The Journey Home – Chapters 7-9

Title: The Journey Home – Chapters 7-9
Author: Jilly James
Beta: Naelany & IcefallsTears
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Chapter Seven

Tuesday morning found Alex nearly banging his head on Morgan’s desk in frustration. The three guides doing Tony’s healing were clustered around Morgan’s desk reviewing the progress. Or lack thereof.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Alex muttered for the second time. “We can see the empathic damage lessening, he should have begun to have more emotional affect, but there’s nothing!”

Morgan said nothing, just looked contemplative and rocked back and forth in his chair.

Blair patted his arm. “We’re just missing something.” He too looked thoughtful. “You know… he had more emotional range when I met him. Not by much, but there still seemed to be something more than now.”

Alex had to think about that for a minute, trying to put the pieces together. “What if we separate the two issues? Lack of affect and the empathic damage.”

Morgan cocked his head to the side inquisitively. “The damage causes the lack of affect.” It was a statement of fact, but Alex could easily infer that Morgan wondered what conclusions Alex had drawn that might differ from conventional wisdom.

“But not this much. If he didn’t have the empathic damage, what would you think was going on with him?”

Drumming his fingers on the desktop, Blair was the one who replied, “I’d think he was a guide who’d dialed his emotions off.”

Morgan suddenly leaned forward. “You think he might have done this deliberately?”

Having to think through it a bit, Alex took a moment to reply, “Not deliberately, maybe out of some sort of survival instinct, and he doesn’t know how to turn them back on.”

“And the remedy would be, what? Should we endeavor to teach him advanced emotion regulation?” Morgan asked, looking a little flummoxed, which Alex would normally find quite amusing.

Alex shook his head. “I think he’s going to have to do it on his own. Let’s give it a few more days, then decide if we should talk to him about it.”

Morgan huffed a little. “He shouldn’t be able to do any of this.”

“I agree,” Blair offered softly, looking thoughtful, “but we’ve never treated someone like this before. Remember, in a very real sense, Tony is already a guide. Whatever it is that activates a guide, happened to him over twenty years ago. The damage the drugs caused makes him physically feel like he’s not online, but there’s no way of knowing what odd hodgepodge of abilities he has. But I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth on this one. Because whatever’s going on, it saved his life.”

In principle, Alex agreed, but he felt it was his job to prepare for the worst. “The more we learn, the more I’m concerned about what happens when he comes online.”

“Why?” Morgan asked.

“Because I really worry that he won’t be able to construct his primary shield if we aren’t finished healing him first. And the sudden influx of other people’s emotions will likely flip his own emotions back on. And that’s… a disaster waiting to happen considering how powerful he’s likely to be.”

Blair held up his hands. “All we can do is keep doing what we’ve been doing. So let’s go do the morning session and see what happens. Someone has to be with him at all times to shield him if he does come online and the worst comes to pass.”

Alex nodded, then followed the other two down to the room they were using to do the healing sessions in. Evan and Tony were already there, Evan laughing and Tony smiling, though Alex detected no real emotion behind the smile. Tony was getting too adept at mentally reacting and not even seeking an emotional response. Alex thought he needed something to jolt him out of his head and back into his emotions.

They settled into their customary positions and waited for the cue that Tony was ready, which came in the form of a subtle relaxing of his muscles. Alex led the way, per usual, carefully easing the way to the next damaged empathic synapse, pushing aside his ongoing concerns.

The sessions required all the participants to rest afterwards, especially Tony. After the morning session, Tony usually slept for a couple hours, while the rest took short naps either at the Center or back home, waking insanely energetic afterward. Alex had been energized from healings before, but not this frequently or quite this much. It certainly made it easier to do such difficult healing so frequently. But it was another oddity in the slowly evolving landscape that was Tony DiNozzo.

~*~

Wednesday, Tony trailed Evan into the apartment, feeling worn out. After his morning healing, they’d stopped for lunch before returning home. Tony was dragging a little more than usual, so he predicted a long nap.

Even though this was his sixth day of healing, every single session felt surreal to him. It seemed like this couldn’t possibly be his life. Everything was so different in such a short amount of time. He spent his days healing, sleeping, hanging out with Evan, running errands with Evan, watching movies, and doing a fair amount of obsessing. His thoughts just seemed to race sometimes, and he couldn’t stop thinking about everything that had happened and everything still to come. He was also just starting to learn about being a guide.

As much as he had plenty to do, he was actually a little bored. He was used to more mental stimulation on a day-to-day basis, and he needed a little more to do, but he wasn’t sure how to ask for it. Everyone was going out of their way to help him and he didn’t want to complain.

He caught a glimmer of something out of the corner of his eye, but when he turned to look, nothing was there. That had been happening a lot. He wondered if it was a side effect of the healing, or the attacks, or something else entirely. Whatever the reason, he didn’t need his mind playing tricks on him on top of everything else.

“You headed to bed?” Evan asked idly, flipping through the mail he’d just picked up.

“In a few. I thought I might check my email first, see if there’s anything from Martin.” He hadn’t checked email since the weekend, and felt like he needed to try to stay in touch with everyone.

Abby’s emails had been disappointed that he hadn’t called. Jimmy had been apologetic that he’d ever thought Tony could be trying to intimidate him, and he hoped Tony was doing okay. McGee had been weird, mostly asking when he was coming back and reminding Tony that McGee wasn’t to blame for being annoyed with Tony. He hadn’t heard from Ziva.

The only person he’d actually talked to was Ducky briefly on Sunday, who’d apologized for not checking with Tony about the oddities of Jimmy’s actions before going to Gibbs. Tony appreciated the thought, and accepted the apology, encouraging Ducky to not worry about it. In the grand scheme of things, the little bumps with Ducky and Jimmy were barely a blip on the radar. It had now been several days and it was definitely time to check in again.

He considered his computer, which was hooked up to the TV so they could take advantage of some of Tony’s movie library. “Hey, Ev, you mind if I use your computer so I don’t have to unhook all the cables?”

“Go for it. We’ll probably be watching a movie after you get up, anyway.”

Tony quickly logged into his email, and was surprised at the number of messages he had from the team, many of which had hostile subject lines. Reluctantly, he set about reading them. There were three from Ziva, all angry, something about him ‘spilling tales’, which he thought either meant spilling his guts, or telling tales. McGee’s were a weird combination of apologetic for what had happened, and angry and disappointed that Tony would try to cause trouble for him and ruin his chances at promotion. And really, what the hell?

Finally, from Abby he had several emails that chastised him for airing the team’s dirty laundry. He suddenly felt a flare of anger so bright it made his head throb. He was so furious. Especially with Abby. Her email was the least hostile, but she really should have just asked him what was going on. Or just stayed the fuck out of it. Where the hell did she get off trying to make him feel guilty about the situation?

He almost responded to all of them, telling them to fuck off, but he reminded himself what Blair said about making decisions while emotionally compromised.

He rubbed his temples and tried to push down his temper.

Warm hands on his shoulders alerted him to Evan’s presence. Tony opened his eyes to find Evan on one knee in front of him, watching him intently. “Just take deep breaths, Tony. That was a lot of anger. NO! Don’t try to turn it off. Just let it be, and let it dissipate on its own.”

They’d been working on meditation and breathing exercises, so Tony was able to mimic Evan’s breathing, listening intently to his prompts.

“Keep breathing with me. Just focus on the breath, don’t do anything with the emotions, just let it them gradually dissipate. Remember that Blair and Alex said that your emotions would likely be loud and upfront when they happened.”

Tony wasn’t sure how much time passed before he seemed in control. He felt oddly raw and exposed, which he wasn’t fond of. And he felt really tired. Epically tired in ways that had nothing to do with his body.

“You want to talk about it?” Evan asked carefully.

“Maybe later. I think I should make a quick call and then go to sleep. That sort of gutted what energy I had.” Tony didn’t like feeling so out of control, but Alex had oddly emphasized yesterday that it was important that Tony not fight any emotions he had.

Evan got to his feet, then pulled Tony to his. “You seem like you really need rest. Can the call wait?”

Tony thought about it, then shook his head. “I’m not sure I can rest if I don’t know… something, anything, about what the hell is going on back home.” He patted Evan on the arm and flashed him a smile that was probably a pathetic attempt, then shut himself in his room.

He turned on his cell, and tried to decide who to call. Ducky might know what was going on, but he really wanted to talk to Martin. He could at least leave a message, figuring Martin had his phone off.

To his surprise, Martin answered on the third ring. “Tony? What’s going on?”

“Martin… I… I didn’t expect you to answer. If you’re busy we can talk later.”

No. I’m just keeping Jethro company in the basement. You’re not intruding. What’s happening? How are you feeling?”

“Ah…” he thought to prevaricate, but he wasn’t in the habit of lying outright to Martin, plus he was calling for information. “Well, in general, I think the sessions are going well. But, I was curious about some emails I received from the team. You may not know the answer to this, but has Gibbs taken some action regarding the Military at Home case?”

There was a brief pause. “Yeah. Why, what happened?”

“Just trying to figure out why everyone’s pissed at me. And what statements like, ‘you’re ruining my career’ mean. I need to know what happened – and the emails are not clear about that part – so I have some idea what I’m responding to.”

Dammit,” Martin said on a sharp exhale. “Both Ziva and McGee?”

“And Abby. What’s going on?”

Look, Jethro wants to talk to you. We’ll talk again after, okay?” Before Tony could object, he heard Martin distantly saying, “Don’t you dare hang up before I talk to him, Jethro.” It was seriously weird to have Martin referring to Gibbs as ‘Jethro.’

Tony?” Gibbs sounded a little mellower than usual. It nearly made Tony smile.

“Hey, Gibbs.”

What’d they say?”

“It doesn’t really matter. I’d just like to know what’s going on.”

DiNozzo,” came out in an exasperated tone.

“I’m not going to give you the dirty details, Gibbs. Just tell me what’s up.”

After a brief hesitation, Gibbs replied, “I filed the incident report from the case, and there were consequences.”

Tony blew out a breath. “Like?”

Quickly Gibbs gave him an overview of the consequences he’d decided on, then added, “And if they’re blaming you, I’m gonna knock their heads together.”

“Stop. Please. I just wanted info. I’m not trying to get you to step in.” They proceeded to argue a little about Tony forwarding the emails, which Tony resolutely refused to do.

What do you want me to do, DiNozzo? I’m not going to do nothing. Considering the circumstances, the repercussions are more than fair and lashing out at you just reinforces that this was necessary.”

“Look, can you just tell them not to contact me until they’ve been checked by a guide to ensure they’re back to their normal emotional state? I’m trying to give them the benefit of the doubt that there are still some emotional triggers making them say things without thinking. I’m going to just ignore this until I’m assured they’re in their right minds.”

There was a pause before Gibbs replied, “You mean you’re trying to give Abby the benefit of the doubt.” Tony started to reply, but Gibbs stopped him. “Don’t. I love her like my own, but I’m not blind to how manipulative she is. I’ll make sure she keeps quiet until she has her head on straight. As for the other two, I’ll handle it.”

“I’m not asking you to handle it!”

