Lions and Tigers and Igigi, Oh My
Tony unloaded an entire clip into the suspect, trying hard to not panic when the Marine kept coming at him, the eyes shining like a demon rising from hell, and Tony had definitely watched too many invasion movies.
"Boss!" he called, an edge of desperation in his voice as he backed up the steps and pulled another clip out of his pocket. Dropping his empty clip so that it clattered to the floor, he slapped the new one in and started firing again. Nine, ten, twelve holes, each trailed a line of blood out of Captain Kest's chest, so Tony knew the bullets were hitting. However, whatever shit this guy was on, it was keeping him moving when he should be falling over dead.
"Aim for the head, DiNozzo!" Gibbs' friend called out. Normally Tony wasn't good at taking orders from anyone other than Gibbs, but desperate times called for desperate measures. He changed his aim just in time for Captain Kest to turn to face the new voice.
"You," Captain Kest said, his voice echoing oddly. Well, not echoing exactly, but Tony did not have a word for the current weirdness. O'Neill stood on the catwalk with Gibbs.
"You know, I thought I killed you once... or twice. I might have killed you twice. I've killed so many of you guys that it's getting hard to keep track of," O'Neill said with a casual shrug. The man was insane. He was insane and standing next to Gibbs. Tony's stomach churned with acid as he realized that the bad situation had just gotten a lot worse.
"NCIS, drop the knife and get down on the ground," Tony ordered, desperately trying to take control of the situation. Unfortunately, everyone seemed to be ignoring him.
"You have no idea how much pain you'll suffer," Kest snarled at O'Neill.
"Suffering, pain, subjugation. You guys promise more than you deliver."
"Jack," Gibbs warned. Tony recognized that tone. Unlike everyone else in the universe who jumped when Gibbs got cranky, O'Neill got a wry grin.
"Now me, I'd be happy to play all day, but these folks need to get back to their lives. So, you can either surrender and get out of that sailor, or I can add one more snake to my kill list." O'Neill was all cheerful smile and frightening insanity. Clearly the man had been in the special forces for a little too long.
Kest slowly turned to face Tony, his wounds still sluggishly bleeding. "I'll get out of this host," he agreed, and some little prey part of Tony's brain recognized the predatory look in Kest's eyes before he leaped straight at Tony with inhuman speed. Tony emptied his entire clip into Kest's head, the blood and bone turning to a mist that settled to the ground behind the body that crumpled in slow motion. Tony had killed in the line of duty, but this time was different. His heart pounded so hard that he couldn't stop pulling the trigger until the weapon clicked as the hammer fell on the empty chamber over and over.
"Tony. It's okay. You can stop now." Tony didn't know when Gibbs had moved, but he was there at Tony's side, his fingers curling around Tony's wrist. "It's safe now."
"Yeah, keep telling yourself that."
"I will keep him safe."
Tony was losing his mind because now it sounded like Gibbs' voice had that same echo.
"Samas, it's getting harder and harder to tell the difference between you and Gibbs."
"Fuck off," Gibbs said, and this time his voice sounded normal. Normal and almost amused.
"Boss?" Tony asked.
"Don't worry about it, Tony. You're safe. Let's just get you out of here."
"And have a little conversation about gou'uld and tok'ra and the igigi," O'Neill suggested.
"Don't bring him into this," Gibbs snapped. Tony stiffened. He was Gibbs' second, and whatever Gibbs was in, he should be there to back up his boss.
O'Neill sighed. "Both of you are stubborn bastards. No wonder you get along so well."
Tony had no idea what he'd said to make O'Neill think that, and even more oddly, O'Neill was staring only at Gibbs. Yeah, something was going on, and so far, the only movies that seemed to apply were alien invasion movies. In Tony's experience, that was never a good thing.
All three of them ended up in the same car, abandoning the one Tony had checked out in the parking lot of the warehouse, but that was probably for the best. Tony was fairly sure he couldn’t drive right now. In all reality, his legs weren’t even feeling up for walking. But they got him as far as Gibbs’ car. Tony hadn’t realized they were leaving until Gibbs started the car.
“Boss. The scene.” Tony had just shot a suspect who was trying to kill him… or suck his brain. The glowing eyes thing was definitely more in the brain sucking category.
“My people will clean it up,” Colonel O’Neill said. Shock robbed Tony of the words he needed to answer that. He wasn’t shocked that O’Neill was covering up a death—O’Neill struck him as the sort of special ops officer who had made more than one mess vanish. However, Gibbs was going along. That was shaking Tony’s world as much as the idea of glowy-eyed demon suspects who had tried to munch on him. Gibbs had a code, and he didn’t bend that code for anyone, and yet they were pulling out of the parking lot, leaving the scene unguarded.
“I thought I told you to wait for me at the office,” Gibbs said. For him, that was a mild reproach. Tony had expected more shouting or head-slapping or possibly even the dreaded cold-shoulder routine.
“You weren’t answering your phone,” Tony answered.
“Tenacious little shit, isn’t he?” O’Neill sounded obnoxiously amused by that.
Gibbs used the mirror to look into the back seat. “Yes, he is.”
Since he was riding shotgun, O’Neill could just turn around in his seat. “I know Gibbs took the battery out of his phone, so I have to know. How did you track him?”
Tony shrugged. “There were a limited number of places Captain—” Tony stopped. Captain Kest. Only, Tony was almost sure that the person running around in Kest’s body was not actually the captain. “There were a limited number of places the suspect could have used as a kill room.”
“And… but… so…” O’Neill let his words trail off.
Tony stared at him. O’Neill was not his boss, and right now, Tony was not having any warm and fuzzy feelings for the man. Ever since O’Neill had shown up on the heels of this case, Gibbs had been acting twitchy. And Gibbs never got twitchy, not even for old commanders. Weirdly, though, O’Neill was Air Force, so Tony couldn’t figure out how Gibbs might have worked for him. Marines didn’t usually work for Air Force officers, although maybe they ran things differently in the shadowing special ops world these two clearly shared.
“He looked at my last location, decided to look in any direction other than the one shown in my last heading, choose the possible locations within driving range, and then used a map on the computer to intuit which of the vacant buildings was most likely the kill room,” Gibbs said. Tony looked at the back of his boss’s head. Yeah, Gibbs knew everything. That was a given, but it kind of creeped Tony out to know that Gibbs could predict his moves that well.
O’Neill whistled. “Impressive.”
“I don’t keep him around because he’s pretty,” Gibbs said with a snort.
“He’s that too. Ninny probably figured he’d be an upgrade.”
“Ningishzida,” Gibbs snapped.
“Ningishzida?” Tony asked. “Is that the snake inside Captain Kest?”
O’Neill’s head whipped around like the kid in The Exorcist, and he gave Tony and dangerous look.
“Enough,” Gibbs said, his voice reverberating just like the captain’s.
Tony blinked. If the captain did the raspy voice thing, and now Gibbs had the same voice, did that mean that Gibbs had a snake?
“I thought you said he didn’t know anything.” O’Neill gave Gibbs a reproachful look.
“I didn’t,” Tony said, feeling a need to defend his boss. “But you talked about adding another snake to your list of kills, and you ordered him to get out of Captain Kest. You also said that things like that were always talking about subjugation and death, so I’m thinking this is not a friendly sort of snake.”
Silence filled the car for several minutes.
O’Neill grunted before commenting, “Well, you did warn me he was bright.” Any other day, Tony would have preened at the compliment, but today he was feeling a little too shell-shocked.
“Boss, the voice thing, and O’Neill called you Samas, said he couldn’t tell the difference between Samas and Gibbs. Do you…” Tony let the words trail off because he didn’t know how to ask that question. Worse, he didn’t know how to deal with the answer he knew was coming.
The voice that answered him was not Gibbs. It was too full of emotion, too varied in the tones, and too damn synthetic in a reverberating sort of way. “Gibbs is reluctant to speak of me. I am Samas, and yes, I do live within Gibbs.”
“We could fix that, you know,” O’Neill said ruefully in a tone that suggested he’d made the suggestion before. However, Tony was too busy trying to process the idea that his boss had a snake in him. A sentient snake. A sentient snake related to a serial killer who had brutally tortured a dozen servicemen.
Tony’s brain finally made the connection. Most of the victims had some sort of connection to Gibbs. The connections were decades old so another investigator might have missed it, but Gibbs had recognized enough of the victims to send Tony looking for connections, and he’d found them in every case: a sergeant who had extracted Gibbs from a Colombian mission in ’91, a medical tech who had been in Kuwait when Gibbs took his head injury earlier that same year, a logistical tech who had been working in Columbia in ’92 and so on. They all had some tenuous link back to Gibbs, tenuous enough that Shepard had dismissed their concerns.
“He was looking for you,” Tony said.
Gibbs glanced at him in the rear view mirror, and that was enough to tell Tony he was right. Gibbs had a snake in him and the other snake was hunting Gibbs’ snake by searching for people who might have been able to identify Gibbs and then torturing them for information. Tony felt ill.
“We’ll almost there, DiNozzo. Hold it together,” Gibbs ordered, and Tony had never disobeyed an order from Gibbs.
“On it, boss,” Tony said, even though he felt far more like something was on him. After that, he just stared out the window as the city flew past. They were in a residential area now, and it took Tony’s brain some time to recognize the neighborhood. They were going to Gibbs’ house.
After pulling into the drive, Gibbs got out, and Tony followed. He didn’t have the capacity for thought, but he knew how to follow Gibbs. Gibbs. Gibbs with a snake in him. Captain Kest has an exemplary record before he starting hunting and torturing his fellow servicemen, so did that mean the snake could take over and turn Gibbs into a monster?
Only the timeline… the snake in Kest had picked up Gibbs’ trail in the early nineties, which implied that Gibbs had carried a snake for at least that long. Tony’s brain had definitely broken somewhere because all these facts did not fit into his head at once.
Gibbs led them all down into the basement.
“Listening bugs?” O’Neill asked.
“I’ve built a few toys to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Gibbs answered. His hands were on Tony, urging him to sit on a stool, which was a good idea because Tony’s knees were threatening to go on strike. Gibbs pressed a glass into Tony’s hand. Tony expected something strong. Bourbon probably. Instead water slid over his tongue as he emptied the glass. He looked up at Gibbs, but he had on that same inscrutable expression he always wore.
Motes of dust floated through the air and the three of them all stared mutely at each other. Normally Tony would have made some joke to fill the uncomfortable spaces between them, but his brain firmly refused to come up with one.
“You going to tell him or should I?” Colonel O’Neill finally asked.
Tony watched as Gibbs’ gaze flickered between them for a second before settling on Tony. “You know you can trust me, right DiNozzo.”
“Yes,” Tony said firmly. He didn’t know what the hell else to believe, but he believed that.
“He’s not part of this, so it’s better if he doesn’t know,” Gibbs said firmly. Tony opened his mouth to object strenuously; however, Gibbs’ hard stare made him close it again without saying anything.
“He knows you, so he’s part of it,” O’Neill said.
“Are you saying you’ll make him part of this?” Gibbs gave O’Neill a look that had, in the past, made criminal start to cry and beg for their mothers.
“Nope. But someone’s going to come sniffing, and I’m guessing NID. They are going to be really interested.”
“In the snake,” Tony blurted before he could get totally shut out of the conversation. “They would be interested in the snake.” NID were the nasty end of the special ops, secret agency alphabet soup. They definitely didn’t play well with others, and no one even knew who their director was. That agency was buttoned up tighter than a nun’s underwear.
“Igigi,” Gibbs said softly. “Samas is igigi.”
“Is that a word for snake?” Tony asked, “or are there two kinds of sentient creatures running around in this conversation? I’m about to ask for a Powerpoint presentation with bullet points, boss.”
That actually earned a small twitch of Gibbs’ mouth.
O’Neill walked over and pulled out a second stool, angling it so he could see Tony while still keeping an eye on the stairs. “They aren’t snakes. They’re alien parasites that wrap around the brain stem of a human.”
“Not all the species is parasitic,” Gibbs said.
“Riiiight.” O’Neill rolled his eyes.
Tony’s stomach churned. “Captain Kest was infected, trapped in his body, and I killed him.” Tony had essentially killed an innocent man who had been forced to commit those crimes. The base of this throat burned as stomach acid tried to push its way up. He covered his mouth with this hand.
Oddly, O’Neill reached out and put a hand on Tony’s knee. “You freed him from a prison that you can’t imagine. I’ve come close to getting snaked a couple of times, and I’ve told my people that if it happens to me, they have orders to put a full clip right in my brain. That’s the real mercy.”
Gibbs stepped forward and rested a hand on Tony’s shoulder. That made O’Neill pull away, and O’Neill definitely felt uncomfortable around Gibbs. “Tony, look at me.” Tony did. He couldn’t see anything different. Gibbs still looked like Gibbs—second B for bastard. However, he didn’t look like he was on the verge of going out and spree killing. “I’ve had Samas with me the whole time you’ve known me.”
“Samas?” Tony felt like a kid poking at a bruise. It hurt just saying the name of the alien parasite that had infested his boss, and yet he wanted to chant the damn name and keep saying it until the world crashed around his shoulders. Tony was just grateful that he tended to freak out in the privacy of his own mind, leaving his face and body to seem calm.
Gibbs blinked, and his eyes glowed brightly. “I am Samas. And despite what Colonel O’Neill fears, I am not a parasite. I lived in the waters of Colombia when Gibbs was badly injured and fell into my river. I found that our personalities meshed and I chose to stay.”
“And that wouldn’t have anything to do with you having found a host with access to American technology, would it?” O’Neill asked in a rather unctuous tone of voice.
The haughty look Gibbs gave him was so unlike anything Tony had ever seen that Tony knew he wasn’t looking at Gibbs. “American technology is no less primitive than the rest of this sadly simple world.”
O’Neill huffed. “And your world is better?” From the tone of voice O’Neill used, Tony was guessing the answer to that was ‘no.’
“That is a subject for another day, for the answer is more complex than you understand and I am more concerned about Tony right now.” The creature in Gibbs tightened his hand on Tony’s shoulder. While Tony wanted to be freaked out, it felt like Gibbs touching him, which Tony never objected to.
“I am part of the same species as Ningishzida, the one who took over the captain. I even knew him. However, he is goa’uld, a part of my species corrupted with genetic memories so terrible that they have become monsters.”
“Or snakes are just monsters naturally,” O’Neill offered.
Tony looked over at the colonel. “You think Samas is evil. You think he’s controlling Gibbs.” Tony could not believe that anyone controlled Gibbs, not even a snake wrapped around his brain.
O’Neill sighed and leaned back against the counter. “Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve known Gibbs since before Colombia and our missions overlapped there. At the time, I didn’t recognize the signs. A few decades later, I’d met a few more of his kind under less than pleasant circumstances. It occurred to me that Gibbs’ miraculous recovery and sudden skill with technology seemed familiar.” O’Neill shrugged.
“And when you came, I didn’t deny or obfuscate,” Samas said. That was definitely Samas and not Gibbs. He didn’t hold himself the same way, and he definitely didn’t talk the same.
O’Neill made a face, but he didn’t answer. Samas turned his attention back to Tony. “The igigi were not infected with the memories or the arrogance of the goa’uld. When we tried to stop the excess cruelty of the other onac, we were slaughtered. Mostly.” Samas gave a Gibbs-like smile. “They forgot to check their kills.”
Tony grabbed at the new word. “Onac. You call yourself onac?”
“I call myself igigi,” Samas corrected him. “At one point, all my people were onac, but the goa’uld are now true parasites that would enslave this planet.”
Tony closed his eyes and he finally made the connection. “Which is why the NID would come after you.” If they were the same species as these gould, then the NID could carry out medical experiments on Samas—and on Gibbs.
“Yes,” Samas agreed.
That heavy silence fell again. Tony wanted to hide from the world—to close his eyes and act like today had been one very bad nightmare. He could go back to his desk and pretend he’d never left. He and Probie could be trading barbs while Ziva pretended to be disinterested even as she threw her own weight behind whichever of them appeared to be losing. She liked to keep the bicker-fights going as long as possible. But Tony knew that wanting something and getting it were two different things.
He opened his eyes. “No offense, Samas, but I’d rather talk to Gibbs right now.”
Samas’ smile was gentle. “I am not offended, and I am grateful we did get to speak to one another. You are good for Gibbs, and he is loath to say as much for fear that you will tie yourself and your dreams to a broken, old man.”
“He’s not—” Tony stopped when Samas nodded at him. Right. Samas didn’t think Gibbs was a broken, old man, but Gibbs saw himself that way. Tony wasn’t greatly surprised. Before Tony could think of a response, Gibbs’ body shifted. He stood a little straighter, and angled his shoulders at a slightly different pitch, and when he pulled his hand away from Tony, Tony knew that he was looking at Gibbs.
“What do we do now, boss?”
Gibbs stared at him without offering any answers. When Gibbs turned to look at O’Neill, Tony realized that Gibbs didn’t have any answers.
O’Neill looked back at Gibbs for a good minute, and then he offered an articulate. “Aw crap.” He stood up and pushed the stool under the workbench. “I’m going to have to confess to the general, aren’t I? It’s not going to look good that I let a goa’uld run around D.C.”
Gibbs’ expression was pure malice. Gleeful malice. These two might be friends, but they were the sort of friends who liked to torture each other. Gibbs did tend to have a masochistic side when it came to friendships. “It could be worse, Colonel. We could have lost Tony, and I don’t see Samas reacting well to that. You said your team had Ningishzida under surveillance.”
“Shit happens,” O’Neill offered. However, he was already dialing his phone, so whatever Gibbs and the colonel were talking about doing, it was already underway. Tony was just along for the ride.
“We have a problem,” O’Neill said when he turned his phone off. No one had answered, and Tony suspected he knew what sort of problem O’Neill might be talking about.
“Ningishzida rarely acted alone,” Gibbs said. “And I know he wouldn’t come after me if he didn’t have help.”
Either Gibbs’ reputation had gotten around to distant parts of the galaxy or Gibbs’ passenger was just as scary as Gibbs. Tony figured it made a strange sort of sense that Gibbs would get a bad-ass alien for a co-pilot.
“So…” O’Neill looked at Gibbs expectantly.
Seconds ticked by, but eventually Gibbs made a face like he’d bit a rotten egg. He turned toward the back of the basement under the stairs and started doing something that looked a lot like trying to wave down a passing car. The wall rumbled, and then it pulled back and started sliding into the side of the basement, leaving a large doorway into a secret lab.
“Holy, Batman,” Tony muttered.
O’Neill grinned at him. “I was going to say exactly that. So, what do your gadgets say?”
Gibbs sat at a desk and started turning on monitors. “I only have earth-level technology here, and I can’t scan for all alien energy signatures.” Gibbs’ hands were sure on the controls, flying across keyboards as he watched data readouts.
