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: 8,560/29,859
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.
Chris heard micro-cracks in his pen and forced himself to relax his grip. The A/C started to recycle, and he saw patterns of dust drift across the conference room table. The repetitive vibration of finger tapping from the ATF PR guy, Ben Gossett, felt like tiny shocks running up his arm.
A sudden touch on said arm had him jerking away in a spike of pain that he immediately dialed down while forcing himself to stop before he broke the offending hand. He looked up into the concerned eyes of Assistant Director Orin Travis, his boss.
Orin leaned back slightly while carefully removing his hand. “You with us now, Larabee?”
Instantly resetting all his senses to normal human ranges, Chris nodded once sharply.
Gossett shuffled a paper to get attention. “We’ve been handling the press as well as can be expected, but frankly, we need to give them something substantive soon. Too many people are whispering about corruption and cover-ups.”
“This is still an ongoing investigation,” Chris stated. “They had twice the weapons on that property than our initial reports speculated. And we still haven’t determined the origin of the explosives.”
“I noticed that there still isn’t a preliminary report from Standish in the file. The last update the Denver Center sent to the office was that he was in isolation.” Orin leaned forward and put his arms on the table. “I’ve never heard of a guide being put in isolation. Is that report wrong? Is Standish a sentinel?”
“No, Ezra’s a guide. ISO chambers for guides are used when they’re compromised in some way that prevents them from properly shielding themselves. Right now, they aren’t allowing anyone access to the man.”
“Survivors are still refusing to talk. It’s imperative that we get our hands on Standish’s report of what was happening in that compound. You’re a sentinel, Larabee. Why don’t you make them give you access to the man.” And there Legal has to step into the mess. What was that guy’s name? Whiner…no, Weirner.
Chris growled softly and stood up from the table. “Do you really think they give a damn about my status? The Center is keeping information about Standish locked down. The Supreme Court upheld the ruling that the Center is within their rights to restrict all information regarding Sentinels and Guides if they decide it is for their protection. So please, go explain to them that you need a properly filed report from a newly online guide. I want to see you try to get around them.”
Everyone started talking over one another.
“Gentlemen,” Orin interrupted the argument. “If I could have the room?” Everyone rose to leave. “Larabee, take a seat.”
Chris hesitated a moment, warring with himself before he retook his seat.
Orin waited until the door closed before he spoke. “Chris, I understand that this entire situation is stressful for your team. But I expect you to behave in a manner befitting of a Supervisory Agent within the ATF.”
Gritting his teeth, Chris nodded sharply.
“Now, if anyone asks, you were properly reprimanded.” Orin leaned back and relaxed. “Now, as much as I hate to agree with those stuffed shirts, the world runs on media and public opinion. The only person who has any knowledge of what was happening in that compound is Standish. Is there any chance you can get in to see the man?”
“They haven’t been sharing any details.” Chris leaned his elbows on the table and rubbed his face with both hands. “Whatever’s going on with him, they’re scared. I’ve overheard several of the staff request transfers from his corridor. I don’t know why, but he hasn’t kept anyone a full shift.”
“Is that because of his status or his attitude?” Orin asked with one eyebrow pushing up his hairline.
“Well, he wasn’t happy when I dragged him back in.” At Orin’s questioning look, Chris explained, “He did his usual runner to try to break out, and I caught him before he was out of the parking lot. Honestly, he looked like crap. The Center Directors hustled a team out to us before I could do more than drag him out of the cab.” Chris met Orin’s eyes. “I don’t know what exactly is going on, but I can tell you that he felt…wrong. It’s the only word I know. It made all my senses feel like they were twisted.” He shuddered slightly at the memory.
“Maybe if I went with you to speak to them? Mr. Wilmington is a guide. Perhaps they would allow him to take a statement from Standish.”
“They don’t care about the reputation of the ATF or any ongoing investigations, Orin.” Chris shook his head in frustration. “They’ve called in some kind of Alpha Guide specialist out of DC to help Ez. He’s…” Chris flashed on an impression of bright green eyes and expressive lips. He pushed the thought away angrily. “He’s a militant pain in the ass who is restricting all access to Standish. They said Blair Sandburg sent him personally to take over.”
“The US Prime Guide is involved in a newly online guide? Can’t Standish do anything the normal way?” Orin huffed and then reached into the candy bowl to pull out a piece of peppermint. He started sucking on it as if to rid himself of a sour taste. “They’re not going to give an inch on this if it’s that far up the chain. OK, I’ll take care of pushing them off of this subject for now. Get the rest of your team in order on this, Chris. I want every I dotted, and T crossed. Let’s run this like we won’t get a report from Standish anytime soon.”
“Already got them on it.” Chris stood to leave.
“As for Standish and his situation. Make sure he knows that the ATF is behind him one hundred percent. And, if it isn’t too much trouble, can you at least try to play nice with this DC Guide? Let’s not start things out by antagonizing the man.” Orin stood and passed Chris on the way out.
