Title: The Journey Home – Chapters 13-15
Author: Jilly James
Beta: Naelany & IcefallsTears
Return to main story page
– – – –
Tony watched as Jack vanished back to wherever he was being held prisoner. That was his sentinel. His sentinel who could die soon. His sentinel who’d chosen not to be a sentinel. He focused on returning to his room; he could freak out after he’d called the general.
Jolting upright in bed, he scrabbled for his phone, typing out the number with trembling fingers.
“I hope this is important,” answered a voice Tony found very calming despite the annoyance he could infer from the actual words.
Taking a steadying breath, Tony asked, “General Hammond?”
“Yes. To whom am I speaking?”
“Sir, my name is Anthony DiNozzo. I’m with the Sentinel and Guide Center in Cascade, Washington.” That was a stretch of the truth, but it would have to do, because his status as an NCIS agent was sort of irrelevant. “I have a message from Colonel Jack O’Neill. He said they’ve run into some trouble and are due to be executed in a couple hours.”
The general was silent for a few beats, then sighed. “Son, it’s not possible for you to have spoken with Colonel O’Neill. Whoever asked you to make this call is playing a tasteless prank on the both of us.”
“Please, sir. I realize this is going to sound strange to you, but I assume you are aware that Jack is a dormant sentinel?”
“I’m not prepared to discuss confidential personnel information with someone over the phone at four o’clock in the morning.”
Ignoring the last, Tony continued, “All sentinels have a connection to a spirit plane, and if they reach out to it, sometimes they find a guide like me who might be able to help them. I don’t know where Jack is, he wouldn’t tell me, but I did see him, and he gave me your phone number.” He had a thought. “I realize you have no idea who I am, and I have no credibility with you, but Jack and his team are in danger and you need to send them help.”
“No! Please don’t tell me it’s not possible. I do this all the time. If it helps you make a decision, I can have the Alpha Sentinel Prime for the US, Jim Ellison, call you right back to confirm that I can talk to sentinels on the spirit plane, and we’ve never been wrong about the information we received. Please,” Tony begged. “Please, don’t ignore this.”
There was a long silence, then finally, “I’ll call the base to begin making preparations to send a rescue team, but before I send that team, I want to hear from Sentinel Ellison. I’d like to be able to take your word for it, but I can’t send men on a mission based on unverified intel from someone I’ve never heard of.”
Tony sagged with relief. “Thank you. I’ll have Jim call you immediately. Within five minutes. Again, thank you.”
“If this is legitimate, I’m sure I’ll be the one offering my thanks.”
“Sir… Will you let me know whether or not Jack makes it back?”
“If this all true, I can release that information to someone of Sentinel Ellison’s clearance, and I will do so.”
Tony terminated the call and quickly phoned Jim. Normally, he’d call Blair but that was just an extra person to talk to.
The phone was answered even before the first ring. Some sentinel mojo where he knew the phone was about to ring. “What’s the problem, Tony?” Jim said lowly, no doubt trying not to wake Blair.
“Military sentinel being held by hostiles. His general won’t mount a rescue mission until he has someone’s word for it besides mine. He said yours was sufficient. Will you call? Like right now. The sentinel’s name is Jack O’Neill. He’s with his team I gather, but I don’t know how many or where. He wouldn’t really give me any info.”
“Give me the number,” Jim said brusquely.
Tony rattled off the number. “His name is George Hammond.”
“We’ll call you back.” The line went dead.
Bracing his hands on his knees, Tony focused on breathing. His heart was beating way too fast and he was pretty close to a complete emotional meltdown. Despite being upset, he closed his eyes and checked his shields. His primary shield felt solid, which controlled the flow of emotions in or out, but his secondary shield was a mess, which was the shield guides used to mask their emotions from other empaths. So, anyone could passively scan him right now. Since he wasn’t projecting, he hoped he hadn’t woken his conservator.
He was trying to shore up the secondary shield, and not think about the elephant in his bedroom when his phone rang. “Tony,” he answered without looking.
“It’s Blair. What’s going on, Tony?”
“Wha- uh, I told everything to Jim.”
“I mean, what’s wrong? Jim could detect tremors of distress in your voice and you don’t usually get that rattled from one of these anymore.”
Tony was quiet so long, Blair prompted, “Tony?”
He barely managed to whisper, “He’s my sentinel.”
“Oh, Tony,” Blair breathed. When he didn’t offer any fake platitudes, Tony knew the general had mentioned how far away reinforcements were. “I’m coming over.”
“Blair, no… You don’t have to,” Tony replied, voice catching a bit.
“Yeah, I really do. I’ll see you soon.”
His phone rang again almost immediately. Taking a steadying breath, he quickly answered, “You really don’t have to come, Blair.”
“Mr. DiNozzo, this is General Hammond.”
Tony sat up straight. “Sir.”
“I just wanted to let you know that I spoke with Sentinel Ellison, and we are mounting a rescue mission. I also wanted to assure you that I will personally let you know the outcome.”
“Thank you.” He was mostly grateful that Hammond was going to take the leap of faith, but he was also relieved that he’d know one way or the other.
“We may have some follow-up questions for you. Would you be amenable to that?”
“Of course. Though, Blair is really the expert.”
“Dr. Sandburg said you were the expert when it came to this form of communication.”
“Ah. Well, I’ll certainly try to help if I can.”
The general said his goodbyes and Tony was left once again with his thoughts. His racing thoughts. He made himself get up, noticing that his knees felt wobbly, and pulled on a t-shirt.
He found himself rubbing at his chest, at the ache he had barely started getting accustomed to. An ache he might have to live with for the rest of his life. Resting his head against the doorjamb, he forced himself to breathe normally. The last few months felt like a constant barrage of the metaphorical rug being pulled out from under him.
There was a tap at his bedroom door, and he opened it to find Greg, his sentinel roommate. A twenty-five year-old level seven, who reminded him of Tom Welling. “You okay, Tony?”
“Fine. Did I wake you?”
Greg looked disbelieving. “I woke when you made the call, which you only do in the middle of the night if there’s a sentinel emergency. But your heart’s been racing and your breathing’s erratic.”
Tony tried to smile, but it just came off feeling sad. The sentinel was supposed to protect him from outside threats, but he was a major worrywart about nearly everything. “It was a rough call. Blair’s on his way, so there’s no need to stay up.”
“Whatever you say, Tony,” Greg said affably, then returned to the couch and picked up a book. Sentinels… Stubborn, the whole lot of ‘em.
Tony expected Blair any second. The alpha pair only lived a few blocks away, and in the middle of the night, Blair’d get here fast. He decided to remain in his room and let his emotions settle a little more.
The tap on the door was barely a minute later and he heard Greg answer. He stepped out just as Blair and Jim entered. Blair wasted no time shooing Tony back into the master bedroom and closing the door. They wound up sitting side by side on the bed.
“You’re a mess,” Blair said, running a hand slowly over Tony’s back. “How bad was it?”
“It… I mean, he wasn’t injured or anything. He just said he was scheduled for execution in a couple of hours.” Tony looked at his hands. “He said reinforcements would take at least half a day to reach him.”
“Don’t expect the worst, Tony.” Blair hesitated a second. “Did you tell him you’re his guide?”
Tony had to swallow past the lump in his throat and blinked rapidly. “No. There really wasn’t… I mean, I…” he trailed off. “When he pulled at me, he was actually trying to turn his senses on.”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s intentionally dormant,” he replied bleakly.
Blair sucked in a breath through his teeth. “Oh, man… That’s just…”
“Yeah. I think instead of reaching for his senses, he reached for what it meant to be a sentinel and pulled me to him instead.” He realized he was rubbing his chest again and dropped his hand back to his lap.
“Did you realize immediately that he was your sentinel?”
“No. Not until he touched Gattino. Then, I knew instantly.” Tony had always heard that sentinels and guides knew each other on sight, but apparently the spirit plane was a little different. He always cared about what happened to the sentinels he helped, but this was different. The minute he’d felt that connection to Jack, he’d had the briefest glimpse of feeling whole and connected to something. It felt like home.
Tony finally looked up at Blair, but his vision was a little blurry and he blinked the excess moisture away. “We were able to summon his spirit guide, so I think he could still be a sentinel if he wants, but…” he stopped for a second. “But I told him he had to do it or not, he couldn’t just put it away again.”
“What did he say?” Blair prompted gently.
“He wasn’t sure what he was going to do. Of course, none of it matters if he doesn’t…” he left the words unsaid. Nothing mattered if Jack didn’t make it.
Jack paced his cell, thoughts spinning on the sentinel question… and really missing his shoes. As soon as he’d come back from wherever he’d been, he’d said yes to the sentinel thing. He’d even tried saying it out loud. Nothing. No big ass tiger, no super hearing, just nothing. So maybe he didn’t really mean it. Apparently it was a lot easier to fool the bad guys than your own spirit animal. And, yeah, Jack needed to get his head examined for even buying into this.
So why did he feel like he was letting Tony down? A man he’d talked to for like ten minutes who may not even be real. Though he did come with some kick ass pets.
What was so bad about being a sentinel?
Jack hadn’t worked with sentinels often, but Tony was right in stating the obvious… Jack was pretty much already doing the job, and the senses could only help. Of course, he’d have to get a guide, and that’s where things got a little difficult. There were so many variables, not the least of which was would they make him transfer from the SGC? He honestly didn’t think the Powers That Be would go that far, but it was a possibility.
