Chapter 1: Sunday Afternoon
“Madam Secretary, I understand that politics is all about making horse-trades,” Major General Jonathan “Jack” O’Neill, newly appointed Head of Homeworld Command, drawled into the telephone he had propped on his shoulder, “And I sympathize with you, I really do. But Earth’s continued existence is not a horse.”
He stuffed the last handful of socks into his newly-delivered dresser and turned his attention to his underwear.
God, he hated moving.
Which might explain why, after all the months he’d been in Washington, he was only now getting around to buying a dresser.
On the other end of the line, Secretary of State Michaela Walker made a sound of pure exasperation.
“General O’Neill, the rest of the world is incredibly uneasy with the U.S. in pretty much sole control of the SGC,” she said. “Wouldn’t you be uncomfortable if, say, Russia was in charge, not just of the Stargate, but of all of Earth’s defenses?”
“Isn’t that why we have the IOA?” Jack asked, adopting his best clueless voice.
He needed more underwear, he admitted to himself with an inward sigh. He was used to going commando most days, but now that he was wearing his uniform on a daily basis rather than his BDUs, that wasn’t happening. The Air Force could call that uniform sentinel-safe all it wanted, it didn’t change the fact that the damned thing chafed.
“General, you know as well as I do that the IOA has no real control over the SGC,” Secretary Walker said.
“And thank God for that, or we’d all be dead” Jack said cheerfully, finishing with his underwear and grabbing a stack of t-shirts.
Dear God, it was too early in the day to break out the Jack Daniels, wasn’t it? This woman was enough to drive a Mormon to drink.
“General, having one country, even if it is the US, in control of the the Earth’s extraterrestrial affairs is not a sound policy,” Secretary Walker said, ignoring the whole thorny issue of the IOA and its stunning incompetence. “Our allies want more direct access to the Stargate and a presence in Stargate Command, and are willing to agree to just about anything in order to get it.”
“And I told you, no,” Jack barked, dropping the friendly manner abruptly, along with another stack of t-shirts, and turning his full attention to the conversation. “Look, Madam Secretary, I may, theoretically, agree with you that relying on one country to represent and defend Earth is a shit policy, but that does not mean I am going to throw the SGC on the poker table of international politics and let you guys start playing. If the IOA has done anything, it has proved that politics and saving the world don’t mix. Their interference has already cost us good men and women, not to mention a lot of opportunities and goodwill offworld. If my people didn’t value Earth’s safety above their own lives and their own careers, they would have cost us our planet. I like this planet, Secretary Walker, I’m not about to lose it because someone is promising the U.S. more oil rights.”
“General O’Neill, I admire your idealism, but we cannot do business with the rest of the world without taking some risks,” Walker insisted. “If we want to maintain our position globally, we have to be prepared to make concessions from time to time.”
“Then you need to come up with some different concessions, Madam Secretary, because some risks are just too damn high,” Jack said implacably. “You start using the SGC as a poker chip, it’s only a matter of time before someone gets tired of poker and wants to play Russian roulette instead. We have two major offworld threats on our radar right now. If they become actionable, we cannot afford to have the SGC’s ability to do its job compromised by conflicting political agendas. I am not about to create a situation where a country that is trying to change a trade agreement or annex a neighboring nation can hold a gun to Earth’s head until they get what they want.”
There was a pause.
“I have to say, General O’Neill, you have a truly ghoulish way with metaphor,” Walker said at last, but she sounded more amused than angry.
Jack relaxed a little. He didn’t know Secretary Walker all that well yet, but he was pretty sure the amusement meant he’d won this round. However, appearances to the contrary, Mama O’Neill hadn’t raised no fool. Jack knew he wouldn’t last long in Washington if he didn’t learn to win gracefully.
“Look, ma’am,” he said, “I’m happy to play all the games you want, providing we come up with stakes we can afford to lose. Just because the SGC is off the table doesn’t mean we have nothing to offer. Atlantis may be turning out to be a giant clusterfuck, pardon my French, but the idea behind it was sound: internationally supported research and exploration gives everyone a piece of the pie and doesn’t compromise planetary security. And, long-term, it is a way for other countries to get people into the SGC.”
“Oh?” Secretary Walker said, sounding intrigued. “Say more, General.”
“People who have spent time offworld and seen what we’re up against are less likely to let politics get in the way of keeping Earth safe,” Jack said. “If, say, Dr. Kusanagi came back from Atlantis wanting a job at SGC, I’d hire her in a heartbeat, nationality be damned. Japan would have someone at the SGC and I wouldn’t lose sleep at night. Everybody wins.”
“Yes, but what about getting people into the chain of command?” Walker countered. “Dr. Weir’s brief tenure notwithstanding, the SGC is primarily a military organization. Could someone like Dr. Kusanagi ever honestly expect to sit in General Landry’s chair?”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Jack said, holding up a hand even though Walker couldn’t see the gesture, “Hold your horsies there. We are hell and gone from being at a point where I would agree to hand Hank’s job over to a representative of another country. I mean, I can imagine a day when the SGC operates more like NATO, but it is a loooong way off.”
“But you agree that, in the long run, it could happen?” Walker said.
“The very very long run,” Jack said. “As in, I will hopefully be dead by then. We already talked about what some fool with an agenda could do just by tying the SGC’s hands when we’re facing on offworld threat. That’s nothing compared to what they could accomplish if they got ahold of Hank’s command codes. Not to alarm you, Madam Secretary, but with the tech that we’ve scavenged, scrounged, and cobbled together to defend against the Goa’uld, the SGC could wipe out the entire planet in an hour flat. Now, General Landry has got other things on his mind— the remnants of the Goa’uld, Sheppard’s space vampires, and these Ori characters, for a start— so he’s not about to do that, but I’m not even comfortable allowing foreign military assets to be stationed at the mountain, never mind allowing a foreign national into General Landry’s chair.”
“I see,” Walker said, sounding shaken. “Well, I don’t think I shall share that perspective with our allies, but you’re right, handing that kind of power over to another country seems… incredibly unwise.”
“Glad we agree on that,” Jack said. “As for who will take over after General Landry, that depends on a lot of things. Given that the SGC is in charge of planetary defense, I don’t think we’ll put a civilian in charge again. Dr. Weir did fine with the admin and the fast talking, but when the planet was under attack, she wasn’t equipped to make the field decisions. That said, I do think Hank is the last person we’re going to be bringing in from outside the program to fill the top spot. When I left, there wasn’t any other officer in the mountain who had spent enough time in rank to take my place, but by the time Hank retires, we’ll have our pick. So we can put it out there that the next commander of the SGC will be chosen from within the program.”
“How does that help us?” Walker asked.
“Well, just because I’ve decided to stick with military commanders, that doesn’t mean we have to tell anybody,” Jack said. “The fact that Weir was in charge of the SGC, even for a little while, creates the possibility that a civilian might take over. If we stress that we’re going to start promoting from within at the same time that we’re talking about recruiting from international research and exploration programs…”
“… We can give the impression that there will be opportunities to get people into command positions without promising anything,” Walker finished for him. “You are a devious man, General. Now, what about…”
Twenty minutes later, Jack hung up the phone and threw it onto the bed. He rubbed his hands over his face vigorously and let out a soft moan.
He didn’t hate politics, not really— after all these years going through the gate and dealing with the strangest people and customs, he had an amazingly high tolerance for bullshit— but come on, it was Sunday afternoon. Didn’t Walker have anything better to do?
Of course, it wasn’t like Jack’s social calendar was exactly jam-packed either. After all, he couldn’t exactly have the Prometheus beam him to Colorado Springs every time he wanted someone to watch hockey with, and his colleagues at Homeworld Command weren’t quite at the point where they would be up for beer and a game with the boss.
Taking the job in Washington had involved a lot of upset to his life: new city, new command, new people. He’d adapted to most of it easily enough, but he found that it was leaving the team that he was the hardest to adjust to. Oh, they still scheduled semi-regular get-togethers— Jack made sure that his job took him to the mountain ever four to six weeks and, assuming that SG1 wasn’t offworld, they’d get together at Sam or Daniel’s place. But it definitely wasn’t the same.
Oddly, the thing that everyone had been most worried about, the fact that, for the first time in seven years, he was going to be without a guide, hadn’t really been much of an issue. His senses had been fine, no spikes or zones, and he hadn’t had any bad reactions to the new environment (except for the aforementioned chafing problem).
Of course, after seven years going through the gate, he was pretty used to controlling his senses and reactions in alien environments, but before, he’d always had Sam. Sam might not have been his guide— they barely made the cut for pro tem partners in terms of compatibility— but she had been a guide, and a goddamned talented one too. Their accord had been insubstantial and unobtrusive, but Sam had made it work harder and better than many full bonds he’d seen, and now that it was gone, he found that he missed it. Not the way he missed Sam herself— he had always been much closer to Sam his 2IC than to Sam his pro tem guide— but the way a person missed an inexpensive but often-worn piece of clothing, something that was valuable because of its history, not its quality.
God. Now he was getting maudlin. He needed to get out of the apartment before he started singing songs from the fifties.
Suddenly he remembered the conversation he’d had with A.J. Chegwidden when he’d contacted the D.C. alpha sentinel to tell him he was moving into his territory:
“It’s easy to be isolated in this city, so don’t be shy about reaching out to the pride. The Center hosts gatherings two or three times a month, and if that’s not your style, Rabb and I have an informal get-together at our place most Sunday afternoons. People bring food and the booze of their choice and we watch whatever game is on.”
Jack checked his watch, then glanced at the half-full dresser. With a decisive shove, he shut the t-shirt drawer, grabbed his wallet and keys off the nightstand, and headed for the door. He stopped half-way there and backtracked to the kitchen, where he fished out the six pack of Heineken that was sitting in the fridge. Then he left the apartment and headed for his car, whistling absently as he went.
“You look like hell,” Harm said bluntly, leaning against the refrigerator.
Tony glowered at the other guide. Yes, he knew he looked like hell. He’d had the crap kicked out of him and had come uncomfortably close to being executed by a seriously disturbed individual, thank you very much. Of course he looked like hell after that.
“You don’t have to rub it in,” he said, returning to the onions he was chopping.
He’d somehow ended up agreeing to make homemade pasta sauce last time he was here— there may have been a little disagreement concerning Ragù, authenticity, and the honor of Italian cuisine involved— and was now elbow deep in ingredients in Harm and Rabb’s kitchen.
“Are you okay, Tony?” Harm asked gently.
“Long week,” Tony deflected, tossing the onions into the pan and beginning to add olive oil, herbs, and spices.
“Uhuh,” Harm said, his tone making it clear that he meant ‘bullshit.’
“No, really,” Tony said. “We had this case, and Ziva and I had to go undercover, but we hadn’t gotten all the intel, so things got really dicey…”
“Tony,” Harm said sternly. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
Tony blew out a breath and stirred the onions.
