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The scritch of pens on paper and the slosh and clinck of coffee cups filled the bullpen of Cascade Major Crimes. Small sounds, unobtrusive, but loud and constant enough that Jim had to consciously breathe and refocus on the paperwork in front of him. The only thing worse when he was slightly off-kilter like this would be a ticking clock.

Off-kilter.

Ha.

His hearing caught on every sniffle or lipsmack in this room and three floors above and below.

Jim took a deep breath of the familiar/rank scents of his coworkers and their recently-eaten lunches (no tuna, thank God; today he might cheerfully have murdered the culprit) and bent his head to concentrate on the sensation of scraping his ballpoint across the pitted, ragged surface of a standard fingerprint database query request form. The ball juddered in its nib, the ink flow gloppy and uneven, and he could taste its drying like he’d coated the inside of his mouth with the stuff.

Jesus, it was like trying to work through a migraine. He squinted, breathed out, and refocused again. Focused on the cheap-but-smooth(ish) white paper, bought in bulk and run off the copier. Focused on the pen from Carolyn’s fancy commemorative pen-clock-and-letter-opener desk set. It wasn’t like he was using a half-chewed plastic disposable on ragpulp handcrafted by a kindergartener.

Apparently that didn’t matter, though, because the scrape of metal on fiber set his teeth on edge. Working his jaw, Jim gave up on filling in little boxes and cast his senses out, seeking…

The station sprang into full color around him, pressing in with an almost physical weight after having been ignored. In rushed the full gamut of sounds and sights, tastes and vibrations, scents and the indefinable something that marked the living. His coworkers across the room, his boss in his office, Rhonda at the front desk. The shuffle of cops and techs and paper-pushers, the rattle of the elevator halfway between floors, the shout of a suspect. Pigeons on the roof and hot dogs on the sidewalk.

In the middle of it all: Carolyn pausing at the coffeemaker down the hall on her way back from a late lunch.

He tracked the cadence of her steps, the empty-clean scent of her soap, the reflection of her profile on the windows that lined the bullpen. She remained sharp and clear, the eye of a maelstrom of sensory information that he’d opened himself to, a maelstrom that blurred his edges and threatened him with the shadow of pain at his temples.

Carolyn had ordered him to an early lunch then gone off with her girlfriends for burgers and shit-talk. He’d been left behind in familiar environs under Major Crime’s Captain Simon Bank’s watchful gaze, and between lunch and now had been maybe an hour, hour and a half. Way too little time for this kind of sensory destabilization bullshit to take hold. She hadn’t even been halfway down the block and he was halfway to a major sensory spike that would leave him curled in the fetal position under her desk.

Her sensible pumps clicked his direction with an uneven cadence, not enough to be called a limp. At least one mug of the station’s barely-serviceable coffee accompanied the sound, the coffee over-sweetened in a way that couldn’t mask the burnt aftertaste from the ancient pot.

Letting out a heavy breath, he tried to concentrate upon just her. Her skin. Her breath. Her heartbeat. Not all the other station incidentals that only led him down broad and winding paths straight to sensory hell.

Jim fixed upon her the moment she came into view. He was coiled and tense and deeply annoyed with himself and felt ready to—something. Pounce. Rage. Anything but sit and let his own senses assault him.

Carolyn paused at the threshold of the bullpen when she saw him and kicked up her eyebrows. For a long moment, she remained still, her gaze evaluating, before she swung back into step as if she’d never hesitated. Stopping beside her desk, she looked down at him.

“Something wrong?”

Her voice resonated with its intimate imprint deep in his hindbrain and a good portion of the tension in him shifted from shoulders to groin. Fantastic.

“No.”

She regarded him with narrowed eyes. Whatever she saw on his face, however, didn’t prompt her to challenge his self-assessment. Instead, she just said, “Coffee,” lifted his mug, and placed it on his low shelf beside her desk. Then, with a casual wave, she gestured him to scootch.

Jim slid out of her chair and down to the padded kneeling stool on the floor next to it. The padding let out a soft sigh of air as he settled into place. She sat and her palm came to rest on the back of his neck.

