Title: The Journey Home – Chapters 19-22
Author: Jilly James
Beta: Naelany & IcefallsTears
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– – – –
Late Tuesday evening, Martin entered the house, immediately headed for the living room and sprawled gracelessly on the couch. He was unsurprised that Jethro beelined for the basement. His sentinel had a difficult confrontation coming up and he needed some time to get himself centered.
He yanked off his tie and undid the top buttons of his shirt. It had been a wretched day, on top of an awful week, working on a horrible case. At least they’d managed to close the case, even if everything else was still a mess. Martin was nearing the end of his patience with NCIS; and his sentinel knew it. It had only been around five weeks, but the tension was making him hate going into work, and the emotional tone made him empathically tired every single day.
Add to that, it was already December 21st, and the holiday spirit was definitely not alive and well. He always saw Tony sometime over the holidays, if not on Christmas, then as soon as they could manage. He somehow doubted that was going to happen this year.
Sighing, he got to his feet. He may not be able to fix things at NCIS, but he was going to get his sentinel in hand, starting now. He refused to just give in to this situation. Heading downstairs, he found Jethro bent over his workbench working with a small rasp on a wooden toy.
“Jethro,” he said gently, “stop shutting me out.”
The tool clattered to the worktop and Jethro jerked around, looking a little stricken. “I’m not.” He hesitated for a heartbeat. “Martin, you’re the reason…” he trailed off, trying to figure out what to say. Finally he shrugged.
“You’re not letting me help,” Martin replied carefully.
Jethro looked away. “It’s my responsibility to fix this.”
“I’m not talking about NCIS, though you’re not letting me help there either. You’re not letting me help you, Sentinel. You’re wearing this guilt you feel like some sort of penance, and enough is enough. I thought you’d work through it, but you’re not and it’s just getting worse. You won’t let me renew my empathic imprint, and I know you think it’s because you don’t deserve to feel that good. And I call bullshit on the whole thing. Wearing a hair shirt is your idea, not Tony’s.”
Jethro flinched a little, but Martin had been working up to this for weeks. He’d been trying to be supportive through this process, but maybe he needed to be bullheaded instead.
“The thing you don’t seem to realize, because you’re so caught up in your guilt, is that as much as you need to imprint your senses on me, I need to imprint my empathy on you. So you’re not the only one paying a price for what you perceive to be your mistakes, and I’m tired of it!” Maybe he had a bit of resentment building up.
Jethro tried to say something, but Martin wasn’t going to let his sentinel say word one until he’d had his say first. “You were fine after you saw Tony, so this isn’t even really about him, though I think you’ve centered this insane thing you’re doing around that whole disaster. So I’m just going to say it… You can’t fix it, Jethro. You can’t make it what it used to be. No amount of your stubbornness, or bastardry, or even talking is going to knit that little family back together again.”
His bondmate looked stony, but he felt gutted.
Martin relented a little and softened his tone and body language. “You keep trying to make it be what it was, but no one can go back. What once was a family, albeit a bit of a dysfunctional one, has to find its way to being a team. Just a team. That’s not the end of the world. Don’t damage what you do have by trying to regain what you used to have. Please.”
Instead of saying anything, Jethro just reached out, pulling Martin close, clasping the back of his neck and resting their foreheads together. “I don’t know what to do,” he whispered.
Closing his eyes, Martin let himself relish the hold, breath mingling with his sentinel’s. “You need to be the boss, Jethro. Turn everything else off for a while, so there’s space for something new without the expectations of what once was. You keep having these basement chats with Ziva over her insubordination, and you pull the rug out from under Paul when you prevent him from dealing with her actions.
“Abby’s an emotional terrorist and you buy her a Caff-Pow. So whether you mean to or not, you undercut Paul there, too.”
Jethro was quiet for several long moments. “And you.”
“Yeah, and you undercut me, too. And I understand why you’re doing it, but it’s not doing anyone any good. I know they’re lashing out because they’re hurting, at least I’m pretty sure that’s what’s going on with Abby, but it’s not your job to hug and kiss her until the hurt goes away. You were doing okay until two or three weeks ago. What happened?”
Silence reigned for several moments, and they wound up sitting side by side on the floor, backs propped against the wall. Jethro enfolded Martin’s hand in both of his woodwork-roughened ones. “Tony was the heart of our little family.”
When Jethro didn’t say anything else, Martin softly replied, “That doesn’t surprise me. And you realized the team is floundering without him, for all that they don’t recognize it?”
“The family is floundering without him. You’re right, there’s a distinction that needs to be made. I suddenly had the awareness that I couldn’t fix the situation. That something broke, and it couldn’t be glued together again.”
Martin sighed. “So, instead of just accepting that, you dug your heels in and decided to prove yourself wrong?”
Jethro laughed, but there wasn’t any real amusement in it. “Something like that.”
“Plus you blame yourself, so you felt like it was your job to make everyone’s life rosy again?”
His bonded gave him a look. “I bear a lot of responsibility for what happened.”
“You bear some responsibility. Funnily enough, the person who was most hurt isn’t mad at you and doesn’t want you to atone for anything. And he still considers you family. You haven’t lost him. Even if he doesn’t come back to DC, he’s still one of yours, Jethro.”
Jethro nodded, squeezing Martin’s hand. “McGee’s doing okay, isn’t he?”
“Yeah. He seems to be rebounding the best, though I think he’s torn between getting on with his life and supporting Ziva and Abby in their campaign of emotional terror. Also, Paul is a good SFA, and I’m sure he’s tired of being compared to Tony, both the positive and negative. He needs space to do the job his way.
“But what I don’t want is for NCIS to chase us home every night. I don’t want you rejecting my guide gifts that can help you get through this, because that hurts me, too.”
His sentinel twisted so they were face to face, and reached out to cup Martin’s jaw. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”
“Just don’t do it again,” Martin whispered, surrendering to Jethro as he was pulled in for a kiss.
The doorbell broke them apart and Martin sighed. “I’ll wait upstairs.”
“No. Just come up to the living room. I’ll tell Ziva I’ll discuss it with her tomorrow. You’re right that these reality checks I’ve been attempting to give her aren’t working. I need to handle it in the office.”
Martin followed Jethro upstairs, taking a seat on the sofa while Jethro told Ziva they’d discuss it tomorrow. Afterwards, they settled on the sofa together. It was Martin’s sofa from when they’d closed up his place in New York. It had good memories for him because he’d picked this out with Tony.
They’d been talking for about an hour when Martin’s cell rang the distinctive tone assigned to Tony. He smiled, reaching into his pocket, noting that there was real pleasure coming from his sentinel, too.
As he answered, he figured it was around six in Cascade. Usually Tony was still at the Center at that time. “Hey, Tony.”
“Hi. Finalized Christmas plans and wanted to let you know we’ll be there on the 26th.”
Martin grinned. “That’s the best thing I’ve heard all day. Who is ‘we’? Are they sending you with Greg?”
“No. That’s the other thing I needed to tell you. I’m actually in Colorado. I bonded yesterday.”
Martin pulled the phone away from his ear and stared at it for a second, before putting it back, and trying to form some kind of coherent sentence. “You what? How? Who?” So maybe not so coherent.
Tony laughed. “His name is Jack and he’s one of my rescue sentinels.”
“Hey!” a man hollered from a ways away from the phone.
“I dare you to deny it,” Tony said, clearly talking away from the phone, with a note of teasing that Martin had sorely missed in his best friend.
He glanced at his sentinel to find him smiling faintly, his emotional tone pleased.
“Anyway,” Tony continued, “we’ll be there Sunday, and I was hoping we could spend the day with you two.”
“You’d better spend the day!” Martin said with no small amount of vehemence. “How long are you going to be here?”
“Only a few days, wrap things up in DC and move it to Colorado.” Tony’s tone was gentle, as if he knew the information would be hard for them to process.
Martin felt a little down at the prospect of Tony being permanently far away, but the happiness he felt far outweighed the sadness. “Are you going to get your place on the market?” Scott and Kyle had stayed there for nearly a month, but the place was just waiting for Tony now.
“Actually, I’m thinking of renting it furnished rather than take the time to get it listed. There are only a few things I want, like my piano.”
“I may have some ideas about a renter. I’ll check into it and run it by you when you’re here.” He rested his head on Jethro’s shoulder. “Tell me about Jack.”
“I’ll let you learn most of it when you meet, but he’s in the Air Force.”
That could be problematic, Martin thought. The military had some provisions for civilian guides working with active military personnel, but NCIS agent and Air Force officer was an odd fit. “I’m anxious to hear everything.”
“You sound tired, Martin. Everything okay?”
“Yeah, but you’re right that I am tired. We’ve had a run of difficult cases. But we can talk about it more when you get here.” They chatted for a couple minutes and Martin noticed Tony deflected every question about his sentinel. He had to force himself not to dig into the topic and just let it rest until Tony was here in five days.
After he hung up, he turned to Jethro. “Was it just me or did he evade any discussion about his sentinel.”
Jethro smiled in a way that was part amused, part exasperated. “No, that was definitely him changing the subject.” After a couple seconds, he added, “Why did it have to be Air Force?” The distaste in his tone had Martin laughing.
“Come on, Marine, let’s go. I want some quality time with you and the bed.”
“Jack?” he distantly heard, and tried to focus on the soothing voice calling to him.
“Jack? Come on. Come back to me.”
He blinked and with his sentinel sight turned up, even in the dark, he could tell he was staring at the palm of a hand. He felt a feather light touch on his arm, and the warmth of breath across his face, contrasting sharply with the cold that seemed to have soaked into every pore. The delicious smell of his guide filled his senses. He reached out and grasped Tony’s arm.
“You with me?” Tony asked softly.
“Yeah,” he replied, feeling a little off.
“Be sure to dial your sight down and I’ll move my hand.”
Jack focused for a second and got his sight to a normal level where the faint lines on Tony’s palm no longer looked like crevices. “Okay.”
Tony pulled his hand away and Jack was then staring into beautiful green eyes filled with concern. His guide flashed him a half smile. “How you doing?”
It took him a second to put the pieces together. It was Wednesday night, they were on the roof sitting by the telescope, and the last thing he remembered was pointing out a star cluster to Tony. “I zoned.”
“Yep. And for future reference, do not turn up that second sight dial when you’re stargazing. You zoned so hard, so fast, it took almost ten minutes to get you back.”
He vaguely remembered seeing things he’d never seen before, even with a telescope and he’d inadvertently tried to see more. “It was almost like I couldn’t stop turning up sight.”
Tony, who had been kneeling by Jack, rocked back to rest on his heels and blew out a breath. “Who’d have thought stargazing could turn into a dangerous sport.”
Jack heard the joking words, but the threads of anxiety in his guide’s voice concerned him. He got up and pushed the chair back, rearranging things so he wound up lying down on their blanket, pulling Tony close, tugging another blanket on top of them. He thought to go inside, but didn’t want to leave Tony feeling a negative association to looking at the stars. Maybe he could talk him into trying again.
Silence reigned for a long time, and Jack was content to be close and let his guide begin to relax. Finally, he asked, “What’s got you upset?”
Tony squeezed him rather hard. “It took me almost ten minutes to get you back. It shouldn’t have taken that long.”
Jack turned them, so he was braced on his elbow, looking down at his guide. “Don’t tell me you’re thinking that has anything to do with you.”
Giving a one-shouldered shrug, Tony replied, “Who knows. I might be a lousy guide, Jack.”
“No,” Jack replied emphatically. “I tried to look at something in a way I probably shouldn’t have, and definitely haven’t been trained to do. There’s nothing wrong with you as a guide, Tony, I can feel it in everything that I am.”
“The thing is that we can’t know anything unless I’m trained better,” Tony said abruptly and Jack could tell he’d been sitting on something.
“Meaning? I thought you spent the last six weeks sorta in guide school.”
“I did, but I really need shaman school, Jack. Listen…” Tony shifted to a seated position and Jack mirrored him so they were face-to-face. “I know you have a huge responsibility here, but I don’t think Hammond is going to let me on your team if I don’t have a handle on my shaman gifts. Blair has been incredible, and there’s no doubt he could train me, but he has a lot of responsibility and it would take months, assuming we even lived in the same place.”
Jack wanted to deny that Tony would be prevented from joining the SGC on a field team, but the realist in him knew it was a possibility. “I’m assuming you have something in mind?”
“Was that a non sequitur?” Jack asked. “Because it didn’t make much sense.”
Tony absently picked at blanket lint, breath ghosting in the cold night air, hesitating before finally saying, “Before I found you, I planned to go to Peru after the first of the year… spend some time training with a shaman there named Incacha. While he has obligations on his time, it’s nothing like what Blair has.”
“You want to go to Peru?” Jack wasn’t sure how to react to that.
“I want us to go to Peru.”
And Jack really didn’t know how to react to that.
“When I was meditating this morning, I met with Incacha, and he extended the invitation to you. I told him you have a very demanding role here, and he feels that two weeks of training would benefit both of us tremendously. Three weeks at most. Your voluntary dormancy could make it a little harder to get full control of your senses and he believes they can help with it; get you stable so you can use your senses in a stressful and demanding environment.”
Jack just blinked at his guide. He hadn’t considered that his own senses could be as much a problem as Tony’s empathy in being deemed fit for active duty.
“You don’t have to decide this minute, Jack,” Tony quickly assured. “It’s just something to think about. There are other options, too.”
Tony nodded. “We can talk about it more whenever you’re ready. I’m sure I could even get you on the spirit plane to talk to Incacha if that helps, and we can talk some more to Jim and Blair.”
“No, I mean we’ll go.” The general wouldn’t be happy, but once Jack explained, he knew Hammond would be onboard.
“Really?” Tony’s smile was huge. “I can’t believe I’m this excited about roughing it. Because that’s-“ Tony broke off when Jack raised his hand, head cocked to the side.