“It’s just been… there’s a lot going on right now,” he said. “Ziva’s still settling in, the new director is having some kind of power struggle with Gibbs, and Abby has this new lab assistant who, swear to God, reads like Hannibal Lecter half the time…”
“Whoa whoa whoa,” Harm said, straightening up from his casual position against the fridge. “Back up, Tony. Hannibal Lecter? Who is this person and why, for the love of God, are they working at NCIS?”
Tony’s eyes widened at Harm’s sudden shift in affect and he accidentally dropped the oregano jar into the pot. Cursing, he fished it out.
“Jeez, calm down man,” he said.
“Tony, you just compared the employee of a federal agency to a cannibalistic psychopath,” Harm said. “Now, call me crazy, but that seems like a cause for concern.”
“I don’t think he’s actually a serial killer, and he totally isn’t a cannibal,” Tony protested. “I just meant that, empathically, he’s a little creepy.”
“How creepy is ‘a little creepy,’ Tony?” Harm said. “Because if a Mossad agent who killed her own brother, and who I know for a fact has done more than her share of wet work over the years, doesn’t bother you empathically, I’m shuddering to think what you might actually find creepy.”
Harm and Tony had had a bit of an argument when Ziva first joined the team the previous month. The circumstances surrounding her arrival had been very shady, involving fallout from the Ari Haswari case, some agenda of Director Shepard’s, and Gibbs’s daughter complex. Tony didn’t like the situation, and playing the guide/chieftain/tribe card to make Gibbs tell him what was going on had not made him like it any better, but he hadn’t been on board with Harm’s demand that he veto Ziva’s appointment. As an active guide in a federal agency, Tony technically had the right to refuse to work with someone who disturbed his empathic landscape, but Tony couldn’t do it.
At first, he simply hadn’t wanted to create trouble for himself. For one thing, he was pretty sure that Madam Director and Gibbs would both have his hide if he interfered in their battle to see who was top dog. For another, he really did not want a repeat of Peoria. Sure, he’d stood up against corruption and helped show the world that carrying a badge did not give someone the right to break the law, but he had also broken the unwritten LEO code: if you had a problem— be it harassment, discrimination, or empathic distress— you’d better suck it up and deal with it yourself.
Nobody liked a troublemaker. Especially a righteous one.
But, after a few days of working with Ziva, he had found that she didn’t bother him on an empathic level. While Ziva was harder to get along with than Kate on her most difficult day, psionically speaking she was incredibly restful to be around. Most people had at least a little dissonance between their outward presence and their psionic presence— Gibbs’s cold, stoic exterior versus the pain and love he carried inside, McGee’s outward insecurity versus his actual competence, Abby’s outward immaturity versus her compassion and understanding— but Mossad Liaison Officer Ziva David was exactly what she appeared to be: a deadly assassin trying to distance herself from her dysfunctional assassin family. She was scary as hell, but not disturbing, any more than a wolf or a cougar or any other apex predator was disturbing. In fact, while Tony was dubious about her driving, her moral compass, her understanding of civilized society, her intentions towards the U.S., and her grasp of American English, he was more comfortable with her watching his six than he had been with any other partner aside from Gibbs. If Ziva ever had a reason to kill him, she would kill him, but she wouldn’t hang him out to dry out of selfishness or stupidity.
Chip, however, was a whole other ball of wax. Tony sighed. He knew Harm wasn’t going to let this go.
“Look, the guy just has some… issues,” he said, beginning to slice the Italian sausage.
“What kind of issues?” Harm asked, and Tony huffed, because now Harm was using his lawyer voice.
“He’s just very… hostile,” Tony said.
“Towards you? Or towards everyone?” Harm pressed.
“Well, definitely towards me,” Tony said, “But also towards Gibbs and McGee. And Abby sometimes, but not all the time, because he has a big old crush on her, which is disturbo in itself. And a lot of people are hostile, but there’s this undertone to it that’s… it feels vindictive. Like he’s not going to be content with just lurking in Abby’s lab thinking unfriendly thoughts indefinitely. It feels like at some point, he’s going to want to do something about it.”
Tony stopped chopping, realizing as soon as the words were out of his mouth exactly what he was saying.
“Okay,” he admitted, “ That didn’t sound good.”
“No, it didn’t,” Harm agreed. “Tony, I may have been wrong about Ziva, but this sounds serious. Forget your own comfort, do you really want this guy working near Abby? Or handling evidence? Because if he does decide to act on his hostility, she’ll be directly in the line of fire, and when it’s all over, you can bet my office is going to be reopening every case he’s worked on. Do you really want a killer to walk free because your agency hired a psychotic lab tech?”
“Damn,” Tony cursed, realizing that Harm had caught him. “Okay, I’ll file a Guide Injunction tomorrow. You know, this is what I get for ignoring Rule 13.”
“Rule 13?” Harm asked, cocking his head.
Tony smirked at him.
“Never involve lawyers,” he said cheekily.
“Oh, is that why the MCRT is so bad-tempered whenever one of our people is there?” Harm said, grinning. “I thought you were just all perpetually miserable individuals.”
“C’mon, Harm,” Tony said, “You know me better than that. I mean, sure, Gibbs is Papa Grumpy-bear most of the time, but I would never allow my team to live in misery . Why do you think I have to glue McGee to his keyboard every so often?”
“I don’t know, Tony,” Rabb said, “That wouldn’t exactly cheer me up.”
“I know, right?” Tony said, tossing the sausage in with the onions. “But for some reason, it makes him relax. Actually, I don’t think it’s getting glued to his keyboard that makes him relax, I think it’s getting frustrated with me. See, normally he’s intimidated by me. Not as intimidated as he is by Gibbs…”
Tony trailed off, suddenly distracted by… something brushing up against his psionic awareness. Harm tensed beside him, sensing the sudden shift in Tony’s focus.
“Tony?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Tony said. “There’s something… whoa!”
“Okay, whose spirit animal decided to go walkabout on the poker chips just when I’d finally gotten a decent hand?” asked Tobias Fornell’s irritated voice from the living room.
It was still early and not a lot of people were there yet, so Chegwidden, Fornell, and a new sentinel and guide pair who had just moved into town from Milwaukee or somewhere like that had set up a poker game on the coffee table in the living room.
A coffee table which was now occupied by a large, agitated coyote.
“Wiley?” Tony yelped.
Wiley yelped back, then, for reasons known only to himself, began nudging at A.J. insistently with his snout.
“DiNutzo,” Fornell growled. “I might have known.”
Despite how grumpy he sounded, Fornell’s psionic profile was both amused and oddly fond.
“Tony, there anything you want to tell me?” A.J. asked.
“Uh… no sir?” Tony said without conviction. “Wiley, stop that!”
“Easy, boy,” A.J. said kindly to the coyote.
At that moment, three things happened: Wiley’s head came up sharply, the front doorbell rang, and Tony felt a sudden, overwhelming pull deep inside him.
Tony swayed and made a grab for the counter.
Wiley yipped at A.J., then jumped off the coffee table and ran for the door.
Harm instinctively expanded his psionic presence to wrap around Tony, soothing and shielding him at the same time, while A.J., curious, but unperturbed, got up and followed the high-strung spirit animal into the front hall.
Tony heard the front door open and heard A.J.’s calm, even voice greeting the person on the other side:
“Well, hello there, General. Was hoping to see you one of these days. How’s Washington treating you?”
“Hey there, Admiral,” said a light, impatient voice. “Normally, I’d be happy to make small talk about your lousy weather and the Capitals’ offense, but I’m pretty sure that the coyote having a tizzy over there belongs to my guide.”
Michaela Walker is a fictional Secretary of State to Stargate’s President Henry Hayes. In real life, the position was held by Condoleezza Rice, who was Secretary of State to President George W. Bush from 2005-2009.
Chapter 2: The Kryptonite Principle
If a decade dealing with aliens had taught Jack anything, it was how to roll with the punches (the process had been not unlike officer’s training school: an almost vertical learning curve with a lot of bumps and bruises along the way). So when he walked up to the D.C. alphas' front door and smelled a scent that he knew , with bone-deep certainty, belonged to his guide, Jack didn’t lose his shit.
Although he had to admit that Squirrely Coyote was a surprise.
He exchanged pleasantries with Alpha Chegwidden and gave what he thought was a clear, concise sitrep.
Which was when things started to get a little wild.
Which was okay. Again, ten years dealing with aliens. He was pretty much prepared for anything and everything to go goat-ropey at a moment’s notice.
Alpha Chegwidden’s eyebrows did an impressive levitation act and his scent pile took on a quality that Jack was intensely familiar with. He had labeled it ‘eau de FUBAR’ in his personal catalogue, because it usually appeared about two minutes before the shit hit the fan. He had never been able to really break it down, but in broad terms, it indicated that someone had just realized something important, and that that something was going to cause a whole lot of grief in the very near future.
Meanwhile, inside the house, there was a thump, as though someone had abruptly sat down on a hard surface, and a confused murmur of voices. Two were merely expressing concern and surprise, so Jack filtered them out. One was asking someone named Tony if he was alright. And one…
Jesus Christ. That was definitely his guide, there was no other explanation for the way his entire body was practically wriggling with pleasure over a few words.
Unfortunately, those words indicated that his guide was in considerable distress. He kept repeating “No, no, no,” over and over again, switching occasionally to “I’m not… I can’t be… This can’t be happening.” Behind Chegwidden, the coyote had flattened his ears and begun to whine.
Okay, Jack was officially beginning to lose his calm now.
“Is there a problem, Admiral?” Jack asked, making a massive effort to restrain himself from simply pushing Chegwidden aside and going in search of his upset guide
“Listen to me, Sentinel,” Chegwidden said, his voice low and vibrating with alpha authority, “I need you to stay calm. Can you do that for me?”
Jack struggled with his instincts a moment before admitting,
“I doubt it.”
There were footsteps behind the alpha sentinel and a short, balding guide who’s entire presence screamed “fed!” even in casual clothes, appeared behind Chegwidden’s shoulder.
“What’s your play here, A.J.?” he asked. “‘Cause the kid’s freaking out, and that means I’ve got about five minutes to call Jethro before he my ass is officially on the menu. I’ll hold off if you want, but you know if I do, he’ll probably rip us both a new one.”
“Do it,” Chegwidden said. “But first, can you tell me if the General here is going to go feral on me in the next, oh, thirty seconds?”
The fed guide turned his attention to Jack and cocked his head. Jack didn’t feel much of anything as he scanned him (he was definitely a mu, mus were so damned sneaky, all quiet and unassuming with their low power levels and their preoccupation with boring details until, “Pow!” they did the one little thing that would knock you on your ass without you even knowing what had happened), but it only took, maybe, forty five seconds before the balding man let out a bark of laughter and turned back to Chegwidden.
“He’s special forces, A.J.,” he said. “He’s not going to go feral, but I recommend briefing him before he feels compelled to start gathering intel on his own.”
Chegwidden’s eyebrows went up and he studied Jack with renewed interest.
“Thanks, Tobias,” he said.
The fed guide nodded and turned to go back into the house, but before he did, he looked over his shoulder and fixed Jack with a stony gaze.
