by Nix
(crimsonquills AT gmail DOT com)

Author's Notes: Not betaed. Also, I suspect this turned into a world building info dump. I'd have tried to fix it, but I didn't have time before the challenge closed.

The first time I met Agents Gibbs and DiNozzo I went into the meeting expecting the passive aggressive version of fireworks. Gibbs's reputation was a matter of frequent complaints--both formal and informal--and for all the horror people had of him shouting at them, it was his quiet anger that occasionally brought NCIS personnel to my office in a cold sweat. Knowing that our meeting was by specific request of the Director only made me more certain that the two of them would be strongly resistant to talking to me.

I dressed for a battle that day: shiny black heels, black slacks, my black leather belt with the silver buckle that's twisted to look like rope, a caramel colored blouse with the sleeves rolled up to my elbows, and matching silver and onyx earrings and necklace. Maybe it's not most people's idea of armor, but it makes me feel organized and professional, and I figured I was going to need that.

I ate a small lunch, just in case dealing with these two made my stomach knot unpleasantly, and went into the appointment braced for anything.

Except what I got, apparently.

I was making notes in preparation for someone else's interview, scheduled for the next day, when there was a brisk knock at my door. I glanced at the clock automatically. 2:57pm, which meant they were early. Or their watches were fast.

"Come in," I called out, setting the pen down, standing, and coming around my desk.

The door swung open and Gibbs and DiNozzo stepped into the room. For a moment, that was all my ordinary five senses processed, because my sixth sense was going haywire. I'm not sure how to describe it to someone who isn't an empath. It was almost like they, not one person, the sense of interaction precluded that. The flow of energy, of emotion, between them was almost blinding to my empathy, and I'm only a Five.

I resisted the urge to raise my hand to shield my eyes. This wasn't that kind of 'blinding'. "Could you tone that down a little?" I said instead, unable to resist squinting a bit. It was going to take time to train our bodies not to react to sixth sense stimuli in the same ways they reacted to five senses stimuli.

"Tone what down?" Gibbs asked sharply, with an accompanying prickle of curiosity and edge of concern.

"Your interaction," I said, making an effort to stop squinting. They were still blazing away. "Why aren't you shielding?" Belatedly, I raised a shield of my own. As a Five, I didn't, strictly speaking, need one, although going without could be distracting and painful. I knew a few people who never took their shields down at all, but I liked the sense of connection, so I rarely raised mine.

"Shield?" DiNozzo said, his voice expressing his bewilderment.

I blinked and bit back the words You don't know how to shield? According to his file he'd been out of the coma for a week, more than enough time to learn, but underlining how far behind the coma had left him wasn't the best way to start this interview. I gestured for the two of them to sit down on the couch along one wall of my office and pulled out a chair from the visitors' side of my desk for myself. "You need to build a barrier between your emotions and the rest of the world," I explained.

"Build how?" DiNozzo asked, brow wrinkling.

I paused, momentarily at a loss. I'd worked it out with the help of a group of other empaths in the early days of the Awakening. Learning to damp down the sudden new 'noise' had been a priority for all of us and we'd found each other almost by accident, the emotional feedback loops any two empaths generated acting like a secret handshake. I tried to remember what it had been like back then, building my shield for the first time. Only a little over a month, but it seemed like years already. "It's sort of a visualization exercise," I said at last. "Like building a brick wall in your mind, or wrapping yourself in a reflective blanket."

DiNozzo's gaze turned inward for a moment. I waited, not wanting to disturb his concentration. "Like that?" he said eventually.

I couldn't tell with my own shields up, so I lowered them...and blinked in surprise. DiNozzo's shield was so complete that it felt to my sixth sense as if there was a hole where he and Gibbs were sitting. Not just a sense of something impenetrable, but an actual absence of sensation, as if touching that place with my empathy made it go numb. On top of that, it extended around both himself and Gibbs.

"Exactly like that," I said, a little bemused. "Are you sure no one has worked with you on this before? I've never seen a shield that complete built that fast."

"He's been out of the hospital for barely a week," Gibbs said shortly. "There hasn't exactly been time."

I had been sitting down with a group of fellow empaths, trying to figure out how to quiet the noise in my head, three days after the Awakening finished. "Shielding is usually a priority for empaths," I said instead, trying to be diplomatic.

"I was under the impression you'd been briefed on our situation," Gibbs said sharply.

