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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

 

 

Chapter Text

Something Beautiful On The Horizon


Part 2



To Tony's immense surprise, time began to fly once a daily rhythm had been established. His healing wasn't going as smoothly as Kinsdale and his doctors had hoped, mainly because empathically tackling his issues in the mornings was a supremely bad thing for everyone involved. While the guide healer only got sleepy due to slogging through the morass, Tony was in the unenviable and exceedingly rare situation of actually living through the empathic impressions, again. 


It was a horror, to say the least, even if it only took two session to establish this as cold, hard fact and was stopped for the time being. 


Talk therapy went a lot better, surprisingly, and it didn't matter at all at what time the therapist scheduled the sessions. It didn't make up for the stalled empathic healing, but it did allow the therapist some level of flexibility that worked out well for both him and Tony. 


Before Tony knew it, a month had passed and he found himself in Kinsdale's office for a talk. 


"Hey Gavin. I'd say we've got to stop meeting like this, but then I'd be missing out on your fantastic whisky collection," Tony said with a grin. 


Kinsdale motioned for Tony to help himself to a drink. "It's just a quick, official check-in. Not exactly Yamazaki-worthy, but please don't let that stop you." 


Tony took him at his word and poured himself a finger. He raised the bottle for Kinsdale but put it back when the man shook his head slightly. Instead, Tony poured him a water and carried both glasses back to the desk. "So, what does this check-up entail?"


"First of all I want to make sure that you still feel comfortable in your room and have everything you need. I heard you brought your own pots and pans for your kitchenette." 


"Can't make pasta dishes without my nonna's cast iron pots," Tony replied and took a sip of his drink. "Now that I have them, are we still on for that dinner?" 


"Yes, of course." Kinsdale made a note on a checklist before taking a sip of water. "Larry is keeping me informed about your sessions, and he seems to think that you're off to a good start. What do you think? Is it as horrible as you've imagined, now that you have sat through a few sessions?" 


"Yes and no," Tony admitted. He sat in the visitor's chair and contemplated the amber liquid in his tumbler. "I don't mind the talking so much; it's the judging that's hard to come to terms with. Don't get me wrong; I like Larry and I do think that we work well together. It's just that I like him." 


"And you don't want him to think less of you," Kinsdale completed the sentence for Tony. "I understand. If at some point you think that the line between professional and personal relationship has blurred too much, please let us both know. It doesn't have to mean that Larry won't be able to work with you anymore, but your health comes first so we'll have to talk about it." 


"Okay." 


"Good. Next point: Stacy reports that her ability to shield you against the empathic encroachment from the other Center inhabitants remains consistent, and that you've stabilized a lot since your arrival. You're still close to coming online and are very sensitive to empathic noise, but it doesn't feel as urgent to her. I agree." 


"What does that mean?" Tony asked. "Will I need to move out?" 


Kinsdale shook his head. "No, of course not. While we like to keep slots open for people in need, this is what we were hoping for. You stabilizing gives us more time to set you to rights. I'm of the opinion that your emergence might come naturally once you're in a good enough place. Your natural protective instincts quite obviously help in that regard."


"You mean my cop instincts?" Tony asked, amused. 


"Those are nothing to sneeze at," Kinsdale replied with an answering grin. "On to your recreational activities. Beau was a bit surprised that you declined helping with the Roanoke case, even after we stopped the empathic healing." 


"I know, but I'm just not on an even keel yet." Tony let a sip of his whisky roll over his tongue. "Fun side of that fuck-up is that reliving that shit had me thinking of some older cases during my time as a cop, and I decided to get started on that cheap crime novel. Larry told me it's a good way to get that bottled up stuff out of my system. I'll see how far I come before I get bored." 


"Do you think you'll get bored?" Kinsdale asked. 


Tony shrugged. "I'm easily bored, and Paul keeps inviting me to train with him. I spend a lot of time in the gym." 


"It shows," Kinsdale said with an appreciative little once-over. "It's a good thing medical is monitoring your blood panel; it'd be easy to overdo it and use up your resources. You're still taking all of your vitamins and nutrients?" 


"All of Potter's people are watching me like hawks, they're worse than the doctors." Tony rolled his eyes and emptied his glass. "It's spooky to think that it'll only get worse." 


Kinsdale smirked as he made another note. "You've seen nothing, yet." Then, he grew serious. "How are your social contacts outside the Center? Have any of your work colleagues or friends contacted you?" 


"My frat brothers check in every week, and you were right, it was good to tell them. Ducky, our ME, calls every few days, and Jimmy and I had a Skype session last Wednesday. Other work colleagues occasionally write e-mails, but apparently Gibbs is a bear and rides the agency hard, so there's little time for that. It's still good to talk to all of them."


"I'm glad," Kinsdale said. "You haven't said anything about Jeremy ... are you still feeling resistant to contacting him?" 


"Yes, and I feel like a coward." Tony sighed. "I feel better now and I've thought about him a lot, but I just can't bring myself to call him." 


"Why not e-mail him?" Kinsdale asked. 


"It'd be so impersonal and he deserves better. And yes, I know that this makes me sound dumb." Tony raised anxious eyes to Kinsdale. "How can I resolve this? It isn't like me to put off stuff like this."


"I can only speculate, but it seems to me like you simply know your friend very well. If e-mail won't comfort him, and a phone talk would stress you, then you're in a difficult position, indeed. What would you want to happen, Tony?" 


Tony swallowed. "I'd want to see him. It's not a good idea because of his feelings, I know that, but everything else seems wrong." 


"And skyping won't do the trick?" Kinsdale asked.


"Then I'd actually have to talk to him," Tony complained, frowning. "I don't even know what about. I don't want to make it even worse." 


"Maybe you should try, one of these days," Kinsdale said quietly. "By not talking to him, you might not make it worse, but you also won't make it any better."


"Whatever I end up doing won't be enough." 


"You don't know that," Kinsdale argued. "But, even if he's still angry, wouldn't it be better to know?" 


"No. I'm very good at denial," Tony said with a straight face, relishing in Kinsdale's choke on his water. "I could teach classes." 


"You're an asshole, DiNozzo," Kinsdale huffed and tried to mop up the spilled water with the sleeve of his shirt. "I bet you a hundred that denial makes up at least a fifth of your Mount Doom." 


"It's a sucker's bet and I won't take it." Tony sighed again. "Seriously, what do I do, Gavin? I don't want to hurt him, but I don't want to hurt myself either." 


"I don't think there's a solution to your dilemma," Kinsdale said. "You just have to do it." 


Tony glared at him crossly. "You're supposed to be on my side." 


"I am. After you've finally decided one way or the other," Kinsdale retorted mildly, though there was a devilish twinkle in his eyes. 


Yep, Tony liked all of the assholes here way too much. 


oOo


It took another two weeks of talking to his therapist, but Tony finally felt settled enough to attempt a Skype session with Jeremy. He'd sent a message first to find out whether Jeremy would even want to talk to him. 


He had wanted to. 


And now Tony was quietly freaking out. 


The Skype jingle jarred his nerves and then, very suddenly, the screen showed Jeremy's clean-shaven face. He looked like he was still at work, his hair artfully mussed, and he was wearing shirt and tie. 


"Hi," Tony said thickly. 


Jeremy stared for a moment before returning the greeting. "It's been a while. You look good, Tone." 


"Not much to do but eat well and exercise where I am," Tony said, trying for humorous. 


Jeremy didn't look like he wanted to be amused. "Are you online now?" 


"Cutting right to the chase, then. I can do that." Tony's stomach clenched and above his eyes his forehead began to smart. They had barely begun and it was already going wrong.


"Well?" Jeremy pressed.


"Not yet. Jeremy ..." Tony stopped, not knowing what to say. 


"Why have you called?" Jeremy asked. "As pretty as you are, I'd rather not stare at you right now."


Tony swallowed around the lump in his throat. "Why are you angry with me?" 


Jeremy's bland politeness vanished and a fierce scowl descended on his face. "You left, Tony! Our first holiday together in seven months and you cut it short because you're coming online!" 


"I had to," Tony replied, overlooking the fact that Jeremy had sent him off without telling him any of this. "Jesus, Jer, what do you think I'm doing here? I didn't leave you behind because I wanted to. I left because Blair told me that me coming online out there could be traumatic, and that I should do everything I could to avoid it. For me and for the others at the resort." 


"How convenient," Jeremy said, and the bitterness in his voice was like a slap to Tony's face. "But Sandburg was wrong. I may not be a sentinel, but we could've gotten through it together. Many guides have mundane partners, it wouldn't have been strange at all. With me there, it wouldn't have been traumatic. How could it?" 


"I don't think you understand," Tony murmured, rubbing his throbbing temples. 


"I think I understand very well." 


"You do?" Tony took his hand away, which was a mistake. The tension around his eyes came back with a vengeance.


Jeremy scoffed. "Let's not play games. You don't trust me with this, Tony, and I'd like to know why. What happened? Why am I suddenly not enough anymore?" 


That question was the mother of all minefields and Tony was beginning to really regret his decision to make this call. 


He obviously hesitated too long, because Jeremy fairly erupted


"Fuck you, Tony!" he snarled. "For years I've tried to be what you want and need! A weekend away in the mountains? You got it. Getting away during Spring Break for some marathon fucking? Yes, sir. Helping you cope after your partner was murdered? Sure, because that meant I could be close to you. Explain to me why is this any different! Tell me why I'm suddenly not good enough to support you!" 


A wave of resentment crashed into Tony and stole his breath away. "Jer-" 


"No, let's have it out," Jeremy said. "You see, I've made peace with the fact that you'd never be there for me like I am for you. Your fucking job will kill you one day and I fucking tried to be okay with that. For you."


"You should've said," Tony forced out, his whole chest tight and crushing in on him. 


"And what? Have you run for the hills?" Jeremy's laughter was ugly. "God, I love you, you idiot, and for one glorious second I'd hoped that this would be my chance. My chance to prove to you that we fit without me having to say a single word. But guess what? You ran away after Blair fucking Sandburg talked to you about trauma. As if I didn't help you through a shit ton of that already!"


The pain in Tony's chest became unbearable and his vision whitened out for a moment.


"Are you even listening to me?" Jeremy demanded. "Talk to me, you asshole! It's the least you can do!" 


Tony gasped for air as his stomach began to cramp as well. 


Then, with a loud snap, everything stopped and Tony was lost in mellow blackness. 


oOo


Tony came to, to the dulcet sounds of Dean Martin's greatest hits. 


"Good morning, sunshine," Potter greeted him. He plucked something from the bedside table and put it on Tony's forehead. "A cooling pad for the headache. How are you?" 


"Shitty," Tony said hoarsely. He looked around, dismayed to realize that he'd been brought to the infirmary. "What happened?" 


"Your asshole friend laid into you like a jealous wife and you went down like a ton of bricks," Potter said. "The crazy thing about that? He was in Sacramento at the time. Business trip. Gavin has no idea how you managed to pick up his emotional attack." 


Groaning, Tony closed his eyes again. "'twas my fault." 


"The hell it was, DiNozzo." Potter poured some water into a sippy cup and helped Tony to a few gulps. "That guy was way out of line, especially since he knew how sensitive you are. Gavin has reported him and no, you will not be able to bail that asshole out." 


"I'm the asshole," Tony insisted. "I should've noticed how he felt." He rubbed his chest and grimaced. "He said he loves me."


Potter shoved his hand away and placed his own over Tony's sternum. Like a miracle, the residual pain lessened until it was barely notable. "Maybe you are an asshole. So what? He could've manned up and told you what was going on, never mind that he has a very funny way of showing his affection. People who expect their very obviously incompatible friends to change to suit them, deliberately set themselves up for disappointment."


"What are you doing?" Tony asked drowsily. "Why's the pain going away?" 


A look of pity crossed Potter's face. "You've got sentinel longing, bud. Your sensitivity is a real piece of work. I'm merely helping to stave it off a little." 


"Well, shit." Tony slumped back. "But thanks."


oOo


Sentinel longing was the single most annoying thing Tony had ever suffered through, and that included wading through the sewers handcuffed to a nearly dead man and spending time in rehab after the plague, or having to work with people who didn't want to learn the tricks of the trade. The longing was always there, a dull, gentle, but oh so persistent throb behind his sternum that was driving him bonkers. 


"Make it stop," Tony implored when Gavin finally found the time to have a private talk with him. "Or at least give me the good drugs. Please!" 


Kinsdale sighed. "I can't do that, Tony. It'd be unethical to simply knock you out." 


"I'd sign every waiver known to mankind," Tony whined. "It's making me nuts! I can't concentrate and Larry is ready to halt our sessions because I can't sit still." 


Kinsdale flinched a little when Tony rubbed his chest yet again. "I'm so sorry. We've never once heard of a guide developing sentinel longing before their emergence. We simply don't know how to help you through this, other than having a sentinel close by to provide some relief." 


"That would give some of the guys the wrong impression and believe me, I'm all about giving everyone the right fucking impression from now on," Tony snapped. He took a deep breath. "Wow. I'm sorry. I kind of hate myself right now. It's infuriating after all the time you spent teaching me to love myself better." 


"It's not exactly a setback, though," Kinsdale offered. "It highlights how unique you are, and your path might make it easier for someone with similar gifts in the future. And you now know where you stand with Jeremy."


"Yeah, he loved me so fucking much that he started hating me the second he truly realized that he can't have me." Tony still wasn't over that, and probably would never really manage that particular feat. "Potter and the guys are being nice about it and keep telling me that it probably was my instinct keeping him at arm's length. Who knows, maybe that's even true. Right now I'm still feeling like a jerk, and also really, really incompetent. I should've fucking noticed."


"Oh, Tony." 


"That's on me and I accept my part in this clusterfuck, but damn it. Why does it have to be that way?" Tony griped. "Poor Stacy doesn't even go home anymore because the effing encroachment is always effing there."


Kinsdale cocked his head, looking at Tony speculatively. "Has Blair begun to talk to you about kismet, yet? About fate?" 


Tony was horrified. "No." 


"Well, he probably will, now." At Tony's grimace, Kinsdale laughed quietly. "Just giving you a warning. He does believe in karma and the hand of fate, and more often than not ... well. Let's just say that we have cause to believe that nature does provide every now and then. Sometimes quite spectacularly." 


"I have no idea what that means, or how that pertains to me, and right now, I'm fresh out of fucks to give. Please tell me there's something I can do so I can at least continue with Larry?" 


"I'll see what we can come up with," Kinsdale promised. He grinned. "Even if your newly developed potty mouth is a constant source of amusement around here."


oOo


By coming up with something Kinsdale obviously meant getting Tony out of the Center. Security was a nightmare because sentinels began to sniff Tony out on the streets, but other than that, Tony felt like he'd shed a burden, or lost a shackle from his ankle. 


"You're a lot calmer," Paul commented as they sped down the I-66 W to Bull Run Regional Park for a bit of easy hiking. "We should've taken you out more." 


"I didn't really want to go out before now," Tony said. He stared at the passing landscape. The only hour-long ride seemed to stretch on once they'd left the city behind. "But it's good to get out now. I haven't been to the park once since moving here." 


"You'll like it, I'm sure." Stacy next to him pulled a bag of trail mix out of her pack. "Next time, we can spend a night." 


"Let's see how the weather fares," Paul said. "It's getting cold and we have to take Tony's lungs into account." 


"The mid-sixties are still fine," Tony assured them. He glanced out of the rear window to see if the second half of their team was still following. "It's the wetness that's the problem." 


They made good time and arrived around ten. Paul paid their fee, everyone used the bathroom and stocked up on water and whatever snacks they wanted, and then they set off on a five mile trail that would take them through the woods on broad paths. Their support team tailed them without making it obvious.


As they walked, Paul showed Tony and Stacy plants and animals and told them a little about the history of the park. Tony enjoyed the hours in the forest with its spectacularly flaming Indian Summer colouring immensely, even though he was a city boy through and through. The calm appealed to him, as did the clean air, and for the first time, the unpleasant pressure in his chest eased enough to let him breathe fully again.


Too soon, early evening came and the group set off back home. Tony couldn't account for the unbearable feeling of sadness as they drove east, although Paul's offer to go find a good Italian restaurant for pizza before they returned to the Center certainly cheered him up. 


The restaurant was in Georgetown and all six of them got a table right away. The server was an unbonded sentinel that spent more time ogling Stacy and Tony than taking their orders. It took Paul's growl to snap the kid out of it. 


"It's still weird when that happens," Tony said, pulling apart a piece of bread. "How do you stand it, Stacy?" 


She shrugged. "I'm a woman, so I'm used to it, and he didn't give off any danger vibes. Sentinels rarely do. I think he was more perplexed by liking to look at you, actually. You're not exactly giving off protect-me-vibes." 


Paul smirked. "Some of us do like to be chased every now and then." 


Stacy laughed. "It's rare, admit it." 


They bickered until their pizza arrived, and after there was enthusiastic eating and more or less voluntary trading of slices. 


Tony, who had eaten his pizza traditionally folded and out of his hand, got up to wash his oily fingers. 


"I'll be right back," he said. "Order me some tiramisu and espresso, yeah?" 


"Will do," Paul said, stealing an olive from his mate Jake's plate. 


After all the talk at the table, the silence in the bathroom felt like bliss. Tony washed his hands and decided to use the bathroom while he was at it. 


He'd barely stepped into a cubicle when he heard someone else enter the restroom. Immediately, a sense of malice and violence clamped down on Tony, choking him.


"Well? Where is it?" a rough voice whispered. "You know they'll only pay if its legit." 


"Yeah, yeah, hold your horses," a second voice hissed. Short rustling indicated that something had been taken from a pocket. "Here it is. It won't work for me, maybe you'll have better luck. But it's legit. I saw it being handled myself." 


Tony couldn't believe his bad luck. What kind of amateurs were those guys? He had literally been going into the bathroom the minute before them! Any criminal worth their salt would have noticed, or at least checked the cubicles!


"It better." Rough-voice snatched whatever it was they were talking about. After a moment he said, "No, it doesn't work." 


"It does," the second man insisted. "Find someone else to try!" 


"I'm the best of them. If it won't work for me, it's crap." The rough voice dropped menacingly and the sickening sense of foreboding threatened to stifle Tony. "Did you want to get one over me? Huh?" 


"Of course not! You've no idea how hard it was to smuggle it out! Give it back; I want my money!" A short scuffle indicated that the unlucky would-be-seller had snatched the item in question back.


"Forget it. Leave your little forgery and piss off before I decide to rearrange your organs."


Tony scowled, even as he fought to control his breathing. That much menace had no business in the real world. Typical, shit like this always happened to him when he was alone and unarmed. He didn't even have his badge anymore, having turned it in after his sabbatical had finally been officially recognized. Where the hell was his security when he actually needed them?


"Paul! Guys! Red alert!" he whispered urgently, hoping that Paul would pick it up.


"You forget it," the other man threatened, thankfully unaware of Tony's frantic whispers. "Give me the money and I won't kill you for trying to pull this shit. Or, if you're not interested anymore, get out of my way."


The snick of a butterfly knife being opened, combined with the crystal clear intent to do harm if necessary, had Tony jump into action, backup or no. He burst out of his cubicle, bellowing, "NCIS! Drop the knife!" 


The man holding the knife flinched, but the other one, a heavy-set guy with dark hair and eyes, sneered, pulled a gun out from under his leather jacket and immediately fired. 


He hit the man with the knife in the shoulder even as the guy tried to duck - and wasn't that just peachy that knife-guy obviously had been trained for combat situations, the way he moved. The thing he'd been trying to sell was clattering down and away into the cubicle Tony had just deserted. 


"Stop right there," Tony ordered, hands up and slightly shifting in front of the injured man. "There's a sentinel team outside, you don't want to kill anyone. Be smart." 


"Oh, I am smart, NCIS," the man sneered. "I have a partner waiting for me. He's keeping your men busy. Hear that?" 


Shots rang out in the dining room and people began to scream.


"Fuck," Tony muttered.


"Yes. Fuck." The man grinned nastily. He took a moment to decide who to shoot first, and that moment saved Tony's life. The door to the restroom burst open and two of Tony's sentinels stormed in. They fearlessly tackled the man, trying to disarm him as they fell. 


Unfortunately, the gun-toting guy was well trained and fired before Paul and his partner could throw him down. The shot was deafening in the small, tiled room and the man crouching on the floor next to Tony jerked. A terrible groan cut through the sudden stillness.


"Shit!" Tony cried. He scrambled up, found the entry wound on the left side of the man's chest and immediately tore his shirt off to stem the flow of blood. "Call an ambulance!" 


"Already on the way," Paul said. He sat on the shooter while his friend tied the man's hands with cable binder. "He's dying, Tony. He's rapidly bleeding out. Look around you." 


Tony didn't want to, but he did it anyway. He couldn't even feel shock at the steadily growing puddle of blood around knife guy's torso. 


The man tried to speak, barely managing a sound through all the blood that was bubbling out of his mouth. His greying face was contrasting sharply with the blood's rich colour.


"I'm sorry," Tony told him. "I'm so sorry." 


The man's hand twitched towards the cubicle, reaching for the damn gadget that had started the whole shit show. Even now shots rang out in the restaurant, although the screaming had largely stopped.


"Stay with him," Paul instructed. "We'll take our guy outside. Jake will take over once the disturbance out there is dealt with." 


As they shuffled out, Tony held the man's grasping hand. "You can't be serious about that thing," he whispered. "Save your strength!"


The gurgling sounds were horrifying, but even worse were the glassy eyes. Tony decided that he didn't want to be that asshole to deny a dying man his last wish and dove for the stupid thing. 


"A fountain pen? Are you kidding me?" He grabbed it and started when a blue light shone from one end. Shaking his head, he got back to the man's side and showed it to him. "What do you want with it?" 


The man managed to point a feeble finger at himself. 


"You want it? Why? You think the light is pretty or something?" Tony shook his head, incredulous. "Fine. I'll help you hold it. Whatever floats your boat, buddy." He sat with the man, adrenaline crashing now. Tony felt miserable, lying in someone's blood and waiting for them to die. At least the blue light was indeed really pretty, so maybe it'd been worth it to get it for the dumb idiot next to him after all. "Man, where's the ambulance? And where the fuck is Jake?" 


He got no answers and the following minutes seemed like bleak years to him. Stacy must've been busy calming the guests in the dining room down because Tony felt the dying man's fear and desperation reaching for him. He tried to counter the avalanche of empathic encroachment by thinking positive thoughts, like the taste of the dessert he'd almost ordered, or the crisp coolness of the beer he surely deserved once this was over.


"Just breathe," he instructed quietly, relieved when the pressure on his empathic sense of self lessened a little. "You're doing astoundingly well, man. If you keep it up, you might just walk away ... well, I say walk, which is a bit generous, what with you smuggling this thing and everything. That's a court martial just waiting to happen. But hey, you'll be alive!" 


The man's breath rattled, but it did sound a bit better than before. 


Outside the bathroom, a little commotion started. Tony caught the short conversation between Paul and at least two paramedics. 


"Keep it up," Tony said, squeezing the man's bloody fingers. "Help has arrived." 


"Keep ..." the guy coughed out pink spit. 


"Yeah, buddy, keep it up. Keep breathing." Tony started when the guy became restless and pointed a weak finger at the penlight. 


"Keep ... it," the man insisted. "Hide." 


Keep me. Hide me.


The door swung open and Tony reacted before he knew what he was doing. The penlight vanished in his pant pocket before anyone could see what he was doing. 


"He's alive!" one of the paramedics exclaimed as he rushed in. "Is he tracking? Sir! Do you know your blood type?" Over his shoulder, he called out instructions to his partner. 


Tony helped by carefully tugging out the wallet from the injured man's pant pocket and handing it to Paul for bagging after checking the contents. "His name is Thaddeus Myer, blood type AB-negative. He's got a key card for Cheyenne Mountain, and going by his looks I'd say he's definitely military. They might miss him already." 


"Any idea what he was doing here?" Paul asked, wisely staying out of the way but hovering as close as he could. "I heard a bit of what they were saying before the first shot fell and the other guy's partner started taking hostages." 


"And shooting at you," Tony said wearily. He scooted backwards when the paramedic demanded more space. "Jesus. You'll never allow me out again." 


Paul snorted. "Gibbs warned us about your special brand of luck. He didn't exaggerate. Come on, let's get you out of here. Your boy lost it ... happens when people are about to die but I don't need to smell it any more than I have to." 


Tony wrinkled his nose, but couldn't muster the energy to feel disgusted. After a glance at his bloody clothes, arms and hands he sighed, "I look like hell."


Paul patted Tony down for hidden injuries, frowning at a couple of scrapes Tony had sustained while crawling around in narrow cubicles. It only took a few seconds. "One of the uniforms outside is willing to loan you some sweats and a hoodie. Come on."


"God, thanks. The blood is getting tacky." 


Tony allowed Paul to drag him outside and push him into the employee bathroom to get cleaned up a little. Tony made use of the few minutes alone to hide the glow stick that was still chanting hide me, keep me at him. 


It felt a bit like going crazy, only that he was remarkably clear-headed. 


Tony stuck the thing into the elastic of his left sock and pulled the leg of his borrowed sweats over it, trapping it with two layers of fabric and elastic bands. The penlight was small, just like a fountain pen, and didn't hinder him in the least. He hoped that it would be enough to hide it from the sentinels. 


Of course the police wanted to question him since he was the primary witness to the altercation. When they learned that he was an off-duty NCIS agent, he could practically feel the respect of the officer conducting the interview rise a few levels. 


"Tough luck that it went bad, but the way I see it, there's nothing you could've done differently," the officer said once they were done. "You couldn't have known that that one would pull a gun, or that he had a partner to keep his exit open. Still a shame that you couldn't see what it was all about. Maybe it's data or something, that's always a bitch to process." 


"It still galls me that I couldn't prevent it," Tony admitted and rubbed his temples. "Sorry. I'm residing at the D.C. Center right now and it's all a bit much. Empathic encroachment and all that crap." 


"Emerging as a guide, eh? My sister went through it last summer. Went quick enough, but dude, I'm not getting anything past her now." The officer laughed. "We're done here for now. We'll contact the Center if we need to talk to you again. Get some rest and get your mojo straight or whatever you guys need to do." 


"Thanks," Tony murmured. 


Stacy stepped up to him and threaded her arm through his. "You feel terrible." 


"Yeah. That guy nearly died ... now I understand the definition of the word trauma." 


She sighed softly. "I'm sorry that you always seem to get baptized by fire, Tony. And I know that nothing will make this right for a while, but ... well, I asked the kitchen to pack us some of their divine tiramisu to go, and they gave us the whole dish for free." 


Tony chuckled a little wetly. "Great." 


"Saving lives must come with some rewards," she said primly and smiled when he laughed. "Now come and escort me to our car. I'm emotionally compromised and need someone to comfort me." 


"I thought you'd comfort me now," Tony said, morbidly amused. 


"We will comfort each other," Stacy promised, "and I'll show you how. Come." 


They retreated into their car while the four sentinels gave their statements. Stacy told Tony to get as comfortable as he could. 


"Close your eyes," she said softly. "Even out your breathing. Imagine in your own way how you're shaking off the bad stuff that has happened tonight." 


"How are you doing that?" Tony asked, obediently closing his eyes. 


"I love water, so I'm thinking of standing under a beautiful waterfall. The water takes everything away. It might take a while, but it's gentle and fresh." She paused to take a deep breath. "Do you have trouble finding your way?" 


"Gavin tried to teach me after the thing with Jeremy," Tony said, "but I don't think I'm doing it right." 


"Why?" 


"I keep thinking of ..." He trailed off and blushed. "It's stupid." 


"No, please. It's bothering you, and keeping you from doing one of the basic exercises for guides." 


Tony tried to find the right words. "I, well, I see myself surrounded by ... stuff. Food, mostly, but sometimes it's staples for cooking, like flour, or sugar, or freshly roasted coffee beans. Mountains of it, and it's kind of my go-to. I can't explain it, but it's what my stupid mind is conjuring up when I try to do this." 


Stacy tapped his knee to make him look at her. "First of all, your mind is not stupid. It's your mind, and it's clearly telling you what you need. It won't serve you not to trust yourself." She smiled impishly. "However, your preoccupation with food might be a topic for Larry." 


"I love good food," Tony said, unashamed. "Back when I was still having contact to the Italian side of the family, cooking with my nonna was the best thing, full stop. She taught me how to knead pasta dough on her antique wooden kitchen table, and how to cook real bologna sauce. Nonno's pizza oven was the thing of legend and the house was always full with neighbours when it was pizza day. No one who's ever put fresh buffalo mozzarella onto their own dough will eat frozen pizza ever again." 


"Sounds lovely," Stacy said and her sincerity eased over Tony like a soothing balm. "So, why don't you just go with the flow. Let your mind tell you how to chuck the dark stuff. Seems like this will up your vibration quite nicely, as well. Double win! Come, let's try again." 


"Okay." Tony closed his eyes again and allowed the vision of rising mountains of fresh coffee beans around him to come forward. His breathing slowed and deepened. 


"Can you pick up my frequency?" Stacy asked softly. She hummed. "I think I can feel you, Tony. There, that you?" 


Her empathic touch bloomed brightly a little to Tony's left field of imaginary vision. "Yeah, that's me. Hey." He somehow managed to reach out to her and pulled her into his bath of fragrant coffee beans. At the same time, the cool, refreshing sensation of swimming through a natural pond with the clearest water rushed over him. "Man, that's freaky." 


She laughed. "Your imagination is a wonderland. Smells wonderful!" 


Her rising good mood tugged Tony along and he allowed himself to put the shock of the night behind him. "Your little secret waterfall pond isn't half bad, either. We should have cocktails." 


Now that they were fully linked it wasn't hard at all to imagine two large glasses with colourful drinks and frilly little umbrellas. Tony's smelled of melon and Stacy's of coconut. Together, they breathed and giggled and pushed out all the unpleasantness that sullied their minds. 


A knock on the door woke them up. 


"You ready to leave?" Paul asked. 


"Yep, all raring to go," Tony answered. 


"You sound and smell relaxed, but I can ask the bosses to meet you after our debrief is done." 


"Thanks, but if it can wait until tomorrow, I'd rather just go to sleep." 


Paul shrugged. "Fine by me and I think they'll agree. If that changes, I'll let you know." 


Tony nodded his thanks. Only minutes later all six of them were accounted for and on their way and reached the Center in less than thirty minutes. 


"Go take a shower, Tony," Stacy said encouragingly. "The man lives, and the hospital will tell us if that changes. I made them promise."


This reassurance actually helped to completely detach himself from the situation, even though it was paradoxical. Not even having stolen evidence could shake that bone-deep relief. Tony bade everyone goodnight, retreated to his room to wash off the blood and sweat, and afterwards held the penlight thing, twirling it around his fingers and basking in its eager, comforting blue light until he nodded off in front of the TV. 


oOo


Of course Potter and Kinsdale wanted to talk to him about the shooting. It was weird for Tony to meet them both in Kinsdale's office, as it was very much Kinsdale's space. 


"We can't take you anywhere," Potter said with a little smirk. "How are you doing? Were you able to sleep?" 


"I've been in law enforcement for more than a decade," Tony said with an eye roll. "It wasn't great, but I won't have a psychotic break over the nearly dead guy. Both guys, actually. I fucking hate sociopaths."


"The shooter's name is Harold Burns. His partner was Vincent Browning. Browning didn't survive the attack," Potter began. "You know the name of your guy. He survived the night and his doctors are fairly confident that he'll pull through." 


Tony's very first reaction was relief, followed by guilt. Here he sat, withholding the number one piece of evidence to the investigation because a stranger and the evidence itself asked him to. The latter one in his head, even. 


No, he didn't feel sanguine about any of this. 


"Who were the trigger happy guys?" he asked. 


Potter glanced at him, no doubt having noticed Tony's discomfort. "Since none of the primary parties involved are sentinels or guides, the D.C. SGIU won't be able to tell us much. They could, however, tell me that neither Burns nor Browning were using their real names, and that both of them were receiving regular and generous payments through a dummy firm the IT guys could trace to the Caymans." 


Tony stared at him. "Are you for real?" 


"It gets even better, and this part was told to us in confidence. In the middle of the night, half a dozen Air Force guys appeared at the PD, waving around paperwork declaring Burns and Browning their problem," Potter said dryly. "The officers there aren't stupid, they double-checked the contact data and called the provided number. Turned out the paperwork was legit and off those guys trot, shooters and evidence in tow.


"The Air Force?" Tony asked. "What the hell? Myer was a flyboy?" 


"Better yet, he was a marine, so NCIS should've had jurisdiction," Potter finished his little tale. "Of course the officers asked about that, but the Air Force guys told the guys at the PD exactly nothing. They were in and out in less than ten minutes and they had the firepower to back up their claim, too. Whatever those two men were after, it must've been immensely important or valuable to our government." 


Tony couldn't for the life of him come up with a reason why a glorified glow stick was worth killing over. "And Burns said nothing?"


"Not a peep. According to my listeners he was smugly superior until this Colonel Mitchell appeared. Then, he was apparently panicking in a vicious manner. Fiona's words, not mine. She believes that she and Geraldine witnessed a Class A government cover-up, just like the movies." 


Kinsdale smirked. "Fiona Oliphant is our liaison at the Sentinel and Guide Investigative Unit. She and her partner went out last night to get intel on the case. Her imagination tends to run a little high but if she says that something fishy is going on, then I believe her." 


"Sounds plenty fishy," Tony agreed. He was intrigued despite himself. "Who's this Colonel Mitchell? Any idea where he's stationed or what he's doing?"


"None. They might want to talk to you," Kinsdale warned. "Should they come calling, you'll meet them here, with Beau and me as witnesses and at least four sentinels for security. There won't be a second vanishing act." 


"Thanks, guys." Tony rotated his shoulders a little to loosen the tense muscles of his neck. "Now what?" 


"Now you'll tell us everything about your trip," Kinsdale said. "Tell me how you liked the hike; I know that you're not really the outdoorsy type." 


Tony wondered why that was so important but indulged Kinsdale. It wasn't hard talking about his impressions, and to his surprise, he didn't even have to rehash the disastrous dinner. 


"Sounds like you all had a good time," Kinsdale said when Tony was done. "Bull Run is great for getting away from the city. Beau has yearly survival camps there to solidify trust among the pride. Everyone is invited. Perhaps you'll join us for the next one." 


"Perhaps," Tony said. 


Kinsdale smiled. "Good. Even better, you barely mentioned the sentinel longing." 


"I didn't?" Tony rubbed his chest were the ache was pulling at him. 


"No, you didn't." Kinsdale leaned back in his chair and regarded Tony with affection. "There could be many reasons for that. The fresh air might have balanced you, ditto the exercise. But the easiest and most probable explanation is the location." 


"The location, really? I was barely out of D.C., and I don't hate the city that much," Tony said sceptically. 


"If I'm right, and I think I am, it was enough." 


"Which means that Gavin will start experimenting on you now," Potter said. "Prepare yourself for lots and lots of road trips."


Between Potter's schadenfreude and Kinsdale's quietly smug grin, Tony could only shake his head.


oOo

 

Of course the Air Force came calling. Tony had known it would happen as soon as Potter spoke the words, only maybe not on the very next day. Not knowing how much time he'd have, he spent quite a few minutes that night with thoroughly sanitizing the strange little penlight before putting it in a ziplock baggy and stuffing it into the coffee bean compartment of his espresso machine to further destroy the scent trail. It wasn't perfect at all, but it would have to do.

 

As an afterthought, Tony told it, "If they come snooping, don't go all glowy or chatty. I'd rather not vanish in some deep, dark hole, yeah? Thanks." 

 

He caught an empathic little twinge that felt decidedly sulky, but also accepting. 

 

Tony chose not to think any more of it, just in case the Air Force employed people who could read minds. After what was going on with himself, he had become a lot more open-minded to the gifts sentinels and guides could possess.

 

He also decided that he needed to give meditation a lot more credit, because staying calm under pressure obviously would be vital from this point forward. A sentinel was nothing like a gullible little mundane mafia crook, especially not a sentinel trained by the military. In fact, he could only hope that Potter and Kinsdale wouldn't rat him out, because they would surely notice.

 

oOo

 

The next morning, around eleven, Colonel Mitchell and two associates strolled into the Center lobby. The colonel looked good in his uniform, although his companions, a civilian named Dr. Daniel Jackson, and a huge, black guy Tony was told to call Murray, were both startlingly attractive in their own right. Especially Jackson was giving off strange vibes that were calling to Tony like sirens' song. 


He found himself sneaking guilty glances at the handsome doctor, wishing he knew what to do with this rather unexpected and fatal attraction. Right now, none of their visitors could be called friendly, after all.


At least, none of them were sentinels or guides, which did seem like a gross oversight but one Tony figured they'd somehow make up with other means.


Introductions over with and very aware of the many curious eyes and ears in the lobby, Kinsdale politely invited them into their most secure conference room, stationed security at both exits, and offered coffee and pastries before they began.

 

"I'm sure you all know why we're here," Mitchell said, mercifully not beating around the bush. "Yesterday evening, during an altercation between two men in an Italian restaurant in Georgetown, a valuable object got lost. As Agent DiNozzo witnessed the whole thing, we'd like to know whether he has information about its whereabouts." 

 

Tony, having spent a good part of last night thinking long and hard about what he wanted to tell them, replied, "I'm sorry, no. I was in a cubicle when the two men entered. I remember thinking that they must be particularly dumb criminals because they didn't even check for listeners. They began to argue pretty much immediately because whatever it was Myer wanted to sell wouldn't turn on for Burns." He shrugged. "Burns threatened Myer to kill him if he didn't hand over the thing. Myer refused."

 

"And this was when you decided to reveal yourself?" Mitchell asked. 

 

Tony sighed. "Yes, Myer had a butterfly blade and was prepared to use it. To be fair, he wanted to leave the scene, not provoke a fatal attack. I'm on a sabbatical because of my emergence, so I didn't have my badge or weapon. I thought my presence would be enough to stop the argument and send them on their way." 

 

"But it didn't," Jackson said, his compassion radiating out and licking against Tony. 

 

Tony couldn't help but push his gratitude back at the man. "No, unfortunately not. Burns immediately drew a concealed weapon and shot Myer in the right shoulder." 

 

"Did Burns try to get what he came for at that point, Tony DiNozzo?" Murray asked in a deep voice. 

 

"No. In fact, he was going to shoot both of us. He'd have gotten whatever he was there to buy afterwards, I should think. His partner was in the dining room, keeping everyone away from the bathroom." Tony paused. "Well, he tried. They had no idea that I'd been there with four fully trained sentinel security guards and another guide, who immediately worked to secure the guests and apprehend Burns and Browning." 

 

"So at no point did you see the object of their argument?" Mitchell asked. 

 

And there was it, the moment of the outright lie. Tony gave it his best, facial and body expression as well as his breathing perfectly schooled. Empathically he sort of coasted along on an imagined baseline and hoped that it would be enough to throw Kinsdale off his scent.

 

Shaking his head and regretfully answered in the affirmative. "May I ask what it was?" he asked. "What was so important that Burns was ready to kill two people over it in cold blood?"

 

"I'm afraid that's classified," Mitchell said smoothly. "Daniel, you got any more questions?" 

 

Daniel's eyes rested on Tony and he cocked his head slightly. "Not exactly questions, but I'd like to spend a little while here before we move on, if that's okay."

 

Kinsdale looked at Mitchell. "Once you leave this room, the questioning is over. Tony will not leave this Center, and you won't coerce him into signing anything." A touch of his guide voice made it clear that he was serious.

 

"Easy, Alpha," Mitchell said calmly. "It's lunch time and Dr. Jackson's probably hungry. Center food is always a treat." 

 

"I am. Agent DiNozzo can show me to the dining area," Jackson said, getting up. 

 

"Can I?" Tony asked, now definitely amused. Jackson seemed so mild-mannered and polite, but he obviously wasn't afraid to do as he pleased when he put his mind to it. 


Mitchell had that long-suffering yet fond look of acceptance on his face that meant that he cared enough about his team to let them run roughshod over him when it wasn't a life or death situation. "Yeah, yeah. The interview is over. Get your lunch, Daniel, before you start gnawing on one of us."

 

Potter smirked. "Good, then let's break this up. Oh, and DiNozzo? Remember the switch." 

 

Tony was puzzling over that until Jackson, looking unfairly handsome in his leather jacket and dark jeans, had talked him into getting something to go from the lunch buffet and going to Tony's room because the dining room was too noisy for a talk. Once they were inside, however, the last thing on Jackson's mind was talking, never mind eating. He grabbed Tony by the scruff of his shirt, slammed him against the door and proceeded to snog the stuffing out of him. 


Oh, Tony thought, realizing that Jackson apparently was very good at hiding his attraction from other people. Well, then!

 

He remembered to flip the switch. 

 

oOo

 

Potter couldn't stop smirking at him when the Air Force contingent had left the Center in the early afternoon. 


"How was it?" he asked as he closed the door to Kinsdale's office and flipped on the white noise generator. "That guy was a lot more buff than your ex." 

 

Tony blushed. "Shut up. Daniel is a beautiful force of nature. And he has magic fingers, I swear. I'll never be the same." 

 

Kinsdale laughed. "He is definitely something else, but I wonder why he was so fixated on you. Did he tell you?" 

 

The heat spread from Tony's face to his neck and chest. "We didn't talk much. He just knew that we'd click, and that was that. I got the feeling that he doesn't often allow himself to have what he wants or needs, and I thought why the hell not. As I said, he's beautiful." A wave of shame travelled through him. "Was that out of line?" 

 

Kinsdale was quick to reassure him. "No, of course not. The interview was over and it was clearly Dr. Jackson who pursued you. If it was good, I'm satisfied. We're just a little surprised, is all."

 

"I'm still a lot surprised," Tony confessed. "Even if it was awesome." 

 

"Will you see him again?" Potter asked, leaning against Kinsdale's bar like a mean bouncer. 

 

Tony quirked up an eyebrow. "Why? You wanna play yenta?" 

 

"Not particularly. He's a strange fit for Cheyenne Mountain. Acts like a soldier, but he also smells like books and old things. My queries yielded information from almost a decade ago, but then, nothing," Potter replied. "If you're going to see him again, we'll have to be careful. He could be sent by the Air Force to play a long game." 

 

As nice as seeing Daniel again would be, Tony was rather convinced that their little encounter wouldn't be repeated, and that Daniel was too moral to let himself be used as a honey trap. 

 

"I don't think so," he admitted at length, not caring how disappointed he sounded. At Kinsdale's quiet chuckle, Tony said, "Magic fingers, Gavin. That sentinel out there for me? He'll have to really work to top that." 

 

"Alright, Tony." Kinsdale sobered. "Now, let's talk about the experiments Beau has already warned you about. How about a little trip to Middletown in Virginia? I bet you haven't had the full small-town experience yet, and it's a good place to start my little trial."

 

And just like that, Tony could be sure that he had gotten away with stealing a strange little artifact from the military. Something like cautious happiness bloomed inside of him, and he smiled widely. "Whatever you want, Doc."

 

oOo

 

November came and brought with it nasty weather. It rained more than usual and as sun was scarce, the mood took a notable downturn. Gibbs calling in with the latest news from NCIS didn't do much to help in that regard. Still, Tony was glad to hear from him, even if his feelings regarding Gibbs were still muddled and would probably require some sessions with Larry to completely work them out.


So far, Tony had learned that Gibbs had once more returned to his duties as team lead of the MCRT. After almost two months as interim director of NCIS, everyone had been ready for a change. Tony could easily pick up his former boss' relief at finally being allowed to do what he was really good at. However, finding new team members proved to be a difficult endeavour, as Gibbs was apparently outright refusing most of the agents the new director, a Leon Vance, threw his way.


"You'll have to actually let someone join your team to do their job," Tony said, half-exasperated and half-amused when Gibbs was done bitching. "I'm not coming back, so don't hold out for my sake."


"They're all incompetent idiots," Gibbs growled. His impatience came across loud and clear, would have even without Tony's extraordinary empathic sensitivity. "I'm not saying that McGee and Ziva were the best of the bunch, but they were my incompetent idiots." 


"How's it going for McGee?" Tony asked. Ziva was forever off-topic after it had been discovered that she'd not only snagged information for daddy dearest, but that her father, the head of Mossad, had both literally and figuratively been in bed with the head of NCIS the whole time. Ziva had quietly been sent packing to avoid a scandal, and Jennifer Shepard had vanished completely from the public eye. "Has he settled in with the gals and guys from cyber crime?"


Gibbs scoffed. "That boy got a rude wake-up call there. He's good, but then so are the others. He'll get used to not being the pick of the litter. Doesn't look like Vance will rotate him out anytime soon, either." 


"And Abby? She hasn't tried to contact me after she was reprimanded and Ducky and Palmer won't talk to me about her." 


"She's ... troubled." Gibbs little pause spoke volumes. "It never got further than Ducky, which is why he's not talking. He wants to protect her." 


"What happened?" 


"Well, for starters she used NCIS equipment to stalk the Center and its employees. She didn't get very far because your guys have good firewall thingies and apparently Abby didn't want to get caught by them. After that, she tried to recruit Ducky to her cause." 


Tony groaned. "How bad was it?" 


"Ducky felt obliged to call help for her," Gibbs said, the stilted words sounding odd in this gruff voice. "She was talking about sedating and kidnapping you from the evil Center's clutches and wanted supplies and his knowledge on how to use them, so I can't fault him for that. Of course, she insists on it being a joke. Vance wasn't convinced after IT was through with her personal computer, and neither were the guide and sentinel counsellors assigned to her case. She's been in stationary care for a couple of weeks now."


"I swear that I'm not setting out to drive the people around you stark raving mad," Tony said, exasperated. "What the hell?" 


"Abby's got abandonment issues," Gibbs replied. "It's not an excuse, but after Kate's death she obviously hasn't recovered as well as we thought. Ziva being deported didn't help." 


"NCIS shrinks are for shit, obviously," Tony groused. "Tell Vance that. I have a good one, now, and it's making a difference." 


"Ducky already laid into him," Gibbs said, now sounding faintly amused. "This agency needs an overhaul, badly, but they're working on it. Vance is determined to implement all the necessary changes as dictated by the S&G Council during the next year." 


"Good," Tony said, a bit curtly. "Maybe then we'll be back at the top of our game as a federal agency." 


"We were good on our own, Tony," Gibbs protested. 


"I know we were. With S&G support we'll be even better." Tony decided to return to the initial topic. "Will Abby be allowed back?" 


"Perhaps," Gibbs said, oddly carefully. "The S&G unit at Mental Health has taken over her treatment, despite her being a mundane. No idea what they'll find, but they are ..." He paused again. His unease about Abby's intangible mental issues was palpable. "Concerned. They said it might take a while to straighten her out. Longer than a couple weeks, at any rate."


"I hope they'll be able to help her," Tony said. "It was unsettling to see her act out like this."


"Hm. How's it going for you, then?" Gibbs asked. "It's been months, why aren't you online yet?" 


"No idea," Tony said cheerfully, "but Gavin is of the opinion that I'm doing a good job pacing myself. As long as he's not worried, I'll just wait and see." 


Gibbs grunted. "You do that. And keep thinking about working for NCIS. Vance has caved on offering you a consulting contract, if you want it." 


"Nah, tell him I'm busy with guide stuff. The incoming rent for my apartment is enough to keep me afloat for now." It wasn't even a lie; the trip to Middletown still had to happen and Kinsdale already had two more destinations in mind. He had also intimated that Tony's December might get busy as well. The pulse of dismay coming from Gibbs was almost comical. "Well, it's been nice catching up, but I gotta go. It's almost time for me to meet my shrink. Bye-bye." 


Smirking, Tony hung up on Gibbs, inordinately pleased with himself for getting one over his former boss. The little indignant zing against his mind was the cherry on top of the sundae.


oOo


The trip to Middletown was, in one word, perfect. The rain had let up and the Indian Summer's last hurrah on the mountains was breathtaking. They were a week too late for the fall festivities, but some of the decorations were still up and the locals assured them that the Halloween specials in diners and bars were being offered until the Christmas season began.


Normally not one for small town visits, Tony was inexplicably charmed and made it a point to visit every little corner and to explore all the sights. Stacy and Paul, his by now constant companions whenever he went out, were just as enthusiastic, although Paul and his two colleagues also did their best to ensure that Tony's rotten luck wouldn't find an opportunity to strike again. 


As Middletown wasn't exactly overrun by tourists while they were there, they spent a week enjoying good food, long hikes, and learning about the local history. But the best thing in Tony's opinion, by far, was the lessening of that irksome pressure in his chest. 


He couldn't be sure whether that was actually due to a change in location because other than being west from D.C., clean air and exercise also abounded, just like in Bull Run Regional Park. Tony was willing to consider that Kinsdale might have been right, anyway, because the place made him a little whimsical and somehow lighter. Even his lungs seemed to agree with the town - he hadn't had any spasms or coughs or breathlessness so far, which was even more pleasing than the lessened sentinel longing. 


Tony took a moment to admire the panorama of colourful treetops and picturesque buildings, all garnished with a faint layer of mist.


"We're ready for lunch, Tony!" Paul called and pointed towards Middletowns center. "Stacy saw a pub back there we haven't tried yet. You coming?" 


"Yeah, just a second." Tony let his eyes roam one last time over the pretty vista and then snapped a few pictures with his smartphone.


Yes, perhaps the location did matter, and maybe Kinsdale had meant a change in the company Tony liked to keep in D.C. There couldn't be any serious expectation of him finding his sentinel here, as there were only a few sentinels living in Middletown ... and the single unbonded one apparently was a lesbian with a rabid case of guide searching going on, because she was hitting on Stacy as soon as Tony's group set foot into the woman's pub. 


The hitting on quickly became hand-holding and intense sniffing which almost seamlessly transitioned to a tight full-body hug. 


"Has Stacy just-," Tony began, staring at his spaced out, trembling friend. Her emotional arousal and the deep, joyous flow of finally fulfilled longing threatened to overwhelm him.


"Yup," Jake said, leaning against the door post and watching the two women eagerly. "That one's hers, I think." He tapped his nose. "Pheromones, theirs are off the chart. Bonding is definitely imminent." 


Tony didn't know what to think. "Shouldn't we, uh, tell them to get a room or something? Before they French kiss themselves to the Riviera?"


"Yeah, let's," Paul commented with a snorted laugh. "Stacy!"


The sentinel snarled at him, her tall, somewhat androgynous frame vibrating with tension. She pushed Stacy behind her in one fluid move. "She's mine! Back off!" 


"Yeah, yeah, she's all yours, hun. But this is not the place for bonding," Paul said easily. "Will you be able to take her to the bonding suite at the doctor's office? Or do you have adequate rooms here?" 


The woman stilled, thinking it over. 


"Let's go to the bonding suite," Stacy urged softly. "Sentinel." 


"Guide."


Tony found it fascinating to watch how submissive Stacy acted, although she was normally spunky as hell. He, Paul and Jake trailed the women's car to the doctor's, saw them off and then retreated to their hotel, where Paul called in the bonding at the Center. 


Finally done, they sat down at the hotel bar to let that surprise sink in.


"Now what?" Tony asked, fidgeting with his beer bottle. 


"Stacy will stay here for a while," Jake said. "She's mobile, her sentinel is not. They'll figure themselves out once their bonding is done." 


"But ... it's almost sight unseen," Tony murmured. "It's still one of my biggest peeves. They don't know the first thing about each other. How can we just leave her here? What if her sentinel is a wife beater? She could be one, she already looks the part." 


Paul grinned. "Sweet of you to worry. Trust me, they know each other on a primal level already. Tara knows that Stacy is the perfect shelter for her senses, while Stacy knows that her sentinel is the perfect fit to protect her from danger, both mental and physical. Whatever they both need, they'll make it work." 


"But what if someone's not ready?" Tony pressed. "What if Stacy for some reason hadn't wanted to bond right away?" 


Jake snatched up a couple of Paul's leftover peanuts and ate them with gusto. "When that happens, it depends on the reason. The gender might be wrong, for one. It's very rare, but it happens. That one's very hard on everyone, obviously. Or one of the two partners has such deep-seated issues that a bond won't form due to blocked empathic pathways." 


"If it's the latter case, the sentinel and guide in question usually consent to counselling to overcome the obstacle. You know sentinel longing; it'd be torture to meet your perfect match but be unable to make a life together."


"Make a life together." Tony grimaced. "I don't get it. Stacy has degrees in psychology and sociology. Tara owns a pub in a small town. How the hell can that work out? What would Stacy do if she stayed here?" 


"That's for her to decide," Paul said. "We get that you don't understand the process yet, but you do understand that asking such questions is terribly rude." 


"I know, I know." Tony groaned. "Man, she's like my little sister! Cut me some slack." 


Jake laughed. "Stacy is only two years younger than you but she's waited quite some time for this. She was over the moon during those few minutes, I can tell you that." 


"I didn't even know she liked women," Tony murmured. "I'm a terrible friend." 


"Stacy likes people," Paul consoled him. "As I said, Tara is everything she needs and wants rolled in one attractive sentinel package. None of us know when we might happen upon our perfect partner, so we grab them with everything we have and hold on." 


"Also, it doesn't matter whether you find Tara attractive," Nelson, the third sentinel on the trip, chimed in. He didn't talk much and instead preferred to skulk around and loom as the situation required. "In fact, I like her butch type." 


"Not so very butch," Jake protested. "She's just fit. Works on her car by herself, the way she smelled of oil and metal. That's pretty damn impressive."


Calmed by their reassurances, Tony allowed himself to let it go, at least for now. To distract himself even further, he suggested poker before a late lunch, and when their day ended several hours - and even more drinks in Stacy's honour - later, Tony let the glow stick's blue light soothe him into a deep sleep. 


oOo

 

One was missing on their way back to D.C. True, Middletown wasn't a world away, but Tony felt Stacy's absence keenly. Without her presence, the empathic encroachment had become an issue as soon as he'd left his hotel room the next morning, and it only got worse as they hurried through breakfast and check-out. 

 

"Hang on," Nelson said, gripping Tony's forearm tightly to distract him from the double whammy of sentinel longing and encroachment. "Paul's flooring the gas pedal and as soon as we're back, Gavin will take care of you." 


"I'll manage," Tony said through gritted teeth. "Just don't get us killed, Paul." 


When they pulled into the Center's garage, Tony was soaked through with sweat and had a raging headache. "I never knew how many assholes were living in this city," he tried to joke, only to ruin it with a pitiful groan. "God, this sucks." 


Jake helped him out of the car and told him not to bother with his luggage. "We're getting you squared away first. Your distress is already disrupting operations upstairs. Try to breathe, DiNozzo. If you faint, Potter will tear me a new one."

 

As if they'd been summoned, Kinsdale and Potter strode through the rows of parked cars, Kinsdale immediately getting as close to Tony as he could without touching him. 

 

"Breathe, Tony," he instructed firmly. "That went downhill fast, but I've got you now. There's an unbonded guide waiting for you upstairs, he'll take over for Stacy." 

 

Kinsdale's presence was so comforting and sheltering that Tony felt abruptly cut off from all the input. It made him dizzy and he could've cried with relief.

 

"We should've had a guide meet us in Middletown," Paul sighed. "But he was well all evening and through the night. It only started in the morning." 


"Any idea what could've triggered it?" Potter asked, hovering next to Kinsdale's shoulder. "Were there strange people? Was there an accident?" 


"I woke up feeling not so hot," Tony murmured. "Nothing I tried helped. Got worse on the way here." 


"Alright." Kinsdale motioned for Jake to support Tony. "We're going upstairs now. Would you please take Tony's things to his room?" 


"Sure thing, boss," Paul said. "Get better soon, DiNozzo. We expect you for training later. No slacking off, now." 


"Yeah, yeah, understood." Tony let himself be dragged off. He was slowly regaining his equilibrium, and even some of his good humour. 


It all vanished again when they reached the moderately busy lobby of the Center. A middle-aged man stepped forward, presumably the new guide Kinsdale had chosen to help Tony, hand held out eagerly for a shake and a broad smile on his pudgy face.


"No," Tony said, surprising even himself. He stopped dead in his tracks, forcing Jake to stop with him. Something cold and slimy was crawling over his shoulders and up his neck.


"What?" the man asked, smile dropping. He looked from Tony to Kinsdale. 


"DiNozzo?" Potter asked, brows raised high. 


"We don't fit," Tony said in a rush. "It's a no."


"But you don't even know me!" The guide purpled a little, his affront swamping Tony with sticky clinginess. His outburst attracted the attention of several visitors, and their curiosity was like being brushed with live wires.


"No," Tony repeated, actually backing up a step. "I'd say I'm sorry, but I'm not. Not him, not ever. No." 


"Why?" Kinsdale asked, perplexed. "We vetted him thoroughly and he's available and willing to help you." 


"Yeah, and I'd be grateful for that if he weren't-" Tony stopped himself, brain finally catching up to the ton of information the empathic encroachment was dumping on him. "We need to go to your office, Gavin. Now." 


The guide was pushed along by Potter, protesting all the way, and now everybody was craning their necks and undoubtedly stretching their senses to catch whatever titbit of conversation they could. 


"Sit," Potter ordered and shoved the guide onto the visitor's chair. "DiNozzo, explain. Gavin, back up, I need DiNozzo to feel Trewellyan out." 


Tony had absolutely no desire to feel even more from the man - Trewellyan - but he accepted Potter's unspoken order and tried to suss out what exactly was feeling so wrong. 


"Well?" Trewellyan snapped after a minute. "If this is the thanks I get for interrupting my holiday, I'll just be on my way." 


"Tony, please, tell me what's wrong," Kinsdale urged. "You're beginning to scare me a bit."


"He feels dishonest," Tony said, fighting against a huge surge of resentment. It drowned everything else out for a moment. "There's avarice ... not for money. For ..." Tony raised horrified eyes to Potter. "Good god, he's a predator."


"What are you talking about!" Trewellyan shouted. "I'm a guide!"


"You're also human," Potter growled. "What else can you get from him, DiNozzo?" 


"I don't know, it's so jumbled ..." Tony fought against the rising nausea in his chest as more and more empathic impressions bloomed out in front of him. Even now, with vicious hatred shooting up like fireworks, Trewellyan saw him with greedy eyes. "He likes them helpless, I think. Utter submission. Mindlessness. There's arousal, dismissal, entitlement. No sentinel vibe, no longing. There's only guide ... some sort of resonance. It's blackened, sick." He gagged a little.


"What are you talking about?" Trewellyan ground out. Sweat started to bead on his forehead. "He's making stuff up! My alpha vouched for me, Alpha Kinsdale! You talked to him yourself!" 


Potter clamped a hand on Trewellyan's shoulder to keep him from jumping up and making a run for it. "Maybe he did. You're still unduly upset about another guide's honest, visceral reaction to you." 


"I'm sorry, Guide Trewellyan, but under these circumstances, you won't be able to work with Mr. DiNozzo. Not only has he rejected you, which happens often enough as you know, he also accused you of some serious wrong-doing." 


"You can't do that! So he doesn't like me, fine! But you have no right to accuse me of a crime just because a latent told you so!" Trewellyan shook off Potter's hand and stood. "If his sensitivity is as strong as you intimated, he could've picked it up from anyone in the lobby!" 


"Yes, but he reacted to you," Kinsdale said evenly, returning to Tony's side to help him calm down. "You know what we must do. We need to investigate now, make sure that you're not a danger to our tribe, and we will do so with all due diligence." 


"That's preposterous!" Trewellyan glared at Tony. "How dare you!" 


"How dare you come here under false pretences?" Tony shot back, fed up with the amount of negativity the guy was putting out. "Frankly, you feel like a rapist to me, and I sincerely hope that I'll have to eat my words, because if you are, indeed, a rapist, I don't want to imagine the fallout for your pride, and the S&G community as a whole." 


Kinsdale sucked in a shocked breath and even Potter appeared disquieted. "Tony." 


"I know. I know how serious this is, and that's why I'm making myself perfectly clear: that's exactly how he feels - like a rapist." Tony narrowed his eyes at Trewellyan, who paled rapidly. "Maybe he's good at hiding how fucked up he is from you, but to me it's crystal clear now. There's no way in hell I'd let him get close enough to me to invade my personal space, possibly to spike my drink or whatever his MO is." 


"I'll sue you for defamation of character," Trewellyan hissed. "Had I known how ungrateful you are, I'd never have bothered offering my help." 


"Nobody asked you to volunteer in the first place," Tony snapped back. "I don't know as much as I'd like about how the community works, but I do know that it is rare for an outsider to insinuate themselves into a delicate situation. You thought I'd make easy prey, didn't you?" 


"I'll ruin you for this!" Trewellyan shouted. His face flushed red and spittle flew from his lips. "I'll sue you out of everything you own!"  


"You can try that later," Potter said quietly. "First you tell us whether DiNozzo's right. Have you raped anyone?" 


Trewellyan clamped his mouth shut and glared. "I don't have to answer your questions. In fact, I think I'll go now. Rest assured that my alpha will hear of this!" 


"Yes, he will." Kinsdale shook his head, face pinched and eyes hard. "But you will remain our guest for the time being. Beau, please escort him to one of the holding rooms. We have to get to the bottom of this before we can allow him to walk free." 


Without a word, Potter grabbed Trewellyan's arm, a look of distaste on his face, and dragged the man away. 


When they were alone, Kinsdale shuffled over to the sofa and slumped down on it. "I couldn't get much from him, even after he started to lose his cool, but I sure did get a lot from you, Tony," he murmured. "Jesus. If nothing else, you're right about him being very, very good at hiding." He ran a hand through his hair. "Please tell me that you're sure. Tell me that we're not putting an innocent man through the wringer. This could ruin him and I'd never be able to forgive myself for that."


Tony sat next to him. "I know it could. You always seem to forget that I'm a federal agent. I'd never make such an accusation without reason." He took a deep breath. "What I caught from him ... I thought I'd have to go and have a vomit, Gavin. Seriously. He's a sick fuck and I hope to hell and back that you'll find evidence to put him away because I might have to shoot him if you don't." 


"Okay." Kinsdale chewed on his lower lip. "He's from the Charlotte pride and came to D.C. for a holiday, presumably. Visitors often check in with the local Center, in case there's something they need to know. That's how he learned that we were looking for an interim guide for you, and he offered. It's not entirely unheard of, so please don't think that we'd accept the first unbonded guide who came along. Of course people from outside our pride are always thoroughly questioned by Beau and I, and he ... God, he checked out. He checked out perfectly." 


Tony wanted to pat Kinsdale's shoulder but stopped himself in time. "It's not your fault."


"But I feel like I have to explain. You see, when I checked Trewellyan's credentials with his alpha after the initial talk, he told me that Trewellyan works with latents often, as he's graduated from nurse school and specialized in guide care. If there'd been complaints, he'd definitely have told me. Trewellyan seemed like an okay fit until Bill returned from holiday and could take over. It was supposed to be for a couple of days at most. Jesus." Kinsdale trailed off and didn't speak for a moment. 


Tony silently got up, got a half full bottle of water from Kinsdale's desk, and pressed it into the man's hands. "Drink, it'll help."


"Thanks." After a few breaths, Kinsdale said softly, "I'll have to call in Blair and Jim. I'm an alpha guide, but it'll be easier for a shaman to read Trewellyan. That guy'll weasel out of it otherwise, and if you're right, we can't allow that to happen. Who knows how many people he's already hurt." 


"I can do that." Tony asked gently."Do you need something stiffer than water?" 


"God, I'd need the whole bottle." Kinsdale laughed humourlessly. "Call him, and I'll try to remember where I went wrong with Trewellyan." 


Tony took out his phone, chose Blair's number from his contacts and dialled. 


The Alpha Prime Guide of North America accepted the call after the second ring.


"Hey, Tony! What's up, man?"


A wave of such fondness swept over Tony that his vision blurred for a second. "Hey, Blair," he greeted with a little stutter. "We, uhm, we have a situation here. Guide gone bad, to be exact." 


"Tony," Kinsdale groaned. 


"What?" Blair asked. The fondness bled away and in its place sharp alertness drilled into Tony's already battered mind. "What happened?" 


Tony briefed him on the details, doing his best not to actually accuse Trewellyan of anything. 


"I agree with Gavin; I'll have to investigate this myself," Blair said when Tony was finished. "Jim is already calling the flight crew. With some luck we'll be there tonight. Tomorrow at the latest. If the Charlotte alphas decide to make noise, tell them they can take it up with us." 


"Will do," Tony agreed gratefully. "You're the best." 


"Sit tight, and brief the employees. Last time we appeared unexpectedly, it was chaos." 


Tony hung up, went to get his own bottle of water, and huffily sat back down next to Kinsdale. "Not one word about my special brand of luck." 


Kinsdale snorted. "You should come with a warning sign, DiNozzo."  


oOo

 

There was one good thing coming out of the mess with Trewellyan. Because of the alpha's distress, one of the latent guides waiting out their emergence actually came online, and her presence was already enough to settle Tony's sensitivity down to a level he could deal with. She bravely agreed to stick to Tony, although she had to wrestle with her own shield adjustments.


The Center staff reacted to the affair with incredulity, as there hadn't been a rogue guide in decades, and more than one phone call went out to summon high-level guides for an evaluation before Blair and Jim arrived. 


Not one of them got anything incriminating from Trewellyan, which confused and worried them, which in turn confused and worried their sentinels.

 

Finally, after eight at night, Blair and Jim got in and marched straight through to the holding area, where Trewellyan was sneering at the hovering guards. 

 

"Alpha Sandburg, I demand my immediate release! The people at this Center have wrongly detained me and I was evaluated by a dozen guides against my will!" 


"Yes, I know." Blair stepped forward, into the room. He wasn't a tall man, but he had a presence about him that inspired awe as well as caution. For a moment, he stared intently at Trewellyan. "Extraordinary. You feel very flat. Tony, you said you can feel him?" 


"Yeah." Tony grimaced and rubbed his chest. Lakshmee, the newly online guide, cringed a little next to him when she caught the brunt of his unease. "Far too much of it." 


Blair pursed his lips. "Then we have a problem. There is something there that's obstructing our empathic view, but I can't really parse it out. Jim?" 


The sentinel's jaw muscles worked as he said, "He's not a good liar, but Potter already told me that he never actually answered any questions." 


"You'll have to let me go," Trewellyan sneered. "Not even Alpha Sandburg can prove your manufactured claims; I'd like you to apologize now, Latent DiNozzo." 


"Not so fast," Jim snapped. "Just because Blair can't feel you doesn't mean that I haven't noticed anything unusual about you." His steely glare made even Potter avert his gaze. "You have something on your person. I can hear its hum." 


"You already have my phone," Trewellyan said snidely. "I don't have anything else." 


"Now that was a lie," Potter said. "Will you give it up voluntarily, or do we have to strip search you?" 


"I want my alpha present." 


"We'll get him on Skype," Kinsdale said. One of the three receptionists on shift turned to get a tablet and placed the call. When a young man appeared, he said curtly, "D.C. for Alpha Guide Johnson." 


"Yes, sir." 


 Just a moment later, a man in his late fifties with a full beard and sharp, grey eyes stared at the assembled group. "Gavin, Alphas Sandburg and Ellison, I've been waiting for your call. Now what, exactly, is the matter? Care to enlighten me?" 


