Title: The Journey Home – Chapters 10-12
Author: Jilly James
Beta: Naelany & IcefallsTears
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– – – –
Sunday morning, before their healing session, Alex made his way down to Tony and Evan’s room. He was a little concerned about Tony. He’d clearly been pleased by Martin and Gibbs’ visit, but there had always been some underlying emotions that were confusing. The pair from DC had left yesterday afternoon, and Alex had expected a downturn in Tony’s mood during the healing last night, but instead there was an odd sense of relief and guilt.
They generally had a policy of not asking about the emotions Tony was feeling, since their access was basically due to a medical issue. Empathic healers tried not to pry unless it seemed to be negatively affecting the healing.
Evan opened the door with a smile. “Morning, Alex. Come on in.”
Alex admired Evan’s ability to do this kind of work. He and Tony had been living in close quarters for over a week and neither were showing signs of being annoyed with one another. But since Tony was confined to the Center, Evan took every chance he got to get out and deal with routine errands.
He found Tony seated at the small table in the room, drinking coffee.
Evan grabbed his coat. “I’ll be back in couple hours.” With a quick wave to Tony, Evan headed out.
Alex sat in the other chair, resting his kit on the table. “You ready to get those stitches out?”
“God, yes,” Tony exclaimed. “I’ve never had stitches in for two and half weeks before. I swear they get more annoying the longer they’re there.”
Snorting, Alex set up his stuff and pulled on a pair of gloves. One of the nurses would have been a more obvious choice for this, but Tony was so empathically touch sensitive, he was resistant to anyone unnecessary having physical contact. Alex had no problem with taking care of Tony’s arm, and was pleased Tony hadn’t developed an aversion to any of the healing team touching him. “I know the extra week sucked, but this wound was going to pull apart if we’d taken them out a week ago.”
“And here I always thought big gaping holes a man’s arm drove the women crazy,” Tony said with a smile.
“Idiot,” Alex muttered with more fondness than he should have for a man he’d known less than three weeks. As he began clipping the stitches, he idly remarked, “Have a few things to go over with you.”
Tony stiffened a little, then he joked, “If I’ve been framed for murder, just give me a little bit of a head start… I’m sure I can outrun the Bureau boys.”
Alex paused in his ministrations and looked up from his position hunched over Tony’s upper arm. “That happen often?”
“Three times,” Tony remarked, looking a little sour about it.
He froze for a second. “Seriously?”
“Yeah. I guess I just bring out the best in some people,” he said caustically. “So, what do you need to tell me?”
Alex started carefully pulling stitches. “Met with Morgan and Blair last night, and we agreed that we’re going to change up your schedule a little. Your healing sessions will be with only me from now on. Blair might stand in if I’m not available. We’ll continue twice a day for two days, and then on Tuesday we’ll reduce to once a day and see how things go. I want to see how you progress under a more conventional healing regimen.”
“Well, that sounds good. Is that it?”
“Nope. Your shields have been holding impressively well. You never seem to project emotion and only have a little trouble blocking emotions, and that’s no more trouble than any newly online guide would have.” He pulled the last stitch, then started to clean up. “So Morgan wants some trial runs back in the real world, and that’s up to you and Evan to work out. If everything goes well, you should be able to check out of the Center sometime toward the end of the week.”
Tony sat back hard in his chair, and Alex caught the oddest mixture of emotions. There was predominately elation, but behind that was a little dread. “Great. The stares and whispers have dropped off a lot, but I’m perfectly happy to not have to deal with it at all.”
Alex nodded. “A few other minor things… as Morgan discussed with you, you’ll continue to need a conservator for the near-term, especially since you’re prone to being yanked to the spirit plane, but the monitoring all of us are doing on your emotional state is going to stop.
“I’m going to teach you how to shield your emotions better, which I think you’ll do well with because you’ve done it accidentally a few times. With this shielding, someone would have to deliberately scan you to detect what’s going on, and you’d feel the scan. The trade off is that you’ll need to drop that shield periodically for Evan to check how you’re doing. Make sense?”
“Yeah. I… frankly, I like the idea of a little more privacy. And Morgan agrees with all this?” Tony asked cautiously.
“I totally get the need for privacy. The more your emotional affect has returned to normal, the more you’ve probably wanted everyone out of your head, and we’ve reached the point where you can have that.” Alex got up to throw the trash away, and then began packing up his kit. “Morgan had wanted the extra time here to make sure your shields stay steady, and even though you’ve gotten yanked to the spirit realm twice since Sean, your primary shield has been fine. He figures if being yanked to the spirit plane unwillingly three times in five days hasn’t rocked your shielding, that you’re doing pretty good.”
The second time it happened, Alex had been alone with Tony teaching him how use his empathy passively versus actively when Tony had suddenly gone down again. He had already been briefed that Tony had a way to summon Blair from the spirit plane, so he’d just called Jim and was told Blair had already responded, and they had to just wait. Tony came back about an hour later with the news that help had reached the sentinel from Los Angeles, who simply had just come online. Why that sentinel had reached out spiritually when so many wouldn’t even think of doing such a thing was a mystery to Alex.
The third episode was a little more dramatic. A sentinel undercover police officer in Salt Lake City had his cover blown, and was in danger of being killed. Somehow he’d connected with Tony, who’d been having breakfast with Martin and Gibbs at the time. With Blair relaying the information back quickly, help got there in time to save the detective.
Tony seemed to be thinking about something, and Alex let him be for the moment. Eventually, he decided to just ask, “Want to tell me what’s going on with you, Tony?”
“Oh, nothing. Just thinking.” He was absently rubbing at his chest.
Alex knew that little tic. It was the tic of the newly online high-order guide with a gaping hole where their sentinel should be. In time, it got easier to deal with and the rubbing stopped. Talking about it wouldn’t make it better. But Alex also knew that wasn’t the only thing on Tony’s mind. “Look, I know we haven’t known each other long, but I’d like to think we’re becoming friends. I’ve been at this guide gig a long time, so if you want to talk about whatever’s got you so down, I’m willing to listen.”
“Hey, no down here. It’s all been good news today.”
Raising a brow, Alex just stared. Yeah, he shouldn’t pry, but he figured it was okay because he was prying as Tony’s friend, not his healer.
Tony finally relented a little. “Man, I’m just trying to figure out what I’m going to do with my life, ya know? Every step I take here toward getting better is great, but it also takes me closer to having to make some decisions.”
Alex frowned a little. “I know you have to do the shaman training thing, and we have to keep you stable, but I figured you’d be heading back home. Not that we wouldn’t be perfectly happy to keep you here.”
Looking away, Tony was quiet for a few beats. “My life in DC is over. I’ll have to figure out something else.” He sighed, looking resigned. “Sometimes you just have to find a new home.”
If there was one thing Alex was sure of is that Martin and Tony were thick as thieves, and Tony also felt genuinely fond of Gibbs, so Alex really didn’t get it, but he knew relationships were complicated. He decided to wait it out, and he was a little surprised when Tony eventually started to give him a sketch of what had happened in DC, and why it was difficult that Martin had bonded to Gibbs.
At the end of the story, Alex blew out a breath. Now he got the glimmers of grief and anger he picked up from Tony. In reality, Tony was under a lot of emotional stress, and had been handling things even better than Alex had been aware of. It wasn’t easy to basically lose everything, and he could easily see that was Tony’s view of things. At the end of the day, he was sure Tony would still have Martin and Gibbs and a few other people, but right now, he could see how it wouldn’t feel that way.
After a bit of silence, Tony offered, “You know, I really do forgive Gibbs, but I’m still a little angry.”
Alex leaned forward and tapped Tony’s knee to get his attention. “Don’t take on any guilt about that. The two can co-exist. Sometimes we forgive in our head first, and our emotions take a little longer to catch up.” He considered his next words carefully, not wanting to be discouraging. “You know, one of the big disadvantages to being a high-order guide is that we sort of lose home until we find our sentinel. Even surrounded by family and friends, we’re a little adrift while we wait.
“Even if things were fine back in DC, you’d be feeling some of this. I’m not downplaying what’s going on, but the ache for your sentinel isn’t helping things. I don’t pretend to know where your journey is going to take you, but I am certain that you have a home here as long as you want one.”
Tony nodded, looking a touch uncomfortable. “Do you mind if I ask how long you were online before you found Vincent?”
Alex relaxed back in his chair and smiled. “I don’t mind. I got lucky in a way… I was only online for about eight months. I was twenty-two, had just joined the Navy, barely out of boot, when I came online. There’s actually a special S&G Center in San Diego specifically for training newly online military guides and sentinels. So I went there for two months of training. Because I was level nine, the military had to give me time to meet high-order sentinels in the hopes that the bonded couple can serve together. Also, the Council doesn’t want high-order guides sitting around unbonded if it can be prevented.
“So, for the next six months, it seemed like a parade of sentinels, but nothing. I was released back to my Naval base in Florida. I hadn’t even made it to my bunk when I was chased down by Vincent, who had me pinned against the supply building, sniffing me like a Thanksgiving Day turkey. Vincent had arrived at the base just two weeks prior after being in Panama. He’d been online for three years. And that was over twenty years ago.”
Tony looked surprised. “So you two have been bonded longer than anyone else.”
Alex assumed he meant of their small circle. “Yep. We’re the old married couple of the bunch.” He got to his feet, checking his watch. Vincent would be back in about an hour. “Now, let’s get your healing done.”
