Fandom: Magnificent 7 ATF/NCIS
Content Warning: NC-17
Warnings: Child Abuse, Dark Themes, Discussion – Murder, Explicit Sex, Hate Crimes, Homophobia, Racism, Violence – Canon – Level
Genres: Alternate Universe, Crossover, Fusion
Relationships: Chris Larabee/Tony DiNozzo, Vin Tanner/Ezra Standish
Word Count: 10,545/29,859
Author Note: Originally posted during July 2020 Rough Trade. Thanks to Mog for the ATF AU of Mag 7; I have taken many liberties with her vision. This story was initially bunnied during a Keira Marcos podcast. Don’t ask me which one since there have been so many mentioning Tony leaving NCIS. My chapter of Feeding Frenzy fed that spark, and I decided to fan the fire of a Chris Larabee/Tony DiNozzo pairing. It’s a pairing I highly recommend.
Summary: Alone and without backup, undercover ATF Agent Ezra Standish comes online as a guide. He instinctively locks himself behind unbreakable shields to save his life. When the Center can’t train him, Alpha Guide Tony DiNozzo is called in to help. He has a talent for getting through shields and a history with Ezra that might help. The last thing Tony expected to find in Colorado was his sentinel.
“How may I help you?” The administrative assistant looked up with a pleasant, professional smile from her immaculate desk.
“Anthony Dominic DiNozzo, Jr. I have an appointment with Dean Cross,” Tony explained with an answering grin. Usually he would have followed that up with a lot of charm, but he just wasn’t feeling charming today.
“Yes, right on time, Guide DiNozzo. Unfortunately, the Dean is in a meeting that’s run a bit over. If you could take a seat, I’ll let him know you’ve arrived.” She typed on her computer a moment, then raised an eyebrow at it as if questioning the response it gave her.
“Thank you.” Tony gave her one of his polite smiles and took a seat in the outer office. Tony placed his portfolio on the table beside him as he debated getting a cup of water from the dispenser. A flash of light caught his attention, and he turned toward the flat-screen television that interrupted ZNN coverage on a political rally with a Special Report logo. It was the title, Tragedy in Colorado, that caught his attention. His muscles tightened up, and a wave of concern washed over Tony.
“Excuse me, can you turn on the sound?” He asked, pointing toward the television.
She frowned a moment then reached into her desk to grasp the remote.
“This is a ZNN Special Report with Todd Anders.” The camera closed in on the well-known anchor as he began his build-up. “No trip to Colorado is complete without a chance to explore the peace and beauty of the Rocky Mountains. Today, that peace was destroyed when explosions rang out in the early morning hours. Reporting live from Colorado is correspondent Mary Travis.”
The picture changed, and a well-dressed woman with blond hair and blue eyes filled the screen. In the distance behind her, smoke was rising from behind the curve in the road. State Police blocked the way while an emergency vehicle could be seen driving toward the smoke.
“Hello, Todd.” She responded with a firm, serious voice. “People in this remote Colorado community are shocked and stunned this morning. People here believe in privacy and living close to nature. Neighbors are miles apart, so it is not surprising that little is known about what occurred today. We have verified that sometime around eight-thirty this morning, several teams from the Denver ATF offices were prevented from executing a search warrant. Details of the warrant have not been released. Witnesses in the area are reporting that the morning silence was broken by gunfire for approximately fifteen to twenty minutes before erupting in several explosions.”
“Do we have any information regarding the address or subject of the warrant?” Todd asked.
Mary shook her head once. “No. There have been no formal statements from authorities at this time. As you can see, we are being kept away from the location by Colorado State Police. We do know that State and Federal law enforcement are on-site along with fire and rescue personnel. For the last hour, they have been arriving in heavy numbers. As to their destination, we have learned that this road splits into three drives. Two of these are ranches, the third is for a commune. We are still working to identify the owners of these properties and which one, or possibly more, are involved.”
“Do we have any idea how many are injured or dead?”
“We have confirmed that several ambulances have already left the site, and more are still arriving. Two Flight for Life helicopters were dispatched to the site as well. We do not know who was injured, but there was at least one report of an officer down.”
“I understand that the coroner has been called?”
Nodding her head with a sad expression, “Yes, we have confirmed that the coroner is on-site and was called in for multiple fatalities. But no information has been forthcoming about the number of deceased or if any of them are members of the ATF.”
Suddenly there was an explosion in the distance, and Mary spun toward the sound while ducking down slightly. The camera refocused on the area, and a new cloud of smoke rose.
“Todd, as you can see, this situation is still developing. There was just a new explosion. We do not know at this time if there will be more following this.” She looked to the side a moment. “I am being told that fire has jumped from structures to nearby grass, and we are being asked to move back to allow fire crews access as they attempt to contain this before it can spread. Winds are predicted to pick up this afternoon, so they are moving quickly to prevent wildfire. We are going to move back about a mile as requested, but we will be ready to report as soon as there is a statement.”
“Keep safe, Mary,” Todd spoke to her before the cameras refocused on Todd. “That was Mary Travis, reporting from Colorado on a developing story involving a deadly altercation between the ATF and currently unidentified parties.
Tony tuned out the rest of what was being said as he reached for his phone and forced his hands to steady. He searched his contacts for the correct one and took a deep breath before tapping the call symbol. He wasn’t surprised when the line went directly to voicemail. He listened to the standard the party you have reached is unavailable message and waited for the tone before he started speaking.
“Hi, Ezra. I know the last time we talked, you indicated that you would be indisposed for an unknown duration and might neglect to check your messages regularly. But I was just thinking of you and that time we borrowed Senior’s car. If you’ve got the time, I would love to take another road trip. Just give me a call and let me know.”
Tony hung up and scrolled back to his messages to see if anything had been missed, but there was nothing. He sat back in the seat and attempted to appear nonchalant. There was nothing else Tony could do now but wait for a response. He and Ezra Standish had been trading code words since they were children. Now that he was an ATF Agent, indisposed was Ezra’s favorite for undercover with no chance to respond. Thinking of you was just another way to request some kind of check-in. And anything that included Senior was a warning of danger.
Now, if the cocky SOB would just respond and put Tony out of his misery. With a slight sigh, he put the phone away. There was no reason to do more. One message would be enough…for now.
