The cluster of men watched as a silver-haired stranger walked into the coffee house and grimace at the lacey draperies and floral tablecloths.
“That’s our boy,” a lean man with silver hair of his own stated. He took a last gulp of his coffee and got up from the table. “Wish me luck.”
Jack O’Neill sauntered over to the newcomer. “Leroy Jethro Gibbs?”
The other man turned. “Yeah?”
“I’m Colonel Jack O’Neill, Air Force” Jack introduced himself, instinctively recognizing the military bearing of the stranger and knowing that emphasizing his military rank might help put the man at ease. “I heard you were NCIS. That means you probably were a sailor or a jar head. Given the haircut, my money’s on jar head.”
Sure enough, Gibbs smiled. “Ex-Marine.”
“Come on and meet the rest of the guys,” O’Neill said.“Ellison was in the Army, but he was a Ranger, so he’s not as big of a wuss as the rest of the Army guys.”
“I heard that, O’Neill.” One of the men gathered around a large table glared at O’Neill.
Jack gave the other man a sloppy salute. When he got a one-fingered response, he chuckled and turned to Gibbs. “He’s also got the ears of a bat and is as nosy as hell.”
By this time, the two men had reached the table and O’Neill gestured at the men already seated there. “Fellas, this is Leroy Jethro Gibbs. His trouble magnet, Anthony DiNozzo, is attending his first Twelve Step meeting today and Leroy is here to get some advice.”
“Gibbs,” the other man growled. “Or Jethro. Never Leroy.”
“Good enough,” Jack responded easily. “Have a seat.”
When Gibbs had settled himself at the table, O’Neill couldn’t help but notice that the newcomer looked confused. “Something wrong?”
Gibbs looked around the coffee shop. “This place just seems a little dainty for a bunch of guys.”
The man identified as Ellison shrugged. “There’s a bar a couple of blocks down, but this place is right across from the community center where the Trouble Magnets meet. We figured it was better to stay close.”
Jethro frowned. “Really? This seems like a safe neighborhood.”
O’Neill snorted. “Safe is a relative term where the TMs are concerned.”
“That many of them in one room?” A young black man added. “It’s a wonder the building don’tspontaneously combust.”
Gibbs’ frown turned into a scowl. “About that meeting... Tony needed to go, no doubt about it. He had one close call too many. But I don’t believe in all that touchy feeling crap. I don’t know if I belong here.”
The other men all chuckled.
“That’s what we all say in the beginning,” a tall, balding man stated.
Jethro looked at him closely. “You FBI?”
“Assistant Director Skinner,” the other man introduced himself.
“You know a special agent by the name of Fornell?” Gibbs asked.
Skinner frowned. “Tobias Fornell? The man’s an ass.”
Gibbs grinned. “Good to know that there’s at least one accurate judge of character in the FBI.”
A blond man with intense blue eyes spoke for the first time. “Our meetings aren’t like the TMs’ twelve step program. This is more like a support group.”
“Support group in that we sit around, drink coffee and complain to each other that our TM attracts trouble more than any of the others combined,” O’Neill explained quickly. He could see Gibbs visibly begin to check out when the words ‘support group’ had been uttered. “We don’t hug or any of that shit.”
Gibbs relaxed. “Good.”
“How’d you find out about us, anyway?” O’Neill asked. Gibbs didn’t seem the type to seek out help.
“My friend, Ducky, told me about the Trouble Magnet group and you guys too,” Jethro said. He lookedsheepish. “Actually, he didn’t give me much of a choice about making Tony go.”
“Ah, the Duck.” A tall man dressed in a tunic and leather leggings said. “He’s notorious.”
Gibbs looked at the stranger critically. The man had long hair and was dressed like he should be in one of those sword and sorcery movies that Tony had dragged him to go see. Even for someone with as many varied interests as Dr. Mallard, he couldn’t imagine how his friend knew this guy. “You know Ducky?”
“Everybody knows Ducky,” O’Neill waved off Gibbs question. “Did he tell you much about us?”
“Mostly he talked about the Trouble Magnet stuff for Tony,” Jethro answered. “He told me to come here, but didn’t say much about why.”
“Ducky probably knows more about the TM program,”O’Neill theorized. “Rumor has it that he might even have started it, back when he was in another line of work.”
“Even though we don’t have a twelve step program,” Ellison added, “we do give each other the chance to vent. It’s better to do it here than in front of your TM.”
“And we offer advice,” the blond man spoke up again. “Especially to newcomers. I haven’t been coming long myself and I’ve found it to be valuable information.”
“Does this group have a cutesy name like ‘Trouble Magnet’?” Gibbs asked suspiciously.