After their session, Alex waited for Evan to return, then sent a text to Vincent that he needed to talk to Morgan and would meet him shortly. He found the alpha was on a call, but he waived Alex into an office chair. A couple minutes later, he set down the phone and gave Alex his full attention.
“I had a long talk with Tony, and I’m not going to betray any confidence, but thought you should know that he’s been under a lot more emotional stress than we realized due to circumstances back home, and that’s a good indicator that he’s doing even better than we thought in terms of his guide skills. He’s ready to go back to Evan’s.”
Morgan leaned back in his chair. “I know.”
Alex’s brows shot up. “You know?”
“Yes, Gibbs told me. He wanted me to be aware in case it had any effect or relevance to the healing Tony is doing. Considering how stable Tony was during a visit that had to be constantly reinforcing a great loss… well, let’s just say it was a factor in my decision to discharge him from the Center before he gets his shaman gifts under control.”
“You old softie,” Alex teased.
Morgan rolled his eyes. “If that’s all, get out. I have things to do.”
Alex laughed and left to track down his sentinel.
Three days later found Alex staring out the car window at the dark wet streets of Cascade as Vincent drove them back to the Center. They’d left a couple hours ago, looking forward to a full night to themselves without Alex having to run out for a nightly healing session.
“Talk to me, Alex,” Vincent prompted.
Alex wasn’t sure what to say. He was worried and angry and even a little sad. “He was doing so well. Supposed to check out of the Center tomorrow, and now this. What if it’s a setback? How many knocks can one person take in such a short period of time?”
Vincent reached out and grabbed Alex’s hand, stopping the agitated movements. “Tony’s strong and resilient, and he’ll get through it. And we don’t know anything yet, so don’t tie yourself in knots worrying about something that might not even happen.”
“I know, Vin,” Alex whispered, using the diminutive of Vincent’s name that only Alex could get away with. “I just wish this whole thing of him getting yanked onto the spirit plane had never happened.”
His sentinel was quiet for several moments, before saying the obvious. “Good things have come of it.”
And Alex knew that, except… “Well, not tonight!”
“No!” He pulled his hand away and dragged it through his hair, trying to get his bearings. “He died! Tony got yanked to spirit plane just to have to suffer through the death of the sentinel he was there to help. How is that a good thing, Vincent? How is that fair or right or good?”
“I’m not saying it isn’t horrible. It is. I would never want to put anyone through that, but three other sentinels have been saved from situations ranging from distressing to desperate, and that’s because of Tony.”
“But what if this is a setback?”
“Then he’ll get better, Alex. I don’t know Tony as well as you do, but he’s damn determined. He’s not going to just give up.”
Alex couldn’t deny that, but he still internally raged that fate had dealt Tony such an unfair hand. He didn’t protest when Vincent took his hand again.
Tony’s first trip to the spirit plane to get Sean had been eight days ago, and now he’d had a total of four sentinels somehow pull him. According to Blair, the real mystery was why Tony went whether he wanted to or not. They were still trying to untangle that, but they had developed a system to handle the problem.
Tony seemed to be able to now control it just enough to at least warn someone and get to a seated position. Also, Tony and Blair had some kind of spiritual tether to one another, so when Tony arrived on the spirit plane, he pulled the tether to let Blair know he was needed, giving Blair freedom to not have to be at the Center all the time. Jim had certainly been easier to deal with after the Primes had been allowed to go back to their loft.
Everything had been going fine. There was oddness to deal with because, after all, it was Tony, but things were progressing. Tony’s shields had been solid. He was too empathically touch sensitive by far, but some guides just were and had to be careful about casual or excessive touch. And for those guides, it usually resolved itself after bonding to a sentinel. He sometimes had a hard time blocking emotions, but he had never projected an emotion outside of a training situation.
And then tonight, shortly after dinner, Tony had apparently gotten a pull. Sadly, it was just to get there and be able to do nothing but stay with the sentinel until he died. That was all Alex knew so far, but he had no idea what that might do to Tony’s healing, because he had no frame of reference for what shamans went through or felt when they were on the spirit plane. In the real world, it could cause empathic damage if a guide was too empathically connected to a sentinel at the time of the sentinel’s death. Tony sure as hell didn’t need more damage.
The car stopping startled Alex and he realized they’d arrived back at the Center. As soon as they were inside, a receptionist was directing them to a meditation room. Once they reached the room, they found Morgan, Marcus, Jim and Evan in various positions around the perimeter of the room, with Tony lying on the floor and Blair in a meditation pose by his head.
Morgan moved close and leaned against a wall by Alex. “Tony and Evan were just finishing dinner when he got the pull. Evan let me know and I waited to hear if there was anything urgent that came out of it. Next thing I heard was that Blair and Jim were on their way back here and that whatever sentinel Tony had been pulled to was dying. By the time I got here, Jim reported the sentinel had died and Blair was back with Tony. Blair hasn’t explained much. He’s been going to and from the spirit plane in order to get here physically. Tony hasn’t returned. We moved him up here from the café at Blair’s request.”
Alex nodded tersely. “Morgan, if he comes back and his shields are still solid, you need to stick with the plan and discharge him tomorrow.”
“I don’t know…”
He turned to look at the Center director. “Morgan, I get what most people might miss, okay? I understand that you’re feeling protective and worried, but it’s coming across a little autocratic. If Tony’s shields are stable, he doesn’t need to be here, except to come in for healing and training. He’s got to start getting his bearings in what amounts to an entirely new life.”
Morgan’s jaw was clenched and he said nothing. Abruptly, he pulled Alex out into the hall. “How can a man who gets yanked to another plane of existence possibly sort out a life around that? One that looks anything like what he knew? Until it’s sorted, he can’t drive, he can’t live alone, he probably shouldn’t be in law enforcement at all, but he definitely can’t be a field agent carrying a gun.” He turned away, clearly frustrated. “I hate this spiritual nonsense.”
“Why?” Alex asked, even though he’d asked before and not gotten an answer.
The alpha whipped around. “Because, in this case, we’re set up to fail. There’s nothing I can do here. With all the resources we have, we can’t fix this.”
“Morgan…” Alex sighed. “It’s not even our job to fix everything.”
“I know that.” Morgan uncharacteristically dragged his hands through his hair. The man was usually never that visibly ruffled. “It feels like the community has failed him, and I don’t want to add to it.” He took in a deep breath. “Plus I have an obligation to make sure everyone is safe.”
The door to the meditation room opened and Marcus stepped out. “Alex, can I have a minute with Morgan, please.” It clearly wasn’t a request.
Alex nodded. Marcus was the person best suited to deal with Morgan when he got to thinking he had to take care of everyone and everything.
He slipped back into the room and resumed propping up a wall. After a couple minutes, Evan was leaning next to him. “You okay?” he asked.
“Sure,” he said automatically.
“Shouldn’t I be asking you that? You spend the most time with Tony, and are closest with him.”
“I’m upset, and worried, and just a little bit pissed off.”
Alex sighed. “Me too, kid.”
A few minutes later, Morgan and Marcus returned, Morgan looking a little less tense, and Marcus kept him close. From there the wait seemed interminable, but it was probably only half an hour before Blair opened his eyes and rolled his shoulders. A couple seconds later, Tony took a deep breath, then opened his eyes and sat up. He blinked a few times, then glanced around before meeting Blair’s eyes.
The two exchanged a long look, before Tony nodded to whatever he was seeing, then softly said, “I’m fine, Blair.”
“Liar,” Blair said gently. “I know because I’m not.” Blair looked up. “Alex, could you scan Tony, and Morgan you scan me. I don’t think we’re going to find problems from this, but it’s better to be safe. I’ll fill you guys in after.”
Alex pushed off the wall and took a seat next to Tony, while Morgan did the same with Blair. His scan, oddly enough, made him think Tony was in slightly better shape than when he’d scanned him this morning. He carefully withdrew and met Tony’s eyes, eyes that seemed to carry a little more weight than before. “You’re fine.”
“Thanks, Alex,” Tony whispered, and then pushed himself to his feet. Blair got up at the same time, and pulled Tony into a hug, murmuring something Alex couldn’t quite hear. Next thing Alex knew, Tony and Evan were headed back to their room.
“What just happened?” Alex asked, turning to look at Blair.
Voice muffled due to being plastered to Jim’s chest, Blair muttered, “Let’s go somewhere else and I’ll fill everyone in. Then I’m going home to sleep for a week.”
A few minutes later, they were all around a table in one of the small conference rooms. Oddly enough, Morgan wasn’t pressing for answers, instead waiting for Blair to get there on his own.
Taking a steadying breath, Blair finally said, “It was a car accident. Something so simple and every day…” he trailed off, seemingly lost in thought. “We didn’t realize how dire it was at first. We got the info from Alain, the sentinel in the accident, then I went back to tell Jim, who coordinated with EMS in Wyoming, then we started heading back to the Center. Tony suddenly tugged sharply at our link and I went back while Jim was driving to find that it was clear Alain was dying. We both stayed with him, hoping help would arrive on time, but there was nothing anyone could do.”
Blair stopped, thinking for a few seconds. “I don’t know if it was me or Tony, but apparently a shaman on the spirit plane in a lot of emotional distress will bleed that out to the other shamans. Several of them came and we all waited out Alain’s death.
“I had to leave briefly to move into the Center, but when I got back, they were all still there. The other shamans did… well, I guess you’d call it spiritual healing, for Tony and me. Afterward, Emiliano, the shaman from Mexico, had some thoughts about how we could shield Tony a little from these pulls so he has some more control.” He broke off, looking really tired, before finally saying. “That’s basically it. We’re going to all meet again in a couple weeks, and we’re each going to try some things that might improve the situation for Tony, but there’s nothing much else for right now.”
