– – – –
Tony wasn’t having the best day. In fact, most days were better than this one. After the really rough start, Blair had stayed until dawn. He’d suggested that Tony accompany him for the day, but Tony had declined, deciding he’d rather stay home.
Repeatedly he’d thought about calling Martin, but in the end had decided he didn’t want to have that conversation until he knew one way or the other. It was insane how much Jack meant to him after having talked to him for maybe a quarter of an hour. He kept telling himself that he barely knew Jack, but the guide in him was nearly grieving at the prospect of potentially losing Jack before Tony had ever had him.
Solon and Evan had shown up around eight, bearing bagels and coffee from Tony’s favorite shop, and hadn’t yet left. It was now nearing eleven and Tony was wondering, for the hundredth time, what half a day meant.
Jack had said it would take half a day for reinforcements to reach him. Did that mean a literal twelve hours, half of daylight hours, half a working day? And was it half a day there and half a day back? Would Tony even know something before tomorrow? He really should have asked Jack to be more specific. He’d talked to the general at three, so eight hours had already elapsed.
He forced himself to focus on something Evan was saying. He found himself smiling faintly at the pair sitting close together on his rent-a-couch. Solon was an interesting match for Evan. While Evan tended to be laid back due to his occupation as a conservator, Solon was just all out mellow. As in absolutely nothing ruffled the man. No matter how hard Tony tried. Of course, Tony wasn’t trying today. He was having a hard time finding humor in anything, so trying to rile up the world’s most placid sentinel held little appeal.
Solon was on leave while he and Evan decided what to do with their careers. It apparently wasn’t very common for a sentinel and guide mismatch to be so extreme, with Solon being military and Evan being firmly civilian.
Evan had just about talked Tony into a movie, when his cell ringing startled him into nearly fumbling it. The number was unfamiliar, but the area code was the same as the general’s cell. “This is Tony,” he answered quickly.
“Guide DiNozzo, this is General Hammond. I wanted to let you know that Colonel O’Neill and his team have been rescued, and they’re all alive.”
Tony’s world narrowed so sharply, he thought he might pass out.
“Mr. DiNozzo?” the general prompted.
“I’m sorry, I spaced a bit. I was just so relieved. And please, just call me Tony.” He hesitated a second. “Jack was okay?”
“No significant injury. He’s waiting for medical clearance before the mission debrief, then I’m sure he’ll be calling directly.”
Tony wanted to ask if Jack had chosen to be a sentinel or not, but he didn’t feel like he should be having that conversation with anyone but Jack. “Sir, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you calling.”
“It’s always a pleasure to deliver good news. Also, you have my sincere thanks for your assistance to Colonel O’Neill. I feel certain he didn’t make it easy on you.”
That surprised Tony into a laugh, though it was a bit wobbly. “Yeah, he made me work for it. Really, thank you again.”
“I’d like to ask one more favor of you, even though you’ve already rendered us a great service.”
“What can I do for you, General?”
“It’s in regards to those questions I mentioned previously. Would you be willing to come to Colorado Springs?”
Tony stiffened and shared a look with Solon, who he knew could hear what was going on. Solon looked less mellow than usual.
At Tony’s hesitation, the general added, “You’re welcome to bring anyone you need to, and I can call Sentinel Ellison to reassure him that you’ll be well cared for.”
“That would be fine, sir. I assume you’d want to do this sooner rather than later?”
“That would be my preference. I’ll give you my aide’s number, and he can arrange everything once you give the go-ahead.”
Tony took down the information, then said his goodbyes and hung up. Tony slumped forward, burying his face in his hands. A moment later, he felt a hand on his back, and knew even without his touch empathy that it was Evan. They’d always been comfortably touchy with each other.
“No,” Tony said, feeling a little hysterical, which was so not like him. He really needed some sleep. Taking a deep breath, he sat up. “I’m fine. He’s alive, that’s what matters.”
“Do you know if he chose to be a sentinel?” Evan asked cautiously.
“No, and I didn’t feel comfortable asking his CO that question.” He sighed. “It’ll probably be quite a while before he can call. If he calls. Wherever he is, it may not even be possible.” Pulling at his hair, he tried to make himself relax. “I need to call Blair.”
