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Something Beautiful On The Horizon

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Nearly all of his life, Tony DiNozzo had known that he was only weakly latent and would probably never come online. As he's comfortable with himself and not terribly interested in change, it comes as a shock when an intimate moment during a sexcation with an old friend turns his life on its head. Out of the blue, his sleeping potential awakens ... and immediately draws the attention of the Alpha Prime Pair of North America. From there on out, it's one surprise after another for Tony, not all of them good, and he has to decide whether going through with his emergence is worth the promise of finding something beautiful on the horizon.

 

Something Beautiful On The Horizon

 

Part 1

 

 

Tony gritted his teeth as Jeremy moved sinuously on his lap. "Jer ..." 

 

"I know," Jeremy gasped, grinding down again. "Hold out a little longer. You can do it, Tone. It'll be so worth it." 

 

Tony didn't know if anything was worth this torture, but he forced his aching balls to quit their whining and accept that Jeremy wasn't quite done yet with riding him. 

 

In an attempt to distract himself from the perfect too much pressure too little friction too hot sensation around his equally aching cock, Tony wound both arms tightly around Jeremy's slender back and buried his nose in the other man's shoulder bend. Jeremy tasted salty and alive and his skin was flushed with desperate arousal. It was a good thing Jeremy had effectively pinned him down because every last one of his moves egged Tony on to flip them over and finish their play. 

 

"Now?" Tony whined a few moments later, breath hitching at another merciless twist of Jeremy's hips. 

 

Jeremy pushed Tony's head away from his neck and kissed him hotly. Then, his fingers moved down, towards Tony's nipples, and teased them. The touch was direct and artless, designed to make Tony lose control, and damn, did it work. 

 

With strength Tony didn't know he still possessed after fucking for almost two hours - two hours! - straight, he grabbed Jeremy's ass cheeks and lifted, letting the man sink down again on his cock ruthlessly. The tight, squeezing glide made stars burst in the corner of his eyes. Then, Tony did it again, and again, until he felt he would lose his mind. Heat began to radiate through his lower body but was quickly rising to his chest and into his legs and arms.

 

"God, Tony!" Jeremy wailed. His fingers clawed into Tony's shoulders and he helped as much as possible. He was so aroused that he was practically strangling Tony's cock. "Now!" 

 

Groaning, Tony finally allowed himself to let go. He pushed up one last time, caught Jeremy's shoulder with his teeth, and burst apart in a huge wave of ecstasy and white light just as a rush of something hot and wet bloomed on his stomach. It went on and on and on, until finally the orgasm showed some mercy and allowed Tony to feel something other than mind-numbing pleasure. 

 

"Holy fucking shit," he whispered, awed. Still holding Jeremy loosely, he blinked. "You were right. That was totally worth it." 

 

"Guh," his partner rasped out.

 

They were too blissed out to move, and Tony admitted that his legs probably wouldn't carry him anyway if he decided to get up for a shower. Instead, he let Jeremy rest his head against his shoulder, allowing him to breathe deeply and come down from that incredible high in peace. He himself was cataloguing every nuance of the afterglow: the steady thrum of lessening pleasure, the slowing thumps of his heartbeat, and the sweat drying on his skin. 

 

Damn, he was feeling fine! Like he was still radiating. 

 

In fact, it didn't take much to feel his way back to the moments before the big bang, and wasn't that a pleasant surprise? Jeremy sure hadn't promised him that when he'd convinced Tony to come to the retreat with him.

 

Tony moaned as the arousal crept back up again. He was so incredibly spent, his dick no more able to twitch than he was able to think rationally, and yet he was getting all hot and bothered again. It was like his mind was revving up to go again and just leave the pesky flesh behind if it wasn't up to it. 

 

"Tony," Jeremy moaned, "really?" He sounded tired and definitely intrigued, like he could actually feel what was happening inside Tony.

 

"Stay," Tony instructed, beginning to nibble on Jeremy's neck and ear. Screwing his eyes shut, he chased the sensations and yes, they really amped back up again. The muscles in his pelvis clenched and heat began to spread through him again. "Uh, wow." 

 

"What are you doing?" Jeremy asked, his own breathing quickening with Tony's. 

 

"Dunno," Tony growled. He grabbed Jeremy's hips and ground against him. "I'm so hot. You're hot, too."

 

Jeremy choked and tightened his hold around Tony's neck. "Whatever it is, don't you dare stop." 

 

Instead of dignifying that with an answer, Tony wound himself like an octopus around Jeremy and surged up. He wasn't getting hard again, exactly, but it sure felt like it. The radiating heat caressed every inch of his skin, making his nipples tighten with an intense tingle. 

 

Gently rocking against each other, the tension rose again, like a balloon that was being filled with water. Tony's concentration was completely focused inward, back to the most erotic moments of his life, even as he glutted himself on Jeremy's smell and the feel of his skin. Release was so close, just out of reach ... 

 

Just like before, Jeremy's touch was the catalyst. As he desperately mouthed along Tony's throat, the bubble suddenly popped and all the figurative water rushed out in one great wave. 

 

Tony only had a split second to feel smug about it. Pleasure so intense that it nearly hurt engulfed him, causing him to lose every sense of time and space. His partner and even his own sense of self ceased to matter as every atom in his body vibrated with indescribable delight.

 

It took an age to come back to himself. Tony was aware of sound first, interestingly, and he enjoyed Jeremy's deep, if somewhat keening, breaths for a few moments. Then, scent came back. The air was cloying, heated up by their body warmth and the strength of their combined pheromones. The scented candles on the dresser added their own citrus-y aroma, which was surprisingly nice. Touch was next, and it gratified Tony to notice that Jeremy was still in his lap, with Tony's cock still buried inside Jeremy's rather fantastic ass. They embraced gently, almost carefully, resting against each other as they found their way back to the real world and cooled down. 

 

At last, Tony blinked his eyes open. 

 

"You okay?" he asked, mapping out Jeremy's flushed face, his pretty blue eyes and the pouty, kiss-swollen lips. His short strawberry red hair was more than a little mussed and love bites were blooming all over his neck and shoulders. It was a grand look on him, Tony thought smugly.

 

Jeremy groaned. "You killed me, DiNozzo." 

 

Chuffing quietly, Tony pressed a kiss to Jeremy's sweaty temple. "Only for a while, bud. 'sides, whose idea was it to come here in the first place? Let's try tantra, you said. It'll be fun, you said." He paused, allowing a blinding smile onto his face. "Well, it was fun, I'll give you that."

 

"Show-off." Jeremy straightened his shoulders a little. "God, I can't feel my legs. How am I ever going to get back up? Or you, for that matter? I must've put your legs to sleep like a bitch." 

 

Laughing again, Tony tipped them over, landing Jeremy on his back and looming over him. He pressed against and into him teasingly, even if he'd lost a lot of length and girth during the last minutes. "We'll manage somehow." 

 

"Ugh, that's so tempting." Jeremy sighed. "But the flesh is wrung out. And also a bit sore. Pull me up?" 

 

They carefully disengaged, kissing and teasing and groaning about how done in they were. Together, they somehow managed to get up and into the shower. Tony was happy not to be the only one to still feel sort of outside his own body, like their touches and even their conversation didn't really register, although they listened and replied just like they'd normally do. 


It was weird and Tony didn't know whether he cared for it, now that the afterglow was over. 


oOo


Half an hour later they found themselves in the communal dining area overlooking the Pacific Ocean, which in truth was a beautiful lawn that had been partially tamed by an open wood structure to provide shelter from the elements. Today, it was warm and sunny, so most of the guests sat outside on brightly coloured yoga cushions, enjoying the mild, salty breeze and the slowly setting sun. 


Tony took a deep breath to inhale the mingled aroma of fragrant Thai curry, ocean air, and the blooms that added their very own, sweet perfume. 


The girl handing out the food grinned broadly at him as she filled a bowl with rice and green curry. "Looks like you really had fun," she said, nodding at the love bites on his neck. "Wowza!" 


Grinning his mega-watt smile, Tony shrugged. "That's the whole point of coming here, isn't it?" 


She laughed. "It sure is, handsome. Enjoy your food! We've got passion fruit semifreddo for dessert, with a drizzle of passion fruit sauce. It's great, you should try it." 


"Oh, I will," Tony promised. "Thanks." 


He went outside to find Jeremy, but his buddy had already joined a large group of new friends, which Tony knew would be a bit much for himself after their afternoon. He didn't mind Jeremy bragging about the sex, and with a bit distance he wouldn't even mind basking in everyone's admiration, but right now he preferred a bit of calm and quiet. 


He caught Jeremy's eye and gestured toward the ocean front side, signalling that he'd settle down there if Jeremy wanted to join him later. Jeremy smiled and nodded, absolving Tony of having to be social. 


As soon as Tony had chosen his spot and eaten the first few bites of his dinner, he revelled in his decision. The air smelled clean and fresh, even with the scent of flowers hanging about, and the food was delicious. Satisfaction was still glowing inside of him and he smiled at the crashing waves in the distance and the warmth of the sun on his skin. He'd always tanned easily, but being outside so often during the last few days had done wonders for his pasty D.C. complexion. He no longer looked pale and run down, instead there was colour in his cheeks and humour in his eyes and he'd even lost a couple pounds of weight due to all the hiking and yoga and athletic sex that was on offer here. 

 

Tony hadn't known that a place like this even existed, but he was glad to have discovered it. The accommodations were minimalist and organic yet beautiful, taking meals together and meeting people was strongly encouraged, and the guided yoga lessons and classes on sexual freedom and enlightenment were educational, to say the least. 


Tony's absent smile widened at the last thought. Very educational. 


"There he is!" a voice exclaimed and a short guy with dark, long curly hair plopped down across from Tony. He only wore white linen pants, showing off his tanned upper body and fuzzy chest. His blue eyes twinkled and he grinned like a kid in a candy store. "Jim!" 


"Yeah, yeah, Chief." A second man, this one big and burly with the definite look of ex-military about him, settled down next to Blair. He was classically handsome with chiselled features and perfectly proportioned muscles. His eyes raked over Tony before he smiled briefly. "Hi. The name's Jim, and that's Blair." 


"Uh, Tony. Hi."


Blair didn't stick out his hand for Tony to shake, but he made up for it with his enthusiastic words. "It's so nice to meet you! You treated the camp rather nicely earlier, thanks for that! We certainly enjoyed it." 


Tony's brow furrowed, even as he was sort of charmed by Blair's manner. He also seemed vaguely familiar. So did Jim, for that matter. "What? Why?" 


A corner of Jim's mouth lifted into a smirk. "I told you he wouldn't know, Chief." 


"What don't I know?" Tony asked suspiciously.


Blair's excitement dimmed a little. "Gosh, I'm sorry, after your, uh, display earlier I thought you knew what you were doing. It seems like you didn't, which makes this just a little awkward." 


"Make that a lot awkward," Jim corrected, calmly shoving a bite of his curry into his mouth. 


Tony sighed. "Would you mind telling me what's going on?" 


"Yes, of course. Just ... Uhm, it's not often that we have to introduce ourselves," Blair said. "I'm Blair Sandburg, and that's Jim Ellison, my sentinel." 


Tony could have kicked himself. "Of course. I apologize; I'm Special Agent Tony DiNozzo with NCIS, and we don't deal with too many sentinel and guide matters. It's an honour to meet you both." 


"Likewise," Blair beamed.


"NCIS." Jim cocked his head. "There aren't a lot of sentinel and guide pairs working there." 


"Nope, just the odd unbonded guy or gal," Tony agreed. "The center in D.C. has its own investigative unit, so we're handing off most of the cases to them and only liaise as necessary. We watch the news and get briefed on new regulations, of course, but other than that most of us aren't involved in your matters. Sorry again, I know that sounds lame." 


Blair shook his head. "I get it, your work is demanding. But Tony ... and this is why us introducing ourselves to you is relevant ... did you know that you're latent?" 


"Aren't a lot of people? Why are you asking?" 


Jim looked like he wanted to snort. "Because you're latent."


"Okay," Tony said, looking dubious. "But why is that important, exactly? Am I turning into a sentinel now, or what?" 


Now Jim did snort, which earned him a slap against the arm from Blair. 


"No, you're a latent guide," Blair clarified. "Honestly, how can you not know that? Half the retreat will know by now, after your performance earlier. Heck, you caught us really well, if you get my meaning, and that hasn't happened in years. What did you think has made the whole camp smile so broadly?" 


"What? No. They don't know," Tony protested, even as he spied several people paying close attention to who was sitting with him and what was being said. 


"Oh, they do," Jim assured him. "You made everyone feel really good for a while there." 


"Shit, I was projecting?" Tony asked, horrified. "Oh my god. I'm so sorry." 


Blair laughed. "Don't worry, it's not exactly unexpected around here. It is a sex retreat, more or less, after all. Haven't you noticed the many bonded pairs? Most of them are wearing their wrist bands." 


Tony was mortified. "Honestly? I didn't. Jeremy - that's my, uh, friend - and I arrived three days ago and we've been rather, er, invested in each other. I didn't really have time to notice." 


"I know the feeling," Blair assured him with a grin, "but it's important that you know. You're definitely a guide, Tony. You're not online, yet, but you will be, and my guess is rather sooner than later. What say you, Jim?" 


"The way he was projecting? Really rather sooner than later," Jim agreed dryly. He finished his food and set his bowl down. "You probably shouldn't touch him, Chief." 


Before Tony could ask, Blair explained, "Shamans have a way of drawing guides out when they're on the cusp of coming online, and I'd rather not do that to you. Your work at NCIS is important and if there aren't many guides and sentinels in your agency, there must be a reason. I don't want you to have to leave should coming online be a problem." 


"You should probably look for other arrangements, anyway," Jim said matter-of-factly. "Just in case."


"Thanks for the warning," Tony said weakly, feeling caught in a tornado, utterly unprepared to deal with anything he was hearing. He was also faintly wondering what always having contingency plans in place said about him. Had he always known that having to leave in a hurry was in the cards? But did that explain the string of bad luck throughout his career? Also, really? Having to leave NCIS? Why? Head spinning and blood rushing in his ears, he leaned on the low table and tried to breathe evenly.  


"Don't mention it. Coming online is a very private experience and I'd never try to influence you in that regard," Blair replied soothingly.


Tony's pulse thundered through him, even as he felt unable to move a muscle. Words eluded him and he knew that his silence was worrying his companions. Cold sweat ran down between his shoulder blades. He'd never known true shock, but this must be close to it.


"Keep breathing," Jim instructed, suddenly next to Tony. "There's no need to panic." His overly warm hand landed on Tony's shoulder and squeezed it. Blair twitched a little, like he wanted to help.


Tony was glad that he stayed away. He forced himself to take one breath after the other, slowly shaking off the terror. It took much longer than he was comfortable with, but Jim proved to have the patience of a saint and talked him down in a low, calming voice. 


