"Leroy – did you clear out the old stock items?" Jackson's voice wafted down the basement stairs.
"Yes, Dad," Leroy growled, wiping sweat from his forehead with a dusty hand as he piled up some boxes in the corner of the basement.
"Leroy! Did you hear me? I asked if you've cleared out the old stock items."
"YES! I told you I did!" Leroy shouted back up the stairs.
"No need to take that tone with me, son." Jackson appeared at the top of the stairs. He had a worried frown on his forehead, and his daemon, Meldra, a plump red hen, clucked at Leroy disapprovingly.
"And I replied! It's not my fault you're going deaf." Leroy hobbled his way up the stairs and pushed past his father, Tessa limping at his side.
His father's disapproval was evident from his tone of voice. Leroy ignored him – and the pain in his knee – as he tried to stalk angrily out of the store and succeeded only in limping rather pathetically as far as the door. He had to hang onto the door handle for a moment when he got there as the pain in his left knee suddenly stabbed at him viciously, making him gulp for air.
He heard his father behind him. "I thought if I kept you occupied it would take your mind off it, son," Jackson said, reasonably enough. "Look…it's not for long. In a few weeks you'll be better, and you can go back to your unit. In the meantime, we have to rub along with each other. We can do that, can't we, Leroy?"
There was a cajoling note in his voice. Any minute now he'd offer him an ice cream to placate him, the way he always used to when he was a kid. Leroy knew he was being truculent, but he couldn't help himself. He'd outgrown this place – this town, the people in it, and even his own father. He just didn't want to be here; that was why he'd left in the first place.
Tessa sat down beside him and gazed up at him solemnly. "Patience," she advised. She had never been a very talkative daemon which suited him fine.
"I need some air," Leroy growled over his shoulder at his father. "I'll be back to help with the delivery later."
He hobbled out of the store and down the road with Tessa at his side, limping on her back left paw.
He stopped at the dress store where he had first met Shannon, gazing longingly through the window as if he thought she might appear – which was stupid as he knew she was back home with her mother. If only she was here then maybe Stillwater wouldn't seem so stifling.
"She'll be here in a few days," Tessa said reasonably. "Then you'll have the whole weekend together."
"Right now, a few days feel more like a year," Leroy muttered. His knee gave way, and he grimaced and limped to the kerb to sit down. Tessa shuffled along with him, her back left paw hardly touching the ground, and settled at his feet.
Leroy sat there in the afternoon sun, watching the small town go about its business. He felt like he'd been doing this his entire life. Hell, Stillwater had been his entire life until two years' ago when he'd joined the Marines. He had never intended to come back – and he wouldn't be here right now if it wasn't for this damn knee injury.
"It will mend," Tessa told him. He felt calmed by her strong, serene presence and unruffled sense of reason. His father's fussing, although well-meant, always rubbed him up the wrong way.
"I know." Leroy sat back, resting the palms of his hands on the dusty sidewalk behind him.
He watched as a sleek, expensive car with black tinted windows drew up beside him. The driver's window was wound down, and he found himself looking at a man with handsome, chiselled features. He had dark brown hair and cool blue eyes, and his daemon was a hyena with a watchful, unblinking stare. She turned her head purposefully to look at Leroy, and Tessa's hackles started to rise, and a low growl emanated from the back of her throat. Leroy frowned – Tessa didn't usually react this way to other daemons.
"There a motel around here somewhere, son?" the man asked.
"Just up the road." Leroy pointed.
"Thanks." The man was about to wind up the window again when there was a sound from the back of the car. Leroy couldn't hear what was being said but the man looked irritated. "Can't it wait?" he barked. The answer was obviously 'no'. The man turned back to Leroy. "My kid needs to use the bathroom. Says it's urgent. Is there a restroom nearby?"
"My dad won't mind – he runs the store." Leroy levered himself off the ground, gasping slightly as his knee jabbed him. He wasn't much inclined towards acts of charity in his present mood, but it wasn't the kid's fault he needed to go to the toilet.
"Much appreciated." The man turned a megawatt smile on him and it was like the sun coming out; you could lose yourself in the warmth of that bright smile. Tessa growled again, and Leroy nudged her with his toe. He felt uneasy about the man already – he didn't need her warning.
The back door of the car opened, and a child slid out onto the sidewalk. His daemon, a riotous golden retriever puppy, scampered over to Tessa and touched noses with her. Leroy was as surprised as Tessa – other daemons were usually put off by her 'don't come near me' vibe.
