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"Where were you Tuesday night between oh nine hundred and oh three hundred the next morning?" Agent Sacks questioned the suspect that Spencer and Gideon had been asked (as a personal favor to Sacks' team lead) to give a threat assessment on - regardless of whether or not the suspect, also a federal agent, fit the developing profile of the crime he was being investigated for. With the BAU on down time after Elle’s and his own recent involvement in the hostage situation on the train, the local ‘informal’ consultation seemed like a godsend - giving them a focus for their excess energy (and on Reid’s part an opportunity to distance himself from the event) without the hassles of mandatory paperwork, unwelcoming LEOs, and political infighting.

In the interrogation room, across from Sacks, sat a tall professionally dressed man, with sandy-brown hair, classic features, and what appeared to be a marginally-athletic build only slightly disguised by the lines of his suit. Superficially, his expression appeared open, friendly, and utterly unconcerned, but to Spencer's heightened senses, empathically, even through the interrogation room's partial shielding, he could feel the anxiety, fear, disbelief, and worried-curiosity that poured off of the suspect, only lightly offset with a feathering of uncertain-trust and wistfully-hopeful faith directed towards someone outside of the room. There was another deeper, almost-palpable sense of hopeless-longing layered with a feeling of being resigned-to-its-hopelessness that made Spencer's chest ache as he recognized it: the craving of a guide who'd either met and lost, or given up on finding, his sentinel.

"Well?" Gideon questioned, "What's your read on him? What little I'm picking up through his shields is not enough to say for certain that he hasn't been corrupted, but …"

"While Agent Sacks' emotional overtones are noisome, I’m not having any difficulty picking up the suspect’s empathic print. Actually, it hardly feels like he has any shields up… to me." Spencer commented, cutting his mentor off in surprise, "in fact, most of what I'm picking up is empathic. I realize though that you were interested in my other senses. With regard to those: his heart rate is slightly elevated, but not in the range indicative of panic or deceit. His scent profile is closer to what I've picked up from victims and cleared suspects than unsu--" Spencer reported only to be cut off by Gideon.

"You're picking him up empathically? Not Agent Sacks? You're certain?"

"Oh, I'm picking him up, too, and he shouldn't in there." Spencer snapped, increasingly irritated by the animosity he was picking up from the interrogating agent. "He's being completely unprofessional, and between the two of them, Agent Sacks’ empathic print falls far closer to the profile of someone prone to violence than the man he's questioning."

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Spencer wasn't aware of it at the moment, but the expression on his face was contorting to a kind of hardened emotionless mask that Gideon suspected he'd unknowingly learned from Hotch, an expression that Gideon mentally referenced as Hotch's 'sniper mask'.

It was a shock to Gideon, as he began to realize what was happening, and not only from his clearly mistaken belief that Spencer's unique development of guide-like empathic sensitivity (that Gideon theorized had evolved in Spencer to deal with his critically unstable mother) in addition to the moderate level of his sentinel abilities had balanced each other out heavily diminishing if not outright eliminating the need for a partner bond. No, the additional seconds it had taken Gideon to realize what was happening was as much because over his many years of experience inclusive of his BAU years, consulting with the CIA, NSA, and associated agencies, while Gideon had heard of the occurrences, he had never personally witnessed a potentially-feral response inducing incident so was not prepared for how subtle the initial signs might be... Especially when regular to close working association with the young genius had inured him to seeing the sentinel aspects of his protege when Spencer's intellect and inherent youthfulness stood out in contrast to the other sentinels in the unit.

Sacks losing his temper and stalking out of the room should have been the best thing to happen; instead, the agent came out 'emoting' all over the place so thickly that even with the decades of empathic damage to and the dulling of his guide senses - courtesy of CIA and NSA affiliations (as well as the still too recent loss of his Boston team) - Gideon had no difficulty picking up the malice and repulsion that Sacks felt toward the suspect. While Sacks words were generally professional, his emotional overtones gave the words an extra layer of meanings that Gideon's long experience gave him approximate translations for what he suspected the man would have been saying if he weren't reporting to a superior.

"This \\sick f-c \\ is implicated \\guilty as hell\\ in a homicide, and \\the bastard’s\\ making jokes.\\"
"\\ Sick f-cs posing as\\ Federal Agents suspected of crimes \\caught red-handed for murder \\ don't get special treatment in my book. \\They get put down!\\.

While they were only mental translations, Gideon had almost immediate proof - by virtue Agent Sacks being practically lifted by his throat and slammed against the wall between the viewing room and interrogation room - that Spencer had picked something up substantially similar to them and viewed the agent as a threat to his, as yet, unbound guide… if Gideon’s suspicions were correct, which the evidence was increasingly pointing towards.

"I strongly suggest that you take the seemingly unprecedented step of attempting to actually doing your duty and investigate the 'actual' crime" Spencer warned in an icy tone that would have done Aaron proud while Sacks - seeming stunned by his attackers identity as much as by the actual attack was frozen standing on tiptoe - staring uncomprehendingly at Spencer.

"Instead of accusing the first person, who -all too conveniently- comes to the top of your suspect list by virtue of finding 'perfect evidence' because you are too lazy to question how a trained investigator with in-depth training in evidence retrieval, clumsily, left not one but three pieces of 'perfect' un-contaminated, un-blurred, and un-smeared personally identifying - easily discoverable- physical trace evidence in pristine condition at a dumpsite, which just happens to be on military-controlled grounds- and did not make any attempts to retrieve, mislay, or contaminate them after he and his team went to the effort of collecting them, but was conversely careful enough to leave no trace or erase all traces of his presence in any of the cameras, sign in logs, and scanners at any of the gates." On the way over, they had called Garcia to double check the contradictory fact that had jumped out at them during their first read through of the case.

At the same time that Agent Sacks seemed to get over his shock, Agent Fornell seemed to grasp what was occurring and muttered, "Oh for Christ's sake…" before glancing at Gideon and asking, "sentinel or guide?" which -in Gideon's opinion- should have been quite obvious. After glancing at Sacks, still struggling under Spencer's surprisingly strong grip (given that the other agent hadn't broken free of it yet), Fornell seemed to come to the same conclusion and muttered, “right."

"Ron, stop squirming and keep your mouth shut. Sentinel Reid, I promise you, I have no intention of railroading your guide, but you must realize how carefully this needs to be investigated? With DiNozzo being a Federal Agent, we don’t want to give any hint of a cover up, and it’s as much for his protection as our agencies. Neither of you will want something like that overshadowing his career."

Gideon was impressed, considering the circumstances and the fact that Spencer was essentially in the middle of practically assaulting his subordinate, Fornell’s tone was more than reasonable and utterly logical, which would have a far better chance of reaching the young genius than any warning about the consequences of threatening another agent or ramifications for his own career.

Spencer's nod was a weak reassurance - given that he hadn't let go of Sacks' throat - but at least, he was still able to hear them and wasn't sinking any deeper into the instinct to protect his guide. Taking the stalemate as a chance to shoot a text to Aaron, Gideon sent a text requesting his immediate presence at the Navy Yard/NCIS offices, with the SG tag to underlie the urgency and issue of his request.

"What the ?!? Are you crazy? That scum isn’t a guide anymore than this geek is a sentinel? Wh--” Apparently, given the way Sacks' words choked off slightly, Gideon wasn’t exactly accurate on the prospect of whether Spencer was succumbing to his protective instincts.

“Get Agent DoNozzo out here, now!” Gideon ordered, recognizing the need to keep his distance from his protege. Sentinels could be particularly ‘prickly’ about dealing with other guides in this state - due to instinctual concerns that their own guide might be offended or put off by the interaction.

“Damn it, Ron. Do what you’re told and keep your mouth shut.” Fornell snapped, even as he hurried over to unlock the door to the interrogation room. Thankfully, he was utterly polite when he asked, “Agent DiNozzo, could you join us?

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Startled as much by the sheer courtesy of Fornell’s request as by the fact that the older man had actually pronounced his name right, Tony was completely caught off guard and frankly knocked back into his seat before he could fully stand up by another completely unfamiliar sense - a sentinel… his sentinel. In the other room.

~~~No! It wasn’t possible. He didn’t have a sentinel. He’d come to terms with it. Before Philly even. Everything in his life up to this point had taught him time and time again that Anthony. DiNozzo. Jr. Did. Not. Have. A. Sentinel!!! He. Was. Too. Messed. Up. For. One. And. Would. Only. Screw. Up. The. Life. Of. Anyone. Who. Tried. With. Him!!! Wendy, Danny, and Pacci were sufficient proof enough of that, surely? ~~~

~~~ It was not possible; although, the timing was perfect for it, wasn’t it. To be discovered by a potential sentinel, just in time to ruin the sentinel’s life by having his guide framed - and probably put away for life - for a murder he hadn’t committed, but couldn’t prove otherwise. Yep, that sounded just about right. ~~~

So caught up in his own thoughts that he wasn’t able to even recognize the tension in his body, Tony was already hyperventilating by the time that he’d reached the realization that, once again, fate seemed to have a hate-on for him. The greying out of his vision was hard to even notice due to the too-familiar panic woken by any constriction of his lungs. He didn’t wake up with ‘plague’ nightmares anymore… or at least not recently, but the feeling of any constriction of his breathing was nearly enough to cause flashbacks… ~~~Which Seriously? Did he need anything more to freak out about?!?~~~

The dizziness, though, THAT he noticed. It’s hard not to when he was having a hard enough time staying upright in the chair and dealing with the fact that he was almost certain that he’d FELT the shift in HIS sentinel’s attention from anger towards someone --probably Sacks because as far as Tony was concerned, in his slightly biased opinion, Ronald Sacks was currently the person most likely to get on someone's nerves -- to surprisingly deep concern for him, Anthony DiNozzo, Jr., the universally acknowledged screw-up, which - while it felt … fabulous… to have someone’s undivided, un-conflicted attention and concern - was wrong on so many levels that Tony couldn’t even mentally articulate the surge of panic it caused him.

