* with you much later. I don't believe that there was a moment. I think it was just a gradual expansion of something that was already there; something already soul deep."
"I'll take your word for it," Tony said. "I never saw it myself."
"You saw it every day – whenever I sat close to Tessa, and she didn't growl at me to leave."
It was dark when he pulled up at the docks, and it was cold, but at least it wasn't snowing. He smiled as he remembered that night five years ago, when he'd met up with Gibbs again.
Watson's body had been over here, beneath the lamp post…
"Which is kind of weird, isn't it?" Shanti said. "To be out here, for anyone to see…and with the sea so close. Why not just dump the body in the water?"
"Maybe he wanted us to see it, whoever this bastard is," Tony said, glancing around.
There were buildings, containment crates, warehouses, boats…all the things you'd expect to see at the docks.
"Fornell said that our perp kidnaps people and makes them commit crimes against their will by forcibly separating them from their daemon," Tony mused out loud. He knew the details of the case backwards, but saying it aloud might help him make a new connection.
"So he might be holding Tessa miles away from wherever he is holding Jethro," Shanti said.
“Yeah. That's my guess." Tony shuddered. He could still remember that night he'd spent along the hallway from her when he was at boarding school, locked away from her behind closed doors. How could anyone stand two weeks of that? It didn’t bear thinking about.
"I am here." She nudged his hand reassuringly with her head, but that just served to remind Tony that Gibbs didn't have that kind of comfort right now.
And how would Tessa be feeling? She had to be distraught. He remembered how Shanti had roared for hours on end that night they'd been kept apart. Had Tessa been howling for the past two weeks?
"Are you ready?" The man – was his name Hunt? Or Hunter maybe? – had brought his daemon to see him again. She clawed her way up his body and sat on his shoulder. It felt strange. Some people had daemons who sat on their shoulders, but he didn't remember being one of them. He didn't really like the way she felt, sitting there. He didn't like being touched.
"Ready for what?" Gibbs frowned. He couldn't seem to hold onto anything in his head for very long now. He hurt so much, and most of the time that was all he could think about. Every so often he'd feel a sensation of such wretched, aching loss that he vomited, but he didn't know what he'd lost or why he mourned for it so.
"To do your job, Marine! You're a sniper, aren't you?" Hunter looked at him from a pair of cold brown eyes.
Gibbs nodded."Yes sir!"
"Good. Then here are your instructions. You'll find the rifle waiting for you in the car. Then you go here." Hunter pointed to an address. "Go here and take up position. They'll let you in. Here's your badge. Remember that you're a federal agent."
"Yes, sir. A federal agent." Gibbs nodded and took the badge.
"When the president comes into sight, you shoot. One shot to the forehead – nothing sloppy. Take her out with one clean shot."
"A female president – it isn't right." Hunter shook his head. "Some people are very unhappy about it – and you are going to put that right, Gibbs. You're going to make those unhappy people very happy indeed. Understand?"
“When you’ve completed your assignment, I’ll come and pick you up. Then you can be reunited with your daemon.”
His daemon…wasn’t this his daemon, sitting here on his shoulder? Or did he have a different daemon? He felt so confused. He had a vague recollection of a big wolf, loping by his side.
“Tessa?” he whispered, and that name seemed to come from deep within, as if he’d been hanging onto it, desperately trying not to let it go.
“That’s right…Tessa. She’s your real daemon. Darsha has been standing in for her because you were so lonely. But when you’ve completed your task, you can see your real daemon again.”
“I can see Tessa?” Gibbs felt a surge of such longing that it almost brought him to his knees.
“Yes. I promise. Now…one more thing…” Hunter took out a syringe, and injected something into Gibbs’s neck. “GPS transmitter.” Gibbs put up his hand and felt the little bump under his skin. “So I know where you are at any time. It stops transmitting if exposed to the air, so don’t try and cut it out.”
“Just go and do your job. If you fail, or if you deviate from the instructions I’ve given you, then Tessa will suffer for your mistakes. And I’ll be sure to remove her from her insulated room first – so that you can feel every single thing I do to her.” Hunter gave him another one of those twisted smiles. “Understand?”
Gibbs put the badge and note of instructions into his pocket. "Yes sir. I understand. I'm ready to do my job as ordered, sir.” He gave Hunter a sharp salute.
“Good. One final thing – just so you won’t know where you’ve been staying these past two weeks.”
Another syringe, another sharp, stinging sensation in his neck…and then darkness.
“There’s nothing here.” Tony turned to go back to his car. “I just get the feeling I’m missing something.”
“I feel it too.” Shanti gave a little shiver and ran to catch up with him. She was never far away from him these days. Ever since Gibbs’s disappearance she was always within touching distance, and he knew why.
“Nobody will get you,” he promised her.
“I couldn’t survive without you.” She rubbed her head against his leg. “I hope Tessa is stronger than me.”
“You’re strong. Tessa is too. We will find them,” Tony said, but he wasn’t sure he believed it anymore.
He cast one last glance around the docks, and then he and Shanti got into the car, and he drove away.
When Gibbs woke up, he was sitting in a car parked on a grocery store parking lot. There was a map on the seat beside him, showing him where he was supposed to go.
He picked it up and looked at it. He knew he was supposed to drive there, but…he didn’t want to. Beads of sweat started to slide down his face. He’d been told to do this. His daemon had told him…no, not his daemon…the other man’s daemon…the daemon they shared. How was that even possible?
He glanced over his shoulder. On the seat behind him, in a case, was a rifle. He opened up the case and gazed at the rifle.
“She’s beautiful,” he said.
“Yes,” he replied to himself. “Very beautiful.”
If he talked to himself he felt less alone, as if he had a daemon. “This is what you’ll use to shoot the president,” he told himself.
He put the car into gear and drove out of the parking lot at high speed, amid the sound of screeching tyres.
“Like hell I will,” he replied.
“Where now?” Shanti asked as they drove off into the night.
“I don’t know. Where else is left?” Tony asked her wearily. He was too tired to think straight. He’d done everything he could think of, left no stone unturned, and he still couldn’t find Gibbs. He’d failed.
“Home,” she said.
“Home then.” He took the next turning on autopilot.
Gibbs didn’t know where he was going. He just knew he wasn’t damn well going where he’d been told.
A beeping sound startled him, and he looked around for the source of the noise. It seemed to be a phone, and the car answered the call automatically.
“Gibbs – you’re not following the route I marked out for you,” a familiar voice said.
Gibbs slammed on the brakes. “No sir.”
“You need to turn around and go back.”
“Yes sir.” Gibbs gripped the steering wheel hard. “I’ll do that. I’ll turn around and go back.”
“Good. Do it. Now.” The call ended.
Gibbs gazed at the road ahead and brushed the sweat off his forehead with his arm. It was hard to know what to do. He’d been told to do something, so why didn’t he do it?
He caught a sudden glimpse of himself in the mirror and stared, horrified. The man in the mirror had wild, silver hair and a shaggy, grey beard. His face was haggard, his skin pale and paper thin. His eyes were red rimmed and staring, only a shade away from madness.
Was that him? It didn’t look like him. He didn’t remember looking like this. Who the hell was this man staring back at him?
“That’s not me. Need to find me.”
He didn’t turn the car around. He carried on driving the way he’d been headed.
Tony parked the car, and Shanti lifted her head blearily and looked out through the window. “This isn’t your apartment building,” she said.
“It isn’t?” Tony frowned, blinking away the tiredness.
“No. It is home though,” Shanti said.
Somehow he’d driven to Gibbs’s house without even realizing it.
“Yes. It is home,” he murmured.
He went inside and wearily climbed the stairs, heading for the bedroom. He was too tired right now to do anything but sleep.
He got into Gibbs’s bed, and Shanti curled up beside him. He could smell Gibbs’s scent still clinging to the sheets and it both hurt and comforted him at the same time. He buried his face in Shanti’s fur and fell asleep.
Gibbs pulled up somewhere – he didn’t know where, just that it was where he wanted to be. Now that he was away from that man's nightmarish daemon he had a clearer sense of himself. The phone in the car beeped again just before he turned the engine off.
“You’ve disobeyed me,” that same voice said.
“Yes.” He gazed at the stranger in the mirror, and the stranger gazed back at him from those haunted, red-rimmed eyes.
“Turn around – if you don’t obey me, I will go to where I’m holding your daemon, and I’ll hurt her. Now do as I say.”
“Yes,” Gibbs replied blankly. “I’ll do as you say.” The phone went dead again.
“You must obey him," he told himself.
"No," he replied. "That isn't what Tessa would say." She might not be here, but he knew what she would say.
"Damn it, if you don't do as he asks, he’ll torture her!”
Gibbs paused, his hand on the door. He thought of Tessa, lying in some prison cell somewhere far away, her coat matted and her eyes dull with pain. Tessa meant everything to him. He'd do anything to spare her pain…anything except kill an innocent person. Tessa would hate him forever if he did that for her. She didn't need to be here for him to know that.
Gibbs opened the car door and got out. He walked unsteadily up a driveway and then opened a front door. He knew this place. He could walk through this place in his sleep.
