Title: What Fate Brings
Author: Jilly James
Fandom: NCIS, minor 9-1-1
Genre: Contemporary, Sentinels & Guides Are Known
Pairing: Tony DiNozzo/Randolph Rampart
Warnings: Discussion-murder, Canon-level Violence.
Author Note: Randolph Rampart courtesy of Keira Marcos Productions, Lou Ransone is underutilized from the 9-1-1 universe. Thanks to Keira for title help and getting past the hump on The End. Also, this is a connected work in the same universe as You’re My Home, my current Rough Trade project (July 2022).
Timeline: Occurs pre-series for both shows
Beta: Alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon… What? No, I didn’t do any of that.
Challenge: The Big Moxie – Q2 2022 – Sentinel Fusion
Word Count: 6,805
Summary: Randolph Rampart has recently been given his second star and stationed back in DC when he feels his guide come online in distress. His guide’s situation is unusual, to say the least.
“Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.“
—Marcus Aurelius, ‘Meditations’.
The door opened and a tall, younger sentinel seemed to fill the entire doorway. “General Rampart?”
He dipped his head in acknowledgment.
“I’m Sentinel Detective Lou Ransone. I was sent to brief you on the situation.”
Rand curled his hand into a fist, fighting impatience. “Is my…the guide all right?”
“Tony?” Something settled in deep in his gut at hearing his guide’s name.
“Mm.” Ransone gestured toward the table. “May I enter?”
Rand took a seat first and indicated the chair he wanted Ransone to take. He observed the other sentinel as he took a chair. Probably in his mid 30s, well built, unreasonably attractive, and easily 6’5 if not a bit taller. At 6’4, Rand tended to be the tallest in the room at any given moment, so it mildly irked him that Ransone was taller.
“You’re in charge of the investigation?” Rand prompted once they were seated.
“Not exactly. Tony’s my partner.”
And that got Rand’s back up. “I’m trying not to jump to conclusions here, but a guide was in mortal peril on your watch?”
Before Ransone could reply, a white snow leopard appeared on the table, blue energy arcing off of its claws where they took purchase on the polished wood. The big cat leapt into Rand’s lap, butting up under Rand’s chin as he made contented chuffing noises.
Rand closed his arms around the cat, surprised at the solid feel of a spirit animal not his own. The sense of guide came through in every touch, and something deep within him eased at the contact.
Hannibal, his own puma spirit animal, appeared next to him, settling his big head on Rand’s knee.
Ransone sighed with what sounded like fond exasperation. “That’s pretty much Tony’s core personality, so you might have to get used to it.”
“Affectionate?” Rand questioned as he focused on Ransone while still petting the snow leopard.
“Controlling situations through distraction.”
“Ah.” Rand took that on board for a few seconds. “He’s a police officer?”
“Detective, yes. Youngest in Philly’s history. Tony asked me to talk to you about what’s going on because you’re not going to get a straight answer from anyone else at this point.”
Something unpleasant settled in Rand’s gut. “He doesn’t want to talk to me himself?”
“He’s interested in meeting you, but, uh, there’s talk about protective custody for him. Possibly long-term. We could even be looking at witness relocation. He feels you need to be able to make an informed choice.”
“I can’t see that being a deterrent, but I welcome more information, not less, so net it out.” Rand had been online for a long time, and had been stable and field-ready with interim guides. As he’d been promoted, his pro tem guides were assigned as his aides. He’d never been close to having a good match in the S&G system, but he had a disciplined mind and had been determined to weather life without a permanent guide. But his satisfactory existence without a bond didn’t mean he wasn’t desirous of one. It didn’t mean he didn’t want every bit of what he’d felt for those precious moments when he’d connected with this other man through the psionic plane, prompting Rand to walk out on a meeting with SECDEF to make tracks for Philadelphia.
“I’m in Organized Crime,” Ransone began shortly. “More so than your average impulse criminal, crime families are particularly adept at evading sentinels. They employ sentinel countermeasures, they develop entire unique linguistic lexicons, and they’re particularly good at keeping any guides in the family close at hand in the hopes that it will keep sentinels at bay. The idea being that sentinels will keep the guides from being harmed in any police action.”