It looked like someone had been murdered and butchered just to get at Tony, and even if Tony, Gibbs, and the team managed to prove he was innocent, which was a seriously monumental 'IF', what would happen if it got out that there was someone who could be hurt to get back at him, whose welfare would mean more to Tony than his own life?

~~~God, the list of possible suspects who might have wanted to frame him had been so long, before they’d even gone in to the interrogation room, and those were the ones they knew about or at least could guess about, and who knew how many more there might be? ~~~

“Oh, For Christ’s Sake!” Fornell’s voice faded as Tony finally gave up his struggle to sit up in the chair - finally noticing the greying of his vision as it darkened completely. His hearing only lasted a moment longer as he heard Fornell yell for someone to get Gibbs.

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Spencer was hard-pressed not to tighten his hold on the agent’s throat as he felt his guide’s confusion immediately transform to disbelieving panic and from there almost straight into terror with an unhealthily-high dose of guilt… not for the reasons that seemed to be making Sacks smirk smugly as the man no doubt picked up at least a trace amount of his guide’s guilt - and completely misinterpreted it. Without the admittedly low level shielding, Spencer and Gideon - despite his diminished senses - had no difficulty discerning that the entirety of DiNozzo’s guilt was directed at Spencer and was laden with equal amounts of internalized self-loathing and disbelief. He had been entirely correct in his earlier assessment that DiNozzo… Anthony… no… that didn’t ‘feel right’... Tony… yes… it was Tony… Tony had given up on finding his sentinel… and more. From the waves of shocked self-loathing that Spencer was picking up, he didn’t think it was to far out of the range of possibility to speculate that his guide had convinced himself that he was unworthy of a true match, or had from a young age had been indoctrinated in the belief by others, which - given the strength of his guide’s emotions - seemed the more likely probability.

“Spencer, leave him, your guide needs you,” Gideon argued persuasively - his case supported by the fact that Tony’s breathing had sped up and grown shallow in the milliseconds that passed as Spencer had contemplated this shift in his anxiety to panic and fear.

Carefully letting his grip go, Spencer turned toward the interrogation room, even as the SSA Fornell cursed and rushed into the room. Only seconds behind him, Spencer reached the door just in time to watch his guide drop sideways from his chair and lowered to the floor by the senior agent who’d barely made it in time.

“Get Gibbs in here,” Fornell shouted past him, before turning to meet his eyes directly, with apology. “I’m sorry, kid; I know this is probably stepping on your territory in a big way, but if there’s anyone that can get a handle on DiNozzo, it’s his boss, Senior Agent Gibbs.”

As much as Spencer wanted to deny the statement, it radiated with utter honesty, and Spencer forced himself to decide that for -Tony’s sake- he would put up with someone encroaching on his claim to Tony, if it would help his guide come to terms with Spencer’s existence.

In the meantime, though… Spencer fumbled with the phone case on his belt to pull out his phone. Thankful, once again that Penelope Garcia had programmed several important numbers into his phone, Spencer punched third number on his speed dial and was relieved when Hotch immediately picked up.

“Hotch,” he began before his boss could do more than say his name, “I’ve just discovered my guide, in the suspect we were sent to assess, who's being framed for murder, and in the middle of an empathic fugue. It’s completely against protocol, I know, but I need to team’s help to prove he’s innocent - as at least one of the lead investigators seems inclined to cooperate with the frame up.” Spencer explained, sparing his attention to shoot a warning-glower at Sacks.

As Hotch was answering that he was already on the way, Spencer looked up to see Gideon smirking at a tall, almost silver-haired agent, who was standing in the doorway, staring at Spencer with an expression of utter shock. Not wanting to waste the man’s time getting to Tony, Spencer waved him to go past and into the interrogation room, while he tapped another number with his thumb.

“Hey, Spence, it’s been ages since you’ve called, I was beginning to feel forgotten…”

“Blair,” Spencer cut his friend and former mentor off, repeating, “I’ve just discovered my guide, who is in the middle of an empathic fugue, being framed for murder, and radiating a nauseating amount of self-loathing and disbelief in the possibility of having - much less being worth - a ‘perfect match’. I know it’s against the standard protocol of going to the nearest S&G center for bonding, with the extenuating circumstances, even once he’s proven innocent, we’re going to need your help: his shields were strong enough to interfere with Gideon’s reading him.”

Closing the phone after getting Blair’s agreement, Spencer looked up and was caught utterly by surprise at Gideon’s amused and impressed expression. “What?” he finally asked feeling self-conscious. Gideon never looked at him like that.

“I can’t decide whether I’m more impressed with your willingness ‘to call out the big guns’ so to speak, or the shock value of your sitreps… No. Let me retract that. While those were sitreps to ‘sit up and pay attention to’, calling in the top sentinel and guide pair in the continental US still trumps them.”

For some reason, Gideon looked unaccountably smug as Agent Sacks’ jaw dropped and he gaped at Spencer. Spencer’s calls were finished though, and he had someone of much greater import to focus on: his guide, Anthony DiNozzo, Jr.

Chapter Text

Gibbs watched with a frown as they carted Tony out of the NCIS's interrogation room. The Navy Yard's S&G reps -fearing empathic shock- had decided to keep Tony sedated for the interim and were moving him down to the Navy Base's emergency guild quarters, after consulting with Ducky and the Prime Sentinel & Guide pair that Tony's sentinel had called in… ~~~and wasn't that a hell of a thing?~~~

Oh, he'd known that Tony was a guide, and one who'd adapted to working seamlessly with sentinels; it had been obvious to him the first time they met. That kind of smooth integration didn't come without experience, in Gibbs' mind, and since Tony's file didn't have any record of Tony serving as a temp guide (and Danny Price could never have betrayed Tony by going corrupt if they'd been paired), he'd assumed that Tony had been bonded previously and lost his sentinel in the line of duty (because there had never been any question in Gibbs' mind either that Tony's match would have been in any other field than law enforcement).

Tony's abrupt departure from Peoria directly into a nearly-suicidal undercover operation fit far too easily into the all-too-common pattern of self-destructive depressions that many surviving members of broken Sentinel/Guide bonds (Gibbs included) fell prey to, and Tony's absolute avoidance of anything related to that time of his life was all too similar to Gibbs' own refusal to discuss Shannon and Kelly with anyone. All of those early observations had seemed to reinforce Gibbs' belief of Tony's lost sentinel, to the point he had assumed that, like himself, Tony had proven able to work with pro-tem partners and never requested leave to attend any of the local sentinel/guide meets in the knowledge that having already met his perfect match once - a second could never have replaced the first. Because of the depths of his own pain, regarding the loss of Shannon, Gibbs had never encouraged Tony to discuss bonding…. And he really should have.

If he had, Gibbs might have learned Tony hadn't lost his sentinel; he'd never found one, which poured a whole new can of paint over his early career, and it didn't paint a pretty picture. Something had to have happened early on, to cause Tony to not only jump headfirst into the kind of deep cover role almost guaranteed to cause empathic damage if not outright sensory collapse in unbonded guides, but to also make him shut himself off from the prospect of a possible match so completely that he practically went catatonic at the mere presence of a prospective match. The thought of what could have prompted those outcomes made Gibbs want to requisition another case of 7.62 NATOs.

As much as he'd valued and relied on the balance and support Tony had given him as a pro-tem guide, Tony deserved a hell of a lot more than a broken sentinel who could never have given him more than a shadow of the match that had been out there waiting for him all along… Although looking at Tony's sentinel out in his peripheral, Gibbs wasn't entirely certain that Agent Reid had even been old enough to get a learners permit when he'd been recruiting Tony to NCIS, but that was beside the point. If he'd known Tony had a sentinel out there, he would have booted Tony out of his truck at every monthly meet from the Anacostia to the Atlantic, until they'd run into each other. Working in the same relatively small DC area, odds were it would have happened sooner or later.

"We'll take care of him; I promise." Guide Sandburg commented softly from beside him. Turning to study the man, Gibbs was somehow surprised that Ellison's partner still looked nearly a decade younger, with only a few gray hairs starting to add the salt and pepper quality to his otherwise near-black curls despite being only a year or two younger then Gibbs himself. They'd met only a couple of times over the past two decades during investigations involving sentinels and guides, and while Gibbs could respect the alpha-prime guide, he found it a lot easier to relate to Ellison's no-nonsense special forces-trained approach than Sandburg's psychic-psychiatry spiels, so made it a habit to give the lead sentinel a heads up whenever possible before investigations ever got to a stage that required the lead guide's intervention. He was willfully ignoring the possibility that they'd intentionally manipulated the response by using their different personalities in a carrot vs. stick manner.

"I know." He answered solemnly, before jerking his chin in Tony's too-young sentinel's direction, and asked, "How's he taking it?"

"Right now? He's pissed. Not at Tony," Sandburg was quick to assure. "At Agent Sacks, at whoever trying to frame Tony, and at whoever's primarily responsible for Tony's current response, which by the way, he's not even considering you as even possibly responsible for. Jim's trying to talk him down from demanding a sanction against Agent Sacks for what he is describing as 'intolerable hostility toward and prejudice against non-normative guides and sentinels’, but I'm not certain whether Dr. Reid hasn't halfway convinced Jim to support his position… and preemptively authorizing a hunt against whomever is found to be responsible for framing Tony. I think that he'd make the same request against the ones ultimately responsible for Tony's fugue state if he weren't sufficiently versed in psychology to know that those influences can be diverse and passed along through a variety of unintentional messages shared through social, religious, academic, and work environments."

"Hmmph, " Gibbs' huffed noncommittally, he happened to think the doctor had the right idea. (~~~ A doctor, as well as an agent? Reid looked too young for that too, but what the hell did he know? Abby looked too young to have the credentials she had too.~~~)

"Oh, not you too." Sandburg sighed, "I think that I better step in before Spencer gets Jim to agree when we don't even know the scope of the issue."

"You do that." Gibbs' agreed almost sarcastically. Sandburg had a bit of a point; though, he was loathe to admit it. You didn't go hunting before you learned the lay of the land and whether an opponent was carrying slingshots or Tomahawk RPGs.

He followed over for a different purpose, though, and held out his hand to Tony’s new sentinel. “Leroy Jethro Gibbs, NCIS. Technically, my team isn’t allowed to investigate the case directly due to our association with Tony, but we are running down the whereabouts and activities of all of his known enemies and had first look at all of the evidence against him, if you’d like to join us.”

“Dr. Spencer Reid, BAU. As you heard my team is on the way, and will probably use a different methodology than your team will, but I am sure we can work together. Where are you set up?”

Gibbs smiled and took the methodology warning at face value. There had only been a couple of times that he’d gotten to see Kate do her ‘profiling’ thing, but it had been definitely a different route than the evidence-based approach he’d prefer. Given what the ‘evidence’ was saying about Tony, right now, he was only-too-happy to look at other methods. There was no way in hell that Tony had done anything like this no matter what evidence said.

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Watching Jethro get chummy with DiNozzo’s from-out-of-nowhere, BAU sentinel while chatting up the Alpha Prime Sentinel and Guide couple of the US, Tobias Fornell had a distinct sympathy for snowmen standing in front of snow plows. Despite all regulations and technicalities requiring his team to lead an investigation involving other federal agents and agencies, the assumption of his team having any control of the investigation was about to become a fallacy, and he was smart enough and experienced enough to know that his best move would be to get out of their way - especially when he was already saddled with a subordinate like Ron Sacks.

In and of himself, Ron wasn’t a bad agent per se; he certainly wasn’t corrupt, or really even prejudiced, but once he got an idea into his head, it could take a two-by-four to knock it out. Unfortunately, the combination of evidence that was, at least to Tobias, just too good to be true and the FBI-accessible version of DiNozzo’s file (with notes about his conman father and his 'undercover' ability to smoothly blend in with crime families like the Macalusas), had been too tempting to Ron, who -after a superficial read-through of the files- had taken the bit in his teeth believing that Tony was barely more than a conman planted in minor police stations to work his way up through the ranks to a small federal agency like NCIS and then into one of the major agencies where he could use his position to aid whatever crime boss he had allegiance to, who’d gotten sloppy with his extra curricular activities. If that wasn’t bad enough, he’d let his assumption color his perceptions of the possibility of DiNozzo being a guide - despite the obvious evidence supporting the fact.

Even if Tobias had been taken in by the evidence, which -as Dr. Reid had succinctly pointed out - was just too clean and uncontaminated for having been ‘accidentally’ dropped at a dumpsite, the discovery that DiNozzo was a guide would have put paid to any theory of his guilt. Almost by definition, guides were inherently empathic, and it would have taken a special kind of fruitcake to simultaneously empathize with a victim and cut them up - on top of being a biter. It required the kind of crazy that wouldn’t have lasted three hours in a two person PD on the outskirts of Death Valley, much less any of the metropolitan PDs DiNozzo had worked, FLETC training, and years of service in any federal agency no matter how small… not even to mention Gibb’s radar. Nope, Tony DiNozzo was innocent, and Ron, who was currently fuming in the corner not understanding why no one was seeing things the way he saw them, was about to get a much needed lesson in objectivity.

“I am two microseconds from initiating an S & G guild hearing for a full sanction against Agent Ronald Sacks.” Dr. Reid informed Tobias less than three minutes later, before demanding, “Until this matter is thoroughly investigated and my guide is cleared, I want Sacks where I can see him at all times.“

“What?!?” Sacks squacked, professionalism out the window. “Are you nuts, that…”

“Ron, Shut Up! Sentinel Reid, if I vouch for my agent…” before he could finish the offer, Dr. Reid cut him off with a sharp “No. He is to stay in my vicinity or under the supervision of one of the other sentinels on my team, or I will formally request neutral supervision of a guild sentinel to prevent him from tampering with the investigation.”

“That’s not necessary.” Tobias sighed, but Reid's steely expression was answer enough for him, and if he were in the same position, he’d probably demand nothing less himself.

“That’s not your decision.” Dr. Reid answered icily, and Ron, who just couldn’t keep his mouth shut, had to chime in, “It’s not yours, either...!” with an insult sure to follow, if he hadn’t been cut off as soon as he started.

“No, but it is mine, Spanky, and I’m about to volunteer personally, if Dr. Reid does decide to request it.” Alpha Prime Sentinel Jim Ellison answered with the kind of smile that would probably spook a shark, before asking Reid. “Care to take me up on it?”

“It would be appreciated, and I reserve the right to accept the offer later if he gets in the way, but Agent Sacks clearly needs use a refresher in investigative methods, and I see no reason the two goals cannot be accomplished simultaneously.”

~~~ Yep, Tobias was definitely beginning to understand how snowmen felt watching the plows heading their direction. ~~~

Chapter Text

After flipping through the case files that Supervisory Special Agent Gibbs had handed him as soon as they reached the MCRT's bullpen, Spencer turned to Sacks and snapped, "why weren't we given the full case file when we were asked to do a threat assessment on Agent DiNozzo?"

"You were!" Sacks answered with a glare at Gibbs, "If there's more there, it's because they're holding back."

"No. They gave me what you gave me; I'm asking about your work notes, your contact list, the summary of phone and personal interviews. I am only hazarding a guess that some of this sounds familiar."

Instead of answering, Sacks crossed his arms defensively, muttering imprecations and variations on the theme of jacked up nerds and self-righteous sentinels, which Spencer easily ignored.

"Agent Gibbs, could you please call someone to come up from Human Resources? I understand that it will interfere with the leads you are currently following, however, if you can each independently write a summary of your and the team's actions during the seventy-two hours prior to the discovery and report of the dumpsite, it would assist me in ruling out Tony's involvement.

"Boss?!?" Agent McGee questioned, undoubtedly wondering whether Spencer had the right to give them orders.

Already on the phone, Agent Gibbs' glared at Agent McGee and growled, "you heard the man," before continuing in a far more pleasant voice, "Helen, it's Jethro on the MCRT...Yes, we're doing everything thing we can do to… yes, exactly. Can you come upstairs? Agent Reid of the FBI is helping us, and I believe there are some things that he'd like to ask for from you to help Tony's case. … Yeah... We can trust him. Yeah, I'm sure. … …"

When Gibbs looked up with a questioning glance, Spencer realized that the woman on the other end of the line was probably asking how or why Gibbs trusted him, and nodded. He certainly had no problem making his claim on Tony known.

"Actually, while you’re at it, you may want to bring an S&G pack and the change of medical and financial powers of attorney forms while you are at it. Dr. Spencer Reid of the Behavioral Analysis Unit, FBI is Tony's Sentinel, with at least three attesting witnesses, who can confirm the match. Well… there was an incident, and … yeah exactly, so he's not currently conscious to make the verification himself, but we have two other FBI agents, myself, Jim Ellison and Blair Sandburg as witnesses who can corroborate. Yes, I will be happy to pass the message along to, but you can tell him yoursel… oh gotcha. Then thank you. I will. Bye Helen."

Quirking his eyebrow in question, at Agents McGee and David, who were openly gaping and spluttering, Spencer waited for Gibbs to confirm that someone was coming from Human Resources because the end of the conversation sounded like she might not be.