Chris watched him go without acknowledging that last statement because, honestly, that ship had sailed. He needed that guide out of his territory. The sudden thought of green eyes and a voice that seemed to pour through every crack in his being caused a full-body shiver. With a curse, Chris grabbed his notepad and started moving again. He changed direction toward the stairs to avoid the group Orin was herding into his own office.
He hit the doors to Team 7’s domain and called out orders before the doors finished swinging inward. “Buck! Call Josiah back in here. I want him to review every contact with Ezra from the time he went undercover until the bust. We need to be positive that we didn’t miss any messages he was giving us. Then review every weapon on that latest report. It should be in your email now. Nathan, I want to know why I don’t even have a preliminary report on those explosives. I don’t care what cases the lab is working on. The Director wants this one to have priority. JD! My office now!”
Chris felt all their eyes on him as he entered his office. JD was in the doorway before he could take his seat. “Where’s that background report on DiNozzo?”
“What I’ve got so far.” JD opened a folder. “Anthony Dominic DiNozzo, Jr. Father is Anthony Dominic DiNozzo, Sr., still living, and Claire DiNozzo, nee Paddington. She was English by birth and died when DiNozzo was eight. Graduated high school from Remington Military Academy. Bachelors in Physical Education from Ohio State, where sometime in his junior year, he was diagnosed as a latent guide on the cusp of online. After that, he picked up the credits for a Minor in Criminal Justice.”
Chris leaned forward on his desk in thought. It wasn’t unusual for those who tested as latent to change degree programs. It was as if knowledge of their status unlocked a desire to serve the tribe. He refocused on JD’s words.
“He joined the Peoria PD after college. Then moved to Philly, where his records are sealed before ending up as the youngest Detective on record in the Baltimore PD. Somehow with all that, he earned his Masters in Criminal Justice from the University of Baltimore. He was recruited from Baltimore directly onto the Major Case Response Team with NCIS. Served there for several years, but most of those cases are classified. It does show that he came fully online during an incident with a hostage situation in Autopsy at NCIS Headquarters.”
JD handed the paperwork over to Chris. “He spent three months in training with Blair Sandburg, then returned to work. He worked with NCIS for another two years before leaving. There is no information on why he left.”
“That’s it?” Chris asked, opening the file.
“Well, I don’t know if it’s related, but the DC Center runs yearly audits in all NCIS Offices of all S&G personnel and anyone who works in direct contact with them. It started a week after he left. Since then, he’s been working as an Investigative Consultant with the Crimes Against Sentinels and Guides Division. And he’s working on his Masters in Sentinel Studies.” JD met Chris’s eyes and just shrugged.
Chris nodded and quickly flipped past the photo of the man. “Anything in here tells us how he knows Ezra?”
JD was practically bouncing in his seat. “Yeah, you won’t believe this. I accidentally started the search with his father. Should have known better; he told me it was junior. But his father has been married almost as many times as Maude has. Except he’s easier to check because he doesn’t change his name. I didn’t pay any attention to most, but look here.” JD reached over and shuffled through pages until one line showed a marriage notation for Anthony Dominic DiNozzo, Senior to Maude Standish Brockman. Six months later was a divorce date. “That’s gotta be Ez’s Ma.”
Chris stared at the note and felt like the world was against him. He was never getting rid of this guide.
Tony closed the door softly to avoid waking Ezra and stretched. He looked around the quiet corridor to get his bearings. He needed coffee, and he wasn’t enough of an asshole to drink it in front of Ezra when caffeine was verboten for damaged guides. They had spoken for hours about everything under the sun. It was good to catch up with him, but more importantly, it was relieving to know there were no mental deficiencies at this point. Because empathically, it was difficult to be near Ezra for a prolonged time.
It was nearing the dinner hour, so Tony willingly gave Ezra an hour or so to sleep before dinner arrived. Besides, he needed to check-in and make some arrangements. Luckily there was a convertible couch that he could sleep on in the room, so he could stay for the night. Tony needed to monitor Ezra while he slept to see if his shields relaxed any when he was fully at rest.
But first, coffee. Tony stopped at the nurses’ station on the way out of the Ward to request bedding and extra towels for Ezra’s room. He also put in a request for a nurse to check if Ezra was allowed Tylenol. Ezra had been close enough to an explosion for him to still be experiencing muscle pain.
Rolling his shoulders, Tony left the Ward in search of the elusive coffee. Vin was up and out of his chair before the door was halfway open.
“Ez OK?” Vin asked, and Tony saw the sentinel take a deep breath to catch Ezra’s scent. Vin frowned.
“He’s about the same. Ezra’s taking a nap before his dinner comes.” Tony turned as two more walked over to greet him.”
“Hi, Guide DiNozzo? My name’s Nathan Jackson, and this is my wife and guide, Rain Jackson.” Nathan Jackson nodded his head toward Tony. “Ezra’s my teammate and friend. I was the first one to find Ezra during the firefight. I could tell he was online, and I kept everyone else from touching him. I figured that I would do the least damage since I’m already bonded. But they haven’t released any information about what’s wrong with him.”
