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Oct 26

Imperfect (Chapters 1 – 2)

Title: Imperfect, Chapter 1 – 2 (link to main story page with cast gallery and additional art)
Author: Jilly James
Fandom/Genre: NCIS, Criminal Minds, Sentinel Fusion
Relationship(s): Tony DiNozzo/Derek Morgan
Content Rating: R for warnings and sexual situations.
Warnings: Canon-level violence
Author Notes: I’m exploring some themes from other stories I’ve written with some new twists.
Word Count: 47,500
Beta: Ladyholder and Naelany. Thank you both so much! (Note: I added to the story after beta.)
Alpha: Thanks to Keira for helping me get this sorted out in the early stages.
Art: Cover art, banners and divider courtesy of Banbury. They can be found on the main story page
Spoilers: Up through early season 8 of NCIS, Season 6 of Criminal Minds
Summary: After rescuing Ziva from Somalia, Tony comes online as a powerful guide. The Center says he has a perfect match, the ideal sentinel, waiting for him. But his sentinel isn’t interested. As Tony finds his way into a new future, he finds that something imperfect can be what he actually needs.

Acronyms:
BAU – Behavioral Analysis Unit
CIRG – Critical Incident Response Group
CID – Criminal Investigative Division
FO – Field Office
RU – Resident Unit

– – – –

imperfect_divider

art by Banbury

Chapter One

Tony entered his apartment and threw his keys in the bowl. He felt the exhaustion, pain, and extreme foggy-headedness weighing him down. He’d let the medic check him over on the plane, but otherwise, he hadn’t seen a doctor, though, considering how he felt, he probably should have. Regs said he had 24 hours in these circumstances, but he’d decided that 24-hour clock started when they arrived back on US soil. There was no doubt in his mind that he had a couple broken ribs and his kidneys were bruised, but none of that was life threatening, so doctor torture could wait until tomorrow after he’d had some sleep.

Letting his clothes lay wherever they fell, he headed for the bathroom and climbed gingerly into the shower determined to wash away the dirt, grime, and memories of what had happened in Somalia. Damn if his bruises didn’t have their own bruises, he thought as he passed the sponge over a particularly tender area.

He certainly couldn’t regret rescuing Ziva, but everything swirled around in his head and he couldn’t help that the success of the rescue was tainted by his seething anger over the shit she’d pulled earlier in the year. Over him being dragged to Israel and “interrogated” by Mossad. Everything already going on in his head had been sparked off by her dismay at being rescued by Tony.

Out of everyone in the world who could have found me, it had to be you?” were her first words to him. You’re fucking welcome, Ziva.

He forced himself to stop that train of thought, because then he’d just start spiraling back into the last four years with Ziva, and that was never an exercise that ended well.

Despite everything, Tony had been determined to bring down the man he thought had murdered her. It was in part about Gibbs, who Tony could tell was hurting over Ziva’s absence, but it was also about his own guilt. It didn’t matter that he’d been defending himself, his actions had led to Ziva staying in Israel. He knew rationally that the feeling was bullshit, but Tony was a master hoarder of inappropriate guilt.

He finished rinsing the soap away and just stood under the hot water. It was easing his muscles, but not doing much else. His head was finally starting to feel a little clearer, but it was still as if he were fifteen degrees off of where he should be—like his perceptions were skewed. He attributed it to the lingering effects of whatever drug cocktail Saleem had given him.

It was decent as a truth serum, though not as effective as the terrorist seemed to think. Tony had been able to play the interrogation with limited truth, or misleading truths, and never quite reveal anything he truly didn’t want to. But it did make Tony’s brain feel like it’d been blown open. He’d assumed that, as time passed, it would get better. But the problem was, the feeling was only getting worse.

Knowing he’d achieved maximum benefit from the shower, and staying in would just drain his limited energy, he quickly finished up. After pulling on some sleep pants, he returned to his bedroom. He planned to go right to sleep, and to hell with food; sustenance could wait for morning.

He was halfway to his bed, noting that it was a little after 2130 when a large animal suddenly appeared right in front of him, nearly giving him a heart attack. When his heartbeat was under control and he’d managed to wrap his brain around the situation—which took him longer than he would have liked—he pointed at the large snow leopard. “Weakly latent! WEAKLY. Did you not get the memo? I was never supposed to come online. Seriously, what the hell!?”

The snow leopard stared back him, seemingly unimpressed.

“Also, guide gene. G-U-I-D-E. Snow leopards are supposed to stalk sentinels, not weakly latent guides.” When the snow leopard continued to stare, Tony threw up his hands. “You’re not even a real leopard,” he snapped, apropos of nothing. Not that any actual species of leopards landed in the laps of guides either. The big cats were typically the domain of sentinels except for the rare level-six guide.

“Your timing is really shitty,” he groused. “I’m worn down, and the aftereffects of this drug have made my brain into mush.”

The snow not-actually-a-leopard just blinked lazily.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” He dropped his head and sighed. “Any chance you’ll wait until morning? I seriously need a nap.”

Another lazy blink.

“You and I are going to have to work on our communication issues,” Tony said sarcastically waving back and forth between them. When nothing was forthcoming but another infuriating blink, Tony just spread his arms. “All right then.” The words had barely left his mouth when the snow leopard leapt at him.

The onslaught of emotions nearly made him scream. Desperately, he threw everything he had at blocking out the empathic cacophony. It felt like it took forever to reclaim his own damn mind, but when he could think again, he realized he was kneeling on the floor holding his head. He could feel that the emotional chaos was barely held back and he wasn’t sure why. He’d always heard the self-protective shielding was pretty damn automatic for guides. Not that Tony was much of an expert. His guide gene was so weak that they hadn’t even bothered putting him through latent-guide training when he was in school; it was considered a waste of effort. Everything he knew, he’d picked up from working around sentinels and guides over the years.

That was enough, however, to tell him that something wasn’t right, and he knew he needed to get in touch with the local S&G Center. He’d tossed his cellphone on the bed before his shower, which was a hell of a lot closer than his house phone or his laptop, but still seemed impossibly far away.

Forcing himself to his feet, he muttered, “Next time you come online, DiNozzo, be closer to a phone.” He flopped on his bed, feeling like a marionette with no strings, then he groaned as his broken ribs creaked in protest. He took a steadying breath, ignoring the painful twinges, and grabbed the phone. He actually had to use information, like dialing 4-1-1, to get the number for the S&G Center.

Greater DC Area Sentinel and Guide Support Center, please hold,” a female voice snapped out and Muzak came over the phone’s speaker.

“Great,” he muttered, lying back and keeping his concentration on forcing back the emotions of what felt like his whole building. Maybe the whole damn block. And why the hell were so many people so agitated?

After a couple minutes the voice came back, “Are you calling to report the incident that occurred at 9:42 PM this evening?

“Huh?”

Sir, are you calling to report that you felt something odd approximately twenty minutes ago?

It seemed like they were having two different conversations, but he glanced at the clock and realized the timing was about the same. “Well, yes, something happened about twenty minutes ago, but I don’t think–”

Were you injured in any way?”

“What? No. I just–”

First, let me assure you that you are perfectly fine. There’s no need to panic. Was the event acute or did it provoke a formless feeling of anxiety? Perhaps trigger heart palpitations or an unaccountable restlessness?”

“Oh my god, lady, SHUT UP!” Tony snapped, his rising frustration making it harder to control the sea of emotional crap waiting just a heartbeat away.

She hung up on him.

He wanted to throw his phone. Why did he think getting help this way was the right thing to do? He probably should have called Gibbs from the get go, but last he knew, Gibbs was with Ziva getting her cleared medically and then finding her a hotel. Instead, he punched a different speed dial.

Seriously, Tony? Haven’t the last couple days been long enough? Why aren’t you sleeping already?”

“McGee!” he barked, breaking into what could be a long ramble. “Tim,” he softened, taking a deep breath. “I need some help. I came online and I’m not having a good time of it here. I tried calling the damn Center and they hung up on me.”

Oh my god, Tony, are you messing around? Is this a joke?”

“Why the hell would I find that to be funny? My head feels like it’s going to disconnect itself at any minute and I can feel everyone in my damn building trying to get into my brain! This is not a joke!”

There was a long silence. “When did you come online?”

