Chapter 1: The Philadelphia Problem
Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs signed another piece of paper and tossed in into his out tray, a scowl on his his face. While he took quite a lot of satisfaction from making sure that justice was served and evil defeated, he took considerably less satisfaction in the amount of paperwork that ensuring justice and triumphing over evil seemed to generate. Case in point: the Boone clusterfuck. Outsmart one little serial killer and his sleazy lawyer accomplice and you would be lucky to crawl out from under the forms before Judgment Day.
The ring of Tony’s cell phone interrupted Gibbs’s mental griping. He glanced over at his SFA, who was digging the phone out from under his own monumental stack of paperwork. Tony looked at the screen…
Gibbs sat up, immediately on high alert.
For a long moment, Tony stared blankly at the ringing phone, the lack of expression on his face betraying just how upset he was. Gibbs was very familiar with Tony’s reactions, and if he was simply annoyed or angry, he would be full of loud complaints and exaggerated grimaces. Something was very, very wrong.
Finally, Tony shook himself, tossed his phone on his desk, and went back to his paperwork.
“Aren’t you going to answer that, Tony?” McGee asked.
With an effort that was visible to Gibbs, though it might not have been to anybody else, Tony pulled himself together.
“No, McProbie, I am not!” he said with a bright— false— smile.
There was an awkward silence as both the junior and the senior agent unconsciously waited for a smart remark from Kate’s desk, a remark that would never come. Gibbs could practically hear the missing piece of the banter:
Why not Tony? Is she not pretty enough?
Instead, Cassie Yates sat in Kate’s chair and didn’t say a word, although it was obvious from her body language that she was listening. Tony’s phone stopped ringing and everybody went back to work, but Gibbs filed the incident away in his head under ‘DiNozzo— Serious Trouble.’
This file was not outrageously large (as opposed to ‘DiNozzo— Hilarious Trouble,’ which was practically bursting at the seams). Tony might be the butt of a dumb frat boy joke, but he was also a seasoned detective and a guide. He had the people smarts to avoid most bad situations. However, what it lacked in relative size, it made up for in sheer, mind-boggling unbelievability. Tony could mouth off to a gang banger, kiss a CEO's trophy wife, or arrest a senator's favorite golf buddy and walk away scot free, but if there was any bizarre, improbable, or uncanny bit of difficulty in a five mile radius, Tony would end up smack in the middle of it.
45 minutes later, Tony got up and headed towards the men’s room. Still on edge from earlier, Gibbs kept track of his absence, and when the moment when his SFA should have returned arrived and no Tony came with it, he got up from his desk and prowled towards the bathrooms.
Sure enough, Tony was tucked behind the vending machines talking into his phone. Gibbs stepped back around the corner so Tony couldn’t see him and listened.
“… answer to you!” Tony hissed, his voice low and stressed. “I do not live in Philadelphia anymore. I have not visited Philadelphia since I left. I no longer have any connection to anybody in Philadelphia. Ergo, we have nothing to talk about!”
Whoever was on the other end of the phone said something, but halfway through, Tony cut them off.
“I no longer have any connection to anybody in Philadelphia!” he repeated, practically snarling. “You have absolutely no reason to be calling to me! So stop!”
Tony hung up and Gibbs slid silently back down the corridor before his SFA could catch him eavesdropping. When Tony returned to the bullpen a minute later, looking pale and a little drawn, Gibbs said,
“Everything alright DiNozzo?”
“Yeah boss,” Tony replied, sliding gently into his chair.
Gibbs nodded. He hadn’t expected Tony to say anything, not in front of McGee and Yates. The point had been to let his SFA know that Gibbs knew something was wrong. What DiNozzo did with that information, well, that was up to him.
Gibbs was prepared for Tony’s Philadelphia problem to follow him to D.C. He just wasn’t expecting it to happen as fast as it did.
When Gibbs arrived in the office next morning, he found Tony already at his desk. The younger agent looked pale and tired, and if he hadn’t been wearing different clothes from the day before, Gibbs would have wondered if he’d gone home at all.
“Your alarm break, DiNozzo?” Gibbs asked quietly.
Tony jumped and let out the beginning of a shriek, which he quickly turned into a gruff “Ahhh!”
He cleared his throat.
“Boss!” he said, gesturing towards the clock. “I’m not late, see, here on time…”
“I know,” Gibbs said, setting his coffee on his desk and sitting down.
“Besides, you know what they say about life, it ‘moves pretty fast,’” Tony rambled on. “‘If you don’t stop and look around once in a while…’ Wait, if you know, why did you ask about my alarm?”
“Thought it must have gone off early, interrupted your beauty sleep,” Gibbs said. “You’re early.”
“Nah,” Tony said, unconsciously preening a little at the ‘beauty sleep’ comment. “Couldn’t sleep last night. Full moon, I guess. Or maybe the, the hot airline stewardess…”
Gibbs gave him a look, a look which said, broadly speaking, I know you are full of it, DiNozzo, now shut up before I hurt you .
Tony being Tony, he understood it immediately.
“Shutting up, boss,” he said quickly.
Gibbs grunted and turned on his computer. He signed on and followed the procedure he had memorized for accessing the team schedule that Tony kept. He might have a good memory, but, contrary to popular belief, he was not omniscient. He could keep their caseload, their status on each case, and their deadlines in his mental file folders, but he needed intel in order to keep the files up to date. Tony provided that intel.
The Boone case had been updated to ‘closed’ and the paperwork they had done last night had been logged, but Tony had also logged what was still outstanding. Some of it, like reports from the lab and follow-up interviews, were things they needed in order to hand the case to the DA (even though there wasn’t anybody alive to go to trial, they still needed to cross all their ‘i’s and dot their ‘t’s). Some of it, like Yates’s doctor’s appointment and their follow-up interviews with IA, were NCIS requirements when a case got violent and a suspect died. And some of it was team-related, most notably, the paperwork required because Yates was their TAD, not a regular team member.
Gibbs sipped his coffee and suppressed a sigh. The hole that Kate had left was not healing appreciably, even with her killer six feet under.
He moved on to their other cases, because, unlike on television, cases at the MCRT did not have the courtesy to come one at a time and get solved in a punctual manner. They had several open right now, and Tony had logged status reports on each of them them, including a reminder that Petty Officer Keegan Blount’s disappearance would have to be filed as a cold case this week if no new evidence showed up.
Damnit. Gibbs hated filing cases as cold.
“DiNozzo!” he barked.
“Yeah boss,” Tony said, coming to attention like a pointer dog on the hunt.
“When McGee gets in, I want you to go take one more run at Blount’s mother,” he said, pulling the one weakness in the case out of his memory. “I still think she knows something.”
“On it, boss!” Tony said happily, and, despite his obvious tiredness, he wriggled a little, like an eager puppy.
Gibbs suppressed a smile.
He did not— could not— think of Tony as a son, any more than Tony could think of him as a father. That well had been well and truly poisoned for both of them, for Gibbs by Kelly dying the way she did and for Tony by his father’s militant neglect. No, their relationship was much harder to categorize than that. Suffice to say that, while it was not paternal, it was definitely familial, and Gibbs was aggressively proprietary towards his SFA, just as Tony was rabidly loyal to him.
Which meant that it was perfectly alright for Gibbs to take a possessive sort of pleasure in Tony’s quirks.
McGee and Yates arrived, Tony and McGee left to interview Blount’s mother one more time, and Gibbs was just getting ready to call IA and relieve a little tension by yelling at them when the elevator doors slid open and two unfamiliar faces stepped onto the floor.
His hackles rose immediately.
He couldn’t say what it was about the couple that set him on edge. Outwardly, there was nothing ‘off’ about them.The man was Asian-American, medium build, dark hair, brown eyes, 5’8”. The woman was caucasian, petite build, brown hair, hazel eyes, 5’6”. Both were wearing sharp, but understated suits that said ‘government employee.’ They were clearly comfortable in law enforcement offices, since they exited the elevator quickly and confidently, but they had never been to the Navy Yard before, because they hesitated for a second when confronted by all the orange. Their movements, including the momentary pause, were in perfect synchrony, suggesting that they were partners of long standing.
In short, nothing set them apart from the countless government employees that visited the building every day. However, what Gibbs saw when he looked at them was ‘threat.’
They approached the team’s desks and Gibbs leaned back in his chair, making no effort to hide that he was watching them like a hawk. Yates continued typing on Kate’s computer, but Gibbs could tell by the flick of her eyes that she was keeping tabs on them too.
“Hello,” the woman said, stopping in the middle of their section of the bullpen. “We’re looking for Guide DiNozzo.”
“Uhuh,” Gibbs said, silently slotting her use of Tony’s guide status into his sparse collection of jigsaw pieces. “And who are you?”
“Sentinel Parks and Guide Liu from the SGU,” the woman said. “We’re here on Union business.”
Gibbs leaned back, keeping eye contact and giving himself time to run through the federal guidelines for dealing with the Sentinel and Guides’ Union in his head. When he had refreshed his memory— and made the sentinel and guide very uncomfortable— he spoke again.
“Your business with Special Agent DiNozzo involve NCIS?” he asked, with a subtle emphasis on Tony’s status as an agent rather than his status as a guide.
He was within his rights as Tony’s boss to ask that. If something NCIS was working on involved the Union, they were supposed to tell them.
“No,” said the guide— Liu— speaking for the first time.
“So, personal,” Gibbs deduced. “Why are you trying to contact him at work then?”
“We have been… unable to reach him at home,” Parks said, and Gibbs didn’t need to be a sentinel or a guide to sense that she was frustrated and impatient.
“Uhuh,” Gibbs said.
Internally, he put another couple pieces together. The sentinel and guide pair had been looking for Tony at home, but Tony had come into the office early. Which suggested that he had been avoiding them. Which suggested he knew they might stop by. Which suggested that they were part of the Philadelphia Problem.
“Special Agent DiNozzo is out in the field right now,” he said finally. “Not sure when he’ll be back.”
“We’ll wait,” Parks said with a perfunctory smile that wasn’t really a smile.
Gibbs raised an eyebrow and stared at them.
“Yates,” he said after another uncomfortable pause.
“Yes sir,” Yates replied, snapping to attention.
“Show ‘em into the conference room,” Gibbs said.
As soon as the three were out of sight, Gibbs got up and headed for the elevators. He went directly to Abby’s lab— Abby’s lab, which, among other things, was sentinel-proofed as per federal evidence protocols— and, once Abby had turned down her deafening music, he got straight to the point.
“Need you to look up some people,” he said. “Don’t want to ping any radars, just want to know who they are.”
“Doesn’t McGee usually do that?” Abby asked, puzzled and worried.
Abby did not like things that messed with the status quo.
“McGee’s not here, and I need this ASAP,” Gibbs said. “Sentinel Parks and Guide Liu from the SGU.”
“SGU?” Abby gasped. “But Gibbs, they’re, like, the good guys! ”
“Yuht,” Gibbs said. “Well, these good guys just showed up in the bullpen looking for Tony, and I don’t think he wants to talk to them. Run the search, Abs.”
