Author: Jilly James
Fandom/Genre: NCIS, Sentinel Fusion
Relationship(s): Tony DiNozzo/Jethro Gibbs, Other minor pairings
Warnings: Allusions to canon-level violence
Summary: Tony DiNozzo was used to his life changing unexpectedly. A broken leg in college turned him in the direction of becoming a police officer, a gunshot wound that nearly crippled him brought him to forensics, and now, coming online as a guide was going to take him someplace a little vicious.
Please see Main Story Page for additional information—spoilers, challenge info, cast photos, inspiration thanks, etc.
– – – –
Vicious, Part One
“Dr. DiNotezo!” a voice called out from down the hall.
Tony almost pivoted to face the agent hailing him but stopped himself at the last moment. He’d spent too many hours seated at a computer today—all week, in fact—and his hip was giving him fits. All he needed was a good twisting move before he’d gotten those muscles relaxed and he’d be forced to use his cane for a week.
As soon as the senior agent caught up with him, he sighed. “Agent Fornell, how utterly unpleasant it is to see you at this hour.” He noticed the agent was rather grubby, and sniffed subtly. “Why were you in a warehouse on the docks so late on a cold evening in December?”
Fornell’s brow furrowed. “How do you know it was a warehouse?”
“Your odor. You distinctly smell of the harbor. That coupled with the scent of mold all about you tells me you were indoors, likely an abandoned building with a roof that hasn’t seen waterproofing in a decade or more. I’d suggest a shower post haste. You don’t need the entire Bureau breathing in whatever spores you’ve brought along with you.”
Fornell’s mouth was open, but no words were forthcoming for several beats.
“Well?” he prompted sharply.
He snapped his mouth shut. “Hip bothering you?”
“Turnabout’s fair play, DiNotezo. Rumor is that you’re only an asshole when your hip hurts.”
“Or when someone mangles my name. Now. What. Do. You. Want?”
Fornell made a face but then sighed. “I actually wanted to thank you for the rush on the ballistics evidence yesterday. That was the piece we needed to find the missing girl before she was hurt, and catch the man who murdered her mother.”
Tony was torn on the whole subject, but this wasn’t the right time for that conversation. “I’m glad you were able to find her in time.” He started to continue his trip to the elevator, but Fornell caught his arm.
“Look, I know you weren’t happy about it, but–”
“There are no buts, and this isn’t the time to talk about it,” he said shortly.
The agent’s jaw firmed. “I realize you were brought in to enforce all these new rules for forensics, but there are cases where we just don’t have the time–” Fornell broke off when Tony walked away.
Tony went two doors down to an empty conference room and held the door open. “Well?” he said impatiently. His temper truly did tend to run short when his hip hurt. He needed time to sort himself out before dealing with agents, but Fornell seemed to have perpetually bad timing.
Looking puzzled, Fornell entered the room. The light sensor detected their presence and the cool fluorescent lighting flickered on in the empty room.
Shutting the door, Tony crossed his arms over his chest. “After I last saw you, I cleared it with AD Blankenship to disclose my purpose here to you.”
“Seriously? There’s some covert action going on in forensics?” he said with a laugh.
Tony took a step closer and said, “The forensics lab here in DC passed its last audit by one point. One. And even though we passed, we’re on probation. If we’d failed our recertification, you’d have had no lab to pressure into running your evidence without following proper procedure.”
Fornell looked stunned. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
“No. There’s nothing to laugh about here. The former supervisor created an environment of side door deals to jump the line in forensics. There was actual bribery going on to get routine evidence processed quickly to improve solve rates and closure times for certain teams.”
“There was some geeky crime syndicate going on under our nose?” Fornell looked like he couldn’t decide if he should be appalled or amused. He suddenly frowned. “Is this why there was that rash of suspensions from OPR’s hush-hush investigation about six weeks ago?”
“Yes, and since you confined yourself to exchanges of favors and guilt trips and not out-right bribery, you were spared disciplinary action. The Bureau wants the whole mess kept quiet for as long as possible. The director wants the lab operations to be bulletproof before this gets out. And right now, you’re a problem. The lab techs like you, and want to help you, but the days of favors are over. And I couldn’t be more serious about it.”
“Some cases can’t wait!” he insisted.
“You need to step back and look at the bigger picture,” Tony snapped. “If we fail our certification, any number of cases could be brought under review. Not to mention the processing delays as evidence handling moves entirely to the main lab in Quantico. The DC field office qualified for a satellite lab, but if it loses certification, everything goes back to Virginia. I can appreciate your lack of regard for bureaucracy, but you’re just going to have to suck it up and embrace it. There’s a procedure for high priority cases to get the evidence moved up in the queue.”
“When we’re racing the clock to find a missing child, we don’t have time for forms!”
“It would have taken you less than five minutes to do the paperwork, you stubborn ass! It took you ten to lay on the guilt in my office. And I know how long it took to do the paperwork, because I did it after you left, and then I filed it!”
Fornell blinked then got the stubborn expression again. “Paperwork has a way of not getting approved in time around here.”
Tony sighed and reined in his temper. This was a case of a tired man who apparently hadn’t actually read all of the new guidelines. “It doesn’t need approval. It needs to be accurate. If you meet the criteria for priority processing, it’s automatic. Child abductions are priority two, which is automatic approval. So kindly get your head out of your ass and read the new procedures. I realize you agents all think I’m just a bureaucratic ass, but right now, there’s no room for exceptions. Follow the procedures. Do the paperwork. End of discussion.”
He turned to leave, still being careful not to twist his bad hip, but then paused. Somewhat reluctantly, he offered, “I know you think I don’t get it, but I do. I went through the police academy—was a cop in Peoria for nearly seven months.”
Fornell blinked but then looked thoughtful. “The hip… Not actually a football injury?”
Tony shook his head. “My knee on the same leg was truly from football in my senior year—stopped me from going pro—but the hip was a bullet. Two of them, actually. And, yeah, I was a cop, and you’re a fed, so it wasn’t exactly the same, but I get the desire to serve and protect. I wanted to help people, make the world safer. So when I was faced with what to do next, I went back to school. I figured if I couldn’t solve crimes as an officer, or even an agent, that I’d try solving them from the evidence.
“So I understand that in the moment, at that critical time when you need something, anything, to go on, that it makes sense to circumvent procedures. But that led to mishandled, mixed-up, and tainted evidence. And maybe you’re okay with it because you solve the case and save the girl. But are you still okay with it when we can’t prosecute her kidnapper? When the evidence is thrown out? When he’s released and does it again?”
“You know I’m not okay with that!” Fornell replied hotly.
“Then stop making my job harder. I recognize, the Bureau recognizes, that some cases are a higher priority. If everyone follows procedure, the transition from routine work to urgent work is smooth, and we don’t have screw-ups.”
Rubbing his hand over his face, and looking impossibly tired, Fornell just nodded.
“And don’t think for a second that I don’t know that you tried the guilt trip on Ms. Navarro today before you came to me directly.”
“I was just trying to find a little girl,” Fornell insisted, but it didn’t have the heat of his earlier arguments.
“Fortunately, I’ve impressed on my team the consequences of violating procedure. And they’re more severe than on the agents who pressure them. None of you are going to find the kind of wink-wink, nudge-nudge favoritism in my lab any longer.”
“You could have explained all this to me earlier.”
“No, I really couldn’t. For starters, Blankenship had to approve. He likes you, I think—in his caustic, snarly way—and he doesn’t want you to get written up by OPR for pressuring my techs. But the real issue was you were too hot under the collar to listen to reason. So I signed for the evidence myself and then filed the damn form you objected to so strenuously.”
