Title: The Subtle Body
Author: Keira Marcos
Fandom: Hawaii 5-O/NCIS/The Sentinel
Relationship: Steve McGarrett/Tony DiNozzo
Word Count: 27,852
Genre: Urban Fantasy, Paranormal, Sentinel Fusion
Warnings: Threats of murder, psychological torture, discussion of minor character death off-screen, canon-level violence, explicit language
Author’s Note: This story was inspired by the movie Ladyhawke. This hasn’t gone through beta because I just didn’t feel like it. I’m not interested in your unsolicited beta, either. Thanks!
Summary: Steve McGarrett’s unwitting rejection of a Guide he’s never met in the week that he comes online leads him to a cursed path that is unspeakable for a Sentinel. He can do nothing but endure and protect the Guide meant to be his the best way he can—no matter what form his body takes.
Tony DiNozzo walked through the house he shared with his Sentinel and went straight for the coffee maker more out of habit than need. His human mind slept when he was transformed which was fortunate since everyone at the Center speculated that the lack of sleep would drive them both insane inside a year. However, it had been almost two since he’d bonded with Steve McGarrett and Tony hadn’t slept since the day they met in either form.
A large, black wolf trailed along behind him as he left the kitchen and walked out onto the lanai and sat down in a lounge chair. The animal put his head on Tony’s bare thigh and chuffed slightly. His cell was ringing, but he ignored it. Anyone that really knew him would know better than to call shortly after sunset. Tony buried his fingers in the thick fur covering the wolf’s neck.
“Hey, Steve.” The wolf chuffed again and closed his eyes. Tony sipped his coffee as his Sentinel trembled under his touch. The phone went off again, and DiNozzo sighed. “I wish they’d fuck off.”
The wolf snorted and pressed against his leg briefly before trotting off the lanai in favor the stretch of sandy beach in front of him. Tony watched his Sentinel playing in the surf, relieved that the stress of the day hadn’t followed Steven into his wolf form. He knew some of it was there just as some of the day lingered in him despite the fact that he’d experienced it as a hawk. The Center had been surprised, and a bit horrified when they’d realized that Tony was actually keeping emotional and mental impressions of the time he spent in his spirit animal’s form.
The phone went off again, and Tony vowed the turn the fucking thing off as soon as he could be bothered to go get it. Between them, they’d worked nearly twenty-four hours on the case that had hit the Task Force’s desk just short of their transformation. Tony had taken the lead first then passed it to his Sentinel when the sun rose. His Sentinel had, in turn, finished the case with the first shift of people they worked with. This was their day off, short of a major incident, and Tony wasn’t going to allow either of them to be put back on duty.
Tony sighed as Steve’s head jerked up, and he trotted back up to the lanai, already growling. His Sentinel hated the people at the Oahu branch of the Center, and he made that clear in both of his forms. Wolf or man, Steve, was pretty much prepared to end them all on any given day. Tony was more amused than anything else when Steve moved stand between himself and their uninvited guest as the woman left the narrow path that led around the house to the lanai.
“What do you want, Ms. Weston?” Tony asked. He put his free hand on Steve, and the wolf focused on him.
Weston flushed and averted her gaze. “You’re naked.”
“You’re uninvited,” Tony said. “And the sunset five minutes ago. Surely, you haven’t forgotten how things work in the McGarrett-DiNozzo household.”
“I’m hardly going to forget your cursed state, Guide DiNozzo. I called. You didn’t answer.”
“You’re more than welcome to pay for our cell phone bills if you want us to be at your beck and call,” Tony said dryly and focused on the ocean out in front of him. He finished off his coffee as Weston huffed dramatically. “You haven’t explained what you want.”
“Sentinel McGarrett refused to come to the Center yesterday for testing,” Weston explained. “I want you to bring him now so he’ll be in custody tomorrow for the examination.”
“Custody?” Tony repeated in question. “The Center doesn’t have the power or the authority to arrest or detain anyone, Ms. Weston. Steve didn’t go to the Center yesterday because we had to deal with a spree killer. You might have noticed the news coverage over the last twenty-four hours.”
Weston was scowling when Tony bothered to look in the woman’s direction. “Neither one of you have any business in the field in your state! I’ve told the governor repeatedly that it’s too dangerous! McGarrett is a vulnerable Sentinel thanks to you.”
“It’s funny how you assume the curse is my fault,” Tony murmured. “Especially when all the evidence says that McGarrett was cursed before he even met me.”
“Well, if he hadn’t met you the curse wouldn’t have activated,” Weston said snidely. “We never should’ve widened his search to the mainland.”
“You’re an idiot,” Tony said and stood. He stretched and picked up his cup. “You never had any hope of actually bonding with a Sentinel like Steve, Ms. Weston. I know your game, you know, and it’s not going to work. I will not abandon my Sentinel by breaking our bond.” He focused on the younger woman. “I believe that Director Sandburg has already told you to stop considering that a solution to the problem.”
“The curse could fade if you broke the bond,” Weston pointed out.
“Or my Sentinel could die,” Tony snapped. “But apparently you’d rather see him dead.”
“He’s half dead already!” She shouted. “Look at him! Stuck in that beast for half of every fucking day!” The woman waved a hand in Steve’s direction, and the wolf growled at her. Weston took a few steps back, her face flushed with temper. “What sort of life is he going to have as long as he’s stuck with you?”
Tony glared at her for a long moment. “What is a Guide’s duty?”
“What is a Guide’s duty, Ms. Weston?”
Her eyes darkened. “To provide shelter, guidance, comfort, and support to their bonded Sentinel.”
Tony jabbed a finger in the wolf’s direction. “He is my Sentinel, Ms. Weston. My perfect match—the other half of my soul. And if this is how we have to live to be together then so be it! I’m finished with this conversation. I’ll leave a message for Steve to go to the Center for his monthly evaluation but there will never be a situation where I will capture Steve for you or anyone else. It’s obscene that you’d even ask. Leave.”
“This situation has gone on long enough,” Weston called after him as he walked into the house. “The Center isn’t going to tolerate it forever no matter what Sandburg says.”
Tony shut the door as soon as Steven slid past him and locked it with a flick of his wrist. “We need no trespassing signs so we can start calling HPD every time one of those assholes shows up uninvited.”
Steven snorted in either amusement or agreement. Tony figured either way that signs would go up as soon as his Sentinel was on two legs again. He poured himself another cup of coffee and sat down at the kitchen table in front of an open laptop. There was already a video prepped, so Tony pressed play. Steve’s face filled the screen, and Tony took a deep breath as he pressed down the hurt and longing that always swelled in him at the sight of his Sentinel.
“Hey beautiful,” Tony murmured in response.
Steve looked tired and a little rough around the edges. Not a surprise considering how the case had ended. Tony knew the suspect had gone down fighting, but the details were fuzzy.
“You were right about the wife. I wish I could tell you that we got there in time to save both kids, but we didn’t. By the time we reached the beach, she’d already drowned the oldest. All told, she killed six people including her ten-year-old daughter. Danno took that about as well as you would expect. He pulled her out of the water himself. Kono took a bullet in the arm and three in the vest, but by the time I came home, she was already being released from the hospital. You probably don’t have any memories of the scene on the beach because I made you stay with the truck.” He grimaced. “You probably remember that part—why do you always remember the shit you hate?
“Regardless, you know I couldn’t risk you flying around when we knew she was armed. Kono saved the baby, threw herself on top of the baby carrier thing. Whatever they’re called.” Steve shrugged and ran his hands over his head. “So Stephanie Brandon murdered her cheating husband, his girlfriend, the girlfriend’s husband, her brother-in-law, her mother-in-law, and her own daughter. The baby should be with his only surviving grandparent at this point, the suspect’s mother. You were right about that; too, as soon as she realized her daughter was to blame she helped us search. Without her, we’d have probably lost the baby as well.”
Tony watched his Sentinel slouch in the chair that he was currently sitting in. The videos were a blessing and torture that he could only blame himself. He’d started it as a way of connecting with his Sentinel, and they’d fallen into a communication pattern that allowed them to live their lives together in the only way they could currently.
Steve leaned forward a bit. “I left the shirt I want to wear tomorrow on the bed. Would you wear it for a few hours tonight?” He flushed. “I’ll need it for when I go to do that stupid evaluation at the Center. Weston called twenty times while I was trying to work today. How much of a shit storm would it cause if I filed a complaint for harassment? You know, when I first came online I considered her a friend. She was really helpful with getting me settled in the Center and helping me set up my search process. I knew before I started that she wasn’t an option for me on the bond front. I don’t know why she thought differently. Hell, we aren’t even compatible sexually. I mean, I’ve fucked women, but she’s not my type.”
Tony grinned. “She’s not my type either, buddy.”
“I left work an hour early since everything was mostly settled with the case. I’m sure there’s paperwork to fill out, and we have case notes to input. I brought home all I had. Regardless, I stopped by the store and picked up everything on your list. But you need to pick up the dry cleaning because I ran out of time and I’d rather not ever shift in public again.”
“You?” Tony scoffed. “You weren’t the one that ended up naked in a Target!”
Steve grinned. “You’re thinking about Target, right? Only a few people saw you before you got my clothes on. That’s probably the most excitement the fruit and vegetable section has ever gotten.”
Tony laughed and shot the laptop a bird. “Fuck you, McGarrett.”
“Oh, Governor Denning has a dinner thing coming up that he asked me if you’d attend on behalf of the task force. I told him to ask you since I didn’t want to make that decision for you, so there’s probably an email for you about it. It would help, of course, because there are some undercurrents regarding our budget in the state senate. You’re much better at that kind of thing than I am but if you don’t want to do it then don’t. This last case was high profile enough that we’ll probably get decent press out of it as disgusting as that is. Though we’ll probably take a hit for not saving the girl.”
Steve rubbed his face. “God, Tony, seeing that kid…she didn’t look like Grace at all, but I kept seeing her sweet face anyway. I can’t imagine what sort of state Danny is in. I did call Rachel and ask her to be nice if Danny wanted to see Grace tonight. I told her about the girl being murdered. She seemed to understand, but you know how she is. She’s still not forgiven me for pointing out that Charlie didn’t smell like Stan’s kid.” He bit down on his lip. “But it’s not my fault her and Danny were banging on the side without protection.”
Tony laughed. That whole affair had kind of put him off Danny for a while, but he did, kind of, understand the man’s desire to fuck over Stan Edwards. After all, Rachel had cheated on Danny with Stan. The startling part had been the fact that Stan Edwards hadn’t left Rachel in the dust after that mess settled. Though he had no interest in going there, he did wonder what the hell Rachel Edwards had going on in the bedroom that had both Danny and Stan coming back for more no matter what she did.
“Oh, and Joe called. I offered him the guest bedroom, but he declined. I think…well…the curse bothers the shit out of him.” Steve frowned. “It bothers the shit out of me, too, but what else can we do? We don’t even know where it came from.”
If Weston were more powerful, Tony might blame her.
“On that front, we have a court date, and a sympathetic judge so here’s hoping that we’ll finally get a list of full names from the Center.”
Tony grimaced. As a Guide, he appreciated the privacy policies in place when it came to the Guide Search but considering the circumstances it was infuriating that the Center had been so stubborn about investigating the Guides that Steve met before Tony. It was an obvious and logical path in their investigation. It stood to reason that a rejected Guide was responsible for the curse on Steve. A curse that activated the very moment their bond settled completely.
“The sun’s almost gone,” Steve said quietly. “I…” He frowned. “You’re on the perch in the living room right now. I’m going to go outside to the lanai. I can’t…I’ve had enough today, Tony, and two seconds of your gorgeous face would probably break me wide open right now.” He averted his gaze. “Sometimes I can’t even watch your videos, you know? I just minimize the video and listen.”
The video ended.
Tony took a deep breath then another before he picked up his cellphone and scrolled through the contact list until he reached the entry for Dr. Blair Sandburg. He didn’t call often, but he knew he could. Sandburg was researching the curse, and they emailed regularly. It rang twice before Sandburg answered.
“Tough day,” Sandburg said neutrally. “Jim was watching the news come out of Hawaii most of it. How’s Steve holding up?”
“He asked me to wear the clothes he has picked out to wear for tomorrow,” Tony said roughly. “He rarely does that Blair. Weston showed up at the house after sunset and told me to bring Steve to the Center tonight so he’d be in custody tomorrow for evaluation.”
“Custody,” Blair repeated. “That’s the term she used?”
“I’ll take care of her. She’ll be on the first plane off Oahu I can arrange. I’m sorry.”
“No, I mean, we’ve considered her more of a nuisance than a problem. She keeps harping on me to break our bond. She said he’d be better off without me.” Tony blinked back unexpected tears and cleared his throat. “Is that true, Blair? Should I let him go?”
“No.” Blair exhaled sharply. “There is an element in the Center that thinks breaking your bond would destroy the curse and that you’d both be able to move on to new partners. But, Tony, I know Steve won’t survive the severing of your bond. I feel it deep down in my bones.”
Tony felt it, too. “That’s what I believe would happen but one of the analysts at the local branch here told me that it was arrogant to assume that my bond with Steve was so strong that breaking it would kill an Alpha Sentinel.”
“He’s a moron,” Blair snapped. “Fuck this! You know what? I’m coming there, Jim! We’re going to Oahu!”
Tony blinked in surprise when the call disconnected abruptly. Shortly thereafter his phone dinged with a text message.
Sorry! I hung up by accident. We’ll be there in two days.
Tell Steve to skip the so-called evaluation. I’ll call when I get there.
Great, Tony thought, the Alpha Guide Prime of the USA was coming to Hawaii. He wondered, briefly, if he should contact anyone about it but then decided that Blair would tell whom he wanted to know. Some people deserved unpleasant surprises.
He stood from the table, walked through the house and up the stairs to the bedroom. He grabbed a pair of shorts from the dresser first then pulled on the Navy T-shirt Steve had left folded on the bed. They were of a similar size, so the fit was fine. He looked up and found Steve lingering in the doorway.
“I’m wearing it.”
The wolf chuffed and stretched his big body.
“Sandburg and Ellison are coming.” If a wolf could’ve looked surprised, Tony thought wryly. “Yeah, I know, buddy. Apparently, our situation has made Blair lose his temper. He’s not mad at us but at the people running the local Center branch. Shit’s about to get real for those people.”
Steve barked sharply and jumped up on the bed that neither of them used to bounce around a bit, but he followed Tony out of the room without any sort of complaint.
Tony picked up the work bag they shared and took it back to the laptop in the kitchen. Off-duty or not, he felt compelled to start putting together their end of the file for the case. With the perp dead, it was paperwork closure at best, but the victims deserved to be treated with all the care and dignity possible. Steve kept orderly notes because he hated to get berated by their partner and his own Guide, so Tony started there.
Steve slid under the table and curled up there, his big head resting on one of Tony’s feet.
* * * *
Steve sat down on the bed, clad in cargo pants, and pressed his face against the T-shirt Tony had worn most of the night. His Guide’s scent was all over his house, something he knew Tony did on purpose, but when McGarrett left the house, it was difficult to ground himself even when the hawk lingered at his side most of the day. They were never really all that far apart. When he’d finally returned to the task force building to work, Kono and Chin had already set up everything in his office. One of the window’s had been exchanged for one that could be open, and a perch had been tucked into the corner for his Guide.
He’d appreciated both gestures as much as he’d hated the acceptance that the curse would be on-going and perhaps even permanent. After a few moments, he pulled the shirt over his head and stood. The dry cleaning was hanging on the door, so Steve took a moment to hang their things in the closet. He knew Tony had caught a case around midnight last night and hadn’t had time to do much of anything after that. He was lucky to have been able to greet the transformation at home thought they both had clothes and necessities at headquarters if they had to do at work.
Steve put on his watch, hooked his cellphone on his belt, pulled his weapon from the gun safe, clipped on his badge, and headed toward the kitchen. Tony was perched on the back of the chair, so he stopped to sooth down the hawk’s feathers. The bird regarded him with shrewd, predatory eyes.
“I’m fine.” He sighed at the skeptical look he was given in return.