Guide DiNozzo?” The voice pulled him away from his contemplation. “Dean Cross can see you now.”
“Thank you.” Tony opened the office door and entered the domain of Joseph Cross. Dean of the Georgetown School of Sentinel and Guide Studies. Tony quickly evaluated the man and his surroundings. The office was inviting and comfortable. Oak desk free of clutter with matching chair. Lateral file cabinets doubled as a tabletop for the display of personal and professional awards. To the side, a love seat and two comfortable chairs around a square, solid coffee table for more casual discussions. Everything was designed in warm, non-jarring tones of color—nothing here to set off a sentinel’s senses.
And the man, himself, was friendly and inviting. Not surprising, considering the man was a low-level guide.
“Guide DiNozzo. Welcome.” Cross motioned toward the seat facing him at the desk without standing or offering to shake hands. Such wasn’t done among the community, though mundanes frequently slipped and took offense at the slight.
“Dean Cross, thank you for working me into your schedule.” Tony took a seat and smoothed out his tie.
“Happy to do so, though your request didn’t include the subject of the meeting. I’ve been reviewing your transcripts, and it appears you are proceeding ahead of schedule in your graduate studies.” Cross smiled, “And your grades are nothing short of what I would expect an Alpha Guide with Prime potential to demonstrate. Especially one who was mentored by Blair Sandburg.”
Tony maintained his pleasant expression, though he hated when everyone brought Blair into the conversation. Blair would be the first to tell anyone that Tony had earned his placement in the graduate program, but the name of the US Prime Guide would always take the credit.
“Yes, I’m working with my thesis adviser and should be able to complete my degree within the next two months. I will always be grateful that Georgetown was able to work with my unconventional schedule.” And Tony was grateful. When Blair had encouraged him to take the time to complete his studies after NCIS, Tony had been uncertain. He was already working part-time as an Investigative Consultant for the US Crimes against Sentinels and Guides division. He loved the ability to pick and choose his cases. But that interfered with a traditional school schedule.
Georgetown had been the answer. It had a solid S&G graduate program and a flexible schedule option. It allowed him to keep his home base in DC but travel frequently for work.
“So, how can I help you today?” Cross leaned forward and put his elbows on the desk.
Tony dropped his grin and took a breath. “Today’s meeting is actually in response to my job with the S&G Centers. I’ve been working with a task force on hate crimes against guides. Specifically, I’m focused on identifying splinter groups from known hate groups.”
“That’s disturbing, but I’m relieved the Centers take that seriously. I’m uncertain why that would initiate a meeting with me.”
“Because many of these groups practice recruitment at college campuses through fringe student associations, we’ve been tracking them. Most major colleges will have a link to at least one or two questionable groups. The one at Georgetown is called the Christian Purity Alliance,” Tony explained.
“Wait, that’s one of the groups that preach abstinence and staying drug-free on campus. I find it hard to believe that they would be part of a hate group.” Cross leaned back in his chair and glared at Tony in disbelief.
“And, I would say ninety-five percent of their members are just good, faithful kids who are doing just that. But, they will target the members who show homophobic leanings. And you will find that there will be some very mild anti-guide rhetoric quoted frequently.” Tony passed a thumb drive to the Dean. “As the Dean of the College of Sentinel and Guide Studies, you are recognized as the ranking guide within the campus administration. The Taskforce is preparing a bulletin for all college campuses with warnings about these hate groups and the associations.”
Tony motioned toward the flash drive. “We aren’t going to point fingers or disrupt groups that are providing a meaningful experience for the student body. Most of these student associations are not even aware they are being used for recruitment. They are doing nothing illegal. We don’t want them to feel like they are being singled out or persecuted. The DC Center will have someone visit the school, but since I am part of the Taskforce and a student here, I volunteered to bring this to your attention now.”
Cross sighed and took the flash drive. “Is there any danger to my guides?”
“There is no specific threat. But there have been two guides targeted with anti-guide vandalism who attend nearby schools. No injuries at this point, but forewarned is forearmed. We are starting with campuses that have known groups. This information is just to help prepare you for the conversation the Center will have with the Administration. We know they will turn to you for advice and want you to have time to review it in advance. We’ve included reminders on the correct procedures for notifying your local Center in the event of an incident.” Tony could tell his fellow guide was uncomfortable, even without reading him.
He leaned back and adopted a much more casual and inviting posture. “Look, I honestly don’t think you will have a problem on campus. The concern is off-campus. It’s not hard for guides to be identified in the S&G program since most Minor in Sentinel Studies, even if their Major is vastly different. You will want to focus on safety first and encourage sentinels and guides to practice situational awareness as they are all taught in their Center sessions. In fact, it’s a good reminder for all college students.”
Cross looked like he was sucking on a lemon as he inserted the drive into his computer. “Is there anything else I need to know?”
Tony gave a small smile. “No. We ask that you keep that information to yourself until the Center is here to help with the conversation. They will call later today to schedule an appointment, so expect to meet with them tomorrow or the next day.” Tony stood up to leave, and Cross stood with him.
“Alpha DiNozzo, thank you for your service to the tribe,” Cross stated formally.
Tony bit back a sigh at the tone but answered appropriately anyway. “To serve the tribe is to protect the tribe. Good day, Guide Cross.” And with a nod, he exited the room as quickly as propriety would allow.
Tony jerked awake with the ringing of his phone. He checked the time and buried his head in the pillow with one hand while reaching for his phone with the other. Tony had spent the last three days buried neck-deep in work and running on fumes. This was his first chance to get a full night’s sleep, which wasn’t easy since he was still worried about no contact from Ezra. He peeked at the display and answered automatically when he saw Blair Sandburg’s picture. “Hello?”
“Tony, hi, it’s Blair.” The voice was painfully cheerful, and Tony considered hanging up. “Sorry for waking you up at—oh, wow—is it really that time? I didn’t realize it was so early there, man. This time difference is really screwing me up.”
“Blair,” Tony interrupted around a yawn. “Did you need something?”
“Oh, man, yes. Sorry, yes. I really need your help.” Blair took a breath to slow himself down. “A new guide came online, and he is having a major issue with his shields. I haven’t received the full report yet, but his onlining was traumatic. He instinctively got up some seriously complete shields. According to the Center, they are definitely Alpha level shields or higher. Considering the level of trauma, they probably saved his life. But he can’t lower or open them.”