As one, the room turned their attention to Morgan, who sighed. “Don’t look at me. I don’t know anything about this stuff. It only matters to me that you two are okay, and Tony’s shields are solid enough to be discharged tomorrow.”
“He’s fine,” Alex interjected. “And it’s probably for the best that he get into a more normal environment.”
Jim broke the meeting almost immediately after, herding Blair toward the truck. Alex found himself similarly ushered back to their vehicle by Vincent. He’d planned to talk to Morgan, but his sentinel pretty much ignored Alex’s protest.
Hours later, Alex was lying in bed awake, too wound up to fall asleep. He knew Vincent was still awake, though his eyes were closed. Alex finally sat up at the side of the bed, leaning his elbows on his knees. He thought about what Blair had said several days ago… about how spirit guides would be as present as the sentinel or guide wanted them to be.
He closed his eyes and focused for a few seconds, wondering if anything would even happen. Something butted against his knee, and he looked down to find his cheetah staring up at him. He reached out to pet the soft fur, and felt something inside him ease a little. The cheetah started to purr.
Alex felt the bed shift as Vincent moved up behind him, arm coming around the guide’s waist. “Want to introduce me to your friend?” his sentinel asked after a moment of silence. Vincent had seen Alex’s spirit animal before, but only briefly.
He twisted to give his bonded a kiss, then grabbed Vincent’s hand and guided it to the cheetah’s head.
Later as he fell asleep pressed up against his sentinel, with his spirit guide lying at his back, he thought there might be something to this spiritual stuff after all.
– – – –
Late Thursday morning, Tony trudged up the stairs to Evan’s place. He was beyond happy to finally be out of the Center, but it was tempered by his fatigue from the morning healing, and his grief and anger over the night before. Any time Alain crossed his mind, he pushed it down, not wanting to get immersed in the memories of connecting with that sentinel only to have him die in Tony’s arms.
Inside the apartment, Evan put his stuff away, then herded Tony toward his bedroom. “Get some sleep. As soon as you wake up, we’ll have lunch and then we’ve got basketball this afternoon since it’s miraculously clear.”
Tony smiled. That sounded so normal, and something he desperately needed. He headed to his room and collapsed on the bed. His dreams were troubled, and he was somewhat aware of Gattino settling on the bed at some point, which helped ease his mind.
When he woke, he could hear Evan puttering around in the kitchen. He should go help with lunch, but he wanted to make a call first.
The phone was answered on the second ring. “Hey,” Martin said brightly.
“Hi. You got a minute?”
“Yeah. What’s wrong?”
“Another sentinel spirit call.” Tony’s eyes suddenly felt wet, and he blinked furiously. “He died, Martin. I got to hold him while he died.” He choked a little. “I don’t think I can do this.”
“Tony,” Martin breathed. “Give me a second, I need to move.” He could make out some background noise and he thought he heard his name. After a minute, Martin was back. “I needed to move to a private room. Talk to me. Tell me what happened.”
So Tony gave him the snapshot of what had gone down the night before and glossed over the events of the shaman confab afterward. “I should have expected something like this, I guess. As a group, sentinels don’t tend to want much to do with the spiritual side of things, so the handful that do reach out, it’s likely because they’re in jeopardy in some way. And some of them are probably going to die.” He had to stop again because he was getting overwhelmed.
“Do you want me to come back?”
“Martin, I want you here more than you could possibly realize, but no, I don’t want you to come back.”
“That was clear as mud.”
“I know, but I think you know what I mean anyway.”
“Yeah, I do.” Martin sighed. “I can’t even imagine how impossible this feels right now. But I know you can do this. You and the other shamans will figure out how to divide this burden, or I’ll be kicking some serious shaman ass.”
Tony gave a watery chuckle. “My hero.”
“You mock, but we both know it’s true.”
That inspired a real laugh. “I know you probably only have a minute, but tell me what’s going on there while I try to get my head screwed on straight.”
“I have as much time for you as you need, and there’s nothing wrong with your head. But, I’ll still answer your question. I’m presently in the empty interrogation observation room.”
“How’d your first week at NCIS go?” They’d exchanged a couple emails, but not much about work.
“Things are a little tense, as you can imagine. Jethro is venting his spleen over the issues prior to your departure. McGee and David aren’t happy and pretty much don’t like me, but I expected that.”
“When do you have the NCIS field agent training?”
“The next transfer agent short course is next month, so I’m technically a liaison until then.”
“You sitting at my old desk?” The banality of the conversation was helping Tony let go of some of the emotion so he could get back to normal.
“No. I packed up all your stuff and took it to the house. The new SFA is at your desk. They took down the partition next to Jethro, moved the small plasma and I’m sitting next to my sentinel, which seems to make him very happy.”
Tony nodded, even though Martin couldn’t see. It all made sense, it just stung a little thinking about being replaced. “How’s the new guy?”
“I like him, but I seem to be the only one. He’s been an agent for five, this is his first time as SFA. Apparently spent eighteen months afloat. He’s a bit of a hard ass, former SEAL. Jethro is trying, but he’s pretty much not going to like anyone who’s not you. Though he appreciates the good sparring matches.”
Smiling a little, Tony asked, “How’s the rest of the team taking to him?”
“The agents don’t much care for him because he’s strict about the chain of command. Jimmy and Ducky are taking to him fine. I think Jimmy and Breena had him over for dinner last night.”
Tony’d have to be sure to give Jimmy a call. They’d been friends, and Tony appreciated the effort Jimmy had gone to for Tony. “And Abby?”
“Isn’t saying much, to him or me, so I don’t know.”
Well, that was sufficient indication of Abby’s mood. She only gave the silent treatment when she was pissed.
“By the way, just so you know, Kyle and I both confirmed that the whole team are free of any residual effects of Harris’ adjustments. Jethro has told them to leave you alone until you initiate contact. So, it’s up to you at this point. And do not think you need to do anything. Okay?”
Tony sighed and changed the subject. They chatted for only a couple more minutes, before Tony ended the call. As much as things had changed, Tony would always need Martin.
The basketball game was just what Tony needed. It was chilly outside, but Tony still quickly worked up a sweat, feeling a little off his game from the reduced activity of the last three weeks.
After the match point, Tony collapsed on the ground, breathing hard. He needed to start running again. Considering the cold and wet, he’d have to find a gym in the area.
Vincent sat next to him. “Shit, you’re good.” Vincent and Tony had played Jim and Evan.
Tony laughed. “That was a little mediocre actually. I’ve been pretty idle the last few weeks.”
Jim and Evan plopped on the ground, too. Jim looked like he wanted to chuck the ball at Tony’s head. “If that was you off your game, I’m not sure I want to play you at your best. Though I noticed you had some a little trouble handling the ball with your left.”
“Yeah. It feels a little funny still.” Actually, it ached. “No worries though, I’ll take it easy on you next time.”
This time Jim did toss the ball at Tony’s head, who dodged it, laughing.
A couple hours later, Tony and Evan were sitting close together on the couch watching the end of Bad Day at Black Rock. As the credits rolled, Evan turned to Tony, “So, Thanksgiving is next week. Any idea what you want to do?”
Tony wasn’t sure what he meant by that, but he internally flinched a little. Thanksgiving was one of the holidays the NCIS team tried to spend together when they didn’t have a case. Everyone went their own way for Christmas, but Thanksgiving was pretty much the team. “I don’t follow.”
“I’ll be headed to Seattle for the afternoon, my brother has leave this year. You’re welcome to join us, or I know Blair plans to invite you to their place. So does Morgan. Actually, I wasn’t sure if either had done it yet or not. Each of the Cascade alphas hosts a Thanksgiving thing at their place for anyone in their Pride who doesn’t have family plans.”
“Uh, well I don’t want to intrude on your family get together, and I’m not really a part of either of their Prides.”
Evan blinked. “First, you wouldn’t be intruding as far as I’m concerned, and second, Blair and Morgan both consider you a part of their Pride, so you’re welcome to go where you like. Vincent and Alex will be at Morgan’s, so more people you know there.”
Tony blinked, then smiled a little. “Let me think about it, but I’ll probably go up to Blair’s.”
“Okay. But seriously… whatever you want to do is fine.”
Friday at the Center, Blair and Morgan both invited him to Thanksgiving. Tony ultimately decided to spend the day at Jim and Blair’s, that way no one had to schlep him around.
Normally, he’d only have to spend a little over an hour at the Center for his healing, but today it seemed that there was a list of people who wanted to talk to Tony. The first was the special investigator assigned by the Council to investigate Harris. Because of Tony’s empathic damage and the issues around coming online, she had decided to save him for the last part of the investigation. Martin had mentioned in some emails about her interviewing everyone at NCIS who had been involved.
It was done via video call, and seemed to drag on. Morgan sat in, keeping to the periphery of the room, in case Tony had any issues talking about it. Evan was shadowing Alex in guide training until Tony was finished. The investigator’s questions were thorough and a little invasive. She wanted to know every little detail about what Harris had done and how it had affected Tony, the team, everything.
The interview had happened after his healing session, so he didn’t have a chance to get any sleep, so by the end of it, he was so tired he could barely stand. Morgan sent him off to an isolation room to get some rest. Before he could even get there, he found that the guide sent by the Council was still lingering around, trying to persuade Tony to come to the Council headquarters for training. Yet again, Tony said no, then finally managed to get to a place where he could lie down.