Leroy and Tessa both went very still as the puppy licked her ear playfully. It felt strange but not unwelcome. Children's daemons were often much less inhibited than they became as adults, and this daemon had an aura of such sweet innocence that it was impossible to be annoyed with her.
"Thanks for letting me use your restroom, Mister!"
Leroy turned his attention to the child who had emerged from the car. He was about eight years old, with sandy brown hair, clear green eyes, and a set of straight, white teeth. He was clearly his father's son, in looks at least; Leroy had never seen a prettier child.
"Hurry up, Tony," the man in the car said. "I don't have all day to wait for you."
"We've been driving for hours and hours, and I wanted to go so bad!" Tony said to Leroy, doing an extravagant little dance, pressing his legs together for dramatic effect. "Dad didn't want to stop. He's on a deadline." The kid looked up at him with a big, bright smile, his green eyes endearingly puzzled. "What's a deadline?"
"Time to get something done by," Leroy told him curtly, refusing to respond to that bright smile. If the kid was anything like his dad the smile was just for show anyway. "This way; the store is just over here. You can use our bathroom."
Tony scampered along beside him as they walked – or at least Tony walked, Leroy limped. "What happened to your leg, Mister?" Tony asked curiously.
Leroy fought down a wave of irritation. "Got shot," he grunted in reply.
"Really?" Tony's eyes were wide as saucers, and his daemon changed from the energetic puppy into a colourful butterfly and promptly flitted into the air.
Daemons didn't usually settle into one form until a child hit puberty – Tessa had been an exception to that rule. She had been a sleek grey wolf more often than not from the day of his birth, and by his tenth birthday had ceased being anything else.
"You got shot?" Tony looked almost comically intrigued by this information. "How?"
"You ask a lot of questions." Leroy looked down on the kid, and the boy looked back up at him, eyes shining.
"That's what my mom used to say!" He looked pleased. "But Dad says I talk too much and none of it is worth hearing. He says that in his day kids were seen and not heard. He says…."
"Here." Leroy ushered the kid into the store and pointed him in the direction of the bathroom. Tony smiled at him gratefully and disappeared.
"Is someone there?" Jackson emerged from the back room with Meldra fluttering behind him. "Ah, Leroy, I'm glad you came back. Thought we could have some supper together later. If you're not doing anything?" His eyes were anxious.
Leroy sighed, hating himself for causing the anxiety but irritated by it all the same.
"What would I be doing?" he replied, in a more sulky tone than he'd intended. It was hardly as if Stillwater was teeming with nightlife, and he'd never had many friends here. He'd always kept himself to himself. He didn't make friends easily, and his unforgiving nature meant he didn't keep those he did make. They usually let him down in one way or another at some point, and Leroy never forgot a betrayal, however minor. "Oh – there's a kid in the bathroom," he told his father. "Didn't think you'd mind. Said he was desperate."
"Of course I don't mind. Is it young Johnny Mason? He's a terror for…"
"It's not anyone we know. It's newcomers," Leroy interrupted abruptly. "Guy in a fancy car and his boy."
The toilet flushed and a few seconds later Tony emerged from the bathroom. His daemon was back in puppy form, and she saw Meldra and ran over to her excitedly. Meldra hopped up onto the counter and gazed down on the puppy from amused eyes. The puppy did a little dance, chasing her own tail, going round and round in circles until both Tony and the puppy were dizzy and cross-eyed.
"Shanti, stop it!" Tony said, giggling. He ran after the puppy, and she jumped into his arms and licked his nose, then turned into a butterfly again and perched on top of his head.
A shadow fell over the door, and Leroy looked up. The boy's father was standing there, his daemon watching hungrily from the shadows behind him. Leroy felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end, and he could feel Tessa stiffening from where she was standing, as always, by his side.
"I need to use the phone to make an urgent call," the man said. "Would you mind? I'll pay." He opened his wallet and rifled through more cash than Leroy had seen in his life.
"Sure," Jackson said easily.
"Thank you. I'm Anthony DiNozzo – and you've already met my son." DiNozzo nodded curtly in Tony's direction.
Leroy wasn't sure why, but for some reason he felt compelled to put a hand on the child's shoulder. Tony's restless body language changed, and he calmed instantly beneath the touch. Leroy looked down on the child, puzzled by the sense of connection he felt. Shanti fluttered down and perched on one of Tessa's ears.
DiNozzo embarked on his phone call, while Jackson got a soda and handed it to Tony. Tony took it with a polite "thank you" and guzzled the contents immediately.
"I'm thirsty. Dad doesn't like me drinking sodas in the car. He says it makes me pee. He doesn't like having to stop along the way," Tony explained, having made short work of the soda.
