Lay In Wait – 1 – Sunfire

Content Rating:
  • NC-17
Warning(s):
  • Explicit Sex
  • Violence-Canon-Level
Genre(s):
  • Contemporary
  • Crossover
  • Romance
  • Slash
Relationship(s):
Tony DiNozzo/Ian Edgerton

Word Count:
7,040/10,000

Author's Note:
This was supposed to be two separate posts. Now it's one. I'd scream in my pillow but last time I scared the dog.

Summary:
Tony and Ian are friends, as long as he ignores that pesky attraction and the fact Ian's online and Tony isn't going to be. And it's fine. Then Tony finally does come online as a Guide. He isn't sure if he should be relieved or heartbroken.

The noise cut like a knife through the first actual sleep Tony’d had in a week. The sharp tone reignited the headache that had only just started to fade and he let out a groan as he reluctantly shifted just enough to try and see what had made the painful racket and what exactly he would need to do to make it go far, far away. The blurry sight of the computer propped open on his nightstand caused a moment’s confusion until the blue and white screen of an incoming call woke him fully. Lack of sleep combined with the small surge of adrenaline left him fumbling to sit up and answer the call simultaneously.

Because of the nature and location of Ian’s work, he was often completely out of contact for days or weeks at a time. The Army tended to take advantage of his considerable skills at every conceivable opportunity regardless of how tired or stressed he might be. The fifth best sniper in the US, Ian could ask for a lot of concessions and not have to fight that hard to get them under most circumstances. But the man hardly ever used his worth to his own advantage in that way.

As far as Tony knew, the only thing the Sergeant Major had demanded of his chain of command was that he always be able to contact his sister and the Center any time it was at all possible. The fact that Ian chose to also use that allowance to speak to Tony was something the NCIS agent had held close for the past seventeen months. Just the sound of his friend’s voice every week or two was reassuring in a way he refused to examine. The majority of their contact was through email, though phone calls were usually possible about twice a month, which was more often than he had anticipated when he’d heard his new friend had been recalled to active duty in the wake of 9/11.

Ian had called and left him a message the day he’d left DC but Tony hadn’t had the time to even check his voicemail during the chaos. He’d only been working at the agency ten days when it happened, and he’d been buried in the bureaucratic and emotional fallout for the rest of the month before he even got his feet back under himself. He could still so clearly remember the message and his own unjustifiable anger and resentment at the news. He’d been sure that the fledgling friendship they had been forming after his time under the sniper’s tutelage at FLETC was doomed to a quiet and abrupt end.

The first email only a few days later, despite its brief and rather generic content, had been as much a surprise as it had a relief. Those emails and phone calls seemed to get him out of his head and provided almost what he needed to ease his transition into federal agent. But it was the video calls that he always looked forward to. Few and sometimes far between, they smoothed his edges and he really didn’t care how or why.

Which was why he routinely left his computer close by and able to receive a call whenever he was home, on the off chance his friend and former firearms instructor had the opportunity to do so.

“Shit!” he grumbled as he lunged to catch the laptop before he knocked it onto the ground.

The musical bleeps sounded again and Tony only just managed to answer as he dropped the computer in his lap. When the camera blinked on and the call connected he was greeted with a familiar face that looked as weary as he felt. The other man’s cheerful hello trailed off with a frown, no doubt at the bedraggled sight of the Agent.

“You okay?”

Tony waved off the question with a tired smile. “Fine. Just catching some Z’s. How are you doing, man?”

“You’re taking a nap? Isn’t it the middle of the afternoon over there?”

He shrugged dismissively even as he covered a yawn. “Had a hot case, just wrapped it up yesterday. I’m not on call this weekend so I crashed as soon as I got home,” he explained, then hurried on before the man could say something stupid like he could let him go to get some sleep. “You look like you could use a nap yourself, Lawrence of Sniper-abia. How’s it going over in the great sandy beyond?”

The pinched look around Ian’s seemed to lessen, though the concerned frown remained. “Just finished a long one myself. Have a few days at the base before I go back out. How long did that old jarhead keep you at the office this time?”

