Disclaimer: I don't own any the characters. I just borrow them for non-profit fanfiction purposes. ;)
A/N: So...I really took my time getting around to posting this. Sorry, to anyone who might still be waiting to read it. :3 On the bright side: it's complete, so I'll be able to post regularly.
I suppose you could call this a part of a "series," now. Instincts and Wrath come before this, and I'm pretty sure you'd have a hard time understanding this without having read them. Also in this 'verse (in no particular order): Wolf Pack Law & Guidelines.
At first Gibbs thought it was Ducky, checking up on him early. Usually, Ducky was like clockwork about it. He'd come in quietly, bearing home-cooked food, or a bottle of old scotch, or both. Gibbs generally ignored the food. He also ignored the fact that he was being a hypocrite; "eat" was not an uncommon demand he'd had to make of Ziva and McGee in the past weeks.
Even respect and friendship might not have been enough for Gibbs to allow Duck's none-too-covert supervision. But the thing with Duck was that he knew the boundaries and kept his distance from them. He brought the food, but he didn't force the issue when Gibbs chose to ignore the offering. Ducky simply continued to offer, and, if he did look increasingly concerned, Gibbs knew he didn't have the grounds to tell him not to worry, so he didn't.
Gibbs ran his fingers along the freshly sanded wood, not taking satisfaction in its smoothness. It was another calculated task checked off his list, another self-appointed chore seen through with precision. All he could find here was a dull kind of accomplishment too muted to qualify as more than a pause in routine: a moment, fleeting and detached, where he simply acknowledged he'd accomplished something. It didn't matter that it was valueless.
He began sanding again, mostly to avoid being stalled when Ducky came down the stairs. Above the noise he was creating, he listened to the footsteps. They sounded heavier, and more hesitant, than usual. There was a hitch in the gait itself. If it was Ducky, he was limping.
Gibbs knew, then, that the waiting was over, and that Ducky had been right when he'd said it was only a matter of time.
"Hey Boss," Tony greeted as casually as if he were reporting in for a normal day of work. He was silhouetted in the doorway.
Gibbs could hear the uncertainty behind the words. They weren't as blasé as they sounded. Gibbs stopped his work to stare at the silhouette.
He could almost hear Tony swallow, and see the wince on his face. "Well, this is awkward," he continued, self-condemnation evident in the poor attempt at flippancy, and in his even poorer attempt at a chuckle.
Gibbs almost said something, but he made a habit of not speaking for people when they had something to say, and Tony had a lot to explain.
Tony took two steps, slowly, before stopping, still only a dark shape protected by the shadows. "Yeah, um… Just to make it clear, I'm not looking for my job back. Three months late for work is…is a lot."
A lot to forgive. Gibbs read it between the lines and heard it loud and clear. He clenched his jaw tighter against a response.
"I don't know how this Sentinel stuff works. But I know enough to know I haven't kept up my end of the deal, and I didn't, you know…come back expecting to have a position open there, either. Just want you to know I'm not here for any favors, or anything."
Wordlessly, Gibbs turned to his workbench. Ducky's most recent offering of scotch was open, and he found a second makeshift "glass," pouring two shots. Looking back at the figure on the stairway, he found Tony fallen into some kind of stupor. Head bent, a hand on the rail, he didn't appear to have been watching Gibbs.
Tony started, looked up at the offered drink, and gradually made his way down the stairs and into the light.
The light revealed enough to produce several pointed curses from Gibbs, which made Tony stop short of taking the drink, blinking at Gibbs more than a little blankly.
"Huh? Oh, yeah." Tony looked down at himself with scrutiny that was comical in its seriousness. "Pardon the dirt. I did wipe my feet at the door, but the rest seems kind of ingrained. My wardrobe's just not at the top of its game these days."
"DiNozzo, what the—"
"—Boss." Tony cut him off, sounding embarrassed. He took the second glass of scotch, downed it almost hungrily, and coughed out hoarsely, "That doesn't matter. It's not the point."
Gibbs contradicted that with a stare that made Tony's expression twitch uneasily. He took a step back, as if he meant to turn and leave—like that was going to happen. Gibbs' anger, for all its legitimacy, was swiftly being overruled. It was impossible not to be concerned: the light had revealed more than a change in wardrobe. The wrinkled shirt and faded jeans were perhaps the most visible changes, but to Gibbs they were only the most obvious indicator of something more telling. Even with exhaustion showing in the way he hunched his shoulders, and in the brittle smile he was trying to wear, Tony was like a barely tamed animal, eyes roving around the basement as if it might at any minute close in on him.