Tony winced. Shields were as important as air to a guide. But not all shields are created equally. New guides would frequently overreact and try to cut out all the empathic static in society. But it wasn’t healthy to avoid everything. It was better to learn how to adapt and deal with the environment you live in. Same for sentinels when they had to learn to control their senses and adapt to spikes. New guides had to learn to do the same.
“They’ve been working with him for a few days, but he is resistant to training. Normally they would keep him in isolation and wait until he came down off alert naturally. But they’ve indicated there are extenuating circumstances that might affect how long it would take him to respond. Frankly, the Center is concerned that he is already showing signs of ERDS.”
“Empathic Repression Distress Syndrome? That’s bad. That’s really bad. I can understand why they contacted you, Blair. You are the US Alpha Prime for a reason. No one is better than you at getting through to damaged guides.” Tony could attest to that firsthand.
“The problem is, Tony, that I’m stuck in Europe for the next two weeks for the International Council of Primes meeting. Short of a natural disaster, there is no way for me to get away. I could really use your help.”
“Me?” Tony asked, confused. “I’ve taken my turn training new guides, but I don’t have any experience with damaged guides,” Tony insisted as a feeling of dread welled up inside him.
“Honestly, Tony, I think you can handle this. We both know this isn’t about a damaged guide. Not really. All we need to do is get his shields down. Once they get through to him, they can force-feed him basic training while working on long-term issues. This kind of thing is about his emotional state being stuck in the mundane mindset while his gifts are trying to emerge and change him. You know this, Tony. You just need to get through to him. You only have to take extraordinary action if he doesn’t respond.”
“Tony, there is no one better than you at getting through another guide’s shields,” Blair stated firmly.
“I am not comfortable doing that, Blair. We had an agreement.” Tony took the pillow and threw it across the room.
“I know.” Blair sounded sad but resolute. “I’m not asking you to violate someone’s mind. I wouldn’t do that. But if we don’t get through to this guide, then he’s going to have a full-blown case of ERDS. This isn’t something we advertise because there are times that knowledge is detrimental to healing, but ERDS can lead to dormancy. The faster we act, the better the chance for a positive outcome. As the US Alpha Prime, it is my responsibility to act in the best interest of every guide under me. It’s my right to request you do your duty to the tribe, Alpha Guide DiNozzo. If you ever reach your Prime potential, it’s a responsibility you will have to accept.”
Tony was silent, considering his options while rubbing at the hollow feeling in his chest that statement always pulled at. He closed his eyes and weighed his own discomfort against the loss of a new guide.
“Tony?” Blair called softly.
“OK.” Tony rubbed his face and threw back the covers. “OK, I’ll try. But I can’t promise anything. I will at least go meet the man and see if I can help.”
“Thanks, man.” The relief in Blair’s voice was palpable. “I owe you one.”
“You owe me several. Where do I need to go?”
“My assistant is booking you the first flight out of DC headed for Denver, Colorado. I will have the Denver Center send you all the information they have.”
Tony felt himself choke up. “Denver?” he asked roughly.
“Yeah. Some ATF agent came online during a bust. I don’t have any other details yet.” There was sound on the other end, and Blair faded out before coming back on the line. “Hey, Tony, I’m getting called in for the session. Thanks again for doing this. Keep me in the loop. Gotta go.”
“Bye, Blair.” Tony got out just as he heard the line cut out, and he dropped his phone beside him on the bed.
He looked toward the bed but acknowledged that he wouldn’t be able to sleep now. He respected and loved Blair, but right now, he sort of hated him, too. Pulling the Prime card was a low blow, and Blair knew it. He might have all of the innate abilities of a Prime, but without a bond, he would never reach his full potential.
Thoughts of a bond made him flash on Gibbs, and he ruthlessly shoved that thought back into the box and wrapped chains around it. That was never going to happen, and he had been an oblivious fool to hold onto the chance as long as he had.
Well, enough of that bullshit. Tony got up and went to his closet to pull out a bag. He glanced at his suits and decided against them. The last thing he needed to exude in a Center environment was formality. Instead, he focused on jeans, t-shirts, sweaters, and henleys. He added a pair of slacks and a button-up in case he needed something a little more professional before grabbing the toiletry bag he kept stocked for travel.
He was almost finished packing and had moved into his kitchen to prepare a basket of perishables for his neighbor when his phone notified him of a new message. Blair’s assistant worked fast. He double-checked the flight reservation and realized they had arranged first class. He would normally say it wasn’t necessary, but the last thing he needed was to be crammed into coach. Tony pulled up the time and calculated he had an hour to finish getting ready and shower. A second text followed from the DC Center to notify him a driver would be arriving to take him to the airport.
Tony just shook his head and headed in to shave. As he inspected himself in the mirror, he noticed he was subconsciously rubbing his chest and forced himself to lower his hand. “Get it together, DiNozzo. Just focus on the job and forget about asshole sentinels who can’t accept what’s right in front of their face.” Reaching for the razor and his toothbrush, he allowed himself to get lost in his morning ritual.
Tony arrived in Denver, thankful that he hadn’t been forced to check any of his baggage. He had tried to sleep on the flight since he still hadn’t received any information on the guide or his situation. Sleep was prevented by the women seated around him. He hadn’t been hit on so often since college. Even admitting he was a guide hadn’t stopped them. If anything, it escalated the attention. Thank goodness the flight attendant had been attentive enough to run interference and allowed Tony to be the first to exit the plane. Even if the man did try to slip him his phone number as well.
He was following the rental car signs off the concourse when he spotted a sign that read DiNozzo and stopped. The sign was held by a young man that barely looked old enough to drive. He was short with dark hair and an inability to stand still if the jiggling/rocking/bouncing moves were anything to go by. The second was a mountain of a man. A rather homely mountain of a man if he was telling the truth. But he was rock steady and exuded patience, though Tony could sense that there was a chance for explosion under that rock as well.
He rubbed at his chest again and forced himself to maintain even breaths until the sudden fear dissipated, and he could move once more. What had stopped him was not the unexpected driver or the unlikeliness of the pair. It was that he knew these men. Oh, they had never met, but Ezra had spoken at length about his team. About a year ago, he had finally broken down and sent a picture of them all along with a rant about roughing it in the great outdoors.
