Vicious, Part Three
Tony rested his chin on the back of his hand, which was flat on the table, putting him eye to eye with Vicious. She stared intently at his other hand which was toying with a small, soft ball. After a beat, he rolled it towards her, and she pounced on it, scratching and biting at it. When she had completely subdued it, she batted it back to Tony. He played with it for a few seconds then shot it out again, watching her hiss and pounce.
The whole thing made him laugh. He couldn’t believe he was playing some weird game with his spirit guide. But he was so relieved that she was awake and okay, that’d he’d deal with the weird.
Jethro had his feet propped on the table and was watching them with a smile on his face. Bagheera was hanging around, too, though Tony had a sense that he was tiring out, and he wasn’t sure how long the jaguar would be able to remain.
He’d been through all the standard procedure crap—forms, forms, more forms, empathic check, basic health exam—and now he was waiting. It was well after the lunch hour, but Tony was hoping they’d be able to escape and get food out in the real world. Jethro had apparently made several phone calls to the office while Tony had been getting poked, prodded, and scanned.
“What do you want to do when we leave?” Jethro asked.
“I dunno.” He lifted his head so he could more easily communicate with his sentinel. “It’d help if I know how you’re doing with all this… are you going to be okay if we’re apart?”
Jethro’s expression twisted a bit. “With all this going on? No.”
Tony sighed. “That’s what I thought.”
“I want you around. It’s not just about keeping you safe. Want to know you—can’t do that if we’re not together.”
“Point,” Tony conceded.
Vicious suddenly abandoned her ball and darted to Jethro, nearly flinging herself at him and quickly scaling his shirt to perch on his shoulder. When she started her raspy purr and began licking Jethro’s ear, Tony started to laugh.
“All right, Vicious Heathen. I get the message.”
“What’d I miss?” Jethro asked, using a napkin to dry his ear.
“She doesn’t want us apart.”
“Ah.” He craned his neck a bit to look her in the eye. “Sneaky.”
“Uh, no. Subtle she is not,” Tony countered. Deciding to go along on the crazy train, he asked, “You got a guest bedroom?”
“Yeah,” Jethro said immediately.
“Want a houseguest this weekend?”
Jethro lifted Vicious from his shoulder and held her so he could scratch her head. “I want you with me forever, but the weekend is a good start. My place or yours… doesn’t matter.”
Tony smiled a bit. “Do you like your house?”
“Well, I hate my place, so no loss there.”
“Why don’t you move?”
“It’s temporary… plainly furnished apartment until I was certain the Bureau was going to work out. Didn’t want to buy a house only to find I hated it here.”
“How’s the Bureau working out?” Jethro asked carefully.
He chuckled. “Thought we were holding off on the difficult conversations?” He waved away Jethro’s reply because it was already out there. “It’s a lab. One is much like the other. If what you actually want to know is if I’d consider leaving, the answer is yes—assuming I could find something else—but not for another couple months.”
“The FBI hired me for a specific purpose. I can’t discuss it, but the work isn’t finished yet.”
Jethro nodded, looking thoughtful. “You ever go out in the field?”
“Very rarely. They’d need a chemist on scene, and no one else was closer, to justify calling me out. Which has happened once and it was a false alarm.”
“Long-term, we have stuff to sort out, but for now, we can manage as long as they call me in if you’re ever pulled to a scene.”
Tony considered. “Would the Bureau even agree to that?”
“There are provisions in the contracts with the Foundation. They can make me a part-time liaison and call me if you’re needed.”
Leaning back in his chair, Tony considered for a few seconds. “And what exactly would you be doing while I’m in a biohazard suit, probably in a tent, analyzing samples?”
“Probably annoying the shit out of whoever was in charge of operational security,” he admitted with a shrug.
He couldn’t help but laugh. “Yeah, all right. I gather you’d prefer not to leave NCIS?”
“Wouldn’t be my first choice. I’m military.” He lifted one shoulder. “Bureau and I don’t operate the same way.”
“Well, there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to work for NCIS, which puts me at some other lab somewhere and we’re still not working together.”
“NCIS has a forensics department,” Jethro said dryly.
Tony wasn’t going to get into that discussion. He’d heard about the forensics “department” at the Navy Yard. Anacostia would be a better location for him.
“And you could consult with my team directly,” Jethro offered.
Tony frowned. “Doing what?”
“Processing scenes, analyzing evidence, crime scene reconstruction.”
“I’ll think on it.” His first reaction was to say hell no. Fingertip searches and dumpster diving were not something he was remotely interested in, and, truthfully, something he wasn’t physically capable of anymore. Shooting scenes and doing sketches was a huge waste of his education, and not at all where his interests lay. Even though he was the lab supervisor, he was still involved in the science side of things—admittedly not as heavily—and many of the thorny problems wound up on his desk anyway. But he knew that part of the deal between guides and sentinels was working together, enabling the sentinel to use their senses more fully in the field.
No matter which way he looked at it, none of the possibilities seemed very satisfying. Being some team add-on who wasn’t an agent, but wasn’t forensics didn’t sound remotely interesting, but not working with Jethro didn’t appeal either. He didn’t want to be just some booster for a sentinel’s senses. But he knew from experience that all he could do was get into it and see what was possible. Beating the subject to death now wasn’t going to solve anything.
Deciding he was hungry enough not to want to wait any longer for food, he was just about to suggest lunch when Vicious perked up and leapt off Jethro’s lap, making a dash for the door. She scratched at it and looked back, giving a pitiful mew.
“What’s that about?” Jethro asked as he got to his feet.
“No idea. She did that when she wanted to find you.”
Jethro’s quirked a brow. “You’d better not have another sentinel in the building.”
