The Journey Home – Chapters 1-3

Title: The Journey Home – Chapters 1-3
Author: Jilly James
Beta: naelany & IcefallsTears
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Chapter One

Tony was really starting to hate Gibbs’ latest guide. The guy was always watching him, and more than once, Tony had detected someone trying to manipulate his emotions. Even though Tony was only latent, he’d received the standard guide training on emotion regulation in the event he ever came online. Despite the fact that he was now too old to come online, he had enough skill to tell when an emotion was not his own. And the only person around with the skills to try to fuck with Tony like that was the latest in Gibbs’ long string of temp guides.

The guy’s name was Nick Harris, and he’d been with the team for going on three months now. And for some reason, he had a major hate-on for Tony. Tensions on the team had been higher than normal since the guy had arrived, and Tony had a suspicion that Harris was at the root of it. Not that his team was a shining model of emotional health before Harris, but they rarely had problems of this magnitude or for this duration. Not counting the whole Rivkin cluster fuck.

Tony wasn’t sure if it was the guide, the long string of cases, the stress on the team, the constant emotional barrage, or just the crap that remained of his life, but when he could be bothered to feel something about his life, he sort of hated it.

He focused on blocking out a raging case of sadness that he knew wasn’t his own, resisting the impulse to glare at the guide. The last time he’d glared at Harris, Gibbs had head smacked him into a serious headache. He had a crime to solve, and didn’t have time for Harris’ games or Gibbs’ abuse.

That brought him up short. When had he started to think of Gibbs’ treatment as abuse? He forced himself to push it all away, because there was no way he was going to pursue that line of thought with a fucking empath figuratively looking over his emotional-shoulder. All he could do now was focus on the case. With white-knuckled determination, he went back to comparing cell phone logs, trying to find some clue.

“You got anything yet, DiNozzo?” Gibbs barked as he rounded the corner. Tony could practically feel Harris’ delight at Gibbs’ reappearance. The guide really didn’t like it when Gibbs left him behind, said it negated the purpose of his presence.

“No,” Tony replied shortly, not looking up. He’d noticed about a month ago that the usual ‘Boss’ had been disappearing from his vocabulary. Something else he’d have to think about later.

He actually felt the headslap coming and ducked it, spinning around in his chair to meet Gibbs’ icy glare, which was intense enough to normally have Tony stuttering out an apology. But not today. Tony was fed up, plus he had done nothing to deserve that.

“You got a problem, DiNozzo?”

“Yeah. What the hell was that for?”

“We’ve got a case, if you can’t focus, you’re no good to me,” Gibbs barked, managing to sound both angry and dismissive.

Tony’s jaw clenched in irritation. “You haven’t even been here the last three hours. How would you know that I’m not focusing?”

“I don’t see any results. That’s all I need to know.”

“Really? I don’t see anyone else coming up with any gems to kick start this case. Any particular reason I’m singled out here?” This wasn’t like Tony at all, but he was at his limit and wasn’t taking any more shit.

“Maybe if you’d stop distracting everyone, they’d have something!”

“B-Boss,” McGee stuttered, getting to his feet. “Tony’s been totally focused. We just haven’t found anything.”

Tony was surprised at the support. McGee had been fairly obnoxious to Tony lately.

Gibbs turned his glare on McGee. “You got a problem with the way I handle my team, McGee?”

“N-No, Boss,” McGee replied instantly, though he looked like he was saying anything but the truth. They were all tired of tyrant Gibbs. The man had just been so irritated lately. Nothing seemed good enough and he was constantly implying with a twitch of an eyebrow and dry ‘anything else?’ that the team wasn’t doing enough. Particularly his SFA.

Tony was so beyond tired.

Suddenly, he’d had enough. He hadn’t been home in two days, he was running on take out and catnaps at his desk, and he desperately wanted a shower. Gibbs had to take care of his temporary guide, so he’d gone home, but Tony had been here. Like always.

He grabbed his backpack and shouldered his way past Gibbs, headed for the stairs.

“Get back here, DiNozzo!” Gibbs ordered, but Tony ignored it. “DiNozzo!”

He was halfway down the stairs before Gibbs caught up with him, grabbing him by the arm and pulling him around, nearly causing Tony to fall down the steps. Tony jerked away, glaring at his boss. “I swear to Christ, you lay hands on me again, I’ll fucking report you.”

Gibbs reared back. “What the hell is the matter with you?” he retorted, sounding an odd mix of angry and bewildered.

Me?” Tony laughed. “You’re right, Gibbs, it’s me. I’m tired of not sleeping, I’m tired of not seeing my home, and I’m really tired of never being enough or doing enough to fucking please you. I used to love my job, but lately I’m starting to hate it. And there’s really no point in dragging this on any longer.” Ignoring the stunned look on Gibbs’ face, Tony plowed on. “I’ll put in a transfer request tomorrow.” Not waiting for a response, Tony headed back down the stairs.

“DiNozzo!” Gibbs yelled, following immediately. “I’m not done with you yet.”

Tony stopped half a floor before the lobby, but didn’t turn back. “Yeah, you are done with me. And I was dead serious about you touching me. So you can follow me to my car, hollering the whole way, and I’ll still get in my car and go, or leave me alone now.”

He heard Gibbs take a deep breath. “Tony… let’s talk.”

The gentler tone, and the use of his first name almost broke his resolve. But really, nothing they could say was going to change a damn thing. Gibbs might be human for a few days, but then things would be back to the way they always were. And he just couldn’t live with this anymore. Instead of replying, he just continued down the stairs.

This time, Gibbs didn’t follow.

He made it to his car without anyone saying anything to him, for which he was grateful. He wasn’t up to any form of idle chitchat right now. Though it was nearing November, it was still prime fall weather, and Tony was happy to strip off his suit coat and tie and try to relax on the drive home.

His phone started ringing before he made it out of the yard. It was McGee. He ignored it. Then Abby called. He ignored that one, too. He wouldn’t normally duck Abby, but she was never rational about anything negative about Gibbs. It was a huge blind spot and he wasn’t up to tap dancing around it. Finally, Ziva called, which was all over odd, because why should she give a fuck? She’d been a nightmare recently. He finally shut off his phone.

He felt some of his tension bleed away when he was finally in his apartment. He locked the door and tossed his things on the couch, then scrubbed his hand over his face. He really wanted to get a scotch, but since his drinking binges after Jenny’s death, he’d made a pretty strict policy of never drinking alone, or when he was upset. This was both, and the last thing he wanted was to turn out like his fucked up father.

Instead he opted for the next best thing. A long hot shower. Okay, so sex would have been next best, but Tony wasn’t up to hitting a bar tonight. In truth, he really didn’t want to deal with people.

Half hour later, he felt semi-human again, dressed only in his ratty Ohio State sweats, and decided to make something real for dinner. He’d been living off take-out too much lately and it was sitting poorly with him… he felt lethargic and run down. The pasta he’d made last weekend was still good, and the tomatoes were in reasonable shape, so he threw together a quick pasta pomodoro, then put on an old western.

Tony was nearly done with dinner when his computer chimed. Curious, but half dreading, he checked to find that it was an IM from Martin Fitzgerald, his closest friend since he was six. That was something he could deal with.

There were several IMs from the last couple days.

Monday, 4:13 PM: m_fitz: Hey Tony, ping when you can. Worried about the situation with the two yahoos.
Tuesday, 9:04 AM: m_fitz: Figure you’re working a big case, and haven’t been home. Let me know you’re okay when you get this.
Wednesday, 10:01 AM: m_fitz: Checking in. Not sure why I’m so worried about you, but I am.
Wednesday, 8:34 PM: m_fitz: It’s another one of those, huh? Gibbs needs to give you some damn down time occasionally. Write when you can. Worried.

Tony sat at the computer to reply to the most recent IM from a couple minutes ago.

add_73: I’m home. Just got here a bit ago.
m_fitz: Case wrapped, or are you just finally getting a break?
add_73: Neither. Walked out. Told G I’m going to request a transfer.
m_fitz: I’m calling.
add_73: No! I half expect G is already here and I wouldn’t put it past him to listen in. Let me get through the short and ugly in IM, and we can talk in a bit.
m_fitz: fine. what happened?
add_73: not sure, really. hit my limit. things have been fucked up lately. more so than i’ve told you. he’s been on a rampage for no reason that I can tell. if it were just this case, i’d get it, but it’s been going on for weeks.
m_fitz: still having issues with the guide du jour?
add_73: getting worse. he keeps sending me these emotion bombs. i’m about ready to wring his neck.
m_fitz: what do you mean?
add_73: he’s trying to manipulate my emotions. today was overwhelming hostility in the morning, and crushing sadness in the evening. i’ve had enough training to be able to tell when i’m feeling an emotion that’s not mine. plus everything has slowly gone to shit since he got here.

Tony’s home phone suddenly rang. He never received calls on his home phone; almost no one had the number. Ninety percent of the time it was a misdial.

m_fitz: that’s me. answer it.

Sighing, Tony answered the phone. “I really wanted to keep this online.”

I’ll try to be vague. This is fucked up, Tony. What he’s doing is illegal. Have you talked to the S&G Center?” Martin was swearing? The world must be coming to an end.

“You know how hard empathic assault is to prove. But, yeah. I got massively fed up with it two weeks ago and again last week, and went down there, talked to a case manager and a guide coordinator respectively. They were extremely dismissive. Said one of theirs wouldn’t do that and out of courtesy for me, they wouldn’t mention it to anyone.”

Martin made a hissing sound of annoyance. His friend had been an online guide for nearly seven years, and had very strong notions about how sentinels and guides should comport themselves. “That’s total crap!”

“Martin, let it go,” Tony said, feeling defeated. “I walked out tonight after telling Gibbs I’m requesting a transfer. I’m done with this roller coaster.”

There was silence for several moments, before Martin sighed. “I’m sorry, Tony. I know that had to really suck for you. And as your friend who loves you, I’m both sad for you and happy that you’re extracting yourself from a truly messed up situation.”

Tony couldn’t help but laugh, though it felt forced. He was having such a hard time finding real humor in anything lately. “I should be feeling more torn up about it than I do. I figure it’s just denial, but all I can really manage to feel right now is relieved.”

That’s healthy, Tony. Don’t start picking apart your reaction or lack thereof.” There was a pause, before he asked, “Did you ever decide what to do about the McGee/David mess?”

Tony rubbed his forehead, suddenly feeling a headache coming on. “No.” McGee and Ziva were the yahoos Martin had referenced in the first IM. Tony had been on the fence about how to respond to McGee and David cutting off comms while they were covering him getting voiceprints on that domestic terrorist operation.

Tony, you have to do something about that. You have an obligation… to the next agent, even if you won’t take the obligation to yourself seriously. If you were team leader, would you want a violation like that to go unreported?

“I know. There just hasn’t been an obvious solution. Normally, I’d just talk to Gibbs about it and let him sort them out, but he’s been impossible lately. The other option was to file a formal complaint, but that’s something Gibbs would kill me for. He’d see that as going over his head, and bringing others into internal problems.”

What about covering your own ass, Tony? You’re the SFA, and you’re obligated to file a report and it’s already been more than a week. And, truthfully, this isn’t something that should be handled internally.”

Martin had always been a little more by the book than Tony, but Tony could see his point. “Well, I didn’t mention it before, but I sorta did report it.”

What do you mean?”

“I actually documented it in the case report, in the details.”

Jesus, Tony! You know no one really reads that stuff.”

“I know. But it’s technically an official report.”

Martin actually laughed. “Well, that’s one way to deal with it. You were always good at finding clever solutions to a problem.”

Tony found himself smiling for the first time today. “Once I get the whole mess sorted with my transfer, I’ll talk to Gibbs about it directly. He needs to be aware, and I do know that. There’s just been a lot lately.”

I’m sorry, Tony. I guess the last thing you need is me pressuring you.”

“Don’t worry about it. I know you’re just looking out for me.” Tony knew Martin wasn’t mentioning how upset he was that Tony hadn’t told him about the guide situation. But Martin had his own life to deal with and there really wasn’t anything he could do about it anyway.

At the risk of being a pest about it, what are you going to do about the situation with G&g?”