“Nathan,” Rain Jackson touched her husband’s arm in a way that spoke of comfort. “I’ve told you, you did the right thing. Nothing you did would have caused him more discomfort than he was already in.” She turned toward Tony. “And, I prefer to go by Dr. Rain Jackson since that’s a title I earned instead of one I was born with.”
Tony liked her already. “In that case, please, just call me Tony. I prefer the titles I earn, too.”
“Are you leaving?” Vin asked.
“Well, I’m looking for some coffee. I’m still running on East Coast time.” Tony shrugged.
Rain looked him up and down, then shook her head. “You’re going to give these boys bad ideas about how to take care of a guide. I’m betting you haven’t had a decent thing to eat all day. You need food and sleep in that order.”
Tony scratched the back of his head and gave her his best little boy smile. “Busted. I’m running on fumes. But I don’t want to screw up my sleep schedule.”
“Well, you’re in luck. Nathan’s here to pick me up from work. We’re trying to coax Vin away from that chair he’s glued to for some dinner. How about you come along with us.” Rain said it like a question, but there was no doubt in Tony’s mind, it was an order.
“I suppose it would be good to get away for a couple of hours.” Tony turned toward Vin, who was looking resistant to the thought of leaving. “Ezra said you have a key to his place, Vin. I thought he might rest better if we could get him some of his silk pajamas instead of the standard Center apparel. Something that would help him relax.”
Vin perked up at the thought. “Yeah, Ez is real attached to his clothes. Might help him some at that.” He looked back at the door a moment, then nodded and turned back to the group. “How about we go to the Saloon? Inez should be serving her Abuela’s tamales tonight.”
Nathan looked hopeful, and Rain rolled her eyes before smiling. “It really is the best Mexican in the city. And the owner is a friend.”
“OK, food, then Ezra’s, then back.” Tony stopped on the way out to leave a message in case Ezra woke before they returned.
It was a short ride from the Center to the restaurant, but Tony was concerned about the crowd waiting to get in. “Popular place.”
“Yeah, it’s great food, great atmosphere, and she’s certified Sentinel Safe.” Nathan pointed out the Center Certification seal on the front door.
“Not many places try to go through the full Center process.” Tony was impressed. It meant the restaurant didn’t just cook and clean with sentinel-safe products. But that the menu was noted with common sentinel sensitivities, and the restaurant was ready to adapt most of their dishes to accommodate their customers.
“Inez did it on a bet. This sexist jerk was trying to run her out of business, and Ezra goaded them both into a bet. The first one to make it through the entire certification process stayed open. Joke was on the jerk. Inez was two-thirds through the process when the Center caught the other guy in some major health violations and had him shut down. Didn’t matter, though. Inez was getting so much extra business because of how everyone at the Center was raving about her food that she went ahead and finished the certification.” Vin was grinning as he finished, and everyone was staring at him.
“Vin Tanner, I think that’s the most I’ve ever heard you say at one time.” Rain was holding back a grin.
Vin huffed and turned to walk past the hostess station. “I talk when I have something to say.”
Tony followed the group as they went to the back corner of the restaurant. Along the way, Vin grabbed a pitcher and some glasses from the bar as he waved toward the bartender.
“I know you’re not drinking tonight. But this is some of Inez’s mango tea.” Vin was already pouring it, so Tony decided to give it a try.
A server placed chips and several kinds of dip on the table as he passed by. Nathan noticed Tony trying to decide which first. “The green bowl is safe, blue has a lot of flavor but not any kick. Now the yellow bowl is the best chili verde you’ve ever had, and it’s vegetarian. If a sentinel has any sensitivity issues, they should still stay away from it. The red bowl is hot as all hell and not recommended for most sentinels.”
Tony nodded and decided that he should stick to the easy fare today, though he was going to at least try the chili verde. Then he noticed the bowl that was twice as big as the others. The sauce was a deep red, and Vin was devouring it like it was candy. “And what about the black bowl?”
“You want some?” Vin looked up with an evil smile and held out a chip.
Nathan looked horrified. “Don’t do it. That stuff will blister your tongue and strip the lining from your stomach. I don’t honestly know how he can touch that stuff.”
“You just don’t know the good stuff when it’s put in front of you.” Vin stuck out his tongue at Nathan and went back to his bowl.
“Senior Nathan, Senorita Rain, I am glad you are here.” A Hispanic woman in a flowing tiered skirt stepped out of the kitchen with a smile. Her aura was bright and outgoing with shades of turquoise that Tony commonly saw in mundane sensitives. “Senior Vin!” Vin stood up to meet her, and she wrapped herself around him for a hug. “I knew you would make it for tamale night.” She smiled at Tony and glanced around. “Is Senior Ezra still on assignment?”
Vin shook his head. “No, he’s not on assignment anymore. But he can’t come out yet. I can’t really talk about it right now.”
“I understand. Half the people here are law enforcement.” She turned to look at Tony.
“Oh, Inez, this is Dominic,” Vin grinned.
Inez perked up and stared at Tony in excitement. “You are Senior Ezra’s Dominic?”
Tony blinked. “I suppose so. But Ezra is the only person who calls me Dominic. Please, call me Tony.”