“I don’t like this, Gibbs,” Abby said, turning to her computer and beginning to type. “It’s against the natural order of things. These are Tony’s people, not the kind of people we run untraceable searches on! They’re not…” she trailed off, frowning at her screen where Parks and Liu’s details had just been brought up. “This is not right,” she said. She looked at Gibbs, frowning. “Sentinel Helen Parks and Guide Samuel Liu are senior coordinators at the Philadelphia Center.”
And there it was: confirmation of the Philadelphia connection.
“Uhuh,” Gibbs said.
“No, Gibbs, you don’t understand,” Abby said. “This is really hinky. S&G Centers are funded by the federal government, but they’re run by the prides. And the prides are, like, super territorial. You know how we are about jurisdiction? Well, the prides are, like, ten times worse. I mean, sentinels and guides from a pride can go wherever they want, but their affairs are only handled by their own pride. Which means that these two being in D.C. to talk to Tony,” she gestured at Parks and Liu’s pictures, “Is like Fornell running an op on an aircraft carrier out of our MTAC. Which he would totally do if he could get away with it, but realistically—”
“Abs,” Gibbs cut her off as she threatened to get totally off topic.
“Sorry Gibbs,” Abby said, deflating a little.
Gibbs smiled and kissed her forehead, then took his phone out of his pocket and dialed A.J. Chegwidden’s number. Because in point of fact, he did understand exactly how territorial the prides were, and he knew he needed to get on this before it turned into a giant cluster. After two rings, the man on the other end picked up.
“Admiral,” Gibbs said. “Agent Gibbs, NCIS.”
“The other Jethro!” Chegwidden said. “Well, what can a retired Rear Admiral do for you?”
“Well for a start, you can call me Agent Gibbs,” Gibbs said dryly.
“I’m not the kind of guy who lets an opportunity pass him by,” Chegwidden said. “When I meet another man whose parents had the good taste to make ‘Jethro’ his middle name, I make the most of it. But you didn’t call me up just to tell me what to call you, Agent Gibbs.”
“Heard you and Commander Rabb are the alphas of D.C. these days,” Gibbs said baldly.
“Actually, it’s Captain Rabb now,” Chegwidden said, pride in his voice. “Harm got a promotion in April. And yes, we took over last year.”
“Congratulations, sir,” Gibbs said. “Got something to run by you.”
“Really?” Chegwidden said. “Okay, shoot.”
“You remember DiNozzo?” Gibbs said.
“Guide DiNozzo,” Chegwidden said. “He was your SFA when you were investigating Lieutenant Singer’s death. The Pride Conclave authorized him to represent our interests in the investigation after it cleared Harm.”
Gibbs grimaced. Sentinel and Guide justice worked very differently than mundane justice, something which he had gotten to observe up-close and personal during the Singer case. On the one hand, establishing guilt or innocence was much faster and simpler for sentinels and guides, since their psychic abilities gave them the means to ascertain truth among their own people in a way that was impossible with mundanes. On the other, the truth could be a brutal thing, and psychic ability did not translate into psychic invulnerability. Tony had been a nervous wreck for days after he participated in the conclave.
“Yup,” Gibbs said. “Well this morning, a sentinel and guide from the Philadelphia Center showed up in my bullpen looking for him. Trouble is, DiNozzo’s given some pretty clear indications he doesn’t want to talk to anybody from Philadelphia, and even if he did, anything the Union has to say to him should be coming through you. Sure would appreciate your thoughts here, Admiral.”
The Corps liked to say that nobody could curse like a marine, but apparently, a SEAL could make a damn fine stab at it, because Chegwidden spent at least a minute giving new meaning to the phrase ‘swearing like a sailor.’
“Names,” Chegwidden demanded when he was done.
“Sentinel Helen Parks and Guide Samuel Liu,” Gibbs said. “Senior coordinators at the Philadelphia Center.”
“Have they spoken to DiNozzo yet?” Chegwidden asks.
“Nope,” Gibbs replied. “He’s out in the field and they’re in our conference room.”
“Keep it that way,” Chegwidden ordered. “Harm and I will be there within the hour. Your boy does not talk to them without us, you got that?”
“Loud and clear, Admiral,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs stood leaning on the railing above the bullpen watching the elevators. Tony and Tim were still safely out of the office, following a dead-end lead on another case. Tony had already known that the lead was a dead-end, so he had been rightfully suspicious when Gibbs had told him to check up on it and had demanded an explanation. Or had done the Tony equivalent, which was to question him while already acting like a kicked clown in anticipation of his wrath. Gibbs didn’t have enough information— or time— to explain what was going on, so he simply said, “Rule 40, DiNozzo. But I’ve got your back.”
Rule 40: if you think someone is out to get you, they are.
Tony had paused, digesting this.
“Thanks boss,” he had said at last.
Even over the phone, Gibbs could hear how upset he was.
“Jethro,” came Jenny’s rich, precise voice from the stairs behind him.
Gibbs turned and nodded.
“Jen,” he said quietly.
“Since you’re roosting here watching the elevator, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that you know why the alphas of D.C. just passed our security checkpoint?” Jenny said, her tone halfway between amused and pissed.
“I called ‘em,” Gibbs said easily.
“I see,” Jenny said, her crimson lips twitching. “And you didn’t think to tell me this? I’m the director of this agency, Jethro, if one of our cases involves the pride, I need to know.”
“Not about a case, Jen,” Gibbs said.
“ Director ,” Jenny said icily. “So what is it about, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Not sure yet,” Gibbs said.
“Mmhm,” she said. “Nice try, Jethro. Start talking.”
“Sentinel and guide from Philadelphia showed up here this morning,” Gibbs said. “Didn’t smell right, figured I better call Chegwidden, see what was going on.”
“Oh, I see,” Jenny said, feigning sympathetic understanding. “So you called Alpha Sentinel Chegwidden and told him that another pride was trespassing on his territory, and now he is going to come down here to have a pissing match in the middle of my office?”
Gibbs cocked his head and thought about it.
“Yuht,” he said.
“Jethro,” Jenny said, glaring at him, “I realize that Sentinel Chegwidden is the former JAG and that you two have a history, but I do not appreciate my agency being reduced to the alpha sentinel’s fire hydrant.”
Gibbs raised an eyebrow.
“Can you imagine what he would have done if we hadn’t called him?” he asked mildly.
She made an inarticulate sound of frustration, but the elevator dinged before she could say anything. With a parting smirk, Gibbs stood up straight and headed down the stairs.
Chapter 2: The Alphas of D.C.
Alpha Sentinel A.J. Chegwidden stepped out of the elevator into the main squadroom of NCIS Headquarters. Harm, still in his dress whites from the meeting A.J. had yanked him out of, fell into lockstep half a step behind his right shoulder. A.J. had protested this quirk of Harm’s when they had first bonded, saying that he was not some medieval sentinel and he did not want his guide to follow him around like a servant, but Harm had simply done that bashful thing he did so well and said it was nothing to do with A.J. being his sentinel and everything to do with A.J. being his ranking officer. Since A.J. was career navy too, he couldn’t really fault Harm for the gut reaction, although had held out hope that his retirement from the Navy would break Harm of the habit.
He had been sorely disappointed.
Agent Gibbs was already moving across the squadroom to meet them as they left the elevator, and he met them beside the wall displaying NCIS’s Most Wanted.
“Admiral, Captain,” Gibbs said quietly, giving them that respectful nod he had that was pretty much a salute without the salute and holding out his hand to A.J.
“Agent Gibbs,” A.J. said, taking Gibbs’s hand.
Gibbs shook A.J.’s hand, but waited for Harm to hold out his before repeating the gesture with A.J.'s guide. Some guides had more touch-empathy than others, so it was considered polite to wait for them to offer— or decline— to shake hands. It wasn’t really surprising that Gibbs knew how to interact with guides, since his own SFA was one, but it reminded A.J. that, this time, he wasn’t here on Navy business.
“Good to see you again, Agent Gibbs,” Harm said, gifting Gibbs with his genuine smile rather than his polite one.
“Thanks for coming down,” Gibbs said.
“Thanks for the heads-up,” A.J. returned. “I don’t like another pride coming into my town and sniffing around our guide, Agent Gibbs.”
“Don’t particularly like them sniffing around my agent, Admiral,” Gibbs returned, leading them towards the conference room.
As they neared the stairs to the director’s office and MTAC, they were intercepted by the formidable— and stunning— figure of Director Jenny Shepard.
“Sentinel Chegwidden, Guide Rabb,” the director said with a cool smile.
She smelled livid .
“Director Shepard,” A.J. said, turning on the Southern charm. “Apologies for the intrusion.”
“We’re happy to help the pride in any way we can,” Shepard said, perfectly sincere and perfectly pissed.
It took real talent to truly and completely embody two contradicting emotions at the same time like that .
“Bullshit, Director,” A.J. said with his best good-old-boy smile. “You don’t want pride on your patch anymore than I want NCIS on mine.”
Shepard’s laugh was reluctant, but genuine.
“True,” she said. “However, it’s not as if either of us has much choice in this situation.”
“Truer words, Director,” A.J. said. “I’ll tell you what. If you have no objections, when we’re done here, I can send my colleagues from out of town to apologize in person. If, at that time, you feel inclined to impress upon them the importance of goodwill and cooperation between the prides and law enforcement, well, I may just have to buy you a drink.”
If A.J. hadn’t been safely bonded, Shepard’s brilliant smile would definitely have turned his head. Her scent shifted to one of deep satisfaction.
“It would be my pleasure, Alpha Sentinel,” she purred.
A.J. shuddered. Parks and Liu would be lucky to make it out of that interview alive.
Shepard turned and sashayed back up the stairs and A.J. took a moment to give thanks that he had gotten out of the navy before Public Law 90-130 had time to significantly impact the upper ranks of the admiralty. He was perfectly comfortable with a three-star admiral bawling him out at the top of his lungs, but he might well have pulled out the white flag and offered his unconditional surrender if, say, Admiral Tracy or Admiral Fishburn had ever purred at him.
He needed to warn Harm. There were a lot of damn fine female officers up for promotion in the next few years.
A quick check on his guide revealed that the kid was equal parts impressed and terrified. Gibbs, the bastard, was quietly smirking away off to the side, reeking of smugness.
“Oh, and you can do better?” A.J. grumbled at him.
“She’s not ex-wife number four,” he said, as though that explained everything.
A.J. lost control of his face for a minute, allowing eyebrows to go up and his lips to go out, and Harm looked down to hide the delighted twinkle in his eye.
Gibbs set off towards the conference room again and Harm cleared his throat.
“What’s Guide DiNozzo’s ETA?” he asked Gibbs.
“He’s fifteen minutes out,” Gibbs replied.
“Have you told him we’re here?” Harm inquired.
“I told him what he needs to know,” Gibbs said firmly.
“What’s your position here, Gunny?” A.J. asked, using Gibbs’s rank to subtly indicate they were having a conversation navy man to navy man, a conversation that Sentinel Parks (who was almost certainly listening in) wouldn’t be able to interpret. “You the hear no evil, speak no evil type, or are you a cowboy?”
“Law’s the law, Admiral,” Gibbs said, “But I’m a marine.”
“Semper fi, and leave no man behind,” A.J. returned with a grim smile.
