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: 10,751/29,859
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.
Tony tried to chip away at Ezra over and over after he got back from the ATF Offices, but the man was stubborn as a stone. There had been a lot of clues in the case files, but something was missing. There was a great big hole right in the middle of it that spoke to motivation. Militia groups were a dime a dozen. Most of them relatively harmless. But this one was hiding a purpose that Tony hadn’t quite determined. He was certain Ezra had it if they could just get him to open up.
He had immediately called to speak to Blair and scheduled a call for this morning. An hour on the phone later was leaving Tony frustrated and frightened. They had debated possible causes and treatments. And, he had been forced to come clean to Blair about his connection to Ezra. He had a plan on how to approach this next, but Blair didn’t hold out much hope.
“Damn it, Blair.” Tony pushed. “His empathic pathways aren’t opening up the way they should. If anything, I would say he’s regressing. I’m afraid he’s going to hit cascade failure, and then there is no going back.”
Blair let out a loud breath. “Normally, I would say it’s your call, Tony. I understand why you want to try any other avenue. But he could be headed for psychic shock. That can shut down his higher brain functions. Considering your personal connection…and I’m so mad you didn’t call me immediately when you found out. But considering that, I’m going to give you an ultimatum. You have until midnight tonight to make significant progress, or I’m going to order the Center to place him under heavy sedation while you rip away every bit of shielding he has.”
“Blair,” Tony whispered in horror.
“It’s cruel, but it really is the best way.” There was a pause. “I know it goes against everything you feel as an Alpha, but it’s easier to heal from the ground up without allowing him to reform fractured shields. He would never have the control over them that he needs. Once you do this, he will need to be buffered until he can be relocated to a Guide Rehabilitation Center. You will have to keep him sedated until the move is complete.”
“He would never choose Guide Rehab for himself, Blair.” Tony tried to explain.
Blair sighed, “Tony, his chances of living a meaningful life if you don’t do this are slim to none. Either way we go, once he starts to regress, he will be considered non compos mentis. You’ve already reported how irrational he is on the subject. He can’t be trusted to make this decision.”
Tony shook his head then stated, “You don’t know him, Blair. He will see this as a betrayal. He’ll never trust the Centers.” He’ll never trust me again, Tony wanted to scream.
“He’s a danger to himself and to the tribe,” Blair stated firmly, with the weight of Prime behind it. “Sentinels will instinctively know he’s a guide, but they won’t receive any of the proper stimuli to determine if he is in danger. Just by existing, he could cause one to go feral in his defense. It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s just the way it is. Guides are going to over-react to him. At the Rehab Center, they can contain this. Once you strip his shields, he will be the one in danger. But the Rehab Center can begin healing him. Eventually, he will learn to purposefully rebuild his shields.”
“It would be years before he can bond to his sentinel. And his career in law enforcement will be over,” Tony muttered.
Blair’s voice thrummed with regret. “If I could take this burden from you, I would. But there is no one else I could get to him before the damage becomes irreversible. For what it’s worth, I promise you that I will personally see to his training when the time comes.”
“OK,” Tony whispered. He held the phone a moment longer and then hung up without a goodbye.
He stared off into the distance a while, letting the order sink in. He needed to find a way out…any way out. He thought back to that scrawny, smart-mouthed, ten-year-old and the day he found him with a hand-print across his face. To this day, he still doesn’t know if it was Senior or Maude who put it there. But, for the six days it took for it to begin fading, the boy was invisible to them and the staff. That was when Tony decided that Ezra was his brother. No matter how long or short it would be, they were in it together.
If he was willing to take a blow for Ezra back then, the least he could do was take one for him now. Decision made, Tony headed for the Center’s main entrance and requested a ride to the Denver ATF Offices. It was time he and Chris Larabee worked together.
Tony instinctively scanned the Team 7 office before he entered. Most had a focus he associated with hard at work, but a bit jovial. It was the kind of atmosphere Tony liked to work in himself. Granted, there were threads of worry in there, but he was aware those were for Ezra. He pushed a little further and edged on Chris. While there was no mistaking his presence from the moment you entered the building, today, the thundercloud seemed to be lighter. The anger was subdued, and the guilt seemed to be missing. Tony hoped that feeling could last, at least for a day.
He had a plan on how to get through to Ezra in a way the man wouldn’t fight. But he was going to need Chris Larabee to make it happen. He entered the office to a round of hellos and responded in kind. He let his body language speak for him to their unasked question of Ezra’s state. Tony knew they kept in constant contact with Vin at the Center, so it wasn’t a surprise to them.
“So, how can we help you today, Tony?” Josiah asked. “Need more information on the case?”
“In a way, I do. But I think today I need to speak to Larabee to get it.” Tony motioned toward the closed office door.
Buck gave a little grin. “Well, you’re in luck. The sorry SOB is in and almost fit for company.”
The door swung open to show Larabee standing there. “I heard that, Buck.”
“I should hope so, Chris.” Buck smiled wide. “Which part you have trouble with? Because it’s all true.”
Tony waited for the explosion, but Chris just gave this appealing little grin. “You want to come in and avoid the circus, Guide DiNozzo? The rest of you clowns can get back to work.”
Preparing for the worst, Tony nodded and entered the inner office. Chris’s domain was neat and orderly. The colors and textures perfect for a sentinel’s senses. Pictures of the Team were about. He noted there were none of Ezra here.
Chris stepped beside him to the picture that had drawn his attention. It was similar to the one Ezra had sent him. “I don’t keep pictures of Ezra in here. But I have several at home. We try to be careful with his image. In fact, I prefer the one with him in that shot.”
There was a fondness about the man as he looked at the photo. It was the feeling one had when looking at family photos. Tony took a moment to watch the man out of the side of his eye, and he was much more relaxed today.
“I think I’ve seen it. Ezra sent me a copy so I could see his Team.” Tony moved to the chair across from the desk to give himself some space.
“He’s never mentioned you.” Chris took his seat and cleared the files from his desktop.
“And, I never mention him at work. We both work undercover and have used each other as a contact point before when our teams were compromised. We usually try to meet up at least once a year.” Tony felt like he was swimming a little here. It was bizarre to be having a normal conversation with Larabee.
“So, Maude was really your step-mother?” There was a hint of amusement in that question.