“You aren’t in any real shape to appreciate this right now,” he said, “But I’m going to say it, and you can mull it over once you’ve gotten yourself together again: you’d better take good care of that boy. if you don’t, Jethro and I will make sure your life isn’t worth living. Oh, and if I was you, I’d start studying up on old-fashioned courting traditions. You’re gonna need ‘em.”
The guide left and Chegwidden took a deep breath.
“Sentinel,” he said calmly, “I’m going to step outside and close the door. I’m not keeping you away from your guide. I just need to give you a sitrep before you go to him. Do you understand?”
“I—” Jack growled and shook his head. “Here,” he snapped. “You’d better hold this.”
He thrust the six pack of Heineken he was holding at Chegwidden.
The D.C. alpha’s eyes widened, but he took the beer and tucked it under one arm as he moved out onto the front step and shut the door.
The coyote slunk out behind him, head down, ears still flattened.
“Okay, here’s the situation,” Chegwidden said. “The reason we’re all so jumpy about having Tony’s sentinel show up here is that, up until five minutes ago, we were under the impression Tony had already met his sentinel.”
An overwhelming wave of pain swept through Jack, almost sending him to his knees. He closed his eyes and clenched his teeth, choking off the whine that wanted to crawl out of his throat.
His guide already had a sentinel.
“Damn!” Chegwidden said. “Easy, Sentinel. Your instincts aren’t lying, Tony’s not bonded. There’s no competition, it’s just… complicated.”
“I…” Jack panted, “I don’t… I don’t understand.”
“Long story short, his meeting with his… first sentinel went badly,” Chegwidden said. “I’m not privy to the whole story, but from what I’ve managed to piece together, the situation, combined with some of the sentinel’s actions, caused Tony to feel that he had no choice but to sever their precord before it became a bond. He hasn’t seen the man again since that day.”
“Jesus,” Jack said raggedly. “Jesus.”
He didn’t know what to think. Part of him was caught up in sympathetic agony at the idea of breaking a precord , but the rest of him was wondering what in God’s name was so bad that a guide would think breaking a precord was his only option.
Because, popular belief notwithstanding, it took a really fucked up situation to make a guide that desperate. While urban legend held that a sentinel zoned on every passing butterfly and a guide had a meltdown if someone stubbed a toe two blocks away, most sentinels and guides, even unbonded ones, actually didn’t get into serious trouble that often. For Jack, something had to be either incredibly wrong— Red Dye #40 always made his sense of taste spike out— or incredibly persistent— this one spectrometer of Sam’s made a sound that always pushed him into a zone if he wasn’t careful— to cause him a problem. Jack couldn’t speak personally to the guides’ side of things, but the guide instructors at the North American Sentinel and Guide Sanctuary at Yellowstone, where he had done his initial training, had told him that it was fairly similar for them. To fuck with their empathic landscape to such an extent that they could no longer tolerate it, an empathic situation had to be 1.) chronic, like living or working around people who were perpetually angry or sad, 2.) unbelievably massive, like Hiroshima or the Indian Ocean Tsunami, or 3.) incredibly twisted— one of his instructors had used the example of a household with an abusive parent. For Jack, all of this was summed up in what he privately referred to as “the Kryptonite Principle”: like Superman, sentinels and guides both had fatal weaknesses that had the same origin as their superhuman strengths— hence, Kryptonite. However, like Kryptonite, those weaknesses didn’t actually come into play very often.
Which meant that, whatever had happened to make his guide sever his precord to his previous sentinel, it must have been bad . Jack resisted the urge to bare his teeth in a snarl. Whoever this other sentinel was, he kind of wanted to bite them. Ideally, on the neck.
The jugular vein, for preference.
Because it was a sentinel’s job to make double sure that their guide didn’t end up in that kind of situation, just like it was a guide’s job to double-check for artificial additives and hypnotizing noises (Sam had vetted all the pizza joints in Colorado Springs to find out what kind of red sauce they used and then had done something fiendish to his phone so that he could not call the restaurants which used brands containing Red Dye #40, but he gathered most guides were a bit less Machiavellian). Going back to the Kryptonite Principle, it was all fine and dandy to be able to help ones’ partner if they happened to have been exposed to a glowy green rock, but it was infinitely better to make sure they didn’t encounter the damned stuff in the first place.
So at best, this other sentinel had fallen down spectacularly on the job. At worst— and Chegwidden’s brief explanation had made Jack think that that this was the scenario he would lay money on— he had actively helped to create a situation that his guide couldn’t tolerate.
“You still with me, Sentinel?” Chegwidden asked, interrupting Jack’s train of thought.
“Is… Is he okay?” Jack managed to get out. “My guide. Is he…”
“He’s gonna be fine, Jack,” the other sentinel said softly. “He’s a little fucked up, but, then, who in the hell ain’t? But he’s a tough kid, he’s working things out. It just may take a lot of time and patience to get him to a place where he’s comfortable trying for another bond. Can you handle that, Sentinel? Can you wait to bond until he’s ready?”
Jack was about to snort and say “Of course!” but something stopped him. He could wait to bond, that wouldn’t be a problem, but…
“I need to be in a position to render support,” he said, falling back unconsciously on strategic language to express his discomfort. “I can’t… I don’t need a bond, but staying back while he’s in distress… it’s taking pretty much everything I’ve got. I don’t think I can maintain it long-term.”
“Fair enough,” Chegwidden said. “I gotta warn you though, given the situation, there’s probably not going to be a quick fix for Tony’s distress. You think you can keep from crowding him if he doesn’t calm down right away?”
“Yeah,” Jack said, relieved. “My pro tem guide back when I was still in the field, she was really hands-off, so I got pretty good at the whole passive assist thing. It’s not my preference, but I’m a pro at this point.”
“Well then,” Chegwidden said, sounding pleased, “Let’s go introduce you to your guide.”
“This can’t be happening,” Tony repeated for the fifth— or was it sixth?— time. “I don’t… I already… I can’t do this again!”
“You don’t have to, Tony,” Harm said quietly, squeezing Tony’s shoulder. “I know that this is frightening, but I promise you, this isn’t going to be like last time. I have no idea how this is going to go, but I do know that it will be nothing like it was with Jake.”
The two of them were sitting on the floor with their backs against the refrigerator because, when Tony’s legs had given out, that’s where he had landed.
“So it could be worse,” Tony said childishly.
“Yeah, it could,” Harm said calmly. “And the Browns could win the Superbowl, but I’m not about to put money on it.”
“Damnit, Harm, I’m trying to freak out here!” Tony burst out. “Just… stop being reasonable and let me have my moment!”
Harm grinned unrepentantly.
“You know what they say,” he said, “Men are from Mars. It’s not my fault I want to fix everything. Blame the Y chromosome.”
“Screw you, Harm,” Tony said, but he found himself smiling, albeit reluctantly.
“The interesting thing,” Harm continued thoughtfully, “Is that usually it’s women who just want to talk about problems rather than solve them. Is there anything you would like to tell me, Tony?”
“I hate you,” Tony said. “I hate you so much.”
“I know,” Harm said, reaching over and patting Tony on the head.
Tony growled and tried to push him off, Harm retaliated by ruffling Tony’s hair, and the ensuing wrestling match distracted Tony so much that he actually missed the sound of the front door opening. In fact, both guides were so focused on gaining the upper hand— Tony was trying to reach Harm’s ticklish spots, while Rabb was attempting to give Tony a noogie— that they didn’t notice that they had an audience until A.J. cleared his throat.
“Having fun?” the Alpha Sentinel asked mildly.
Harm and Tony broke apart and rolled over with identical hangdog expressions on their faces.
A.J. was staring down at them with a six pack of beer under one arm and twitch in one corner of his mouth. Behind him, the new sentinel ( Tony’s new sentinel, God, he wasn’t ready for this) was leaning against the wall with an amused expression on his face. Tony gaped dumbly at him, unable to even think what to say.
It didn’t help that his new sentinel was… very hot. Even in civilian clothes, he had that whole military thing going, which Tony hadn’t thought he was into, but which he was now considering moving into the top ten on his list of kinks. And he was rocking that whole silver fox look— kind of like Gibbs, but without the Marines-inspired cut (thank God, Tony didn’t think he could handle two jarheads in his life at the same time).
As for his empathic presence…
Tony swallowed. He could feel all the things he had expected— urgency, possessiveness, hope, lust— but over it all was a calm resolve that felt like a cross between a granite wall and a warm fuzzy blanket. This was not a guy who let anything get out of control, least of all his own emotions, but didn’t feel the need to be a total dick about it.
Tony was shocked at how good that made him feel.
A.J. let Tony and Harm squirm for about forty-five seconds before breaking the silence.
“Tony, Harm,” he said dryly, “This is Major General Jonathan O’Neill of the U.S. Air Force. General, this Captain Harmon Rabb, JAG Corps, and Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo, NCIS.”
“Hi!” General O’Neill said brightly. “Please, call me Jack.”
“Uh— Tony,” Tony said, blinking stupidly up at him.
“And you can call me Harm,” Harm said, climbing to his feet and offering Jack his hand. “Nice to meet you, Jack.”
“Likewise,” Jack said, shaking Harm’s hand.
Tony scrambled hastily to his feet, still gaping like an idiot. He hadn’t decided yet whether he was ready to shake hands with his new sentinel— the skin-on-skin contact would probably cause Jack to imprint touch, which would, most likely, make three or four out of five on the initial imprint scorecard— but he didn’t know what to do instead. Jack, however, seemed to sense his confusion and jumped in valiantly to fill the awkward gap.
“So,” he said, clapping his hands together, “Guide wrestling. Is this a sport? Like mud wrestling? And if so, where do I buy tickets?”
Tony burst into startled laughter. The comment had been crude and inappropriate and possibly offensive: in other words, right up his alley.
He found himself grinning at Jack.
“Are you kidding?” he said. “Invitation only. You can’t put a price on that kind of entertainment.”
“Well, shucks,” Jack said, snapping his fingers.
“We might be able to swing something special for you, sir,” Harm offered. “After all, we need to take pity on you flyboys once in while. Holding down those office chairs is hard work.”
“Hah hah,” Jack said, voice flat. “Very funny. Wait.” He frowned at Tony. “Did the Admiral say you were NCIS? As in, Naval Criminal Investigative Service?”
“Yup,” Tony said. “Very Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo, at your service.”
“Aw, hell!” Jack said. “I just signed myself up for a lifetime of chair force jokes, didn’t I?”
Reality crashed back over Tony like a bucket of cold water. He had relaxed momentarily, soothed by the banter and by Jack’s solid, laid back empathic presence, but the off-hand reference to ‘a lifetime’ was an abrupt reminder of their situation.
Tony swallowed hard.
“Hey, hey,” Jack said softly, no doubt smelling his sudden spike of panic, “Easy there, Tiger. Look, how about we deal with that later, huh? In the meantime,” he ambled towards the stove, “What are we making and how the hell does it smell so darn good?”
