It was absolutely beautiful in the mountains, but Tony was glad to get back to his apartment and clean off all the nature. Even though he was a life-long and confirmed city-boy, there was just something about being out in the middle of real nature. Not the small-town life that he’d bitched to Kate about, because that really did bug him. No, being lost in the great outdoors, surrounded by nothing but trees and animals, and being the only soul around for miles, listening to the patter of spring rain against the tent as he fell asleep…there was nothing else like it.

Tony had told everyone that he was going with friends so that no one would worry, but he hated camping with other people. And he was experienced enough that he wasn’t going to get into trouble unless some kind of external problem occurred, like flood or mudslide. For those possible problems, he always brought a Walkie and tuned it to the ranger’s frequency before disappearing.

Now that he was home, though, he was desperate for a shower and the comforts of civilization.

Among other things, he thought with a wolfish grin.

He had just enough time to have a long, hot shower and relax before getting ready for his date. Humming as he dropped his bag on the bedroom floor, Tony stripped to his boxers and just remembered to change course for the answering machine on his way to the bathroom. Having been gone for a week, he figured there would be plenty to listen to, and he was right.

Of course, there was only one message that he was really interested in…

“Hey, Tone, it’s Jack. I really hate to do this to you, but I need to cancel tonight. My sister’s kid has the chicken pox and he gave them to me, can you believe it? I’m still contagious, so you can’t even come over and make fun of how I look or play connect the dots in very interesting places. I’ll give you a call when I’m in the clear. Hope you had fun communing with nature. See ya.”

Despite the disappointment, Tony grinned at the thought of playing connect the dots on Jack’s body. Shaking his head, he went for the bathroom anyhow. Communing with nature did have its drawbacks, and grit and dust in places where there shouldn’t be either, was one of them.

Scratching absently at his arm, Tony squirmed at the sensitive, hot rash that seemed to be spreading wherever he touched and really hoped that he hadn’t accidentally gotten poison oak or something.

* * * *

“I can’t come in today, my head is killing me. Sorry, Gibbs. I’ll…I’ll call back when I can think straight.”

Jethro frowned at the message that Tony had left on his voice mail. The younger man had sounded utterly miserable and very weak. It was Tuesday after the long Memorial Day weekend and he hadn’t seen Tony for a week even before that, since he’d gone camping with some friends.

“Where’s DiNozzo?” Kate asked curiously, leaning on his desk.

Giving her a pointed enough look that she stood away from the desk, Jethro answered, “He’s sick.”

Indignant, she exclaimed, “The Tuesday after a long weekend? And you’re buying it?”

Still frowning, Jethro stared at the phone a moment before agreeing, “You’re right. I’ll go get him. If it’s just a hangover, then he should suffer like the rest of the country.”

She grinned. “Go, Gibbs!”

Eyes rolling in exasperation, Jethro stood and headed out to his car. Sometimes it was worse than Kindergarten, it really was.

* * * *

The drive over to Tony’s apartment took less time than usual, given the strange feeling in his gut that something was seriously wrong. He took shortcuts and barely made more than one yellow light, pushing his luck the entire way. He was lucky that no cops tried to pull him over, because he wasn’t all that sure that he would’ve stopped for them. Jethro pulled up to the curb in front of Tony’s apartment building with a screech of tires and ran inside.

Pounding on the door didn’t bring any sign of the other man, increasing his worry tenfold. Opening his wallet, Jethro took out the lock-pick and worked open Tony’s door within minutes. He drew his gun and looked around the living room, closing the door softly behind him. No sign of anything out of place, insofar as he could tell, given Tony’s lack of housekeeping skills. Moving to the kitchen, he found nothing wrong there or in the bathroom.

Saving the bedroom for last, suddenly realizing just how silent the apartment was, Jethro inched the door open and peered inside.

The curtains and shades were not only drawn, but there were blankets hanging haphazardly over them as well, blocking out all sunlight. Lying on the stripped bed, face down with a pillow over his head, was Tony…a very naked Tony. Jethro took in the surprising fact without comment, glancing away as he made sure there was no one else in the room. Not finding anything else out of place, he holstered his gun and said quietly, “Tony.”

Tony’s fingers clenched on the pillow, but he didn’t otherwise respond.

Even more worried, Jethro moved the rest of the way to the bed and repeated, “Tony? What’s going on?”

He leaned over the bed and lightly touched Tony’s shoulder. Like a rocket, Tony rolled off the bed, shouting in pain and bolting to the corner of the room to hold his head between his hands, rocking back and forth with his eyes shut tight. Shocked, Jethro didn’t move for several seconds, trying to figure out what was going on.

Approaching slowly, Jethro said quietly, “It’s going to be okay, Tony, I promise. Whatever’s going on, we’ll fix it.”

“Stop shouting, please,” Tony moaned, covering his ears and curling up even more.