From the increased sounds from beyond the bars, it was clear he was running out of time. It was morning and the village was waking. Only a few minutes later, his cell door was opened and he was gestured out. There was no point in trying to talk… they couldn’t understand him and vice versa.
In the corridor, there were eight guards waiting for him. He was a little gratified that they thought he needed that many minders, but also frustrated that he had little chance of getting away. The guards all carried some combination of swords, daggers and staffs.
Jack was herded into the large hall where they’d been greeted the day before. The method of execution was not readily apparent, so it likely wasn’t going to happen there. He was the first of the team brought in. Hopefully that didn’t mean something had already happened to the others.
The village ruler was seated in the same spot as before, with another man to his right who’d briefly spoken to Jack in the native language right before everything went to shit. Jack had no idea what had been said, or how he’d failed to respond, because only Danny could talk to them.
The guy was getting up there in age, but was big and bald and clearly a warrior of some sort. Maybe even their senior warrior. He had lots of things hanging around his neck. A small percentage of the guards had similar necklaces, though not as many as the guy on the dais. His name was Soppy-something-or-the-other, Jack thought he recalled Daniel saying.
More footsteps heralded the arrival of Daniel and Carter. Jack nearly sagged in relief that they were okay. The three of them were pushed near one another. “You try talking to ‘em, Daniel?” He nearly smacked himself. “Never mind. Stupid question. What’d they say?”
“All I got was references to something called ehcmotla, and I couldn’t get enough information to figure out what that is. After that, no one would talk to me,” Daniel said softly, still managing to convey frustration that Jack shared.
A large contingent of guards arrived surrounding Teal’c, who had a couple fresh cuts and bruises, indicating he’d not come along easily. No doubt a last ditch effort to escape.
The leader held up a hand and said something, which caused Daniel’s brow to furrow. Daniel shot back a question, which was briefly answered, then the expressions became very stony.
Daniel looked to Jack. “He said you must ehcmotla or we face death. I told him we don’t know that term and he needed to explain. He said a mixtiani such as yourself must bare his soul, to prove you remain on the path. This is your one chance, and there will be no further discussion.”
“What does any of that even mean?” Jack asked with a sense of desperation.
“I don’t know! I thought mixtiani was a warrior, but that’s clearly not it.” Daniel turned back and tried talking again, but the leader just lifted his hand toward the guards.
Realizing he was out of time, Jack closed his eyes and focused. At this point, it may not actually help any, but he thought if this was it, he’d go out as he was meant to be. “Gretzky, get your butt down here.” He ignored Daniel and Carter’s questions. “I choose, all right? I’ll be a sentinel.”
“Sir!” Carter said indignantly. Jack knew she was a level three guide who had chosen to not use her guide abilities, and also had some private issues surrounding it. She was the only person on the team who was aware that Jack was an inactive sentinel, though not because he’d told her. Someone in the chain of command had released that information to Carter.
Daniel just uttered a confused, “Jack?”
But Jack just kept focusing, letting the conviction build. Suddenly there was an odd snap inside him, and there was a rushing sound in his ears, and he felt right for the first time since he’d turned the senses off. He hadn’t even been aware of just how off center he’d been all these years.
At a few sharply indrawn breaths, including from Carter, Jack opened his eyes to find Gretzky standing in front of him, staring. He just nodded to the tiger, confirmation that he was choosing this, who then reared up and placed his enormous paws on Jack’s shoulders. Staggering a bit, Jack had the thought that his spirit tiger needed to go on a spirit diet. The Siberian was quite a bit taller than Jack in this position.
A moment later he felt the rush of his senses returning and struggled to keep them under control. Everything was bright and loud and smelly.
He suddenly realized only a portion of the room was staring at Gretzky, one of them being Carter, and he assumed the tiger wasn’t visible to everyone. He seemed to remember that about spirit guides. Only sentinels and guides saw them. So why were some of the guards staring at his tiger? Could this planet have sentinels?
The big warrior standing next to the people’s leader stepped off the dais, with the first smile Jack had seen on the dour face.
Gretzky went back on all fours and faced the room, then suddenly he roared and the entire room reacted.
“Where did that come from, Jack?” Daniel asked, taking a couple quick steps back, bumping into one of the guards, who also seemed intent on backing up.
“Well, I guess everyone’s seeing him now,” Jack comment wryly.
“Now? How long has he been there?”
“Oh… ya know… not long,” Jack commented, watching as the big warrior moved toward them, now really smiling.
“When did you come into possession of a Siberian tiger, O’Neill?” Teal’c asked with a faint hint of surprise, which was practically an exclamation of shock in Teal’c-speak.
Before Jack could reply, Gretzky’s head whipped around and shot Teal’c a baleful look. “I think we might not want to call him a possession,” Jack noted idly.
“That seems most wise,” Teal’c readily agreed.
The big bald warrior with all the necklaces stepped up to their group, giving Gretzky a respectful distance, and began to speak with his arms held open invitingly. Jack was really fucking confused.
Daniel listened attentively, his expression shifting to confused several times. Finally, he turned towards Jack. “You remember Sopo Eztli? Their chief warrior. Though I think I may have gotten that wrong when I introduced him last night. He says he’s like you… mixtiani, I thought that meant warrior and I’m now thinking that means sentinel.”
Danny gave him the hairy eyeball. “He says now that you have done the ehcmotla, that thing I couldn’t figure out and I still don’t know what it means, that we are now welcome and we can discuss trade.” Daniel fired off some questions to Sopo.
Oh. Wait. What? A huge percentage of Jack’s concentration was on keeping his senses under control, so he wasn’t a hundred percent on his game. Did this mean that they weren’t in trouble anymore? And how did that happen?
Daniel turned to Jack again with a smile so sickly sweet that it filled Jack with dread. “Apparently sentinels are their primary protectors, and they can sense a sentinel in their midst. But you felt funny to them, so they needed to be sure you weren’t one of the tainted ones, so he asked you last night to perform the ehcmotla, which is apparently where you reveal your soul, or tenonotzani, to your brothers so they can know you are of pure intent.”
“Well I didn’t know!” Jack said defensively. “And what soul did I reveal exactly?”
Huffing a little, Daniel gestured to the tiger.
“Oh.” Note to self: never send sentinels to this planet who don’t know how to reveal their spirit guide. Jack was developing a headache of legendary proportions. His senses told him some of the people in the room were guides, but his guts tightened at the thought of grounding his senses on any of them.
Daniel got his attention again. “They are very impressed with,” Daniel hesitated a bit, then finally managed, “Gretzky, and did you really have to name him that, they say he is a noble animal and clearly you are a warrior of high standing for such an impressive tenonotzani to have chosen you.”
Jack’s ability to focus on Daniel’s explanations was wavering as everything was just too loud. His senses skittered over Carter, who was suspiciously quiet, but the sentinel in him only saw her as incompatible. Finally, out of desperation, Jack whispered, “Gattino, if you can do anything, I could use some help.”
A moment later he felt soft fur under his fingertips and his senses leveled out. Maybe they leveled out too much. Either that or the room had gone eerily quiet. Jack glanced at Daniel, who was gaping at the white tiger pressed up against Jack. “I guess you can see him, too?”
Daniel blinked at him a few times, before he managed, “You’re not supposed to have two of them, Jack!” That was what-did-you-do-now Jack! variant three.
“He’s not mine. He belongs to someone who helped me with all of this.”
“Last night,” Jack replied vaguely.
Daniels brows snapped into a frown. “Is that supposed to make sense?”
“Jack!” And that was Daniel’s annoyed Jack! variant number four.
“It’s a long story, but right now, you need to figure out why everyone is staring at Gattino.”
“That huge tiger’s name is kitten?”
“What?” Jack asked, wondering where Daniel came up with these things.
“Gattino. Is Italian for kitten.”
Oh, yeah, Jack was so giving Tony shit for that. “Yes, he’s a big kitten. Now, get on with the cultural thingy.”
Daniel turned back to Sopo, who couldn’t stop staring at Gattino, and fired off several sentences. It took a bit for Sopo to reply. Daniel flashed a look at the white tiger before translating. “Though they have mixtiani and nanauatia, which I think is sentinel and guide, they have not had a acamapilli in many generations. I gather that’s something like a holy man. He says Gattino is the neltiliz tenonotzani of a powerful holy man. That such a creature would come to aid you means they now hold you in very high regard.”
Tony was a holy man? Right! But if it kept their heads attached, he’d let them believe whatever they wanted. He was not going to correct the people who drastically outnumbered them. “Okay. Does that mean we can have our shoes back? And weapons. That would be even better.”
“Jack,” Daniel gritted out. And that was Daniel’s exasperated Jack! variant number one.
Suddenly Jack realized something. “We have to go. Now. The general is sending reinforcements.”
“What do you mean? We’re not even due back until tomorrow.”
Jack gestured vaguely to the tigers. “I got some help last night sending a message.”
Daniel’s mouth dropped open. “You sent spirit guides to the general? How could that possibly help?”
“No. Why would I send him tigers that can’t talk?” Did Daniel think he was an idiot? “It’s complicated. But if we don’t want an incident, we should head out and meet the other teams.”
“You’re sure about this?”
Jack just flashed him a look.
