Vicious, Part Two
When Tony woke, before he even opened his eyes, he was aware of feeling safe and content. Which shouldn’t be since he was half-lying on a firm chest, and Tony rarely actually slept with someone. Sex—yes. Sleep—no.
A familiar raspy purr filled the room, and the night before came rushing back. Instinctively, he checked the room empathically, feeling his sentinel—his sentinel!—Vicious, and an unfamiliar guide. His eyes popped open, and he immediately set his gaze on a man seated in a chair about four feet away. He had short curly brown hair, blue eyes, and looked to be about forty. It took Tony’s sleep-foggy brain a second to realize he was looking at Blair Sandburg, reportedly the most powerful guide in the world, which, if he remembered correctly, would make him closer to fifty. Vicious was in Sandburg’s lap, purring away and licking her paws.
“You awake?” Gibbs asked softly.
“I can’t believe I fell asleep on you,” Tony muttered.
“You can sleep on me anytime,” Gibbs whispered in his ear.
Tony felt his face warm a bit. “Give me a second, and I’ll sit up.” Sleeping in this position was not the best thing for his hip and leg. He was always stiff in the morning, but he could tell the first few minutes of this morning was going to be absolute shit.
“What time is it?” he asked as he shifted his leg, feeling the pull in muscles that had tightened up overnight.
“Nearly 0730,” Gibbs answered.
Assuming that this guide stuff wasn’t going to get wrapped quickly, he needed to call the assistant supervisor so he’d know Tony would be out today. He pushed himself to a more upright position, and ignoring the pain, focused on Sandburg.
“Good morning,” Tony offered. “She bothering you?”
Sandburg shook his head. “No. And my apologies. It’s extremely offensive to touch someone else’s spirit guide without permission–”
“But she climbed you,” Tony guessed.
Lips quirking, Sandburg nodded. “She’s very friendly.”
Tony snorted. “Just wait.”
“Mags mentioned that she took issue with one of the other guides. I’m Blair Sandburg, by the way.”
“Yeah, I recognized you. Tony DiNozzo. Do you already know…” he trailed off and gestured to Gibbs.
“I’ve met Jethro a few times over the years,” Blair said with a smile. “Eric is anxious to meet you as well, but I won the coin toss. How about we show you to a room, give you a few minutes to freshen up or whatever, and then we can meet over breakfast and talk?”
“I honestly didn’t think I’d be here long, so didn’t bring clothes or anything.”
“The room has all the basics, and we can provide you some sweats and a t-shirt if you like.”
“Yeah, okay.” Psyching himself up, he pushed himself to his feet, then froze and waited for the muscles to loosen. He heard a sad little mewling sound coming from Vicious.
A second later, he felt Gibbs’ light touch on his back. “Everything okay?”
“Just stiff,” Tony responded carefully.
“You smell like pain,” Gibbs countered lowly.
Tony made a face at the lack of privacy he had looming in his future. Then blinked at his sudden acceptance of his change in circumstances. “I think a room where I can change and sort out my leg would be great,” he said to the other guide.
Sandburg nodded, getting to his feet and releasing Vicious when she was ready to get down. She trotted over and peered up at him.
“Give me a second,” he said to her.
She blinked, then started climbing Gibbs, who leaned down and helped her up.
Gibbs leaned close. “Let me help?” he whispered.
Tony had a little war with himself and took a cautious step. Yeah, he needed a cane or some sort of support. He didn’t have very many mornings like this, but pretending like he was okay wasn’t going to work. “Yeah, that’d be good,” he finally conceded, gesturing to the side he needed Gibbs to be on.
His sentinel slipped to that side and offered his arm, unobtrusively taking a lot of Tony’s weight and helping with balance. Blair was obviously concerned but didn’t say anything, just moved out ahead of them and whispered to someone in the hall, who took off.
“The sweats will be at your room shortly. You’re in suite 208, which is one floor up, and the elevator is around the corner. Would you like me to accompany you?”
He glanced at Gibbs. “You know the way?” When he nodded, Tony smiled at Blair. “We’re good. Can you give me an hour or so?”
The walk to the elevator and then the room was quiet, but Tony had a feeling Gibbs wasn’t the chatty sort anyway. He appreciated that Gibbs was pretty natural about Tony using him as a crutch, though he wished it wasn’t necessary.
As soon as they were in the room, which was rather like a generic hotel room, Gibbs set Vicious down, who hopped up on the bed and watched Tony closely. He noted the duffle bag he’d brought Vicious in was on the bed, and the promised sweats and t-shirt had beaten him to the room.
“Sorry about this,” Tony said as he moved closer to the bed. “At home, I keep a cane by the bed for mornings like this, so I can usually manage. Fortunately, it’s not very often.”
Gibbs was frowning, obviously concerned. “What happened?”
He lowered himself to the mattress, accepting Vicious onto his lap. “I was shot. Twice, actually.”