Tony rolled his eyes and fought another yawn. “Only took us three days to catch the bad guy, I had dinner every night mommy, I swear.” He made sure to keep his tone as light as possible and left off the fact that said dinners had mostly consisted of stuff from the vending machine scarfed down at his desk. Ian had a surprising tendency to mother-hen and as annoyed as he should feel at the somewhat hypocritical behavior, the newly minted SFA mostly just didn’t want his friend to worry when he had more important and dangerous things to concern himself with in the middle of an active war zone.

The obvious signs of stress faded just a little when Ian shook his head and curled his lips in a very subtle smirk. “Right. And I’m sure those meals were much healthier than my SMRE’s.”

Tony rolled his eyes again. They had talked a number of times about the soldier’s opinion of the Sentinel-safe MRE’s the Army supplied him when he was in the field. Designed to prevent spikes on the taste sense, the meals were bland in the extreme and several of the field-Guides the sniper had been assigned in the past had joked that they looked forward to a transfer just to improve their food choices. When a Sentinel served with a unit the others often ended up with SMRE’s as well because they were supplied with the intent that the Sentinel would not be left in a position to have to eat something that might cause a sensory spike if rations ran low.

A scowl flirted with the corners of his mouth as it often did when he thought of the Army Guide currently assigned to Ian in the field, Tony pushed aside all thoughts of rations and meals shared in the middle of nowhere-Afghanistan and instead focused on a tidbit the other man had included in his last email.

“Any word on the rankings?” The satisfied expression that settled on Ian’s face as he leaned back and seemed to get a little more comfortable was a welcome sight. Tony found himself easing more comfortably into his pillows in response.

“Heard when I got to base this morning, actually. Looks like I’ve moved up one.”

“Fourth best sniper in the US,” DiNozzo said, grin spreading across his face with a feeling of pride he knew he had no right to feel. “I’m sure it will have the little probies all atwitter when you finally get around to teaching another class. Better brace yourself, I’d hate for the horde of sniper groupies to knock you on your ass when you get off the plane.”

Ian laughed, voice sounding lighter than it had only a few minutes before. “I think I’ll be fine, but thanks for the warning. How about you? You’d said the Major Case Team they’d started was getting off the ground. Should I assume that means the Senior Field Agent designation is now official?”

“Yeah, just last week. Very Special Agent, Anthony DiNozzo, SFA of the MCRT, at your service.” If he’d been standing, he probably would have made an elaborate bow, but feeling rather comfortable in his soft bed, Tony settled for a wide smirk instead. Either way, Ian laughed again which had been the point in the first place.

“So how is it with the extra pair of hands?”

Tony sighed, yawning into his hand and glancing away briefly. As hectic and horrible as his first weeks had been almost a year and half before, he had settled in. He and Gibbs had made an effective team. If he occasionally felt a small niggle of unease, he was probably being paranoid after everything with Danny back in Baltimore. Yet, it was a solid job for a decent agency and he was getting justice for people as he had wanted to when he’d first joined the Peoria PD seven years before.

So he aimed his best smile at the little green light and ignored the suspicious narrowing of Ian’s eyes. “Things seem to be coming together pretty well, all told. A few bumps, some growing pains. But overall, not bad for a baby team. I don’t think we’ll be graduating past TAD’s for a while, though. I think any team with Gibbs in charge is going to be a puzzle that requires a rather irregular piece to fit in.”

The sniper huffed and arched a single dark brow. But a few seconds of silence and another too-bright smile seemed to convince him not to push. They kept the conversation as light as possible given that Ian was almost half way through his second year on deployment in Afghanistan. From what Tony had been able to glean from his growing circle of contacts in DC, the sniper had earned himself a rather legendary reputation in spec ops. Yet glowing reputation, climbing sniper rank, and successful missions aside, active duty in a war zone was stressful for anyone, let alone an unbounded Alpha Sentinel.

“How has the case load been lately? Has it been a lot different being Major Case?”