"That's it. Breathe in and out," Blair instructed. 


Something like warm honey slithered over Tony's ragged nerves. "That your guide voice?" he panted. 


"Yup." Blair smiled. "How are you doing?" 


"Better." Tony groaned. "I'm sorry. That came out of the left field."


Jim took his hand away, but stayed close. "Not much we can do about it, you'll have to just deal with it. Unfortunately, it's a matter of when you'll come online, not if. Just so you're prepared," he warned.


"Fantastic," Tony sighed, completely overwhelmed, now that he'd shaken off his surprise and panic. "How long do you think?" 


Blair looked him over contemplatively. "Oh, I'm not sure. You feel like you're almost there, but a lot of factors play into the whole thing. Most guides don't come online until they're ready, and being ready is so subjective that I don't dare make a prediction. You could hover at that point for weeks, or it could happen tomorrow. At this point I'd almost say that it's a matter of choice for you, Tony." 


Tony looked at Jim, who looked back calmly. "How is it for sentinels?" 


"Not really the same," the man said. "We come online when needed, mostly. We're the warriors compared to most guides, and it shows. Coming online often is traumatic for us. The first time my senses blew completely open I was in the jungle where it was eat or be eaten. Blair grew into his gifts, which really was for the best, considering how much power he wields. Sentinel trauma is different than guide trauma. It mostly doesn't stay with us, but it sticks with guides like the devil."


Tony exhaled and wiped his face with a napkin. "Wow. I so didn't expect this. My mom was latent, but my father is a mundane." 


"So you were tested?" 


"Sure." Tony swallowed against another burst of panic. "Several times at school and again when I entered the police force in Philly, and later at NCIS. I was always classed as weakly latent, barely a blip on their radar. They didn't even tell me whether I'd turn into a sentinel or guide if I ever came online."


Blair hummed. "They probably couldn't. Weak gene expression makes it hard to differentiate since guides and sentinels share several genetic markers. Sometimes people even get tested as mundane and come online anyway. It's definitely not perfect yet, but it's getting better."


"But why is this happening to me?" Tony asked, a fresh wave of dismay rising in him. "And why now?"


Blair winced. "Oh boy. Can I put a shield around you, Tony? You're projecting again and people are really getting worried." 


"Yeah," Tony said and sagged in relief when something like a warm, soft blanket settled around him. It made his emotional insides purr, which was as disconcerting as it was comforting. "Sorry for freaking out. It's just … my job. And everything else, too. I feel like I understand nothing." 


"It's nothing to be sorry about," Blair said. "You obviously got some issues with the whole thing, which is very understandable. You've also got a life that's about to be turned on its head, man, that's no small matter. Go visit the Center in D.C., they'll be able to help you. Take classes on meditation and let them counsel you. It helps to talk about things, even if they might not be able to help in a more tangible way."


"I will." Tony rubbed his face with both hands. "Fuck. I really, really wasn't expecting this. Don't get me wrong, meeting you guys is great and I have a lot of respect for sentinels and guides. I just never, ever thought I'd be a guide myself. Ever." 


"Well, you better believe it," Jim said. He didn't sound overly empathetic, which both calmed and rubbed Tony the wrong way. "Even now you can influence people. You probably could all along, to some degree. Your projection is already high; you'll be at least a level seven once you're online." 


"At least," Blair agreed. "We don't want to scare you, but to be safe around other people, it's important to take classes and get up to speed ASAP. And also, there's the matter of sentinels. They'll be attracted to you, and how could they not? You're gorgeous! Still, they'll pursue you, sometimes inappropriately, and it won't do not to know your rights." 


"Fuck me," Tony groaned. "Why would a sentinel want me? I'm relationship pesticide; I've managed to fuck up every serious relationship I've had so far. I'm positive you guys can smell that on me." 


Jim stared at Tony. "Actually, no. You just smell like guide. And don't take this the wrong way, but you also smell good enough to eat even without the guide pheromones. Whether you're relationship pesticide is irrelevant." 


"You feel good enough to eat, too," Blair supplied with an eyebrow waggle. "Jim and I are exclusive, but boy am I tempted." 


"You are not," Tony exclaimed, shocked. Jim's quirked eyebrow had him blush from the roots of his hair down to his chest. "Really?" 


Blair laughed. "As if you don't know how attractive you are. Don't worry about it. Many guides are very attractive to other people, and most of us like sex." He shrugged. "It's just part of the parcel, really." 


Tony's mind was reeling. "Should I tell Jeremy?" 


"You don't have to go into detail if you're not comfortable with it. But if you plan on continuing your tantric exercises, he could probably do with a heads up," Blair admitted. "Some people don't like being high-jacked by guide projection, and we need to respect that." 


"Alright. Wow." Tony shook his head. "I won't get over this anytime soon." 


"You don't have to," Blair said. "Take all the time you need to freak out about it." 


"My freak-out lasted a couple of years," Jim said and shrugged when Tony gaped at him. "You probably know my story; I suppressed my senses when I came back from Peru, only to have them sneak back into my life at the least convenient moment. It wasn't exactly easy."


No, it couldn't have been easy, Tony thought, especially not in a large city where every honking car or overpowering scent could have, and probably did, send Jim into a tailspin. 


Tony sighed again. "I really don't know how to do this," he murmured. "It's ... overwhelming. There's so much I don't know about the culture, and the thought of maybe having to change jobs is terrifying, because I don't even really get why. I don't want to ..." He gestured helplessly. "I don't want to have to start over again, I guess." 


"It can be hard," Blair said compassionately. "But it's also a chance, man. A chance to find something bigger and better, something just right for you. It doesn't have to do with NCIS, per se, but coming online has the habit of changing someone's perspective. The fact is, you are a guide. You deserve to live a life that's right and good for you. If NCIS shouldn't be that for you anymore, fine. Nature provides, you'll find your way. Most of us do." 


"Hell." Tony slumped a little and grimaced. "I'll have to register with the Center and HR, won't I? I hate gossip when it's about me." 


Blair laughed. "Sorry. Your emotional landscape just now ... It's like empathic comedy." He smiled warmly. "Please don't think too much about the negative things. Being a guide is good. It'll make you more you, if that makes sense. If someone's having a problem with it, they're probably not worth knowing, anyway." At Tony's dubious look, Blair added, "Look, I literally know how overwhelming this is for you. Jim and I will be here for at least another week. Why don't we meet tomorrow and I'll get you started on some meditation exercises?" 


"I don't want to disturb your time away," Tony said. "You're the freaking Primes of North America, it must be hell to find time for a holiday." 


"Eh, so what." Blair leaned against Jim. "We're all here, so why not make the best of this opportunity?" 


"Are you alright with that?" Tony asked Jim. 


The man smirked. "I'll have my time with my guide, don't worry." 


Instead of blushing, Blair mellowed even further and smiled. "You sure will, big guy." 


And just like that, it was decided. 


After agreeing on a time and place for next day, Blair and Jim retreated to their cabin for some alone time. 


Them taking their leave obviously opened the floodgates because suddenly Tony found himself surrounded by curious people, not a few of them worried guide and sentinel pairs. Thankfully Jeremy was there to steady him, and just as thankfully he wasn't the least bit put off by Tony's changed status. 


"We came here to have fiendishly hot sex," Jeremy told Tony once they were alone that night. He grinned at Tony's reluctant laugh. "You more than delivered, Tone. If you coming online means that we can have a lot more of that incredible fucking, then I'm all for it. Honestly, that was awesome. I'm still drooling, here."


"Jer," Tony huffed. "I projected all over you. And I have no idea how that even happened, or how I managed to take you with me." 


"True tantra, that's what happened," Jeremy said, unperturbed. "You made me come with my brain, do you get how awesome that is? Who the hell cares how it happened? Not me, that's for certain." 


"Don't you think that it's weird? Me coming online after so many years?" Tony asked. He let Jeremy push him onto their low bamboo bed and accepted the gently massaging hands on his chest. "I still can't believe it." 


"You're not the first late emergent, and you won't be the last. Who knows, maybe it was the sex that triggered it?" Jeremy waggled his eyebrows and grinned. "I'd gladly accept responsibility for it. It really was rather phenomenal, you know." 


"I know. I was there," Tony teased. He grabbed Jeremy's hand and kissed his palm. "Thanks." 


"You're not angry that I dragged you here, right?" Jeremy asked, suddenly worried. "I mean, what if it really was the sex? Maybe it wouldn't have happened if we'd gone somewhere else?" 


"That's a question for Blair, I guess," Tony said, frowning. "But it doesn't matter. It started, and it probably won't stop until I'm fully online. I'll deal with it, I just need to freak out for a minute or twenty." 


"Will you be too freaked out to blow me in the shower?" Jeremy asked. 


Tony smirked. "Why go to the shower when I can have my wicked way with you right here?" 


He tackled his friend and pressed him into the bedding, and for the rest of the night Tony allowed himself to forget what had been set in motion. 


oOo


Blair was already there when Tony arrived on the lawn, yoga cushion under one arm and a water bottle in his hand. The sun was just beginning to rise, painting the few clouds in the sky a spectacular pink and orange, while the vast expanse of the sky itself was a beautiful soft blue, still rather dark in the west and light in the east. Below their cliff, the sea was rushing, sending salty mist their way. 


To Tony, the scenery seemed almost too pretty to be true.


"Good morning," Blair greeted. "Please have a seat." As Tony settled down, he asked, "Have you meditated before?" 


"Not really," Tony confessed. "There just never was time. I'd rather go out and have fun when I've got free time." 


Nodding, Blair easily sat down in the lotus position. "If that's getting your stress levels down, it's good. Still, meditation has its uses beyond de-stressing. As a guide, you'll be gaining the gift of empathy, a sixth sense that will allow you to sense other people's emotions, and meditation will be your go-to activity to manage that sense. Once you're online, you'll instinctively feel the need for it." 


Tony sighed. "It seems like a waste of time, to be honest." 


"It does right now," Blair allowed, "but that'll change. How about a little taste of what's to come? I'll project emotions at you, so you'll know what to expect." 


"Sure, hit me." Tony braced himself, half believing that all of this was some kind of hocus pocus despite having felt Blair's shield the day before. 


Suddenly, there was a white hot rage burning through his chest, stealing his breath. Tony had barely gotten used to it when the rage suddenly vanished and he was crippled by unimaginable sadness instead. It was so bad that he gasped for air and his eyes teared up. He tried to fight against it and as soon as he did, the sadness lessened and slowly morphed into a blinding joy that made Tony's breath hitch and something in his chest swell. 


"Enough," he forced through his clenched teeth and almost immediately the foreign feelings let off and dissipated.


"You okay, man?" Blair asked, concerned. "You reacted really strongly to the stimulus." 


"I'm fine," Tony lied, trying to get it together. His heart was still hammering in his chest. "Holy shit." 


"That's some part of what us guides have to deal with 24/7," Blair said. "We build shields around ourselves and for our sentinels, so their brains' interpretation of physical information won't overload them mentally. While the shield building comes more or less instinctively, regular meditation is required to sort ourselves out and keep our shields strong. I like to compare it to a bird taking care of its feathers; it doesn't think about it, it just does it because nature made it so."


Tony liked that image, but he really, really didn't like feeling so much at the mercy of someone else. "Please tell me guides don't go around and attack each other like that." 


Blair huffed. "I hear ya, man. When I was still in law enforcement, I was always waiting for that shoe to drop. Thankfully, most guides don't do shit like that, especially not other guides, because I assure you, we bite back. But there's always someone who's trying to take advantage, because people can be dumb as bricks. If you notice someone pulling that crap, you report them to the next Center without discussion." 


"Even mundanes?" Tony asked. 


"Even them, if they're doing it on purpose. Some of them can project with the best of them," Blair said firmly. "The education about that has gotten a lot better in the last decade, so there really is no excuse to be an asshole." He looked Tony over. "Are you feeling better now?" 


"I'm fine," Tony replied, more truthfully now. "Nothing a little meditation won't cure, I hope." 


"That's the spirit." Blair smiled. "Now, get comfortable, take a drink of water, and then follow my lead. Today, we'll practice breathing. In this air it'll be lit, man." 


To Tony's surprise, it was lit. His scarred lungs loved the clean air and the deep breaths. As Blair guided him, the stress slowly left Tony's body and his racing thoughts calmed down quite a bit. Soon the sun was up enough to bathe them both in warming rays, which only added to that sense of peace and well-being. 


Fifteen minutes later, quiet murmurs and footsteps signalled the end of their first meeting. Other guests of the retreat came forward with yoga mats and large cups of steaming tea, Jeremy among them. He handed Tony a mat, silently asking whether he'd like to stay for the course. 


"You okay?" Tony asked him, noticing the slightly careful movements of his friend. 


Jeremy grinned. "I can still feel you in the best of ways, tiger. I'm good. You?"


"I'll get used to this meditation stuff," Tony said, laying out his mat. "It was nice." 


"Hear, hear." Jeremy laughed. Nodding in Blair's direction, he asked, "Will you keep meeting with him and Ellison?" 


"I guess so, Blair said that I could do with some more instruction." Tony caught Jim's eye and got a short nod in answer to his unspoken question. "I hope that's not putting you off too much." 


"Nah." Jeremy set up his mat next to Tony's. "In fact, I'm slightly in awe that you get private lessons from the Alpha Prime Guide of North America. I mean, who can boast of that?" 


Tony flushed when a few people around them murmured in agreement. "Please don't make a big deal out of it." 


"It's private, I get it." Jeremy sighed. "But I gotta tell you, it's a little sad that I'm more excited about it than you seem to be."


"I haven't even started to deal with it," Tony admitted, which earned him an understanding smile from Jeremy. "Maybe the yoga will help." 


Unfortunately, it didn't help, but after the lesson Jim was there and pointed Tony in the direction of the gym, where he could go and pummel a sand bag until his arms refused to throw another punch. 


oOo


On day three after making Jim and Blair's acquaintance, Tony met them both a little away from the popular communal areas. The little clearing amidst a hidden flower garden was already prepared with cushions and drinks. It wasn't as hot as before and also a little cloudy, so the Primes had foregone the parasols.


"I hope it's alright that Jim will keep us company for this session," Blair began after they'd exchanged greetings. 


"Sure, I don't have a problem with that," Tony said easily. "Why, though?" 


"I'm gonna teach you to stretch your wings a little and we might need him as a buffer." Blair smiled. "When I project, people tend to show up uninvited. Normally it's cool, but you're so new to this that I want to afford you some privacy." 


"Um, okay," Tony replied sceptically but sat down gamely and took a swig from his water bottle. "I'm ready." 


Blair followed suit and then used just a bit of his guide voice to gently lead Tony into meditation. They did the exercises of the last few days but then it changed subtly. 