Tony,” Gibbs said gently, “take care of yourself, okay? Don’t worry about stuff here right now. And remember, we still have things to talk about, so get your ass home as soon as you can.”

And that was just like Gibbs, to ignore whatever he wanted. Though, normally he hung up when Tony said something he didn’t want to deal with.

Hey, Tony,” Martin said. “Jethro went upstairs to use the phone. Tell me honestly how much of the ‘you’re to blame’ business you’re taking on yourself?”

Tony huffed a little. “I don’t know. I’m not exactly working properly here. I kept thinking I should feel guilty, but all I managed was pissed off. I don’t want to see McGee get held up in his career, but I just couldn’t let it go.”

You had to report it, and the consequences are not your fault. It’s never acceptable to turn off comms, and it should never be swept under the rug. So, keep focusing on you and get well. I’m sorry I didn’t email you Monday to let you know what was going on. I didn’t think you needed the distraction, and it never occurred to me they’d do something so stupid.”

“Martin, seriously, if there’s anyone in this messed up little family who doesn’t owe me any apologies, it’s you. Now, tell me how you and Gibbs are doing.”

They chatted for several minutes, before Tony was yawning too much to continue. Reluctantly, Tony said goodbye and collapsed onto his bed to finally get the post-healing sleep he needed.

~*~

As soon as Tony headed to his bedroom, Evan sent a text to Alex. –Emotion overload. Lots of anger. Thoughts?—

A couple of minutes later, he received a response. –Turning the baby guides over to someone else. Be there shortly.—

Evan thought about pointing out that Tony would likely be asleep, but knew Alex would do whatever he wanted regardless.

He heard faint murmurs coming from Tony’s room for about twenty minutes. Then another ten minutes later, there was a knock at the door.

“What happened?” Alex asked before he was fully even inside.

“He was reading his email and then this white hot anger nearly flooded the room.”

Alex whipped around. “He projected?”

“Yeah, more than a little.”

“Damn.” He blew out a breath. “Can’t this kid do anything normally?”

“Kid? He’s just a few years younger than you,” Evan reminded.

“Yeah, well, in the guide game, he’s not even a baby yet. He shouldn’t be able to project emotions beyond the generally loud emoting that many mundanes do.”

All Evan could do was shrug. “I think he’s sleeping now.”

“I’m gonna have to wake him up. With how strangely this healing has proceeded, I need to see how he is against baseline versus how he is tonight.”

Evan could practically see Alex shaking off his normal demeanor and slipping into his healer mode, which was a lot softer around the edges than Alex’s normal persona; unlike Morgan, who always had a hard edge about him. Evan leaned against the doorjamb while Alex woke Tony, who was very post-healing groggy, but agreed to an empathic scan, then closed his eyes. He was pretty sure Tony went immediately back to sleep. He retreated to the kitchen to wait for Alex.

Alex returned a few minutes later, leaning on the island, rubbing his hand over his face. “He’s fine, I think. But I doubt we’ve got another week before he comes online.”

“How did he manage to project?” There was an empathic barrier in the mind that came down when someone came online. Theoretically, Tony shouldn’t have been able to project emotions, or detect them with that barrier intact. Once a guide came online, they had to construct a primary and secondary shield to limit the flow in or out.

“I think the sudden surge of emotion caused the barrier to fray a little. It feels raw around the seal. We’ll have to discuss it more tonight, but I wanted to scan now to compare it to tonight or tomorrow to see if anything changes the further away he gets from what amounts to an emotion overload. I wanted him to start to have some emotional range, but not like that. I think this may be another job for Morgan. Someone needs to tell him to avoid things that are exceedingly stressful.”

“Don’t you think it a little odd that Tony responds best to the bluntest guide on the West Coast?”

Alex cracked a grin. “Different strokes. I gotta run. Thanks for the text. I’ll see you tonight.” He showed himself out and Evan settled in to get some chores done, keeping an empathic ear on Tony.

It was nearly three hours before Tony emerged from his room in jeans, t-shirt and bare feet, but not wearing his sling. “Hey.”

“Hey, Tony. Just getting an afternoon snack. No sling, huh?”

Tony gave him the evil eye. “I get to start leaving it off for short periods tomorrow anyway. It’s a trial run.” He hopped up on the counter and accepted a glass of water from Evan.

“How are you feeling?” Evan asked casually, focusing his attention on cutting some vegetables for the hummus.

There was a bit of a pause, but eventually Tony responded. “I’m fine. Everything seems back to normal. Was Alex really here?”

“Yup. That was the first intense emotion you’ve had since you arrived and he wanted to check on your empathic health.”

“And?”

“He said you feel a little raw but he didn’t think there was any problem. He could give you a better overview when he gets here tonight.” He waited a second, then asked, “You want to talk about it?”

“It feels like all I do is talk about how I feel, or don’t feel as the case may be. Thanks for the offer, man, but I think I’m going to just put it out of my head for now.” He bounced his heel against the cupboard door. “Maybe another time. Hey, I’ve been curious, and you do not have to answer if you don’t want to…”

“Just ask, Tony. I’m not some delicate blossom.”

Tony’s lips quirked up. “What level guide are you? And if that’s personal, you can pretend I didn’t say anything.”

Evan waved the worry away. “It’s fine. I don’t mind answering any question you have. I’m a level nine guide.” At Tony’s perplexed look, Evan prompted. “What’s rattling around upstairs?”

“It’s just… if I remember this correctly, for level seven and above, sentinels outnumber guides. So, why is it so hard for some high-order guides to find sentinels? Martin had to wait a long time, and I wondered…” he trailed off, looking slightly uncomfortable.

“Why I haven’t found my sentinel yet?” he asked as he passed Tony a plate with some vegetables and hummus on it. Tony had been confused at first about the diligently healthy eating, but Evan had quickly explained that junk food could weigh you down empathically. The chemicals did not a happy guide make.

“Yeah.”

Evan leaned on the counter across from Tony with his own plate. “Well, it’s kind of complicated. The tipping point is actually level seven. Below seven, there are many more guides than sentinels, at level seven they are almost even, and then at eight and above, the sentinels outnumber us by almost forty percent. That’s why there’s such a high demand for interim guides.

“When you took the latent guide training, level seven was probably high-order, but that’s changed since many level sevens don’t seem to have a perfect match. One of the characteristics of a high-order guide or sentinel is the perfect match issue. And since your sentinel or guide could be anywhere, it can make meeting difficult.

“That’s why the Council insists that the meet’n’greets happen frequently. They actually keep track of every sentinel and guide who attends. You’re supposed to RSVP if you plan to go, and the local Center can look to see if there’s anyone attending you haven’t met before. I’ve backed out of two at the last minute because there was no one there I hadn’t already seen.”

“Seems frustrating. There’s got to be a better way,” Tony commented, leaning back on the counter.

“Blair has theorized that we as guides can build a… well, for lack of a better term, it’s like a spiritual bridge to our sentinels, to connect us on the spirit plane. He thinks we might be able to pull at each other so we don’t spend so much time waiting.”

“Have you tried it?”

Evan shrugged. “I try when I meditate. A couple months ago I thought I felt a glimmer of something, but it comes and goes and I’m never sure if it’s my sentinel or a bad burrito.”

Tony’s lips quirked up. “You think you’ll be an alpha when you bond?”

“I dunno. Alpha just happens to some pairs who are nine or tens. I’m not sure how I feel about the responsibility that goes with being an alpha. I can’t imagine trying to draw in my own Pride.”

“Hn. Why do you think there are so many levels for ranking sentinels and guides? It seems really complex.”

“I’m not sure why they made the power rankings so granular, but of the three basic categories, low mid and high, they have really different application. Low-order guides and sentinels need less structure from the world and from their bonded. The sentinels don’t need much hands-on from the guide, and from a guide perspective, low-order guides work the best with the mundane population. They make great therapists, social workers, HR, etcetera. They’re excellent at soothing over difficult situations. They’re the ones that feel the best to mundanes.”

“Really? I always thought Martin was the most feel good thing I’d ever encountered.”

“He’s level nine?”

“Nine alpha, according to his email.”

“Oh. That’s weird, Tony. But you’re pretty odd, so I’m not surprised.”

Tony mock-scowled at him. “What about mid-level guides?”

“Mid-level guides work best with distressed sentinels, and comprise the entirety of the interim guide pool. Bonded mid-level guides tend to work in the same career as their sentinel. Law enforcement and military are common, like with all sentinels.”

“Huh. I’d have thought higher level guides would be more soothing.”

“No. Distressed sentinels report that a high-order guide who is not their own can often feel sharp and abrasive when they try to ground their senses. But you have to be level seven or above to be a conservator, so if the sentinel is bad off enough to need an empathic buffer, they have a short-term conservator to provide that shield, but never ground their senses on someone above a level eight. It can actually make them worse if they’re in trouble.”

Tony stared at him for several seconds. “That seems really counter intuitive.”

“High-order guides are first for their own sentinels, then for protecting the tribe. That’s why you only see predator spirit animals in high-order guides. All sentinels have apex predators, but only guides level eight and above. Which tells us that high-order guides have more aggressive inclinations than our lower-order brethren.”

“You know I have to ask the question… You could just cave now and volunteer the information.”

Evan rolled his eyes. “My spirit guide is a serval.”

“A what?” Tony had whipped out his phone and was typing away. “Spell please.”

“S-E-R-V-A-L. It’s one of the African wild cats.”

After a moment, Tony pressed his lips into a thin line and Evan felt faint glimmers of amusement. It was totally worth it if Tony had a real emotional reaction. “Oh. It’s so…” he flashed Evan a over-the-top flirtatious look, complete with batting of the eyelashes. “Macho.”

Evan busted out laughing. Servals were hardly macho. “You dick. I’ll bet your spirit animal is a civet.”

With a snicker, Tony hopped off the counter. “Guess we’ll see.”

Evan nudged him with a foot. “So, tell me what’s next on our viewing itinerary.”

Tony smiled, and Evan thought he detected another glimmer of real pleasure. “Bachelor Mother. Ginger Rogers and David Niven, 1939. Directed by Garson Kanin, who was better known for his screenplays than his directing. Ginger finds a baby in front of an orphanage and can’t convince anyone it’s not hers. Holiday film, very funny, but ugly baby.”

Evan was startled into a laugh. “Aren’t all babies cute? Isn’t that a truism?”

“I have no idea. I’m pretty sure there was a Seinfeld episode devoted to an ugly baby. They said it was ‘breathtaking.’ But I’m total crap with kids and all babies look weird to me. Fragile and needy, except I can never figure out what they need, and I’m terribly afraid of dropping one. It’s disturbing.”

They settled into their easy banter, which turned to flirting, which turned into sitting a little too close on the couch and watching the movie. Blair only said no sex, he said nothing about cuddling. And Evan considered it a duty to prop up Tony’s bad arm, using Evan’s body, of course. Wouldn’t want Tony to pop a stitch.

~*~

Friday morning found Tony in a good mood. He’d had some glimmers of emotion since the big blow up on Wednesday, so that was a win. And he was hoping he could get his stitches out early and get out of this sling full time. The fact that was even capable of a good mood was encouraging.

