"Are you sure you should leave him in there so long?"
"Miss Scuito, it has only been twenty minutes. If he wishes to come out early, it can open from inside."
"But what if…?" Abby trailed off, knowing Avery was right. She was still worried. "Sensory isolation" chambers might be safe. They might be used in spas, and considered even luxurious, but "sensory isolation" didn't sound like something Sentinel-safe. Not at all. It sounded more like some kind of torture.
It didn't help that the isolation chamber was a white pod-like thing that looked straight out of science fiction.
The room the isolation tank was in was a high-ceilinged room, sterile and impersonal, and too big. There was precious little else in the room to focus on besides the isolation tank.
Avery was flipping through a notebook, making notes on who-knew-what. Watching Avery do so was to want to strangle him with her bare hands, but Abby knew that he knew she wouldn't. Tony was extremely vulnerable right now, and doubtless Avery had men stationed outside the door. Abby wouldn't have gotten far.
Abby disdained the chair Avery had offered her in favor of pacing in what little space she had.
"Don't those things cost a lot?" Abby said, nodding at the chamber.
Avery looked up, winced, and said simply, "Yes," before going back to his notes.
"So you were planning on trying it out on Tony all along, huh?"
"Hmm?" Avery didn't look up this time, responding distractedly, "Oh, yes…"
"He's not even human to you, is he?"
This got Avery's attention again. He blinked owlishly at her a moment. "Well, I suppose…"
Abby made of a noise of disgust. "If you have to think about it," she snorted.
Avery set his pen down and crossed his arms, and spoke to her with extreme patience in his tone: "Yes, Miss Scuito, I see him as human, basically speaking."
"Basically?" Abby threw up her hands, paced a few steps and turned sharply on her heel, crossing her own arms and feeling as if a bad temper was all she had to duel him with. "So not speaking basically, he's just a lab rat?"
"Why no—not at all," Avery contradicted, with what seemed to be real surprise. "His value is…astronomical. I never thought I'd have the genuine article to study."
"You know something? You're hopeless. Completely, and utterly hopeless. And pathetic. You're pathetic and—"
"Can I get you a book, or magazine, or something?"
She glared a response, and he returned with a supreme lack of concern to his work on the notebook.
Questions were buzzing around in Abby's head, the forensic scientist-cum-perfectionist going crazy with a need to know the details. The problem was, Avery was doing all this by trial and error. He couldn't tell her Tony wasn't in there, zoned out, or…something.
She was really getting tired of seeing Tony in pain—and that was an understatement. She'd thought they were through with the LSD, had put that terrible first incident behind her. But of course she'd heard of HPPD. She knew the kind of long-term side-effects hallucinogenics could have, but she didn't have her head properly in the game, it would seem. It was kind of looking like she didn't even have her head on properly at all, the way she kept flying off the handle.
Or maybe she had her head on just right. Gibbs wouldn't have taken any of this experimenting from Avery with anything approaching calm, of that she was quite sure. She just wished she were doing a better job of processing logic while being not calm. Gibbs would be able to multi-task—she was sure of that, too.
That was really what it kept coming back to. Gibbs. I need you Bossman. I need you to be here, knowing exactly how to help Tony when he comes out of that thing. Your Sentinel needs you.
Even as she worried, Abby kept bugging Avery, because that was definitely something she could do, and without any pangs of conscience whatsoever.
"How much longer—" Abby cut her own question short, the sound of a gun being fired nearby making her start. Then it made her smile, as Avery shot to his feet with a clear expression of alarm.
"Stay here," he ordered, rushing out.
Abby stayed. It was Gibbs, she felt sure of it. The Bossman had heard her.
But Avery was back almost as soon as he'd left, his brother, and two of his hired guns, with him. They brushed past Abby, and before she could react Avery had opened the isolation tank, and was ordering: "Get him out, get him out—quickly."
Abby was quicker than either of them, rushing in the moment she heard Tony's pained grunt. He shied away from the light, dim though it was, and from the impatient grip of Avery's men.