The frown increased and he lowered his voice to a barely-there whisper as he asked, “This better?”

Tony nodded, not opening his eyes.

Keeping his voice pitched low, Jethro asked, “What happened?”

“I don’t know!” Tony exclaimed, not moving or opening his eyes. “One minute I was fine, the next everything hurt! I can’t stand my clothes, I can’t stand the light, I can’t stand the noise! And the smells, oh God, Gibbs, it’s awful!”

“When did it start?” Jethro questioned, crouching down in front of Tony. “Was it all at once?”

Shaking his head, Tony replied, “Started when I got back from camping. My hearing was up and down, I thought I was losing it. Then the migraines started and I went to bed, hoping they’d be gone when I woke up, but when I did, it was like my skin was on fire! Gibbs, help me, please!”

Jethro started to reach for him, but caught himself just before touching the other man. He’d never heard of anything like this, no drug side-effects, no medical condition…

A vague memory from years and years ago surfaced. Boot camp. A young wannabe Ranger named…shit! What was his name? Allston? Emerson? Concentrating, Jethro closed his eyes and thought back to the sweltering summer when he’d heard some of the enlisteds bitching about how…Ellison! Ellison, that was his name! About how Ellison had eyes in the back of his head and ears like a bat, that he could literally smell them coming.

He’d thought at the time that they were just pissed at having a good training officer, so Jethro had gone to check out one of Ellison’s exercises. He’d been watching, watching damn close, and still he hadn’t seen the young man until the objective had been accomplished. Impressed, he’d known then that the other man was going to make the Rangers and then some.

Coming back to the present, knowing it was a really slim chance, Jethro whispered, “Take it easy, Tony, okay? I might know someone who can help.”

Tony nodded, miserable, and pleaded, “Please, anything. I can’t take any more of this!”

The sheer desperation in Tony’s voice had Jethro moving as silently as he could into the living room, closing the door to offer a thin barrier between Tony and noise. Searching the room, he spied the laptop on the coffee table and booted it up, waiting impatiently as it did so. Once online, he logged into the NCIS database for Ellison.

It took almost a half-hour to find the other man because of his inactive status and not remembering his first name, but he finally did. Thankfully, while there were a lot of Ellisons, not many had been in the Rangers, and only one, a James Joseph Ellison, fit the timeline. He scanned the information and saw nothing recent, that he’d been discharged with honors in 1996 and that he was originally from Cascade, Washington.

Taking a chance, knowing that a lot of people returned ‘home’ after leaving the service, Jethro pulled out his cell and dialed information. “Cascade, Washington. James Ellison.”

* * * *

“You are so busted, mister.”

Jim grimaced, shutting the fridge and turning an innocent expression on his partner. “What are you talking about? I was just getting some water.”

Hands on his hips, Blair scolded, “You’re supposed to be doing this with me, man. It’s a ritual cleansing, Jim, and I can’t do it for you.”

Sighing in aggravation, Jim replied, “Sorry, Chief, I just don’t see the point.”

“The point is that you agreed to do it,” Blair answered, hurt and disappointed.

Inwardly wincing as the full-force of those deep blue eyes were leveled on him, Jim instantly closed the distance between them and tugged Blair into his arms. Kissing Blair lightly, he apologized, “I’m sorry, Chief, I didn’t eat anything.”

Reluctant humor upturned Blair’s lips as he observed, “Caught you in time, huh?”

Jim grinned and kissed him again. “Like always.”

The phone rang and he started to pull away, but Blair wrapped his arms around Jim’s neck and murmured, “Leave it. Fasting makes me horny.”

Jim’s eyebrows rose with interest at the new information and he grinned. “Far be it from me to interrupt an all natural thing like your sex-drive.”

They were deeply involved in getting reacquainted with each other’s tonsils when the machine clicked on and an unfamiliar voice started speaking into it.

“This is Agent Jethro Gibbs with NCIS, Mr. Ellison, and I have an emergency that I need your help with…”

Jim stiffened after the introduction and pulled away from Blair, striding across the room to stare at the phone as if it might bite him. Military. It couldn’t be anything good.

“You don’t know me, but we were briefly stationed together in 1990, just before you were accepted into the Rangers. I was a Gunnery Sergeant at the time, so our paths didn’t really cross, but…look, I’m really sorry to bother you, but a good friend of mine is in serious trouble and I don’t even know if you can help him, but, I don’t have anyone else to call and, shit, I hope this is the same Ellison…”

Jim frowned at Blair, who shot him a mystified look and said, “Can’t hurt to pick up, right? He sounds pretty desperate.”

“NCIS is an investigative branch of the armed forces, Blair,” Jim informed him tightly.

Shrugging, Blair pointed out, “Yeah, but this sounds personal.”

“I’ll wait at this number for you to call back, please don’t take too long…”

The stress and very real fear in the other man’s voice was what finally convinced Jim to pick up the phone and bark, “Ellison speaking. What’s going on, Agent Gibbs?”