“I can’t give you an exact time, McSpecific, I was kind of out of it, but it was around 2140. The last time I looked at the clock was 2135, and it was a few minutes after that.”

After another long pause, McGee said, “Okay, I’m going to call and get you some help and then I’m headed over there. Just keep the phone close.”

“Yeah.” After very brief hesitation, he added, “Please keep this between us for now. I’d rather tell Gibbs myself.”

It may already be too late for that, Tony.”

“What does that mean?”

Let me call for help and I’ll explain later.”

Tony didn’t find that even slightly reassuring. He placed his cell on the bed and just tried to breathe through the mess that was his head.

– – – –

Gibbs finished his first cup of coffee, set aside the newspaper, and got up for a second cup. He was mainlining caffeine even more than usual this morning because sleep hadn’t been easy last night, which he’d needed desperately after the long mission in Africa.

He’d just finished getting Ziva settled in a hotel when he’d felt something odd, some sort of empathic distress. Gibbs didn’t work with guides, and was rarely around them, but he knew guide distress when he felt it, however, he couldn’t ascertain where it was coming from. A couple people in the hotel had come out of their rooms, looking anxious, and wondering what was going on, while most people had no reaction at all. Ziva had felt nothing, but then she wasn’t a sensitive. And though she was a latent sentinel, she wouldn’t feel something like that since she wasn’t online.

Whatever it was went on for about ten minutes or so, and the effect was pretty widespread. From what he’d heard on the news, it covered about a five-mile radius from some point in northwest DC, which intruded into Arlington and parts of Alexandria. He’d called the private Center number given to sentinels and guides, but they’d reported the situation was contained, however guides were welcome to come to one of three Pride locations set up to help with overly-affected mundane-sensitives. Since Gibbs wasn’t a guide, he’d hung up and headed for his basement and some bourbon.

With everything that had happened, sleep should have been easy, but it wasn’t. He had a gut feeling that something was wrong, but he couldn’t pinpoint what. He thought to call and check on all of his team, but he decided to give them a little more time to sleep. Even he knew that 0600 hours when they were on stand down after days with very little time to rest was beyond bastardry.

The clock was ticking toward 0700 and he was on his fourth cup of coffee when he heard a car stop in front of his house. He dialed up his sense of hearing as much as possible, which admittedly wasn’t all that far. With a guide’s help during his assessment, Gibbs was a level-5 sentinel, but without that guide-grounding, he couldn’t function much beyond a level-2. Since he had no interest in having a guide intrude in his life, he’d learned just how far he could push his senses without risking a zone.

Still, his senses were strong enough to know it was Leon Vance about to come through his front door, and Gibbs’ gut went off like a siren. Instead of calling out a greeting, he got up and poured another cup of coffee, setting it on the table about five seconds before Vance made it into the dining room.

“Gibbs,” he acknowledged as he took a seat and sipped the coffee. “Good god, that’s horrible. Just how strong do you make it?”

Gibbs got to his feet and grabbed the milk from the fridge, setting it in front of Leon along with a bag of coffee beans. “Gift from DiNozzo. I like it.”

Vance picked up the black bag with the skull and crossbones on it. “Death Wish Coffee? Why am I not surprised?” He poured a generous amount of milk in the cup, still making a face at the taste.

“What brings you here so early, Leon? Team’s on stand down until next week.”

“You feel the empathic event last night?”

“Yeah. Had just finished with Ziva when I felt a guide in distress. Wasn’t close enough to my location for me to get any more out of it.”

“That was DiNozzo,” Vance said bluntly.

Gibbs set his coffee down with too much force, causing some to slosh out. “What?” DiNozzo was latent, but his file said his gene was too weak for him to ever come online. Gibbs had made sure of that when he’d hired him—despite the fact that it was illegal to discriminate against guides. He didn’t need or want guides on his team.

“This information has to remain confidential. The Center only told me because they had to, and I was threatened with the Guide Council if his name leaks to the press.”

“Because they had to?” he asked, latching onto the oddness in the sentence.

Instead of responding to the question, Vance pulled a couple folded pieces of paper from the inside pocket of his jacket. “Explain this to me, because the Center is furious.”

Frowning, Gibbs grabbed the pages and began to read. “This is DiNozzo’s report about the op in Somalia. What of it?” He hadn’t even known Tony had finished his report last night. He’d dismissed his team when he’d taken Ziva to medical.

Vance pointed toward the bottom of the page. “Start here.”

Gibbs read through the blunt account of their capture, the initial beatings, the truth drug, the interrogation, and then DiNozzo’s assessment of his physical condition. He bristled as he got Vance’s point. “DiNozzo’s a grownup. He knows if he needs medical. Besides, the medic on the flight cleared him.”

Vance’s eyes narrowed. “It doesn’t work that way, Gibbs, and you know it. Your agent was compromised by a drug, and no one knows what it was made of. No bloodwork was taken and it might be vital to know what was in that little truth serum cocktail. And instead of getting a full medical evaluation, he wrote three different reports, went home and came online, causing hundreds of phone calls to emergency services and the S&G Center. And now, they’re questioning whether or not we can be trusted with the well-being of sentinels and guides.”

“DiNozzo wasn’t a guide when those events happened!” he nearly snarled.

“Do you think it matters? They’ve got a level-6 guide who looks like a torture victim with three broken ribs, kidney damage, and reeking of drugs you never give to guides. They don’t care that the damage was sustained a day before he onlined.” Vance rubbed a hand over his face. “You know, or you should know, how sentinels are about guides of his level. One of the sentinels helping transport him to the Center nearly went feral over the restraint marks. The Center assistant director flat out said NCIS clearly couldn’t be trusted with DiNozzo.”

“And what does DiNozzo have to say about that?” The Tony he knew wouldn’t put up with any of that garbage.

“He’s been sedated since early this morning. Although, they were extremely reluctant to do so with unknown drugs running through his system.”

“What!? Tony would never want that!”

Vance glared at him. “What do you know about sentinel and guide genetics?”

“I don’t need scientific mumbo jumbo, Leon! Just tell me what’s wrong with DiNozzo!”

“You do need to know, so just listen!” Vance snapped. “There are two genes. One is the gene that basically determines what kind of sentinel or guide you are, how strong you’re going to be, what kind of skills—it’s your genetic blueprint. The other is the activator gene. DiNozzo’s guide gene is, according to Alpha Guide Monahan, one of the strongest they have on record, but his activator gene was so weak there was no chance of him coming online. You can be classified as minimally latent if either gene expression is weak since you can’t come online with either being below a certain standard.”

Gibbs vaguely remembered hearing that stuff when genetic testing became more readily available, but at the time, it wasn’t particularly important as far as he was concerned. “What’s the point?”

“The point is that they believe whatever DiNozzo was given messed with that activator gene, and they’re pissed at us for not getting a blood sample.”

“Why? So they can mess with other people’s genes?”

“So they know what other guides need to avoid! You are the most mule-headed man I know! Guide Monahan described DiNozzo’s shields as paper thin because of the effect of the drug. They hope as the drugs finish clearing his system, he’ll be back to normal, but they couldn’t risk another empathic meltdown.”

“So they just drugged him?”

“DiNozzo agreed to it,” Vance retorted. “Monahan said he was ready to drop from exhaustion after a couple hours at the Center trying to maintain his shields, and support from other guides was only nominally effective. He didn’t want to risk another empathic event, so agreed to be sedated. They can’t even consider suppressors, or he may never be able to form shields.”

Gibbs got up and grabbed a paper towel to clean up the spilled coffee, just to give himself something to do. “So now what?” he asked after he’d gotten a fresh cup.

“As far as DiNozzo goes, unknown. I’m going to put him in for two-weeks’ leave as soon as I get to the office. Guide Monahan made it clear they don’t know how long it will actually be before he can return to work, and the implied threat is they may not let him.”

Gibbs snorted. “I’d like to see them try to get heavy-handed with DiNozzo.”

“In addition,” Vance continued, not acknowledging what Gibbs had said, “They’re going to do an audit of our handling of sentinels and guides to ensure NCIS is fulfilling our contractual obligations. The Council gave emergency approval an hour ago.”

“This is crap,” Gibbs bit out. “DiNozzo wasn’t a guide!” he repeated.