"You're hurting him." Abby tried to get to Tony, but Avery grabbed her by the arm roughly. She pulled back just as roughly. "You can't just yank him out of there, without giving him any time to adjust, when his senses are all—"
"—We don't have time," Avery snapped, showing the first real signs of anger Abby had seen him display.
Abby knew they didn't have time. The sounds of conflict were coming closer. She was counting on them not having enough time to get away. She was also really, really running out of patience for Avery.
Pulling her arm back, she landed a fist square on Avery's nose. It was one of the most freeing actions of violence she'd ever committed.
Avery staggered with a cry, and his men automatically froze in the act of bodily hauling a dripping Tony out of the room.
With perfect timing, the door burst open, and with it came the familiar, heart-warming sound of a voice bellowing: "NCIS! Freeze!"
McGee had never sounded so scary, or looked so thoroughly prepared to fire the gun in his hand.
There was that predictable moment of hesitation in the room. McGee had the advantage of having his gun drawn and leveled, but he was outnumbered.
It was Avery—weaponless, and nose bloodied—that McGee had the gun on, and Avery's men wavered indecisively.
"Do it," suggested another voice. Gibbs' voice, as he came up behind McGee with his own gun raised.
Avery nodded for the men to submit—at the same time as his brother made a noise of anger, and drew his gun.
"Ron, don't, it's not worth dying—" Avery began, stepping forward, blocking his brother in a gesture meant at once to restrain and protect.
But as soon as Ron's gun had come up, McGee had fired at him. It found the eldest Avery, instead. He dropped soundlessly to his knees.
One hand seeking to support his brother, even as the other kept the gun up, Ron made a choked noise of surprise.
"Drop your weapon," Gibbs instructed.
Ron aimed at McGee—and this time, Gibbs fired.
This display seemed to be enough for the men Avery had hired, who surrendered easily with unheeded protestations of innocence. They hadn't known what they'd signed on for; they'd wanted to report Avery; it wasn't about the money, it was about them being afraid for their lives—and so on, and so forth. The poor babies, Abby thought sarcastically, tuning them out.
She had flattened herself against the wall as soon as bullets had started flying. Now, in the aftermath, she felt almost too dazed to move. Ziva materialized, roughly securing the two hired men. There were other people in tactical gear, too—SWAT, Abby realized. Someone was crouched down next to the still figures of the two Avery brothers, checking for pulses.
Abby barely registered McGee asking her if she was alright. Gibbs was there, supporting Tony, who thorough the ordeal had remained in a dazed stupor. He was dripping water, and, dressed in nothing warmer than swimming trunks, visibly shivering.
Finding her brain again, along with her direction, Abby snagged a towel off the nearby stack and made a beeline to Tony's side.
Tony winced against the light and noise, unresisting as Abby wrapped the towel around his shoulders and tucked herself under his other arm. He gave a particularly violent shiver, and moaned softly as a door banged open loudly from the hall.
"Sir, the ambulance is on its—"
Abby "shhh"ed the man who'd come up, not using his indoor voice.
"Is the building cleared?" Gibbs wanted to know—quietly.
"Yes, Sir," the man replied, lowering his voice, and frowning at Tony.
"We need to get him somewhere quiet," Abby said, more for Gibbs' sake.
Gibbs nodded. There were plenty of questions he wanted to ask, of course, but with too many strangers present he was taking his cues from Abby without airing them.
"There was a smaller office room on left…" the SWAT officer suggested, and Gibbs nodded again, Abby moving with him as one to retreat from the chaos.
The room was mercifully dim, and instead of attempting to use one of the office chairs—the only furniture besides the desk along one wall—they lowered Tony to a sitting position on the floor against the wall.
"You with us, DiNozzo?" Gibbs asked, the quality of his voice as composed as if they were back at the office, and Tony busy with nothing more alarming than a mid-morning nap.
Tony made a noise that went something like "mmft," an apparent protestation against life in general. A few seconds later, he cracked one eye open, croaking, "Boss?" There was a flicker of sudden fear on his face. "Heard gun shots. Abby…"
"Right here," Abby spoke up quickly.
Tony sighed, his eyes once more shut tight. "Hur's."
Gibbs looked frowningly from Tony to Abby and back again. "What hurts?"