There was a brief pause before the man replied, “My friend is having, I don’t even know what to call it, but it’s like his senses are spiking all over the map. I just vaguely remembered what the enlisteds said about you back when and tracked you down. I don’t even know if you can help, I’m just afraid to take him to the hospital because even here in his own apartment, he’s going crazy from the stimuli.”

Jim’s jaw dropped in shock and his gaze instantly shifted to Blair, who frowned at him and mouthed, ‘What?’

To Gibbs, Jim said, “I’m going to put my partner on the phone with you, Agent Gibbs, he’s an expert in the subject and can probably Guide you through some things that will help your friend.”

With wide eyes, Blair took the phone and Jim shamelessly listened to both sides of the conversation. “Agent Gibbs? What are his symptoms?”

“The light hurts his eyes, sound is magnified to overload, he’s naked because anything that touches him hurts and he says the smells are just about killing him,” Gibbs answered, calmly.

Or, to anyone else it would sound calm, but Jim could hear the underlying emotion and knew this man was about to snap with fear for his friend. More than a friend, maybe?

Nodding rapidly, Blair said, “Okay, the first thing you need to do is get him equalized. You need to help him calm down and focus on your voice, use it like a meditation device. Do you meditate?”

“No, but I know about focusing techniques.”

“Good, good. Tell him he needs to picture a stereo or a radio dial, anything that has controls he can turn up and down. Have him label them in his mind with each sense: taste, touch, smell, hearing, and sight. What he needs to do is bring those dials to a manageable level, somewhere mid-range, okay? That should be the normal range of his senses, if they go too low, then he won’t be able to use them at all.”

“Got it.”

“Agent Gibbs, you should know there’s something we call a Zone-out for, ah, people like Jim and your friend.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s where he, they, focus too much on one sense and get lost in it, for lack of a better explanation. If that happens, and it could, you need to use his other senses to bring him out of it. It doesn’t happen all that much to Jim anymore, but you should just stay calm and try and bring him out of it by upping the stimuli to the other senses, rub his hand or face, talk right in his ear, don’t shout though, too much of a jolt will hurt him. Just take his attention off the consuming sense.”

“Is that it? How do I make sure this doesn’t happen again?”

Blair exchanged a helpless look with Jim, then said, “Just bring him out of this state for now. Jim and I will catch the next flight to, where are you?”

“Virginia.”

“Ah, I guess we’ll fly in to Dulles and call you when we get there.”

There was a brief pause before Gibbs said sincerely, “Thank you.”

A soft smile surfaced on Blair’s face and he replied, “Just stay calm, that’s the best thing you can do for your friend. We’ll be there as soon as we can.”

“Good. I’ll…

In the background, Jim heard someone shout, as clear as day, “Gibbs! Gibbs, help me!”

The phone disconnected.

Blair was definitely worried as he hung up the phone and moved to his laptop. “I’ll get the tickets and call Simon while you pack.”

Nodding, Jim headed upstairs hoping that Gibbs’ friend would make it until they got there.

* * * *

Jethro ran into the bedroom to find Tony curled up in a ball on the floor, crying weakly, his strength apparently gone with the shout. Rushing to the other man’s side, he sat beside Tony and whispered, “It’s going to be okay, Tony, I know what to do now. You need to listen to me, all right? You have to listen and try to do just what I tell you.”

“I can’t,” Tony whimpered, arms covering his head.

“You can and you will, DiNozzo, understand?” Jethro snapped, using his best ‘Boss’ voice.

Tony flinched, but nodded after a few seconds.

Taking a breath, Jethro said, “You need to relax and calm down, first. I want you to breathe with me, okay? I know you can hear my heart, DiNozzo, so I want you to breathe slow and deep until the rhythms match. When you’ve got it, let me know.”

Jethro had to shift into a more comfortable position and take his own deep breaths, slowing down his heartbeat until he was ‘at rest.’ It was a good twenty minutes before he saw Tony’s inhalations slow down to an acceptable rate, but he stayed silent, waiting for Tony to get to it on his own.

Finally, Tony whispered, “Got it.”

“All right. Pick out your favorite stereo and choose five dials on the technical monstrosity.”

As hoped for, Tony chuckled at the comment, if only briefly.

Smiling, Jethro continued, “Label each dial with a sense. One of them is hearing, another sight, and so on. Really feel it, DiNozzo. These dials are your key to getting out of this hell, so know in your gut which one is which. You can control how high or how low they are and use them to see where your senses are…below normal, normal, or off-the-charts. Put some numbers on them. 1 for the lowest, can’t even feel anything, 5 for normal, and 10 for excruciating and out-of-control.”

It was nearly an hour later that Tony finally whispered, “I can see them.”

Jethro took a breath and asked, “Where do you see them?”

“They’re all between nine and ten.”