"We're in the process of finding out," Jim informed him. "Guide Trewellyan refused to consent to an interview unless you're present. You're present now, and we'd like to get on with it." 


"I've known the man for years, he's treated dozens of latents," Johnson said. "Is this really necessary? It'll make relationships between our prides difficult." 


"It's a tribe matter at this point," Blair said. "A latent caught something not even I could really detect, and his reaction is visceral even after several hours. Additionally, Jim was able to hear something suspicious. We'd like you to order Trewellyan to surrender the item. It might be the reason why we can't get anything from him."


Johnson's glare went to Trewellyan. "You will cooperate, Alan. Fully. This issue will be dealt with or I won't let you come back." 


"That's absurd!" Trewellyan cried. "I just wanted to help!" 


"I won't discuss this with you. Surrender the item," Johnson ordered, guide voice resonating even through the internet connection. 


Trewellyan first cringed, and then his face took on a decidedly mulish expression. "I will not. The order is groundless and a violation of my rights both as a guide and as a human." 


Stunned, everyone stared at him. 


"Are you serious?" Potter asked. "The heads of the fucking S&G Council are in a room with you and you dare tell them no?"


"Maybe it'd be enough to turn the thing off. Like, with an EMP or something," Tony suggested, viciously adding mentally, I wish it'd turn just off so we can get rid of that scumbag


He'd barely finished the thought when several guides suddenly began to scream and claw at their chests. Tony suddenly couldn't breathe, a dark maliciousness of such proportions pressing against him that his knees buckled and his stomach revolted. It took him everything he had not to vomit all over the floor.  


Lakshmee, who was kneeling by Tony's side and holding him up, burst into horrified tears. "Oh my god, you got all this from him?"


Blair acted fast, throwing up a shield around Trewellyan while Jim grabbed the man and shoved him into a chair. In less than thirty seconds he'd found a small, white gadget in Trewellyan's shirt pocket and tossed it at Blair. It sort of looked like a worry stone, all smooth and oval and innocent.


"The humming sound has stopped and he has nothing else in his pockets," Jim said. "No idea what it is." 


"It's mine!" Trewellyan cried, struggling against Jim's hold. "You can't take it away!" 


"I assure you that we can," Blair said, as cold as Tony had never wanted to hear him. "This thing obviously shielded your empathic output to such a degree that you could do harm to our society's most vulnerable members without fear of detection." He then turned towards the tablet, scowling at Johnson. "You saw what has just happened, and it was recorded. This will be investigated thoroughly and if I get my way, you'll never see that man again." 


Johnson swallowed. "Good god, do you actually think I or Maria would want him back? This is a nightmare. If he really preyed on my pride ..." 


"He did," Blair interrupted. "Every guide here felt exactly what kind of man he is before I cut it off. There won't be a cover-up, but we'll inform his victims discreetly and offer them all the help they require." He stepped a little aside and pointed at Tony who was just getting his breath back under control. "We have to thank Tony for this discovery. Without him, Trewellyan would've gone on misusing vulnerable guides with impunity."


"Trewellyan said he's latent," Johnson said roughly. "How is this possible?" 


"Tony's suffering from severe empathic sensitivity. Even the tiny bit of empathic noise Trewellyan was giving off was obviously enough to trigger a reaction." Blair sighed. "It'll be horrible for a while, but we'll get through it. Jim and I will come to Charlotte as soon as we've gotten a full confession from Trewellyan." 


"Thank you, Alpha," Johnson said. "I'll prepare for your arrival."


Blair ended the call. "Jim, would you mind starting the investigation with Beau's help? I'd like to settle everyone down before I join you." 


"Of course, Chief." Jim handed the already handcuffed Trewellyan over to Potter and took a moment to hug his partner and kiss him on the lips. "Take all the time you need." 


The sentinels left with their prisoner, Kinsdale hot on their heels to keep the shield around Trewellyan stable. 


"Well, that was a nasty surprise," Blair said into the silence and smiled when he got a few desperate laughs out of the still shocked guides. "Who's up for some meditation?" 


Of course no one in their right mind would pass up such an opportunity, and so the whole group trooped through the Center to the largest meditation room and got settled in a semi-circle around Blair. 


Lakshmee stubbornly remained by Tony's side, even in the sanctuary of the calm and perfectly temperated meditation room. Her sweet worship and worry for his well-being made for just the right contrast to Trewellyan's perversion and Tony found himself a little in love with her genuinely good character.


Blair took his time to guide them into a state of relaxation and then proceeded to blow Tony's mind by empathically touching every single one of them individually and gently fascilitating bonds between all of them. None of it was forced; in fact, all of the guides were eager for the warm, soothing connection and used their mutually rising frequencies to help each other shake off the stress of the day.

 

It was one of the most intense experiences of Tony's life and he blissfully hovered in a state of lightness and happiness until one after the other of his bond mates winked out from the net and the golden hue of the bonds dissolved. At last, he couldn't hold the connection to his happy place any longer and regretfully let it go.

 

"That was lovely, thank you," Blair said with a smile once everyone was present in the waking world again. "And thank you to everyone here who rushed in to help manage this situation. Jim and I are glad to know that the D.C. Center can rely on such dedicated supporters. Please keep yourself available for questioning, as we'll have to write up our report for the tribunal." 

 

As people got ready to leave, Blair came up to Tony and Lakshmee. 

 

"Ah, Tony, you always manage to find the most beautiful ladies," Blair laughed. "It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss ..." 

 

"Lakshmee," she stuttered, blushing furiously. "Lakshmee Anand." 

 

Blair's eyebrows went up a little. "Ah. I see. Welcome in our midst, Miss Anand. We're very grateful for your help. I can tell that you and Tony get on like a house on fire." 

 

"She was great," Tony said, putting an arm around her shoulders and squeezing gently. "Comes online and immediately helps buffering me from Trewellyan's unsavoury emoting. You're a real doll and I can't thank you enough." 

 

"Er, Tony-" Blair's hands fluttered oddly for a moment.

 

Lakshmee smiled shyly. "No, please, it was my pleasure, Alpha Sandburg, truly. In my country I might not have been allowed to help, so this was a unique and very rewarding experience for me. I'll be glad to be of service until a more experienced guide is on hand to help Tony with the encroachment." 

 

"You are a doll," Blair huffed. "And I mean that in a totally non-sexist way." 

 

Lakshmee laughed, her dark eyes twinkling with delight. "Thank you kindly, Alpha." 

 

Blair turned to Tony. "Jim and I will be in D.C. for at least two days. I'd like to talk to you sometime, and maybe get a scan in. Gavin's notes were fascinating, to say the least." 

 

"Sure," Tony replied. "Whenever you find the time. And if you need a hand looking into Trewellyan, well, I've got time to spare." 

 

Blair left then and Tony escorted Lakshmee to her room, where her distraught mother was already waiting. She introduced herself as the wife of the ambassador of Pakistan to the U.S., which explained Blair's strange behaviour. Afterwards, Tony retired to his own room, flipped on the white noise generator and raided his fridge for things to put on a decadent sandwich because he deserved something nice after accidentally outing a serial rapist, damnit. 


As he ate, his gaze kept going to the little penlight on his couch table. He nearly always had it on him while inside his own room and it wasn't merely because it uncomfortably reminded him of Poe's Tell-Tale Heart. It somehow spoke to him, soothed him when he was upset, more often than not quite literally, and sometimes even activated without him touching it. 


It was eager to please him, its connection to Tony getting stronger with every passing day. While it had worked for him right from the first, he now got a sense of its purpose and understood its simple messages a lot better. Like he had learned to understand its dialect, and it his. Like they were slowly synching up.


A shiver crept over Tony's whole body when its reminder to healmakewarmerase prodded at him. 


Yes, Tony was occasionally pondering the possibility of having found a therapeutic pocket light of alien origin that never seemed to require a battery change and somehow was able to pass on empathic messages.


"Yeah, right," he muttered with an eye roll at himself, even as he picked it up and let it bathe his chest and face in its relaxing light. 


oOo


Blair found him not long after breakfast and excused himself and Tony from Lakshmee and her mother, who had stayed the night with her daughter. Kinsdale loaned them his office for their talk, soon after rushing off to do whatever the S&G Investigative Unit needed him to do in order to coordinate the Trewellyan investigation with the S&G branch of the FBI. 


They settled on the couch, Blair in a comfortable half-lotus seat and Tony slouching tiredly. 


"Bad night?" Blair asked. 


"Nah, not really. I had dinner, thought too much about what a bastard Trewellyan is, and went to sleep." Tony sighed. "Compared to that, yours must've been hell. Jim and the SGIU caught the worst of it, I heard a few of the security guards talk about it during breakfast. Is he okay?" 


"Jim might be formally retired from the force, but there's no way he wouldn't be involved if something like this comes up. To be honest, he was quite in his element." Blair settled into a full lotus position and looked earnestly at Tony. "I can feel exactly what you're thinking, and let me stop you right there. Trewellyan is one in several millions of guides in the US, and yes, he did terrible things when he should've nurtured and protected the latent guides in his care. He will be investigated, tried, and sentenced, and his victims will hopefully be able to move past his crimes. Let that be enough for you, Tony." 


"But that's the thing: I didn't know guides could go wrong like that," Tony said. "It doesn't seem right."


"And it isn't," Blair agreed. "But the thing is that guides, and sentinels of course, aren't perfect. They're human, and while they have special gifts, it doesn't make them impervious to negative or harmful influences or leanings. They're merely better disposed to act on their innate goodness." 


"I don't understand. Didn't you tell me that nature provides?" Tony frowned. "How's that fair to the victims of scumbags like Trewellyan? Shouldn't he have been dormant or something?" 


"Dormancy is complicated," Blair said. "Nature mostly prevents already damaged people from coming online, because it protects them from input they have no hope of being able to handle. Going from online to dormant, however ... that's a whole different kettle of fish." 


"Why?" Tony got up and paced a few steps. "It doesn't make sense." 


"Oh yes, it does, and you'll see why." Blair became animated. "Just play along, alright? So, you're an online guide and have unfortunate leanings towards young, latent guides. You know that other guides in your closer vicinity will be able to eventually look behind your empathic shield, because no guide's shields are airtight. Not even mine. What do you do?" 


"I ... train to make my shields stronger, or develop techniques to mislead the casual watcher." Tony murmured, lips curling in a distasteful moue. "After that, I'd probably work on carefully cultivating a reputation as a loner. If I work with a Center, at least from time to time, it'd be good to not have too many close associates." 


"Good. What else?" Blair prompted. 


Tony couldn't resist the challenge to exercise his investigative mind. "I'd travel a lot, so I'd have excuses not to appear at Center events. That thing you did with us last night ... it'd have unmasked him so fast that he'd have gotten whiplash, right?" 


"True, and there's more to that than mere discovery, but I'll get to that later," Blair agreed. "For now let's continue. What else would you do?" 


"I'd look for ways to spend time with my victims without the threat of discovery. Where did he misuse his charges? Not at the Charlotte Center, the sentinels there would've had their ears and eyes on any troubled latents." 


"As far as we know, he's been invited into many homes. Apparently, the guardians of his charges trusted him enough to afford them privacy during counselling sessions. He's even worked as a conservator for some online guides." Blair's face was stony. "Go on. What else?" 


"Other than a rigorous yet inconspicuous hygiene regimen to throw all the sentinels around me off my scent?" Tony asked bitterly. "I'd search for ways to compensate for my escalation. Predators always escalate, it's inevitable. I bet that he's visited a lot of mundane retreats and invested a lot of time in online searches to achieve this goal. I've never heard of technical gadgets that shield against empathic output, but maybe stuff like that is still in the experimental phase. That thing he had certainly looked futuristic enough. He might've gotten it on the black market." 


"We know of experiments in that area, but the military hasn't admitted to a working prototype so far. Jim's on it and will have answers during the next few days. The FBI is going through Trewellyan's computer, but they're not optimistic. By all appearances, he was a careful man." 


"Maybe he has hidden trophies somewhere," Tony said. "It'd make convicting him easy and the victims would be spared an appearance in court." 


"The Council sentences differently than mundane courts," Blair said. "Have you read that book already?" 


"I've started, but then Gavin felt like sending me all over the place." Tony went to the bar and started the kettle. "Do you want some tea?" At Blair's nod, he asked, "Do you really have a tribunal of six S&G pairs and another six unbonded sentinels and guides, respectively?" 


"Yes, we do. For high crimes like this one, we need to make sure that everyone is one the same page. The bonded pairs are fixed, but the unbonded sentinels and guides are called from all corners and walks of life. They'll question the accused and if they find him guilty as charged, they'll announce the verdict." 


"Only the accused?" Tony asked. "Why not the victims?"


"We do not question victims in this setting if it can be avoided. After all, we have methods to ascertain guilt or innocence that the mundane law enforcement does not, and such questioning would already be completed before the Conclave met, in any case. Preserving the victims' dignity is one of our highest goals." 


"I see." And Tony did. He wished that mundane law enforcement would be as careful with the victims of crime. "You have a law book, right?" 


"Yes, Gavin should have the current edition here and will gladly loan it to you." Blair exhaled. "You should know that we as prides believe in redemption and inclusion whenever possible. High crimes, such as murder or rape, however, are beyond redemption. Should Trewellyan be found guilty ... I'll have to cut him off, and out of our community." 


"You won't give him the death sentence?" Tony asked, rubbing at the goosebumps on his arms. The kettle shut off and he poured the water into two cups. "I know that you have special license for sentinel justice."


"We do, but no, we don't like to impose the death penalty. Being cut off from what makes him a guide is a punishment worse than death and I know that I couldn't live like that, knowing what I've lost and never being able to regain it. Besides, criminals like Trewellyan will be handed over to the appropriate mundane offices after our judgment has been executed, for mundane justice. They handle cases like this one very discreetly, usually." Blair carefully accepted the cup and gratefully inhaled the berry scent of the tea. "This brings us around to the matter of group meditation and bonding, and why it plays a role in S&G justice." 


"Right. What about it?" 


Blair grimaced. "If a guide is deemed unfit to access his gifts any longer, the Guide Conclave forces them into a bonded meditation. During this, the Conclave can't help but feel the empathic make-up of the guide, and as is the way with society, a judging takes place." 


"A judging?" Tony repeated. 


"Everyone judges, based on the society's current view on crime, but mostly based on the universal rules," Blair continued. "Had Trewellyan dared to attend Center meditations before he got his little gadget, the guides would have felt his sickness and begun the process of invoking dormancy. The Guide Council, which must be led by the Shaman, merely speeds this process up." 


"But, how?" 


Blair smiled indulgently. "I forget that for all of your astounding developments you still don't know very much. This will take a little while, I'm afraid, but please bear with me. I know that Gavin talked to you about spirit animals once, but not about much else in that vein. Am I correct?" 


"Larry and I are tackling my Gibbs issues right now," Tony said with a huff. "After that, it's probably daddy issues." 


That startled a laugh out of Blair. "Yeah, those are not cool. Okay, so our spirit guides originate from the so-called spirit plane, and powerful guides can traverse the plane and meet with other guides. With me so far?"


"There's a plane of existence for spirits next to ours," Tony repeated, a little incredulous. "Nobody mentioned this to me. Potter's guys I can understand, they're super down to earth, but not even Gavin has brought it up yet." 


"Your reaction right now might be the reason," Blair said with a little smile. "That's alright, it's not as if people go around and show off their spirit animals to the world. Most of the spirit guides visit but rarely, mostly when there's a great need for their bonded human. Even the process of finding our way to the spirit plane is deeply personal, and don't let me start on merging with your spirit guide. It's a profound experience that defines many of us for the rest of our lives." 


"Well, I'm still not convinced that I even have a spirit animal," Tony admitted. "Gavin said they herald their arrival, but there's been nothing for me so far, and I've been living here for two months already." 


"You stabilized, which everyone agrees is a good thing. Your spirit animal would never do anything to harm you, and if it's too soon, it'll wait until you're ready. As far as we know, time does not pass the same way for them as it does for us, so we don't believe that they get bored or impatient." 


"Okay. Now what does any of this have to do with judging a bad apple and invoking dormancy?" Tony asked. He blew on his tea, wishing he'd brought over some of Kinsdale's chocolate cookies. 


"Right. Here comes the really mystical part." Blair stared at Tony like the story he was about to tell was one of the best things he'd ever learned. "In meditation, us guides build a connection to the spirit plane." 


"Only online guides?" Tony asked, faintly disappointed. 


"We think so, but who knows? Anyway, this connection goes both ways, of course, so we get their advice, and they get information about us. Now, if a group of guides who live more or less in accordance with the universal rules, one who does not sticks out. Badly." 


"Okay, I'm with you so far but what are the universal rules? You've mentioned them twice now." 


Blair grinned. "Stuff like 'live as you please as long as you harm none', practicing gratefulness for what one is given, doing work to help better the lives of the less fortunate ... you get the gist. Someone like Trewellyan would immediately stick out like a sore thumb, so what happens?" Blair paused dramatically and his energy easily caught Tony and urged him to play along. 


"The spirit plane notices the disturbance in the force?" he guessed. 


"Exactly. That's exactly what happens!" Blair gesticulated. "You see, our existence is about balance, but balance at which frequency?" 


And he had lost Tony again. "What?" 


"Our exercises to promote higher frequency in ourselves? We don't do them to rise to spheres we're not normally meant to go," Blair explained. "To the contrary, they merely lift us out of the muck of negativity, they raise us back up to where we belong. As one more type of animal roaming the earth, we're supposed to feel good, to be happy, when we've got a secure dwelling and enough food for us to thrive and reproduce. But we're not, are we?" 


Tony shook his head.


"Life was super easy a couple ten thousand years back, compared to today," Blair continued. "Sure, people got eaten by animals, or died during conflicts with rivalling tribes, or caught illnesses, but apart from that the smallest positive things made them happy. Things like good weather, flowers, sex, play time with the kids. Today, we've gotten so used to the never-ending bombardment of bad air, bad food, toxic people, toxic work places, too much stress, et cetera, that we find it hard to raise ourselves up again." 


Tony could only agree with that.  


"Now comes the really interesting part: the spirit plane mirrors the exact type of vibration we're supposed to live in. In a universal sense, our plane of existence appears to be one large disturbance in the force, some areas and people way more than others. People like Trewellyan are huge cesspools of negativity, so what does the spirit plane do?" 


"I don't know," Tony admitted. "What can it do?" 


Blair's eyes were shining with what could only be awe. "It works to block the connection. We don't know how, but we do know that it's bent on protecting itself from negative influences from our plane of existence, meaning that it will close off this particular point of contact. Without a shaman, this might take a while, but with one, the connection can be severed and the injury to the spirit plane healed in a matter of moments." 


"And this results in dormancy of the whacko guide because he won't be able to access the spirit plane, and with it his gifts, any longer," Tony concluded. "Wow. That's actually amazing."


"Isn't it just? Man, if it weren't so important to keep this quiet, I'd already have written like two dozen articles about this." Blair took up his cup again, blew on the hot tea and attempted a sip. "Mmh. Gavin always has the best stuff."


"I have a question. If Trewellyan cut himself off the spirit plane due to this negativity thing going on, wouldn't he have started his own dormancy?" Tony asked. 


"Of course, but he's one little pinprick in the empathic make-up of the spirit plane. His sickness would have been much more pronounced when in contact with other guides ... the ripples, for lack of a better word, would've been far larger. The wound would have bled more." Blair grimaced. "That's how he still could meditate, although he would have enjoyed less and less success in the maintenance of his shields the longer it went on and the more he escalated. Finding his little gadget must've been like finding a cavern full of hidden treasure."


"Do you think his spirit animal has left him?" 

 

"I will find out tonight," Blair replied. "It's my job to scan him and to determine the level of his perversion. We're not confident that he's redeemable as far as the spirit plane is concerned, and we also have to evaluate his possible influence over the sentinels around him." 

 

"He doesn't want one," Tony said. "That was very clear." 

 

"It was," Blair agreed. "Trewellyan resents being controlled, which is why I put a handful of trusted guides in charge of his security and let the sentinels take secondary guard positions. Even if he dislikes sentinels, Trewellyan might not be above trying to influence them to his advantage. The same goes for mundanes, of course. There's no telling how he has trained himself over the years so I'm not taking any chances."

 

They sat for a while, drank their tea and enjoyed the calm. Finally the inevitable couldn't be put off any longer. 

 

"Ready for the scan?" Blair asked. 

 

Tony heaved an aggrieved sigh. "I'll try to find my happy place, but I gotta be honest. It's not looking too promising." 

 

"Man, I hear ya. It takes so much practice to overcome our conditioning, nevermind during incidents like the one with Trewellyan. Just try and we'll make the best of it." 

 

Blair's reasonable approach relaxed Tony and he settled into a loose half-lotus position for his breathing exercise. 

 

Once more the difference between Kinsdale and Blair became obvious. Where Kinsdale was a strong guiding force, Blair felt like a whole world made up of all the good stuff life had to offer. His presence told of hope, love, resolve, friendship and so much more, and that prompted a whole reel of images in front of Tony's inner eye. There was pure nature, forests and valleys and beaches, breathtaking light and beautiful creatures roaming around. He wasn't as centered on food, although that had its place as well. 

 

Far more easily than Tony could've anticipated, he fell into his meditation and let Blair's natural zest for life pull him along. He accepted the empathic embrace and calmly followed along even as Blair made for Tony's Mount Doom. With Blair by his side it felt like nothing in his past could touch him or hurt him. 


They spent a long while in Tony's empathic landscape. As there was no judgement, merely a faint sense of sadness at what Blair was seeing, Tony didn't shy away from what he got from Blair in return. The alpha guide obviously shielded himself to a large degree, but Tony wasn't trying to get past Blair's boundaries. He did grasp a particularly lovely empathic current of affection and held on, letting it pull him along when Blair didn't distance himself.

 

Its sweet vibration made Tony's whole being thrum with pleasure. There was no way he could hold it in, and so he let the excess bleed off him, into the vastness of his empathic landscape, where it made indistinct trees and fields of grass rustle. The vibrant shades of green, brown and blue darkened a little, as if night were falling, and it was fascinating to watch. 


Curious, Tony let his mind's eye look around and take it all in. Far away, on the horizon, there was something new, some kind of rain forest. It was lush and misty, animal cries audible even where he was playing. 


A soft touch ended his hold on Blair. It was sad, but obviously necessary, because Blair gently but firmly guided him back to the real world, projecting some urgency at him - to talk, Tony guessed. 


Before Tony could say anything after blinking his eyes open, Blair told him, "I'll take you home with me to Cascade." 


Tony stared at him. "Er, okay? I didn't try to hit on you, though. Or at least I don't think I did." 


Snorting, Blair stood and stretched himself out. "Pity, but that's not why I'm telling you this. You grasped me, and linked yourself to me during a simple scan. It's not unheard of, but ... just trust me. I need to teach you things Gavin can't." 


Cold fingers danced over Tony's spine as it became clear that Blair really wasn't joking. "Why?" 


"Because you're still latent, and yet you're already doing things not even the majority of online guides can do with ease. I will teach you personally, make sure that you know what gifts you possess. You need to know how to use them safely." 


"I ..." Tony swallowed. "Jesus, Blair, why is this happening? I didn't ask for this." 


"Not many people do," Blair answered gently. "I believe that the powers that be know what they're about, though. They see something in each of us and hand us the gifts that might best help us on our path to ... well, to enlightenment. Not in a religious sense, but in the sense that we need - absolutely need - to better ourselves for the good of our planet. It won't happen by itself, the movement needs leaders." 


Tony gaped at him. "No." 


"Well, maybe it's not you. Who can say?" Blair said reasonably. "All I know is that you have some pretty unique abilities, which means that I herewith declare you my padawan until such a time when you are able to go about life as any well-rounded guide might." 


"I swear, fate owes me the most amazing sentinel on the planet for this," Tony griped, crossing his arms in front of his chest. "The most amazing!" 

 

Blair chuckled. "I'm sure she's working on it." 

 

oOo

 

The Trewellyan case developed as many cases of similar depravity did: It advanced from terrible jump-scare to ongoing nightmare during November and kept the D.C. Center on its toes. Agents of the SGFBI, as well as S&G Council representatives went around to collect evidence and witness statements, cross-examining people until even the staunchest fan was beginning to get annoyed with their persistence. 


For Tony, it could've been business as usual, had he not been busy packing up his life, again, this time for his move to Cascade, Washington. Blair had surprised Tony most pleasantly by telling him that he would have a whole apartment to himself, instead of just a room with a tiny kitchenette, which meant that he could get some of his things out of storage. Taking everything seemed like too much work, as he'd gotten quite used to living a minimalist lifestyle, but having a few more of his prized possessions went a long way to reconciling Tony with the latest upheaval of his life. 


Just like anyone else, Tony was asked to give statements several times, to several people. Unlike everyone else, it usually happened in the presence of some of the strongest sentinels and guides on US soil. It was quite the who's who in the community wanting to study his empathic sensitivity, and Tony was rather convinced that only Blair's presence stopped them from going any further than they did. 


"No, Solomon, you still may not do a full empathic scan on Tony," Blair said placidly after the assistant director of the SGFBI requested an in-depth review of Tony's reaction to Trewellyan. Again. The man obviously didn't know the meaning of the words 'give up'. "As more than half a dozen online guides have been exposed to Trewellyan's depravity, all of them consenting to a scan by your people, you have everything you need to work the case." 


"A talent like DiNozzo's would make a valuable asset to any team," Solomon Fawley insisted. "I don't know why I have to repeat myself." 


"And I don't know why I have to keep telling you no," Blair retorted, amused. "Tony's not online and you know that I'll never condone forcing him to emerge just so you can try and add him to your roster. Your avarice isn't pretty, Solomon. I suggest you rein it in before I need to send you to Jim for a stern talking to. You know I've gotten people removed from their posts for far less." 


"You're depriving us all of a unique learning experience," Fawley said impatiently. "It's not just me who's demanding answers and access."


Tony cleared his throat. "If I may, sir." 


Fawley settled back, his full attention on Tony. Despite being a strong guide himself, he couldn't hide the smug expectation of a changed mind. "Of course, Agent DiNozzo." 

 

Tony was looking forward to pulling that particular tooth.


"Thank you, Assistant Director Fawley." Tony picked at a speck of lint on his shirt sleeve before he looked back up at the man. This little pause was already enough to make Fawley wary. "Now, as I've told you before, I've left NCIS due to my emergence. While I'm flattered that you'd like me to join your agency, I'm still nominally attached to NCIS and have no plans currently to change that. I'm taking time off because I need time off. And frankly, I'm tired of being fought over as if I were a bag of bones amidst a pack of hungry dogs." 

 

"I'm not acting like a hungry dog!"

 

"Please don't insult me, sir." Tony glared at the man. When he spoke again, his voice came out strong, determined, and resonant. "I'm not being respected as a person right now, and I wouldn't be respected as your asset, either, and we both know it. Therefore, my answer is no. No, you may not study my sensitivity; no, you may not do an empathic scan to find out how I was able to pick up things from Trewellyan; and hell to the no to encouraging me to come online to get my pesky protected status as a latent out of the way. I've given my statements and cooperated in every manner necessary to build an airtight case against that raping scumbag Trewellyan. You will be satisfied with that, or the whole of the SGFBI will be permanently taken off my list for future employment considerations and I'll file for a restraining order with the Council so hard that even your grandchildren won't be able to get closer to me than a hundred yards." 


Fawley stared at him with wide eyes. 


Tony's eyebrows raised challengingly. "Are we clear, Assistant Director Fawley?" 


"Er, yes. Crystal, in fact." Fawley shook himself minutely and cleared his throat. "My apologies, but, er, I better get back to my people if there's nothing I can do to change your mind." 


"You do that," Blair said casually. 


Fawley rose, nodded at Tony in a manner that made him vaguely uncomfortable, and left the room. 


"What was that?" Tony asked once they were alone. "He folded like an excruciatingly bad hand at poker."


Blair grinned. "That was your guide voice coming out to play. And may I congratulate to delivering one of the most satisfying rebuffs I've had the pleasure of witnessing in years?" 

 

"What?" Tony yelled. "Are you shitting me!"

 

Blair burst out into delighted laughter. "Oh, Tony, we'll have so much fun together." 

 

oOo

 

The impending move to Cascade should've been more momentous than it actually was. Tony was sad to leave his new friends, of course, and he was even feeling a bit bereft at putting so much distance between himself and Gibbs, but other than his few real relationships not much else tied him to the city.

 

It was a startling revelation, and a rather freeing one, at that. 

 

"Most of the unbonded sentinels and guides experience some wanderlust," Stacy told him during his goodbye phone call. "It's nothing bad, it just means that you're ready to move on, or rather, move forward with your new life. Why do you think I was so ready to go everywhere with you? I needed new places and new people. I was always hoping to find my sentinel, and I'm very glad that you were there to stand witness when it happened for me." 

 

"It was a pretty intense experience," Tony admitted. "Tara's still treating you well?" 

 

"Oh, she's just the best," Stacy replied enthusiastically. "You know that Paul told me what you said about her, and no, I'm not mad. Tara isn't mad, either. After we bonded, she said that she was glad that I had so many protectors. Anyway, we're still negotiating, but we're getting closer to working things out." 

 

"Will you stay in Middletown, then?" 

 

She sighed. "That's the hard part. It doesn't have a university, and I don't want to work in the social office there, even though they'd love to have me. It'd be a dead end job, and while the work is important, I'm not ready to settle down like that. Ideally, I'd want to back to uni and get my doctorate, maybe go into academic research after that." 

 

Tony grimaced. "And she doesn't want to sell and open another pub elsewhere?" 

 

"We've talked about it, but I know that the thought is making her uncomfortable. She's very territorial, but she's willing to compromise and works hard to meet me in the middle." 

 

"I'll keep my fingers crossed," Tony promised. "And you'll tell me as soon as there are news." 

 

"I will." Stacy sighed quietly. "I already miss our time together, Tony. You going to Cascade and getting mentored by Blair Sandburg ... it's sounds like such an adventure. Is it true that you'll even live in the same house as the Alpha pair?" 


"Yeah, an apartment became available last month when one of his charges moved in with her sentinel. I'll be glad to have a fully stocked kitchen again. You and Tara are invited to dinner, of course. Whenever you like is fine, just give me a call." 


"Oh, I'll definitely try to make that happen! Say, is it true that you actually used your guide voice on the assistant director of the SGFBI?" 

 

"He was being a pushy git," Tony defended himself, feeling all the indignation his British side was capable of. "It just happened, but the asshole sure had it coming! I'll never tell Potter anything ever again. He's a huge blabbermouth." 

 

Stacy broke out into laughter and kept on laughing until she cried and her sentinel had to take over and say goodbye. 

 

The next call on the next day was even harder, although Gibbs wasn't the demonstrative sort and took the news with hardly a flicker of surprise. His affect was so subdued during the conversation that Tony huffed out an exasperated curse and asked what was going on. 

 

"It's not working out," Gibbs said quietly. "Vance keeps sending me personnel files and I keep meeting agents and it just doesn't gel. Nothing gels."

 

Tony cringed at the wave of crippling feelings that surged against him. It was way more than just melancholy; Gibbs was feeling downright depressed and so achingly lonely that Tony's heart hurt in sympathy. 

 

"How can I help?" he asked. "Do you want me to vet the next batch of hopefuls for you?" 

 

"Don't bother," Gibbs replied quietly. "It won't work. They're not you, and without you I'm not at the top of my game anymore." 

 

Another wave of feelings hit Tony. There was mistrust and weariness and longing for something that seemed irretrievably lost. "Shit. Gibbs, you know that I get everything from you, right? Don't take this the wrong way, but you should go see someone. Talk to someone professional about this." 

 

"I already am, Tony." Gibbs was quiet for a moment. "She's urging me to consider retirement. It's tempting." 

 

"Christ." Tony ran a hand over his face. "Okay. Can't say she isn't right. You've been through a lot of shit these last few years." 

 

"We've all been through hell," Gibbs murmured. "But you got the short stick the most." 

 

"Hey, don't go all mushy on me now," Tony huffed. Gibbs' remorse was all over the place and it was messing him up in ways he couldn't deal with. "Even if I didn't like the how, I understood, okay. Keep talking to your shrink, maybe take a long leave of absence to get back on an even keel. Maybe it helps, and if it doesn't, you can still retire." 

 

Gibbs was silent for a long moment, his empathic output swinging from desolate to vaguely hopeful in a lazy, yet dizzying roll. Finally he said, "Will do, Tony. You'll stay in touch?" 

 

"Of course I will. Greet Ducky and Palmer from me." 

 

"And you Sandburg and Ellison from me. Bye, Tony." 

 

"Bye, Gibbs." 

 

The call disconnected and Tony blew out the breath he'd unconsciously been holding. 

 

Gibbs thinking about retirement felt like the world was about to end. Confused barely covered the state of Tony's jumbled thoughts and he wasn't surprised when Kinsdale joined him a short while later and silently lent him his strength so he could at least be somewhat at ease within his mind.

 

oOo 

 

Tony hadn't wanted to see many people before his move to Cascade - certainly not McGee, who still acted somewhat snottily, or Abby, who was still confined to Mental Health and didn't seem to improve at all. 

 

Dr. Brad Pitt, however, was very much a must-see, as Tony's latest evaluation would have to be sent to a new doctor for his check-ups. Therefore, he set out, Kinsdale and a small sentinel guard team in tow, to visit Pitt one foggy afternoon in late November. 

 

Since he'd always drawn a certain level of attention, Tony was hard to surprise when it came to looks or even appreciative greetings. Yet he was very surprised at how intensely people reacted to him now. Patients and visitors in the hospital wing dedicated to pulmonary disease stopped and stared at him, and the receptionist handling the doctor's appointments actually dropped her paperwork. 

 

"Well, that's new," Tony said through clenched teeth once they'd been asked to take a seat and wait. 

 

"It's your aura," Kinsdale replied just as quietly. "It's gotten much stronger. And you're sickeningly handsome." 

 

"A real crime against us less fortunate blokes," Paul quipped, which caused Jake and Nelson to snort with laughter. "Although we're responsible for your hot bod, DiNozzo, so credit where credit is due." 

 

"Shut up," Tony groaned.

 

Just then, Pitt called Tony's name and he went to meet his friend. 

 

"Tony, it's so good to see you," Pitt said, pulling Tony into a short embrace as soon as the door was closed. "What's this about you moving to Cascade?" 

 

"Some things came up with the guide stuff," Tony said, waving that away. "What did I hear about you publishing that paper in The Lancet? That's awesome, man! You're going to go places, I just know it." 

 

Pleased, Brad motioned Tony to the visitor's chair. "Thank you. The research into Ebola is ongoing, but I'm hopeful that one of these days we'll find out how to protect the populace against it. Now, tell me about how your lungs have behaved these last few months. You got through the fall just fine you said?" 

 

The doctor spent an hour going over Tony's reports and examining him. Tony's physical state brought on a slew of professional compliments and one sly, flirtatious comment that led to steamy looks and the unspoken promise of a private meeting later. 

 

When it came to the actual examination of Tony's lungs, however, Brad was completely in professional mode. He gave every test his full attention, made copious notes, and talked Tony through the MRI of his chest because that was a claustrophobic nightmare, even if it was better than the standard x-ray he'd gotten during his former visits. 

 

"Huh," Brad said through the speaker connection. "So I didn't mishear during the palpation exam after all."

 

Tony sighed. "What now, Doc?" 

 

"It's nothing bad. Just ... huh. Let's get you out of there and we'll talk about it." 

 

A few minutes later they were back in Pitt's office, print-outs of the last and the newest MRI imaging between them. 

 

"I'm frankly astounded, Tony," Brad confessed. "See here and here?" He pointed at two areas of Tony's lungs which had been heavily scarred six months prior. "That didn't look so well, but now here ... it's almost gone!" His wide eyes looked from the pictures to Tony. "What did you do?" 

 

"Nothing," Tony said. "I swear. I was on the west coast in August, but only for two weeks. After that, guide things were happening. I left NCIS and was schooled in stress management and nutrition and stuff, but other than that?" He shrugged. 

 

"Tony, that's amazing!" Brad insisted. "The tissue has almost completely regenerated! You said you feel more fit, and that you can do all the exercises the sentinels at the Center do ... didn't that make you curious?" 

 

"Not really," Tony admitted. "Look, I was working more than seventy hours a week when Gibbs was gone, and afterwards wasn't much better. Not being stressed out was a huge relief, like, really huge. I thought I was just recovering and that this was what I could have without the workplace hours from hell." 

 

"Well, you probably were, a very little. But for this kind of success ... there just aren't any recorded cases for this level of regeneration without any sort of intervention." Pitt shook his head. "There's experimental stem cell research going on for this kind of injury, but it's nowhere near a stage where we can treat actual patients and expect positive results." 

 

"Is this another case of me being abnormal?" Tony asked quietly. "I just stopped having nightmares about governmental experimentation." 

 

"Your files are safe with me, Tony. But your people should put the fear of god into your new doctor before he gets to read your file because this is huge. The kind of huge that makes people do stupid things if they're hard up for recognition or money." 

 

"Fantastic." Tony sighed. "Can't we make this just, you know, go away?"

 

Brad grimaced. "I'd love to, but that wouldn't be in your best interest. Until probably a couple of months ago you still needed to do your breathing exercises, and Lily at the oxygen bar sent me your attendance protocol over; you definitely still needed the visits to retain the lung function you had. I need to make sure that the changes are permanent, and not a figment of my imagination, because it's honestly too fantastic to be true. Although I sincerely hope that it stays that way." 

 

"The way you say it, it seems almost a given that the new doc will rat me out," Tony said dejectedly. "It's not that I don't get it, but it's my life, and I don't want people poking around in it any more than they already do. I'm in therapy, for Christ's sake, isn't that enough?"

 

Brad chortled. "It definitely should be. Oh, wait, you said in your last e-mail that Blair Sandburg will oversee your training personally?" 

 

"Yeah, what of it?"

 

"Then you have the Council in your corner. Sandburg is scary; far scarier than that spec ops sentinel of his. A shaman isn't a big deal for nothing. He can make life very uncomfortable even for mundanes and people will listen if he tells them that bothering you is verboten. From what I heard, he has the ear of the President ... and possibly more than half of his brain as well. Hayes is ridiculously invested in giving Blair whatever he needs for the community."

 

"You think that'll deter people?" Tony asked doubtfully. "As an officer in law enforcement, let me tell you that this sometimes brings out the psychos extra hard." 

 

"Let's take that chance. Some protection is better than none," Brad said, taking up the pictures again. "Wow, such beauty. See all those new bronchioles? They look so pretty. And the tubes, wow." 

 

"I'd rather you lust after my ass than my bronchial tubes," Tony quipped. 

 

Grinning, Brad said, "Oh, the lusting after your body is a total given, your healing lungs are just the extraordinary bonus. Dinner tonight at eight?" 

 

oOo

 

After one very, very satisfying evening with Brad - seriously, that man was a freak in bed - it was time for Tony to say his actual goodbyes. He made himself unforgettable to the sentinel team of the Center by gifting them a football table for their break room and a few cases of their favourite micro brew. 

 

Next was Lakshmee, who had stayed to attend guide classes and make the most of her 'American experience'. Under the watchful eye of her mother, Tony exchanged e-mail addresses with her and gave her a gift card to the best wellness oasis D.C. had to offer. Being a guide was definitely in his favour, and his intensifying sentinel longing practically made him asexual in her mother's opinion, so hugging her goodbye wasn't a problem at all. 

 

After hooking up with not one but two very attractive men, Tony admitted to himself that, yes, he might have left the exit to bisexuality behind several weeks ago. At least for now. 

 

The rest of the Center staff went gaga over the newest gaming console for the break room, although the gift card for everyone's favourite pizza joint came in a close second.

 

Kinsdale and Potter were last, as Tony had spent a lot of time with them both and had formed an unexpected, but definitely welcomed friendship with both men. 

 

"I had no idea what to give you," Tony admitted, looking around Kinsdale's already perfectly styled office. Kate the goldfish had found a good home on Kinsdale's sideboard, with a perfect view on all the people that were coming and going. "For all the time we've spent together, I know frustratingly little about you. Especially you, Gavin. Therefore, I've decided to send you to the retreat Blair found me, just for a few days away from the madness. You can go whenever you want and Blair promised to actually make it happen by either sending someone in to cover for you, or taking over himself while you're away." 

 

Kinsdale stared at him. 

 

"Uhm, bad idea?" Tony asked awkwardly. "If so, I'm sorry. I can return it and look for something different." 

 

"Don't you dare, DiNozzo," Potter groused. "It's perfect and Gavin would very much like to hug you. But, he can't without everyone here regretting it for the next century or so. You'll have to do with me." He stepped close to Tony and dragged him into an intense, tight hug that was literally hot and also incredibly satisfying on a level Tony had rarely experienced in his life. "And this." He smacked a firm kiss onto Tony's lips and then smirked. "Good travels, Guide Padawan DiNozzo. We expect to be kept in the loop, so don't be a stranger." 

 

Tony chuckled and blushed. "Dear god, if anything would be a temptation to stay here, that was it. You two in bed must be hot like lava." 

 

"We're pretty hot," Kinsdale allowed, placid face at odds with the wicked gleam in his eyes and the smug warm billow of banked sexuality exuding from his person. "Thank you for your thoughtful gift. It wasn't necessary, but we appreciate it ... and will appreciate it even more once we actually make it there." 

 

Tony laughed. "Do that, and if you happen to think of me while you're at it, I won't mind even one little bit." 

 

"You could tempt a saint," Kinsdale murmured. "Off with you, before I give you that hug after all." 

 

Tony's smile was a little misty. "I'll see you soon. If you're in the area, drop by for dinner. We'll make it a party." 

 

Then he was out of the office and down in the lobby, where Blair was already waiting, the six biggest and baddest sentinels of the Center's security team standing around him in a protective and rather flattering half-circle. 

 

As Tony joined them, it really hit home that he would be leaving his little haven now. He would meet new people and learn more new things than he'd probably know what to do with. 

 

And yet, despite his still lingering apprehension, he found that he couldn't wait to sink his teeth into this challenge.

 

 

End of part 2

Chapter Text

Something Beautiful On The Horizon


Part 3



Due to the still ongoing investigation of Trewellyan's crimes, Tony and Blair were leaving for Cascade without the Alpha Prime Sentinel of North America. Jim remained in Charlotte to oversee the work and intimidate the mundane feds who thought that they could wrestle the investigation from the SGFBI and the Council in an attempt to gain political clout. It was distasteful, if satisfying, work and Tony was glad that he didn't have to do it.


"It'll all end well," Blair said quietly, correctly guessing what Tony was thinking in that uncanny way of his. The car passed the security check-point and drove onto the tarmac. "Trewellyan has begun to talk and no one will be allowed to profit from this case. Our lawyers are sharks and had the mundane courts put a seal on the proceedings."


"Someone always talks," Tony sighed. It was a disgusting reality of life. 


"Not when the S&G Council gets involved." Blair tilted his head slightly. "I thought you knew what that means."


Tony flushed. "I try to catch up, but there's so much to learn. I do know that you guys place the best gag orders. I just never knew how."


"It's easy and terrible at once," Blair murmured. "When someone of our own commits such a heinous crime, our Code comes into effect to protect the victims. If Jim and I decree it, no sentinel or guide may take knowledge of the case to an outsider without our permission. If they do, the punishment is usually banishment from both the pride and the tribe. If the breach of trust is especially brutal, I'll also cut them off from their gifts."


Feeling put on the spot and not knowing why, Tony swallowed. "That is harsh."


"I feel very Capone about it on most days," Blair confessed. "It's necessary, though, or there'd never be any privacy, let alone dignity, for the most wounded. Cheap sensationalism and greed aren't good enough reasons to let someone suffer any more than they already had to, and in some cases the press has gotten too out of hand. Ah, there we are. Behold SG-1, our handsome little Dornier." He smiled as if the name were a private joke. "Its reach is only about 1,300 miles, so we'll have to go down in Sioux Falls for a refuel and then continue on to Seattle. Someone will pick us up there and get us to Cascade."


"Seems kinda impractical for the Primes of North America to live that far north," Tony said distractedly because the plane truly was very shiny and new looking. 


"It's home," Blair said easily. "Ready to check it out? I swear, it's such a sweet little ride."


Eagerly following, Tony got on board and learned quite a bit about the Dornier. He had known that the Council owned two private planes and regularly chartered many more besides, but it was a whole different thing to actually step foot in one, never mind get to fly across the country in it. He truly felt like a little pampered prince because once they were in the air, service was excellent, the food and drinks were of very high quality, and there was even a forty inch TV installed to allow them to watch over 300 cable TV channels.


Not that Blair was interested in watching TV. During the first hour of the flight, he formalized their agreement for Tony to be trained with a contract that entailed an honest to god guardianship clause, because apparently people could be raging assholes where latents or new guides and sentinels were concerned. In essence, Tony gave Blair the right to decline offers and break contracts on his behalf if he felt that they wouldn't be in Tony's best interest. There was also a paragraph detailing compensation – Tony actively didn't pay attention to that because he was too fucking old to get a trainee salary, thank you very much.

 

After that bit of weirdness, Blair told Tony more about the Cascade pride and the guide he'd chosen to accompany him and manage his empathic encroachment. Since both Stacy and Lakshmee had a distinct empathic feel to them, Blair was confident that Tony would like his choice. After that, they talked a bit about the homesick vibes Tony was giving off, and, following that, about Gibbs. 


"It's not unusual that mundanes latch onto latent guides," Blair explained. "He'd have liked you even if you were human, I'm sure, but you've always been latent and obviously put a lot of effort into being a comfort to him. He's experiencing withdrawal, you could say, and not just a mild case either, if he's as depressed as you made it sound."


"I didn't know that," Tony sighed. "Will he get over it? He's had enough crap happen in his life, I don't want him to suffer any more."


"Well, he has some serious baggage from what you've told me, so he'll have to work on that to lighten his negative empathic load." Blair pursed his lips. "He's in a tough position, but I think he'll be able to bounce back eventually. It's good that he's already doing therapy. That'll help a lot."


"Since you're mentioning therapy ... can I continue my sessions with Larry?" Tony asked. "I'd rather not start over with someone new."


"Of course, Larry already asked me the same thing. As long as you can work out a schedule that's good for you both, I will keep out of it. However, I'd like to make another attempt at empathic healing. You've come along quite nicely on the talk therapy front and I want to see whether that's having an impact on your reaction to empathic stimulus."


"Do I have to?"


"Let's try, and if it still doesn't work out for you, we'll continue as before," Blair reassured him. "We'll go at your pace, but we'll prod a little when we think that you're ready to go a little faster."


"Okay, fair. One try." Tony sipped on his water. "Say ... could I ..." He hesitated, suddenly certain that asking for what was on his mind would be beyond insolent. 


Blair, of course, was having none of it. "Just ask, Tony. I'll answer any questions you have if I'm able."


Feeling ashamed, as if he were a greedy kid asking for more sweets after already having been indulged, he murmured, "Is ... can people sit in on those Council sessions you've told me about? The judgement sessions?"


"Normally not," Blair replied, not unkindly. "Allowing the general public to attend would be a violation of our Code, and people know this. Some still ask, of course, because it is human nature to want to see the evil among us. It'll be different for you, though. You're my probie now, and in order to teach you everything you need to know, I'll need to let you see into the heart of my work. It doesn't mean that you'll ever have much to do with Council business, but it is a given that one day you'll emerge as a high-level and high-order guide, and so it is inevitable that you'll be asked to take up some sort of leading position in our community. For that, you need to know the ins and outs of our judicial system."


"Well, seems like I won't lose my ties to law enforcement, after all," Tony tried to joke, even if his heart wasn't in it. 


"It can only help to maintain contacts; it definitely does for Jim and I," Blair said. "And also, already having a strong moral compass - and a definite sense for right and wrong - makes it so much easier to adhere to the universal rules and to judge people accordingly. You're a protector, Tony. You'd just protect your tribe in a different manner than before."


"Hm."


"Anyway," Blair brightened up and clapped his hands. "December is upon us, meaning that you'll probably get roped into a lot of our shenanigans. Jim pretends to hate the season, but he'll be the first to spend time at the orphanages and Santa's Workshop. I'll get you a full list of volunteer activities, and if you feel the Christmas groove, you're more than welcome to chip in. If not, that's cool, too, so no pressure. It's just a big deal in our pride, so don't be surprised if people try to recruit you."


Tony winced. "I'm not very good with kids."


"They can smell your fear," Blair agreed sagely, which, strangely, did not make Tony feel any better. "But there are many activities that don't require time with kids. You wouldn't be the only one who'd rather nope out of that. Your new emotional support guide, incidentally, is practically kid-phobic."


"Good man," Tony decided. "If it is a man."

 

"It is a man," Blair chuckled. "Speaking of men, it came to my attention that you had a couple of hot dates these last few weeks?"


"Uh, yeah." Tony flushed. "Why?"


Blair peered intently at Tony. "One of them was Dr. Daniel Jackson. I know him from way back, when we were both still attending university. He's ... special. And he sought you out."


Remembering the way Jackson had sought him out still made Tony's fingers and toes tingle. "Was that bad?" he asked anxiously. "Gavin told me that it was fine because my interview with Daniel's colonel had officially ended. He's not in trouble, is he?"


"No, he isn't. I talked to him a couple of days ago, as a matter of fact, and he told me to greet you."


"Uhm, I don't want to be rude, but why? Does he want to see me again or something?"


"Yes, although regrettably not in the manner you might think." Blair grinned. "He is of the impression that there's something about you that might be a fit for the organisation he works for."


"The Air Force?" Tony grimaced. 


"Not just the Air Force. It's complicated and I can't say any more about it. I just wanted to warn you that someone might put feelers out during the next few months. I did tell him that I wouldn't approve a transfer from NCIS to his employer before you were online, and that your full, informed consent was mandatory. Like, so mandatory that it won't ever be funny."


"Yikes, that bad?"


Blair sighed and nodded.


"Thanks for that. It's still weird how much people are trying to recruit me, especially the Air Force. What the hell?" Tony admitted. "As a mundane, I understood, because I'm good at my job. But as a guide? No idea what they could want from me, except maybe sniff out perverts, and I'm sure there already are plenty of talented people for that."


"Not just the Air Force," Blair repeated. "Practically everyone is circling, now that you've left D.C. You've been building a reputation for years - people were watching. As to the guide stuff: It's actually a hugely important matter, and it's not actually about perverts." Blair paused, visibly thinking over what he wanted to say before continuing, "In recent years, every single government agency has been infiltrated by moles, and a lot of people, ours and mundanes, are working hard to uncover them. Your sensitivity would be a huge boon in that effort - you apparently can feel around devices that had even me stumped. A guide with that ability could name their price and would be paid without question."


"Huh. But Jim could hear it. He's not the only one, is he?"


Blair shook his head. "Of course not, although there aren't many others. As you can imagine, everyone who can is definitely needed elsewhere due to their rank in the community and simply don't have the time to play truffle pig for the government."


Tony chewed on his lower lip. "Sort of arrogant to assume that I would have the time. Also, it sounds dreadfully boring."


"Very," Blair agreed. "Although, to be fair, you would meet a lot of important people, if not all of them."


"Yeah, and paint a huge target on my back while I'm at it," Tony retorted. His expression became speculative. "How unethical would it be to really profit from their desperation?"


Blair smirked. "A lot of it is a problem of their own making, so I wouldn't lose any sleep over it. Besides, it's just as unethical to press-gang someone into srevice and not pay them what they're worth. They tried that once with someone Daniel knows. They regretted it, deeply." He glanced at his watch and then stretched. "We'll touch down soon. Are you in the mood for some unsolicited advice?"


"Hit me," Tony sighed. It wasn't like he didn't need it.


"I get that you know this already, but you definitely need to hear it again. Working as a guide is so vastly different than working as a federal agent that it is easy to get caught up in the alphabet soup's webs." Blair smiled wryly. "Their go-to strategy is to appeal to a guide's empathy."


"By that you mean that they try to high-jack a guide's biological imperative?" Tony asked dryly.


"Yes, exactly that. They will try, they always do, most likely with some sob story about a sentinel in need, and if it isn't a sentinel, it's other guides or even mundanes, and nearly always the security of the free world is at risk. Heady stuff, in short, designed to make you feel important and needed."


"Wow, sounds absolutely charming," Tony said. "Makes me want to emigrate to French Polynesia under a new name and with five million dollars in cash yesterday."


Blair laughed. "Yeah, Jim had a rant about that a time or five. Fact is, during their recruitment efforts they will offend, either knowingly or unknowingly. I recommend not rejecting their offers outright, anyway."


"Way to take a man's fun away." Tony smirked.


"I know, it's terrible, and I'm very sorry." Blair did look sorry. "Seriously, listen to their proposals and ask as many questions as you can. In your case, it won't even be strange, you being a trained investigator and on their recruitment plan for that exact reason. That'll force them to play nice for a while and give you time to feel them out empathically past their first too-good-to-be-true pitch. It'll also give us time to decide how to kick their asses should they overstep."


"I take it their recruiters are somewhat trained in empathic shielding?" Tony asked. "Because if they're not, how could even the most gullible sentinels and guides fall for it?"


"Yes, they are, even the mundanes, but more often than not they'll send other sentinels or guides, as a gesture of seeming good will."


Tony frowned. "Rat bastards. Why was Fawley being such an asshole, then, if the SGFBI wants me?"


"Because being a guide doesn't mean he respects latents the same way he does online guides and sentinels ... and because he's an actual idiot with more ambition than sense." Blair's blue eyes got a little hard. "The SGFBI deserved the rejection it got, but others will go about it much more smartly and send their nicest representatives first. Take your time to meet others from their club to get the full picture, and if you decide that law enforcement or government jobs aren't for you anymore, Jim and I will have your back. There'll be no press-ganging on our watch, and should someone actually try to kidnap you ... well, Jim hasn't had a good hunt in months. He would welcome the opportunity to brush up his skills."


"He would go to war for someone not of his pride?" Tony couldn't fathom it, not even with Gibbs' rather famous rampages to get his people back when they got lost as a reference. 


"You are of our pride, now," Blair corrected. "And to be honest, you were ever since we met you in that retreat in August. I suspected right away that we would meet again, and here we are." He smiled when Tony's frown became a scowl. "Relax, you know that any alpha would go to war if one of theirs were to suddenly vanish under suspicion of foul play. Jim just happens to also be the Alpha Prime of the continent, and also an ex-army ranger, which conveniently ups your chances of recovery by a large margin."


"You're not making it any better," Tony griped. A chime sounded and the fasten seatbelt signs flipped on.


"The thing is," Blair continued, quite unperturbed by Tony's bad mood, "that you'll absolutely work for the privilege. I'm not even joking, man. There's so much you'll have to learn, and there are so many people you'll have to meet. Everything I'm going to teach you will enable you to work for our community, and later the community you choose to join. It's only fair that we protect and care for you for your efforts."


"You know already that I won't be staying with your pride?" Tony asked. The thought was oddly disappointing. 


Blair smiled then. "I think we both know that Cascade would be way too small for you, Tony. There's an urge in you to go out and explore, to see the world. And that's not even taking the sentinel longing into account. Until you've found him or her, there's no telling where you'll land."


"It's getting better right now, though. It's always gotten better when I was heading west. Gavin was definitely on to something," Tony admitted, touching his chest where the annoying pull was nearly dormant. "Maybe I'll find my sentinel in Cascade, after all?"


"It's just the adjustment phase," Blair said. "Right now it might the right direction, but as soon as your sentinel spidey sense has had a change to readjust, it'll begin again. I'm not saying your sentinel couldn't be in Cascade or somewhere close to it, just that it's quite unlikely. You'll have to wait and see."


Twenty minutes later, the plane was touching down on a landing strip of the Sioux Falls Regional Airport. The weather was dreadful, though thankfully not dreadful enough to make flying a nightmare. Still, the flurry of snow and mushy sludge on the ground was cause enough for Tony to worry about his lungs. 


"We can stay aboard," Blair said, "but if you want to stretch your legs, we can go and get a bite to eat."


"Do we even have enough time?" Tony hedged. 


Blair's understanding look was almost too much. "We do. Our pilot scheduled an hour for our break; he needs to get out for a bit, too."


"I'm sorry," Tony blurted out. "I know that I'm being stupid, my lungs have been quite alright during the last few weeks and Brad practically salivated over my new bronchial tubes, but it's ..."


"I get it, Tony," Blair said quietly. "That time I died? I actually drowned, and that scummy fountain basin water was no picnic on my lungs. That's not on par with the plague, I know that, but I do know how it feels to always have to worry. That being said, Jim, as well as Beau and a couple of his men, told me that you do sound better now. It's not a dream, and no one is fucking with you. Taking you to Cascade would not have been possible otherwise."


"They really said so?" Tony asked, cautiously hopeful. 


"I'd never joke about something like this, Tony," Blair replied. "Trust your doctor if you can't trust Jim. You still have to be careful, of course, but you won't catch pneumonia if you're out in cold weather for ten minutes. To make up for it, we can get you a green juice; they have a fantastic juice bar at the airport."


Tony was very alright with that, and in short order they had both bundled up in their coats and covered the lower half of their faces with their scarves. The two flight assistants switched gears from helpful service to badass security in the blink of an eye, respectfully walking a couple of yards behind Blair and Tony while very obviously being their menacing shadow. 


Inside the airport, Blair led them straight to the juice bar and ordered four wheat grass shots with ginger and lemon. Tony nearly balked at the smell, but when the other three downed theirs without a twitch, he followed suit and only gagged a little. After that, it was tea for him and Blair, and nothing for their shadows. 


For the most part, they were able to wander around undisturbed. A whiskey store reminded Tony of Kinsdale and Potter and he bought a bottle of eighteen year old Yamazaki with the full intention of teasing them with it via Skype. Just once a woman accosted Blair and asked for an autograph, although she kept glancing at Tony with undisguised curiosity and even looked over her shoulder at him once Blair had kindly but firmly sent her on her way.


"Do I have to get used to that while I am around you?" Tony asked. "It wasn't such a problem in D.C., or was it?"


"The D.C. crowd is fairly used to celebrities," Blair said, "and in Cascade people only rarely come up and ask for photos or autographs anymore. They will be curious about you, though. To that end, your guide companion will manage your e-mail and work with you to field the media attention."


"The what now?" Tony asked, appalled. "I'm there to study guide stuff, not be a fucking celeb."


Blair snorted and was echoed by his shadows. "I didn't know you could be that naive, Tony."


"I'm not naive," he protested. "I just ..." Tony ran a hand over his face. "Fuck. Honestly, what the fuck?"


"I don't quite understand," Blair admitted. "You're not shy, and you know that you look good. Heck, you know how people follow Jim and I around. So what is the issue?" 


"I'm an undercover asset," Tony hissed, suddenly angry. "I can forget that now, can't I? Everybody and their mothers will have seen me, won't they?"


Blair looked stricken. "I thought you knew. When you left NCIS for your sabbatical, I thought it was for more than just for emerging because you've been so understanding about it all, and you've read all of the material they gave you. I know that Gavin talked to you about it several times and Larry dedicated a few sessions to it as well."


"They did, yeah," Tony admitted with a growl. "Apparently I still didn't really get it. Not the part where my usefulness in one of my best skills is at an end!"


"Oh, boy. Undercover work for a guide of your calibre would be difficult no matter what, and being unbonded at the time would almost be better than bonded because it would drive your sentinel crazy to have to share you with strangers," Blair said carefully. "I really, honestly thought you knew how much things would change for you because of your probable rating."


"Fuck." Tony clenched his hands to fists and released them. "It's not your fault, but I'm furious right now. This ... this whole thing just keeps on sucking and sucking me in and it's ..." He broke off, searching for a word that would express his ire sufficiently. 


"Let's return to the plane," Blair murmured and prodded Tony forward with his bag, away from the already furtively staring travellers. "You're projecting and people are getting worried."


Taking a deep breath, Tony allowed himself to be led back to the plane. Once they were safely inside, he accepted a fresh cup of tea and a plate of apple slices with peanut butter from one of the shadows. 


"It's hard to stay angry when I'm being spoiled and coddled like a child," he said, playing with the label of the tea bag. "But I want to be angry. I deserve to be angry."


"You do," Blair agreed. "The problem is that your well-deserved tantrum could severely impact innocent bystanders. I sort of wish you'd gotten it out of your system sooner, so the fallout would've been more manageable."


"I can still emigrate to French Polynesia." Tony glared at his hands. "Maybe I am naive. And an idiot."


"You're nothing of the sort." Blair chucked his coat and plopped down in the seat across from Tony. "The way I see it, you're way too used to soldiering on without stopping to recalibrate. None of us really caught that, and that's on us. It's good that you're willing to take the time to have a freak-out because that's healthy. For your mental health, it's important to let go of negative feelings, and meditation can only take you so far. Sometimes we just have to get loud and aggressive to find our balance again."


"This whole thing hangs over me like a thundercloud," Tony murmured. "I'll be having therapy for years, Blair. I do my best, no matter how much I hate it. But how am I supposed to freak out in peace when there are always people about?"


"Fair point," Blair admitted, "and one I'll get to as soon as I can. I wasn't exaggerating when I told you that you could impact others in untold ways. I was with you, shielding you, and they still noticed. Does that give you an idea of how worried I am for you and everyone around you?"


"I don't think I can push it down much longer." Tony wasn't joking; he was feeling fragile and it was horrifying. "It's like something's rising up in me."


Blair nodded. "I literally feel you and I promise you that we'll take care of it." He smiled sadly. "I'd love to give you a hug, man. Like, a really great hug to end all hugs. You so need it."


That broke Tony out of his funk and he managed a weak smile. "I really do. Thanks."


"One day I'll be able to give you that hug," Blair promised. "Just hang in there."


Mollified and feeling a little stupid for flipping out like that, Tony snagged an apple slice and stuffed it into his mouth. Blair took one as well and together they waited until the flight crew informed them that they would be off in just a few minutes. 


oOo


During the second leg of the journey, Blair empathically scanned Tony and explicitly gave him permission to prod at him in return. It was something for Tony to do, and he did it with childlike enthusiasm. Again he clung to Blair's presence and let himself be dragged around like a remora, like a sucker fish that attached itself to sharks and other big marine animals. When it was his turn to pull Blair along, the newness of the sensation was so overwhelming that he flung them both right out of the meditation. 


"That tickled," he smiled. "Again?"


Blair laughed. "Sure thing." 


And they were off again, Tony trying to endure Blair's proverbial tickling fingers around his equally proverbial arm, and Blair trying to be as passive as he could. 


Together, they roamed through Tony's empathic landscape and took in the sights. Mount Doom was off-limits today as it looked ready to erupt, but as Tony was keen on distracting himself, discovering more about the recently appeared rainforest in the distance seemed like the perfect thing to do. Not even the reluctance bleeding off his passenger slowed him down. 


Tony was gliding over the hills and valleys and gorges, his mind's eyes firmly on his goal. To his great frustration, it barely came closer, although his surroundings did darken again in that fascinating blue-ish tint and the cries of the animals got louder. 


Finally, Blair tugged him back to reality so they could get ready for the landing. Tony swore to himself that he'd find a way to reach that rainforest, and to find out what kinds of animals were living there. If he couldn't blow his top in peace, then this was the next best thing, even if Blair didn't seem thrilled.


oOo


The weather in Seattle was even less welcoming than in Sioux Falls, but to both Blair and Tony's relief, a black SUV was waiting for them right there on the tarmac and saved them from being covered in snow. It'd be a short drive to Cascade, so Tony figured it would be bearable in the relative comfort of the car, despite the sleet and the sharp winds. 


Out of necessity, introductions to their driver and escort were short. Tony learned the names of the backup team, but they never left their own vehicle, just waved when Blair pointed them out. 


As soon as they were on the road, Blair called Jim and informed them that they had landed safely and were en route to their house. 


Tony spent the forty minutes the trip took to look out of his window, getting a first impression of his new neighbourhood. Cascade wasn't a beauty, not exactly, but it had cleaned up nicely since Jim and Blair had taken over as the alpha pair. Tony remembered the news frenzy a decade or so ago when Blair and Jim had ascended to the Prime positions and chosen to remain in their dingy little Washington State city instead of relocating to somewhere bigger and more accessible.


Yes, Ellison's ties to the Cascade PDs were obviously bearing fruit on the crime front, and Blair's social engagement did wonders for the community as a whole. Even now, in this terrible weather, Tony spied people picking up what little trash was lying around, and the streets were also completely free of drifters. 


 "You've got your people well trained," he remarked, impressed. 


Blair smiled. "Thank you. It was a long road, but we're finally in a place where people don't scoff at being paid rather well for menial tasks. It still skirts the lower edge of living wage, but to offset that Jim has bought condemned buildings, sent people in for repairs, and opened them for our least fortunate community members. There's oversight, of course, because getting them back in a good place just takes time. Homelessness has gone down a lot since we started the program, as has unemployment, and for that we're grateful. Dignity, man, it's one of the basic pillars of society."


 "How are you paying for all that?" Tony asked.


 "In the beginning, we put nearly all of Jim's money into the project. The Council supported us as much as possible, but once that money was tied up, we had to rely on donations and community service. It was slow going in the beginning, but man, good deeds bring about good karma and people noticed a couple of years in. Now, we have a lot of events to bring people together."


"I read about your meet'n'greets." Tony smirked. "I can't believe people really go for it."


"You'd be surprised. Also, they're purely social because genetic matching is still in its infancy and Jim and I are against relying on just on that. Personality plays a big role in matching. You've witnessed how it works yourself - it just does. We merely ease the way and give our people a safe place to meet."


Tony chuckled. "Pride-sanctioned drinking, must be fun."


"Nah, most of us don't get smashed anymore." Blair smiled softly. "Which is a good thing since we also match families; our Patchwork Parties during the first two weeks of May are super popular for kids and parents looking for family. International Kid's Day is on September 20th and if a kid and the prospective parents still like each other after the summer, we're assisting with the adoption process."


"Only S&G kids? Like, online kids?" Tony couldn't help but ask. 


"Unfortunately, although we usually keep latents that are close to coming online for their own safety. Mundane kids don't fall under our authority, so it's hard to see them go into the system." Blair sighed. "We can't save everyone, but we try. Our kids might not have the best of everything, but they have what they need."


"Time with you?" Tony asked quietly. 


"Yeah, man. Those who can, generously donate their time to make sure that those kids can have a good childhood. It's work, but it's rewarding and our community is strong because of it." Blair smiled a little sadly. "I wish I could have had this when I was young. I had my mom, but she was ... elsewhere, most of the time. Both physically and mentally."


"I know from remote parents," Tony said softly. 


They stopped in front of a four-storey building and got out. Four armed security guards courteously escorted them from the car to the entrance, their luggage right behind them. 


Inside, it quickly became clear that extensive work had been done on the house. A large part of the ground floor had been transformed into a reception and leisure area with long, comfy looking couches, a large fireplace and an open kitchen in the back. Restrooms were both to the left and right, and in the left back corner, next to to the kitchen, three computers stood on sleek, minimalist work tables. 