"Ev'rything… 'N I was just getting used to the dark."
Gibbs eyebrow went up. "Abbs?" There was anger beneath the surface of his calm, Abby could tell—and it demanded to know what had happened to his Sentinel. But the anger wasn't for her. There was worry for her, but Abby didn't feel like addressing it anymore than she wanted to address Gibbs' questions right then.
Abby drooped next to Tony, leaning against the wall, too, and feeling suddenly very grimy, and tired, and confused by the blankness she felt as regarded Avery's probable death. She decided not to think about it at all, and instead clung to relief—and decided relief was one of the best emotions ever.
"It's a long story, Bossman."
Tony was pretty sure he was supposed to be the one traumatized by his time with Avery. However, he was beginning to think he was the only one unaffected.
Okay, so maybe "unaffected" was putting things a bit cavalierly, even for him. He'd certainly been embarrassingly affected by the LSD flashbacks. He had blurry memories of being pulled from the isolation tank—thinking his skull would explode from too much light and color—and then Gibbs had been there. Gibbs being there had made everything at once better, and also worse. He might've been learning as a Sentinel to depend more on Gibbs, but as Gibbs' senior agent it would probably never cease to be embarrassing to have to rely on his boss when he was at his most vulnerable.
He was pretty sure he'd babbled a bunch of nonsense—something about making "the rainbows" go away?—and he was pretty sure he'd heard Abby and Gibbs talking about him. And both of them had talked to him, over an indeterminable period of time, and through an indeterminable number of events, the details of which all ran together like a bad piece of modern art, all warped, and too headache-inducing to stare at for long.
He'd slept for a long time, he knew that much, and in an honest-to-God bed—not some hospital contraption designed to badly approximate one. Somewhere, Ducky's voice had come into the mix, and Tony could've smiled at the familiar voice—and maybe he had—but shortly after that he'd drifted back into unconsciousness.
Sandburg would've been ecstatic if he could've heard Tony's next thoughts, because the foremost impression he had upon waking was that his "tribe" was secure. He wasn't sure how he knew it, with his brain feeling like mush, but an instinct that overrode all normal forms of knowing told him that not only Gibbs, and Ducky, and Abby were safe, but Ziva and McGee, too.
Another thing he knew, even before he'd opened his eyes, was that he was in Gibbs' guestroom. Well, the guestroom part was an educated guess; that he was in Gibbs' house was unmistakable. Maybe that too was just his highly evolved brain coming to a logical conclusion—since he obviously wasn't at a hospital, and Gibbs had been making a habit of keeping a particularly close eye on him ever since he'd become Tony's Guide.
But there were plenty of other clues to go on. The familiarity of atmosphere that Tony couldn't pin-point. The faint smell of sawdust. Once Tony might have found such ambiguous intuition unnerving. But the lines were beginning to blur, comfortably, between his cop instincts and his Sentinel instincts. He was both. And likewise, Gibbs was both Guide and boss, now, and it seemed almost as if it had always been that way. The facts had just been waiting for the two of them to catch up and get used to what was.
Tony cautiously cracked one eye open to stare at the ceiling. Then he cracked the other eye open. The walls didn't breathe. The light coming through a crack in the window shade looked perfectly normal. His head spun a little as he sat up, but he attributed that to the hunger he was suddenly acutely aware of.
He also became aware of another smell, besides sawdust, and of sounds coming from the direction of the kitchen.
Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, he made his way towards the sounds, barefoot and dressed in sweatpants and a well-worn t-shirt he didn't bother to wonder at.
He entertained the idea that he might be able to sneak up on Gibbs—for about the space of five seconds. Then Gibbs spoke, his back still to Tony: "I was beginning to think you might sleep all week."
"Ah." Tony inhaled the heavenly scent of the eggs Gibbs was cooking. "Then I guess none of that would be meant for me."
Tony could've sworn he was getting better at hearing Gibbs' smiles. At least, they were smiles for Gibbs: that subtle change of tone that was indiscernible to the untrained ear.
"I don't think Abby will mind sharing."
Tony glanced around. He felt sure he would've known if Abby was in the house.
Reading his mind, Gibbs said, "I made her go home and get some rest."
