A few weeks later
Panicking just wasn't an option. Not in Gibbs' book. Now adrenaline, on the other hand, was often a necessity, as today had proven. He very much doubted that any of them, himself included, would currently even be able to stay upright in their seats without some remnants still pumping through their veins.
The coffee also didn't hurt. It wasn't as bad as Gibbs had been expecting, either, when McGee had volunteered to go get them all some caffeine. Gibbs had vague recollections of a jittery McGee saying something about finding one of those specialty coffee machines. Surprisingly, it yielded a pretty good cup, even by his standards. A bit weak, but it actually had a decent flavor.
Gibbs took another sip—not small enough. It burnt his tongue, causing him to swallow reflexively, and the hot liquid seared down his throat to settle a little too hotly in his stomach. The physical warmth did nothing to thaw the untouchable, cold knot in his gut.
He'd seen relief flood the faces of McGee, Ziva, and Abby when the doctor brought them the news that Tony would be all right. The preliminary examination of the bullet wound found it to be, though serious, not life-threatening. Through-and-through, the doctor had said. No arteries hit. The doctor had been young-looking enough to have just gotten out of residency, but Gibbs' critical stare found a forthright set of eyes which calmly, if wearily, met his own. There wasn't some grim stipulation they were holding back with, waiting to break gently to DiNozzo's next of kin.
No, Tony was going to be fine. Gibbs never would have been able to convince the rest of his team to go catch a few hours of sleep unless they, too, believed the same. He hadn't been able to convince Abby, even so. She'd sat in almost complete silence next to him up until five minutes ago, and had only left then to grab them some fast food. When she got back he would be eating some of it because "Apparently Tony's not the only one who needs a keeper"—that had come complete with a no-nonsense dose of Abby disapproval.
He could tell by the concern that had been radiating off her in all but visible waves that she wouldn't be gone for long. Concern for him, of all people, when Tony was the one in the hospital.
Setting his still half-full cup down next to the magazines that littered the table beside him, he leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees, massaging his temples with the tips of his fingers. It was supposed to have been a secured crime scene. A routine, tedious morning of examination. How had it turned into a battlefield so quickly?
Sandburg would probably have had a good explanation for all the panic and rage that had crashed over him the moment Tony jerked back as a bullet slammed into him. He'd have said something about it being Gibbs' instincts as a Guide that had made him want to go ballistic. He hadn't gone ballistic, though. Not quite. By the time Gibbs had finished pulling McGee down out of the shooter's view, and his glance around informed him that Ziva was crouched behind a nearby car, he'd expected to find Tony sprawled and bleeding out. He'd been bleeding all right. Bleeding, and he'd just kept on moving, trying to stay upright, even after the following flurry of activity as backup was called in and the rogue marine had been subdued. In the end Gibbs had physically grabbed him and yelled sense into him: "DiNozzo—Tony! You're. Shot." Tony had looked down at his fingers, clutching his shoulder where the bullet had hit him, and where blood had been seeping out, the red stark against his dress shirt. When he looked back up he'd blinked slowly once, and Gibbs could see the moment the pain hit him—it was as if in a split second he'd tapped into his body's demands. As if he hadn't even been aware a moment before.
So much for Sandburg's insistence that Gibbs would just know what to do in situations like this. He hadn't felt some magical instinct kick in. If anything, knowing that Tony's senses could go haywire on him had made him feel more uncertain than he could remember feeling in a long time. He'd been plunged into a realm in which he felt entirely inadequate. Yeah, Tony would insist until his dying breath that he trusted Gibbs implicitly. That was kinda the problem. He knew DiNozzo would look at any backing off on Gibbs' part as somehow a sign that he himself had messed up—the kid had an insecure streak a mile wide—but for Tony's own sake Gibbs was beginning to consider doing just that.
After Sandburg and Ellison had left to return home Gibbs had been doing his best to figure out how to do his part as Guide. But how was he supposed to know if he was "getting" it or not? The only model of success he had to go by was Sandburg and Ellison. One thing was for sure, he was never going to relate to Tony in the same caring-and-sharing way Sandburg related to "his" Sentinel. Yeah, that wasn't going to fly, not for either of them.
And that left Tony where, exactly? With a defective Guide who didn't know how to guide? Sandburg seemed to have the same certainty in Gibbs' ability to do this as Tony did. Gibbs wasn't half as sure fate had worked out so conveniently.
But Gibbs had made a commitment to try this thing if Tony would, and he couldn't very well just tell Tony "Sorry it didn't work out" and, "How about you try finding another Guide that'll work out better for you, huh?" Sure, just put an ad in the paper and some Guide out of work was bound to pop up somewhere.
He couldn't help but consider Abby: her compassion, her gregarious personality, her fondness for Tony. Sandburg actually reminded him a little of her. But, even aside from the utter impracticality of their different jobs, Gibbs could also just imagine what she'd have to say if he mentioned abandoning Tony, or trying to shove him off on someone else, like an unwanted pet. That was something even Abby, with her big heart, and Gibbs-can-do-no-wrong mentality, might look upon as unforgivable.