Tony didn't have much pride left, but he was clinging to what he had left, acting normal not because he thought Gibbs would buy it, but because to let go in front of Gibbs simply wasn't an option. Tony would come to Gibbs limping, but on his own two feet, not crawling. Maybe he would have, once, but right now he was playing his cards close to the vest, holding on as tight to hurts as Gibbs had ever seen him do, and doing the poorest job of it he'd ever done.
The Tony that Gibbs knew understood an invitation. He would've understood a concession when he heard it.
This Tony snarled a "no," suddenly hostile, and turned his back on Gibbs.
When Gibbs reached out to stop him, he only intended to get his attention.
Tony reacted as if he'd been touched with a live wire, jerking away. "No. Don't. Just hear me out."
Gibbs could see a tremor in Tony's hand, but held back, clenching his jaw against the need to demand answers. He couldn't tell what this new, unpredictable DiNozzo would do.
"I messed up big time, Boss. Not about leaving. I had to leave. But it was the coward's way out to leave the note. I should've said my goodbyes face-to-face. You deserved that. You, Abby…you all deserved it." Tony turned his head enough that Gibbs could make out old bruising beneath the several days' growth of beard on his face. "I regret that much, and I… I just needed to tell you that."
Gibbs didn't like the direction this was going. It was too much like a last goodbye. "What happened?"
Tony bowed his head. "I wasn't detained, if that's what you mean. Well, mostly notdetained."
Tony gave a weary shake of his head. "Turns out there are all kinds of kooky Sentinel fans out there." His voice was thick with sarcasm. "They just keep popping out of the woodwork, huh? This guy made Montague look like one of the good guys." He snorted softly. "Guess that would make Avery positively saintly..."
Gibbs remembered the limp he'd heard in Tony's step. "What did he do to you?"
"Doesn't matter. I got away."
"—And I'll get away again if I have to." Tony turned, making steady eye-contact. He titled his chin defiantly. "Having Abby used against me once was plenty. I learned my lesson."
"You're doing this for Abby?" Gibbs asked tightly. He stepped angrily into Tony's personal space. "The next time I find her in her lab, crying and inconsolable, I'll tell her that."
Tony's jaw twitched. "Yeah. Tell her that. There's no way I'm letting paranoid maniacs like Carlin anywhere near Abby, or the team, or…my Guide."
The idea that Tony was protecting him wasn't one Gibbs had considered. He didn't miss the haunted look in Tony's eyes that said he'd not only considered the possibility, but all of its worst-case scenarios. Tony had been afraid to come here, at all—afraid for Gibbs.
"I've got to go," Tony muttered, heading for the stairs. He didn't make it to the second step without stumbling. Gasping, but struggling valiantly, he gripped the rail to remain upright.
Gibbs moved in to support him, pulling the arm Tony wasn't using to grip the rail over his shoulders.
"—You're coming with me."
He should've learned from Tony's last reaction to direct command that he wasn't taking orders tonight.
Tony tried to pull away, muttering darkly, "Let go." Gibbs felt him go stiff with pain, some movement turning out to be the wrong movement. "Le'go," Tony repeated, words more muddled, but no less adamant.
"The only place you're going is the ER."
Tony panicked, twisting out Gibbs' hold with alacrity, and making it all the way to the top of the stairs before his legs gave out and he fell to his knees on the landing with a cry of pain.
Tony was breathing heavily, dazed, and still trying to pull himself to his feet. Whatever was wrong with him, he belonged in the hospital, but Gibbs could see that wasn't about to happen as long as DiNozzo was conscious to put up a fight. Besides, ever since this Sentinel business Gibbs was hesitant to put Tony's health in the hands of doctors who knew nothing about any of it.
"No hospital…" Even without the strength to resist Gibbs' help this time, Tony repeated the words with an intensity of will.
Gibbs sighed. "Yeah. No hospital." The promise made, he was able to lever a relatively pliant Tony to his feet, and tow him into the living room.
Tony lowered himself to the couch with groan, using both hands to gingerly position a stiff right leg. Gibbs swore more profoundly than before when he saw the dried blood; Tony's shirt had been dark enough that he hadn't noticed it in the basement's dim lighting.
"Should've taken my shoes off," Tony commented blandly, looking apologetically at his feet. "S'nice couch, too."
Gibbs wasn't about to let himself be sidetracked. He reached for the phone on the side table, but Tony's hand shot out to stop him.
"It is a nice couch. Not about to let you bleed out on it."
Tony narrowed his eyes. "Bleeding's stopped."
Before Tony could stop him, Gibbs reached over with his free hand and pulled Tony's shirt up—far enough to discover, with yet another oath, mottled bruising covering Tony's side, and a good portion of his chest.