With even quicker speech than before, Daniel explained the problem to Sopo, who looked concerned, but nodded. “He and several of their warriors will accompany us to explain to anyone we encounter that we are free to come and go as we please.”
Jack watched as their ruler stepped down from the dais and moved close to them, said something, then inclined his head and departed.
Daniel translated, “The Acatliacapanecatl says that they would not ask for such an honor, but if the holy man should desire to visit, he would be most welcome and an honored guest.”
“Right. I’m sure he’ll be thrilled.”
“You know who the tiger belongs to?”
“Of course I do! I didn’t just steal a tiger. Now let’s get our gear and get out of here.”
The rush to get their weapons and gear left no room for conversation, and they headed back to the ‘gate at a rapid clip, hoping to intercept any reinforcements. They ran into the other teams half way back. Everyone had been moving quickly, so they stopped to take a break, while Jack got a sitrep from the other two team leaders.
Before any real reports could be given, Lieutenant Colonel Reeves eyed the tigers who were sticking close to Jack. Though Jack noted that the tigers carefully avoided each other. “Is that safe?”
He thought about saying they weren’t real, but he wasn’t sure how anyone would react to that, least of all the tigers. “They’re fine. Sitrep, Reeves.”
“We took control of the ‘gate and subdued the hostiles approximately three hours ago. Left SG-5 to secure the ‘gate and the prisoners, then hotfooted it to rescue you, sir. But you don’t seem to need much rescuing,” he finished dryly
“We made up,” Jack muttered, reaching down to touch Gattino to help stabilize his senses again. “Were any of the locals hurt when you took the ‘gate? I’d hate to get them pissed off again now that we’re no longer on their immediately execute list.”
“Minor injuries only, sir.”
Jack blew out a breath of sheer relief. He saw that Daniel was busy explaining things to their escort. “Go let Daniel know to tell them no one was seriously hurt, Major.” As the Major moved away, he looked back at Reeves. “I’m an online sentinel, Reeves, as of this morning. I’m managing my senses, but if I lose it, take command, get everyone back to the SGC, hopefully without pissing anyone off.”
Reeves controlled his surprise and just nodded. “And the tigers?”
“They’ll go where they want.”
“I’m assuming they’re spirit guides. Though, I didn’t think regular humans could see them. And they’re huge, even for Siberians.”
“I think they’re making some special exceptions to get us out of this FUBAR situation.” He scratched them both behind the ears and got a couple chuffs for his efforts. “Let’s give everyone fifteen to rest and eat, then get back to the ‘gate.”
Reeves nodded, then suddenly moved away, and Jack realized Daniel was headed for him with a look that everyone knew meant get out of his way. “Jack!” That was Daniel’s demanding Jack! “Yes, Daniel?”
Daniel visibly calmed himself down. “You’re a sentinel?”
“For how long? And don’t tell me since this morning, because this was not a surprise to you.”
Jack sighed. “It’s a long story, but the CliffsNotes version is that I came online a long time ago, but for a variety of reasons I chose to suppress my senses. There have been a few times when I tried to turn them back on, but it wasn’t possible. Until today.”
“Why didn’t you ever tell me?” Daniel brought up sentinels and guides frequently, including his position that the SGC would benefit from more of them in the program. Jack had carefully never had much to say on the subject.
“Mostly I didn’t think about it. Can we save this for later?” He ran his hand down his face. “Please, Danny, not right now.” Because Jack had a monster headache, even with Gattino pressed up against his leg, and he didn’t want to be having the big old soul-baring conversation right this very second.
Daniel looked speculatively at the tigers. “I’m looking forward to hearing this story.” He started to turn away, then looked back at Jack. “I think on some level, maybe not conscious, but somehow you recognized sentinels around you, and knew it was the solution to the problem.”
Jack’s brows shot up, but he really didn’t have an opinion about that. He wouldn’t discount anything as possible at this point. After all, he’d been in a blue jungle last night.
He was sure he and Daniel would have a long painful conversation about this later, and he’d somehow manage to suck it up and endure it. Teal’c had always been interested in the sentinels and guides of the Tau’ri. So he expected some sort of conversation there, though probably not painful, and possibly amusing.
Carter was concerning him, however. He would bet she was actively avoiding him, and he wasn’t sure what was going on. He’d never pried into her issues around her own guide status, and she’d done him the same courtesy, other than the one off-hand remark about them both ignoring their status, which was made shortly after he met her.
At a normal pace, they had a good four hours or so back to the gate, and he could conceivably get some of these conversations out of the way, but he really wasn’t up to it. He thought about confronting Carter, but he decided that too needed to wait, especially considering how many people were around. He’d focus on just getting back while trying to remember how to modulate his senses.
Considering their situation, his instincts were to try to extend hearing and sight as much as possible, but he knew that would be a bad idea, so he tried to visualize his dials for the first time in a long time, and ruthlessly kept them under control.
By the time they reached the gate, he was physically tired but he was mentally exhausted. Things were quickly settled with the natives, and Daniel extended apologies for the confusion and any injuries, promising they’d return when they could to discuss trade.
Jack wondered if the tigers were going through the gate with them, but practically as soon as the thought crossed his mind, both tigers nudged him from opposite sides, and then vanished.
After his team was through, Jack took a steadying breath and took the step needed to take him home.
– – – –
AN: I totally mangled a bunch of words of Nahuatl for the villager’s references to sentinels and guides. Spellings are butchered and definitions changed. Just easier than making up new words.
– – – –
Tony wasn’t having the best day. In fact, most days were better than this one. After the really rough start, Blair had stayed until dawn. He’d suggested that Tony accompany him for the day, but Tony had declined, deciding he’d rather stay home.
Repeatedly he’d thought about calling Martin, but in the end had decided he didn’t want to have that conversation until he knew one way or the other. It was insane how much Jack meant to him after having talked to him for maybe a quarter of an hour. He kept telling himself that he barely knew Jack, but the guide in him was nearly grieving at the prospect of potentially losing Jack before Tony had ever had him.
Solon and Evan had shown up around eight, bearing bagels and coffee from Tony’s favorite shop, and hadn’t yet left. It was now nearing eleven and Tony was wondering, for the hundredth time, what half a day meant.
Jack had said it would take half a day for reinforcements to reach him. Did that mean a literal twelve hours, half of daylight hours, half a working day? And was it half a day there and half a day back? Would Tony even know something before tomorrow? He really should have asked Jack to be more specific. He’d talked to the general at three, so eight hours had already elapsed.
He forced himself to focus on something Evan was saying. He found himself smiling faintly at the pair sitting close together on his rent-a-couch. Solon was an interesting match for Evan. While Evan tended to be laid back due to his occupation as a conservator, Solon was just all out mellow. As in absolutely nothing ruffled the man. No matter how hard Tony tried. Of course, Tony wasn’t trying today. He was having a hard time finding humor in anything, so trying to rile up the world’s most placid sentinel held little appeal.
Solon was on leave while he and Evan decided what to do with their careers. It apparently wasn’t very common for a sentinel and guide mismatch to be so extreme, with Solon being military and Evan being firmly civilian.
Evan had just about talked Tony into a movie, when his cell ringing startled him into nearly fumbling it. The number was unfamiliar, but the area code was the same as the general’s cell. “This is Tony,” he answered quickly.
“Guide DiNozzo, this is General Hammond. I wanted to let you know that Colonel O’Neill and his team have been rescued, and they’re all alive.”
Tony’s world narrowed so sharply, he thought he might pass out.
“Mr. DiNozzo?” the general prompted.
“I’m sorry, I spaced a bit. I was just so relieved. And please, just call me Tony.” He hesitated a second. “Jack was okay?”
“No significant injury. He’s waiting for medical clearance before the mission debrief, then I’m sure he’ll be calling directly.”
Tony wanted to ask if Jack had chosen to be a sentinel or not, but he didn’t feel like he should be having that conversation with anyone but Jack. “Sir, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you calling.”
“It’s always a pleasure to deliver good news. Also, you have my sincere thanks for your assistance to Colonel O’Neill. I feel certain he didn’t make it easy on you.”
That surprised Tony into a laugh, though it was a bit wobbly. “Yeah, he made me work for it. Really, thank you again.”
“I’d like to ask one more favor of you, even though you’ve already rendered us a great service.”
“What can I do for you, General?”
“It’s in regards to those questions I mentioned previously. Would you be willing to come to Colorado Springs?”
Tony stiffened and shared a look with Solon, who he knew could hear what was going on. Solon looked less mellow than usual.
At Tony’s hesitation, the general added, “You’re welcome to bring anyone you need to, and I can call Sentinel Ellison to reassure him that you’ll be well cared for.”
“That would be fine, sir. I assume you’d want to do this sooner rather than later?”
“That would be my preference. I’ll give you my aide’s number, and he can arrange everything once you give the go-ahead.”
Tony took down the information, then said his goodbyes and hung up. Tony slumped forward, burying his face in his hands. A moment later, he felt a hand on his back, and knew even without his touch empathy that it was Evan. They’d always been comfortably touchy with each other.
“No,” Tony said, feeling a little hysterical, which was so not like him. He really needed some sleep. Taking a deep breath, he sat up. “I’m fine. He’s alive, that’s what matters.”
“Do you know if he chose to be a sentinel?” Evan asked cautiously.