“Then bring them down, DiNozzo! Take Sight first. Turn the dial down from wherever it is to five. The light will stop hurting. You can see normally. Nothing’s fluctuating. You can see just like you always have.”

It was another ten minutes before Tony’s eyes opened a crack, then the rest of the way, landing on Jethro’s face. Smiling, Jethro greeted softly, “Hi.”

Tony echoed with a tentative smile of his own and he answered, just as soft, “Hi.”

“Let’s work on those other dials, okay?” Jethro suggested.

Nodding, Tony took a deep, relaxing breath and released it, closing his eyes again.

Jethro sat beside him for another hour and a half as Tony went through the other four senses, smell giving the young man extra trouble for some reason. He remembered Tony picking up Dr. Chalmers’ presence in Melissa’s house just by her perfume and was astounded as he realized that Tony had literally sniffed the woman out, that he hadn’t caught a whiff of the scent lingering in the living room where they’d been interrogating Melissa.

When Tony pushed up into a sitting position, Jethro asked, “Better?”

“Much,” Tony agreed, weary. “Thanks.”

Cursing his sore knees from sitting so long in one position, Jethro stood and offered a hand down to Tony. It took a couple of tries to get him on his feet, but when he was leaning on Jethro, he suggested, “You want to try taking a shower?”

An embarrassed flush rose on Tony’s face as the younger man nodded.

Unable to help himself, Jethro brushed the sweaty bangs from Tony’s forehead and ordered, “Go take a shower and then a nap. By the time you wake up, help should be here.”

“Help?”

“Someone who has the same problem.”

Tony looked unconvinced, but stumbled towards the bathroom.

Not all that convinced himself, Jethro looked at the clock to find that it was almost two in the afternoon. Grimacing, wondering why Kate hadn’t shown up on Tony’s doorstep already, Jethro walked over to his cell phone without a clue as to what kind of explanation he could come up with to satisfy the other agent.

* * * *

The shower spray felt normal, thank God, and his senses stayed the same way, also thank God. Or, really, thank Gibbs. He snorted wearily at the thought, turning his face into the hot water and relishing the way it dripped over his skin in a sensual dance. He turned and scrubbed lightly at his scalp without shampoo, half certain that it would start burning again if he used any.

He was mortified that Gibbs had seen him that way, even though there hadn’t been anything he could do to stop his out-of-control senses. He’d been whimpering like a kicked puppy, crying like a baby, and oh yeah, wasn’t that a great way to impress the boss?

Sighing with regret, Tony turned off the water and grabbed a towel. In the back of his mind, he kept the picture of the stereo dials handy, checking them constantly to make sure that everything stayed at five. He was positive that things would again spiral out of control and he’d be locked in that agonizing hell. And if that really was a preview of hell, then he was damned sure going to Mass on Sunday and bringing Gibbs with him.

A soft tap on the door startled him. “Yeah?”

“Just checking. Everything okay?” Gibbs asked from the other side.

Tony sighed. “Yeah. Everything’s fine. I’ll be out in a minute.”

Picking up the sweats that he’d left on the floor when things had started going crazy, Tony pulled them on and slung the towel over the shower rack. Leaving the steamy bathroom, he found that Gibbs had made himself at home in the living room, clearing off the coffee table and setting two plates with sandwiches on them.

Gibbs waved him over and ordered, “Eat first. Keep up your strength.”

Silent, Tony sat as far from Gibbs as he could to eat, flushed with new embarrassment as he thought again about how he’d appeared to his Boss.

“I don’t think I could handle something like that,” Gibbs announced thoughtfully.

Tony looked over at him, squinting suspiciously at the other man. “What do you mean?”

With a shrug, Gibbs explained, “I’m too…set in my ways for me to get through something like that with my sanity intact. You did good, Tony, even if it doesn’t seem like it.”

Changing the subject, Tony asked, “You said help was on the way?”

Gibbs accepted the change and replied, “Yeah. Someone who’s got the same thing you do. And his partner, who’s supposed to be an expert.”

“An expert in what!?” Tony demanded, frustrated. “I don’t even know what the hell is going on with me!”

For the first time, Gibbs looked uncertain as he answered, “I don’t know, Tony, I wish I did. I’m sorry.”

Taking a breath, Tony apologized, “No, I’m sorry, Boss. I’m just confused and scared and, and angry, I guess. I mean, my body was so out of control. You don’t know…it hurt so bad.”

Compassion showed clearly in Gibbs’ eyes. “Whatever it is, you’re going to need your strength. Finish eating and get some sleep.”

Even though he wasn’t hungry, Tony had never yet disobeyed an order from Gibbs when it was delivered in just that tone, and he wasn’t about to start.

* * * *

It had been a long time since Blair had been on the East Coast, let alone in DC. It was just as beautiful and dirty as he remembered, depending on which part you were in. The people ignored Jim and himself, as all proper city-folk ignored everyone and Blair felt anonymous for the first time in years.