"You were going tell me about this."
"'Course, Boss," Tony lied smoothly.
Gibbs didn't like the look of the bruising at all. It was relatively recent, but turning an ugly purple-black. The blood, at least, seemed to have its source in superficial scrapes, but they should've been cleaned. With all the dirt he was wearing it would be a miracle if Tony avoided infection.
Tony still hadn't let go of Gibbs' other wrist, and he looked at Gibbs with chagrin, and a note of pleading in his tone. "Not Ducky, Boss."
"You got any other suggestions on how you're going to get medical treatment?"
"Well, you see, it's a funny thing. Although I'm not exactly certified, I've got the best bedside manner I know of, and really, if we're talking experience with injuries…"
"Experience in healing, DiNozzo. Not dealing and receiving."
"Some of those nurses think needles are javelins, I'm telling you."
"And I'm telling you're not going anywhere without Ducky taking a look at you."
"Boss," definitely pleading, now, "I just…can't see Ducky right now. I feel stupid enough, coming here like this. I didn't mean it to look like I was out of options—'cause I'm not."
Maybe he wasn't out of options, but looking at this gaunt-faced, and wary-eyed, version of his agent, it wasn't options Gibbs saw Tony running out of.
"It's ironic, really," Tony said, distractedly. "I was kind of proud of myself just 'n hour ago, thinking I'd made it all the way back here with out any wackos catching me. And then I had to go'n get lazy at an intersection. Geez, who woulda thought there was reason jay-walking's against the law?" He chuckled with a small shrug of his shoulders. "Who woulda thought a car like that could pack such a punch?"
"Car?" Gibbs repeated, feeling suddenly very weary, as if the weeks of restless nights were catching up with him all at once. Right then he would've liked to shake the answers out of Tony. He had several month's worth of questions saved up.
"Station wagon," Tony answered, in the same distant manner. "It was a woody, which is technically a step below 'car' in the evolutionary ladder, if you ask me."
Gibbs interrupted to tell that hit-and-run driver exactly where he could go. He would've liked to tell him face-to-face.
"For being distractible numskull of a driver with a sissy car, the guy was actually pretty nice. Just about kidnapped me and took me to the ER, himself. But I told him the same thing I'm telling you: I'm fine. Just a bit bruised up here and there."
Gibbs raised an eyebrow.
"Okay, so maybe there are few minor dings, too. Nothing you should go bothering Ducky about at this time of night." Tony pulled himself half upright. "Wouldn't have bothered you this late, either, but I happen to have it on good authority that Gibbs doesn't need sleep."
Gibbs smiled a little despite himself. Abby's authority, no doubt.
"So, thanks for the drink, and all…"
"Stay, DiNozzo," Gibbs paused only a moment, to catch the mutinous gleam that sprang into Tony's eyes, before adding, "please."
Seeing Tony's surprise was worth it; he probably would've staggered if he'd been standing.
As it was, he swallowed thickly, and tried lamely to recover with, "Ah, thanks, but you see I've got this Landlady from Hell, and if I don't pay up by the weekend I'm pretty sure she'll be after me with a pitchfork. I kid you not. Plus, there's..."
Gibbs waited while Tony rambled himself dry of excuses, before asking simply: "You done?"
Tony sank back with a heavy sigh, probably intended to sound melodramatic, but sounding too realistically weary for Gibbs to buy it. "Boss, I can't stay."
"You mean you think you can't."
"It's better this way."
"You're that selfish?"
Tony's eyes flash angrily. "I can't stop being a Sentinel, but I can stop endangering the people I care about. That's what I'm doing. Besides, it was about time for me to make a change, anyways. I've never stayed in one place long; you've seen my resume."
"Sounds like you've got it all figured out."
"I've thought about it just a little," Tony snapped. "It is my life, after all."
"What do you mean 'maybe'? I quit, remember?"
"I'm not talking about the job, DiNozzo."
"You don't own me," Tony growled, crossing his arms gingerly over his chest, and looking for the world like a rebellious teenager. A teenager who'd been in a fight at school.
"Sentinels don't stop being Sentinels, and Guides don't stop being Guides."
"Sandburg tell you that?"
Gibbs tilted his head with a small smile. "He didn't have to."
Tony wondered, now, if maybe the reason he'd come back was because, subconsciously, he'd been looking to get an invitation to stay. No, not an invitation: an order, from Gibbs. How pathetic was that? He sure hadn't intended to zone out in front of that car, but, in the end, hadn't that worked to his advantage as well? Yeah, he was sure he cut as pathetic a sight as he was currently feeling. The long lost Sentinel, returned at last, limping, scratched up, and half out of his mind from exhaustion. He was sure the image he was presenting was of a grown man, fully capable of looking after himself. You're bloody brilliant, DiNozzo. Or at least your subconscious is; you've got your orders to stay, all right.