“No, and I didn’t feel comfortable asking his CO that question.” He sighed. “It’ll probably be quite a while before he can call. If he calls. Wherever he is, it may not even be possible.” Pulling at his hair, he tried to make himself relax. “I need to call Blair.”
“Already done,” Evan murmured. “I texted him while you were talking to the general. Although, I gather from the looks you and Solon exchanged that I may have missed something.”
“The general wants me to come to Colorado. He’s going to call Jim directly, but I should talk to Blair, too.”
Evan blinked a few times. “Do you ever do anything the easy way?”
Tony snorted. “Thanks, Ev.”
Jack was the last one in the conference room. As soon as he’d stepped out of the Stargate, his senses had gone wild and he’d collapsed, completely overwhelmed by sensory input. He wasn’t sure what had happened until one of the guides on base had come down to help him stabilize. Doc Fraiser had insisted on keeping him in the single isolation room on base until he’d been steady for two hours.
General Hammond was seated with a notepad and a closed folder in front of him. The rest of the team were in their usual positions around the table. “How are your senses, Colonel?”
“Little trouble with the ears, sir. So if everyone could avoid any loud noises, I’d appreciate it.” He hoped his team would have a little mercy on him and avoid any outbursts for now.
The general nodded and cast a glance around the room. “We’ll try to make this short. I realize you’re all tired. I’ve heard the basics from Dr. Jackson about what happened from his perspective, and what was said by the people of PX-947. I’d like to know if, prior to the events of last night, you had been able to detect that there were sentinels and guides present?”
Jack shook his head. “No. Since becoming inactive, I’ve never been able to register sentinels or guides around me.”
Hammond’s glance flicked to Carter. “Major?”
Folding her hands on the table, she nodded and Jack blinked in surprise. “Yes, sir. I wasn’t aware of it in the beginning, but during the banquet it became clear to me. I planned to discuss it with the colonel as soon as the team had some privacy.”
Nodding, Hammond made a couple notes, then said without any censure, “I think as a matter of general policy going forward, we’ll want to inform the team leader immediately if anyone on the team should suspect the presence of sentinels or guides. We don’t encounter them often, but clearly it has the potential for a more complex cultural environment.” He glanced at Jack. “Colonel, next priority would be to always inform Dr. Jackson so he can plan his interactions with indigenous people appropriately.”
Jack nodded, opting not to say anything.
The general looked directly at Jack again. “I believe I’m the only one who has an inkling of what happened last night, and I’m fairly certain my details are somewhat sparse. If you would relay everything that happened after you were captured?”
Wanting to get this over with, Jack sketched out what had happened, starting with how he’d had conviction they weren’t going to get out of the situation, and thought it couldn’t hurt to try to use his senses to see if they could help in any way. “I’m not sure what I did exactly, but I suddenly found myself in the jungle and there was a guide named Tony asking me what the nature of my emergency was. He really was like sentinel AAA,” he murmured the last to himself.
He figured he’d gloss over a lot of the details of their conversation. And no point in mentioning that he’d summoned Tony in his PJs. He’d save that one for future blackmail material if he ever needed it.
Mentally, his thought processes ground to a halt at his assumption that he’d be around Tony enough to use that sort of information.
Daniel was the one who broke the silence. “You went to the spirit plane, Jack? You?”
“Why not me?” Jack asked a little disgruntled.
“You get hives at even the mention of anything metaphysical. Wait…” That was Daniel’s I’ve-figured-something-out face. “Shamans!”
Jack winced a little at the elevated tone and irritably asked, “What about them?”
“Sorry, Jack,” Daniel replied a little quieter. “But, the only guides that I’ve heard of who interact with the spirit plane are shamans. That’s what Sopo Eztli meant by holy man. He was talking about shamans.”
“Is it important to know what he meant?” Jack asked, genuinely wondering if he missed something.
“Well, from a linguistic perspective it’s important for future dealings with them, but not too relevant other than understanding that you were talking to a shaman last night, Jack.”
“And that’s important, why?”
Daniel frowned at him. “Shamans are the most powerful guides on the planet. There are less than a dozen of them on Earth. The only one in the US is Blair Sandburg. And whoever this guy was he sent his spirit animal to help you. That’s incredible.”
Before Jack could figure out what was incredible about it, the general interjected. “Mr. DiNozzo’s guide status is relevant inasmuch as he was able to help you, Colonel. So, if you would continue.”
“There’s really not much… after I explained that I was trying to use my senses, we had a discussion about what it means to be a sentinel, and that I’d have to choose it. He summoned his spirit guide so that I could try to get Gretzky to come to me. That worked, but Gretzky wasn’t really my biggest fan at the time.”
“And Gretzky is one of the tigers Dr. Jackson mentioned?”
“Yes. My spirit guide apparently. And you probably know the story from there, General. Tony asked me to please let him call someone, even though I thought it was too late, and I gave him your number.”
“And I’m glad you did, Colonel. Dr. Jackson has shared a theory with me that he believes on a subconscious level you were aware of the sentinel dynamics in play and responded in the only way you could.”
Jack wanted to glare at Daniel, but decided to let it be for now. “I’m not sure I’m sold on the pre-knowing bit of the program, but ultimately choosing to be a sentinel again is what got us out of the situation.”
The general nodded. “What’s perhaps most relevant is that you were able to make a connection to Guide DiNozzo while not even on Earth. Now, he has no notion of that aspect of the events, but I think it bears some further scrutiny. Guide DiNozzo has agreed to answer any questions we may have.”
Jack’s mind immediately went to work on the tactical advantages of being able to contact Tony from anywhere, but also on some inherent issues.
“Sir?” Carter asked, “Do we know enough about this man to risk bringing him into even the periphery of the SGC? If he’s really a shaman, he’s a powerful empath, but none of that means he’s trustworthy. Powerful guides can manipulate people’s emotions, that alone is cause to be wary.”
Expression giving away nothing, the general reached for the folder on the table in front of him, which had previously been ignored. Opening it, he seemed to skim the page a bit before speaking. “I had this started immediately after I green-lighted the rescue mission. I felt it wise to know who we were dealing with.
“Anthony Dominic DiNozzo, Jr., thirty-seven years of age. Born in New York, only child, mother deceased in 1981, father living but presently being detained by the Sentinel Council on unknown charges as of three days ago. Eight years at Rhode Island Military Academy, followed by sports scholarship to Ohio State to play basketball and football.”
Jack gave a start of surprise. He’d seen DiNozzo play, he just hadn’t connected the Anthony DiNozzo from watching college ball for years with Tony.
Daniel leaned forward intently. “Wait, he’s here in the US?”
“Yes. In Cascade with Dr. Sandburg.”
“Huh,” Daniel muttered, obviously lost in thought.
Hammond resumed reading from his file. “DiNozzo entered the police academy right out of college, six years as a police officer, youngest detective in Philadelphia’s history. Transferred to NCIS almost a decade ago, where he’s been the Senior Field Agent of the Major Case Response Team for almost ten years. A team which, incidentally, has the highest solve rate in any federal agency.”
That was not just good, that was damn impressive, Jack thought.
“Several commendations and notes about ops he’s worked, or cases solved, most notably he ran point on the op to bring down the terrorist cell in Somalia last year.”
Jack blinked. He remembered that. Bringing down such a large terrorist training camp had been big news.
“This past October, there’s an odd series of events that have very little explanation as to how they connect together, or even if they do, and the Sentinel and Guide Center are not being forthcoming, neither is the Council. DiNozzo was shot in the arm on October 27th in the course of investigating a kidnapping. The next day, he left for Cascade with Jim Ellison and Blair Sandburg, the Alpha Primes of the US. Coincidentally, a major investigation was launched into the Sentinel and Guide Center in the District the same day.
“Agent DiNozzo was registered with the Center as an online guide on November 5th, with a notation that he came online that day causing a major empathic event, though I’m uncertain exactly what that means. His name has popped up in military reports over the last few weeks for having rendered an unknown form of aid to a small number of military sentinels.”
The general put down the folder and glanced around the table. “I think we were quite fortunate that of all the guides who might have come across our path that it was this one. While there is no plan to disclose the Stargate program, if he were to deduce something he shouldn’t, or see something he shouldn’t, he has a long history at a federal agency, he has a reasonably high security clearance, and he knows the meaning of the word classified.”
Hammond looked around the table. “I have concerns that after our reports are filed, it could bring even more scrutiny onto this young man, possibly a dangerous sort of scrutiny. There are some indications already that too many people are looking into his background. I’d like him vetted as a possible asset, but I’d also like a risk assessment. We’ll be better situated to intervene in the event of an emergency if we’ve already engaged with him.
“With that goal in mind, I’ve asked him to come to Colorado Springs. I received word just before you joined us, Colonel, that he will be here tomorrow night in the company of Ellison and Sandburg. I realize you’re all due to stand down for two weeks, but I’d like you there for the meeting on Monday morning. With the exception of you, Teal’c.”
Feeling a rush of excitement that didn’t make much sense, Jack just nodded his agreement. Daniel and Carter both agreed – Daniel very readily, and Carter with a bit of reserve. Teal’c responded by simply cocking a brow in the way that indicated he was curious about the reason.
The general addressed Teal’c’s unspoken question. “The strongest sentinel in our program is level six, and, as you know, he can detect your symbiote. Ellison is rated at a level ten-plus and would most definitely have questions about you.”