G&g was their code for Gibbs and guide, one they’d been using for as long as Tony had worked for Gibbs. There was always something. Usually it was the amusing anecdote of whatever inappropriate temp guide they sent Gibbs, who usually buckled under the force of Gibbs bastardry within a few days. The occasional good one usually found a permanent match and moved on. “There’s really nothing to do. If I go to a different team, the problem is sorted.”

He shouldn’t get away with that, Tony. It’s against our ethical code to do things like that. And it’s illegal. Empathic assault is supposed to be taken very seriously by the Center. What if he’s the reason why there’s been so much strife lately?” Martin was a high-order guide, who took the ethics in his Pride very seriously.

“What should I do, Martin? I went to the Center, and they ignored me. Twice.” The other option was to complain directly to Gibbs, but the idea of bitching to a sentinel about their guide, albeit a temporary one, gave Tony hives.

Martin sighed, then took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. Again. I just find it to be so offensive. And I wonder what damage he might do if he keeps it up. I’m going to have to find out if what he’s doing can cause you harm.”

Tony snorted. “I find it to be pretty offensive, too. And I don’t feel any more damaged than usual.” He was about to say something else when he heard a key in the lock. “Hold on. Someone’s coming in.”

Break in?”

“No, using a key. Has to be Gibbs or…” Gibbs walked in, looking like thunder. “It’s Gibbs.”

You want me to stay on the phone?”

Gibbs was walking across the room at speed.

“No. I can handle-” The phone was yanked out of his hand and slammed down. “Hey!” Tony surged to his feet. “What the hell is the matter with you?”

Gibbs’ jaw was working furiously as he clenched his teeth. “Your phone is off. Breaking the rules already, DiNozzo?” He was right in Tony’s face.

Tony took a step back before he was tempted to give into the urge to belt Gibbs one. He felt like he was on a hair trigger. “Get the fuck out before I call the cops. You have no fucking right to come into my home and act like this. Also, I’m done with your rules, and you.” Tony’s phone started ringing. No doubt Martin trying to call back.

“We’re done when I say,” Gibbs ground out.

“And how’s that working out for you?” Tony asked snidely. Spinning on his heel, he turned and strode to the door, holding it open. “Out! And leave the key.”

Gibbs teeth were clenched so hard, Tony was surprised he didn’t dislocate his jaw. “We got a break in the case. For now, you’re still on my team, and I need a full team. Get your gear and get downstairs,” he ordered. The answering machine clicked. Martin had hung up without leaving a message.

Tony wanted to tell Gibbs to fucking shove it, Gibbs could have gotten anyone TAD, but at his core, no matter how he chose to present himself sometimes, Tony took his job seriously. “Fine. I’ll be down in five.”

“Three,” Gibbs retorted.

“Don’t push me right now, Gibbs. I’m not going to a scene dressed in nothing but sweat pants. I’ll be down in five.” Deciding to extricate himself from any further argument, Tony headed for his bedroom.

He threw on jeans, a long-sleeve t-shirt, his shoulder holster, securing his firearm at his side, and his backup at his ankle. His knife belt went on last, then he grabbed a leather jacket. To his annoyance, Gibbs was waiting in the living room. Tony didn’t say a word, just grabbed his cell and keys and held the door open, gesturing for Gibbs to precede him.

“We’re not done with this yet, Tony,” Gibbs said as he passed.

“Yeah, we really are.” He locked the door then headed for the stairs, feeling completely resolute about being done with this situation, and done with his team.

Outside, he found Ziva and McGee in the back of the car, Harris sitting in the passenger seat. Tony nearly groaned at the sight. Gibbs had to expect a difficult situation if he was bringing his guide along to stabilize his senses.

He folded himself in the back, crowding McGee into the middle. McGee looked like he wanted to say something, but Tony turned away and focused out the window. As soon as Gibbs was tearing down the street, McGee started to get him up to speed.

Someone had called into the tip line tonight that they’d seen someone matching their missing fifteen-year-old’s description with someone in a black van last night. With a partial plate, McGee was able to narrow it down to one vehicle, which was registered to a man with a home in Falls Church, Virginia. While McGee continued to rattle off info, Tony sent a quick text to Martin letting him know the case had gotten hot and he had to see it through, and that Tony would call tomorrow.

They arrived in Falls Church, Gibbs parking several houses down. At this point, they didn’t know if the Captain’s daughter had been kidnapped or had just taken off, so they had to be careful in how they approached the situation. Once everyone was out of the car, Gibbs cocked his head, obviously listening. Harris moved close and pressed a hand to Gibbs’ back, giving him something to ground his senses on.

Eventually, Gibbs whispered. “She’s here, and she’s crying. DiNozzo, you and McGee take the back. David with me. Nick, stay here.”

Harris looked like he was about to protest, but Gibbs flashed him a glare and jerked his head toward the car. Harris had training to work in the field with law enforcement personnel, but he wasn’t an agent. Gibbs had always refused to let him get involved in anything dangerous.

They moved out, Tony and McGee staying low and moving to the back of the house. He was almost in position to cover the back door when a crippling wave of fear washed over him and he nearly stumbled. He had to stop and wrestle the feeling into submission, pushing it back with everything he had. Fighting these emotions was getting harder and harder. He wasn’t an online guide, he couldn’t just return the emotion to sender, all he could do was ruthlessly stomp on it and move on, fighting as hard as he could against the emotional intrusion.

McGee was giving him a concerned look, but they couldn’t sort this out now. Tony made himself keep going, despite the fear gnawing at him and gestured McGee to the other side of the door. As soon as they heard Gibbs enter from the front, Tony kicked in the back door.

From there everything went fast. There were two men in the house, both armed, but the team managed to recover the girl uninjured. One of the kidnappers was shot in the shoulder by Tony, the other shot in the chest by Gibbs, but not before that kidnapper had fired at Tony, who now had a nasty bullet crease on his upper arm for his trouble.

Ziva got the girl outside to wait for an ambulance. McGee put the surviving perp in cuffs. And Tony had a raging case of fury going on at the fuckhead guide. He was so angry that the pain from his arm barely penetrated. He knew it was best that he stay away from Harris, but the combination of adrenaline, the bitter taste of that fear and the pain in his arm didn’t lend itself to clear thinking. Not to mention the accumulated stress of weeks of this bullshit. So when Harris appeared in the house, ostensibly to help Gibbs stabilize his senses, Tony lost it and slugged the guide. Harris collapsed, cradling his jaw.

“Stay the fuck out of my head, you sick twist!” Tony yelled, leaning over the pained guide.

Tim pulled Tony away just as Gibbs went to one knee by Harris, who was nearly smirking. Gibbs glared up at Tony. “What the hell is the matter with you, DiNozzo?”

Tony clenched his jaw and jerked away from McGee, causing a horrible stab of pain in his arm. “Your rather twisted guide has been trying to manipulate my emotions for weeks. And he nearly caused me to lose it tonight.”

Gibbs brows snapped together and he turned to stare at Harris. “That true?”

Harris shook his head. “That’s against a guide’s ethical code, you know that, Jethro. Plus, it’s illegal.” He glared up at Tony. “I’m pressing charges. Assaulting a guide is a serious offense, Agent DiNozzo.”

Tony snorted at the non-answer, but Gibbs was focused on the guide. His head was cocked to the side, listening. “You didn’t answer the question, Harris. And your heart’s racing.”

“I don’t have to put up with this bullshit. He assaulted me! I want him arrested!”

Gibbs had a tight grip on Harris’ arm. “Answer the question!” he barked. “Are you fucking with my team’s emotions?”

“No!” Harris glared mutinously back at Gibbs.

Gibbs abruptly released his guide, a shocked look on his face. “You have to know that you can’t lie to me.”

Harris scrambled to his feet. “I’m not lying! I’m stressed and in pain, and he should be arrested!”

Gibbs shook his head and stepped back from the guide. “No, you’re lying,” he bit out, looking appalled. “Now shut up.” Suddenly, he whipped around and stared at Tony. “Why am I smelling your blood?”

“Because I was shot in the arm,” Tony retorted, annoyed. He could feel the wetness of the blood saturating his shirt and dripping down his arm, but the leather jacket seemed to be containing most of it.

Gibbs closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Go see the paramedic, then go home, DiNozzo. I’ll talk to you about this later.”

Tony wanted to argue, but Gibbs was actually giving him a way out of a volatile situation. Even if everyone believed Tony, the S&G Center probably wouldn’t, and could still demand that charges be pressed. He needed to get ahead of that.

The paramedics were getting the vitals on their victim, with Ziva standing guard. The girl was quiet and huddled under a blanket. Tony jerked his head toward the house, dismissing Ziva. She looked poised to argue. “I’ve got a bullet wound in my arm, Ziva. I’ll be riding along. We don’t both need to go. Get back inside and help McGee process the scene,” he ordered.

Reluctantly, she headed to the crime scene, while one of the medics broke away to ask about Tony’s injury.

Tony tried to wave the guy off, though some serious pain was starting to penetrate the fog of anger he’d been riding thus far. “Let me just ride along to the hospital and the doctor can stitch me up.”

The paramedic had apparently been taking lessons from Gibbs on how to glare effectively, and insisted on assessing Tony’s injury. Tony gave in with ill grace, and struggled out of his jacket, hissing at the pain in his arm. His adrenaline high must have been waning, because the pain was starting to really make itself known.

The blood had soaked the sleeve of his shirt, and he was surprised at the quantity of it. The medic, whose name was Nate, got him seated on the back and began to cut off his shirtsleeve. The wound was worse than Tony had expected. It was really deep and blood was flowing pretty steadily. If it were any deeper, it would be a hole and not a bloody furrow. He pretty much tuned out the paramedic as he took vitals and applied a temporary bandage.

Gibbs appeared as they were getting ready to leave. “They okay?” But his eyes were on Tony, who looked away. He really was done with the Gibbs’ dog and pony show. Some part of Tony recognized that it probably wasn’t fair to blame Gibbs for Harris’ behavior, but it seemed like Gibbs was willing to blame Tony for everything that went wrong. Tony ruthlessly stomped on the petty voice in the back of his head.

“Ms. Williams’ vitals are strong, though she’s a little bruised, the doctors will need to assess her further. Agent DiNozzo’s BP is a little low, and needs quite a few stitches. I’m concerned shock might set in, so we need to go.”

Tony almost snorted. He wasn’t in danger of going into shock. The girl was quickly loaded on the stretcher, and Tony climbed into the back. As soon as they were en route, Tony pulled out his phone to send a text to Martin.

“You really shouldn’t do anything with that arm,” Nate commented.

“Are you truly expecting me to heed that advice?”

Nate shrugged. “Not really. Had my share of cops in this ambulance, and you’re all terrible patients. I figure the pain will catch up to you soon and you’ll stop of your own accord.”

Tony gave a humorless laugh and turned his attention to his phone. “Have to send a text. I’ll make it quick.” He wasn’t about to admit that even tiny movements of his arm were horribly painful. “What hospital we going to?”

“Dominion.”

— rescued the girl, got shot in the arm, g tried to fuck with me again, slugged him for it, on my way to dominion hospital, probably going to get myself arrested for assaulting a guide. -T —

There was only a brief pause before he got a reply.

–On my way. Don’t do anything else stupid. Don’t talk to anyone without a lawyer.–

–you don’t need to come. i’ll handle it.–

–Fuck you. You’re like my brother, and if you’re in trouble with the S&G Center, you need my help. BTW, what emotion did he send?–

–overwhelming fear, just as i was getting ready to kick in a door to rescue a kidnapped girl.–

–I’m so kicking this guy’s ass. See you soon.–

Tony couldn’t help but smile. Martin almost never swore. And he’d cussed twice in as many messages. He tucked his cell into his pocket and surrendered to another vitals’ check.

Nate was frowning as he pulled his stethoscope out of his ears. “Your blood pressure concerns me. I wish you’d let me start an IV.” He began securing another pressure bandage because the first was soaked.

“I’m fine,” Tony insisted, and turned his attention to the Williams girl, who seemed a little dazed. He drew her out, getting her to talk a little about herself for the remaining ten minute ride to the hospital.