"I have been," I said, concentrating on remaining calm. "But while you might not have to worry about everyone else, I would have thought you'd have investigated how to shield from each other."

They looked at each other then and the intentness of their expressions made me wish I hadn't prompted DiNozzo to shield himself just yet. Actual communication shouldn't have been possible between empaths--emotions just weren't that specific--but they had the same look about them as a pair of telepaths who were communicating. They turned back to face me in unison. "We find our emotions are...complimentary," Gibbs said carefully. "The bond hasn't felt at all invasive."

"Could you shut it off?" I asked. "If you needed to?"

DiNozzo pressed his lips together. "I'm not sure I want to try," he said at length. Gibbs moved his attention from me to DiNozzo, arching an inquisitive eyebrow. DiNozzo shrugged. "I spent a month in a coma because of this ability," he said. "I'm not sure screwing with the solution is a good idea."

I knew that the Director would be happiest if I could convince Gibbs and DiNozzo to shield from each other and continue exactly as they had before the Awakening...but I thought of my own dislike of shielding and knew that I couldn't advise that even if I thought they'd listen to such a suggestion. "Okay," I said instead. "In that case, I need you to unshield a little. Just enough for me to understand what's happening with you."

DiNozzo nodded. After a moment I lowered my own shields to find that the flow of their interaction had faded back into my awareness. "That's good. Thank you."

"What does it feel like to you?" Gibbs asked intently, leaning forward, his forearms braced on his knees.

"It's hard to describe," I said slowly. "Your emotions are interacting so deeply that it's hard to tell which feelings belong to which of you. Any two empaths with generate a feedback loop when they interact, but it's not as...focused." I frowned. "Focused isn't the right word, actually. Think of it this way: every empath has a given number of 'channels', depending on how strong they are. Say, five hundred for a Five, like me, and a thousand for a Ten, like Agent DiNozzo. When two Fives are generating a feedback loop, each of them is using one of their channels for that loop. The other four hundred and ninety-nine channels are still open to other input, and the one channel on which they're interacting can only contain a set amount of emotional input. With you and Agent DiNozzo, it's as if all one thousand of his channels are dedicated to you, with correspondingly more input and interaction."

Gibbs frowned, but it was a thoughtful expression rather than a displeased one. "Doctor Leigh said that the reason the bond between DiNozzo and I succeeded in bringing him out of the coma and making it possible for him to interact again was because his input had been reduced to a single channel."

I spread my hands. "You have to realize that I'm speaking metaphorically. We don't know how these abilities work or what the cognitive structures are that process the information we perceive. When Doctor Leigh talks about channels he's using the term in a different manner than I am. But if you want to mesh his explanation with mine, think of the reduction not so much in terms of channels as in terms of sources. DiNozzo may still have a thousand channels, but they're all drawing from a single source, which is much easier to process than a thousand sources."

"Easier to process, but maybe not easier to control," Gibbs commented. "Like you can easily direct water from a garden hose, but water from a fire hose almost has a life of its own."

"Exactly," I said. "The more intense the interaction--"

I barely registered the sandpapery rasp of irritation before DiNozzo broke in. "Excuse me, but the fire hose has a question." The cheerful smile and light comment were so at odds with the irritation I sensed that I was a little taken aback. Even after a month's experience trusting my sixth sense, I still wondered for a moment if I'd read him wrong, that's how well he'd masked it.

I was tempted to chide him for a less than honest reaction, but psychologist or not, I wasn't his therapist. We had a different, more utilitarian, job to do, and losing focus wouldn't help. "Of course," I said simply.

"We've already realized that these feedback loops can be...distracting," DiNozzo said. The comment was supplemented by an interesting swell of emotion. Embarrassment? I concentrated on Gibbs for a moment, but all I was picking up from him was amusement, and DiNozzo was still speaking. "If we don't want to block each other out, how can you possibly clear us for field work?"

The thread of anxiety which had underlain DiNozzo's emotions until now suddenly spiked, his words bringing his worries into abrupt focus. I suppressed the urge to sigh. Reason number one why I wished they'd seen someone immediately after DiNozzo was released: he'd had far too much time to build the potential pitfalls of his new ability into insurmountable obstacles.

