In theory, Carlin knew he was safe. In reality, however, he didn't feel safe. Perhaps he was being irrational. Perhaps he was not.
Agent Gibbs sat across from him in the dimly lit interview room, eyes dark with some fathomless emotion, that Carlin was pretty sure involved a desire for violence. The shadows cast across his face gave his expression an even more sinister look. That look made Carlin wonder if Gibbs might not throw his own career in law enforcement out the window, and go to jail, himself, just for the pleasure of killing Carlin right there and then. And he could do it, too, before the guards outside could rush in and stop him. Carlin was left in no doubt of that, by the promise gleaming in that icy blue gaze.
Carlin had heard enough of Gibbs' threats before—watching him on the live video feed, from the safety of his viewing room, back when the odds had been in his favor—to know the kind of things Gibbs wanted to do to him.
Carlin cleared his throat. "Dinner will be being served shortly, Agent Gibbs." Carlin was impressed with himself, at how he made it sound as if he were on his way to some high-class social function, instead of a prison cafeteria. "I'm sure this visit has a purpose?"
"I'm waiting," Gibbs said simply.
"Well, you'll be waiting a long time, I'm afraid, because I haven't the faintest idea what you're here for."
Gibbs didn't respond to that. He just went back to watching Carlin with that unnerving, unblinking, unappeasable stare.
"I'll get my lawyer," Carlin snapped.
"You don't need your lawyer," Gibbs snapped back, more impressively.
Right then, Carlin had to agree with Gibbs. What he needed was a bodyguard.
However, Carlin thought he began to understand the purpose of this visit. He managed to keep his tone superior, unafraid. "This is about the Sentinel, isn't it?" The flash in Gibbs' eyes—a moment of more focused anger—confirmed as much. "Well, I don't make it a habit of saying 'I told you so,' but if he's gotten out of hand, I feel I'm entitled to remind you I did try to warn you."
Gibbs leaned in close across the table, voice hushed, but not losing any of its intended intensity for it. "My Sentinel just caught an arrow intended for me."
That statement brought up far too many questions to coherently ask, so Carlin settled for a nonplussed: "Caught…an arrow?"
Gibbs gave a smile that was more snarl than anything. "With his left hand. Grabbed it before it could hit me. Long story. The short of it is, DiNozzo had my six, like he always has. And," Gibbs gave a shrug, affected nonchalance anything but unconcerned, "he cut down on a lot of searching."
"Searching?" Carlin parroted.
"We were on an interview for a kidnapping case. Turned out we didn't need to question our suspects to find the victim, after all."
With a strange, unsettled sensation in the pit of his stomach, Carlin realized Gibbs' actual reasons for the visit. He was here to gloat. "The Sentinel…" he began slowly, too stunned to think about preserving his pride.
"Picked out the sound of someone kicking against a door," Gibbs completed the thought for him. "Led us right to the shack where they were keeping him." Gibbs' snarl-smile widened. "Got our victim home today—and I'm not in the hospital, or dead—all thanks to the Sentinel. Not too bad for DiNozzo's first day back in the field, wouldn't you say?"
Carlin looked down at his lap, studying the material of his garish orange jumpsuit. "I…didn't think…" He licked dry lips. "That is, the Sentinel was obviously a rebel. Dangerous. He was exactly the kind of Sentinel—"
Gibbs' fist slammed down on the table hard, making Carlin jump in his seat, as he growled fiercely in a voice low enough to keep the words between the two of them: "Exactly the kind of Sentinel to make his Guide proud."
Carlin blinked at Gibbs, amazed and taken aback to see the truth of it. He was…proud. Proud of a Sentinel Carlin had been ready to give up hope on. He was proud of an un-trainable Sentinel, with clear authority issues, and a smart mouth.
Maybe these two were a match, after all. Carlin didn't understand either one of them.
There was satisfaction, now, mingled with the gleam in Gibbs' eyes. He knew his words were getting through to Carlin. "DiNozzo's one of the good guys."