Tony laughed. “I think you’re all I can handle. Should we see what she wants?”
Vicious gave them tragic eyes and mewed again.
Rubbing a hand over his face, Jethro sighed. “She’s going to be spoiled rotten. I didn’t know that could even happen with spirit guides.” He reached out and opened the door, and Vicious was off like a shot.
There were a lot more people around since it was the middle of the day on a Thursday, which made Tony worry, but Vicious ran back to them and slowed her pace, seemingly a little anxious about all the foot traffic.
After a couple of minutes, Vicious had taken them to a door that required a security card. “We can’t go in,” he said to her.
She gave him the pathetic face again, and Tony leaned down and picked her up.
“I wish I could promise I’d be able to do anything, but sometimes doors are locked. Usually for a good reason.” He noticed that Jethro was a few feet away talking with another sentinel.
Vicious licked his nose and made the sad sound again.
“Tony,” Jethro began as he and the other sentinel walked over, “this leads to the detainment area. But we’ve been given permission to come down.”
“Ugh.” He looked at Vicious again. “You sure you want to go down there?”
A raspy purr was a pretty affirmative answer.
The unknown sentinel swiped the security card over the reader, and Tony set Vicious down again, waiting to see where she’d lead.
Nothing about the small detainment area looked any different from the rest of the facility. It was a small wing with a high desk and an array of closed doors with numbers on them. He realized that security keypads and biometric scanners were at each door, which was a difference from most of the facility he’d seen so far.
Tony was surprised to see the entire group of sentinels and guides he’d been working with standing or sitting around the desk: Blair, Jim, Maggie, Tomás, and the St. Jameses.
Before anything more than a stray greeting or two could be uttered, Vicious darted around the desk and right to Devon St. James—who was sprawled out in a chair—and began pawing at his pant leg. When he just stared at her, utterly stupefied, she began to climb.
Tony was getting some strong emotions off the sentinel. He was angry and frustrated, and there was something like guilt or grief. Devon’s gaze shot to Tony, conveying his uncertainty about Vicious’ sudden attention.
“You can pick her up,” Tony offered. “She’s not gonna settle for anything else.”
The sentinel carefully closed his hands around her small body and lifted her up. She finished squirming her way to his shoulder, licked his cheek, and started a loud purr; the volume made it extra raspy-sounding.
Eric stepped close to Tony. “What’s she doing?”
“I think she wants him to feel better.” Vicious stared at Tony and made a funny noise. His eyebrows shot up, because his first impression couldn’t be right, but interpreting her noises wasn’t precisely a science. “Or maybe something else.” She made the funny noise again. It was sort of like a meow, but with a little hairball thrown in. “You want me to do something?” She started purring again.
“I’m fine,” Devon said, sounding sort of flustered, and he didn’t seem the type to be thrown off his game in the normal course of things.
“Devon,” Eric whispered.
“Eric,” Devon retorted immediately, “I’m fine.” In response, Vicious hissed at him, making him wince. She looked to Tony and made slashing motions with her claws. He wasn’t sure what that was supposed to convey.
Making an intuitive leap, he tried to see the psionic energy moving around them—but not channel it like he had last time. It took some concentration but he finally managed to see the energy as it ebbed and flowed through the people in the room. Vicious was a bright spot, so bright he could barely make out her physical details. After that, Blair and Maggie were brighter than anyone else, but the energy still moved smoothly through the rest of the group. Except for Devon.
“You have a… um…” Tony scratched his head, trying to think of how to say it. You have a black hole seemed impolite. “Energy disruption?”
Devon quirked one eyebrow. “I have a what?”
“Dude, I don’t know. Psionic energy is moving through everyone except you. There’s like this black void and the energy kind of sputters out and disperses.”
“I knew he did something!” Eric exploded. “I’m gonna kill him.”
Maggie wrapped an arm around Eric’s shoulders. “Now, sweetie-pie, you know that’s not an option.”
“Someone want to fill us in?” Jethro asked.
Devon sighed, and scratched behind Vicious’ ears when she demanded it. “Eric and I were questioning Dr. Roberts when he lashed out at me. It didn’t seem to do anything, but I’ve been feeling off ever since.”
“It’s a wound, I think,” Blair said thoughtfully. “Normally I can see psi wounds easily because they pulse with extra energy, but this is an energy void. You have to look for it differently.” He glanced briefly at Tony.
Vicious made a disgruntled noise.
“Well, my ocekitten seems to think we need to do something about this. And her vocalizations can get much more unpleasant when she’s miffed.”
Maggie shook her head. “We can’t heal psionic wounds. They mend on their own in due time. We treat or repair the damage they cause, but the original injury just takes time and patience.”
“What damage do they cause?” Tony needed to understand, because this didn’t seem like a typical injury to him.
“It varies, but usually it’s empathic or emotional—though it can manifest physically. A severe wound can cause an arrhythmia or mimic the symptoms of a heart attack. But a typical wound, say the psionic claw marks you saw on Roberts, can cause some empathic issues. Moodiness, despondence, depression… that sort of thing. Although, a large number of wounds could also cause physical complications. We treat the symptoms until the psionic wound mends.”
“Okay, but this isn’t like what I saw earlier. There’s no psionic trace to cause a problem. I mean, he needs psionic energy, right?” He glanced at the others, and the guides all nodded. “Okay, then, if it’s disrupted, what does that mean?”
“I don’t know,” Blair admitted. “I’m not sure what Roberts did, but one of his particular skills is wielding psionic energy. He’s the only type of guide who’s not ascendant who can manipulate it.”
Vicious hissed and was staring at Tony, then she patted Devon.
“You think I can fix this?” he asked incredulously.
She started purring again.