Bowing his head, he leaned into her touch. The heat of her palm radiated down his spine and he breathed deeply against the sensation, willing down his physical response. This was his goddamned place of work and he wasn’t a sixteen-year-old panting after his Guide.

His awareness of her as a woman after imprinting had yet to fade, though, even two weeks out from the ritual. Didn’t help that she was damn near exactly his type —and he hers. Honestly, he was surprised she hadn’t clocked one of his erections and dragged him to bed at least once; if she kept this up, she’d be the first of his Guides not to give into the temptation.

Imprint-crossed wires or no, however, the presence of her hand against his skin was working. The phantom pain at his temples faded away as he paced his breath in time with hers. He stared unseeing at his coffee mug and his shoulders lowered by degrees.

Papers shuffled, though her hand on his neck didn’t move. “Been busy, I see. Did you get—ah. You did. Thank you. That’ll speed things up nicely.”

“Could do more.”

“Military Sentinels.” Carolyn clicked her tongue. “Not at the moment. We’re heading out to a scene as soon we get you squared away.”

Jim worked his jaw. “I was fine.”

Carolyn squeezed his neck and not gently.

The prick of her lacquered nails set him shivering. He breathed in, a long, slow breath, little static echoes of her touch skittering up his jaw and down his shoulder-blades.

“Anything happen while I was gone?” she asked.

Annoyed all over again despite her touch, he said, “No. Nothing. Paperwork.”

With a hum, she slid her fingers—her nails—up the back of his neck and into his hair. She then leaned down to where he knelt beside her chair and whispered, “I don’t believe you.”

At the brush of her breath, sensation cascaded from the top of his head down to the base of his spine. Pleasure. A chill. He didn’t know. Couldn’t tell. As much as he’d been pulled a hundred different ways before she’d returned, he was focused now so tightly on the crackle between them that all he could do for a long, long moment was breathe.

Conditioning was a bitch and a half.

Ten even breaths, one at a time, heavy and cleansing.

Centered once more, he made a low noise of displeasure deep in his chest, not quite a growl. But he kept his eyes down on his shelf and on the mug of shitty coffee that he could probably drink now without making himself sick.

Carolyn studied his profile from too close in an already frustratingly familiar search for lingering tension , then nodded. “Better,” she declared and released him.

He worked his jaw. “Nothing happened,” he repeated , like she hadn’t just headed off a sensory spike. He was just off today, that was all.

“Of course it didn’t,” she said.

Outside of his periphery, she shuffled paper. Sipped her coffee. Ignored his bent neck and the surly set to his shoulders.

Before long, though, she swore under her breath at something and said, “Just drink your coffee and let me find… Won’t be a minute and we’ll be good to go.”

The order was tossed off, absent, but he closed his hand around his mug a moment later regardless. Drinking coffee let him lift his head and observe.

The Major Crimes bullpen was ticking along as usual and, as far as Jim could tell, none of his coworkers had noticed either his almost-spike or Carolyn’s handling of it. A Sentinel for the department might be a coup, but now that they were almost a week in the novelty had faded and nobody was rubbernecking at their byplay anymore. The shine of Carolyn holding him to Guided Sentinel Protocol in public had worn off more quickly than he’d thought it would.

He finished his coffee and set the mug back on its shelf.

“Let’s go get the Captain’s blessing,” Carolyn announced, pushing back from her desk.

Two steps behind and to her left, he followed her to Captain Bank’s door where her knock was answered with a terse, “Come in.”

Banks was gnawing on a cigar that he couldn’t smoke with Jim in the building and glowering at a page of dense-packed text. He plucked his cigar free and transferred his glower from report to Carolyn. “The Carpenter scene is waiting for you and the techs are champing at the bit to get in there,” Banks informed them. “Coroner, too.”

“Just dotting my is before we go,” Carolyn said. She then offered her half of the formality that would check Jim out from the Major Crimes like a library book. “Plummer to remove Ellison from the premises for external Sentinel crime scene analysis.”

