– – – –
Sunday morning, before their healing session, Alex made his way down to Tony and Evan’s room. He was a little concerned about Tony. He’d clearly been pleased by Martin and Gibbs’ visit, but there had always been some underlying emotions that were confusing. The pair from DC had left yesterday afternoon, and Alex had expected a downturn in Tony’s mood during the healing last night, but instead there was an odd sense of relief and guilt.
They generally had a policy of not asking about the emotions Tony was feeling, since their access was basically due to a medical issue. Empathic healers tried not to pry unless it seemed to be negatively affecting the healing.
Evan opened the door with a smile. “Morning, Alex. Come on in.”
Alex admired Evan’s ability to do this kind of work. He and Tony had been living in close quarters for over a week and neither were showing signs of being annoyed with one another. But since Tony was confined to the Center, Evan took every chance he got to get out and deal with routine errands.
He found Tony seated at the small table in the room, drinking coffee.
Evan grabbed his coat. “I’ll be back in couple hours.” With a quick wave to Tony, Evan headed out.
Alex sat in the other chair, resting his kit on the table. “You ready to get those stitches out?”
“God, yes,” Tony exclaimed. “I’ve never had stitches in for two and half weeks before. I swear they get more annoying the longer they’re there.”
Snorting, Alex set up his stuff and pulled on a pair of gloves. One of the nurses would have been a more obvious choice for this, but Tony was so empathically touch sensitive, he was resistant to anyone unnecessary having physical contact. Alex had no problem with taking care of Tony’s arm, and was pleased Tony hadn’t developed an aversion to any of the healing team touching him. “I know the extra week sucked, but this wound was going to pull apart if we’d taken them out a week ago.”
“And here I always thought big gaping holes a man’s arm drove the women crazy,” Tony said with a smile.
“Idiot,” Alex muttered with more fondness than he should have for a man he’d known less than three weeks. As he began clipping the stitches, he idly remarked, “Have a few things to go over with you.”
Tony stiffened a little, then he joked, “If I’ve been framed for murder, just give me a little bit of a head start… I’m sure I can outrun the Bureau boys.”
Alex paused in his ministrations and looked up from his position hunched over Tony’s upper arm. “That happen often?”
“Three times,” Tony remarked, looking a little sour about it.
He froze for a second. “Seriously?”
“Yeah. I guess I just bring out the best in some people,” he said caustically. “So, what do you need to tell me?”
Alex started carefully pulling stitches. “Met with Morgan and Blair last night, and we agreed that we’re going to change up your schedule a little. Your healing sessions will be with only me from now on. Blair might stand in if I’m not available. We’ll continue twice a day for two days, and then on Tuesday we’ll reduce to once a day and see how things go. I want to see how you progress under a more conventional healing regimen.”
“Well, that sounds good. Is that it?”
“Nope. Your shields have been holding impressively well. You never seem to project emotion and only have a little trouble blocking emotions, and that’s no more trouble than any newly online guide would have.” He pulled the last stitch, then started to clean up. “So Morgan wants some trial runs back in the real world, and that’s up to you and Evan to work out. If everything goes well, you should be able to check out of the Center sometime toward the end of the week.”
Tony sat back hard in his chair, and Alex caught the oddest mixture of emotions. There was predominately elation, but behind that was a little dread. “Great. The stares and whispers have dropped off a lot, but I’m perfectly happy to not have to deal with it at all.”
Alex nodded. “A few other minor things… as Morgan discussed with you, you’ll continue to need a conservator for the near-term, especially since you’re prone to being yanked to the spirit plane, but the monitoring all of us are doing on your emotional state is going to stop.
“I’m going to teach you how to shield your emotions better, which I think you’ll do well with because you’ve done it accidentally a few times. With this shielding, someone would have to deliberately scan you to detect what’s going on, and you’d feel the scan. The trade off is that you’ll need to drop that shield periodically for Evan to check how you’re doing. Make sense?”
“Yeah. I… frankly, I like the idea of a little more privacy. And Morgan agrees with all this?” Tony asked cautiously.