But, honestly, he hadn't been intending to allow himself to be convinced, no matter how much Gibbs growled or glared. He still didn't know that he was convinced. One thing was for sure, though, Gibbs' "please," combined with his claim that being a Guide was no more a glove you could slip on and slip off than being a Sentinel.
More than convincing him on the spot that he had to stay, the idea scared Tony into silence. Here he'd been working under the theory that if he stayed away long enough Gibbs, and everyone else, would forget about him. Well, maybe not forget, exactly—but move on. And here Gibbs was telling him that they were Sentinel-and-Guide for life. At least that was obviously what Gibbs wanted Tony to believe. Tony wasn't sure Gibbs wouldn't lie about it if Gibbs thought it might guilt him into feeling some kind of responsibility to stay.
The only problem was, the guilt-trip was kinda working. Even if Gibbs had chosen to be his Guide, it hadn't been without hesitation—and if he had been sucked into some kind of freakish lifestyle that involved this Sentinel-Guide thing, well, then, maybe Tony did owe him something. What that something was, Tony didn't have the faintest clue. There had to be something, besides staying glued to Gibbs' side for life, that would compensate. People didn't go around forming life-long commitments to each other, right? Well…of course there was family like that, or so Tony had heard. He wasn't all that experienced firsthand with that kind of stuff, and it was panic-inducing to think that someone might feel that way about him. If he was honest, it was also a little nice, just a little, to think of himself as irreplaceable in someone's life. It was a foreign concept, but, yeah, a kind of nice one.
Of course he was so never telling Gibbs that.
While Tony had been busy being stunned into silence, Gibbs had picked up the phone and called Ducky, after all. Apparently the choice was out of his hands, and he was staying for a check-up. The concession didn't mean he liked the idea; he just liked the idea of being tackled and hog-tied by a Marine even less. If he didn't have broken ribs, Tony was fairly sure they were at least cracked, and as it was he wasn't looking forward to being poked and prodded by Ducky. He was looking forward even less to being poked and prodded with the questions that would inevitably follow.
Tony started when a glass of milk appeared in his field of vision.
"You wouldn't happen to have slipped a sedative into that?"
"Drink," Gibbs recommended, with his usual charming brand of persuasiveness.
"No 'please' this time?" Tony was already reaching for the glass mid-taunt, taking a quick gulp, and flashing a quick smile. "S'good. I'd almost forgotten what milk tasted like."
Counting the amount of times Tony's big mouth had gotten him in to trouble would have been a monumental achievement. Stupid lack of sleep… It was making him even more prone to speak first, and grimace later. Gibbs was giving him that knowing look, the one that said anything Gibbs didn't know wasn't going to stay unknown for long.
"What? Milk's expensive, and the last Sentinel groupie to offer me hospitality really thought of me more as a dog than a cat, I think. At least that's what I gathered from his training methods. But, you know, milk really isn't good for cats, anyways…"
Uh oh, that little tirade had back-fired. Gibbs was looking mean, now.
"Ah, yeah… You see, this guy, Carlin, wasn't big on Sentinels actually roaming the streets off-leash, and when I say 'groupie' we're talking about a fan of the more…paranoid variety." Gibbs looked like he needed a little good news, which Tony offered: "On the bright side, I got away before he could use the spiffy shock collar I just know he was itching to try out."
Apparently, it wasn't the right good news. Gibbs was looking scary-mean.
Tony cleared his throat. "I'm not saying definitively that he was one of those people who pulled the legs off spiders as kid, but I would hazard a guess that mommy and daddy weren't big on hugs and all that nurturing stuff. Or if they were, they failed." After a point, you might as well keep digging that pit for yourself, all the way to China. It felt oddly good to vent. Tony took another drink of milk. "While I'm not recommending the Carlin Method, I will give the guy this much: he knew how to get results fast. Guess I just wasn't ready for his full-immersion level classes—but I'll tell ya, I learned all kinds of things about control. I think I went a whole day, once, without feeling a thing. Literally."
Tony chuckled, a hysterical sound to his own ears, trying not to remember how it had felt to yank the "dial" for sense of touch all the way down to zero. He'd heard, once, that leprosy itself wasn't technically responsible for the disfigurement of those with the disease; it was the inabilities of those with the disease to feel anything, their inability to sense when there was a danger of harm to themselves, that led to the destruction of their bodies.