"Helen sends her congratulations and her best - literally- in the form of her staff assistant, a FLETC intern, and another member of the accounting, payroll, and bookkeeping staff to make copies, run errands, pull and verify whatever files you need, and make coffee and food runs as needed. She said payrolls done and ready to post, so barring a mass resignation event, she can spare them for at least a week - if needed."

That was not quite what Spencer expected, but he wasn't going to turn the additional help away.

"My MannnN!" Derek practically crowed as he stepped off of the elevator and stopped, choking dramatically and rubbing his eyes at the visual blast of orange that almost stole his senses until Penelope caught his arm and helped keep him grounded.

"Woooow, how that passes S&G standards, I have to know. That's brutal." Derek complained before returning to his previous line of thought, "Here we send you out to analyze some agent and what do you do but pick up a sweet little guide along the way. Where is she? I've gotta meet your perfect match!"

Spencer shook his head, thinking he really should have known, but while it was amusing to be underestimated again, he really didn't have time for it.

"Derek, I'm afraid your neathandral is showing again. My guide is the agent that Gideon and I were sent to assess; HE is innocent by the way, but is currently at the S&G center, sedated and being treated for empathic shock, following an intolerably aggressive and hostile interview conducted by Agent Sacks who has been at best willfully inept in investigating the charge and at worst cooperating with the attempt to frame my guide. I haven't found proof one way or the other, yet."

"You have got to be kidding me, you fu---" Sacks erupted from the seat beside Gibbs desk that the Supervisory Special Agent had ordered him into -only to cut himself when Fornell cleared his throat with a cough that sounded suspiciously like the combination of a curse and an order.

"Reid." Hotch greeted Spencer with a slight grimace, his eyes pinched in response to the discordant color. "Care to introduce us and… see if there is possibly a guild friendly conference room we could set up in?"

"Sorry Hotch, I tried, but the conference rooms are worse. The team whose sharing the bullpen moved to one so we can use the unoccupied desks. As for introductions, Hotch, this is Supervisory Special Agent Jethro Gibbs, Senior Agent of the Major Case Response Team, Special Agent Tim McGee, and Mossad Liaison Ziva David. I believe you know Agents Fornell and Sacks." From Hotch's expression, Spencer could tell he'd picked up the slur against Sacks, but didn't care.

"Agent Gibbs, this is Supervisory Special Agent Unit Chief Aaron Hotchner of the Behavioral Analysis Unit, Agent Derek Morgan, Agent Elle Greenway, Media Liaison Jennifer Jereau, and Technical Analyst Penelope Garcia. Agents Hotchner and Morgan are two of the three sentinels, outside of myself and Ellison whom I trust to supervise Sacks."

"And the third?" Gibbs asked, but Spencer suspected that he thought he already knew, so only quirked an eyebrow.

"Gotcha," Gibbs nodded.

Right as Spencer was ready to defer to Hotch to start the team working, the elevator bell dinged again and two women and a man stepped out clearly looking around for someone: presumably the HR staff.

"Excuse me a minute, Hotch? I need to get them started." Spencer explained as he stepped away to introduce himself to the agents on loan and thank them for their assistance.

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"Okay, Agent Gibbs, so where are we?" Aaron asked the notorious NCIS agent. How Spencer had persuaded the man to work together, he was dying to know.