JD Dunne and Josiah Sanchez, the youngest and oldest members of ATF Team 7. Ezra’s team. He knew Sanchez was a mundane sensitive and Dunne a sentinel. He was aware from conversations that the remaining team members were three online sentinels and a single guide. That left Ezra, who had always felt like other to Tony but had repeatedly tested as mundane.
When he felt like he could move again, he changed direction to intercept the sign holders. “I’m DiNozzo.”
“Oh, good. I wasn’t sure how you pronounced it.” He folded the sign and bounced again. “Do you need to pick up any bags?”
“No, I’m good to go.” Tony reluctantly allowed the younger man to take his carry-ons while he kept possession of his laptop bag.
“We are certainly happy to see you, Guide DiNozzo.” The older man said as they walked. “I am Josiah Sanchez, and my young friend here is JD Dunne. I’m afraid we may have circumvented the Center’s normal procedure by misinforming the assigned driver of your arrival time so that we would have an opportunity to speak with you.”
Tony cocked an eyebrow at the man and kept his own counsel while motioning the man to continue.
“I assure you we are members of the ATF and teammates of the man you were brought here to work with. We are merely concerned about his well-being,” Sanchez explained as they reached the large black truck, which was in no way legally parked. Tony would have expected it to be towed. But a handwritten sign with LARABEE in big block letters in the windshield seemed to be keeping the police and security at bay.
Tony waited until they had moved away from the loading zone before entering the conversation. “So, is there a reason I should speak to you before receiving a brief from the Center? I mean, there is the little issue of confidentiality.”
“Oh, we don’t want you to give us any information about Ez, Guide DiNozzo. We wanted to give you some warning,” JD pipped up from the back seat.
“What my young friend means is that we have some concerns about our young brother’s ability to talk his way out of the help that he obviously needs. We wanted to offer our assistance and knowledge of his likely response to offers of help to ensure he obtains the peace he needs,” Josiah explained.
“Yeah, we don’t want him to confuse you with a bunch of words. Cause Ezra’s going to insist he is fine, but he’s not,” JD waved his hands around as he spoke behind the seat. “If you’re not careful, he will make you believe there is nothing wrong with him. He’s already tried twice, and Chris had to haul him back to the Center the first time. We’ve all been camped out at the Center since to make sure he doesn’t get away and go hide.”
Tony closed his eyes a moment to control his reaction because, of course, Ezra is being difficult. “So, this teammate of yours. That would be Ezra Standish?” Tony threw out there.
“Indeed, it would.” The statement was drawn out. “There is a tone in your voice that indicates you might have some knowledge of our young friend?” Sanchez turned to stare at Tony while they waited for the light to change.
“Ezra and I have a bit of history, yes.” Tony saw the question in Josiah’s eyes but stamped down on it. “I was not aware that it was Ezra who had come online when I agreed to help. It doesn’t change anything. And before you ask—no, I will not tell you how I know Ezra. I won’t start this by revealing his secrets. Trust is important.” Tony felt the overwhelming curiosity from those near him. For a moment, he was sure that JD would bombard him with questions anyway. But Josiah made a single sharp shake of the head that caused JD to sit back and remain silent for a few more minutes.
Eventually, tapping on his phone was followed by the tones of incoming messages. “So, Chris and the guys are gonna meet up with us before the Center docs grab you.”
“Look, I know you all want to help. And I understand where you’re coming from because Team is important. But, I really think I should see Ezra and evaluate everything myself before talking to everyone else. I don’t want Ezra to think I’m doing an end-run around him.” These two seemed friendly and were precisely as Ezra had described them. And Tony was definitely going to take the opportunity to meet all of Ezra’s team and satisfy his curiosity. But, right now, all he wanted to do was see Ezra for himself.
“Chris won’t like that,” JD muttered.
“I’m sure Chris will get over it. If he has an opinion he wants to share, he can wait until I’ve seen Ezra.” Tony checked his phone and verified that the Center still hadn’t sent him any files. He shot off a message to Blair to let him know but assured him he was in Denver now and would get answers.
Josiah gave a little grin, “Oh, I’m sure Christopher Larabee will be happy to discuss his opinions with you.” The humor coming off the man had a hint of emotion that Tony recognized as an inside joke bordering on a prank.
He decided to loosen up a bit and see if he could fill in some blanks. “While I won’t ask you to give up any of Ezra’s private information, can you share with me what happened when he came online?”
“Well…” JD started, but Josiah cut him off.
“JD.” It was a mild reprimand. “The case is still under investigation.”
“I wasn’t going to give him anything I shouldn’t,” JD complained.
Instead of acknowledging JD, Josiah addressed Tony. “Are you aware of Ezra’s normal employment activities with the ATF?”
“If you mean do I know that he was supposed to be undercover for the last month and a half, yes. I don’t know his assignment or any details of the current case. I’m not asking. Currently, I work as an Investigative Consultant with the Centers. Before that, I was a federal agent. I worked with NCIS specifically on their Major Case Response Team out of DC.” He glanced back at JD. “In case you feel you should run a background check, it’s Anthony DiNozzo, Junior.” JD had the grace to blush before looking away. “So I’m aware of what you can and can’t say regarding an active case. I just want to know, in general, what was the situation when Ezra came online?”
“Josiah,” JD pleaded with the older man.
Josiah kept his eyes glued to the road as he spoke. “Ezra was undercover, as you mentioned. He missed a check-in, but we were able to get eyes on him and verify he was OK. He missed the second check-in and wasn’t present for the…exchange. We used trackers to verify that the merchandise was taken to their home location and executed a warrant. Something went wrong, and there was an altercation. Ezra came online either during or immediately before the incident occurred. He was discovered unconscious, with minor injuries, and online. He was immediately rushed to the Center for evaluation.”
Tony was reading between the lines and drawing some conclusions. “How long between the second check-in and the warrant?”
“Second check-in was to be the night before. He regularly called his ‘Uncle Joe,’ but I didn’t get the call. The Center is restricting access to him, so we haven’t been able to get much in the way of a report.” Josiah gripped the steering wheel until his knuckles were bone white.
“Well, that at least gives me a place to start,” Tony acknowledged.
“So,” JD’s aura was practically vibrating in the shape of a question mark. “You said you’re an Investigative Consultant with the Center. No offense, but I don’t think Ezra needs someone investigating him. He needs help with whatever this guide problem is that he’s having.”