“Not yet.” Banks’ eyebrows drew together, the furrows in his brow deepening. “Unfortunately, station brass are sending an observer. You’re going to have to appease them before you head out.”

Carolyn took a step back and grasped Jim’s elbow. “Any particular reason?”

“Hell if I know.” Banks grimaced. “Use my office. I’ve got a meeting downstairs, and the least you can do is keep the circus in here so as not to disrupt the rest of my detectives.”

Banks cut his gaze from Carolyn up to Jim’s face and hesitated, but whatever he might have added, he decided against it. He let out his breath. “Pack up and prepare. I want you both out of here the instant you’re given the green light. Plummer’s removal of Ellison acknowledged. I’ll add it to the log myself.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Carolyn said.

“Thank you, Captain,” Jim echoed. The guidelines of the GSP let him have that much dignity.

Two steps back and to the left, Jim shadowed Carolyn from Banks’ office, and back at her desk she didn’t make him kneel. Should have, if a station observer was heading their direction, but he wasn’t going to protest. Instead, she gave him busywork delivering completed forms to Captain Banks’ administrative assistant, Rhonda, one at a time, whenever she unearthed a new one he had managed to complete during his desk time.

Carolyn’s only comment as they spun their wheels was, “You were busy while I was gone.”

“Could do more,” he told her.

“So you’ve said,” she replied, a smile twitching at her lips.

“Hasn’t gotten any less true.”

She shooed him. He went.

At the front desk, Rhonda, gave him a warm smile and accepted the fourth form he’d ferried from Carolyn’s desk.

“Linger,” Rhonda said. “You’re making me tired just watching you.”

Unsure how to respond, he managed a tight smile.

“You seemed to have settled in well enough.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Rhonda pursed her lips, hesitating, before she began, “You know we’re—”

Captain Banks interrupted her by coming to a halt by the front desk and frowning at both of them.

His spine stiffened as Jim fought off the impulse to come to attention. Banks was taller than Jim himself and imposing even without being a Sentinel. Without Carolyn to play buffer, Jim floundered for a reaction. Toeing the guidelines suddenly didn’t seem right for all that Banks was Jim’s direct superior. Nothing about his Captain’s frown suggested Jim drop his eyes or playact any other type of Sentinel subservience.

Jim went with his gut and settled for dipping his chin in a formal nod.

Exchanging a glance with Rhonda, Banks said, “Before I go, Ellison, I thought I’d remind you that if you need anything, you can come to me.”

Rhonda busied herself with a vital administrative task.

“Sure thing, Captain,” Jim said slowly as a frown of his own stole over his face.

“Lieutenant Plummer’s good people,” Banks continued, growing slightly more stilted, “but not everything’s Guide business.”

Never had Jim heard any variation of that sentiment out of his superiors from the time he’d been taken into the Sentinel programs, throughout his military career, or after. With the guidelines in place and rigidly enforced after puberty, a Sentinel was always their—and any—Guide’s business whether they wanted to be or not, privacy or autonomy be damned.

Except, apparently, under Captain Banks’ command.

Jim couldn’t hide his surprise, his eyebrows winging upwards. “You’re right, it’s not.”

“Good,” Banks said, grimacing a little. “Glad we had this chat, Ellison. Long overdue.”

Jim couldn’t quite let things go at that. He’d been here just shy of an entire week. “Mind if I ask what prompted our little chat?”

“Thank you, Rhonda.” Banks accepted a folder from Rhonda and flipped it open. Skimming the file, he worked his jaw as if muscle memory had him shifting a phantom cigar from one side of his mouth to the other. Finally, he looked Jim in the eye and said, “Truth? The unwelcome reminder that the Guide I’ve got the most faith in isn’t the only one who can make demands upon your time. You’re one of my detectives. If you have a problem, you come to me, you got that?”

“Sir,” Jim said. Cautiously, not quite sure if he were reading the situation right, he added, “And if my problem is with Plummer?”

“Especially if your problem is with her. Every Captain dreams of a stable working pair, but I’m not going to sell your soul to have one.”