"Well, frankly, I'd suggest following Dr. Reid's lead, unless he stumbles and you need to step in. I don't know the whole picture he's been looking at, but he's asking the right questions, and has something in mind. Anyway my people already know to follow him, he's got Fornell cowed and towing the line, and Primes Ellison and Sandburg ready to jump in and join the fray, so it would be a shame to waste that influence while he has it."

~~~Well, that's unexpected.~~~

"Gideon?" Aaron questioned, in surprise.

"In any other circumstances, I might say no, but it's a good suggestion, and he's right. Besides, Reid's in his version of a 'take no prisoners' mode, and you've seen how effective those can be."

"Don't know if I'd say he's not taking prisoners" Gibbs pointed out with a smirk toward Sacks.

"You may have a point." Gideon agreed wryly, "but I have a feeling that if he doesn't convert Agent Sacks and put him to work, the man can kiss his FBI pension goodbye."

"Sounds about right." Gibbs agreed, and Aaron was pleased and startled at the unexpected respect in Gibbs' tone.

Gideon chuckled, undoubtedly picking up Aaron's bemusement, before suggesting, "just go with it, Aaron."

"Okay,"

"Well, I have my orders," Gibbs commented by way of explanation, as he returned to his desk.

"What were his orders?"

"The MCRT can't investigate the case directly, given their close association to DiNozzo, but were going the route of looking at all past possible enemies. Reid took them off that to write witnesses testimonies of the team's actions and interactions for the last three days prior to the legs being discovered. Apparently, that's the absolute earliest they could have been dropped and still been in the condition that they were found in."

Listening in on Reid's instructions to the new arrivals, Aaron nodded his agreement and approval for the documents Reid was requesting. It was a good move. Waiting for Reid's return, he began flipping through the case folder on the desk, before moving to a second folder and stopping when it was clearly a duplicate. Going back to the first folder, he began to reread the file, making mental notes as he went.

“That’s the file of information that Gibbs had when he turned the information over to the FBI.” Spencer explained, before tapping the second file, “This is the file that Agent Sacks gave us to use for the analysis of Tony… According to Agent Sacks, it contains all of their work as well.”

Glancing up sharply, Aaron had to ask, “You’re not serious?”

Spencer’s too bland, silently infuriated look was the only answer Aaron needed, as he decided to have a rather long talk with Agent Fornell for letting his Agent get away with this kind of slipshod work - if work had been done at all. If it had, the lack of reports or at least work notes was beyond negligent, but Aaron knew almost without question that the work hadn’t even been done.

“We’ll deal with that later,” he assured Spencer. “What have you come up with so far, and how would you like to divide up the tasks?”

Spencer’s slightly shocked step-back was amusing, but he recovered quickly and took the lead without any further question or comment.

“SSA Fornell’s team are continuing to run the Jane Doe’s DNA to identify her, but I suspect that my guide was the primary target given the attention paid to planting usable and uncontaminated evidence directing suspicion towards him. Because of this, I don’t believe the Jane Doe should be considered in terms of victimology. Moreover, Dr. Mallard’s report - noting particularly the advance decomposition and lack of exposure to air, soil, insects, or water - suggest that the legs could have been procured from a medical school, morgue, or science donation organization.”

“Based on the evidence planted, after the MCRT finish compiling their testimonies of the period prior to the site's discovery, they should refine their potential suspect list to individuals with forensic and/or medical knowledge and contact any local organizations that fit one of these descriptions.”

“While the BAU team is building our profile of the unsub, given the recency of the blood, fingerprint, dental, and trace evidence, the person or persons framing Tony will have needed to have fairly regular interaction with Tony and medical or forensic skills, to that end, I believe we should interview NCIS’ evidence and forensic techs as well as medical and morgue staff to determine who if any had the level of contact needed to gather clean samples from Tony, and do so as quickly as possible due to the likelihood of the shift in the investigation being discussed and forewarning a suspect.“

“Good thinking,” Aaron agreed, before turning to study his team, “Who do you want doing what?”

“I have the staff loaned by their HR department pulling up Tony’s reported schedules, appointment logs, and his computer login and out times so that we can verify any periods that someone might accuse him of having the time to commit the acts he’s been accused of. Once they have his timeline, I’d like J.J. and Elle to take Tony’s photo and the photos of the staff we’ll be interviewing to each of the base checkpoints to see if the guards can identify who visited the dumpsite. I would like for Penelope to pull background checks on any of the techs with regular access to Tony, and after that checking the gps data for the same individuals to see who may have driven on or near the base and the dumpsite. I think, we, being Gideon, Derek, you, and myself should do the interviews - to have sentinels available in case the unsub panics and so that Gideon and I have a chance to read for any potential threats or deceptions. When the MRCT have narrowed down their suspect lists, if we haven’t turned up any results, we can shift to interview any likely subjects.“

A quick glance between Fornell and Gibbs confirmed their agreement to plan.

“Okay, let’s get started.”

Chapter Text

“Dr. Reid’s supposition that our Jane Doe wasn’t the primary target appears to be correct.” Fornell opened the briefing, explaining, “My team matched Jane Doe’s DNA to the - very much alive with full use of all appendages - Nurse Carla Johnson, who just so happens to be a blood and bone marrow donor who gave her first donation to an accident victim sixteen days ago. The woman she donated to died on the table and was sent to the morgue. The location of the woman’s body is being tracked down as we speak.”

Fornell finished and handed the remote to Gideon who quickly handed the control back to Agent McGee with a gruff order to just pay attention and change the screen when it’s time.

“Agent Jareau and Agent Greenway had moderate success interviewing the gate guards. During one of the mandatory psychiatrists exams required to return to duty after a hostage or shooting, while Agent DiNozzo was perceivably out of the office but his time accounted for and independently corroborated elsewhere, someone signed into the visitor’s log at gate fourteen only three miles away from the dumpsite using Agent DiNozzo’s name. The signature has been compared against Agent DiNozzo’s and judged to be a forgery on nine separate aspects. Unfortunately, the guard who’d been on during that time is off today, but they are going to her barracks to interview her to see if she recognizes any of the possible suspects, now… now… Agent change the screen now.” Gideon ordered, grimacing at Agent McGee. “Thank you.”

The man had no sense of timing and fumbled with the remote almost dropping it before the screen changed.

“Based on Dr. Mallard’s report - regarding the lack of exposure to insects, air, and water, the surgical skill and meticulousness used to remove the skin over the falsified bite, as well as the technical knowledge to make the dental create an accurate bite print, the MCRT refined their potential suspect list to individuals with forensic and/or medical knowledge or contacts. Agent Gibbs.”

”McGee.”

“Yes, Boss.” McGee agreed, standing up to give his report. “Focusing on those characteristics, we were able to exclude most of Tony’s potential enemies and focus on one man: George Stewart, a forensic tech who was fired from the Baltimore PD, in 2002, after Tony discovered that he had been responsible for contaminating blood samples on a case he was working. After he lost his job, he fought the firing in court and ran out his family’s savings in legal fees and lost their house. He and his wife were divorced shortly after; he lost custody of the kids due to drunken and disorderly behavior on and off the job. He eventually won the case, but by that time his reputation had been wrecked and he was near unhirable in the field. He virtually disappeared for two years before he was employed by...”

“How did he win the case?” Fornell and Spencer questioned at the same time interrupting his explanation.

When McGee didn’t answer immediately, Penelope raised her hand waving the troll-puff topped pen as she called “Ooh, ooh, I know. I came across the name in one of the background checks. Yes. Here it is. In the case of Charles Stewart versus the Baltimore Police Department for the City of Baltimore, Maryland and co-defendant Pemberton Medical Analysis, Tony testified for the Baltimore PD, and Pemberton had oh the name was here …”

Penelope was still scrolling through the court records to find the name she’d been looking up only moments before, jerked her head up as Fornell’s phone rang. Answering, Fornell grinned for half a second before passing along the news, ”Jane Doe was transferred to the Virginia County Coroner’s office eight days ago.”

“Boss, that’s where Stewart works!”

“Derek… Agent … Agent David, will you please go pick him up for questioning?”

“You got it kid.”

“Of course, Dr. Reid.”

“Spencer? What are you thinking?” Aaron asked, certain that Spencer had a reason for not going out himself with Derek or alternately sending Aaron.

“I don’t think Stewart is the unsub. He might be working with him, and have access to the body and surgical equipment, coolers, and other supplies he’d need, but not access to Tony. Penelope said that he testified for the state against Stewart, so he would probably recognize the man, much less raise red flags if he found out the man was working with evidence as he would have needed to have been to get the blood, fingerprint, dental, and trace evidence, without being noticed. The person or persons framing Tony will have needed to have fairly regular interaction with Tony to do that.”

“Okay, given the nature of the law suit, if we assume that Stewart may not have been the only one found at fault, the profile of a resentful stalker still fits…"

"A resentful stalker?" McGee asked curiously and all eyes turned to Hotch as he explained:

"Resentful stalkers convince themselves that they have been mistreated in some form or other or alternately, believe that they are the victim of some intentional miscarriage of justice or targeted humiliation. Resentful stalkers target strangers and acquaintances, alike, who are seen as having been responsible for the injustice or humiliation. This form of stalker can develop paranoid beliefs about the victim and use stalking as a way of ‘getting back’ at his or target. Motivated by the desire to get revenge, resentful stalkers crave the sense of power and control that frightening their target gives them, but over time, resentful stalkers feel the need to to cause more intense disturbances to feel satisfied that they are 'evening the score'."

"Oh, okay…" McGee paused on the edge of saying something before he seemed to talk himself out of it.

"Spit it out, McGee."

"I don't want point someone out if he's innocent, but...Has anyone checked out, Chip? It might be nothing, but I know that he really doesn't like Tony, and when he first came on, he tried to sneak up behind Tony the way Gibbs' can. He wasn't very good at it, but Tony pretended to be spooked as an olive branch for however they got off on the wrong foot and to give Chip an ego boost, but it didn't seem to help, and after that, some of Chip's jokes were a bit cruel, like labelling a petri with some sort of mold, as y-pestes and knocking it over on him… (You know about him being dosed with an altered version of the plague?) He faked a box of evidence that Tony had signed off on but with broken seals and miss-labeled items and switched it out for the real box right when Tony was getting ready to deliver it to the evidence rooms. Another time…"

"Chip?" Spencer demanded, "what's his actual name?"

"Charles Sterling, he's Abby's…"

"That's him;" Penelope gasped "that's the name I was looking for. He's the lab tech that Pemberton had testifying on their side, but Stewart's lawyer got him to admit that he was actually the one who contaminated the tests but hadn't reported the problem to Stewart. The court found in favor of Stewart in regard to Pemberton, but not in regard to the Baltimore PD."

Gibbs was already up and out of his seat running toward the stairs, with Spencer and Aaron on his heels, immediately understanding. They'd barely reached the halfway point of the hall, when they heard a man's voice screaming for help. Rushing forward they reached the room and found Jimmy Palmer knelt beside Abby, trying to pack gauze wadding in to a broad rapidly bleeding wound in her side.

"You've got to call for help. Chip cut the phone line and smashed our phones. Dr. Mallard's at the S&G center still, and I was stopping in to give Abby an update. Her music's so loud, I didn't know they were fighting until I stepped in and … God, I distracted her. I didn't mean to. I swear, but I did and he stabbed her. He wouldn't let me help her till I gave him my phone and he groped her phone off her, and he was telling me how I should blame Tony for everything."

"A bus is on the way," Hotch offered, putting a hand on the shocky man's shoulder as he continued, "Gideon and Penelope are coming down. Sometimes, Guides can use their abilities to help critical patients hang on. You've done a good job."

Gibbs looked almost devastated at the sight, and he could sympathize watching team members suffer was always harder than taking personal injuries.

"Where did he go!?!" Spencer growled, rising fury coloring his tone and giving his voice an almost feral edge.

"Oh, God! I'm sorry. He's going there. The S&G center. He's going after Tony."

"I'll call. Go!!!" Gibbs barked. There was no telling how much of a head start Sterling had; hopefully, it hadn't been very long for both Abby and Tony's sake.

Neither BAU sentinel hesitated even half a second.

Splitting half of his attention between watching Jimmy working over Abby, and dialing Ellison's personal number, Gibbs silently prayed for a swift response, which he received, but not quite in the way he wanted. Over the phone, when Jim answered, Gibbs heard the Center's emergency alarms blaring. Before he could warn the Alpha Prime, Jim was barking at him. "Get. Reid. Here. Now! Your boy just woke up from enough tranquilizers to keep a bull elephant down, near feral, and Blair says his spirit guide's near feral and hunting. We need Reid here now!"

"Reid's already on his way, so's the unsub, Charles Sterling, a tall, horse-faced man with a shaved head, and probably smells of blood. He attacked Abby and is after Tony. "

"Understood, we'll be waiting for him… By the way, did you have to train Tony, so well? He put two of my sentinels out of commission before the spirit guides started warning everyone off?"

"Sure as hell did. Look, gotta go, guides are here to help stabilize Abby, and you have a psychopath heading straight for you. I know you have to tow the line with congress, but if Sterling isn't an intolerable threat, I don't know what is."

"Sanctions already been given, don't worry. Reid's been keeping us in the loop and warned of the outcome if the unsub's left unchecked and got Blair onside before I'd finished figuring out what he was saying. You take care of your girl; I'll take care of your boys."

Chapter Text

Gibbs could not believe that Palmer’s talent at being utterly inappropriate at the worst possible time was apparently inborn… but it seemed the powers that be were intent on proving him wrong ... as was very aptly proven by the fact that no sooner than Agents Gideon and Garcia had entered the room, Palmer’s head snapped up, eyes glazed, staring at Ms. Garcia as he murmured, “Guide,” in an almost worshipful tone.

“Sentinel!” Ms. Garcia answered, awe and surprise lighting her face.

“Now, is not the time!” Gibbs snapped, practically cursing, and only mildly guilty at the thought of ruining their first meet, but seriously… Abby needed their help.

Thankfully, Palmer hadn’t succumbed to the instinct to disregard everything but his guide on their first meet and was still keeping pressure on Abby’s abdomen, but they really didn’t have time for any distractions at the moment.

Gideon was about to make a comment that looked like it was going to contradict him regardless of the situation, but before the other man could say anything, Ms. Garcia ran around Abby’s feet and dropped to her knees beside Palmer.

“We’ll just sync up and ground each other, for now, Honey-Muffin, then take care of … little sis... and get to the good stuff later, okay? Breathing first, three, two, one, … … … and there ... sight … sound… good… good... mind… … oh my, you're just delish … now … soul ...“

“You’re … so … wow … a whole galaxy… of Wow ...” Palmer murmured appreciatively, before turning his focus back down to Abby. “Wait, do you hear… there’s something…she’s having trouble breathing… and her heartbeat... Agent Gibbs, Abby’s got stainless steel drinking straws in one of her desk drawers, get one, we need one and a scalpel. Fast.”

With an apologetic tone, he informed Ms. Garcia, “It’s going to hurt her, alot, but I have to ... blood’s building up in her abdomen and putting pressure on her lungs and heart. I don’t know how whatever you’ll do to stabilize her works, but she’ll need as much as you can give her.”

“Don’t worry, about me, Peaches, finding you’s like slamming three espresso bombs. Plus, we’ve got Gideon, and grumpy as he is, he’s still got a hell of a lot to give. We’ll give her the juice to hang on; you just focus on getting her fixed up.”

Dragging the first drawer out when he couldn’t find the straws, Gibbs turned it over on the table and huffed at the silvery chimes as five different straws fell on the desktop. He was going to teach her how to organize her damn desk, when she came back. The scalpels were easier, though he still ended up cutting his hand on one. Throwing it aside, he grabbed another and rushed back to them.

It was a tense couple of minutes before he realized that the wheezing sound that he’d barely noticed Abby making as she breathed was easing.

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“We’ll be there in less than a minute,” Aaron urged, pressing the gas as Reid impatiently struck the passenger door’s panel with his balled up fist.

“My guide’s already there. The threat is already there.” Reid uncharacteristically snarled.

“I know.” Aaron agreed, because with whatever headstart he’d had, they were too close for Sterling not to be there. “But, Tony’s not alone, Spencer. It’s a Military S&G base, there have to be dozens of sentinels there, and you can be sure they’ll put themselves between Sterling and any guide, much less Tony. Jim’s there too, and you know he won’t let your guide…”

“He's mine to protect!” Reid snapped, and even more than the venom of his tone, Spencer’s almost monosyllabic level of speech convinced Aaron that Spencer was slipping into a feral state.

“Yes. He is.” Aaron agreed, which was really the only possible course of action. Disagreeing or trying to mitigate the answer in any way like making any further suggestion that Reid wasn’t the only one who could protect Agent DiNozzo, while Reid was in this state, was decidedly unwise… as was not expecting Spencer to jump out of the car before he’d pulled to a stop.

The provocation was completely understandable, though.

On the front lawn of the S & G center, Charles Sterling, still wearing a bloody lab coat, and waving a knife that was definitely not laboratory standard, was shouting almost incoherently at Tony DiNozzo, who was somehow still managing to look dangerous despite wearing only a barely intact hospital gown, being bare-footed and noticeably unarmed. The air of danger could have come, in part, from the wide berth that the uniformed and armed S & G staff (sentinels and guides alike) were giving the agent, which seemed to have nothing to do with the clearly corporeal presence of his spirit guide, a small but familiar bird of prey, who was successfully harassing Sterling and keeping him off balance.

“Chip, Chip, Chipster… you’ve got some splainin’ to do!” DiNozzo challenged, practically ignoring Spencer, who’d run up to join him. “I mean, I get why you wouldn’t like me. Really, I do. Lot’s of people don’t. I have a talent at getting on people’s nerves. Seriously, if it were a reality show, I’d be like a neutron star at getting on peoples nerves, but messing with Abby. Hurting Abby? Everyone freaking loves Abby, and you go and stab her and leave her to die? Why would you do that?”

“I was fired because of you! You just had to make a big deal about a fiber in a blood sample, how it couldn’t have come from your vehicle, or someone’s apartment. Wah, wah, wah. And I get fired for it.”

“Fired? You’re lucky that all that happened to you was that you were fired. The blood and fiber were from a separate scene, but because you’d thought it was a brilliant idea to get stoned before going to work and got the two samples contaminated, the evidence, warrant, and everything stemming from it were thrown out of court, and we almost let a pedophile go free. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?!?” DiNozzo growled. “And that still doesn’t explain why you hurt Abby.”

“What it means to me? You want to know what it means to me? It means you weren’t doing your job right if the whole case rested on just one piece of evidence. You only had yourself to blame for that and should have accepted responsibility for that, but …. No… Tony DiNozzo… stupid star detective of the whole Baltimore PD can’t stand having his spotless image tarnished with a little thing like incompetence can he, so he just has to find someone to blame, and when Stewart didn’t work, you just had to point the blame at me. But your reputation’s not so spotless now is it? Even if Abby survives and tells them about the tests she ran, tests that would have exonerated you, that evidence is gone now, right into the incinerator, and if anyone believed her - she’s one of your close friends, isn’t she? Everyone will always wonder if there had been evidence or if she’d just made it up to protect you, especially as you won’t be around to see it.” Sterling finished, waving his knife invitingly.