As he and Evan were pulling out, they saw Blair just leaving the apartment building. Tony waved, knowing they’d see Blair within five minutes of their arrival at the Center.

Mornings were always a good time for him. He was energetic and hadn’t succumbed to boredom yet, although he felt a little funny today. Not bad, and it didn’t affect his energy levels, but he just felt like he was a few steps to the left of normal. And whatever kept flashing in his peripheral vision was happening more frequently. He could almost see it. He still hadn’t mentioned it because he didn’t want to add to the already heaping pile of stuff the guides had to deal with for him.

They were halfway through the lobby of the Center when there were several shrieks and startled exclamations. Evan clamped down on his arm and came to a stop, staring ahead of them. Tony couldn’t figure out what he was looking at.

“What’s going on, Evan?”

“Someone’s spirit guide has decided to grace the Center visibly. In fact, it’s staring right at you.”

“Really? Where? I don’t see anything.”

“It’s about five feet in front of you. Don’t worry about not being able to see it. It’s extremely rare for a mundane to see spirit guides. Not sure why it’s interested in you.”

Tony noticed everyone was staring at the supposed spirit animal. He wondered what it was and found that he really wanted to see it. Suddenly, he felt a little dizzy and something large shimmered in front of him. He had an impression of white. He focused harder, wanting to see what everyone else saw.

There was an odd sensation in his head, sort of like the feel of an eardrum popping, only bigger, and his vision seemed to gray out for a moment. When he could focus again, he could clearly see a large white Siberian tiger standing right in front of him.

He was vaguely aware of a hand on his arm and someone talking to him, but all he could focus on was the tiger. The blue eyes were so familiar. Memories of when he was young, things he thought he’d imagined, swam before his eyes. He’d seen this tiger before, but it used to be smaller, younger. It would sleep with him and keep him safe, though he always thought it had been a dream.

“Where have you been?” he whispered, reaching out.

As soon as he extended his hand, the tiger sprung at him, causing a blinding flash of light. Tony was suddenly lost. He thought he might have been falling, but the world was so loud and suddenly he felt. Too much. He was angry and sad and frustrated and awed and jealous and happy and the emotions went on and on. He felt like he couldn’t breathe under the onslaught and pushed against it with all his might.

~*~

It seemed to all happen at once. Morgan registered a powerful guide come online as he heard a scream then immediately felt an empathic blast of emotions that nearly brought him to his knees. Then there was more screaming.

He staggered against the wall, running into Marcus in the hallway. His sentinel helped him navigate suddenly crowded hallways, filled with distressed people. He hurried forward, but barked orders at the guides to get it together and help shield those who needed it.

By the time they reached the stairs leading down to the lobby, Morgan was outpacing his sentinel, rushing to get to Tony, and he had no doubt that’s who was in such distress. He sprinted down the stairs to where Tony was lying in the middle of the lobby, distraught people collapsed all around, some of them crying. Evan was kneeling over him, trying desperately to buffer Tony’s empathic outpouring.

He registered Marcus ordering one of the guide doctors to get a sedative, but that wouldn’t get here quickly enough, and had the chance of making things worse.

Morgan practically fell on top of Tony, straddling the nascent guide and shaking him. He immediately added his empathic buffer to Evan’s, trying to stop the outpouring of distress. “Tony! You have to listen to me. You have to imagine a barrier in your mind between you and the emotions. Shut it off. You can do this. Tony!”

People were no longer screaming, but that was because Morgan and Evan were putting everything into shielding Tony, who was buffeting their minds with wildly divergent emotions. Not knowing what else to do, Morgan punched him. The empathic overload seemed to falter, and Morgan resumed his yelled instructions, trying to get Tony to construct his shield.

He registered another powerful empathic presence wrap around them, then Alex was on his knees adding his instructions loudly right into Tony’s ear. With the three of them buffering, the distress levels in the room suddenly dropped and people stopped freaking out so badly. Morgan knew the suffering of the people in the room had contributed to Tony’s distress, which he was broadcasting, creating a vicious and escalating feedback loop.

Tony’s agonized emotions suddenly vanished and it left Morgan reeling back, trying to find his equilibrium.

“I’ve got him,” Blair gasped, sliding into place at Tony’s head, adjusting so he had Tony’s head in his lap, hand resting on the distressed guide’s forehead. “I’ve got him, Morgan. You can let go.”

Alex, Evan and Morgan all carefully pulled their shield back and took a deep breath. Never before had Morgan so appreciated how powerful a shaman was. That Blair was completely shielding Tony was a miracle.

“Alex, keep giving him instructions on his shields. I think he might be able to hear you now. Morgan, we’ll need to notify the emergency services. It wasn’t as strong as here at the Center, but I felt it blocks away. People are going to flood 911. Evan, get Jim down here. I need him to help ground me.”

Marcus indicated he’d take care of the police. Fortunately, the Center was on a large property, and if they were lucky, the severe effects of the empathic blast wouldn’t have made it too far. Morgan hoped that Blair only felt it so keenly because he was a guide.

Morgan wanted to get them out of the lobby, but didn’t want to break Blair’s concentration right now. He got up and started barking orders to get people out of the lobby, for the senior guides to aid those in distress, and for their senior physician to get out here.

He noticed Evan was still on the floor, having just closed his phone from calling Jim. The younger guide was pale and shaking. Clasping the Evan’s shoulder, he offered, “You did well, Evan. Come on up… let’s get this madhouse under control.”

~*~

Blair kept his attention on shielding Tony’s mind. The distress had ebbed, but Tony’s own emotions were swinging wildly. Alex kept whispering the instructions to create a shield, which should have been automatic, but Tony’s damage prevented him from being able to do something usually so intrinsic.

Tony was still and, if it weren’t for his breathing, seemed near lifeless. He was completely locked in his own head.

Blair had felt it all happen when he was still a quarter mile from the Center. He didn’t even remember the rest of the trip, so focused on getting to Tony before things got worse. He was pretty sure he was parked on the curb and had left the car door open.

He knew they needed to move out of the lobby, but Blair needed to keep his focus. The emotions in the room would be toxic to Tony in his state and they weren’t going to be able to move until Tony could shield himself or until Blair gave in and sedated the distressed guide.

Blair really needed Jim to help ground him. He needed the strength of his sentinel to help him stay strong enough to keep someone else’s shields in place.

Alex was practically lying next to Tony, continuing to whisper instructions. Blair hoped Morgan thought to call Vincent. They thought they’d imagined the worst-case scenario, but this was so much worse than they had anticipated.

His strength suddenly shored up at the same time he felt a touch on his shoulder and an arm coming around him. Lips pressed against his ear. “I’m here, Chief. What do you need?”

“Just stay with me.” He took a couple deep breaths and called out for Evan. “There’s someone that direction,” he gestured vaguely, “who is really hostile. Figure out who it is and get them out of here. It’s not helping.” He heard Jim issuing orders even as he stayed close, touching Blair constantly, allowing Blair to focus on Tony.

Blair wasn’t sure how long they stayed like that. It felt like an eternity, but could have only been as little as a half hour. He registered Vincent arriving and wrapping himself around Alex, even though that meant the two of them were lying on the floor in the middle of the lobby while Alex continued his whispered guidance.

With no warning, Blair felt Tony’s primary shield snap into place and he yelped in surprise. Jim’s arm tightened around him. “What happened?”

Blair sagged against his sentinel. “He did it. Tony got his shield up.” He looked down at the guide in question. There was no doubt in his mind that this was a future shaman. Tony was blinking slowly, but seemed dazed and disoriented. “You did good, Tony,” he whispered. “It’s all downhill from here.”

~*~

Jack half paid attention to the mission briefing. The other half of his brain was focused on what color Jell-O they’d have in the mess today and the highlights from last night’s hockey game.

“Does that make sense, Colonel?” Carter asked, pulling his focus.

“As always, Major,” Jack replied dryly, waiting for her to return to the briefing so he could return to his boredom. He always paid close attention to the mission parameters, but Carter liked her science babble, and that he had a policy of tuning out as much as possible.

Suddenly, he felt an overwhelming sense that something was wrong. He sat up straight and looked around, half expecting an alarm to go off any second. Several people looked at him oddly, but he ignored it. Whatever was wrong was really wrong.

His hyperawareness was affecting the rest of the room, and Carter finally stopped again to ask, “Is everything all right, Colonel?”

Jack looked around again, detecting nothing odd, but absolutely certain there was a problem. “I’m not sure,” he eventually replied.

– – – –

Chapter Eight

“It was a white tiger?” Blair repeated what Evan had just told him, as he peered through the observation window into Tony’s room, where the guide in question was sleeping. There was a case of a guide about a century ago supposedly having a Sumatran tiger for a spirit animal, but no other tigers that he was aware of. It was the rarest spirit animal for a guide.

“Yeah,” Evan confirmed. “Huge one. When it appeared in the Center, it never occurred to me that it was Tony’s spirit guide.”

“Why would it?” Blair commented absently, his brain spinning on the ramifications of all this, as well as everything that needed to be done.

He and Evan were alone, the rest dealing with the chaos surrounding Tony coming online. Jim and Marcus were dealing with the public issues, while Morgan worked behind the scenes. Alex was working with guides who had responded strongly to Tony’s distress, while Vincent was corralling sentinels into keeping the Center property secure, and keeping unnecessary people away.

Blair had sent a couple guides and sentinels off to their meeting space in the apartment building to take care of some of the guides and sentinels who were in fairly good shape but needed meditation. Having them go over to Prospect offloaded some of the strain on the Center. He knew Morgan and the other Cascade alpha guide were doing the same thing. He felt like he had to stay near Tony when he woke in case Tony’s shields were at all wobbly.

Tony had barely been awake when they’d left the lobby for the medical wing of the Center. Marcus and Jim had to help him get to the room and practically as soon as he hit the bed, Tony fell into a deep sleep. Despite seeming to be asleep, he reacted negatively in an empathic way if anyone he didn’t know touched him. So Alex had been the one to get basic vitals, because Tony didn’t tolerate the doctor touching him. He radiated empathic distress every time she or a nurse came near.

Thus far, Blair and Alex had both vetoed any kind of sedative, since Tony seemed to be fine for the moment, and Blair worried a sedative might make it harder for him to manage his shields.

“How long do you think he’ll sleep?” Evan asked.

“I don’t know. It was an extremely traumatic experience for him, he’s probably going to sleep for awhile.”

“I can tell you’re tired, Blair.”

“Little bit.” He glanced at Evan, reading the concern. “If it comes to it, I’ll have them set up another bed in Tony’s room and sleep there. Right now I’m fine.”

Blair looked back to the room in time for an enormous white tiger to appear and hop on the bed. Though apparently asleep, Tony rolled to his side and the tiger settled next to him before turning its intense blue eyes Blair’s direction. Blair just stared back, intrigued.

A little while later, the door to the observation room opened and Morgan entered, looking worn out. “I think things are– what the bloody hell?” he exclaimed, staring through the window.

“Tony’s spirit guide paying a visit.”

Morgan frowned, before saying, “I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t wander about the Center. You are very large, and people are upset at the moment.”

The tiger chuffed and laid its head down. Blair wasn’t sure what to think about Morgan telling a spirit guide what to do.