“Oohrah, sir,” Gibbs said with that flat Marine Corps inflection that always made A.J. want to laugh hysterically.
Not that he had actually laughed hysterically since, oh, 1995.
“Hoo-yah,” A.J. said, returning the altogether more enthusiastic (and less ridiculous) SEAL version.
They reached the conference room door and Gibbs stopped, clearly preparing to let A.J. and Harm go in alone. This was pride business, and Gibbs had no place in it. However, A.J. was in the mood to make a point, and he wasn’t above using Gibbs to do it.
“With me, Gunny,” he said.
Gibbs raised an eyebrow, but fell in behind A.J.’s left shoulder, mirroring Harm’s position on his other side. A.J. sighed. He might have to stop giving Harm such a hard time. Gibbs had been retired for over a decade.
Parks and Liu were both watching the door in tense anticipation when the three men entered the room. Gibbs shut the door behind them and A.J. strolled over to the head of the conference table and settled into one of his favorite positions, parade rest, only with arms folded instead of loose. Assuming his most forbidding expression, he studied the sentinel and guide pair critically.
Sentinel Parks was all nominally restrained impatience, aggression, and bitterness underlaid with an old tenderness that seemed all but forgotten. Her body language made A.J. think of a half-tamed mustang, accustomed to its harness, but not yet resigned to it.
Guide Liu was a type of the species, which, since people rarely actually conformed to type, aroused A.J.’s natural suspicions. Probably unfairly. He was, perhaps a little more stoic than most, but he projected the usual aura of calm, compassion, and understanding. The only things that set him apart from a hundred other guides were the iron grip he had to keep on his sentinel and the dash of sadness in his scent, mostly buried under the calm.
Of course, right now, the most noticeable thing about both of them was the fact that they had been caught with their hands in the cookie jar while visiting the mean uncles, and mommy and daddy were nowhere in sight.
“Alpha Sentinel Chegwidden, Alpha Guide Rabb,” Guide Liu said, collecting himself, “This is a pleasant surprise…”
“Let me stop you right there, Guide Liu,” A.J. said, voice as cool and dry as an Arctic desert.
Guide Liu stopped. And didn’t wince. Which A.J. had to admire him for.
Sentinel Parks bristled.
“We’re going to skip over the part of this conversation where you pretend that you didn’t come to D.C. and trample all over my lawn hoping I wouldn’t notice,” A.J. went on. “We’re going to move right along to the really interesting part, the part where you explain to me what was worth the risk of pissing me off and creating a world of trouble and humiliation for you, your alphas, your pride, and the great state of Pennsylvania.”
Guide Liu did wince at that. Sentinel Parks practically bared her teeth in frustration.
“We don’t have time for this!” she snarled. “And we aren’t going to discuss pride business in front of a mundane.”
She jerked her chin towards Gibbs.
“You have time for what I say you have time for, sentinel!” A.J. barked. “As for maintaining your pride’s privacy, if you had come to my office to discuss your business before strolling into a federal agency in my territory demanding to see one of my guides, you might be entitled to that kind of consideration. However, since you didn’t, you don’t get any say in who I involve.”
“I don’t think Guide DiNozzo would be happy with this going outside the community,” Parks said with a sneer that set A.J.’s back up in a rather large way.
“Oh really?” he drawled.
He couldn’t quite manage a Jenny-Shepard-level purr, but Liu looked thoroughly unnerved and even Parks appeared taken aback.
“Has Guide DiNozzo committed treason?” A.J. asked mildly.
“Of course not,” Liu jumped in, clearly trying to get control of the situation again. “We’re here to…”
“Has he committed a felony?” A.J. persisted. “Has he violated his oath of service as a federal agent or committed an act of gross misconduct according the the bylaws of the Sentinel and Guides’ Union?”
Liu’s mouth set in a grim line, but he shook his head. Parks looked rebellious.
“Then I don’t see a problem,” A.J. said. “Now—”
“His sentinel is dying!” Parks shouted, reaching the end of her rope— and Liu’s ability to rein her in. “We’re here to bring him back to Philadelphia and hopefully save the man’s life!”
There was a ringing silence. A.J. sent a quick mental query to Harm, who confirmed his recollection that DiNozzo was not, in fact, bonded, and, according to his SGU file, which Harm had looked over in the car while A.J. was driving, never had been.
“Well,” said Gibbs softly, “That’s very interesting, considering I’m pretty sure DiNozzo told you guys last night that he wanted nothing to do with Philadelphia or anyone there and asked you to stop calling him.”
This was news to A.J., but apparently not to Liu, who at least had the grace to look ashamed.
Parks, it seemed, had emotional hide like an elephant, because her belligerent defiance didn’t waver for a second, even though her bondmate smelled like he wanted to crawl into a hole and die of humiliation.
“I’m sorry, ‘his sentinel’?” Harm said. “I know that Guide DiNozzo isn’t bonded…”
He managed to leave the statement open without actually allowing for any ambiguity. Parks obliged him by jumping into the breach with both feet.
“Yeah, because the selfish prick abandoned his sentinel before they could complete the bond,” she spat out. “Left the poor guy with unstable senses and a broken precord .”
A.J. winced. His whole psyche rebelled at the idea of breaking the connection that formed between a sentinel and guide during the first stage of the bonding process. While a precord was only the initial step towards a full bond, breaking it would still be unimaginably painful. What they hell would make a guide would put themselves through that kind of pain?
“I see,” Harm said smoothly, and if A.J. hadn’t been able to feel him through their bond, he would have had no idea that his guide wanted to curl up into the fetal position and whimper under the covers like a six-year-old. “And when was this?”
“Six years ago,” Liu said.
“Has he been in contact with this sentinel since then?” Harm inquired.
“Once,” Liu replied. “Sentinel Aronson reached out through our Center two years ago, asking Guide DiNozzo to reconsider. Guide DiNozzo declined.”
“Uhuh,” Harm said. “And what was Guide DiNozzo’s reason for breaking the precord ?”
“Professional incompatibility,” Liu said softly.
“Professional incompatibility,” Parks snorted. “Come on. DiNozzo was a two-bit cop. How much of a profession did he honestly have? Jake Aronson is— or was — a surgeon in one of the top ten cardiology departments in the country.”
The temperature in the room dropped ten degrees, and Liu seemed to close in on himself. He obviously knew that his sentinel had just screwed the pooch, although Parks was still completely unaware.
“Sentinel Parks,” A.J. said, voice becoming dangerous, “Disrespecting our brave men and women in blue is not making you any friends in this room.”
Parks looked around and, for the first time, seemed to realize that the emotional tone of the room had gone to shit. She also appeared registered that she was in the room with an NCIS agent, a JAG lawyer, and the former JAG.
“Well— I— that is—” Parks stammered.
Liu closed his eyes.
“So, in light of Sentinel Aronson’s critical condition, you’re here to ask Guide DiNozzo to reconsider one more time,” Harm broke in.
“Yes,” Liu said, seizing the change of topic gratefully. “Sentinel Aronson suffers from CIS. The Center doctors have been treating it, but as you know, it’s progressive, and the only known cure is a bond with a guide. Sentinel Aronson had a major flare-up three days ago that has left him with impaired muscular control, limited kidney function, and a compromised digestive system. Another flare-up could impair his respiratory function or even stop his heart. This is our hail-mary pass, sirs.”
“And if this hail-mary pass fails?” Harm asked.
Liu met Harm’s eyes stoically.
“We’re hoping like hell that it doesn’t,” he said.
A.J. suppressed a growl. He didn’t like where this was going. Parks and Liu both seemed to be operating under the assumption that they would be bringing DiNozzo back to Philadelphia with them, but everything A.J. had heard made him think that that was not the most probable outcome. How were they going to take it if and when DiNozzo refused?
At this rather tense moment, Gibbs’s phone rang. Gibbs flicked it open.
“Yuht,” he said.
A.J.’s sentinel hearing easily picked up DiNozzo’s voice on the other end of the phone:
“We’re back, boss.”
“Conference room, DiNozzo,” Gibbs ordered.
There was a slight pause.
“Yeah boss,” DiNozzo said, sounding subdued.
“And DiNozzo,” Gibbs barked.
“When Admiral Chegwidden and Captain Rabb are done with you, I expect a full debrief on Jake Aronson, Philadelphia, and whatever CIS is. Understood?”
Even over the phone, A.J. could hear DiNozzo’s gratitude for the brusque sitrep.
Apparently, Parks could not.
“What?” the other sentinel asked, forgetting her embarrassment in favor of this new opportunity for outrage. “You can’t just demand confidential information from one of our—”
“Helen!” Liu snapped, finally reaching the end of his patience. “Enough!”
“But he’s mundane!” Parks persisted. “He doesn’t have the right—”
“He was warning his teammate what to expect in a way that wouldn’t upset him,” Liu said through gritted teeth. “People who shoot at things for a living don’t like to admit out loud they care about each other. It makes them uncomfortable. Now please, I’m begging you, can you stop pissing off the alphas of D.C. for five seconds? ”
There was an incredibly awkward silence, during which both of the guides present looked slightly queasy at the amount of tension in the room. Finally, A.J. broke it.
“O-kay,” he said, straightening his cuffs, “Here’s how this is going to go. Harm is going to do an empathic interview with DiNozzo. When he is finished, he will give an assessment of bond potential.”
At this point, Park’s looked like she wanted to protest, but A.J. held up a hand.
“ Nobody is to say anything until Harm is done. Understood?”
“Understood, sir,” Liu said.
“When the assessment is complete, Guide Liu will explain Sentinel Aronson’s situation,” A.J. went on. “At that point, it is entirely up to Guide DiNozzo what happens. Are we in agreement?”
“Yes sir,” Liu said.
Parks looked mutinous, but nodded.
Out in the squadroom, which A.J. had been monitoring since Gibbs got off the phone with DiNozzo, the elevator doors swished . A.J. heard two people step out. One of them headed for the MCRT’s bullpen, and the other came towards the conference room. A.J. moved to finish up his directions.
“Whatever the outcome, you two will leave D.C. at the end of this meeting,” said, glaring at the other sentinel and guide. “You will go to Director Shepard’s office and apologize for inconveniencing her agency, and then you will go back to Philadelphia and you will not come back to my city until I say you can.”
He ceased talking proceeded to stare down Parks and Liu, conveying wordlessly just how serious he was. This contest of wills continued until someone knocked on the conference room door. Gibbs went to open it and Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo stepped hesitantly into the room.
“Um… am I interrupting something?” he asked warily.
Chapter 3: Equal Justice Under Law*
*This phrase is engraved on the front of the United States Supreme Court building in Washington D.C. It is based on jurisprudence related to the Fourteenth Amendment.
Gibbs watched Tony settle cautiously into a chair at the opposite end of the conference table from the Philadelphia pair. He didn’t have enhanced senses, but he was still pretty good at reading his SFA.
Tony was terrified.
Of course, he didn’t show it. When Chegwidden introduced Parks and Liu, he flashed Parks a flirty smile and Liu an even flirtier one. When Chegwidden explained that Parks and Liu were here to make another appeal on Jake Aronson’s behalf and that Rabb was going to do an empathic assessment to determine whether he and Chegwidden would support that appeal, he flashed Rabb a look that pretty much invited the other guide to strip him down and have his way with him on the conference room table.