He hunkered down a bit until he was eye to eye with his little charge. “Are there more people he’s done this to?” She purred louder. “Well, that’s interesting.” He glanced at Blair, who was frowning heavily. “Okay, my little Vicious Heathen, what is it I’m supposed to do?” She climbed down to Devon’s chest and patted it with both paws.
“I’m supposed to touch him?” he asked incredulously. “Baby, I’ve been at this for less than a day. I have no idea what to do.” She patted his chest again. Tony glanced at the others, who were looking sort of flummoxed. “Well?”
After a long silence, Blair finally said, “I’m inclined to follow her lead, but it’s not truly my decision.” He gestured to Eric and Devon.
“What do you want?” Devon asked his guide.
“I don’t want you to stay like that!” Eric said firmly.
Devon picked up Vicious and asked, “So you think your guardian can help, eh?” She licked his nose. He wiped the wet away. “Got it.” He handed her to Tony, who immediately passed her to Jethro.
“Sure about this?” Jethro softly asked as he took Vicious.
“No clue what I’m doing, but if I can help, I want to try at least. Besides, I don’t want the sad, tragic face all day. And her unhappy vocalizations aren’t exactly mellifluous.”
Vicious hissed at him, but it didn’t have any real heat.
“So, just touch, right?” he asked Blair.
Nodding, he gestured vaguely with his hands. “You may just get a sense of what’s wrong so we know how to approach it.”
“Or I could get a recipe for slow cooker oatmeal,” he muttered.
Devon started laughing and relaxed back in the chair. “If you get recipes from me, look for pods.”
Before he could psych himself out of it, he pressed his hand to the center of the sentinel’s chest. He could feel and visualize the void almost immediately. But it was like a block of some sort, not a real wound. Somehow, he knew precisely what to do with it.
He blinked and realized he was staring at the ceiling. There were a lot of frenzied voices talking over each other, and Vicious was purring in his ear and repeatedly licking it. “Am I really on the floor?” he asked no one in particular.
The voices went quiet. Jethro moved into his line of vision, expression lined with concern, and making it clear Jethro was the one holding him. “You dropped like a stone.”
“Well, shit,” Tony muttered and pushed himself up, getting an assist from his sentinel. Vicious hopped upon his shoulder for the ride, her claws pricking his skin a bit. “How long?”
“Unconscious? Less than a minute.” He could feel the worry and stress bleeding off his sentinel.
“Devon okay?” He glanced around until he spotted the sentinel sitting in the same spot, looking a little loopy. Eric didn’t look overly concerned, so he decided getting off the hard floor was the priority. Holding out his hand to his sentinel, he wiggled his fingers. “Getting off the floor is a bitch.”
“Tony dear, perhaps we should check you out first.”
“I’m fine, Maggie. Think of it like a power surge; it can make the lights flicker, but everything is fine afterward.”
“Or it can fry all your electronics,” Maggie retorted tartly.
He laughed then wiggled his hand at his sentinel again. “Stop being passive aggressive and help me up.”
“I’ll help you right into a chair.” Jethro grabbed his hand and braced him so he could pull himself to his feet. And sure enough, he found himself pushed right into the seat next to Devon.
“So?” He looked around and found everyone was watching him. “Did it work?”
Blair nodded. “Yeah. You focused a lot of psionic energy for that.”
Figures he’d overpower it. He truly hadn’t a clue what he was doing.
“I think you slammed through the block, and then had an overabundance of energy left to deal with, so you pulled it in rather than letting it disperse. Your analogy of a power surge wasn’t far off.”
“So, Devon’s fine?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Eric replied. “That surge of energy has him feeling a little… drunk. Thanks, Tony.”
“No problem.” He rubbed his hands together. “ID and then I can get out of here?”
“Tony!” about six people said.
“Damn,” he muttered stroking Vicious’ back while she industriously licked her paws.
– – – –
Tony stepped into Maggie’s office, finding the eclectic environment to be soothing after such a difficult morning. He set Vicious on the floor, and she promptly went nosing about in corners. Everyone had insisted that Tony get checked over medically again, but the doctor covering for Roberts was a little backed up, so he had some time to burn. It presented him the perfect opportunity to get some questions answered. Jethro had gone off to check in with his team, giving Tony this time alone with Maggie.
She flipped some switches on the wall that he now knew would ensure they had privacy. While he’d been getting checked out the first time, she’d explained how privacy features worked in different parts of the facility. A couple of minutes later, she passed him a mug of steaming oolong. “All right, dear, I’d have been surprised if you didn’t have some questions, so hit me with it.”
“I’m a little confused about the whole ‘it’s predestined, he’s my sentinel’ thing.”
Maggie cocked her head to the side and considered. “Predestined isn’t quite right, though I can see how you’d make that leap. A guide ascendant chooses their sentinel when they come online. When you connect to the spirit plane in that moment of profound change, you seek out all the psionic energy threads of unbonded sentinels and touch the one that feels right. It’s a process we don’t entirely understand, but we’ve never seen a mismatch.”
“But what keeps a guide from choosing a sentinel who’s married or in love with someone else?”
“It’s never happened, sweetie. There’s a sentience about the energy that flows through us—that enables us to be what we are—and we assume that at the moment when you’re connecting with all those possibilities, that you’re rejecting those who aren’t available. Or perhaps they simply aren’t one of the possibilities you can touch. For all we know, if someone is unavailable to an actual bond, you wouldn’t sense them during your search on the psionic plane.”
Tony made a face. “I wish I could remember that whole process.”
“We all do, dear, but I can’t help but think there’s a reason we don’t. I’m not sure our physical minds could handle it.”
He had to concede that point. If she was correct that he, in some fashion, had evaluated all the available sentinels, that would be an overwhelming amount of input. And it wasn’t like it was done at a conscious level.