“Someone’s coming.” He dialed up his sentinel hearing and listened to the Marines at the end of his driveway. Hammond had set up a Marine guard on Jack’s place that changed every four hours. They weren’t allowed further onto the property unless there was a problem, and it had to be Marines Jack personally knew. All they had to do was pull up and Jack would listen for the names of the guards and continue to monitor until the changeover happened.
It took a few minutes, but he eventually heard that everything was back the way it should be. “Shift change,” he offered, watching as Tony’s tension bled away. “Here, lie down again. Let’s try this star thing again.”
Tony lay on his back, pressed against Jack’s side. “Okay, but if you dial up your sight again, you’re sleeping on the couch.”
Jack smiled at the threat, partly because he knew it was an empty one. There was no way either of them would be happy sleeping apart as newly bonded as they were. But he also kind of liked threats when they came from Tony.
The next morning, Jack paced the living room, waiting for Jim and Blair to arrive. It was Thursday, so they’d been bonded only three days, and this was partly a test of Jack’s territoriality, but also because Jack wanted someone with fully trained sentinel senses to scan his house for bugs. He just wanted to be sure he and Tony had real privacy and this was the earliest he’d felt comfortable doing it. Jim and Blair were headed back to Cascade later today, so this was really the last chance.
Jack knew that Tony was meeting Blair on the spirit plane at least once a day, but that didn’t feel even remotely threatening to Jack. Having another sentinel in his space was a different story.
“Jack, is it that anyone is coming here, or that it’s another alpha sentinel?” Tony asked from his position on the sofa, furthest from the door.
He stopped to consider. “How do I tell?”
“Before Jim gets out of his car, he’ll call out to you to tell you that he’s here and ask for your permission to enter. If you settle down, then it’s the alpha thing. If not, then it’s too early in our nesting period for you to have people around.”
“Good to know,” he muttered absently, feeling like he wanted to hide his guide in the basement. So maybe some of it was generic anxiety. No wonder sentinels stayed locked away with their guides until the bond was completely settled.
A few minutes later, a car pulling into the drive had Jack snapping to attention. He dialed his senses up, immediately catching conversation between the other sentinel and guide. He relaxed a bit, but was still tense.
“Jack,” he heard Jim call out from within the car, “it’s Jim Ellison. Do I have your permission for my guide and me to enter your home?”
Something in Jack settled. Not completely, he knew he still didn’t want anyone touching his guide, but he no longer felt like climbing the walls at the prospect of Jim coming in. “Come on in, Jim.”
He started for the door, but turned back pointing a finger at his guide. “You stay put.”
Tony just held up his hands in a placating gesture. “Not going anywhere, Sentinel.”
Jack knew in every fiber of his being that Tony would only be this compliant during this nesting period. He was absolutely certain he’d have a fight on his hands under normal circumstances if he told his guide to stay back.
He let Jim and Blair into his house, noting that Jim kept Blair behind him, which made sense to Jack. If Jack were to lose it, Jim would want his guide safe, though every sentinel instinct said not to harm a guide. Now that Jack was bonded, he had a stronger feel of just how powerful a sentinel Jim really was, though he didn’t feel subordinate to the other alpha in any way.
Blair poked his head around Jim’s shoulder. “Hey, Jack.” He bent a little further despite his sentinel’s growl, and waved again. “Hiya, Tony!”
“Hey, Blair, Jim,” Tony responded brightly from the couch.
“Here.” Blair passed Jack a bag. “Go through this with Tony while Jim and I go over the house, then we can talk if you’re feeling up to it.” With that, he grabbed his sentinel and they headed for the back of the house.
Jack was half tempted to follow, but there was no way he was leaving his guide alone while there were others in his house. He sat down by his guide, sniffing in the bag. The scents were subtle and muddled. Reluctantly, he passed the bag over.
“It’s nothing nefarious, Jack. Blair and I discussed a couple items that would be useful for training your aural sensitivity to work up to what Jim is doing for us now. Plus, you wanted to be able to sniff out GHB, so that’s in here, and I think he included some other things to work on strengthening your olfactory sense as well.”
Tony was going through the bag carefully. “Yeah, he included the sentinel no-no kit. You’ll want to be familiar with everything in here so that you can be sure to stay away from it.” He glanced at Jack. “You doing okay so far?”
“A little agitated, but it’s better than before they got here.”
“That means your territoriality is coming down some, and you were just revved up because an alpha was entering your space.”
A few minutes later, Jim and Blair returned. Jim stayed back, watching closely as Blair stepped forward and held out something. It was a surveillance device.
“Damn,” he muttered. “Where was it?”
“Basement,” Jim replied. “Considering it’s not a particularly useful place, it’s likely been there for a while and you just missed it when doing sweeps.”
Jack considered the bug for a few moments, and then handed it back to Blair. “Would you mind sticking this in the fridge or something. I’m tempted to smash it, but I’d prefer to have Carter check the signal to see if anyone’s actually listening in.”
Blair nodded and retreated to the kitchen.
“Where was it,” Jack asked Jim.
Jim hesitated a moment before replying. “Stuck behind a couple boxes labeled ‘Charlie.’”
Jack felt a rush of anger that someone would slip a bug behind his son’s things, but pushed it back. He had yet to discuss Charlie with Tony, though he knew Tony was aware. He’d started to bring it up, feeling like he needed to tell his guide, but Tony had just shushed him and said, ‘I already know, Jack. You don’t need to talk about this unless you want to.’
He felt tendrils of comfort wend their way through him and he managed to set the anger aside and nod stiffly to Jim. “Thanks for doing this. I appreciate it.”
They talked for a few minutes about how things had gone for Jim and Blair at the SGC. They’d be back after the New Year to help screen some high-order pairs for the program, and possibly make some recommendations for additional candidates.
Tony brought up the pending trip to Peru, so it was possible Jack and Tony might not be here when Jim and Blair returned. But whether they were here or not, Jack offered to let them stay at his house rather than in a hotel.
Eventually, he and Tony were alone again. Tony didn’t say anything, or ask anything, but accompanied Jack down to the basement and kept him company when he needed to reassure himself that his son’s things were undisturbed.
After, they wound up taking a long walk around Jack’s property. Jack found himself automatically imprinting on the sights, sounds and smells. By the time they got back to the house, Jack felt like he was back on an even keel. They still didn’t talk about Charlie, and Jack was grateful that Tony didn’t push.
They had lunch, and then did some of the sensory training exercises. Jack had to really dial up smell to get a scent from the GHB, and it gave him a bit of a headache, so they stopped and settled into watching a movie Tony had picked.
Tony had an obscene number of movies on an external drive he hooked up to his laptop. When Jack commented on the sheer quantity, Tony just laughed and said, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”
As they watched the movie, Jack thought he picked up that Tony was distracted by something. He’d detected it off and on the last day or so, but when he pressed Tony about it, he got back an, “Everything’s fine.”
He turned off the TV, tossing the remote on the coffee table. “What’s going through that head of yours?” He tapped lightly on Tony’s skull.
“Thinking.” Tony shifted so he was facing Jack. “What do you do when you’re not away on a mission?”
Jack’s brows drew together in confusion. Tony seemed to have a way of throwing in conversational left turns that surprised him. “Paperwork. Mountains of it, and I mean that literally. Being the 2IC comes with an obscene amount of bureaucratic bullshit. There’s some other stuff, but it all seems to eventually start or end with paperwork.”
Tony’s lips twitched. “And what does Carter do?”
“She’s head of several of the science departments. She works on her doohickeys and tells a bunch of eggheads what to do. Then there’s mission prep. Why?”
“Give me a sec. What does Daniel do?”
“Daniel is also head of several departments, but he spends most of his time looking at doodads and translating stuff that has little bearing on anything, but that he needs to tell me about immediately.”
He’d managed to make his guide laugh. “And Teal’c?”
“Mission prep, consults with other teams, particularly those who might encounter Jaffa, a lot of hand-to-hand instruction, tactics and strategy, that kind of thing. Inordinate amount of time spent meditating.”
Tony looked away for a few seconds. “And what would I do?”
Ah. Now Jack saw the problem. “I don’t know yet. It’s something we’ll have to work out.”
“Need an Agent Afloat?”
Tony leaned forward. “How do you guys handle crime on base? Is there someone from AFOSI assigned to your command?”
Ah. “No. We haven’t read anyone from Special Investigations into the program. Several of the officers from both the Air Force and Marines take turns running point on any investigations that need to happen. The bigger the issue, the higher ranking the officer. There have been a few things we probably should have read AFOSI into, but ultimately decided not to. What are you thinking?”
“I’m an investigator, Jack. When not in the field, assuming we get that far, it would make most sense for me to investigate. AFOSI while mostly military has some civilian agents, so I could liaise with AFOSI and cover the whole base, or just cover the Marine contingent. Or even transfer to AFOSI.” Tony shrugged. “I can’t think of anything else for me to do, because I’m not prepared to hang up my shingle and offer to read people’s auras.”
Jack snickered at the idea of Tony taking up fortune telling. Then he got serious. “Tony, if you could make it so that I never had to investigate another missing supply order I, and probably half the officers on base, would kiss your feet.”
“You’d kiss my feet anyway,” Tony retorted, lips twitching in amusement.
“True. You have nice feet,” Jack countered, grabbing one of said feet and lifting it to his lap, rubbing his thumb firmly along the arch, causing his guide to groan in pleasure.
Jack went from rubbing Tony’s foot, to rubbing his leg, to pressing his guide back down on the sofa, blanketing his body and just rubbing. He seized Tony’s mouth in a bruising kiss, the spicy-sweet taste of his guide exploding across his tongue. And really, Jack was too old to be humping his guide on the couch, but it felt too good. His guide felt too good.
He unconsciously turned his dials up a few notches, saturating his senses with Tony. When he felt Tony’s empathic touch, heavily laden with desire, it was enough to send him over the edge; the feedback pulling his guide along with him. Empathic connection during sex… best thing ever! They stumbled to the bathroom for a quick clean up, then started the sensory and empathic exploration over again in the bedroom.
An hour later, Tony was sprawled out on his stomach, and Jack was leaning against the headboard absently stroking his guide’s back. He’d noticed during his first imprint that Tony’s back was sensitive, especially his lower back, so he took every opportunity to touch it because he loved watching Tony shiver.
At some point the tigers had appeared and were curled up around each other. “The kitties are back, making their own little puppy pile,” he commented, getting a hiss from Gattino in response.
Tony shifted a bit, resting his head on Jack’s thigh. “I’m telling you, Jack, they don’t like any canine associations. You don’t need your spirit guide grumpy with you.”
Jack huffed a bit, and moved his fingers to run through Tony’s hair. “I’m sure Gretzky has a sense of humor.”
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t. He’s a very serious tiger.”
That was true. Gretzky did tend to give Jack these looks… like he was barely putting up with his human. “He definitely likes you better.”
“Of course he does, I’m very likable.”
Tugging at Tony’s hair, Jack retorted, “Are you saying I’m not?”
Tony moved, shifting to straddle Jack’s lap. He hovered with his mouth right above Jack’s. “Well, I like you.” Warm lips settled firmly over Jack’s. He was totally down with being liked.
The making out was slow and languorous without the need for it to go anywhere. They wound up curled around each other, just being close. Gattino decided to join them, pressing up against Tony’s back, making Tony laugh when Jack bitched about it. Gretzky got in on the action by leaping onto the foot of the bed and growling at Jack whenever Jack started to fidget.
Tony laughed some more. “We’re getting a bigger bed. Gattino likes to cuddle and no doubt he’s grumpy with you because you keep kicking him out of bed.”
“We need a stronger bed,” Jack groused. “They’re spirit guides. Why does the frame creak when Gretzky jumps up here?”
“I have no idea. Guess it’s just spirit guide magic. What do you figure they weigh?”
“I read that Siberians can get up to 700 pounds, but I’d bet Gattino is that big, and Gretzky has to be another 150 or 200 on top of that.”
“It doesn’t really make sense, because I’m pretty sure this bed isn’t supporting nearly a ton, if you figure in you and me.”
“I don’t know… I’m pretty sure my foot’s going to sleep just because it’s resting under Gretzky’s enormous head.”
Tony snickered, and Jack happily rested in the warm content aura Tony put out.
“I’ll talk to Hammond about your ‘Agent Afloat’ idea.”
“If it’s not a good plan–“
“It is,” Jack interjected. “You have no idea how happy you’ll make Hammond. And me. It would save us massive headaches.” The only thing he worried about was that the nature of crime on base was fairly pedestrian compared to what Tony was used to. Hopefully Tony would qualify to be on a ‘gate team and that would balance things out.
Tony was quiet for a couple minutes, and Jack was fine with just being close to his guide. He could see that this nesting thing could get old, but right now it was beyond incredible to get to spend so much time immersing themselves in each other. Even if they were sometimes crowded by tigers. He gave Gretzky the stink eye.
“You sure you’re going to be okay having people over tomorrow?” Tony eventually asked.
Jack wanted to be certain, but the best he could get was maybe. “We’ll just have to see how it goes. They know I may get weird and have to cut things short. But it’s Christmas Eve and I’d like to have my team here. Are you okay with it?”
“Of course. I want to get to know everyone better, and I’d much rather do it this way than trying to get acquainted in the mountain.”
He felt like they were tiptoeing around the elephant in the room. Or perhaps tiptoeing around the enormous tiger on his foot. “And how are you really doing?”
Tony was quiet for a bit. “I don’t know, but I’ll get there. There’s just been so… much. But even though I’m missing what I don’t have anymore, I’m still perfectly happy with what I do have. ‘Cause you’re the best Christmas present ever.”
Jack pulled Tony in for another kiss. He really couldn’t agree more.