“You’ve met Mother Maude, I take it?” Tony smiled slightly at the eyebrow quirk he received. “Well, let’s just say that she and Senior are a match made in Hell. If Maude had been born a man, she would probably be Senior.”
“You mean there’s two of them out there?”
“Well, to be fair, Maude is definitely the more mercenary of the two. I suppose that’s to be expected. In nature, the female is often the more deadly of the species.” Tony responded and had to control himself when Larabee laughed. That laugh was warm and soothing. Damn, who was this guy, and what did he do with Chris Larabee?
“So, you said you need more case information?” Chris asked, getting down to business.
Tony nodded. “Yes, I do. And I know you need it as well. I know Ezra was deep undercover at the end. No meaningful contact with the outside world. I think something happened when he was under that is contributing to his problems now.”
Chris leaned forward. “Can you explain what his problem is? Because the Center is telling us crap and the day I had to stop him from running out…well, I’ve never felt something like that from a guide. I’ll confess that I had a lot of trouble not flipping out and killing that cabbie. I shudder to think what would have happened if I hadn’t been able to command the other sentinels in that area to stand down.”
“Basically, Ezra has locked himself behind shields, I assume to protect himself from whatever was happening when he came online. But those shields are so complete and locked, that empathically we can’t get anything from him. It’s not healthy because once a guide comes online, they need to be able to sample the emotional environment. It’s just the way our brains work. If we’re not getting it, we start losing our ability to control our mind.”
Chris looked like he was trying to visualize that, so Tony gave him something to work with. “Sort of like a sentinel dialing all of your senses to zero and keeping them there permanently.” Chris winced, and Tony nodded. “You can’t really do it, so you will either have random spikes or zone spirals.”
“Ezra’s in deep denial about his gifts because he isn’t getting that natural ebb and flow of information. But just like a Sentinel without control can lapse into sensory failure, a guide can have mental degradation. We call it ERDS, Empathic Repression Distress Syndrome. It can lead to dormancy and sometimes death. That’s why the Center is so militant about his care right now.”
“Well, fuck.” Chris leaned back. “There’s nothing you can do to fix him?”
“There is, and there isn’t. I can use my own abilities to save his life, and I will if it comes down to it. But that will mean a year or more of recovery at a Guide Rehab Center,” Tony explained.
“Shit.” Tony felt sorrow and pain pour off Chris for a moment. “There isn’t anything else we can do?” Chris asked.
“The only other thing is to get him to bring down his shields on his own.” Tony sighed, “But he’s in denial, and I don’t know where that is coming from. Ezra’s stubborn, but he is normally one of the most adaptable people I know.”
Chris gave a pained little huff before demanding, “Stubborn is right. Let me have a go at him. See if I can knock some sense into that stubborn SOB.”
Tony’s lips quirked. “I had something like that in mind. He refuses to talk to me about the op because he hasn’t been debriefed yet. So I was hoping you would come to the Center and debrief him.”
Chris raised an eyebrow, “Debrief or DEBRIEF?”
“I need you to be a militant hardass with him and not take any excuses. Once we go into that room, we don’t stop until we get through to him no matter how much he fights us.” Tony explained with a resolute expression.
“I can do that,” Chris agreed.
“You need to be certain.” Tony leaned forward and tapped the desk. “The Sentinel in you will want to back off and protect the Guide. But you need to know, you need to believe completely that if you let him off the hook a moment before those shields are down, then you are going to lose him. This is our last chance, Larabee. If I can’t get through to him today, then tonight we are going to sedate him and take the choice away from him.”
“Fuck, no. He doesn’t get to quit on me.” Chris was rolling with anger and a bit of fear. This time it wasn’t directed at Tony, thankfully. “If it’s the only way to save him from himself, then I’m all in.”
Chris waited as Tony argued with Director McCray one last time. The man was a dog with a bone and absolutely did not want to allow Chris onto the Guide Ward. Chris had no desire to damage guides at risk, but either they let him in to see his man, or they brought Ezra out to him. He wasn’t taking no for an answer.
Leaving Tony to the logistics of locking down the Ward so Chris could move through it safely with as little distress to the guides as possible, Chris headed to where his men were waiting.
“No. I’m fine right here.” Vin Tanner was being mulish today. “I ain’t leaving Ez.”
“Brother Vin, we only have his best interest at heart. And, we feel it would be best if you took a break from this institution while Ezra receives the help he needs.” Josiah was attempting to reason with him.
Nathan wasn’t even trying to reason. “Vin, you’re going. I don’t care if I have to knock you out and drag you outta here. You are going.”
“I’d like to see you try, Nathan. Would you leave if it was Rain in there? Tell me you would, and I’ll know you’re lying.” Vin stuck out his chin.
“Enough!” Chris ordered. “Don’t be an ass, Tanner. That’s my job. Now you’re going to listen to me and listen good. Ezra’s in trouble. Bad trouble. I’m going to help fix him, but we don’t know how this will turn out. Anything goes wrong, and we are going to have a lot of people reacting badly around here. We all know he’s your guide, Vin. The last thing anyone needs is for him to push you into a feral drive. You could hurt a lot of people trying to get to him. So, I’m giving you two choices. You leave…let them take you out to the Ranch where there’s no one you can hurt, and there’s not a lot of chance you will react to what’s going on here. Or, you haul ass over to the Sentinel Wing and have them lock you into an ISO chamber so that they can control you if you are affected. You choose.”
“Chris,” Vin whined.
“Being stubborn is not going to protect your guide today, Sentinel. So make your choice, or I’ll make it for you.” Chris stood firm.
Vin turned away stiffly, then spun on his heel and marched over to Director Forsyth. “Ma’am. I’m gonna need an ISO room until they finish, please.”
McCray interrupted his argument with DiNozzo to look at Tanner. He opened his mouth to disagree when Forsyth finally spoke for the first time. “Duarte, you worry about your guides, and I’ll handle my sentinels. And while you’re at it, worry about the guide we’re in danger of losing instead of all those dainty flowers you are trying to baby. A Guide is our partner in Life and in War. It’s time you start training them for War.”
She turned back to Vin and motioned toward the elevators that would take them to the Common level that connected the Center to the Sentinel Wing. “This way Sentinel Tanner. Will Sentinel Jackson stand as your Second while you are in ISO?”
Nathan gave a quick look to Chris and then moved to follow them. “Yes, I stand Second.”
Vin turned back to Chris. “Give’em hell, Larabee. Whatever you do, don’t let him go.” Chris just nodded once.