“Boss, you hate computers. Morrow had to threaten you to get you to use a computer instead of a typewriter for your reports.”
Gibbs kept working, but Tony could figure it out on his own. Gibbs didn’t want to get outted. If he suddenly knew how to work technology after some mission in Columbia, someone would have suspected something, although Tony doubted that anyone’s guess would have come close to the truth. “So all the times that you sent Probie scurrying back to the computer after he told you that some piece of information couldn’t be found?”
Gibbs snapped, “I shouldn’t have to do his work for him.” That was pure Gibbs
“But you could,” Tony said. “You could do Probie’s work, maybe better than McGee himself. You just wouldn’t be able to explain how you could do it.” Tony’s worldview had taken entirely too many hits in the past few hours.
“Goa’uld are scavengers of technology,” O’Neill said. “They don’t create much, but they’re damn good at figuring it all out.”
“But Gibbs isn’t goa’uld,” Tony pointed out.
Now O’Neill made a disgusted face.
Gibbs hit a button and a large projection of the city flashed up onto the ceiling. “Someone used something big. It could have been a ship cloak or a transporter… my equipment isn’t sensitive enough to tell.” A section of the city near the edge started to glow. That was a bad area.
“Well crap,” O’Neill said. “That’s where the team was.” He pulled out his phone and stalked out of the room, his body so tight that Tony could almost taste his need to kill someone.
With a sigh, Gibbs stood and turned off the projection. As Tony watched, his body slid into the less familiar angles of Samas. It was an easing of the shoulders, and a slightly different in the way he held his head. And Samas had the smallest curve at the edge of his mouth, as if he was contemplating smiling.
“Samas?” Tony asked.
That made Samas pulled back a step in shock. “Can you tell the difference between us so easily?” This time the voice was normal, none of the reverberation that had made him sound so alien earlier.
“You hold yourself different than Gibbs does. What happened to the voice?”
Samas smiled. “The alien tones are largely an affectation. The goa’uld use them to frighten those they would control. I use it because O’Neill needs a way to distinguish me from Gibbs. He is uncomfortable with this situation.”
“That’s an understatement,” Tony muttered. “Look, I don’t want to step on any decades’ old friendship here, but I’m not sure you’re safe with him.”
Samas pulled sank down into the office chair and looked up at Tony, that same expression of amusement on his face. This was doing very odd things to Tony’s head because Gibbs never looked at him with that sort of fondness. “O’Neill would much prefer it if I were dead, but Gibbs is adamant that I cannot give my life up, not even to ensure that he lives. He has even offered to fight me if I try to extricate myself from him.”
“That sounds like Gibbs,” Tony agreed. “And after talking to you about Gibbs while you’re sitting in Gibbs’ head, I’m really going to need therapy.”
“Gibbs did worry that this would be too much for you.” Samas nodded sadly.
“No, it’s not too much, and I’m not leaving Gibbs’ side no matter what he says. I just would have preferred dealing with one life-changing set of facts at a time.”
Samas tilted his head to the side. “Gibbs has never understood why he inspires such loyalty in others.”
“That’s easy. We know he’ll never give up on us,” Tony answered. No matter how fucked up the situation, he always trusted that Gibbs was coming, that Gibbs wouldn’t give up, even if everyone else did. Locked in an underground room with a dying Marine, chained to Jeffery, taken hostage any number of times—he believed that Gibbs would come for him, and Gibbs always had. Tony’s reality might have shifted, but that hadn’t changed. Samas stood and reached for him, resting his hand on Tony’s shoulder.
“And we must be here for Gibbs now.”
“What? Why?” Tony never would have dared to use that tone of voice on Gibbs, but this wasn’t Gibbs.
“O’Neill allowed us to continue because he trusts his instincts enough to believe some part of our story. His wish to avoid doing Gibbs damage has led him to violate his own standing orders. However, he watches. Every place I go, every purchase I make and dollar I spend, he scrutinizes for evidence that I am something other than what I claim.”
Tony sucked in a breath, disliking the idea that some big-wig colonel had been stalking his boss and he hadn’t even known it. “And why does Gibbs need us now?”
“Because his superiors are likely to be less tolerant,” Samas told him. “I will be taken into custody and interrogated. If I can convince Gibbs that separation is the best option, it would ease tensions. However, we are too integrated, and leaving against his wishes may damage one or both of us.” Samas gripped his shoulder. “Tony, I have stood with Gibbs for many years. In his worst of times, he has not been alone. Even when I could not give him back his memories until I had healed his shattered body, some part of him knew I was there.”
“But if they take you out of him...” Tony swallowed down the bile that threatened to rise up his throat. Samas had been there ever since Gibbs had lost Shannon—that’s what he was saying. “I won’t leave him.”
The shift back to Gibbs was so sudden that it startled Tony. The hand that had been gripping his shoulder quickly cuffed him upside the back of the head. “DiNozzo, this is not a spy movie or a game. You need to get clear of this mess,” Gibbs ordered.
Normally Tony considered Gibbs’ orders sacred, but being Gibbs’ second meant that he had to be able to stand up against his boss. When the orders included Gibbs trying to martyr himself to save everyone else, it was Tony’s job to ring the bullshit bell.
“No,” Tony said firmly.
“No?” Gibbs narrowed his eyes, and Tony could feel the sweat gather along his spine.
“No,” Tony repeated, staring right back at Gibbs.
Tony didn’t know how long they stood there before O’Neill cleared his throat. “So, are you two finished eyefucking, or should I come back later?”
Gibbs immediately transferred his glare to O’Neill. “What’s the situation?” he demanded. At the same time, he all but shoved Tony out of his hidden batcave.
“We have troops meeting us there, but right now, we don’t have any information. We need to get moving. We can take your car.”
O’Neill gestured toward the stairs. He didn’t want either of them behind him, and he wanted Gibbs driving, which would put him at a disadvantage in a fight. Tony looked over to see how Gibbs would handle this. Gibbs calmly rested his palm against a cinderblock and waited as the door to the hidden room closed.
“Let’s go,” Gibbs said as he headed for the stairs.
“On your six, boss,” Tony said, quickly putting himself in a position to cover Gibbs. Unfortunately that meant that if O’Neill started shooting that he was between the two men, but hopefully Samas was just being a little paranoid and pessimistic. Hopefully.
Gibbs had point as they entered the building. Between the graffiti and the broken windows and crumbling foundation, the tenement should have been condemned, but the people who had scattered the moment Gibbs had pulled out a badge suggested that plenty of people still lived in this rat-infested disaster.
“You left your team here?” Tony asked O’Neill’s back. Unfortunately, he had rear with O’Neill between them. Pausing in the doorway, Gibbs stood with his head cocked to the side. He’d heard something to the right, and Tony checked his two o’clock before continuing to sweep the area.
O’Neill glanced over his shoulder, and that was enough to let Tony know that the man had heard and had not appreciated the comment. Then Gibbs stepped into the dim hallway in the rat-infested hotel and they all moved into the dim interior, wary of an ambush.
Generally Tony didn’t worry about backup, but right now he wished they would wait for the military unit to arrive. The idea of killer aliens that hid in people’s brains made him a little skittish. However, they used human bodies, and one head shot seemed to take care of the problem. Next time, Tony just needed to avoid humiliating himself by unloading his entire clip like some rookie. The more he thought about that, the more embarrassed it made him.
Gibbs led them up several flights of stairs and down more graffiti stained halls until they reached a room. Moving to the side, Gibbs allowed O’Neill to move to the door. He knocked while using the wall for cover, and Tony kept one eye on the door even as he guarded their six. The room was silent, and Gibbs had started pulling something out of his pocket, but then the door opened and the largest black man Tony had ever seen opened the door.
He looked around the hall, raised one eyebrow and offered a quiet, “O’Neill.” From the way he tilted his head, Tony was definitely getting that he was foreign. And given the way his day had gone so far, he had no idea just how foreign he might be.
“Murray. You guys stopped answering your phones.” O’Neill pushed his way past Murray and into the room.
“We encountered difficulties,” Murray said, his gaze settling on Gibbs.
“Yeah, me too.” O’Neill came back to the door. “Come on in, you two. You’ll want to see this.”
Murray immediately backed into the room to let them in, but he continued to watch, his hand on something tucked into the waistband of his pants. Tony held his weapon down at his side, but he didn’t holster it as he went into the room. A man and woman sat on the floor, each looking blurry, as if just waking up. They didn’t look concussed, but something had definitely happened.
“So, kids, whatcha up to?” O’Neill asked. He walked the perimeter of the room and ran a finger along the alien-looking technology set up along the walls. Tony swallowed as he realized it probably was alien.
“Jack, they were here,” the man said. He looked a little geeky with the glasses and the messy hair, but he had the physique of someone who trained hard, so Tony wasn’t sure where he fit in the scheme of things.
“No, really? Tell me something I don’t know Danny,” O’Neill said.
“You’re acting like an ass?” Danny offered as he stood up. Tony liked this guy.
Tony looked around and that’s when he noticed Gibbs looking at him. Gibbs’ gaze flicked down toward Tony’s weapon. Tony tried to stare at Gibbs and silently refuse the order, but the fact was that he was too used to following orders. With an unhappy sigh, Tony holstered his gun, and only then did Gibbs go over to the computer.
“This is sophisticated tracking equipment,” Gibbs said. “This would have put out some pretty big energy readings.”
The woman gave Gibbs a strange look, but she picked herself up off the floor and went to stand next to him. She quickly moved controls and started checking the results, so Tony guessed she was some sort of tech.
“Carter, this is Gibbs,” O’Neill introduced them.
Gibbs offered his normal grunt.
“And this is DiNozzo,” O’Neill added.
Tony was actually surprised to have merited an introduction. O’Neill definitely didn’t seem to like him. However, Tony pasted on his best charmer’s smile. “Hi,” he said. Carter’s back stiffened slightly. So, that would be a ‘no’ to charming her. He adjusted his smile down from ‘goofy frat boy infatuation’ to ‘professional appreciation.’ Carter didn’t respond.
O’Neill rolled his eyes. “And this is Dr. Daniel Jackson,” O’Neill said.
Daniel… or as O’Neill called him, “Danny.” That was an interesting dynamic for a military man. “Hey, nice to meet you,” Tony said. He could see the second Danny looked at him. He did a double take at being caught in the beam of Tony’s smile, and then the tips of his ears started to redden.
“Yes, um, hi,” he managed to offer. That was more than Carter.
“Sir?” Carter asked, and Tony shifted his attention. She was looking at Gibbs, who was doing some adjusting of knobs himself.
“Carter, this is Samas, who is telling me he’s not goa’uld, but you know me and snakes. I tend to assume they’re all lying.” O’Neill managed to say that with a boyish grin, which really didn’t match. Tony felt his palms itch. When people’s emotions didn’t match their words, badness was just around the corner.
“That’s because you’re a lying bastard,” Gibbs said.
O’Neill walked over and leaned against the strange computer console so he could watch Gibbs. “Oh, the sweet things you say. If I recall correctly, Gunny, you have a background in professional lying yourself.”
Gibbs grunted, and then he got down on his knees and pulled one of the lower panels off, reveals rows of crystals. Tony shifted to take advantage of the dresser for cover and watched as Gibbs made himself even more vulnerable. Worse, his body language shifted as Samas moved forward. Tony hadn’t worked with Samas in the field, and he didn’t know how the alien might react to threats. It made Tony about as nervous as the first time he’d had to go into the field with McGee. The man was a wonder with a computer, but when he’d first started doing field work, he’d been a hot mess.
“These crystals are not right,” Samas said, his voice reverberating. Tony noticed the way Murray shifted slightly. He definitely didn’t like this development. Daniel blinked so fast that he looked like he was trying to badly flirt. Only Carter seemed to take it in stride. The fact these people didn’t run screaming out of the room suggested they had run into more than one goa’uld.
“What’s wrong with them?” Carter asked, crouching near Samas, but far enough away for a tactical distance.
“They are from a tel’tak. This is part of the cloaking system,” Samas pointed to a row of pretty crystals that looked like the leftovers from a Christmas display.
“The cloaking system? What would they be cloaking?”
Samas sat back on his heels. “Good question.” After standing up, Samas brushed the dirt off his pants.
“So, you’re Samas?” Daniel gave him a cautious smile. “Would that be the same Samas or Shamash know in the Sumerian tales of Gilgamesh?”
Gibbs turned and gave Daniel a cold look, and that was Gibbs, not Samas. Daniel took a fast step back, and Tony understood why because that was Gibbs’ death stare, the one he used on perps who threatened children and old women. That was full-on papa-bear Gibbs, and Tony figured that he was moving to protect Samas.
O’Neill quickly moved in front of Daniel, and Murray’s body stiffened. This was going bad.
“Gibbs, no scaring the civvies,” Tony teased. “We all know you don’t like getting poked about how old you are.”
Gibbs looked over, and for a second, all that anger was targeted right at Tony. Tony was used to it. He grinned and tried to make himself the center of attention until Gibbs could get his head on straight. “So, Daniel, do you have any embarrassing stories about him from his Shamash days, because I know Gibbs’ father, and that man will not share the baby pictures we all know he has hidden somewhere.”
Daniel looked toward O’Neill as though looking for permission, but when O’Neill didn’t say anything, Daniel took a step closer to Tony, which took him away from Gibbs. Everyone seemed to relax a fraction of an inch when that happened, so Daniel wasn’t military, and he was the one person the rest of the team felt a need to shelter. More than interesting.
“Shamash is the name of one of the gods in the epic of Gilgamesh. Many of the… aliens… chose to take the identities of gods. Shamash was known for siding with King Gilgamesh in order to kill the monster that kept people from the cedar forest. The forest had the resources for developing into a higher stage of technology, so one could say that Shamash is responsible for allowing the city of Uruk to develop. In fact, when Gilgamesh failed to kill Humbaba even after all of Shamash’s help, Shamash came down and captured Humbaba himself, making it possible for the fully human Enkidu to kill him.”
“So, good guy?” Tony asked. He already knew the answer to that. No alien would be able to stay in Gibbs’ mind if they weren’t essentially good. Legally questionable? Sure. Tony could see that. Gibbs had broken more than one law during investigations, but he had his morals.
Daniel nodded. “Very good guy.”
O’Neill jumped in. “Yes, but there have been good guys in history who turn out to be real assholes when we meet them. Look at Amaterasu.”
Daniel made an unhappy face.
“Not a good guy?” Tony guessed.
O’Neill’s snort made that clear.
Samas was far more vocal than Gibbs. “She is power hunger. She is not a true queen with the ability to genetically manipulate her offspring in order to create loyal followers, so she searched for ways to warp and twist the human mind until the person was only a shell, but one loyal to her.”
“Really?” Tony’s stomach rebelled a little. That sort of brainwashing required torture that Tony didn’t even want to think about.
Samas shrugged. “I haven’t actually seen her for close to three thousand years, so I can’t say what she’s like now.”
“She’s pretty much the same,” O’Neill said. “So, backup is on its way, but right now, we need to get over to Andrews. Our people will come in and collect all this.” O’Neill gestured toward the computers. Tony could see a flash of sorrow on Carter’s face, but she quickly covered it. She was a tech, but she didn’t get the time to work on tech that she wanted. Either that or the idea of a “telatak” cloak was so exciting that she wanted to play with it now. McGee got that way with newly released video games.
Gibbs nodded. “Tony, head back to the Navy yard and write up a report on one of the empty warehouses.” Gibbs looked supremely unhappy saying that, but Tony wasn’t sure if he didn’t want to be alone with these black-ops guys or if he hated the idea that Captain Kest’s family would never know what happened.
“I think I’ll stick with you, boss,” Tony said. He braced himself for the coming storm, but before Gibbs’ face had done anything more than darken with the threat of Gibbs-fury, O’Neill spoke up.
“Until we know who’s out there and what they might do, let’s all stick together,” he said. “If you need to, call your office and tell them you’re following up a lead over at Andrews Air Force base.”
Tony looked at Gibbs to see if that’s what he wanted. For a second, Gibbs stared back, but after a second, he gave a weary nod. Tony took out his phone and dialed.
Probie picked up so fast that Tony could just imagine him hovering over the phone, his face twisted with worry. This wasn’t fair to McGee or Ziva, but more than that, if something was hunting Gibbs, it might be smart enough to figure out the one sure way to get at the man.
“Tony?” McGee practically shouted.
“McGeek, were you worried?” Tony teased.
“Did you find Kest?”
“No, I found an empty warehouse.” Tony noticed that Murray had shifted slightly as if trying to listen in. If he could hear McGee’s voice on the phone from a few feet away, he definitely was on the inhuman side. Either that or he was from Krypton. And actually, what would still make him alien.
“Gibbs?” McGee sounded so hopeful. Tony stared right at Gibbs.
“Can I ever find that man when I want to? He’ll show up when he’s finished chasing whatever lead he’s on.”
“You think he found something?”
“Don’t know, McGee. Either he’s found some lead or he’s hiding in one of the forty or so spots he goes to think when he doesn’t want us around. If you really want to track him down, you can start at his house, I’ll start at the marina, and we can start hitting every place in between.” Tony waited, his bored expression carefully in place.
“No,” McGee said firmly, but there was just a shade of hesitation, that made Tony hope he’d picked up on it. Rule forty. If it seems like they’re out to get you, they are.
“Now that Gibbs is dating Mann, it’s probably forty-four,” McGee said in a disgusted voice. Good boy. He was checking to see if this situation was bad enough to hide the women and children. Either that or he thought he was imagining the code altogether.
“No joke,” Tony said. “But I got ahold of one of Kest’s old buddies. He’s over at Andrews Air Force base, and there’s something strange. I’m going to head over that way.”
“Who? I can look up the background for you,” McGee offered.
“I’m on it, McGeeky. You’re not the only one who knows how to look up a file.”
“But you don’t have backup.”
“I’m going to an Air Force base, not Kandahar. Chill McWorry. I’ll call if I find anything, but it’s late. You and Ziva should take off.”
“But—” Tony hung up before giving McGee a chance to keep protesting.
O’Neill gave him an amused look. “So, was Kandahar your panic code?” he asked.
“What?” Tony stared at him, all emotion shoved behind a carefully constructed mask.
O’Neill looked over at Gibbs. “Oh, he is good,” he said in an admiring voice.
“I hire the best,” Gibbs agreed with a shrug. “Forty—someone is out to get us. Forty-four—hide the women and children. Inside ten minutes, the rest of my team is going to be locked up so tight that not even you will be able to get close to them, especially the civilians.”
“Hey,” O’Neill said in a tone of exaggerated unhappiness, “do I look like the sort of person who would go after the civilians?”