“Are you unhappy with Jethro?” she asked gently.
“No!” He was startled that she went there but then he could see why. “It’s not that at all. I just…” Tony sighed and sipped his tea, getting his thoughts in order. “He clearly loved his wife very much. He admits he still loves her. I had this moment where I wondered how this all worked, and what would have happened if they’d still been married. Are sentinels and guides destined to be homewreckers? I’ve heard about and seen people in platonic bonds, but the idea of that kind of bond–”
Vicious hissed and growled from where she was on a bookshelf higher off the floor than Tony was comfortable with.
“Yeah, it makes me feel like that,” he admitted, saluting his spirit guide with his tea mug.
“Platonic bond is a terrible misnomer. Actually, when paired as a term, neither word is correct.”
Tony frowned. “You mean their relationships aren’t platonic?”
“No, they are, or, rather, they may be. But the words ‘platonic bond’ imply that the alternate is a sexual bond, and that’s not the case.”
He blinked and then stared. “Okay, you completely lost me.”
“There’s only one kind of bond. You’re bonded or you’re not. There is no platonic or sexual bond. Bonding between a sentinel and guide is opening completely to another person, becoming so connected, that the psionic energy harmonics of two different people will synchronize. It is a thing of profound and deep intimacy, the likes of which you could never experience in any other way. I’m sure you’re aware that intimacy and sex are not at all the same thing. However, the majority of people find they most easily achieve that openness to intimacy through…” she trailed off and raised a questioning brow.
“Sex,” he supplied easily enough.
“Correct. I’ll be honest that there’s a bit of a gender divide here. There have certainly been times when a couple achieved a bond without sex, but about ninety percent of those instances are female-female pairings. There was this charming duo a few years ago who’d known each other for years before they came online, which happened within moments of each other. They were so open to one another, and so eager for a bond, it happened by accident.”
“Accident?” Tony repeated dumbly.
“It’s quite rare for such a thing to occur, because so few couples know each other so profoundly ahead of time, but they fell into their bond as easily as sliding into a warm bath. It was truly a thing of beauty.
“Men are more likely to need the sexual contact, and subsequent release, as a bridge to the necessary intimacy. But whether a couple chooses to have sex or not, or bring sex into their relationship later, the nature of a bond is so close, so connected that there’s no room for another person. Those situations you hear of with a married sentinel or guide having a mundane spouse, and then they have a ‘platonic bond’ outside their marriage… No. A bond cannot form where the intimacy is divided.”
Getting a faraway look in her eyes, Maggie smiled. “Though I can give you an example of a young man who bonded without sex: There was this lovely young couple, I’d say it was a good quarter century ago, and while she was amenable to the sexual side of their relationship from the start, in the beginning, he was not. Nowadays, I imagine we’d say he was demisexual. He wanted them to know each other deeply before they pursued what he called a ‘sexual’ bond. I tell you, hon, he fell head over heels for his guide.
“One evening, they were refreshing their imprints, and they were in such an intimate place with one another that the bond slid into place as naturally and smoothly as you could imagine. When it started to happen, they simply stayed in that open, intimate space and surrendered to bonding. She confided to me later that their relationship evolved to include sex, but it’s one of the rare times I’ve encountered a man who found that deep intimate connection before sex was involved.”
“Does sex always follow at some point, even if they manage the bond without it?”
“Usually. I’ve only encountered a few pairings in my life who had little or no sexual component to their relationship, but there are no certainties. Although I’ve never heard of one adopting the term platonic, even though it might apply in their situation—likely because of how the word is misused in reference to imprinted pairings. But there’s such a level of intimacy, connectedness, love, and even passion for one another, that the label ‘sexual’ or ‘platonic’ in regards to an actual bond is meaningless, as neither word defines a bond.
“As for pairs who don’t bond: You will never hear any official representative of the Foundation use the term ‘platonic bond’ when discussing S&G pairings. It’s a panacea for those who either can’t achieve a bond, or choose not to. Oddly enough, mundanes place high value on the idea of sentinel and guide bonding. It’s not that bonding doesn’t have value, because of course it does, but it’s a choice a couple has to make for themselves, and they shouldn’t be penalized for not choosing that path. So sentinels and guides began using the term ‘platonic bond’ to have their relationship validated in the eyes of mundanes.”
Tony thought that was ridiculous, but also kind of sad—that the value mundanes placed on things made any difference at all. “So what are they talking about when they use the term ‘platonic bond’?”
“Most couples who claim a platonic bond are what we call a dual-imprinted pair. The sentinel will imprint on the guide; the guide will imprint empathically. It creates a deep connection between the two; they’re tethered to each other, for lack of a better term, until they choose to break the link. Dual imprinting is part of actual bonding, of course, but many pairs choose to stop there and not pursue that psionic joining. It could be because they aren’t truly compatible as life mates, one of them might be married, or for a variety of other reasons.
“Regardless, we facilitate and support DI relationships. They’re registered as an imprinted couple and recognized as a sentinel and guide pair. There are easily as many DI pairs as truly bonded pairs. But at certain strength levels, some guides and sentinels need that deep connection a bond provides, and an imprint tether simply isn’t sufficient.
“Now, another reason why the term platonic is misleading is that some of the DI pairs do have a sexual relationship. It’s quite common if neither party is in another romantic relationship. Guides are a sensory feast for sentinels, so they’re certainly a more desirable sexual partner than most mundanes. Conversely, sentinels are very safe sexual partners for guides. So if a couple carries a dual imprint and they’re having sex, the assumption by mundanes, and many sentinels and guides even, is that they’re bonded. It’s simply not so.”