“My seventh month on the job as a cop in Peoria. I was twenty-one.” Tony’d gone to college a year early and had graduated just before he turned twenty-one in June of 1994. He’d been shot nine months later.
Gibbs nodded, and Tony felt a lot of concern from him, but he wasn’t saying anything about it. “What do you need?”
“The walk helped loosen things up, but I need a hot shower, and then to massage the muscles for a bit so they’re a little more malleable, and then I’ll stretch. It’ll be fine. How about I meet you in a bit?”
“I’d like to help,” Gibbs said after a beat.
Tony blinked. “With?”
“After the shower—just let me take care of you.”
He stared for a few seconds. “I’ve been handling this for a long time now. I can manage.”
“I don’t doubt it. But letting me help isn’t being weak.”
“I never thought it was, Gibbs. I gave up the notion that accepting help is a weakness when I was weak. Because being stubborn just made me weaker.”
“Jethro,” he countered.
“Okay then, Jethro. I get help when I need it, but there’s no need here. It’s routine.”
Gibbs moved closer and sat next to Tony on the bed. “Part of this is helping each other,” he said carefully. “It’s not about your independence. I want to help ease your pain.”
Tony was a breath away from telling Gibbs that he didn’t need help, but he felt a gentle patting at his abdomen, and looked down to find Vicious peering up at him, paws braced against his belly. He picked her up and stared at her, getting his nose licked for his efforts. His little personification of change seemed to be telling him to suck it up and deal with things being different. Or at least, that’s what he thought she was trying to convey.
“Okay.” He handed her to Gibbs. “Thanks. I’ll be about ten minutes or so in the shower.”
“What do you usually use for the massage?”
Realizing if he let Gibbs do this, they’d be getting up close and personal quickly. But Tony wasn’t body shy, so he mentally shrugged and replied, “At home, I use apricot kernel oil because it has higher concentrations of vitamin E than most of the other easily-absorbed oils, but considering circumstances, anything that allows for some glide will work. Even hand lotion.” He gestured to the table with a toiletries basket.
Gibbs nodded and gestured to the bathroom. “I’ll take care of it.”
Tony pointed to Vicious. “Behave. Don’t maim anyone.”
She purred at him and licked a paw, the claws of which seemed to be extended. The little heathen.
Sighing, he headed for the bathroom. The hot water immediately helped with the lingering fatigue, brain fog, and eased his muscles. He groaned, wishing he could stay in for an hour, but he was aware that he had phone calls to make, and sentinels and guides to deal with. And an ocekitten on a quest—mustn’t forget that!
After drying off, he got his short hair in order, then tied the towel around his waist and went back into the room. He stopped and stared. In the ten—okay, fifteen—minutes he’d been in the shower, Gibbs had managed to secure a massage table.
And the sentinel in question was staring at him, almost unbreathing, and Tony felt a spike of lust skitter across his mind. Okay then. Guess that side of things would easily sort themselves out. Attraction? Check.
Taking a breath and shaking his head, Gibbs gestured to the table. “There’s a medical facility on the premises. Easy enough to get the equipment brought up.”
“Oh.” He scratched the back of his head. “Thanks.”
His sentinel stepped closer and started to reach out but then hesitated. “May I?”
Not sure what he was agreeing to, but feeling oddly comfortable, he nodded his assent and found himself pulled into a hug. Which was way better than any hug had a right to be.
“I’m not good with compliments,” Gibbs whispered against his ear, “but you’re beautiful. Everything about you. Hit me like a truck when you walked out of the bath.”
“Oh… thanks.” Tony had a healthy enough ego to appreciate being told he was attractive, but he found his face warming and wanted to smack himself for the damn blush.
A strong, calloused hand slid down his arm and closed around his fingers. Gibbs led him over to the table. “Back or stomach?”
“I do the work seated, but I guess I better lie on my back.” He glanced around. “What’s Vicious up to?”
“Vicious?” Gibbs stared for a second. “You named her Vicious?”
Tony shrugged. “I tried Jasmine, but she wasn’t having it.” A little hiss came from the far side of the bed, then a deeper chuffing sound.
Looking bemused, Gibbs replied, “She’s lying on Bagheera. She seemed to be trying to eat his ear.”
“That’s my girl.” Tony grinned. He was ridiculously attached to her in such a short period of time. “Well then…”
Gibbs turned to give him some privacy to get on the table. Tony’d been through a fuckton of physical therapy and rehab, so this was old hat in a way, but oddly intimate considering the change in players. He pulled a sheet over himself and adjusted it so that the area was exposed but he was modestly covered.
“Okay,” he said when he had everything situated.
When Gibbs turned around, Tony felt the spike of anger and worry. “How many surgeries?” he asked in a harsh whisper.
“Four. The left side of my pelvis was in pieces. They did a great job of putting the puzzle together.” Gibbs seemed hyper-focused on his scars. “Please tell me you’re not zoning on my scar tissue, because that’s made of weird.”