He walked along to the end of the hallway and opened a door and then walked slowly down the stairs and into the basement. He placed his hands on the solid wood of a half-built boat.
He remembered this place.
It was his home.
Tony awoke with a start, hearing a noise somewhere downstairs. Shanti raised her head, her ears flicking back and forth.
“Ssh.” Tony put a finger over his mouth and silently rolled out of the bed. He picked up the gun he’d left on the night stand when he’d crawled into bed an hour or so ago.
He padded silently to the door and out into the hallway and then tiptoed just as silently down the stairs. He paused when he reached the bottom. The door at the end of the hallway, the one leading to the basement, was wide open – and it hadn’t been when he’d got here.
He was about to move towards it when Shanti nudged his hand with her head. He looked down.
“There is something terrible in there,” she told him, her ears whirring nervously.
“Then we will face it together,” he said calmly. She was his strength and his courage; he would not falter with her by his side.
They walked stealthily towards the door, and then Tony hurled himself inside, gun raised.
“Come out, whoever the hell you are,” he said, walking slowly down the stairs. “I know you’re here.”
There was a noise from under the boat, and then someone crawled out from under it. Tony stared, horrified.
It was a man. It was a man who looked like Gibbs, but also not like Gibbs. His face was bruised, and he had a straggly beard and wild, red-rimmed eyes, but that wasn’t what was so horrifying about him.
“He has no daemon,” Shanti said, shuddering violently. "Tessa is not with him."
It was wrong. It was an abomination. It was so horrific that it made Tony want to throw up. He forced those visceral emotions aside; this was still *Gibbs*, no matter what had been done to him. None of this was his fault.
“Hey…ssh…it’s okay…” Tony put his gun away and approached the wildly staring man in front of him, talking to him softly, trying not to startle him. “It’s okay, Jethro. It’s me…it’s Tony. You’re safe now.”
He reached out a hand, knowing that was a long way from being true.
“Tony?” He thought he saw a glimmer of recognition in Gibbs’s eyes, but it was like looking at a stranger. It was as if Gibbs wasn’t *in* there – or if he was, he was hanging on by a thread.
“Tony,” he repeated.
Gibbs gazed at him blankly. “I…don’t remember,” he said hoarsely. “I don’t know who I am. He took Tessa, Tony.” He sounded so broken that Tony ached for him.
“I know, Jethro. I know. Here.”
He moved closer, his hand still outstretched, and Gibbs flinched away from him as if expecting a blow. Judging by those bruises on his face, that was a reasonable assumption on his part.
Tony approached him slowly, as if he was a wild animal, letting Gibbs see that he wasn’t going to harm him. Finally he got close enough to touch, and he felt Gibbs tremble as he gently placed a hand on his arm.
“She’s gone,” Gibbs whispered. “Tessa’s gone.” He suddenly threw back his head and gave a desolate howl, and Tony’s heart almost broke at the sound. Gibbs was obviously completely inconsolable, and Tony wasn’t sure how to help.
He had an idea, and he gently touched Gibbs’s shoulder. Gibbs stopped howling and gazed at him blearily.
“Come here.” Tony took hold of Gibbs’s hand and led him over to Shanti. “Will this be okay?” he whispered to her.
She looked at him helplessly. “I don’t know…but we have to try.”
He nodded at her, and she nudged her head deliberately against Gibbs’s bare hand. As they touched, Tony felt an immediate wrenching sensation, and he was overwhelmed by a feeling of such devastating loss that he didn’t think he could bear it.
Gibbs sank to the floor on his knees, placed his hands on Shanti’s head, and traced his fingers over her face.
“Shanti…?” he whispered. “Shanti? Is it you?”
“It is me.” She rubbed her face gently against his.
Gibbs collapsed against her, his body wracked by silent sobs. “Shanti…Tessa…Shanti…” he said, in a hoarse, strained, utterly un-Gibbs like voice. He buried his face in her fur. “Please…help me.”
Tony couldn’t bear it. He knelt down beside them, took Gibbs into his arms, and held him tight. Gibbs was skin and bone, and his body was shaking violently.
“I will find her,” Tony hissed fiercely into Gibbs’s ear. “I will find Tessa. And I’ll find whoever did this to you, and I will make him pay. I promise, Jethro. I promise.”
Everything was a blur. He was aware of people arriving – a doctor who blinked at him owlishly from behind his spectacles, and a pretty girl with pigtails and worried green eyes who held his hand like he was a child while her monkey daemon crooned at him anxiously.
Through it all he would not relinquish his hold on Shanti. She was his lifeline. She wasn't his own dear Tessa, but she was the next best thing. When he was touching her he felt the intense aching in his body abate a little, giving him some respite after weeks of agony.
Now that he was away from Darsha he could see how hideously warped that daemon had been, and he felt nothing but revulsion whenever he thought about her.
Shanti buried her face in the crook of his neck, her body warm and solid, pressed close to his. She was like coming home. She was love, and home, and family; she was pack.
"Pride," she said, and he thought he should be surprised that she could hear his thoughts as if she was his real daemon, but he was too sick to be surprised by anything right now.
"Pride?" he croaked.
"Wolves have packs. Lions have prides." She nuzzled his neck, and he hugged her tight.
The pretty girl gasped. "Tony – he's touching Shanti with his bare hands! Doesn't that make you feel ill?"
"No," Tony replied quietly. "He's done it before, Abby, and it's fine. Shanti doesn't mind. I don't mind."
"But it's…" she began, only to be hushed by the man with the owl daemon.
"Ssh, my dear. There are forces at work here that we don't fully understand. Looking back, I think that might always have been the case."
Shanti's presence was helping to clear his head and…maybe, if he’d had one, soothe his soul. But he didn’t have a soul anymore. He didn’t know what he was anymore. What was a man without a soul?
"What's the prognosis, Ducky?" Tony asked as the doctor bustled around him, checking him over.
"He really is in a very poor way. I'm surprised he's even alive to be honest. I've called for an ambulance; we must get him to the hospital, but really the only thing that will save him is if we can find Tessa and return her to him."
"Oh, I intend to do just that, Ducky."
Someone loomed over him, and Gibbs blinked blearily. It was Shanti…no, it was Tony…Gibbs shook his head, trying to clear his blurred vision. In front of him stood a man with the faint, see-through outline of a giant lioness visible inside his body.
He’d never really thought about daemons before. They just were – a fact of everyday life, like breathing and eating. Now he thought he saw a deeper truth in the blurred merging of Tony and Shanti in the man standing in front of him.
Shanti was the essence of Tony. She was his soul, his gut, his inner self – just as Tessa was of him. You couldn't divide a person from their daemon – they were an integral part of each other.
So what did that make him? Looking into the eyes of the people gazing down at him he saw the answer; he was an abomination, something ugly, twisted, and deformed. When they looked at him they recoiled, just as he had once recoiled from the obscenity that was Darsha.
"Jethro – do you have any idea where he's holding Tessa?" Tony asked.
Gibbs shook his head.
"Why are you calling him Jethro?" Abby asked.
"Because that's who he is – if I called him Leroy, or even Gibbs, I doubt he'd even know who that is right now," Tony told her. "He's lost almost every sense of himself, but he's still got some inner core that is *him*."
"He most certainly has." Ducky turned from where he was talking to an earnest young man with a squirrel daemon hiding under his shirt. The little squirrel looked petrified and kept peeking out to look at Gibbs and then hiding away again. Gibbs didn't blame her. Even he wanted to turn away from himself right now.
Ducky went over to Tony."Timothy and Ziva have just finished searching the car Gibbs drove to get here. Ziva has remained outside to guard the vehicle, but Timothy thought you should see this." He handed Tony a piece of paper. "I believe this was the task Gibbs was sent to perform. There was also a rifle in the car."
Tony read the piece of paper and then turned to look at Gibbs, an expression of shock on his face.
"He wanted you to kill the president? Shit, Jethro. How the hell did he expect you to do that?"
"Oh, I think that's the wrong question." Ducky shook his head, his owl daemon staring at Gibbs keenly. "I think we should be asking, after all that's been done to him, how on earth he managed to find the strength to defy his captor."
"That's the easy part," Tony said firmly. "He's Gibbs. Even without Tessa, he's got a strong sense of himself. He once told me he's 'kinda definite'. I think probably *only* Gibbs could have survived what he went through and still come out with some sense of himself still intact."
"None of the other victims resisted their orders," the man with the squirrel daemon offered nervously. "It was all in the files Fornell gave us. They all carried out the tasks he gave them. Not a single one refused – except Gibbs."
"But if Gibbs came here instead of following his orders, then that means….” Abby looked at Tony, a worried expression in her eyes.
Gibbs tried to sit up while still keeping his arms around Shanti. "He put a tracker in me. He knows I'm not following his orders,” he rasped. “He said he was going to go and torture Tessa until I complete the task he gave me."
Ducky looked appalled, and his owl daemon flapped her wings in an agitated fashion. "My dear boy, your body is already in shock. You simply cannot withstand…"
He was shoved out of the way, and Tony was there again, part man part lion, hazy and fuzzy around the edges.