“Huh.” Tony was adjusting his world view. “You said most couples are dual-imprinted. What about the rest who say they have a platonic bond?”
“The most basic working relationship between a sentinel and guide requires a three-sense imprint: sight, sound, smell. With those three, a sentinel can ground their senses and the pair can work together. For a day, a week, a year. To give you an analogy: If a bond is marriage, a dual imprint is like living together, and a three-sense imprint is akin to serial dating.”
He could work with that analogy. “What about the empathic side in the ‘serial dating’?”
“There’s no empathic connection. That would create a dual imprint. The sentinel grounds their senses on the guide, and the guide, in theory, acts as a sensory coach of sorts. At most, the guide might empathically buffer the sentinel if they were having sensory spikes. Also, there’s no effort required to end those connections, which is how they can be so short-term. Some sentinels in demanding fields work with a different guide every day until they find one who they are highly compatible with. There’s a lot of variety in how those basic working relationships go—much like dating. Some people date for a year before moving on; some people have one date. That said, sex is less common in that type of scenario as a guide will eventually struggle not to imprint, which would create the tether the pair are seemingly avoiding. So those pairs represent the label ‘platonic’ most accurately.”
Tony considered for a few seconds, rearranging things in his head, and filing things away. “Does Jethro know all of this?”
“Possibly. He certainly understands the basic sentinel/guide working relationship as he’s worked with pro tem guides in the past. But he’s not the sort to concern himself with what he might consider semantics until they’re important to him personally. When his marriage ended, I encouraged him to meet some new guides, consider finding someone he could have a dual imprint with, but he was oddly confident the ‘right’ person would come along some day.”
“So he’s never dual-imprinted before?”
“Well, he’s certainly never registered as such. There are pairs who have a dual imprint and never register it, though we discourage that.”
“Because they are connected to one another at a fundamental level, and there are considerations if one of them should be injured or incapacitated. Breaking a tether is not without its difficulties, and there are some things we do right afterward to help heal any empathic damage that either party sustains as a result of the separation.
“Your Jethro was more the type to have a date when needed,” she said with a grin. “We understand such a small fraction of the truth about ourselves, where we come from, why we’re here… but it does seem as if he knew you’d find him eventually.”
“You closet romantic,” he teased.
“Oh, hon, nothing closet about it. But I have nothing on my Tomás. Oh that man…” she sighed and pressed a hand to her chest. “He does love his grand gestures. It’s so sweet.”
“May I ask a personal question?”
“Go right ahead. I’m an old hand at politely evading things I don’t want to discuss.”
“Fair enough,” he said with a laugh. “I sort of inferred that Tomás took your surname…” he trailed off.
“Yes,” she replied readily. “When we married, he chose to take my name. Which, in our era, was absolutely scandalous. And that was in addition to me being a black woman living in Alabama, pursuing a higher education when such things were not easy for any woman, much less a minority. I came online as a guide ascendant and chose this snarky little Mexican man. Oh, Tony, it was glorious,” she said with a laugh, and he couldn’t help but smile. “I was the town’s gossip fodder for years! And Aunt Bernice… oh, how I despised that sanctimonious bitch.”
Tony choked and then had to catch his breath around laughing.
“She was absolutely wretched! But the shock of me coming online and bonding to a Latino sentinel nearly killed her. She just crossed herself and prayed every time she saw me for years afterward. I wish I had it on film.”
Vicious suddenly popped up behind Maggie, presumably having climbed the sofa, and jumped onto her shoulder, setting up to purring.
“Hello there, sweet thing,” Maggie murmured, reaching up to pet the little beast. “In any case, Tomás came online during a dreadful period of sentinel and guide persecution in Mexico. His father was a high-ranking member in the Senate and drafted many of the discriminatory laws. They were later struck down, as the people of Mexico embraced sentinels and guides, and rebelled against such oppression. But that came too late for my Tomás. When he realized he was a sentinel, he came to the United States seeking asylum, smuggling more than a dozen guides over the border with him. After we bonded, he asked me to marry him and said he wanted our future children to have my name, that his father’s legacy needed to end. Sneaky man changed his name, too.
“When they announced us as Mr. and Mrs. Matthews at the reception, Aunt Bernice fainted,” she said with a devious grin.
“You planned that,” Tony laughed, pointing a finger at her.
“I’ll never admit to anything,” she said with a wink. Setting her tea down, she scooted closer and took one of his hands. “Now, enough about me. Tell me what’s worrying you.”
“It’s not really a worry… I needed to understand how all this works, and what it means if Jethro’s still in love with his ex-wife.”
“There are degrees of love, dearest, and the heart has infinite capacity. I don’t for a second believe you’d have chosen him to be your sentinel if his heart wasn’t free for you to claim.”
Vicious began purring loudly.
– – – –
“I am so glad to be out of there, you don’t know,” Tony said with a relieved sigh as Jethro cleared the security gate.
Jethro shot him another assessing look and just nodded. Tony resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He felt totally fine but had let them do the extra empathic and physical checks. He’d demanded food first; he got really grouchy when he was deprived of food.
He ran his thumb over the guide ID band on his left wrist. Dark blue and silver titanium with an ID number and the S&G shield logo of the Foundation. So much was different so very quickly.
Blair was inclined to think that one of the abilities Vicious was bringing with her was the ability to heal psionic wounds. They’d need another test case, however, because Tony wasn’t convinced what happened to Devon was a real wound.
The Foundation had a whole mess to deal with in terms of determining if Roberts had done that to anyone else, what his agenda was, and how he’d hidden his true nature for so long. But Tony and Jethro were out of that side of things. Their focus was getting to know each other and pursuing a bond.