"Nice," Tony said, taking in the soft, earthy colours and large plants. Much like in Kinsdale's office in D.C., the pictures on the wall were large but unobtrusive and didn't offer much for a sentinel to get lost in. The whole room had a pleasing air of openness about it, even if the furniture and applications were all of high quality and meant to last. "Your private little club house?"


Blair grinned. "You get used to it. The private rooms on the upper floors are all soundproofed, though, and you'll have your own TV, in case you need to be alone. Speaking of which, let's get you settled in. It's not too late yet for a nap before dinner, or some vegging out in front of the TV if you're not tired."


It was kind of Blair to act like he didn't know how exhausted Tony was. Tony repaid that kindness by promising to test out his new bed for a while and let Blair wake him up when it was time for dinner. 


Alone in the small apartment that was going to be his for the foreseeable future, Tony left his luggage where Blair's people had put it and just grabbed the little penlight from his carrier bag. Its blue light warmed and soothed him and smoothed away the unpleasant, pressing sensation in his chest and the gnawing in his stomach.


Two hours later he and Blair slouched in front of Tony's TV and ate Chinese food out of cartons. Blair only talked when Tony did and otherwise seemed content to just let him be until Tony was ready for bed.


oOo


Breakfast was an involved affair in the Alpha Prime household. Blair asked Tony to join him in the loft, where he was plied with artisan bread, poached eggs and a veggie stir fry so delicious that Tony couldn't help but ask for the recipe. 


Afterwards, over cups of kona coffee, Blair briefed him on today's agenda. 


"First thing for you is getting to know everyone who comes here regularly, like service and security personnel. You'll meet the others living here tonight. They often meet for dinner downstairs, as it saves money and keeps us updated on what's going on around us. Since you already promised to cook, feel free to claim a night on the calendar. Benny, our housekeeper, will do the shopping or accompany you, in case you want anything special. He knows all the best places."

"And then?" Tony asked. 


Blair cocked his head. "Is that not enough for a first day? I know you like meeting people, but you should allow yourself some time to just ... arrive. Ideally, you'd join me in meditation, that's always good, but other than that just chill out, remember the names of our awesome support staff, and get settled in."


"I don't think that's such a good idea, actually," Tony admitted. "I'm still ... wired. Thinking too much could ..." He waved his hand vaguely. 


"Hm." Blair eyed him thoughtfully. "You're a little tense, but you don't feel especially volatile. But you know yourself better than anybody else, so. What would you like to do? I'm at your disposal, man."


Relieved that Blair was being so understanding, Tony suggested doing the tourist thing by hopping on a bus and getting the highlights in one afternoon, and maybe get some shopping in for his kitchen afterwards. 


"Kirsty is cooking tonight," Blair informed him. "She always does ribs with lots of green stuff. Why don't you write a list for Benny to take care of, that way you'll have some time to prepare for meeting everybody." He grinned. "They're a hardy bunch, you might need it."


As it was already past ten, Tony helped with the clean-up and then followed Blair on his way down to the ground floor, where a lanky young man was busy in the kitchen. 


"Hey Alpha," he called right as they cleared the stairs, "and hey Mr. DiNozzo."


Blair laughed. "Tony, this is Sentinel Benny Riker. Benny, this is Tony DiNozzo, fresh out of D.C."


"Nice to meet you, man! The doc has told us you were coming and that you were all pretty-like. He wasn't lying, damn." Benny grinned. He looked to be in his mid-twenties and was attractive in a slightly rough farm boy way. "So, it's like this. Housekeeping is my calling, I don't care if you poke at me for it. But if you're too mean, I might not get you prime veg and stuff, you get me?"


"I'd never," Tony assured him. "Blair already told me that you're my go-to man for the specialities."


"Yup, sure am." Benny held out his hand. "You got a list for me, so give it over - I can smell the biro you used to write it. I'll try to get everything but I might call the Alpha if anything's unclear."


"Or you could call me directly. I wrote my number on the list," Tony said, handing it over. "Thanks for your help."


Benny waved him off. "It's my pleasure, gets me out and about and I can keep an eye on the Alphas' city. Win-win and all that."


"Don't go too crazy," Blair said as Benny made to leave. "Jim's already put out about missing rib night, we don't need to tease him with a ton of leftovers."


"Yes, sir! Have a great day!"


"Cheeky brat," Blair muttered but smiled. "On to the basement. We have four phenomenal ladies overseeing the cleaning and washing. For the right bribes, they might even iron your shirts and shine your shoes."


In short order, Tony was introduced to, and thoroughly charmed by, four ladies of Mexican descent, two of them sentinels and two of them guides. It was a surprise at first, but it turned out that they actually loved keeping house for their Alpha Primes; it was their contribution to their protection. They took a shine to Tony in turn, exclaiming over his looks and his empathic feel, which apparently made him appear to be in dire need of mothering.


"We cook for you soon," the oldest of the ladies threatened. "You're almost skinny!" Behind her, the others began to talk in rapid Spanish, most of which made Tony feel like a six-year-old. "Dr. Blair will give us evening in kitchen."


"Already noted," Blair agreed, very obviously suppressing a smirk. 


"Good. Tony, you be a good boy and not make too much of a mess for us, yes? Read information paper."


Tony took her hands. "I promise, Conchita. I'll be good."


"Hmpf, men always say that." But she felt flattered and pleased and on that positive note, Tony and Blair left for their bus tour around the city. 


oOo


"Do you always take security with you, even in your own city?" Tony asked as they drove by Cascade's highest building. 


"Jim would kill me if I didn't," Blair said and shrugged. "And it's okay. Really," he added when Tony raised sceptical eyebrows. "My position as Alpha Prime has kind of instilled a sense of ... importance in my work. I'm not trying to sound arrogant, but in order to do my work, I need to be safe, just like my people need to make sure that I'm safe. Does that make sense?"


"I think so. Although it does seem rather restricting." Tony sighed. "It's one of those things I'll only really get once I'm online, right?"


"I'm afraid so." Blair pointed at a bakery. "Look, that's where we get most of our bread and sweet stuff. They're fantastic."


As the tour progressed, Blair pointed out many S&G-friendly businesses and then got off the bus when his old police station came into view. 


"I've got to introduce you anyway," he said when Tony tried to resist. "It'll just take a few minutes."


Of course it took a lot longer than that. A couple of Blair's old colleagues, who were still there, made much of the visit, dragged the whole group to the coffee shop around the corner for the good stuff, and settled in to grill the newcomer. Discovering that he was a fed led to some ribbing and good-natured slurs, and an invitation to their next poker evening. 


"It's not like you can sniff us out like Jim," Henri said with a grin. "Playing him for more than pennies isn't fun at all. And who plays for pennies, anyway?"


"Not me," a handsome man in his forties said, winking at Tony. "I play for favours, sometimes."


"Rafe," Blair groaned. "Didn't you have a girlfriend last week?"


"Went back to her ex," Rafe replied, not looking too beat up about it, and the rest laughed.


Tony liked the bunch and accepted when Blair gave a subtle nod. Even the probable presence of Simon Banks, the captain of the PD, didn't discourage him, despite his vow not to get too involved with people in leading positions while he was on his sabbatical. 


Fifteen minutes later they were back on the bus and finished the tour, just in time for Blair to catch a call from Jim about the business in Charlotte. Tony went up to his apartment and, upon finding a sticky note at his door, immediately checked the kitchen for the shopping. 


Since dinner wouldn't be for another couple of hours, Tony prepared himself a plate of veggie slices and hummus, sank into the sinfully comfy couch in front of the TV and just came down from the day. Although he hadn't been unduly stressed, he was man enough to admit that Blair had been right and some time to just relax was very much needed, after all. 


oOo


Dinner was a complete contrast to his alone time. Nine people were milling around the ground floor, three of them busy in the kitchen, two manning the bar, and the rest enjoying drinks and watching a JAGs game with one eye while the rest of their attention was on each other. 


"Hey, Tony!" Blair called and waved him over. "There you are. What would you like to drink? Beer? Cider? We even have a couple bottles of wine if you're in the mood for something fancier."


"Just water, thanks," Tony replied and accepted the tall glass with a nod. 


"Guys, this is Tony," Blair said. "I'm afraid I already told them a little about you due to your sensitivity and whatnot, so I'll just start with the introductions." He nodded at a young man in his early thirties who looked casually handsome in blue jeans and a graphic T-shirt. "This is Mason, your guide conservator. I was promised that he'd be on his best behaviour tonight, but I wouldn't count on it."


"Hey, man," Mason greeted and held out his hand for a shake. "Wow, you project a lot even with Blair present. I guess I'll earn my keep after all." He grinned when Blair rolled his eyes. "Anyway, I'm a University of Washington graduate, I majored in psychology and public health, in case that's somehow important to you."


"Will you keep me from eating fast food?" Tony asked and gave the man a one-over. He looked like a fit beach bum, more or less, but that didn't mean anything when it came to food. From vegan to surf'n'turf everything was possible.


"Nah, but I might point you in a better direction," Mason replied easily. "Might not even be an issue anymore, the way the Alpha described your sensitivity. If it's getting stronger, you might soon be picking up food vibes. We can test it out, and then you can tell me all about it."


Tony laughed out loud. "That's a deal."


Next was Sandra, a strong, large woman with long, dark hair and equally dark eyes. She also was a sentinel and turned out to be the head of Blair and Jim's personal security team, which explained why she was living in the building with the alphas. Her partner Henry did the bookkeeping for the Alpha Primes and seemed like a true intellectual, glasses and dry humour included. Tony was determined to get on both of their good sides.


The same went for Dina and Clive, a guide and sentinel respectively but not bonded, and working both as coordinators for the many social projects Blair had implemented. Next was the hot female same-sex pair that was a little star in the making. Samira and Rebecca went to alpha school with Blair and Jim as mentors, and would take over Texas when the local pair was ready to retire. 


"And this is Peter," Blair said, introducing a handsome man in his late forties. "My assistant, and the one who keeps me sane. Jim has an assistant as well, of course; he went to Charlotte with him to keep his appointments straight. You'll meet him once they're back."


Peter hesitated only a moment to offer his hand, but he did, and wow, was that a whammy. A myriad of impressions, a lot of them snippy and snarky, rained down on Tony, nearly choking him.


"You're an asshole," Tony blurted out, which made a good portion of the room break out into guffaws. Flushing, he said, "I'm sorry."


"Oh, don't bother, you're perfectly right," Peter said smugly. "I see that reports of your sensitivity haven't been exaggerated. Fascinating."


"Peter has a perfect shield," Blair explained as he wiped tears from his eyes. "Touch sensitives sometimes get something from him, but that's all, and that's perfect for me because, well, security." He giggled again. "And man, your face! You'll get along like a house on fire."


Peter smirked and Tony conceded that yes, he'd probably come to like the asshole a lot if he allowed it.


Then there was only one left, a guide, if Tony's spidey sense was informing him correctly, and contrary to all the others, she hated him on sight. 


"Tony, meet Kirsty, the resident rib magician," Blair said and ushered Tony along to the kitchen island where she was still preparing her dinner. "She's here for advanced studies."


"Nice to meet you," Tony said bravely, although her hostility was battering against the shields both Blair and Mason had thrown up around him. He winced a little. 


"Hi," she replied coolly, the words perfectly on par with her ice cold, beautiful looks. Her cool gaze shifted to Blair. "Dinner is ready in thirty minutes, Alpha."


"Thank you, Kirsty. If you need help, just holler."


Tony beat a hasty retreat and sank into the long couch in front of the fireplace. The female pair joined him there, one of them on each side. 


Samira, the guide, shook her head. "Don't worry about her, Tony. She doesn't like anyone, not really. It's nothing personal."


It had felt fucking personal, Tony thought, but he kept that to himself.


Samira's sentinel snorted. "She hates us and everyone knows it. Most days I think that she hates the Alpha, too. Heck, the Alphas have been on edge for months with her here. She's too much like she who must not be named."


"Who?" Tony asked, confused. 


"Alex Barnes, the sentinel that abducted and briefly killed the Alpha Prime Guide."


It wasn't that well remembered because it had happened long before Blair and Jim had even bonded, but Tony had read their biography and knew exactly how awful that whole business had been for both men.


Seeing that he was able to follow, Samira said, "It's not just her looks, she feels wrong." She glanced at the woman in the kitchen. "I don't like to gossip, but you - especially you - need to know what's going on with her because you can't shield yourself, yet."


"She's medically crazy," Rebecca said bluntly. "Blair is trying hard to keep her out of a mental institution, but it's a lost cause if you ask me. Some people can't be helped." Her grey-eyed, direct stare made Tony sit up and take notice. "Watch out, okay? She hates you, and she has a history of assault. As I said, not unlike you-know-who."


"Jesus, why me," Tony muttered. He gulped down half of his water, wishing that it was something stronger and simultaneously feeling glad that it wasn't. "I just managed to avoid a predator. I didn't know I would jump into the fire by coming here."


"Some people have all the luck," Rebecca said with a straight face. 


"Hoorah."


Samira looked at him, startled. "How do you know?"


"That she's a Marine?" Tony gave her his best bitch-please-look. "One, I'm an NCIS agent, I deal with those bastards practically every day, and two ... just look at her. Tough as nails, muscles like rope cords, perfect military posture, and that face. I can never let her meet my boss, they'd take over the Corps in a New York minute."


"Maybe not," Rebecca said dismissively. "I left the service because too many of my superiors were swines with an unhealthy interest in my civilian guide. As I said, some people can't be reformed. They can rot for all I care."


Turning to Samira, Tony asked, "What's your story? I got a lot from you, too, but more like a colourful explosion, not structured like your sentinel at all."


"Oh, that's actually lovely." Samira smiled and blushed a little. "I'm an artist. I paint, mainly, but I also craft when it catches my fancy. It was a strange match, initially, but Becky really hated the Navy when we met, so it wasn't a hardship for her to leave."


"And you'll soon take over a whole state," Tony said. "That's one hell of a career change. Texas is huge; I wouldn't know where to start."


"We didn't, either, and initially we weren't going to do it," Rebecca said. 


"But people kept deferring to us and inviting us to community meetings," Samira sighed. "It was overwhelming, at first. Having the natural tools for leadership does not mean that you'll be good at it. It was actually a fascinating conundrum, us begging off and people wanting to be near us and elevate us to an Alpha status because of our rating. The actual Texas alpha pair wasn't happy, as you can imagine, for a variety of reasons."


"It got so bad that Blair eventually intervened and came to talk to us about it. We're strong, you can probably feel that even as a latent, and that we're female ... well. The Alpha Prime Guide is all about gender equality and as the only female alpha pair in the U.S. he was lobbying hard for us to take up the mantle." Rebecca looked pleased about that, at least, and Tony couldn't fault her for that. "He offered us so much in the way of resources and his own time that we caved eventually."


"Of course we did," Samira said softly. "It's a duty and a privilege to guide our people and we'll at least try." She smiled wryly. "It isn't like the urge isn't there. It's the confidence that's lacking."


As it does in so many otherwise qualified women, Tony thought regretfully, and yeah. He had been first in line to harass Kate when he'd noticed that she tended to cover up her insecurities by lashing out. It wasn't politically correct, not by any stretch of the imagination, but it had worked for her and given her the confidence she needed to master the training for her job at NCIS. It had also inured her against sexist bullshit, and Tony prided himself of the fact that, while he could be a colossal asshole on occasion, he was at least an asshole that taught normal people how to not just accept it, but fight back and stand up for themselves. 


"If Blair's teaching you, I'm sure you'll do great," he offered. 


"Thank you," Samira said and smiled sweetly. 


As if that signalled the end of the uncomfortable warning talk, Mason, Henry, and Sandra migrated over and struck up a conversation about the local sports bar situation. Everyone was a more or less rabid JAGs fan and since Tony had played basketball during his college years, he was quick to accept their invitation to watch the next game together. 


It was then that Peter meandered over, cider in hand and smirk on his lips. "Say, did you, by chance, play the final four a while back? Your name rings a bell."


"That's ancient history, but yes," Tony answered. "Both football and basketball, actually."


"I knew it. I was a college ball fan back then, recorded the finals religiously."


"Peter's a betting man," Mason said. 


"True. I studied the players to optimize my bets." The smirk grew wider. "You breaking your leg lost me four hundred dollars. Shame, your team would've walked through otherwise."


"I'm still a bit upset about it," Tony admitted. "But the guy who broke my leg saved my life later, so we're even, I guess."


"Do you still play?" Mason asked. "If we can get enough people together, we meet at the community sports hall downtown for a bit of fun."


"Sure, count me in." Eager not to have the evening be completely about him, Tony turned his attention to the hovering Dina and began questioning her about everything she was willing to tell him, slowly including all the others in his gentle interrogation. 


The conversation carried into dinner, which, Tony had to admit, was very good. Whatever faults Kirsty possessed, being a bad cook clearly wasn't one of them. To keep the peace, Tony even tried to draw her out, but she rebuffed him coolly and concentrated on the food on her plate. 


Rebecca rolled her eyes and Peter even snorted quietly. 


After dinner, Tony helped with the clean up and then excused himself for an early night. Blair accompanied him to his room, carefully closed the door behind them and finally flipped on the white noise generator. 


"I had hoped Kirsty would take to you," he said without preamble. 


"Rebecca and Samira filled me in a little. Said that she was very like that Barnes woman from way back when." Tony looked Blair over, frowning at his tense shoulders and unsmiling face. "Rebecca says that you probably won't be able to save her."


"She's right." Blair exhaled. "But I have to try. The thought of cutting someone of her strength off ... it hurts. Our community could use someone of her skill very much. The bond ... it's trying to form, at least from our side."


"And she keeps rejecting it." Tony crossed his arms over his chest. "What were you hoping to accomplish?"


"A Hail Mary to bring her around," Blair admitted, voice so quiet that Tony had to strain to understand him. "Jim and I, we tried everything. Meditation, ethics classes, community service ... nothing worked. She's just wired wrong. Sociopathic, at the very least."


"There's no trauma in her background?"


Blair sighed. "No, she grew up as privileged as can be. Was never mistreated or misused, at least not that I could see during the empathic scans. She just hates most people."


"Rebecca said she even hates you, and that's, frankly, bullshit. You feel like fucking sunshine." Tony gave up his defensive posture at Blair's weary slump. "What will happen? Because I won't be able to sleep with her in the house. I can find a hotel or something."


"You won't have to," Blair said tiredly. "I invited you here because you really need the training. My hope that you'd be able to somehow connect to her was just ... stardust. Sprinkles on top of the already existing circumstance sundae, so to speak. I'm sorry, I should have warned you."


"Blair, I don't know what to say." Tony carefully steered Blair to the couch and went to get them both a beer. After settling down next to the shaman, he tapped their bottles together. "She was here first. I understand. Okay?"


"Do you?" Blair murmured. He looked so lost. "The thing is that I don't know what to do with her now. I'm very aware of how dangerous she is."


"You'll take away her gifts, right?"


"She isn't avoiding the connection to the spirit plane like Trewellyan because she doesn't fear discovery of a crime. But Kirsty's like a lodestone of innate negativity so yes, I'll have to." Blair swallowed. "She could suffer for decades before she finally goes dormant, and she doesn't deserve that."


"And then?" Tony pressed. "Could she be integrated into the community after that? Letting a highly intelligent sociopath loose doesn't seem like the best idea."


"Don't we know it. Unfortunately, most dormants don't go that route." Blair took a deep drink from his bottle. "Being around what you've lost is too hard on them, and that's very understandable. Fuck. I don't know what to do."


"I hope you're not actually trying to use me as a sounding board," Tony said carefully. 


"Why not. I've thoroughly exhausted my circle of advisors and Jim is beginning to not like me very much." Blair leaned back, closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead.


"Because I'm the new kid. I don't have enough information, and even if I did, my job is to catch bad guys and girls, not decide about the lives of strangers who haven't committed a crime, yet. At least, not one they've done time for." Tony paused. "Even if she does most sincerely hate me and is a bitch about it."


"But what if you did have to decide?" Blair asked. "That shit is in your future, buddy, so be a babe and help a shaman out who just can't be objective. Please."


Tony cursed silently. "Do I have to?"


"No. But whatever you have to say, it'll hopefully give me something to think about."


"Look ... I'm an asshole so I'll be blunt. If Kirsty is a known menace to all of humankind, why don't you do what you have to do, have her assessed by mundanes afterwards and recommend they take her into custody. Recommend it really hard. If she's clever, they'll still find something worthwhile for her to do, and you can have an eye on that situation, right? Whoever is going to work with her shouldn't be allowed to misuse her, because her kind of crazy might well attract the shadier branches of the government. Or, you know, criminals."


"I can't decide which would be worse." Blair sighed deeply. "Thank you."


"Please don't thank me. I feel slimy just thinking about it," Tony replied dryly. "Seriously."


Blair turned around so he could look at Tony. In the near darkness, he appeared impossibly young, although he had around five years on Tony and had seen his fair share of human cruelty.


"It's good that you do," he said softly. "Something like this isn't ever meant to be taken lightly."


"First lesson, and the hardest, huh?"


"Something like that." Taking another sip, Blair huffed. "I shouldn't have hoped so much. It was unfair to you, and her."


"Why did you even hope she'd click with me?" Tony asked. "I'm not the easiest guy to get along with."


Blair's unimpressed look was a thing of beauty. "Pull the other one, man. The Center in D.C. almost didn't let me leave with you. I got a shovel talk from Beau, of all people. You also attracted Trewellyan like nobody's business and I thought that maybe you're ... forgive me ... crazy-nip."


"What-nip?" Tony demanded.


Blair laughed and it even sounded real. "You're my brother from another mother in that regard. I read your whole file, you know. You should have Jim tell you all about my adventures sometime. He claims it is a wonder he has any hair left."


"Well, my nip obviously wasn't the right one for that particular crazy person. I hope you've learned your lesson."


Blair ducked his head, still smiling but also genuinely remorseful. "Yes, sir."


"Okay." Tony huffed and finally relaxed. "Next time just ask."


Blair readily promised, stayed for an episode of the Simpsons, and left with the solemn promise to deal with Kirsty as soon as he was able. 


Another hour later, Tony was lying in bed and staring at the ceiling, wide awake. He'd checked the locks on his door twice, and after he'd gotten up a third time because that formless sensation of menace was still crawling over his skin, had jammed a chair beneath the knob. 


It was madness, but then again he'd never had to spend the night in a house with someone who hated him enough to entertain violent fantasies about his demise. 


He wished that he still had his gun, and swore that he'd pick one up at the earliest opportunity. 


Until then, he had his little penlight, and it was eager to work extra hard to chase away the shadows on his mind. 


oOo


It took almost a week for the Alpha Prime Guide to arrange for Kirsty to leave his home. To Tony's utter surprise, no one seemed to be overly stressed out by this, not even Kirsty herself. 


That didn't mean, of course, that everybody was happy about it. 


In fact, no one seemed happy, despite the others not liking Kirsty very much, or, indeed, at all. She was under 24/7 surveillance for everyone's protection and radiated fury like flowing lava radiated heat. There were also moments of utter desperation, too, and it was that that broke Tony's heart a little. He caught even Rebecca wiping her eyes more than once, even if her chin was stubbornly lifted. 


As Blair and his staff were busy with that situation, Tony was mostly left to his own devices. He used the time to acquaint himself with Mason and sort out the e-mail address Blair wanted him to have, among other things.


"Everyone who's closely associated with the Alpha gets one," Mason said, all zen in the face of Tony's huffiness. "It's not so much for you, you see. It's for us, so we can manage the flow of information, see what people want to know about you. I'll play firewall for you and send everyone packing who's a douche."


"Everyone's a douche, no e-mail address necessary," Tony griped. 


Mason smirked. "No can do. But you can tell me what's absolutely off-limits."


"Everything," Tony said darkly. "I mean that. No one will even write. Why would they? It's fucking ridiculous."


 "Uh-huh." Mason hummed, made a note onto his writing pad, and moved on. "Next is your allowance. The Alpha's students get a weekly allowance for personal use. Do you want it cash, or do you want a check? Direct deposit is also fine."


"Wait, what? What allowance?" Tony couldn't believe his ears. "Why would I get an allowance? I already live here for free and get food and cleaning service."


"Because you'll be spending all of your time studying instead of earning your NCIS salary, dude," Mason said, not even looking up. "200 okay? Benny told me about your foodie tendencies."


"200 dollars?" Tony nearly screeched. "Are you crazy?"


"Last time I checked I wasn't." Mason grinned. "Come on, it's not that much, considering that you'll probably be a head honcho one day. So, direct debit?"


Tony accepted with passable grace, mostly because he felt like he'd won the round with the e-mail address. After that came a literal checklist for items he'd need for his studies. Who knew what a serious topic writing paper, pens and biros were for these guys? Not to mention items for his personal comfort that were missing from the apartment.


At the end of his first day with Mason, Tony's head was reeling and he slunk back to his room to spend the last few hours before bedtime in peace and quiet.


oOo


The next few days Tony passed the time with scouting out the parts of the house he had access to: the downstairs kitchen, the communal facilities, the cellar, and of course the exits and the safety measures. The security team took it in stride, because apparently sentinels were paranoid bastards even when they weren't trained guards, and so a paranoid latent guide with a background in law enforcement didn't cause so much as a raised eyebrow.


Throughout his ramblings, Mason was only peripherally present - just enough to prevent the empathic encroachment, otherwise leaving Tony to his own devices and affording him a sense of independence that had been sorely missing during the last couple of weeks.


However, one evening when virtually no one but Tony and Mason was at home, Mason plopped down on the couch next to Tony, plate of spaghetti puttanesca in his lap and a beer in his hand. 


"So, how is it?" he asked casually, eyes on the news. "You feel better about the house now?"


Tony sighed. "Yeah, I do. Security has covered every angle, and believe me, there are angles that had me worried." He aggressively cut up his noodles and speared a heap onto his fork. "I'm still confused about stuff."


"About what?" Mason asked. He lazily twirled his fork, curling his spaghetti around the tines.


"Like, apparently Jim is big on Christmas season, but back in D.C. the Center's Thanksgiving was more or less celebrated indifferently. Like, it was about good food and being grateful for the stuff they had, but not the rest of it. I mean, the food was good, but then the shit with Trewellyan was happening, so maybe that was the reason."


"You're perceptive," Mason grinned. "Thanksgiving has our community sort of divided. We do practice gratitude every day in meditation so it's really easy to actually celebrate it, but what the Bosses absolutely cannot abide is celebrating the European invasion of the Americas and the suffering they brought."


"But Christmas is a religious holiday too," Tony argued. "And Christianity as a whole has done some really shitty things in the name of its god."


"True." Mason stuffed his forkful of food into his mouth and groaned. "Man, that's fantastic!" He chewed and swallowed. "It's not common knowledge because the righteous Christian faction would have a cow, but Blair and Jim aren't actually celebrating Christmas. They're not so quietly celebrating Yule, which is Pagan in origin and is all about the seasons and nature and stuff. Besides, Alpha Sentinel Ellison was Christian and Alpha Guide Sandburg was Jewish, so ... compromise."


"I like that," Tony said. "I've no patience for religion, so it's good to know that they won't try to drag me to church or something."


"Nah, they let people do their thing, but they absolutely don't tolerate missionaries. Alpha Ellison is especially militant about it, because of his connection to the Chopec in Peru. Whenever they've got money to spare, they invest it in that tribe's protection and every couple of years or so they go down to visit."


Tony had heard of the intense history Jim had with the tribe, though the details weren't public knowledge. That Blair, as a doctor of anthropology, disliked missionaries was almost a given, even if he probably found the cultural consequences interesting as a field of study. 


"So I take it you're an atheist, then?" Mason prodded, obviously keen on keeping the conversation going. "That's completely a-okay, you know. But you're not getting out of buying presents."


His sassy grin made Tony laugh, and he finally took his first bite of dinner. "Got it. Presents are a big deal around here."


"Where aren't they?" Mason replied, moaning happily around his next bite. "I like gift cards for Amazon, by the way."


"Noted." Tony snorted and sipped his white wine. "Say, how much longer will everybody be gone? Blair didn't want to tell me much."


"For good reason. They're cutting Kirsty off tonight, and they first went to get Alpha Prime Sentinel Ellison from the Airport before going on to the Holy Place for the rite. It takes time and Alpha Prime Guide Sandburg didn't want to worry you. It's heavy stuff; you saw how we suffered with Kirsty."


"Rebecca was a surprise," Tony admitted. 


"She's tough, and so's Kirsty. If madness can happen to a guide of Kirsty's level, it's not a stretch to think about her own guide, and that has her all worried. I mean, it could happen to her, really. No one is an island, man. We're all mortal."


Goosebumps crawled all over Tony's skin and he shivered. "Yeah, we are."


Mason looked at his watch. "They'll begin in a couple of hours. Dunno why it's done at night, the Alpha Prime Guide won't tell us." He glanced at Tony. "Maybe he'll tell you, you're his student, after all."


"And I still have no idea what that means," Tony admitted. "That's strange, isn't it?"


"Nah." Mason emptied his beer bottle and settled deeper in the couch's cushions. "The Alpha Prime Guide knows what he's doing. Trust him, eh?"


"I do." Tony looked at the mess on his plate. "Mason, can I ask a question?"


"Sure, shoot."


"Why are you talking about Blair and Jim so formally when they're not present, but call them by their names when they are? Isn't that a bit backwards?"


Mason actually ducked his head and flushed a little. "Well, maybe."


"Is this one of your weird respect things?" Tony asked, confused. "I get that they deserve it, I do, but ... always the full titles? Wow."


"Yeah, well, they both deserve it, for one," Mason mumbled. It was the first time Tony had seen him flustered. "The other thing is, we, uh, literally can't. It's ... instinctive."


Tony's eyebrows rose. "Okay."


Mason set his plate onto the low table before him and turned to Tony. "You're different from us, obviously. You don't feel the same way 'cause you're still latent. He's our moon, like the Alpha Prime Sentinel is our sun. No one will ever disrespect them by only using his first name when we don't have to."


"Is Blair asking you to do that like ... an order? Truly?"


Mason's sheepish expression said all. "You have no idea what an honour it was to be personally chosen for this duty. Every decision they make, it resonates in our pride bonds. It's ... dude, it's beautiful."


"You're right, I don't really understand it." Tony made no effort to try and hide his sadness at the fact and Mason quirked a grateful smile. "It must be something else. Can you tell me a bit more about the pride?"


"Sure can, that's why I'm here."


Relieved that the intense part of their talk was over for now, Tony settled in to listen to Mason's stories and did his best to ignore the creeping sensation of gooseflesh sprouting up all over his body every now and then. 


oOo


In deference to Tony's still valid healing plan from the D.C. Center, Mason sent him off to bed around half ten. It was early, yes, but Tony's disquiet wasn't a secret to the guide and sleep had proven to be a good healing agent so far. 


"Try to rest, Tony," Mason said, holding out a bottle of guide-approved sleeping pills. "Take one of those if you need it, yeah? I'm just a wall away from you, that should keep the encroachment at bay. Even if it doesn't work completely."


Tony nodded, not promising anything. "Night, Mason."


"G'night, Tony."


They retreated to their apartments and Tony didn't waste time in getting ready for bed. Mason's presence or not, he felt ... ill. Shivery somehow, with a dull, stabbing throb in his chest that overlapped worryingly with the sentinel longing. It made even something as mundane as brushing his teeth a chore, and all attempts at regulating his breathing and pushing the sensation away were largely futile. 


Knowing that it would only disturb Blair if he called, Tony decided to just ride it out and talk about it in the morning. Holding the penlight firmly in his fist so the light shone soothingly onto his chest and neck, he actually managed deeper and more even breaths after a while. Music from his iPod helped to further distract him and from one moment to the next, he was dreaming.


I'm dreaming, he thought, looking around himself. He stood on a hill in an area that looked a lot like his empathic landscape. Yep, there's Mount Doom, complete with the horror vibes. Great. And now?


Tony waited a while for something to happen. When it didn't, the latent, sick feeling of impending danger neither getting better, nor worse, he shrugged and began to trek down the hill, careful where he stepped because if anyone knew how tricky his messed-up self was, it was him. 


As he walked over lush meadows and along dark, deep craigs where the earth was barren and scorched, the sun travelled over the vast, blue sky. It sank towards the horizon, westwards, Tony assumed, and bathed the whole land in glowing golden light. Darkness followed from the east, from Mount Doom, and a flock of screeching birds winged its way forward, chasing the sun. 


"This is my place, you're not wanted here!" Tony yelled at them when it became clear that it was him they were after. 


The dark, large birds didn't care. They cawed as they approached, beaks big and sharp, their taloned feet outstretched. 


Tony wondered whether it would make sense to run. This land was so vast, and the next hill with a rock crevice large enough to find cover in too far away. So was the river to his left, and of course there weren't any boats to be had, were he actually able to make it there.


Then, the birds were above him. Two dozen black beasts were rushing down and around Tony, hacking and scratching at his face and hands, the wings beating down on him. 


"Get off!" he shouted, managing to catch one of the birds by the feet and smashing it onto the ground, mercilessly stomping it because it just wouldn't stop attacking. Silvery blood was running down his arms and it felt as if the monsters were scratching the hair from his head. "Whoever this is, stop! Stop!"


His rage physically left him in a huge rush, taking this breath and a good part of his energy with it. 


But, it somehow worked. 


Like the shock wave of a bomb blast, that energy was jerking the huge terror crows away from Tony, breaking their wings and feet, and, in some cases, even their necks. But there were more coming in the distance, the sun making their black feathers shine blood red. 


"Stay where you are!" he hollered, ruthlessly going after the felled birds and killing them one after the other. It was harder work than it seemed, after only a few moments breathing became harder and his limbs got heavier. "Is anybody here? I need help! Mason! Hello?"


The sun sunk lower and lower, the stunning gold of its rays slowly turning to a burnished copper. The light did nothing to make the approaching murder of crows appear any less murderous. 


"Hey! Everybody's always up in my business, so where the fuck are you!" Tony hollered. "Come on! You promised that this shit wouldn't happen! Blair! Mason!"


No one heard him, of course not, and there the horror birds were, dive bombing him and cutting him up with their beaks and talons.


Tony's fury grew like another person in his breast; he cursed and yelled himself hoarse and broke bones left, right, and centre. His blood was dripping everywhere and the wounds hurt like a bitch. His rage would have frightened him, were his opponents in any way human. But they weren't, and Tony was so done with it all. Silver light danced all around him. It sparkled and popped and even glanced off his skin when he reached through it to throttle yet another murder bird.


Suddenly, there was a tug on his newest kill, and a menacing growl cut through the sharp cawing and screeching. 


Tony let go, too stunned to actually have a dingo before him to do otherwise. 


Immediately, the sandy-haired dog began shaking the goose-sized crow and slamming it into the ground, before it dropped the carcass and jumped, picking a live one from the frenzy around Tony and repeating its gruesome killing ritual. 


A brutal attack nearly cost Tony his eye. He stopped staring at the sudden, unexpected reinforcement and got back into business. Even with the large Australian wild dog by his side, it was still a fight against windmills. Still, somehow they managed to kill the beasts off, one after the other. Sharp, long teeth crushed throats and broke necks, while Tony got a tree branch from somewhere and began pummelling his attackers with the precision of a baseball player, picking them out of the sky for his companion to kill. 


It took an age - long into true sunset - but finally no more terror crows were coming. Out of breath and bleeding everywhere, Tony flopped down amidst the carnage, only barely able to keep himself upright on his hands. 


"Well done, buddy. Very good work there," he rasped. Above him, myriads of stars winked into existence on a cobalt blue sky, while the west was still flaming with reds and oranges and pinks.


The dingo yipped and licked its bloody lips. It would've been alright, sort of, except that these crows didn't bleed red. They'd left black, tar-like stains that would be a bitch to get out in the real world. Here, they looked positively gruesome, like even torrential rain wouldn't be able to wash them away.


"Yuck," Tony complained. "But, thank you. For real. You're totally my hero."


The dingo seemed to grin, its eyes nearly all the way closed and its tongue lolling out a little as it panted. 


"So, where are you from?" Tony asked, light-headed from the sudden absence of fear and battle-rage. "Are you just travelling through?"


The dingo yawned and flopped on its side, its large head right beside Tony's cut up hand. 


"You don't talk much, eh?" Tony chuckled. It was a bit hysterical, but the dingo didn't seem to care. "How about a thank you scratch for the hero, then? Maybe your neck? Or the ears?"


The dingo mrrrowed quietly and pushed its head against Tony's hand. 


"Alright then. One head scratch coming up." Carefully, watching out for a tell that the wild dog changed its mind, Tony put his fingers onto the soft, soft fur. "Wow, you're such a fluffy teddy, boy. You don't look like it, but you're just as soft as my nonna's mink fur stole. Like, exactly so."


The dingo grumbled happily and Tony got braver. He buried his fingers deeper in the dog's fur around his neck and stroking its ears like he'd promised.


How long he sat there catching his breath and petting his companion, Tony didn't know, but apparently this sort of dream meditation was therapeutic. Night stopped its approach, keeping them in this suspended state of evening. Slowly, the deep scratches on Tony's skin stopped hurting and even began to heal over. The dingo also healed, and even quicker than Tony. Him loving on it seemed to be all it needed, and why not? It was his dreamscape, mindscape, whatever, and he could make stuff happen here. Blair had told him so more than once.


A bit later Tony felt rested enough to sit up straighter. 


"Doesn't look like you're gonna run anytime soon," he decided and bravely scrubbed the dog's cheeks. Its yellow eyes were still almost closed and its mouth stretched in a doggy grin. "How about a name?"


The dingo's tongue lolled out long and wet. "Yip."


"I was gonna name you Hero, you clown," Tony said mock-sternly. "But you're more of a Joker, aren't you? All fluffy and cute until you're not."


"Yip."


Tony smiled, filled with a sudden affection for his new friend. "Joker it is. It suits you, buddy." He rubbed the dog's chest and sides, careful of the healing injuries. "At least you're almost fine. Those things were no picnic."


Joker stretched and swiped his tongue over Tony's neck, right over a deep gouge that was still smarting. 


"Eugh! That's so unhygienic! What if I contract dream rabies?"


The dingo huffed, very clearly laughing at Tony. Then, he licked him again.


"Oh, gross! You're laughing now, but you just wait until I've found a dream vet - you won't be laughing then!"


Joker scooted closer, almost into Tony's lap, and began a slobber attack the likes of which the world hadn't seen yet. His tongue went all over Tony's face, ears, hair and neck, as well as his hands and arms. 


Spluttering, Tony tried to wrestle the dog away, to no avail. They rolled around in the dirt, play fighting and yipping and screeching with horrified laughter. 


"...ny?"


"Stop, stop," Tony pleaded, grabbing Joker's furry cheeks and pulling him off. "Did you say something?"


The dingo winked. 


"Tony?"


Tony stared at the wild dog. "No, really, that you?"


"Wake up, Tony!"


A short, stinging pain bloomed in Tony's cheek. 


"Ow! Now that definitely wasn't you. What- " 


"Tony!"


Joker got off Tony, shook out his dirty fur, and stood alertly for a second. His bright eyes met Tony's, his nose twitched ... and then he was gone. 


Just gone, as if he hadn't just spent hours with Tony and offered help and comfort in one of the scariest moments of his life. 


"No!" Tony cried. His cheek stung again. "No!"


"Tony! Wake up!"


Suddenly, the world around Tony began to swirl and lose its form. Seeing it spiral into one colourful mess made him dizzy and he panicked. 


"Stop it," he groaned, pressing his fists to his eyes. Everything just went away, the sickening sensation hell on his already queasy stomach. Tony tried to hold on, tried to reform his now peaceful landscape. 


"No, Tony, come back," a voice said, gentle but booming slightly. "You're safe now. Come back. Let go."


An impossible to resist pull enveloped Tony, swaddled him in warmth and care and affection. 


Tony let go. 


oOo


"Welcome back, man," Blair said quietly as Tony opened his bleary eyes. "You were gone a long time. Sorry for hitting you – I used your traveller's guide, in case you're wondering."


"How long?" Tony rasped out. He coughed and accepted the cup of water Blair handed him.


"Nearly eighteen hours. Careful ... drink slowly." Blair took the cup away and clasped his hands in his lap. "Mason said you went to sleep but that you experienced considerable distress soon after. He couldn't wake you, no matter what he tried."


Tony groaned and rubbed his face with shaking hands. "I was there. In my ... in me. You know."


"Oh." Blair stilled. "Why?"


"I don't know."


"What happened?"


Tony took a second to appreciate just how bizarre his life had become these last three months. Talking about dreams and mystic stuff, oh my! Then, he said, "I was attacked. Some sort of bird, huge crows. I couldn't get away."


"You were dream-locked," Blair said softly. "I'm so sorry. I'm sorry I wasn't here to help you."


 "'s okay," Tony murmured. "I had help, eventually."


"Yeah?"


Tony managed a small smile. Blair's upset was so, so palpable and it was good to have something good to report, at least. "A dingo came and helped me. I named him Joker. He was fierce. You think I'll meet him again?"


Blair's eyes took on a light sheen and his smile was beautiful. "I just think you might. I'm glad you're okay, Tony. So glad." He helped Tony to another few sips of water, being very careful not to touch him directly. "Sleep now. I'm here, you won't be locked into a dream again, I promise. We'll talk more when you've recovered."


"Thanks," Tony mumbled, already dropping off.


oOo


When he woke again, it was just like any other day. He knew that he'd been up a couple of times during the night for something to drink, a snack, and a visit to the bathroom, and now, on the next morning, he actually felt well-rested and ready to take on the day.


In the shower, he almost fell because he thought that he'd heard a very characteristic 'yip', but there was nothing. Then, while brushing his teeth, something wet swiped over his thigh and he nearly threw his electric brush at the mirror, he was so startled. 


"That's not funny!" he swore. 


"Yip!"


Tony froze. "Joker?"


A heavy body leaned against his right leg, warm and solid and very furry.


"I can't see you, buddy."


"Yip!"


Tony felt a panic attack bubble up in his chest. He dropped the toothbrush into the sink, reached down and encountered the furry head of his new friend.


"You're really here," he whispered in wonder, stroking the snout and ears. "How?" Teeth carefully nipped his fingers. "There's something I don't get, right?" Tony blinked against a sudden and rather unwelcome urge to shed a couple of tears. The silvery sheen over his eyes persisted for a moment, but then it gave, welled over his lashes and away, leaving Joker very visible and satisfied looking in its wake. "Fuck. You're my spirit guide, aren't you?"


The dingo nudged Tony's hand, clearly demanding a proper ear rub.


Tony managed the rest of his morning ablutions on autopilot, unable to take his eyes off his spirit animal even for a second. Joker obliged him by staying in his line of sight and lounging on everything, including the clothes Tony had laid out the evening before he'd been captured in his dream.


"If you leave hair, I'll shave you bald," Tony threatened without any heat. 


The dingo huffed with canine laughter and rolled onto his back, wiggling his four legs and letting his tongue loll out.


He was still there when Tony walked down the stairs to the communal kitchen. Joker walked a few steps ahead of Tony, ears pricked attentively and tail raised in cautious happiness. Every few yards he stopped and looked back, as if to make sure that his human was still following. 


The crowd seated on the L-shaped couch in front of the TV was small, just Blair and Jim, Rebecca and Samira, and Mason. 


"Tony!" Blair said and got up. "How are you? What would you like? Coffee?"


"I ..." Tony paused at Blair's wringing hands and the guilt that streamed out of him. "Yeah. Coffee would be awesome, thanks."


While Blair got busy in the kitchen, Jim got up and strolled towards Tony, stopping right in front of the spirit guide. "You found him."


"Yes. He's ..." Tony choked up. "He's mine."


Jim glanced at Tony, clearly worried. "How are you? Blair said you felt empathically rough when he woke you last evening."


 "Better," Tony replied. "I'm fine now. I think my ... I think Joker helped. That's his name."


A smile curled Jim's lips. "Seems to suit him."


The dingo lifted his snout and grinned. 


"Blair said most spirit guides don't stay with their people," Tony said worriedly. "Will he go away again?"


"Yes." Jim patted Tony's shoulder. "But he might return often. He seems like a social guy, like his person."


"Oh."


Blair waved Tony over to the kitchen island, where a tablet was waiting for him. "I put on a little bit of everything," he said. "Here's your coffee, there's the cream - sorry, no flavoured creamer, Rebecca can't abide the smell - and because you deserve it we have croissants and stuff to slather onto them."


Tony took in the little feast in front of him and smiled. "Thank you, it looks great."


Jim carried the tablet to the seating area for him and bade Tony to sit down, tugging Blair down next to him to keep him from fussing any more. 

 

Tony decided that Blair in mother hen mode would be pretty damn funny if it weren't directed at him, although he definitely loved the caring vibes the Alpha Prime Pair was throwing off. It was practically a novel experience to feel so safe and cared for. 

 

Between sips of great coffee and bites of croissant, Parma ham, and fruit, Tony petted Joker who had plopped down next to him, and watched the news on the TV. 

 

The dingo even nosed the edge of Tony's plate, as if he weren't averse to some thievery, much to Samira's awe. 


"He's lovely," she said, dark eyes wide and longing. "My spirit guide is a little shy and prefers to meet me in meditation."


"Joker probably knows that I'm still a bit ... wobbly," Tony murmured, embarrassed. "He might go once I'm over this."


"Yes, this." Rebecca sounded like she wanted to kill someone. "You will talk to him about it, right, Alpha?"


Blair nodded. "Of course. Let's Tony enjoy his breakfast, first."


"I'm done," Tony said and drained his coffee cup. When Blair protested, he added, "No, it's alright. I need to know what happened because I really don't want it to happen again."


"I'll put your food in the fridge," Samira offered. "It's too much to throw away, Tony, and it'll make a nice light lunch."


That felt all kinds of wrong to Tony, least of all because she was a woman, offering to cater to him, and very much so because she was a budding alpha guide, for fuck's sake, and no one's waitress. "No, please, I'll do it myself. But, thank you."


He hastily got up, found a beeswax wrap for his plate and put it in the fridge. The others got up as well, slowly coming over to put their coffee cups and plates into the dish washer. Everybody gave him a bit of room, which annoyed and relieved Tony in equal measure. It was vexing how coddled he felt among them.


"Hey, Tony," Mason said, shuffling up to him. "Listen, before you talk to the Alphas, I wanted to apologize for being so useless. I wanted to help - I tried to wake you up - but nothing worked. It was like nobody was home there and it scared the bejesus out of me."

 

"It's not your fault," Tony said. He shrugged, trying for levity. "It's my damn sensitivity; what can you do?"


Mason awkwardly scratched his neck. "Still, it was kind of a shock. Normally I'm good at this, you know? That's why I'm here. Failing in the first week ... ouch. So not cool."


"And still not your fault," Tony said. "We can talk later, yeah? Jim's waiting."


Nodding, Mason stepped out of the way, shoulders slightly hunched and misery and disappointment all over his emotional landscape. Tony felt bad for being able to read the guy so easily, but then again it didn't seem like Mason was working very hard to keep it to himself.


The third of the three flats on the top floor had been converted to one large office space for the Alpha Primes' use, and that's where Jim led Tony. 


"Take a seat if you like, but if you're a pacer like me, feel free to pace," Blair said, pointing at a comfy looking, purple couch. The whole office space had been painted white, with a mural of a jungle on one wall, white shelves filled with books, and equally white office furniture to hold a computer, a printer, and some writing utensils. The floor was dark hardwood, and half a dozen South American tribal masks on the walls completed the interior. 


"Tasteful," Tony said, looking around. "Your apartment looks very different; it's much darker."


"It was Jim's space before I invaded, and I decided for both our sakes that it had better remain so. I've taken over so much of his life that it really wasn't a hardship to let him have a sanctuary."


"And I'm grateful to you even thirteen years later," Jim drawled.


Blair chuckled. "Man, how time flies. Now, let's talk about the elephant in the room and get it over with."


"Thank you," Tony muttered, waving Joker forward to the couch. "Er, it's okay if he sits on it, right?"


"Very okay," Blair replied. "He's very handsome. Would you please tell us what exactly happened during the night before last?"


Tony sighed, but the dingo's presence by his side was like an anchor. At least he was used to giving reports and managed to brief the two Alphas quickly and succinctly. 


"That's one hell of a story, Tony," Blair said when he had finished. He exchanged a look with his partner. "There's no easy way to say it, so I'll just come out with it, yeah?"


"Sure, hit me."


"Oh boy," Jim muttered. 


Blair glared at him before turning his attention back to Tony. "The thing is that during the Rite of Exclusion, Kirsty put up a fight. Not against me, not really, but she sent out a huge wave of hostility. It was around the time you said you went to sleep, and I'll have to confirm with an empathic scan, but I'm almost one hundred percent sure that the attack on you came from her."


"But ... why?" Tony gripped Joker's fur in an attempt to center himself. "What did I do to her? I didn't even try to flirt with her, and she's one beautiful woman."


"Let's confirm it first and then I'll answer all the questions you have."


Tony sighed but agreed. Blair sat on his other side and together they sank into meditation. Awfully quickly Tony found himself back in his empathic landscape, to his immense surprise again in corporeal form and with his two feet firmly planted in the dirt. That was ... different.


"Blair?" he called. "Blair!"


Blair's presence around him put pressure on his whole body. For a moment, it just hung there, maybe waiting for admittance, and then, when Tony began to get impatient, a human shape formed out of nothing and the shaman joined him. 


"Whew!" Blair exclaimed. "I really need to have words with you soon about stuff. But first things first. Can you show me the site of the attack?"


"Are you kidding me?" Tony asked, gesticulating grandly. "How am I to do that? This is like a whole country, or something!"


With a little yip, Joker announced his presence, and he immediately began to trot off towards Mount Doom. 


"Huh. Right. I guess we follow him," Tony said. "What about your spirit guide? Does he come adventuring sometimes?"


"Only rarely. He's a serious soul, which, believe me, had me meditating about my own soul more than once." Blair's expression was wistful. "Sometimes I wish he would join me more often. Maybe my early years as a less than effective guide have made him wary. Or maybe he doesn't appreciate the pressures of my work."


"That's a pity," Tony said. "I've only just met mine, but I like him. I hope he'll come for visits often."


"I'm sure he'll be exactly what you need," Blair said. "Have faith. Your journey has just begun. There's much for you to discover."

 

They set off after the dingo and didn't have to walk long to reach the spot where Tony had been attacked. The bird carcasses were still there, but they looked withered and not threatening at all. 

 

"What a carnage," Blair murmured. He walked around, inspecting Tony and Joker's work and then returning to Tony's side. "She didn't pull any punches."

 

"So it was her?"

 

"Yes. I feel her all over the place. And look at you, still all cut up and hurting." Blair sighed when Tony startled and exclaimed over the scratches on his arms, neck and head. 

 

"Until you said it I didn't know it still hurt!" His eyes were so wide, they felt as if they'd pop out of their sockets any moment.

 

Blair's face did something complicated before it settled into an expression of abject misery. "I'm so sorry. I should've known that she'd try something. It's hurts my freaking heart that you're so used to pain that you forgot that it's there. Man ... that's just ... no."

 

"Well, I can't say I'm happy about it, but she kind of brought me Joker, so I'd rather not dwell on it." Tony shrugged. "She won't be able to do it again, right?"

 

"No, definitely not. I sealed her connection to the spirit realm and that's that. Still ..." Blair's fingers hovered over the scars on Tony's arms. "She hurt you so much, and even though you're healing on your own, I'd like to assist you. It's the least I can do."

 

"Don't beat yourself up about it," Tony replied, uncomfortable with Blair's all-encompassing remorse. 

 

"Tony." Blair's voice was all soft yet firm, and it vibrated.

 

"Alright, no need to go all Alpha Prime on me." Exasperated, Tony kicked one of the crows and grimaced when Joker took this as an invitation to grab and dismember it. "Ugh, gross."

 

"We can try to do it right here," Blair said. He looked at the carnage and wrinkled his nose. "Well, maybe not right here. Over there is a nice patch of grass." He herded Tony towards it, got them both settled in a half lotus position and closed his eyes. "Mmh, there you are. Ouch, that must've really hurt ..."

 

Tony tensed up when he felt Blair sweep all over and around him. It was so incredibly disconcerting to have him sit in front of him, and to also feel him all over the place, larger than life, mending Tony's innermost being with his warm, soothing guide fingers. 

 

To Tony's immense surprise, the crows and dark stains on the ground lost more and more colour, until they were barely there wisps of smoke. Finally, a soft breeze caused them to disintegrate into pale dust. Simultaneously, the scars on Tony's skin vanished before his eyes, as did the lingering sense memory of the pain the birds had inflicted.

 

"Now that's much better," Blair said, opening his eyes and smiling. He was glowing faintly and Tony wondered whether this was an effect of his imagination, or if Blair usually glowed when he was dream-walking. "Your new friend looks whole again, as well. How are you doing? Was it very uncomfortable?"

 

"No, it was almost fine." In truth, Blair's work had still caused Tony to relive the moment, but it hadn't been nowhere near the level of sensory and empathic depth his first empathic healer had provoked. "I felt the pain, but it was rather blunted."


Joker bounded over to them and nipped Blair's shoulder before he plonked down on Tony's lap. 


"You're such a clown," he scolded with a smile before saying, "I guess that means that I can try the empathic healing now?"


"Absolutely. We'll see how it goes with someone other than me, and if it's still no good, I'll find the time to do it," Blair replied. "Whatever works for you is all good, okay?"


"Okay," Tony murmured. "Thank you."


"You're welcome." Blair tilted his head. "Shall we talk about this next?"

 

"This?" Tony repeated, confused. 

 

"Sitting here, in a life-like manifestation of self, you know ... this." Blair looked at his hands and then inspected a lock of his hair. "So wild."

 

"Maybe Kirsty put me here?" Tony asked. "I've never done this alone, only with you and Gavin."

 

"Seeing how Kirsty was very talented, it could well be," Blair allowed. "After all, she definitely locked your awareness in your empathic landscape after you landed here." He sobered. "By the way, if I hadn't already cut her off from her gifts, this would've done it. Such an attack is a high crime, of course, especially against a latent who can't defend himself. She could've done you grievous harm if you hadn't fought back like you did. People in your situation have suffered cardiac arrest due to the stress."


"Joker saved my ass. Is it strange that I still feel kind of sorry for her?" Tony asked, petting the dingo's side. "I feel weird about it."


"They're your feelings, so they're valid," Blair said. "But others might not understand them."


"Do you understand them?" Tony asked.


Blair smiled crookedly. "I'm the original second chances guy, man. A bleeding heart."


"Not for everyone," Tony argued. Everybody knew that the Alpha Prime Guide of North America had worked with the Cascade PD on some pretty hardcore cases before he'd embraced his calling as a shaman. Most just chose to forget that Blair was actually a badass who had fired machine guns in the defence of his sentinel. "Which is alright, you know. I do agree with Rebecca that not everybody can be redeemed or saved."

 

"Kirsty is ..." Blair ran his fingers over the grass, searching for the right words. "I hesitate to say that she's special, but in a way she is. She's mentally wrong, that much is clear, but she was fully online, and a very strong guide besides. Nature usually doesn't make mistakes like that, and I sort of reacted to that. I kept trying to fix what is wrong with her, to allow her to enjoy her gifts and our community like she deserves." He exhaled. "It's a blow that I couldn't help her after all."


"You tried," Tony tried to console him. "I'm sure she appreciated it."


"I tried for too long. Jim was so fed up with me for keeping her close." Blair slumped a little. "I only tortured us all by holding out."


"Can I ask what'll happen now? What will you do with her?"


"Well, we decided to go with the 'evaluate and relocate' plan. The sentinels all proposed a variation of what you said to me, and after the rite was done, it felt like the right course of action. She's with a board of psychologists and psychiatrists now, getting evaluated. After that we'll try to find a good place of work for her. Something that challenges her intellectual capabilities and makes her feel like a useful person. It's also important that she'll be compensated adequately, which probably means government involvement ... it's not something I'm very keen on, to be honest."


"Monitor them really hard and have it be written in any contracts that you are to be informed about her whereabouts at all times," Tony offered and shrugged when Blair snorted. "You obviously still feel responsible for Kirsty. It's something you can do, so why not?"


"Well, in their eyes she's technically a mundane now, so they'll try to avoid such clauses."


Now it was Tony's turn to snort. "She's dormant, not mundane, which makes a huge difference. Even I know that. The way I see it, you have one hell of a vested interest in knowing where she is and anyone who's trying to get around you deserves the wrath of your lawyers."


"You have a way of cutting right to the heart of the matter," Blair chuckled. "Thanks, I needed that."


"My pleasure. Also, my give-a-fuck is more or less broken when it comes to the alphabet soup and their recruitment efforts."

 

Blair laughed out loud at this. "Fair point! Now, shall I try to teach you how to get out of your manifestation? Guides usually only do this after they emerge, but whatever. If you found your way into this, you'll learn to get back out, because, hello, boring. Now, relax, breathe, and imagine yourself getting lighter and lighter ..."

 

oOo


December passed in a whirl of lessons, therapy, and life as the Alpha Prime Guide's padawan. To Tony's unending horror, the tabloids did pick up on his presence in the Prime pair's house and ran with it, complete with stalkerish pictures of him around the city and a surprisingly accurate vita. 

 

Shortly after that, the first e-mails started pouring in.

 

"I don't get it," Tony mumbled as he was watching Mason click through them. Half of the house's occupants were around, doing their best to pretend that they weren't paying attention. "Why would they think that I'd give interviews? What even for?"

 

"General nosiness," Mason said and copy-pasted a form answer into his reply. "The Alpha Primes respect your stance on privacy, so there won't be any interviews unless you want them."


"They should interview people who do things to make people's lives better. Like that scientist in the Kalahari desert who's building this water collector thing, or the dude with the new solar energy tech."


"Well, you were a cop," Mason pointed out. "That's earning you brownie points, especially in Cascade. Also, if the Alpha Prime Guide is personally training you, people naturally assume that you are, or will be, a big deal in the future."


"It doesn't feel like it, so people are being stupid," Tony huffed. "Just ..." He waved a hand. 


"Away with it all?" Mason guessed, grinning when Tony growled. "Don't worry, no one's keen on a publicity nightmare. You staying out of the public suits us all. But speaking of suits ... you still not up to playing Santa? Christmas is only ten days away."


Tony gave him the hairy eyeball. "I'd say I'll do it if you do, but I know that you'd do it just to spite me."


Mason's grin showed entirely too many teeth. "We also still need elves."


"No."


"Reindeer?"


"Fuck to the no, and stop asking, or I won't let you help bake the cookies for the charity event Blair's dragging me to."

 

"Shutting up now," Mason smirked. "Man, you're just too easy."

 

"Am I? You and Blair ganged up and talked Sandra into playing Mrs. Santa last week. I trust no one in this house."

 

"It's probably best," Samira said cheerfully. She wore a green felt hat with white and red appliques and a golden bauble on the curled tip and was mending an equally green costume. "I love dressing up, but the kids can be a bit much when they're excited."

 

Rebecca, who was preparing lunch, scowled. "Those midgets are hellions on ice. Never again will I take them ice skating. The security squad was no help at all. We should all be grateful they're not raising kids of their own."

 

Tony's phone chimed. "Time for empathic healing. Save me some of the roast chicken, yeah?"

 

Rebecca saluted Tony without looking up and the others wished him a good session. 

 

"I feel really guilty for taking up so much of your time," Tony sighed as he sat down on one of the meditation cushions in Blair's personal meditation room. "There's so much to do for your charity bash."

 

"We have enough hands to help," Blair replied, "and I promised to take over if you can't deal with another guide healer working on you. How are you today? Feeling balanced?"

 

"Yeah, but maybe we should leave the old stuff alone for a bit longer." Tony unconsciously rubbed his chest. "The sentinel longing is still ramped up from the last time."


"I'm sorry, that certainly wasn't my intention." Blair got into lotus position. "Maybe you should guide me more, tell me to back off if it doesn't feel okay to touch. The last thing I want is ruin your holiday."


"Sounds good." Tony smiled. 


For the next hour, he guided Blair towards Mount Doom and picked an issue that needed healing. It was uncomfortable reliving the experience in technicolor, but Blair was a soothing, competent healer and managed to smooth the frayed edges over without adding to the stress. 


When they were back, Blair said, "That felt very peculiar. May I ask what today's session was about?"


Tony swallowed. "Jeffrey White, a prison escapee. It's a long story, but I was undercover for a case involving stolen antiques and ended up going with him during the outbreak to get intel. Turns out he was a serial killer as well as a thief, but he said that I treated him nicer than anybody else he knew before he tried to kill me for being a cop. It was ... I don't know. I liked him, and I guess he liked me enough to kill his partner, who apparently had the unhealthy hots for me, and that's just messed up. After I'd shot White, I actually felt like shit."


"Jeez, yes, that'll do it," Blair said, wincing. "Are you feeling better about that now?"


"It'll always be weird, but, yeah, it's better." Tony ran a hand through his hair. "I have no idea why some things stick with me more than others. It's been bothering me for a long time."


"You are a guide. It's possible that you reacted to something in his empathical make-up, and he connected with you because he felt good in your presence. As I said, don't beat yourself up about it. You feel what you feel, and it's not up to others to judge, as long as you harm none with your feelings." Blair gave up his lotus seat and stretched. "Let's go down for lunch, I'm starving. After that, I can go over it again, if you think it's necessary."


"I'm good for now," Tony assured him. "The rest might be better talked out with Larry. He's good at that."

 

"He is. Also, you actually do really well with talk therapy. Who would've thought?" Blair teased. "Usually you law enforcement types run like hell from shrinks, but your empathic landscape is really blossoming under his care."

 

"NCIS' shrinks sucked," Tony said with a shrug. "There's no way I would've told them any of this stuff. Confidential or not, this shit has a way of making its way to the wrong ears."

 

"It does," Blair admitted. "Still, I'm glad that you're open to it now, and taking advantage of the help we can offer."

 

The crazy thing was that Tony was glad about it, as well, and by now he didn't feel even remotely ashamed to admit it. 

 

oOo


The last days before Christmas were a frenzy of baking, wrapping gifts for the kids in Ellison's care facilities, cleaning, and hunting for presents. Thankfully everybody in the Alpha Primes' household had agreed to play Secret Santa, because getting gifts for a dozen people he didn't know very well would have been a nightmare for Tony. It was still quite a task to find something for the cleaning ladies, Benny, and all his friends outside of Cascade. Tony had never been more grateful for the big online retailers with their many wrapping and delivery options.


It weren't the presents that proved to be a stumbling stone, however. It was the simple act of sending a Christmas card to Tony's father that alerted Blair enough to schedule an impromptu empathic healing session two days before Christmas. 


"It hurts you," he said quietly but firmly. "You're projecting that hurt all over the building and that worries us. Please, Tony, at least let me try. I hate that each of his e-mails hurt you more than the last, even if you let Mason handle them."


"It's not that I don't want to," Tony confessed in a small voice, shying away from Jim's concerned looks. "I just don't think you can. Senior is ... he's like three fourths of Mount Doom, okay. He was, and still is, a shitty father, but knowing that doesn't make it go away. I wish it did."


"I see." Blair exhaled. "You're working with Larry on that?"


"Yeah, he said Christmas is a good time, what with emotions running higher during that time of year. Makes it easier to talk about bottled up stuff."


"He's not wrong," Blair said. "Man, I wish I could make it all better for you."


Joker appeared by Tony's side, visible to everyone like he usually was. He pressed his muzzle into Tony's hands and whined a little. 

 

"You already do. You and the others are amazing." Tony smiled at the dingo. "I'm fine. Just let me be down for a little while and then I'll be ready for your Yule bash."

 

"Come here," Jim said and tugged Tony up from Blair's purple couch. In one smooth move he engulfed him in a hug and held him for a long minute. "Blair's dying to do that, so he's told me to step in."


"Thanks," Tony said with an embarrassed smile. It felt so, so good to have the sentinel longing lessen for that moment. "You give great hugs."


"The best," Blair said smugly. "Shall we go down? It's Dina's night to choose a movie. Apparently it's The Princess Bride tonight."


Jim groaned but Tony cheered up immediately. 

 

"Cynics are simply thwarted romantics," he quoted impishly and ran before Jim could catch him in a noogie. 

 

Blair's laughter followed him down the stairs, though the two men didn't. When it became apparent that their movie night would start without Jim and Blair, Tony smiled to himself and basked in the feel-good vibes that filled the house. 

 

oOo

 

The Yule festivities, which had quietly started on the 21st to honour the Pagan touch of living through the darkest night and emerging on the other side better and lighter that Blair wanted, culminated in a quiet, informal dinner on Christmas Eve. Those who hadn't gone to visit family sat in the downstairs common room area, watched movies and enjoyed a completely non-seasonal dinner of Thai take-away. There was a prettily decorated Christmas tree - Samira and Henry's work, with lewd additions courtesy of Peter, Blair's assistant - and a Yule log in the fireplace, and for the first time in years Tony felt at home during that time of the year. 


Boxing Day was spent so lazily that even Tony, who was a hedonist at heart, felt a little guilty. There was a huge brunch, which everybody helped prepare. The whole morning was spent nibbling on croissants and bagels, poached eggs and fresh fruit. There was bacon, and waffles swimming in maple syrup, and Blair's incredible veggie fry-up. The big TV was on for those who wanted to catch the news, while upbeat Christmas swing music made the ones working in the kitchen happy. The whole house was suffused with the sweet and savoury smells and a cloying kind of happiness and contentment that made Tony choke up not once, but several times. 


It was almost a relief to separate after brunch, have a nap, play around with his penlight, and call his favourite people. Tony's talk with Gibbs was surprisingly long and in-depth, and brought about the end of an era. 


Gibbs was going to retire. 

 

Only from active duty for now as Gibbs still had a few years in him before he reached mandatory retirement age, but it was encouraged by his shrink and apparently Director Vance had no issue with setting up a whole new MCRT and placing Gibbs in a teaching position.


It was bittersweet. On the one hand Tony was glad that Gibbs was getting the help he needed, and was doing things for himself for once. On the other hand it was hard to comprehend that Tony's place at NCIS was now irretrievably lost. He had accepted it, but only now did it really sink in that everything would be different, and never go back to the way it was. For the bad stuff, he was all for it, but he did have good memories too and would miss those times.


That evening it was a pensive Tony who accepted the present from his Secret Santa. The group was loud and jolly and Tony managed to be entertaining and keep himself somewhat in the moment once he'd had a glass of wine, but he knew that he didn't fool anyone. After Kirsty's attack, his projecting had reached a level that gave even Blair pause sometimes. Having secrets, at least of the emotional kind, was no longer a luxury he enjoyed. It completely baffled the others that Tony simply regarded this as fair play and didn't worry about it much. 


It was his sensitivity that clued him in to Blair and Jim's apprehension when the evening wound down and people settled in with hot cider and mulled wine for one last kitschy movie before bed. 

 

"What is it?" Tony asked, handing Jim a beer. "You both feel kind of guilty and it's making my Very Special Agent senses tingle."

 

"We, uh, have to spring an ambush on you," Blair said. "We can go to the meeting room in the back for privacy."

 

Tony regarded the Alpha Primes for a moment. "Does everybody here know about it?"