“Italian pasta sauce,” Tony said reflexively, still trying to process the fact that, once again, Jack had rescued him from a potentially embarrassing meltdown. “There was an argument over the authenticity of Ragù and, with a last name like DiNozzo, I couldn’t let that pass.”
“Well, I guess we better get to it!” Jack said. “Gimme a cutting board and point me at something to chop. I may not be able to cook, but I’m told I’m a mean hand with a knife.”
Tony took a deep breath and went to find the cutting board, but stopped short as a massive lion padded into the room. At the same moment, Wiley appeared pacing nervously in front of the dishwasher.
“Play nice, Massoud,” Jack said easily.
The lion— who’s name, apparently, was Massoud— let out a plaintive “Greoww” and flopped down in the middle of the floor. Wiley looked at Tony and let out an anxious “Yip.” There followed a long, tense moment while the two spirit animals studied each other, but finally, Wiley slunk close enough so that they could sniff each other’s muzzles.
Massoud let out a happy “Grawr,” and Wiley cautiously wagged his tail.
Chapter 3: One of Mine in One of Thine
Gibbs sat on the basement steps staring moodily at the boat, his hands empty.
The cases where one of his people almost died— read, where Tony almost died, because it always did seem to be Tony— were always tough, but he was having a particularly hard time letting go of this one. Oh, he was proud of Tony. The younger agent had done what he had to do in order to maximize the chances of survival for the greatest number of people. It just so happened that, in this particular situation, that had meant upping Ziva’s odds by lowering his own.
Goddamnit. Sometimes Gibbs wished that Tony were bonded just so that he would have help keeping him out of situations like that.
When his phone rang, Gibbs answered it brusquely:
“Jethro,” said Tobias Fornell, “I don’t know how he’s done it, but your boy’s landed in the center of yet another situation.”
Gibbs closed his eyes. Of course. Heaven forbid that Tony’s bizarre luck could take a night off just because the kid had almost died.
“What situation, Tobias?” he asked quietly.
“Sentinel showed up here about five minutes ago claiming that DiNutzo’s his guide,” Tobias reported. “The kid freaked, Jethro. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Gibbs was on his feet before Tobias even finished the word ‘guide.’ Damnit! Aronson was supposed to be safely preoccupied with dying in Philadelphia! How the hell could he be in D.C.?
“This sentinel: doctor from Philly?” he asked tightly, just to confirm.
Tobias’s answer, however, was a complete surprise.
“Nah, some General,” he said. “Pretty sure he’s one of ours. A.J. was expecting him, but he must be new to the pride, ‘cause I’ve never seen him before.”
Gibbs headed up the stairs, trying to analyze this new information as he went. How could Tony have another sentinel? Between his time in the Marines, his work for NCIS, and his partnership with Tony, he knew more about sentinels and guides than most mundanes, but he didn’t know even close to everything. However, he was pretty sure that the generally accepted wisdom was one sentinel per guide.
However, that was a question for later. Right now, he had to deal with the immediate situation.
“What can you tell me about this guy?” he asked.
“Not a lot,” Tobias replied. “We weren’t formally introduced. But I did a scan on him at A.J.’s request, and he was definitely special ops before he let them stick some stars on his collar. He wasn’t dicking around either: guy’s seen some serious shit.”
Gibbs considered these new facts as he retrieved his wallet, badge, and gun: career military; special ops; seen extensive action. On one level, Gibbs could relate to and respect this set of experiences. On another, he kind of wanted to get Tony away from this guy as quickly as possible. For one thing, a special ops officer, even one who had been promoted out of the field, did not sound like a good candidate for the job of keeping Tony out of trouble. For another, Gibbs was damned if he was going to let some asshole general stick Tony in a uniform. Gibbs had flourished under the rigid rules and hierarchical structure of the military, but it would kill Tony.
“I’ll be there in twenty,” he told Tobias. “In the meantime, get me a name.”
He hung up.
Sixteen minutes later, Gibbs walked into Rabb and Chegwidden’s house without bothering to knock and moved purposefully towards the main room. While he took care not to look or act overtly aggressive, he also did not bother to disguise that he was on high alert and could tip over into hostility in an instant if given the right push.
He stopped in the doorway to do a quick recon, and was surprised to find nothing terribly out of place. There was a hockey game on the television, which was different than the last time he’d been here, but not cause for alarm, and the group was smaller, although that might have been because it was still fairly early. He made eye contact with Tobias, who was sitting on the far side of the room, and the other agent got up and started towards him. Gibbs went back to scanning the room.
He found Tony in the kitchen, standing in front of the stove and stirring something with a long wooden spoon. Rabb was sitting on one of the stools at the island munching pretzels, watching but not saying anything. The man who Gibbs presumed must be Tony’s potential sentinel was standing beside Tony grating cheese. As Gibbs watched, the sentinel laughed at something Tony had said and his SFA smiled.
Gibbs sized the sentinel up quickly. Average build, fit, forty-five to fifty (although sentinels started aging slower after awakening, so he could be older; Gibbs had served with a few sentinels who looked like teenagers but had already been in the Corps for over a decade). Even without Tobias’s report, he would have known that the man was military, although which branch was less clear. He was a general, not an admiral, which ruled out Navy, and there was no way in hell he was a marine, not with that haircut. Tobias’s claim that he had seen extensive action would, ordinarily, suggest Army, but Gibbs’s gut said that this guy was no groundpounder. That left Air Force or Coast Guard.
Which opened up a whole new set of questions, because where in the hell would a bus driver or a coastie have seen the kind of action Tobias was talking about?
“Jethro,” Tobias said, coming up alongside him.
“Tobias,” Gibbs said. “Talk to me.”
“Major General Jonathan O’Neill, beta sentinel, U.S. Air Force,” Tobias said. “Like I said, I’ve never met him before, but I’ve heard the name. Scuttlebut has it that he’s heading up some top secret project out of the Pentagon.”
Gibbs gritted his teeth. This just kept getting better and better.
“Beta sentinel?” he asked. “I know a little about the classification system, but I don’t know all the classes. What does it mean that O’Neill’s a beta sentinel?”
“Well, broadly speaking, a beta is an alpha’s second-in-command,” Tobias said. “However, it doesn’t work the same as in mundane hierarchies. A beta won’t ever go from being second-in-command to being in charge of the whole enchilada. If you think of A.J. as Vito Corleone, O’Neill is more like Luca Brasi than Sonny or Michael.”
Gibbs turned to look at Tobias in disbelief.
“You mean, a killer so brutal, he scares the crap out of his own bosses?” he demanded.
Tobias had the gall to chuckle.
“I mean that betas are like enforcers, Jethro,” he said. “They’re as strong as alphas and have the same kind of natural authority, but they don’t have the same instinct telling them to lead and we don’t have the same instinct telling us to follow . Their main role is to maintain order and defend against outside threats.”
At that point, Chegwidden ambled over from where he had been chatting with a couple people Gibbs didn’t recognize.
“Jethro,” he said. “I see claims about your driving habits have not been exaggerated. How in the hell did you get here so fast?”
“Pushed on the gas,” Gibbs said flatly. “Do I need to start planning to hide a body here, Admiral?”
Chegwidden’s eyebrows went up and he pursed his lips.
“Now, that’s the kind of thing I just can’t know,” he said. “Leave me my plausible deniability here, Gunny.”
Gibbs just grunted and raised his own eyebrow impatiently.
“Don’t think so,” Chegwidden relented. “I gave him a quick rundown of the situation, and so far, he’s been handling things well. Hasn’t pushed or gotten frustrated— even calmed Tony down when the kid was about to have a panic attack. Apparently they share a certain… robust sense of humor.”
“God help us,” Tobias put in. “Just what the world needs: more locker-room humor.”
In the kitchen, O’Neill turned around with an expression that, in any other man, Gibbs would have called a pout.
“Hey,” he said, “I’m fine with being compared to a mob hitman, but leave my sense of humor out of it. I’ll have you know, I have an excellent taste in jokes. The Simpsons is a classic.”
Tony turned around too, and his eyes widened when he saw Gibbs.
“Boss!” he said, looking stunned. “I didn’t know you… what are you doing here?”
“Guess it’s time for introductions,” he said.
The three of them headed for the kitchen. Chegwidden settled against the island beside Rabb, while Tobias ambled over to a spot near Tony. Gibbs, meanwhile, stopped in the center of the kitchen, facing O’Neill. The other man set down the cheese and the grater, wiped his hands and turned to face him, posture relaxed, but weight balanced on the balls of his feet.
“Jack, this is Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, Tony’s boss,” Chegwidden said, sounding amused. “Jethro, this is Major General Jonathan ‘Jack’ O’Neill, Tony’s prospective sentinel.”
O’Neill smiled and offered Gibbs his hand.
“Nice ta meetcha,” he said sunnily. “You like hockey?”
Gibbs took the sentinel’s hand and shook it firmly, keeping his eyes locked with the other man’s.
“General,” he said curtly, ignoring the hockey comment.
O’Neill let go of Gibbs’s hand and looked from one person in the room to the other, his expression alert and slightly puzzled, but unconcerned.
“Clearly I’m missing something,” he said affably. “I’m sure Special Agent Gibbs here is a real stand-up guy and all, but… why exactly is Tony’s boss here?”
“Remember how I told you that you’d better brush up on old-fashioned courting traditions?” Tobias said with evident relish. “Well, the reason is, our boy here’s got himself a real old-fashioned tribe, and an old-fashioned tribal leader to go with it. So you’d better be planning to do this right, or you’ll find yourself on the shit-list of half the agencies in D.C. before you can say ‘calling in a lot of favors.’”
Jack’s jaw dropped. Tony, meanwhile, looked affronted.
“Hey!” Tony protested. “Grown man here, Fornell! I don’t need Gibbs to defend my honor!”
“Thank God for that,” Tobias said, “‘Cause I’m pretty sure you lost what little of that you had a long time ago, kid.”
“You better believe it,” Tony said with a salacious smirk. “And while we’re on the subject, courting? C’mon, that went out with the dinosaurs!”
“Don’t be so sure,” Tobias said, grinning. “I hear that Ellison courted Sandburg when they visited the Chopec. Granted, they were already bonded, so it was largely symbolic, but still. Hell, even I was courted once. The process was quite enjoyable, although I wasn’t tempted to accept— her tribe was in Wisconsin . No thank you: way to much cheese for my tastes.”
There was a palpable pause in the conversation as everyone tried— and, mercifully, failed— to imagine Tobias being courted .
Chegwidden recovered first and cleared his throat.
“Need someone to give you a refresher course on the petition , Jack?” he asked.
Jack pulled his jaw back up and gave Chegwidden a very passable stink eye.
“Oh ye of little faith,” he sniffed. “After seven years working with Daniel Jackson, I can recite the rituals of half a dozen obscure ancient cultures in my sleep , I think I can handle a petition.”
“Wait,” Tony said, “We’re actualing going to do this? Are you guys serious?”
Behind him, Gibbs could hear that the entire living room had gone completely silent. Someone had even hit the Mute button on the TV so that they could watch the drama unfolding in the kitchen without interruption.
