Afterwards, Tony would recall that when the phone rang, a shiver ran down his back, and that some here-to-fore unrecognized psychic part of his brain had told him sharply not to answer. But he was an NCIS agent and when his phone rang, he answered it.
"Very Special Agent Tony DiNozzo at your service."
He has no idea what happened next. Well, that's not exactly true, he knows what happened next, but he still has no idea what it means. That's not quite true either. He knows, somehow, in some way, that he's completely fucked.
It had been a tiring day, and Gibbs was thinking of letting the team go early; thinking being the correct term because he hated to set dangerous precedents. However, as he let his gaze roam over his agents, he couldn't help but notice they were essentially checked out anyway.
It had been several very long days, but they had finally caught their perp who had cracked under interrogation, nicely done by DiNozzo and, with the exception of said DiNozzo who Gibbs would swear was sleeping with his eyes open, all their reports were in.
"If you've sent me your report," Gibbs said loudly, "you can go home."
DiNozzo almost fell out of his chair which was satisfying to watch. McGee raised exhausted red eyes to him as if to see whether Gibbs was telling the truth. The hope in them almost made Gibbs feel bad. Ziva was already up and moving. "Goodnight, all," she said and was gone.
McGee was next, slowly pulling his gear together. "Goodnight," he said. Then to DiNozzo, "You done?"
"Almost, McWorrywart," DiNozzo said, putting his fingers on the keyboard. "I'll be right behind you."
Gibbs bet he hadn't even started his report yet. And indeed, once McGee and Ziva were gone, DiNozzo groaned and put his head down on his desk. "My brain is dead."
Gibbs grinned. "Go home, DiNozzo. Come back in tomorrow and write it."
"Really?" DiNozzo moaned, face still planted, although he turned it toward Gibbs' location. "You're not teasing me, are you? Because just the possibility of procrastination is filling me with the will to live again."
Now that no one was around, Gibbs laughed. He had to keep his amusement to a dull roar when the team was around, didn't want anyone to think he had a favorite. "Really, Tony. Go home."
"Can't I come over? Don't you have steak? If I go home I'll just have pop-tarts." He sat up. "God, unless I’m out. I could be out of pop-tarts. This has catastrophe written all over it."
That's when Tony's phone rang. Gibbs was momentarily arrested at the expression on Tony's face, as if he knew there was bad news on the other end of the line. Gibbs paid attention as Tony answered it.
"Very Special Agent Tony DiNozzo at your service."
Tony looked quizzical, then annoyed. "Who the hell is this?"
Gibbs found himself standing like Tony was in danger.
"What? I can hardly hear you. What about my mom? My mom's been dead for a long time." There was a pause, a look of incredulity on Tony's face. "What are you talking about? Who is this? Call my father? Who is this?" Tony listened for another moment then slammed down the phone. "Jesus, I wish McGee was still here so he could use his magic fingers to get that phone number."
"What was that about?" Gibbs asked.
Tony made a circular motion with his index finger by his right temple but his eyes were a little too freaked out for him to be writing this off completely as a joke. "Someone opened a cage and let a crazy out with my telephone number. Fun times."
"What was it about?" Gibbs asked again, pushing.
Tony held up a finger and then quickly dialed another number. "Dad? It's Tony. Call me as soon as you get this message, it's important." He hung up. "Not that he'll call, of course. He's probably wooing wife number seventeen."
Gibbs used to think Tony had been kidding about that until he'd met the older DiNozzo.
"It was just some whacko with a little too much information, like my mom's name and when she died, and who I was, and something about my fortieth birthday and some legacy."
A weird chill went down Gibbs' back. "What kind of legacy?"
"No idea. Something to do with animals? Like I said, whack job."
"Speaking of your birthday," Gibbs started.
"Just tell me I can come over for steak," Tony interrupted. "That's all I want."
"You can come over for steak," Gibbs agreed with a grin. "I forgot with today's case but I was planning on having you over for your birthday. Either tonight or tomorrow." Tomorrow was Tony's actual birthday.
"Both?" Tony pleaded with a puppy dog stare. "Or we can start tonight and let it bleed over into tomorrow."
"My guest room is your guest room, DiNozzo, let's go."
Springing up like a Labrador, full of energy now, Tony grabbed his backpack. "Need me to pick up anything on the way home? I mean, to your home."
Something visceral in Gibbs enjoyed the idea that Tony thought of Gibbs' house as home. "Nope. See you in a few."
They both separated at the elevator to their respective parking spaces and, on the drive home, Gibbs made a mental note to have McGee track down that phone number on Monday.
He kept an eye on his rear-view mirror, keeping Tony in sight, even though Tony knew the way as well as Gibbs, given how many times he'd come over. His thoughts touched on that phone call, wishing he'd heard the other end of it. It would be just like DiNozzo Senior to somehow cock up Tony's birthday.
He pushed that thought aside as he swung into his driveway, leaving room for Tony to park beside him, and then made his way to the front door, taking his time, waiting for Tony to catch up. Gibbs pushed open the door and, once Tony was in, shut it and locked it.
"You locking the door?" Tony asked, eyebrows up.
"Yeah," Gibbs said, not wanting to explain it, not wanting to discuss that chill down his spine, or his need to make sure nothing happened to Tony. "You're the one who said they let some whack-job out of their cage."
Tony seemed to take that as explanation enough and bounded up the stairs, throwing his backpack into the guest bedroom. Considering the man had been all but asleep at his desk, Gibbs had no idea where this energy was coming from.
"Your dad call?"
"Nope," Tony said, coming down the stairs at a more sedate pace. "Shocking, right?" He rolled his eyes.
Gibbs turned up one side of his lips into a half-smile. Senior and Junior had one thing in common: there was no one quite like them. "Beer?"
"You bet," Tony said, heading for the refrigerator. "Mind if I make a salad?"
"You're assuming there's anything salad-like in there," Gibbs pointed out.
Tony was already rummaging inside the refrigerator. "Hey, you got the main ingredient," he said, as he presented a bag full of questionable lettuce. "I can work magic with that."
"Knock yourself out." Gibbs squeezed in next to him to grab the glass bowl that held the marinating steaks, reaching under Tony's arm that was resting against the top freezer section. Tony slid an inch to the side to make room for him.
Not for the first time, Gibbs was astounded at how the idea of personal space with Tony seemed nonexistent. It had been that way for a while; in fact Gibbs wasn't exactly sure when it had started, but he was comfortable around Tony, and vice-versa, in a way that spoke of long-term companionship, of years of living together, like an old-married couple. The only hard part about it was remembering not to do it at work. Not to nudge Tony with his hip when he was getting a little too manic, or to split his sandwich or share his coffee, or to put an affectionate hand on Tony's neck when he needed to be close.
He had to stick with head slaps and, occasionally, standing hip to hip with Tony. And yet, somehow they made that work, too. There were surprisingly few mishaps and nothing that anyone on the team had noticed. Gibbs thought the reason it never went overboard in public was that, whatever it was, neither of them wanted to share it with anyone else. It was theirs. It was a feeling of home that neither of them had had for much too long.
Moving to some music inside his head, Tony's hips were swaying as he ripped lettuce leaves apart, much of the greens ending in the sink to go down the disposal. For an insane moment, Gibbs felt like grabbing his hips and pulling him into a dance. For an even more insane moment, Gibbs thought he should just do it. Tony wouldn't care. He'd just lean his head back and laugh out loud and totally go with it.
Liking the feeling of insanity, Gibbs went into the living room and put on some music, something jazzy Tony had left here one of the many times he'd stayed. When Tony appeared in the doorway, curious about Gibbs' disappearance, Gibbs moved to him, held one hand out in a courtly gesture, and just as predicted, Tony laughed out loud and put his hand on Gibbs'.
They danced around the living room, occasionally losing track of who was leading, but it was fun, really fun, and Gibbs missed having fun in his life, missed knowing this silliness was his to elicit and claim. The sudden spike of need for more, more of this, more of Tony, that he really didn't have the right to, caused him to push Tony far enough away to spin him around and end the dance.
Tony kept dancing right back into the kitchen, as if the fact that he and Gibbs had just danced together was nothing out of the ordinary, and Gibbs thought maybe he had a right to more than he thought.
Tony's cell phone rang at ten pm. They were both slouched in front of the TV, dishes still sitting in front of them, a row of five empty beers forming a ring around the mostly empty salad bowl.
Both Tony and Gibbs stared down at it. "That your dad?" Gibbs asked.
"It's not his number, but he could be calling from some prison cell in Alabama for all I know."
The phone kept ringing.
"You gonna answer it?"
Tony sighed, but slid the bar to answer the phone, putting it on speaker at the same time.
"DiNozzo," Tony snapped out.
"It begins at midnight." The words could be heard, but there was a lot of static and the speaker had an unusual accent.
"Oh, boy," Tony said under his breath. "What begins at midnight?"
"The first will come. Be prepared."
"The first of what?" Tony asked.
Gibbs appreciated the fact that Tony wasn't flipping out this time but was, instead, trying to garner some useful information. Not that it was working very well.
"You must be prepared," the voice said again, urgently. "You may do no harm to the first who comes to you, or you will be cursed."
A wild laugh escaped out of Tony, and Gibbs could relate. What the fuck?
"What does this have to do with my mother?"
"She died too young to receive her birthright, so it passes to you. She had the necessary training as a child, as you have not."
"Training for what?"
"That is all I may tell you. I have already told you too much."
"You haven't told me anything!" Tony yelled at the phone. But the static cut out, along with the speaker. Tony gestured at the phone with an emphatic salute. "See? Whack job. Why is it always me they go after? Well, me and Abby. At least Abby I understand, because she hangs out with whack jobs. I hang out with you, the least whack-jobby person I know."
Gibbs smirked at that, choosing to take it as a compliment. "Maybe I should call Abby and see what she can tell us about your caller."
"You really think I've got something to be nervous about?" Tony asked. "I was fine thinking they were just a nut. I have no need, at all, to assume that it's a nut with a gun who is coming for me at midnight." He blew out a beleaguered breath. "Glad you locked the door, Boss."
Gibbs wasn't sure what to think. "Call your dad again. No wait, let me call him." Gibbs grabbed Tony's phone and flipped through his contacts. "Dad?"
Tony actually reddened. "No, that's your dad." He winced. "My dad's listed as Senior."
"You trying to steal my dad, DiNozzo?" Gibbs said with a lopsided grin.
"Can I? You can have mine. Even swap. Wait, yeah, that's not really fair. I'll give you a thousand dollars, too."
"I'll pass." Gibbs found the "Senior" contact and made the call. It flipped right into voice mail and Gibbs thought Tony was probably right. He was either romancing someone or conning someone. How the hell Tony turned out so different, or maybe not so different but using his powers for good, was beyond Gibbs. He felt a surge of pride in the man sitting next to him. "It's Gibbs. Call me." He rattled off his phone number, hoping the fact that he'd called might put a fire under the old man's ass.
He sat there, holding Tony's phone, musing for a moment. "You know, I can't remember one time I called my dad when he didn't answer his phone." Annoyance with himself for all the years he'd lost being a pigheaded bastard washed through him. So many fucking regrets; a man could drown in them.
"I can't remember one time I called my dad when he did answer his phone," Tony said. "Of course, I took that as blatant permission to do anything I wanted when I was young." He waggled his eyebrows at Gibbs. "He'd have saved himself a lot of headaches if he'd bothered to answer. Not as smart as he thinks he is."
Gibbs snickered, grateful, again, that Tony was the one that kept him from drowning in those regrets, more often than not. "I think I'll turn in."
"Good idea." They both stood up, walking around the house shutting lights off, and ensuring both back and front windows and doors were locked up tight.
As they reached the upstairs landing, Gibbs said, "Leave your door open."
He got another eyebrow wag for that. "Planning on dropping by?"
Again, Gibbs sensed that more than a flirt was on offer. Maybe everything Gibbs had been hoping for. Maybe even more than that - the hopes and dreams so deep inside that Gibbs rarely let them out into the light of day. Gibbs didn't want to say no and rebuff Tony, but he wasn't ready to say yes. Instead he smiled and let his affection shine clearly in his eyes until Tony grinned back, having clearly heard the unspoken 'not yet'.
"I just want to make sure I've got ears on anybody dropping by unexpectedly," Gibbs told him.
"Fair enough. Just don't hold it against me if I scream like a little girl if a spider lands on me in the middle of the night."
"First of all, I've already heard you scream like a little girl and, second, there are no spiders to drop on you."
Tony rolled his eyes. "Boss, you may be awesome at many, many things, but housekeeping is not your forte." He pushed the door to the guest bedroom open and flicked on the light. "Exhibit A."
Gibbs frowned up at the corner of the bedroom, nearest to the bed, where Tony was pointing. "Damn." There was an impressive spider web there, with an impressively large spider smack in the middle.
"That web's been there a while," Tony pointed out, "to get that big."
"Well, if it makes you feel any better," Gibbs said with a short laugh, "I'd scream like a little girl if that thing landed on me in the middle of the night." He went to get a glass, and five minutes later the spider was released into the great outdoors. Once it was gone, Tony said good night and went back into his bedroom and shut the door.
Gibbs was used to this routine. Tony stayed in there until Gibbs was done with the bathroom and settled in his bedroom. Then it would be Tony's turn. They'd done this ritual more times than Gibbs could count, and he guessed it was Tony's way of trying to stay out of his way. Gibbs used to appreciate it. Now he wouldn't care if he and Tony brushed their teeth at the same time.
"Good night, Tony," Gibbs called through the closed door. He'd make sure it was open after Tony settled in. He wasn't expecting to get an easy night's sleep with that odd phone call hanging over them. In fact…Gibbs went downstairs to the basement and called Abby.
"Gibbs!" she said, sounding wide awake.
"That would be me," he said, grinning. He never had to hide that Abby was a favorite. "Do me a favor?"
"See if you can identify who called Tony about thirty minutes ago."
"Something hinky going on?"
"I'm not sure, but my gut is acting up, and I don't like to ignore it."
"Can I ask whoever's on call at NCIS and walk them through it, or do you want me to go in?"
"I'd rather it was you, Abs. I'll owe you."
She made a sound reminiscent of a raspberry. "Please. Is Tony there?"
"Good. I'll call you back as soon as I hear anything."
Gibbs hung up and pursed his lips, staring into nothing.
"That phone call rattled you, huh?"
Not surprised to see Tony sitting on the steps watching him, Gibbs nodded. "It might be nothing, but I'd rather have as much information as we can."
"Well, you're not gonna like this, then," Tony said, holding up his phone. "Great minds think alike, and I thought I could call the number back, see what I could figure out, but it's not there."
"What do you mean?"
Tony pulled up his list of phone calls. "It's not there. The last call registered is my call to you earlier this afternoon." He walked over and handed Gibbs the phone. "No call this evening."
"We both heard it," Gibbs insisted.
"Yes, we did, but it's not here, and I'm betting Abby gets nowhere."
"Could someone be playing a joke on you?" Gibbs asked, thinking it wasn't very funny, and they were going to get his boot up their ass.
"The only people I know who have the skill set to call me and not leave a trace are Abby and Tim, and I don't really think they'd do something like this, do you?"
"Tim pranks you all the time," Gibbs pointed out.
"Yes, he does," Tony said with a proud grin, "but it's pretty predictable stuff with the goal of public humiliation. This doesn't feel like that. If you hadn't invited me over, I'd have been home alone for that call."
Gibbs called Abby again.
"Jeez, Gibbs, I'm not even there yet," Abby complained.
"Check Tony's desk phone, too. A similar call came in at around four-thirty pm." He raised his eyebrows at Tony to corroborate the time and Tony nodded.
"Gotcha. And I want to be the one who hangs up on you this time so bye." The phone disconnected, and Gibbs let out a short huff of laughter.
"Catch the news?" Gibbs said, suddenly not tired at all.
Tony nodded again, and moved to the small black and white television set and turned it on. "Can I bring a better TV set over one of these days for down here?"
"Sure, but wouldn't you rather put one in the living room?"
Blinking, clearly surprised, and then grinning, delighted, Tony said, "Hell, I'll bring two!"
Gibbs hid his smile, curious to see what Tony would do with the inch Gibbs just gave him, and how he'd turn it into a mile, or more likely a marathon. He sat on one of the stools, while Tony hoisted himself up on his work table, and they watched the news and waited for Abby's call.
It was half way through the weather report when Gibbs' phone rang. Gibbs snatched it up and snapped, "What do you have?"
"Nothing," Abby said, sounding annoyed. "Is this a joke or something? Cuz if it is, I don't get the funny part. I was bowling, Gibbs. Bowling."
"Nothing?" Gibbs parroted, looking at Tony.
Tony huffed out a breath. "Fuck my life."
"Is there another way to check? Check the surveillance in the bullpen and you can see Tony speaking on the phone. Both Tony and I were here and he put the call on his cell phone on speaker. There was a call."
There was a long pause. "Wow. So really hinky."
"Okay, I'll see what I can do. It's your turn to hang up rudely, so go ahead."
Laughing softly, Gibbs hung up.
"So," Tony said, "I think I'm staying up until midnight. I'd rather not be in jammies in case the aliens abduct me."
"I thought you slept in the nude," Gibbs pointed out.
Tony reddened a little, but rallied quickly, saying. "I was trying to protect your delicate sensibilities. But I'd rather be in my jammies than naked when the aliens abduct me."
Gibbs was exhausted, and he knew Tony was, too, but he'd rather they were together and clothed when the aliens or whoever the fuck came to visit. "How is this not a prank?" he blurted out.
"Yeah, I know. It's a little too weird, right?"
"Your frat brothers?"
"Nah," Tony said. "Not really their style. Not when they have their pick of things to harass me about."
"Anybody we arrest lately have the skill set for this?"
Tony considered the question. "I have no idea. My brain is shot. I'd need to go into the office and check out cases to make sure." He chewed on his lower lip for a moment. "Do you think they know I'm here? Wouldn't they think I'm at home?"
"With this kind of electronic knowhow?" Gibbs asked. "I'm guessing they know exactly where you are." He glanced at his watch. Almost eleven. His phone rang. "Yeah?"
"I see him talking, but there's no corresponding phone call. I got nothing. Maybe Tim could figure something out. Want me to wake him up?"
Gibbs thought about it. "No. Thanks, Abs, I'll see you Monday." He hung up although he was sure Abby would say it was her turn.
"No luck?" Tony asked.
Gibbs shook his head. "You're on the security tape, but no call matches up."
Tony whistled. "So they were able to mess with NCIS as well as my phone? What the fuck, Gibbs? Should we leave?"
"No, I can shut down the lights and still know my way around here. You got your weapon?"
"Go get it."
Gibbs opened a drawer and pulled out the gun he kept down there, checking it was loaded. He heard thumps upstairs and went running. "Tony?"
"Here. Fine. I just thought I'd bring a chair downstairs. I'm tired. And you may be fine falling asleep on the basement floor, but I'm not."
Snorting, Gibbs helped Tony maneuver one of the kitchen chairs downstairs. "Not like you're going to get a good nap on one of those."
"Oh ye of little faith," Tony scoffed.
On second thought, Gibbs totally believed him. Tony could fall asleep anywhere, on or in anything. Tony raced back upstairs and came down with two beers, a pillow, a blanket, and his gun. He handed Gibbs a beer, then got himself situated on the chair with a pillow behind his back, the blanket over his lap, and the gun on the floor between his feet.
"Comfy, Granny?" Gibbs teased him.
"Which of us is usually in a piss poor mood in the morning at work? Hmm?" Tony challenged. "I'll tell you who, it's the one who thinks it's perfectly fine to sleep on cement."
They let the news play on as Gibbs began to sand the wooden box he was working on. It was Tony's birthday present and was large enough to keep a gun in. Gibbs planned on letting the birthday boy choose the stain. After a few minutes, he heard a snore and turned to see Tony fast asleep, somehow, despite the fact that he was taller than Gibbs, curled up in the chair, head on the pillow and the blanket tucked up under his neck. He looked like he was five years old. The sight tugged on Gibbs' heartstrings, and he desperately wanted to pull Tony upstairs and put him to bed in Gibbs' room.
Gibbs glanced at the clock and went back to sanding, one ear out for any unusual noises. The next time he noted the time it was one fifteen. He wasn't sure if that meant the whole thing was a hoax, or if the caller meant sometime after midnight, or if they hadn't known Tony was here and had done whatever they were going to do at Tony's apartment.
He stared at Tony for a long while. There was no way Tony wasn't going to have a crick in his neck if he slept there all night long; maybe it was time to put a couch down here. Gibbs trotted upstairs to get things set up in the living room. Tony could sleep on the couch, and Gibbs would do fine in the lazy boy chair. No way was he letting Tony sleep somewhere out of his sight.
"Sorry, sorry," a voice said.
Tony tried to wake up but was in the paralyzed state of skirting the edges of a dream.
"Have to, have to," the voice said again.
He felt something crawl on his foot, and tried to kick his leg, to yell for Gibbs, still not sure if this was real or not.
"You need us. We'll help you. You'll see." And that was when something bit him on the ankle.
"Jesus!" Tony yelled, jerking awake and falling out of the precarious sleep position he'd been in to crash onto the floor, slamming his knees and right elbow onto the cement floor. "Fuck, fuck, fuck!"
"Tony!" Gibbs yelled, racing down the stairs.
Tony felt dazed, and his fucking knees hurt, and his arm was killing him. "Something bit me."
Gibbs grabbed his right arm and then let go abruptly when Tony hissed. Tony put up his left hand instead, and Gibbs helped lever him off the floor. "What happened?"
"I think that spider came down here and bit me."
Gibbs was staring at him like he was on drugs or something. Tony shook his hand loose, sat down in the chair, and rolled up his left pant leg. "Look."
Gibbs did a double take, which at any other time would have made Tony laugh, but Tony was hurting everywhere, and he was fucking exhausted, and still not positive this wasn't some wacky dream, and Gibbs was about to smack him on the head and he'd be back at work, and Gibbs would be telling him to finish writing his report.
Crouching down now, Gibbs grabbed Tony's ankle and took a closer look. "Well, shit. Something did bite you. But it wasn't a spider. You have teeth marks."
Tony bent over and almost lost his balance.
"Sit back," Gibbs directed, pushing him back in the chair.
Tony sat. He looked at his ankle along with Gibbs and could see a circle of puncture marks. Two larger ones, on one side, and a few smaller ones opposite. The diameter of the marks wasn't much larger than a pencil eraser. "Do you have rats?"
"No, DiNozzo," Gibbs said, sounding offended, "I do not have rats."
"Okay. Doubtful a rat could make a call, let alone erase it, right?"
"Right. Let's go upstairs, we need to wash that out."
"Do I need a tetanus shot?"
"Not unless its teeth were rusty. Maybe a rabies shot."
"Fuck and ow, ow, ow." Tony kept up the commentary the whole way up the stairs.
"Don't be such a baby," Gibbs said.
"Maybe you should put some carpet down in the basement," Tony shot back. "I need some ice."
"For the bite?"
"No, for my knees and elbow!" Tony shucked his pants in the kitchen, not caring if Gibbs got an eyeful. At least he was wearing some boxer briefs that he knew he looked good in. He sat down and looked at his knees; they looked swollen to him.
Gibbs took one look at his knees and opened the freezer pulling out two bags of peas. "Here," he said, tossing them one at a time to Tony, followed by the roll of paper towels.
Tony wrapped each bag of peas up several times in paper towels and put them on his knees, resting his right elbow on the top of his right knee. By that time, Gibbs was back with some hot water and an antiseptic. He sat next to Tony and pulled his foot onto his lap.
"I know you think you don't have rats," Tony said, hissing as Gibbs wiped away the blood, "but I think you do."
Gibbs wanted to argue, Tony could see it on his face, but it was hard to counter Tony's argument when he had teeth marks on his ankle.
"I'll get some traps," Gibbs conceded.
"I guess I slept through our midnight deadline?"
"Like a snoring baby."
"So what the hell was that all about?" Tony complained. "I mean, where's the follow through?"
"Do you wish someone had attacked at midnight?"
"At least we'd know, right? Now we might never know what any of this was all about."
Gibbs shrugged, rubbing an antiseptic ointment on the bite and covering it with an adhesive strip.
Tony grinned down at him. "G.I. Joe bandaids?"
"Abby," was all Gibbs said.
Gibbs put Tony's foot down, much to Tony's dismay; he'd liked it where it was with Gibbs' hands all over it. "Let's try to get some sleep."
"No," Gibbs said. "Living room. That's what I was getting set up when you screamed like a little girl."
"Shut up," Tony said, but he was laughing.
Within fifteen minutes, both men were bunked down in the living room, guns at the ready, Tony's pants back on. The only concession to sleeping was the lack of shoes. As Tony lay on the couch, his ankle throbbing, he wished he'd taken some Tylenol. The longer he lay there, the more it hurt, so he finally, quietly, got up and moved into the kitchen.
He'd been at Gibbs' enough times to know where he kept his over the counter medications and opened the second drawer down, pulling out the Tylenol. Tapping three into his palm, he put the bottle back and then got himself something to drink them down with. When he was done, he stood there and, despite the weariness thrumming through his body, was sure he wouldn’t be able to sleep.
That was when he noticed the rat on the counter staring at him.
"What the fuck?" Tony said, taking several steps back.
The rat's nose wrinkled and Tony was convinced the rodent was laughing at him. "I won't hurt you," a voice said in his head.
"Seriously," Tony said. "What the fuck? Was that you? Did you bite me?"
"It was my honor," the rat said with all sincerity, inside Tony's mind.
He was going insane. That was his legacy; to fucking go insane when he turned forty. It explained so much about his dad.
"You are not insane. But this is your legacy."
"To what? Talk to rats? When did I sign up for that? Was I on drugs? Was it when I was dying of the plague, because I wasn't entirely with it, if that's the case. And rats and plagues are sort of going together in a really bad way in my brain right now. Am I going to get the plague again?"
This time he knew the rat was laughing. The little rat-fink. "You will not get sick from my bite. I would not have been chosen if I could have done you harm."
"You call teeth marks no harm?" Tony snapped.
"Who are you talking to?" Gibbs asked, suddenly standing in the doorway.
Tony pointed at the rat. "Do you see that?"
Gibbs' eyes opened wide, and he made a move toward the rat as if to shoo it away. The rat leaped onto Tony, cringing on his shoulder. Gibbs actually froze, his eyes comically wider. "Tony, there's a rat on your shoulder."
"A talking rat," Tony embellished.
"A talking rat?" Gibbs did not look convinced.
"Listen, Ratatouille, get back on the counter. It is totally wigging me out to have you on my shoulder."
He got a questioning sense in his mind.
"You don’t know who Ratatouille is? How can a rat not know who Ratatouille is? How about Justin from The Secret of NIMH? No? Christ, I'm surrounded by people who fail at getting my pop culture references."
"What I'm more concerned with," Gibbs said as the rat leapt back to the counter, "is that you're talking to the rat."
"No kidding." He shook a finger at the rat, "and we are totally watching Ratatouille if you're real, which I'm not entirely convinced of yet. I could totally be dreaming this."
"Tony," Gibbs snapped.
"I don't know what to tell you. I came in here to get some Tylenol, and he was just sitting there blabbing in my head." To the rat he said, "Tell me something I can tell him that he would know I don't know."
They all stood there, well, him and Gibbs stood, the rat sort of hunkered, but still, they stayed there, waiting, until the rat said, "There was a woman with red hair. He rutted with her on the kitchen table using several kitchen utensils."
Tony barked out a laugh. "I am so not telling him that."
"What? Telling me what?"
"That you had sex with someone on that table," Tony said, pointing at the table in question. "And I sincerely hope you've bleached it since then."
"Everyone has sex on their kitchen table."
"Yeah?" Tony asked and then moved to the drawer where Gibbs kept his utensils. He pulled one out and showed it to the rat. "This one?"
The rat shook his head left and right, while Gibbs' eyes almost bugged out of his head. "Flatter."
The rat nodded this time. He leaped to the floor, ran across it and jumped up next to Tony, pointing his nose in the drawer. "That one and that one."
Tony pulled the selected ones out and fanned them in his hand, staring at Gibbs. "Look familiar, you kinky devil you?" He held a spatula, a basting brush, and turkey baster. "What was this for?" He studied the baster. "Oh, I get it, squeeze something delicious in so you can eat it out. That is a great idea. I can't believe I never thought of that."
As red as Gibbs had ever been, he grabbed the utensils out of Tony's hand, slamming them in the drawer and shutting it. He glared at the rat and at Tony, and then back at the rat. "I will shoot you."
Tony started laughing so hard he lost his balance and had to grab onto the refrigerator handle to stay standing. Even that didn't help as he doubled over, grabbing his sides, and he slid to the floor in tears he was laughing so hard. His side and stomach and cheeks were aching with it. The rat leapt to the floor and sat there staring at him.
Seeing the rat looking so perplexed got him started again, but he finally calmed down, riffs of laughter still escaping, even as he took in Gibbs' apoplectic expression. He put a hand out for the rat who stepped onto his palm. "No more biting?"
"No more biting. You wouldn't understand me if I hadn't bitten you, except the few moments before the bite. Only the very first to bite you is given the gift to speak immediately before. You will be able to speak to all now."
"What? What do you mean, all?"
"You will be able to speak to those like me."
"So call me Willard?"
That got him the same questioning sense in his head. "You have got to watch some rat movies, buddy." He sat on the floor, still leaning on the refrigerator, looking up at Gibbs. "Believe me now?"
"How…how is this even possible? And, Jesus H. Christ, was that the only thing he could think of to tell you?"
Tony barked out another laugh. "If you could have seen your face. And hey, now I know you have a thing for kitchen utensils. I can totally work with that."
"DiNozzo, shut the hell up."
Gibbs was blushing and it was adorable. "Shutting up, Boss." But he couldn't help laughing a little bit more. "Hey, who called me?" he asked the rat, inspiration striking and connecting the dots.
"We do not know his name. We do not usually know of him at all, except that you were here, and we had the privilege of knowing, and I had the honor of being chosen."
"What did he say?"
"Can you talk to him, too?" Tony asked, chin pointing at Gibbs.
"No, only the one I bite."
"He has no idea who called," Tony told Gibbs. "I mean, this was what the call was about, but he doesn't know anything about him."
"Will he set traps?" the rat asked anxiously.
"No," Tony promised, glaring up at Gibbs, "he won't set traps."
"Hey," Gibbs said. "I said that after you'd been bitten. It's not like I knew I had fairy tale rats in my house."
"He's a good guy," Tony said assured the rat. "You'd be doing me a favor if you treated him like you'd treat me. Assuming that's a good thing. I mean, you're not all going to come in here and carry me away to tie me to the stone table like Aslan?" He frowned at the rat's clear incomprehension. "Not that one, either? Wow, I never realized I knew so many movies with rats in them. Go figure."
"We would never harm you," the rat said with some asperity. "And we would never tie you to anything."
"Okay. You, um, have enough to eat?"
"A piece of cheese would be nice."
"And you get you can't invade Gibbs' home, right? There aren't like thousands of you hidden in the walls?"
"There are only three of us right now. More would like to come to meet you, but I can tell them no."
"Yeah, good idea. Too many of you and Gibbs might go nuts."
"I understand," the rat said gravely.
Tony hoisted himself up, opened the refrigerator and pulled a two inch cube of moldy cheese out of the crisper. "Here, knock yourself out." He put it on the floor, setting the rat down beside it.
The rat looked up at him. "Do you need anything?"
"No, I'm good. Go take that back to your buddies. Need me to carry it closer?"
"No, thank you." The rat sank his teeth into one corner and awkwardly moved down the hallway with it.
"He's really polite for a rat," Tony mused. "Who knew? I always figured they'd be all in your face and cussing like a sailor."
There was a sound of scurrying and then three rats were in the kitchen; the two new arrivals were smaller than the one he'd been chatting with.
"They insisted on saying hello," the rat said.
"Hello," Tony said, waving. He'd have a mental breakdown later, but for right now he was going with it. "This is Gibbs."
Tony thought he'd die when Gibbs actually waved at the rats. It was all he could do not to fall down laughing again. He wondered if Gibbs would ever invite him over again.
"Happy birthday," the littlest rat said. Tony guessed she was the reason they'd come back.
"Thank you." To Gibbs, Tony said, "She just wished me a happy birthday."
"Yeah, don't ask me how I know, but I do." To the rats, he said, "Thanks for a really different sort of birthday. Now, go eat your cheese."
They scampered off. Tony watched the hallway for a moment then sighed. He turned back to Gibbs. "You ever gonna invite me over again?"
"I'm still mostly convinced I'm dreaming this," Gibbs said.
"Me, too. Maybe we should just go to bed, and then we can figure it out in the morning."
"Okay," Gibbs said, unusually compliant.
Tony felt like asking another utensil question, but thought he better quit while he was ahead. "Want me to go home?"
That got Gibbs' attention. "No, Tony, I don't want you to go home. And happy birthday, by the way. I can't believe a rat told you that before me."
"She was a really cute little girl rat, if that helps."
"It really doesn't."
Tony had to snicker at that, and then laughed more when Gibbs smacked him on the back of his head. "Upstairs?"
"Upstairs," Gibbs agreed.
With that, they shut off the kitchen lights, grabbed pillows and blankets, and disappeared into their respective rooms.
Gibbs woke up the same time he woke up every day, at five thirty on the dot. He lay in bed, spending a moment to figure out what day it was, relieved to remember it was Saturday and there was no reason to get up yet. He considered rolling over and getting more sleep, but the urge to pee got him up and into the bathroom.
On the way back to bed, he heard a voice downstairs. Surprised, as Tony usually liked to sleep in, he opened the door quietly to Tony's room and saw an empty bed. He brushed his teeth, ran his fingers through his hair to tame some of the riotous bed-head and walked downstairs.
"Ziva!" Tony said. "Stop doing that. It tickles."
Ziva was here? And tickling Tony? Gibbs was sure the noise of someone coming in the front door would have woken him up. He walked into the kitchen and saw Tony at the table, coffee mug in hand, neck and shoulders hunched as a small rat nosed in his hair.
Gibbs came to a complete stop. "I was really wishing that had all been a dream."
"I know," Tony said. "What a rush, right? How truly weird is my life."
"Their names are really unpronounceable. Apparently just because I can understand them, doesn't mean I can speak rat. So, the one who bit me I’m calling Justin, and I've named the other two Ziva and Tim."
Gibbs snorted. "They pee on the table or counters and there will be words. Words like rat and poison."
Tony pretended to put his hands over Ziva's little rat ears. "Gibbs, you'll scare her. But, good point, no peeing on me, either."
Ziva giggled in his mind.
"Especially if you ever want me to nibble on your neck," Gibbs said without thinking.
"Wow," Tony said. "Happy birthday to me."
"Forget I said that. My brain to mouth pathway hasn't had coffee yet."
Tony looked like he didn't want to forget it, but then Gibbs could see him letting it go.
"And happy birthday again. What do you want to do today?"
"Could I talk you into going to the Smithsonian?"
"Sure, any particular exhibit?"
"Air and Space Museum? I haven't been to see it in years. I'm sure it's all new by now."
"Good choice. Why are you up?"
"Little Ziva here decided to pay me an early visit," Tony said.
"You gonna stay up?"
"No," Tony said, yawning. "I'd like a couple more hours of sleep."
"Okay, go on. I'll go get stuff for breakfast."
"Hmm," Tony hummed. "Omelets?"
"Omelets," Gibbs agreed. "Any particular type of cheese they like?" And Gibbs could not believe he was asking that. He didn't want rats in his house, especially rats who ratted him out.
Tony directed that question to Ziva, who squeaked loudly.
"You're kidding, seriously? Gouda?"
This time the squeak was less certain. Tony grinned at her while saying to Gibbs, "Maybe a few different types and they can do a taste test?"
Gibbs shook his head, said, "Unbelievable," and went upstairs to change.
They stopped on the way home from their outing to the Smithsonian, capped by dinner out, to pick up an ice cream cake for Tony. Gibbs opened a drawer and pulled out four candles in the shape of the number ten. "They didn't have one for forty, so I got one of these for each decade," he explained as he secured them in the frosting and lit them. "Make a wish."
There was a sound of skittering and squeaking, and then three rats were looking up at Tony expectantly, although Ziva's little rat eyes were mostly focused on the cake.
"Sort of scared to," Tony said laughing, head shaking in wonder. "How did this happen again? How did I end up with talking rats? I know my mom died when I was pretty young, and she certainly died before she was forty, but why wouldn't she have said anything? Assuming the person on the phone was right about this having something to do with my mom. And is my dad in on it, too?"
"No idea," Gibbs said. He walked to the cabinets and pulled out two plates. Then he sighed and collected one more. "Only for you would I be feeding rats."
Tony snorted. "Have I told you lately that I love you?" The second the words were out of his mouth, Tony wished for them back and slapped a hand over his mouth. It was just that it seemed so natural, like of course he told Gibbs he loved him every day, that they said it to each other, like they'd been a couple for as long as Tony could remember.
"No," Gibbs said. "Unless you count right now."
Warily, Tony glanced up at Gibbs, blowing out a breath in relief when he saw his boss smiling at him.
"Okay, then," Tony said. Gibbs had to be feeling it, too, this thing that started with the impromptu dance last night and ended with talking rats. He stared at the cake with its four candles burning. "Forty years old. I know it's probably too long ago for you to remember when you turned forty, but--" He was interrupted by a head slap.
"I'm not that much older than you, DiNozzo."
Grinning, Tony let that one pass. He knew Gibbs was five and change, not that it mattered. The guy was gorgeous, in shape, and just grouchy enough to be one of those guys who lived forever. Look at Jackson, who was still going strong. What could he wish for? That he and Gibbs grew old together? He suspected that might be the case already. A little giddy, he realized it was the first birthday in a long time where he wasn't filled with painful yearnings for things he might never have.
Finally he wished to himself that whatever this rat thing was, this legacy, that Tony would figure it out, and that it would be a good thing. He blew out the candles, childishly relieved when they all blew out. Scooping his finger through the icing, he held his index finger out to Ziva who happily went to work on it. "If this keeps you up tonight," Tony told her, "don't blame me."
Gibbs, meanwhile, cut himself and Tony a slice with a seriously sharp knife that cut through the still hard ice cream like butter, and put a third down by the rats. Ziva finished licking off the icing from Tony's finger and then moved to the plate.
"Nothing from your dad?"
"You've been with me all day," Tony pointed out. "You think I snuck off to have a heart-to-heart with him?"
"I just…" Gibbs sat down with his ice cream cake, fork poised over his plate. "Sometimes I miss Kelly so much, I can't even breathe for it, and then I see him, who had you, and he just missed it. He just blew it. It makes me crazy."
Startled at Gibbs' words, as much with the content as that he said anything at all, Tony smiled softly at him. "Thanks. Not that I wish you were my dad, but you must have been a great dad. I'm sorry Kelly missed out on so much of it. You'd have been a hoot to watch as she started dating."
"She still wouldn't be dating," Gibbs said firmly.
Chuckling, Tony snuck a bite of ice cream from out of the middle of the cake. "Good, right?"
There was no response from the three rats. They were curled in a ball, sleeping the sleep of the happily stuffed.
"Wanna bet they'll sleep for five minutes and be back at it?" Gibbs predicted.
"That's a sucker's bet. Rats, remember? Food and rutting. That's what they're all about."
Tony frowned. "I still don't get it. I mean, they're rats. Three of them."
"Justin made it sound as if all the rats around here wanted to meet you."
"Be still my heart."
Gibbs laughed, leaning in to run his hand down Tony's hair, leaving it curled around the nape of his neck. "Let's wrap up what's left of that cake and go to bed. We didn't get much sleep last night and I'm tired."
"Me, too," Tony yawned, as if needing to prove Gibbs' point. It was true, though, they'd been up a good part of the night. "Got a snack for them?"
That got a frown and a disbelieving shake of his head, but Gibbs moved to the refrigerator and pulled out a bag. He emptied it onto the counter and a dozen types of cheese rolled out.
"You are the most awesome whatever-you-are ever," Tony exclaimed, bounding up and grabbing a knife. "They can totally do a taste-test now."
"I’m not sure what to call you right now. Boss? Friend? More? Whatever. T'hy'la. That might be best."
"Do not tell me you didn't watch Star Trek when it was first on. I will not believe it."
"Yeah, I watched it, but I don't remember much of it."
"Too bad. If you did, you'd know what I meant." Tony grinned as he chopped up rat size portions of each type of cheese, arranging them on a plate.
"They're not giving you points on presentation," Gibbs pointed out.
"How do you know?"
Gibbs barked out a laugh. "I guess I don't." He put the remainder of the cheeses back in the refrigerator.
Tony slid the plate onto the table and then nudged rat Ziva awake. "Hey, let me know which ones you like," he told her.
Her little rat eyes practically bugged out of her head at the cheesy feast sitting in front of her.
"When I get a better TV and a blue-ray player over here," he told her, "we are totally watching rat movies."
"Okay," she said, her eyes still on the cheese.
Tony shot Gibbs a sideways grin, and the two of them headed upstairs to their respective bedrooms to sleep.
Tony left early afternoon, claiming the need to do laundry and to meet some friends for a game of pickup basketball. Gibbs had told him to bring his laundry over when he was done, but Tony had said he and his friends usually went out for a few drinks.
So here Gibbs was, alone in his house, feeling lonelier than he had felt for years. Even the rats were laying low, and Gibbs wondered if he'd only see them when Tony was around. Or maybe they'd gone to wherever Tony was right now, sitting under the bleachers, watching Tony dribble a basketball.
"I am not jealous of rats," Gibbs said to the house at large.
Gibbs gave some thought to staining Tony's present, working up the energy to walk downstairs but, once there, just sat in the chair they'd brought down here for Tony. He sort of wished Tony had already brought over a TV, which was pathetic. "I have got it bad," he said. He hadn't mooned over someone like this for years, since Shannon to be honest. Not to mention that there really wasn't anything to moon about. They hadn't even kissed.
He heard a scratching sound and looked down to see a rat climbing the chair until it was staring up at Gibbs from the arm chair. If he could have drawn a picture of a rat with a questioning look on his face, it would have been this rat. "You're Justin, right?"
The rat nodded at him.
"You can understand me?"
The rat nodded again.
"But you can't talk to me?"
The rat shook his head in the negative. Gibbs figured that was close enough. They could cover a lot of ground with yesses and nos. "You looking for Tony?"
The rat nodded yes.
"He's not here."
The rat deflated in front of his eyes.
"Yeah, I know, it sucks. I miss him, too. He doesn't live here, you know."
The 'why not' was all too clear in Justin's eyes, even if he couldn't say it.
"Good question," was all Gibbs could say.
"Are you talking to that rat?" Ducky said from behind him.