“Already done,” Evan murmured. “I texted him while you were talking to the general. Although, I gather from the looks you and Solon exchanged that I may have missed something.”
“The general wants me to come to Colorado. He’s going to call Jim directly, but I should talk to Blair, too.”
Evan blinked a few times. “Do you ever do anything the easy way?”
Tony snorted. “Thanks, Ev.”
Jack was the last one in the conference room. As soon as he’d stepped out of the Stargate, his senses had gone wild and he’d collapsed, completely overwhelmed by sensory input. He wasn’t sure what had happened until one of the guides on base had come down to help him stabilize. Doc Fraiser had insisted on keeping him in the single isolation room on base until he’d been steady for two hours.
General Hammond was seated with a notepad and a closed folder in front of him. The rest of the team were in their usual positions around the table. “How are your senses, Colonel?”
“Little trouble with the ears, sir. So if everyone could avoid any loud noises, I’d appreciate it.” He hoped his team would have a little mercy on him and avoid any outbursts for now.
The general nodded and cast a glance around the room. “We’ll try to make this short. I realize you’re all tired. I’ve heard the basics from Dr. Jackson about what happened from his perspective, and what was said by the people of PX-947. I’d like to know if, prior to the events of last night, you had been able to detect that there were sentinels and guides present?”
Jack shook his head. “No. Since becoming inactive, I’ve never been able to register sentinels or guides around me.”
Hammond’s glance flicked to Carter. “Major?”
Folding her hands on the table, she nodded and Jack blinked in surprise. “Yes, sir. I wasn’t aware of it in the beginning, but during the banquet it became clear to me. I planned to discuss it with the colonel as soon as the team had some privacy.”
Nodding, Hammond made a couple notes, then said without any censure, “I think as a matter of general policy going forward, we’ll want to inform the team leader immediately if anyone on the team should suspect the presence of sentinels or guides. We don’t encounter them often, but clearly it has the potential for a more complex cultural environment.” He glanced at Jack. “Colonel, next priority would be to always inform Dr. Jackson so he can plan his interactions with indigenous people appropriately.”
Jack nodded, opting not to say anything.
The general looked directly at Jack again. “I believe I’m the only one who has an inkling of what happened last night, and I’m fairly certain my details are somewhat sparse. If you would relay everything that happened after you were captured?”
Wanting to get this over with, Jack sketched out what had happened, starting with how he’d had conviction they weren’t going to get out of the situation, and thought it couldn’t hurt to try to use his senses to see if they could help in any way. “I’m not sure what I did exactly, but I suddenly found myself in the jungle and there was a guide named Tony asking me what the nature of my emergency was. He really was like sentinel AAA,” he murmured the last to himself.
He figured he’d gloss over a lot of the details of their conversation. And no point in mentioning that he’d summoned Tony in his PJs. He’d save that one for future blackmail material if he ever needed it.
Mentally, his thought processes ground to a halt at his assumption that he’d be around Tony enough to use that sort of information.
Daniel was the one who broke the silence. “You went to the spirit plane, Jack? You?”
“Why not me?” Jack asked a little disgruntled.
“You get hives at even the mention of anything metaphysical. Wait…” That was Daniel’s I’ve-figured-something-out face. “Shamans!”
Jack winced a little at the elevated tone and irritably asked, “What about them?”
“Sorry, Jack,” Daniel replied a little quieter. “But, the only guides that I’ve heard of who interact with the spirit plane are shamans. That’s what Sopo Eztli meant by holy man. He was talking about shamans.”
“Is it important to know what he meant?” Jack asked, genuinely wondering if he missed something.
“Well, from a linguistic perspective it’s important for future dealings with them, but not too relevant other than understanding that you were talking to a shaman last night, Jack.”
“And that’s important, why?”
Daniel frowned at him. “Shamans are the most powerful guides on the planet. There are less than a dozen of them on Earth. The only one in the US is Blair Sandburg. And whoever this guy was he sent his spirit animal to help you. That’s incredible.”