O’Neill gave Tony a quick smile, then turned to Gibbs and drew himself up. His expression shifted seamlessly to one of grim determination. Holding his upturned palms out in front of him, he spoke in a stiff, measured voice:
“I have found one of mine in one of thine. I beg that I may walk beside him until we see where our path will lead us.”
Gibbs stared. Behind him, the spectators let out a quiet gasp.
“I think I need to sit down,” Tony said faintly.
A.J. offered him a stool beside Rabb, which he sank onto, looking pale.
Gibbs continued to stare.
“You’re supposed to answer yes or no, Jethro,” Tobias said finally.
“Uhuh,” Gibbs said, still staring. “Would someone like to tell me what the hell is going on?”
“Well, in ancient times, a sentinel would often find their perfect guide outside his own tribe,” Chegwidden said. “If the sentinel was already the watchman of his people, he would ask the guide’s chieftain— or the guide, if the guide didn’t have a chieftain— for permission to take the guide into his tribe while they worked towards a bond. If he was not, he would ask to join the guide’s tribe instead.”
“Mhm,” Gibbs said. “And what happened once they were bonded? The sentinel get to sling the guide over his shoulder and haul him off wherever? ‘Cause Tony’s already had to deal with one sentinel trying to take over his life. Not gonna give permission for another one t’ do the same thing.”
“Relax, Gibbs,” Harm spoke up. “This is just the first step. There are a bunch more parts to the courtship, and several of them have to do with negotiating where the pair will live and what their position will be. Remember, sentinels were valuable to a tribe, but guides were arguably more so. They were healers, teachers, counselors, and holy people. That’s why it’s the sentinel who does the courting: a guide is precious and a sentinel needs to prove to the tribe that he is worthy of such a trust.”
“Something we could all stand to remember,” Chegwidden murmured.
“What happens if I say no?” Gibbs asked.
He wasn’t seriously considering it, but he wanted to know all the options. O’Neill’s shoulders tightened and his jaw set, but he remained perfectly still, staring at Gibbs with stony determination.
“He leaves your territory and never comes back,” Chegwidden said, wincing slightly. “The guide has the option of going with him, but if he does, he can never return either.”
Tony’s face went a little chalky and his breathing became ragged. O’Neill’s eyes flickered towards him, but he held his position. Gibbs looked at Tony.
“What do you want, Tony?” he asked quietly. “This is your call.”
Tony let out a breath that was almost a sob, and Chegwidden reached out to grab him before he fell of the stool.
“I don’t know,” he gasped out. “I don’t… I can’t…”
“Easy, kid,” Chegwidden said, steadying him with surprisingly gentle hands. “You don’t have to decide everything right now. All you have to figure out is whether you want to give this a shot.”
“I— I— yeah,” Tony managed to get out. “I want— yeah.”
“Okay,” Chegwidden said.
“What do I say?” he asked.
“Well, the formal form of assent is, ‘You may walk with mine and prove he may be thine,’” Chegwidden said. “But ‘yes’ works too.”
Gibbs turned back to O’Neill.
“You may walk with mine to prove he may be thine,” he said, then added with a glare: “And if you put so much as a toe outta line, they won’t ever find your body.”
“Toldja,” Fornell said smugly.
O’Neill let out a breath and put his hands down, his eyes going immediately to Tony. Tony stood up shakily, staring at O’Neill with wide eyes.
“Jesus Christ,” he said hoarsely. “Jesus Christ, you… and you… and Gibbs!… and I… why would you do that?”
O’Neill grinned at him.
“Seemed like the right thing to do,” he said, shrugging carelessly. “Besides, Rabb and the Admiral are right: you’re totally worth it.”
They stood staring at each other for a long, long time. Then Tony stumbled forward and, with much less finesse than Gibbs would have expected from such a consummate flirt, pulled O’Neill into a hard, clumsy kiss. The Air Force general was obviously taken off guard, but he clearly wasn’t as dumb as he looked— no surprise, he wouldn’t have survived this long if he were— because he reacted quickly, wrapping his arms around Tony and tilting his head to give him a better angle.
In the living room, someone let out a cheer and everyone broke into applause. Rabb looked delighted, Chegwidden wore a smug, satisfied look, and Tobias dabbed surreptitiously at the corner of his eye.
Chapter 4: Legal Fictions
Much later that evening, after dinner had been served and eaten and the Capitals had gotten their asses kicked and everybody else had gone home, Rabb, Chegwidden, Fornell, Gibbs, Tony, and Jack gathered in the living room. Jack sat beside his guide on one half of the sectional couch with a beer in one hand and the other resting gently against the back of Tony’s neck. Rabb and Chegwidden sat on the loveseat, Chegwidden’s arm around Rabb’s shoulders. Gibbs and Fornell had taken one look at the other half of the sectional, looked at each other, and grabbed a couple of chairs from the dining room.
“So,” Gibbs said, his quiet, smooth voice cool and hard, “What happens now?”
There was a moment of silence as they all looked at each other.
“How’s the precord feeling?” Harm asked finally, looking from Tony to Jack.
“It’s… very strong,” he said. “And… hot . Like it’s made of sunshine. Not D.C. sunshine, but, like, in the desert. At noon. In midsummer. It doesn’t hurt, though. If feels…”
“Awesome,” Jack said.
The precord had been a surprise for Jack, in more ways than one. First of all, he hadn’t been prepared for Tony to pull him into a kiss in front of everybody, allowing Jack to imprint touch and taste at the same time that Tony opened up his psionic field to him. Second, he had never imagined that a mere precord could feel this fucking good. He had thought that his accord with Sam was pretty sweet, but it turned out that it had in no way prepared him for even the most preliminary of connections with his guide.
To be perfectly honest, he was still kind of high on the feeling.
“I don’t understand,” Tony said softly. “How could this happen? How can I have two sentinels? That’s… that’s just not possible.”
Jack winced and rubbed his thumb softly over the back of Tony’s neck. Unlike him, Tony had been vacillating back and forth between delight and terror, with a sickening amount of self-doubt thrown in for good measure. Their precord wasn’t enough to give them the kind of telepathic connection that, say, Rabb and Chegwidden had, but the imprint allowed Jack to gauge Tony’s scent pile with a fair degree of accuracy.
“I don’t know how this happened, Tony,” Rabb said. “Believe me, first thing tomorrow, I’m going to be on the phone to Sandburg and probably the Sanctuary trying to get answers. But I don’t think that you have two sentinels. Like I said when I did your empathic assessment, Jake isn’t your perfect match anymore. Your psionic pathways have changed a lot since you met him— partly, I think, in response to your decision not to bond with him and the breaking of your precord. If you saw him again tomorrow, he wouldn’t feel like your perfect match to you. And, while you’re obviously still the same on a genetic level, your pheromones change in response to your psionic landscape, so physically speaking, you probably wouldn’t register as a perfect match to Jake either.”
“We’ve documented lots of cases of changing psionic and pheromone patterns altering compatibility,” Chegwidden put in. “However, most of those were near matches that slowly evolved into perfect ones over time.”
“Like Sandburg and Ellison,” Jack said, finally having found a point at which he could enter this conversation.
So far, a lot of it had, quite frankly, been outside of his frame of reference, if not his understanding. At heart, Jack was still a ‘point-shoot-repeat’ kind of guy when it came to problems, even though he’d developed a certain patience for and grudging admiration of the egghead approach during his time with SG-1.
“Exactly,” Chegwidden said. “It’s not common— we see, maybe, thirty cases a year in the U.S.— but it’s a well-known phenomenon.”
“So, bottom line, what does that mean for us?” Jack asked, cocking his head in that expectant way that always got results from the underlings.
“Not a clue,” Chegwidden admitted, making a face and shrugging.
“Objectively speaking, I would say nothing,” Rabb said. “However it happened, you two are a perfect match. Of course, I’m going to do my best to get answers, and those answers may make a difference to other pairs in the future— the implications for bond widows, particularly, could be profound— but I don’t see how they will have any practical impact on your lives or your bond.”
“Which brings us back to my question,” Gibbs said curtly. “What happens now?”
“Well, it depends,” Rabb said. “I’m assuming, based on everything, that you’re not planning on completing the bond right away?”
Tony hesitated and flicked an anxious glance at Jack. Jack smiled at him and pressed against the back of his neck a little, concentrating on projecting reassurance.
“Nope,” he said, and was rewarded by a wave of relief/gratefulness/affection from Tony.
“Well, normally when a pair wants to take their time, they form an accord, which will become a bond when they’re ready to take the final steps,” Rabb said. “Jack, you’ve had a pro tem guide, right? If you were in the field, it would have been required. So you’ve had an accord before.”
“Yeah,” Jack said. “Not sure how much help that’s going to be though. The precord with Tony is already way more intense than the accord I had with Sam.”
“O-kay,” Rabb said, looking a little out of his depth. “That’s… never mind. The basic process should still be the same: three or four days to replace the initial physical and psionic imprints with full ones and to synchronize with each other, then after that, regular communion to keep the accord stable.”
“And then what?” Gibbs asked. “Will Tony be able to come back to work? Or is the general going to be Shanghaiing him into whatever top secret project he’s got going over at the Pentagon?”
Jack tensed a little. It was unsurprising that Gibbs knew where he was working— he was a fed, albeit at one of the smaller alphabet agencies, and Fornell had already warned him that Gibbs had contacts— but Jack was edgy about security.
“That’s something that they’ll have to work out,” Rabb said, directing a glare at Jack for reasons that Jack could not define, but suspected was connected to Tony’s previous sentinel— the good-for-nothing bastard. “In fact, like I said, coming to an agreement on it is one of the steps in the courtship ritual Jack started. For now, an accord usually requires only periodic contact, although it’s more variable when the pair is a perfect match.”
“That doesn’t answer my question,” Gibbs snapped. “The general here is Air Force. I want to know whether he has any sort of idea that he’s going to be forcing Tony to accept a commission, because I’m going to tell you right now, he’ll do that over my dead body.”
Jack sat up, surprised and confused by Gibbs’s ferocious insistence. Beside him, Tony was filled with comparable confusion, with some fear and doubt mixed in.
“Hadn’t thought of it,” Jack said carefully. “Why do you think it’s such a bad idea?”
“Tony’s no soldier,” Gibbs said.
Tony’s fear and doubt turned abruptly to hurt, and Jack felt his lips trying to draw back.
“You might want to explain that before I bite you,” he said flatly.
Gibbs frowned, clearly confused.
“You hurt my guide’s feelings, Agent Gibbs,” Jack said. “I don’t like it.”
“Tony?” Gibbs asked, seeking clarification.
“Jeez, Gibbs,” Tony said, his voice wavering almost imperceptibly, “I know you think I’m an idiot half the time, but really? Am I that much of a fuck-up?”
Gibbs’s entire demeanor softened.