"Jethro – Shanti hasn't been able to feel Tessa since you were captured, and I don't believe you have, either – I think that's all part of what he’s done to you. Yes?"
Gibbs managed to nod.
"Is that even possible?" Abby asked, her monkey daemon curling his arms around her neck and holding on tight.
"It most certainly *is* possible, yes, my dear," Ducky replied. "There were experiments during the Cold War with a certain substance which, when painted on the wall, could stop a person from being able to feel their daemon. The really fascinating thing about this experiment…"
"That's not important now," Tony interrupted, turning back to Gibbs. "There's no point this bastard torturing Tessa to secure your obedience unless you can feel her pain. That means he has to bring her out of where he's been keeping her, so that you can feel her."
Gibbs nodded, trying to remember just what Hunter had said.
"Good." Tony stood up.
"Good? How can that possibly be good?" Ducky asked.
"Because when Tessa is out of that specially painted room, then Shanti will feel her – and that will guide us to her," Tony replied.
Ducky looked astonished. "But how on earth can Shanti 'feel' her?"
"It's a long story," Tony said sharply. "Look, Jethro – I need to narrow this down, get us a head start, because if Tessa is a long way from here then by the time we get there, you could be dead from the torture. Did that bastard give you any clue – anything at all – as to where he was holding her?"
Gibbs tried to think, but his mind was a mess and his thoughts kept slipping away from him.
"Courage," Shanti said, pressing her head against his cheek. He rallied for a moment, trying to remember what had bugged him about this case so much from the beginning.
"Paul Watson," he rasped out at last. "Why…leave him there…out in the open?"
Tony nodded slowly. “You’re right. It makes no sense – and it doesn’t fit the MO of the other crimes.” Tony clicked his fingers in the air. "Okay – how about this? Watson completed his task, but he didn't believe he'd be allowed to see his daemon again. He knew his usefulness was over, and he thought he'd be killed. So he gave the perp the slip and managed to follow him back to where he was holding his daemon.” Tony clicked his fingers again excitedly. “Watson was trying to reach his daemon when he was killed!"
"Hunter realized he was being followed…so he overpowered Watson…managed to tie his hands…" Gibbs said, struggling to focus. He could do this. Solving crimes was what he did; it was what he’d been doing for years. He could damn well solve this one. "Hunter was going to take him somewhere quiet, kill him, and maybe dump his body in the water…"
"But Watson made a run for it.” Tony took over, bouncing off him, just like he always did. “There were too many people close by, and Hunter knew he could be discovered at any moment, so he stabbed Watson and got the hell out of there. It was sloppy – not his style at all – but he didn't have a choice. Damn it – if Fornell hadn't forced us to give up this case all those years ago, we would have figured all this out back then."
Tony crouched down beside him and began talking to him in a low, urgent tone. "Baltimore docks – that’s where we found Watson, and I’m betting that's where this bastard is holding Tessa. I always knew the docks were the key to this whole puzzle. I'm going there now, but I have to take Shanti with me, Jethro, so you gotta let her go."
"No!" Gibbs wrapped his arms even more tightly around Shanti's neck. He'd only just been reunited with her – he couldn't let her go so soon.
"You have to."
Gibbs remembered an excitable puppy running through the woods, and a lioness that scampered around the squad room like a playful, annoying kitten. But all traces of those past daemons were gone now. Instead, a strong, dignified, ruthless daemon had taken their place.
Shanti touched her nose against his and then pulled herself away from his embrace. He was distracted from the shock of losing her by the way she sat back on her haunches, turned her face upwards, and roared so loudly that the entire house shook.
It was the roar of a lioness about to go hunting, and a declaration of intent from a daemon inhabiting every aspect of her true self.
"Get him to the hospital, Ducky," Tony ordered. "Abby – stay with him. Do NOT leave him alone. McGee – he mentioned someone called 'Hunter' – get me all the information you can on whoever the hell that is. Jethro…” Tony crouched down in front of him and took his face between his hands, making Gibbs look into his determined green eyes. “Hang on in there. I'm going to find Tessa, and I WILL bring her home."
Tony ran out to his car, called Ziva to get in, and drove off at high speed.
"Where are we going?" Ziva asked, hanging onto the door. Tony felt a certain grim satisfaction about the fact that he was terrorizing her with his driving for once, instead of the other way around.
"Baltimore docks. We don't have much time."
"I…" Ziva hesitated. "I want to apologise, Tony.”
"What the hell for?"
"I sent McGee inside to give you the information we found in the car because I could not face doing it myself. I…did not want to see him." She shivered, and he noticed her hand going into her pocket and resting there lightly.
"You should be apologizing to him, not me," he told her bluntly. "Damn it, Ziva – this was *done* to him. If he'd lost his arms, or his legs, or been disfigured in a fire or something, would you have turned your back on him then?"
"I am apologizing to you because I misjudged you," she said. "All this time I thought you were a fool – one time I even asked Gibbs why he kept you on the team. Yet you have kept this team together these past few weeks. You showed more leadership skills than I thought you possessed."
"Yeah…well…" Tony glanced at Shanti who was lying on the back seat. "You're not the only one who should be apologizing. I once told someone that I'd never ask her to hide again, yet I've kind of been doing just that for a very long time; I just didn't realize it."
"It doesn't matter now," Shanti said. "The only thing that matters is finding Tessa."
Tony drove even faster, slamming his foot down on the gas and taking them around bends at high speed. He noticed, as he drove, that Ziva still had her hand in her pocket.
"Is that where your daemon is?"
"Yes. I only allow the people I trust implicitly to see him.”
“I’m betting there aren’t many of them,” Tony commented wryly.
Ziva gave a tight little smile. “You are right. Very few people have ever laid eyes on him. I keep him always out of sight. But even so, you always knew that he existed, that he was here. Seeing Gibbs without a daemon…without Tessa…without his own soul…that is different."
"Yes." He knew what she meant. Nobody could mistake Ziva's secretive daemon for Gibbs's complete absence of one. If you didn't know Gibbs and didn't realise he should have a big wolf loping at his side, then you might not immediately realise what was wrong with him. You might assume he had a rat or a lizard tucked away out of sight, just as Ziva kept her daemon hidden away. But once you knew then the knowledge itself made it horrifying. Tony had seen countless stupid horror flicks about people being separated from their daemons, but the reality was more terrifying than any movie.
"I do not know that I could look on a man knowing he had no daemon." Ziva shuddered. "And to know that person…that makes it even worse. How did you…?"
"He's still Gibbs, Ziva – at least, some part of him is still in there. I know he wouldn't turn away from me if I'd been separated from Shanti, so…oh shit!" He suddenly doubled up in pain, and Shanti threw back her head and screamed.
"What is it?" Ziva put her hand on the steering wheel and took over the steering for him.
"Shit…shit…" Tony slammed the car over to the side of the road. "You have to drive," he told Ziva, between gasps of pain. He crawled into the back seat beside Shanti and took her in his arms.
"I do not understand," Ziva said as she drove the car back onto the road.
"Hunter has started torturing Tessa," Tony ground out. "Now keep driving. We don't have much time. *Gibbs* doesn't have much time."
He was aware of being in an ambulance, and then in a hospital room. Abby held his hand throughout, refusing to relinquish it for even a second.
Medical staff hovered, and he could see the look of horror on their faces no matter how hard they tried to disguise it. The knowledge he had no daemon made each of them reach for their own daemon in fear of what had been done to him.
Ducky was speaking to them, but Gibbs knew there wasn’t anything that could be done for him. They could make him comfortable but that was about it. There wasn’t a cure.
Then, suddenly, he felt Tessa again. Hunter must have taken her out of the shielded room where she had been imprisoned for the past two weeks. Gibbs sat up, howling as he felt her sudden distress snap into his consciousness. The bond between them was stretched so thin it was in danger of snapping, so he knew that she must be miles away. The knowledge of her pain and the sensation of her great distance from him brought a new kind of agony. He might be able to feel her, but he couldn’t reach her. She was as far away from him as ever.
He pushed Abby away and tumbled out of the bed.
Ducky was at his side in seconds. “My dear boy, you can’t expect to go anywhere. Not in your condition. It’s simply…”
“It's Tessa. I have to go to her, Duck! I have to…”
He screamed as he felt Hunter’s bare hand grabbing Tessa’s neck, and then he threw up on the hospital floor. This wasn’t how it was when Tony touched Tessa; this was agonising. His insides clenched, and he was about to throw up again when a new kind of pain hit him. He could feel Hunter slamming his fist into Tessa’s belly, and he doubled up as his own belly took the blows.
“Hunter must be torturing Tessa,” he heard Ducky say to Abby. “Help me get him back on the bed!”
People bustled around, and he was placed onto the bed again. They shoved a line into his arm but that only took the edge off the pain. His head slammed back onto the pillow as Hunter directed a brutal kick at Tessa’s jaw.
“Help him! He’s dying!” he heard Abby scream.
There was no reply, and he knew what they were all thinking. They couldn’t help him. There was absolutely nothing they could do.
It was all down to Tony now.
Tony could feel Tessa being kicked repeatedly, and he tried hard to block out the pain. He hoped Gibbs could endure it. He was already in a physically weakened condition; if Hunter tortured Tessa hard enough for long enough then it was unlikely that Gibbs would survive.