“Well, Tony. Our special tonight is tamales, but for you, I can make anything on the menu.” Inez was making some motions to one of the servers who was on the way for the order.
“Tamales sound great as long as they aren’t too spicy. I’ve been up since about three am Eastern Time, so I’m running on about four hours sleep.” Tony turned on the charm with his smile.
“One Ezra Especiale coming up. All of the flavor, none of the heat.” She gave the table another smile then spun away to check in on the bar side of the restaurant.
Rain reached out for some chips. “So, Tony. Why does Ezra call you Dominic?”
Tony shook his head and grinned. “OK, so I suppose you’ve all met Maude?”
“Hurricane Maude, yeah, we’ve had that pleasure,” Nathan said with a hint of disgust.
“Well, my father and Maude have a lot in common. They are both looking for the next big mark and aren’t afraid to marry to get it. When Ezra and I were children, the two of them met, misjudged, and got married.” Tony noted the surprise in Rain’s eyes, the amusement in Vin’s, and the not so uninformed look in Nathan’s. “Let me guess, you guys ran a background check?”
Nathan looked sheepish, and Tony laughed. “I figured you would. I did the same when Ezra transferred to Denver. Anyway, my full name is Anthony Dominic DiNozzo, Jr. Named after my father, Anthony Dominic DiNozzo, Sr. Dear ol’ Dad likes to tell everyone that he’s the real Tony DiNozzo. He, of course, calls me Junior, which I hate. Maude taught Ezra not to use nicknames, so he wouldn’t call me Tony. And since Maude called the old man Anthony, Ezra wouldn’t use that either. He was a stubborn little ten-year-old. We finally agreed on Dominic.”
“The two of you kept in touch after your parents split?” Nathan prompted.
“Yeah, we exchanged letters, calls, emails. When we were old enough, we took a few trips together. Ezra’s as close as I can get to a little brother.” Tony smiled at the memories.
“Well, it’s good that you and Ezra had each other to reach out to.” Rain noted.
Conversation slowed as the food arrived. Tony noted that Vin seemed to inhale his, and the server brought him a second plate before he finished the first. Nathan was lecturing Vin, and Vin was defending his appetite. They finished with a selection of absolutely fabulous dessert tamales, and Tony wanted the recipes.
Inez checked on them twice more during the meal and refused when Tony tried to pull out his credit card to pay.
“No, you are Senior Ezra’s guest.” She insisted.
Vin laughed as he accepted a large ToGo bag from Inez. “No use arguing with her. Ezra’s her silent partner.”
“As if Standish could be silent about anything.” Nathan quipped, and everyone laughed.
“Well, Senior Ezra makes his opinions known, but he knows to stay out of my kitchen.” Inez gave Vin another hug. “I put in his favorite pumpkin pecan tamales, so you better make sure he gets them.”
Then she turned to Tony. “It was nice meeting you. You must come back as soon as you can.”
“The food was divine, and the hostess charming. I look forward to enjoying your cuisine again while I’m in town.” Tony gave her a little bow and noted that not once did she try to touch him.
They stopped on the way out to allow customers to pass into the restaurant then stopped just as Chris Larabee entered the room. Tony froze a moment, his mind instinctively reaching out for the sentinel before he saw the man jerk to a halt.
Chris muttered something under his breath, spun on his heel, and stalked out.
Vin took off after him. By the time their group found Vin in the parking lot, he was standing in the middle, watching a black truck speed away.
Rain shook her head. “Someone needs to have a talk with that man.”
“I think Chris just needs some time to work out his problems on his own,” Nathan disagreed.
Tony locked down his emotions and pivoted to the car. “It doesn’t really matter.”
“Oh, Tony. It’s practically the only thing that does matter,” Rain insisted. “From one guide to another, it will always matter. But sentinels can be stubborn and prideful if you let them. Took me forever to convince Nathan that we could bond without either of us quitting our jobs. And as for Chris, his problems are his own. If you’re willing to wait, he’s worth it.”
Tony gave her a sad smile. “But I deserve better than waiting for something that might not happen.”
Chris tossed and turned half the night. Every time he would fall asleep, he would dream of DiNozzo. Green eyes and a blinding smile haunted his dreams. The scent of the man followed him everywhere. Hell, he hadn’t even meant to go to the Saloon, he was just passing by on his way home, and that scent pulled him in. Desire was turning to lust, and he had no right to be thinking about some Guide that way.
When he spotted the man out with some of his own thrice-cursed team, there had been this moment when everything just seemed to fit. He could picture himself right there with them. Then he thought about how Sarah would have felt about it, and he turned tail and ran. He, Chris Larabee, ran.
How the hell can one man get under his skin so fast and make him question his whole life? Chris threw off the covers and got out of bed. Well, there was no way he was sleeping now. Might as well get a start on the latest reports.
Tony rolled over and listened as Ezra’s dream turned to a nightmare once again. He quietly got up and gently touched the back of his wrist to avoid waking him. Once he had skin-to-skin contact, Tony did a deep scan, the fourth deep scan so far tonight. The nightmares weren’t causing any cracks in Ezra’s shields. If anything, it was making them stronger.