“Well, in this case, I’m not here as an Investigative Consultant. I’m here as an Alpha Guide with training from Blair Sandburg,” Tony responded.
“So, you’ll be able to help him?” JD asked, this time sounding a little more like the kid he appeared to be. “Because I know the Center is worried about him even if they won’t tell us what’s wrong.”
“I’m going to do everything I can to help him.” Tony shifted to turn so that he could make eye contact with JD. “I won’t give up on him, and I won’t let him give up on himself.”
JD locked eyes with him for a moment, then nodded as if coming to a decision. Immediately his body language changed. “So, are you sure you won’t tell us how you know Ez?”
Tony turned back to the front with a grin. “Ezra and I are relatively close.”
Tony made sure to grab his bags out of the truck before heading into the Center to check-in. JD and Josiah repeatedly tried to redirect him to one of the wings, where the team was waiting for an update on Ezra. But, right now, he needed to confirm his credentials, so he could have unfettered access to his friend. They may hate the restrictions, but they were there for a reason. Of course, if only to himself, Tony will admit that it’s a reason he’s apt to ignore when applied to himself.
He pulled his Center ID from his wallet as he approached the front desk. “Alpha Guide Tony DiNozzo. Director McCray is expecting me.”
The sentinel manning reception gave him an appraising stare, just a moment longer than appropriate. Tony cleared his throat and raised an eyebrow as the man flushed in embarrassment. When he was younger, he had taken advantage of the natural attraction that people felt for guides, especially high-level guides. But there were times when it was annoying and inappropriate, and this sentinel should know better.
Glancing at his screen, he typed something and nodded. “Director McCray is in his office. The fourth floor is Administration.” He gestured toward the elevator. “If you would like to leave your bags here, I can have them secured.”
Tony gave him a tight smile. “Thanks, but I think I will keep them until I find out my schedule today.” The last thing he wanted to deal with is a sentinel sniffing around his bag.
The quiet, smooth elevator ride was much too short for Tony. But he took what time he had to push back his exhaustion and let the Alpha Guide part of him come to the fore. He usually kept it toned down to allow him to blend in. Still, there were times, like today, when he needed to reinforce his position in the community.
The office door opened before Tony even reached it. The woman holding the door was just—well, stunning was the only word that came to Tony’s mind. Tall, strong, with close-cut dark hair and golden brown eyes. High cheekbones and a full smile that invited him in. She practically flowed back in a way that spoke of deadly grace. At the same time, her eyes took in everything, and her head cocked to the side in a manner that screamed sentinel even if her aura hadn’t shone like a beacon from a mile away.
“Guide DiNozzo. I am Director Karyn Forsyth. If you will come this way. You can leave your bags in the outer office here.” She motioned toward one side of the room and waited for Tony to comply. Forsyth politely held open the next door and motioned gracefully toward the inner office. The man inside stood as they entered. He was maybe an inch shorter than Tony, solidly built with a genuine shock of red hair. “My guide, Director Duarte McCray.”
“Director McCray.” Tony nodded toward him in acknowledgment, Alpha Guide-to-Alpha Guide.
“Please, call me Duarte, Alpha DiNozzo.” McCray insisted as he moved toward a round table in the corner of his office.
“In that case, it’s Tony. I insist.” Tony took the seat offered and reminded himself that this was just another step to gaining unfettered access to Ezra.
“Tony. Thank you for dropping everything to get out here so quickly. I understand that Prime Sandburg trained you personally,” Duarte prompted. Blair was a rock star in the community, and Tony either received instant acceptance because of the connection, or he got the why would he waste his time with you interrogation.
“Blair was my mentor for most of my advanced training, yes.” Tony fisted one hand under the table. How and why Blair taught him was no one’s business. “When he asked me to come, of course, I said yes. Though I was expecting to receive a file on the new guide prior to my arrival.”
“Yes, we do have a file on Guide Standish; however, I felt it would be better if we talked about issues regarding his care first. The report hardly addresses the type of person Guide Standish is or the people with whom he associates.”
“Oh? And what type of person is Guide Standish?” Tony maintained a pleasant exterior demeanor, but he was damn well going to find out what kind of misconceptions they were judging his friend by.
Forsyth stiffened, and Tony could feel the protector in her rising. Duarte could see it, too, based on how he reached out to lay a hand atop his sentinel’s.
“I mean Guide Standish no ill will, Tony.” Duarte held up one hand, palm outward. “And I honestly hope you can help him because he is doing very little at this point to help himself. What we know about him is from personnel files and what little interaction he has accepted from the staff. He was brought in unconscious with bruising and injuries consistent with being on an explosive blast’s outer edge. Medical has kept him under observation for blast-related injuries, but somehow the man dodged that bullet.”
“He is very good at hiding his injuries from staff. He had ringing in the ears for the better part of a day. That was only learned through a comment from Sentinel Larabee, who had a brief interaction with Guide Standish at the end of the first day.”
“Brief interaction?” Tony inquired.
Forsyth blew out a huff of air. “Standish somehow slipped from his rooms, even with the security in the ISO Wards. He stole clothes from the employee locker room, hacked our system, and forged release orders from our on-call Guide Specialist. Then, even with an alert of a missing patient, he talked his way past three sentinels on security duty. He was intercepted by Alpha Sentinel Larabee. The man stood in front of the cab Guide Standish had called and threatened to shoot both of them if Standish didn’t exit the cab immediately.”
Tony bit the inside of his lip to keep from laughing out loud. When he felt he could speak normally, he shrugged and said, “Not everyone is comfortable in a clinical environment.”
“Look, Tony. Standish has resisted every overture of help we have offered. Originally, I thought the man was in denial about being a guide. He wouldn’t be the first to test with a false negative and then have trouble accepting the gifts. But I think there is a layer of self-loathing in there that doesn’t make sense. I spent my early years volunteering in third-world nations as a Guide Trainer. In some of those countries, guides are still seen as second-class citizens, and new guides would beg me to change their paperwork rather than be identified as an online guide.” Duarte opened a folder and pulled out a file as he spoke.
“Here’s the official report on Standish up to this point. As of this morning, we are making an official diagnosis of ERDS. He’s in the beginning stages, but it has already started to affect him physically.” He pushed the folder toward Tony. “You need to be prepared when you meet him. Emotionally, the man’s a void. It’s disturbing to be in the room with him, and half the staff has already asked to be reassigned.”
