Leroy was at the station early to meet Shannon, and he spent an hour pacing up and down the platform. When her train finally arrived, he saw her cloud of red hair floating out of an open window, and her leaning out, waving at him frantically.
His inclination was always to be shy and even less talkative than ever when he first saw her again after even a brief time apart, but she, as usual, wasn't having any of it. Her daemon, a small but feisty kestrel called Pell, flew around in circles above Tessa's head, teasing her, until Leroy protested, saying Pell was making them both dizzy. Shannon laughed at him and pulled him down for a kiss, even though he hated doing private stuff like that in public, where people could see.
"Idiot. It's been a week – that's five whole days since I saw you last. There's no way I'm not going to kiss you and kiss you!" she told him when he protested. Then she nestled in beside him as they walked back to the store. He carried her suitcase in one hand and put his free arm around her, and it felt like he was whole again.
His father made a fuss of Shannon as usual, but all Leroy wanted to do was get her out into the woods so they could talk and make love. He grabbed a blanket and the basket containing the picnic he'd packed earlier, and then he took hold of her hand and wrenched her away from where she was exchanging pleasantries with his dad.
It was a beautiful day and his knee didn't hurt as much when he was with her.
"How is it? Is it getting better?" she asked as they walked towards the creek. "It seems better. You're not limping as much."
"Because you're here." He grinned at her.
"I only ever see you walking on it when I'm here," she pointed out logically. "And it's definitely better this weekend than last."
"I've been exercising more. Trying to keep up with Tony has helped."
"Who's Tony?" she asked as they spread the green and red checked blanket out and sat down on it.
He explained as they ate, and she listened to him, smiling as he talked.
"What?" he asked as he finished. She was giving him a look similar to the one his dad had given him when he'd first told him about Tony.
"Well, firstly, I've never heard you talk for that long before!" She poked his side, and he gave a grudging little laugh. "And secondly, I was just thinking what a good dad you'd make."
"Oh shit." He looked over at her. "There's nothing you want to tell me, is there?"
Now it was her turn to laugh. "Nothing like that, no! I'm just saying – one day. After we're married."
"Definitely." He wanted kids as much as he knew she did. One day. Just not now. "And I don't exactly view Tony as a son! He's more like the kid brother I never had. Or a friend." He frowned as he said that.
"That surprises you, doesn't it?" Shannon rolled onto her side and propped her head up on her hand.
"Well yeah. I mean he's a lot younger than me and…" He shrugged.
"And?" she prompted gently.
"And you know what I'm like. I've never exactly been good at making friends. I never know what to say to people. But with Tony it's easy – for a start he does enough talking for two. And he's kind of funny. He makes me laugh."
"I'd like to meet this Tony kid."
"Well you won't – I told his dad I wasn't available for babysitting duties this weekend. I want it to be just you and me. We have a lot of catching up to do." He moved towards her, his eyes fixed on her lips.
"Do we? I wonder what kind of catching up you can mean?" she giggled – and then she closed the distance and kissed him passionately as their lips met.
Pell flew over to Tessa and began gently stroking her with his beak, and Tessa dipped her head to gently nudge him with her nose in return.
Leroy pushed Shannon down onto the blanket and slid on top of her, caressing her through her blouse. He opened a few buttons and nuzzled her breasts through her bra with his mouth. Then he pushed up her skirt, and she moaned as he slipped his fingers into her panties. She opened her legs, pulling him down against her warm, soft body…and then she screamed.
"What the hell…?" Leroy pulled back, startled.
"There's a kid over there…watching us…" she said, looking shaken. She smoothed her skirt back down, and Leroy turned around angrily – and then sighed as a cockatiel flew over and hovered uncertainly above Tessa's head.
"Tony – why the hell are you spying on us?"
Tony emerged from behind a tree. "I wasn't spying!" he said defensively. "I was playing boats in the stream and then you guys came along so I hid."
"And spied on us!" Leroy growled.
Tony bit on his lip. "I like seeing what people are doing, that's all. My dad says I'm nosy, but my mom said I was just naturally curious. Is that your girl? She's pretty. Hi, I'm Tony." He said it all in one continuous stream, not pausing for breath.
"So you're Tony!" Shannon sat up, buttoning her blouse quickly. She held out her hand, and Tony took it. "Nice to meet you, Tony."
"And you. Leroy talks about you all the time. He's got it bad." Tony stuck out his tongue at Leroy and then hopped out of head-slapping range. Shanti rose up high into the air and flapped her wings around. Pell joined her there, and he and Shanti did a little dance in midair.
"You're such a little show off," Leroy muttered.
Tony just grinned at him, and Shanti kept dancing until she lost her bearings and crashed to the ground in a heap of squawking feathers and wounded dignity.
"What are you doing here, Tony?" Leroy asked impatiently. "I told your dad I couldn't look after you this weekend."
"I don't need looking after. I'm not a kid," Tony said defiantly, despite all evidence to the contrary. Shanti turned into a growling little bear – a shape Leroy hadn't seen her take before.
"Where's your dad?" Leroy demanded.
"Working." Tony gathered the bear in his arms, and she changed into a puppy again.
"On a Saturday?"
"What's that got to do with anything? The food I eat and my clothes and stuff don't come out of thin air. He has to damn well work for them."
Leroy gazed at him, perplexed. "You sound like you're parroting someone else." And he could guess who.
Shanti predictably turned into a brightly-coloured parrot and flew over and tugged on one of Tessa's ears, keeping one eye fixed nervously on Pell the entire time.
Shannon gazed at Shanti and Tessa curiously. Pell soared down from where he was perched on a nearby tree branch, sat on Shannon's shoulder, and whispered something in her ear. She nodded thoughtfully.
"I've never seen Tessa so comfortable with another daemon touching her," she said. "I mean, apart from Pell. She's not even that comfortable when Meldra touches her."
"Tony's a kid – I like kids," Leroy muttered.
"I know – but I've never seen Tessa let her guard down like this before. I like Tony." She gazed at the boy approvingly.
"Can I spend the day with you then?" Tony asked cheekily.
Shannon spoke at the same time as him. Leroy glared at her and jerked his head meaningfully at the blanket.
She just laughed at him. "Later – you can sneak into my room tonight," she said with a wink.
"My dad will hear. You're a screamer," he reminded her in a whisper.
"Your dad knows anyway! And he doesn't mind. He's got that weird thing about 'young folks doing what comes naturally'," she reminded him.
Leroy groaned. "Don't. It's so damn embarrassing."
"Can I spend the day with you then?" Tony asked.
Leroy knew when he was outnumbered. "Okay," he agreed reluctantly.
Shanti promptly turned into a puppy and chased her own tail around and around excitedly until she got so dizzy she fell over. Leroy sighed.
Tony joined them on the blanket and immediately stole some of the left-over picnic.
Leroy wondered if his father ever thought to leave him any food – or at least any money for food. For all that DiNozzo liked to flash his money around, Leroy had a suspicion that was just for show; he doubted that Tony saw much of it. It seemed to be very important to DiNozzo that people think him wealthy – which made Leroy suspect that he wasn't anywhere near as well off as he made out.
Of course, it could also be that the father simply wasn't used to keeping track of his son's needs – even those as fundamental as company, supervision, and food. The man looked like he had other things on his mind; this business deal of his certainly seemed to be preoccupying him.
"What kind of a business deal is your father working on, Tony?" Leroy asked curiously.
Tony glanced up, stuffing a sandwich into his mouth at the same time. "I don't know," he said between mouthfuls. "He's meeting with the man who owns the mine. He said stuff about 'capital' and 'investment'."
"Right." Leroy nodded slowly. It sounded as if Tony's father wanted Frank Winslow to invest his capital in some scheme or other. If so, Leroy suspected he'd be disappointed; Winslow was a hard-nosed businessman and unless the deal DiNozzo was offering was very good indeed, Leroy doubted he'd be interested.
"Does your dad always bring you on his business trips?" Shannon asked curiously.
Tony flushed an interesting shade of bright red, and Shanti turned into a porcupine and curled up into a ball, covering her face. It was so funny that Leroy actually laughed out loud.
"No," Tony admitted. "Only…he can't find anyone to leave me with back home…because…uh…well, I can be kinda…naughty." He gave a charming smile but his eyes were bright with a combination of mischief and guilt. "Babysitters don't stick around long. It was okay when mom was alive 'cause she looked after me when he was away on business, but now…" He trailed off, and Shanti turned into a little field mouse and crept onto his lap. He stroked her gently.
"I was sorry to hear about your mom," Shannon said softly. "Jethro told me she died a few months ago."
"Who's Jethro?" Tony frowned.
Shannon smiled. "It's Leroy's second name. I like to use it as kind of a pet name for him. I think it suits him better than Leroy."
Tony gave a broad grin and turned to Leroy. "Can I call you Jethro?" he asked.
"No," Leroy replied automatically.
"It's just for me and him," Shannon said.
"Like a secret?" Tony looked intrigued. "I have a secret." Then he bit on his lip, looking annoyed with himself, and Shanti, still in mouse form, nipped his finger with her teeth.