Suddenly, Gibbs snorted in amusement. He stepped close and leaned over the table, bracing his hands on either side of Tony’s head. “If any part of you could make me zone, it’d be from staring too hard at your ass.”
Tony started laughing. “Noted. I’ll be sure not to wear any tight pants if you need to concentrate.”
“Thanks,” he said dryly. “I should mention that I’m already imprinting on you.”
He considered that for a second. “So we should have the talk, huh?”
“Your pace, Tony,” Gibbs assured, then hesitated. “Unless you don’t think you want this. That talk we should have.”
For all that Tony felt a lot of ambivalence about the sentinel/guide thing, he wasn’t remotely ambivalent about Gibbs. He was so drawn, he couldn’t conceive of walking away. And while he knew that was because of the sentinel/guide stuff, he hadn’t quite reconciled it all in his mind yet.
“No,” he finally managed to get out. “I want this. You,” he clarified.
Gibbs nodded shortly. “I can’t be around you, touch you, and not imprint. But I’m not trying to push.”
The sentinel stared for so long, Tony wondered what was happening. “If anything about you could ever make me zone, it’d actually be your eyes,” Gibbs said softly.
“Jethro…” Tony whispered.
His sentinel stood up and reached for the oil. “Anything I need to avoid?”
Since the moment was lost, he didn’t try to recapture it, just pointed to the lowest point of scar tissue on his thigh. “Sensitive there, but everything else I’m used to working pretty hard.”
“I’ll start, get you loosened up, and then you can direct?”
“Go for it.” He’d had some physical therapists he was damn sure were closet sadists, so he figured he could handle whatever Gibbs got up to.
A couple of minutes later, Tony decided he’d gotten damn lucky. Gibbs’ hands were incredibly strong, but he seemed to know exactly how to touch. He wondered if it had something to do with a sentinel’s touch sensitivity, leading him to exactly the right places. Gibbs didn’t seem to be trying to rush, so Tony just went with it, feeling incredibly indulged.
“I don’t think you’re going to need any direction. That’s perfect,” Tony said.
Gibbs glanced up from his focus on Tony’s upper thigh and gave a half smile. “Why forensics?”
“At the time, I felt like I was meant to be a cop. Thought I could still do some of it peripherally by processing crime scenes or figuring out the evidence. Needed a different degree though, plus the certifications, and by the time I was done, I was as invested in the science as I ever was in the investigation.” He shrugged one shoulder, feeling relaxed and drugged out on touch. “It just worked.”
“What degree?” Gibbs asked as he slid a hand under Tony’s low back, working the muscles using Tony’s body weight for the pressure.
Tony fought back a groan as the muscles in his low back began to really let go. “I had a degree in sports science, but the career path I was interested in requires a natural sciences degree. So, I got a double masters in forensic science and biology—sports science dovetailed better into biology than any of the others. Ultimately finished with my doctorate in chemistry.”
Gibbs paused and glanced up. “Really?”
“What part surprises you?”
“The egghead bit,” Gibbs said dryly as he resumed the massage.
Tony laughed. “Blunt. I like it.”
“Why the FBI?” Gibbs’ expression conveyed just what he thought of that.
“I don’t know. I was restless in St. Louis, and the Bureau offered me an interesting challenge.” He couldn’t discuss the lab issues with Gibbs, so that was all he was willing to say.
Gibbs’ eyes flicked up briefly. “St. Louis… arguably best lab in the country.”
“Yeah,” Tony agreed. “Was there for nearly twelve years.”
“Before taking over as night shift supervisor, I worked in ballistics, but I’m certified for ballistics, trace, DNA, and toxicology. I’ve also done crime scene reconstruction. But, even though I supervise the lab in DC, because of my Ph.D., and some specialized training after 9/11, I’m also certified as a forensic examiner for biological and chemical threat agents. If there were ever a bio or chemical attack, or threat of one, the Bureau would pull me.”
Gibbs whole body froze.
“Yeah… I guess we need to have the dicey job discussion, but maybe some other time?”
He gave an abbreviated nod and went back to work.
Tony nudged him. “Your turn. I know you work at NCIS… Major Case, I think Fornell said.”
The sentinel had both hands under Tony’s butt and hip, pressing up and letting the gravity do the work. “Yeah. Joined NCIS in ’92. Marines before that. Gunnery sergeant.”
“Still in the Reserves?”
“When did you come online?”
“That why you left the Marines?” Tony prodded
“Came online during Desert Storm. Senses all over the place. Was assigned back stateside for training. Got home to find out my wife, Shannon, had witnessed a Marine being murdered.” Gibbs was clearly reciting facts, but Tony could feel some pain buried in there. It wasn’t catastrophic, but there was lingering hurt. “She and Kelly, who was eight at the time, were going into protective custody. I put off going to the Foundation so I could be with them. Needed to protect my family.” Gibbs shifted a bit to begin kneading Tony’s thigh muscle.