Ransone made a so-so motion. “That can be an iffy prospect at best because it’s true, as you know, that sentinels will naturally prioritize a guide above most members of the tribe. However, if a sentinel has excised the guide from the tribe due to being corrupt, they will not be as encumbered by the duty to protect. In any case, Tony wasn’t online when he volunteered for this operation. I certainly wasn’t ever cavalier with his safety because he was latent, but his very latency made him a better fit for this mission than if he’d been online.”
“Because he was latent, it was easier for me to keep a sensory lock on him despite sentinel countermeasures in play. It wasn’t always possible, but usually I was able to keep better tabs on him due to his latency. I heard the whole thing go down earlier today, and I do think Tony would have been able to bluff his way out of the situation, but he came online, which put him in the crosshairs for a different reason. Suddenly, he was a guide the family was going to try to pull close. At least, one member of the family was going to try to force that. He knew the threat he was under, and we had to call the operation.”
Randolph frowned, stroking his fingers through soft fur. The snow leopard was lax across his lap, almost as if it were asleep. “I feel like you’re leaving out critical details because there was a major empathic event, which would not have occurred just because someone came online.” Rand had felt his guide come online under threat and had followed that empathic pull for over two hours from DC to Philadelphia.
Ransone’s expression twisted. “Our case against the Macaluso family is…complicated. From what we’ve pieced together, Don Michael Macaluso Senior is something of a revered figure in this town; he does good things for his community, he’s loyal to his family, and he’s ostensibly an honest businessman.”
“He’s a mob boss,” Rand said dryly.
“A beloved one. It’s an unfortunate truth that criminals are sometimes better to their communities than the politicians or police put in place to serve them. Not often, but it happens. Yet people were turning up dead and rivals were going missing; there was evidence of graft… Everything pointed to Don Macaluso or his son, Michael Junior. That’s why we sent in an undercover, to try to get close to the Don and get some proof. We’d had no luck for years. Until Tony. Tony got into the family’s inner circle.”
“Exceptional. Both at undercover operations and investigative work. The brass are willing to throw a rookie detective at a major undercover op because they were desperate, but they don’t give him nearly enough credit for how astute and intuitive he is.”
“How long has this operation been in process? With Tony as the undercover, specifically.”
“Tony’s been with the Philly PD about eighteen months. He’s been undercover a little over a year.”
Rand nodded, but he wasn’t terribly pleased. He began making mental note to ascertain what support the Philadelphia police department gave to assets on long-term undercover operations. There would also be some difficult adjustments if his guide had been living an alternate life for over a year.
“He had just figured something out when everything went to hell. In retrospect, it was right in front of us all along that it was Macaluso’s nephew, Joey, who was running a shadow organization and making sure everything pointed to his uncle. Joey was being paranoid and questioning everyone. I had a sensory lock on Tony since the moment they picked him up this morning, which was difficult to maintain due to the countermeasures they were employing, so I had a field guide in play as well.”
“You’re not bonded?”
“No.” Ransone shot him a wry grin. “Also, Tony and I aren’t remotely compatible, General.”
Rand forced himself to relax.
“In any case, Tony came online and Joey decided to drug him, no doubt to try to make him family property or some such garbage, but Tony is a very powerful guide, apparently, and instead of subduing him empathically, it shredded his primary shields. Hence the psionic outpouring that every sentinel and guide on the Eastern Seaboard felt. The S&G emergency response team had to actually drug him until the other medication could be countered. He woke up about two hours ago, which is about when you stopped growling.”
Rand huffed but let himself be soothed by the snow leopard in his lap. He’d arrived at the main Foundation Support Center in Philadelphia in a state. “He’s my guide.”
“Yeah, I got that. We all got that, but he thinks he’s a bad prospect because of the uncertainty of his future. His testimony may be instrumental in bringing down a major criminal enterprise. You ready for that?”
Rand looked up sharply. “What exactly do you know about me?”
“Youngest brigadier general since MacArthur and then record promotion to major general. Even with the often accelerated promotion path for combat sentinels, none of that could have happened if you didn’t have a significant amount of combat experience coupled with exceptional leadership qualities. So, I know you’re not afraid of a fight, but you’re also career military, and you just took a new assignment…?”