"Breathe deeply and evenly," Blair instructed, "and think of something beautiful. Doesn't matter what, just imagine what would give you pleasure right now." 


Tony leered, even though he knew that Blair kept his eyes closed and wouldn't be able to see him. But the moment of infantile frat boy humour was gone as quickly as it had flashed up and in its stead a small bistro table in a beam of sunshine materialized, on it a tiny cup of rich, thick espresso and some cantuccini to go with it. Tony could almost smell the slightly bitter and oh so lovely fragrance, could imagine how it would taste once he'd spooned some brown sugar into the brew and stirred. 


He sighed happily, just in time to heed Blair's instruction to keep his breathing even. 


"You got it," Blair murmured. "Allow it to sit there and let your feelings go all through your body. Enjoy the happiness of this moment. Take as much of it into you as you can ... what you can't take, let go. Breathe ... be happy. Feel the pleasure ... Very good. Come back now." 


Tony exhaled and opened his eyes, appalled that they were a little wet. "What the hell was that?" He rubbed his chest where he was still aching with remembered feeling.


"An exercise in happiness," Blair said. "You did great. You've got a beautiful vibration to you, Tony." 


"If I may ask, what were you thinking of?" Jim asked from his place a little farther away. 


Tony blushed. "A cup of really good Italian espresso. There are maybe two places in D.C. that get it right, so it's a rare treat." 


Jim nodded. "Wanna know mine?" 


"Spare me," Blair groaned playfully, which made Jim grin. 


"It's Wonder Burger," the sentinel said. "With cheese and bacon and a ton of curly fries as a side." 


Surprised, Tony chuckled. "That must be one hell of a burger to make you happy that you vibrate. We haven't gotten the chain in D.C., but I'll keep my eyes open." 


"Stop right there," Blair sighed. "Junk food is bad for sentinels and guides." 


"Why?" Tony asked. 


Surprisingly it was Jim who answered. "It's mostly dead and since sentinels and guides need even more calories and nutrients than the average human, we really shouldn't have too much of it." 


"I subscribed us to a service that delivers bio vegetables and fruit, and we cook a lot at home since eating out is expensive when you want the good stuff," Blair added. "Everyone's different, but a large part of the community simply can't deal with conventional produce and GMO crap. It feels like a horror show to guides and tastes like crap to sentinels. And don't get me started on meat, it's a nightmare, literally." 


Jim nodded. "Literally. Except for Wonder Burger. They have a bio line that's mostly okay to eat." 


"How convenient for you," Blair groused. 


Tony let out a breath. "Well, shit. There goes my fast food addiction." 


"You'll get over it," Jim said easily. "One bite of dead food and that'll be it." 


Tony really couldn't imagine it but took Jim at his word. How could he not? The guy had been this continent's alpha prime for years and obviously knew what he was talking about. 


"Wait, is that why this retreat has such a large kitchen? They're cooking everything fresh?" he asked, suddenly clued in. "Even the bread?" 


"This resort is sentinel and guide friendly," Blair said. "They take great pains to make sure that we can relax here. It's another reason why I thought you knew that you were close to coming online, Tony. Mundanes don't often come here, and there's actually a waiting list." 


"Well, Jeremy got us in. He's got friends everywhere," Tony said. "Me, I wanted to go Hawaii for some sun and surf, but he couldn't get that far away and we compromised. This place got a great ocean view and our flight time was halved." He shrugged. "It's alright."


Blair turned and exchanged a look with his partner. 


"I've been meaning to ask," Tony went on, refusing to let that look get to him, "or rather, Jeremy's been meaning to ask, whether I'd have started projecting like that if we'd not come here. He also wants you to know that it sucks that I don't want to do tantric sex anymore, for fear of coming online spontaneously." 


Blair laughed, even as he looked apologetic.


Also smiling crookedly, Jim took a moment to think about it. "If you want my perspective, then yes, you'd have started projecting eventually. Most likely also during sex. But it might not have been as strong as it was here." 


Blair took over and explained, "Our kind is attracted to each other. It might well be that the many guides here influenced you on a subconscious level. That thing we just did, the happiness exercise, it's designed to increase our vibrations. You might well have picked up on all those guide vibrations around here and simply followed along once you were open to it." 


"And I was open to it because of the sex," Tony guessed.


Blair smirked. "As I said, it happens often here. It's expected, really, and people would be disappointed if the amount of feel-good-vibes decreased for some reason. That being said, your fear of coming online if you continue with tantric exercises isn't baseless. Not at all."


"Jeremy will hate that," Tony said, feeling rather sorry about it himself. "Why do guides even need those vibes?"


"Everybody wants to be happy," Blair explained patiently. "Scientists found out that different kinds of emotions have different vibrations. Anger, sadness, and hate cause very slow vibrations compared to love, happiness, or contentment. Those negative feelings make us sluggish and drag us down, in some cases even make us sick. Especially in your line of work you need to take care of your mental health. Taking five minutes every day to enjoy such a moment isn't too much to ask, and it'll go a long way towards restoring your balance. You'll get sick less often, and shake off colds sooner once you've reached your full potential. Also, higher frequencies help both sentinels and guides to hold their shields at strength, so there's that to consider. But that's a topic for another day." 


"Blair's written a dozen books about all of that, so if you'd rather just sit and meditate, we can do that," Jim offered, correctly gathering that Tony was getting a little overwhelmed yet again. "It might be less confusing." 


"I'll read them at some point," Tony promised, shaking off is instinctual resistance to what he'd always classed as voodoo magic. "But I like talking about it. It's new, and interesting, despite my tendency to freak out." He smiled weakly. "I'm just sorry that I'm such a doubter." 


"You live and work in a science-based environment. Guide and sentinel science hasn't really made it into mainstream yet, but it will. In a few years, people won't question all that stuff like you do now, because we'll have been able to prove its validity." Blair drank from his bottle and then clapped his hands. "Alright, my turn. Close your eyes, get your breathing groove on and simply feel what happens when I go to my happy place." 


Obeying, Tony settled down and slowed his breathing until he felt at rest. Soon after, something teased at him. A niggling feeling of elation crept up on him, sliding under his skin and into his chest where it swelled up to the size of a balloon and hung there for long moments, pressing against all of Tony's emotional pressure points. He felt inexplicably happy and it was so, so weird to be happy for no reason at all - to feel someone else's honest happiness like this but having no reference point by which to measure the amount of happiness. 


"Okay, stop," Tony forced out and sighed in relief when the happiness balloon in him deflated slowly. "You've got some serious mojo going on there, Blair." 


"And I put in lots of practice hours," Blair replied. "So, how was it?" 


"Kind of choking, but in a good way. Sort of." Tony shrugged, trying to ignore his wobbly feelings, and then rubbed his still aching chest. "It's hard to describe."


Blair eyed him with interest. "Hmm. You seem to be really sensitive to empathic input. This happy place wasn't even in my top ten and you reacted as if I'd connected you to a live wire. Interesting, and a little problematic." He suddenly smiled. "Nevermind that you picked it up at all - one more proof that you're getting closer to coming online, Tony, if you even need it." 


Tony sighed. "Well, I don't want it, but I guess there's little I can do to avoid it now. You said this will go away once I've got shields in place?" 


"Yep," Blair said.


"You got any overly emotional people around at work?" Jim asked. He unfolded from his lotus position, left his place in the shadow and sat behind Blair, unashamedly putting his arms around his partner's waist. "Right now you're open to all sorts of emotional manipulation without a guide's ability to shield effectively. Knowing who the troublemakers are will help you get through the day." 


Tony could think of one immediately and his mood plummeted. "Abby, our forensic tech whiz. She can be ... intense. I won't be able to avoid her." In fact, Tony wasn't looking forward to Gibbs' loving style of leadership, either, or Ziva's cold intensity. With a sinking feeling he realized that the whole agency was an emotional minefield of epic proportions. "Fuck. I'm going to hate going into work, won't I? That's what you meant by telling me to keep my options open." 


"At least as long as you're not online and can shield against it," Blair admitted. "I could easily help you come online if that's what you want, but you need to be sure. Being online without having sat through a few lessons has its own set of drawbacks."


Jim snuffled along Blair's neck as he said, "If it were me, I'd want to get it over with and let the chips fall where they may." 


"But Tony is not you, big guy," Blair replied. To Tony, he said, "You still have a little time to think about it. Although, no matter whether you decide for or against it, I strongly advise visiting the Center first thing. Like, right after coming home, and definitely before you return to work. You'll need the support of the pride and as much information as you can get before the whole excitement starts."


"We'll take care of the preliminary stuff for you," Jim said. "Makes it easier to get going." 


"What about my data?" Tony asked. "Will it be protected?" 


"Of course, files are only shared under certain circumstances, federal warrants being one of them. Files of personnel in law enforcement and other government agencies are automatically classified to restrict access by Center personnel." Jim looked pissed for a moment and Tony guessed that there was a nasty story there. "Every log-in and download is recorded, and downloads require two passwords and an electronic note to document the reason for the download. We try to protect our own as much as we can."


"Can I check it out when I visit?" Tony asked. 


"You can check everything out," Blair said. "In fact, please do. If you have questions or concerns, you're welcome to make them known to the Center management." 


"You can also cc us in your e-mails," Jim said. "Center management ultimately falls under our purview." 


"Sure, if I notice something, I'll let you know." Tony sighed. "That being said ... do you think I should cut this short and go home? Maybe get a head start on the guide lessons?" 


Blair looked so hopeful that Tony felt almost guilty for being so undecided. "Are you sure, man? This place doesn't come cheap and I'd hate to deprive your friend of your company." 


Tony flushed uncomfortably. "Well, he might be glad, actually. We came here to have as much sex as humanly possible, but obviously I can't give him what he wants without coming online. Someone else might be able to step in, though. It's not like Jer is ugly." 


"You seem rather intimate for just friends with benefits," Jim said. "Is it really that easy for you to leave without him?"


"No, not easy. I feel lousy about it. And also pissed. That's my first real leave since ... I lost a partner almost two years ago and the whole team was on mandatory leave for three weeks. I chose to spend it with Jer. I've known him since college," Tony said. "We're friends. I love him, just not like a romantic partner. For him, it's the same." He glanced at Jim. "It is, right?"


Jim inclined his head a little. "I'm not sure. You two are putting out quite a lot of pheromones. If you weren't a guide, maybe it could've worked out." 


"Huh. That's kind of weird." Tony tried to imagine it but couldn't. Despite their friendship and sexual compatibility, they were too different and led lives that wouldn't ever mesh easily. He shook his head. "Anyway, I might do him a favour by leaving early, but what do you think? Is it really a good idea? It's only three days. What can I possibly learn in three days that'll make a huge difference?" 


"A lot, actually," Blair said. "Jim and I can help in a pinch, but a Center has a lot more resources, and as I said, the sentinels and guides there will be your touchstone and very likely try to include you in their community. Talk to Jeremy and clear the air. He deserves a proper goodbye. Then come find us, we will help with your travel arrangements." 


"Just like that?" Tony asked. 


Jim lifted both eyebrows. He was a handsome, handsome devil, and Tony felt a moment's fierce attraction that had Blair chuckling. Yeah, it was hard getting used to having no secrets whatsoever!


"Not just like that," Jim said, a hint of smugness in his voice. "I had someone run a background check on you, of course. No one gets close to my guide without one." 


"I get it," Tony said evenly. There had been several kidnapping attempts in the last decade, some worse than others. No one in their right mind dared to begrudge Ellison his vigilance. "It's just weird to be the one under scrutiny." 


"Now that you know about it: good job surviving the plague," Jim offered.


Groaning, Tony began to fiddle with his water bottle. "That wasn't my finest moment." 


"You survived, that's pretty damn impressive," Blair disagreed. "Jim noticed the state of your lungs; is that why you wanted to go to Hawaii?" 


"It was one of the reasons, yes. I need to stay in shape or I'm out of the field."


"Well, I'm glad we met here," Blair said. "I'd hate to have someone like you unguarded this close to coming online."


"Someone like me?" Tony asked. 


"You're sensitive," Blair said, gesticulating speakingly. "Meaning that you'll most likely come online as a high order and high level guide. Combine that with having a job in a high stress environment and the likeliness of coming online in a less than ideal situation rises exponentially. We talked about trauma, remember? You could cause severe disturbances if there isn't someone close by to support you. You might appreciate why the Center will want to keep tabs on you."


"Jesus." Tony mind went to the so-called disturbances that plagued D.C. every now and then and he wondered why he hadn't made the connection earlier. It wasn't as if Blair hadn't said it to him in plain English before. From moodiness to heart attacks the city had seen everything, not to mention the countless traffic jams and car crashes that had been caused by disoriented drivers. Emergence wasn't always the reason, but it happened often enough to make most everyone walk around on their tiptoes. "You're right. I don't want to be that asshole." 


"Sometimes people can't help it, but yeah, we have to do our best to ensure the public's safety." Blair patted Jim's hands and got to his feet. "Alright, enough of that. Tell Jeremy of your decision. Jim and I'll try to get a flight for tonight. Someone from the Center could meet you at the airport, if you'd like. I know that it would ease my mind." 


Tony wondered what made him so special, but kept quiet. He was just beginning to get his head around the fact that he was coming online holy shit; he couldn't deal with even more craziness. "Do you trust them?" he asked. 


"We do," Jim answered firmly. "I'll give you the names and background checks before you leave." 


Tony relaxed a little. "Then it's fine. Thanks." 


"You do all the heavy lifting," Blair reminded him. "We're just the support staff right now. Good luck for your talk, man. I don't envy you." 


Tony pitied himself quite a lot, but he girded his loins. If nothing else, Jeremy deserved to hear what was going on with Tony, and to vent his spleen if he needed to, although Tony sincerely hoped that Jeremy would continue to be understanding of his situation. He had few enough friends as it was and it would hurt to lose one through circumstances outside his ability to control.


Okay, none of that, he admonished himself as he wandered out of the flower garden and towards the bungalow he shared with Jeremy. Just talk to him. If you need to make it up to him, you will, but don't beat yourself up before you need to.


It was easier said than done, however, and Tony had to swallow against the rising unease in his throat as he spied Jeremy lounging on the small veranda with his laptop. No matter how important this was for him, Tony knew leaving now would change their friendship, probably forever, and it sucked.


Nothing I can do about it now, he thought, wiping his sweaty palms on his pants. Out loud, he said, "Hey Jer, do you have a minute?"


oOo


Blair had made good on his word and managed to get Tony on the last flight to D.C. that day. He even got bumped up to business class which normally would've made Tony crow with delight. Right now, however, he was simply glad for the relative peace and quiet in the half empty compartment. He had the background checks in the seat next to him, but his mind was turning his conversation with Jeremy over and over, until it barely made sense anymore.