Before I could speak, the spike of anxiety moderated. I struggled to keep my expression neutral as I watched Gibbs's steady resolve and determination ease the sharp peak of anxiety into a still pronounced but reasonable concern. As DiNozzo's anxiety decreased a muted satisfaction rose in Gibbs, leading to an interesting mixture of pride/embarrassment/pleasure in DiNozzo, which prompted--

"Dr. LaSalle?" Gibbs interrupted my fascination.

I realized I hadn't answered DiNozzo's question and gave my head a little shake. "I'm sorry," I said. "I got a little caught up following the exchange of emotion between you. Your question has several answers, Agent DiNozzo. First, this new interaction between yourself and Agent Gibbs may be distracting, but field agents are subject to any number of distractions. It's training that allows you to focus the way you need to. There's no reason to believe you can't learn to ignore the input you receive from Agent Gibbs the same way you learn to ignore a distracting noise."

DiNozzo started to speak, but I raised a hand to stop him. "Second, we have precious little data on how these abilities affect field agents and we have no data at all on how partners with the kind of bond you have perform in the field." I spread my hands, "I'm not going to advise taking the agency's two most effective investigators permanently out of the field until it's been demonstrated that it's necessary. The only way to acquire that sort of information is to try it."

My sense of Gibbs had taken on a wary, skeptical edge that matched his narrowed eyes perfectly. "You'd approve a field agent with a potentially dangerous condition for active duty?"

"If I even so much as suspected you might be suffering from PTSD I'd yank your active status so fast your head would spin," I said evenly. "But I know all the ways PTSD can impact a field agent's performance and they're all detrimental to the agent, the case, or both. These abilities aren't some sort of mental defect, they're the new norm, and if we won't at least try to integrate them into our lives then everything will just shut down. Right now, managing that integration for NCIS personnel is my job, and with the information I have at the moment, taking the two of you out of the field is more detrimental to the agency than the risk that you'll botch a case as a direct result of your new interaction."

Gibbs raised an eyebrow. "So we're back on active duty?" he sat up straighter, as if in preparation to stand.

"I didn't say that," I said dryly. "I intend to give you every tool to manage these abilities that I can think of before I let you back out there."

"What tools?" DiNozzo asked, shooting a quick inquiring glance at Gibbs, who simply shrugged.

"Agent Gibbs is a precognitive," I said to DiNozzo, "which means he probably hasn't paid much attention to what empaths--or anyone else--have been doing to manage their new senses. Each of us has enough on our hands trying to figure out what's going on in our own heads. But we are developing methods of managing our abilities. The shield is a good example."

"What other tools could there be?" DiNozzo asked skeptically. "Empathy is pretty passive."

"Your sense of hearing is also passive," I pointed out, "but you can manage that by greater or lesser degrees of attention, by practicing distinguishing sounds, even by just putting your hands over your ears."

"More than that," Gibbs said, suddenly speculative, "you can use other people's hearing against them."

I nodded. "There have already been several cases in which assault charges were laid against someone who deliberately inflicted powerful negative emotions on sensitive empaths."

Gibbs's attention quickly returned to me. "What cases?"

"Nothing local," I said quickly. "And nothing in NCIS jurisdiction."

"Hmm." Gibbs seemed less than satisfied. I suspected he'd be looking into the cases himself and made a mental note to have a copy of my own research delivered to his desk.

"It's not just the empathy that we'll be working with, either," I said. "Agent Gibbs, you're effectively now operating with two gifts. It's possible that they could interact."

His eyebrows rose. "My precognition is uncontrolled," he said. "How could they possibly interact?"

"My first thought? You're an Eight. DiNozzo is a Ten. He might be able to boost you."

Gibbs scowled. "I'm not certain that's a good thing, if the damn visions are going to keep hitting me at random."

They weren't random, I was sure of that, but we didn't know enough about precognition for me to get into an argument about it. "We don't know what it is, exactly, that triggers precognitive episodes," I said instead, "but if it's something in your mind, who's to say an empath who interacts with you as deeply as DiNozzo does couldn't reach that trigger?" DiNozzo's eyes took on a speculative glitter and I hoped I hadn't raised unreasonable hopes. "It's all speculation at this point," I moderated quickly, "but that's exactly my point. The fastest way of learning the limits of the Awakened gifts is to push them, to force ourselves to go to those limits."

The glint in DiNozzo's eyes didn't fade in the slightest. He turned to Gibbs, nervousness coloring his emotions. "Can I try something?"

"Agent DiNozzo," I said warily, "what are you thinking?"

He turned back to me reluctantly. "I want to see if I can reach Gibbs's triggers."