“In the DC area,” Rand offered. “Working for the office of the Commandant. I’ll be heading up intelligence operations for the Marines.”
“Ah.” Ransone smiled. “That’s not a bad fit, really. Don’t let Tony talk himself into thinking he has no place in your world. He’s exceptional at analysis of intel. I’d have recommended him for our intel department, such as it is, if we hadn’t needed his pretty face in organized crime.”
Rand raised a brow.
Ransone’s smile turned into a smirk. “Just a bit of testing, General. Your guide is a pretty little bastard, so it’s good you can rein in the caveman routine when people stare at him.”
In response, Rand dropped a kiss on the fuzzy head of the snow leopard. “Do I get to meet this…Tony?”
Ransone pushed back from the table. “I’ll ask. Ultimately, it’s his decision, regardless of what anyone else might have to say about it.”
“And why would anyone else have an opinion?”
“Your would-be guide is shaman levels in his power, General Rampart. A lot of people seem to think they’re allowed to offer an opinion about what he gets to do, but Blair Sandburg has already been on the phone putting more than one person in their place on the subject. Just listen to Tony and not anyone else, and you’ll do fine.”
Rand inclined his head and watched Ransone leave after giving a promise that he’d send word about when Tony would be ready to meet. He knew he had several things he needed to deal with, not the least of which was meeting with his aide. She’d been with him for nearly four years now. Major Lynne Baxter was a great guide, a better Marine, and very loyal to Randolph. She’d realized the state he was in when he’d stumbled out of his meeting with SECDEF, and she had personally driven him to Philadelphia to find his guide. She’d gotten him in the hands of the Foundation’s medical team after informing him that she’d wait until he was ready to dismiss her.
Considering he didn’t know how long he’d be here, he felt he needed to send her back to DC with his apologies for SECDEF.
He felt a warm touch to his chin and looked down at the snow leopard, realizing he’d been licked. “And what was that for?”
The snow leopard seemed to almost grin at him.
“Your human probably has a terrible sense of humor.”
The leopard licked him again.
“Maybe I’ll just wait here with you a little longer, eh?” There was a profound comfort in holding the spirit animal, and he wasn’t quite ready to let go yet.
The door opened and one of the most attractive men Randolph had ever seen stepped inside. He’d felt his guide moving toward him, and there was absolutely no doubt that this was him. Despite obvious fatigue, his guide was beautiful—and almost painfully young.
Tony huffed as he took in Randolph’s appearance. “Lou is such a dick,” he muttered under his breath.
“In what way?” Rand asked hesitantly.
“Eh.” The door shut in the face of the two sentinels who’d been escorting Tony. “He knows I have authority figure issues, and yet he chose not to tell me that my sentinel is a freaking two star in the Marines.”
Rand cocked a brow. “If he didn’t tell you…” He wasn’t exactly in uniform.
“I recognize you, General.”
Rand winced. “Randolph, please. Or Rand if you’re able. May I call you Tony?”
Tony dipped his head in acquiescence then he sprawled out in one of the lounge chairs. His whole demeanor spoke to exhaustion. He propped his chin on one fist. “You know, they always talk about matches and percentages and how many markers you have to have in common to achieve a good bond. It sounds like the dating game…many possible outcomes if you just ask the right question.” Tony’s green gaze was intense. “But I can feel that you’re it. You’re my one, in dwarrowish terms.”
Rand snorted a laugh.
Tony smiled, and that was like the damn sun coming out. “On the surface, we’re a terrible fit, but the psionic plane seems to think we’re perfect for one another. So, I’ve been asking myself if I want to trust some nebulous, cosmic force with my destiny. And I’m curious about your thoughts… Are you feeling trusting, Sentinel Rampart?”
Tony’s brows shot up. “That’s it? Just a yes? Pardon my paraphrasing, of course.”
“I had a profound connection with you for a significant portion of that empathic event. I was not unchanged by it, Tony. I don’t know that we’re perfectly compatible human beings, but we clearly have perfect compatibility on the sentinel and guide front. I’m willing to work for the rest because that feeling, that moment, was worth it.”
“And what was the feeling? To you… How would you describe it?”