“Well hel lo handsome,” Tony drawled. “So, you’re gonna feel me up, huh? Empathically, that is.”
Rabb looked thoroughly flustered, and Chegwidden dropped his head and pinched the bridge of his nose.
Gibbs concealed a smile and barked, “DiNozzo!”
Tony turned his dazzling smile on Gibbs, but Gibbs had been studying Tony for three years now. He knew what his desperation looked like, and Tony was desperate. Gibbs met Tony’s eyes stolidly and gave him a small nod, then jerked his chin towards Rabb. Tony nodded. He took a deep breath and held out his hand to Rabb.
“Okay, gorgeous,” he said. “Let’s do this.”
Rabb took Tony’s hand and Tony’s bravado seemed to drain out of him, replaced by visible terror and what looked like despair. Rabb and Liu both flinched. Parks looked puzzled and Chegwidden’s expression became downright forbidding.
“Tony,” Rabb said gently, “Tell me about Jake Aronson.”
“Jake,” Tony tried, then cleared his throat. “Jake was… I was supposed to bond with him.”
“Why were you supposed to bond with him, Tony?” Rabb asked.
“He was— he was my match,” Tony choked out. “The one— all those guide classes, all those workshops, all the gatherings— they said, they said— he was supposed to be the perfect sentinel for me.” Tony’s face twisted into a horrible smile. “Just figures perfect sentinel for me turned out to be a complete asshole.”
“Why didn’t you complete the bond, Tony?” Rabb murmured.
Tony flinched visibly.
“Like I said,” he rasped, trying to maintain the smile and failing, “He was an asshole. And maybe my old man was right, maybe that’s all I deserve, but…” Tony looked at Rabb, and his face was so sad. “I’d rather be alone than be with someone who doesn’t give a damn about what I want or how I feel. If that’s my only option… well, then I guess bonding isn’t in the cards for me.”
Rabb looked as murderous as Gibbs felt at that, but he kept his voice gentle.
“How do you feel about Jake now?” he asked.
“‘I’m tryin’ not to, kid,’” Tony said, finding some scrap of his usual cocky self deep down inside him.
“Tony,” Rabb reproved mildly.
“No, really,” Tony said, “Han said it: I try not to. Because he was supposed to be it for me, you know? What is it Ellison says? My gold ring. But when I think about him I just… I feel fucking horrible . About him, about myself, about whatever screwed up fate made him my goddamn perfect match. It’s… I can’t live like that.”
“Okay, Tony, I think that’s enough,” Rabb said. “Take a deep breath,” Tony did, “And let it go. I’m going to give you a little boost, and then we’re going to pull it back, okay?”
“Okay,” Tony said softly.
Both of them closed their eyes, and when they opened them again, Tony seemed back under control, although he was still very subdued compared to his normal self. Rabb let go of his hand and sat back in his chair, rubbing his eyes.
“Well?” Chegwidden asked.
“Do I really need to say it, A.J.?” Rabb asked.
“Yeah, you do,” A.J. said.
Rabb took a deep breath.
“It is unlikely that Tony could even form an accord with Sentinel Aronson on his own at this point, never mind a bond,” he said. “If he received assistance from another guide, the bond would be painful to him, and would probably have a corrupting influence on Sentinel Aronson. It is, therefore, my assessment that any bond between Guide DiNozzo and Sentinel Aronson is not advisable.”
“Christ,” Liu said, slumping back in his chair.
“That doesn’t match our assessment,” Parks said, looking from her guide to Harm to A.J.
“Of course it doesn’t,” Harm said with a mirthless laugh. “You assessed Sentinel Aronson, who presumably does want this bond, while I assessed Tony, who doesn’t. It takes two positive assessments to predict a healthy bond, but only one negative assessment to predict an unhealthy one. Also, anyone will tell you that doing an assessment from just a sentinel is like trying to predict the weather while stuck in a sub basement.” He smirked half-heartedly at Chegwidden. “After all, sentinels are emotionally handicapped and have trouble gauging interpersonal dynamics. Isn’t that right, A.J.?”
“Thank you for that incisive commentary, Harm,” he said, then turned to Tony. “Guide DiNozzo,” he said, looking like he’d rather be doing anything else right now, “Understand that you are not bound in any way by this assessment. If you choose to bond with Sentinel Aronson, you are free to do so. However, since Guide Rabb has indicated that assistance would most likely be necessary for you to complete this bond, I must make clear to you that such assistance will not be given by the guides of the D.C. pride, though we will, of course, honor the bond if it is made.”
Tony swallowed hard.
“Oh, man,” he whispered. “I— I understand, sir— alpha.”
“Very well,” Chegwidden said. “Guide Liu?”
Liu looked like a man regretting every life choice he had ever made, which Gibbs guessed probably had something to do with the hinky guide thing Rabb and DiNozzo had just done. He leaned forward and took a moment to collect his thoughts.
“You know that Jake has CIS?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Tony said, looking ill. “He… the last time he had you guys contact me, it was because he couldn’t do surgery anymore. Is that why you’re here again?”
“In a manner of speaking,” said Liu levelly. “He had a major flare-up three days ago, and the damage was… catastrophic. He can’t walk or sit up on his own, his digestive system is shot, and his kidneys are shutting down. At the moment, he has, maybe, three months, but another flare-up and it’s all over.”
Tony went dead white.
“Oh man,” he said raggedly. “Oh man.”
He looked around, as though maybe one of the other people in the room had answers. Rabb looked sympathetic, while Chegwidden’s face was doing a passable impression of granite. Gibbs kept his expression neutral, but nodded slightly, letting Tony know he had his back.
“And he hasn’t—” Tony said jerkily, turning back to Liu, “I assumed, after last time, that the Union would be doing a guide search, but you’re here, so… he hasn’t found one that’s at all compatible?”
“A few,” Liu admitted. “But I don’t think I have to tell you that, after experiencing a perfect match, it is very, very hard to accept a partial one. For Jake, it’s… he’s made it clear that it’s you or nothing.”
“That son-of-a-bitch,” Tony said. “He’s dying and… for fuck’s sake, he knows that Romeo and Juliet never ends well, right? It doesn’t matter whether it’s Franco Zeffirelli, Wise and Robbins, or Baz Luhrmann directing, that story never ends happily ever after.”
“You self-absorbed bastard !” Parks burst out.
Tony recoiled, startled and visibly distressed.
“You are out of line, sentinel!” Chegwidden barked.
“ I’m out of line?” Parks cried. “He’s making jokes while his sentinel is dying !”
“With all due respect, ma’am,” Harm said, his voice cold, “You keep calling Sentinel Aronson Guide DiNozzo’s sentinel, but the fact is, he’s not. I know that perfect matches tend to start referring to each other as bondmates before the bond is completed, but that is a figure of speech. Guide DiNozzo and Sentinel Aronson are not bonded. They do not have any type of accord . They have not stated their intent to form a bond or an accord at this time. Therefore, Sentinel Aronson has no claim on Guide DiNozzo.”
“Really?” Parks said. “You’re playing with semantics at a time like this?”
“I am reminding you that, contrary to what you keep implying, Guide DiNozzo is not Sentinel Aronson’s guide,” Rabb said. “They might have been a perfect match six years ago, but based on my empathic assessment, I think it is pretty clear that Guide DiNozzo does not regard Sentinel Aronson as his sentinel now. In fact, considering that he went to extreme lengths to avoid bonding with him and resists calling him ‘my sentinel’ even in the past tense, I would say he feels exactly the opposite.”
“So, what?” Parks challenged. “We’re just supposed to sit here and watch a sentinel die because his guide doesn’t feel like being his guide?”
“Did you not hear a word I just said?” Rabb said in disbelief. “ Tony is not Sentinel Aronson’s guide! ”
“And just what would you suggest we do instead, Sentinel Parks?” Chegwidden broke in, his voice dangerously calm.
“Stop fucking around and haul his ass back to Philadelphia before it’s too late!” Parks yelled.
Tony paled. Chegwidden and Rabb looked ready to kill. Gibbs’s eyes narrowed.
“That sounds like kidnapping a federal agent to me,” Gibbs murmured. “That’s a federal crime. D.C.’s not a good place to commit one of those. Can barely move in this city without stepping on a fed.”
“Oh for God’s sake—” Parks began.
“Sentinel Parks,” Chegwidden said forbiddingly, “Do you know what words are engraved on the front of the United States Supreme Court?”
“What?” Parks said, making a ‘what-the-fuck’ face. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“‘Equal justice under law,’” Chegwidden went on. “It is a reference to the Supreme Court ruling in 1891 in the case of Caldwell vs. Texas , a ruling based on the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. In the words Chief Justice Melville Fuller, the Fourteenth Amendment ensures that ‘no State can deprive particular persons or classes of persons of equal and impartial justice under the law.’ It is one of the Reconstruction Amendments adopted after the Civil War in response to the abolition of slavery. In adopting it, the United States acknowledged that it had committed grave atrocities against a group of its fellow human beings, and at the same time pledged to never commit or condone such atrocities again. Are you suggesting that we break that pledge, Sentinel Parks?”
“Of course not!” Parks said. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Alpha sentinel,” Liu protested, “Please. Nobody is trying to bring back slavery. We’re just trying to save a man’s life.”
“At the cost of another man’s liberty,” Chegwidden snapped. “That’s the same excuse that Great Britain, France, and half a dozen other European countries used in the nineteenth century to defend their practice of having guides sign contracts of indenture. It’s the same excuse that the Soviet Union used when they established the Guide Service. Both of those institutions have been classified as forms of slavery by the United Nations. It is also the same excuse that the Boston S&G Center used when they were brought before the US Supreme Court on charges of bond interference. In that instance, the Supreme Court ruled that, under the Fourteenth Amendment, when US law states that ‘no third person or persons shall prevent, deny, or disallow, nor compel, coerce, or require, a bond between a sentinel and a guide,’ it is, in fact, offering protection to guides as well as sentinels— that the quirk of genetics that makes guides indispensable to sentinels is not grounds for abrogating their rights as citizens of this country or as human beings.”
Now, Gibbs knew that Chegwidden was a lawyer, but he was pretty sure that he had never been able to quote constitutional amendments, European history, UN resolutions, and supreme court rulings word for word completely off the cuff. This speech had been prepared in advance, and, while Parks and Liu did look suitably cowed by it, it had not been prepared for them. As the alpha sentinel of D.C., Chegwidden represented sentinels and guides in the highest levels of government and tangled with Washington’s top dogs on a regular basis. Gibbs had a feeling that the hapless Philadelphia pair had just been treated to a dressing down originally meant for the Joint Chiefs or the Cabinet or even, God help them, POTUS.
Tony, meanwhile, was staring at Chegwidden as though he was the Second Coming. Gibbs would have felt a little irritated with his SFA’s obvious case of hero worship if he wasn’t so relieved. He had been half afraid that Tony was going to cave under the guilt Parks had been gearing up to lay on him. Tony had always been particularly vulnerable to guilt.
Chegwidden let Parks and Liu stew for a while, because he was a bastard and he had spent decades practicing being a bastard and he liked to make people suffer. As a card-carrying bastard himself, Gibbs thoroughly approved.