Teal’c inclined his head in agreement. “A prudent precaution, General.”
Jack hadn’t noticed anything out of the norm about Teal’c thus far, but he hadn’t been extending his senses, and the few times it had happened accidentally, he’d been too strained to process any sensory input in any meaningful way.
“Is there anything else that needs to be discussed immediately?” Hammond asked, looking around the table.
Carter leaned forward, looking at Jack intently. “How long before you’re back to normal, Colonel?”
Jack thought about making a flip comment about him never being normal, but if Carter was going where he thought she was… “You mean the senses?”
“Elaborate please, Carter. Are you asking when I’ll have them under better control or when I’ll shut them off again?”
“I think I need to discuss that with the general first, but in point of fact, the senses are normal for me.”
“But you’ve been okay without them,” she said earnestly.
Hammond held up a hand. “I agree that Colonel O’Neill and I should discuss that separately. I’d like reports by Monday. If that’s all, everyone is dismissed, except you, Colonel. If you’d join me in my office?”
Jack followed the general back to his office and took a seat, fighting his weariness.
“How are you really, Jack?” Hammond asked, sounding concerned.
“Just tired, General. Nothing some sleep won’t cure,” he replied, evading the real question.
The general gave him a look. “I won’t keep you long, but I did want to discuss your new status. I don’t pretend to understand the mystical side of being a sentinel, but I want you to know you have my full support no matter what you choose to do in that regard.”
“Appreciate that, but it’s pretty much a done deal. I knew when I chose to be a sentinel again that this was the last chance. If I turn it off again, there won’t be another. And I won’t choose to. This is the way I’m supposed to be. I don’t know what level sentinel I am, but the last time, my temporary guide said I was a strong one, so that may pose an issue with our sentinel policy.”
Hammond shook his head. “I had that conversation with the SecDef while you were in isolation. No one is going to ask you to leave the SGC, and you’ll likely be a test case for whether we should selectively allow higher level sentinels in the program. That said, it’s vital you’re stable with your senses. So, you will be checking in with the S&G Center in the next week to officially register. And we’ll need to consider who your interim guide will be. Make arrangements next week to meet with the unbonded guides in the Stargate program to see if anyone is compatible.”
Jack wanted to argue, but he knew it was a necessity, so he just nodded.
“This spirit guide of yours, the Siberian tiger, will he be putting in appearances on base?”
Jack cocked his head to the side, considering. “I’d imagine he’ll come and go as he pleases, but as I understand it, he’s not usually visible to non-sentinels or guides. I’m not sure how much direction he’d take. He’s been a little grumpy with me once or twice.”
“We’ll take that as it comes, then. I understand that Lieutenant Cummings is on call in case you have any issues with your senses?”
“Yeah. He was very helpful earlier with getting things leveled out.”
“Good. Then I expect you’ll make the call if you need to. Also, Dr. Jackson will be staying with you for a couple days.”
Jack nearly groaned out loud. Doc Fraiser had recommended someone stay with him, but he hadn’t thought she’d get so insistent as to tell on him!
Hammond apparently read his expression. “You can stay on base, or have someone stay with you.”
He settled for holding up his hands in a surrender gesture. The general held out a small slip of paper. Jack took it and found it to be a phone number. “What’s this?”
“Mr. DiNozzo’s cell phone. He was very concerned for you. I’m sure he’d appreciate a call.”
Jack took it without saying anything, then diverted the conversation to another topic. They discussed a couple minor issues, before the general shooed him away. He found Daniel right outside the general’s office, propping up the wall.
With a sigh, he made an impatient ‘come on’ gesture. “Let’s get out of here before there’s a reason we have to stay.”
Daniel insisted on driving, much to Jack’s annoyance. He understood that his control of his senses was tenuous at best right now, but he didn’t like his life getting hijacked.
“It’s not forever, Jack. It’s just for a few days. You’ll live.”
He settled for staring out the window, noting there’d been several new inches of snow while they’d been off planet. After the silence had stretched into something that bordered on uncomfortable, he sighed and murmured, “Go ahead, Danny.”
The silence persisted for several more seconds, before Daniel finally said, “You never told me.” And there was a wealth of hurt feelings in that simple sentence.
Probably the only person Jack was willing to discuss this with was Daniel. “Deciding not to be a sentinel was one of the most painful decisions I’ve ever made. By the time it was no longer necessary, I couldn’t seem to unmake that decision. So why relive it?”
“Why would you have to make that choice? I don’t know when you came online, but the military has always been very pro-sentinel, they’d have surely helped you.”
“Sara,” Jack said succinctly.
Daniel was quiet for several beats before he said, “She made you choose?”
“Yes. Though she never would discuss her reasons.”
“How high a sentinel are you?”
“I don’t know. I never got tested, but my military guide said he thought I’d be high level, or something.”
“You don’t know much about sentinels, do you?”
“Not particularly. Other than the protocols for working with them or having them under your command. Obviously I planned to get up to speed after I came online, but things happened.”
Daniel huffed a little and focused intently on the driving. “I can only theorize, but I’m sure she feared sharing you with a guide, and ultimately losing you to one. Especially if you’re high-order.”
“I wouldn’t have left Sara for a guide.”
“If you’re high-order, and you met your guide, yes you would have. And the courts support no fault divorce in those cases because high-order pairs are too valuable.”
Jack sat up straighter in his seat. “There’s clearly something I don’t know, because I served with men who were married and had a guide.”
“Either it was an interim guide, or they were lower level.” Before Jack could say anything in response, Daniel added, “Let’s get to your place and have a beer and I’ll explain.”
They weren’t far off, so Jack subsided, mind spinning. He’d planned to call Tony immediately, but figured he could finish this conversation with Daniel first. Then call Tony, and then sleep for a week. It was good to have a clear priority list. Perhaps he should put food in there somewhere, too?
As soon as they were home, both with a beer and settled on the couch, Daniel asked, “Do you know what high-order means?”
Jack thought that seemed like an odd segue. “I assumed it was a pretentious way of saying high level.”
“No, although it does imply that because high-order sentinels are level seven and above, or level eight and above depending upon who you’re talking to. You could argue that it’s the nice way of saying high maintenance. High-order guides and sentinels have the most rigidity in their requirements of a bondmate in order to realize their potential. They have a single unique counterpart and cannot fully bond with anyone else, and the relationship is always sexual and monogamous.”
“So, you’re saying that if I’m high-order, there’s only one guide out there I can work with?”
“No, I’m saying there’s only one guide you can completely bond with and thereby fully utilize your sentinel gifts. High-order sentinels outnumber high-order guides, so the use of interim guides is common, but there’s no complete bond. They can achieve a physical and sensory bond, but not the bond of their spirit. Even with an interim guide’s help, the sentinel will never be able to fully use his senses.”
Jack tried to wrap his head around that. He’d truly loved Sara, but part of him had hated her a little for making him give up being a sentinel. But, if Daniel was right and he was high-order, if he’d ever found his guide, he’d have had to leave her. He wasn’t sure how he felt about his decisions getting made for him that way.
“We didn’t have any way of knowing what level I’d be,” he muttered.
“Well, she may just have not wanted to share you. And there’s a pretty common perception that all sentinel/guide relationships are sexual, even when one partner is married. And from what we learned in S&G studies, it’s certainly common for sentinels and guides who work closely together to have a sexual component to their interaction. But it’s only necessary for those that are bonded high-order pairs.”
Jack blew out a breath and scrubbed a hand over his face. “Well, that’s all fascinating, but it doesn’t really mean much. I made the decision, and reliving it wasn’t something I wanted to do. And that’s why I never said anything. So don’t go thinking anything crazy like I didn’t trust you. That was never it.” He put down his beer bottle, then pushed up off the couch. “Get some sleep, Danny. I need to make a call then I’ll be crashing myself even if it is barely evening.”
“You have to call someone?” Daniel asked idly, grabbing the beer bottles.
“I promised Tony I’d call,” Jack commented, hoping it sounded casual. The look Daniel sent him said he hadn’t quite succeeded, but he was tired so he was gonna cut himself some slack.
“Ah. Well, please tell him how appreciative I am. He may have been responding to your spiritual distress, but he saved my butt, too.”
Jack scowled at Daniel over the spiritual distress remark, but settled for just waving him away. He pulled out his cell and punched in the number before he could change his mind.
After the second ring a voice answered, “Hello?”
He instantly felt his sense of hearing level out, and it had been making him insane all afternoon. “I hear I’m going to be seeing you the day after tomorrow.”
“Jack!” Tony gasped. “Are you actually okay or was your CO blowing sunshine up my ass?”
Jack snorted. “I don’t think General Hammond has ever blown sunshine anywhere.”
“If that was an evasion, it was lousy. You’ll need to practice more.”
He found himself smiling. “Evasions are plebeian… I prefer misdirection.”
“That’s just lazy. Evading takes work, getting people to chase their own tails is the strategy of the shiftless. Or perhaps the easily amused.”
“Or both. Shiftless and easily amused.”
“And still evasive. So answer the damned question.”
“I’m fine, Tony. No injuries. Just tired.”
He heard Tony blow out a breath before he said, “I’m glad, Jack. Really glad.”
After a few beats of silence, Jack finally said, “Are you gonna ask?”
“No. And not because I don’t want to know.” There was some kind of strain in Tony’s voice, and Jack caught himself trying to turn up his hearing to catch it more clearly. He forced himself to level it back out.