“Didn’t mean it like that,” he said softly. “You’re the best agent I’ve ever worked with, Tony, you know that. But the military is all about succeeding by following the rules, and that’s not how you work. You question, you push boundaries, and you never do anything without knowing why, even if I tell you to. It’s what makes you such a goddamn good investigator, but it also means exactly what I said: you’re no soldier, and if you tried to be, you’d kill yourself. Assuming your drill instructors didn’t kill you first.”
“Oh,” Tony said in a small, strangled voice.
Jack got a scent impression of relieved and happy and above all overwhelmed. He cleared his throat.
“Ah, I hadn’t really thought that far ahead yet,” Jack said, putting what he’d just learned about Tony, and what he’d just learned about Tony and Gibbs’s dynamic, to one side to think about later. “But my senses have always been fairly stable, and my job is at least 80% desk work. So, once the accord has settled, the only times I’d absolutely need Tony with me are when I get called out into the field. I’m pretty sure the law has provisions for that, so it shouldn’t be a problem if Tony wants to keep his job. Which is not to say I wouldn’t love you to come and work for me,” he added, looking at Tony. “I can think of half a dozen jobs for a trained investigator in— my program just off the top of my head, and I’m pretty sure I could come up with a dozen more if you give me thirty minutes. But we can talk about that later.”
Tony offered him a shaky smile.
“That true?” Gibbs said, looking over at Chegwidden. “Tony could still work for NCIS if he wanted, even if he has to take time off to go help O’Neill?”
“It does,” Chegwidden said. “For employment purposes, a bonded sentinel and guide are legally considered one person that can, but is not required to, be in two places at the same time.”
“Was that supposed to clarify something, Admiral?” he asked.
Rabb let out a laugh and Chegwidden smirked a little.
“A.J is just being a wise-ass,” Rabb said. “It’s a legal fiction designed to clarify the laws surrounding sentinel/guide employment. Basically, the legal entity that is a bonded pair holds a job or jobs in common and is jointly responsible for fulfilling the obligations involved. It receives pay and benefits commensurate with the total man-hours it produces and the individuals within the pairing can work together or separately during that time, as they choose, but can never be required to work more than one full-time schedule. When there is more than one job involved, each employer is guaranteed a minimum number of hours that is equal to half the hours that their employee is being paid for.”
“That doesn’t seem like a good deal,” Gibbs said, frowning as he sorted through the dense legalese.
Jack shook his head. This was why he could never be a pride alpha. He could never keep all this stuff straight, never mind be able to recite it on cue. On the other hand, both Rabb and Chegwidden were both lawyers, so this kind of thing was their bread and butter.
“Well,” Rabb said, “That’s where things get sneaky. Each company is guaranteed half the total hours they’re paying for, but at the end of the year, if they have not received the total number of man-hours they paid for, they can bill the other company or companies for the difference.”
“Huh?” Gibbs said.
“Remember, the pair is guaranteed pay commensurate with the total man-hours that it produces,” Rabb said. “Tony and Jack are both working full-time right now, so that’s two full-time sets of man-hours and two full-time salaries, one from the Pentagon, and one from NCIS. Now, if they always worked together, that would mean that NCIS and the Pentagon would both be getting two sets of man-hours for their half of the time, which would add up to one full-time set. Similarly, if they always worked separately, each company would receive one full set of man-hours. However, supposing Tony works with Jack at the Pentagon on occasion, but Jack doesn’t ever work with Tony at NCIS. The Pentagon will have gotten more total man-hours than it paid for and NCIS will have gotten less, so NCIS will bill the Pentagon for the difference.”
“Jesus Christ,” Gibbs said. “Why the hell does anybody put up with this? It sounds like an accounting nightmare.”
“Because the Union has the federal government by the balls, and having a sentinel or a guide working for you is kind of like having a seal of approval from God,” Fornell said bluntly.
Gibbs shot Fornell a withering look.
“Crude, but accurate,” Chegwidden said, amused. “Basically, people are hard-wired to trust and respect sentinels and guides. That means the Union can pretty much call the shots with the federal government, since if they screw us over, both the voter base and their own colleagues will hate their guts. Meanwhile, most employers find that the cachet of having a sentinel or a guide working for them is worth the hassle. NCIS’s D.C. office gets a lot of respect just because of Tony’s presence, but there are entire divisions of the FBI and the CIA that have been all but blacklisted because, even if they get a gifted agent, they can’t hold onto them. It’s seen as a sign of corruption. ”
“That’s because it is,” Fornell commented with a humorless smirk.
“So what you’re saying is, Tony can work with O’Neill when he needs to, and accounting will sort it out,” Gibbs summed up.
“That’s the idea,” Chegwidden agreed. “NCIS does have some discretion on how that works out in terms of Tony’s position. Their legal department would never allow him to be put somewhere he didn’t want to be— some of the Union’s court battles on that issue have been legendary— but if he really was gone half the time, they might make him a consultant to the MCRT and bring in another full-time agent.”
“The part that interests me about all of this,” Fornell drawled, “Is that, technically, DiNotzo now works for the Pentagon, while O’Neill is an agent of NCIS. Am I the only one that thinks this is a security nightmare? Whatever O’Neill’s doing is classified as fuck, and NCIS has very specific security clearances— even my people can’t access their files half the time because of Naval regulations.”
“They’re going to have to register their accord right away to sort that out,” Rabb said. “Legally, there’s no difference between an accord and a bond, and once they’ve got the Union paperwork, they should be covered.”
Jack grimaced a little. He had realized during the whole employment conversation that he was going to have to read Tony into the program ASAP, and while he was confident in Tony’s ability to cope, he did wish he had more time. Tony had already had his world upended this evening, it would be nice to wait a few days before adding aliens to the mix. However, with Jack’s luck, if he waited, there would be a gigantic crisis and Tony would get thrown into the deep end with no idea what was going on. Which would result in his guide being even more upset and Jack himself being in disgrace. Jack was good at being in disgrace, considering the extensive opportunities he had had to practice, but that wasn’t exactly how he wanted to start off his relationship with his guide.
“Christ,” Tony said, scrubbing his hands over his face. “That’s going to create a shitstorm when it hits the Union database.”
“Don’t worry about it, kid,” Chegwidden said, waving a dismissive hand. “I’ll handle it.”
“Exactly what kind of shitstorm, and why?” Jack asked curiously.
Shitstorms were fine, he knew how to deal with shitstorms, but he liked to know what he was up against in advance so that he could be suitably prepared and have the appropriate supplies on hand: raingear, P-90s, zats, grenades, grenade launchers, an X-302 squadron…
He tensed as a wave of misery from Tony suggested that this was the kind of shitstorm where he was going to want the X-302s.
“I don’t know how much A.J. told you about my— the other sentinel,” Tony said unhappily, “The one I was compatible with before.”
“Enough to know that I don’t like the guy,” Jack said, sticking his chin out.
Gibbs grunted. Fornell looked intrigued.
“Well, he has CIS,” Tony said, unconsciously pulling away from Jack a little, as though afraid of how he was going to take this. “It’s gotten really bad, but he’s still refusing to consider a bond with anybody except me, even though I’ve refused. His pride has been trying to get me to change my mind, or at least go back to Philadelphia and visit him, but I… I mean, maybe I should, because if Rabb’s right and I wouldn’t even register as a perfect match anymore, maybe he’d consider someone else. But honestly I would rather dance naked to Kenny Chesney at the NCIS Christmas party.”
There was a general round of choking at that, and Jack had to pull his brain back sharply from an unscheduled little foray into daydreams-ville at the thought of his guide naked. When everyone had it back under control, Jack said carefully,
“When you say that the Philadelphia pride is ‘trying to get you to go back there,’ are we talking about pleading phone calls and tearful petitions, or masked commandos with assault weapons?”
There was a ringing silence.
“Is anybody else worried that that’s his first question?” Rabb finally asked.
“You think it didn’t cross my mind?” Chegwidden asked.
“Was my first question too,” Gibbs said, sounding amused.
“Seriously?” Rabb said. “You all have unhealthily suspicious minds.”
“Hell, Harm,” Chegwidden said, “If I wasn’t already bald, you’d have turned me gray with the number of times you’ve been kidnapped. I think Jack can be forgiven for some perfectly natural suspicion.”
Jack held up a hand to forstall what looked like it might be a long discussion.
“I’d like an answer to my question,” he said.
“No, the folks over in Philly won’t be sending a black ops team to kidnap him,” Chegwidden said.
“Which doesn’t mean someone else won’t,” Gibbs remarked. “Tony attracts that kind of crazy.”
“Hey,” Tony said, but there was no conviction in it, leading Jack to believe that Tony was unable to actually contradict his boss on this point.
Well, wasn’t that just dandy? Didn’t it just figure that Jack would get the guide who was, reading between the lines, as good at attracting trouble as Blair freaking Sandberg himself? Since he’d handed the trouble magnet that was Dr. Daniel Jackson over to Colonel Mitchell, Jack had been lacking that particular brand of crazy in his life.
He’d like to say he had been bored, but that would be a lie.
“So,” Jack said, “To sum up: the Philadelphia pride is going to be upset when Tony registers a new bond with another sentinel, but they will confine their expressions of displeasure to wailing and writing nasty letters?”
“Which I will deal with,” Chegwidden said. “You boys will have enough on your plates.”
“Speaking of which,” Rabb said, “It’s getting late, and I imagine Tony and Jack are going to have a crazy day tomorrow.”
“Tony’s taking the personal days he should have taken after he got the crap kicked out of him on our last case,” Gibbs said in a voice that brooked no argument.
Jack’s hackles rose immediately and he began studying his guide carefully. He had already noticed the fading bruises on his guide’s face and had made a note to ask him about them later— the man was a federal agent, so a certain number of injuries were to be expected, but he wanted a full accounting of each so he could keep track of who did what to Tony and what kind of overall the threat they posed and whether those threats had been neutralized to his satisfaction— but now he began looking for what was not immediately apparent. Sure enough, there were signs of recent restraint and interrogation hidden beneath Tony’s clothes, but detectable to an observant and concerned sentinel.
“I am?” Tony said. “Oh, yes, I am. Uh, thanks boss.”
“Don’t want to see you back in the office until Friday,” Gibbs said.
“On it boss,” Tony said.
“This case,” Jack asked Gibbs, “Is it closed? And did whoever did this to Tony get arrested and/or eliminated with extreme prejudice?”
Gibbs regarded him consideringly, a small smile playing around the edges of his mouth.
“Yeah,” he finally said. “Case closed. Both perps are in custody.”
“After Jethro laid one of them out cold and DiNutzo somehow managed to kick the crap out of the other while still tied to a chair,” Fornell amplified.
“Okay, good,” Jack said with a sharp nod.
He turned to look at Tony and smiled brightly.
“So, now that’s cleared up, your place or mine?” he asked in his most chipper voice.
Chapter 5: Levels of Accord
Tony looked around A.J. and Harm’s guest bedroom with a certain amount of trepidation.
It wasn’t that there was anything inherently dangerous or off putting about the room, it was just that he was sharing it with Jack, and until now, they hadn’t actually been alone together. In fact, A.J. and Rabb (with Jack’s full cooperation) had made sure that his first few hours with his new sentinel were ostentatiously chaperoned. The oddest part was, it had worked. Their constant presence had allowed Tony to get to know Jack without panicking over whether history was about to repeat itself.