I suppressed a wince. I really had been speculating, trying to get DiNozzo to think more positively and constructively about his gift. "I'm not sure that's a good idea."

"Why not?" he persisted. "We're in a controlled an environment, being monitored by a trained psychologist and empath. What could it hurt?"

His self-esteem, if he was unable to trigger a vision in Gibbs, but I didn't think he'd accept that as a legitimate objection. "Agent Gibbs?" I prompted reluctantly.

My sense of Gibbs was dominated by wariness, but DiNozzo's enthusiasm was high and with their bond, Gibbs couldn't help but feel it himself. Even if it wasn't originally his emotion, strong feelings tended to inspire sympathetic reactions, so I wasn't surprised when he eventually nodded slowly. "It would be useful, if we can manage it."

"First," I said quickly, just in case DiNozzo was planning on jumping in with both feet, "take the rest of your shield down."

DiNozzo shot me a look of surprise. "I thought that was uncomfortable for you."

I suppressed a grimace. "It is. But if I'm going to be monitoring you, I shouldn't have my perception of you muffled in any way. The smallest sign could be important."

"Makes sense," DiNozzo admitted. "Ready?"

I took a deep breath and nodded firmly. "Go ahead."

The shield came down slowly, probably DiNozzo's attempt to help me adjust, and I was perceiving their bond in all its glory for the second time. I still couldn't help squinting. It was so intense, so complex. I took a few slow, deep breaths, trying to focus my own gift enough to pick out some of the subtleties of the bond. I didn't bother trying to bring any of my attention to any of my other five senses; if there was a problem, the information I'd get from their emotions and their interaction would tell me more than a shout or a stiffening of their posture or any such mundane cues.

DiNozzo might have tried to warn me when he began to reach out to Gibbs, but I wasn't paying any attention to sounds. So the only warning I got was a strange ripple in DiNozzo's emotions, as if they'd grown stronger and then eased one by one, in sequence. There was a long pause and then Gibbs's emotional landscape fractured and went haywire.

I gasped and prepared to throw my shields into place so that I could concentrate enough to call for help, but before I could even get them up a wave of emotion rolled out from DiNozzo, so strong that it impacted me as much as Gibbs. It was a sense of being present, immoveable, constant. It made me hold back from raising my shields and it eased the frantic coursing of Gibbs's emotions into a fast paced but controlled flow. Still they passed by too quickly for me to so much as assign labels to them.

When Gibbs and DiNozzo's bond had returned to what seemed to be its normal state, I raised a thin shield, just enough to let me pay attention to the rest of the world again. I came back to myself to find the two of them leaning over me, Gibbs patting my cheek sharply. I blinked repeatedly and shook my head. "What are you two doing?"

"What were you doing?" Gibbs asked. "You were completely unresponsive."

"I was worried we might have burned you out," DiNozzo said, frowning.

"I'm fine," I insisted. "I was just concentrating."

"A little too hard, apparently," Gibbs said dryly. He and DiNozzo stepped back and sat down on the couch again. Concern faded out of DiNozzo's emotions as I returned to normal and excitement and gratification began to dominate.

"I'm fine," I repeated. "And I take it it worked?"

DiNozzo broke into a broad grin. "Oh yeah."

Gibbs tossed him a wry look, but his emotions reflected more tolerant amusement and, oddly, affection. When he looked back at me he took on a much brisker tone. "I don't know what DiNozzo did--"

"I ran through every emotion I could think of, trying to strengthen them," Tony broke in, eyes glittering, "but that didn't work. Then I remembered that the bond between us isn't an emotion, exactly. I tried to somehow touch that and the next thing I knew--"

"--I triggered," Gibbs finished.

"May I ask what the vision showed you?" I asked carefully.

Gibbs considered for a long moment and shot a glance at DiNozzo that I couldn't interpret even with the accompanying emotions--wariness, happiness, excitement, and anticipation. When he turned back to me he shook his head. "No," he said aloud. "I'd rather not. Suffice to say I think DiNozzo and I will work even more effectively as a team with our gifts than we did before the Awakening."

I pursed my lips. That was supposed to be the judgment I was making. "I'm going to want to see you for several more sessions before I release you to active duty."

DiNozzo was almost bouncing in place, excitement giving all of his emotions a heady lightness. "Sure, no problem," he said brightly. "What's next?"

A headache, I suspected, thickening my shields.