Jethro had been on the phone with his team off and on, but Tony still needed to call Blankenship and make sure things would be okay until Monday. Tony had a lot of confidence in his second in command, but the other scientist was rather junior all things considered, so AD Blankenship didn’t have Tony’s certainty about having the young man in charge.
When they pulled up in front of the apartment building, Tony realized he was kind of dragging. The short trek to the elevator took more energy than it should have. In retrospect, he’d only had a few hours of sleep lying on Jethro, and then a chaotic morning, which wasn’t the best baseline for him. In his college years, he used to be able to be up for days at a time, but now he needed a little more routine to keep his body functioning at its best.
When they entered his apartment, Vicious jumped down and took off for the bedroom. Sighing, Tony threw his coat over the back of the couch. “Make yourself comfortable. Shouldn’t take me long to get a bag together.”
“Tony,” Jethro murmured as he snagged his arm and carefully pulled Tony close, “we’re not in a rush.”
“It’s not like there’s anything to do here,” he replied as he gestured to the bland room.
“Except rest.” He cupped Tony’s face. “You’re tired, so sleep for a while.”
“I’m okay,” he insisted. Yeah, he needed some rest, but it could wait for a couple more hours.
“I never doubted it. But just because you can endure it doesn’t mean you need to.”
Tony could feel his stubborn streak kicking in. Then there was a tapping at his ankle, and he looked down to find Vicious peering up at him, blinking slowly like she was sleepy.
“Ah, hell,” he muttered. “You little sneak. Am I ever going to get away with anything ever again?”
“Probably not.” Jethro released him and leaned down to pick up Vicious.
“She can’t sleep in the bed with me. I might roll over on her,” Tony protested.
“It wouldn’t hurt her.”
“That’s hardly the point! And we don’t know that she won’t get hurt. She sure doesn’t like the cold,” he countered.
“Go to bed, Tony.”
Huffing, he went to the bedroom and pulled open the top drawer of his nightstand. There was plenty of weight in the bottom of the stand, so it wasn’t going to tip over. He stuffed a spare pillow in the drawer, then took Vicious from Jethro and set her carefully on the makeshift nest. She turned around in circles a few times, then reached out and pawed his t-shirt.
She snagged her claws in it and tugged.
“You little weirdo,” he muttered as he pulled off his t-shirt and dropped it on her. She fiddled with it until she was happy then promptly fell asleep in his shirt.
He grabbed a pre-sorted pill cup and knocked back two Advil and a muscle relaxer, chasing it with some water. Kicking off his shoes, Tony slid under the covers, not wanting to admit how he immediately felt the pull of sleep. “Get in bed,” he ordered.
Lifting his head, he glared at his sentinel. “Bed.”
Jethro held up his hands in a surrender gesture. A few seconds later, he slid in next to Tony. Rolling over, Tony curled up against his sentinel and fell asleep.
– – – –
Tony woke to the feel of fingertips gently sliding back and forth over the highest bit of scar tissue on his low back—below his waist, but above the low waistband of his sweats.
He curled his arm tighter around Jethro’s waist, appreciating the feel of the firm body next to him. “It’s ridiculous how comfortable I am with you.”
“Yeah.” The hand slid up higher, and Tony shivered. “You fit me perfectly. It’s…” he trailed off.
“No. Probably should be, though.”
“Right. It should bother me, but it doesn’t, and it bothers me that it doesn’t bother me.”
Jethro stilled then chuckled. “You do like your words.”
“What’s wrong with words? They’re awesome. Without words, I can’t have a nonfat hazelnut latte with an add shot.”
“Was that supposed to be English?” Jethro asked, sounding a bit bemused.
“Heathen. I suppose you drink your coffee black,” Tony groused, slipping his leg over Jethro’s. If he was going to be uncomfortable about not being uncomfortable, he might as well have something to truly not be uncomfortable over.
“When I drink it, yeah, black.”
“When you drink it?” Tony prompted.
“Too much caffeine—more than 50 milligrams or so—gives me sensory spikes. Mags and Tomás used to point out that if I’d pursue a bond with someone, I’d have better control and would be able to drink coffee again.”
“Whoa,” Tony breathed. “You mean I’m the gift of coffee? How awesome is that!”
Jethro started laughing again.
“So why didn’t you pursue a bond sooner, or at least a dual imprint? You’ve been online a long time.”
“Okay… no worries.” Nothing said they had to talk about this stuff. They were just getting to know each other; they didn’t need to tell their deepest darkest secrets. Although, part of him wondered why his sentinel didn’t want to discuss S&G matters with him.
“It’s not–” Jethro sighed. “I didn’t want to pursue a guide while I was married to Shannon. I worked with a temp guide off and on for a couple of years.”
“She didn’t like it?”
“She never said that.” His hand stroked up and down Tony’s back. “She was supportive, said I should ‘bond’ if I needed to. I don’t think it was the possibility of an imprint with someone that she didn’t like, though it probably was a factor. I never could figure it out, and she wouldn’t say.”
Tony had an inkling, but it wasn’t his issue or his past, so he filed the thought away. “So everything was up in the air while you were married. What about after the divorce?”
“Tried. But no one felt right. Sensory tests never went easily for me—scores were all over. Mags said I’d need a guide to use them beyond a four on my dials. That I was probably a powerful sentinel, but without a guide, they couldn’t get a read on me.” He shrugged one shoulder. “Felt like the right guide would come some day.” He pressed a kiss to Tony’s hair. “Didn’t figure you’d take another fifteen years, though.”
He realized he was tracing the dips between Jethro’s ribs and laid his hand flat over the warm, smooth skin. However they had come to this point, here they were, and Tony wasn’t sure how he felt about being the prize after such a long wait.