Glancing at the information took only moments. There was nothing on the paper that Tony didn’t expect to see. “The MRI shows nothing untoward. Short of a physical injury or defect, the common cause of ERDS is emotional. I don’t see a completed psychological report.”
“He has refused all contact with our on-staff Psychologist.” Forsyth leaned forward on the table. “I do not like the idea of losing a guide in our care. If we can’t reach him, we are going to take proactive measures to force the issue. That is why we requested Prime Sandburg attend this matter personally. It takes the power of a Prime to force through shields without doing serious damage to the guide. Not to question the Prime’s word, but do you really think you can do this, Alpha?”
“I admit that I prefer not to force my way into another’s mind. But if it’s the only way to save him, yes, I can do it.” Tony cracked his neck to the side then stared down Forsyth. “You could say I have a gift for getting under people’s skin.”
“That’s good to know. Hopefully you’re resistant to Standish’s particular charms,” Duarte said with a smile. “We will help run interference with his team. Let me know if they bother you, and we will have them banned from the Center.”
Tony leaned back at the change in subject. “Is there a problem with his team?”
Forsyth frowned, and damn if she didn’t do that just as beautifully as everything else. “They have bothered the staff non-stop in an attempt to gain access to Guide Standish. They are infuriating in their persistence. And they are everywhere. No matter where we turn, they are crawling out of the woodwork.”
Duarte took his sentinel’s hand. “I honestly don’t know if they are a help or a hindrance at this point. In addition to the incident we mentioned with Standish, the man has made three additional attempts to leave. All have been halted by his team. They want him to get the help he needs, but they are getting in the way.”
“Have you tried talking to Agent Larabee about his team?”
There were twin sighs. “You don’t really talk to Larabee. The man is a force of nature. He is literally the definition of an unstoppable force. I’ve rarely met another Alpha I would give way to in the instinctive manner I do with Larabee. He’s the most dangerous unbonded sentinel I have ever met,” Forsyth said gravely. “We may be the Directors of this Center and the ranking S&G pair for this region, but there is not a single person here who wouldn’t give way if Larabee demanded it. We’re just thankful that he’s civilized enough not to ask as long as we are trying to do our job.”
Alpha Sentinel Christopher Larabee stood unmoving in the middle of the corridor, waiting for his men to return. He allowed his senses to sweep out over the Denver Sentinel & Guide Center and settle as if it were merely an extension of his own body. He noted the number of heartbeats and their movement. The way the air pressure changed when the outer doors opened and closed. The slight hiss that meant there was a faulty seal in one of the isolation chambers in the Sentinel wing.
He ignored the snippets of conversation throughout the building: Classes, medical, administrative, or personal—especially the personal and anything near the bonding rooms. Mundanes frequently believed that sentinels eavesdropped on them non-stop. But, honestly, few said anything worth listening to, and it wasn’t like he would waste his time listening to all the crap just to get a few gems of information.
Hell, he barely had time to ride herd over his band of misfits. He keyed in on the ones who were in the building to get a quick status. His oldest friend and teammate, Buck Wilmington, was at the south side security entrance to the Guide Wing. He was flirting with the sentinel on duty—no, make that the sentinels on duty. Well, that wasn’t something he hadn’t heard a thousand times over the years.
As the only guide on the team, Buck was the only one who should be able to get into the Guide Wing to check on Ezra. Unbonded sentinels were banned, just as unbonded guides weren’t allowed in the Sentinel Wing. For some reason, Ezra was placed on a restricted status, but Buck had sweet-talked someone into letting him into the isolation ward and made it as far as Ezra’s room before he was caught. Buck was promptly kicked out of the ward. He’d been working on angles to get back in ever since. Chris should have known it would be an angle that would get him laid as well.
Chris left Buck to his games and took a deep breath, allowing himself to take in the scent of Sentinel Nathan Jackson. Linking it to hearing, he followed the trace to the Emergency Medical Center on the first floor. He made out the sound of Jackson’s voice while he spoke to his guide, Dr. Rain Jackson. They were one of the rare pairings that didn’t have to work together. Nathan was trying to convince her to take him to Ezra’s room. That wasn’t going to work. The woman might love him to death and tolerate the rest of the team, but she was a specialist in Sentinel Medicine, and there is no way she would use her position when she had nothing to contribute to Ezra’s care.
The ruffle of a magazine page turning brought Chris back to his current location. He watched his team sniper and friend, Vin Tanner, focus on the article he was reading. Tanner was the most laid-back Alpha Sentinel Chris had ever met. Only time he had ever seen the man lose his cool was when they lost Ezra’s heartbeat during the firefight, just before the first explosion tore through the compound. There had been a moment when Chris had been sure Vin would go feral, and he feared he would have to take down his friend.
The way Tanner had latched onto Standish when the man joined the team had seemed odd. But Chris was the first to understand that a Sentinel could receive the support they needed from a mundane. His own wife, Sarah, had been as mundane as they came. Between her at home and Buck in the field, he had never had an issue with managing his senses. Right up to the day she died. If Tanner could find that kind of comfort in Standish, it wasn’t his place to stop them.
Of course, now it looked like Tanner had sensed something in the man that no one else had. He looked closer at his fellow sentinel and then forced himself not to roll his eyes.
“Vin, Ezra needs to give you a few more pointers about blending in.” Chris stared at the man until Vin leaned his chair forward and set the front legs back down on the floor.
“Don’t know what you’re talking about.” Vin slouched down in the chair while looking back with innocent blue eyes.
Chris motioned with two fingers out. “First, you might try holding the magazine right side up.”
Vin looked down and then shifted and dumped the magazine back on the coffee table. “I hate isolation doors.”
“Well, you know you can’t hear through them, so why keep trying?” Chris shook his head. “You push yourself to a zone, and they will slap your ass in an ISO room at the other end of the complex. Then you won’t even get an update on the man’s status.”
“I ain’t gonna zone, Larabee. Hell, that’s for all you pampered poodles in your perfect little cages.” Vin leaned his chair back against the wall and crossed his arms.
“Don’t compare me to a poodle. Shit, if anyone is an overpriced show dog in this operation, it’s Standish. Why don’t you go slap a collar on him, Tanner?”