“A bit. A few more murders than has been our norm. And one of them was a big ta-do according to the SecNav’s office.” Tony waved his hand around in the air to denote the extent of the issue. “Seriously, it was like a freakin’ film noir. Complete Scarlet Street thing going on with this Senior Chief Petty Officer and her fiancé and a Commander they thought had this huge trust fund that actually belonged to the nephew that was named after him. It was ridiculous. I kept expecting Edward Robinson and Joan Bennett to walk through the damn bullpen.”

Tony gave an animated description of the final interrogation and smiled at the way Ian rolled his eyes. Even so, the agent watched his friend closely as he always did, though he wasn’t sure what he could do if he saw signs the other man was starting to succumb to prolonged sensory issues. And he wondered a lot. Every time they were able to video chat, once the initial relief had subsided Tony could easily note Ian’s exhaustion and the stiff posture and expression he knew indicated a recent spike or fluctuating senses or any other problem. It never did him any good to ask, of course. Ian always replied that he was simply tired from his last mission and had everything under control.

Maybe it was even true, he thought as the soldier took his turn regaling him with a description of a friendly basketball game at the base that turned less than friendly and ended with two Corporals covered in mud. After all, Ian always looked better by the time they finished a chat. Even now, he could see the sniper’s shoulders dropping and the lines of tension around his eyes and mouth smoothing out. Though it was probably best not to think too much about his mouth, Tony decided as he laughed at the story.

“How exactly did they find that much mud? You’re in a desert.”

Ian shook his head with a smirk toying at his lips. The smirk remained in place until a half hour later when something caught the man’s attention and had him turning back to the screen with a less amused expression. “Looks like I’ve got to go. I should be able to call again in a couple days, though.”

Tony forced himself to smile as he said goodbye, reminding himself silently that his friend looked a lot more relaxed than he had at the start of their call. It wasn’t until the little green light had gone out and his screen returned to the familiar blue and white that he spoke again.

“Be safe, Sentinel Edgerton.”

— — — — —

As he placed his order at the counter, Tony DiNozzo too easily spotted his friend sitting in the back corner of the café and as it always did, the sight felt like a punch to his stomach. The ache it left was usually ignored almost as easily after almost three years of practice. Even so, the echo of what he had just been told by the DC Center’s Guide Coordinator was enough to interfere with his hard-won ability to disregard his more inappropriate feelings for his good friend.

He forced a smile as the other man spotted him and settled back in his seat with a subtle smile of his own. “Hey, Ian,” he managed to say with near nonchalance.

When Tony had first seen Ian Edgerton, he had felt immediate and lingering disappointment.   The man was hot enough to leave the former cop wanting to fan himself with one hand, and the sniper’s calm and deserved confidence in his expertise with firearms and their related subjects had been almost overwhelming in its attractiveness. Yet the man was his instructor, and therefore unavailable. The individual attention he – or most likely his decent skill with guns – had garnered the soon-to-be NCIS agent had been a needed boost to his own confidence in the wake of his leaving Baltimore.

He had tried his best to ignore how personally flattering Agent Edgerton’s attention had felt. The task had become both easier and far more difficult after learning the slightly older man was an unbounded Alpha Sentinel. Tony silently insisted that the almost hollow feeling behind his ribs that had been growing anytime he thought of his friend’s online gifts was only a result of his lifetime tendency to want most what he could never have. The desire for the unattainable felt especially strong as he took a sip from his espresso and did his best to act casual.

“Tony,” Ian said with a small nod and a swallow of his own coffee. Acting casual, however, seemed to be impossible for either of them as the FBI Agent cocked a brow expectantly and dropped his hands towards his lap briefly before folding them between them on the small table. “How was your appointment?”

He had to clear his throat as the overly large sip of his drink scalded his mouth. It was hardly shocking that Ian would immediately ask about the appointment. His friend had been pushing him to go to the Center in the month since Tony had finally admitted aloud what he had been silently considering since the start of the year. He had yet to decide if he had spent November and December so distracted by work and his friend’s return to the US and the FBI after his final enlistment that he simply hadn’t noticed the gradual change or if the shift had only begun in January. That was certainly when the small trickles of empathy had become apparent.