“What happened?” Tony prompted after a few seconds.
Gibbs glanced up briefly and met his gaze, then focused on Tony’s leg again. “We were in the car, NCIS agent driving, and suddenly, there was a man with a sniper rifle pointed at the car. I could see him so clearly, as if he were right in front of me. Later, they would tell me I slipped into a fugue state, grabbed the wheel and ran our car into a ditch. The agent managed to control things enough that no one was seriously hurt. Just bumps and bruises.
“The bullet went straight through the front and back windows, missed everyone.” Gibbs’ hands were now unmoving on Tony’s thigh, and he seemed far away. “I don’t even remember moving from the car to the hill where the sniper had his nest. Next thing I recall is looking up into Shannon’s eyes, with a bloody dead body between us. She’d decided to follow me.” He sounded incredulous that she’d take that risk, and Tony sort of agreed. “She was worried I was having sensory issues. The NCIS agent had managed to keep hold of Kelly, but couldn’t stop Shan from following me.” Shaking his head, he began to knead again.
“Was she upset?”
“No. Maybe.” He frowned. “It’s hard to say. Not sure she was ever honest with me about how she felt about seeing that.” After a beat, he added, “After I got the senses straightened out, thought about going back to the Marines, but felt like I needed to be closer to try to fix things with Shannon. We’d been kind of distant since I got home. So I took the job at NCIS.”
“Did it help?”
Gibbs shook his head. “We drifted apart. Tried to hold on for a few years—eventually just for Kelly’s sake. Never was sure if it was the soldier or the sentinel she couldn’t come to terms with.” He looked at Tony. “Can’t really stop being either. No matter how much I loved her. Still love her.” The last was added almost apologetically.
Tony nodded, but when it was evident Gibbs was waiting for some response to that, Tony felt like he needed to be straightforward. “I should probably say the politic thing… that it’s okay that part of your heart is taken.”
“Not if you don’t mean it. Never liked being lied to.” He was watching Tony closely. “What’s the truth?”
“That it depends upon how unavailable the rest of your heart is.” Tony nudged Gibbs’ hands away and adjusted the sheet so he was covered as he swung to a seated position, facing his sentinel. “We’re like one whole step down the path on our journey together, and I’m not gonna sit here making demands or telling you that you have to forget her. That’s not reasonable, and you can’t tell someone how to feel. But I need to know if there’s room for me.”
After a long moment, Gibbs reached up and framed Tony’s face between his hands. “I’ve been waiting for you. When she left, I decided not to try to recreate what already hadn’t worked, but wait for the right fit. My guide. The only person I have room for is you.”
Tony’s breath caught in his throat, and after a moment, he somehow managed to say. “Wow. Okay.” He forced another breath. “Is kissing like a really bad idea?”
“Deep kissing, yes.” And then he leaned in and pressed their lips together. The touch was electric, and Tony suddenly felt empathically open in a way he hadn’t before. Like he was taking in everything that was Gibbs.
He’d characterize most closed-mouth kisses as chaste, but this was anything but. It was fire and want and longing, and it made Tony ache.
When Gibbs abruptly pulled away, Tony realized he was about five seconds from wrapping his legs around his sentinel and forgetting the whole waiting portion of the program.
Gibbs’ pupils were dilated, and he was breathing hard.
“Again I say… wow,” Tony gasped out.
Hands slid to Tony’s waist, teasing the bare skin. “I can already tell that you’re going to drive me crazy.”
Tony grinned. “Oh, yeah. But it wouldn’t be fair otherwise. You’re already driving me to distraction.”
“Well, I’m distracted as hell. So get dressed.”
Slipping off the table and right into Gibbs’s space, Tony gave him a quick hard kiss. “Thanks. It feels much better.”
Smiling, which was a look Tony could really go for, Gibbs nodded.
Tony grabbed the pants and pulled them on under the sheet, then, since he had a table here, got back on it, pulling his leg up to get some stretches in. Gibbs was seated on the bed, seemingly watching everything Tony was doing with quiet intensity. Like he needed to memorize Tony’s stretching routine or something.
“Can I ask a personal question?” Tony finally said as he moved into his third stretch.
“Can always ask, and you will probably get an answer.”
“Fornell said he married your ex. I assume that’s Shannon?”
He nodded. “Never married again after our divorce. Always wanted her to be happy, and was glad she found someone, but…” he trailed off, and Tony could see why things might get a little fractious between Gibbs and Fornell.
“What about your daughter? I know kids never like it when their parents split…”
“She was twelve when we finally separated. It didn’t make her happy, but she told me a few years later that sometimes she felt bad because she was relieved when we were finally apart. Said Shan and I were trying too hard to be polite, and it was uncomfortable to live in silence and courtesy. The divorce was as amicable as they can be… I saw Kells almost every day, and she spent at least one night a week with me.”
“She still live in the area?”