Before Jack could figure out what was incredible about it, the general interjected. “Mr. DiNozzo’s guide status is relevant inasmuch as he was able to help you, Colonel. So, if you would continue.”
“There’s really not much… after I explained that I was trying to use my senses, we had a discussion about what it means to be a sentinel, and that I’d have to choose it. He summoned his spirit guide so that I could try to get Gretzky to come to me. That worked, but Gretzky wasn’t really my biggest fan at the time.”
“And Gretzky is one of the tigers Dr. Jackson mentioned?”
“Yes. My spirit guide apparently. And you probably know the story from there, General. Tony asked me to please let him call someone, even though I thought it was too late, and I gave him your number.”
“And I’m glad you did, Colonel. Dr. Jackson has shared a theory with me that he believes on a subconscious level you were aware of the sentinel dynamics in play and responded in the only way you could.”
Jack wanted to glare at Daniel, but decided to let it be for now. “I’m not sure I’m sold on the pre-knowing bit of the program, but ultimately choosing to be a sentinel again is what got us out of the situation.”
The general nodded. “What’s perhaps most relevant is that you were able to make a connection to Guide DiNozzo while not even on Earth. Now, he has no notion of that aspect of the events, but I think it bears some further scrutiny. Guide DiNozzo has agreed to answer any questions we may have.”
Jack’s mind immediately went to work on the tactical advantages of being able to contact Tony from anywhere, but also on some inherent issues.
“Sir?” Carter asked, “Do we know enough about this man to risk bringing him into even the periphery of the SGC? If he’s really a shaman, he’s a powerful empath, but none of that means he’s trustworthy. Powerful guides can manipulate people’s emotions, that alone is cause to be wary.”
Expression giving away nothing, the general reached for the folder on the table in front of him, which had previously been ignored. Opening it, he seemed to skim the page a bit before speaking. “I had this started immediately after I green-lighted the rescue mission. I felt it wise to know who we were dealing with.
“Anthony Dominic DiNozzo, Jr., thirty-seven years of age. Born in New York, only child, mother deceased in 1981, father living but presently being detained by the Sentinel Council on unknown charges as of three days ago. Eight years at Rhode Island Military Academy, followed by sports scholarship to Ohio State to play basketball and football.”
Jack gave a start of surprise. He’d seen DiNozzo play, he just hadn’t connected the Anthony DiNozzo from watching college ball for years with Tony.
Daniel leaned forward intently. “Wait, he’s here in the US?”
“Yes. In Cascade with Dr. Sandburg.”
“Huh,” Daniel muttered, obviously lost in thought.
Hammond resumed reading from his file. “DiNozzo entered the police academy right out of college, six years as a police officer, youngest detective in Philadelphia’s history. Transferred to NCIS almost a decade ago, where he’s been the Senior Field Agent of the Major Case Response Team for almost ten years. A team which, incidentally, has the highest solve rate in any federal agency.”
That was not just good, that was damn impressive, Jack thought.
“Several commendations and notes about ops he’s worked, or cases solved, most notably he ran point on the op to bring down the terrorist cell in Somalia last year.”
Jack blinked. He remembered that. Bringing down such a large terrorist training camp had been big news.
“This past October, there’s an odd series of events that have very little explanation as to how they connect together, or even if they do, and the Sentinel and Guide Center are not being forthcoming, neither is the Council. DiNozzo was shot in the arm on October 27th in the course of investigating a kidnapping. The next day, he left for Cascade with Jim Ellison and Blair Sandburg, the Alpha Primes of the US. Coincidentally, a major investigation was launched into the Sentinel and Guide Center in the District the same day.
“Agent DiNozzo was registered with the Center as an online guide on November 5th, with a notation that he came online that day causing a major empathic event, though I’m uncertain exactly what that means. His name has popped up in military reports over the last few weeks for having rendered an unknown form of aid to a small number of military sentinels.”
The general put down the folder and glanced around the table. “I think we were quite fortunate that of all the guides who might have come across our path that it was this one. While there is no plan to disclose the Stargate program, if he were to deduce something he shouldn’t, or see something he shouldn’t, he has a long history at a federal agency, he has a reasonably high security clearance, and he knows the meaning of the word classified.”