 

"They do," Jim said. "Sandra and Henry because they've been involved in our Yule Event and had to devise excuses for our absence during the evening, Mason, because he's effectively your conservator right now and needed to know about potential stressors and problems, and Peter because he knows everything about Blair's schedule."

 

"Then I don't need privacy," Tony decided, returning Peter's toast with a nod. "Just spill."

 

"You'll remember that I promised you that I wouldn't let people approach you for business until after you come online," Blair began. "Unfortunately something's come up that's so important that I couldn't not at least ask whether you'd consider hearing their case. If it helps, the person in question is a friend of mine, and they're desperate. It's got to do with their business, but mainly it's about their family."


"That's not vague at all." Tony pursed his lips. "On a scale from one to ten, with ten being the highest score, how important is this, really?"

 

"Thirteen," Jim said quietly. "I'm not even exaggerating. You'll have to sign NDAs up to your ears."

 

"When?"

 

"Tomorrow at the bash."

 

Tony's eyes narrowed as he actively pursued the empathic output of the two men. His sensitivity caught everything and painted a breathtaking picture of stark worry in more facets than Tony knew how to describe. It was almost familial, which coincided with Blair's claim that the person was a friend, but also global, which, what the fuck? 


When he stopped parsing, Jim exhaled sharply. "You pack quite a punch, buddy. I didn't know you could do that."


"Normally I don't have to," Tony replied, a little sheepish. He finished pouring his own cup of mulled wine. "I'll meet him, but I'm not promising anything. I also won't sign any contracts without having your lawyers all over them. If I do this, it's a one-time deal. No follow-ups. If he wants more, he can knock again."


"He?" Blair asked, relief all over his face and posture, not to mention his empathic output. 


"He feels male, the way you think of him. Rather alpha male, too, but not really online, I don't think. Latent, if I had to guess." Tony shrugged. "It doesn't really matter. It's just information at this point. It helps that you sort of think of him as a family friend."


"Thanks, Tony. I owe you one," Blair said. "Possibly three or four, we'll see how it shakes out."


Because he knew that Blair truly wouldn't ask him for a favour of this magnitude without a very good reason, Tony spent the rest of the night puzzling over what it could possibly be. 

 

Maybe it's a quiet investigation, embezzlement or fraud? It'd be good to exercise my actual skills again, Tony wondered. Or maybe it's something I can do with the sensitivity. Perhaps they need to find a spy? Industrial espionage is ugly, but the cases are usually fun, as long as they don't turn deadly. Like real life Cluedo.

 

The potential job offer was enough to distract Tony from his Gibbs woes and he ended the evening in a much better mood than it had begun. 


oOo

 

The Alpha Primes' annual Yule event took place in the Cascade Heights Hotel ballroom and fit six hundred people comfortably, security not included, and the place was all but crawling with both S&G and mundane security. Tony felt right at home among the dressed up guests, although a lot of people wore casual chic or downright comfy dress, especially the children and adolescents. There also were an astounding number of ugly Christmas sweaters on display and it was hilarious.

 

As it was Tony's first official appearance in Cascade, the three invited photographers made good use of the opportunity, each trying to outdo the other two by trying for the best angles. They were so eager and snapped so many pictures that Tony was honestly a little afraid for their cameras. 

 

"Their release buttons will fall off if they keep that up," Tony muttered to Blair, who was enduring the photo shoot with good grace. 

 

"You're wearing your black Armani, of course they were going to go crazy," Blair retorted with a little grin. "Also, that stubble you're rocking? Totally a babe catcher."

 

"Haha." Tony sighed. "Can we mingle now?"

 

Blair placed a hand over his heart. "Gosh, someone who likes to mingle! Jim, call the press!"

 

"Very funny, Chief," Jim grunted. He looked exceptional in his sleek, slim cut Hugo Boss suit. The dark blue, almost black, made his eyes pop and the open shirt at the throat hinted at his strong physique. It was a contrast to Blair's classic black tux, although Blair cut just as fine a figure in that. "Let's go before they start shouting inane questions."


They began to tour the room, snagging glasses of sparkling wine from the trays of passing waiters and admiring all the hard work that had gone into decorating and supplying the buffet with food. On the dessert end Tony spied his cookies, lovingly laid out in handsome, handmade baskets and boxes. More were packed up in pretty little bags as prizes for the tombola. Quite a few kids were already circling, sneaking handfuls of the baked goods when they thought no one was looking.

 

Tony smirked. How they thought they'd be able to get away with anything around so many sentinels and guides was a mystery. He guessed that the most likely explanation was that the parents knowingly let the kids experience firsthand how bad it was to overeat on sweets. 

 

Tough lesson, but certainly effective!, he thought admiringly.


Until Blair introduced Tony to the staff and volunteers handling the event, they were undisturbed, but then the floodgates opened. Several attending alphas from other cities came up and introduced themselves, some of them also casually introducing unbonded sentinels of their pride. It was obvious that all of them hoped for a kind of star-crossed lovers reaction, and while Tony found it amusing more than annoying, he was happy to realize that it all left him cold, the women even more so than the men. This only added to the already strong suspicion that his sentinel might be a man. 


Soon enough, Jim and Blair held their speech in which they introduced Tony as their newest trainee. It was short and sweet and the opening of the buffet did the rest, encouraging everyone to eat their fill before the fun and games would begin.

 

Tony spent almost an hour picking his way through the offered food, but when the live music for a spot of dancing began, he girded his loins and signalled Blair that he was ready for the meeting with the mystery man. 

 

As unobtrusively as they could they made their way out of the ballroom and up eight floors to the most secure conference room in the building. A man in his late fifties was already waiting for them, glass of wine in his hand but expression stone cold sober. Tony looked him over curiously, taking note of the pinched features and the sheer amount of desperate hope rolling off him. There was also a high end leather briefcase standing at the man's feet, promising juicy bits of criminal drama.


Without saying a word, they all filed into the room. Jim closed and locked both doors and listened for a minute for electronic surveillance devices before flipping on the white noise generators.

 

The man let out a tense sigh. "Thank god you're finally here. I was about to crawl out of my skin."

 

"I'm sorry, Patrick, but it's the bash. We couldn't not begin the evening in style. Tony, please meet Dr. Patrick Sheppard, owner of Sheppard Industries. Patrick, this is Anthony DiNozzo, formerly NCIS, now latent guide in training." Blair watched the men shake hands. He then led Patrick to a chair and gestured for Tony to take a seat also. Jim remained standing. "Why don't we get the paperwork out of the way first? See whether Tony runs out screaming, or if he's willing to stay."

 

Still pale but at least somewhat calmer now, Sheppard put his briefcase onto the table and flipped the lid open. 

 

Tony spied a stack of paper about an inch high. At once his stomach clenched and he had to breathe against the surge of yearning Sheppard was sending out. 

 

"Fuck," he muttered, steadying himself against the table. "Jim wasn't joking when he told me I'd be up to my ears in paperwork."


"Ssh, Tony, it's alright," Blair murmured. He took the papers and placed them in front of Tony. "It's a huge NDA, but it's not a contract. I'll go through it with you and make sure there are no nasty surprises hidden in there."


Grateful, Tony let Blair run the show. He skimmed over the text and signed where Sheppard had put the post-it notes.


Once that was out of the way, his copy in a black folder in front of him, Patrick Sheppard began to speak. 

 

"A little more than three years ago my second son John, an Air Force pilot stationed at McMurdo, Antarctica, was recruited by a General Jack O'Neill and accepted a military posting at Stargate Command, which is a subdivision of Homeworld Security."

 

Tony mouthed the words Stargate Command and Homeworld Security, baffled. He even stared at Blair and Jim, who serenely looked back.

 

Clearly expecting this reaction, Sheppard continued, "It's not the purpose of this meeting to completely read you into the Stargate Program, but I'll make it happen if you find that you need to know more in order to help me. Just know that the USA have a Stargate and that we use it to explore other planets in the galaxy. So, to make it short, aliens do exist and we have contact with them. Unfortunately, some of them are the aggressive sort, which is why Homeworld Security was brought into existence. Right now HS doesn't show up on any organisational charts, but declassification isn't that far off. Too much has happened during the last decade to keep it a secret much longer."

 

"Aliens," Tony said. "Who are so evil that we need a whole new military branch to deal with them."

 

"Yes. I was told that most of the aliens the teams encounter look just like humans. Are, in fact, humans that have been displaced thousands of years ago. And, according to O'Neill, most planets have a lot of trees and not much else."

 

Tony gaped at Sheppard.

 

 "Moving on, it turned out that my son possesses a certain gene that enables him to work the technology of an alien race called the Ancients." Sheppard pulled a photo from his briefcase and slid it over the table. "This is John. He stupidly volunteered for what he assumed would be a one-way mission to another galaxy, and he's been there for more than a year now. Stargate Command managed to make contact a couple months back, but John refuses to come home. Apparently there's a threat to Earth in that galaxy that makes every single one of our own bad guys look like kindergartners."


"Okay," Tony said, stunned. He didn't know what to say because he could feel it in his freaking atoms that this guy, who sounded like the worst sort of conspiracy theorist, was telling him the truth. His brain was seriously stuck on the alien part of the speech, with the it's all true part providing extra glue.


"Now, I'm not here because the Stargate Program needs your help," Sheppard went on. "I was told that they'd send their own representative when the time was right, probably Dr. Jackson, you poor soul."

 

Tony felt briefly offended on Daniel's behalf, but then again the guy could tempt a saint. Not being a saint at all, Tony hadn't even thought about resisting, which, yeah. He'd have to watch out for himself, he supposed. 

 

"Then why are you here?" he asked, half dreading the answer but too curious to resist.

 

Sheppard's breath hitched a little. "I'm here because my son is stuck in the fucking Pegasus Galaxy, and someone in my own company is sabotaging my efforts to speed up the development of energy conserving tech so our starships can fucking reach my boy faster and render more and better aid." He nudged the picture even closer to Tony in a bid for him to look at it. "I need you to find the bastard and nail him. For your trouble I'm prepared to pay a seven-figure fee and let you add any clause to the contract you deem necessary to protect yourself." He exhaled sharply. "Can you do that?"


"Seven figures?" Tony repeated dumbly. "You must love him a great deal."

 

Again Sheppard's empathic output changed, from desperation and fierce, if grim, hope, to utter desolation. "I do. But, he doesn't know it. We had a falling out more than fifteen years ago, about his choice not to join SI when he graduated from college of all things. I've been too proud to reach out to him, and he was too hurt to do it. But I won't hold myself back any longer. I'm getting on in years and I need to make it right before it's too late. I'll stop at nothing to get him the support he needs. Nothing. Whatever you need, I'll make it happen."

 

Tony finally put a finger on the photo and pulled it towards him. It was an official service picture and showed an uncommonly attractive, dark-haired man somewhere in his thirties with pale green eyes and a little beard shadow, despite being obviously clean shaven. It was just a picture and yet Tony could tell that this man, John, was serious about his job and his relationships, but that he treated the rest of life with a certain irreverence. It was insanely attractive and he stared for a bit longer than was probably acceptable. 

 

"Tell me more about the situation in your company, Dr. Sheppard," Tony finally said, pushing the photo away. "Start with how you became aware of the sabotage and then walk me through everything you've learned and done since. Blair, if I could have something to write on, please?"

 

Everyone in the room sagged with relief and Sheppard actually took a legal pad and a biro from his own briefcase before Blair could even get up and get some from the shelf below the TV set in the room. They weren't branded with the SI company logo, which absurdly made Tony feel a lot better about the whole thing. 


"We have to get back to our guests for a while," Blair said. "We'll talk later, Patrick. Try not to overwhelm Tony, alright? Tony, don't sign anything while we're gone."


Jim nodded at them both and then herded his guide out of the room, firmly closing the door behind them.

 

During the next one and a half hours, Tony got a crash course in how Sheppard Industries was run, and specifically who worked in research and development and the kind of access and responsibilities those people had. Of course everyone had been thoroughly vetted during the hiring process, and SI apparently was more paranoid than most companies because they insisted on yearly security checks for all their employees. It was a little mind-boggling, but considering how potentially game-changing some of the stuff in R&D was, Tony really couldn't fault Sheppard for it. 

 

It also made his job a lot easier. 

 

As Tony was looking over pictures of the actual R&D labs, Jim returned and put a halt to the discussion. "I feel almost sorry to disturb you, but it's going on midnight and you've been missed."

 

"Already?" Sheppard ran a hand over his tired face. "We still have so much to go over."

 

"I know, but I think it's safe to say that Tony's committed to your cause, Patrick." Jim put a hand on the man's shoulder. "You both need rest, and Blair would kill us all if you proceed without a contract. Tony does come first, and he won't budge on that."


"No, I won't," Blair said quietly from the door. "Let's do the legal stuff tomorrow."

 

"No, please, let me at least show it to you." Patrick pulled a slim laptop from his briefcase, booted it up and pushed it over to Tony. "This is the consultancy contract I've prepared for you. I tried to put everything in you might need, but if it needs changing, we'll change it. I meant it when I said that I'll do everything to accommodate your safety requirements. I left the space for your fee blank. Just enter what you think is right."

 

Blair sat next to Tony, scrolled through the document and began highlighting sections and adding things. "Not too bad, Patrick. Send us the clean version, give Tony a day to think it over, and in the new year he'll catch your mole."

 

Patrick Sheppard slumped in his chair and pressed both palms against his eyes. For a moment Tony thought he might cry - he certainly felt fragile enough for that - but then he just breathed shakily a couple of times. "Thank you."

 

"I'll do my best," Tony promised, "but no guarantees, yeah?"

 

"I couldn't ask for more," Sheppard replied, still pouring out his desperate gratitude. It filled up the room and threatened to drown Tony. "Truly, I thank you, son."

 

They put their things away, Tony's copious notes vanishing into the black folder that held his copy of the NDA, and said their goodbyes. Patrick left first, obviously tired but with an energy about him that had been missing at the start of their meeting. 


Jim closed the door again. "Everything went well?" he asked. 


"Well enough, at least," Tony said. "It's an interesting puzzle. I think I can help, and not just because of my sensitivity."


"Take care not to get sucked in too deep," Blair warned. "I like Patrick, but he's not exactly rational at the moment. About anything. You could put nearly ten million dollars into your contract and he wouldn't bat an eye."


"I won't take that much," Tony said indignantly. "I'm thinking that a danger allowance would be the better way to go. But, a million up front isn't too much to ask, right? Finding the perp, or perps, could take months."


"We'll figure something out," Blair promised. He looked at his watch. "Patrick's had enough of a head start; he's staying at the hotel so no one will have seen him. Let's go back, mingle a bit more, and then go home. I'm done for."

 

Later, in the darkness of his bedroom, Tony allowed his mind to noodle on the issue, but his thoughts soon turned to John Sheppard. It maybe wasn't an earth-shattering revelation that he was at odds with his father, but it certainly was earth-shattering to Tony just how much Patrick wanted to reconcile with his son, and for no other reason than because he loved him.

 

You better be prepared to have some uncomfortable talks with your old man, John, Tony thought, surprising himself with the fierceness roiling in his gut. If there's anything to salvage, I'll see that it gets salvaged.

 

Joker appeared abruptly on his bed and flopped down with a huff. 


"Yeah, yeah, I can't force him," Tony told him. "But John better at least appreciate the trouble his dad is willing to go through to reconnect. Mine only comes crawling when he needs money, you know."


Joker's whiny growl said that yes, he did know what a douchebag Senior was. With more huffs, he cuddled against Tony's side, nudged him until he put his arm around him, and let his tongue loll out once he was satisfied. 


"Good night, you clown," Tony said fondly. Minutes later, he was asleep and only rose when Blair came to wake him around noon. 



End of part 3

 

Chapter Text

Something Beautiful On The Horizon


Part 4



Patrick Sheppard was a tenacious man, Tony decided as he read through the revised consultation contract after breakfast. The man must've gotten up very early to have the contract couriered over before eight. 


Blair's assistant explained how consultancy fees were made up, and how much Tony could reasonably request without having to feel guilty. 


"Plus ten percent because it's an absolute rush job," Peter said, winking. 


"I'll donate most of it to Blair and Jim's charity fund anyway, but I approve," Tony replied, ignoring Blair's quiet gasp. "Any input on how much time I should plan for? Since I don't know enough yet, by far, it's hard to estimate." 


"I'd say at least a month," Jim said. "If you get results earlier, good. If it takes longer, you should put a clause in for additional payment. It takes time away from your training and that should definitely be taken into account." 


They negotiated the make-up of the fee and then sent the contract to Blair's law firm with the request to look it over immediately. 


"I still have no idea how Dr. Sheppard wants to play this," Tony admitted afterwards when the four of them were lounging in Jim and Blair's living room with coffee. "I mean, I'm here, and the company seat in question is in Colorado. I can do quite a bit remotely, but we all know that I'll need direct access to the people at SI eventually." 


"We'll make it happen when it becomes necessary," Jim said pragmatically. "Do the legwork first, it'll minimize the risk to you." 


"No, think about it," Blair intervened before Tony could protest. "People at that branch of Sheppard Industries know about the sabotage. Emotions will likely be running high because everyone is under scrutiny right now. Exposing you to that could force you online in the right circumstances. If you're not ready here and now, you won't be ready then and there, believe me." 


"Alright. I keep forgetting that I don't have shields yet," Tony sighed and huffed. "It's so annoying." 


"You might not be shielding like I do, but you do have some defences in place now to deal with all that input," Blair replied and smiled. "Otherwise you wouldn't have been able to fight Kirsty off." 


"I meant to ask about that, but there was always something else going on," Tony admitted. "So ... what the hell is up with that?"


Blair looked at him affectionately. "You're already coming online, of course. It's a true emergence, with your gifts coming online slowly and in stages you can handle. A sudden onlining would have harmed you greatly, but this? This seems to be just what you need." 


"But it's taking forever," Tony moaned. "It's been nearly four months already!" 


Peter snickered and nudged Tony's foot with his toes.


"I know. Even if you're not a fan of kismet or fate, sometimes things do happen for a reason." Blair drew up his legs to the couch and folded them in the lotus position. "The reason being your protection, Tony. Don't doubt the wisdom of the universe. Not in this. You must know by now that you have been given strong gifts. Even as a still latent guide, sentinels are already seeking you out and offering a bond. Last night was quite a parade of hopefuls. True, they didn't know anything about you except what's public knowledge, but hearsay travels fast in our community and your pictures obviously spoke for themselves." 


Tony preened a little, much to Jim's amusement. 


"Cocky little shit," he said with a smirk. "I'll watch your ass like a father would his daughter on prom night." 


"Oh, kinky," Tony chuckled. "Thanks. Last night was okay, so you're obviously doing your job well." 


Snorting, Jim slung an arm around Blair's shoulders. "They're not afraid of me." 


Tony eyed Blair's entirely too innocent face and exhaled in understanding. "Oh." 


"Yes," Jim said dryly. "Doesn't mean some hothead won't try something stupid, but the chances are way low with Blair around." 


Peter smirked. "It's almost a pity. I've seen Tony train with Sandra's team. He's bendy for his height, a true work of art. If anyone got fresh with him, they'd regret it for at least as long as their broken bones would need to fully heal." 


"Shush," Tony said. "If you don't watch that flattery, I might just drag you into a broom closet later." 


Peter's pupils dilated a little and a jolt of lust hit Tony like a well-aimed lance. "Is that so, darling?" 


"Flirt on your own time," Blair admonished, but he was grinning. "Fair warning, Tony, Peter is a hound dog." 


Tony leered, taking in the man's handsome face, utterly lickable neck, and his tantalizing pecs under the tight cotton shirt. He deliberately didn't look lower to keep it clean in front of the Alphas, but it definitely took some effort. Not that they didn't know how seriously he was returning that interest, anyway. "I can deal with that." 


"Oh, we're on," Peter purred. "You make your fantastic linguine and I'll bring wine and dessert. Day after tomorrow? That evening should be free." 


"Nothing but a pair of hound dogs," Blair stage whispered and laughed when Tony and Peter's eyebrows waggled in unison. 


oOo


Blair's law firm was thorough, which meant that they kept the contract overnight and sent the cleaned up version back the following morning. Tony, Blair, and Jim read it twice and then Tony signed, with both Blair and Jim countersigning as his legal representatives. It was a bit strange to actually have guardians again, and normally Tony would have rebelled with everything he had if the Center in D.C. and the Alpha Primes hadn't been bending over backwards to accommodate him and take his wishes into account. Besides, he had signed the apprenticeship contract with Blair and Jim for just this reason


"You've just made Patrick a very happy man," Blair said as he sent the scanned version of the contract in advance. "I expect that he'll call-" 


The office phone began to ring and Jim picked it up immediately. He listened for a couple of minutes, grunted a goodbye and hung up. His eyes were serious as he looked at Tony. "He'll have a secure office set up for you immediately. He and a small team are on their way as I speak." 


"I've decided to make my office available to you," Blair explained. "We don't feel comfortable letting you out of our sight yet. I hope you don't mind mine or Peter's presence on occasion, as I'll keep my files in here." 


"Of course not," Tony replied at once. 


Blair grinned. "I might also offer unsolicited ideas or advice. Once almost a cop, always almost a cop. I apologize in advance." 


"You were a cop," Jim said in that tone that Tony had quickly learned to associate with serious sex vibes. "The best partner I've ever had, and definitely better than some of the useless shits that actually wore the uniform." 


"I love you too, big guy," Blair returned flirtatiously. "What's the ETA on Patrick's arrival?" 


Jim raised his eyebrows. "Fifteen minutes max. The team already knows to process him quickly and render assistance with setting up the hardware." Turning to Tony, he said, "He wants to begin immediately. I hope you're prepared; he's hell-bent on getting results, and getting them soon." 


Tony just shrugged. "I've worked with concerned parents before, and it's also not my first industrial espionage case. It'll be fine." 


"Okay. Just remember that I'll draw the line at six hours a day," Blair said sternly. "Unless things get hot, of course, but that won't happen for a bit. At least, I don't think it will. Six hours per day from a seasoned investigator is a lot more than he had before, and I won't let him bully you into overtime." 


"It's in the contract," Tony said, frowning. "I'm not actually that much of a workaholic, okay." 


Snorting, Jim crossed his arms over his chest. "Try again."


"Fine, I like my work. But I get it. I'll even set the clock on my phone if it'll make you feel better." 


"You think you're kidding," Jim said. "Blair has e-mailed you a log-sheet for your time, and Mason will keep track as well to avoid missed entries." 


Tony blew out a breath. "Okay." 


"I know that I've said all this before, but it's absolutely not negotiable to neglect yourself or your training for Patrick. I'll be very unhappy with you both should you allow yourself to be pushed farther than we agreed. None of you will get what you want if I'm forced to terminate the contract, Tony. You gave me that right and I will make use of it if I deem it necessary." 


"I won't," Tony replied, a little stunned about the vehemence in Blair's voice. 


"You're getting closer to emerging every day," Jim said quietly. "Even without meaning to, Patrick could trigger you if the stress gets too much. Be smart and we won't have a problem." 


"Yes, sir." Tony flushed as soon as he said it, but couldn't find it in him to feel truly mortified. 


Jim patted his shoulder. "Good. Patrick's car has just turned into our street. You're staying here with Blair while I get Patrick, his minions, and the equipment screened." 


It took nearly half an hour to get the three PCs, two laptops and a whole box of office supplies checked out and up to the office. 


Patrick Sheppard had greeted Tony with a firm handshake and clipped, yet heartfelt words of thanks. After a stern look at his people, he allowed Blair to maneuver him downstairs to the small conference room on the second floor. Tony figured that Patrick's two tech minions were glad they could set everything up in peace, even if Jim remained behind to oversee their work and make sure nothing was added that had no business existing in the Alpha Prime pair's territory. 


"Have a seat, Patrick. Do you want something to drink? Coffee, or maybe tea? We have water in the fridge here, too," Blair said. 


Sheppard ran a hand over his face. "Forgive me if I remain standing right now, Blair. I'm so wired. I honestly didn't think Agent DiNozzo would actually agree to work my case until you sent the contract." He laughed hollowly. "I suppose now that we're really here, and things are getting set up, I don't know how to do this. I mean, I bullied you into starting that night, but this is ... different. It's official." 


"It is, and I'd be pretty disappointed if you decided to back out now," Tony replied evenly. 


Sheppard stared at him. "Of course I won't!" 


"Good." Tony waved him over to the table. "Then let's see what information you've brought with you. Fair warning, I'll crawl all over your business. If you're prone to hiding money in illegal accounts on the Caymans or in Switzerland, you'd best clean that shit up right now." 


That startled a laugh out of Sheppard. "I'm one of the good guys. I even pay all my taxes and ignore the frankly ridiculous loopholes the government has created for companies like mine." He exhaled sharply. "I have nothing to hide, son." He handed over an external hard drive. "This has all of SI's financial data on it, as well as everything concerning the projects the government contracted me for. Stargate Command has a desperate need for more efficient energy storage units, and while the scientists there work hard, they simply don't have the R&D capacity I have. A lot of them actually physically work at SI for the physical development and testing." 


Tony wasn't surprised, but it did present the perfect opening for his investigation. "You've vetted them independently from Stargate Command, I presume?" 


"Of course, as soon as they began using my labs. The data of every single person working in R&D are on that hard drive. O'Neill sent his evaluations along to streamline your process." 


"Alright. I'll start with the people from Stargate Command and work my way through the rest afterwards. I don't have to tell you to keep this quiet, do I?" Tony raised an eyebrow. "I know how much it rankles to let things lie for the time being. It's necessary, though. You'll have had an in-house investigation already, a big one, right?" 


"Yes. I made some waves," Sheppard acknowledged. 


"Good." 


Sheppard looked surprised. "Was it good?" 


"Of course." Tony parked his butt on the table and crossed his arms. "Sabotage always reaches a point where it's being discovered. In your case I'm thinking that it happened because you're getting close to a viable product. So, it had to happen and the perps know this. You having an unsuccessful investigation will put them at ease for now." 


"He's right," Blair said. "You'll have to brief Tony on what exactly you've done to flush the culprits out, of course, but I think it's pretty safe to assume that you've exhausted your options. Why would you be here otherwise, right?" 


"Right." Sheppard frowned. "Even O'Neill's people couldn't find them and it pisses all of us off." 


Tony shrugged. "I'm guessing that Stargate Command doesn't have trained investigators. Maybe they have supersniffers and emo-feelers, but that's not the same thing at all." 


"Oy," Blair protested half-heartedly.


"It's true. Just a month ago there was a guide who hid his whole empathic output with a little device, and we all know that lie detectors can be fooled, even the live ones. It was pure luck that I noticed how wrong that douchenozzle was, but all the rest of it will have to be investigated the mundane way."


"Alright, you have a point, unfortunately," Blair sighed. "It's a problem that all the bonded high-level sentinels and guides in the program are off-planet most of the time. When I was read in, I was appalled at how lax S&G security was in the Mountain, compared to all the other security measures the place sports." 


"You're stingy with them," Sheppard admonished. "O'Neill told me to remind you of that fact." 


Blair huffed. "I'd never stand in the way of a calling and you know it. But, yes, we have many slots to fill. Alphas aren't exactly rare, but alphas with the necessary drive to lead a city or a county or a whole state are." 


"You mean you need the people who're social enough to give a damn about others far more for our own country instead of on far-away alien worlds?" Tony asked dryly. At Blair's equally wry shrug, he admitted, "Can't fault you for that."


"The fact remains that this lack of trained high-level sentinels and guides poses a security risk, as evidenced with the sabotage in my company," Patrick said. "When I first heard about you from Dr. Jackson, Agent DiNozzo, you seemed perfect. You're not online, so not a threat on paper, even if people learned about you before we're ready to confront them. You're also said to be one of the best investigators in the states in certain circles. Tom Morrow's recommendation during our monthly golf meeting a few weeks ago was sort of glowing." 


Tony flushed a little.


"Which would be worrying for the perps, but still seem like the natural escalation of the hide and seek game they play." Blair went to the mini-fridge and got out a couple of water bottles. "Tony DiNozzo, PI. Has a nice ring to it." He grinned impishly and threw Tony one of the bottles. "We can have business cards printed for you and get you officially registered." 


Sheppard laughed. "Please do, I can't wait to see some people's faces."


"Right, we can do that," Tony said. "But for now let's go over the basics again. I'll just go and see if one of the laptops is already available. If you need anything, tell me, sir."
Sheppard shook his head. "I'm fine, I have everything with me." To Blair, he said, "But I'd love to have that coffee now, and maybe one of the danishes your Benny bakes?" 


Tony jogged upstairs, got one of the secure laptops, and detoured to his apartment to get all of his notes as well as some writing equipment before returning to the conference room. Benny had already been by; there was a fresh carafe of coffee on the table, as well as a large plate full of still warm pastries.

 

"He does know that I'm trying to restrict my sweet intake, right?" Tony grumbled as he snagged one with fresh fruit in the middle. 

 

"Relax, they're low in sugar," Blair laughed. "Just flaky pastry, full fat but nearly no sugar pudding with real vanilla, and a ton of strawberries. You know Benny, he's a damn good chef." 

 

"He is," Tony murmured, sniffing the pastry and sighing with pleasure. "I'll still make him spar with me later." 

 

He sat down next to Sheppard, poured himself a cup of coffee, and then booted up the laptop. "Alright, let's roll!" 

 

oOo

 

Dr. Sheppard stayed the whole day, mainly to answer any and all questions Tony had regarding the scientists from Stargate Command, but also to watch him work. When the six hours were up, he told Tony to call him Patrick, clapped him on the shoulder and promised to return the next day for more of the same. 


"He looked a bit shell-shocked there," Blair commented when the man had left the property. "I don't think he knew what he was getting into, to be honest. Heck, I didn't know how you'd tackle the whole thing. There are so many people working in R&D; you have your work cut out for you." 


Tony hummed in agreement. "It was very productive, though. I have a good idea who these people are now, and I've already found a few discrepancies between O'Neill and Patrick's evaluations." 


"Yeah, I noticed." Blair settled close to Tony and peered at the laptop screen. "Your time's up." 


"I'm just cleaning up the last of my notes," Tony promised. "I'd rather not leave it, or I might forget what they're supposed to mean. Blind-typing isn't one of my strengths." 


Chuckling, Blair shook his head. "True, man. Come on, Sandra and her team are waiting for us at the gym. Time to loosen up those muscles and lose a few calories from lunch." 


"I swear that Benny is trying to fatten us up," Tony complained as he corrected a few last words. 


"Nah, he's just monitoring your caloric input," Blair said with a wink. "Playing around on the spirit plane uses up energy and you have lost weight since I met you in August. Ten pounds at least. It's a good look on you, but Benny's right, it's time to watch your intake levels. From here on out, you'll use more and more calories to navigate the spirit plane and work with your gifts." 


"Still, a huge portion of chicken saltimbocca alla romana in white wine and cream sauce, rosemary potatoes, and butter-sautéed spinach?" Tony rubbed his stomach. "I thought I was going to burst."


"Did you know that college students use up to 300 calories a day while they're studying?" Blair asked. "Combine that with your relatively active lifestyle of late and you need to eat at least 3500 calories just to keep your weight stable. Make that 4000 while you're in training and working a case at the same time." 


"Incredible," Tony muttered. "I feel like the worst sort of glutton. I went back for thirds!"


"So did I," Blair replied with a shrug. "It is what it is, Tony. Just use whole foods, don't eat too much processed stuff, and watch your sugar intake and everything should be just fine."


"Every time I think I got my head around stuff, something else is popping up." 


Blair grinned. "I know. It'll get better someday. Now, switch that off and come play with the others, or they'll be insulted." 


Tony let himself be prodded into his apartment to get changed for the gym and then spent a satisfying hour with the security team. Contrary to the D.C. team where Krav Maga had been the order of the day, Sandra and her people preferred Jeet Kune Do. It made for interesting matches while also broadening Tony's martial arts horizon. His lungs kept holding up surprisingly well, even at this time of the year, and the desire to really exhaust himself grew a little stronger every day. 


After a shower, Tony snuck up to Blair's office, unlocked the door and just took a minute to look around. The desk now held a computer and three monitors, while the two extra PCs had been set up on small tables in corners. Tony wondered whether Patrick expected to call in reinforcements at some point. For one person, maybe two if Blair actually decided to lend a hand, it seemed rather excessive, especially since there was that second laptop sitting around.


Once Tony had taken in the new arrangement of the office, he began snooping. In a drawer of Blair's desk he found half a dozen external hard drives, each of them with a capacity that made Tony briefly doubt the year he lived in. Against the wall, half hidden by the open door, he discovered a brand new whiteboard, a box full of erasable markers, and magnets for putting up photos. More writing utensils waited in another box underneath one of the new, small tables. There even was a new flat screen TV for video conferences, and from its glossy looks it seemed to be one of the newest models on the market. 


All in all it was a more than decent work environment, one Tony couldn't wait to use come morning. 


At night, he played with the penlight and enjoyed its gently warmth on his face. Somewhere in his head he knew that he probably should be worried about its happy chant of healhealheal, but he honestly couldn't bring himself to care. Somehow, it had staved off runny noses and headaches so far, he was quite certain of this, and as long as he didn't drop dead, he'd keep using it.


Maybe I'll set it on my busted knee next, Tony thought as he nodded off. It'll warm the scarred tissue if nothing else. 

 

oOo

 

From one moment to the next, Tony was back in his empathic landscape. Not much had changed, at least as far as he could see, but then again only a few days had passed. With a contented sigh, Tony glanced down at his solid hands and feet and then around. 


He took in Mount Doom first, which stood dark and unchanged in the distance, and then he admired the completely irrationally made-up world where a broad strip of steppe with almost red sand bordered on a gentle green valley not unlike how he'd always imagined the Hobbit Shire from The Lord Of The Rings would look like. Then there were deep gouges and craggy cliffs without a sea, orchards, and cacti in deserts, but also broad rivers and jolly streams, both gentle and wild, and far in the distance the mysterious rainforest beckoned, the cry of its animals drifting to Tony on the gentle breeze. 


Seeing how there weren't any other animals around, Tony cupped his hands around his mouth and hollered, "Hello!" Spookily, his voice reverberated a lot. "Heeelloooo! Anyone wanna come for a visit?" 


Joker suddenly appeared by his side, dark eyes twinkling and tongue lolling happily. 


"You wanna join the choir?" Tony chuckled. "C'mon then, on three. One, two ..." He threw his head back and howled, the dingo joining eagerly. "Again!" 


Joker's voice carried much farther than Tony's, but it didn't feel like he left Tony behind, not at all. The vibrations tugged Tony onward, further out into his own self. It was a strange experience, but exciting in all the right ways. 


When they stopped again, the whole world was silent for a moment. 


"I don't think they liked our performance very much over there," Tony confided, staring towards the horizon where the blue-tinted jungle was teasing him. "Snobby buggers, right?" 


Joker laughed his little doggy laugh and wagged his tail before beginning to dance around in the universal bid for play time. Tony chuckled, picked up a stick and threw it as far as he could. Joker ran to catch it, but when he had it in his mouth, he reared up and flung the stick at least fifty yards away. 


Tony gaped at him. "Seriously?" 


Joker barked. 


"Alright. One stick, coming up." Tony couldn't help his little incredulous laugh as he jogged to pick up the stick and throw it again. 


It wasn't a fluke, not at all. Joker caught the stick and flung it away again, this time barking as Tony ran, clearly spurring him on to go faster. The game progressed to more and more exhausting sprints, until Joker broke the barrier and dissolved into ocher-coloured dust. His presence was still there, however, and it rushed towards Tony and then into him with a slam that Tony felt in the marrow of his bones. 


For a moment, everything was bright light and incandescent joy. Tony wallowed in this heretofore unknown level of happiness before he slowly returned to a more rational state of being, and from there straight into wakefulness. Not a minute later, Blair and Jim poured into his bedroom, Mason right behind them. 


"You merged with your spirit guide!" Blair exclaimed. "Boy did we feel that! Congratulations!" 


"Yeah, man, congrats!" Mason enthused.


"Thanks," Tony managed around a yawn. "Sorry, I didn't mean to wake you up. Joker surprised me." 


"Our spirit animals usually do," Jim said wryly. "In case you were wondering, he might be gone for a couple of days." 


"Have you read about merging already?" Blair asked. He settled at the foot of Tony's bed. "It can be very intense, even with warning." 


"Yeah, I did, after Joker first showed up," Tony admitted. "I still didn't think it'd happen so soon. Samira told me that her spirit guide took a while to trust her, and Rebecca's apparently made her jump through some hoops before she committed." 


"Samira's little guy is so shy," Blair smiled. "But I'm not surprised that yours was so bold. I'm sure he knew that you were insecure about having a spirit animal and wanted to lay your fears to rest." 


"He chose me," Tony said with growing awareness. The warmth in his chest bloomed again and he smiled. The others all smiled with him. "He's really mine now." 


"I'm sure he was yours before that," Blair assured him. "He only put a ring on it, so to speak."


"That he did that means that I'm another step closer to coming online, right?" Tony asked, suddenly worried. "Should I have waited?" 


"No." Jim, dressed only in drawstring sleep pants, stepped up to Blair and put a hand on his shoulder. "Absolutely not. Where you went tonight, it's you. You yourself told your spirit guide that you were open to the connection. Him not wasting time with waiting, well, you can hardly blame him for that." 


"No, of course not." Tony recovered his smile. "It really was intense, and weird, and if he truly stays away for a while, I might feel a bit like an abandoned date or something." 


Blair laughed out loud. "I can't fault you for that! Our spirit guides are our best friends, they surely deserve a little blues for going on their after-declaration trip, don't they?"


"Well, whatever he's up to, I hope he has fun." Tony grinned. "Do spirit guides have carnal relations?" 


Mason, normally quite shameless, choked on his spit, but Jim merely rolled his eyes. 


"It hasn't been reported yet, not even by bonded pairs," he said. 


"Doesn't mean they don't find some afternoon delight every now and then on their own plane," Blair returned with a grin. "Or maybe we just don't recognize it as such and they're having filthy spirit sex right under our noses." 


"Aw, Alpha," Mason groaned. "I so didn't need that image in my head!"


"Since when are you a prude?" Blair shot back, smirking. "Anyway, it's late and we should get back to sleep. Congratulations again, Tony. Merging with your spirit guide truly is a milestone and I hope that he'll bring you much insight and joy in the future." 


Tony's throat closed up with emotion when he heard the strangely formal words. "Thank you, Alpha." 


Blair winked and led his sentinel out, with Mason following reluctantly. 


Alone again, Tony slumped back in his bedding. It was so weird to have reached a tangible milestone in his emergence, and to be congratulated for it. 


"Like you didn't do the work, you clown," Tony sighed, but he couldn't help smiling. "Thanks for that." 


Joker stayed gone, of course, and soon enough Tony felt ready to go back to sleep. This time, his dreams were normal, and in the morning he woke up refreshed like any other person after a good night's rest. 


oOo


"Dr. Sheppard was looking a little shell-shocked again when he left," Peter remarked when he joined Tony in his apartment for their dinner. He lifted a paper bag and two bottles. "Wine and dessert, as promised." 


Tony checked the label and whistled. "Red and white; you're going all out. That tiramisu in the bag?" 


"Tiramisu and panna cotta with raspberry sauce," Peter purred. "What are you making me?" 


"Linguine with garlic mushrooms and sage." Tony finished cutting the rolled out pasta dough and carefully hung the thin stripes up and out of the way. "After yesterday's chicken overload, I thought some variety would do us good. I can make another sauce, though, if you'd rather not have mushrooms." 


Peter sidled up to Tony and pressed a bold kiss to his neck. "Absolutely not, that sounds divine. Can I help?" 


Tony needed a second to process how damn good the man smelled, and how well his pointed, yet respectful appreciation stroked him empathically. "Mmh, you can cut the porcini, like this. I'll heat the pan." 


After another kiss to Tony's jaw, they got to work. Tony cranked up the heat under the cast iron pan, while he kept an eye on the pot for the pasta. Soon the rich smells of sizzling porcini and garlic permeated the air, and lazy bubbles licked at the rim of the pasta pot. Peter hugged Tony from behind as Tony seasoned the mushrooms with sage, salt, and pepper and was seemingly content to just be in his presence. 


Soon, however, the noodles were done and Tony deftly dropped them into the pan. Lemon juice and a small ladle of cooking water followed. Giving everything a good stir, Tony regretfully disengaged from his very nice human blanket and plated the food expertly. Peter opened the white wine and poured. 


"I hope you don't mind the candles," Tony murmured as they sat. "It eases my Italian heart to eat in style." 


"It's not a problem," Peter replied. He accepted the grana padano from Tony and grated a generous amount onto his pasta. "It smells so good, it definitely deserves a couple of candles." He smirked. "And also the thematic music."


"Shut up, Paolo Conte is a staple in my kitchen." Tony inhaled the aroma of the wine and then took a sip. "You chose perfectly. Cheers."


"Cheers, darling." 


They fairly fell onto their dinner and licked their plates clean, but Peter insisted on taking dessert to the sofa for some sophisticated couch and chill. 


"I can't believe you," Tony laughed but accepted his guest's choice of movie. It wasn't like When Harry Met Sally wasn't a favourite of his. "You only want in my pants, admit it." 


"Everybody wants in your pants," Peter whispered, dropping the remote control onto the table and crawling over Tony until he laid back on the couch and made himself comfortable. "I'm not looking for something serious, and neither are you, but we can have such a good time together." 


"Oh, I'm with you on that," Tony said huskily, sliding a hand around Peter's neck and pulled him down for a kiss. "You fucker, you nibbled on the panna cotta." 


Laughing, Peter settled between Tony's spread legs. He was warm all over and his cock was half hard and working towards full mast rapidly. "I did. It's delicious. Do you want some?"


Tony pulled him into another kiss, licking the last traces of the dessert from Peter's mouth. "Let's try the tiramisu." 


Feeding him a bite, Peter barely waited for Tony to swallow before he kissed him again. His nimble fingers made short work of Tony's shirt, baring his chest for his greedy eyes. "You're so fucking pretty, I could just eat you up." He bent to lick a nipple, teasing the other with his fingers. 


A wave of pleasure rolled through Tony, slow and decadent like the taste of mascarpone dusted with cocoa on his tongue. Peter's enjoyment of his body stoked his own enjoyment of Peter's unhurried, warm touches. Broad palms stroked over his sides and belly and a few moments later those clever fingers undid the buttons on his trousers.


Tony wallowed in the caresses and sighed happily at the many kisses strewn all over his neck, face, and chest. Peter spent a shocking amount of time just on Tony's torso until he was barely more than a wet noodle waiting to be devoured. The man's satisfaction at being able to reduce Tony to such a state seemed to be all the engagement he desired if the empathic outpouring of Peter's erotic possessiveness were anything to go by. 


"How do you want it?" Peter murmured as he slid his warm, warm hand into Tony's underpants. "Can I have you, or do you want to have me?"


"Fuck me," Tony whimpered against Peter's lips. The curl of those fingers around his dick was divine. "Don't care how, just do it, and be safe about it." 


The pupils in Peter's pale blue eyes blew and his breath hitched. "Of course, darling. Leave it all to me." 


In a haze, Tony let himself be fully undressed. Those hands now stroked his thighs and calves and feet, first on the outside and then on the inside. With every upward stroke, a hint of fingernail scraped over Tony's sensitive skin, making him shudder. A warm drop of liquid on his belly made him infinitely aware of how hard his dick was, and yet his arousal was of the full-bodied kind and not just centering around his groin. It almost felt like a tantric exercise.


When Peter's oh so talented tongue joined the fun on the inside of his left thigh, Tony groaned. Peter's palms scorched his skin, and a sudden scrape over his right nipple sent a bolt of pleasure straight to Tony's cock. A second later that tongue licked his balls, showering them with attention before moving on to Tony's erection. 


Tony sank even deeper into that mellow pleasure. He was dimly aware of Peter's guide vibes caressing him emotionally as much as he was caressing Tony's body. When Peter took Tony into his mouth, moans and praise fell from Tony's lips with barely a conscious thought. The slick heat of that smart mouth and the resulting rush of blood in Tony's ears nearly masked the quiet snick of a tube. Then, a wet finger carefully traced Tony's asshole, stimulating him without breaching. The gentle touch gradually became a firm rub and finally, finally, that questing finger dipped inside, aided by a generous helping of lube. 


"So good," Tony groaned and lightly thrust up into Peter's mouth. Since he could only stroke his lover's hair, he sent out his appreciation empathically, holding nothing back as he blanketed the man between his legs with his pleasure.


"Tony, god," Peter growled and swallowed him down. With the mounting aggression came a deeper penetration, and one finger soon became two and finally three. 


Peter had gorgeous fingers that were becoming fast friends with Tony's prostate.

 

I'm going to come, Tony thought hazily. Like cresting waves, the pleasure rose and ebbed and then he was just there, hovering for a long moment on that delicious precipe before dipping over the edge and falling into a cloud of warm, sweeping ecstasy.

 

It took forever to come down from that high, and when he did, Peter was kneeling between Tony's spread thighs and stroking his own flushed cock. It was already wrapped and lubed and so ready to go that it had to be painful. 

 

"You're still dressed," Tony said, blinking up at Peter. "That's hot." 


"Can I?" Peter asked, leaning down to give Tony a deep kiss. 


By way of answer, Tony wound his legs around Peter's hips and urged him closer. The lassitude was fantastic, there was barely any stiffening when Peter pressed the head of his cock inside and stopped to revel in the moment. 


"God, you're so amazing," he said huskily, staring down at Tony. "So hot and tight." 


"Doesn't feel tight," Tony murmured, caressing the man's forearms, shoulders and chest. For his age, he was in fantastic shape. "Feels like a million dollars. Like I could maybe come again." 


An empathic salvo of lust crashed into him and they were kissing again, messy and hungry. With a few strokes, Peter was fully inside, his balls pressing against Tony's ass. He held himself up, working his hips in a slow rhythm against Tony's in an impressive show of restraint. Every glide sparked arousal, especially on the in-stroke, and having his lover above him fully dressed in a smart shirt and slacks while he was naked himself only added to Tony's pleasure. 


It didn't hurt that Peter seemed to be a machine. He fucked like he could do it for hours, despite his quiet curses and biting kisses. His full attention was on making Tony feel as grand as possible, and boy was he succeeding. Within minutes, Tony's spent dick was filling again and his skin flushed hotly. 


"Oh darling, I'll make you come so hard," Peter panted, wrapping a hand around Tony's erection. "If you let me, I'll take you over the back of the couch next. I'll use you so well until all you can think about is my dick in your ass and my hands all over you." 


Tony groaned as a slow wave of pleasure rolled through him and outwards, tangling with Peter's own empathic bleed of pleasure.


"And after that I want you on the bed, you lying down flat on your front and me fucking you for hours until you're incoherent with it." Peter picked up the pace, breath hitching. "You're so close already, aren't you? You're going to give it up to me again." 


There really was no question about it at this point. Tony's whole body was vibrating and he felt choked with pleasure and arousal. Peter's frankly perfect dick did one last slide against his prostate, the fingers of his right hand abandoned his cock and pinched his nipple instead, and teeth closed around his shoulder bend- 


Tony came with a shocked shout, back arching and ass clenching around the invading length. Peter fucked him through it, prolonging the orgasm, and came with a harsh groan himself only moments later. 


It was an eternity before Tony got himself back under control. Without thinking about it, he wound his arms around Peter and tugged him down until he was resting fully on Tony, mess be damned. His dick twitched in Tony's ass, which made him both groan and smile. 


"Five stars," he murmured, kissing Peter's ear and temple. "Highly recommend guide sex, would do again in a heartbeat." 


Peter sighed deeply and grew heavy. "Likewise, sweet cheeks." 


They cuddled until Peter slipped out of Tony's body. By then the man had recovered his cool and went to dispose of the condom and try to clean his shirt while Tony brewed them cups of espresso to go with their dessert. 


"I should spank you for tempting me so," Peter said with a pointed once-over of Tony's nude body. He was in his undershirt, beautifully sculpted biceps and pectorals on display, and smirked. "But please, don't get dressed on my account. I'm quite enjoying the view." 


Tony laughed. "I'm done for tonight, I think, but we can talk about that next time." He pushed a cup towards Peter. "You did promise me some rather filthy adventures and I intend to collect." 


"Soon, I hope." Peter came up to him and put a hand on his ass, giving it a squeeze. "But first things first. We absolutely have to eat that divine panna cotta before it dries out." 


"Should I still stay undressed?" Tony murmured against Peter's neck while the hand kept kneading his behind. 


"If you're really done, you might better cover up all that loveliness," Peter replied in that attractive lewd way of his. 


Tony could parse that he was serious, but he was also, strangely, putting out equally serious vibes of wanting to make Tony feel safe and pampered and that was ... 


"You know what?" Tony poured a shot of ice cold milk into his espresso and downed it in one go. "I think I'll enjoy the freedom a little bit longer. Can't hurt to wait until Harry and Sally have had their happy end, too." He patted Peter's cheek and pranced back to the couch with a little unnecessary flex of his shoulders. 


"Oh, darling, I adore you," Peter purred, downed his coffee black, and stalked after Tony with the clear intent of a seasoned hunter. 


By morning, there was still half of their dessert left, and for the first time in longer than Tony wanted to remember, he'd spent the night in someone else's arms. 


oOo


The thing was that getting with Peter wasn't a relationship, but it wasn't just a friends with benefits situation, either. There was an understanding between them that puzzled Tony and made him a little nervous. 


Thankfully, Blair didn't call him on it, just encouraged Tony to keep up his meditation before work began. There wasn't even any teasing in the house about them hooking up, although Mason had smirked at both Peter and Tony after their first night together. Apparently their sexual and empathic compatibility was off the charts and it had given everyone a really good time.


Now it was the middle of January and Tony had established a good rhythm for his guide training and the work for Patrick Sheppard. He'd gotten used to his spirit guide's absence, but he did miss him fiercely because nights spent alone in his empathic landscape were boring as hell. No amount of hollering towards the rainforest did any good and he was ready to abandon his efforts because it was beginning to depress him. 


To combat the unsettling feeling of missing a part of him, Tony had poured a lot of energy into working Patrick Sheppard's case and getting up to speed on the whole Stargate program, or as up to speed as one could get in such a short time, and with the limitations General O'Neill was setting. Tony had delved into SI company records and people's backgrounds like a fiend, subjected himself to hours and hours of recorded conversations between the scientists at SI to sift out nuggets of useful information, and got to know more people in a secondary, creepy way than he had ever done before for one case, even as an NCIS agent. 


Blair had proven to be almost as invested in the work as Tony, which was both a surprise and a huge help, especially since Blair was even better at charming information from relatives and friends of their targets in a way that didn't even remotely resemble a questioning. 


"It's my secret power," Blair had said with a smug grin after a particularly successful phone call. "The power of the gab, combined with the power of obfuscation." 


And now, after two weeks of hard work, he had the first results.


Tony's watch chimed and right on cue he got a call-through on Skype. 


"Hello Patrick," Tony greeted, not able to conceal his smug smile. "So nice to see you today."


"Tony," Sheppard huffed. "You teased me dreadfully with your message this morning. What is it you want to tell me?" 


"Oh, you know, I just managed to ferret out the persons that are most likely your saboteurs," Tony replied, twirling his pencil between his fingers. Sheppard's gobsmacked expression was pure gold. "It's your and O'Neill's call how you want to proceed, but I recommend not spooking them just yet." 


"Why not?" Sheppard asked, shaking off his surprise and taking a long drink from a glass of water. "If you found them, let's get them out of my company."


"Something's not quite gelling. Normally I get that feeling of closure, but my gut's telling me that there's more to it." Tony sat up and enlarged his folder with his main suspects. "I have four more I'd like to talk to before I say more. I don't want to ruin any careers, and I especially don't want a single one of them to get away with what they've done." 


"What would you suggest?" 


Tony cocked his head. "Well, it depends on how militant O'Neill is about his people, because if we do it my way, he will have to play ball with me." 


"He'll do what's necessary," Sheppard assured him. "Care to share?" 


"I won't give you the names, but I want to talk to everyone personally, just a normal conversation people would expect from an independent investigator. To sweeten the deal for them, I'll even do it via Skype." 


Sheppard's brow furrowed as he frowned. "I thought you wanted to meet them face to face?" 


"Oh, I did, but my sensitivity is ..." Tony hesitated. "Let's just say that it picks up stuff easily even through the phone now. It gets worse every day and Blair said there's no telling how far it'll go." 


"That must be incredibly exhausting, son," Sheppard said, visibly stunned. 


Tony sighed. "It is, sometimes, but I'm very sheltered here, so it works out for the most part. Right now, I can feel how impatient and worried you are, although I can see that just fine without the sensitivity. And there's more ..." He hesitated. "You're not feeling well. Physically, I mean." 


"Tony-" 


"Are you sick?" Tony sat up abruptly. "You are, aren't you? Fuck." 


Sheppard's face contorted. "My heart's been troubling me lately. The doctor says it's the stress." 


"Of course it it," Tony said. "It feels horrible, Patrick. Please get that seen to. It's obviously serious enough to freak you out, and that's freaking me out, okay?" 


"I will, as soon as I find the time," Sheppard conceded, but he sounded tired. "First we have to help my boy. When can you do the interviews?" 


"As soon as O'Neill gives the green light," Tony replied. "Why don't I talk him into it? You take a step back and decompress. All's well, okay? We got this." 


"I'll send O'Neill's aide my formal permission to proceed in any way you see fit." Sheppard looked at Tony, his light eyes intent. "Thank you, Tony." 


"Get yourself sorted out," Tony said quietly. "John will want to see you, won't he? You need to be in tip-top shape for that meeting." 


"You're probably right." Sheppard smiled wryly. "Take care, Tony." 


"You too. Bye." 


Tony ended the call and bit his lower lip. After a moment's hesitation, he got up, left the office and went to the small conference room on level two, where Blair had set up his work computer and was currently discussing his agenda with Peter. 


"I just told Patrick that he needed to see his doctor," he blurted out. 


Blair and Peter stared at him. 


"I know, it wasn't any of my business, but worrying about his company and John is making him sick and I just couldn't keep it to myself any longer." 


"Oh, Tony," Blair sighed. "Peter, give him a hug, please." 


Without a word, the man enfolded Tony in his strong, capable arms and just held him for a long, satisfying minute. "Are you alright?" he asked. 


"Not really," Tony murmured into Peter's neck. "I mean, I've felt it since the beginning, but Patrick's filthy rich and I assumed that he had the best doctors to deal with it. But he's so not dealing with it." 


"I know." Blair hovered near them, expression concerned. "You did good." 


"I don't want him to drop dead before he had a chance to make things right with his son," Tony continued. "I know from daddy issues, and I'd give a lot to deal with them like this." 


"He'll take care of himself, I'll make sure of it," Blair promised. "The rest went well?" 


"Yeah, I'll get word later on how to proceed." Tony reluctantly left Peter's embrace. "I think I might need you close to deal with the encroachment." 


"But not too close," Blair said with a nod. "No problem. We just cleared most of my schedule for this."


"I'll get you a cup of tea," Peter said decisively. "Your six hours are up for today, so just relax. We could do a group meditation later, invite Henry and Samira along. They're all very soothing." 


Tony smiled at him gratefully. "Sounds like a plan." 


oOo


After expecting General O'Neill to move fast, it came as quite a surprise that two days passed without word from anyone. Cooling his heels was the last thing Tony wanted to do and he drove himself to distraction by arranging and rearranging his notes for the individual interviews. 


When the call finally came, Tony nearly flung the secure phone across the room in his haste to accept it. 


"DiNozzo," he said tersely.


"Geez, calm down," General O'Neill complained. "Just hearing you snap out your name like that makes me feel like a misbehaving boy being told to stand in a corner." He paused. "I'll have you know that I'm about forty-five years too old for that shit." 


"Sorry, sir," Tony replied, not actually sorry at all. "Well?" 


O'Neill heaved an aggrieved sigh. "I'm surrounded by workaholic assholes. Patrick's been such a little bitch about everything these last two days. I swear, he'd try to work from his death bed." 


"What?" Tony felt the colour drain from his face. 


"Oh, right, you don't know. Ereyesterday - I've always wanted to say that in normal conversation since Danny made me learn it, hah - Patrick sent me this permission slip to enable you to act in any way you see fit to flush out his little troublemakers. So far, so good, but during that uncomfortable talk he let slip that he was proposing I accommodate you during the process because you told him to go see his doctor ASAP." 


"Well, good," Tony said firmly.


"Quite," O'Neill agreed dryly. "What's not so good is that apparently he has a fan in the Mountain who didn't feel like informing the Alpha Prime Guide of North America when Patrick asked her to because she thinks Patrick's friendship with you 'abnormal lot' is damaging to his health." He scowled briefly. "As evidenced by his heart failure, in her eyes."


Tony didn't know what to say to that, but he sure hoped that the lovely lady had been reassigned to Antarctica, or better yet, fired.


"Long story short, the old bugger got Danny worried enough that I got him into Stargate Command's infirmary, whereupon our CMO discovered, and subsequently healed, a really rather advanced heart condition, which would have had him keel over in a couple of months if it hadn't been treated." 


"You healed it?" Tony asked, just to make sure he'd heard correctly. "Just like that?" 


"One would think that you hadn't binge-read through the cliff notes on the program," O'Neill bitched. "Goa'uld hand device, it made a huge difference. Patrick's heart is as good as new now, although our Mistress Of The Needles slapped a strict nutrition plan on him to avoid having to do that again. We don't have many people who can operate that thing and we were lucky that Carter was on hand to do it." 


"Right, the Goa'uld hand device," Tony said faintly. "How could I forget." 


"Ha, sarcasm. It's my first language, you know. I learned English at school." 


"Badly," a voice called from the background. 


"Is that Daniel?" Tony asked, smirking. "Greet him from me." 


"Yeah, yeah, later maybe. I just wanted to get you up to speed so you wouldn't have to wonder much longer what was going on here." 


Tony rubbed his forehead; dealing with O'Neill was always an exercise in both exasperation and hilarity. Case in point, his casual jealousy over Tony's interactions with Daniel Jackson. There was a huge betting pool going on at the SGC on when he'd finally have the stones to make a move. Tony had two hundred bucks on early summer, and he was determined to help them along if necessary. 


"I could've started the interviews without him," he said.


"No, you really couldn't have," O'Neill answered. "Because once Patrick knew that he'd be good as new in just a few days, he insisted on sitting in, even if it means listening to thirty-seven scientist brats whine about losing time on their experiments." 


"Yeah, I'm not looking forward to that," Tony admitted. "Anyway, if he's good to go, what are we waiting for?" 


"Patrick's sudden absence has caused a stir on the stock market, and even more so in his management structure. They're already fighting for positions, it seems. Patrick's other son David is furious, of course. A lot of bootlickers will get a nasty surprise tomorrow, that's for sure." O'Neill sighed happily. "Ah, to be a fly on the wall during that meeting." 


"I've got better things to do with my time, but you do you, sir," Tony snorted. "Minutes of that meeting would be appreciated, though. I met his CEO via Skype once and I can't stand the bastard." 


"Patrick can't stand him either, so it'll be fun."


"So, he's busy tomorrow showing his underlings their place, but after that it's a go?" Tony asked. 


"About sums it up," O'Neill murmured. "Overmorrow, 0900. Be sharp, DiNozzo, we're really fucking tired of these assholes ruining our toys." 


"Your people must love you," Tony said with an eye roll. 


"You have no idea," O'Neill said smugly and hung up. 


oOo


That night, Tony found himself in his empathic landscape by design. He was restless with the lack of progress in the real world and was determined to have an adventure here, or at least a good hike through his inner self. Getting to know the weaknesses of his soul, more or less, was helpful in his healing sessions with Blair, and he couldn't say that it hurt his progress with the talk therapy, either. After so many months, he was almost used to staring into the cracks and ravines that were dividing the gentle fields and rolling hills. Getting help for this no longer caused him apprehension or shame.


When he materialized on a green meadow, he immediately noticed that the rainforest in the distance seemed a bit closer than before. The blue-ish tint stretched from the misty tree tops into the sky above it, and the animal cries carried clearly to his position.


"Hello!" he called. "Can you hear me?" 


The sounds continued unchanged and he deflated a little. A moment later, he began to walk, his strides long and sure as he hiked toward the jungle. 


"If you animals from that blue jungle won't come to me, I'll come to you," he muttered under his breath. "Easy as that. Would be more fun with Joker around, but whatever. I can have fun alone, too." 


Hours seemed to pass as the sun in his empathic sky wandered west, its light changing from bright to mellow orange. It hadn't rained here even once and Tony wondered what it might mean if it ever happened. To fill the silence, he whistled movie themes, quoted famous lines, and found a fitting movie for each landmark he encountered.


When the light was starting to fail, its last rays a darkly golden kiss on everything, Tony finally stopped. It didn't seem like he'd gotten any closer to the jungle at all and he was exhausted. 


"I wish you'd come back soon, Joker," he sighed, rubbing his sore throat. "I'll do well in the interviews, I'm sure, but it'd be better with you. You could watch me being a total badass, and you could help me suss those science-y people out. I have this image of you in my head where you growl like Cujo if they try to be difficult. Scary, but so cool, you know?"


A howl sounded in the distance, and Tony jerked his head up. "Joker?" 


The howl came again and a huge weight dropped off Tony's shoulders. "Joker! Nice to hear you! You staying out a bit longer?" 


The sharp bark seemed very affirmative. 


"Alright then, buddy. Have fun!" Tony waved, even though he couldn't see his spirit guide. "I'll head back now. It's damn good to hear from you!" 


Joker howled again, long and melodious, and then was silent.


Taking a deep breath, Tony fought against the overwhelming surge of relief and happiness that was storming through him. Joker was well, and he would return to him soon. 


Funny how his priorities had shifted in such a short time.


oOo


The following day was a Tuesday, dubbed The Great Cooking Day henceforth because Tony put all of his considerable energy into cooking and baking up a storm. Within hours of his entering the communal kitchen, ingredients for pasta, lasagne, desserts, and cakes littered every available surface and he was dancing along to his favourite kitchen-time music. The other inhabitants of the house filtered in and out of his space, getting coffee and snacks but staying out of his way otherwise to just watch from afar. 


"Good god, is he still at it?" Rebecca asked in the afternoon when it was time for her coffee break.


"He's making tiramisu from scratch," Samira said admiringly. "I helped Benny with the shopping earlier; we'll have to do some extra exercise to work all of that off, but it'll be worth it." 


Rebecca scowled, even as she petted Samira's chameleon spirit guide, who had made himself comfortable around her slender neck and was half hidden under her long, dark hair. "That's the problem. It's always worth it, the day just hasn't enough hours in it to work off those calories." 


Benny joined them with a large cup of milk coffee. "I think it's great. He already was a snob about food, but now it's on a new level. You did notice the vibes of the food he makes, right, Sam?"


"I did," Samira confessed. "It feels ... wholesome. I always feel full of energy." 

 

"Hey guys!" Tony called. "I made cantuccini. Wanna try?" 

 

Rebecca groaned. "Just one, DiNozzo! If I gain one more pound, I'll have to kill you and hide your body! I'm a fucking Alpha sentinel, I can do it!" 

 

Tony laughed and gave her exactly one of the biscuits, just like requested. 

 

"You asshole." Glaring, Rebecca grabbed a whole fistful out of the bowl, to the vast amusement of the others. 

 

Samira smiled sweetly when she accepted her treat. "Look who's decided to come visit," she murmured. "That's Indra, my shy little guy." 

 

The chameleon peeked out from under her hair, its eyes roving and the head changing colour as it peeked at Tony's red apron. 

 

"He's fantastic," Tony said with a delighted grin. "He looks so fragile, and he has all these little fingers! And the tail!" 

 

"I know, right?" Samira's smile could've lit the room it was so radiant. "I'm happy that he's decided to come meet you. He knows how much you miss your Joker." 

 

"He'll be back soon," Tony replied confidently. He looked over the explosion of food behind him. "I don't know why I did that. I'm sorry. You'll be eating pasta for weeks." 

 

"Oh, don't worry about that," Benny said. "We can freeze most of it and take it out for the next meet'n'greet." 

 

"I totally forgot about that." Tony pulled a face. "The Valentine's Day Pair Off, right?" 

 

"You don't have to go, of course," Samira said. "You're not online, and you've already met a few sentinels on Christmas who did absolutely nothing for you." 

 

"Maybe I should," Tony sighed. "Just to get a feel for these things. I mean, as soon as I am online, it'll probably be expected, right?" 

 

"Well, the Centers certainly hope that unbonded sentinels and guides will come to the meet'n'greets, but it's not mandatory. Whether you want to hook up with someone or not is a personal decision. Some people who meet their match do resist the bonding, and the community has no say in it." Rebecca crunched on a cookie. "Doesn't mean I wouldn't encourage such a pair to clear the air, of course, but if someone resists a perfect match, they must have one hell of a reason." 


"Also, forcing someone to bond is taboo," Samira added firmly. "We know that some Centers are heavy-handed in that regard, but when Becca and I ascend to Alpha in Texas, people will absolutely be entitled to their choices. Refusing a match isn't a death sentence for either part of the pair, after all." 


"To be fair, I sure would feel like shit if a perfect match refused me," Benny admitted. "But yeah, free will and consent. It's super important." 


Rebecca smirked. "The Alpha Primes come down on disrespectful assholes like ten tons of bricks. I love when that happens. It's gotta be one of the most satisfying things in existence." 

 

"We aim to please," Jim said as he strolled through the front door. "The whole block smells like an Italian restaurant. I hope you cooked enough for Sandra and her team or she'll be mortally insulted." 

 

"I cooked enough for all of you for the next quarter, I think," Tony said, looking over his finished dishes. "I might also have blown through my and Benny's allowance for the next month, but whatever. As long as you guys enjoy it." 

 

Blair came in after Jim, long hair windblown and coat dotted with snow. "Do I smell gorgonzola in here?" 

 

"Yeah, I made gnocchi with gorgonzola spinach sauce for dinner," Tony said. "There'll be grilled chicken breast for the people who want it." 


"That's great, because we brought guests," Blair said. "They're just finishing up a phone call ... ah, there they are. Come in, Jack, Daniel." 


Tony had met General O'Neill via Skype, of course, but it was still sort of thrilling to meet him in person. He had an incredible presence and suddenly it made sense that he'd been promoted so far despite his absolutely irreverent attitude toward authority. 


"DiNozzo, it's good to meet you in person at last," O'Neill said, offering his hand. "Damn, you're fucking eye-candy, aren't you?" 


"I try," Tony said with a grin and shook the warm hand firmly. "Daniel, great to see you again." 


Jackson shook Tony's hand, the contact lingering just a little longer than was socially acceptable. "Likewise, Tony. Patrick wanted to come as well, but Janet wouldn't let him leave just yet. He'll be irritated to have missed this feast." 


"I can cook for him anytime," Tony said. "Come on, let me get your coats. Would you like some coffee? Benny and I baked panettone earlier if you want cake to go with it. It's a Christmas cake, but who cares." 


"Yes to both," O'Neill said as he shrugged out of his coat. "Make it a doppio for Danny, or he'll expire." 