“Now. Moved to NYU for undergrad and then got her master’s in Archives and Public History. She did an archival internship in Maryland, and now works at the National Archive in DC.” It was easy to see that that Gibbs was very proud of his daughter. Getting a position at the National Archives, at any age, was a feat.
“Sounds like she has a passion for history.”
“Yep. Gets the love of the information from Shan more than me, but the love of handling history…”
“I’m looking forward to meeting her.” Tony finished his last stretch and got off the table, feeling much more like himself. He quickly pulled on the t-shirt. “I know we need to get downstairs to join Sandburg and whoever else is waiting, but I need to call the office, let them know I won’t be in today.”
“With federal agencies, standard protocol is that the Foundation reaches out to their liaison at the Bureau and gives the name of the newly online guide or sentinel. The Sentinel/Guide services department will contact your boss. Most guides of your level aren’t highly functional for a couple days.”
“So that’s already been done?”
“It’s pushing 0900. Should have happened an hour ago, but we’ll confirm.”
“Okay. Breakfast, then.” He rubbed his hands together, feeling starved. “Vicious,” he called. He got a mew and then his little girl had climbed the bed. “Come here, you little beast. We’re going downstairs.” She leapt at him, and he caught her easily enough. “You know, I’m a terrible guardian. Do ocekittens need food?” He glanced at Jethro.
“No. Whatever makes all spirit guides possible, and makes the first ones particularly real, handles all their bodily functions. Except sleep,” he clarified. “I’ve only seen a first guide once, but I know he slept. Heera disappears when he needs to recharge, first guides go to sleep.”
“Hmm.” He held Vicious up, peering into her dark blue eyes. “I know ocelots are nocturnal. But you’re not gonna do something as crazy as that, right?” She just rumbled in her chest, and Tony sighed. He really hoped she kept their schedule.
– – – –
As they approached the room where they were meeting everyone, Tony reached out for the knob as Jethro cocked his head to the side as if listening. Not accustomed to sentinel cues, he opened the door just as his sentinel said, “Wait!”
By then, Vicious was already a snarling ball of fury and had leapt off of Bagheera’s back, where she’d been perched for the ride, diving straight through the crack in the door. Tony went after his ocekitten immediately, ignoring the exclamations of surprise coming from everyone inside.
“Vicious!” he yelped, but she was already on the other side of the table and had leapt onto Dr. Roberts. “Oh good god.” It looked like she was trying to tear his throat out with her teeny tiny fangs and claws.
Sandburg and someone else were making for the battling duo as Tony tried to round the table as quickly as possible, but then Vicious went flying and slammed into a wall, and Tony’s heart seized in his chest. Oh god, could she get hurt? Could she die?!
A hair-raising roar filled the room, and Bagheera leapt entirely over the table and crashed into Roberts, sending him sprawling. Then the room was suddenly filled with other spirit animals, all of them roaring, howling, or yowling in some way, and the racket caused all the sentinels to flinch. Another black jag, a wolf, a cheetah, an arctic fox, a cougar, and a leopard all joined the fray, converging on Roberts, who was screaming his head off.
Tony let everyone else deal with the melee, and scrambled over to where Vicious was lying in the corner. She was moving slowly, getting to her feet, when Tony leaned down and picked her up, cradling her in the crook of his arm.
“Vicious… are you hurt?” He realized Jethro was herding him into the corner somewhat and then hovering. He met his sentinel’s concerned gaze. “Can she get hurt?”
“I don’t know, Tony,” he said carefully. “There were times I though Heera might have been hurt over the years, but he would vanish to the spirit plane and be fine when he came back.”
Vicious was curled up, fast asleep, breaths coming even and deep. “So she might be hurt, and she’s sleeping it off? Do I need to take her to a vet? Would that even help? What do I do?” He’d been a guardian for like a minute, and he was as close to panicked as he’d ever been in his life.
“Tony dear,” Maggie’s voice came from behind Jethro, “Vicious will be fine when she wakes up.” Jethro moved enough so he could see her kind face peering up at him. “I know you’re concerned, but the animals aren’t responding to us.” He could feel her consternation at that. “I think you might need to call them off.”
He blinked. Leaning to the right a bit, he was able to see that a bunch of angry animals were surrounding something, presumably Roberts, who was hollering for help from under Bagheera. He moved closer, or as close as Jethro seemed to be willing to let him go, and sat in a chair.
“Okay, you guys, enough,” he ordered softly, not even questioning that he’d be able to call them off. He also didn’t question that Roberts had done something to deserve all this.
All of them but Bagheera immediately peeled away and approached Tony. The gray wolf was first, and he nudged Vicious gently. Even though she seemed asleep, her paw tapped at his nose. He could feel the animal’s connection to Sandburg. The other black jaguar was next, and the same routine occurred, but he felt the sentinel he recognized as Jim Ellison. Next came the leopard which was all Maggie. The cougar was clearly Tomás. The arctic fox belonged to the guide in the room he didn’t know. And finally, the cheetah was connected to the unknown sentinel. All of them vanished after Vicious touched their faces.