“Right.” Fornell sighed. “I apparently missed the big picture here. Can we start over?” he stuck out his hand. “Supervisory Special Agent Tobias Fornell. I can’t promise not to be an asshole ever again, but I’ll try not to be one on this subject in the future.”
Tony just looked at the hand. “You seriously do reek of mold, but I appreciate the gesture. We can certainly start with a clean slate.”
Fornell laughed and tucked his hands in his pockets. “With a nose like that, you must be a latent sentinel.”
He shrugged. “Guide, actually.” Nearly half the population had some sort of sentinel or guide genetic markers. So few ever came online, latency wasn’t particularly noteworthy.
“Huh. Wouldn’t have pegged you for that. Listen, let me buy you dinner. Apologize for being a bastard earlier.”
Tony blinked. “The aforementioned scent issues aside, considering the climate and why I’m here, that’s not the best idea.”
Fornell frowned but nodded. “Raincheck, then.”
After the senior agent had gone off to shower, Tony continued his journey out of the building.
The mid-December weather was cold and damp, and it was like being doused with ice water. This year had been atypically cold and wet, and it served to make Tony’s hip ache intensify.
“I should have taken the job in Hawaii,” he muttered as he thumbed the control to unlock his SUV. He’d always preferred sportier, low-riding cars, but he’d needed something higher because lowering himself into a sports car on days like today was the kind of stupid he’d stopped pulling within the first two years. Early in his rehab, he’d fought the idea of “limitations” to his own detriment. Now, he fought the battles he could win and learned to live with the rest.
Still, he’d needed some style, so had opted for the Audi Q5. And today was one of those days when he was really glad he’d paid for the upgrade to get the seat heaters.
He was barely out of the parking garage when his phone rang. He tapped the speaker button. “DiNozzo.”
“So you are alive,” Steve’s voice came out sounding like he was sitting in a barrel.
“Of course I am. Bureaucracy and paperwork never killed anyone.”
“I mean that you’ve been in town for nearly two months and I’ve seen you once, dude.”
Tony made a face. “Ah, hell, I’m sorry, Steve. It’s been fourteen hour days lately.”
“Don’t say it.”
“That’s not good for you.”
“And that’s the thing you weren’t supposed to say,” Tony sighed. “It’s not gonna last forever. I just needed to get some problems sorted out.”
There was a long pause before Steve replied, “How goes the transition from vampire to day-walker?” Tony was grateful that he was letting it go. He knew his friends worried about him, but he’d come a long way from the early days where he nearly screwed up his own recovery trying to walk too soon and refusing to admit he might never be the same.
“Better than I expected, but going to bed before midnight still feels weird. Listen, there’s zero traffic, and I just left the office, which means I’m going to be at my place in about five minutes. How about we get together for a beer this week.”
“No deal. A full meal or nothing,” Steve countered.
Tony laughed. “All right. Lunch on Saturday?”
“I’ll pick you up at one. Gotta show you the new wheels.”
Tony asked a couple questions, but Steve wasn’t giving anything away. His buddy was car crazy, so he wasn’t surprised that Steve was going for maximum impact. He hung up a few seconds before pulling into the underground garage for his building. When he’d taken the Bureau’s offer to work in DC, he’d rented a furnished apartment, wanting to see how the job progressed before doing something permanent like buying a house. And for convenience sake, he’d made it as close to the office as possible.
When he entered the front door, the bland furnishing and walls made him frown, as they did almost every time. He desperately missed his old house in St. Louis—especially the whirlpool tub. Carelessly throwing his coat and gloves over the back of a chair, he made straight for the shower, needing the hot water to help loosen up the muscles in his hip, leg, and back.
Letting the water beat on his back while massaging his hip, he wondered why he let that snarky asshole Blankenship lure him away from his home. Almost everyone Tony was close to was back in Missouri, and yet he’d taken off for a city where the only person he knew was his frat brother Steve.
He briefly contemplated the idea of fate. If that baby hadn’t spit up on his partner back in Peoria, forcing him to duck into a restroom to rinse out his shirt, Tony wouldn’t have been alone on the street when that bank robbery had gone down.
Just like it was yesterday, he could still remember every detail of that moment. The call had just come over the radio that there was a robbery in progress at a bank right around the corner. Tony hadn’t even finished acknowledging the call when the perpetrators rounded the corner and nearly walked right into him. For a fraction of a second, time seemed to stand still. Then the first shot was fired.
Everything from that moment was hazy, but surveillance footage later showed that two of the three robbers had their weapons in hand and immediately opened fire. Tony took three in the vest, one slipped under the kevlar and tore through his side but somehow manage to miss anything vital, and two shattered his pelvis, right above the left hip joint. One shot went wild and into a bystander’s thigh; she bled out before the paramedics could arrive. Four more rounds were later pulled from a nearby car.
He was lucky to have survived, but any chance of being a cop was gone. Once he’d traveled the long road to finally accepting the situation, he’d decided he wanted to remain in law enforcement, at least peripherally. So, he’d gone back to school. For the forensics career path he’d wanted, he’d needed a natural science degree, so used his minor in biology as his foundation for a master’s in biology. He’d done a second master’s in forensic science. The two degrees had taken three years.
Straight out of college for the second time, one of his professors had introduced him to the head of the St. Louis crime lab, one of the best forensics labs in the country. Richard had agreed to give Tony a probationary period, and that was that. He’d spent the next decade working nights running trace and ballistics, and the days working on a doctorate in analytical chemistry. He was already the night supervisor by the time he finished his Ph.D. after eight years of work.
Getting his doctorate had been a significant milestone, but it had left him thinking, “now what?” He’d spent his twenties and early thirties working his ass off and going to school, sacrificing his hobbies and most of his social life. For a decade, his social life had been beers with friends as often as he could manage it, regular one-night stands, and a few second dates.
Taking inventory of his life at thirty-five had left him feeling oddly dissatisfied. He loved his work, but he’d realized that work was all he had. He then spent the next two years trying to find a life, but nothing ever seemed to gel.
About ten weeks ago, Frank Blankenship literally came knocking and asked Tony to take on the challenge of straightening up the satellite forensics lab in DC. He’d asked why they hadn’t had someone from Quantico come up and assume the task but hadn’t gotten a satisfactory answer. After being in the muck for the last seven weeks, he’d concluded that the people qualified to fix the lab operations hadn’t been willing to take the risk on a lab that still might get shut down—and perhaps take some reputations with it.
Cynically, he knew he was expendable. But he was also damn good at his job and was determined to see the problems fixed. After a few key people had been fired, Tony was left with an exceptional team; he was confident they could get the lab back to proper standards to pass their recertification in a little over two months. The agents who were accustomed to a “certain way” of doing things, however, were an ongoing, giant pain in his ass. Some days more than others, he mused as he rubbed the tight muscles in his low back and butt.
A half an hour later, he sprawled out on the sofa with a glass of wine and a very late dinner and switched the TV to the classic movies channel, finding the original Magnificent Seven about half over. Movies had been a huge hobby for him as a kid, and even up until he was shot. Life after the shooting hadn’t left a lot of time for anything extraneous, but movies were still his go-to way to wind down.
When the credits rolled, he glanced around the apartment and sighed. “New town, same problems, uglier decor. This is pathetic,” he muttered as he got to his feet. He couldn’t help but wonder sometimes where life would have taken him if he hadn’t been on that corner at that exact moment, but he was pretty sure it wouldn’t have been beige walls and tan furniture.
He felt like Scarlett O’Hara with his insistence in putting off his problems until tomorrow, but since it was five minutes until midnight, tomorrow would truly have to do.