McCray watched his sentinel walk away before turning to enter the Guide Ward alone. DiNozzo just gave Chris a look and then followed him. Chris waited in silence with Josiah for a few minutes before speaking.
“Josiah, I don’t know how long this is going to take. I’d like you to wait out here so you can do a runner if we need anything. As a sensitive, you can’t come in. But if things go bad, I may need some help when I come out.”
“I’ll do whatever you need, Chris. Buck is keeping JD away, so I’ll keep him updated too.” Josiah agreed.
It was about twenty minutes later when the door opened. McCray stepped out and took a deep breath before speaking. “OK, Sentinel Larabee, we have things as secure as we can get them, but we have a few rules. First, while you are in there, I will have two guides outside the door to shield you if you need to exit. Their job is to get you off the Ward as quickly as possible if you have to exit Standish’s room. Second, if Guide DiNozzo orders you out of the room, you will not hesitate, and you will not argue. Third, when you leave the Guide Ward, you will go to the Sentinel Ward for evaluation to ensure that being in the presence of a compromised guide has not adversely affected you. Do you understand and agree to these rules.”
Chris firmed up his lips and nodded. “Yes, I understand and agree.” Chris took the case with audio and video for the debrief and followed McCray through the Ward. The two guides he mentioned took up position behind them, and Chris immediately felt buffered. The entrance to the ISO rooms was similar to the Sentinel Ward, where Chris had spent almost two weeks after his wife and child died. It wasn’t a comfortable comparison.
McCray looked like he was going to say something at the room door, then just shook his head and turned away. Chris watched him leave, the two guides standing silent guards. Finally, he squared his shoulders and turned to press the signal for the door.
When DiNozzo opened the door, the full force of wrongness he had experienced before hit him. Chris pushed through, careful as always not to touch an unbonded guide without permission. His first look at Ezra was a shock, no matter what he had been told.
“You look like crap, Standish.”
“Well, Mr. Larabee, what a pleasure to have you visit. You’re looking well yourself.” Ezra looked between him and the case he carried. “Might one hope you have come to liberate me from these confines?”
“Not quite yet. No, I’m here for some unfinished business.” Chris set down the case and opened it. Pulling out the equipment, he started setting it up by the table in the room.
“And what business do we have?” Chris glanced over and saw a haunted look flash through Ezra’s eyes before he schooled his face. Damn, the man looked terrible.
“We have a case we need to close and attorneys breathing down our necks pushing for bail hearings. Finally, forced the Center Directors to allow me to debrief you on the case.” Chris finished arranging the camera then set out the audio recording backup and pens, paper, and files. The silence, while he worked, was disconcerting because Standish was rarely quiet.
“Very well,” Ezra eventually said, getting out of bed and straightening his clothes and his hair before moving to sit in the chair. “Dominic, this may take a while. Perhaps you should take an early lunch.”
“No can do. I’ll just sit right over here.” Tony sat down in a straight-backed chair and pulled out a pad of paper and some pencils. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep myself occupied.”
“I’m certain you are quite capable of taking care of yourself…outside.” Ezra had a bit of spirit in his eyes that showed he was still fighting. “Mr. Larabee will not appreciate sharing details of an open case.”
“Actually, Standish, Director Travis has authorized Agent DiNozzo to be read into the case. He is a world-class investigator, after all.” Chris piped in to stop that line. “Besides, I’m an unbonded Sentinel. I’m required to have a Conservator present when I’m with an unbonded guide in Center care.”
“I’m not a guide!” Standish insisted, and Chris could see the tension that statement brought to the man.
“I’m an unbonded Alpha Sentinel, Standish. I know a guide when I smell one.” He cut Ezra off when he opened his mouth. “It don’t matter. I’m here for my case, and nothing is going to get in the way of that. I’m an Alpha Sentinel, and he’s the only Alpha Guide in the Center today that’s approved to hear the case. I don’t want to hear another word on the subject.”
From the look in Standish’s eyes, they were going to be hearing a lot about it, but it would have to hold until later.
Chris started the recording and spoke for the record. “This is Senior Supervisory Agent Christopher Larabee. This is the formal debrief of Agent Ezra Standish in regards to his activity while operating undercover…”
He continued to drone on in the standard opening and then watched as Standish began his statement. Chris made notes as the man spoke, but everything seemed to be going well for the op’s first two months. Of course, that’s the period when they could keep eyes on him.
Chris noted that Tony was sketching, but he was making notes on the paper as well. He wondered what DiNozzo was really like as an investigator. Team 7 was top-notch, but they did it as a collaborative team.
Standish gave his usual clear, concise report. Observations backed up with facts and personal eyewitness accounts. The man had a near eidetic memory, and these statements had held up in court multiple times. So, as was their standard practice, Chris let the man make a complete, linear report before going back over the account and comparing it to their evidence. He was searching for any holes that they could plug.
They were at it for a couple of hours, and Chris could see the stress in Ezra’s frame as he attempted to look focused and professional for the recording. DiNozzo remained quiet, but he had a little bit of a twitch that made Chris think he missed something.
“Let’s recap the part before you were invited to the commune.” Chris flipped his notes back. “You stated that you were contacted under the identity of Elijah Sykes. Who contacted you?”
“Mikey Lewis.” Ezra sat stiffly.
“And that is Michael James Lewis?” Chris verified.
“And he was your contact with the buyers?”
“He completed the initial buy of five weapons.” Chris made a note to follow up on if Mikey Lewis’s body had been ID’d yet by the coroner.
“Yes, he did.”
“And why did you assume he was not the buyer? Did he tell you he wasn’t?” Chris already knew the answer to this but needed it in Ezra’s words.
“No, but Mikey is a follower. He doesn’t initiate anything without an order,” Ezra noted. “That is why we decided to allow the sale without an arrest. We wanted to determine for whom he was working.”
“At what point were you invited to meet Marshall Franklin?” Chris moved forward.
Ezra answered smoothly, “It was not until an agreement over the assault rifles was confirmed. Mikey indicated that his boss wanted to meet me and discuss continuing association.”
Tony gave another little twitch, and Chris wondered what the man had seen that caused it.
“And you took that to mean he wanted to confirm repeated sales of weapons and ammunition?” Chris asked.