"He's not wrong," Jackson laughed. "It smells amazing in here. Do you speak Italian?" 


"I'm fluent," Tony said with a flirty waggle of his eyebrows. "Espresso okay, or would you rather have a lungo with milk?"


"Make me one of those latte things," O'Neill said. "I get it black enough in D.C. ... it's the only way to stay alert around all those fuckers there." 


"And you think you can let down your guard here?" Jackson asked in amusement. 


"Blair will protect me," O'Neill quipped. "He's more badass than Ellison." 


Tony snickered and got to work while O'Neill and Jackson greeted the others, preparing a dozen cups of coffee in short order. Benny helped distribute them and Samira prepared plates of cake, a milk jug and the sugar bowl. 


The persistent sounds of the coffee machine also lured Peter out of the conference room and he shamelessly stole both Tony's espresso and a kiss before making the visitors' acquaintance. It gratified Tony a little to see Daniel react to this with a fond smile but no indication of undue attachment.


"Now, to what do we owe this pleasure, General?" Rebecca asked when they were seated on the couch and the first sips of coffee had been taken. "Anything we can help with?" 


"Nice of you to ask, but no. For once things are coming along as expected." His dark brown eyes went to Tony. "I had a few doubts, initially, but obviously the reports about DiNozzo's prowess as an investigator weren't exaggerated." 


"Let's wait for the interviews, sir," Tony cautioned. "I'm pretty sure who the culprit is and who's also involved, but I'm by no means certain yet. I have some pretty rotten luck, things might go completely pear-shaped if we don't watch it." 


"Yeah, yeah, noted. I'm an expert at dealing with rotten luck. What I mean to say is that my organization has its eye on you, if you're interested in a job. There was talk of sending Danny to convince you, of course, because he's good at luring people in, but personally I think that you are the type to handle hard truths much better than the usual game of misdirection and embellishment." 


"True, but then again I also know what's really going on there," Tony reminded him with a smirk. "A contract with you might involve someone's first born son, and my weight in gold for every year of my service, and that'd be just for dealing with the emotional trauma I'd surely suffer. The actual pay offer would still have to be negotiated." 


Danny nearly snorted his coffee with laughter. "Sounds about right," he chuckled, not fazed by O'Neill's unamused glare in the least. "We won't send an official offer until you're online, but please think about it. We could use someone for in-house investigations, and your personality makes you the perfect liaison." 


"I'll keep it in mind," Tony said, "but no promises. Right now I'm just dealing with my emergence."


"And that's quite enough," Blair added mildly. "Mind your manners, Jack." 


"Mother hens are not attractive," O'Neill groused. 


"Oh, he wore me down just fine," Jim said with a dangerous smile. "Now quit your poaching attempts and eat your cake before I have to drag you to the gym and kick your ass." 


O'Neill pulled a face but did as he was told, which caused a round of gay laughter. While he enjoyed the byplay, Tony recognized it for the misdirection it was and wasn't surprised at all when Blair prodded him and the two visitors up into his office later and locked the door. 


"I figured that there might be a meeting," Tony said to O'Neill. "What is it?" 


Jackson sighed. "Nothing bad, I promise. It's more of a ... caution before you begin your interviews." 


"You already sort of know about our problems with the Trust," O'Neill continued. "They infiltrate government agencies and important government contractors to undermine our efforts to go out into the galaxy and meet new allies." 


"Yes, I'm actually fully convinced that Patrick's saboteur is a Trust operative," Tony said, confused. "Their attempts to have some of his other experiments fail was a big hint." 


"Of course." Jackson pushed up his glasses and frowned. "What we neglected to mention, for good reason, is the fact that the Trust, or at least part of it, has allied itself with the Goa'uld. It's not knowledge the President wants to get out for fear of driving those operatives into deep hiding, but it's become relevant for your case, now that you've reached this point." 


"Okay, that's epically bad, but it also makes the whole thing easier." Tony shrugged. "I mean, you have a screening procedure for all your personnel, and Patrick does, as well. He showed me what to look for in the medical records and everyone checked out so far." 


"We check for naquada contamination as that's one big tell for past or present snaking," O'Neill said. "Or at least it was effective when our dealings with naquada were still very contained. Now, nearly every scientist in the mountain has had so much invasive contact with it due to our development of naquada generators, that this part of the screening process unfortunately has become virtually useless in certain areas." 


"Oh, okay. I trusted the files, but apparently that was naive of me." Tony straightened up. "How else do you screen for Goa'uld infestation, then?" 


"Active infestation with x-ray, mostly," Jackson said with a sigh. "Obviously we can't do that too often; our people are exposed to radiation on a ridiculous level as it is, so the standard is once a year, or when they enter a new field of work that's especially sensitive." 


"Patrick's work certainly falls into that category." Tony began to pace. "So, what you're saying is that I might have to be prepared for a Goa'uld to make an appearance?" 

 

"I'm afraid so. Patrick's project is the kind of invention that attracted a lot of attention world-wide, the Goa'uld faction of the Trust would be losing their villain card if they didn't try to get their hands on it," O'Neill explained.

 

Tony nodded. "Right. It'll have to have been implanted after their latest x-ray, then. For some people that's been only a few months." 


"Better be safe than sorry," O'Neill said. "It's a big advantage not to jump out of your skin if one of those bastards flash their creepy eyes at you, or talk in that stupid voice. If nothing else, it'll disconcert them." 


"Knowing this, I don't feel comfortable letting Patrick into the same room as the interviewees," Tony admitted. "Although I honestly don't believe that one would show itself. The whole point is to stay hidden, after all."


"Nah, Patrick'll watch a video feed. As to the snakes showing themselves ... you have no idea how conceited they can be. They might be good at strategy and get an A+ in both torture and oppression, but they let themselves be goaded like idiots. They simply can't help themselves." O'Neill stepped in front of Tony's suspect board and read his notes. "Not too shabby." He pointed at a woman. "She'd have been one of my prime suspects as well." 


"You're just saying that because she insulted your intelligence when you last came for a visit," Daniel said with a hint of exasperation. "Being McKay's spiritual twin does not automatically make her a criminal." 


"Well, it should," O'Neill returned, completely unrepentant. "Besides, she has these narrow, beady eyes. No one with such eyes ever was a good person, Danny." 


Jackson muttered something under his breath while Blair and Jim manfully tried to suppress their laughter. Apparently this was an old argument between the two. 


"Alright, I'm prepared now for random snake appearances," Tony said. "Was that all?"


"Haha, great joke, and no," O'Neill said flatly. "No one is ever prepared for such a thing. We brought video material in the hopes that it'll desensitize you a little." 


Jackson pulled out a laptop from his briefcase and opened it. "Those videos are highly classified, which is why we've really come for a visit. There's no way we could've shown you any of it remotely, and even this is making the President nervous." 


"No pressure, Daniel," Blair warned. 


"It's a fact," Jackson replied mildly. "Anyone not working directly in the SGC gets the weather eye. Okay, here it comes ..." 


When the video started, Tony thought he could handle seeing a Goa'uld possessing a human, but it turned out that he couldn't. 


At. All. 


"Turn it off," he hissed as soon as the host's eyes lit up and that thing opened its mouth. 


Jackson scrambled to stop the video. "What's wrong?" 


"Can't you feel it?" Tony gasped. His hand clenched over his stomach. "It's so disgusting. Rank and slimy and ... ugh. Like a horror movie." 


Blair frowned. "Did you really get that from the video?" 


"It makes no sense, I know, but that was brutal." Tony swallowed against the taste of bile in his mouth. "I'd say continue, but I'm afraid of puking." 


"I'm not getting anything, and obviously my shielding isn't helping much," Blair said with dismay. "But I get you, so how else can I help?" 


"I wish you could feel that," Tony said miserably. He looked at O'Neill and Jackson. "I read some of your mission reports ... I'm sorry you had to endure them." 


"Thank you," Jackson said quietly. "Your reaction to that video was immediate and vicious; I'm not sure we can ask you to conduct the interviews when there's a chance of encountering a Goa'uld via live video connection." 


"I have to," Tony disagreed immediately. "If there's one hiding at the SGC or SI, you have to know." 


"True," O'Neill said before Daniel could say something. "But not as you are now. You'd give the game away." 


Blair hummed thoughtfully. "There could be a way, but it'd require quick handling." 


"Whatever you need, I'll make it happen." O'Neill was all business. "Spit it out."


"The device you took off of me during the Trewellyan investigation," Blair said. "Or one like it. It's not for Tony, it's for the interview room at SI. It might dampen a Goa'uld's empathic output enough for Tony to be able to maintain." 


"Grand idea, consider it done." 


"Is that really a good idea?" Jackson asked doubtfully. "It could shield too much over a video connection." 


"Not to sound conceited, but I don't think so," Tony interjected. "I could feel Trewellyan just fine a month ago, and my sensitivity has gotten stronger since then." 


"And you forget that I'm very good at making those thingamajigs do what they need to do, in case the whammy is too strong after all," O'Neill added. To Blair and Jim he said, "I agree that this is the best solution to our problem. We need DiNozzo to do this, and this is the fastest, cheapest, and frankly easiest way."


Tony heaved a sigh of relief even as Jackson frowned. "It's alright, Daniel. I'll be fine. Was there anything else I need to consider?"

 

"You could find out how they've evaded detection so far, because contrary to popular belief we do have some high-level sentinels and guides on base and they help whenever they can," O'Neill offered. "I hate it when those little bastards manage to slip through security." 


"And why the person or persons chose to go along with it in the first place, if they're voluntary hosts," Jackson added. "Scientists are curious. We want to discover. Hindering the ability of other scientists to discover more of the universe is just wrong, especially since the chance to publish papers or earn prizes for our discoveries is severely limited due to our contracts with the SGC anyway. There's hardly a reason for such drastic measures. And not seeing what our hard work yields? Unthinkable." He shook his head.


"Then it's settled. Jack will be close to the interviewees to monitor the empathic shielding device and I'll sit in on Tony's end to buffer him from the encroachment." Blair sighed. "Even though it seems to do little good at this point." 


"You do shield me from most of the crap," Tony assured him. "Those Goa'uld slugs are just phenomenally loud. And ugly down to their little evil cores." He shuddered. "At least now I know exactly how they feel and can make myself scarce should they appear." 


"As long as you don't forget to call the Snakebusters while you scram, that's alright with me," O'Neill said, visibly pleased with the results of their talk. "Here, take this card. It's got the number of our Earth-side rapid response team."


The meeting ended a few minutes later and the group dispersed. Blair took O'Neill back downstairs for another helping of cake, but Jackson hung back and more or less crowded Tony into his apartment. 


"Hey, you alright?" Tony asked, closing his door and flipping on the white noise generator. Daniel's arms went around him in a tight embrace. "You feel weird." 


"Yes. I'm just ..." Jackson took a deep breath and burrowed his face in Tony's neck. "I'm glad you're okay. I'm glad you're taking all of this craziness more or less in stride." 


"Rather less than more, but I figured I'd freak out in private later," Tony said dryly.


"Good enough, believe me." Jackson huffed. "I don't know why I'm so attracted to you. It's driving me crazy." 


"Are you a latent sentinel?" Tony asked cautiously, although he was almost entirely certain that this wasn't the case. 


"Not in the least," Daniel murmured, his lips moving gently against Tony's skin. "It's not even all sexual ... I just like you." 


"Ditto," Tony said with a smile. "Although you definitely are a superior lay, so don't sell yourself short." His smile dimmed. "It's not any of my business, but you and O'Neill ... why aren't you tapping that? He's sort of screaming out loud what he wants from you." 


"Is he?" Jackson pulled himself together and stepped back. He looked like a man that had been beaten down one too many times and was afraid of trying to get up again for that last shot at happiness. "We have a lot of history between us. Most of it is ... difficult." 


Tony felt his heart break as a few tendrils of Daniel's hopelessness brushed against his awareness. "He does. He's stupid over you, and being away from you is killing him." He gently took one of the man's warm hands and brushed his thumb over the knuckles. "You don't have to be a sentinel or guide to feel linked to someone. If he's it for you, just ... grab him. He's waiting. And in a temper about it." 


"He's military," Daniel protested, though it sounded tired. 


"And he's not your team leader anymore," Tony pointed out. "You could be discreet, and even if people do find out, what are they gonna do? Dismiss a freaking two star general for being in a quiet relationship with a dude?" 


Jackson laughed a little. "It does sound stupid, doesn't it?" 


"You're bonkers over him, Danny," Tony pressed. "You're ... fuck, you're sort of lovely, and if O'Neill is who you want, and he wants you back ..." 


"Everyone I've ever really loved is dead," Daniel whispered. "I'm afraid to jinx it ... to get him killed. If I say it, I can't take it back." 


"I know. It's fucking scary." Impulsively, Tony kissed Jackson's fingers. "It's your choice and I won't say any more after this. But really, that guy is mad about you. Right now he's furious knowing you're in here with me. He's so jealous it's ridiculous." 


"I feel like I'm too old for drama like that," Daniel said sheepishly. "Sorry for inadvertently dragging you into this."


"Well, you could take your time. Until, say, the first week of June," Tony said with a sly grin. 


Immediately, Jackson's eyes narrowed. "There's a fucking betting pool going on, isn't there?" 


"Like you wouldn't believe," Tony smirked. "If I were you, I'd find someone to use as a dummy and take the money. You could use it for your honeymoon." 


"Cazzo di merda, that's exactly what the people in the Mountain do when they're bored," Daniel groused. 


Tony laughed out loud. "Give me your private phone number. If you're going to snag your general, I'll help place the best bet. Hell, I'll even spring for celebratory drinks." 


"You better," Daniel huffed. He eyed Tony. "I really don't know what it is about you, but even now I'm tempted to just ..." He gesticulated tellingly. "Even with your friend in the picture, and me wanting Jack so much." 


"Oh, Peter would probably join in a heartbeat if you wanted him to," Tony admitted with a grin. "If it helps, I feel the same about you, but, you know. I've got pretty bad sentinel longing and I have to believe that there's someone out there for me. And you've got your general waiting." 


"I kind of admire you for not depriving yourself," Daniel admitted. "I was never that easy around people, or even with myself."


Tony shrugged and flushed a little. "It's more about exploring what might have been before all those chances are lost forever, if that makes sense. Because I do believe that someone is waiting for me, but as to when we'll find each other ... well. That could take a while." 


"It does make sense," Daniel assured him and then smiled shyly. "To be honest, I can't quite believe I jumped you like that." 


"I was fervently wishing for something to happen," Tony told him with a laugh. "It was like you were reading my mind and it was so weird that I barely got anything from you in return. I don't get much from you right now, either, but it's nothing like that Trewellyan asshole. It's more like a really strong natural shield ... but you're not a guide either, right?" 


"Neither sentinel nor guide," Daniel affirmed. "But I was always odd, so there's that." 


"Hmm. Let's join the others before O'Neill murders me," Tony said. Leaning forward, he placed a lingering kiss on Daniel's lips. "Last one, for the road." 


"For the road," Daniel repeated, eyes actually twinkling mirthfully.


For the rest of the night, Tony had an indecent amount of fun watching Daniel watch O'Neill with all the subtlety of a brick thrown at someone's head. O'Neill, of course, didn't notice, because he was too busy snarking at Tony in childish fits of jealousy. It got so bad that all the guides in the room were biting their lips and hiding their faces so they wouldn't laugh in the general's face. The sentinels weren't any less amused, and they were far less concerned about O'Neill's delicate sensibilities. 

 

When the two visitors were finally leaving, Blair patted O'Neill's shoulder consolingly, while Daniel looked over his shoulder and gave Tony a little wicked smile. 

 

Oh man, I hope you've got some stamina, old man, Tony thought with an internal chuckle. You're in for a long night if Daniel's got his way. 

 

His own night was spent in solitude, which Peter took with good grace and a lot of understanding. It wasn't every day that industrial sabotage and perhaps even espionage was going to be prosecuted out of the Alpha Primes' house, after all, and they'd all need their rest.  


oOo 


Tony appeared in his empathic landscape and was immediately greeted by the sight of his spirit animal harassing a honey badger. 


"Joker!" Tony scolded and hurried to grab the dingo by the scruff of his neck. "What are you doing, boy? Our first visitor and you're being mean." 


Joker whined a little and squirmed, and the badger, the little fucker, used the break to dart forward and nip the dingo into the paw. 


"Oh, I see how it is," Tony said. He let go of his spirit guide and stepped back. "You actually want to fight? Be my guest. But don't come crying if Joker squishes you or something." 


Fascinated, he watched the two animals dart around each other, feinting and lunging and biting. The badger really was a vicious little thing that compensated for its smaller size and height with harder nips and almost scarily intelligent attack strategies.


While they amused themselves, Tony walked around, for once quite satisfied with himself, and watched the jungle in the faraway west, where animals were crying relentlessly and blue mist rose from the tops of the trees. 

 

When the sun was about to sink below the horizon, painting the sky directly above the jungle a vivid purple, the play fight finally broke up. Cautiously, but unafraid, the badger approached Tony. He was a handsome bugger, black and white with large, black eyes and a deceptively bumbling gait. 

 

"Hey there, had enough?" Tony asked with a chuckle. "You really held your own. I wonder what that says about me ... and whoever you belong to." 

 

The badger huffed and edged forward. 

 

"Alright, I assume you won't jump me and tear out my jugular," Tony said, carefully stretching his hand out for a sniff. "I wonder what you get from people when you smell them." 

 

Instead of answering his question, the badger braved the last few inches with a little jump, licked the tips of Tony's fingers - and vanished in a little burst of glittering light that both blinded Tony and jolted him right out of his sleep. 

 

"Holy shit," Tony whispered, stunned, as he stared at the dark ceiling of his bedroom. "Holy motherfucking shit." 

 

In front of his widely opened eyes he could still see images of planets and stars and beautifully coloured nebulas in space, and the eerie beauty of a futuristic city Tony couldn't remember seeing in any of his many sci-fi movies. And reverberating inside of him was a sense of so much knowledge and understanding that it appeared like both poetry and angel's song at once. 


oOo

 

Breakfast proved nearly impossible to manage and Tony even avoided Benny's fantastic coffee to spare his already nervous stomach. It relieved Tony that Blair also didn't eat much, and that Jim seemed alert and ready to support his partner in whatever way he needed. 


"It'll go well," Blair said on the way up the stairs. "Jack will begin with the almost-certainly-innocent scientists so you can find your groove. He'll have the device on full strength at first and will gradually lessen its influence until you give me a signal that it's enough. I'll read you the whole time and text Jack and Patrick whenever something suspicious comes up. It's a bit awkward, but we'll manage just fine." 


"Thanks for all of your help," Tony said. "You've taken off so much time for this; I hope O'Neill knows that he owes you one." 


"He does, actually. The SGC will match Patrick's consulting fee and donate it to the S&G Council." Blair unlocked the door to his office and locked it again after them. "Tony, your offer to donate three quarters to us is very honourable, but I'd feel better if it weren't so much, if it has to be anything at all." 


"I'm not hurting for money, and I don't want to discuss it," Tony replied firmly. "You do great work and you'll need it to help Trewellyan's victims. Let that be the end of it." 


Blair sighed. "Okay. Thank you." 


"You're welcome. How's the Trewellyan case going, by the way?" Tony asked. "Anything you can tell me?" 


"It's an ugly business," Blair replied tiredly. "Trewellyan is talking, but only reluctantly. He knows what will happen to him and is trying to hold back on us for fear of causing sentinel rage. Not a stupid move on his part, if I'm honest, but it's devastating for the as yet unnamed victims. We need to offer them help and try to heal the wounds. Such things tend to linger, and if they aren't dealt with, they can fester and influence the whole tribe. Believe me when I say that you do not want to have to deal with a festering wound on the spirit plane." 


"Yeah." They were silent for a sombre moment. Then, Tony said, "Shall we discuss hand signs and stuff? I don't think it's a good idea for me to write or type too much. I don't want to miss anything." 


"Yes, I agree." 


It was the work of a few minutes for two seasoned cops to decide on a handful of signs. One meant stop for the empathic dampening device, one meant Goa'uld, one meant lie, and the last two stood for innocence and guilt respectively. Blair sketched each hand sign onto his writing pad, just in case things got hectic, and then it was already nine and time to link up to the SGC. 


O'Neill greeted them and waved the little worry stone-like device in front of the camera. "I've got this little bad boy ready and ten scientists outside this room waiting for their turn. You two ready? Your link to me is working?" 


"We're ready, man." Blair consulted the personnel sheets. "Send Holly Sutton in, please." 


Tony settled back and waited for a mousy woman of indeterminate age to sit in the interview chair. She might not have made much of herself in the way of make-up or hair-do, but she had large, brown doe eyes that were practically shining with curiosity and eagerness. It was oddly charming, and when her empathic output connected to Tony like a clinging child, he smiled faintly and signalled stop to Blair. 


"Agent DiNozzo, good morning!" she greeted a little breathlessly. "Is it still 'agent'? I'm sorry if it's not; you look like one, very much so, so I hope it's okay." 


"It's fine, Dr. Sutton,"he said soothingly. "I hope it's not too much of a bother to answer a few questions for me."   


"Of course not." Her pale cheeks flushed a little and she smiled shyly. "I think it's terrible what's been happening at SI and I hope you find the saboteur soon." 


"We hope so, too. Now, can you think of anyone who would stand to gain from Sheppard Industries failing their contract with the SGC?" 


"Oh, well, maybe I shouldn't say, but I'd think it has to be one of Director Sheppard's people." Sutton fussed a little with her white lab coat and her ponytail. "All the scientists from the SGC have to be very invested in finishing this project, right? I know I am. It's like completing a level in a video game - we only get to the next, even cooler level when this is finished and working. But I could imagine someone from SI trying to prolong the work, maybe because they want more contact with SGC scientists." Her voice lowered and she whispered, "It might be espionage! Someone could try to seduce one of us. I mean, I know of three affairs, so what do you think?" 


Tony nodded. "That's certainly an angle we'll explore as we conduct these interviews." He signalled to Blair that she was innocent. "Do you have names for us?" 


Holly Sutton proved to be a veritable treasure trove of gossip about her co-workers, and not even a quarter of it had to do with who fucked whom. Blair had to work hard to keep up as she talked and Tony resolved to get more people in to transcribe the recordings. Almost an hour later she left with a little wave and a bounce in her step. 


"Good lord, she's one of the really good ones," Tony groaned, laughing a little. "Empathically she was lovely, all sunshine and curiosity. Her understanding of the beauty in science is humbling, somehow. I mean, I get it now because I can read her, and she thinks it's just about the greatest thing ever." 


"And she was so earnest," Blair agreed. "I hope she won't get eaten in that shark pool. Scientists can be brutal to each other." 


"Nah." Tony smirked. "She might be a fluffy bunny, but she definitely has some hidden claws and teeth. She'll be fine." 


Next came a man Tony found immediately off-putting. He was large, loud, and brash and he seemed incapable of simply answering questions. Every single one of his monologues was a lecture about how the world worked in Manny Lawson's eyes. How someone so biased could work in a scientific environment was honestly beyond Tony's understanding. To make matters worse, he knew even more about his SI colleagues than Holly Sutton did, and for far less innocent reasons.


Too bad that the guy was innocent of sabotage or espionage, although that second part seemed sketchy to Tony and would require more investigation. He was pretty sure that neither Sheppard nor O'Neill would want to have a criminal that close to classified material, who liked to dominate and extort the people he worked with to the point of stealing their advancements and slotting himself into place for choice projects. It might've been petty in the grand scheme of things, but Tony hated few things more than slime bags getting away with stuff.


"Man, that guy was an asshole," Blair complained when Lawson had left the room. 


"You got what I got about him, right?" Tony asked. 


Blair exhaled sharply. "I already sent Patrick an e-mail. I don't think Lawson will have that job much longer. He might not sabotage the work, but he's definitely a blackmailer. His greed was palpable, even second-hand. Yuck."


"Being greedy isn't fun if it's not sexual," Tony murmured, smirking when Blair burst out laughing. "I think I need a break. Do you want coffee?" 


"I'll take some tea, but a break sounds divine." 


They took fifteen minutes to visit the bathroom and get their drinks sorted out, and then they were back for the next round of questioning. 


O'Neill and Patrick had sorted the list quite well. Three more people in and they were still firmly in the 'innocent' section of the field. Already gossip about the thirty-seven scientists involved in the project started to get repeated, although there was still a lot more to discover, of course. 


When the seventh interviewee of the day, one Gretchen Ingram, had left, Tony shook his head. "I can't believe she has two lovers in that crowd. She so doesn't look like the type." 


"But she certainly feels like the type," Blair replied with an appreciative grin. "She even bagged that hot, leggy blonde. Can you say wow?" 


"I have totally inappropriate dating envy," Tony confessed. "That blonde is totally hot. But her boyfriend isn't anything to sneeze at, either." 


"Some people just got game," Blair said sagely. "It's getting late and I promised Jim to stop at six."


"He's right. My ears are ringing and I need a break from all the encroachment." Tony stretched his arms over his head. "I didn't think it'd take this long to question everyone, but oh well. The information we got so far was worth it." 


"I think so, too. Still, it'll be a pain to push them back since Patrick and O'Neill have everyone not questioned confined to SI and under surveillance." 


"Patrick will keep them entertained," Tony said with a little shrug. He smiled a little when O'Neill huffily sat in front of the web cam. "Sorry for the push-back, sir." 


"We'll deal." O'Neill sagged a little and pinched the bridge of his nose. "You're a menace, DiNozzo. How the hell can you talk so much? It's a crime against masculinity everywhere." 


"Hey!" Blair exclaimed. "You better not insult our gift of the gab, man, or you can do all those interviews by yourself, with Tony merely sitting in." 


"Ha," O'Neill scoffed. 


Blair grinned a not particularly nice grin. "You do get that I can pull Tony at any time, right? Do you want me to pull him from your op? Because I can do that right now." 


"Uncle!" O'Neill cried, but he rolled his eyes. "You're such a hard-ass, Sandburg. I'm just saying that I'm exhausted listening to all that interpersonal crap; I can't imagine actually having to talk to get it out of people." He shuddered. "On that crippling note, I bid you good night. All hail to the gift of the gab." 


"Thank you," Blair retorted dryly. 


O'Neill signed off, and as soon as the screen was black, Tony burst out with, "He's so going to pull off the caveman act with Daniel tonight." He rubbed his arms with a little laugh. "Damnit, I feel second-hand ravished already."


"Is he now?" Blair asked with raised eyebrows. "Why? He's denied himself for years, what changed?" 


"Daniel and I talked yesterday," Tony admitted. "I couldn't help but notice how attached he is to O'Neill. And I, er, might've let slip about the betting pool." 


Blair groaned. "How could you?" 


"How could I not?" Tony countered. "The poor guy was miserable, and all he really needed was someone to honestly tell him that it's okay, I guess." 


"But ... we've been telling him that for years." Blair swivelled in his office chair and frowned in confusion. "Although we didn't take him to bed, so maybe that made a difference." 


Tony blushed hotly. "I can't think about it without reacting. It's insane." 


"Danny's unique," Blair agreed without an ounce of shame or embarrassment. "Still, to listen to you when nothing's really changed ..." He looked thoughtfully at Tony for a moment, but finally he said, "No matter. I'm just glad he's finally getting what he wants." 


"True." 


Together, they cleaned up the office, sorted through Blair's notes and prepared questions for the next day. 


Afterwards, Tony ate dinner with the others and watched a movie, Henry's choice tonight, and enjoyed a surprisingly tender hour with Peter in his apartment before going to bed. 


oOo  


"You're back," Tony said and eyed the badger warily. "How did you do that last night? Showing me things, I mean." 


The badger chattered at him and tried to get around him to play with Joker.

 

"No, seriously, why would I see planets and space and futuristic crap?" Tony insisted. "Are you the spirit animal of an astronaut or something? Or are they just a rabid science fiction fan?" He thought about it for a moment. "Either would be fine, you know. They seem like someone worth knowing."


Joker barked and whined next to Tony, his dancing paws tossing up reddish dust in the mellow evening light. Tony felt a little like an involuntary participant in an Indian Holi festival.


Sighing, Tony stepped back. "Fine, keep your secrets. I just hope you didn't get traumatized by seeing dead bodies or big explosions when you touched me. My shaman friend never tires of telling me that I can't shield for shit, yet, so, you know, fair warning." 


As soon as he was out of the way, the two animals began playing, running around like crazy and wriggling around in the dry semi-desert sand where Tony had landed after falling asleep.


For a while, Tony was content to watch them. Despite their rough-housing he was pretty sure that they wouldn't actually harm each other, and so he meandered away at last, eyes turned westwards where the mysterious jungle was half-hiding beneath a misty cloud of blue-ish fog. 


Feeling that one visitor was quite enough for now, Tony didn't call out to the far away animals like he had before. Instead, he pondered what it would be like if he could meet with Blair or Jim's spirit animals. He had a feeling that Jim's jaguar matched the man quite well, but the story behind Blair's wolf's skittishness intrigued and concerned him. 


"I'd never want you to be wary of me," Tony said impulsively, turning to look at his spirit guide. He smiled when he saw him lying on his back, the badger half on top of him and gnawing on a paw. "I want us to be friends." 


Joker yipped and grinned a broad doggy grin. 


"And you, badger," Tony said sternly. "Does your person know where you're going at night?" 


The badger growled haughtily at him. With a huff, he scrambled off Joker and trotted over to Tony. Screeching at him, he waited until Tony had squatted down. Fast like lightning, the badger then darted forward and bit Tony's thumb hard enough to hurt. 


"Ow!" Tony complained, and in the next moment, he was overwhelmed by images of sterile, yet somehow aesthetic corridors and lab spaces. Lights went on around Tony by themselves and he could see shadows of people moving about. One of those shadows working on something like a console stood out; it brightened with inner bursts of light until Tony could almost see details. 


Then, he woke, his whole body sweaty and the empty place in his chest twinging like it never had before. 


oOo


The next day in interview hell started out slowly and ended with a bang. Five more scientists could be cleared of the suspicion of sabotage, although two of them would face charges due to indiscretion and industrial espionage. 


Then, everything screeched to a halt as Doctor Maya Blenheim was called into the interview room, one of Tony's main suspects. At once, something black and sick scratched against Tony's awareness. Avarice, malice, and derision nearly swamped him.


Goa'uld, Tony signalled, but he followed it up with the universal hand sign for unsure. Blair's wide, shocked eyes were no comfort. With quick fingers, the guide notified O'Neill and Patrick and then sat up straight for the actual interview.


Tony knew that Jack kept the shielding device at three quarter strength, which was fine right now, he had his reaction under control, but something was wrong. The impressions felt recent, not current, and that made no sense at all.

  

Mentally shaking off his confusion, Tony began the interview. Dr. Blenheim managed the initial questioning well enough, but when it came to her specific work and the fact that she'd gone into the lab after hours repeatedly, she grew agitated. 


"I already told Director Sheppard that me staying behind was necessary for the project," she insisted, her voice arrogant and cold. "I've always preferred working alone; I use the quiet time to go over my progress of the day to check for mistakes." 


"Yes, you made that clear," Tony allowed. "However, it's beyond my understanding why you'd do so not only with your own part of the project, but Dr. Mercer's part as well? From all accounts he's a meticulous person and always double-checks his work." 


"As I've already also told Dr. Sheppard, we both agreed that four eyes see more than two," Blenheim snapped. "It's an informal arrangement. I check Dr. Mercer's work and he checks mine." 


Tony looked at her for a moment, letting the impressions coming from her fully coalesce around him. There was still arrogance, and the firm belief that he was a stupid nobody trying to appeal to the boss' need for results, but there was more. A glimmer of worry. Blair nodded at him - he was very good at catching the reflected empathic information - and made a little crude gesture.


"How would you describe your relationship with Dr. Mercer?" Tony asked smoothly. 


"We're friends," Blenheim said shortly. 


Lie. "I think it's more than that," Tony said conversationally. "Friends with benefits seems more likely ... how did it come about? You've only rotated in two months ago." 


Dr. Blenheim huffed. "It's clear that instant attraction is a foreign concept to you. We're what some people would call indeed friends with benefits. What of it? It's not forbidden, we're both civilians." 


"Mmh. You're with the SGC and Dr. Mercer is with Sheppard Industries, correct?" 


She sneered. "Correct." 


"And you haven't met before this project?" Tony asked. "Because that's what you told everyone else, including General O'Neill. Two months is not that long to develop such a close relationship that you'll check your work privately. Several of your colleagues independently told me how naturally jealous you scientists all are of your work, and how aloof you are with most of them, specifically. Considering this, your trust in Dr. Mercer seems a little hasty."


"You're a nosy pig, Mr. DiNozzo. Fine. I've met Tom prior to my joining the SGC," Blenheim said coolly. "Mostly during conferences, of course. Our affair only deepened since we've met here and spent more time together. He's a brilliant scientist and I knew from the beginning that his problems with Director Sheppard's project stemmed from incomplete information, not a lack of intellect. It's the way of things in the SGC; we're light years ahead of the rest of the world in technical advancement." 


"Quite," Tony agreed. He leaned forward. "Two more questions: Are the advancements the reason you carried a Goa'uld? And was it yours, or did someone else give it to you?"


Dr. Blenheim hissed, her cool placidity at once replaced by fury. It battered against Tony, but he held firm. Amidst that chaos of emotions, useful bits were whirling about, like worry, anger, and something like a division of focus.

 

"Who's your contact?" Tony asked firmly, struggling not to let his strain show. "Don't make it worse for yourself." 


The woman broke. "You'll never find him! He'll rule you all, vermin! I'm his Queen! He'll come for me!" she shouted.


"I don't think so." Tony watched apprehensively as two guards came in and arrested Dr. Blenheim. She resisted, but as there were no weapons on her and no Goa'uld inside of her to lend her strength, she was quickly subdued and taken away. 


General O'Neill took her place in the chair, his face grey with worry and shock. "I didn't expect it to be actually her. My dislike of her was personal and fucking unprofessional. I had no other reason than not liking her eyes."

 

Tony wasn't worried by that at all, as used as he was to Gibbs' famous gut. "Then you've got great instincts, sir."

 

"Yeah, maybe. We'll send in Dr. Mercer next. No sense in letting him linger when it's probable that he's her contact," O'Neill said gruffly.


"Agreed, sir. We're ready." Tony cleared his voice. "We'll find out how it happened so it can never happen again." 


"Cold comfort, kid," O'Neill sighed. "Be right back." 


He left the interview room and Tony shuffled his notes around until he found the ones on Dr. Mercer. After a few minutes he frowned and exchanged a look with Blair. Another five minutes later he got up to pace. 


"Something's wrong," he said, raking a hand through his hair. 


"Are you picking that up?" Blair asked anxiously. 


"No, I still seem to need an aural or visual connection for the encroachment to reach me, but ..." Tony blew out a tense breath. "It's taking far too long to get Mercer." 


A loud knock against the table from the plasma had Tony whirl around. 


"Daniel!" he exclaimed. The man's shirt was blood-stained and his face grim. "What the fuck happened?" 


"Dr. Mercer happened," Daniel said succinctly. "He somehow got alerted to the fact that Dr. Blenheim had been arrested. He had a Goa'uld riding shotgun, and the snake stabbed three people with a cake fork. Two are critical, one's dead. During the altercation the Goa'uld also managed to leave his body and went into a security guard, who's now at large. It's a fucking mess." 


"Holy shit, I'm so sorry," Blair blurted. "How can we help?" 


"Get what you can from Mercer," Daniel said viciously. "He nearly took out Jack's eye. That snake needs to die." 


He stood abruptly and two burly men shoved a tall man with dark curls and grey eyes into the chair. His face was bloody and already beginning to swell, and he held his shoulder like it had been dislocated during his detainment. 


Tony couldn't say that he felt sorry for him. He only hated rapists more than he did murderers and traitors. 


"How's he still alive? I thought the host dies when the snake leaves," he asked Daniel and got a mean little smile in return. 


"Goa'uld healing device," Jackson replied. "The bastard would've bled out otherwise." 


"And gladly!" Mercer shouted. "What they're doing is the truth! This? This is pointless. All of it is pointless if it isn't for them!" He fought against the guards, heedless of his injuries.


"I don't even know where to start," Tony admitted, staring at the man. Blair handed him a sheet of paper and he read over the hastily compiled bullet points. "Right. Dr. Mercer, I know that your current position won't make you inclined to give us anything, but it seems personal for you." 


"Of course it is," Mercer spat. "Do you think I'd betray my country if it weren't for the gods?" 


"Are they gods?" Tony inquired, swallowing against the sick mixture of worship and fury Mercer was sending off in huge waves. With Jack getting injured, the dampening device had apparently stopped working, and it showed. Blair was struggling to shield Tony from the empathic input.


"You know they are. They give us everything ... power, knowledge, immortal lives ... those who serve them willingly are being richly rewarded." He breathed like a bull about to charge. "I wanted to be rewarded. I deserved to be rewarded! This country is so fucking miserly; they pay us a pittance to do this work. Most private contractors would pay more! The Goa'uld sure pay more, because they recognized my worth!" 


"So the Goa'uld was yours?" Tony asked, his full attention on Mercer. It pleased the man, it was like a purring cat in sunlight, even if he was still angry about being caught. 


"He chose me," Mercer said proudly. "He wanted my face to represent him, my hands to do his work. Ours was a true partnership, as it was always intended. Those who fight against their greatness need to be exterminated like the vermin they are."


"I see." Tony managed to sound admiring in an understated sort of way, and Mercer actually took the bait.


"You actually do, don't you?" he asked gleefully. "I knew it. You understand why I did this. Why I couldn't allow the Tau'ri to advance beyond their station in the scheme of things. Once they're properly under Goa'uld rule, they can once again shine in the sciences, but not before."


"It's hard not to understand this," Tony said pleasantly. "What of Dr. Blenheim? Was she chosen as well?" 

 

Mercer's bloody face sported a gruesome smile. "Oh, yes. Shesmu found her absolutely fascinating. And Maya was just as fascinated, once I introduced her to Shesmu. The whole concept of sharing her body with such a superior creature felt deeply spiritual to her." 

 

Tony thought that it sounded like a gross violation, but none of that showed on his face. "Did she host Shesmu, then?" 

 

Mercer's smile widened into a terrifying grin. "She had him many times. He learned a lot from her, just as he did from me. The know-how about the battery tech will be priceless to Shesmu's master." 

 

"Yes, of course it will be. The way you describe your partnership with him, I have to wonder ... was there another purpose for sharing him? Something more ... private?" Tony asked. When a slick tendril of arousal touched him, he had to grind his teeth to keep up his politely curious facade.


"The Goa'uld enjoy their hosts' bodies," Mercer explained smugly. "They know exactly how to give and receive pleasure, and it pleases Shesmu a great deal to experience it both in male and female form. Finding a pair for him to serve, well. He always told me that I was very lucky to attract the attention and loyalty of such a capable and attractive female." He turned his head and looked towards the door of the room, as if he could see Dr. Blenheim standing there. "I agree." 


A thought struck Tony. "How you evaded detection in both the Mountain and at Sheppard Industries almost seems like magic ... but it was far simpler than that, wasn't it?" 


"It certainly wasn't hard. Un-reined humans are so easily duped," Mercer snorted. He spat out some blood. "Whenever one of SI's sentinel watchdogs and their guides were scheduled to sweep the labs, Maya hosted Shesmu at the SGC, and I did when it was her turn to be screened. It pays off to network, you see, be nice to the right people, especially when they're in the lowest ranks. They always give the best intel." 


"Astounding how you managed to juggle all of that on top of your actual work. There still must've been close calls, like during unannounced sweeps," Tony wheedled. 


"Of course, but that's life. It needs some excitement, some spice, or nothing is worth doing." Mercer leaned closer to the camera. "I know of Goa'ulds who would be a perfect fit for you, DiNozzo. Think about it when you don't feel like labouring for those government pigs any longer." 


Tony couldn't believe the delusion of the man. "Oh? Who do I call?" 


"They'll call you," Mercer said and actually nodded like he and Tony were suddenly comrades in a war against the establishment. "I'm done here." 


When it became clear that he truly wouldn't say another word, the guards took him out of the interview room, Daniel following like a thundercloud, and Tony sank back in his office chair and stared at the ceiling. 


"Holy. Shit." He turned his head to look at Blair, who didn't look any less shell-shocked. "He offered to get me snaked." 


"He did," Blair said weakly. "I can't believe this just happened." 


"Me neither, and I was almost friends with a serial killer once," Tony muttered.


"I wish they'd never known about you, but we both know that it's going to get out to the Trust, man." Blair got to his feet and raked his fingers through his curls. "That's messed up and I don't know how to protect you from them. Even worse, they don't yet know about your abilities. It would be a disaster, were they actually able to put one of those slugs in you. Their bonding would be physical rather than empathic, so it's definitely possible, and they do try to catch sentinels and guide and work hard to figure out how they can take our gifts for their own." 


"Well, crap. There's not much anyone can do, short of locking me away in an ivory tower with ten dragon guards," Tony replied, resigned. "Shit." 


"We need a war council," Blair announced. "They won't try anything right now because they know we'll be on high alert, but as soon as things return to somewhat normal, they might try to get to you." 


"Joy." Tony sighed. "I probably should've gone with total anonymity. It's my own fault for not thinking of it." 


"None of us thought of it," Blair muttered. "Not even when Jack brought up the Goa'uld until it was absolutely necessary. It was arrogant of us to assume that we could contain it, and that they wouldn't find anyone of us of particular interest." 


"Why did that even happen?" Tony asked. "Mercer needed very little encouragement to talk, all I did was flatter him a little bit to keep him talking. I don't get why he fixated on me." 


Blair rolled his chair over to Tony and came to a halt next to him. They both stared at the empty interview room on the plasma TV screen. "There is the theory that the Goa'uld are mildly telepathic. Their intimate connection to their hosts' brains lends credence to that assumption, even if it hasn't been really proven yet." Blair inhaled and exhaled, deep and long. "Daniel thinks that this enables them to quickly suss out humans who could be of worth to them, especially as hosts." 


"But Mercer was alone in his head," Tony said. 


"Yes, but he sure seemed like he and Shesmu were a pair for years, didn't he? Maybe he picked up on what Shesmu is looking for in hosts, and I have to admit that his choice isn't a bad one. You're both aesthetically pleasing and intelligent. Your morality would only be a problem if the Goa'uld that chose you were interested in giving you any sort of autonomy. In that regard, Shesmu seems like a bit of an odd one." 


Tony shuddered. "Yeah, the reports I got from the SGC said that most of them are satisfied with possessing one host and dominating them completely. Knowing my luck, I'd never be free." 


"No, probably not." 


Oppressive silence sank down on them and persisted until Jim knocked and called them out for a much needed break.


Tony's stomach was in knots, so coffee was definitely out, but he drank a cup of tea and accepted Peter's warm, soothing presence to calm himself. It felt good to let himself be swaddled in protectiveness and care and forget the horror of the last hour for a few minutes. 


oOo


That night, Tony willed himself to his empathic landscape with all of his might and only relaxed when he had soft grass beneath his naked feet and balmy air caressing his face, neck, and naked forearms. 


"Joker!" he called, hating how his voice broke a little. "You here?" 


At once, the dingo appeared and bounded over to him. 


"Hey, boy. Can I have a cuddle, please?" Tony asked, feeling so pathetically needy that he hated himself for it. "I had the shittiest day." 


Without hesitation, Joker nudged him until Tony sat down in a half-lotus position and then crawled into his lap. He huffed happily when his human's arms wound around him and held him tightly.


"Thank you, buddy." Tony buried his face in Joker's neck, closed his eyes and just breathed deeply. It felt very meta, meditating during a dream-meditation, or whatever he was doing when he went to sleep and landed here, but it did a lot to settle him down. 


A while later, the badger was suddenly there, anxiously scratching the grass and grumbling quietly. 


"Oh, hey," Tony said and managed a wan smile. "You wanna join the cuddle pile?" 


The badger screeched a little and clumsily climbed over Tony's thigh to squeeze himself between Joker's chest and Tony's left arm. He wiggled a little until he was comfortable and then put his head on Tony's forearm. His teeth pressed against the skin, not breaking it, but it was noticeable.


Immediately, visions of space, a spiralling, towering city seemingly made of greyish glass, and a vast ocean bombarded Tony. Like a bird in flight he zoomed into the structure, following the strangely sterile corridors, and effortlessly weaving out of the way of the slowly walking shadows he'd already seen last night. 


At last, he stopped in a large room. The edges were completely blurred, but Tony recognized the brightly illuminated, vaguely human-shaped form bending over some sort of machine. 


"Hello?" he asked hesitantly. 


The blob of light paused. 


Tony took a breath. "Hello?" he tried again, a little louder. "Can you hear me?" 


Now the figure stood and made the distinct motion of turning around. 


It's a man, Tony thought, giddy with incredulity. Broad shoulders and his height ... definitely a man.


"Are you badger's person?" he asked, as loudly and clearly as he could. "In case you're worried, he's with me." 


The head of the bright light-man slowly turned, as if he were looking around in a bid to find the source of the disturbance. 


"Can you hear me?" Tony asked again. Feeling bold, he reached out towards the light.


An explosion of pure knowledge went off in his head when his finger touched the man's arm, filling him with the most amazing understanding of the whole universe. 


This, he thought a bit hysterically, must be what a science-gasm feels like. Holy crap, this is amazing!


Then, everything went dark and he knew no more. 


oOo  


"I'm telling you, I understood the concept of Einstein-Rosen bridges!" Tony said, nearly reaching out and shaking Blair. "It was like a supernova went off in my head! Like, boom! I felt so smart in that moment, like everything was literally at the tips of my fingers!" 


"And do you remember the concept?" Blair asked, wide-eyed. 


"Not completely, but I remember the thought process behind it, and it stuck. Maybe if I saw it a couple times more, I could explain."


"That's ... exceptional," Peter said slowly. "But you definitely don't know who you made contact with?" 


"No," Tony moaned. "I wish I did! He must be amazing. So, so amazing. His mind is beautiful, orderly and yet so full of chaos. It's like space and nebulas and sun flares and-" He stopped when the others kept staring at him. "I'm sorry. It was intense." 


"Don't apologize for experiencing something so beautiful," Blair hastened to say. "We're just a little ... in awe." 


"Sounds about right," Jim said. His arms were crossed in front of his chest and he looked more wary than awed, but then again most sentinels had proven to be wary of the spirit plane, preferring to stay in the physical world where they could provide protection for their roaming guides. "You're still not online, and yet you've spirit-walked and met another guide." 


"I don't know that he was a guide," Tony answered, frowning as he tried to remember everything about last night. "He didn't feel like any online guide I know." 


"It's no use trying to speculate about him right now," Peter said. "Maybe you could try to get his name, if you meet again." 


"I will," Tony promised. He frowned again. "I hope he's not an alien. Maybe it's crazy, but I think I'd like to meet him in person someday, see how he is outside the spirit plane." 


"Be careful," Blair said softly. "Sometimes people don't want to be contacted and react badly. You need to respect that if he refuses a stronger connection to you." 


"Yes, of course." Tony smiled. "But I don't think he will. His spirit guide is a feisty little guy who seems to know exactly what he wants." 


They sat for a bit longer in Blair and Jim's apartment, where they'd met for breakfast, before breaking up to start the day. Tony and Blair had the rest of the interviews to get through, and Jim was determined to whip his security team into shape regarding alien trespassers without telling them that they were actually watching out for aliens.


General O'Neill was still out of commission. Thankfully, he was expected to make a full recovery. In his place, Colonel Cameron Mitchell would watch the scientists, and he assured both Tony and Blair that security was absolutely airtight now, and that they were hot on Shesmu's heels. 


Tony refrained from pointing out that they were closing the barn door after the horses had already escaped. Instead, he thanked the colonel for the SGC's efforts and asked for the first interviewee of the day, knowing that he wouldn't enjoy it without the aid of the empathic dampening device, but resolved to see it through. 


"It's not very probable that we'll encounter another Goa'uld," Blair murmured quietly. "That's something at least." 


Tony just sighed and hoped for a megalomaniac- and Trust-free work day. Traumatized scientists who'd been forced to witness the gruesome murder of one of their own and grievous bodily harm of two more were quite enough.

 

oOo


On interview day five, Tony was literally surprised out of his Italian leather slippers when they caught another saboteur, one that had nothing at all to do with the Trust, but who had major personal issues with Patrick Sheppard's family and thought that the oldest son deserved to die in Atlantis. 


The most surprising part wasn't even that the guy had slipped through all of Sheppard Industries' extensive psych evaluations, never mind the background checks, but that he folded like a house of cards at the slightest prodding from Tony. 


"You mean to tell me," Tony asked incredulously, "that John Sheppard once asked out a girl you liked in college, and when your daddy went to protest to Dr. Sheppard, who was the sponsor of the dance and actually present that night, and got his ass handed to him like he deserved for pulling that bitch move, you decided to go into engineering, work your way up in SI, get into the project that was especially important to Dr. Sheppard to maybe get his son killed via lacking support so he would hurt until the day he died? And you also changed your name to do it?" 


"Yes," Dr. Crane said sullenly. "And I showed that bastard, didn't I? Kept his pet project from reaching the assembling stage for almost a year. Too bad his son hasn't managed to die yet. I suppose daddy will ride to his rescue now." 

 

"Yes, I rather imagine he will," Tony said, crossing his arms in front of his chest. "Tell me, was it worth it? Going against a man like Dr. Sheppard because of one missed dance with a girl?" 

 

"He married that girl later," Dr. Crane hissed. "He married her when he knew that I wanted to ask her out!" 

 

"Well, that sucks," Tony admitted, "but you should get real. She obviously liked him enough to marry him. If she'd rather have danced with you ..." He shrugged slightly. "She would've danced with you instead of him." 

 

"She didn't have a chance," Crane muttered angrily. "Sheppard got every girl with his stupid hair and fucking good looks and rich daddy. He divorced her a couple of years later, of course." 

 

"And? Did you go and ask her out?" Tony asked with raised eyebrows. "Seems like that'd have been your chance." 

 

"I didn't." Crane glowered at Tony. "She works at SI; Sheppard Senior watches over her like he still has the right." 

 

"I'd say he does have the right if she doesn't hate the family after her divorce." Tony sighed and uncrossed his arms. "Look, I feel almost sorry for you on a personal level. I got stood up at the altar myself, so I know how much losing someone sucks, but you went too far, man. Way too far. You'll get life for treason over a woman you've met in college and who apparently never even really knew you. So, really, was it worth it?" 


"You know what?" Dr. Crane smiled slightly. "It was. John Sheppard could still die out there. When that day comes ... it was all worth it." 


After that it wasn't hard to get the details from him regarding the sneaking around and the sabotage itself. Tony was shocked how easy it had been for Dr. Crane to keep the project from advancing. Even without Drs. Blenheim and Mercer's unwitting assistance, he'd done a lot of damage. Moreover, Crane had reached one of his goals and wasn't shy about gloating about it: Patrick Sheppard was absolutely furious, and probably would be for a very long time.


When Dr. Crane had been taken away and Tony's hours were up, Blair cleared his throat. 


"I think I know now why everyone sang like a canary during the questioning," he said. 


"Really?" Tony swivelled around in his chair and stared at the shaman. 


"I'm pretty sure you won't like it, but you need to know." Blair smiled crookedly. "You nudged them with your guide voice." 

 

"I ... really?" Tony gaped at Blair. "I didn't notice." 

 

"It was very subtle," Blair assured him, "but it was there. What's far more interesting is that you projected that guide voice over the internet connection." 

 

"Okay." 

 

"Don't you understand?" Blair looked excited. "You're not only receiving now! You're able to send! And man, you do that with startling skill, I have to tell you. I wonder if that's one of the things that made you such a good undercover agent." 

 

Gooseflesh appeared on Tony's arms and neck. "Uh, that's sort of crazy." 

 

"I know, but it probably saved you more than once. It's really the logical next step in your development and I expected it to manifest sooner than that, to be honest," Blair replied. "While there are some guides who're extraordinarily sensitive to empathic input without being able to send in equal measure, it's rare. You definitely are not one of the rare ones, and that means that we'll have to work on your empathic output now. You can't shield yet, but you can still learn to regulate your output." 

 

"Maybe I should just sweet-talk those five million dollars out of a pretty bank employee and get to the Caymans after all," Tony said a little wistfully. 

 

"Dude, you don't plan shit like that under an expected yield of twenty million, at the very least," Blair admonished. "Also, if you actually decide to do it, try not to embarrass me by pulling that off in Cascade. I've never had to arrest one of my apprentices, and I really don't want to start with you." 

 

"Blair," Tony laughed. When his friend just raised his eyebrows, Tony ducked his head and said, "Yes, Alpha." 

 

oOo

 

It wasn't even a surprise anymore when Tony appeared in his empathic landscape after falling asleep. In fact, he expected it now, and he was looking forward to cuddling with his spirit guide after the job for Patrick Sheppard was done. He even sort of expected to meet the badger again and see what adventure the spirit animal wanted him to have now.

 

"Where is he?" Tony asked the dingo. 

 

Joker whined a little. 

 

"I scared his person, didn't I?" Tony groaned. "I knew it. He shows me the gorgeous things, and I probably forced him to watch something heinous."

 

The old, toxic feeling of never being quite good enough raised its ugly head, turning the earth under Tony's feet black in only a few seconds. 

 

Joker yipped in alarm and Tony cursed. He knew better than to let those bullshit thoughts get to him now, even if it was more to protect others around him from his empathic output than a genuine emotional knowledge that it was, indeed bullshit. Larry and Blair worked so hard to undo the damage that Tony was infuriated on their behalf for his weakness.

 

While he was still cursing up a blue streak, the badger suddenly appeared. His body was tense and ducked and he held something invisible between his teeth and was pulling with all of his might. Joker didn't hesitate, he left Tony's side, grabbed whatever it was the badger was holding and threw his whole weight into tugging on it. 

 

It was such a baffling sight, that Tony gave up on the black spot beneath his feet and joined them, reaching out for whatever the spirit guides were trying to drag in. 

 

"I'll help, wait ..." Feeling silly and yet really not, Tony bent down, reached out and felt something crackling against his palms. Reflexively, he closed his fingers around that something and yanked on it. 

 

"What in Thales' name is going on?" a male voice suddenly yelped. "Ouch, ouch, ouch!"

 

Tony, Joker, and the badger all fell backwards as suddenly the invisible force they'd tried to pull over gave and a man popped into existence in Tony's empathic landscape. 

 

Since that man had momentum to spare, he crashed into Tony with a panicked, "Ooomph!" and an elbow to Tony's stomach. 

 

"Ow, fuck," Tony wheezed. 

 

"Fuck you," the man wheezed back. "Ow! I think I sprained something. My whole body, probably. Ow." 

 

"And I think you punched a hole into me," Tony groaned. "Get off." 

 

 The man sluggishly rolled off Tony and landed like a beached whale in the dry sand. "Where am I?" 

 

"Er." Tony gulped in a deep breath. "You probably don't want to know." 

 

"I don't?" 

 

The badger chose that moment to come over and climbed onto the man's tummy. With an imperious burst of chattering he looked down on him as if he were expecting something. 

 

"Why is there a badger sitting on me?" the man asked suspiciously. "If this is one of your mind games, I'll find a way to exterminate your kind once and for all, Chaya!" 

 

"Who is Chaya?" Tony asked, bewildered. "As to that badger ... he's yours, obviously." He coughed once, but the pain from the impact was rapidly fading now and so he sat up to get a look at his visitor. 

 

The man was ... not exactly something special. He was tall, had short, dark hair and blue eyes and a face that wasn't unattractive, but not terribly handsome either. He also was a bit overweight and seemed to have an attitude that would give Godzilla pause. He wore a uniform that Tony didn't recognize, but the shoulder patch depicting the man's nationality was helpful, at least. 

 

"I don't have a badger," the man said bitingly. "I had a cat, once, and where I am pets are not allowed." 

 

"He's not a pet," Tony said, oddly charmed by the caustic attitude. "He's your spirit guide, I think." 

 

"My what?" 

 

"Oh boy." Tony did laugh then. "You're latent, then. What's your name?" 

 

The man sat up, dislodging the badger and pointing at it with a threatening finger. "I see how it is. This is a new interrogation technique!" His blue eyes focused on Tony and the corners of that expressive mouth turned down in a scowl. "Are you a Genii?" 

 

"Do I look like I came out of a bottle?" Tony scoffed. 

 

Frowning, the man gave him a once over. "Not a genie, Genii. Also, is that a trick question? I'm bad at those." 

 

"I'm not a ghost from a bottle," Tony said. "I'm American, if that helps, and my name is Tony. You're from Canada, right?" 

 

"What? How?" The man quickly glanced around and down at himself. "Ah, my jacket. Right." His eyes narrowed. "It's a good technique, but I learned to resist. Whatever you want to know, you won't hear it from me." 

 

Tony felt suddenly bad for the man. "This is not an enemy interrogation," he said, trying to sound calm and reassuring. "In fact, I have no idea what you're talking about." 

 

"Well, that's good." Momentarily stumped, the man gave up his hostile body language, though he did take a few steps away from Tony and the spirit guides. "Why am I here, then?" 

 

"I'm afraid that's sort of my fault," Tony admitted. "I met your badger a few nights ago - he's friends with my spirit guide. His name is Joker." 

 

"You named your dingo Joker?" 

 

"Sure. Anyway, your badger licked and scratched me a couple of times and I sort of made ... contact with you. The last time was yesterday. I found you and I tried to talk to you, but I don't think you could hear me." 

 

"That was you?" the man demanded. "Everybody told me I was crazy for feeling a presence and hearing voices!" 

 

"I'm sorry about that. It did look like you were at work, but I was asleep at that time. I'm asleep now, actually, and you got pulled into my dream-vision thing. Sorry about that, as well, it wasn't intentional. Your badger dragged you here, but Joker and I helped because we're far too curious for our own good." 

 

"You're really American?" the man asked, sounding suddenly vulnerable. "And your name is Tony?" 

 

"Anthony Dominic DiNozzo, Jr. in full," Tony supplied readily. "And yours?" 

 

The man hesitated, but then he lifted his chin and said, "Dr. Rodney McKay." 

 

"What's your doctorate in?" 

 

McKay hesitated again. "Why?" 

 

"When your badger touched me, and when I touched you yesterday, I saw ... space. And a huge city sitting in an ocean. And I learned about the Einstein-Rosen bridge, which was absolutely amazing," Tony explained. "You must be seriously smart, is all." 

 

"Well, I am." McKay cleared his throat. "I have three PhDs, actually. One in physics, one in astrophysics, and the last one in mechanical engineering. I'm ABD in mathematics, have been for years." 

 

"Wow." Tony stared. "That's seriously impressive."  

 

"I know," McKay said a little arrogantly. "And you're ..." 

 

"I was an NCIS agent before I had to take leave for my emergence. A guide," Tony said. He was a little disappointed that McKay apparently hadn't gotten anything from him after all. "It's slow-going, but I manage." He looked at the badger who was still staring at McKay. "Er, you'll emerge sometime soon as well, I think." 

 

"What? No!" McKay looked absolutely horrified. "I don't have time for that mushy nonsense! I have important work to do!" 

 

The badger screeched at him. 

 

Tony sighed. "Look, I was in your shoes last year. Weakly latent, no sign of me ever emerging, and suddenly I'm projecting and that was that. Maybe I could've shut it off, somehow, but ..." 

 

"But?" McKay demanded. 

 

Tony lifted his chin a little and smiled inwardly when the man backed down almost immediately. "But I decided that it's a part of my personal development. It takes forever, but I've met many cool people and I'm looking forward to meeting my sentinel one day. I'm getting there, even if it was totally alien to me at first." 

 

"Alien, haha." McKay looked around nervously. "I've read everything about this, you know. In Canada it's mandatory in schools to minimize problems for the public. We're in your emotional landscape, aren't we?" 

 

"Yup." 

 

"Aren't you weirded out by the fact that a stranger is standing in it?" 

 

Tony laughed. "A little. But I was so impressed by you that I'm mostly very glad. I wanted to meet you." 

 

"You did?" 

 

"Your thought process regarding the Einstein-Rosen bridge is fascinating, and your whole mind is ..." Tony paused, pretty sure that McKay wouldn't appreciate being called beautiful, even if it was his mind Tony was complimenting. Lamely, he finished, "Impressive." 

 

"It is?" McKay squirmed a little, exuding both pleasure and insecurity, as if he expected Tony to make a cruel joke out of this unexpected compliment. 

 

"You know it is, McKay," Tony teased. 

 

"What I think about myself, and what you think about me are two fundamentally different things," McKay muttered, already closing off again. 

 

"They might be," Tony admitted. "But not in this, because I've touched your mind and know what I'm talking about." 

 

"Then, uh, thank you." McKay looked a little hunted. "Er, not to be impolite, but how do I get back? I was working on something rather sensitive and I have to get back before some moron decides to take over and ruin it."

 

Tony wondered what kind of environment McKay worked in, and how he'd grown up. His whole being screamed defensiveness and a strong, yet fragile pride in his accomplishments as a scientist. His work clearly was his life, which was both inspiring and sad. 

 

"I think you'll return when I wake up," Tony said soothingly. "I'm very sorry for dragging you here against your will. But, it was great to meet you! Maybe we can do it again sometime. Maybe when it's better for you." 

 

"Why?" McKay asked guardedly. 

 

"Why not?" Tony replied. "I'm unfortunately not nearly as smart as you, but it gets lonely in here, and your badger dragged you here for a reason. At least I think so." 

 

"He's not my badger," McKay insisted. "I'm not coming online." 

 

"That's alright. The offer's open anyway, if you just want to hang out." Tony tried not to push too hard, but McKay's contradictory nature was tugging at him. Hard. 

 

"Maybe not," McKay said and almost sounded nice about it. "As I said, I've got a lot of work to do. But, thank you." 

 

Disappointed, but determined to leave a good impression on McKay, Tony said, "I'd better let you get back, then. Sorry again for this." 

 

Before McKay could say anything else, Tony willed himself back into his body and woke up with a gasp. A second later, Joker appeared next to him with a whine. 

 

"I know, buddy, I know. I blew it." 

 

Feeling sorry for himself and his spirit guide, Tony laid awake for a long time, thinking over every little nuance of this unexpected meeting. When he drifted off again, he dreamed of wormholes and ugly, snake-like aliens that were being bitten in half by a determined badger.

 

 

 

End of part 4

 

Chapter Text

Something Beautiful On The Horizon


Part 5



Finding out who Tony had made contact with was a huge shock for Blair, right after he'd gotten over the shock of falling out of bed due to the loud snap on the psionic plane when Tony had pulled McKay into his empathic landscape. It frankly had been a shock for Tony as well when he'd later gotten on the internet and googled McKay.


Due to his own confidentiality agreement with the government, Blair had then been forced to emergency-call O'Neill and report the contact. For everyone's sake, they'd had the following talk in Blair's office via video connection. Daniel, to Tony's wicked amusement, hadn't looked happy at all. The blooming hickeys on his neck stood testament to what Tony and Blair had interrupted.


That was forgotten however, when Blair told them the news. Daniel was merely blinking hard, while O'Neill made a credible impression of a beached fish. 


"I'm sorry?" Tony offered half-heartedly.


O'Neill laconically waved the half-assed apology away. "Sign some more NDAs and get with it, because you're really not subtle about wanting to do this." He eyed Tony like he was an actual alien with an incomprehensible mind. "Heaven knows why, McKay is an asshole."


"Are you sure that's okay?" Blair asked. "I realize that it's late, and that we disturbed you two. Maybe it'd be better to at least sleep on it?"


"I'm the freaking director of Homeworld Security," O'Neill said bluntly. "When I tell people that it's okay for DiNozzo to befriend McKay via Guide Skype, then it is okay. Sign the damn NDA ... and DiNozzo, you do know that this is yet another nail in your occupational coffin, right?" 


"Yes, sir," Tony replied smartly. 


"This would normally be the moment when I ask whether you're sure about this and all that jazz, but I'd like to get back to pleasing my archaeologist now, and since you're a grown ass man, I'll take your word for it." 


"Thank you, sir." Tony smirked. "Have fun, sir." 


Daniel smirked back.


"You." O'Neill glowered at Tony and pointed a finger at him, a vicious fondness sort of slapping Tony against the back of his metaphorical head. "There's fishing in your future, buddy." 


The connection went offline. 


"Was that supposed to be a threat?" Tony asked Blair, who was biting his lip. "You're laughing!"


"I'm not." 


"Inwardly, you so are," Tony accused.


Blair's smile broke free. "It's both a 'welcome to the team' and a punishment. There aren't any fish in the little lake by Jack's house, you see."


"Ah." 


"Go back to bed, Tony. Tomorrow the NDA will be here, and once that's signed, you can try to win McKay over. The gods know he needs more friends." 


"He is a prickly guy, but somehow I like that about him," Tony admitted. "Not having to wonder whether he actually can stand me or not is ... relieving, I guess." 


"I'm surprised. You're usually very polite," Blair said. "But you know how to tell people off, so maybe I shouldn't be." 


"Don't mistake my politeness for being actually nice," Tony said with a grin. "I just have a working filter to help me keep my job." 


Blair laughed heartily. "And McKay has the brains to help him keep his job. A filter is not required." He sobered. "His relationships suffer, though, so be careful, both with him and yourself." 


"If he even talks to me again," Tony muttered. "He was pretty determined about not having anything to do with sentinels and guides, despite being a raging latent. How else would he have managed to get dragged into my empathic landscape? And he felt me when I stalked him. He could almost hear me!" 


"And that concerns me," Blair replied with a little frown. "He's ... I shouldn't tell you this before you've signed your NDA, but Tony, Rodney is in the same galaxy as John Sheppard. In fact, they're on the same base and even on the same team." 


"Really?" Tony was shocked.


"Yes. You communicated with a man who's tens of thousands of light years away from Earth. Your empathic sensitivity is so off the charts it isn't even funny anymore." 


"I ... wow. I don't know what to say to that." Tony swallowed around a sudden lump in his throat. "Why would his spirit guide find me and drag him along for a visit? If he were my sentinel, I'd understand, but he's a guide. At least I'm almost a hundred percent sure he is." 


"I have no answers for you," Blair said carefully. "Except that fate might have a hand in it. No, before you laugh it off think about it, please. Why meet McKay under such difficult circumstances when it doesn't serve a purpose?"


"The purpose could simply be that he really does need a friend," Tony said. "You said it yourself." 


"I did, and I meant it. You meeting him, and him being latent ... he could be just as unusual as you, which would make your friendship invaluable. Perhaps it is your purpose to help him with his emergence. Whether that help consists of merely helping him understand what's happening, or actually teaching him the things Gavin and I have been teaching you is up to you and McKay, but it's what a friend would do." Blair shrugged. "Do you see now why I believe that nature provides?" 


Tony shook his head slowly. "Hearing you lay it out like this is ..." He floundered for the right word. "It's amazing. I mean it. But I can't do more than offer my help. He'll have to accept it of his own volition." 


"I can ask nothing more," Blair said softly. "Thanks for not dismissing this outright. I know how hard it can be to believe in cosmic guidance." 


"Hey, you're not the Alpha Prime Guide for nothing," Tony replied. "I trust you, okay?" 