Leroy glanced over at where DiNozzo was barking something into the phone; he didn't look happy.
Shanti, turned into a white cockatiel and flew over to where Meldra was sitting on the counter. Meldra clucked at the cockatiel, and the white bird spread her feathers, stuck her chest out, and made a preening sound, squawking loudly and basically showing off.
"Shanti! Don't!" Tony laughed.
There was such a beautiful sense of ease between himself and his daemon that it was a joy to watch them together. Leroy knew that he had a similar – if less exuberant – harmony with Tessa. Neither of them needed to speak to know the other was there, and Tessa was always just within touching distance. They rarely ever actually touched though – it wasn't necessary and neither of them liked being touched.
DiNozzo finished on the phone and swung around, still looking annoyed by his phone conversation. He caught sight of his son's daemon sitting on the counter, showing off, and his lip curled up. Without warning, his hyena daemon leapt up onto the counter and bit down hard on Shanti's wing.
Shanti gave a squawk and fell onto the floor. Tony let out a wail of distress while Leroy and Jackson looked on in shocked silence. They were too stunned to say anything as DiNozzo turned on his son.
"Where are your manners? Don't let your daemon inconvenience these people! Keep her under control, or I'll have Nala do it for you."
"Sorry, Dad," Tony whispered, looking pale. He rubbed his arm at about the same spot where Shanti had been bitten on the wing. Then he crouched down and reached out his hand towards her. She fluttered over to him and changed back into her puppy shape the minute she got close. She cowered behind Tony, looking scared.
"Here's some money for the phone call," DiNozzo said abruptly, placing a few dollars on the counter in front of Jackson. "How much do I owe you for the soda?"
"Oh, that's okay," Jackson murmured. "I gave it to the child for free."
DiNozzo gave a tight-lipped smile. "What do you say, Tony?"
"Thank you," Tony whispered. All the life seemed to have gone out of him, and he kept rubbing his arm. Shanti's tail was between her legs, and she was limping slightly on one of her front paws. Leroy fought down a wave of anger.
DiNozzo opened the door and gestured with his head at the child who scuttled through it, the puppy running at his heels, both of them looking scared.
Tony turned back. "Bye," he whispered, giving Leroy a little wave.
Much to Leroy's surprise, Tessa walked over to the door and touched noses with Shanti in farewell. Tessa never normally interacted with other people's daemons – the only daemons he'd ever seen her touch before were Meldra, and Shannon's daemon, Pell.
The DiNozzos left, and Leroy turned to look into his father's troubled blue eyes.
"I did not like that," Jackson murmured. "I did not like that at all."
"No." Leroy exchanged a glance with Tessa. "Me neither."
Tony stirred sleepily and blinked, wondering where he was. Shanti was balanced on his head, as a butterfly, wings folded. He glanced over to the window, gazed at the unfamiliar drapes for a few seconds, and then remembered. He was in a motel room with his father. He turned over, and Shanti dropped reproachfully to his side and transformed into a puppy. They both looked at the sleeping mound in the next bed.
"Ssh," Shanti said. "Don't wake him."
Nala muttered something in her sleep, her ears twitching. She was lying at his father's feet, where she always was during the night.
"Why are we here?" Shanti asked. "And where is here?"
"Something water. I don't remember. Clearwater? Bluewater?" Tony frowned and wrapped an arm around Shanti.
"Ditchwater?" she suggested, and he giggled. She snuggled into him and licked his nose. "What are we doing here?" she asked.
"I don't know. Something to do with Dad's business." He liked being with his father in the big car with the tinted windows. His father sometimes let him chatter on as they drove, and Tony had invented a whole game about the people they passed who they could see but who couldn't see them. "It's an adventure!" Tony told Shanti happily. That's what his father had said anyway, and he was just pleased not to have been left behind on this particular business trip.
"That's only because he couldn't find anyone to look after you," Shanti said.
"Maybe he brought me along to spy on people!" Tony grinned.
Shanti wagged her tail. "Yes – you're his secret weapon! Nobody would expect a kid to be a spy. Spy kid!"
They were silent for a moment. "I miss mom," Tony said suddenly, and Shanti's tail stopped wagging. She snuggled in closer.
Tony's mother had died a few months previously. She'd been getting paler and thinner for weeks, and Tony knew something was wrong but nobody would tell him what. Doctors came and went, and his father grew more and more short-tempered, so Tony took to tip-toeing around the house to avoid his outbursts. Then, one night, Shanti had woken up with a howl…and Tony had run along to his mother's room to find her lying there, unmoving, a little pile of dust by her side, and her daemon, Keddon, nowhere to be seen.