“Bagheera,” he called.
The jaguar climbed off of Roberts, who scrambled away, helped up by Tomás, who guided him away from Tony and Vicious. Bagheera licked Vicious’ little face, and Vicious opened her eyes slowly, then licked his nose. She immediately fell asleep again.
Tony glanced up at Jethro. “May I?” he asked, gesturing to Bagheera.
“Of course,” he agreed readily.
Tony stroked Bagheera’s head and got his face licked in return. While he felt it, and there was real pressure, it wasn’t wet and warm like with Vicious. “Thanks for taking care of her.” Instead of vanishing like the others, Bagheera curled up on the floor and fixed a hostile gaze in Roberts’ direction.
Finally able to pay some attention to the humans in the room, Tony turned his gaze to Sandburg. He felt like the animals had approached him in some kind of hierarchy, which was why he was looking to the alpha guide for answers.
“Roberts showed up right before you arrived, Maggie and Eric were advising him that his concerns would be addressed another time. Then… uh, Vicious came in.”
“Eric?” Tony questioned.
Sandburg gestured to a man who looked about thirty, was 5’9, and had short dark hair. His vibe was very buttoned-up and contained, and the arctic fox made a lot of sense. “This is Eric St. James. Director of this facility and the alpha guide for the Eastern Seaboard.” He then pointed to a man who was probably the same age range, blond hair and blue eyes, and about four inches taller than the guide. He was obviously a sentinel but had a whole scruffy thing going on that Tony had never seen in a sentinel before. “Devon St. James. Co-director and alpha sentinel.” He could definitely see cheetah in this man.
Before Tony could say anything, Roberts seemed to have had enough. “Doesn’t anyone care about that thing attacking me!”
Tony surged to his feet and carefully handed Vicious to Jethro. He stepped close to Roberts, aware of Bagheera by his side. “She’s not a thing,” he gritted out. He was slightly distracted by all the psionic wounds pulsing on the man. They almost glowed to Tony’s eyes, but he wasn’t sure what effect they would have long term. There were several actual bleeding wounds. Small punctures and scratches, particularly around the neck. Vicious had done real damage to Roberts.
“Why does she hate you?” Tony asked.
“How should I know?” Roberts snapped.
Eyes narrowing, Tony let himself process the variety of impulses and impressions that were mixing about in his mind. Roberts was lying, Tony was certain of it. “You’re lying.”
“I am not!”
“Yes, you are,” four sentinels intoned at once.
“Let’s try this a different way. Why did you come down here?”
Roberts glared but spit out, “Foundation policy says that all new guides, regardless of how stable they may seem, must have a physical and empathic check before they can be issued their guide ID and discharged. You have had no such exam, and I was here to insist that it be scheduled. I’m the senior physician in this facility and I’m not making any exceptions. Especially when you clearly have an unstable spirit guide.”
Tony cocked his head to the side, and ignoring the bullshit, made an intuitive leap. “What is it that you want with me?”
“Why would I want anything with you?” he sneered.
“Another lie,” Tony asserted. All the sentinels chimed an agreement.
Roberts paled a bit and bought time by dabbing at the wounds on his throat.
“Is it just me, or her, too?” Tony pressed.
“I have nothing to say to you.”
Tony almost growled, but reined himself in. “You radiate deception. I promise you, I’m gonna figure this out.” Somehow he knew he could force the truth out of Roberts, but he’d been a guide less than twenty-four hours. Using his abilities to that degree without training was moronic.
“Tony?” Maggie said cautiously. “How does he feel deceptive?”
He turned to find her staring up at him. “You don’t feel that? Or even see it?” Tony could even faintly see an aura of deception about him.
“No, baby,” she whispered. “Can you help me see what you’re seeing?”
He took her hand and knew he could open himself up to her, letting her channel through him.
Maggie blinked and stared. “Oh my!” Keeping ahold of Tony’s hand, she called out, “Blair, how well can you see his psionic wounds?”
“Faintly, like always. The wounds would be clearer if I were seeing his astral projection on the spirit plane.”
“Tony dear, can you do this for Blair?”
He nodded, but was disconcerted that he was seeing something the others weren’t. Maggie released his hand, and a second later, Sandburg took it. The two guides were very different. Maggie was powerful, but her presence was also gentle and kind of still. Sandburg was like a force of nature. The power he wielded was stunning.
Sandburg stared at Roberts for a long time, before he disengaged from Tony. “Thank you. That was helpful and very illuminating.” He glanced over at the guide Tony hadn’t really met. “Eric, I’m not sure if you’d be able to see this or not.” Peering up at Tony, he asked, “You game to try?”
Tony agreed, and Eric moved closer and touched his arm. The difference between him and the two guide ascendants was immediately noted. Maggie and Sandburg instantly latched onto Tony and channeled through him. But it was like energy flowed differently in Eric. So Tony reached out mentally and pulled him along.