Blair made a quiet, wounded sound, obviously feeling the strength of Tony's conviction. A desire to hug Tony poured off of him in longing waves. 


"As soon as I'm online, we can," Tony said quietly. "And we will." 


"Yeah, man. We'll hug it out so hard." 


Smiling, Tony wished him a good night and hurried back to bed before he did something stupid.


oOo


For more than a week McKay proved to be a stubborn bastard. Tony managed his day-to-day activities and helped with the clean-up of Patrick Sheppard's infiltration scandal. It was enough to keep him busy, and he tried very hard not to feel hurt about the rejection, but at night he was roaming his empathic landscape with Joker by his side, the dingo behaving just as forlornly as his person. 


Then, at the end of January, the badger suddenly popped into existence, right there on the counter of the community kitchen, on top of two heads of salad, and screeched loudly. In response, Mason's sea lion appeared as well, answering with a sharp bellow. 


"What the fuck?!" Mason yelped. He had to juggle to save his laptop from tumbling from his jerking knees.


"Hold on," Tony ordered and the badger sat back with an impatient huff. "What's up, buddy?" 


The badger growled at him. 


"That sounds pretty urgent. Mason, would you mind taking over? I think I need to get this," Tony asked. 


Mason closed his laptop, staring curiously at the spirit guide. "Sure thing. It's just the salad, right? Tomatoes, carrots, and peppers?" 


"Yes. And the lasagna will be ready in twenty. Just save me a piece. Thanks!" 


Tony hurried upstairs to the meditation room, grabbed his yoga cushion and made himself as comfortable as he could. His excitement was like another living thing under his skin and the badger's anxious screeching wasn't helping. 


"Hold on, we'll get there," Tony told the spirit animal. "You want to sit in my lap?" 


The badger did want to sit in his lap, very much so. It scrambled over Tony's crossed shins and plonked down astoundingly hard in the diamond of his folded legs. As Tony closed his eyes and breathed deeply to find his headspace, the badger grabbed his wrist with his teeth, forging an instant connection. With a sharp nip, Tony's whole awareness was suddenly ripped away and shoved through something that suspiciously looked like a winding tunnel made of bluish light.


"Holy shit!" Tony yelled as he shot through it. There was no braking or slowing down - he didn't have any control at all over where he was going. 


If that's what McKay was feeling, I don't blame him for being grumpy!, Tony thought hysterically.


In a swirl of colours, he was finally spat out into an empathic landscape very, very much unlike his own. It was vast and mostly barren in blue and grey hues, with unexpected colourful oases rising up like forbidden gardens in the middle of deserts and at the sides of craggy mountains in the distance. It was beautiful and alien and melancholic. 


The badger jumped from Tony's arms and began to run. 


Tony followed, because where else could he go in this eerily empty landscape? The really interesting things were up in the half-dark sky: planets hung there, far too large for Tony's peace of mind, and myriads of stars, and gauzy nebulas in pinks and violets and blues, as well as several ugly things that couldn't be anything other than spaceships. 


Spaceships! 


After nearly stumbling over some sharp rocks, Tony forced himself to concentrate on the landscape beneath his feet. The badger was fast; it even outran Joker who soon decided to keep pace by Tony's side. 


"McKay?" Tony called out. "Are you around?" 


Joker barked loudly. 


"McKay!" 


A strange vibration made the whole landscape shiver. Tony was so disoriented by the sensation that he missed the man materializing right in front of him. 


With a surprised shout, he barrelled into McKay and they both went down in a tangle of limbs. 


"We've got to stop meeting like this," Tony groaned when the stars stopped dancing in front of his eyes. "Ow." 


"You're an annoying son of a bitch," McKay complained as he lay beneath Tony. He had a supremely stunned expression on his face. "What are you doing here?" 


"Your badger came and got me. It seemed to be urgent." 


"My badger," McKay spat. He sat up, shoving Tony off of him. "That animal stalked me all week! He's appeared out of thin air and scared my minions three quarters to death while they were working on something sensitive! Can you tell him to stop it? We could blow up the city!"


Tony sighed. "Really, badger? Was that necessary?" 


The badger looked unimpressed and bared his teeth. 


"I think he's not happy about being ignored," Tony said carefully. "He's yours and wants some attention." 


"Too bad that I don't want him, then," McKay snapped impatiently. "I don't want to come online. What even for? So I can hold some stupid sentinel's hand? No, thanks. I haven't changed my opinion during the last week, and I never will." 


Screeching, the badger actually stamped his feet. 


"He seems determined," Tony said, looking on as Joker trotted over to give the badger a few comforting licks. 


McKay's eyes widened and he jumped. "Can you stop?" he yelped. "Why can I feel him do that?" 


"They're spirit guides. Your badger is already connected to you empathically, and he's accepting comfort from a friend." 


Waving his hand, McKay declared, "They can be friends, I don't care, but can you please tell your slobbering beast to leave me alone?" 


"Can we talk first?" Tony asked, gently guiding McKay over to a fallen, fossilized-looking log that was a beautifully understated polished brown with a silvery sheen, and pushing him to sit down. "Look, I'm sorry what this is doing to you." 


"Are you really?" McKay's tone was snide. 


"I am," Tony said evenly. "Because your badger dragged me here in a hurry because you were upset, and because I was in the exact same position last August." 


"I am fucking upset," McKay admitted. "People are giving me looks now!" He paused, his mouth twisting downwards. "Even more looks than usual."


"That sucks. You wanna know how it went for me?" 


McKay scowled. "Apparently I need to."


"True, but that doesn't mean I have to be a dick about it," Tony said. 


"Fine. Amaze me with your sob story."


Tony snorted. "I'll have you know that I haven't sobbed about it even once. I was, however, furious. Everything was suddenly strange, and, most of all, too much. There were too many sudden demands on me, and way too much empathic input from the world around me, with no way to defend myself. I still can't shield myself half a year later, even though I'm steadily emerging. It's ridiculous." 


"How are you dealing with all of that crap?" McKay demanded, voice still hostile, but his eyes looking hunted. "I've wondered why I was feeling so ... swamped all of a sudden. All these horrible feelings from the people around me are real, aren't they?" 


"Afraid so," Tony answered, suppressing a smile. "That's the empathic encroachment."


"I knew it. This interpersonal crap is bogging me down, I can't work like this!"


"I know, it's horrible at first," Tony sighed, amusement ebbing away in the face of McKay's genuine distress. "And to be honest, it doesn't really get better until we come online. You just learn to handle it better the longer it goes on. You'll need someone to shield you. Are there any guides on your base? Bonded or unbonded doesn't really matter." 


"Not really," McKay said, suddenly quiet and dejected. "A lot of them died." 


"Shit, really?" 


"There weren't many to begin with, but now there are only three around. One is bonded and the other two have no hope of finding a sentinel. They don't feel particularly restful, either, because everyone panics a lot. Also, apparently they're not common in my part of the ... world." McKay glanced around shiftily.


"I know that you work for Stargate Command," Tony said with a laugh. "After we met, Blair Sandburg got General O'Neill out of bed and told him. It was the middle of the night, of course. I had to sign two more inches of paperwork for this part of the SGC's business, and I thought it couldn't get worse after the ones I already had to sign to be able to work for Patrick Sheppard." 


"What? What?" McKay stared at Tony. "I heard the individual words but ... what?" 


"I'm more or less completely read into the Stargate program," Tony repeated patiently. "I know about the stargates, and the Goa'uld, and those Trust wankers trying to sabotage the work that's being done to support your mission. I even know that you and John Sheppard are posted in a different galaxy and to the same base, which is a serious mind fuck, but whatever. All par for the course when one is exploring space and aliens, right?" 


"Right," McKay agreed weakly. "You said you worked for Patrick Sheppard." 


"Yeah, it's a longish story." 


"Patrick Sheppard, as in the owner of Sheppard Industries, one of the SGC's main contractors for technical development ... and John's father?" McKay clarified. 


"The very same." Tony grinned. "He wanted me to investigate a case of sabotage because things didn't get past a certain stage in one of his facilities, and he's very keen on getting shit done to get help out to you as fast as possible. He wants John back, at least that's what he told me. He was spirited in his sales pitch. He also offered a lot of money to tempt me out of my sabbatical." 


McKay exhaled noisily. "Well, that's a surprise. I mean, I knew that he was a contractor, of course, and I know what SI is working on. But I didn't know that him agreeing to work for the government was so personal." 


"It's intensely personal," Tony said. "His empathic output was almost entirely focused on getting the security leak closed. I expect that he'll message John soon, if he hasn't already, but I think he'll want to have something tangible to tell him. As if he needs an excuse, honestly." 


"A father's love, hm." McKay sounded wistful. "No idea what that feels like, but it'll be good for John. He and his father didn't get along and I know it bothers him, even if he never talks about it. Heck, I'm his next of kin, and I'm not anyone's idea of family." 


"Dr. Sheppard regrets that deeply," Tony confessed. "I'm not sure how much more I should say, given that I'm essentially a stranger to you. I don't want to come over as a creep." 


"Too late," McKay said, but there was a minute lift of one corner of his expressive mouth. "Will you come back?" 


Tony's gaze was steady. "Do you want me to?" 


McKay took a moment to look at his empty, strangely beautiful empathic landscape. "I don't know. I was here often last week when I managed to sleep. It's sort of boring." 


"This is your empathic landscape," Tony said with a chuckle. "It's the visual equivalent of your mind and soul." 


"Are you fucking with me?" McKay demanded, aghast. "We're standing around in my soul?"


"Nope, not fucking with you. We're probably standing in some sort of repressed trauma right now," Tony teased and laughed a little louder at McKay's huff. "I'm sorry, I was just pulling your leg. It's hard to explain how it works, but this is really you in the most primal sense. Everything here correspondents with a memory or some knowledge, or an experience. Everything that makes you you is here and forming a picture your conscious mind can process." He looked around. "You've got a lot of empty spaces here." 


"I know, it's depressing." McKay crossed his arms in front of his chest, frowning. "What does it even mean?" 


"I don't know," Tony admitted. Looking up, he pointed at the overfull, vast sky with all its wonders. "But you've got a lot going on upstairs. Are those really spaceships?" 


"Yes, that one's the Prometheus, and the other one is the Daedalus. I've got one I'm designing for fun right now; no idea if it'll ever get built. I hope they'll give it a cool name. Odysseus, maybe, if they have to keep up the Greek name thing." 


"Isn't that a bit fatalistic?" Tony asked, tilting his head. "I mean, Prometheus was a hero for giving the humans fire, but then he was chained to a rock for thousands of years and an eagle ate his liver. Every day even, if I remember correctly." 


McKay looked horrified. "You're not supposed to question the origins of those names! Prometheus was a great champion of humanity, and Daedalus was a peerless inventor!" 


"Are you kidding me?" Tony shot back, incredulous. "Prometheus suffered for millennia, and Daedalus was the dude whose son flew too close to the sun with his home-made wings because he was a cocky asshole. He crashed and died, for fuck's sake!" 


"You're a philistine," McKay declared dramatically. 


"If I were stationed on one of those ships, I'd put on my weight in talismans!" Tony retorted. "Having a sophisticated sounding name for a ship is no excuse for inviting disaster." 


McKay's mouth dropped open. Then he began to sputter and Tony couldn't help but break out into laughter. 


"I like you," he gasped. "I haven't laughed like that in forever." 


"I aim to please," McKay said sarcastically, but he was smiling reluctantly and even better yet, he didn't feel very insulted, and what insult he had felt was quickly swept away as he processed Tony's honest amusement. "I can feel you. It's so weird." 


"It is. I hope I'm not sending out anything gross." Tony wiped his eyes. "You're doing great, actually. You're much calmer than before. And I'm glad that I haven't mortally offended you." 


"Yet." McKay's mouth turned up a little more. "So, are you coming again?" 


"If you want me to," Tony repeated, this time a little firmer. "How about you send your badger when it's good for you? It worked really well today. I've got the time to spare, now that I've closed Dr. Sheppard's case." 


"Hm. Wait, you closed the case? You caught the saboteur? How long were you working on that?" 


Tony grinned. "Around three weeks. Dr. Sheppard accosted me on Christmas. There were a few complications along the way, but Blair and I managed to sniff out two sabotaging Trust agents, one of which was carrying a Goa'uld; a non-Trust saboteur with a serious hate-on for all things Sheppard; and several industrial spies." His smile dimmed. "The Goa'uld got away, and his male host offered to get me snaked, though, so it wasn't a total win." 


"The Goa'uld are good at creeping on humans," McKay said. He shuddered. "Just imagining having to share my extraordinary brain with one of those slugs is making me break out in hives." 


"Word." 


"Ugh, must you be so plebeian?" 


"Shut up, we're sitting around in your soul. If we can't put up our feet here, where else can we?" 


"Huh." McKay thought it over. "I suppose that's true. Next time ... I want to come to yours. It's less depressing. Can I do that?" 


"You're always welcome," Tony promised. "Send your badger and I'll meet you in meditation." 


"In sleep," McKay countered, sounding a little freaked out. "I do not meditate. Teyla tries to make me do it and it's killing me a little every time I let her convince me." 


"Because your brain won't stand still, right?" Tony asked. 


McKay raised surprised eyes to Tony's. "Yes. Exactly." 


"Well, I don't want to disparage your friend, but meditation is personal. What's calming and centering to her doesn't have to apply to you. But I don't want to lecture you. I probably should head back anyway." Tony stood and offered McKay his hand. "It was really good to see you again, Dr. McKay." 


"Thank you, er, Agent DiNozzo." McKay took the hand cautiously and shook it. "Wow, you're sort of all over the place. Like a Duracell bunny." 


Tony laughed. "You're not wrong."


"Until next time, then." 


"Until next time." Tony smiled, glanced over to where Joker and the badger were still playfully rolling around, and willed himself back to the physical world.


oOo


After that meeting it was agreed upon by everyone in the know to keep Tony's involvement with Dr. McKay as quiet as possible. No one was keen on giving the Trust even more reason to have Tony in their sights, so they all pretty much decided to just pretend nothing had happened at all. Especially Mason had a healthy fear of getting sucked into anything to do with the military and swore on everything he loved to never mention it to anyone. 


"I've been thinking that I should probably step back on the empathic buffering front," Mason said during dinner that night. "It's not like it's doing anything for you at this point, Tony, and I'm getting swamped with e-mails for you." Mason grimaced. "Word sure travelled fast that you managed to help Sheppard Industries with a problem, despite Dr. Sheppard putting a tight lid on that operation. Now other companies are asking for help. Their offers are obscene, in case you're wondering. And the first reporters are coming out of the woodwork as well." 


"It was inevitable, but the answer remains no," Blair sighed and exchanged a speaking look with Tony. "Tony's emergence is rapidly progressing now, we can't afford to expose him to stressful environments. Once Tony's online and stable, he can decide for himself what he wants to do, of course."


"I'll need a vacation first," Tony quipped and rolled his eyes. "Remind me not to do you any favours in the near future." 


Blair nodded. "You got it, man." 


"I'll put it in your calendar, Alpha," Peter quipped.


Jim, who'd been very quiet these last few days, cleared his throat. "You should start to work on an exit strategy." 


The mood took a downturn and everyone set their cutlery down. 


"Is it that bad?" Tony asked quietly. He gratefully leaned into Peter's warm shoulder.


"There's chatter being picked up by my contacts all over the country," Jim said shortly, and it really was all he needed to say. "My sentinels are ready and willing to watch out for you, but they all agree that it'd be best if you knew where to go if things get heated." 


Mason pushed back his chair and stood. "Please excuse me; it's better if I don't know too much about that." 


"Yes, of course. Thank you, Mason." Blair patted the young man's arm and watched him leave with a worried frown. 


"He's disappointed," Tony sighed. "I'm sorry." 


"It's not your fault that he can't corral the empathic encroachment for you. But yes, you'd have been a rather colourful feather in his training cap." Blair smiled sadly. "He'll get over it. Right now, we have to work out what to do with you."


Jim pointedly poked Blair in the forehead. "Do it somewhere with better privacy." 


"I know the drill," Blair huffed indignantly. 


"We can begin right now," Tony said. "I lost my appetite."


"May I please come along?" Peter asked. "You'll need someone to make calls and send messages on your behalf anyway." He looked intently at Blair. "You know where my loyalties lie." 


Sighing, Blair said, "I know. Tony?" 


"I'm not above accepting help," he admitted. "Thank you, Peter. I appreciate it." 


Peter smiled grimly. "I'll go and make tea for us. Will you be joining us, Jim?" 


"Yes." 


Half an hour later, the four of them sat in the meditation room, the security was on high alert, and the rest of the house an anxious mess. 


"It might be a stressful experience for you to get onto the psionic plane this way," Blair said before they began. "Before now, you've only ever entered your own empathic landscape ... and Rodney's when he dragged you. The empathic landscape is tethered to the psionic plane, of course, but you haven't touched it fully, yet." He smiled. "Don't let its richness scare you, alright?" 


"We could just meet in my landscape, if it's a problem," Tony said. When everyone stared at him, he asked, "What?" 


"Tony, it's not meant to be a meeting room," Blair explained, although he looked amused. "You've just gotten comfortable with yourself. Sharing yourself like that should be well considered, especially in such circumstances." 


"Oh, alright. I didn't know that." 


Peter squeezed his hand and grinned. "I wouldn't mind visiting later for some making out." 


Tony laughed. "Sounds good." 


They each got comfy, closed their eyes and began to breathe deeply and evenly. Blair murmured a few words to carry them along, but the transition from real world to elsewhere went as smoothly as anything Tony had ever experienced. 


The first thing he noticed was how astoundingly blue the world had suddenly become. The next was that they stood smack dab in the middle of a jungle, complete with exotic trees, lianas, mushrooms everywhere, and animals crying all around them. 


"It's the jungle I've seen from afar, right?" Tony asked, trying to stare at everything at once while also being busy dealing with the immense onslaught of happy vibes. His whole body was covered in goosebumps. Joker appeared by his side and yipped excitedly. "Hey, buddy! Short time no see!"


Peter's spirit guide Claude, a large, slender Siamese cat, shimmered into existence on an overhanging branch, and even Jim's jaguar presented itself with quiet dignity. 

 

"Achak is still avoiding me," Blair murmured and sought comfort in Jim's arms. 


"He will come," Jim replied just as quietly. "One day, he'll be back."

 

Alarmed, Tony glanced towards Peter, but he shook his head. Together, they began to walk, looking out for a small clearing they could use for their talk. 

 

Soon enough they found a circular, strangely clear space and sat down on fallen trees and overgrown boulders. Tony's dingo pressed against his thigh and panted contentedly, while Peter's cat wound around the jaguar's massive legs before stretching out on the ground majestically. 

 

"Alright, this is, by virtue of it being the first meeting, a brainstorming session," Jim began. "We should take the most obvious solution as our go-to strategy and go from there." 

 

"You mean the SGC," Tony said. "It's not what I'd prefer right now, but you're right. O'Neill would have my back, and I already know and trust some of the people there." 

 

"You could also go off-world at the drop of a hat," Blair added, "which is both great and bad. Great, because people from Earth couldn't reach you easily, and bad because aliens could nab you. You wouldn't believe how grabby some of these guys can be." 


"Have you been off-world?" Tony asked.


"Once," Jim growled, "and Blair was kidnapped twice. Never again." 


"Not if we can help it," Blair agreed whole-heartedly. "Our place is on Earth. I know it here." He touched his chest. "Jack had to read Peter in because he kept going crazy while we were away and raised a huge stink." 


"Tony's not the only one with delicate sensibilities," Peter said smoothly. He explained, "I'm very attuned to him as my Alpha and can feel him over great distances. Turns out that the Milky Way isn't large enough to cut me off." 


"Impressive!" Tony looked admiringly at him. "And very handy!" 


"We had a chuckle about it after the fact," Jim said dryly. "Alright, back to work. We'll draft a contract for you and the SGC and put some disgustingly stringent clauses in it. No agency sharing, no rotation against your will, very strict definition of your field of work, you name it. Anything to make it as difficult as possible for someone to reach you through official channels." 


"Peter and I will take care of that," Blair said. "Between the two of us, the Trust will regret all of its life choices." 


Tony laughed despite himself. "Okay. Sounds actually good. I guess the problem isn't really the SGC, but how to get lost elsewhere without being tranqued like an animal and dragged into some deep, dark hole for nefarious dealings." 


"First of all you choose a country you trust enough to protect your rights as a citizen," Jim said. "You are British as well as American by birth, and Great Britain puts a lot of stock into sentinel and guide rights. If you gave up the American citizenship, Britain would take it really personally if you were being abducted. You being connected to the Paddingtons through your mother would also pave the way for work in the government. Your skill set makes you a good fit for both MI5 and MI6, so it wouldn't be a problem at all to get you settled and protected within the ranks. They'd even send us one of their smarmy little thank-you notes." 


"They really are smarmy," Blair grinned. "We'll research that when we get back. What else?" 


"There's still that thing with me using the guide voice to steal a billion dollars and scram," Tony offered. When both Blair and Jim glowered at him, he raised his hands. "Just saying."


They bounced ideas around, intermixing the serious with the ridiculous to stay sharp, and even though - or maybe because - the whole exercise was purely mental, Tony regularly had to get up and move. It wasn't in his nature to stay still long, neither in body nor in mind, and thankfully the jungle offered sufficient distraction to keep him fresh. 


On his fourth circuit around the clearing, he suddenly noticed a rather large animal with dark fur, strong body, and beady, black eyes watching him warily from underneath some huge leaves. 


"Hey," he said awkwardly. "And who are you?" 


The animal bared its teeth in a snarl. 


"Alright ..." Tony stepped away from it and resumed his pacing. Quiet rustling and crashing made it clear that the animal was following him at a few feet's distance. "You're not very subtle, you know." 


"Tony?" Peter called. "Who are you talking to?" 


The animal's face peeked out from a giant air root and one short ear twitched. 


"Not sure," Tony called back without taking his eyes off the strangely hostile creature. In the next moment it was gone, as silent as a ghost. "It was nothing." 


"Come back, we still have a bit to cover," Jim said, and that's what Tony did until they returned to the physical world and went their separate ways for the night. 


oOo


The next few weeks were spent in a state of constant vigilance. Blair and Peter made it their personal mission to prepare for every eventuality and drafted several adhesion contracts for Tony to sign if things got unpleasant. It even went so far that O'Neill promised to have Tony extracted via Asgard transporter, should the SGC not be his choice of escape route, just to get Blair off his back.


So far, people were lying very low. There was still chatter to be heard, but it was obvious that no one wanted to rock the boat. Tony was morbidly curious about the goings-on behind the scenes, but was more than content to let himself be sheltered by his friends and their tribe. 


And through all of this madness, Valentine's Day was approaching fast, and with it the dreaded S&G meet'n'greet. Stores were overflowing with heart-shaped crap and even their preferred bakery was beginning to stock the typical cakes and muffins. It was terrible, but it sparked an idea in Tony and offered a temporary distraction from all the bullshit people were determined to fling his way.


oOo


"Why have you yanked me here?" McKay groused when Tony fussed about their seating arrangements. "It's Valentine's Day - is that your idea of a prank?" 


"What? Why?" Tony asked, perplexed. 


"Because ..." McKay's face scrunched up and he felt so agonizingly vulnerable for a moment that Tony had to fight against giving the man a hug. "Because you're supposed to go to some stupid meet'n'greet with the Alpha Primes of North America, whereas I will probably spend the day in sad solitude because no one can stand my presence for any length of time. Also, you're ... handsome. It's a prank handsome people play on ugly people, so. Yeah." 


"I'm a big child," Tony said, hurt that McKay would think that of him, "but I've never played this game. It's shitty and beneath me." He waved a hand and smiled smugly when another cushion appeared on his chequered picnic blanket. "What I want is to spend a little while with you before I have to go to that stupid event and pretend to be even marginally interested in sentinels who think they stand a chance in hell of catching me. I'll also have to avoid getting kidnapped, you know, which, rude. Who tries that on fucking Valentine's Day?" 


"Yes, that's putting a damper on things." McKay looked mollified and even curious. "Although you probably will enjoy the sentinels' attention regardless."


"Of course I will, if they're attractive," Tony said without shame, "but there's hot, and there's life-partner, and I can very well differentiate between the two. Since my emergence began, I've only gone to bed with guides ... and Daniel Jackson, but he doesn't count, he's in a league of his own." 


"You fucked Daniel Jackson!" McKay screeched. 


"Well, he fucked me, but yes. It was awesome." Tony smiled smugly, knowing how it needled the other man. When McKay kept staring at him with bulging eyes, he sighed. "Oh come on, don't tell me you actually have a problem with that." 


"I don't, but ... O'Neill! How hasn't he flayed you alive? And not castrated you?" 


Tony grinned. "It pays off to solve nasty little problems for him. And Daniel won't let him. The sex was too good." 


"Oh, great, now I'm envious on top of being annoyed," McKay huffed. 


"Aw, don't be, Rodney," Tony teased. "Here, have a cup of coffee ..." He handed a perfectly made replica of the Kona coffee he'd had that morning to the scientist and then poured one for himself. "I tried this with Peter, Blair's assistant. It'll taste amazing. Try it!" 


Visibly astounded, McKay took the cup to his mouth, inhaled deeply and let out a soft groan. "Nectar of the gods," he whispered. "And I don't say that lightly; I'm an atheist." He took his first sip. "Oh, it tastes absolutely real! How?" 


"Since our minds are linked, I can transmit my sense memory to you and invite you to taste what I tasted." Tony wondered whether McKay could guess where he was going with this. "Would you like cream and sugar for the coffee?" 


McKay cradled the cup protectively. "Nothing gets into this one. The next, maybe." 


Tony just laughed. "Alright. I can respect that. Now, what about snacks? I packed a bunch." 


He took his time to feed McKay, amused about how much the man enjoyed each and every one of the treats. He'd often mentioned the crap he was eating on Atlantis during the last couple of weeks and it was Tony's declared goal to convert McKay to real food, preferably to food Tony had cooked. 


"And now the pièce de résistance," he announced and reached one last time into the basket. Out he took a beautiful lemon cake and presented it to his guest. "Tadaa." 


McKay actually scrambled back from it. "Are you fucking serious? I'm deathly allergic to citrus!" 


"I know," Tony soothed. He had expected this exact reaction. "But we're in an empathic world, not the real world. As I said, our minds are linked ... all I'm offering you is a taste of that frankly fantastic cake. No real lemon, no real sugar, but all of the flavour." 


McKay relaxed a little. "I'm ... I'm ..." He searched for words. 


Sighing a little, Tony set the cake aside and carefully touched McKay's hand. "I couldn't find out whether you disliked lemon besides being allergic to citrus, so I decided to surprise you. I'm sorry that it stresses you out, but I'm glad you're feeling happy, too." 


"It's very thoughtful," McKay murmured. "People normally think I'm exaggerating my allergic reaction." His blue eyes met Tony's. "Thank you. I appreciate the gesture." 


"I'd understand if you don't want to try the cake, but I questioned Blair to death and researched the phenomenon and nowhere does it say that having a mental impression of food would provoke a physical reaction. It's perfectly safe." 


"It really is, isn't it?" McKay's almost pleading gaze wandered from Tony to the cake. "I ... I fucking love lemon. My allergy manifested when I was five and licking a lemon sucker. I nearly died then. All throughout my childhood I had bad episodes because I couldn't stop myself." 


"If it's too tempting ..." 


"I don't know," McKay admitted. "I'd love nothing more than to grab that cake and eat it. One just has to look at me to know that." He sighed, a vague sense of shame drifting off him, mingling with tired resignation. "What if I confuse this one good experience with ... reality?" He huffed. "The physical reality."


"I wouldn't want that for you," Tony said. "Of course not. I should've asked you first." 


McKay smiled his crooked smile. "Maybe. But I like this better. Thank you." He reached out, ran his finger through the lemony butter cream and sucked the dollop into his mouth. "Mmmmh, oh god. This is so good." 


His nearly porny groan stirred something in Tony he couldn't control. It was a very physical reaction in a mental setting and it was disorienting as hell. 


And of course McKay noticed; it slapped him right in the face after all, empathically speaking. 


He flushed and stuttered, "What is that? Are you-"


"'fraid so," Tony murmured and licked his lips. "Your pleasure just now ... sorry, but I can't even be sorry." 


"I ... uh. Wow. That's really for me?" McKay's eyes dropped to Tony's lap like he couldn't help himself.


"Uh-huh."


"Wow," Mckay breathed again. He teetered nervously on the brink between fight or flight, and then, to Tony immense relief, decided to go for broke and almost jumped Tony in his haste to kiss him.

 

It was far from perfect, but damn was McKay a handsy, grabby bastard. For seemingly having not much luck with the ladies, he was exceptional at guessing what Tony wanted, and his kiss was both intense and artful. 

 

Tony allowed the man to lead and to take what he wanted from him. His strong reaction to McKay had surprised him, but he didn't regret it. Not even a little bit. 

 

When McKay pulled away at last, Tony was pleasantly out of breath and his hair and shirt were rumpled. Even his nipples had gotten some attention and were happily perking up. 

 

"Happy Valentine's Day to me," he grinned and swatted McKay when he dared to frown. "Hey, was it that bad?" 

 

"What?" McKay looked at him like Tony was too stupid to breathe. "No, of course not." He rubbed his mouth. "I, uhm." 

 

Tony languished in the heady feeling of being wanted and desired and didn't attempt to hide his own desires. "Yes. Me too." 

 

"But, why?" McKay raked a hand through his hair. "I'm ... me. Sure, I'm smart, but I'm sort of ugly, and you're some sort of GQ model posing as a federal agent. People like you don't want me. Not without wanting something in return." 

 

"I do want things from you," Tony allowed with a leer. 

 

"See? I knew it. At least you're honest about it," McKay exclaimed. 

 

"I want to spend time with you," Tony said, giving him a lazy once-over. "Maybe have empathic sex with you sometime, because why the hell not, if you want it?" 

 

McKay looked actually stunned, like he couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Why?" 


"Because I haven't learned anything about you that's turned me off, yet?" Tony said, frowning. He sat up. "Look, I know that you've got money, and could I use a billion or two right about now? You bet I could. But if I'd ask you for anything, it wouldn't be money." 


"What would anyone need more than money? Wait, don't tell me!" McKay snapped his fingers. "Favours. You'd want a favour." 


Tony shrugged. "I would. I'm in deep shit with the Trust and their freaking snake allies, and I could use someone that's so smart he can make people vanish without leaving a trace. I'm good, I give you that, but it's always good to have capable friends." 


McKay snorted. Loudly. "You only need a bleeding zat for that, DiNozzo. Do you need a bleeding zat?" 


"I ... yes? Who even doesn't?" 


"Huh. True. Also, that's doable." McKay stared at Tony out of narrowed eyes. "Do you really want me to ... to do filthy things to you?" 


"All the filthy things," Tony promised, relaxing back into the hazy embrace of lust and fondness. "Or I could do them to you. I'm not picky." 


"I'm very equal opportunity oriented," McKay declared, moving back over Tony with surprising confidence and settling along his body. "And not just because I wouldn't get laid otherwise." 


"That's good to know." Tony laughed and smacked a kiss to McKay's cheek before dragging him into a full snog. "Your hands drive me crazy."


McKay groaned and fell onto Tony like a starving man. He certainly felt like one, sucking in every little bit of affection like a dry sponge. It made Tony feel complicated things on top of the heady arousal.


Yeah, this is a surprise, Tony thought as he groped McKay, but as far as surprises go, it's a really good one. 


oOo


The Valentine's Day meet'n'greet held little appeal after Tony's long-distance date with McKay. He was emotionally satisfied and felt no desire at all to meet new people, which riled some of the sentinels up more than he was comfortable with. 


It also didn't help that half the room was on alert and watching out for anything unusual. There were security sweeps every thirty minutes and the event was, for the first time in five years, closed to casual visitors. 


"So much effort just to protect the Alpha's new protégé," a sentinel Tony found exceptionally uninteresting bitched. "You might come online as high-level and high-order, but with your attitude you won't find a sentinel willing to put up with you." 


"I can live with that," Tony replied mildly. 


The guy sneered. "If that were the case, these meet'n'greets wouldn't happen. You'll need someone to manage you." 


"I suppose you'd be the first to stand in line for that," Tony said with a big, insincere smile. "Because that isn't pathetic at all, needing to manage your guide." 


"You-" 


"It wouldn't even be the fun kind of managing," Tony talked over him, attracting the attention of everyone around them. "You just want to validate your unsatisfying existence as a sentinel by dominating a guide. Sorry, but I'm definitely not available for that kind of bond." 


"Your arrogance will get you in trouble," the man warned, moving closer to Tony. It was almost funny, since he was half a head smaller. "You'll be made to see, eventually." 


"That's enough, Colin," Jim said, startling the sentinel into jumping gracelessly.


Some sentinel, Tony thought derisively.


Tony's spurned suitor snarled, but he tipped his head aside and bared his throat. "Yes, Alpha." 


"Don't ever try to menace someone again. You won't like what I'll do to you." Jim's face was impassive, but fury was rolling off of him in huge waves. Still his voice was perfectly even and calm. 


Blair came up to Jim's side. "Leave the party and take the year to get your head back on straight, Colin. I'll let your alpha know that you're not welcome at any of our events until he can provide proof that you've sought help to manage your temper and your feelings of inadequacy." 


"I'm not inadequate!" Colin protested. In the silence, his voice carried. He flushed with furious embarrassment. "DiNozzo is just ..." 


"He's just what?" Blair inquired, eyes narrowed. 


"Too fucking picky is what he is," Colin spat. "None of us are good enough for him! Who does he even think he is?" 


"Easy. He's his own person and will make his own decision on who he'll accept as his sentinel. If you fall short, you shouldn't take it personally. All of you will fall short compared to the one who'll be his perfect fit." Blair looked around, very obviously memorizing who looked rebellious. "You know this. You've known this for years. Heck, the knowledge is ingrained in you! I don't understand why you're suddenly acting like spoiled brats that aren't getting their way. It's ugly and unseemly."


A lot of the sentinels blushed under his scrutiny. 


"DiNozzo attending this event was a courtesy on his part," Jim said, all pretence of calm gone. "He's not online, and even if he were, he still wouldn't be obliged to meet or entertain any of you. You better learn to treat latent and unbonded guides with the respect they're due, or my guide and I will think about ways to make you regret your bad behaviour for years to come." 


The whole room sucked in a shocked breath. Even Tony felt chastised and he knew that he hadn't done anything wrong.


"Please remove yourself from this party if you don't feel equal to paying prospective matches the respect they're entitled to," Jim said, voice so sharp that it almost was his own version of the guide voice. He was every inch the Alpha Prime Sentinel of the continent and his presence intimidated the whole assembly like it was nothing. 


"What if I want to press my suit?" Colin said with desperate bravado, lifting his chin. 


"Do you want to press your suit?" Jim asked dangerously. "After DiNozzo already rejected you?" 


"He'll change his mind," Colin muttered, his cheeks ruddy with temper. 


"I really won't," Tony said, exasperated. "I don't know where the delusion comes from, but it's not gonna happen. I can say it in several languages even, in case you've got difficulty understanding English." 


"That won't be necessary," Blair said, frowning. "Leave now, Colin, and get help." 


The sentinel did the smart thing and actually left, although a friend had to steer him and keep him from turning around more than once. 


"I should leave," Tony murmured. "I didn't mean to cause a scene." 


"You were having fun and I don't want to punish you for his bad behaviour," Blair protested. A few guides around him nodded in agreement.


"It's alright. I already know that there isn't a sentinel here I'd like to get to know better," Tony said. "I wanted to give it a chance, but it's only causing unrest, and I don't want the other guides to hate me." 


"We don't," a small Creole woman said with a sad smile. "Sometimes one of us just pushes all of their buttons. It's not something we can help, is it?" Her girlfriends murmured their agreement.


"I'll take you home," Jim said quietly, and Tony agreed without any protest. 


oOo


Half an hour later, Tony was back at 852 Prospect and wiping his muddy feet on the welcome mat. "Whew, I hadn't even noticed how bad the encroachment was at the party. This is like an island of calm."


"I suspected that it was aggravating you. You have full security here, but be careful," Jim warned. He led Tony to the small armoury and checked out a weapon for him. "Use it if necessary. Blair and I will take care of the details." 


"I can't believe I still haven't gotten the permit to carry. I'm almost ready to think that I won't get it at all after the snake thing." Tony murmured. He checked the weapon over and took three replacement magazines from Jim. "That Colin fellow was a little too eager. You think he could've been sent by them?"


Jim snorted. "If so, they're idiots. No, in my opinion he was just caught in your allure. Really badly at that. It's rare, but it happens if a guide is much stronger than a sentinel and the sentinel feels uniquely drawn to the guide for whatever reason." He smirked. "He was really attracted to you physically, but we know him to be a bit of a homophobe. It obviously scrambled what little brains he has." 


"Wow, now I feel even better about his interest." Tony rolled his eyes. "If there weren't some seriously rewarding perks to this whole guide shtick, I'd run for the hills. Just so you know." He rubbed his chest. "All this meet'n'greet did was making the sentinel longing worse." 


"You haven't complained about that in a while," Jim observed. "Do you know why?" 


"Dunno." Tony's cheeks grew warm. "Maybe it's the company. Peter's taking great care of me ... shut up, I mean it. I wasn't missing anything."


Jim clapped him on the shoulder. "I'm not judging you, buddy. Just take care of yourself." 


He left and Tony shut himself in his apartment. After meeting McKay in the afternoon and being social when he hadn't really wanted to, he was ready to just hang out in front of the TV and eat his leftover minestrone from lunch. 


Halfway through Die Hard 2, a spirit animal appeared beneath his couch table, and this time Tony recognized at once what kind it was. 


"A fucking wolverine," he groaned. "Just lovely. Have you come to stalk me some more?" 


The wolverine bared its teeth, but then it scrambled up on the couch and slouched against the armrest. Tony could almost imagine it holding a bottle of beer as it watched the movie. 


"You know, I have no idea what I did to attract your attention," Tony told it. He finished his soup and sat back. "Or why you don't like me." 


The wolverine growled at him, the sound raising the hairs on Tony's neck. 


"Oh no, buddy, you keep that shit to yourself! I won't have you terrorize me in my own apartment." Tony pointed his spoon at the thankfully quieting spirit guide. "Whoever you belong to must be a real sweetheart."


Huffing, the wolverine turned up its nose and sank down in a careless sprawl. It was large for its kind, and had pretty blonde stripes running from its face over his shoulders and along its flanks. 


Tony tried not to be freaked out about a strange spirit guide hanging out with him, seemingly against its inclination, but he had to admit that it was a captive audience to the movie. It growled and hissed in all the right places and even seemed to be amused about Tony's comments. 


When it was time for Tony to go to bed, the wolverine was still there and showed no signs of leaving. Deciding that it probably wouldn't attack him in his sleep, Tony left the TV on for it, wished it a good night and simply went about his usual business. 


oOo


The wolverine had stayed the night, and Tony suspected that it had kept watch over him. The thought was unexpected and warmed him so thoroughly that he flushed with the pleasure of it. 

 

"Thank you," he told the spirit animal. "You're sort of alright after all, aren't you?" 

 

Snarling in a conversational manner, the wolverine rose from its casual sprawl, shook out its fur, and vanished a second later. 

 

Hungry for all the gossip he'd missed, Tony ventured downstairs to the communal kitchen, where Rebecca, Samira, Dina and Henry were making waffles under Benny's supervision. It smelled like vanilla and honey were having a torrid love affair with freshly roasted coffee. It was divine.

 

"Good morning, Tony!" Samira called with a smile. "Breakfast is almost finished." 

 

"Can I help?" he asked. "And what did I miss last night?"

 

Rebecca shoved plates and cutlery at him and sent him to set the table. "Not much after you left, apparently. I heard that a sentinel got a bit fresh with you." 


"He tried," Tony laughed. "Jim said he was just a bit overwhelmed." 


"Well, the Alpha Prime Guide did ban him from his events for a year, so it probably was a big deal," Dina said quietly. "I'm glad that they're looking out for us so well." 


"I can't say I hate it," Tony agreed. "I wouldn't want to have that guy stalking me, even if he was a wet towel sort of threat." 


Rebecca laughed loudly. "Oh, I know the type! All big mouth and full of entitlement, but very little to back it up." 


"Maybe he was military, he looked like it, but, details." Tony placed the last set of cutlery with a flourish. "Now, is the coffee ready?" 


The coffee was ready, as were the waffles only a moment later, and they all sat down to enjoy the crispy, fluffy goodness Samira had coaxed out of the waffle iron. Jim and Blair were absent and Peter was late, and right after emptying his second cup of coffee, Tony was accompanied upstairs to Blair's reclaimed office. 


"You're not in trouble," Peter promised, "but the Alphas want to talk to you about the incident from last night." 


"Why?" 


"Come in," Blair said and ushered both men inside. After locking the door and engaging the privacy protocols, he sighed deeply. "I'm sorry, Tony." 


Tony's scalp began to prickle unpleasantly. "What's happened?" 


"Nothing that's your fault," Blair hastened to assure him. "But it isn't good." 


Jim stood from the couch and crossed his arms in front of his chest. "A couple sentinels from our security followed Colin last night to make sure that he went home as instructed." 


"And I guess he didn't go home," Tony murmured. 


"No. He went into the harbour district - it's a popular meeting place for sentinels with something to hide because the strong smells make it easier for their tracks to get lost - and joined a group of people who apparently have less than modern ideas about guides." 


"Shit, really?" Tony was appalled. "I knew that he wasn't firing on all cylinders, but I wouldn't have pegged him as the sort to actually get involved in cults." 


"Funny that you'd call it a cult," Blair said. "Our watchers told us that the group seemed to be unusually organized and made up of many younger sentinels. They also saw a couple of guides with them. Both were leashed and apparently looked kind of vacant." He shuddered. "Now, I'm not kink-shaming or anything, what people do at home is none of my business as long as they're consenting adults, but this is worrying. The Cascade PD is already involved, as is our S&G unit. The worst part of it was that we didn't know anything about this." 


"This Colin person can't be the first sentinel to spew such nonsense," Tony said. "And this can't be the first group that's been formed to bitch about us guides' arrogant choosiness or whatever." 


"Of course not," Jim said. "But we haven't had one here in Cascade since we ascended to Alpha Prime. Our tribe is intolerant of such bullshit; whenever someone thought to organize such a hate-group, one of ours quickly shot them down." 


"To actually have one up and going now without our knowledge ... it makes me feel dirty because that has to mean that some of our people were quietly letting them proceed." Blair rubbed his upper arms. "And I don't know what else besides education and harsh sanctions we can do to stop it." 


"I'm not an expert, of course, but I hardly think that you can take on every sentinel that's feeling MUF – massively underfucked," Tony said, earning himself a choke from Peter, a slack jaw from Jim, and wide eyes from Blair. "Seriously, the way I see it, most of those guys - and they are mostly guys, right? - aren't just having a hard time finding a guide. Their more pressing problem obviously is that they're having a hard time finding someone to fuck. Let's be real, most men are assholes when they're not getting laid, so it could be an extension of that." 


"Tony," Blair protested. 


"You said that this Colin dude was labouring under feelings of inadequacy, and you were right," Tony continued. "But how is that our problem? A guide problem, I mean. Mundanes labour under these feelings as well. They go to therapy and try to get their shit together. This dude? His go-to solution apparently is running to a cult that wants to more or less enslave guides so he'll always have someone handy to feed his delusions of adequacy and soothe his hurt little feelings." 


"What he said," Peter said into the silence. "You need to get these people off the street, Alpha, or we'll soon have the first victims to bury." 


"Oh, we will take care of it," Jim said tightly. He turned to Tony. "While this is a problem, it's not the problem at the moment." 


"The problem is that Colin spent two hours in that club house, and afterwards met with someone who sold him several different kinds of drugs," Blair continued. "Our watchers left him to it; they have standing orders to keep watch and see how it pans out. They rightly assumed that there was some sort of plan unfolding and actually managed to catch part of it as Colin was ranting about you to a friend he met for drinks around midnight." 


"That little weasel," Tony said, scowling. "I should've decked him when I had the chance."


"You really should have. That being said, we're not feeling comfortable keeping you in Cascade as long as this is going on," Blair said. "Gavin and Beau are frothing at the mouth and want you back, of course, but D.C. would hardly be a good place to hide you, either."


Tony was pissed off and confused in equal measure. "Not that I don't appreciate your willingness to hide me, but how is this situation different than protecting me from a shady government plot to kidnap and snake me? Because those bastards won't be kind about it, either."


Jim's glare was stony. "Because Colin's group of assholes doesn't intend to wait. Those people intend to get you as soon as possible, drug you, and force-bond you to someone of their choosing, probably their cult leader. They won't be smart about it, but they don't need to be if they're fast and brutal enough." 

 

"Never mind that it wouldn't work with a latent guide, but the stress would probably force you online. They probably count on it." Blair was wringing his hands. "While such a bond would ultimately be the ruin of any sentinel, the torture and trauma you'd suffer before the sentinel's mind shattered would be ..." He trailed off. "No, Tony. Just no." 

 

"So what do you want me to do?" Tony demanded. "Should I run like a coward?" 

 

"In a word, yes." Jim pushed Tony onto the couch, towering over him. "You're Blair's turi, his brother in spirit, you will let him protect you." 

 

"How?" 

 

Blair took a hand-written letter from his desk and handed it over. "Just to be sure; even Jim is not infallible."

 

Tony,

 

It's all arranged, so please don't fight us on this. Patrick Sheppard agreed to host you - he offered before I could even finish laying out the situation to him. 


I know that this hardly seems fair, and that it must gall you immensely to yet again be forced to pack up your things and move, but everything in me urges me to do this for you. You needn't fear a break in our friendship or care; Larry will keep counselling you via Skype, and I'll meet you in meditation as often as I can. 


Please pack your things immediately. Peter will help, and to sweeten the deal we've made the mode of transportation a surprise. 


Thank you!


Tony blew out a breath. Emotions were pressing against him from all sides, urging him to accept the help that was on offer. It was a bit stifling, but for the most part Tony just couldn't argue against their honest worry.

 

"Okay," he said roughly. "How long?" 


Jim held up three fingers. 


Nodding, Tony turned on his heel and marched down the stairs and into his apartment. Once more he was glad that he didn't have a lot of stuff, and what he had could be packed quickly. 


Before he could get started on upending his life, Peter pulled him into a tight embrace. 


"It'll be alright," he whispered. "I'll be right by your side. Take a moment, okay?" 


"If I take a moment, I'll scream," Tony muttered against the warm, amazing-smelling skin of Peter's neck. He closed his eyes and fought against the roaring fury inside of him. "Jesus, this is fucked up. It doesn't feel real." 


"I know. It's monstrous." 


Joker appeared and danced nervously around the two men. Claude joined him, taking up a spot on the couch table to watch over the proceedings. 


The mood was sombre as Tony emptied his night table and desk of his personal belongings. His bathroom was next, then came the clothes. Peter took over the kitchen and promised to pick up the things Tony had left in the community kitchen because he knew that Tony wasn't in a good state of mind for dealing with the others.


Jim had given them three hours, Tony was done in two. All of his stuff was packed in two suitcases and three boxes, his most personal belongings carefully stored in his backpack and messenger bag. It was ridiculous how small his world had become. He'd even set his kitchen to rights during that time, despite Peter's insistence that Benny and the cleaning ladies would take care of it.


"Are you ready?" Peter asked gently. 


"No." Tony sighed. "I don't want to leave."


He wanted to say more, but Peter just pulled him into a kiss. Gratefully, Tony let him comfort him. Out of all the people here, he'd miss Peter the most, even more than Blair and Jim. It was a small shock, but then again the Alpha Primes had each other while Peter always felt kind of lonely and melancholy.


Several minutes later, Peter let Tony go. With a smile, he slapped a sticker on each of the boxes and suitcases, and the last one on Tony's chest. From somewhere he took a radio and clicked it twice.


"I'll see you soon, darling," he said with a wink and everything around Tony vanished in a rush of white light. 


oOo


Tony couldn't process the fact that he and his things suddenly stood in a grey room, a ship's bridge of some sort if he wasn't mistaken. There were people in uniforms sitting at various duty stations and deliberately not looking at his sorry, befuddled self, but the grey, distinctly alien looking thing behind a huge console in the back of the room was another matter altogether. Its large black eyes were staring and it definitely projected amusement.

 

"You from Roswell?" Tony asked it weakly. 

 

"Asgard," the alien replied, tiny mouth quirking up. "Ready for transport." 

 

And the world once more disappeared in a rush of white light. 

 

oOo


"It's alright, you can open your eyes now," Patrick Sheppard said, sounding worried. "I'm sorry, son, Blair should've told you how we intended to extract you." 


Tony swallowed. "It was ... unexpected. I think I saw an alien." 


"You did. His name is Hermiod, he's manning the Asgard transporter and part of the weapons on the Daedalus." Sheppard stepped up and carefully cupped Tony's shoulders. "Take a couple deep breaths. It's turning all of us around, the first few times." His voice took on a humorous tone. "But hey, you can now boast that you've been in space."


Following the advice, Tony managed to fight his panic down. "I'll gloat about it later. Where am I now?"


"My private residence in California. It's close to San Francisco, but remote enough to install security systems that makes Fort Knox seem like a hotel lobby in comparison." Sheppard tugged Tony with him, into a beautifully appointed living room. "I wanted to be closer to the SGC, in case John comes home, but not too close for people to get suspicious." 


"California is beautiful year round. Every business tycoon should have a house here," Tony agreed. He glimpsed out of the French doors and saw the ocean. Most of the pressure in his chest released in one big rush and he breathed in again, feeling almost new. "Thank you for rescuing me. I think the world has gone mad." 


"You have no idea," Sheppard agreed. "Let me show you where you'll be staying. You'll probably want to rest for a bit before lunch, and I'm sure you'd also like to know how you can keep yourself entertained while Blair and Jim clean up their city." 


"Yes, I'd appreciate that," Tony admitted. He looked around again, at the expensive paintings on the wall and the elegant furniture. "I'm really not inconveniencing you?" 


"Of course not, this thing is the size of a small hotel, and the doctor at the SGC has me under strict orders to take it easy for at least another month." He smiled a little ruefully. "Changing one's diet at my age isn't as easy as I'd like it to be. My staff pretend they do not notice my sulks about their rabbit food, but I know they're laughing at me behind my back."


In short order, Tony and his most prized possessions arrived in a suite of rooms fit for visiting dignitaries. 


"You have your own independent alarm system, of course, in case someone should manage to breach the perimeter," Patrick said, ignoring Tony's slack-jawed astonishment. "I've already taken care of a weapon permit for you, and there are several dogs on the premises to supplement the human security I have hired." Sheppard smiled. "Before you ask, yes, the human guards were all vetted, and half of them are sentinels and guides from the local pride. Their alpha vouched for them personally and they've all signed strict employment contracts." 


"It's the best anyone can do," Tony sighed. "Thank you. I wish this weren't necessary." 


"No one should have to live in fear of abduction and slavery," Sheppard said firmly. "Try to relax for a bit. We'll talk more about all of this later." 


He patted Tony's arm and left.


For a moment, Tony just stood there and breathed through the agitation. His stomach churned and he felt so very displaced and lonely. 


"Joker?" he whispered. "Are you around?" 


The dingo appeared, and he had McKay's badger in tow. Both spirit animals were growling and whining, and while Joker's physical closeness was expected, the badger's willingness to be cuddled spoke volumes of the distress Tony was sending out and unable to fully process yet. 


Together, they collapsed on the large, indecently comfortable couch in the salon, and just were. The badger had wedged its head between Tony's head and shoulder, covering all of his chest like a blanket, and Joker pressed in between Tony's body and the back of the couch, his snout touching both Tony's left arm and the badger's hind leg. 


Maybe it should've been a surprise that the wolverine was lounging on the back of the sofa when Tony woke from his nap an hour later, but it somehow wasn't. And since neither Joker nor the badger seemed in any way alarmed by his presence, Tony let it go and simply snuggled in for another few minutes of spirit cuddles. 


oOo


That night, McKay appeared together with Tony in Tony's empathic landscape and began to rant before Tony had fully gotten his bearings. 


"What the hell was up with you today?" the scientist nearly shouted. "I was antsy all day and nearly skewered Zelenka when we tried to assemble a new satellite! I never nearly skewer people when I can actually stand them!" He paused, catching up to what Tony was projecting. "Oh. You're still feeling miserable. You're breaking up with me, aren't you?" McKay snorted. "Of course you are, you've come to your senses. It doesn't usually go quite that fast, though, but then you're actually clever." 


"Rodney," Tony said tiredly. "It's not that. Please, calm down. I can't ... I just can't." 


McKay's mouth snapped shut and his eyes narrowed. "What happened?"


"Sentinels happened," Tony said shortly. "I don't really want to talk about it. Not yet." 


"Okay." McKay exhaled slowly. "I mean, I get it. We've known each other for like five minutes, and if it's personal ..." 


"Very personal, but it's ..." Tony sighed and rand a hand over his face. "Fuck. It's just bad." 


"Do you want me to leave?" 


Tony smiled at the reluctant tone. "No, please stay. I'm glad you came." 


"You really are." McKay cocked his head. "I don't understand." 


"The people in your life must be such morons," Tony complained. "How do you stand it?" 


"They mostly are, and not particularly well. In their defence, I complain a lot when we are on missions because it's either hot, or cold, or wet, or the planet we're on is being fried by fatal radiation. You know, the usual." McKay huffed. "I don't get why I should be expected to endure this gracefully; all of this could easily kill me, and then where would the expedition be? My brain has saved us all from certain death more than once, one would think they were invested in keeping it alive and functional." 


"It's bullshit," Tony agreed. "I don't mind when you complain. I'd rather know when something's bothering you instead of fucking up royally because I didn't listen." 


McKay cocked his head like he did when a particularly strong empathic impression from Tony hit him. "Because you had people not listen to you?" 


"Yeah. It really sucks. Once a team mate shot me by accident and tried to play it down as a minor splinter injury. Everyone believed her, despite the doctor's diagnosis and the twelve stitches I needed. Another time they dragged me out to a case on a rat-infested Navy ship. It was hell on my lungs - I had the plague and was still recovering at that time." 


"You had the plague?" McKay yelped and involuntarily took a step back. "How?"


"Long story, but it was a bio-engineered strain that wasn't contagious once it had settled in a host, but it was also resistant to antibiotics." 


"Who did you get to kill for that stunt?" McKay demanded, shuffling closer again.


Tony smiled weakly. "No one. The woman was already fatally ill. She died only a couple of months after her attack on NCIS." 


McKay's scowl was fierce. "That doesn't seem like enough punishment. You could've died."


"I almost did, but it's all we'll ever get. I've gotten much better since but I probably won't ever be completely fine." Tony looked into the distance so he didn't have to watch McKay's all too expressive face. "What's bothering me is that before the plague, I was just as thoughtless as them. I guess I'm grateful for the life lesson; I sure needed it."


"At least you're able to learn," McKay said. He picked at the hem of his long-sleeved shirt. "It's not quite the same for me, unfortunately." 


"Why?" Tony asked with raised eyebrows. "With your smarts, you're definitely capable of learning."


"Not like this. You must be aware that I sort of fall on the spectrum," McKay muttered defensively. "Since we're talking about stuff."


"Did someone tell you that?" Tony was incredulous. 


"When I was a child, yes. My intelligence isn't imagined, it's real." McKay crossed his arms tightly in front of his chest. "Last time I was evaluated, in my twenties, I had an IQ of approximately 230 - way higher than what most people with a normal emotional quotient have. The psychologist who tested me told my parents that it isn't uncommon for highly intelligent individuals to lack the ability to engage successfully in social interactions. Our brains are just wired differently." 


"I call bullshit," Tony said after a pause during which he had digested this bit of information. "I had an autistic playmate as a kid, and she was nothing like you are. She couldn't talk and couldn't connect to anyone, not even her parents." 


McKay glared. "You're aware that there are a lot of different expressions, hence the term autism spectrum."


"I know that. I still call bullshit," Tony said firmly. "Forgive me for being blunt, you do have the social graces of a bull in a china shop, but I can clearly feel that it's got nothing to do with being socially unaware, or emotionally unavailable, and everything to do with your thirst for knowledge and discovery." 


"I never thought about it like that," McKay admitted. "But even if it's true, it doesn't change anything. Social niceties are driving me batty because they cost so much time. I'd much rather discover all the properties of quantum particles than engage in utterly meaningless chitchat about the weather." 


"I like the dance." Tony waggled his eyebrows. "It bagged me you, didn't it?"


McKay flushed a little. "I won't say they're without use because I like it when people are nice to me. It's just ... they're taking me away from the mystery and that's intolerable." He frowned. "On some days more than others."


"The mystery?" Tony questioned, charmed by the other man's almost childlike passion for his work. 


"Yes, the mystery of how the universe works. What we know so far about it isn't even a small fraction of a percent. There's so much to see and do ... I'll have to invent whole new branches of math and physics to be able to quantify what we discover. I'm working on it already."


"I wish I could follow you," Tony said quietly. "You blow my mind every single time we meet like this. I get glimpses, but that's hardly the full picture."


"I get glimpses as well," McKay said hesitantly. He suddenly laughed a little. "I managed to catch a coffee thief last week with what I learned from you." 


"Well done!" Tony grinned. "And I could probably lecture someone not too intelligent on adiabatic quantum computation." 


"Huh, really? That might be good for some of the scientists on Atlantis. But, not John," McKay decided. "He's obnoxious; has an IQ of 180 at least and is better with math than I am, but he isn't even a member of Mensa because he finds it tedious." He huffed. "I try to broaden his horizon, but he'd rather make himself into the perfect killing machine than help me check my math." 


"After learning what you have to deal with, I can't blame him," Tony said dryly, thinking of the space vampires that were apparently gung-ho on eradicating all of humanity via the sucking of life force. "Really, really not." 


"No, I guess not, but it's still frustrating. A man of his intellect should nurture his mind, stretch his intellectual abilities. We could honestly need him for the sciences." 


"Cut him some slack. I'm sure he does what he can for your expedition. The man has to rest sometime." 


"Speaking of rest ..." McKay awkwardly shuffled a little closer. "Did you, uh, want to make out for a bit? Would that make you feel better? You're still a little wobbly." 


"I already am feeling better," Tony said with a chuckle, "but I'm always up for a good cuddle. Come here and kiss me."


McKay didn't need to be told twice, and it was humbling how much attention and care he put into making sure that Tony enjoyed their time together. Underlying was the infuriating empathic impression that Rodney's former lovers had always made him work for the privilege of having them, both financially and sexually. It made Tony want to pamper the man rotten, and to spoil him so badly in bed that he would be ruined for anybody else. 


It was, of course, nothing that could be said after such a short acquaintance, but the thought was there and Tony had no inclination at all to shove it into a deep, dark place. No, he'd much rather drag McKay out into the light with him if he allowed it, and help him enjoy what life had to offer. 


As their whole bodies got involved in their kisses, Tony thought that he was off to a promising start.


oOo

 

A few days later, Patrick Sheppard was thoughtfully patting his stomach. 

 

"You know, it's almost obscene how many different talents you have," he told Tony, who was just putting the last bite of his scrambled eggs into his mouth. "You can cook, you're good in social situations, you're a damn fine agent, and you're already one hell of a guide." 

 

"How's that a problem?" Tony asked with a little frown. "Have I projected too hard? I know it's difficult without someone around to buffer me, but you didn't feel distressed ..." 

 

"It's not that." Patrick huffed. "Or, it is, but not in the way you mean. You do influence me, but in a good way. It's perverse how much I suddenly enjoy vegetables." 

 

"Ah." Tony smiled. "Good to know - it's a project I'm working on. I have a friend who really needs to improve his diet. I was hoping to subtly tug him along for his own good." 

 

"The health industry would cheerfully murder you if they ever found out," Patrick said dryly. "Anyway, I wanted to thank you. I've already lost two pounds; Dr. Lam at the SGC is just thrilled. She's campaigning for a complete overhaul of their mess, again. This time, it might even work." 

 

"Good! Daniel Jackson told me how questionable their offers can be. The sentinels and guides working there seem to complain often and that's just irritating." Tony drank the last of his coffee. "Have you heard from O'Neill? How is their hunt for Shesmu going?" 

 

"Still nothing," Sheppard said apologetically. "The little snake bastard could be in literally anyone right now. Outside the Mountain the SGC has very little options in finding a Goa'uld who wants to stay hidden. They're very good at lying low, unfortunately." 

 

"Damnit." 


"Yes, quite." Patrick tapped a finger onto his folded newspaper. "It's no use worrying about that right now. We're quite safe here, and as long as your spirit friends aren't getting agitated, I'll try to enjoy the peace and quiet." 


"How peaceful and quiet is it really when you're being the director of a multi-billion dollar company?" Tony teased. 


"Oh, a lot, believe me. Not being physically surrounded by assholes makes all the difference. Oh!" Patrick jerked back when suddenly the wolverine appeared on the table and stared at him with a gimlet eye. "Holy shit!" 


"I was afraid that this would happen," Tony muttered. "What did I tell you about scaring people, Rob?" 


"Rob?" Patrick asked weakly. 


"I don't know what his person calls him, but he loves American college football, so I named him after Duke Robinson. He was recognized as an All-American twice and was a very good guard." 


The wolverine growled quietly, still eyeing Patrick up critically. 


"Don't freak out, but I have a suspicion," Tony said quietly. "I wasn't sure whether I should tell you, but ... he's here now, and interacting with you." 


"Just tell me," Patrick said roughly. He held very still as Rob came closer and began to sniff his clenched hand. 


"I think he might be John's," Tony said carefully. 


The colour drained from Patrick's face so fast that Tony scrambled up to steady him. 


"What?" the older man croaked. 


"He's not online then, I take it?" 


"He wasn't ever tested," Patrick whispered. "His mother refused, said it was barbaric to subject children to the sometimes inhumane treatment sentinels and guides suffered during the seventies and eighties." 


"She wasn't exactly wrong," Tony murmured and projected as much calm towards Patrick as he could. "Why didn't he tell you later? The Air Force would have screened him and found out." 


"We already weren't talking by then. Oh god. My son is probably a sentinel. My father was one, and his great-grandparents were a bonded pair." Patrick covered his face with both hands and breathed a little wetly. "I'll never forgive myself for leaving him alone with this. I should've suspected, even if my wife's family was mostly mundane, with a few latents mixed in." 


"It's all supposition," Tony cautioned. 


Patrick looked at him incredulously. "Have you been wrong once since you began your emergence?" 


Tony shrugged uncomfortably. "I've only seen a picture of John, so I can't be sure." 


"It rings true," Patrick said. "That's what scares me. I'm latent, as was my wife, and David is also latent, but it's so weak that the Center doctors don't think he'll ever come online."


"Alright, I understand, although having a weak gene really means nothing. I was the same and look what happened." 


Patrick's breath hitched and his worry shot through the roof, nearly singeing Tony's skin with its intensity.


"Please calm down, everything will be fine. Concentrate on John for the moment. I can't say whether he's online yet," Tony murmured, carefully rubbing Sheppard's tense shoulders. "He might still be latent, but if Rob really is his spirit guide, then it will almost certainly happen." 


"Can you find out?" Patrick asked. He unsteadily drank from his glass of water. "I don't care how, you don't have to tell me anything, but I need to ... I need to know that he's okay."


"I can do that. I'll have an answer for you soon." 


"Thank you." Patrick grasped Tony's hand and squeezed it tightly. "I don't know how to reward your generosity." 


"None of that now," Tony said evenly. "Just breathe, it's all fine. Slowly ... yes, just like that." 


He ended up taking Patrick into meditation and bathed the distraught man in so many calming waves that he went to bed right after and only emerged again for dinner. Tony used the time to e-mail his friends and catch up on the Trewellyan case. He also wanted to know how the would-be dealer of stolen SGC goods had fared, but knew that he had to keep out of it, lest he draw attention to himself and got spaced for stealing an alien artefact.


oOo

 

Despite his best intentions, Tony didn't manage to meet McKay until almost a whole week later, and when he did manage to get him into his empathic landscape, the scientist was so exhausted that Tony could do little more than wrap him up and soothe his many hurts. 

 

"We're going to die out there," McKay whispered. He clung to Tony like a scared child. "The Wraith are so close, and my people are being so stupid with everything." He took a shuddery breath. "I don't want to die." 

 

"I don't want you to die, either," Tony said in a thick voice and pressed a kiss to McKay's head. The images he caught from the scientist were horrifying. John with some sort of bug stuck to his neck, people holding soldiers hostage, a young, decidedly alien-looking girl crashing through the woods, John turning blue ... Tony felt stressed just seeing them. "Rodney ... have you thought about coming online?" 

 

"When?" McKay asked bitterly. "I can be glad to catch six solid hours of sleep. Usually it's far less. They expect me to regularly perform miracles, and while I'm a genius, I'm not actually a god. I can't go on like this indefinitely."

 

"Shit." Tony held McKay a little tighter. "Suppose you were actually going to die?" He hesitated but then continued, knowing that he couldn't not say it. "Would you want to leave a part of you unrealized before you went?" 


McKay stiffened. "You said you wouldn't push me." 


"And I'm not." Tony fought down the creeping feeling of dread that was rising from his stomach into his throat, knowing that it was futile because McKay was just as sensitive as he was. "I just ... I'd hate for you to go without knowing ... and maybe I could ... I could be ..." He stopped, helpless. 


For a while, McKay was brooding, but then he suddenly said, "Even if the thought is abhorrent, I wouldn't want to die without knowing how it was to be online, I guess." 


Tony exhaled sharply. 


"Not because I think I need a sentinel or some such rot," McKay insisted. "But you're right. It'd be an undiscovered part of me, and I've never shied away from knowing everything about myself. It'd also be a great comfort to have you with me ... when that happened." He drew back from Tony's embrace and sat across from him, eyes intent. "Would you come online?" The and would you seek me out in your worst moment was left unsaid, but Tony heard it all the same.


"I'd let Blair Sandburg draw me out in a heartbeat, or force myself if it ever came to that," Tony said honestly. "I wouldn't want to leave you without a goodbye."


"Yeah." McKay looked away, visibly uncomfortable. "But you ... you still want it in any case, right? Despite moronic sentinels who think they're the universe's gift to all guides?"


"Yes. I've invested myself in this journey, it'd be illogical not to take that last step. I want it. I want the gifts, I want to be involved in tribe business, and I want my sentinel eventually." Tony rubbed his chest. "The longing is better now, but it's still there." 


"Is that what this is?" McKay demanded. "I thought I was having heart problems again." 


"Wait, you had heart problems?" Before Rodney could answer, Tony shook his head. "Nevermind, that's not important right now. Man, you've got sentinel longing! Why didn't you tell me?" 


"I didn't have the time! And I also didn't know. How was I supposed to recognize it?" 


Tony acknowledged that McKay was right about that. He also hadn't known what the unpleasant feeling in his chest had been after Jeremy's verbal attack all those months ago. "There must be someone out there for you, then." 


"I sincerely hope it's not someone from Atlantis," McKay said snippily. "They're either too stupid or not my type, or both." 