– – – –
Friday morning, Christmas Eve, Tony was fiddling around in the kitchen, prepping as much as he could in advance of lunch, but since Carter and Daniel were bringing most of the food, there was only so much he could actually do. Jack was helping by making snarky comments and groping. Tony surrendered to the groping pretty frequently and did a little fondling of his own.
As things were moving closer to lunch, Jack’s head tipped into listening pose, so Tony paid attention. It was the wrong time for guard shift change, and too early for their lunch guests.
“It’s Carter,” Jack said with a frown. “Wonder why she came so early,” Jack mused out loud as he herded Tony into the living room and the seat furthest from the door.
Jack opened the door, but had a muted conversation with Carter that Tony couldn’t quite make out. A minute later, he preceded her into the living room, gesturing for to take one of the chairs. “Carter came by early to talk to us privately.”
Tony’s brows shot up in surprise, and he couldn’t help but take the major’s emotional pulse. She felt relatively calm, a little anxious, but nothing negative. “It’s nice to see you again, Major Carter,” he offered politely.
“Please, call me Sam. Do you prefer Agent DiNozzo, Guide DiNozzo or Mister DiNozzo?”
“I’d prefer you call me Tony, but if you need to use something in a more formal circumstance, I prefer Agent.”
She offered him a faint smile. “Thank you, Tony. First thing I wanted to do was apologize for making you uncomfortable when we first met. I would never have knowingly done something like that.”
Tony nodded, not sure what to say.
“The reason I wanted to speak to you and the colonel was to explain a little bit and clear the air. Hopefully we’ll be working together and I’d rather not have that as the jumping off point for our relationship.”
“Uh… I think we’re already at a better place. I don’t want you to make yourself uncomfortable.” She didn’t even know him, so he didn’t think she really owed him an explanation.
She waved it away. “I need to say this. To both of you.” She looked down at her hands for several seconds, before meeting his eyes again. “When I came online, I made a choice not to use my guide gifts. In fact, I had my initial testing and never went back to the Center for any kind of training.”
That wasn’t the best idea ever, Tony thought. In any guide it was a bad idea to not get training, but for someone with aura projection as strong as Carter’s it was almost negligent. He had to assume they hadn’t gotten that far in her guide skills assessment.
Carter seemed to be carefully choosing her next words. “For a variety of reasons, I didn’t take my overall rating very well. Some of it was the way it was presented to me by the intake coordinator, even more was how my father reacted, plus there was the fact that I had never been a low-anything in my life. So I didn’t react well to being a low-ranked guide.”
Tony’s brows drew together. “That’s not what that means,” he began.
“I know,” Carter interjected. “I didn’t take the time to really learn about what the different skills are, or how they are rated, or what the ratings even mean. Blair’s spent a lot of time with me this week to help teach me what I should have learned then, so that I can make a more informed choice about whether I want to suppress my gifts or use them.
“When I met Colonel O’Neill, I already knew he was voluntarily inactive. In my mind there was sort of an instant kinship over our shared decision to not give into this genetic quirk that we had no control over… to not let it run our lives. In a way, I thought we both disdained the whole thing.
“We never discussed it, and if we had, I think it would have been clear very early on that we were coming from different places. I don’t pretend to know why O’Neill chose to be inactive, and it’s not really relevant.”
Tony could tell Jack was slightly tense, but generally okay. He wasn’t sure if the tension was just because someone else was in his space, or if he was leery about the topic of conversation.
After clearing her throat, Carter glanced at her hands again. “When it became clear that the colonel was going to try to be a sentinel again, I didn’t react well. I felt that the bond I perceived we had was breaking, and I knew it would mean an active guide involved with the team. That was probably the hardest part. Having someone on the team who did what I couldn’t… it seemed like it was pointing right at my inadequacies. Plus the constant reminder of what I could never have.”
When Jack really tensed up, Tony had to ask, “Do you mean Jack?”
She quickly shook her head, looking alarmed. “No. A sentinel. Not the colonel in any specific way.”
Tony considered that for a second. “You had sentinel longing?”
“Yes. It’s not horrible like I’ve heard it can be for someone like you, but it’s always been there.”
“Then you’re not low-order.”
“No, I’m not. I have a big disparity in my passive and active empathy and got a false result in my initial assessment.”
“How big a gap?”
“One passive, six active. Though the active may be a seven, but after testing Blair was only confident about a six.”
Tony’s brows shot up in surprise and he gave a low whistle. “That’s a big difference.”
Jack suddenly leaned forward. “Okay, I was tracking this whole thing until you started with the empathy thing. What are you talking about?”
Tony quickly explained about the difference between active and passive empathy, and that the overall guide rating was only based on the active score, plus that a big disparity between the two was pretty uncommon.
Jack pinned Carter with a look. “What are you going to do about it, Carter?”
Elbowing his sentinel, Tony admonished, “Way to get to the point, Jack.”
Jack shrugged and held up his hands. “What? That is where part of this is going, right?”
“You’re right, Colonel,” she replied. “It’s fine, Tony. I was going to bring it up.” She squared her shoulders a bit. “After all the testing, and getting a lot of help from Blair, and taking a couple intro classes at the Center, I’ve decided to train my gifts rather than just learn how to suppress them.”
Tony was relieved, but didn’t want her to think that he felt either choice was right. “If that’s what’s going to make you happy, I think that’s great. I’ll help in any way I can.”
She offered him a half smile. “Thank you. I had just wanted to explain why I was feeling the way I did when we met. I had just found out the colonel was not only going to keep his gifts, but already had a guide, and I didn’t react well. And I apologize to you, too, Colonel.”
“It’s forgotten, Carter,” Jack responded.
Tony shifted the conversation, not wanting Sam to continue to feel on the spot. They talked about holiday plans, and though Jack and Tony were leaving for Peru right after the holidays, they left that bit out for now. Jack planned to tell the whole team together.
It was another twenty minutes or so before Jack’s head turned in the way that Tony knew meant someone had driven up. After a couple beats, he said, “Daniel and Teal’c are here.”
The duo had most of the food for their holiday dinner. Daniel also had all of Tony’s stuff from Cascade. Evan and Solon had graciously agreed to pack everything and ship it with the proviso that Tony come visit soon for a proper goodbye.
Since Jack couldn’t tolerate a delivery driver coming to the door, Daniel had agreed to accept delivery and bring it on Christmas Eve. Tony was so ecstatic to have something else to wear, he immediately deserted everyone to get changed, only a little surprised that his sentinel followed him.
“Sorry, Tony, I’ve got to go through your suitcases. It’s making me edgy, even though I trust Daniel.”
Tony just put it down to their nesting period, but also added it to the tally of things that wouldn’t go over well if Jack tried to pull it all the time.
Dinner preparation wound up being a weird little tap dance of trying to keep everyone away from being close enough to touch Tony, but still get the food ready. Daniel was exceedingly amused by Jack’s territorial behavior. Teal’c was by far the most respectful of the distance the sentinel wanted everyone to keep. Carter seemed to forget occasionally, and Tony thought that was likely the guide thing. She already felt like Pride to him, so he imagined she was seeing him as her alpha at an instinctual level.
And wasn’t that a weird thought? Tony was an alpha guide now, forming his own Pride. He’d never wanted that kind of responsibility, but discovered his own territorial instincts coming to the fore and knew that he wasn’t letting go of his Pride no matter what.
There was a brief standoff with Teal’c over how he would address Tony. Because Tony refused to be called Alpha Guide Anthony DiNozzo or Shaman Anthony DiNozzo, or any other lengthy honorific, but Teal’c wasn’t willing to just call him Tony.
“Okay, how about Very Special Agent Tony DiNozzo?” he asked with a grin.
“Is Very Special Agent your formal designation?”
“No.” Tony pouted a little, which caused Jack to start laughing. “I think there are some reasons why we wouldn’t want to tell all and sundry that I’m a guide, and especially not a shaman. So how about Agent DiNozzo when you need to introduce me formally, and just Tony DiNozzo when you are actually addressing me?”
Teal’c simply inclined his head in agreement, and Tony sighed in relief that they’d come to an agreement that didn’t wind up with him being called Anthony or anything related to being a guide.
Dinner went well. Tony found he really liked everyone, Daniel in particular. The linguist had an exceedingly large number of ways of saying ‘Jack!’ His sentinel had mentioned that he had an inventory of the different ‘Jack!’ variants, and every time Daniel used a different one, Tony had to fight not to laugh, often exchanging a look with his bonded.
Tony didn’t quite have a bead on Teal’c yet. He was stoic to the point of being ridiculous, and never said anything extraneous. It was obvious he and Jack shared a deep bond. It was also clear that he had a profound respect for the sentinel and guide gifts, and the ‘protect the tribe’ imperative. There was no doubt Teal’c was looking forward to seeing how Jack’s sentinel gifts worked in the field.
Toward the end of dinner, Jack announced their plans to go to Peru. “The general’s signed off, but I’d ask that you not discuss where we are with anyone. Just that we’re doing sentinel/guide training.”
Carter leaned back a bit, looking thoughtful. “What will the rest of SG-1 do while you’re gone, sir?”
“There a few options, and Hammond will discuss it with the three of you to see which you’d prefer. He could assign a temporary team leader to SG-1, or take the entire team off rotation and let you work individual projects, or each of you could independently decide to work with another team until I’m back and cleared for ‘gate travel.”
“What will that entail, Jack?” Daniel asked.
“Not sure yet. Ellison and Sandburg are making the recommendation for what sentinels and guides need to be able to do to qualify for the Stargate. Thus far we’ve been testing them at the same level as other team members. Blair’s certain we need to have more than one standard, particularly for the sentinels to ensure they’re able to function properly in the field. Whatever standard they come up with for high-order sentinels, I’ll have to qualify. I’m sure that’s part of the reason why the general was okay with this trip.”
From Tony’s spirit-plane discussions with Blair, he knew that the general planned to let Jim and Blair through the ‘gate at some point so they could better make a plan for what kind of sensory training would be needed. Jim felt the high-order sentinels were going to have a bigger problem, and thus far, of that caliber, only Jack had been through the ‘gate, and he’d had a sensory meltdown immediately afterward. That could be due in part to recently onlining his senses, but it was telling that the meltdown happened right after ‘gate travel.
After dinner, they all wound up in the living room to watch a movie. Jack was in the middle of the sofa with Tony on one side and Carter on the other. Jack had seemed a little discomfited that he was most comfortable having Carter close by of the three other team members. Tony whispered that it was likely he was really most comfortable allowing another guide near his guide.
They watched one of Tony’s favorite holiday movies, and one of the few modern movies he really loved, The Ref, which he’d always thought to be very underrated and extremely funny. To his surprise no one else had seen it. He expected Jack to enjoy it, but surprisingly everyone else did as well, though Teal’c was perplexed by quite a bit of it.
After the movie, there was a brief exchange of gifts. No one knew Tony well, and Tony didn’t really know them, so there were a lot of gift certificates and wine passed around. Tony and Jack didn’t exchange anything by mutual agreement. He wound up loaning his hard drive with all his most watched movies to Teal’c, pointing him to start with the classic westerns, because that was an area he was sorely lacking in his movie education.
For some reason, just thinking about Teal’c in relation to movies, and why he hadn’t seen many, suddenly made the whole situation real and Tony leaned back to catch his breath.
“What was that?” Jack asked, giving him a concerned look.
“Aliens,” Tony replied. “It just hit me.”
Everyone looked at him in astonishment, but it was Jack who replied, “You’re just reacting to that now?”
“I’ve been busy,” Tony said defensively, which caused his sentinel to start laughing.
As soon as they were inside Tony’s apartment, Jack placed his guide in a secure corner and prowled through the residence, sidearm at the ready, only focused on securing his new territory, and not absorbing anything else. There was a locked door he had to retrieve the key for and that set him even more on edge.
It had been a difficult trip. They’d left out of Denver at 2300 hours, arriving in DC at 0430. For security reasons, they’d deliberately booked their trip at the last minute, and did not apprise anyone of their travel plans, dismissing the guards just as they were leaving.
They’d flown first class because there was no way Jack could handle the press of coach, and Tony had to keep a hand on him the entire trip, frequently using his empathy to bring Jack down a little. Fortunately 0430 was a good time for a sentinel to be at an airport, so that was not as awful as it could have been.
Once he was sure they were alone in the apartment, he gestured for Tony to help him ground his senses. He had his second hearing dial turned way up and was minutely adjusting it to try to filter through the electronic static that seemed to fill the air the way he and Tony had been practicing.
Finally he found the frequency he’d been listening for. Not that he wanted Tony’s place to be bugged, but by finding something, at least he could be sure he didn’t just miss it entirely. They found four bugs and two cameras.
With a disgusted expression, Tony placed them all in a Tupperware container in the fridge. To be on the safe side, Jack went over the apartment with a scanner to make sure he hadn’t missed anything. When it was all done, Tony talked him through dialing down and coming off high alert, then skillfully maneuvered Jack through a quick shower, then into bed for a few hours.
Tony blanketed him with a soothing aura, whispering in that honey-sweet guide voice until Jack was relaxed enough to finally rest. Maybe this hadn’t been the best idea ever, but Jack didn’t want to deny Tony seeing his brother before they left for Peru. Although, the presence of all the bugs meant he planned to take Gibbs and Martin up on their offer to stay at the other pair’s house. Another sentinel seemed liked a good idea.
Finally, more of his surroundings penetrated and he groaned. “This bed is obscene. You sure we can’t take it with us?”
Tony started laughing, even though he kept up the slow, measured, gentle strokes along Jack’s arm and chest, practically pulling the tension out of Jack’s muscles. “We need a king-size bed, Jack. But I promise we’ll get the same type. You haven’t met them, but the Alpha Primes from New York, Kyle and Scott, called me after only being here a couple days and asked where to buy it.”