At the hospital, he was actually a little unsteady on his feet as he climbed out of the ambulance and found himself pressed into a wheelchair. Half-hour later, he was being stitched up, was on IV fluids, and getting blood drawn for the second time. Knowing how loopy he got on pain meds, he refused anything but anti-inflammatories and a local, so his arm was killing him. Even his shoulder ached for some reason. He’d take something when he was safe in his own apartment, provided he got to actually go home before getting arrested.

Tony knew he should be more freaked out than he was, but he was mostly still riding a lot of anger. He had no idea what was going to happen. The Center could be really aggressive about people who assaulted guides, but the proverbial black eye they’d get if what Harris was doing got out would settle them down. At least, Tony hoped so. He doubted he was going to jail; it should bee a bigger offense for a guide to empathically assault someone than it was to throw a single punch, so likely it would all wash, but he might lose his job even if he wasn’t in legal trouble.

That wasn’t as upsetting as it should be. Perhaps it was denial, or maybe Tony was more fed up with his life than he’d admitted to himself. Despite his liking for the finer things, he’d never touched the inheritance from his mother, so he’d be fine. His father had alluded to the money more than once, but Tony always pretended he’d spent it all.

The doctor was still stitching when the curtain was pulled back and Fornell entered. His doctor glared at the FBI agent. “You can’t be in here.”

Fornell flashed his badge. “This man is in FBI custody, so I’ll be staying.” He grimaced at the state of Tony’s arm. “Jesus, DiNoteso. They giving you the good stuff?”

Tony glared. “What the hell are you doing here, Fornell?”

“Gibbs called in a favor.”

“Am I under arrest? Because that doesn’t sound like much of a favor.”

“Not yet. Think of this as a pre-emptive strike. Jethro can’t keep a lid on that idiot forever, and then someone’s going to come looking for you. We’re set to say you’re in Bureau custody pending investigation. Jethro will rattle some heads at the Center tomorrow.”

Tony scowled, but before he could say anything, the doctor looked up again, glaring at Fornell. “This man is staying here tonight, he’s not going to be in anyone’s custody.”

Fornell gave an unconcerned shrug. “Guess I’ll be staying, too.”

Tony’s ire was about to be unleashed on the doctor. He had no intention of staying here tonight, but the doctor met his stare unflinchingly. “Your blood pressure is a concern. You haven’t lost enough blood to necessitate a transfusion, but you have lost rather a lot for this type of wound and your hematocrit is borderline. This wound is nasty, and we need to be sure infection doesn’t set in. Truthfully, your vitals are worse than they should be for this wound. I want you under observation.”

He was tempted to just tell the doctor he’d be signing himself out AMA, like he always did, but maybe this was a better bet. It would give things time to settle down, and he was guaranteed he wouldn’t spend the night in a cell. Because, really, there was no telling what Fornell had in mind.

The doctor finally settled back, dropping his bloody suturing supplies on the tray. “Twenty-seven stitches. You’ll be on IV antibiotics tonight, oral for the next ten days. Which of the pain medications do you tolerate the best?” Tony started to protest, but the doctor held up a hand. “You need to rest. I’m prescribing a mild muscle relaxer for your shoulder, and you need pain medication if you’re going to be able to sleep. I understand you want to remain in control of your faculties, so tell me which gives you the least symptoms.”

Reluctantly, Tony discussed his pain medication tolerance with the doctor. They ultimately decided on Demerol, because it tended to just make him really sleepy and not quite so stupid. He’d rather sleep around Fornell than babble around him. “I’d be telling my childhood stories to Fornell and, trust me, our relationship isn’t ready for that kind of intimacy.” The muscle relaxer didn’t sound half bad. His shoulder was beyond tense from the position he’d been holding his arm in to prevent as much pull on the wound as possible.

The doctor began bandaging Tony’s arm. “You’ll need to wear a sling for at least ten days, you can come here or go to your regular doctor to have the stitches removed, we can re-evaluate the sling at that time. Absolutely no activity with this arm.” The doctor stripped out of his gloves.

Frowning, Tony let himself be fitted into a sling. The lessening of the pressure on his arm was an instant relief. “The nurse will be in shortly with your meds. We’ll get you up to a room as soon as possible.”

Tony didn’t particularly want to carry on a conversation with Fornell, so he jerked his head towards the bag the hospital staff had placed his stuff in. “Will you retrieve my cell?” Fornell looked hesitant, so Tony asked, “Am I under arrest?”

“Not yet.”

“Then you have no reason to restrict my communications. So you can be decent and grab my cell for me, or I’ll get up and get it myself.”

Rolling his eyes, Fornell fished out the cell, then tossed it in Tony’s lap. “You’re not supposed to use that arm.”

Tony gave Fornell an incredulous look. “Please don’t act like you care. I’m much more comfortable with you trying to put me in jail, and me trying to make your life miserable.” He fiddled awkwardly with his phone. “Besides, I can text one-handed.”

Fornell shook his head, a look of exasperation on his face.

He propped his cell on his knees and tapped out a message to Martin. –keeping me in dominion overnight. bureau here. G’s idea of helping. supposedly not under arrest. yet.–

A reply came in a couple minutes later. –Some help that is! Already boarded plane. Should be there in a little over two hours. Glad you’re staying put. Let them give you something for pain.–

–said yes to demerol.–

–You must be hurt worse than I thought. Keep your head down, don’t say anything. See you soon. Turning phone off.–

Smiling, Tony locked the phone, ignoring the several missed calls and messages. “My next of kin will be here in a couple hours.” Tony pinned Fornell with a look just as the nurse entered. “I’ve already given his info to Mary here, so don’t try to do anything stupid like keep him out.”

Fornell frowned. “Thought you’d listed Gibbs as your next of kin.”

“Not since his Mexican Siesta,” he replied blandly, turning his attention to the nurse. “Mary, my love, you’re a sight for sore eyes. The scenery around here leaves much to be desired.” His eyes flicked to Fornell. “But you positively brighten the place up.”

She laughed and shook her head. “I’m old enough to be your mother, so save the flirting for someone who’ll be taken in by your charm, young man. Now, let’s see that tush so I can give you a shot.”

Tony flashed her a pout. “You can’t just put it in the IV? I hate needles.”

“Sorry, hon, two in the IV, one in the butt. Now roll towards your good arm.”

With a sigh, Tony shifted his weight onto his right hip. “I’ll just apologize in advance. Sometimes I say the stupidest shit on pain meds.”

Mary snorted as she quickly gave the shot in his upper butt. “You won’t be saying much of anything, Tony. This is a hefty dose… you’ll be asleep in no time. I’m sure the verbal gaffes will be minimal.”

“Uh. I’m not sure I want to be forced to sleep.”

“Don’t worry, sweetie. Except for your next of kin and this yahoo,” she jerked her thumb at Fornell, “I’ll keep everyone out.” Before he could protest further, she injected the pain meds in his IV.

The sudden reduction in pain nearly made him groan in relief.

“There, I’m sure that’s better. Let’s get you flat and I’ll prop that arm up.” Mary’s voice seemed to be coming from a distance. The hit from the meds was impossible to fight as he felt his body maneuvered. He was asleep a minute later.

– – – –

Chapter Two

Tony woke for a bit when they moved him to his room. He was vaguely aware that Fornell was still around. His arm was throbbing again and he couldn’t stop the flinch as he was shifted to a different bed. They asked him if he was in pain and he responded in the affirmative. He thought to ask them to give him something a little less sedating, but the injection into his IV happened before he could form the words and sleep claimed him again.

Voices woke him, but the pain meds had his body feeling leaden and he couldn’t open his eyes. He was able to pick out four voices, three of which he recognized. One was Fornell, another was Gibbs and the third was Martin. He wasn’t sure about the last voice.

“Let’s just all settle down,” Fornell said.

“No, Tobias. I don’t know who this guy is, but he’s definitely a guide. So he could be here on behalf of the Sentinel and Guide Center. I am Tony’s next of kin.” Gibbs sounded really agitated; more so than he should, Tony thought.

There was a snort. “No, I am. You were removed from his medical proxy when you vanished to Mexico. So you have no business here. The only S&G Center I’m affiliated with is in New York, but I’m not here as a guide. I’m here as Tony’s family.” Something about Martin’s voice was off. It sounded oddly strained.

“Jethro, he already produced ID that matches the name Tony left with the medical staff. And he has medical proxy for Tony,” Fornell interjected.

There was a long silence before Gibbs ground out, “The Center wants Tony arrested. Since it’s the middle of the night, they can’t go before a judge until morning, but I’ve assured them he’s in Bureau custody so they don’t send DC Metro to the hospital.”

“I’m afraid that’s where I come in,” the unfamiliar voice chimed in. “Harold Wyman IV, I’m an attorney who specializes in sentinel and guide legal matters. I’ll be ensuring Agent DiNozzo is represented in this affair. And unless someone has a warrant, neither of you are welcome in this room. I can’t make you leave the hospital, but I can make you leave the room.”

“The Bureau is here to protect Tony… their involvement can keep the S&G Center at bay,” Gibbs insisted.

“That’s not your decision, Agent Gibbs. We have the situation well in hand. Now please leave.”

Tony managed to pry an eye open. “Martin,” he rasped, capturing everyone’s attention.

Martin was at his side instantly, resting a hand on Tony’s head, leaning down. “Hey. You okay?”

“Do you think someone could have snuck in and stabbed me with a sword?”

Martin managed a half smile. “Hurts, huh? The nurse changed your bandages a little bit ago. That’s a hell of a graze, Tony. We’ll get you some more meds. She said you could have them as soon as you woke up.”

Tony shook his head. “Talk first. Can’t believe you brought a lawyer.” He didn’t want to go right back to sleep. Martin felt so fucking good. He was a high-order guide, and the feel-good vibes he put off were addictive. For some reason it was more soothing than usual. Maybe Tony had been too tightly wound recently.

With a smirk, Martin retorted, “Bringing a lot more than that. You have nothing to worry about, okay? Just rest. We’ll get everything sorted in the morning.”

Tony held out his good hand, which Martin instantly took. “It’s good to see you… missed you.” He felt completely out of it mentally, and Martin’s presence gave him the safety net to completely let go, knowing everything would be okay.

“I’ve missed you, too, Tony.” He punched the call button. “Everything can wait. I can feel the pain pouring off you. Let me take care of things. Just trust me.”

“No one I trust more.” He closed his eyes for a second. “Can’t wait to see what you brought. My first guess would have been a lawyer, but he’s already here.”

“It won’t be here till morning, so you might as well sleep. I’ll be here when you wake up. And when this whole thing is finished, you’re coming to New York while that arm heals, and then we can decide what’s next.”

Tony was pretty sure that growling sound was coming from Gibbs, but he didn’t care. He closed his eyes and let himself enjoy the Martin-vibes. If he weren’t drugged up, he’d probably not be so overt about his enjoyment of his friend, but right now, he didn’t give a shit.

A hand stroked his hair until a nurse came with an injection, and the world faded away again.

He woke briefly in the early morning, but Martin was right on getting him more pain meds, though Tony insisted on a bathroom trip first. So he had plenty of time to notice that Martin was the only one in the room. He kind of wanted to witness Martin handling Gibbs. Martin seemed fairly quiet and soft spoken, but he could be cutthroat when the situation called for it. Though, again, he registered an odd tension in his friend. He just didn’t have a chance to ask about it.

The next time he woke, the sun was fully up, and the clock on the wall said it was almost eleven. Martin was sitting on the left side of the bed, by his bad arm. But the other side of the bed had the real surprise. Tony blinked a few times, because he was sure he was imagining it.

But, no, the presence of Jim Ellison propping up a wall told him that the man by his bed was indeed Blair Sandburg, Alpha Guide Prime of the US. “Good morning,” the apparition said.

“Um.” Tony cleared his throat and Martin appeared in his field of vision with a glass of water. “Thanks,” he managed after taking a long drink. “You bring the strangest things with you.”

The curly-haired man laughed. “It’s a good thing, I promise.”

With Martin’s help, Tony got the bed adjusted so he was fully upright, with his arm bolstered by a couple pillows. “I’m still a little loopy on the meds, I hope he warned you that I’m liable to say things inappropriate, stupid or perhaps both.”