"Really? Even John?" Tony raised a judgemental eyebrow. 


"Well, no. Who wouldn't want John?" McKay admitted. "But he's the epitome of straight, and always kirking around besides. It's beyond irritating. Also, I try not to set myself up for humiliation." 


Tony sighed. McKay's issues with his body were demoralising, to say the least. "Rob, would you mind coming here for a minute?" 


"Who's Rob?" McKay asked, perplexed. When the wolverine appeared and looked at him expectantly, he started. "I know that one! He's been prowling around Atlantis!" 


"I knew it." Tony sighed again, deeper this time. "He came to visit Patrick Sheppard a week ago. Before that he stalked me for a bit. I believe that he's John's. Nothing else makes sense, because his father certainly isn't emerging, and Rob doesn't have that much interest in him besides making sure he's there." 


"Are you shitting me!" McKay yelled, causing the wolverine to flatten its ears and bare its teeth. "Why? Why is this happening? Why now?"


"How can you ask that?" Tony asked. "Are you, or are you not in a war zone and under constant threat?" 


"Well, of course!" McKay stilled and blanched. "Fuck. I'm such an idiot. It's the classic stress response. Of course it is."


"The only surprising thing is that the latents on Atlantis have apparently held out until now." Tony snorted. "Can you do me a favour? Can you try and find out whether John actually is emerging? I'm pretty certain that you can feel it, if you take a moment. His dad is kinda frantic right now and wants to know." 


"He's not online," McKay replied immediately. "But I'll talk to him, find out if he even knows yet." 


"Thank you, I appreciate it. And Patrick does, as well." 


McKay huffed. "I so didn't anticipate this when I came here." 


"I know." Tony nudged him with his foot. "Life's shitty like that." 


Joker and McKay's badger appeared and warily sniffed the wolverine from a distance. 


"By the way, did you finally name your badger?" Tony wondered. 


"As a matter of fact, I did," McKay informed him primly. 


When he didn't elaborate, Tony prodded him again with his toes. "Well?"

 

"It's Badger, alright?" 


"Are you serious?" Tony was disgusted. "You could name him anything you want! Why not after a famous scientist? You like those, you even use their names in vain! During sex!" 


"So? He's a badger!" McKay flailed a little. "He doesn't seem to mind." 


"Oh, I see. You're the sort of person who names their cat Cat, aren't you?" Tony asked, amused and genuinely horrified at the same time. 


"What's wrong with that?" McKay demanded. "They always came when I called them in the past, and I didn't have to bother with remembering a name. Win-win for everyone involved." 


Tony groaned. "I suppose I should be grateful that you bother to remember my name, then." 


Pointing a finger at him, McKay haughtily said, "You better believe it." 


oOo


Tony knew exactly when McKay had had a chance to talk with John Sheppard about stuff. Knew it because there was a shift in him that was so strange and so profound that he stood in his salon for a good five minutes, unable to move or even think consciously. 


Later that afternoon, when Tony started his daily meditation, McKay almost immediately met him in his empathic landscape. 


"I told him about me, and him, and his father, and even a bit about you, and he went all blank on me," McKay babbled. "It was disconcerting, and I'm almost never disconcerted." 


"Kavanaugh's stupidity disconcerts you," Tony countered. "Very much so." 


McKay stopped in that way he did as he processed this. "Yes, yes, of course it does. How could it not. No, what I mean is, I've gotten used to feeling people! And he was suddenly blank! It was a bit better when I went to come here, but not by much."


"John's likely a little overwhelmed," Tony murmured. He took McKay's hand and pulled him to a soft patch of intensely green grass. "Here, sit a while and relax. Should I project at you?" 


"Please," McKay said. He sounded exhausted. "I don't know what to do. He didn't take it well at all. He almost shot his spirit guide when it appeared to him." 


"Is he repressing something?" 


"I don't know." Rodney looked beseechingly at Tony. "I know I told you that I'd rather not have too much lemon-flavoured food in here, but would you mind getting me one of your divine lemon coconut macarons?" 


"Whatever you want," Tony assured him and simply let one of the treats appear in his hand. "Want a coffee with that?" 


"Please." 


Together, they had a macaron each and enjoyed tiny cups of rich espresso. McKay allowed himself to rest against Tony's side, for once very still and quiet. Tony didn't disturb him, content not to know whether Rodney was merely chilling, or solving one of the universe's great mysteries in his head.


"That was nice," McKay said after a long, long while. "I like that we can do this. Just be together." 


"Well, I do like doing dirty things with you," Tony said with a grin. "But I enjoy this, too." 


"I almost don't want to go back," McKay admitted, fidgeting a little. "I'm ... unprepared to deal with John's upset. I wish you could take this part." 


"It'll be good for your emotional growth. And no matter what he's feeling right now, it's definitely better coming from you. He doesn't know me. In fact, you mentioning me and his father in the same sentence probably added to his upset." 


McKay deflated visibly. "I'll have to stalk him until he talks to me. We don't have time for this!" 


"Take the time," Tony advised. "This is important for him, and for your friendship to him. He needs a friend now. Don't hesitate to throw me under the bus if you have to. I don't mind." 


"I won't do that," McKay said. "At least not until I have no other choice." He fidgeted some more. "Would you teach me how to be a guide? Maybe he's already suffering from sentinel stuff. If I know more about what I'm doing, I might be able to help until he finds his guide." 


"Of course I will. You don't even have to ask. I can show you the first lesson I had right now. Relax, I'll copy it right to you. It shouldn't take long." 


McKay was hesitant, but absorbed the whole bundle of information Tony pushed at him well enough. It was something Tony had tried with Peter in his quest to transfer sense memories, and it had stuck with him because it was such a uniquely useful way to pass on information. It wasn't for everyone, but McKay proved to be just as much of a natural as Tony, which really wasn't a surprise. 


"This is amazing!" McKay declared when they'd disengaged. "And so meta I can't even." 


"I know, connecting our minds when our minds are already connected? Seriously awesome." Tony leaned closer until his lips almost touched McKay's mouth. "I don't want to go, but you really need sleep to process your awful, no good day." 


"I do," McKay muttered. "I wish you were on Atlantis with me. Everything would be so much better with you there." 


"What I've seen of her is amazing," Tony admitted. "Maybe one day I'll be able to physically experience her." He finally kissed McKay. "And maybe you'll even still want me there when that day comes." 


Rodney looked thoughtfully at him. "You know, I really think I might." 


Happiness bloomed in Tony before he could catch it, and it in turn touched McKay to such a degree that he blushed a very pretty pink. 


It also caused McKay to lose his grip on his end of the connection and Tony's emotional landscape slowly dissolved until Tony woke up in the quiet corner of his bedroom he had prepared as his meditation area.


oOo


Weeks passed during which Tony did little else but worry when he wasn't helping McKay develop his abilities and allow him to freak out, loudly, in his safe haven. To distract himself, Tony stuck his nose into little cases of theft or espionage at SI, but he also wrote scathing notes on the canteen plans for all the facilities in the U.S. because standards tended to slip mere months after a review, and that was unacceptable in his eyes. 


To balance his involvement in Patrick's domain, Tony also made it his mission to have short meetings in meditation with the guides in his life, mostly for no other reason than because he was a nosy bastard. Kinsdale had been shocked the first time Tony had knocked at his empathic door, Stacy not so much, and Blair wasn't surprised at all. In fact, the Alpha Prime knocked as often as Tony did.


The longest talks Tony had with Peter, as the man wasn't prone to treat him with kid gloves. He told Tony in clear terms how Kirsty, the no-longer guide, was doing (the CIA loved her), and what was happening with the Sentinels First movement in Cascade (not as much as Jim and Blair wanted, unfortunately, because that group was far larger than anticipated, although they did good work on dismantling their operations). He also was a ninja about finding out things for Tony while he couldn't do it himself, and briefed him regularly on the results. 


It was Peter who told Tony that Abby still hadn't returned to work, and that she would remain an in-patient at Mental Health until the doctors there had finally found the source for her deep-seated issues. Tony didn't quite know what to think about the fact that he apparently featured heavily in her rants, but at least he wasn't the only one. Gibbs was her single worst obsession, by far, and the man had been prohibited from seeing her so as not to aggravate her further. 


McGee, in contrast, seemed to do fairly well in Cyber Crimes, once he'd gotten over himself and realized how much he'd fucked up. He wasn't talking about Tony much, if at all, and in Tony's opinion that was for the best. 


To spare Peter any kind of scrutiny, Tony hadn't asked about Ziva. She was gone, and he was more than happy with not knowing anything about her as he went on with his life.


The rest of NCIS seemed to come along nicely under Director Vance's leadership. Gibbs had settled in well in his new role and seemed to be almost happy teaching advanced classes at Norfolk. New meditation rooms were appointed as renovations happened, the overhead lights had been changed, and the infirmary was experiencing a major overhaul, with two bonding suites in construction even. From Kinsdale, Tony had also heard that the first bonded pairs were making noise about wanting to work at NCIS in a liaison capacity for the S&G Investigative Unit, with the goal of fully transferring the unit to NCIS by the end of the year. 


oOo


In the middle of April, Patrick suddenly declared that he was fed up with recuperating and doing his exercises like a good little boy and arranged for a week-long holiday in Italy. His son David, David's wife and their little daughter were coming along, as was a whole team of security guys.


"You're coming with us, of course," Patrick said when Tony tried to demur. "That's the whole point! We're all going stir crazy in this house, and I need some fresh air. Afterwards, I'll return to work full time to give Dave a break. You'll be lonely soon enough." 


And that was that. The whole family got on a plane and arrived at a seaside villa at the Amalfi coast twenty hours later. The drive from Naples caused a whole host of conflicting emotions in Tony's chest. There was the rapidly strengthening sentinel longing, but also a deeply emotional relaxation because he knew the whole area from his childhood days. His nonna's family still lived around Naples and had loved to visit Capri whenever he had come to spend his holidays. 


"Go, have a walk around," Patrick encouraged him. "We have a lovely garden with a small limonaia and several vegetable beds. Little Sophie loves it." 


"Can I go with Tony?" the girl asked, already stretching out her hand for Tony to take. She was a beautiful little thing with long, curly brown hair and wide blue eyes. At eight, she was already rivalling her mother's good looks. "I can show him the gatti!"


Normally not at ease with kids, Tony was nonetheless charmed by Sophie's many questions and her demands to learn as many Italian words as possible. Maybe it was the colour of her eyes, or the way she eagerly tugged on Tony's hands when she wanted to show him something, but he suddenly felt an intense longing for McKay's presence. 


"Are you alright?" Sophie asked worriedly when Tony had to stop walking to get his bearings. "Is something wrong?" 


"I ... I don't know," Tony admitted. "I think I'm just missing someone, cara." 


"You must miss him a lot. You're all sad," she declared and looked at him with her big eyes. 


"Oh." Tony sighed, focusing on her. "Oh no, darling." 


"What?" she asked, cocking her head. "Was it a secret how much you miss your friend?"


"No, of course not." Tony squatted in front of her. "What do I feel now?" He projected at her how it felt to laugh so hard that his sides hurt. 


"It's funny!" She giggled. "How are you doing that?" 


"I'm coming online as a guide," Tony explained gently. "It's not long now. I'm thinking you are, too, sweetheart." 


"Is that good?" 


"It can be very good." Impulsively, Tony leaned his forehead against hers and closed his eyes. "There are things you can learn, important things. You'll be able to help people with your gifts. Would you like that?" 


"Yes! Can I tell mommy and daddy?" She bounced excitedly. "Can I tell them now?" 


"Yes, we absolutely can." Tony offered her his hand and smiled when her warm, uncomplicated affection enveloped him. "You'll have to show me the gatti later."


oOo

 

Sophie's squealed announcement was a little shock to Melinda, who was as mundane as they came, while both Patrick and David weren't really surprised. They made much of the girl's excitement for a while, hugged and kissed her and promised to get her into classes as soon as they were back home, before her parents took her to the kitchen for some much-needed ice cream. 

 

Patrick remained behind and quietly said, "Would you terribly mind spending some time with her? She's so eager to learn, and she likes you very much." 

 

"She thinks I'm pretty," Tony said dryly. "I already had to very politely decline her offer of marriage." 

 

Patrick laughed. "You had that coming." He sobered again. "John doesn't know her. He knows she exists because David sent him the announcement of her birth and a few pictures, but he never replied." 

 

"I can show McKay a memory," Tony answered the unspoken request. "He's talked to John about him probably coming online. It didn't go well; John's not really dealing with it, but he's at least stopped trying to evade his spirit guide from what I've heard. He's avoiding McKay, though." 

 

"He was always stubborn when someone tried to tell him what to do," Patrick said with a sigh. "It's a family failing, I'm afraid. We're all stubborn to a fault." 

 

Tony looked at his watch. "It's still early here. Do you mind if I take a nap and meet you all for lunch?" 

 

"Of course not." Patrick patted Tony's shoulder. "Get some rest, it was a long flight." 

 

oOo

 

Tony had every intention of meeting McKay both in sleep and during meditation, and when it finally worked out on day two after their arrival, he took McKay on a dream-walk around Patrick's villa and showed him the magnificent gardens. 

 

"It's a nice place," McKay admitted, "even if the amount of citrus is worrisome." 

 

"Have you seen the size of those things? It's the volcanic mineral in the ground." Tony cupped one of the unusually large lemons and grinned. "The climate here is outstanding. I love cooking with the vegetables from the garden." He bumped McKay's shoulder with his. "Did you know that John has a niece? Her name is Sophie, she's eight and already a beauty. She's also a guide, or she will be once she's fully online." 


"Oh, great, I guess you'll leave it to me to inform John of that fact?" McKay huffed. "How utterly thoughtful of you." 


"I'll make it up to you," Tony murmured and pressed a kiss against McKay's lips. "How about a homemade dinner, should you ever make it back to Earth?" 


"Four courses, minimum," McKay said quickly. "No seafood, I hate things with feelers, and maybe no fish either, because so much of it comes with lemon." 


"Whatever you want," Tony promised and stole another kiss. "How's John doing? Is he still upset?" 


"He's moved on from avoiding me to destroying things in the gym," McKay scoffed. "Very manly, of course, but not productive. He's chafing at our powerlessness. We've already begun sending people to our newly founded Alpha site, in case Atlantis is attacked." 


"What would you need to make it better?" Tony asked, keeping his hold on McKay's hip light, but pushing pretty heavy waves of calm at him. "I know the Daedalus is going as fast as it can to bring more soldiers and supplies." 


"That's not enough, and everyone at the SGC knows it," McKay said roughly. He pressed his lips together. "What I really need to save her is energy." 


"Just energy?" 


"Hah, just energy he says." McKay's laugh was bitter. "You've read about the ZPMs, yes? Then you know that nothing else powers Atlantis as those things do. Unfortunately, we can't find more. All of our power right now comes from the geo-thermal plant below the city, and the naquada generators the Daedalus brings us." 

 

"I can't believe that there aren't more of those ZPMs around," Tony argued. "It's utterly stupid." 

 

"The city was abandoned, there's no telling what the Ancients thought to leave behind." McKay wandered a few steps away and looked out to the sea. "Sometimes I wish we'd never found her. Atlantis is fantastic, but everything that came with her is just ..." He shrugged helplessly. "It's too much, most of these days. Every time we think it can't possibly get worse, it does." 


"Naturally," Tony murmured. He stood next to McKay and enjoyed the warm sunshine on his face. "I know that I've offered before, but if there's anything I can do - anything real, I mean, not just playing your sounding board - I'll do it. You know you can reach me anytime, and I can reach O'Neill anytime, in case it becomes necessary."


"I ..." McKay abruptly closed his mouth. "Huh." 


"What?" Tony turned to him. 


"I don't know why I haven't thought about it sooner, but of course!" McKay whirled around, eyes wide and fist slapping into his open hand. "You're strong, and I'm strong! Together we could do it! I'm almost sure!" 


"Do what, Rodney?" Tony pressed. 


"I need you to come to Atlantis with me. Like this. I ... sometimes I think I can feel her, but it's rare. I always thought I was just overworked and fanciful and, and missing you, but. But what if I really can feel her? What if we could circumvent her corrupted database that way and get her to help us?" 


"But she's not alive," Tony argued. "Actually meeting her would require her to have an awareness, and the ability to connect to us. Are you sure it's not just your gene expression and the fatigue? Because that would be very understandable." 


McKay ignored the question and began to pace furiously. "She's made of a metal that's resisted all of our attempts to study it in depth so far. We know that it's a compound, and that it has the ability to break down to its atoms, given enough energy and a programming to prompt it, but that's all. It ... it could work. I don't know how, but I know it could. Will you help me?" 


"I will. Of course I will." Tony wrapped McKay's trembling fingers in his hands. "Right now?" 


"Can we?" McKay looked around. "I'd understand if you wanted to stay here longer. It's beautiful." 


"Nah, I don't have anything to do during Patrick's holiday. I'll have time enough to enjoy the view. Let's go." Tony led Rodney to a stone bench. "You get us there and I'll try to look out for clues. Just one thing: if it goes pear-shaped, it's your neck on the chopping block. Deal?" 


"Of course." McKay blew out a breath. "It's still weird to hop from here back to Atlantis. I mean, for all intents and purposes this is Italy. What a mind fuck." 


Snorting with laughter, Tony made himself as comfortable as possible, McKay's hands still in his. "I know it is. Take us home, Rodney." 


The scientist became very still and his breathing evened out quickly. Tony was pretty sure that people who didn't know this side of the man would never believe him capable of such easy meditation, never mind working the empathic and psionic world with any sort of success. 


Suddenly it was there, a hook in Tony that tugged him upwards, away from the sun-warmed terrace and towards the sky. First, their travel was slow, almost hesitant, but then, all of a sudden, they shot through the atmosphere and into something Tony knew to be an event horizon. Blue light engulfed him and for the second time in his life Tony was sucked through a very close approximation of a wormhole. The difference was that he had McKay by his side now, and he wasn't letting go. 


It seemed to go on forever, that rush through the tunnel, and then they were spat out in a wild, disorienting tumble right into a room Tony knew to be the gate room of Atlantis. Behind them, a huge amount of energy collapsed. People were shouting something he couldn't understand.


"This is it? Your stargate?" Tony asked in a hushed voice. "It's amazing." 


"It is. I think we actually came through it. How weird." McKay cleared his throat. "Well, come, let's not waste time. I don't know how long we'll be able to do this. Let's go to my lab, my computers are there. I'll need them if we're successful." 


Tony was without a body, which didn't happen very often anymore, and yet he felt distinctly slack-jawed as he tried to take in everything he could on the short trip through Atlantis' halls. Lights switched on around them and dimmed again when they passed that particular lamp. People turned and murmured, but their voices were barely audible and of no interest to Tony. 


"Over here ... good, Zelenka has gone for his lunch break." McKay's presence approached his computers and they actually sprang to life. 


Tony was just stunned. "This is new to me. Electronics don't react to me they way they do you. What should I do?" 


"Don't get too close to the stuff over there," McKay said. "You seem to have the Ancient's gene if the city's reaction to you is any indicator. I didn't know that even your empathic presence would activate her." 


Tony gaped and waved part of himself in front of a wall lamp. It brightened and dimmed with his movement. "So. Cool." 


"I work best with machines, but she might need you to touch her empathically. Can you try to feel her out?" 


Carefully, Tony hovered closer. The gibberish on McKay's screens didn't make a lick of sense to him. "Yeah. Anything I should ask her if it works?" 


"Ask her for ZPMs first," McKay instructed. Without any physical input, tables, pictures and pages over pages of unreadable text ran over the screens. 


Tony took an ineffectual but much needed deep breath and concentrated fully on the empathic tone of the city. The people on Atlantis were very clearly there, but it didn't take away from the sheer magnitude of her presence. 


Atlantis, Tony whispered silently. Are you there? We need your help, please.


He waited for an answer, maybe a brush against his self, or the flicker of the lamp. Anything to mark her response. 


Atlantis? he asked, a little louder, and reached out as well as he knew how. Can you hear me? Or feel me?


Tony projected as much openness as he could. He tried to convey his need and firmly sincere offer of friendship, no matter how awkward it felt. A second later, McKay brushed against him and joined his efforts. He felt clumsy and loud next to Tony, but also so earnest that it couldn't be anything else than endearing. 


Filium meum, a small whisper sounded. Reddidit tibi. 


Little tendrils of something reached out to Tony.


Yes, I've come for a visit, he assured the weak presence. His Latin was very rusty, but he understood her saying 'son' and 'coming home'. It'd have to be enough. Will you please help us? Uh, placedere adiuva me.


Etiam, filium meum.


"Fuck," McKay suddenly exclaimed. All the lamps in the lab switched on and a console in one corner shorted out. "Brace yourself!"


Tony tried, but nothing could have prepared him for the sudden latching of a lonely, starved mind to his empathic self. It wrapped itself so tightly around him, and by virtue McKay, that it hurt. 


My son, a warm, female voice said directly into Tony's deepest self. How can I ease your worries? 


Tony's awareness began to fade, with each wave of empathic impressions a little more. McKay held on with all of his might, but Tony knew that it was a losing battle. 


Power, he managed to gasp out. We need power to save us all. Show Rodney, please. Right now. 


Then, he lost his tenuous hold on this part of the universe and was sucked into a vast, dark void.


oOo


Tony came to two days later in his bed, and with the mother of all headaches. 


"I don't know whether to hug you, or ground you," Patrick told him dryly and offered a glass of water with a straw in it. "Here, drink. Careful, you don't want to get sick on water of all things. Also, our medic put an IV with fluids in you." 


Tony greedily drank as much as Patrick would allow and slumped back as soon as he was done. "What happened?" 


"You were meditating, and suddenly you dropped like a stone and couldn't be woken. We tried everything." Patrick sat back and sighed. "What happened?" 


"I'm afraid that's classified," Tony replied and laughed weakly when Patrick huffed. "It really is, you know." 


"Was it worth it?" 


Tony's smile dimmed. "I have to hope it was." 


"Okay. Then rest. If you're awake at dinner time, Sophie wants to keep you company. Would that be alright?" 


"Of course." Tony yawned. "I'll just-" 


And he was asleep again. 


oOo


It was too quiet. 


Where normally nocturnal animals were going about their business in the overgrown garden of the villa, all Tony could hear now was the faint rushing of the Adriatic sea. 


Something is wrong, a warm, sweet voice said in his mind, waking him fully. Danger.


Tony lay in bed, eyes wide and ears pricked for the smallest sounds. From one second to the next he was only too aware of the fact that someone was moving through the house, quite possibly hurting the Sheppards, and that he didn't have a gun to defend himself. 

 

 Several near silent whines made goosebumps rise on his arms and scalp, and the quiet thumps were no better. In a whirl of golden particles, Joker appeared, his hackles raised.


A dense, oppressive moment passed in which Tony tried to make sense of the situation. The stress of straining his hearing so much made Tony's heart race. He grabbed the penlight and held it like a kubotan pen in his left hand. With his right, he quietly snuck out the switch knife from between his mattress and the bed frame where he'd hidden it for just such an eventuality. 


He was just about to leave the bed when an ugly, black presence sapped all the strength out of him. 


"Goa'uld," Tony hissed, horrified. The pain of its slimy, menacing reach for him made him gag. Joker let out a sharp yelp and began to stumble and paw at his face.


The door to his room opened then and a man dressed completely in black entered nearly soundlessly. "Well, well, well, you're awake," he said quietly, smirking. "And already aware of what I've brought you as a present." He glanced at the writhing dingo, smile widening.


Weakly, Tony fought against his blanket, but without shields he was nearly completely incapacitated. His helplessness was so bad that even the intruder noticed. 


"Looks like I won't need to subdue you. What a pleasant surprise." Smirk widening, the man put his zat away and lifted a small thermal container. "I've brought you your destiny, Anthony DiNozzo. Shesmu himself has claimed you as his host. I'm sure your service to him will be most satisfying." 


"In your dreams, Trust trash," Tony managed and spat out a mouthful of bile. 


"Oh, I do dream of you," the man confided. "I dream of my Lord Shesmu taking me to bed in your body." He leered. "Shall we begin?" 


Tony screamed in his head and empathically reached out for help as violently as he could, hoping that someone, anyone, would hear him. 


When the door to his room opened again, he could've wept with relief, only to have his hopes crushed by Kirsty's silent, entirely too calm appearance. She was dressed completely in black and looking as coldly beautiful as ever.


"Wha ..." He stared at her. "How?"


"Oh, her." The man laughed. "She's astounding, truly. Even psionically castrated by the Alpha Prime Guide of North America himself, she's still such a force to be reckoned with. During her first week, she found a Trust agent in the CIA, and the rest, as they say, is history. Lord Shesmu very nearly claimed her, but he wanted you above all others, and what my Lord wants, he gets." 


"Fuck off," Tony snarled, muscles bunching and trembling in an effort to gather enough strength for an attack. The Goa'uld's greedy excitement made him sick to his stomach.


"Just fuck, Anthony," the man purred. He confidently stepped closer, the container held out like an offering. "It'll be the stuff of legends." 


Only a moment later he stood by the bed. The Goa'uld's presence was so intensely debilitating that Tony had to fight with all he had not to black out. There was no hope of gathering his wits long enough to rescue himself. Even more terrifying was the knowledge that he couldn't even kill himself fast enough to be fully dead before the snake had made its way inside of him and healed him.


"Prepare to receive your Lord and Master, Shesmu of the Goa'uld. Your service to him begins on this glorious day and will last for the ages," the man intoned solemny. 


As he made to unlatch the lid of the container, a movement behind him had him shout out, short and sharp. A second later, he lifelessly crumpled to the ground. 


Kirsty calmly crouched next to the dead man, took the zat out of his pocket and hit him thrice with a blast. After the third time, nothing of both man and Goa'uld was left. 


"Thank you," Tony gasped, awash with adrenaline and endorphins, now that the crippling sickness of the Goa'uld no longer held him in its thrall. "Thank you, Kirsty." 


"I didn't do it for you," she said viciously as she stood up. Her pretty, cat-like eyes narrowed with hatred. "I did it, all of it, so I could kill you myself. It's your fault they cast me out! They cared for me until the Alpha Prime found you! They won't ever let me come back, but at least I can make sure you won't get to come back, either! What a happy accident that those fucking snakes make you useless." 


She threw the zat and the knife she'd used to stab the Trust agent aside and pulled a long, serrated combat knife from a hip holster. Tony barely had time to react, she was on him so quickly. Her blade nearly made it into his neck, only glancing off his hastily raised left forearm at the last moment. His knife, however, went straight into her left side, and the penlight in his left activated at his empathic bellow, blinding her with its light. 


Kirsty shrieked and scrambled backwards, away from the bright blue glare and Tony sort of lost it for a moment. 


His whole existence shifted - his core turned itself inside out and expanded until Tony felt unbearably stretched. The sensation was unpleasantly hot, like lava pouring out of him and cooling as it spread. There were even hotter pinpricks in his outreach that screamed of threat and danger, but there were pleasant spots as well. He could make out Blair and Jim and Kinsdale and Potter and there, far away from the others, Rodney and someone he assumed was John, because he felt like Rob did. There also was Atlantis, so bright and vibrant in this tapestry of sensation. She was eager to center him, to offer a harbour in this catastrophic storm and Tony went mellow in his acceptance of her cool embrace.


Only a second later, everything collapsed back into Tony. Something snapped sharply around him and suddenly it was so calm in his head and his mind that he thought he'd broken something.


Focus, Atlantis instructed him.


Yes, focus, Tony agreed, gulping in a couple of huge breaths. His hands shook.


Thankfully, Kirsty looked absolutely stunned and didn't move a muscle.


Knowing that this was likely his only chance to survive the night, Tony kept the light right on her face, not caring if it burned her eyes out. With his free hand, he pushed her until she laid on her back, and then wrapped her tightly into his blanket so she wouldn't be able to kick or hit him. 


"What the fuck is wrong with you?!" he demanded, weighing her weakly squirming body down with his knees. He tried to be careful of the knife still stuck in her side, but at this point he honestly was beyond caring whether she hurt herself or not.


The woman unexpectedly broke out into loud, exhausting wails, her head tossing like everything was suddenly becoming too much. 


"For fuck's sake, could you make her crazy stop?" Tony barked at the universe. "I've had it with people trying to fucking kill me, you hear me! Oh, hold still now, missy! You brought this onto yourself!"


"I'm sorry, Alpha," Kirsty sobbed. Her face was stained with runny make-up and snot. "I'm so sorry, please forgive me, please." 


"That won't save you now," Tony said coldly. It almost scared him how rich his voice sounded. "What did you do to the others in the house? Did you kill them?" 


"No. They're stunned. They'll wake." Kirsty keened, her head weaving strangely under the glare of the penlight. "It's so warm. It hurts. Alpha." 


"You've got a knife in your side, of course it hurts. I'll take it out when I've got back-up," Tony informed her. "Hold still and I won't have to kill you."

 

She relaxed completely. "Yes, Alpha." 


Tony couldn't and didn't trust her word, and remained sitting atop her wrapped form until a full unit of the Italian version of SWAT stormed the bedroom. 


"Get away, get down!" their leader bellowed, pointing a rifle at Tony. 


Tony suddenly was done with all of this. For the first time he consciously gathered himself and put as much authority in his voice as he could. 


"I will not," he said sharply. The air vibrated hotly around him. "Lower your weapons. I need handcuffs to secure my prisoner." 


The men didn't even hesitate and did as they were told. Two of them averted their gazes entirely, while one stared at him in astonishment. The leader came to the bed and handed Tony a set of cuffs, which he used to efficiently restrain Kirsty's hands behind her back. Her left side was slick with blood.


"She said she subdued the other inhabitants of the house," Tony said, more calmly now. "Find out how they're doing and report to me." 


"Yes, sir," two of the men said crisply and left. 


"Sir," the leader of the team began, "approximately fifteen minutes ago a huge wave of empathic distress reached us. A guide of my unit was able to parse its origin, which is why we've managed to arrive here so soon. Can you tell us what happened?" 


"I'd rather not," Tony replied. 


"Sir, you obviously came online in response to an immense threat to your person-" 


"I only want to do this once, and most of what I have to tell is classified." Tony sighed at the mulish expression of the man. "I appreciate your concern, but this absolutely has to go up the chain of command, and you're not a part of it." 


"Understood, sir. May I at least assist with triage?" 


Tony nodded. "Yes, thank you. Careful, I got her pretty badly when I defended myself." 


While Kirsty was being treated, Tony kept the penlight's light on her face. He knew that the agent wanted to ask about it and was grateful that he refrained. 


Fifteen minutes later, Tony felt the awareness of the Sheppards and all but one of his security bloom in his empathic sensory field. He already knew that the guard on the outside had been killed by the man Kirsty had vanished, but why the other three intruders weren't yet awake puzzled him. 


A knock on the open door startled him a little, despite him monitoring the movement of everyone in the house. By now, the local police had also arrived, and the small village close to the Sheppard villa was waking up from all the activity.


"Tony, my god, are you alright?" Patrick Sheppard asked a little wildly. "I don't know what happened, no one can tell me anything." 


"It'll have to wait, Patrick," Tony said evenly. "I asked the first responders to contact our ambassador. I've also sent messages to several people stateside, so things should get busy soon." 


"I ... yes. Yes, of course." Patrick slumped in a chair and stared at Kirsty. "We could've all died tonight." 


"Yes," Tony said quietly. "I'm grateful we didn't." 


Nothing more could be said in this situation. Tony listened to the verbal reports the various police officers and members of the strike team offered him, and asserted his dominance over the various sentinels and guides that were sent in to make sense of the situation. They all easily submitted to his requests to leave the scene alone, which rankled the mundanes fiercely. 


"I'll call in the Alpha Primes of Italy!" the Chief of Police from Naples, Giacomo Bianchelli, threatened in fast, dirty Italian. "You Americanos always think you can order the rest of us around like we're nothing in our own country!" 


"You do that," Tony said implacably in the same language. "The American consul general is five minutes out, the Alpha Primes can take it up with him until the U.S. ambassador is available." 


"You will tell me what happened here right now, Mr. DiNozzo!" Bianchelli shouted. "This is not protected property, and none of you are diplomats! You can't hide behind diplomatic immunity! You woke up my whole country, the least you can do is give me a reason!" 


"I know this. And yet I'm refusing to tell you anything." Tony raised an eyebrow. "I'm sorry, sir, but this really has nothing to do with you." 


At that point, the consul general got involved and Tony removed himself as much from the situation as he could. He knew that O'Neill was en route to manage the situation, probably via Asgard transporter, and that the whole incident would soon explode into all their faces ... his own the most if his bad luck held. 


I'm fucking online, he kept thinking as he sat with Kirsty, who'd been sedated. Tony was thoroughly peeved and incredulous and even a little relieved about it, if he were at all honest. What rapists and a brush with Atlantis haven't managed, a woman with a grudge did. Why am I even surprised?


Finally, O'Neill and Daniel Jackson arrived, followed by Blair Sandburg and Jim Ellison. At once, the mood at the scene shifted dramatically. Every single sentinel and guide showed the Alpha Primes their deference by dipping their heads and acknowledging their status by quietly murmuring, "Alpha." 


It was humbling in the extreme; Tony couldn't imagine how Blair stood all of this attention. 


"My poor friend," Blair said when he'd finally made his way to Tony. His fingers drifted over the bandage on Tony's left forearm. "You're online; I felt it happen. I'm so sorry." 


"It couldn't be helped, and at least we're all okay," Tony murmured. He clasped his friend's hand. "I'm glad you're here." He looked Blair in the eye and the other man held his gaze easily. "What happens now?" 


"The Italian government officials are being briefed as we speak," Blair said calmly. "The relevant parties will meet us in a secure facility in two hours. You should prepare yourself for questioning." 


"Joy," Tony sighed. 


"At least there'll be fantastic coffee," Blair consoled him. "I made Jim make himself very clear on that subject." He smiled then, soft and so very fond. "Now give me that hug I've been waiting to give you for ages, please." 


Tony sighed as he enfolded Blair in his arms. Almost immediately a connection opened between them, warm and lovely and fierce in its strength. Nothing needed to be said, it was all there for them to feel. 


"This will be over soon," Blair said with quiet firmness once they could bear to separate. "Come, the Sheppards have already gotten in the cars." 


They walked the way back along the long line of sentinels and guides still paying homage to Blair. Their eerie quietness was discomfiting Tony, and the knowledge that they didn't know what to make of him didn't help. 


Thankfully, they drove off as soon as they'd settled in the provided vehicle. Blair encouraged Tony to take a nap, which he tried but had to stop because a wall of chaotic empathic impressions ranging from lust to despair crashed into him the moment he relaxed enough. 


"Fuck," he murmured and sat back up. 


Jim gazed at him patiently. "Too much?" 


"Yes," Tony admitted. "My friend overseas ... I think he's also ... and I think he might be bonding." He went silent, shocked. Blair's horror was in no way a comfort in that situation. "What a clusterfuck. I didn't have enough time. I lost him." 


"We rarely have enough time," Blair murmured sadly. "And it happens, unfortunately. I'm very sorry."


The ride to the secure facility was over far too quickly in Tony's opinion, but when they arrived, Blair went past all the assembled dignitaries and accompanied Tony into a meditation room. 


"Before you tell those people what's happened, we need to meditate," he said. "Your emergence was, despite all of our efforts, traumatic, and I can feel the stress of it linger like an open wound." 


"I'm detaching right now, aren't I?" Tony asked. "Well, I shouldn't be surprised, I guess. There was a strike force team shouting at me right after coming online." 


"Perfect circumstances they were not." Blair huffed. "Alright, let's do this. The sooner those gits get their questions answered, the sooner you can try and get some sleep."


oOo

 

The questioning itself was over quickly. Since every person in attendance was read into the Stargate Program, it was the work of a half hour to relate the events from Tony's work at Sheppard Industries, where he uncovered the existence of the Goa'uld Shesmu, to the attack last night. 

 

"It is unfortunate that the woman vanished the body of the supposed attacker," O'Neill's Italian counterpart said with a twist of his mouth. "We only have your word that she wasn't the one trying to harm you." 

 

Tony stared at the man until he cleared his throat. "I thought I'd spoken clearly and concisely," he said, no less snidely. "The man wanted to put the snake in me. Kirsty killed him before he could do it and vanished him and the Goa'uld with his own zat. After that, she threw away the knife she used to kill the man. Do I also have to remind you that you'll find the man's DNA on the blade?" 

 

The general flushed. "You came online; it's not a stretch to assume that your memory might be impaired." 

 

"The transcripts of Kirsty's interview will prove that my memory is not, in fact, impaired," Tony replied coldly. "Do you have any more questions?" 


"I have one," a woman from a bit farther away called. An aide handed her a microphone. She had bleached hair, a great figure despite her advanced years, and the easy aura of a woman who was used to getting what she wanted because men were often stupid over her. "Were you aware that you coming online would cause sentinels and guides in all of Italy considerable distress?" 


"I was aware that I could negatively impact guides and sentinels in my vicinity due to a traumatic emergence," Tony said. "As is every latent guide and sentinel. Was I aware that I would cause chaos in all of Italy, specifically?" He had a hard time keeping from channelling Rodney as the hour grew later and the fatigue dragged him down. "Of course not. I couldn't have anticipated being attacked while on a private holiday with a full security team to ensure my protection, and I certainly couldn't have predicted that I would reach so many sentinels and guides in my distress." 

 

"It was a possibility that you would come online in our country," she insisted. "And you were aware of the danger to your person."

 

"I was," Tony agreed. "As far as anyone was concerned, the Trust had no idea I'd even left the U.S., however. I travelled under an alias from San Diego and meditated often to keep my stress level as low as possible."


Blair calmly took up his microphone and spoke before the woman could press her point further. "I'd thank you for refraining from blaming Tony for what has happened, Signora Ricci. It's not his fault that a mentally compromised alien creature fixated on him in the line of doing his job and decided to threaten his bodily autonomy so far away from his base of operations." 


"Yes, but few guides are as capable of doing as much harm during his emergence as Signore DiNozzo," she replied dryly. "A warning would've been nice." 


"You were warned. Patrick Sheppard filed his holiday plans with the SGC, and I personally informed General Padovano of them. I received permission for DiNozzo to enter your country and I was assured that this information would be held in the strictest confidence," O'Neill said, sounding bored. He smiled thinly when the general flushed again, this times a lot stronger. "It wouldn't be a stretch to assume that the Trust, who we all know operates world-wide, has gotten the information from his office. The Goa'uld Shesmu certainly didn't know DiNozzo would leave the U.S. until the proper forms were filed in Italy. On our end the only ones who knew were me and the Alpha Primes of North America." 


"Are you implying that-" 


"I'm implying that trying to shift the blame for this situation onto the victim is bullshit," O'Neill talked over him. "We all have to protect assets from the Trust. We all have to work to keep the Goa'uld out of our governments. It is unreasonable to expect any private citizen to put their life on hold just because it would be easier for us. I propose that you start trying to find out where the leak is on your end. Don't make this an IOA issue, you won't like what they'll have to say about the SGC's stance on DiNozzo's security." He sat back. "If that's all, we've got a transport to catch back home." 


"Not so fast," Signora Ricci said. "Signore DiNozzo caused a lot of damage, inadvertent as it might've been; who's going to pay for that? He needs to stay in our custody while the cost is assessed." 


"Are you serious?" Jim speared her with a glare. "Your attempt to detain DiNozzo is as transparent as it is ugly, ma'am. He didn't bring on his emergence by himself and is therefore not to be held accountable. It's regrettable that a guide of his ranking came online in your country, but that is all it is." 


A man in uniform cleared his throat delicately. He had several insignia on his suit lapel that declared him the Alpha Prime Guide of Italy. "Signora Ricci, it is my duty to inform you that Guide DiNozzo spoke the truth. My sentinel confirms the assessment. The attack on his person was unprovoked and certainly unintended. Therefore, you have no reason whatsoever to detain him." 


Ricci frowned deeply. "He still caused several millions in damages, which the United States will have to pay." 


"There is a Charter in effect for these exact circumstances," Daniel Jackson reminded her. He looked cool and remote in the harsh overhead lighting of the meeting room. "I suggest brushing up on your understanding of it before you cry for the unlawful detainment of a foreign guide." 

 

"Alpha Bartinelli!" Ricci said sharply. "I expect you to impress upon our guests the severity of the situation!"


"Mi dispiace, Signora, but Signore Jackson is right. Detaining Guide Dinozzo would be unlawful, both under national and international law," the Alpha Prime of Italy replied almost gently. "Besides, Alpha Prime Guide Sandburg and Alpha DiNozzo both outrank me, and I will have no part in arresting either of them."

 

 

End of part 5

 

Chapter Text

Something Beautiful On The Horizon


Part 6



The trip back to the U.S. was nearly instantaneous, thanks to the Asgard transporter of the Daedalus, but it left Tony with way too much time on his hands to brood in his rooms in Patrick's Californian villa. It'd been ages since he'd laid in bed and just sulked like a moody teenager, but there he was, angsting his stupid heart out.


It still seemed incomprehensible half a day later, and yet it was devastatingly true: McKay was lost to him, hidden behind a storm made up of intense emotion and sensation. 


Tony had briefly, insanely, thought of taking Blair with him, to have him see for himself, but decided against it because this was Rodney's bonding, damnit. The man deserved as much privacy as he could get, no matter how freaky it was that Tony could feel it from so far away. 


Calm down, Filius, Atlantis crooned in his mind. This is not loss. It is change.


It's often the same thing, Tony thought, thoroughly depressed and a little crazy. He sighed and pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes when Joker whined and nosed at his chin. Fuck. How could I be so stupid and fall for another guide?


How could he have fallen for McKay? The man was so different from the men Tony usually went to bed with. He wasn't as handsome, although he certainly possessed a lot of charms; he had some rather trying personality traits; they hadn't known each other long at all; and worst of all, he was tens of thousands of light years away from Tony. They'd never even kissed in their physical bodies and yet Tony was so gone on him that it wasn't remotely funny.


And as if all of that wasn't bad enough yet, McKay was getting bonded to a sentinel right this very minute. 


To John fucking Sheppard. 


Joker whined again, sounding like he was as close to furious man tears as his person. 


"This is ridiculous," Tony told him. Exhaustion tore at him, but every time he so much as closed his eyes, he could feel it. Feel them. It was unbearable. "It's his choice. I want him to have whatever he wants, because he deserves it. If that's John Sheppard, so be it. We'll deal with it ... somehow." He breathed deeply. "I just wish I could sleep."


He grabbed the dingo, marvelling at its completely corporeal form, and pressed his face against the soft fur of Joker's neck. They were both losing the battle against the fatigue. 


Spare me, Tony pleaded. Let them be happy, but please, please spare me from feeling it. 


The raging tsunami gripped him, Joker disintegrating in the maelstrom, and Tony was lost, lost, lost. 


oOo


The sickness lasted about a week and then it lifted as if nothing had bothered Tony at all. Blair was tight-lipped about it, but he did have many soothing and comforting words for Tony when he was at his lowest point and seriously considering eating a gun. 


He'd never, ever in his whole life felt as miserable as during that week and it had scared everyone around him witless. 


And even afterwards, when the pain of having to witness the bonding had faded, a deep melancholy was settling into Tony's very bones. Nothing and no one could cheer him up, not even cooking or his movies. Going into his empathic landscape or the psionic plane brought him no pleasure at all, and being together with people for longer than a few minutes was a chore. Even the physical attraction he'd had for other people had completely died, leaving Tony burnt out and desperate for a connection he'd never have. 


His best solace were the visits to the beach that belonged to Patrick's property. Security was tight, of course, but it was still restful to sit in the warm sand, stare out at the heaving and crashing waves and watch the clouds rolling over the sky. He knew that he was making the sentinels and guides on guard duty very uncomfortable and did his best to avoid them. They, however, were trying to alleviate his pain, no matter how often he told them that it was useless and to just leave him be.


"They can't abide seeing an Alpha in such pain," Patrick said and sat next to Tony in the sand. The warm May sunshine made his skin glow a healthy colour. During the last three weeks he'd lost another few pounds and felt as healthy as a horse. "They won't give up, not even when you scream at them. It's in their nature to care for their leaders." 


"I'm very sorry," Tony murmured. He didn't look up from his folded arms. "I'm just ..." Heartbroken


"I know. And I'm sorry that it was John who took him from you." Patrick sighed. "I was stupid over my wife. Fell in love in a heartbeat and stayed in love until the day she died. David was much the same when he met Melinda, and I suspect that John's attachment to McKay probably formed the day they met. It's not a comfort, I know, but it's an explanation." 


"I met McKay and decided that I needed to be his friend." Tony sighed. "Just like that. I'm fascinated quickly, but this was different. He kissed me on Valentine's Day for the first time. I wanted ... more." 


"Sometimes it doesn't work out the way we want it to," Patrick said. He placed a gift box into the sand by Tony's feet. "If it's any consolation, he likes you a great deal. Go on, open it." 


Tony almost didn't, but after he'd undone the bow and lifted the lid, a smile crept over his lips. 


"He got me a zat. How?" he asked softly. 


Patrick smiled. "McKay managed to write directly to O'Neill and requisitioned one for your personal use. Jack had to send Teal'c to get one off the books, because the zats at the SGC are always in use, and every stash they can appropriate is immediately inventoried. McKay used up a lot of favours for this." 


"I'm grateful, don't think I'm not." Tony turned the weapon over and frowned when it activated with a hiss. It looked a little like a snake rearing up to strike. Fitting, considering who had invented it. "But he's arranged for it before ... Before." 


"That doesn't make his gift any less meaningful," Patrick chided lightly. "And it certainly doesn't devaluate his friendship." 


"No, it doesn't. It's still different," Tony murmured. "And now I can't reach him anymore. His shields are up, and so are John's." 


"I only know McKay through the stories people have told me over the years." Patrick traced his fingers through the sand as he stared out at the ocean. "Opinions varied, of course, but one thing was very clear: McKay does exactly what he wants to do, and he won't let John keep him from you. Not for long, if my son is even stupid enough to try."


Tony could see that, actually, and he almost laughed. Rodney was certainly a force to be reckoned with. 


"I don't want to feel like this anymore," he said quietly. "I'm not ... not as suicidal, but it's not great. How can I make it stop?" 


"David asked me that once when he was in high school." Patrick shook his head. "I told him that missing out and rejection were integral parts of life. That it sucks to not get what we want when we're in love, but that it happens for a reason. If someone didn't like him, they did not suit him anyway." He quirked a brow. "I was many things, but I wasn't a father who encouraged his boys to press for things others weren't willing to give. I encouraged them to ride out the disappointment and hurt and then move on, and I encourage you to do that as well." 


"But what about your attraction to your wife? You said you just knew that she was it for you."


"And I did," Patrick acknowledged. "That doesn't mean I'd have hounded her if she'd rejected me, even if I'd probably never married after meeting her. Of course we were both latents, so maybe there was something at play for us. I won't ever know. I'm just grateful she took pity on me and gifted me her remaining years and two great sons." 


"They're pretty great, even if I don't like John very much right now." Tony sighed. "I just feel like McKay was that someone for me, you know?"


"It was pretty clear in how much it hurt you," Patrick said with his own commiserating sigh. "And I wish you didn't have to go through this. Blair and Jim, as well as Dr. Lam, are still worried, and don't get me started on how freaked out my security still is about the weapons you kept stealing." 


"That was really pretty awful of me." Tony glanced at the older man, shame burning in his gut about his loss of control. "In my defence, their locks are shit, and their hiding places were uninspired."


"Tony." 


"Sorry," Tony mumbled.


"I know you don't want to hear it right now, but it does get better eventually." Patrick patted Tony's shoulder. "Just hang in there. I'm always available if you need to vent."


"I think I've let enough metaphorical blood for today, but thanks. I appreciate it." Tony put his head back onto his folded arms. "Sorry for being such a downer." 


"It's nothing you can help, son." 


Patrick stood and slowly made his way back up to the mansion. Listening after his steps, Tony let his mind wander. Spiralling outwards, his empathic spidey sense followed, mapping out his surroundings with ease. There were all the neighbours, their impressions distinct in the net he cast, and further out the tourists milling through San Diego, and the alphas of the city, who startled sharply when they felt his soft touch. Further and further he went, taking note of the joy and the violence and everything in between in California, before moving on to Nevada. 


For the first time in days he was actually a little curious about what was going on in Cheyenne Mountain. He swept the place, scaring the half dozen sentinel and guide pairs there, and dismissed the petty squabbles and the pervading sense of urgency as business as usual. 


His focus broadened so much that he was only jolted out of his trance by a sharp little empathic pinch. Disoriented, Tony looked around and found the sun sitting low above the water and painting everything a melancholy, deep gold. 


"Shit," he cursed as he noticed the burned skin on his forearms, feet, and face. He'd used sun block, but hours of direct sunlight in June were no match against his factor 50 cream. "Shit, shit, shit." 


In that moment, his new burner phone rang. A wave of worried anger accompanied the shrill sound.


"Tony," Blair scolded when Tony had picked up. "What were you doing? You're scaring people all over the continent! Mason and Peter are going crazy fielding their calls."


"I'm sorry." Tony rubbed his aching forehead, regretting it in that same instant. "I got lost in my head for a while." 


"What were you trying to do?" 


"Nothing, I swear. I was just ... meandering." 


"You were patrolling." Blair sighed. "Any difficulties?" 


"Charlotte is still a mess," Tony said without hesitation. "And there's an ugly situation brewing in Georgia, about or directly in Atlanta, I'm not sure. I picked up several guides in distress, and a group of sentinels being assholes. The alpha sentinel there is the biggest asshole. You might want to send Jim to kick her ass." 


"I'll send a team to investigate. Tony." Blair paused. "Maybe you should come back to Cascade. The Sentinels First group is largely under control, and the Trust won't try to snake or nab you this soon after their failed attempt. O'Neill and associates are coming down on them hard while they're still smarting." 


"No." Tony sucked in a breath at his own vehemence. A bit softer, he said, "I can't." 


"Why not?" Blair inquired carefully. "Have we given you reason to distrust us?" 


"Of course not." Tony closed his eyes and pressed his lips together. "I really ... I really can't. I need to be here." 


Blair was silent for a long moment. "Okay. Just, try not to sweep so obviously, yeah? They're used to it from me, but a stranger doing it could cause serious distress." 


"I'm sorry," Tony murmured. "It wasn't intentional." 


"Not this time, it wasn't," Blair agreed. His voice lost its edge and he reached out fully with his sorrow and affection, cocooning Tony like he was a little boy. "Be careful. It's so easy to hurt yourself like this."


"Yeah. Speaking of hurt, how is Kirsty?" 


Blair's easiness was immediately replaced by guardedness, and wonder. "She's ... good. Mentally, she's in a very good place. Whatever happened when she attacked you ... it set her to rights. She's suddenly there, empathically speaking." He paused. "She's missing you."


"I know." Tony flushed. "I miss her, too. That's sick, isn't it?" 


"No," Blair denied. "It's not sick. It's the opposite, in fact. You claimed her when you defeated her, she's got your psionic fingerprints all over her aura, and she's reacting strongly to that, even as a dormant. I also believe that something you did healed whatever made her go wrong, and that's why she's so attached to you right now."


"She'll never go free again," Tony whispered. "They can't let her out." 


"Nature provides," Blair reminded him softly. "Have faith, and have patience. She knows what she's doing." 


A huge swell of certainty and trust flooded Tony, upping his emotional vibration from the outside. 


"Life is so beautiful the way you look at it," Tony gasped. The sensation ebbed a little, giving him room to breathe through it, but it kept on supporting him when nothing in him was able to help him stay afloat. 


"It's everything," Blair said, voice rich and mellow like the smoothest of caramels. "Nothing is worth giving up on it, brother. Nothing."  


"Yes," Tony agreed, falling into the warm embrace. 


oOo


It seemed like a minor miracle that no one had thought to relieve Tony of the alien penlight in the aftermath of the Trust's attack. It was a good thing too because Tony sincerely needed it to heal his sunburned skin. 


Much damage, the device projected at him. Too much starlight.


I was stupid, Tony agreed. It won't happen again. Thank you. And thanks for setting Kirsty to rights. You saved us both. 


My purpose, the penlight purred.


Tony watched in fascination as the redness on his forearm quickly faded and a healthy tan appeared in its stead. He treated the other arm and then his face and neck. Feeling a little guilty, but mostly not, he then directed the warm, blue light onto his busted knee. 


Should I give you back to Stargate Command?, he wondered, nearly groaning in relief at the lessening pressure on his muscles and tendons. The excess light on his burned feet was also lovely. I was wrong in taking you.


Keep me, the penlight answered swiftly, just like it had all those months ago. Bonded now. Strong connection. Mine. 


"Is that so?" Tony asked out loud and laughed a little. "Okay, then." 


For the first time in a little more than a week, Tony went to bed without dreading his dreams. 


oOo


Tony landed in the psionic plane, a little disoriented in that blue jungle, but not displeased. A second later, his spirit guide joined him. Its ears were pricked and the tail raised and still. 


Just a moment later, Rob broke through the underbrush and ambled straight over to Joker, initiating a rough play fight. Tony couldn't watch because a gorgeous, lethal-feeling man dressed in black military pants and an equally black t-shirt followed. He stopped at the end of the small clearing, his light eyes seizing Tony up. His posture was tense, despite his casual slouch against a tree.


"You're far more gorgeous than McKay let on," John Sheppard said evenly. "I can see why he's pining for you."


Fury roared through Tony, sudden and consuming. With every ounce of self-control he could muster, he answered, "Well, he chose you, Sheppard." 


"He did." Sheppard's eyes narrowed. "But he still wants you. I want to know why. Why am I not enough?" 


"What do I know?" Tony snorted bitterly. "You're so attractive and smart that his brain regularly stalls." 


Sheppard smirked. "It's fun when that happens." 


"Have you come to warn me off, then?" Tony demanded, hating himself for the excited twinge in his chest for finally meeting Patrick Sheppard's elusive son. 


"Hm, no. McKay would skin me alive and toss me to the almost-sharks that circle Atlantis." Sheppard stepped closer, head slightly tilted and with every appearance of taking Tony in with his senses. "I just thought I'd say hello, get to meet the guy who has my guide in such a depressive mood. See how we can go from there." 


"Nice of you to stop by," Tony muttered caustically.


"I had to, really," Sheppard went on, slowly stepping around Tony. "One week of really very thorough claiming him and there's that stubborn part of him that still doesn't belong to me. That clings to you. I can feel you on him, with him. It's driving me crazy."

 

"I'd give him up, if I knew how," Tony said harshly. "Because I don't want him to hurt. But I can't." 


"And I can't make you," Sheppard returned, coming so close that Tony could easily see the gold and grey flecks in his eyes. His nostrils flared a little and an undecipherable mess of emotions flowed around Tony. "I have to get back. See you when I see you, DiNozzo." 


And he was gone again, taking Rob with him. 


Tony blew out a deep breath. 


"Well," he said to Joker, "that was weird."


oOo


The next time it happened, just two days later, Sheppard brought a basketball and invited Tony into his empathic landscape. 


"Why don't you bring McKay?" Tony asked, crossing his arms in front of his chest. "Are you keeping him prisoner? How is he?" 


"Pissed off because I ordered him to leave you alone for the moment," Sheppard said without an ounce of remorse. "Before you think about shooting me, consider the duty I have to him." His eyes were hard and uncompromising. "He was an emotional wreck when your emergence forced him online. It hurt him so much to know that your life was in acute danger. It nearly took him out to hold the connection to you." 


"Fuck." Tony sighed.


"Even worse, it forced me to come online in turn, and I was nowhere near ready to accept any of it," Sheppard added. "I immediately entered a feral bonding drive and nearly hurt him in my pursuit. I was lucky that he didn't reject me, that he was aware enough to consent, and liked me enough to give us a chance." He gave off the feel that this actually stunned him a little, even now.


"I'm glad for that," Tony admitted. "But I'm not sorry that I reached out for him. We made that promise to each other when we were still latent. His presence made a difference and I'll always be grateful for his willingness to help." 


"He wanted it that way and doesn't resent you for it at all. I know that I don't have the right to be pissed about it, but there were consequences, and we have to deal with them." Sheppard's cool expression softened a little. "He's fragile, okay, and it takes everything I have to prevent him from seeking you out. McKay listens to me because he knows how much it distracts me from my work when I perceive his longing for you as a threat to our bond." 


Tony rubbed his hand over his face. "Shit. I'm sorry. I'd stop, truly, but I-" 


"You can't," Sheppard finished for him. "I know. The thing is, McKay can't stop it either. It's a FUBAR situation for everyone involved."


"What are you trying to achieve with these meetings, then?" Tony asked warily. "It can't help to have me around." 


"Funnily enough, I can deal with that easily," Sheppard said. He threw Tony the basketball. "The invitation is open, just knock. Around three PDT is perfect, that's night-time on Atlantis." 


He turned to go but Tony suddenly remembered what he'd wanted to ask McKay and called out, "Wait. What happened after McKay and I tried to contact Atlantis? Was she able to help?" 


"You don't know?" Sheppard asked, raising an eyebrow. 


"I was knocked out for a few days afterwards, and then the Trust happened," Tony said. He couldn't resist the snide tone of his voice as he added, "Afterwards, McKay unfortunately wasn't available for questions." 


Not that Tony had been in any state to ask those questions in the first place, but he figured that he deserved to be petty about the whole clusterfuck for a while.


Sheppard's eyes narrowed. "You don't know that Atlantis' mainframe added you to the database as her filius?" 


"No?" Tony narrowed his eyes right back. "What does that mean?" 


"That you made nice with my girl," Sheppard said slowly, "without any of the scientists knowing how you did it. Also, you must be one of the strongest gene carriers on Earth, because she won't let anyone mess with that entry. The day you and McKay did your thing, every single lamp on Atlantis switched on. We also had two grounding stations short out." 


Tony waved that away impatiently. "What about the power? Did McKay find a ZPM?" 


"She led us to a whole room of them," Sheppard admitted. "All full. The scientists are working on integrating them to the system. Four is the maximum, but we'll probably burn out several to get all the repairs in that the city needs." 


"You'll still have enough power for shields against the Wraith, then." Relief coursed through Tony. "Thank god." 


Sheppard's jaw worked. "No, thank you. That hare-brained scheme probably saved all of our asses. By the way, McKay kept you out of his report, just like he promised. I can't promise that certain people won't be curious, though."


Tony nodded tightly. "You're welcome." He threw the ball back to Sheppard, suddenly fed up with everything. "I'd better leave."


And he willed himself into wakefulness before Sheppard could say another word.


oOo


Meeting Kirsty should, by all accounts, have been impossible, but as she'd broken contract with the S&G Council regarding her assignment with the CIA to abscond with a heretofore unknown Trust cell within the agency, the CIA had handed her back to Blair and Jim without much protest to save face. She was now being held in a small prison facility near Cascade with sentinel and guide staff to see to her needs. There was, however, a trial pending, and no one quite knew how that would shake out. 


The Asgard transporter beam and Tony's promise to O'Neill to have a look at General Hank Landry's work performance did the rest.


"She's really looking forward to seeing you," Blair said as they walked into the meeting room. "We can't leave you alone with her, so mind your lack of privacy, but if you need it ... I give you leave to be kind to her." He smiled sadly. "It might be all we can do for her, in case the judge rules harshly." 


Tony didn't even want to think about it. His own life might be on hold right now due to his unsettled feelings, but he very much acknowledged how precious it was to other people, Kirsty included. 


"You know, I never learned her last name," Tony mused. He pulled out a chair for Blair and quirked a grin at Jim's little huff. 


"It's McKinnon," Blair provided. "Her family's from Ireland, most of them still live there. Kirsty's parents didn't get along with her father's older brother and so they emigrated. Her great-uncle on her father's side actually is the Alpha Prime guide of Europe, and he sided with the uncle, not her father." 


"Wow, that must've been some feud, what with their Irish tempers." Tony frowned. "Come to think of it, my British relatives couldn't stand Senior either and refused to let him live in the ancestral home. He took us to the U.S. because business was supposedly better here." 


"The similarities are definitely there, how weird. At least Kirsty had parents that doted on her," Blair said. "Which makes her derailment so bizarre." 


The door at the back of the room opened and two orderlies escorted Kirsty through. She wore simple, utilitarian prison garb in a steely greyish blue and had no make-up on, and yet she still managed to look beautiful. 


"Alpha," she breathed as soon as her gaze fell on them. 


To Tony's shock, she threw herself at Tony's feet. The sentinels around him jerked at the perceived threat and only relaxed when she stayed down.


"I'm so sorry for what I've put you through, for every mean word I said and for threatening your life," she said hoarsely. "Please, please forgive me. I don't know what was wrong with me, you feel so good, so warm. Please forgive me." 


"Hush," Blair said gently. He glanced at Tony and they shared a moment of stunned surprise. "Get up, let's sit down and talk." 


Kirsty allowed herself to be helped up, but she wouldn't meet their eyes and hid her face behind her blond hair as well as she could. Her misery tugged at Tony's heartstrings far more than he'd have expected. 


The guards warily retreated a little, though Tony could see one of them finger his dart gun.


"Kirsty, we've talked about this many times, but maybe you can tell me now," Blair said. "When did you start feeling wrong?" 


She hiccoughed a little, her wet, blue eyes going to Tony as if she were asking for his approval. 


"It's alright. Tell him, if you can," Tony encouraged her. 


"I was ... sixteen, I think," she whispered. Her Irish brogue made itself known as she focused inwards. "We were in Ireland for a Council meeting. Me dad had a huge argument with Uncle Niall. I dunno what it was about, but me dad and uncle dinna see eye to eye on many things. Dad is a strong guide, me mum always said that Uncle must've felt threatened and that's why we were sent away." 


"Why didn't you tell me?" Blair asked softly. 


"I dinna know how. Before the Alpha woke me up, it was all foggy," Kirsty sobbed. "But I remember now. Mum said I was too young for this kind of argument. She dinna want me exposed to the hostility." 


A very bad feeling crept into Tony's stomach. "Were you ever alone with your uncle, or any relatives that were set against your father?" 


Kirsty wiped her eyes and finally looked at him. For a moment she went through her memories, sorting them. "Sometimes," she said at length. "Uncle Niall wasn't so bad with me. He talked to me and explained why he and daddy's brother were arguing with me dad, nothing more. I wanted to understand, you see." 


"Oh, baby." Blair raked both hands through his hair in helpless agitation. "You left your parents the day you turned eighteen." 


"I dunno why anymore." New tears welled in Kirsty's eyes and spilled over her cheeks. "It doesn't make sense. I love me mum and dad, but I was so angry about everything. I couldn't stand to look at them anymore. I dunno why I did all the bad things either. How can I make it right, Alpha?" 


Tony let out a silent curse. "It'll take some work." Impulsively, he took her lax hand and just held it. "When you came in you said that I feel good ..." 


Guiltily, Kirsty looked from Tony to Blair and then to the floor. "When I attacked you ... you damaged the seal the Alpha Prime Guide placed on me when you defended yourself. It's not broken, but ..." She looked at Tony like he'd hung the moon and stars. "I regret causing your emergence like that, so much, but it still was beautiful. You're so beautiful, Alpha, so warm and strong. It feels like you're mine, even though I know I won't ever have the right to stand with you."


"Kirsty ..." Tony was speechless. The loyalty and sincerity pouring off of her was so very humbling. 


"I'm glad you came to see me, Alpha." She stood and bowed her head. "Please don't worry on my account. You already did me the greatest favour by making me right again. I won't ever be able to repay you for that." 


She stepped back and wordlessly left with the orderlies, taking the strange feeling of peace with her. 


Tony immediately rounded on Blair, stalling Blair's security with a brisk wave of his hand. "There's no way in hell I'll leave her behind." 


"I know." 


"Her fucking great-uncle, the motherfucking Alpha Prime Guide of Europe, twisted her up until she was little more than a sociopathic loose cannon just to punish her father for being a threat to his position!" 


"I know." 


"We need to talk." 


Blair sighed and leaned into Jim's embrace. "I know." 


They left the facility silently and rode into Cascade, where Peter greeted Tony like he hadn't seen him in months instead of three weeks. The others followed swiftly, Samira and Rebecca hugging him half to death, and even the shy Dina pressed a relieved kiss to his cheek. Clive and Henry hovered and Benny rushed to make coffee for everyone. 


Tony promised to visit for a bit after he'd had his talk with Blair and thankfully everyone accepted that he had stuff to do first. 


"Where do you want to do this?" Blair asked, sounding tired as they stood in his personal meditation room. 


Jim silently flipped on the white noise generator and engaged the electronic security. 


"The psionic plane. Blair ..." 


"I wasn't ready," Blair said shortly, his blue eyes fixed on Tony's face. "I still am not ready." 


There was a short discussion whether Jim should accompany them in meditation, but the sentinel decided against it after some thought. 


"It's your decision, Chief," he said quietly and pressed a kiss to Blair's hair. "You know I'll have your back no matter what. I'll be waiting for you." 


Tony and Blair readied their meditation cushions, took a last drink of water and then left the waking world behind in one, swift glide. 


"You've gotten very good at this," Blair noted. He looked around the blue jungle, his shoulders drooping. "You said to me that you admire my zest for life ... I admire your ability to accept so easily what you can do, and what you'll be for our community one day. They're already calling you Alpha and you're not ... put off." 


"No, not anymore," Tony agreed. "Because I have a great teacher who has my back, and because you and Kinsdale were right: coming online has changed everything. I understand it now." He placed his hand on Blair's shoulder and steered him to a mossy stone bench that was half hidden underneath the growth. "You did so much for me, let me have your six, too." 


Blair fidgeted a little before he admitted, "I never thought I'd go so far. I found my sentinel, and while I knew that Jim was unusually strong, I didn't realize what that meant for me. I grew up free, you know, and suddenly having all these responsibilities was overwhelming." 


"Don't you think I get that?" Tony asked. "There's balance in taking up responsibility as a cop or fed, and not having that responsibility in your private life. Only having responsibility without any way to relax sucks." 


"It does. It's been too much, and yet ..." Blair exhaled and stared up to the canopy, where blue sunlight was streaming through the tree branches and leaves. "Yet I know that there's more for me to explore." 


Tony's breath caught. "Yes. There absolutely is." He felt it in every cell of his body.


"I know that it's all mine," Blair whispered. "Earth is mine to protect and shape, but I didn't, because I'm afraid of losing myself in it." 


"What if you're losing yourself because you're not doing it?" Tony asked softly. "It sounds crazy, but I don't know what else it could be that's crippling you." 


"How can me grasping it for myself free me from this fear?" Blair asked bleakly. "I'd go against the highest authority of our planet. The Alpha Prime Guide of Earth is a very patient man, but he has his limits." 


"Or maybe he's merely waiting for you to get over yourself," Tony countered. "Blair, you've got power to burn. It's fucking ridiculous that you're trying to hide it. You shouldn't settle for North America; you shouldn't clip your wings because you think that you've come far enough to help your people, because you obviously haven't." 


"Tony-" 


"No, I need to say this." Tony grasped Blair's hands. "You're fucking royalty on this planet and everyone knows it. The current Alpha Prime Guide of Earth knows it, too. Sometimes people in the community don't pay you the respect you deserve because you invite that shit with your unwillingness to be their leader. You not taking their protection seriously makes them afraid and they lash out." 