– – – –
He glanced up to find Isabella Navarro hovering in the doorway. “What’s up?” He was kind of glad for the distraction. He’d been feeling off-kilter all day, and he had a low-grade headache. Paperwork sucked large.
“Could you give me a second set of eyes on something?” Isabella was one of his favorites. She was competent, had a good sense of humor, and hadn’t put up any obstacles when Tony came in as the lab supervisor. It didn’t hurt that she was also a guide and generally relaxed and easy to work around.
“Sure.” He got to his feet and locked his office door behind him, following her past the security doors and into the main lab area. There were only a few offices outside the lab, and his was one of them since he spent more time on administration than he did actual handling of evidence.
Once they were in ballistics, she pointed to the large plasma screen with several enlarged images of a round extracted from a piece of drywall, and various shots of the crime scene. The round was pretty mangled, but he’d looked at a lot of spent rounds in his life. “Looks like .45 caliber, 230 grain.”
“Yeah,” she agreed.
“Big cartridge, but it’s a mess. You’re not going to get any useful rifling marks off that.” He turned to look at her. “But you already know that.”
She nodded but didn’t say anything. He also liked that she made people work for the answers.
He looked at the screen again, focusing on the small shots of the scene. Looking closer at a couple, he frowned. There wasn’t enough impact damage on the wall. “What was the penetration depth on the wall?”
“It had completely penetrated the 5/8” drywall and was in the stud.” She pulled up the pictures, showing minimal damage to the 2×4.
He rounded the table and looked at the crime scene sketch, which showed the supposed firing point. “That makes no sense. Unless the round was, I don’t know… thrown by hand, with that weight and velocity, it should have shattered that stud. And it wouldn’t be that mangled unless it had.”
She peered up at him from her dainty height of 5’2. “Which means?”
“That there was something in front of the wall that our round passed through first before coming to rest gently against that slightly dented wood. And that thing is missing. Chemical analysis done yet?”
“No. In the queue for the mass spec. Could be a few hours.”
“Go ahead and alert the agent in charge of the case. They need to reassess their crime scene. Tell them we’ll be in touch if we’re able to determine what that round might have passed through.” He paused. “What kind of case is it?”
“Missing federal witness.”
“Damn. I’ll go assess the priority for the mass spec. If there’s nothing significant in the ballistics, let trace take over. Wrap this up and move on.”
“Gotcha, Boss,” she said crisply with a mock salute.
He chuckled. “I think I prefer Tony.”
She smiled, but then it dimmed a bit. “Before you go… is everything all right?”
He blinked a couple times. “Yeah, everything’s fine. Why?”
“I don’t know… something seems different.” She tentatively put out a hand. “May I?”
Brow furrowing, he considered only a second before nodding his assent. Isabella was a mid-level guide, so he didn’t think her touch could be too intrusive.
She touched the back of his hand and looked like she was concentrating. When she looked up at him again, she was frowning. “You feel more… there to me. I don’t know how to explain it.”
“Uh.” He wasn’t even sure what to do with that. “Okay.”
“I’m sorry. I know that sounds weird, but you just have more empathic presence than I’m used to.”
“Which means what?”
“I don’t know.” She shrugged, looking perplexed. “The Foundation has a support center in Arlington. If you have any degree of latency, I’d go by sometime soon and get someone who actually knows how to use their guide gifts to check you over.”
“Seriously?” That seemed like overkill.
“I’m not trying to be alarmist, but people just don’t change their empathic, um, density? I guess, for lack of a better word. Empathic tone changes all the time, but the depth of their presence doesn’t shift. But, you know, my experience is kind of limited. I wanted a lab and big guns, not being tied to a sentinel.”
He found himself laughing again. “I’ll add it to the to-do list. And I’ll be sure to tell the receptionist that my density has changed and I need to be checked out stat!”
Isabella actually giggled, which was something he hadn’t heard from her before. “Go away, bossman. I have work to do. You’ll have to deal with your density on your own time.”
With an eye roll, he left the ballistics lab and made his way over to trace.
– – – –
The tap on his door drew his focus from a chemical analysis report, but by the time he glanced up, Fornell was already lowering himself into a chair.
“Make yourself at home, Agent Fornell,” he said dryly.
Fornell smirked at him. “Don’t mind if I do, Doc.”
Tony scowled at the moniker. “Did you need something, or are you just here to do more unfortunate things to my name?”
“Wanted to thank you for the help with the case today. For once, we weren’t behind NCIS.”
Eyebrows shooting up, Tony stared for a second. He recalled that the witness had been a petty officer, but the federal case she was testifying in hadn’t been related to her service, so the Bureau had jurisdiction. “They fight you for jurisdiction?”
“Always. And, just as I expected, Gibbs never backed off the investigation, but we got there first.”
The name was vaguely familiar. “I heard you had some epic bromance going with one of the lead agents at NCIS. That him?”
Fornell’s expression twisted a bit. “More like a friendly rivalry. Used to be more friendly, but then I married his wife, and now it’s more rivalry.”
Tony’s eyebrows were getting a workout. “I wouldn’t touch that comment with a hazmat suit. If there’s nothing else?” he ended leadingly.
“You’re not very sociable, are you?”
“Actually, I am. But I’m also suspicious by nature, and I can’t fathom why you keep talking to me.”
Fornell just chuckled, obviously not put off by Tony’s attitude. “Because you’re the new guy, and we’re all counting on you to fix this so we don’t lose our lab.”
Tony just stared.
“Oh for…” Fornell sighed in exasperation. “I’m not trying to butter you up so I can ask you for favors. I’m just saying thank you.”
“You can thank me by not mangling my name.”
“Your pronunciation is wrong.”
“How can my pronunciation of my own name be a mistake?” he asked incredulously.
“It’s not traditional.”
Tony pointed to his office door. “Out.”
Fornell gave a faint smile. “Sure thing, Doc,” he said as he got to his feet.
“DiNozzo!” Tony yelled after him.
“DiNotezo. Got it,” came from down the hall.
“Asshole,” Tony muttered as he returned to his paperwork.
– – – –
Tony lay in bed staring at the ceiling, unable to sleep. He rarely suffered from insomnia or other sleep maladies, though the transition from night work to day hours had been bumpy. He didn’t always get enough sleep, but that was either simply a lack of available hours or pain of some kind. Being tired but wide awake wasn’t his usual problem.
As he stared at the faint texture pattern on the ceiling, his vision began to blur and then grayed out. His head felt like it was drifting away, which was such an odd and startling sensation, he almost reflexively grabbed it to keep it in place.
His first instinct was to sit up, but he felt like he was about to pass out, and his vision was wonky, so sitting might not be the best idea. For what seemed like an eternity, he was stuck in that gray, head-floating, stretched out feeling. Like he was becoming disconnected from his body.
Then suddenly, it was over, and the world was sharp and clear. Too sharp and clear.
He realized he was panting, and there was a weight on his chest.
Forcing himself to slow his breathing, he looked down a bit and right into blue cat eyes. “What the fuck?!”
A sandpapery tongue licked his nose and then a purr began, vibrating against his throat where the very tiny cat had perched to get access to Tony’s face.
All the pieces clicked into place. “Well, shit,” he muttered as he reached up and carefully stroked the back of what he thought was his spirit guide. “I guess I shouldn’t have ignored Isabella’s suggestion yesterday to go to the Foundation’s support center.”
The little cat braced its front paws on Tony’s chin and made a mewing sound.
Keeping as still as possible so as not to dislodge the cat, Tony asked, “Does this mean I’m a guide now? Because that was never in my plans. Not that I’m not a pro at unexpected developments by this point.”