Even so, he had stewed on the possibilities silently for nearly four weeks before mentioning his suspicions to Ian. The Sentinel had spent all of February poking at him to go see someone at the S&G Center for a check up. And there had been plenty of opportunities to do so since after the soldier’s return from Afghanistan, they had gotten into the habit of calling or texting almost every day in addition to meeting for coffee or a meal every two or three days. He normally waited until the middle of their conversation to ask about it, however. Tony could only assume that since he had finally given in gone to the Center, Ian had decided such tactics were no longer necessary.

“You did go, didn’t you?”

“I went,” he responded, feeling unaccountably defensive. Tony took another, more careful drink as he sorted through the many conflicting emotions brought on by the news he had received less than an hour before. He sighed heavily at the impatient look Ian gave him. “Guide Binsa officially updated my status from Latent to Latent Sensitive before I left.”

The expression that covered Edgerton’s normally rather stoic face appeared to be some combination of satisfaction and excitement. Tony inwardly cursed the tendency of Gifted individuals to automatically find any indication of awakening gifts to be a reason to celebrate. Of course, Sentinels were always that much more pleased by the possibility of a Guide coming online, but he had hoped that his friend would refrain from expressing that until he himself had decided if he were more eager or dismayed by the change of his status.

Ian’s expression smoothed and he raised an eyebrow in silent question. When Tony only took another drink he asked it aloud, voice lacking any apparent opinion one way or another. “Are you disappointed, then?”

He pushed his half empty espresso out of the way and set his arms heavily on the table. “It’s not that, exactly. I just…” Tony sighed again, pulled the drink back to himself and took a long swallow. “My mother insisted on the blood test when I was about seven. She’d been classified as weakly Latent, as had her younger brother. By the time I was nine I pretty much gave up on the possibility that being officially Latent would actually make any kind of difference on my life. Though I’m pretty sure that it was one of the reasons Senior stopped even talking about taking me on his business trips after that.”

Draining the last of the espresso, Tony set the cup on its saucer and pushed it away again. “Actually expecting the possibility of coming online seemed ridiculous after I was eight. After all, if I was going to, it would have been when I was trapped in the wreck of my mothers’ car watching her die. And if not then, it would have been when I was shunted off to a boarding school within hours of her funeral.”

He ran a hand over his face, pointedly not meeting his friend’s gaze or even looking in his direction. He knew the frustration and confusion was clear in his voice, but he was determined to keep hidden the painful hope that lingered underneath everything else. “Even with what’s been going on, I didn’t really think I might…” Tony trailed off with a small sound of frustration, not entirely sure what it was he was trying to say.

Tony ran one hand over his face a second time, letting the other lay limp on the table.   The NCIS agent startled at the feel of a warm, calloused hand settling over his own. Green eyes darted up to meet Ian’s dark gaze for the first time since he joined him at the table. That gaze was sharp and glinted with something that his barely flickering empathy had no hope of distinguishing.

“Are they going to arrange a conservator for you?”

He finally managed an actual smile. “I’m hardly that bad off. There’s only been a few fleeting emotions here and there, barely enough to give me a headache. The doctor at the Center thinks it could be months before I actually come online.”

Ian’s brow furrowed with the concerned look of overbearing Sentinels everywhere. “Unless something happens to trigger it. You’re not exactly in a line of work that keeps you safely tucked away in a low stress environment. You’ll be taking classes at the Center, right? A Guide there can assess your progress regularly if you’re going every few days for training.”

Tony couldn’t help but roll his eyes. “I took all the latency classes at my local Center from 14 to 18 just like all other known latents. Plus the required Intro to S&G course in college. I’m not exactly flying blind here.” The sniper’s brows lowered with a tense expression, but DiNozzo didn’t give his friend time to say anything as he continued. “They have asked me to take a short refresher course, though, so I’ll be going to the Center on the weekends I’m not on call to brush up on things.”

“Every other weekend is not exactly sufficient to monitor the development of your sensitivity. You should talk to the Guide Support Services at NCIS, set up a weekly check in or something. Though, really, a visit to the Center every few days would be better unless you do arrange a conservator.”