"Jesus Christ," Gibbs yelled. He stood up, being careful of Justin, and spun toward the staircase. How the hell had he not heard the sound of steps? His moping was making him sloppy.
"Sorry, dear boy," Ducky said with a teasing grin. "If I'd known you were going to be having a private conversation I would have knocked."
Gibbs sighed when he noticed that Justin was now on the worktable, curiously staring at Ducky.
Having no idea how to explain, Gibbs decided he wouldn't. "Ducky, Justin, Justin, Ducky."
Ducky's jaw dropped when Justin actually dipped his head in an unmistakable gesture of acknowledgement.
"Jethro," Ducky said. "Did that rat just dip his head at me?"
"He's pretty friendly for a rat."
"Someone must have spent some time training him. It's quite remarkable."
Gibbs supposed that was a much more reasonable an explanation than the truth, so he let it lie. "What's up, Duck? You haven't dropped in for a while."
"Truthfully? I was bored. Sunday afternoon doldrums had set in and I couldn’t stand the thought of lying about doing nothing. Could I interest you in an early dinner?"
"Sure," Gibbs said, glad for something to do to get him out of his ridiculous pining. "Let me take care of Justin here, and we can go." He put out his hand, having no idea if Justin would climb on it, but he did, and then sprinted up his arm to Gibbs' shoulder.
"Remarkable," Ducky said again in wonder. "I had no idea you had a rat as a pet."
"He's Tony's," Gibbs said.
"Ah," Ducky said, and Gibbs could hear the unspoken questions in Ducky's silence. Gibbs opened the refrigerator and brought out a chunk of Gouda. Oddly enough, it had been everyone's favorite. "Too big to carry?" he whispered, facing away from Ducky. Justin shook his head no.
He leaped for the ground and Gibbs handed him the chunk of cheese. "Try to stay out of trouble," Gibbs told him. He bit back a chuckle at the look on the rat's face. Then the rat scampered off, dragging the cheese with him.
"You don't keep him in a cage?"
"Isn't Tony afraid he'll get out? Rats are everywhere, you know."
"He likes it here," Gibbs told him. "I keep him in very expensive cheese."
"I didn't realize rats were such gourmands when it came to dairy products."
"Gouda all the way." Gibbs shut off the kitchen light and followed Ducky out the door.
"Rats are everywhere," Tony said to Gibbs as soon as he got to the office. Ziva and McGee, the human versions, hadn't arrived yet.
"Ducky met Justin. He thinks he's your pet rat," Gibbs said in return.
"Oh," Tony said. "Should I take them back to my apartment, do you think? I'm not really up on the protocol for this thing."
Gibbs shook his head. "Nah."
"Aww," Tony said with a grin, "you like having them around."
"Shut up, DiNozzo."
"You are already in trouble, Tony?" Ziva said, as she walked around the corner. "You started early."
"It's my middle name," Tony said. "Although you might be right. I've already lost my keys. Damn it. I just had them."
Gibbs took a moment to ponder Tony's ass as he bent down to look under his desk.
"Oh," Tony said again. "Hey, thanks!" He hunkered down. "Don't let anyone see you. They'll set traps."
"Who are you talking to?" Ziva asked, moving closer. "And who is setting traps?"
"A rat," Tony said, sending Gibbs a sideways look. "He found my keys for me."
Ziva turned to Gibbs. "This is not normal behavior, even for Tony."
"I had a weird weekend," Tony said. He stood up, still smiling at the floor, but then sat down, putting his keys on the desk. Looking at a file on his desk, he blanched. "I have some paperwork to do." He grimaced apologetically at Gibbs.
Gibbs had completely forgotten Tony's procrastinated report. "Better get on it." He opened his e-mail program and sent Tony an e-mail. "Is that what you meant by rats are everywhere?"
A few minutes later, he got a response. "Yes. They are everywhere. There's a rat the size of a raccoon at my apartment complex, and he kept giving me the eye. I hope one rat represents all of ratkind, because if every species of rat thinks they can come chew on me, we are going to have words."
Gibbs snickered, surprising a wide-eyed look out of Ziva. McGee chose that moment to arrive, slinging his backpack behind his desk.
"Tony is acting stranger than usual," Ziva announced.
"Should I be scared?" McGee asked.
Gibbs' phone rang. After a terse conversation, he answered McGee, "Nope, get your stuff, we got a dead body."
Tony was taking photographs when he heard a screech above him and, glancing up, saw a hawk sitting on top of a telephone pole, staring down at him. He only had time for a frantic thought that it maybe wasn't only rats, when, with another shriek, the bird came swooping down heading right for him.
"Jesus," Tony said, putting up an arm over his face in self defense. The hawk's talons raked across his sleeve right through the fabric of his suit jacket and shirt, and it fucking hurt!
"Sorry, sorry," he heard the fucking hawk say in his mind, and Tony lost it.
"Sorry?" he yelled at the bird that had returned to the telephone pole. "You're fucking sorry? That hurt! And this was an expensive suit, you…non-respecter of nice clothes." He let out an inelegant noise of supreme annoyance. "God damn it."
"Did a bird shit on you?" Tim asked with a wide grin on his face.
"No," Tony snapped at him. "He fucking tore my arm up." He exhibited his arm to Tim. "He fucking ruined my suit."
"Uh," Tim said, one hand shading his eyes as he looked up at the hawk. "Do you think he's rabid? Do birds get rabid? Why would a bird attack you?"
Tony felt something on his hand and he looked down to see blood dripping down his hand and drop to the ground. "You see this?" he yelled at the hawk, pointing to the ground. "I'm bleeding. Asshole."
"Why are you yelling at a bird?" Ziva asked him.
"The bird attacked Tony," Tim told her.
"Did you make it angry?"
"No I didn't make it angry," Tony yelled at her. "He's making me angry." Looking up at the bird, he yelled, "Really angry."
"Sorry. I had to. We have no choice. One of us must."
"And a little love peck wouldn't have done the job?" Tony muttered under his breath. Louder, he said, "Well at least make yourself useful and fly around to see if we missed anything. And that goes for you rats, too."
The bird took off.
Tim and Ziva both gawked at him. "Did you…" Tim started and stopped.
Ziva finally snorted. "Coincidence. You should go see Ducky about that arm."
"Fuck my life," Tony said. "Just call me birdman. Willard Birdman. Just call me WB."
"Why aren't you taking pictures?" Gibbs snapped at Tony.
Tony showed him his arm and his bloody hand. "Guess it wasn't just rats. A hawk fucking dive bombed me."
Gibbs took the camera from him. "Go show Ducky."
"He's gonna want me tested for every disease in the book."
"Probably not a bad idea," Gibbs said. "That way we can be sure. You did get bit by a rat Friday night."
"You bad mouthing Justin?" Tony asked with a small grin. "I'm gonna tell him you said he had cooties."
Gibbs rolled his eyes and then pointed at the morgue truck. "He's getting ready to leave with the body; go catch him and ride back with him."
Tony glanced around to make sure no one was looking and then searched out the hawk who had taken a chunk out of his arm to find it circling above. He gestured it closer. "Find anything?"
The hawk flew down and dropped something in Tony's outstretched and non-bloody gloved hand. In his palm was a shell casing. He handed it to Gibbs. "My own private military. Rats on the ground, and hawks in the air."
Gibbs stared at the casing. "Seriously? I've got five guys out looking for this."
"You ever heard the expression, eyes like a hawk? Here it is, in living color."
"Do you forgive me yet?"
"I'll think about it," Tony groused at the hawk. "Now excuse me while I make sure I don't bleed to death."
"He needs to show me where he found this," Gibbs said.
"You heard the man," Tony said to the hawk. "He's the boss."
"You're the boss," the hawk said.
"And he's the boss of me," Tony said in return. "I'll see you back at NCIS," he said to Gibbs.
"Don't leave NCIS until I talk to Ducky," Gibbs told him. "And you're coming over tonight. The rats don't like it when you're not there."
Tony snickered. "Are you using them as your excuse to bask in my presence?"
Gibbs shook his head, grinned, and went to follow the hawk. Tony went back to the morgue with Ducky, Jimmy, and their dead lieutenant.
"Nice tat," Abby said, walking in on Ducky cleaning off Tony's scratched arm.
"What tat?" Tony asked.
"The rat tat." She tapped behind his left shoulder. "That is some awesome work. Who did it?" She leaned closer. "Seriously awesome. It looks so real."
Tony had a bad feeling about this. "I have a tattoo of a rat?" He dropped his head into his unwounded hand.
Curious, Ducky stood and took a look. "Oh, my. I had no idea you were so interested in rats, my dear boy. I met your pet rat at Gibbs' on Sunday."
"You have a pet rat?" Abby said excitedly. "How did I not know about this?"
"I have three pet rats. Justin, Tim, and Ziva. Excuse me, Ducky," Tony said, standing and moving to the small mirror over the sink, turning his body enough to catch a glimpse of his new and very unexpected tattoo. It was about two inches by three inches, and looked exactly like Justin. "Awesome." He moved back to Ducky and put his arm back into the doctor's possession. "I'm getting a hawk tattoo next."
"Where?" Abby asked.
"No idea," Tony said. "Wherever the bird wants to go, is my guess. And it better not be my face."
"There," Ducky said, covering the wound with a bandage, "nothing a couple of stitches couldn't fix. Go buy an antibiotic ointment and put it on twice a day for a week. The blood tests will let us know if anything was introduced to your system, but they don't take the place of simple observation. Make sure you let me know if it starts to redden or gets increasingly tender."
Tony suspected it would be completely gone by tomorrow. The rat bite had lasted less than a few hours. How he was supposed to explain that one to Ducky was beyond him.
"I’m serious, Tony," Abby said, "where did you get this tat? It's some of the best work I've ever seen."
"I can't remember the name," Tony said, deciding right then and there that he was letting Abby in on the secret. Not only would she be good at deflection, but she'd think it was the best thing ever. "But let's go up to your lab and I'll look it up for you." He put his undershirt back on, holding the trashed dress shirt and suit jacket in his right hand.
Abby crowded him as they made their way up to her lab, as if she knew he had something exciting to tell her. When they got there, she shut the door and put the CLOSED sign up. It never stopped anyone but it was hysterical to watch people's faces.
"We need to get out of view of anyone," Tony told her.
There was a tap on the window.
"Tony," Abby whispered. "There's a bird at the window."
"Is it a hawk?" Tony asked sweetly, murder on his mind.
"Let the fucker in. Jesus Christ."
"You want me to let a hawk into my lab?" she asked in horror.
Tony let out a slightly maniacal laugh. "You ain't seen nothing yet." He moved deeper into her lab, into her back office, where no one could see unless they came well into the lab. Abby let out a short shriek as the hawk flew into the lab and right to Tony, landing on the desk in front of him. "That hurt!" he told the bird.
"I'm sorry," the hawk said. "I didn't know you had already been bitten once. I would have done it differently if I'd known."
"Are you telling me that every new animal I see is gonna try to tear a hunk out of me?"
It was extraordinary, now that he knew he could ascribe human emotions to these specific animals, how easy it was to tell what they were thinking. Embarrassment was written all over this sucker's face.
"Tony," Abby said, staring at him, then the hawk, then him, then the hawk.
"You have a name?" he told the hawk.
The hawk shrieked something in hawk.
Tony sighed. "Hmm, I can't think of any applicable hawk movies right now except Ladyhawke, so I'm gonna call you Rutger. You know, after the actor. Rutger Hauer. Come over sometime and we'll watch it."
"Tony," Abby said louder.
"Yeah, Abs, I'm talking to the hawk. Watch this. Any rats around? Come on out, but don't get on any of the equipment or Abby will yell at me."
Abby's eyes grew rounder and rounder as rats, as in many, started to come out of the woodwork to gather around Tony. Tony lost count at twenty. They were moving around so much he kept losing track.
"That's enough," Tony said. "Apparently, in my family, instead of a trust fund, when we turn forty we turn into Dr. Doolittle, except not so much with the doctor. Or the pushme pullyous. Instead I've got rats and hawks."
Abby was gaping at her office. "Tony, Tony, Tony." She spun in circles. "I feel like I'm in Cinderella, except a goth version, and instead of a dress they'll be making me a leather bustier."
"I'd pay money to see that," Tony mused. He glanced down at the rats. "How are you guys with a needle and thread?" They stared blankly at him; he knew they were doing that on purpose. He bet they had sweat shops set up in the back alley with little baby rats working the sewing machines.
"Tony?" a voice called.
"It's Gibbs," Abby cried. "I can't keep him out."
"It's okay," Tony said, calling, "Back here."
Gibbs took one look in the office, saw Tony sitting on Abby's chair with a hawk in front of him and rats on his lap and the floor, and started to laugh. "Jesus, Tony."
"Laugh it up. You won't think it's funny when I have the rats eat all your woodwork. Do you guys eat wood?"
They all, as if practiced, shook their little rat heads at him.
Gibbs was really laughing now, and it did Tony's heart good to see it. The man did not laugh enough.
"You know?" Abby said.
"He knows," Tony agreed. "But he doesn't know about this." He pointed at the back of his shoulder. "An extra bonus."
Gibbs moved to him and shifted his undershirt down until the rat tattoo was revealed. "At least it's nice work."
"It better be nice work, considering it's some kind of magic. What do I do when I run out of room? Do you know how many species of animals are out there? Just the bugs alone would take up every inch of my skin, and just the thought of ending up being the "Bug Man" for the local carnival is enough to keep me up nights."
"That wouldn't happen," Rutger said. "You have control."
"What does that mean?" Tony asked him.
"You can move the tattoos and make them larger and smaller."
"I can? How?"
"Simply touch it and will it where you want and how you want."
"Like someone else's body?" Tony asked hopefully.
He got a baleful look at that question. Hawks were really good at baleful.
Tony reached over his left shoulder and touched the rat. He willed it to his right bicep.
Abby let out a gasp. "Oh, my God, that is so cool!"
The rat tattoo now showed through the thin fabric of his undershirt. "Okay, that is cool." To Gibbs he said, "How do you want to handle me reporting tattoos? They have to be reported, but I'm also not supposed to be getting them."
"I don't know," Gibbs said. "Let me think on it. Can you make them go invisible?"
"And just the fact you even asked that question shows how crazy my life is," Tony said. He thought invisible at the tattoo but when he glanced down it was still there. "I don't think so. Vance is gonna love this."
"I'm still trying to figure out how to explain chain of evidence with a hawk as part of that chain," Gibbs said.
"Leave the hawk out of it?" Tony suggested.
"Yeah," Gibbs said dryly. "Good idea."
"Abby?" came another call, female this time.
"Scatter," Tony told the rats, and just that quickly they were gone. "You be quiet until she's gone," he told the hawk, then stood and followed Abby and Gibbs out into the main lab.
"How is your arm?" Ziva asked him.
"Fine." As casually as he could, as if scratching his arm, he put his finger on the tattoo and willed it to his right hip. He did not need Ziva noticing his rat tat.
"The suspect is in interrogation," she told Gibbs. She narrowed her eyes at the three of them as if she knew they were hiding something from her. "Why did that hawk attack you?"
"He was aiming at Tim?" Tony said.
Ziva huffed and strode out of the lab.
"I'm going to be doing so much lying from now on," Tony complained.
"We all are," Gibbs told him.
"What if things get too complicated?" Tony asked Gibbs, worrying about it for the first time that this might affect his ability to do his job. "What if every time I go out animals attack me?" He puffed out his cheeks and blew out an explosive sigh. "I don't suppose my dad has tried to call you?"
Gibbs shook his head, looking disgusted.
Abby moved to the window and opened it. "Rutger? Window's open."
There was no movement. Tony went into the office. "You can't stay here. If someone catches you here, they'll take you captive and you'll end up in some wild animal park."
Abby let out a loud exclamation as a second hawk flew through the lab to land next to Rutger.
"This is my mate," Rutger said, rubbing their wings together.
"Ah. We'll call you Michelle. And as nice as it is to meet you, you really need to go. If you hang around, you'll see me when I leave, and then you can follow me to Gibbs' house, okay?"
Tony could sense reluctance, but they both took off and swooped out the window. Abby yelled out, "Feel free to visit anytime!" before closing and latching it shut. She turned to Tony. "Why don't you just ask the hawks and rats to spread the word? There're tons of hawks and rats all over the city, and they could tell any new animal to simply approach you."
"And this is why I decided to tell you, because you are a genius," Tony said happily, kissing her on the cheek. He moved back to the office and hunkered down. "Hey, any of you rats still around? If you are, spread the word that I'm not a legacy virgin anymore. I've been bit twice, so any new animals can apply gently, okay?"
One rat scurried out and said, "We will spread the word," and dashed back out of sight.
"You need to go finish up last Friday's report," Gibbs told Tony. To Abby he said, "Anything on that shell casing?"
"I was just about to call you. Actually that's a lie. I thought about calling you but then I saw Tony's tat, and then suddenly he's the Rat King, and the Hawk King, and pffft, it all went right out of my head."
"This once," Gibbs said with a lopsided grin, "I forgive you."
She gave him a beaming smile and, while they moved over to her equipment, Tony headed back up to his desk.
The rats were on the kitchen table waiting for Gibbs when he walked in the house. To be perfectly accurate, they were obviously waiting for Tony, but they seemed just as cheered to see him. "He'll be here soon," he told them. "He had to run home for some clothes." Hopefully he packed for a few days.
This whole thing with the animals was already getting out of hand. They had no idea if there was a cap on it; if only the first five animals got dibs or if any animal not represented was going to go after Tony. If that was the case, Gibbs had no idea how that was going to work.
He opened the refrigerator door to see what there was for dinner. It was almost as empty as the last time Tony had been here, emptier, actually, as there was not even a shred of lettuce. There was, however, a lovely selection of cheese. "Pizza?" he asked the rats.
Three enthusiastic nods greeted his question. Snorting, he picked up the phone to order.
"I'm stuffed," Tony said, leaning back on the sofa, patting his stomach. "Stick a pin in me and I might explode. Maybe I'm gonna start eating like a rat."
"When I find you in the dumpster out back of NCIS Headquarters, then I'll worry," Gibbs said.
Tony winced. "Let's hope it doesn't come to that. Although even between the three of them, they only ate one and a half slices." The rats were sleeping around the half slice left, as if they were the three sides to a full piece of pizza. Pizza with a rat crust. Yum. "I'm gonna go check on the hawks." He went out on Gibbs' back porch. "You okay?"
Rutger and Michelle were still working on the sub sandwich Gibbs had gotten them.
Rutger looked up. "This is good."
"Don't get too used to it. I don't think a Subway diet would be too healthy for a hawk over the long haul. Michelle might lose her girlish figure."
And there went the baleful looks again, at least from Michelle.
"You know I'm kidding you. You're gorgeous." They both were. Tony had never had the chance to be this close to a hawk, had never wanted the chance, but now that he was close it was easy to see how beautiful they were with their variegated feathers and golden eyes, so much power in their small compact bodies.
He heard the door open and Gibbs joined him.
"Good job on the sandwich," Tony told him. "You got two thumbs up, or rather two talons up from the hawks."
That got him amused looks from Rutger, Michelle, and Gibbs.
"You'll be okay sleeping out here? I mean, I know you sleep outside normally, but is this safe enough? I don't know if this neighborhood is full of cats that dream of taking down a hawk."
"We will be safe. Go back inside with your mate."
"Uh," Tony said. "He's not…yeah, okay. Good night."
He and Gibbs both headed inside. "What am I not?" Gibbs asked.
Tony didn't really want to answer Gibbs. For the first time, Tony had real hopes that one of these days Gibbs might be amenable to the type of relationship Tony had only been dreaming of, but talking about it out loud might dash those hopes.
A cat's loud meow interrupted the conversation. Tony winced.
"Think that cat is here for you?" Gibbs asked, his brow furrowed. "We're gonna need a bigger house."
And that, right there, tipped Tony the other way. As Gibbs sat down on the couch, Tony sat right on top of him.
"Tony, what the hell are you doing?" Gibbs asked, sounding grouchy. Tony, however, was more interested in the hands that had settled on his hips in a proprietary fashion.
"It's that home word you keep using, like it's you and me in a place that's ours, and you keep dangling it in front of me like catnip in front of a cat, and I can't take it anymore." With that, Tony leaned in and kissed Gibbs, just gently, not wanting to push too hard, or harder than he already was, which, granted, was pretty hard, and that wasn't even talking about his dick, which was getting hard, too.
The hands on his hips tightened even more, and Gibbs didn't push him away, even instigated a few kisses of his own, and the small groan he let out as Tony lay kisses against his jaw helped convince Tony that Gibbs was right where he wanted to be.
That was when Tony saw the mosquito, hovering right there, right by his left eye. His first instinct was to smack it but, by some miracle, he didn't. He had no idea if the mosquito was an emissary for the mosquito kingdom, but he hated to chance it. What would happen if he killed an emissary? Didn't the person who called say he'd be cursed? God only knows how many ants he killed today.
"Tony," Gibbs said. "Where did you go?"
"I've got visions of half a dozen cheesy science fiction movies of killer ants climbing up the walls of your house to kill us dancing through my mind."
"Why?" Gibbs asked slowly and gingerly, as if Tony was a grenade about to go off.
"Do you see that mosquito right by my left eye? Don't kill it."
"See? That's what I mean. I've probably killed a zillion bugs in my lifetime, a handful of them today. What happens if I kill a bug ambassador? Do I get sent to bug hell? Remember how that guy said I'd be cursed? Holy Jesus. I need some goddamn rules, Gibbs. Is that too much to ask?"
The mosquito buzzed a little louder.
"You see it, right?"
"I see it," Gibbs agreed.
Feeling seconds from insanity for trying to talk to a fucking mosquito, Tony asked, "You have got to promise me you don't have West Nile, or some encephalitis type germs in you. You don't right? I mean, that seems like that would be bad form being the Grand Poobah of the Mosquito Nation and then sticking me full of germs that could kill me. And you have this little teeny tiny little brain, how can you even talk to me?"
Gibbs, the bastard, was laughing at him.
"Fine," Tony snapped out. He held out his left arm. "Bite away." To Gibbs he asked, "What am I supposed to do with mosquitoes?"
"You could swarm people with them," Gibbs said around chuckles. "And maybe you won't get bitten anymore."
"That would be nice. And hey, you can't bite him anymore either." Tony didn't remotely understand, or believe, that a mosquito was going to be able to communicate that message back to the Mosquito Nation, but at least he'd tried. He winced at the sting. "Thanks. And thanks for asking." He sighed. "Shit. I'm going to have a mosquito tattoo. You don't see that every day."
Gibbs was still fucking laughing.
"I'd feed you like I have everyone else," Tony said to the mosquito, "but I'm not sure what you…oh, wait, I guess I did just feed you. Let's hope there aren't too many animals that need me to be their next meal. I don't suppose you have a rule book on you, do you?" Tony rolled off Gibbs' lap and sank onto the couch. "Where the hell is my fucking father?" He snorted. "Fucking, probably."
"Did your mother have any siblings?" Gibbs reached down and grabbed Tony's arm, pulling him back onto his lap. "And I kind of liked you here."
"Really?" Tony said, grinning. "I kind of liked being here." He glanced around. "Are you still around? Kind of hard to see the suckers unless they're buzzing you or biting you."
They stayed silent for a long moment, listening and looking around the room. "I think it's gone."
The cat meowed again.
"Should I let it in? I got three rats sleeping right there. And two birds out on the porch. Won't the cat try to eat them?"
"I don't know," Gibbs said. "I haven't seen the rulebook either, remember? It seems like there'd be some sort of detente between the main representatives."
"Suppose it's one of your neighbor's cats and suddenly they want to be here?"
"Speaking of that, the rats weren't happy when you left."
Tony frowned. "Want me to take them with me when I leave?"
"No, Tony, I don't want you to leave at all."
"Oh." Tony beamed at Gibbs, feeling like someone had just sprinkled him with fairy dust, making him as light as a feather. "I feel like a thirteen year old who just saw a unicorn."
"You are so weird, DiNozzo." But instead of a head slap, Gibbs kissed Tony, being very pushy, like tongue inside Tony's mouth pushy, and that was so very okay with Tony.
The cat let out an ear-splitting howl.
"Jesus," Tony said, pulling back reluctantly. "Maybe it's just in heat."
"He saw you when you went out on the back porch. He wishes to bite you," Justin said.
A manic laugh burst from Tony. "I feel like I'm in a bad vampire movie. I vant to suck your blood," he said in his best Bela Lugosi imitation. "Sorry, Gibbs, apparently I'm still on the menu." He got up and walked to the door. "Listen cat, I don't want anyone else to sense me, so I'm opening up this door really fast and you race inside, okay?"
There was a sort of mrrrwwl sound which Tony took as assent. He undid the lock and opened the door about four inches. A large tomcat walked in, all grey with tiger stripes, especially along its tail and channeling Rum Tum Tugger, like he owned the place. The cat gave the rats a condescending stare which the rats returned in spades.
"Okay, get it over with. I want to be formally introduced." He thought about where he wanted to be bitten or scratched, or whatever, finally just holding out his left arm again. "Do your worst, and by that I mean your least. Maybe just nick me with a tooth or something."
The cat sunk his teeth, painfully, in fact Tony was tempted to say, viciously, into the fleshy meat at the base of Tony's thumb.
"Ow!" Tony yanked his hand back. "Did you have to bite me so hard? You're not Rum Tum Tugger, you're fucking Macavity."
The cat leaped up onto the couch and smacked Tony's face with his tail. "Stop complaining, Tony."
"Oh my God, it's like they made you a cat," he griped to Gibbs. "Like he's a cat Marine."
"About time one of them didn't suck up to you," Gibbs said, running a hand down the cat's back, wondering where all the names Tony was using came from. The cat purred and then crawled onto Gibbs' lap, rubbing his head under Gibbs' chin, totally marking him.
"He's mine," Tony snarled at the cat, "You can't have him." When Gibbs started laughing again, Tony said, "I'm so glad you're enjoying yourself. You better watch yourself when you go outside tomorrow. I hear the mosquitoes are swarming."
"You told them not to bite me," Gibbs reminded him.
The cat settled down in Gibbs' lap and shot Tony a look that said, "I dare you."
"I don't like you at all," Tony said in annoyance. "I like the rats, and the hawks, and I even like the mosquito more than you. I renounce your ambassadorness." With that he got up off the couch and stalked into the kitchen. "Stupid cats." And he liked cats. Used to like cats. They were his sworn enemy now, taking a completely unnecessary freaking chunk out of his thumb and then stealing Gibbs. Just like a cat. Tony turned the cold faucet on and ran his hand under it.
He felt something at his feet and looked down to see the stupid cat was winding his way around his ankles.
"Forget it," Tony said. "I saw Cats. You're just sucking up to me so you won't get into trouble with Deuteronomy. You are out of luck trying to get to the Heaviside Layer."
"What language are you speaking?" Gibbs asked, walking into the kitchen. "I think you completely freaked him out when you said you renounced him. I think that actually meant something."
"Well he should have thought of that before he marched into your house like he was all that and totally dissed me and tried to steal my…whatever you are."
The cat leaped to the counter and tried to head butt against Tony's chest.
"What?" Tony snapped at the cat. "Too little, too late." He ran his hand under the water again. "I need some ice for this. You probably gave me cat cooties." He felt a bizarre sense of hurt at how the cat had behaved. It was ridiculous, but there it was. He strode across the kitchen and opened the freezer compartment.
"I'll make up a bag for you," Gibbs told him. "Keep it under the water. It's bleeding pretty badly."
The rats scampered into the kitchen and hissed at the cat.
The cat looked totally cowed which made Tony feel sort of bad. Maybe he had really fucked things up for the cat. The cat hadn't even tried to speak to him since Tony had yelled at him. Maybe he wouldn’t be able to because Tony had verbally renounced him. "I hate my life right now."
"You didn't seem to mind it so much a few minutes ago," Gibbs pointed out, stealing a quick kiss and handing Tony a baggie filled with ice, surrounded by a dish cloth. "Let me see your hand."
"Yeah, it was pretty great there for a few minutes." Tony sighed in remembrance at how he had everything he wanted right there in the palm of his hand before a mosquito and then a cat with an attitude had struck. He held up his bleeding, swollen hand and said, "This is the hand I give hand jobs with, though, so we're all out of luck." To the cat he said, "I am thinking up a really, really unpleasant name for you, at which point, I might decide you can talk to me."
The cat, still on the counter because the rats were an unfriendly force on the floor, looked quite conciliatory. Tony was sure he was faking it.
One of the hawks let out a shriek and the cat shrunk back a little.
"Sure, the rats and the birds scare you but I don't?" Tony scoffed. "I'm like a zillion times bigger than you and I have opposable thumbs."
"Ease up on him," Gibbs suggested. "He was just being a cat."
"His job here isn't being a cat," Tony said. "His job is to represent all catdom, and all he did was make me hate all cats forever."
The cat narrowed its eyes at Tony.
"Yeah, I knew you were faking it. You got something to say, bite him," he said, with a jerked thumb at Gibbs.
"I'm not the one with the legacy."
"Yeah, but I am. And seeing as no one bothered to give me a rule book, I'm making them up. Bite him. Easy. No, wait a minute." Tony had to think this through. Suppose it really worked. Suppose Gibbs could talk to the cat and the cat to him. That cat could make his life a living hell. And Gibbs would probably let him and enjoy it to boot.
Now he was annoyed at the cat and Gibbs. "I'm going to bed." He stalked out of the kitchen and up the stairs to the guest bedroom.
"I think you're in the doghouse," Gibbs told the cat.
The cat let out a mournful meow, and that was the last Tony heard of it before he shut the door.
Gibbs stared down at the cat and up the stairs where Tony had disappeared. "Wow, you really blew that," he told the cat although he partially meant himself, too. He wasn't sure what had happened, but Tony had been pissed at him, too, by the time he'd stormed off.
He knew Tony had a thin skin, and even though he did a good job hiding it, he got his feelings hurt on a regular basis, tonight being a case in point. The cat had started it, and Gibbs had found the whole thing amusing, and then had broken the camel's back by sticking up for the cat instead of Tony. There really had been a lot of blood. "Did you have to bite him so hard?"
The cat lay down on the counter hiding its head in its paws. The rats hissed at it again.
Gibbs knew that Tony was up in his bedroom no doubt feeling like no one liked him, and the thought of it made Gibbs' heart twinge. He wasn't sure if it would be better to go up and try to make him feel better or let him sleep it off. "If it helps," he told the cat, "I'm not much better at this stuff than you."
"Forget it!" came a yell from upstairs.
Gibbs sprinted up the stairs and burst into the guest bedroom. An owl was batting against the window pane, hooting at Tony. The thing was huge, he had to be three to four feet from wing tip to wing tip, and Gibbs hoped the window would hold.
Tony was curled up against the wall, blood dripping unnoticed from the pad of his thumb and he looked seconds away from losing it, his breath fast and a little panicked. Gibbs moved quickly to the window and said, "Not tonight. Go away." He pulled down the shade and closed the curtains. To the cat who had followed him up, he said, "And not tonight for you either. You can sleep downstairs if you want, or I can let you out, but you're not going anywhere near Tony."
The cat slunk out the bedroom door and Gibbs let him go. The rats hadn't even tried to come up showing that they were smarter than the rest of them. He crawled onto the bed and pulled Tony into his arms, grabbing the forgotten ice pack and placing it against Tony's hand. "I got you, Tony. It's just you and me. Just relax and breathe."
Tony seemed to struggle with the idea for a minute or two, but he finally got his breath under control and relaxed in Gibbs' hold.
"Sorry," he said, a clear wince in his voice. "I didn't mean to lose it."
"Hey, that owl scared the shit out of me, and it wasn't planning on taking a bite out of me," Gibbs told him. "He was huge."
"It was a great horned owl," Tony said.
"How do you know that?"
"I dated a birder once. She liked owls." He was silent for a while. "I don't know how I'm supposed to do this."
"I don't know either, but it sounds like the owl has stopped, the cat knows he's on probation, the rats are probably in the pantry eating me out of house and home, and the hawks are on guard duty."
Tony snickered, and Gibbs thought that was a good sign. "I really am sorry. It all seems so stupid now."
Gibbs held up Tony's hand, which was still oozing from the nasty cat bite. "This wasn't stupid. And I'm sorry I thought it was funny. I didn't realize how hard he'd bit you."
"Part of it was funny. A lot of it's funny, I guess, but that bite hurt, and he was an asshole, and then the owl, and everything felt wildly out of control for a second. I'm okay. Really. You can stop babying me."
"Not really babying you," Gibbs said, and he wasn't. He'd been nibbling on Tony's ear and jaw for a minute or two, waiting for Tony to notice. One hand was still helping hold the ice pack on Tony's hand, and the other was rubbing Tony's thigh, his thumb sweeping ever higher.
"Oh," Tony said, his head falling back. "Wow. My body knew that even if my brain didn't." He thrust his hips a little just at the right time to get Gibbs' hand right where he wanted it. Gibbs was glad to comply and he felt the hardening shape of Tony under his fingers, feeling his own body respond.
Gibbs' slipped his fingers under the elastic of Tony's sweats, glad he'd taken the moment to change out of his jeans. Much easier access this way. Tony let out a groan as Gibbs' hand closed around him, running his thumb over the head. "You like that?"
"Mm hm," Tony said, his hips thrusting again. "Yeah, yeah, I really do. Oh, yeah," he said again, with another jerk.
Gibbs paid attention to the movements of Tony's body, adjusting his hold. He got Tony to put his hurt hand palm down on the ice bag, so he could use both of his hands to attend to making Tony feel good. He cupped Tony's balls with one hand, tugging just enough to solicit a groan, but not enough to hurt.
Tony was moaning out with every breath, his body so responsive under Gibbs' ministrations, and he couldn't wait to get the man naked and fuck him, and have him fall apart underneath Gibbs body. But for right now, this was all for Tony, and Gibbs stroked him until Tony cried out and came over Gibbs' hands, immediately going limp against Gibbs with a happy sigh.
"Just give me a moment," Tony slurred out.
"Just go to sleep," Gibbs told him. "I'll go shut out the lights and be back in a minute."
"You'll sleep here?"
That was a good question. Not the sleeping together, but the sleeping here part. "Actually, no," Gibbs said. "Get up. We'll sleep in my room."
Tony got up and stumbled after Gibbs, happily climbing under the blankets and hogging Gibbs' pillow, hugging it tightly. "G'night," Tony managed.
Grinning, Gibbs headed back downstairs, glad they'd averted that crisis. Not that Tony didn't have a point. Gibbs had no intention of letting his house end up looking like Noah's Ark, and they couldn't have animals, night and day, demanding entrance into wherever Tony was, expecting to have access to him only to hurt him. If Tony had needed his gun hand fully functioning, they'd have been in trouble.
Cursing Tony's father for the hundredth time since this whole thing began, Gibbs began to shut off lights, momentarily diverted when his cell phone began to ring. "Gibbs."
As if conjured, the voice across the phone said, "What's Junior done now?" as if that line would be funny a second time when it hadn't been funny at all the first time. This was a man who never learned.
"Did your wife ever talk about a family legacy?" Gibbs asked, not in the mood for social niceties, especially with this man.
"What do you mean?" came the very guarded response, telling Gibbs that DiNozzo Senior knew something he didn't want to share.
"I think you know exactly what I mean. Did your wife, Tony's mother, ever talk to you about a family legacy that would manifest at the age of forty?"
There was a laugh, the sort of laugh that invites everyone in the room to get distracted from something that might make things less fun if focused on.
"Tell me," Gibbs said. "I don't care how crazy it is."
"Look, Gibbs, I don't know what Junior's been telling you," Senior said, now trying to be placating.
"Jesus Christ," Gibbs snapped, "just answer the goddamn question."
There was a long pause. "My wife wasn't a well woman," he tried.
Gibbs wasn't surprised. "Keep talking."
"It was just crazy talk. It was just a way to explain the loonies in the family. There was a long line of mental illness on her side of the family, and they came up with this ridiculous story to make it seem more dramatic."
"What story?" Gibbs' stomach knotted at the mental illness comment. Had this thing driven other people in Tony's family crazy?
"She was scared of it, whatever it was, so she didn't say much. Something to do with animals."
"How old was she when she died?"
"She was just past thirty when she died. The only reason I still remember the thing at all is that she never wanted any animals in the house, and had exterminators come every week to keep the place free of any bugs or rats or anything. It wasn't like we couldn't afford it, and it made her happy, so what was the big deal, right? We all have our crazy moments."
"Does she have any living relatives?"
"I don't know anymore. She had siblings she wasn't close to, and a couple of aunts and uncles who were put away somewhere. Like I said, there was some mental illness in the family. This whole animal thing was nothing more than the boogie man. Why are you asking me about this stuff?"
"Tony just turned forty."
"Oh, yeah, hard to believe it. Wish him a happy birthday for me. I usually send him something, but I’m not in the States right now."
Gibbs remembered the power sander Tony had gotten from his dad. The man was ridiculous at being a father. "Maybe you should call him and wish him a happy birthday yourself. He is your son."
"I'll bring something home for him," Senior said casually. "Too bad he can't join me. The women are exceptionally beautiful here."
Gibbs knew a woman had just walked by wherever Senior was talking, and he was flirting with her. It made him shiver at the thought. Done with the conversation, he hung up. He immediately called Abby.
"Gibbs!" came her happy greeting.
"Hey, Abs. I need another favor."
"Are there more animals now? I've been doing some research, and while I haven't found anything specific to what's happening to Tony, there is a ton of stuff on Shamanism and animal spirits. I wonder if Tony's people, way back when, were Shamans. There is some pretty amazing spiritual stuff. Maybe Tony needs to learn about the spirit wisdom of rats and hawks, and whatever else shows up."
Like mosquitoes, Gibbs thought to himself with a silent huff of laughter. He could see Tony jumping right on that bandwagon.
"I need you to check out Tony's family."
"You mean like Senior?"
"No," Gibbs said quickly. "Tony's mom's family. I need names, date of births, who's alive and who's not, and what their status is."
"Can I ask why?"
"If you find what I think you're going to find, you'll know why. Just check it out, okay?"
"You got it. I can do that from home. Should I call you tonight?"
"No, I'll call you tomorrow." He wasn't sure he wanted Tony to overhear this conversation until Gibbs figured out how to handle it, even though he knew Tony would be angry at Gibbs trying to do this behind his back. He hung up on Abby and sat there in the darkened living room on the couch, scrubbing his hands over his face. "Fuck."
Yellow eyes caught his attention and he noticed the cat sitting on the floor by the front door, looking as despondent as anything or anyone Gibbs had seen.
"You want to go out?"
The cat, and Gibbs was still not used to this, shook his head in a clearly negative fashion. The cat's eyes flicked to the window and then away and, curious, Gibbs stood to move to the window, pushing the curtain aside. His heart leapt in his throat when he saw countless sets of yellow eyes, it taking a moment for him to realize his front yard was filled with cats. He'd definitely have to move if this shit was going to keep happening.
"Let me guess," he said to the cat, "they're not happy with you."
The cat hid his face again.
"This is all about loyalty, isn't it? You bite him, you bind the entire cat nation in obeisance to him, or at least that's what it's supposed to be about. And instead you stride in here like you own the place, like Tony's lucky to have you be the one to take a bite out of him."
The cat wouldn't even look at him.
"See," Gibbs said, squatting down until he was closer to the cat, "Tony doesn't handle rejection very well, but if he knows you care about him there isn't anything he wouldn't do for you. For any of you." Gibbs found himself sitting on the floor wondering how the fuck this could work out. How was one man supposed to enter into a bonding agreement with the entire animal kingdom?
"What's going on?" Tony called down the stairs. "Why's it taking you so long to turn off lights?"
"Come here," Gibbs called, although he stood and met Tony at the bottom of the stairs. On a whim, he pulled Tony in and kissed him. "Listen. I know things are crazy right now, but I'm in it with you for the long haul. Do you believe me?"
Tony studied Gibbs intently, as if looking for a lie, but Gibbs made sure his face was reflecting what he meant, which was nothing less than what he'd said. If he had to stand between Tony and the entire animal kingdom to keep him sane, he would. "Yeah. Okay." He sighed. "Let me guess, you talked to my dad."
And this was why Tony was his best agent. His ability to pull clues out of a handful of nothing was extraordinary.
"Yup. But there's also a bit of a cat crisis going on."
"With asshole cat, you mean?"
The cat whimpered at that, and Tony looked at him sharply, even though his face softened a bit at the cat's clear misery.
"Look out the window. I think if he goes outside, they'll tear him apart."
Worried, Tony did as told and his eyes widened when he saw all the cats. As opposed to them just staying still when Gibbs looked out, all the cats got to their feet and stared at Tony.
"Yeah, that's not creepy," Tony said. "It's an actual catastrophe."
"You're a riot."
"Okay, fine. Come over here," he said to the cat.
The cat looked at him guardedly as if not completely sure that Tony wasn't going to pick him up and sling him out the door.
"Here," Tony said, patting the top of the couch. "You. Right here."
The cat, as if going to its execution, made a slow ascent until he was perched on the back of the sofa.
"You get what a jerk you were?" Tony asked.
The cat actually winced which was really interesting to watch.
"Okay, you can talk to me if you want."
Gibbs watched Tony's expression which started out annoyed, but then he scrunched his face up and looked sort of sorry for the thing.
"What's he saying?"
"On the outside, he's being all Vulcan and 'it is not logical to apologize', but on the inside he's screaming, 'I can't believe I fucked this up so much! I am so dead! I am so fucking dead!' I can relate to panic like that." Tony scooped the cat up into his arms, holding him close, saying, "Yeah, I get it. I've fucked up like that, too. It's okay. I un-renounce you. You can stay."
Gibbs let out a laugh when the cat just sagged in Tony's arms and even he could tell the cat was so relieved it was almost comical. When the cat started to purr like a rusty engine, Gibbs figured they were out of the woods. "You better tell the rest of those cats to scram before the sun comes up."
Tony nodded and opened the door. "Hey, thanks for the support, but Macavity and I made up. We're good."
A lot of yellow eyes narrowed out there, as if not quite sure to believe Tony or still wishing they could get the cat out of Tony's arms and bite him a time or two themselves.
"Oh, and I take it back that all cats are my sworn enemy. Really. You need to go away. If you're all here in the morning, they'll call the cat cops and you'll all go to cat jail."
One by one, and still not looking happy, the cats slunk off.
"Wow," Tony said to the cat. "You almost caused an international or inter-animal kingdom incident." Then he rolled his eyes. "And he's still acting like you, Gibbs. He thinks apologies make you weak." He dumped the cat in Gibbs' arms and turned to the rats. "I like you guys better," he said, and scooped them up. "Let's go watch Ratatouille on my laptop."