Hammond looked around the table. “I have concerns that after our reports are filed, it could bring even more scrutiny onto this young man, possibly a dangerous sort of scrutiny. There are some indications already that too many people are looking into his background. I’d like him vetted as a possible asset, but I’d also like a risk assessment. We’ll be better situated to intervene in the event of an emergency if we’ve already engaged with him.
“With that goal in mind, I’ve asked him to come to Colorado Springs. I received word just before you joined us, Colonel, that he will be here tomorrow night in the company of Ellison and Sandburg. I realize you’re all due to stand down for two weeks, but I’d like you there for the meeting on Monday morning. With the exception of you, Teal’c.”
Feeling a rush of excitement that didn’t make much sense, Jack just nodded his agreement. Daniel and Carter both agreed – Daniel very readily, and Carter with a bit of reserve. Teal’c responded by simply cocking a brow in the way that indicated he was curious about the reason.
The general addressed Teal’c’s unspoken question. “The strongest sentinel in our program is level six, and, as you know, he can detect your symbiote. Ellison is rated at a level ten-plus and would most definitely have questions about you.”
Teal’c inclined his head in agreement. “A prudent precaution, General.”
Jack hadn’t noticed anything out of the norm about Teal’c thus far, but he hadn’t been extending his senses, and the few times it had happened accidentally, he’d been too strained to process any sensory input in any meaningful way.
“Is there anything else that needs to be discussed immediately?” Hammond asked, looking around the table.
Carter leaned forward, looking at Jack intently. “How long before you’re back to normal, Colonel?”
Jack thought about making a flip comment about him never being normal, but if Carter was going where he thought she was… “You mean the senses?”
“Elaborate please, Carter. Are you asking when I’ll have them under better control or when I’ll shut them off again?”
“I think I need to discuss that with the general first, but in point of fact, the senses are normal for me.”
“But you’ve been okay without them,” she said earnestly.
Hammond held up a hand. “I agree that Colonel O’Neill and I should discuss that separately. I’d like reports by Monday. If that’s all, everyone is dismissed, except you, Colonel. If you’d join me in my office?”
Jack followed the general back to his office and took a seat, fighting his weariness.
“How are you really, Jack?” Hammond asked, sounding concerned.
“Just tired, General. Nothing some sleep won’t cure,” he replied, evading the real question.
The general gave him a look. “I won’t keep you long, but I did want to discuss your new status. I don’t pretend to understand the mystical side of being a sentinel, but I want you to know you have my full support no matter what you choose to do in that regard.”
“Appreciate that, but it’s pretty much a done deal. I knew when I chose to be a sentinel again that this was the last chance. If I turn it off again, there won’t be another. And I won’t choose to. This is the way I’m supposed to be. I don’t know what level sentinel I am, but the last time, my temporary guide said I was a strong one, so that may pose an issue with our sentinel policy.”
Hammond shook his head. “I had that conversation with the SecDef while you were in isolation. No one is going to ask you to leave the SGC, and you’ll likely be a test case for whether we should selectively allow higher level sentinels in the program. That said, it’s vital you’re stable with your senses. So, you will be checking in with the S&G Center in the next week to officially register. And we’ll need to consider who your interim guide will be. Make arrangements next week to meet with the unbonded guides in the Stargate program to see if anyone is compatible.”
Jack wanted to argue, but he knew it was a necessity, so he just nodded.
“This spirit guide of yours, the Siberian tiger, will he be putting in appearances on base?”
Jack cocked his head to the side, considering. “I’d imagine he’ll come and go as he pleases, but as I understand it, he’s not usually visible to non-sentinels or guides. I’m not sure how much direction he’d take. He’s been a little grumpy with me once or twice.”
“We’ll take that as it comes, then. I understand that Lieutenant Cummings is on call in case you have any issues with your senses?”
“Yeah. He was very helpful earlier with getting things leveled out.”
“Good. Then I expect you’ll make the call if you need to. Also, Dr. Jackson will be staying with you for a couple days.”