“You’re going to buy these sheets, too, right?” Jack asked, because his sense of touch was way happier with these than anything he had at home.
“Yup. Daniel offered to be there for any furniture deliveries, so I’ll make sure the bed is there by the time we get back from Peru.”
“You’re a hedonist, aren’t you?”
Tony just smirked at his sentinel, then called Gattino and Gretzky. “We’re going to sleep for a few hours. You guys keep watch, okay?”
Jack instantly felt more relaxed knowing that the spirit guides were prowling around the apartment. He maneuvered Tony a little closer, then let sleep pull him under.
When Jack woke, it was going on 1000 hours and they’d slept for about four hours. Tony was still asleep, head on his pillow, but one arm and one leg slung over Jack. Gretzky prowled into the room and chuffed at Jack, which made him smile. The big Siberian usually only chuffed at Tony. He dialed up his hearing, taking in the morning sounds of Tony’s neighbors, and finding nothing suspicious in the day after Christmas hubbub. Gretzky gave another little chuff, then vanished.
Now that he wasn’t on high alert, and was a little more rested, he took in the details of the apartment. He and Tony had a lot in common, but apparently this wasn’t one of them. What he recalled of the rest of the apartment fit with the bedroom, elegant and fairly restrained, which seemed somewhat at odds with Tony’s personality. Jack figured there was a story to this place.
The locked room had been a surprise and it was something he planned to ask Tony about fairly soon, because it was something his guide hadn’t mentioned at all. Not even a hint of it. And the closet… Jesus. He glanced toward the door in question. Jack was mentally reorganizing his house to accommodate that many clothes.
“It won’t be as bad as you think,” Tony rasped in a sleep-roughened voice as he adjusted his position to rest his head on Jack’s shoulder, pressing a kiss behind Jack’s ear.
“And why’s that?” He lightly massaged Tony’s head, getting a moan for his efforts.
Eventually, Tony managed a reply. “A lot of it doesn’t have any applicability to what I’ll be doing in the future. There are a lot of suits in there, what am I going to do with Armani in Cheyenne Mountain?”
“Point. What are you going to do then?”
“Get rid of some, store the rest. I won’t take the time to do it here. I’ll probably have it all moved and go through it when we get back.”
“You sure you don’t want to bring any of your furniture?”
“Just the piano. It belonged to my mother and I don’t want to part with it.”
Jack nodded, not sure how to ask the next question. “Are you going to be comfortable without your stuff?”
“It’s fine, Jack. I love your place.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
“Then what do you mean?” Tony asked, tilting his head back to meet Jack’s gaze.
“Your place is really different, Tony, and I want you to feel at home.”
“Ah. Look, don’t worry about it. I really like your place. Well, for the most part. You know that big spoon and fork on the wall don’t work for me,” Tony said with a smile.
“Yeah, I know,” Jack replied with a chuckle. “Listen, I realize we’ve known each a whole week and we’re both adjusting, but it has to be our place. Not mine. So, if you want a different couch, or a different bed, or a different TV, I’m fine with it. Okay?”
Tony nodded and gave him a soft kiss. “You know, mostly I don’t care. I’m not lying about that. There are a few areas I’d like to meld things a little, but I’m mostly comfortable as things are. This place represents a really solitary period in my life where I kept people away. I’m not going to miss it, all right?”
“Got it.” But Jack felt there was one more issue. “What about the studio?” Tony stiffened, and Jack immediately started rubbing his guide’s back. “What’s wrong, Tony?”
“I don’t really talk about it… no one’s ever been in there. I don’t even let my housekeeper in there,” he replied in a flat tone.
“Hey, it’s okay. I just want to know if we’re moving it.”
“Yes. I can have it all put in storage, so it won’t be in the way,” Tony said now clearly on the defensive.
Jack rolled them so he was braced above his guide. “Whoa, slow down. I’m not asking you to do that. I just want to know if you’re moving it.”
Tony looked away, and then eventually said, “I’d prefer to.”
“Tony, what’s going on?”
Jaw clenched, Tony continued to look away, eventually he forced himself to relax a little and met Jack’s stare. “I just don’t ever talk about it with anyone, except a little with Martin. It’s been private my whole life.”
Jack felt like he was on shaky ground here. There were big issues lurking under this surface. “You don’t have to talk about it. And I’m not going to discuss it with anyone. I just don’t want you to give up something you clearly have a passion for. We’re together for the rest of our lives and if art is important to you, you should keep doing it.”
Tony was quiet for a long time, then finally said, “Thanks, Jack.”
He gave his guide a thorough kiss, feeling him gradually relax. Eventually, he pulled away. “Come on, we’re due at your brother’s in a couple hours and I want you to lay out your moving plan before we go.”
They got dressed, including Jack’s holster and Beretta because he was away from his home base, and his guide could be in danger. Tony hadn’t been carrying since he left for Cascade, but he would be while they were in DC.
Martin had considerately left food for them, and Jack put it all through a sentinel sniff-test to make sure whoever bugged the house hadn’t tried to drug Tony. Then Tony fixed them something to eat using odd kitchen gadgets Jack mostly couldn’t even identify.
Afterward, Tony walked him through the apartment. “We don’t really have to do much. I hired movers that are experienced with pianos and packing art, so the plan is to have everything they’re supposed to pack moved into the studio. So, I’ll need to rearrange things in there and move in my clothes and various personal items and a few things from the kitchen. Martin will oversee the movers, and I can call for delivery after we get back.”
Jack was idly going through cabinets and drawers as Tony pointed out the things he planned to take. It really wasn’t much until they got to the DVDs. “Holy crap, Tony, there must be a thousand of them.”
Tony snickered. “Don’t worry, I have a plan. I’m going to pick up some big binders and move the disks into them, and throw away the cases. So, we’ll have ten big binders, and that’s as good as you’re gonna get, buddy.”
Holding up his hands in a gesture of surrender, Jack thought he was lucky that Tony was really very flexible about this stuff. “No complaints.” He continued looking around, noticing only a few pieces of art on the walls. All paintings, all signed Dominic. “These yours?” he asked, going for casual.
“Yes,” Tony replied, keeping his focus on his desk.
“You taking them?”
Tony blew out a breath and looked up, glancing around the room. “I don’t think so. I did them just for this place and they belong with the apartment. If I sell, I’ll probably ask Martin to do something with them.”
Jack nodded, still looking at the paintings. They were all abstracts with a lot of flow to them, and despite being different colors and compositions, they made Jack think of storms. He didn’t know anything about fine art, but thought they were all quite good.
“You can look at the rest, if you want,” Tony offered.
“I don’t want to intrude on your space,” Jack replied carefully.
In response, Tony took him by the hand and dragged him to the studio, practically shoving him in. “I’m not gonna hide from you, so look if you want to.” His guide looked a little uncomfortable, but nodded decisively and added, “I’m going to be poking around the kitchen to figure out what gadgets I want to keep.”
Jack blinked at the empty space where Tony used to be. He didn’t consider himself the most sensitive of guys, but he thought quiet acceptance was best in this situation.
He started looking through the canvases stacked against the wall. He really didn’t know how to describe art, but it all seemed turbulent to him. He knew that someday he’d understand what this room represented to Tony, but for now he’d be patient and make sure Tony had space to continue to be Tony.
The scrape of a key in a lock caught Jack’s attention. He listened closer because it sounded like it was the lock for this apartment. As soon as he dialed up, he knew someone was coming in and the sentinel slammed forward in his mind. He made it to the living room to find his guide staring at a woman in the doorway of the now open front door.
He was just about to reach his guide to pull him back when the woman slapped Tony. Hard. Growling, he yanked his guide away with one hand, and shoved his Beretta against the woman’s temple, causing her to issue a startled shriek, pale eyes huge and rounded staring at him in shock.
Part of him catalogued the black hair in ponytails, the long black cape and platform boots. He knew this woman from Tony’s description and his anger amped up another notch. She’d caused his guide hurt already, and now she’d attacked him.
“Jack,” Tony whispered, staying behind him, but soothingly rubbing the sentinel’s shoulder. “Jack, you have to calm down. I’m okay. Come on, you can’t shoot her.”
“I can,” he growled. She’d attacked the guide of a nesting sentinel. He could get away with it. Her terror registered strongly in his senses, but he didn’t care at that moment.
“Jack, I need you to come back from wherever you are in your head. Please don’t shoot her. Please.”
His guide’s pleas drew him back from the edge. He lowered his weapon, but reached out and grabbed the woman by the upper arm, marching her across room and shoving her on the couch, keeping his Beretta in plain view.
She started to say something but he growled at her and lifted the gun a little. He registered the faint smell of blood on his guide, but he knew if he focused on that, he’d lose it again. If the smell were any stronger, he wouldn’t have been able to stay in control.
“Call Gibbs,” Jack ordered, slowly getting in better control. “I’ll give him first crack at handling this, but if I’m not happy with it, she’s going to jail.”
Tony gave him a concerned look, but stepped away to make the call. He was glad his guide knew when not to push.
“You can’t do this,” she said with a lot of bravado and poised to get to her feet.
Jack took a step forward, tapping his Beretta against his thigh. “Actually, I can. Now, you will sit there quietly or I’ll put you in handcuffs and a gag.”
He kept half his attention on the call Tony was making, and half on Abigail Sciuto, who didn’t have the sense to be really scared of him.
Tony returned from the kitchen. “They’re on their way. His place is twenty-five minutes away, but knowing Gibbs he’ll be here in fifteen.”
“Tony,” Sciuto directed to his guide, “tell him to stop with the threats. Gibbs isn’t going to stand for him treating me like this.”
Jack interjected before Tony could reply. “I assume you’ve got handcuffs?”
“Yes,” Tony said on a sigh.
Tony went into the bedroom and whispered for sentinel hearing only, “Jack, she’s spoiled and manipulative and right now she’s being a little shit, but she’s not a criminal. Please don’t escalate this any further.” A moment later, Tony returned and passed Jack handcuffs. In return, Jack passed Tony his Beretta, then was on Sciuto before she could react.
She tried to fight, but he had her cuffed and shoved back on the sofa in under a minute. “I don’t make idle threats,” Jack warned. “Speak again and there will be a gag.”
Eyes welling, she looked imploringly to Tony who just shook his head. “You’ve stepped in it, Abby, and I’m not in control of this situation right now. Even if I were, I wouldn’t have anything to say to you after that.” He looked at Jack. “Are you okay?”
Jack reached out and took his sidearm back, putting it in the holster since Sciuto was in cuffs, then turned his attention to his guide. There was a thin slice along Tony’s cheek and his face was bright red. The bleeding had been minimal and was already stopped, and Tony had already cleaned it up. Jack lightly stroked Tony’s face, feeling the heat coming off the reddened cheek. “She doesn’t pull her punches. How’d you get cut?”
“Either she’s got a ring on backward or she clipped me with a nail. The cut is really fine, so I’m thinking ring,” Tony replied in an even tone of voice, keeping his aura and his demeanor neutral to help ground Jack.
“I know you’d prefer I let her go and send her on her way, but I can’t do that, Tony.”
His guide looked away for a moment. “I know, Jack. I just hate that it’s come to this.”
“You got some ice you can put on your face?”
“It’s not that bad.”
“Every time I see it, I’m gonna go a little nuts, so ice it, Tony. Please.”
Tony nodded. “Frozen peas, coming up.” He turned and headed to the kitchen, whispering sentinel-soft, “Please don’t actually shoot her.”
Jack wasn’t going to shoot her. At least, he didn’t think so. Just thinking about her striking his guide made him feel near homicidal. So he tried not to focus on it. As long as she behaved, she’d leave here without any extraneous holes in her body. He mentally ran through things he could use as a gag in case she couldn’t keep quiet for fifteen minutes.
Tony was dead on about how long it would take Gibbs and Martin to arrive. He felt the other sentinel and guide coming when they arrived at the building and immediately tensed. Really, Jack was in Gibbs territory, but things were a little upside down at the moment.
Jack asked Tony to wait in the kitchen as he heard the alpha pair coming down the hallway. He heard a soft voice call out, “Jack, this is Jethro Gibbs. My guide Martin Fitzgerald is with me.”
Softly, Jack responded, “I don’t recognize your voice.” They’d never spoken, but he’d heard Martin talking on the phone with Tony that one time. “Have Martin say something.”
A moment later, Martin called out, “This is Martin. I know you heard my voice when I talked to Tony. I have a key. If you want to step away, we can let ourselves in.”
“That’s fine.” He backed up until he was in sight of the door but not in a position to be taken by surprise by anything coming in.
Gibbs entered first. Jack knew the man by sight because he’d done a background check on those closest to Tony. The other sentinel quickly took in the situation, expression stony as he surveyed the room.
“Gibbs!” Sciuto immediately exploded. “This guy put me in handcuffs and he held a gun on me and-“
“Shut up, Abby,” Gibbs growled before he stepped further into apartment and gestured his guide in.
Jack ignored whatever was going on with the woman on the couch as long as she stayed on the couch. As soon as the other pair were inside and the door closed, Jack nodded to them both. “Colonel Jack O’Neill, USAF. I know who you both are. Tony and I will be in the bedroom. Give you some time to talk to Ms. Sciuto. After, we’ll need to discuss a satisfactory resolution to this situation.”
Gibbs nodded, but didn’t say anything, jaw clenched tight and Jack had no idea what was going through the man’s mind.
Martin just looked pissed. “Tony okay?”
“Yeah,” Jack said shortly. “I know you want to say hello, but this isn’t the best time.”
Martin and Gibbs both looked toward the kitchen doorway where Tony was standing. Everyone nodded, but the other alpha pair respected the boundary Jack had set and didn’t say anything.
Jack gestured for Tony to precede him to the bedroom. He could sense his guide’s reluctance, but Tony went along with him.