Sighing, Morgan faced Blair. “Things are as under control as they can be. I’ve contacted a couple dozen low-order guides who are going to the community center tonight to work with any mundanes who are still distressed from feeling Tony come online.”

“How’s the media coverage?”

“Better than expected. Marcus is spinning things in a really positive way. A very powerful guide came online, as happens sometimes, there was an empathic event, this is a great thing for Cascade, etcetera, etcetera, ad infinitum,” he muttered. Taking a deep breath, he speared Blair with a look. “You know he’s going to have to stay here for a bit. At least until we’re sure his shields are steady. If they were to fall in the middle of Cascade…” Morgan trailed off, and they all could imagine the mess.

In principle, Blair agreed, but he was concerned as well. “I don’t disagree, Morgan, but if he feels like he’s a prisoner, it could work against us.”

“I’m not talking about imprisoning him. But I think he needs to stay here until we’re done with the empathic healing, to give him the best chance of being stable in the real world. And if he leaves, he needs to be with you. No one else can shield him. We can shore up his shields if they waver, but if they come down, only you can manage it.”

Blair nodded, not liking any of the options presented to him.

“Tony will understand,” Evan offered. “And I’ll be staying here with him. But I wouldn’t recommend keeping him in the medical wing.”

“Why not,” Morgan asked curiously.

“Tony’s had pneumonic plague. An antibiotic resistant strain apparently, bioengineered and sent to his office. I’m sure he’s going to have negative associations with a long-term stay in a place that seems so clinical. He probably wouldn’t complain, but we don’t need to add that on top of everything when it can be easily avoided.”

Blair was surprised, but put his curiosity out of his head for right now.

Morgan nodded. “I’ll figure out where to house him, you figure out how to tell him.”

The day seemed to drag on, there were updates, and phone calls, and moments alone with his sentinel, but through it all, he kept tabs on Tony, the only other shaman in the US. Training would be needed, but the power was undeniable. Blair felt a real sense of kinship with Tony. He had from the beginning, and he wondered if that should have been a clue.

Tony woke after about eight hours, though he was still tired. Evan and Blair were both present, and Evan helped break the news of what all had happened, carefully editing out some of the extreme reactions to the empathic feedback loop. Tony was calm and nodded a lot, but didn’t say much. He seemed stunned, and was instinctively scanning the emotions of everyone he came in contact with. He would need urgent training in how to manage that, or it could cause him to get overloaded.

Ultimately, Morgan decided to move Tony into one of the bonding suites. They were the least clinical rooms at the Center, and they rarely had them all in use. Plus they were the most isolated. Tony and Evan agreed to have an extra bed moved in for Evan to sleep on.

As if Blair didn’t have enough to deal with, something odd kept happening every time Tony was near the attending physician. He flinched a little whenever she came close. Guides tried to not overtly scan people’s emotions because it was an invasion of privacy. They only did it with permission, in an emergency, or in cases like Tony’s where he was under a conservator’s care.

Because of Tony’s reaction to her, Blair let his empathy gently scan the next time she was near Tony, and realized she was feeling a fairly toxic blend of jealousy and anger. She was keeping it behind her shields, so no one would passively pick it up, but she couldn’t hide from Blair. Tony was probably as strong empathically as Blair, but was too untrained to be able to rein it in.

Blair sent a note to Morgan via Evan, who pulled the doctor to his office to discuss it. Blair felt the empathic backlash when the doctor lost her temper, and he noticed that Tony flinched again. They’d have to get on that training first thing tomorrow. Tony was letting too many emotions in.

Evan bullied Tony into eating dinner, then they both retired for the night. Reluctantly, Blair let Jim pull him away to one of the spare rooms at the Center. Blair was adamant that he needed to be close for the first couple of days, and Jim was adamant that Blair needed to get some rest.

Even though it was quite late on the east coast, Blair felt like he had one more call to make.

~*~

Martin gave a start when the phone rang. He was pretty sure he had been just about to fall asleep.

Jethro tightened his arm around Martin’s waist. “Someone better have a good reason for calling. We still have two more days.”

Smiling at the grumbling, Martin reached for his cell, having to strain a little against his sentinel’s hold. He peered at the screen. “It’s Blair. He wouldn’t call if it wasn’t important.” He dragged his finger across the screen. “Hi, Blair.”

Tony’s online,” Blair said without preamble, sounding tired.

Martin felt a lead weight settle in his stomach, and Jethro stiffened, probably unable to not listen once Tony’s name came up. “Is he okay?” He knew from talking to Tony and Blair that Tony was maybe a third of the way through his healing.

I think so. Not entirely sure yet. It was… traumatic. He couldn’t construct any shields when he came online.”

“Oh god. How bad was it?”

Blair sighed in a way that Martin knew meant Blair was slumping. He’d been around Blair a lot after coming online and he was familiar with many of the shaman’s noises. “Every guide for two miles felt his distress and most of the sentinels, though they handled it better than anyone. Within a couple blocks of the Center, the civilian population felt it as mildly as formless anxiety that wouldn’t go away, to as severely as fear of imminent death. Some of the unbonded guides in the Center at the time were screaming. It happened this morning, and needless to say, it’s been a hell of a day.”

Martin just lay there with his mouth hanging open. Eventually he managed to find his voice. “Why was it so bad? I’ve heard of the rare guide who has shield troubles causing a little distress around them, but nothing like that.”

There was a pause. “He’s definitely a shaman. The strength of his empathic projection couldn’t be anything else.”

It felt like a fist squeezed his heart. “Do we need to be there? I sorta feel like I need to be there, Blair.”

I don’t know. Everyone is tense, and I’m not sure how an alpha sentinel coming into Cascade would be received right now. But let’s talk to Tony tomorrow and the two of you decide. If you guys come, I’ll make it work.”

“Tony’s really okay?” Martin prompted again.

We won’t know the state he’s in until tomorrow. We didn’t even try to do an empathic scan, worried it might upset his equilibrium. When he’s less fatigued and feels steady, we’ll assess him. In the interim, he’s going to have to stay here at the Center until we’re confident he can maintain his shields.”

Martin blew out a breath. Damn. “Will you tell him I want to talk to him as soon as he feels up to it? Any time, day or night.”

“I’ll tell him.”

They said their goodbyes and hung up. Martin set down his phone, then turned in his sentinel’s arms so he could get at look at Jethro. “Are you okay? You feel upset.”

“I am upset,” Jethro admitted.

“We can go if we need to, right?”

Jethro gave him a look. “Of course. I’m just worried about Tony. He should have been a shaman at sixteen. When the sentinel council gets ahold of Tony’s father…”

Martin relaxed, resting his head on Jethro’s chest. Jethro worried more than he’d ever admit, and despite all the issues, he thought of Tony as family. Which Martin found very encouraging.

All in all, things were better with Jethro than he’d ever expected. Jethro had an impressive set of defenses, but every time a barrier came up, he seemed to try to let it down. For Martin. Which made him feel mushy things he wasn’t ready to talk about yet.

Martin had been a little worried things would get strained after Tony’s call on Wednesday about the emails from the team. Jethro had been tense, but not in any way directed at Martin. He’d called the three miscreants and told them to stay away from Tony until Jethro cleared them, or Tony made contact.

The only one to kick up a real fuss had surprisingly been Abby. She’d actually come to the house, surprised to find the door locked. Jethro had always had a lock, but had never installed it until about ten minutes after Martin first stepped foot in the place.

Jethro had refused to answer the door, then called her later. Martin had given him privacy for the call, and they’d never discussed it further.

“I want to see Tony,” Martin finally said.

“Then we’ll make it happen.”

~*~

It had been three days since Tony came online, and he was going stir crazy. Even though he’d had little to do before at Evan’s, it was still more than this.

Despite the trauma of his coming online, his first empathic scan the next morning had revealed somewhat less damage than before. So, at least it hadn’t made things worse. He was still doing twice a day healing sessions, and had guide classes with whichever of the senior guides was available to work with him, but otherwise spent most of his time in his room with Evan, reading, watching movies, and talking.

He liked Evan, but he was going nuts spending every moment with the guy. It was like being on an interminable stakeout. In theory, Tony could do more, but everywhere he went in the Center, people stared and whispered. Tony tried to not pick up their emotions, but sometimes he couldn’t help it.

Morgan had gotten irritated and started yelling at people a few times, which made Tony more uncomfortable. Alex had a tendency to up his badass vibe when people were staring. And Blair was likely to look supremely disappointed and shake his head sadly. Oddly enough, the disappointment from the Alpha Prime seemed to work the best at making the gawkers mind their own business and shut up.

Despite what everyone said, despite the shaman label he now had, Tony didn’t fundamentally feel much different. Well, except for this aching longing he had to deal with, which was apparently the space his sentinel would someday fill. But he still felt like plain old Tony, not some super shaman capable of dropping every guide in the Center. And just the thought of that made him cringe.

Part of Tony just wanted to run away, but he would never do that to all the people trying so hard to help him through this. That and apparently the group here were all that was standing between him and the Sentinel Council trying to take over his healing. Yikes.

Tony had gotten so upset at that news, he’d nearly had a shield meltdown. The rep from the Council was still here, but Tony avoided him like the plague. Hmm. Bad word choice.

He’d talked to Martin a few times, and had assured his friend repeatedly that he didn’t need to come to Cascade. But Tony just wanted to get out and do something besides walking on the grounds. He still had his damn stitches in. Alex had felt they needed a few more days, and the new doctor assigned to Tony had agreed.

At present, it was nearly dinnertime and Evan was sitting on the sofa typing away on his cell phone. Tony was desultorily scrolling through the movies on his laptop.

Evan suddenly put his phone away and sprung to his feet. “Come on.”

“Where?” Tony asked suspiciously.

“It’s a surprise, but you’ll like it. Now come on.” When Tony hesitated, Evan added, “Won’t anything be better than sitting in here?”

There was some truth in that. Tony hesitated at his shoes. “Are we staying in the Center?”

“Yup. No need for footwear. Let’s go.” Evan was smiling brightly.

Tony couldn’t help but laugh. “Okay, okay.”

Evan led him upstairs to the top floor where the mediation spaces were, then to a medium-sized room he’d occasionally been in. Usually whenever he and Blair were trying to find an available room for his guide classes.

Inside he quickly saw that there were plenty of chairs and a couple tables with food. All the people he’d been working with were there; Jim, Blair, Alex, Vincent, Marcus and Morgan, plus three surprise additions.

“Martin!” Tony exclaimed, moving quickly toward his friend. “What are you doing here?” Tony held his arms open, indicating it was okay for a hug. They’d discovered quickly that Tony was empathically touch-sensitive, and he seemed to only tolerate touch from people he knew and trusted. And sometimes even that wasn’t okay.

Martin not initiating the hug had told Tony he needed to issue the invite, which Martin readily took. The hug was firm and broadcast to Tony just how worried his friend had been. “No way I could stay away, Tony. Blair asked us to give you a couple days to settle in, and now we’re here.”

He finally pulled away, feeling real happiness. He turned to Gibbs, his smile not faltering at all. “Hey, Gibbs.”