"Of course, there was always that potential," Carlin replied, regaining some of his composure. "That was the point of all my endeavors with him. To train him to be of the most use to mankind. He made it necessary, himself, to use some physical pain as a corrective tool—"
"I could kill you right now," Gibbs said evenly, an edge of dark amusement suggesting he was working under the assumption that Carlin had figured that out for himself.
"But you won't," Carlin returned hotly, even while his eyes darted of their own volition to the door.
"No. But I should."
"There's this thing called 'due process,' that even you are bound to abide by, Agent Gibbs. I have my rights."
"Oh, I'd be well within my rights, too. As a Guide."
Carlin swallowed thickly. "My trial is tomorrow."
"I'll be there." Gibbs stood, circling over behind Carlin to lean in close to his ear. "And if you say anything that could in any way endanger my Sentinel, or the secret of the existence of Sentinels in general, I'll be back for another talk." He moved back around the table with measured, casual stride. "It won't be as painless as this one, either."
"Threats, Agent Gibbs?"
Gibbs came at him again, leaning his arms against the table, face close enough to Carlin's that Carlin could feel the puff of his breath against his skin as he answered, "Not idle ones."
Gibbs turned to go, but Carlin stopped him, and he turned back to face him part way.
"Agent Gibbs? Despite what you may think of my methods, I never wanted to hurt DiNozzo. Everything I did—it was all for his own good."
"His good was never your concern."
With that, Gibbs left, leaving Carlin to consider what he'd said, and wonder if he'd been bluffing, and if DiNozzo had really caught an arrow, and also to wonder—supposing all of that were true—if he'd missed the opportunity of a lifetime by losing a Sentinel who could do that, so instinctively.
One thing was certain: he'd made a life-long enemy out of a Guide who took his job very seriously.
At least he could ease his regret, minimally, with the knowledge that tomorrow he would prove to Agent Gibbs that he'd never intended to harm Sentinels. Carlin had only wanted to protect humans, and it was obvious DiNozzo was under control, even if Carlin didn't understand Gibbs' training methods.
"Something you wanna say to me, McSmirker?"
At his desk, McGee glanced up oh-so-innocently. "Um, no. And I'm not smirking, either."
"I would not call it a smirk," Ziva spoke up, from her desk.
Tony's frown traveled from McGee to Ziva. "He is. And you're smug. What gives?"
"Tony!" Abby came barreling out of the elevator, arms out in an incoming hug—which Tony swiveled in his chair to receive.
"Geez, guys, I know we solved the case, and all, but—"
"You caught the arrow? Seriously? That is so, so, so way beyond the coolest thing I've ever heard. Ever." Abby was just a little excited. "Oh, I wish I could've seen it…"
Tony's gaze raked over smirking McGee, smug Ziva, and back to gleeful Abby, suspicions consolidating. "How many people did you tell, Abbs?"
"And Ducky kind of told me," McGee admitted.
"And McGee told me," Ziva volunteered with that maddeningly cool self-confidence that left no room for self-consciousness—or for comprehension of Tony's self-consciousness. "I do not see why you should mind. It was very heroic."
"I suppose the whole building knows, now," Tony complained with a surreptitious look around for signs of anyone peering over the top of their cubicle. He knew he was overacting. He just thought they were all overacting a bit, too. Maybe it was heroic, but it was also just part of his job. Granted, he'd gone about it rather theatrically, maybe too over-the-top, but he'd been doing his job Sentinel-style, that was all.
"It was a spur-of-the-moment…parlor trick," Tony said dismissively.
"Saving Gibbs' life is not a parlor trick, Tony," Abby chastised.
"Not what I meant." Tony sunk a little further down his chair, feeling like a bug under a microscope under the weight of his co-workers' blatant regard. He was really beginning to think it hadn't been a good idea, telling Abby the details, but he hadn't had much choice. On their drive back, Tony had called Ziva and McGee, giving them a brief sit rep, with little elaboration, other than to inform them the case was solved. Gibbs had then told Tony to call Abby. It had been hard to resist a worried and worked-up Abby, demanding to know "everything." That need for "everything" hadn't been satisfied until he'd answered her questions about there being any injuries—and, of course, Tony's "nothing serious" hadn't gone over well as an explanation.