Damn it, Ezra. Can’t you just cooperate once in your life? Tony thought with a bit of sorrow. He wanted to get through to the man. To help him find the way out of his shields on his own. But it was looking more and more like he was going to be forced to bust through those shields. Oh, it would save him from ERDS related dormancy. It would save him, and the Center could take the next six months to a year healing him before they could even start teaching him to rebuild what was shattered.
Tony shivered slightly at the thought of Ezra Standish locked in a Guide Rehabilitation Center for a year. Granted, it was better than dormancy and an eighty percent possibility of a suicide attempt in the first year. But Tony hated Blair for putting him in this position.
Gently rubbing Ezra’s back until the man settled down, Tony contemplated the words Ezra was speaking in his sleep. It worried him that even in his sleep, Ezra was insisting he wasn’t a guide. It was desperate and so out of character.
Tony moved back to the couch and crawled under the covers. He was almost asleep when he jerked back upright and stared at the figure in the bed. It wasn’t like Ezra at all. But what about his undercover persona?
Come on, DiNozzo, think. Tony swung his legs back over. He knows from experience that there’s always a period of adjustment when you’ve been undercover a while. You have to take some time and find yourself again. You have to adjust your reactions…your way of thinking. Ezra was deep under when he came online. Is he still stuck in that persona in some way?
Tony lay back down and let his mind plan as he finally allowed his own exhaustion to catch up with him. He had an action plan for tomorrow. He needed to see the details of that op. And, he needed to talk to Blair.
Drifting off to sleep, Tony dreamed of tight jeans on a firm ass pitching hay while Tony lounged on a chair with a blanket and his sketch pad. A feeling of joy/home/safety/love permeated the scene, and he settled deeply into a restful sleep.
Tony waited until breakfast was cleared away to take up his latest line of questioning. No reason to kill what little appetite Ezra had with a stressful conversation. Usually, he would try to get someone outside for some fresh air because hard conversations about training guide gifts were better when someone was relaxed.
But that wasn’t an option right now. There were too many newly online guides in training in the Center to subject them to the void that surrounded Ezra. And if anything finally got through to Ezra and let him drop that shield, well, the feedback wouldn’t be pleasant, to say the least.
So even though it wasn’t his preferred activity, Tony moved the chairs and bed over to open up the floor.
“Dominic, what in the world do you think you’re doing?” Ezra grabbed hold of the bed rail as Tony moved it against the wall and locked the wheels in place.
“Making space for some yoga,” Tony responded while he moved some of the pillows around because he didn’t have any yoga mats, and he wasn’t killing his knees.
“And why must you do this in my room?”
“I’m not doing this…we’re doing this.”
“That we better include an outside party because I do not practice yoga.”
“You do today. Surprise. Now get out of that bed before I move you out of it.”
“I refuse to subject myself to your irrational desire for activity before the day has properly begun.” Ezra pulled the cover over himself and turned to the wall.
“Don’t make me get you out of that bed, little brother. You won’t like how I do it.” Tony finished what he was doing.
“You wouldn’t dare,” Ezra said, his voice muffled. “I’m not a…” Ezra let out a growl as Tony yanked the blankets off the bed.
“Last warning,” Tony smirked when Ezra shot him the bird then slowly got to his feet.
With several derogatory comments mixed in with nonstop complaining, Tony worked Ezra through the forms taught in the Guide 101 Program without mentioning that fact. Tony was pleased to see Ezra was moving much better today.
When they reached the end of the routine, and eased into a rest. Tony moved into visualization exercises. The first two were basic meditative BS geared more toward the teens coming online, but Ezra went along with them. The third on mental awareness he grew uncomfortable with. But when they reached the exercise on identifying the emotions around you, Ezra slammed on the brakes.
“Dominic, enough!” Ezra marched into the bathroom and slammed the door.
Tony got up to follow him. “No. Today you’ve had enough when I say you’ve had enough.” He tried the door handle, and it was locked. He slapped one hand against the door while moving the panel cover and scanning his fingerprint. The moment the electronic lock disengaged, he pushed his way through.
“Excuse me? Do I have no privacy in this prison?” Ezra spun around from the cabinet where the fresh towels were stacked.
“No, and you might as well get used to it. Because if you think this is a prison, you can’t even imagine the inside of a Guide Rehabilitation Center. It’s where we send the most damaged guides. Those that can’t function in the real world. Fifty percent of the people that go in will never come out.”
“I’m not a guide, and practicing useless exercises isn’t going to make me one. I have rights, Dominic!”
Tony pushed him back onto the toilet seat, bracketing him with his arms as he leaned against the wall. He leaned down, so he was face to face with Ezra. “What you are is a newly online guide with a full-blown case of ERDS. That’s Empathic Repression Distress Syndrome. You are having trouble focusing. You can’t control your emotions. You might think you’re managing to control your reactions, but you’re not. Lie to yourself, but don’t lie to me, Ezra. In layman’s terms, you completely shielded yourself from outside emotional input. But a guide isn’t meant to live like that full time. Whatever emotions you were experiencing at the time are stuck on repeat inside your head. Right now, it makes you tired. But you’ve started having headaches. That’s a sign that your empathic pathways are degrading. The next stage is neurological degradation. That’s where you start to lose higher brain function.”