His boss held out a hand, and Tony’s lips quirked up. He firmly gripped the gun and woodwork calloused hand. As soon as Tony accepted the touch, Gibbs pulled him into a quick hug. “Good to see you, Tony,” he whispered.

Finally, Tony turned to the third person. “Ducky! I can’t believe you came!” He pulled Ducky into a quick hug, too. There was still some lingering pain over Ducky’s lack of faith in him during the Harris fiasco, but Tony wanted to put it behind him. Plus, he was so ecstatic that they’d all come to Cascade for him that it was easy to let the hurt fade even more.

“I can only stay until tomorrow night, my dear boy, but I simply had to seize the opportunity to see how you were doing.” There were shadows both in Ducky’s eyes and in his emotions, and Tony knew Ducky felt some guilt, but he just gave Ducky an extra squeeze.

Tony looked around at everyone and couldn’t stop smiling, though he’d had about as much touch as he could handle for the moment. He stepped a deliberate distance away and took everything in. “So, what’s with the food?”

“Impromptu dinner party,” Morgan said. “But don’t start thinking I’ll allow food in the mediation rooms ever again.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Tony retorted dryly, but with a grin.

Pretty soon everyone was talking and eating and Tony was suddenly happier than he’d been in a long time. He found himself with Blair at his side after about half an hour. “You know, Tony, despite how difficult things have been, you’re a wonderful addition to our community, and we needed to celebrate it.”

Tony flushed a little, but nodded. “Thanks, Blair. For everything.”

Blair smiled, then moved away as Martin approached. He settled in for a quick chat with his friend, setting up some extensive time to spend together tomorrow. Gibbs and Martin were apparently staying in the guest room at Evan’s, which had been Tony’s room, since Tony and Evan were at the Center pretty much full time. They currently didn’t have a return date, waiting to see how things went.

After talking with several people, including Gibbs who wanted to talk to Tony privately at some point during their visit, Tony was making his way back to the food table when he suddenly felt an odd sensation in his stomach and his head. Like a tug. He froze, wondering what the hell that was. Then everything greyed out and he felt like he was falling. The last thing he registered was someone calling his name.

Tony blinked, wondering where the hell he was. He had to be dreaming, because there was no other explanation for a blue jungle. There was a door about thirty feet in front of him, seemingly completely out of place. Because it was just a door; there was no wall, or ceiling or any structure. Just a plain door in front of a jungle.

It was like some weird amalgamation of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Jungle Book. And really, he was going to avoid anything Blair made with tofu in the future if it made for dreams like this. He rubbed his stomach. The last sensation he’d felt seemed so real.

With some reluctance, he headed for the door. Once he was right in front of it, he could hear a faint whispering. He couldn’t quite make out the words, but the voice seemed kind of childish.

Knowing he was being an idiot, he opened the door. Inside was a closet and seated on the floor was a boy, maybe six or seven years old, pressed against the wall, arms wrapped around up-drawn knees. He had short dark hair and was rocking a bit, whispering, “someone will come, someone will come.”

Tony blinked a few times, trying to figure out what he was supposed to do with a dream boy in a closet. “Hi,” he offered tentatively.

The boy looked around, seemingly not able to see Tony, which was weird since Tony took up the entire closet door. Finally, the boy blinked a few times and focused on Tony’s face. “Are you a guide?” he asked in a voice Tony could only describe as scared.

“Um… well, yes, I am.”

He immediately uncurled and held up his arms, clearly wanting Tony to pick him up. “I knew you’d come. I wished and wished.”

Deciding to go with the weirdo dream, Tony leaned down to pick up the kid, noting that even with the bluishness of the dream, the kid clearly had bruises on his arms. Looked like grab marks. “Why were you wishing?” Despite the touch, Tony didn’t get much off the kid, so he relaxed a little about the situation. Just a dream.

“Because they say guides help sentinels.”

Tony stepped out of the closet and sat on the blue ground with the kid in his lap. “Oh. So you’re a sentinel?” He was reluctant to open up his shields to in any way get a read on this kid. If that were even possible in dreams. He’d have to ask Blair. No doubt opening up your shields while you were dreaming was a bad idea.

“I think so. Daddy was so mad at me for hearing things that weren’t there, and everything seems so bright like a sun, and things hurt.” The little boy sniffled, and Tony nearly panicked. But the kid just stared at him. “It’s not so bad here. Are you my guide?”

“Oh. I don’t think so. I’m a lot older than you are. I think your guide will probably be closer to your age, don’t you think?”

“That’s true. You are old.” He hesitated and chewed his lip. “But you’ll help me?”

“Of course I will. Um, what’s your name?” And really, Tony had no idea how to handle kids.

“Sean. Sean Michael Miller.”

“Well, I like the name Sean. My name is Tony. Anthony Dominic DiNozzo, Junior. At your service.”

Sean’s lips lifted into a big grin. “That’s a funny name.” He looked around a little, though still clung to Tony. “Where are we?”

Tony thought about saying they were in a dream, but he had a hunch the dream kid would get upset if Tony said this wasn’t real. And really, was he rationalizing with his own subconscious?

“Tony?” a familiar voice asked.

Head jerking up, Tony met Blair’s confused expression. “Oh. Hi, Blair.” Tony was starting to twig into the fact that this might be really happening. “I guess this is real?”

“You collapsed in the mediation room, and I followed you here.”

“Well, this is Sean. He tells me he’s a sentinel and he seems to be having some trouble, though I haven’t gotten the full story yet.” Looking back at Sean, Tony added, “Sean, this is Blair. He’s a guide, too. He’s the strongest guide, in fact.”

Sean looked up at Blair. “Really? Can you and Tony help me?”

Blair folded himself into a seated position and tapped Sean’s nose lightly. “We’re going to do our best. Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?” Blair teased the story out of Sean, whose father apparently didn’t like having his son turning into a freak and had locked Sean up in the closet until he, “acted like a normal kid.”

“You are perfectly normal,” Blair assured. “A perfectly normal sentinel, which is a wonderful thing. Now, do you know where you live?”

“Of course I do!” Sean replied indignantly.

“Ah, well, can you tell me, so I can send some big sentinels to come get you?”

“Will I get to see Tony?” Sean seemed to grab on to Tony a little tighter. Not sure what to do, he just tightened his arms a little and let Blair handle as much of the interaction as possible.

“Well,” Blair replied cautiously, “it depends upon where you live. If you’re in Texas, and we’re in Washington, it might be hard to see each other once we leave this place.”

Sean bounced a little. “I live in Washington. In Cascade.”

“We do, too,” Blair said with a smile. “So, you’ll get to see both of us. And you can meet my sentinel. There’s another guide named Morgan, he runs this special center in Cascade where they’ll help you learn to use your senses really well. If you’ll tell me where you are, we can come get you right away.”

Sean nodded and carefully recited an address.

“That’s only about fifteen minutes away. Now, I’m going to leave you here with Tony, and we’ll be there to get you soon, then you can meet Tony in the real world.”

“Where are we now?” Sean asked, head cocked to the side.

“We’re on the spirit plane.”

At Blair’s confirmation of where they were, Tony nearly had a heart attack. How in the world did he get here?

“I’ll see you in real life soon, okay?” Blair ruffled Sean’s hair, then looked to Tony. “Sean will know when I’m calling him back. I’m not sure about you. If you don’t come back on your own, don’t panic, I’ll come back for you. Keep your shields steady, okay?”

“Got it,” Tony said, forcing himself to appear calm even though he didn’t really feel it.

Blair gave him a concerned look, and then seemed to vanish.

“That was awesome! He disappeared!”

“He went back to the Center so he can make arrangements for someone to get you out of that pesky closet.”

Sean was giving him an expectant look, and Tony nearly panicked. What was he supposed to do? What did kids like? What did little sentinels like? His mental flailing would have been comical under different circumstances. Then he had an idea. “Oh! Hey, Sean, have you seen some kind of animal around you since you started having troubles with your senses?”

The young sentinel’s eyes opened wide. “Yes. It’s very small and I don’t know what it is. And it doesn’t really stay. And no one else ever sees it. Do you have one, too? What is it?”

He blinked a little at the rapid-fire babble. “Well, I’m sure it’s a little different, because mine isn’t small. He’s really big actually. He’s a spirit guide. All sentinels and guides have one. Do you want to meet him?”

“Yes!”

“Okay, I’ll call him. He’s very nice, so you don’t have to be afraid, okay?”

“I’m not scared,” he said with confidence.

Tony focused for a few seconds, then felt the presence of his tiger. It appeared a few feet away and Sean gasped, trying to get closer to Tony. “I know it’s big, but it won’t hurt you.”

Cautiously, Sean nodded. “Does he have a name?”

The tiger flopped on its belly and crawled a little closer. “I named him when I was very young, so allowances have to be made. But his name is Gattino.”

“That’s funny sounding,” Sean said with most of his attention on the tiger.

“It’s Italian. My grandmother taught me Italian when I was very little.”

“Littler than me?”

“Much littler. She started teaching me as soon as I could talk. Back then Gattino was very small, and I named him the Italian word for kitten.”

“You named your cat kitten? That’s weird. Can I pet him?”

“I don’t know. If he lets you, maybe he’ll come closer.” Almost as soon as the words were out of Tony’s mouth, the tiger nudged Sean’s arm.

Sean’s eyes widened, then he cautiously reached out his hand, causing the tiger to make a funny little sound. “What was that?”

“It’s a chuff. He’s saying hello.”

“Oh.” Sean tried to mimic the chuff, making Tony smile, then reached out both hands to pet Gattino. Oddly, Tony was more aware of Sean as a sentinel when he was touching the tiger. Tony would have to ask Blair about that. “I wish I could get mine to stay like Gattino.”

“Why don’t you close your eyes and concentrate and ask him to come.”

“You think I can?”

“Well, you called me; maybe you can call your spirit guide, too.”

Sean screwed his eyes shut and it was only a few seconds before a small little critter appeared. There was something familiar about it, but Tony couldn’t quite place it. The dark-furred creature scrambled into Sean’s lap, who opened his eyes and stared down with a big smile. Both hands closed around little thing, which about the size of a big rodent. It was clearly a baby-whatever that would continue to grow as Sean grew.

As soon as Tony saw the claws, he knew what it was. He nearly groaned. He wondered how much spirit guides were a reflection of personality.

“What is it?” Sean asked, petting the little thing enthusiastically.

“Um, it’s called a Tasmanian Devil.”

Sean looked up at him, wide-eyed. “My mom used to call me that. Some of it. She’d say, ‘Sean Michael Miller, you little devil, get back here!’

Tony wasn’t sure what to say to that. “Where is your mom?”

Shrugging, Sean muttered. “Don’t know.” Tony could tell the subject bothered the kid.

“How old are you, Sean?”

“I’m seven.” He held up the little Devil, nearly in Tony’s face. “What should I name him?”

“Whatever you want, I guess.”

“What’s Italian for Devil?” Sean asked with a big grin.

Oh boy. Tony ran through the possible words in his head. He didn’t think demone was the best choice. There were a couple of other options to choose from. “There are a few, but I think the best in this context is diavoletto.” Which was closer to imp.