"What kind of a secret?" Leroy asked, looking at the boy searchingly.
"Nothing. Mom said to keep it secret, so…it's my secret – mine, and Mom's, and Shanti's."
He clammed up then, and Leroy knew they wouldn't get anything more from him. Tony, it seemed, would happily talk about anything under the sun but when he had a real secret to keep nothing would induce him to talk about it.
They spent a pleasant afternoon in the woods, and then they walked back towards Main Street. Leroy had one hand on Tony's shoulder and was holding Shannon's hand with the other, and he was aware of feeling strangely at peace with himself.
Tony ran over to a nearby tree, and Shannon joined him to peer at the markings on the trunk.
Content, Leroy thought as he watched them.
Tessa looked up at him. "Because you have pack," she said. He looked at her questioningly. "Being a lone wolf is fine, but you need a pack to be truly happy," she explained. "Now you have one." He looked at the two people standing over by the tree in surprise. He had a mate, and…what was Tony to him? Not a cub, or a litter mate, but something nearly as important. "Your second. Always by your side," Tessa said.
Leroy liked that idea. One of the attractions of being a Marine had been acquiring an instant pack, but this was different. This felt more personal somehow and more special. He felt connected to Shannon and Tony in a way that went much deeper.
"But Tony will be leaving soon," he said to Tessa.
She gave a dismissive flick of her head. "So? He will always be pack."
Tony and Shannon returned to the trail and they continued on. They had just reached the edge of the woods when Tessa stiffened, growling softly.
A few seconds later, Chuck Winslow came into view with his coyote daemon trotting along beside him. Chuck was a tall, gangling youth about Leroy's age. He was Frank Winslow's son, and he seemed to think that because his father owned half the town that meant he did too – and the people in it. He and Leroy had been enemies for as long as Leroy could remember.
"Hey, Leroy – you out skulking around in the woods again?" Chuck shouted, an ugly sneer on his face.
"Free country. I can walk where the hell I like, Chuck," Leroy said, gripping Shannon's hand firmly, and tightening his grasp on Tony's shoulder. He was aware of Tony looking up at him with a question in his eyes, and Shanti turning into that little brown bear he'd seen earlier.
Pell came and perched on Shannon's shoulder, looking his usual fierce self.
Leroy could see the irritation in Chuck's eyes as he looked at Shannon. Chuck Winslow got a lot of dates because of who he was, but he didn't seem to be able to hang on to any of the girls he went out with. Shannon had once turned him down, and Chuck had never forgotten that. No Stillwater girl ever turned him down – but Shannon wasn't from Stillwater, and nobody told her what to do – or who to date.
Chuck's coyote daemon slunk over to Tessa and sat down right in front of her – too close – deliberately getting in her space.
"People have been talking about the amount of time you've been spending all alone with that kid," Chuck said. "Do you like hanging out with little kids, Gibbs? Or is he the only person in town who'll be your friend?"
"I'm not little," Tony said fiercely, and Shanti gave a low growl. It made Leroy smile – of course Tony wouldn't take a comment like that without protesting.
"I've been looking after Tony while his father does business with your father," Leroy said calmly.
"That what you been doing? Or maybe you bring the kid into the woods for some other reason?" Chuck said, his mouth twisting upwards in a nasty little smile.
Shannon gripped his hand more tightly. "Leave it, Jethro," she said quietly.
Chuck glanced at her dismissively. "I see your whore is back in town, Gibbs."
"What did you call her?" Leroy felt a familiar red mist rising inside. His father had always chided him about his temper, but that never stopped him getting into fights – and he'd had more fights with Chuck Winslow over the years than anyone else in town.
"Well, I figure she has to be a whore as no girl would sleep with you without getting paid," Chuck said with a leering grin. "Did you have a threesome?" he asked. "You, your whore, and the kid? All alone out in the woods with nobody to see?"
Leroy swung his fist without even thinking and landed a hard blow on Chuck's jaw that sent him flying. At the same time, Tessa descended upon the coyote and sank her teeth into her, making Chuck's daemon scream loudly. Tessa released her and stood back, watching closely, ready to attack again.
Chuck got to his feet. "That the best you can do, cripple?" he taunted. He came at him with all his force and managed to land a punch on Leroy's cheek that sent him toppling over on his injured leg. Leroy growled under his breath – there was no way Chuck Winslow could take him in a fair fight when he was fit, but he wasn't.
He tried to get up – too fast – and his wounded knee protested, sending a sharp stabbing pain through his entire leg. Chuck loomed over him and grabbed the collar of his shirt, his fist raised high in the air, and Leroy was suddenly aware that this was one fight he wasn't going to win.
He cursed himself for being such an idiot; Chuck had probably been waiting for the right time to strike ever since he'd come home to recuperate. They had plenty of old scores to settle, and Chuck knew he stood a chance of getting even with him because of his leg injury. He'd probably picked today on purpose to show him up in front of his girl.
Chuck's fist came down, and Leroy fell sideways from the force of the second blow. He shook his head in confusion, bracing himself for more – but instead all hell broke loose.
It all took place so quickly, and the trail was so dusty, that Leroy wasn't even sure what happened. Chuck was standing over him, kicking him in the ribs, and Leroy was trying hard to get up again but his knee just wasn't co-operating.
Shannon had gone the deadly kind of silent she always went when she was furious – she was bashing Chuck over the head with her fists while Tony was throwing himself at Chuck repeatedly, yelling at him to stop. Chuck was just shoving the child out of the way every time he got near, easily swiping him aside like he was a puppy.
Leroy saw Pell dive-bomb the coyote daemon with his usual deadly accuracy, pecking away at her, but still Chuck's assault on him didn't let up any. Beside him, Tessa was lying on the ground, desperately trying to get up while the coyote snarled and snapped at her.
Then suddenly, out of nowhere, a massive, angry roar ripped through the air, deafening him and drowning out everything else.
The coyote gave a shriek of terror and when the dust cleared Leroy saw her slinking off with her tail between her legs, with Chuck limping along behind her, rubbing his bruised jaw. He paused only to glance back in their direction with an expression of bemused hatred on his face, as if he wasn't quite sure what had happened. He looked furious that his plan to take Leroy down once and for all hadn't worked.
Leroy looked up to see Tony standing over him, protecting him, arms still outstretched, fists at the ready. Shannon was standing beside the child, red hair full of dirt, looking just as fiercely protective. Pell was flying directly overhead, patrolling the skies above them, and Shanti was a little brown bear, hackles raised, brown eyes defiant and determined.
Tessa picked herself up from the dust and sat down beside him. She looked a little frayed around the edges but fine apart from that.
"It's like I said," she murmured. "Pack."
Leroy accepted Shannon's hand to help him up and leaned heavily on Tony's shoulder as his knee almost gave way beneath him. He looked down on the pair of them.
"Yes," he said to Tessa. "Pack."
When Tony woke up the following day he was still feeling restless and angry inside. Shanti was a brown bear beside him which was unusual – it wasn't one of her normal shapes.
"I'm angry," she said, in a little growl of a voice.
"I know. Me too." He remembered that man the previous day, taunting and mocking them and then punching Leroy into the dust. Tony had been overcome by his emotions back then – and that protective rage was still coursing through his veins.
"Because it can't get out," Shanti told him, her fur bristling.
"It did get out, and you saw what happened."
"It wouldn't be like that if I could be that way more often. It's just because it's all locked up and hidden away."
"We'll go home soon and then everything can go back to the way it was."
She stared at him from big, brown eyes. "But I don't want to go home," she said, turning into a puppy again. "I want to stay here, with Jethro." She snuggled up next to him.
"Jethro?" He raised an eyebrow.
"That's what Shannon calls him. She's right, it suits him better – and it's what I want to call him too."
"I know." He hugged her close, feeling unhappy. He was angry about the fight yesterday, and he wanted to go home so Shanti could relax and be herself, but at the same time he wanted to stay here, close to Jethro.
"Even if we did stay, Jethro won't be here much longer," he told Shanti sensibly. "When his leg gets better he'll go back to the Marines. He'll still see Shannon because she's his girl, but I'm not…I'm not part of his life," he said miserably. He'd felt so lonely since his mother died, but being with Jethro had changed that, and he'd started to feel happy again in the past week.
Shanti licked his nose, and they clung onto each other. There didn't seem to be any answer to it, and Tony felt upset and confused. His mood didn't improve when his father told him to get dressed in his best clothes.
"We're going to lunch with Frank Winslow," he said when Tony mulishly asked an insolent "why?"
"Why?" Tony asked again, feeling out of sorts and irritable.
His father glared at him. "Because I'm doing business with him, but he's a hard nut to crack. So I'm taking him out to lunch today to show him what a decent, honest, family man I am – that's why you're coming too. And wipe that look off your face! You're going to be polite and not show me up. Keep your damn daemon under control; I don't want her showing off and making a scene. Got it?"
"Got it," Tony said sullenly.