Eric gave a start of surprise. “Well, that’s… different.” He stared for a long time, before carefully disengaging his mind from Tony’s. “Thank you. That’s a very difficult thing to do with someone who is a stranger.”
Roberts had been quiet through the whole thing and seemed on the edge of feeling defeated.
“Tony,” Sandburg called from behind him, and Tony turned around. “They’re going to detain Dr. Roberts. We’ll question him later. There’s clearly something going on that we need to get to the bottom of. But in the interim, are you aware of how much psionic energy you’re channeling?”
“Okay, yeah… I had a feeling you didn’t know. Because you’re a guardian of a first guide, you can’t visit the spirit plane the way other guide ascendants can. Until Vicious is fully mature and takes on her role, you’re bound to this plane of existence. She won’t tolerate being without you.”
He’d heard pieces of that already, so he nodded his understanding and acceptance.
“You’re pulling what you need from the spirit plane to here since you can’t leave. Considering how powerfully and instinctively you’re doing it, I think after you’ve had some practice, you’ll be able to do it with a lot of ease and finesse.”
“Dr. Sandburg, you’re apparently trying to ease me into something, and it really isn’t necessary. You can just say it.” Tony had developed an intolerance for tap dancing when he’d been going through his surgeries. Doctors trying to ease him slowly into something difficult had soured him on being carefully handled.
“You’re flooding the entire building with psionic energy. Right now it’s fine, but it’s gonna start hyper-charging our gifts. If it spreads out beyond the facility, I have no idea what effect it might have. For all I know, it could start yanking people online. I promise we’ll take care of Roberts and find out what he’s up to, and how he’s been hiding his agenda, but right now, I need you to rein it in before a bunch of people are affected, or you burn yourself out.”
Tony started to ask how to do that, but he could tell that part of him was empathically wide open—the part he’d used to help the other guides see. As soon as he was focused on it, he imagined just snapping it shut.
Sandburg jerked and blinked rapidly. “Okay. Wow. That was abrupt.”
He winced. “Sorry about that.”
“No… seriously, don’t be sorry. I figured I’d have to talk you through that, and since I have no idea exactly what you did, I was flailing about for an approach.” He patted Tony’s arm. “We’ll work on it. Oh, and just call me Blair. I only make people I don’t like call me Dr. Sandburg.”
Glancing around, he saw that only Ellison, Sandburg, and Jethro remained in the room. Jethro was leaning against the wall, still holding a peacefully sleeping Vicious, and watching Tony very closely.
Blair plopped in on of the chairs. “The others will be back shortly. But sit. Let’s talk.”
Tony looked to Jethro, who pushed off from the wall and they sat next to each other. Realizing he was rather tired already, he forced it away and focused on the alpha guide. “Okay, what’s up.”
“First,” he cocked his head toward Ellison, who took the seat next to Blair, “the big guy is Jim Ellison. We hadn’t gotten all the way through the introductions yet.” Tony had recognized Blair’s sentinel, of course. They exchanged nods. Ellison seemed very contained, and Tony didn’t make any effort to read him. Nothing about the sentinel set off any warning alarms.
Blair smiled. “I just want to say up front that you’re doing incredibly well. I’ve only met a few guides like you, but all of our historical records indicate that an almost startling command of their abilities right away is pretty typical. But it’s all instinctive, and even though I’m not a guardian myself, I’m the best suited to help you learn how to use your abilities deliberately. If you’re agreeable, we’ll work out a training schedule.”
“Sounds good.” Tony had absolutely no issue with that. He’d find the time.
“Great. Now, let’s talk about the elephant in the room.”
“What happened with Vicious?”
“No—and aptly named, by the way—I’m talking about the elephant everyone but you is aware of.”
“Well that’s ominous,” Tony said dryly. “And while I appreciate the intent behind your careful approach, I’m more comfortable with direct.”
“There are no female spirit guides,” Blair said after a brief pause.
Tony froze. “What, none?”
“Nothing is certain, of course, but very careful records are kept, and there’s never been one documented. Now, ancient artifacts lead us to believe there used to be equal number of female and male spirit guides. What difference that made in the S&G makeup, we don’t know. But the fact that there hasn’t been one since our re-emergence indicated to many of us that it was a level of change still to come.” He glanced at Vicious. “And here she is.”
“But what does it mean?”
“I honestly don’t know, Tony. We’re getting the full breadth of our abilities back very slowly. Sometimes I think we’re being tested. And I don’t mean in a pass/fail kind of way, but rather a checking to see if it’s time for the next phase. We can theorize and speculate, but at the end of any discussion, the answer will always be, we don’t know for sure. What’s important to be aware of is that having a first guide is already a unique position, but now you’re in a singular position.”
“What does that mean for him?” Jethro asked, and Tony could feel his agitation.