It felt weirdly good.

“Come on, Chief, stop daydreaming,” Jim called from the rental agent’s desk. “We’ve got a schedule to keep!”

Flashing an easy grin at the woman on duty, Blair complained, “Keeping the schedule means he gets to drive like a bat out of hell. Did he sign up for the extra insurance?”

Jim snorted and slung his arm around Blair’s neck in a mock chokehold. “Keep it up, Junior and no dessert tonight.”

She laughed and went over the rest of the form with Jim. Even though Blair listened with half an ear, he was really still thrumming with too much excitement to pay real attention.

Another Sentinel! After so long without any subjects, it seemed incredible that there was another one! He’d learned with Alex, the hard way, and so had talked to Jethro about keeping a firm grip on Tony while Jim was in the room. He had no idea of how two male Sentinels in the same place would act. Blair was hoping that because Tony was still undeveloped, so to speak, there wouldn’t be a problem. He also had no idea if Jethro was Tony’s Guide, or if he was just a good friend willing to go to what some people would call extremes to help.

“Chief?”

Jolting out of his thoughts, Blair waved hastily at the clerk and hurried after Jim, who had already reached the office door. It was beautiful outside and he soaked in the early-summer heat of DC. The afternoon sun reflected off the pavement and he sighed in contentment, asking, “Can we move here?”

Jim chuckled and answered, “Not a chance.”

“Ah well, I can dream,” Blair teased with a grin.

He waited for Jim to open the trunk then tossed his duffel bag inside. It was only a few minutes later that they were in the car and on the road, heading for Tony’s apartment building. “How’re you feeling?”

Jim shot him a surprised look and answered, “Fine, why?”

“Well, you are in another Sentinel’s backyard,” Blair pointed out.

Thoughtful as he maneuvered through traffic, Jim said, “I don’t feel like I am.”

“Could be because he’s just starting out. I wonder what kind of childhood he had.”

“Can’t help you there, Chief.”

Blair yawned, rubbing tiredly at his eyes. It was only just going on seven here, but he’d been up the entire night before, meditating and preparing for the ritual fast. He snorted. Not that they were going through it anymore.

“What?”

Looking over at Jim, Blair explained, “I was just thinking about the fast.”

Jim winced and said, “We can do it another time and I promise I won’t cheat next time.”

There was a brief pause before Blair accused, “I thought you said that I caught you before you ate anything.”

“Oh…you did.”

“You are so busted, man.”

* * * *

Jethro couldn’t help himself from checking on Tony at least once every half-hour to make sure the younger man was still all right. Even though he’d seemed fine after the shower, exhausted, but fine, Jethro kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. Staring down at Tony, Jethro drank in the sleeping face and smiled at the innocent expression. Something that he’d never seen on Tony’s face unless the younger man was plotting something and up to no-good.

It was strange how fate mixed everything up and yet tied everything together at the same time. He and Tony were about as opposite as could be, but Jethro couldn’t imagine his life without the younger man in it. Tony’s brash humor and confidence were at odds with the vulnerability and sensitivity that lurked just barely below the surface. All of which completely contradicted the way that Jethro lived his life.

He found it more and more difficult to keep his thoughts and emotions to himself, to keep Tony at a distance. The longer they worked together, the more he wanted the other man in both his personal life and his bed. He wanted…

Sighing, Jethro shook himself out of the mood and left the bedroom before he could do anything stupid. A knock at the door kept his feet moving and he called, “Who is it?”

“Ellison and Sandburg.”

Jethro took a breath, unexpected nerves fluttering his stomach as he opened the door. Ellison was a lot bigger than he remembered and with more muscles that were definitely not hidden by the light shirt and jeans he wore. Sandburg was a head shorter than the big man with long, dark curls and deep blue eyes. Jethro was instantly reminded of Abby for some reason.

“Hey, Jethro, good to meet you. Sorry it’s under these circumstances, of course,” Blair said, holding out his hand.

Before Jethro could do or say anything in return, he was grabbed from behind and yanked unceremoniously away from the two men. He hit the wall and stayed there for a few seconds, dazed. When his vision cleared, Jethro found Tony standing between him and the two newcomers. One hand was thrust out and back, obviously meant to protect him, and the other held Tony’s gun, aimed steadily at Ellison, who was planeted between Tony and Blair.

Half-dressed and barefoot, with his hair mussed from sleep, Tony’s expression was feral as he stared at Ellison.

“Jethro, now would be a really good time to talk to Tony and tell him that we’re friends,” Blair announced quietly.

Moving slowly, Jethro closed the distance between him and Tony, saying, “Tony? Put the gun down, they’re friends. These are the guys who are going to help you with whatever’s going on, remember? I told you they were coming over.”

“He’s a threat!” Tony hissed furiously, the gun not moving an iota. “Can’t you see that? Can’t you smell it?”