He hated dressing up in his suit and wearing a tie to go to the restaurant on Main Street. His father kept a firm hand on his shoulder as he steered him across the road, and Tony glanced miserably in the direction of the woods. He would far rather spend the day there with Jethro and Shannon than sitting in a stuffy restaurant with his father's boring business acquaintance.
Shanti ambled along beside him in her brown bear shape, representing just how grouchy he felt about this. His father took no notice of his sullen mood though, and Nala even nipped Shanti's flank when she was too slow, making her yelp.
They were shown to their table in the restaurant, and Tony froze. There, sitting at the table, was the man from yesterday – Chuck. His face was bruised, and his lip had been split in the fight, but there was no mistaking the coyote daemon beside him. The coyote bared her teeth at Shanti, and Shanti gave a little growl and puffed up her fur angrily.
Chuck was sitting next to a much older man, who Tony guessed had to be his father – the man his own father had been doing business with all week.
Frank Winslow got up and shook his father's hand heartily. They made boring adult conversation that Tony ignored; he was too busy glaring at Chuck. His father motioned to him to sit down, and, reluctantly, he took his seat. Shanti sat down next to him, and Nala sank down beside her.
"Now, you'll have to excuse Chuck's appearance," Frank said. "There's a bad kid in town – thought we'd got rid of him, but he's come back. Always causes fights wherever he goes. Chuck tried to reason with him but this kid talks with his fists. He's a bad lot."
Was he talking about Jethro? Tony gazed at the man in astonishment, and Shanti sat up, her ears flicking angrily.
"That wasn't the way it was," Tony said, unable to stop himself.
His father turned to glare at him, and Nala bit Shanti's ear – hard. Tony fought back a yelp, but he was too angry to be subdued.
"Is that so, young Tony?" Frank Winslow had a cold look in his eyes.
Tony knew he was supposed to shut up. He knew he was supposed to be polite and nice and make everyone like him so his father's business deal went down well, but he couldn't do it.
"Yes it is," he said firmly.
"The kid doesn't know what he's talking about," Chuck said smoothly. His coyote daemon opened her mouth and actually laughed in Shanti's face. Shanti stood up on her hind legs and snapped her jaws at her. Tony's father glared at Shanti and gave Tony a nudge under the table, but Tony was too angry to pay any attention to him.
"I do! I was there!" he said defiantly.
Shanti gave a loud growl, and Nala immediately shoved Shanti's face onto the floor and held her paw over Shanti's muzzle. Tony fought for breath, feeling stifled.
"Leroy Gibbs has been trouble since the minute he was born," Frank Winslow said, leaning back in his chair. His possum daemon went over and sat down next to his son's coyote, and they both glared at Shanti. "I've known him all my life, and he's a bad'un."
"I'm sure he is. I got a bad vibe off the kid the minute I met him," Tony's father said, much to Tony's astonishment. "Now, shall we take a look at the menu?" he added, in a clear attempt to move the conversation on.
Tony bit down hard on his lip and tried to look at the menu. Opposite him, Chuck gave him a nasty grin that just made things worse. Tony really did try and sit there and not say anything, but in the end the words just came tumbling out.
"Leroy isn't bad. He's been nicer to me than anyone else in this town, and Chuck started it!"
"That's enough." His father got up, grabbed hold of his neck, yanked him to his feet, and propelled him out of the restaurant. Nala followed, with Shanti held loosely in her jaws. "What the hell do you think you're playing at?" his father hissed, shaking him. "I told you to play nice with these people. Who the hell cares what they think of your new friend? It doesn't matter."
"It matters to me!"
His father shook him again. "Don't be an idiot. You just go along with people like this. You make them think they're the big 'I am' even when you think they're idiots. You wear a big smile, say what they want to hear, and charm the socks off them."
"I don't want to," Tony said sullenly.
He felt his father's temper rising and braced himself for the slap – that never came. His father released him, visibly regaining control of his temper, and Nala dropped Shanti to the floor. "I don't have time for this. We'll deal with it later. Now, if you can't behave then I don't damn well want you going back in there. You'll screw up this entire deal for me. So fuck off and leave me to repair the damage you've done."
His father shoved him onto the sidewalk and then turned and stalked back into the restaurant without looking back.
Tony stared after him uncertainly. On the one hand, he was glad he didn't have to spend a few hours being polite to people he hated. On the other, he knew his father wouldn't let this drop and there would be hell to pay later.
That was later though. Now was now, and Tony possessed the ability to keep the two entirely separate in his head.
"We have the day free! We can go and find Jethro and Shannon!" Shanti said happily, circling him excitedly in puppy form.
Tony made his way to the woods, with Shanti running along beside him, tail held high in the air. He walked towards their usual spot…and then paused as he got close.
Shannon was sitting on a blanket, with Tessa beside her. Shannon looked very relaxed and happy and her hair was all mussed up – but that wasn't what caught Tony's attention. He was transfixed by the sight of her *stroking Tessa's fur with her bare hand*. Leroy was kneeling beside her, with Pell perched on his bare hand, and he was gently touching Pell's head, making Pell croon in delight.
Tony stopped dead in his tracks, feeling scared. You didn't touch another person's daemon. It was a huge taboo. He'd only experienced it a couple of times but it had made him feel physically sick. He put out his hand, and Shanti turned into a mouse and climbed up his arm and into his shirt, trembling at the memory of when she'd been touched. Daemons could touch each other, and people could touch each other, and you could touch your own daemon – but you didn't touch anyone else's.
Tony didn't know what to do. As he watched Leroy gently stroking Pell's wings, he felt another emotion; envy. Leroy looked so happy, and Pell was making those little crooning sounds. Tessa was lying on her side, panting happily – she didn't look distressed by Shannon gently combing her fingers through her fur. On the contrary; she looked relaxed and completely content.
Leroy brought Pell up to his face and gently kissed the kestrel's head, and Tony was aware that he'd intruded on a very intimate scene. He'd never seen his father touch his mother's daemon, and now that the shock was wearing off he felt a sense of longing.
He must have made a sound – maybe a sigh – because Leroy suddenly looked up. Pell flew up into the sky, and Tessa moved back to his side, out of Shannon's reach.
"Sorry. It's just me." Tony edged towards them, suddenly feeling shy. He'd never been shy with them before, but what he'd just seen had changed their easy friendship.
"It's okay, Tony," Shannon said gently, beckoning him over. He went slowly and sat down on the edge of the blanket, with Shanti pressed close against his heart. Shannon glanced up at Leroy, with a worried expression.
Leroy knelt down on the blanket beside Tony. "Did you see something that scared you?" he asked.
Tony shrugged and hugged Shanti tighter. She stuck her nose out of his shirt and then pulled it back quickly out of sight.
"It's okay. I'm not going to touch her," Leroy told him with a surprised little laugh.
Tony looked up, feeling confused. That wasn't the problem. He didn't mind the idea of Leroy touching Shanti – and that was what was confusing him.
"I saw you touching Pell!" he blurted. "People shouldn't touch other people's daemons with their bare hands! It isn't nice!"
Leroy nodded thoughtfully and sat back on his knees. "It's true that usually when someone touches your daemon it makes you feel like you're going to throw up, or pass out, or both at the same time. But sometimes…not often, but it can happen, that when you love someone, and…um…trust them…then it feels…good…um…natural…to touch their daemon."
He was clearly floundering, and he looked at Shannon for help.
"Did your mom ever touch your daemon – when you were sick maybe?" she asked.
Tony frowned, trying to remember. "Once, I think she did. I had a fever, and she was trying to wake me."
It wasn't common even for parents to touch their child's daemon with their bare hands. It just wasn't something you *did*. Even for a parent, it could be considered abusive to touch a child's daemon; it was such an intimate act. Tony remembered when a kid at school had grabbed Shanti's head, and how he had howled and almost passed out from the sensation. The kid had been expelled – that's how serious it was to touch another person's daemon with bare hands. Sometimes accidents happened, and someone rubbed up against your daemon by mistake and apologized to you profusely. But usually that was just a split second of nausea that quickly passed.
Shanti poked her head out from his shirt again and looked around cautiously.
"You'll understand when you get older," Shannon said, smiling.
"You mean it's a sex thing?" Tony said scornfully. "I know all about sex stuff. I watch a lot of TV, and once I saw my mom and dad doing it."
Leroy made a snorting sound in the back of his throat, and Shannon laughed out loud. Shanti crawled out of his shirt and sat down beside him in puppy form.
"It's not a sex thing, Tony," Leroy told him firmly. "It's not physical and it goes much deeper than that. It's soul deep. It's like touching another person, *knowing* another person right down to their soul. A lot of people never feel that way about someone else, so they go through their lives never touching another person's daemon. Most people don't like having their daemons touched at all, even by those they love most. But if you can find someone you're connected to, on some level beyond words and bodies…it's just…" He broke off and glanced at Shannon. "The most incredible feeling," he finished.
Shannon got up and went to kneel beside him. "I think that's the most I've ever heard you say in one go, Jethro, and it was beautiful. Thank you." She kissed him gently on the mouth, and Pell landed on Tessa and smoothed her fur with his beak.