He wanted to tell Tony, but he suddenly was acutely aware that his calls were probably monitored, by the NID at a minimum, and he just didn’t want his online status broadcast yet. He probably only had a day or two before the reports trickled through the system, but he’d take it. And he was a little concerned about the general’s comment that people were looking into Tony already. He certainly didn’t want to give anyone a reason to look closer.
“I want to talk to you about it, Tony, but this isn’t really a secure line and I’d prefer to keep it between us. It’ll keep until Monday.”
“You mentioned Monday before. I take it you’re going to be at the meeting?”
“Yeah. I’m the 2IC, and some of my team will be there as well.”
“Look, there’s something you need to know before we meet, but considering what you said about security…” he trailed off.
“Will it keep?”
After a couple seconds, Tony sighed. “Yeah. Of course.”
“I need to get some sleep. It feels like it’s been days.” He decided he needed to give Tony something. “But, listen, just so you know, Gretzky was the best. And we have a total mutual admiration society going on. So, everything is fine.”
There was a funny little choked sound and Jack didn’t know what it meant. “Thanks, Jack.”
“Just so you know, what you said last night made all the difference. See you soon, Tony.” He terminated the call before he could change his mind. It was insane that he was so reluctant to hang up. Even crazier that he felt the best he had all day after only a few minutes on the phone with a man he barely knew. Maybe sanity would return if he got a little sleep.
– – – –
Sunday evening, Jack heard an SUV turn onto his drive, and knew immediately it was the general. He’d heard the sound of the engine often enough at close range that even with his sentinel hearing set fairly low, he could now easily recognize the vehicle while it was still at the street.
“Hammond’s here,” he remarked to Daniel.
Jack gave him a look.
“Oh, right. Sorry, not used to super you yet,” Daniel said dryly, lips twitching with amusement.
Jack flipped him off for good measure and went about clearing newspapers off the sofa. Hearing soft treads on the porch, he went and opened the door to find Hammond in civvies and a warm jacket, so at least a semi-unofficial visit.
“Evening, General.” He stood back so Hammond could enter. “Get you something to drink?”
As the general walked past him, he caught a whiff of something that smelled really good, which was a little disconcerting because he didn’t think of Hammond in terms of smelling really good. The scent was really faint, but it made Jack want to ratchet up his sense of smell and chase every bit of it.
“No thank you. My apologies for dropping in on you, but something has come up that we need to discuss ahead of tomorrow’s meeting.”
That sounded ominous. He took the general’s coat, wondering what this was about. “Make yourself comfortable.”
Daniel gave up his chair to Hammond, then he and Jack took the sofa. The distance from the general was just enough to keep Jack from being completely distracted by that alluring scent.
The general gave him a subtle hand gesture asking if he’d swept for bugs recently. Jack nodded, now really wondering what the hell was up. The damned NID kept him checking his home for bugs on a regular basis.
“Jack, this is a personal matter regarding your status as a sentinel. It’s up to you if Daniel stays.”
Jack’s brows shot up in surprise. “I’m sure I’ll be telling him anyway.”
“I can give you some privacy if you need, Jack,” Daniel offered anyway.
Waving him back, Jack looked to Hammond. “What’s the problem?”
“It’s more of a complication, and you’ll need to make some decisions surrounding it. Last night Jim Ellison called to tell me they’d need to meet with me privately ahead of the scheduled meeting; either tonight or first thing tomorrow. So I was with them right before I came here.”
Hammond hesitated, seemingly trying to figure out how to phrase it. “Are you aware that guides and sentinels recognize their partner in different ways?”
“I’m not sure what you mean,” Jack replied, utterly confused about where this was leading.
“According to Dr. Sandburg, a sentinel knows their guide based on sensory input, so it can only happen when they meet in person. Or near enough to smell or hear them. Guides apparently recognize their sentinel on a spiritual level. This is not a distinction that normally needs to be made because very rarely do guides and sentinels meet in a way that’s not physical.”
Despite how Jack liked to act, he was no dummy. He held up a hand to stop anything else from being said and closed his eyes for a second, trying to get his whirling thoughts in order. “Tony’s my guide?”
“Yes. He said he knew the moment you touched his spirit animal.”
Jack looked up. That’s what Tony meant by ‘connections here are spiritual.’ “He sure?”
“As he can be. I said it was rare that meetings happen on the spirit plane, but apparently no one’s ever heard of it before. Dr. Sandburg readily pointed out that it probably has happened at some point in history, but they don’t know of any modern examples. They’re relying on Tony’s impressions.”
“So, if they’re right, I’m supposed to spend the rest of my life with this person I’ve barely even met?”
“Not if you don’t want to,” Hammond said firmly. Daniel made an indignant sound, but the general waved him off and continued. “That’s why they wanted to get the information out ahead of time. You could choose not to see him, skip the meeting and move on. You could meet, be careful not to touch and hope there aren’t any negative repercussions for you. Or you could meet and possibly spend a good amount of time… alone afterward,” he said euphemistically.
“But there are negative repercussions to Tony either way,” Daniel gritted out.
The general shot Daniel a mildly chastising look. “He didn’t want that to be a factor and asked me not to discuss it.”
“Respectfully, sir, I didn’t make that promise and there’s no way I’m not telling Jack. He needs the whole story to make a decision,” Daniel replied, voice edged with indignation.
Jack was in solve-the-problem mode, so he needed all the information so he could think about it later. “Just spit it out, Daniel.”
“With high-order guides and sentinels, there’s a tradeoff for not being bonded. It’s part of that high need for things being ordered in a certain way. For the sentinel, they never can fully realize their sensory potential or access certain other gifts, plus their senses will never be as stable as they would be with their bonded guide.
“For the guide, they’ll always feel an ache, an empty place inside where that spiritual connection is. So, it’s not like you both get to walk away scot-free. You’ll each pay a price. And it may sound like metaphysical hooey to you, but remember how you met Tony before you dismiss the spiritual aspects of this!”
Jack raised a brow as he stared at Daniel. “I haven’t dismissed anything, Daniel.”
Daniel stared at him for several beats, then nodded, posture immediately becoming less assertive. “You’re right, you haven’t. I’m sorry… that came out accusatory and you didn’t do anything to deserve it.”
Rubbing his eyes to ease the tension, Jack finally said, “So, the point of them meeting you ahead of time was what?”
“A few things, and I appreciate their intentions. The first was to not spring it on you, especially in a place where you are in a position of authority. The second was to let you know what your options are. And finally, if you decide to attend, to give you some advance warning of what to expect.”
Jack avoided the inherent question in what the general had said. “One thing is not making much sense… I already talked to Tony once, and I don’t mean on the spirit plane, and I didn’t feel a raging need to spend the rest of my life with him.”
The general nodded in acknowledgement. “Dr. Sandburg addressed that, he said that digital phone transmissions aren’t going to trigger the guide recognition. Though, you might find talking to Tony to be easy on your senses regardless of the delivery medium.”
That was certainly true, Jack sighed internally. He got lost in thought for a bit, the weight of two expectant stares eventually twigging him into the fact that the ball was in his court. “How would we make that work around our jobs?” Jack rubbed his forehead. “He’s not exactly a Marine. And for that matter, neither am I, so NCIS might be a stretch.” Not that Jack thought he had much potential as an investigator. He was more of a blunt instrument.
“Ultimately, the two of you will have to work that out. I spoke to the President yesterday after you left, and he had already agreed that if there was cause and a tactical advantage, we could read DiNozzo in on the program. I think this constitutes cause. But from there, you’ll need to see how the two of you want to proceed, then determine if we can make that work within the SGC. I’m sorry I can’t give you anything more definite to help you make your decision.”
Wanting to bang his head against the wall, Jack settled for dragging his fingers through his hair instead. “Did they say anything else?”
“Dr. Sandburg said that spiritually you already recognize Tony as your guide, but that it’s easy and common for sentinels to ignore that part of themselves.”
“And how does he know that?”
“He didn’t say specifically, but said if you asked to inquire whether you’d ever seen Gretzky interacting with Tony.”
“Damn,” Jack whispered.
“This isn’t the worst thing in the world, Jack,” Daniel said with a faint hint of exasperation.
“There are a lot of issues to think through, Daniel. The equation isn’t cut and dried.” Jack preferred point-and-shoot problems, not what-to-do-with-the-rest-of-my-life issues.
Before Daniel could reply, the general interjected. “I’ll leave you to think about it or discuss further, but this information should be considered confidential. If you decide not to bond, Jack, Tony is a vulnerability for you. If an enemy knew he was your guide…”
Jack’s head snapped up and he nearly snarled at the idea of someone using Tony to get to him. He reined in his instinctive response. “How many people already know?”
“There are too many people in Cascade for me to rest easy, but Sentinel Ellison assures me the people who know won’t disclose it to anyone. And most of them apparently only know your first name and that you’re in the Air Force. The high-order sentinels can apparently hear even the most sophisticated bugging equipment, so their residences won’t be an issue, but cell phone transmissions may already be a problem. However, they are already very careful with Tony’s security, so there’s some layer of protection in place.”
Frowning in concern, he asked, “Why?”