Dr. Sandburg smiled at him. “I consider myself duly warned.”

Tony stared at Sandburg for a few seconds. “You say it’s a good thing, so I’m hoping your definition of good doesn’t wind up with me in a jail cell.”

Sandburg laughed a little. “No. Everything is going to be fine. Before we talk further, I’d like your permission to do a complete empathic scan.”

Blinking in surprise, Tony managed to ask, “Why?” Empathic scan sounded benign on the surface, but it gave the scanner a complete look at your emotional state, including any suppressed emotions, plus they had a view of your empathic synapses. It was kind of intrusive to have someone be able to tell just how emotionally healthy you were. Or not healthy, as the case may be.

“I’d like to determine how much damage Nick Harris might have done before we meet with the representatives of the Center in a little while. I’m sure you might have questions, but I’d ask you hold them until after I complete my scan.”

Tony was insanely curious, but gestured to himself. “Have at it, Chief.”

All three of the people in the room laughed at that, but Tony wasn’t sure why it was funny.

Sandburg took pity on him. “Jim’s been calling me that for years.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“No. It’s fine. Just funny that you’d pick up on the same name.” He rubbed his hands together. “Okay. I’d like you to just try to relax, and let me work. I have the power to force the scan, but it’s better all the way around if you just let me. Also, it will be a little easier if I’m in physical contact, so I’m going to rest my hands on your arm. Okay?”

Tony didn’t like the idea of someone rooting around in his head, but he got the necessity, so he just nodded. A moment later, two warm hands settled on his forearm.

The scan felt weird. He was keenly aware of another presence in his head. Several times he had to force himself not to fight. Sandburg’s presence wasn’t obnoxiously intrusive or painful, but it felt really odd.

After a long time, his sense of Sandburg faded and the guide sat back in his chair, looking at Tony speculatively and with a good measure of concern. “You want it straight?”

“God, yes. Just lay it out for me.”

Sandburg’s lips quirked up briefly, then his expression turned serious. “All of your empathic synapses are fried. This will cause either severe mood swings, or severe emotional blunting. I think it’s the blunting in your case. Your emotional affect has probably been really flat, and when it’s not, your emotions were likely flash-fire.

“The damage was caused because you were able to detect and fight the emotional invasion. No one else on your team was able to. Frankly, you’re a bit of a wonder. Usually only an online guide or sentinel can detect this sort of empathic intrusion. Even though you’ve had the training given to latent guides, Harris is quite adept at emotional manipulation of this type, and you shouldn’t have been able to fight him off. Even a low-order guide would have had difficulty fighting off these emotional adjustments.”

“Everyone on the team?” Tony zeroed in the part that horrified him the most.

“I scanned Agents McGee and David, both showed signs of extensive emotional adjustments. Because they didn’t detect it, and therefore didn’t fight it, they should reset to their normal emotional state within a week or two. Faster, if we have a guide aid with some empathic healing. They might be moody for a while. There was less intrusion in the minds of Ms. Sciuto and James Palmer. There was none detectable in Dr. Mallard. Frankly, Dr. Mallard has a mind like a steel trap; I imagine Harris felt he wouldn’t go undetected.

“Your mind feels much the same way, but you were his primary target, and he was able to manipulate the others against you. It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that more of your coworkers, beyond your team, were affected to a lesser degree, but they’ll all be fine given time. Towards the end, Harris probably didn’t care if you could detect him or not. I’m sure he thought no one would believe you if you said anything.”

Tony blinked, totally confused. “Gibbs?”

“Sentinel Gibbs would have detected any mental intrusion from a guide, but the deteriorating condition of his team, some complaints, and a few well-placed words of blame were all that was needed to direct his ire your way.”

“Why?” Tony really wanted to know what the fuck he’d done.

“Let me get to that in a minute. The emotional attacks Harris sent your direction were getting more intense and bolder as you failed to respond the way he wanted you to. It’s going to take weeks of empathic healing to get you back to where you should be.”

Tony rubbed his good hand over his face. Fuck. “How’d you get this all done so fast?”

“Martin called me last night, asked for a favor. Once he explained what was going on, we did a little digging into the Center here in DC, and we were concerned enough by some red flags and this situation with you that we left immediately. We landed at five, called Gibbs and had him get everyone on your team to the Center at seven. Your Director Vance arrived a little after eight. Even he had signs of emotional adjustments by Harris.

“Frankly, this whole thing is a giant black eye for the Center. As it fucking should be.” Sandburg glanced back at Ellison. “We’re bringing a team in to do a thorough check of everyone associated with the Center in DC, from the Alpha Prime down to the receptionist. It’s inexcusable that Harris was allowed to be an interim guide, and the fact that your complaints to the Center were buried and not even investigated is even worse. Especially in light of things in Gibbs’ file from prior guides concerning you.”

Tony blinked. “What?” Why would Gibbs’ previous guides have documented anything about Tony? It was extremely unsettling.

“I promise to get to that, because if anyone deserves to know why this happened, it’s you. But let me try to take this in some sort of order. First, I want to assure you that Harris is in custody, and he will be charged with multiple counts of assault. Empathic assaults are often difficult to prosecute, but we’re going to do the best we can, and you’ll be in the loop the whole way. But I assure you, Harris will never be an interim guide again. I tend to think that with the director of a major US agency as one of the victims, we might get a little further in the courts than usual.

“Before I explain the whys of the situation, let me ask…” Sandburg trailed off and hesitated for a few seconds. “Have you heard of GS-155?”

Ellison pushed away from the wall with a heavy frown, and Martin sat back hard in his chair. Tony glanced at his friend to find him looking pale, then focused back on Sandburg. He flailed about mentally for a moment, before a sliver of memory came to the forefront. “You mean the guide suppression drug?”

“Yes. It was a black-market drug that reached the height of its use in the early 80s. After it killed nearly half the people it was administered to, the market dried up and the authorities cracked down on it. I ask because I’m fairly sure from my scan that you were given this drug.”

Martin gasped and reached out for Tony, fingers digging into Tony’s leg.

All Tony could manage was to stare at the Alpha Guide. “I don’t follow… how can you tell?”

“I’ve encountered people before who were given the drug. There’s a particular kind of empathic damage that the drug causes, and you have it in spades. Did you ever get inexplicably ill for about a month at any time in your life?”

Tony was rocked to his foundation, but managed to reply, “When I was about sixteen.”

“So young.” Sandburg winced. “That would have been when your gifts tried to manifest, and the drug suppressed them, preventing you from fully becoming a guide.” He hesitated a moment. “You should be online, Tony.”

Tony felt like he couldn’t breathe. His guide gene was so fucking strong; it had been a mystery and a disappointment to everyone that he never came online. Everyone, that is, except his father. Who didn’t want a guide for a son. Tony felt his head turned to Martin.

“Breathe for me, Tony.” The voice seemed so far away. Suddenly he was swamped with warm waves of contentment and calmness and he managed to catch his breath. “I know I promised not to do that to you, but you were hyperventilating.”

Tony patted at Martin’s hand where it was resting against his cheek. “S’okay.” He took a few deep breaths. “You know it was my father, right?”

“Yeah, I know.” Martin sighed, looking sad. “Guess we now have an answer to whose father is the bigger asshole.”

Sandburg huffed out a startled laugh, and Tony turned his direction. “Sorry. That just caught me unawares.”

“No… it’s fine. I have to laugh about it or I’d lose it.”

The Alpha Guide looked at him a little sadly. “I’m not sure you’re really emotionally capable of amusement right now, Tony. And I’m so fucking sorry for that.” He hesitated a second. “There’s more. You up to hearing it, or do you need a break?”

Martin plopped gracelessly in his chair, which was so not like him. “Jesus, Blair, more? How much more can there be?”

Tony managed to agree. “Yeah, what he said.”

“I don’t know that I can fully explain it, but whatever Harris has been doing to do you, or your ability to fight him off, has had the unintended side effect of eroding the effect of the suppression drug. Though you might have just been slowly doing it on your own. But, to me, you feel like you’re on the cusp of coming online. And considering your age, and the damage to your empathic synapses, I’m afraid it’s going to be traumatic for you. Possibly traumatic for anyone near you if we don’t get you in better shape first.”

He found himself gasping for breath again, feeling an overwhelming sense of panic. This time it was Sandburg who clasped his face, and the most intense waves of serenity fairly oozed into his psyche. “Just breathe with me, Tony. In and out.”

He let Sandburg guide his breathing as the empathic calm slowly receded and Tony got back in control of his own emotions. It seemed he either totally freaked out or went totally flat emotionally. For now, he had to push everything to the side. All he could do was manage what was in front of him. “So, what now?”

“I’d like you to come to Cascade with Jim and me. Martin is welcome to come as well if he wants. Another high-order guide could be very helpful. We’d immediately get started on daily healing sessions, try to get you in as good a shape as possible for when it happens.”

“You’re that sure it’s going to happen?”

“I’m a fully trained Shaman, Tony, and I know you’re a guide… you were just too damaged to manifest normally. And the effect of that suppression drug is eroding, perhaps faster than we can easily manage. On the one hand, in a spiritual sense, I think you’re a guide now, and on the other you feel like you’re coming online physically. When it happens, you’ll be the first person to overcome the effect of the drug.”

Tony rubbed his hand over his face again. “Yeah, whatever. I’ll do whatever it is that you want.” He took a deep breath. “Tell me why Harris had such a hate-on for me. Because I don’t get it.”

“First, I’m sure you already know that Gibbs goes through temp guides, sometimes even conservators, like paper towels, but what’s interesting is that he doesn’t need them all the time. Most sentinels of his level who need a guide, need them all the time, they can’t do with one for a few months, and then without one for three or four. The more astute of his past guides, and two conservators, had noted that Gibbs tends to ground his senses on you.”

Tony nearly choked. “What?”

Sandburg nodded. “His sentinel, on some level, recognized a guide in you, but because you’re not online, eventually the dependence on you would lead him to need a substitute. It’s sort of like there should be a feedback loop, he’s sending, but not really getting anything back. Eventually there’s a backup in the system and things need to be reset. That’s where the interim guide, or sometimes conservator, comes in.”

“Wait, you think Gibbs sees me as his guide?” Tony was pretty sure he’d normally freak out at the very thought.

Sandburg shook his head. “That’s impossible to say, because you’re not fully online. But you’re someone he trusts and can work with in the field, and on some level he sees you as a guide. A sentinel with an interim guide will do better with one he trusts. I’d say you’re probably going to be a high-order guide like Martin and me, and his sentinel would see you as a potential match. It’s impossible to know if that’s true when you’re not fully online.”

Somewhat dazedly, Tony managed a nod. All he could think was, please, don’t let me be Gibbs’ guide. He couldn’t make that leap.

“So, as I said, his past guides were puzzled by the fact that he’d ground first on you, and them second. When Harris came along, he really resented this situation. He’s a level five guide – four levels below Gibbs – therefore he isn’t high-order, and so completely incompatible with the target of his affections. But he’d romanticized the situation and believed if you were out of the picture he could persuade Gibbs to agree to a bond.”

Tony winced. “Are you really telling me that he thought I was cockblocking him so he basically tried to shred my mind?”

Ellison huffed out a startled laugh. “That about sums it up, Sport.”

Tony rubbed at his temple. “This is fucked up.”

“It really is,” Sandburg agreed. “There were several red flags in your situation that the Center dismissed and we’ll be looking into that oversight, too. That a high-level sentinel would be subconsciously grounding on a mundane was begging to be investigated. But your file also shows that you tested comparably to a level two guide in empathic skills from back when you were at the Rhode Island Military Academy, even though you weren’t online. That’s beyond weird, and there should have been follow-up.

“But the damage is done, and we’d like to get you back to Cascade with us ASAP. Because I have a hunch that we don’t have a lot of time.”

Closing his eyes, Tony had to stop and consider for a few seconds. “This is probably irrelevant, but I thought conservators were used for guides who were unstable. So I’m fuzzy on why you mentioned a conservator.”

“Guides unstable or too young to build solid shields. To your question, it’s less openly discussed, but sentinels who have been through traumatic events sometimes temporarily need a strong guide to completely buffer them empathically. We don’t even know why the empathic buffer prevents sensory overload, but it does. It gives the sentinel time to learn to ground their senses again. Usually it’s for a very short duration, a few days to a couple weeks at most.