"Yuck!" Tony made a face, and Shanti turned into a porcupine and hid her eyes with her paws. Shannon and Leroy both laughed.
"You look kind of over-dressed for a day in the woods, Tony," Leroy said, glancing at his stiff grey suit.
Tony shrugged, remembering the scene at the restaurant, and Shanti turned into a bear beside him and gave a little growl. "Dad wanted me to go to lunch with the guy he's doing business with – but when we got there that Chuck person was there, and…well, I kind of got angry," he explained.
"Angry about what?" Leroy asked.
Tony flushed. "They said bad things about you. So I got angry," he said sullenly.
Leroy looked at him for a moment and then gave a big, wide smile – Tony had never seen him smile quite like that, and he was fascinated.
"Thanks for standing up to them, Tony, but I hope you didn't get in any trouble."
"No." Tony crossed his fingers behind his back.
"Not yet anyway," Shanti murmured in an undertone, and he knew she was afraid of what kind of a mood Nala would be in when they went back to the motel later.
"The suit is very nice. Makes you look grown up and handsome," Shannon said, and Tony grinned and got up and pranced around a bit, milking it for all he was worth. Beside him, Shanti turned into a peacock, spread out her glorious display of feathers, and began strutting around proudly.
Shannon laughed out loud. "You do know it's only the peacock that has all that bright plumage, not the peahen, right?" she asked.
Shanti just kept on parading around, ignoring the fact that the form she was mimicking wasn't gender appropriate. It wasn't one of her daemon forms – she was just having some fun with it, like a child dressing up.
"You are such a show off," Leroy said, rolling his eyes. "Trying to charm the lady, huh?" He nodded in Shannon's direction.
Shanti turned back into a puppy again and sat down abruptly beside him. Tony felt annoyed.
"It wasn't for Shannon," Shanti said sulkily, too quietly for them to hear.
"I know. It was for Leroy," he replied just as quietly.
He wasn't even sure why he wanted to impress Leroy so much; he just knew that he did. He liked Shannon, so that wasn't the problem. It was something else that he didn't really understand.
Tony wanted the day to last forever, if only to delay the moment when he'd have to go back to the motel and face his father. He knew that Leroy wanted the day to last forever too, because he was going to be taking Shannon to the station to catch her train in the evening.
There was something special about that last day they all spent together; something almost magical. Shanti felt it too. The sun shone for most of the afternoon, and later, when there was a sudden rainstorm, Leroy held the blanket over their heads as they ran at his limping pace all the way back to the store.
They left the sodden blanket at the store, airing over a chair in front of the fire. Leroy picked up Shannon's bag, and Tony accompanied them both to the station. He stood by while Leroy and Shannon kissed, and then Shannon turned to him. She looked so pretty with her white skin and long red hair. She pressed a little kiss to his cheek and then smiled.
"It was great meeting you, Tony. Look after Jethro when I'm gone!"
At that moment the sky went dark and it began to rain again. Tony felt a shiver run down his spine, and Shanti gave a little wail. Tony opened his mouth to reply, only to find that his throat had gone completely dry.
"I will," he croaked. "I promise."
She looked surprised by the heartfelt sincerity in his tone and gave a little laugh. "Hey, I'll be back next weekend," she said, tapping him under the chin with her finger.
"Yes. I know." He lowered his head and gazed at Shanti who gazed back at him from troubled brown eyes. Shannon would be back, yes, but somehow he knew that he would never see her again.
He stepped forward and touched her hand. "Bye," he whispered. "I…gotta go now. My dad will be waiting for me." He squeezed her hand tight, for just a brief second, and then turned and ran out of the station.
It was raining hard, and he paused by the station awning because this time he didn't have Leroy with his blanket to keep him dry. It was also nearly dark, and he'd stayed out far later than he should. He watched the rain come crashing down, as lightning streaked across the sky. It showed no signs of letting up so eventually he decided he'd just have to get wet. He began to run, covering his head with his arms, Shanti in puppy form sticking close by his side.
"Hey – Tony!" He heard a voice and turned to see Tessa loping into sight with Leroy behind her. "You okay? You left in a hurry."
"I don't like goodbyes," Tony muttered. "And it's late. I need to get home. Dad…" His father was already in a bad mood with him, and he dreaded how much worse it might be if he'd gone out drinking after lunch.
Leroy stood there, the rain plastering his dark hair to his head, his blue eyes concerned.
"You going to be okay, Tony?" he asked. "With your dad, I mean?"
Leroy always knew the things Tony never said; he could read him better than anyone had ever done, even his mom. Maybe that was why Tony liked him so much.
"Yes. I'll be fine." Tony crossed his fingers behind his back. "Did Shannon's train come?"
"Yes, she's gone. I thought I'd see if I could catch up with you. Is something wrong?" Leroy pressed.
Shanti turned into a mouse and ran up to sit on his shoulder. He didn't have the words to explain it, but something had happened back there with Shannon; something dark and frightening.
"No. Nothing's wrong," Tony replied quickly. "I'll see you."
And then he turned and ran back down the street.
Leroy watched Tony disappear into the rainy night.
"Something feels wrong," Tessa said quietly.
"I know. It's like how it feels before a storm, only the storm's already here." Leroy glanced up at the angry black clouds overhead. It was bucketing down, and he was already soaked through.
He limped back to the store, but he couldn't shake the sensation that something bad was going to happen.
His father took one look at him when he got in and began clucking around, throwing a towel over his wet head and scolding him for going out without a coat or umbrella.
"Supper's nearly ready," he said.
Leroy glanced over at the table and saw that three places had been laid.
"I thought young Tony might be joining us," Jackson explained.
"No." Leroy glanced at Tessa who seemed unsettled and agitated. "He said he had to get back to his dad. So it's just us two."
"Makes a change." Jackson tousled his damp hair – something that Leroy really hated. It had been bad enough when he was a kid, but as a twenty year old man it was even more annoying. "Seems like we've had guests at the dinner table a lot this part week – either Shannon, or Tony, or both! Not that I mind! I'm delighted." He rambled on as he walked into the kitchen. "Always wanted you to bring friends home when you were a kid, and you never did. Been nice having young people around to talk to…"
Leroy sat down at the table, his wet shirt sticking to his cold skin. Tessa sat down beside him and then got up again and turned around in a circle. She tried to sit down again but was clearly unable to settle. She gave a little whine and looked up at him.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Something feels wrong. I think one of your pack is in trouble."
"Well it's not Dad. He's fine. So is it Tony, or Shannon?"
He hadn't even realized that he'd named the people he viewed as members of his pack; his pack, under his protection, even when he wasn't physically near them.
"Shannon's train…" he began.
Tessa shook her head. "I do not think it is Shannon."
The motel room was dark when he got back. Tony didn't have a key, so he knocked on the door. He half hoped his father wasn't back yet – then he could walk back to the warm, welcoming lights of the store, and sit down for one of Jackson Gibbs's home-cooked suppers that always tasted so good.
He heard a crashing noise inside the motel room, and he winced; that didn't sound good. When his father was sober he could be strict and mean, but Tony could handle both those things. It was when his father was drunk that he became truly scary.
A light went on, the door was opened, and he found himself gazing into his father's bloodshot eyes.
"So you've come back at last, have you?" he slurred.
"Yes Dad. Sorry Dad," Tony whispered, sidling into the room with Shanti pressed up against his legs.
"You damn well should be! Because of you, I lost the business deal I was working on!"
His father slammed the door shut behind him, and Tony froze. Because of him? Had he screwed that up for his father just by sticking up for Leroy at lunch? Was that how business deals worked?
"Sorry, Dad," he whispered again, going over to his bed. If he lay down and pretended to be asleep his father might let it drop. He'd no doubt bring it up again in the morning, but Tony wasn't so afraid of him when he was sober.
"You don't fucking understand, do you?" His father suddenly loomed over him. "We needed that deal. Your mom's money is all tied up in trust funds and…" He caught himself. "My business doesn't have any capital, and if I can't find an investor then we stand to lose everything. Do you understand *that*, you little shit?"
Tony shook his head, but that just made things worse. His father reached out, grabbed his arms, and squeezed so tight it made him whimper. Shanti gave a growl and threw herself at Nala, who opened her big jaws, snapped them tight around Shanti's puppy neck, and held her down on the floor.
"No! Please! No!" Tony wheezed, struggling to breathe. "Let Shanti go!"
His father's face broke into a grim, drunken smile. He released his grip on Tony's arms and turned to look at where Nala had Shanti pinned down.
"I told you to keep her under control back there, but you didn't. And if you can't control your daemon, then I'll have to do it for you."
He went over to Shanti and yanked her out of Nala's jaws. Tony screamed as wave after wave of nausea rolled through him. His father was touching his daemon! He was holding Shanti in his hand, by the scruff of her neck, and it made him feel so ill he threw up.