No one believed him when he told them that he could actually communicate with his Guide very well despite their situation. The people at the Oahu Center were especially invested in not believing him at all actually, which was annoying as fuck. Every single time he went there for an evaluation he left in a near-homicidal rage. He didn’t see that shit improving any time soon.
“I’m really okay, I promise.” He stroked the bird’s feathers some more as Tony hopped onto his hand and gently wrapped talons around his fingers “Go fly a bit while I fix something to eat.” He walked to the door and let Tony go with a sigh. He hated that—letting go—but he’d learned early on that trying to keep Tony caged was just not going to work.
He stopped at the laptop and checked for a video. There were vague memories of Tony sitting at the table in the early morning hours, but he wasn’t sure what the man had been doing. There was one set up, so he pushed play and walked away.
“Hey, Steve, this will be short. I don’t have a lot of time. I used HPD resources mostly for the start of the investigation into the home invasion/murder of Damon Courtland. His live-in girlfriend is staying at the Hilton under an assumed name for her own safety. I have a few uniforms keeping an eye on the hotel, but the murder appears to be business related rather than personal. All the evidence at the scene indicates that the perp didn’t bother to go upstairs. Since Stephanie, the girlfriend, has lived with the victim for five years it stands to reason that the killer knew she was there and didn’t care.
“We owe fifty to Chin for the dry cleaning. He picked it up with his own and dropped it off last night. He tattled and told me that you have a rash on your arm. I checked through all of our products and noticed that you had tossed some samples into the basket in the bathroom. Dude, stop taking samples from people when they offer them.”
Steve laughed and shrugged.
“I’m going to ban you from the mall if you don’t stop,” Tony warned. “Regardless, I tossed them and sent Danny a text about allowing you to do shit like that. Danny showed up for a few hours to work the scene last night, but I sent him home. He looked like shit. I swung by and checked on Kono. She’s good—stoned but good. The docs apparently gave our baby cop the good drugs for her valiant baby-saving efforts. Checked on the kid, as well, and he’s fine. The grandmother is a mess, but that’s to be expected. I left her some cards for various services to help her out with funeral arrangements and the like. I also recommended a therapist.
“You might remember that Weston came by the house last night. She apparently was quite offended to see my dick as she filed a complaint about me being naked on our damn lanai when she showed up uninvited.”
Steve frowned because he didn’t get that at all. His Guide as gorgeous—from head to toe and no one should be all that offended to see him regardless of how he was dressed. Also, he was pissed that Weston had shown up uninvited. Not that she was ever invited to his home, but that was beside the point.
“Anyway, that won’t get far because I can be naked on our private property if I want to be, especially since I wasn’t in a place that someone might see me from the road. Regardless, Blair Sandburg and his Blessed Protector are coming here, and Blair told me to tell you to skip the evaluation the Center has planned because he’s about to…hell, I don’t know. He’s just coming here, and that can’t be good, right? I don’t think the Alpha Prime pair has ever set foot in Hawaii on official business. I mean, I remember when I was small there was a goodwill tour for the previous pair, and they visited all the states and territories, but that wasn’t anything like the Come-To-Jesus meeting that Sandburg apparently has planned which I know is super funny since he’s Jewish. Regardless, it promises to be amazing so make sure I’ve got a good perch for that whole mess.”
“I left the digital recorder for the case notes in the truck so you can listen on your way in. I didn’t get far as I’m waiting on lab results. Mary Ann called—she has a new boyfriend. He sounds like a criminal, so I already called in a favor to get a background check.”
“The results should be in our work email. I have a few friends in LA from when I worked in NCIS, and one or all four would be more than willing to visit this asshole’s house if he’s a problem. Speaking of NCIS, I received another job offer to return to DC, but I declined it. I expect you’ll get one as well. Vance is apparently having a hard time keeping an SFA for Gibbs’ team, and you know Jethro can’t be bothered to give a fuck about office politics. Don’t feel like you have to give the offer any consideration unless you find it appealing which I can’t see how you would. I mean, who’d leave paradise to live in Washington, DC for fuck’s sake? Oh, contact our lawyer today and report Weston. She’s getting on my nerves. Gotta go. Fucking sun.”
Steve walked over to the laptop and closed it gently then returned to the blender to finish up the smoothie he’d put together. He poured the whole thing into an insulated cup and grabbed his keys. Pulling his phone, he shot a text off to their lawyer about Weston and the complaint she’d filed with the Center as he left the house. The security engaged with the push of a button, and he headed for his truck. He gave it a brief inspection to see if his Guide had messed it up in the night and didn’t find anything. Tony loved cars, as a rule, so he didn’t think he’d be careless with it but sometimes things out of hand on the job.
He rolled down the passenger side window, and Tony landed briefly on the door before hopping into the truck with practiced ease. They’d tried to allow Tony to fly over the city to work a few times but it had left Steve a nervous wreck, so that had quickly been shelved as an option unless they had no choice. Tony dropped down to the floor and settled down into the nest of blankets they kept there for him.
He listened to Tony chat about the case the whole way into headquarters and grabbed the digital recorder to add his own thoughts for their case notes.
The moment he left the elevator, he set eyes on Danny Williams. “Hey.”
“We need another body around here,” Danny said. “It crossed my mind last night—several times, in fact, that Tony needs his own partner. He works alone too much or depends on uniforms to back him up, and I know that he’s been doing that because you’re territorial but it’s not a great working environment for him, Steven, so you need to get over it.”
Steve frowned. “I guess you already have a suggestion for this position?” He walked into his office and opened the window then waited until Tony flew through the window to land on the perch. “I’m not opposed to a partner for Tony, you know. I would like to have him dedicated back-up when the rest of you are too exhausted to move, and he’s on a case. You’re going to have to convince him that he can trust whomever you’ve picked out, though.”
“Is that the problem?” Danny asked with a frown. “Really?”
“Yeah, really,” Steve said with a sigh. “He’s not had great luck on the partner front—his partner before NCIS turned out to be a dirty cop. Then there was that incident at NCIS when he was left in the field without back up because his partners turned off his wire. The Director of NCIS tried to sweep it under the rug until the Center got involved. The woman was deported back to Israel, and the guy was demoted from field status. Tony agreed to come here for my Guide Search because he didn’t trust the Director. That asshole is still trying to get him to come back actually. Apparently, there is a new job offer on the table for us both.”
“You’re not thinking about it, right?”
Steve shot Danny a look. “Seriously? The weather is shitty in DC.”
Danny laughed. “Right. Well, I’ll talk to DiNozzo when he’s less of a featherbrain. He’s really unreasonable when he’s transformed.”
Tony screeched at him.
“You know he’s going to remember that. He always remembers insulting shit that pisses him off,” Steve said as he sat down. “Lab results?”
“We’ve got a shoe print—identified as a size 10 Merrell Outbound Mid Gore-Tex. The impression was so pristine that forensics thinks the shoes are brand new. No fingerprints and we’re waiting on ballistics since Max has to dig it out of the victim’s head.”
“Very popular shoe,” Steve said. “Tony has a pair. Not as pricey as some of his things but very well-made. The killer probably ditched them as soon as the job was complete.”
“You’re thinking professional hit?”
“Tony is.” Steve held out the digital recorder. “I caught up on the way in. Share that with Chin.”
“I’ll make a copy and bring it back,” Danny said. “You okay?”
“Weston showed up at the house last night,” Steve said roughly. “She’s trying to talk Tony into breaking our bond.”
“Tony would never do that,” Danny said firmly. “He told me…well…during the first year that he’d spend the rest of his life living only at night if that was what it took to be with you. He’s not ever going to agree to break the bond, Steve. He thinks it’ll kill you.”
Steve thought it would, too, but he knew he’d agree to try if it meant Tony could have a full life again. He kept that to himself, as he knew Danny didn’t want to hear anything like that at all. “Get Kono and Chin up to speed on Tony’s thoughts for the case then we’ll start interviews that he’s flagged for us to do personally. I’ll slog through the scene reports from the uniforms.”
Danny grinned then. “You know…he’s made you a better cop.”
Steve flushed. “Shut up.”
“No, seriously, and I’m not trying to be an asshole about it. I’m glad to see you settled and comfortable in the job. We all wondered…if you’d leave once you took care of Hesse but you didn’t, and it means a lot to us that you stuck around. Also, your Guide is a hell of a cop. You won the lottery on that front, and I don’t just mean his looks.”
“Yeah, Danno, I know.” Steve sat down. “Go work so we won’t get snotty post-it notes from Tony tomorrow.”
Danny laughed and left.
Steve logged into his computer and grabbed a legal pad to take notes in case he needed to flag anyone the uniforms had talked to for an additional interview. He’d only managed to read four reports when there was a sharp knock on his open door. McGarrett barely suppressed a groan of frustration at the sight of Lori Weston. He tossed his pen and dropped back in his chair in frustration as the woman entered his office and shut the door behind her.
“What can I do for you, Ms. Weston?”
Her cheeks flushed. “Guide Weston.”
“The last I heard unbonded Guides were encouraged to hide their Guide status,” Steve said evenly. “I don’t appreciate you coming to my home without permission, Ms. Weston. I’ve already contacted my lawyer regarding the issue, and you can expect a formal complaint from him to the Center sometime today.”
Her gaze hardened and she glanced toward the perch where Tony was currently sat. “Tell him to leave. I want to have a private conversation with you.”
“No.” Steve raised an eyebrow when she glared at him. “You can’t dismiss my Guide from any conversation you want to have with me, Ms. Weston. Your disrespect for our pair bond is disgusting. If I thought it would do a bit of good, I’d file a second complaint about it.”
“Pair bond,” she repeated with a grimace. “Your situation is so ridiculous that I’ve recommended that Center formally intervene. I’ve also forwarded that recommendation to the Governor. You can expect a phone call from his office shortly.”
“And I’ll tell him the same thing I told him last time you tried this bullshit—if he sides with the Center on any single issue regarding my bond with Detective DiNozzo, I’ll take my Guide, and we’ll return to Navy service. They’ve already promised to make room for him on any single Team I’d like to lead. I’m not stuck here on Oahu, Ms. Weston. Moreover, the Center doesn’t have the authority or the legal means to do a damn thing to us. The Sentinel/Guide Center is an advocacy lobby for fuck’s sake. Formally intervene? What exactly do you think you could do to us?”
“We can withdraw our certification of your bond,” Weston said evenly. “Do you think the Navy would want you then? If your bond has been determined to be unhealthy? What if we label you, personally, unsafe? How would that work out for you?”
“The Navy dedicated years to making me unsafe,” Steve said evenly. “They glory in the fact that they can put me down practically anywhere to make war for them. You could tell them that I’m prone to feral episodes and they’d come in their pants with joy at the thought of setting a feral-prone Sentinel loose in a war zone and you’re an idiot if you think otherwise.”
He let himself smirk just briefly when her mouth dropped open in shock.
“You’re due for an evaluation. If you don’t return to the Center with me right now for it, I’ll be forced to report your non-compliance to the Chief of Police and the Governor.”
“I’ve actually been instructed by the Alpha Guide Prime of the United States of America to not attend the evaluation you’ve got scheduled.” Steve grinned when she paled. “He’s on his way here, you see.”
Weston stood and left the room without another word.
Danny appeared immediately in the open doorway. “I recorded all of that. Chin is prepping the file and will send it to you shortly for your lawyer.”
“Is that legal?” Steve asked though he really didn’t care.
“There are signs on the front door of this building notifying all visitors that meetings and interviews in this building are recorded. In fact, the log in sheet she signed has a notification of the potential to be recorded both audio and visual. There’s a reason why lawyers don’t even bother coming into this place anymore. They meet their clients at the courthouse or at the holding facility at HPD.” Danny grinned. “Tony made our home away from home a lawyer-free zone with some cameras and a few signs.”
Chin appeared then looking fresh and relaxed. Steve sort of hated him for a hot minute. He hadn’t felt fresh or relaxed since the curse happened. “Kono wants to come in.”
“No,” Steve said immediately. “She’s down to one arm and has bruised ribs.”
“She can read scene reports,” Danny suggested.
Steve was tempted because he hated reading through that crap. “No, Tony would yell at us. Well, he’d yell at you two for not making her rest, and I’d get a video full of disappointed looks and lectures about remembering that my team is human and that I shouldn’t treat you guys like you’re indestructible. Then that would devolve into a rant about my recklessness. So, I’d like to avoid that if you don’t mind.”
Tony screeched his agreement from the perch. Chin and Danny both flinched, which made Steve, laugh.
“I don’t disagree,” Chin said. “But I promised her I’d ask. I’ll send one of the aunts over there to manhandle her back into bed and force some painkillers on her.”
Steve nodded, and they both left his doorway at the same time. Shortly after that, he received a copy of the video, which he promptly forwarded to his lawyer, Tony, and Blair Sandburg. Because if he couldn’t blow shit up literally, he was more than willing to do it figuratively instead.
* * * *
Tony regained full awareness of the world sitting on a bench in the locker room at headquarters. He sighed.
“Yo, Tony! You cool in there?”
“Yeah, Danny, but still naked.”
“You’d think we’d be used to it by now,” Williams called out cheerfully. “Steve’s in the office. Super SEAL decided to stripe off bareassed right there and fold his clothes all neat and orderly like a good soldier.”
“Sailor,” Tony corrected. “Naval service men and women are called sailors, you heathen.” He opened his locker, pulled out a pair of boxers, and slid them on. “Open the door so Steven can come in. He’ll be out of sorts all night if he doesn’t set eyes on me shortly after the exchange.”
The door opened, and Steve slid through the opening, claws clicking on the tile floor as he trotted over to where Tony was seated. DiNozzo curled his hand into the fur on the back of the wolf’s neck and clenched his fingers briefly. “I know you hate to watch the transformation, buddy, but you know avoiding it for more than a week causes you to have sensory problems. Even those two or three seconds we get is important to your sense memory and helps ground you.” He released him when Steve whined. “I know. It sucks but this is what we’re working with for now.”
They stayed there for a few moments before Tony took his kit to a shower stall. Fifteen minutes later, he was standing in his boxers in front his locker trying to decide which of the three shirts he had on hand he should wear. A sharp knock on the door caught his attention.
“We have the girlfriend in an interview room. She asked to speak to you as soon as she arrived so we told her when you’d be available and she agreed to wait. Ballistics came back—9mm, no matches in the system, no foreign DNA at the scene. The most interesting fact of the day? Your girl, Stephanie, has a restraining order against a former co-worker.”
“Work issue or personal?” Tony asked as he stood and picked out a shirt to wear.
“Personal for him at least. He was fired for harassing her, and the TRO was granted for the full three years. We sent a patrol car to pick him up for a conversation. If he asks for a lawyer, he’ll end up at HQ.”
Which was for the best, Tony thought. When he’d first started working with Five-O, they had a few problems with civil liberties as far as Tony was concerned. Steve took ‘immunity and means’ a little too much to heart for Tony’s peace of mind, so he’d made a few wholesale changes that had probably annoyed his Sentinel but made everyone else a little more relaxed on the regulations front. They hadn’t gotten a snide email from the DA’s office in over a year as far as Tony knew. Danny seemed to thrive on rules and regulations. Though Tony was certain Chin’s ‘give a fuck’ had been broken since he’d been falsely accused of being a dirty cop.
He finished dressing quickly, checked his hair in the mirror. It hadn’t changed since the day the curse took hold. He hadn’t shaved since then either. It wasn’t something that either of them had shared with the Center. Steve wasn’t entirely certain they were aging at all which was disconcerting, but it was hardly the most difficult thing they had to deal with regarding their situation.
Tony grabbed a bottle of water from the break room and headed for the interview room. Stephanie Madison was an attractive woman by anyone’s measure, but she had an aura about her that told him at the very start that using charm wouldn’t inspire trust. He reviewed what he knew about her as he stopped in front of the door. Software engineer. Thirty-three years old. No children. No previous marriages. One speeding ticket in her twenties. One TRO for a former work colleague. Lived with a man fifteen years her senior for five years.
Chin and Danny were standing in the observation room next to the interview room.
“Anything I need to know?”
“Just be you,” Danny said dryly.
Tony laughed, and Steve pressed against his leg. “Okay, I need you to stick with Danny and Chin.”