“Don’t–” he broke off and hesitated, not sure how to phrase what he needed to say.
“Just say it, Tony.”
“Don’t idealize me. I wish I could have been here for you sooner,” and he honestly meant that, “but I don’t want to be on a pedestal because you’ve been so long without water, and now even the municipal water source tastes good despite all the chlorine and fluoride. And pardon the mixed metaphors.”
There were a couple seconds of silence, and then Jethro started shaking.
“Are you seriously laughing at this?” Tony asked, trying not to smile.
Abruptly, he found himself flat on his back with Jethro braced above him, eyes sparkling with mirth. “You just made yourself chlorinated water.”
“You asshole. The water wasn’t the point.”
“I get it. It was my epic thirst,” he teased, and Tony glared. Jethro’s expression shifted to something more serious. “I hear what you’re saying, but–”
“No buts! I… I’m human. And messed up. I get grouchy when I’m in pain and sometimes act like an asshole. I hate making the bed and freak out when someone else does my laundry. I can’t stand my father and want nothing to do with him, but his stupid Christmas presents every year hurt my feelings. Incompetence pisses me off to a ridiculous degree, and kids hate me. Dogs, too. I can’t be on a pedestal. I’m too normal.”
“Hey,” Jethro whispered, pressing a finger to Tony’s lips. “The minute I felt you touch my mind when you came online, I knew we’d be right. I’m glad you have flaws, because I’m a bastard half the time, and perfect people irritate me.” He sighed. “Tony… I can’t help but idealize you because you are ideal. For me.”
Tony’s breath caught, and he got the distinction his sentinel was trying to make. “Jethro,” he breathed.
“We’ll have to figure out something about the bed though. I hate an unmade bed.”
Unable to keep from laughing, Tony pulled Jethro down into a kiss. Nothing in Tony’s life had prepared him for this connection and how desperately he would want it.
When he was a breath away from saying to hell with it, let’s try to bond, he broke away and framed Jethro’s face with his hands. “I’ll do my share of bed making during the week, but I refuse to do it on the weekends.”
“Deal,” Jethro whispered, sounding a little wrecked from the brief kiss.
“I’m sorry about being a grouchy asshole earlier and ordering you to bed. I was tired and in pain and not wanting to admit it.”
“Don’t apologize. Sign of weakness.”
Stunned, Tony just stared for several long moments, feeling his heart constrict as ugly memories reared their head. “No, it’s not. It’s a sign that you erred, recognize it and feel contrition. Ideally, it also means you’ll take steps to try not to repeat the offense in the future.” He wiggled out from underneath Jethro and swung to a seated position, coming face to face with his vicious little sweetheart.
She was awake but lying still, watching intently. She made an interrogative little mewing sound, and he smiled faintly.
The bed shifted then Jethro was seated next to him. “What just happened? I can smell that you’re upset.”
Instead of answering, he got up and slipped into the walk-in, grabbing a t-shirt and pulling it on. He knew he couldn’t afford to let this fester, although, talking about it wasn’t something he really wanted to do. But apologies being a sign of weakness is about the worst thing someone could say to him.
He returned to the bedroom and scooped up Vicious. “I want some tea. Let’s do this in the kitchen.”
Jethro looked like he wanted to say something, or maybe just force the issue and get to the point, but he followed along silently. Tony set Vicious on the kitchen table and let her nose around at the books and magazines he had stacked up on the far side.
He arbitrarily decided to make Jethro the decaf double-spice chai and made a white jasmine for himself. Mentally psyching himself up, he set the tea on the table and sat in the moderately uncomfortable chair that came with the apartment.
“Before the shooting, the idea of going to a shrink was unfathomable,” he began, knowing it was an odd place to start. “But part of my rehab was psychotherapy, and I can’t say I regret it. Because there’s a lot of shit that I wouldn’t be able to talk about now if I hadn’t done that. And there would be things I’d just let slide by, pretending they were okay, when they were destroying me.”
He took a breath and began the painful litany while staring at his tea. “DiNozzos don’t cry, they don’t faint, don’t get sick, don’t go to doctors, don’t show weakness, don’t play musical instruments, don’t create, don’t care about the poor, don’t ask for help, don’t admit to a fault, don’t do anything remotely human, they don’t care, and they sure don’t apologize when they’re wrong, because they’re never wrong.” He glanced up and met his sentinel’s pained gaze.
“I spent my childhood having my father drill it into me that I shouldn’t be human, that it was all about appearances, and my mother coaching me to hide every feeling and emotional reaction from my father because he’d exploit it to hurt me.
“She died when I was eight, and my father immediately sent me to boarding school, then military academy when I was twelve. There’s no weakness or apologies or sensitivity in those places either. And I can promise you that college sports and the police academy don’t engender those things. So when I was hurt and woke up from surgery with this external cage holding my pelvis together, and they told me I might never walk normally again, might wind up in a wheelchair for life, I joked. Because that’s the only thing I knew how to do.”
“Jesus, Tony,” Jethro said softly.
He plowed on. “Inside I was falling apart, but I couldn’t be weak. I couldn’t say that I felt broken and needed help because I didn’t know how to say the words. My sense of self was built on the belief that the state I was actually in was something that could never happen.” He shook his head. “I spent years learning how to turn off those voices from my childhood. I can’t have a new voice in my head repeating that old litany.”
“You did,” he said gently. “It was so automatic, and I get that it’s something you say all the time and probably believe. And maybe it’s different for someone military. Maybe you don’t show that kind of vulnerability to an enemy. But I’m not an enemy. For me, admitting you’re wrong is a sign of strength. And if I feel bad about what I did or the error I made, I apologize, because if I wrong you, it’s not weak to say I regret it!” he ended heatedly then looked away.