“It was coming home.”
Tony’s eyes widened briefly, and then he looked away. “Yeah, I guess it was.” He blew out a breath. “So, here’s the thing, Randolph,” he said the name slowly as if trying it out, “Mike Macaluso is demanding to speak with me. He won’t talk to the investigators or the DA until he’s had a conversation with me. I’m curious what your thoughts on that might be…?”
Rand started growling. Hannibal joined in the chorus of displeasure.
Tony took a steadying breath as he hesitated at the door to the interrogation room. No one wanted him here, least of all the sentinel prowling around Tony’s desk area in the bullpen, but Tony was barely in the habit of letting his actual supervisor boss him around; he sure the fuck wasn’t going to let the Foundation tell him what to do.
And as much as the guide side of him wanted to placate the agitated sentinel who was calling to him, this was Tony’s job, and he didn’t need a sentinel untrained for criminal investigations being overbearing and getting in the way. He winced at his own train of thought. He felt disloyal for even thinking Rampart didn’t belong by his side right now.
Regardless of his irrational feelings, he needed to see for himself that Randolph Rampart wasn’t going to try to smother him. He needed his own ambitions and goals in life, his own purpose. He needed to be able to breathe and function beyond another man’s senses.
Tony entered the interrogation room where only Mike Macaluso and his attorney, Enzo Santoro, were waiting. Lou slid in behind him, propping up a wall, arms crossed. A vigilant presence who Tony knew would be unmoved by pressure to leave.
Mike looked tired but otherwise as put together as ever. His gaze raked over Tony thoroughly, then he turned to Santoro. “Give us a minute.”
Santoro frowned. “That’s not a good idea, Mikey…”
“Enzo,” Mike said firmly, “that was not a request.”
Santoro reluctantly got to his feet and left.
Mike’s gaze flicked to Lou. “Is your shadow willing to leave us?”
“He’s not,” Tony answered on Lou’s behalf. “This shit show today brought me online, Mike. They didn’t want me in the same building as you. Letting me in here without a sentinel was never going to happen.”
Mike nodded, still with the assessing gaze. He gestured to the seat. “Sit, Antonio.”
Tony didn’t correct the name, he just slid into the seat. “Why’d you want to see me, Mike? The DA said you wouldn’t give any kind of statement without talking to me first.”
“Was any of it real?” Mike’s gaze was penetrating.
Forcing himself to maintain the eye contact, Tony nodded, despite how uncomfortable it all made him. “Why does it matter?”
“I need to know the truth about the man I was starting to trust as much as my own son.”
“What is truth? There are so many ways to slice the facts to make the truth seem to be anything you wish.” Tony rubbed his hand over his face. “What are you looking for?”
“Just tell me something true, Antonio.”
“The truth, Mike, is that putting guys like you away isn’t why I became a cop. You take care of your people.” Tony made a derisive sound in the back of his throat. “Hell, your community is better off for your presence. Maybe the police would have turned their attention to you eventually, I don’t know, but if there hadn’t been bodies dropping there’s no way I’d have agreed to this.” He thought back over the last year of undercover work preceded by six months of investigation and analysis. “Joey was making it look like everything was you. All the evidence said you were killing people who got in you way, but I couldn’t reconcile how that could be with the man I’d come to know. And then I thought it had to be Mike Jr.—”
“Never Mikey,” Mike said on a sigh. “He’s, well, I love my boy, but he’s too soft for the family’s true business. His heart is in the community projects we run.” He met Tony’s stare head on. “You were my hope for the future of my family.”
Tony shook his head. “That was never going to be.”
“Because you’re a cop and we’re criminals?”
“Apparently, it’s because I’m a guide, but I’m no one’s pawn.”
“I didn’t approve of that nonsense Joey pulled with the guides in the family—using them to shield the family from sentinels. No, I’d have never done that Antonio. Certainly not to you. I’d have never allowed it.” Mike heaved a heavy sigh. “How much was real between us?”
Tony lifted one shoulder, feeling too exposed to everyone who was listening. “The easiest way to handle long-term undercover is to stick as close to the truth as possible. The information I gave you was factual—in terms of how we connected.” Tony cleared his throat. “I wanted you to be the man you presented yourself to be. I wanted to be wrong about you, so I was truthful about myself as much as I could be without breaking my cover or compromising my investigation.”