Thanks to that time, Tony knew, intellectually at least, that Jack was nothing like Jake. The things that had set Jake off— the delayed bonding, the employment issue— had already come up, and Jack had not reacted badly to either of them. In fact, his psionic profile gave Tony the impression that, when it came to his guide, Jack would be an overindulgent marshmallow.
Nah, on second thought, not a marshmallow. More like classic M&Ms: a hard, crackly outside with a melty chocolate center.
Even so, Tony still couldn’t bring himself to trust that everything was going to be okay.
He looked nervously over at his sentinel, who had plunked his go-bag on the chair and sat down on the bed, where he was now bouncing a little to check the mattress. Tony wasn’t quite certain how they had decided to stay at Harm and A.J.’s rather than going to either of their apartments. He had ixnayed the idea of going to his apartment because the thought of sharing his twin bed had been just way too intimate, but for some reason, Jack hadn’t been crazy about the idea of going to his place either. Something about not really having settled in yet. Tony hadn’t gotten it, but A.J. apparently had, because he’d offered them the guest room. Since both Tony and Jack kept go-bags in their vehicles, the whole thing had been arranged very smoothly— as in, A.J. threw a couple of towels at them, told them to make themselves comfortable, and warned Jack that if he turned up his hearing far enough to listen to what was happening in the master bedroom, whatever trauma he suffered as a result was his own damned fault.
Jack returned Tony’s anxious look with that easy smile that Tony was beginning to find alarmingly addicting. It didn’t fix anything, but it soothed some of the rawness from Tony’s overtaxed nerves. Come to think of it, Tony found Jack in general incredibly soothing, which was bizarre, because Jack— or, more specifically, what Jack represented — was what was causing all this anxiety in the first place.
“Would it help if I promised to be a perfect Victorian gentleman?” Jack asked. “I mean, I’ve never done it before, but I’m pretty sure I could do it if I tried really hard.”
Tony let out a breath of laughter and dropped his own go-bag on the chair beside Jack’s. He walked over to the bed and plopped down beside the other man, close enough so their shoulders brushed together.
“Sorry,” he said. “I don’t mean to freak out like some old-fashioned damsel. I’m just… last time I was here, it went bad, and I know that the circumstances are totally different, but I’m…”
He blew out a frustrated breath.
“Hey,” Jack said, reaching out and putting a careful arm around Tony, “I get it. I haven’t even been able to look at egg salad since that one of the airmen in the commissary left a batch out too long and half the base, including me, got salmonella poisoning.”
Tony snorted and leaned into Jack a little, letting the other man’s presence calm him.
“You realize you just compared yourself to egg salad?” he said, smiling.
Jack laughed, but didn’t defend himself. Instead, he asked,
“Would it help to talk about what happened last time? I mean, I’m a total supporter of the ‘packing up and moving on’ school of mental health, but sometimes you have to go back to that— pl— uh, campsite, and then you’ve gotta clean it up before you can use it again.”
Tony looked over at Jack with a deep frown.
“Has anybody ever told you that your metaphors are weird and a little disturbing?” he asked.
“Actually, the Secretary of State said something similar just this afternoon,” Jack said with great aplomb.
Tony blinked, trying to wrap his head around the fact that his sentinel had just name-dropped the goddamned Secretary of State, but let it pass.
“I guess it’s just that, with Jake I thought that, because we were a perfect match, everything had to be great, you know?” Tony said, trying to put his irrational fear into words. “And when things got ugly, I was— I got caught off guard, and that really sucked.”
“Maybe you’d better tell me what happened,” Jack said gently.
“It was actually the whole employment thing,” Tony said. “I was a cop, and he was a heart surgeon. Looking back, it really was a crap pairing professionally. I mean, there was no way in hell I would ever have taken him out in the field, and I’m not even qualified to hold the towels in an OR. Best case scenario would have been I split my time between the precinct and the hospital and hoped like hell I didn’t die of boredom while I was sitting in the OR doing nothing. The real problem was though, Jake had it in his head that I would quit the department and work with him full time.”
“O-kaaay,” Jack said, “That’s… he couldn’t just schedule all his surgeries for the days you’d be there and do the rest of his job when you were at the PD?”
“See?” Tony said. “Easy, right? And if I’d been smart, I would have just said ‘yeah, whatever, we’ll work it out later,’ and when the time came, we could have done something like that. Instead, I freaked out and was all ‘What the hell? No I’m not quitting my job!’ And then, after he made a few derogatory remarks about cops and donuts, I made the even dumber move of demanding that we hold off on to bond altogether until we had sorted the issue out.”
“And this was a dumb move becaauuusse?” Jack asked leadingly.
“Because he totally flipped his shit,” Tony said. “In a way, it was kind of a joke, because even with all that extra sentinel juice, he didn’t have the skills to go up against a cop, but at the time, I was too freaked out to really think straight. I… God, I put him on the ground and then I just left . Didn’t try to talk about it, refused to accept his calls, wouldn’t talk to the woman the Center sent… I knew he had CIS even back then, but I just… didn’t care.”
Tony swallowed hard and blinked his eyes, realizing that he was absolutely terrified. Would Jack realize what a crappy, selfish guide he was and decide to leave, just like he had decided to leave Jake?
Except he didn’t get any sense of scorn or aversion from Jack. No, what he got was a wave of protectiveness coupled with a surge of homicidal anger. Tony tensed at the sudden influx of rage, and Jack took a breath, reining it in ruthlessly.
“Are you saying that he tried to hit you?” Jack asked in a stilted voice.
“No,” Tony said hurriedly. “Just push me up against a wall to yell at me better. It wasn’t a big deal, I overreacted—”
“The fuck you did!” Jack snarled, and Tony jumped. “Sorry,” Jack said. “ Sorry. I have a— thing about sentinels who get aggressive with their guides. I know some pairs, especially same-sex ones, can get pretty physical with each other, but it just sits wrong with me. And by wrong, I mean it makes me want to kick someone’s ass repeatedly until I feel better. The fact that it was my guide— I’m gonna need a minute.”
Tony stared at his sentinel, wide-eyed.
“Listen, can I, uh, scent you?” Jack said. “It’s just, from what I understand, this guy is currently dying, and I generally draw the line at beating up dying people unless they’re, like, trying to end the world or something. But I just found you and our precord is really new and I’m going to be a bit of an overprotective asshole until it settles a little.”
“Okay,” Tony said, his voice becoming slightly hoarse. “That would be— yeah.”
“Thanks,” Jack said, burying his face in Tony’s neck and taking a deep breath.
Tony closed his eyes and tried not to cry. Jack didn’t hate him. Jack still wanted him to be his guide. Jack was angry as fuck because some guy half a decade ago had been a dick to him, but instead of having a temper tantrum or going all lone ranger, he’d simply asked to scent Tony so that he could calm down.
God, this guy was perfect.
Where the hell was the goddamned catch?
After a few minutes, Jack relaxed and his anger levels returned to ‘simmering rage’ rather than ‘HULK SMASH.’
“So,” Jack said, his face still buried in the crook of Tony’s neck, “Let’s see if I’ve got this right: you guys had a disagreement, he acted like a dick, you didn’t feel like bonding right away with someone who was acting like a dick, and when he reacted violently to a suggestion to slow things down, you decided ‘nuh-uh, not happening,’ and left?”
“Well… yeah,” Tony said. “But, I mean, it was more complicated than that…”
“Sure, of course,” Jack said, finally looking up. “But see, where I’m stuck is, I sense that you think you did something wrong, and I’m just not seeing it. I mean, I get that the guy had CIS and needed help with it, but c’mon, we’re talking about giving him a lifetime here, not a couple of aspirin. Considering one day with him was more than enough to make you a very unhappy camper, it sounds like it would have been a fucked up situation for the both of you. Because trust me, having an unhappy guide is a special kind of torture that only a sentinel can understand. The accord I had with with Sam was so light it was basically like having a mystical shoelace tied around our pinkies, and her PMS blues still had me whimpering and scouring the base for anything with chocolate in it.”
Tony’s mouth twitched as he imagined Jack, whose gender presentation, in the words of one of Tony’s more erudite dates, seemed to tend towards the uber-masculine, suffering sympathetic PMS symptoms. However, Jack still didn’t seem to be getting his point, so he tried again:
“If I’d handled it better, maybe we could have worked it out. Or, barring that, if I’d ever even just gone back and talked to him…”
“Look,” Jack said, “I’m a selfish son-of-a-bitch, so I’m ecstatic that you told him to take a hike, because I want you to be my guide. But let me ask you this: do you think you would have been happy, bonded to him?”
Tony felt his stomach knot up and shuddered instinctively. Jack didn’t even need him to speak to hear the answer:
“Then the rest of it doesn’t really matter,” Jack said. “It sucks that he’s sick— especially since it means I can’t kick his ass— but that doesn’t change anything.”
“I just… I failed him, you know?” Tony said.
“Nah, you didn’t fail him, Tony,” Jack said. “You chose not to be responsible for him. There’s a difference.”
“I’m afraid I’ll fail you too,” Tony whispered.
Jack took a long, slow breath and let it out. Then, he fished his wallet out of his back pocket, flipped it open, and carefully removed a picture from a hidden compartment behind the credit cards. He handed it to Tony, who took it hesitantly. It was a picture of a little boy, maybe eight or nine. Tony could see right away that the kid had Jack’s eyes and jaw, but somebody else’s mouth and nose.
“That’s Charlie,” Jack said softly, “My son. Ten years ago, he accidentally shot himself with my backup M9.”
Tony sucked his breath in sharply, overwhelmed by a sudden awareness of an infinite well of sadness tucked away in a corner of Jack’s mind.
“I had never let him touch a gun before,” Jack said, “Not even a water pistol. I thought he was too young.”
“Jesus,” Tony said. “I— I don’t have words for that.”
“I know,” Jack said calmly. “I failed Charlie, Tony. I failed him as badly as a father can fail his son. Every day for six months, I thought about eating that same goddamned gun. And then, one day, I stopped.”
“Christ, how?” Tony asked.
He could not imagine living with that kind of pain that he could feel in Jack’s mind, but clearly Jack had not only lived, but flourished with it. His psionic landscape was rich and vibrant and filled with joy and laughter and mischief (as well as anger, frustration, and quite a bit of ridicule for various stupid people, places, and things).
How had he done that?
Jack smiled sadly.
“I found something that was way bigger and badder than me and threw myself at it to see if it would kill me,” he said, “And it didn’t. So I figured I needed to learn to live with myself instead.” He paused. “I didn’t ‘forgive myself’ or ‘find closure’ or any of that crap. What happened was way too big for all that bullshit the base shrinks tried to sell during my psych evals. In the end, I just… zeroed the scorecard and started over from scratch. I’m not saying that I forgot about Charlie, I think about him every day, and it hurts, and I miss him like crazy. But nothing that happened then makes a damn bit of difference to what happens now, just like nothing I can do now will make up for what happened then then.”