Jack nearly groaned out loud. Doc Fraiser had recommended someone stay with him, but he hadn’t thought she’d get so insistent as to tell on him!
Hammond apparently read his expression. “You can stay on base, or have someone stay with you.”
He settled for holding up his hands in a surrender gesture. The general held out a small slip of paper. Jack took it and found it to be a phone number. “What’s this?”
“Mr. DiNozzo’s cell phone. He was very concerned for you. I’m sure he’d appreciate a call.”
Jack took it without saying anything, then diverted the conversation to another topic. They discussed a couple minor issues, before the general shooed him away. He found Daniel right outside the general’s office, propping up the wall.
With a sigh, he made an impatient ‘come on’ gesture. “Let’s get out of here before there’s a reason we have to stay.”
Daniel insisted on driving, much to Jack’s annoyance. He understood that his control of his senses was tenuous at best right now, but he didn’t like his life getting hijacked.
“It’s not forever, Jack. It’s just for a few days. You’ll live.”
He settled for staring out the window, noting there’d been several new inches of snow while they’d been off planet. After the silence had stretched into something that bordered on uncomfortable, he sighed and murmured, “Go ahead, Danny.”
The silence persisted for several more seconds, before Daniel finally said, “You never told me.” And there was a wealth of hurt feelings in that simple sentence.
Probably the only person Jack was willing to discuss this with was Daniel. “Deciding not to be a sentinel was one of the most painful decisions I’ve ever made. By the time it was no longer necessary, I couldn’t seem to unmake that decision. So why relive it?”
“Why would you have to make that choice? I don’t know when you came online, but the military has always been very pro-sentinel, they’d have surely helped you.”
“Sara,” Jack said succinctly.
Daniel was quiet for several beats before he said, “She made you choose?”
“Yes. Though she never would discuss her reasons.”
“How high a sentinel are you?”
“I don’t know. I never got tested, but my military guide said he thought I’d be high level, or something.”
“You don’t know much about sentinels, do you?”
“Not particularly. Other than the protocols for working with them or having them under your command. Obviously I planned to get up to speed after I came online, but things happened.”
Daniel huffed a little and focused intently on the driving. “I can only theorize, but I’m sure she feared sharing you with a guide, and ultimately losing you to one. Especially if you’re high-order.”
“I wouldn’t have left Sara for a guide.”
“If you’re high-order, and you met your guide, yes you would have. And the courts support no fault divorce in those cases because high-order pairs are too valuable.”
Jack sat up straighter in his seat. “There’s clearly something I don’t know, because I served with men who were married and had a guide.”
“Either it was an interim guide, or they were lower level.” Before Jack could say anything in response, Daniel added, “Let’s get to your place and have a beer and I’ll explain.”
They weren’t far off, so Jack subsided, mind spinning. He’d planned to call Tony immediately, but figured he could finish this conversation with Daniel first. Then call Tony, and then sleep for a week. It was good to have a clear priority list. Perhaps he should put food in there somewhere, too?
As soon as they were home, both with a beer and settled on the couch, Daniel asked, “Do you know what high-order means?”
Jack thought that seemed like an odd segue. “I assumed it was a pretentious way of saying high level.”
“No, although it does imply that because high-order sentinels are level seven and above, or level eight and above depending upon who you’re talking to. You could argue that it’s the nice way of saying high maintenance. High-order guides and sentinels have the most rigidity in their requirements of a bondmate in order to realize their potential. They have a single unique counterpart and cannot fully bond with anyone else, and the relationship is always sexual and monogamous.”
“So, you’re saying that if I’m high-order, there’s only one guide out there I can work with?”
“No, I’m saying there’s only one guide you can completely bond with and thereby fully utilize your sentinel gifts. High-order sentinels outnumber high-order guides, so the use of interim guides is common, but there’s no complete bond. They can achieve a physical and sensory bond, but not the bond of their spirit. Even with an interim guide’s help, the sentinel will never be able to fully use his senses.”