"Doesn't feel good, does it?" his father asked viciously as Tony puked up onto the floor. "Like losing a fucking business deal when you're this close. *This fucking close*!" He shook Shanti violently, and she gave a scream of terror. Tony fell onto the bed, screaming with her.
"Please stop…please…" He clawed at his own throat, trying to breathe, but all he could feel were his father's hands on Shanti, squeezing and shaking.
"You're a brat. I raised a brat. Your daemon is the evidence. I should have done something about it before," his father said ominously. "I should have made you control yourself, but I've been too easy on you. Soft. Like your mom. You're a spoiled brat, Tony."
He turned and hurled Shanti against the wall. She slammed into it and fell to the floor, but the minute she landed Nala was upon her, snarling at her and biting her. Tony fell back onto the bed, writhing in pain. He was dimly aware of his father going over to Shanti and drawing back his leg, and then he landed a kick on her exposed belly, and another, and then another.
Tony gasped for air, doubled over, clutching his stomach. Shanti was screaming, and he was screaming with her, desperate to reach her but in too much pain to move.
His father leaned down and picked her up by the scruff of her neck again, and Tony threw up again, instantly. He writhed in agony, wondering if maybe this was what it felt like to be dying.
His father slapped Shanti around the face, while she called for him, over and over again, but he couldn't get there. He managed to fall off the bed and onto the floor, struggling to reach her. He tried crawling across the room but it all hurt too much.
Then suddenly the room lurched and everything was upside down. He thought he saw his mother's daemon, Keddon, a big black cat, coming towards him.
"Call for help," Keddon urged.
Who could he call? His mom was dead and there was nobody else nearby.
"Call!" Keddon told him urgently. "He will hear."
Tony opened his mouth and screamed: "Jethro!"
Tony hardly left Gibbs's bedside for days. He spent most of the time on the bed, holding Gibbs in his arms while Gibbs slept – and slept and slept...and slept. Shanti and Tessa were next to them, their bodies entwined too, as Tessa and Gibbs slowly healed.
People came to visit – Ducky, Abby, and McGee. Director Shepard walked in, gave them a strange look, and didn't stay long. He thought she'd finally figured this one out. She didn't understand it, but she'd figured it out.
Jackson Gibbs showed up and shooed him down the hallway to take a shower and have a shave. He brought him a change of clothes which was a relief as his own were getting pretty stinky.
When he returned to Gibbs's room he got onto the bed again and held him tight. No way was he letting go until Gibbs told him to get the hell away from him. Gibbs had never liked being touched, but right now he seemed to need it, and Tony was happy to oblige.
"Will he ever be right again?" Jackson asked him. "How can anyone survive what was done to him, Tony?"
"He’ll be fine," Tony said firmly. "He was brave, Jack – if you could have seen how brave. I don't know that any of us could have suffered what he did and survived – let alone stayed sane. You should be proud of him."
“I am, Tony. I always was.” Jackson’s eyes were bright with unshed tears. “Come back to us, Leroy,” he said, gently stroking his son’s hair. “Come back to us, son.”
Jackson stayed at Gibbs's place and came and went regularly, but still Gibbs didn’t rouse himself enough to speak to anyone. Tony let him be. He figured that Gibbs would wake up and start talking again when he was good and ready.
One day, Ziva showed up at the door. Tony glanced up and beckoned her in.
"I am sorry I did not come before. I…have not known him that long. I did not want to intrude," she said nervously. "Also…my boss insisted I write up a report and process all the paperwork on the case." She made a face at him, and he laughed, remembering the barked orders he'd given to her over the phone a few days ago.
"Yeah, your boss is a bastard. He learned from the best." He smiled down at Gibbs fondly. Then he glanced up at her sharply. "What's the news on Hunter?"
"He is safely locked up - along with the people who paid him to commit his crimes. Fornell says he will remain in a high security prison for the rest of his life." She gave a malicious little smile.
"Too good for him." Tony grunted. Shanti raised her head, and he knew they both wished they could have killed the man. They'd done the right thing leaving him alive so they could find out who was paying him, but Hunter's punishment didn't go anywhere near satisfying the vengeance in Tony's heart for what that bastard had done to Gibbs.
Ziva tiptoed over to the side of the bed and sat down. Her spider daemon peeked out from under the collar of her coat.
"I thought I had seen everything. I think, maybe, I thought I knew everything too." She gave a self-deprecating little smile. "I was wrong. There is still much to learn."
She ran a gentle finger over Levi's furry back.
"Don’t know why you kept him hidden so long. He's not so bad," Tony said, glancing at the spider with a grin.
Ziva looked annoyed. "He can kill with one bite!”
"Of course he can!" Tony laughed out loud. "I wanted to say…thank you for showing me who you really are, Ziva."
Ziva glanced at where Shanti was lying with Tessa wrapped up between her big paws. “You too, Tony,” she said softly. “You too.”
He dreamed he was locked in a cell, his paws were chained together and there was a tight metal collar around his throat, keeping him fastened against a wall. He couldn’t move. He could only lie there, howling.
He woke up with the howl dying in his throat, covered in sweat.
“Hey…it’s okay…” Strong hands soothed gentle patterns down his arms. “Ssh…it was just a nightmare.”
He rested his head on Tony’s shoulder, and Tony held him tight and talked to him until the shivering stopped. While he talked, Shanti gently washed Tessa’s fur with her big, rasping tongue and between them they soothed him until the memory of the nightmare faded.
He didn’t ask why Tony was there. He didn’t ask why Tony slept in the hospital bed beside him, holding him. He wasn’t ready to have that conversation yet. He just knew that he didn’t want Tony to leave.
He was still the same old Gibbs; he still hated being fussed over, but Tony and Shanti weren’t like his father and Meldra. They didn’t fuss – there were just there, helpful and unobtrusive.
He didn’t speak much. Tony talked, but then Tony had always been able to talk – about everything and yet somehow about nothing. Gibbs watched him talk, keeping one hand wrapped in Tessa’s fur as he listened. He wasn’t sure what Tony was rambling on about half the time, but he liked the sound. It washed over him, soothing him and helping him heal. Sometimes as he watched Tony talk, he wondered what it would be like to silence those endlessly moving lips with a kiss.
One day, Tony was sitting on the chair beside the bed, going on and on about some movie, impersonating all the actors in it, and Gibbs finally felt compelled to interact.
"Tony," he croaked, propping himself up on his elbow and beckoning. Tony looked at him in surprise and leaned forward – and Gibbs slapped the back of his head weakly.
Tony's face broke into a delighted grin, and he laughed out loud. "I take it you're back with us then? I knew that if I annoyed you loudly enough for long enough you'd give in and join the land of the living eventually!"
He got up and did a little jig around the bed, Shanti trotting beside him, both of them looking so happy that Gibbs had to laugh. He managed a few words of conversation with Tony over the next couple of days, but he still wasn't ready to talk to anyone else.
His father came to visit every day. Only when Jack was here would Tony leave his bedside to go take a shower, and shave, and change his clothes, giving father and son some privacy.
Jack talked a lot too, reminiscing about people he’d known back in Stillwater. Gibbs ignored him until the day he told him that Chuck Winslow’s wife had walked out on him and was suing him for all he had. Then he gave a little grunt of amusement.
“Thought that might amuse you!” his father beamed.
“I’m sure Chuck deserved it,” Gibbs muttered. He sat up in the bed, and his father plumped up the pillows behind him. “I know I sure as hell deserved it, every time one of my wives walked out on me.”
His father sat back in his chair, deeply etched anxiety lines creasing his face. “I thought we might have lost you, son,” he said. “I wasn’t sure you’d ever come back to us.”
“I’m fine,” Gibbs said dismissively.
“But you always did say that, whether it was true or not. How is a father to know?”
Gibbs sighed and moved his hand so that it was resting on his father’s hand on the side of the bed. “You worry too much,” he said, and Jackson laughed and squeezed his fingers tightly, and that was all that needed to be said between them.
He lost count of the days and nights. Gradually the need to sleep diminished, until one day he knew he'd slept for long enough. He rolled off the bed and staggered into the bathroom with Tessa beside him, pressed up close against his leg, never out of bodily contact.
“You okay?” Tony followed him into the bathroom. “Need a hand?”
“No.” He shut the bathroom door in Tony’s face and turned to gaze at himself in the mirror. He had a shaggy beard and a multitude of yellowing bruises on his face. He was thinner than he could ever remember being in his life before and his Marine haircut had grown out, leaving him with straggling long silver hair.
He pulled open the door. “Need to shave,” he said to Tony.
“Oh, thank God!” Tony’s face split into a wide grin. “Uh, not that it looks too bad – I mean, you can carry off facial hair, but even you…”
“Tony!” he snapped, and Tony grinned again and went over to the nightstand.
“Already on it, Boss!” he said smartly, pulling out a shaving kit and holding it up. “I’m so glad you’re gonna get rid of it,” he added, following Gibbs back into the bathroom. “I was worried you might decide to keep it.”
Gibbs turned back to the mirror and had a sudden flashback to that deformed stranger he’d seen in the car mirror. He shuddered.
“Hey…” Tony placed a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. “You okay?”