Jeremy hadn't been pleased. 


Sure, on the surface he'd said all the right things, had told Tony to do what he had to do to come online safely and to call him whenever he needed a friendly ear, but underneath the comforting words had been a churning maelstrom of anger and resentment that went way beyond a sex holiday that had to be cut short.

 

When pressed, Jeremy had demurred and tried to distract Tony with lewd innuendo, although how he expected to bullshit an expert bullshitter, Tony didn't know. Tony didn't even question his ability to pick up on all of that anymore, not with Blair having hammered that point home during the last five days. He just tried to understand what Jeremy's hang-up was. It couldn't be the guide thing, because Jeremy had loved that one bout of tantric goodness.


Was it because Tony would maybe find a sentinel and not be available for their get-togethers anymore? Did he actually want Tony for himself, or as for himself as was conceivably possible?


It wasn't the first time that Tony entertained the thought after Jim's cautious words, but just like the other times, he mentally skittered away from it. Jeremy wasn't shy and had no problem whatsoever going after what he wanted. If he'd wanted Tony all this time, he'd have said something. 


Wouldn't he? Tony wondered miserably. He'd never knowingly strung someone along, so the possibility of Jeremy keeping it to himself turned the bourbon he'd been served earlier sour in his stomach. 


After almost six hours and some rather severe turbulences, Tony set foot on the tarmac of Dulles International Airport with a beginning hangover and a mood that could have scared off a cerberus. At least baggage claim was a breeze in the middle of the night, and the two Center representatives Jim had promised made themselves known discreetly and respectfully. 


"Agent DiNozzo, welcome back to D.C.," the man with the guide wristband said and nodded instead of offering to shake Tony's hand. "I'm Gavin Kinsdale, and this is my sentinel, Beaumont Potter. Joke about his name at your own peril. We're the directors of the D.C. Sentinel and Guide Center." Both men showed Tony their credentials like true feds.


Tony couldn't help his smile despite his raging headache. "Message received. Pleased to meet you, and thanks for picking me up. Uh, care to tell me what the plan is? I had to rush to catch this flight, so I'm a bit starved for details. Oh, and I promised to call Blair as soon as I meet you, to make sure I'm not being abducted by strange people." 


Kinsdale nodded. "Of course."


The call was short and to the point. As soon as Jim was satisfied that the right people were taking Tony away from the airport, he hung up without so much as a goodbye, much to Kinsdale's chagrin. 


"You'll have to forgive him. His alone time with Blair is sacred," he said. 


Tony shrugged. "It's alright. My boss hangs up on everyone, I'm very used to it." 


Potter, who was tall, dark and dangerous looking, herded them unobtrusively out of the arrival area and towards a black town car. "Sandburg briefed us on your situation. There are two choices. One, you could go home, in which case we'd accompany you, or you could check into the Center full-time and get the complete educational package." 


Tony bit his lip. Both choices held some appeal, but while it would be great to sleep in his own bed, he just wanted to get it over with. "Let's get me checked in. I'm ready to be done with all of this."


"Thank you," Kinsdale said sincerely, his handsome if a little bland looking face losing some of its pinched look. "We'll try to make your stay as productive as possible and keep the intrusions minimal." 


"Intrusions?" Tony asked, pausing. 


Kinsdale shrugged apologetically. "To get a feel for how far along you are, I'll have to scan you empathically. This'll help us suss out possible triggers for trauma and point us in the right direction should you require empathic healing." 


"Yeah, okay, Blair sort of warned me about that. I don't want to cause a commotion, so scan away," Tony said with feeling. "I'll try to keep the amount of fussing down."


"No promises," Potter said in a deep voice as he put Tony's luggage into the trunk. "I'm not Ellison, but you have quite an aura going on, and you're projecting both mentally and physically all over the place." He grimaced a little. "You're stressed out of your mind."


"I was, too, when I was close to coming online," Kinsdale said with a little glare at his sentinel. "It's normal." He invited Tony to get on the backseat and slid in after him. "We know how disruptive this process is, and I apologize in advance for making you uncomfortable. Still, that's what the Centers were built for, so please trust us to take care of you." 


Potter got behind the wheel, told them to put their seatbelts on, and joined traffic with the ease of someone who'd had specialist training. 


"You're former military," Tony said. "Special ops, maybe?"


"Well spotted. I was with the Delta Force," Potter replied, never taking his eyes off the road. "Nearly all sentinels with the Center are former military, from all branches. D.C. is a high profile territory and we get many prominent guests. Good security is a must."


Kinsdale pulled a leather binder from a briefcase. "Let's get the paperwork out of the way now, so you can just check out the Center when we arrive and then call it a night."


Despite Blair having sent a good chunk of information ahead, it still took half an hour to go over everything, and when Tony mentioned his lungs during the health part of the questioning, Kinsdale admitted that Blair had already advised them to prepare a consent form for Tony to sign so they could access his medical records at Bethesda and NCIS. 


"We need to be thorough," Kinsdale explained when Tony expressed his unhappiness about the form including his psych evals. "Especially the mental strain of your job can cause trauma, if it hasn't been dealt with appropriately, and I know you feds. You avoid getting shrinked like the plague, if you'll forgive the bad pun."


"Your file will be as confidential as we can make it," Potter said. "It might actually be best to store yours offline, due to your undercover work." 


"Not even NCIS isn't that concerned with security," Tony said, "but I'll take it, if you don't mind." 


"We don't mind," Kinsdale assured him. "Ah, and there we are. Have you been here before?" 


"Once or twice," Tony admitted. "I met the former director once for a case, but that was years ago." His eyes raked over the large, modern building. The glass front offered a good look at the waiting area and the reception, but there were also a lot of security cameras installed and two burly men standing guard, which countered the somewhat open look with a sense of solid security presence. "You had some work done." 


"We always have work done, and the guys out there are only two of a team of sixty," Potter said. He passed the building, turned right and drove into a nearly hidden underground car park. Two more guards checked all of their identification before waving them through. "Other than security tech, shielding technology is also getting better every day. We have to keep up to make our isolation areas and conference rooms as soundproof as possible." 


"Since you're probably not used to white noise technology, sleeping might be a problem tonight. Normally, people get used to it quickly, though," Kinsdale said. "Maybe it helps to know that we're legally required to install the technology into all guest rooms, and strongly encourage everyone to use them. The absence of white noise will encourage the sentinels to keep an ear on you. They can't help it."

Tony wrinkled his nose. "Now that's intrusive."


Potter shrugged. "If you don't want people to listen in on your showers, flip the switch. It's that easy."


"Yeah, I don't think so. You're no saints; I bet you sentinels have got your fair share of creeps and peeps." Tony smirked at Potter's annoyed expression. "Honestly, who believes that crap?" 


Kinsdale chuckled. "He's got you there, Beau, and you know it." To Tony, he said, "If it helps, a lot of them aren't strong enough to listen around the generators, and those who can are required to suffer through psych evals and morality testing twice a year. If they pick something up that's not a crime, they know better than to talk about it."


"They better. I'm a trained federal agent and will have them for breakfast if they so much as step on the line," Tony said, meaning it completely.


Potter cleared his throat. "Let's go in before my beta comes looking for us."


They trooped up a utilitarian staircase and entered the lobby through a side door. Since Tony had already filled out and signed all of his paperwork, the pair gave him the quick and dirty tour of the Center, showing him the communal dining and socializing area, the meditation rooms, the gym, the infirmary and, of course, the isolation rooms and bonding suites. 


"I don't think I'll be ready for that for a while," Tony admitted, running a hand over the soft afghan on the couch. "But these rooms feel nice. Very calm. Do I need to pre-book or something?"


Kinsdale shook his head. "It's absolutely unpredictable when you'll meet your sentinel, or whether you'll even feel the need for one. Granted, you feel like you'll fall into the category of guides who'll need their sentinel as opposed to a sentinel, or even no sentinel, but we try not to make assumptions. You could still surprise us, after all."


Neither he nor his sentinel looked like they believed it, but Tony gave them points for trying to remain neutral.


"How often does that happen? That a high-level guide doesn't need a sentinel, I mean," he asked. "Because that would be a relief."


Potter crossed his arms over his chest. "As far as I know, never. But, to be fair, someone's always going to be the first one. And just because we don't have records about that doesn't mean that a high-level guide somewhere on this planet doesn't feel sentinel longing."


Tony sighed. "Awesome." 


Kinsdale smiled crookedly. "Maybe it comforts you to know that the sentinel who feels right to you will almost certainly be your perfect match. A lot can be overcome when there's that certainty."


"Did Potter leave the service when he met you?" Tony asked, already knowing the answer but deciding to prod anyway. If they were going to get up in his business, he'd get up in theirs without scruples. 


"He did," Kinsdale said. "And it was a great sacrifice for him, there's no denying that. But he's found a job here that fulfills his imperative to protect and serve, and he's pulled in a lot of his former comrades over the years." 


"What did you give up?" Tony asked. 


"A teaching position at Stanford," Kinsdale admitted with a sheepish smile. "Beau's general sent him as part of a recruiting team, we met, and that's all she wrote. The rest, as they say, was details."


"Wow." Tony shook his head. "I still can't get my head around that. Sure, I've been rather smitten at first sight, but this ... it's so huge. Your whole lives have been overhauled." 


"It was huge," Potter agreed. "But it'll be different once you're online, especially if you've got sentinel longing. A part of you will search for your other half. Nothing is more important than finding them. Making the circumstances fit is the second step." 


"About that. I already noticed that sentinel and guides don't really care for gender," Tony said carefully.


"Some of us do," Kinsdale said. "And that's okay. It's biology. But, yes, a lot of us fall somewhere on the higher end of the pansexuality scale. Our scientists are pretty sure that the sentinel and guide genes are linked to pansexuality because it enabled a lot of us in the past to sire children, even if the eventual permanent partner should be of the same gender. That way, our ancestors fulfilled both the obligation of procreation, as well as realized their true potential for the tribe's protection and advancement. Some pairs even fathered children after they bonded, and do it to this day, both by choosing a third, or donating eggs and sperm. We're a complex society, and honestly, we like it that way."


"Fascinating," Tony said sincerely. "I'll have my hands full learning all of this."


Potter nearly smiled. "First we'll escort you to your room and get you settled in. Gavin will work with you tomorrow afternoon." 


"I get to sleep in? Sweet." Tony grinned, and Kinsdale smiled back. 


Three minutes later, Tony stood inside his assigned room and took in the soothing, earthy colours, the absence of chemical smells, and the diffuse overhead lights. The bathroom with a combined bath and shower was comfortably large and the bed long enough to accommodate his tall frame. But the part most speaking to him right then was the large flat TV mounted to the wall, and a flyer telling him that he had 200 TV channels available to while away his free time. 


"Okay?" Kinsdale asked. 


"Okay," Tony assured him. "Oh, just one more question. Is there stuff in the fridge? Because I could eat something before I hit the sack." 


"It's just water and a few sandwiches for now. Tomorrow you can fill out a shopping list and we'll send someone from housekeeping to buy it." Kinsdale hesitated for a moment before going on, "We encourage mingling in the common rooms, however, and our kitchen provides all meals and snacks." 


"I'll see how I feel about that," Tony said. "I hope you won't be offended if I take it easy for a couple of days." 


"Whatever works for you," Potter said, surprising Tony. "Encouraged doesn't mean expected. Misery loves company, is all, and it'd make your inclusion into the pride easier, but it's not mandatory. You know what's best for you and short of becoming a hermit and stopping to eat, no one is allowed to tell you any differently." 


"I sense a story there," Tony said. "But not tonight. I'm beat." 


"I'll wait for you in the dining area at two in the afternoon," Kinsdale said. "If you're not there, I'll call your room." 


"Two, got it." 


Kinsdale and Potter left him then and Tony got a sandwich and a bottle of water from the fridge before flicking on the TV for some much needed normalcy. His mind was racing and he felt hyped up on adrenaline. Being here, in this Center and in this room, suddenly hit him hard.


As if the strings had been cut, he slumped down on the couch and leaned his head back, staring at the ceiling. 


"Fuck," he muttered, mentally kissing sleep goodbye. He'd never be able to rest with all the thoughts rattling around in his brain.


oOo


Sometime around dawn, Tony managed to fall asleep after all. He was so exhausted that he slept until one and took his time showering off the travel grime and choosing something comfortable to wear. Knowing that strange people were going to be nosing all through his physical and psych evals made him long for one of his sharpest suits, not that it would distract someone with the ability to read him empathically.


Suddenly he wished that he'd just let Blair tug him over. Being not online was stressful, and it was only the first day at the Center. 


He also noticed that he'd forgotten to flip on the white noise generator last night, and decided after a second that he didn't care. 


In the dining room, he helped himself to an apple and a cup of tea and just watched the comings and goings. The room was barely half full, most of the guests sitting in small groups. Some people were tended to by Center personnel, although Tony couldn't detect anything physically wrong with them. 


And over everything there was a certain pressure, a carpet of emotions that tried to go through Tony. It took a lot of effort not to let it get too close, to get caught up in frustration-elation-amusement-pain-curiosity-


"Everything alright, Tony?" Kinsdale said, sitting across from Tony and pulling him back from his musings. "What is it? You were frowning."


"I don't like being in here," Tony murmured.


"Why?"


"Those guys are complicated. It doesn't feel good. Scratchy." Tony wondered whether he actually sounded as barmy as he felt saying it.


Kinsdale pressed his lips together. "Your sensitivity is really quite pronounced. Let's go, my office is in a calmer part of the building." 


Grateful, Tony followed him and took a moment to appreciate how actually calm and quiet Kinsdale's office was despite the low humming of the noise generators. Although office didn't quite do it justice. It looked more like some high-end psychologist's work place with vintage furniture, lots of large, green plants, and a quietly gurgling indoor fountain. There even was a beautiful sofa which Kinsdale offered to Tony while he placed his phone on the arm of a recliner.


"Would you like something to drink? Water? Coffee? Maybe tea?" he asked.


"Water is fine," Tony said, gingerly sitting down. His hands glided over the incredibly soft fabric. "Wow, this is seriously nice."


"Yes, it is." Kinsdale returned with a glass and an unopened bottle of still mineral water. "How are you feeling? Better?"


"Much better." Tony grimaced. "It sucks that I suddenly get all this, you know, input."


"How does it feel? Can you describe it?"


Tony tried to find words for the carpet-y feel of the empathic noise, and how it had felt like it would suffocate him if he didn't fight for distance. 


"Honestly, I'm wiped, and I didn't have the best night to begin with," Tony finished. "How do you people deal with this? If it gets much worse, I'll have to leave the city and start over somewhere on a lonely mountain. Maybe I could write cheap crime novels and self-publish, I'd only need an internet connection for that."