“Stay out of our bedroom, Larabee.”
Chris froze, and his brain stuttered to a halt on that visual. He noticed the slight grin on Vin’s face, then picked up a magazine and threw it at him. “I don’t need that kinda trash in my head.”
Vin’s eyes crinkled up, then dilated slightly, and his head cocked to the side. “JD and ‘siah headed this way—alone.”
Chris turned toward the distinctive sounds of plodding feet. Josiah rounded the corner first and gave a shrug before passing to Chris’s left and finding a seat. JD approached with his head down and his feet dragging.
“JD,” Chris said softly.
JD rolled his shoulders. “We tried, Chris. Honest, we did. Guide DiNozzo insisted on checking in first. Then they just whisked him up to the Directors’ Office.”
Vin perked up a little. “Did you say DiNozzo?”
“Yeah. Seemed to know Ez but wouldn’t say how. And get this, he was a federal agent. Worked with NCIS out of DC Said something about working with the MC…something.”
“MCRT,” Josiah enunciated. “That’s the…”
“Major Case Response Team,” Chris spoke over Josiah. “That’s the top team in NCIS. They had the best solve and conviction rate of any federal agency until a couple years ago. Then they just suddenly tanked. That was when our team started beating out everyone else.” Chris turned toward Josiah with his brow furrowed hard. “Why is the Center bringing in an Investigator when what Ezra needs is training and help?”
“That is a question worth asking—if one only had the opportunity to ask.” Josiah reached for a woodworking magazine on the coffee table and seemed to settle in to read without a care.
Chris gritted his teeth. “Well, I’m asking…now.”
He turned toward the stairwell that would lead him to the administration level when he was suddenly hit by a scent that screamed Guide to him in a way he had never felt. He warred with his body, half wanting to move forward to find the source of that fantastic scent, while the other half wanted to run as far and fast as he could. That second half spoke in tones of grief and denial.
It took him a moment to register when the stairwell doors opened, and Directors Forsyth and McCray exited. They were immediately followed by a vision of strength, virility, and sexuality that flooded his senses. Unconsciously he took a deep breath and felt when the attraction caused his body to react in ways he never had with a guide. He felt want war with need before an image of Sarah flashed in his mind, and it was like a bucket of cold water had drenched him down to the soul. What the hell was wrong with him?
In anger at himself, he forced down every ounce of desire he felt. “What the hell’s going on here, Directors? I’m trusting you to help my man, and you bring in some kind of Investigator?”
A look of surprised shock flared in the guide’s eyes before they went blank. The man stepped in front of the Directors before they could speak and stood within a foot of Chris. He stared Chris down without flinching. “Yes, I’m an investigator. I’m a good enough investigator to know about you. Christopher Larabee. Alpha Sentinel and former Navy SEAL. Currently a Special Agent with the ATF. Team Leader of Team 7. The team with the highest conviction rate in the ATF. Also, the team with the highest number of reprimands filed, though most of them have been dismissed. Should I go on? No. Well, I am a highly-skilled individual myself. My skills and achievements as an investigator have absolutely nothing to do with the genetic quirk that made me an Alpha Guide. I am here so that I can use my gifts to get through to Ezra.”
“Is that so?” Chris asked, and damn if that voice hadn’t gone right to his groin. “He’s a member of my team, and I want access to him. Now.”
“I’ll take your request under advisement.” The Guide responded with a slightly bitter smile. “But as of now, his care is under the auspices of the US Alpha Prime Guide. As his personal representative, I am the first, last, and only say in his treatment. You want to see the man—you have to go through me.”
“We’ll see about that,” Chris muttered. “Well, what are you waiting for? Go fix him.” Chris took a breath and shuddered at the scent. He needed to get out of here, and damn if it didn’t feel like running. He broke eye contact to motion toward his men, noticing that Jackson and Wilmington had shown up at some point during the altercation. “Boys, we have work to do. Tanner, Sanchez, stay here and make sure that idiot doesn’t do a runner around Guide DiNozzo.”
And with that, he turned to stalk off, ignoring the looks of concern in Buck’s eyes.
Tony watched Larabee stalk off, noting how the jeans hugged his ass as every step led him further away, then kicked himself for looking. The aura of a dark storm cloud followed him out, and the pressure in the building seemed to lighten immensely. Tony pulled his empathic awareness back in from where it had instinctively reached out for the sentinel and gave himself a silent moment to breathe.
He heard the man he recognized as Buck Wilmington mutter something about unstoppable forces meeting immovable objects before he was herding his coworkers away. Sanchez was staring at him as if he were a great puzzle while the Directors’ were doing the same with a lot more calculation in their eyes.
He turned to see a man he knew was Vin Tanner staring at him with a friendly little smile. “You’ll have to forgive Chris,” Vin said softly. “He tends to get his head stuck up his ass when things don’t go his way. He can get a mite stubborn. I suspect the Navy done ruined him. What self-respecting sentinel would want to get stuck on a boat that moves when the Army has perfectly stable ground to walk on.”
“You think that’s the problem?” Tony asked, taking another breath and focusing on controlling his response.
“He’s an ex-military Alpha Sentinel in law enforcement who’s also a widower with a chip on his shoulder a mile wide. So, I reckon Navy don’t help that picture.” Vin shrugged when Josiah let out a little laugh.
Tony shook his head and looked back down the now empty corridor before muttering under his breath, “Well, fuck me sideways, I have a type. Who knew?”
Tanner stood and moved to face Tony. “Are you Ezra’s Dominic?” The question garnered attention, but Tony ignored everyone but Tanner.
“Yes, I am,” Tony confirmed with a wry smile. “And you would be his Vin?”
“Yeah, that would be me.” The smile was shy, and he blushed. It was beyond charming.
“I know this isn’t really the place, but I need to ask you, Vin. Is Ezra your Guide?” Tony heard the intake of breath from the Directors and wanted to knock their heads together about being so irritated with the team that they didn’t even think to talk to them.
“Yes, sir. I’m his. If he’ll have me.” There was a moment of fear in those eyes, and Tony wished he could remove it.
“You know I can’t let you near him. Right?” Tony softened his stance and motioned to the room. “You shouldn’t even be this close, but I understand you can’t really stay away right now. In his condition, we can’t chance a false bond masking his problems. It would mess with your control and would make it hard for him to form a real bond in the future.”