“Yep,” Gibbs agreed easily. “I know you wouldn’t that that here, but he doesn’t.” Gibbs poked a thumb toward Tony. “Rule ten, Tony.”
Tony recognized his boss’s condemnation. Rule ten—don’t get involved personally. Well, it wasn’t personal when it was his boss that was in the mess, and Tony wasn’t going to walk away. Well Tony could play this game, and he had more rules on his side. He briefly debated between rules one and fifteen before throwing out his strongest argument. “Rule fifteen, boss,” he answered.
Always work as a team.
Before NCIS, Tony had some trouble working with a team, but Gibbs had taught him that even lone wolves like them could accomplish more if they worked with others. For all his joking and socializing, working together came as hard to Tony as it did to Gibbs. But hard or not, they were going to work together. If the Air Force was taking Gibbs into custody, Tony was going to be there to make sure he didn’t disappear into some black hole.
“Gunny, I never thought you’d find someone that deserved you,” O’Neill said. Tony noticed that Daniel ducked his head to hide his amusement. Carter seemed to be watching with a more analytical eye. She was the thinker of the team, not that O’Neill was a slouch. As a trickster who used humor to keep people off-guard, Tony recognized that behavior in O’Neill. For all his jokes, he was watching carefully.
Gibbs body language shifted, and Samas stood there. “Gibbs has more than one person who cares about him,” Samas said, and he stared at O’Neill so long that Tony had the feeling there were layers on layers of meaning here. “Shall we go?” Samas asked, the corner of his mouth twitching in an almost smile. Still, Tony didn’t miss the way Samas’ smile dimmed when he looked at Daniel. Since Daniel himself seemed to be a likeable guy, Tony had to assume that Samas didn’t want to talk about Daniel’s Shamash stories.
Right now Tony would give a kidney to have an hour to sit and get some straight answers, but he didn’t have the luxury. Instead he followed Gibbs when O’Neill gestured for them to follow Murray out of the room. And right on time, a dozen soldiers showed up, fully automatic weapons and all.
O’Neill rolled his eyes. “I need to teach someone the meaning of the word subtle,” he said wearily, but under all the melodrama, Tony could see honest aggravation. The word clusterfuck was starting to look more and more appropriate given the situation.
The door to the locked room where Tony found himself waiting opened. O’Neill stood in the doorway. “Agent DiNozzo,” he said.
“Colonel Backstabber,” Tony replied.
O’Neill stopped one step inside the door and Daniel slipped around him. The room had a couch and two chairs. Without waiting for an invitation, Daniel dropped down onto the couch.
“You have a really amazing record,” Daniel started. “I mean, the cases you and Gibbs have closed, even back when the two of you worked alone… really impressive.”
Tony considered the man. If Tony was right, he was least likely to do anything truly reprehensible, like drop Tony into a cell in Gitmo. However, that didn’t make it safe to talk to him. “If you’re trying to establish rapport with me in order to improve your odds of gaining information in an interrogation, you should know that I’m pretty prejudiced against you right now,” Tony warned him. Two minutes after being asked to check their weapons at the front desk, O’Neill had taken Gibbs away, and Gibbs had ordered Tony to stand down, so he hadn’t had a chance to try and fight to stay with his boss.
“Yes, well,” Daniel cleared his throat and then gave O’Neill a nasty look. “I know that this hasn’t been as non-confrontation as we all would have hoped.”
“Ya think?” Tony demanded, channeling Gibbs for that one moment, and he had to take a second to press the fear down into a little corner of his mind.
O’Neill sighed and walked over to drop down into one of the chairs. Tony would have made a break for it, only that left two Air Force guards standing outside the door. One of the guards reached in and pulled the door closed. Crossing his arms, Tony waited.
“You have a real attitude,” O’Neill said.
“Says the man who has a federal agent locked in a windowless room.”
“Yeah, well…” O’Neill shrugged. “I know you don’t understand this stuff.”
“I’m getting more than you think,” Tony said. They were using official Air Force personnel, not just people who knew O’Neill, and that meant that people up the chain of command knew about aliens. And colonels either ran small bases or served under generals on large one. Colonel O’Neill was running around the country, so he didn’t seem like the sort to run a small program. That meant that his alien-hunting base had a general in charge, and O’Neill was one of who knows how many colonels who helped keep the base running. Maybe he was in charge of tracking down the aliens hiding among the humans. Tony itched to go back to the office and run some background checks, because with this much information, he could dig out a whole lot more.
O’Neill looked at him for a long time. “Maybe you are,” he said slowly, and Tony got the feeling that was a threat.
Daniel cleared his throat. “Maybe we should start over here. I’m Daniel Jackson. I’m an archeologist, but I do linguistic work for the Air Force.”
“On alien languages,” Tony added. Daniel didn’t need to answer. Tony could read the confirmation in the tiny flick of his gaze toward O’Neill.
When O’Neill leaned forward, Tony turned his attention to the man. “You’re going to have to sign some non-disclosure agreements, the sort that would make you eligible for a very long stay in a very tiny cell if you breathe a word of any of this to anyone.” O’Neill held up a finger and thumb to show how small the cell would be.
“I’m not signing anything until I see Gibbs walk out of here,” Tony said firmly. “And with my team on alert, you’re running a clock here, Colonel.”
Daniel cleared his throat, but Tony ignored him.
“You’re not leaving here without signing,” O’Neill warned.
“I’m not leaving here without Gibbs.”
“Oh for God’s sake!” O’Neill exploded up out of his chair, and Tony held himself perfectly still. “You want him to still be Gibbs. I get that. But these snakes… they imitate us. We don’t even know if we’re talking to Jethro or if he’s locked in there behind this Samas.”
“So, an alien took over Gibbs so he could solve crimes?” Tony demanded. “What’s the big plan here? He’s been working at NCIS for years. He’s working in an agency that most people don’t know even exists. And it’s not like Gibbs is impressing people in power and moving up.”
“Not that you know about,” O’Neill said, and now Tony was seeing the real man—the controlled fury and the danger laid bare now that the humor had vanished.
“And I know pretty much everything when it comes to Gibbs.”
“You didn’t know he had a snake in his head.” O’Neill grinned like he had made some big point.
“I didn’t know snakes could get in your head or I might have figured out he was carrying an alien as quickly as I figured out Murray is an alien.” Tony watched as the words landed. O’Neill didn’t react, and he was shouting back as quickly as ever, but Daniel flinched.
O’Neill threw both hands up in the air. “Your arrogance is dangerous.”
“My arrogance? You’ve been stalking Gibbs, waiting for him to reveal some big plan. He doesn’t have one. On the anniversary of his divorce, he destroys a phone. When we have a case with a child, he’ll get drunk if we don’t save the kid, so drunk that I’ll have to go over to his house and scrape him off the floor under his boat. He is not the kind to take over the world.”
“He has a thousand year old snake in his head.”
“Probably closer to four or five thousand years,” Daniel interjected. “Shamash is one of the older gods, and Jack said that Gibbs used the word ‘igigi.’ Is that true?”
As redirections went, it was rather unsubtle, but O’Neill seemed to take the opportunity to ratchet back the rhetoric. All O’Neill’s emotions slipped back under that mask of veiled amusement. “Are you questioning my memory, Daniel?”
“I’m questioning your ability to pronounce words, Jack.”
“Igigi is right,” Tony said, curious where this was going. At least Daniel brought information instead of accusations.
“Igigi or Igigu were lesser gods forced to work for the major Sumerian gods. They rebelled against Enlil and that’s when Enlil created man to work the fields, because he couldn’t control the Igigi.” Daniel made a face. “Shamash isn’t normally identified as an igigi in the mythology though.”
“Operative word—mythology,” O’Neill sing-songed.
Daniel clenched his jaw for a second. Then he seemed to work at relaxing himself. “Mythology has a basis in fact. The number of mythological gods you’ve met shows that.”
“I haven’t met gods, Daniel. I’ve met egotistical aliens with delusions of godhood.”
“And they had personalities and territories based in mythology. So, what has Gibbs or Shamash told you?” Daniel said, quickly turning to Tony before O’Neill could answer.
“Nothing,” Tony said firmly. “I’m getting most of my intel out of O’Neill and you.” Tony looked over and gave O’Neill his best shit-eating grin. O’Neill’s eyes narrowed.
“You’re swimming in dangerous waters,” O’Neill said softly.
“I know Gibbs,” Tony said firmly. “I know Gibbs inside and out. I know when he’s about to blow, and I know how to get him back on track when he’s considering drop kicking a suspect off a building. One look and I know what he wants. You are trying to convince me he’s dangerous, but I know better.”
O’Neill sat in a chair, and carefully crossed one leg over the other before straightening the hem of his pants. “How much do you know about Gunnery Sergeant Gibbs?”
Tony leaned back against the wall and considered his answer. O’Neill wasn’t the enemy, but he was someone acting out of a misplace idea that Gibbs was a threat, and that made him dangerous. He needed to get O’Neill to understand that Gibbs wasn’t the bad guy—and neither was Tony.
“He entered the Marines to get away from his father. They have history, and after his mother’s death, he couldn’t stay. He met Shannon before joining, and married her later, even though her mother hated him. He served overseas as a sniper, working some pretty black ops missions in Bosnia, Bolivia, and probably in Libya, but he’s only made vague references to that. He was seriously injured in Desert Storm when he was caught in an explosion. That’s the same time his wife and daughter were killed by a drug lord. He did some work in Colombia, and eventually went into the reserves. He joined NCIS, and a few years back, he retired from the reserves.”
Surprise flickered across O’Neill’s face, but Tony knew that O’Neill had allowed that expression to show. “He told you about Libya?”
“He said things that made it clear to me he’d been there,” Tony agreed. “But then I also suspect he’s been to China, and I know there have been no sanctioned military actions that would explain that. I’m not even going to get into why Gibbs knows Russian. He might have learned it to better fight the Soviets, but he has a little too much street accent for that.”
O’Neill took a deep breath and let it out slowly. It was a stall. Before O’Neill could make any decisions, Daniel jumped in. “You recognized the accent in Russian?” Suddenly, Daniel was spouting Russian, asking in a thickly academic accent, “How long have you studied the language?”
“Long enough to not sound like an American language student,” Tony answered in Russian.
Daniel blushed. “Yes, well it isn’t one of my first dozen languages,” he said with an apologetic moue.
“It was my fourth, after English, Spanish, and Italian. Although honestly, if you already speak fluent Spanish, learning Italian almost doesn’t count as another language.”
That made Daniel nod enthusiastically. “The common roots are—”
“Geek later, information now,” O’Neill cut him off. He focused all that laser attention on Tony. “You know Gibbs—I’ll give you that. But you don’t understand how dangerous these snakes are. Once they get into your brain, they know absolutely everything. Samas could strip Gibbs’ mind and use that to trick us.”
“Do you really think that’s Samas you’re talking to?” Tony asked. “You know Gibbs. Do you really think that’s a snake?”
“I think I’ve been fooled often enough to know I can’t distinguish between the host and the snake,” O’Neill said firmly, and that didn’t make any sense. O’Neill had gone against his standing orders and had let Gibbs keep running around. Tony’s stomach soured as he realized the truth.
“You’ve had a team on him.” Turning around, Tony put his fist into the wall and four perfect little craters appeared in the drywall. “How did you keep us from spotting them?”
Daniel was looking back and forth between them, but O’Neill gave a shrug. “We have resources you didn’t know to look for. But the fact is that Samas is a snake, and I’m getting him out of Gibbs.”
“Can you do with without hurting them?” Tony asked. “Because if you hurt Samas, Gibbs is going to be pretty determined to rearrange your face.” Tony didn’t add that Gibbs might even go farther. Gibbs tended to be a little dangerous when people in his protection died.
“We have friends,” O’Neill said, but a look of pure disgust crossed his face, “or we don’t have friends and we have allies who talk to us like we’re idiots, but they’re still helpful from time to time.”
“Kinda like politicians,” Tony commented.
“I’m still not going anywhere without Gibbs,” Tony warned him.
“You’re like a dog with a bone,” O’Neill said wearily. “And that’s a problem. I really could drop you in a cell right now, just for refusing to sign those contracts. No one really asks about the people I’ve managed to lose over the years.” The tone might be joking, but Tony had the distinct impression that O’Neill really had done exactly that.
“And then you’d have a pissed off Gibbs and you’d have Ziva and McGee coming after you. You really don’t want that kind of trouble.”
“I deal with that kind of trouble over my morning coffee,” O’Neill said, “so don’t think that I’m particularly afraid of taking on all three of them, four if you count Samas.”
“Yes, but how good are you at investigations?” Tony asked. This was his ace cart. “You have a person or several people using Earth resources to investigate Gibbs in order to try and figure out if he’s carrying Samas. So, how do you anticipate their next move? Which agencies or police departments would be open to helping you do a little sleuthing? Where do you find your clues?” Tony stopped, and watched the barely hidden frustration on O’Neill’s face.
Yeah, the man was a special ops soldier, but he didn’t know how to handle an investigation. Whatever he was in charge of, it wasn’t tracking down goa’uld on Earth. Either that, or he really sucked at his job, and O’Neill seemed too competent and confident for that to be true. Tony was really starting to wonder what this misfit crew of O’Neill’s did for regular work. Having a linguist on team suggested negotiations or hostile territory, but Tony didn’t have enough information to make a good call on this one. He needed to collect more intelligence.
“Jack, he’s right. We only got ahead of them this time because you already knew about Gibbs.”
O’Neill’s mouth tightened into an unhappy line.
“Look,” Tony said in his most conciliatory voice, “you’re Gibbs’ friend, which means you’re wrong about Samas, but you’re not trying to hurt Gibbs. That puts us almost on the same side. But these other people are hunting Gibbs, and you know I won’t stand for that. I want them. You want them. We could work together.”
“Only if you sign the confidentiality agreements,” O’Neill said a little too fast. Tony rewound the conversation and tried to figure out if O’Neill had intentionally led him to this offer. Maybe he had, the cagey old bastard.
“Forget it,” Tony said. “We get these guys, and then we negotiate about who gets told what.”
“There’s no negotiation,” O’Neill said firmly. “You sign or I drop you in a cell and feel bad about it while I’m fishing and pretty much don’t think about you any other time.”
Tony smiled. “I could use the down time. Gibbs is a real bastard, and I’ve been on-call twenty-four hours a day for a decade. It wears a guy out. Do you think I’ll get cable in that cell?”
“Jack,” Daniel said, drawing the name out the way a mother might. It was a pretty unambiguous warning, although Tony wasn’t sure what Daniel was warning Jack about.
“Daniel,” Jack said in the exact same tone. Yeah, these two had served together for a while.
Daniel gave an elaborate huff of frustration. “We can work together. Maybe if we can reach some common ground, we can compromise.”
“You say compromise like it’s a good thing,” Jack said, his own frustration showing through.
“Jack,” Daniel said more sharply.
Jack threw both hands up in the air in surrender. “Fine, we’ll work together.” O’Neill stood, and before Tony could react, he was right there in Tony’s face. “You will work with us, and help us track these snakes down. We will listen to your expertise, but you will obey all commands and stay by my side at all times or I will zat you, cuff you, and drop you in the trunk, and do not think I am joking about that.”
“I don’t think you’re joking at all,” Tony said. “One condition—Gibbs and Samas are safe until we’ve taken care of these bad guys. Oh, and I need to clear all this with Gibbs.”
“That’s two conditions. I swear. Kids these days, they can’t even count to two,” O’Neill said in an offended tone of voice. The man had an odd sense of humor. Tony didn’t have much time to think about that because O’Neill’s arm was around his shoulders. “So, let’s go talk to Gibbs, and then we’re on a snake hunt.”
Tony didn’t protest as O’Neill escorted him from the room, Daniel trailing behind them.
Tony followed the armed Airman into the secure area. His temper started to rise the first time they’d gone through a card scanner, but three scanners, one retinal scanner and a crapload of barred windows later, Tony’s fury rolled under his skin. They had Gibbs locked up tighter than a fucking terrorist, and if Jack O’Neill were here, Tony would give him a piece of his mind.
Instead Tony had two anonymous airmen escorting him through barren hallways. They reached a reinforced steel door and the airman pulled out yet another locking key card before swinging it open. There were stairs leading down, and all natural light vanished as Tony headed down into a holding area.
One more door at the bottom of the stairs, and Tony was in a short hall with cells off to either side. Each had a reinforced plastic front with narrow slits to allow air circulation and communication. Tony’s blood ran cold as he spotted Gibbs sitting on the edge of a bunk in the first cell.
Gibbs grinned at him. “Usually you’re the one in trouble.”
“Yeah, that had occurred to me.” Tony looked over to where the two airmen stood watching. In addition to the live guards, cameras covered both ends of the hall. “You’re not breaking out of here, are you?”
“Nope,” Gibbs agreed.
“So, O’Neill and I came to an agreement.”
Immediately, Gibbs was on his feet. Tony hurried to explain it all before Gibbs completely lost his temper. The good news was that he wouldn’t be handing out headslaps from behind security plexiglass.
“I have agreed to help with the investigation. In return, they’ll keep you here safe until we figure out who’s hunting you. We can figure out the whole mess with O’Neill and Samas later, but this way, they aren’t going to try to drag Samas out until we can talk.”
“You’re not working with them,” Gibbs said, his voice low and dangerous.
“Someone’s hunting you, boss.”
“They won’t find me here. If you go out there, you don’t know who you’re up against.”
“Then tell me,” Tony practically begged. He respected his boss’s desire to be an uncommunicative bastard, but this was going a little too far. Gibbs’ body language shifted and Samas stood on the other side of the plexiglass barrier.
“I don’t know who would hunt me,” Samas said. “My people died centuries ago. I don’t even know how long ago. I know from O’Neill that the ones I fought—many are dead, but I don’t know which of the minor goa’uld have risen to join their ranks. Bastet, Thoth, Ixtab, Selvans… it could be that any one of them has survived and moved up in the ranks. It could be none of them. Goa’uld born after I vanished may have risen.”
Tony tilted his head to the side. Samas didn’t believe that was likely. Why? Tony might have asked, only the guards and cameras made him a little hesitant. Instead, he said, “That’s even more of a reason to figure out who’s doing this. O’Neill doesn’t have the investigative experience we do, not on planet.”
That was a guess, but it was a damn good one.
“No,” Samas said firmly. “Goa’uld are abominations. If one claims you, it will destroy your mind and lock you inside your own body.”
“And if one finds you, it’s going to kill you, boss.”
Samas shrugged. “Doubt it.” At that moment, Tony had no idea who he was talking to. Both Gibbs and Samas seemed pretty damn fatalistic.
“You can’t ask me to sit on my hands while these bozos try to figure out who’s after you.”
“They’re decorated officers.”
“How do you know?”