Not seeing any other option, knowing the stubborn tilt to Tony’s jaw all too-well, Jethro ordered, “DiNozzo! Give me the weapon, now!”

Tony faltered and whined, “But Boss, he’s a threat!”

“I just told you that he wasn’t! Give me the God damned gun, now!” Jethro snapped.

Clearly torn, Tony snarled in frustration as he uncocked the hammer and slid the safety on before holding it out to Jethro. He took the gun from the younger man and stared at him intently, more than a little shocked by the changes in the usually easy-going agent’s behavior.

Tony’s eyes lowered and he muttered, “Sorry, Boss.”

Jethro just barely stopped his lips from twitching into a smile at Tony’s patented ‘little-boy’ attitude. He had to nip this in the bud right away, or he just knew that there would be trouble later. “When I give you an order, DiNozzo, I expect you to obey it.”

The attitude was instantly dropped and Tony raised wide eyes to him as he nodded and whispered, “Sorry.”

“Come on, let’s go meet the nice people you just threatened to kill.”

Groaning in embarrassment, obviously over whatever strange thing had controlled his behavior, Tony muttered, “Do I have to?”

At that, Jethro did smile.

* * * *

Blair groaned as he flopped onto the hotel bed, burying his face in the pillow and mumbling, “That went well.”

Hearing the words despite the muffling, Jim chuckled and put their bags on the bed beside him. Starting to unpack, he pointed out, “It could’ve gone worse.”

“How?” Blair demanded, rolling onto his side to give his lover an incredulous stare.

Jim shrugged. “He didn’t actually pull the trigger.”

“Great. That’s great, Jim. Make jokes.”

Seeing that the younger man was really upset, Jim stopped unpacking and sat beside him. Rubbing Blair’s shoulder he said, “I reacted pretty much the same way to Alex, we just didn’t realize that’s what I was doing. On top of that, he’s got no real idea of what a Sentinel is or does, and he’s just gotten online with his senses. All things considered, I think you did pretty damn good, Chief.”

After a moment’s consideration, a mischievous smile crossed Blair’s lips and he observed, “Did you notice that Tony calls Gibbs ‘Boss,’ and you call me ‘Chief?’ I think there’s something about Sentinels that they always know who’s in charge right away.”

Jim chuckled. “There’s no way for me to answer that honestly and still have a sex life, so I’ll just claim the 5th and ask, do you think Gibbs is his Guide?”

Blair’s smirk told Jim that he was going to bring the subject back up at some other time, but was accepting the subject change.

“I don’t know. It seems strange that the Sentinel would be younger than the Guide, but I could just be projecting here. I mean, it does make sense that a Guide would be older and have more experience than the Sentinel. That his or her life experiences would help shape and, well, guide the Sentinel in his or her development,” Blair mused thoughtfully. “Maybe we’re the abnormal pair, not them.”

Nodding, Jim grinned and agreed, “Always.”

Laughing softly, Blair yawned and rubbed his eyes.

Combing his fingers through Blair’s curls, Jim observed, “It does makes sense, but do you think Gibbs is Tony’s Guide?”

Blair shrugged and rolled onto his back, staring up at the ceiling. “Hard to say. We only met with them for a couple of hours to give them the basics.”

“What’s your gut say?”

“That Gibbs is Tony’s Guide.”

“There you go.”

“You’re so black and white sometimes,” Blair teased, grinning.

Jim stretched out beside him, his fingers brushing through the long hair as he countered, “I just have faith in your abilities, Blair. You’re a great Shaman and the best Guide I could ever hope for.”

A flush chased over Blair’s cheeks and he said softly, “Thanks, Jim. That means a lot to me.”

“You’re welcome,” Jim answered, kissing him. “But you still need to call Simon with our return ETA.”

Blair snorted. “So much for the Blessed Protector instinct. You do know that Simon’s going to shoot the messenger, right?”

* * * *

Tony could have felt Gibbs watching him, even if he hadn’t heard the other man’s near-silent entrance into the bedroom, the inspection was that intense.

“I know you’re awake, Tony. Come on, we need to talk.”

Sighing, Tony opened his eyes and looked at Gibbs, who stood only a foot away from the bed, an inscrutable expression in place. He hated that expression. Hated it with a passion and always had. It was difficult to read Gibbs at the best of times, never mind when he looked like that. Pillowing his head with his arm, he asked, “What about?”

“Very funny, you know what about,” Gibbs answered. “Come out into the living room.”

“I don’t want to.”

“Now, DiNozzo.”

Even knowing that he was acting like a sulky child didn’t stop Tony from grumbling as he rolled out of bed and stomped into the living room. Arms crossed over his chest, he faced Gibbs and said, “You can’t order me around like that.”

Gibbs arched an eyebrow at him. “And you call me ‘boss’ because…?”