“Exactly, you always growl at beautiful women, and it puts them off. She’s a witness.” He flicked his Sentinel’s ear, and the wolf tried to hip check him as he trotted into the observation room and hopped up onto the platform they kept in the room for Steve to use.
Chin offered him a folder and Tony took it with a nod. The woman looked up as soon as he opened the door and her shoulders relaxed just a little as she caught sight of him.
“Detective DiNozzo.” She curled both of her hands around the paper cup in front of her. “Do you have any news about Damon’s…” She took a shuddery breath. “Murderer?”
“We have several avenues of investigation open,” Tony said smoothly and sat down. He opened the folder Chin had passed to him. “Stephanie, I need to have a conversation with you that has the potential to be upsetting for you.”
“I found the love of my life dead in our foyer, Detective DiNozzo,” she said flatly. “What could be more upsetting?”
“Tell me about Elijah Whitt.”
Stephanie slouched back in her chair with a confused frown. “I…Elijah Whitt used to work for the same company I do. We were part of a team building a new piece of software. I can’t discuss the software; it’s proprietary. Elijah had a problem working for a woman, and I had the misfortune of being the senior programmer on the first project he was assigned after he was hired. I powered through the project but refused to have him on my team for the next assignment I received. He considered it a slight and grew hostile. He lost his temper with my direct supervisor when he was told that I wouldn’t be forced to accept him on my team. Elijah believed that if I had a problem with him that I should be removed from the team and he should be given the lead. He assumed his experience trumped my own.”
“I imagine you’ve experienced such a situation before. Tech fields are notoriously male-dominated,” Tony pointed out.
“Yes, actually, that’s one reason why I ended up on Oahu. I was working in San Diego when the president of the company I work for currently contacted me and offered me a job. I was floored to realize that the company was being run by a woman. I jumped at the chance to get on board, and I don’t regret it—even if I’m paying eight bucks for a gallon of milk.”
Tony laughed. “Right? I was a bit startled the first time I went grocery shopping here.” He paused and closed the folder. “Things escalated with Mr. Whitt.”
“Yes,” Stephanie admitted with a grimace. “He accused me of sexual harassment actually.” She rolled her eyes. “Like I’d give that boy the time of day. My boss hired an outside investigator to review the entire situation, and I was exonerated. I actually managed to record him trying to blackmail me. He threatened me and ordered me to confess my sins. He also demanded that I quit the company so he could take his proper place as the Senior Software Executive.”
“I take it he was fired.”
“Yes, he was fired with cause,” Stephanie confirmed. “He showed up at my house just once, and Damon was furious. He called the police and had Elijah arrested for trespassing. Then he insisted that I file for a restraining order. I was surprised that it was issued without much of a fight on my side of things.” She frowned at her cup and bit down on her bottom lip. “Then he showed up again and again. He was arrested both times. The last time, he showed up in the parking lot of where I work. Security escorted him off the property, and I believe the company filed a police report. That was six months ago. Is he…” Tears welled in her eyes. “Did that stupid boy kill my Damon?”
“I don’t know,” Tony said. “We’re checking into his location, and he’ll be questioned due to his overt hostility toward you. What do you think?”
“He’s weak, entitled man-child,” Stephanie snapped. “He saw me, a black woman, doing the job he wanted. When he couldn’t outperform me, he tried to undermine me. When that didn’t work—he tried to ruin me. It’s what men like him do.” She frowned. “I don’t think you’d understand that.”
“Because I’m a white man?” Tony questioned.
She shrugged. “Your privilege proceeds you into any room, Detective DiNozzo, and that isn’t even taking into account your looks or your status as the bonded Guide of an Alpha Sentinel.” She pursed her lips. “My condolences, by the way, for the curse you’re living with. I was surprised when you showed up at the house.”
“Your partner was a good friend of the governor,” Tony said. “Governor Denning requested the task force investigate.”
She nodded. “Right. I hate politicians.”
Tony laughed. “I’m not fond of them myself.”
“Damon went to school with Samuel’s older brother.” She took a long drink from her cup and set it aside with a frown. “I need…I need to know what happened to my man, Detective DiNozzo because one day I’m going to have to tell my baby why his father isn’t around.”
“Yes, almost ten weeks. I told Damon last night.” Her mouth trembled briefly, but she pressed her lips together in a tight line. “We were so happy, and now he’s gone.”
“You’ve had a few hours to settle and think. Have you noticed anything out of the ordinary in the neighborhood? Did Damon seem on edge or upset recently? Has he argued with anyone?”
“Our next door neighbors got a new security system. I saw the trucks the day before yesterday so I asked Claudia about it and she said that Frank, her husband, had been traveling a bit and sometimes spent the night away from home. She was worried about being alone in the house with just that little lap dog of hers, so he paid for a security system to be installed. If she’d had a scare or something, she’d have said because she can’t keep a secret for love or money.”
Tony made a note to check on that.
“Damon was the senior partner in a boutique law firm.”
Stephanie sighed. “Divorce. I always told him that seeing all of those marriages end in disaster had left him jaded, but I was joking really. Neither one of us felt like we needed to get married. We had a civil partnership on paper to avoid legal issues, but the whole idea of marriage seemed foolish.” She blinked back tears. “But I think…I think I’d have liked very much to be his wife. What a terrible time to come to such a realization.”
“He made a baby with you,” Tony said. “A child he was pleased to have on the way. You were his wife in all the ways that matter.”
“I hate Guides,” she said weakly and snatched a few tissues from a box on the table. “You always say such lovely things, and I hate that.” She pressed the tissues to her eyes, and her shoulders shook. “Just find out who killed him, Detective DiNozzo. Please.”
“We’ll do everything we can to bring his killer to justice,” Tony said. “I’m going to call a pair of uniforms to take you back to the hotel. Please don’t make the mistake of telling anyone where you are. There are a lot of loose ends right now and keeping yourself safe is your priority. You have our numbers so if you have questions or concerns—reach out to a member of the team.”
* * * *
Blair Sandburg was sitting on his beach meditating. Steve stared at the sight for an undetermined number of minutes in shock. A few feet away from the Alpha Guide was his own Sentinel moving through a series of katas. Ellison was graceful and fit for his age. Steve hoped he aged half as well. He put his keys down on the counter just inside the kitchen and dropped their work bag in a chair by the table as he headed for the fridge. They’d worked through the night and endured both sunset and sunrise transformations at HQ. It wasn’t something they liked to do often. The team wasn’t put off by their circumstances anymore, but there were times when other people working in the building didn’t handle it as well as they probably should. It had been twenty-six months already, Steve thought they should all be over it by now.
He’d finished off the Courtland case file before coming home since he’d taken the entire team off duty in response to Sandburg’s impending arrival. They wouldn’t be requested for anything short of a terrorist attack for the next forty-eight hours. He made a pot of coffee out of habit and checked the fridge for food. It was nearly lunchtime, but there wasn’t a damn thing to eat. He sighed and wondered if his guests would be okay with pizza because hitting the grocery store was beyond him at the moment.
Steve had begun and ended his workday with telling Stephanie Madison that the father of her child had been murdered by a man he’d never even met. David Sadler had killed Damon Courtland for accepting Monica Sadler as a client. As it had turned out, Courtland was one of the best divorce lawyers on the island and women had flocked to the good looking, caring, and charismatic attorney who fought like a bull in court and didn’t try to sleep with them in the process. David Sadler would be getting a divorce while he was in jail now and would probably never see his kids again.
“You’re not zoning are you?”
Steve looked up and focused on Ellison. “No, I don’t…I haven’t zoned since I bonded with Tony.”
Ellison raised an eyebrow in confusion. “That’s not in the notes we received on your condition.”
“It should be. Several people at the Center here didn’t believe and tried, vainly, for hours to induce zone out to prove me wrong.”
The older Sentinel grimaced. “I hate it when he’s right.”
“What?” Steve asked in confusion.
“Blair said he thought the files he was getting from the Center here were incomplete and I said there was no need for them to hide anything from us regarding your situation. It isn’t like they’re to blame for what happened. So why hide?”
“Why indeed,” Steve said and took a deep breath. “Pizza okay? I have no food.”
Jim’s gaze narrowed. “As long as it’s normal.”
“Have you been talking to Danny?” Steve asked with some amusement. “It’ll be normal since I’ll want to get enough for Tony later and the last time I put pineapple on a pizza he refused to have anything to do with me for a week.”
Sandburg entered at that point; Tony was perched on his fingers. “I should’ve come sooner. The video chats weren’t enough. This is amazing. I can feel his energy as a Guide even in this form.”
“Steve hasn’t zoned out since they bonded, Chief,” Jim said as poured himself a cup of coffee.
Sandburg tilted his head slightly and stared at Steve. “That’s not all, right?”
“Have the two of you been to the Center building?”
“No, we checked into a hotel then came straight here since you said you’d be taking the day off in your text message,” Blair explained. Tony hopped to his perch when the older Guide stretched his hand toward it. “I made a mistake in trusting them.”
“We did too, it seems,” Steve said with a frown. He picked up his phone and found the pizza place in his contacts list. “Anything you hate on a pizza?”
“Olives, anchovies, pineapple,” Blair said quickly.
Steve laughed and shook his head. He ordered four large pizzas so he could avoid the grocery store entirely and wondered how big of a lecture he’d get from Tony for being such a lazy host. By the time he’d rattled off his credit card number and ended the call, the Alpha pair had settled in at the kitchen table with coffee to stare at him.
“Wouldn’t you rather start with Tony?” Steve questioned.
Blair raised an eyebrow. “If I preferred that I would’ve waited until sunset to get here, McGarrett.” He pointed toward a chair. “Sit and endure.”
Endure. He’d done little else since the day he’d met his Guide. He grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge and took a deep breath before sitting down where he’d been directed. “I…I’ve never touched my Guide’s skin.”
Ellison blanched and closed his eyes briefly. “For the love of God.”
“There’s nothing godly about this curse,” Steve said and focused on his water bottle. “We have about two or three seconds depending on the time of the year and month at sunset and sunrise to see each other. I often avoid it because it’s agonizing. I’ve never heard his voice outside of a digital recording. Bonding at first sight was a myth to me before it happened. I saw him, and in an instant, I just knew. I reached out to him physically. I couldn’t even stop myself and just before we touched…my entire world went blank. It was six thirty in the evening, he was the last interview I had that day for the Guide search. You know that they tried to separate us, but even in my wolf state I was already innately attached—I went feral. They had to bring him back into the room because I was tearing a hole in the wall trying to get out of it.”
“I was part of the conference call that night,” Blair murmured. “Tony was a nervous wreck, and I forced the Center here to accept the bond for what it was and not attempt to separate the two of you again. Your liaison, Weston, vehemently disagreed. She said the only healthy solution was to force Tony to break the bond.”
“If I survived that, my one and only mission would be to kill every single person who told Tony to do it,” Steve said roughly. “And I could do it.”
Blair smiled briefly. “I trust the Navy trained you well.” He focused on his cup. “I’ve been receiving emails and research from all over the world for the past two years. Anything I found of value was passed to the Center here, and when I realized they weren’t sharing it with Tony, I started forwarding it to him directly about eight months ago. Tony told me I didn’t need to come, so I didn’t. I should’ve ignored him to be frank. The two of you are used to…sacrificing your own happiness for others, and I overlooked that. The Navy trained that into you, and Tony’s father managed to teach him that lesson before he was even an adult.”
Steve flushed. “I agreed, you know. We do communicate as effectively as we can. Mostly through videos or audio recordings. Emails and text messages as well if things are tight and there isn’t time to make a video. The digital recorder is mostly used for work.”
“I’m stunned, really, how the two of you manage to work together,” Jim admitted. “Blair and I were partners for almost a decade before I was promoted to a desk and the stress of the job was immense.”
“We have a good team,” Steve said. “I don’t think we could make it work in a traditional police environment but the task force is special, and the rest of my people embraced Tony like a long-lost brother. It helps that I already had a team I could trust with his safety. Danny wants to do some recruitment and bring in another team member so we can make sure Tony’s never alone on duty. Often, he’s working in the early morning hours long after everyone else has passed out. I’m going to ask our youngest member, Kono, to be his partner at nights and take on a new hire for the day shift.”
“It’s best to put someone you trust with him,” Jim agreed. “There is no telling how you might respond to a near-stranger in your animal state. You have a history of feral episodes ending in…violence.”
Steve shrugged. He figured absolutely no one was ever going to get over the fact that he ripped Victor Hesse’s throat out, but the asshole murdered his father. “I haven’t had a feral episode since the curse outside of the one that first night when they tried to take my Guide away from me.” He checked his watch and figured they had another twenty minutes before the pizza made an appearance.
“Have you had any spiritual dreams?” Blair questioned. “Blue space, jungle, cryptic meetings with people you’ve never met?”
Steve’s gaze narrowed. “Blair…we don’t sleep. I thought…they didn’t tell you that? Tony didn’t tell you?” Tony screeched suddenly, and Steve focused on his Guide. “Oh, well, how was I supposed to know you wanted to keep that a secret? You’re the one that filled out that stupid interview the Center sent regarding our situation.” He got another screech, and the bird turned his head. “Well, we need to tell him.”
Tony ruffled his feathers, launched off the perch and flew out the open door.
Jim snorted. “If you slept, you’d be on the couch.”
“What else?” Blair demanded. “What else did you leave out?”
“Tony doesn’t trust the people here,” Steve said. “They broke that when they tried to separate us. They’ve also refused to replace Weston despite the fact that we both find her repellant.” He rubbed his head in frustration. “Tony says that she wants me to bond with her instead, but she’s…not…I mean, have you met her?”
“Yeah,” Jim said roughly. “She barely even feels like a Guide to me, but I’m not the most sensitive person on that front. There’s no way she has the talent or the ability to handle an Alpha Sentinel. The fact that the two of you are doing so well despite your circumstances speaks to your compatibility. Weston will be replaced before we leave.”
“Ha!” Blair huffed. “We’re not leaving any time soon. I’m fixing this whole mess, Jim, so you’d better be prepared to retire here.”
Ellison shrugged as the doorbell rung. “I’ll contact a realtor.”
Steve didn’t know how this had become his life. He went to get the pizza, passed the kid a ten from the stash of cash Tony kept in a basket by the door and returned to the kitchen to find that Sandburg had pulled out a laptop.
“The Wi-Fi password is 1895BusterKeaton1966. Capital B and K, no spaces.”
Blair smiled briefly. “Cute.”
He transferred the laptop to the place in front of Jim and Steve decided to ignore whatever they were up to since it probably involved looking for a house. There were five Sentinels in the islands, but he was the only one on Oahu. He figured he could share the island with Ellison with few problems since the older Sentinel would be more focused on protecting his Guide then establishing territory.
Steve grabbed some plates, a roll of paper towels, and some more water for everyone before sitting back down at the table. “I haven’t had to cut my hair since I was cursed. I can shave my face shortly before sunset, but when I transform again, I have stubble. I took a bullet in the arm six months ago—a through and through.” He tapped his left arm. “When I transformed into my wolf form, I was uninjured, and when I woke next as human, it was like the wound never happened.”
Blair set his pizza down carefully. “What are you saying?”
“I don’t think we’re aging and short of a fatal would—we’re probably immortal as long as we’re cursed.”
“Cursed to live a half-life for an eternity,” Jim murmured. “Someone hates you, Steve.”
“Tony thinks one of the Guides I rejected cursed me.”
“I don’t disagree,” Blair said. “But this is more than a Guide, Steve. This is the work of a shaman or a…”
“Witch,” Steve said. “I haven’t had a lot of dealings with magic practitioners since I came to Hawaii. There is a small sect on Moloka’i, but they’re druids. I’ve not interacted with any of them before that I can remember. I grew up here, of course, but I’ve never set foot on that particular island. Tony thinks that our connection to the psionic plane has been corrupted by the curse.”
“So corrupted that your spirit animals sought refuge in your bodies rather than be cut off from you,” Blair murmured. “Yes, we’ve had that conversation before, and I don’t disagree. Very few Guides are trained as shamans, Steve. It is a difficult path, and I’ve only trained a few personally.”