“I won’t violate Sentinel Gibbs’ confidentiality, but I will say that two of those times were while you were working closely enough with him for the irregularity to be noted. Conservators have more training than interim guides, so wouldn’t miss such an irregularity as a sentinel trying to ground on a mundane.”

Frowning, Tony considered for several seconds. He was having a hard time getting his thoughts in order. But there was this niggling sense of something being not right. “There’s something else.”

Sandburg flashed him an odd look. “What do you mean?”

“Something feels off.” Tony wasn’t sure how to articulate what he’d been sensing. Then he realized it wasn’t something coming from him. It was something wrong with Martin. Like the empath vibes he usually put off to Tony were just a little off of normal. He looked to his friend. “Actually, it’s you. What’s going on? You feel different.”

Martin paled and sat back, arms crossed over his chest. “It’s nothing, Tony. We can talk about it some other time.”

“I’ve been feeling something odd from you since I arrived, Martin,” Sandburg noted. “What’s weird, and somewhat alarming, is that Tony can feel it.”

“I’ve just known Martin for a long time,” Tony replied with a vaguely dismissive hand gesture. Eyes narrowed, Tony stared resolutely at his best friend. “Please just tell me. I’m gonna ask for some milder pain meds soon, and I’d rather be clear headed so I don’t act stupid about whatever it is that you’re keeping from me.”

Martin looked away, quiet for a long time. Tony was about to ask again, but Martin finally said, “I think I found my sentinel.”

Sandburg leaned forward. “Really? Who?”

Tony looked back at Martin. “That’s a good thing, isn’t it? You’ve been looking for ages.”

Martin finally looked at him. “It’s Gibbs.”

Tony choked. “Seriously? Holy shit. Fuck, I’m not sure if that’s poetic or pathetic.” He scrubbed his face trying to make his brain work. But really, there was only one thing to say. “Martin, get out of here and go get him.” When Martin started to say something, Tony held up a hand. “No. You’ve been waiting for years. Gibbs has been waiting longer. You’re my best friend, my brother. And before Harris came along, Gibbs was one of my favorite people. And I’ll get over being pissed and we’ll be fine again. But you both have to be suffering now, and there’s no point in it. Go get him. Go bond. Do wicked things to each other.”

“Tony…” Martin trailed off, hesitation in every line of his body.

“What is it? Why put yourself through this?”

“You mean more to me than anyone. And I… I just can’t imagine bonding with Gibbs after everything I’ve heard about him. He’s kind of a jerk.”

“Jesus…” The fates really hated Tony sometimes. “Okay, listen. You’re the friend I bitch about my boss to, so you gotta figure that’s a skewed perspective. But I know I’ve told you good things, too. He’s a good man; he’s loyal, kind to kids and animals, has a really overdeveloped sense of justice… he just has this bastard wrapping you have to get through. And if anyone can handle him, it’s you.

“I’m not saying he deserves you, because you’re too good for anyone, in my opinion, but I know you’ll be good for him. And I know how painful it’s been for you to be unbonded for so long. Don’t hurt yourself because Gibbs let himself be manipulated. Please.” He could tell Martin was caving. “And that’s as emo as I’m going to get. So you are relieved of your Tony-sitting duties and are instructed to go wrangle your sentinel.”

Martin slowly got to his feet, then very carefully gave Tony a hug, staying away from the wounded arm. He quickly kissed Tony’s temple, then whispered, “I’m going to give him holy hell, Tony.”

Smiling, Tony whispered back. “I’d expect nothing less.” As Martin pulled away and shrugged into his jacket, Tony offered his friend a cheeky grin and said, “Oh, and Martin, welcome to NCIS.”

Freezing in place, Martin’s eyes widened. “Oh, damn.” He scowled at Tony. “You know, he could always come to New York and work missing persons!”

Tony snorted. “Yeah, that’ll happen.” Gibbs at the Bureau? Right!

Martin looked like he wanted to make a really rude gesture, but that really wasn’t Martin’s style so he just shook his head, flashed Tony a smile and headed out the door. Tony had a suspicion that, if Gibbs and Martin decided to bond, he wouldn’t be seeing Martin again before Tony left with Sandburg and Ellison.

Tony watched his brother walk away, then took a deep breath.

“You okay?” Sandburg asked.

“Yeah. I’m fine.” Maybe he could persuade himself to believe that.

“Do you want to talk about it?” the alpha guide prompted.

“Oh, god no.” He took a deep breath and forced himself to focus on the situation, and not on his fear that he was losing his family. “Just tell me what’s next, Dr. Sandburg.”

With sympathetic eyes that saw entirely too much, Sandburg replied, “First, you’re going to call me Blair. And that big lug is Jim or just Ellison. Call him Mister Ellison and he’ll frown at you in a way he thinks is intimidating.”

Tony’s lips quirked up faintly as Jim huffed in annoyance.

Blair ignored his partner and continued. “Next we’ll see about getting you discharged. Your doctor had mentioned to Martin that he had ongoing concern about your vitals, but I’ll be able to explain to him that the severity of your empathic damage can have a physical affect, especially after an injury. Since you’ll be under conservatorship, we’ll be able to keep an eye on that, so we shouldn’t have any trouble getting you out of here. How soon are you able to leave for Cascade?”

Thinking through the issues took Tony a minute. “I need to file my report, then pack a bag. After that, whenever you want. ‘Cause I’d be on desk duty anyway and we just wrapped our last case. Do I need to go to the Center?”

“At some point. We’ll need you to sign a statement and the formal complaint against Harris and the DC Center.” At Tony’s wince, Blair gave him a stern look. “Tony, the DC Center has a lot of culpability here. Any complaint of guide misconduct is supposed to be investigated. They didn’t even have to try hard. Any high-order guide could have detected the emotional adjustments on your team. They might not have been able to find everything I did, like the GS-155 trauma, but it was plenty easy to corroborate your story. And yours isn’t the only one they ignored, just likely the worst of the bunch.”

Tony scrubbed his hand over his face again, as if that could get his thoughts in order. “I did still punch that guy. How much trouble am I in?”

To Tony’s surprise, the growled response came from Ellison. “None. Not if I have anything to say about it, and I promise you that I do.”

He didn’t want to be in trouble, so he knew it was silly to argue, but part of him resisted. “I know the lawyer Martin hired could argue duress, but I still made a choice, and it wasn’t the best idea I ever had.”

Blair leaned back in his chair, giving Tony an assessing look. “Okay, let’s talk about choices. Can you guess what kind of emotional adjustments Harris made to your team?”

That seemed like a non sequitur, but Tony set that aside to think through the question. “Uh, I would guess irritation and impatience?”

“Yes. And then some others tailored to the individual. He amped up what I would consider weak spots in each person’s emotional makeup. Agent McGee he dialed up insecurity, envy and irritation. Probationary Agent David had her hostility and anger tweaked along with intolerance and impatience. Ms. Sciuto also found herself feeling intolerant and impatient with you. Jimmy Palmer felt insecure and fearful around you. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough for Dr. Mallard to notice and comment to Agent Gibbs that you seemed to be trying to intimidate his assistant, even though he never saw evidence of that himself.”

Tony started picking at his blankets. So many of the problems he’d been having on the team were explained by this. But it didn’t really make him feel any better. “They’re all going to be okay, right?”

“Yes. They’ll be fine. But that isn’t really the point. If Ms. Sciuto were feeling annoyed with you, would it be okay for her to stab you with a knife?”

Tony blinked a few times. “No. But isn’t that what I was saying? I chose to punch that guy.”

Blair shook his head and held up a hand. “My point is that just because we’re feeling annoyed or angry, we don’t get a pass on bad choices. We don’t get to kill someone because we’re irritated. But that’s not what was happening to you. He might as well have been going at you with a knife over and over again. That you finally lashed out at your attacker is understandable and I would label it as self-defense.”

“How can you say that if they were to respond to an empathic assault it’s wrong, but for me it’s self-defense?”

“Because they weren’t responding to an empathic assault. Assuming they had been aware of what was going on, if they had turned around and punched Harris, I’d have probably been fine with it, even though they didn’t suffer any lasting damage. But they didn’t go after Harris. If you had punched McGee because of Harris’ assault, that would be an issue, though there’s still more mitigation in your case. But you hit someone who was attacking you. It’s open and shut. Complaints of emotional tampering should always be rigorously investigated. It’s why I’m so pissed off at the DC Center director right now. Some of the damage you suffered could have been prevented if they’d done their damned job when you first came to them.”

Blair took a breath, seemingly to get his calm back before continuing. “I’m going to give you a visual. Imagine that a person’s emotional landscape is like a bunch of colored bars. And each emotion can be turned up or down, varying the intensity of the color in that landscape. Usually these self-adjust depending on what’s happening at any given moment. Some people, usually guides, learn how to regulate those emotions. Experienced guides can even completely turn off an emotion if necessary; much the way a sentinel can dial-down touch if they’re in pain.”

Leaning forward, Blair was clearly in some kind of teacher mode that he was totally immersed in. “In the case of emotions, I can see when an emotion is self-regulating and when it’s been set manually – for lack of a better term – and there’s an empathic fingerprint left behind that tells me who made the adjustment. With external tampering, what you wind up with is a color that is almost static and slow to self-adjust, and it takes time for the brain to reset and self-regulation to resume.”

“So they just have to be irritated or hostile all the time until they get better?” That sounded really shitty to Tony.

“In the abstract, yes, but not in this case. Emotional adjustments can have a trigger. So let’s say you want to create an aversion to cigarettes. You could create a trigger that someone would feel, let’s say… revulsion whenever they saw a cigarette. They’re not feeling revulsion all the time, just when they see a pack of Marlboros.”

“And I was the trigger,” Tony stated baldly. “And if I’m not around, they won’t be feeling these aberrant emotions?”

“That’s mostly right. It’s more complicated than I can easily explain. That’s just a simplistic overview. But the point is that their emotional landscape is basically intact. It’s a little too static in some places, but okay. The one with the most adjustment, Agent David, will be back to normal in a couple weeks. I would imagine Ms. Sciuto and Mr. Palmer will be fine in a few days.”

“Well, that’s good.” And why didn’t Tony really feel any better about that? He wanted the team to be okay, but part of him also wanted there to be a better explanation for some of the things that had happened.

“Now that you’ve got a picture of that in your mind, your emotional landscape looks like someone was carving it up with a chainsaw.” Blair looked unsettled even as he said the words. “I don’t know how else to describe it. The more you fought, the more damage. You were being brutalized, and you eventually defended yourself. You’re not going to get in trouble for that. In a legal parlance, what he did to the others would be a misdemeanor, and what he did to you was a felony.”

Tony flinched, then forced himself to stay on task. “So if I hadn’t fought him, I’d be fine?”

Blair’s mouth dropped open, but Jim stepped forward, getting Tony’s attention. “Don’t even go down that path, DiNozzo. You had every right to fight someone fucking with your head.”

Nodding vigorously, Blair added, “Seriously, man, don’t get sucked into that kind of thinking.” Blair was hesitating about something.

“Whatever it is, just say it,” Tony prompted. “Like I said before, I’d rather you just give it to me straight.”

Blowing out a breath, Blair finally said, “I get what’s driving this, Tony. At least, I think I do.” After hesitating for a moment, he finally said, “I think you want to believe that what Harris did could make your partners cut comms while you were undercover, and effectively rob you of backup.”

Tony felt lightheaded all of a sudden and the room felt too confining. “Why the hell would Martin tell you that?”

“For the same reason… he wanted to know if it was justifiable.”

“And?” he reluctantly prompted, dreading either answer Blair could give.

“No. Not in my opinion. Just like an annoyed Ms. Sciuto can’t hypothetically stab you, trained federal agents can’t turn off comms because of irritation and hostility. That’s not an acceptable response. But the agency will probably consider what Harris did as a mitigating factor and they won’t face any serious repercussions.”

“I…” he trailed off, not sure what he wanted to say. He’d been wondering for a week how he could keep going into the field with them, trusting them to have his back. And he was no closer to an answer. But he was out of time on making an official report. A real one, not just the footnote in the case report. “I don’t even know… Umm… Let’s just deal with what’s next.”