Scowling, Tony avoided the question by replying, “I can’t believe what Sandburg was saying! I mean, Sentinels and Guides and protecting the tribe and ancient throwbacks? What kind of crap was he trying to feed us?”

“It’s not crap,” Gibbs countered, quiet, but firm. “The information he gave me on the phone saved you from a sensory hell, Tony. I want you to listen to what he says and take it as the truth, because I refuse to watch you go through that again. Do you understand me?”

Tony rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands, suddenly exhausted. The confusion and panic were still there, just below the surface, and he didn’t think staying angry was going to keep them at bay. He didn’t want to be angry. He just wanted things back to the way they were. He wanted to go to work, be Gibbs’ personal comedy routine, mock argue with Kate, have fun with Abby and Gerald, and avoid Ducky’s lectures and autopsies like the plague.

Still hiding his face, he apologized, “I’m sorry, Gibbs, I just…I want it to stop! It’s like, like a time-bomb inside me and I can feel it ticking. This is control that I’ve never had to deal with before.”

“Hey, it’s all right, Tony. I’m not going to leave you to do this alone, I promise,” Gibbs said, walking over to him. A hand rested briefly on his shoulder and Gibbs continued, “I talked to Kate and arranged personal leave for the both of us. We’ll get a handle on this thing before you have to see anyone else.”

Dropping his hands, Tony stared at him and pleaded, “Can’t you just make it go away?”

For an instant, something like pain crossed Gibbs’ face, but it was gone almost too fast to register.

Gibbs shook his head. “I wish I could, Tony, I’m sorry.”

Tony didn’t say anything else for a long moment, and he looked away from Gibbs, not wanting to admit even to himself that he’d been half-convinced that Gibbs could make anything better, even this. That he couldn’t was a completely irrational disappointment and Tony knew it, but he still couldn’t help feeling let down.

“Come on, I’ll make some tea for you so we can sit and talk.”

“Tea?”

Grimacing, Gibbs nodded and explained, “After you retreated to the bedroom to pout, Blair said that you should stay away from stimulants and depressants, including caffeine and sugar and alcohol. At least until you have things under control. I found some herbal tea in your cabinets that Blair said would be all right.”

“No coffee?” Tony exclaimed, that one thing somehow seeming the most unjust thing of all. It was just a little pleasure, but one he lived for. Not as much as Gibbs, of course, but then, Tony was pretty sure Gibbs would take a caffeine injection and forget the coffee.

“Sorry.”

Tony sighed and replied, “No, it’s okay. What else did he say?”

Walking to the kitchen, Gibbs answered, “That we should rewash all your clothes and linens in a new detergent, he gave me the brand, and clean this place to within an inch of its life. He was surprised that you could stand the dust.”

“I wasn’t expecting company!”

“That’s why you should always have it neat, for those unexpected visitors.”

“Yeah, yeah. The drill sergeant in you is loving this, isn’t he?”

Gibbs grinned and moved familiarly around the kitchen, setting the kettle to boil, pulling out mugs and tea bags, and correcting, “Gunnery Sergeant, not drill sergeant.”

“Same diff.”

“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.”

Tony smirked, relaxing against the counter at the familiar banter. “So what else did Guru Blair tell you?”

“Tony…”

Holding up his hands at the warning tone, Tony said, “I’m just kidding, Gibbs, I wasn’t making fun of him. Well, not much anyhow. What else did he say?”

“That it’s going to take a lot of work and you’re going to have to trust me in order to get your senses under control for real and for good,” Gibbs answered, holding out a steaming mug.

Taking the mug, Tony blew on it to cool the hot liquid and walked back to the sofa. Sitting, he finally said, “That’s a no-brainer. I already trust you with my life. Trusting you with the rest of me’s not going to be that big a leap.”

Gibbs blinked a few times, staring at him. “Uh…good. Good. He’s going to show me a lot of things that I’ll be teaching you, sensory exercises and control techniques, mostly.”

“Why doesn’t he just show me himself?” Tony asked curiously.

That seemed to throw Gibbs for a loop. He frowned and said, “That’s a good question. It would certainly save time. I’ll ask him when they come over tomorrow. You think you can handle hanging with Ellison without trying to kill him again?”

Flushing in embarrassment, Tony replied, “Yes. I don’t know what the hell came over me, Gibbs, I swear to God! I’ve never had that kind of reaction to anyone before. I mean, there’s been plenty of people that I’ve wanted to shoot, but never just from the smell of them.”

Gibbs’ eyebrows rose in disbelief. “His smell made you want to shoot him?”

“I can’t explain it, but yeah,” Tony confirmed, sipping at the hot tea. He sighed deeply, slowly starting to relax all the way through. Talking with Gibbs about what was going on was a good idea, he had to admit. “But when he walked into the apartment, I could…I don’t know…smell that he wasn’t right, wasn’t normal like you and Blair. There was something dangerous about him and I knew that you were in trouble.”