The cat’s eyes narrowed, and it hissed a bit. There was way too much intelligence in those eyes for your average cat of any species.
“Okay, fair enough. Guide DiNozzo at your service.” The cat purred again and batted at Tony’s nose. “You know, you look more like a kitten. And though you’re small, you’re not housecat-kitten tiny. So what exactly are you?” He scratched the back of its head and got a louder purr for his efforts. “Come on… you’re not gonna give me a clue?”
Blue eyes blinked lazily at him, then the cat curled up right over Tony’s throat and seemed to go to sleep, which wasn’t even remotely comfortable for him. And how could a spirit guide have so much heft?
“Okay, that’s not gonna work,” he muttered as he lifted the small body, getting a hiss of displeasure for his efforts. He carefully swung to a seated position and let the cat/kitten thing curl up in the crook of his arm. Petting absently, he tried to get his thoughts in order. “You know, I never knew spirit animals were so substantial. You feel completely real.”
The cat shot him a baleful look, then seemed to go to sleep again.
“Right. Of course you’re real. Here you are after all.” He rubbed his free hand over his face. “All right, Tony… what now?” Realizing he still felt really off, he decided he better get to the support center in Arlington immediately. His head didn’t feel like it was drifting away anymore, but the world felt entirely too sharp. If he really was online, protocol was to contact the S&G Foundation for instructions or go directly to one of their support services centers.
He knew he could call and they’d come get him, but he preferred to be a little more in control of things, so he figured he’d get a cab. He stared down at his little passenger, who he suspected was some sort of young wildcat of one type or another. Why young? He’d never heard of an immature spirit guide.
Pushing all his questions aside, he gingerly got to his feet. Time to find out if he really was a guide, or if he was having a really vivid dream about a wildcat kitten invading his home.
As soon as he flipped the lights on, he got a better look at his visitor and blinked in surprise. It was cute as hell, but the unique markings and the slightly buggy eyes were damn distinctive. He took the little body in both hands and held it up in front of his face. “Ocelot, eh?”
It gave something that could pass for a meow—if the cat in question were being strangled and had indigestion.
“Well, I guess that puts to rest the idea that this isn’t guide related and the neighbor’s cat snuck in. But why are you so small? You’re like an ocelot kitten. Ocekitten? Yeah, I like that.”
Another strangled mew was his answer, followed by a paw patting his cheek. It looked toward the doorway.
“Right. Get a move on, DiNozzo.”
– – – –
By the time his taxi pulled up at the center, Tony had decided he wasn’t too thrilled with this guide gig. His driver was neurotic as all hell, and Tony was much happier not knowing what lurked beneath the surface. Ignorance was bliss. He really had no interest in dealing with other people’s emotions.
Managing a fake sort of smile, he tipped the man he was pretty sure was crazy then climbed out of the cab. It was two in the morning, but the building was inviting for all that it was surrounded by security fences and a guarded gate. He could have had the driver pass the sentinel-guarded gate and drop him off at the door, but he’d wondered how his driver would do with the stress of having to answer a sentinel’s questions considering how nutty he felt to Tony.
The four-story sprawling facility was on about two acres of land, so it felt isolated in the middle of a busy suburban area. He was keenly aware that the two sentinels at the gate were watching him closely.
Sighing heavily, he realized that he knew they were sentinels. He felt the ocekitten shifting around in the bag he’d stuck her in. He thought spirit animals just sort of came and went, but when he’d tried to leave the apartment without her, she had let out a loud strangle-screech. Then, when they first got outside, she didn’t like the cold, so Tony had to go back upstairs and get his small duffle bag, line it with a fleece throw, and stick his ocekitten in it.
He realized one of the sentinels was crossing the street, heading right towards him. Time to get on with it. He’d turned the page on the next chapter of his life.
“Guide, are you all right?” The sentinel’s eyes flicked to the bag, which was moving around a bit, and he frowned in consternation.
“Yeah, I’m okay. Lost in thought.” He gestured toward the building. “Do I need to sign in or something?”
He shook his head. “Not out here. You’re always welcome, anytime, and can register in the main lobby. Is this your first time to our facility?”
“Uh… recently online—about an hour ago. Figured I should come down.” He gestured vaguely. “So this is all new.”
The sentinel glanced over to the guard booth, head cocked to the side, then looked back to Tony. “They’ve been expecting you. We’re glad you were able to make it in. May I walk you inside?”
Tony blinked. “Expecting me?”
“Yes. Several of our stronger guides felt you come online earlier. We were expecting a call out.” He gestured toward the gate which was already sliding open. “After you?”
Tony told himself he would do the check-in, get registered, and then go home and get on with his life. Nothing had to change—he did not have to start over again.
His ocekitten made a strangle-meow of clear displeasure.
“Oh, pipe down,” Tony muttered, not sure if she was upset with him or being in a bag.
The sentinel stared at the bag again. “You put your spirit guide in a bag?”
Tony shrugged. “She wanted to come with but made a fuss about the cold. I didn’t know what else to do.”
The sentinel just blinked at him in astonishment.
“Okay, then.” Tony started across the four-lane street, the sentinel quickly catching up. His hip was good for walking tonight, but even on a good day, he’d never set any land-speed records.
As soon as they cleared the gate, the sentinel said, “I’m Sentinel Paul Williams.”
“Anthony DiNozzo.” They made awkward small talk for the few minutes it took to make it to the front door. It seemed like Williams wanted to say something but never quite managed to get it out before they were met at the door by a woman who Tony immediately knew to be a guide.
“Hello, dearie,” she said gently as she shooed Williams away. “I’m Maggie Matthews, Grandma Mags to the people around here.” She was probably around seventy, but it was hard to tell because her face was rather ageless. She had dark skin, pure white hair, was about 5’5 and on the curvier side.
“Anthony DiNozzo. Tony,” he clarified. Tony’d never interacted with any of his grandmothers, but he kind of thought Maggie was exactly what one should be like. He felt completely relaxed around her.
“Are you okay with touch, honey?” she asked as she gestured to the door.
“Uh… I don’t know.”
“Well, we’ll save that test for later. Come on in… I’ve got a room all set up for you.”
“A room?” he echoed. As soon as they were in the lobby, it was evident he was the main attraction. The dozen or so people around were all staring at him.
“You all get back to wherever you’re supposed to be,” Maggie ordered, waving everyone away and leading Tony to a door with a security card reader. She scanned in and held the door open for him, ushering him inside. “Sorry about the crowd. We’ve been waiting to hear about you. Thought you might be unconscious or something. Most of ‘em are part of our team for guides in distress—they do the difficult pickups,” she said conversationally. “We were going to give it another half hour or so and start putting together sentinel search teams.”
Tony halted in his tracks and stared at her. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Why would you be expecting me?”
Maggie stared up at him, smiling faintly. “I felt you come online, sweetie. Woke me right out of a dead sleep, and I came straight to the Foundation. All of the senior guides felt it. Normally there’s a fair amount of distress, but you’re doing so incredibly well, which is wonderful.”
“Uh, I think you might be on the lookout for someone else.”
She laughed and shook her head. “When you came online, your psionic presence was like cool, clear water. It was pure delight. And here you are, feeling the exact same. No mistake, hon, no mistake at all.”
Tony was feeling way out of his depth. The whole thing reminded him way too much of waking up from surgery with his pelvis pinned together and having no idea what was about to become of his life.
“Hey,” Maggie said softly, “everything’s gonna be all right. How about we just check you over, make sure you’re truly as stable as you seem, and then we’ll talk through the next steps for you. That okay? Or we could detour and have a cup of tea and just chat for a bit.”