 

Kinsdale smiled wryly. "Sounds like a plan, but it probably won't come to that. Your description is very telling, actually. What you're experiencing is called Empathic Encroachment. It means that you're aware of the foreign impressions around you and trying to shield against it without the ability to actually do it. Although you apparently did manage to somewhat push the empathic impressions away."

 

"I was rather out of it," Tony said firmly, "and I don't care for it." 

 

"No, I don't imagine you do." Kinsdale opened his own bottle of water and poured half of it into a glass. "Empathic encroachment is actually happening everywhere, every minute of every day. Most people simply lack the pathways to be influenced by it. Online guides and sentinels have natural shields against it, otherwise we'd go insane with all the input. It'll stop, I promise."

 

"But until then it'll suck. Tell me why I haven't let Blair push me over again," Tony said, frustrated. "Seriously, all this stuff is making me itchy."

 

Kinsdale took a long moment to think before he said, "You wanted time to come to terms with it. There's nothing wrong with that. As I understood it, Blair also had concerns about your empathic health, which is why he didn't encourage you to take the leap. In fact, we prefer it when our people know what to expect and who to call once they feel their emergence coming." 

 

"I thought it's abrupt for the majority?" Tony raised an eyebrow, not bothering to temper his confusion. 

 

"The coming online itself can be very abrupt, yes, but it's rare that someone has no idea at all that it's coming. A lot of latent sentinels experience wonky senses or zones prior to emerging, while guides sometimes feel the empathic encroachment. And quite a few latents see their spirit animal, either in dream visions or while they're actually awake. Mostly it'll be glimmers when they're awake, but someone waiting for it will know what it means and get themselves to their Center with plenty of time to spare." Kinsdale drank his water. "Have you experienced something like this? Dreamed about an animal, or had funky vision?"

 

"No, nothing of the sort." Tony opened his water bottle but didn't pour. "Maybe I don't have a spirit animal. What kind of animal would even want to hang out with me? I don't have plants at home because I always forget to take care of them. And don't get me started on pets; I'm lucky not to have killed my goldfish yet." He frowned. "It's probably because my housekeeper feeds her. Hey, and can you have a fish for a spirit animal? How does that even work?"

 

Kinsdale smiled. "We'll get to all of that, I promise." 

 

A long monologue followed in which Tony listened to assurances that every online guide and sentinel had had a spirit animal so far, and that the kind of animal was often based on societal expectations, which meant that yes, some peoples had marine animals or fish as spirit animals. There weren't any reports of fantasy animals, however, neither historical nor modern, which sort of disappointed Tony a little.

 

"Maybe I'll get a shark, a great white like in Jaws," Tony said thoughtfully. "I feel pretty at home on Hawaii and seeing a shark spirit swim around in the air would be so cool." He considered that for a moment. "Although it wouldn't be very cuddly, would it?"

 

"Probably not." Kinsdale shrugged lightly and smiled. "There are studies underway, but it's taking time. You'll just have to see what kind of spirit chooses you." 

 

"But what if no spirit wants me?" Tony repeated his earlier question, suddenly anxious. "You've read my psych evals; I'm a seething mass of neuroses and I probably have more than one inferiority complex."

 

"Tony," Kinsdale said, looking dismayed. "Are you really thinking of yourself like that?"

 

"It's hard to argue with the facts, and you can feel me, right?" Tony replied, pressing his back against the sinfully soft sofa cushions in search of some sort of cover. "I'm a good agent, I know that, but my colleagues aren't exactly fans." 

 

"Why?" Kinsdale asked. "And before you try to beg off, remember that I'm required to evaluate you anyway. Your worry that you might not be good enough for a spirit animal is concerning, to say the least. Please trust me to help you. Everything you say is covered by the doctor-patient-confidentiality agreement."

 

"Oh, fine." Tony sighed, deciding that it would be too much effort to prevaricate. "To make a long story short, the boss had to take a leave of absence due to a job-related injury, which put me in charge of the team. Now, it's my job to train the probies, and I can be something of a clown to get them to relax a little, but it's come back to bite me in the ass. Like, big time. They didn't respect me during that time and questioned my orders at every turn. I was this close to writing them up." 

 

"Why didn't you?" Kinsdale asked, cocking his head. 

 

Tony snorted. "Well, I actually tried, but the director nixed my complaints. I complained about that, too, but only to my former boss, Tom Morrow. I'm not quite ready yet to involve the next bigger fish in our pond."


"That doesn't sound healthy," Kinsdale offered cautiously. Tony got the distinct feeling that he was close to having a cow; maybe because his sentinel was still so entrenched in the military way of doing things and strongly believed in the chain of command. "May I ask why you're so set on staying with NCIS if things are so difficult?"


"It's got to do with my neuroses and insecurities," Tony admitted, trying very hard not to sound too bothered. "Gibbs, my team leader, saw something in me when we met in Baltimore. He recruited me right out of my PD, which was something of an ego boost." He cleared his throat. "It's been alright there for a couple of years; we were good together. But then we were required to take on more team members and that's when it kind of ... well, when it stopped being quite so perfect for me."


"You don't strike me as the type that wants to work alone," Kinsdale said. "So it's not the expanded team in itself that's the problem, or is it?"

 

"Nah. It's more that I'm obviously not really the type to lead and teach," Tony said, defeated. "I mean, even kids hate me, so how can I expect to successfully teach grown people about proper procedure and to respect the chain of command? I know I'm good at my job, so it must be my personality; three out of three probies can't take me seriously."

 

"That sounds bad." Kinsdale frowned. "Do you feel comfortable elaborating a little?"

 

Tony shrugged. "Not really, but in for a penny ... look, I normally don't talk about this. But Blair seriously vouched for you and I ..." Tony exhaled harshly. "I want this to work, alright."

 

"Alright," Kinsdale murmured and Tony got the feeling that he was making himself intentionally smaller, less empathetically threatening, so to speak. "I appreciate it. Please, just say what's on your mind. It won't leave this room. If it helps, imagine I'm a buddy who you trust to keep your confidence."

 

"Okay, I'll try. So, uhm. Our tech geek graduated from MIT, which apparently makes him an instant expert at crime scene management. I don't mind him giving me shit sometimes, I'm not fighting with kid gloves either, but it's like he's forgotten everything they've taught him at FLETC, just because he's got a degree." Tony grimaced. "I'm not usually a whiner, but dragging him along is taking away time from my actual work, which makes the boss unhappy. And the less said about Mossad's ninja woman, the better. The boss knows that I think she's wrong for us, and dangerous for NCIS to boot, but he doesn't want to hear it." 


"And I guess he makes you feel it," Kinsdale concluded. "Wow. I'm impressed that you're willing to stay on the team, to be honest. Beau would have written them up or complained "


"That's probably my unhealthy attachment speaking. Also, you shouldn't take my word for it," Tony admitted, slumping a little. "There are always more sides to a story."


"Of course, but it's your side I'm interested in right now." Kinsdale set his water down and leaned forward, clasping his hands between his knees. "We can stop talking, if you prefer. Do you feel up to that empathic scan we talked about yesterday?"


"Will touching you make me come online?" Tony asked warily. 


"It might, as close as you are, even though I'm not a shaman," Kinsdale said. "That's why I won't touch you." 


"How does that work, then?"


Kinsdale got up and settled on the sofa, keeping a good two feet between him and Tony. "Ideally, you'd relax a little for me. Blair said that he's taught you a couple of basic meditation techniques. Using them would help with that." 


Tony finally took a sip of his water. "Will I feel you doing the scan?"


"Yes, probably. If it gets uncomfortable, let me know and I'll retreat." Kinsdale smiled encouragingly. "It won't take very long. Ready?" 


"As ready as I'll ever be." Tony set his glass down onto the low coffee table and then leaned back again. "So I'll just ... breathe." 


"Thank you." 


Tony frowned, closed his eyes and tried to breathe through his anxiety. Having someone watch him was strange. Blair's presence had been soothing and encouraging, Kinsdale however was clearly waiting for results, which made the exercise less effective. 


At last, Tony managed to shake off the last of his misgivings. After a few more moments something swelled around him, a presence that couldn't be anything else than Kinsdale's empathic persona. It seemed to wave a friendly hello and generally presented itself as non-threatening.


Tony allowed it to approach further but stayed alert. The presence meandered about a slowly appearing, indistinct landscape made up of jagged mountains and smooth, wide valleys. There were all sorts of dramatic river beds and steep dips and mysterious caves, things that Tony wouldn't have associated with himself, ever, and wasn't it a mindfuck to see his most inner workings laid out and reacting to Kinsdale's careful exploration while still being himself? There were colours, too, both bright and muted, and sometimes currents erupted and arched over the hologram-y looking landscape. Since it was Kinsdale's presence that allowed Tony to see his empathic make-up like this, Tony was freaked out and grateful at the same time. 


In the distance, a huge, dark mountain loomed over everything. Tony was afraid to get any closer than he was now, feeling its menacing presence even here, but Kinsdale was unafraid and soldiered on. Soon he was gone, with Tony's blessing, because if anyone could help with Mount Doom's big bad brother, he'd take it. 


After what seemed like an eternity, Kinsdale's presence was back and brushing against Tony before it slowly vanished from Tony's awareness. Shortly thereafter, Tony opened his eyes.


"And? What's the verdict, Doctor?" he asked, voice a little rough. 


"Well, you certainly weren't kidding about your neuroses and having several inferiority complexes," Kinsdale said, cutting right to the chase. He shook his head. "I've rarely seen something so ... pronounced and it's worrying me that you manage to go about your days without anyone really noticing." 


Tony offered a weak half-smile. "I'm good at undercover work." 


"But at the expense of your own health," Kinsdale said. "Don't take this the wrong way, but a lot of your issues go way back, probably to your early childhood. I strongly recommend counselling, supported by empathic healing, because you deserve to be free of these damaging influences." 


"I don't think there's a lot anyone can do about that," Tony said, sinking back into the sofa and rubbing his forehead. "I'm a basket case, but I deal with it." 


"That won't be enough in the future," Kinsdale said gently. "Without being in a good place emotionally you won't be able to fully utilize your gifts. That not only would be a pity, it can be harmful to yourself, your sentinel, and the people around you. You and they deserve better. You were right in wanting to wait, and I'm very, very glad that you listened to your instincts." 


"Even if this counselling should help, and I'm not convinced it will, it'd take a huge amount of time," Tony argued. 


"I'd say at least a year," Kinsdale admitted, "allowing for time to rest in between sessions, of course. And to be honest, I'd advise against going to work during that time, to stop the influx of negative influences."


"NCIS will never approve a sabbatical," Tony said baldly, raising an eyebrow. "Even if I went for it, you or someone else from the S&G Council will have to throw their weight around, because they won't accept it coming from me." 


"Oh, I can certainly do that, and should I fail to convince them, Blair would step in." Kinsdale's worried frown eased up a little. "Does that mean you'll give it a try?" 


"I don't particularly want to," Tony said, still brutally honest, "but after seeing that heaping mound of trauma just waiting to erupt all over the place?" He fought with himself before saying, "Yeah, I will."


Kinsdale actually sagged in relief. "Good. Very good. I'm glad." He suddenly winced a little. "Beau was right; you are majorly stressed out. Maybe you don't even notice anymore, but everything about you is ... coiled. Ready to spring, or worse, snap. It's a wonder you haven't blown yet."


"And I don't have any plans to do that in the future." Tony sat up, scowling. "Just so we're clear: I'll absolutely hate having to talk about my feelings. I'll bitch about your healthy food and the lack of work, and I'll probably make everyone's life very difficult just on principle alone." 


Kinsdale had the nerve to laugh. "I'm sorry. You sounded just like Beau there. He hates all the soft stuff, no matter how important it is and how well he's arranged himself with it." 


"Well?" Tony pressed, crossing his arms over his chest.


Kinsdale snorted. "Everyone here is trained for grumpy guests, and there are enough people on staff who won't have a problem telling you to stuff it if you go too far. Also, the security guys are always up for new sparring partners, in case you need to let off some steam. As to getting bored, we'll definitely find something for you to do. That a deal?" 


Not having expected the easy acceptance of his terms, or rather, his deep-seated worries, Tony glared at Kinsdale for a long moment. "Fuck you and your accommodating ways, Gavin," he finally said with ill grace. "It's a deal." 


Kinsdale smiled smugly. 


oOo


Day two of Guide Camp was a misery of medical prodding. Despite having pulled all of Tony's recent lab works, the Center's doctors insisted on every test known to mankind. Tony spent nearly all the time in the infirmary and even took lunch there because he couldn't stomach the thought of going to the dining area. Even so, the presence of the doctors and nurses was nearly enough to drive him back into his room. It didn't help that one nurse was insanely attracted to him and failed at shielding herself, despite being an online guide. 


That night, Tony was exhausted and wished he could just call Jeremy and complain about the unfairness of it all. He refrained, though, not being completely over his friend's dishonesty and not willing to subject himself to more platitudes that would achieve nothing but stir up further resentment. 


Realizing that he didn't have any other friends he felt he could trust with what was happening to him was a bitter pill to swallow.


Frustrated, Tony switched off the TV and went to bed. 


oOo


On day three, Gavin Kinsdale requested Tony's presence in his office to field the call to Director Shepard of NCIS. His sentinel was standing behind his chair, brooding fiercely and stiff with tension.


"We sent your guide registration paperwork to HR this morning," Kinsdale said once Tony had settled in the visitor's chair. "You didn't exaggerate your status in your agency. Half an hour later, Director Shepard herself called and demanded to know what has happened to send you here." 


Potter growled. "She made it sound like coming online was a transmittable disease." 


Tony couldn't help but flinch a little.


"I put her off, naturally, as this is not a talk we are allowed to have without you." Kinsdale looked searchingly at Tony. "Can you do this today? If not, we'll put her off until you are." 


"Nah, it's fine." Tony helped himself to a glass of water and took a few sips. His stomach tightened unpleasantly in the time it took to dial the director's secretary and be put through. 


"Is it true what Director Kinsdale has told me earlier, Tony?" Shepard asked, as soon as he had greeted her. "The paperwork they sent through is actually legit?"


"Yes, ma'am," Tony said. "I'm sorry to spring this on you. I was pretty surprised myself." 


"Taking leave for emergence is all well and good," she said after a pause, "but what is this about taking a year-long sabbatical? For psychological counselling, no less? Is something wrong with our in-house personnel?" 


"No," Tony said honestly, "except that I keep lying to them, and they don't catch me at it. I can't do that here, and the guys don't feel comfortable leaving me on my own with my baggage. Apparently, coming online like that could be traumatic." 


"Tony," Shepard said sharply. "You're needed here. I'm willing to decrease your hours and get a psychologist on site to work with you exclusively if that is what it takes." 