They eagerly scampered up Tony's arms and settled on his shoulders, little paws holding on to his shirt. He grabbed his laptop case and walked upstairs.
"This is the second time you've gotten me in the doghouse right along with you," Gibbs told the cat whose eyes were intently following Tony as he climbed the stairs. The cat had stopped purring, and Gibbs wasn't sure if he could anthropomorphize to his heart's content, but the cat looked really sad. He gave the cat a hug, because he felt sort of sad, too. "Don't worry, he'll forgive you, but you might have to do some sucking up."
He walked into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door. "I need to go to the pet store and lay in cat food and hawk food, and god only knows what else food. What do you want? I have some tuna? Will that work?" He wished one of them would bite him. He'd like an ally to keep Tony grounded.
Tony had sort of given the cat permission to bite him, but Gibbs guessed the cat wasn't going to take any chances at this point. Not that either of them knew if it would work, what with the lack of any guidance on how to navigate the minefield of Tony's new life.
He put the cat on the counter and ran a hand from his head to his tail, and the cat arched under his hand, seemingly eager for the contact. He was a big cat, but he wasn't well-fed, and he had a small tear in his left ear. "Tough life, buddy?" It made Gibbs like him; that he'd somehow made it in the door first. "I'll help him come around, don't worry."
Gibbs opened a can of tuna fish and emptied it out into a bowl, putting it down on the counter, and the cat eagerly began to eat it. Then he poured a small bowl of milk and placed it next to the tuna. "You ask to be let out if you need to piss or shit," Gibbs told it.
The cat nodded between gobbled down mouthfuls.
Gibbs sighed, wondered if this whole thing was some fevered dream, and then went around shutting lights off and locking doors and windows, taking a moment to check on the hawks, both of whom seemed to be sleeping at first glance, although one of them opened an eye quickly enough.
Glad to have responsive guard-birds on duty, considering the cluster fuck this night had been, Gibbs just nodded and moved on. He ended up back in the kitchen noting the food and the milk was gone, and the cat was grooming himself, still on the counter. "You want to sleep downstairs or upstairs?"
In response, the cat leaped to the ground and rubbed up against Gibbs' ankle. Gibbs shut off the kitchen light and headed upstairs. When he arrived at the guest bedroom, Tony was fast asleep. The laptop playing the movie, set up on the bedside table, was still playing with three enraptured rats watching the screen. The tableau brought a grin to Gibbs' face and he wished he owned a camera.
The cat made an inquisitive noise and Justin looked up. He narrowed his little rat eyes at first, but then dipped his head. The cat leaped onto the bed, joining the unlikely group, snuggling up against Tony's side, his eyes on the movie.
Gibbs couldn't help agreeing that Tony's life had gotten very weird. He had a sudden thought and pulled out his cell phone. It took him a minute, but he finally found the camera, sized up the group in the view finder and snapped a picture.
Tony let out a "Wha-?"
"Go to sleep," Gibbs told him.
Tony let out a contented sigh and reached out, his hand landing on the cat. He scratched it a little and the cat started purring. Deciding to leave things alone, even if he was disappointed he wasn't going to have Tony in his bed, Gibbs headed for his own room.
Tony woke up to a sound like a motor revving, the vibration a warm comforting presence at the small of his back. "Hey, Macavity, is that you?"
The purring cut off, but the cat crawled over Tony's body to present himself.
The cat wasn't much for talking or apologizing, but Tony did get a strong sense of the cat being very sure that he was Tony's consigliore, standing loyal and ready to kill anyone who looked at Tony the wrong way.
"Great," Tony muttered. "I've got a mob cat."
When the cat's hackles rose, Tony patted him. "Calm down. Just as long as you understand that I really don't need you to kill anyone, we'll do just fine. Most of the people in my life, I really like them. You can bite my dad if he comes over, though. And Vance. Him you can bite."
He could hear Gibbs downstairs and suddenly caught the aroma of coffee in the air. He checked the time, saw it was early, remembered it was Tuesday and they had to go to work, and whined a little. Swinging out of bed, after patting Macavity again, he grabbed some clothes and went to shower.
About twenty minutes later he walked down the stairs humming under his breath, the cat following faithfully behind.
"What's that you're humming?" Gibbs asked.
Tony grinned and burst out into song. "Macavity, Macavity, there's no one like Macavity. There never was a cat of such deceitfulness and suavity. He always has an alibi and one or two to spare. Whatever time the deed took place, Macavity wasn't there!" Tony started beating out the drum roll that would follow in the music on the kitchen counter.
"Who's Macavity?" Gibbs interrupted the drumming. "I mean besides this cat."
"It's from the play Cats, which is about cats, and one of the cats it's about is Macavity, the Napoleon of crime."
"How could you not know about Cats? I mean, I can totally see you not wanting to see it, but it's been playing on and off for decades now. It's even based on children's poetry." Tony shook his head, despairing of the man. "Hold on." He pulled out his phone, did some tapping, and then put it down to play a song. The song Tony had just been singing did it's best to blare out of the tiny speakers, and he swung his hips around the kitchen in time to the music.
Gibbs listened to the whole thing, although about half way through he grabbed Tony's hips and pulled him close for a kiss. "Huh." He glanced down at the cat after the line about his uncombed whiskers. "I think you have very nice whiskers, personally."
Tony rolled his eyes. "Whatever." He went to pour himself a cup of coffee. "So what did my dad have to say last night?"
"Not much," Gibbs said with a frown. "He thought it was all bullshit, but he said enough to tell me that your mom did mention it to him, and apparently she had other family members who dealt with it."
"So I'm not the only one." Tony took on a dramatic pose. "I'm not," he paused dramatically, "the slayer?"
Gibbs laughed, although Tony would bet he had no idea what Tony was even talking about. He swore he would tie Gibbs up if he had to and make him watch some of this shit.
"Oh, hey, Justin. Did you guys like the movie?"
"We did," Justin said, easily climbing up onto the table. "It was great." He looked at the oven wistfully.
"Yeah, no cooking for you, buddy. That wasn't actually real life."
"Neither is this," Gibbs pointed out.
"Okay, good point. Maybe we can cook something together."
Justin's whiskers quivered in joy.
"I think I've created a monster," Tony said in a loud whisper to Gibbs.
Gibbs snorted at that and then went back to their conversation. "I've got Abby checking things out."
Tony toyed with the idea of getting annoyed that Gibbs was trying to handle him, but then decided not to bother. After all, maybe he needed a little handling, both figuratively and literally. Speaking of that, he nuzzled Gibbs' neck. "Why didn't you sleep with me?"
"You had a menagerie with you." Gibbs picked his phone up from the counter and handed it to Tony. "Find the pictures."
"Wow, you took a picture? I'm so proud of you."
"Shut up, DiNozzo."
Tony laughed and opened the gallery, finding the picture of him sleeping surrounded by rats and a cat. It made him think of some stupid book he'd had when he was a kid called Rat and Cat on a Mat or something like that. "I bet that picture would go viral." Not that he had any intention of posting it. "Next time just push them all off the bed."
"You and that cat needed some time alone," Gibbs said with a deadpan expression.
Gibbs' phone rang and Tony almost dropped it in surprise. He noticed it was Abby and said to Gibbs, "Can I put it on speaker phone, or do you need to be the boss of me in secret?" Tony didn't wait for an answer and pushed the speaker button, saying, "Abby!"
"Tony! Why are you answering Gibbs' phone?"
"Because I was holding it when you called. What did you find out?"
There was a hesitation and then Gibbs said, "Go ahead, Abs."
"Sorry, Tony," Abby said, "but Gibbs made it sound like a super secret mission last night."
"I'd just had a meltdown, so I expect after he talked to you he called Vance in hopes there was a super secret mission that would take him out of town for a few months."
"Never happen," Gibbs said fiercely.
Tony stole a kiss, a short one, but there was a hint of tongue, and it made his stomach leap in reaction.
"Aww, did you guys just kiss? That's so sweet."
"Abby," Gibbs said sternly.
"Got it. Okay, Tony, your mom had two sisters. The older sister is dead, she, uh, she killed herself when she was…Gibbs, maybe I shouldn't be saying this on speaker."
"Let me guess," Tony said dryly. "She killed herself when she was forty."
"Forty and three months."
"Great. So I've got three months before I want to shoot myself."
Gibbs pulled him closer and said, more softly, but very fiercely, "Never happen."
Tony bet that his mom's sister hadn't had a Gibbs on her side. "What else."
"The other one is alive. She's in, um,,…crap."
"A mental institution?" Tony asked. This just got better and better.
Gibbs grabbed his chin. "It will never happen."
Tony wanted to believe him so much.
"I have the address where your aunt is, Tony, if you wanted to go see her."
Tony had really mixed feelings about that. "Can you e-mail it to me?"
"And hey," Abby said, trying to sound upbeat. "There are a lot of legends about people who could talk to animals, and there are people out there now who claim they can. There are even videos on YouTube about it. Who knows how far back this legacy goes, but if it's been around for a long time, there could be a ton of people out there who can do what you can."
"You are of the line," Justin piped in. "There may be some with lesser powers, but you are of the true line."
"Really?" Tony asked. "Were my aunts of the true line?"
"I do not know them."
"Can there be more than one person of the true line around at the same time?"
"Yes. Legend says that there used to be many."
"Who are you talking to?" Abby asked.
"He's talking to one of the rats," Gibbs told her.
"Is that what you know, too?" Tony asked Macavity.
"I have been mostly alone, so I don't know anything about legends."
Tony smiled down at the cat. Tough life, tough cat.
"Does he know something?" Abby asked excitedly. "I've never had a rat as a source before. This is so cool!"
Snickering, Tony said, "He says that I'm of the true line, and unless you're of the true line, your powers will be diluted."
"Wow!" Abby said. "Next time you come over, bring him with you. I want to pick his brain."
"I'm sure he'd love to meet you." Justin was staring at him curiously, but seemed up for anything. "We watched Ratatouille last night."
"Did they like it?"
"He said they did. I thought I'd try Secrets of NIMH next."
"Ooh, is that where Justin got his name?"
"Don’t forget the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Splinter was a very cool rat."
Tony let out an outraged huff. "I completely forgot about Splinter. Oh, and now I need to find cat movies, and hawk movies. Oh, hey, how are the hawks this morning?" he asked Gibbs, against whom he was still delightfully pressing.
"They're good. They eat rodents, Tony."
Tony looked down at Justin. "How does that work exactly? Like he said, hawks eat rat and mice."
"Nature is what it is. But they will not eat the three of us. We are marked by your protection."
Tony guessed that was as good as it was going to get.
"What did he say?" Gibbs asked.
"Birds gotta eat. But I guess the critters that bite me and whoever they bring to the party get some sort of protection from me. More stuff I don't know."
"Maybe you should start writing some of this stuff down," Gibbs told him. "No reason you can't start a rulebook."
"You are a genius," Tony told him, and kissed him loudly. "Go ahead and finish your call with Abby. I’m sure you want to whisper things about me."
Gibbs shot him a sidelong glance, but did take the phone off speaker and wandered off talking to Abby.
"Breakfast everybody?" he asked.
Rats and Cat nodded their heads. Tony had to find a bat one of these days. Then he'd feel just like Dr. Seuss.
Gibbs walked into the hallway just in time to see Tony pull off his sweatshirt. "Hey," he said. "Have you checked out your tattoo?"
"No," Tony said. "What does it look like?"
Gibbs put his fingers over the marking. "Why don't you move it somewhere you can see it?"
"I'm happy where it is, at least for now. Who's in it?"
"No cat yet. So just the rat and a hawk." He caressed it, which gave Tony goose bumps. "It's sort of shaded where the cat will be." He leaned in really close, "And maybe there's a start of a mosquito? If it is, it's really small."
"Awesome, because it's not weird at all that something I don't know is just using me like a coloring book."
Gibbs wished he had something consoling to say, but Tony was right, and Gibbs wouldn't be any happier if something mystical was tattooing him. Especially because of the mystical part because that was just not possible, even if the proof of it was staring him in the face. "How do you want to play it today?"
"What do you mean?"
"Do you want stay out of the field?"
"Good question. I thought any new animals were supposed to be asking, but that's not working out so well. Or, at least, the animals seem to have their own interpretation of that. I know this is a crazy question, but can I take the cat?"
"No, Tony, you can't take the cat."
So much for having his consigliore with him. "Wait, I'll have the hawks, right? They should be able to run interference if something goes down."
"Yeah," Gibbs agreed. They'd be good protection in more ways than one. Eyes up high were always helpful.
"You okay having most of the menagerie staying here for the day?"
"Where else are they going to go?"
"They could go outside," Tony pointed out. "Macavity is clearly used to living on the streets, and the rats are, well, they're rats."
"They'll be okay, but I guess I'll need to put in a cat door."
"Yeah, no. Because if they can get out, other critters can get in."
Gibbs sighed. "No simple answers."
"I just have to tell you that I’m so glad you're with me on this." He approached Gibbs, and Gibbs was glad to pull him into his arms, especially with all that bare skin under his hands. Tony's back was smooth, and his chest had the right amount of hair that would feel perfect against his own chest. How was it that they hadn't made it fully into bed yet? One hand job wasn't going to cut it for long.
"One of these days," Tony said, echoing his thoughts, "I hope we actually make it into bed together for something more than a hand job. Not that it wasn't spectacular," he added with a kiss.
"You're reading my mind," Gibbs said, taking a moment to kiss Tony back, to savor the freshly brushed mintiness of Tony's mouth, his eager tongue touching his. He finally pulled back. "One car, I think, just in case someone dive-bombs you."
Tony nodded, wincing. "I need to deal with that owl tonight."
"Eyes up high in the dark. Not a bad thing." He grinned and shook his head. "You really will be something to deal with. My biggest concern at this point is how to keep this a secret."
Tony grimaced at him. "You're thinking we need to let Vance in?"
"I think we'll have to at some point. It's the only way to keep you protected. Word will get out that you've gotten exceptionally good at your job. Better than you already are."
"How about Ziva and Tim? The non-rat versions."
"I don't know," Gibbs said. "Let me think about that."
"You're the boss, Boss," Tony said, easily enough.
Gibbs was surprised by that. He'd been surprised earlier in the kitchen when Abby's call had come in. "You're not as annoyed as I thought you'd be."
"That you're going all Papa-bear on me?" Tony clarified.
"That's one way to put it."
"I sort of need it right now," Tony explained. "I'm feeling a bit out to sea; makes it easier to have someone to hang onto, you know? In fact, like I said before, I'm glad you're here."
Gibbs was glad, too. And he was glad the animals seemed to listen to him. "If Abby sends you your aunt's info, let me know if you want to go see her."
That got an unhappy sound. "I don't want to, but I think I have to. Maybe I can help, you know?"
"Yeah, I do know," Gibbs said, with a quick kiss, "which is just one of the reasons why I'm helping. You're a good guy, Tony. And how that happened with that ass of a father you have is beyond me."
Tony reddened but looked delighted at Gibbs' words.
Gibbs lightly tapped the back of his head. "Now let's go to work."
"What is that?" Ziva asked, her hand swinging through the air to shoo whatever it was away.
"Stop doing that," Tony said, "or you'll smack me in the face." He tried to focus in the dimness of the basement to see exactly what was trying to make first contact. It was amusing and ironic that the insects, so far, were being the most polite. He moved away from Ziva, still focusing on his job, but he whispered, very softly, "Let me see you."
It was a wasp. Great.
"Once," Tony said. "That's all you get." He continued to work his way toward the back of the basement, hearing Ziva do the same on the other side. Tony thought about where he wanted to get bit, and finally just undid his cuff and pushed it and his jacket sleeve up a couple of inches. "Have at it."
The wasp landed and stung him, sending a weird rush of vicious satisfaction through Tony. He scowled at the pain, and tried to identify what the wasp was communicating, if that rush had been from the insect. Wasps didn't have very big brains either, so he was probably doing his best but it was all waspy, and Tony didn't have a wasp-to-human translator handy. He just sent 'welcome to the club' thoughts at the wasp, thinking it would be handy to have a flying wasp force at his command.
"Tony," Ziva hissed.
He moved quickly to where she was standing, following her pistol as she used it to point at the door in the far back right corner of the garage. Their suspect had come into the house, so he had to be here somewhere. Gibbs and Tim were searching upstairs and no one had yelled out 'clear' yet.
Tony positioned himself on one side, Ziva on the other and they nodded at each other. Reaching out carefully, keeping most of his body away from the door in case he came out shooting, Tony tried the doorknob. It was locked and the brief rattling resulted in shots being fired right through the door. Tony yanked his arm away just in time.
Willing to gamble, Tony thought about the wasp, asking for help, and almost immediately one wasp, then two, then three, then half a dozen were flying through the bullet holes in the door.
"What's going on?" Ziva asked. Her eyebrows shot up when the suspect behind the door started yelling.
Tony kicked the door in, feeling quite confident that the suspect had better things to do than shoot him or Ziva. It was the matter of a moment to get the man's gun away and Ziva tried to do the honors of cuffing him, but the wasps were going nuts buzzing dangerously around them all.
Gibbs and Tim came clattering down the stairs. "Everyone okay?" Gibbs yelled.
"I got this," Tony told Ziva. "Go tell them the sit-rep."
Ziva gave him a dubious stare but seemed quite happy to be away from the wasps as she strode toward the stairway.
"Thanks, guys," Tony said, as he handcuffed their suspect, pleased that not a single wasp, even the ones he had to brush away, stung him. Despite the bizarre turn his life had taken, this was pretty great. Their suspect, on the other hand, had gotten stung several times, and he had half a dozen wheals popping up. Tony didn't notice the man having any difficulty breathing, so he wasn't going to cry any tears over him.
Gibbs stuck his head in, taking in the scene in a second.
"Just call me Wasp," Tony proclaimed, again knowing Gibbs would have no idea what he was talking about.
"Now that one I understand," Gibbs said, surprising him. "I did read comic books when I was a kid, you know, and the Wasp has been around a long time."
"You don't have the breasts for it," their suspect said.
Tony let out a laugh. "Come on," he said, pushing the guy out in front of him.
They left the suspect with the ambulance team and several other NCIS agents, leaving Tony and his team searching the house for evidence.
"That was very weird," Ziva said, as she carefully pushed aside a hanging drape; they were back in the garage. "I have never seen wasps act that way."
"It was weird," Tony said. "Maybe he was wearing some cologne that smelled like wasp pheromones?"
"You didn't seem concerned that they would sting you," she pointed out, sounding annoyed.
Tony pushed up his sleeve. "One did sting me." Tony hoped that would stop Ziva from drawing any crazy but possibly correct conclusions.
She stared at the wheal on his arm and sniffed in derision. "You should learn to duck faster."
Tony was oh-so tempted to call a few wasps so they could see who ducked faster, but he was sure he'd get a hard head slap for that from Gibbs, so he checked his impulse.
"Tony, Ziva," Tim called from upstairs. "We found something."
"Good," Ziva said, letting the drape fall, and heading up the stairs.
Tony held back a moment, holding out his hand. A wasp landed there, presumably the wasp, and Tony thought very hard at it about how pleased he was. He got back that odd sense of vicious satisfaction again, and Tony decided communication had occurred, however rudimentary.
"Tony," Ziva snapped from the top of the stairs.
Tony gently waved his hand and the wasp flew off. "Very cool," he said, smiling to himself, as he walked upstairs to join his partner.
Three days later, Gibbs barked into his phone, "You better have a good reason for checking in so late, DiNozzo."
"It's Ziva," came a weary voice. "They took Tony."
Gibbs stood so fast his chair went careening into the cubicle behind him. "Where are you?" He snapped his fingers at Tim. "Get my car, meet me out front." He tossed his keys to Tim.
Ziva rattled off an address. "I don't know how, but they were waiting for us. Someone hit me on the back of the head. When I woke up they were dragging Tony into a car, but I couldn't move fast enough to stop them. I shot a back light out, though, which might help with the BOLO. I'll call it in."
"Do you need an ambulance?" Gibbs asked, striding toward the staircase on his way to the front door. "How long were you out?"
There was a moment's pause as if she were checking the time. "Not long. Just a few minutes. Whatever happened here, happened fast." She sounded annoyed with herself; her voice was tight, hostile.
Gibbs got that. It sucked to be the one left behind, especially when you'd done squat to help your partner. "Stay put, we're on our way." He took a deep breath knowing it was useless, but attempting to calm himself anyway. They'd taken Tony! Bad enough whoever it was had hurt Ziva, but they'd taken Tony. Fury sluiced through him and he half noticed people getting out of his way as he slammed the front door to the building open. McGee was already in the passenger seat, the car running, and Gibbs got in, put on his seat belt and handed Tim the address as he hit the gas. "Give me directions."
McGee put the address into his iPad, and started instructing Gibbs.
They took Tony. Why? Why would they take Tony? Had he hurt someone while trying to protect Ziva? Had he seen something he shouldn't have? Why not just kill him? It was a tense half hour until they pulled into the dirt drive that led to the house of their second suspect. Ziva was sitting on the front step of the house, one hand with an easy, capable grasp on her pistol.
Gibbs turned the car off and took in the scene. Dilapidated house in the middle of nowhere, two broken windows, garage door hanging askew, beat up dog house with a long solid chain that had been snapped in two. He left McGee to see to Ziva and crouched down by the chain. "Jesus," he muttered. Gibbs guessed it was possible that the chain had already been stressed to the max before but, even then, this had been one pissed off dog.
"The dog is dead," Ziva said. "He was shot."
Gibbs made his way over and found a dead German Shepherd, shot several times at close range. Gibbs had a sudden vision in his head of the dog leaping to try to protect Tony and being killed for its efforts. But why take Tony?
He ran his eyes over the scene, saw where Ziva must have fallen. There was an area where a scuffle had happened that included both people and dog prints, and there were blood splatters everywhere. He hoped like hell that was all the dog's. He went back to his car and got out a blood testing kit and took some samples. Looking up he found McGee taking pictures, and Ziva doing some sketches, her brow furrowed as if her head was killing her. It probably was.
"What do we know?"
McGee was on his iPad again, looking stuff up. He spoke without looking up. "This house is registered to Paul McAvoy, our second suspect. There's a rental agreement on record that lists him and a Rich Holzchur as renters. Holzchur has a record for armed robbery, and assault and battery."
"They were both here when we arrived, armed and waiting for a fight," Ziva said, her eyes flashing.
"Who does the dog belong to?" Gibbs asked.
McGee's eyebrows went up, but he went back to his pad. "Uh, there's no dog registered to this address."
"There are no tags on the choke collar," Ziva said, having moved to the bushes to check.
"No other property listed to either of these two, or the suspect we already have in custody."
Gibbs looked around, looked up, wondering if the hawks had seen what had happened and had followed them to wherever Tony was now.
McGee, mistaking Gibbs' purpose for looking up, said, "There aren't any surveillance cameras this far off the road."
Gibbs didn't bother to correct his assumption, as that was still helpful information to have. Not what he wanted to hear, but still. "Vehicles? Tire tracks?" Gibbs was answering his own question as he looked around, but he didn't see anything distinctive. Tony's car was still sitting in the driveway. He did a sweep around the entire house, but there were no signs of anyone being dragged or any recent footsteps anyplace but in front. "There's a Jeep out back."
"Ah," McGee said, "I'll cancel that BOLO then. Ziva identified the car they left in and the BOLO is active."
"Why would they take him?" Ziva asked, her face pale and forehead furrowed with pain.
There were no good answers. "I'll drive you back," he said. "Tim, drive Tony's car back."
"I don't have a key."
Gibbs had a full set of Tony's keys. He pulled them out of the glove box of his car and pulled off the car keys. "Here."
McGee looked surprised, but didn't ask.
Gibbs opened the door for Ziva. "Sit down before you fall down."
The fact that she got in quietly told Gibbs all he needed to know about how she was feeling. "Call for backup and canvass the neighbors," he told McGee. "Maybe they know someplace these guys go when they have to lie low. Then call Ducky and tell him I'm bringing Ziva to him."
"You got it, Boss," McGee said, already on the phone.
Gibbs got into his car and, driving more sedately than usual, drove Ziva back to NCIS.
"You okay?" Ziva asked him.
He hadn't realized he'd been giving so much away. "I'll be good when we get Tony back." It's not like he could tell her his real fear, that they'd hurt him and dump him somewhere out in the woods, and while Tony lay helpless every animal or insect or reptile in a ten mile radius would think it was a good time to take a bite out of him. Just the image brought bile to Gibbs' throat. Would they come one at a time? Would they just converge on him, would he be covered with bugs, with snakes, with god knows what, unable to fend them off? He slammed the steering wheel with his hand. "Damn it."
Ducky was waiting with a wheelchair, much to Ziva's disgust, but she got in it and allowed Ducky to wheel her to the morgue for a checkup. Gibbs parked his car in the garage and headed up to the bullpen. He felt so fucking helpless without a single clue to go on.
He sat at his desk, paralyzed with indecision about what to do, when he overheard a conversation of two passing agents.
"Someone needs to call Animal Control," the woman said. "They're dive-bombing everyone who walks outside."
"They're not hurting anybody," the man said in return. "Just scaring the hell out of them." He grinned. "I thought Rosenberg was going to wet himself."
She snickered in return. "Still, it's weird. It's like they're looking for someone."
"What is it?" Gibbs demanded, moving quickly to intercept them. "What's outside?"
"Two red tail hawks."
Thank God, Gibbs thought, as he ran for the front door. They hadn't been there before or they would have dive-bombed him as he walked to his car. Hopefully that meant they knew where Tony was and they'd come to get help.
There was a crowd outside, hugging the walls to avoid the aerial acrobatics of the hawks. Gibbs just had time to think how stupid people were when the hawks shot down to take a look at him. "Yes, it's me." He held up his arms and a hawk landed on each arm, talons digging in through his jacket.
"These hawks yours, Agent Gibbs?" security asked in surprise. "I was just calling Animal Control."
"They're DiNozzo's. They must have gotten loose. Get everyone out of here. Show's over."
"I don't know," Leon drawled. "It sort of looks to me like the show's just starting."
Deciding there was no time like the present, Gibbs just said, "Come with me. We need to talk."
"Not with those hawks," Leon said, keeping a safe distance away.
"Yes, with these hawks. That's part of what we need to talk about. Someplace private."
Leon sighed his usual you-are-such-a-bastard sigh, but Gibbs was used to hearing it and even better at ignoring it. He strode in the door, bypassing security with Leon's permission as the hawks were letting out periodic skrees of distress. Gibbs would have gotten hawks a long time ago if it cleared his path like this. People dove to get out of the way of a man carrying two shrieking hawks.
"Now just wait," Gibbs said when they arrived at Leon's office. "You're going to think I've lost my mind, but I haven't. I'll explain everything." He put the birds on the conference room table. "You guys know where Tony is?"
One of them bobbed its head, but Gibbs realized that he wasn't going to get what he needed just out of yes and no answers.
"Okay, you know what I am to him. You know he'd want you to tell me. I can't find him unless you talk to me."
"Gibbs," Leon said slowly.
"Hang on, Leon." He held out his arm. "Do you need to bite me, scratch me? Do it." He shook his arm in their direction.
The hawks looked at each other as if telepathically chatting and then one of them darted forward almost too fast for Gibbs to see and sliced his arm with its beak.
"Gibbs," Leon said, standing, sounding pissed off and worried.
Gibbs' head was suddenly full of a vision of a huge cement lot filled with thousands of shipping containers. "Tony's there?" Gibbs knew that place.
One of the hawks nodded.
"He's alive, though, right?"
"Do you know which one he's in?"
The same hawk shook his head.
"I'll be damned," Leon said, sitting again.
"Why the fuck not?" Gibbs shouted, slamming a hand on the table.
"They shot at us," the hawk said, and Gibbs suddenly knew it was Rutger in his head. Michelle spread a wing to show a damaged area. It obviously wasn't bad enough to keep her from flying, but some of the feathers were skimmed off. Gibbs took a closer look. "You need to see someone about that?"
Michelle shook her head and shrieked at him, her glorious voice oddly poignant. Rutger put it into words. "Find him. You must go there and find him. We will help."
"Do you at least know which part?" The hawks looked at him as if unsure how to answer.
"Can you put up a picture of the Cargo Trade Operations shipping container lot by the port?" he asked Leon.
Leon, looking half-convinced Gibbs had lost it, used the remote to flip on the large screen television set, and then moved to his computer. In a matter of minutes the lot was up.
"Does that help?"
The hawks looked at the TV, heads turning left and right and almost upside down. It would be comical if Tony's life wasn't on the line. All he got was a sense of frustration followed by a vision of Justin and Macavity. "You want me to get the cat and the rat to help hunt for him."
That got a head bob and a shriek that absolutely meant, "Yes!" and "Come on!"
Gibbs walked to the window behind Leon's desk and opened it. "Go. I'll meet you there. Keep an eye out for any animals heading his way. Got it?"
They both shrieked and flew out the window.
"Want to tell me what that was all about?" Leon said tightly. "And do not tell me you can actually talk to hawks."
"Then we've got nothing to talk about," Gibbs said, heading for the door. "I need to get some help and go find Tony."
"You really think he's there? You really think those hawks came here to tell you where he was?"
"Yeah, I really think he's there. We need to find Tony first, and then we'll get you fully read in; he and I had already talked about how you need to be in on this."
"In on what?" Leon yelled.
"You won't believe me without a demonstration, so just go with me on this, okay?"
"Fine," Leon said, although his jaw was jumping with agitation. "I'll get some teams there. You go get the rat and the cat, whoever the hell they are, and I'm seriously hoping they're code names for a couple of your sources. Sources that walk on two legs." Leon glared at Gibbs. "I'll meet you there."
Good enough. Gibbs ran out of Leon's office and back down to his car, racing like a demon back to his house. Thank God his house was more or less on the way; it would have been hard to drive away from Tony. "Please be alive," Gibbs said under his breath. "We can fix everything else." He refused to think about Tony's aunts, one dead by suicide, one crazy. That was not going to happen to Tony.
He peeled into his driveway and sprinted to the front door, yanking it open. "Justin! Macavity!"
The cat came running into the front living room, followed quickly by Justin. "Tony's in trouble. You need to help me find him."
Macavity let out a growl that made the hairs stand up on the back of Gibbs' neck. They followed him out of the house and leapt into Gibbs' car. As they drove, Macavity kept up a low pitched growl-groan, while Justin jumped from the back seat to the front seat and back again. Gibbs made it to the container dock in record time and was allowed to pass through after showing his ID. The rat on his shoulder got some serious eye-time, though.
Leon was there and got into Gibbs' car, as Gibbs had no intention of getting into Leon's. Staring up, he found the hawks circling and followed them as best he could, until he stopped the car and opened his door. "Find him," he said, even though it wasn't necessary because the cat and rat were out the door and running.
"What the hell?" Leon said.
"They have a better chance of finding him than we do," was all he said. He glanced up as Rutger came down and landed on his car. Gibbs thought about telling it not to scratch the finish but then decided he had bigger fish to fry. "Any luck?"
"Okay. Show me."
The hawk launched itself and Gibbs got back in his car, only then noticing then Leon was still in it.
"You owe me such a big explanation, and I can't wait to hear it," Leon growled.
"You won't be crazy about it. It's a good news/bad news kind of thing."
"What else is new when it comes to you and your team?"
Gibbs had to grin at that. He came to a stop when he saw the caucus going on between one of the hawks, the rat, and the cat. "Jesus, Tony's not gonna believe this." He got out his camera and took a picture. Then he was out of the car and striding up. "What's up?"
The cat took off, and Gibbs ran after it as there wasn't room to drive any closer. At least he did his best to run after it, because the cat could run under the containers while Gibbs could not. Fortunately, every now and then, the cat would let out a very loud yowl and Gibbs would adjust his direction accordingly. Macavity suddenly let out an ear-splitting howl and Gibbs turned the corner and came to an abrupt stop, his mouth dropping open. The container in front of him was covered, almost completely, by wildlife. Birds were hanging on to every place talons would wrap around. There were bugs and snakes, too many varieties to count, not to mention raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, opossums, even a damn porcupine. And that didn't cover the dogs that were sniffing around, at least a dozen, some with collars and tags, some without.
"What the fuck?" Leon said, panting behind Gibbs.
Ignoring Leon, Gibbs strode to the large metal handle that would open the container. "Move away. I need to get in there to him."
Justin and Macavity started to nip at the heels of anything keeping Gibbs from getting inside and the hawks helped from above. Once the door was clear, it took Leon finally joining him to get the door slid open.
There were more animals inside. "Get the fuck out," Gibbs said, viciously pleased when they obeyed. Justin and Macavity must be spreading the word that Gibbs was Tony's protector or something that made sense in animal parlance. He turned on his flashlight and found Tony, looking very unconscious, which was probably a good thing because he was surrounded by animals and reptiles and insects, the first of each kind to make their way inside, Gibbs assumed.
He used the flashlight to shoo everything away as gently as he could, knowing that, despite the fact that these creatures might have inadvertently harmed Tony, they only had the best intentions.
"Try not to step on anything," Gibbs told Leon, who was making annoyed noises as too many things to count slithered or crawled their way over his shoes to get outside. He was finally close enough to put his hand out to touch Tony's neck, relieved to find a pulse, even though he knew Tony had to be alive, or all these animals and insects and reptiles wouldn't be hanging around. Tony's body was trembling, and his skin was way too hot to the touch. "Leon, we need to get him to a hospital, but only Ducky can take care of him. We'll need a medic or a nurse from the Corp who can be trusted, and I mean really trusted, to help."
"What is this, Gibbs? What are we dealing with?"
"I know it sounds crazy…" Gibbs began.
"Not as crazy as what I'm seeing, so I'm thinking I might just believe you."
"It's a legacy he got from his mom. When he turned forty, he suddenly developed the ability to speak and control animals."
Leon was not a stupid man. "The wasp bites?"
"The wasp bites."
"And he's got rats and cats and hawks?"
"And everything that just made its way over your shoes. They have to bite him or scratch him to make contact, but once they do, he can control all of them."
"All of them?"
"All the rats, all the cats, all the hawks and snakes, and bugs, and god knows what all."
"Jesus," Leon said. "That's some super power."
"Yes, it is, and if you want us to keep it, to keep him, no one can know."
"Someone will find out, Gibbs. And they will take him away."
"He can't be kept a prisoner, not when he can call on help no matter where he is," Gibbs pointed out. "But he doesn't deserve for them to try. This wasn't something he signed up for. But he can use it to help. He will use it to help."
Gibbs was feeling Tony's body for cuts and broken bones. He had several bruises and wheals on his face and hands along with multiple bites and scratches, and annoyance surged again even though he knew, rationally, that these creatures did not have the brain power to understand the difference between consent and implied consent just because someone's unconscious and can't say no. He also had what felt like several bruised or cracked ribs, no doubt a gift from their suspects, by the way Tony shifted away from him even while unconscious.
His temperature was concerning, and Gibbs guessed he had enough insect and reptile venom running through his veins to kill anyone else.
"No!" Tony suddenly cried out.
"Tony, it's Gibbs, you're okay."
"No!" he said again, the shivers increasing.
Fear swept through Gibbs as he began to understand more fully why people went insane with this legacy. He sat down next to Tony and put his hand on his hair. "You're okay."
Leon kept one eye on them, and the rest of his attention on his phone call, as Tony just lay there, trembling. "You're okay," Gibbs said again, carding his fingers through Tony's hair. "I got you."
Leon let out a yelp as Justin, Macavity and the hawks entered the container. Macavity pushed into Tony until he was against his chest. Tony shifted away violently, yelling, "No, no more!" and it made Gibbs wonder if all the animals surrounding Tony's body had actually been self-appointed bodyguards to make sure no one else came in.
"Shh," Gibbs said. "It's Macavity."
That seemed to calm Tony down. The shivering didn't stop, but he seemed to settle down some.
Macavity let out an unhappy whine as he began to lick Tony's face, and Gibbs was sorry he hadn't let Tony take the cat to work now. He sighed, and then looked up at Leon. "Where the hell is the ambulance?"
"We're waiting for Ducky," Leon said. "Does he need immediate medical care?"
Gibbs had no fucking idea. "He's been bit all over by God knows what, but usually everything heals up quickly. He's got a high temperature."
"All of this is real, isn't it? None of it was bullshit."
"None of it." Gibbs kept running his fingers through Tony's hair. "He's had to move in with me." Gibbs let out a mirthless soft laugh. "He can't keep this menagerie at his apartment. I'm gonna have to find a place that's a little more private." He couldn't believe he was talking about selling his place, giving up the home he'd lived in with Shannon and Kelly, but he'd do it in a minute for Tony.
"How did you get involved in this?"
"He was at my house when he turned forty. Justin there was the first to bite him," and Gibbs pointed at the rat.
"And why was he at your house?"
"We're friends, Leon, it was his birthday. I made steaks."
"Is that all?"
"You got a problem if there is more?" Gibbs asked belligerently.
"Not necessarily. But I will have a problem if you leave something out of this explanation. I need to know everything I'm dealing with."
"Fair enough. Part of the reason we needed to let you in on it is that once something bites him, a tattoo shows up."
Leon just stared at him. "Gibbs, what the fuck are you talking about?"
"I know this sounds impossible, but it's some kind of…" Gibbs sighed. "It kills me to say it, but it's some kind of magic."
"Magic?" Leon's voice rose an octave. "Are you really expecting me to believe in this shit?"
"You saw what I saw." Gibbs could see the flashing lights from the reflection on the door of the storage container. "Ambulance?"
"The animals gone from outside?"
"I see more eyes than I’m comfortable with staring at me from the edges of the lot, but yeah. It's like a Steven King novel."
"You should tell Tony that. He loves it when real life imitates fiction."
Leon helped Ducky get up the steps. "What is it, Gibbs? Surely Anthony would be better suited at hospital."
"I need you to know what's going on," Gibbs said, and proceeded to fill him in.
"Remarkable," Ducky said for about the hundredth time, as he watched the tattoo grow.
Remarkable wasn't the word Gibbs would use. Despite how extraordinary the tattoo was, the whole thing made him sick to his stomach because Tony hadn't asked for this legacy, and he certainly hadn't asked for a tattoo, and that thing was growing on him without his consent in a way that was going to change his life, and not necessarily in a good way. Leon had already told him that he had to tell Sec-Nav and that meant it was already out of control.
At any moment, Gibbs expected agents in dark suits to enter Tony's room, forcibly evict Gibbs, and take Tony someplace out of reach. It made him hesitant to even leave the room to get a cup of coffee.
In the meantime, the room was under twenty-four hour guard, making sure no one entered except Ducky and two Marine medics, who took in the rat, the cat and the hawks, and a moth and beetle that must have been stuck in Tony's or maybe even Gibbs' clothing, without batting an eye. Gibbs had given them an approving nod and seen them stand a little taller. It was nice to have a wide-spread reputation for being sparse with praise.
Tony still hadn't fully regained consciousness, and when he did, he lashed out and looked around with terrified eyes. Gibbs could only imagine what it had been like to be wounded, in the dark, already with an altered mental status because of a concussion and then, in his few lucid moments, to feel creatures crawling all over him, surrounding him.
The worst of it was that there was absolutely nothing Gibbs could do about it other than to make sure Tony knew he was there. So every time Tony got restless, Gibbs spoke softly to him, and when it was just the two of them, he touched Tony's face and hair, and kissed him softly on the parts of his face and hands that weren't bruised or scratched or bitten.
He knew he should go back to the office to help find the two assholes that had dropped Tony in the container, but Gibbs had no intention of leaving and, for once, Leon was backing him up. It was a shame that only now, when Leon could think of Tony as a commodity, that he saw his worth. Whatever. Gibbs would take as much advantage of it as he could. Ziva and McGee were on the case, and Leon would assign them extra help if they needed it.
Tony twitched and let out a short moan.
"I'm right here, Tony," Gibbs said, squeezing his hand. "You're safe."
To Gibbs' relief, Tony blinked open his eyes. "Gibbs?" he croaked.
"Yeah," he said, pouring a cup of water from the pitcher and sticking a straw in it. "Take a small sip."
Tony obeyed his instructions and took a small sip, and then a few more. He nodded and Gibbs put the rest of the cup on the bedside table.
"Where am I?"
"Bethesda, under Ducky's care."
Macavity chose that moment to climb up from Tony's feet to lick Tony's nose. Tony pulled the cat close, hugging him. "With the cat?"
"And Justin and the birds, and a couple of other stowaways."
Tony stared at Gibbs, then his eyes found Justin and Michelle and Rutger and he let out a small grin. "What stowaways?"
Gibbs pointed at the window. "Moth and beetle."
"That sounds like a great name for a band." Tony lifted his head up a little and gazed over at the window. He waved a hand weakly and said, "Hi." To Gibbs he added, "Two's not so bad." He must have seen something on Gibbs' face because he said, "Wait. What is it?" Then his eyes opened wide. "Jesus, where are they? God, what bit me?" Tony looked at his arms, his legs, taking note of the too numerous to count scratches and bites and nips, and Gibbs couldn't help but think that he looked like an all-night buffet.
"Back at the storage container," Gibbs said carefully. "Tony, there were hundreds of things. Too many to count."
Tony shivered as if he thought bugs were crawling all over him right now. "Okay, new topic, please. Right now. I'm trying not to completely wig out." He sat up with a groan. "Jesus, my head hurts, not to mention my ribs."
"I was hoping you could tell me about that," Gibbs said.
"Oh, God, the dog. Is the dog okay?"
"No," Gibbs said. "He's dead. What happened?"
"Jesus, I hate this. I never know…fuck. Jesus, Gibbs, I can't do this."
"You don't have any choice about that, so just tell me what happened."
"They were waiting for us, and they were on us as soon as got out of the car. Hey, is Ziva okay?"
Gibbs nodded. "She's fine."
"Okay. They had a dog chained up, and when one of them hit me the dog went berserk and snapped his chain and stood between me and the two guys. One of them shot the damn dog before I could do anything about it. Which isn't really true, because if I'd bothered to think at all, I could have called the wasps, or rats, or something to bite the guy's ankle or dive-bomb his face but, instead, that beautiful dog is dead because of me. Fuck, fuck, fuck."
"What happened after he shot the dog?" Gibbs pushed.
Tony let out a weary sigh and said, "He went nuts. Started yelling at me, telling me it was my fault, waving his gun around, saying I'd have to pay, and like some damn rookie, let alone someone who can control part of the animal kingdom, I stood there and let the other guy sneak up behind me and clobber me. Pathetic."
Gibbs wasn't about to let Tony take the blame for this. "This is all new to you, and I shouldn't have sent you out into the field. I made the wrong call. I should have realized how disorienting this whole thing still is. You need to practice with it. Find a way to use it, how to control the situation instead of it controlling you." Gibbs was annoyed he hadn't thought of it before. Given Tony's family's track record with this legacy, he needed to be more careful, find ways to protect him.