“I got very bare bones information, and it would probably be best discussed with them for more detail, but the part I was told was there was an attempt to get legal control of Tony by drugging him in such a way that he appeared to be an unstable guide. I gather there’s more unique about Mr. DiNozzo than just being a shaman.”
Jack was suddenly so pissed he could barely focus.
“Are you growling, Jack?” Daniel asked bemusedly.
And he realized he was. “Gretzky,” Jack found himself saying. A moment later, the tiger appeared in front of him. Judging by the general’s intake of breath, Gretzky was choosing to be visible to everyone. “You’ll keep an eye on Tony, right? And come get me if there’s anything wrong?”
Gretzky chuffed and head-butted him, then vanished.
“Does that mean you’ve decided something?” Daniel prompted.
“I don’t know.” But Jack had always been decisive, and found himself saying, “But I’ll meet him and see what happens. I’m not going to hide from him.”
“In that case, there are a few things you should be aware of. Dr. Sandburg mentioned you’ll feel uncomfortable with anyone touching Tony until after you’ve bonded, but he’ll be seated between the two Alpha Primes. This is the best scenario for your sentinel, as you won’t see the bonded pair as a threat. Do not under any circumstances touch him. Dr. Sandburg emphasized that. It would more than likely trigger the need to bond, and that would be neither the time or place.”
Jack almost felt like a teenager being told by his dad to be sure to carry a condom. It was necessary, awkward and a little mortifying. Instead of acting like a teenager, however, he nodded an acknowledgment and looked to Daniel. “It’ll be your job to jab me with your pointy elbows if I get… weird.”
Daniel raised a brow and smirked a little. “That’s a pretty broad scope.”
“Okay, if I get all… sentinely.”
Hammond’s lips twitched and he got to his feet. “For whatever it’s worth, Jack, I find him to be an impressive young man. Now I’ll leave you to enjoy the rest of your evening.”
After he’d shown the general out, Jack flopped back on the sofa, trying to get his thoughts in some kind of order. His brain rapidly spun through scenarios, trying to figure out what was possible and what was likely.
“What are you thinking about, Jack?”
“Just running scenarios.”
Daniel sighed, but Jack didn’t think he’d have heard it without his sentinel hearing. “What’s your worst case scenario?”
“I’m not entirely sure. I guess that I’d have to choose between having a guide and the Stargate program.”
“And the best?”
That question sort of forced Jack to confess some things he wasn’t sure he was ready to admit. “It was already in my head that SG-1 would become a five person team when I found an interim guide, but it was out of necessity. I…” he hesitated for a second. “I definitely prefer the situation with Tony as the guide. That’s my best case scenario, I guess.”
“It’s clear you already have some kind of connection, Jack. You shouldn’t let that make you uncomfortable.”
Jack glared a little. “I feel connected to someone I’ve spent less than a half hour talking to. Someone I seem to want on my field team. That’s practically a recipe for uncomfortable.”
Daniel shrugged. “Maybe, but not when you put it in a sentinel and guide framework. You’re geared towards this at a spiritual and biological level.”
“That doesn’t really make me okay with the situation.”
“Jack, don’t be too hard headed. I was able to infer from our conversation last night that you were happy when you came online, before you had to make that awful choice. Part of you really wants to be a sentinel, and that part really wants a guide. Don’t get in your own way. I assume part of the issue is that if you choose to bond with Tony, that he won’t want to, or be able to join SG-1 and you’ll lose your field team.”
Jack upped the ante and glowered at Daniel. “Yeah. That’s a problem.”
“It’s just a possibility and one I don’t even think is very likely. They let me on the team, and I sure as hell didn’t have the field experience Tony does.”
Feeling a little exasperated at Daniel ignoring the obvious, Jack grumbled, “Between your language skills and all the cultural stuff, you’re mission critical, Daniel. An NCIS agent isn’t.”
“But guide may be. And from everything I heard yesterday, Tony will probably pass the field team qualifications without an issue. Maybe you should stop thinking in terms of scenarios and just think about what you want to do.”
That question was complex simply because he could only come up with one answer, and that warranted more thought. “I’m going up on the roof for a bit.” Just before he left the living room, he had a thought. “I’d like to go in a little early tomorrow. Do a couple things before the meeting.”
Daniel smirked a little, knowing exactly what Jack wanted to do. “Whatever you say, Jack.”
He grabbed his coat and headed up to his telescope. It always helped him get his thoughts straight.
The next morning, they arrived at the mountain at nine, an hour ahead of their meeting time with the folks from Cascade. He and Daniel split up, Daniel off to do whatever it was Daniel did, and Jack to find Teal’c.
Fortunately, Teal’c was still in his quarters. “Morning, Teal’c.”
“O’Neill.” The big guy inclined his head fractionally. “Have your senses troubled you?”
“Not much. You got a minute? Want to run something by you.”
Teal’c stepped back and gestured for Jack to enter.
He quickly laid out what the general had told him last night, and his concerns.
Tilting his head fractionally, Teal’c finally said, “I do not understand the nature of your quandary.”
Jack was a little flabbergasted by that. “You don’t?
“No. You have been given a great gift when you were chosen to be a sentinel, and further given the perfect partner to complement you and aid you in using your senses. For what reason would you question it?”
“Well, for lots of reasons.” Jack couldn’t understand how Teal’c didn’t get the problem he was facing. “It could have an impact on the team… there’d be another person. As I said, he may not even qualify to be on the team, and then what?”
“While it is usually wise to plan for various contingencies, in some circumstances you must act first, and then plan. It is better to do what you know to be right, then adjust your course for whatever the consequences may be.”
“That was really not helpful,” Jack groused, though he heard the story of Teal’c life in that response.
“I am sorry I was unable to give you the answers you seek. Only one person can truly answer your question.”
“That was all very existentialist of you,” he snarked, not a little frustrated.
“An interesting human philosophical theory, but one I was not attempting to use in regards to your choice of whether or not to accept the guide that is already yours.”
Jack was brought up short by that, reminding him of something Tony had said when they met on the spirit plane. “Tony said that being a sentinel is a calling. It’s something you are or you aren’t, but you can’t put it away when it’s not convenient.”
“A wise statement. I believe you have always been a sentinel, O’Neill.”
“And Tony has always been my guide,” Jack muttered, thinking. Fact, Jack was a sentinel. Fact, Tony was his guide.
“Those things have always been true,” Teal’c offered. “Does not denying one essentially deny the other?”
Which is exactly where Jack’s brain had gone. Except without being dry and succinct. “Thanks, Teal’c. I have one more thing to do before the meeting. I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes.”
“If you decide to accept your guide, Sentinel O’Neill, I believe that you will be too occupied to relay that information. I believe I will hear the news from Daniel Jackson.”
Jack was unwillingly amused as he left to go find Carter. He didn’t want her to be the one person who walked into that meeting unaware of this particularly strong undercurrent.
Unsurprisingly she was already at the mountain and working on some doohickey in her lab. He tapped on the doorframe to get her attention. “Good morning, Carter, you have a sec?”
Setting down some hand tool, she nodded and faced him. “Good morning, Colonel. I can certainly break away from this. What can I do for you?” He noted there was a reserve about her that usually wasn’t there.
“Some information came up yesterday that affects the meeting we’re about to have and I didn’t want you to be unaware. The info came through the general and Daniel was with me at the time.”
“I appreciate you keeping me in the loop. What’s the issue?”
“Turns out Tony is my guide, and it’s likely to create some undercurrents at the meeting. Just an FYI.”
She immediately stiffened and looked away for several seconds. “Are you planning to bond with him?”
A little surprised, because Carter didn’t usually go for the personal quite so quickly, he hedged a little. “That’s something he and I need to work out. Right now we’re just going to get through the meeting.”
Jaw clenched, she took a few breaths, then replied, “You don’t have to do this, sir. We don’t have to be slaves to our genetics, no matter what the Council or any alphas or primes may tell us.”
Jack could only stare at her for several beats before finding his voice. “Is there something we should be talking about here? Other than my genetics.”
“I always thought we’d both chosen to not fall into the trap of structuring our lives and our choices around what amounts to genetic remnant of times long past,” she replied earnestly.
It was clear that she had some big issues around her guide gifts, and this wasn’t the time or place to have this discussion. “I’ve pretty much already been doing what sentinels do. Most sentinels are in law enforcement or the military before they come online.” That was one of the most commonly known facts about sentinels. “So, maybe there is a biological imperative at play, but I don’t regret choosing to serve my country, Carter, and I’m not prepared to distill it down to being a slave to my genetics.”
She looked taken aback. “I… that’s not what I meant. You’ve had an exemplary career, made a huge difference, sir, and you didn’t need the senses to do it.”
Jack wasn’t a big fan of headshrinkers, but he was pretty sure Carter had somehow managed to get this snuck by several of them, and wasn’t that a damning indictment of the profession. “I didn’t choose to stop using my senses because I disdained them. It was never that.” He absentmindedly thumped his palm against one of the worktables. “I’ll see you at the meeting.”
“Major,” he held up a hand to stop her. “If you’d like to have a personal discussion about why this upsets you, I’m willing to have that conversation. But my sentinel status isn’t up for debate. It’s a fact, and it’s one I hope you can live with. For now, we have a meeting in five minutes. If you’d prefer not to attend, I’ll let the general know you’re unavailable.”
Her spine stiffened and her expression became closed. “I’ll head up to the meeting room now, sir.”