With that, Banks snapped the folder shut, said his farewells to Rhonda, and offered Jim a crisp nod goodbye.

Jim was left standing by Rhonda’s desk, baffled to stillness, his heart thumping hard against the wash of stress hormones Banks’ words had released. And in his office, Banks’d said, “One of my detectives.”

Jim’d been hired as a detective, sure, but the word “Sentinel” and all the crap with the guidelines usually created a fairytale veneer, for civilians especially. The reconditioning Guides he’d had since he’d gotten back from Peru especially played up the protocol bullshit until even grocery shopping had been a dance of GSP as if Jim hadn’t been wrangling his own damned senses since he was a kid. So soon after reconditioning, he couldn’t quite wrap his head around the kind of agency his Captain was assuming of him.

The elevator dinged and a stick-thin, rabbity white man fumbling with his lapel badge popped past Captain Banks to head toward the front desk. He reoriented toward Jim as soon as he saw him standing there. Jim flared his nostrils at the sticky scent of the man’s pomade.

“You’re Ellison,” the man said, his diction over-precise and his expression bland and perfunctory. He finished settling his badge and did not offer his hand to shake. “Jasper Nolty, from Guide-Sentinel Relations upstairs, your two-week observer. Where’s the Lieutenant?”

“At her—” Jim began, taken aback.

“Nolty,” Carolyn greeted him, slipping past Jim to place herself two steps forward and to his right. Jim didn’t even have to move. “I thought you were still off until the sixth.”

Nolty’s gaze slid from Jim and landed on Carolyn, and suddenly he had facial expressions. He grinned and shot his hand out to shake Carolyn’s. “Plummer! Mind like a steel trap, you have. Hotel flooded, if you can believe. Postponed everything until next summer. How’s Major Crimes?”

“Would be better if people’d stop committing them,” Carolyn said, her handshake crisp and brief. “Not that I’m not glad to see you, but let’s get this over with. The Captain’s offered us the use of his office.”

“Kind of him,” Nolty said.

Jim said nothing and neither of them acknowledged him. Carolyn simply led Nolty to Captain Banks’ office with Jim in tow and smarting from the whiplash between Banks and Nolty’s attitudes.

“Good luck, Ellison,” Rhonda said beneath her breath as he moved away, too low for any but Jim’s ears, and where the other detectives had ignored him thus far, they now were doing a very poor job of hiding their interest. One, Pendergrast , gave him a surreptitious thumbs-up that—in light of his conversation with the Captain—made Jim wonder what exactly his coworkers had been told and when.

Carolyn stopped Jim as they stepped inside Captain Bank’s empty office and gestured him to wait next to the door. Nolty started to poke around, peering out the windows down at the street below , and Jim took up a modified parade-rest. The door clicked closed and Jim forced his thoughts away from the curious disquiet that had taken root in his gut to focus on their official observer.

The station staffed unassigned Guides as a precaution, and the department that governed them had nominal authority over the Sentinels of other departments. Technically, Nolty was here as a courtesy. Functionally, he could pass judgement on Carolyn’s handling and make life very difficult for her. Guide-Sentinel Relations could break their pairing, imprinted or not, and allow a superseding imprint if Nolty’s report suggested an instability.

Up until the door had shut behind him, Jim would have said he didn’t care if he were reassigned. He’d already had three reconditioning Guides with the threat of more; imprints faded, and faster beneath new ones. However, Rhonda’s smile and Pendergrast’s thumbs-up had gotten him thinking.

Nolty turned from the window with a bounce to his step. “Down to business, then?”

“If you don’t mind,” Carolyn agreed. “We’ve a crime scene waiting on us.”

“Won’t take a moment, won’t take a moment. This is just a quick looksee to see how the imprint settled, considering he’s your first.”

“First long-term,” Carolyn corrected him, stiffening.

“Yes, yes. The imprinting makes a difference, though, haven’t you found?”

“...enough of one.” At her grudging concession, she gestured Jim down.

Five minutes ago, Jim might have done more to throw grit in the works, but busting up his paring with Carolyn before he’d had time to figure out Banks and his team struck him as more stupid than he wanted to be. So, for now...