Tony buried his fingers in Macavity's fur which resulted in a loud purr. "How did you find me?"
"The hawks paid NCIS a visit."
Tony grinned at the hawks, reaching out to run a careful hand down their breasts. "Thanks guys."
He got amiable chirps from both of them and Tony smiled, looking cheered to find out the lengths to which they would go to find him. Rutger let out a shriek and Tony chuckled.
When Gibbs chuckled too, Tony's eyebrows rose. "Did you hear that?"
"You mean that he thinks people at our work place are very excitable? Yes, I heard that."
Gibbs shrugged. "I needed to understand one of them to find you. I guess he believed me." Gibbs held out his arm, showing where the bird had scratched him.
Tony looked back at Rutger. "You guys can do that?"
Gibbs could sense Rutger' confusion. Finally, Rutger, said, "He is your mate. He needed our help to find you. He is allowed to break the rules on occasion."
Tony laughed at that, and Gibbs grinned back, amazed at the fact that Tony was laughing. The man was made of sterner stuff than any of his mother's family, that's for sure. He felt another moment of inordinate pride in his agent. "The hawks came to NCIS, told me to get Macavity and Justin and directed us to the container lot. Macavity was the one who found you, although Justin and the hawks were right behind him." Gibbs found himself patting the rat, and Justin used the opportunity to climb up Gibbs' sleeve to his shoulder. They'd both done a good job.
Tony looked away for a moment, bit his bottom lip, and then squared his shoulders. "What does it look like?"
Gibbs didn't bother to pretend he didn't know what Tony was talking about. "I haven't looked. Do you want me to?"
Tony really didn't look happy about it, but he nodded.
Taking a moment to open the door and make sure no one was heading that way, Gibbs told the Marine on duty, "Don't let anyone in until I say so."
"Yes, sir," the Marine said.
Gibbs wanted to correct him on the use of sir but left it alone. He walked back in, shut the door and stared as Tony let the sheet drop, turning slightly so part of his back was to Gibbs. He still had his gown on, but much of his back was bare.
Tony got more and more agitated as the seconds ticked by. "Are you…" Tony swallowed. "Is it grossing you out? I mean, I'd get it if it were. If you don't want to look at it." Tony looked out the window. "You don't have to stay."
"Tony," Gibbs said, realizing he had to say something before Tony made all the wrong assumptions. "Shut up. I'm standing here looking at you because I'm so damn glad you're alive. And yes, this whole thing is strange, and I wish to God it hadn't happened to you, but we, and yes, I mean we, will get through it."
Gibbs sat down by Tony's knee. "We're in this together. And I'll try to take better care of you in the future. I'm betting your mom's siblings didn't have anyone to help them, but you do." Gibbs caressed Tony's cheek with the back of his fingers. "Nothing about you grosses me out. Nothing. In fact you have the opposite effect on me."
Tony's lips twitched toward a smile.
Gibbs wanted more of one. He leaned in and kissed Tony tenderly, trying to communicate his feelings and, even more importantly, his dedication.
He almost got a real smile, but then a dreadful look crossed Tony's face and he said, in a tortured whisper, "I can feel it growing. It's like it's taking me over."
Gibbs, without a second's thought, slapped Tony on the back of his head and it startled a bark of laughter out of him. "Sit up more so I can really look at your back."
Tony grimaced but complied, sitting up, allowing Gibbs access. Gibbs unsnapped the gown so it completely fell away from Tony's back and he lost his breath for a moment. Tony chose to interpret that in the worst way possible. "Is it bad?"
"Actually," Gibbs said, not able to look away from the magnificent display in front of him, "it's extraordinary. I've never seen anything like it. There isn't a tattoo artist in the world who wouldn't sell their soul for this level of skill."
That got a snort, but a fairly good-natured one. "Leave it the capricious gods to be good tattoo artists."
"Touch right here," Gibbs said, pressing a finger to the back of Tony's neck, "and move some of it to your arm so you can see."
Hesitantly, but obediently, Tony did as directed, pulling the tattoo from his back to his arm, and it obediently behaved, covering his arm from wrist to shoulder. It really defined belief. It was like the Sistine Chapel on Tony's arm; the color and detail just as eye-catching, an impossibly intricate hidden objects game. Gibbs thought he could watch it for hours and never tire of it. A very inappropriate and yet erotic thought crossed his mind of licking it and rubbing against it, and Gibbs felt his body start to respond to the idea.
He toyed with the idea of telling Tony, sure that would get a laugh out of him, but he decided to leave it for a more private venue. Glancing down, he found Tony as equally captivated with the pictures on his skin.
"Wow," Tony said. He rubbed his fingers along his forearm. "It is pretty spectacular."
Gibbs pointed at one of the new ones. "You also have a couple more rats, so I'm assuming it is species of rats, and not just rats in general." That meant so many more, countless more, creatures would be coming for Tony. Gibbs' heart raced at the thought.
There was a knock on the door and Gibbs frowned. He moved to open it a crack prepared to give the Marine a hard time for allowing an interruption. Ducky was standing there with Abby, though, and Gibbs just rolled his eyes and opened the door.
"Oh, wow! Wow!" Abby shrieked as she ran to Tony and stared admiringly at his tattoo. "Wow, wow, wow!"
"I know," Tony said, "who's the tat king now?"
"You are," Abby breathed out in wonder, without a second's hesitation. "Tony, this is the most gorgeous thing I've ever seen." She got up really close, her fingers following the shape of some of the animals. "Can you call some of them now?"
"I could," Tony said, "but I'm not sure I should."
"Actually," a voice from the door said, and Gibbs looked up sharply to find Leon and the Sec-Nav, Clayton Jarvis, standing there. "I'd like a demonstration," Jarvis said.
Without even thinking about it, Gibbs was standing between Jarvis and Tony. "Why?"
"Relax," Leon said. "He doesn't believe me."
Tony snorted. "Welcome to the club."
Gibbs didn't relax at all. "I won't let you use him."
Jarvis frowned. "Is he incapable of speaking for himself?"
"He's still working things out. He's vulnerable right now in the field," Gibbs said, not giving an inch. "You want him around to help us out, you need to give him time."
"Seeing as I still don't know what it is he needs to work out," Jarvis said, his voice growing sharper, "I can't say whether I agree with you or not."
"Gibbs," Tony said. "It's okay."
"No, it's not," Gibbs bit out, but he did back down only to stand next to Tony, clearly showing where his loyalty lay.
"You better shut the door," Tony said. He grabbed Abby's hand with one of his, and Gibbs' hand with the other. "Sorry, it still freaks me out a little," he explained. "It helps to be anchored."
Jarvis looked part intrigued and part skeptical and moved further into the room, near the bed.
"Yeah," Tony said, "you and Director Vance should go stand in the corner. And I don't mean that in a time-out sort of way, more in the keeping you from getting caught in, well, in whatever answers when I call."
"I'm right here," Gibbs said softly to him. "I won't let it get out of hand. Just make sure whatever arrives knows not to attack anyone." He saw Jarvis' eyebrows go up. The man had no freaking idea what was about to hit, especially as this was a hospital room five floors up. Most people paid no attention to what was living inside their walls and up in their attics and cellars. It was easier to believe that everything non-human and non-pet was living outside like they were supposed to.
"You should open a window," Tony said. "I can feel them out there. I'd hate for the glass to get broken."
Gibbs let go of Tony's hand and slid open a window, stunned to find a dozen birds already waiting to come in. He slipped back to Tony and took his hand again. "Okay."
"Okay," Tony said, and he closed his eyes.
Gibbs kept one eye on Tony, another on Clayton Jarvis, and yet somehow still managed to watch for what responded to Tony's call. More than a dozen varieties of birds, including a huge owl that looked suspiciously like the one from the house, bats, and swarms of mosquitoes, wasps, several varieties of moths, June bugs, and dozens of other kinds of insects he couldn't identify as they quickly buzzed by, all congregated round Tony until the air was as thick as stew. Rats were coming out of the woodwork, along with mice, a couple of snakes, and the more earth bound insects like cockroaches and ants and earwigs and countless others, both familiar and not.
And they kept coming. The floor was an opaque sea of living things, every surface of the room littered with creatures; Tony's blankets were a mosaic of brown and gray and white and spots and stripes, with an occasional splash of color of a cardinal or yellow finch. It was hard to stay still because, as Gibbs was so close to Tony, he was half covered with the things, as was Abby, whose eyes were wide open in a mixture of awe and apprehension.
Gibbs trusted that nothing would hurt him, but it was still difficult to ignore the dozens of stinging insects on him or around him. Ducky was by the window, staring outside, and Gibbs would bet there were now hundreds of winged things out there wishing they were inside and who knows what on the ground; Gibbs remembered all those cats on his front lawn. He heard a muttered, "Good Lord," from Ducky and grinned tightly, wondering if there'd be some article about weird animal behavior in the news tomorrow.
Vance and Jarvis had a mixture of expressions on their faces: astonishment, disbelief, fear, avarice, frustration, calculation, and the list went on, one expression following the next only to begin again. Gibbs was sure that of all the people at NCIS who Vance or Jarvis might hope to have this sort of power, Tony would be at the bottom of their list; but that was just because they didn't know him, or understand his big heart.
Justin was on Gibbs' shoulder, Macavity was against Tony's chest, keeping everything away from Tony's face with a hiss or extended claw. The moth and beetle were the only exception as they were on Tony's pillow by his temple. Rutger and Michelle let out a herding skree every time a couple of animals got into it with each other, like when the owl was eying one of the mice with a hungry expression.
"Enough," Tony said, opening his eyes. "Holy shit."
"This is what you need to understand," Gibbs said to the two men pressed hard against the wall, deciding to just get the facts on the table. "There is nowhere you can take Tony where he can't marshal the assistance he needs to get away. If he asked, these animals and insects would attack in his defense. They can break windows, eat through walls, get him food, and get him help. The two hawks came and got me at NCIS earlier today so I could find Tony."
Leon nodded his head. "I was there. I saw it. Wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes but they spoke to Gibbs."
"They all listen to Gibbs," Tony said.
"We're a package deal," Gibbs said. "There isn't much Tony can't do. He's got eyes on and under the ground and in the air, and most of them can talk to him or somehow communicate with him and, at the very least, protect him. But he can't do it alone."
"And there are some things I won't do," Tony said.
Jarvis shot him and Gibbs a look that said, 'you'll do what you're told', as well as spoken words would have.
"No, I won't," Tony said stubbornly, "and you should be glad about that. Hold on, I can barely think with all the chattering going on. It's like a cocktail party." He closed his eyes again, and even though there was some grumbling--Gibbs could weirdly feel the discontent in the air as they all wanted to be with Tony--the creatures in the room began to disperse. "This is too much freaking power for anyone to have. Way too much. So, I'm thinking you want me to stick to a high moral ground, because if I don't…if you decide you can guilt me to do stuff that messes with who I am and what I believe in, it could get ugly; I could get ugly. So, I decide. Gibbs and I decide what I do, and what I don't do."
Gibbs was proud of Tony as he couldn't have said it better himself. The birds began to launch themselves out the window, as well as the handful of bats that had joined them. One of them approached the bed, and the owl was still looming.
"I don't have a bat yet, huh?" Tony asked the bat.
The bat let out a chittering sound.
Sighing, Tony put out his arm. The bat quickly crawled to him looking ungainly making his way across the folds of the blanket, but then he barely, and politely, scratched Tony's arm. After he did that, the bat curled up and went to sleep, one of his wings covering his face.
"That's how you do it," Tony said scathingly to Macavity, who butted Tony's chin with his head.
The owl hooted at him.
"Hey," Tony said. "Are you the same owl from Gibbs' house?"
That got another hoot.
"Okay, I'm impressed you got yourself here," Tony said. "Can you manage not to peck my eyes out? Come here. And no eating any of these rodents or bugs or whatevers."
The owl landed on Tony's bed and pecked at his arm drawing a spot of blood, and then he glared at Tony as if insulted.
"Don't give me that," Tony told him. "I saw you eying up a couple of the mice, thinking they'd make a nice appetizer."
Tony got several hoots in succession and he burst out laughing.
"What?" Gibbs said, wanting in on the joke. "What's he saying?"
"That he hadn't been sizing them up for dinner, but chastising them for behaving like hooligans."
"That's what he said, hooligans." Tony laughed again. "Who knew an owl knew the word hooligan. Awesome."
"Ask him if he'll scratch me too," Gibbs said.
The owl shifted his gaze to Gibbs and it was a bit disconcerting having all that attention on him. He suddenly got how a mouse felt.
"Can he scratch anyone? Will they connect with anyone you ask them to?" Jarvis asked.
The owl stared at Vance and Jarvis, and Gibbs like to think it was disapprovingly. Then he hooted at Tony.
"A new rule for the rulebook, Gibbs," Tony said. "That's two today. First that you get to break the rules, and now, apparently, or maybe it's a sub-clause of the first, anyway, I get to choose one person to share this with, although no one ever has before me." He grinned at Gibbs. "Probably because no one's ever had someone like you around who would just demand it. Anyway, you're it and they all know it."
That worked for Gibbs on several levels. First, he wanted to be it, and second, he didn't want it be anyone else, and thirdly, he totally didn't want Jarvis thinking he could be lining up what he saw as better candidates to get bitten or stung or scratched by an assortment of useful creatures.
The owl spread his wings, moving closer to Gibbs, pecking at him just as he had Tony.
"You are a really big bird," Tony said, but without hesitation he ran his fingers down the owl's feathers edging its wings. "Beautiful."
Even without the peck, Gibbs could have interpreted the 'of course' in the hoot that followed. The owl and Macavity would get along just fine.
As if following his thought, Tony quoted, "The owl and the pussycat went to sea, in a beautiful pea-green boat."
Abby chimed in, ending the poem: "And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand, they danced by the light of the moon, the moon, the moon, they danced by the light of the moon." To Tony, eyes alight, she said, "This is the most amazing thing I've ever seen."
"They like you," Tony told her. "And hey, Ducky, how you holding up?"
"I must confess to feeling a tad overwhelmed, but I'm beyond grateful you've chosen to trust me with this. I feel as if I'm in the presence of something sacred."
Tony sent him a look filled with gratitude, for so easily elevating what was happening in this room from something to be manipulated into something deserving reverence. Gibbs could have hugged the man.
Feeling bold, Gibbs reached out to brush his fingers against the owl's head and the owl pushed up into his caress. Gibbs guessed most of these animals would never normally receive a loving touch from a human.
"I'll see you at home," Tony said to the owl. "And hey, take the bat with you. And no eating him."
Indignant hoots followed that request, as the owl nudged the bat, and the two of them flew out the window.
"Eyes at night," Gibbs said with satisfaction.
Clayton Jarvis looked like he'd seen the face of God, and it made Gibbs very nervous. Gibbs got how powerful Tony was. There wasn't a place in the world he couldn't infiltrate; no secrets were safe from him. He could assassinate anyone, anytime, in ways that would only get chalked up to a freak accident. He was a one-man surveillance team, search and rescue team, just about any kind of team and without the need for any equipment. And if word got out about him, he'd have lists of people trying to kidnap him and/or kill him.
By the time the room was essentially emptied out, there remained Justin, Macavity, Rutger and Michelle, moth and beetle, a squirrel, a cardinal, two different kinds of snakes, and a mouse.
"And the menagerie grows," Gibbs said.
Abby squeezed Tony's hand. "Tony! Seriously. You are so cool." She spun around to face the director and Sec-Nav. "And you need to use Tony as a force for good, for real. Like search and rescue, and doing the work we already do. Do not ask him to kill anyone. Do not," she repeated fiercely.
"Hey," Tony said, drawing everyone's attention, "If I needed you to, would you kill someone for me?" He was speaking to Macavity.
Everyone in the room cocked their head as if they might hear the answer along with Tony. All Gibbs heard was a meow. "Translation for those of us who don't speak cat?" Gibbs requested.
"If my life depended on it," Tony said, looking relieved. "Nice to know they won't do anything I ask."
Gibbs was glad to hear it, even if he wondered if it was true, but he wasn't discussing that now. Better for Vance and Jarvis to think Tony wasn't now in control of millions of tiny furry assassins. He had a feeling, though, that these creatures would do anything Tony asked and that was a terrifying thought.
Because all it would take would be one time when Tony got angry and asked for some assistance in dealing out retribution, and it would start a cycle of guilt and anger and more guilt until a person broke by either going catatonic or by going rogue. It was his job to make sure that none of that happened to Tony.
"I'm requesting at least a month's leave with DiNozzo so we can develop his skills," Gibbs said, not really asking, and knowing it was clear in his voice.
"Granted," Jarvis said immediately, and ignored the raised eyebrows from Leon. "I have to brief the President," he added.
Gibbs' lips tightened but it was hardly as if he could tell Jarvis not to, as much as he wanted to.
"How cool is that?" Abby enthused. "The President's going to know who you are!"
"Ms. Sciutto," Leon said, "I'm assuming I don't need to tell you or Dr. Mallard the importance of not speaking of this to anyone."
"Anyone I would tell is right in this room," Abby said guilelessly, although then she frowned. "How about Tim and Ziva? They're team, too."
"No one right now," Gibbs told her. Then he glanced at Tony, realizing he wasn't really the one who had the right to make that decision.
Tony glanced up at him, eyebrows furrowed. "What?" At Gibbs' look, he waved a hand in Gibbs' direction. "Feel free to handle me. I sort of feel in desperate need of a handler. Maybe two." He grinned at Abby. "Wanna come handle me?"
"Love to," she purred.
"Hey, hey," Gibbs said, before he could think better about it.
Jarvis wasn't any more of an idiot than Leon was. "You two?" he asked Gibbs.
Gibbs nodded. "Although that's new too."
"Really?" Leon said. "I was sure you've been going at it like minks for years."
Tony's eyebrows shut up. "Seriously? Man, I wished I known that. Look at all the time we wasted."
Abby laughed at the expression on Ducky's face.
"Sorry, Duck, you were on the list to tell," Gibbs told him, not wanting a repeat of Ducky's cold shoulder for not telling him about Shannon and Kelly. "We've been busy."
That got a short laugh out of Ducky, whose shoulders relaxed. "I can see that." He put his hand on Tony's shoulder. "Anthony, I've at your beck and call should you need the services of a doctor both for medical care and a listening ear."
"Thanks, Ducky," Tony said with a shy smile, the one that made Gibbs want to hold him close and keep the world at bay.
"I need a house out of town," Gibbs said, "with a lot of woods. If you guys have a safe house or something."
"Right, because let's let all the big animals have access to me," Tony said dryly.
Gibbs winced. "It's gonna happen sooner or later. Better for it to happen on our time schedule."
"Oh, and you totally need to go to the ocean!" Abby said. "How cool would it be to have sharks and whales watching out for you?"
"Eyes in the water," Leon said.
"Hm hmm," Tony said, "because I'm sure sharks are really good at biting daintily. Not sure how much good I'll be if I'm missing my arms and legs." Macavity let out a growl and Tony smushed his face into his fur. "Thanks, but I'm not sure you can take on a great white for me."
Macavity let out a long meow and Tony laughed, his eyes dancing as he looked up at Gibbs. "He says it's just a fish, and he eats fish."
"I'll buy him a cut of swordfish next time I'm at the store," Gibbs said, appreciating the cat's determination to take on anything to protect Tony.
"Gibbs!" came a yell through the door. "Why won't they let us in? What is wrong?" By this point, it was easy enough to tell it was Ziva.
"Scatter," Tony said and from one blink to the next, every animal or insect in the room was gone with the exception of Macavity, now standing, fur bristling, standing right in front of Tony's face, and Justin, still on Gibbs' shoulder. They clearly thought those types of orders didn't apply to them.
"Nice view, cat," Tony complained, pushing the cat's ass out of his face.
To Leon and Jarvis, Gibbs said, "When they come in, you go out. Both of you being here will just create more questions." To Macavity, he added, "Make a ruckus when they come in. I need them distracted."
Gibbs got a mrrrl in response and then walked to the door, making sure Vance and Jarvis were situated correctly for an easy exit. Opening the door, Gibbs said, "At ease, soldier, let them in." The door swung open, Macavity let out a painfully loud plaintive howl and Ziva and Tim both slapped their hands over their ears. To cap it off, Justin ran over Ziva's foot and as Ziva let out a girly scream, Leon and Jarvis were out the door.
"Oh, my God," Tony said as he burst out laughing. "Ziva, you screamed like a little girl!"
"Shut up, Dinozzo," she said as she scowled. "And did you see that rat?" A knife was suddenly in her hand and she sussed out the room, consideringly. "I will kill it; it is not hygienic to have one in a hospital."
"No!" Abby, Tony and Gibbs all yelled, at the same time.
Ziva's eyebrows rose high on her forehead. "And why not?"
Justin scampered up the side of the bed and up Gibbs' shoulder and hid behind his neck.
"He's a pet," Gibbs said. "I brought them in to cheer Tony up."
Abby let out a manic giggle, but subsided at Gibbs' glare. "Come here, gorgeous thing," she said, crooning at Gibbs.
Gibbs goggled at her until he realized she meant the rat, and then he lifted his eyes upward, praying for strength. The rat, helpless in her thrall, ran down Gibbs' arm just as quickly as when he'd run up, sprinting for his life, and went limp in Abby's hands as she patted him.
"Why do you have a rat for a pet?" Ziva asked distrustfully.
"And I heard that you have hawks for pets, too," Tim said, "and now you have a cat as well? How do they not eat each other?"
"Come on, Tim, we're family. Family doesn't eat family."
"Cats do," Ziva said. "The males eat their young if left unsupervised."
"Would you do that?" Tony asked Macavity.
Macavity yowled at him.
"Gross," Tony said. Then, as if he just remembered he wasn't supposed to be able to talk to animals, he swallowed. "That's a gross idea." There was a confused pause. "But hey, you came to see me! Did you bring goodies?"
Then the weirdness was over, and it was just Gibbs' team, and Ziva and Tim had, indeed, brought goodies, and they all piled on the bed, where Macavity kept a close and evil eye on everyone.
"I went by Gibbs' place, and then by Tony's place, and neither of them were there, nor have they been there," Ziva said. She was still mystified as to why Tony had needed a month off, let alone Gibbs. Tony hadn't been hurt that badly, and if Gibbs was on a mission he needed his team to back him up. Ziva was beginning to appreciate why Tony got so angry when Gibbs went off the grid.
"How did you know that?" Tim asked, then sent her a chiding look. "Did you break into their places?"
"Of course. How else was I supposed to gather the intel I needed."
"And did you gather any?"
"No," Ziva said, disgruntled. "I do not know where Tony is. I do not know where he could be staying if not at his own place or the hospital."
"Gibbs has let Tony stay at his house before. You sure he wasn't there?"
Ziva shot him a deadly look. "Do you really think I would have missed something like that when I checked out Gibbs' home?"
"No, sorry," Tim said with a half grin. "Maybe they're someplace together?"
Ziva laughed. "Together? Sometimes I do not think Gibbs likes Tony at all. Why would they be someplace together?"
This time Tim stared at her. "They're friends, Ziva. Tony goes over there a couple times a week for dinner. They do stuff together all the time."
She scoffed. "Now you are just playing games with me."
"Interesting," he said, looking puzzled. "Where did that blind spot come from? You usually see everything."
Disgruntled, she leaned back in her chair. "They are truly friends?"
"Who are truly friends?" Abby said, sitting down at Tony's desk. "I miss Tony. Things are so boring here without him."
Ziva had to agree, although she would sooner cut her own tongue out before saying so.
"Gibbs and Tony," Tim answered Abby.
"Oh, yeah. They have been for years. They've worked together for a really long time."
"So have we, and yet I do not have dinner at Gibbs' house." Not that she'd want to, but it made more sense for her to have dinner with Gibbs than Tony. She and Gibbs had secrets. She was a woman. Tony was…Tony.
Abby shrugged. "They just work. As friends, I mean. And at work."
"Why have I never seen it?" Ziva asked, now sincerely asking. That was a large thing to miss.
"They do a good job hiding it. They don't want anyone thinking that Gibbs is showing any kind of favoritism."
Ziva had to admit it worked. She truly thought Gibbs didn't like Tony very much, enough so that she wondered why he was on the team. Ziva understood why, she saw how good Tony was despite his goofing off. And he was the person, as often as not, who put all the information they had together, but she'd wondered why Gibbs had put up with him all this time if he didn't like his senior agent. Now she would have to learn them both all over again. "Do you know where they are?" she asked Abby.
Abby looked shifty, but she said, "Um, no. No idea. At all. None."
"You are lying," Ziva accused.
"And badly," Tim agreed. "Where are they?"
"Are they together?" Ziva pressed.
"Um. Shit." Abby picked up the phone and dialed a number. "Ducky, come up to the bullpen, I need reinforcements."
"What aren't you telling us?" Ziva asked, eyes narrowed.
"Hurry!" and Abby hung up. "I can't say anything." She looked cornered, one of Ziva's favorite looks.
"Abby," Ziva said sorrowfully, looking hurt. "I thought you told me everything."
"Ooh," Abby whined. She stood, "Gotta go." Just as she was about to get around Tony's desk, Ducky appeared.
"What seems to be the problem, dear girl?" he said to Abby, sounding a little breathless.
She waved her hands rather frantically at Ziva and Tim and then ran away. Ziva huffed. She would corner Abby later. "Hello, Ducky," she said in as friendly a tone as possible, which wasn't hard, as she truly liked him. "We are simply wondering where Tony and Gibbs are."
"Ah," Ducky said.
"We figured Tony would be out a week, but it's now pushing week three, and we haven't even heard from him," Tim put in.
"Usually, even after a few days, he is calling us and harassing us," Ziva added. "And Gibbs must have gone on a mission without us, and he should have us watching his back."
"All good points," Ducky said kindly. "And all I can say is that it's classified."
Ziva's jaw dropped. "They are on a mission together? Without us?" She was appalled.
"And still classified," he said.
"We must go to them at once," Ziva said, starting to collect her things. "Where are they?" Gibbs and Tony, alone, on a mission? She couldn't think of a better recipe for disaster.
"And still classified," Ducky reminded her.
"Have you seen them?" Tim asked.
Ziva watched closely as just a flash of satisfaction crossed the older man's face, too briefly for anyone else to have noticed. That meant, whatever he said to the contrary, that he had.
"No," Ducky said. "I do not know where they are, or what they are doing."
He was actually better at lying than she would have given him credit for, and she let him get away with it. Now she knew who to watch, and who to follow, and she would find Tony and Gibbs and demand to know what they were hiding from their team.
"This place sucks," Tony said, staring with horror at the rustic safe house in the middle of George Washington State Park, no doubt built, originally, for rangers. He stared around frantically. "Is there no electricity?"
"Wait a minute. Wait a minute," Tony said, now sounding outraged. "Where's the bathroom?" He was striding from one end of the small living area, and then raced upstairs. "Gibbs, what the fuck?"
"We needed something fast that was out in the wilderness. This was the best they could do."
"There is no bathroom."
"Well, there is, it's just outside. You've heard of outhouses, right?"
"I'm not staying here."
"It's only temporary. We need a place like this where you can commune with nature without interference," Gibbs pointed out.
"And an indoor bathroom would interfere with that? What are we supposed to do to stay clean? And do not say sponge baths or I am out of here."
"I think there's a solar shower."
Tony narrowed his eyes at Gibbs. "You so owe me."
"Me?" Gibbs exclaimed. "This isn't my legacy. I was perfectly happy living in my home before you became animal catnip."
Tony winced. "Fuck. I'm sorry, Gibbs. I know this sucks for you and you can go home if you want. We don't both have to stay here."
"Whoa, whoa," Gibbs said quickly. "I am not saying that at all. All I'm saying is that we can make do for a couple of weeks. It'll be like camping." He was looking forward to the quiet; well, as quiet as things got with DiNozzo around. "Besides," he added, walking close to Tony and smacking him on the back of the head, "I told you I was in this for the long haul so shut up with the leaving you crap. I'm tired of it."
"An outhouse?" Tony whined, even if his eyes were bright with pleasure from Gibbs' declaration.
Tony sat on the front stoop, on the side that wasn't listing. Macavity took his place on Tony's lap, while Justin, Tim, and Ziva curled up by his feet. Rutger and Michelle settled down on the roof eave. There was a hoot from Archimedes, even though he stayed tucked in whatever he'd chosen as his sleeping quarters. If Gibbs had better hearing, the hoot would probably have been followed by a bat ping.
Beetle was climbing the paint-peeled trellis in front of the left window, while Moth waited for him patiently at the top. The other birds and snakes and insects buzzed and pecked in the dirt for food, and curled up to soak in the sun's rays.
Gibbs sat down next to Tony and lifted his head to enjoy the sun as well, taking pleasure in the sounds of nature, the heat of Tony's body next to him. He could get used to this.
That was, of course, when the black bear arrived, letting out a bellow to announce his arrival.
"Holy fuck me," Tony said, pressing into Gibbs. Just to be on the safe side, Gibbs pulled out his pistol and held it in his lap. It wouldn't stop a charging bear, but it might give them enough time to get inside.
Macavity was hissing at the bear, and Michelle let out a shriek of warning.
The bear took one look at Gibbs with his gun, took in Macavity, the hawk, and Tony's singular lack of welcome, and promptly sat down on his butt to let out this sort of mournful sound, like they'd just taken his picnic basket away.
That had been it, as far as Tony was concerned, as he said, "Aww," and was up on his feet walking towards the bear. Gibbs, much less of a pushover, walked briskly to his car and opened the trunk to pull out his rifle just in case the bear was looking for lunch, and not for Tony.
The bear never knew how close it came to getting shot when it reached out and grabbed Tony, but then Tony was laughing and getting a real bear hug, and Gibbs grinned as Tony went "oof."
"You all right there, DiNozzo?" he called, still holding on to his rifle.
"I'm a little nervous about getting bitten by a bear," Tony said honestly, "but this is the best hug I've gotten in a long time. Come over here and get in on the action."
Gibbs found he couldn't refuse Tony's offer, so he put the rifle back in the trunk and joined them, and the bear, one hand on Tony's shoulder, pulled Gibbs in without hesitation, seemingly happy with the addition to the hug. And yeah, this was nice. The bear was warm and his fur was exceptionally soft, and Tony was snugged in tightly next to him.
Finally, the bear let go, and plopped back down on the ground on all fours, then sat back on its big bear butt. Gibbs guessed he was trying to look as unthreatening as possible and it was working. Gibbs appreciated it. He'd understood it intellectually, but he'd never quite realized how freaking big these bears got. He had to be five hundred pounds at least, and his claws were two inches long; he could gut either one of them in a matter of seconds.
The bear grunted at Tony who sat down across from the bear. Gibbs sat, completing the triangle.
Tony grinned. "Hello to you, too. Do you have a name?"
"Right, bite first, and then talking. But how about if I call you Baloo, and when we have a chance, we're watching Jungle Book."
Justin sat up at that and his whiskers twitched.
"Yeah," Tony told the rat. "Another movie night. Well," he said with a look at Gibbs, "we could if we had electricity. So movies might have to wait."
Baloo, honest to God, made a sad noise and expelled a puff of air.
"I hear you, buddy," Tony told him. "So, how do you want to do this?” He held out his arm. "Try not to bite it off, okay?"
The bear let out an offended noise and Tony burst out laughing. At that, as if that had been his intention all along, the bear very gently touched the back of Tony's hand with one of his claws. It was like watching a bear holding a tea cup, as he so, so carefully, scratched Tony, barely drawing blood.
"Wow," Tony said, staring at the bear. "There's a lot of bear in my brain all of a sudden." He waggled his eyebrows. "He says he knows all the best places to hide if we need to escape from enemies. While we are hiding, he will tear them apart, and then catch fish for us to eat." He patted the bear's arm. "Thanks. I feel better already. I guess all I needed was a bear hug to make everything all right with the world."
"I think I can do better," Gibbs said, not willing to be outdone by a bear in the area of giving Tony hugs.
"You can do a bear hug better than a bear?" Tony asked skeptically. "I don't know, Boss. That's asking a lot."
"There are," Gibbs said, leering at Tony, "things I can do that a bear cannot."
Tony's cheeks pinked delightfully, and Gibbs grinned at him. "Tell Baloo you'll see him later, and let him get a head count of what larger animals are out there that will want to pay court to you."
"You can tell him, in fact, you already did. Baloo is not a bear of little brain."
Baloo let out an inquisitive noise, and Tony waved a hand at him. "Winnie the Pooh, famous bear of children everywhere. We can watch that one, too, or we could if we had electricity."
"We do have a generator," Gibbs said. "And one outlet. You can use your laptop."
Tony flopped to his back dramatically, arms outstretched. "There is a God." Then he glanced at Gibbs darkly. "Not that I've forgiven you for the outhouse thing. There will be payback. And if we're going inside to do what I hope we're going to do, you better bring wet and dry towels for cleanup."
Baloo poked his nose into Tony's belly, tickling him, and Tony rolled away. "Nope. Human time, buddy. It was great to meet you though. Feel free to hang around and meet the rest of the family before you head out. This here's the boss," he said, pointing at Macavity. "Well, he's the boss," he amended, gesturing at Gibbs. "Or the boss of me. He's," now he pointed at the cat again, "the boss of everything else. Disbelieve it at your peril." Tony made a claw hand with his fingers, slashing them through the air, hissing.
The bear jerked back and gave a quick look at Macavity, who was sitting very regally, tail curled around him, as if this juvenile behavior was all beneath him.
Gibbs could see the introductions lasting way too long, and he grabbed Tony's hand and pulled him to his feet. "All of you can introduce yourself." It was sort of amazing that once they could speak to Tony, they could speak to one another. "I wonder if it's a dominant trait," he mused.
"You mean their babies might be able to understand human speech?" Tony asked. "Wow. That would be…I don't know what that would be. Weird to think this could be changing the world right here. Animal behavior might never be the same." He shook his head. "Nah. It would have already happened, right? I cannot possibly be the first person, ever, to have pulled this off. I don't believe I'm that special."
Gibbs disagreed, but he just tugged Tony into the house. He was planning on spending the next hour or two proving to Tony just how special he was.
The first one to appear was Fornell. Gibbs guessed it was good it was a friend, because it gave him and Tony a head's up that word was out and others would be coming.
"You can't have him," Gibbs said as soon as Fornell showed up at the door. "And how the hell did you find us?"
"Word gets around," Fornell said. "Nice," he added as he looked around.
Gibbs frowned at Fornell. The place was even driving Gibbs up a wall at this point. And Tony hadn't stopped complaining once. On the good side, though, Gibbs' dick was sore from all the making up he was having to do. He hadn't had this much sex, ever. Not that Gibbs was complaining. At least about that. In fact, Tony was comatose upstairs at the moment, a feat Gibbs was inordinately proud of; it was nice to know he still had it. "It's only temporary."
"And then you'll be back at NCIS?" Fornell asked sarcastically. "That's sure to be safe for him. It's like you're handing him to anyone who wants him. He'd be safer with us."
"Right," Gibbs snorted. He heard steps and hoped like hell Tony wasn't about to come down the stairs naked. Not that Tony wasn't gorgeous in his birthday suit, but they'd been going at each other non-stop in between Tony practicing his legacy talents, and Tony was looking as bitten and bruised as he had in that storage container.
Before he could turn around, there was a loud growl, the type of growl that pierced right into your lizard brain and told you to run as fast as you could or froze you on the spot. Fornell's eyes were popping out of his head. "Is that a bear? You have a bear in your home."
Right. Gibbs was about to introduce him when the bear nudged the back of his knees in an attempt to knock him down.
Gibbs tried, but failed, to keep his balance. He landed on his ass and the bear cuddled right up to him. It was a never-ending source of wonder how hungry for touch all these animals were once they were exposed to it. It was also amusing to watch the bear be putty in his hands even as he kept up a steady growl at Fornell.
"Tobias, meet Baloo, the newest member of our menagerie. He doesn't like strangers."
Fornell took a step backward. "I've got orders for DiNozzo to report on Monday."
"Hand those orders right to Baloo," Gibbs suggested, knowing if they were really written on something, the bear would either shred them or eat them. "I don't know who gave you those orders, but they're bullshit. He's not going anywhere and, for sure as hell, he's not going anywhere without me."
"I'll take you, too," Fornell said with a lopsided grin. "As long as you know I'm the boss."
"In your dreams, Tobias," Gibbs said. "Now, get the hell out of here before Tony sees you're here. He won't take it as well as me and Baloo here." Gibbs finally managed to push Baloo aside, not an easy task, and got to his feet. "Go keep Tony upstairs," he suggested to the bear who was pouting that petting time was over.
That got Baloo up, and he growled again at Fornell and glanced up at Gibbs as if asking for permission to maul him. "Not this one," Gibbs said. "The next one, though, I promise."
Just to prove a point, Baloo got up on his hind legs and let loose with a real growl, paws waving and teeth flashing, and Fornell took several steps backwards. "Jesus."
Back on all fours and chuffing happily, Baloo made his way upstairs. There was a crashing noise and Tony yelled, "Baloo! No, you can't sleep on the bed!"
"You get in a bind," Gibbs told him, "you call, same as always, and if we can help, we will. But he's not for sale."
"You can't keep him locked away in a castle forever," Fornell told him. "There are others who won't knock on the front door and ask."
Gibbs deliberated on whether a demonstration would do more harm than good. On one hand, Fornell would really get the fact that Tony was not that easy to take, but it would also show him exactly what Tony could do. He left it alone.
"Gibbs?" Tony called. "Baloo says someone is here. Fornell? Why the hell is Fornell here?" This time the steps moving around were human, and Gibbs glanced to the stairs, grateful Tony had quickly dressed, more or less. He had sleep pants on and a t-shirt, but his hair was a mess, his feet were bare, and he totally looked like he'd been ravished.
"Your work?" Fornell asked with a grin. "Nice."
"Shut up," Gibbs said.
"What's he doing here?" Tony asked, glaring at Fornell.
"What do you think?" Gibbs responded. "Word's out."
"Fuck," was all Tony had to say on that. "He's got ten minutes or I'm making him leave."
"You and what army?" Fornell taunted.
Gibbs let out a laugh. "Boy, is that the wrong question to ask. Take my advice and get out of here. At least you'll have your dignity intact."
There were a thousand questions in Tobias' eyes, but Gibbs wasn't answering any of them. It had been a long time since Gibbs' allegiance had been so true and unwavering. It was very black and white for him: whatever kept Tony safe.
"Nine minutes," Tony called from what could laughably be called a kitchen. "Tell me you made coffee. Please."
"In the fireplace."
Tony shook his head in despair. "I need to get out of here soon."
"Come with me," Fornell tried again. "I can put you in a hotel suite faster than you can say Bob's your uncle."
"Bob's your uncle." Tony said, looking around. "I guess you're a big fat liar. Seven minutes." He headed to the fireplace and pulled the coffee pot out of the coals where it had been keeping warm. "Jesus, this is going to be nothing but sludge. Pushing on six minutes."
"I'll say it again," Gibbs told Fornell. "You should leave now."
"I'm too curious to leave," Fornell said, leaning against the door jamb.
"You got any allergies, Fornell? Bee stings, stuff like that?" Tony asked.
"Good," Tony said with a grin. He poured a cup of very thick coffee, sighed deeply, and poured it back in. Trudging back into the kitchen he opened the small refrigerator and pulled out some orange juice. "Five minutes and I'm bored, so I'm cutting it down to one minute."
"Really," Gibbs told him. "As a friend. I’m telling you that you should leave."
For the first time, Fornell looked worried, but he was almost as stubborn as Gibbs was, and he set his jaw and looked at his watch.
"Last chance," Tony said. "Got any phobias? Scared of spiders, anything like that?"
"You should have said yes," Gibbs told him. With that, Gibbs moved away from Fornell, ready to enjoy the show. It's not like he didn't warn the guy several times. He knew Tony wouldn't kill the guy.
Baloo came charging down the stairs running right at Fornell. Gibbs had to give him credit, he hung in there for a few seconds, but then he took off. Unfortunately, outside the door wasn't any better. There were freaking spiders everywhere. Thousands, tens of thousands, enough so the ground was covered with the things, and they were hanging down from the trees on webbed filaments. The only clear path was straight to Fornell's car except the car door was also covered with them. That was Tony proving a point that Fornell could be made to leave, and he could be made to stay.
"Don't come back," Tony said at the doorway. "It'll be wasps next time."
"You think you can keep him safe when he can do this?" Fornell called to Gibbs. "Not a chance in hell. They'll kill him before they let someone else have him."
"That's my problem," Gibbs called. "Not yours."
"I'll do what I can from my end, but if you want my advice, you should pack your bags and run." With that, he started brushing spiders off his car, until Tony pulled them back, not wanting any of them to be hurt. With a deeply frustrated look, Fornell got back in his car and drove off.
"He's right," Gibbs said, not happy about it.
"I can set up an alarm system no one can get by," Tony told him. "A new bird won't get on the property without us knowing about it." He crouched down to the ground and dug his fingers in. "Done."
"We should have already set something like that up," Gibbs snapped out, angry with himself.
"Just because I have this new thing, doesn't mean I can't still think. That's on me, as much as it's on you," Tony said. "But you're right. We need to be more careful." He patted Baloo, saying, "Nice job," and then moved to lean against Gibbs. "But I don't want to keep hiding. I can't live like this. I can't. I have to be around people. I have to have nice things around me. This is not okay."
"We've barely been here three weeks."
"Twenty-one days too long. Besides, I'm good with everything that lives here. We've got Baloo, and Raksha," and as if she'd heard her name called, their latest acquisition, a beautiful gray wolf, trotted over to Tony, taking a moment to brush against Baloo. The two of them were besotted with each other.
A naturalist or a zoologist or whatever type of animal scientist would have a heyday studying these animals that had been given an opportunity no other animals in the world could have. They'd been given the power of speech and as much as their brains would allow, the cognitive powers of a human as well. The unlikely friendships that had been struck up, the new behaviors, the love of touch, with Tony and Gibbs, as well as Abby and Ducky the couple of times they'd come out, and also with each other was heart-warming to watch, and sometimes funny enough to make Gibbs laugh out loud. The owl and the bat, for instance, had become best friends, hunting together, even sleeping together, the bat snug under one of the owl's wings.
Justin and Macavity put up with each other because they had to, but little rat Ziva adored Macavity, and often surveyed the world on his back. Baloo and Raksha spent as much time together as they were able, and there was a chipmunk and a cardinal that chased each other for hours just for the sheer fun of it. Sometimes dozens of animals would get into the chase and the lands surrounding the house were awash with an animal version of a conga line. In some ways, it was too bad this had to stay a secret.