Tony tipped his neck to the side, letting the bones pop and ease some of the tension. “Might as well get on with it.”
“If you need a break, just say, and you and I will have some tea and talk about those wretched holiday lights in Alexandria. What were they thinking?”
“Tacky,” Tony agreed as he walked beside her down a wide corridor. The carpet was lush, the colors sedate, and the lighting soft. He assumed it was all to cater to a sentinel’s hyper-acute senses, but it was soothing for him, too.
“It’s dreadful. If it didn’t take me twenty minutes out of my way, I’d avoid the whole place until January.” She opened the door to what he immediately thought looked like a high-end medical clinic. Even though it was quiet and empty, it was pretty clear what it was. “We were expecting a guide in distress. If we’d known, I’d have just set up in one of the standard isolation rooms. But we’ll manage, right?”
“Sure,” he murmured, still feeling off balance.
Another hallway and he was led into a room where three people were waiting—two men and a woman, all within ten years of his age. He’d barely cleared the room when his ocekitten started making a god-awful racket. The strangle-screech was followed by yowling, growling, hissing and a lot of wiggling. He nearly dropped the duffle.
Ignoring the questions and looks, he pulled open the zipper, which was only half shut anyway—he didn’t know if spirit ocekittens needed oxygen or not, but it seemed the right thing to do. Then he was trying to reach in as the ocelot was trying to get out, screeching up a storm. He managed to catch her as she seemed to be attempting to go after one of the men in the room.
“Whoa!” He somehow kept hold of the squirming, spitting kitten. “I was wondering what to call you, but I think I’m just gonna call you Vicious. What in the world is wrong?”
Vicious kept hissing and trying to swipe her little claws at the shocked-looking man across the room. He realized everyone looked stunned.
Maggie shook it off first. “I think everyone needs to leave. I’ll handle this myself for now. Tanya, do give Blair and Eric a call.”
“Now, Margaret,” the man who Vicious seemed to hate sputtered in objection.
“That will be all, Dr. Roberts,” Maggie said in a steely tone.
“You can’t let a spirit animal dictate–” Whatever he was going to say was cut off when Vicious let out an ear-splitting strangle-yowl.
Tony wasn’t gonna just let Vicious be that unhappy—and it was odd how quickly that name had stuck in his head—so he turned and walked out into the hall. Vicious immediately calmed down, and he held her up so he could see her face. “Want to fill me in?”
In response, she craned her head forward and started licking his face, making her little rumble-purr.
“Yuck,” Tony said with a laugh. “How can that actually be warm and wet?”
“Because he’s more real than most spirit guides,” Maggie said softly from behind him. “Why don’t we come down to my office and have a talk?”
Feeling tired, and a little frustrated with all the mystery, Tony just nodded. As they passed the door where the three other people were talking lowly but heatedly, Vicious gave another hiss for good measure. He scratched her behind the ears, hoping she’d calm down.
He could tell Maggie was taking him some back way to her office through employee-only corridors. She took his coat, and then he was seated on a plush couch in a room that barely passed for an office; it was casual and comfortable, with artifacts on display from what seemed like all over the world.
“Interest in archeology?” he asked as he glanced around the office, petting Vicious absently while she licked her paws.
“I was an anthropologist in my youth,” she said as she fiddled with an electric tea kettle. “Since it’s late, my options are chamomile or decaf chai?”
“Chai.” He nodded to Vicious. “Is it okay if I let her go?”
Maggie stared for a second, then seemed to come out of it. “Of course. The little one is always welcome,” she said with a smile. Vicious purred in response. Her gravelly little purr would probably always make him smile. Okay, so maybe something good had already come out of this whole thing—he was getting kind of attached to his ocekitten.
Maggie came over and handed Tony a large mug of tea, and he immediately breathed in the scent of chai. “I typically use a regular tea set, but I’ll admit, you don’t seem the dainty teacup sort.”
He smiled and shook his head. “This is perfect. So, what is it that you do here?”
She sat on the opposite end of the couch, angled to face him. “I’m the Assistant Director of Guide Support Services. Been at this facility since it was built in 1976. My sentinel, Tomás, runs the Sentinel side of things. We were the directors of the facility for a while, but I prefer to be more hands-on with my guides. Our directors, Devon and Eric St. James, would normally be here, too, but they’re at a conference in New York. They’ll catch up with you tomorrow.”
Tony didn’t think he needed catching up with but figured they’d get to that portion of the program eventually.
“Now, normally I try to find out how much a young person knows about sentinels and guides, but what we most urgently need to discuss is something very few people know anyway. I’m sure you’re aware that there are historical artifacts that show the existence of sentinels and guides as part of society way back into the caves.”
Tony nodded. “And then they seemed to vanish, or die out, or something in the latter third’ish of the Iron Age.”
“Right. No one really knows why, though there are a lot of theories. Some say they were no longer needed as civilization advanced; others have inferred that persecution of guides and sentinels in some cultures might have been the culprit; although that theory is very flawed in my estimation as many cultures revered our kind, and yet we disappeared almost uniformly across the globe. But none of that is terribly germane to our discussion.” She set her tea down and grabbed a book off the coffee table. “Look at page eighty-five and tell me what you see.”
He opened the book to the correct page. Vicious popped her head up into the gap between the book and Tony’s body and peered at the page. “Bunch of different vases. China, Egypt, Ancient Rome, Greece… Mongolia, maybe?” He glanced at her. “What’s the point?”
“Look at the animals on the vases. Do you see the variety?”
He looked at the photos again. Various feline and canine species, but even avian and equine. He considered for a second. “Are you telling me these were representations of spirit guides?”
She nodded, smiling. “You’re sharp. Yes, there’s information on the next page, but one thing we know from artifacts is that spirit animals came in a wide variety. But when sentinels and guides began to emerge again toward the end of the Middle Ages, there were four: grey wolf, red fox, jaguar, and lion. All very strong spirit guides, and, in their way, all suited to war.”
Tony frowned, considering that. “Why so few species?”
“Again, theories abound, but no one knows for certain. The reason this pertains to you is because after about a hundred years, when we’d gotten past those rough early times, we started to see new species of spirit animals. Spirit animals are, of course, not actual animals, but the sentient energy that fuels our gifts takes the form of a familiar species. And when a new species comes up, a few things happen. The first time they appear, they’re always young.”
He looked down at his spirit guide who was now peering up at him. “So no ocekittens running around, I take it.” He really didn’t know what to make of that.
“Ocekitten?” She laughed. “No, there hasn’t been an ocelot recorded in S&G history since the return. There are some representations of what we believe to be ocelots on ancient artifacts from cultures in Central and South America.
“Because we can’t know anything about another plane of existence, we can only observe, there are, again, only theories. But the theory I think best fits is that when they first appear, they’re here to learn something. What, I don’t know, and it’s probably different for each animal. It could be that we’re being tested. But whatever way you look at it, you are their guide. It puts you in a rather unusual situation as far as guides go.
“The first guides, as we call them, are always here, always tangible. They don’t travel back to their plane of existence until they’re mature. And after she’s grown and assumes the standard form and attributes of a spirit guide, other ocelot guides will begin to come online.”
“This sounds like there’s some sort of difference between the different types of guides.”
“Most definitely. We have different strengths. And first guides tend to bring change. It can be something subtle, to something of great import. The first cheetah sentinel was the first to be able to piggy-back their senses. Others were able to learn eventually, but that came to us after the first cheetah appeared, and cheetah sentinels can do it almost instinctively. The first fennec fox brought us empathic healing. And again, guides with a spirit animal of a fennec fox can wield that gift almost without thought, while others have to work at it.