“It was a reasonable assumption. I was under the impression that Mikey was certain that I would be amenable to joining their venture. He did not tell me the name of his employer until we reached the commune.” Ezra shifted slightly.
Chris saw another little twitch from Tony and realized Ezra was reacting to thoughts of Franklin. “At what point did you realize that the group was a militia?”
“Agent Sanchez and I had speculated that it may be the case. I realized it was, in fact, the case when I reached the commune.”
“At that point, your contact with your handler reduced drastically.”
“I was watched constantly at first. I was able to arrange a weekly call to my Uncle Joe. It was part of my background that I was raised by my Uncle, a devout man. Mr. Franklin found that encouraging.” Ezra was stiff as a board and clearly uncomfortable.
“You missed two check-ins. What happened?”
“Yes. The first time Mr. Franklin had the entire compound on twenty-four hours of fasting, silence, and prayer. He called it a Holy Day of Remembrance. However, I was able to join the group for supply pickup in town the next day. I made visual contact with Agent Tanner at that time and gave the sign that all was well.”
Chris nodded his understanding and clarified, “You were accompanied at all times?”
“It was procedure. I wasn’t singled out. Everyone who left the compound did so in twos and threes.”
“Who was with you at that time?”
Ezra immediately stiffened again. “A young man. Barely old enough to be an adult, in my opinion.”
Chris heard Tony’s pencil scratch stop, and he smelled pain from Ezra. “His name?”
“I’m not sure. There were so many of them.” And that was a lie.
Chris hesitated then made a note; he was coming back to that. “The night before the bust, you missed a contact. What happened?”
“Mr. Franklin called a meeting, and it ran too late to call.” Distress hormones were pouring off Ezra, though his body language hadn’t changed.
Chris forced his senses back and squashed the need to protect. “Meeting?”
“Your previous statement didn’t mention a meeting. Why?” Chris tapped his pen on the paper.
“It didn’t involve the operation.” Damn, if the man stiffened up any more, he was going to lock up.
Chris saw another movement from Tony that he interpreted as the importance of this, so he dug in. “What was the subject of the meeting?”
“What does it matter? It doesn’t involve the weapons purchase.” Ezra was sweating.
“Who was at the meeting?”
“I don’t recall everyone present.”
“Ezra,” Tony finally spoke. “Did the militia group have a name?”
Chris leaned forward. “What is that name?”
“The Disciples of Purity,” Ezra responded tightly.
DiNozzo’s scent soured strongly to that answer, so Chris asked without turning from Ezra, “You recognize that DiNozzo?”
“It’s the name of one of the burgeoning hate groups that the Crimes Against Guides Taskforce is investigating. They have been recruiting from the Christian Purity Alliance on college campuses. But all we’ve been able to find at this point is the name. No one was able to identify group members.” Tony’s voice was implying that he suspected more about the group.
Chris didn’t let that stop him from his mission. “Ezra, what was the purpose of the meeting the night before the bust?”
Ezra was becoming agitated. “Mr. Franklin felt the need to express his opinions.”
“And what were those opinions?” Chris narrowed his eyes and could see the moment Ezra hesitated.
“He was a deeply devout man who felt strongly about his beliefs and did not tolerate deviation from his preaching.”
Changing gears swiftly, he swung back to his original question. “What was the name of the man who was partnered with you in town?”
Ezra’s body gave a little jerk. “I don’t remember,” he insisted.
“Here is a picture of him next to you.” Chris pulled up the photo from surveillance.
Ezra looked away from the photo.
“Look at the photo, Agent Standish,” Chris ordered. He watched Ezra’s hand shake slightly, and Ezra placed it in his lap, staring down. “LOOK AT IT, STANDISH!” Chris shouted.
Ezra jerked and looked at the picture in silence. The shaking from his hand seemed to spread to his body.
“What’s his name?” Chris demanded.
“I don’t know,” Ezra whispered.
Chris slapped his hand on the tabletop. “Lie. What’s his name?”
“Please,” Ezra’s mouth formed the word without sound.
Tony’s voice thrummed with power and the command of a Guide as he pushed. “What is his name, Ezra?”
“Cory,” Ezra whispered. “Cory Foster.”
“What happened to Cory?”
“They killed him.” Ezra choked out. “Is that what you wanted to hear? They killed him.”
“Why did they kill him, Ezra?” Tony asked.
“Because he kissed a girl.” Ezra looked Tony in the eyes, and finally, the shell cracked. “He was a stupid nineteen-year-old kid who fell for Franklin’s daughter. Elizabeth Franklin. They used her for recruiting stupid kids. As far as Franklin was concerned, Elizabeth was a chaste angel of purity.” He gave a broken little scoff.
“Cory wouldn’t listen to anyone. Mikey caught them kissing and told Franklin. Good little follower Mikey was just following orders when they dragged that poor kid into the meeting hall and beat the hell out of him.” Ezra drew a shaking breath. “They wanted him to admit he was a Guide.”
Chris listened with a bit of horror. They had sent Standish into this without knowing what the group was.
“Franklin’s crazy,” Ezra continued in a rush. “He believes Sentinels are holy warriors of God, and Guides are Satan’s handmaidens sent to weaken them. They want to lead a holy war to wipe guides from the face of the Earth and Purify our great nation from the taint of the Pro-Guide Administration,” He bit out in disgust.
“And they killed him?” Tony refocused Ezra.
Ezra closed his eyes and swallowed hard. “They tortured that poor boy for hours before he died. They held a mock trial, declared him guilty of being an evil guide, then they dismissed us to pray for those he tempted to sin. The inner-circle stayed in there, and they tortured him to death.”
“And you came online,” Tony stated with compassion.
Chris reached over quietly and turned off the camera. Then he sat witness while Tony took over.
“There was so much pain and fear and hate. How can hate have a taste?” Ezra was shaking, and Tony moved next to him to wrap an arm around him. “He was innocent. He wasn’t a guide. But I couldn’t stop them. I couldn’t help him. He kept repeating over and over, I’m not a guide. I’m not a guide.”
He looked away from Tony. “I couldn’t be a guide, Dominic. I couldn’t let it happen. They made us kneel all night around the fire while that boy yelled for mercy, and I couldn’t do anything.”
“You locked everything down to save yourself. It’s instinct, Ezra. If you had just buffered it, they would have known you were a guide. You had to lock it all down.”