“I understand. Wouldn’t want to do anything that would hurt Ez. If I have to go, I will. But don’t like it, none.” Vin looked away like he was contemplating walking out, and it was killing him to do it.
“As long as you think you can control yourself and wait for Ezra to be able to choose for himself, then I won’t order you to leave,” Tony said, taking pity on the man.
“I’ll wait for Ezra until my last breath if I have to. And if he says I’m not the one, then I’ll watch over him until he finds the one for him and never regret the time he’s gifted me.” Vin returned to his seat then looked back up. “Can ya let him know…that I’m waiting?”
“Sure, I’ll let him know.” Tony nodded to the Directors, who had remained amazingly silent through the exchange, and they used the fingerprint scanner on the door to unlock it.
The corridor beyond this door opened into the portion of the complex restricted to guides. There was a final security checkpoint before entering the Isolation Wards. These Wards were where the shielding against empathic stimulation was strongest. Instead of finding the zone soothing, Tony had always felt it was oppressive since guides practically lived and breathed by the low-level mental stimulation received in a day.
Tony was left at Ezra’s door with a request to check in with the Directors after he finished his evaluation. He leaned against the door for several minutes to clear his mind and move all his worries and concerns to the side. Then he stuffed a great big sentinel-shaped anger into a box and marked it Asshole to kick later.
Of all the places and times to find his sentinel, it had to be now? When he ran background checks on Ezra’s team shortly after his friend’s transfer from the FBI to the ATF, it had never occurred to him that he was checking out his own sentinel. Tony rubbed his chest and felt the hollow place inside throb. And the asshole had rejected him without even acknowledging their compatibility.
No, DiNozzo. We’re burying that, remember?
Tony finally cleared his mind and keyed open the door. The first thing he noticed was that even though it was mid-day, the lights were off. Well, that wouldn’t do. Giving Ezra a day or two due to physical injuries was one thing. But letting him wallow? Nope. Step One, you don’t get to stop living. Tony reached out and turned on the lights.
“You may think I have lost my basic human right for self-determination, but I assure you I have ways of making your life a living hell if you do not leave me alone and allow me the opportunity to sleep in peace until a decent hour has arrived,” The man in the bed demanded with a slightly muffled voice from where a pillow had been immediately placed over his face.
“Well, gee, little brother. You would think you weren’t happy to see me. Come to think of it, I think that was pretty close to the first thing you ever said to me.”
The pillow was ripped off, and Ezra stared at him wide-eyed. “Dominic? Why are you here?”
“You don’t write, you don’t call. I leave messages that you don’t return.” Tony said flippantly as he looked over the younger man. He didn’t like what he was seeing. His color was awful, and his eyes dark and sunken. Worse, empathically, the man really was a void. It was as if emotional energy ceased to exist near him. It was disconcerting as all hell, but Tony merely put on one of his masks to pretend there was no issue.
“I would happily return your missives if my jailers would allow me contact with the outside world.” Ezra sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed to stand.
Tony stepped forward to hug him briefly before sitting in the chair next to the bed. He used that moment of touch to force a deep scan of Ezra’s shields and found no cracks to gain admittance. “No offense, Ezra, but you look terrible. How do you feel?”
“I am fine, Dominic. I only need to return to my own abode so that I may receive the rest I require to return me to full health,” Ezra insisted.
“I’m calling bullshit.” Tony stared Ezra down. “I am the master of fine, and we agreed when you were ten that we wouldn’t lie to each other. Maude and Senior’s divorce didn’t change that.”
“I am still uncertain that Mother was able to legally marry at the time.” Ezra frowned and avoided Tony’s eyes in an attempt to change the subject.
“You know, I researched that once. Maude’s divorce was final the day before the wedding. So, yes, I think they were legally married. But I guarantee you that her next one wasn’t.” Tony saw the amusement in Ezra’s eyes flare a moment. “Now, how about you tell me how you really feel? And just so you know. Blair Sandburg asked me to come to evaluate you. He doesn’t know that I know you. He didn’t even have your name when he sent me.”
Ezra stiffened then forced himself to relax. It kinda killed Tony to see that action as easily as he did because Ezra rarely let those reactions show.
“I’m just tired, Dominic. Positively exhausted. And their insistence that I am a guide is not helping matters. Their analysis is obviously wrong.”
“No, Ezra. They’re not wrong. You are online,” Tony stated.
“That’s not possible. I was tested as a child, and when I entered the FBI Academy. The tests were negative. I am not a guide, Dominic.”
Tony listened to the stressors in Ezra’s voice grow and paused. There was something slightly desperate in his denial. “Ezra, there’s nothing wrong with being a guide.”
“I know that. I am not some ignorant bigot who equates guides with whores. I have nothing but respect for you and your gifts, Dominic. But those are gifts I do not share.” Ezra’s expression was unchanging, but his eyes were begging Tony to drop it.
Tony decided to back off for now. “I met your team. Well, most of them. They’re worried about you.”
“My team has been instrumental in assisting my jailers in my incarceration. Perhaps you could assist in my release from this institution.”
“Ah, but what kind of big brother would I be to just let you loose on the world before you can fend for yourself? I’ll help you leave when you’re well enough to go. Until then, tell me more about Vin.” Tony leaned back in his chair to show that he was settling in for the long haul.
Ezra’s eyes flashed in consternation before stuttering on the name Vin. “What would you like to know about Mr. Tanner? You are already aware of our current relationship. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement whereby we each receive release and comfort when needed.”
“Wow, that’s a pretty analytical description considering the man in question is about as smitten with you as anyone I’ve ever met.” Tony saw the flare of hope.
“Vin is here? Why hasn’t he come in?”
“Vin’s an unbonded sentinel, Ezra. We can’t allow him in the guide ward.”
Ezra shook his head. “I’m not a…”
Tony reached for Ezra’s hand. “Vin told me he would wait for you forever if that’s what it took for him to have you. He will fight every instinct he has that tells him you are his guide until you can accept him as your sentinel. We all want to help you, Ezra. But the first thing we need, the first thing Vin needs, is for you to decide to help yourself.”
Ezra stiffened and then shrunk a little in sorrow. “I don’t know if I can.”
“You’re the strongest person I know. You can do this, Ezra. We have faith in you.”