"But she threatened to be back by five o'clock. In the morning." Snatches of conversation were beginning to come back to Tony.
Gibbs removed the scrambled eggs from the heat, and turned.
Tony gave a groggy smile under the scrutiny, and asked, "Do I pass muster?" He immediately forestalled a reply, sitting down heavily at the table. "Don't answer that. I probably should've slept all week." It was his turn to read Gibbs' mind, and he did so with a wave of his hand. "And yeah, I probably should've gotten checked out at a hospital, but I'm really, really glad you left things up to Ducky instead."
Without comment, Gibbs dished up a plate with eggs and bacon, and placed it in front of Tony.
Tony ate a few bites in quick succession, washing it down with the glass of orange juice that materialized alongside the plate. A question he didn't want to ask—but needed to—formulated, and left his mouth without his permission. "Boss, about Avery… The gun-shots I heard. I mean, is he—"
"—Dead. Both of them."
Tony took another drink. Of all the things he should've felt, he only felt pity. It seemed like a waste, when Thomas Avery had obviously been an intelligent man. A bit out of touch with reality, and with a bad way of going about researching his interests, but intelligent nonetheless.
"What, exactly, has Abby told you?" He was also curious to know exactly how Gibbs had found them, but wasn't sure his brain was up to asking the right questions yet, much less comprehending the answers.
"Enough." Gibbs had his back to Tony again, but you didn't have to be an expert in Gibbs-speak to hear the anger even in the one word.
Before Tony could say anything, however, Abby descended, making up for lost time by asking at least half a dozen questions about how Tony felt—whether or not he was still having LSD flashbacks, and if he had a headache, and if he really should be up, and telling him she'd brought his sunglasses from the office because sunglasses were supposed to help with some of the flashbacks.
At some point, Gibbs disappeared—and Tony looked around with low-grade panic as Abby asked again:
"Are you sure you're okay?"
Tony gave her a long look, patient (all things considered) but a pointed one nonetheless.
Abby looked down at her eggs, using her fork to prod the defenseless yellow substance around her plate. "Just askin'," she murmured, with a guilt-inducing look of disappointment at being scolded for caring. Abby could express a whole lot with a simple pout of her lower lip. She could get amazing results with a simple pout, too.
She speared a piece off egg, eating it with a soldierly air. "It's fine."
"Well, I'm fine. I've had a lot of people making sure of it. But I'm beginning to think maybe someone else got overlooked in all the confusion."
He waited for Abby to get the point. When she did, she protested in wide-eyed surprise: "Me? I'm beyond fine. You know Gibbs made sure Ducky looked me over, too—and I didn't even go into shock, or anything. I'm—"
"—Yeah, you're fine, I know. As a matter of fact, I think you've had to be 'fine' for too long."
Abby blinked, slowly, puzzled, and Tony noticed the smudges beneath her eyes, making her pallor look in contrast even more pale than usual.
"If this is your way of saying I've been holding it all together—soldiering it out—while Avery had us, then I think you might be thinking about the wrong substitute Guide. Like I said back there, I was all…flighty." She winced lightly. "I was so not 'together.'"
Tony had seen Abby hurting, sad, angry, and every emotion in between—but such miserable insecurity was a new one. He floundered a moment in uncertainty. Heart-to-hearts were not his area of expertise. He could have glowered at Gibbs for leaving—all but silently ordering him to talk with Abby—but Gibbs not being there to be glowered at was kind of the point.
"Abby," Tony said at last, with what he hoped was inspiration, "you ever think maybe having someone else, more panicked than me, in need of calming down, was exactly what I needed back there?"
Abby obviously hadn't. She pondered the suggestion dubiously. "You're just making that up."
"Nope." Tony realized he was telling the truth. "You know, I never really had the chance to think about what Avery was going to do with me—after you arrived. At least, I didn't have time to really panic about it." He grinned. "Can you see Gibbs filling the panic-stricken role?"
Abby, of course, first saw the sacrilege of this slight on the Boss, however true, giving Tony an outraged look—before gradually smiling a bit, herself. "And I suppose you're gonna say the Bossman was exactly where he was supposed to be, raiding the place and bringing down all fire and brimstone to get us out?"