Sunday morning there was an odd change in his conservator/friend. Evan was in a mood. Tony wasn’t sure what kind of mood, but something was off. Tony let his friend be until early afternoon, when it was pretty obvious something was really bothering Evan.
Evan was sitting at the dining table, apparently brooding, when Tony pulled up a chair and nudged his shoulder. “Want to tell me what’s up?”
Sighing, Evan dropped his head onto his folded arms. “I don’t know. I just feel off. Like there’s something wrong.”
“I dunno,” Evan mumbled into his arms. “I just keep thinking there’s something I need to fix.”
They talked about it for quite a while, but neither could come up with any idea what this issue was. Evan finally suggested they let it go for now and see if anything came up the next day. Tony got pulled to the spirit realm in the afternoon for another newly online sentinel. The matter was handled quickly and Tony was grateful it wasn’t another death. Still, he slept poorly that night.
Monday, Evan was still edgy, but they weren’t any closer to an answer as to the source of the problem, so they headed to the Center for Tony’s morning healing. As Tony approached Alex’s treatment room, Gattino appeared in front of the door and started growling. Taken aback, Tony tried to approach the Siberian, but it seemed intent on keeping Tony away for some reason.
“What’s going on?” Alex asked, coming down the hall from the other direction.
“Gattino doesn’t want me to go in. I thought maybe you were in there.”
“No, you’re my first patient today.”
A cheetah suddenly popped into view and growled along with Gattino.
“Who does that belong to?” Tony asked.
“He’s mine,” Alex muttered, pulling out his cell and punching a number. After a beat, he said, “Marcus, can you come to my treatment room in the guide wing? Like immediately. Something weird is going on.” At Tony’s confused look, Alex offered. “Our spirit guides don’t want us in there for a reason. Only a sentinel can tell us what’s in there without opening the door.”
It was only a matter of a couple minutes before Marcus appeared, Morgan right behind him.
“What’s the emergency?” Morgan asked.
Tony gestured to the spirit guides. “They won’t let us go in.”
“We need Marcus to try to figure what’s wrong in that room,” Alex added.
Marcus frowned and immediately positioned Morgan so he was with the rest of the guides and kept them at his back as he cocked his head to the side. Morgan slid a hand to Marcus’ back. After a few seconds, Marcus softly said, “I don’t hear anything. I’m going to try scent.”
“Be careful,” Morgan admonished.
Alex leaned over and whispered to Tony, “Scent is the easiest sense for Marcus to zone on because it’s so sensitive. He smells almost as well as Jim does.”
Marcus was clearly sniffing the air for a couple minutes, Morgan kept a hand on his back, whispering in the sentinel’s ear periodically. Abruptly, Marcus went rigid and herded all the guides further away, despite Morgan’s sputtering. “Lock down the Center. All guides code two.”
Alex grabbed Tony, and Morgan grabbed Evan, then began hustling them away.
“We’ve got to hurry,” Morgan urged.
Tony wanted to ask, but recognized an emergency when he saw one, so he just went along with the senior guides.
As soon as they were in Morgan’s office, Morgan locked the door and typed a code in the security keypad. “Call Jim and Vincent, get them down here,” he barked to Alex even as he picked up his own phone to talk to security.
“What’s code two?” Tony whispered to Evan.
“Guides in danger,” Evan whispered back. “The sentinels will get all guides in the building into secure locations with sentinel guards. Marcus will coordinate the senior sentinels to find and eliminate whatever the danger is.”
Tony frowned. What the hell was going on?
Alex completed his calls first and waited for Morgan to finish before saying, “Vincent is nearby, should be here within ten. Jim and Blair were together, and are a little further out—Maybe twenty minutes or so.”
Morgan nodded. “They’re the only ones I put on security’s bypass list. All we can do in the interim is wait.”
“What kind of thing in that room could be a danger to us?” Tony asked. He knew it was something because Marcus hadn’t heard a person.
Alex turned to him, but before he could say anything, Morgan’s cell rang. It was clear that Morgan was talking to Marcus. “Damn,” he whispered. “Are you going to search the whole building?” There was a pause. “You’ll need Jim and Vincent for sure. Vincent is probably almost here. Jim is a little further away.” Another pause. “Just keep me posted.”
Looking solemn, Morgan looked at Alex and said, “GHB in the water bottles in the healing room. They’re searching the entire building. Marcus is on his way to sniff the water in here to be safe.” He looked at his water bottle with poorly veiled distaste.
Evan and Alex both swore.
Tony didn’t get it. “Okay, I understand that it’s not cool to drug us, but considering your reactions, I’m assuming this is a bigger deal than a little sleepy time.”
Morgan’s phone beeped. “Hold that thought, Tony. Marcus is here.” Morgan let his sentinel in and Marcus quickly sniffed around the water bottle and then in the cabinet where Morgan had additional water.
After Marcus had cleared the room and left again, Morgan turned back to Tony. “I’m sure you know GHB from the perspective of law enforcement. From our viewpoint, the Gamma-Hydroxybutyric acid the body naturally produces plays a vital role in guide abilities. It’s not fully understood why, but we do know that too much GHB, and actually several other GABA agonists, can cause a guide’s shields to waver or completely drop.
“That’s one reason why the Council strongly recommends that all guides wear their guide necklace or wristband. All doctors know not to administer GABA agonists to guides, and if they don’t, it says it clearly on the ID tag. When you were a patient of the Center, you had a temporary guide wristband, and it’s on my list to discuss which you want. Since you were under a conservator’s care, it wasn’t a pressing need to get you a guide ID.” He broke off, rubbing his forehead.
Tony’s investigator’s mind was spinning. “Why would someone want to bring down our shields?”
Alex started to say something, but Morgan held up a hand. “I don’t want to speculate yet. I’d like to know if they find more in the Center before we jump to conclusions.”
Reluctantly, Tony nodded, but he still wanted more info. “When a guide’s shields come down, is it like what happened to me?”
“It depends upon the level of the guide,” Alex said. “Low-order guides could get caught in a feedback loop like you did and project distress to the rest of the room. If Morgan or I lost our shield and started projecting, we might affect a good portion of the Center to some degree. But provided there’s another guide of sufficient ability around, they can hold the shield until the person affected was able to manage on their own, so odds of a full meltdown like I described are slim.”
When Alex didn’t continue, Tony prompted, “And Blair or me?”
“You know what happens, Tony. Only Blair could shield you and vice versa. You could affect everyone for blocks in every direction.”
“Okay,” Tony said, not pressing further, but he could see where this was headed. He’d been an investigator for nearly sixteen years, and every instinct he had said this was about him. But who would gain from bringing Tony’s shield down?
They had nothing to do but wait. Everyone was pretty tense, so idle chitchat was at a minimum. Finally there was another beep of Morgan’s cell and he got up to let Blair in. Jim also came in to do his own sniff-test of the room before departing to help search the Center.
Blair flopped on the small sofa next to Evan. “Man, someone’s karma is unrecoverable,” he muttered. “They’re about thirty percent done and nothing found outside of Alex’s treatment room so far,” he offered. “A couple people tried to leave despite the lockdown.”
Morgan nodded, no doubt already aware due to the updates he’d been getting on his tablet.
“Is the GHB hard to smell?” Tony asked anyone who wanted to answer.
“Yes,” Morgan replied. “They have to be quite dialed up and looking for it. Marcus is using the water bottles as a reference for some of the sentinels who aren’t quite as strong in their sense of smell.”
Blair looked at Evan with an air of concern. “What’s up with you? Something’s off.”
Evan and Tony exchanged glances before Evan replied. “I dunno. Something’s been wrong since yesterday, but I don’t know what.”
“We’re going to be here for a while, man, so let’s try to figure it out.”
Evan tried to get Blair to wait, Blair just asked questions for a few minutes, then looked at Evan consideringly. “Well, it’s either an unconscious empathic awareness of someone around you that’s really subtle, or it’s a spiritual awareness. Considering it’s affecting you at home, when you ran errands last night and here at the Center, I’m going to assume the latter.”
“What could I have a spiritual awareness of?”
Blair just arched a brow.
“Oh,” Evan exclaimed. “But if that’s the case, he or she would have to be reaching out to me, too, right?”
Tony managed to infer that they were talking about Evan’s sentinel.
“Maybe,” Blair finally said. “This is just conjecture, so we can only experiment and see what happens.”
“What experiment?” Evan asked.
“You and I and Tony are going to mediate and I’m going to attempt to feel along your tether to the spirit plane and see if anything is tugging at it. Tony’s going to attempt to follow what I’m doing as a learning exercise.”
They rearranged the room a little. Morgan seemed a little reluctant considering the situation, but Blair pointed out that if it went so far that they went to the spirit plane, Morgan knew how to pull Blair out, and they might as well be productive while they waited.
After a few minutes, the three had dropped into a lightly meditative state, and Blair softly said, “Tony, try to feel what I’m doing. It’s not quite reaching out with your empathy. It’s using that part of you that allows you to traverse to a different plane.”
Tony’s inclination was to focus on Evan, but he forced himself to focus on Blair to see if he could feel what Blair was doing. At first he was trying to use empathy too much and it took a lot of concentration to finally feel how Blair was working. It sort of snapped into focus all at once, and Tony realized it was the same energy he used to call Gattino to him.