Mike nodded slowly. “Where do we go from here, Antonio? What path is there for us?”
“I don’t know, Mike. You shot Joey in the face right in front of me. You didn’t kill those others, but you did kill him.” To some degree, Joey had brought that shit on himself, and he was actively a threat to Tony when Mike had killed him out of pure rage and revenge. But Tony had to live with the feel of Joey’s murder as one of the first things he experienced empathically. His shields had been in the process of crumbling under the drugs he’d been given, and he’d felt a man’s murder.
Mike made a dismissive gesture. “That crime I will not be punished for, and you know it. Not as severely as perhaps a man should be. I was defending a newly online guide, no?”
“You’re saying that was your motive? Not revenge for what Joey had done to the legacy you had so carefully built?”
“It’s my motive if I say it is, Antonio.” Mike’s voice was low and soft. Deliberate.
Tony blew out a breath. “I’m not the DA, Mike; I’m not the one you have to convince.”
“There’ll be no convincing anyone. Enzo will have the offer for the DA of the charges I’m willing to plea to and the sentence I’m willing to accept. That will end my business with the state of Pennsylvania.”
“You think it’s that simple?”
“You think it’s not?”
Tony made a face, wondering if it really was that simple for someone as wealthy and connected as Mike Macaluso.
“There just remains our business, Antonio.”
“Oh?” Tony refused to react to what felt like a threat.
“I cannot let this go without repercussions; I cannot be seen as letting someone try to tear my family apart from within.”
Tony could feel how tense Lou was, emotionally vibrating like a bowstring from behind him. “What are you saying?”
“I’ll give you three paths to reconcile what you’ve done. The first is that you leave the police, marry Michael, and run the family business in my stead.”
“Absolutely not,” Tony said immediately. “I… No. Even if I were tempted by that, which I’m not, I have a sentinel. I can’t— Just no.”
Mike held up a hand, light glinting off his platinum rings. “The second option is that I declare you an enemy of the Macaluso family, which would include my alliance with the Bonanno family in New York.”
Lou swore softly under his breath. Tony practically felt the bullseye painted on his back. He’d have no choice but to go into WitSec, and even that probably wouldn’t save him.
“The third option is the one I hope you’ll accept.” Mike paused. “Are you aware of the concept of adult adoption?”
Tony frowned at the conversational left turn. “What?”
Tony left the interrogation room and managed to wait until Enzo Santoro had rejoined Mike before he collapsed against the wall, feeling like the world had collapsed out from under him—in the weirdest way possible.
“Fuck, Tony,” Lou breathed. “That was practically a love letter.”
“And it’s my only choice,” Tony said. “Let Mike fucking adopt me, then I get in trouble with Dad for my misbehavior with the police, for which I’m punished by being exiled from Philly?”
“Don’t forget the price on your head.”
“But only if I return to Philadelphia willingly.” Tony threw up his hands. “What the hell? What kind of deal is that?”
Tony’s boss left observation with the DA and glared at Tony. “Just how in bed with this mafia don were you, DiNozzo? Were you working both sides?”
“Hey!” Rampart barked from behind Captain Roberts. “You will show my guide some respect, am I understood?”
Roberts straightened up, looking startled at having 6’4 of Marine general breathing down his neck. “And who the hell are you?”
“Major General Randolph Rampart, United States Marine Corps, Office of the Commandant, Marine Intelligence Department. Now, you’ve been given a gift today, and you’ve had quite enough of my guide’s time. If you need further interviews, you’ll need to reach out through my aide.” He smacked a card into Roberts’ chest.
Roberts swallowed heavily. “You can’t impede our investigation.”
“What investigation? It sounded to me like Macaluso was going to confess, and that the best chance Detective Guide DiNozzo has of living a full and happy life is to be out of Philadelphia in the next twenty-four hours. I’ve already apprised the Sensate Foundation that the latest shaman-level guide is operating under a significant threat to his life if he remains in the city. They’re working with my aide and Detective Ransone to take immediate action on packing and moving Guide DiNozzo. I dare you to be a problem they feel they need to personally deal with.” He took a step closer. “I’ll be taking Tony out of Philadelphia with a full Marine escort as soon as possible, and I really dare you to be my problem.”