“We aren’t always able to quantify the effect the first guides had, but there was always a feel of change and moving forward. And in that vein, they always come to those very adaptable to change, and who have themselves, been through a fair amount of upheaval in their lives.”
Tony frowned. “I don’t know that I’m feeling very adaptable to this change, actually.”
Maggie smiled gently. “Dearie, it’s almost three in the morning, and you’ve been through a lot. No one is going to feel very adaptable right now.”
He conceded the point. “So why doesn’t anyone know about this? I mean, I’ve never heard of a baby spirit guide.”
“It’s incredibly rare. Maybe twice a decade, worldwide. And while it’s not required to keep the nature of her purpose here a secret, most guides in your position seem inclined to.”
Tony considered that then nodded. “Agreed. I don’t feel the need to run out and tell anyone.” He actually felt averse to that idea. “But I assume there’s some sort of cover story?”
“Usually something along the lines of spirit animals coming in the whole range of ages, but most of their ages are not so easily discerned.”
“Okay, I’ll work with it. So, what’s next?”
She cocked her head to the side. “You’re the sort who wants all the information and then you go off by yourself and decide how you feel about things, aren’t you?”
Chuckling, he nodded. “Yeah, that sounds like me.” He’d never been one much for reacting in front of people.
“All right, I can work with that. First, as I mentioned, you’re in a rather unique situation as guides go, so a lot of the usual rigmarole isn’t necessarily going to apply. We’ll go down the standard list and toss out what we don’t need.”
He wasn’t sure why things wouldn’t apply to him but figured it was best to get the information and ask questions at the end. Nodding, he set the book back on the table and grabbed his tea.
“Your sentinel is already here, but he’s–”
Tony choked on his tea, managing to spit some on Vicious who wasn’t having any of that. She got her claws into his shirt and started climbing while he was still trying to clear his airway. By the time he’d recovered, his eyes were watering, and he had an ocekitten perched on his shoulder.
“I’m sorry, my what is here?”
Maggie blinked. “Oh dear. I assumed you knew that your sentinel was online already. When you came online, he or she felt you through the psionic plane and would make an immediate attempt to find you.”
“But… that’s only for guide ascendants!” A guide ascendant was capable of walking the spirit plane and even wielding psionic energy.
“Oh, sweetie… of course you’re ascendant. I promise you that not every guide who comes online wakes up every high-level guide on the East Coast.” When his mouth just hung open, she smiled and added, “All of the guardians of our little first guides are ascendant. And while most guide ascendants are in a bit of a mess at the beginning, the ones with these little travelers usually come online in near perfect command of their abilities, which would normally take years to accomplish.”
“So that’s why the team was prepped to come find me.”
“Yes. We assumed since we hadn’t had a call that you were in distress or unconscious somewhere. When you came walking in the door, calm as you please, and not broadcasting even a bit, I should have known immediately. But in all my years at this facility, it’s only ever happened once, and I missed the obvious, I’m afraid.”
“Well, I did wake you up,” Tony said lightly then turned serious again. “I wasn’t planning on the sentinel thing. I thought I’d come in, register, go to work tomorrow. I wasn’t– I don’t–” He broke off and rubbed his hand over his face. Vicious purred and rubbed her face against his cheek.
“Nothing says you have to bond, dear. Most guides in your position want to, a guide ascendant is usually very driven to, but it’s not compulsory.”
“But you said he’s my sentinel.”
“Yes. Sentinel and guide matching is a bit more art than science, even with all our advancing technology and the identification of biological markers and gene mutations. But with a guide ascendant, there’s always a perfect match, a sentinel you called out to when you came online. If you’d been in distress, he’d have been our best way to find you.”
Tony felt a little thread of panic. “But he’s here—like, in this building. The person I’m supposed to be with for the rest of my life? Who I don’t even know!”
Vicious licked his ear.
“Ugh.” He wiped at the wetness. Gross.
“Tony,” Maggie said gently, “don’t worry so. Whatever you want to do, everyone will support you. Your sentinel included.”
“My sentinel,” he repeated, not quite able to wrap his head around that. He had to push that aside for now and focus on something else. “Why was Vicious so snarly with that man… Rogers?”
“I couldn’t say. Spirit guides sometimes react badly to certain people. It’s usually good practice to heed their instincts, but I can honestly say I’ve never seen one try to attack someone unprovoked before.” She smiled at Vicious, who Tony could hear rumbling away near his ear. “Do you really plan to call her Vicious, and is it truly a she?”
“In terms of Rogers, I’d prefer not to be around him until we know why she reacts to him so, um, viciously. As for the name… Vicious is sort of stuck in my head, but I suppose it’s not a very dignified name for a spirit guide. Especially the first of her kind.” He craned his neck to try to see her. Slightly-buggy blue eyes met his and she gave a lazy blink. “Should I call you Jasmine or something?”
She immediately hissed.
“Okay, Vicious it is.”
The purring returned.
“Right.” He looked back at Maggie. “And, yes, I checked the plumbing earlier. Girl Vicious for sure.”
Maggie looked thoughtful, but seemed to jump topics when she asked, “How are you doing? Overwhelmed by empathic input or anything of that nature?”
Tony shook his head. “I’m fine.”
“It’s not uncommon for guides like you to automatically shield yourselves and block everything out unless you sense some danger. Your abilities may come to you somewhat instinctively, but we’ll still want to schedule some time with you for training.”
Tony readily agreed. He didn’t want to be accidentally using his gifts. Guide ascendants were ridiculously powerful, and he considered not getting trained tantamount to picking up a sniper rifle and trying to shoot it without ever having handled a weapon before.
“Normally, on a new intake, we’d do an empathic and physical health check, get you stable, rested—have someone monitoring you overnight if necessary—and then work on skills, but you’re in a unique situation, so I’ll just ask you… what do you want to do next? Would you like to get some sleep and pick this up in the morning? Discuss next steps? I’m open to whatever’s going to make you most comfortable.”
Before Tony could reply, Vicious leapt off his shoulder in a way that gave him a spike of anxiety. His girl had no fear, apparently. She padded over to the door and scratched at it.
“I think she has an agenda,” Maggie said, sounding bemused.
Tony got up and went to retrieve his guide. He held her up to his face. “Don’t think I’m gonna let you lead me around by my nose for the rest of our lives.”
She gave that strangled-sounding meow and looked at the door.
“Any idea what she wants?” he asked Maggie.
She crossed to stand near him. “I’ve never seen this behavior before, but spirit guides tend to lead you to things that will benefit you, or away from danger. She could be trying to take you to bed, or could be trying to find your sentinel.”
He made a face, not sure if he was ready for the sentinel thing yet. “What if she’s going after that Rogers guy?”
Maggie looked thoughtful. “Well, if a first guide is so vexed with him that she’d hunt him down, I’d advise him not to open the door. But then he and I need to have a conversation about why she’s reacting so negatively to him. Before we are out in the center proper, and possibly around others, I think we should determine how touch-sensitive you are.”
“I’m game. Do we just shake hands or something?”
“Well, why not!” she said brightly, extending a hand. “Allow me to formally introduce myself, Margaret Matthews, doctor of anthropology, guide ascendant, and honorary grandmother to every guide in my center.”
Tony shook her hand, getting a mish-mash of impressions from the contact. “Anthony DiNozzo, Junior, forensic scientist, guardian of a vicious ocekitten, and you are quite tired but oddly excited.”
She grinned. “Did you have to struggle to read me, or fight to not read me?”
“It was just there. Impressions in my head. It wasn’t overwhelming or intrusive in any way.”