Blair nodded, and Tony looked away from the too sympathetic gaze. “That’s smart, Tony. You don’t want to make any decisions that have, or should have, an emotional component until you’ve had some empathic healing.” He rubbed his hands together. “Back to our earlier topic. I think we’re going to divide and conquer. Jim will go the Center and knock heads together.” He raised a brow at Ellison, who nodded, then looked back at Tony. “You and I will take care of whatever it is you need done, then we’ll go to the Center to wrap things up and maybe get out of here tonight.”

Tony’s brows drew together as he frowned. “You don’t need to come with me, Blair.”

“Actually, I do. You could come online in an hour, or in a month. I can’t get a feel for how far away it is. And with the amount of damage you’re dealing with, I’m pretty sure you’ll need an empathic buffer when it happens. I know this is going to rub you the wrong way, because you oddly enough remind me of Jim, and I know it would rub him the wrong way, but you won’t be alone until after you come online.”

Gaping, Tony could only manage, “What, like ever?”

Blair shrugged. “Well, you might be in one room and your conservator in the other, but that’s about as alone as you’ll get.”

“But why?” Tony complained.

“Because I don’t know what will happen. You could get overwhelmed by empathic input and not be able to shield yourself, then project it out and hurt people around you. I don’t want you hurt anymore, I don’t want people around you hurt, and I don’t want to see you struggling with feeling guilty if something goes wrong that you can’t control. It’s safer to have someone with you. Once we get back to Cascade, there are other guides I trust to help, and we’ll have you covered 24/7 until you’re stable enough to be on your own.”

Blair hopped to his feet, with an annoying amount of energy. “Now, let’s get you something a little milder for your arm and get you discharged.”

“Are you always this bossy?”

“Yes,” Jim retorted blandly.

“Hey!”

– – – –

Chapter Three

Martin parked in front of the DC Sentinel & Guide Center, but hesitated about actually getting out of the rental car. He was so conflicted. Everything guide in him was nearly screaming for him to find Gibbs. But his mind was inclined to find a golf club and beat Gibbs over the head with it. And maybe Tony shouldn’t have told him that story of Gibbs’ past relationship disasters.

He felt like he shouldn’t have left Tony; not that Blair wasn’t perfectly capable of managing Tony, even if Tony decided to be difficult. But Tony was important to him, and he was vulnerable and hurting. Of course, Tony would never admit that! It wasn’t even the physical injury… the emotional trauma just made Martin cringe. However, Martin’s ability to stay away from Gibbs was deteriorating and eventually, he’d be no use to Tony.

He decided there was no point in lingering in the car. Besides, Gibbs might not even still be here, but if he wasn’t, the Center could get him in touch with his annoying sentinel-to-be.

As soon as he stepped in the door, he was hit by the emotional tone of the place. Everyone was edgy or anxious. Normally there was an air of excitement after a high-ranking sentinel or guide had paid a visit. Not so here.

He stepped up to the reception desk. A guide in her twenties manned the desk and managed to look bored despite the palpable anxiety Martin was getting from her. “I’m looking for Sentinel Jethro Gibbs. Is he still here?”

“Sentinel Gibbs is unavailable,” she said woodenly, looking down and avoiding eye contact.

“So, he is here?”

“He’s unavailable,” she reiterated, not looking up from the papers on her desk.

“Then I’d like to see whatever senior guide is on duty.”

She finally looked up. “Everyone’s busy. Unless you’re in an empathic crisis, you’ll need to make an appointment.”

Martin’s mouth dropped open. This was not how Centers were supposed to be run. They were there to support the community, not just handle empathic or sensory distress. You didn’t just dismiss someone without knowing why they had come. And a receptionist’s job was to direct the flow of traffic, not keep people out. Jesus.

“Martin?”

Startled, he turned towards the voice that came from his left. “Kyle? What are you doing in DC?”

“I’m…” Kyle trailed off, eyes flicking toward the reception desk. “Scott and I are both here. Blair asked us to come down.”

“Oh.” That put a spin on things. Blair had mentioned he’d asked someone to oversee the investigation, but Martin hadn’t heard who. Of course, he’d only had about fifteen minutes to talk to Blair before they went in to check on Tony, coupled with the occasional text throughout the morning. Prior to that, Martin had been watching Tony sleep, and Blair had been tearing things up at this very Center. It never occurred to him that it would be the directors from the New York S&G Center, Kyle Monahan and Scott Thompson.

“Come on. Let’s talk in one of the conference rooms.” Kyle typed quickly into his phone while leading Martin to what was clearly a soundproofed room. He flipped on some sound generators, then ushered Martin to a chair. “Scott’s on his way. You eaten lunch?”

“Uh, no. I had some coffee and a really stale pastry a couple hours ago. I’ll figure that out next.”

“I was headed to the Center café to get some sandwiches for Scott and me. I’ll have someone pick up enough for all of us.” Kyle was on the phone before Martin could demur.

Martin shot off a quick text to Blair, asking what all he could tell Kyle and Scott.

Scott arrived with a stack of folders before Kyle was even off the phone. The New York Alpha was a burly sentinel nearing fifty with close-cut dark hair starting to gray. He was nearly 6’4 and a former Army Ranger. Martin had seen him intimidate a group of baby sentinels from across a parking lot with just a look. Martin thought the tough sentinel was a great fit for a city as tough to manage as New York, so there was no doubt he’d be able to whip DC into shape.

On the surface, Kyle seemed like an odd fit for Scott’s guide. He was nearly fifteen years younger, which was a fairly big age gap for sentinels and guides, and seemed sweet natured and accommodating. But Kyle could whip out some big claws when he was upset. He had short wavy dark hair and the most insanely blue eyes, plus he was so good looking there usually wasn’t a day that passed where his sentinel wasn’t growling at someone for their overt interest. The two had been bonded for nearly twelve years.

Scott gave him a nod and settled across the table from Martin, dumping the files in an untidy pile. Martin’s phone chimed before much could be said. Blair’s text made it clear he was free to be completely open about the situation with the pair from New York.

Kyle sat next to him, resting a hand on Martin’s forearm. “We actually arrived after Blair and Jim left, though I know they’ll be back later today. Blair called us just about four hours ago to come take over here and investigate this Center. We have some information, but… I know Blair came because you called.” Kyle hesitated for a second. “Did you feel you couldn’t come to me?”

“Oh! God, no.” Martin hadn’t stopped to consider how that looked. “I wasn’t trying to go over your head or anything.”

“Martin,” Scott interjected gruffly, much to Martin’s surprise, “no one’s upset. We just don’t like the idea that any guide in our city didn’t feel like they could come to us.”

“No, no, no… everything just happened fast. And I…” He stopped himself, taking a deep breath, striving for some level of coherency. “You’re familiar with the Harris situation?” At their nods, he continued, “The primary target of Harris’ attacks is a friend of mine, Tony DiNozzo. Prior to last night, I knew that Tony was having problems with the interim guide on his team, but I didn’t know about the empathic assault. Tony mentioned it because he’d gotten fed up with it, and couldn’t get help from the Center here. I’d never heard of a mundane detecting emotional adjustment like that and I was worried it could be causing Tony harm.

“At first I called Blair just for advice. I thought about calling you, Kyle, but with Blair being a fully trained shaman, I thought he might have more experience. And you know he and I talk regularly. He was right there with me when I started coming online.” That was back when Martin had been assigned to the Seattle field office.

Kyle squeezed his arm reassuringly. “I’m not upset. I was just worried you felt you couldn’t come to me for some reason.”

“No. I have no issue with you guys. You’re great. I actually planned to ask you guys why the Center here wouldn’t investigate Tony’s complaints. But things just snowballed really fast.”

Scott leaned forward on his elbows, hands folded together. “Tell us how we got to now, because this place has some serious issues.”

That seemed to be an understatement. “After Tony and I talked, he got called back on a case. Apparently, just as Tony was about to kick down a door to arrest some kidnappers, Harris tried to ratchet up his fear levels. Tony fought it off, but took a bullet in the arm. Afterward, he lost it and punched Harris. He texted me on the way to the hospital, basically saying he thought he was going to jail for assaulting a guide.

“I just started packing and looking for flights. Blair called me back while I was booking the trip. I spilled the whole thing to him. He said he’d help however he could. By the time I landed in DC, there was an attorney waiting for me and a voicemail from Blair that said they’d be here by morning.”

“The lawyer’s still here. I think he’s going to be helpful in several areas as we clean up this mess. But, tell me, how’s DiNozzo doing?” Kyle asked, looking concerned.

Martin rubbed his temples. “He’s so messed up, and he doesn’t even know it. Empathically, he feels flat and dead. It totally freaked me out when I first saw him last night. Blair did a complete scan… took him forever. Tony’s empathically fried, to use Blair’s term. Said it would be weeks to get him healed.”

Scott flopped back in the chair, blowing out a breath. “That’s… just not right. Well, I can guarantee he won’t suffer any repercussions for the love tap he gave Harris.”

“Is that it?” Kyle prompted.

“No. I’m sure you know as much as I do about what went on here with the investigation into Harris’ actions and all the people Harris was messing with empathically. But on the Tony front, Blair’s scan showed that Tony was given GS-155 when he was a kid, then he tried to come online when he was sixteen.”

Kyle blanched and Scott swore. The Sentinel reached into his stack of folders, then flipped through one. After a few moments, Scott ground out, “Apparently DiNozzo has one of the strongest guide genes we’ve ever measured.” He slammed the folder shut. “I hope your friend knows that the Sentinel Council won’t let that go. They’re gonna launch an investigation.”

Martin shook his head. “Tony’s totally saturated right now. There wasn’t any point in telling him that this would even go before the Council, much less them gunning for his father’s head.”

“You sure it’s the dad?” Scott asked intently.

“Yeah. Isn’t it usually a family member? And, trust me, Anthony D. DiNozzo, Sr. can’t stand the idea of his son being a guide. He’s never passed up an opportunity to tell Tony that. No one else had any reason to do it. I’d even be able to guess that he dosed Tony when he was eight, which was right after his mother died.” Mrs. DiNozzo would never have allowed Tony to be dosed, and Tony spent so much time at boarding school after her death, it was likely done before he left for the first one. Either that, or the horrible Hawaiian vacation Tony had been forced to go on when he was twelve.

Scott made some notes. “I’ll talk to Jim and Blair first before filing the report. The Sentinel Council is going to be spitting nails about being deprived of a likely high-order guide.” He blew out a frustrated breath. “Anything else about DiNozzo?”

“It gets worse and weirder. Blair says he’s on the cusp of coming online. I don’t think he knows if it’s a Tony thing, or the effect of the empathic trauma, but he’s pretty sure it’s going to happen, and soon.”

Scott got up and started pacing, reminding Martin entirely too much of the leopard that was his spirit guide.

Kyle took a steadying breath. “No one’s ever come back from that drug before. And he’s going to come online with empathic damage? I… I don’t even know what to make of that.”

“I’m sure Blair’s hoping to get some healing in first. Maybe they can get it all done before Tony comes online.” Martin had to not let himself think too much about it, because he could drive himself insane worrying about the what ifs of Tony coming online.

Scott stopped pacing and gave Martin a piercing stare. “He came to this Center for help, and they did nothing?”

Twice he came here for help.”

Scott just shook his head, looking pissed, but Kyle had that look. The ‘I’m going to gut someone’ look. “Well, we’re going to have some lunch and then Scott and I are going to start tearing this place down to its metaphorical foundation.” He had a fairly evil smile on his face. “You want to help?”

Martin couldn’t help the brief laugh. “I’d really, really love to, but I’d still be with Tony if there wasn’t a pressing issue I needed to deal with. I’m trying to find Sentinel Gibbs, and the reception desk wouldn’t even confirm if he’s here.”

Scott and Kyle shared a look, before the guide cautiously replied, “He is. May I ask why you’re looking for him?”

Martin wasn’t sure what to make of the hesitation. “Uh, turns out he’s my sentinel.”