“What part of ‘it doesn’t matter’ do you not understand? All they care about is that they have a rare guide who may not even be able to function without empathic suppressors because of what they perceive to be our negligence.”

“That’s as much on DiNozzo as anyone.” Although, in truth, it seemed like the damage was done once DiNozzo was drugged, and anything after the fact was mopping up the mess.

Vance looked like he wanted to strangle Gibbs. “Normally, I’d agree with you. I have to be able to trust my agents to know when they need medical care, but NCIS guidelines are also strict about agents injured in the field to prevent those who think they can ‘handle it’ from evading medical follow-up. But even I have to allow that an agent who has been compromised by some unknown, home-brewed truth serum is not responsible for not being clear-headed!”

Gibbs’ jaw muscles were getting a workout. “So DiNozzo gets a vacation while the Guide Council crawls up our ass. Fine.” He knew he was being unreasonably angry, but he couldn’t seem to stop.

“Your team remains on stand down until Monday. I’ll have two TADs for you.” At whatever he saw in Gibbs’ expression, Vance held up a hand. “Also, McGee knows, but I’ve impressed upon him that he is to tell no one about DiNozzo’s guide status, or that he was the source of the empathic event last night. No one,” he emphasized. “Especially Ms. Sciuto, and that is not negotiable. If she finds out, whichever one of you leaked it will be suspended for a month.”

“What the hell, Leon?” Gibbs near-yelled.

“I’m not playing, Gibbs. We will placate the Guide Council, you included. And if they say DiNozzo’s status is top secret, we’ll toe the line.”

Gibbs was pissed, and he couldn’t even fully articulate why. But it was largely because he hated having people interfere with his team and how he did his job. Still, he knew there was more to his anger. “Why would anyone tell McGee?”

“Because DiNozzo called him for help when he couldn’t reach the Center through all the chaos.”

Eyes narrowing, Gibbs shot back, “Why the hell didn’t he call me?”

“McGee didn’t call you at DiNozzo’s behest.”

“I mean DiNozzo!”

“Well, I don’t know, Gibbs. I’m not in his head or privy to his decision-making process. But considering how closely they’ve been working the last few months, and that they were just held captive by terrorists together, the action seems reasonable to me. Also, I’m sure they were both aware that you were tending to Ms. David last night.” Vance got to his feet. “Expect a call from the Center in the next couple of days. I gave them your cell. No need to get up, I’ll show myself out.”

Gibbs sat at the table for a long time, working through the various possibilities for the changes in his team, and trying to figure out why he was so damn pissed off.

When no answer was forthcoming, he headed to the basement.

– – – –

The next morning, Gibbs once again sat in the same position and contemplated going into the office even though the team was off rotation for several days. He needed something to get his mind off the situation with DiNozzo. He’d relied on DiNozzo being on his six for over eight years, but he wasn’t sure he could have him on the team as an online guide.

Gibbs didn’t have a problem with guides in general, he just didn’t want them around him. They were a complication he didn’t need. He had reasons he presented to the world, but the truth was that he didn’t want something he never had with Shannon and that was the end of it. He couldn’t help that he, like all sentinels, found guides alluring, so it was easiest to just stay away from them. He couldn’t avoid them entirely, but having one on his team would be impossible.

He needed to figure out how he was going to handle it, but in the interim, he decided to go to the hardware store rather than the office; being at work would be more likely to keep his mind on the problems his team was facing. He’d barely got into his truck when his cell rang.

“Gibbs.”

Sentinel Gibbs, this is Scott Thompson from the DC Center.” Alpha Sentinel Scott Thompson ran the DC S&G Center with his guide, Kyle Monohan, plus he was the Prime for the Eastern Seaboard. Gibbs had only met him a couple times, as he himself wasn’t very involved in the S&G community, and he didn’t attend Pride functions. He used his senses as much as he was able to on his own as a means of getting his job done. Nothing else was relevant to him.

“This about DiNozzo?” he asked bluntly.

Yes,” he returned shortly. “And about you. We ran Guide DiNozzo’s bio-marker and genetic profile against the registry and he has one perfect match.”

Gibbs didn’t want to hear this. He closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. “I assume you’re not violating his privacy by revealing his match to someone uninvolved, but I opted out of guide searches and notifications.”

There was a brief pause. “And it was made clear in the forms you signed that you cannot opt out of being notified of a perfect match.”

“I’m not interested,” he finally said, feeling at war with himself. He knew he was effectively turning his back on someone he’d trusted for eight years, but he couldn’t be the sentinel DiNozzo needed or deserved.

You’re not… interested,” Thompson repeated flatly.

“I’m not looking for a guide, Sentinel Thompson.” He shut the phone, terminating the call.

– – – –

Tony stared up at the ceiling. He was supposed to be getting some sleep, but was finding rest to be impossible. They’d woken him up from his twilight sedation and found that his shields were good enough to let him try to manage them on his own. There was at least one guide monitoring him at all times to make sure he didn’t have another “issue.”

He would have thought that having been sedated through the first day and a half after coming online that he would have slept away his aches. But, no. It seemed life wasn’t going to be accommodating in the slightest. And something for pain wasn’t even an option. They were letting him have ibuprofen twice a day, but nothing more.

Kyle Monahan, one of the Center directors, and Alex Joyce, the Center’s senior guide coordinator, had advised that the best thing he could do for his shields was lots of natural rest. But that wasn’t so easy between his ribs screaming at him, and the mess that his head was after the news they’d given him.

Gibbs was a ten-point match for Tony, and he hadn’t even been willing to come to the Center to see if they were compatible. He’d just said no, and not even to Tony directly.

He probably shouldn’t be surprised, but he was. There ought to be more respect in his relationship with Gibbs after all this time than that. He snorted, and wondered when he’d started lying to himself? Respect had been increasingly scarce from pretty much everyone at NCIS for quite a long time. Tony didn’t particularly want to look too closely at that, but he felt like he had to. It seemed like his period of deliberate avoidance was at an end.

Why the hell had he stayed at NCIS for so long?

Lying in the dark, staring at the ceiling, he thought back over the many times he should have left NCIS—or, at the very least, left the team. There were so many, it was almost morbidly amusing. Instead, he tried to think of the time when choosing not to leave had been the final nail in the coffin of his dead self-respect.

He went way back to his first days at NCIS, memories flashing through his mind, but nothing settling. Various incidents with Gibbs, Viv, McGee, and Kate over those first few years.

Then it hit him.

Kate.

It wasn’t any glaring incident with Kate—though there were a few troubling things while Kate was on the team—but rather shortly after she died. Because he most certainly should have left after she died. And not because of her death, but because of who replaced her.

The minute Jenny and Gibbs had allowed the sister of Kate’s killer, the woman who had profiled Kate for Ari to murder, on their team, Tony should have packed his bags and gone as far away from Gibbs and NCIS as possible.

Once he accepted that atrocity—that level of disrespect to Kate, and to all of them, really—it was easier day by day to live with the rest. He’d been so furious about Ziva joining the team, he’d even questioned Gibbs on it, protested someone that close to Kate’s murder being allowed to take her place. But Gibbs had pulled the, “my team, my rules,” non-response and shut Tony down. That was the moment, that second of decision after those four words, that Tony should have left.

He wasn’t totally oblivious; he knew why he’d wanted to stay. NCIS was the first real sense of family he’d had since his fraternity. But he knew that was a lot of expectation to heap on a job, and on people he couldn’t be sure were in the same family-feeling boat. And should work even be about family?

But the big reason, the main lure, had always been Gibbs himself. In some part of him, Tony had always felt like Gibbs was his. Emotional baggage, bad habits, shitty attitude–all of it belonged to Tony. He wondered if that had been him latching on to someone and being too stubborn to let go, or if he’d known, in some latent way, that Gibbs was his sentinel.

Really, there was no way to know now anymore, but he tended to think he had recognized what they could be together and had been willing to put up with a lot of shit because of that potential. Then it just became a habit—a sad way of being.

He felt like if Gibbs had been willing to come down here and show his face that Tony could prove his theory. If Gibbs wasn’t just a biological match, but a perfect fit, then Tony felt he would have been right in holding on so tight. But if they weren’t a perfect match, then Tony would know that he’d just been hanging on to the weak threads of having a place to belong.