It was a freaky feeling not to feel, but it had been better than the alternative. It had been a small victory over Carlin, to have that control over his own senses.
"I'll kill him."
Tony squinted at Gibbs. He'd almost forgotten there was someone listening to him. "Thanks, but the thing with paranoid people is that they're much better at giving you the slip than you are at avoiding them. He's the cat, I'm the mouse. If he doesn't want to be found, he won't be."
"Don't count on it."
Ducky's arrival was a heaven-sent, Tony had to admit. The room couldn't handle much more intensity without blowing sky-high. At the least, Tony hoped he'd put Gibbs' need for answers to rest—for a man half dead from lack of sleep, he thought he'd painted a pretty concise picture of the highlights of his vacation.
"Anthony DiNozzo, what have you done to yourself?"
"Wasn't me," Tony returned evenly, aiming for the poor-misused-me tone. "A car. 'Course, was kinda my fault for choosing the middle of the street as a spot to zone out." That admission certainly didn't help make Gibbs look any more relaxed. As a matter of fact, he was just the image of "trigger-happy" that Tony kept cataloged in mental picture dictionary. It was probably time to shut up—but, then, when had he started listening to common sense?
"My dear boy," Ducky said, shaking his head, "you are sight for sore eyes."
"Don't'cha mean a sight to cause sore eyes?"
"That too, I'm afraid. A car, you say? It looks rather as if it were a truck that ran you over."
"Station wagon. And I was really just a fender-bender," Tony said modestly.
Ducky approached, already clucking disapprovingly. "Let's have a look at you, then."
Tony really should've known better than to expect Ducky to start right off with some kind of interrogation. He would've felt better if Ducky had. "Look, Ducky," Tony began uncertainly, "I'm sorry about getting you up in the middle of the night for a house call. It wasn't my idea."
"No, I suspect it was not, and, quite frankly, I'm wounded that you should feel a need to apologize."
Ouch. You didn't get that level of disapproval from Ducky often. "Yeah, well, seems I've got a lot to apologize for, and it's hard to keep track sometimes of which 'I'm sorry' goes where."
Ducky's expression softened-either what he saw when he lifted Tony's shirt was really that bad, or he was relenting simply because he was Ducky, and could only stay stern so long, especially with a patient. "You have returned home, Anthony. In my book, that is the biggest step towards making amends you can make, after disappearing on us like that. Abigail and the rest will be so relived. I know I am."
Double—triple—ouch. Tony was beginning to suspect that the All-Knowing Gibbs had been counting on this when he'd insisted on Ducky coming. He'd known Ducky would be perfect for guilting him into staying, for the very fact that Ducky wasn't trying to guilt him at all. It hit home.
Any further speculation was put to a swift and painful end when Ducky began examining the bruising on his chest and side. "Ducky," he whined, trying not to moan, "this patient happens to still be alive."
"A fact for which I am extremely grateful. I intend to keep it that way," Ducky said patiently. "I am assuming hospital is out of the question?" he asked, looking sideways at Gibbs.
"I know what cracked ribs feel like," Tony grumbled. "Don't need x-rays."
Ducky sighed the well-earned sigh of a true martyr. "Call me a Doubting Thomas, but I, as your friend and impromptu-doctor, would have more peace of mind if I could be sure that cracked ribs were all you have, with no injured internal organs on the side."
Tony waved the idea off. "I wouldn't be breathing this easy if I had a lung punctured."
"Indeed not, but with all this ugly bruising, and with you having had the Y-Pestis I don't like to think of—"
"—Why does everything have to come back me having had the Pneumonic Plague?" Tony griped. "I don't have it now, and I'm breathing fine—and I'm not going to the hospital."
Ducky was faintly humoring, and at once uncompromising. "We'll see about that. Now, let's take a look at that skull of yours—and that leg, too."
Completely ignoring Tony, Ducky looked at Gibbs, musing wryly, "The dead give one so much less trouble."
Tony decided to stop squirming.
After that, things became fuzzy. Once Ducky had examined his head, half blinding him in the process while checking for even dilation, both he and Gibbs disappeared for a moment, and Tony found himself involuntarily dozing. A second glass of milk materialized, which he drank without thinking.
It was a bad idea.
"S'your idea," Tony accused Gibbs, with the remnants of his deteriorating ability to focus. "S-sedatives 'r low." Really low. Gibbs knew medication could work funny on him, even before this Sentinel business.
The blur that was Gibbs had to be smiling, 'cause Tony could hear it in his voice when he whispered, somewhere near Tony's ear, "Whatever it takes."
To Be Continued