Sitting back and resting his hands on his thighs, he felt the outline of his cell in his pocket. It brought to mind something that Sandburg had said before he left: "Your friendly Guide information center—that's me, man. Open twenty-four/seven. If it's three in the morning I can't guarantee I'll be giving the soundest counsel, but don't hesitate to call if you've got a question."
A glance at his watch told him that, far from being three in the morning, it was only approaching a quarter to six, PM. And where, exactly was all this leading? Even with plenty of jibes rising to mind, and part of him incredulous over his own actions, he found himself bringing out his cell and finding the anthropologist's number. He pressed call.
"You've got to be kidding me…" Gibbs muttered to himself—at himself—even as the call was picked up, and Sandburg's voice answered. Far be it from Gibbs to turn coward this late in life. Especially over a phone call. "Sandburg," he barked, and just in case the kid wasn't quite as good as his own people at guessing in one who the succinct voice belonged to, he added generously, "Gibbs."
"Hey, good to hear from you. You're not big on e-mail, are you?"
"This a bad time?"
"A bad time?" Blair repeated blankly.
Gibbs had to smile a little. Sandburg was a good reader of personalities, and it was obvious he'd guessed Gibbs wasn't normally the type to go through the niceties of asking if he'd caught someone at a good time. And he was right, Gibbs wasn't. However, Gibbs might just have taken a no from Blair as an excuse, however thin and cowardly, to hang up and brush things off until "later."
Blair regrouped quickly, but he did sound a little flustered. "Oh, nah, it's not a bad time." He gave a nervous laugh that reminded Gibbs a little of McGee. "Jim just got back from a stakeout he was on, and let's just say our housekeeping differences are having some trouble getting ah…reacquainted." In the pause Gibbs heard some clattering noises and some words that brought back fond memories of his time in the Corp.
Gibbs raised an eyebrow, voice dry: "You sure it's a good time, Sandburg?"
Another transparently nervous laugh. "Yeah, positive. Couldn't have called at a better time. I'll just…step out of the room, give Jim some space." A brief pause as he, presumably, gave his Sentinel some breathing room. "What's up?"
"Tony's been shot."
Blair flipped the switch from cheerful to outraged, much in the same way Gibbs had heard Abby "flip" many times. "Shot? Why didn't you say so, man, instead of letting me go on and on? How bad is it?"
"Doctor's already said he's going to be all right."
A heavy exhalation of breath filled the line, and then, "How bad was it? I mean, was he having trouble functioning with the pain?"
"I don't think he noticed he was shot until ten minutes after the fact," Gibbs said simply.
He could hear the sympathy all but rolling off Sandburg in waves. "Man, that sucks. Freaked me out big time the first time that happened to Jim. Shock can only account for so much when you've got a knife sticking out of your shoulder…If Jim's anything to go by, Sentinels do tend to tune out their own bodies completely when there's a threat to 'their' people until they're sure their job is over." With a wince in his voice, he repeated, "That's really freaky to watch."
"Freaky" was an understatement, but Blair's voice said he really did understand exactly how beyond freaky it was.
Gibbs only grunted a, "Yeah." He didn't like to second-guess actions already in the past. But this wasn't your typical situation—and yet it was a situation likely to recur. Especially since he was, supposedly, part of the solution to what had gone wrong. Even after he'd brought Tony back and in-tune with the needs of his own body, he still hadn't been able to get Tony to turn the "dials" down. Not fast enough. As bad as seeing Tony not acknowledging a wound had been, the alternative wasn't pleasant for either of them.
"YeahBoss?"The two words slurred together even more than usual, as Tony pushed himself up. He gave a sloppy salute, trying to brush off a frowning paramedic who was trying to get a look at the source of the blood saturating his jacket. "M'good, really, don't feel…" Tony stumbled a bit, almost falling, and Gibbs reached out to steady him, and finding himself suddenly bearing most of Tony's weight. Now looking dazed and less certain, Tony looked from Gibbs' face to that of the paramedic, and frowned.
"You're shot, Tony," Gibbs said under his breath. "Just take my word for it."
"Oh…yeah?" Tony not-whispered, frown deepening. He mumbled, "Well, must've just clipped me, it doesn't really hurt—"
Gibbs wasn't clear on exactly what had slipped out in response to that, but he knew whatever it had been he'd peppered it good with some strong language. He was worried, and he didn't know how bad it was, because DiNozzo, for all his apparent incomprehension, was clutching his shoulder as if, even though his mind was choosing not to register feeling, his body knew it was there. Tony'd blinked owlishly at him, and more softly—for Sentinels' ears only—he'd said, "Tony, let it go." Stop jerking those dials down hard enough to break 'em off. Relax. "Trust me."
And Tony had.