Gibbs slid forward again. “Because O’Neill only works with the best. I don’t want you involved.”
“I’m not leaving without you.”
“Tony, you can’t fix this.”
“I could make a whole lot of noise,” Tony suggested.
Gibbs gave him a dirty look.
“Your call, boss. I can go figure this out or I can sit in another cell, hopefully one with cable, but I’m not going to go back to the office to pretend everything is okay. I won’t leave either of you.”
In a blink, Gibbs was gone and Samas stood there. “Your loyalty is gratifying, and it means more to Gibbs than he would say. But you cannot help me this way.”
Tony reined in his frustration. It was so like Gibbs to vanish the second emotions starting showing up. The man would rather deal with a psychotic serial killer than have a conversation about his feelings. “What should I do, Samas?”
“Go home,” Samas said, his voice sympathetic, even under the weird echo. “Keep an eye out for anyone who might target you. Call O’Neill if something seems suspicious.”
“Play bait?” Tony guessed.
“No,” Samas spit out the word like it tasted bad. “I do not want you to be bait at all. I only want you to be aware of the fact that others know we’re close. They may take an interest in you.”
“Take an interest?” Tony laughed. “The whole team knows I’ve stayed at your house a dozen times. For all our suspect knows, you’ve jumped out of Gibbs and into me.” Actually, now that Tony thought about it, that might be the best way to convince O’Neill that he was speaking to Gibbs. He could host Samas for a few hours and let Gibbs go kick O’Neill's ass the old fashioned way. Of course, that would require Samas to come out of Gibbs, and Tony suspected that a well-placed bullet would be the end of thousands of years of life. Where the goa’uld couldn’t kill Samas, O’Neill might.
“They do not think that way,” Samas said. “By staying in the human body as long as they do and fusing their bodies to their host, they have given up any chance to move freely between hosts. Transferring is done only under dire circumstances.”
“Like nearly getting caught by the government,” Tony asked.
Samas give him a weary look that just looked wrong on Gibbs. Gibbs didn’t do weary. “You are not to go after these goa’uld. I have lost my whole family to these monsters, and I will not lose you.” Samas reached up and rested his palm against the plexiglass.
“If you won’t let me go out there, then I will be helping them from inside the base because I will not leave without you.”
“I doubt O’Neill will give you a choice. Gibbs has strong memories of him.” Samas tilted his head and considered Tony. “Sometimes you remind him a little of O’Neill in the way you construct masks that hide a core of steel. But understand this, he is a powerful man with powerful allies. I suspect he could call the President right now. Do not underestimate him.”
“I’m not,” Tony said. O’Neill jokes didn’t distract him from the gravity of the situation. Hell, normally he’d be answering joke for joke, but he’d lost his sense of humor sometime after he found out that a parasite had tried to take over his brain. “I take him seriously when he threatened to send me to Gitmo and then lose the paperwork.”
All emotion drained from Samas’ face. He stood, jaw clenching, as he stared at Tony. It took him some time to find words again. “What did you say?” Samas asked slowly.
“You’re assuming I said something?” Tony asked defensively.
“Yes,” Samas answered without a second of hesitation.
“Fine. I told him that I wouldn’t sign his confidentiality agreements until I saw you walk out.”
Samas turned away, and the body language slid into Gibbs, and now he was striding away. He got to the back wall and punched the brick.
“You should do that with drywall so you don’t hurt youself.”
Gibbs whirled around. “I have Samas to heal me. I have Samas to give me advice and keep me from headslapping you into the middle of the week. More than that, I’ve lived my life, and I don’t have regrets or people I’m leaving behind. Damn it, DiNozzo, stop putting yourself in hot water with me. If I boil, it’s because of my choices. I don’t want to see you dying out of some misplaced loyalty.”
Considering this was Gibbs, that was downright wordy. Tony took several breaths and mentally sorted through the varied and ridiculous assumptions. While Tony wanted to start with the insane idea that Gibbs didn’t deserve to live as much as Tony did, he knew better. Since Tony lacked a degree in psychiatry and a few dozen decades, he moved on to the next argument.
“You have Samas, but I have you. I trust you, which is why I came down here before walking through the gates with O’Neill. If you tell me that I cannot go out in the field, I will follow your orders, boss. I always have.”
“You didn’t stay at the office when I ordered you to,” Gibbs pointed out.
“I follow orders until I don’t,” Tony said with a shrug. “However, I will follow an order to stay on base. I will not, under any circumstances, walk away without you. We have had each other’s sixes for too long, boss. If I walked out of here and never saw you again, that would be a regret I couldn’t live with. You are the one person I can’t leave behind because there sure as hell isn’t anyone else who would notice me missing other than Ziva and Tim. Well, my maid would notice I hadn’t come in to mess up the apartment, but I don’t plan to stick around for the maid.”
“Damn it, DiNozzo.” Gibbs stopped and pressed his lips together. Oh yeah, he was mad.
The guard who had escorted Tony down stepped forward, his boots loud against the concrete floors. “Colonel O’Neill has sent a message, sir,” he said. “He wants you to return to the upper level so that a logistical team can get in here to place a bunk bed and desk in the largest cell at the end.”
Tony sucked in a breath. Well that was remarkably unsubtle. Tony looked over, but Gibbs had a blank expression carefully masking whatever he felt. Tony could hear a faint muttering from a radio, and the guard spoke again.
“Unless you would like a separate cell, in which case O’Neill said you could have your pick and linens would be delivered later.” The guard looked mildly confused, but Tony didn’t blame him. Usually you didn’t give prisoners these sorts of choices. Tony risked one more glance in Gibbs’ direction.
“The bunk beds will be fine,” Tony said.
The guard gave a curt nod and didn’t even pretend to pass on the message. Tony looked up at the cameras and gave O’Neill a quick wave.
“This way, sir.” The guard gestured toward the stairs. He was far more wary now that Tony had become a prisoner instead of a visitor. That was fine. Tony didn’t have any illusions about being able to break out of this place. He went where directed and hoped that when he got put in the same cell with Gibbs that the man didn’t headslap him hard enough to shake his brain loose.
Tony stood up from the desk and stretched his back. And in the process, he nearly hit Gibbs. The cell was larger, but not really large enough for the desk, computer, large whiteboard they were using to pin clues up, bunk beds and two chairs. Tony gave Gibbs a small smile of apology.
“It has to be someone who knows Gibbs,” Tony said as he grabbed the edge of the bed and started stretching. “There’s a clear pattern of someone working backwards to try and trace your life, but I don’t know why they don’t just grab you if they suspect you have Samas.”
Gibbs shook his head. “These people have resources. If they even suspected I had Samas, they would have grabbed me, and there wouldn’t have been a damn thing I could do about it.”
“Well they’re working backward into your life. The first victim was Williamson.” Tony walked to the board and tapped it. “He was part of the Suzanne McNeil case we had—God, it must have been nearly two years ago now. You remember, the bomb tech who got buried alive, had amnesia and then blew herself and her boyfriend to smithereens.”
Gibbs nodded without adding anything to the discussion.
They had to figure this out, because O’Neill’s group seemed far too quick to rely on their technology for everything, and without a lead, they just sort of watched and scanned. It was like having a team of all Timmies. Okay, O’Neill and Murray weren’t Tim, but they tended to wander around after Carter as they waited for her computers to fix everything. If he and Gibbs ran their team that way, nothing would get done.
“They don’t know where to find me,” Samas said. “Of this I am sure.”
“Okay.” Tony stepped back and looked at the board. “But they know Gibbs is involved.”
“And if I did not reveal that, then something else in Gibbs’ life made it clear that he had access to me.”
“Your surveillance equipment,” Tony blurted out.
Samas looked at him. “I only use passive surveillance to avoid detection.”
“If there’s one thing I know from working with Tim it’s this. If you have tech, you have a security problem. Period. Full stop. How many times has Tim broken into supposedly secure networks?” Tony flinched. Way to out his probie to the federal government. Well, too late to do anything now except ignore the blunder and hope whoever was watching the security feeds didn’t notice.
Samas morphed into Gibbs. “If they suspected I had tech, they would have wanted to confirm that it was alien and not human.”
“Which meant they would have been in your house.” Tony felt that tightening in his gut that came with a really good lead.
Gibbs looked up at the camera. “I need to see O’Neill in here now,” he said in that tone of voice that meant people would die if someone didn’t obey. Tony leaned against the wall, his gut singing as he realized they finally had a clue. If someone stepped foot in Gibbs’ house, they’d find the trace evidence.
Tony had to give O’Neill credit. The man could get the military to move at a pace that Tony would have described as impossible. Getting him to believe that Tony and Gibbs needed to process the scene took longer than assembling the guards, the transportation, and the crime scene unit. A little over an hour later, they were in the back of a van along with O’Neill’s team and a half dozen special ops guys who were from the dark ops end of the pool—they didn’t have any marks on their fatigues that would have given away which branch they served in, much less a unit. It was a little over the top to secure a crime scene, but Tony suspected that O’Neill worried more about securing them.
“They are allies, but they are potentially compromised, so do not let them out of your sight,” O’Neill ordered the well-armed team. Most of them looked more confused than anything. Tony and Gibbs probably didn’t look like much of a threat.
O’Neill continued. “Gibbs kicked my ass last time we were in the field together. Luckily it turned out we were both on the same mission, sent independently because someone thought Gibbs was dead.”
“I’m harder to kill than that,” Gibbs added.
O’Neill gave him an odd look. “Do not underestimate him,” he told the soldiers, his gaze still on Gibbs. “He has more training than anyone in this van except me, and he will kick your ass if you’re not on guard. If he has been compromised, we cannot afford to let him loose in this area. Clear?”
The team answered with a chorus of enthusiastic, “Yes, sir.”
Finally O’Neill leaned toward them. “Letting you in the field is a huge risk, and I would rather explain why you’re dead or in the infirmary than I would explain why you’re running loose. Clear?”
Tony felt cold fear wash through him. This was O’Neill with all the jokes stripped away, and he was just as terrifying as Gibbs.
“Crystal,” Gibbs answered for both of them.
O’Neill leaned back and clapped his hands, and that façade of his slipped right back in place. “Excellent. So let’s see if our bad guys left us any evidence.” He rubbed his hands together and grinned before reaching for the van door. Tony had seen soldiers riding the edge of sanity before, but O’Neill scared him a little more than most of them. Then again, most weren’t personally invested in making Gibbs’ life miserable, and O’Neill was.
Tony followed two members of the team into Gibbs’ house, Gibbs right behind him. When they got to the basement stairs, Tony reached out and grabbed one. “Hold on.”
The man whirled on him, his weapon coming up.
Tony raised his hands in surrender. “Whoa there, Speed Racer. You’re about to walk into a crime scene, and unless you’re trained on ways to avoid fucking up the scene, you really need to guard from behind the crime scene techs. I don’t go out and single handedly save the world, you don’t walk on my crime scene,” Tony said. “God, it’s worse than having a dozen probies. Boss, you want left or right?”
“Right,” Gibbs said. He set his bag down and pulled out gloves. Tony knelt down to do the same, acutely aware of the eyes watching him.
“So, here’s how it goes,” Tony said as he looked up. He kept kneeling on the floor looking through his evidence bag as he talked. It reduced the tension when people felt in control, and Tony wasn’t above manipulating these guys to make them feel a little more powerful. “We will clear the scene, and you need to stay at least four feet behind where we’re working. I don’t have to impress on you the total embarrassment of spending two days investigating a boot tread only to find you’re chasing your own boots, do I?” Tony grinned up at them. “Of course, in my defense, I was a month out of the academy at the time. If I did that now, Gibbs would headslap me.”
“I’d fire you,” Gibbs corrected him.
“Gee, thanks, boss.”
Gibbs shrugged. “Luckily you aren’t that stupid.” He looked around at the rest of the team, making it very clear he did consider all of them just that stupid. Either Tony’s words or Gibbs’ glare worked because the two in front stepped to the side and allowed Tony and Gibbs access.
Tony moved onto the stairs, focusing on the railing to his left. Gibbs took the wall on the right. The environment was good for evidence. The rough wood had caught any number of fibers and Tony collected two shoe prints off the risers. He focused on his job so much that he didn’t realize he had reached the bottom until he looked up to find three special ops team members standing on the stairs, and Gibbs working his way across the floor.
“I’ve got twenty two fiber samples and two shoe prints,” Tony said. “No fingerprints.”
“Nine and six,” Gibbs said.
Tony nodded. It was a lot, and without Abby, they were going to have to trust O’Neill to bring in a good forensics tech. O’Neill. Shit. Tony looked up at the team. “Tell O’Neill we’re going to need a boot print from whatever he wore yesterday so we can eliminate him from the suspect evidence.”
“About time,” Gibbs groused.
“I’m having an off day,” Tony shot back. This felt good. Before Blackadder got added to the team in the wake of 9-11, he and Gibbs had worked cases together, just the two of them. They’d had a rhythm that hadn’t really been the same. In some ways they were better with a team. Kate brought a compassion that he and Gibbs lacked together. Tony still ached for her, but she was gone. And Ziva didn’t have that same energy. She was a great ninja, and Tony suspected she would become a great investigator, but Kate had been their heart.
When Ziva had invited everyone to her house for dinner except him, that had pretty much proven that. Tim had been gleeful to be one of the popular kids for a change, not even thinking about the damage to Tony’s ego. The only thing that had salvaged Tony’s sense of team was Gibbs. He’d sabotaged Tony’s car, and when everyone had gone home, announced he’d done it so that he could take Tony out for dinner without Tony running away. Passive aggressive? Hell yes, but Gibbs had done that for him. Ziva and Tim weren’t his partners the way Gibbs was… the way Kate had been.
“Tony?” Gibbs stood and looked over at him.
“Just being maudlin,” Tony admitted as he went back to working on the back wall of the basement while Gibbs worked his way around the boat and toward the bench. Gibbs always had done that—known the second Tony lost his emotional balance. After he’d been forced to kill Jeffery White, Gibbs had shown up at his apartment with pizza and beer and had just invited himself for an impromptu marathon of John Wayne movies. They hadn’t said more than a dozen words all night, and most of those involved “pass the beer,” but it had helped Tony find his balance again. It was uncanny the way Gibbs had known things, but Tony had grown used to Gibbs being damn near superhuman.
As he worked, he reviewed his knowledge of one Leroy Jethro Gibbs. Gibbs always knew his mental state and when to push in versus when to pull back. Tony would be tempted to go for telepathy, only Gibbs had never shown any hint of knowing all the sexual fantasies Tony indulged in on a regular basis. So empathy maybe… a way to judge emotional states. That would explain why Gibbs was always accusing him of chasing women, even though women were not the center of his frequent office fantasies. Hell, it wasn’t like he had much sex at all. Flirting, like kneeling on the floor when telling covert ops guys how to do their jobs, was a strategy. It got him information he wanted.
But it was more. Gibbs would sometimes need glasses so badly that he couldn’t see a damn thing, but then he’d turn around and pull off a sniper shot that only one sniper in a thousand would even attempt. He was terrifyingly silent, but that could be covert ops training. O’Neill’s footsteps were often impossibly to track, especially when he had Daniel stomping around beside him. However there was no doubt that Gibbs was getting some sort of upgrade out of this.
Tony stood up and stretched his back. After turning the light off on his magnifying glass, he asked Gibbs, “So, you pin any beautiful women up against this wall lately?”
“DiNozzo,” Gibbs growled, the threat palpable.
Tony held up his evidence tweezers. “Red silk. Of course it could be that you were twirling around in a nice red silk number around as you worked on the boat.” Tony tucked the fiber into a bag as he watched Gibbs fight through the frustration and amusement. If they had been alone, Tony would have asked which of them was amused and which frustrated. One of the soldiers snickered.
“Red silk’s not my thing,” Gibbs finally said. “Where was it?” He came over to join Tony near the hidden door to the computer equipment.
Tony used the end of his tweezers to tap the exact spot, and then he moved close to the wall and awkwardly half squatted and leaned forward until his knees touched the wall. “Either he bent his knees and leaned into it or—”
“It was a woman,” Gibbs said as he crouched down to study the spot.
“Her skirt hung out away from her body as she searched the wall for the hidden catch.”
“Stand straight.” Gibbs gave Tony’s thigh a slap, and Tony jumped. Gibbs eyed him and then the wall before putting his hand just below Tony’s knee. “No matter how tall she was, this was not a short skirt.”
“So we were right. Someone was looking for your tech.”
Gibbs grunted, which was as much of an affirmation as Tony usually got.
“If this was a woman, either she has huge feet and likes to wear men’s shoes with her red silk dress or we’re missing something. I didn’t see any women’s shoes, boss.” Tony couldn’t have missed that. He wouldn’t have. Seeing evidence of a woman in his boss’s house would be noteworthy, even if they weren’t on a case.
“Right there,” Gibbs pointed to the narrow toed imprint of a woman’s shoe near the hidden door.
“So she left a print here, but she didn’t leave any walking in? I’m not buying it. No offense, boss, but this place isn’t the cleanest.”
“It’s a workshop.”
“Exactly. And she didn’t leave any prints in the dust?” Tony took out the camera first, photographing the footprint before attempting to take the print.
“I don’t think she used the stairs.”
“What? You mean you have more hidden passages down here? That’s very Bela Lugosi of you boss.”
“DiNozzo!” Tony looked up to see O’Neill on the stairs. Thank god he hadn’t started taking the print yet.
“Good. Are those the boots you had on yesterday?” Tony started grabbing for clean transfer paper.
“What? Yes. Why?” O’Neill frowned at him.
“Good.” Tony grabbed the pressure paper and headed up the stairs, stopping a couple of risers below O’Neill. “I need you to step down on this and put your full weight. I’ll need both boots.”
“What are you doing?” O’Neill demanded. “And you. Why are you up here when those two are down there?”
The soldiers all stood a little straighter. “Sir, they asked us to not contaminate the scene.”
“For cryin’ out loud. Do you always listen to the people you’re ordered to guard?”
“Sir, no sir,” one snapped out.
“And the people they’re guarding aren’t usually federal employees just like them,” Tony said.
O’Neill gave him a long look. “You’d be surprised,” he said dryly.
Tony narrowed his eyes as he tried to figure out that level of in-fighting into his new view of the world. Meanwhile, the soldiers were coming downstairs and taking positions in the corners Tony and Gibbs had cleared.
“I still need a boot print from you so we can eliminate your prints from potential suspects,” Tony said. He set the pressure paper and the base down on the step below O’Neill. “Step down on this and put your full weight on it.” O’Neill sighed, but he did comply with that print and a second one of his left boot.
“Are we done?”
“Yep,” Tony said. He took his samples and went to head back down the stairs.
“Not so fast, DiNozzo. You have to come deal with a situation.”