“I totally get the need for privacy. The more your emotional affect has returned to normal, the more you’ve probably wanted everyone out of your head, and we’ve reached the point where you can have that.” Alex got up to throw the trash away, and then began packing up his kit. “Morgan had wanted the extra time here to make sure your shields stay steady, and even though you’ve gotten yanked to the spirit realm twice since Sean, your primary shield has been fine. He figures if being yanked to the spirit plane unwillingly three times in five days hasn’t rocked your shielding, that you’re doing pretty good.”
The second time it happened, Alex had been alone with Tony teaching him how use his empathy passively versus actively when Tony had suddenly gone down again. He had already been briefed that Tony had a way to summon Blair from the spirit plane, so he’d just called Jim and was told Blair had already responded, and they had to just wait. Tony came back about an hour later with the news that help had reached the sentinel from Los Angeles, who simply had just come online. Why that sentinel had reached out spiritually when so many wouldn’t even think of doing such a thing was a mystery to Alex.
The third episode was a little more dramatic. A sentinel undercover police officer in Salt Lake City had his cover blown, and was in danger of being killed. Somehow he’d connected with Tony, who’d been having breakfast with Martin and Gibbs at the time. With Blair relaying the information back quickly, help got there in time to save the detective.
Tony seemed to be thinking about something, and Alex let him be for the moment. Eventually, he decided to just ask, “Want to tell me what’s going on with you, Tony?”
“Oh, nothing. Just thinking.” He was absently rubbing at his chest.
Alex knew that little tic. It was the tic of the newly online high-order guide with a gaping hole where their sentinel should be. In time, it got easier to deal with and the rubbing stopped. Talking about it wouldn’t make it better. But Alex also knew that wasn’t the only thing on Tony’s mind. “Look, I know we haven’t known each other long, but I’d like to think we’re becoming friends. I’ve been at this guide gig a long time, so if you want to talk about whatever’s got you so down, I’m willing to listen.”
“Hey, no down here. It’s all been good news today.”
Raising a brow, Alex just stared. Yeah, he shouldn’t pry, but he figured it was okay because he was prying as Tony’s friend, not his healer.
Tony finally relented a little. “Man, I’m just trying to figure out what I’m going to do with my life, ya know? Every step I take here toward getting better is great, but it also takes me closer to having to make some decisions.”
Alex frowned a little. “I know you have to do the shaman training thing, and we have to keep you stable, but I figured you’d be heading back home. Not that we wouldn’t be perfectly happy to keep you here.”
Looking away, Tony was quiet for a few beats. “My life in DC is over. I’ll have to figure out something else.” He sighed, looking resigned. “Sometimes you just have to find a new home.”
If there was one thing Alex was sure of is that Martin and Tony were thick as thieves, and Tony also felt genuinely fond of Gibbs, so Alex really didn’t get it, but he knew relationships were complicated. He decided to wait it out, and he was a little surprised when Tony eventually started to give him a sketch of what had happened in DC, and why it was difficult that Martin had bonded to Gibbs.
At the end of the story, Alex blew out a breath. Now he got the glimmers of grief and anger he picked up from Tony. In reality, Tony was under a lot of emotional stress, and had been handling things even better than Alex had been aware of. It wasn’t easy to basically lose everything, and he could easily see that was Tony’s view of things. At the end of the day, he was sure Tony would still have Martin and Gibbs and a few other people, but right now, he could see how it wouldn’t feel that way.
After a bit of silence, Tony offered, “You know, I really do forgive Gibbs, but I’m still a little angry.”
Alex leaned forward and tapped Tony’s knee to get his attention. “Don’t take on any guilt about that. The two can co-exist. Sometimes we forgive in our head first, and our emotions take a little longer to catch up.” He considered his next words carefully, not wanting to be discouraging. “You know, one of the big disadvantages to being a high-order guide is that we sort of lose home until we find our sentinel. Even surrounded by family and friends, we’re a little adrift while we wait.
“Even if things were fine back in DC, you’d be feeling some of this. I’m not downplaying what’s going on, but the ache for your sentinel isn’t helping things. I don’t pretend to know where your journey is going to take you, but I am certain that you have a home here as long as you want one.”
Tony nodded, looking a touch uncomfortable. “Do you mind if I ask how long you were online before you found Vincent?”