“Want me to take her?” he asked, wondering if being hampered by a sleeping ocekitten was making things harder for his sentinel right now.
“Yeah.” He passed over Vicious, who didn’t even twitch at the transfer. Then Jethro leaned his arms on the table and looked between Blair and Jim. “Being the only one of something doesn’t seem like a good thing.”
Jim replied, “I agree. I wouldn’t be happy in your shoes, but we manage these situations with lack of information and misinformation. We say female spirit guides are rare, we tell people that spirit animals come in a variety of ages, we don’t paint a target on the unique ones among us.”
“The mundane population believes it,” Blair chimed in. “Our own community…” He made a so-so motion. “Sentinels and guides in certain positions certainly know more. Others have deduced that some of the information we give to the public is obfuscation at its best. But we tend to be fairly united in keeping the information quiet. First guides are vital to us, to our people returning to what they should be.”
Blair looked at Tony intently for several moments. “No one is going to try to change your life—well, beyond the standard change that comes from bonding and being a guide. But it’s a simple fact that those of us in the know are going to be over-invested in you, and we will be keeping an eye out.” When Tony started to speak, Blair held up a hand. “Not on you, but on what’s happening around you. Until Vicious is mature and has transitioned back to full spirit animal, the S&G community will ensure that nothing happens to either of you.”
“Can something happen to her?” He wasn’t even sure if she could be permanently hurt.
“Unfortunately, yes. Though only under extreme circumstances, and as far as I know, it’s only happened once.”
“What happened?” He stroked Vicious’ furry little head, and wondered if he really wanted to know.
“Considering the heightened tension, I don’t want to be specific, but if there’s extreme trauma, they’ll simply vanish. As I understand it, it will be rather graphic at first, but then all traces will be gone.”
“And then what?” He felt utterly horrified at the idea of his Vicious being hurt and just vanishing.
“They don’t return if that’s what you’re looking for. Ever. The animal in question was a serval. It was about fifty years ago, and we’ve never seen another serval guide.”
Tony felt ill. “So she’s going to be with me all the time, everywhere I go, and she can be actually hurt enough to die?”
“Tony, they’re much more resilient than normal animals, or even humans. She’s very tiny, and a real ocelot of that age would have died from the impact with that wall. You don’t have to worry that she’s going to jump off something and accidentally kill herself.”
“I don’t understand why I was tapped for this. I’ve never been responsible for anything in my life; I never even had a goldfish.” He felt stirring in his arms and looked down to find Vicious peering up at him, paw batting at him tiredly. He sighed and lifted her closer. “Did you really wake up because I’m feeling inadequate?”
She made a faint mew and strained forward. He let her lick his face.
“Yeah, I love you, too, you little heathen. If I’m who you want, then you can have me. Now, go back to sleep.” He let her curl up in his lap again. “I think her full name is Vicious Heathen.”
Jim started laughing. “In all my years, I’ve never seen a spirit guide that angry.” He abruptly sobered. “We’ll figure out why.”
Tony nodded. “Okay… training and go on about life. I don’t have to do anything weird like take her to museums or something, right?”
Blair’s lips twitched. “No. Just live your life. She’ll learn what she needs to. Your abilities may change, or rather, grow as she does.”
“And Jethro? Does any of this change things for him?”
“Jethro?” Blair prompted the sentinel to answer for himself.
“To a degree.” His expression shifted fractionally before settling. “We need to have the job conversation soon. Both Bagheera and I will be more protective of the two of you than normal. So we have some stuff to figure out.”
Tony made a face. That sounded like a minefield. “Look… it’s Thursday. Can we just take the weekend to get to know each other and spoil Vicious Heathen? Then deal with all the complications and difficult discussions later?”
“Yeah, Tony, that’d be good,” Jethro said, squeezing his hand.
“It’s fine on our end, too. We need to do some investigating into Roberts and clear up whatever’s going on with him. There is some procedural stuff we need to get out of the way. We need to get you in the system, and get your guide ID before you leave. That does require a health check, but there are other doctors on staff. You shouldn’t need to be here too long. Do you have any questions?”
“About a thousand of them, but right now… Why’d you let me run with questioning Roberts?”
“When you came in the room, as soon as Vicious was hurt, you started just dumping psionic energy into the room. I was watching closely, and would have intervened if necessary, but in my opinion, it was best to let you defuse a little first. Also, you detected that Roberts was lying, and much to my consternation, none of the other guides did. I actually thought you were reading him wrong until all the sentinels confirmed that he was lying. It’s difficult to be deceptive with a guide, but it’s especially hard with a guide like me. That he was able to hide that made me want to see how far you got with your questions. Once I was channeling through you, I could see it, too. I need to compare notes with Grandma Mags and get her impressions.”
It all made sense, so he nodded and let it go. “So… breakfast before paperwork?” he asked hopefully.
“Breakfast should always come before the minutiae,” Blair agreed.
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