Showtime.

Jim stepped to the center of the office and dropped into the base abeyant kneeling pose. He sat on his heels, laid his palms face-up on his thighs, and bowed his head. Nolty’s regard was like an itch as Jim tried to breathe, to catch at his conditioning and force it to work, and place himself into the trance-like receptive state designed to amplify his abilities called abeyance.

Ten even breaths and he could hear the wet parting of Carolyn’s lips as she counted each off silently to herself. He hit six and his wavering awareness snapped to Carolyn’s breath and scent and heat; nature abhorred a vacuum as much as he did meditation. With this type of showpony GSP crap and her sending him down into Guide-focused abeyance, she became the center of his world, everything he was brought to bear not on a task, but on her will. The ritual demanded that only this room and its occupants were real; the rest of the station drifted away on mental whitenoise like an unconvincing dream.

On the count of ten, Carolyn stepped into place at his right shoulder and threaded her fingers through his hair to give him the contact he needed to set aside anticipation for focus.

“Ellison,” she said softly, and he tilted his head up and back, her hand guiding the movement to bare his throat for their audience. Her eyes flicked between his pupils. “Just like that, thank you.”

“Jesus,” Nolty breathed. “Is that a military thing? He’s already abeyant?”

“Basically.” Carolyn sounded fond. “Fast as hell and hates it if I try to ‘help.’ I take it you’ve read his file?”

Jim blinked at her, throat still arched, eyes on her face. She looked fond, too, gazing down at him. The trance-state kept everything but the physicality of her at a metaphorical arm’s-length, his emotions muted, but the notion that fond was both good and not floated just beyond true conscious thought.

“Of course, of course. The department’s still abuzz, you know. Never thought Banks of all people would ever agree to a Sentinel at all, let alone a hand-me-down. Especially not one who went feral in Peru.” Nolty flitted closer. “I don’t think I’ve congratulated you yet for him, either. He’s quite the promotion. God, he’s massive.”

Nolty’s words washed over him, distant and irrelevant.

“Thank you,” Carolyn said and released Jim’s hair. She then warded away Nolty’s hand when the idiot reached for Jim—to do what, Jim had no idea. Maybe just to touch.

Jim breathed out in blank amusement. His small huff earned a glance from Carolyn and a ghost of a smile.

Nolty didn’t seem to notice he’d been redirected like a grabby toddler, just crouched down in front of Jim and peered into his face. Like this, however, Jim couldn’t really split his attention. Abeyant and grounded on Carolyn, he could hear the rasp of breath in her lungs and feel her radiating warmth—hotter and brighter at her core, faintly cooler where her hand came to rest on the back of his head and stroke once.

This kind of personal abeyance was so very different from a working suspension. Jim felt drugged, slower than he should be. Gumming the gears a little and committing less to showing off for Nolty would have left more of his wits intact. He could almost taste Carolyn, their imprinting fresh in his mind.

“He attentive?” Nolty asked.

“Very,” Carolyn said. “And professional. Ellison, kneel up.”

Jim flexed his thighs and unfolded so that he was no longer resting on his heels. As part of the motion, he rolled his shoulders, flipped his palms downward, and twitched his knees a fraction further apart, resettling himself for a wait.

Nolty hopped backward, eyes wide. “He’s a beast of a Sentinel, that’s for certain. Good choice that, if you ask me. Good defense against the unsavories if you’re out in the field. Got lucky, I think, him being a local. Native to the region, if you will, making that fine territorial impulse stronger than—though what am I saying. Ha. I’ve only read his file.” He straightened and flashed Carolyn another bright grin. “He get territorial with you, yet? I’ve heard that it’s quite the experience, even with Sentinels not nearly as classic. A perk of an imprint side effect, if you ask me.”

Carolyn sucked in her breath all but imperceptibly at that last comment and Jim could feel the tremor in her arm and the hot flush that crawled over her skin. Anger, he thought, rather than embarrassment, which struck him distantly as odd.