Alex relaxed back in his chair and smiled. “I don’t mind. I got lucky in a way… I was only online for about eight months. I was twenty-two, had just joined the Navy, barely out of boot, when I came online. There’s actually a special S&G Center in San Diego specifically for training newly online military guides and sentinels. So I went there for two months of training. Because I was level nine, the military had to give me time to meet high-order sentinels in the hopes that the bonded couple can serve together. Also, the Council doesn’t want high-order guides sitting around unbonded if it can be prevented.
“So, for the next six months, it seemed like a parade of sentinels, but nothing. I was released back to my Naval base in Florida. I hadn’t even made it to my bunk when I was chased down by Vincent, who had me pinned against the supply building, sniffing me like a Thanksgiving Day turkey. Vincent had arrived at the base just two weeks prior after being in Panama. He’d been online for three years. And that was over twenty years ago.”
Tony looked surprised. “So you two have been bonded longer than anyone else.”
Alex assumed he meant of their small circle. “Yep. We’re the old married couple of the bunch.” He got to his feet, checking his watch. Vincent would be back in about an hour. “Now, let’s get your healing done.”
After their session, Alex waited for Evan to return, then sent a text to Vincent that he needed to talk to Morgan and would meet him shortly. He found the alpha was on a call, but he waived Alex into an office chair. A couple minutes later, he set down the phone and gave Alex his full attention.
“I had a long talk with Tony, and I’m not going to betray any confidence, but thought you should know that he’s been under a lot more emotional stress than we realized due to circumstances back home, and that’s a good indicator that he’s doing even better than we thought in terms of his guide skills. He’s ready to go back to Evan’s.”
Morgan leaned back in his chair. “I know.”
Alex’s brows shot up. “You know?”
“Yes, Gibbs told me. He wanted me to be aware in case it had any effect or relevance to the healing Tony is doing. Considering how stable Tony was during a visit that had to be constantly reinforcing a great loss… well, let’s just say it was a factor in my decision to discharge him from the Center before he gets his shaman gifts under control.”
“You old softie,” Alex teased.
Morgan rolled his eyes. “If that’s all, get out. I have things to do.”
Alex laughed and left to track down his sentinel.
Three days later found Alex staring out the car window at the dark wet streets of Cascade as Vincent drove them back to the Center. They’d left a couple hours ago, looking forward to a full night to themselves without Alex having to run out for a nightly healing session.
“Talk to me, Alex,” Vincent prompted.
Alex wasn’t sure what to say. He was worried and angry and even a little sad. “He was doing so well. Supposed to check out of the Center tomorrow, and now this. What if it’s a setback? How many knocks can one person take in such a short period of time?”
Vincent reached out and grabbed Alex’s hand, stopping the agitated movements. “Tony’s strong and resilient, and he’ll get through it. And we don’t know anything yet, so don’t tie yourself in knots worrying about something that might not even happen.”
“I know, Vin,” Alex whispered, using the diminutive of Vincent’s name that only Alex could get away with. “I just wish this whole thing of him getting yanked onto the spirit plane had never happened.”
His sentinel was quiet for several moments, before saying the obvious. “Good things have come of it.”
And Alex knew that, except… “Well, not tonight!”
“No!” He pulled his hand away and dragged it through his hair, trying to get his bearings. “He died! Tony got yanked to spirit plane just to have to suffer through the death of the sentinel he was there to help. How is that a good thing, Vincent? How is that fair or right or good?”
“I’m not saying it isn’t horrible. It is. I would never want to put anyone through that, but three other sentinels have been saved from situations ranging from distressing to desperate, and that’s because of Tony.”
“But what if this is a setback?”
“Then he’ll get better, Alex. I don’t know Tony as well as you do, but he’s damn determined. He’s not going to just give up.”
Alex couldn’t deny that, but he still internally raged that fate had dealt Tony such an unfair hand. He didn’t protest when Vincent took his hand again.
Tony’s first trip to the spirit plane to get Sean had been eight days ago, and now he’d had a total of four sentinels somehow pull him. According to Blair, the real mystery was why Tony went whether he wanted to or not. They were still trying to untangle that, but they had developed a system to handle the problem.