“I don’t need a conservator, Ian,” he repeated with fond exasperation at the not unknown sight of the Sentinel’s protective side. His friend had not refrained from speaking up on the occasions when he felt Tony wasn’t taking proper care of himself. Even when the man was deployed, he managed to badger him about such things and that tendency had certainly not gone away since he had returned to the states. As evidenced by the month long campaign to get Tony to get the check up at the Center. “I’ll talk to someone at NCIS if I need to, but the classes at the Center should more than cover it for now.”

The single dark brow that rose in disbelief was enough of a response to make Tony shake his head with a small chuckle. “Seriously, Sentinel Worrywort, it’s fine. But if it makes you feel better, I’ll send you a text after each visit to let you know what the Guide instructor at the Center has to say.”

Tony laughed again when the sniper only sent him a tepid glare, shook his head, and finished off his coffee without a word.

— — — — —

Tony did, indeed send Ian a pithy assurance after his first refresher course the next weekend but there was no reply forthcoming as the man had been sent to track down a dangerous felon for the FBI and was out of cell range.

The week that followed was almost too quiet without the daily text bugging him about his empathic state or whether he had reconsidered a conservator or more frequent check-ins with the Center. At first he was almost thankful for the break from the long distance coddling his friend seemed to be indulging in, but after a few days the quiet became less and less comfortable.

When they arrived back at the Navy Yard Thursday morning, it was barely past dawn and he had already been working four hours. The discomfort and general uneasiness he felt as he and Kate checked in evidence was not difficult to write off as lack of sleep. But as they headed to the elevator, the feelings became harder to ignore. The formless dark sensation was almost a physical thing trailing behind him by the time they reached the bullpen and he had to brace himself on the doors as he stepped out of the elevator car.

Even so, he did his best to get to work, knowing that with the possible terrorist too dead to talk they had a lot of work ahead of them to finish the case. Tony had to take a deep and purposeful breath before he could so much as read the contents of his computer screen. He was so wrapped up in pushing past the dread and hate and anger that he completely missed the barked orders his boss was currently giving. He knew the retired Marine was telling him to do something but he simply couldn’t spare the mental energy to even process the words as he struggled with the feeling of an invisible weight hovering over his head. He didn’t even jump when Gibbs slammed his hand on his desk with a few sharp words.

The anxiety was almost overwhelming, the feeling of impending attack so strong he wanted to reach for his weapon. The sense of wrong and danger and threat became suffocating. He wanted to say danger, danger Will Robinson but was far too focused on figuring out what was going on to actually say the words aloud. The sound of a ringing phone startled him to his feat in a way Gibbs’ shout of his name could not. The formless threat turned sharp, his focus zeroed in on Kate where she sat at her desk on the phone and he stepped forward only to have a hand on his arm prevent him from doing so. The rest of the world flooded back painfully and he winced at the sudden mental noise, including the sound of his team leader’s angry words.

“DiNozzo! What the hell…” the rest of the yell slipped past him completely as he caught sight of something standing behind his boss.

“Something’s wrong,” he muttered under his breath, “and there’s a big freakin’ cat.”

Out of the corner of his eye he saw the older man freeze in place, then quickly glance behind himself before turning back, his hands settling heavily on Tony’s shoulders. “What kind of cat is it, DiNozzo?”

“Big cat. Wild. Fuck, I think it’s some kind of leopard or something.”

A sudden, sharp shake pulls his attention back onto his boss, finally able to focus enough to hear the man ask him what it was that felt wrong. He opened his mouth to answer but when Kate picked up a box and turned towards the elevator it was like someone snapped a giant rubber band in his face, the sound echoed in his head and he flinched back from the nonexistent stinging snap. “We have to go,” he said without thought or inflection.

Then he was moving forward, pushing past Gibbs and then Kate like they weren’t even there. He heard her say something in a sharp tone and was vaguely aware of Gibbs following on his heels but everything else was just too hard to process, because there was already way too much in his head. Foreign anger and hate and disgust and the steady desire to kill someone was rushing into him. And above all, his own need to protect screamed at him to go.