“I wasn’t,” Gibbs pointed out.

Tony sighed again. “I know. I just felt it.”

Taking pity on him, Gibbs asked, “But you’re okay with him now, right? You aren’t going to go off on him again?”

It was more of a statement than a question, but Tony nodded anyhow. “I’ll be fine. It was pure instinct, that first time. But I know him now and I know he’s not going to hurt you.”

Gibbs grinned and snarked, “My Hero.”

“That’s right,” Tony retorted, a grin tugging at his lips.

“Why don’t you grab your bedclothes and what you want to wear for tomorrow? I’ll go out and buy the detergent and soaps that Blair recommended for you.”

“Yeah, sounds good. And…thanks, Gibbs. I appreciate all of what you’re doing.”

Gibbs smiled at him, sincere, and replied simply, “You’re welcome.”

* * * *

The drive to the 24-hour grocery store proved to be fruitless for getting the specific brands that Blair had written down for him. Jethro made a note to have Tony order them online, knowing the younger man would be much faster at finding them than he would. In the meantime, he got dye-free, allergy-safe detergent that was supposed to be good for kids. And he bought all kids’ shampoo and soaps, too, not trusting Tony to not have some kind of reaction to the soap he had on hand. Not that he had had one from the earlier shower, but better safe than sorry.

He was going overboard, and Jethro knew it, but couldn’t help himself. He’d meant what he’d said to Tony about never watching him go through something like that again. It had torn at him that there hadn’t been anything he could do for the younger man. If he hadn’t remembered Ellison, if he hadn’t been able to find Ellison…

Jethro shuddered as a cold sweat broke out thinking about what would have happened to Tony in a hospital. A hospital where they wouldn’t have been able to do anything for him, where they might have thought it was all in Tony’s head. That he was having some kind of psychosomatic reaction to stress, or worse. And that would have thrown Tony in the nuthouse really damn fast, Jethro knew that for a fact.

Staring into space, not seeing or hearing the cars coming and going in the parking lot, Jethro wondered if he could handle what was coming. Tony’s question about why Blair had been telling everything to him instead of the fledgling Sentinel begged an obvious answer: he was Tony’s Guide. It would fall on him to help Tony learn about his new abilities. It would be his responsibility to keep the younger man on an even keel while training and developing, and even beyond that.

I don’t want this, Jethro thought in despair. I don’t want to be this for you! I don’t want to see you in pain, or out of control, or looking at me like you did earlier. I’m not some God damned superhero who can make everything better, Tony. I’m not even a nice guy! Why me?

It wasn’t something that anyone could answer.

Scrubbing his fingers through his hair, Jethro sighed as he took out his cell phone and dialed it.

“Hello?” Ducky’s comfortingly cheerful voice answered.

“Hey, Ducky, it’s me.”

“Jethro! How are you? Is Anthony all right?”

Smiling at the worried questions, Jethro answered, “We’re both fine, Ducky. Tony’s having some…personal problems though, and I’m going to be helping him through it so we’ll both be out for a while.”

“How long?”

“I don’t know. Wish I did.”

There was a brief pause before Ducky asked, “What do you need?”

Jethro’s lips twitched into a grin. Ducky knew him so well. “I need you to cover for me. There’s a conference coming up on Thursday that I’m not going to be able to make, and a court appearance on Friday. The files and notes are locked in my drawer so you can get up to speed.”

“Of course. Anything else?”

Thinking about it for a moment, Jethro mentally went through his schedule and replied, “There’s a senior staff meeting tomorrow morning at 10 that it would be good for you to attend, but it’s not vital. I can get the gist of it from the minutes if I have to.”

“I think I can squeeze it into my schedule. I’m sure that my presence will liven things up a bit,” Ducky replied, humor lacing his voice.

Jethro grinned and agreed, “I’m sure it will.”

“Is that all, Jethro? And are you sure you’re both all right?”

“We’re fine,” Jethro assured him. “And yeah, that should take care of everything. I’ll be checking my emails from Tony’s place, and I have my cell if you need to get in touch with me on something that can’t wait. Kate’s in charge, and loving it by the way, so just business as usual until we get back.”

“And you’ve no idea when that will be.”

“‘Fraid not, Ducky.”

Ducky sighed and said, “So long as the two of you are well, that’s all the matters. I’ll call you after the meeting if there’s anything important.”

“Thanks. I really appreciate it,” Jethro replied.

“It’s my pleasure, Jethro. Take care and give my best to Anthony.”

“I will. You too. Night, Ducky.”

“Good night.”

Hanging up, Jethro debated for a moment, then decided against calling Abby. Ducky would fill her in tomorrow and hopefully have some kind of cover story in place that would filter down to the rest of the office.

Finally turning on the engine, he took a deep breath and mentally changed gears. This wasn’t about him, after all, this was about Tony and what Jethro would do to protect the other man.

And really, there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do to accomplish that.