His father had been quiet and sort of angry ever since – he shouted at Tony a lot, as if his mom's death was his fault. Maybe it was. Tony wasn't sure why people died, and he had been pretty naughty his entire life. Maybe that was what killed her.
Shanti nudged him with her nose. "That doesn't kill people, stupid."
"I dunno. Bugs."
"Bugs? Like wasps and flies?"
"No…bugs like the ones that get into your blood and make you sneeze."
Tony sighed. The adult world was hard to understand sometimes. He was glad he was here with his dad though – if he could help his father pull off this business deal then maybe he would smile again and things might be a bit more like they were before his mom died.
He got up quietly and got dressed, so he'd be ready when it was time to go out and "do business" as his dad described it. When his father got up a little while later, he looked at Tony and laughed.
"Where are you going so early?"
Nala nudged Shanti with her nose, and Shanti turned into a butterfly and flew up onto Tony's head.
"Um…I don't know. I thought I was going with you – to see the mine owner?" Tony replied.
His father laughed out loud, and Nala made a "harrumphing" sound and jumped up and aimed an amused swat in Shanti's direction.
"Take you with me to do business? Don't be an idiot, Tony. No, you can stick around here. I won't be long – a few hours. You can watch TV."
Tony's heart sank, and Shanti walked slowly down his arm and settled dejectedly in the curve of his elbow. Much as he loved watching TV, he didn't want to be left alone in a strange motel room in a strange town to do it.
His father got ready and left, and Tony sat in front of the TV. After an hour he was bored. It was a beautiful day outside, and the sun was bright in the summer sky. He didn't want to be stuck in this stuffy room.
Shanti fluttered over to the open window and perched on it. "We could go out," she suggested.
Tony wrinkled up his nose uncertainly. "Dad said to stay here."
"But it's boring. And stuffy. And…ooops!" She deliberately fell out of the open window.
"Shanti!" Tony felt that familiar, wrenching sensation at being physically too far away from his daemon. Shanti was only on the other side of the window, but Tony couldn't let her stay there. He had to go outside, didn't he?
He ran out and the door slammed shut behind him, and it was only then that he realized he didn't have the room key.
"Can't go back now then!" Shanti said, doing a happy, flitting dance above his head. He grinned and scampered after her. "Let's go over here!" She changed into a puppy and ran towards some woods over in the distance.
Tony followed, enjoying a chance to be able to stretch his legs and run around. He spread his arms and tried to soar, like an eagle, and Shanti changed into a cockatiel and flew around over his head.
They were so busy playing airplanes that Tony didn't look where he was going, and suddenly he crashed into something – or, more accurately, someone. It was the man from the store who had let him use the restroom. The man toppled over on his injured knee and landed on his back with a growled "oomph", Tony spread-eagled on his stomach. Shanti and the man's wolf daemon lay in a mass of entwined feathers and fur to one side.
"Sorry, Mister," Tony said, as a pair of furious blue eyes glared at him. He scrambled off the man and held out a hand to help him up.
The man took it and got up with a grimace of pain. "Why the hell don't you look where you're going?" he snapped.
He sounded just like Tony's dad, and Shanti turned into a puppy and slunk over to Tony, tail between her legs, shivering. She hid behind his knees.
"Sorry," Tony muttered again.
The man was giving him a strange look, as if surprised by his reaction. His wolf daemon shook out her fur and gently swiped a lick over Shanti's ear.
"Why are you out here on your own, Tony?" the man asked, in a kinder tone of voice.
Tony bit on his lip. "Don't tell my dad. He said to stay in the motel room but I got bored, and Shanti fell out of the window so I ran outside, and I don't have the key so I can't go back."
"Your dad left you on your own?" The man looked scary again. Shanti gave a little whine and pressed up close. "Where is he? When is he due back?"
"I don't know." Tony shrugged. "He was going to see the man who owns the mine to 'do business'. What does 'do business' mean exactly, Mister?"
"Leroy," the man said, his blue eyes flashing irritably.
"No – just Leroy. So your dad just went off and left you on your own in a strange town, and you don't know when he's coming back?"
Tony nodded slowly. "Did I do something bad?"
"Not you," Leroy muttered tersely. "Okay – I'm out for a walk so you can come along if you want."
"I can hang out with you? Cool!"
Shanti soared into the air in cockatiel form and made wild cheering sounds while batting her wings excessively. Tony found himself grinning from ear to ear.
Leroy walked slowly, limping heavily.