Jack tried to wrap his head around that. He’d truly loved Sara, but part of him had hated her a little for making him give up being a sentinel. But, if Daniel was right and he was high-order, if he’d ever found his guide, he’d have had to leave her. He wasn’t sure how he felt about his decisions getting made for him that way.
“We didn’t have any way of knowing what level I’d be,” he muttered.
“Well, she may just have not wanted to share you. And there’s a pretty common perception that all sentinel/guide relationships are sexual, even when one partner is married. And from what we learned in S&G studies, it’s certainly common for sentinels and guides who work closely together to have a sexual component to their interaction. But it’s only necessary for those that are bonded high-order pairs.”
Jack blew out a breath and scrubbed a hand over his face. “Well, that’s all fascinating, but it doesn’t really mean much. I made the decision, and reliving it wasn’t something I wanted to do. And that’s why I never said anything. So don’t go thinking anything crazy like I didn’t trust you. That was never it.” He put down his beer bottle, then pushed up off the couch. “Get some sleep, Danny. I need to make a call then I’ll be crashing myself even if it is barely evening.”
“You have to call someone?” Daniel asked idly, grabbing the beer bottles.
“I promised Tony I’d call,” Jack commented, hoping it sounded casual. The look Daniel sent him said he hadn’t quite succeeded, but he was tired so he was gonna cut himself some slack.
“Ah. Well, please tell him how appreciative I am. He may have been responding to your spiritual distress, but he saved my butt, too.”
Jack scowled at Daniel over the spiritual distress remark, but settled for just waving him away. He pulled out his cell and punched in the number before he could change his mind.
After the second ring a voice answered, “Hello?”
He instantly felt his sense of hearing level out, and it had been making him insane all afternoon. “I hear I’m going to be seeing you the day after tomorrow.”
“Jack!” Tony gasped. “Are you actually okay or was your CO blowing sunshine up my ass?”
Jack snorted. “I don’t think General Hammond has ever blown sunshine anywhere.”
“If that was an evasion, it was lousy. You’ll need to practice more.”
He found himself smiling. “Evasions are plebeian… I prefer misdirection.”
“That’s just lazy. Evading takes work, getting people to chase their own tails is the strategy of the shiftless. Or perhaps the easily amused.”
“Or both. Shiftless and easily amused.”
“And still evasive. So answer the damned question.”
“I’m fine, Tony. No injuries. Just tired.”
He heard Tony blow out a breath before he said, “I’m glad, Jack. Really glad.”
After a few beats of silence, Jack finally said, “Are you gonna ask?”
“No. And not because I don’t want to know.” There was some kind of strain in Tony’s voice, and Jack caught himself trying to turn up his hearing to catch it more clearly. He forced himself to level it back out.
He wanted to tell Tony, but he suddenly was acutely aware that his calls were probably monitored, by the NID at a minimum, and he just didn’t want his online status broadcast yet. He probably only had a day or two before the reports trickled through the system, but he’d take it. And he was a little concerned about the general’s comment that people were looking into Tony already. He certainly didn’t want to give anyone a reason to look closer.
“I want to talk to you about it, Tony, but this isn’t really a secure line and I’d prefer to keep it between us. It’ll keep until Monday.”
“You mentioned Monday before. I take it you’re going to be at the meeting?”
“Yeah. I’m the 2IC, and some of my team will be there as well.”
“Look, there’s something you need to know before we meet, but considering what you said about security…” he trailed off.
“Will it keep?”
After a couple seconds, Tony sighed. “Yeah. Of course.”
“I need to get some sleep. It feels like it’s been days.” He decided he needed to give Tony something. “But, listen, just so you know, Gretzky was the best. And we have a total mutual admiration society going on. So, everything is fine.”
There was a funny little choked sound and Jack didn’t know what it meant. “Thanks, Jack.”
“Just so you know, what you said last night made all the difference. See you soon, Tony.” He terminated the call before he could change his mind. It was insane that he was so reluctant to hang up. Even crazier that he felt the best he had all day after only a few minutes on the phone with a man he barely knew. Maybe sanity would return if he got a little sleep.
– – – –
CO – Commanding Officer
SecDef – Secretary of Defense
2IC – Second in Command