"Where's the Bossman, anyways?" Abby wanted to know.
"He said something about settling some unfinished business with Carlin," Tony supplied.
"Oh," Abby said, with pleased knowing, "'unfinished business.' He's going to give the bad man what he deserves, finally."
Tony was amused. "Uh, I didn't really get the impression…" Then, he realized he actually had gotten the impression. "Yeah, I guess he did look pleased when he said it, now that you mention it."
Abby nodded. "Pleased in that way that means soon someone else isn't gonna be pleased." The knowledge seemed to make everything right in Abby's World, and she resumed her initial topic, much to Tony's dismay. "Your poor hand," she exclaimed, sitting on the edge of his desk, and taking his injured hand carefully in hers. "You had Ducky take a look at it, right?"
"Bossman's orders, first thing," Tony sighed.
"Good." She didn't let go of his hand, cradling it like she could heal it faster through caring. "How did you do it?" she breathed.
"Yeah," McGee seconded, "was it like…a spidey-sense moment, or what?"
"Spidey-sense?" Tony repeated, with a "Who do you take me for?" look, that informed McGee his inner geek was showing. Admittedly, Tony had seen and liked the Spider Man movies.
McGee ducked his head a little. "Okay—slow motion, then."
Tony considered the question. "Sort of." It hadn't seemed so much like things had slowed down, though, as it had felt like his own ability to deal with the threat had just…been there, when he needed it. When Gibbs had needed it. His hearing had grabbed on to the sound of the arrow coming, and his hand had grabbed the arrow, because otherwise it would've hit Gibbs.
"Sort of…how slow?" Abby pressed.
"Just sort of slow." Tony knew it was impossible to really make them understand. "Mostly I heard it, I guess." It might have been more accurate to say he'd "felt" it, but he knew they'd just ask how he'd felt it, and he didn't have an answer for that.
"Oh!" Abby exclaimed, relinquishing Tony's hand, and moving around his desk, this time to steal his keyboard.
Tony had no choice but to pull back and allow her access. "Abby?"
"I've got an idea…. Yes. Here it is. Ziva, McGee, c'mere."
They obeyed Abby willingly, crowding around Tony's desk to watch as Abby brought up a YouTube video.
"Myth Busters?" Tony looked more closely at the title. "Ninja, catching arrow?"
"Yup." Abby pressed play.
Tony watched the slow motion video of the arrow catch, and he did have to admit it was…impressive.
Obviously, the rest of them thought so, too, Abby expressing herself more verbally, while Ziva and McGee just did the smirking/smug thing.
Tony refused to squirm, interjecting, "It's not like I did a pro job of it." He indicated his bandaged hand. "It wasn't like…that. Ninja stuff."
"No…" Abby said slowly, patiently. "They're using a basic recurve bow in this video."
"Tony, the guy was using a crossbow."
"From the sound of—at the kind of distance you mentioned—the arrow was likely traveling at a faster rate."
"Yeah," McGee added, "not to mention the size of a crossbow bolt is shorter than your average arrow."
"Which means," Ziva made her contribution, "it would be considerably harder to time grabbing it."
"And so," Abby concluded, "it's still way beyond cool that you caught it, even if the fletching did catch you."
How could Tony refute such solid and convincing arguments? "Okay. So it was cool. A little."
"Like on Myth Busters." Gibbs made them all start guiltily.
Well, maybe not Abby. She bestowed a pleased look on Gibbs. "Just like a ninja."
Tony winced, changing the subject to the two boxes Gibbs was carrying. "Pizza, Boss?"
"You killed Carlin," Abby said, eyes going suddenly wide with hope. "It's a celebration."
Gibbs' smirk was one of his easy, relaxed ones, the kind that Abby elicited from him more than anyone. "Not yet."
"You mangled him, just a little?" Abby held up thumb and index finger, less than an inch apart—then increased the distance slightly, still tentatively hopeful.