As soon as the door was shut, Jack again touched an ice-cold cheek. “I’m sorry, Tony. I literally can’t do any better than this.”
Tony looked sad, but nodded. “I know, Jack.” He let his guide maneuver him until they were seated on the bed.
He kept his hearing up to monitor the situation in the other room.
“You will answer my questions, and only my questions, are we clear?” Jack heard a granite-hard voice ask, and he was surprised. Because that wasn’t Gibbs, that was Martin.
– – – –
“Gibbs,” Abby said pleadingly, looking around Martin for aid from his sentinel.
“You’re talking to me, Abby, not Gibbs,” Martin replied stonily, pleased that Jethro was sticking by his agreement and letting Martin handle it. Jethro had just had a long conversation with Abby this past Wednesday, warning her to get over it and move on.
She glared at him. “You don’t understand. We’re a family! Families fight sometimes, they don’t put each other in handcuffs.” She looked around Martin again. “Gibbs, please. I’m in handcuffs.”
“You’re lucky you’re not in jail, Abby,” Martin retorted. “But we could arrange for that. And right now, the only person in this house that would take those cuffs off is the guy you just hit. Now answer my question. Why are you here? Gibbs told you to stay away from Tony.”
“No, he told me to stop emailing or calling until I heard from Tony. He didn’t say anything about going to see him.”
Martin gritted his teeth. “You knew exactly what Gibbs meant by that order. You and the others treated Tony dreadfully, and you were supposed to leave him alone. Tell me how you knew to come here now?”
She flushed and looked away.
“Abby!” he barked, causing her to jump. “Start answering me or I’m calling the police.”
“It was just a little slap! Even if you could persuade the police to arrest me, the DA would never file charges,” she said with way too much assurance.
Martin crossed his arms, having to block out how angry his sentinel was, because Martin was angry enough on his own. He gave Abby a cold look. “Okay, let’s talk about what you did. After a supervising agent gave you a warning to stay away, you, an employee of NCIS, came uninvited into the home of an NCIS agent on medical leave, and without saying a word, slapped him hard enough to cut and bruise in the presence of his nesting sentinel.”
“What?” Abby blanched, gaping at him. “T-Tony’s not a guide.”
“Actually he is. And he’s been bonded for less than a week. You came into his home unannounced and uninvited, and assaulted him in front of his sentinel. If Jack had killed you in a feral rage, no court of law would have convicted him of wrongdoing.”
“No one told me!” she practically screamed.
“Because it was none of your business! You’ve done nothing but bitch about Tony for weeks, why would I tell you anything about him?”
“Why do you even know? It has nothing to do with you. Our family was just fine before Tony filed that report and you came along!”
Martin felt Gibbs react with hot rage, and his sentinel got to his feet, but Martin gestured him back.
“Tony’s been my best friend for over three decades. My brother in every way that matters. I’ve bitten my tongue and said nothing as you bitched and moaned, but that time is done. You’re so far over the line that it’s not even in sight anymore.”
Continuing to glare at her, he pulled the conversation back to the question he’d asked. “Now, I think you understand how precarious your position is. Tell me, and this is the last time I’m going to ask, why did you come here?”
“I-I wanted to talk to Tony. I’ve been so angry, and he won’t talk to me! He should have to explain why he filed that report and screwed things up for Ziva and McGee! Harris messed with all of us, and Tony gets to walk away but Ziva and McGee have these big black marks, and Gibbs is always reminding them that they better backup their partner! I just wanted him to explain, but when I saw him I got so mad!”
Martin held up a hand to stop her litany. “I’ll address those points, but first I want to know how you knew to come here now? I don’t even know when Tony arrived, but he hasn’t been here long. So explain your convenient timing.”
“I…” she looked down at her lap, fidgeting on the sofa. “I’ve been tracking his cell. I wanted to know when he was back so I could talk to him. I just got back this morning from seeing my parents and I got the ping that his cell was on here in DC, and I just decided to come over.”
“I take it you used NCIS resources to track Agent DiNozzo’s location all these weeks?” Martin asked dryly.
She nodded, but didn’t look up.
Suddenly Jethro got to his feet. “I’ll be in the kitchen making the call.”
Abby’s head snapped up and she started to cry as Jethro walked away. Martin could feel the conflicted emotions in his sentinel, but he couldn’t deal with that right now. All he could do was send a soothing pulse along their bond. “Who’s he calling?” Abby whispered.
“That’s really not your concern yet. In regards to your assertion that Tony is at fault for the mess this team is in, Agents McGee and David were seriously in breach of NCIS protocol when they cut comms while backing up Agent DiNozzo while he obtained voiceprints. That is not up for debate.”
“He should have let Gibbs handle it!” she yelled, now angry. “Instead he ran to Vance and that’s not how this team does things!”
“You are wrong in so many ways, Sciuto. Tony turned the report over to Gibbs. Gibbs turned it into Vance and the punishments meted out were Gibbs’ recommendations.”
“No… I don’t believe you.”
“I don’t care! Whether you see it or not, Tony had a legal and moral obligation to report what happened. Even if he wasn’t looking out for his own skin, he had an obligation to me, to Paul, to every other agent in the building to make sure that kind of breach didn’t happen again.”
“They wouldn’t!” Abby insisted. “They’d never do that to…” she trailed off, biting her lip.
“You really should finish that sentence. They’d never do it to… any other agent? Never do it to anyone but Tony? So it’s okay to leave Tony without proper backup, but for every other agent they’ll do their jobs? What exactly are you trying to say?”
“You’re twisting things around. We were all hurt by Harris, and if he hadn’t messed with our heads–”
“What Harris did,” Martin interrupted, “is the only reason those two still have their jobs. The Center was adamant that Harris’ actions were a factor, but that it didn’t make them cut comms! The Alpha Guide of the US specifically said that you don’t get to cause someone harm just because you’re annoyed. That’s it, Abby. Annoyed. Harris made you all irritated. And you barely at all.
“He made Ziva a little angry and McGee a little jealous. To which I say, so the fuck what?” Martin was willing to swear in these circumstances. “In my opinion, more than half of the problem with you three was that you took what Harris did and then revved each other up.”
He could feel that Abby wasn’t really listening, she was so caught up in her righteous indignation that she couldn’t hear him.
“Tony got away with punching a guide! And Ziva and Timmy are being crucified because they turned off a radio. How is that fair?”
Martin so wanted to point out that Harris was trying to kill Tony, but that was information he couldn’t release. “You are being deliberately obtuse. I can only assume you do not want to not see the truth. Tony was suffering from empathic damage so extreme he had to have twice a day healing sessions for a month with up to three healers at a time. I’m sure you recall that none of the rest of you even required a single healing session.
“The Center ruled clearly that Tony lashed out in what amounted to self-defense to stop brutal attacks on his mind. There was no one actively attacking McGee or David when they ‘turned off a radio.’”
Abby seemed to deflate, slumping back into the sofa, looking lost.
In a less strident tone, Martin continued, “You blame Tony for the fracture in your family, but you should be blaming the two people who broke the trust on the team in the first place. McGee has been trying to pull his head out of his ass, and I give him credit for eventually taking it on the chin and trying to be a good agent. Most of the time anyway; except when you and David are screwing things up for him by manipulating him into shutting Paul out and treating me like a pariah.
“Do you not get that I’m Gibbs’ bonded guide? You look to him to help you while you can barely bring yourself to be civil to me? Do you have any idea the conflict you put him under? What I find really mystifying is that you haven’t figured out yet who he’s going to choose!”
Abby cringed back into the sofa, but he could feel resentment pouring off of her, along with a host of other conflicted emotions.
“Paul is a good agent, and a good SFA. No matter what, Tony was never going to be on this team again. Aside from the fact that he came online as a guide and has to be with his sentinel, the trust agents have to have in each other was damaged beyond repair. But if any of you valued him as your friend, you’d have reached out and at least said ‘we’re sorry we treated you like shit,’ or even ‘are you okay?’ Instead you’ve blamed everything that’s gone wrong on the one person who didn’t do anything.”
Abby started to cry, and Martin could now feel some genuine upset and regret from her, but he didn’t let it affect him. Abby was too used to her tears getting her out of trouble, and he wasn’t going to perpetuate it. If she cried her way out of these consequences, he was pretty sure the colonel in the other room would see her arrested today.
“There was an opportunity here to build a new team, start fresh and not make the same mistakes. And you still could have been friends with Tony if you’d tried even a little. Instead, you’ve alienated Paul, alienated me, you’re starting to push McGee away, and you’re leaving Gibbs no choice but to take a step back and let you face the consequences of your actions.”
Abby looked up, a stricken expression on her face, and tugged at the cuffs in frustration. “Gibbs will help me. I know he will.”
“I will help you, Abby,” Jethro said, coming in from the kitchen, his expression closed off, but Martin knew he was hurting. “But somehow I don’t think you’ll see it as help.” He stopped in front of her and gestured for her to stand up and turn around. With quick efficiency, he removed the cuffs and tucked them in his pocket. He pulled on a glove and carefully checked her hand, pulling off one of her rings and tucking it into a baggie he’d gotten in the kitchen.
“What are you doing?” Abby asked with alarm.
Jethro indicated for her to sit again. “I talked to Vance. You’re going to be suspended for a month, and have to undergo mandatory counseling around this entire situation including anger management. You’ll need clearance from one of the NCIS psychologists to return to work.”
Sobbing now in earnest, Abby looked to Gibbs, wordlessly pleading for him to help.
Jethro shook his head and continued. “A formal reprimand will be placed in your file regarding the misappropriation of NCIS resources and assaulting an agent. You will be on probation for six months after you return to work, and that will extend to a full year if you violate any of the terms of your probation.
“In part, those terms are, that for the duration of your suspension, you are not to have contact with anyone at NCIS except in an official capacity. Meaning, me, Vance, the shrink or human resources. If anyone contacts you, you are to refer them to me. You are required to stay in town for the duration of your suspension to complete your mandated counseling. This is not a vacation.
“Additionally, until you are given permission by Agent DiNozzo, you are to have no contact, in any way, with Agent DiNozzo or his sentinel. You are not to look into who his sentinel is, where he works, what he does or even what state he lives in.
“Once you return to NCIS, negative gossip about Agent DiNozzo will be considered a violation of your probation. Any acts of insubordination to Agents Paul Sinclair or Martin Fitzgerald will be considered a violation of your probation. After the first violation, your probation will be extended. A second violation you’ll receive another formal reprimand, and the third violation your employment with NCIS will be terminated and you will not be eligible to work for another federal agency.”
Abby was still crying, but she seemed stunned and Martin was getting glimmers of anger from her again.
Jethro took a deep breath and Martin wanted to reach out to help him, but knew his sentinel had to get through it. “You’ll meet with Director Vance tomorrow morning at 0900 hours to receive a written copy of everything and sign your acceptance of the terms of your suspension and probation. I took your ring, because if you don’t sign, you’ll likely be charged and the ring is evidence. Do you understand?”
“Gibbs… you can’t do this! NCIS can’t control me like this… tell me who to talk to and what to say!”
“Abby! You need to listen to what I’m saying. I cannot and will not make this go away. If you want to work for NCIS, these are the terms.”
“How could you do this to me?”
“I’m hoping this will save you from jail!” Jethro exploded. “Because all of this is contingent upon Sentinel O’Neill agreeing to it. If he doesn’t, you could face a year in prison. Do you get that? Do you understand how serious this is? Assaulting a newly bonded guide is a big deal because you can make a sentinel feral, and a feral sentinel is dangerous.
“The fact that you didn’t know won’t matter because you came in without permission. There are consequences, Abby. I warned you to get your head on straight. And this is your response?” Jethro sighed and rubbed his hand over his forehead. “I love you like my own, but the only good thing I can do for you right now is let you deal with the repercussions and hope Tony’s sentinel thinks it’s enough.”
“He held a gun to my head, Gibbs!”
Jethro’s jaw was clenched so tight, Martin was afraid he’d crack his teeth. “You don’t know how lucky you are! You made a nesting Sentinel’s guide bleed. I can still smell it in the air and it’s making me nuts.”
“It was just a tiny scratch!” Abby insisted waving her hands around.
Jethro took a deep breath. “Did you turn that ring backwards on purpose to cause Agent DiNozzo harm?”
Abby looked stunned. “No… sometimes they twist around. I didn’t even notice.”
After clearly listening to something only a sentinel could hear, Jethro said, “Sentinel O’Neill has agreed to not press charges if NCIS follows through on this course of disciplinary action. Provided you shut up and quit digging yourself in deeper.”
She paled and her eyes flicked to the bedroom door.
Martin had to fight not to roll his eyes, because he was thirty-six and way too old for that kind of thing. “He’s a sentinel, Abby,” he reminded her. “He’s heard every word we’ve said.”
“Including,” Jethro added, “the part where you haven’t expressed any remorse or regret for harming his guide.” He held up a hand when she started to say something. “I think you’ve said enough. You need to leave for your own good. I’ll show you out.”
Martin sighed as his sentinel escorted the crying woman out. He suspected there’d be hugs out in the hall, though he wasn’t certain because Jethro was seriously pissed at Abby.
A few minutes later, he got a text from Jethro. –too upset to drive safely—
He gritted his teeth and called his sentinel. As soon as Jethro answered, Martin said, “Don’t let yourself be manipulated. If she’s too upset, call her a cab and she can wait in her car until it arrives. I’m not trying to be an ass, but what you’re thinking about doing right now is part of the problem. I know this is hard, Jethro, but you agreed that you’re not helping her by holding her hand every time she screws up. She needs to stand up and face this if she’s going to come out the other side in a better place.”
There were several beats of silence before Jethro sighed. “I’ll make the call and be back shortly.”
Martin scrubbed his hands over his face. He wasn’t surprised Jack and Tony hadn’t come out. Jack likely wouldn’t let his guide out until Jethro was back and the door locked again. Plus Tony was likely empathically soothing his sentinel. There was a chance that they wouldn’t even be able to get together today.