Chris watched Tony turn Ezra to face him. He placed his hands on his shoulders to push him back and make eye contact. “You did what you had to do to survive. If you had tried to help him, they would have painted you with the same brush. If they had suspected you were a guide, you would have been right there next to him. No matter what action you took, Cory Foster was going to die.”
Tony gave his shoulders a squeeze and a little shake. “But it’s time to let it go, Ezra. That shield isn’t protecting you anymore. When you put it up, it trapped that hate and pain and fear in there with you. They killed him, and now you’re letting them kill you too. That pain isn’t yours to bear any longer. It’s OK to let it go.”
Ezra stared into Tony’s eyes, reading the compassion and sincerity there. Chris watched as silent tears finally fell, and then he seemed to crumple into Tony’s arms. For a moment, Chris felt as if there was an immense pressure against his body. Then his senses were overwhelmed with intense pain and sorrow. It lasted a moment, a minute, a millennia. Then as sharp and painfully as it began, it was wrapped in a warm blanket of soothing acceptance.
Chris met Tony’s eyes over Ezra and realized that Ezra’s shields were down, and Tony was buffering him now. He nodded silently, then quickly and quietly packed up his gear to leave. Triggering the alert on the door, he gave one last look to where Tony was rocking slightly with Ezra and stepped out of the room.
His guide escorts were staring at him in wide-eyed shock as they escorted him off the Ward. Guide nurses and staff were running from room to room frantically, calming the patients and long-term residents.
Out in the main Center, things weren’t much better. Josiah was looking a little pale himself when Chris found him.
“I take it Brother Ezra has made progress?” Josiah asked, hope pouring from his eyes.
Chris nodded, then opened his mouth to say something but just stopped. Then he reached out and pulled Josiah into a hug. “He’s gonna be OK.”
Josiah smiled, a bit of color returning. “Why don’t you and I go share the good news with Vin? Buck and I have a bet on whether or not the boy goes feral. Want in?”
Chris shook his head, “Hell, no. And you and Buck should know better.” He continued to berate Josiah as they walked through the chaos of the Center.
Tony sat in the folding chair next to Nathan and Josiah as the two men played a game of chess. Chris and Buck were manning the grill as they debated the merits of baked beans vs. ranch-style beans and if potatoes counted as vegetables. JD, Vin, and Ezra were putting their horses through a bit of a workout. Tony had to admit he was impressed with the skill they were showing.
Tony, Ezra, and Vin had been guests of the Larabee Ranch for the last two weeks, and it was oddly comfortable for Tony. For someone who was raised in the city, it was mentally relaxing to be able to let go.
It took about three days at the Center for Ezra to settle down. But it was clear that even an ISO room wasn’t allowing his mind to relax. Tony had been able to intervene several times when Ezra would try to shield instead of buffer his mind. And the occasional spikes were disrupting everyone on the Ward because Ezra had a decisively strong projection.
The issue had come to a head when the Directors decided to send Ezra to a Guide Rehab Center until he was healed and trained enough to modulate his gifts. They tried to do an end-run around Tony and had transport ready before Ezra was informed. Tony had hauled ass back to Ezra’s room and put a stop to it. Ezra just needed support and time to learn as his channels recovered and expanded. Tony wasn’t going to have him locked away as if he were damaged.
Chris had come through with the offer of the Ranch. Far enough from others that he wouldn’t be a nighttime disruption. He would have the freedom of moving around on the Ranch to help him recover. Tony could transition him to the traditional Guide Classes at the Center once Ezra could tolerate the emotive static of a city.
Director McCray had argued the point, but hell, this is what Conservators were trained for after all. Granted, Denver didn’t have an Alpha Conservator, and no one on staff could fully buffer Ezra. But Tony already was serving in the position, and he had Blair’s training to fall back on. So, honestly, Tony didn’t know why McCray was intransigent.
Tony finally had to get Blair and Jim to weigh in, and their support of the plan was a relief. They were planning to come out in a few weeks to check on Ezra’s progress. Blair wanted to meet him, and Tony suspected he was itching to check up on the Center.
Ezra was chaffing a little at the restrictions. Especially since Vin was playing the chaste protector. Ezra made a few derogatory remarks about not being a virgin princess, but Tony laid down the law. He sat the two of them down and explained in detail what a corrupt bond would be like. After that, Vin had sworn on his honor as a sentinel that no bonding would occur until Tony confirmed Ezra was healed.
Tony believed him, so he wasn’t limiting their contact. But he still acted as a chaperon when he could. He had added a lot of theory on bonding to Ezra’s heavy curriculum. Tony wasn’t worried because Ezra was a fast study. The only thing holding him back was the healing needed for damaged empathic pathways. That would take another month. But Tony thought he might be able to handle the nearest small town within the next week or so to give him a sense of civilization.
“Things seem to be going well here. Check.” Josiah stated as he moved his rook. He gave a grin when Nathan let out a little curse.
“It’s a nice place. I can see why everyone likes it here.” Tony took a drink of his water.
“That it is. I see you and Chris are getting along.” Josiah leaned back a little and took a sip of his beer.
“Chris has been a good host. Keeping his distance when he can to give Ezra some space.” Tony glanced over to Chris, who was now using the spatula to slap Buck’s hand.
“To give Ezra some space?” Josiah raised an eyebrow.
Tony ignored that. He had been ignoring a lot lately. But it was impossible to ignore how Chris was different here. He was still a hard ass, don’t get Tony wrong. But Chris talked fondly of the ranch and the history here. The man worked hard and played hard, but he had these amazing bouts of silence that were comfortable.
And Chris never seemed perturbed when he and Ezra disrupted that silence. Granted, the man’s film education seemed limited to westerns, but he seemed genuinely interested in what Tony had to say.
Frankly, it was disconcerting as hell because this isn’t the same Chris Larabee he met that day at the Center. This was a Chris he could like. Tony kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Last week he had felt restless and sat down at the piano in the living room to play. A few keys could stand to be tuned, but it was a decent instrument. Tony played a couple tunes before he noticed Larabee leaning against the door frame.
“It’s fine. Do you know Round Midnight?”
“Sure.” Tony turned back to the keyboard and started to play. As he was losing himself in the music, he noticed the expression on the man was one of pleasure and fondness.”
When he finished, Chris moved closer to touch one of the pictures on top of the piano. “This was my wife’s. She traded three handmade quilts for it. Had some idea about teaching our kids how to play.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“So that song…was it her favorite?”