"Excuse me, Director Shepard," Kinsdale intervened. "The S&G Charter clearly states that every latent person has the right to medical and psychological services in the Centers if necessary. This is necessary. I'll send the form outlining the details later today." 


"This is unacceptable," she said. "Tony and I have been working on an undercover mission. NCIS has put a lot of time and finances into it already." 


"Doesn't matter," Potter replied without pity. "Find someone else to do it or scrap it, we don't care. DiNozzo's out."


Shepard wasn't ready to give up. "Tony," she said in that tone of voice that made unruly children the world over go quiet and alert. "You know why it has to be you."


Yes, Tony knew, and sitting here next to trained sniffers suddenly made him feel uncomfortable and dirty. "I'm sorry, Jenny. I need to do this, and I'll let the Center fight my battles for me if I have to." Tony sighed. "Don't think I'll like doing this." 


"That hardly matters, does it?" she snapped. "You're abandoning your post, abandoning a high priority mission. A whole year away from the agency won't look good on your resume. Think about the missed opportunities for promotions. Some things can't be recovered, no matter how hard you work." 


"Director Shepard, you're dangerously close to exerting undue influence," Kinsdale warned her. "You know perfectly well that absences due to S&G matters cannot be taken into consideration in these matters. Don't make me piss off your boss because you decide to take out your frustration on Tony. I'm sorry about your mission, but you've heard him. This discussion is closed."


"We'll see about that," she ground out and hung up without a goodbye. 


"Charming lady," Potter stated flatly. "I'll send Ilya with the forms and have him insist on an acknowledgement of receipt. We don't want her to accidentally lose them, now do we." 


"Right." Tony shook himself. "That could've gone better." 


"She's not the first head of an agency to hate our guts for pulling agents," Kinsdale smirked. "By now I feel a certain perverse pleasure when I get to do that. You just can't buy this kind of entertainment." 


"Admit it, you have some kind of tally going," Tony said. "Probably in a semi-public area so all the agents coming through your Center will know exactly who the assholes are."


"The asshole side of that thing is way longer than the I'm-annoyed-but-I-know-when-to-keep-my-mouth-shut side," Potter informed him, deadpan. "Gavin's occasionally playing job yenta, just in case you're interested in reorienting yourself."


"Not yet, but I'll keep it in mind," Tony promised wearily. 


"Since we're already talking about it ... would you mind telling me what kind of mission Shepard had planned for you?" Potter asked. His frown hadn't let up even a little. In fact, he looked more forbidding now than he had at the beginning of the meeting. When Tony hesitated, he tapped his nose and then his ear meaningfully.


"God, I keep forgetting that you can do that shit." Tony grimaced. "I was supposed to meet and woo someone to get information about her father." 


"A honey trap mission?" Kinsdale asked, appalled. "What the hell is NCIS doing? They can't just require an agent to become intimate with someone, you're not trained for it." 


Tony feared that Kinsdale might actually be ill. "She didn't just tell me to do it, of course. She showed me pictures and asked me whether I felt I could get close to her." He huffed. "I told her that I could try, but that I'd abort the mission if we didn't click. I'm not that much of a whore." 


"Tony," Kinsdale said unhappily. "While I'm glad that you thought to implement failsaves, what if you'd liked the woman a little too much?" 


Tony was dumbfounded. "I don't know. I rarely get close to people and I'd know that I'd have to leave eventually. Normally that's enough to keep me on track." 


"Wouldn't matter if you really fell in love with her," Potter said quietly. "Be glad you got out of that mission. Honey trapping is nasty business; just imagine doing it as a guide, being able to know exactly what she's feeling and breaking her heart anyway." 


"I know that I couldn't stand it, the pain would be intolerable," Kinsdale said, paling even further. "Jesus."


"Quite. Anyway, the worst hurdle has been dealt with," Potter continued, drawing Tony's attention to himself, which was way more bearable than concentrating on the emotional queasiness coming from Kinsdale. "Now Gavin and the doctors will develop a treatment plan for you. You'll also have to decide what to do with your apartment. The Center is prepared to supplement rental payments, but if you can sublet it, we'd appreciate it." 


Kinsdale, sounding composed again, added, "You should also think about what you'd like to do to keep busy. Since you're an investigator, Beau could use you for in-house investigations, as long as it checks out with the healing plan, but if you want to take up painting or writing or whatever, that's also fine. Just let us know." 


Tony shrugged. "I'll help if I can. Painting isn't my thing, but I'd like to use the piano in the common room every now and then. I could also use a refresher course for my Russian, if you teach languages here." 


"It wouldn't be the first time we've hired a teacher," Kinsdale said. "One of our life coordinators will be by later to help you arrange your absence from your apartment and from work. You'll have to sign some forms, power of attorney among them, in case you don't feel up to leaving the Center." 


Tony heaved out an aggrieved sigh. "Way to make a grown man feel capable."


"I know," Kinsdale said, sighing himself. "It's grating, to say the least. Still, we have to offer." 


"I appreciate it, but I'll definitely go myself and pack a suitcase or two. You said that the encroachment stuff will be getting worse, so I'd better not wait around," Tony decided, getting up. "The company I've bought my apartment from can handle subletting it furnished. They also have a cleaning company contracted, so you don't have to lift a finger for any of that." He turned to Potter. "When can we leave?" 


"Right away. We'll have to take a guide with us who can shield you when necessary, but other than that we're good to go." Potter tapped his ear piece. "Luke, get a van ready, we're going to DiNozzo's place. Tell Stacy to be ready in ten." 


Tony approved of Potter's quick decision making. "I won't take too long, although I'll probably need you as pack mules."


"How many clothes can one person have," Potter scoffed. 


A Cheshire cat grin formed on Tony's face. "Oh boy, we'll have so much fun." 


oOo


"Holey moley, that's some apartment," Stacy exclaimed after Tony had unlocked his door and grandly showed them in. "It looks like an advert!" 


"I like to keep it neat," Tony said. He stepped past her and Potter and went straight to his bedroom. "I'll start packing. You can help yourself to whatever's in the fridge, my housekeeper will take care of the rest." 


"Nice try," Potter said. He walked once through the apartment, cocking his head and listening intently. "There are several surveillance devices hidden in your apartment." 


"Yeah, I know." Tony smirked. "They're my own. Can't leave my stuff just sitting there when I'm never home, after all." 


Potter raised his eyebrows. "You have hidden nearly two dozen surveillance devices around your own space for security purposes?" 


"Yep." Tony popped the 'p' and went to his wardrobe, opening the sliding door and revealing his suits. Potter's choking amused him endlessly. "Comes with the job. I messed with the mob in Philly and made an enemy or five during my time with NCIS. I already lost a car to a bomber, I'd like to avoid losing my apartment, too. The feed goes to an isolated server that only I can access. A friend helped me set the system up." 


"Impressive," Potter allowed, eyeing the mountain of fabric Tony was efficiently placing into a suitcase. "Damn, you're a clothes horse. A sentinel could zone on all the different stuff you have." 


"Don't I know it." Done with his underwear and socks, Tony continued with his shirts and ties. After so many years of owning high-end men's wear, he was a pro at packing quickly, but carefully. "I've got a few boxes for the rest of my clothes and shoes. Thank god you have cable TV at the Center, and I thank myself that I got rid of my DVD cases a while ago. It's all stored in these nifty multi-disc cases. Most of my stuff is quite easy to pack up and put into storage. I can have a firm do that sometime this week. I'd like to take Kate with me, though. My goldfish. Can I do that?" 


"Yes. You seem awfully prepared to up and leave," Potter said, looking around. "It's all very ... compressed."


"The hazard of undercover work," Tony answered. "You learn to be ready to get out of dodge fast." He grabbed a briefcase and set it down next to the two packed suitcases. "My cufflinks and tie pins, and a bit of jewellery," he explained. Not to mention my British passport, some good old cash, and a notebook with useful contacts, in case I need to skedaddle. "I want my own pillow, and the stuff from the bathroom." 


"I can do the bathroom," Stacy offered. "Do you have a bag?" 


Tony handed the blond bombshell his toiletries bag and sent her on her way. 


"That's nearly it," he said, critically looking the room over. "I've only a couple of things left." Taking a black linen sack, he made short work of his night table's drawer contents, simply shovelling his few playthings inside and closing the bag with a decisive tug on the strings. 


"The sentinel-friendly lube is better," Potter smirked at him. 


"Yeah, yeah, of course it is," Tony retorted with an eye roll. "Keep your keen eyes out of my sex life, please." 


"What sex life?" Potter countered, throwing him the pillow. "You have a twin bed, for crying out loud."


Stacy chose that moment to return. She eagerly clipped the toiletries bag to Tony's biggest suitcase. "Are you really done? That hardly took an hour." 


"I'm very good at what I do," Tony smiled flirtatiously at her. 


She laughed. "You must be, if you can afford such a place. What about your movies?"


"Paul is crating them, although it'll be a tight fit. The van will already be full with his suits." Potter shook his head. "Which is nuts." 


"Only until you've seen me rock 'em," Tony said. "By the way, you rock as well, Stacy. No encroaching whatsoever. If you keep it up, I'll treat you to a movie night deluxe to show my appreciation." 


Stacy giggled. "I'll do my very best, then."


Despite Tony's seemingly good mood, the ride back to the Center amidst his most precious possessions began to feel like a long and arduous journey. Comparing it to Frodo's march to Mordor maybe was a little extreme, but Tony thought that comparisons could be drawn. After all, there was a dark, gloomy mountain in his psyche, and he had no idea what the future would bring. He certainly didn't feel very optimistic. The contradiction in his emotions was baffling and upsetting, to say the least.


"I went through this myself, Tony," Stacy suddenly said and turned in her seat to look at him. "It's just this bit that's confusing and annoying. Once you're online, so many things will simply make sense and everything will work out." 


"I hope you're right," he murmured.


She smiled encouragingly at him and turned back around, for which Tony was more grateful than he could politely say. Sometimes the empathy thing really was a boon. 


Back at the Center, Tony and his three companions lugged his things into his room. Paul offered to help unpack the movies and it turned out that he was an aficionado himself, although he liked modern films better than the oldies Tony so adored. Stacy stayed for a bit as well just to keep them company, but when it was time for lunch, they all said their goodbyes and left Tony alone so he could process in peace. Paul even thoughtfully flipped the white noise generator on before he closed the door.


Tony looked at the looming suitcases and bags and decided that unpacking his small life could wait a bit longer. Housekeeping had been in; his checked shopping list had been stuck to the fridge. 


When in doubt or close to panicking, prepare food, his mind supplied, and that was what he did until Kinsdale called him and told him that he had a visitor.


oOo


Tony supposed that he should have known. Known that his team mates wouldn't take this development with any kind of grace, or respect his privacy, or even call before they accosted him in a place that was supposed to be a sanctuary for empathically sensitive and vulnerable people. He could have refused to come down to the lobby, but he knew that he'd be paying for that in a hundred little ways and he didn't feel equal to fighting Abby for the next couple of months.


He was grateful for Kinsdale's quick thinking, because he had Stacy by his side. Her presence shielded him from the worst of Abby's frankly horrendous emotional leaking. 


If one could even call it leaking when her excitement, anger, and incredulity were flung about like muddy water in a water fight.  


"Tony!" she cried as soon as she spotted him. "I couldn't believe it when Director Shepard told us that you had requested a leave of absence!" She tried to hug him, but was stopped by a sentinel from Potter's security troupe. "What is the meaning of this?" 


"You stay back, miss," the man said sternly. "You're aggravating the people here. Please lower your voice or I'll escort you from the premises." 


"And please try to rein in your emoting," Stacy added. "You're being very taxing right now." 


"Oh, that just takes the cake." Abby crossed her gloved arms in front of her chest. "You're coming online and suddenly I'm not good enough for you anymore? It's a joke, don't you get that?" 


Tony's eyebrows tried very hard to reach his hairline. "I assure you that it's not a joke."


Abby's red lips twisted downwards and when she spoke she sounded infuriatingly patronizing. "Tony, everyone at NCIS knows that you're likely never coming online. Beth from medical told me so. Some jerk is playing a really mean prank on you." 


"Someone from medical discussed confidential information with you?" Tony asked, stunned. Stacy's shock pressed against him like a cresting wave. "Abby, that's a felony offence. Beth'll get fired over this."  


"Pssh, as if. She knows that you're my friend, and that I need to make sure you're okay. The director will understand." 


Tony shook his head, wondering when Abby had lost her marbles. "The director has no say in this. I don't believe this. You need to leave, Abby, before you confess to even more crimes." 


"I'm not leaving without you," she retorted stubbornly. "We all need you back. Why, Gibbs will call SecNav and make it all go away. Whoever pulled this tasteless prank will pay for it, I promise." 


"Miss, if you don't leave right now, I'll call the police and have you removed," the sentinel threatened. He wasn't a very tall man, but he could menace with the best of them. All the guys on Potter's team were serious BAMFs, which, right now, was a tremendous comfort.


"Don't touch me," Abby hissed, slapping the man's hand away. She narrowed her eyes. "You're behaving very strangely, Tony. I don't know what these people want with you, but they must've been slipping you something to make you be like this. I'll find out what's going on and then we'll rescue you." 


"Abby-" 


"We're family, Tony. We'll take care of it." 


Tony could only watch her flounce away in absolute stupefaction. 


"What," the sentinel to his right said darkly, "was that?" 


"That was not normal," Stacy to Tony's left added. "She's got issues." 


Tony rubbed his forehead wearily. "Shit. I need to talk to Gavin and report that medical at NCIS gave away my information." 


"I'll come with you," Stacy said. "I'll go on record as the guide to report her and recommend she be banned from the Center. That'll hopefully keep her crazy away from you for now." 


"It's not just for me. Did you notice how fast everyone was out of the lobby? She hasn't made any effort to keep her emotions to herself." Tony actually pinched himself to see whether this was a really bizarre dream. "Fuck."


"Sorry, hun, she was really here," Stacy murmured.


The talk with Kinsdale didn't go any better. The guide was livid, although he tried to keep his aggravation behind his shields for Tony's sake. 


"That woman, Beth, will suffer for your friend's nosiness," he said after they had listened to the recording of the short conversation. If Abby had counted on having privacy in a S&G Center of all places, she'd be in for a rude awakening. "I ask that you not interfere in the legal process, Tony. Too much depends on our people's willingness to defend their rights. We can't afford a backslide like in the eighties." 


"I won't," Tony said, feeling cold inside. "Especially since this doesn't really have to do with me being a guide. People's medical files get violated every day and I won't stand for it. Hell, I was afraid for a year after I had the plague that some obscure government flunky would abduct me for secret experiments."


Kinsdale exhaled loudly. "I so didn't need that shit show today. Your Director Shepard already tried to reject the forms regarding you, so I had our courier take them directly to SecNav. His people know better than to mess with Center business, at least, even if my ears are still ringing from both of their bellowing."