He snorted at the catch-22 he’d put himself in. If Gibbs was his sentinel, then Tony was rejected but at least he’d sacrificed his self-respect for something real. If Gibbs wasn’t his sentinel, then Tony wasn’t dealing with the rejection issues, but he’d been pathetically holding on to a shitty situation for no damn reason.

The thing was, whether Gibbs was the right sentinel or not, Tony had been rejected. Gibbs couldn’t even be bothered to call and say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks. I don’t even want to know.’ The fucking prick. Either situation came with a heaping serving of disrespect.

But most of all, it hurt. Tony hated acknowledging when something hurt him, but he couldn’t escape this. It felt like someone had ripped him wide open and left him to bleed.

It didn’t help that this was the death knell on his career at NCIS. He couldn’t imagine continuing to work there. Certainly not on Gibbs’ team, and probably not with the agency in any capacity. Every exposure to Gibbs would just rip things wide open again. And losing NCIS felt like it was taking everything he enjoyed in life away.

Regardless, things had to change. No matter how much it hurt, and whether he was ready for it or not.

The Center thought he’d need several weeks to get stable, and they wanted to start throwing potential sentinels at him as soon as possible. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that, but he understood their logic that a sentinel could help shore him up. It just seemed… off. Considering how gutted he felt, just happily moving on to the next candidate was nearly impossible.

He tried running through scenarios for his future, but he couldn’t figure out how to structure anything around the void labeled “future sentinel.” His thoughts spun and circled and didn’t seem to go anywhere.

With a sigh, he carefully got out of bed and turned on some lights. He needed to get some of this out of his head and onto paper.

– – – –

Chapter Two

Tony rolled his head from side to side, in the vain hope he could alleviate some of the tension. He listened to the instructions he was given, and did his best to follow them. It had been nearly three days since he came online and a day since they’d woken him up from the “twilight” sedation. Even though his shields were a little wobbly, they were getting better despite the fact that he’d slept for shit last night.

The hope was that they would reset to normal as Saleem’s truth serum continued to metabolize, but the Center wasn’t taking chances and was training the hell out of him for as long as he could stand it.

“Let’s take a break,” Alex Joyce offered after Tony failed to adjust his shield the way Alex wanted.

“Sorry, but it feels like it’s too thin to do what you want. I think I’d lose control of it entirely if I tried to modulate it that way,” Tony said with resignation.

“Hey, I’m going to trust your impressions on this, so don’t push anything that feels wrong.” He hopped up from the meditation mat and offered Tony a hand up. His ribs appreciated the assist. “Kyle wants a sit down if you feel up to it.”

Kyle Monahan was one of four alpha guides for the greater DC area, the director of the DC S&G Support Center, and also the Guide Prime for the Eastern Seaboard. He was a couple inches shorter than Tony, with wavy brown hair and insanely blue eyes. He was almost painfully attractive, and seemed to be very even-tempered—almost too like an ideal guide sometimes. Whereas Alex was a bit more down to earth, and someone Tony could relate to with a little more ease.

He followed Alex down to the second floor, where Kyle’s office was located. Kyle’s sentinel, Scott Thompson, was also present. The sentinel was taller than Tony, bald, and his personality was borderline abrasive at the best of times—sort of like Gibbs. He screamed ‘sentinel’ from a thousand yards.

“I’ll catch up with you later, Tony,” Alex said with a squeeze to his shoulder before taking off.

“How are you adjusting?” Kyle asked kindly.

Tony knew he was making a face. “Feelings,” he groused.

Kyle raised an eyebrow. “It’s still overwhelming?”

“Not so much, but seriously, man, I don’t like dealing with my own feelings. Having to deal with everyone else’s is like some kind of cosmic joke. I feel like Ralph Hinkley… the last guy who should have gotten the super red suit.”

Scott snorted, obviously amused, and Kyle shot his sentinel a weak glare.

“Any better physically?”

“Eh. Third day is the worst, right?”

Instead of replying, Kyle passed Tony a sheet of paper with a chemical analysis on it.

He quickly put two and two together. “My bloodwork?” Unlike DNA, bio-marker analysis, and basic labs, which they could run in-house, they’d had to send out for the type of chemical analysis they’d needed of Tony’s blood samples. The list of chemical agents still in his blood was long and made very little sense to him.

“We believe some of the components had already been metabolized. It’s likely that some of them were probably out of your system before you got off the ground in Somalia. However, what we were able to find are a mix of things not to fret over to items of more concern—especially for guides. This third chemical on the list is a restricted drug for guides because it can cause trouble with their empathic shielding, and it has a terminal half-life of 120 hours. And when it comes to restricted drugs for sentinels and guides, we are much more concerned with half-life than duration of action. It needs to be completely out of your system before we can know the state of your shielding.”

“So, ten days,” Tony said on a sigh. “Another seven from now.”

“Yes. And while you are doing quite a bit better, you’re still considered fragile. You could check yourself out under conservator care after another couple days, but I’d prefer you stayed at the Center at least until the drugs are completely out of your system.”

Tony was frustrated as all hell. The last thing he wanted was to be cooped up in the Center for the next week-plus, but he still cringed when he thought about his onlining distressing thousands of guides and mundane-sensitives.

“The bright side is that after reviewing the list of chemicals in your system, the head physician feels you can have something extra for pain, if that helps.”

He scrubbed his hand over his face, trying to get his thoughts in order. “Yeah, not so much.”

Kyle shot him a sympathetic look.

Tony had one other issue to deal with. “Look, about the investigation into NCIS…”

Scott straightened up from his slouched position. “Yeah?”

“I’m not understanding the foundation, and it feels punitive. I wasn’t online when I was in harm’s way. I wasn’t online when I got off the plane at Andrews. The Council being annoyed that I was hurt before I came online seems… ridiculous.”

Kyle and Scott exchanged a look before Kyle carefully replied, “There might be some overreaction, but we find that when mundanes are treated well in any given environment, sentinels and guides are usually going to be well treated, too. Whether it’s comfortable to hear or not, NCIS dropped the ball with you. If you hadn’t come online, no one would have known about the procedural screw up. And it makes us wonder how often that kind of thing happens. Because if it’s happening frequently with mundane or latent agents, then it’s going to happen to our people as well.”

“That’s not–” Frustrated, Tony broke off and ran his hands through his hair. “Look, I dropped the ball as much as anyone. Regs say I have 24 hours—assuming there’s no impediment to obtaining care—to get medical evaluation and treatment for anything that might impact my ability to qualify for field work, and then present clearance to return to duty or the expected duration of desk duty to my supervisor. I was tired and went home instead of getting checked out. If I hadn’t come online, I’d have gotten up in the morning, gone to the clinic, and been within regulations. Everything would have been fine. But fate got in the way, and I get that you guys got me beat up and in distress, but the two events aren’t connected.”

“But they are,” Scott interjected. “You came online because something that had likely already metabolized out of your system bypassed your activator gene. NCIS was responsible for making sure you received appropriate treatment since you were not capable of making sound decisions.”

“Now come on!” Tony snapped. “That’s bullshit!”

“It’s not, Tony,” Kyle said softly, but firmly. “The drugs we were able to identify, in that combination, made it clear that you were not of sound mind when you walked out of that camp. And that is what’s relevant.”

Trying a different tack, he said, “If my opinion means anything in this, I can’t say how I’d have made a different decision about going home if I hadn’t been drugged. And the people here weren’t going to react well to me being beat up and online no matter what. I think taking punitive action against NCIS for events that occurred before I came online just looks bad on everyone and I really wish it would end.” Not to mention that if, for some reason, Tony decided to try a new team at NCIS, the Council making everyone’s life hell would reflect on Tony.

“Even your director feels you weren’t responsible for the choices you made,” Kyle offered.

Support of any sort from Vance was weird, but… “That doesn’t really change my opinion.”

“All right. No promises, but I’ll talk to Blair and suggest that we dial this back to a standard audit.” Kyle held up a hand when Tony started to say something. “There’s nothing odd about an audit, and if they’re doing the right thing for the sentinels and guides in their employ, the audit won’t do them any harm. That’s the best I can do.”

That was fair. If they did a standard audit and NCIS didn’t pass, that didn’t have anything to do with Tony. “I’ll take it. Thanks.”

Kyle nodded. “One other thing…” he passed a highly-polished titanium wristband over to Tony. “It’s important to always wear. If you were ever unconscious for any reason, it’s vital that it’s known that you are a guide.”