“What situation?” Gibbs demanded as he stood up and moved toward the stairs. The soldiers on the stairs shifted, and Tony held his breath.
“A Daveed and McGee situation,” O’Neill said, drawing out Ziva’s last name enough to make it clear that he’d already been corrected on the pronunciation. “Apparently they asked neighbors to alert them to any activity.”
“And us showing up with half an army constitutes activity,” Tony said with a sigh. “I’ve got this, boss.”
Gibbs crossed his arms over his chest. “I expect you to keep them clear of this, DiNozzo.”
“Yeah, what he said,” O’Neill added.
Tony gave O’Neill a fake grin. “You’re just lucky I take his orders because I think I’ve proven I don’t take yours.” With that, Tony headed past O’Neill and trotted up the stairs.
Behind him, O’Neill was saying, “I don’t see how you avoid the temptation to shoot him.”
Tony didn’t have time to listen to Gibbs’ answer—he headed out to the front lawn, and sure enough, McGeek and Ziva stood near an NCIS issued car, and a half dozen guards covered them. Murray even stood near the van looking supremely prepared to shoot everyone if that’s what it took to accomplish the mission. At least no one had pulled out weapons. Yet.
“Hey guys!” Tony called out brightly. This was so going to suck.
“Tony!” Tim called his name across the lawn.
“McNosy and my favorite ninja. Hey, that’s a great name for a TV series,” Tony said as he trotted over to them.
“Where have you been?” Ziva demanded. She did that a lot, but Tony just grinned and let it slide. She was highly ranked in Mossad, and he suspected she was used to calling the shots on the team. However, until her shots included asking questions before hitting, she would be low man on their totem pole.
“You found him.” Tim sounded supremely relieved.
“Of course I found him. This is me we’re talking about.”
Ziva’s gaze slid right past him and focused on the front door. “Where is he?”
“Working a scene,” Tony said. “A secure scene you don’t have clearance to enter,” Tony added the second Ziva’s mouth came open. Even if she had been a regular old probie, he wouldn’t have let her onto this scene. She had less than a year’s experience with processing scenes, and they didn’t need more feet in there complicating matters.
“What?” Tim pulled back. “We’re Gibbs’ team too.”
Tony felt a flash of guilt because he knew how much Tim still needed Gibbs reassurance to bolster that damaged ego of his. “Yeah, well we aren’t calling the shots on this one, so I can’t clear you to work it, and neither can Gibbs. You can tell Madam Director that the coincidences with Gibbs’ past weren’t coincidence. This is an Air Force investigation now, and they’re letting us trail along. Hell, if it weren’t for the fact that Gibbs seems to be the suspect’s target, these people wouldn’t have let us near the investigation. Some colonel Gibbs knew back in his covert ops days is running the show.”
“They let you into the investigation, but they will block us?” Ziva didn’t even pretend to hide her feelings.
“I walked into the middle of it and saw classified material before they could stop me. You, however, are very stoppable,” Tony pointed out.
Ziva eyed the door like she was considering running for it.
“Go back,” Tony said firmly. “Have Director Shepard give the Air Force a call and try and get them to share the investigation. Until then, these guys have the higher clearance. However, keep in mind that they’re keeping Gibbs as a material witness even if he stops cooperating. So the director has to be careful on this one.”
Ziva rolled her eyes. “Yes, she needs your advice on swimming in political oceans,” she said dismissively.
Tony sighed. “I’m sorry you didn’t get a chance to cook that meal for the two of us,” he said.
She blinked at him, clearly surprised. Maybe she thought he had forgotten her offer just because he hadn’t brought it up in the last few weeks. She looked over toward Tim, and then she moved toward him, fast, pushing him back toward the house. Tony watched as the guards shifted to prevent her from entering, but she stopped near Gibbs’ car in the driveway.
“Tony,” she said in a low whisper. “I know I have made things difficult between us because I am not good at being a learnee, and I have much to learn with investigations. It sometimes annoys me that I must learn from one such as you.”
“Thanks,” Tony said dryly. Leave it to Ziva to make an apology sound like an accusation.
She glared at him. “But what I will say, I say not out of disrespect but knowledge. Gibbs has many things in his past which you are not prepared to deal with. If this is about his covert ops days, you should have me there to back with you. This is a world you do not know any more than I know of investigating without infringing on constitutional rights,” Ziva said, pronouncing the words carefully.
“Ziva,” Tony said slowly.
“I should be with him,” she said, her frustration making her words sharp.
“You should,” Tony agreed, “but you can’t be. And in case you haven’t noticed, there are plenty of covert ops guys around. They are doing the heavy lifting. The only way Gibbs talked them into this field trip was by pointing out that he would have a better chance of finding evidence than anyone else, both because of his field experience and because it’s his house so he knows if something’s out of place. Trust me, if it weren’t for that argument, we would still be safely tucked away in the center of a secure base with hundreds of soldiers between us and whatever this is from Gibbs’ past.”
Ziva narrowed her eyes. “You expect me to believe Gibbs was allowing others to search while he stayed at the base?”
“Well, there might have been a little verbal altercation with O’Neill and a cell involved,” Tony admitted. That was as close to the truth as he was getting. She still had her determined-ninja face on. “This is so far beyond my pay grade that I really can’t talk about it. Have the director try and work with the Air Force—that’s all I can tell you.”
“And you are staying with Gibbs?”
“They can’t get me to leave, and trust me, they’ve tried.”
Ziva frowned, but the hard lines faded from her expression. “Gibbs has been in many difficult situations with people greatly talented at making others dead.”
“Yeah, I noticed, Ziva.”
She gave him a concerned look. Leaning forward, she rested a hand on his shoulder. “Gibbs’ enemies abroad are far more dangerous—far more, how do you say… invisible.”
Tony sighed. They’d worked together for months, and she still assumed he was clueless. He’d be more upset if he hadn’t cultivated his own clueless façade very intentionally. “I know more than I let on, Ziva. Trust me, I know a lot more.”
“We should work together, both of us at Gibbs’ back,” she said.
Tony was tempted, but the fact that Gibbs would kill him made the choice a little easier. “Ask Director Shepard to get the Air Force’s cooperation.”
An Israeli curse flew out her mouth and she slapped Gibbs’ car hard enough that Tony flinched. That was going to hurt. Several of the soldiers had shifted into better positions to cover her, and Murray had out what looked like an alien gun. Subtle. Then again, Ziva wasn’t winning any subtle awards either.
“You act like I am an enemy, that you must keep Gibbs from me, but he chose me,” she snarled at him.
“I know that.”
“Then stop acting like I am good for nothing but to kill.”
“I don’t.” She had trapped Tony up against the side of Gibbs’ car, and Tony shoved at her. She pressed her lips together and didn’t move.
“Yes, you do. You act like a child or a jealous lover,” she snapped.
“I act like a man trying to have his partner’s back.”
“You do not have to cover Gibbs from me,” she said, and technically that sentence didn’t make a lot of sense, but Tony did understand what she was trying to say. In the past, maybe he had been a little suspicious of her and the specific circumstances around her joining the team. Maybe. Just a little. But things were different now.
“Ziva, I never…” Tony let out a sigh even as she glared at him. “Okay, perhaps I was a little mistrustful at first.”
“A little?” She crossed her arms.
“Yes, a little. You had some issues with us, if you remember. But this is not about trust. These people will never give you clearance without some serious political muscle forcing them to. Neither of us has that clout. More importantly, Gibbs ordered me to keep you and Tim clear of this mess. He has his guilt turned up too high.”
“But you he wants in there?” Ziva did nothing to hide her disbelief.
“No, he wants me out and safe too; however, I saw enough classified material that it isn’t going to happen.”
Ziva tilted her head and studied him. “Programs have contingencies for inadvertent disclosures, especially when the one who sees too much already has clearance.”
“Yes, the non-disclosure agreements,” Tony nodded. “The ones I refused to sign because if I did, they would force me to leave Gibbs, so instead I told them I wouldn’t sign and I threatened to make a very public fuss if they didn’t either release Gibbs or let me stay with him.”
For a long minute, Ziva stared at him, her lips slightly parted. “You… you refused?” she asked.
Tony nodded his head.
“You idiotic man-child,” she nearly shouted before falling back into more Israeli cursing. At least Tony assumed they were curses. That was the tone of voice she had going. “How could you put yourself in a such tight position?” she demanded. “Do you have any idea what people do to those who make themselves threats?”
Tony leaned close and whispered, “Right now, I’m a goofy threat. I may be a man-child, but it works for me, Ziva, and I will have Gibbs’ back.”
Ziva frowned at him for a second, but with a long sigh, she seemed to yield. “You will explain this to Tim.”
“No I won’t,” Tony said, “I’ll just order him back to the yard. Unlike some people, he listens to orders from goofy man-children.” She rolled her eyes.
When Tony turned to look over, he noticed soldiers shifting, and Murray had moved to a spot right next to the door. “Ziva, wait here,” Tony said.
He was already racing for Gibbs’ house, ignoring Murray, who only watched him with one eyebrow raised. The guards on the basement had their weapons up, and they pointed them at Tony, but he ignored them. He focused on O’Neill, who stood on the top of the stairs looking down. “What’s wrong?”
Tony looked past him to see Gibbs standing in an artificial glow. “Gibbs?”
“Stay back,” Gibbs ordered him.
O’Neill caught his arm to keep him from storming past the guards on the steps. “Carter is doing everything she can to prevent them from locking on.”
“Who? What are they trying to do?”
O’Neill’s face was set in grim lines. Behind him, Tony could hear Ziva yelling, but she wasn’t coming any closer, so someone had successfully stopped her at the door. Good for someone; Ziva wasn’t that easy to stop.
“They’re trying to get a lock on him and beam him out of here.”
Relief flood through Tony’s system. “Oh thank God.”
Both O’Neill’s eyebrows went up.
“Taken is not dead, but it would be great if Carter could, you know, stop it.”
“And if he’s taken, how do you plan to find him?”
“If he’s taken, I plan to feel sorry for the asshole who takes him,” Tony said. Below, Gibbs gave a rough laugh.
“You’re dangerously uninformed,” O’Neill said. He touched his ear. “Carter, this is getting a little old.”
She said something that made O’Neill let go of Tony’s arm and lean forward to peer down at Gibbs. “She said something here is boosting the signal.”
“That would be the rings I just found installed in my floor,” Gibbs said. “They’re covered too well for it to be recent. Cases sometimes take us out of town or out to sea, so I’m guessing they did some redecorating.”
“Well crap,” O’Neill said. “Carter, we’re dealing with a set of rings here.” He paused to listen. “Yeah, I figured.”
“Makes it harder to block the signal, doesn’t it?” Gibbs asked.
“Exponentially,” O’Neill agreed.
Tony cleared his throat to get people’s attention. “Other than Lord of the Rings references that probably don’t apply, I am not understanding what’s going on.”
Gibbs gestured toward the floor. “There is a ring transportation device under me.”
“Well then, step off it,” Tony suggested.
Gibbs gave him a blistering look, and reached out. His hand hit something that made the air shimmer.
“Force fields? Really?” Tony asked. “Okay, what can I do to help, boss?”
Gibbs shook his head. “Rings came around after Samas’ time. He has no idea, and he doesn’t have time to try and research the tech. We wait for Carter.”
Tony looked at O’Neill, and for the first time, the man had some honest sympathy in his face. “She’s good. She’s working it, and she’s good.”
That wasn’t, Tony noticed, a problem.
“Okay, if she fails, what happens?”
O’Neill clenched his teeth until his jaw bulged.
Gibbs paced the small circle. “Tony, the chances are that they’ll never find me. There are too many system lords.”
“There are fewer than there used to be,” O’Neill said with a grin.
“Great, and does that help us right now?” Tony demanded.
O’Neill opened his mouth, but it was Samas who answered, his voice loud and booming. “Enough, Tony.”
Tony closed his mouth and looked down at Samas.
“You will not antagonize Colonel O’Neill. You will not endanger this planet by revealing secrets, and you will not endanger yourself—not for us. I understand your loyalty as well as I understand the unwavering loyalty of Gibbs, but you will gain nothing and lose everything if you persist in this course.” Samas shifted slightly and looked at O’Neill. “His loyalty is as unflagging is as his mouth is annoying, but before you judge him, look in the mirror.” Samas gave a little head tilt that made his opinion of O’Neill perfect clear.
“I don’t take orders from snakes,” O’Neill said.
“Then know that this is from Gibbs as well as me. He is simply less likely to say such words out of fear of having you ignore them or do the opposite out of an irrational hate. We both remember your illogical hatred for the Soviets, yes?”
O’Neill shook his head. “Don’t talk to me like you know me.”
“But I do. I had joined with Gibbs before we met in Columbia. Is that not the reason you came here to investigate, because you remembered what I could do? We slept in the same hut, shared food, shared a fire, all before you even knew what an onac was.”
There wasn’t a bit of emotion on O’Neill’s face, and Samas started up at him, equally emotionless. It was like watching a National Geographic show about two alpha males about to kill each other. Something made the floor of the basement vibrate so badly that dust particles rose into the air and tools slid off the tool bench and clattered to the floor.
“Shit, Carter’s losing the signal,” O’Neill said.
“Don’t take out irrational hate on a federal agent who did his job and did it well,” Gibbs said. Even through the veil of dust that swirled through the air, Tony could see the shift in body language. Gibbs had never been that direct with a compliment, and it was too close to a goodbye.
A metal ring rose from the basement and then another and another, and Tony eyed the distance between the landing and the top metal ring. It was entirely possible that he was about to make a fool out of himself and bounce off a force field, but he wasn’t leaving his boss.
Giving O’Neill a hard shove, Tony vaulted up to the rail and then leaped toward the narrow opening at the top of the rings. He was almost surprised when his foot hit the top ring and then he started sliding toward the inside. Power whined and Gibbs looked up, his face horrified as Tony fell straight toward him. Then they were both enveloped in a light, and Tony closed his eyes as he landed, taking both of them to the floor.
When he opened his eyes, he was mostly on top of a very cranky Gibbs, and the rings were lifting up and vanishing into the ceiling. That left them alone with a whole shitload of strange warriors who were pointing long weapons at them.
Tony rolled off Gibbs, but other than that, he tried hard to not move at all. These guys didn’t look like the joking types, so Tony showed them the flat of his hands.
“What is the meaning of this?” Samas demanded in a booming voice as he climbed to his feet. He spared Tony one truly withering glare.
One of the largest warriors stepped forward, his weapon pointed right at Samas’ neck. “You are a prisoner of the Lord Ba’al. You will yield or die.”
“We’re not in Kansas anymore,” Tony muttered to himself.
Tony wondered how these guys got any soldiering done what with all the clanking of armor and the banging of oversized metal shoes. However, as far as guards went, they had the whole intimidation thing down.
One stopped and touched some sort of control panel and a door slid open. “In here.”
“I expect an audience with Lord Ba’al soon,” Samas said with an arrogance Tony didn’t normally see from Samas or Gibbs.
“You will serve at his pleasure,” the guard said. Tony didn’t get even that much courtesy. One of the guards behind him gave him a well-placed shove, and Tony stumbled into the cell. Like the hallways, the cell had strange geometric designs and a faint metallic gold that would have been pretty if it weren’t a prison cell.
Samas walked into the cell under his own steam and then turned and gave the guards a disdainful look. The guard closed the door without comment.
“Lions and tigers and bears, oh my,” Tony said softly. “Welcome to over the rainbow.”
Samas slowly turned, that arrogance still in place as he looked at Tony with a closely held fury. “In what universe was that even remotely logical?” he demanded.
Tony cleared his throat as he fought back a little twinge of fear at the absolute fury in Samas’ face. Oh yeah. He was pissed. Worse, Tony suspected Gibbs wasn’t coming out because he was even more angry. Tony forced himself to give a casual shrug. He’d had Gibbs pissed at him more than once, and he’d survived. “In my world where no one should have to go through shit alone,” Tony said honestly.
“So, it’s better to suffer with me, to hand Ba’al a tool by which he can manipulate me?”
Tony took a breath as he thought about that. “No human can hold out against torture forever. Is that true of your people as well?”
Samas narrowed his eyes, but eventually he did have to nod.
“Then I’ve changed the timeline, not the outcome,” Tony said. “I know I won’t hold out as long as Gibbs or you, but if Ba’al is interested in torture, then the outcome isn’t in doubt.”
Samas lifted his chin. “I can end myself and Gibbs at any time if we believe that is the best course.”
Tony nodded. “Then you can end me as well.”
The flash of pain on Samas’ face was a surprise.
“Look, boss, I never made any excuses about the fact that I get obsessed with people and I don’t let go. Ever. You knew that when you hired me—both of you knew that. People think my joking is my worst habit. It isn’t—not by a longshot. So if you want me to be sorry that I came or sorry that I might die here, you’re going to be waiting for pretty much forever.” Tony gave a sheepish shrug.
Samas sighed, and the body language shifted into Gibbs. “I should headslap you into next week.”
“And I would still be there on your six, boss, and you know it.”
Gibbs sighed and went over to a long bench that lined one wall to sit down. Tony wandered closer, but he leaned against the wall without sitting. Right now, he was too wired to sit. “Are we on a ship?” Tony asked.
Gibbs nodded. “We’ve broken out of Earth orbit by now, and we’re probably getting ready to go into hyperspace.”
“Well that’s very sci fi. Does the Air Force ships they can use to follow?”
“No ships and no way to follow.” Gibbs looked up and gave Tony a very unhappy look. “So, if we want out of this, the three of us have to figure it out.”
Tony gave his best cheeky grin. “No problem. I haven’t met the bad guy I couldn’t beat.”
Gibbs was not amused.
Tony watched as Gibbs stared at the wall. Hell, maybe he was talking to Samas. Maybe Samas had some idea why this was happening, because none of it made sense. Samas didn’t even know how the ring thingies worked, so he wasn’t some technical genius worth kidnapping, and if he’d been in Gibbs for all these years, he wasn’t an active player in any political games. Tony was trying to put together a puzzle, and all the edge pieces were gone.
“Boss, what is going on with this Ba’al?”
Gibbs glanced over. “I honestly don’t know, Tony. Samas has been out of the loop for a few thousand years.”
So Samas had been missing a few thousand years, but someone was willing to put this much energy into tracking him down and grabbing him? Yeah, that didn’t make sense. “But these guys… they’re going to a lot of trouble to get to someone who’s been MIA for a few thousand years.”
Gibbs sighed and just looked at Tony.
Gibbs shifted, and the body language softened as Samas moved forward.
“Samas?” Tony asked. “Don’t shut me out here.”
Samas smiled at him. “I don’t know how you can identify which of is in control so easily.”
“I’ve been on Gibbs’ six for a long time. I know him better than I know myself. Hell, I know him better than he knows himself.”