"Why are you out walking if your leg hurts so bad?" Tony asked curiously.
"The doctors say I have to do exercises and walk every day to strengthen it."
"How did you get shot? Did it hurt? Did you kill the person who shot you?"
"I'm a Marine," Leroy said shortly. "Yes, it hurt. And no, I didn't – it was an accident. This way."
He began limping into the woods, and Tony ran alongside him, occasionally leaping into the air to pretend to catch Shanti and laughing when she flew away. Tony kept up a running monologue the entire time, pausing for breath every so often and then continuing again. Leroy didn't say much – and his daemon trotted along without so much as a word.
"If you're a Marine, why aren't you wearing a uniform?" Tony wanted to know.
"Because…" Leroy looked like he was going to snap out a reply, but then he took a deep breath, and continued in a nicer tone of voice. "Because of my injury. I have to stay here until I get better."
"And then you can go back?"
"What if it doesn't get better?" Tony asked curiously.
Leroy glanced at him sharply, and Tony saw a flash of anxiety in his eyes.
"It has to," Leroy said grimly. "Being a Marine is all I ever wanted."
They reached a clearing by a small creek, and Leroy sat down awkwardly. Tony sat down beside him, and Leroy pulled a brown paper bag out of his pocket.
"This is my lunch," he said. "Do you have any lunch?"
Tony shook his head. His father hadn't mentioned anything about lunch. Leroy sighed and gave him one half of his sandwich without saying a word. Tony ate it ravenously and then sat back and glanced at the man beside him. Leroy had dark hair and a sort of wolfish quality to him. He looked like he was angry all the time, and he spoke gruffly, but his actions towards Tony had always been kind, so Tony decided that he was nice despite appearances to the contrary.
Also, Tessa didn't seem to mind it when Shanti, in puppy form, snuggled up beside her under the sun. In fact, Tessa seemed to really like Shanti and occasionally licked her ears. Tony was so used to his dad finding Shanti a nuisance that it was nice to meet someone who liked her.
"Can I ask you something, Leroy?" Tony said.
"You can ask. Don't promise to answer."
That was good enough for Tony. "What happens to someone's daemon when they die?"
Leroy turned to look at him. "Why do you ask that, Tony?" he said quietly.
"Because when my mom died, her daemon, Keddon, just turned into dust. Keddon was a big black cat, and he was nice to Shanti. Then he was gone – and so was my mom."
"That's the way it works, Tony. When you die, Shanti dies too – same for me and Tessa, and everyone else. Your daemon is a part of you – that's how they know what we're thinking most of the time." He gazed at Tony thoughtfully. "When did your mom die?"
"A few months ago." Tony gazed at his own feet. He didn't like how it felt when he talked about his mom but that didn't stop him wanting to talk about her all the same, which was confusing.
"My mom died when I was about your age – maybe a little bit older," Leroy said softly.
Leroy moved his arm so that it was gently resting against Tony's arm, and Tessa put her head on her paw, next to Shanti's muzzle. It felt nice. Comforting.
They sat there for a bit, and then Leroy put a hand on Tony's shoulder. "Let's float boats down the stream."
"Boats? What boats?" Tony scrambled to his feet looking around for the boats.
"First we have to make them – then we float 'em!"
"Make them with what?"
"This." Leroy produced a knife seemingly from nowhere. "Never go anywhere without a knife, Tony," he said firmly. "That's rule number nine."
"You have rules?" Tony asked, wide-eyed.
"Sure – everyone needs a code to live by," Leroy said with a grin.
"What's rule number one?" Tony asked.
Leroy paused in cutting some branches off a nearby tree. He wiped a hand across his sweaty forehead.
"Rule number one is the most important rule," he said, glancing over at Tessa who was sitting nearby, her chin on her paws. She looked up at him, a smile in her eyes. "Rule number one is 'always listen to your daemon', Tony. 'Cause she knows best."
"She does?" Tony turned around to look at Shanti, and she immediately changed into a cockatiel, flew onto his head, and began doing a little dance on his hair.
"Shanti knows best! Shanti knows best!" she proclaimed loudly. "Tony – do as I tell you!" She batted his forehead with her beak, making him giggle.
Leroy rolled his eyes. "Well, mostly they know best. See, Tony – sometimes Tessa has a bad feeling about something, and if I listen to her and follow her advice it always turns out better than if I don't."
"Supposing she tells you something you don't like?" Tony asked thoughtfully.
"Well, that's the hard part." Leroy gave a rueful smile. "I never said it was easy. But being true to your daemon is what becoming a man is all about, Tony."