Tony ran his fingers over the surface imprinted with a guide ID and contact number. Really, nothing was ever going to be the same.

– – – –

The room phone ringing startled Tony out of his morning meditation. He reached for it, barely snagging it with the tips of his fingers, and getting a twinge in his ribs for his effort. A week into his stay at the Center and he felt markedly better in most respects, but his ribs were still being really bitchy.

“Yeah,” he answered absently.

Guide DiNozzo, this is reception. You have a visitor, a Leon Vance from NCIS. Are you available to see him?” the receptionist asked in a sweet tone.

His shields were pretty steady after a week of work, so he knew he could have visitors, he just hadn’t expected to see Vance. Of course, no one but Vance, Gibbs, and McGee knew where he was. He’d left an outgoing greeting on his cell that he was on vacation and then turned it off.

“I’ll be right down,” he finally replied.

I’ll have him shown to lounge two.” Which was an empathically monitored meeting room.

He sighed and hung up. For all that he was better, he was still considered fragile, and engagement with outside visitors was supposed to be in a room where a guide was monitoring him constantly. Part of him wanted to get a conservator and get the hell out of this place—even though everyone had been really nice and helpful, and were obviously invested in him—but the last thing he needed was a stranger in his home empathically looking over his shoulder all the damn time.

He got to his feet and let Mark, the duty nurse/guide for his floor know he was on the way to lounge two.

It was a Wednesday morning, so he found Vance dressed typically for the office. The man got to his feet as Tony entered, and showed familiarity with guide etiquette by not offering to shake Tony’s hand. Of course, that could just be typical Vance, who pretty much had never offered to shake Tony’s hand.

He flipped on the white noise generators. Many of the sentinels in the Center could easily hear around them, but sentinel ethics impressed early on that trying to hear around a clear request for privacy wasn’t acceptable except in the most dire of circumstances.

Tony took a seat. “Director,” he acknowledged. “What can I do for you?”

Vance blinked at him a few times before blowing out a ragged breath and taking a seat.

“Problem?” Tony prompted.

“Not as such,” Vance managed. “Your, uh, presence is quite… intense.” He finished awkwardly.

“Not sure yet if that’s temporary or permanent,” he offered, not wanting to get into the subject. Tony hadn’t been around any mundanes since he’d come online, so he hadn’t been sure what to expect. Some guides affected mundanes and sensitives more strongly than others. What Vance was feeling could be his natural empathic aura, or that his shields still needed shoring up.

“Right.” The director visibly pulled himself back on task. “I needed to speak with you regarding your request that your status as a newly-online guide be kept confidential.”

Tony frowned, wondering what was driving this and made a go-on gesture.

“Gibbs informed me that you wouldn’t be returning to the MCRT.”

“Did he now?” Tony asked dangerously, feeling an alarming surge of anger. “It would have been great if he’d had that discussion with me.” Or really, discussed anything with Tony.

Vance was visibly startled. “Gibbs didn’t…” he trailed off, looking like he was trying to piece the puzzle together. “Why wouldn’t he talk to you?”

“You’ll have to ask him that question, Director.” Threads of the past, attachments to Gibbs and the team, pulled at him sharply, but he ruthlessly ignored them. He shoved every shred of feeling far away from him.

“I see,” Vance replied, obviously confused.

“Let’s just assume Agent Gibbs is correct. What does it have to do with me?” he forced out.

Vance hesitated before replying, “There are some staffing issues that obviously need to be addressed. Agent McGee needs to be promoted, and agents reviewed for the other positions on the team. That’s going to bring up questions about you, why you’re off the team, and your role in the agency.”

Before Tony could reply, the door opened and Kyle slipped in, assessing Tony with a critical eye. The familiar feel of another guide’s shield wrapping around him made him realize the wobbly state of his own primary shield.

“Excuse me,” Kyle began, “but I believe you were informed, Director Vance, that anything emotionally upsetting could bring an end to this discussion. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

Vance got to his feet. “I honestly didn’t know this subject would be upsetting.”

“You need to leave the Center now,” Kyle insisted. Empathically, Tony could feel Scott’s presence just beyond the door.

Shooting Tony a look, Vance haltingly replied, “Of course.”

“Director,” Tony interjected, holding up a hand to halt Kyle’s objection. “I realize you have a logistical issue to deal with, and I’ll make it simple for you. I won’t be returning to NCIS. Therefore, my status is of no relevance. I’ll decide what to tell and to whom in my own time.”

Vance looked between Tony and Kyle and just nodded.

Once the door was closed, Kyle sat in the armchair next to Tony. “You got really pissed off for a few seconds.”

Tony just nodded. He knew Kyle wouldn’t have intruded if Tony hadn’t inadvertently let that feeling slip past his shields. And probably pretty loudly, too. Which wasn’t great for his chances of getting out of this building any time soon. He sighed and rubbed his temples.

“Everything okay?” Kyle asked carefully.

He shrugged, not at all sure what to say.

“Last we talked, you hadn’t made any decisions about NCIS.”

Tony snorted inelegantly. “That was before Gibbs told Vance I was off the team without even talking to me.”

“Right.” Kyle’s expression was pinched. “Well, I rather think that would piss me off, too.”

“But you wouldn’t have blasted the emotion at anyone, right?”

Kyle made a so-so gesture. “Even the most stable guide can lose control in extreme circumstances.”

“Talking to Vance isn’t extreme,” Tony retorted.

“Being rejected by your sentinel is,” Kyle responded gently.

Tony flinched, then clenched his jaw. “Can I borrow your phone?”

“This going to be upsetting?”

“Oh, I’m sure it will be,” Tony said flatly.

“You understand that I need to stay?” he asked as he handed over the cellphone.

“Do you what you gotta do.” He quickly dialed a number from memory.

Gibbs,” came shortly over the line.

“Tell me why,” Tony bit out.

Hold,” Gibbs shot back, and Tony could hear the sounds of Gibbs obviously moving to a new location. “Why what?” he replied eventually.

“After eight fucking years, why can’t you show me enough respect to tell me directly that you not only don’t want to be my sentinel, but that you want me off your team?”

It’s not…” Uncharacteristically, Gibbs hesitated. “I can’t be what you need. And we can’t keep working together now that you’re a guide.”

“And you couldn’t tell me that yourself?”

I can’t do this, Tony,” Gibbs said so gently that Tony barely recognized it as his hard-ass boss.

“Do what?” he snapped. “Be a decent human being?” He took a steadying breath, getting his temper under control before he said something he completely regretted. “Just tell me why. Something that actually makes sense.” He hated that there was a pleading note.

Gibbs was silent for so long that Tony was sure he wasn’t going to answer. “She was the love of my life, and I can’t have more with you than I had with her,” he said softly.

For the first time in eight years, Tony hung up before Gibbs.

– – – –

Tony wrapped up his training session with Alex, stretching a little and getting some careful movement in his ribs.

“You’re doing a lot better,” Alex noted. “Even after yesterday’s setback, you’re steady.”

“So when can I get out of here?”

Alex gave him a searching look. “Honestly, there’s concern about you not having a conservator. Kyle has had several conversations with Blair and I’m pretty sure they’re going to push that solution.”

Tony was really fucking annoyed. He hated having the power over his life ripped away by Guide Council policies. “I don’t…” he trailed off, forcing himself to take a breath and not take it out on Alex. “So my options are stay here or have some stranger living with me?”

Alex shrugged one shoulder. “I suggested a sort of out-patient thing. It’s not something we’ve tried, though it’s done in Europe on a case-by-case basis. You’d basically come in every day, even the weekends, and we’d make sure you’re stable or improving from day to day. Plus continue to work on actual skills’ training.”

Having to come to the Center every day would suck, but being able to be in his own space every night would be a huge improvement. “Yeah, that’d work, I guess. Will they go for it?”

“I think so. It’s Thursday, so how about we propose to Kyle that we see how things go over the weekend, the drugs will be fully out of your system before then, and then, if everything is okay, get you out of here on Monday.”