“No.” Ezra was shaking his head in denial.
“You have a voice inside repeating over and over that you’re not a guide.” Tony watched Ezra’s eyes gloss over and continued softly. “Thing is, I’m not sure that voice is yours.” Ezra jerked. “Tell me about your undercover op.”
“Your op, Ezra,” Tony repeated. “What was the setup?”
“As I have yet to be debriefed on that assignment, I do not believe it appropriate to discuss matters when I am not aware of the current status of the case. I have yet to be updated on their resolution.”
Tony stared at Ezra in silence a moment, then pushed back from the wall to stand up straight. “You haven’t even asked how the bust went down since you were brought in. Don’t you find that odd?”
Ezra shrugged stiffly. “It is not my place to speculate on such matters. Now, if you don’t mind, I was about to shower.”
Tony saw that stubborn jut of his chin that meant he would shut down before giving in and backed up. “Fine, shower. But this isn’t over, Ezra. I’m not going to lose you to this. I don’t have enough family to give up on the one I care about.”
Chris entered the Denver ATF Offices with waves of frustration pouring from him. It was another day of interrogations, and they knew no more now than they did when this started. Damn lawyers and damned Fifth Amendment.
He had barely gotten any sleep last night. That annoying Guide haunted his dreams. The memory of how his muscles moved under the skin. How the light bounced off his eyes and how they flared when Chris pissed him off. The sound of his voice vibrated in Chris’s bones. And that scent was driving him absolutely insane.
His mind and body were betraying him. And it didn’t help that the man was popping up everywhere. He was at the Saloon last night. Couldn’t even avoid him in his dreams. Hell, DiNozzo was even at the best coffee shop in town this morning when Chris had stopped by on the way to Federal Holding for the interrogations. A man couldn’t even get himself a decent cup of coffee without running into those green eyes.
Damn it! Those eyes weren’t that enticing. And if a man got aroused by the scent and sight of someone…well, that didn’t mean anything. Hell, everyone knows that guides are just naturally attractive. Doesn’t mean anything more than that.
Chris forced himself to focus on the nondescript decor of the ATF elevator in an attempt to clear his mind. Now, if he could just get that scent out of his head. Hell, he could still smell it here in the office.
The elevator came to a stop and opened. A burst of scent hit him in the face, and Chris froze. “No. Oh, hell no.” The doors started to close, and he slapped his hand out to stop them. Standing there, he contemplated just leaving until the elevator started buzzing its displeasure. “Yeah, you and me both.”
Making a decision, Chris took a deep breath and then opened the door. He first spotted Nathan reading through something, a highlighter in hand. JD was typing frantically on his computer while arguing with Buck about which of them had dish duty. It was the same damn weekly argument since the two of them became roommates. Buck was leaning back in his chair with his feet on his desk. A magazine spread out on his lap.
“That better not be another damn Playboy.” Growled at Buck as he walked in.
“Now, would I do that…again?” Buck said with a grin. He held up the magazine, and Chris could see it was the latest issue of Guns & Ammo.
“Where’s Josiah?” Chris asked, noting the empty desk and the closed conference room door while trying to ignore the overwhelming odor of Guide in the room. Given that the three of them were exchanging looks to see who would answer that question, he had his answer. “And what the hell is HE doing here?”
“Well, Chris, you see, it’s like this…” Buck put his feet on the floor and backed up from his desk a few inches. “Guide DiNozzo had some questions about Ezra’s part in our last case. Which led to some questions about the case.”
“Which is still an open case.” Chris turned toward the conference room and started moving. Buck and Nathan were in front of him before he could take three steps.
“Whoa! You don’t want to be doing that,” Buck insisted.
“Why the hell not?”
Nathan took his arm and turned him. “Because Assistant Director Travis authorized it and ordered Josiah to brief him.”
“He did what?” Chris stopped fighting and stared them down.
“You heard me,” Nathan responded.
Chris removed his briefcase strap from his shoulder and shoved it into Buck’s hands. Then turning back toward the elevator, he growled, “We’ll see about that.”
The elevator stopped once on the way up to Orin’s office, but no one even tried to get on. He didn’t waste time when he arrived asking the admin if the man was in a meeting. Chris just walked right past her. He already knew there was only one heartbeat in the room, and there was no sound of an open phone line.
He was speaking before the door was fully open. “Sir, you gave the Guide from the Center clearance for our case file?”
Travis looked up at him and smiled. “You better believe I did. Why didn’t you tell me that the Guide working with Standish is Agent DiNozzo?”
“Excuse me, sir?” Chris pulled himself to a sudden stop.