“That’s it, Tony,” Blair murmured. “We want to feel where Evan is connected to the spirit plane.”
Tony shifted his focus to Evan.
“Feel the spiritual links,” Blair encouraged.
There were two. One was strong and vibrant, and Tony assumed it was the connection to Evan’s serval spirit guide, which Evan had taken to having around the apartment fairly regularly. The other was fainter and sort of fragile feeling. Even though Tony was following Blair, he spiritually reached out and touched the link, sensing a pull on it. He felt the change and realized he’d sent himself to the spirit plane.
He blinked his eyes open to find himself alone in the land of the blue.
About thirty seconds passed before Blair appeared beside him. “I didn’t think a pull on Evan would yank you here.”
“I think it was my fault. I felt the tug on Evan spiritually and, though I didn’t really mean to, I reached out for it.”
“Well, as long as we’re here, let’s see if we can follow it. The pull was on Evan, not on you, so you’ll need try to find that connection and see if you can find the source.” Blair walked him through how to focus on what he wanted. It took a few minutes, but he sensed the pull again.
“The pull at this tether is subtle, but it does feel like some form of upset or distress. Somehow someone is reaching out and connecting with Evan,” Tony muttered. “What should I do?”
“Spiritually grab hold of what’s pulling at Evan and see if you can follow it like you do when the sentinels pull you here.”
Tony had to really concentrate, and Blair was clearly following what he was doing, because he’d mutter out loud as he was figuring things out. Eventually a room swam into view. This was the way it always went. Tony first saw the sentinel in whatever their environment was, and then his interaction with them was what drew them to the spirit plane.
The two shamans contemplated the man lying on a narrow bed with his fingers laced behind his head. He was in Air Force BDUs with a captain’s insignia. From what little Tony could glean from the room, he’d bet it was officer’s quarters on a military base. The man’s brow was furrowed and Tony could tell he was in no small amount of sensory distress.
Tony shared a look with Blair before he reached out and touched the sentinel on the arm. The man jerked and immediately opened his eyes.
As per usual, he didn’t see Tony right away, and Tony called out, “Captain?”
After a few blinks, the man jerked again as he began to see the jungle and then the two shamans. “What the hell?” Despite the blueness, Tony’s impression was of a man about six feet tall with short spiky hair that was probably light brown, and he was about Tony’s age, maybe a little younger.
Blair held up both hands. “We’re both guides, Sentinel. You are in enough distress that you were able to draw us to you. My name is Blair and this is Tony.”
“Blair? Like Blair Sandburg?”
“Ah, yes, that’s me.”
The sentinel looked shocked. “I… uh, I mean.” He seemed to give himself a mental shake. “Captain Solon Asker, US Air Force, 9th Reconnaissance Wing, sir. And I’m really not sure what I could have done that brought you here.”
Blair made a placating gesture. “Why are you struggling with your senses, Captain Asker?”
“I came online yesterday, and things are somewhat difficult here, sir.”
“Just Blair is fine. Why aren’t you at a Sentinel and Guide Center.”
Asker looked uncomfortable.
“Captain, we need to get you some help. The Council’s agreement with the US military is that urgent sentinel or guide matters take precedence over any assignment, and a newly online sentinel is an urgent matter. Why haven’t you sought help?”
“Sir… Blair, you have to understand that my CO has a major issue with guides, so he doesn’t allow any sentinels who need them in our unit. When I came online, he confined me to quarters until I learn to control my senses.”
Blair made a noise that was a little like a growl. “He can’t do that.” Shaking off the anger, Blair forced a reassuring smile. “I need to know where you are. Since you know who I am, you know I have the authority to have you removed. Which is going to happen ASAP.”
Asker hesitated a moment before he nodded and offered, “Beale Air Force Base, Marysville, California.”
“I’m going to go get you aid right now, Tony is going to stay with you and talk you through using your dials. You won’t be able to practice until you’re back in your quarters. I’ll see you soon, Captain.”
“Please, it’s just Solon.”
Blair nodded, then disappeared.
Asker turned to Tony. “How is this possible?”
“You’ve heard about spirit guides?” At Asker’s nod, Tony continued. “This is where they exist. And if your spirit guide ever sends you a vision, they’re actually pulling you here. You were reaching out for help, and someone heard you.”
“I wasn’t doing that on purpose. At the worst of it, I was just wishing I wasn’t trapped and could find my guide so this would all be better.”
“Well, your wishing somehow made a connection to this plane, and we were able to follow that connection. Before we start on your dials, have you met your spirit guide?”
“No. Though I may have seen it… Right before my senses spiked, I thought I saw a big spotted feline of some kind run at me, but then I thought I must have dreamt it.”
Tony walked him through calling for his spirit animal, and he was unsurprised, based on Asker’s description, to see a rather large leopard slinking around the captain’s legs.
They were still talking about dials when Blair returned. “I talked to the Secretary of the Air Force directly, and he’s calling the base commander to ensure you’re released to the representatives of the Center when they arrive. The base commander is also going to temporarily relieve your CO of duty until they can investigate. The closest S&G Center is in Sacramento. I called them and they’re bringing an experienced interim guide to help stabilize you and get you back to their facility. We’ll be in touch as soon as you’re there, okay?”
Asker looked like he didn’t know whether to be appalled at the SECAF being called or relieved that he was getting out of what was effectively a prison.
Blair walked Asker through returning, then turned to Tony. “Good work, man.
That actually gave me a lot of info about how you’re hearing these calls and I think we’ll have some things to work on that might help. You ready to go back?”
“Yeah. But, uh, we’re pretty sure this is Evan’s sentinel, right?”
“Oh yeah. I can’t imagine Evan getting spiritual input from any other source. And he’s vibrating with excitement, so prepare yourself.”
Tony smiled and concentrated on returning. As soon as he opened his eyes, Evan practically crawled on him, strangling him in a hug.
Blair’s eyes met Tony’s and they shared a slight smile.
Evan’s excitement helped pass the time they were in lockdown. Morgan continued to get updates on his phone or tablet. He was also the voice of reason when Evan started talking about booking a ticket to Sacramento.
“Just wait and see if he can be stable enough for travel, Evan. It’s better if you’re near one of your homes rather than the two of you in a strange city. If they can’t get his senses stable, we’ll get you down there. Yes?”
With obvious reluctance, Evan acceded, then resumed his questioning of Tony and Blair about Solon Asker.
It was another hour before Morgan gave the word that they’d finished the search and Marcus had lifted the lockdown. Also, Vincent was on his way to escort them all to the conference room.
Once they were all seated in one of the larger conference rooms, Jim took the reins. “The only GHB in the facility was Alex’s treatment room. We found more in the trunk of a rental car, which was rented by the Council rep sent here to assess the situation and try to persuade Tony to come back to headquarters. We’ve confined him to the holding cells for now. Did he have reason to suspect it would be easy to get to Tony through those water bottles?”
Tony and Alex both nodded, but the senior guide replied. “My schedule isn’t exactly secret to Center staff, and they probably wouldn’t hesitate to reveal that I had no one before Tony today, and anyone watching for the last couple weeks would note that Tony always leaves the room with a bottle of water in his hand.”
“But what does he gain by drugging me into dropping my shields?” Tony asked, completely mystified.
“Tony,” Blair began. “If you were consistently having problems maintaining your shields, and it were to affect people negatively, the Council would have a good case in court to apply for legal conservatorship. Then they’d be able to force you to go wherever they wanted for training.”
He was suddenly so angry he felt his secondary shield crack, making it possible for all the guides to read how angry he was. He knew he wasn’t projecting, but he could easily be scanned.
Blair put a hand on his arm. “Hey… Jim and I are going to call the Council now and find out what the hell is going on. Okay?”
“Was this always a possibility?”
“Yes, if you didn’t get your shields under control, then I’d have had to take conservatorship of you. That’s what’s so screwy about this. There’s no shaman in the employ of the Council to help with your shielding. But that doesn’t matter, because once you got your shield up, you were rock solid, and it didn’t seem like it was going to be an issue.”
Tony stared down at the table, feeling an incredible sense of frustration. He wasn’t an idiot, he’d put the clues together that Evan was about to bond to his sentinel, and therefore Tony would need a new conservator. And now this… Seriously, who had he pissed off? He rubbed his forehead, hating feeling so out of control of his own life. He was half tempted to just go back to DC, but what was he going to do when he couldn’t drive? And it wasn’t like he could go back to work.
“So what now?” he finally managed to grit out.
“Jim and I are going to deal with this situation with the Council right now. I don’t believe this was an official order, so the Council has some internal investigating to do. And we haven’t figured out the rest yet.”
Vincent leaned forward. “If Tony’s agreeable, we’ll take him back to Evan’s to pack and he’ll stay with us through the holidays, and then we can figure out a longer term solution next week.”
“Tony,” Evan started, then seemed to flounder.
He could only smile at his friend. “I’m really happy for you, Ev. If everything goes well, you’ll be out of touch for a bit, but I expect to meet your sentinel for real when you’re ready to face the world again.”
Evan reached out and squeezed his arm, and Tony’s touch empathy relayed easily how torn Evan was.
A short time later, the four of them left, leaving behind the two alpha pairs to deal with the GHB fiasco. It didn’t take Tony long to pack. Evan sat on the bed watching the whole time. “Tony, even though I was your conservator, I really think of you as a friend, and I expect it to stay that way. If you vanish on me, I’m hunting your ass down.”
Tony laughed and surrendered to a hug. “Thanks for making this whole thing so easy, Evan. We’re friends… no matter where we end up.”