Responding to the threat, Spencer growled and lunged forward, only to have his guide catch his shoulder, barely sparing an eye from watching Sterling, as he gruffly ordered, “Down boy, I’ve got this,” and pushing Spencer out of the way as Sterling lunged forward on his own.

“Ah, ah, ah, Chip.” DiNozzo chastised as he grabbed Sterling’s arm and pulled him forward, using the force of his own lunge to drag him past Spencer without giving him the chance to catch Spencer with the blade.

“There are a couple of things you need to learn, and lesson one, is when you’re upset with someone, you don’t take it out on someone else.” From where Aaron stood, he thought he might have heard the bones grinding in Sterling’s wrist as DiNozzo twisted his grip before letting go.

“Bastard. I thought you liked having others take your punishment.” Sterling gasped, pulling his arm close to his chest protectively. “You certainly like spreading the blame around.”

“Lesson two,” DiNozzo continued, not letting the man catch his balance as he caught him with a kick to the back that brought Sterling to his knees. “You especially don’t try to take it out on people I care about.”

Grunting, Sterling recovered more quickly than Aaron liked, and was on his feet again and facing DiNozzo with a wild expression.

“Lesson three, you don’t take a knife to a guide fight.” DiNozzo continued coldly, twisting the quote to suit his purposes.

Unfortunately, Sterling was more intelligent and Spencer less detached than DiNozzo seemed to expect - from either of them - as in the same millisecond that Sterling realized what was about to happen and panicked - throwing the knife with unfortunate accuracy, Spencer realized that DiNozzo would be too focused on inflicting the psionic attack to avoid it and threw himself between DiNozzo and Sterling. Both attacks struck home almost simultaneously: DiNozzo’s dropping Sterling to the ground a nearly-mindless vegetable trapped in his own ego-driven nightmares and Sterling’s dropping Spencer - the blade embedded dangerously low in his upper right thorax, level to where DiNozzo’s heart would have been if he hadn’t intervened.

Chapter Text

Blair gasped at the sudden burst of shock, pain, and guilt echoing through he and the other guides present as Tony DiNozzo became aware of what had just happened.

"FULL SUPPRESSION, NOW!" He shouted ordering his staff guides to follow him in forcing DiNozzo -as gently as possible- back down to an unconscious state. From the black swell of emotions rising in the still unbonded guide, emphatic shock wasn't just a concern, but a certainty.

The veritable puppet on a string, DiNozzo slumped to his knees, only fighting the push long enough to ensure that he didn't risk falling on his sentinel and increasing the damage, before -troublingly- welcoming the darkness.

Not as young as he used to be, Blair gratefully caught and clung to Jim's shoulder as his sentinel joined him. It was ironically more taxing to knock someone, but especially a guide, out while preserving the sanctity of their connection to the spiritual plane than it was to psionically shut down the organs that maintained a person's existence. Doing what DiNozzo had done to Sterling was more exhausting yet - Blair knew from personal experience- so Tony would have collapsed one way or another. The key had been to force the collapse in time to preserve his willingness to come back up. If Spence seized, blocked him, or even seemed to be in 'too much' pain for DiNozzo's inherent conscience to accept, there was no guarantee that he wouldn't do the same thing to himself as he'd done to Sterling; it had happened before where guides had believed themselves responsible for their sentinels' injuries or deaths. In one notable case, where both had died, the guide - believing himself to blame for his sentinel's catastrophic injuries- succumbed first, and was followed days after by the sentinel, whom doctors thought might have survived if it weren't for the shock of that loss.

"Gibbs is not going to be happy." Jim murmured, and Blair couldn't help but snort.

"No, he won't," Blair agreed, watching his staff carefully and quickly move Spencer and DiNozzo on to stretchers. "Is it too late to move back to Cascade?"

"Thirty years too late, Chief. Anyway, our tribe is here now, and Cascade's not like it was back then. "

"Always have to be a realist don't you?"

"It's why you love me. It's like a super-power."

"Jim?"

"Yeah, Chief?."

"Shut up, Please."

"Chief?!?" And really, Blair should have expected Jim to catch on immediately. The only times he had ever told his sentinel to shut up was when he had something he needed to talk through but didn't want to even think about.

"Come on, Chief, talk to me."

"He didn't wake up to Sterling's approach or to his sentinel." Blair sighed, "He woke up to his friend being stabbed."

"What?!?" Blair could feel the tension in Jim's arms increase as he reviewed his memory and came to the same conclusion. "Sterling didn't tell him; he already knew."

"Yep." Blair answered dismally.

On the surface, having a sentinel or guide 'tuned in' to the welfare of friends and family sounded like a good thing. The down side was that to put the sentinel or particularly a guide in such a state as to subconsciously create a constant spiritual 'network' of sorts focused on the constant surveillance of the health and well-being of those closest to them, in all of the previous cases they'd experienced, had been prompted a level of trauma that was by definition intolerable and in each case had posed a serious and direct threat to the individual's ability to complete a bond. He and Jim had dealt with several cases over the years, which had all been ugly and disturbing affairs. Thankfully, though, over the years, fewer and fewer cases had presented as the laws and protections that they'd spent decades pushing for stateside and world-wide took effect. They had been too late to prevent whatever … or really whoever ... had hurt DiNozzo - because this kind of damage wasn't ever accidental outside of massive scale natural catastrophes (tsunami-scale events), but at least the chances of others turning up in similar shapes was being significantly reduced.

"Well shit!"

"Sums it up nicely."

"Funny." Jim snarked. "Seriously, how are we going to help him? The others we've dealt with have all been younger… a lot younger." In point of fact, when they had seen this sort of damage before, it had usually been in the context of violent activity from young, usually homeless, sentinels caught up in gang activities.

"He is a special case, but so is Spencer, and I have to believe the powers that be have to have something in mind putting the pair together. If we can help them reconcile a bond, it's going to be something to see."

"Tell me about it. Did you notice how my sentinels reacted to him?" Jim asked sounding a little more vexed this time.

"It was rather hard not to. It reminded me of the first time we went to the firing range after moving out here: all your military-trained sentinels assuming that being the kind-hearted and free-spirited guide that I am, I would never have picked up a gun before then and that you were just indulging me by taking me to the range. It was glorious!"

Jim groaned at the memory, as he always did, but Blair could remember the feeling of his partner's smug pride as his scores fell into the range that would have qualified him as a sniper. Everyone seemed to forget that while guides generally fell into the category of pacifists, it was closer to a pragmatic pacifism. Being paired with sentinels wouldn't be possible otherwise, and in Blair's case, the prospect of a sniper taking out a single individual to prevent violence toward and between tribes that could injure multitudes was perfectly moral, so long as the individual was culpable. Executing someone solely as a means to an end, to threaten or hurt another, or simply to clear the way to a target, would never be acceptable to him. Thankfully, Jim felt the same way.

"Well, this should be a good reminder to them that guides can be physically fit, too."

"Especially if trained by a marine.'

"Speaking of Gibbs…"

"You're going to drag Gibbs into the spirit plane aren't you?" Jim sighed, apparently having already figured out Blair's plan, which couldn't have been too hard knowing as well as Blair did that their best outcomes in these cases had been involving guides and sentinels the individual trusted on the spirit plane hunting out the lingering spiritual scars and reinforcing the individual's strength in surviving the instances and sense of self, providing the support the person hadn't received when it had been needed. On the plus side, once on the plane, providing that support occurred almost naturally, so Gibbs wouldn't be put in the position of being required to 'emote'; on the downside, the hunt for the trauma was almost always complicated and exhausting … and usually involved witnessing the individual's impression of the traumatic events in one manner or other.

"So when do you want to do it?"

"Normally, I'd say the sooner the better…" Blair began, thinking over what he'd felt before DiNozzo collapsed.

"But???" Jim prompted.

"I think we'd better wait until both Spence and his friend, Abby, I believe he said, have recovered. He needs to be able to feel their presence."

"There's no guarantee that they will recover. We both know that sentinels are tougher than your average bear, but where that knife hit… and it didn't sound good for Abby, either, from Gibbs call."

"I know, but I think it's the best chance we have."

"Okay, … I suppose you want me to break the news to Gibbs."

"Well, I seem to remember hearing something about you being the realistic one? You know he practically gets migraines when he and I discuss run of the mill matters; if I'm the one to explain this, he'll probably stroke."

"You never discuss things in a run of the mill manner." Jim teased good naturedly, "Even your choice of coffee creamer comes with contradicting theories," reminding Blair - yet again -again of his three week search for the most sustainably-produced coffee creamer varieties and the additional week long taste test of the two final choices. Why it amused Jim so much he couldn't understand.

"Why do I feel like I'm being used as the carrot to your stick?"

"I've no idea, but if Gibbs has any difficulty understanding why his presence is necessary, you can assure him that I'd be happy to explain."

ブレンキン

Tim McGee shifted back and forth in his seat. It was torture being made to stand by doing nothing when he knew that Abby, Palmer, and Ms Garcia were in an ambulance headed to the GW Medical Center according to Gibbs and Agent Gideon, when they'd returned to 'supervise' the wrap up of the case.

"Have you finished your report, McGee?" Gibbs asked in a tone that reminded Tim too much of that horrible couple of days after Kate died.

He had to look down to be sure, but he had finished it, almost without noticing. "Uh, yeah, Boss, just need to print and sign it."

"Do it, get it on my desk, and then you can go to GW, and wait for Abby to get out of surgery. Call me the minute you hear anything."

"Are you sure, Boss? I mean I know that …" Tim asked, as he was puttng the signed report on Gibbs desk, but cut himself off, knowing it would be impolitic to suggest that his boss chose one team member over another.

. "Wouldn't have said it if I didn't mean it. Now go."

Just as he was grabbing his gun, credentials, and keys, Tim froze unintentionally listening in as Fornell groused, "I can supervise my own man, Jethro."

"From the looks of that evidence folder, you dropped the ball on it this time, Tobias. Anyway, Dr. Reid and Sentinel Ellison agreed that he's to have a sentinel supervising him at all times."

"That's just a technicality: the case is all but over, and you know you're champing at the bit to get to to your boy."

"When a sentinel says he trusts you to do something, Tobias, it isn't a technicality, and anyway, in case you haven't noticed it, Agent Slacks doesn't seem to have learned anything, even watching the case investigated right in front of him, with the actual criminal not only confessing his guilt in front of numerous reliable witnesses but also attacking federal agents and employees in the attempt to continue his revenge."

"Ron?!?" Fornell sounded as shocked as Tim felt at his boss's statement.

"I don't know how you all just can't see it. He didn't drop the legs, but it sure as hell wouldn't have happened if he had been kept off the force and out of a federal agency. He's as much of a conman as his father, and the fact he's been hiding that he's a guide just proves it. Nothing good is going to come of letting him anywhere near protected information much less giving him a chance to mess with their minds. It's insane.

"I only heard about ten seconds of that rant, Buddy, but can tell you that not only do you have the wrong end of the stick, but you seem to have been beating yourself over the head with it. I've gotta say, it's time to stop." Agent Morgan commented, derision thick in his tone.

Beside Agent Morgan, Ziva was escorting George Stewart who looked decidedly unhappy to be there.

"Ziver, take Stewart to interview room three; I'll be there in a minute. Agent Morgan, Agents Jareau and Greenway are headed to the S&G center where Dr. Spencer is being treated for an injury he received confronting the unsub. I'm sorry that I have to ask you to stay, but Dr. Reid specified that to forestall a sanction hearing, Slacks is to be supervised by a sentinel at all times until his culpability can be determined. As soon as I finish with Doctor Stewart, I will be able to take over."

"It's Sacks, Dickhead. Agent Ronald Sacks, FBI. You may think you're some sort of big fish in a little pond, but compared to the FBI, NCIS isn't even a pond, it's a puddle of p…"

"If you say one more word, Ron, you won't have to worry about Dr. Reid pressing charges. I'll do it myself. Damn it, I'm wondering if you don't need a psych eval as it is."

"Tim, if you're going, go!"

Tim had to shake himself a second before answering, "Yes, Boss," and rushing to the elevator.

As the elevator doors closed between himself and the bullpen, Tim couldn't help but notice the sheer animosity of Agent Sacks expression. Up until that morning, he would have sworn that he'd had a harder path as a latent guide who'd disappointed his father by having no interest in serving in the Navy, being classified as a guide instead of a sentinel, being an intellectual and a pacifist … almost everything his father disapproved of. But, for all that, he'd never even once considered trying to hide or suppress his nature or knew anyone who had.

Especially not to the extent that Tony clearly had. Tony had always seemed so much the stereotypical sentinel that Tim had been jealous and frequently mocked him for those traits and knew that Kate had too. The Mossad/La Femme Nikita thing that Ziva did with Tony was something like that too, Tim thought, like the head cheerleader taunting the quarterback and making him work for her attention. Only for a guide … an online guide - who could detect the jealousy, disdain, and deceit - it had to have been so frustrating, and all the time having everyone expecting him to be the perfect sentinel because he had been so good at hiding who he was, and apparently treating him with hostility whenever they discovered his true nature if Agent Sacks was any example. The fact that Tony had suppressed himself so much that he practically went catatonic at an event that was usually one of the most celebrated events in sentinels' and guides' lives, it wasn't hard to guess that Sacks' reaction was closer to the standard reaction Tony had received than Gibbs' unquestioning acceptance, not only of Tony but of his entirely unexpected and very much un- stereotypical sentinel.

In retrospect, Tim was fairly certain that he'd had a far easier track by comparison.

Chapter Text

"I am going to be involved." Dr. Reid repeated in a flat - determined tone.

"Spence, Buddy, you need to understand; there's a very high chance that he won't be able to accept you or your bond yet. It's important for Anthony to be able to feel that you and Ms. Scuito are pulling through and that you don't blame him for your injuries." Blair tried to explain again.

"It's Tony, by the way, and how many times do we have to tell you that we don't blame him? You did that mind scan thing and agreed that there wasn't any 'misplaced negativity' that he could pick up, so why do you keep bringing it up?" Abby grumped. It was bad enough that Blair had decided that she couldn't be pulled into the spirit world to help her Tony-bear because of the high levels of slightly-narcotic pain reliever she had to take to stay sitting up. Apparently, the spirit plane and oxycodone derivatives don't mix.

Timmy had been sweet enough to bring Bert which definitely helped, but it didn't make her any less grumpy, especially when she saw that even Jimmy and his new guide were there (and she was totally closer to Tony than Jimmy was) … and it wasn't at all helped by the fact that she felt the tiniest bit guilty that she was just the tiniest bit, just the teeniest-tiniest bit, like a thousandth of a microgram happy that she wasn't the only one who was told that they couldn't participate. She even felt a little bit sorry for Ziva, who’d paled at the mention of the spiritual plane and only started to breathe more easily when Blair shook his head without explaining and apologized. Agent Gideon’s scan had been much same, but received a slighty sterner response, with the not so subtle order ‘that they needed to talk’.

In fact the only one who had argued his decision was Dr. Reid.

"You are building a flawed generalization from an incomplete data set." Dr. Reid continued, ignoring Abby's comment, "How many of the previous cases that you described involved the guide or sentinel's prospective partner in shoring up the individual's persona?"

"The risk of the partner suffering from the rejection was too great." Blair answered stubbornly, but Abby could already anticipate how the flaw in his argument was going to give Dr. Reid the 'in' he'd been arguing for.

"How many of the partners were adults?" The doctor pressed, his tone making clear that he knew the answer.

Blair didn't respond immediately, his jaw working as if he was chewing on his responses instead of saying them.

“How many of the partners have done intensive studies and have experience in psychology and working with individuals in ‘extreme mental states’?” The doctor’s question sounded charged somehow, but Abby couldn’t say why or how. The doctor was a profiler who dealt with both victims and violent criminals (who to Abby’s way of thinking were mentally deranged almost by definition).

“Spencer,” and Abby didn’t need to be a guide to know that Blair was getting frustrated with Dr. Reid, just from the use of his full first name instead of the nickname ‘Spence’ that the Alpha Prime Guide had been using during the past … twenty-five minutes of their ‘discussion’ (and wow, did Dr. Reid have chutzpah for going up against the US’s top guide). “This isn’t an argument we should even be having - especially considering that you’re barely recovered from Sterling’s attack.”

“I agree, completely,” Dr. Reid agreed, surprising everyone, except maybe Gibbs. From Gibbs’ smirk, Abby thought that her not direct boss, but boss because if you asked anyone who knew what was going on at NCIS, Gibbs was the de facto boss of the Washington office, regardless of which Director was in charge at the moment… anyway, she was almost certain that he knew what the doctor was up to and, more importantly, agreed with it.

“Jim, completely disregarding the problematic mythos of being the ‘blessed protector’ for Blair, as a sentinel - if someone came to you and informed you that they were going to medically / psychologically / psionically ‘treat’ your guide while he’s unconscious, without his consent, and without you along for the ride (but it would be great if you hung around and watched), even if you agreed with the general methodology and purpose of a course of treatment that would expose the worst and most traumatic experiences of his life… without your support - what would your reaction be?”

“He’s got you there, Chief,” Alpha Prime Sentinel Ellison answered with a bark of amusement, “If anyone even hinted at suggesting that, they would have found themselves enjoying a nice migraine to compliment their black eye - once they woke up.”

“You’re not helping!” Blair protested throwing his hands up in the air. “Look, Spencer, if everything was in optimal condition, I’d still hesitate on bringing you in to try it, but barely a week and a half ago, you had a knife sticking out of your chest, and - “

“And Ms. Scuito had been stabbed and suffered a hemothorax, which she might not have survived without Mr. Palmer’s intervention, and later surgery, so it is rather inexplicable to me that having stated a goal of not fostering my guide’s potential guilt over these events - you intend to delay the proceedings further wasting both my and Ms. Scuito’s energy before the intervention begins, and using up the small amount of time before Ms. Scuito’s runs out.”

Even as he finished his retort, Dr. Reid’s argument was both supported and undermined by the sudden appearance of the strangest amalgam of a reddish-brown cat, dog, mongoose looking creature with a small, cat-like head a muzzle that looked much more dog-like, and large, almost too large for the size of it’s head, round ears. Despite it’s cat-like features, it’s size was more of a medium big cat - almost six foot long if she was estimating correctly - more like the size of a slightly smaller cougar, but thinner almost slender, with clearly muscular limbs, and short, reddish-brown coats, and Abby was absolutely entranced with it even as it stalked over to Blair, stood up on its hind legs pushed small bear-like paws against the guide’s chest, and expressed its displeasure in a cry that was at once a snarl-growl-plea that was just as mixed up as the creature itself.

“Kid,” Ellison snapped, clearly unhappy with the spirit guide’s seeming aggression, “that’s not the way to…”

“It’s alright, Jim.” Blair sighed, “Feroxa and Burton are on fairly good terms; she only tends to show up when Spence hasn’t had enough coffee, is pushing himself too hard, or is ready to snap at me -- really snap at me in a way he’ll feel guilty about later but it won’t stop him from doing it now. I’m going to assume this is a combination of the former and the latter?” Blair asked, his eyebrow raised.