“I know you all are more concerned about Sentinel and Guide rank, but to have the chance to have Agent DiNozzo look over things…well, that’s not a chance we can pass up. It was a real blow to NCIS when he took his sabbatical from Federal Service. There are a lot of agencies out there that would love to recruit him. Imagine the way I could rub it in the FBI’s face if we could get him on board.” Orin grinned wickedly. “I would love to stick it to Feldman.”
Chris closed his mouth and tried to breathe. “You’re not serious, sir.”
“Oh, yes, I am. Now, you know I don’t try to interfere with how you run your team. But I think you need to ease back a little and try not to scare the man off. Maybe you should take the time and get to know him. See if you can sweet-talk him into considering the ATF.”
“Sweet talk him?” Chris’s brain locked up.
Orin nodded. “Yes. Play nice, and don’t let that team of yours scare him away. Maybe take him out to dinner and talk up the agency.” He stood up and locked his desk. “I’m taking a half-day. I have some plans with Evie, so I won’t be in until after Noon tomorrow. Now, I know the man is focused on helping Agent Standish, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. But do everything you can to be accommodating to him. The last thing we want to do is let him get away.”
Picking up his briefcase, Orin headed to the door and stopped. “That’s an order, Agent Larabee.”
Chris stood in the empty office as the sounds of Orin’s footsteps drifted away.
Tony picked up his cup and headed for the break room for a refill. Josiah had been helpful, and he could understand some of the frustration in the building, considering the shit show this case had turned into. It was the kind of case that could get under your skin. The ATF had released the fact that nineteen people had lost their lives, but the details were grim. The information that Ezra had been able to get to them had included details of a commune doubling as a militia recruitment center. But there were a lot of gaps. It was clear that once he was in, his communications had been monitored.
There was something about this that was tickling at the back of Tony’s mind, and he really wanted to dig in and find the links in the case that would close it. But he had to keep reminding himself that it wasn’t his investigation. He was here for Ezra. This case was at the heart of Ezra’s issues; he just knew it. If only he could concentrate.
Tony cracked his neck. Larabee’s presence was like another damn person in the building. Tony wasn’t sure how any of the sentinels and guides here got anything done. Ezra had always remarked that his boss had a cloud of danger about him, but this was ridiculous.
He had felt the man enter the office, the spike of anger and frustration. Then Larabee had left, headed to the Director’s office if Tony read the situation right. Larabee was only gone minutes before he had closed himself in his own office. And the ATF seriously needed to update their shielding. This building sucked. Tony could feel the anger/frustration/denial rolling off the man. It was mixed with waves of desire/lust/guilt that were impossible to ignore.
Tony looked through the cabinets until he found the box of orange spice tea that Josiah had mentioned. He had it brewing when he felt the empathic storm approaching. The break room door opened and closed, but there was no sound of anyone approaching. Not liking anyone at his back, Tony turned to the door to see Larabee standing still.
The man gave the impression of a man finding an oasis and convinced it’s a mirage. A sudden burst of lust/want/need ended in overpowering guilt/anger/denial. It was just the last straw for Tony.
“What the hell is your problem, Larabee?” Tony demanded. “You don’t want me, fine. It sucks royally. I’ll admit that. But I’m a fucking adult. I understand that you choose not to bond with a guide. If I make the choice to accept it and move on, that’s my choice to make. But you can’t reject me as your Guide and then stalk me. It doesn’t work that way.”
Chris ground his teeth. “I’m not stalking you.”
“I call bullshit on that. Every time I turn around, you are there.” Tony stepped forward to stare him down. “You either want me, or you don’t.”
“Do you really think it’s that easy? You make me consider things I have no right wanting.” Chris was white-knuckled, holding onto the door frame.
“What does that even mean? You are a sentinel. You have every right to want…hell, to need a guide.” Tony retorted.
“I made a promise to Sarah when I married her that as long as we were married, I would never search for a guide. I promised her she was all I needed.” Chris closed his eyes and swallowed hard. “I never broke a single promise to her. I can’t break a promise to her. But it’s ripping me apart how much I want you.”
Tony took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I understand promises. I understand that nothing will ever compare to your wife and child. I would never ask to take their place in your memory. But I spent a lot of years questioning my self-worth. I let a lot of people tear me down, and I played the clown while they did it. When I came online, I accepted a lot of their crap to keep my job until someone convinced me to get out. See, I worked with this ex-military, asshole sentinel with the same damn problems as you. I lived and learned, and I got out. I recovered, and I made a vow that there is no way in hell I will allow myself to take second place in my own damn bond.”
“I’m not sure I can give you that.” Chris stared at Tony for a moment longer before letting go of the door frame and stepping aside. “I just don’t know what I can give you.”
“Seems to me you need to figure that out. But don’t expect me to wait around for you. If I can’t have my match, then I will find someone that can appreciate me as I am.”
Chris turned and stalked out of the room. Tony took a moment to get himself under control. The ache of that empty place deep inside became a sharper pain for a moment before he could breathe again. The creak of the door alerted Tony to another presence, and he mentally reached out before turning to face his fellow Guide.
“Don’t mind me. Just checking if there was any bloodshed.” Buck Wilmington leaned against the wall and gave a pained smirk.