Sean blinked. “That’s… big.” He tried sounding the word out several time, and Tony dutifully repeated it for him. Finally, Sean said. “Divo. His name is Divo.”

Tony held back his smile, deciding not to tell Sean he’d just named his Devil an opera star. The scream of a Tasmanian Devil was hardly operatic.

The young sentinel contented himself with playing with the animals, while staying firmly in Tony’s lap. Suddenly, he stiffened and both animals disappeared. “Someone’s calling me.” He looked confused.

“That’s probably Blair or one of the sentinels.”

“I don’t want to go,” Sean replied imploringly.

“You have to go back, Sean. I’ll find out where you’re going and come see you, okay? But we can’t stay here.”

“Will Divo come see me again?”

“I think if you call for him, he just might. But when you’re out with regular people, you need to let Divo be wherever it is that they go. And if you see other spirit animals, ask before you touch them, okay?”

Sean nodded and wrapped his arms around Tony’s neck. “Something’s pulling. I have to go, Tony.”

“I’ll see you soon, Sean.”

The little body that had felt so substantial was suddenly gone. Tony blew out a breath, wondering if he was going to be able to find his way back. He’d barely finished the thought, when he blinked and found himself staring up at the ceiling of the meditation room.

Alex’s face loomed over him and Tony gave a start. “Hey, Alex. Did I dream all of that?” He realized he was on the floor since there were only chairs available in the room. He moved to sit up and someone helped him. He knew immediately it was Martin. The only others around were Evan, Ducky, Gibbs and Vincent, who were seated nearby, but giving Tony his space.

Martin and Alex helped him to his feet and he got himself into a chair. “I’m fine. Really.” Martin sat and rested his hand on Tony’s arm, but didn’t say anything.

Alex took a seat on the other side of him. “You dropped like a stone, and Blair said he felt you on the spirit plane and went after you. When he came back, he told us you’d found a sentinel in distress. Morgan and Marcus went with the police. As the heads of the Center, they have the right to take temporary custody of a juvenile sentinel in any kind of distress. They’re going to bring him here as soon as they can.”

“Blair went?” Tony tried to confirm. He wasn’t sure Sean would respond well to someone he didn’t know.

“Yeah. He was concerned he might need to journey to the spirit plane to get Sean back. How are your shields? Anything feel unsteady?”

Tony concentrated for a few seconds. “No everything feels normal.”

“Tony, what—“ he broke off as the phone rang. After a minute or so of conversation, Alex hung up and said, “They’re on their way here. They’ll be here in about ten minutes. Blair said Sean is anxious to see you.”

Part of Tony expected for Sean to not be real. It was bizarre that he’d met that little boy on the spirit plane.

“What happened, Tony?” Martin prompted gently.

“I have no idea. I felt this odd pull and then I blinked and I was in a blue jungle with a door in front of me. I opened the door and there was a seven-year-old who said he’d been locked up by his father. If Blair hadn’t appeared, I don’t know what I would have done other than sit with him.”

“Do you think you pulled him to the spirit plane, or did he pull you?” Alex asked.

“I have no idea. Blair and I have talked about the spirit plane, but that’s about it. I certainly didn’t intend for that to happen. Do sentinels yank guides onto the spirit plane like that?”

“No,” Alex finally said. “But Blair’s the expert. I’m sure you two will thrash it all out.”

They talked for a few minutes. He knew Martin was concerned, but Alex and Evan just seemed to see it as another oddity that was Tony. The two sentinels and Ducky were talking amongst themselves, shooting occasional looks at the four guides.

When the door to the meditation room opened, Tony barely had time to turn his head before a “Tony!” was shrieked loud enough to make most of the sentinels cringe, then Sean was clambering in his lap and getting Tony in a stranglehold. “You’re real!”

Now that they were in the real world, Tony was very aware of Sean as a sentinel and that he was struggling with his senses. Blair had told him that a distressed sentinel who tries to ground their senses on a high-order guide usually won’t try it a second time. He thought he should say something, but in the end, didn’t have the heart to push Sean away.

He sighed and looked at Gibbs, who was smirking at him. “Bastard,” Tony mouthed, and Gibbs chuckled.

– – – –

Chapter Nine

“Sean Miller,” Morgan began, looking at his notes. “Son of a mundane and a level three guide from Seattle. Mother and father divorced over a year ago. He managed to get on the docket of a judge with an axe to grind against sentinels and guides. Claimed the mother had been using her gifts to emotionally manipulate him and he was worried about the safety of their child. Judge granted him full custody.”

He glanced around at his crowded office; all the participants of last night’s oddities were here, except Gibbs and Fitzgerald, who hadn’t arrived yet. “She went to the Center in Seattle for help with getting the ruling overturned, but the father disappeared with Sean as soon as he picked him up with the custody order.

“The Seattle police have been looking for him for a year. There was an Amber alert on him, but from what Sean has said, they lived somewhere else until about two months ago. Guess the father thought it was safe to come back to Washington for some reason. Cascade PD got the print match about half an hour ago and called me. I talked to the Mother, let her know her son is a sentinel. The assistant director of the Seattle Center is bringing her up, along with an interim guides who has dealt with young sentinels before.”

“Is that typical?” Tony asked. “The kind of prejudice against guide or sentinel parents?”

Morgan considered his answer. “It’s not typical, but it does happen. There are prejudice issues lurking in every dark corner, including the judicial system, but it’s never accepted, of course.”

Tony nodded. “How’s Sean doing?”

“He’s quite vexed with me for keeping him away from you.” Morgan had to make the tough call, but Sean was having problems with his senses and couldn’t ground them on Tony, though it didn’t stop him from trying and actually making his senses spike worse. And as long as Tony was around, Sean wouldn’t pay attention to anyone else. “But he seems to be connecting with one of the guides and is making progress.”

“Do sentinels frequently come online that young?” Tony asked, brow furrowed.

Sean’s age was a factor in why he needed to be kept away from Tony for the moment. A trained, seasoned sentinel would only seek out a high-order guide as an empathic buffer, never for sensory control. It was an odd quirk of the high-order sentinel that even though they couldn’t work with an incompatible high-order guide, the inner-sentinel would still see them as a potential match and seek the guide out. They had to learn not to try to ground their senses on a high-order guide. And Sean was too young to understand why Tony couldn’t help him.

“No,” Morgan replied. “It’s a fraction of a percent that come online before the age of fifteen. Child sentinels do tend to do a better job of regulating their own senses once they get some training, and can many times do without a guide the majority of the time until they’re of age.” He drummed his fingers on the desk. “Let’s talk about what we’re clearly tap-dancing around.”

Tony huffed a little and leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest. “Okay. What do you want me to say?”

“I’d like some explanation of what happened,” Morgan said, careful to have no inflection or expression.

“I don’t know, so there’s nothing for me to tell you,” Tony retorted, his uncertainty seemingly making him a touch defensive.

Blair held up a hand. “I talked to Incacha this morning on the spirit plane, which is why I wasn’t around earlier, and we’ve developed a theory. I know the metaphysical stuff drives you up the wall, Morgan, but that’s what’s going on, so you’re going to have to buck up.”

Morgan tried not to clench his jaw, or really have any outward reaction. But he really did hate this nonsense.

“I’ve mentioned before that I think it’s possible for sentinels and guides to bridge to each other across the spirit plane. I mean, we all have a connection to spirit because of our spirit guides. So if a sentinel were to send out a call for help through the spirit plane, theoretically, someone sensitive to that kind of thing would hear it… in a manner of speaking.”

“You’re saying this could keep happening?” Morgan frowned.

“It’s possible. And, like any skill, we’ll have to train it if it comes to that.” Blair turned to Tony. “Incacha wants to meet you, so I’d like to try tomorrow morning to see if we can get you there without these weird circumstances.”

After Tony nodded, Morgan got Blair’s attention again. “So, you’re saying sentinels can pull a guide into the spirit plane?”

“I don’t know, but I don’t think so. Incacha wants to meet Tony before we throw out any more theories. The way Tony described meeting Sean, he saw Sean on the spirit plane before Sean saw Tony, or even realized where he was. I think Tony talking to Sean is what got the kid actually there.”

Tony looked horrified. “I’m yanking people onto the spirit plane?”

“I don’t actually know, but it’s not a bad thing, Tony. There’s no point in all of us getting worked up until we see if it happens again. And if it does happen, we have to figure out a way to make it easier for you.”

Morgan sighed. “Tony, I don’t want to keep adding on to what you have to accomplish before you can leave the Center, but I think we need to make some headway on your,” he paused and forced himself to say the words, “spirit training on top of stabilizing your shields.”

Tony dragged his hands through his hair, mussing it up and causing it to stick up in many directions. “Yeah. Sure.”

Blair reached out and clasped Tony’s shoulder. “It’ll work out. Your shields have been rock steady, so let’s just take it one thing at a time. You won’t be here forever.”

Part of Morgan sympathized, but it didn’t deter him from doing what he thought was right both for Tony and the people around him.

Morgan got an alert from the front desk on his cell. He glanced at Tony. “Gibbs, Martin and Doctor Mallard just signed in.”

Tony and Evan left to go meet them, leaving just the senior guides and sentinels in Morgan’s office. He glanced at Blair. “If he’s prone to being pulled to the spirit plane, it’s going to dramatically affect what he can do in the future.”

Blair sighed. “I know, Morgan. He’d never even be able to drive a car again. I need time to work on things to see if I can figure out what’s happening. Let’s not get alarmist before there’s cause.”

~*~

Tony settled at the conference room table, Gibbs seated across from him. Tony would have preferred to have this conversation elsewhere, but at the S&G Center privacy was pretty much only to be had in the soundproofed rooms with a white noise generator on.

Martin flashed Tony a quick smile. “I’ll wait in the hall. I can still keep tabs on you from there.” Evan was taking the day to catch up with friends, and Martin was going to cover Tony empathically unless one of the other guides were around.

Tony wanted to tell Martin to stay, but that was really Gibbs’ call.

“You don’t have to leave,” Gibbs said, then glanced at Tony. “You okay with that?”

Nodding, Tony forced himself not to make jokes or try to deflect whatever was coming. He wasn’t sure what Gibbs wanted to talk to him about, but he was a little nervous. The last time he saw Gibbs in person before Cascade, things hadn’t been going well.

Martin settled in the chair next to Gibbs, placing a hand on his sentinel’s arm. It struck Tony how different things were now. Intellectually he’d known, but seeing it was a little different. The most important person in Tony’s life was with Gibbs now, on Gibbs’ side of the table. He knew it was a good thing, but it still stung a little. Tony had never introduced Martin to anyone at NCIS, and he suddenly realized it was because he never quite trusted anyone enough to show them where his biggest vulnerability was.

Martin was watching him carefully, and then his lips turned up in a sad smile. A moment of understanding passed between them and Tony nodded. They’d always be brothers, but things had changed.

Tony turned his attention to his former boss. As soon as the word former crossed his mind, he knew with startling clarity that he wasn’t going back to the team. “What’s up, Gibbs?”

Gibbs had been watching Martin and Tony, but now stared at the table for a minute before taking a breath and meeting Tony’s gaze. “I fucked up, Tony. And it’s something I needed to say in person.”