Tony bit his lip, fighting back a grin. He could definitely handle his own business, but it wasn’t so bad to let someone else do it for a change.
Tony wasn’t sure of anything anymore except that he was bone weary as he let Sentinel General Randolph Rampart lead him into large home he’d just recently acquired in Quantico, VA. The home was open and spacious on an acre of land, and Rampart had only been in the home for a couple of weeks before Tony had empathically dragged him onto a different course in life.
There really had been a mad dash out of Philly that Tony hadn’t even been allowed to be involved in other than sitting at the Foundation offices like a protected princess, waiting for Randolph’s squad of Marines to escort him to DC. Lou and Rand’s aide, Lynne, had taken point on packing Tony’s stuff, and it would all be following in a day or two.
Tony DiNozzo had ended his career as a police officer in the middle of the night as he’d been driven out of his city by his new sentinel, under escort of a gaggle of sentinels and Marines, as he got to know Blair Sandburg via phone call and listened to Jim Ellison swear colorfully in the background. Apparently, there wasn’t a lot of precedent for Tony’s situation in Sensate Foundation history. Blair had a tendency to laugh at Tony a lot.
Tony was just…tired. He’d worked hard for what he had, he was damn good at his job, he’d finally found a partner he trusted, and now it was all gone. No career, no home, no partner.
“Tony?” Randolph asked cautiously. “You smell like grief.”
Leaning against the entryway wall, Tony looked around. “Everything’s gone, and I’m starting over.”
Randolph’s expression was sympathetic. “I think this perhaps happens to many sentinels and guides, not to mention people in the military, though the speed and urgency of your situation is unusual.”
“And the lack of choice,” Tony said bitterly.
Randolph felt utterly wounded, and that brought Tony up short.
“I didn’t mean it that way.” Tony rubbed his hands over his face. “I’m sorry. I meant the having to leave my home and my partner behind. I wasn’t lying when I said I was read to trust fate when it came to you, Rand, but I would have liked for it not to have been a domestic crisis.”
Randolph’s lips twitched, and his emotional tone was somewhat mollified. “Well, SECDEF is excited to meet you.”
“Oh god. That’s so embarrassing.”
“Maybe we should sleep on it, and start again tomorrow. Lynne arranged to have the guest room made up. Judging by the scent, she had Naomi and Rich in here. They’re a bonded pair in my new command.” Rand held out a hand. “I’m not going to push any intimacies you’re not ready for, Tony, but, when you are ready, I’ll be home for you.”
“I used to be a cop, and now I’m… I don’t know what I am. I don’t know how to be what you need if I’m uncertain of myself.”
“Can you give us a little time to figure it out? To see what else might appeal to you? I refuse to believe a man as intelligent and talented as you is limited to a single line of work.”
Tony considered that for a few seconds, and then reached out and took Randolph Rampart’s hand, feeling like he was stepping into his future. “Yeah, okay.”
“We’re a team, and we’re in this together, okay?”
“Yeah, but you’re used to being in charge. Try to remember that you’re not the boss of me, General.”
Rand smirked. “Psionically speaking, it rather feels like you’re the boss of me.”
“Ah.” Tony bit his lip. “Well, that could be fun.”
Randolph laughed. “Come on. I’ll show you the guest room. Everything will seem a little easier when you’ve had some sleep.”
Three days later, Tony was already fed up with trying to figure out where he’d slot into this new life. Randolph Rampart was the very best at everything he touched, and Tony felt like he was floundering, trying to find a place to fit in the general’s very orderly existence.
Not that Randolph’s competence wasn’t sexy as hell—Tony had always had a competence kink, and the general was really starting to trip his trigger the more he saw him in action. But that didn’t mean Tony was needed for anything other than being the man’s guide.
And the guide thing was another whole can of worms. Blair Sandburg and Jim Ellison were visiting the East Coast, drifting around and putting out fires as power began shifting in anticipation of Tony and Rand bonding.