~~~ Feroxa… ferocious. ~~~ Running Dr. Reid's spirit guide’s possible taxonomy through her mind, Abby barely listened to them for the next few minutes as she tried to pin down what the creature was. ~~~ There were a handful of creatures that had Ferox as a part of their title … … … … but only one, that looks like…~~~

“It’s a fossa?” Abby asked curiously, only aware that she’d interrupted their conversation when she saw that particular look on Gibbs face. It was his ‘where the ‘f’ did that seque come from?‘ expression. Abby got to see it a lot, almost as much as his ‘cut the techno-babble, Abby!’ look.

It didn’t seem to bother Dr. Reid at all, though, as he answered, “a Cryptoprocta Ferox, to be precise,” and shrugged at Blair’s snort.

“It’s not particularly hidden today, Spence.” Blair grouse prompting a squeal of giggles from Abby.

“What?” Gibbs groused from beside her, comfortably playing papa bear from his spot between her and Tony’s beds.

“His spirit guide’s genus name ‘Cryptoprocta' comes from the Greek words for hidden (crypto) and anus (procta). Dr. Sandburg was playing on the words to say that Dr. Reid’s ... uhmmm… has a tendency to be …” Abby started to explain to Gibbs quietly… or at least she thought it had been quietly… but … sentinels … ~~~ Right, so not quietly at all. ~~~

“An ass,” Dr. Reid supplied good-naturedly and continued the explanation, “I’ve never denied my penchant for being obstreperous (or an ‘ass’, in laymen's terms) but I usually prefer to keep it under wraps; being regularly underestimated can have its benefits.”

“Yep,” Gibbs smiled at the explanation, “My second b’s for bastard, and it’s usually the only warning I give.”

Abby didn't, but she really, really, really wanted to squee at how well Tony’s guide and Gibbs seemed to understand each other. It made her feel all warm and toasty and confident that everything was going to work out for her family.

“You’re just not going to let this go, are you?” Blair asked in frustration.

“What can I say?” Dr. Spencer answered, his smile and his spirit guide’s suddenly becoming catishly mischievous as he continued, “When a male Cryptoprocta Ferox gets hooks into 'someone', he doesn’t let go easily.”

“Oh. My. God !!!!!!!!!!!!!!.” Abby couldn’t help it. This time she absolutely had to squeal as Blair and Jimmy choked with surprised laughter and Ducky smiled indulgently. “You. Completely. Rock !!!!!”

“Abby?” Gibbs questioned, sounding as if he suspected that she’d been given too much oxycotin.

“Dr. Reid just told a sex joke.” She tried to explain before noticing that Gibbs wasn’t the only one who appeared confused. “It was a sex joke…” she tried to assure them, her nerves growing as it became apparent that not everyone thought so, before turning to ask Dr. Spencer, “wasn’t it?"

Thankfully, Dr. Mallard was already answering with an aside to Gibbs, “Yes, My Dear; it was a surprisingly lurid remark to hear from the young doctor, but given Tony’s sense of humor, I should have supposed that there might be a shared propensity for such humor. Oh, and Jethro, you very probably won’t want to hear the details of the joke - it's all very biological.”

Gibbs' "I'll take your word for it," answer was such a 'Gibbs' answer' that Abby wanted to roll her eyes, but she restrained herself and turned back toward Dr. Reid, repeating “You totally rock” - though it was with just the tiniest bit of disappointment as she saw that Feroxa was no longer there standing up in Blair’s face, which had been just a little bit awesome to see. Not having an active spirit guide was one of the only things that made her sad about being a latent sentinel, not that she could honestly say that she ever wanted to have the type of experiences that would trigger her coming online.

“Thank you, and please, call me Spencer,” Dr. Reid… Spencer returned. Almost as soon as he finished, Abby noticed a tingling warmth on her hand that wasn’t really entirely there, but was, at the same time, and looked down to see Feroxa kind of ‘snuffling’ her hand.

“And if I may introduce my beautiful spirit-friend, Abby Scuito meet Feroxa, Feroxa my guide's little-sister, Forensic Analyst Abby Scuito.” He continued, his voice filled with a kind of warmth and fondness that really really made her want to squee. He was going to be soooooo good for their family. Now, if she could only find someone for Gibbs.

Chapter Text

"In normal circumstances, I know you would interact with the spirit plane either through personal visions or by connection with your guide bond; however, due to the recency of Jimmy and Penny's bonds, the in-completeness of Spencer and Tony's bond, and Ducky and Gibbs’ lost bonds, we will have to go about this a different way.”

"Each of you will need to call your spirit guide to this plane and ask them - as members of Tony's tribe - to draw you to Tony's spirit guide on that plane for the purpose of healing him and returning his gifts to their full strength. If everything goes as planned, both Jim will be there waiting for you. If you cross over to a location and find that one or both of us aren't there, return here and ask your guide to bring you to my spirit guide, Burton. Intent does have an effect, though so please attempt the first request before falling back on the second. How we proceed from there will be largely dependent on how Tony's frames of reference are interpreted."

"For Jim and I, the settings reflect the Peruvian jungle. That's another reason to make the first request, as doing so should take you into his frame of reference. Otherwise, you might be drawn into the frame of reference shared by Jim and I as the senior guides and sentinels involved. It would still be feasible, but, at some point, you would probably need Jim or I to provide explanations to certain circumstances, and if we don't have a frame of reference that matches Tony's experience we may not be able to translate it at all. Jim'll go first, I'll stay until you've each connected with your guide, then follow." Blair glanced around, checking for their understanding, then, "Jim."

"Incacha, take me to Guide DiNozzo's side on your plane. As a sentinel of all tribes, I am called to guard the guides and spirits who travel to honor, protect, and heal his connection to the spirit plane." While Jim sometimes enjoyed showing off his black panther guide, they both knew today wasn’t the day for it, and more to the point, intimidating or distracting the other guides and sentinels who would be joining would not be productive. Thankfully, Jim didn’t need his guide to materialize to draw him to that plane.

As Jim's guide took him to the spiritual plane, he slumped into recliner.

Blair was going to suggest Dr. Mallard next, but Spence just seemed to be in a mood to throw him off his game today, and spoke up next, looking into his spirit guide's eyes, "You understand where we're going and why."

It was phrased as a statement, but Feroxa nodded as Spencer immediately slumped in his seat.

Gibbs of course had to add his own little bit of vexation by breaking script, too: "Lobo, let's go find Tony and Kes; they need us, buddy," and slumping before Blair could comment.

Dr. Mallard smiled his understanding and took his turn next. "Bertie, My Dear Fellow, would you please be so kind as to take me to young Kess, I should dearly like to aid in Tony’s healing and returning his gifts to their full strength." The medical examiner's spirit guide caught Blair completely off guard as it momentarily shifted in, caught the tip of the doctor's sleeve in it's bill, and shifted back out. Usually spirit guides were not quite so literal a match as the mallard who briefly appeared in the doctor's lap, feathers and eyes glowing with a healthy luminescence, despite its signs of age.

Turning last to Jimmy and Penny, he was somewhat surprised, with things going so smoothly, to see the younger man looking as distressed as he was.

"Jimmy?"

"Er … maybe you should go on without me." Making a mental note of the new sentinel's shamed expression (and the need to have him talk with Jim later), Blair suspected he knew what was going on, and would address it if Penny wasn’t able to; but honestly, he wanted to get a better gauge of how well their bond had solidified before they were on the other plane.

“Peaches, what’s wrong?”

“I don’t think I have a spirit guide.”

“Oh, Honey, of course you do. When we synced in the lab, I caught a glimpse of him. He’s one of the cutest things I’ve seen outside of my own little Galeno.” As she spoke, a small silver-haired creature barely the length of her thumb, appeared cupped in her palm and looking up at her with wide, intent eyes that Blair could only describe as deeply-warm almost loving, a quality that he didn't often see in spirit guides' whose natures almost always followed the nature of the animal they resembled.

“Hey there, Little Guy,” Jimmy practically cooed, “Penny's right, you are adorable.”

“Isn’t he, though? Galeno, could you let Jimmy’s guide know that Jimmy…” Before she could even finish the sentence, a small catlike creature emerged from the spirit plane, perched on Jimmy’s shoulder and - leaning slightly forward and around to see his face - gave a bit of a hiccup sound that Blair thought would probably translate into something like a ‘Hi’.

“Wow. I didn’t… this is so cool. I really didn’t think, but you’re here, aren’t you. You really are, and …” Jimmy enthused, which Blair completely understood, easily remembering his own first time meeting with his spirit guide, but still sighed impatiently. He understood, but it really wasn’t the time. Thankfully, Penelope seemed to be on the same page and interrupted.

“Honey buns, we’re holding our ‘Super Guide’ up. Once we’re finished, we can go home and let Galeno and ... your cutie get to know each other, but we probably better get down to business.”

“Oh, yeah. Sorry. You’re right.” Jimmy apologized sheepishly, before looking back into his spirit guide’s expectant expression. “Well, uh, could you take me to Tony’s spirit guide; I’d like to join our family in healing him and returning his gifts.” Jimmy asked, smiling as his body slipped into an unconscious state.

“Galeno, Sweetie, can you take me to Tony’s guide? Mr. Gibbs said her name is Kess. We’d like to help Tony get back to his scrumptious self and rock his guide mojo again.”

Blair could only shake his head as she slumped in her seat; between the odd mix of spirit guides and their ‘unique’ approaches to joining DiNozzo on the spirit plane, it was going to be an interesting hunt and an interesting tribe.

Now, though, that they’d left him alone (or nearly so) with DiNozzo, he turned his attention to the one detail he’d intentionally withheld from them: the fact that he was going to essentially force Tony into the spirit plane for their intervention. While Spencer (based on his earlier 'consent' comment) and perhaps Ducky had probably realized what he was going to do, Blair had honestly believed that Gibbs, Palmer, and Jim would outright reject the idea of a guide being forced against his will to face the most significantly traumatizing events of his life, where they wouldn’t have objections for a sentinel doing the same. Defending and protecting guides was as essentially hard-wired into their natures as challenging and fighting other guides to ensure the strength of the tribe’s protectors. A factor that was unfortunately counter-productive at the moment.

“Burton, it’s time.” Blair called his guide, who appeared standing in DiNozzo’s bed, astride the prone man’s chest. The wolf spirit guide had a sad, if determined, expression that told him Burton was no happier with the necessity than Blair was.

“What’s your guide doing?” Abby asked, rather inconveniently.

“For Tony to benefit from our attempts, he needs to connect with the spirit plane, but since he’s unconscious and his connection with his spirit guide is shaky at best, in this state, Burton and I need to help him get there.”

“Oh.”

Moving to stand beside DiNozzo’s bed, Blair put his hands on either side of the man’s face, took a deep breath, and counted down, “3, 2, 1, Push!” He had done this enough times that he no longer needed the synchronized count, but persisted anyway.

DiNozzo, for all that he doubted himself, even completely unconscious was incredibly strong, thankfully, not as strong as Blair himself, or the shaman guide wouldn’t have had a hope of forcing him, but strong enough and with enough of a sentinel’s mentality that if psionic bruises could be made visible, Blair would be waking up to a shiner, bruised ribs, and a split-lip in the morning. Without Burton, it might not have been possible, but thankfully, barely a second after Blair began to psionically ‘push’ DiNozzo’s spirit into the spiritual realm, Burton reared up on his hind legs and dropped his front paws into and through DiNozzo’s chest pushing the man’s spirit out of his body.

Even as he was slumping forward over DiNozzo’s body, Blair could feel Agent McGee pulling him up off of the other agent and into a nearby recliner, but he was too far gone to hear Abby asking Tim, “Did that seem hinky to you?”

ブレンキン

Taking each of the others in with a glance as they arrived, Blair turned as he joined Jim to scan the scene, taking in a sallow amber sky that yellowed out what looked to be a white clapboard colonial manor. The melancholy air that permeated their surroundings had the feel of an endless decline to winter, where the leaves of distant trees would be turning if they had not already fallen to bury the browning lawns in dry tinder. From where they stood, a long stone walk with a greenish, mossy patina that spoke of its untred state, stretched out toward the manor. For its size, the manor appeared to have once been meant for a large family with numerous children, but now felt as if it had been gladly abandoned the families numbers driven away by the trials of many harsh summers. The remaining weak and murky sunshine barely sustained the wilting stems of lavender that lined the walk and offered no promise of returning with spring.