Tony seemed to be able to now control it just enough to at least warn someone and get to a seated position. Also, Tony and Blair had some kind of spiritual tether to one another, so when Tony arrived on the spirit plane, he pulled the tether to let Blair know he was needed, giving Blair freedom to not have to be at the Center all the time. Jim had certainly been easier to deal with after the Primes had been allowed to go back to their loft.
Everything had been going fine. There was oddness to deal with because, after all, it was Tony, but things were progressing. Tony’s shields had been solid. He was too empathically touch sensitive by far, but some guides just were and had to be careful about casual or excessive touch. And for those guides, it usually resolved itself after bonding to a sentinel. He sometimes had a hard time blocking emotions, but he had never projected an emotion outside of a training situation.
And then tonight, shortly after dinner, Tony had apparently gotten a pull. Sadly, it was just to get there and be able to do nothing but stay with the sentinel until he died. That was all Alex knew so far, but he had no idea what that might do to Tony’s healing, because he had no frame of reference for what shamans went through or felt when they were on the spirit plane. In the real world, it could cause empathic damage if a guide was too empathically connected to a sentinel at the time of the sentinel’s death. Tony sure as hell didn’t need more damage.
The car stopping startled Alex and he realized they’d arrived back at the Center. As soon as they were inside, a receptionist was directing them to a meditation room. Once they reached the room, they found Morgan, Marcus, Jim and Evan in various positions around the perimeter of the room, with Tony lying on the floor and Blair in a meditation pose by his head.
Morgan moved close and leaned against a wall by Alex. “Tony and Evan were just finishing dinner when he got the pull. Evan let me know and I waited to hear if there was anything urgent that came out of it. Next thing I heard was that Blair and Jim were on their way back here and that whatever sentinel Tony had been pulled to was dying. By the time I got here, Jim reported the sentinel had died and Blair was back with Tony. Blair hasn’t explained much. He’s been going to and from the spirit plane in order to get here physically. Tony hasn’t returned. We moved him up here from the café at Blair’s request.”
Alex nodded tersely. “Morgan, if he comes back and his shields are still solid, you need to stick with the plan and discharge him tomorrow.”
“I don’t know…”
He turned to look at the Center director. “Morgan, I get what most people might miss, okay? I understand that you’re feeling protective and worried, but it’s coming across a little autocratic. If Tony’s shields are stable, he doesn’t need to be here, except to come in for healing and training. He’s got to start getting his bearings in what amounts to an entirely new life.”
Morgan’s jaw was clenched and he said nothing. Abruptly, he pulled Alex out into the hall. “How can a man who gets yanked to another plane of existence possibly sort out a life around that? One that looks anything like what he knew? Until it’s sorted, he can’t drive, he can’t live alone, he probably shouldn’t be in law enforcement at all, but he definitely can’t be a field agent carrying a gun.” He turned away, clearly frustrated. “I hate this spiritual nonsense.”
“Why?” Alex asked, even though he’d asked before and not gotten an answer.
The alpha whipped around. “Because, in this case, we’re set up to fail. There’s nothing I can do here. With all the resources we have, we can’t fix this.”
“Morgan…” Alex sighed. “It’s not even our job to fix everything.”
“I know that.” Morgan uncharacteristically dragged his hands through his hair. The man was usually never that visibly ruffled. “It feels like the community has failed him, and I don’t want to add to it.” He took in a deep breath. “Plus I have an obligation to make sure everyone is safe.”
The door to the meditation room opened and Marcus stepped out. “Alex, can I have a minute with Morgan, please.” It clearly wasn’t a request.
Alex nodded. Marcus was the person best suited to deal with Morgan when he got to thinking he had to take care of everyone and everything.
He slipped back into the room and resumed propping up a wall. After a couple minutes, Evan was leaning next to him. “You okay?” he asked.
“Sure,” he said automatically.
“Shouldn’t I be asking you that? You spend the most time with Tony, and are closest with him.”
“I’m upset, and worried, and just a little bit pissed off.”
Alex sighed. “Me too, kid.”
A few minutes later, Morgan and Marcus returned, Morgan looking a little less tense, and Marcus kept him close. From there the wait seemed interminable, but it was probably only half an hour before Blair opened his eyes and rolled his shoulders. A couple seconds later, Tony took a deep breath, then opened his eyes and sat up. He blinked a few times, then glanced around before meeting Blair’s eyes.