“That may be true.” His lips twitched up into a wry smile. Tony started. So many times he had played the clown just to earn one smile from Gibbs. Now he realized that the sly smile he had always been so proud of inspiring in Gibbs had really been Samas.
Tony made an educated guess. “So, have you been keeping secrets from him, or is he keeping this secret from me?”
Samas took a deep breath. “He did not want to share my secrets.” Bingo. They did know why this Ba’al would want him so badly.
“But that’s okay now that you’re here. You can share them,” Tony said happily.
Samas gave him a weary look, one that suggested he questioned Tony’s sanity. “They are only a source of anxiety. I fear my secrets will get us both killed, Tony, and I wish I could see another outcome, but I cannot.”
“Maybe you should share with the class. Maybe I’ll come up with some crazy outside-the-box plan that will fix everything. I’ve been known to do that once or twice, if you remember.”
Samas laughed, but the humor didn’t reach his eyes. “I wish that were the case.”
“Try. You can’t lose anything by giving me a chance.”
Samas studied him for a long time. “You will not have a solution for this. However, you do deserve the truth.”
“Exactly,” Tony quickly agreed. Wow. The alien snake in Gibbs’ head was the reasonable one… who knew.
Samas gave him another long-suffering stare. “Onac are predators who live in open water. They hunt and compete fiercely for resources, food, and the attention of the few breeding queens. They do join with hosts, but after a time, they leave the host to return to the water and share tales of their adventures in the hope of impressing others and gaining the approval of a queen.”
“So, a little like National Geographic meets Waterworld,” Tony said.
Samas ignored him and continued with his story. “In adapting to a live permanently inside a host body, the goa’uld weakened themselves. Several of the queens, including Hathor, Sekhmet, Egeria and Aruru rebelled against the practice. They wished for the onac to return to the water to live at least part of their lives.”
Tony sucked air in through his teeth. That sounded like a political battle royale, particularly if the queens were the big power in the water. Tony was betting the males were a little more invested in staying in human bodies where they got to keep the power for themselves. “I’m assuming this doesn’t end well for the ladies?”
“The queens are not ladies, not by any definition you or Gibbs would use. However, the rebellion ended disastrously. Aruru was killed. Lord Yu, rumored to be aligned with her, lost much of his territory. Hathor and Sekhmet were imprisoned and left to go insane. Egeria escaped long enough to hatch a clutch of onac eggs and she gave them the genetic memories that would help them realize the true atrocity of goa’uld choices, but then she too was captured. The other goa’uld feared that the queens could raise an army if they could control the genetic memories, so they weakened the species by imprisoning the remaining breeding queens and chemically… modifying… them.”
“That sounds like a nice euphemism for torture and castration.”
“Very close,” Samas agreed.
Tony could feel the disgust roll through him. Okay, if O’Neill was used to dealing with goa’uld, Tony could almost understand his general level of assholiness. Torturing and modifying women in order to keep power put goa’uld on his ‘hate without a second thought’ list right next to the Taliban. “Was this before or after the igigi had their rebellion?”
“Many years before,” Samas said. “When the goa’uld realized that they had damaged the genetic lines, they brought in the igigi to try and create healthy offspring.”
“Did it work?”
Samas nodded miserably. “Yes, until I discovered what they were doing.” Samas’ mouth twisted up into a cruel smile. “They had underestimated what I could do, and it didn’t end well for them when I led my igigi against them.” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “It ended even less well for me and my group.”
“You discovered what they were doing?” Tony’s brain started spinning like a gerbil caught on a wheel. “You discovered what they were doing, and you led your group?” Tony struggled to find a delicate way to ask a pretty ridiculous question. Before he could ask, Samas nodded.
“Yes, I am the igigi queen. My early children became test subjects so the goa’uld could fix their own genetic lines. My later children led a rebellion against the goa’uld and they died for it. However, they forgot that as a queen, I have all those traits they wish for themselves. My hosts will not live forever, but as long as I do not spend too much time inside a host body with the toxins that build up inside a creature designed to age and die, I can live, potentially forever. I can hunt, swim, escape—all without the help of a host.” Samas looked around the room. “Unless I am prevented from reaching a large body of water.”
Tony’s brain seemed to have taken a time out. He could only stare and struggle to get his tongue to come up with a response. Any response. “So, Gibbs has a woman inside him? Huh. I didn’t think Gibbs did well with women.” Okay, that was not the best response.
Samas grinned. “I doubt the concept of male and female applies. I don’t have genitals. I either bite or eat onac I find desirable. I absorb their memories along with their DNA and then use that to create offspring.”
“Gibbs feels the same. However, he still respects that my children are mine. I grieve for them as surely as he grieves for his.”
“Kelly,” Tony said softly. He would never say that name around Gibbs, but Samas was easier to talk to, and that said something when you were such a functional mute that an alien snake was better at human communication.
“Yes,” Samas agreed. “She died because of the wrong in Gibbs’ world. My children died because of the wrong in mine.” Tony sat down on the bench, his knees suddenly unstable as the truth hit him. Samas’ children had all been slaughtered for trying to do the right thing. He’d lost everyone, which explained why Gibbs was willing to timeshare with his life. Worse, Tony thought back to all the times O’Neill had implied that Samas was a goa’uld. It would be like calling a Jewish survivor of the death camps a Nazi. God almighty, when Tony saw O’Neill again, he was kicking his ass.
“And O’Neill’s buddies still want to kill you for it,” Tony said wearily.
“They live in fear, and fear rarely leads to rational thought,” Samas said without sounding too upset at the idea of being killed.
Tony sat in the silence and tried to figure out how to get his brain to rewire. “Can you have more kids?” Tony cringed. He shouldn’t have asked that. Gibbs was still in there.
“If the conditions were right, but there are no willing hosts to take children, for them to learn about the world in the natural way. And I will not have children who are trapped in the water like fish or who are driven to try and take hosts who are unwilling.”
Tony nodded. That made sense in a weird sort of way. He certainly couldn’t think of many people who would agree to share a brain under the best of circumstances, but if Earth were at war with the goa’uld, Samas and her kids weren’t going to get a fair shot at a real life. “Wait. Daniel never said anything about you being a queen, and I think that’s something he would have mentioned. Do they know?”
“They do not.” Samas faded and the harder angles of Gibbs took over.
“They can’t know,” Gibbs said firmly. “The xenophobic asses would rip Samas out and dissect him.”
“Her,” Tony corrected Gibbs. It was not worth the answering glare he got in return.
“Him,” Gibbs said slowly enough that he managed to communicate the idea that if Tony let it slip that Samas was female, that he planned to gut Tony and let his hide hang from the wall as a warning for all future NCIS agent to not fail their team leads.
“Him. Got it, boss.”
“Good.” Then, with a grunt, Gibbs seemed to be done.
“This Ba’al, he knows, doesn’t he?”
Gibbs clenched his jaw.
“That is the only reason why he would put this much energy into tracking you down. He found out somehow, and he knows you’re not just a run of the mill onac. So, what’s the plan?”
Gibbs took a long time to answer. “We wait.”
“I hate waiting,” Tony whined.
Gibbs ignored him, simply tucking his chin close to his chest and closing his eyes. Tony also hated the way Gibbs seemed to be able to sleep through anything. He’d blame it on Samas, but he’s seen too many special ops guys do the exactly same thing.
“I’ll just be over here pacing,” Tony said as he stood up and headed to the other side of the cell.
“Tony, come here,” Gibbs said, holding out his hand—or maybe it was Samas. The body language was a little muddled. Tony walked close, and Gibbs caught his wrist and pulled him down onto the bench next to him. “Rest,” Gibbs ordered. Tony had never been able to refuse an order from Gibbs. He sagged into the other man. Gibbs wrapped a hand around Tony’s head and pulled it down until Tony laid it on Gibbs’ shoulder. Funny. Tony had wanted this forever, and it took getting kidnapped by space alien snakes to get it.
The room the guards escorted them to looked like a reject out of an ’80 rock video. Gold walls and a giant black throne with an elaborate carved back were pretty high on the tacky scale. A man in a black leather outfit that also screamed ‘80s stood up.
“Samas,” he said, his voice echoing. “How wonderful to see you. This is a pleasure I had not expected.”
“Ba’al,” Gibbs said, but he had the Samas reverberation to his voice. Tony looked again, but it was definitely Gibbs talking. Gibbs held his shoulders a little tighter and higher, and he had a whole set of little tells. “I thought I recognized your mark on your servants.”
One of the guards grabbed Tony’s shoulder and forced him to his knees. “Geez. Try asking nicely,” Tony complained softly. Ba’al’s gaze moved from Gibbs to him.
“This one is interesting. Have you chosen him to host one of us?” Ba’al stepped down from his throne area and walked over to stand in front of Tony. Yep, the bad guys knew who the weak link was, and it wasn’t Gibbs. Or Samas. Ba’al reached out and ran the back of a finger across Tony’s cheek. Strange jewelry that covered his whole hand was cool against Tony’s skin. “He is older than most when they take a goa’uld.”
“My own host is older,” Gibbs said in Samas’ voice. It was starting to weird Tony out a little, and yeah, he was repressing because he would rather focus on that weirdness than he would all the other magnificently wrong things happening in the room. “Humans are designed to age, and attempting to stop that process is unhealthy.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Ba’al said, “I am doing quite well.” Weirdly he kept stroking Tony’s cheek. Tony looked up at Gibbs to see if he should be doing something or just letting the alien pet him like a dog. “Are you so desperate to be a host that you jumped in the rings with Samas?” Ba’al looked down at him.
“I was just trying to stay with the boss. We try to get kidnapped together.” Tony even tried to keep a civil tone, but Ba’al glared down at him.
“He is mine,” Gibbs said, stepping forward.
Ba’al finally turned his attention back to Gibbs. “So he is,” Ba’al agreed. The man had an oily smile, like a cross between a used car salesman and a porn star. Tony definitely had an itch to arrest the guy, although he could just imagine how that would turn out.
Tony shifted as his knees started to ache, and the guard rested his staff against Tony’s back. Yeah, they were not into subtlety. They did, however, get their point across. Tony quieted.
“Bring it,” Ba’al called and servants scampered out from archways behind his throne. They actually scampered. Tony had never seen someone act out that particular verb before. “I had wanted to provide you a gift. Perhaps a consort would be an appropriate one.” Ba’al lifted an eyebrow, and a woman appeared with a jar. In it swam a snake-like creature with a beige body and greenish fins. The head was pointed and darker, and had beady red eyes.
“I can make you a god,” Ba’al told Tony.
“I don’t suppose this is negotiable?”
Tony swallowed, and Gibbs’ hand came down to rest on his shoulder. Tony settled back on his knees and trusted Gibbs to fix this. Ba’al took the top off the jar and reached in for the snake. It squealed and writhed, but Ba’al ignored the creature’s struggles and brought it over to Tony.
Tony was looking up and really wishing he wasn’t facing this on his knees, but then Gibbs darted forward. Or not Gibbs. Tony blinked and it took him a second to realize that something had come out of Gibbs’ mouth. A big something. He watched as a dark green snake wrapped around Ba’al’s arm and opened its mouth to show lines of what looked like teeth. Samas. That was Samas. Looking at the two side by side, Tony could not believe igigi and goa’uld were even the same species. Samas was twice the size of the other runt, and she had huge fins which spread out, making her look a little dragonish. The goa’uld was closer to the worm end of snakiness.
Samas literally ripped the goa’uld in half and then flipped herself into the air. Gibbs had to reach out for her, but she landed on his arm and wrapped herself tightly around it before starting to munch on the head she’d ripped off the goa’uld.
Cannibalism. Lovely. Yeah, Tony was definitely going to think of goa’uld and igigi as different species. Any other thought would seriously damage his psyche.
“Well. That changes things.” Ba’al dropped the still squirming back half of the goa’uld before he turned and walked to his throne. He then sat and sprawled like an arrogant teenager.
Samas started making noises, and Tony looked up in alarm. Staying on his knees, he quickly scooted aside as Samas vomited up goa’uld parts onto the floor. Tony could feel his eye twitch, and he noticed that even the badass guards looked a little grossed out.
With a flip of a tail, Samas darted into Gibbs’ mouth, vanishing. Okay, there was something worse than cannibalism—it was eating someone and then vomiting them back up.
“I’m going kneel on his other side. The side without the…” Tony gestured toward the pile of goa’uld parts. Despite the fact that shifting his weight had earlier led to a weapon in the back, none of the clanky-guard people even commented as Tony knee walked over to Gibbs’ left side. “Maybe next time you could vomit him up away from me?”
Samas’ hand stroked Tony’s hair. “Of course. I would not want such inferior genetics to stain you.” This was actually Samas now, and Tony had no idea what sort of internal conversations Gibbs and Samas were having that led to them taking turns.
“Your host is a volunteer,” Ba’al commented.
“An unwilling host means you are trapped inside the body. And given that poor excuse for a goa’uld you attempted to inflict on my human, you have a problem.” Samas smirked. “A rather serious one.”
“I could solve it the way Ra did,” Ba’al warned. “There’s no reason why I can’t rip you out of that host and force you to breed.”
Tony’s stomach rolled and he nearly added to the vomit on the floor.
“Yes because it worked out so well for Ra. The younger ones who came after me, are any of them still alive or are they all as genetically inferior and damaged as that thing?” Samas gestured toward the ground.
Ba’al looked around the room. “Leave us,” he ordered everyone. That earned him quick bows all around the servants scurried away. One of the guards grabbed Tony’s shoulder and pulled him to his feet.
“Leave him,” Samas roared, turning on the guard. Tony stumbled back, startled by the sudden violence, but then the body language shifted and Gibbs was there speaking with Samas’ voice. “He is mine. You touch him again, and I will rip that deformed symbiote out of your stomach and leave you to die on the floor.”
The guard lost most of his color, but he held his ground until Ba’al waved him away. At that point, he fled, clanking and clinking the whole way. Tony actually felt a little sorry for him.
“Lord Anubis did warn that you queens were a rather volatile lot.” Ba’al sat on his chair and made a production out of studying his fingernails. He looked up at Tony. “So, how do you serve your queen if not as a potential host?”
Later Tony promised himself he would die laughing at the idea of someone calling Gibbs a queen, but right now was probably not the best time. “Mostly when he gets this angry, I try to keep him from killing people.”
“Oh.” Ba’al gave a little nod. “Carry on, then.” He waved a hand toward Gibbs, and that was not improving Gibbs’ temper at all. This was heading toward full nuclear meltdown.
“Boss, you remember that speech you gave me about keeping my cool?” Tony reached over and rested a hand on Gibbs’ arm. Gibbs turned a vicious glare in Tony’s direction, but that was nothing new. “Hey, it could be worse. You could be here alone, and then you would totally try to kill that guy, and you and I both know you wouldn’t succeed.”
Gibbs narrowed his eyes, and Tony swallowed. Oh yeah. This was Ari-level obsessive fury. Ba’al had no idea yet, but he was so totally dead. It might take Gibbs months or years, but he was going to kill Ba’al deader than a really dead thing. “You’re scaring the natives, boss,” Tony said in a low voice.
Gibbs shivered, and Samas stood there, even angrier than Gibbs, and that was not easy. “You will show us to rooms and give us privacy,” he ordered Ba’al. “You will provide sustenance and a place to rest and a place for me to swim and if I am displeased with any of it, I will start shredding your empire one deformed and pathetic parasite at a time.”
Tony stared in horror, fully expecting Ba’al to pull out some alien ray gun and shoot them both. Instead, he started to laugh. “Your reputation does not do you justice. I will provide all that. I also have a range of willing hosts if you would like to trade in the current model.”
Ba’al had no more than gotten to the word ‘justice’ before Gibbs turned and headed for the doors. They didn’t open, so Gibbs stood there, furious. He turned and gave Ba’al and evil look.
Ba’al raised his hand and the doors opened. “This way,” one of the guards said, far more respectfully this time. Gibbs barely managed more than a growl before he stormed out.
“Tony,” Ba’al called out. Tony stopped, shocked that some alien overlord knew his name—shocked and a little creeped out. “Calm her.”
Tony gave his best goofy smile. “It’s what I do best.”
“For your sake, I hope so,” Ba’al said firmly. Tony really didn’t have an answer, so he trotted after Gibbs, the guards clanking along behind.
The new rooms were an improvement over the cell. The front room had a wide view of space, which seemed to be streaking by in a rainbow of blues, and several sitting areas. It also had an enormous pool with a water fountain and fish darting through waving strands of green. Off to the side and through an arch was an enormous bedroom with one bed, and a pile of blankets on the floor at the foot. Yep, Tony knew his role. Attached to the bedroom, Tony found a bathroom and a small study with a desk that had computer gadgets that Tony couldn’t understand.
Gibbs ignored all of it. He went straight to the pool and bent over like he was going to vomit. Samas came streaking out and immediately took after the closest school of fish, who all darted away. Some just didn’t dart away fast enough.
“Oh yeah, she’s a predator,” Tony agreed. He couldn’t imagine that pale wormy looking thing could ever hunt this way.
Gibbs glared at him, and it took Tony a second to figure out what he’d done wrong.
“He’s a predator.”
“Are we going to talk?”
“No. Calm him down if you want to follow Ba’al’s orders.” Gibbs gestured toward the pool.
“Boss, I follow your orders.”
“Clearly you don’t because you’re here after I ordered you to not put yourself at risk,” Gibbs slapped the edge of the pool, and Samas came swimming over. Gibbs stared down into the water and then dangled his fingers down into it. Samas twirled around him and then went darting after fish twice as fast.
“That’s not calming him,” Tony pointed out.
Gibbs grunted again, and stomped off toward the bathroom.
“It would help if you guys would talk a little more,” Tony said softly. He let his fingers dangle in the water, and Samas appeared out of some of the water plants, his/her mouth open to show all those teeth. He swam so that his back ran along Tony’s fingers. His skin was firm and smooth, but when Tony went to touch Samas with his fingers, Samas darted away and nipped at Tony. Drops of blood floated in the water, and Tony yanked his fingers out and stuck his finger in his mouth. Right, no petting the boss. Either boss. That was pretty clear. Samas came back and snapped at the water with Tony’s blood.
“That’s kinda gross,” Tony commented. Samas circled, and Tony put his other hand in the pool. Again, Samas rubbed along the back of his fingers.
“You know, petting you is too much temptation,” he said. Pulling his hand out, he quickly pulled his shoes off and rolled up his pants. Sitting on the low bench that surrounded the water, Tony dangled his feet in.
Immediately Samas wound around his ankles. “Boss, you okay?” Tony called. Gibbs didn’t have a woodworking shop, so he wasn’t sure what the man would do to try and unwind. “I could probably use a briefing before I go and say something stupid.”