Rather unexpectedly, Evan kissed him. It was just a warm press of lips that lingered for a bit before Evan pulled back. “I just had to do that once.”
Tony’s lips twitched in amusement. “Flirt,” he whispered, getting a smile in response.
A few minutes later, he was following Alex and Vincent to their car, watching as Evan headed back to the Center, no doubt to keep track of what was happening with his sentinel. Tony climbed into the car, wondering what the next stop on this crazy journey was going to be.
– – – –
Tony smiled and made conversation, flirted when it seemed the time and tried to be charming, but he wasn’t really feeling it. Still, he kept up his front because it was Thanksgiving and he wasn’t going to do anything to upset anyone’s holiday.
Because of how things had changed, he’d wound up at Morgan’s for the day, because that’s where Vincent and Alex went and he didn’t want to put his hosts through having to transport him around on top of having to house him.
The last two days, he’d just shadowed Alex while they sorted out the issues. When Alex was doing an empathic healing session, Tony found something at the Center to keep himself occupied with, even if it was just meditating. He wondered if people really thought he hadn’t noticed the extra ration of sentinels keeping an eye on him?
When Alex was training baby guides, Tony went along, though again, more sentinels than usual. Morgan wasn’t exactly being subtle, and it was a little weird having sentinels sniffing everything he ate or drank. On one level, he hated it, but on another he was grateful he wasn’t going to be ingesting something that could bring his primary shield down.
He knew the senior guides and sentinels were trying to decide what to do with him, but in reality, the person who needed to make some decisions was Tony. He’d been going along with things thus far, but it was time for him to take control of his life again. He might have to make accommodations, but that was better than not knowing what he was doing from moment to moment.
Tony decided he’d tell everyone his plans during their meeting tomorrow. They were all getting together to discuss the situation with the Council. Sans Evan, of course, who had indeed been the right guide for Solon Asker, and was presently in a bonding suite at the Center.
Blair had talked with the Council several times already and had only reported back to Tony that the heads of the Council were furious and launching an investigation into what had happened and who was behind it. They had offered to send Council sentinels to protect Tony, but Tony had declined Council aid. So sentinels from the local Prides were apparently volunteering. Tony wished they had talked about everything, but he understood that there were only two days before a busy holiday, and had agreed to put it off till Friday.
He checked the time and it was almost four, seven on the east coast. He’d told Martin he’d call at seven east coast time. Finding his coat amongst the others was a challenge, but then it was easy enough to slip out on the back deck. It was chilly, but fortunately not wet.
Martin and Gibbs were supposed to be at a fairly early dinner at Ducky’s and expected to be home by six. “Tony,” Martin answered after five rings. “How’s your day going?”
“A little bittersweet, I guess. Everything here is fine, just feeling out of step. How was dinner?”
“Well, everyone came, much to my surprise, including Paul, the new SFA. So, things were a little tense a few times. But overall it was fine. Actually, we’re still here. I expected to be home long before now, so I’m hiding in Ducky’s study. How was dinner there?”
“Great. It was sort of buffet-style. There are about fifteen people here. Everyone’s mingling now.”
There was a brief pause. “You don’t sound good, Tony. What’s going on?”
“Just thinking I need to make some decisions about what’s next for me.”
“I can’t just stay in limbo like this. My healing is done in another week and I need to figure out what’s going to come after.”
“You still have, uh, your advanced training to do, right?” He knew Martin was alluding to his shaman training, and being vague meant he must be somewhat wary of people listening in.
“Yeah. I could do it here, or possibly go to Peru. There are even more options, but those two have the most appeal.”
“Peru?” Martin choked out. “For how long?”
“A couple months probably, but I’m not sure. I’m not making any decisions yet.”
“Has the other matter been resolved yet?” And that was code for the attempt at drugging Tony.
“No. The Powers That Be deny any knowledge, so I’m being watched carefully and everything is getting sniffed.”
Martin snorted. “Jethro wants to just take a leave of absence and come out there and personally keep an eye on you.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “No. I appreciate the thought, but, no.” He was pretty sure he’d emotionally combust living with Martin and Gibbs and feeling like a third wheel. The conversation lasted a couple more minutes before he said goodbye, promising to let Martin know if anything came of the latest investigation Tony was involved in.
He stayed on the deck, breathing the chilly November air. A few minutes later, he heard someone move out on to the deck and settle in the chair next to him. He glanced to his left. “Hey, Morgan.”
“Tony,” Morgan acknowledged. After a few minutes of silence, Morgan leaned forward a bit. “Is there something on your mind?”
“Lots of things, actually. I’m percolating.”
“Sounds dreadful,” Morgan said offhandedly. “I find that doing what you believe to be right is usually the best course, even in the face of opposition from those you might trust or care for.”
Tony cocked a brow. “Something you’re trying to tell me?”
“Just that what I might say as the director of the Center could be different than what I’d say to you as your friend, but either way I’ll try to support you.”
That was practically a declaration of love coming from Morgan, and Tony blinked a few times trying to get his brain around it. Finally, he inclined his head in acknowledgement and offered, “Thanks. I want you to know that I’m aware of how lucky I was that you’re one of the people who stepped up to bat for me.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes, then headed inside.
The next morning found the usual crew, sans Evan, in the small conference room that was pretty much reserved for Morgan’s use. The Center was pretty quiet, most people taking advantage of the long weekend, so the activity was pretty confined to those with urgent issues or the recently bonded.
“Okay, Tony,” Blair started, “the Council is busy tearing things apart to figure out how far this plot went. The heads of the Council were thoroughly horrified and repeatedly said this was not a sanctioned action. And I’m inclined to believe them. Though I know they’ve detained a couple people, they haven’t revealed to me yet what those people thought they were going to accomplish with this.
“All I know is the idea was to get legal custody of you. We’re not sure if it had to do with the shaman gifts, or if it was about you overcoming the GS-155, or something else entirely. The Council did express a desire to put you in protective custody in case they haven’t found all the players yet. I explained that you weren’t likely to trust anyone from the Council at this point in time.”
“No kidding,” Tony muttered.
“So, let’s talk about what’s next for you,” Blair began.
Tony held up a hand to stop anyone from starting that line of discussion. “I’d rather start with some decisions I’ve made, and see what can be worked around them.”
There were some looks exchanged, but Blair nodded.
“I think it’s best if I stay in Cascade for now. I trust everyone here, and I know I need to spend time with Blair in shaman school,” he said a bit teasingly, causing Blair to laugh. “That said, I’m going to rent a furnished place for a bit and see how things go, and then I’m probably going to take Incacha up on his offer to come to Peru and train. I haven’t figured out how to handle transportation, considering the getting yanked to the spirit plane issue, although that’s getting better. Worst case, I’ll get a driver.
“That said, I’m not trying to be unreasonable, I just need to be in my own space. Everyone has been really good to me, and I can’t express how much I appreciate it, but we don’t know how long I’m going to be here, and the lack of control is making me a little insane. If you feel you must, you can try to talk me out of it.”
Most of the room looked at Morgan, who threw down his pencil with a huff of exasperation, which caused Marcus to smile. Shaking his head, Morgan looked at Tony. “You know everyone looked at me because they’re expecting me to raise the big fuss, but I’m not going to.”
Alex actually physically jerked he was so surprised. Morgan glared at him for it.
Turning his attention back to Tony, Morgan replied, “What I am going to do is throw the problems over the wall into your lap, and hear your proposals on how to handle it.”
Tony nodded, that seemed fair.
“First, the issue of conservator. I’m fully cognizant that you are aware of the general guidelines we have for conservatorship for guides who have a major empathic event. They have to be solid for four weeks, and every time they have even a minor problem, the clock resets. In your case, I’d actually recommend a month after your healing is finished. Your healing will be done in another week. What’s your thought?”
Blowing out a breath, Tony considered for a second. Part of him wanted to demand there be no conservator, but he knew he’d have to bend a little. “I’m willing to get an apartment large enough for someone to stay with me. Are there conservators who are willing to do that? I don’t really know anything about it.”
“There’s a mix. We have conservators who prefer to have their clients stay with them, and others who don’t care. In your case, it’s a matter of finding someone empathically strong enough to be even marginally effective if you have an issue. I’ll have to discuss further with Marcus and Blair to see what options we can come up with. Next problem is the issue of protection. I realize you’ve been in law enforcement for many years, so you may find this abrasive, but the fact is that you cannot adequately guard yourself, by yourself.”
Tony could admit he was stumped by that one. “I don’t really know what to say. The cop in me wants to insist that I can take care of myself, but considering the GHB issue, I’m willing to admit I’m out of my depth. Are you thinking I should hire a bodyguard?”
Morgan tapped his pencil on the table rhythmically, clearly thinking the issue through. “How do you feel about a three bedroom?”
“Security during the day is fairly easy to arrange, but night security is a little more complicated. Sentinels by nature are very attuned to their environment even at night, so if you had a sentinel living with you, the issue would be resolved, and we could set up a schedule for day time.”
“And you think this is necessary?”
“All of you?” Tony asked, looking around the room. He was a little disheartened by the unanimous nods.
“Tony,” Alex said, “I understand where you’re coming from, and I respect it. Still, there’s a real danger here and if you don’t want to live in someone else’s house, this is the best option.”
“Okay,” Tony conceded.
“Then, unless you object, I’ll have my assistant start looking at options for you,” Morgan stated, making a couple quick notes. “There are several primarily sentinel/guide buildings in the area, and if we can get you in there, it’s an added layer of security for you to be basically surrounded by sentinels.”