He paced around Tony’s apartment, waiting for his sentinel to return, struggling with his own conflicted feelings. Vance and Jethro had come up with somewhat harsher disciplinary actions than Martin had expected, though he felt that it was still fair. His conflict came in knowing how hard this was on Jethro. Both the sentinel’s surrogate daughters were caught in a destructive spiral and nothing had been able to pull them out.
Hopefully Ziva wouldn’t need yet another jolt. The first one should have been the extension of her probation, but that didn’t do anything. The most recent jolt was when Jethro talked to her on Wednesday to tell her that he would support Agent Sinclair in any reprimands for insubordination.
Ziva had been quietly furious all that day because too many reprimands and she’d fail her probation and lose her job. Jethro actually worried the most about what would happen to her if she lost NCIS, so Martin worried about it too.
It was several more minutes before Jethro came back. As soon as he was inside and had the door locked, he hesitated, clearly listening to something. After a beat, Jethro moved to the sofa and sat by Martin, bracing his elbows on his knees. “Jack said he’ll give us a few minutes before they come out.” He blew out a breath, and then pulled something out of his pocket, tossing it on the coffee table. “I confiscated Abby’s key.”
Martin slid a hand up and down his sentinel’s back. “Tell me how you’re doing.”
“I’ve screwed up with her and Ziver.”
“I realize you developed this family dynamic, but they were already adults when you got them, so it’s really on them.” He nudged his sentinel until Jethro looked at him. “Hey, we talked about this. The best thing you can do is let the kids be grown up.”
“Yeah.” Jethro blew out a breath. “Come here.” He pulled Martin close, pressing a kiss to his temple. They sat that way for a few minutes before Jethro twitched his head a little. “They’re coming out. Jack says he’s fine with you giving Tony a hug.”
“You’re a sentinel,” Martin admonished. “You wouldn’t have been okay with another sentinel around me six days into our bonding.”
Jethro’s lips twitched. “True.” He stroked his thumb along Martin’s cheekbone. “You’re good for me.”
Martin flushed a little. Jethro wasn’t one to flash his emotions around, and comments like that were precious. He gave his sentinel a quick kiss just as the door to the bedroom opened.
Jack was… well, Martin wasn’t sure what Jack was. He was rigidly in control and very tense, and he screamed sentinel from his every muscle twitch. Martin hoped he’d get a chance to find out what he was like under normal circumstances. After the sentinel had assessed the living room, he stepped aside and Tony came out.
Martin crossed to his closest friend and they hugged for several seconds. He finally pulled back and assessed his friend closely, wincing a little at the cheek. It would probably bruise, which was a little more than a delicate slap. Otherwise, Tony looked good. Settled.
“Happy holidays,” Martin said with a rueful smile.
Tony laughed and gave him another quick hug. “I’ve missed you, which is a little weird because we talk all the time and I’ve seen you more in the last eight weeks than I usually do in a year.”
It didn’t logically make sense, but Tony had been under a lot of stresses that were nothing like what he was used to, and he and Martin had always come together more during stressful times in their lives.
Tony looked toward Jethro and nodded. “Hey, Gibbs.”
“Tony,” Jethro replied. “Good to see you.”
Taking a steadying breath, Tony offered, “Look, I need to apologize to everyone. I feel like this whole thing could have been avoided. When I heard the key in the lock, I just went on autopilot and started towards the door. Only four people have a key and I didn’t think to be worried about any of them, not even thinking about how anyone coming in would have set Jack on edge.”
Jack made a little growling sound. “Tony… I thought I already talked you out of thinking this is your fault.”
Tony exchanged a look with his sentinel. “I’m saying it could have been avoided if I–”
Jack pulled Tony away from Martin and held him by both arms. “Stop. Before that ever happened, this day had been difficult, and there’s nothing wrong with being on autopilot in your own home.”
Martin watched as Tony’s eyes flicked to Jethro, who nodded that he agreed with Jack. Tony seemed to relax knowing that Gibbs didn’t blame him for Abby’s screw up.
Stepping back, Jack jerked his head toward the kitchen. “Want to get them the stuff from the fridge? It occurs to me we should find out if she had anything to do with it.”
Tony looked startled. “I don’t think she’d do that.”
The sentinel just raised a brow.
“Okay.” Tony went to the kitchen and came back with a Tupperware container. He passed it to Martin, who moved close to Jethro and opened it. Inside were two cameras and four bugs.
Martin blinked at them and Jethro swore, going for his cell phone and hitting a speed dial. After a couple seconds, his sentinel bit out, “Did you place any kind of surveillance device in DiNozzo’s place?” After a bit, Jethro hung up. “She says no. I can’t get a clear read over the phone, but I’m inclined to believe her.”
Tony took the container and returned it to the refrigerator, calling out, “Anyone want anything to drink?”
“Coffee,” Gibbs replied immediately, causing Tony to snicker.
While Tony puttered around in the kitchen, Martin turned his attention to Jack. “Scott and Kyle were here until about two weeks ago, and there’s no way Scott would have missed surveillance devices, so those are pretty recent. You think this has something to do with that mess with the Council?”
“Not sure. I believe there’s a credible threat still there. However, I work on a highly classified project and there are those who like to keep tabs on me. We’ve talked openly on cell phones about our intention to come here. So, it’s not clear who the target of the surveillance is. Jim Ellison has helped our program rid itself of many surveillance devices recently, so this could be a desperate attempt.”
Martin sighed. Leave it to Tony to get in deep with someone in classified project their own government felt compelled to spy on.
Jack continued. “Between the two issues, I’m not comfortable staying here. If the offer’s still open, I’d prefer to stay with you rather than a hotel.”
Jethro quickly nodded and Martin added his agreement. The two sentinels discussed security measures for the couple minutes it took Tony to return with four cups of coffee on a tray with cream and sugar.
“What’s the verdict?” Tony asked, keeping close to Jack.
“We’re leaving as soon as you’re ready,” Jack replied.
“Ah. Okay. I’d like to talk to Martin for a few minutes. Will you be okay if I take him to my, um… the other room?”
Jack stared at Tony for several beats, before reluctantly nodding.
Martin was a little surprised when Tony took him to the studio. Martin had been in there before, but it was usually something Tony refused to talk about and he usually sent Martin in alone. “You know Jack’s not going to be able to dial down his hearing yet?”
“I know,” Tony acknowledged.
“I’m not even sure Jethro can considering the circumstances.”
Tony nodded and reached for a large canvas covered with white fabric. “Merry Christmas.”
He quickly revealed the painting. “Tony,” he breathed, “it’s perfect.” It was mostly greens and blues with hints of plum and gray that felt like storm clouds.
He’d always loved Tony’s art… even when they were little and it was just scribbles on a page. Even Tony’s six-year-old drawings were somehow interesting. Martin knew Tony produced at least a couple pieces a year – it was his outlet for his emotions – but Martin only had two and he’d always wanted more.
One of the things he hated about DiNozzo Senior was how he’d condemned his son for his interest in art and music. It was the beginning of the ‘DiNozzos don’t do…’ campaign of anything human in Tony’s life after his mother’s death. The constant disdain of anything emotional explained how someone with such a natural aptitude and interest in music and art had wound up a football player.
Martin knew Tony was uncomfortable, but he gave him a hug anyway. “Thank you so much.” Tony surrendered to the hug, but Martin knew not to push any further. “You taking all this with you?” he asked, diverting the attention.
“That’s the plan, though it seems a little silly to haul around all these canvases just to put them in a storage room.” And now Tony was emotionally closed off.
“Let’s talk about it later, okay? I have an idea.” At Tony’s assent, Martin re-wrapped the painting. “Jethro’s gonna know now, Tony,” he warned gently.
“I know. I just don’t want to talk about it, and I know he won’t say anything to anyone.”
They returned to the living room, and Martin set the painting by the door. Jethro didn’t comment, so he knew his sentinel had been monitoring. From there, they quickly rounded up whatever Tony and Jack planned to take and headed for their separate vehicles.
Jethro toned down the crazed driving for the ride back. As soon as they were on the road, he glanced at Martin. “Tony’s an artist?”
Martin sighed. “Yes. If Tony had grown up with a sane, supportive father, he’d probably have been a painter or a pianist. As it stands, it’s something he holds very close and doesn’t talk to anyone about. Playing the piano and painting are his emotional outlets, so it’s even more private. He’s not quite as reticent about playing the piano, but he’ll clam up if you bring it up the art.”
“I won’t say anything.” He seemed to be thinking about something. “I noticed that those two paintings of yours are like the ones at Tony’s. I thought you two had the same taste, but they’re his, aren’t they?”
“Yes,” Martin replied shortly, but didn’t say anything further as his sentinel seemed to be lost in thought.
After a couple minutes, Jethro finally said, “I’ll have to go in tomorrow to talk to McGee and Ziva about this situation so they know to leave Abby alone for a bit.”
“I thought you were working the next couple days anyway,” Martin said, a little confused.
“I was, but if someone’s possibly keeping an eye on Tony, I’m not comfortable not being there.”
“Jethro, Tony and I are both agents, and Jack is obviously Special Forces. I think we can handle it.”
“I’m not saying you can’t, but my gut says to be with you.”
All Martin could do was give in when Jethro’s sentinel got his dander up. “You think McGee and Ziva will abide by the ‘no contact’ rule?”
Jethro considered the question. “Don’t know. I’ll be sure they know they aren’t doing Abby any favors by getting in touch. Abby has a large support structure, and she’d be better off spending time with her nuns than talking with Ziva.”
“Isn’t that the truth,” Martin muttered under his breath.
At the house, Jethro tried to make things easier for the anxious sentinel in Jack and let him roam the entire dwelling to ensure things were safe for Tony. Once everything settled down, they all sat in the living room and talked for a while.
Once Jack was a little relaxed, Martin saw someone very like Tony in his outlook on life and sense of humor. Although, even if they’d been polar opposites, all Martin truly cared about was how at ease and happy Tony was with Jack.
Tony’s smile and genuine laughter were all that really mattered.
– – – –
Monday morning arrived and it was time to get to work on moving Tony’s stuff. Tony made breakfast for all his voluntary laborers. Gibbs still had to head into NCIS and deal with the Abby situation, plus talk to McGee and Ziva, and then he’d have the rest of the day to help them. The sentinel was a little leery about letting his guide go off with Tony and Jack, but all three were armed so he eventually managed to let go.
Tony drove Jack and Martin back to his soon-to-be-old place. As he parked, he realized it would probably be for the last time, which seemed so weird. Tony had lived here longer than anywhere else in his life and it was a little painful to let go. Probably because this was the final step on closing this chapter of his life, which had ended so horribly and abruptly.
Inside the apartment, Jack scanned but found no new bugs, so that was a relief. After Jack had time to settle the sentinel in him down, they split up to get some work done. The spirit animals were roaming around the apartment, mostly keeping Jack company. Particularly Gattino and Martin’s sun bear, which Martin had named Addy.
Jack had taken on the unenviable task of putting most of Tony’s suits into cloth suit bags for long-term storage, and so was working in the bedroom while Martin was helping Tony in the living room with the monumental task of getting nearly a thousand DVDs into binders. Every disc got a number and entered on an index so that Tony had some hope of finding things again.
After they’d gotten into the rhythm, Tony idly commented, “I like the changes at your place. You merged you and Gibbs in good way.”
Martin smiled. “Jethro’s been really good about letting us blend together and make it my home, too. The wood furniture he’s made is really beautiful, but a lot of the other stuff had to be replaced. The bed was a disaster and that couch was awful.”
Tony snickered. He’d slept on the sofa more than once, so he knew it didn’t sleep too badly, but it wasn’t the most attractive thing in the world. He and Martin had the same type of bed, so he figured Martin had brought his from New York to get rid of Gibbs’ no doubt Marine-firm mattress.
Martin had hung up the few paintings he’d gotten from Tony over the years, and it was peculiar to see his artwork displayed in what he still thought of as Gibbs’ place. Not bad, just… different.
He hesitated a bit, then decided to dive right into what was really on his mind. “I’d like to know what happened with Abby. All I could get out of Jack was that she wasn’t going to jail. I don’t particularly want to push him right now.”
Martin raised a brow. “You do know he’s listening?”
“Yeah, but he’s obligated to stay put and pretend that he’s not eavesdropping. I’m sure it’s in the sentinel rulebook that way.”
Shaking his head in exasperation, Martin seemed to hesitate.
“Martin, I don’t need everyone to protect me. You’ve been keeping a lot from me, and I need it to stop. I’m not fragile.”
“For a while you were, Tony. And maybe you don’t want to accept that, but it’s the truth. It’s just taking me a bit to realize you’re okay again.” Martin was stuffing DVDs into pockets with a little more aggression that was necessary. “Jethro is wonderful and there’s nothing about him or our bond that I regret, but it killed me to not go with you when Harris messed you up… To not be there for you.”
Tony nodded, accepting what Martin had to say. Martin would have been great through that whole process; but Martin and Gibbs as a unit would have been too much for Tony. They nearly had been when they’d visited. But there was no point in going down that path now.
After several beats, Tony sighed and offered, “I get it. But we need to get back to the portion of the program where we tell each other all our garbage, because I know this has been rough on you and you haven’t been talking to me.” He held up his hands. “Not that I’ve been perfect about that, but we need to get back to normal. Besides, I’m going to the jungle for a few weeks, and we won’t be able to talk, so we need to set a good precedent for when I get back.”
Martin snorted at the Tony-logic, but nodded his agreement. He quickly gave Tony a rundown of the disciplinary actions for Abby.
Tony gave a low whistle. “That’s harsher than I expected.”