“Fortunately, for most of us, no,” O’Neill responded. “The terms mentor, hero, and rescuer have been bandied about, but nothing’s stuck so far.” He smirked. “Except for Ellison.”
The other man got defensive. “Blair’s an anthropologist. He’s well-cultured.”
Gibbs turned to Jack. “That bad, huh?”
“His TM calls him his Blessed Protector,” O’Neill said with glee. “We give him shit about it whenever the opportunity arises.”
“Good to know,” Jethro murmured.
Ellison muttered, but didn’t respond.
Gibbs looked around the group of assembled men again. “Is it typical for there to be so many in military or law enforcement?”
“Think about it, dawg,” the black man said. “Who’s better at rescuing a trouble magnet than someone in the professional rescuing business?”
“You already know Skinner’s FBI,” O’Neill explained. “I’m Air Force, Ellison’s a cop in Cascade, Washington and Hayes,” he pointed to the black man, “is LAPD.”
“But Connor,” Jack indicated the blond man with iintense blue eyes, “is a doctor with NIH and Herc, of
course, is a demi-god.”
“Of course,” Gibbs repeated blandly.
O’Neill ignored the other man’s attitude. “There is some standard advice we offer newcomers.”
Gibbs stiffened. “I think I handle Tony pretty well.”
“Sure you do,” Jack reassured him. “It’s instinctive, but there’s some stuff you ought to know that will help things go more smoothly on a personal front.”
“Like what?” Jethro asked skeptically.
“First, it’s not their fault that trouble’s attracted to them,” O’Neill said. “Sure, they can sometimes contribute to a dangerous situation, but for the most part, trouble’s gonna find them, no matter what they’re doing.”
“We’re not exactly sure why,” Skinner added. “But we think it’s genetic.”
“A trouble gene?” Gibbs scoffed. “You gotta be kidding.”
“No, we’re not,” Stephen, the doctor, stated. “I’ve been working on it ever since Miles joined the Trouble Magnet program and I obtained DNA samples from all of the participants. The work is in the preliminary stages, but I’m hopeful we’ll eventually be able to isolate it.”
“And then what?” Jethro asked, interested in spite of himself. “You’ll learn to eliminate the gene?”
“Hell, no,” the black man, Hayes, retorted. “What would we do without Trouble Magnets? Life’d be too boring.”
“Isolating the gene would, however, allow us to identify Trouble Magnets earlier,” Connor explained. “That way they could be paired with an appropriate defender before they get themselves over their heads.”
Gibbs was impressed and a little regretful. How much better would Tony’s life had been if Jethro had been there earlier to take care of him? “Okay, I can see the value in that, but I’m not sure I agree that Tony’s not responsible for any of the situations he gets into.”
“Like I said, they contribute to the trouble they get into, just that they’re not totally responsible for it,” Jack clarified. “Daniel’s so eager to learn and such a people person that he gets himself into all sorts of trouble, but the circumstances that lead to the trouble, the opportunity, isn’t really his fault.” He frowned. “Most of the time.”
“Let’s say for a minute that I agree,” Gibbs suggested. “What’s the next piece of advice?”
“Don’t let them see you get upset,” Ellison offered. “Getting irritated is okay, but panicking about something that’s almost killed them is not a good idea.”
“Yeah,” Hayes agreed. “They freak more if you freak.”
“Or worse,” Ellison pointed out, “if you hover or express concern too openly, they’ll accuse you of being a mother hen.”
A visible shudder passed through every man sitting around the table.
“You have to learn to show concern without looking like you’re concerned,” Ellison finished.
“That’s one of the best parts of being in this group,” Jack stated. “We can freak out here, amongst our fellow protectors, and no one calls us names.” He hit his forehead with his hand. “Crap. I almost forgot.”
O’Neill reached for a book that was sitting facedown on the table. He handed it to Gibbs and Jethro turned it over to find a picture of a boat on the cover.
“What’s this?” The NCIS agent asked. “You guys talk about boat building too?”
Jack smirked. “Open it up; the cover’s meant to be misleading. TMs are a curious lot. Whatever you do, you don’t want this little baby to get into your TM’s hands.”
Gibbs opened the book up and found the real title page, the one that read ‘The Care and Feeding of Your Trouble Magnet.’
“I don’t need an instruction manual for Tony,” he protested. “I know him better than I do myself.”
“Sure you do,” Jack asserted. “But look at the chapters. You can’t tell me that some of this stuff won’t come in handy.”
Gibbs looked at the title page. The chapters were things like, “Making your TM eat when he doesn’t want to,” “Nightmares 101,” and “What to do when an old girlfriend shows up.”
“All right,” Jethro admitted grudgingly. “I suppose this might have some useful information. Okay. Remember he can’t help getting into trouble and don’t let him see me ‘freak.’ What else do I need to know?”