“It’s not much of a secret…Dr. Rodney McKay, Dr. Spencer Reid, FBI and Special Agent Seeley Booth, FBI. They’re all three bonded and have been so for quite a while. Reid and Booth work in the DC area. I’m sure Tony has met them at the very least. Reid has invested some time in searching for a cause and solution for the curse. He’s currently in Europe with his Sentinel on vacation and has promised to visit the Burton Foundation for information regarding the curse. We don’t expect to find anything, but it doesn’t hurt to check.”
“McKay works for the Air Force in an undisclosed location,” Ellison said roughly. “He’s bonded to an Air Force Colonel.”
Steve nodded and set that aside. He knew enough about the Air Force and their undisclosed locations to know that he wouldn’t get any more information about McKay. “I’ve never met any of them, and we’re pretty sure that I’m the origin of the curse.”
“Why?” Jim questioned.
“Because I changed first. I think if I’d met him in the middle of the day, I’d have still changed and he would’ve been the one with the sun instead of me.” Steve looked outside just as the hawk sailed back into the room and landed on the bamboo perch in the kitchen. “He misses the sun like crazy. At first, we were worried that living only at night would mess with his body chemistry and cause depression, but now we know that our physical bodies are in some kind of stasis…it’s not really a concern anymore.”
“Any other reason?” Blair questioned.
Steve noticed that the Guide had pulled out a notepad and set it beside his plate. He’d always found the interviews at the Center infuriating, but there was something soothing about Blair Sandburg that was both a relief and an annoyance. “Tony is more aware of both sides of the transformation. That could be because he’s a Guide, but I think it’s because I’m carrying the curse and he’s just…his circumstances are a side effect.” He pushed back his plate. “I can’t stand the idea of our bond being destroyed, Blair.”
“And if I told you he would be free if you were dead?” Blair questioned.
“Tony would never forgive me killing myself,” Steve said. “But it would be a relief to know that if I go down in the line of duty that he’d be free.” He stood and walked over to the perch and let his fingers slide down Tony’s back. The hawk arched into his touch. “But if you said such a thing, it would be a lie. I know that we live and die together. I can’t explain how I know I just do.”
The first few moments of awareness post-transformation were normally peaceful if they were home, but Steve had been avoiding him for more than a week it seems so Tony came to full awareness with his Sentinel howling. There was nothing celebratory in the sound Steve was making so Tony reached out blindly for his partner as the sun disappeared and buried his hands in soft black fur.
“Easy.” He pulled the wolf close, and the animal trembled against him. Impotent rage and longing ebbed between them. Tony buried his face in Steve’s fur and shuddered against the torrent of emotions. He took a deep breath and released his Sentinel. “Run it off but don’t go far.”
The wolf leaped from the lanai and tore out across the sand. Tony stood and picked up the pair of shorts that Steve had left behind. He folded them and dropped them on the table next to a pile of his own clothes. He pulled on the boxers and a pair of board shorts before heading into the house.
Sandburg was seated at the table with his eyes closed. Tony took in the paleness of the older Guide’s face and sighed.
Sandburg shook his head. “I’m sorry I asked that of him.”
“It isn’t like we haven’t done it hundreds of times, Blair,” Tony murmured. He checked the contents of the fridge and sighed. “He never does the shopping. I can make ten lists, and he’ll act as if they don’t even exist. Transform one time in a Target…hell…I was the one that ended up naked in the produce section!”
“I thought seeing the transformation would help,” Blair said. “It didn’t. I’ve never seen anything so…”
“Horrifying,” Tony supplied.
“Devastating,” Sandburg corrected. “For the love of God, Tony, how do you…deal with it?”
“How do I not?” Tony questioned. He grabbed a box of pizza from the fridge and dropped it on the counter. “We don’t always transform together though if we go too long without doing so he’ll be off-kilter. He needs those few seconds of sense memory to balance his senses.”
“You’re not aging.”
“No, we’re not,” Tony murmured.
“Jim said something I’ve been thinking about.”
“What?” Tony questioned with a cold piece of pizza in hand. He sat down and took a healthy bite.
“Are you actually hungry?”
Tony shrugged. “Not particularly but it feels weird not to eat. So we eat, drink, shower, jerk-off, etc. I don’t think I need any of it. It’s like we’re static. Does that make sense?”
“Yes.” Blair took a deep breath. “Jim said that whoever did this to the two of you hates Steve and I agree that there is nothing about this curse that isn’t hateful. I know you’ve concentrated your suspect list on Guides he rejected and that certainly is a viable avenue of investigation, but it overlooks something pretty important.”
“This kind of hatred isn’t the product of a five-minute meeting,” Tony murmured.
“It probably also cost the person in question a great deal. You can’t put down this kind of curse on someone else without paying for it,” Blair said.
“What kind of price?”
“The curse is intricate and cruel. This person understands the intimacies of a Sentinel/Guide bond. He or she knew exactly what they were taking from Steve. This is retribution.”
Tony closed his eyes briefly as he considered that. “I don’t…Steve did a lot of special ops work in the Navy, but Teams work as anonymously as possible. There was the matter with the Hesse brothers, but since that made international news the operational security for that mission fell apart when Victor killed John McGarrett. However, I’ve done some research on the Hesse brothers since coming to Hawaii, and I don’t think anyone is exactly mourning them. They were mercs for hire, and they were only loyal to each other.”
Blair nodded. “It has to be deeper. The sacrifice the caster made would’ve been immense.”
“Like the permanent severing of his own connection the psionic plane. Perhaps even the willing sacrifice of his own spirit.”
Tony swallowed hard to keep down the pizza he’d just swallowed. “Blair.”
“I know,” Sandburg said. “And that’s why we have to start looking at this from a deeper more personal angle. That puts his past relationships on the table—sexual and otherwise.”
“We haven’t really discussed past partners and the like,” Tony said. “I know there was a woman named Catherine—she’s in the Navy—but she ended their relationship when Steve came online. She said she couldn’t and wouldn’t compete with a Guide for his attention. I get that.”
Blair nodded. “It’s common and not exactly an unhealthy position to take. It’s difficult for a romantic relationship to flourish in such circumstances and the only time I’ve really seen it work is when the third party is involved with both the Sentinel and the Guide.” He reached out and plucked an orange from the basket in the center of the table. “I found your list on the table by the front door, so I sent Jim to the store. He didn’t think he could stay and watch the transformation. Giving him a mission is always helpful when he’s in a fight or flight mode.”
“Thanks and also sorry for being such a terrible host.”
“Steve told us a bit about the case you guys closed this morning. I have to admit your working relationship is astounding. You’ve done great work, here, Tony in grounding your Sentinel without caging him in. I can’t say I’d have reacted the same in your situation. I hated it when Jim worked in the field without me.”
“I’m never far from Steve,” Tony said. “We adapted quickly to survive.”
“Your connection with your spirit animal is deeper,” Blair murmured. “I’m not sure it’s all to do with your gifts as a Guide.”
“Steve thinks his connection is a little blurred because he’s carrying the curse, but I don’t think the curse works that way.” Tony shrugged and opened his bottle of water. “I haven’t told him this, Blair, but I don’t think we’re physically cursed at all.”
Blair’s eyes widened. “You think your spirit animal…oh, Tony, no. That’s…” He huffed. “It’s not impossible at all. Of course, your spirit animals are cursed. We are at our most powerful on the psionic plane.”
“One of the first things I learned when I came online as a Guide is that our spirits are eternal,” Tony said. “And that this physical life is just the first step in our journey. I thought it was a bunch of bullshit to be honest because…well…it sounded ridiculous then I met my so-called spirit animal and realized what I’m sure you already know.”
Blair pursed his lips. “It’s controversial.”
“I’ve never shied away from controversy,” Tony said easily. “My circumstances are so beyond the norm that I can say anything I want, and the community will just nod and give me their sympathy.”
“As obscene as that is,” Blair said dryly. “So, okay, yes I’ve long believed that the spirit animal is really just a representation of our soul in the psionic plane and their semi-physical manifestation on earth is more of a side-effect of our connection to that plane in our current state.”
“Psionic mirror,” Tony said. “They’re just a mirror of us, but somehow, somewhere someone figured out how to force both parts of me to be on this plane together—sharing energy, sharing the same metaphysical space.”
“So the question becomes—is the person who cursed you here or there?”
Tony didn’t have an answer and was spared guessing by the opening of the front door. He started to stand, but Ellison was already entering the kitchen with several bags in each hand. The Sentinel frowned at them.
“What?” Blair questioned.
“We can’t move here, Chief, I just paid four bucks for a dozen eggs.” He paused. “They aren’t even organic.”
Tony laughed. “Thanks for going.”
“You two should probably have some kind of service,” Blair said. “Cleaning and shopping—the Center can cover the costs.”
“Neither of us is hurting for money, Blair,” Tony said. “We just haven’t had the time or the interest in going through the process of hiring someone to take care of the house. Though we should, I know, because it’s difficult keeping on top of things.”
“I’ll find someone,” Blair decided. “You won’t have any more time for that bullshit because you’re going hunting.”
“Hunting?” Tony questioned.
Blair waved a hand. “Not out there, Tony. You’re going hunting in here.” He reached out and tapped Tony’s forehead gently. “Someone’s been fucking with you and your Sentinel, and it’s time we take the hunt to the one place they can’t hide from an Alpha Guide.”
“To what end?” Tony asked.
“You need to make a primal connection with your Sentinel,” Blair said.
Tony sat back in shock. “Blair…primal connections require years of intimacy—emotional and physical intimacy.”
“No they don’t,” Jim said shortly.
Tony glanced between the two of them, and for a moment, he could’ve sworn he saw pale blue ribbons of energy flowing between Jim and Blair.
“All it takes is trust,” Jim continued. “Some people like to romanticize the Sentinel/Guide bond, and I understand that. I even approve of that because it’s helped endear our people mundanes. Love is amazing, of course, but it’s not the foundation on which any bond should be based. A Sentinel must trust his Guide—in every situation. I learned that the hard way.”
“How can you be certain that’s all it takes,” Tony asked in exasperation. “The two of you have been together for decades. It’s clear you love each other, and it’s also obvious to anyone who’d bother to pay attention that you’re physically intimate.”
“We had none of that when we achieved our primal bond,” Blair said, and Tony focused on him. “I wasn’t even sure I liked him, to be honest. He was difficult to work with, stubborn, and disgustingly convinced he didn’t even need a Guide despite all of the research at the time telling him he’d die without one. He was short-tempered, rude, and often capable of greatly insulting half a dozen people with one sentence without even trying.”
Jim laughed as he started unpacking all of his bags.
Tony got up to help. “How did you fix that?”
“I died,” Blair said shortly.
Tony steadied himself against the counter. “You what? You…Blair?”
“I died,” Sandburg repeated. “And the only reason I’m alive today is that my stubborn, unreasonable, and rude Sentinel did the impossible. He achieved a primal bond with my spirit while I was in the midst of transcending the human plane.”
Tony’s mouth dropped open. “What? How?” He focused on Ellison. “How did you do that?”
“I let myself do the one thing I’d avoided doing since we met,” Jim said shortly. “I trusted him. Which meant I had to admit to myself and to him that I needed him. It all boiled down to trust, in the end, Tony. I had let him in and have faith that he wouldn’t leave me or betray me as others had in the past.” He pushed the egg carton across the counter. “Put these stupidly expensive eggs away.”
Tony laughed weakly and picked up the eggs. Once the fridge was open, he grabbed the rest of the stuff that needed to be cold and put that away as well. “That’s not a story I ever heard before. How did the two of you get to that point?”
Blair flushed. “We don’t share that story because it would undermine us as the Prime pair, Tony. We only reached that point because we were at each other’s throats and I’d left him. I was staying in a hotel to avoid him, in fact, and I was considering breaking our bond. Earlier in the day, I’d gone to the Center and had a chat with the director of the facility. I hadn’t mentioned breaking the bond I had with Jim, but they all knew I was unhappy. I was accidentally-on-purpose introduced to an unbonded Sentinel who had just come online. She was starting her Guide search. I declined a private meeting with her despite her eagerness and left. She followed me back to the hotel and tried to get me to bond with her. When she realized I was already bonded—she murdered me.”
“What the actual fuck?” Tony demanded. “No Sentinel would…”
“She wasn’t sane,” Jim said shortly. “The people at the Center didn’t realize she had been online for quite a while. We estimate as long as three years though we’ll never know for certain since I killed her. She was so far gone, in fact, that she drowned Blair in the fountain in front of the hotel in front of ten people. The more galling part was, of course, the fact that she wasn’t even feral when she did it.” He paused. “I was though—when I strangled her for her encroachment.”
Tony had no doubts at all. “I remember hearing you were attacked by a woman, Blair. I just thought it was case related.”
“And that’s the story the public knows and accepts,” Blair murmured. “It’s for the best, you see, that the general populace never thinks for an instant that a Sentinel would murder a Guide. The mundanes believe that Guides ensure…the public safety. They want to be safe in the knowledge that Sentinels are managed and controlled by Guides. We must make sure they keep that illusion.”
* * * *
“I haven’t reached a deep meditative state since the curse happened,” Tony admitted reluctantly as he folded himself into the lotus position in front of Blair in the middle of the lanai.
Blair leaned back on his hands. “I’m not at all surprised to hear that considering what you’ve already told us. When is the last time you tried?”
“It’s been months because it was frustrating and there is enough happening around me every single day that frustrate the fuck out of me without forcing myself to repeatedly try something that won’t work.”
Tony turned his head and focused on Steve who was trotting in and out of the shallows of the ocean. Ellison was taking a moonlit swim. Steve hadn’t really appreciated being left on shore by the other Sentinel, so he was at the water’s edge making his displeasure known.
“I started leaving him video messages in the second month. We’d started out with notes then there were emails and voicemail messages. Danny gave him a digital recorder so we could exchange information on cases when we went back to work. I expected his team to be a little put out with me, but they embraced me like I’d been with them since the beginning. It was a relief to get to know them and know that I could trust them with Steve’s back when I was in my spirit form.
“Those first few months, I was lost in my form during the day and retained very little in the way of meaningful information. Sometimes I was left with impressions especially if things were emotionally upsetting for Steve. There was a case early on—a van carrying a group of children on a field trip was high jacked. Steve operated at a near-feral level for nearly three hours before he caught up with them and he killed the perps in front of the kids. He was more traumatized by that than the kids were. They were all so relieved to see the island’s Alpha Sentinel that they swarmed around him and clung to him despite the fact that he was covered in the blood of three people.” Tony took a deep breath. “All of those kids still send him cards and stuff. We have a whole wall of what could be loosely be called art at HQ because they keep sending it to him and he can’t throw any of it away.”
“That’s nice especially considering the circumstances.”
“It turned out to be a practice run,” Tony said roughly. “The three that Steve killed were hired to take the kids so that Steve’s response to such an event could be measured. The real target was a school bus full of children. Needless to say, the fact that he straight up killed all three kidnappers made them hesitate long and hard. In fact, they tried to hire some more people on the island to handle the main mission and managed to try to hire a CI for the task force. We were able to arrest them before they ever hit their main target.”
Tony turned and watched Ellison come out of the water. “Your Sentinel is stunningly fit for his age.” He turned to Blair. “It’s the primal bond, right? It slowed you guys down on the aging front?”
“Considerably,” Blair admitted. “It’s not something most primal pairs notice because the bond isn’t something most young pairs can achieve. Some never reach that level of trust which is a shame, and I blame the system a lot for it.”
“You were matched by the Guide search,” Tony pointed out.
“I was lucky in the end as what we did then wasn’t half as a sophisticated as what we can accomplish now with genetic and personality testing. We’ve learned a lot along the way, and it’s helped protect us, but I do think that sometimes instinctual choices are set aside in favor of scientific results.” Blair frowned as Ellison dropped down on a lounger they’d set out on the beach. “I’m going to open up my shields to include you so I can lead you into a meditative state.”
“Like when I was being taught?” Tony asked with a frown. “Seriously?”
Blair laughed. “It can’t hurt to try.” He sat up and put his hands loosely on his knees. “Just relax your mind as much as you can. It’s difficult to let another Guide in after you’ve bonded.”