“I’m fine,” he said, the way he always did, as his father had pointed out. He wasn’t fine, not yet, but talking about it wasn’t going to change that.
He lathered the shaving cream onto his face and picked up the razor. As he looked at himself in the mirror, all he could see was that wild-eyed man without a daemon. His hand began to shake.
“Here, let me,” Tony said, smoothly taking the razor from him.
He took Gibbs’s chin in his hand and began firmly passing the razor over his face. Bit by bit, his old self emerged, like a moth from a cocoon. Afterwards Tony handed him a towel and, maybe sensing his mood, left him alone in the bathroom.
Gibbs passed the towel over his face, wiping away what was left of the foam. He looked older, and there was a haunted expression in his blue eyes, but it was definitely him.
“Of course it’s you,” Tessa told him. “You are who you always were.” She rubbed her face against the side of his leg.
“I’m not so sure about that.” Once he had hated being taken care of, but now he let Tony and his father take care of him as if he was a helpless child. Once he had hated being touched, but now he leaned into Tony’s gentle caresses, loving the feel of his fingers in his hair, or ghosting over his arms as he soothed him back to sleep after a nightmare.
“You are letting them love you. It’s about time,” Tessa said. “You don’t always have to be the one who is strong for everyone else. You can let others take care of you for a change.”
He wasn’t sure he knew how to be that person, but if Tessa said it was so then he would try. He would always listen to everything she said from now on. He knew what life without her was like now.
They took him home, and he felt like an old man walking into his house, leaning on Tony for support. He remembered coming here, without Tessa, going down into his basement on autopilot, and crawling under his boat. The memory brought him up short, and he paused, fighting for breath. Tessa looked up at him anxiously.
"I have a memory you don't share," he told her.
"We both do," she replied. "We can share them together, when the time feels right."
He nodded and allowed Tony to lead him into the living room and help him to sit in front of the fire.
Jackson stayed for awhile, cooking meals and trying hard not to fuss over him. Gibbs found he didn't mind the fussing so much now. Maybe he was getting old. Or maybe, as Tessa had said, it was okay to let the people who loved him take care of him for a change.
He was getting better. He got tired easily, and he still had bad nightmares, but he felt more like himself every day.
Jackson left when he was satisfied he was going to be okay, but Tony…Tony didn't seem to have any intention of leaving. He spent every day by his side, and slept every night in his bed, holding him tight. Gibbs sometimes woke up and watched him as he slept, wanting to stroke his hands through Tony’s thick, soft hair, or trace the outline of his lips with his fingertips.
“Tell him how you feel,” Tessa urged, but he didn’t have the words for that. It had been so long since he had spoken words of love, and he’d never been very good at it, even back then. He didn’t even know how to begin to have this conversation.
"I'm pretty much better now," he told Tony over the dinner table one evening, a few days before he was due to return to work. "So you can leave, if you want. You must be pissed off with playing nursemaid to me all this time."
Tony gazed at him for a long moment, a flicker of annoyance in his eyes. “Is that what you want?” he asked at last. Gibbs shrugged. “Jethro? Do you want me to go?” Tony pressed.
Gibbs still didn’t have the damn words. He threw his napkin down on the table and got up.
Tony got up too, looking anxious. “I’ll leave then. If that’s what you want.”
“No!” Gibbs shook his head fiercely.
“Damn it, Gibbs. What the hell are you trying to say?”
“This!” He took hold of Tony’s arm and pulled him down so that they were both kneeling beside Tessa and Shanti. Then slowly, carefully, he placed Tony’s bare hand on Tessa’s fur. There was a momentary sensation of giddiness, but he never minded Tony touching Tessa. He never had.
Gibbs placed his own hand on Tessa too, and then he opened up his heart through his daemon in a way he never could with words. He let Tony see a glimpse of the deepest part of his soul, and all he kept hidden there.
He showed Tony an eight year old boy, who he’d instinctively recognized as a friend the minute he’d first laid eyes on him. He showed him the man he’d grown up to be – always big-hearted, playful, and full of life, who had never given into the bitterness his lonely childhood could so easily have caused. He showed him a pale, coughing, sick man, dying from the plague, and shared the desperation he had felt at the prospect of losing him.
He shifted, moved both their hands, and showed him that moment in the basement when he’d been lost to himself, and Tony had come down those stairs towards him, holding out his hand. Tony hadn't turned away from him when he’d needed him most. Tony had led him to Shanti and shared her with him, giving him hope and shelter in his time of need.
And then he opened up even more and showed Tony how he had appeared to him that terrible day. He showed him the man with the lion inside, strong, and courageous, and loyal.
It was Tony who had rescued Tessa, and who had never once given up on him during the long days and nights in the hospital, no matter how monosyllabic or short-tempered he'd been.
It was Tony who rocked him during the stormy nights when the dark dreams came, and it was Tony who was always there by his side, trusted and beloved, through the good times and the bad.
Tony had been by his side for five long years, his loyal companion, almost as constant a presence in his life as Tessa.
He showed Tony all this – and then he showed him the nights he'd spent looking at him, wondering what it would feel like to touch him, and kiss him, and wanting to do just that.
He didn’t have the words to say it, but the truth was all there, laid bare in Tessa.
Tony was his pack, his second, and the other great love of his life, all rolled into one.
Tony was…his soul-mate.
He couldn’t look up into Tony’s face. He had revealed too much of himself, and he wasn’t sure what the response would be.
He heard Tony take a deep, shaky breath and felt his gaze upon him, but still he couldn’t look up.
“Jethro?” Tony said quietly. “Why do you think I stayed?” He stroked Tessa’s fur gently with his fingertips, and Gibbs felt the feather light touch on his own back.
“Loyalty?” Gibbs finally forced himself to glance up at Tony and found him sitting there with a puzzled little smile on his face.
“No. Idiot. Here.”
Tony took Gibbs’s free hand and placed it on Shanti’s warm, soft coat. Gibbs had touched her before, many times now, but never like this – and never while Tony was touching Tessa at the same time.
He felt the whirl of Tony’s soul opening up to him, and he stepped inside. He immediately felt the ache of Tony’s lonely childhood and discovered just how much Tony had thought about him during those long years of separation.
Gibbs let his fingers shift though Shanti’s fur some more, and he saw himself lying on a hospital bed, and Tony standing beside him, calling him back from the dark place he hadn’t wanted to leave.
“That was you?” He looked up at Tony in surprise. “You were the one who called me back when I was in the coma?”
Tony nodded. "That was me."
"But how...?" Gibbs tried to make sense of that. Tony had been there for him as long ago as that? He had somehow found him, and touched Tessa, and brought him back to himself, even when he'd been lost in that dark place after the death of his family?
Tony's fingers met his in Shanti's fur, and he was plunged back into Tony's soul again. He was standing in the snow when a beautiful, familiar wolf appeared out of nowhere. He felt a surge of joy flood through his body as he realized who she was. He wasn't alone anymore; he had found Jethro again and all would be well now. Being close to Jethro was all he’d ever wanted.
The scene shifted, and Gibbs saw himself lying asleep under his boat that night soon after Kate’s death. He was Tony, looking down on him, a sudden revelation sweeping through him…Jethro was warmth, and safety, and happiness…and love.
“That’s why I stayed,” Tony told him. “Not just because of loyalty, but also because of this.”
He leaned forward and kissed Gibbs on the lips. His mouth was warm and gentle, his kiss deep and searching, and his lips felt soft, and loving, and somehow familiar. Gibbs responded hungrily, pulling him close and kissing him back.
They were interrupted by a loud sighing sound. They pulled apart in surprise and looked at their daemons who were sitting there, side by side, watching them.
"About time!" Tessa said triumphantly. "You have no idea how long we've waited for this."
"It was driving us nuts," Shanti agreed.
Gibbs laughed out loud and stroked Shanti's head.
"The fact we really don't mind you touching us should have been a big clue," Tessa said, nudging her muzzle against Tony's hand.
"And the fact we spent half our lives trying to curl up as close to each other as possible was another big clue." Shanti rolled her eyes.
"It's what you two wanted to be doing with each other but were too stubborn…" Tessa began.
"And pig headed…" Shanti continued.
"To give into," Tessa finished.
"Well, I'm ready to give into it now." Gibbs grinned, looking at Tony. "You ready for that, Tony?"
Tony laughed. "Oh yeah. I’m ready. Boy am I *ready*.”
"Then what the hell are we waiting for?"
He reached for Tony again, but Tony stopped him. “I think I should explain a bit more about the coma thing,” he said, looking anxious. “I don’t want to freak you out, but…see, I promised myself I wasn’t going to hide who I am anymore, and this is big, and it’s about you, so…well, you should know about it.”
Gibbs sat back, puzzled, wondering what the hell was going to come next.
“See, I’ve kind of been connected to you since…well, since what happened back in the motel room all those years ago," Tony said quickly. “It’s hard to explain…but it’s like that moment linked us, and I’ve been able to feel what you’re going through ever since. Not all the time – just when something big happens.”