No emotion leaked into her voice, however, as she soundly ignored Nolty and instructed, “Ellison, scent report.”

The command, without modifier, while he was in Guide-focused abeyance, meant a report on Carolyn.

“Scent. Lieutenant Carolyn Plummer, Major Crimes Cascade,” he said, military clipped, voice strong as he knelt at attention. “Firearm present. Cosmetics present. Hands recently washed and lotioned, lotion shea-butter based with no additional scents. Lingering coffee and potato starch scents suggest the consumption of both sometime within the recent past, up to three hours according to projected fall-offs of scent-type. Faint vinegar scent from lapel. Faint blood scent from shoes.”

All stuff he’d be able to know because he’d been living in her pocket for two weeks, sure, but all stuff he’d feel confident making calls on in the field. All incentives to investigate further and not make specious Holmsian ‘deductions,’ too.

But now it was time to cheat, because fuck this guy.

“Faint dogshit scent upon sole of left shoe, scent-type fall-off suggestive of a traumatic event last Thursday. Lunch: swiss and mushroom. Breakfast: eggy. Definitely bacon. Suggestive of ketchup. Lipstick: mauve, or at least one of the darker colors. Right heel requires a blister bandage.”

Damn. Annoyance was going to pull him up out of abeyance if he wasn’t careful. He hadn’t consciously connected the blood scent with her favoring that side in her new pumps, but he should have. Taking another deep breath through his nose, he then ran his tongue across his teeth and tried to find a reason to be less annoyed.

Unfortunately, he had to settle for distracted. There were a handful of scents that Nolty didn’t get to know about. Like how imprinting had left Carolyn and him both with a lingering odor of arousal that grew heavier off and on throughout the day. Right now, Carolyn’s had kicked up a notch, and Jim was muzzily amused to realize that his had spiked to match. How she hadn’t fucked him yet was beyond him.

“Report complete unless further specified,” he finished firmly.

Nolty’s voice sounded far away and hilariously incredulous. “Holy shit.”

“And Nolty?” Carolyn drawled.

Tearing away from Carolyn was a molasses-slow process, shifting him out and up into more of the working abeyance he was used to where he could use his skills for something other than leaving him pointlessly sense-drunk and oversensitive.

His eyes slid closed as he reached out past the scent of good coffee that the Captain drank in as large a quantity and with as little regard as the bullpen crap. Past the old cigar tobacco that breathed from the walls as the heat in the room climbed in the afternoon sun, stale and rich. He groped blind through the dark, pulling in air slow and even and with a practiced efficiency.

Nolty. Nolty. There.

The full spice of Nolty’s pomade bloomed, tacky and cloying. Scented, along with an aftershave that stung Jim’s nose. Jim had already guessed that Nolty would be careless after his initial whiff of him by the elevators, but sensory hyperfocus did the man no favors. An unassigned Guide should damn well know better, especially if he ever wanted to angle for a Sentinel of his own.

“Scent. Jasper Nolty, Guide-Sentinel Relations Cascade.” That off-kilter feeling returned as he finished spinning his senses outward and settled on Nolty; Jim wasn’t quite dizzy, but his focus kept trying to wobble back toward Carolyn or unconsciousness or a sensory spike or all three at the same time.

Jesus. He needed to make this part quick.

“Nolty. Pomade. Aftershave. Cotton-polyester, drycleaned. Cat and a dog. Curry. Shoepolish. Visited one of the labs and stepped in something acrid.” Jim flared his nostrils and made a disgruntled sound low in his throat that made Carolyn pet the back of his head. “Aroused.” Because of course he was. “Report complete until further specified.”

“Thank you, Ellison.” Carolyn stroked his hair once more.

“Goodness, he’s very precise, isn’t he?” Nolty sounded delighted. “But then he did come with good credentials. Is scent his best?”

“No. Sight seems to be under testing conditions, hearing next, but any sense combination will exceed any single sense.”

Nolty loosed a low whistle. “A rare skill, I’m given to understand.”