“Wait—what if the curse is transferrable?” Tony asked.
Blair’s gaze widened briefly then shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. This curse is a deeply personal one.”
“Too personal,” Tony said. “Too intimate.” He let himself relax and close his eyes.
The air charged around him as Blair opened up his mind to Tony. There were plenty of reasons that Blair Sandburg was the Alpha Guide Prime of North America—the most prominent reason was revealed to Tony the moment their minds touched. Sparks of light danced behind his eyelids, but he forced them to stay closed. He could well imagine the kind of light show that was going on around him.
He let go of the stringent control he had on his mind and shuddered as he was forced to surrender to Sandburg’s guidance. There was nothing subtle about the other’s Guide mental touch—Blair’s presence in his mind was like a knife. Not painful but sharp, efficient. It wasn’t what he’d expected all as the older Guide was quite known for his easygoing personality. On the other hand, considering who his Sentinel was, it made sense that Blair was quite imposing in his own way.
“There you are.”
Tony opened his eyes and found himself in the blue of the psionic plane for the first time in over two years. “Oh.”
“It hurts,” Tony said hoarsely. He pressed against his sternum as if to calm his heart despite the fact that he wasn’t physically anywhere but his own lanai. “Blair.”
“Tell me how it hurts,” Blair said. “Hold nothing back.”
“Like when you’re too hurt to be anything but furious—blinding, homicidal rage.”
“Like being feral,” Blair surmised.
“Guides don’t go feral,” Tony protested. He stumbled and fell to his knees.
Blair was there, glowing with soft golden energy. He cupped Tony’s face and forced their gazes to meet. “What else do you feel?”
In the distance, he heard Steve howling.
“No,” Blair snapped. “He has Jim—he’s fine. Listen to me, Tony, you have to concentrate. What else do you feel? Do you sense anyone familiar?”
“No, he’s not at all familiar,” Tony said and took a deep breath. “Do you feel him?”
“Yes, and he’s corrupt,” Blair said. “He’d never get past an evaluation in a Guide search.”
“So he was rejected before Steve ever saw him,” Tony said. “Maybe even years ago. Then why…how?”
“I don’t know,” Blair said simply. He released Tony and sat back on his heels. “I’ll tell you this though—I’ve never come to the psionic plane and found it so disquieting and empty. The only time my mentor doesn’t present himself is when I dream with Jim.” He wiggled his eyebrows. “Sometimes we come here for a little fun. You’ve not really gotten laid until you’ve gotten plowed on the psionic plane.”
Tony laughed and took a shuddery breath. “This pain isn’t mine.”
“No, it’s the person who cursed you.”
“They feel male to me.”
“I would say the same, but I’ve encountered female Sentinels that were so Alpha and so dominant that they felt male on the psionic plane. In fact, the woman who killed me was like that. Most female Sentinels have a nurturing nature built on maternal instinct. Alex had none of that. In person, she was distinctly female and gorgeous, to be honest, but inside she was at war with herself.”
“But this is a Guide,” Tony said.
“Is he?” Blair questioned. “He feels feral.”
“You know that doesn’t make any sense. A Sentinel trained as a Shaman? How likely is that?”
“Very unlikely in this country,” Blair said. “It sometimes happens in South America and Asia.”
“You’re talking about Ascendants,” Tony murmured. “Sentinels with empathic gifts. Have you ever met one?”
“Yes, I’ve met an Alpha Ascendant, but he wasn’t trained as a shaman. In fact, he hid his empathic gift for decades. It didn’t come out until his Guide was killed and the Sentinel went down with him despite the fact that they were several hundred miles apart. He died within an hour of his Guide passing. His journals were passed to me, and most of the work I’ve published regarding the Alpha Ascendant phenomenon comes from his experiences.”
“I feel like someone is trying to tear my heart out of my chest,” Tony snapped. “Let me go, Blair.”
“What?” Blair questioned.
“I can’t leave without you,” Tony admitted roughly. “Get me out of here, please.”
He was jerked free from the psionic plane in an instant and rolled off the mat they were sitting on to his knees. Tony dry heaved as his body shuddered with remembered pain. Steve whined and pressed against him then tried to lick his face.
“Ha, I told you, McGarrett no wolf kisses.” He pushed his Sentinel gently back. “If you lick my face, I’m going to give you a bath, and you know how much hate that.”
Steve chuffed at him and nudged him hard enough that Tony tipped over onto his side.
DiNozzo laughed. “Asshole.”
“Are you two all right?” Ellison asked roughly from his place at the table. “You were in meditation for an hour, and Steve lost his shit pretty much immediately. You’re both leaking a lot of stress hormones and Tony you…smell like you’re in pain.”
“It hurt him to be on the psionic plane,” Blair said and winced at the horror Jim displayed. “I know, big guy, chalk it up as one more hateful, disgusting part of this curse. We’re pretty sure he’s semi-connected to the psionic plane due to the curse. The pain is probably his and Tony got some feedback from it.”
“You mean he’s walking around with that amount of physical pain?” Tony asked in shock.
“I told you, Tony, whoever cast this curse is paying an immense price for it. As for walking around, I doubt it. I doubt he’s even conscious. We should look at long-term treatment facilities in the area and check the 911 system for calls related to emergencies involving unconscious patients that coincide with the day your curse settled.”
“And the two or three days that followed,” Jim said. “He might not have been found immediately.”
“If he’s that far gone then he won’t be able to tell us how to end the curse,” Tony said. He stood up and took a deep breath then another. There was panic edging along his mind at the thought that he wouldn’t be able to figure out how to give his Sentinel his life back. “Right, I’m getting dressed.”
“What are you doing to do?” Jim asked.
“I’m going to HQ, and I’m going misuse the task forces resources,” Tony said.
“Great,” Blair said and stood. “Let’s go.” He raised an eyebrow when Tony opened his mouth to protest. “We’ll just follow along behind you regardless of what you want. That’s a perk of being the Alpha Prime Guide. I go where I want, and I do what I want. Jim doesn’t like it when people tell me no because it makes me unhappy. And an unhappy Guide makes for a homicidal Sentinel.”
“Fine,” Tony said with a laugh. “But you’ll have to sit in the back seat. Steve’s got shotgun, or he kicks up a serious fuss.”
* * * *
Steve entered the main room of the task force’s workspace pulling on a T-shirt. The main screen was running, and several pictures were up. None of them looked familiar, but he knew Blair Sandburg had given Tony a new avenue of investigation. He vaguely remembered Prime pair leaving the night before in favor of their hotel to sleep. But he figured they’d head back in his way fairly soon. Chin was off for the weekend, and Kono was still on mandatory stand down, so he didn’t expect to get any traffic in their area.
He walked into his office and found Tony on the perch. Steve zipped Tony’s duffle and leaned on his desk to stare at the hawk. Steve picked up the digital recorder and hit play for the last audio file in the list.
“Blair believes the person who cursed us is probably suffering for a lot for the curse and might, in fact, be unconscious. I’ve checked police reports for the day we bonded and the five days afterward, but nothing was reported involving a registered Guide. I’ve requested information from area hospitals on long-term patients, but privacy laws will make that difficult. Blair has suggested using the Center to visit wards in his official capacity. Shamans like Blair are often used to reach out to comatose patients to see if they can be helped. We’ll need permission from next of kin, but he admits that precious few people have ever denied him when it comes to such visitations.
“He’ll help any way he can, of course, and could spend several weeks doing this once the commitment is made. I didn’t ask it of him because that kind of work is exhausting and often heartbreaking. He volunteered, and Jim agreed that it was a good avenue of investigation. The Center did admit that they had no long-term patients because they knew Blair would just show up there to look if they ignored his request for information.”
Tony sighed. “I finally reached a meditative state with Blair last night, but it was profoundly painful. I’ve told him that I’d prefer that he not try that with you because I don’t know how you’d handle that kind of pain without me to be there to manage your senses. I know he could help you if you zoned but I don’t want…well, I’d just prefer that he not. Is that weird? It’s probably weird, and moreover, I don’t think we could gain any more from another experience on the psionic plane at any rate.
“The person who cursed us is male, and he’s furious, Steve. It feels deeply personal like a betrayal but that doesn’t make a lot of sense because your last relationship was with a woman, and she’s mundane. This is more than just a rejection during a meet and greets during your search. Ellison was right—he loathes you. Blair thinks our suspect is a Sentinel—an Alpha Ascendant but how is that even possible? I mean I know they exist, and one would certainly be powerful enough to impact the psionic plane, but I don’t understand why. He told me that Ascendants are sometimes trained as Shamans in South America and Asia. I’ve not tried to find out, of course, but you might want to start thinking about any missions you might have done in those locations to see if your identity was exposed while you were working with the Teams.
“On a personal front, Joe White arrived late last night, and he’s checked into the same hotel that Ellison and Sandburg are using. He sent you a text message to let you know his room number. I’ve put your phone on the charger in your office. On the email front, I received a passive-aggressive email from McGee about my refusal to return to NCIS. Apparently, Gibbs is still refusing to allow him back on the MCRT, and he thinks, somehow, that if I were to return that Gibbs would forgive him for what happened. I forwarded the email to Gibbs so that should be entertaining.”
“I expect to get a near silent phone call full of manly growls sometime tomorrow night but Gibbs helped create that situation so why should I suffer alone? Abby called, and we exchanged a few ideas about our Vampire Social Club. Also, she wanted me to let you know that you looked hot on the news. I agree, you looked especially hot during your very short interview regarding the Childs case, but I’m going to have a discussion with Danny about you wearing cargo pants to court. Come on, Steve, I know you have nice clothes! Speaking of Danny, Rachel let him take Grace for a few days so I approved some leave for him on your behalf. He’s been burning it at both ends supporting us both. We need a solution for that, soon.”
Steve laughed, and Tony screeched at him from the perch as.
“I have a few searches running, and I’ve reached out to an old friend in the FBI to see if he’s heard or seen anything that might be of use. If he calls, be nice. Fornell is probably one of the few people in DC that would let me sleep on his couch if I ended up stranded there overnight or something. At any rate, keep track of the searches. I made a list of others I wanted to run, but I ran out of time. I know you made a list once before of people you’d pissed off while you were active duty Navy but I think you need to revisit it with the new information in mind. That’s all I’ve got, and the sun will be up soon. You’re currently brooding in the locker room, so I’m going to take my change in the office. Make me a video—I miss your face and watching the old stuff feels like stalking or something.”
He couldn’t make any promises, but Fornell was okay for Fed. He was also one of the few people from Tony’s former situation that didn’t make it clear he blamed Steve for the life Tony was being forced to live. Gibbs and a few former coworkers hadn’t made any effort to hide the fact that they believed Steve was an asshole who’d gotten Tony cursed. Steve didn’t blame them for the hostility on that front because he blamed himself for his Guide’s current state.
Steve pocketed the recorder as he left his office in favor of the computer table. He checked the database search that Tony had running and noticed he was searching police departments all over the US. The paper list he’d left behind suggested that Steve reach out to Tokyo. He wasn’t all that surprised to find that his Guide had put names with various departments—an indication that Tony had a personal connection to touch base with.
Tony glided into the room and landed gracefully on the back of a chair. Steve watched the hawk stare at the big screen for a few moments before he went to find himself some coffee.
“What’s going on?”
Steve turned as he put the coffee pot back into place and leaned on the counter to stare at Chin. “You’re off today.”
“I have some reports to organize for the Courtland murder,” Chin said. “Nothing major but I wanted to get it handled so my desk would be clear on Monday. What’s Tony running?”
Steve flushed. “It’s not case related.”
“This is about the curse?”
“Governor Dennison authorized me to create an official case for you and Tony whenever you were ready to take the hunt out of the civil arena. I know you’ve been trying to wrangle the Center in giving up a list of Guides you rejected since you weren’t privy to full names during the selection process. Are you two ready for that?”
“Why haven’t you brought this up before now?” Steve questioned.
“Hell, Steve, it doesn’t get more personal than pair bond inference. What you have with Tony is more intimate than a marriage even if it’s platonic. This guy attacked you and your Guide at your most vulnerable point, and I told the governor that we’d let you set the pace with an official investigation since there are a host of federal laws dictating how civilian law enforcement can interact with Sentinels and Guides without the Center.”
“Tony has a file,” Steve admitted. “Blair Sandburg and Jim Ellison are on the island and were here in the building last night helping Tony work a new angle.”
“Sandburg thinks that whoever cursed us is so profoundly effected by it physically that they’ve been incapacitated and they’re stuck on the psionic plane.”
“Long-term coma then,” Chin said and pulled out his phone. “Right.” He started dialing a number and Steve followed along behind him, his coffee abandoned on the counter. “Good morning gorgeous.”
Steve lifted an eyebrow at the flirty greeting. He’d rarely known Chin to genuinely flirt with anyone.
“Can you tell me if there is someone on the island that has been in a persistent coma for the last twenty-six months?” Chin paused and picked up a notepad from his desk. “I don’t need a name or anything, Malia, I just need to know if this is a track I should pursue through the courts.” He paused and frowned then jotted down a series of notes on the pad. “Right, thank you, that’s very helpful. Tell me, this theoretical patient—would he have been stable enough to remove from the island by boat or plane?” Chin walked to the computer table and minimized Tony’s searches to call up a search screen. “Can you make a list of medical equipment someone would need to keep a coma patient in a private home and email it to me?” He paused and laughed. “I think the least I’ll owe you is dinner. See you on Sunday then.” He closed the phone and hummed under his breath.
“Oh, well, ex-girlfriend. I almost married her but when I was accused of stealing that money…”
“You were cleared immediately by a Sentinel attached to the HPD,” Steve said with a frown. “You had what? Two days of suspension with pay during that investigation?”
“Yeah, but during those two days, I managed to convince myself that if I weren’t completely vindicated that I could damage her career. She’d just started her internship, and she’d worked so hard to become a doctor. We fought about it, and she eventually said we should take a break because I didn’t trust her. Then you came to the island, and our break turned into something more permanent when I got involved with the task force. We were hunting Victor Hesse. I didn’t think I needed to add a personal connection with that asshole running around loose on the island. He might have used her against me.”
“You should’ve said,” Steve said roughly.
“Well, I was going to then you got cursed.”
“Son of a bitch,” McGarrett muttered. “Chin.”
“Danny, Kono, and I are pulling sixty to seventy hours a week to keep up with you and Tony,” Chin said plainly. “I know he talked to you about getting Tony a partner, but I think the better solution would be put Kono on shift with Tony and add an officer to the team to work with me someone I can train.”
“You want another baby cop?” Steve said wryly. “Will Kono get jealous?”
“Well, she’ll have to get used to it. She couldn’t be an only child forever,” Chin deadpanned and grinned when Steve laughed. “Okay, back to the question I asked Malia. As soon as I gave her a time frame, I could tell something clicked with her. Obviously, she couldn’t give me a name, but she said a man in his thirties was brought into the emergency room unconscious right around the time she heard you were cursed. He was in the hospital for six days then he was removed from the facility by his next of kin. She doubts that they would’ve taken him from the island by plane but perhaps by boat, but it would’ve been dangerous and not recommended.”
“What would he need for home care?”
“She’s sending a list of equipment, and she thinks a private nurse would be necessary as well. Considering the fact that he is probably a Guide, he would need a Center certified nurse and probably an attendant of some kind to handle the body. Both would have to be rated to work with psionically sensitive people.”
“Sandburg thinks the man might be an Alpha Ascendant.”
“Those are rare, right?”
“Very,” Steve agreed. “I was online for several months before I went to the Center for my search. Well, they opened an office here just to deal with my search, and it’s only staffed by two full-time people currently since I don’t have a pride.”
“Do you want a pride?”
“No, the curse makes that impossible and frankly if the curse was broken I don’t think I could ever share my Guide with a whole pride the way I’d be required as an Alpha. I mean it’s not like sharing a bond, but the Alpha Guide of a pride has a lot of responsibilities that would take his time which honestly pisses me off in theory.”
The elevator doors dinged, and the Prime pair left the car.
“Not everyone can thrive in the pride system,” Ellison said. “But if the curse wasn’t in the way, I think you’d have several Sentinels emerge in the area.”