He’d gotten some oblique acknowledgment that Gibbs knew he was wrong in the way he’d had handled things at NCIS since Harris came along. Despite that, he hadn’t really expected Gibbs to acknowledge it verbally. “Why?” he finally managed to ask.

“I’m not gonna make excuses, DiNozzo. I’m the one that let things get out of control.”

Tony blew out a breath. “Yeah, but I’d like to know why. Why you assumed the worst of me. Why didn’t you talk to me? Just why?”

“There’s no good reason for that. All I can tell you is that my team wasn’t performing like usual, and everyone seemed to be angry with you. I let that influence me and didn’t stop to think about the man I know you are. I let other things be more important than stopping and figuring out the cause, and you’re the one that suffered for it.”

He had to stop and think for several moments before he could reply. “So because McGee and Ziva were griping about me to the point it got in the way of their jobs…” Tony trailed off at Gibbs’ minute flinch. “Ah. It wasn’t McGee and Ziva that put the nail in my coffin. Let me guess… Abby?” He realized his voice had taken on a hard edge, and tried to tone it down.

Gibbs just shrugged, seemingly at a loss. It had never been a secret that Gibbs favored Abby to the point of it being unhealthy for Abby sometimes. In truth, so had Tony. “What matters is that I broke my own rules. I had no evidence other than people bitching, and I didn’t talk to you.”

Tony stared down at the table, trying to get his bearings. Things had been difficult at NCIS for a while, but the last month had been real hell, and Tony suddenly felt all the emotions he’d been denying. The frustration, anger, hurt and an agonizing sense of betrayal. He struggled for several minutes, aware that Martin had shifted uneasily in his chair.

The Abby thing was in some ways harder than the situation with Gibbs, because Gibbs had stopped being a dick as soon as the situation had come to light, and had backed up Tony. But Abby… he was really disappointed in her. He was cutting her a lot of slack because Harris had fucked with her head, but he wasn’t feeling like giving her the benefit of the doubt anymore. And that hurt, because they’d been friends a long time.

Gibbs got up and dropped to one knee by Tony’s chair. Cautiously he lifted a hand, waiting for Tony to say no, then clasped the back of Tony’s neck, giving it a firm squeeze. “I’m sorry, Tony,” he said softly.

Eyes burning, Tony had to glance away. Because he was so empathically touch-sensitive, he got all the emotions he’d been deliberately not reading from Gibbs. The regret, the anger, the guilt, and he knew Gibbs meant it when he broke one of his own rules by apologizing.

Finally, he got control of himself and settled for an oblique nod. “I need a minute. I’ll be right back.” He left the conference room and was aware that Martin was trailing behind, but still giving him some space. The hallway was fairly deserted and he just leaned back against the wall and tried to get his bearings.

His friend settled against the wall next to him and they stayed like that in silence for several minutes. Eventually, he righted himself, feeling more in control, and returned to the conference room.

Gibbs was back in his seat, watching carefully as Tony resumed his seat. After a few moments, he asked, “Are you…” he trailed off, expression shifting minutely through to some sort of realization. If Tony hadn’t known Gibbs so long, he’d never have understood those minute changes in facial expression. “You’re not coming back,” he stated, rather than questioned.

“To NCIS? I don’t know. To the team? No. I can’t. I’d always be wondering if my partners had my back, and I can’t work like that. Plus, it’s time, don’t you think? I’ve never wanted team lead responsibilities, but it may not have been fair to anyone to just stay like I did. Maybe not fair to me most of all.”

Gibbs frowned and seemed like he wanted to argue, but in the end he just nodded. “You’re the best I ever worked with, Tony. Don’t ever doubt it. I know you’ll be in touch with Martin, but I expect to hear from you, too. Got it?”

Tony’s lips turned up in a small smile. “Got it.” Being Tony, he couldn’t leave things on a grim note, so he grinned and took a chance. “So, I’ve always wanted to know and you’ve never been willing to tell…” he trailed off, and knew Gibbs thought he was going to ask again where the rules came from. “What is your spirit animal?”

Gibbs barked a laugh. “I’ll tell you, but it goes no further. If Fornell ever found out, I’d never hear the end of it.”

Now Tony was really intrigued and leaned forward a little. “How bad can it be?”

Rolling his eyes a bit, Gibbs finally replied, “Grizzly bear.”

Tony blinked, then was flooded with amusement. Gibbs was giving him the death glare, so Tony bit his lip and tried not to laugh. So many times people had avoided Gibbs over the years and come to Tony claiming his boss was a grizzly bear with a sore paw. “Well, it’s interesting that the two of you are both bears. I don’t think that happens very often.”

Martin, who was a sun bear, shook his head. “It’s uncommon for spirit animals to be so close in species, but it’s just a coincidence.”

Still, Tony’s lips were twitching. Gibbs the Grizzly. It so fit. “Come on, let’s go find Ducky before Gibbs murders me for being so amused.” Ducky was somewhere getting a tour of the Center and Tony wanted to spend some time with him before Ducky returned to DC that night. He and Ducky needed to really and finally clear the air, but he knew they’d ultimately be okay.

An hour later, the four of them were sitting down to an early lunch in the Center café. The conversation was fairly light, and Tony was enjoying himself. He was about midway through his meal when he got a text that Sean and his mother were about to leave.

Morgan had agreed that when Sean was ready to go, it would be okay for Tony to have contact again, so they all packed up what was left of their lunch and went to say goodbye.

The first thing Tony had to deal with was Sean’s mother, who sobbed all over him. Then Sean clung to him, begging him to promise to visit. Tony assured him he’d keep in touch, getting an email address for Sean’s mom so he could write.

After, the four of them wound up sitting at one of the tables in the courtyard to finish lunch, Ducky regaling them with some story from his younger days. Tony was content to let Ducky ramble, not sure when he’d have the opportunity again to hear another Ducky-tale.

A little later, Tony and Martin were in the bonding suite that was assigned to Tony. Gibbs and Ducky had tactfully excused themselves and were doing who knew what while Tony and Martin reconnected.

They sprawled in chairs, each assessing the other. Martin finally asked, “You doing okay?”

“Aren’t I always?” he replied flippantly.

“No. And you can’t BS me, so tell it to me straight.”

Tony gave his friend a tired half smile. “It’s all a little overwhelming.”

Martin snorted. “That’s a bit of an understatement.”

“Are you happy?” Tony suddenly asked.

“Yes. I’m falling in love with the damned jarhead. Which I didn’t really expect to happen so soon. Especially considering how annoyed I was with him at first.”

“Hn.” Tony grunted noncommittally.

“I must be rusty on your noises. Care to clue me in?”

“All I want is for you to be happy. Want Gibbs to be happy, too, for that matter. For all that, I still have a hard time putting you and Gibbs and squishy feelings in the same sentence.”

Martin laughed. “Don’t strain yourself.”

“Oh, believe me, I’m keeping the imagining to a minimum,” Tony said with a smirk. Leaning forward, his expression shifted to something more earnest. “You’ve been my best friend since I was six, and I love you like no one else. And Gibbs… well, Gibbs is family, too. And if you’re happy together, I couldn’t ask for anything else.”

Nodding, Martin paused a second before said, “I feel some grief from you, Tony, and I don’t know why. You’re not losing me, you know.”

Tony blew out a breath. “I know it in my head.” He tapped his temple for emphasis. “But everything has changed. The two important sides of my life collided and I’m not sure where I fit anymore. And that’s not on you and Gibbs, so don’t take it that way. But it all happened at the same time and I feel…” He trailed off, hating getting like this, but Martin had always been his safe place.

“What do you feel, Tony?” his brother gently prompted.

“Lost.” He looked away, blinking rapidly. “I don’t belong anywhere, and I haven’t been this uncertain about where I’m going since I broke my leg in college and had to figure out a new path for myself.”

“I can’t even pretend to know what’s coming for you. You’re a shaman, and that’s a calling, Tony. It’s for life. I want to drag you back to DC and see you get your own team, and come over for a beer after work. But that’s not what’s in store for you, and we both know it. But wherever you land, and whatever you do, I will always, always be there for you.” Martin reached into his pocket and pulled something out. “Gibbs was going to give this to you, but I vetoed him and called best friend’s rights.” He extended his hand.

Tony accepted something small and metal. “A key. Why?”

“Because we both want you to know you are welcome any time. And I got to be the one to give you the key because Gibbs only put in a lock because I’m there. The door’s never locked to you, Tony.”

He smiled faintly, and couldn’t help it that the smile was mostly sad. “Thanks, Martin.”

Martin got to his feet and pulled Tony up into a hug. “You’re welcome, brother mine.”

Having about all the emotionalism he could stand for one day, Tony steered them toward less charged topics. They talked about the people Tony had met at the Center, about Martin’s future plans, their favorite movies, and then laughed over some childhood memories.

They were in the midst of bashing the procedural screw-ups on crime dramas when he got a text from Blair asking if he could join them.

A few minutes later, Blair was seated in the chair Tony vacated, while Tony sat on the bed. “I’d like to try to take you to the spirit plane if you’re up for it. I know we talked about not doing this until tomorrow, but I feel we need to do it sooner. I was going to meet Incacha this evening anyway to discuss the situation further, but I think we should try to pull you along.”

After Tony acceded, and Martin agreed to keep an eye on the two, Blair gave Tony some basic instructions. “It usually takes quite a bit of training to get there on your own. So, what I’d like you to do is just stay seated and meditate, focusing on me. I want you to think about trying to get to me. Okay?”

Tony nodded. “I’m not gonna fall off the bed am I?”

“No. I always do this seated and come back to the same position I left in. Of course, I’d never try to go to the spirit plane standing up. So, stay on the bed and you’ll be fine.”

A minute or so later, Tony was dropping into a meditative state. Meditation would never be his favorite thing in the world, but he was getting more accustomed to it. Blair had mentioned that, as a shaman, he’d need to be able to do some pretty advanced meditation, so he figured he better get used to it.

As instructed, he focused intently on Blair, but nothing much was happening. So he tried to change it up a little and imagined a tether between them, and attempted to draw himself closer.

That visual seemed to help him sink deeper into his meditation and he was unaware of how much time passed. Suddenly, he felt the tug and a bit of a dizzy sensation.

“Tony?”

He blinked and found himself standing in front of Blair and what he could only assume to be Incacha, back in the blue jungle. In addition, there were the three spirit animals, Tony’s Siberian tiger, Blair’s gray wolf, and an enormous reticulated python.

“Greetings, Star Walker.”

Tony could only stare at the man in native dress and face paint. He registered that Blair was now staring at the other shaman as well. Finally getting his thoughts together, Tony blurted the first thing that came to mind. “Very George Lucas of you. Is that like Vader’s cousin?”

Blair gave him the hairy eyeball, then asked, “Incacha, why do you call him that?”

“Because that is what the spirits whisper.”

“Why do the spirits whisper that?” Blair prompted.

“It is up to each of us to find our own path, and the answer will come to him in time.”

“Okay,” Blair conceded, apparently knowing when he could press the guy and when he couldn’t. For his part, Tony didn’t much care what the other shaman called him, as long as he didn’t do it in front of anyone else.