“I don’t really have time right now.” Tony started.
“Look, you just need to understand that Chris can take a while to come around. But he will get there eventually. It’s just losing Sarah and Adam the way he did almost killed him. It was everything I could do to keep him moving forward. He’s a lot better now than he was back then. But Chris is stubborn as they come, and he don’t change easy. If you can just find it in you to cut him some slack, he will get there. You just can’t ask him to put anyone ahead of Sarah like that. He will shoot down anyone that tries to take that place.”
Tony stared Buck down and spoke with an iron resolution. “I would rather spend the rest of my days unbonded with a hollow place in my heart than to be bonded for one day to someone that would always see me as a substitute. I am worth more than that.”
Chris tracked the sound of Buck’s truck as it turned onto the drive at the Ranch. It was just a matter of time before the man stuck his head into Chris’s business. It’s not like the Guide ever kept his opinion to himself. Wasn’t a guide alive who didn’t like the sound of his own voice.
Picking up another log, he set it in place and started chopping. Every swing was strong and precise, as he allowed every ounce of frustration to flow through the ax into the wood. Subconsciously he followed Buck’s progress without turning to see him approach.
“Well, Chris, when you piss someone off, you do a pretty damn good job of it,” Buck called out as he rounded the house.
Without stopping his rhythm, Chris responded, “Buck, this ain’t your business.”
“Way I see it, this is completely my business. I’ve been following your sentinel ass since I was knee-high, so you finally finding your match and letting me off the hook for watching that ass is of particular interest to me.” Buck upended a log and used it as a seat.
“You don’t want to follow me, fine. Never asked you to anyway.” Chris bent down to pick up the wood and walked to the pile to stack it.”
Buck leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees and watched Chris work. “You shouldn’t have to ask a brother for help. I never regretted it, you know. For the most part, it’s been a good ride. But I think we both know it’s time for you to change horses.”
Chris finished stacking wood and grabbed the next log to start splitting. “Don’t think this ride is over yet, Buck.”
“Seems to me it’s been over for a while now. We’re both just too stubborn to see it.” Buck scratched his face. “Well, you’re too stubborn. Me, I’m flexible if you know what I mean.”
Chris just shook his head and kept chopping. “I made a promise to her, Buck. I’ve never broken a promise in my life. I can’t start now.”
“Oh, hell, Ol’ Dog. I loved Sarah, too. She was a wonderful woman. But she wasn’t perfect.” Buck pulled off his cap and looked at it.
“Buck,” Chris warned.
“No. I can love her because of her flaws, and recognizing them doesn’t taint her memory.” Buck looked up and met Chris’s eyes. “Her momma left her daddy when she found her sentinel. Sarah always saw that as a betrayal. Right or wrong, that’s the way she felt. I didn’t like it when she made you promise not to bond with a guide while you were married, but I understood why she did it. And I could feel the love between you. I didn’t protest because you were never one to stray anyway. I just figured that you had already made that promise whether you voiced it or not.”
Chris gripped the ax hard and just listened.
“What you need to understand is that when you made that promise to her, you also made a Vow, til Death us do part. You kept that vow, and you kept that promise too. For as long as you were married to her, you didn’t bond with a guide. But she’s gone, Chris. She’s dead, and you’re alive. You don’t have to stop loving her, but you need to let her go. You need to allow yourself to live again. To love again. A Sentinel was made to commit with everything they have to an unbreakable bond to their Guide. But you can’t do that if your heart belongs to a memory.”
Buck stared at his hat in silence while Chris stood, staring into the distance. Eventually, Chris let the ax slide down until it rested on the ground. “I thought she was it for me. I never regretted making that promise to her. Didn’t figure it made a difference because I had met a hundred guides, and there was nothing special about meeting a hundred more. I didn’t really see what the big deal was since you and I worked just fine without a bond.”
Buck looked up and grinned. “Well, not every Guide is as fine as I am, I’ll have you know. I’m prime real estate.”
Chris shook his head with a little grin teasing at his lips. “It’s just, DiNozzo makes me think thoughts I have no right thinking. He’s electric.”
“Hell, Chris. He’s your perfect match. Nothing in the world is ever going to feel like that. Been around enough bonded pairs to see that.” Buck stood up and stretched. “Now, all you have to do is decide if you want him.”
“Don’t be an idiot, Buck. Of course, I want him. That’s been the problem since I set eyes on him.” Chris picked up the ax and headed to the shed to hang it up.
“Alrighty then.” Buck rubbed his hands together. “You need to go get him.”
“I want him, but it feels like a betrayal.”
“Chris, moving on isn’t betraying Sarah. The only ones you’re punishing right now are yourself and your Guide.” Buck put his hat on and patted Chris on the arm. “You need to think this over and figure out what you have to offer that man. Because if you let him get away, you’re going to regret it for the rest of your life.” Buck turned without another word and headed back to his truck.
Chris slid down to sit on the ground with his back against the shed door. The thought of Sarah in a sundress reading on the front porch swing came to him. The image faded away to be replaced by DiNozzo smiling from the hammock.