“He’s clever and experienced,” Carolyn said and Jim felt a flutter of something between pleasure and bemusement when she sounded...judgemental of Nolty. “Accurate identification and interpretation provides no small advantage in the field.”

“I’m sure he is clever indeed,” Nolty said dismissively, then adjusted his cuffs and studied the two of them. “The real question is—or ‘was’ rather—was if the imprint had settled, and I daresay it has. He seems obedient enough, and willing to please, which is all you can really ask. And, gracious, he looks like just the sort you carry condoms around for, I would imagine. Opportunity could knock at any time, after all.”

A casual, conspiratorial look accompanied Nolty’s comment.

Carolyn flushed red-hot in fury, her fingers spasming away from Jim’s head as if he’d burnt her. Her visceral reaction flipped some sort of switch in Jim’s brain and he was half out of his crouch ready to slam into Nolty fist-first before she could grab the back of his belt and bark, “Down.”

Abeyance, Guide-focused or otherwise, was intended to circumvent higher brain function in lieu of conscious obedience. The command vibrated through him, yanked at his imprint of her, and he slammed back down onto one knee. Only after, only when she stepped forward one long stride and rested her hand heavily on the back of his once-more-bowed neck, did he register what Nolty had said.

“He’s a working Sentinel, sir.” Carolyn was vibrating with anger, her nails digging hard into Jim’s skin, but her tone remained icy. “We’re a working pair.”

“Well, he certainly likes you,” Nolty said ruefully from halfway closer to the door than he had been. “A pity.”

God, Jim had gone after their observer.

Carolyn kept Jim’s head down, but he could hear Nolty rustling his clothing and resettling himself. She said nothing, however, her breathing measured in the way he’d come to learn meant controlling both her temper and her tongue. Jim’s lunge wouldn’t have to be twisted very far to suggest instability.

“Well then,” Nolty said into the charged silence. “The last observer condition requires inducing a zone.”

Any tighter a grip on his neck and Carolyn would draw blood. “Absolutely not.”

“But we really must be thorough. Especially with him having gone feral for a time. Bad habits and all, even if his reconditioning took as well as could be expected.” Nolty’s mock-surprise scraped at Jim’s nerves. “Certainly you don’t wish to fail your two-week observation.”

Jim could all but taste Carolyn counting silently to ten.

After a long moment, she said, “Be that as it may.”

“He’s military-trained. A light zone would be nothing.”

“We’re about to head to a scene. A zone will—”

“—a zone might,” Nolty interrupted her. “It might leave him oversensitive. But, again, he’s trained for much worse zones, and for combat functions in and around them. His file was very informative. I really don’t see an issue.”

“It’s stressful and unnecessary when you’ve already seen how—how attached we are. If he zones when we’re working, I will document the outcome. I cannot, in good conscience, allow an artificial inducement.”

“Policy dictates—”

“I do not care what policy dictates—”

Nolty’s tone grew sharper edged. “I really must insist.”

“He’s already had a spike today.”

Jim’s muscles locked under Carolyn’s hand and his mind popped up and out of abeyance like a goddamned cork. Fuck. Spikes weren’t unusual, per se, not even in the most stable pairs, but they did indicate stress or anxiety or whatever the fuck this guy wanted them to indicate if Carolyn kept shutting down his little dog-and-pony show. Jim hadn’t even had a full sensory spike.

“Has he, then?”

Jim wanted up to pace or to stare the man down or throttle him or something—anything—that wasn’t being held to one knee. He hated zoning, hated the feel of falling so deeply into a single sense that it overflowed into the rest of his mind and obliterated everything else, hated coming back to feeling like he’d been squeezed empty.

Already off-kilter, he could guarantee himself a migraine no matter how light the zone.

Scrupulously polite, Carolyn reported, “Ellison spiked after lunch, just before your arrival. He responded well to Guide contact and I judge him in a satisfactory state to perform his external duties, but need I remind you that I am the authority on the health of my Sentinel. Civilian or military, inducing a zone after a spike is not recommended.”

“I see.” Nolty said, then paused, and Jim couldn’t lift his head to look. “Would you have told me if I had merely asked?”