The sensation of Tessa being tortured was so painful that he had to concentrate hard to keep his mind clear. He clung onto Shanti and found himself going back decades, to a motel room in Stillwater where his father was kicking the shit out of his own beloved daemon. He remembered being small, and weak, and helpless, and how Jethro had stormed into that room and saved him.
Ziva swung them into the docks, and Tony half climbed, half fell out of the car.
"This way," Shanti said, leading them towards a block of offices. He staggered after her, Ziva by his side, holding him up.
The office building was empty at this time of night. Ziva broke in, and Tony followed Shanti inside. It was dark, but they didn’t dare turn on the lights for fear of alerting Hunter to their approach. They ran down a flight of stairs and when they reached the bottom Tony peered through the gloom at a hallway of closed doors.
"Which one?" he asked, running to the first one and trying the handle.
"I don't know. It's so overwhelming," Shanti gasped. He understood. Now they were close the pain was so acute it was hard for her to pinpoint the direction it was coming from.
"I will find them," Ziva said, and Tony watched, bent double, as she reached into her coat pocket and pulled out…a spider.
Tony almost laughed out loud. "Of all the times to meet your daemon…"
"He does not like to be known."
"Like you," Tony said, watching as the spider disappeared under the nearest door.
"And like you." She glanced back. "We just choose to hide in different ways."
"Hey, when you've got a fucking big lioness for a daemon, it's not easy to disguise her," Tony protested, grinning at Shanti's little growl of protest.
"And yet you have done a very good job of it," Ziva replied.
The spider emerged from under the door and shook his head. His eyes were dark and glittering. "They are not in that one," he said.
"He sounds kinda like you," Tony said, staggering along to the next door. The spider wasn't any common house or garden spider. He was bigger and covered in a layer of soft, black fur with orange markings. He was actually quite beautiful. He was clearly some kind of exotic spider – just like Ziva was an exotic kind of woman – and just as deadly. "What's his name?" Tony asked, leaning against the wall.
"Levi. Now hush…maybe we can hear them."
They both went quiet, but there was no sound from along the hallway. Tony had a suspicion that the walls and doors were pretty thick, more or less soundproofing the rooms.
Levi emerged again, shaking his head, and then he scuttled under the next doorway. Ziva reacted almost immediately.
“He has gone! I cannot feel him! Levi!”
Her daemon emerged almost immediately, and she scooped him up and held him close.
“Was there anyone in there?” Tony asked urgently.
“Levi says not, but I have never felt anything like that,” Ziva said, looking shocked. “He was lost to me when he was in that room.”
Tony guessed that was the room with the special wall paint which had to mean they were getting close.
“Try the next one,” he said, jerking his head impatiently at the door.
Ziva placed Levi reluctantly on the floor, and he ran under the door into the next room. This time he came out looking even more distressed. He lurched from side to side and then ran up Ziva's body and perched on her shoulder. He spoke softly into her ear, so softly that Tony couldn't hear what he was saying.
"They are in there. Tessa is in a bad way, and Levi is afraid. A daemon, lost and alone in the world, without the one she belongs to." Ziva shivered. "It is like something from a horror movie."
"Fuck that." Tony tried the door handle, but it was locked from the inside. "We need to find a way in. Levi…" he addressed the spider on Ziva's shoulder. "Can you get in there and turn the key in the lock for us?"
The spider immediately disappeared under Ziva's coat.
"He is afraid. He says there is another daemon in there – one that is maimed and twisted. He is afraid of her and what she might do."
Tony straightened up and looked her straight in the eye. "Suck it up, Ziva David," he ordered. "Just behind that door, Tessa is being tortured – and Gibbs is dying every time that bastard touches her. Send Levi in there. Now!"
Ziva looked at him, her eyes large and scared, and he knew that if this was any other kind of danger she'd be the first one in there, all guns blazing. But this…she was right. This *was* like something out of a horror movie. Yet she was brave, and she sucked it up, as he had known she would.
She leaned down, and Levi scuttled out from her coat and disappeared under the door.
At that moment, Tony was almost laid low when another savage kick to Tessa's belly made him double up and sink to his knees.
A second later Tony heard the key turning in the lock. He struggled to his feet, put one hand on Shanti's head for support, and nodded at Ziva.
She drew her gun, silently turned the door handle, and then threw open the door and ran inside.
"Federal agents!" she yelled. Tony staggered into the room after her and saw her drop kick a man in the gut, before slamming her fist down on the back of his neck.
Tony paused, taking in the sight in front of him. It was so barbaric that bile rose in the back of his throat. Tessa was chained to the wall – she had a collar around her neck, biting into her thick fur, and her paws were hobbled together so tightly that she couldn't stand upright. How long had she been kept in this condition, he wondered? It was obscene – no person’s daemon should ever be kept in chains.
She was lying on her side, whimpering in pain, and she was so far gone she wasn’t even howling. She was breathing in hard gasps, her chest rising and falling in harsh, jerky movements. Her tongue was lolling out of the side of her mouth, and she was barely conscious.
"Tessa…" He knelt down beside her, but she gave no sign of even being aware of him.
Shanti was by her side in seconds. She began washing Tessa's face gently with her tongue while Tony removed the collar and chains from around her neck and paws, so that she could breathe more easily. He could hear the soft rasp of tongue on fur, but still there was no sign of life from Tessa. Shanti glanced at Tony, a worried expression on her face.
"I think we may be too late. I think she might be too far gone."
If Tessa was like this, then Gibbs had to be too…maybe enduring the torture of his daemon on top of their weeks of separation had sent him insane.
"No," Tony said firmly. "I'm not going to lose them." He reached out and placed his bare hand gently on Tessa's muzzle.
"Tony!" Ziva said, in a shocked voice. "You cannot touch another's daemon!"
"It's okay. Trust me." He glanced at her. "I've done it before. Tessa doesn't mind – neither does Gibbs."
He rested his fingertips gently on Tessa's furry coat. Her fur was coarse and shabby – completely unlike her usual rich, soft coat. Tony closed his eyes and his head spun as he was taken down deep into a pit of loss and despair. She was so lonely, so desperately lonely, and she had been hurt so much…
Tony threw back his head and roared his sadness at what had happened to her, and Shanti joined in. Then they were joined by a weaker sound…a faint, reedy howl.
"Tessa." He opened his eyes to find her looking at him.
"Tony…I knew you would come," she rasped.
He gave a little choking laugh. "How?" he asked, leaning forward to kiss her soft ears.
"Because we came for you once. And because you are pack."
He laughed again and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close.
At that moment, something scuttled towards him from the far side of the room. He glimpsed a crow's wing, and a claw, and saw a sharp, vicious sting protruding from the creature's underbelly, making straight for his arm.
Shanti let out a roar of rage and leapt towards it. She caught the creature in her jaws and bit down hard. The daemon let out of a scream of agony, and Shanti threw her into the air and caught her again, chomping down with all her might.
Over in the far corner, the man Ziva was holding prisoner let out a scream of agony, clutching his belly as Shanti bit into his daemon repeatedly.
"Tony…call Shanti off. You will kill him," Ziva warned.
Tony stood up, a grim little smile on his face. "Shanti's a cat, Ziva, and cats like playing with their prey. Can't stop her doing what comes naturally."
Shanti batted the repulsive, misshapen daemon around the small room, sinking her teeth into it and raking it with her claws.
Tony spoke urgently to Ziva. “I need you to call Fornell then stay here and wait for him. I have to get Tessa back to Gibbs. I just hope I’m not too late. Shanti – come here, I need your help.”
"But I'm not done," she said sulkily. "I want to kill her."
"Yeah, me too. But Fornell’s gonna come take that bastard and his fuck ugly daemon into custody, and I don't think he'll go any too softly on him. Let’s at least leave a piece of ‘em for Fornell to question. We need to find out who was paying Hunter to abduct Gibbs.”
Shanti gave the daemon from hell another sharp bite and then tossed her into the corner, like the piece of garbage she was. Then she returned to his side.
Tony crouched down beside Tessa again. "I'm going to lift you up and carry you to the car. We're going straight to Bethesda where Jethro is. Can you hang on that long, Tessa?"
She nuzzled his fingers, her dry tongue rasping over his hand by way of reply. He put his arms around her and heaved her up, then carried her out of the door. Then he half staggered, half ran back to his car.
Tessa was a big wolf and a heavy weight to carry but somehow he managed to get her safely to the car. Like Gibbs, she was skin and bone right now, and he was keenly aware of the sharp contours of her ribs as he carried her. Her hoarse breathing was just as worrying. She was hanging on by a whisper, and if he didn’t get her back to Gibbs soon then Gibbs wouldn’t make it. Maybe it was already too late.
Tony placed Tessa on the back seat of the car, and Shanti got in beside her and nestled in close, keeping her warm and soothing her.
Tony put in a call to his old captain and demanded an immediate police escort to help get them to Bethesda as fast as possible. The man had never been any friend of his, but Tony wasn't in any mood to be denied – and when Shanti roared down the phone at him the captain agreed to provide the escort pretty damn quick.