"It is?" Tony pondered that. He was pretty sure his father would say being a man was about outwitting your opponents and making more money than them, but instinctively he felt that Leroy was closer to the truth.
Leroy was good with his hands, and the wood he whittled slotted together seamlessly to create little boats. They attached tissues to the masts of each one for sails and then got on their stomachs, put them carefully in the water, and watched them sail downstream.
Tony decided that Leroy wasn't much more than a big kid at heart – he whooped when his boat sailed over a ridge and battled its way downstream, and half-limped, half-ran to follow the race. Tony cheated by leaning into the water to give his boat a shove when it looked like it was losing, and Leroy laughed his head off at that.
Looking up at him, this strange, moody man who did kind things, Tony thought he'd never had such a good friend. Shanti got into step beside Tessa's furry flank, and the wolf and puppy trotted along together, side by side.
It was late afternoon when Leroy took Tony back to the motel. He saw Mr. DiNozzo's big, black car with the tinted windows in the parking lot and winced. They'd been gone a long time, and he'd seen enough of DiNozzo to be wary of the man's temper. He wasn't scared for himself, but he was concerned for Tony after having seen how the father's daemon liked to bully Shanti.
He knocked on the door, determined to take any flak handed out himself, in order to spare Tony. DiNozzo opened it, and it wasn't even evening but he looked half cut already. His shirt was open to the waist, his eyes were bloodshot, and he reeked of liquor. Then Leroy remembered that the man had recently lost his wife, and he felt a tiny bit of compassion for him.
"I've brought Tony back," he said.
"Yeah. Right. You have a good time, son?" DiNozzo cast a bleary glance at Tony.
Leroy was surprised that the man didn't seem angry, but his reaction annoyed Leroy in another way; DiNozzo had left his son alone all day and didn't look remotely worried by his absence. What kind of a dad was he? Leroy had plenty of arguments with his own father, but Jackson Gibbs had never neglected him.
"It was great! We made boats and sailed them down the stream!" Tony said.
"Boats huh? Great."
Leroy had a feeling that if Tony had said they'd cut off their own heads and sailed *them* down the stream that his father's response would have been the same.
Tony ran into the motel room, with Shanti fluttering around his head in butterfly form.
Leroy was about to go when DiNozzo grabbed his arm and pulled him back. Leroy stiffened, and Tessa growled at Nala; Leroy didn't like being touched. DiNozzo released him and drew his wallet out of his pocket.
"Look, kid – it was good of you to take care of my boy today. Here's something for your time."
He stuffed a handful of money into Leroy's top pocket, and Leroy glared at him. He hadn't asked to be paid; he'd enjoyed spending time with Tony, and he'd had nothing better to do while his damn leg healed.
"Could you do it again tomorrow?" DiNozzo asked. "And for the next few days? See he gets fed. Maybe take him to the movies – he loves the goddamn movies. See, I'm in the middle of a pretty tight business deal, so I won't be around much. I'll pay you well."
He flashed his wallet full of money in Leroy's direction. Leroy wanted to tell him where to stuff his damn money, but Tessa nudged her head against his leg, and he knew what she was thinking. He liked Tony, and his father didn't need him at the store; they just argued constantly. What harm was there in taking this man's cash and keeping the child amused for a few days? If he didn't do it then Tony would no doubt be left on his own, and Leroy didn't want that for the kid.
"Okay," he said stiffly. "But only until Friday. My girl arrives on Saturday, and I want to spend the weekend alone with her."
"Sure, sure." DiNozzo nodded eagerly, and Nala's face stretched into a disturbing semblance of a smile, her teeth bared.
Leroy returned home to find Meldra strutting up and down on the sidewalk outside the store, and his father sweeping compulsively inside the store, by the door.
Meldra let out a little squawk when she saw him, and she fluttered over and gave Tessa a quick peck on the paw.
Jackson hurried over behind her. "Where have you been, son? You've been gone all day, and I was worried about you. I thought you might have fallen down in the woods on that bad leg of yours and not been able to get up again. I was just about to come looking for you."
Leroy was about to snap out an irritable reply, but then he paused to consider the irony. Tony's father had left his eight year old son alone all day and hadn't given a damn when a strange man had brought him home – in fact he'd hired him as a babysitter without knowing the first thing about him. His own father, on the other hand, had clearly been fretting about his twenty year old, trained Marine of a son all afternoon.
Leroy swung an arm around his father's neck and pressed a quick kiss against his cheek.
"It's okay, Dad. I ran into young Tony down by the woods, and he needed me more than you did today, so I spent the day with him."