Finally, Chegwidden made a sound of disgust.
“Get out of my sight,” he said. “I will contact your director when Tony makes his decision. I don’t want to see you in D.C. again for a long, long time. In fact, I think your entire pride should steer clear of this city until I start feeling better about you.”
Parks and Liu rose and headed for the door more quickly than was strictly dignified, but Chegwidden stopped them just as Liu laid his hand on the doorknob:
“Don’t forget to apologize to Director Shepard on your way out.”
“Yes sir,” Liu said after a moment’s silence.
The guide gave Tony one last, brief look, the expression on his face too complicated for Gibbs to decipher, and then the two of them left the room. As soon as the door closed, Tony let out an explosive breath and flopped back in his chair.
“Way to go Braveheart , sir,” he said shakily. “Seriously, Mel Gibson should be jealous.”
“Thank you, son,” Chegwidden said. “I only wish it hadn’t been necessary.”
Tony immediately hunched his shoulders and cringed away from the older man, his expression hunted.
“Sorry sir,” he said.
Chegwidden’s head came up and suddenly Tony had his full attention.
“It’s not you I’m irritated with, kid,” he said quietly.
“I didn’t think they would actually come here,” Tony said. “I wouldn’t have brought trouble into your city on purpose, sir.”
“You listen to me, Guide DiNozzo,” Chegwidden said sternly. “I know you’ve moved around a lot, so you’re probably not used to having an alpha, but your a member of my pride now. You’re going to have to put up with me sticking my nose into your business whenever I damn well feel like it.”
“Aw, geeze Sentinel Chegwidden,” Tony whined, “You gonna make sure I eat my veggies too?”
His petulance would have been more believable if he hadn’t looked so happy with the prospect.
“No, I think I’ll leave that to Agent Gibbs,” Chegwidden said. “He seems to be adept at knowing when you need… minding. Although next time you get into trouble, you should save us both the effort and call me yourself.”
“I really didn’t think they’d show up here,” Tony repeated.
“No,” Gibbs spoke up, “But you knew they might show up at your apartment. Or should I start expecting you to be at work at 5am every morning from now on?”
“No boss,” he said, chastened.
Without the glee or the mischief, it was obvious that Tony was deeply shaken. He rubbed his hands over his face and leaned back in his chair.
“Do I… do I have to do it?” he asked, very softly. “Do I have to— to bond with…” he stopped and swallowed hard, unable to finish the sentence.
“No, Tony,” Rabb said, “You don’t have to. In fact, I don’t think you should. I can’t forbid you bonding with Aronson anymore than I can force you to, but I can say that I think it would be disastrous for both of you. ”
“It doesn’t get much more disastrous than dying,” Tony said miserably.
“I might argue with that,” Rabb said darkly. “Tony, we both know that, when I said you would probably need help bonding with Aronson, that was just a polite way of saying the bond would have to be forced. We also know what happens to sentinels and guides in forced bonds. The Sluzbha taught us that. I can’t speak for Sentinel Aronson, but if it was me, I’d rather be dead than be corrupted by a tainted bond.”
“We don’t know it would be tainted,” Tony pointed out. “And none of the Soviet pairs were a perfect match, right? I mean, that was kind of the point. So we don’t know—”
“You and Aronson were a perfect match at one point in time,” Rabb countered. “You’re not now. And that’s not the point. The bond would be painful to you, and a bond that is painful to the guide cannot help but corrupt the sentinel.”
Gibbs sidled closer to Chegwidden.
“What are they talking about?” he murmured into the taller man’s ear.
Chegwidden glanced at him, then cast an eye over Rabb and Tony before jerking his head towards the door.
“Let’s take a walk,” he said.
After making eye contact with Tony and giving him a curt nod, Gibbs proceeded Chegwidden out of the room. Once they were out in the hall, Chegwidden turned them towards interrogation. Gibbs followed without comment. He did, however, make the mental observation that the interrogation rooms were soundproofed, just like Abby’s lab. Wherever this discussion was going, Chegwidden didn’t want Parks to listen in.
“The Sledopyt Sluzbha or Guide Service was a Soviet program,” Chegwidden said as they walked. “Shortly after Stalin came to power, the Communist Party put all of the Soviet Union’s guides under state control in order maximize the health and productivity of Soviet sentinels. Their goal was to make sure that every active sentinel in the Soviet Union was bonded.”
Chegwidden paused there, apparently having finished the part of the story that was fit for public consumption. When they reached Interrogation 2, he pushed open the door and gestured for Gibbs to proceed him. Only after the door had shut did he continue.
“Sandburg calls the Sluzbha the mistake of a society in its infancy,” he said, his expression turning dark. “I call that bullshit. The only reason we don’t remember the Sluzbha as a violation of human rights on par with the concentration camps is that it affected thousands of people rather than millions. The Sluzbha ignored the natural bonding process, as well everything we know about sentinels and guides. In so doing, they irreparably damaged thousands of sentinels and guides and caused unimaginable pain to thousands more.
“In order to create the greatest possible number of pairs, they matched by sentinels and guides with similar classifications and levels— criteria which we know to be useless in terms of predicting compatible matches. If one of their mandated pairings could not or would not bond, they got a shaman to force a bond between them. It is estimated that they created over five thousand forced bonds before the program was shut down, not counting the thousands more that were coerced.
“Within five years, most of the guides in those forced bonds had permanent psychic damage, and their sentinels had either committed suicide, gone dormant, or become clinically psychotic. Stalin himself denounced the Guide Service as one of the Party’s gravest errors and allowed the Soviet officials in charge of shutting down the program to share information on forced bonding and its effects with the West. Bear in mind, this was during a time when the Soviet Union wouldn't even release the name of the lead scientist in their space program to it's own people.”
Chegwidden paused and fixed Gibbs with a piercing look.
“I’m telling you this,” he said, “Because Tony looks to you before anyone else, even his alpha. In the old days, you would have been his chieftain, the leader of his personal tribe. Now, I have no problem with him answering to you before me, but there are rules. First, never put Tony in a position where he has to choose between you and his pride. Guides have rights that, in theory, should protect them from abuse like what happened in the USSR, but those rights are new and attitudes are slow to change. If you cut Tony off from us, we can’t fight for him when he needs us to. Second, you cannot take away his right to make his own decisions. The Sluzbha is an extreme case, but society has always tried to control guides. Usually, we tell ourselves it’s for their own good, but that’s just an excuse to try and make them do what we think they should do. The only person who has the right to decide what is best for a guide is the guide.”
Gibbs had been listening attentively, cataloguing the information Chegwidden was giving him in his head and analyzing it as he went. When the alpha sentinel was done, he cocked his head, and asked,
“Does that mean you’re gonna let Tony bond with this Aronson guy if that’s what he decides? Because I’m not too happy with that idea.”
Chegwidden laughed and smirked at Gibbs.
“Well played, gunny,” he said. “I won’t stop Guide DiNozzo from attempting to bond with Sentinel Aronoson. That is his right. However, that said, the minute Harm and I leave here, I’m going to be on the phone with Blair Sandburg. There aren’t a whole lot of shamans in in this hemisphere strong enough to force a bond on a guide of Tony’s class and level, and by the time he’s done, I’m betting not a single one of them will be willing to do it. If Harm’s assessment is accurate— and it is— he can try to bond with the guy all he wants, but he won’t get anywhere.”
Gibbs nodded. The distinction Chegwidden was describing was a fine one, but it was one that he was fairly comfortable with: Gibbs couldn’t stop Tony from doing whatever he chose to do in any given set of circumstances, but he could change the circumstances themselves.
“I can work with that,” he told Chegwidden.
Chegwidden’s smile was positively leonine in its lazy satisfaction.
Chapter 4: Rule 5
Tony sat on the steps in Gibbs’s basement, watching his boss run a plane down a long thin piece of wood. He had a jam jar of bourbon in one hand, but he hadn’t tasted it yet. For some reason, he felt like taking that first sip would mean he had to start talking, and he was still telling himself that he didn’t have to talk to Gibbs.
He knew he was lying, of course, but he still stubbornly refused to lift the jam jar to his lips.
The rest of the day after the Philly pair and the D.C. alphas— and wasn’t that embarrassing, having Gibbs sic Alpha Sentinel Chegwidden and Alpha Guide Rabb on him— had been a kind of surrealist nightmare. He felt a little like Bill Pullman in Lost Highway , convicted of a crime he did not remember committing and then, while he awaited execution, being transformed into completely different person and set free, but with a life that wasn’t his. He tried to do his job, but the actions he was performing felt disconnected and foreign.
When five o’clock had rolled around, Gibbs and stood up, brusquely told McGee and Cassie to go home, and then walked over to Tony’s desk.
“DiNozzo, with me,” he had barked.
It had been a measure of how out of it Tony was that he hadn’t said a word. He had gathered his gear mechanically and followed Gibbs out of the building. When Gibbs had herded him into his truck instead of letting him get into his own car, he hadn’t even made a token protest.
Now, after a perfunctory meal of Chinese take-away, he was sitting in Gibbs’s basement trying to fool himself into thinking that he wasn’t going to spill his guts. The worst part was, Gibbs hadn’t asked him a single question, hadn’t even mentioned what had happened this morning. He had simply gone about his evening, radiating that same sense of absolute purpose that he exuded on a case, knowing Tony would get to it in his own time. Tony couldn’t feel even the faintest hint of doubt from him, meaning that he hadn’t even had to wonder whether Tony was going talk eventually.
Apparently, Tony was just that predictable.
Huffing out a frustrated breath, Tony finally took a gulp of bourbon. After all, he’d long ago had to come to terms with the fact that, if he wanted people like— or at least tolerate— him, his pride was the first thing that he had to sacrifice.
“Jake was so happy when we met,” he said quietly, twirling the jam jar in his fingers. “I mean, like, ecstatic . It was crazy. I’d never felt anyone so… I mean, I had to go find a thesaurus to describe how good he felt, and even then, there wasn’t a word that really captured it, you know? And… well, it was me. He was goddamn euphoric because of me. No one had ever…”
He trailed off, staring down at the bourbon in his glass. Gibbs just kept running the plane down the strip of wood, all calm, attentive acceptance.
“We met at one of the Philly gatherings,” he said. “It was a total West Side Story moment: take one look at each other across a crowded room and that’s it, game over, sayonara .”
Tony paused. Took another drink. Stared moodily at the wall.
“Jake had already been diagnosed with CIS,” he said. “I didn’t know that then, of course— by the time we managed to say more than ten words to each other, we were already in a private room in the Center with half our clothes off so Jake could do an initial imprint…”
A spike of irritated inquiry from Gibbs brought Tony up short.
“Oh, right,” he said. “I haven’t explained what CIS is. It stands for Chronic Instability Syndrome. It’s this thing some unbonded sentinels get where they can’t handle all the feedback from their senses. They are constantly spiking or zoning and eventually it makes their nervous system goes haywire. I don’t really understand the biology, but their nerves lose the ability to send the right messages. It affects balance, muscle control, organ function… The only real cure is a guide. I mean, that’s part of what guides do, right, provide the psychic oomph to handle all the input sort out everything a sentinel’s senses are telling them. Because its too much, you know? Even for healthy sentinels. Jake was still in the early stages back then, he could still perform surgery and live normally, but it’s degenerative, so…”
Tony let out a mirthless laugh.