“Oh, thank god,” Kyle breathed out. “He destabilized before we got here. Shortly after Blair and Jim left, I think. They tried at least ten guides, but he kept getting worse. We’ve got him in isolation right now. I was thinking of calling Blair to see if a shaman’s influence might help, but saw you standing in the lobby, and we got diverted.”

Worried, Martin got to his feet. As much as he wanted to smack Gibbs, he didn’t actually want him to suffer.

Kyle guided him out of the room. “Whenever the food turns up, I’ll leave enough for both of you at the monitoring station. Do you want me to get one of the bonding suites ready?”

“Yeah.” Isolation rooms had video surveillance for the safety of the sentinel or guide, but no audio. Martin would make sure they moved before any bonding happened.

“If for some reason, you can’t make it down there, and I hope it doesn’t come to that, but text me and I’ll get the video feed cut.”

“Thanks,” he murmured, “but I promise we’ll move.”

Kyle chuckled. Once they got down to the basement level, Kyle first showed the bonding suites, then led him to the isolation unit.

The guide nurse stopped them as they neared. “He zoned for several minutes. I just got him out of it.”

Martin thanked her. “I’ll take care of him.” He gave Kyle a quick hug goodbye, then moved to the door the nurse indicated. He hesitated, trying to decide if he was ready to beard the dragon in his den. After a moment, he rolled his eyes and told himself to buck up. Gibbs probably already knew he was here. He sure as hell could feel Gibbs’ distress.

Taking a deep breath, he headed into the dimly lit, colorless room. To his nose, the room was also free of all smells, but he knew that the sentinel would find it anything but free of fragrances.

Gibbs was seated on the bed, on the far side of the room, leaning against the wall, one leg out in front, the other pulled up to his chest. Even in the dim light, Martin could make out the intense piercing blue of his eyes, which were fixed on Martin with a desperate intensity. Despite the casual posture, Martin could tell the sentinel was on the edge.

There were two chairs in the room and Martin took one, keeping a healthy distance from Gibbs. Touching would start the bonding process before Martin was ready to go there.

“How’s Tony?” Gibbs got out quickly, sounding strained.

Grudgingly, Martin gave him points for asking about Tony first. He held up a finger and focused inwardly for a second. He quickly threw an empathic buffer around his sentinel, hoping it would help Gibbs enough to not lose it in the next few minutes.

Gibbs tensed briefly, then seemed to sag a little in relief. “Thanks,” he said softly.

Martin nodded. “How long have you been tracking me?”

“I felt you before you hit the parking lot,” Gibbs replied gruffly.

“They said you zoned…” Martin trailed off leadingly.

“When you went to the conference room. Couldn’t keep track of your heartbeat.”

Crossing his arms over his chest, Martin blandly offered, “You shouldn’t be extending your senses like that right now.”

Gibbs just glared at him. And, yeah, Martin knew the sentinel probably couldn’t help it given the circumstances. “There a reason you won’t answer the question about Tony?” the sentinel asked, eyes boring into Martin.

“I’m not sure how you’ll react, and we don’t need you less stable than you already are,” Martin hedged. Plus, he was feeling a little stingy in regards to his best friend, and reluctant to share anything. He knew he needed to let this irritation go, or they weren’t going to get anywhere.

Brows furrowed, Gibbs asked, “How badly was he hurt? I thought he was grazed?”

Martin huffed out a breath. Gibbs was talking about physical trauma. “Physically Tony’s okay. Although, he may call that a graze, but I call it losing a big chunk of your upper arm. He’s probably out of the hospital by now and on his way home. He’ll be by the Center later today, I imagine.”

Looking confused, Gibbs prompted, “Physically? Is that supposed to mean something? I thought these emotion thingies that Harris did wouldn’t have long-term effects.”

Martin lunged up from his chair and started pacing. “Yeah, well, Tony’s different! Blair’s taking him back to Cascade to try to get him healed.”

Glaring, Gibbs sat up straight. “What?! Why does he need healing? And why does he have to go anywhere? I need to talk to him.”

Stilling, Martin faced Gibbs, fixing the sentinel with a return glare. “You need to leave Tony alone. He needs help – empathic healing, not a headslap!” Gibbs looked gutted, jerking back. Martin took a steadying breath. They weren’t going to get anywhere if he lashed out. “Look, I’ll tell you everything I know, and then you and I are going to talk about the elephant in the room.”

“And which elephant would that be?”

Martin nearly growled he was so annoyed. “I’m your guide, you thick-skulled jarhead!” He started pacing again, hands moving furiously in his agitation. “Seven years, seven years! I’ve been waiting for you for seven years, Gibbs. I go to all of the damn meet’n’greets the Center puts on for high-order guides and sentinels, and you weren’t at a single one of them. What’s wrong with you?” Stopping all movement, he dropped his head in his hands, trying to get calm.

He heard the sound of Gibbs moving, and felt the sentinel’s desire to reach out. “Don’t touch me yet. We have too much to talk about, and the state we’re both in, touch would start the bond.” Turning around, he faced the pained looking sentinel. “Are you planning to deny me?”

On his feet now, Gibbs look startled. “No.”

Martin squared his shoulders and resumed his seat. “Tony first, then we’ll talk about us.” He quickly gave Gibbs the overview of the damage Harris had caused Tony. Gibbs looked calm, but Martin could feel the deep well of anger and a healthy amount of regret. Good. “There’s more,” he said softly. “Tony’s coming online.”

Mouth open, Gibbs seemed to flail for something to say. Finally he shook his head. “I don’t understand.”

“Tony should have come online when he was sixteen. He’d been given GS-155, probably before he was twelve, and managed to survive both the drug and the sickness. Blair thinks whatever happened the last few weeks may have eroded the effect of the drug. But whatever the reason why, Tony’s going to be a guide. And with the amount of damage he’s suffered, it could be very traumatic for him.” Martin nearly flinched at the amount of grief and rage Gibbs was feeling. There was no doubt in his mind that Gibbs cared for Tony, he just had a bad way of showing it. “There’s nothing that can be done for him here, he needs to be with Blair.”

Gibbs sank heavily into the other chair and was quiet for a long time. Eventually, he said, “What do I do?”

Flopping into his own chair, Martin tried to figure out what to say. “You tell him you’ll support him no matter what he does. When we bond, you’ll be an alpha. Probably strong enough to take DC, maybe beyond. So you make sure what the Center did to Tony doesn’t happen to anyone else. And you set aside your precious rules and you apologize.”

Gibbs was silent, looking at his hands folded in his lap. Martin was aware of the storm of emotion in the outwardly calm sentinel, but made no attempts to intervene. Martin’s presence, plus the empathic buffer, seemed to have helped stabilize Gibbs’ senses.

After several minutes of quiet, Martin got to his feet and headed for the door.

“You’re leaving?” Gibbs asked quietly.

“Yes, and you are, too. Let’s go.” Martin didn’t think Gibbs was the type to meekly follow along, but the sentinel said nothing as he followed Martin from the room. Grabbing the bag of food on the desk, Martin nodded to the attendant and followed the directions he’d been given to the bonding suites. Once he found the correct hallway, he easily spotted the room with his and Gibbs names written on a marker-board by the door.

He easily felt Gibbs’ surprise. “Bonding suite?”

Instead of responding, Martin entered the room and raised the lighting level to something tolerable for a sentinel, but not the extreme dimness from before. As soon as Gibbs was in, he locked the door and flipped the do not disturb switch. He fiddled with the food, setting it out on the table.

Eventually, he couldn’t put it off and turned to face his sentinel. “Emotionally, I’m running on the edge right now. I don’t know how long I can stay away from you.”

Head cocked to the side, Gibbs watched him intently. “You don’t want to bond?” he asked, clearly unsure of Martin at the moment.

“I want to talk.” He raked his fingers through his hair, knowing he was throwing it into disarray. Inelegantly, he sprawled into one of the chairs at the small table. “Sit. Let’s eat and I’ll tell you what I need from you, and you can tell me the same.” Gibbs readily sat, and Martin was surprised that he was so compliant. “I half expected to be doing battle every step of the way.”

Gibbs met his eyes, and for a second Martin forgot to breathe. The connection between them was palpable. “Nothing to battle about.” There was a pregnant silence. “I’m not going to pick fights with you.”

Martin nodded in acknowledgement, then started picking at his sandwich. “We haven’t even really met properly, though I know quite a lot about you. I’m sure you got my full name from Agent Fornell, but I’m not sure if you know that I’m an FBI agent, too.”

His sentinel’s lips quirked up. “That makes things easier.”

“Mmm,” Martin hummed noncommittally. “I’m based in New York, Missing Persons Unit.” He took a steadying breath, aware his sentinel was watching closely. “I’m willing to leave New York, and the Bureau, and come to NCIS.” He could feel the relief at his words. “But I expect some things in return.”

Gibbs nodded and made a go-ahead gesture.

“I won’t be anything less than a real partner. I won’t stay behind, or wait in the car, or anything else. I’m a good agent, and I don’t need to be coddled.” When Gibbs didn’t say anything, and his emotions didn’t really give Martin much clue, he continued. “And I won’t be a stand-in for Tony.”

“What does that mean?” Gibbs questioned with a heavy frown.

“It means I won’t invent new and clever ways to redirect your temper to me. I won’t stand in between you and the junior agents. And I will never be headslapped.”

He felt astonishment from Gibbs, then some sort of sense of realization. “Tony has been deliberately directing my temper his way?”

Martin gave Gibbs a look. “Yes. When you get obsessed, he pulls your attention to keep your temper from the other agents. I won’t do that. I will happily help you in any way I can if you’ll even accept it, but I won’t… I can’t spend my life redirecting your anger to me.”

Gibbs sat back in the chair, completely abandoning any attempt at eating. He scrubbed his hand over his face, sighing. “I don’t expect you to. I guess I knew, in some way, that Tony was doing that. I just hadn’t directly thought about it.”

“Tony’s a big boy. He decided how he was going to be in this job, but I can’t be a stand-in for him on the team. I don’t work that way, and I wouldn’t even want to. I work hard, I’m good at my job, and I expect to be respected. By you, and the rest of the team. I don’t mind liaising with the LEOs, because I’m good at it and I know, whether you admitted it or not, that you depended on Tony to smooth things over and keep decent inter-agency cooperation.”

Stiffly, Gibbs nodded, but didn’t say anything.

“There’s one other thing I won’t do, and I can’t explain why yet. Tony has to tell you, although if he doesn’t do it soon, I will.” He gathered his nerve, then bluntly said, “I won’t be subordinate to McGee or David.” When Gibbs seemed set to respond hotly, Martin held up a hand. “If, after you talk to Tony, you feel you need to promote McGee to SFA, I’ll come in as a liaison, or a guide-consultant, but I won’t be junior agent to either. I won’t take orders from them.”

Martin could feel a hefty amount of indignation coming from Gibbs, but after a minute or two, it faded and the sentinel began to look thoughtful. Eyes narrowed, he finally said, “I couldn’t make you SFA. Even with your experience, you need a year at NCIS to be able to step into any position of authority in the field. Be it SFA or Team Lead. McGee is the best choice for interim SFA while Tony is gone.”

Shrugging, Martin blandly replied, “It’s your choice. I didn’t say you had to make me SFA, I just said I wouldn’t be subordinate to McGee. You handle your team how you see fit.”

“Seems like you’re trying to tell me how to handle my team.”

Scowling, Martin bit out. “No. I’m just telling you what role I’m willing to consider if I come to DC and work with you. If you’d prefer that I transfer to the Bureau in DC, that’s fine.”

“High-order sentinels and guides have to work together,” Gibbs stated, but he seemed, and felt, fairly calm.

Martin nodded, but said nothing.

After another long silence, Gibbs finally sighed. “They did something, didn’t they?”

“Yes. I can’t tell you what.”

“Just tell me if it’s bad enough that it would affect my ability to promote McGee.”

Martin met Gibbs stare head on. “I would have fired them over it.”

“Was this Harris clusterfuck a factor?”

“A factor? Yes. An excuse? No.”

“And you won’t tell me,” Gibbs stated.

“I’m asking that you wait and talk to Tony.”

“I can’t promise you something when I don’t know!” Gibbs bit out.