Gibbs felt something crawling on him and forced himself not to startle. Glancing at Tony he saw that the spiders were coming for him and Gibbs was included in that. They all had express orders to avoid the face and not to climb inside clothing which Gibbs was very grateful for. He wasn't sure he'd be able to stay still if they were near his mouth or ears or climbing up his pants leg.
"I'll make them go in a minute," Tony reassured Gibbs. "They just want their turn with me, and they did just do me a favor." Unexpectedly, there were strident hawk shrieks and other bird calls, and Baloo and Raksha growled, and Macavity came running out the door to stand in front of Tony, and Tony said dryly. "In case you couldn't guess, someone's coming."
"Someone?" Gibbs asked, although he could see a vision of a car that Rutger was sending to him. "Never mind. It's Ziva and Tim."
Tony's lips tightened. "What do you want to do? I can keep them from getting to the house."
"They won't stop trying. I say let them in, but it’s your choice. Do you really think you can hide this from them?"
That got a half laugh out of Tony. "Probably. It's not like they'd put two and two together. But you're right. I couldn't ever really use it without having to be sneaky and that's gonna backfire on me at some point. Who wants to be the welcoming committee?"
Baloo growled along with Raksha. Macavity strutted out to the driveway, Ziva on his back. "Hey, Macavity," Tony called. "What's your explanation for having a rat on your back? Not sure a real consigliore could get away with that."
Macavity sneered at Tony, meowing. Ziva glared at him, too, but she couldn't carry it off like the cat could, and it dropped off her face to be replaced with the constant look of wide-eyed wonder in her eyes. Gibbs didn't let it get around, but she was one of his favorites. "What did he say?" Gibbs asked Tony when he laughed.
"She's one of his caporegimes. I never should have let him watch the Godfather."
In an attempt to ration their gasoline for the generator, Tony got about three hours of electricity a day and used his laptop to watch a movie. Each day he debuted a different movie that applied to a particular animal, with them front and center watching it. The cabin, despite its utter lack of amenities, had wireless. Gibbs assumed it was to allow rangers to use their own electronic equipment, but he wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth. The fact that Tony could watch movies was the only thing that had kept him from going AWOL. Well, that and the sex.
It had been Jungle Book for Baloo, and a repeat watch when Raksha had joined them. Godfather, of course, for Macavity, plus a movie about a cat called That Darn Cat. The cartoon version of Sword in the Stone for Archimedes, and Winnie the Pooh for both Archimedes and Baloo and a couple of rabbits. There had also been some Ninja Turtle Movie for the rats that Abby had chosen. She'd watched it with the rats perched all over her, the original three and several others from the woods joining them.
Speaking of that, he glanced back in the house to the front left corner. There were three spiders doing their best to spin a word in their web, an activity that began after they watched Charlotte's Web. They'd managed CAT, much to Macavity's pleasure, and RAT, to Justin, Ziva and Tim's delight, and then, flush with success, had done BAT, which had sent their bat, called Bruce into spasms of giddy aerial acrobatics.
"Did they spell something new?" Tony asked, as the spiders began to make their way back to their homes.
"I think they're back to CAT," Gibbs said. "Maybe they need a book of ABCs."
And that was when Ziva and McGee arrived. Baloo was still sitting on the front yard, along with Raksha and, of course, Macavity was making his displeasure known quite loudly outside of Ziva's driver's side door. She let down the window, looking quite annoyed, and saying, "Explain why you have a bear and a wolf."
Rutger and Michelle flew down and landed on the hood of the car, peering in, feathers ruffled. Sam, their American Bald Eagle, landed on the roof and peered down over the driver's side, forcing Ziva's head back in. The car was slowly being surrounded by rats, and mice, and squirrels and chipmunks and skunks, and porcupines, and snakes, and a seething shifting mass of insects.
Tony walked to the car, everything getting out of his way, creating a clear pathway for him. "Hey, Sam," he said to the eagle, having stolen the name from the Muppet's version of a bald eagle. The bird cocked his head and whistled at Tony. "No,” Tony said, “you can't peck them, they're friends."
Sam looked doubtful at that, but he joined Rutger and Michelle on the hood, and Gibbs had to take a moment to stare at the eagle. That had stolen his breath, the first time the eagle had come soaring down to meet Tony. Maybe it was corny, but it meant something to Gibbs that this was a symbol for America, the country he'd spent most of his life defending.
"I do not understand," Ziva said, sounding as freaked as Gibbs had ever heard her.
"Long story," Tony said, opening her door. "Actually, it's a short story. Some whacky legacy in my family. When you turn forty, voila, Beast Master. I really don't know much more than that. Gibbs and I are learning as we go along."
"I do not understand," Ziva said again, stubbornly. "This is not possible."
Tony gestured at all the animals and insects and reptiles hovering nearby. "What you're seeing, you mean? That's not possible? Because I think it kind of is."
"How can you have this sort of power?"
Gibbs hoped Ziva didn't mean that question to sound as condescending as it did, but that's how Tony took it, and none of the animals in the vicinity were happy about it. They reflected Tony's emotions as clearly as a mirror, something Gibbs had used to help interpret some of Tony's moods. Baloo let out a bellow and stalked toward the car, Raksha next to him, lips curled back showing off her own impressive set of sharp teeth.
"Tony," Gibbs said, walking down to where Tony was standing, trying to pull himself together. It made Gibbs want to find Senior again and punch him every time he saw how little it took to topple Tony right over the edge. He put his arm around Tony's shoulder, pulling him away from Ziva so she couldn't hear him. "It's bullshit, right? Tony, look at what you can do. Look at who offers allegiance to you. What she thinks, what anyone thinks, it doesn't matter." He could only hope Tony found whatever self-esteem and resiliency he needed, over time, from all his new and very loving friends.
Baloo joined them, giving both Tony and Gibbs another one of his bear hugs.
"Okay," Tony said, letting out a snort, and then grinning. It was damn hard to hang onto a mood when Baloo started hugging. "I get it."
Baloo dropped away, bellowed at Ziva strongly enough to blow her hair back, and then sat down, glaring at her.
"Hey," Tim said, getting out of the car, clearly determined not to make any enemies here. "Um. How is this real? I mean, I see it is, and I see that you, that Tony, that you're making it happen, but this is like something out of a movie." He moved near the front of the car. "Can I touch them? They're so beautiful."
And that got Tony all the way back. He glared at Ziva, told her to stay put, and moved to join Tim. "Come here, Michelle." Michelle happily walked toward Tony, talons clinking on the hood of the car, and he touched her gently. "They really like attention. Now that they know what it's like to get petted, they want it all the time. It's good you're here, Probie. You can take over that duty for some of them."
Tim looked momentarily annoyed, but then delighted at that notion, and he gingerly reached out to touch Michelle. "She's so soft." And there went Rutger, pushing at Tim's hands, eager to get in on the good stuff. Tim was happy to comply, using one hand on each. Tony petted Sam, saying, "Spread your wings, show off a little."
Sam did, and his wings fanned across the hood stretching past the car to an astonishing seven and a half feet. Gibbs had measured them after Tony had gotten gently scratched by the eagle and then had him scratch Gibbs too.
"I thought it was illegal to have bald eagles as pets," Ziva said.
Gibbs shook his head. Jesus, she was as stubborn as a bear in her own right.
"He's not a pet," Tony said. "He just likes me." And Sam did, and showed it by placing his cheek next to Tony's and rubbing. They all adored Tony and it did Gibbs' heart good to see it.
"Why don't you and Tim go out back," Gibbs suggested. "I think I'll talk to Ziva for a minute."
Tony shot him a look, but then agreed, calling to the menagerie, all of whom happily followed Tony except for Macavity who wasn't budging, yellow eyes fixed balefully on Ziva, having clearly earmarked her as an enemy of the people. If he could, Gibbs knew he'd be on the phone arranging a hit on her. The skunks, a family of five, were sticking around, too, and Gibbs hoped it was for appearances, as opposed to a readiness to fire, because Gibbs would get caught in the crossfire and he would not be happy.
A bellow from Baloo reminded Gibbs that he was still right behind him and, apparently, not moving either, not unless Gibbs said so.
"Come on," he said to Ziva, "get out of the car." He shooed Baloo back a little. "Behave," he said to the bear.
Baloo growled at him, but Gibbs could tell how much Baloo was enjoying himself. Tony was in good hands in the back yard with all his other pals, so Baloo could stay here and look like a giant deadly bodyguard. Macavity was having a bad effect on him.
"You can control them as well?" Ziva asked, sounding as if that at least made sense.
"Only because Tony allows it," he said. He walked her over to the front stoop, such as it was, and sat down.
Macavity shifted around so he could keep his eye on her.
"Why does that cat have a rat on him?" Ziva asked.
Gibbs decided not to tell her that the rat's name was Ziva; he didn't think that would go over so well right now. "You have a decision to make. I know this is crazy. And I understand that this power, this thing Tony can do, is impossible and frightening. But it's real. We had no idea what was happening to Tony when it started, but we're slowly figuring it out. They answer to him, and they'll do anything he asks. And yes, it freaks him out as much as it does you."
"So what is this decision?"
"Not so much a decision, as some advice. Find a way to accept this, so you can become a part of it. You and Tim are important to Tony. He needs to be surrounded by people who like him and can help him keep his boundaries. He knows this is too much power; he knows he can hurt anybody with an errant thought at the wrong time. He's getting a crash course on all his demons, realizing that everything he thinks, feels, and acts on, now has potentially dangerous, even lethal, repercussions."
"Was I in danger there?"
"No," Gibbs said. "But they pick up on what he's feeling, and they get tense when he's upset. We're lucky he's a naturally joyful guy with a great sense of humor. Not everyone could handle this, in fact most haven't. I'm not sure anyone has. Abby's been tracking his family tree on his mother's side and it's a sobering story of suicides and murders and being institutionalized. The more people Tony has on his side, the less I have to worry about any of that."
"Will they get over it? That I hurt his feelings?" She pointed toward Baloo and Macavity.
"The bear will. As soon as you and Tony have made up, he'll give you a bear hug. The cat? Not a chance. It will take you about a year before he'll even consider forgiving you, and in the meantime he'll watch you like a hawk, keeping track of every infraction."
Ziva raised an eyebrow at him.
"I'm not kidding," Gibbs said. "He was such a jerk to Tony when he first appeared that cats, in general, almost got renounced. I had hundreds of cats on my front lawn waiting to tear him apart for his behavior. Now that he's in Tony's good graces, he won't let anyone get away with anything."
"He lets you head slap Tony?"
"I heard an earful about it, and every time I turned around he'd be there staring at me, like he's staring at you. Tony finally had to explain that I got to do what I wanted to do as I'm the Underboss. That's a Godfather reference," Gibbs explained, not sure if Ziva would catch it.
"Yes, I am familiar with the term. Who is he then?"
"Tony's consigliore," Gibbs said. "And the rat…"
"Is a capo," she finished.
Gibbs nodded. "It's a whole new world hanging around Tony." Baloo slumped down placing his head in Gibbs' lap. "But it's a pretty amazing one." He scratched Baloo around his ears and the bear let out this half-moan, half whimper that always made Gibbs grin.
"And the tattoos?"
It was hard to ignore them now. The tattoos were all over Tony's back up to the neck line, on his chest up to his collar bones, and on both arms down to his wrists. At Tony's request, something else that went in the rule book, they were scaling down in size, so they wouldn't take over any more of his body, at least right now. A long sleeved Henley or dress shirt would still cover it. If he entered a new geographic area, or got dumped in the ocean, taking on dozens, maybe hundreds of new contacts, there was no telling what the tattoo would do.
Gibbs loved the tattoo. Now that Tony had resigned himself to being someone's sketch book, Gibbs had spent hours finding the different animals and trying to remember how they'd met them and listening to Tony talking about them. Gibbs really believed that, over time, Tony would be strengthened by all these relationships and that they'd hold him steady and tall, able to weather whatever came his way.
"I cannot not be myself," Ziva said. "I cannot create an artificial relationship with Tony. We fight, we argue. It is the way we are.”
"I know. I just want you to focus on the friends part. I know you and Tony have always been competitive; I know it never sits right with you when Tony figures out something you missed. But, with this, he wins. This is something you will never be able to do, and I need you to find a way to be okay with it."
"And if I cannot?"
Gibbs just looked at her.
"You would choose him over me?" she asked.
"I would." He waited for that to sink in. "I would choose him over anybody."
She studied him. "You are more than friends, aren't you?"
"Yes. Although that's fairly new."
"Since all this happened?" she guessed.
"Right before. But we've been friends for a long time."
"So I have come to recently understand. I am annoyed with myself for being so blind."
Gibbs let a small smile out. "We hid it on purpose. And I know you like to think Tony is an idiot, but he is the best undercover agent I've ever worked with, and if he didn't want you to know something, you weren't going to know it."
A look of grudging respect crossed her face, and then her eyes widened. "Those wasps?"
"They were obeying Tony."
"That will be very convenient," she mused, looking thoughtful all of a sudden. Then, her face growing serious, she said, "He will never be safe again."
"No, he won't. It's why I want to surround him with allies. With friends."
"Understood," she said, standing. "I think I will meet some of his new acquaintances." And then she was being hugged by Baloo, and she let out a gasp, and then chuckled, patting the bear's arm. "Thank you for forgiving me, Baloo," she said. Once Baloo let her go, she turned to Macavity and bowed to him. "And please let me know what I must do to get back into your good graces. Tony is very important to me, and I would rather not have you as an enemy."
Macavity glowered at her through slitted eyes and then proceeded to wash his ass with his tongue.
Ziva caught Gibbs' eyes, and he was glad to see that her expression was determined but filled with good humor. "I will make that cat like me," she vowed.
"I have no doubt," Gibbs said, and gestured her around the house. "Come on. You have a lot of new friends to meet."
"Here's your next assignment," Phil Coulson said, holding out a photo of a very attractive man.
"What am I doing? Bringing him in or shooting him?" Clint thought it would be a damn shame to shoot someone this good looking.
"Neither. This is just an intel gathering mission."
"At least he's easy on the eyes," Clint said.
Phil rolled his eyes. "Be careful. I've heard things."
"Things you can share?"
"No," he said. "Because if I told you…"
"You've have to kill me, right?"
"No, you'd think I was crazy."
That stopped Clint. "Really?" They'd seen some shit-crazy stuff together.
"Huh." Clint looked down at the picture, wondering what pretty boy was capable of. "Where is he?"
"George Washington State Park."
"What?" Clint waved the picture back and forth. "This guy doesn't camp. Not in that suit."
"I camp," Phil objected.
Clint eyed Phil's suit with a frown. "Exactly."
"I pay a lot of money for these suits!"
"I know. And they're all exactly the same. All of them. Variety is the spice of life."
"Your ride leaves in forty-five minutes," Phil said primly, brushing imaginary lint off his lapels. As if dust would dare to sully his suit jacket.
Clint grinned at him, looked around and, when he saw no one in the vicinity, snuck a quick kiss. "I'd rather be with someone who camps any day over someone who spends way too much money on clothing." But the guy sure was pretty. Clint couldn't wait to figure out what his dirty secret was.
"Okay," Tony said. "I need to go see that crazy aunt of mine."
"You sure?" Gibbs asked. He hadn't brought it up, not wanting to push Tony. He stared in the mirror, running fingers through the side of his hair, squinting in confusion.
Coming up behind him, wrapping his arms around Gibbs' middle, Tony said, "Are you using Grecian Formula? Your gray is disappearing." He rubbed against Gibbs, his cock already hardening against Gibbs’ ass. “Hmm, I love it when you walk around naked.”
"I never would have guessed,” Gibbs said, pushing back into Tony, “And no, I'm not." He shot Tony a look, sort of a 'do I look like someone who dyes my hair?' look.
Tony gave the mirror Gibbs a long probing look, and then turned his attention to the real Gibbs, moving until he was facing him. "Your crow's feet are less pronounced, too."
"So are yours," Gibbs said, now taking a good look at Tony.
"That's weird. We'll have to grill Archimedes tonight." The owl had become their source of legacy information, as he often seemed to have the answers they were looking for at any particular time. But for some reason he never had it before then. It was like he'd been made the conduit from whoever was the source to Tony and Gibbs. They made sure to write everything down, wanting something to pass on to the next generation, should this happen again.
On the other hand, there was unlikely to be a next generation. It wasn't like Tony was shacking up with some impregnable female. Gibbs looked at his face again and felt a clutch in his stomach. "You don't suppose…no," he finished deciding it was too ridiculous to even contemplate.
"What were you going to say?” Tony asked with a leer, “Something about us resigning and staying in the woods forever so we can scamper about naked and make sweet love under the trees? Because if you mean in this house? Forget about it. I love you, but there are limits."
Glad that Tony's thoughts hadn't followed his crazy ones, Gibbs let his hands flow down Tony's back until he had a handful of ass. "I don't know. It always seems pretty easy to convince you to stay one more day."
"That's because you have a magical dick, Boss," Tony told him, taking hold of said dick, and stripping it a couple of times until it started to harden in his hands.
"It's a good match for your magical hands," Gibbs managed to say, a little dizzy with how fast he was getting hard. It was like he was twenty years younger, and Jesus, he did not want to follow that train of thought anymore. He sank to his knees, completely ignoring how they didn't hurt as bad as they used to, and freed Tony's dick from his sweats.
"Hey, I was planning on doing that," Tony complained, but he didn't sound exactly broken up about it.
On the other hand, it was a commendable idea, so Gibbs got up, and pulling Tony by his dick, got them back into bed, head to toe, so they could both go at it at the same time.
Gibbs took the time to glance around to make sure they didn't have an unwelcome audience. Mostly Macavity and Baloo. The rats were so blasé about rutting, Gibbs had learned to ignore them. But Macavity watched them with this dangerous intent as if he was just waiting for Gibbs to fail to satisfy, and it made Gibbs nervous.
Baloo, on the other hand, had seen them in bed together, arms wrapped around each others' torsos, and had wanted to get some action himself. Not the sex. The hugging. That clusterfuck had resulted in a broken bed and a dislocated shoulder for Tony which Baloo had been beside himself for causing. He'd been inconsolable for two days until Tony had gone out to wrestle with him to prove he was fine. Tony had healed quickly.
Relieved that neither the cat nor the bear were anywhere in sight, he went back to the business at hand, or at mouth, as the case might be. He loved Tony's cock; it was just as gorgeous as the rest of him, and while Gibbs didn't consider himself a connoisseur of sperm, Tony tasted as good as he looked. Honest to God, he tasted like vanilla, or brown sugar, but not quite. It made giving blow jobs even easier when he got dessert out of it, too.
Tony had said something similar to him, as well, and sometimes, like right now, Gibbs couldn't help but wonder if this thing with the animals was turning them into something different, literally, biologically. Something more than the tattoos on Tony's body. Something that accounted for the less gray hair, and Tony's ability to heal overnight from a dislocated shoulder.
"You with me down there?" Tony complained. "I'm feeling a little ignored."
Instead of answering, Gibbs put his mouth around Tony's cock and sucked, hard, grinning a little when Tony let out a gasp, and jerked in Gibbs' mouth.
"Never mind," Tony said with a short laugh, and went to work on Gibbs. Tony came first, but Gibbs wasn't far behind, especially once Tony started playing with his ass.
"Jesus," Gibbs said, gasping for air, when they were done. "You are so fucking me tonight."
That got another laugh. "Are you expecting me to argue?" Tony asked, wiggling around until they were face-to-face, with their feet on their pillows.
Gibbs followed the shape of Tony's eyebrows with his thumb then gently caressed his eyelashes. "You are so ridiculously good-looking," he said. "How did I end up with you?"
Tony rolled his eyes, although he was flushing with pleasure. "Right, because you're so hard on the eyes. Especially as you're clearly getting younger, and I guess we really do need to talk about that."
"You have noticed, then," Gibbs said. "I thought…"
"Yeah, I know," Tony said, "but I wanted sex first. It's why I want to go see my aunt. Abby said she was six years older than my mom, so that makes her pushing seventy. I'm going to completely freak if she looks like she's ten years old."
"I think she'd be on the cover of the Enquirer if that was the case," Gibbs said.
Macavity let out a yowl from the other side of the closed bedroom door.
"Got it," Tony yelled back. "I hate that there's not a bathroom in here, because we're sticky, and we've got nothing to wash up with. How is it this hard for Abby to find us someplace else to live?"
"Because you need someplace big enough to bring Baloo, and Raksha, and the rest of the gang," Gibbs told him for the tenth time. "You really think you could leave them here?"
Tony sighed. "No."
"What did Macavity have to say?"
"There's someone camping about a mile from here. Some guy. He's got a bow and arrow with him."
"There's no hunting in here," Gibbs complained.
"You gonna go arrest him?"
Tony smiled. "We could just have the animals prevent him from getting any shots. That could be more fun."
"Sounds like a plan. And we'll go see your aunt today and spend the night in a hotel," Gibbs said.
"You are like a God," Tony exclaimed, kissing him. "A long hot shower. Room service. A non-broken bed. Heaven!" He was up like a shot. "Come on, come on, we'll get the room first so I can shower before I go meet her. I must smell like Jeremiah Johnson."
"I like the way you smell," Gibbs pointed out, lazing on the bed.
"And isn't that weird, too? Why don't we stink?"
"Maybe we do stink, just not to each other," Gibbs suggested.
"Abby would totally tell us if we stank."
That was true enough. With that, he rolled out of bed, or more out of the mattress, as it was on the floor now, the wooden bed having collapsed when Baloo had jumped on it.
Tony opened the door and yelled. "We're going on a road trip. Macavity and Justin, front and center."
Baloo was lying on the living room floor in front of the fireplace, looking like a 3-D bear rug. He turned his head sharply toward Tony and let out a bellow.
"No, you can't come," Tony told him. "But I do have a job for you and Raksha. You know that guy who's camping?"
Baloo nodded. Raksha, who had been napping next to him, poked her head up.
"Make sure he doesn't hurt anyone, okay? But don't hurt him, either. We don't want anybody coming here hunting for any dangerous animals that are attacking humans."
Baloo got up, gave himself a good shake, growled at Tony, nudged Raksha, and waited for Tony to come down the stairs to open the door. Half the time they left it open, but they closed it at night in an attempt to keep down any unexpected animal visitors. Then he stopped and growled again.
"Gibbs!" Tony yelled. "The camp guy is headed this way." To Baloo he said, "Scatter. All you guys scatter. I don't want him to see you."
Gibbs started down the stairs at a fast clip, checking his pistol, just in time to watch the animals seem to fade away. It never failed to impress Gibbs how they could do that; if only his own team of humans could do that maneuver. "Get dressed. I don't want anyone to see your tattoos." With that he stepped outside, pistol tucked into the back of his pants, sitting on the stoop, as if he was just taking a bit of sun.
The guy was good, Gibbs would give him that. In fact, Gibbs wouldn't have picked up any cues if he wasn't looking for it so closely. But right now, Gibbs was suspicious of just about anyone, especially a stranger who just happened to be walking by the cabin.
"Oh, hi," the guy said, sounding friendly enough.
What Gibbs saw was the man checking him out and not because he was as good looking as Tony seemed to think. He was sussing out how dangerous Gibbs was, if he had a weapon, if the guy had just made a mistake coming this close. Then his eyes ran over the house, looking for points of entry and, probably, points of exit. Gibbs grunted at him, trying to sit as easy as he could, trying not to communicate his unease to any of the animals close by. They didn't all respond to his emotions as well as they did to Tony’s, but a few of them did: Rutger, Baloo, Archimedes, and Justin among them.
"I didn't know anyone was here," the guy said. "I was just out for a walk. Do you live here all the time?" Then he put up a hand. "Sorry, my wife's always telling me I'm too nosy for my own good."
That was when Tony made an appearance, and this time the guy was checking him out because Tony was too handsome for his own good. Not that Gibbs could blame the guy for looking. Tony wore a snug pair of jeans that advertised he had nothing to be ashamed of, and he was wearing a hunter green Henley that covered the tattoos and brought out his eyes.
The guy managed to pull it together and gave Tony the same onceover he'd given Gibbs, even more of one, which told Gibbs that Tony was his target. He got up and moved to stand next to Tony, his hand on Tony's shoulder, ready to push Tony behind him if things got ugly.
"Hey," Tony said brightly. "Just passing through?"
And Jesus, Tony was good at this. Gibbs didn't think even this guy would guess Tony wasn't happy to see him.
"It's a beautiful day. Thought I'd do a little hiking."
"Good idea," Tony said. "You're not here to hunt, though, are you?"
"No," the guy said. "No hunting in a national forest, right?"
"Glad to hear it," Tony said. "But, just so you know, if you hurt anything while you're here, I will find you." He smiled brightly as if he'd just told the guy the best trails to hike.
The guy was a little startled but he hid it well. "Do no harm, got it. You a naturalist or something?"
"Or something," Tony said. To Gibbs, he said, "You ready?"
Gibbs nodded, guessing that they weren't going to hide the fact they were heading out.
"I cannot wait to take a shower! Let's go, now!"
The guy grinned. "A naturalist who doesn't like roughing it?" It seemed a genuine enough question and Gibbs thought he might like this guy under other circumstances, but these were the circumstances, and Gibbs would put a hole in the middle of his forehead if he took a wrong step toward Tony.
Tony reopened the front door and said something to someone, although Gibbs didn't hear what it was. Tony smiled at Gibbs, "Just setting the alarm system."
Gibbs chuckled. "Got it."
"And yes," Tony said, "my natural milieu is a nice hotel room with hot water and room service, and a nice Tom Ford or D&G suit hanging in the closet."
The guy's eyebrows went up, and that glazed look was back that said he'd be all over Tony in a heartbeat if Tony just gave the word. Clearly the wife was part of his cover and didn’t really exist.
"Eyes front and center, buddy," Gibbs said, grabbing Tony's arm and pulling him to the car. "This one's taken." He opened his door and saw that Justin was already in the car, sitting on the console.
The guy put his hands up and laughed. "Can't blame a guy for looking."
"He can," Tony called, grinning, as he got into the car. "And do yourself a favor," he called through Gibbs' open window, "don't try to get in the house." He yelled out, "Macavity!"
The cat ran from the back yard and leaped into the window landing on Tony's lap.
"Oomph," Tony said. "Jesus, cat, you need to lose some weight."
The cat meowed at him ending with a hiss.
"Yeah, yeah, everyone's a comedian."
Gibbs gave their unwanted visitor a long look, backed the car up and then drove forward down the dirt road that would take them out to the one line blacktop, and from there toward the exit of the park.
Clint sighed and clicked his earpiece. "They made me. Like in five seconds."
"You okay?" Phil asked.
"Oh, yeah. They didn't do anything, but this older guy," very good-looking older guy, Clint thought to himself, "who I'm assuming was Leroy Jethro Gibbs, although he looked a lot younger than I was expecting, was waiting for me, packing a pistol and looking for me to give myself away."
"Was the mark there?"
"Yup. And he's the property of the older guy. That was made very clear to me. Too bad."
Clint laughed. "Come on, you saw his picture. Tell me you'd kick him out of bed. We could both have some fun with him."
"Right, because you know how much I like to share."
"Okay, okay. They just left, drove away, leaving me at the cabin they're staying in. They said they had some sort of security system, but I don't see any wires. I'm going to take a peek."
"What is it about this guy that's got you worried?" Clint asked. He wasn't even positive the mark had made him, although the threat had been real enough. That thing with the cat was weird. Since when do cats come when you called? Any cat Clint had ever known had made a point of walking in the other direction when their owner wanted them. "He has a weirdly obedient cat."
Phil sort of grunted at that. "If there are animals inside, don't engage."
Clint gawked for a second. "What?"
"You heard me."
"Don't engage with any animals? That's your advice?" Clint moved to the front left window and looked inside. The place looked deserted. He moved to the door and quietly pushed the lever that would open the door, expecting it to be locked. It wasn't. Clint furrowed his brow thinking that was sort of odd. Who doesn't lock their door, even if it is some hillbilly cabin in the middle of the woods?
Clint backed away, very tuned into the hairs on the back of his neck. "I've got eyes on me," he said to Phil. "I'm going high." He walked away, looking for the perfect tree that would put him far enough away but close enough to see. He did a detour to his tent and picked up his bow and quiver and slung them around his neck. Ten minutes later he was up a tree, eyes on the cabin.
"I wonder if I should have given them more explicit instructions," Tony asked Gibbs. He had visions of Baloo and Raksha happily tearing camper guy apart. He looked nice, and Tony knew that was ridiculous, but he did. Like someone Tony might like, and definitely like someone Tony might have crawled into bed with before he'd started up with Gibbs.
"What did you tell them?"
"Not to let him in. But I didn't tell them not to hurt him." Tony winced. "You don't think they'd hurt him, do you?"
"It depends on how much of a threat they think he is. If he came in and started tossing the place, or tried to burn it down then, yeah, I think they'd hurt him. And probably eat him, too, and bury the bones."
"Great." He patted Macavity. "Is that what you think?" he asked the cat.
"If they eat him without me, I'll be angry."
"Awesome," Tony said with a sigh.
"What'd he say?"
"That if they don't leave some for him, he'll be pissed."
Gibbs snorted. "Bloodthirsty cat."
Macavity hissed at him. Gibbs shot him a look and the cat narrowed his yellow eyes at him forcing a short laugh out of him. "Glad you're on our side."
That seemed to mollify Macavity, who purred and started to knead Tony's leg, claws sticking through the fabric. "Ouch," Tony said. "Easy on the skin there." Tony lifted Macavity and pulled a blanket from the back seat to the front and onto his lap. "Okay, now you can go to town."
Disgruntled, Macavity ceased all activity for a few minutes, but once Tony started patting him, the purring and kneading started up again. They were all so easy for a little lovin', Tony thought to himself with a grin. This weird motley inter-species family of his was big on touching and Tony loved it. He should ask some of them to be therapy animals; they'd be awesome at it.
Macavity turned a baleful eye at him as if he could read Tony's mind.
"Not you," Tony said. To Gibbs he explained, "I was just thinking I should get a couple of dogs or something and use them as therapy pets. They'd be great at it, especially as I could talk to them."
"Not a bad idea, assuming we're not running for our lives."
"You are just a little ray of sunshine," Tony grumped at him. But he couldn't hold a pout for long. He was out of the house! And not just to get snacked on by animals. That alone was worth celebrating. But he was also heading for a hotel and a hot shower, and then sex followed by a hot shower, and then hot food, lots of different kinds, and then a hot shower. Oh, and TV! And yes, he had to go see his aunt, which he was not looking forward to.
Well, on one hand he was, because he wanted to know someone else who'd dealt with this, even if it had made her crazy. And who knows, maybe he'd be able to snap her out of it. Maybe she thought she was crazy because of the animals, thinking they were hallucinations. But wouldn't she have been bitten? Lord knows they'd taken his unconsciousness for consent, so wouldn't they take her heavily medicated silence as the same? Wouldn't she have tattoos?
"Wouldn't she have a tattoo like mine?" Tony asked.
"If she had a tattoo like yours that kept growing, it'd be another reason for her to be on the cover of the Enquirer."
"I guess." Tony gave up wondering about it. They'd be there soon enough. It was going to take them two hours to get there, too far in Tony's estimation, not wanting to be away from all the animals that long, but realizing they got lucky she was so close.
"They will be fine," Justin told him. "They will eat and rut."
Tony rolled his eyes. "It is all about the eating and rutting with you, Justin."
"And the movies," Justin said.
"You are a rat after my own heart," Tony told him with a laugh.
"What?" Gibbs asked.
"He added movies to the list. So sex, food, and movies. Sounds like a perfect date to me." To further explain, he said, "He was telling me what everyone will be getting up to while we're gone." Tony thought about that nice hot shower and sighed. "Let's just go to see my aunt, okay? Hotel and shower afterward."
"Okay," Gibbs said, and kept on driving.
A while later, Gibbs pulled into a nicely kept parking lot and facility that looked more like an old Victorian home than an institution. Gibbs parked and opened the back door, glancing around, and then said to Justin and Macavity, "Quick pit stop then in the bag." He unzipped a bag, leaving it on the back seat.
They both took care of business and Macavity, looking less than thrilled, got back in the car and stepped inside the bag, crouching down, Justin following his example.
"No noises," Gibbs told them and Tony bit back a laugh at the murderous look Macavity shot him. Gibbs zipped the bag shut, slinging it very carefully over his shoulder so as to not knock anyone around, and then they headed inside.
There was an obvious check-in desk right inside the door, and Tony advanced upon it with a smile. "Hi, I’m Tony DiNozzo. I'm here to see Helen McVeigh."
The woman behind the desk looked to be in her late forties, dark hair, blue eyes, might have been pretty, but mostly looked worn out. She gave Tony a stern look. "And who are you to be visiting her?"
"I'm her nephew."
"And where have you been your whole life?" she asked, as if she had a vested interest in Tony's aunt.
Tony was tempted to tell her it was none of her business but he needed her on their side. It hadn't even occurred to him that they might not let him in. "I just found out she was here. My mom died when I was really young, and I didn't even know I had an aunt. My dad told me last week about her."
"Why didn't he tell you before?"
Gibbs moved up next to Tony, interrupting. "I'm sorry, but we're here to see Tony's aunt. Is there a reason we can't see her?"
The woman looked disgruntled that she wasn't going to be able to continue her interrogation of Tony. "I'll need to see some ID. You'd be amazed at how many unscrupulous," and here she took a moment to glare at them both, "people try to get in to take advantage of our patients."
Tony presented his ID and his badge, just in case that helped.
"You a cop, too?" she asked Gibbs, looking like if he made a misstep he'd end up next in the interrogation room.
"Yes," Gibbs said, showing his badge.
"All she does is cry," she said, her face pinched. "She's been crying for more than twenty years. That's all she does, unless she's asleep. It breaks my heart. She won't talk about it. She just cries."
Tony stared at her, stunned at the sudden outburst. "Why?" Then he waved his hand through the air, dismissing his question. "Never mind, you just told me you didn't know. May I go see her now?" He took a second to glance at Gibbs who seemed just as shaken as he was by the woman's words.
The woman nodded. "She's usually out on the porch at this time of day." She pointed toward the back of the lobby where a French door stood.
"Thank you," Tony said and, grabbing Gibbs' elbow, marched them both to the door and through it.
"Are we in a rush?" Gibbs asked. "Remember, I'm carrying passengers."
Tony could feel Macavity grumbling, but Justin was his usual complacent self. Seeing as Macavity would be grumbling if he was chewing on catnip, Tony ignored it.
She looked old, old and tired and sad, and tears streamed down her face as she sat on a traditional wooden rocking chair, staring at the woods that lined the back of the property. She didn't acknowledge either Tony or Gibbs as they sat on a bench that put their back to the woods, facing her. They left room between them, leaving her view unimpeded.
"Aunt Helen?" Tony ventured, wondering if he should hold her hand, even if what he really wanted was to give her a hug as the tears were breaking his heart, but he kept his hands to himself. "Helen?"
She turned her face to his, confused, eyes brimming with tears. Up close she looked even more exhausted, as if she slept rarely, and badly when she did, her skin papery thin and lined with wrinkles. Whatever her relationship had been with the legacy, it hadn’t allowed her a dip in the fountain of youth. That, by the way, was still freaking Tony out. How young would he get? He suppressed a shiver.
"I'm Tony DiNozzo, June McVeigh's son. Remember her? She was your sister."
Helen stared at him, took a moment off of her perusal of him to glance at Gibbs and then back at Tony.
"This is Gibbs, he's my, well, he's my, um, everything, I guess." Gibbs put a hand quickly on Tony's shoulder, squeezed, and then let it drop. "He's helping me with this legacy thing. Do you have it? Did something happen to you?" He hadn't meant to just jump right into it, but he knew, somehow, that her unremitting sadness had to do with the weird McVeigh blessing slash curse.
Macavity hissed at him.
"Stop reading my mind," Tony suggested.
Helen's eyes widened. "I'm not. I'm not."
"Not you," Tony reassured her.
"I'm not reading your mind," Macavity said snippily. "It's her."
"It's her what?"
"Let me out."
Tony reached down to unzip the bag and Macavity leaped out onto Tony's lap. Justin scampered up Gibbs and took his customary place on Gibbs' shoulder.
Helen gasped at the animals.
Gibbs, for some reason Tony didn't understand, reached over to shove the left sleeve of Tony's shirt up to his elbow, revealing the colorful tattoo.
Helen started crying for real then, and Tony shoved down his sleeve and glared at Gibbs. "Nice job, Boss."
"She needs to know what we're talking about."
"Something went wrong with her," Macavity said.
"She's cursed," Justin said. "All the rats around here are weeping with her. They know how close they came to having the One."
"Just call me Neo," Tony quipped, knowing no one would understand. "We're watching Matrix next," he added. If they were going to call him the One, they were going to understand his jokes about it, God damn it.
Then Helen was gripping him more tightly than her frail hands would indicate she could. "You did it. You have it." She was the one now who pushed up his sleeves. "How many?"
"I have no idea," Tony admitted. "Too many to know." He'd had occasional nightmares of that storage container, feeling unknown creatures crawling all over him, but he'd wake up with Gibbs' hand on his shoulder and softly calling his name, and Macavity nuzzling his chin, and Archimedes hooting kindly through the window, and he'd drift back off to sleep feeling safe and loved.
"They cry all the time," she said, tears still making silvery tracks down her cheeks. "All the time. They want so much and I can't give them anything." She started sobbing, face in hands, and this time Tony did draw her into a hug.
"Can you talk to them?" he asked Macavity and Justin. "If it will help, they can come say hello to me. But can you ask them to leave her alone?"
"She must have killed the first who bit her," Justin told him. "Ask her why?"
Tony frowned, but before he could open his mouth, he saw the tattoo. It was just a small one, something that had once been a spider, but it looked squashed like someone had stamped on it with a shoe. He pulled back. "A spider?"
"I didn't know," she cried out sharply. "I didn't know. How did you know? It was a spider. It bit me. It hurt. I shook it off my arm and killed it. I felt it die. I feel it all the time. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry." She seemed to collapse in Tony's arms as if she'd lost the will to even hold her body upright.
"Wow," he mouthed to Gibbs over her shoulder. Tony remembered that weird call, or the second weird call, the one where the man on the phone said that he'd be cursed if he killed the ones that came for him. Then to Justin, he added, silently, "Thanks." Thanks that Justin had been big enough not to kill. That he hadn't been a wasp or a mosquito, for God's sake, like that one that had shown up so soon after Justin, something Tony would have killed without a thought. Not to mention Justin had enough of a brain to talk to Tony.
"I guess spiders aren't really chatty, huh?" he asked out loud. Then he remembered the big ass spider in the guest bedroom that Gibbs had put outside, wondering if a spider might have been the first to get to him if things had been different.
That got a response from Helen. "What do you mean?" she stuttered out between sobs.
"They talk to you. Well, they talk to me. Justin was the one to bite me first." He held out his hand and Justin was there in a matter of seconds. "But he apologized first, then he bit me, and then he had the presence of mind to get a few feet away from me before I could smack him." He had to look for a moment, pushing up both sleeves, until he found it. It was weird, but the tattoos sometime shifted themselves, as if jockeying for position. But Justin was always on his arms now. "He was my first tattoo."
She reached out but then pulled back.
"Go ahead, I know they're kind of cool," he encouraged, putting her hand on his forearm, right over Justin's picture. "Macavity's right next to him, much to his unending dismay. He thinks his picture should be on my forehead." Macavity let out one of his trademark hisses that made Tony grin. "Don't deny it. Or maybe my ass. Property of Macavity."
That got a grin out of Helen. "Napoleon of crime?"
"Ha!" Tony said, delighted. "Thank God someone gets that. I had to sing the song for Gibbs."
"I think I would have liked to see that," she said.
"I wish I'd taped it," Gibbs admitted, with a small lopsided smile.
"I don't understand any of this," Tony said. "Why set this whole thing up to so easily fail? What is the point of that? It's not like I have any special skill. It was really just luck Justin was the first to take a bite out of me and had a big enough brain that he could speak to me."
"Tony, a rat started speaking to you and you went with it." Gibbs protested. "Most people wouldn't have done that. They would have thought they were dreaming or drunk, or hallucinating, and still gone after Justin with a broom. You didn't even try to hide it from me when I walked in the room."
"It took a little convincing though," Tony reminded him with a wide grin. God, the look on his face when Tony had presented the utensils in question. Speaking of that, they hadn't even broached the subject of integrating utensils into their sex life.
Gibbs smacked the back of his head as if he could read his mind.
"Besides," Tony continued, after shaking his head a little, "who wouldn't speak to a talking rat? How cool was that? But I really don't get it. Don't they want someone to be successful with this crazy thing? Maybe they don't. Maybe the powers that be resent the power a human ends up with and they hope they'll fail, so they give out ridiculously little amounts of information that might as well be misinformation for how unhelpful it is."
Macavity growled at him. "Do not be stupid. We love you."
"Well, thanks," Tony said, "I appreciate that, but still, it's stupid. Can we do anything to help her? It's been years. She killed a spider that bit her, which is not a really crazy thing to do for most people. And while it sucked for the spider, doesn't it seem that decades of unhappiness is enough of a price to pay?"
"I don't know," Justin said. "Can she go to the woods?"
Tony glanced behind him. "Are you allowed to go out of the house? If I get a wheelchair, can I take you for a walk?"
"What's going to happen?" She looked afraid, resigned.
"I’m hoping we can get the animals around here to cut you a break," Tony said. "Maybe if they see that your nephew can give them what you can't, they'll, you know, let it go?" Tony had no idea, actually, but if Justin thought they belonged in the woods, to the woods they'd go. Besides, he could see paved pathways and suspected one would take them to their destination.
Justin beamed up at him.
"Hey, you've never led me wrong, buddy," Tony told him. He put him down on the ground, along with Macavity. "Go out and do some PR for us, and don't get eaten. Macavity, don't let anything eat him. He's just a little guy, and we don't have eyes in the sky like we normally do."
Justin was off the porch and running for the woods an instant later, Macavity on his heels.
"I'll go get a wheelchair," Gibbs said.
"Why do you want a wheelchair?" the woman at the front desk demanded.
"You are wasted here," Gibbs told her, impressed at how unimpressed she was with him. He handed her a card. "If you ever get tired of working here, call me." That got him a narrow-eyed glare for his troubles, but she pocketed the card, so he counted it as a win. "We want to take her for a walk."
"She never wants to go for a walk."
"Well, she's never had family visit her before. Tony helped cheer her up, and she wants to go for a walk."
Unbelieving, the woman, and now Gibbs took the time to eye her name badge, Carla it read, came out from behind the desk and marched toward the porch.
Gibbs appreciated her belligerent approach to caring for her patients, and followed her.
"Helen?" Carla called as she came around the corner, before she came to a complete stop.