“Honestly, that kind of explained the whole uncontrollable ecstasy thing. I mean, for him, meeting me was, I dunno, like discovering penicillin and a winning lottery ticket on the same day.”
Gibbs finished planing the piece of wood he was working on and set it aside, then chose another one from the waiting pile.
“And that was okay,” Tony said, even though it actually hadn’t been okay. “I mean, who can blame the guy? He thought he’d gotten his future back. He was all excited about the surgeries he was going to be able to perform once we were fully bonded. Like I said, the CIS hadn’t effected his ability to operate, but he couldn’t really use his sense without a guide, and there are all these surgeries that require sentinel senses…”
Tony swallowed hard and took another sip of bourbon. It burned its way down his throat, preventing the lump there from getting too big to speak around.
“I found out about all this the day after the gathering,” he said. “The precord had formed almost instantly, so we had both taken bonding leave and gone back to his apartment. We planned to stay there until we completed the bond and the nesting period. We were almost ready to— to— it was just dumb luck that we happened to start talking about his job while we were getting a snack. The CIS came up, and then…”
Tony gulped down the rest of his bourbon, trying to suppress the sudden surge of anger that came with the memory.
“He expected me to quit the PD and go work with him at the hospital full time,” he blurted out. “Never mind that the extent of my medical knowledge was the A&P from my sports ed degree and intro-level psych from my S&G classes. I might still have done it, though, if he hadn’t been such a jerk about it.”
Tony made a disgusted sound and got to his feet, no longer able to sit still. He paced over to the workbench and poured himself some more bourbon, then prowled over to stare at the boat. Gibbs set down the plane. A thin thread of anger was weaving through his calm, and Tony wasn’t sure whether it was because Tony had been stupid enough to consider bonding with Jake, or because he had given his word to bond with Jake and then broken it when things didn’t go quite like he wanted.
“He couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to be reduced to the role of human hearing aid,” Tony went on (and he was not feeling defensive, he was not ). “When I explained that I was a cop and would be bored stuck in an operating room for fourteen hours a day, he got… angry. He started— started yelling at me, asking me if I really thought that eating doughnuts and toting a gun around was more worthwhile than practicing life-saving medicine. He felt so— ugly all of a sudden, and I… I said we should slow down, take a few extra days before bonding, see if we could work this out.
“That’s when he totally lost it. He wasn’t— he was a surgeon, not an MMA fighter, so he didn’t know what the hell he was doing, but he was still a sentinel. He managed to get me up against a wall and told me— he told me that it didn’t matter whether we bonded now or later, we were a perfect match and I was his guide and we were going to bond I was going to do my goddamned job.”
Gibbs’s anger had increased to the point that it was all Tony could feel, and Tony flinched a little. He hurried on, wanting to get the story over with as quickly as possible.
“I should have kept trying to talk him down, but when it got physical, my instincts just… kicked in,” he said. “Like I said, he had sentinel strength, but he didn’t have any training, so… I broke his hold and tackled him, got him on the ground with his hand behind his back like they taught us at the academy. I didn’t have any cuffs or anything, so I… I told him to stay on the ground, grabbed my clothes and my wallet, and walked out the door.
“He tried— tried to contact me, but I couldn’t… and later, a counselor from the Center came to my apartment. Looking back, I think that she honestly was there to help however she could— I mean, I was a goddamn mess from breaking the precord and I imagine Jake wasn’t any better, so the Center must have been freaking out about both of us— but she started out by talking about how all bonds involved compromise and… I should have at least talked to her, but instead I walked out of my own apartment and didn’t go back for two days. A couple weeks later, I took an undercover assignment that cut me off from everyone for months, including Jake and the Center, and all but guaranteed I would be transferred out of Philadelphia when it was all over.”
Tony stopped talking. There was really nothing left to say. After a moment of silence, during which anger and continued to pour off him, Gibbs finally spoke.
“You did good, DiNozzo,” he said quietly.
Tony jerked around to look at his boss, eyes wide. That wasn’t at all what he had expected to hear. Considering how Gibbs was feeling right then, Tony had been expecting some form of censure.
“W-what?” he stammered.
“Rule 5,” Gibbs said.
Rule 5: you don’t waste good. Tony turned away, head dropping, shoulders hunching.
“‘M not that good, boss,” he mumbled. “I mean, what we do is important, but… maybe Jake was right, you know? Maybe I could have helped more people if I’d just quit and gone to work as sentinel support at Penn Presbyterian.”
Gibbs made an impatient sound and stepped around the sawhorse that was between them to give Tony a light slap on the back of the head. The familiar gesture was strangely comforting.
“Not talking about the job, DiNozzo,” Gibbs said. “I’m talking about you .”
“Me?” Tony said in a strangled voice.
“You woulda been wasted on a guy who thinks it’s okay to bully his partner when things don’t go his way,” Gibbs growled.
Tony’s breath hitched. The affirmation felt too good, he couldn’t trust it, he had to…
“He was in a tough place,” he blurted out. “He was sick and he was scared. I mean, his life was on the line and I was making a big deal over being bored. ”
“DiNozzo!” Gibbs barked.
“Yeah boss?” he squeaked.
“How many domestic violence calls’ve you been on?” Gibbs asked.
“Uh… I dunno, boss,” Tony said, confused. “A lot, I guess, especially when I was a beat cop back in Peoria…”
“And what did 90% of the victims say when you asked what happened leading up to the assault?” Gibbs asked.
“I dunno,” Tony said, wondering where the hell Gibbs was going with this. “Usually, they talked about how their husband— or wife, a couple times— had had a bad day or about how they had done something wrong that made their partner lose their temper. I never did figure out whether they really thought it was their fault they got hit, or whether they wanted it to be their fault so they could feel like they were more in control, like they could keep it from happening again if they just—”
“Any of those victims tell you anything that made you think they actually deserved what happened to them?” Gibbs interrupted. “Any of the excuses they made for their spouses make you think for a second that it was okay for them to assault or threaten their partner?”
“Of course not, boss!” Tony protested.
“Then why was it okay for Aronson to do that to you?” Gibbs asked quietly.
Tony gaped at him, completely flummoxed. He didn’t know what to say.
“Wasn’t okay, Tony,” Gibbs said, and Tony thought he might stroke out, because Gibbs never used his first name, they did not do first names, what the hell ? “Wasn’t okay for those victims and it wasn’t okay for you.”
To his horror, Tony found tears, actual tears, welling up in his eyes. He made a panicked, indignant sound, but they kept welling, and eventually spilled over into messy, choking sobs. And then, to make it worse, Gibbs was stepping closer and putting his hand on the back of Tony’s neck and pulling his head down on his shoulder and Tony could feel the same vibes coming off of him that dads gave off when they comforted their kids (not his dad, of course, his dad had never, to his knowledge, comforted him).
“He was my sentinel! ” Tony blurted out, letting go of the last of his dignity.
“I know,” Gibbs said, rubbing Tony’s back like he was five and had skinned his goddamned knee on the goddamned playground and oh God this was so embarrassing. “Makes it worse.”
“He doesn’t deserve to die, though,” Tony said.
“Nope,” Gibbs agreed, still rubbing Tony’s back.
“I don’t want to give everything up,” Tony whispered. “Not even to save his life.”
“Good,” Gibbs said, tightening his grip on the back of Tony’s neck.
“But—” Tony started to protest, but Gibbs gave him a little shake.
“But nothing,” he said. “You think I was actually going to let you go? After what Rabb and Chegwidden said?”
Tony pulled back to gape at Gibbs.
“I— but— bond interference—” he stammered weakly.
“Law says nobody can force or prevent a bond,” Gibbs said. “Doesn’t say anything about making it easy. In fact, Chegwidden’s probably already gotten on the phone with a guy— name of Sandburg?— who he says is gonna make sure no guide on this side of the planet will help you bond with that prick.”
Tony let out a strangled sound.
“Oh my God ,” he squeaked. “Sentinel Chegwidden is calling the Alpha Guide of North America to sanction me?”
“Not you,” Gibbs corrected, “You bonding with Aronson. And since when is the Alpha Prime Guide called Sandburg? Thought it was… Nakal? Nakai? Navajo guy, drives Fornell crazy ‘cause nothing he says makes sense if you don’t live in the southwest and spend a lot of time alone in the desert.”
Tony giggled soggily. He could just imagine the irascible FBI guide’s reaction to the previous Alpha Prime Guide’s obscure way of talking.
“Yeah, Sam Nakai,” he said. “He died in ‘98. Blair Sandburg’s his successor. I imagine he still drives Fornell crazy though. Blair doesn’t use as many nature metaphors as Sam did, but he’s still a shaman. Most shamans have a pretty… mystical way of talking.”
“Well, anyways, once Chegwidden and Sandburg are done, you won’t have to worry about bonding with Aronson, even if you do make it to Philly,” Gibbs said. “Might not get that far, though. Morrow’s over at Homeland now, never know when he’s gonna decide something we’re working on is their business and pull us in. And Tobias is still pissed about finding you in his body bag, so I imagine he would be happy to find a reason to tie you up here for a day or so…”
Tony let out a squawk of indignation, but inside he was dizzy with happiness and relief.
Gibbs made Tony call Rabb immediately with his decision rather than waiting for morning. The older man didn’t even pretend that he trusted Tony not to procrastinate, just gave him a look and shoved the phone into his hands saying, “Now, DiNozzo.”
The conversation was mercifully brief, and Tony was getting ready to hang up and curl up into a ball of guilty relief when Rabb said,
“Hang on, A.J. wants to talk to Gibbs.”
Tony was so stunned that he handed the phone over to his boss before it even occurred to him to wonder how Sentinel Chegwidden knew that Gibbs was there.
“Yeah, Gibbs,” Gibbs said.
Tony heard the muffled murmur of Chegwidden’s voice through the phone, but couldn’t make out the words. He did, however, realize belatedly how Chegwidden had known that Gibbs was there, and kicked himself. The man was an alpha sentinel. If Tony could hear a voice on the other end of the phone even when he wasn’t the one using it, obviously an alpha sentinel would be able to hear an entire room.
Tony felt his heart clench. For all he was a guide, he hadn’t actually spent a lot of time around sentinels.
Chegwidden, meanwhile, had finished whatever he was saying and Gibbs was replying:
“He’s hanging in there, admiral.”
Tony flushed. Sentinel Chegwidden was… checking on him. How mortifying.
Chegwidden said something else.
“He’s staying with me tonight,” Gibbs replied calmly.
“Got it. I’ll make sure we’re off rotation.”
Some kind of admonition, judging by the way Gibbs’s mouth had just quirked.
“I’ll bring him myself, sir.”
Gibbs hung up.
“Boss?” Tony asked, bewildered.
“Don’t make any plans for Sunday,” Gibbs said. “We’re watching the game at Rabb and the admiral’s house.”