Martin shot to his feet, resting his hands on the table, leaning towards Gibbs. “And I’m not asking you to promise! I told you what I was willing to do. After you talk to Tony, if you want to promote McGee, do it! And then figure out how to fit me in where I don’t have to take orders from him.”

Gibbs lunged up from the chair, mirroring Martin’s position, their faces now a mere foot apart. “It doesn’t work that way!”

“Then I don’t know what to tell you!” They had a stare off for a long time. Martin finally managed to rein in his temper enough to pull back a bit. “Let’s say we stay away from each other until you talk to Tony, and then you disagree with my assessment and want to promote McGee. Then what? Are you not going to bond with me?” Martin had come here prepared to give Gibbs hell, but he hadn’t come here prepared for his sentinel to be willing to let him go.

Jerking back as if he’d been hit, Gibbs yelled, “I’m not going to give you up!” Then stopped and looked astonished at his admission.

Martin blinked a few times, then found himself smiling a bit. “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“Choosing me, Gibbs.”

Gibbs flopped back in his chair, reaching for his sandwich. “Jethro,” he finally muttered.

“Pardon?” Martin sat again, but pulled out his phone.

“Call me Jethro. I don’t like the idea of you calling me Gibbs.”

“Okay, Jethro.” He dialed Tony’s cell, grateful that Tony picked up.

“Hey, Martin.”

“Tony. You okay?”

“Yeah. Why aren’t you with Gibbs?”

“I am. Where are you now?”

“I just got home. I’m going to pack and then we’re swinging by the office so I can finish my reports. If you’re with Gibbs, why are you calling?” Tony sounded okay, which was a huge relief to Martin.

“Listen, I know you’ve got more than enough on your plate right now, but I need you to talk to Gibbs about last week. He and I need to come to some agreements before we bond and this is in the way.”

Tony was quiet for several beats, then sighed. “Okay. Put him on.”

Martin extended the phone to Gibbs, who took it with seeming reluctance. “You okay, Tony?” Gibbs asked first, and Martin thawed a little more toward his sentinel.

He couldn’t hear Tony’s side of the conversation, just listened to Gibbs, watched his expressions and kept tabs on his emotional state. It was pretty obvious when Tony revealed the procedural lapse that could have resulted in Tony being hurt or killed. Gibbs expression became stony and his emotional landscape had this desolate feel. Martin had a hard time not reaching out and trying to comfort in some way. He could tell that Gibbs wanted to ask ‘why’. Why didn’t you come to me? Why didn’t you say something? Why did they do that? But he probably already knew the answers to those questions, because Martin felt guilt edging into Gibbs’ emotional landscape.

Calling Tony had always been Martin’s plan, but he’d needed to press Gibbs a little to make a choice for Martin. He needed a little blind faith in order to make the next step.

Eventually, Gibbs barked out a, “DiNozzo!” No doubt to interrupt a Tony-ramble. “Tony,” he said in a softer tone of voice. “It’s fine. I’ll take care of everything. Don’t bother going to the office. Just email the details for both reports and I’ll fill out the paperwork.” After a pause, Gibbs scowled. “No, Tony, not because they have some trigger thingy. I don’t care if they feel annoyed. It seems to me that you’ve had more than your share of shit lately, and you don’t need to see them right now.”

There was another long pause and Martin felt a sense of loss from Gibbs at whatever Tony was saying. Finally, he said, “I’ve never regretted it, Tony. Listen, there are some things I need to say to you. In person. So you do what Sandburg tells you to do, and get better, or I’ll come out there to make you behave. Then we’ll talk. ‘Cause I’m not leaving things like this. Rule five, DiNozzo. It was true when I hired you, still true now. Take care of yourself.”

Not giving Tony time to say anything. Gibbs hung up the phone and passed it back to Martin. Tony had mentioned Gibbs habit of not saying goodbye and needing to have the last word. Martin would let it go for now, but he’d be damned if his sentinel was going to make a habit out of hanging up on him. He sent a quick text asking if Tony was okay.

Gibbs leaned his elbows onto the table, resting his forehead on his clasped hands. Mostly Martin got a sense of feeling bereft from the sentinel. Before he could say anything, his cell chirped. —I’m fine. Glad it’s over with. Take care of each other. Love you. -T—

Martin began to eat, giving Gibbs time to process. When the silence seemed destined to never end, he finally said. “I’ve known Tony since I was five and he was six. We lived next door to each other. Which is a little misleading because it took twenty minutes for our little kid legs to walk from his front door to mine.”

Looking up, Gibbs lips quirked in mild amusement. “Big houses?”

“Enormous. I was so excited there was another kid nearby, and our parents didn’t mind us spending time together. It’s funny, but as kids, our personalities were the opposite of what they are now. I was always getting into mischief and Tony was quiet and fairly shy.”

As Martin continued to talk about their childhood, Gibbs’ emotions lightened up and he finally started to eat. He stayed away from the difficult topics like Tony’s mother dying, Tony leaving for military academy, the difficulty in staying in touch, how they both pitched fits until they were allowed to go to summer camp together every year until Tony went to college. Those stories would come on a day when his sentinel wasn’t quite so vulnerable, and when Martin felt a little more secure in their relationship.

Eventually, lunch was finished, and Martin had told every embarrassing story he could think of about Tony. Jethro had laughed repeatedly, and the lightening of his sentinel’s spirits made Martin feel grounded and safe. He thought about what Tony had said. For all Jethro’s faults, he was a good man who cared.

After a long silence, Martin extended a hand, and Jethro immediately reached out, pulling Martin to his feet. The bond immediately began to slip into existence, filling that grasping empty place in Martin’s soul and making him shiver.

Jethro slid a hand around Martin’s neck, bringing them together, foreheads touching. “Guide,” he whispered with a hint of reverence.

“Sentinel,” Martin acknowledged, and finally accepted.

– – – –

Main Story Page | Chapters 4-6

32 Comments:

  1. I missed this the first time around on Rough Trade, but it definitely sounds interesting. Looking forward to the next chapter!

  2. Simply awesome!! I can’t wait for more chapters!!

  3. Read this the first time round on Rough Trade, and was hoping you might eventually finish it. Love reading it from the start again! Thank you so much for writing. Looking forward to the rest.

  4. I have so been looking forward to reading this story, and I’m happy to say that it completely lives up to expectations. It’s going to be really hard to wait for the next update. (Guess I’ll go re-read Emergence until then. :))

  5. I loved this story on Rough Trade and I am so happy to see it up again. This is one of those stories you want to read over and over again. You’re awesome!!

  6. Hi, so excited to see your new site up and running. This story is great, love your writing;)

  7. I am so ridiculously happy about reading this story again that I have fancifully decided you’ve started posting just for my birthday. Yes reality is it’s a happy coincidence but us fanfic fans aren’t much for canon reality. (Or so I imagine).

    I remember from rough trade my happiness at finally realizing how great O’Neill/DiNozzo would be. And I completely fell in love with Marin Fitzgerald as Tony’s friend and ‘brother’; as well as how his own story unfolded. And the OCs = love.

    The point is that you have a wonderful gift at mixing up canon, conveying the richest essence of character and emotion and crafting such amazing worlds and story in rough and final form. It’s a joy to read your writing ( lost count if how many reads I’m at for Emergence). Thank you for sharing it with us in any form.

    • Happy Birthday! I think it’s awesome that I started posting on day that’s special to you.

      And thank you for the lovely compliments. They’re greatly appreciated.

  8. Ah. this makes me so so so happy – I’m not even reading this part yet, because I know if I do it’ll just make the waiting worse, but I still find myself leaving the tab open so that I can come by and beam at it. This is one of my all-time favorite stories, thank you so much for putting it up! 🙂

  9. Wow, what a start. Can’t wait to read the rest of this story. I’m sure it’s going to be amazing.

  10. Pingback: The Journey Home – Chapter Two | Jilly

  11. Need more this! It’s fantastic 🙂

  12. Love this story sooooo much. More so than when it was on Rough trade.
    and i’m pretty sure i shouldn’t feel this excited for one chapter let alone two. but i basically squealed with delight when these two were posted. I am loving this so much and really looking forward for the rest of the story

  13. Fantastic!!! I can’t wait for more 🙂

  14. While I was a little hesitant to see Tony paired with someone other than Gibbs, your writing is so captivating, that you sucked me in. I can’t wait to see more.

    • I’m a major Tibbs fan myself, though there were a few authors who opened my eyes to the possibility of Tony with someone else… and from that this story was born. Thanks for giving it a shot… I hope you enjoy the story as it unfolds.

  15. You posting this story almost makes up for me not winning Power Ball over the week-end!

  16. Love watching Martin take on Gibbs. I never thought of this being a potential pairing, but it really works. Can’t wait to see what Gibbs does to Ziva and McGee, although I know it will be awesome. It’s going to be really hard to wait until tomorrow night for the next update.

  17. awww yeah. Strides are being made, heads will be bonked together as needed 😉

  18. I love your writing style on Emergence… which I’ve read multiple times and am looking forward to seeing it continue. So I decided to give this one a try even though I’m a Tibbs girl at heart and I’m glad I did! I’m loving it and can’t wait to see what happens next.

    • I’m glad you gave it a shot! I had a similar feel the first time I decided to read Tony with someone other than Gibbs. Hope you continue to enjoy the story. Thanks for the kind words.

  19. I’m so happy to see this posted again. I loved this so much on Rough Trade and am looking forward to reading it again! I absolutely adore the interaction between Tony and Martin, we all know Tony needs a friend right now!

    I only read NCIS fic, but because I love your writing I’m seriously tempted to read your other stories as well at some point. Might take me a while though ;).

  20. I think you’ve done a few (minor) changes since posting it on Rough Trade and I think they’re really great – of course it can also be that I just don’t remember it, lol. But the part with the explanation about the interim guides and the conservators and their observations of the interaction between Tony and Gibbs seems different then I remember it – which imo is a great thing. It gives more depth to their relationship plus makes the center’s failure even more severe.

    There are two parts in this chapter that always make me choke up – the first one is when Blair explains about the drug being used on Tony. I feel so bad for him, I just want to wrap him in a blanket and keep him safe. I’m glad he has Blair and Martin though. The other thing is Martin being Gibbs’ guide. Here’s the thing. I’m a major Tibbs fan, but because I’m mostly a Tony fan, I don’t mind him being paired with other characters (and Jack is so amazing for him!!!). And if Gibbs then is (in the background) paired with someone else I don’t really care about it. It’s just at this point, I don’t want him to be happy, if that makes any sense. Yeah, Tony will find his own happiness and forgive Gibbs, but I’m not willing at this point. I know it probably makes little sense to anybody but me, lol. I know there’s another scene coming that is even worse, so I’ll prepare myself for that one :). And now I’ll quit with the rambling. 😀

    • You have a good memory. Yes, I fleshed those things out a little more during the editing process, and cleaned up some stuff.

      I totally get where you’re coming from with your feelings about Gibbs in this chapter. I was in a lot the same place when I wrote it.

      Evoking an emotional response in my readers is like the best thing ever… greatest kind of compliment. Thank so much.

  21. I’m glad Gibbs and Tony got that “little” issue out of the way. I love how Martin is standing up to Gibbs, because though it’s not all his fault, he’s not innocent either. I have to admit I’m glad you don’t go into detail with their bonding, because as much as I’ll admit Gibbs is a good man and at the end deserves to be happy, the petty part of me doesn’t want it to happen while Tony is so miserable :). Still loving it though, all your OC’s are awesome!

    • I didn’t expect to enjoy writing Martin and Gibbs any more than anything else in the story, but I had a lot of fun with their dynamic and seeing how their relationship evolved. And Martin seems so amiable, but he’s no pushover.

      Thanks for all the lovely comments. Great to see you here!

  22. Jilly. JILLY JILLY JILLY JILLY JILLY!!!!! Do you have a PO Box? I seriously want to send you some European Chocolate goodies as a thank you for all the FUCK YEAH! you provide! I’m one chapter in and I’m hooked. Between this and Emergence and SQUEEE! Want to spoil you! 😀

  23. Christ. I don’t know who I want to punch first. I do know that I want to punch Harris repeatedly. Perhaps brain damage will get him to behave. 😛

  24. Guides: Providing High Colonics for the emotional constipated since, forever. 😀

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