Tony cleared his throat. “And that’s a big life drama I hadn’t planned to reveal—at least, not now. But I just can’t…” he trailed off, not wanting to give Jethro an ultimatum, but it was damn close to that. He couldn’t go back to a life of pretending like it was bad to be vulnerable.
“Hey.” Jethro reached out and took his hands, forcing him to let go of his tea. “I needed to know. I don’t want you to suffer through any of that again. I…” he trailed off and made a face. “There are all these rules. It’s something Shannon and I started. Like a code to live your life by. We added to it over the years—some of it good stuff, and some of it’s just crazy. Kelly made rules, too. ‘Don’t apologize’ was rule six.” He stopped and seemed to be wrestling with something. “We never meant it to be what it turned into. But it had become so ingrained.”
He wasn’t sure if that was intended to make him feel better or not. Jethro had some dogmatic life code he’d worked out with his ex-wife that he was still clinging to? That seemed problematic at best.
Jethro chuckled, but there was no real mirth in it. “Maybe things wouldn’t have gone so badly if we’d set some of the rules aside.” His thumbs rubbed over Tony’s knuckles. “And that—what you said—is the best argument for apologies I’ve ever heard. Because you’re right; you’re not my enemy or someone I have to be on guard with. And if I screw up with you, you deserve to know that it matters to me.
“I can’t promise I’ll get it perfect, but…” he leaned forward and pinned Tony with a look. “It does matter to me that I hurt you. I wish I could undo it, and,” he lifted Tony’s hands and pressed a kiss to his knuckles, “I’m sorry.”
Even without his empathy giving him feedback, Tony could tell Jethro was sincere. “Thank you. For the apology, and for understanding that I might not be able to live by this code of yours.”
“We’ll figure it out. I promise.” He gave a rueful smile. “Besides, they’re my rules, and I have no right to force them on you.”
“How is it that nothing fazes you?” he asked, feeling emotionally wrung out and like he had somehow become the basket case in the relationship.
“It does, you’re just looking from the wrong angle.”
“Finding out that you’re unique in the guide world threw me. Seeing you collapse after touching St. James scared me. The pain you were radiating in the bedroom definitely fazed me.”
“Oh,” Tony whispered, feeling a little stunned.
“You, us, matters more than made beds or old rules.”
Tony pulled their joined hands over and rested his head on them. “I’m super twitchy about any suggestion that I should hide who I am or pretend to be something I’m not. Fair warning: I’ll probably overreact.”
“I don’t want you to be anything but yourself. And if you ever think that’s what I’m asking of you, it’s probably a misunderstanding. But feel free to kick me in the ass until we figure it out.” Jethro freed a hand and touched the back of Tony’s head. “If we do work together—I’m not the same at the office. But I’ll never deliberately hurt you, Tony.”
Tony lifted his head and met his sentinel’s concerned gaze. “I get it. Most people have different work/home personas. I figure we can work everything out as we go. I just-” He broke off and huffed. “I didn’t expect to run into a hard limit like that.”
Not certain what Jethro meant, Tony got to his feet and let Jethro pull him closer and then into his lap. “Okay, I haven’t sat in someone’s lap since I was a child.” But he gamely wrapped his arms around his sentinel’s shoulders as Jethro’s arms came around his waist, holding him firmly.
“I like you there,” Jethro said as he pressed his nose to Tony’s neck and took a deep breath.
“I’m too heavy.”
Jethro snorted. “You know that sentinels are stronger than mundanes, right?”
“Well, yeah, but that’s just some small percentage stronger or something.”
Without any apparent effort, Jethro slid one arm behind Tony’s knees and stood up, holding Tony in his arms.
“Holy crap! Don’t do that!” Tony held on tight like he might get dropped at any moment. “Sit back down, you Neanderthal!”
Laughing, Jethro sat. “I take it you don’t care for it.”
“Save it for sex,” Tony said snippily.
“Oh really?” Jethro cocked one eyebrow inquisitively.
Tony sniffed. “Yes, I think that might be fun. And really hot. Otherwise, no.”
Jethro grinned, but then his expression sobered a bit. “You okay?”
“Yeah. I’m resilient. Always have been.”
“Just because a person doesn’t break doesn’t mean life should keep testing them to make sure.”
Giving a wry chuckle, Tony could only agree. “But life is pretty good, you know? I knew I was missing something, I felt it in my bones. And here you are. Exactly what I needed.”
A little mew caught his attention, and he turned enough to see Vicious perched on the table, tail swishing idly as she watched them. He extended his arm so she could run up it, and she immediately licked his cheek.
“Yeah, I needed you, too, Vicious Heathen. Everything I needed just landed in my lap.”
She dived into the space between them, scaled Jethro’s chest, and began licking his chin.
Jethro laughed and lifted her so he could look into her eyes. “If I’m ever acting like an idiot, just let me know.”
She made a mock swipe with her claws and hissed, then started purring and thumping her tail against his arm. After some maneuvering, she wound up on Jethro’s shoulder, peering at Tony.
“Okay, last chance,” Tony said solemnly to her. “I’m pretty sure you’re like a queen or something in the spirit realm. So if you want a proper, dignified name, now’s the time to make yourself heard.”
Growling, she bared her fangs.
“Right. Vicious it is.”
Vicious began to purr loudly and started grooming her paws.
Tony looked at Jethro finding amusement and affection and everything he wanted. “Sentinel,” he whispered.
Jethro curled a hand around the back of his neck and pressed their foreheads together. “Guide.”
This is the first installment in The Vicious Chronicles. I’ve already started work on the sequel, and it will be posted when it’s completed. I have no clue when that will be. Wishing all of you a happy and bright 2017. Happy New Year.