“Somehow, this is not what I was expecting,” Blair murmured.

Chapter Text

Studying the amber-toned sky, Spencer noticed small but distinct elements reminiscent of the Handschiegl-Wyckoff color process used to heighten the dramatic effects of key scenes in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1917 black and white film Joan the Woman: including, clear edged borders to the sepia shadows cast over a distant if still imposing Federalist Manor, as if the shadows had been applied by stencils with a separate dye matrix for each depth of shadow. Based on the gradations between the darkest sepia and lightest amber tones, given the pallid amount of sunlight, Spencer estimated that the Manor have been a shade of either an eggshell or crispian white in their plane. The only building in the scenic foreground, the manor was a tall, three story, symmetrical building that had a small-windowed, spartan, and suffocatingly-formal air that only highlighted the melancholy impression of an eternal fall declining into the isolation, silence, and frigid solitude of inescapable winter. Stretching out ahead of them, the long walkway of interlocking stones also bore the distinct patinas of the processes discernible in the stencil-clean demarcations between the lichen and bryophytic mosses enhancing the solidity of the walkway’s patina, giving it the appearance of being in a neglected and un-visited state which was only highlighted by the open arches of wilting stems of lavender planted to either side of the walkway.

“Is he here?” Spencer asked Blair, as he noticed the shaman approach. Despite their generally comfortable friendship, Spencer had to force down a flare of instinctual dislike toward at his friend and sometimes mentor for dragging Tony to this plane.

Intellectually, Spencer had reconciled the shaman’s apparent justifications for forcing his guide to this plane, but instinctively, emotionally, and ethically, he wholeheartedly disapproved of the shaman’s treatment of his guide. Tony was his to protect. His. Despite that, he had let the man not only force his guide to essentially jump into a pit where he’d have to face every demon he’d ever known, but do so without consent or warning.

“So, you did know?” Blair question, but Spencer ignored the comment, which wasn’t really worth answering at the moment, especially when there was a very high probability of liberally using several charged epithets to in his response.

“Let’s get moving,” Gibbs ordered, stepping around them on the walk.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Blair started to object, but Spencer shook his head, pointing out, “Agent Gibbs knows Tony better than anyone here, and Tony trusts him.”

Spencer was certain of that. From the very-first moment that he’d been able to pick up his guide’s empathic print, he’d felt a tentative, hopeful if uncertain trust directed toward someone, and Spencer knew it was this sentinel. His guide felt protected by this sentinel, and Spencer would not begrudge Tony of that, especially when it was clear that the older sentinel had been making every attempt to accept Spencer as an inherent part of Tony’s life.

“Tony won’t want any…” Thankfully, Blair trailed off as Spencer stepped forward, finding it harder and harder to restrain himself from challenging Blair's hypocrisy in even mentioning what Tony would want.

“Feroxa,” Spencer murmured, acknow!edging her and letting her know that he was following. Without a glance backwards, she loped ahead settling in stride by stride with Agent Gibbs' guide, Lobo.

"Know what to expect?"

Gibbs question wasn't as much of a surprise to Spencer as much as his own feeling of almost certainty that Gibbs expected him to know, which was a new feeling for Spencer. As much as Hotch and Morgan have always seemed to have confidence in profiling skills, they conversely never seemed to have faith that he'd have a clue about others' emotions, which were, somewhat ironically two sides of the same coin, and in part due to his own willingness to let them believe the masks that he wore. Even or especially around the office, Spencer wore masks that they probably wouldn't believe were needed, having never been put in the position of being everyone's favorite target.

Morgan, himself, had been only too willing to believe that Spencer had failed his weapons re-certification due to some form of inherently-nerd-oriented incapacity to defend himself, instead of the true cause a momentary if unfortunately-timed zone-out typical to unbonded sentinels, completely ignoring the fact that to pass FLETC as a field-certified agent, on his first attempt, he'd had to complete required weapons and hand-to-hand testing - without the benefit of the remedial courses in both offered to agents with limited or no field exposure. Admittedly, Jason had fostered the belief by suggesting that he could sign the waivers for re-certification if needed explaining the comment away later as presuming that Spencer wouldn't always want or benefit from the title of being 'the youngest to…', and similar to Morgan, completely ignoring that for possibly the first time in their experience, Spencer had not anticipated or made adjustments for a fairly common issue, so common in fact that the gun-range administrator had only rolled his eyes and ordered Reid to get more practice at the range instead of shooting clubs that Spencer and most sentinels preferred where the surroundings usually provided enough distractions to prevent zone outs.

It took Spencer what felt like roughly seven seconds -at least in this plane- to realize the slight push forward that had abruptly pulled him away from his contemplations felt as if it had been from a surprisingly tangible contact between Agent Gibbs hand and the back of Spencer's head, which -in and of itself- was fascinating given that they were on a generally intangible plane.

"Get your head in the game, Dr. Reid." Gibbs ordered, softly.

"Oh, yes,” Spencer nodded quickly, wondering how long he’d been off in his thoughts to prompt Gibbs’ intervention. But the senior agent was absolutely correct it was not the time, and Spencer acknowledged the reminder: “You’re right, Thank you."

For some reason, both Lobo and Agent Gibbs seemed amused by Spencer’s response, but he didn't pause to ponder why, choosing instead to answer Agent Gibbs' previous question.

"Tony's mental defenses won't be aggressive or violent," Spencer began, certain from the fact that both times he was overwhelmed, Tony shut down instead of lashing out. Studying the faded, unkempt lawn and the long untrod walk, he continued, "If anything, he won't expect us to care enough to go the distance, and won't understand why we have. I suspect he will be curious, however, which may work in our favor." Tony was a detective, so of course he'd be curious. "We will probably see him soon... well before we get anywhere close to his core experiences, but it probably won't be as we'd expect to see him. He's very familiar with wearing masks to hide his thoughts and attitudes, and his traumas will be masked as well or even symbolic."

“Sound’s righ… So, is that what you mean by not the way we'll expect to see him?"

Though still distant, they were just able to see manor's entryway, too narrow and staunchly uninviting to be properly called a porch, and it's inhabitant. Seated in a sun-faded maple, Early Windsor double-rod children's writing desk-chair, his posture stiffly-perfect, a book in his hands properly, if uncomfortably, hovering over the side-arm desk as he pretended to read, sat a small, sallow child in a pallid-blue sailor suit, with dull, sandy-brown hair in a Christopher-Robin cut that let his bangs cover eyes and almost hide the fact that he was very carefully watching their approach.

Spencer's "Yes," was obvious and unnecessary, but lacking any other response was all that he was capable of, while taking in his first true glimpse of his guides' soul. Gibbs seemed equally affected by the sight of his agents' empathic profile.

Lobo and Feroxa had no such hesitations and loped up by the walk, bouncing and hopping in obvious pleasure to see him.

By the visual distance, they shouldn't have been able to hear his greetings to their guides, but as with most circumstances having to do with the spirit plane, one heard what one needed to hear, felt what one needed to feel, and generally, faced what one needed to face. So it wasn't entirely a surprise when they heard Tony's childlike voice saying, "Hey, Lobo, I haven't seen you in a while," as the child reached out to rub the wolf's ears and pate. Lobo seemed only to pleased with the greeting and lifted his head into Tony's hand.

Ferox, who had reached Tony only a pace behind the wolf, seeming to suddenly lose patience with waiting to be acknowledged, slipped her head under the wolf's and lifted it in a way that had the wolf's head sliding down her back while her head slipped right into Tony's still outstretched hand, drawing a tickled giggle.

"Hey there, Funny Girl, I haven't seen you before. You are a beauty, aren't you? What's your name, Beautiful?"

"Heh," Gibbs huffed in amusement, "That's how he asked for Lobo's too. Talks to Lobo just like he would to you or I. "

Feroxa seemed to take the question at face value and scapered back to Spencer, bit into Spencer's sleeve and backed away, pulling Spencer with her much to Tony's amusement, judging by the trill of surprised chuckles the childlike image of his guide let out. While the perceivable distance between their party and his guide appeared to remain the same, Spencer's internal clock noted a distinct discordance between the perceivable distance and the speed at which they reached the porch… in their favor, allowing them to reach Tony and Lobo much more quickly than should have been possible. Feroxa had apparently decided that she was not finished with her antics yet as she drug Spencer forward to stand in front of Tony before turning back to Tony and sitting as placidly as a domesticated house cat waiting on her human servant to obey her whims.

Spencer was too caught up in his fascinated observation of his guides' empathic form, noticing the subtle symbolic glimpses of Tony's adult persona: his sailor suit's velveteen weft stained with a distinct photonegative blue-grey silhouette of a federal law enforcement officer's badge hanging low over his breastbone on a silhouette of an undercover officer's string lanyard; a small silver pendant that he would have mistaken for a cross were it not for the benefits of his enhanced eyesight, which let him recognize it as a Marine-issue Ka-Bar; the professionally-ingrained habit of scanning the area from the extreme edge of one periphery to the extreme edge of the other with soulful, hazel eyes that ached with indecision; visible calluses consistent with holding a gun… Spencer's observations were cut off by a sudden sharp tail 'thwacking' to the side of his leg and another giggle.

Smiling sheepishly, Spencer tipped his head, somewhat indulgently, both amused and pleased that Feroxa seemed to be evoking positive reactions from his guide… deciding to follow her lead, he offered, "My apologies, Dear Lady. Kind Sir, please allow me to introduce my regal and talented spirit guide, Feroxa."

"Feroxa, what a great name. It means fierce or ferocious, I think. It's nice to meet you, Feroxa." Tony answered shyly, before glancing quickly at Spencer then turning to greet Agent Gibbs and asking in a staged whisper, "Hi, Boss… Did you bring a friend too?"

"Yup. His name Dr. Spencer Reid, and I think he's going to be a good friend; someone we both can trust. Watched him working your case - he cleared you by the way - an think that you two could make a good team. "

"You don't want me on your team anymore?" Tony asked sounding almost heartbreakingly - devastated.

"Don't put words in my mouth, DiNozzo? I trust you to have my six, and always will, Tony. Just saying that I think you two could be a good team - and only that.

"Oh." Tony sat a bit straighter, clearly mollified and pleased with the implied compliments, before he realized that he had forgotten his manners and turned his attention back to Spencer, hesitantly extending his hand.

"It's nice to meet you, Doctor Reid." Tony offered, his voice sounded pleasant and welcoming, but what Spencer paid more attention to was the sad, slightly-longing expression that momentarily crossed his face as their hands touched.

"The pleasure is mine Agent DiNozzo." Spencer intoned formally, not wanting to forced familiarity on his guide before Tony was ready to accept his overtures. "May I ask what you're reading?"

"It's … Harrison Bergeron. I've read it before, but my father said it's an important book to read and understand."

"I see. How old were you when you read it? My mother was a professor of Literature and explained a lot of books to me when I first read them. Did he explain it for you?"

"I was eight. Yeah, he said I didn't understand it right, so explained it alot. Over and over til I got it right."

"Did he?" Spencer asked rhetorically, wondering if Anthony DiNozzo Sr. had any inkling of the danger he was in if what Spencer suspected was true.

"Mmhm. He doesn't like it when I don't think the way wants me to."

"My father was like that sometimes," Spencer replied, contemplating what it meant that Tony's traumas were so close to the surface. Behind them, he heard Blair over-explaining the significance of the book in suppressing and frightening gifted children whether latent sentinels and guides or not, and wished his sometimes mentor would employ a bit more subtlety about his disdain.

"The novel sickeningly elevates a character titled the Handicapper General of the United States as a protector of society who does so by disabling those who are above average, and while sentinels and guides aren't specifically mentioned the implications are clear enough. She and her minions are sanctioned by nationally-instituted 'handicap'-ping laws that create and enforce new hindrances for superior beings such as the central character Harrison Bergeron, who displays characteristics of both guides and sentinels. While it's a dystopian and purgative work, introducing it to very young children, especially gifted young children with limited social contact whose family situation has been challenging enough for them to start demonstrating signs of coming online is beyond neglect and highly suggestive of a troubling…" Blair rambled on behind them.

Regardless of his current appearance, though, Tony was an adult with an adult's mind and had probably come to the same conclusion. Taking that thought into account, the ease at which they'd reached him, and the almost surface level proximity of what was clearly an early trauma, Spencer reconsidered his earlier comment to Gibbs before noticing that Tony was suddenly giving their spirit guides his full and complete attention, intently avoiding the other discussion. The conclusion Spencer came to was only speculation, but he suspected that if he tried to calculate the probability of his answer being correct, it would fall somewhere in the 98th percentile.

Giving Tony his complete attention, Spencer studied the childlike appearing guide looking for some form of confirmation, before he finally just asserted, "you know why we're here, don't you?"

"Yup," the child said, Tony's voice becoming incongruously adult in tone and pitch though the childlike image didn't change. "I didn't want to come back here at first, but figured that maybe it's the best way. I'm not trying to reject you or anything; you are great, I can tell, but getting stuck with me wouldn't be good, and not through any fault on your part. It really is a 'it's not you, it's me' thing.”

“Sentinels are stubborn, though," he said with a wry glance toward Gibbs, "so, I thought maybe a bit of show 'n tell might make it clearer, and I don't mind Boss getting a peek or two in my closets and and darker cubbies. I think he's already figured out where most of the skeletons are."