“Oh, God, no. She hated jazz with a passion. The one thing we could never agree on was her horrible taste in music. She tried to learn and then gave up because she was as tone-deaf as anyone I’ve ever met.” He grinned.
Tony was expecting another round of sorrow/anger/guilt. What he got was wistful/fond/letting go.
“So why keep it?”
“She said every respectable Ranch House needed a piano. Didn’t matter if no one could play it.”
Chris stepped over with fresh beer for the guys and a pitcher of water with lemon for Tony and Ezra since they couldn’t have alcohol right now. Not while Tony was still serving as a conservator.
“Boys,” Chris called out. “Food will be ready in thirty. Cooldown those horses and clean up.”
“You sure I can’t help with anything?” Tony asked. It felt strange to not be cooking. He had already helped out in the kitchen a few times.
“We got this covered. If you feel like cooking, I’ll take you up on it tomorrow.” Chris just gave his little grin and turned back to the grill. “I swear to God, Buck. If you don’t leave that alone, I’m going to use your little black book for kindling.”
“Now that ain’t funny, Chris. There are some things you just don’t threaten a man with.”
Tony watched as Chris bent over to adjust the airflow and felt a spike of desire run through his body. He sighed silently. Damn, why couldn’t this be the Chris he first met? One that might want a guide.
Chris watched from the doorway as Tony sat pensively in the corner with a book. Ezra and Vin were working on one of the old jigsaw puzzles. He noted the tension in the man as he tried to ignore their muttering about hiding puzzle pieces. Which was fair. Vin loved to be the one to put in the last piece.
It was soothing to have the man in his space, and it wasn’t what Chris had been expecting. The first few days, it had hurt a little, letting him exist there. But it was the knowledge that he had pushed the man away when he should have been reaching out for him from the beginning. Every day after that, he had spent trying to get to know the man he wanted for his guide.
He thought it was going well, but this morning had been a train wreck. It didn’t help that Standish had a lousy night, and everyone had felt it. Chris would admit he was a cranky asshole himself when he didn’t have enough sleep or enough coffee. Honestly, Chris wasn’t sure what it was he said that had set the guide off. He had been wracking his brain, but nothing stuck out as offensive. But DiNozzo had been avoiding him for most of the day. Standish was feeding off the man’s mood and ran interference.
It was the last straw for Chris. He wanted the man, and he didn’t want words and misunderstandings to come between them. Hell, he didn’t want anything to come between them. It was time to eat crow and fix things. He entered the room and approached Tony.
“What do you want now, Larabee?” Tony straightened up to face the sentinel.
“Can we talk?” Chris glanced over at Ezra and Vin. “Alone.”
Vin smirked at the two of them then got up to leave the room. “Goin’ for a ride. Ezra, why don’t you join me.”
Ezra glared at Chris before firmly turning toward Tony. “Dominic? You are under no obligation to submit to his demands.”
Chris sighed. “I just asked to talk to the man alone, Standish. Not demanding anything.”
“Yeah, Ez. Man’s not demanding anything. Can’t you tell?” Vin grinned and held open the door. “Let’s skedaddle so they can speak their peace.”
Ezra tightened up, and Chris saw it was clear he would stand his ground. Damn man was as ornery as a guide as he ever was mundane. Chris was racking his brain for a way to get the man to back off without outright ordering him to leave. He looked toward Tony for help.
Tony returned his gaze, then shrugged, “Go on, Ezra. I’m willing to listen to what he has to say. Besides, I can handle myself.”
Ezra stared hard between the two for another full minute before nodding and moving toward the door. “Skedaddle? Honestly? If we are going to further our association, Vincent, then we need to work on your deplorable vocabulary—and your sense of style.”
“Ain’t nuthin wrong with the way I talk.” Vin was complaining as the door closed. “And my style is just fine. We’re on a ranch, Ez. Horses don’t care about no fashion…”
Chris listened as the two men headed toward the stables. But he kept his sight focused on Tony. The way the man tensed and deliberately released muscles to control tension never showed on his face. Tony’s chest moved easily, controlling his breathing and heart rate to mask any nerves. The man appeared to be nothing more than mildly interested in what Chris had to say.
“I don’t believe Vin is trying to listen to you,” Tony remarked at the continued silence. “I guarantee nothing for Ezra. He’s still reactive to his environment, so he can’t completely shut things out.”
Chris nodded, “That’s fine. Ez deserves the time to work things out and learn to use his gifts. The team will be on a mandatory three-month stand-down. We’ve got plenty of paperwork and training to catch up on, so no issues with the brass.”
There was a ding in the kitchen from his old timer, and Tony motioned in that direction. “I need to get that out of the oven.”
“Sure, it smells great.” Chris followed Tony to the kitchen and watched as he pulled the bread out of the oven. He poured himself a cup of coffee and took a seat at the table. Tony’s movements were practiced and knowledgeable as he deftly transferred the loaves onto the cooling rack. The round loaves would be hollowed out later to be filled with the soup or stew cooking in the three crockpots.
Chris took a discrete sniff and appreciated the scents of beef, chicken, and vegetables mixing with the fresh bread. On top of that was the oh so enticing aroma of Guide. He opened his eyes to see Tony leaning back against the counter, watching him with guarded eyes.
Chris took another drink of his coffee to mask the scents around him before pushing the cup away and getting to business. “I’m an asshole.”
Tony snorted slightly, “You don’t say.”
“I’ve never denied it. I am a stubborn asshole. But I’m not normally a self-centered, oblivious prick. I like to surround myself with people that don’t allow me to run roughshod over them. People as stubborn as I am. Buck is a decent moderator. He usually tries to redirect my anger, but he’s quick to stand up to me if I go too far.” Chris looked down at his coffee cup, running his finger along the rim.
“I came online when I was twelve. Buck and I had been friends forever. His mother owned a bar in town, and they had the top floor as an apartment. I was staying the night with Buck when she got called downstairs. Some drunks with a feud started a fight. One pulled a knife, another pulled a gun. Next thing I know, Buck is online and screaming. I tripped over after him. I don’t remember what happened next, but when the haze cleared, there were nine down in the bar, Buck’s mom included, and I was covered in blood. My Dad was the county sheriff and the Alpha of the area. He was one of the first to respond. Buck was living with us after that.”