Tessa was fading fast. Glancing over his shoulder repeatedly as he drove, Tony could see her breathing becoming more forced and her eyes glazing over.
"Hang on, Jethro. Hang on," he whispered urgently.
They pulled up in the ambulance bay, and he heaved Tessa out of the car and ran into the hospital with her. Ducky was waiting in the hallway; he took one horrified look at Tessa’s prone form in Tony’s arms, and then he guided him through the hospital to Gibbs's room, with Morag fluttering anxiously overhead.
Tony paused in the doorway. Gibbs was lying on the bed, his eyes closed and his face as white as the hospital sheets. If it wasn’t for the hoarse rattling sound of his breathing, and the fact that Tessa hadn’t yet disappeared in a flash of fire, leaving only dust behind, Tony would have thought he was already dead. Abby was standing beside him, holding his hand; Tony knew she hadn’t left his side throughout, just as he’d ordered.
Tony placed Tessa on the bed beside Gibbs. Then he gently removed Gibbs's hand from Abby’s clasp, and placed it on Tessa's fur. If Gibbs was going to die, he wouldn't die alone; he’d have Tessa by his side, where she belonged.
"Hey…Jethro…" he said softly. "It's me. I've got Tessa. I brought her back to you."
He ignored Ducky, and Abby, and all the medical personnel, and climbed onto the bed. Shanti jumped up too, and Tony wrapped his arms around Gibbs and Tessa, while Shanti guarded them all, enveloping them in her big, protective paws.
Gibbs and Tessa were his. They were almost as integral a part of him as Shanti, and if there was any way he could heal them then he would.
"Your pack is here," he whispered into Gibbs's ear. "You have a pack again, Jethro. You're not alone anymore."
Gibbs moved his hand and felt soft fur beneath his fingertips. He had been cold, but now he was warm. There was love, and comfort, and peace around him. He had been trapped in a nightmare, but now it was receding, leaving only the memory behind.
He opened his eyes and lay there, looking into a set of blessedly familiar brown ones.
"It is me."
She rested her head on his shoulder, and he buried his face in her neck and felt the tears falling into her soft fur.
"You were gone. I was alone."
"I know." Her voice was a howl. She licked his tears away with her warm tongue. "But now I am here."
It was always hard to argue with Tessa's sense of pragmatism. Gibbs just wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close.
She was here, and they were together again. He had his daemon by his side once more, where she belonged.
He was whole again.
Tony hardly left Gibbs's bedside for days. He spent most of the time on the bed, holding Gibbs in his arms while Gibbs slept – and slept and slept...and slept. Shanti and Tessa were next to them, their bodies entwined too, as Tessa and Gibbs slowly healed.
People came to visit – Ducky, Abby, and McGee. Director Shepard walked in, gave them a strange look, and didn't stay long. He thought she'd finally figured this one out. She didn't understand it, but she'd figured it out.
Jackson Gibbs showed up and shooed him down the hallway to take a shower and have a shave. He brought him a change of clothes which was a relief as his own were getting pretty stinky.
When he returned to Gibbs's room he got onto the bed again and held him tight. No way was he letting go until Gibbs told him to get the hell away from him. Gibbs had never liked being touched, but right now he seemed to need it, and Tony was happy to oblige.
"Will he ever be right again?" Jackson asked him. "How can anyone survive what was done to him, Tony?"
"He’ll be fine," Tony said firmly. "He was brave, Jack – if you could have seen how brave. I don't know that any of us could have suffered what he did and survived – let alone stayed sane. You should be proud of him."
“I am, Tony. I always was.” Jackson’s eyes were bright with unshed tears. “Come back to us, Leroy,” he said, gently stroking his son’s hair. “Come back to us, son.”
Jackson stayed at Gibbs's place and came and went regularly, but still Gibbs didn’t rouse himself enough to speak to anyone. Tony let him be. He figured that Gibbs would wake up and start talking again when he was good and ready.
One day, Ziva showed up at the door. Tony glanced up and beckoned her in.
"I am sorry I did not come before. I…have not known him that long. I did not want to intrude," she said nervously. "Also…my boss insisted I write up a report and process all the paperwork on the case." She made a face at him, and he laughed, remembering the barked orders he'd given to her over the phone a few days ago.
"Yeah, your boss is a bastard. He learned from the best." He smiled down at Gibbs fondly.
Ziva tiptoed over to the side of the bed and sat down. Her spider daemon peeked out from under the collar of her coat.
"I thought I had seen everything. I think, maybe, I thought I knew everything too." She gave a self-deprecating little smile. "I was wrong. There is still much to learn."
She ran a gentle finger over Levi's furry back.
"Don’t know why you kept him hidden so long. He's not so bad," Tony said, glancing at the spider with a grin.
Ziva looked annoyed. "He can kill with one bite!”
"Of course he can!" Tony laughed out loud. "I wanted to say…thank you for showing me who you really are, Ziva."
Ziva glanced at where Shanti was lying with Tessa wrapped up between her big paws. “You too, Tony,” she said softly. “You too.”
He dreamed he was locked in a cell, his paws were chained together and there was a tight metal collar around his throat, keeping him fastened against a wall. He couldn’t move. He could only lie there, howling.
He woke up with the howl dying in his throat, covered in sweat.
“Hey…it’s okay…” Strong hands soothed gentle patterns down his arms. “Ssh…it was just a nightmare.”
He rested his head on Tony’s shoulder, and Tony held him tight and talked to him until the shivering stopped. While he talked, Shanti gently washed Tessa’s fur with her big, rasping tongue and between them they soothed him until the memory of the nightmare faded.
He didn’t ask why Tony was there. He didn’t ask why Tony slept in the hospital bed beside him, holding him. He wasn’t ready to have that conversation yet. He just knew that he didn’t want Tony to leave.
He was still the same old Gibbs; he still hated being fussed over, but Tony and Shanti weren’t like his father and Meldra. They didn’t fuss – there were just there, helpful and unobtrusive.
He didn’t speak much. Tony talked, but then Tony had always been able to talk – about everything and yet somehow about nothing. Gibbs watched him talk, keeping one hand wrapped in Tessa’s fur as he listened. He wasn’t sure what Tony was rambling on about half the time, but he liked the sound. It washed over him, soothing him and helping him heal. Sometimes as he watched Tony talk, he wondered what it would be like to silence those endlessly moving lips with a kiss.
One day, Tony was sitting on the chair beside the bed, going on and on about some movie, impersonating all the actors in it, and Gibbs finally felt compelled to interact.
"Tony," he croaked, propping himself up on his elbow and beckoning. Tony looked at him in surprise and leaned forward – and Gibbs slapped the back of his head weakly.
Tony's face broke into a delighted grin, and he laughed out loud. "I take it you're back with us then? I knew that if I annoyed you loudly enough for long enough you'd give in and join the land of the living eventually!"
He got up and did a little jig around the bed, Shanti trotting beside him, both of them looking so happy that Gibbs had to laugh. He managed a few words of conversation with Tony over the next couple of days, but he still wasn't ready to talk to anyone else.
His father came to visit every day. Only when Jack was here would Tony leave his bedside to go take a shower, and shave, and change his clothes, giving father and son some privacy.
Jack talked a lot too, reminiscing about people he’d known back in Stillwater. Gibbs ignored him until the day he told him that Chuck Winslow’s wife had walked out on him and was suing him for all he had. Then he gave a little grunt of amusement.
“Thought that might amuse you!” his father beamed.
“I’m sure Chuck deserved it,” Gibbs muttered. He sat up in the bed, and his father plumped up the pillows behind him. “I know I sure as hell deserved it, every time one of my wives walked out on me.”
His father sat back in his chair, deeply etched anxiety lines creasing his face. “I thought we might have lost you, son,” he said. “I wasn’t sure you’d ever come back to us.”
“I’m fine,” Gibbs said dismissively.
“But you always did say that, whether it was true or not. How is a father to know?”
Gibbs sighed and moved his hand so that it was resting on his father’s hand on the side of the bed. “You worry too much,” he said, and Jackson laughed and squeezed his fingers tightly, and that was all that needed to be said between them.
He lost count of the days and nights. Gradually the need to sleep diminished, until one day he knew he'd slept for long enough. He rolled off the bed and staggered into the bathroom with Tessa beside him, pressed up close against his leg, never out of bodily contact.
“You okay?” Tony followed him into the bathroom. “Need a hand?”
“No.” He shut the bathroom door in Tony’s face and turned to gaze at himself in the mirror. He had a shaggy beard and a multitude of yellowing bruises on his face. He was thinner than he could ever remember being in his life before and his Marine haircut had grown out, leaving him with straggling long silver hair.
He pulled open the door. “Need to shave,” he said to Tony.
“Oh, thank God!” Tony’s face split into a wide grin. “Uh, not that it looks too bad – I mean, you can carry off facial hair, but even you…”
“Tony!” he snapped, and Tony grinned again and went over to the nightstand.
“Already on it, Boss!” he said smartly, pulling out a shaving kit and holding it up. “I’m so glad you’re gonna get rid of it,” he added, following Gibbs back into the bathroom. “I was worried you might decide to keep it.”