“Too late,” Gibbs yelled from the other room.
Charming. Eventually Samas got tired of swimming around Tony and he started nipping at Tony. Tony jerked, and kicked water up into the air. Apparently petting was a no-go, but he was fine with Tony trying to kick him. Tony could almost feel the amusement rising from the water. At first, Tony was tentative, only half-heartedly kicking in Samas’ direction, but when he could never connected, he tried harder and harder. By the time Samas got tired of that and swam off, probably to terrorize more fish, Tony had splashed water all over himself and made a mess on the floor.
A little musical chime startled Tony, and he pulled his feet out of the water. The second time, he realized it was the door. “Um, come in?” he called. Nothing happened. Tony went over to explore the door, and something he touched made it come open. Four guards stood outside with staffs, and Tony held his hands up in surrender. “Hey, not challenging anyone here. The door made a noise.”
A young woman with a huge pile in her arms came in, and the door closed behind her.
“Is the queen here?” she whispered.
“In there,” Tony said, gesturing to the water. The girl’s eyes got comically large. “And don’t call Samas a queen. It’s just weird. He prefers to be called a ‘he.’”
“Should we address him as ‘my lord,’ then?” Tony opened his mouth to make a smartass remark, but it suddenly occurred to him that this girl was a slave. She wasn’t free and she probably wouldn’t understand his humor.
“That would work better than queen. Here, let me help you.” He took the bundle from her arms, surprised at how heavy it was.
“I brought several outfits. I saw your lord quickly, but I did not get a good sense of what he might wear that would be more appropriate than…” she trailed off, her gaze sliding to the floor.
“Hey, we appreciate that,” Tony hurried to reassure her. He put the pile on the nearest couch. When he turned, she had followed and was standing behind him. “We dressed to fit in on Earth. It looks a little strange here, doesn’t it?” He stripped off his wrinkled and splattered suit coat and tie, and she smiled as she nodded.
“A little, but your lord dresses you as he sees fit.”
“My lord shops at Sears. He doesn’t get to pick my outfits,” Tony said firmly. He started sorting through the pile, and he could pretty quickly sort things out. Leather, dark silks with an emphasis on black, and finely made apparel were in Gibbs’ pile. Simple, rough, homespun black and gray went in his. Given the lack of fabric, Ba’al intended to keep him half-naked. Subtle. “I’m sure Gibbs will find something he can wear.” Hopefully. They needed to pick their battles, and a poorly tailored suit from the Men’s Warehouse was not a hill to die on.
“Gibbs?” She was confused.
“The boss,” Tony explained. “Most of the time, I call Samas Gibbs because that’s the host’s name.”
“Ah.” Her eyes lit with understanding. “He is very good at hiding, and having his slave call him by the host’s name prevents you from accidentally revealing his presence. He must be very wise.”
“Right now, he’s very pissed,” Tony said. He shrugged. “Bosses. Sometimes they just have to get it out of their system.”
She nodded sadly. With a worried expression, she caught his hand. “We have healing creams and lotions if you need. You can ask any time.”
Tony’s stomach churned as he realized what she expected. His master was pissed, and she thought that meant he would take a beating. “Samas isn’t like that,” Tony said. He looked down at his bare feet. “Okay, so he nipped me a little, but he wouldn’t actually hurt me.”
She stared down at the tiny red marks on his water-wrinkled skin. “What of the host?”
“Gibbs? He’s locked himself in the bathroom.”
She shifted nervously.
“Did you need something else?”
“I have bands, but normally the master places them on his servant.” She reached into a pouch that hung from her belt and pulled out several black straps. “They mark the loyal servant,” she said as she reached up and touched her neck. Her collared neck. Great. Tony quickly spotted the cuffs on her wrists, and he guessed she had them on her ankles under the ‘fuck me’ boots. Given the way Ba’al dressed his women slaves, Tony should probably be grateful he got clothes at all.
“Samas does things a little differently,” Tony said. “Leave these here and I’ll try to get him to use them.”
“He wouldn’t want to mark you? What if someone else saw you and tried to claim you for his own?” She seemed honestly distressed at that.
“Actually, that has happened lots,” Tony said in a conspiratorial tone. Her eyes got big. “I bet you’ve heard that when I got here, I was on top of Samas.”
The girl blushed vivid red and nodded.
“Someone was trying to keep me away from Samas, so I jumped off these stairs and into the top of the ring transportation devise. I was falling when the light took us, so when we landed here, I landed on Gibbs.” Tony used his hands to show one falling splat on the other.
She giggled. “Truly?”
“Do you really think I could get away with falling on Gibbs with only a glare under normal circumstance?” Tony asked.
She shook her head.
“Damn right. He’d headslap me into the middle of next week.” Tony stopped. Christ. The girl looked at him with these huge eyes and she really believed Gibbs would hurt him. That’s the life she’d always had, and Tony suddenly didn’t know how to talk to her. She wasn’t some witness, she was a slave trapped on an alien ship.
He grabbed her hand and pulled her down to sit on the second couch, next to him. “But hey, Gibbs was okay with it because if I hadn’t fought to get to him, he would have killed to get back to me.” Her gaze darted over to the pool, but she didn’t comment. “I’m Tony,” he said.
“Antalia,” she offered, touching her chest.
“It’s really nice to meet you, Antalia, and it was really nice of you to bring us clothes so we wouldn’t look like freaks.” She ducked her head, and her long, black hair hid her face.
“Entertaining women already, DiNozzo?” Gibbs walked into the room, and Antalia tried to slide off the couch and to her knees, but Tony held her arm.
“Boss, this is Antalia. She works for Ba’al and she brought us some clothes so we wouldn’t stink quite so much.”
Gibbs gave Tony a long look, one normally reserved for those times when he was trying to figure out what Tony was up to.
“Antalia, this is Gibbs. He’s Samas’ host, although he was also kind of badass on his own long before Samas joined him. I think that’s why the two of them get along so well.”
“My lord,” Antalia said, keeping her head bowed low. “I live to serve.”
Tony watched Gibbs flinch.
“How about some food?” Tony asked brightly. “I’m starving, how about you, boss?”
“That’s his ‘hell yes, why haven’t you taken care of this already, DiNozzo,’ grunt,” Tony told Antalia in a conspiratorial tone, one slave to another.
“I shall send someone with food.” She stood and bowed deeply to Gibbs.
“You can come back any time,” Tony said. “Maybe after I find out which of those Samas likes?” he nodded toward the other couch. She looked at the pile of clothes and nodded.
“Of course, Tony.” She looked up and gave him a small smile before she bowed to Gibbs again and with a soft, “My lord,” she started backing out of the room. Gibbs watched her until she left and then he glared at Tony.
“I’m making friends, boss. You never know when a friend will come in handy. So, I have it on good authority that we look like freaks of nature in these clothes. I also have it on good authority that we will look like freaks in our new clothes, but we will be cleaner freaks.”
Gibbs frowned. “What happened to your suit?”
Tony looked down at the wrinkled mess. The water was totally going to stain his tie, and the pants… between the kneeling and the falling and the pool, they were unsalvageable. “Your better half felt like playing,” Tony said. “We splashed around a little.”
Gibbs looked toward the pool and then looked back with an expression that came close to horror.
“So Antalia did her best, but this is looking a little Ba’alish,” Tony said as he sorted clothes. He found a shirt that would show more fabric than skin and held it up. It was black silk and the simplest thing Antalia had brought, although it did have black symbols embroidered into the collar and down the front. On earth, Tony would have paid a couple of hundred dollars for a shirt like this. “What do you think?”
“I’m not wearing it.”
Tony sighed and dropped the shirt on the couch. “Boss, that was a damn good performance in there today, but you and I both know that the stick has to go with the carrot. Carrot, stick. Stick, carrot.” Tony put his hands out as though weighing something and then let the scales tip back and forth.
Gibbs moved over to the window. “This isn’t an interrogation, Tony. The damn species is dying. They want me to fix it.”
“Wait. Dying? Dying as in…”
Gibbs turned back around and looked at Tony. “The position of first slave is almost always reserved for someone who is destined to host. You would be Samas’ backup host I were damaged badly enough that he couldn’t heal me.”
“Yeah, I got that, boss. And if you were injured, I wouldn’t hesitate to take Samas, although I’d be a little more worried about saving you.”
Gibbs clenched his jaw as he looked around the room. “They’re never letting me leave this ship.”
“Then I’m never leaving with you,” Tony said. “Boss, we’re in this together.”
“I ordered you to stay behind.”
“Write me up,” Tony suggested with a shrug.
Before Tony could blink, Gibbs was across the room, spinning Tony and grabbing him from behind by the neck. Surprise made Tony swing, but Gibbs had him in a sleeper hold, and he forced Tony stomach down onto the couch and pinned him there. Tony’s heart pounded impossibly fast, and he finally forced himself to lie still under Gibbs’ body.
“This is what they expect, Tony. If you disobey, they expect me to force you to your knees, to discipline you, to rape you and beat you.”
“First, if you have to physically discipline me because I say something stupid, I’m not going to complain, boss. I’ve never complained about the headslaps, and sometimes those hurt.”
“Not the way it would hurt if I took a strap to your backside.”
Tony closed his eyes. “Okay, I know that. Just don’t ask me to sit still for it because I’m going to panic and strike out, so make sure you tie me to something first if it has to be done.”
That made Gibbs recoil as if burned. He retreated to the far side of the pool where he stood near the door to the bedroom and stared at Tony. Tony rubbed his neck as he sat up. “A slave just brought me slave clothes that don’t leave much to the imagination. I’m apparently sleeping in a pile of blankets on the floor at the foot of your big huge bed, and Ba’al just tried to confiscate my body. I do get it, boss.”
“Tony.” Gibbs voice came out strangled.
“Boss, it’s okay. I understand that I’m going to do something stupid to earn discipline eventually. Do it yourself and make sure I don’t have a chance to make it worse by fighting back, and I’ll get through fine. As far as rape, that would be difficult for you. You can’t be so clueless that you haven’t noticed that I’m attracted to you.”
“Samas has,” Gibbs admitted, and he looked like it was painful for him to say it.
“Right. So that’s not a problem. And as far as the slave duties—calming you down, running around after you when you’re smarter than the rest of us and two steps ahead, intercepting stupid people before you feel the need to kill them, and generally taking care of all the grunt work that you don’t have time for. Add to that the being on call twenty four hours a day, insane midnight calls, lack of sleep, and impossible expectations, and I’m pretty sure that I’ve been a slave for the last several years. Clearly I don’t have a problem with it since I’ve stuck around.”
“God damn it, Tony, I was trying to protect you from all this.”
“Gibbs, I’m happier here than I would be if I were still on Earth. Right now, Ziva and Tim are being eaten alive by guilt, wondering what they could have done or why they weren’t good enough to fix all this.”
“They don’t even know what happened,” Gibbs said.
Tony nodded. “Yeah, but they’re going to figure out that we’re gone, and Director Shepard is sharp enough to figure out that the Air Force doesn’t know where we went. That’s when the real guilt starts. That’s the sort of guilt that eats you alive from the inside.” Tony looked up at Gibbs and he let down all the masks and facades and shared a piece of the real him. “It would kill me, Gibbs. If I were in that cell right now, I wouldn’t give a shit about my career or O’Neill or the whole fucking planet, because I would be too busy with the guilt that was eating my soul.”
“Oh Tony.” Gibbs took several steps closer.
“You’re the first person to call me too good to waste, boss.”
Gibbs seemed frozen. He stared at Tony with an expression that even Tony couldn’t read. They stayed like that, silently staring and held in place by some emotion that neither controlled, until the door chime rang again.
“Get dinner set up out here. I’ll try the clothes,” Gibbs said. From him, it was as good as an apology or a declaration of love.
“On it, boss,” Tony agreed. Actually, if he just replaced the word “boss” with “master,” he really did have the slave gig down pretty well.
Tony opened the door and quickly stepped back rather than make the guards nervous. He found himself looking at a thin man wearing plain brown clothing that looked a lot more comfortable than the options Antalia had brought him. The new guy had brought a cart with enough food to feed an army. He kept his eyes down.
“You ordered food?”
“Hey, I’m not a goa’uld, so don’t try so hard to be polite to me. It makes me nervous,” Tony said. The man looked up. “Come on in, Tony invited him. The man hesitated a second, but then he pushed the food inside the rooms. There was a table on the opposite side of the room from the archway into the bedroom. “I’m Tony.”
The man ducked his head a little lower. “Stelli,” he said softly.
“Nice to meet you, Stelli,” Tony said. The man looked up, clearly surprised. Tony kept smiling, careful to not startle the man.
“I can set up the meal,” he said as he started taking the lids off plates.
“I can help with that.”
“Careful!” Stelli reached out to grab Tony’s hand, but then he cringed back, his hands tucked close to his chest as his expression twisted in horror. “The plate is hot, hem.” From the reverential way he said “hem,” Tony was guessing it was a title.
Tony reached out and let his fingers hover over the plate, and he could feel the heat radiating. “Thank you, Stelli. I would have been badly hurt.”
“Your master could have healed you. I should not have touched you. I apologize, hem.”
“My master expects me to figure things out for myself, and he rarely saves me from my own mistakes,” Tony said softly. “And that might be a problem because I’ve never lived on a ship like this. So I do owe you some gratitude, and if I’m about to do something stupid, I would very much appreciate it if you would grab my hand.”
Stelli looked up at him, caution in his expression. Yep, this was the bullied kid who was eyeing the new kid waiting to see whether there was a new bully on the block. Tony took a step back. “Maybe I should watch how you do it,” Tony said.
Stelli nodded and reached out again. He took off a lid and then picked up the plate with his bare hand.
“Wasn’t that hot a second ago?” Tony asked.
“When one removes the lid, the heat or cold vanishes. The plate only keeps its temperature in order to make sure the master’s food is served correctly.” Stelli suddenly looked up at Tony. “Your master prefers to be called ‘master’ or ‘lord’ rather than ‘queen,’ correct?”
There was real fear there. Tony smiled. “Yes, he does. I may also call him Gibbs from time to time because that’s the name of his host. And honestly, he would rather be called ‘Special Agent’ or ‘boss’ rather than ‘master,’ although you could probably get away with calling him ‘my lord’ without pissing him off. Now me… he’d be pissed if I said that.”
“I don’t know those titles,” Stelli said. He looked down at the cart and started working to unload a veritable feast.
“Special Agent is someone who has proven to be an expert in discovering secrets and uncovering crimes. I’m a Special Agent too. Gibbs taught me himself.” Tony grinned.
Stelli gave him a small smile. “You are hem, such happens.”
“I don’t know that title,” Tony said. “I know, I’ll make you a deal. For every fact you tell me, I’ll tell you one, and vice versa.” Tony figured that information had to be one of the big trade goods in a slave society. They wouldn’t have much else. “So, you told me about the plates, and I told you about Special Agents. What else do you want to know about?” Tony sat in one of the chairs.
“You also told me of ways to address your lord,” Stelli said, “so I still owe you information. A hem or many hemu serve a god. The gods may choose to have their hemu do many things a slave would not dream of, and many rise to godhood themselves.”
“Yeah, Lord Ba’al tried to promote me, and Samas was not impressed.”
Stelli gave him a sympathetic look. “I am sorry. I hope one day your lord finds you worthy.”
Tony grinned as he thought of how this man would respond to a vehement ‘hell no’ at the very thought of getting snaked. However, Tony knew how to catch flies, and it wasn’t by putting out vinegar and swatting at them, no matter what Gibbs seemed to think. “I think I’m going to accept any place, as long as I get to stay with the boss.”
“Spoken like a faithful hem,” Stelli said, clearly approving of that answer. He finished setting out the plates and started putting the lids back on them. Tony wondered if that would turn on the heating and cooling elements in the plate, but at least now he knew to check before touching anything. He’d have to warn Gibbs too. Tony frowned. Unless Samas already knew.
“So, who would I find on this ship other than gods, hemu and guards?” Tony asked.
Stelli stood up and considered him with amusement. “One must beware of trading questions with you,” he said with amusement. “I will tell you, but you must give me time to come up with a question equally worthy of trade before finishing the transaction.”
“Deal,” Tony said. He had no idea why that was such a good question, but he was happy to claim credit for a lucky mistake. He didn’t know how lucky until Stelli had spent twenty minutes explaining about the planet slaves or meret, the servants who served in the belly of the ship called the sedjemash, the hemu who served at the right hand of the gods, and the seqer who were worked to death in mines or in the belly of the ships because they were captured enemy with no status, even among the slaves. He spoke of the tok’ra rebels who would sneak on board to spy and the jaffa guards and of the free jaffa infiltrators who would sometimes try to convince the loyal to abandon their gods. For a low-ranked sedjemash, Stelli actually knew quite a lot about his masters the very complex political system they fostered on their ha’tak ships. He finished and watched Tony, searching for some reaction.
“Okay. That’s complicated.”
“Your world is not as complex.” Stelli stated. Tony noted that it was a statement, and very carefully not worded as a question. He might be low status, but the man was not stupid.
“No, it is. Gibbs usually ignored the politics, did exactly what he wanted, and the rest of the world had to sort of figure out how to deal with it.”
“That is always the way for the gods,” Stelli said softly. He moved a step closer. “However, I think your Gibbs had the power to make sure that you had that same freedom.”
Tony smiled. “The only person I had to worry about pissing off was Gibbs. He pretty much took care of the rest of the world,” Tony agreed. He smiled up at Stelli. “You do know that we will never eat that much food. We’re in space. Surely you can’t afford to waste it.”
Stelli nodded, accepting the change of topic. “What your lord does not want, you may distribute to others in return for favors or ask the guard to remove it. They will then distribute to food to their favorites.”
Tony’s stomach clenched. Food was a trade item, which implied that either slaves didn’t get enough food or they didn’t get good food. These people were evil, which was probably why Samas had refused to go along with their games in the first place.
“Gibbs isn’t going to want to be disturbed again, and I know what he likes to eat, so I can choose now.”
Stelli’s eyes got big. “And if your lord is not pleased?”
Tony snorted. “If he’s not, trust me, I’ll hear about it. However, he would never take that displeasure outside this room. Right now, Ba’al and I are the only ones in any immediate danger.” Tony hated exaggerating Gibbs’ temper, but camaraderie over temperamental owners seemed like the fastest way to make a friend, and they needed some friends.
Tony stood and started taking the lids off the dishes he had already identified. He kept two servings of meat, a potato-like dish, two desserts—both of which he planned to eat—a variety of fruits and nuts, and a small plate of cheese. It was a large meal, and it still meant that two-thirds of the food was going right back to the kitchen… or galley or whatever the hell they called the room where they cooked food. He finished and looked at the cart.
“I have a favor to ask.”