So he went. He was striding towards the door to autopsy, Gibbs and the cat on either side before he could acknowledge where it was he was going. Those darkly foreign emotions were growing stronger but he didn’t even pause. The urge to deal with the threat pushed in at him from every direction and he pushed back. He pushed forward and as he did so, he saw the cat run through the doors. There was yelling, a shuddering growl, then screams.   Then Ducky was opening the doors and Gibbs was rushing through with his gun drawn. A spike of distant rage made him push harder and then his boss was yanking a man to his feet, hands cuffed behind his back.

Everyone was talking, someone nearby was screaming, one of the temp Guides at the Navy Yard was running up behind him. But he still couldn’t tear his gaze from the unknown man where he was slumped over in Gibbs’ hold, face screwed up as if he were in pain. As soon as the man opens his eyes, the cat makes an aborted leap in his direction, causing him to flinch back.

“Somebody get … out of here … call … consulate …”

Tony can’t help but laugh at the almost smug look on the animal’s face and it is as if the noise knocks him out of whatever had taken hold of him. Tony can’t help but stagger into the wall at the rush of emotions and mental noise that resulted.

“… Center … now … space …”

He felt his shoulder hit the wall just before his knees hit the floor. He knew the cat was in front of him and his team was somewhere above him, but beyond that he knew nothing until the animal nudged his chest and disappeared.

“… here … move back … Guide … help …”

The sudden loss pulled a cry from his burning throat, at which point he knew that he had been screaming without even hearing it. He reached blindly for the missing animal and an unknown hand grasped his.

“… buffer … help …”

Then it was like a blanket had been thrown over him, but in his head. The noise quieted slightly.

“… block receptors … need to … give him …”

A wall slammed down between him and the continuing onslaught with a suddenness that had him rocking back, shoulder hitting the wall behind him with a dull thud he felt rather than heard. Then another hand was on his arm and there was a pinch. Then there was nothing.

— — — — —

When Tony swam back to consciousness, the first thing he saw was a cat. A very large, very wild looking cat whose almost boxy head was hovering just above his own where he lay on the unfamiliar bed. The animal had a mottled tan coat covered with dark splotches. The variation in size, shape, and shading of the markings gave the overall impression that the big cat was covered in snake skin. Only with fur. He blinked, trying to bring the sight into focus while the implications sprang fully formed into his head. Then movement off to one side caught his attention and all his thoughts ground to a halt.

He may not be able to tell what kind of cat was looking down at him, but the one staring pointedly at him from the end of the bed was clearly a cheetah. “Okay,” he said aloud, his voice rasping uncomfortably and loud in the silent room. “I may be new to this whole Online thing, but even I know there should only be one of you.”

A door in the opposite wall opened and a young woman with dark hair and a smile entered holding water and offering explanations. The water was a balm to his sore throat but the explanations left him more overwhelmed than enlightened and continued to replay in his head after she had left the room. His eyes fell on one cat, then the other. The slightly smaller feline was a clouded leopard and his very own spirit animal. The cheetah apparently belonged to his Sentinel. He wanted to jump up and hug the proof that he had a perfect match out there somewhere, waiting for him. But he stayed where he was and allowed himself to wallow in his own self-pity because the spotted cat was also proof that his Sentinel is not Ian.

Ian’s spirit animal was a bear. Tony had never actually seen him, but Ian had mentioned him more than once. As much as he had avoided thinking about it while he was Latent, and as hard as he had tried not to want it when he was Sensitive, he had still hoped. Being faced with tangible evidence that his hope had been in vain just plain hurt. The new Guide spent his first day at the Center hiding from it and trying not to think.

Tony had never had any kind of a relationship with a guy, not even a one night stand. He’d always believed that his Sentinel would be male, even when he hadn’t believed he would ever come online. The few flings he’d had with women had been hard enough to enjoy knowing they would never be the right one because they would never be his Sentinel. But even the idea of having something with a man had almost felt like cheating, like pretending, and he’d never been able to go through with it regardless of attraction.

Meeting Ian Edgerton had been the first time he would have tried anyway. At least he would have if not for him being an Online Alpha Sentinel who had his own match that he was no doubt waiting to find.