Helen was smiling at Tony, not an unusual sight, Gibbs was used to women, and men, of all ages, smiling at Tony, but clearly Carla was not used to it.
"Carla," Helen said, "come meet my nephew. This is Tony."
Tony got a glare of volcanic proportions, and Gibbs could practically hear the unspoken, 'where the hell have you been for all these years' hissed at DiNozzo.
Tony looked taken aback by the unexpected glare but rallied, interpreting the reason for it. "I really just found out," he promised her. "Really, my dad's an ass."
"Oh, he really was," Helen said. "I only met him at the wedding and that was quite enough for me. I'm afraid June and I had an awful row about it. She barely spoke to me after that." She leaned in as if to impart a secret. "He propositioned me. At my sister's wedding."
"He's been married eight times," Tony told her.
"No," she said, aghast. "Tony, I'm so sorry."
"I hadn't seen him for years until he showed up out of the blue a year ago. Can we get a wheelchair?" he asked, looking at Gibbs with his eyebrows up as if he couldn't fathom that Gibbs had failed to achieve his mission.
"I offered her a job," Gibbs said, to which Tony burst out laughing.
"He does like people he can't push around," he told the woman. "Wheelchair?" he asked with a cajoling smile and a blink of his eyes.
And Gibbs had to frown as Carla completely caved to the DiNozzo charm, although she had the presence of mind to ask Gibbs, "He one of your secret weapons?"
"You better believe it," Gibbs said with a wry grin. He ran his eyes over Helen, and while she was smiling, he could still see exhaustion written into every inch of her, and he knew they had already tired her out. "Should we do this later?"
"No!" Helen said. "Now, please."
And Gibbs got that. If there'd been a woods nearby that might have helped shut up the voices in his head after Shannon and Kelly died, he would have been racing toward it.
Carla brought a wheelchair and helped Tony get Helen situated in it. "Not too long," she cautioned Tony and Gibbs.
Gibbs nodded, taking control of the chair, leaving Tony free to stroll by Helen's side. He took them down the ramp and along the paved pathway, veering at forks, keeping to ones that took them to the woods. No one else was out for a walk, and Gibbs suspected it was because it was a weekday, and most visits happened on the weekend.
Macavity let out a yowl in the distance, and Gibbs adjusted his direction accordingly, although why the cat couldn't come to them was beyond him. But, in a few minutes, struggling to push the wheelchair once the path deviated from the pavement, necessitating wheeling through dirt and pine needles and the occasional larger stick and rocks, Gibbs understood.
In a small clearing, Macavity and Justin had gathered a multitude. They were all waiting, hundreds of rats, birds, other rodents, insects, including so many butterflies and dragonflies of such beauty, in every color of the rainbow until it seemed as if the clearing was a riotous crayon drawing, and the vision caught at Gibbs' breath.
There was no way this group of animals could have come out to where the path was easier. They'd have been seen by someone and it would have been damn near impossible to explain.
"Oh," Helen said, seemingly speechless, hands clutched at her breast. "Oh."
Tony walked into the middle of the gathering, a path cleared for him like the parting of the Red Sea, and he sat down and closed his eyes. That was all the invitation they needed, although Macavity got there first, on Tony's lap, keeping a close eye on all the interlopers, while Justin did Helen the supreme honor of scampering up her wheelchair to sit on her open palms, whiskers atremble.
They covered Tony, everything but his face. His hair was covered with butterflies, giving him a wig of incredible shifting beauty. The birds were perched on his arms and legs, their little talons piercing his clothing for purchase. The rats just pushed against him in a rolling mass of fur, while the insects climbed all over him.
Gibbs could feel their contentment; as if each creature put off an aura of completeness at being next to Tony, not surprising considering the years they'd been pining at Helen's inability to give them this.
"Oh," Helen said again. "Look at that."
"It's something, isn't it?" Gibbs said, not able to take his eyes off of Tony. His everything; his head was still reeling with Tony's ability to just say that out loud, to someone he'd never even met until that moment.
"Ow," Tony said, frowning. "Okay, no harm, no foul, but the rules are you have to ask first. Whoever just bit me, front and center."
There was a slight shifting as Tony held up a hand and the culprit scrambled for it. Gibbs walked closer, crouching down to Tony's side to see for himself.
"That is the tiniest mouse I have ever seen," Tony said, holding it up carefully. "You are so cute." The mouse squeaked. "Hmm, all I'm picking up from her is excitement. Justin? Can you get anything?"
Justin ran over and did his own squeaking to the little brown mouse whose ears were almost as large as her face. Gibbs bit back a grin but then decided to let it show. These animals, all of them, were so charming. None of them knew their breed, so they were never able to tell Tony that they were this sort of mouse, versus that sort of mouse. They just were. That's it. But they did know, automatically, through the magic of whatever this was, whether they could be the first of their kind to bite Tony.
Justin squeaked at Tony and then licked the mouse, bowling the little thing over with one swipe of his tongue. It got back on its paws and scolded Justin, a creature a dozen times her size, which made Gibbs bark out a laugh. "I need to offer her a job, too."
"She's got a little bitty mouse brain," Tony told him. "Excitement is pretty much all Justin's getting as well. We need to make sure we take her home with us. Does she have an immediate family that she wants to take with her?" Tony stressed immediate, as Gibbs had no doubt there were hundreds, if not thousands of 'family' members in these woods. There were suddenly four mice in Tony's hands. "Helen, would you take these?"
Helen nodded eagerly, and Gibbs took them from Tony and brought them to Helen, who opened her hands for them to tumble onto. "They're so adorable."
"Anyone else want a piece of me?" Tony asked.
Several did, and Tony sighed. "How are we going to get them all home?"
"In a bag," Gibbs told him and them, "and no complaints."
"You heard the man," Tony said. "Anyone still willing?"
Gibbs rolled his eyes. As if any of them would miss their chance.
Tony was stung and scratched and bitten twelve times by four birds, two rodents, and six types of bug. Tony winced a couple of times, but didn't say anything, except cheerful hellos to the new members of their troupe. "Okay, all of you who just took a nibble, go hang on Gibbs. I need to talk to the rest of you."
Gibbs guessed Tony had already explained Gibbs' role as underboss, and how was it Macavity had somehow, though osmosis, given them all roles based on the Godfather?
"Listen," Tony said, as Gibbs found himself with four birds on his shoulders, insects on his feet, and rodents dancing around his ankles, "this is my Aunt Helen, and she was supposed to be what I am, but she made a mistake. A mistake I would have made if a spider had gotten to me first. I gotta say, and don't be offended, but humans and biting insects don't really get along."
The underscore of insect noises rose, and Tony grinned as if he'd gotten several complaints in response to that.
"Okay, so listen, you gotta lay off the misery thing. She didn't mean it. She's sorry. And I'm here now, and I'll be glad to come visit as often as I can. No promises as to how often that will be, but I will come. Okay? And hey, maybe you could visit her every now and then. You butterflies, you could land on her or near where she's sitting, and you birds could do the same. Insects, raise your hands," and Tony snickered. "Just kidding. You better stay away or at least be very careful and make sure no one sees you, as well as any of you four footed creatures, because they will come after you with insecticide and brooms, and I don't want anyone hurt."
Then, as if a thought occurred he glanced up at Gibbs. "Wait. Why don't we take her with us? Why can't she come back with us?"
"Because we live in a rustic shack in the middle of nowhere with no bathroom."
"Oh, right," Tony said with a grimace. "But as soon as we get a place, she can come and live with us, right?" He grinned at Helen, "You'll put a crimp in our sex life, but we can get over that."
"Oh, Tony," Helen said, with very different tears in her eyes. "Thank you, dear, but this is my home now, such as it is."
Tony must have sent a command to retreat, because all the animals got off of him, even though they stayed close. He got up and moved to Helen, hunkering down in front of the wheelchair. "You sure? I'd kind of like to keep you. It would be nice to have a family member who wanted to be around me."
Gibbs wanted to hug Tony and punch Senior. Again.
She put her hand on his cheek, keeping the four mice tucked carefully in her other hand. "I'd like to keep you, too, but I think your life is complicated enough right now. Just come visit when you can."
Tony twisted his mouth, but he nodded. "You reserve the right to change your mind, and I reserve the right to ask every now and then."
"All right." She leaned back in her chair. "I think I need to go back in now. I do believe I could sleep for a week. And Tony, dear, that is a gift beyond measure. All of this. Such a gift. I'm so glad you didn't turn into your father, and I'm so glad you chose someone who is willing to stand by your side. I don't imagine too many would have the strength to deal with your kind of power."
Gibbs put a proprietary hand on Tony's neck, squeezing gently. "It's been an honor," he told her.
This time Tony's eyes were bright as he stared at Gibbs, wonder shining through. Gibbs made a vow to say this sort of shit more often, so it didn't throw Tony for such a loop.
Reluctantly, as always, the animals began to make their way back to wherever they came from, except the twelve, plus Justin and Macavity, who would be making the drive home with them. He imagined rat Ziva would love to be the boss of these four little mice.
Gibbs got Helen back on the paved path and then left Tony to get her settled inside, while he took the menagerie as quickly as he could to the car, deciding it would be cruel and unusual punishment to expect them all to cram in the bag he'd brought. He opened the car door and let them all loose, and they all found a place to settle. Cracking a couple windows open, secure that Macavity would take anyone's hand off who tried to get in the car, Gibbs left them there to go get Tony.
They were trying to knock him out of the tree. A bear and a wolf, working together, were doing their best to make him fall off his perch so they could eat him. Plus, they were laughing at him.
"I am having a very weird day," he told Phil through his radio.
"You always have weird days," Phil told him.
"Yes, that's true, and it's usually your fault, because you give me my assignments, but today is especially weird. And as I'm about to eaten, I thought I should tell you that I truly do love you."
There was a pause. "Say that again."
"The being eaten part."
"Oh, I thought you'd want the 'I love you' part. That was the tender part of this farewell speech."
"You tell me you love me all the time," Phil pointed out, "however, you rarely say you're about to be eaten. How, exactly, do you mean that?"
"In the literal sense. There are a bear and a wolf, working together to knock me out of the tree I'm in. And when I land at their feet, paws, whatever, broken and bleeding, they will eat me." Clint wasn't actually going to let it get that far; he was actually enjoying their antics, especially how they were acting in concert with each other. This was like a National Geographic special happening right here, about two predators being best buds. They clearly liked each other. A lot. Like if they could they'd mate and have little wolf-bears.
The bear slammed into the tree, and Clint almost lost his hold. "Jesus," he said, grabbing an arrow and aiming his bow in less than a second, directing it at the bear.
The bear, honest to God, just like a cartoon bear in the movies, looked up and did a classic double take, making a noise that sounded just like, "Huh?" The wolf dashed over to him, snarling up at Clint, as if it knew what a bow and arrow were, and tried to--and Clint felt like rubbing his eyes because honest to God--the wolf tried to cover as much of the bear with its body as it could.
"I'm still stuck on you being eaten. You do not have my permission to get eaten by a bear. We will have words."
"Does this thing with DiNozzo, what was his first name?"
"Anthony, but he goes by Tony."
"Tony." And wow, that got the bear and wolf's attention. "Got it. Does this thing with Tony have anything to do with animals being super smart and able to understand humans?" On a whim, he called down. "Stop trying to knock me out of the tree, and I won't shoot."
"Are you talking to the bear?" Phil asked him.
"Yes, and apparently he and the wolf are discussing it. I'll let you know what they decide."
"I'm coming in, and I'm calling for back up."
The bear plopped down on his ass, staring up, and the wolf took off. Clint wondered if it was going for its own sort of back up. "No, at least to the back up. You can come in. You'll probably want to see this anyway."
"You're not getting eaten?"
"Nope. The bear has accepted my terms." Clint put his arrow away, and slung his bow back over his shoulder. "Seriously, what's going on here? Is Tony some sort of mad scientist?" As he said Tony again, the bear looked up, making another inquisitive noise.
A hawk suddenly flew in, buzzed Clint, and then flew down to the bear. Clint would swear the bear was filling the bird in, as the conversation included several gestures in his direction. He'd swear it was a man in a bear suit if he didn't know better.
That was when the wolf ran back, and an owl landed on the branch next to Clint and hooted at him.
"What the hell was that?" Phil asked.
"That was an owl, who is about ten inches from me. I feel like I'm in Narnia with all the talking animals. Hey," he said to the owl.
The owl hooted in return. He looked tired and blinked a few times, then jumped close enough to peck at Clint's bow, finishing up with an inquisitive 'Hoo?'
'Fuck it," Clint said. "Okay, owl, hawk, bear, and wolf, I am not here to hurt Tony. In fact, I'm here to see if we can help. There might be others coming to take Tony against his will, and I'm hoping we can convince him to come with us. With all of you, of course," he added, as the owl's tufted brow seemed to narrow at him. "Because you're clearly family. Right?"
The owl hooted.
"What's he saying?" asked Phil.
The fact that Phil wasn't asking him if he was insane was very telling. "Next time before you send me in, I want more info. And excuse me if I'm not fluent in owl. If I'd known, I would have brought an owl to human dictionary. Where's a copy of Winnie the Pooh when I need one?"
That got a very excited hoot from the owl, and he shifted on his branch back and forth a few times.
"He read you that one? How about Disney's Sword in the Stone?"
That got an even more excited hoot, and then a squirrel joined them, chittering madly at them both.
"I’m in a Disney movie," Clint told Phil. "And, may I say, this is freaking awesome. Who is this guy? How did he do this?"
"We don't know. Word's out he's a hot commodity and it has to do with animals."
"Whoa," Clint said, as two vehicles drove into the driveway. "We got company."
"I'll be there in thirty."
"They look like suits." The bear got to all fours and seemed to confer with the wolf on how best to handle this. Eight guys got out of the cars and they spread around the house, four moving to the sides and back, and four still in front.
Clint took pictures and sent them to Phil. "Know any of them?" he said softly.
"The bald guy is Trent Kort, CIA."
Kort knocked on the door. "DiNozzo. Come on out. We just want to talk."
The bear looked up at the owl and nodded, using a paw to shoo him off. Clint blinked at that. The owl took off for the back of the house, and in a few moments the men in the back started yelling and cursing. Clint wished he was there so he could see what was going on.
Kort stepped away from the front door and sent two more men to investigate with a sharp hand gesture. Then, with a quick movement, he kicked the door open. Clint had to cover his mouth to keep his bark of laughter silent, as the door had clearly not been locked, and Kort almost went down. And then came flying out, as did the men from the back, all still yelling, and all being attacked by swarms of, well, everything. Mosquitoes, wasps, bees, birds, including a fucking bald eagle. And that was when the bear let out an enormous bellow, and the eight men were in their cars so fast, it was like watching it in fast forward.
Spiders started crawling all over the car, and Clint was never so glad to be high up in his life.
The owl landed next to him again and Clint would swear on a stack of bibles that the bird was chuckling. And not only that, there was a bat on his back. "I’m so confused," he told Phil. "On the good side, they're leaving, and Tony has the most ingenious security system I've ever seen."
And they were leaving, quickly. The spiders dropped off, although the birds dive bombed the cars, shitting on them as hard as they could. That got Clint laughing, and he and the owl sat up on a branch, high up in a tree, and laughed and hooted together.
"Hey!" Abby said into Tony's phone. "I found you the perfect house!"
"Thank God, when can we move in?"
"Um, well, you have to look at it, and then you have to make an offer, and you know, all that stuff. So probably not for a while."
"Crap," Tony said. He glanced at Gibbs. "I know we were going to spend the night here in a hotel, but can we go back?"
Gibbs was nice enough not to make fun of him. "Think something's up?"
"I don't know, but I don't like being away so long. What would they do if someone comes by? What would we do if we get back and there are dead bodies? Especially if they're CIA, or MI-5, or KGB?"
"You expecting the KGB?"
"You tell me. Okay, Abs, I'm back with you. Why don't you come over with the info. I know little Ziva misses you. We should be back in about two hours. In fact, why don't you go over now? I'd feel better if there was someone human directing activity. Wait. There's a guy around that Gibbs doesn't trust, so don't go over. Stupid idea. Forget I mentioned it."
Gibbs hit the gas as if he knew Abby would go over anyway. "We can be there in ninety minutes."
"Wait a couple of hours until we're there. I mean it, Abs."
"You are lying through your teeth. You are a bad, bad girl."
Abby laughed. "I'll see you when you get there." And she hung up.
"You are rubbing off on her, Boss. She totally lied to me and hung up."
Gibbs just smirked.
Clint watched as another vehicle approached, but this time the animals seemed excited rather than anxious. A girl, no, a woman, despite the school-girl skirt and pigtails, got out of the car and was immediately attacked by the bear. That startled Clint enough to get his arrow notched and aimed until he realized the bear was hugging the woman, and she was laughing and hugging him back.
He quickly put the bow away before anyone saw him. The owl had flown off a while ago, presumably to go back to bed, taking the bat with him. That, for whatever reason, was the strangest thing he'd seen so far. But he guessed if a bear and wolf could be fast friends, why not an owl and a bat? At least they were both nocturnal and could fly, right?
Then the bear was ambling toward his tree and pointing up at him. Seriously. Pointing up at him. Clint tried to blend really hard in the leaves.
"Hey," the woman called up. "Are you the guy Gibbs was talking about? The one he doesn't trust?"
Clint didn't say anything.
"Listen, if Baloo thinks you're up there, you are. He has a super snozz."
"Baloo?" Clint said to himself. Then out loud, he asked, "From Jungle Book?"
"Yeah, Tony names them all after movie characters." She slapped a hand over her mouth and let out a frustrated noise. "I shouldn't have said anything."
Seeing her as a very easy source, Clint said quietly to Phil, "I'm going down to engage a friendly." Then in seconds he was landing in front of her.
"Wow! You're really cute! I hope you're not a bad guy; I hate it when the cute ones are bad guys. Oh, and I'm Abby."
"Tony's not a bad guy," Clint pointed out.
"No, he's not!" Abby agreed with a leer. "And he's really hot."
Clint would ask if she and Tony were an item, if Tony hadn't already been thoroughly claimed by Leroy. Hoping she'd give him some extra intel, he asked something he already knew, "Who's the older guy? The one with Tony?"
"I don't think I should tell you anything else," Abby said. "Gibbs and Tony will already be angry with me for coming over early."
Clint grinned. "So, Gibbs?" He couldn't help teasing her.
She clapped another hand over her mouth. "This," she finally said, "is why I could never be a spy."
Clint liked her already and decided to introduce himself, even though Phil would yell at him later. "And hey, I'm Clint. Clint Barton." Suddenly the wolf came bounding up, leaping at Abby, along with two hawks, the bald eagle, several rats, and a moth and a beetle. The beetle was in the hawk's mouth and at first Clint thought the beetle was lunch, but the hawk carefully put the bug down on Abby's hand, who put him down on the ground.
Clint blinked. "Too far for the beetle to walk?" he hazarded a guess, throwing sanity and any preconceived notions out the window.
"Yeah," Abby said. "He gets really frustrated every time he finally manages to get where everyone is only to find all the action is over. I mean, not that I can understand any of them, but that's what Tony said, so Rutger and Michelle carry him."
"Rutger and Michelle?"
She laughed, "Rutger Hauer and Michelle Pfeifer from Ladyhawke." Laughing again, she added, "Tony's so funny. The eagle is Sam, after the Muppet Bald Eagle, and the wolf is Raksha, also from The Jungle Book."
"Archimedes. And the bat…you met the bat?"
"Briefly," Clint said.
"His name is Bruce."
Clint snickered, really liking this side of Tony. He sincerely hoped they could become friends. "So the beetle felt left out."
"Tony can't always tell, because he has a little beetle brain, but he can feel things from them sometimes, you know, and I guess he could tell the beetle was feeling out of the loop. He's best friends with the moth, but the moth can't carry him."
"Right," Clint said. "Mass and gravity and all."
"Wow, and I just told you everything, didn't I? Gibbs is going to kill me."
"I won't let him."
She sighed and moved to sit under a tree, Baloo at her feet, and Raksha curling up beside her. The birds all perched on either the bear or the ground, except for one of the hawks who just helped itself to Clint's shoulder.
Not daring to move, Clint asked, "Which one is this?"
"Michelle," she said.
Clint worked his phone out of his pocket and, after keying in the password, handed it to Abby. "Take a picture, would you?"
She found the camera icon easily enough and snapped a couple. "Hard to believe, isn't it?"
"I always feel like I’m in a Disney Movie, except a little darker. Wait until you meet Macavity."
Clint recalled Tony yelling the name and the cat that came running. "The cat?"
"With attitude," she said, with another laugh. "And stop asking me questions," she added, complaining.
"Really not asking much of anything," Clint said.
"Don't tell Gibbs that. Tell him you tortured me."
Clint didn't think that was a good idea. He heard some squeaking and two little rats ran fearlessly right up the wolf's snout to Abby's lap and squeaked some more.
"You guys know I don't understand you, right?"
The littler rat nodded, but then squeaked again.
"They understand you?" Clint asked.
"Yeah, they understand everyone once they get magicked up, or whatever it is that happens. I mean, they only understand what they can, depending on their brain and intuition and instincts, but the rats are really smart. This little girl's name is Ziva." She looked down at Ziva and said, "Okay, let me see if I can guess what you want. Tony should be back in about thirty minutes. Um, this guy is Clint Barton, and I don't know much more about him, except that Gibbs is gonna kill me for talking to him."
The little rat turned to look at Clint and if little ratty eyeballs could kill, Clint would be a piece of cheese with a bow on it ready for her to rip into pieces. "I'm one of the good guys, really."
She instantly gave him the benefit of the doubt, a look of joy returning to her eyes and she turned back to Abby, who started laughing again. "They're so amazing, aren't they? I mean, it's always so hard not to anthropomorphize animals, you know, but then here we are with animals who really do think like people. They're still who and what they are, like Ziva is a rat person, and Baloo is a bear person, and Raksha is a wolf person, and in so many ways they're so much better than people people, because they're so freaking excited to be a part of this, just like I am."
"And what is this?" Clint asked easily, like he was asking about the weather.
"All I know," she started, and then groaned. "Stop doing that."
Clint grinned at her. "Sorry, you're kind of easy."
She made a face at him and then Baloo was on his feet, snarling, and so was Raksha, and the hawks and the eagle launched into the air shrieking defiance, and the air was full of insects and birds and they were all, and there was no other word for it, pissed.
"Something I said?" Clint said, hands up, as if he were surrendering.
"Someone's coming, someone they don't know," Abby said, standing and looking around uneasily.
"Someone's coming I know," Clint said, "and I'd rather they not eat him."
"God, I wish Tony were here. They can talk to him. And sometimes to Gibbs," she amended.
He tapped his earpiece. "That you coming down the drive?"
"No," Phil said.
"Then I think we might have some more unfriendlies about to hit us." He put his hand on Abby's shoulder. "These guys got rid of eight men earlier without breaking a sweat. I think they'll be okay."
Except that was when Clint heard a helicopter, make that two helicopters, and ropes were falling and men were sliding down them, just as two cars arrived, carrying four men in each. Clint pushed Abby behind him, shoving her around the tree, saying, "Don't move," and he was shimmying up the tree, staring at ten, twelve, fourteen Hydra agents converging on the house. "Fuck me," he said. "It's Hydra," he whispered to Phil. "Yell at me later for nixing the backup."
"I will," Phil said tightly. "How many?"
Phil scoffed. "You trying to tell me you can't take down fourteen Hydra agents?"
"I'm surrounded by civilians, both two legged and four legged and winged and everything else. If we want Tony DiNozzo and his circus to join us, I can't hurt any of them." He didn't mention that he didn't want to hurt any of them. He liked them. Even the beetle. Jesus, what kind of beetle balls did it take to let a hawk scoop you up and carry you?
Clint waited, hoping the animals would do their magic and the Hydra agents would scurry off with their metaphorical tail between their legs. It might have worked, too, except one of the agents found Abby and grabbed her, and Baloo and Raksha went apeshit when she screamed, and one of the Hydra agents put two bullets in the bear, and one in the wolf, and then Clint was letting his arrows fly, killing that guy first, and then methodically taking the agents out as quickly as he could, leaving the ones who were surrounded by swarms of insects to their, hopefully, lack of mercy.
In the middle of it, Phil appeared, rifle in hand, and he started taking out the ones Phil hadn't yet, and Clint took a bullet graze from the last Hydra agent standing, before Phil put several bullets through his brain with extreme prejudice.
"Jesus," Tony yelled, waking up from whatever half-napping somnolent state he'd been in. "Drive faster. Something's really wrong."
Gibbs didn't even ask; he increased his speed, saying, "Get me the light."
Tony popped the glove compartment and handed Gibbs the emergency light, letting Gibbs settle it on the roof, while Tony plugged it into the 12 volt receptacle.
Then Gibbs asked, "What's going on?"
"I don't know, but my brain is full of unhappy animals. Really unhappy."
"How can you tell?"
"They're always sort of there, kind of this little hum in the back of my brain. They don't all get riled at once, so I never really notice little stuff, but they are all really angry and really scared right now." Tony berated himself for leaving. Damn it. He could hardly expect them to know how to act in every human situation. They'd barely been aware a month at best.
There was a tense silence in the car as Gibbs raced for the park, going in the back entrance that often didn't have a guard on duty and, thankfully, didn't now, and sped toward their cabin.
Shots started hailing down on them from above, and Clint yelled out to anyone who was listening, "Hide! Go to ground!" He hoped like hell that all the animals with the ability to scatter had done so, and he allowed himself a brief second to think of the beetle, glancing around frantically as Phil covered him, no doubt wondering what the fuck he was doing. He saw the beetle scuttling as fast as he could, a bullet barely missing him, and Clint lunged for him and brought him over to the tree Abby was crouched by, handing him over to her. She let him loose on the tree where he made his way up to the moth where they hovered together. Abby stayed low, her eyes wide and scared.
"There were two helicopters," Clint told Phil tersely, as he listened for their location, ready to let his arrows fly in hopes of hitting something vital.
Phil shot two more times and Clint heard a grunt, a muffled curse, and one of the helicopters veered off.
One more man was attempting to slide down the rope from the helicopter he'd been on, and Clint shot him. Somehow, and Clint can't make shit up this good, he got caught in the rope and it tangled around his leg, hanging him upside down. The helicopter took off, uncaring of its macabre load, as the man was smacked into one tree top after another.
"Get your field kit," Clint snapped, running to Baloo and Raksha, who had been under sufficient cover to escape more injury. Raksha was trying to drag herself to Baloo, one leg hanging uselessly behind her, her side bleeding from a vicious graze from a bullet that had sideswiped her flank before hitting her leg. She was second on Clint's list, but she wasn't about to die from her wounds.
Baloo was a mess. He'd taken one bullet to his right chest, and another to his right thigh, and each labored breath whistled, blood frothing at his mouth. The bear kept his eyes on Clint as he searched for entrance and exit wounds, and Clint was damned if he'd let him die. "Phil, come on! I need a pressure bandage."
"Since when are you a veterinarian?" Phil demanded, although he came running, unzipping the large field kit, rummaging hurriedly through it.
"Circus, remember? I helped patch up the animals all the time." He grabbed the pressure dressings Phil handed him, and slapped one over the entrance wound and another over the exit. "We'll need someone who can really work on him though. Call someone. This pressure dressing won't work very well because of all the fur and I need every ace bandage we've got."
Phil was on his phone calling somebody, even as he was tossing Clint ace bandages that Abby intercepted to get ready to hand to Clint who wound them around Baloo's body as tight as he could, hoping it would help enough to keep the bear from getting a tension pneumothorax. Baloo tried to help as much as he could, but Clint could see every move hurt him. "Just stop," Clint said. "Let me do this."
Once most of the ace bandages were on Baloo, Abby crawled over to Raksha, sniffling. "What can I do to help her?"
"Keep her still," Clint told her. "Phil, when you're done talking, run another pressure bandage over his thigh."
There was a spray of gravel as a car raced into the driveway of the cabin.
Phil stood there, rifle ready to shoot, as a car screeched to a halt, until it was clear it was Gibbs and Tony. Phil relaxed his hold on the rifle, glancing at the sky again.
Gibbs and Tony exited their car with guns drawn, Tony yelling, "Get the fuck away from him!"
"Not if you want him to live," Clint yelled back.
"What the fuck happened?" Gibbs snapped, moving in closer. Clint watched out of the corner of his eye as the body count registered. "What the fuck happened?" he asked again, but slower this time, his voice tinged with surprise.
Then Gibbs' arms were full of Abby, and she was crying and trying to explain things, and Clint was about to snap at Tony to help the wolf, when Tony was already there, crooning at her. He crouched between Baloo and Raksha, touching them both, and Clint could actually feel them both relax under his fingers, simply knowing he was there. "Just tell me you didn't shoot them," Tony demanded.
"No, the very dead fucker with three arrows in him behind me did that."
"Good," Tony said viciously. He put his forehead to Baloo's forehead and said, "You are not allowed to die, got it?"
Baloo nodded, eyes on Tony, weary and pained, but determined.
Then Gibbs had his hand on Tony's shoulder and Tony shot him a sad smile. "It worked when you said it to me."
His shoulder got a squeeze, and then Gibbs was asking what he could do, as Tony went over to Raksha, going through the same routine with her. Then Tony held her steady as Phil and Gibbs went to work on her hind leg while Clint started working on Baloo's leg.
"They were protecting me," Abby was hiccupping out. "I'm sorry, Tony, I know you told me not to come."
"Abs, forget it," Tony said. "I’m glad they protected you, and they will be too, once they feel better. And if they hadn't been protecting you, they would have protected the house, and that would have gotten them shot as well. I’m the one who left them such stupid instructions."
"Tony," Gibbs said. "No one expected a dozen men to come in fully armed."
"Fourteen," Phil said.
"Fifteen," Clint corrected, "if you count the trapeze star."
Phil grinned. "Oh, by all means, let's count him."
"And that's not counting Trent Kort who stopped by earlier with seven of his cronies," Clint mentioned to Gibbs. "It's been a fun afternoon."
"Are they dead, too?" Gibbs asked sharply.
"Nope. Your critters took care of them, and it was sweet to watch."
Tony grinned, or at least he tried, given most of his attention was on the bear and wolf, his hand patting them as he spoke lovingly to them. "Kort's such a jerk," he managed to say.
"No argument there," Phil said, stretching Raksha's leg out, causing her to yip in pain. "Sorry. Just trying to see how badly you're hurt."
"And who exactly are you?" Gibbs said, clearly just reining in his temper.
"I'm Phil Coulson, I'm with the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division."
"Never heard of you," Gibbs said.
"You need a shorter name," Tony said.
"I get that a lot," Phil said.
"What are you? What is your agency? And who are all these men?" Gibbs asked, blotting the graze along Raksha's flank.
"Yeah, that can wait," Clint said. "Phil, what's the ETA on our vets? Baloo's going to go into shock soon. If he wasn't Tony touched, he'd already be there."
"Tony touched?" Tony asked, although he was grinning.
Phil looked at his watch. "Five minutes."
Clint, meanwhile, was pressing down on Baloo's pressure dressing with his entire weight, hoping it would help. "I hope you mean that."
Just then, another helicopter sounded above, and Phil and Gibbs were both on their feet, weapons up, glaring through the canopy of trees. Clint could see Phil and Gibbs check each other out, see the years of military service clear in their bearing and obvious skill set, and then they were working together, like they'd been partners for years, Gibbs silently giving direction and Phil moving before Gibbs had finished.
Phil's phone rang and the rifle barely dipped as he maneuvered the phone out of his pocket and answered. "Tell me that's you."
Whatever he heard got him to drop his rifle. "It's one of ours," he announced. "Land by the cars," he told whoever he was speaking to.
A minute later the helicopter had landed, and several people got out, including Fury, Natasha Romanov, and a gang of people in white lab coats, who descended on the animals.
"Bear first," Clint said.
Tony moved to Baloo, hand on his shoulder. Clint surrendered his spot to a woman, stethoscope in hand. He could see stretchers, really big stretchers being prepared by the helicopter. "Where are we going?"
"Our headquarters," Fury said.
Tony looked like he was about to argue when Phil said, "No strings attached. We want you to work with us, but that's your choice. Either way we'll help get your friends mended, and maybe you'll let us tell you what we do."
"Fair enough," Tony said, although he glanced at Gibbs, as if to see if Gibbs would argue, but Gibbs was busy reassuring Raksha. And then Rutger and Michelle and a bunch of rats were amongst them, as well as the cat who'd left with Tony and Gibbs, hissing at everyone in between licking Baloo and Raksha, and then the yard was full of dozens, and then hundreds and then more and more of every kind of creature moving toward Tony, climbing on him, trying to get to him, and he started speaking softly, telling them it was okay, that they'd done great, that Baloo and Raksha would be okay.
And Fury and Natasha and the medical people stood very still, eyes wide, even Fury's, something Clint wished he could capture on film, as their feet were covered by those that had come to court Tony and offer their well-wishes, until Tony said, "Thanks guys, and I'll spend time with you later, but we have to get Baloo and Raksha to the hospital." He closed his eyes and just as quickly as they'd appeared, most of the animals disappeared back into the brush and woods that surrounded the cabin. "Gibbs?"
"I'll stay for a while and get them all settled, and then I need to get Abby home."
"I want to go with Tony," she protested.
"I'll bring you to see him later," Gibbs said, voice brooking no argument.
Abby pouted, but she let it go.
"I'll stay with Gibbs," Phil said. "Then I'll bring him in." He glanced around. "We need cleanup." Then his eyes fell on Clint again, "Get your arm looked at."
"We always need cleanup when you and Barton are on a case," Fury remarked.
Clint glanced at his arm and dismissed it; it wasn't bleeding anymore. Behind Clint, the medical people were checking on his very first bear first-aid, leaving it alone when they clearly found it good enough, something that made Clint proud. Then they were all working together, with Tony's assistance, to get Baloo on a stretcher, much to the bear's dismay. Once on it, Tony walked next to the stretcher, speaking softly to the bear.
Raksha let out a quick bark, and Tony turned around and gave Clint a weird look. "She wants you to go with her."
Michelle landed on Clint's shoulder, and Clint gave Natasha a grin. Natasha rolled her eyes but smiled sweetly back at him, and the hawk rubbed her cheek against Clint's, which put a lump in his throat he'd deny to his dying day.
Walking carefully, half to ensure not unseating Michelle, and half to keep one hand on Raksha's soft fur as she was carried by a second stretcher, Clint made his way to the helicopter and crawled in after Tony relieved him of Michelle. He sat down near Raksha and patted the seat next to him for the hawk.
There was a loud hoot and Archimedes swooped into the helicopter in a very agitated manner. "Hey, hey," Tony said, patting his thigh for Archimedes to land on. "We're okay. Or we will be okay, but you can't come."
Archimedes wasn't crazy about that idea, but Tony stroked him. "I need you to keep an eye on things here. I don't even know where Beetle and Moth are. You have to make sure everyone's okay. I don't even know if anyone else was hurt."
"The beetle and the moth were on that tree we were working by," Clint said.
"He totally rescued Beetle," Abby said, standing outside the helicopter, her voice shaky. "He shot like almost all the guys by himself before his friend showed up."
Tony eyed Clint again, his eyes assessing but also warm with gratitude. "Not everyone would care about Beetle," he said.
"Hey, that beetle is awesome," Clint pointed out, totally meaning it.
There was a loud, "We have to go," from one of the medical staff, and Tony nodded. "Keep them safe for me," he asked the owl. "You and Rutger and Sam. Keep everyone safe."
Archimedes hooted again, reluctant acquiescence in his voice, and he flew out just as the helicopter started its rotors. Macavity chose that moment to jump in, followed by Justin.
"Hey!" Gibbs called. "You guys get back out here."
Macavity gave Gibbs a narrow eyed look that told him exactly what he thought of that suggestion and Justin made use of that moment to safely scamper up onto Raksha's stretcher as the helicopter lifted off. Macavity made himself at home on Tony's lap, while Justin moved to settle next to Michelle. The hawk opened her wing and snuggled him close.
Clint grinned at them, grinned at Tony, grinned just because this, right here, was just worth grinning about, and even as they took off, the grin wouldn't go away.
Leon looked up, annoyed, as his office door opened, as he'd given his assistant strict orders not to disturb him. What he saw, though, made his jaw drop as he got to his feet. "Nick Fury?"
"The one and only," Nick said, crossing the room in just a couple of strides, hand out. "Leon, it's been a long time."
"Too long. What's with the eye patch? You were already a scary son of a bitch without it."
Nick laughed, saying, "Long story. And classified."
"Where are you working now? I haven't heard anything about you in years. Decades." It had been decades, at least twenty-five years. They'd been college roommates once upon a time.
Nick handed him a card and that got Leon sitting down again, his hand making contact with the chair arm to make sure he ended up sitting on his chair as opposed to the floor. "I wasn't even sure this agency was real. The stories about it made it seem like the boogey man to keep all the junior agents in line."
"I'll bet you haven't even heard the good stories," Nick said, sitting down opposite Leon.
"You work there?"
"I run the asylum," Nick corrected him.
"I'll be damned," Leon said. "I'm impressed."
"You haven't done too bad for yourself, Leon," Nick said, looking around his office. "And I bet you sleep at night."
"Most of the time," Leon said. "But not always." He leaned back in his chair, getting some of his equilibrium back. "I'm assuming this isn't a social call." He couldn't imagine what it was about, unless Nick was recruiting, and that seemed unlikely.
"I thought I owed you a visit, seeing as I'm planning on stealing a few of your best people."
And things were suddenly clearer. "Damn it, Nick. You talking about Gibbs and DiNozzo?"
Nick nodded. "You've seen what he can do?"
"I have. And we need him here."
"He'd be wasted here, Leon, and you know it. He needs to be saving the world. His skills are too big for a place like this. I'm not saying what you do isn't important, it is. But regular agents can take care of it."
Leon sat up taller in his chair. "Wait a goddamn minute," he snapped. "We're fighting terrorism as much as any agency."
Nick sighed. "How are you going to use him? Have him send rats to the sewers or have eagles search for snipers? He can't use his full gifts. He'll be stifled."
Leon knew it was true, but he didn't have to like it, nor did he have to give in at all, let alone gracefully. "Why Gibbs?" Although, truthfully, as much as Gibbs was one hell of an agent, he was a lousy employee, and Leon would be okay to see the back of him. Their closure rate would take a hit, but Gibbs wasn't the only agent around of his caliber.
"Now you're just playing stupid. I haven't known either man long, but it was as clear as day that where one of them goes, there goes the other."
"And that's not an issue?" Leon waved the card around with the words Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division embossed on it, to show he meant at Nick's place of employment.
"We don't have any fraternization rules. As long as it's consensual and you get the job done, I'm more than happy to not notice anything worth not noticing." Nick leaned in. "You can't protect him either."
Leon frowned at Nick, insulted.
"Do you know how many dead bodies I just cleared off the land around the cabin they're staying in?" Nick asked.
Leon's eyebrows shot up. "Excuse me?"
"Fourteen. Well, fifteen, but the last one was a couple miles away, what was left of him anyway. Fifteen men hell bent on taking DiNozzo and not caring about any collateral damage. A couple of the animals got shot. And that's not even mentioning Trent Kort who showed up with seven of his best friends to pick up DiNozzo."
"Are they dead too?" Leon asked warily, wondering how the fuck he was going to explain that.
"Nope. The animals took care of them and scared them off the property."
Leon tried to keep the smile off his face, but it won the battle and he grinned at Nick. "I'd have paid good money to see that."
Nick laughed out loud. "Me, too."
"Any of those kills today from my guys?"
"Nope. My agents took care of it. Gibbs and DiNozzo weren't even on the property when they showed up."
"But your agents were?" Leon asked dryly.
Nick shrugged. "Protecting our investment."
Leon was annoyed with himself that he hadn't realized the danger. "What agency were those fifteen from?"
Leon made a face at that. "From Marvel comics? That Hydra?"
He let that percolate a few moments, the idea of it horrifying, as he wondered what else he read in comic books that might be real. "Aliens?"
"I'm just gonna nod my head and leave it at that. And that's why we need someone like DiNozzo. He'll fit right in with the rest of the crazies, except he'll probably do his paperwork."
Leon tapped his fingers on the top of his desk. "No more."
"I can't guarantee that. If DiNozzo wants his team, and they want to come…" Nick spread his hands out in a what-can-I-do fashion. He leaned forward and tapped the card. "That's my tradeoff. You need help, you call. I can't promise I can always help, but if I can, I will."
Leon figured that was almost a fair trade, although it stung to lose DiNozzo when he finally had some skills that could make a difference. He knew Gibbs thought the sun rose and set on the man, but Leon had never seen it. "How about Sec-Nav? He knows about DiNozzo."
"Just tell him Nick Fury says hello," Nick said with a mean smile. "Keep that card out of sight, Leon. I don't give too many of them out." He stood. "It was good to see you."
"They might say no," Leon said, as he stood as well. "They've been here a long time."
Nick put his hand out to shake Leon's. "They won't."
Leon sighed but then he smiled as he shook Nick's hand. "Take care of yourself, Nick, and if no one else ever says it, thanks for keeping the world a safer place."
"Back at you," Nick said, and then he was out the door and gone. Leon sat back down and thought about calling Gibbs, but in the end he chose not to, and just went back to the project he'd been working on.
"Sir," the nurse complained, "you can't go in there." There was a doctor and a second nurse, both clearly in agreement. There was an orderly who seemed quite taken with Baloo, standing closer to the cage than to the other health care workers.
"Watch me," Tony snapped at her. "You were the ones who said he had to go in a cage, even though I'm telling you he doesn't. So if he goes in a cage, then I'm going in with him, because I'm sure as hell not going to let him wake up in a cage by himself. So get out of the way."
The cage in question wasn't much bigger than Baloo, maybe three feet to his left and right, and a foot past his head and feet. He was out for the count, attached to an IV and a chest tube, and the suction machine the chest tube was attached to.
"He could hurt you," the doctor protested. The doctor looked like he was fifteen years old, and Tony was sure that he was some kind of wunderkind to be here, but Tony didn't care.
Tony appreciated the fact that the people who worked here, even if none of them were the ones currently in the room, saved Baloo's life, but this was bullshit. He wanted to know where the people were that had come with the helicopter because they would understand. He wanted to know where Gibbs was. Tony was exhausted and really needed to close his eyes for a few moments. "Get out of the way. Really. Just get me a pillow." He wasn't thrilled at the idea of sleeping on the cold linoleum floor, but he wasn't letting Baloo sleep in that thing without him.
"Get two," Clint said, standing behind him, holding Raksha in his arms, one of her legs casted. "I'm going in too, and so is the wolf. And so are the rest of them."
Macavity hissed at them, making his opinion clear, which was that he hated them all with a fiery passion and would be glad to scratch them into bloody ribbons.