“Everyone just sort of assumed he was my guide. I did fine with him around, so never felt the need to do a guide search. Got stubborn as a rock if anyone suggested it. Didn’t care that Buck played the field; that’s just who he was.” He looked up at Tony with a grin. “He threatened me the one time I tried to order him to keep it in his pants.”
“When I met Sarah, I just knew she was it for me. But she was as mundane as they come.” Chris looked up to meet Tony’s eyes. Eyes that were guarded and going blank. Not what he wanted to see. “She was hesitant to date me at first. Buck is the one who explained that we were platonic. Eventually, she came to understand that we didn’t have a real bond. She made me promise that as long as we were together, I would never accept a bond with a guide. Even had it in our wedding vows.”
“That’s…” Tony huffed and fidgeted in his seat. “I won’t speak ill. But that’s just wrong.”
Chris took a deep breath and let it out slowly, biting back his instinctual response. “We were young and in love. She was afraid of losing me to someone she would never be able to compete with. Can’t say she was wrong about the worry. But one thing I am is a man of my word. I made a promise. An unbreakable vow. It seemed like I was betraying her and everything I stood for to want you as bad as I do.”
Tony’s brow furrowed.
“Buck knocked some sense into me. Made me see that when I vowed till death do we part—well, it didn’t have to mean my death. I understand now that I’m not breaking my promises. I fulfilled every one I ever made her. I’ll never forget her. And I’ll always love her. But I know now I can love more than once. And I can commit to another without feeling like I’m replacing her.”
Tony swallowed hard, but his voice was almost steady. “I won’t be second to a memory. I’ve been there before.” He seemed to consider then continued. “I started coming online in college. There was a fire with a couple trapped kids. I wasn’t fully online, but somehow I sent out an empathic distress call that had rescue workers there in minutes. I pulled one of the kids out, and a couple of sentinels in the fire department got to the other before the flames did. The kids ended up in the hospital, and I was taken to the local Center.”
“That changed my goals. I added a Minor in Criminal Justice and never looked back. My mentor, Blair, is always harping on following your instincts. I just felt that my sentinel would be in law enforcement. I joined the police, made detective, and still wasn’t satisfied. Then this asshole sentinel crossed my path with his own case. I felt drawn to him.”
Chris growled at that thought. His guide was drawn to another sentinel? Hell, no.
“Yes, I was drawn to an ex-military, federal agent with NCIS, who was a stubborn asshole. He was also a sentinel who had lost his wife and child.” Tony’s eyes were pained as they stared back into Chris’s own.
“Well said,” Tony responded with just a tiny bit of mocking. “I revolved around that asshole for several years. Came fully online due to a danger to my team. We formed a temporary working connection to take down this Hamas agent who had slipped into the building. After that, I was all in. Part of me just knew we were supposed to be a match. I just thought I had to give him some time to come to terms with that. When I got frustrated and thought about leaving, he pulled me back in and gave me hope. When I tried to reach out to him, he would push me back down.”
“I got so wrapped up in trying to serve the sentinel and the man that I forgot to be true to myself. I kinda lost myself for a while. It wasn’t until a new director tried to send me afloat, and no one stood up for me, that I finally realized I needed to stand up for myself.”
Chris shook his head in confusion. “Unbonded guides aren’t allowed on ships.”
There was a shrug. “Unbonded military guides aren’t allowed permanent posting on a ship. They can be transported. Civilians don’t fall under those provisions. But it’s still not done. The NCIS director didn’t care. He offered me the assignment or the door. I took the door, then ratted him out to the U.S. Sentinel and Guide Council. Blair Sandburg came down on NCIS like a ton of bricks.”
“That was a few years ago. I’ve been working part-time as an Investigative Consultant with several federal agencies while I’ve been finishing my Master’s in Sentinel Studies.” Tony leaned forward. “The point is, I’ve given up a large part of my life to a sentinel that could never put me first. I thought it was all I needed. But, I’ve come to the conclusion that I deserve to come first in my own bond. I can’t, and I won’t compromise on that point. I’m worth it.”
“Yes, you are worth it. You’re amazing, and I would be honored to be your sentinel.” Chris held out a hand to Tony, and Tony just stared at it.
“That quick?” Tony swallowed hard. “You’ve already imprinted what? Sight, sound, smell? You imprint touch, and there’s no going back.”
“I know what I want.” Chris cocked his head to the side, and his eyes drilled into Tony’s while his hand remained where it was, unwavering. “You should know now that I’m decisive and driven. When I finally let myself acknowledge what I want, I will do anything in my power to achieve my goals.”
“How do I know you won’t regret this later.”
“You are the only guide I’ve ever desired. Once I allowed myself to want you, I knew there was no going back.” Chris pulled his hand back and looked at Tony hard, then nodded, decision made.
“I, Christopher Adam Larabee, promise you, Anthony Dominic DiNozzo, Jr., that in this life, I will be your lover, your partner, your friend, and your sentinel. I accept you as you are and look forward to learning everything about you. But right now, I know the most important thing…you are my Guide. There is nothing more important to a sentinel than the bond to their Guide. You will always come first.” Chris reached out his hand to Tony. “Knowing that my promises are unbreakable, will you have me as your sentinel?”
“You don’t give a man a chance to change gears, do you, Larabee?” Tony’s breath hitched. “You know I probably have as many clothes as Ezra does. And my piano and movie collections come with me. Also, your kitchen is completely outdated. I can’t be expected to cook full time in there.”
“I get to see you in and out of some mighty fine clothes, listen to you play, and make out during a movie while eating your cooking. Doesn’t change the fact that you’re mine and I’m yours. All you have to do is let yourself have it, Tony.”
“What do you want, Guide?”
“You. I want you, Sentinel.” Tony reached out and took his hand.
Touch locked into place as Chris felt that flush of desire burn through his body, and he pulled Tony across the tabletop. Their hands were suddenly everywhere. His skin burning with want wherever Tony touched. Then their lips met, and Taste exploded into a thousand different flavors that combined to mean Tony. At the same time, it felt like a missing piece of his soul locked into place, and for the first time in his life, he could breathe.
He pulled back in shock, panting, and met Tony’s wide eyes. “That was…was that?”
“A bond. Oh god, we bonded just like that…I don’t even know.” Tony started to lean back.
Chris grinned then pulled him up and out of the kitchen toward the bedroom. “Good.”
“Good? You think that’s good?” Tony questioned but followed him without hesitation.