Turning over on the mattress he still hadn’t gotten used to, he let out a heavy sigh and sternly ordered himself to snap out of it. He would never get out of the Center if he didn’t start working on his shields with more than a quarter of his attention. Tony closed his eyes and tried to stop picturing a large bear behind his eyes as he fell asleep.

His newfound determination must have been obvious because when the empathic healer slipped into his room to give him a check up the next morning, she greeted him with an even more optimistic smile on her face than she’d worn the day before. “Good morning, Guide DiNozzo. I’m Guide Dawn O’Brien, not to be confused with Guide Georgiana O’Brien. You can call me Dawn and when my sister comes by later, feel free to call her George, otherwise it all gets a little confusing.”

She had closed the door behind her the moment she was through it, but even the brief break in the room’s empathic shielding gave him a dull and unpleasant feeling of pressure inside his skull. It took a moment for him to refocus of what she was saying as she went on. “I’m an empathic healer and one of two who work at this Center and it’s Online Response Teams. We met yesterday at NCIS, though I doubt you remember it. Unfortunately we had to sedate you before you stabilized enough for transport. I also placed several blocks on your empathic receptors to prevent the uncontrolled input from causing you to go into empathic overload. I’m just here to give you a check up. How are you feeling today?”

He forced a smile of his own. “A little better, I think. Everything still feels muffled and echo-y somehow.”

The young brunette grinned and gestured for him to lay down while she positioned a chair by the head of his bed for her to sit in. “It’ll feel like that until I take down the remaining blocks. Which I will hopefully be able to do today as soon as I take a look see in your head to make sure the irritation on the receptors has started to fade. Otherwise we’d be right back where we were yesterday.”

The sensation that followed once her hands had settled on his temples was even more disconcerting than the blocks had been and he was more than eager for it to be over. Until she proclaimed him ready to have the blocks replaced with an ordinary empathic buffer. The loss of the blocks left him feeling scraped raw on the inside and he let out a sigh when the somewhat soothing feel of the buffer settled behind his eyes. The headache that lingered the rest of the day eventually had even his charm unable to disguise how much her perky demeanor began to grate.

“At least my healing sessions aren’t exclusively with Miss Perky,” he pointed out to his spirit animal, whom he had finally decided on a name for. “Her sister may be a trauma counselor,” he grimaced at the title and received what he chose to interpret as a sympathetic look from the cat, “but she is also my Guide instructor while the nosey Guides out there decide if the process of building my own shields won’t send me in to some kind of breakdown.”

Tony rolled his eyes and reached out to scratch Oliver’s head as he plopped down on the floor beside him. “Not that they use those words, of course. No, it’s an empathic feedback loop, but it’s rather obvious what they mean. And the intention behind the casual chats George keeps trying to start whenever I see her is not any more subtle.”

He arranged himself on the large floor pillow so he was sprawled against Oliver’s side and ignored the fact that he was having a longer conversation with the animal than he’d had with any human in the near week since he had come online. “They say Guides make the best counselors but as far as I’m concerned, they also make the most annoying ones. You and I both know, between my mother’s death and my so-called social isolation afterwards, I’ve had more than my share of experience with counselors.”

He left unspoken that the least tolerable part of his recovery, however, was Dawn and George’s campaign to get him to authorize his registration so they could start a Sentinel Search for him. He hardly needed to mention it again as he had complained about it several times a day since it started. Obviously he had one, the stoic but protective cheetah that visited several times a day was proof of that. And it was inarguable that he would be more stable and make a quicker and safer recovery with his Sentinel around to provide support, even if they didn’t so much as fully imprint.

Yet, he refused to discuss either his Sentinel or the search for him with either Guide, though with the amount of monitoring he was under he was sure they both knew he was discussing it with his spirit animal. “Somehow,” he said with a sigh, “our conversations don’t qualify as constructive therapy.”

When Dawn left his room with a frown on his fifth day there, he could tell that his stubborn refusal was chipping away at even her formidable cheerfulness. He buried his head in the clouded leopard’s warm fur and shoved down the urge to scream.