“Then you’ll just have to stay and take care of them if we break the curse,” Steve said with a huff. “I guess I’ll buy your eggs.”
Blair laughed. “Don’t remind him. What’s happened since we left?”
“Chin reached out to a friend. We have a situation but no name and to be frank I doubt we’d get a real name from the hospital considering how quickly his next of kin removed a comatose patient from a hospital,” Steve explained. He focused on Blair. “Tony told me that you took him onto the psionic plane but that it was painful.”
“He doesn’t want you to do it,” Blair said. “But I told him the choice would be yours.”
“I’d rather not do it,” Steve admitted. “I’ve only ever had the dreams and entering the psionic plane with a Guide other than my own…kind of feels like cheating.”
Blair’s eyes widened briefly then he shook his head. “That’s kind of adorable.”
“I’ve never let another Guide take me onto the psionic plane,” Ellison said roughly. “And I wouldn’t unless I had to go there to kick someone’s ass and you couldn’t for some reason I can’t think of.” He focused on Chin. “You must be Lt. Chin Ho Kelly. Steve told us about your team here, it’s impressive.” He offered his hand. “Alpha Sentinel Prime James Ellison. You can call me Jim. This is my Guide and resident pain in the ass, Dr. Blair Sandburg.”
Chin took the hand he was offered. “It’s an honor to meet you, Jim. I’ve heard a lot about you. Most of it was even good.”
Blair laughed and slid up onto a stool by the computer table. “See, Jim, I told you acting like a jerk in your youth would follow you.” He tapped the table. “One of you come brief me on what Tony found after we left and we should start contacting medical supply companies. We might need to go official to get warrants for client records but honestly probably not as long as we don’t ask for confidential medical information. People bend over backward to help Sentinels as a rule, and Steve’s circumstances are even more likely to gain both support and sympathy.”
Steve made a face because he hated few things like he hated pity. He went back for his coffee while Chin started reviewing the results Tony had compiled. The elevator dinged again as he was returning to the main room and Joe White strolled off the elevator.
Another round of introductions later, Steve let himself be prodded into his office. He figured the illusion of privacy was enough for Joe because the older man walked over to the window and sighed deeply.
“What’s going on?”
“He’s dead,” Steve said flatly.
“You know he worked for the Yakuza—specifically he worked for a high-level operative named Wo Fat.” Joe turned to face him. “The last time I was here, you asked me a question, and I lied to you.”
“I know you did,” Steve said roughly. “Honestly, due to sense memories, I could walk back through every single conversation we’ve ever had and figure out all the times you’ve lied to me.” He grinned briefly when Joe looked shocked. “I know.”
“Useful,” Joe said roughly. “Why did you ask about your mother?”
“Because Victor Hesse told me shortly before I killed him that she wasn’t dead,” Steve said. “He tried to bargain with me, but the son of bitch executed my father. There was no deal he could’ve made with me to spare his life. He was petrified, and his heart was racing. I honestly couldn’t tell if he was telling the truth or not. So, I asked you. I asked you because you were my father’s friends for decades and if anyone knew she was alive, it would be him.”
“He didn’t know,” Joe said roughly. “It wasn’t until shortly before his death did he even realized that he wasn’t at fault for her so-called murder. He thought his job had gotten her killed when it turned out…it turned out that it was her job that made her a target.”
“NSA or CIA?” Steve asked.
Joe blinked and shook his head. “Fucking Sentinels.”
“I was neck deep in intelligence operations before I came online,” Steve said evenly. “I started looking for her after you left Joe because you lied to me. I ran into a wall eventually, and it had classified written all over it. I could’ve gotten further because Tony offered up a few contacts he has in various agencies that he probably shouldn’t have. I declined because I didn’t want to get more attention than I already had. My house was broken into and searched about six months ago, so I installed a new security system and backed off the search for Doris. Why are you here?”
“Because your mother is,” Joe said evenly. “And she has been since you came online as a Sentinel. I think she intended on recruiting you to whatever organization she works for but you authorized an official Guide search before she could figure out how to make contact.”
Steve’s gut tightened with fury. “Why didn’t you tell my father his wife wasn’t dead?”
“By the time I found out Doris was alive, John had moved on and managed to fall in love with another woman. It took him years after we buried the body we thought was your mother before he stopped considering dating some form of cheating. But he did move on, and he fell in love stupidly as he was prone to do.”
“Patricia Jameson,” Steve said roughly. “Her response to his murder felt really personal, but I was too wrapped up in my own grief to really pay attention the way I should. The fact that she gave me the authority to hunt down and kill the man responsible was probably a clue.”
Joe inclined his head. “I have to think she refused treatment for her cancer because John was gone and she just didn’t have any fight left in her. At least she died knowing Hesse paid for what he’d done.”
“At least,” Steve murmured. “My mother is CIA. Was my father a job? A mark for her?”
“I think she used him for a cover,” Joe said. “I don’t know for certain. Maybe she did love him. She wouldn’t be the first undercover operative to have kids to further protect herself. Why CIA?”
“I’m glad he never knew that.” Steve set aside the coffee he hadn’t bothered to drink. “As to the other, the NSA’s known for avoiding hiring Sentinels and Guides. The CIA likes to recruit us—especially lone wolf types that aren’t prone to involve themselves in a pride. They looked my way while I was doing my Guide search since I specifically requested Guides with military or legal backgrounds. They stopped looking after I bonded and the aftermath of that. Are sure she’s alive and here?”
“I’ve not seen her if that’s what you’re asking—not in twenty years but rumors and none of them are good. She went off the books shortly after her last official mission, and what’s been up to since then is anyone’s guess. But I tracked an old alias all the way to Oahu, and that’s why I’m here.”
“So she’s been here since shortly after Dad’s murder,” Steve said. “And she couldn’t be bothered to see me?”
“Hell, son, you know as well as I do that spooks avoid Sentinels—even the ones they’re related to. Perhaps, especially the ones they’re related to. She never was the mothering kind, to begin with, but that’s more her personal nature than a by-product of the job.”
“Right.” Steve frowned and waved a hand. “Come out here and listen to what Tony’s gathered on a recent development and give us another point of view.”
Joe nodded, and they left the office. Blair and Chin were both working on laptops, and Ellison was using the computer table with a lot more ease than Steve expected.
Jim looked up. “Tony taught me how to use it. It’s a great tool—I wish we’d had stuff like this when I was on the job.”
“Chin loves his toys,” Steve said and slid on to a stool not far from where Tony was perched then offered his hand. His Guide hopped onto his hands and curled deadly talons gently around McGarrett’s fingers.
Steve sat back and let his senses get a little lost in Tony’s bird form while Chin and Blair took turns showing Joe the information that Tony had gathered. Joe and Ellison thought along the same lines though Joe had done a lot more wet work than Ellison had done.
“Do you think this is a good lead?” Joe asked as he turned to Steve. “If you find this guy—what can you do? Do you kill him? Would that resolve the situation?”
“I don’t know. No one can even tell us how we were cursed,” Steve admitted roughly.
“Curse,” Joe repeated. “Are you sure it’s a curse?”
“What else could it be?” Steve asked in confusion.
“It sounds more like a siege,” White said grimly.
* * * *
Steve wanted to take Tony home for the next transition, and he made Joe White follow him. The older man had more to say, and he’d left a thread loose in their conversation that had been nagging Steve all afternoon. He had about forty minutes left until the sunset, so he released Tony as soon as he exited the truck and glared pointedly at Joe until his mentor left his rental car and followed him into the house.
“Why did you bring up Hesse? What does he have to do with me being cursed?” He deactivated the security and tossed his keys into a bowl sitting on a table by the door.
“Hesse’s Yakuza contact, what about him? Is he here on the island? I can’t imagine he’d be personally invested in making me pay for taking out the Hesse brothers,” Steve said as he motioned White to follow him into the kitchen. He pulled two bottles of water out of the fridge and passed one to Joe. “So what about him has brought you here?”
“I’ve been searching for your mother since you came online as a Sentinel because she’d been so proud to birth a son with the potential and profoundly disappointed that she didn’t repeat that accomplishment with your sister. I knew she’d start circling around you if you came online and I wasn’t wrong. I just didn’t expect her to move as fast as she did. It was like she had some inside track into your circumstances.”
“I came online listening to Victor Hesse kill my father,” Steve said. “How…” He paled. “Are you telling me that Doris engineered Dad’s murder to make me come online?”
“Leading up to her fake death, she orchestrated several events to encourage you to come online—including encouraging to take a solitary camping trip for two weeks,” Joe said. “I herded you toward the Navy to protect you and your father, while not privy to all of my reasons, did believe that military service would protect you from civilian agencies if you came online as a Sentinel. When you moved into fugitive apprehension, I knew you were as close as you’d ever come to coming online. You were narrowing your focus and honing your skills as a hunter with every single mission. Then you caught Anton Hesse.”
“It was easy,” Steve murmured. “Too easy, in fact. I thought so at the time, but all of that got pushed aside when Victor killed Dad. Do you think that…Victor knew his brother was going to be sacrificed for the mission?”
“No, the Hesse brothers were as tight as two brothers could be without actually fucking, and I’m not entirely certain they weren’t.”
“Gross, come on,” Steve protested with a frown.
“I know,” Joe said. “Regardless, if Victor’s job was to hold John hostage to make you come online all of that changed when Anton was killed during the attack. All bets were off, and John had no hope of surviving that day. I can’t say for certain that Doris set up the whole situation, but I don’t doubt it for a second.”
“And how does this relate to Wo Fat and Yakuza?”
Joe walked away, pushed open the double doors leading out to the lanai and dropped down in a lounge chair. Steve followed, his gaze immediately settling on Tony who was perched in a tree not far from the house.
“Just tell me.”
“Your mother killed Wo Fat’s father. His mother came here to the island, and that’s when Doris faked her death. She said it was to protect you and Mary, but I didn’t believe it for a minute. If she’d thought that Wo Fat’s mother would kill Mary in revenge, she’d have allowed it because it would’ve probably forced you online.”
It hurt but not the way it would’ve if he still considered Doris McGarrett his mother. He didn’t and hadn’t since he’d realized she’d faked her death. In some ways, his mother was dead to him, and she’d remain that way. He wanted to know why she’d abandoned them but that was the extent of his curiosity concerning the woman that had birthed him.
“Because Lei Kuan Fat had something that Doris didn’t have,” Joe said flatly. “So she killed her and took it.”
“What was it?” Steve asked even as dread pooled in his stomach.
“A very gifted and online child—he wasn’t a Sentinel, but he was valuable and young enough to be manipulated, so Doris took him for her own.”
“Wo Fat is a Guide,” Steve repeated. “And my mother…”
“Fostered him after the tragic murder of his mother,” Joe murmured. He focused on the sun that was slowly sinking into the horizon. “And she’s waited all this time for you to come online so she could have a matched set—a Sentinel/Guide pair she could control for her own means. She’s twisted him up in ways I can’t even imagine though I doubt he ever had a chance to be anything but what he’s become. His father was neck deep in Yakuza before he was killed and dealt drugs. Wo was always going to be…a nightmare, but Doris turned him into something else despite his instinctual imperatives.”
“You think she meant for me to bond with him.” Steve shuddered at the thought, and Tony left the tree to glide across the yard and land on Steve’s outstretched hand. “What’s her end game?”
“Doris likes to collect things—secrets, favors, allies, enemies—and use them to her own end. If she wanted wealth, she’d have it. She wanted your father; she had him. Looking back on it, he was practically prey, and I didn’t understand that until it was too late to protect him from her. What does she want from you? Nothing good. She put a lot of effort into hiding her whereabouts and her travel to Oahu. It’s taken me over a year to trace her here.”
Steve took a deep breath then another. His body was starting to warm, a warning that his transformation was approaching. Tony left his hand and flew into the house, and Steve pulled his shirt over his head. “I need you to tell Tony everything you just told me, Joe, leave nothing out because I’ll tell him as soon as I can anyway.” He toed off his shoes and pulled off his socks, which he tossed aside. “One more thing?”
“Where is Wo Fat?” He turned to face Joe as he shucked his cargo pants and boxers. The fading sun was glowing on his skin.
Joe stared into his eyes. “No one knows. The Yakuza have been searching for him for two years.”
“Son of a bitch,” Steve hissed, and his mind blanked. He turned to see the sun sink into the horizon and a howl was torn from his throat as his human fury sank into the wolf that he almost instantly became.
“You’re a real bastard,” Tony said quietly.
Joe White just stared at him.
Tony’s fingers curled into the wolf’s fur as he tried to settle his mind and bank the fury bleeding off his Sentinel. Even in his wolf form, Steve bled all over Tony emotionally and normally he could handle it but not right now. Not when his own anger was swelling in him like a hurricane.
It had taken him thirty minutes after the transformation to calm Steve down long enough for Tony to get dressed. Then he’d listened to Joe White justify his crap ass decisions regarding Doris McGarrett, Wo Fat, and the two fucking years they’d endured in their cursed circumstances.
“How long have you been CIA?”
The older man just raised an eyebrow and said nothing.
Scowling, Tony pulled out his cellphone and dialed a number without taking his eye off Steve’s mentor. He tucked the phone against his ear, and it was answered almost immediately.
Trent Kort whistled softly in his ear. “Kicking a hornet’s nest is bad for business, DiNozzo.”
“I know she’s alive and living on Oahu. She’s handling a Yakuza asset named Wo Fat who is an Alpha Guide and shaman. Is she on the books or rogue?”
Kort cleared his throat. “Rogue and wanted. This is quite a payday you’re offering me, Tony. She was supposed to bring Wo Fat into the fold when he was a boy, but she ran with him instead. The Agency wants her alive, but MI6 will settle for her head.”
“And Wo Fat?”
“Written off as a lost cause for recruitment. Why the interest?”
“Because he’s responsible for the curse I’m living with. I need to know everything about him—who trained him, his estimated power levels, financials, psychological profiles. I know you can get it.”
“Will this make us even?”
“Nothing will make us even,” Tony said evenly. “You murdered my father.”
Kort huffed. “It was a sanctioned hit, Tony. You can’t blame me for the fact that your father was a criminal and he tried to blackmail the fucking director of the CIA.”
“I can. I will. Send me everything you can gather, and when I find her, I’ll give you another call so you can collect on the contract.”
“One day, those people at the Center are going to realize you’re the most ruthless bastard Guide to ever be labeled such.”
“Considering my circumstances, I’m pretty sure that Wo Fat has already earned that title.” He ended the phone call and focused on White. “You should go.”
“Leave the island—so you aren’t anywhere near ground zero when this all comes down. Granted, I don’t think you deserve protecting, but Steve loves you like a second father so…leave and don’t come back around for a while. The fall out is going to be immense, and frankly, the Agency wouldn’t appreciate the fact that you’ve known where she was for a while and never turned her in. Betraying that organization is a foolish choice, and you’ve done it for a woman who abandoned her own children, probably arranged the hit on her own husband, and planned to corrupt an Alpha Sentinel.”
* * * *
After White left the house, Tony sent texts to Ellison and Chin. He wasn’t sure he wanted them anywhere near the situation either, but Chin was too loyal to turn his back on the situation. As for the Prime pair, no one told them what to do. Even the government politely suggested things to the two of them. Ellison was a ruthless bad ass, but Blair Sandburg was an immense force of nature. No one wanted to piss him off—Guides all over the world would side with him on practically any issue and Tony had to admit he wasn’t an exception to that rule.
By the time he was in headquarters, the whole team was there including Kono. She glared at him and hitched the arm she had in a sling closer to her body as if she could hide the injury.
Tony sighed. “No field work.”
“I won’t be silly,” Kono promised. “But I can sort through the results you’ve got coming in. I’ve already started on the medical supply company—I was able to eliminate a dozen or so potentials due to family connections and the like. I’ve got a lot of relatives, you see.”
He didn’t doubt that at all. “All right.”
Steve kept pace with him while he moved around the office going over data and starting one search after another. On a normal day, the wolf would find a place to lounge and stare at them like he was a king while they worked. His Sentinel’s agitation wasn’t doing much to keep his temper even, and every time he frayed a little more around the edges, Sandburg’s already intense focus increased. He could feel the older Guide’s presence in the room—it grew heavier by the moment as if Blair were trying to put himself between the pair of them and Wo Fat.