“Women,” Hayes said in disgust. “They’re all over Trouble Magnets like white on rice.”
“And TMs can’t help but flirt, either,” Ellison commented. “They flirt with women like they flirt withdisaster and it’s usually the worst kind of woman too. It’s just part of the package.”
“Yeah, Danny once had this alien who wanted to breed with him,” O’Neill stated. “And this other crazy chick that kept putting him into this fancy coffin.”
Gibbs frowned. “A good friend of mine sleeps in a coffin and she’s the sanest person I know.”
“Well, this was a special regenerating coffin and Danny got addicted to it,” Jack said defensively. “I doubt it was the same thing.”
“Van had this crazy assassin woman after his ass,” Hayes admitted. “And this con artist girl that kept getting him in trouble.”
“Blair almost got killed by the girl next door,” Ellison offered. “And he almost got shot because of this mobster’s daughter. Or there was the time -…”
“Okay, okay, I get the point,” Jethro conceded. “Tony got kidnapped by a female serial killer, got clonked in the head by a woman with Stockholm Syndrome, and was infected with the plague by a bitch with a brain tumor.”
“You know what we’re talking about, then.” Jack nodded. “But keep in mind, there are women from your life that may try to interfere too. Not, mind you, that it’s ever happened to me….” He looked pointedly at the cop from Cascade.
Ellison sighed. “I got hormone-drunk on these pheromones exuded by this female perpetrator and, later, let this female spotted jaguar come between me and Blair. Almost broke us apart permanently.”
“Yeah, I hear ya,” Hayes commented. “This old girlfriend of mine came sniffing back around and I acted all crazy. Even lied to Van.”
Gibbs would have liked to claim something like that would never happen to him, but he distinctly remembered tongue-kissing a woman in his basement who turned out to be a cold-blooded murderer.
“Okay, let me see if I’ve got this straight,” Jethro stated. “One, don’t blame Tony for getting into trouble, it’s not his fault. Two, never let him see me sweat over something that nearly killed him and, three, keep an eye out for women.”
“Don’t forget about not letting him see the instruction manual,” O’Neill added. “That’s very important.”
“Hide the manual, got it,” Gibbs nodded that he understood. “And if I do all of this, Tony’ll be safe?”
The spontaneous laughter that his remark provoked was so loud that other people in the coffee shop turned to stare.
“What did I say?” Jethro growled, scowl firmly back in place.
“Who ever said anything about keeping your Trouble Magnet safe?” Jack asked. “Safer, yeah, but they’re never totally safe unless they’re in your arms.”
“Then what’s the point?” Gibbs asked, frustrated.
“Just because we can’t protect them 100% doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try,” Connor said severely. “They can just be so naïve.” His face softened. “Although that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
“Besides, dawg,” Hayes added, “that ‘in your arms’ thing is a pretty damn big reward. Van Ray is *the* most frustrating individual I’ve ever met. He’s needy, he attracts the wrong sort of woman like a flowers attract bees, and he can’t even take a couple of days off without getting drugged with a toxin and almost dyin’. But when he’s curled up next to me, not talkin’ for once because he’s asleep…. Man, I wouldn’t change that for anything.”
Gibbs nodded, not willing to verbalize that the younger man was right, but realizing that Hayes had apoint. “Is there anyone who’s…. lost a TM?”
“Lost as in dead?” Skinner asked. When Gibbs nodded, he sighed. “There was a period of time when we thought Fox was dead. Worst time of my life.”
“Blair drowned and I had to use our spirit animals to bring him back.” Ellison’s face was serious enough that Gibbs didn’t scoff at the mystic stuff.
“Iolaus has died several times,” the man identified as a demi-god claimed. “Luckily, a few of the gods like him. Better than they like me, anyway.”
As one, the rest of the men turned and looked at Jack O’Neill.
“All right, all right already,” he groused. “Danny’s died so many times that I lose count. He got shot by aworm-stomached alien and then was resurrected, got crushed in a cave-in and then was resurrected and ascended into form of pure energy.” He thought a moment before adding, “twice.”
“And you guys claim to be protectors?” Gibbs demanded.
The other men didn’t take umbrage at his comment. They remembered all too well their own horror at knowing that, despite their best efforts, their TMs could be hurt.
“Just keep in mind how much worse it would be,”O’Neill said quietly, for once no smirk on his face or hint of sarcasm in his voice, “if you weren’t there. You make a difference, trust me. We all do. And those Trouble Magnets meeting across the street are still here because of it.”
Gibbs let himself be mollified. But he looked around at the men in the group with new respect and carefully stowed his “Care and Feeding” book in his pocket.
Something told him he was going to be needing it.