Tony bit off a piece of bacon. "'Zactly."
Abby looked positively Sandburg-like in her sudden enthusiastic moment of revelation. "Maybe the members of the Tribe just know where they're supposed to be in an emergency. I mean, it's not like we're interchangeable, of course, but maybe different situations call for different members of the Tribe stepping up, and…"
Tony, admittedly, tuned out some of her "revelation," eating the rest of his bacon happily.
"And you really are okay," Abby said at last, not-quite asking this time, but more sounding out the idea for herself, and coming to the relieved conclusion that what Tony had been repeatedly telling her was really true. She sighed, leaning her elbows against the table-top. "You do still look kinda crummy, though, ya know?"
"Yeah, yeah." Tony sat back. "But I'm good, Abbs." He thought of the LSD flashbacks, and the fact that they probably weren't over. "Really, I will be. It's nothing that more bacon can't cure."
He hadn't meant it literally, but Abby immediately picked up one of her uneaten pieces of bacon and reached over to deposit it on his plate, watching in clear expectation of his devouring it, brooking no excuse.
Tony gave her a wry look—but far be it from him to disobey one of his "Keepers."
Gibbs had rewound the tape numerous times. Abby and McGee had both gone over it with a fine-toothed comb. The viewing of it raised questions, unsettling to Gibbs as an agent, and Gibbs as a Guide.
DiNozzo didn't know yet. Gibbs would tell him—or Abby would—but for now he felt the need to stave off bad news as long as possible. Tony was still recovering from Avery; he didn't need this new, faceless threat breathing down his neck.
It might not be a threat at all. Gibbs laughed inwardly, grimly, at his own optimism. His Guide instincts were warning him another way, and paranoid or not after Avery's experiments in Sentinel-observation, his agent's instincts were agreeing. What he'd seen on the footage from the security tapes didn't bode well. From her tone, Abby had known it when she'd called him down to her lab.
The feed was from the security cameras at the apartment complex that Thomas Avery had rented. Things were made even easier for them by the fact that Avery had installed a camera in his own rooms—apparently, paranoid after a spate recent break-ins in the neighborhood. Time-stamped just hours after Avery's death, the videos showed someone—a man, wearing a hooded sweatshirt—letting himself into Avery's apartment with a key. There was no uncertainty about the man's actions; he'd been to Avery's apartment before. He knew what he'd come for, too, calmly taking three hefty-looking journals out of a desk and stowing them in an empty backpack he'd brought.
Then the man left—never showing his face for the cameras. The security camera in the parking lot showed he'd come on a bike. An old bike, as nondescript as its owner. There were no leads so far. The stranger had gone so far as to pull his sleeves down over his hands before touching the handle of the door, and the drawer handle, and had touched nothing else in the apartment. Abby would probably pour over the footage even longer than Gibbs had. McGee was rummaging through the files on Avery's computer, through his e-mail, tracking down e-mails sent. Ziva was looking for friends and family.
Perhaps what grated the most was the fact that Gibbs had missed running into the man by the thin margin of a half-hour. Thirty-seven minute's time, precisely, and Gibbs would've been inside that apartment when their mystery caller had come to take those journals.
The man might've had no connection to Avery's favorite topic of research: Sentinels. Gibbs' gut told him otherwise.
A/N: Well, there you have it. :) Maybe it doesn't feel like a well wrapped-up ending...and that would be because I have another, longer sequel already completed. I am really excited to post it, too, because it was one of those brain-child stories that just took off and wrote itself (okay..exaggerating, but it was fun to do for my first ever NaNoWriMo story, last year). Before I post that, though, I'm going to take a couple weeks' hiatus. Towards the end of the month I'll be going to a Writers' Conference in Texas for a week, but shortly after I get back I hope to start posting again.
Thanks again, all you lovely reviewers! I've been so remiss in responding to y'all, and I promise I'll respond to each of you this time (though you'll have to forgive me if I wax a little maudlin: a favorite bird I've owned for ten years looks like it's going to die today... It's amazing how such a little creature can have such a big personality. *sads*).