“You’re…” Blair trailed off and inclined his head as everyone in the room focused on him. “My God, Tony.”
“What?” Tony questioned as he stilled under Blair’s attention.
“I couldn’t figure out why you were separated by the curse—it’s cruel, yes—but it fell on you both the moment you bonded, and Steve was the one that retreated in his spirit animal. If you were being cursed on the psionic plane…it would make more sense if it had been you. In fact, I would’ve expected a near permanent transformation. Guides are uniquely powerful on the plane as you already know.”
Tony nodded. “And?”
“The wolf is nocturnal,” Blair said. “He rests during the day if it at all possible.” His gaze drifted briefly to Steve who was pressed against Tony’s leg. “You’re taking turns.”
“Day and night, yeah, I’ve been living that circumstance for two years, Blair.”
“No, you misunderstand me,” Blair said evenly. “You’re not taking turns here. You’re taking turns on the psionic plane—defending your bond from attack. It really is a siege. This Wo Fat must be stupidly powerful.”
“Stupidly powerful is one of way of putting it,” Ellison muttered. “I just got an email from a friend of mine in Japan. Up until about five years ago, it was accepted that when Wo Fat achieved a bond with a Sentinel that he would become the Alpha Prime Guide of China.”
“Then he’s as powerful as Blair?” Tony questioned.
Jim winced. “Honestly, he might rival Blair. If not now, certainly when he bonds with a Sentinel.”
“And he wants my Sentinel,” Tony said tightly. “Chin, what do we have so far?”
Chin threw a picture up onto the big screen. “Wo Fat. Former Ministry of State Security, which is basically China’s secret service. He’s pretty high up the organization for the Yakuza though they’ve been searching for him just as hard anyone else for the last year. Both of his parents are dead, and neither were known to be upstanding citizens. There was some talk from the International Sentinel Guide Directorate that he should be taken from their home due to his father’s criminal record. That discussion was tabled when Dae Won, his father, was killed.”
Tony pulled up his own file. “Doris McGarrett killed Dae Won. It appears the Directorate wasn’t the only organization in minimizing how much Dae Won could influence his son. The hit was sanctioned by the CIA. She later killed Wo Fat’s mother which was not exactly sanctioned, but no one was going to make waves about it—at least until she disappeared with the kid. Joe White told me that Doris was obsessed with trying to force Steve online as a kid and that she killed Lei Kuan Fat in order to take Wo Fat for herself because he was an online Guide.
“She’s probably brainwashed Wo into believing that Steve is his Guide.”
“Don’t assume she had to go that far,” Blair warned. “Steve is a powerful Sentinel, and honestly one of the more attractive men I’ve ever seen in my life. Plenty of Guides will covet him—even with your bond. You’d not believe the number of Guides I practically had to exile from Washington when Jim was still a cop. They came out of the woodwork after he came online despite our bond. I had to have two formally charged with pair bond interference while we were still trying to settle with one another.” He flicked his hand. “Plus that whole situation with that crazy Sentinel. At one time, I would’ve complained about our first years being difficult but after what you and Steve have gone through…” He sighed. “I should’ve come immediately, Tony, and I’m very sorry I didn’t. I let this situation fester like an open wound…”
“Weston told you repeatedly that there was nothing to be done, Chief,” Ellison said roughly. “Though we certainly know why, now.”
“She wants Steve,” Tony pointed out. “I knew that before I ever even met, Steve. She made sure to tell every single Guide gathered for his meet and greet that she didn’t think any of us would be a fit for him. She all but called me inferior to my face.”
“Her inflated sense of worth aside, Lori Weston is more of a nuisance than anything else,” Blair said. “All of these pieces fell into place because of Joe White.” He focused on Tony. “I know you recognize that and you’re sheltering your Sentinel from the fall-out of his mentor’s complicity in this situation. White should have come to you immediately with his suspicions instead of hunting for Doris McGarrett on his own. His motives for keeping it all to himself for two years are unclear.”
“I don’t think they’re unclear at all,” Tony admitted. “White is and always has been focused on protecting Steve—he’s always sheltered him from the truth.” He focused on the wolf. “Even in the face of betraying of Steve’s faith in him.”
“I’ve never believed that betrayal in the guise of protection is all that an honorable a choice,” Ellison said. “Though I’d rather take a bullet than be lied to by someone I trust.”
“I wouldn’t go that far, but I understand where you’re coming from,” Tony admitted with a frown. “People lie a lot, you know. They lie about little things and big things—it’s one of the first things I learned when I came online. It was difficult, at first, to tell when someone was truly deceptive and when they were just telling little lies to get them through their day.”
“Little lies,” Jim repeated.
“Yes, polite society actually requires them. Nothing would get done if everyone were a hundred percent honest all the time,” Blair pointed out and grinned when his Sentinel grimaced. “Jim would be pleased to live in a world where no one spoke unless they needed something. Then, of course, once their needs are met, they would go away immediately.”
Tony laughed as Ellison huffed dramatically.
* * * *
Steve flexed his toes and curled his hands around the back of the bench in the locker room. He turned on the digital recorder.
“Hey, Steve. So here’s the thing—I’ve sent Joe White on his way. I know you’re probably angry with him and the circumstances but things are going to get complicated and ugly due to the attention of interested parties. We have heavy hitters heading our way. Your mother is officially wanted for questioning by the Sentinel Investigations unit of the FBI as of an hour ago. They got wind of my search process, and I think the assholes might have hacked our system. We need to have our whole system fortified against outside intrusions obviously. In the meantime, I’ve called in a few favors, and with Ellison on site, the Sentinel/Guide pair that is being sent to us will tread carefully as to avoid pissing the Prime pair off.
“With Kono’s help, we’ve halved the list of those using professional medical staff to maintain an invalid patient in a private residence. None of them fit Wo Fat’s description on paper at least, but I believe we’re close on this avenue of investigation. I’ve set up alerts with any and all commercial avenues of transportation off the island in case she gets wind of what is coming her way and tries to run with him. I think White is right about them being on the island. Blair thinks that the closer he is us the stronger his influence over us in the psionic plane. I’ve questioned him about us leaving the island to end the attack, but he doesn’t think it would do any good. The psionic plane—it has no end or beginning.
“Regardless, we’ve made some headway, and I think based on the progress that today you’ll find your mother. I can’t…hell, Steve, I can’t even pretend to know how that’s going to go for you. Just try to keep yourself as calm as possible, okay? The last thing we need is for you to have a feral episode—I don’t know what that would do to us. I’m honestly not sure if I could be of any assistance to you in that state if I were the animal. I could barely get a handle on you as a wolf in that circumstance. Though to be perfectly frank, the wolf is a fairly wild presence in my mind on any given night. I’ve grown accustomed to that contact—the constant stimulation and aggression wasn’t something I trained for. I do wonder what your connection to me feels like when you’re human, you’ve never discussed it. Anyway, I’ve kept an eye on the HPD event and arrest log—there was a home invasion at 10:32pm. No injuries—cash, small electronics were taken. I’ve marked it for the Watch Commander in case it turns into a serial situation.
“Honestly, it sounds like a couple of kids with high-end needs and low-end financial means. Whether or not those needs mesh with the adrenaline high they probably got from their little foray into felonious behavior will translate into something more ill-considered is up for debate. Take care of yourself, Steve and don’t let pride take you to a place you can’t handle. It’s okay to back away from a situation. Retreat isn’t cowardice or failure—remember that.”
Steve reached out and picked up the recorder then turned it off. He rubbed his thumb over the speaker; the texture of the little holes was pleasing in a way.
“Are you zoning?”
“No,” Steve said. “It’s…”
“Something that you and your Guide use together—a tangible connection between his time and yours,” Jim supplied. “I get it.”
“Yeah,” Steve said and stood. He slid the recorder into his pocket and cleared his throat. “Did the two of you get enough sleep?”
“We left him around eleven last night—shortly after Williams arrived to keep him company and read through results. Your Guide has a lot of contacts—odd ones actually for a man who worked exclusively in police departments and a single federal agency,” Jim said and leaned on the doorframe with a paper cup of coffee in hand. “Not only does he have contacts, he knows people willing to go out of their way to do for him. Before we left last night, a woman working Interpol sent him everything they have on your mother and Wo Fat. It turned out to be several hundred pages.”
Steve nodded. “He tends to collect favors and confessed once that he really doesn’t know how he does it. I kind of chalked it up to a Guide thing. I worked with a few unbonded Guides in the past; people around them often went out of their way to make them happy or to do things for them. I have to admit that the one I met in military intelligence used that to their advantage often.”
“Blair was much the same when he was younger but after years of being bonded that particular quirk has faded. Though people tend to favor him in conversations and see him as a source of comfort in difficult situations. That’s all Guide aura, which he projects no matter how much I seek to shelter him within our bond. Some people covet a connection with a Guide no matter how minimal that connection is because of the comfort they can provide even in casual circumstances.”
Steve nodded, and the older Sentinel left him in favor of the briefing room. He meandered into the breakroom and grabbed the bowl of fruit that Tony had put in the fridge. By the time he was settled at his desk, his mind was settled enough for him to be pissed off by the fact that his Guide had sent Joe White off for parts unknown. He checked his email and wasn’t all that surprised to find a one-line message from Joe. He probably wouldn’t hear from the man for months which was annoying because Steve had a lot to say that he’d rather not put in an email. Though he certainly wasn’t above leaving thinly veiled threats on the old bastard’s voice mail.
He stabbed a piece of pineapple roughly.
“Your diet is disgustingly healthy,” Danny announced from the doorway of Steve’s office. “What’s wrong with a donut?”
“Everything is wrong with a donut,” Steve informed his partner gravely. “Why are you here? Ellison said you were here with Tony in the middle of the night.”
“I’m heading home,” Danny said. “Chin will be in within the next two hours and Kono by noon. She has to visit the doctor to get her wound checked. Don’t let her do anything foolish, please.”
“I’ll keep her confined to the office,” Steve promised.
Danny’s gaze narrowed. “Are you crossing your fingers under your desk?”
Steve laughed. “No, Danno, I promise I’ll keep her here. We’re off rotation anyway, and if we get a serious lead on my situation, then I’ll need Ellison and Sandburg to help with the situation regarding Wo Fat.”
“And your mother?”
“I hardly think I’ll have a chance to arrest my own mother for pair bond interference since several agencies want her in custody. I don’t know who is going to win that particular lottery, but I don’t have the…I just want her to go away, Danno, so I’m not going to put up any sort of fight in that situation.”
“If she’s responsible for the murder of your father…” Danny trailed off. “Do you want me to find out?”
Steve took a deep breath and looked at Tony who was settled on the perch in the corner. A part of him never wanted such a thing confirmed, but he knew his personal feelings would satisfy the sense of justice both his Guide and Danny shared. “I don’t think you’ll get much an opportunity to find out either way, Danno. The CIA isn’t going to let us keep Doris if we find her.”
“Right.” Danny grimaced. “I hate those guys like you hate the FBI.”
“I’m really unfond of them that’s for certain,” Steve admitted. “They get in my way and get in our business.”
Danny laughed and with a wave left.
* * * *
“Wo Fat was on the Guide search list,” Blair announced as he entered the office. Ellison was trailing along behind him.
“The national center filed three different appeals to keep from providing that list,” Steve pointed out.
“I didn’t ask them,” Blair said. “I’ve brought in a team to handle the center branch here. Weston is being interviewed extensively about your Guide search and her behavior. She actually started complaining to me as soon as I entered the place about your bond and about the curse. She’s not at all pleased with what I had to say about her abilities or her ambition. As to the list, I retrieved it as soon as my team took control of their systems which was child’s play to accomplish.”
“I never met him, Blair,” Steve said as he focused on the large screen where Wo Fat’s face was displayed. “He’s attractive, and he would be hard to forget.”
“He was dismissed from consideration before you even arrived due to the criteria you set down with the national center when you notified them of your online status,” Blair explained.
Steve considered that but nodded. “I excluded anyone with a criminal record and required that all applicants be United States citizens. I believed that I would go back to active duty, so I also put an age requirement in the first round. I figured if I didn’t make a connection that I could widen that a bit. I just wanted to…”
“Make sure you didn’t devalue your worth to the Navy,” Jim supplied. “If I’d been career military, I’d have done no differently. You busted your ass to get as far as you have in the Navy.”
Steve nodded and wadded up the paper his sandwich had been wrapped up in. “So from his point of view, I did reject him.”
“Sight unseen,” Blair agreed. “But based on what he’s done and what information we’d gathered on him, he wouldn’t have passed an evaluation. He’s certainly not mentally healthy enough to provide a genuine bond to a Sentinel. I doubt he could even establish one, but we’ll know soon enough.”
“How big is the team you’ve pulled together?” Steve questioned.
“I have a full response team in place,” Blair said. “You’ve should’ve had one at the outset. You realize there are over a hundred latent Sentinels on this island, right? There are sixty-three online Guides here. The office Weston established wasn’t enough to serve the population here, and I’ll be having words with the current national director for his failure to provide proper oversight here.” He frowned.
“What’s going on?”
“Your situation makes our kind deeply uncomfortable,” Blair admitted reluctantly. “The very idea of being separated from Jim as you and Tony are makes me hurt and furious. I think that many of us have avoided coming here to help you because of that discomfort.”
“Do we make you uncomfortable?” Steve asked.
“Of course,” Blair admitted immediately. “I’m furious on your behalf, and it’s painful to think about your circumstances. There is a reason why pair bond interference is considered so profound a problem and why we lobbied to have it declared a federal crime.”
Steve frowned. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault your mother is a nutjob,” Ellison said and shrugged when Blair gave him a look.
He wasn’t certain his mother was crazy, so Steve focused on the information in front of him. “We’ve eliminated all the people that we can based on Kono’s information and the medical equipment being used on site. If he’s unconscious, then he needs a set up like a coma patient.”
“Feeding, body care, oxygen, physical therapy, nurse visits, and perhaps a private doctor for consultations. His condition could be very delicate,” Blair said. “If he’s not conscious then he can’t protect his own mind.”
“How delicate would he be?”
“She’d certainly want to limit what kind of people that will come into contact with him. She’d never allow an online Guide anywhere near up for fear that they would report the situation. By all rights, he should be in the care of S/G Center. Of course, an online Guide would know he’s not in a genuine coma, so that’s a factor as well.” Blair shifted in his seat and picked up his tea.
“If she’s listed requirements regarding the kind of staff that can be allowed on the location that would be included in what most of the companies would consider private medical information,” Steve said with a grimace. “Intellectually I understand why patient information is confidential, but in my personal situation it’s really annoying.”
“Granted,” Jim said. “She’ll want an isolated location. Your work can put you anywhere on the island, but she would’ve certainly picked an area where you wouldn’t be expected to linger for any length of time. If she’s been here for two years, she’s rarely left the house or disguised herself in such a way that she believes you’d have a difficult time recognizing her. She might have domestic help, or at the very least she’s got someone buying her stupidly expensive groceries.”
“Great, so we expand our search to include delivery services,” Steve said with a frown and rubbed his head in frustration.
“It’s another point to cross-reference,” Jim said. “Or it might reveal her if she’s using black market sources for the medical supplies. I don’t think she’d take that risk—she’ll want to keep everything she can above board to prevent undue attention. Her tradecraft is old-school which doesn’t necessarily work in your favor.”
Steve glanced briefly at the picture of his mother that Tony had found and put on the digital board. It was an old picture—taken shortly before she’d faked her death. In her youth, his mother had the kind of looks that would’ve gotten her far in an intelligence agency. Beautiful women and men were recruited and trained for spying because often seduction was a very effective tool. People can easily be led astray by the wrong kind of attraction.
“Beautiful woman,” Blair murmured.
“Honeytrap,” Steve said. “I just wonder why my father was a target for her.”
“Oh, I doubt he was specifically a target. He just proved to be a very effective cover for her on the island. She blended right in being the wife of a cop and having two children certainly helped that along,” Ellison said and sighed. “Sorry that was insensitive, right?”