The two exchanged a long look, before Tony nodded to whatever he was seeing, then softly said, “I’m fine, Blair.”
“Liar,” Blair said gently. “I know because I’m not.” Blair looked up. “Alex, could you scan Tony, and Morgan you scan me. I don’t think we’re going to find problems from this, but it’s better to be safe. I’ll fill you guys in after.”
Alex pushed off the wall and took a seat next to Tony, while Morgan did the same with Blair. His scan, oddly enough, made him think Tony was in slightly better shape than when he’d scanned him this morning. He carefully withdrew and met Tony’s eyes, eyes that seemed to carry a little more weight than before. “You’re fine.”
“Thanks, Alex,” Tony whispered, and then pushed himself to his feet. Blair got up at the same time, and pulled Tony into a hug, murmuring something Alex couldn’t quite hear. Next thing Alex knew, Tony and Evan were headed back to their room.
“What just happened?” Alex asked, turning to look at Blair.
Voice muffled due to being plastered to Jim’s chest, Blair muttered, “Let’s go somewhere else and I’ll fill everyone in. Then I’m going home to sleep for a week.”
A few minutes later, they were all around a table in one of the small conference rooms. Oddly enough, Morgan wasn’t pressing for answers, instead waiting for Blair to get there on his own.
Taking a steadying breath, Blair finally said, “It was a car accident. Something so simple and every day…” he trailed off, seemingly lost in thought. “We didn’t realize how dire it was at first. We got the info from Alain, the sentinel in the accident, then I went back to tell Jim, who coordinated with EMS in Wyoming, then we started heading back to the Center. Tony suddenly tugged sharply at our link and I went back while Jim was driving to find that it was clear Alain was dying. We both stayed with him, hoping help would arrive on time, but there was nothing anyone could do.”
Blair stopped, thinking for a few seconds. “I don’t know if it was me or Tony, but apparently a shaman on the spirit plane in a lot of emotional distress will bleed that out to the other shamans. Several of them came and we all waited out Alain’s death.
“I had to leave briefly to move into the Center, but when I got back, they were all still there. The other shamans did… well, I guess you’d call it spiritual healing, for Tony and me. Afterward, Emiliano, the shaman from Mexico, had some thoughts about how we could shield Tony a little from these pulls so he has some more control.” He broke off, looking really tired, before finally saying. “That’s basically it. We’re going to all meet again in a couple weeks, and we’re each going to try some things that might improve the situation for Tony, but there’s nothing much else for right now.”
As one, the room turned their attention to Morgan, who sighed. “Don’t look at me. I don’t know anything about this stuff. It only matters to me that you two are okay, and Tony’s shields are solid enough to be discharged tomorrow.”
“He’s fine,” Alex interjected. “And it’s probably for the best that he get into a more normal environment.”
Jim broke the meeting almost immediately after, herding Blair toward the truck. Alex found himself similarly ushered back to their vehicle by Vincent. He’d planned to talk to Morgan, but his sentinel pretty much ignored Alex’s protest.
Hours later, Alex was lying in bed awake, too wound up to fall asleep. He knew Vincent was still awake, though his eyes were closed. Alex finally sat up at the side of the bed, leaning his elbows on his knees. He thought about what Blair had said several days ago… about how spirit guides would be as present as the sentinel or guide wanted them to be.
He closed his eyes and focused for a few seconds, wondering if anything would even happen. Something butted against his knee, and he looked down to find his cheetah staring up at him. He reached out to pet the soft fur, and felt something inside him ease a little. The cheetah started to purr.
Alex felt the bed shift as Vincent moved up behind him, arm coming around the guide’s waist. “Want to introduce me to your friend?” his sentinel asked after a moment of silence. Vincent had seen Alex’s spirit animal before, but only briefly.
He twisted to give his bonded a kiss, then grabbed Vincent’s hand and guided it to the cheetah’s head.
Later as he fell asleep pressed up against his sentinel, with his spirit guide lying at his back, he thought there might be something to this spiritual stuff after all.
– – – –
EMS – Emergency Medical Service