Tony didn’t care that the cheetah was proof that he already has a perfect match. He doesn’t want more confirmation that it’s not Ian, which a Sentinel Search would almost certainly provide, so long as his Sentinel was officially registered as well. “I just want to fucking finish feeling sorry for myself first, is that too much to ask for? Seriously,” he complained, face still pressed firmly against the cat’s side, “you’d think they would want me to actually be ready to meet him, to want to meet him before they throw him in my face.”

The NCIS agent flung himself onto his back and let out an ‘omph’ noise when the big cat promptly dropped his equally big and unrealistically heavy face practically on his throat. “Besides, how does it not make sense to them that I want to be stable on my damn own? I mean sure, I mostly wanted to come online so I could have my match, but that’s not all that being Guide is. I want to be a Guide before I’m his Guide.”

The only response he got was a wet nose pressed under his chin in a silent demand for head scratches.

— — — — —

The only human he saw other than the Center staff during his isolation period was Gibbs. When he’d been told he had a visitor just before lunch seven days after he came online, he had jumped on the chance to have a conversation that didn’t revolve around his empathic health or the strength of his shields. He hadn’t even made it all the way into the room before he started to regret leaving his empathically shielded room. For a Sentinel, trauma dormant or not, Gibbs had shitty empathic shields.

He took a moment to reinforce his own shields before the pain and loss and grief and anger bludgeoned him into unconsciousness. Tony gritted his teeth and was monumentally glad that his boss wasn’t a fan of small talk.

“So, you think you’ll be coming back when you’re done with your Guide tune-up?” He almost asked the older man why he would assume his SFA was considering leaving but the normally taciturn agent plowed ahead. “I don’t have to have empathy to know you’re not settling in that well, DiNozzo.”

There was a hint of concern in the blunt statement and Tony spared a moment to wonder if the ex-Marine would care if he weren’t an Online Guide. Instead he just nodded to acknowledge the truth of the man’s words. For all the hopes he’d had each time his team had expanded, he had been disappointed. He simply couldn’t mesh with Kate. The woman was a little too uptight and judgmental when it came down to it. And as for his probie, well, Tim had a tendency to be too anxious, too defensive to be comfortable around. Even before his gifts had started to come online, things hadn’t been good. And after his empathy had woken it had only gotten that much more unpleasant.

He had gotten some glimpses of his team-mates’ empathic landscape while he was Sensitive, despite his effort to the contrary. And suddenly the thought of dealing with that constantly is almost unbearable. He had almost convinced himself that it had only been so bad because he hadn’t had shields of his own yet, but sitting there with Gibbs threw a painful spotlight on the fact that shields could only do so much against a continual barrage of negative emotions. Sure they’d keep them out for the most part, but it was already fucking exhausting.

And doing that on top of dealing with Gibbs? He may respect the guy but he was a freakin’ empathic black hole. Tony mentally shook his head. “I hadn’t really made up my mind just yet,” he finally said.

Gibbs didn’t look at all surprised at his use of the past tense. Instead, he nodded once and held out his hand. Tony took it, felt a brief squeeze before they both let go. Then his soon to be former boss stood. “Take care of yourself, DiNozzo,” he instructed and closed the door behind himself before Tony had time to respond.

Green eyes dropped down to meet Oliver’s gaze. “Well. I think I’m kind of impressed. I didn’t think it was possible to hang up on someone when you’re not actually on the phone.”

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9 Comments

  1. That is an awesome last line! My dog looked at me, all disgruntled for disturbing him with my laughter!

    Wonderful start and loving the glimpses of the progression of their friendship.

  2. Meep! Poor Tony! But I’ll be an optimist and hope things work out for him.

    Great start!

  3. Good start! I like Tony’s humor and insight.

  4. Poor Tony’s going through some rough times. Thanks for a very interesting intro chapter.

  5. Great Start

  6. Great start. And great that Tony could see what his team really thought and be able to move on from them. Somehow I also doubt Ian has a bear and I’m sure Tony will get an explenation for that.

  7. Great beginning

  8. Good start

  9. Okay, this is intriguing, but poor Tony! A great start.

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