Gibbs turned back to the mirror and had a sudden flashback to that deformed stranger he’d seen in the car mirror. He shuddered.
“Hey…” Tony placed a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. “You okay?”
“I’m fine,” he said, the way he always did, as his father had pointed out. He wasn’t fine, not yet, but talking about it wasn’t going to change that.
He lathered the shaving cream onto his face and picked up the razor. As he looked at himself in the mirror, all he could see was that wild-eyed man without a daemon. His hand began to shake.
“Here, let me,” Tony said, smoothly taking the razor from him.
He took Gibbs’s chin in his hand and began firmly passing the razor over his face. Bit by bit, his old self emerged, like a moth from a cocoon. Afterwards Tony handed him a towel and, maybe sensing his mood, left him alone in the bathroom.
Gibbs passed the towel over his face, wiping away what was left of the foam. He looked older, and there was a haunted expression in his blue eyes, but it was definitely him.
“Of course it’s you,” Tessa told him. “You are who you always were.” She rubbed her face against the side of his leg.
“I’m not so sure about that.” Once he had hated being taken care of, but now he let Tony and his father take care of him as if he was a helpless child. Once he had hated being touched, but now he leaned into Tony’s gentle caresses, loving the feel of his fingers in his hair, or ghosting over his arms as he soothed him back to sleep after a nightmare.
“You are letting them love you. It’s about time,” Tessa said. “You don’t always have to be the one who is strong for everyone else. You can let others take care of you for a change.”
He wasn’t sure he knew how to be that person, but if Tessa said it was so then he would try. He would always listen to everything she said from now on. He knew what life without her was like now.
They took him home, and he felt like an old man walking into his house, leaning on Tony for support. He remembered coming here, without Tessa, going down into his basement on autopilot, and crawling under his boat. The memory brought him up short, and he paused, fighting for breath. Tessa looked up at him anxiously.
"I have a memory you don't share," he told her.
"We both do," she replied. "We can share them together, when the time feels right."
He nodded and allowed Tony to lead him into the living room and help him to sit in front of the fire.
Jackson stayed for awhile, cooking meals and trying hard not to fuss over him. Gibbs found he didn't mind the fussing so much now. Maybe he was getting old. Or maybe, as Tessa had said, it was okay to let the people who loved him take care of him for a change.
He was getting better. He got tired easily, and he still had bad nightmares, but he felt more like himself every day.
Jackson left when he was satisfied he was going to be okay, but Tony…Tony didn't seem to have any intention of leaving. He spent every day by his side, and slept every night in his bed, holding him tight. Gibbs sometimes woke up and watched him as he slept, wanting to stroke his hands through Tony’s thick, soft hair, or trace the outline of his lips with his fingertips.
“Tell him how you feel,” Tessa urged, but he didn’t have the words for that. It had been so long since he had spoken words of love, and he’d never been very good at it, even back then. He didn’t even know how to begin to have this conversation.
"I'm pretty much better now," he told Tony over the dinner table one evening, a few days before he was due to return to work. "So you can leave, if you want. You must be pissed off with playing nursemaid to me all this time."
Tony gazed at him for a long moment, a flicker of annoyance in his eyes. “Is that what you want?” he asked at last. Gibbs shrugged. “Jethro? Do you want me to go?” Tony pressed.
Gibbs still didn’t have the damn words. He threw his napkin down on the table and got up.
Tony got up too, looking anxious. “I’ll leave then. If that’s what you want.”
“No!” Gibbs shook his head fiercely.
“Damn it, Gibbs. What the hell are you trying to say?”
“This!” He took hold of Tony’s arm and pulled him down so that they were both kneeling beside Tessa and Shanti. Then slowly, carefully, he placed Tony’s bare hand on Tessa’s fur. There was a momentary sensation of giddiness, but he never minded Tony touching Tessa. He never had.
Gibbs placed his own hand on Tessa too, and then he opened up his heart through his daemon in a way he never could with words. He let Tony see a glimpse of the deepest part of his soul, and all he kept hidden there.
He showed Tony an eight year old boy, who he’d instinctively recognized as a friend the minute he’d first laid eyes on him. He showed him the man he’d grown up to be – always big-hearted, playful, and full of life, who had never given into the bitterness his lonely childhood could so easily have caused. He showed him a pale, coughing, sick man, dying from the plague, and shared the desperation he had felt at the prospect of losing him.
He shifted, moved both their hands, and showed him that moment in the basement when he’d been lost to himself, and Tony had come down those stairs towards him, holding out his hand. Tony hadn't turned away from him when he’d needed him most. Tony had led him to Shanti and shared her with him, giving him hope and shelter in his time of need.
And then he opened up even more and showed Tony how he had appeared to him that terrible day. He showed him the man with the lion inside, strong, and courageous, and loyal.
It was Tony who had rescued Tessa, and who had never once given up on him during the long days and nights in the hospital, no matter how monosyllabic or short-tempered he'd been.
It was Tony who rocked him during the stormy nights when the dark dreams came, and it was Tony who was always there by his side, trusted and beloved, through the good times and the bad.
Tony had been by his side for five long years, his loyal companion, almost as constant a presence in his life as Tessa.
He showed Tony all this – and then he showed him the nights he'd spent looking at him, wondering what it would feel like to touch him, and kiss him, and wanting to do just that.
He didn’t have the words to say it, but the truth was all there, laid bare in Tessa.
Tony was his pack, his second, and the other great love of his life, all rolled into one.
Tony was…his soul-mate.
He couldn’t look up into Tony’s face. He had revealed too much of himself, and he wasn’t sure what the response would be.
He heard Tony take a deep, shaky breath and felt his gaze upon him, but still he couldn’t look up.
“Jethro?” Tony said quietly. “Why do you think I stayed?” He stroked Tessa’s fur gently with his fingertips, and Gibbs felt the feather light touch on his own back.
“Loyalty?” Gibbs finally forced himself to glance up at Tony and found him sitting there with a puzzled little smile on his face.
“No. Idiot. Here.”
Tony took Gibbs’s free hand and placed it on Shanti’s warm, soft coat. Gibbs had touched her before, many times now, but never like this – and never while Tony was touching Tessa at the same time.
He felt the whirl of Tony’s soul opening up to him, and he stepped inside. He immediately felt the ache of Tony’s lonely childhood and discovered just how much Tony had thought about him during those long years of separation.
Gibbs let his fingers shift though Shanti’s fur some more, and he saw himself lying on a hospital bed, and Tony standing beside him, calling him back from the dark place he hadn’t wanted to leave.
“That was you?” He looked up at Tony in surprise. “You were the one who called me back when I was in the coma?”
Tony nodded. "That was me."
"But how...?" Gibbs tried to make sense of that. Tony had been there for him as long ago as that? He had somehow found him, and touched Tessa, and brought him back to himself, even when he'd been lost in that dark place after the death of his family?
Tony's fingers met his in Shanti's fur, and he was plunged back into Tony's soul again. He was standing in the snow when a beautiful, familiar wolf appeared out of nowhere. He felt a surge of joy flood through his body as he realized who she was. He wasn't alone anymore; he had found Jethro again and all would be well now. Being close to Jethro was all he’d ever wanted.
The scene shifted, and Gibbs saw himself lying asleep under his boat that night soon after Kate’s death. He was Tony, looking down on him, a sudden revelation sweeping through him…Jethro was warmth, and safety, and happiness…and love.
“That’s why I stayed,” Tony told him. “Not just because of loyalty, but also because of this.”
He leaned forward and kissed Gibbs on the lips. His mouth was warm and gentle, his kiss deep and searching, and his lips felt soft, and loving, and somehow familiar. Gibbs responded hungrily, pulling him close and kissing him back.
They were interrupted by a loud sighing sound. They pulled apart in surprise and looked at their daemons who were sitting there, side by side, watching them.
"About time!" Tessa said triumphantly. "You have no idea how long we've waited for this."
"It was driving us nuts," Shanti agreed.
Gibbs laughed out loud and stroked Shanti's head.
"The fact we really don't mind you touching us should have been a big clue," Tessa said, nudging her muzzle against Tony's hand.
"And the fact we spent half our lives trying to curl up as close to each other as possible was another big clue." Shanti rolled her eyes.
"It's what you two wanted to be doing with each other but were too stubborn…" Tessa began.
"And pig headed…" Shanti continued.
"To give into," Tessa finished.
"Well, I'm ready to give into it now." Gibbs grinned, looking at Tony. "You ready for that, Tony?"
Tony laughed. "Oh yeah. I’m ready. Boy am I *ready*.”
"Then what the hell are we waiting for?"
He reached for Tony again, but Tony stopped him. “I think I should explain a bit more about the coma thing,” he said, looking anxious. “I don’t want to freak you out, but…see, I promised myself I wasn’t going to hide who I am anymore, and this is big, and it’s about you, so…well, you should know about it.”
Gibbs sat back, puzzled, wondering what the hell was going to come next.
“See, I’ve kind of been connected to you since…well, since what happened back in the motel room all those years ago," Tony said quickly. “It’s hard to explain…but it’s like that moment linked us, and I’ve been able to feel what you’re going through ever since. Not all the time – just when something big happens.”