The doctor's face got more truculent. "You cannot put a wolf in a cage with a bear."
"Stop," Clint said. "I get you weren't there, so you didn't see what these animals are like, so all I'm gonna tell you is that you have no idea what you're talking about. Get out of the way and let him in, and if you don't, I'm calling Agent Coulson, who does understand and will be glad to assign all of you to someplace like Siberia."
Tony was very glad Clint was taking his side. If Clint had fought the other way, well, Tony would have done the same thing because he really wasn't going to let Baloo wake up alone, but it would have sucked to have Raksha on her own, and…Tony lost his train of thought. "Move them," he told Macavity and Michelle. "Gently, but move them."
Macavity hissed and started heading toward the four medical staff, looking like he thought he was ten feet tall, and making that much of an impression. Just his air of menace got them all to take a step back. Michelle swooped in front of them, letting out a hair-raising shriek, which got them far enough away that Tony was able to unsecure the door and get it open.
Justin ran over the doctor's foot on his way into the cage and the doctor let out a very unmanly yelp. "Is that a rat? Holy Christ, we can't have a rat in here. The health department would close us down. Get a broom," he told the orderly.
"Yeah, no," Tony said, and he helped Clint get in the opening, keeping Raksha's paws from hitting anything. Then Tony followed with Macavity and Michelle closing up the parade. "When you need to do rounds and check his IV and chest tube, let me know and I'll make room. Otherwise, go away. Oh, and pillows and blankets would be nice."
The second orderly quickly got the bed they'd previously created for Raksha and handed it into Tony, who set it up by Baloo, getting the wolf settled on it with Clint's help. The next trip from the orderly netted several blankets which Tony split between him and Clint. "Thanks," Tony said gratefully. "Maybe some water?"
Macavity meowed. "I want fish."
Tony snickered. "And something for the cat. Do you have cat food?" He looked over at Michelle who was checking out Raksha, carefully walking around her, cocking her head occasionally as if it helped her get a better idea of what she was dealing with. "And I don't suppose you have a…never mind. You can wait until later to eat, can't you Michelle?"
She gave him a positive reply without words.
Tony was glad, because any mouse or whatever they brought to feed Michelle, would probably want to cozy up to Tony first and that would be awkward.
The orderly seemed happy enough to comply with Tony's wishes and brought several water bottles, as well as bowls for the wolf and bear, and a container of what looked like cat chow. "I got some dead insects, grasshoppers, I think. We keep them for the snakes. Will the hawk eat them?" He held out a second container filled with dried up grasshoppers.
"What do you think?" Tony asked her.
She walked across the cage to check out the offering. She seemed dubious, but then said, "He may leave it."
Tony loved the feel of her imperious tone. "She says thank you."
The hawk gave him the eye, but he just grinned at her. She turned her back on the grasshoppers that were left by the door of the cage, and went over to Baloo this time.
"I want it on the record that you're making a mistake, and I won't be responsible for any injuries," the doctor said, suddenly making his presence known again. Tony had forgotten he was even there. "These are animals," the doctor continued condescendingly. "They aren't really speaking to you, and you will get hurt if you continue to act as if they are."
"Yeah," Clint said. "You can go now." To Tony, he said, "They can go now, right? Do they need to do other medical stuff to Baloo?"
"I'll be here," one of the nurse's said. Tony thought her name was Carol. He was totally off his game. Normally he'd know all their names and he'd have charmed his way into getting what he wanted instead of ending up in a cramped cage that wasn't big enough for Baloo and Raksha let alone adding two full sized men to the mix.
Clint got out his phone and waved it at the doctor. "I have him on speed dial." He made as if to phone Phil, not that he wouldn't if he really needed to, but he didn't think he'd have to go that far. Besides, he suspected Phil was busy with other things or he'd already be here. The medical staff, with the exception of the nurse, scattered.
"Wow," Tony said. "That's effective." He grinned at Clint.
"It's awesome having a boyfriend everyone's scared of."
"Tell me about it," Tony said. "Jesus, I'm tired."
"Take a nap," Clint said, gesturing at the blankets. "I can keep watch."
"You think we need to?" Tony asked, looking a little startled.
"Probably not, but I wouldn't put it past that doctor to tranq both our asses so he could drag us out of here."
Tony yawned. "Hey, Clint."
"Thanks. Really. Anything you ever need."
"You're welcome. But you know what?"
Tony opened his eyes to find Clint looking at him very seriously. "What?"
"Just seeing this, seeing what you can do, what you've done to these guys, watching them play, and love one another, and love you and maybe me, it's the most amazing thing I've ever seen. So thank you. Really."
Tony blinked away a sting of tears. "Then I guess we're even," he managed to say, touched almost beyond words.
"I guess we are," Clint said with a kind smile. "Go to sleep. I won't let anything happen to any of them."
Tony believed him. He'd already seen what Clint would do to protect his friends. He moved to the far side of Baloo and lay as close as he could to take advantage of Baloo's body heat, but not so Baloo would feel hemmed in. Clint was getting settled on the other side of Raksha, keeping up a quiet litany of soft words for her. Macavity snuggled up to his chest, and Justin found his spot near Tony's neck. He listened to Michelle making little inquisitive cheeps over by Clint, and then he was falling asleep.
Gibbs followed Phil as they made their way through the labyrinthine corridors of his headquarters, or one of them at least, according to Phil. He appreciated the way everyone either got out of Phil's way or acknowledged him very respectfully. Eight times since he'd walked through the main doors, crises of some sort or another had been brought to him, and he handled each calmly and succinctly.
Everyone but the last, at least. That had been an orderly who had quietly given him some information that had caused a quick flash of disconcertion to cross Phil's face. Gibbs was very curious about what that had been about. But then Phil said to the orderly, "Come with me," and he followed them as Phil continued his trajectory, Gibbs assumed, to wherever Tony was.
The disconcertion on Phil's face shifted to anger as soon as they walked into the medical area and saw Tony and Clint inside a fucking cage, and Gibbs echoed that response.
Gibbs strode to the cage and crouched down next to where Tony was sleeping. "Tony?"
At the same time, Phil was saying, "Clint?"
Clint was awake, so Gibbs left Tony alone, as he had slept through his name being called, and shifted his attention to Phil.
"Why are you in a cage?" Phil asked in a dangerously even tone. "Do I need to kill someone?"
Clint shrugged. "Maybe?" He kept his hand on Raksha but leaned forward. "They put Baloo in the cage first even though Tony told them not to. When the doctor, who is six years old, I swear, refused to listen, Tony said he was going in the cage too because he wasn't going to let Baloo wake up in a cage alone."
Gibbs turned his attention back to Tony, even though he kept listening. He got two fingers through one of the sets of links and touched Tony's hand, wishing he could hold him.
"And you're in the cage because?"
"Because Baloo wouldn't want Raksha someplace else, and Raksha was calmer when I was around. Tony told me so. So, we decided to have a slumber party. Ta dah. And I'm keeping watch, because I don't trust the doctor." He grinned at Phil. "I had to threaten the jerk with you to leave us alone."
Phil turned to the nurse. "Could you please ask your physician colleague to join us?"
With a nod, the nurse turned to comply. The orderly was checking the water bowls, but they were all still full.
Tony opened his eyes, going from fast asleep to wide awake in less than a second. As soon as he saw Gibbs, he sighed and relaxed. "They're gonna all need potty breaks, soon. Not quite sure what to do about that."
"I've got that taken care of," Phil said, and he pulled out his phone giving someone directions to bring his solution in.
They brought in two large flats on wheels, one was about 8 feet by 3 feet, built up with a four inch lip filled, presumably, with dirt, and covered with grass and a small fake tree with limbs sturdy enough to hold Michelle. The other was smaller and looked like an executive kitty litter box.
Tony closed his eyes and whispered, just so Gibbs could hear him, "I love these guys."
Gibbs got that, even if it caused a pang in his chest to hear it, because he could already tell he'd be leaving NCIS and the idea of that hurt. But there was no way NCIS could do things like this, pander to Tony's animals let alone create portable toilets for them.
The doctor arrived shortly thereafter, looking annoyed at not only being summoned, but also at the sight of the flats taking up much of the floor space. He strode in, ready to share his displeasure when he saw Phil Coulson standing there. He paled, and Gibbs hid a smile. "Sit up," he said to Tony. "I think you'll want to see this."
Tony did sit up, although he grimaced as he did it, no doubt feeling the discomfort of lying on the linoleum.
"Explain this," Phil said, pointing at the cage.
"The bear is a dangerous animal. I wanted him restrained, but this man," and he pointed at Tony, "refused, and he threatened me, something I will be writing an official complaint about."
"So what?" Clint said, unimpressed. "Just sic Macavity on this bozo, and he'll totally cave."
"Macavity has that effect on a lot of people," Tony said, as he scratched Macavity.
"The man brought a rat into a medical facility," the doctor complained loudly.
"The rat," Phil said, "is a VIP."
Gibbs had to bite back a laugh this time, and Justin was now sitting on Tony's shoulder, his eyes bright with merriment.
"The cage," Phil said. "Explain."
"If the bear couldn't be in restraints," the doctor said as imperiously as he could, "he needed to be in a cage. There was no telling what he'd do once he woke up. He could have pulled out his IV and chest tube at least, and attacked the other animals or the medical staff at worst."
"I understand Clint threatened to call me," Phil said.
The doctor winced. "He did, and I don't appreciate being threatened in my own space."
"Do you agree that this entire thing seemed a bit out of order?"
"I do," the doctor said emphatically, unaware he was being led to the slaughter.
"And you knew, based on Clint's suggestion he call me, that I must have had knowledge about the situation. Correct?"
"Uh," the doctor said.
"Why didn't you call me to get that intel?"
The doctor tried to rally, saying, "I thought you were too important to bother with something like this."
"He's scared of you," Clint interpreted.
Phil considered him and the doctor shifted his feet like a four year old about to get sent to his room. Finally, Phil said, "If I ever hear that you let fear get in the way of doing right by your patients, you will be packed and out the door so fast you won't know it's happening until your ass is on the sidewalk. Do you understand me?"
And this was when Baloo woke up and bellowed.
The doctor looked momentarily vindicated until Tony started talking.
"Hey, hey, relax. I'm right here. Raksha's right behind you. Use your nose to sniff her. And hey, here's Macavity, and Justin, and Michelle's over by Clint. Okay?"
The bear nodded.
The bear nodded again.
"They brought a portable toilet for you, need to use it?"
The bear nodded again.
"Maybe pain medication first, and then we'll move you, okay?"
Tony glanced at the nurse. "Can he have something for pain?"
She was already moving.
The doctor's eyes were bugging out of his head.
"This is what I would have told you," Phil said, "if you'd bothered to ask. They are all VIPs, and you let them sleep on the floor in a cage. Please leave. You're off this assignment. And in your report, please explain why you chose not to see to Agent Barton's wound."
"But, but," the doctor said, as if he couldn't bear to leave now.
Phil nailed Clint with a look. "And don't think we won't have words about that. Just because it's not bleeding, doesn't mean you don't need medical attention."
Raksha whimpered a little, and Clint patted her. "Baloo's okay. He just needs a little pain medication. You need to pee?"
She whimpered again, but tried to get up.
Gibbs moved quickly to open the door while Clint knelt by the wolf. "Let me carry you there. I know your leg has to be killing you."
She didn't look thrilled at the idea but she acquiesced, and Clint managed to pick her up while on his knees and crawl outside the cage until he could stand. "Hey look!" he said to her. "A Phil Coulson special, just for you." He put her down gently on the grass. "Okay, everyone," he said to the room, "avert your eyes, the lady needs some privacy."
Phil used the time to escort the doctor out. The nurse was finishing up getting medication for both her patients, and Gibbs was crawling inside the cage to get to Tony. "Why didn't you call me?" he said.
"I knew you had things to do and that you'd show up when you could. Besides, I had Clint here, and he wasn't going to let anything bad happen."
"You're sleeping in a cage, on the floor."
Tony shrugged. "I would have called if I'd cared enough. I just didn't want Baloo on his own."
Gibbs rattled the cage. "Phil, can we get rid of this?"
"On it." Clint pulled out a screwdriver from one of his many pockets and started dismembering the cage. It only took a few minutes to get the four sides of the cage off and leaning against the wall, during which time Michelle, Macavity and Justin took advantage of the facilities. The nurse moved to Baloo and injected some medicine into the port of his IV. She had a shot for Raksha which she stoically endured, although she pressed herself into Clint for the duration of it.
After a couple of minutes, Tony said to Baloo, "We better get you up before you fall asleep again. Can you get up? I don't think I can carry you."
Baloo huffed and shakily got to his feet, Tony supporting him the best he could. The nurse kept track of his IV, chest tube and drainage kit while Baloo slowly padded over to the grassy area, crouching and peeing for a very long time, unconcerned for his audience. Whatever was under the grass, though, did a good job absorbing the liquid as it didn't pool at all.
Tony crinkled his nose at the sharp ammonia smell, but he didn't budge from supporting Baloo. Gibbs loved him more at that moment than he ever had, the emotion swelling in his chest.
He glanced at Clint, saw he was getting Raksha settled on a large pillow that had miraculously appeared, no doubt more of Phil's magic. Another larger one appeared, and Clint set it up right next to the wolf. Baloo was finished peeing, but he stood there, not moving, leaning against Tony.
"Let's get you back to bed, buddy," Tony encourage. "Then you can sleep some more."
Baloo let out another half-hearted bellow but then, tottering a little as he turned himself around, he made his unsteady way over to Raksha, where they nosed each other, and she licked his face, and then he dropped, unceremoniously, onto the larger pillow. Tony sat on the floor near the bear, smiling when the orderly offered him a pillow.
The nurse checked all his lines, and then went to grab another IV bag, as the one hanging was running low. She changed it quickly, wrote something on a chart, and then removed herself to the nursing station.
The woman who had come on the helicopter strode into the room next, glanced around, didn't see anything that unduly worried her and then made a beeline toward Phil. "He's young," she said.
"He better grow up fast," was all Phil said. "This was unacceptable."
"Understood," she said. Then she smiled at Tony. "Everyone okay?"
"Everyone is fine," he said with a return smile. "They've peed and just gotten more pain medication."
"Excellent. I'm Doctor Korsenik, by the way, but feel free to call me Dotty."
"Dotty, thank you," Tony said. She was a tall woman, not particularly beautiful, but she had this lovely glow about her, as if she were uncommonly pleased with her lot in life.
She nodded at him. "Do you need anything else? I see Agent Coulson had already anticipated several of their needs."
"Can we let Michelle outside to catch some dinner?" Tony asked. "And make sure she doesn't get shot or anything?"
"I'll go with her," Gibbs said when Phil nodded in response to Tony's question.
"We'll need some food for Baloo soon, although he'll eat anything. Some kind of meat for him and Raksha."
"I'll take care of all their meals," Dotty said. "We're equipped to feed all sorts of animals here."
"They can't be alive though," Tony said with a grimace. "No live food. I can't be this close to anything alive and then let it get eaten. Sorry."
"Not a problem."
Tony put his hands on the floor. "You have a lot of rats here, did you know that?"
"We do?" Phil asked.
"Yeah," Tony said with a little laugh. "The place is teeming with them."
"Feel free to leave them where they are," Phil suggested. "If I can't see them, I don't have to do anything about them."
Tony's head jerked up for a second and his eyes went right to Raksha. "Really?"
Her ears flicked.
Tony patted Baloo's flank and crawled over to Raksha and sat down, so his left knee was touching Raksha and his right knee was pressing against Clint's left thigh.
Gibbs wasn't thrilled. He glanced at Phil, though, who seemed utterly unconcerned at Tony's and Clint's proximity. Jesus Christ, he was too old to be jealous.
"Explain this to me," Tony asked the wolf. There was a period of long silence, and Gibbs wished he understood them all, instead of just his few; he'd have to get more of them to bite him. "Okay. And how does that affect your relationship with me and Gibbs?" More silence. "Really, you think so? I thought I could only pick one other person and that person was Gibbs." A pause; it was maddening not to know what the conversation was about, although Gibbs was starting to get a shadow of an idea.
Now Phil was paying attention, watching the conversation.
"What does Baloo think about it? Will he mind?" Another pause. "So all of you can choose to do that?" Pause. "Only if I say so? Huh. So sort of a tactical advantage if we need it?" Pause. "Once it's done, can you do it with anyone else?" Tony frowned at the answer. "Okay, right, true enough. I need to talk to Gibbs." He stood up and grabbed Gibbs' hand, taking him outside in the hall, making sure no one was around.
"What was that all about?"
"She wants to bite Clint."
Gibbs' eyebrows went up high.
"She says that he and I will be paired on missions," Tony continued, "and he needs to be able to talk through her to us and the other animals. She likes him. Baloo likes him."
Gibbs was putting the rest of the conversation together in his head but he was still confused. "I thought like you did, that they could only pick one other person, and that person was me." Gibbs felt reluctant to lose what he had thought was a tactical advantage and an ironclad inclusion to always be first at Tony's side.
"Apparently this is another sub-clause, or maybe a footnote, I have to look at the outline at this point, I've lost track. Anyway, all the animals can choose one other person to bond with, and while that will most likely be you, they can choose someone else."
Gibbs frowned at Tony wondering if the rules would ever cease coming at them. "Doesn't it seem like the rules make themselves up to suit the situation? I mean if Raksha was already bonded with me, she couldn't do this, right?"
"Right and, of course, the animal has to want to as well; they won't bond with just anyone, just because I say so. But, otherwise, yeah. Like I said, sort of a derivative of the other rule, where I guess they can pick anyone if they want. If I agree. Jesus, I feel like I'm giving her away to be married or something. Weird, right?"
"I'm not sure how comfortable I am with this. Doesn't it seem it would all get out of control?" Gibbs asked.
"I know what you're thinking, but they're all connected to me, and to you, too, in that they see you on the same level as me and already listen to what you say, even if I'm not around. And you can speak to enough of them to be in the link. In fact, we need to get you set up with more of them, at least one of each type, so you have eyes on the ground, in the ground, and in the air, big and small, etcetera, etcetera," Tony added, echoing Gibbs' earlier thoughts.
"This ties us here, with them," Gibbs said.
"I can bring Macavity to work here," Tony pointed out. "I can have them all be a part of my life without having to hide it. I mean, obviously, not everyone got the memo yet because that other doctor was a jerk, but they will."
"Do you even know what they do here?" Gibbs asked.
"Nope," Tony said. "But I do know Phil and Clint are good people, and I know you like Phil, and I'm sure you grilled him as to what they do and you're okay with it, or we'd already be out of here."
Gibbs scowled at Tony, momentarily annoyed at how well Tony knew him. "I never thought I'd leave NCIS."
"I know. And I'm sure we can work out an arrangement to work at both places if you want."
Gibbs had visions of more Hydra agents, or God knew what else, gunning for Tony. NCIS couldn't protect them and couldn't show such outright favoritism for Tony and his menagerie. He suddenly grinned. "Justin's a VIP, huh?"
"He's still laughing about it," Tony confided with a chuckle, "and is very pleased with the idea. We might have to get him a badge or something that says VIP. Jesus," he abruptly said, "I totally suck. How's everyone else?"
"Relax, everyone's fine. There are agents on the perimeter, and Natasha, one of Phil's best agents, according to him, is with the animals along with Abby. Phil seemed to think that Natasha is even more lethal than Clint and says they are in good hands."
Tony blinked at that. "That seems hard to believe. I don't think I could have taken out half of those guys and gotten away with barely a scratch. It certainly explains why I don't seem to worry any of these guys if they can kill men with their pinky."
Gibbs' eyes rolled heavenward as if looking for strength. Not that he didn't agree to a certain extent; Clint was clearly an efficient killing machine. But Tony could take on any of them with his hordes. They didn't worry about Tony because they could see what Gibbs knew, that Tony was one of the good guys. "How does Raksha know you'll be paired with him? Is she prescient now?"
Tony shrugged. "I didn't ask, but I should have. I guess she's thinking if we work here, and as Clint's already proven he can work with the animals, that it makes sense."
Too old, Gibbs said to himself firmly, but he found himself saying, "And you and Clint?"
Tony looked completely lost. "Me and Clint what?"
Gibbs' lips tightened and apparently that was enough to let Tony read his mind, and his eyes boggled. "What? Seriously? I mean, yeah, he's good-looking, and Natasha is hot, and there are a zillion beautiful people in the world, but they're not you."
"You said you wouldn't kick him out of bed."
"Any sort of imaginary conversation I ever had about you and me and jealousy all featured around me being jealous of you. How is this happening? Gibbs, it was an idle thought. I wouldn't share our bed with anyone because if you think I would let anyone else but me touch you, you are out of your mind."
His tone and facial expression were fierce, and Gibbs felt inappropriately aroused by it.
Tony wasn't done. "We are bound together, you and me. In so many ways. Irrevocably bound, in wire - no, rebar. We're rebar-bound," Tony said, now grinning. "Put whatever crap is in your head someplace else. It'll never happen. With anyone. Ever. Other than noting that he was attractive, it never crossed my mind. Not once. Like it wasn't even a thing."
"Okay, okay," Gibbs said, feeling his face redden. "I get it. You can stop now." Gibbs felt like an idiot. A reassured idiot, but an idiot nonetheless.
"It does mean he becomes part of the family, him and Phil."
"We need to know what they intend to do with you," Gibbs said.
"Us," Tony countered.
"Us," Gibbs acknowledged, and he pulled Tony into a kiss, right in the hallway, a deep one, his tongue claiming Tony's, needing, this very instant, to claim Tony as his.
"Get a room, please, gentlemen," a deep voice said from behind them.
They pulled apart, although Gibbs kept his hand around Tony's waist, and found themselves facing Nick Fury.
"Ah, it's you," Nick said, frowning at them. "Scaring the horses already?"
Tony snorted. "I guess we need to talk."
"I guess we do." Nick gestured at the door that led into the medical area, and Tony and Gibbs preceded him into the room. Baloo and Raksha were awake and anxiously awaiting their return.
"Hey," Tony said. "Why aren't you sleeping?" he asked Baloo. As if in answer, Baloo looked at Raksha, and she whined. Tony sat down until he was nose to nose with her. "Don't be silly. You could never make me angry. It's just that doing what you want makes things different, and I needed to make sure Gibbs was okay with that. Okay?" Her ears pricked. "I think so, but we have one more conversation to have." He sat down amongst the animals, Macavity crawling into his lap, Justin on his shoulder, Michelle on his knee, skreeing at Macavity when he batted at her tail feathers. Baloo shifted around until his head was on Tony's thigh.
"We're doing this here?" Nick asked.
Tony nodded. "They're a part of it."
"Okay," Nick said and turned to the nurse. "Do what you have to do so we can have some privacy in here."
She checked Baloo's pump again and the drainage from his chest tube, making a mark at the current level. "It's not draining much anymore. We should be able to take it out soon."
"Good," Tony said. "Thanks."
She smiled at him and then left the room, leaving the five men and assorted animals alone.
Nick glanced at Clint, eyebrows up. Clint made as if to get up, but Tony shook his head. "He stays."
Clint stayed in his half-up, half-down position and glanced at Phil for some clarification. Phil gestured him back down, and Clint sat on the ground on the other side of Raksha, one hand on her head, scritching her ears.
Gibbs settled down on the ground next to Tony, one hand on Baloo's head. Phil sat down on the floor across from them, and Nick, with a grimace, followed suit.
"Here's the thing," Tony said. "I saw what Clint can do, and I expect you use him for assassinations." He held up his hand when Phil made as if to talk. "That's not a criticism. I know there are people out there who need to be stopped. But it's not just me here. Whatever I do, these guys will be involved, not necessarily these exact ones, but…" and here Tony put his other hand on the floor as if feeling the pulse of all the life in the building, "but whatever animals happen to be near me at the time. And these animals, and insects and reptiles and whatever other category they fit in, they're about love and joy most of the time."
Tony sighed, scratching Baloo's head, playing with his ears. "These guys, they play, and they love, and they protect, way past what humans do. They're wonderful. And I can't just send them in for a mission without really understanding what you're asking me to do. I can't ask them to help take out a target unless I understand why. I can't ask them to do something violent without understanding why, so I can, in good conscience, ask them to help. They're smart, but they're like children in a lot of ways. I just need you to understand that I'll have a much higher need to know than some. And if that can't happen, I can't stay."
Gibbs watched as Phil and Nick exchanged a glance. "We can live with that," Nick said.
"We'll have to live with that," Phil said more pragmatically. "After all, you hold all the cards. If you don't want a mission, you just won't do it."
"You could threaten me. Some of them. Tell them you'll hurt Tony if they don't do what you want," Gibbs pointed out.
Phil looked reassuringly disturbed by that. "I don't think so. Thanks for the idea, but we'll pass."
"We have some true dangers facing this planet," Nick said somberly. "Dangers that transcend politics and even terrorism. I suspect, at first, we'll put you on protection details, escort missions, search and rescue, that sort of thing, if that's all right with you, then we'll see what happens." He glanced at Gibbs. "I spoke to Leon Vance today before coming here. Told him I might be poaching you, if you were willing."
Gibbs felt a surge of anger. "I don't appreciate being handled."
"And if you want to say no, we won't stop you, and we'll still give you a protection detail. But if you wanted to say yes, I wanted to make it easier for you. There won't be anything to stop you leaving now."
Gibbs was still annoyed, but he pushed it down. "Is this what we can expect, finding out after the fact that you've manipulated us?"
"Yes," Phil and Clint said.
Tony let out a quick bark of laughter.
Nick glared at them both with his one good eye. "Tony, Gibbs, what this thing is, and we don't understand it, is too big for any other organization. We have the room, the tolerance, and the experience with things outside what's normal."
"And I will send out a memo that all animals seen in headquarters are to be considered allies and are to be left alone until you can come investigate," Phil said, "and I apologize for your earlier treatment."
Nick glared at Phil. "What earlier treatment?"
"I'll explain later," Phil said. And then he seemed to catch sight of Clint's arm and got up to retrieve some supplies. "Shirt off," he told Clint.
Clint sighed but pulled off his shirt, revealing a long gash running the length of his upper arm. "It's just superficial. If I'd thought it would interfere with my aim, I'd have gotten it taken care of."
Phil didn't seem impressed with his excuses and began to clean it off, ignoring Clint's winces. "Why did you want Clint to stay?"
Tony glanced at Gibbs, and Gibbs nodded. "Go ahead."
"Is it okay with you?"
"Yeah. It's okay."
"So this thing?" Tony began. "We don't understand it much either. I didn't know anything about it until I got some cryptic phone call the night before my fortieth birthday. Apparently it's a legacy that affects my mom's side of the family, although I guess it'll die out with me."
"No one else in the family has been able to fulfill the legacy," Gibbs added. "Tony's been the first successful one as far back as we can ascertain."
Tony continued. "The point, though, is that we're just learning the rules as we go, and Raksha here just told me that all the animals I impress can choose to impress one other human. Several of them have chosen Gibbs and I imagine most of them will choose him but, apparently, they can pick anyone, as long as I agree, and as far as I'm concerned, as long as Gibbs agrees. Raksha likes Clint."
Clint's eyebrows went up as a pleased smile crossed his face. "I like you, too," he said to the wolf, leaning down to give her a kiss on her forehead. "What's that mean, though?"
"She has to bite you or scratch you."
"You mean all the animals and reptiles, etcetera, I saw back at the cabin, they've all had a go at you?" Clint asked, taken aback, shifting in surprise.
"Stay still," Phil said, as he attempted to tape a bandage on his arm.
"Fun times," Tony said. "Especially when we didn't know what was happening." He took off his own shirt, displaying the tattoos. "Then they show up as tattoos. Gibbs has the ones that have bitten him."
That had been a surprise to Gibbs, to wake up one day and see that he was developing tattoos of his own. He currently had them all on his left upper arm.
"That is one astonishing tattoo," Clint said admiringly. "So would that mean I could speak to Raksha and might get a tattoo of her?" Clint asked.
"And through Raksha," Tony said, "to any of the other animals, or to me. And I think you'll end up with a tattoo, but I don't really know."
Clint looked delighted at the idea. "Seriously? I'd be able to talk to her, like you talk to the others?"
Tony grinned at his expression. "Yup."
"Wow," Clint said, turning begging eyes on Phil. "Permission to get bitten, sir."
"He was the first to bite me," Tony said, lifting Justin up. "Justin the rat, VIP."
Justin squeaked, his whiskers quivering.
Tony laughed, and shook his head. "You're a trouble maker, rat. I think I'll spare Macavity the story of how he bit me."
Justin squeaked several times, and no one in the room could doubt he was laughing.
Macavity hissed at him, burying his nose in Tony's armpit.
"Oh, you have to tell me that story sometime," Clint asked.
"You really don't want Macavity to hold a grudge against you," Gibbs advised.
"Yeah," Tony agreed, snickering, "let's just say he's watched The Godfather a few too many times."
"They watch movies?" Phil asked.
"Tony shows them the movies where he gets their name, or ones that they star in," Gibbs explained. "After watching Charlotte's Web, we have some spiders at home trying their best to write words in their webs. They can't seem to get beyond three letter words."
Justin made another noise, and Tony laughed. "Yes, RAT is one of them. The first one, I think."
Macavity meowed in complaint.
"Oh, I've been corrected. CAT was the first one, then RAT."
Michelle let out a chirrup.
"Then BAT," Tony said. "Thank you, Michelle." He bent down, and she rubbed her cheek against his.
Nick cleared his throat. "You want anyone else to join you from NCIS, say the word and we'll find a place here for them. And just to put it on the table, if you want kids, we'll find a surrogate for you. It would be a shame to let this die out with you."
Before Gibbs could even think about how to respond to that, Nick got up. "Phil will discuss terms if you're interested."
"What?" Tony was saying as Nick walked out the door. "Did he just say what I thought he said?"
"Yes," Gibbs said, and while it was none of the man's business, it was an intriguing thought to have on the table. It's not like they'd ever have to worry about babysitters.
"Nick Fury, ladies and gentlemen," Clint said with a flourished bow. "Know him and weep."
"Tell me more about this biting thing," Phil asked. "How hard does she need to bite him?"
"Not hard," Tony said. "But I do need to tell you something." He scrunched his face up. "In the spirit of full disclosure."
Phil frowned. "What is it?"
Tony cleared his throat. "We seem to be, um, getting younger." He waited for their reaction to that.
"In what ways?" Phil asked, sounding as composed as ever.
"My hair's losing its gray, my wrinkles are fading, my joints don't hurt as much," Gibbs said. "Tony just looks younger."
Clint blinked at them. "Can someone bite Phil, too? I don't want to get younger if he keeps getting older."
"That's up to them," Tony said. "But I wouldn't stop anyone who wanted to."
"Let's cross that bridge when we get to it," Phil said, "we don't know if one impression, to use your word, will have that effect on Clint."
"True," Tony said. "We're not even sure if Gibbs is being affected because of the bites, or just because he's with me and them all the time. We don't know as much as we should. There's an owl at the house--"
"Archimedes," Clint offered.
"Archimedes," Tony said with a grin, "that seems to know the most, although all of them know something, but they never seem to know it until they need to know it, if that makes sense, like this thing with Raksha. We've been writing everything down, so in case anyone else is ever in this position, they'll be better prepared than me."
"What happens if you die?" Phil asked, putting up a hand to stop Baloo from bellowing. "I will do everything in my power to keep that from happening, but I need to know."
"I have no idea," Tony said. "I don't know if what's happening to these animals is permanent, if it will breed dominant, I just don't know." He shrugged. "Sorry."
"Don't be," Phil said. "I think we should, with your participation, see what we can find out."
Baloo did bellow at that.
"Not the dying part," Phil assured him. "But there have to have been rats born since Justin came live. Surely he has offspring."
"Huh," Tony said, holding Justin back up. "Are your kids as smart as you?"
"How about the offspring of the rats that didn't bite Tony," Gibbs asked him. "Are they smart?"
Justin squeaked out a long answer.
"What did he say?" Clint asked.
"That they aren't," Tony said, "until they are called to me to help. But once they go back to their homes, unless you've given them an order, it falls away. Wow, who knew? He glanced at Clint. "You want to join in on the crazy fun?"
"Hell, yeah," Clint said, his hand still on Raksha; it had never left. "You okay with it?" he asked Phil.
Tony reached to his left and patted Raksha. "Go ahead. You can bite the hell out of him."
Raksha shot Tony a look, although her eyes were dancing, and then she bared her teeth and made the slightest scratch across Clint's forearm. Clint stared at his arm, then his eyebrows shot up and he stared at the wolf. "Oh, my God, there you are!" He turned astonished eyes on Phil, "She's talking to me in my head." He lay down so he could commune nose-to-nose with Raksha, and Gibbs figured that was all they'd get out of him for a while.
"Housing will be a problem," Tony said. "We need a house with a lot of land. These guys can't stay inside."
"Understood," Phil said. "And not a problem. We can find something for you if you want. We just need to make sure there's room for a helicopter pad. Preferably something not too far away from a major city, preferably New York, but we'll make it work regardless."
"I don't really care where we live," Tony said. "Gibbs is my family, along with all these guys."
"And Abby? Ziva? Tim? Ducky?" Gibbs asked.
"We'll bring them with us. Ziva's pretty lethal herself, and I'm sure they'd love someone with Tim's IT skills and Abby's forensics skills, and maybe Ducky would be willing to take a few vet classes and take care of the animals for me."
Gibbs thought Ducky would be delighted at the idea. He hoped Nick was right, and that Leon wouldn't be meeting him with an armed guard when he got back.
Tony got Phil's attention. "You should get files on them. See if you want them."
"I've read their files, and I do," Phil said.
Gibbs wondered when the hell that had happened. He'd been with Phil non-stop since the cabin. "And what about me?" He hadn't asked and was curious what they thought they could do with him.
"That's open for discussion, but for the time being I was expecting you to be Tony's co-handler with me when he's in the field," Phil said. "We'll need to experiment some to understand what's involved in handling a team of several thousand non-human participants."
Clint groaned, showing he'd been listening, even if all his obvious attention was on the wolf. "I see drills. Lots and lots of drills."
"And you would be right," Phil said.
"Huh," Tony said, looking out the backyard window where Ziva and Natasha were sparring. It was hot. Not so much in temperature, but in watching two gorgeous fit women bitch slapping each other.
Gibbs smacked the back of his head.
"Just looking," Tony said.
"Yeah, you know that bed you wouldn't throw Clint out of?" Gibbs said with some annoyance, "it's starting to feel really crowded."
Tony laughed. "Well, come on," he said. "Clint? Natasha? Jesus, where do they recruit their agents?"
Gibbs made a face.
"That's your 'I can't really argue with you even though I want to' face," Tony crowed. He pulled Gibbs in by his jacket lapels until their lips were only an inch apart. "And that crowded bedroom? Only happening in my mind. I'm not sharing you with anyone; I don't care how gorgeous they are." He kissed Gibbs, feeling very territorial all of a sudden. "Besides, you're better looking than all of them combined."
And Tony had thought that before Gibbs had de-aged about twenty years. Now Gibbs turned as many heads as Tony did, who was himself looking very fine these days.
Gibbs prompted another kiss, this one deeper, their bodies pressed close together. "When are they all going to leave?" he growled in Tony's ear.
"I have no idea," Tony gasped back as Gibbs bit his earlobe and then nibbled down his neck. "I don't care. Take me upstairs and fuck me right now." For a moment, Tony almost thought Gibbs would do it, would maybe throw Tony over his shoulder and carry him upstairs, strip him down, and fuck him into the mattress. But then Gibbs pulled away, panting, slowing things down, and that was a fucking shame.
But Gibbs was Gibbs, and Tony wouldn't have him any other way. And this was way too many people around for Gibbs' peace of mind.
"Why is everyone here anyway?" Tony asked. No one ever used to come to Tony's house, or Gibbs' house, or even the cabin, except rare visits from the team. But now that they had their new house, people were there every day. Clint, Phil, Natasha, and quite a few other agents from their new employer were there daily, splitting their time between guard duty and drilling with the animals. Phil wanted a cadre of agents who could work with Tony and not be weirded out by thousands of spiders or wasps or birds or rats or whatever creature Tony thought could get a specific job done. Tony understood that, but he wanted more downtime with Gibbs.
"Yoo hoo! Jethro!"
"Oh, save me, Jesus," Tony said.
"Save you?" Gibbs asked, a note of desperation in his voice. "Save me!"
Tony had to smile at that. Dotty, the veterinarian that had helped save Baloo and Raksha, and then overseen their care until they could come home, had set her sights on Gibbs. Nothing they said seemed to dent her optimism that, with time, Gibbs would be hers.
Unfortunately, she was here all the time, because they were building a vet clinic right on the property. Tony had really liked her at first, especially as she had helped save Baloo and Raksha but, if she didn't catch a clue soon, he was siccing the animals on her. It's not that he thought she would take Gibbs away, but Tony didn't want Gibbs even thinking there was a Plan B, if Plan A, meaning Tony, didn't work out.
"Whatever you're thinking," Gibbs told him sharply, "cut it out."
"Oh, there you are," Dotty said, gazing on Gibbs as if he were a Dotty-sized chew toy.
"Dotty," Gibbs said. Tony started to move away but Gibbs grabbed his arm. "Don't leave," he commanded.
"So, Dotty," Tony said, deciding if Gibbs was this desperate, he'd have to say something. "You do understand that Gibbs and I are together, right?"
"I don't mind sharing," she said, beaming at them both. "But that's not why I'm here. I could use some extra hands if you don't mind getting dirty."
Tony couldn't tell if that was innuendo or not. "What's going on?"
"We're putting the shelving in, and I don't want to work Ducky too hard."
And that was the magic word. Both Tony and Gibbs followed her through the kitchen and then through the three car garage, which housed Tony's and Gibbs' cars as well as a new transport vehicle. They'd already used it to go back to the cabin to pick up any animals that wanted to go live on their new property. The truck had been filled with too many animals to count and they'd been brought here and let loose with Tony's blessings. On the other side of the garage, attached via a short glass windowed hallway, was the vet center.
"Tony! Gibbs!" Abby cried happily. She was busy installing all her new equipment that would tell her anything she needed to know about her new charges.
Ten minutes after Tony and Gibbs had asked if she and Ducky were interested in helping out in a veterinary capacity, they'd both been on line looking for classes to take, giving their notices, and walking away from the careers they'd had for years. Tony was thrilled, but it still seemed too good to be true and he hoped they didn't regret it. Tim was still thinking about it, currently working in Cyber Crime, but he was a frequent visitor and Tony hoped it was just a matter of time.
Ducky and Abby now had animal counterparts. Abby had a raccoon who was now her constant companion, while Ducky had his mother's corgis that could now, finally, at least according to them, properly talk to him. Ducky and Abby adored Dotty as well, who had also come on board as the main veterinarian. She'd instantly taken Ducky and Abby under her wing as assistants as if she'd been granted the favor.
It was hard not to like her, even if she did have wandering eyes.
"Hey, Abs," Tony said, moving to where Ducky was measuring, relieving him of the shelf he was balancing under the crook of his arm. Then he took another look at Abby. "Where did all this equipment come from?" There was a very fancy looking refrigerator thing, a centrifuge, at least Tony thought it was a centrifuge, and at least two other hulking pieces of equipment that Abby was fondling.
"Anti-venom," she announced excitedly. "Tony, with your ability to talk to animals, we can make anti-venom."
"Okay," Tony said hesitantly. "Why?"
"Because it's incredibly hard to come by, and people die all the time because they can't get any anti-venom. Do you realize how much good you can do for the world with the stuff you can do?"
"You do get that we're not experimenting on any of them, right?"
"They'll volunteer. Seriously. You can volunteer. You've already been bitten by enough poisonous things that you might have antibodies already running through your veins. How cool would that be?"
Tony blinked at her and leaned the shelving down against the wall. He had a feeling he'd need both his hands for this conversation.
"Of course, you can't have enough for all we'll need, probably, but I've been doing a lot of reading and I understand that sharks make incredible antibodies, but most people can't exactly ask them to help."
All Tony heard in that sentence was sharks. "Sharks?"
"I know!" Abby said, as if she'd never recover from the crushing blow that she couldn't jump in a tank of sharks and commune.
"What are you talking about?" Gibbs said, moving to Tony's side.
Ducky was the one that answered. "I'm afraid Abby's getting a little ahead of herself, acting before discussing this with you."
"And?" Tony prompted.
"It dawned on us that there is a lot of good you can do with this ability of yours besides the obvious, anti-venom being just one among them. It takes almost 70,000 milkings of a snake to produce a pint of snake venom, and if you only have a couple of them, it can take years to produce. But you, Tony, you could go to where the animals abound and simply ask them. It won't hurt them, they just bite something of your choosing."
"Okay," Tony said warily. "So where do the sharks come into the picture?"
Ducky smiled. "I do understand your reticence to make the acquaintance of a great white, but there are many smaller species of sharks that would do. The next step, after acquiring sufficient venom is to inject something with it so that antibodies are made. They often use horses but sharks are superior. I’m sure your new friends could put any number of shark tanks at your disposal for the purposes."
"And it won't make them sick?" Tony asked.
Abby had that look on her face that said she really wanted to lie, but just couldn't. "Well, most of them tolerate it pretty well."
"And the ones that don't?"
"I don't know," she confessed.
Tony tried not to get angry. "See, Abs, I'm not sure you really understand the relationship I have with all these guys."
"I do, I do. I'm sure they'd want to help."
"I'm sure they would too, but just because your child could get anti-venom injected in them and probably survive, and just because he or she would say yes to you because they love you, should you do it?"
She flopped down on the closest chair in despair.
"I believe you owe me twenty dollars," Ducky said kindly to Abby. To Tony he added, "I told her you wouldn't be quite as excited as she was about this."
"Fuck," he muttered. "Abby, you can do this, but you'll inject me with the venom first, so I can see how they'll feel."
Her eyes opened wide in dismay. "No. That's not a good plan."
"And yet that's what you want me to do to my animals?"
"And once they're mine, they're still mine. You do it to me, and if I think someone can handle it, then I'll think about it."
Phil Coulson chose that moment to enter the clinic. "What's going on?" he asked.
"Just out of curiosity," Tony said by way of an answer, "who approved all the crap Abby's been buying?"
Phil took a close look at Tony and then sighed. "She didn't run any of it by you, did she?"
"Nope. I told her I'd be the first one to be injected before she could use anyone else."
"I'm sure Gibbs will be less than pleased with that plan."
"You'd be correct about that," Gibbs said vehemently.
"It needs to be an animal of some bulk," Phil said. "After the injections and the antibodies are made, three to six liters of blood need to be pulled off."
"What?" Tony glared at Abby who shrank back.