“Man, you’d be my new favorite person if you could help persuade the powers that be to sign off on my discharge without conservatorship.” Tony found it really fucking annoying that sentinels could discharge themselves but guides couldn’t. The rationale was that sentinels were pretty much only hurting themselves if they left before they were ready, but guides could hurt people around them. He got the reasoning, but he didn’t have to like it. Plus, he was pretty sure that policy on sentinels had back-fired a time or two, but he wasn’t going to be able to change an entire, long-established system.

Alex smiled briefly. “The only catch is that if there any known high-stress situations on the horizon, you have to give us a heads up, so we can have a contingency plan.” When Tony started to reply, Alex held up a hand. “It won’t be forever. Just until we see that life isn’t disastrous to your ability to shield.”

“Yeah, okay,” Tony reluctantly agreed. Normally he’d agree easily to a stipulation like that, knowing he would classify very few situations as stressful. But he just knew Kyle was going to pin down the exact criteria for stress, and make Tony agree before he could get his life back.

“All right. I’ll talk to Kyle this afternoon. Although, before I do that, are you ready to have that sentinel discussion?”

No, he really didn’t want to have it. Instead of saying that, he ran his hand through his hair. “I realize I haven’t really wanted to hear the options…”

“I get it, Tony, but you said you’re trying to figure out what’s next.” He was watching Tony carefully. “Where does a sentinel figure into it? Do you want to go build a new life and then figure out the sentinel thing?”

Even discounting how uncomfortable it was to be unbonded for a guide of Tony’s level, it wasn’t the greatest idea to figure out his path in life if he hadn’t answered the sentinel question. He could get out of here, go sit at home, and ponder all his options, but without that missing piece, all his plans were worthless.

“Let’s just… I guess see what the possibilities are. Maybe see if there are any possibilities local.” He kind of hated the idea. “I don’t want people to waste time travelling yet. I may meet a couple and decide this isn’t for me right now.”

“Fair enough. We already have the search done, I just need to know if you have any limiting criteria.”

He considered that for several seconds. For some reason he thought he’d prefer a male sentinel, but he wasn’t sure if that was some empathic awareness or just that his perfect match was male. Deciding not to limit by gender, he replied, “I’m inclined to say no-one under thirty, but definitely no-one under twenty-five.” Tony was thirty-six this past summer and the idea of a twenty-two-year-old sentinel gave him hives. For all that Kate called him an X-rated Peter Pan, that was all a front. Tony had zero interest in reliving his college years.

“Any upper age limit?” Alex prompted.

“I don’t know. Fifty, maybe? Aren’t Kyle and Scott fifteen years apart?”

“Yeah, within ten years either way is much more common, but we do see some age differences at fifteen or even twenty years. But you should start where you’re comfortable.”

Feeling a lot of reluctance, he nodded. “Fifty-five, then.”

– – – –

Saturday morning, Tony headed down to Kyle’s office. He was supposed to get the okay for Monday’s discharge, and find out about his sentinel matches. Yesterday, Alex had mentioned to Tony that Kyle was setting up a few meetings for later today, but Tony hadn’t wanted to discuss it. He just put it out of his head. Thinking about the sentinels inevitably made him think about Gibbs, stirring up a lot of hurt Tony really didn’t want to deal with.

Tony rapped on the door to Kyle’s office, entering after the other guide responded. As much as his relationship with Kyle was a bit contentious right now, he did really like the Alpha Guide. His initial impression of ideal Stepford guide had proved somewhat misleading. Kyle had a good handle on his gifts and was generally even-tempered, but he’d seen the other guide get really pissed off a couple times and it was kind of awe-inspiring.

After he sat, Kyle assessed him carefully. “How about we get through the sentinel stuff, and if you’re good by the end of it, we’ll get you out of here Monday morning.”

Another test. See how Tony dealt with unbonded sentinels before letting him go. But he was ready to agree to anything at this point. “All right. So, what’d the exhaustive S&G database come up with for me?”

“Working from only sentinels level-five and above, there are forty-two nine-point matches in the US, and over 300 eight-point matches. As you requested, we weeded out anyone under twenty-five, or over fifty’ish, leaving you with thirty-four nine-point matches. Three of the nine-point matches happen to be in the general DC area.” He opened his folder and pulled out three pieces of paper, printed profiles from the S&G database with pictures at the top.

Tony groaned and buried his face in his hands. He knew all three of them. “FBI. Seriously? Does someone hate me?” God, and Fornell of all people.

“I take it you know them already, then?” Kyle asked curiously.

Removing his face from his hands, he replied, “Morris and Fornell are in the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, and Derek Morgan is in the BAU, which is part of the Critical Incident Response Group, a sister organization to CID.” He drummed his fingers on the table, trying to get his thoughts in order. He’d met Morris only a couple times in the course of cases. She was a hard ass, though he’d worked with her reasonably well—there hadn’t been much choice because she hated Gibbs, so Tony’d had to make it work. And of course he knew Fornell through Gibbs. Derek was worse than Fornell in some ways because Derek was actually a friend of Tony’s.

“Do they know who they’re meeting?” he asked, skimming over the biographical information for Morris.

“No. All three were simply told there was a level-six guide in the DC area they had a nine-point match with, and would they like to meet the guide today. All three tested as level-five sentinels, but sentinels almost never test to their full capability until they have a stable bond. Any of them should re-test as level-six if bonded to you.”

“Right.” Tony honestly didn’t care what level the sentinels were.

“Problem?”

Tony sighed. “No. Just… well, what about DNA? I know it’s not any more reliable than biomarker matches, but I’m curious.”

Kyle was watching him closely. “Based on genetic markers, Derek Morgan is the highest match at 92%, Morris and Fornell are both in the high 80s—88% and 89% respectively. DNA matching is still fairly new, and the Council’s research division is still trying to determine what percentage is needed in order to forge a strong bond. The currents estimate is upper 70s to low 80s. Right now, a perfect match is considered to be a 10-point bio-marker match and 90% on DNA.”

Even though he’d resolved not to ask any more questions about Gibbs, he couldn’t seem to stop himself. “And what about Gibbs?”

After a long pause, Kyle said, “He’s 95%, which is the same percentage as Jim and Blair have with each other.”

Tony glanced away, fighting the feelings of anger and hurt. Again. “That asshole,” he whispered.

“Mind your shields, Tony,” Kyle said softly.

“Right. Sorry.” He focused on shoring up his empathic shields so he wasn’t leaking his angst all over the Center. “Well, let’s get this show on the road.”

– – – –

Tony slipped into the room and waited for Fornell’s shock to fade. “You know this would be a terrible idea,” he began, wondering what the two sentinels monitoring from the corridor would make of that statement.

Fornell sat back in his chair and huffed. “We’d kill each other.” Despite the fact that it was a terrible idea, Tony could tell they were compatible.

“In a day,” he agreed as he took the designated seat positioned several feet away. “Sorry, I was ambivalent about this whole thing and didn’t get the names before they set up the meetings.”

“And if you had, you’d have told me not to bother?” Fornell asked with a raised brow.

“Didn’t we just agree we’d be horrible together?”

“Yeah,” Fornell said with a sigh. “How’s Gibbs taking your obvious plans to leave?” At Tony’s look, Fornell laughed. “Give an old guy a little credit. You’re shopping for a sentinel, you can’t be too committed to staying at NCIS.”

“Hell, Toby, my look of incredulity was not in regards to your deductive skills but rather your privileged little sentinel viewpoint that I’m the one changing careers.”

Fornell’s eyebrows shot up. “Okay, I deserved that.”

“Damn right you did.” Tony blew out a breath. “Thing is, you’re not wrong. I resigned from NCIS—I’m kind of surprised you hadn’t heard. I thought I might as well find a sentinel before I figure out what’s next. Would appreciate it if you kept my online status to yourself until I know what the hell I’m doing with my life.”

He nodded his agreement. “I’ll keep it quiet.” He looked thoughtful. “Honestly surprised you and Gibbs aren’t a fit. You two have always had a kind of synergy about you.”

Tony glanced away.

Fornell was silent for several seconds, before softly saying, “Ah, hell, kid. I’m sorry. I just… he’s a fucking idiot. Even knowing we’d kill each other, I can’t imagine turning you down.”

Shaking his head ruefully, Tony shot back, “You shouldn’t settle, Fornell.”