Gibbs gave a wry chuckle. "Connected huh?" Then he threw back his head and laughed. All these years he had thought it had been one-sided, and that Tony hadn't felt it too. He'd been an idiot.
"Yes." Tony wasn’t laughing. His eyes were serious and intense. Gibbs wasn't used to seeing him this way, but it seemed he really meant it when he said he wasn't going to hide who he was anymore.
“It’s okay, Tony, I…” Gibbs began, but Tony stopped him. He placed his hand on Gibbs's cheek and stroked gently, with one finger.
"I felt it when Kelly was born," he said quietly.
Gibbs looked down and found Tessa there, by his knee. He swallowed down the lump in his throat and looked up again. "You know about Kelly?"
"Yes. I knew at the time. I knew about Shannon dying the instant you found out. I hitch-hiked to Stillwater, and then I came here. I wasn't sure what I was going to do, but I wanted to be near you, to help in some way. But you’d already gone back to Kuwait by the time I got here."
Gibbs stared at him, astonished. “You did that for me?”
"Yes," Tony said firmly. "See, I made a promise to Shannon, and I wanted to keep it."
Gibbs remembered standing on a station platform, many years ago, and watching Shannon kiss a small boy on the cheek. Look after Jethro when I'm gone. "You remembered what Shannon said, after all that time?"
"Yes." Tony’s eyes were fierce and protective, and Gibbs suddenly realized just how seriously he took that promise he'd made all those years ago.
"You've been keeping that promise all this time, and I never knew." Gibbs gently caressed Shanti's soft head, making her purr.
"It was important to me. It still is. Besides, you saved my life that night in the motel room, so it works both ways. I was just giving back what you gave to me." Tony gave a little grin.
Gibbs felt humbled that one act of kindness in his youth had been repaid over and over again with so much love and dedication since.
"When you were injured in Kuwait, I felt that too," Tony continued. "I went to Bethesda, and they said you were in a coma. They said that your physical injuries weren't that bad, but you wouldn't come out of it, like you wanted to stay there. So I kind of sweet-talked my way into your room…"
"I heard someone calling me, but I never did understand what happened. I didn’t know it was you, calling me back.”
"I wanted you to live.”
"Why didn't you hang around and talk to me about it?" Gibbs asked. "Drove me nuts thinking there was a reason I came back but not being able to figure out what it was."
Tony gave a little laugh. "I was scared away. There was this Marine with a giant eagle daemon. He caught me touching Tessa and chased me away. Said he wouldn't report me to the police if I got the hell out of there."
"Major Ryan." Gibbs shook his head. "That old son of a bitch. He always did what he thought was best for me, but if I'd known…"
"What would you have done?" Tony asked. "I was just a kid – still in college. I couldn't have given you anything you needed back then."
"And now?" Gibbs asked softly.
Tony smiled. "Now I can. If you'll let me, and I really hope you will."
Gibbs gently took hold of Tony's chin, pulled him close, and kissed him again. Tony melted against him, and Gibbs slid his arms around Tony's back and held him tight. He pushed Tony's lips open with his own, and their tongues met eagerly. Gibbs kissed him deeply, wanting to taste him and explore him, to keep him close and never let him go.
They parted only to scramble up the stairs to the bedroom with Shanti and Tessa at their heels. Tony disappeared into the bathroom and then reappeared holding a tube of lubricant. Gibbs took it from him and threw it on the nightstand, then pulled him in and kissed him again.
He took his time undressing Tony, wanting to savour every single moment. He let his fingers drift down the buttons on Tony’s shirt, before sliding it slowly off his shoulders to reveal his naked chest. He pressed a dozen little kisses along his collar bones, loving how Tony sighed into his caresses. Then he moved down, trailing kisses over Tony’s hairy chest and pausing to enjoy the softness of his belly under his lips.
He undid Tony’s belt and pulled it free, and then he unbuttoned his fly and pushed his pants and boxers down, freeing Tony’s straining erection. He pulled Tony in close again and kissed his mouth while at the same time taking Tony’s hard cock in his hand, loving how Tony gasped into his kiss.
Now it was Tony’s turn. He kicked off his shoes and peeled off his socks and then turned back to Gibbs, entirely naked. He approached him with a gleam in his eye, like a hungry predator, and Gibbs grinned and held his ground, liking Tony’s look of intent.
Tony undressed him like he was a present he’d been longing to open for years. He paused every few seconds to brush a kiss over Gibbs’s mouth, and he studied every single inch of his skin as he freed it from his clothes. He seemed fascinated by him, as if he couldn’t get enough of him. When Tony was done undressing him, Gibbs pushed him onto the bed and slid his hands over his beautiful naked skin. He liked the way Tony pressed up against him and yielded to his touch.
Tessa and Shanti settled down on the rug next to the bed, their bodies gently entwined, their noses touching. They did a little dance all of their own, nudging and nuzzling and petting each other in time to the rhythmic love-making on the bed.
Gibbs trailed a string of kisses over Tony's chest and then up his neck and along his jawline. "I felt you too," he whispered into Tony's ear.
Tony gave a sigh of pleasure and ran his tongue over his already moist lower lip in a way that was positively obscene. Then Gibbs's words clearly sank in, and his eyes snapped open.
"That night you busted your knee I was holed up in a foxhole behind enemy lines, unable to walk because of you."
"Oh shit. I'm sorry." Tony pulled him down and kissed him again.
Gibbs laughed into the kiss. "Having a fucked up knee was bad enough, but then I got a damn hard on because you got lucky with a threesome." He shook his head, still laughing.
Over on the rug, Shanti hid her eyes with her paws in embarrassment.
"Oh fuck," Tony whimpered. "You were in a foxhole…behind enemy lines…with a busted knee…and a hard on…"
"Courtesy of you. Yeah." Gibbs grinned and kissed Tony's neck.
"That night was hot…but not as hot as this." Tony pushed up against Gibbs and rolled him over so that he was on his back, with Tony looking down on him. "This, you – lying naked and willing beneath me – is way hotter, Jethro."
He caught Gibbs's lips in another deep kiss, and Gibbs pulled him in close, resting his hands on Tony's soft, firm buttocks.
“You ever had sex with a guy before?” Tony asked him between kisses.
“No.” Gibbs pulled Tony's buttocks apart a little, wondering what it would be like to explore deeper. “You ever had sex with someone you’re in love with before?” he asked in return.
Tony made an embarrassed sound and buried his face in the crook of Gibbs’s neck. “No,” he admitted.
“Then I guess we both have something to learn.” Gibbs extricated Tony from his neck and kissed him again.
Gibbs might not have had any experience with men, but his body, it seemed, didn't give a damn about that because his cock was hard and aching. He found Tony exciting and wanted to explore him, open him up, and find out everything there was to know about him.
He rolled Tony down beneath him, and Tony guided Gibbs’s lubed fingers into his ass, gasping in pleasure as Gibbs gently worked him open. When he was done, Tony opened his legs wider, smiling up at him, encouraging him in. Gibbs slid a generous amount of lubricant over his cock and then positioned himself between Tony’s thighs. He pushed easily into Tony’s body, humming in pleasure at the sensation. It didn’t feel new; it felt like he had done this before, a thousand times.
Tony's welcoming gasps and cries of enjoyment turned him on like nothing else, and he pushed in as deep as he could go, looking into Tony’s eyes the entire time. Tony gazed back at him and reached up to brush his fingers gently over Gibbs’s cheek.
“It’s good…please…more,” he urged.
Gibbs began thrusting, slowly at first and then faster, and he felt Tony moving with him, their bodies rising and falling in perfect time. It was as if they were merging, becoming one, and he lost himself in the sensation.
He could feel Tony beneath him and around him, and then something strange happened. Every nerve ending in his body suddenly flared into life, like fireworks sparking everywhere, sending shooting stars of pleasure through him. He had never experienced sexual pleasure so intensely before. Every pleasurable sensation seemed to have been doubled, and it took his breath away.
He looked down on Tony and found him gazing back at him in astonishment.
“Do you feel it too?” Tony whispered.
“Uh huh. That’s…oh shit…that’s just amazing…”
Gibbs glanced over at their daemons, entwined on the rug, and realized what was happening. The connection between them meant that he was experiencing Tony’s pleasure as well as his own, and Tony was experiencing the exact same thing.
“It’s beautiful.” Tony ran his fingers lightly over Gibbs’s back with a look of wonder on his face.
The feeling of skin on skin, lips on lips, and his cock moving inside Tony’s body was indescribable when magnified by Tony’s sensations too. Gibbs looked down on Tony lying beneath him, his green eyes glowing as he gazed back up at him, and he almost passed out from the sheer sensory overload of the experience.
That incredible feeling spiraled out as they continued making love, enveloping them both, and generating wave after wave of ecstasy. Gibbs cried out as he experienced Tony’s orgasm as well as his own, and it was so intense that the following few minutes were a haze.
When he came to, he pulled out of Tony's body and sank down beside him. For some time afterwards he could only lie there, with Tony in his arms, as they shared the glowing aftershocks of the most amazing sex they’d ever experienced.