Blair stared at him silently. 


"Moreover, I think that's why your spirit guide is really hiding. He's hiding just like you are hiding, and he'll only come back if you accept that you're meant to lead the peoples of this shitty ball of dirt and make them clean up their fucking acts." Tony sucked in a deep breath and gentled his voice. "Jim's so ready to let you shine, Blair. He's ready and willing to be everything you need to make it happen, and to make it good." 


Tears shimmered in Blair's eyes. "I should've been brave enough." 


"Sometimes we aren't, for a lot of reasons," Tony told him, thinking of his own twisted reasons for allowing the probies on his team to run roughshod over him. "Sometimes we're afraid of showing the world our true colours, and sometimes that's even a good thing. But, not in this. Earth needs you, and you need her. Stop cutting yourself off, alright? It hurts to watch and I've had enough. Your time has come. You know it has." 


"You'll really have my back?" Blair asked in a small voice. 


"All the way," Tony promised. He grasped the trembling hands of his friend a little tighter. "Always." 


"Then I'll do it now, before the doubts come back. There'll be an uproar." 


"So what," Tony countered. "For once let the chips fall where they may. It'll be fine. I can feel it."


Blair let out a shaky breath. When he inhaled again, he already felt different. Lighter, sturdier. 


Fascinated, Tony witnessed him finding his way to his resolve. Blair relied on Tony's conviction and his support to raise himself up, to reach out with his senses. The air began to vibrate around them, spooking animals from their hiding places. Instead of fleeing, however, they gathered around them in a congregation of silent, expectant spirit judges. Gradually, the clearing grew larger and larger to accommodate the rising numbers of witnesses.


The further Blair went in his meditation, the more Tony felt the impact of it. His skin prickled and his insides felt like one, warm pool of light that was reaching out to solidify the alliance he'd promised. He'd felt deeply connected to Blair for a while now, but this was more. This was different. It was a contract, written with trust and sealed with the deepest of friendships. 


At long last, Blair eased the pull on the power he'd collected and opened his eyes. They shimmered like pools of the blue light that was characteristic for the psionic plane.


Movement went through the thousands of spirit guides attending him. From deep in the jungle they began to shuffle apart, easing the passage for one of them. Closer and closer the disturbance came, until the animals in the clearing slowly made way for a large, grey wolf. 


"Achak," Blair whispered.


Silently, the wolf stared at Blair for the longest while. 


Blair endured the scrutiny, merely dipping his head when the wolf's snout finally came up in the universal question for, "Well, are you up for it?"


The vibration in the air grew stronger and stronger and everything around Tony got a little hazy as the power balled and pressed in on him. 


Then, the wolf leaped forward and vanished into Blair with a snap so sharp that it fractured the psionic plane into myriads of little pieces, sending an untold number of spirit guides into the void. 


With a startled sound, Tony lost his grip. He was flung out into the darkness, where nothingness gaped like a huge maw. He sailed for eons, past stars and even whole galaxies, until finally a warm, solid presence caught him. 


It's alright, I've got you, McKay murmured, his mind like a warm blanket on Tony's agitated soul. 


At once, the hurts of the past weeks were soothed away and all he could feel was an unstoppable tide of affection for the man.


Kisses rained on his vey soul. You can wake up now, Tony. 


Tony woke up.


oOo


The world was in chaos after Blair's acceptance of his status as Alpha Prime Guide of Earth. Yasugi Iwamata and his sentinel Kazui Haka, stepped down gracefully immediately and blessed the new Alpha's emergence with few, but glowing words, much like Tony had predicted they would. 


Their support went a long way in keeping things somewhat stable, because the destruction and reformation of the psionic plane affected the whole planet and no one knew how far reaching the consequences would be. Already, spirit guides appeared where they hadn't been seen in ages, and reversely, spirit guides of corrupted humans fled in droves. Dormancy rates were soaring, while new emergences were reported every hour. 


Jim, who was elevated with Blair to Alpha Prime Sentinel of Earth, never lost a word about it, although everyone who knew him could see how much it relieved him to finally see his mate free of his self-imposed bonds. He didn't much care for the infighting, though, and made it his life's mission to put the sentinels in their place who thought it was fun to protest against the new order of things.


For the first time since getting mixed up in the sentinel and guide business, Tony realized how much real power, both social and political, the sentinels and guides on the planet actually held, even though they only made up a relatively small percentage of the world's population. Sentinels and guides were invaluable in certain fields of employment, not to mention the military, and having their participation suspended immediately to force governments all over the world to finally get the protective laws in place they deserved would probably give Tony the shivers until the day he died.


It rankled a little that Blair and Jim wanted him to stay out of it while everything was in such an uproar, but as Tony sat on Patrick Sheppard's beach in California, he couldn't stay mad. The sentinel longing was churning in his chest now, tugging and prodding like an impatient child wanting nothing more than to run to its favourite person in the world. 


Through it all, John Sheppard continued to stalk Tony. He popped up whenever Tony meditated in the afternoons, and Tony was a stupid shit for not avoiding these confrontations. He just couldn't help himself. That man had Rodney, and Tony wasn't above playing Sheppard to get through to him. 


Sometimes quite literally.


"You're an excellent player," Sheppard called when Tony scored yet another point in their one-on-one pick-up basketball game in Sheppard's empathic landscape. He didn't seem upset at all for being a handful of points behind, and he also was remarkably comfortable with having Tony that close to him. He let his eyes wander over Tony's naked torso. "And very easy on the eyes." 


"Keep it to yourself, Sheppard," Tony said sharply. "I might not hate your guts anymore, but I won't let you harm McKay." 


Sheppard laughed, low and a little dirty. "He'd harm me if I didn't bring him visuals, you know." 


"What?" Tony stopped and didn't protest when Sheppard stole the ball from him. 


"I've decided that what Rodney wants, Rodney gets. He fixed Atlantis' stardrive, you know, so he deserves all the treats." Sheppard dribbled over to his side of the court and expertly threw the ball. 


"I didn't know," Tony said, at a loss. "What even is a stardrive?" 


"Atlantis' warp drive, so to speak." Sheppard threw the ball at Tony. "The ZPMs allowed Atlantis to repair it. Right on time, too, because we had some nasties over for tea, and because we kicked their asses, they've decided to come to Earth instead to overeat on their equivalent of chocolates and ice cream." 


"Fucking hell. Does O'Neill know?" 


"We sent a data burst, together with our non-essential personnel." Sheppard looked intently at Tony. "We're on our way to Earth right now." 


The bottom of Tony's stomach dropped out. "What's your ETA on arrival?" 


"Three weeks, give or take a couple of days." 


A wild hope seared Tony from the inside. "You'll let me see him." 


"God, DiNozzo, stop it." Sheppard was suddenly there and gripped Tony's neck tightly. His strong, broad fingers burned Tony's skin in the best of ways. "You've got a way to make a man feel inadequate." 


"There's nothing inadequate about you, Colonel," Tony admitted, licking his lips. 


Sheppard followed the movement of his tongue, eyes snapping back up to Tony's a second later. "But you want him." 


"I do." Tony's heart, which wasn't real on this plane, was nonetheless beating wildly. 


Thoughtfully, Sheppard let up his grip a little and trailed his thumb over Tony's cheek and lower lip. "I want to say 'good', because McKay seems to need you like he needs to bitch about stupid people, but I just can't help but feel jealous." 


Tony wallowed in the intense, intimate connection Sheppard was artlessly forging between them. Where his skin touched Tony's lip, arousal drifted into him. "Cheating on him won't make you feel better," he managed to say.


"No." Abruptly, Sheppard let go and stepped back. "It's not all you, DiNozzo. I'm jealous of McKay because he found someone so attractive before he accepted me."


Tony's mouth dropped open. "You fucker."


"Don't I know it." Sheppard scowled. "Damnit." 


"Go home, Colonel. Confess to him before I make you regret that you tried to seduce me," Tony said evenly. His anger was real, and yet his whole body was tingling with shameful excitement. "I won't let my first sentinel lover be the one who belongs to my ... to Rodney." 


"Right." 


"Right." Tony glared at Sheppard's entirely too attractive person. "And stay dressed in the future, before I have to confess to McKay as well." 


A peculiar expression settled on Sheppard's face. "My empathic landscape, my rules." 


Tony fumed because Sheppard knew that he refused to have him in his own landscape, the asshole. "Good day, Colonel." 


With a huff, he left, knowing that he'd be back the next day, punctual like clockwork.


oOo


Blair's job as the new Alpha Prime Guide of Earth included judging members of his tribe if they were under suspicion of having committed a crime. As every sentinel and guide on the planet now belonged to his tribe, Niall McKinnon fell under his direct jurisdiction, which really was too bad for him, because Blair wanted the man gone

 

Tony gracefully bowed out of that smackdown, choosing instead to visit Kirsty and lend her moral support during the live transmission of the trial. Her parents were not present per Kirsty's wishes; they were super nice people who wanted to do everything in their might to be a family again and respected that she needed a little space before reconnecting with them in person. 


It didn't take long at all to establish that Niall McKinnon was a real piece of work and immensely talented in messing up empathic pathways without leaving evidence. None of his comrades dared lying to the Alpha Prime Pair, wisely choosing instead to take their lumps and throw the main culprit to the wolves. 

 

McKinnon, of course, tried to argue his way out of being psionically castrated, but his crimes were so heinous that even his friends were visibly relieved when Blair ruled him irredeemable. 

 

"You've got justice, at last," Tony told the crying woman in his arm. "I'm sorry about the people you hurt while you were under his influence, but at least that's over now. And the other people in your family who've had an inexplicable personality change will have a chance at healing now, too." 

 

"They'll still send me to prison," Kirsty sobbed. "I've committed treason." 

 

"Not of your own free will." Tony gently enveloped her with his empathic shield and smoothed over the jagged edges of the cracked seal on her connection to the psionic plane. While he'd never go against Blair and simply work the connection back open, he did feel comfortable alleviating some of Kirsty's pain. "We'll do all we can to help. Your uncle's conviction will go a long way in lessening your punishment." And if it didn't, Tony would make them regret it. "Have you killed while you were out of sorts?" 

 

"Other than the man who tried to put that disgusting thing in you, no. I came close a couple of times, though," she admitted, wiping her swollen eyes. "They'll probably never recover. There's so much I'm sorry for. So, so much."

 

"But no deaths of innocents, that's good," Tony assured her. "We can work with that." 

 

Onscreen, Blair proceeded to rule Niall McKinnon unfit to serve as Europe's Alpha Prime Guide any longer. Shouts sounded and the man's sentinel, a tall woman with flaming red hair, tried to get to her mate and husband. 


"Huh, looks like she wants to throttle him ... wow, she's fit for someone in her seventies," Tony said, cocking his head. He snorted a laugh. "Blair and Jim both feel like they want to let it happen." 


"Aunt Aibreann can be mean, but she isn't like him," Kirsty said quietly. "It'll break her when the Alphas make him go dormant." 


"I think he's already mostly there," Tony replied thoughtfully. "There was no spirit guide when Blair called for it. It probably abandoned him already, and I have to believe that only the loyalty of his pride kept him connected enough to the psionic plane to act as the Alpha Prime." 


She took a shuddery breath, eyes firmly on the drama unfolding on the screen. "He's a fool. If I had the chance to meet my spirit guide again, I'd be so glad." 


"May I ask what animal it is?" 


"She's a white boa constrictor," Kirsty said readily. "She wasn't around often in the end, before the Alpha stopped me. She couldn't stand me because I thought of her as nothing more than a ..." Her breath hitched. "A useful tool." 


Tony sighed and pulled her closer to his side. "Your uncle can be glad that Blair tried and convicted him. I wouldn't have put him behind bars and let the tax payers pay for his keep; I'd have shot him where he stood." 


"Alpha," Kirsty protested, although she didn't sound very appalled. 


"Too soon?" Tony asked innocently and grinned when she laughed, quiet and a little shocked. "You want to stay for the rest of it?" 


"No, I've seen the important part. Thank you for being here." She leaned into him. "Alpha."

 

oOo

 

When Tony appeared in John Sheppard's empathic landscape, it had changed from the vast green steppe theme around a huge, dark abyss into something more fertile. A young forest had sprouted up some distance away, and the sky was a beautiful mix of colours and clouds. There were even a few hills far away that might, someday, even form into impressive mountains. Looking at it was like witnessing Sheppard waking up from a long period of draught.

 

"So, what are the news on the home front?" Sheppard asked after divesting himself of his black t-shirt and making a basketball appear in his hands. "McKay felt a disturbance in the force and ranted at me for fifteen minutes straight for not being able to hack Earth while we're in hyperspace." 

 

"Blair tried the Alpha Prime Guide of Europe for crimes against his pride and tribe and ruled him unfit to lead the continent. The guy scrambled his great-niece's brain pretty badly when she was a teenager, and probably many more people's besides," Tony said with a grimace. 

 

"Would that be Kirsty? She's the one that tried to kill you, right?" 

 

"Yeah, McKinnon was very good at narrowing her empathic channels until she couldn't help but develop into a sociopath with access to the psionic plane. She could project negative stuff easily, but couldn't receive many of the good vibes and therefore wasn't able to heal the damage, or have others heal it for her. It's perverse. He was proud of his work, the motherfucker." Tony exhaled sharply. "And all because Kirsty's father was a threat to his position. Right now she's very mellow, but Blair said that she'll need time to recalibrate and develop her true personality after ten years of suppression. He's predicting that she'll have a lot of trouble coming to terms with emotions in general, and the charges for treason aren't helping." 

 

"She has you, she'll get through it with a black eye." 


Tony nodded, relieved that Sheppard seemed to be on his side. "I hope so. I've more or less claimed her as mine, so I'll be doing my best to have those charges get dropped. If McKinnon goes down again while I'm at it, I won't lose any sleep over it."


"As my geeks always say, follow the money," Sheppard said. "Having power is one thing, but people normally want more than just sit in the big chair. There might be a ton of crimes attached to this clusterfuck. Enough to paint her as just another victim." 

 

"Blair and Jim are already on it," Tony replied. "I'm feeling very sorry for all the Centers and SGIUs over there right now. They'll need years to wade through that shit creek." 

 

Sheppard snorted. "The U.S. won't be any better. Sandburg taking up the mantle will stir up a lot of hornet's nests. I don't know when he sleeps." 

 

"Oh, he's as happy as a pig in mud." Tony laughed. "He's a bossy little shit and just continues on the psionic plane when he's asleep. No one on Earth dares to argue to his face, it's fantastic. And Jim's with him like a really menacing shadow, all quiet and threatening. That guy's empathic output is like the Hulk to all the other sentinels' little sausage dogs. I'm pretty sure their dicks tuck and hide while he's in their vicinity." 

 

"You find him attractive?" Sheppard asked. 

 

"Christ, who doesn't." Tony shrugged and got into position on his half of the playing field. "Ready to get your ass handed to you?" 

 

Sheppard smirked. "You wish, DiNozzo." 

 

And the game was on. The two men battled it out, running and twisting and winding around each other until sweat was making Sheppard's chest and back gleam in the sunlight, and Tony's shirt stick to his body. 

 

"I don't think I should come and play with you anymore," Tony complained when they finally stopped and dropped down onto a field of lush, soft grass. 


"Why? Because I don't let you win?" Sheppard drawled. He flopped down and stared into the sky.


"No, because I try to have chaste thoughts about you. I was really content with just wanting to punch you in the throat." Scowling, Tony laid down as well. "I can't imagine McKay wanting to share that." 


"He's a smug little git, that's what he is," Sheppard said with a frown. "He's okay with others looking." 

 

"Is he now?" Tony turned his head to stare at the other man. "He pretty much said that you'd kirked your way through the galaxy; I thought he'd be pretty territorial." 

 

"He was, until he found out that it was more or less a front," Sheppard said dryly. "Being labelled as a weak latent and being openly gay in the military? Not a good idea, hence my supposed 'kirking around'." 

 

"Ah." Tony returned to counting the fluffy clouds in the sky. "Rather unbelievable that people still make a distinction between sentinels and guides and everyone else. Also, stupid." 

 

"It's so stupid that McKay has written a manifesto. An honest to god manifesto of about two hundred pages in which he details all the ways this behaviour is wrong, wrong, wrong." 

 

"I've got to read this," Tony declared. 


"I can quote the first chapter verbatim," Sheppard said. "It's the flight crew's favourite bedtime story right now. You wanna hear?" 


Tony sighed dramatically. "That you even have to ask makes me doubt that there's actually a brain hiding underneath all that hair." 


Sheppard spluttered with indignation. "My brain could be a member of Mensa!" 


"So you say," Tony countered with a little smirk. "Well? Where's my story?" 


"Bastard," Sheppard muttered, though he sounded grudgingly impressed by Tony's fearless teasing. "Once upon a time, on a small, little dirt ball called Earth, there was a very bigoted and very stupid government of a country called the United States of America. It stupidly proclaimed itself the leader of the free world, while stupidly starting more wars than it could fight or finance, mostly for stupid stuff like oil, which very much isn't a sustainable resource for energy production. For these really very stupid wars, the grand U.S. of A obviously needed soldiers - men and women who would give their lives if necessary so rich people could have their stupid oil ..." 


Tony listened to the story unfold, most of the time biting his lip in indecent amusement, but sometimes laughing out loud at McKay's caustic turns of phrase. Sheppard's own amusement resonated in him, with him, and for a while he almost forgot that there was a McKay-shaped bone of contention between them. 


oOo


During week three after Blair Sandburg and Jim Ellison's ascension to Alpha Prime Pair of Earth, the first protective laws for sentinels and guides hit the Council's desks. First world countries delivered updated versions, some quite revolutionary, but some third world countries weren't at all far behind. Especially a lot of African countries made it a point to get into Blair's good graces because they knew exactly who of their people had the ability to sniff out water, determine the best places to plant trees, and devise strategies to protect the fragile ecosystem. Losing those naturally skilled people to richer countries had been the source of travel bans and punitive laws for decades - forsaking them and replacing them with something so much better was like a deep, delicious breath of fresh air on that continent.


Tony suspected that more poor countries would follow, in the hopes of garnering financial support to realize their efforts. They'd get it, of course, and Tony could only hope that the radical, yet positive atmosphere of change would be strong enough to carry into daily life so the work would be continued and seen through. 


Despite his thoughts instantly turning to the problems that were sure to pop up in the future, Tony got just as emotional over the reports of peaceful victory parties in India and the Congo and New York as everybody else. Being witness to the LGBT movement and environmentalist groups all over the world generously helping to spread the good cheer was deeply moving, because more and more people got caught up in the sheer optimism and pledged their money and time to worthwhile projects. 


It had been a good three weeks for Earth, and Tony drank a glass of very fine Merlot to hopefully centuries of more of the same. 


oOo  

 

"Things keep changing," Sheppard complained and rubbed his chest. "The closer we get to Earth, the more McKay feels what's going on. He's feeling you, and I'm frankly surprised that you two haven't been canoodling behind my back." He glared at Tony.

 

"Oh, fuck off, Colonel Fluffyhair," Tony bitched back. "McKay is such a bleeding serial monogamist, he'd need an engraved invitation from you to do any canoodling." 

 

"He's showing me dick pics of you!" Sheppard shouted. "Okay? He's torturing me via brain porn! He wants that fucking engraved invitation!" 

 

Tony was too stunned to reply. 


Sheppard let out a deep breath, stared at his freaky rainbow sky and visibly counted to twenty. A lot calmer, he then said, "I can't say it isn't working. That man is a genius, even if he has the social graces of a rhea on a rampage." 


That made Tony laugh, and he resented Sheppard a little for it. "Shut up, I don't believe a fucking word." 


"No?" Narrowing his eyes, Sheppard flung an image of Tony naked and spread out in the grass of his empathic landscape at him. McKay's large hand was a possessive accessory on Tony's tanned hip. 


Reeling, Tony flushed a fierce red. "That little bastard." 


"When it comes to you, he likes to share," Sheppard said roughly. "As I said, it's torture." 


"I'd kick his ass if you weren't shield him," Tony growled. 


"The hell you will," Sheppard replied, smirking. "It's torture, but I'm used to ... maintaining." 


"I bet you are." Tony picked out a very vivid moment of him fucking McKay into literal daisies, and threw it at Sheppard. "Turnabout is fair play." 


Sheppard's face and neck flushed a becoming red and a wave of arousal burst from him. "You asshole." 


"Don't start a war you have no hope of winning," Tony told him snippily. "I might not have that many real memories, but I promise you that you won't ever know the difference between memory and fantasy, and I have a lot of those." 


Sheppard recovered his cool enough to grind out, "Oh, you're on." 


oOo

 

Almost another week later, while Tony was sitting at breakfast with Patrick and telling a little amusing anecdote for the man to tide him over until John arrived, Tony suddenly realized that he and the younger Sheppard had managed to become friends. Sure, they were friends who mostly talked shit at each other, but it was also ... dependable. Solid. 


The thought made him pause, coffee cup at his lips.

 

Yes, John was the sort you won over and didn't lose until you really fucked shit up beyond repair. He was also hot like burning, if his mental representation in any way resembled his actual physical appearance. And after McKay had started their dick pic war, he flirted like it was going out of style tomorrow.

 

Tony coughed a little as he corrected himself mentally; the dick pic war had quickly escalated into an all-out porn battle. All that was missing was the cliché ravaging after so much stimulation, but weirdly, both he and Sheppard were holding out so far. They were enjoying the ramped up tension between them, and the outrageous come-ons, far more than could reasonably be called healthy. It was masochistic, really.


"Are you alright?" Patrick asked mildly when Tony's silence dragged on and his face heated a little. 


"Huh?" Tony clumsily put his cup back down. "Yes. Yes, of course. Just ... excited. For Atlantis to arrive." A vicious porn vibe hit him then, making a little movie play in his mind of him on his knees and sucking McKay while John lazily fucked him. "Uh."


Sheppard was shameless, absolutely shameless, fucking hell, doing this when he knew that Tony had to be fit for the polite company of his father

 

Tony sent back a fantasy of John bound and bent over a barrel, ready to be used, sort of cc'ing McKay because Colonel Fluffyhair so deserved it. Maybe if McKay took the guy in hand, the jabs would stop for a while. 

 

"I can see that," Patrick said smoothly, his eyes gleaming with suppressed laughter. "McKay's as excited to finally meet you in person as you are, I hope?" 

 

He better be, Tony thought, because he started this ridiculous war! 


Out loud, Tony said, "I think so." 


McKay's cc on the continuation of Tony's fantasy a few minutes later was actual footage of John getting it, and Tony nearly choked on the toast he was eating. 


oOo

 

Atlantis was so close now that Rodney's empathic presence tangled with Tony's without either of them even trying. Sheppard's shielding didn't fall so much away as it included Tony, effortlessly holding the three of them in a comfortable, warm bubble. 

 

A sex bubble, Tony thought, a little high on all the truly excellent vibes he'd been subjected to for the last few days. The people around him were violently curious about it, of course, and never failed to inform Tony when he was practically glowing with it. I'll kill you two for that

 

Not before you've made good on all your filthy, filthy promises, McKay sent back, completely unfazed.

 

You'd think I'd be stingy with my cock, the way he goes on, Sheppard pitched in grumpily. 

 

What's the ETA on the Wraith hives making contact?, Tony asked. He didn't bother asking about Atlantis any longer, as she kept him in the loop with a constant stream of data regarding her position, level of functionality, and battle readiness. I've felt funny since I woke up. That them? 


Yes, Sheppard replied. Six hours, max. What's the status on Earth's military? 


Ready and raring to go, even though they don't know yet what they'll be fighting against. I hope they can maintain after encountering those bastards. Tony cocked his head, feeling Blair's by now very familiar presence brush against his. One second, Blair's knocking. 


His exchange with the Alpha Prime Guide of Earth was fast and furious. Blair was also feeling the Wraith hives' approach and was, quite frankly, going nuts about it. 


Be ready for action, Blair sent, empathic voice interspersed with chaotic pictures of meditation and a certain vibration that was shaking Tony like a leaf even though it wasn't actually there. Need you. ETA?

 

Sheppard says six hours, max, Tony answered. I'd go for four. Guides will feel them coming, better be ready early. He pushed as much resolve at Blair as he could. I have your six. Ping me and I'll help set off the cascade when Jim says so. 


Blair withdrew from the conversation, but his presence lingered, keeping tabs on Tony as easily as he breathed.

 

You should rest, Filius, Atlantis' warm, sensual voice pitched in. You'll need your strength. 


You'll wake me?, Tony asked. 


Of course. Three hours. After that, a light meal. 


Copy that, Sheppard said. Atlantis out.


Tony gave in gracefully and retreated to his bedroom for a nap. Surprisingly, he fell fully asleep and only realized after waking up that Atlantis had subtly manipulated him. He'd even dreamed normally, which honestly had been necessary after the last few weeks of constant psionic activity. 


Refreshed, Tony ate a plate of gazpacho, extra rich in minerals, followed up by two slices of freshly baked bread that he slathered with a ton of butter.

 

Afterwards, he made sure that everyone in the house was armed to the teeth, and that Patrick had two watchdogs stuck by his side to make sure that he was alive when John finally got his butt down on Earth. 

 

Tell them to pack more ammo for the pump guns, John sent. Also, everybody needs at least one more knife. If the Wraith get close, our only hope is destroying the feeding apparatus on their hands. 


If they carry any more stuff, they'll be unable to move, Tony returned dryly. They'll be fine. Kitting myself out now. He paused. Alpha Primes of all continents are feeling the threat coming now. Wraith are passing Saturn ... they're slowing down. Getting out of hyperspace?


Yes. Get ready for the fireworks. Rodney's empathic link vibrated slightly as he sent a data package at Tony that bloomed brightly in his mind, for a few moments shorting everything else out. Updated information on the frequency most likely to incapacitate the Wraith. You're welcome.


Tony passed the information on to Blair, who distributed it with a heavy hand to the next guides down the hierarchy, who would send it on in turn, parallel to the call to arms Blair would push out when the time came. 


The empathic net Blair had thrown over the whole planet vibrated with the agitation of millions of sentinels who were worrying about their guides and their people. Tony had never felt the like, and he sincerely hoped that he never would again. 


As if drawn by magic, Tony went out to the beach, eyes firmly set upon the blue, nearly clear sky. The wind coming from the sea made the heat of the already waning sunlight bearable enough to remain outside in his tac vest, weighed down by weapons and ammo. 


Alphas of the individual countries are freaking out now, Tony sent to McKay and Sheppard. You gonna blow up those hives soon? 


Considering options, McKay replied. The President of the U.S. wants the Wraith gone between Mars and Jupiter. O'Neill disagrees, because too many Wraith could escape, in Cruisers even, with which they could wreak untold havoc on the Milky Way galaxy. Every cruiser can hold up to five-thousand Wraith.


Crap. That window is almost closed, though, Tony said wryly when Atlantis dumped a ton of information on him. 


Good. I agree with O'Neill, Sheppard chipped in. It's better to get Earth in the Wraiths' sights to keep them from fucking off to other inhabited, less defensible planets. Once we have them surrounded with the rest of our fleet, it'll be too late for that.


Jim's just told the President what's what. He gave his okay for Ellison and O'Neill to lead the charge. Tony's mouth twitched when Blair also transmitted the impressive cussing President Hayes was indulging in. Earth is more or less okay with following. Everybody is waiting for things to happen.


I can feel it from Mars, McKay agreed. Only ten more minutes. Be ready. 


And give them hell, should they manage to break through, Sheppard added. 


A sharp tug on Tony's awareness pulled him firmly back to Earth, back into the warm sand of Patrick Sheppard's strip of beach, the roiling ocean in front of him. Everything was calm, the security guards in the villa focused on Patrick's safety, and all the neighbours were in their houses as well, as had been advised by President Hayes via emergency broadcast a couple of hours earlier. 


Tony deeply breathed in the salty air, on the cusp of true meditation. Sunshine caressed the skin of his face and hands, subtly adding to his empathic vibration.


You ready?, Blair asked after ten hyper-focused minutes.


On your signal, Tony assured him. 


NOW!


oOo

 

For never having worked together like this in known human history, Earth's plan of attack on the Wraith was a smashing success. Blair giving the signal caused a cascade of guides engaging in aggressive battle-meditation. From Alpha Prime to barely online, they all put out the exact vibes McKay had told them to use. 

 

The result was nothing short of stunning. A shield swept out and over the whole planet, strong and flexible in the face of an unspeakable threat. Grounding the shield were the millions of sentinels who had all, without reserve, set aside any differences or hang-ups to assist the effort. At the same time, Tony and Blair reached out to the slick, hungry minds of the Wraith queens on the hives and pierced them with so much force that the light went out of them forever. A blast of crippling guide force came next, paralyzing thousands of Wraith enough to stall the deployment of the cruisers. 

 

Now!, Tony and Blair both hollered at McKay, who was already busy yelling at his people to blow the Wraith ships into teeny, tiny smithereens. 

 

Atlantis, as well as all four Earth ships in orbit uncloaked and sent tons of ordnance at the two hives. It took a moment to start, but then explosions began to rip the enormous ships apart. 


It would've been nice if the Wraith would've simply all died in that moment, but Tony had never been that lucky, and he knew that neither General O'Neill, nor McKay and Sheppard had really counted on an easy victory, either. 


Before they were completely torn asunder, both hives began emptying both their deployment ports and their arsenals, maybe on autopilot as a Hail Mary gift to opposing forces. 


Tony, who'd withdrawn the second before the first drone had hit, trembled under the echoes of confusing empathic impressions. The Wraith minds were raging and dying by the thousands, but there was also human panic and pain - so much pain. It felt like years of war instead of a few minutes, and Tony was completely caught up in it.


The Prometheus has sustained critical damage, surviving crew is evacuating, Atlantis informed him. Her calm voice was at odds with the bleak news she was reporting. Apollo is engaging one cruiser en route to Earth. The Daedalus' crew is partly compromised by Wraith telepathy. Dr. McKay and the guides aboard Daedalus are successfully combating the influence ... Daedalus back en route to fly interference for Apollo.


A growl like very far away thunder sent frissons through the atmosphere, raising gooseflesh on Tony's skin. Time continued to pass in warped loops of almost complete standstill and running at speed of light. A few pieces of shrapnel glowed in the atmosphere as they burned away.


One Wraith hive completely destroyed. 2,589 Wraith darts have deployed from the wreckage of the battle cruiser and are approaching Earth atmosphere. Current probability of making ground contact without military interference: 26,1758%. A piece of auto-piloted wreckage rammed me. Shield is holding. I am off-course ... recalibrating. Weapons of the still partially functional Wraith hive directed at me. Bombardment is overwhelming my steering drives. Drifting off-course. Shield is holding. 


Tony reeled under the steady stream of Atlantis' commentary. His heart was in his throat, despite her assurances that her shields were just fine and that her crew was perfectly safe.

 

Second hive ship more than 50% destroyed. Another battle cruiser leaves area of engagement. Several scout ships were able to flee the engagement, course transmitted to Apollo for interception, Atlantis murmured. 


The darts are too many and too small for Apollo and Daedalus' F-302 pilots to get them all, Sheppard informed Tony. He was very obviously in the chair; even his mental voice was curiously remote. The first dozen have broken through. They're going planet side to find food and shelter. Let's hope your shield keeps holding up. 

 

Tony tuned the chatter out then and put all of his concentration into maintaining the shield Earth's guides had erected. It vibrated, angry and ready to maim every hostile mind that dared to approach uninvited.

 

The first dart reached the atmosphere ... the mind of the Wraith literally smacked against the shield and broke a second later. It was ugly to witness, but the alternative would be infinitely worse. 

 

More darts followed, the minds of the single Wraith pilots no match at all for the shield's strength. 

 

Then came a scout ship. Two dozen presences sort of shuffled close together, like a herd of wildebeests defending against predators. Two of them snuffed out like candles, but the rest fought on. Four more didn't make it as the scout ship raced toward Earth, but the rest of the Wraith broke through the shield, battered, yes, but still functional. 

 

The reaction of the sentinels close to that breach was nothing short of horrifying. Fury burned along the empathic lines, wiping out the concentration of the attached guides and opening the small hole in the shield further. 

 

Concentrate, Blair ordered calmly over his connection, sending hefty waves of reassurance along with it. His voice reached into even the remotest places on Earth, and the panic quickly was under control again. We are the first line of defence. Trust our sentinel brothers and sisters to take care of the threat that actually reaches us. You're doing so well.

 

They were doing well, Tony thought fiercely as the sky above him suddenly lightened up. Several more small objects zoomed along, exploded, and burned up completely without any of the debris ever touching the surface of the planet. 


Tony, Apollo failed to stop the battle cruiser, McKay said urgently through their connection. It's heavily damaged, but it'll reach entry point over South Africa in less than two minutes and coast along to your side of the continent. O'Neill thinks it might try to take out Cheyenne Mountain to cripple our command. Can you coordinate guide effort on the ground? 


Sure, Doc. Tony left the conversation and toggled his earwig. "General O'Neill, how do you want to deal with the battle cruiser?" 


"Blow it the fuck up," was the short reply. "We're sending up our fighter jets and jumpers. Civilian casualties through falling debris are a concern. They're reaching international waters soon, though. We'll strike then." 


Filius, the Wraith ship is priming its weapons. Capacity still at 63.48%. I detect target locking activity. Cannot hack Wraith mainframe, it's too damaged. Target lock is being done manually, Atlantis reported. Entering atmosphere over African continent now. Twenty percent of Wraith minds destroyed. Jet stream slows battle cruiser down. Heavy winds are buffeting them from their route. Cruiser is drifting off. Target locking not complete. 


Will they reach Cheyenne Mountain?, Tony asked urgently. "Jack, where are your fighters?" 


If not intercepted, yes.


"They're on their way. Africa, South America, and our friends from Antarctica have all sent packages," O'Neill replied. "Fighter jets will lead clean-up efforts. Land troops will have to do the rest."


As the general rattled off the ETAs on impact, Tony felt along the punctured parts of their planetary shield and shored them up as well as he could. Some more darts and scout ships managed to slip through the imperfections before they closed, but they weren't many, and they would get a trigger-happy welcome no matter where they eventually touched ground. No guide on Earth would let them hide, and no sentinel would let them live if they could help it.

 

"Packages failed to take battle cruiser out," O'Neill said over the comm. "It's entering Florida territory now." 

 

"Fuck," Tony cursed. "Are the Wraith shooting at our people?" 

 

"Worse." O'Neill's voice was sharp with worry. "They're sending out darts." 

 

Guides on the ground are holding strong. They're latching onto the single minds of the Wraith and turning them off. The sentinels are doing the killing, Blair informed Tony. Watch out for the west coast, turi. Those things are devilishly fast, and they might try to go into hibernation mode during flight to land somewhere undetected. 

 

Understood, Tony replied. I can feel them coming

 

With a viciousness Tony hadn't felt in his whole life before, he dropped back into battle meditation and plucked the minds of the approaching darts right out of their bodies. He cringed a little at the thought of the unpiloted darts smashing into houses or worse, people, but there wasn't anything he could do about it. He was too newly online and too inexperienced in a fight to split his focus like that for long. 

 

You're doing great, McKay assured him. Without apology, he synched up with Tony, amplifying both their efforts for a large sweep that felled hundreds more Wraith both in space and on Earth. Don't stop now.

 

Battle cruiser entering California, Atlantis informed Tony. Attempts to target Cheyenne Mountain abandoned. Ten percent of original Wraith crew remaining, dwindling fast. She paused, clearly receiving new information. Two Wraith queens woken from hibernation by crew. They're taking command of mainframe ... locking mechanism reactivated ... locking on Cheyenne Mountain.


"Shit," Tony cursed. "O'Neill! They woke two queens and are gunning for the Mountain! Shoot'em the fuck up, now!" Blair!, he shouted. 


I'm here, the shaman replied instantly, latching onto Tony like McKay had done. Let's get them all off our planet now. 


With a dizzying push, Blair let the lethal vibrations skitter over the continent, Tony taking them up a moment later and flinging them out like a pyroclastic flow, right at the rapidly approaching battle cruiser. 


The minds of the Wraith queens crumpled like coke cans in a bodybuilder's fist, while the resonance relayed by the network of guides empathically backhanded the rest of the crew so hard that the lights went out simultaneously.  


Done!, Tony crowed, echoes of the victory cheers sweetly humming through his empathic net. Although, that thing's now without a pilot. 


It wasn't being piloted anyway, McKay reminded him. It'll crash somewhere in the Pacific, so don't worry about it. I've already told O'Neill when he needs to blow it up so it won't cause significant wave motion. 


Thanks, Rodney. Tony couldn't resist and sent McKay the equivalent of an empathic smooch. How's it going up there? Need any more help?


No, we're good. Stay alert, there are still some of those fuckers at large. 


I know, I'll help with clean-up now. Take care, and call me if you need me. Tony left the connection open, but shoved it to the back of his awareness to do a sweep of the continent. 


There were a few rather fierce battles going on in Alabama and Michigan, as well as Hawaii of all places, but nothing the local sentinels and guides couldn't handle. In fact, the men and women involved in physical combat with the Wraith seemed to appreciate the opportunity to fight the enemy hands-on, instead of safely dropping them empathically and finishing swiftly like they'd been instructed to do. 


It's a warrior thing, Blair said, a glimmer of amusement bleeding off him. It's actually good for them to encounter the enemy face to face, to they'll be able to distribute the information to others, and to be prepared in case they try to invade again. Do not get involved unless the local guides become overwhelmed. 


They seem to have it well in hand, all things considered, Tony agreed. It's still ... weird. And a little worrying. Like I'm a momma cat watching her kids learn how to hunt and kill. 


Blair's laughter was soothing away some the stress of the last hour. It does feel that way, doesn't it? I can't wait to tell Jim, he'll get a kick out of it! 


Hang on, there's the battle cruiser ... it's quite close to the ground. Fucking hell, it looks atrocious. Tony shuddered. How is that thing even still in the air? It already looks like a wreck. He flinched again and covered his ears as more than a dozen jets came screaming right after it. Ah, and there are O'Neill's fighter jets. Uh, they just fired ... and the cruiser's going down! 


Don't stress, it'll come down far enough away, Sheppard sent, no longer connected to Atlantis. How's my dad? 


Just fine, Tony replied. Finish up and then get your butt down here. I don't think he plans on waiting very long for you to show your face.


Way to kill the mood, DiNozzo, John complained, but he exuded agreement.


Smiling, Tony finally relaxed a little, settling down and returning to monitoring the situation. There were pings from all over the world. One victory after another was reported, the fierce pride of successfully having beaten a terrible enemy shoring up morale everywhere. Of course there had been victims, but the number was so small that the private grief of family and friends was enveloped in so much protectiveness and gratitude that Tony, and likely everybody else as well, was a little high on it. 


Best of all, even the mundane population had chipped in and defended themselves effectively from stray Wraith attackers. It was the one time that Tony was actually grateful for the lax U.S. gun laws, because not even a Wraith queen was a match for a redneck with enough weapons and ammunition to blow up the White House. 


Then came the sweet, sweet moment when nothing more pinged in the guide network. 


Everything is in the clear, Blair reported, voice rich and warm as he spoke to every single guide on the planet. You all did so well, I couldn't be prouder of you. Thank you.


There was a second of stunned disbelief, and then huge fireworks of cheers exploded, overwhelming the network with such happy vibes that it quickly became unbearable to hold on. By the hundreds, people dropped out of the meditation and back into their real world, where they'd undoubtedly celebrate with their sentinels and friends and families until they dropped.


We did it, Tony told Blair. We fucking did it! 


We sure did. Blair's relief and happiness was overwhelming. God, I'm ready to crash. That was intense, man.


Tony wanted to reply, only to be swept up by McKay's overwhelming and possessive empathic presence. He willingly let the other guide drag him as close as they could get without crawling into each other, and only groaned with pleasure when Sheppard reached out for them both and enveloped them firmly, with no way out. 


Tony didn't want to get out of that perfect embrace ever again. Whatever the three of them were doing, it reached perfectly into his very soul and eased away the distress of the last month completely, until not even a single scuff of doubt about anything at all remained. 


Initiating entrance into atmosphere now, Atlantis' voice said, no louder than a whisper through their combined shields. ETA on filii achieving physical union: thirty minutes, twenty-two seconds. Coordinates ... 


Tony muzzily waded through the information but was too lost in emotional and empathic pleasure to care much about it. McKay sure didn't care, and Sheppard was full of feverish anticipation, which did manage to strike Tony as a little odd. 


Their near merger did lose a little of its intensity when O'Neill began to scream at them all; apparently Atlantis was informing him of her decision to come down to Earth and land in the Pacific Ocean, as close to Patrick Sheppard's villa as she could possibly get. The screaming only got worse when she further informed the general that she'd made that decision by herself and wouldn't let herself be stopped even by John Sheppard's direct command.


When O'Neill's furious rant began to wind down, Rodney high-jacked the comm, letting Tony hear his actual voice for the first time.


"Say, have you brought that white suit that I've seen you wear on some pictures of your facebook?" McKay asked. "Because you look hot in it."


Tony needed a second to process the fact that McKay was really talking to him, holy shit! "As a matter of fact, I did," he said weakly, drowning in such complicated emotions that it bordered on the ridiculous. 


"Wear it," McKay instructed. "I'll make John wear something nice, too. I won't have us meet in sweaty combat gear after waiting for so long." 


"I think that'd be way hotter than a monkey suit," Sheppard complained from the background. "Do I have to?" 


"Yes," Tony and McKay both said, causing them to laugh and Sheppard to grumble. 


"I've missed you, Rodney," Tony said softly. "You sound almost exactly like you did in our empathic landscapes." 


"You do, too," McKay acknowledged, wonder in his voice. "Twenty-five minutes, DiNozzo. Be prepared for ... for everything." 


"I want it," Tony whispered. "Hurry." 


"Yes." McKay took a deep breath. "Atlantis out." 


Tony stood in the evening sun, staring at the still smouldering debris of the battle cruiser a few miles out. McKay wanted everything. And John was going to let him have it. 


It boggled his mind. 


Move, McKay prodded. Twenty minutes! 


A slow, wide grin appeared on Tony's face, and heavy waves of anticipation got away from him despite his best efforts.


Twenty minutes, he sent back, and finally turned and made his way back up to the villa for a shower and a change of clothes. 


oOo


It was only natural for everyone in the house to want to hear every detail of what had gone down, but Tony pushed them off by telling Patrick that he had a date with McKay and John, and that he'd better not count on him for any information because he would be busy. 


Patrick had taken it with surprising grace. With astonishing grace, really, considering how close his missing son was, and how much he wanted to see him. 


"You earned it," he said to Tony, grasping his shoulders tightly. "I'm not going anywhere. Just send him my way as soon as you can." 


"Thanks, Patrick." Tony swallowed around a lump in his throat. "Truly, thank you. I will." 


"Go on," the older man urged. "Don't make them wait." 


And that was that. Tony showered and got dressed, deciding after a minute of deliberation to put on his borrowed shoulder holster and bring two extra clips. He was still a federal agent and coming unarmed to meet an Air Force colonel and a scientist from a war zone seemed disrespectful, somehow. He also wanted them to know, without a doubt, that he was capable of having their backs, because that seemed just as important. 


Back on the beach, he realized that McKay and Sheppard were late because Atlantis had needed to settle a little further out than expected to safely lower her huge mass into the Pacific Ocean. Nobody needed a tsunami of epic proportions after fighting off the Wraith largely unscathed.  


Finally, their presences started moving, getting closer by the second.

There was nothing to see as both Atlantis and the jumper that was coming were cloaked, but Tony could follow their approach as if he did have visuals. McKay and Sheppard's close proximity made every nerve in his body sing with excitement, and to everyone's amusement he was half-hard already.

It's not like you're any less excited, he projected at the two men. 


Of course not, don't be stupid, McKay said with a mental eye roll that had Sheppard sniggering. 


Coming down now, Sheppard said a minute later. Three o'clock. 


The sand depressed where something heavy set down on it, and then the door of the jumper quietly opened, revealing its inside. It made Tony goggle for a second, because it was seriously weird to have no outside, but an inside, like a pocket dimension or something. 


McKay was the first to step out. He wore a black suit, Armani, no tie, and looked ... 


"Incredible," Tony murmured, eyes wide and face heating with a fresh surge of desire. 


"Well, are you going to kiss me or what?" McKay asked, a little defensively. 


Tony couldn't understand what McKay could possibly be embarrassed about, because contrary to his projected self, his physical body was downright fit. McKay was sturdy, sure, but the broadness came from muscle, rather than the comfortable padding he seemed to believe he had. It frankly boggled Tony's mind.

"Come here," he said, striding forward to grab the man and kiss him stupid. 


"Stop!" Sheppard suddenly shouted. He bolted down the ramp of the jumper, weapon in hand and body a vision in a black Saint Laurent. He aimed at something behind Tony. "Down!" 


Without hesitation, Tony ducked. 


Sheppard emptied his whole magazine, the shots ringing like the devil in Tony's ears. "Get your Wraith mojo on, now!" 


Whirling around, stunned and furious, Tony, linked with McKay, threw a massive empathic burst at the creature ambling over a dune, almost half a mile away. 


The Wraith shrieked and tumbled over, falling face first into the sand and sliding down like a surfboard without a rider. 


"What the fuck!" Tony cried, heart pounding in his chest. "Where did that bastard come from?" 


"I smelled him," Sheppard said, listening intently. "He was alone. He most likely jumped his dart and immediately went into hibernation before your last sweep could get him. I expect there to be more such surprises in the coming weeks and months." 


"Is O'Neill informed?" Tony asked, heart still pounding furiously. 


"Yes, as is Ellison. He and Sandburg will have an eye on the situation." Sheppard's attention returned to Tony, even as people came running to see who had fired the shots. "You're up-wind, DiNozzo." 


Tony licked his lips at the man's smouldering gaze. "That's a good thing right now. There's a body to process." 


Sheppard's eyes narrowed. He looked unbearably attractive in the burnished light of the setting sun. "Someone else will process it." He holstered his gun and stood beside McKay. They made a striking pair, and suddenly Tony wondered what he was doing. 


"Oh no, you don't get to back out. I did not retrofit that jumper for nothing," McKay bitched, having easily caught Tony's bout of panic. He came forward, yanked Tony close by the lapels of his suit, and pressed a hungry kiss onto his lips. 


At once, all of Tony's senses, physical and empathic, were blown wide open. 


"Guide," he whispered, stunned. "How? Did you know?"


"Guide," McKay returned firmly. "I suspected, after we came online. Because Sheppard obviously is the most high-maintenance sentinel in two galaxies. Also, he's greedy." 


"I am," Sheppard said without an ounce of shame.


McKay kissed Tony again, sweeping his tongue into Tony's mouth as confidently as he'd ever done in the privacy of Tony's empathic landscape, before he not so gently shoved him at Sheppard. 


Strong hands caught him and slipped down to catch Tony's fingers in a firm grip.


Tony couldn't help but shiver as Sheppard's senses took him in. Sight, sound, touch, and smell were already done, and Tony felt besieged by the sentinel's uncompromising outreach. It was so erotic that he knew he'd come at the merest provocation.


"Guide," Sheppard growled, voice rough and sexy. 


Tony's breath hitched, incredulity and yearning warring within him. One glance at McKay's intent, openly aroused face however, settled all of his worries. "Sentinel." 


Sheppard leaned in and kissed Tony, dumping all of his needs and desires onto Tony with the first touch of his tongue. His promises of protection and affection followed suit, filling all of the empty places McKay hadn't been able to reach despite his best efforts. Tony bathed in the hot neediness surrounding him, gloried in being wanted so much. 


All mine, he thought, delirious with happiness and satisfaction. Reaching out, he took McKay's hand in his for more of that exceptional closeness.


Mine, Sheppard projected at him, both hands reaching up to hold Tony's head in place as he ravaged him with his kisses. Bond now, talk later.


"Good idea," McKay panted. "To the jumper. Now." 


They piled in, Tony didn't know how, what with all of his blood firmly settled in his straining cock, and quickly shot up and away from the beach. 


"I packed stuff," McKay told them, already getting out of his suit jacket. "In case it can't wait. The bench there folds out into a bed." 


"Bonding in a jumper, kinky," Sheppard said roughly, pupils completely blown at the thought. His large hands began to undress Tony efficiently. "I'm totally in."


Tony shivered at the manhandling. Through the front window he could see the vast ocean, painted orange by the ever weakening sunlight. Above it, the sky was turning darker shades of blue and pink, with a few clouds offering accents of white and grey. 


"Can you see Atlantis? Right there, on the horizon?" Sheppard murmured into Tony's ear between nips and licks. 


Tony forced himself to focus. Yes, there she was, shimmering under her cloak and one of the most beautiful things he'd ever seen. 


"It's always been there, I think," he sighed, falling back into the pleasure of letting McKay and Sheppard take care of him. "You two and her, waiting for me to meet you."


Lust and emotion unstoppably swelled around them then and the world narrowed down to just the three of them. Tony only dimly registered the loss of his clothes, and that McKay physically retreated so Sheppard could finish his imprint. The bed was narrow, but comfortable - he felt like a teenager again, making do with cramped quarters and loving every second of it. He was lost in being catalogued in the most primal of ways, of being held and worshipped, every inch of him touched and kissed and licked. At the same time it was him binding Sheppard to himself empathically, allowing the sentinel in and offering him shelter from the often overwhelming stimulus of the outside world. 

 

"My body hair not bothering you?" Tony asked huskily as Sheppard rubbed his face over the sparse hair on his chest.


"Of course not, it's a part of you. Hold him," Sheppard softly instructed McKay when he was done with the imprint at last, and the grip on Tony's hands was transferred to the scientist, who linked his fingers with Tony's in a surprisingly sweet gesture. "You're so perfect, Tony. So open for me, so ready for me to claim you." 


Slick fingers pushed into Tony's asshole, their warmth and knowledge of exactly where to slide and press sending electric currents of arousal through Tony's already over-sensitized body. A lot of the empathic input was Sheppard's, but there was also McKay, tethered to him mentally as he was tethering Tony physically, and it was such a sweet, sweet surrender.


"Now," he begged, opening his legs even further and groaning when Sheppard came over him, blanketing him fully. "Sentinel." 


"Guide," Sheppard said huskily. In one steady stroke he entered Tony's body and the connection between them bloomed so hard and fast that there was no going back for either of them. 


It was over after only a couple of thrusts, both of them coming in nearly agonizing pulses of full-bodied release. Tony violently grasped both Sheppard and McKay with all of his empathic might as he went, aware that Rodney was following willingly, binding himself to Tony as it happened. Whatever hurts Tony had experienced in the past, they were made insignificant by the claim these two exceptional men laid on him. They wanted him, warts and all, and would have him until the day they died.


Mine now, Tony thought as his awareness dimmed and his body settled in for some much needed rest. And something beautiful on the horizon for all of us. 

 

 

The End

 

oOo


Epilogue

 


Four months later



John Sheppard, USAF colonel and certified badass, crossed his arms in front of his chest sulkily. "I don't want him to come." 


He and his two guides were sequestered in their shared home office on Atlantis, going over personnel files, requisition forms, and the latest addendum to the mission charter. Everything was getting hectic as the date of their departure to the Pegasus galaxy got closer. It had been fun to get Tony assigned to the Stargate program; he'd been more or less able to write his own ticket after his gene status had become known. There were less than great side effects, one of them the attempted compulsion to donate sperm for growing more superior gene carriers by some shady government branches, but Tony had let General O'Neill take care of all of them and had been satisfied to smirk from his ring-side seat and only throw his own weight around when it became truly necessary. The rest of it - his once so important private life - was already fading into a hazy memory. Aside from Gibbs and his closest friends, Tony really wouldn't miss much on Earth.


McKay snorted as he typed away on his laptop. "You only don't want him because DiNozzo used to get his brains shagged out by him." 


"Yes!" Sheppard glowered at Tony. "Exactly." 


Tony rolled his eyes. "Peter and I were never in a relationship. He's a damn good lover, but we both knew from the beginning that we'd never be more than friends." 


"Sandburg still isn't happy that you're poaching his personal assistant," Sheppard said triumphantly. "You should give him back before you damage your relationship."

 

"Good try, but no. Blair knows that we need a lot of qualified admin personnel, as well as seasoned sentinels and guides, on Atlantis, and believe me, there's no one more qualified than Peter. Besides, it was Peter's own wish to join my pride." Tony sighed and put his pencil down. "You're cool about Kirsty coming along. It's a little bizarre." 

 

"She only tried to kill you," Sheppard pouted. "Reed still wants to kill you softly. It's a huge difference."

 

"He does not," McKay retorted. With a glare at Sheppard, he closed his laptop. "It's like you're wilfully blind." 


"What? Why?" Sheppard demanded. 


"Peter Reed has the über hots for Teyla." Tony grinned at Sheppard's flummoxed expression. "You really didn't know? They're always together lately. Hell, he cooks her dinner almost every night and gives her massages after her workouts!"


"But ... they're chaste!" Sheppard grimaced. "Why are they chaste? It's sort of unnatural." 


Tony took pity on his sentinel. He got up and embraced him tightly, trying to put as much reassurance into his calming vibes as he could. Immediately the tension went out of Sheppard's body and he buried his nose in the bend between Tony's neck and shoulder.

 

"Peter is a huge softie," Tony murmured, kissing Sheppard's ear. "He wants and needs to care for his lovers. Teyla's a new sentinel; this whole thing is utterly new for her and her people. He's giving her time to adjust. His nature won't allow him to press her for anything she isn't ready to give. They're it for each other, okay?" 

 

"Reed is the original care bear," McKay agreed. He joined their embrace, trapping Sheppard in the middle. After kissing Tony, he placed a sucking kiss on that one spot on Sheppard's neck that was guaranteed to make the man horny. "Unlike Tony's little ninja." 

 

Tony groaned a little when Sheppard reacted to McKay's teasing by biting his neck. Sheppard's right hand slid to Tony's front at the same time and began to rub his chest and tease his nipple. "Really, Rodney? We've got a ton of things to do and we're meeting Patrick later. Did you forget that he wants to tell us that he's asked Dr. Lam to marry him?" 

 

"John needs affirmative sex," McKay said reasonably. "I'm thinking a John-sandwich will do it." 

 

"I get his mouth?" Tony asked breathily. At McKay's agreeable hum, Tony coaxed Sheppard into a long, involved kiss. 


After that, things quickly turned hot and nasty. McKay masterfully first undressed and then opened Sheppard for his cock, while Tony made full use of that sarcastic mouth. It was still a little stunning how much John liked to catch, considering how toppy he could be, and often was, with them both. 


After their quickie, they stumbled into the shower, which led to another round of pawing and fucking. Tony's little penlight was enormously popular with all three of them, as it not only healed strained muscles and other small injuries, but also recovered some of their stamina. For three men in their thirties it wasn't yet such a big deal, but it would be in the future, and Tony was looking forward to having all the sex in his fifties and sixties, or better yet, until the moment he keeled over.

 

"Where were we?" McKay asked when they were finally clean and lounging on their bed in big, fluffy robes. Half of his considerable attention was back on his laptop already.

 

"Mmgh," Sheppard protested. 

 

McKay nudged him with his foot. "Oh, yes. You were complaining about Tony's outstanding assistant, but not his blond assassin chick with the questionable moral compass. Isn't anyone but me worried about the fact that she bonded with Ronon? They're like the ultimate Mr. and Mrs. Smith, only deadlier, and in accordance with each other." 


"Kirsty needs someone who'll have her back, and who isn't me. Ronon is able to curb her mood swings and excesses until she's levelled out, and he'll teach her everything she needs to know to function as our bodyguard slash enforcer." Tony yawned, cuddling up to Sheppard. "I'm with John on that one, really. I know her, Rodney. Also, they're both hot and will make beautiful little babies that'll kick Wraith ass before they're even strong enough to carry their daddy's big ass stun gun." 


"Huh." McKay pondered that. "They want babies?" 


Tony nodded. "As soon as Atlantis is back in Pegasus. Kirsty told me just yesterday, when the judge finally gave the okay for her to leave the planet. Incredible that the IOA took almost as long to come to the sensible decision to send Atlantis back to her own galaxy." 

 

"I'd have loved to see them try to keep her on Earth," John muttered. "I'd have gone rogue before I'd have let them tear her apart." 

 

I'm grateful for your support, Filius, Atlantis told them, although I am well able to remove myself from undesirable situations now. 

 

"About that. I can't believe you password-protected the whole ZPM usage cycle, Rodney," Tony told McKay, laughing a little. "I thought Woolsey was going to blow his top. And did you see the Russian rep?" 

 

"I thought the bright red hue was a nice touch to his pasty visage," Sheppard muttered, opening one eye and smirking slyly. "Went well with the pulsing veins in his neck and forehead."

 

"Well, one ZPM has the blast force of at least one thousand megatons," McKay said with a sniff. "I made it very clear to them all that I could, of course, leave our stash of twenty-two ZPMs open to any Tom, Dick, and Harry, if they were ready to shoulder the responsibility of possibly losing them to enemy forces, thereby enabling our almost assured destruction." He paused for a moment, face pensive. "It's equally possible that someone idiotic from our own people might punch a hole in the universe with one. Really, I'm just saving humanity from itself."


"Atlantis will keep an eye on your geek squad," Tony assured him. "I made her promise." 


Several times, Atlantis chimed in. 


"You're laughing now," Tony said mildly. "I've read all the mission reports and I gotta say that it is entirely probable that Kavanaugh will try to do something stupid." 

 

"The probability for that is about 73%." Sheppard stretched and rolled onto his back. "In the next year alone."

 

"Right." Tony grimaced. "I mean, how fucked up is it that you couldn't rotate him out? Jesus." 


"O'Neill hates him even more than I do," McKay sighed, aggrieved. "Also, I lost at paper, rock, scissors." 


"Because O'Neill cheats," Sheppard grumbled, rolling onto his other side. His large hand crept under McKay's bathrobe and rubbed his thigh. "I told you not to do it." 


"You can always shoot him. Kavanaugh, I mean, not O'Neill," McKay replied with a dismissive hand wave. "Anyway, the ZPMs are safe now, and will remain safe. I only authorized Zelenka to handle them directly when I'm not present, and even he'll lose the privilege should Atlantis perceive a threat. I'm still on working in all the failsaves we'll need, in case one or all of us get taken as hostages and stuff. It's not practical, but I'd rather work around security measures than die in a giant ball of flame." 

 

"Holler when you're done and John and I will test out your security," Tony said. Joker appeared and squeezed himself between Tony and Sheppard with a satisfied little huff. "Yeah, you can help, you clown."


Badger appeared as well and clambered onto Sheppard's hip and side. 

 

McKay smirked at the sentinel before asking, "Are we finally going to talk about the fact that aliens who haven't been online in generations are emerging all over the place? We can only guess on the other peoples in Pegasus, but the Athosians got hit pretty hard. Around forty percent of their people have acquired spirit companions and are emerging at a rapid pace." 


"Blair and I discussed it," Tony admitted. He cleared his throat. "I should've told you sooner, but, well. It's a bit ... much." 

 

"I can guess where this is going," McKay said. 

 

"I can't," Sheppard said suspiciously. "What's going on?"

 

Tony braced himself. "Blair believes that his ascension to Alpha Prime Guide of Earth with me as a witness sort of caused this." 

 

"I don't understand," Sheppard admitted. 

 

"Sandburg declared Tony his brother," McKay said. "In shaman circles that's not just a saying or an endearment. It means that Sandburg acknowledged Tony as his equal. Earth was never going to be big enough for them both." 

 

"Oh." Sheppard stared at Tony. Proving that he indeed could be a member of Mensa, his eyes then wandered to McKay. "Well, fuck." 

 

McKay preened. "I know, we're astounding." 

 

Tony swatted him. "The fracturing and reformation of the psionic plane during Blair's ascension ensured that we'll have a pride to help us in Pegasus. It's traumatic for the peoples who haven't had sentinels or guides in their families for so long, and I'm sorry for that, but it'll be a priceless boon in our fight against the Wraith." 


You need not worry about the peoples in Pegasus resenting you for this, Atlantis said gently. The return of the protectors have been awaited with much longing. Did Teyla not tell you how grateful she was to receive the gift of the spirits, as well as the gift of her one true mate? 


"She did," Tony said softly, sadly. "It still didn't feel good when she realized what was happening. It's a huge adjustment to reconcile her independent nature with the sudden presence of her guide, no matter how benign it is." 


Atlantis' mental caress was warm and soothing. The Wraith will fight the return of their single largest enemy fiercely. You and Rodney and John are your people's champions, their Alphas, and they'll turn to you. You will teach them how to fight the Wraith, and they will learn to appreciate the tight bonds their ancestors used to enjoy. 


"I hope so," Tony murmured. "The last thing I want is to make it worse for them." 


"Believe me, nothing is worse for them than getting eaten that way," McKay replied dryly. "There are hardly any humans in Pegasus anymore because of the Wraith, which means that those assholes will try to leave the galaxy in a couple of years anyway. That neat little trick with the planetary guide shield will save a lot of lives as we hunt them down." 


"The surviving Pegasus people are a hardy bunch." Sheppard huffed. "Unfortunately, a lot of them are also bastards." 


"The Genii." Tony scowled. "Those fuckers. Why are they even still around?" 


"Because Elizabeth is touched in the head and refused to hand over control to John gracefully like she should've done in the first place," McKay said bluntly. "We're getting Woolsey now, because Atlantis being a sentient entity has the IOA twitchy as hell, but scuttlebutt has it that O'Neill wants to take over in a couple of years." 


"Yeah, Daniel hinted at it." Tony tugged on Sheppard's hair when the man grunted his displeasure. "Oh, shut up. We only were in bed once. You can't possibly hold a grudge against every guy I've ever been with." 


"I can, and I will," Sheppard declared. "Even your sucky ex-friend was a looker. It's obscene." 


"Jeremy?" Tony blinked, surprised. "You know I didn't like him like that." 


"That didn't stop him from rabidly wanting you," Sheppard said, scowling. "That person can be glad that he's still doing time for assaulting you, or I'd pay him a visit." 


"I've ruined his credit score and changed his social security number to that of a prolific and unrepentant tax evader," McKay revealed. "Because fourteen months in jail for acting like a jealous bitch and dropping you isn't nearly enough punishment." 


"I'm not even surprised that you hacked his information. Look, he didn't know I was so sensitive that I'd catch his bitchiness from halfway across the country," Tony sighed. "He was an asshole, but he's gone from my life now."


"I won't take any of my tweaks back, and I'll ruin him if he even thinks about contacting you," McKay said conversationally. His badger growled lazily for effect. "Same deal as your progenitor got when he tried to clean out your accounts, again."


"Deal," Tony said with a wry smile. By now, he knew a thing or two about the battles he could pick with his partners. And no matter how over the top their reaction seemed, it warmed Tony's bruised heart to know how much they appreciated him.


"I wish DiNozzo were more jealous of us," Sheppard huffed. His hand crept higher on McKay's thigh but the scientist was having none of it and slapped it away. "Ow, stingy bastard." Rob appeared at the foot of the bed and snarled at McKay.


"What?" McKay glared at him. "You had two orgasms in less than an hour. Don't be greedy." 


"But you smell so good," Sheppard murmured, snuffling along McKay's leg. "I'd even do all the work." 


Tony laughed at McKay's pissy frown. "You want him to and you know it," he teased. 


"I'll never get as much work done as I did before I bonded with you two," McKay complained, even as he set his laptop aside and let Sheppard prod him onto his back. His breath caught at a long lick along his hardening cock. "You're insatiable." 


"We're a perfect match. The first true triad in decades," Tony reminded him, settling next to them and taking McKay's mouth in a hard kiss. "That means you're just as insatiable as us. You heard Blair; the bond could need up to a year before it fully settles." Blood rushed in his ears as he watched Sheppard take McKay fully in his mouth and blow him expertly. "Yeah, let him take care of you, Rodney." 


Sheppard stopped before McKay could come and proceeded to rock both Tony and McKay's world by working McKay's ass open with just his lubed cock. Their empathic connection swelled and heaved around them, vibrating with the unique frequency of their shared pleasure. Tony nearly came when Sheppard did, and only the expectant tension between him and McKay allowed him to take John's place when he was done and slide his rock hard cock right in, giving Rodney what he so desperately craved. 


"God, you two are gorgeous together," Sheppard growled. He plastered himself against Tony's back and bit his shoulder intently. "Come." 

 

Shocked at the order, Tony gave it up, spilling his seed into McKay's body while McKay clamped around him, equally surprised, and shot his load all over his belly.

 

Their bond flashed and their spirit animals leaped up and into them, leaving them disoriented but physically and emotionally so satisfied that it bled out and away from them without there being any hope of stopping it.


"You're going to kill me way before my time," McKay groaned. "Now shoo, I have stuff to do, even if you don't!" 


"It's worrying that it's turning me on when he yells at me, isn't it?" Sheppard asked Tony. "I guess it's a good thing, since we'll be spending the rest of our lives together." 


Tony laughed and kissed him. "It's turning me on when he snarks at you, too." 

 

"Oy." 

 

"I know I haven't said it before, but ..." Tony let all the softness he usually kept to himself brush against his partners. "I think I love you. And I love nearly all of the batshit insane people we'll be taking back to Pegasus, too. I can't believe that I've found you, and a good, strong pride on top of it." 

 

"Flesh and blood needs flesh and blood, and you're the one I need," Sheppard said with a quirk of his mouth. 

 

"Quoting Johnny Cash at us?" McKay huffed. "Really?" 

 

"Cash said everything that's to say on the matter," Sheppard defended himself, tangibly delighted that McKay had caught the reference. "What about you, Rodney?"

 

"I like you both enough to not say no if you two stupidly decide to offer me a ring sometime in the far future," McKay said, raising his chin. "And now let me get back to work, you sex addicts, or we'll never leave this shitty planet." 


"Hey, Blair and Jim are hard at work to set things to rights," Tony admonished him. Carefully, he pulled Rodney up and steadied him through a little head-rush. "Besides, you started it."


"I didn't sign up for three orgasms, I'm not a teenager anymore. And they can give us a call when they've managed to stop all the major environmental and social problems," McKay countered mercilessly. "On our own new home world, we won't allow any of that shit to happen. I've co-written guidelines with the whole science department." 


"Thanks, Rodney," Tony murmured and kissed the frown on the man's face away. "We'll be good." 


McKay eyed him, thoughtful. "You know, it still freaks me out how much you actually like me. It's weird." 


"You'll get used to it," Tony said, unconcerned. 


As he watched his mates slowly get up for another short shower, he couldn't help but grin. Things might not be perfect in a traditional sense, but they sure as hell were rather perfect for him, and he couldn't wait to start a new life far, far away from Earth. He was even excited about work - he was the Agent Afloat for Atlantis, as well as the head of the Sentinel and Guide Investigative Unit. Being the Alpha Prime Guide of at least the planet Atlantis had chosen as her home base, if not the whole Pegasus galaxy, was a little daunting, but he had McKay and Sheppard to support him.

 

And me, Atlantis said, warm and firm. I can't wait to take you all home, where you belong. 

 

 

The End