Blinking in surprise, he could only nod. “I… yeah, that’d be great.”
Three weeks later, Tony trudged into his apartment, completely exhausted, with his new conservator trailing behind him. It had been a miserable day. A guide at the Center had an empathic event after an assault and had projected her emotions all over everyone nearby. Tony had been there training with Alex when it happened, and while Alex had rushed to shield the woman’s emotions and try to help her shore up her own shields, Tony had reacted like a cop and instinctively tried to protect innocent bystanders.
And wasn’t that hard to explain later. Without thinking, he’d thrown an empathic buffer around everyone nearby. Later when everyone involved had said they didn’t feel anything because someone was buffering them, Tony had fessed up to his instinctive reaction, which had caused Morgan and Alex to just stare at him. Their stupefaction had given Blair a bad case of the giggles.
Consciously, he actually did know that he should have just shielded the guide in distress, but he’d felt this wave of emotion coming and had reacted a little differently. Everything was fine in the end, but it had made Tony a little tired and made getting through the rest of the day difficult. Plus he’d gotten a sentinel spiritual summons today, which just added to the day.
Fortunately, he was getting much better at controlling the tether to the spirit plane, and was slowly teaching the other shaman how to listen for sentinels in distress. Hopefully soon they’d be able to set up a rotation and Tony could work on completely shutting down the link when it wasn’t his turn.
He was also emotionally worn out. Christmas was in a week, and he was torn about where to go and what to do. Added to that, just last week, he’d given the go ahead for McGee, Ziva and Abby to get in touch and that mostly hadn’t gone well. He was still angry about it.
McGee was the best of the bunch, said he wanted to talk, but still clearly wasn’t taking responsibility for his own actions. Ziva was just hostile, and he told her not to contact him again unless she had something constructive to say. Abby was just venting her emotions left right and center, with very little coherent thought. He hadn’t yet decided what to do about McGee and Abby.
Last weekend, he’d gone down to Seattle to see Sean and his mother. Sean had a guide come work with him on his senses a couple days a week, and went to the Center whenever he needed to. He was so happy to see Tony, and the visit had been good for Tony’s spirits, too. He’d left Christmas presents with Sean’s mom to hold on to for Christmas Day.
Tonight, he’d planned to have dinner with Solon and Evan, but he was just too drained and had asked if they could reschedule for tomorrow. Plus, he was just feeling off today. He could barely manage polite greetings to the two men who lived with him.
He made dinner as quickly as he could and ate standing up in the kitchen. All he wanted was a hot shower and to go to bed early. Then veg out for the weekend. Maybe he’d veg out all the way through Christmas and not have to deal with any more difficult decisions.
Jack O’Neill was pretty sure they were going to die. Not that they hadn’t been in dire circumstances before, but this time seemed different for some reason. He wasn’t sure what they’d done to offend the seemingly nice villagers, though Daniel would know, Daniel always knew what cultural gaffe they’d made and was happy to explain it to Jack in mind-numbing detail. And Jack would happily listen this time… if they managed to survive this.
It should have been a milk run of a mission. Make contact with villagers, negotiate for medicinal plants, go home, and stand down for two weeks because the team was overworked. End of report.
Medicinal plants. Wasn’t it always medicinal plants? They got in more trouble over trying to do something good than they did in their search for big ass guns. Okay, so maybe that wasn’t true, but it sure stuck in Jack’s craw more. The trouble they found searching for killer weaponry seemed comparable to what they were seeking. But every time they got in trouble looking for plants it just seemed blatantly unfair.
Still, whatever they had done was sort of immaterial at this point, what mattered was that they were all being executed in the morning, which he thought was just a couple hours away, and Jack’s gut was saying they weren’t getting out of it. For all their surface affability, once the villagers were upset, they were quick, brutal and smart. The smart was the hard thing to overcome.
First, they’d separated everyone. Jack had no idea where the rest of the team was. Second, they’d removed every single thing that could be remotely useful to him; all he was left with was his t-shirt and pants. Third, the guards were always in sufficient numbers to ensure that if you got the better of one or two or even three, there was always another willing to bash you in the back of the skull. He gingerly rubbed the back of his head in recollection. And finally, the room he was being held in was simple, bare and had bars on the door. It was chillingly effective for its simplicity. There were no high tech panels or doohickeys for Carter to do magic with, just bars and locks.
They weren’t even due to check-in until tomorrow night, and heads could have rolled by then. He winced, hoping that wasn’t going to be literal.
Damn. They were gonna die.
Several times in the past, when their chances of escape or survival seemed low, Jack had wondered if his sentinel abilities would have helped. A few times, he’d even been so desperate as to reach for them, but he hadn’t been able to connect with that part of himself he’d shut off so many years before. All for the sake of his marriage.
He’d been in the Middle East when he’d come online, a critical mission with no time to report to a Center for testing and training. The Air Force had assigned him a military interim guide to help him get control of his senses enough to complete his mission. He’d come home to see his pregnant wife before reporting to the S&G Center, only to have his wife turn into a harpy he didn’t even know. She’d thrown down an ultimatum that if Jack wanted to stay married and ever have contact with his child, he could forget ever having a guide in her home.
They’d fought about it, rather extensively, but as she was packing her bags, Jack had agreed to not have a guide. They’d talked about it after the divorce and she’d apologized for being so unreasonable, though she still wouldn’t talk about her motivations.
For good or for bad, Jack had chosen to not use his senses. It had taken weeks of wrestling with them to get them suppressed. The Center had called frequently, even sent people to try to get him to come in, but Jack had ignored them and eventually they’d given up.
After Charlie died, there was the suicide mission to Abydos, and Jack never had reason to try to turn his sentinel gifts back on. When the Stargate program had really gotten started, they had made a preliminary decision not to use strong sentinels because of secrecy issues. Jack had questioned that decision because any strong sentinels they brought into the program would be on gate teams and theoretically highly trusted, but ultimately the decision was made above his pay grade. They did have some sentinels and guides on gate teams, though they were all below level six, whatever that meant, and all the guides had to be military. Because Jack’s file noted him as an inactive sentinel, who’d never been rated, he hadn’t been prevented from joining the SGC.
While Jack didn’t know what his rating was, the temp guide he’d worked with had said there was no doubt he was a high level sentinel. Ultimately, that would have precluded Jack from joining the SGC, and the SGC was a decision Jack had never regretted.
Despite everything, several times Jack had thought if the senses could save them, it would be worth it, but he’d never been able to get them back. And here they were again in desperate circumstances and Jack would do anything, take any advantage, to get them out of this. He didn’t know for sure that super senses would help in this situation, but they couldn’t hurt. Well, they could hurt in a physical way, but he didn’t think they’d make the situation any worse!
Jack stopped pacing and sat on the long wooden bench that was the only furnishing in the small room. Resting his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands, he concentrated on what it had been like to be a sentinel. What it had felt like when he’d come online. He remembered thinking he’d seen a tiger right before there was a blinding flash, and then everything had been different.
But it wasn’t just the senses. Jack hated to admit it, because he really loathed that kind of crap, but he remembered feeling connected to something, grounded in an odd way, like Jack had suddenly become something more.
This time, instead of trying to pull at his senses, which never responded, he concentrated on that feeling, on what it had been like to feel that. He wrapped his brain around that memory, around that feeling, and yanked on it, trying to pull it forward, trying to remember what it was to be a sentinel.
“Seriously, couldn’t you have done that a little more subtly?” a man’s voice asked irritably.
Jack jerked to a standing position, finding himself somewhere new. A jungle. A blue jungle. Okay, he was dreaming, because there wasn’t any other explanation for blue jungle. Great he’d fallen asleep right before his own execution. And he was apparently conjuring up attractive men in nothing but drawstring pants and what looked like some kind of dog tag, though not in the shape of anything military.
The man in question was rubbing at his upper abdomen and looking at Jack with a cranky expression.
“What the hell?” Jack finally managed.
The man sighed, now just looking tired. “This isn’t a dream, I’m not imaginary. This is the spirit plane, sentinel. So, since I’m now awake thanks to your rather brutal summons, why don’t you tell me your name, where you are, and the nature of your distress.”
“Wait… what?” Jack stammered. “What are you, like the sentinel AAA?”
“Oh, ha ha. Compare me to $49.95 road service again and you can try your hand at summoning someone else!” The man took a deep breath and was obviously trying to relax. “Look, I’ve had a rough day, but I’m not in the habit of taking it out on sentinels in trouble, so if you’ll just tell me what help you need, I’ll try to get it to you.”
Jack just stared, his mind working overdrive. If this wasn’t a dream, and he was starting to think it was real, the most logical explanation was that this was an Ancient, because another plane of existence screamed ascended being to him, but what Ancient understood US cultural references? “Where are you from?”
The man blinked. “Well, no one has asked that question so early in the relationship before, but okay, I’m open to new experiences. Are you asking where am I right now, or where I was born, or where I call home?”
“Oh, I’m flexible, how about all three.”
The man’s eyes narrowed. “Fine. And then can we get on with it?”
“Yeah, sure, you betcha,” Jack agreed, but not really.
“Presently I am in Cascade, I was born in Long Island and I don’t have a home at the moment. Now would you tell me what help you need, or I’m going back to bed. Because even though it’s never actually cold here, I find it psychologically chilly to be standing around without a shirt.”