He explained the situation to his father over supper and was surprised to see Jackson looking at him with a strange expression in his eyes as he spoke.
"What?" he asked, as Jackson was uncharacteristically silent when he finished his story of the day's events.
"Just…seeing you through different eyes, Leroy," Jackson said quietly. "Feel like my boy is all grown up."
"Because I took care of some kid for the day?"
"Because you're hurting right now, and worried sick about your future, but you put that aside to look after someone else who's hurting more," Jackson said. "That's something a man does, not a boy."
Leroy often found his father's folksy, homespun way of looking at the world unbearably simplistic, but on this occasion something about what he said struck a chord.
"Yeah. Well…" he said, feeling embarrassed. He ducked his head down and gazed at Tessa, and she looked back at him steadily. "I like the kid," he muttered.
"And he's good for you – you were wasting away in the store every day. It'll be good for you to get out and about with that young lad. It'll do you both good, especially if the father is paying for it, and you can take the child places."
Jackson reached over and patted Leroy's shoulder gently. Leroy half stiffened, the way he usually did at human contact, but then he relaxed and smiled at his father instead.
The next few days went by far more quickly than his time back at Stillwater had done to date. Tony was fun to be with – he was a cheerful, talkative kid, who seemed happy just to be having some one-on-one attention.
He pestered Leroy for more information about his hurt leg, wanting to see the scar and hear all the grisly details of how he'd come by it. He seemed disappointed that Leroy hadn't been shot in a war zone, or as part of some black ops mission, but instead had sustained the injury during a training accident. Not that it had been Leroy's fault, and he knew the guy in his unit who had caused the injury was upset and embarrassed about it, but that didn't make it any the less unfair.
"So, what do you DO in the Marines?" Tony asked one day, jumping up to run his hand over Leroy's buzz cut hair. "Do you do a lot of marching? Do you have to kill lots of people?"
Leroy laughed out loud at Tony's notion of what being a Marine was like. "No. Not yet anyway. I'm still training. When I'm done, I want to be a sniper."
"A sniper?" Tony's eyes went round again, like a startled owl. Then he frowned. "What's a sniper?"
Leroy laughed again. He wasn't sure when he had last laughed so many times in one day, but Tony was a funny kid.
"Someone who goes behind enemy lines on his own and shoots at them from a long way off."
Tony wrinkled up his nose. "Isn't that kind of lonely?"
Leroy sat back and glanced at Tessa. "I don't get lonely. I like my own company. Did you know that forty-three per cent of snipers have wolf daemons, like Tessa here?"
Tony looked intrigued. "No! I didn't know that!"
Shanti, in cockatiel form, perched on Tessa's head and pulled at the wolf's fur with her beak, grooming her gently. Tessa, as surprisingly tolerant as always where Shanti was concerned, just endured it.
"I wonder what shape Shanti will be when I grow up," Tony said thoughtfully.
Leroy glanced at Shanti who was still busily pestering Tessa. "Well, so far she seems to be mainly a dog, a butterfly, or a cockatiel – so probably one of those."
"Can I choose?" Tony asked, and Leroy wondered if this child's parents had ever sat down and had a conversation with him in his life. These were pretty basic questions. Then again, they were also quite intimate questions, and some people didn't like talking about daemons – their own or anyone else's.
"No, you can't choose," he replied. "It just one day…sort of happens. In most cases your daemon spends more and more time in one form as you get older until one day she just stays that way."
"Why are boys' daemons female and girls' daemons male?" was the next question.
Leroy pressed his fingertips to his forehead. Next thing the kid would be asking him about sex, and he really didn't want to have that conversation with him!
"Nobody knows," he replied. "It's not always the case, but it is for most people."
"When did your daemon settle?" Tony asked curiously. "How old were you?"
"Not much older than you, I guess."
"But…that's really young!" Tony looked surprised – most people were when he told them that. "I thought it didn't happen until you were much older – like 14 or 15."
"That's how it is for most people but it wasn't that way for me." Leroy shrugged. "I guess I was always…kinda definite. That's enough questions. Let's go do something."
"But why doesn't my daemon need food? Why is it that when I'm hurt she hurts, and the other way around too. Why does it hurt when she gets a bit too far away from me? Why…?"
"I said no more questions!" Leroy slapped the back of his head playfully, and Tony's face lit up in delight for no reason Leroy could fathom. Shanti changed into puppy form and batted Tessa's head delightedly with her paw, and Leroy found himself rolling his eyes but laughing too.