Jack stopped talking and reached out to cup Tony’s jaw in one callused hand. Then he simply looked at Tony, letting him understand what he was trying to tell him without words. For a brief moment, Tony caught a glimpse of the world as seen through Jack’s eyes, a world that was so very, very much vaster and more terrible and more wondrous than anything Tony had ever imagined, a world of which Jack was only a very small— but very determined— part.
“You’re gonna screw up, Tony,” Jack said. “I am too. It’s what people do. And when that happens, we’ll scream, we’ll curse, and then we’ll pick each other up and we’ll carry on. Because the only other option is to give up, and apparently, I’m too stubborn and too ornery for that.”
Tony felt something deep inside his chest shift and loosen. He took a startled breath, surprised by a sudden feeling of joy and relief, but then it turned out that whatever had eased inside had released a whole lot tears with it, and suddenly he was sitting on the bed beside his new sentinel and sobbing like a baby.
Jack was startled, but forged ahead gamely:
“Okay, ah, wow. Um, gotta ask ya, Tiger, ‘cause your scent is all messed up— crying fucks with the pheromones and stuff, ya know?— so… good tears or bad tears?”
“I d-don’t know,” Tony sniffled. “G-good I think? B-but, oh God, this is really e-embarrassing…”
“Aw, hey,” Jack said, wrapping his arms around Tony and pulling him in so he could rest his head on the sentinel’s shoulder. “We just spilled our guts and then stood around admiring all the really gross, slimy bits. I think you’re allowed to bawl your head off if you want to.”
Tony laughed wetly, then gulped out a few more sobs before getting himself under control.
“You know,” he joked weakly, “It’s a good thing you’re so pretty, because your metaphors really are fucked up.”
“Hey,” Jack retorted, “You’re the pretty one in this relationship. I’m just the muscle.”
“Uhuh,” Tony said, suddenly realizing that he was very tired and very ready to curl up in A.J. and Harm’s guest bed with his sentinel and pass out for about a week. “Pretty muscle.”
“O-kay,” Jack said, “I think it’s time for all pretty little guides and sentinels to be in bed. Beauty sleep, you know?”
Tony made a noise of protest as Jack shifted under his cheek, but reluctantly let go and allowed the sentinel to stand up, pulling Tony to his feet as he went.
“You want help undressing?” Jack asked teasingly.
“Uh, no,” Tony said, scrubbing his face and blushing a little. “I think my body would take that as a sign that it was about to get some hot and heavy petting at the very least, and I am way too tired. Besides, uh—” he paused, not knowing how to tell Jack what he had just discovered when he poked that little place in his chest with his psionic abilities.
“Yes?” Jack prompted.
“Ithinkwealreadyenteredthesecondlevelbyaccident” Tony rushed out.
“Sorry,” Jack said, “Didn’t quite catch that.”
“Um, right before I had my, you know, ah, meltdown,” Tony said, wanting to look away from Jack, but now quite able to, “We seem to have accidentally entered the second level of accord . Without trying.”
“Well for crying out loud!” Jack said. “What happened to the first level?”
“Well, the precord basically is— er, that is, it was— the first level,” Tony said.
“But a precord is totally different that a first level accord,” Jack protested. “I’ve had a first level accord and this is nothing like it!”
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Tony said. “A first level accord is a really light link that can easily be broken, but is very stable, while a precord is a very strong link that’s hard to break, but is unstable, because it’s leading to a full bond. That’s why Harm said should turn our precord into an accord if we wanted to wait to bond. But the point is, a precord is a surface connection, like a first level accord. To enter a higher level accord, you have to deepen the connection.”
“And our connection just deepened all on its own?” Jack said, blinking.
“Ah, yes,” Tony said. “I mean, we were kind of— baring our souls there, so I can see how it happened, but… look, I’m no expert, but I think that it usually takes more time and more meditation— like, oh, say, any— to go from one level to the next. I mean, if it didn’t, pro tem pairs would be bonding without meaning to all the time, since that’s the final level.”
“And what does this have to do with getting hot and heavy?” Jack asked.
“Well, bonding happens through, uh, sex, right?” Tony said, blushing a little.
It wasn’t that he was embarrassed, exactly. He’d had more than his fair share of sex, and he was anything but shy. But, like many sentinels and guides, he had a very definite division in his sexual preferences. He was attracted primarily to female mundanes , but male sentinels. This meant that, while he had had copious amounts of sex, none of it had been with another man.
“Yes,” Jack said with a puzzled look, “I think I’ve got that part.”
“Well, usually you can, um, fool around without triggering a bond,” Tony said, trying really hard not to think about all the ‘fooling around’ he’d done with Jake. “But, since our precord just became a second level accord without us doing a thing…”
“You think maybe we should keep things PG until we’re ready, just in case it decides to be overly helpful again,” Jack finished for him.
“Well, PG-13,” Tony said. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’m going to be able to keep myself from kissing you until we’re ready to bond.”
“Sounds good to me,” Jack said, then smirked roguishly and dipped his head to brush his lips against Tony’s in a chaste, but still, somehow, super-hot kiss. “What about snuggling?” he asked softly as he lifted his head.
“I don’t know,” Tony whispered back, distracted by how blue Jack’s eyes were. “If we wake up with a third level accord, I guess we’ll know it’s a bad idea.”
“Sweet,” Jack said.
Fifteen minutes later, lying in the guest bed with Jack wrapped around him like Tony was his favorite teddy bear, Tony decided that he didn’t care if they accidentally ended up with a third level accord: this was totally worth it.
Again, an astounding response to this story. Thank you all so much for your comments, kudos, and above all, for reading in the first place.
As with The Fourteenth Amendment, I’m going to share a few words on the experience of writing Accordance, with the understanding that any deeper meanings or connections it contains are probably it’s own fault, not mine.
So, once again, here’s some of the highlights:
This is already a story that involves three separate fandoms, not to mention cameo appearances from two more. So why add Stargate SG-1?
This Space Opera was actually a Stargate SG-1/NCIS crossover long before I even knew it was going to be a series (more on that later) because I needed Jack O'Neill to be Tony's sentinel.
Let’s face it, I like some good angst as much as the next person, but I’m really playing around in this AU because of the inherent fluff and the inevitable porn. So this was never going to be a story about Tony’s difficult decision not to bond and how he built a meaningful life in spite of it (I really like Greeneyesblue’s Healing for You, but a large part of my admiration has to do with the fact that I could never/would never have written anything like it myself). Tony was always going to need a sentinel after initial angst was out of the way. However, as I mentioned in the author’s notes to The Fourteenth Amendment, I needed Gibbs (the obvious choice) as my asker of pertinent questions, which left me in the market for another candidate. I started playing around with names before I ever wrote a word — A.J. Chegwidden was actually an early contender, as was Ian Edgerton, which is how they both ended up in The Fourteenth Amendment.
Jack won the contest for several reasons. First, I really like Tony and Jack as a pairing (Jilly James’s The Journey Home is on my personal Mt. Rushmore of favorite fanfiction). They have a fun chemistry, and their personal quirks are hilarious together. Second, I love the Stargate universe, even though I don’t love all the actual episodes of the various shows, and I cannot wait to set Tony— and Gibbs— loose in that sandbox (LitGal’s series Not in Kansas Anymore is another of my personal favorites). Third, Stargate SG-1 and NCIS have a lot of natural points of intersection— for example, the SGC and Atlantis are essentially joint bases with both Marines and Air Force personnel, which puts them partly under NCIS’s jurisdiction, while the antics of the NID and the Trust would definitely show up on NCIS’s counterterrorism radar. In this case, even the timing meshed up well, with Jack arriving in Washington just when the NCIS team was going through a period of huge transition, without any manipulation of canon on my part (not that I’m against manipulating canon or don’t plan to do it as the series progresses, it was just cool that I didn’t have to in this instance). Finally, there is a particular scene that came to mind when I was playing around with this crossover— one that, ironically, hasn’t actually happened yet— that stuck in my head and couldn’t be dislodged. Unfortunately, the specifics will have to wait until the next Author’s Notes, but that was actually the deciding factor in finally choosing Jack and thus, Stargate SG-1 .
Once upon a time, I used to study Shakespeare. Now, one of the in-jokes in that field is how many secondary professions people have tried to ascribe to the poor guy just because one of his characters happens to know a lot about the law, or gardening, or medicine, or whatever. Shakespeare actually gets his facts wrong a lot, especially in the early works, so these aren’t necessarily strong arguments, but they are cause for much merriment. Well, all I can say is, at this point in This Space Opera, find myself sympathizing with the guy.
I don’t actually set out to write about law, or sentinel and guide traditions, or even the canon backstories. I just have a story, and that story creates questions, and I try to answer those questions so I can keep writing. And sometimes, when I’m trying to figure out a situation, I have to go read up on law to get a sense of how it would actually play out (especially with Harm and A.J. involved). And when I want to know what to call a temporary bond, I have to go brush up on my (very shaky) Latin grammar to figure out what word Western society might have developed or cross-purposed. And when I want to mention something about a character’s history in passing, I have to go scouring fan wikis, etc., to find out if what I want is in the fandom, or whether I need to make it up. Most of this isn’t even essential to the story— a really good writer could write around it or gloss over it, and if anyone noticed, they would probably be grateful for the succinctness— it’s just what I need to create some sort of internal consistency in my own head.
The trick to writing this way, as I think my pal Shakespeare discovered through trial and error, is to say just enough to sound good without saying too much, and thereby revealing your utter and complete ignorance. Since I haven’t been doing this nearly as long as good old Will, I’m not very good at it yet, but I’m having ever so much fun!
When I began This Space Opera, I actually did not know that it was going to be a series.
I began writing what I thought was one continuous story, but, about three quarters of the way through what would become The Fourteenth Amendment, I realized several things. One, I’d written 1200 words and one of my main characters hadn’t even shown up yet. Now, Charles Dickens can get away with this, but I am not, nor do I particularly want to be, Charles Dickens. Two, the focus of what I had so far was on the relationships between Gibbs and Tony and, to a lesser extent, Tony and A.J. If I brought Jack in now without any sort of pause, it would overshadow the relationships that were currently developing. Three, I happened to be nearing the end of a secondary story arc.
At that point, I decided that the story should be divided into Part I, Part II, etc. Now, AO3 doesn’t have a fantastic way of demarcating a Parts I, II, etc. in the same story because of the automatic chapter numbering, but I figured it would be okay, if not ideal. And then, as I started trying to wrap up Part I, I began going back and editing it, just for the hell of it. And then one day, on impulse, I decided to post Part I on its own as The Fourteenth Amendment , which is how I ended up with a series. Now, I’m quite liking the structure, because it means that I can skip over things I don’t want to write about, or that I think someone else did better— the issues around Kate dying and Ziva joining the team, for instance, are many and much-storied, and I didn’t feel the need to add my two cents, so they became angsty background.
Again, thanks to everyone for all the support and enthusiasm!