“It’s not that bad, Tony. It sounds rough because she normally gets away with sniffling and everyone pats her on the head and forgets that she was obnoxious,” Martin retorted, nearly ripping DVDs out of their cases.
“Wow,” Tony said, a little stunned; not only at what Martin said, but also at what he was projecting. “Something get a little bottled up?”
“Gah!” Martin dropped his head into his hands and fisted his hair. “I’m sorry. That’s been building. The last few weeks at NCIS reminded me too much of my first few weeks in New York, and I’ve been forcing myself to stay calm for Jethro’s sake.”
And as soon as Tony saw Gibbs, he was giving the Marine a kick in the ass. Martin had to overcome so much crap for being the Deputy Director’s kid, whispers of favoritism, and being excluded by his own team. He sure as hell didn’t need to go through anything like that again. “How bad has it been, Martin?”
“It’s not just Abby, and it’s not fair to make it all about her. It’s a little bit of everything.” Martin sighed. “Jethro is trying so hard, but he makes things difficult in his own way. He’s given Paul a rough ride for no reason other than he’s not you, and Paul is the person I’m doing the best with because there’s no history and no expectation that we’ll be anything other than good agents.
“Jethro looks for you sometimes, looks for your feedback, or your input, and doesn’t get it, and I can feel his frustration.”
Tony had wildly conflicting emotions at that. Part of him was cringing, but another part was gratified at the proof that Gibbs missed him. He mentally headslapped himself and forced himself to focus.
“Ziva is a nightmare. She does what she wants, when she wants unless Jethro is actually present. McGee is okay now, but he was a walking passive-aggressive cliché for a while. But what was hardest is that Abby, Jethro, Ziva and Tim, for all that things are different, they have this dynamic, and everyone else is on the outside of it. Jethro is trying, but every time he stopped Paul from giving Ziva a written warning for her insubordination, he reinforced this insular thing they have going.”
“Is he still doing that?” Tony wasn’t happy about what he was hearing, but he wasn’t surprised either.
“No. I finally confronted him about it just last week, and he told Ziva the next day that if Paul had issues with her behavior, he wasn’t going to step in anymore; that she needed to get herself together. She’s been a little better, but I don’t know how long it will last.”
“She usually ignores me when I come down with questions, to pick up results, or whatever. Either that or she tries to have the conversation over her music. Though that stopped when I ripped the power cord out of the wall and left with it. Jethro gave it back to her after warning her to knock it off. Needless to say Jethro and I had a bit of a spat over that.”
Tony rubbed his forehead. Gibbs was trying too hard to please everyone and losing sight of his guide in the process.
“Plus, I swear Tony, she emotes strongly on purpose. You know my passive empathy is a ten, even though active is a nine, and it’s so hard to be around her sometimes.” Martin took a steadying breath.
“Finally, the last thing, and the one that used to drive me crazy, was if the results were particularly scientific, she’d just hand them to me and refuse to explain anything.”
“How’d you deal with that?” he asked, though he was pretty stuck on Abby using emotions deliberately against Martin.
“I don’t know what she thought I’d do about it, but I’d just take them to Jethro and tell him that’s all Abby had to report. She quit giving me excessively scientific reports after a couple visits from cranky Gibbs.”
“Fuck.” Any unease Tony felt about Abby faded away in light of her pettiness toward Martin. “It’s a little our fault, ya know? I mean me and Gibbs, and even McGee and Ducky to some degree. I’ve seen her treat agents a little shitty sometimes, and she certainly wasn’t nice to Ziva when Ziva first joined the team.”
“And the men in her life all rewarded her for it. Yeah. That was part of the problem,” Martin agreed readily.
Tony just nodded, because it was true. “She was the little sister, and even when she was horrible, we let her get away with it. God, when I think about what she put McGee through with that damned dog… it’s kind of embarrassing that I didn’t protect Tim from being forced to adopt a dog that had attacked him just because Abby wanted him to.”
Martin made a face. “For heaven’s sake, Tony!” He huffed a little. “Look, I get that part of you still wants to protect her, but she has to face life without you and Jethro standing between her and consequences. She’ll be a better person for it.”
“Yeah, it just sucks because my own guilt over letting it go on makes me want to absorb some of those consequences.”
“And that’s a cycle that will never end if you don’t stomp on that urge,” Martin chastised.
Tony thought for a few moments. “Are you going to be okay there? Are things getting at all better?”
Martin blew out a breath. “I don’t know… to either question. Jethro and I had our big chat just last Tuesday, and he started trying to be different the next day, but his own guilt is eating him up. I know he feels like he totally failed you, and with the way things are falling apart with his surrogate family, he feels like he’s failing them, too.”
“Gibbs didn’t fail me,” Tony said automatically.
“Yes he did, Tony,” Martin said emphatically, stopping the work with the DVDs that had become almost automatic. “I’m not saying he’s at fault, but he was being such a tyrant that you couldn’t tell the one person who could really help you that you were being hurt.”
Tony recoiled a little. “Martin, it’s my job to take care of me, not Gibbs’.”
“I’m not saying that you don’t have some responsibility for not telling Jethro no matter what, but Jethro… he’s chosen to be the way he is. He’s chosen to have such an aggressive personality. And it failed him and you in this situation. That’s the way I see it, and I’m pretty sure it’s how Jethro sees it.
“Plus, when things started going badly on the team, instead of talking to you about it, he just took it out on you. So, yeah, he feels guilty, Tony. I’m not saying he should be drowning in guilt, because I think he’d be better off letting it go at this point. All this guilt is leading him down some bad paths. But I’m not going to sit here and blindly agree with you that he had no role in what happened.”
All he could do was stare at his best friend, a little astonished. “Jesus, Martin, tell me how you really feel.”
Martin glared at him and went back to stuffing DVDs in the binder.
Tony sighed. “Look, it’s over. We all have to move on. There are two things that worry me in all of this, and the biggest one is that you’re unhappy at NCIS. That’s not acceptable.”
Clearly relenting a little, Martin replied, “I’m working on it, Tony. You know how bullheaded I can be… I’ve been letting things slide for a bit to let everyone get their feet back under them, but the easygoing Martin is leaving on an extended vacation.”
“So, I see,” Tony teased gently.
“And what’s the other thing?”
“This hair shirt Gibbs has decided to wear.”
Martin started laughing. When he got himself under control, he said, “That’s exactly what I said to him.”
They downshifted the conversation into something a little less controversial. Jack came out with a few questions, and bitched some more about the quantity of clothes Tony had before moving on to the next phase of packing Tony’s wardrobe. And Tony was really going to reward Jack with a blowjob tonight for tackling Tony’s closet.
They’d been working and idly chatting for a while when Martin abruptly said, “I know you’re going to hate this, but let’s talk about your art.”
Tony stiffened. “What do you mean?”
“Relax, I don’t mean an evocative discussion about the meaning of it or anything.”
That surprised a chuckle out of him. “Okay, shoot.” He knew he was overly touchy about the art, but it had been so drilled into his head that it wasn’t an acceptable pastime that he always overreacted. It had always been his secret, something only Martin knew about until now.
It occurred to him that his life was basically starting over, and no one had preconceptions about how Tony was, or how a DiNozzo should act, and maybe he could do with a few less defenses and masks.
Cautiously, Martin began with, “You said you weren’t certain about taking all of them. And after ten years, there are quite a lot in there. What are you thinking about doing with them?”
Tony sighed. That was touchy. He liked his art, but the actual painting was what he cared about not keeping around the finished product. Every time he changed jobs in the past, he got rid of most of what he’d accumulated. “I don’t know. I guess I’ll pick out a few and drop the rest off at Goodwill or something.” He’d never told Martin that that was what he tended to do with pieces he didn’t want.
Martin made a choking sound. “Are you serious?”
“Well, what else am I going to do with them? Ceremonial burning?”
“Please let me find homes for them. I promise I won’t tell anyone who painted them. You’ll be completely anonymous.” Martin looked like Tony had just kicked Addy.
Tony thought about it for a bit, weighing the options in his mind. Eventually he decided he couldn’t find a logical argument against it. “Okay. We’ll stick with the plan of putting the stuff to be packed in the studio, so I’ll move out all the ones I’m leaving behind and put them in the bedroom. But you’ll have to get them out before it’s rented.”
“Thank you, thank you.” Martin squeezed his arm. “And speaking of renting. The DC S&G Center wants to rent the place long term if you’re agreeable. They might even want to buy it if you decide to sell.”
That was a surprise.
Martin added, “It’s sentinel friendly, very sentinel friendly when you count the bed, and Renata is the dream housekeeper for a sentinel.”
Tony smiled. “She told me the S&G Center filled up her client roster.”
“She’s doing our place, too, because it’s not like we have time, plus I swear Jethro was torturing himself with some of the cleaning supplies. The interim guides he had should have known better. Jethro should have known better,” Martin said with an irritated huff.
That got another smile, though Tony tried to hide it from his friend. “I have no problem with the Center renting my apartment.” A little cautiously, he asked, “What’s going on with that place these days?”
Martin tossed a few more empty cases in their recycling box. “I’m not sure how much you know through Blair… I hadn’t mentioned it before because it’s a rough subject.”
“Yeah. Blair told me there was some pretty extreme embezzlement that both the Center directors and assistant directors were involved with, and they were bribing the Alpha Prime for DC to sign off on the budget. It’s just so weird to have so many dishonest sentinels and guides in one place.”
“I wonder sometimes if that kind of thing is almost… contagious isn’t the right word, but something like that. Because it seems to happen in pockets, and it usually will eventually drive the sentinels to dormancy. If this whole thing hadn’t happened, it’s likely one of the alpha sentinels would have gone dormant, and that would have brought all kinds of attention. Because that doesn’t happen for no reason.”
“So how bad were things at the Center?”
“It was pretty bad. They had a fraction of the staff they needed anyway, and more than half of them were fired. The ramp up on staffing has been, and continues to be difficult. The few alphas in nearby Virginia and Maryland had been taking up the slack for the Center anyway, and were able to provide lots of hiring recommendations.”
“Who’s gonna run it?”
“That’s a thornier topic than you might think, and it involves Jethro and me tangentially.”
Tony looked up from sticking inventory numbers on DVDs. “Oh? Why?”
“Because Scott and Kyle are the most likely contenders. They’re both incredible for New York, but the Sentinel/Guide community there is rock solid already, and DC was growing on them.”
“What’s the issue then?”
“Jethro and Scott are pretty much equivalent strength wise, and are both contenders to be Prime. It’s just a little touchy, but I don’t think Jethro actually wants to be Prime. He’s got enough headaches dealing with work; plus the sentinels and guides that are gravitating towards us to be part of our Pride. I can’t see him wanting to have other alphas accountable to him and having to manage a territory.”
“I wouldn’t think he’d want it either. He’s never cared much for hierarchy, and if he were Prime, he’d have to deal with the Council bullshit.”
“I think he’s resisting giving ground to another sentinel. He and Scott are both good men, but they rub each other the wrong way a bit. Despite that, Jethro already lives here, and people know him, so Scott is waiting for Jethro to make a decision.”
“What do you think? How are you and Kyle?”
“Kyle and I are great. I’ve known them for a while. And as for what I think… I believe Jethro needs to let go. The Center needs a strong experienced leader to regain the trust of the community. Scott and Kyle are the best choices, but Scott won’t do it unless he’s Prime.”
Tony blew out a breath. “I’m so glad I don’t have to deal with sentinel pissing matches since Jack won’t be a Prime.”
Martin blinked in surprise. “How could that be? Jack has to be level ten-plus if he’s bonded to you. I can’t believe there’s another sentinel in the US as strong as Jack, except Ellison. He could have any territory he wanted.”
“It’s not lack of strength so much as lack of time. Jack is full time, all the time, on his command. Our Pride will be the sentinels and guides in the program, and that’s it. The only reason we’re getting so much time off right now is because his senses have to be stable for his work.”
“Deep Space Radar Telemetry?” Martin queried with a raised brow.
“Exactly,” Tony replied dryly.
“Has anyone pointed out that’s the worst cover story ever?”
“I’m pretty sure everyone has.”
Gretzky suddenly chuffed at him, butting Tony’s shoulder. “Hey you. Am I not giving you enough attention?” Tony put down his stack of DVDs and buried his head in the Siberian’s neck while giving him a hug. When he looked up, Addy was there again, walking on his hind legs towards Martin.
Martin started playing with the bear, commenting, “Do you know how much you’ve changed things for the sentinels and guides around you?”
“Meaning?” Tony paused in his scratching of Gretzky’s belly, getting a rumble of complaint.
“When you told me I could invite my spirit guide to be around more, it was like something I’d been missing was suddenly there. I love having him around. And I love having Jethro’s grizzly around, even if he takes up all the available space. I told Kyle about it, and now he has his and Scott’s spirit animals around all the time… or as much as possible. Scott grouses about it, but I can tell he likes it, too.”
Tony tried to think of what things would be like without Gattino popping in and out, but he had no frame of reference. “I’ve never been a guide without feeling fully connected to Gattino, so I’m not sure how it’s different for you.”
“It’s a big deal, Tony. I think someone should tell the Sentinel Council to put out a memo or something.”
Tony laughed at the idea of an official mandate from the Sentinel Council to please invite your spirit guides to visit. “So, back to the Center. Why’d Kyle and Scott go home if they’re thinking about taking the job here?”
“They have lots to deal with at home, plus the holidays. If they come back, they’ll be the ones renting this place. Kyle loves it. If not, the Center will use it as interim housing.” Martin looked at the stack of binders. “I can’t believe we’re only half done. This is torture.”
Tony threw a cover insert at Martin. “Suck it up.”
A little later, Tony went to check on his sentinel but found him in the studio instead of the bedroom, going through the paintings. Utterly confused, he could only ask, “What’s up?”
Jack gave him a sour look. “If you’re willing to send them to Goodwill, I get to pick the one I want.”