“Nothing about being your sentinel would be settling, Tony,” Fornell said softly. Before Tony could reply, he added, “Whether you bond in the near term or not, you know the Bureau wants you. That was never a lie. They’ll even pay to fly you out to meet any compatible sentinels, and since you’re now a guide, they’d probably even let you have your pick of assignments.”

“Recruitment drive? Really?” Tony asked on a laugh.

“I’ll take my opportunities where I can. If Gibbs and Vance are too stupid to keep you, the Bureau will step up in a heartbeat.”

– – – –

After he’d had lunch, reviewing his meeting with Fornell over and over in his mind, he headed down for his meeting with Jen Morris. While Fornell was right at the upper age limit of Tony’s specifications, Morris was only four years older than Tony. She was the lead of a violent crime team actually based out of the FBI’s Baltimore Field Office. Tony going back to Baltimore probably wasn’t the best idea. He had a lot of enemies there.

Nodding to his sentinel minders, he opened the door.

She stood as Tony entered the room, eyebrows shooting up. She was taller than average at about 5’9, athletic, with pale blue eyes and dark brown hair.

“Agent Morris,” he greeted, noting immediately that she felt very different from Fornell. The other man was sort of empathically neutral to Tony, which was relatively easy to be around. Morris, on the other hand, was a little abrasive to him for some reason.

“Agent DiNozzo,” she greeted, obviously surprised. “I wasn’t expecting someone this old.”

He blinked at her in surprise and she seemed to get what she’d said, flushing a bit in reaction.

“I apologize. I certainly didn’t mean that the way it sounded. It’s actually a relief that you’re a little older than most newly online guides. The older I get, the more the idea of bonding with some guide barely out of college gives me nightmares.”

Nodding an acceptance of the explanation, he sat, and she quickly followed. He had a hunch they weren’t going to be any kind of fit, but didn’t want to just tell her to get lost. “Do you work with interim guides?” It was something Gibbs had never done, so Tony didn’t have that frame of reference.

“Yes. There’s a guide assigned to me now. She lives with me, and is part of why I’m pleasantly surprised that you’re over thirty. She’s twenty-four and means well, but I just can’t relate. Constant pop-culture references I don’t get, and she talks a mile a minute. But using my senses in the field to the degree I can with a guide is worth the weird references and chatter. At least, for the moment.”

He felt his expression become a little stiff. Oh yeah, no way this was going to work.

She frowned a little. “Is there a problem.” Hiding from a sentinel was no easy thing.

Not wanting to get into his own habit of quoting movies and stream of consciousness chatter when he was trying to work things out, he instead went with, “Why are you looking for a bond?”

Morris cocked her head to the side, looking like she was trying to puzzle him out. “Like most sentinels, I’m eager to realize the full potential of my senses, which I’d need a bond for, but, honestly, I’m old enough now to want a relationship in my life. Something real. I’ll admit, I’ve met a lot of guides over the years, and I haven’t found a guide I’m compatible with professionally and personally.”

“Meaning?”

“Well, I met a guide a couple years ago I quite liked, we really hit it off, but he was a lawyer. It just wasn’t going to work. Having a guide who was an agent would be a dream come true.”

“Professionally I can see how I’d be a fit, but we don’t know that we’re compatible personally.”

“But we could figure that out,” she countered with a smile.

He nodded, thinking through the issues. The next hour was spent drawing her into conversation, figuring out what the whole picture was. They made it to first names, but he knew Jen wasn’t a good match for him. He thought the major obstacle in her guide search thus far was that she had this romanticized notion that the right guide would fit perfectly into her personal and professional life. Like some sort of missing piece, rather than a person who would need someone to fit them, too.

There was nothing wrong with Jen Morris, as a sentinel or in any other respect. If he wasn’t sure at a fundamental level that they weren’t a fit, he might meet with her again and try to shift her world view a little. But he was so certain that he finally gave a polite goodbye and headed back to his room.

– – – –

Tony hesitated outside the door to the meeting room, getting concerned looks from the two sentinels trusted to keep tabs on him. It was his last meet of the day, but it felt more significant than the others because he and Derek were friends. They were the exact same age. In fact, their birthdays were three days apart.

They’d met a few years ago at the Y. Derek was coaching some kids’ basketball league when he was in town, and Tony was there for a pick-up game. They’d gotten to talking and had been buddies ever since. Mostly they got together to play hoops when their schedules permitted, but if they had the time, they grabbed a beer afterward.

It wasn’t like they were best buds or anything, but they got along well. He wasn’t sure how the sentinel/guide thing would affect that. And, truthfully, whether he wanted it to or not. Tony wasn’t blind to Derek’s attractiveness, he’d always been cognizant of it, but he’d been keenly aware that Derek was a sentinel and that had always stopped any sort of romantic train of thought.

He finally opened the door and found Derek leaning against the wall, arms crossed over his chest, expression curious. “Figured it was you,” he said as soon as the door was closed.

Tony cocked his head in inquiry, though he was trying to process what his empathy was telling him. He felt the pull of strong compatibility. He’d known he was compatible with Fornell when he concentrated on it, but Derek was something more. Something he didn’t have to put any work into.

Derek jerked his chin in the general direction of beyond-the-room. “Smelled you as soon as I walked in the door. It’s different now, but still you.”

Not sure what to do with that, Tony sat and drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. “I didn’t know who they’d set for me to meet until this morning, or I’d have given you a heads’ up.”

“Would you have wanted me to come?”

Tony blinked. “I… don’t know. I mean, I’m not bummed that you’re here.”

“Well, that’s something, I guess,” Derek replied with a half-smile as he pushed away from the wall. He took the chair that was designated for the sentinel, which was a reasonable distance from Tony—at least what the Center imagined to be reasonable. The sentinel minders would track Derek’s position in the room and if he crossed a certain mid-point without Tony’s permission, they’d intervene.

Derek slouched in the chair, looking casual and at ease, but he was obviously assessing Tony carefully. “So, what happened?”

“In what respect?”

“To you, man. You said you were classified as weakly latent. Also, you’re moving stiffly, you smell like you’re healing from injuries, and,” he tapped his own wrists, eyes flicking to Tony’s, “that says something.”

Tony glanced briefly at his wrists, the restraint marks still faintly visible even after more than a week and a half. Though probably only a sentinel would pick up the color change from any distance. He sighed. “I’m fine.”

Derek nodded. “Never said you weren’t.”

Huffing a little laugh, Tony appreciated that Derek accepted his own assessment. He didn’t have any reason to hide what had happened, and Derek had the security clearance to know what Tony had been up to. Although, the sentinels in the hallway most certainly did not.

“I was in Somalia working on something early last week,” he said cagily, figuring Derek would be up on the latest terrorist briefs. He usually was.

Derek’s eyes narrowed, then widened. “Okay. That’s not exactly a prime vacation destination.”

“Nope, and it was a bit of a rough ride.” He ran his thumb over the fading marks on his wrist.

Nodding, Derek was obviously thinking something through, but finally asked, “Feels like I’m missing some pieces of the puzzle.”

“The Center knows this part… I, uh, was given some bizarre drug cocktail. They’re not even sure what all was in it. When I got home, there was a spirit guide waiting for me and an empathic meltdown.”

“So that was you last week?”

Grudgingly, Tony nodded.

“I was out of town, but I heard about it.” His assessing glance seemed even more thorough. “You okay?”

“The drugs made my shields a little funky for the ten days they were in my system, but ya know, everything is fine now.”

“You know I’m not buying that, right?” Derek asked with a faint smile.

Tony snorted. “Well, pretend like you do.”

“Okay. For now,” he qualified. When Tony didn’t say anything further, Derek leaned forward, bracing his arms on his knees. “So, you’re looking for a sentinel?”

“I…” he hesitated. “I need to figure out where I’m headed next, and if a sentinel is going to be part of that, I should account for it now.”

Derek’s brows shot up. “That’s very… deliberate.”

Tony wasn’t sure what to say to that. Everything so far had felt very deliberate. At least until he’d walked in and his empathy had reached out for an old friend. Before, he’d had a plan. Meet sentinels, assess them, decide if he wanted one. Now he wasn’t so sure about the plan.

“Come on, Tony,” Derek suddenly said. “Man, we aren’t in each other’s pockets or anything, but we’ve always been able to talk. What’s going on?”

“There’s not much going on,” Tony replied. “I’ve been here since the empathic meltdown of doom.”