"He knows, Abbs."
"In no uncertain terms?"
"In my terms." Gibbs set one box down on Tony's desk, and handed the other off to Ziva as she cleared a spot.
Ducky came in just as they were beginning to dig in, saying, "Thank you for the invitation to the feast, Jethro." He gave the contented scene a somewhat suspicious glance, and asked Gibbs in a hushed voice, "Oh my, don't tell me this is a celebration of…a certain black-hearted villain's death?"
Gibbs chuckled—actually chuckled. "Afraid not, Duck."
"But don't worry," Abby consoled, tapping the side of her nose with an index finger, "Carlin knows, in Gibbs' terms."
"Ah," Ducky said, nodding, and accepting a piece of slice of pizza as Ziva offered, "then all is right with the world, I suppose."
"Almost." Tony chewed contemplatively on his slice of pepperoni 'n extra cheese. "I still don't get why they were using crossbows."
"They were re-enactors for a medieval society, Tony."
Tony looked down his nose at McGee. "You would know."
"That stuff's really is kinda cool. Re-enacting." Abby made an expression of distaste. "'Cept for whack-jobs like these guys, who have to come along and give a perfectly good hobby a bad name. They thought Savoy had personal access to drugs—and that he'd really just give them some? Sheesh."
"I don't know about the 'perfectly good hobby' part…" Tony differed.
Abby swatted his arm. "Dressing up is fun."
"How did you know to send in backup, anyways?" Tony asked, around another bite.
Abby struggled, and finally prevailed, against a string of cheese that hadn't wanted to end. "Their fingerprints were all over Savoy's apartment. Problem was, they weren't the only ones all over his apartment, and it took me a while to sort through 'em all. Savoy's a popular guy. Anyways," she finished another bite, "once I got an I.D. on their finger prints, I recognized them, and looked them up on that feed from the bar—bingo." She hunched her shoulders in a shudder of remembrance. "That was a bad, bad feeling, though, when I couldn't contact you guys. Let's not talk about it."
"Hey, it all turned out good, Abby," Tony aimed for nonchalance, but tried to slip in a look of gratitude between the lines. "And, what's more, pizza finally tastes like pizza again." He gave a blissful sigh as he snagged a second piece and bit off a large bite, complimenting Gibbs through the inhibiting mouth-full, "S'good."
No one reminded him it was rude to talk with his mouth full. Mostly, they were all too busy looking pleased. Even Gibbs was looking quietly, supremely satisfied.
The gathering dark outside always made the bullpen feel just a bit homier, under-lit by desk lamps, and mostly emptied out, except for Team Gibbs. Tony savored the first food he'd truly savored in months, and looked around at faces that he'd been starved for, even more than food, in all those long weeks of wandering.
Somehow, without Tony initially noticing, Abby had managed to get a hold of his injured hand again. She gave the tips of his fingers the lightest of squeezes, whispering in a voice so low it had to be meant for Sentinels' ears only: "Welcome home, Tony. Your Tribe missed you, too."
A/N: A last big thank you to everyone all you readers and reviews! Really, you guys are the BEST. In response to your questions about more stories in this 'verse, I'm afraid I don't have any multi-chapter stories started or planned. Of course I'm not ruling out the possibility for more in the future-but at this point all I have left is a short story or two. I also have some other NCIS stories, finished and almost finished. One is a kid!fic (betcha can't guess who that happens to), and the other is...kind of hard to explain. Essentially, it's a long-term undercover AU, with Gibbs infiltrating a ring of mafia-style crime lords...as a crime lord (and I betcha can't guess who his "Family" is).
Anyways, I'm still working on finishing up the kid!fic, but the long-term undercover AU is nearly ready to post, and I'll probably be doing so after my next vacation, around the end of June. Because I'm particularly nervous about posting that one, I'll also probably wind up posting it first to my LJ (nefhiriel . livejournal . com - remove the spaces), to test the waters, so to speak. I post my fic in public posts, in case anyone's interested in reading it there. I will continue to post here, as well-it'll just be more delayed while I post to LJ. ;)