Gibbs gave a wry chuckle. "Connected huh?" Then he threw back his head and laughed. All these years he had thought it had been one-sided, and that Tony hadn't felt it too. He'd been an idiot.
"Yes." Tony wasn’t laughing. His eyes were serious and intense. Gibbs wasn't used to seeing him this way, but it seemed he really meant it when he said he wasn't going to hide who he was anymore.
“It’s okay, Tony, I…” Gibbs began, but Tony stopped him. He placed his hand on Gibbs's cheek and stroked gently, with one finger.
"I felt it when Kelly was born," he said quietly.
Gibbs looked down and found Tessa there, by his knee. He swallowed down the lump in his throat and looked up again. "You know about Kelly?"
"Yes. I knew at the time. I knew about Shannon dying the instant you found out. I hitch-hiked to Stillwater, and then I came here. I wasn't sure what I was going to do, but I wanted to be near you, to help in some way. But you’d already gone back to Kuwait by the time I got here."
Gibbs stared at him, astonished. “You did that for me?”
"Yes," Tony said firmly. "See, I made a promise to Shannon, and I wanted to keep it."
Gibbs remembered standing on a station platform, many years ago, and watching Shannon kiss a small boy on the cheek. Look after Jethro when I'm gone. "You remembered what Shannon said, after all that time?"
"Yes." Tony’s eyes were fierce and protective, and Gibbs suddenly realized just how seriously he took that promise he'd made all those years ago.
"You've been keeping that promise all this time, and I never knew." Gibbs gently caressed Shanti's soft head, making her purr.
"It was important to me. It still is. Besides, you saved my life that night in the motel room, so it works both ways. I was just giving back what you gave to me." Tony gave a little grin.
Gibbs felt humbled that one act of kindness in his youth had been repaid over and over again with so much love and dedication since.
"When you were injured in Kuwait, I felt that too," Tony continued. "I went to Bethesda, and they said you were in a coma. They said that your physical injuries weren't that bad, but you wouldn't come out of it, like you wanted to stay there. So I kind of sweet-talked my way into your room…"
"I heard someone calling me, but I never did understand what happened. I didn’t know it was you, calling me back.”
"I wanted you to live.”
"Why didn't you hang around and talk to me about it?" Gibbs asked. "Drove me nuts thinking there was a reason I came back but not being able to figure out what it was."
Tony gave a little laugh. "I was scared away. There was this Marine with a giant eagle daemon. He caught me touching Tessa and chased me away. Said he wouldn't report me to the police if I got the hell out of there."
"Major Ryan." Gibbs shook his head. "That old son of a bitch. He always did what he thought was best for me, but if I'd known…"
"What would you have done?" Tony asked. "I was just a kid – still in college. I couldn't have given you anything you needed back then."
"And now?" Gibbs asked softly.
Tony smiled. "Now I can. If you'll let me, and I really hope you will."
Gibbs gently took hold of Tony's chin, pulled him close, and kissed him again. Tony melted against him, and Gibbs slid his arms around Tony's back and held him tight. He pushed Tony's lips open with his own, and their tongues met eagerly. Gibbs kissed him deeply, wanting to taste him and explore him, to keep him close and never let him go.
They parted only to scramble up the stairs to the bedroom with Shanti and Tessa at their heels. Tony disappeared into the bathroom and then reappeared holding a tube of lubricant. Gibbs took it from him and threw it on the nightstand, then pulled him in and kissed him again.
He took his time undressing Tony, wanting to savour every single moment. He let his fingers drift down the buttons on Tony’s shirt, before sliding it slowly off his shoulders to reveal his naked chest. He pressed a dozen little kisses along his collar bones, loving how Tony sighed into his caresses. Then he moved down, trailing kisses over Tony’s hairy chest and pausing to enjoy the softness of his belly under his lips.
He undid Tony’s belt and pulled it free, and then he unbuttoned his fly and pushed his pants and boxers down, freeing Tony’s straining erection. He pulled Tony in close again and kissed his mouth while at the same time taking Tony’s hard cock in his hand, loving how Tony gasped into his kiss.
Now it was Tony’s turn. He kicked off his shoes and peeled off his socks and then turned back to Gibbs, entirely naked. He approached him with a gleam in his eye, like a hungry predator, and Gibbs grinned and held his ground, liking Tony’s look of intent.
Tony undressed him like he was a present he’d been longing to open for years. He paused every few seconds to brush a kiss over Gibbs’s mouth, and he studied every single inch of his skin as he freed it from his clothes. He seemed fascinated by him, as if he couldn’t get enough of him. When Tony was done undressing him, Gibbs pushed him onto the bed and slid his hands over his beautiful naked skin. He liked the way Tony pressed up against him and yielded to his touch.
Tessa and Shanti settled down on the rug next to the bed, their bodies gently entwined, their noses touching. They did a little dance all of their own, nudging and nuzzling and petting each other in time to the rhythmic love-making on the bed.
Gibbs trailed a string of kisses over Tony's chest and then up his neck and along his jawline. "I felt you too," he whispered into Tony's ear.
Tony gave a sigh of pleasure and ran his tongue over his already moist lower lip in a way that was positively obscene. Then Gibbs's words clearly sank in, and his eyes snapped open.
"That night you busted your knee I was holed up in a foxhole behind enemy lines, unable to walk because of you."
"Oh shit. I'm sorry." Tony pulled him down and kissed him again.
Gibbs laughed into the kiss. "Having a fucked up knee was bad enough, but then I got a damn hard on because you got lucky with a threesome." He shook his head, still laughing.
Over on the rug, Shanti hid her eyes with her paws in embarrassment.
"Oh fuck," Tony whimpered. "You were in a foxhole…behind enemy lines…with a busted knee…and a hard on…"
"Courtesy of you. Yeah." Gibbs grinned and kissed Tony's neck.
"That night was hot…but not as hot as this." Tony pushed up against Gibbs and rolled him over so that he was on his back, with Tony looking down on him. "This, you – lying naked and willing beneath me – is way hotter, Jethro."
He caught Gibbs's lips in another deep kiss, and Gibbs pulled him in close, resting his hands on Tony's soft, firm buttocks.
“You ever had sex with a guy before?” Tony asked him between kisses.
“No.” Gibbs pulled Tony's buttocks apart a little, wondering what it would be like to explore deeper. “You ever had sex with someone you’re in love with before?” he asked in return.
Tony made an embarrassed sound and buried his face in the crook of Gibbs’s neck. “No,” he admitted.
“Then I guess we both have something to learn.” Gibbs extricated Tony from his neck and kissed him again.
Gibbs might not have had any experience with men, but his body, it seemed, didn't give a damn about that because his cock was hard and aching. He found Tony exciting and wanted to explore him, open him up, and find out everything there was to know about him.
He rolled Tony down beneath him, and Tony guided Gibbs’s lubed fingers into his ass, gasping in pleasure as Gibbs gently worked him open. When he was done, Tony opened his legs wider, smiling up at him, encouraging him in. Gibbs slid a generous amount of lubricant over his cock and then positioned himself between Tony’s thighs. He pushed easily into Tony’s body, humming in pleasure at the sensation. It didn’t feel new; it felt like he had done this before, a thousand times.
Tony's welcoming gasps and cries of enjoyment turned him on like nothing else, and he pushed in as deep as he could go, looking into Tony’s eyes the entire time. Tony gazed back at him and reached up to brush his fingers gently over Gibbs’s cheek.
“It’s good…please…more,” he urged.
Gibbs began thrusting, slowly at first and then faster, and he felt Tony moving with him, their bodies rising and falling in perfect time. It was as if they were merging, becoming one, and he lost himself in the sensation.
He could feel Tony beneath him and around him, and then something strange happened. Every nerve ending in his body suddenly flared into life, like fireworks sparking everywhere, sending shooting stars of pleasure through him. He had never experienced sexual pleasure so intensely before. Every pleasurable sensation seemed to have been doubled, and it took his breath away.
He looked down on Tony and found him gazing back at him in astonishment.
“Do you feel it too?” Tony whispered.
“Uh huh. That’s…oh shit…that’s just amazing…”
Gibbs glanced over at their daemons, entwined on the rug, and realized what was happening. The connection between them meant that he was experiencing Tony’s pleasure as well as his own, and Tony was experiencing the exact same thing.
“It’s beautiful.” Tony ran his fingers lightly over Gibbs’s back with a look of wonder on his face.
The feeling of skin on skin, lips on lips, and his cock moving inside Tony’s body was indescribable when magnified by Tony’s sensations too. Gibbs looked down on Tony lying beneath him, his green eyes glowing as he gazed back up at him, and he almost passed out from the sheer sensory overload of the experience.
That incredible feeling spiraled out as they continued making love, enveloping them both, and generating wave after wave of ecstasy. Gibbs cried out as he experienced Tony’s orgasm as well as his own, and it was so intense that the following few minutes were a haze.
When he came to, he pulled out of Tony's body and sank down beside him. For some time afterwards he could only lie there, with Tony in his arms, as they shared the glowing aftershocks of the most amazing sex they’d ever experienced.