Chapter 5: The Hero of Every Space Opera Ever
Gibbs sat on a stool in Rabb and Chegwidden’s massive open kitchen and leaned his elbows on the island in front of him. He sipped his beer and looked across the heads of the sentinels and guides in the living room to the huge flat screen TV where the Redskins’ quarterback was trying to set up the pass, despite pressure from the Broncos’ defense and the lousy weather— the temperature in D.C. had dropped sharply and it was raining like a bitch.
“C’mon, c’mon,” Tony said from his place on the couch. “Almost there, almost there.”
When Chegwidden had said to bring Tony to their place to watch the game, Gibbs hadn’t realized just how many people were going to be there. Apparently, it was an informal tradition for members of Rabb and Chegwidden’s pride, especially those who were unbonded or new in town, to gather at their alphas’ house on the weekends. Rabb and Chegwidden had moved into this place right after taking over D.C., and had, apparently, chosen a house that could comfortably accommodate such gatherings. The rooms were spacious and the downstairs had an open layout that allowed thirty odd people to watch a game without feeling crowded. There wasn’t enough seating for everybody, of course, but someone had solved the problem by putting down thick rugs in the living room and providing dozens of pillows and cushions.
Apparently, when they were together in large groups, sentinels and guides liked to crawl all over each other and lounge in large piles, like puppies or lion cubs.
Gibbs would have thought that Tony would have loved this— his SFA had always struck him as a tactile and hedonistic person— but, to Gibbs’s surprise, he was actually too skittish to join the puppy pile on the floor. For the first fifteen minutes, he had skulked around the edges, staring at the scene with an expression that was both longing and fearful, until Rabb had grabbed him and stuck him on the couch with Chegwidden and Ian Edgerton, a sentinel Gibbs recognized from teaching at Quantico.
Edgerton specialized in fugitive retrieval— he was one of the best snipers and trackers in the world— and taught courses at Quantico when he wasn’t in the field. He and Gibbs had overlapped a few times when Gibbs was teaching, and he’d done a few guest lectures for Edgerton’s classes, since most of his students were mundane and there were some tricks that mundane snipers used that sentinel snipers didn’t. Gibbs had always gotten along well with the other man, but he found he wasn’t all that happy about having him sitting shoulder to shoulder with Tony. After all, Edgerton was a sentinel, and Tony was a guide. A gorgeous, flirtatious guide who happened to be a damned fine investigator and a high-value combat asset.
With security clearance.
And a badge.
Edgerton would be an idiot not to want him.
Jesus Christ. He was turning into the guy who sat on the front porch with a shotgun on prom night. Was this what he would have been like when Kelly started dating?
“You don’t need to worry about Ian, Gibbs” said Rabb’s amused voice from behind him. “He’s a lambda.”
The guide leaned a hip on the counter and smirked at Gibbs. Gibbs gave him a withering look and sipped his beer.
“Going to tell me what a ‘lambda’ is?” he said flatly, turning what should have been a question into more of a statement.
“‘Lambda’ is a class of sentinels and guides who don’t need a bond to reach their full potential,” he said. “For whatever reason, their gifts are complete in and of themselves. Most of them don’t even have the desire for a bond.”
Gibbs studied Edgerton with narrowed eyes. He was loose-limbed and relaxed on the couch and his expression as he watched Tony cheer the completed pass was… indulgent.
“Edgerton looks mighty happy over there for a guy who doesn’t want a guide,” he said.
“Lambda sentinels still enjoy being around guides, and vice versa,” he said, shrugging, “Especially when they’re happy and content. Ian has all the same psychic pathways as any other sentinel, he enjoys being around a powerful guide who is happy and safe. He just doesn’t have the urge to do bond with a guide.”
“And what if their counterparts aren’t so lucky?” Gibbs growled. “Don’t think Tony is one of those ‘lambdas.’ What if he gets… attached?”
Rabb laughed again and shook his head.
“He won’t,” he assured Gibbs. “He knows what kind of sentinel Ian is. The classification system is really just a way to codify what sentinels and guides instinctively know about each other. For instance, saying that A.J. is an alpha is a way of saying that he’s a really strong sentinel and a natural leader— basically, he’s a born CO. When he’s around, we all want to roll over, put all four paws in the air, and say, ‘yes sir.’ Me, on the other hand, I’m a rho. I don’t have any awe-inspiring powers, but all the normal things about being a guide come really easily to me, which means that, day-to-day, people look to me to get shit done. We’re kind of like NCOs, although we fit into the hierarchy differently. I mean, I’m a rho, but I’m the Alpha Guide of D.C.”
“Confusing,” Gibbs said, raising an eyebrow.
“Not really,” Rabb said. “Being the alpha or the beta is different from being an alpha or a beta. One describes what we do in the pride, the other describes what kind of sentinel or guide we are.”
“Still, would think that all alphas would be alphas,” Gibbs said, “If they’re the natural COs…”
“Usually only one member of an Alpha Pair is an alpha,” Rabb said. “Alphas don’t normally pair well with other alphas. It’s like having two COs in charge of the same unit: they’re always at each other’s throats. I only know of two alpha/alpha pairs, and ‘volatile’ is the nicest way to describe their relationships.”
Gibbs thought about it, then nodded.
“So, what’s Tony?” he asked.
Rabb’s expression became serious.
“Tony is an epsilon,” Rabb said.
“And what’s an epsilon?” Gibbs demanded, his gut twinging.
He did not like Rabb’s expression at all .
“Epsilons are both incredibly talented and incredibly versatile,” Rabb said quietly. “They embody many of the best traits of a lot of the other classes and can kind of slip into whatever role they need to. They have an alpha’s strength and sense of responsibility and a mu’s patience with the day-to-day details. They have a rho’s natural all-round ability, but usually also have specialized talents, like deltas. They don’t need bonds to reach their full potential, but unlike lambdas, they still want them… I could go on. We can get a little fanatical about epsilons.”
Gibbs’s misgivings grew. Reading between the lines, Tony was the sentinel and guide community’s prom queen and star quarterback all rolled into one pretty package. It was beginning to sound like Gibbs really should invest in a shotgun and start waiting up when his SFA went out in the evenings.
“I’ve run across some fanatics in my time,” he said, fixing Rabb with a hard look. “Didn’t much care for ‘em. A few of ‘em, I had to put a bullet in.”
“And the ones you didn’t, I probably had to prosecute,” Rabb agreed, sighing. “Fortunately, fanatical sentinels and guides are much less likely to declare jihad or become serial killers than your average joe. But… well, let me put it this way: if Tony had been a mu or a rho or even an alpha, I’m not sure that this sentinel in Philadelphia would be willing to die rather than look for another guide. I also doubt that the Philadelphia coordinators would have been so… irrational about him refusing his perfect match.”
“Would think they’d want him to be happy, if he’s so special,” Gibbs said.
“Gibbs, you know human nature better than that,” he said. “People don’t care whether their celebrities are happy, they care whether they act like they are supposed to. A perfect guide should bond with his perfect match. If he doesn’t, it upsets all our cozy little fantasies about matches and bonding.”
Gibbs’s gut twinged harder.
“Tony’s nowhere near perfect,” he growled at Rabb. “You expect him to be, you’ll be disappointed, and he’ll pay for it.”
Tony did not react well to disappointing people. Which, come to think of it, might be part of the reason why he acted the way he did. It was hard to disappoint people who didn’t expect much from you in the first place.
Rabb gave him a charming, but slightly sad smile.
“Oh, don’t worry,” he said. “A.J. wants to protect him in spite of himself, and I want him to do what he wants, as long as what he wants is to help my tribe. Since A.J.’s fantasy doesn’t actually require Tony’s cooperation and mine has him doing what he’s doing anyways, I don’t think there’s we’ll be disappointed.”
Gibbs went back to watching the game, while Rabb drifted back to the living room. As he passed behind the couch, he paused for a moment to kiss Chegwidden on the back of the neck and ruffle Tony’s hair.
“Hey!” Tony said, all delighted indignation. “You don’t mess with perfection like that, Rabb, what kind of philistine are you?”
During the half-time break, Chegwidden wandered over and took Rabb’s place leaning against the counter.
“How’s your boy holding up?” he asked.
“He’s tough,” Gibbs said. “He’ll be alright.”
“I’ve been getting quite a few calls from Alpha Guide Jansen over in Philly,” Chegwidden said.
“That right?” Gibbs said flatly.
Right now, he wasn’t particularly impressed with the Philadelphia pride.
“Mmhmm,” Chegwidden said. “I’ve gotta say, I may not approve of their methods, but I sympathize with the situation they’re in. It’s a hell of a thing, watching one of your people die. Especially like that.”
“You got a point with this, Admiral?” Gibbs asked baldly.
“Just want you to know what we’re dealing with,” Chegwidden said. “I’m Tony’s alpha and I’ll do what I have to do to protect him, even if it means putting my own ass on the line. Trouble is, Jansen’s an alpha too. If she thinks she’s got a shot at changing Tony’s mind, she’ll take it, even if it means pissing me off.”
“Think she’d break the law?” Gibbs asked.
“Break? No,” Chegwidden said. “Parks may have stuck her foot in her mouth— and then chewed on it a little to see how it tasted— but none of Jansen’s people would actually force Tony to go back to Philly against his will. But bend? Sure, if she thought she could get away with it. There’s a very fine line between persuasion and coersion. If Harm and I hadn’t gotten involved, I can imagine that conversation the other day going very differently.”
“So you think that Jansen might try again? See if someone can get Tony alone this time, apply some pressure?” Gibbs asked.
“Not sure,” he said. “If she did, how would Tony hold up?”
“Not well,” he said. “From what he’s told me about the situation, guy was a real piece of work and Tony did the right thing getting out. Doesn’t mean he handled it well. Think he’s got a lotta guilt.”
“You think he messed up?” Chegwidden asked.
“I think he walked away rather than dealing with the situation,” Gibbs said. “Leaves a lotta room for doubt. Imagine he feels like, if he’d talked to Aronson, or the people from the Center, things mighta gone differently.”
“But you think otherwise,” Chegwidden guessed, no doubt reading the disagreement in Gibbs’s tone.
Gibbs paused, considering his response.
“Aronson was an arrogant bastard,” he said at last. “Now, Tony has a way with arrogant bastards— he’s put up with me for almost three years, after all— so that might not have been a problem. But Aronson also didn’t respect Tony, and that woulda gotten ugly.”
“You don’t think they could of worked it out?” Chegwidden asked.
“Tony has— had a teammate who didn’t respect him,” Gibbs said. “She thought he was a womanizer who could barely write his own name. I kept waiting for him to step up, prove her wrong, but he never did. Instead, he spent two years doing his damndest to live up to her expectations. Got so that sometimes, even I forgot he was more than a dumb jock whose only real talents were chasing girls and watching movies.”
There was another pause as Chegwidden digested this.
“Well, shit Gunny,” he said finally.
“Shit, Admiral,” Gibbs agreed.
They left it at that, but Gibbs had to wonder if he should forget the shotgun and hire a whole goddamned company of mercenaries to keep Tony out of trouble.
And the evening wasn’t over yet.
At the beginning of the fourth quarter, Gibbs found himself by the dining room table— which was filled with a variety of food and drink, some provided by their hosts, but most brought by the various guests— listening to Tony being scolded by a drop-dead gorgeous brunette with exotic features and legs that went on forever.