Blair was completely sure that Tony and Rand were the next Alpha Primes of the Eastern Seaboard. Tony had never desired that kind of responsibility for himself, but the idea of it didn’t even seem to phase Randolph, who was used to being in charge of practically everything he surveyed.
Tony sighed and closed the folder. “You sure it’s okay that I’m looking at these?”
Rand was seated on the couch, reading through a huge pile of classified reports himself. Tony preferred to work at a table. “You passed the background checks and your security clearance was fast tracked, despite your pending adoption by a mob boss.” Rand shot him a grin.
Tony huffed. “They probably had to fast track it because of the adoption. I’m not sure I’d get it afterward.”
“SECDEF cackles in every meeting about the idea that my guide is so good at his job that mob bosses want to adopt him rather than kill him.”
“There is still that price on my head,” Tony pointed out reasonably.
“In Philadelphia, and we will never even set foot in Pennsylvania, in an overabundance of caution. All of my Marines understand.”
Tony goggled. “Are you serious?”
“Dead serious. I’ve issued a directive. The Commandant has backed me up.”
He should probably be indignant, but he just started laughing at the absurdity of it. “That’s kind of hysterical. If we wind up Primes for the Eastern Seaboard, you’re going to keep us out of a whole state in our territory?”
“Delegation is a skill generals pick up early in their careers,” Rand said dryly.
“You do it well, General Rampart.” He could feel how it got Rand a little hot under the collar when Tony addressed him as “General.” Tony grinned and went back to reading. And hour later, he made a scoffing sound. “The way this guy is humble bragging about his crimes is almost annoying.”
“This NCIS agent humble bragging about his weapons smuggling. I mean, why tell you guys how he’s doing it? That was such a dumb-ass choice.”
Rand put down his report and focused on Tony. “What are you talking about? Are you looking at the reports into the investigation into weapons smuggling in AsiaPac?”
“Yeah. Wait. This is still the investigation? I assumed this was the outcome. This NCIS agent is telling you how he’s doing it.”
“The NCIS agent is behind it?”
“He’s at least in on it, but I’m pretty sure he’s the leader, and he’s hiding it all in plain sight.”
“Are you sure?” Rand was off the couch and hovering over Tony’s shoulder.
“Yeah, I think so. Look…” He began walking Rand through what seemed like an obvious case of narcissist gloating to him. The guy had figured out a foolproof way, in his own mind, to smuggle weapons, but he wanted someone to know about this brilliance and no one had been catching on so far.
“I’ll be damned…” Rand muttered.
Randolph entered the house he’d been sharing with Tony for the last month. He hadn’t expected their informal courting phase to last so long, but he was determined to give Tony as much time as he needed to find his footing in their new life.
The last month had been busier than any time in Rand’s career when he actively wasn’t in theater, and it was all Tony’s fault. His guide’s mind worked in ways Randolph couldn’t even begin to understand. Randolph was both strategic and tactical in his thinking, but the level of abstract problem-solving that Tony displayed with startling ease was far beyond him. It was bordering on savant, and people in Rand’s department and also at the Pentagon agreed.
The two departments had been putting Tony through his paces the last month, though Tony seemed clueless to the protracted job interview. Rand had sat back and watched, letting it play out however it would. Tony didn’t need Rand’s help; what he needed was Rand’s support and companionship.
They’d been ensuring there was time to get to know one another around both of their busy schedules. Randolph liked the man who would one day be his guide. Tony was funny, charming, and so very smart, not to mention how incredibly beautiful he was. There was unfortunately a well of childhood pain that Rand hoped to be able to help heal given time and patience, but he knew that was a long haul, and not something he had the right to intrude on.
Things were advancing slowly on the bonding front because Tony felt so uncertain about his future direction. Rand couldn’t help but have a thorough three-sense imprint on his guide living in the same house—scent, sound, and sight—but touch was only marginally imprinted, and taste not at all. Rand was at the point that he had to remind himself every day that he was a patient man.
Tony had said he had something to discuss with Rand tonight, which had made Rand eager to leave the office because he also had something for Tony. His hand was pressed in a protective hold over the packet of papers he’d give to his guide tonight. The packet contained a stack of job offers for Tony to review. So many departments wanted him that he could cherry pick or even craft his own position. The world was his oyster; he just hadn’t been able to see his own worth yet. Time would change that, and Rand could help make sure Tony had the time to come into his own as the force of nature he was meant to be.