"What could SecNav possibly be bellowing about?" Tony asked, incredulous. The crazy just wouldn't stop. "It's not your fault that I'm coming online. Jesus." 


"Well, Shepard apparently made it sound like that's exactly what happened. SecNav wasn't pleased, to say the least. He likes your team's solve rate just as it is and told me to tell you to, and I quote, get over it ASAP. At least he accepted the paperwork and will make sure it's processed." 


Tony slumped into the visitor's chair. A headache began to hammer dully behind his eyes and little flashes of light exploded behind his closed lids. He groaned.


"Feels like a migraine's coming on," Stacy said, hovering next to Tony's shoulder. "He doesn't need to be present for you to press charges against this Abby person and her friend, right?" 


Kinsdale let out another harsh breath. "No, we'll take care of it. Take it easy, Tony, and take a couple of the pain pills that we put in your bathroom cupboard. They're guide friendly and probably won't make you loopy." 


Grateful for their consideration, Tony shuffled back to his room, both Stacy and the as yet unnamed sentinel at his side until the door snicked closed and shut out the world. A couple of deep breaths later, the headache lessened a little and the funky flashes stopped, much to Tony's relief. He went through the welcome pack in the bathroom, found the pills and swallowed them down with some water. 


To distract himself from the appalling afternoon, he switched on the TV and let a nature documentary calm his agitated mind. 


oOo


Tony had left his laptop at the apartment on purpose, because he'd been looking forward to a few quiet days. Paul, the sneaky bastard, had put it into the box with his DVDs, however, and a buddy working in IT at NCIS had warned Tony that his colleagues were sending e-mails to his private account at an alarming rate. After speaking with Kinsdale, Tony had agreed to look at them and forward anything problematic to the Center's official address.


How many e-mails can one person send in one day about this one topic?, he asked himself, annoyed and unwillingly amazed. Twenty-eight new messages loomed, all of them with more or less enlightening subject lines. I guess it's telling that Howie can stop himself from snooping after flagging their accounts and the team can't even bother to be polite. 


In fact, Gibbs' one, terse e-mail was the best of the bunch. While not happy about Tony's changed circumstances, he at least wished him well and asked to keep in touch. He even sort of asked, instead of outright demanding, that Tony keep himself available for the occasional cold case or analysis, should the MCRT get stuck. Not willing to commit to anything, Tony kept his answer vague and referred Gibbs to Kinsdale, since the Alpha Guide would oversee his healing plan personally. 


All the other e-mails were electronic harassment of varying intensity. Abby was the worst offender with sixteen of the remaining twenty-seven messages. She ranted about her friend Beth's swift sacking, about the company Tony kept at the Center, and she complained exhaustively about his lack of compassion for the work he was going to put her through by having to rescue him from the Center's clutches. Her e-mails read like an hour-by-hour report of the goings-on around her. It was interesting in a way to see how fast justice - and gossip! - could be meted out. Mostly, though, it was just worrying and depressing. 


Ziva had sent five and McGee six e-mails. Hers were short and mean, expressing her disbelief that Tony of all people could have been chosen by some higher power to emerge as a guide, and telling him that the team would be better off without him anyway. Weirdly enough, she also berated him for the director's aborted mission, throwing details around that had no business being sent through open channels. 


Tony forwarded those to Gibbs and cc-ed Director Shepard and Kinsdale, with a note to keep the information leak to a minimum, please, before someone got hurt.


McGee was mostly doing the same thing as Abby, inadvertently keeping Tony abreast of NCIS' rumour mill while at the same time wordily expressing his complete incredulity. McGee honestly seemed incapable of computing the fact that Tony was going to be an online guide someday soon. His biggest hang-up seemed to be that Tony would be someone McGee just couldn't compete with in certain situations. His bewildered ramblings painted an ugly picture of Tony - as if he were a jock clown that got by on his looks alone and probably had something on Gibbs to keep the job as SFA.


Tony wondered what it was that drove the people around him bonkers. Because that was where every member of his team was headed: to the crazy train and then on to Madville. 


Not for the first time Tony wished that he could turn back the clock. That he could skype with Jeremy and talk him out of going to that fancy seaside resort near San Francisco. Literally anywhere else would do, and Tony probably wouldn't have to deal with yet another life in shambles. 


At least, not yet.


He sent the other e-mails up to Kinsdale as well, beyond caring what they would tell the people at the Center about him. He was so tired of this, of not being able to go into work and have a good rapport with his colleagues, and of always having to fight for each scrap of respect and ending up unsuccessful most of the time.


A knock on his door startled him out of his brooding. It was Potter, with a sixpack of beer in one hand and a bag of chips in the other. 


"Fancy catching a game?" the sentinel asked casually. 


Tony opened the door wider to let the man come in. Beaumont Potter was tall, handome in an intense, brooding way, and all dangerous grace, like a large jungle cat ready to pounce. His constant alertness stirred something in Tony, although he somehow knew that Potter was in very good hands and effortlessly in tune with his senses. 


The oddness of somehow getting this from Potter threw Tony, so much so that he retreated to his kitchenette and started the kettle. 


"You want some coffee, or tea?" he asked. 


"Actually, yes. Chamomile tea, if you have it," Potter answered. He took off his jacket and threw it over the back of a chair. Tony could feel his dark eyes studying him. "I read a couple of the e-mails you forwarded. I gotta say, your colleagues don't seem like the brightest bunch." 


That startled a laugh out of Tony. "Yeah, there's something off about them. Might be Director Shepard's mission, but who knows, maybe they just genuinely dislike me."


"They're lashing out too much for it to be just that." Potter accepted Tony's wordless invitation to take a seat on the couch. "I'm guessing that the probies feel threatened by you." 


"Why would they? I'm teaching them all I know." Tony concentrated on the warming kettle so he wouldn't have to look at his guest. "And I get that our work is difficult and stressful; that's why I try to lighten it up." 


"There you have it. You probably made it look easy, when it really wasn't." 


Tony stared at Potter. "What?"


"You heard me. You probably make it look easy. So easy, in fact, that they feel like they can't ever catch up. They're probably constantly worried about their assessments and chances for promotion." 


"So it's a case of damned if I do, and damned if I don't?" Tony asked, dismayed. The kettle switched off and he busied himself with putting tea bags into mugs and pouring water over them. "Well, fuck me." 


Potter snorted. "Tempting, but Gavin would rip my head clean off. He'd insist on having you first." 


That comment was so unexpected that Tony flushed fiercely and fumbled with a mug, nearly scalding his fingers. "Get out." 


"Nope, I'm comfortable where I am." Potter smirked. "Hell, Sandburg all but propositioned you and he's totally gone on Ellison." 


"Why do people keep telling me this?" Tony groaned. "Is this some sort of prank? Something you do to all the new baby guides to make them feel better about coming online?"


"No. You are simply uncommonly attractive," Potter said nonchalantly. "It's not just your looks. You radiate something that draws people's attention. It's getting stronger, too. Just thought I'd warn you before it catches you by surprise." 


Tony was gobsmacked. "I don't know what to say to that." 


"Then listen." Potter waved him over and Tony obediently brought the mugs and set them down on the couch table. "Some guides develop kind of an allure. They just have that special kind of charisma that draws people right in." 


"And I have that? Or will have it?" Tony sank back into the couch and stared at the TV. "What is this charisma even for?" Tony refused to call it allure, even in his own head.


Snorting, Potter opened two beer bottles and handed one to Tony. "Who the hell knows. What's important for you to know is that unbonded sentinels will go gaga over you. It's the one part of our biology that's a total pain in the ass, but we can't switch it off, just like you can't switch off being a sentinel magnet. They'll want to woo and impress you, and get underfoot in their attempts to protect you." 


"They what? You're so having me on!" Tony exclaimed. He had difficulty getting his mouth to close again. "Honestly, one more outrageous claim to poke at me and I'm out of here!" 


"I shit you not, so calm down." Potter drank half of his bottle down in one swallow. "I drew the short straw, you see. And before you get depressed, we had a draw because talking about that shit is about as comfortable as having a tooth pulled, not because we can't stand you." 


Tony groaned. "Fantastic. Is there anything else I should know? Am I going to sprout tentacles next?" 


"Being a babe magnet not enough?" Potter grunted. When Tony glared at him, he rolled his eyes. "Nah, that's it for now. Can we watch that game now?" 


"God, yes," Tony said with feeling, and for the rest of the evening there was a lot of trash talk and blessedly little conversation of substance. 


oOo


To Tony's relief, things calmed down a lot after the e-mail affair, mostly because Abby, Ziva, and McGee had been severely reprimanded and, in Abby's case, had been suspended for two weeks without pay. He made use of the time and read the first of Blair's many books. It was a beginner's text, and while Tony knew a lot of the information already, it was still interesting. Blair was a good writer with a real talent to engage his readers. 


After the third day of holing up in his room, Paul, the sentinel who had helped get his stuff from his apartment, found him and dragged him to the gym for some sparring. Tony had to pace himself due to his missed training at NCIS and his compromised lungs (and wasn't it sad that no one at NCIS knew how much work it took to pass the phys evals and cover up his pains, yet every sentinel here knew exactly how far Tony could be pushed and refused to let him do more), but on the whole it felt good to let loose and get moving. 


On day five, Kinsdale asked for his presence in his office. 


"Medical and I have finalized your healing plan," Kinsdale told Tony. "Stacy reported that you have stabilized well under her care, and Beau's told me that you get on well with his team. This bodes well for your empathic healing regimen." 


"How well?" Tony asked. 


"As they say, in a healthy body lives a healthy spirit. We unfortunately can't do much about your lungs, but the rest of you is looking rather good. The better food obviously agrees with you, as does the regular sleep you've been getting. The absence of stress is the biggest boon, however." 


"Gavin ..." Tony hesitated, not wanting to insult the man. 


Kinsdale smiled. "I know, Tony. I know that you do very well under stress, and that you need the mental stimulation. Right now, you're still exhausted, both physically and mentally, and that'll take time to repair. Your body works as hard as it can, but it won't be able to heal the damage overnight." 


"It's been two weeks," Tony protested. "I've only rested longer after the plague, and even then NCIS let me work on cold cases because I was going stir crazy." 


"I promised that we'd find something for you to do," Kinsdale replied calmly, "and I stand by that. All I ask is that you sit your first few sessions of empathic healing without committing to work to see how it will affect you." 


"You think I might be too wrung out by the shrinking," Tony said. "Maybe that'll even be true, but give me something, man. I hate having nothing to do." 


"Very well. Beau has something for you. It concerns the unit in Roanoke, Virginia. We suspect embezzlement, but Centers are protective of their operations by nature as it meshes deeply with Pride business, and the numbers haven't been bad enough to require a formal audit - yet. I'm willing to let you have a look at it, provided you adhere to your healing schedule and work with my people." 


"Within reason," Tony cautioned. "I've seen too many doctors do shit. If I feel bad about something, I won't do it." 


"We'll discuss it if something like that comes up," Kinsdale agreed easily. "If you like, and Stacy agrees, you can have her sign a form that allows her to sit in on your sessions. Surveillance will be allowed at your discretion, although I recommend permitting at least video surveillance." 


"For my safety, or the sentinels' delicate sensibilities?" Tony asked and quirked up an eyebrow. "Potter told me that his guys could get underfoot." 


Laughing, Kinsdale shook his head. "Not his guys, necessarily, although he has quite a few unbonded sentinels in his team. No, it's more to do with the sentinels residing here as guests that might prove difficult. It'll go a long way to reassure them that everything is under control if the security people can truthfully tell them that your distress is well in hand." 


"Are you all so sure that I'll be distressed?" 


"Everyone is distressed when strange people root around in their head," Kinsdale said. "It's everyone's ability to pick up on it that makes this part of our job a little harder. You must stop thinking like a mundane, Tony. What you do and feel has an impact on the people around you, now more than ever before. This state of in-between makes you both vulnerable and dangerous. You've got access to part of your gifts already, and none of the protections online guides enjoy. Sentinels especially will react to that and strive to protect you from harm." 


"It's their first imperative," Tony said, only now realizing what it really meant. "That's crazy." 


"It is a little," Kinsdale agreed, "but these biological urges exist for a reason. Protect the guide is the first imperative, but the second one right after that is protect the tribe. Both go hand in hand. Having healthy guides in the community is beneficial in many ways, not just because they complement their sentinels, but they need to know what they're about to be of use to the tribe. A sentinel taking care of a guide in distress is automatically taking care of the whole tribe. It was paramount in former times to limit disruptive factors as much as possible and we're not so far removed from that past to have evolved significantly. We probably never will, because there'll always be danger to protect people from." 


"Wow." Tony shook his head. "It's not that I didn't know that intellectually, but now it's ..." He searched for the right words. 


"Now you get it," Kinsdale kindly helped out. "Not completely, not yet, but you're beginning to. It resonates with you, when before it didn't. One day, the resonance will be so strong that you won't be able to understand how you could ever doubt those that emerged before you." 


"It's a scary thought," Tony confessed. "Becoming someone different without working for it. The not knowing how I'm going to turn out is the worst." 


"Ah. Yes, it might seem that way. However, you have always been a guide, or rather, you have always had the potential to one day become one. It's less about not working for it, and more about accepting what has always been sleeping inside you." Kinsdale smiled wryly. "It sounds a bit stupid, but it's true. If the philosophical approach doesn't appeal, think of yourself as a caterpillar who's in the process of finally spinning itself into a cocoon. Getting out of that cocoon will then be your emergence." 


"I doubt the caterpillar knows what it's doing anymore than I do," Tony huffed. 


"And yet its potential is already written in its DNA. It relies on instinct, and you will do so, as well. Your anxiety about it is a purely mundane side effect." Kinsdale pushed the page with Tony's plan over the desk. "Maybe we should concentrate on the matters at hand for the time being. Take one step at a time, so to speak." 


"Sounds good." Tony looked at the plan. "Only two empathic healing sessions a week? I thought there would be more." 


"We determined that it would be better to start slow, as we need to find out how you're going to react to the treatment. You've noticed the bi-weekly talk therapy sessions; those will probably take a lot out of you as well. Free time is important to process." 


"Alright." 


"Alright?" Kinsdale looked unconvinced and a little suspicious. 


Tony sighed. "You're trying to help. I get that. I'm just impatient. And that Mount Doom thing in there?" He pointed at his head. "It's giving me the willies so I want it to go. Or at least ... shrink it down, I guess." 


"It might take years," Kinsdale reminded him, "but we'll do our best. Blair already said that he'd like to oversee part of your treatment in the future, if you're amenable." 


"Sure. I liked working with him." 


"Good. Now, let's talk about NCIS." 


Tony frowned. "NCIS, or my team specifically?" 