The shocked look of pain finally realized, and accompanying strangled gasp, that he'd gotten from his Sentinel when he'd been helped back into awareness—that was definitely going to haunt him for some time to come. Thank God for painkillers and sedatives. The doctor had attributed Tony's initial lack of reaction to the pain as shock. Gibbs knew better, and thinking back now he wondered if he'd done the right thing. It had felt right at the time, but should he have told his Sentinel to let go of his death-grip on the dials? Should he have told him to relax and let the pain come? Even through the doubts, he still felt he'd done what he had to. But how could he be sure?
His Sentinel. Time had been he hadn't thought it possible for that to sound natural, but actually, it didn't sound half so foreign any more. Not that that made him a Guide, not by a long shot.
"What happened?" Blair spoke softly, breaking the extended silence.
A loaded question if ever there was one. But Gibbs wasn't about to gush forth with a tale pathetic insecurities. This wasn't about insecurities. This was about Tony not getting himself killed, or put through needless pain. "I need you to figure out who Tony's real Guide is supposed to be."
"Wait a minute—"
"No," Gibbs interrupted calmly. "I need you to reconsider Abby—or even Ziva, or McGee. You never even gave them proper consideration. I need you to do that now. I'd…appreciate it."
"No, wait a minute. I didn't need to consider them, because it was obvious from the start—"
"—It may have been obvious to you from the start." There was no one else in the waiting room, but Gibbs kept his voice even and discretely low. "But I've never seen anything definitive—no proof—that I'm supposed to be his Guide."
Blair obviously wasn't buying the I-don't-care idea. He sounded frustrated, exasperated, and not afraid at all to let his voice rise a bit. "You don't always need proof to believe something. You work with gut instincts all the time, man, you know what I'm talking about. You can feel when you're right about something, Gibbs, and so can I." Someone else might have been intimidated by the silence, but apparently Sandburg would press on until he heard the click on the other end. "Tony doesn't have a choice in this. He's a Sentinel, and he can't change the fact. He was meant to be one. Just like you were meant to be his Guide. There's just one difference with you."
"Yeah. You can turn your back on being a Guide. It's not gonna kill you, like it would probably kill Tony, to try to pretend you're normal."
"You calling me abnormal, Sandburg?"
"It's a gift, man, not a curse. I know it kinda seems like more of a curse when your best friend's in pain and you're still learning by trial and error how to help him. But it gets better. We don't have a manual to help us figure things out, but Tony's got guts." Blair chuckled. "Something else he has in common with Jim—probably another Sentinel thing."
"You're saying he's tough enough to survive my learning curve."
"I don't think you're handling things as badly as you think you are." He must have "heard" Gibbs' amusement. "You're gonna have your own methods for helping him deal with things. If a slap upside the head is what gets through to Tony, then that's what gets through—that's what works."
Gibbs gave a grunt, not of agreement or disagreement.
"Look, how would you have treated Tony in this whole situation if he weren't a Sentinel? If he was just Agent DiNozzo, no zone-outs involved?"
Gibbs sighed, but decided to humor him. "I would've shaken some sense into him if he'd tried walking around with a gaping hole in him like that." Which Tony probably would have, gritting his teeth against the pain. Overachiever...
"So, what did you do different?"
Blair pounced on that triumphantly. "He's still your agent, too, man. You gotta see that. Your basic relationship doesn't change, you're still his boss. You just have to keep trusting those instincts to keep one of your own safe."
Instincts. Keeping one of his own safe: that he could do. He couldn't see not slapping sense into Tony when he tried pulling one of his stupid stunts.
"Agent Gibbs?" It was the nurse calling his name, stepping closer to inform him, "Agent DiNozzo is waking up now—he's been asking for you."
He nodded, rising but not snapping the phone shut just yet. He owed the kid some sort of thanks. An acknowledgment, one Guide to another.
"Gibbs?" Sandburg again, sounding faintly worried.
"Tony's awake. I've got to go."
Something in his voice must have conveyed enough. Blair sounded like he might be smiling. "Yeah, go on, man. Keep us updated, huh?"
"I'm sure you'll hear from Abby."
Smiling faintly, Gibbs shut the cell, slipping it back into his pocket, and following the nurse to see how his Sentinel was doing.
A/N: I really can't say enough for all the feedback you guys have sent me, but thank you! I'm sorry I didn't get back to many of you on the last chapter—been a bit drugged out and tired from the wisdom teeth removal (probably wouldn't have managed to say anything coherent, anyways). Huh, maybe I should apologize to the people I did respond to… =P
I'm really sorry to see the end of posting this, 'cause I've enjoyed hearing from you all so much. But there are more stories to come. I've updated my profile with a link to the trailer, of sorts, (for this) that I mentioned earlier, along with a few lines outlining the fics I'm working on now, as well as what you can expect as far as posting new stories. I posted a link to a short excerpt from the sequel to this, too. ;)