Tony blinked. “I… okay.” He let that sink in for a minute. “You can have any you want, Jack. Or…” he trailed off, not sure about what he’d almost offered.
“Or what?” Jack prompted, giving Tony his entire attention.
“I…” Tony struggled a little. “These are mostly my NCIS stress paintings, and I don’t mind if you have them, or I could… ya know, paint something for you.”
His sentinel gave him a kind of stunned look. Tony let his empathy uncoil a little and felt surprise and real happiness. Jack shifted the paintings back, then crossed to Tony, pulling him close and giving him a breath-stealing kiss. “How can I argue with the personal touch?” Jack said with a bit of smugness after they’d separated. “But,” he held up a finger and moved to pick up one of Tony’s smallest paintings. “I get this one, too, for my office.”
Tony remembered every painting he’d done, and this was right after Kate joined the team and was driving him up the wall before things settled into the sibling rivalry that worked so well for them. He found himself smiling. He liked that Jack picked something that was a reminder of Kate.
He and Jack were seriously making out against the studio door when Gibbs arrived. “Guess we have to go out there and behave,” Tony offered breathlessly.
Jack opened the door and gave him a baleful look. “I’m almost done with those damn clothes. How can anyone have that many clothes is beyond me. You can only wear one set at a time.” His sentinel continued muttering as he walked back to the bedroom.
Tony took a minute to let his arousal subside. He looked around the studio. So much of his troubles for the past decade had been burned off in this room. It was a tiny second bedroom with a lousy view, but it had been Tony’s sanctuary. Part of him was going to miss it, but he was also glad he’d found something that enabled him to let it go.
He returned to the living room to find Gibbs glaring at a stack of DVDs while Martin showed him how they were processing them and trying to get the sentinel to help. He couldn’t help but bust out laughing.
“Gibbs,” Tony started, trying not to laugh, “I’m only taking about half my books. They’re piled up on the couch and the island in the kitchen. You want to pack those and I’ll continue the DVD torture with Martin? And there’s coffee in the kitchen.”
Gibbs moved to the kitchen so fast, Tony and Martin were both trying to fight back laughter.
Tony plopped back on the floor across the coffee table from Martin. “Guess it’s you and me.”
Martin flashed him a grin. “Just like old times, Tony.”
Between the four of them, it only took a couple more hours before everything Tony wanted to keep was either packed or placed in the studio for the movers to deal with.
Tony had insisted on being by himself when he sorted through his paintings, deciding which to keep. He only kept a couple, most notable among them the painting that he did after Kate died. It hadn’t turned out like he’d expected and he’d always think of her when he saw it.
He carefully moved the other canvases to the bedroom for Martin to deal with when he was ready.
Once everything was done, he thought they’d be leaving, but Martin gave him a look and pointed to the piano. “I don’t know when I’m seeing you again, and you always play for me during the holidays, so sit your butt down.”
Tony held up his hands in surrender and moved to the piano. Gibbs and Jack were on the couch, both drinking coffee and also very similar in their demeanor. Both looked casual, but Tony could feel their interest.
He’d never been as tetchy about the piano as his art, but he typically only played for Martin or complete strangers. “Jazz or classical?” he asked Martin.
“Start with Jazz, but I want some Beethoven before you’re done.”
Tony started to play something mellow and jazzy, letting himself relax into the music. He kept his empathy locked down, not sure if he was ready to play for people with his receptors wide open.
When he was finished, Jack bemoaned the fact that the piano had to go into storage until they had sorted space out at the house, which made Tony smile. Gibbs was giving him a speculative look he didn’t know how to interpret. He distracted himself by giving Martin all the keys to the place.
Martin rounded everyone up and herded them all out the door. There was a sense of finality about locking up for the last time.
The rest of the day and evening were mellow. Gibbs made cowboy steaks for dinner, which Jack loved even as he bitched about the fact that he’d never cooked in his own fireplace.
Then Jack corralled him upstairs a little early, and from the quick undressing, Tony got that Jack was a little skin hungry from the long day with only infrequent contact. Tony let himself reach out empathically while Jack grounded his senses, doing an abbreviated version of their first imprint.
Just when Tony thought things were going to turn to sex – and how weird would that be in Gibbs’ house – Jack slowed things down and just held Tony close. Tony surrendered to whatever it was his sentinel needed.
After a long while, Jack’s arms loosened and he adjusted position so he could meet Tony’s gaze, giving Tony an assessing look. “You want to talk to Gibbs, don’t you?”
Tony was jolted a little by the surprise, though it wasn’t a mystery that Jack had picked up on it. “Yeah. I do.”
After a couple seconds, Jack nodded. “Okay. I can’t not listen in, not yet, but I think I’ll be okay with you being alone with him for a little bit. So, go.”
Tony leaned over and gave his sentinel a quick kiss. “Thanks, Jack,” he whispered before hopping up to dress, then heading downstairs.
Martin was on the phone, Addy resting his little bear head on Martin’s lap. Sun bears were fairly small and Tony would put Addy at around eighty pounds and unbearably cute. Tony waved at Martin, indicating he was going down to see Gibbs, then made his way to the basement.
“Hey, Gibbs,” he said from the landing, a little surprised to find Gibbs’ grizzly bear rolling around on the basement floor. He started down the steps.
“Tony,” Gibbs acknowledged, though he was clearly surprised.
“You surprised I’m here, or that I’m here without Jack?”
Tony pulled up a sawhorse while Jethro set aside the piece of wood he was working with and poured Tony a shot of bourbon. Tony accepted the screw repository-cum-alcohol receptacle. He took a drink and made a face. “God, I’d forgotten how awful that is.”
Gibbs smirked, then asked, “Something on your mind, Tony?”
“Couple things.” Tony hesitated. “You name him yet?” he asked, gesturing to the grizzly who was busy poking his nose into a corner.
“Nah. Figure something will seem right one day.”
Tony smiled a little. Gibbs was capable of letting things happen in their own way, and he found that an encouraging omen. He didn’t usually get right to it with Gibbs, there was always deflection and masks and lots of omission. But Gibbs wasn’t his boss anymore, and if there were a problem with Tony shooting straight, he wouldn’t be here to suffer any consequences.
Taking a breath, he dove right in. “First, I need you to get over it… what Harris did to us.”
“Did to you,” Gibbs corrected with a stony expression.
“No, to everyone. He fucked us all, Gibbs. And the situation showed us flaws in our various relationships, personal and professional, that he exploited to make things worse. Each of us buckled under our own failings. You, me, Abby, Ziva, McGee… we all have some bad habits and they bit us in the ass.”
“No,” Tony interrupted. “Let me talk. Martin doesn’t want me to take on blame for what happened, so I’ll be fair to myself and say that I didn’t know how much literal damage Harris was doing to me. I thought it was all a big manipulation. I certainly didn’t know he was trying to kill me.”
Gibbs jaw clenched so hard, Tony thought he’d break something.
Still, Tony continued on. “But my flaws bit us just as badly as anyone else’s did. My insecurity and fear kept me from doing something sooner. From talking to you sooner. If I’d said something to you after I was sure he was attacking me empathically, this situation wouldn’t have escalated so badly.” Gibbs looked like he was going to talk again, but Tony held up a hand. “I could pick apart everyone’s actions and show how they could have done something different that could have changed the outcome.
“But what good does that do? Blame and guilt aren’t going to change anything about what already happened. I’m in a better place now, mostly because of Jack, but also because my life here had become more about keeping on the mask that let me fit into our dysfunctional little unit than about being the real me. I haven’t been happy in a while, Gibbs.”
His friend and former boss was staring at the worktop, hands fisted.
“I want everyone to move on and not let their lives be defined by what Harris did. Particularly you and Martin.”
Tony looked away in order to say the next bit. “The first couple years we worked together still frame our relationship in my mind… it was mostly you and me, though we had some probies occasionally, but you were more my partner than my boss. And you became family, you kept me grounded. You’re still family, Jethro.” Tony looked back and met Gibbs’ eyes, surprised at the amount of conflicted emotion he could see there.
Tony took a deep breath. “You and Martin are important to me, and I see this clusterfuck with Harris defining you to some degree, and Martin is getting caught in the crossfire. And I’m asking you to stop. Please. For your sake and his.”
Gibbs looked down and blew out a breath. “Tell me what you know.”
“I know that Martin has been bottling up a lot of unhappiness to stay on an even keel.” The ‘for you’ was left unsaid. “I don’t know if he’s talked to you about how things were when he transferred to the New York office, but he’s feeling similarly now.”
Gibbs winced, and that told Tony that the sentinel had been informed.
“Martin’s been my rock for over thirty years, and I know when he’s been pushed too far. And he’s almost there. I’m not even trying to say he’d leave you, because I hope you know he wouldn’t, but he might just refuse to go into work one day. Or worse, he’ll internalize and be eaten up inside.”
“I won’t let that happen,” Gibbs gritted out. “How bad is it already?”
“I think he’s okay as long as things don’t get worse and actually start to improve. And by worse I don’t mean fallout from this thing with Abby. I mean feeling like he’s trying to do a job from the outside of family dynamics he can’t penetrate, and being treated like shit in the process.”
“What’s happened?” Gibbs asked, his expression blank, but his emotions were tumultuous.
“I’m sure you know most of it… especially if you stop with the guilt and trying to make everything better. The thing that has me most concerned… Well, Martin made an idle comment about feeling like Abby projected negative emotions on purpose to affect him.”
At Gibbs confused frown, Tony clarified. “A mundane can’t direct emotions, but they can easily choose to let their emotions just roam free or keep them inside. Someone who knows anything about how a guide’s passive empathy works could easily figure out how to set an emotional tone that was unpleasant. And even if it’s not on purpose on her part, she needs to figure out how to stop because it’s not good for any guide to be around that.”
The man’s grip was now white-knuckled, clenched on the edge of the bench.
“Also, she’s been hazing him, which we’ve seen her do, but from what I’ve heard, it’s got a cruel edge that isn’t like her. And that’s not about me, especially since she didn’t know Martin and I were tight. That’s all about you.”
Gibbs head snapped up. “Meaning?”
“Come on, Gibbs… Martin is in your life forever. No one is going to be closer to you than him. Ever. Abby has always felt like she was number one. It’s straight out jealousy. And our little family unit taught her it was okay to act out on her feelings in whatever way she wanted. Frankly, tough love is the only thing that has a chance of bringing her back around. And I believe she can be brought back from this. I have to believe that.”
Running his hand through his hair, Gibbs asked, “How did we get here, Tony?”
“A decade of little mistakes adding up. But there’s a hell of a lot of good in there, too, you know. We managed some incredible things because we were so tight… so insular. But there’s a price we now have to pay. All I know is that you can’t figure out how to build whatever’s next for you and Martin if you’re stuck in this fucking mess that Harris brought into our lives, and drowning in regret about things you can’t change.”
After a few moments, Gibbs met Tony’s eyes squarely. “You can’t know how much I regret not having your six when you needed me.”
Tony nodded, accepting that. He hesitated, then said, “Please have my six now and take care of my brother. Not just as his sentinel, but as his boss, as his friend, his lover… his family.”
Gibbs extended his hand and Tony took it, letting himself be pulled into a hug, his touch empathy sparking with the awareness of Gibbs’ regret, guilt and sadness; but there was also determination and resolve that Tony found encouraging. However, it was the affection that made Tony’s eyes suddenly feel wet, and he blinked away the surge of emotion.
“You have my word on it, Tony,” Gibbs whispered.
The light was out in the guest bedroom when Tony got upstairs, but he knew Jack was awake. Slipping out of his clothes, he slid into bed and right into the arms of his sentinel, who pulled him close.
Jack didn’t ask any questions, and Tony didn’t offer any answers. It was a long time before he fell asleep, but he never felt alone.
The next morning was difficult. It wasn’t just saying goodbye to Gibbs and Martin, it was closing the door on a huge chapter in his life.
Eventually, it was time to leave. After a round of goodbyes, Gibbs excused himself and headed for the basement. Jack grabbed the last bag and said he’d meet Tony in the rental car.
Then it was just Tony and Martin. Saying goodbye at the end of the holidays, just like every year. Except it felt so different this time.
“You know,” Martin finally said, “we’ve been in orbit around each other for over three decades.”
Tony gave a little huff of laughter. “Are you trying to make me feel old?”
Martin shook his head. “No. I’m trying to remind you that just because we’re both finally on our path, it doesn’t mean anything between us changes. You’re my family, Tony, and I know you better than anyone. So I know that you’re struggling. But nothing between us is going away. No goodbyes, okay? Just let me know when you get home safe, and I better damn well see you before next Christmas.”
Glancing away, Tony took a moment to let his emotions settle down, then reached out and pulled Martin into a hug. “The only thing I hate in all this is that you’re so much farther away.” He pressed a kiss against Martin’s hair. “Take care of yourself and your stubborn-ass sentinel. None of the other shit matters.”
Martin pulled back and gave Tony a little push. “Go on. We’ll talk soon.”
Tony hesitated for a few seconds, but finally managed to step out of the house and head to the rental car where Jack was waiting for him. After he got in, he looked back at where Martin was still standing framed in the doorway. Martin waved again, then disappeared back into the house that had often been a refuge for Tony during the difficult times over the last decade.
Jack’s hand settled on Tony’s thigh, drawing his attention. “You okay?”
“I…” Tony paused and considered for a second. Just a couple short months ago, Tony had felt like he’d lost everything. Considering everything that had happened in the interim, Tony thought he was doing pretty well. But he decided he wasn’t going to start his new life with Jack by pretending. “Not totally, not yet. But I will be.”
“Ready to go home?”
“Yeah… yeah, I really am.” It had been a difficult journey, but he was ready to see what came next. He found himself smiling. “Let’s go home.”
– – – –