“We would call you touch-adept. You won’t have problems with being touched like some touch-sensitive guides do, but will find uninvited touch particularly intrusive. It’s always bad form to touch a guide without permission, so you should be fine within our walls, but out in the world, it doesn’t always go so smoothly.”
“I’m an old hand at being prepared for the worst from people.”
She huffed a little. “Now, forensic scientist is not at all what I was expecting from you, young man!”
“I’m almost thirty-eight!”
“Youngster,” she insisted. “I’m almost eighty.”
“Whoa, Maggie. You’re still rockin’ it.”
“Damn right,” she said with a grin. “Honestly, a scientist isn’t at all what I was expecting. I have to admit, I thought you were a fed.”
Tony laughed. “I work for the FBI. But you’re not wrong—I was a cop for a while, injured the first year on the job and went into forensics instead.”
Vicious started squirming and strangle-mewing. Ocelots apparently didn’t have very pleasant vocalizations.
Maggie cocked her head toward the door. “Follow your guide, or no?”
Impulsively, Tony set her down. “Let’s see where she leads.”
“I’ve never done this before.” Grinning, Maggie opened the door, and Vicious took off. She offered Tony her arm. “Shall we?”
He let her thread her arm through his, and they went after his ocekitten. Who was running ahead, then running back to growl at him, then running ahead, then pacing impatiently in front of closed doors, waiting for Maggie to open them.
“I think my guide is a bit impatient,” he remarked as they followed at a reasonable pace, opening whatever door Vicious stopped at, even when she took them through the kitchens. “Considering her temperament, I wouldn’t be surprised to find us at Rogers’ door.”
When he had a few moments to himself, Tony knew he’d have to take all this in and decide how he felt about it, but right now, he had something vicious to catch.
After a couple of minutes, they were in front of another security door, and Maggie paused and turned to face Tony. “She’s taking you to your sentinel, Tony dear. Are you ready to meet him? Because if you’re not, you can pick up your Vicious and I’ll take you to a room we have ready for you in the guide wing.”
“You’re sure that’s where she’s going?” he asked, wondering if he was ready for this.
Maggie tilted her head toward the door. “That leads to the sentinel isolation rooms, which is where he’s supposed to stay until certain steps in the process have been finished. Normally, we’d bring you both to a monitored meeting room for a first contact like this. The guide health wing is restricted to guides only except in an emergency, but the majority of the facility is open to both. The only area where guide traffic is restricted is in the sentinel iso rooms. We’re very careful about who can go in and out of there, because a distressed sentinel needs careful handling, so only properly trained guides work with them.”
“So, I shouldn’t go in there?” he asked, not sure if he was relieved or not.
“That’s not what I meant. Your sentinel isn’t in distress as far as I know, and a guide ascendant is a very grounding presence for any sentinel. I only mentioned the divisions and how we handle things, because only certain personnel are authorized beyond that door, and Rogers isn’t one of those people. He works with guides, not sentinels.”
“Ah. So… process of elimination, she’s not out to eviscerate someone for the moment, she’s just trying to hook me up. Gotcha.”
Maggie laughed. “You are a delight, my dear.” She clasped both his upper arms. “This has to be your decision.”
“If I decide not to go in, what happens?”
“Word was already sent to him that you’re here and doing well. After I get you settled in a room, I’d have a conversation with him and let him know that you’d like to meet another time. He could go home if he wishes, but in these circumstances, I imagine he’d stay until you’re ready to meet.”
“Is he okay? Meaning, right now… his senses and everything? I feel like you’re sort of tap dancing around something.”
“It’s important that guides not be pressured, and sometimes revealing information about a sentinel’s condition or what they might go through, can be an influencing factor. I’d prefer you make up your mind about what you want. And that’s what he wants as well.”
Vicious gave a pathetic sort of strangle-mewl at the door and Tony sighed.
Maggie was clearly fighting a smile. “I’m afraid I can’t do anything about undue influence from your own spirit guide.”
Tony made a face. “She’s gonna be a handful.” Taking a breath, he cracked his neck again. “Okay, let’s see where Vicious leads.”
Maggie swiped her card, and the locks on a very heavy door released.
“That’s a serious door,” Tony commented with a low whistle of appreciation.
“The isolation units have the best soundproofing and psionic shielding you’ll find anywhere.”
The door finally finished hissing open, and they were met by a Hispanic man who looked to be in his late sixties. Tony could immediately feel that he was a sentinel, and his eyes were full of adoration as he gazed at Maggie.
“Hello, my love.” His eyes flicked to Tony. “Is there something you’d like to tell me?”
Maggie just pointed to the floor where Vicious was staring up at who Tony assumed was Tomás.
The sentinel stared at the ocekitten, obviously utterly delighted. “What a joyful thing. Greetings, little guide, we welcome you and hope you find all the answers you seek,” he said to Vicious with his hand pressed to his heart. Tony was oddly touched by the words. Tomás looked back up to Tony. “Welcome, Guide Ascendant, I am Tomás Matthews. Your sentinel is waiting for you.” Stepping back so they could enter, he was a bit startled when Vicious took off like a shot.
“She’s a bit anxious,” Tony offered, not sure what else to say. He wondered at the surname Matthews. Tomás had an accent, and Tony was fairly certain Matthews wasn’t a common name in Latin America.
“She?” Tomás asked, looking surprised.
“It’s a minor detail. We’ll get to it some other time,” Maggie said smoothly, then nudged Tony. “Go. We’ll be with you. If you want to leave at any time, just say the word.”
“Right.” He took a deep breath, then went down the hall, past a large reception-type desk where a couple sentinels and guide were leaning over and staring down after Vicious, who was pacing in the hallway and shooting Tony baleful looks, no doubt for taking too long.
Feeling nervous, he caught up with his spirit guide, and she immediately went up to one of the doors and started scratching at it. Before Tony could pick her up, or knock, or anything sensible, the door opened, and Tony was staring into the bluest eyes he’d ever seen. He couldn’t absorb anything else because everything in him was reaching out for the man in front of him.
“Oh,” he breathed. All those moments of trying to find something for himself but nothing ever fit suddenly made sense. This was where he belonged. And that was so unnerving, he felt like he couldn’t breathe.
But then the sentinel jerked in shock and looked down, breaking the stare-off, and Tony took a ragged breath. Following the sentinel’s gaze, Tony found Vicious using her little razor claws to climb the sentinel like a tree. She had already scaled his entire leg.
The sentinel looked over Tony’s shoulder. “A first guide?” he asked, sounding a bit awed.
“Wonderful blessings, Jethro,” Tomás replied softly.
“Jethro?” Tony echoed. “Seriously?”
The sentinel’s gaze snapped to Tony, and he glared, but it didn’t have any real heat.
Tony tipped his chin toward Vicious. “You should help her,” he advised as Vicious gave a little rumble of displeasure. “She’s got a claw stuck in your belt.”
The sentinel looked down. “It’s okay if I touch hi… her?” he questioned, looking up again.
“Yes, pick her up,” Tony said, making a shooing motion. “She dragged me down here because she wanted to find you.”
Shaking his head as if Tony were incomprehensible, he carefully reached for Vicious and disentangled the claw stuck in his belt, and lifted her up so he could look her in the eye. “Hi,” said softly.
She started to wriggle, obviously trying to get closer, so the sentinel pulled her to his chest, which she immediately climbed and started to lick his face.
“I think she likes you,” Tony said dryly, ignoring the way his stomach was doing backflips as he stood so close to something that felt so good. And now that he wasn’t stuck in that gaze, he could see that the sentinel was about a decade older than Tony and had some serious hotness going on. Military bearing all the way.