The man’s mild tone struck Jim as dangerous.

Carolyn replied, “If asked. I maintain that it was a pair matter and did not indicate an issue that would require Guide-Sentinel Relations assistance.”

“A spike is a serious matter.”

“And I handled it as a serious matter.”

The room settled into quiet and Jim forced his muscles to relax so that he wasn’t actively straining against Carolyn’s heavy palm.

“You will report any and all other spikes, both before and after this, and they will be considered as part of your overall evaluation.”

“Very well.”

“And I will require a report on any future zones, regardless if they take place during the workday or no.”

“Sir.” Carolyn paused. Breathed. “With all due respect, I object to the invasion of privacy.”

“You’re a working pair. Regardless of whether or not he lives with you, need I remind you that your pairing remains under the auspices of Guide-Sentinel Relations.”

Carolyn bit out, “I will discuss the matter with my Captain.”

After another long pause that made Jim’s skin itch, Nolty suddenly sounded as bright and enthusiastic as he had when he’d bounded into Major Crimes. “Yes, of course! I know your Captain is as invested in making everything work out as we are up in my department.” The smile is his voice came through loud and clear. “And just think! A successful run with this particular Sentinel and you’re almost guaranteed a nice promotion.”

“Of course it is,” muttered Carolyn, half under her breath. Louder, she said, “Yes, sir.”

Carolyn didn’t let Jim up until Nolty had said his farewells and made Carolyn sign some papers. When he finally left, though, he took some of the violence in the room with him.

The second he did, Carolyn was on one knee next to Jim, her hands warm on the sides of his face. “God, I’m so sorry I left you down so long, fuck. C’mon, Ellison. Snap out of it.”

Not the procedure in the least, there were checklists for that, but Jim let his eyes focus on her face. “I’m out. I’m up.” He didn’t bother to tell her he’d already been out. He bared his teeth at her. “I didn’t fucking spike.”

“For Christ’s sake, did you want me to just let him zone you?” She snatched her hands away and backed off.

Jim climbed to his feet. “Better a migraine than a goddamned vulture watching our every move.”

“I can’t believe—no. Absolutely not. You were just shy of full sensory distress when I found you. It’s only a miracle you hadn’t spiked already.” Carolyn retreated and lowered her voice. The door to Captain Bank’s office didn’t muffle shouting. “What the fuck kind of Guide would I even be if I let that asshole get his hands on you in any way, let alone one I know would incapacitate you.”

“I can work through a migraine.” A fucking lie, but it had a good snap to it.

“Miltary-fucking—that’s not the goddamned point!”

“The point?” Jim sucked in his breath. The need to pace rode him, but Captain Bank’s office too small and too hot and too steeped in unfamiliar sensory information. His skin felt tight, a shadow of the earlier pain back like a band around his skull. Rooted to the center of the floor, he snarled, “The point is that he wants to fuck me nearly as much as you do, and right now you’re the only one who can fucking do anything about it.”

Only after the words left his mouth did he realize they could be taken two ways—and he didn’t know which way he meant.

Carolyn stared at him, stunned speechless.

Jutting his chin out, Jim folded his arms across his chest and glowered.

Finally, Carolyn said, “We have a job to do,” in her most carefully-controlled tone. “And we need privacy to discuss this.”

Jim thought back to the thumbs-up he’d gotten, the well-wishes, the concern, and the very high likelihood that every single person on the other side of that door was listening as if their lives depended on it. Emotion clawed at his throat. Privacy sounded fucking amazing.

And if their discussion went to shit, Banks had made damned sure that Jim knew he had another option, which was more than Jim had had in...ever. “Then let’s do our jobs.”

“Fine.”

“Fine,” Jim said. He gestured graciously toward the door. “After you, Lieutenant.”

Fire snapped in her eyes, her jaw flexing, but after a moment she spun on her heel and yanked the door open. She didn’t give him any orders, just stalked off across the bullpen through a hush like the silence after a thunderstorm.

He fell in with her, two steps back and to the left, before she’d reached the elevators and they made their way to the scene in silence.