“Why haven’t you come to one of these before, or at least gone to one of the events the Center puts on?” she was demanding. “I mean, I know the Center gigs can be lame, but it’s about community, you know?”
“I’ve been— ah— really busy since moving to D.C.,” Tony said, looking slightly hunted. “See, I’ve got this boss who’s a real hard-ass…”
“Nice try, DiNozzo,” Gibbs interrupted, sidling up behind him. “You’re not throwing me under the bus just because a pretty girl’s callin’ you on your bullshit.”
Tony jumped and let out a very undignified squawk.
“Boss!” he yelped. “Didn’t… uh…”
“Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs,” Gibbs said to the brunette, ignoring Tony’s spluttering. “Nice to meet you.”
“Guide Angela Montenegro,” the brunette said, flashing him a brilliant smile and offering her hand. “I assume you’re the boss? And… not a sentinel or a guide. Interesting. Okay, this is going to sound majorly weird, but I’m getting a pretty strong— and totally yummy, by the way— image of you in a kilt with a, like, gigantic sword. Any thoughts?”
Tony made a choking sound reminiscent of a dying cat, and Gibbs’s eyebrows went up. Okay, this was… new.
“Not sure how this guide thing works, but my grandmother’s family was from Scotland,” he offered.
“Okay, so, hereditary significance,” Guide Montenegro said. “Judging by your— uh— totally badass aura, I’m going to go with… Scottish chief? But why… I mean, you said Special Agent, right? So you’re a fed, not, I don’t know, a modern-day Robert the Bruce?”
“Yuht,” Gibbs said, “But the admiral did mention that, in the old days, I would have been the chieftain of Tony’s tribe. Gotta say, though, I was thinking more spears and feathers than kilts and claymores.”
“Alpha Chegwidden said what?” Tony squeaked, looking mortified.
“Oh, wow,” Guide Montenegro said, her dark eyes widening. “That’s… wow, that’s really rare. Most of us don’t have anything like tribal leaders, not anymore. We just have our pride alphas, and maybe our own personal alphas.”
“ Alpha Chegwidden said what?” Tony repeated.
“Hush, pretty boy,” Guide Montenegro said, giving Tony a stern look. “So, Agent Gibbs, why hasn’t Tony been to a pride gathering before now?”
“Hey!” Tony yelped. “I’m right here you know!”
Gibbs considered for a moment, weighing his response. He didn’t want to hurt Tony, but he also wasn’t about to let the kid hide behind crude jokes and bravado here.
“Can’t speak for Tony,” he said finally, “But I if I’d gotten shit for refusing to bond with the wrong sentinel, I’d be reluctant to trust the prides too.”
Tony’s face was a complicated mess of emotions, ranging from betrayal on the one hand to gut-wrenching relief on the other. Gibbs sighed. Tony’s head had always been a bit of a mess, but he was just now starting to figure out why.
Guide Montenegro’s face softened and she turned her dark, soulful gaze towards Tony.
“Oh, sweetie,” she murmured, “I’m so sorry.”
Tony shrugged and pulled out his dumbest, most annoying smile.
“Hey, no big deal,” he said. “I mean, I’ve had worse. Once I was undercover working for this mob boss… Besides, this way, I have a lot more time to enjoy life’s simple pleasures: fast cars, fine wines, beautiful women…”
He leered purposefully at the gorgeous guide.
“Whoa,” Guide Montenegro said, holding up her hands, “Tone it down there hot stuff. This jerky jock act you’re trying to pull off is so not working for you on the psychic level. It’s like Christopher Robin trying to play the Marquis de Sade, it’s just wrong . Not to mention heartbreaking.”
Tony’s eyes widened and he started looking around for an escape route. Gibbs caught his eye and shook his head. Tony made an unhappy sound, and Guide Montenegro gave him a sympathetic look.
“May I?” she said, holding out her hand to Tony.
Tony still looked unhappy, but he took the proffered hand and almost immediately his shoulders relaxed.
“Oh, wow,” Guide Montenegro said, closing her eyes. “Tony, I don’t want to scare the bejesus out of you or anything, but you are, like the hero of every space opera ever. Seriously, I’m getting Captain Kirk, Paul Atreides, and Obi Wan Kenobi all rolled into one here.” She opened her eyes. “The young Obi Wan, I mean,” she clarified, “Not Alec Guinness.”
“Oh, man,” Tony whined, forgetting his anxiety in the face of movie trivia, “But Alec Guinness is so cool. And everyone knows the prequels suck, even if Ewan McGregor is super hot in Jedi robes.”
Guide Montenegro laughed.
“Honey, I hate to break it to you, but you are nowhere near old enough or zen enough to pull off Alec Guinness. I mean, he’s basically a Buddhist monk in those movies. Give it a decade… or eight.”
“Oh, okay,” Tony said. “That’s good. I mean, I really don’t want to be a monk. No sex, lots of time alone meditating… brrr. ”
“I don’t think celibacy or solitude is in your future, gorgeous,” Guide Montenegro said, concentrating on their still-joined hands. “I think you’re going to be very much in and of the world. In fact, one of these days, you might just set the whole damn thing on fire.”
Tony blanched slightly.
“Set the world on fire, like, revolution-style, or like, Armageddon?” he asked nervously. “Because I’m going to be honest with you, I always envisioned myself as they guy saving the world, not the guy ending it.”
Guide Montenegro laughed and let go of Tony’s hand.
“Don’t worry, sweetie,” she said, “It’s good fire, I promise. Just… when the time comes, don’t be scared, okay? Remember, you are allowed to be awesome. And, more importantly, you are allowed to be happy.”
Her words made the hair on the back of Gibbs’s neck stand up and caused his spine to tingle. He had no way of knowing whether anything Guide Montenegro said was true, or whether it was all just so much hocus-pocus, but his gut said that what he was hearing was important and he should damn well pay attention.
Even hours later, after the game was over and he had stuffed Tony into the truck and driven him back to his house— stopping at Tony’s apartment on the way so that he could grab fresh clothes to go to work the next morning— the feeling wouldn’t go away.
Something was coming, something big, and as usual, Tony was going to be right in the middle of it. Gibbs was going to have to be ready if he was going to watch his SFA’s back when it happened.
The 48 hours since I posted The Fourteenth Amendment has seen an overwhelming response to this story, one I confess I was not expecting. Thank you to all my readers and reviewers.
I usually don’t believe in explaining stories— several years studying English lit has led me to believe that stories are kind of like kids; you try to raise them right, but once they head out into the world, they’re going to do their own thing— but after having so many people comment on The Fourteenth Amendment, I feel like I should at least say a few words about what it was like to write it.
The Fourteenth Amendment began as an attempt to think through some of my questions surrounding bonding in the Sentinel & Guide universe.
1.) To what extent is bonding a choice? When a sentinel or a guide meets ‘their’ counterpart, they are often faced with a situation where they either have no choice but to bond or have a choice between bonding and being miserable for the rest of their lives.
2.) If bonding is a choice, what are the ethics involved? In most S&G universes, the sentinel needs a guide, but whether the guide needs the sentinel varies from story to story. In many of the more dystopian S&G universes, this imbalance is used by society to justify the oppression and sometimes even the enslavement of guides.
3.) How can even the most well-meaning society protect its sentinels and guides without depriving them of their freedom of choice? Again, many of the more dystopian S&G stories center on legislations, organizations, and traditions that are supposed to protect sentinels and guides, but instead oppress them.
Once these questions came out of the theoretical and into the actual— in other words, once I had Gibbs, Tony, A.J., and Harm trying to deal with them— the characters started dictating which questions were going to be addressed and how.
Gibbs: I made Gibbs mundane, even though, as one reviewer points out, an in-character Gibbs acts pretty much like a sentinel most of the time. The reason I did this was because I needed him to be an outsider who could ask all the questions the reader would need answered. This meant that the story was largely at his mercy when it came to what types of questions were asked and answered. He did a great job keeping things on track and making Tony behave (more about Tony’s refusal to cooperate later), but he bypassed a lot of the more philosophical debates in favor of getting the job done.
Harm and A.J.: Having Harm and A.J. as the arbiters of the conflict between Tony and the representatives from Philadelphia caused the story to go much more in depth in terms of the law and how sentinels and guides might fit into the existing framework of American jurisprudence than I intended (I have absolutely no background in law). However, they couldn’t really make a fair and unbiased assessment of the situation, because they had to both maintain their authority and protect Tony’s interests. A.J., at least, was aware of this and felt sympathy for the Philadelphia pride’s position, but he also knew that he couldn’t do anything about it.
Tony: Tony turned out to be the most reluctant, unreliable narrator I’ve ever worked with. It’s not that I think he lied at any point, but for most of the story, he was actively avoiding giving straight answers, and when he finally started talking, his account of events was skewed by his own hurt, fear, and self-doubt. He told the truth, as he remembers it, but I am pretty sure what he gave us wasn’t the full story.
Tony’s unreliability meant that I had to base the Gibbs, Harm, and A.J.’s actions less on the events that took place in Philadelphia and more on the current situation (it was kind of like building a court case, only with more than two sides). This caused things to happen which I didn’t originally plan for.
Harm’s assessment: I did not originally intend for Tony to be unable to bond to Jake— narratively, there would be more tension if he could. However, since Tony wasn’t going to come out and say why he’d left Jake in front of everybody, I had to have Harm do the empathic assessment. In doing so, I found out that Tony was carrying a lot more hurt than I had thought. That, coupled with Tony’s defensiveness, made me doubt that Tony could form a bond with Jake, even if he tried to. Accounts of the bonding process differ from writer to writer, but all of them agree that it involves letting one’s mental defenses down in order to allow another person into one’s head. Tony just wasn’t going to be able to do that. So, even though it wasn’t the best option for the plot, I had to go with a scenario where Tony wouldn’t be able to bond with Jake on his own.
The Sledopyt Sluzbha : Yes, I fell into the tried and true cliche of using the USSR when I needed a really big, impressive human rights violation. I’m not proud of it, but I needed to explain why forced bonding was so bad. All of this came about because, if Tony couldn’t form a bond on his own, I needed to know if a Blair Sandburg-level shaman could form it for him. The idea sounded squicky to me, but I played with it for a while, and finally decided that I needed a historical instance of a large number of assisted (which turned into forced) bonds to provide empirical data. Before I knew it, there were there were thousands of damaged guides and psychotic sentinels, and Stalin was acting like a decent human being. It was wild.
CIS: CIS wasn’t originally supposed to be terminal. It was supposed to be a chronic condition that might shorten a sentinel’s lifespan by stressing their body, but was not itself fatal— I was trying to explore the uglier implications of freedom of choice in a world where at least some sentinels really did need guides. I had to change it because A.J. turned out to be a pretty formidable character. A chronically ill sentinel provided the impetus for the Philadelphia Center to reach out to Tony, but he didn’t provide the urgency necessary for them to risk bypassing Harm and A.J. and pissing A.J. off (this was important because, if the Philadelphia pride had reached out to Tony through Harm and A.J., Tony would have made sure that Gibbs never have heard about it).
These are some of the highlights from my perspective. Again, thank you for your support!