“That was a little bit literal for you,” Derek retorted. After a pause, he softly asked, “Tell me why you smell so sad.”

Tony frowned and stared at his lap for several seconds.

“Stop thinking of me like a prospective sentinel, and just go back to treating me like your friend. You can be straight with me.”

Blowing out a breath, Tony considered that for a few seconds. And, yeah, maybe that was the better idea. He had two listeners, but he’d gotten acquainted with them enough to feel like his maudlin personal drama was safe for their ears. The Center didn’t employ sentinels who were gossips. “Would you be surprised to hear I’ve been a little in love with my boss for… hell, as long as I can remember?”

“I would have said a lot from the way you’ve spoken of him. Were you guys not a match?” he asked carefully.

“Perfect match,” Tony replied stiltedly. “Even have a couple obscure proteins in common.”

Derek blinked, then swore. He rubbed his hand over his bald head. “I… man, there’s like nothing I can say that would be close to enough.”

Tony just shrugged. “I’ll get over it. The normal course of a broken-hearted DiNozzo would be at least six months of being mopey and maudlin while deflecting with an excess of movie references, and then overcompensating by flirting with anyone who would hold still long enough,” he said caustically. “But considering that I have to find a new job, and this brand spankin’ new deep and abiding ache for a sentinel, I don’t have the luxury of indulging in histrionics.”

Derek stared at him for several seconds. “Tony, taking some time to deal—hell, to grieve—makes sense. I can’t say I have any idea what sentinel-longing feels like, but do you have to rush?”

“I resigned from NCIS,” Tony retorted. “Which means I have nothing to do but learn to be a guide and figure out where my life is going. I don’t want to be in limbo, and I don’t want to start over twice. Seems like figuring out the sentinel side of things is the next step. Or at least seeing if I want to figure it out.” That was his rationale, but Derek didn’t feel like part of a carefully orchestrated plan. He was unexpected.

Tony tilted his head Derek’s direction. “But what’s going on with you? Last I heard, you weren’t doing the guide thing.”

“It’s not like I was set against it… I always kept my profile with the Center set to notify me of highly-compatible matches, but it was easy enough to just focus on work. But then…” he trailed off and glanced away, apparently lost in some thought. Tony couldn’t help but pick up on a lot of conflicted emotions, chief among them a sort of angry grief that Tony could more than relate to.

Wanting to end the awkward setup, Tony got to his feet. “Come on.” He headed for the door and waved off his sentinel minders. “Old friend, guys. We’re just going for a walk.”

He could feel Derek’s amusement as Tony managed to persuade the sentinels to go away, and led them to the back of the Center. The rear of the property was very large and nearly parklike, complete with a big pond. There were very few people in sight; late afternoon on a Saturday wasn’t a particularly busy time at the Center. Tony slipped on his sunglasses and began to walk, feeling at ease with Derek walking beside him.

“So, what’s going on?” Tony asked after they’d walked quite a bit away from the building.

“Meaning?”

“You don’t exactly feel great yourself.”

“You read me?” Derek asked without any obvious ire.

“Hey, you sniff me, I read you. Though, to be fair, there wasn’t a lot of intent. I’m still muddling my way through the use of my super suit.”

Derek snorted in amusement. After a few moments, he replied, “Just been a rough few weeks. Shitty case—one of the worst of my career—and when we got back, a serial killer attacked my boss in his home.”

“Jesus,” Tony whispered. “Agent Hotchner doing okay?”

“Yeah. He’s going to be out a couple more weeks, but he should be okay. Or as okay as anyone can be after something like that.”

“They get the guy?”

“No. We’re trying, but he’s still at large and still a threat.”

Silence reigned until they reached the far side of the Center property where there were a few plain stone benches near the tree line. Security fencing that was fairly unobtrusive for what it was prevented anyone from actually going into or out of the trees.

Tony sat on the bench and Derek did the same. “When we talked in the past, you had sort of alluded that you don’t work much with guides.”

“It’s complicated. I can use my senses to a higher degree without a guide than most sentinels, but it can be really taxing. During a case, I sometimes screw up and overextend myself and have to get some emergency support. I try not to let that happen because it can be a problem.” He stared off toward where the sun was just starting to set. “Sometimes I come to the Center for the figurative tune-up, or the Bureau has a sentinel support team for when it’s needed, mostly staffed by civilian guides.”

“So you started thinking more seriously about bonding to make things easier at work?” he asked carefully.

“Nah. Work will go on. It’s just… eventually you get tired of walking the road alone, you know?” he turned to look at Tony.

“Yeah.” Tony really liked that answer as a reason for getting a guide. “I get it.”

“So, what happens from here?”

“I’m not sure. The point was to figure out if I was compatible with anyone and then see if I wanted to meet more sentinels.”

“And?”

“And we’re compatible.”

Derek was watching him intently. “Yeah, I felt that, too. What about the other sentinels you met?”

“There were only three. One I was compatible with but it’s a definite no for several reasons. The second… most assuredly not compatible. And then you.”

“Which leaves the other half of your mission… do you want to meet more sentinels?”

Tony slid his sunglasses up on his head and met Derek’s gaze head-on. “Not really, no.” It was surprisingly hard to say, though he probably shouldn’t be surprised. Even though it was a different circumstance, he was risking being rejected by another sentinel.

“Good. I don’t really want you to, either.”

Tony felt warring impulses. He really wanted to take what Derek was offering, but he also wanted some time to himself… time without a building full of people keeping an eye on him. Time to sort out the remains of his life.

“We’ve been through the wars lately, Tony. How ‘bout we have dinner in a couple days and take our time figuring this out?”

He found himself smiling. “I can get behind that.”

They eventually took the leisurely walk back to the Center, then Derek departed. They never touched, which was a key final step for sentinels and guides who weren’t a perfect match to completely determine compatibility. But Tony actually had no doubt, and knew touch would come in time.

– – – –

Continue to Chapters 3 – 4  |  Return to Main Page

8 comments

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  1. AlisonK

    Aaargh! I have to go out! To get my chuffing hair cut. My hairdresser used to have wifi but doesn’t anymore; bah! I almost never have to go out! Well, this will be top of my list when I get back. I know it’s going to be worth the wait.
    In the meantime, can I ask a question – not one of those rude ones! (At least, I don’t think so) In the Reverse Big Bang LJ which I looked at after reading your EAD excerpt, people kept mentioning dropping out of the challenge in good time “without incurring a penalty”. What do they DO to you? Are there forfeits?! Do they send the boys round? My mind, it is boggled.

    I have had time to check out the cast page – The Stath! (pronounced Stayth. Well, by film critic Mark Kermode & me) Yay!

    Right, must go *drags self away from computer*

    1. Jilly James

      Hey! Sorry for the delay in answering your question. I had saved a few comments I needed to reply to and forgot to get back to them!

      In regards to the Reverse Bang. Each Bang has its own penalty system, but the NCIS one, if you drop out before claiming art, there’s no penalty. If you drop out after claiming artwork, you can’t participate in the next Reverse Bang challenge. If you drop out after the rough draft due date, you’re banned from all future Reverse Bang challenges.

      Cheers!

      1. AlisonK

        Ahh, I see. Thanks!

  2. Alexi Cyn

    Oh, sweet Circe. I want to beat the hell out of your Gibbs with a frozen trout, and then make him eat the evidence of my ire once it thaws. Butt munch!

    Tony and Derek however are going to make all kinds of pretty, so I’ll ignore Gibbs. The asshat.

  3. rigger42

    I really enjoy the almost gentle entry into possibilities with Derek. He isn’t treating Tony as fragile, but they’re both sensitive to the other’s needs, and there is an evident mutual respect and caring which is a really good place to start. Hopefully Tony can eventually see the situation with Gibbs more in line with the female Sentinel — ultimately personally incompatible. What a horrible feeling, though.

  4. zsuzsu

    this was beautiful. I have been hoping for something new from you and have been gobbling up the workshop stuff over at rough trade but this was a lovely gift. Thank you so much for sharing

  5. Pyrate Nyre

    I really enjoyed this story. Derek and Tony together is a treat add in a Sentinel/Guide story and its fantastic. I will be reading this one over and over.

  6. Lidil

    I like Derek Morgan.

    And Tobias Fornell? I could never see him as a Mundane.

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