“Yeah. No reason to waste time with all that meditating bull when we can just get down to the sex.” He felt a spike of lust through the bond tempered with hesitation. And holy hell, why had he denied himself a bond for so long?
“What if I’m not ready for sexual bonding?”
Chris turned to face Tony as they reached the bedroom, then pulled off his shirt in one move. Dropping it on the floor, he raised an eyebrow and started to take off his belt. “Your body, your choice. If you’re not ready, I’ll wait. Full disclosure, I’ve had a hard-on since the moment I met you, and I’m man enough to take care of it myself. But I’d rather have your help with it if you’re willing.”
He continued to undress while waiting for Tony’s decision. He could feel his guide’s emotions warring through their bond and let his pure desire flow through the bond as he dropped his pants and bent over to unlace his boots. He heard Tony’s intake of breath from behind him and didn’t bother to hide his grin.
“Damn, Larabee. You ruin every good argument I have for saying no.” Tony said as need and want joined lust to flood the bond.
“No reason to deny yourself.” Chris moved forward slowly and pulled Tony in for a deep, slow kiss. Tony met him, hesitation turning to participation before he started pulling his clothes off decisively, returning again and again to that kiss.
Chris drank in every inch of tanned skin, reveling in the golden glow the man seemed to emit. He reached out, then stopped and asked, “Can I touch you?”
“Most sentinels wouldn’t ask at this point,” Tony responded.
“The bond is something we share and cherish. It’s mine as much as it’s yours. But your body is your gift to bestow as you will. The only right I’ve got to it is to protect it. I respect you too much to think anything else.”
Tony smiled, and his eyes lit like the sun. “Then, next time, I’ll let you unwrap your gift. You can touch as long as I can.”
Chris moved in to kiss again, running his hands over Tony’s back, down to grip that ass that has been driving him insane. They were panting for air as he moved them to the bed. He grabbed the lube and some condoms from the bedside table as Tony pulled him down onto the bed.
“Top or bottom?” Chris asked as he leaned down to lick a stripe over Tony’s neck.
“Didn’t see you as one to give up control to bottom.”
Chris chuckled deep and low, “Oh, sweetheart, you don’t think for one moment I won’t be in control no matter which position I’m in.” He reached down and wrapped a hand around Tony’s cock before sliding it up and down.
Tony hissed and jerked, “Bottom. I want you in me.”
Not wasting time, Chris popped the lube and slid in a finger while swallowing Tony’s next hiss with a kiss. “When was your last?”
“Six months. I’ve been tested. I’m clean.”
“Longer, but me too.” Chris licked his way down the guide, reveling in the exploration before he reached his cock and allowed himself to taste. He added a second finger as Tony chased the heat of his mouth.
Diligently working in a third finger, Chris lost himself in the scent, taste, and feel of his guide’s cock gliding across his tongue.
“You keep that up, and I’m not lasting until you’re in me,” Tony demanded.
Chris pulled off and wiped his hand on the covers as he tore open the condom. Tony reached for it, his long fingers rolling it onto Chris’s dick as Chris shuddered.
“You better turn that down, or this is going to be a short ride.”
Chris pressed the man back with a kiss and coated himself with a lube-slicked hand. He lined up and looked at Tony with an intense gaze as he stopped. “Can I have you?” He asked, meaning so much more than mere sex.
Tony met his eyes, and the bond flowed between them. “Yes.”
He slid in with one long thrust and shuddered at the pleasure.
“Move, sentinel,” Tony demanded.
Chris grinned and set a brutal pace. Tony meeting him at every thrust, legs wrapped around him, pulling him in. It was like riding a bronco, power, and grace at every move. He felt himself building to orgasm when suddenly Tony wrapped his empathy around him, and the world exploded in color.
They remained locked together, mentally, and physically while catching their breath. When Chris could move again, he withdrew as gently as he could. He slid off the condom, leaning over to drop it in the trash before Tony pulled him back like an octopus.
Chris chuckled, “You’re a cuddler.” Grabbing the edge of the blanket, he flipped it over them.
“No takebacks,” Tony mumbled.
“Forever, Tony. That’s a promise.”
Six Months Later
Chris moved through the woods toward the Mountain cabin with an ease that spoke of intense training. He didn’t bother trying to hide his worry from his Team. But he was frustrated and worried, even though the emotional connection through the bond hummed in anticipation. This was the first undercover op the guides had been on since Ezra had been certified for field duty, and Tony had completed his transfer to the ATF.
He had learned in the six months he and Tony had been bonded that his guide felt like amused anticipation for a great number of inappropriate activities. Like the gas station robbery the first time he took Standish into town alone. The two of them were trouble magnets, and allowing them to go undercover together had been a complete mistake.
Vin moved forward to take the lead, obviously just as concerned for his own guide of four months.
“What has your guide done now, Tanner?” Larabee muttered.
“What you blaming Ez for? Seems to me it was your guide who had lead on this op. Anyone did something crazy, it was him.” Vin mouthed off while he headed for the rise that would give him a view of the cabin.
“You two just calm on down and trust the boys to do their job.” Buck shook his head while continuing the hike. “Isn’t their fault the meet-up was moved to a place with only ATV or horseback access.”
Nathan shook his head, “I’m just glad that Sandburg convinced Ellison to sit this out. I’m not sure that Blair knows what quiet is.”
Chris gritted his teeth. The two of them were getting on his last nerve. Ellison would just sit there and smirk while Sandburg wanted to run test after test. Primes are stupidly rare, and it was unheard of for two pairs to come online so close to one another—especially two pairs in the same location.
Sandburg had some pet theory about nature filling a vacuum. That Chris and Tony were supposed to be the Primes, but they were online so long without bonding that nature brought together a substitute. When Vin and Ezra finally bonded, they emerged as Primes without the territorial imperative believed to be an intrinsic part of being Prime.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Vin said from up ahead.
Chris rushed up to get a view, the guys following them. He looked up toward the cabin where Tony and Ezra were sitting on a picnic table with the umbrella shielding them from the sun. A bottle of champagne in the ice bucket between them while they toasted one another with their glasses.
A look to the side showed four men stripped down to their boxers and tied to the ATVs’ roll bars.
“Ah, Mr. Larabee, how nice of you to join us,” Ezra called out as the Team stood up in full view. “The service here is deplorable.”
Chris shook his head and thought, Damn Guides.