"That said, Folks," Tony raised his voice, which had returned to the childlike tone and intonation to speak to the rest of their party: "The fun house is invitation only, so just Boss and the Doc can go in. Everyone else stays outside, but trust me, you’re not missing anything. I don't even want to go in there.”

Chapter Text

In fact…" Tony faced them again, asking, "Do I gotta go back in?"

Cutting Blair off, as the Shaman immediately tried to badger his guide into joining them, Spencer interrupted, "Of course it's alright, Agent DiNozzo if you’d prefer not to go in. Would you like Agent Gibbs and Lobo stay with you?"

The phrase 'those lying eyes' popped into Spencer's thoughts as he watched Tony shake his head, deferring, "No, that's okay … Some translation's probably required." His eyes were almost miserable, though, and Gibbs saw it as well.

"Hey, Champ, how about we have Lobo and Feroxa stay out here while you and Ducky catch up with Jimmy and Ms. Garcia. They have news to share and unless I miss my guess, a new name to pick out."

"How did he know?" Mr. Palmer questioned, startled, clearly not accustomed to fine tuning his senses to match the environment.

"You don't mind?" Tony asked, uncertain, but clearly hoping that they didn’t.

Tony's relief should have been something that Spencer found mollifying, but put into a context that Spencer was all too familiar with - namely being unable to cope with his own thoughts and memories - Tony's need for comfort from their spirit guides particularly when his own was noticeably absent… Well, the implications were clear and troubling - to say the least. As was the evidence that Tony was not quite thinking straight as it was. Given his experience with other sentinels, beyond Gibbs, if Tony truly thought that anything Spencer witnessed would change his mind, he not only didn't understand how emphatic matches occurred, but also completely misread how sentinels in general, and he, in particular, viewed guides.

Certainly, Spencer had difficulties with the 'Sacred Protector' mythos, but not for the responsibility it implicitly assigned to him; instead, he found the assignment of an impaired role to the guide as essentially an innocent and incapable 'Sacred Victim' that the sentinel was sworn to protect insulting to both, illogical, and frankly contradictory to the underlying biological and spiritual imperatives that catalyzed sentinel/guide bonds.

The historical and sociological roles of sentinel 'AND’ GUIDE pairs was to protect and guide the tribe; Chief and Shaman, Emperor and Advisor, Godfather and Consigliere - all were manifestations of the sentinel-guide imperatives - imperatives which left no room for either of the pairing to be a liability or a protectee who would distract the other's attention from internal or external threats to the tribe. Social Psychology alone should have informed theorists that the prospective abilities of guides to influence tribes stereotyped warrior-like sentinels would have been infinitesimal if they were the fragile philosophic aesthetes the all-too-commonly-accepted mythos portrayed.

"No, Tony, I don't mind," Gibbs answered for them both, continuing, "and considering the lapful you've got there, I think it's safe to say the doctor doesn't either."

His attention drawn by the odd comment, Spencer looked down to see Feroxa curling up in his guides' lap, her head and neck pressed up his chest so that her nose rested just beneath Tony’s chin.

“Not at all,” Spencer confirmed, before prompting, “Agent Gibbs?” and gesturing toward the door.

“Yeah, let’s go.” Gibbs agreed, reaching out to ruffle Tony’s hair before turning and joining Spencer.

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"He trusts you, as much as he can trust anyone with his instincts suppressed so deeply, but it means he will listen to you and accept what you say at face value, both positive and negative." Spencer offered as he closed the door behind them.

Gibbs’ responding gaze reminded Spencer very much of Hotch’s gaze when he sometimes ‘dumbed’ down his explanations too much and unnecessarily stated something Hotch already knew and felt Spencer should realize he knew. Still the caution was worth making, even if Gibbs already realized how important his opinion was to Tony. The fact that...

As they entered the manor's vestibule, Spencer's thoughts trailed off, suddenly no longer certain of what he had been anticipating when confronted with an abundance of symbolic details he undoubtedly should have expected, but hadn't … at least not in terms of terms of the depth and clarity of their symbolism.

Politely tucked away into the semi-appropriate galosh shelf were plaster leg casts ranging in size from one for a pre-mobile infant and several toddler and young child-sized half and full-length casts to a single adult-sized, full-support fiberglass cast designed to give additional support for orthopedic pinning. Tucked at the end of the boot shelf was a small pyramid of tightly rolled youth ankle and knee wraps. At the end of the upholstered bench, an umbrella stand oddly resembled a vase blooming with a bouquet of various-sized children's crutches and a cane, while the rain-cloak cabinet held at least one sling on each hook and disturbingly, on the cabinet's high shelf, pushed back almost into the sienna-toned shadows was a neck brace that based on it’s visible diameter could not have fit even a prepubescent child.

“Easy there, Reid; he might listen and trust what I say, but I guarantee he’s damn well listening for how you’re reacting to all this and the kind of growling you’re doing isn’t what he needs to hear.” Gibbs coaxed gruffly.

~~~ Growling?!? ~~~

The tightness in his throat, even though he had apparently stopped his subconscious vocalizations, was enough to convince Spencer that ‘yes, he actually had been growling’.

“Noted.” Spencer answered before pausing to reach out empathically to assess whether his reaction had caused his guide distress. The empathic echo that he picked up from Tony, while uncertain, was not particularly distressed though he felt some layer of resignation toward Gibbs’ reaction and thin layer of confusion toward his own. The empathic tinge coloring Tony’s resignation toward Gibbs seeming lack of effect prompted Spencer to bring the topic to the surface - suspecting that, despite his guide’s inherent empathy, Tony was misreading Gibbs seeming lack of effect as disinterest.

“You knew?”

“First time we changed in the lockers for a sparring match, got Ducky to pull all the medical records and check ups he could find after, saw they only accounted for about a third of his scars, and spent the next couple of months going to the range in whatever spare time we had around cases and sticking Senior’s face on a bunch of paper targets. Improved on my clustered headshots by close to 15pts, but spooked the range master a bit.” Gibbs admitted, and Spencer immediately felt Tony’s tone color with surprise as the resignation quickly faded.

Considering Gibbs’ training and experience as a sniper, where the levels of improvement in expertise were often rated in decimals, the improvement was significant and telling, and Spencer suspected that Tony was well aware of the significance. Nodding his acceptance, Spencer gestured deeper into the hall, not wanting to linger amidst the evidence of Tony’s suffering childhood abuse especially as a compartmented segment of his mind began to calculate the probable number of actual injuries that Tony had suffered throughout childhood in relation to known data and resultant statistical inferences.

“While I have never particularly found shooting ranges to be cathartic, I believe that will be a necessary activity to add to my schedule in the foreseeable future.” Spencer commented honestly before asking, “Would you happen to have a copy of the man’s picture available?”

“On my computer.” Gibbs agreed, “Had to keep printing them, and they’ve come in handy a couple of times when Tony’s ended up in the hospital.”

“A digital copy would probably have the most utility, then.” Spencer agreed, monitoring the shift in Tony’s tone toward his reaction from confusion to disbelief.

Leaving the vestibule behind Spencer followed the increase in lighting that lead them from the hall to a formal sitting room that was unaccountably decorated in Baroque period furniture and accessories. Every wall was adorned with gilt-framed portraits of a blond, madonna-like figure seated in various iterations of lushly-upholstered, velvet-tufted, throne-like chairs in a wide range of settings and scenarios from entertaining companions at small dinner parties to reading or playing the piano to seemingly ignoring what looked like a depiction of an effusively ranting man. Although it was difficult to see initially, each of the portraits shared two other common features: the first was a barely discernible image of a small sallow-skinned boy, dressed in the same pallid-blue sailor suit that the childlike image of Tony on the porch wore. In each of the portraits, the boy’s image was standing in shadowed backgrounds and shadowy corners, watching the ‘goings-on’ with barely concealed longing in eyes almost-hidden by Christopher-Robin style bangs. The second common feature was the presence of a brightly glimmering liquor or martini glass in the hand of or in close proximity to the blond Madonna that Spencer needed no translation at all to recognize as Tony’s mother.

The noticeable theme of liquor glasses was carried into the room itself, as well, with abundant arrays of sparkling crystal decanters gilded in ornate floral motifs spreading across the tops more console tables than a well appointed room would have normally had. Aside from the abundance of console tables, the sitting room was nearly spartan, holding only five other furnishings: a single high-back, rosewood queen’s throne-chair with full-velvet tufting on the seat and armrests, enameled in cream with gold crackle overlays; to its side and several feet back, a low, Italianate Renaissance style bench upholstered in velvet the pallid blue that he was quickly recognizing as Tony’s symbolic self-reference; a compact, harpsichord-styled piano with double-layered keyboard and ornamentation in cream and gold enameled tulipwood with it’s almost matching student’s piano bench (discordant from the rest of the display due to the very minimal and underdone cushion of pallid blue velvet); and far into the corner, almost hidden behind another bar-like console table, sat a circa 1962 Magnavox Stereo Television combination console that had been noticeably refinished to match the excessive - at least in Spencer’s opinion - Baroque display.

“Tony’s mother…” Gibbs began to explain, only to trail off when Spencer raised a hand, explaining for both Gibbs and Tony’s benefit, “There is a very, very similar room in my own settings in ‘spirit plane’...” While it was uncomfortable to broach such a profoundly personal matter with Gibbs, when he had only barely and vaguely informed Hotch of his mother’s circumstances - in the course of the hiring interview, it was readily apparent that Gibbs was a critical member of Tony’s pride and would, therefore, become one of Spencer’s own.

“While I cannot speculate on Mrs. DiNozzo’s condition, there were numerous instances in my childhood when my mother relied on alcohol to self-medicate and escape the ... psychosis accompanying …” despite knowing his understanding of the utter illogic of doing so on the spirit plane, where breathing was not only irrelevant but completely purposeless, Spencer found himself taking a deep breath and holding it a beat as he forced himself to relax.

Despite having mentally committed himself to admit the painful secret, Spencer still found it difficult to continue, but pushed forward as the quiet sense of the ‘room’ listening to him as he spoke washed over him with a feelin gof comforting intent.

Still his first word was a bit choked as he picked his explanation up: “Paranoid schizophrenia or … well… while the DSM no longer recognizes any distinct subtypes of schizophrenia including paranoid schizophrenia due to their perceived lack of validity… when my mother's condition was diagnosed in accordance with an earlier edition of the DSM, my mother demonstrated all of the characteristics that had previously differentiated what was then thought to be 'paranoid' schizophrenia from the state’s other subtypes: hallucinations, rampant feelings of persecution from the government and Sentinel/Guide council, determinedly guide-oriented if grandiose beliefs about the world, irrationality, and depressive fugues.”

Stepping over to a portrait that he found particularly reminiscent of his mother, Spencer studied it in silence, noticing as the subtle lightening of the rooms in the space nearest the portrait edging the sienna tone closer toward sunlit amber. Despite whatever anxieties Tony might have had regarding his mother that placed her second in Tony’s display of traumas, Spencer’s admission seemed to have opened the way for Tony to ‘shed a little light’ on the woman’s eccentricities… if only to get a sense of Spencer’s reaction to them. Just before turning away from the portrait, Spencer noticed a slight oddity on one of mantles in the image (a carefully and artfully drawn plastic-looking novelty aquarium of the type mass produced since the 90's used to hatch the Artemia Nyous hybrid genus of brine shrimp, as a popularized replacement for ant farms; turned over on its side, the aquarium appeared to be almost empty and dripping speckled drops into a martini glass that was balancing unevenly on a candlestick beside the enthroned Madonna) so integrated into the picture that no one -sentinel or otherwise- would have likely noticed without the increase in light if they had been standing more than three or four feet away from the portrait.

After moving between several portraits, Spencer turned to face the corner that he’d noticed Tony’s image had occupied in most of his portraits, and commented, “despite the worst of her extremes and excesses, in her lucid or near lucid moments, my mother offered me the love and caring that she was capable of and shared her interests and time with me in hopes that I could find joy from them also - some with more success than others - and I love her for those moments no matter how many negative ones came with them.”

A surprisingly solid-feeling hand closed over Spencer’s shoulder causing him to jump slightly in surprise, which seemed to evoke the echo of a mild giggle from outside of the room, but Spencer outside of noting it didn’t comment further on it as he was briefly caught in Gibbs’ understanding, if stoic gaze, until the older agent squeezed his shoulder and nodded toward a doorway along a side wall that had been partly obscured by frames and console tables.

“I think he’s ready for us to move forward.”

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The next several rooms passed in a similar manner, with Gibbs mostly leading the way, and Spencer sharing his experiences and Gibbs upset and frustration about the level of mistreatment and neglect that had filled Tony’s childhood (and home) with an abundance of pain, isolation, and neglect - particularly after his mother died. The scenes they had been walking through had been so alike in pattern that it was quite jarring when they found themselves stepping from a baroque decorated room in a Federalist-style manor -- into the harshly-lit suite of a commercially ‘stylish’ high-rise apartment with an ocean view of the pacific (if Spencer was correctly categorizing the palms he saw in the distance). Almost as jarring as the change in view, though, was the sudden absence of symbolism as a projection of dark haired man dressed in an expensive Caraceni Italian influenced, three-piece suit pushed a no-longer blue-suited though not much older, Tony into the apartment ahead of him and slammed the door behind them.

Nothing could have stopped Spencer from growling as the projection called out, “Branzanelli, I’ve brought the boy, where’s my money?!?” Gibbs wasn’t likely to call him down for it, though, as the senior agent was growling equally loudly, though.