“Cascade, Washington? In the USA?” Jack was forcing himself not to gape.
“Oh for heaven’s sake!” The man threw up his hands. “What is the problem, sentinel? And for the love of god, would you tell me your name?”
“My name is Jack.”
“Well, that’s progress. I’m Tony. Now. What. Help. Do. You. Need?”
“How are you supposed to help me from wherever this is?”
“I usually pull someone else here, who runs back to the tangible world and makes a phone call, after which, people are rescued from military bases, closets, the bad guys, basically whatever dire predicament they’re in. But I’m not summoning someone else until I know what’s up, because it’s the middle of the night, and even the strongest shaman needs his sleep! If the situation isn’t perilous, I’ll go back and make the calls on my own.”
“Well, none of that’s going to work, because there’s no way for you to arrange help for me.”
Tony blew out a breath. “Well, that’s new. And may I say, you picked a terrible time to be original. You clearly need help though, or you wouldn’t have yanked me here. So just tell me what’s going on. Why did you call?”
“I can promise you, when I was wishing for help, I didn’t think I’d get a half naked man on another plane of existence. That’s way outside of my frame of… imagining. I just wanted to see if I could get my senses working, see if they’d help get us out of this clusterfuck before someone tries to chop off my head.”
Brows shooting up in surprise, Tony asked, “What do you mean get your senses working?”
Jack really didn’t want to spill his life story to some stranger in a strange land, but if he was serious about getting his senses working, maybe he needed to give this a try. “Look, a long time ago I chose not to use my senses, and after more than a decade, I tried one time when things were fairly grim, but it didn’t work. And tonight, I was hoping that they might help us out of the situation we’re in. I’m not sure how, but it’s better than nothing. Because nothing is what I have left.”
Tony blinked a few times and stared at Jack for several beats. “So you chose not to be a sentinel.” He sighed. “I’m not the expert on this, but I’ve heard of it. You sort of forced your sentinel to be dormant. Tell me this, if you could get your senses back, would you turn them off again until the next time you were in dire need?”
He had to consider that for a bit. “I don’t know.”
“Well, you have to figure that out first. A sentinel has to choose it. You either are or you aren’t. You can’t put it in a box and take it out when you need it. And from what I see, you’re on the front lines anyway, protecting the tribe, so I don’t understand why you’d reject the sentinel in you.”
“It’s a complicated situation,” Jack said a little defensively.
“I’m sure you think I couldn’t possibly understand, but my situation is such a morass of complicated that a large group of people struggle to get their heads around it.” He huffed a little. “Look, I think you can still choose to be a sentinel, but you have to mean it all the time, not just when it’s convenient. It’s a calling, and believe me, I hate having to use language like that, but it’s the truth.”
“So, how do I do it?” Jack asked, not sure if he would try or not.
“I’m not entirely sure, but we could start by seeing if your spirit guide will even acknowledge you.”
“Oh, fuck. I’m not comfortable with this kind of… thing.”
“Well, it’s a rare sentinel that is, but it’s still part of you, so suck it up, Colonel.”
“How the hell did you know that?” Jack barked, suddenly wondering if this was some kind of set up.
“My wonderful powers of deduction. Your age, your attitude, your bearing, your,” he made wiggly fingers towards Jack’s head, “haircut. You’re still serving on the front lines, so you’re not a general. Also, you don’t strike me as Navy. I figured major or colonel, and thought colonel was more likely.”
Jack dragged his hand down his face, blowing out a breath. “Fine. How do we do this?”
“Well, I’ll start by introducing you to my spirit animal, because sometimes that helps the sentinels here get a feel for what they’re trying to call.” Tony hesitated. “He’s big, so don’t flip out.”
Jack just rolled his eyes, then promptly jumped when an enormous white Siberian tiger appeared next to Tony. “Damn,” he muttered.
“This is Gattino. And he’s generally friendly. Pet him a little and we’ll see if you can call your spirit animal. If you can’t, I can try to do it, but it’s better coming from you.”
The tiger prowled closer to Jack, who held himself pretty stiffly, then the tiger nudged his hand. Jack noticed that Tony stiffened and his expression became kind of frozen. He petted the tiger’s head, thinking this was one of the most surreal things he’d ever been through, and that was saying a lot. “I saw a tiger the day I became a sentinel,” Jack murmured, a little lost in thought.
“Really?” Tony asked, sounding a little strangled, rubbing absently at the center of his chest.
“Something wrong?” He pulled his focus from the tiger, which had grabbed his attention more than it should have.
Tony looked at the ground and was quiet for bit. Finally, he looked up. “No. Everything is fine. Look, you may hate it, but focus on what Gattino feels like… on what this place feels like, and ask your spirit guide to come.”
Jack turned his attention from the tiger that he just wanted to keep petting, and tried to do what Tony had said. Nothing seemed to be happening, no matter how hard he tried. Practically of its own volition, his hand reached for Gattino and he reached for that part of himself.
A growl off to his right caught his attention.
If Gattino was enormous, then this tiger was gargantuan. It was more like a small horse. It was the normal orangish coloring of a Siberian and it seemed annoyed. Annoyed with Jack, because it kept growling lowly his direction.
“I don’t think he likes me much,” Jack muttered.
“I’m not sure I blame him,” Tony snapped as he held out his hand. The new Jack assumed was his own spirit guide stopped snarling and darted to Tony, making a weird noise.
As soon as Tony touched the tiger, Jack felt this odd wave of contentment and peace. He felt whole in a way he never knew he needed. And it kind of freaked him out. “What’s that noise he’s making?” he asked, as much to take his mind off this weird contentment as any form of real curiosity.
“Tigers don’t purr, they chuff.”
“So all those funny noises mean he’s happy?”
“Well he’s happy with me!” Tony half snarled, dropping to one knee to be closer to the spirit guide.
Jack held up both hands in a surrender gesture. “Whoa… I’m not sure what I did to deserve that. Not that it’s not easy for me to piss people off, but I wasn’t even trying this time,” Jack said wryly, trying to lighten the mood.
Tony had his arms around the tiger, face buried in its neck. After a bit, he finally pulled away and looked back at Jack. “You have to choose this, Jack. You have to choose him. Choose to be a sentinel. Or don’t. But it’s not a matter of convenience. You can’t put it away when you don’t want to deal with it.”
“I…” he wasn’t sure what to say. There was no doubt he could use the senses sometimes, maybe most of the time, but he wasn’t sure about the other stuff… about taking on a calling. Or maybe it was taking on another calling, because the SGC sure felt like that already. “Why do I feel something when you touch him?” he asked, trying to deflect the conversation a little.
“Because connections here are spiritual.”
“Oh, well, glad we cleared that up,” Jack snarked.
Tony sighed and pulled his hand away from the tiger, leaving Jack feeling a little lost. The tiger made a clearly unhappy sound and moved back into Tony. “Look, are you sure I can’t call you some help? If you just tell me where you are, or who your CO is, I could tell them you’re in trouble.” He hesitated. “Please, Jack, let me help.”
He was surprised at how much this seemed to mean to Tony. “I honestly don’t think I have the time. It would take half a day for reinforcements to get here, and we have a couple hours at most. But…” maybe he could stall, or something. Maybe getting reinforcements on the way was the best option. Even if they only got there in time to bring his body home. “General George Hammond, Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado Springs.”
“NORAD?” Tony asked, looking startled.
“Not exactly. We share facilities. I can’t tell you anything else. I’ll give you the general’s number right before you go, so you don’t have to try to remember it.” Jack still wasn’t one hundred percent certain this was all happening, but he was really short on options right now.
Tony pulled his hand away from Jack’s tiger again, which caused the tiger to make another unhappy noise, which Jack could totally understand. With seeming reluctance, Tony stepped close to him, placed a hand on Jack’s chest, and closed his eyes. The touch was just like what he felt when Tony touched the tiger, only more intense. He wasn’t sure he wanted it to end.
Looking a little bereft, Tony stepped back, leaving Jack feeling much the same way and he didn’t understand why. “There’s still a sentinel in you, Jack. I’ll call your general, and I’ll be hoping you return safely. Want to give me your last name, or should I just tell him ‘Jack’s in trouble’?”
“I’m sure he won’t have to question who if you say that. He certainly hears it enough. But my name is Colonel Jonathan J. O’Neill. Two L’s.” He held up three fingers. “Everyone calls me Jack.”
Tony nodded and looked to Jack’s tiger. “Try naming him. Sometimes it’s easier for sentinels to call their spirit guides if they have a focal point. And I think, just maybe, Gattino might come to you if the sentinel in you asked.”
Jack could tell Tony was leaving and he really didn’t want him to go, but he knew he couldn’t just stay here either. “Maybe I’ll name him Gretzky. Greatest player ever in the NHL.”
That managed to get a faint smile out of Tony. “Good name. For myself, I liked Bobby Orr. But I was always partial to defenseman.”
And Jack loved Tony just a little bit for that comment.
Tony hesitated a second. “Jack… if you make it out, will you let me know?”
“Sure, Tony. Just tell me how.”
“You can reach me through the S&G Center in Cascade. Name’s Tony DiNozzo. Now give me this General Hammond’s phone number and get back to figuring out how to get out of whatever mess you’ve gotten yourself into.”
Jack rattled off the general’s cell, then added, “What makes you think this mess is my fault?”
Tony smiled a little and it made Jack’s stomach clench. “Because I’ve met you, Jack.” With those words, the air seemed to shimmer and Jack was sitting in his cell again.
– – – –