"Both, actually. In an official capacity, no less, for which I apologize." Tony stiffened and Kinsdale sighed, even as he activated a digital recorder and rattled off the preliminary information of the date and time and who was conducting the interview. "You're not in trouble, Tony." 


"Hard to believe that when one is interrogated."


Kinsdale conceded the point but repeated the sentiment before saying, "You've found some friends here, so you might already know that Beau and I went to visit your agency the day before last. We do that regularly, although not as often as we'd like, or should." 


"I did, yeah. So, what's the verdict?" Tony asked, curious. "The orange obviously didn't blind you, but you feel … pissed." 


"It's a nightmare," Kinsdale said shortly. "The orange is bad, but that's nothing compared to the emotional tone of that place. Even the mundanes working there are unduly stressed out. There are hardly any resting rooms, you have the worst crap in your vending machines to tide you over during long nights, and the artificial light has provoked a headache in Beau that required a couple of hours in isolation to go away. Nevermind that medical only has two isolation rooms and one bonding suite, and their supply of S&G friendly medication is frankly criminally low. In a federal agency that employs hundreds of people that's not enough. Even if there are hardly any guides and sentinels working there, NCIS still has to comply with government standards." 


Tony didn't know what to say to that. 


"The whole building is a wasteland for sentinels and guides," Kinsdale continued, unimpressed. "It couldn't be worse if someone decided to bar our kind from NCIS, and right now I'm not convinced that this isn't what happened." 


"Why, though? Such orders come from the top, which means that some director or other had something to hide." Tony's mind began to stir. "One director I could understand, they usually get some years in before moving on or retiring, but I can't believe that Morrow had something to do with it."


"Why not?" Kinsdale asked, obviously ready to get to the interview part of their talk. "The situation persists since the late eighties and has only gotten worse since then, despite changing directors every four to seven years." 


"Because I know Tom Morrow. He's an all-around good guy, and I've never once heard him talk negatively about sentinels or guides. Maybe he didn't do as much as he should have in that regard - there weren't many notable improvements after he started in the 2000s - but he definitely didn't approve of cutting corners or making S&G colleagues feel unwelcome." Tony thought for a moment. "In fact, now that I think about it, the real exodus began shortly after Shepard took over." 


"Exactly then?" 


Tony was warmed up now, although he had the distinct feeling that Kinsdale knew a lot more than he let on and was keen to let him get his thoughts out loud for whoever would be listening to the interview. "I'm pretty sure of it. I remember that we had one bonded pair, they were our liaison to the Center - Sue and Mason. A year or so ago they suddenly left. I had been wondering whether Morrow had taken them with him." 


"Morrow did, actually, and they're still working for him," Kinsdale said. "They were relieved to be able to leave, Tony. They reported the uncomfortable circumstances several times through the appropriate channels, but Shepard never followed up on that. Mason and Sue involved us, and our inquiries weren't taken seriously either. Unfortunately, the situation was already such that we didn't have the support from within to get them answered in a timely manner." 


"One has to wonder why." Tony pursed his lips. "The foundation was already laid, true, but Shepard obviously did her best to erode the S&G presence further." He scowled when he came to the only possible conclusion. "She was planning something and didn't want anyone to find out. I can't believe that I've been so blind. I noticed how little NCIS had to do with the S&G Council, and how hard everyone worked to shove cases at your division here." 


Kinsdale raised his eyebrows. "Did others as well?"


"There wasn't a lot of talk about it," Tony replied. "The thing is, it even made sense from my mundane perspective. The MCRT catches major cases, a lot of them. Anything we can leave to others, we will, because there's always another impending terrorist bombing, or a smuggling operation running right under some general's nose, or a rapist who targets Navy women, or some politician in trouble because of professional or personal stupidity. It just never stops." 


Kinsdale patiently watched as Tony got up to pace and gesticulate. 


"It wasn't official, but we sort of were the mundane MCRT, and your guys were the S&G MCRT," Tony continued. "It worked out because your guys are good. Except that we should have had a whole unit of you at the yard for overlapping cases, or alternatively bonded pairs in every major team, or both. Both would've been fucking ideal. Surveillance would've been so much easier with sentinels, de-escalating would've worked so much better with trained guides on board. We wouldn't have lost as many agents if we'd had you." Tony took a deep breath. "I feel guilty as fuck, and I'm sorry." 


"Thank you, Tony." Kinsdale rose as well and carefully guided Tony over to the couch. "We all did our best, and your statement corroborates our intel that the majority of NCIS agents didn't know what was going on. However, from here on out things will have to change. Not just for us, there are only one guide and two sentinels working at NCIS right now, but for all of NCIS. Sick leave is way higher than the average for other federal agencies, and I don't want to get into the numbers of killed or injured agents." 


"Jesus," Tony muttered. He supported himself on the back of the couch. "We've seen all of this, but it didn't register." 


"Not surprising; you do seem to catch a lot of supremely bad cases. I've read a couple of your reports. Handcuffed to a nearly dead man, in the sewers of all places? Really?" Kinsdale offered Tony a bottle of water and sighed. "What NCIS needs are more MCRTs, at least one other full forensic lab team, and the kind of background support that makes the running of such an agency as efficient as it can be. You'll also have to learn to play nicer with the others in the alphabet soup. Morrow told us of at least four cases that should've gone to the CIA since he left, and another half dozen that were prime material for his own people. He wasn't happy to have jurisdiction wrestled from him in the manner it happened." 


"Don't look at me like that," Tony said. "I did my best; it's the boss and the director who hate to share." 


Kinsdale scowled. "I don't know why. NCIS rarely gets public recognition; Shepard should've caught a clue long ago." 


Tony choked on a sip of water. "Holy shit, we were snubbed because we stole other agencies' cases?" 


"More or less. The FBI is always good for a bit of toe-treading." Kinsdale sighed again. "I'm sorry, I'm sure you didn't deserve this treatment. Your bosses, however ..." 


"No, it's alright. I can share. It's why I let the stuff with the sentinels and guides go in the first place. I thought it was what the bosses wanted, even if it wasn't made known through official channels. No one has the time to really read the announcements in the intranet news ticker, anyway." Tony tried drinking again and this time he managed to get the mouthful of water down. "Still, I can't believe that we've been so blind. I can't apologize enough." 


"I appreciate the sentiment," Kinsdale said, slowly sitting in his chair across the couch. "However, it's not necessary for you to beat yourself up about it any further. You're an agent with a very defined set of tasks, not the one in charge of the agency. While you could've said something, it probably would've fallen on deaf ears. Not under Morrow perhaps, but certainly under Director Shepard. You coming online is the best thing that could've happened to NCIS." 


"Gavin." Tony sighed. 


"It's true," Kinsdale continued, unperturbed. "It had to be you, because you're at the heart of NCIS. You're one of their best assets, both as an investigator and as an undercover operative; a lot of people know you, and now that you're emerging, people are getting curious. Why aren't you waiting it out there at NCIS' own S&G facilities? Why has the D.C. Center taken over so completely, and why are we refusing everyone from your team and, even more importantly, your director, access to you? People talk about it, Tony, and everything that Shepard has tried to bury for the last two years is not so slowly coming to light." 


"Do I even want to know?" 


Kinsdale smiled grimly. "Probably not, but I'll tell you anyway. It's the least I can do after forcing you to have this talk." 


Tony shrugged.


"You were right in suspecting that Shepard had her own agenda, and you were to play a crucial role in it."


"The mission?" Tony asked, goosebumps rising on his arms. 


"The Mission," Kinsdale said with a nod. Tony could hear the capital letters, and it freaked him out even more. "As Beau said, be very glad that you got out of that one. It was barely more than a revenge trip for Shepard. The Frog apparently killed her father and she wanted to get even. Her reasons for making this an NCIS case are flimsy at best, and she'd have seriously gotten into the CIA's way, had the mission been allowed to proceed. They've been observing the Frog for a year already and were understandably pissed about her planned interference. Worst of all, she has cancer and wanted to get it done before she had to leave her post." 


"Holy crap." Tony's knees went weak and he sat down. "Holy. Crap. She's out, then?"


"Yes, since yesterday. It's over, Tony," Kinsdale said soothingly, letting his calming aura expand and comfort him. "It won't happen now, and no director of any agency will ever be able to act so independently again. Not if the S&G Council has anything to say about it, and I assure you that it does. Even better, the President is backing us in this. Shepard has really rattled the cage there." 


Tony let out a slightly hysterical laugh. "Oh my god, you get to play morality police." 


"Yes, we do, and we'll do our damnedest to keep everyone else on the straight and narrow from now on." Kinsdale eyed Tony in concern. "Do you need a minute?"


Tony waved him off. "Nah. How did Gibbs take it? Do you know?" 


"Your boss has a reputation," Kinsdale replied wryly, letting it go. "He's made his displeasure about Shepards crazy scheme known, especially since SecNav ordered him into the director's chair until a more permanent replacement is found." 


Despite the sick feeling in his stomach, Tony couldn't help but laugh again, and actually mean it. "Oh man, he'll hate that." 


"He already does. And don't think that we aren't concerned about it. There should be an Agent in Charge to take over, but there isn't, and Gibbs is the ranking agent at the Yard." 


Suddenly the amusement was vanishing as abruptly as it had come. "How were you able to find out about all of this so quickly? It's been a week since I left," Tony asked. His voice was rough and he quickly took another drink of water. "What a disaster." 


"Sentinels can physically suss out lies, and guides can do the same empathically. Shepard and your team's unusual behaviour has prompted an interrogation with S&G participation, which yielded the results I've just briefed you on. Once Shepard understood that every lie would get her in even hotter water, she sang like a canary." 


Tired all of a sudden, Tony leaned back and stared at the ceiling. "I really won't be able to go back. This ... unrest will be tied to me and her supporters will let me feel it." 


"The question should be: why would you want to go back?" Kinsdale waved Tony's protesting grunt away. "It's an honest question. Right now, NCIS as a whole is a disaster for sentinels and guides. None of your needs will be met there in the foreseeable future, your team is so intimidated by you that they're trying to cut you down any way they can, and we don't know what sort of person the next director will be. Depending on his or her stance regarding S&G personnel, they could make your job a lot harder than it needs to be, through no fault of your own. You were merely the catalyst, Tony. None of it is your fault. You need to understand that."  


Tony rubbed his face with both hands. "Even so, I liked it there, and by talking to you, I've branded myself as a traitor." 


"I hate that aspect of fed mentality," Kinsdale said, sounding exasperated. "One more reason to consider your options. Besides, I thought you hated training probies?"


"I do, especially the ones who think they know everything, and I've got two of those." Tony's breath caught. "Fuck, Ziva. I forgot for a moment. She and Shepard are best buds. She'll kill me for this." 


Kinsdale snorted. "Ziva David will do no such thing. She is next on Beau's list. We'll handle her personally due to her relationship with Shepard. I'll say that it doesn't look good. Apparently, there are some irregularities with her access to the system. IA will figure it out." 


Tony groaned. "Yep, the NCIS avenue is definitely closed. I should probably take Israel off my to-see list, too. Just to make sure."


"Mossad won't dare to lay a hand on you," Kinsdale said. "The people in Israel adore Blair and would lynch anyone who laid a hand on someone under his protection. Besides, you have one year to figure out what you'd like to do, and during that year we'll manage your security." 


"Well, that's a comfort."


Kinsdale refused to be baited by Tony's sarcastic tone of voice. "I also know for a fact that several agencies are prepared to send you job offers as soon as we give the green light. You really don't have to stay with NCIS." He paused before admitting, "In fact, I'd consider it a personal favour if you could just forget about it." When Tony didn't reply, he cautiously prodded, "Tony?" 


"I'm pouting," Tony huffed. "And I'm sort of wigged out of my mind. Directors on a warpath and one of my team mates being questioned under suspicion of espionage-" 


"I didn't say it was about espionage," Kinsdale protested, although he sounded resigned.


Tony lolled his head back and threw him a look. "Please." 


Kinsdale admitted defeat gracefully and said, "Right. So, now that this interview is over," and he demonstratively stopped the recording, "what can we, in our function as S&G Center, do for you? Do you need Stacy to help you calm down? Or would you rather have a stiff drink? I'm not averse to one."


"Somewhere it's always five o'clock," Tony agreed, lolling his head back onto the back of the couch and resuming his staring at the ceiling. "So yes, please. To both of it. But most of all I'd like to not get any more unpleasant news in the foreseeable future."


"We'll do our very best," Kinsdale promised. "We'll have to keep you somewhat in the loop because of the ongoing investigations, but other than that we don't have to talk about it." 

 

"I appreciate it, Gavin." Tony watched Kinsdale get up and meander over to the small bar.


"Springbank alright?" Kinsdale asked. "I feel like having some smoke with my single malt." 


"Pour away," Tony replied gratefully. "On the rocks, if you have it. I probably shouldn't toss it back straight."


"Sure, no problem." A couple of ice cubes clinked into glasses and then Kinsdale carried two tumblers back to the couch. "Here. To you, for having the guts to go through with all of this, even if you didn't want to, and for playing the deduction game for the listeners of that tape. It was underhanded, I know, but I needed to find out what you knew and what you think about all of it." 


"Eh, it's not my first rodeo. To you, for cleaning up my portion of the NCIS mess," Tony countered. 


They tapped their glasses against each other and took a sip. 


"Good stuff," Tony declared, relaxing into the cushions and sprawling out a little. "Tell me, why do I feel so at home in your office?" 


"It's the guide whammy," Kinsdale said with a little smirk. "It doesn't do anything you don't really want it to do, so it's good to know that you're feeling safe here." 

 

"Mmh. Sure it's not hypnosis, or drugs?" 

 

Kinsdale chuckled. "Pretty sure. Your friend Dr. Pitt has told us in great detail how you react to most drugs and we've decided to give that particular experience a pass." 

 

"Good of you," Tony murmured. "So, the healing stuff will start tomorrow?" 

 

"Yes, at ten o'clock in the morning. We'll see how the time agrees with you. If the empathic healing makes you sleepy, we'll switch to evenings. If nothing else, it could improve the quality of your sleep." 

 

"I'll believe it when it happens." Tony toasted Kinsdale again and took another sip. "Hm, I could get used to this." 

 

"Next time I have to go all Alpha on you, I'll break out the Yamazaki." 

 

Tony's lips twitched in faint amusement. "Won't that make Potter jealous? I saw a katana in his office, it's not a stretch to assume that the Yamazaki is his favourite." 

 

"It is," Kinsdale acknowledged, "but he'll deal. He's having too much fun prowling through NCIS and telling people how much they have fucked up. That'll keep him happy for at least a couple of months."

 

"Cheers to that." 

 

Kinsdale returned the salute and together they allowed the whisky to smooth away the rough edges their talk had caused. 

 

 

End of part 1