“It was true,” Steve corrected. “I don’t need my hand held on this issue, Jim. I’ve known for a while that my mother probably wasn’t dead. I don’t have any illusions left when it comes to her. The fact is that she has been instrumental in the mental and emotional torture of my Guide—she’d better hope the CIA catches up with her before I do. I can’t promise to be civilized about it.” He focused on her picture. “She was here—as a sleeper or perhaps working her way into the Yakuza organization. A cop’s wife might have been a draw at least for intelligence gathering.”
“She had help staging her death,” Chin said as he entered the room. He opened a thick folder as he placed it on the computer table. “A lot of help—externally and internally. During that time HPD had a few cops on the payroll that would be more than willing to look the other way with the right monetary incentive.”
“Right,” Steve murmured and reached out. He hit the button to darken the screen because looking at her face was starting to make him furious.
How many times could a woman betray her own children? He thought about Mary—safely tucked away in an enclave in California for psi-sensitives. His sister had always been a delicate dreamer—vulnerable to the emotions of others both good and bad. He hadn’t supported her retreat into the enclave originally, but after he’d come online, Steve had realized just how much stimulation Mary was exposed to, and she’d never have a Sentinel to shield her or protect her from the outside world.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Steve murmured and glanced briefly at Blair who was frowning at him. “Why?”
Blair looked downward, and Steve realized that he was holding the recorder in his hand. He sighed and slipped it back into his pocket. “It’s hard sometimes.” He paused. “All the time.” He clenched his fingers around the recorder through the material of his cargo pants. “His voice is the only thing I have that doesn’t hurt.”
* * * *
“I can do this for you,” Ellison said.
Steve shook his head as he focused on the house. It was a beachfront property on the opposite side of the island from his childhood home. Finding her through the medical supply companies had proven stupidly easy. The Sentinel/Guide unit from the FBI had arrived just thirty minutes before they’d confirmed that Doris was in the house—alone with Wo Fat currently. His mother had two nurses, but there was a five-hour window where she was alone—between what marked the day shift and the overnight shift for the nurses. The night nurse had identified both his mother and Wo Fat without any sort of prodding, and her certain honesty had been a relief.
Chin, Danny, and Kono were standing back. He hadn’t wanted to bring Kono, but she’d ignored all of his orders on the subject and planted her butt in the backseat of his truck with a defiant glare. Even Danny hadn’t tried to argue with her. The team from the Center was spreading out around the property because this was their business until Steve or Tony filed charges.
“We’ve got a mundane on the road requesting access—Trent Kort is his name.”
“I called him,” Steve said. “Let him through—he’s CIA. He’s here for Doris.”
“I can fight that if you’d like,” Ellison said. “No matter what crimes she’s committed that they want to prosecute her for—she’s abused an Alpha pair, and I can make everyone put that first.”
“No, let them take her. I’d rather never see her again as long as I live and I don’t want my sister to know about her—Mary doesn’t deserve to live with this kind of betrayal.” Steve checked his weapon. “I need the civilians to stand back, Ellison. She’s certainly armed, and she’s trained—there’s no telling what she’s capable of on the physical front despite her age.”
“I’ve got your back,” Ellison said evenly. “Blair’s going to stay back with Kono. Danny and Chin are coming in behind us.”
“Don’t let Tony out of the truck,” Steve said and turned to Blair. “I left the air condition running, so he’s not in any danger physically. I think she’d kill him if she were given the opportunity, Blair.”
Sandburg nodded. “The fall out on that subject is on your head, not mine.”
Steve put his hand on the glass of the passenger window. Tony was digging his talons into the front seat. The bird glared at him. “His safety takes priority here.”
He walked away and ignored the piercing screech from the hawk as he did so. Once he was moving, it seemed easier. The thud of his own boots on the sidewalk was almost a comfort. Steve shoved the door open and let his gun take the lead. The front of the house was empty, so he followed the distinct smell of medical disinfectant to the back. She was seated in a chair by a hospital bed in an enclosed sun porch.
Steve primed his weapon. “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t shoot you in the face.”
“Not a nice way to greet your mother, Steve,” she said and glanced toward Wo Fat briefly before returning her attention to him. “I knew you’d come eventually—I’m surprised Joe took so long to track me here. I’d hoped he would be with you.”
“He’s gone,” Steve said evenly. “I don’t expect to see him for a while—since my Guide basically kicked him off the island.”
“Your Guide,” she scoffed. “That asshole isn’t your Guide—I never should’ve left you with your father. Look at you, wallowing in the mediocrity your father taught you. I’m sure he’d be proud of you—his baby boy running around the island fighting for justice.” She grimaced. “You could be so much more, Steve, and you will be as soon as you get rid of that guy you accidentally bonded with.”
“My bond with Tony wasn’t an accident,” Steve responded evenly. “The moment I set eyes on him, I wanted him. I knew he was the only Guide that I’d ever want in my life. Meeting him was the most profound moment of my life, and I’ll murder you both before I’ll part with him.”
Her eyes widened as he primed his weapon. “Wait.”
Steve raised an eyebrow as he shifted out of the doorway and toward Wo Fat. Ellison and Danny entered behind him—weapons raised. Chin primed his favored shotgun and leveled it at Doris.
“Don’t move,” Chin ordered. “Doris McGarrett, you’re under arrest for sedition against the United States of America. I’d explain your rights to you, but I don’t think you technically have any since you’re legally dead. Kort come get your prisoner.”
Doris shot up from her chair and tried to run across the room toward a small dresser but got tased for her trouble. Kort jerked the taser barbs loose from Doris who was trembling in shock and tossed the stun gun aside. He had her cuffed in short order and offered them all a cheerful grin as he tossed her over his shoulder. “The payday is double for her live capture.”
Ellison snorted in amusement.
Steve just turned his head when his mother managed to gasp his name. He had nothing left for her and hoped to never see her again. Considering how many politically powerful people wanted her dead or alive, he figured that wouldn’t be a problem at all. He focused on Wo Fat then, and fury settled in his gut. It was foreign and disconcerting to be so angry with a Guide. Even when he’d been latent, he’d always been especially invested in protecting Guides.
He walked around the hospital bed, leaned down close and said in the man’s ear, “Wake up, asshole, or I’ll put a bullet in your goddamned head.”
Wo Fat didn’t move.
“Worth a shot,” Ellison said wryly as Steve huffed and walked away from the bed.
“He’s in a deep meditative state,” Blair said as he dropped a duffle on the end of the bed. He opened it and pulled out a silver case. “There are two ways to end this without killing him, genuine unconsciousness and psionic castration.” The Alpha Guide opened the case and pulled out a syringe. “We’ll start with a very heavy sedative. If that breaks the hold he has on the two of you, then he’ll be evaluated. In the event, he’s determined to be an on-going threat to your pair bond, I’ll see his abilities suppressed through castration.”
Steve watched in silence as Sandburg found an input port on the IV going into Wo Fat and administered the sedative.
“What if it doesn’t work?” Jim questioned.
“We’ll have to verify he’s the source of the situation and if he is—we’ll have to seek permission to execute him in the World Court for crimes against a bonded pair,” Blair said neutrally. “He’d be the first Guide ever executed for violating the charter.”
“I…” Steve cleared his throat. The thought of being responsible for the death of a Guide was genuinely horrifying.
“It wouldn’t be your fault.”
Steve turned in shock and found Tony standing in the doorway of the room. He was wearing a pair of jeans and a Navy T-shirt. Stuff from Steve’s emergency clothes stash in the truck. “Tony.”
Tony lifted one eyebrow and focused on Wo-Fat. “He heard your threat—we both did. It was pretty startling to hear your voice, and I told him you were serious. He started to respond, but I don’t know what he said because suddenly I was sitting in the truck naked as hell and Kono screamed like a girl. I’m never letting her live it down.” He ran a hand through his hair. “So holy shit.”
Steve laughed. He was a little helpless with it and a bit weak in the knees so he sat down abruptly in the chair his mother had been sitting in when he’d walked into the room.
“Let me have that,” Chin murmured and reached for his rifle. “You’re shaking a bit.”
Steve just nodded as Chin unclipped the weapon and he slouched back in the chair, his gaze never leaving Tony’s face.
Blair unhooked the IV bag and tossed it on Wo Fat’s stomach a bit carelessly. “Let’s get this asshole moved, Jim. Alpha Team, come retrieve the target.”
Steve watched a bit dazed as four men entered the room and without a word, unlocked the bed’s wheels. The bed and all of the medical equipment in the room were gone within just a few minutes.
Tony pulled the door shut as soon as they were alone and took a deep breath. “That…went entirely too smoothly.”
Steve relaxed. “Right?” He laughed. “I mean…it’s not often anything gets resolved around here without a protracted gun battle.”
“His spirit animal is a jackal.” Tony took a deep breath. “It was in the front room. It looked half-dead.”
“Starved,” Tony said hoarsely. He stayed where he was for the barest of moments then Tony moved quickly across the space that separated them and slid right onto Steve’s lap and settled astride his thighs. “I thought maybe I’d never see you like this again.”
Steve pulled his Guide close and buried his face against Tony’s neck. “You smell amazing.” He shuddered when Tony pressed closer. He hadn’t let anyone touch him since he’d bonded and suddenly he was starving. Steve clenched his hands in Tony’s shirt. “We need to get out of this house. I hate the smell of him.”
“Yeah, okay,” Tony whispered.
Steve stood even as his Guide slid off his lap and wrapped his fingers around Tony’s wrist. “Stay close.”
“I’ve got you, big guy,” Tony promised and shifted their hands until he could lace their fingers tightly together. “What do you hear outside?”
“Ellison cleared out everyone but our team,” Steve said. “They’re all out front guarding the house and speculating about sex bonding.”
Tony laughed. “We need our own territory for that kind of bonding.” He tugged Steve across the room and opened the door. “Just remember that those are our people out there and every single one of them is on your side.”
“Worried I might get territorial with them?” Steve questioned.
“Yes, and honestly no one would blame you considering what we’ve been through but it would be our mutual best interest for you to keep a level head as much as possible. We’ve got a lot of work to do as a pair to repair the damage that asshole has done to us.”
Chin was on the porch when they left the house.
“Stored in your gun locker,” Chin said and jerked his thumb toward the truck. “Can you drive?”
“I’ll drive,” Tony interjected. “His senses are probably going to spike. We need some space.”
“Of course,” Chin said with a nod. “We’ll follow you home for safety’s sake.”
The drive home was a special kind of agony for Steve. The motion of the vehicle was unsettling and his hearing spiked shortly after they left the scene. He’d closed his eyes to ward off any visual issues before they hit him and concentrated as much as possible on the thud of Tony’s heart. It was so different from what he was used to with the hawk. Bird’s have a very fast heartbeat, and he’d grown used to that delicate but rapid sound in his background. The loss of it was freaking him out.
Tony guided him into the house, and Steve just clung like a child despite himself. He hated this weakness. It wasn’t the kind of reunion he’d envisioned for months and months. But Tony was calm as if he had expected exactly the circumstances they were dealing with.
“I feel weak.”
“Disoriented as well,” Tony surmised as he led Steve into the bathroom. “Your sensory data for me is all fucked up because you spent the last two years living with a bird. You’re pretty used to my human scent all over the house and on your clothes when you’ve asked me to wear them. But my digital voice doesn’t sound quite the same as my voice in reality. You have to get used to my human heart.”
Steve took a deep breath. “Yeah. It’s weird. I feel like I lost something, which is stupid because what I’ve gained is priceless. I never thought this day would come and I certainly didn’t…even when we’re on the way to the house, I didn’t expect to see you today. I thought it might take weeks to break his hold on us—if it could be broken at all. The attack was so visceral I began to think that it might not even end with his death.”
“It crossed my mind as well.” He unbuckled Steve’s TAC vest.
“You’ve never remembered anything before…with Wo Fat on the psionic plane.”
“He lost control,” Tony said grimly. “You startled him, and the threat infuriated him. I think, also, in some strange way he was hurt that you were rejecting him yet again. He’s a very damaged person.”
Steve shrugged out of the vest. “What are we doing?”
Tony laughed. “We’re going to get naked and take a shower. You’re going to make a full imprint on me.”
“Think you can handle that, Commander?” Tony questioned.
“I do have a special skill set designed for just that kind of activity,” Steve murmured as he reached for his Guide’s T-shirt. He pulled it over Tony’s head and tossed it aside. His hands shook a little as he brushed the back of his fingers down Tony’s side. “It’s been a while for me.”
“I never asked you to be celibate, Steve,” Tony said gently. “I told you more than once that you needed the human contact. Did you really ignore me on that?”
“How could I not?” Steve asked and closed his eyes briefly to settle himself. “You’re all I’ve wanted since I set eyes on you.”
Nimble fingers hooked into his belt and Steve took a deep breath. “It feels like a dream, but that’s impossible—I haven’t slept in years.”
Tony brushed his mouth gently against Steve’s, and the Sentinel shuddered at the first taste of his Guide. “Easy.”
“You taste amazing,” Steve whispered and pulled Tony close despite the other man’s efforts to undress him. He nuzzled his mouth against Tony’s jaw and down to the side of his neck. “Tony.”
“I’m here,” Tony murmured. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Through sheer strength of will, Steve shed the rest of his clothes and watched avidly as Tony did the same. “Early on when we were first cursed, if the work day was slow I’d watch security footage of you in the office. But eventually, it was painful to see you in my space on video but never in reality.”
Tony focused on him, and Steve wishes his cheeks were flushing bright red. “I did the same.” He turned to fix the shower temperature. “Let’s go for lukewarm since your senses are a little off.”
“Yeah,” Steve agreed. “I have some itching.”
“Get the oatmeal bath wash then,” Tony suggested and gestured toward the basket of various bath products on the shelf.
Steve picked up the bottle and focused on his Guide who was standing under the water. “You’re beautiful.”
Tony offered him a wry grin. “So are you. Come here.”
“It’s so weird,” Steve admitted as he pulled the glass door shut, enclosing them in the large shower. “Being here with you like this.”
Tony took the bath wash from his hand and raised an eyebrow. “I’ve been with you practically every minute of every day for over two years.” He grabbed a fresh cotton cloth from a shelf at the back of the shower.
“I’ve meant to ask you about my bath pouf.”
“You mean that breeding ground for bacteria?” Tony corrected. “Didn’t you notice how much better your skin felt after you stopped using it?”
Steve frowned. “Maybe.”
Tony wet the cloth and soaped it with a shake of his head. He put the bath wash on the shelf and moved closer. Steve took a deep breath as his Guide ran the soapy cloth over his shoulder. “You’re terrible to your body, you know.”
“I eat well,” Steve protested. “And exercise though I don’t think I’ve really needed to for the last two years.”
“You still treat your body like you’re a mundane,” Tony said as he spread soap over Steve’s chest. “You’re rough on your skin, careless with the products you buy and use. It’s like you’ve separated your senses into useful and useless. What you think is useless is ignored.”
“I…” Steve felt his face heat as soap slid down his stomach. Tony continued to wash him in slow, easy circles. “I use what I need to use to do the job.”
“Did you know that if you worked with your touch sense the way you did hearing and sight that you’d be able to sense metal objects on other people—anything from change to a weapon.” Tony raised an eyebrow when Steve couldn’t keep the shock off his face. “You could close your eyes, turn down your hearing, and count the number of people in the room based on the ambient temperature changes created by body heat.”
Steve jerked when Tony’s soapy bare hand wrapped around his erection. “I…sorry.”
“No need to be. I’m your Guide. I don’t think we’re ready for penetrative sex. I don’t have a good grasp on your psionic profile this way so we both need to learn a lot about each other before we get that intimate.”
“This isn’t intimate?”
Tony grinned. “Not as intimate as I would like. You need to relax. This will help.”
Steve moved closer as Tony started to stroke up with long, slow strokes. “Can I touch you?”
“Absolutely,” Tony answered. “Let’s figure out how to take care of each other. We’ve got plenty of time.”
Steve’s fingers trembled slightly as he wrapped them around Tony’s rigid cock and he prodded his Guide backward until they were pressed against the wall. He pressed his mouth against Tony’s and let himself relax completely. They had plenty of time.