Incacha stepped forward and placed a hand across Tony’s forehead and closed his eyes, murmuring under his breath. When he stepped back, Tony thought he caught a flicker of sadness in the dark eyes. “Much has been done to you that has made your journey more painful than it should have been. But the world will balance itself in time. Be patient.”

Tony wasn’t sure what to make of that and exchanged a look with Blair. “Um, does whatever you think was done have anything to do with my unexpected trip here last night?”

The shaman gave him a look Tony didn’t know how to interpret before responding. “Our ancestors spoke of times past when all shamans were able to travel to those in need. But the ways of the spirit had faded. We feared they were lost to us. Some, like Blair and myself, have tried to connect us more closely with our spiritual selves. The ability lies within every shaman, though they may choose to never use it. It’s simply a matter of removing the barriers.”

“Let me guess,” Tony replied, “the drug or the assault or something caused me to not have the barrier to begin with?”

Incacha inclined his head. “All sentinels and guides are capable of reaching out to the spirit plane. In times of great need our spirit guides will pull us here to keep us on the right path, but that is the end of most of our conscious awareness of this place. Most interpret this as simply a vision, but bridges are built to this place whether known or not. When a sentinel or guide is in a time of dire need, if they reach out across that bridge, even if they know not what they do, a shaman who is listening may reply.

“The listening is a long forgotten skill. What you call damage allows you to hear what others do not.”

Blair looked puzzled. “You didn’t tell me any of this when we discussed it earlier.” Though the statement could have been interpreted as an admonition, Blair’s tone was just puzzled.

“Because I did not know unless I could see and feel. But a shaman is never forced here. They are never taken against their will. This confuses me greatly. I believe you must practice coming here so that you can learn control of the bridge to this place. And perhaps you will uncover the reason why within yourself.”

Tony and Blair exchanged a look, before Tony decided to chime in. “How did Sean get to the spirit plane without his guide?”

“You brought him, I believe.”

Tony blinked. “I did?”

“Blair tells me he did not see you at the beginning, when you first saw him.”

“Yes,” Tony nodded thoughtfully. “I saw him in some representation of the closet, and when I said ’hi’, it took him a bit to see me.”

“I believe you were seeing a projection of the young sentinel, one he had unknowingly sent along that spiritual bridge in his time of need. When you spoke to that projection, you provided the connection to bring him here.”

“So shamans can bring anyone here?”

Incacha shook his head. “In ages past perhaps, but no longer. They must meet you part way. They must make themselves open to their spirit guide for you to reach them and bring them here.”

Tony chewed his lip, trying to think. “I’m doing all this by accident. I don’t know what to do or how to stop it.”

“You must practice. You must look within yourself when you do these things to see how they are possible, and then do them with deliberation. The damage that was done to you may yet yield a great gift to us, so do not curse it or seek to stop it. You will learn, and you will in turn teach other shaman how to listen.”

“No pressure,” Tony muttered, running his hand over his face.

“Incacha,” Blair interjected, “We will train diligently. But we may have questions. You are more experienced in these matters. May we continue to call on you?”

The elder shaman inclined his head. “You may.”

“I would ask about Tony’s spirit guide. He visits frequently. Is that unique to Tony because of the harm that was done to him?” Tony noticed how formally Blair engaged with Incacha and wondered at the source of that.

Incacha held out a hand and the tiger came closer, rubbing against the shaman. “He tells me his name is Gattino. What does this mean?”

Tony flushed a little. “It means kitten. In my defense I was very young when I named him.”

“He does not mind. He visits you because you wish it. Our spirit guides are only as powerful for us as we allow them to be.”

Blair looked a little distressed. “You mean my wolf could have visited more frequently? I’m the one that kept a distance?”

“Two shaman will see their guides differently. You see a source of guidance; Tony sees a source of comfort. They will be what they are, but also what you need.”

“I… I have much to think—wait a minute.” He looked at Tony. “Did you say you named him when you were young? How did you even know about him?”

Tony pulled away a little at Blair’s intensity. “I didn’t even know it was real. And besides, he was way smaller back then.”

Incacha smoothly inserted, “Blair, you saw your spirit guide when you were young as well. All shamans do. But your culture teaches you to close your eyes and to not see what others cannot.”

Blair shook his head. “I never saw a wolf when I was little.”

Tony twigged in to the flaw in Blair’s logic right away. “You never saw a little gray puppy?”

“Oh!” Blair looked completely shocked. “I… yes. I used to ask where the puppy had gone, and no one knew what I was talking about. Mom thought I had an active imagination.” He looked back to the elder shaman. “Only a future shaman sees the spirit guides before they come online?”

Incacha inclined his head. “A shaman is a shaman from birth, and our guide is with us from the moment we draw first breath. Our gifts would be a burden at a young age, but we are not denied guidance if we should seek it. They appear as if at a similar age to us to ease the acceptance of one another.”

Blair looked frustrated. “No one knows any of this any more!”

“I have long been aware of the hindrance of the modern world, but I did not know just how much you were affected. We have had many conversations as I would have with a shaman of your age and skills, but perhaps we need to have the conversations I would have with a shaman not yet into his gifts. In this way there may yet be opportunity to learn.”

With a grateful sigh, Blair nodded. “I would welcome that.”

Tony waited to see if they were finished before asking, “How is it that you two meet each other here?”

Blair replied, “Remember what Incacha said about building bridges to the spirit plane? One of the easiest bridges for a shaman to build is a connection to another shaman. In fact, I felt you connect to me right before I connected to you and pulled you here. You did it instinctively. I was searching for you at the same time you sought me. Incacha and I have built trust between us and keep a spiritual tether to one another. When one of us is in need, we come here and pull on the tether. It’s like knocking. If the other can come, they do.”

“I will leave you now,” Incacha intoned abruptly.

“Thank you, Incacha,” Blair said earnestly.

“Yes, thank you,” Tony agreed. “I think I’ll need all the help I can get.”

The shaman inclined his head, then vanished.

Blair looked at Tony then huffed out a laugh. “You don’t do anything the easy way, Star Walker.”

“Oh god, please don’t tell anyone that. I’ll never hear the end of the Star Wars references.”

Blair smiled, but it shifted to something serious. “That’s a rather perfect segue to something we need to discuss before we go back. And that’s what we share of what goes on here. It’s a complicated equation and we have to work it out as we go. Okay?”

At Tony’s nod, Blair continued. “There are some things shamans keep between ourselves because they are sacred to us. Then there are things we keep to ourselves because we judge it in the best interest of someone. Be it a person or the community at large or whatever. Then there are things that should be shared, but people aren’t ready for yet. Perhaps that’s a subset of the prior, but you get my meaning. So we need to work it out. I don’t want you to feel like you have to lie, because that’s never my intent. Though, sometimes obfuscation is our friend. That’s why this is a discussion and you need to feel comfortable with whatever you agree to.”

“Are we going to have this discussion here? Now?”

“I’d prefer it. No one could possibly overhear us.”

“Well then, pull up a bit of jungle and let’s do it.” Tony sat and held out his hand for Gattino, who flopped down with his head in Tony’s lap, chuffing as Tony started to pet him.

Blair and his spirit guide stared at each other for a bit before the wolf came over and went on its belly, snout on Blair’s knee. Blair smiled and reached out to connect his own spirit guide.

– – – –

Chapters 4-6  |  Main Story Page | Chapters 10-12

14 Comments:

  1. All right, I caved. I couldn’t wait for you post it all. I knew it would happen! I stalked the index page like a vulture, refreshing every time the thought crossed my mind, opening a page here and there for five seconds before forcing myself to close it, but finally it was too much… and it was *so worth the wait*! Ack. Gah. So perfect! Perfect Tony, hurt and healing and awesome. Perfect Gibbs and Martin coming together. Perfect Guides are known!world building. Perfect smack down for NCIS!

    And then, of course, at the very end, like a tease to reward me for reading it all straight through… Jack. Perfectly confused. 😀

    You made my night. 🙂

    • Aw, thank you! I’m glad I could make your night. You picked a great time to cave since chapter 7 is the first major milestone in my mind, and the first appearance of Jack. Happy reading! 🙂

  2. This is a very beautiful story and I am very much looking forward to how it will develop! Thank you for sharing.

  3. I am so thrilled that you posted this! Definitely going on my kindle. Thank you, m’dear.

  4. I’m not surprised that Abby is hateful towards Tony. She sees herself as Gibb’s goth princess and doesn’t like anyone who takes Gibb’s attention from her. I’m wondering if Carter is going to have the same attitude towards Tony once he bonds with Jack.

  5. So, apparently all I do now is stalk this story. In my defense (do I need a defense?), I’m both home and sick so my options are limited. My latest attempt to give myself more patience is to read all preceding chapters over again before I let myself read the new ones, which is a pleasure in itself. 🙂

    I can’t believe I forgot about Sean and his adorable little Tasmanian Devil! One thing this story does is really make me want a spirit guide, preferably of the fluffy variety. Watching Gibbs and Tony come closer to making up / understanding each other is just heart melting, particularly with Martin there as the bridge… though I must admit my desire to see a conversation where Abby gets a wake-up call only gets more intense. I love her, but as you say – she can be too good at getting her own way!

    (Also, since the end of chapter 7, a little voice in the back of my head keeps going ‘jackjackjackjackjack’. Seeing the meeting with Sean just reminded me how much I loved how you pulled off bringing Jack in!)

    • I want a spirit guide too. But I want mine to be vicious and have big teeth, but still be cuddly 😉

      And no defense required. Thank you so much!

  6. I want a date with DiNozzo Sr. Me, Sr, and a sock with some bar soap in it. I’ll even get the nice lavender one. They say lavender is relaxing, and he’s smell pretty while I wallop him.

    And of course I am stuck on the idea of civet poop coffee. LOL Brilliant chapter.

    • Thank you!

      I’d love it if you’d beat the crap out of Senior. I loathe him. Considering how much I dislike him, he actually has an easy time of it.

  7. OMGOMGOMG!!! Divo! If you put a little red hat on him, I’m going to faint from an overload of too precious for words! 😀

    • I loved Divo. He was painfully cute, but the vision of him in a little red hat has me in stitches.

  8. I almost never comment on individual chapters of a completed work. I just wait until the end and do my gushing and flailing then.
    But There Were Tears! And then my heart hurt and I had to let you know that. And I also wanted to say, well done. Really, really well done.

  9. I’m re-reading your other stories after the new yummy treat (AoA). I can’t get enough of Jilly, eh? I’m feeling a little bipolar about NCIS atm, how can I loathe soemthing I love so much? It all depends on the season and sometimes the episode but those that make me growl most are whenever Senior aapears, because: colleagues? You are LEOs, not idiots. Act like it! Charming doesn’t exclude abusive, it makes it worse because that (censored) is getting away with his bullshit because you prefer being entertained to backing up your abused/distressed friend!!!! That’s one of the reasons why I love whenever an author does what Gibbs and Co should have done and destroy Senior. It’s in the background in this story but he’s being held accountable. Thank you!

  10. The scene between Gibbs and Tony is so heartwarming! They, gasp!, communicate and use their words but are still so in character. Gibbs the Grizzly!

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