Phil continued. "You can't be used, not effectively. I'll get the equipment sent back."
Biting his bottom lip for a moment, Tony said, "Is there really a high need for anti-venom?"
"Yes. But," Phil said, one hand raised to stop any further comments, "I'm not asking you to put any of your charges at risk, not for that. They'll be at risk enough on the missions you'll be running."
Tony nodded. "I'll talk to a couple of them, see what they think. And I guess I'll need to meet some sharks."
"I'll set something up."
Tony had no doubts about that. He was beginning to believe Clint's assertions that there wasn't anything Phil Coulson couldn't make happen.
"We have a mission," Clint told Tony and Gibbs a couple hours later after he hung up the phone.
"Really?" Tony asked, sounding excited.
Gibbs knew Tony had been going a little stir crazy. "What is it?" he asked.
"Search and Rescue," Clint said. "Several earthquakes hit a small town in North Carolina by the Smoky Mountains."
"North Carolina?" Gibbs asked. He couldn't ever remember hearing about earthquakes in North Carolina.
"Not natural," Clint explained, as if reading his mind.
"Why would someone set off earthquakes in North Carolina?" Tony asked.
"That's what we need to find out, and we need to rescue any allies and confine any Hydra agents. But the damage is extensive, and they want your assistance to see who's alive."
"Okay," Tony said. "When do we leave?" There was a sudden sound of a helicopter arriving. "That answers my question."
"I'll go pack a bag," Gibbs said. "You round up the usual suspects." With that Gibbs ran up the stairs to their bedroom and packed a quick bag with basic clothing and toiletries. If they needed more than that, they could pick something up.
He got downstairs to find Tony standing amidst a crowd of humans and animals and Gibbs wondered how the hell they'd all fit on the helicopter. Ten minutes later, he found out how as they crammed in like clowns in a VW bug. The helicopter was equipped with two long benches for passengers. Raksha was on Clint's lap, nearly eclipsing the archer. Both hawks were hanging onto a metal strut on the door under the window. Gibbs had Justin and one of the corgis on his lap. Tony, next to him, had Macavity, even as he was consoling Baloo who wanted to come and was desolate at being left behind. Natasha sat next to Clint, apologizing to Raksha when she accidentally jostled her; a spider was running over and under her hand.
Gibbs had known a lot of lethal women in his time, Ziva among them, but Natasha was in a class all her own. And speaking of Ziva, she climbed in and sat next to Tony.
Phil was trying to extricate himself from Baloo who was giving him a last bear hug, because the bear really liked to hug Phil for some reason Baloo had yet to explain. Clint found it particularly humorous as he always laughed, just like he was now, despite the glares Phil shot at him each and every time including the one being leveled at him right now. Phil patted Baloo, extricated himself, helped Ducky get inside the helicopter and then climbed in to take the co-pilot seat.
"That just never gets old," Clint said, still laughing.
"Shut up," Phil snapped, his ears pink.
"I didn't know you were going to the party," Gibbs said to Ducky who had sat down next to Ziva.
"We're not sure what Tony will be exposed to, animal wise. I'm here to supervise the biting, and to help with any human or animal injuries." An agent put a sizeable first aid kit by Ducky's feet and then slid the door shut, giving a thumbs up sign to the pilot.
Gibbs winced a little at the thought, hoping there wouldn't be a slew of new creatures. He hated watching Tony dealing with too many impressions at once; it still tended to overwhelm him and it brought out all of Gibbs' protective instincts.
"We need to find you a black widow," Tony told Natasha out of the blue, until Gibbs noted that Tony was watching the spider on her hand.
"Please," was all she said, a small dangerous smile on her face.
They stopped to refuel twice but still arrived in North Carolina in record time. Gibbs' legs were stiff and he welcomed the opportunity to stretch them once out of the helicopter. An agent he recognized, even if he couldn't place his name, had two dogs with him. A German Shepherd and a Bloodhound.
"Those for me?" Tony asked.
The man nodded. "If you want them."
It was clear the dogs wanted him. They were whining and straining at the leash, trying to get to Tony. Tony grinned and squatted down near them. "The rules are you bite easy, got it? I'll take the Bloodhound first."
The agent let the Bloodhound go and the dog snuffled up to Tony, his large sad eyes completely belied by his furiously wagging tail. The Shepherd barked loudly.
"Wait," Tony told it. "Sit and be quiet."
The dog sat down immediately. The agent looked impressed.
Tony bared his arm and put it in front of the Bloodhound. "You take a big chunk out of me and we will have words."
Gibbs stood behind Tony, allowing Tony to lean back against his legs. Macavity was already snarling at the Bloodhound, although the dog was completely ignoring the cat. The dog slobbered over Tony's arm and then withdrew leaving behind a small puncture wound. Then the dog slobbered all over Tony's face, trying to climb into his lap, managing to step on Macavity who was all claws and spitting hellfire and Gibbs was afraid the dog was about to get disemboweled. But, instead, Macavity vacated the premises, running to Natasha, who knelt down and patted him, getting his hackles to lie flat. Gibbs thought it was a riot that Macavity liked her best after him and Tony.
"Yeah, yeah," Tony was saying, hugging the Bloodhound tightly. "Hello to you, too."
The German Shepherd politely whined.
"Fine, your turn now." He pushed the Bloodhound off his lap and Tony said, "I'm calling you Hooch. And I know you aren't that kind of dog, but we're still watching Turner and Hooch when we get home. And we're gonna need a bigger helicopter." He gestured for the Shepherd to approach, which it did with a happy yip and a large bound that got it in Tony's space in under a second. "I already met one of your kind," Tony told it, "and it got killed because of me, so I'm sorry about that."
He got a ferocious tongue bath for that. Maybe the Shepherd was happy about it because it gave him the chance to be first. In any case, he took Tony's forearm between his teeth, making Gibbs nervous, and apparently Phil Coulson as well, and then Ducky, as they all quickly made their way over, but Tony just rolled his eyes. "Yes, very tough dog. Bite down now."
The dog did and Tony winced, but it was over in a second and the dog backed away, leaving three small bite marks behind. The dog backed right into Phil who grabbed his collar. The dog growled as if to object, but Tony said, "That's Phil, he's the boss of this mission, so behave."
The dog whined, looking at Tony and then back at Phil. "I don't know," Tony told him, then to Phil, said, "Phil, you seem like you could use a good attack dog now and then. He's offering. Wait, Gibbs, you okay with this?"
"Sure," Gibbs said. It would be nice to have a dog in his menagerie, but there were a thousand breeds, and Gibbs could have his pick. He was thinking a nice Labrador or two, a black and a yellow, or a Golden Retriever.
Phil glanced down at the dog just for a moment, then hunkered down, undoing his cuff buttons, shoving up his shirt and suit jacket sleeves, then placing his bare forearm in front of the dog. "Go for it."
The dog bit Phil much as he'd bit Tony, and Gibbs watched this look of wonder cross Phil's face. Before he could say anything Raksha ran over and bowled the Shepherd over wanting to greet him as he was now part of her smaller family of Clint and Phil.
Gibbs put his hand on the Bloodhound, feeling foolish, but not wanting the dog to feel left out. The dog glanced up at him, tongue lolling, eyes bright with humor and sheer delight at the awesomeness of everything, and Gibbs let his fears slide. These animals, and their absolutely unselfish loving ways were humbling. He let his hand slide to Tony's head, giving himself a second to play with his hair, feeling just as humbled at Tony's love for him as Tony grabbed his hand and kissed it, before climbing to his feet.
Three Humvees were waiting and they all climbed in and headed for their destination.
"So, that was new," Clint said as he cuddled up to Phil. Phil liked to pretend he wasn't into cuddles, but Clint knew better. They had retrieved all survivors in record time, their agents had been sent to the closest base for medical care and the Hydra agents had been remanded into custody. Phil had left behind a crew to dig out the dead bodies and to look for any evidence Hydra might have left on the scene.
Phil snorted. The German Shepherd snorted. He was on the end of their bed, sprawled out, and Clint was very glad they had a king-sized bed, because otherwise one of them would be on the floor. "What's his name, anyway?"
"Tucker," Phil said. "Tony said he knew a Shepherd named Tucker once and liked him. Although it was a toss-up between that and about seven names of German Shepherd dog characters in movies. He just kept tossing them out. I decided to stick with Tucker."
"Tucker," Clint repeated. "Okay. Pretty amazing, right? Being able to talk to them? Having them be able to talk to you?"
"Amazing doesn't even cover it," Phil admitted.
"It's like this whole thing is some kind of magic," Clint said. "I can't believe I'm a part of it." Raksha was also in the room, but she was on the floor, cuddled with Baloo, who had decided to stay with them for the evening. Tony and Gibbs had given them a room to call their own in the large house, and they used it regularly, as much as their own small apartment.
"Tony could make a fortune just doing S&R. That was a kind of magic," Phil mused.
"No shit," Clint said with a short laugh. "We knew where every survivor was in about five minutes."
"You probably timed it, didn't you?"
"I did. It took three minutes and sixteen seconds."
"The more they do, the more danger they'll be in," Clint said. "As word gets out…" Clint shook his head.
"I know." They should probably just move in. Nick Fury had suggested it, understanding how valuable Tony was, and how vulnerable, despite all the animals. Part of the problem was that Tony cared too much. He cared what happened to everyone and that meant Tony had way too many weaknesses.
Phil got that. He had a weakness of his own and he tightened his arms around him, and pulled him in for a long, wet, messy kiss.
"Jesus," Tony said, as he was swamped with the sense of Phil and Clint rutting, coming to him through Raksha, Baloo, and Tucker. He groaned as Gibbs put another finger into him. The animals thoroughly approved of sex between their humans. The good vibes from the participants juiced them up, not in a sex way, which would be very weird, but in this 'fuck-yeah!' sensualist kind of way. It was a good thing the rutting going on with the animals didn't bring on this kind of reaction or Tony would walk around hard as a rock twenty four hours a day.
"More," he gasped, loving having any part of Gibbs inside any part of him. The man was a maestro in bed, and Tony couldn't believe he'd let so many years go by without pushing the issue. Of course, with the wacko de-aging thing, it was sort of like they got to make up for lost time, which was great.
"You sure you want more?" Gibbs asked.
"Yeah, yeah," Tony hissed, "more fingers or your cock, I don't care which." He thought that through. "Well, yeah, I do care, I want to end up with your cock, I just don't care which right now." Tony was on his hands and knees, or more like elbows and knees, ass in the air right where Gibbs had easy access, Tony's face in a pillow, biting it every now and then to keep himself from screaming. Knowing his luck it would bring every animal on the reservation into his room and then the 'fuck-yeah!' vibe would blow his brains out right through his dick.
"I must not be doing something right if you can still get out sentences like that."
"Oh, oh, oh," Tony cried because that was Gibbs' tongue on his ass, and yes, ladies and gentlemen, the talking part of the evening was over. "God, God, God, oh, oh!"
Gibbs laughed a little and Tony didn't even care, because he put that tongue back to good use, getting Tony wet and open and so, so ready for Gibbs to just slide his cock home whenever he fucking got around to it, all the way in, so he could fuck Tony hard and long and make him come his brains out.
And then Gibbs was biting him, right on his ass cheek, hard, marking him, and that could make Tony come right now, had made Tony come before, completely unexpectedly, knowing that he'd have a mark that might as well say property of Jethro Gibbs and that was worth coming about, but he wanted to wait. He wanted to have Gibbs' thick meaty cock inside of him when he came, wanted to hear Gibbs' grunt when Tony came and squeezed his cock, hear Gibbs grunt and shake a little, and then have him go crazy on Tony's ass, stroking in and out, like a Goddamn piston. "God, fuck me right now. Now, please. Get your cock in me."
Gibbs always knew when it was time, when Tony needed it, because the next thing Tony knew Gibbs was in him and bottoming out, his balls against Tony's ass, and then he was going at it, no mercy, just giving it to Tony, and Tony fucking loved it, and through Raksha he could feel Clint loving whatever Phil was doing to him, and it was weird but so fucking erotic to feel that, to know great sex was going on right down the hall;, it was like Clint and Phil were in bed next to them, and Tony could just turn his head and see Phil hammering into Clint's body, like Gibbs was hammering into his, and that was so fucking hot, just the idea of it, that Tony was coming and gasping, his toes curling and body tightening, as his whole fucking body climaxed.
And Gibbs kept fucking him, using him, and that was hot too, and Tony loved to be fucked, and he loved Gibbs, loved him so much, with everything he was, and Gibbs could use him like this all the time, all the fucking time, and even though he wanted to collapse, wanted to melt into the orgasm he'd just had, he kept his position, wanting to let Gibbs do what he wanted, to get what he needed, and then Gibbs was grunting, and losing his rhythm and grabbing Tony's hips really hard, but really great, because Tony liked it when Gibbs forgot himself and grabbed too hard, leaving more marks that said 'Gibbs was here' and 'Gibbs loves Tony' and 'Tony belongs to Gibbs' and it almost made him come again, his tired dick jerking a little.
Gibbs collapsed and bore them both down to the bed, Gibbs smothering Tony, and Tony loved that too, loved having Gibbs in him and over him and all around him, the two of them so entwined it was like they were one person instead of two.
Tony used to hate this part before he had Gibbs in his bed, because after a while, they'd pull apart and things would get awkward and they'd be two people who sort of wanted to not be in the same bed anymore and Tony would get up and leave, or his partner would get up and leave, and then he'd lie in bed physically sated, but lonely and sad.
But with Gibbs, even as he pulled out and rolled to the side, that never happened. Gibbs would yank him close, nowhere near ready to relinquish his hold, would throw a leg over Tony's calves, and an arm across his stomach, and nuzzle his neck and tell him he loved him, and it would make Tony's toes curl again but in happiness that he had this, that he had Gibbs, and he was sure of Gibbs' love for him, and that was the thing that blew his mind the most. That he was sure.
"Can I ask you a weird question?" Gibbs asked him, running a finger around the shell of Tony's ear.
"Always," Tony said, fighting off sleep.
"Could you feel…" There was a pause. "Never mind."
"Phil and Clint?"
"You felt that, too?"
"Oh, yeah," Tony said with a laugh.
"Should we tell them?"
"I bet they felt us, too. Raksha, Baloo, and Tucker are all in their room, and I'm connected to all three of them, and you're connected to Baloo. Plus I think Michelle and Rutger are right outside our windows, and Clint's hooked up with Michelle now, and you're hooked up with Rutger. All very incestuous."
Gibbs buried his face in Tony's neck. "That's embarrassing."
"Why? We didn't see them, we don't know what they were doing; we just know they were having a good time, just like us. It's not like they couldn't tell anyway with the way the headboard was knocking against the wall," Tony added with a snicker.
"I'll bet you were thinking about them being here in bed with us, though, weren't you?" Gibbs asked, poking Tony.
"Just to watch," Tony admitted. "They can have that side of the bed. No one's allowed to touch you but me, remember?" He growled at Gibbs, biting his chin. "If the bed was big enough, I'd have Ziva and Natasha on our other side, so I could watch them."
"You think they're having sex?" Gibbs asked in surprise.
"No, I don't think so, but they could wrestle each other naked."
Gibbs snorted and then started to laugh, and Tony loved it when Gibbs laughed, so he just watched him and smiled.
Phil looked unusually freaked as he hung up the phone. "We have an urgent S&R for you."
Tony furrowed his brow. "What's the deal? You know we'll do it, so what's with the face."
After the unqualified success of their first S&R mission, it seemed like they were searching and rescuing everyone in the entire freaking world. Not that Tony minded, except that the traveling all over the place got a little old. The cool thing was that they had their own plane that Clint generally flew. The bad news was that jet lag was still jet lag no matter how comfortable the plane.
"Let's go," Tony said. "Seriously. Phil. What's wrong? Why aren't we going?"
"They think he's dead," Phil managed to choke out.
"Well, he's not," Tony said. "I don't care what anyone says. Raksha! Raksha!" The wolf came running. "Can you still sense Clint? Would you know if he was dead?"
Raksha's lips turned up as if just the thought was enough to make her go apeshit. Then she yipped ferociously at Tony, the words coming too fast, a combination of 'he is alive, why are you asking, where is he, is he hurt, I will kill all who hurt him'.
"You're sure he's alive?" Tony asked, sort of ignoring her torrent of words.
"Yes, yes, yes. Let's go!" she yipped.
"She says he's alive," Tony reassured Phil, reaching out and grabbing his arm. "She says he's alive, okay? She'd know if he was dead. So he's not dead, so let's go get him. Where is he?"
"Pakistan," Phil said.
"Shit," Tony said. To Raksha he said, "You can't go."
She growled at him.
Tony took her head between his palms. "You can't go. There are too many people and someone will notice you and shoot you. I will bring him back to you, I promise."
Then Baloo was bellowing and racing toward them, wanting to know what the fuss was, why Raksha was so upset, and that got Tucker going, picking up on Phil's emotional see-saw, and in a few seconds it was a cacophony of animal sounds like something out of a zombie zoo.
"What the hell?" Gibbs yelled, running down the stairs, Macavity yowling behind him, Hooch baying at his heels.
"Clint's been taken, we have to rescue him," Tony explained quickly. "Phil's a basket case, understandably," he interjected kindly, "so Tucker's insane, Raksha's pissed as all hell that she can't go on the rescue mission, and that set Baloo off. Macavity's always pissed off, and I have no idea why Hooch is making such a ruckus, so shut up, all of you!" Tony ended with a yell.
Gibbs put his hand on Phil's shoulder. "What do we know?"
"A helicopter's on its way here. Clint was doing recon outside of Islamabad, as there've been reports of new terrorist camps in the area possibly working in concert with Hydra. He was with a team of four plus a handler. The team handler was found dead along with two members of the team. That leaves Clint and Agent Toller unaccounted for. Best case scenario, they're both alive and being tortured, worst case scenario, they're dead, but Raksha says he's not."
"Why can't Raksha go?" Gibbs asked.
Tony opened his mouth, then shut it. "You think it's safe for her?"
"It's not like she's a regular wolf," Gibbs said. "She'll think like a human and do what you tell her. Right?" he asked Raksha.
Her exaggerated nod almost got Phil to smile.
"Raksha, I stand corrected. You can go. Tucker, you're going too. And no, Baloo, and I'm sorry it sucks, but you can't go. I'm leaving you in charge here, okay? Where's Justin, he's going too. Abby?"
Abby had already been on the way in, laptop in her arms. "Pakistan, I heard. Scorpions, camel spiders, cobras, vipers, lots of snakes."
"Awesome," Tony said. "Ducky?"
"Coming," Ducky said, bringing the first aid kit, Tyler, one of his corgis was running behind him on his short stubby legs. "Ironically, I have no anti-venom, Anthony, so please insist on venom-less bites if possible."
"And we're back to the anti-venom," Tony griped. "Okay, Phil, who and what else do we need?"
"Me," Natasha said.
"And me," Ziva added.
"I'd be happy to go," Ducky said.
Gibbs shook his head, "We're not taking you to Pakistan, Duck." He grabbed the first aid kit from Ducky.
Phil answered by picking up his phone and making arrangements, so Tony got everyone ready, supplies included and when the helicopter arrived, they were on it and away from the house minutes after its arrival.
"Toller," Clint hissed. "Can you hear me?"
All that answered was this palpable silence that felt as oppressive as bombs exploding. It was fucking freezing, Clint's ankle was either broken or twisted so bad it didn't matter, because walking was out of the question. Toller had been talking a while ago, in between groans, but he'd gone ominously silent.
They were in cells, and Clint could only wish for Tony, Baloo, and Raksha to be cuddled up next to him. Instead, he was by himself, next to the cell they put Toller in. He reached into Toller's cell, trying to find him, but what little light there was wasn't sufficient to help him in even identifying where in the cell Toller was, other than not within arm's length.
"Fuck," Clint said, shivering. He wondered if Phil even knew he was gone yet. Wondered if the Amazing Traveling Show of Tony DiNozzo was on its way, because they would be, Clint knew that. He just wasn't sure if Phil knew. He also didn't know if he'd be alive long enough for Tony to get here. He'd gotten out of the last session with just a fucked up ankle and a few aches from some punches and knew he'd gotten off easy.
They'd wanted him to record a script he was provided, but Clint had resisted. Maybe he shouldn't. Maybe he should read it, because that way for sure Phil would find out. Of course, after he read it, they might just kill him, so saying no might keep him alive longer.
"Toller?" he tried again. They'd taken Toller this last time, and Clint needed to know what they knew. Had Toller told them they worked for the Strategic Homeland Division? Had Toller told them their names? Was Hydra here? Did they know about Tony? Had he been taken to get Tony here? Jesus, he hoped not, because it wouldn't stop Tony from coming.
That got a groan.
Still alive. That was good. Clint pressed against the bars. "Toller, did you say anything? It's okay if you did; I just need to know what it was." It wasn't okay, but he was afraid Toller wouldn't confess if he thought Clint might punch him in the face.
Fuck. Jesus, he was thirsty. He wished he was in bed with Phil, having that freaky sex thing with the pervert down the hall. Who knew having all those animals in his room when he and Phil were getting it on would connect them all up somehow. Breakfast the next day had been a little awkward, and it would have stayed that way if Tony wasn't such a goofball. He and Phil had been regaled with the story of Baloo breaking their bed because he wanted in on the good vibes, which had him and Phil gasping for breath they were laughing so hard.
He liked Tony. A lot. And he wished he'd get his freaking weird self here and get Clint out of this hell hole. A door opened down the hall and there were the sounds of footsteps approaching. "Shit," Clint said under his breath as they came for him.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Tony said in horror as a nightmare inducing line of insects headed his way.
Tucker barked loudly at the line which marched determinedly toward Tony, a line composed of camel spiders as big as his head, and these large wicked looking black scorpions and then some even blacker scorpions, then brown ones and beige ones, and he was having nightmares tonight without a doubt.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Gibbs asked dubiously, crouching next to Tony, which Tony thought was an indication of how much Gibbs actually did love him because he wasn’t running in the other direction.
“No, it is not,” Ziva said firmly. “Tony, a bite from several of these insects can be deadly, let alone all of them. She pointed at one particularly scary scorpion. "That is an Androctonus Scorpion and it can kill a grown man in minutes. Its nickname is fat-tailed man-killer."
Natasha was pacing, looking as deadly as the line of insects, and even she was giving them a concerned eye.
“Nothing’s killed me yet,” Tony said guardedly. “And I heal fast.” He wasn’t looking forward to the tattoos, though. Especially the camel spiders. Holy Jesus, those things were big. “And I've been bitten by a ton of spiders. But, just to be sure…” He dug his fingers back in the ground and called for the creatures he already knew, the rats and mice, the spiders and other insects of his acquaintance that inhabited this part of the world, including mosquitoes and wasps, and he called the birds, and he told them the best he could, as clearly as he could, while mentally sending pictures of Clint to help them find him. He coupled that message with a sense of urgency and sent it off.
He could see Raksha quivering at the message, as if it had been sent to her directly, and she wanted to “Go, go, go!” right now. Tucker was whining, pulling on his leash, almost knocking Phil off his feet. He was no doubt picking up Phil’s sense of dread and his desperate need to find Clint, on top of receiving the message Tony was sending out.
“Better give me some antihistamines,” Tony said. “Maybe it will help.” He didn’t think so, but anything that gave him an edge would be good.
An agent pulled the first aid kit from the jeep they’d arrived in and opened the zippered case Ducky had labeled, “Diphenhydramine”. He withdrew a syringe while Tony took off his coat and pushed up the sleeve of his Henley. It was freezing. Well, probably not freezing, but the fact that it was night wasn’t helping, and Tony bet it wasn’t any warmer than the mid forties. The agent put a tourniquet around his arm and waited for a vein to plump up. When it did, he cleaned it efficiently with an alcohol wipe and injected the contents of the syringe slowly into Tony’s arm.
Knowing it would probably knock him out unless there was a good reason to stay awake, Tony didn’t waste any time. “One of those big ass camel spiders first.” Spiders always felt weird in his head, and this was no exception, except more of it, because they were bigger. He didn't know if they were any smarter than your average spider, but its brain had to be bigger, at least he guessed so.
"Spider camels have no venom," Ziva said, "but they leave a nasty bite behind."
"Please keep the bite as non-nasty as you can," he told the camel spider who had come when he called, clearly chosen to represent all of camel spider-dom. He held out his arm and grimaced as the spider crawled into his hand and then proceeded to bite him on the base of his thumb.
"Ow," Tony complained. "I can already see you and Macavity will be best buddies." Macavity shot him a look saying he totally didn't agree. Tony was impressed the cat hadn't gone running. He was impressed everyone hadn't gone running. There had to be the entire camel spider and scorpion nations out there, and they would have made any horror sci-fi movie director cream his pants. "I hope someone is getting pictures. A good one would go viral in minutes. We could make some cash."
Gibbs lightly smacked him on the back of the head, but it lacked any intent. He glanced up at Gibbs who was still crouching behind him to the left. "This one could make me sick, Boss."
"So don't do it," Gibbs suggested.
The agent was swiping off the bite mark from the camel spider and putting a bandage on it. He got a big gold star because several camel spiders were climbing all over him, clearly thinking any friend of Tony's was a family member. The agent paid no attention. "One of yours, Phil?"
"Yes," Phil said tightly.
Right. There was a reason they were doing this. Tony closed his eyes and sent the spiders off in search of Clint. Not just to find but to protect. To help. He sent that out to everyone who had already received the previous message. Help. Protect. His head was full of a humming of mission, of a rock-solid determination. Tony glanced up at Phil. "They'll find him. I have no doubt. None. And they'll protect him."
Phil nodded briefly, his eyes shadowed. Tony thought Phil believed him, but believing and having Clint back where he could be hugging the shit out of him were two very different things. If they had Gibbs, Tony would be flipping out. He looked at the scorpions, at one of the ones Ziva had pointed out. Then he glanced at the hundreds that stood behind it. They could help Clint. They could sting the bejesus out of anyone hurting him. "Hey, hey, I need a picture of Toller. I'm not sure I remember who he is."
Phil pulled a picture out of a file and handed it to Tony. Tony closed his eyes and projected the picture of this man along to the masses. "Find him too, protect him too."
Tony rubbed his fingers together, apprehensive. "You guys can't kill me, right?"
He didn't get much back from the insect in front of him, its deadly curled tail curving over its metal plated body.
"Where's Archimedes when I need him. Hey, all you animals, can I die from a bite?"
"Not intentionally," Justin told him.
"Great," Tony said dryly. "How many people have died from bites? Do you know?"
"Did he say yes?" Gibbs asked incredulously.
"No, he said not on purpose."
"Forget it, Tony. There are enough things out there looking for them, I'm not risking you dying."
"Don't get offended," he told the scorpion, "but I'm just trying to get the facts." To Justin he asked, in his mind, "What happens if I say no?"
"I do not know," the rat said, climbing onto his lap.
"Because this whole system is sort of set up to fail, so I don't have a lot of faith that I'm well-protected. My bites and stuff take a few hours to go away, but if this guy can kill a man in a few minutes, maybe that's not enough time."
"I’m sorry, but I don't know," Justin said again, clearly bothered that he couldn't answer Tony's question.
"But you think I should do it?" Tony asked out loud.
"You called them."
"Fuck," Tony said, taking a moment and patting Justin. "Be kind of rude, then?"
"Worth me dying over?"
Gibbs let out a very unhappy sound at that question.
Justin didn't answer that question, and Tony knew it was because Justin had faith in the system, not that he wouldn't care if Tony bought the big one; they all would. It was just that Justin believed in the magic fiercely, as did all the rats. It was weird. Well, the rats and the owls, and the hawks, and Baloo, and Raksha, okay, they all believed in it, except maybe Macavity. He looked down at Macavity. "What do you think?"
"Tony," Phil said. "Don't do this. You already have enough animals looking for them."
"We need a weapon, Phil. We need something that can mount an attack. Look at these guys. Wouldn't you go running if you saw them, leave whatever project you had brewing to protect yourself?"
"And you don't think Clint would run, too?"
"He'll figure it out. He might freak at first, but come on, you know he's gonna know it's me."
With that, before anyone could stop him, Tony put his hand out and the scorpion's tail embedded itself into Tony's hand before withdrawing. "Go," he commanded them. "Go, find, protect." He sent pictures again in his mind, hoping like hell they could process a picture in their minds, or maybe they picked up something else, like the sense of what Clint was to him, or his smell, or something. Tony was really counting on the magic this time. Tony's mind was filled with a sense of fervor, similar to the wasps. "Like a holy crusade," Tony mused, looking down at his hand which was really red and puffy. "Wow, that was fast."
The agent put the tourniquet back on. "Just trying to slow down its pace, give you time to heal," he said. He started an IV in Tony's other arm.
"You're good at this," Tony said. "What's your name?" Tony's chest felt tight and he coughed a little.
"Agent Blake, sir,"
Tony laughed and then coughed again. "Do not call me sir. That's just weird." He put a hand on his chest. "Okay, I'm having some trouble breathing here." His breath was suddenly raspy.
"Damn it, Tony," Gibbs growled, helping him lean back against him, cradling Tony's body against his chest.
"I think I should put in an airway," Blake said. "Just to be sure."
"Do it," Gibbs said.
Tony felt as if his heart was going to pound out of his chest. He felt lightheaded and the band around his chest grew tighter, making it harder to draw a breath. He heard a triumphant shriek from Michelle. "They found him!" Tony gasped. "They found him!" and then he was being laid flat on his back, and his vision grew tight as if he were looking down into a long tunnel, and then it went black.
Clint groaned as they tossed him back in his cell, letting out an involuntary cry as he landed on his left hip where they'd burned him, and then another as he rolled onto his back where they'd whipped him. "Fuck, fuck," he said, trying to move, to grope his way to sitting, because his ass, thank glorious fuck, was the one part of him they hadn't fucked with.
If his ankle hadn't been broken before, it sure as hell was now. His shoulder was killing him; they'd done something to fuck it up. He could barely open his left eye; in fact the entire left side of his face felt like it was ten times its usual side, exquisitely painful causing constant tears in his eyes.
No questions this time, just angry men using him as an outlet for their rage. Not even a request to read a speech, nothing.
At least Toller wasn't dead. That was a good thing. "Yeah," was all he managed to get out. Jesus fuck, he hurt.
That was when he heard the scrabbling.
"Jesus," Toller yelled, and there was a frantic sound of someone moving their body very quickly, like propelling himself from one side of his cell to the other. "Jesus, what is it?"
Clint had no idea, but he was willing to bet whatever it was, it was friendly. "Don't hurt anything," he managed to say, his mouth feeling lopsided like he'd been given some serious Novocain but without the pain relief. "It's friendly."
"What?" Toller yelled. "Are you fucking kidding me? They're spiders, freaking huge ones. Get them off of me, fuck!"
"Toller," Clint yelled right back. "Ow, fuck, sit down! They won't hurt you." And that was when they got to him, crawling all over him, which was very disconcerting, but none of them were biting him. And that was also when the rats arrived, and the snakes, and god knows what else. They crawled all over Clint, trying, in their very odd way, to convey a sense of reassurance.
"They're here to find us," Clint told Toller; there was no other explanation for the sudden influx of company. "They're from Tony, you know, the animal guy."
"You mean the Beast Master?"
That was Tony's nickname back on base. "Yeah. Just stay still." Clint actually felt warmer with all of them on him. He closed his eyes and waited for what came next. Tony would know soon that they'd been found. "Ow, fuck," he told whatever creature had just crawled on his shoulder. "Not the shoulder," he gasped. "Not the face."
Amazingly, they kept clear of his shoulder and his face. Despite the pain and the hunger and thirst, and being kept prisoner in some shit-hole cage with sadists as the prison wardens, Clint couldn't help grinning, even if it made his face hurt like hell. He reached out mentally for Raksha, wondering if she was close enough to sense, if Tony had even brought her, and then there she was in his mind, frantic for him, loving him, telling him they were coming, but behind it all was a desperate worry for Tony, like something had gone FUBAR, and Clint's belly knotted.
There was a sudden light as a door flung open along with the sounds of several of their guards yelling in angry Urdu. Clint saw two heading his and Toller's way, pissed off and loaded for bear, and Clint thought this was it; that, despite Tony's best efforts, they'd be too late. For that brief second, all he wanted, more than anything, was to be curled in bed with Phil, with Tony and Gibbs down the hall, and all the animals scattered about dreaming their animal dreams, their pleasure seeping through the house and into his mind.
The guard was aiming his gun at Clint's head through the bars when the scorpions struck. Hundreds of them dropped from the ceiling in the hallway, barely landing before the guards were cursing and screaming, frantically scraping them away and getting stung for their efforts, and then more guards were coming, and the scorpions were relentless and anyone who was still alive was running, limping, crashing into walls, only to fall to the ground clawing at their chests, laboring for breath, and then going still.
Then, in a move that put a lump in Clint's throat, the scorpions climbed all over the bars to their cells and stayed there, sentries in protective mode, ready to take on anything and anybody who came after them.
"Holy shit," Toller said, in a voice that sounded as if he'd just seen the face of God. "Holy shit. Holy shit. Did you see that? Holy shit. Ho-ly shee-it."
Clint looked around their cells now that there was some light and snickered at the sight. They were awash in rats and mice and spiders and beetles and wasps and snakes; the two of them sitting in a flowing river of creatures come to find them. "So, did one of you let Tony know where we are?" Clint asked exhaustedly, pushing a rat off his injured ankle.
"We are here!" Raksha said in his head. "We are here!"
"They're here," Clint told Toller.
"How do you know that?"
Clint let out a soundless laugh; not sure how to tell Toller. The fact that the animals could impress with other people was a need to know fact. "Just wait." To Raksha he said, "What happened to Tony?"
"The black ones made him sick." She projected a picture of one of the scorpions guarding their cell.
"I do not know. Gibbs sent us with Phil to find you. Gibbs is with Tony. You are hurt!"
"Yeah, I am, but I'm alive."
Raksha sent a flash of joy about that, and he heard running footsteps, and then there was Phil, observing him through narrowed eyes as if he could ascertain all of Clint's injuries with a visual scan. "Move," he said to the scorpions.
They didn't move.
Phil sighed. "Shit." Then he yelled, "Tucker!"
Tucker and Raksha careened around the corner, bouncing off the walls in their haste to get to Clint and Phil. They both pulled up short at the sight of the defensive scorpions. Phil touched Tucker's head between his ears. "Can you talk to them?"
Tucker shot Phil a look that essentially said, "Are you fucking crazy?" and Clint let out a laugh, even as he grabbed his side and his shoulder and his everything because it fucking hurt to move.
Tucker, Raksha, and even Justin did their best, but the scorpions wouldn't budge.
"I'm guessing they didn't sting anyone else?" Clint asked wearily. "I could really use some water."
Phil pulled out a bottle of water and eyed the scorpions. "May I?" he asked, holding the bottle up.
The scorpions didn't move. Phil made as if to put his hand through the bar but Clint hissed out, "Don't you dare. I'm not that thirsty. How bad is Tony?"
"They were bagging him through an airway," Phil said grimly.
"Could he die?" Clint almost squeaked out. "I'm not worth him dying. Jesus, Phil, why'd you let him do that?"
"Shut the fuck up, Barton, and he didn't give us any choice, he just grabbed one. Idiot."
Raksha let out a sudden happy bark, her tail wagging, and then Gibbs came around the corner, an arm around Tony's shoulder as he staggered a little, but mostly able to walk under his own power.
"Hey!" Clint said, very glad to see him, especially as he wasn't sure how much longer he was going to stay conscious, and he really wanted Phil to be closer.
"Scoot," Tony told the scorpions with an uncoordinated hand movement, taking the keys Phil handed him to unlock the door. The scorpions didn't move far, and a couple of them used the opportunity to crawl onto Tony, but he ignored them. "Wow," he said, looking down. "Gotta move, you guys, I don't want to step on anyone, and I'm not too steady on my feet right now. But hey, thanks. Really. You guys are the best."
Either they left after getting their thanks or they managed to squish themselves to the walls, because the center of both cells was suddenly clear. Tony stumbled and almost fell, but Gibbs was right there to assist him to the floor. Agent Blake was in there a second after him, checking out Clint, while Phil unlocked the cell holding Toller.
"Can I pass out now?" Clint asked once Phil was back. Natasha and Ziva were helping Toller.
"Yeah," Phil said, as he crouched down, putting a hand carefully on the top of Clint's head, as he sat down behind him. "I've got you." That was good enough for Clint. He managed to say thanks to Tony, get a kind grin in return, and then he leaned back against Phil, ignoring the pain this time, because it was Phil behind him and that was worth some pain, and he let go.
"Hey! It lives!" Tony said to Clint when he finally opened his eyes.
"That should be my line," Clint grumped.
"Hold on," Tony said, getting off the bed he'd been sitting on and, using the button on Clint's bed, adjusted the head up so Clint was in a more upright position.
"Whoa," Clint said when he caught sight of one of the scorpions. He hadn't realized they were so frigging big. The thing was like five inches long, and it was sitting on his bedside table clicking its pincer things at him.
"He's saying hello," Tony said.
"He is?" Clint asked doubtfully.
"No. He's probably telling you to fuck off. That's pretty much their attitude about everything, sort of a 'fuck off' vibe. I guess when you're five inches of sudden death, you can get away with it."
Clint looked dubiously at the black monstrosity, trying to ignore the deep seated need to inch away. These things had saved his life and now they were part of the menagerie. "Where are we anyway?"
"We," Tony said with a mad grin, "are on a helicarrier. I mean, it's like a freakin' Navy carrier, but in the sky, with mirrors, so no one can see it. How James Bond cool is that?"
"Very cool. I have quarters in one of them, you know," he said smugly. "Maybe this one."
"You lived on one of these things?" Tony squeaked. "I'm so jealous."
"Fury would probably give you one if you wanted one," Clint told him. "A helicarrier, I mean. He'd definitely give you a room." He lifted his head. "Is that Gibbs lying in that bed?"
"Yeah," Tony said, lips tightening, sitting back down on the edge of Gibbs' bed. "That is Gibbs recovering from his own scorpion sting."
Clint's eyebrows rose high on his head in disbelief. "They stung him? After they bonded with you?"
"And why are they still around then?" Clint asked, frowning at the scorpion clacking at him from his bedside table. "Why didn't you renounce them like you did Macavity?" There was a very loud yowl from behind Tony and Clint reared back. "Shit, I didn't know he was in the room."
Tony's head fell back and he laughed out loud.
"Sorry, Macavity," Clint said nervously. "Just remember, your name will go down in infamy because of how you started and the high position you now and will, forever, hold."
Tony glanced over at Macavity to see if the cat chose to be mollified by Clint's words or hold a grudge. In a few seconds he went back to licking his paws.
"Nice sucking up," Tony said to Clint. "If he was going to hold a grudge he'd be licking his ass right now."
Clint sagged back on the bed as if there could be little worse in life than to have a foot long cat as his arch-nemesis.
Tony patted Macavity, whispering, "You still got it."
Macavity pushed his head against Tony's hand, looking very pleased with himself.
"Why aren't the scorpions toast?" Clint prodded.
"Because they didn't do it, Gibbs did it. While I lay in a hospital bed, this hospital bed, fast asleep recovering from the whole Pakistan thing, which included a few more scorpion stings, but from ones much less venomous, Gibbs decided he didn't like it that the scorpions, one of the most deadly allies we now have in our arsenal, only answered to me. If I'd been too sick to move, you'd still be in that cell. So he told this one to sting him; he's the one that bit me."
"And he did?"
"No, he didn't. He knew who he was to me, they always seem to know, and he wouldn't do it, at least according to Phil. I wasn't there for any of this. But then Gibbs yelled at him. A lot. And this little guy might be called a man-killer," Tony said, giving it a baleful eye, "but he's scared of Gibbs."
Clint snickered. The scorpion spun around to face Clint, then back at Tony, clicking his pincers angrily.
"He doesn't like being mocked," Tony said, "but it's true," he snapped at the scorpion. "You could have killed him!"
The scorpion scuttled backwards almost falling off the bedside table. Clint got a hand up before thinking about it to keep him from skidding right off the thing. He held his breath for a second awaiting a sting, but the scorpion seemed to curl his tail in tighter, as if to make sure he didn't sting anyone.
"Apparently, stinging is not in their nature, despite all the fables," Tony said to Clint, "as they are very good at not stinging anything they're not supposed to, which means," he added forcefully, now speaking to the scorpion, "you totally knew what you were doing when you stung Gibbs."
"He obviously did okay, though," Clint said, as the scorpion scuttled off his hand and back onto the bedside table. "Right?"
"Yeah. He was smarter than I was and had a team standing by to deal with the sting. Turns out he's almost as fast as me throwing off the poison. We're thinking it's because so many of the animals have bitten him at this point. By the way, there are eight of them around here so be careful where you step. I told them to keep off the blankets. Macavity is so pissed about it. He thinks a new mob boss has moved into his territory."
Macavity hissed at that.
"Don't give me that," Tony said, "if you were a little black arachnid, this is totally what you'd be. And if you worked together, you'd be like Pinky and the Brain, trying to take over the world. And oops, I probably shouldn't have even said anything. We're going to wake up one day and Macavity will be our Overlord."
Clint grinned at that, although he checked to make sure Macavity wasn't watching him. "Did you name him?"
"Rock," Tony said with a snicker. "We all watched the Scorpion King a little while ago."
"Don't take this the wrong way, because Phil is it for me, but I freaking love you," Clint said, laughing.
Tony beamed at him, really loving him, too, not like he loved Gibbs, not by a long shot, but like family, and for the first time in his life he had a family like family was supposed to be, and that was so awesome it took Tony's breath away.
"That better not be the wrong way," Gibbs growled from behind him, sounding almost as menacing as Macavity.
Tony shifted to look down at Gibbs. "I’m still not talking to you."
Gibbs rolled his eyes. "Someone else needed to be able to control them, Tony, get over it."
Phil was standing in the doorway. "I agree with Gibbs that that better not be the wrong way." He strode over to Clint's bed and sat down, drawing the man into a careful hug. "Jesus, Clint."
Tucker had come in with him, followed by Raksha and, Jesus Christ, Tony thought, Baloo. "Baloo!" Tony said happily, wondering how the hell they'd gotten him up to the helicarrier, but then he was being hugged, and then Gibbs was being hugged, and then Phil was being hugged, and then Phil was keeping him from hugging Clint.
And then the room got crowded with Ziva and Tim, the people versions, and Ducky and Abby, and the hawks, and Justin came out from where he'd been sleeping against Gibbs' neck to join in the festivities, and Natasha and several other agents joined in, including Blake and Sitwell, and then Nick Fury and some hot chick called Maria Hill came in, and Tony laced his fingers through Gibbs' and allowed the sense of family, no matter how crazy, surround him.