Stelli bowed. “Of course, hem.”
“I don’t know who is a potential friend or favorite. I know you have been incredibly helpful, and Antalia did beautiful work on the clothes; however, I don’t know how to distribute this is a way that would best serve my boss.” Tony gestured toward the food laden cart. “Could you do that for me?”
Stelli drew himself up straight and then lowered his head slowly and gracefully. “I would be honored, hem Tony.”
“Thank you.” Tony knew the power of touch. He reached out and let his fingers rest on Stelli’s arm, and the man gave him a warm look before dropping his head.
“I should return. I have been gone longer than expected.”
“Well tell them that I kept you.”
“Thank you, hem,” Stelli said. With one last bow, he headed for the door, leaving Tony alone in the room. The ha’tak might be a ship, but it was oddly silent. Tony was used to ships that creaked and moaned as they rocked through the water. He could always hear the hump and click of mechanics and the distant muffled voices of crew. This ship was silent. Dead.
“Good work, Tony.”
Tony looked up to see Gibbs standing in the arch. He smiled. “How much did you hear, boss?”
“All of it.” Gibbs came over and looked at the feast laid out on the table. “After Samas’ stunt today, I’m not sure I can eat.”
“You mean the cannibalism thing?”
Gibbs nodded before picking up a piece of fruit. Normally Gibbs was a meat kind of guy, but Tony could see how it would be a little disturbing to have your bodymate eat a relative. Gibbs walked over to the bench where the clothes Antalia had brought for him lay in a pile. “The strongest onac curse translates roughly to ‘I hope a mother eats you and vomits your remains on dry land.’”
Tony shivered. “Disturbing and oddly accurate considering what Samas did today.”
Gibbs fingered the leather cuffs Antalia had brought. “He found the onac disgustingly mutated and unworthy of living. More than that, he found it unworthy of having its genes passed on to any future generations.”
“Ah.” Tony nodded. “If the remains are on dry land, the predatory queens won’t sample the DNA.”
That got a quick nod out of Gibbs. Tony considered the fact that Samas had snapped up Tony’s blood when it dribbled into the pool, but they could worry about that another time. Gibbs was still fingering the cuffs, and Tony put the lids back on the dishes before joining Gibbs over in the sitting area.
“We have to play the game, Gibbs.”
“We’ve already established that I’m going to have to play the slave.”
Gibbs turned and looked at him, his blue eyes cold. “No, you’re going to have to be a slave, and if I die, you’re going to be Ba’al’s slave.”
“Then don’t die,” Tony suggested. “Or if you think there’s no other choice, give me a quick end and then do what you have to.”
Gibbs closed his eyes and dropped down onto the couch. Tony moved to the far end of the same couch and sat. They waited in silence for a time, and then Gibbs held up the padded leather strap. “They use these so that if they grab a slave and tie him down, there’s less chance of damaging the wrist bones.”
“Not a bad idea, actually,” Tony commented. The look Gibbs gave him could have killed. “Anyone who takes slave is on the morally corrupt end of the pool, boss. The fact they try to avoid damaging those slaves is the most humane thing I’ve heard about them yet. No offense, but your family sucks.”
“Samas’ family,” Gibbs said, looking over to the pool. Tony hadn’t realized they were still separate.
“Samas’ family,” Tony corrected himself. “Now unless you plan to starve yourself and leave me to deal with Ba’al, we should have dinner, sort out the clothes, and get some rest before we get called back in there.” Tony stood up. For a second, he thought Gibbs might walk away. He certainly had a history of avoiding the team when the emotions got too deep. Instead, Gibbs gave a nod and headed back to the table.
“They have a really weird fruit thing. I’m not sure it’s safe to eat. The apple pie looks like apple pie, and the potatoes are pretty recognizable.” Tony started taking the lids off again, noting that the plates were hot and chilled again. The alien fruit was together will some apple and pear, and Gibbs glanced at it.
“It’s called nenic. It’s a little like a kiwi and a banana, only with a thick skin and firm fruit.”
“Oh. That sounds good.” Tony was never one to turn down food. He grabbed it, and popped it in. It had that sharp tang of kiwi and a note of sour apple, but then it had a sweetness like an overripe banana. “Very good,” Tony said. This was going into his list of favorite fruits.
Gibbs sighed and started cutting into the steak. Yep, that was the Gibbs that Tony knew and loved. There wasn’t a problem in the world the two of them couldn’t solve over beer and steaks.
Tony touched the band on his wrist again and fought an urge to pull on his collar. He appreciated the irony in the fact that he had to get Gibbs to collar him and add the wrist and ankle straps. But now that they were going in to see Ba’al again, Tony was glad for them. Like the clothes, they were visible proof that Gibbs could bend, and that would keep them alive.
They walked in the room, and one of the slaves darted forward and caught him by the arm before nodding toward the side where several other slaves stood. Stood, as in not kneeling. Tony glanced toward the guard, and the older one gave him a small nod.
“Thanks,” he whispered, and he moved over toward them. He knew the looks on their faces. It was like he was back in high school with people locked up together for too many years—bored and far too familiar with each other. New faces brought excitement and a shifting of the status that some feared. Yeah, Tony never thought he’d have to be the new kid again, but then he never thought he’d be wearing skin tight pants with a vest that hid almost nothing and a collar. At least he never expected to wear it in public.
Gibbs looked more stylish. He’d finally given in to Tony and submitted to an outfit of Tony’s choosing. He had the black embroidered shirt and black pants that were nicely tailored to his figure. Antalia had a good eye to get them to fit that well without any measurements. He also wore a finely tooled belt with a red stone as large as Tony’s palm and a gray leather jacket with silver details. He looked gorgeous. And pissed. He still looked pissed.
A woman had joined Ba’al. She stood to the side, looking out onto space and ignoring him completely. There were some strange dynamics going on there.
“Samas, you look more presentable today,” Ba’al greeted him.
Gibbs was front and center, and he focused on the woman. “Who are you?”
She turned. She wore deep purple robes embroidered with gold and red and an elaborate beaded veil attached to an actual crown. These people had serious fashion issues. Tony could definitely see her wearing red silk in Gibbs’ basement.
She smiled, her expression barely visible under the veil. “Samas. We had such troubles finding you. Honestly, we thought that we would find you when you visited this human, not that you were inside him.” She looked Gibbs up and down in a way that made it clear she considered him an inferior host. Tony immediately took a disliking to her.
“You worry too much about appearance.”
She inclined her head. “Perhaps we do, old one.”
“Old one?” That was pure Gibbs disbelief.
“There are so few of us left who remember the old waters. Too few. The time to fight with each other has passed, and we must work together.”
Gibbs narrowed his eyes. “Who are you?”
She reached out and stroked her hand down Gibbs’ arm, and Tony could feel the panic rising. He took a step forward, and Ba’al turned and gave him an amused look.
“Kali,” Gibbs said. “I didn’t think you went anywhere without being on Shiva’s leash.”
“That was many millennia ago.”
“Guess so.” Gibbs looked her up and down. “What do you want?”
“You and I go back so far my friend. You and I and Lords Yu and Anubis. Lady Amaterasu. Who else is left in the entire universe who understands our people as well as the five of us?”
“Ra certainly assumed he knew about our people,” Gibbs said dryly. That would be the alien that forced Samas to have kids and then slaughtered them all. Tony honestly didn’t know how all Samas’ issues fit into the same head with Gibbs’.
“He made a mistake, and he paid for it. The tau’ri never would have had the opportunity to betray him were he not already suffering. He took new hosts almost yearly. He used the sarcophagus daily.”
“But he never went home and let his own body heal in the waters,” Gibbs pointed out.
Kali inclined her head toward Gibbs. The gesture was submissive, but the words… yeah, this one wouldn’t submit with her dying breath. She knew how to fake it, though. “We should think of saving our people.”
“My people are swimming on the homeworld, joining with unas, proving their worth and then returning to the waters. My people are safe, and when I feel like doing something for my people, I will return to those waters and birth a thousand more onac.”
“You can still breed.” Kali sighed, her relief palpable. “I feared… I feared we would be lost.”
“I am in no danger of being lost.” Gibbs stepped forward, still using Samas’ distorted voice. He caught Kali’s arm in a hard grip and gave her a good jerk. “I remember you when you didn’t know fear. I remember you swimming, your strong body slapping aside the other suitors.”
Kali raised her chin and looked at Gibbs. “You nearly took off half my tail.”
“You were worthy of taking significant genetic material,” Gibbs said. Then he gave her a hard shove. “Would you still be worthy? Can you still fight for yourself, or is your body destroyed from millennia of living inside a human? Do you even remember what it is to hunt?”
“Yes!” Kali leaped forward, hands reaching for Gibbs. He caught her, and they struggled, but then Gibbs stepped back and threw his hands in the air. Tony was starting to get a very disturbing idea about where Gibbs got his taste in strong and sometimes mentally unbalanced women. It would certainly explain why he so consistently chose wives who ended up trying to kill him with blunt objects.
“I don’t fight with human bodies. Come to my pool and prove yourself.” Gibbs had vanished, and now Samas stood in his place.
Tony could see the instant when Kali gave up hope. She retreated, her body seeming to grow smaller as she turned her back and returned to staring out into space. Tony didn’t expect to see her show up without a human host any time soon.
“You were a great warrior—a formidable assassin,” Samas said, his voice almost gentle. “You will be born again, but not as this damaged and stunted creature. I will use the blood I once took as you writhed in my jaws. Do not ask for more of me, Kali.”
She turned and looked at him over her shoulder. “I have never been your enemy, Samas.”
“You never defended me from Ra.”
Kali turned. “I thought you fought your own battles.”
Tony could see the moment where Samas sank back down and Gibbs rose up. He seriously hoped that Samas was right about no one else being able to read all these shifts. Tony honestly had no idea how alien overlords would react if they knew a human was telling them off. “If it had been only Ra, I would have. The goa’uld turned their backs on their own beliefs.”
For Gibbs, standing up for your beliefs was a line in the sand. Tony had no idea if the two goa’uld understood that, though.
Ba’al started slowly clapping. He kept clapping as he stood up and stepped down from the raised platform to stop right in front of Gibbs. “That was impressive. Anubis warned us that queens were rather uncompromising.”
“We carry the memories of the entire race, the memories of dozens if not hundreds of suitors who fought to offer up their blood. We should not compromise.”
“Yes, yes. And those of us who do not reproduce are pale imitations.” Ba’al waved his hand at the ridiculousness of that statement, and the slaves around Tony shifted uncomfortably. Tony could understand the slaves. They had no power, so any shifts at the top, could mean life and death for them. However, he still didn’t understand the goa’uld and the game they were playing. Clearly they wanted Samas’ abilities as a queen, but they weren’t trying very damn hard to win him over.
Gibbs crossed his arms and looked at Ba’al with that cross of irritation and utter boredom that often made Tony feel about two inches tall. Tony usually reacted by scrambling after something to do—anything to avoid the boss’s ire. Ba’al glared back, clearly annoyed.
“If you’re going to be a traditionalist, shouldn’t you be nesting by now? Where are your hundreds of suitors, all of whom will give their blood for you as you birth their offspring?”
Gibbs looked over to Kali, and she quickly shifted her gaze away.
Ba’al laughed. “Don’t quote tradition at me, Samas. Right now the choice is between serving Anubis and bringing about a new age, a better age of onac—or watching the species die.”
After spending some time looking Ba’al up and down like a piece of rotting garbage that’s been dropped on the ground, Gibbs walked away. He headed right at Tony, and Tony darted forward. The other slaves gasped, so Tony stopped before he broke some taboo, but he said, “Yeah, boss?”
“On it, boss. Be right back.” Tony turned and gave one of the slaves a desperate look. A young woman gestured him off to an open door on the side, and Tony hurried in that direction.
“If the goa’uld die, that only improves the species,” Gibbs said rather coldly.
Tony feared he would miss the conversation, but he hadn’t made it two steps outside the hall when a slave appeared and shoved a platter in his hands. It had three weirdly shaped alien fruit and then a nicely arranged selection of nenic already cut up. “Do you have something weak and alcoholic, maybe something made from fermented grains?” Tony asked.
“Your master asked for this?” The slave looked alarmed.
“He wants it, even if he hasn’t asked yet. Can you grab me some, please?”
The slave held his gaze for a second, and then bowed his head. “Yes, hem.” With that, he darted away, and Tony found himself alone in the corridor—alone as in no guards. Security was a little uneven, but that was an advantage he could take advantage of if they had any sort of plan. Tony headed back inside, and Gibbs was now standing near the windows looking into space. Tony hurried over, holding the tray out. Gibbs took it and set it on the ledge, leaving Tony nothing to do with his hands. He took a step backward, planning to retreat, but Gibbs caught his arm.
Not wanting to make a scene about equal rights and human dignity, Tony slipped to his knees at Gibbs’ feet and bowed his head. This was screwing up some prime sexual fantasy material for him. The next time he played with some Dom, he was going to end up having flashbacks to evil alien overlords. Clichéd evil alien overlords.
“It’s true,” Kali said quietly. “They have no memories left.”
“You did this,” Samas was speaking, and he stroked Tony’s hair. Tony had definitely missed something, and he leaned into Samas’ leg, offering the only support he could as long as they were trapped in this room. Samas paused and then returned to petting him.
“None of us would have done such a thing, Samas,” Kali said with an earnestness that made Tony believe that she meant whatever she was saying.
Ba’al sounded either bored or amused, it was hard to tell. “Does it matter?” he asked. “The homeworld onac are as good as dead. They’re animals, stripped of their sentience.”
Gibbs shook his head. “It doesn’t work like that. They’re still sentient.”
“You are the most stubborn creature in the universe, Samas.” Ba’al laughed, and it occurred to Tony that the reason he couldn’t get a read on the bastard because Ba’al was a true sociopath. Kali clearly cared about things… now they weren’t the things that Tony would prefer she cared about, but she cared. Ba’al seemed amused by others’ pain. “Do you want us to bring these damaged onac to you?”
Gibbs turned. “Yes.”
Tony held perfectly still and waited as the room grew artificially quiet.
“Samas,” Kali finally said, “Apophis attempted to place his memories into a human child. Would he have done that if there were any way for our species to reproduce?”
“Perhaps none of the queens will speak to you after you slaughtered so many of them,” Gibbs pointed out dryly.
“Perhaps we could use your slave to test the onac,” Ba’al suggested.
Tony forced himself to breathe. Ba’al was trying to aggravate them, and Tony just leaned into Samas’ leg again.
“If it is genetically acceptable, I would allow several onac to fight for him, but I will not hold him down and allow some worm into my slave,” Samas said.
Ba’al chuckled. “Either he is unique among tau’ri or you may find him less amenable than you expect.”
“Is that right, Tony?” Samas gave his hair a tug, and Tony looked up. “Will you fight if I order you into a pool of onac all desperate for a host?”
Tony took a deep breath and looked up at Samas. “Boss, I would go into the water without hesitation, but I would fight the onac because I don’t want some weak thing in me. If I carry one of you, I want you to be proud of me and the onac I carry.” Tony held Samas’ gaze. Samas took a second to run the back of his finger over Tony’s cheek, and then he looked back at Ba’al.
“Gibbs did the same thing. He came closer to killing me than any other human, and that made him worthy to carry me longer than any of them. You get your onac, and if they are truly damaged as you say, I will know. If they are not, we will have Tony join us.”
Tony looked over, and Ba’al was studying him. Tony held his gaze and let his head rest against Samas’ knee. After a second, Ba’al walked over, his long robes sliding across the floor until he stood in front of them. Samas didn’t react, so Tony dropped his gaze and waited. The slave stuff he didn’t mind, but the having to be respectful to a psychopath annoyed him. Samas started petting him again, and Tony breathed out, focusing on the job and not the goa’uld in front of him. That became infinitely more difficult when Ba’al reached down and cupped Tony’s chin, forcing Tony to look up at him.
“Your master would put a god in you—give your body over to another so you became nothing more than the vessel for the god you would serve with your life.”
Tony glanced over, but Samas was only watching him.
“If Samas believes I need to carry an onac, I will. I will do whatever the boss thinks I should—I have for years, and I’m too old to change now.”
Ba’al waited, his fingers pressing into Tony’s face. After long seconds, he let go and gave Samas a smile. “He speaks truthfully. I had heard of the power of queens to demand loyalty.”
“He is mine. Touch him again and I will rip you out of your host and leave you to die on the floor like I did your disgusting offspring.” And that was Gibbs. Tony his hand around Gibbs’ ankle and slipped his thumb under the hem of his pants so he could stroke the skin below.
Ba’al watched with undisguised amusement. Turning, he pointed to one of the slave. “Bring assorted foods to the music room. Come, Samas, join us.” Ba’al headed for one of the doors behind the throne.
“I need a beer,” Gibbs complained softly.
“I already asked one of the slaves to find something for you,” Tony said. He stood up and grabbed the tray. Gibbs gave him a strange look, but then nodded before following Ba’al. Tony followed him, and he couldn’t miss the pained expression on Kali’s face as she watched Gibbs pass. These people were all screwed up, that’s for sure.
Tony had that confirmed as he walked into the music room. Slaves played music off to the side and mostly naked women wandered the room, twitching their hips until Ba’al held out a hand, and then they joined him on oversized couches.
A slave came over with a large drink and offered it to Gibbs. “Your servant requested this for you, my lord.” Gibbs took it with a grunt, which seemed to give the slave permission to leave, and he hurried away. Gibbs went and sat on the couch to Ba’al’s left, and Tony followed, kneeling down at Gibbs’ side and holding the tray up so it balanced on Gibbs’ knee.
Gibbs grabbed the tray and moved it to the cushion on the other side. Then he grabbed Tony’s collar, giving him a gentle tug. Tony got the hint. He crawled up to Gibbs’ side and curled into him the same way Ba’al’s women were doing on the other couch.
Ba’al smiled and leaned back. “We shall end up being great friends,” Ba’al told Samas. He closed his eyes as his women started to stroke him. Kali stood off to the side looking intensely uncomfortable behind her veil. It certainly set her off from the slave girls.
“I will never birth your children,” Gibbs said. Samas had definitely taken a backseat, and Tony wished he understood why. He was afraid that Samas had been hit pretty hard by the news that his people had just gone on the endangered species list, but Tony couldn’t really talk about that here.
Ba’al laughed. “No need. Once we have healthy onac, we can figure out what is causing the damage to our bodies. Kali and I plan to live forever, don’t we?”
“Yes,” Kali agreed. Oddly, Tony didn’t believe her. Gibbs started rubbing Tony’s back, and Tony let his head rest against Gibbs’ side as he curled up on the couch. They’d figure out a plan later. Right now, all Tony could do was make Gibbs look stronger simply by being the slave these people seemed to expect.
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