Nodding, he left her lab, running his hand over his face. She followed him immediately and there was silence in the elevator.
Their timing was perfect because Daniel got on at the next floor, giving Sam a bright, “Good morning,” then flashing a look of concern Jack’s way at her reserved greeting. All Jack could do was shrug.
When the doors opened on level eleven to sign out and switch to the primary elevator, Jack nearly staggered as the smell hit him, causing his focus to narrow to just one thought.
Daniel grabbed his arm and steadied him. “What’s wrong?”
“Guide,” Jack managed to get out as his sense of smell ratcheted up, seeking out the intoxicating smell.
“Are you having a problem? Do you need me to call Cummings?”
Jack shook his head. “Tony.” He had to get upstairs.
“Oh! He must already be here. And you can smell him from eleven floors? Wow. Wait! Jack, stop!” Daniel grabbed at him as Jack was pounding on the up button on the elevator control panel and thinking about going for the stairs. “You can’t go up there like this.”
But that was all he could think about. He needed to get to his guide.
All the sudden an elbow landed in his gut and he was jolted into a little more coherence. “What the hell, Daniel?” he gasped out.
“Hey, you gave me permission to elbow you if you started to get all sentinely. And you need to get it under control before we go up there. Dial down your sense of smell or something.”
“Jesus,” Jack griped, running his hand through his hair. Okay, this was going to be hard.
He registered Carter waiting by the elevator, expression pinched. He could tell that his actions were validating her opinion, but he found that he didn’t really care. They had an issue to work out, that was clear, but he refused to let it have any bearing on what might happen with Tony.
After taking a few breaths, he forced himself to get mentally centered as if he were about to go on a mission.
“You got it under control now?” Daniel asked.
“Yep. Let’s go.”
The guards at the checkpoint were paying close attention and Jack wondered how long before this hit the rumor mill.
They got to the conference room and Jack hesitated outside, taking a deep breath to steady himself, but that just got more of that incredible scent in his nose. Damn.
Daniel was giving him a questioning look, and Jack just nodded that he was ready.
As soon as they were in the conference room, his eyes shot to Tony, who was standing on the opposite side of the table with Ellison and Sandburg, and General Hammond. That was probably smart, because Jack was fighting the urge to jump the table to get to his guide.
Oh yeah, if he hadn’t already decided, the decision would have been made the minute he walked in the door. Now that they weren’t in a blue jungle, he could tell that Tony’s hair was light brown and he had pale green eyes. And it really wasn’t right for a man to be that attractive. Jack might not be entirely objective about it, but he could still tell he’d be growling at a lot of people in the future.
He realized everyone was quiet and waiting for he and Tony to break the staring contest. Finally, Tony’s lips quirked up. “Hey, Jack.”
“At least you’re dressed this time,” Jack commented humorously, thinking it was a damn good thing because otherwise he was sure he’d be getting both of Daniel’s elbows in his gut for acting too sentinely.
“You just had to go there,” Tony griped, but he was still smiling.
Sandburg nudged Tony, which made Jack clench his jaw. “You weren’t dressed?” the alpha guide asked with no small amount of amusement.
“I was half dressed,” Tony replied defensively. “It was three in the morning.” He looked back to Jack. “By the way, this is Blair Sandburg and Jim Ellison.”
Jack nodded to both.
General Hammond smoothly took over the introductions. “This is Colonel Jack O’Neill, Major Samantha Carter, and Doctor Daniel Jackson.”
Daniel waved from his position next to Jack. “I’d come shake hands, but it’s probably best that I stay over here with Jack.”
Carter had no such reservations; she went to the other side of the table and shook hands. And Jack really wasn’t happy about her approaching his guide like that.
Tony smiled politely but kept his hands in his pockets. “That’s not a good idea.” When Carter was unable to mask the brief flash of annoyance on her face, Tony added, “I try to respect people’s privacy as much as possible, so I won’t empathically scan anyone here, and I’ll try to ignore anything that gets projected, but I am touch-sensitive. So if we shook hands, I wouldn’t be able to help but to read you.”
Taking a quick step back, Carter seemed flustered but smoothly said, “I appreciate that.”
The general gestured to the table. “Why don’t we all get seated and we can begin.”
“Before we do that,” Ellison said, “General, you had mentioned there’d be security cameras in here, but we weren’t expecting the audio surveillance. We’d prefer that this conversation not be recorded.”
Jack exchanged a look with the general. There wasn’t supposed to be any audio surveillance in this room. Highly confidential meetings took place here. “We can delay while I arrange for someone to sweep for bugs. It’s done in all these rooms on a routine basis, so this happened recently,” Hammond offered.
The question was who and why. They shared the administrative facilities on this level with NORAD, so there was no telling with any certainty for which command that bug was intended.
Ellison pointed toward the far corner of the room. “That corner, near the plant, and that corner,” he switched to the service table. “It came in with the service items. Possibly in the sugar packets.”
Jack went to the service table since it was away from Tony, while Carter went for the plant. They found both bugs easily since they knew where to look. The fact that one of the bugs was underneath the sugar container, and both bugs were the same make, suggested the devices were for this meeting. He quickly placed a call to have someone come get the damned things to see if they could trace the signal.
Everyone was quiet until the devices had been carted away. He noticed Ellison had his head cocked to this side for a few seconds, clearly listening to something. Finally, he nodded to Blair and Tony, who both relaxed a little.
Everyone took their seats, the three from Cascade on one side, the general at the end, and the SG-1 trio on the other side.
Daniel rested his arms on the table. “That was amazing. I didn’t realize sentinels could so clearly differentiate the various electronic signals. Especially in a place with so much of what I would guess amounts to electronic noise.”
Sandburg nodded enthusiastically. “It takes quite a bit of practice.”
“And tests. Lots of tests,” Ellison added dryly, causing Sandburg to smile.
“What’s your degree in Dr. Jackson?” Sandburg asked.
“Please call me Daniel. And they’re in archeology and linguistics. Sam’s are in astrophysics and engineering. I’m curious… do you have to be a high level sentinel to develop that aptitude, because it would be incredible if some of our sentinels could learn that.”
Jack nudged Daniel. “I’m not going to be a human-sized bug scanner.”
Sandburg smiled at Jack, but answered Daniel. “You have to be above a level eight on the aural sensitivity scale to learn to make that differentiation, and probably level ten to reliably tell audio from video signal. So Jack could definitely learn the skill.”
“Wait,” Jack said, “I haven’t even registered, much less been tested. How could you know that?”
Sandburg expression shifted to confusion. “The general said Daniel had worked out that Tony was shaman-level in his gifts.”
“He did. And clearly I’m missing something – which has been known to happen – but I was even paying attention the whole time Daniel was talking about shamans.” Jack was gratified that Tony had to fight back a laugh.
Daniel nudged him. “Shamans are level ten guides in all skill areas, and so are their sentinels.”
Jack didn’t want to go down that path right now, even though it was the big pink elephant in a frilly tutu dancing on the table. He noticed that both of the guides kept flicking their eyes Carter’s direction, and he made note to find out later what was going on.
Fuck it. He did want to go down that path. “General, I apologize in advance for doing this, but I’d like to speak to Tony before we start the meeting.”
Hammond pinned him with a look. “Is that wise, Colonel?”
“I think it’s the only sane thing to do right now, sir.”
With a smile, Blair got to his feet. “If it’s okay with the general, the rest of us can step into the hall and give you guys a few minutes.” The fuzzy little guide stared at him. “But stay on your side of the table.”
Jack wanted to grouse about everyone thinking he couldn’t control himself, instead he just said, “I’ll even stay in my chair.”
Once the door clicked shut and they were alone, Jack blew out a breath. “You’re making me crazy, you know that right?”
Tony laughed, and the sight and sound skittering over his senses made him ache. “Crazy in the ‘I want to throw you on the table for some naughty touching’ way, or the ‘I want to rip your arm off and beat you over the head with it’ way?”
Lips twitching with amusement, Jack replied, “The former, and I’m fighting the pull to do just that, so I can’t manage that and have this big thing sitting out there that we’re all pretending isn’t happening.”
“I won’t deny that it’s difficult to sit here and discuss the fine points of spirit walking while wondering where I stand with you.”
“I’ll admit that I wasn’t even sure until this morning.”
“When you walked in here?”
“No. It was while I was downstairs talking to a friend. The naughty touching thing… well that started when I caught your scent when I was getting on the elevator down on eleven.”
Tony flushed a little, but seemed more relaxed.
“Where do I stand with you, Tony?” he asked, squarely meeting the intense green eyes.
“My brain says this is all too fast, and I barely know you. But my instincts say something else.” Tony shrugged. “My life is very much in flux right now, so it’s easy for me to move and change jobs. But really, after I wade through all my rationalizations and logistical questions, at the end of the day, you’re my sentinel and nothing’s more important.”
Well, that was certainly playing hardball. The sentinel in Jack was very happy that his guide was acknowledging that he belonged to Jack. “You have no idea how hard it is to not touch you.”
“I know. The pull is,” Tony rubbed at his chest a little, “intense. And it’ll get stronger the longer we’re in proximity.”
“Then let’s get this damned meeting over with,” Jack retorted brusquely.
“And then what?”
“Then we go to my place,” Jack suddenly decided. In for a penny…
Tony flashed him an open, happy smile… and it took Jack’s breath away.
– – – –