They spent the next few hours lazily stroking, kissing, and touching, luxuriating in the soul deep connection between them. After awhile, Tessa jumped soundlessly onto the bed. She lay down beside Gibbs, her long tail brushing over both their naked bodies. Shanti jumped up beside Tony and arranged herself on the pillows, resting her big head on both their shoulders.
As Gibbs lay there, touching all three of them, he felt a profound sense of wellbeing.
He was complete. He’d been broken, but now he was whole again, and stronger and happier than ever before.
He knew that sometimes he would look in the mirror and see that stranger staring back at him. But he also knew that when that happened Tessa would be by his side, nuzzling his fingers, and Tony would be behind him, holding him tight, and Shanti would be next to him, pressing against his thigh.
"Pack," Tessa said contentedly, her eyelids drooping.
"Pride," Shanti said, just as contentedly, purring in the back of her throat.
Gibbs didn't care what it was called. He just knew that it meant he would never be alone again.
Tony put on his sunglasses, got out of the car, and looked around, smiling.
“Look any different?” Gibbs asked, getting out of the car.
“Hmmm…it’s kind of darker,” Tony replied.
Gibbs swiped the sunglasses off his face and thwapped him on the back of the head with them.
Tony laughed. “No, it doesn’t look any different,” he said with a happy sigh, swinging his arm around Gibbs’s shoulders.
They were standing on Main Street, right outside Jack’s store. It had been four months since they’d got together, and Jack had been nagging at Gibbs to bring Tony home for a visit ever since he’d found out about them.
The door opened, and Jack came bustling out to welcome them, enveloping them both in an enthusiastic hug while Meldra groomed Shanti and Tessa vigorously with her beak. Jack ushered them into the store, and Tony thought how strange it was to be stepping foot inside this place again, after all these years.
“I haven’t been in this store since the day I said goodbye,” Tony murmured, looking around. It hadn't changed much. Jack wasn’t a great one for modernizing, and the décor was pretty much the same as it had been when he was here as a child.
They spent the day catching up with Jack. Meldra seemed to be in some kind of hen heaven as she clucked over Shanti and Tessa with a happy gleam in her eye. Tony could never get enough of being clucked over, looked after, and taken care of, and Jack loved fussing over him. That worked well as it meant that he and Shanti were able to draw that side of Jack’s nature to them, giving Gibbs and Tessa some breathing space.
They slept in Gibbs’s old room, and the following day they emerged late to find the mid-summer sun shining, and Jackson beaming at them benignly.
“Here…I packed you a picnic,” he said, handing them the same battered old basket Tony remembered from years ago. “I thought you’d want to take a trip down to the woods – you know, to revisit old haunts, and do what comes naturally to young folk.” He gave them a knowing wink.
Gibbs let out an exasperated sigh, and Tony nearly wet himself laughing.
“Young folk?” he said, still laughing as they walked off down Main Street with the basket. “Just how old does he think we are? Eighteen?”
“When you’re as old as Jack, I guess everyone seems young. But mainly I think he just likes saying it to wind me up.” Gibbs rubbed his jaw ruefully.
“Yeah – and I think it worked!!”
“It always damn well did.” Gibbs finally gave in and threw back his head and joined in Tony’s peals of laughter.
Tony's laughter faded as Shanti gave a low growl. He saw Tessa stiffen, and Gibbs put a warning hand on her head. There, emerging from a car right in front of them was a man with a coyote daemon. Tony barely recognized Chuck Winslow, but he’d know his daemon anywhere.
Chuck glanced at them and his lip curled up in distaste when he saw Gibbs.
“You’re back I see, Leroy,” he said, in a smooth, urbane voice that did nothing to disguise the old enmity lurking just below the surface.
“Just visiting my dad. How are you doing, Chuck?” Gibbs said tightly.
Chuck stepped forward to reply, and Shanti put back her head and roared out an ear-shattering warning. The entire street came to a standstill as everyone turned to look at them. Chuck muttered something and walked quickly away.
“It’s okay – I really don’t think Chuck will be picking any fights with us today, Shanti,” Gibbs told her with a laugh.
Tony flushed and put his sunglasses on, looking around furtively. “Move along – nothing to see here, people!” he said in a loud voice. “Sorry,” he muttered to Gibbs under his breath.
“Don’t apologise…” Gibbs began.
“I know, sign of weakness.”
“Wasn’t gonna say that. Was going to say don’t apologise for Shanti. I love it when she lets rip with one of her big roars.”
“Yeah – is it my imagination, or has she been more, well, *lionly* ever since…you know.”
“Is 'lionly' even a word?” Gibbs raised an eyebrow.
“I have no idea.”
“I think she’s being exactly what she should be, and that's herself. And I love it.”
Tony felt a little glow of contentment. His father might never have loved him for who he truly was, but Gibbs always had, then and now.
They walked into the woods, and Tony thought how little it had changed. He could walk this trail from memory – he’d been here often enough in his head since leaving it behind all those years ago.
They went deep into the woods, all the way down to the clearing by the creek. Shanti went crazy when she saw the creek – she scampered over there like the puppy she’d once been, bellowing at the top of her lungs.
Tony followed her over and looked at the water where he'd once played as a child. He remembered Gibbs making little hand-made boats with tissues for sails and them floating them down the creek.
When he turned around he found that Gibbs had spread Jackson’s old green and red checked blanket on the ground. Tony was about to say something, and then he paused, having a moment of déjà vu. He’d been in this moment before, that day on the docks just before he’d met up with Jethro again after years apart. Gibbs had been sitting here, looking as he did now, his hair completely silver and his face still a little gaunt after his ordeal at Hunter's hands. Maybe it had been some kind of premonition.
“What?” Gibbs asked.
“Nothing…” Tony shook himself. “Just…it’s all exactly as it’s been in my head all these years. This has always been my happy place, Jethro. I used to come here in my daydreams when I was pissed off or unhappy, and it always looked like this.” Tony glanced around. “The sun was always shining, that blanket was always on the ground, and you…” He broke off and looked at Gibbs who was kneeling on the blanket with Tessa by his side.
Gibbs raised an eyebrow.
“You were always here, waiting for me.”
"I'm waiting now." Gibbs jerked his head impatiently, and Tony laughed and went and sat on the blanket beside Tessa.
“So, what’s for lunch?” he asked.
Gibbs gave him that wolfish grin that made him think that something else entirely was on the menu.
“Fuck lunch,” Gibbs said.
He reached out and began unbuttoning Tony’s shirt. Tony smiled and leaned back, surrendering. He'd found, over the past few months, that it worked best this way. Gibbs was as focused about sex as he was about work and that suited Tony just fine. He loved being the centre of Gibbs’s attention; it turned him on like nothing else. Tony had never known sex as mind-blowing as it was with Gibbs; the connection between them magnified every orgasm twofold, making it an almost spiritual experience.
Gibbs stripped his shirt off him, pushed him back onto the rug, and then made short work of stripping his pants off him too. He didn’t stop until Tony was naked, and then he rolled on top of him, pinned him to the blanket, and began kissing him with that sweet combination of gentleness and strength that made Tony's entire body tingle.
The sun felt so beautifully warm shining through the trees, dappling their entwined bodies. Tessa and Shanti were at their feet, grooming each other vigorously, the way they always did when he and Gibbs were making love.
Tony felt Gibbs’s consciousness seep into his own as usual, and he sank down into the sensation, loving how it felt. They made love slowly, passionately, to the feel of the sun on their bare skin and the sound of the creek trickling noisily nearby.
Afterwards, they lay on the blanket and looked up at the trees overhead. There were ghosts here, for sure, Tony thought, but they were friendly ghosts.
Over there, an eight year old boy was running through the trees, his arms outstretched, playing airplanes. A little golden retriever puppy romped with him, chasing him excitedly. She changed into a butterfly and flew up into the air, and the boy ran after her, calling her name.
And over there was a tall, moody, young man with a pronounced limp and a beautiful wolf daemon loping along at his side. The man got out a knife and began whittling the branch of a tree into the shape of a boat to keep the child amused.
A kestrel circled above them and over there, hardly visible at all, was the faint outline of a pretty girl with red hair. She came towards them, her skirt billowing in the breeze. When she got close, she looked at Tony and smiled.
“Thank you for taking care of him,” she said.
He smiled back and wrapped his arm around Gibbs’s shoulder, pulling him in close.
“It’s my pleasure,” he said softly.
She gave another dimpled smile and then shimmered into nothing, disappearing into the sparkling rays of the sun.
Over by the creek, the young man with the Marine haircut turned and looked straight at him. He raised his hand and waved, and Tony waved back. He limped away, his wolf daemon by his side, and when Tony looked again he'd vanished.
The boy chased his puppy daemon around the blanket one last time, and then he ran off into the woods. He turned when he reached a bank of trees, and his daemon changed into a cockatiel and perched on his head, squawking loudly. The boy paused for just long enough to poke his tongue out at Tony…and then he too was gone.
If you enjoy my stories, you might like to buy my original character BDSM slash novel, Ricochet! Available now from Smashwords and Amazon.
MTAC - NCIS Fic