At home, he found Tony out back, reading in the waning sunlight, a thick sweater and jeans his only nod to the fall chill. He looked up as soon as Rand appeared and smiled, the very smile that always made Rand feel like the sun was coming out.
Dante, Tony’s snow leopard guide, nudged up against Rand, rubbing against his leg, on the way to lie on the grass with Hannibal.
He joined Tony in the Adirondack chair at his guide’s beckoning. “Everything all right?”
“Yeah, it’s good,” Tony said, staring out at the trees. “I was just thinking that I’ve been really hesitant about moving forward because I didn’t have a specific plan for my life. And then I realized something.”
Tony reached out and took his hand. “That any plan has to include you, so I’m not sure why I was hesitating about us moving forward, regardless of how stalled out I am personally.”
Rand’s stomach suddenly felt full of butterflies, as if he were fifteen years younger and trying to remember how to flirt. “You had a sudden and abrupt change in your life, Tony. You weren’t wrong that everything you’d worked for was suddenly taken away. Waiting for you to be ready was no hardship.”
“For some people, I think the waiting would be a hardship. I wondered at the psionic plane making us so perfect for one another and yet giving us such a mismatch in other areas.”
“Age for one, and that you were online for so long without me.”
“What conclusions did you come to?”
Tony’s smile was soft and more at peace. “That whatever we are is how we’re meant to be. If we’re matched or mismatched, it’s because it’s what’s needed. I’m not sure if we need it at a personal level or if it will serve the tribe in some way, but I realized those answers don’t matter so much. I was driving myself crazy with questions that had no answer, and I realized last night, lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, that I don’t want to waste time driving myself crazy with questions I can’t answer while waiting for a perfect path to be carved out in front of me.
“So, I asked myself what I know and what I’m sure about, and that’s you. I don’t want to ruin the now while worrying about perfecting tomorrow.”
“Tony…” Rand squeezed Tony’s hand. “You’re not. You won’t. You deserve time and consideration.”
“Thank you for that, and I truly mean it—”
“You deserve to give that to yourself as well.”
“And I think I finally am. Because I’m letting myself be happy. That means that you don’t have to stay over on your side of things anymore, General. You can let your own guard down and climb in my lap sometime.”
Rand tugged on Tony’s hand. “Maybe I want you to climb in my lap.”
Tony grinned and rose smoothly to his feet, easily settling on Randolph’s lap as if he were made to be there, despite his large 6’2 frame.
Randolph cupped Tony’s head and stared up into the mesmerizing green eyes.
“Hi,” Tony whispered.
Rubbing his thumb over Tony’s cheekbone, Rand murmured, “Guide…how you leave me completely undone.” Before Tony could reply, Rand pulled enough to bring their mouths together, tasting his guide finally.
For the first time in his long life as a sentinel, Randolph Rampart felt all of his senses in complete harmony. They were heightened, but level, focused on Tony. His guide, his heart, his gift.
They made their way inside, unhurried, stripping off as they went, leaving a trail of clothes that would horrify Rand at any other time. But the feel of his guide’s warm skin under his hands was all his could focus on. At least until he had his mouth on that skin.
For no reason that Rand could think of, Tony evoked rain to the sentinel’s senses. He felt fresh, his base scent was petrichor and summer breeze, he tasted of something pure and clean. It was as if his very sensory presence was washing away everything dull and gray, leaving nothing but a clean and clear world for Rand to bask in.
He laid his guide out on his bed for the first time and used the sensory imprint to worship the man he was falling in love with. He curled his big hands over the jut of Tony’s hipbones, and held him still as Rand tasted him properly for the first time.
Their bond was complete, solid and thrumming with vitality, before Randolph slid fully into his guide’s body for the first time. His guide’s love and affection filled every part of his being as he moved slow and deep.
Tony was correct that the reasons for the time and space between them were irrelevant because, in that moment, as Tony reached his peak, pulling Randolph with him, they were perfection. They were everything they needed to be.