The sentinel was now focused entirely on Tony. “I hope she’s not the only one. Sentinel Jethro Gibbs,” he offered.
Tony blinked, quickly processing the name. “Wait… the NCIS agent?”
Gibbs sighed. “I have no control over what’s on the tube-y thing.”
Not sure what that even meant, Tony retorted, “No, I mean… you’re the other half of Fornell’s epic bromance.”
Eyebrows shooting straight up, Gibbs scowled. “What the hell is a bromance?”
“Okay, he said friendly rivalry that’s more rivals than friends, but everyone else says it’s a full-fledged bromance.”
“You’re an FBI agent,” Gibbs said, sounding vexed.
Tony just shook his head. On the one hand, it was obnoxious that people were always shocked that he was a scientist, but it was also kind of cool that everyone so readily jumped to federal agent. It was so much better than being a lawyer or politician.
“Anthony DiNozzo, head of forensics, Bureau’s DC lab.”
Gibbs blinked. “You’re the one who got Tobias pointed in the right direction on my case.”
“Whose case?” Tony asked innocently. “And it was my team.”
Gibbs scowled, and Maggie chuckled. “Okay, boys. The rivalry between your agencies has no place here. Tony, this is Leroy Jethro Gibbs, he’s been an online sentinel since 1991, and has a daughter who is… what is she now, twenty-five, Jethro?”
Leroy? Jesus, how much hillbilly could you stick in one name? But then Tony thought about a daughter, and had a brief panic attack before it sunk in that she was fully grown and didn’t need diapers changed or anything.
“She’s twenty-seven now, Mags.”
Maggie sighed. “Time just runs away from us. Don’t waste such a precious resource with nonsense,” she said sternly.
Tony grinned then decided he’d better try to act like a guide. “Are you okay?” he asked.
Gibbs gave a start of surprise, but he kept petting Vicious. “You’re the one who just came online,” he said in confusion.
“I mean, they’ve got you in an isolation room… so are you okay?”
“I’d track you all over the building if I wasn’t in here.”
“Oh.” Tony resisted the urge to fidget.
Maggie huffed. “You’d think you two were raised in a barn. Are you just going to stand here in the doorway?” Tomás’ chuckle from where he was propping up a wall reminded Tony forcibly that this was all being watched. He felt like he was under a magnifying glass.
“I guess I should go take care of… something,” he said awkwardly, not sure how to talk to this man, who he was so drawn to but was still fundamentally a stranger.
“Wait,” Gibbs said, reaching out, but then aborting the gesture and stroking Vicious’ back again. “None of that was what I intended. Tobias and I…” he trailed off and rubbed his hand over his face. “I wasn’t prepared for him to have a connection to my guide.”
Tony just nodded, accepting the explanation. He couldn’t pretend to understand a history he knew nothing about, but he could see something had thrown Gibbs for a loop.
“Can we talk?” he asked.
Smiling, Tony nodded again, looking to Maggie. “How do we go about that?”
“Best to come out of the isolation areas. There are a couple of meeting rooms. Tomás will have to monitor, but otherwise, we can give you a bit of privacy.” Tony felt kind of bad keeping two people near eighty up half the night.
Vicious seemed to want to stay with Gibbs for the moment, so Tony walked with Maggie out of the isolation wing and into a comfortable room with couches, chairs, and a table against the wall.
Then he was alone with Gibbs. The whole situation was so surreal, he wondered if he were dreaming. In his head, he hadn’t reconciled himself to the whole sentinel/guide thing yet, but he also couldn’t imagine walking away.
Before he could flail about for something trivial to say, there was a rumble and a chuffing sound and his leg was nudged from behind, which he thought was nothing but empty room. He spun around and found a huge black jaguar staring up at him. And Vicious was making that screechy-mew sound again.
“That’s Bagheera,” Gibbs said from right over his shoulder, then he leaned down and set Vicious on the floor, and she immediately began to climb a very patient-looking jaguar.
“Bagheera was an Indian leopard, as I recall,” Tony replied, thinking it was an odd choice of name for someone with a jarhead haircut, correct species or not.
“Kelly was eight when I came online,” Gibbs said softly as he watched Vicious crawl on Bagheera, inspecting his ears and playfully biting. “Jungle Book was one of her favorites, and all that mattered was it was a big black cat. I tried to talk her into something else, but eventually the name stuck. I usually just call him Heera.”
Tony turned to face his sentinel. “I need to talk about the elephant in the room.”
Gibbs stuck his hands in his pockets. “Okay.”
“I’m really off kilter here. I went to bed your normal overworked forensic scientist, and now I’ve got a,” he pointed at his guide, “and a,” he pointed at Gibbs. “It’s not like me to not know what to do next, but I’m kind of lost.”
“Guide,” Gibbs said softly, “I’ve been waiting for you for twenty years. If you need time to adjust, you’ll have it. If you want to bond quickly, you can have that, too. I just want you. Whatever path we take there is fine.”
That gave him a warm feeling, but he also didn’t know what to do with it. “You don’t even know me,” he countered a bit desperately.
Gibbs took a step closer, so they were only about a foot apart. “Mags explained that for you, most of what happened when you came online would be a blank, but at the moment you became a guide, you connected with me and… I knew everything I needed to. I felt you. If you need me to wait, I’ll wait. I can’t promise to be agreeable all the time, but if I act like an ass, just know that you are what I care about.”
“How? You don’t–” he stopped himself, not wanting to repeat his concern.
“Then let me get to know you,” Gibbs returned easily. “That’s all I want.”
Tony scrubbed his hands over his face. Everything in him wanted to reach out to the sentinel, but he was at war with himself because the man was basically a stranger! He’d never dreamed this could happen in his life, but he thought back to the times when he’d resisted change, and when he’d embraced it. He’d always done better with accepting the change and taking control of it, rather than fighting it.
“What’s wrong, Tony?” Gibbs asked softly.
“I want to, I don’t know… hug someone who’s almost a complete stranger, and it’s weird.” It was so odd the way he wanted to reach out and wrap his arms around the other man.
A beat later, Gibbs slowly reached out and wrapped his arms around Tony, pulling him close. His arms were loose, giving Tony room to pull away, but he found himself melting against his sentinel and curling his arms around a strong waist. Then Gibbs’ hold tightened, and Tony heard a deeply indrawn breath.
“You feel so good,” was murmured against his temple. “Smell like home.”
“I’m tired and confused,” Tony admitted, “but this is… perfect.”
Gibbs didn’t exactly pull away, but he managed to get them seated while still keeping his arms around Tony. Their position seemed to sort of naturally shift until Tony was leaning against Gibbs’ chest, arms around his waist, while Gibbs held him close. His mind kept reminding him that it was weird to be this comfortable with a virtual stranger, but it felt so right, he was mostly able to ignore himself.
“Why are you confused?” Gibbs asked softly.
“I don’t know what to do next,” he murmured. “I’m not used to that. When there’s a problem, I make a plan, and then I go for it.”
“But I’m not a problem,” Gibbs countered gently. “I’m your sentinel. So what’s your plan, Guide?”
Tony felt fatigue pulling at him. Somehow he’d been running on adrenaline all night, but now he felt like a marionette with its strings cut. “Get to know my sentinel, I guess.”
“Good plan.” Strong fingers carded through his hair. “From everything I’ve heard, guides are exhausted after they come online. Mags usually gets ‘em checked out, makes sure they’re stable, then puts them to bed. So maybe sleep and then the plan.”
“Sleep is good,” Tony mumbled.
“Go to sleep, Guide,” Gibbs whispered.
– – – –