At the end of their week together, Leroy dropped Tony off at the motel as usual. Whatever business Tony's father was doing didn't seem to be going well, and the man was as preoccupied as ever.
"Mr. DiNozzo – I just wanted to remind you I can't look after Tony tomorrow or Sunday," he said politely as the man gave him a handful of money. "I did tell you about it."
"I'm not seeing you tomorrow?" Tony looked up at him, and Shanti's puppy tail drooped disconsolately.
"No, buddy." Leroy crouched down in front of the boy. "I told you that my girl was coming to visit. Shannon's going to be here tomorrow morning, and we're going to spend the weekend together." Alone. And hopefully pressed up against each other out on a blanket in the middle of the woods, doing 'what comes naturally to young folks', as his father would embarrassingly say.
"Can't I come too? I want to meet Shannon!"
Nala shoved at Shanti with her nose, causing the puppy to fall over with a startled yelp.
"Leroy's got better things to do than look after you this weekend," DiNozzo said. "Like he said, his girl is coming to visit." DiNozzo gave Leroy a sly, knowing wink that Leroy didn't appreciate at all. "Don't whine, Tony. You know I hate whiners."
"Yes, Dad. See you, Leroy."
Tony walked sadly into the motel, and Leroy felt for the kid, but he wasn't altering his plans for anyone. He was desperate to see Shannon again. She was the only person in the world who he felt comfortable touching him. It was so easy being around her, and she didn't expect him to talk – yet at the same time, talking to Shannon came so easy that it wasn't a problem the way it was with some other folk.
When Tony woke the next morning Shanti was a cockatiel, sleeping with her head tucked under one wing.
She roused sleepily and gazed at him. "No Leroy today," she said sadly.
"No. No Leroy." Tony wrapped his arms around his body and gazed at his father's sleeping form in the bed beside him.
"He's always in a bad mood at the moment, and it makes me want to be… I want to change at night the way I could back home," Shanti whispered to him, hopping onto Tony's pillow and smoothing his hair with her beak.
"Ssh," Tony said quickly. "Not here. Nobody can see you like that."
"I don't like being held in!" Shanti spread her wings and flapped them indignantly. "I feel cooped in, bottled up…there are things I want to let out. There are times when I want…"
"I know. But it's our secret – yours, and mine, and Mom's." Tony pulled Shanti against him and kissed her soft feathered head. "So you can't. It won't be for much longer. Just until we get home. Then you can change into whatever shape you like at night when we're alone in my room."
"You know what I want to change into," she muttered sulkily, pecking at him reproachfully with her beak.
"Yes, but remember what Mom said. Dad doesn't like it, so we have to keep you under control. We can't let him see you that way again." Tony smoothed her ruffled feathers.
"If Nala has a go at me one more time…" Shanti said threateningly.
"Just turn into a butterfly and fly out of reach!" Tony told her. "Mom said to just get out of the way and not make it worse."
"I just want to *be*." Shanti sighed.
"And you can – when we're alone together, just you and me – completely alone, where nobody can see us. So you can't change like that again until we're back home in my bedroom."
"Okay," she agreed, but she didn't look too happy about it.
"We'll have a nice day – maybe Dad will take us somewhere," Tony whispered. "Remember how much fun he can be when he's not working?"
Shanti nodded her white head and changed into a puppy. Her tail started to wag. "Maybe we'll go somewhere fun. When Nala's in a good mood she chases me and makes me laugh."
But his father seemed to have forgotten that Leroy wasn't looking after him today; he got ready in his work suit as usual and then tousled Tony's hair and made to leave.
"Aren't you spending the day with me?" Tony asked in surprise.
"Can't. I've got to do business," his father told him brusquely.
"But it's Saturday!"
His father turned to glare at him, and Tony bit on his lip. Shanti turned into a butterfly and flew out of reach before Nala could nip her.
"What the hell has that got to do with it? Damn it, Tony, I'm doing this for your benefit! The food you eat and the clothes on your back don't come out of thin air. I have to damn well work for them."
"I know that, Dad." Shanti disappeared up his shirt sleeve.
"Your mom's death screwed things up in the business…I don't have any capital backing now because of her stinking family who never liked me anyway and…" His father looked angry with himself, as if he'd said too much. "Life goes on and money doesn't damn well grow on trees, Tony," he growled, and then he left.
"What are we gonna do now?" Shanti said, crawling down his arm and settling disconsolately on his wrist.
"Have fun anyway," Tony said defiantly. Shanti laughed and turned into a puppy. She zoomed around the room, her tail wagging. "We can have fun by ourselves," Tony told her. "C'mon. Let's go have an adventure."