They spent the next few hours lazily stroking, kissing, and touching, luxuriating in the soul deep connection between them. After awhile, Tessa jumped soundlessly onto the bed. She lay down beside Gibbs, her long tail brushing over both their naked bodies. Shanti jumped up beside Tony and arranged herself on the pillows, resting her big head on both their shoulders.
As Gibbs lay there, touching all three of them, he felt a profound sense of wellbeing.
He was complete. He’d been broken, but now he was whole again, and stronger and happier than ever before.
He knew that sometimes he would look in the mirror and see that stranger staring back at him. But he also knew that when that happened Tessa would be by his side, nuzzling his fingers, and Tony would be behind him, holding him tight, and Shanti would be next to him, pressing against his thigh.
"Pack," Tessa said contentedly, her eyelids drooping.
"Pride," Shanti said, just as contentedly, purring in the back of her throat.
Gibbs didn't care what it was called. He just knew that it meant he would never be alone again.
Tony put on his sunglasses, got out of the car, and looked around, smiling.
“Look any different?” Gibbs asked, getting out of the car.
“Hmmm…it’s kind of darker,” Tony replied.
Gibbs swiped the sunglasses off his face and thwapped him on the back of the head with them.
Tony laughed. “No, it doesn’t look any different,” he said with a happy sigh, swinging his arm around Gibbs’s shoulders.
They were standing on Main Street, right outside Jack’s store. It had been four months since they’d got together, and Jack had been nagging at Gibbs to bring Tony home for a visit ever since he’d found out about them.
The door opened, and Jack came bustling out to welcome them, enveloping them both in an enthusiastic hug while Meldra groomed Shanti and Tessa vigorously with her beak. Jack ushered them into the store, and Tony thought how strange it was to be stepping foot inside this place again, after all these years.
“I haven’t been in this store since the day I said goodbye,” Tony murmured, looking around. It hadn't changed much. Jack wasn’t a great one for modernizing, and the décor was pretty much the same as it had been when he was here as a child.
They spent the day catching up with Jack. Meldra seemed to be in some kind of hen heaven as she clucked over Shanti and Tessa with a happy gleam in her eye. Tony could never get enough of being clucked over, looked after, and taken care of, and Jack loved fussing over him. That worked well as it meant that he and Shanti were able to draw that side of Jack’s nature to them, giving Gibbs and Tessa some breathing space.
They slept in Gibbs’s old room, and the following day they emerged late to find the mid-summer sun shining, and Jackson beaming at them benignly.
“Here…I packed you a picnic,” he said, handing them the same battered old basket Tony remembered from years ago. “I thought you’d want to take a trip down to the woods – you know, to revisit old haunts, and do what comes naturally to young folk.” He gave them a knowing wink.
Gibbs let out an exasperated sigh, and Tony nearly wet himself laughing.
“Young folk?” he said, still laughing as they walked off down Main Street with the basket. “Just how old does he think we are? Eighteen?”
“When you’re as old as Jack, I guess everyone seems young. But mainly I think he just likes saying it to wind me up.” Gibbs rubbed his jaw ruefully.
“Yeah – and I think it worked!!”
“It always damn well did.” Gibbs finally gave in and threw back his head and joined in Tony’s peals of laughter.
Tony's laughter faded as Shanti gave a low growl. He saw Tessa stiffen, and Gibbs put a warning hand on her head. There, emerging from a car right in front of them was a man with a coyote daemon. Tony barely recognized Chuck Winslow, but he’d know his daemon anywhere.
Chuck glanced at them and his lip curled up in distaste when he saw Gibbs.
“You’re back I see, Leroy,” he said, in a smooth, urbane voice that did nothing to disguise the old enmity lurking just below the surface.
“Just visiting my dad. How are you doing, Chuck?” Gibbs said tightly.
Chuck stepped forward to reply, and Shanti put back her head and roared out an ear-shattering warning. The entire street came to a standstill as everyone turned to look at them. Chuck muttered something and walked quickly away.
“It’s okay – I really don’t think Chuck will be picking any fights with us today, Shanti,” Gibbs told her with a laugh.
Tony flushed and put his sunglasses on, looking around furtively. “Move along – nothing to see here, people!” he said in a loud voice. “Sorry,” he muttered to Gibbs under his breath.
“Don’t apologise…” Gibbs began.
“I know, sign of weakness.”
“Wasn’t gonna say that. Was going to say don’t apologise for Shanti. I love it when she lets rip with one of her big roars.”
“Yeah – is it my imagination, or has she been more, well, *lionly* ever since…you know.”
“Is 'lionly' even a word?” Gibbs raised an eyebrow.
“I have no idea.”
“I think she’s being exactly what she should be, and that's herself. And I love it.”
Tony felt a little glow of contentment. His father might never have loved him for who he truly was, but Gibbs always had, then and now.
They walked into the woods, and Tony thought how little it had changed. He could walk this trail from memory – he’d been here often enough in his head since leaving it behind all those years ago.
They went deep into the woods, all the way down to the clearing by the creek. Shanti went crazy when she saw the creek – she scampered over there like the puppy she’d once been, bellowing at the top of her lungs.
Tony followed her over and looked at the water where he'd once played as a child. He remembered Gibbs making little hand-made boats with tissues for sails and them floating them down the creek.
When he turned around he found that Gibbs had spread Jackson’s old green and red checked blanket on the ground. Tony was about to say something, and then he paused, having a moment of déjà vu. He’d been in this moment before, that day on the docks just before he’d met up with Jethro again after years apart. Gibbs had been sitting here, looking as he did now, his hair completely silver and his face still a little gaunt after his ordeal at Hunter's hands. Maybe it had been some kind of premonition.
“What?” Gibbs asked.
“Nothing…” Tony shook himself. “Just…it’s all exactly as it’s been in my head all these years. This has always been my happy place, Jethro. I used to come here in my daydreams when I was pissed off or unhappy, and it always looked like this.” Tony glanced around. “The sun was always shining, that blanket was always on the ground, and you…” He broke off and looked at Gibbs who was kneeling on the blanket with Tessa by his side.
Gibbs raised an eyebrow.
“You were always here, waiting for me.”
"I'm waiting now." Gibbs jerked his head impatiently, and Tony laughed and went and sat on the blanket beside Tessa.
“So, what’s for lunch?” he asked.
Gibbs gave him that wolfish grin that made him think that something else entirely was on the menu.
“Fuck lunch,” Gibbs said.
He reached out and began unbuttoning Tony’s shirt. Tony smiled and leaned back, surrendering. He'd found, over the past few months, that it worked best this way. Gibbs was as focused about sex as he was about work and that suited Tony just fine. He loved being the centre of Gibbs’s attention; it turned him on like nothing else. Tony had never known sex as mind-blowing as it was with Gibbs; the connection between them magnified every orgasm twofold, making it an almost spiritual experience.
Gibbs stripped his shirt off him, pushed him back onto the rug, and then made short work of stripping his pants off him too. He didn’t stop until Tony was naked, and then he rolled on top of him, pinned him to the blanket, and began kissing him with that sweet combination of gentleness and strength that made Tony's entire body tingle.
The sun felt so beautifully warm shining through the trees, dappling their entwined bodies. Tessa and Shanti were at their feet, grooming each other vigorously, the way they always did when he and Gibbs were making love.
Tony felt Gibbs’s consciousness seep into his own as usual, and he sank down into the sensation, loving how it felt. They made love slowly, passionately, to the feel of the sun on their bare skin and the sound of the creek trickling noisily nearby.
Afterwards, they lay on the blanket and looked up at the trees overhead. There were ghosts here, for sure, Tony thought, but they were friendly ghosts.
Over there, an eight year old boy was running through the trees, his arms outstretched, playing airplanes. A little golden retriever puppy romped with him, chasing him excitedly. She changed into a butterfly and flew up into the air, and the boy ran after her, calling her name.
And over there was a tall, moody, young man with a pronounced limp and a beautiful wolf daemon loping along at his side. The man got out a knife and began whittling the branch of a tree into the shape of a boat to keep the child amused.
A kestrel circled above them and over there, hardly visible at all, was the faint outline of a pretty girl with red hair. She came towards them, her skirt billowing in the breeze. When she got close, she looked at Tony and smiled.
“Thank you for taking care of him,” she said.
He smiled back and wrapped his arm around Gibbs’s shoulder, pulling him in close.
“It’s my pleasure,” he said softly.
She gave another dimpled smile and then shimmered into nothing, disappearing into the sparkling rays of the sun.
Over by the creek, the young man with the Marine haircut turned and looked straight at him. He raised his hand and waved, and Tony waved back. He limped away, his wolf daemon by his side, and when Tony looked again he'd vanished.
The boy chased his puppy daemon around the blanket one last time, and then he ran off into the woods. He turned when he reached a bank of trees, and his daemon changed into a cockatiel and perched on his head, squawking loudly. The boy paused for just long enough to poke his tongue out at Tony…and then he too was gone.