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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.

Chapter Text

Outside the Carpenter home, emergency vehicles clustered in the drive and sprawled into the street. Caution tape provided a perimeter, and there was enough of a hubbub that a small crowd of neighbors were peering past a pair of patrol vehicles at where techs were fluttering by their van with forensic kits all ready to go.

“Fucking Nolty,” Carolyn muttered under her breath after they’d parked her old sedan across the street. She finished pulling on her official jacket with GUIDE emblazoned on the back in bold white letters and tossed Jim the one that said SENTINEL as they crossed the lawn toward an upscale suburban home perched on a slope. “We should have been here an hour ago.”

On-scene, the guidelines were supposed to kick in, and GSP was very clear on precisely how silent Jim needed to be when he was following a Guide around in a professional capacity. Namely: he was to speak when spoken to or when he needed to convey work-related details and half a dozen other…

“They shouldn’t have waited,” Jim growled as they passed the techs, jamming his arms into his jacket sleeves. “Wastes everyone’s time.”

Carolyn’s shoulders stiffened, but she didn’t reprimand him. “We haven’t had a field-approved forensics Sentinel in years. In another six weeks you’ll be wishing they’d stayed in awe of you.”

He huffed, but didn’t reply, and she led him up the steps to the wraparound porch and then inside. The lead tech who’d secured the scene for Jim was waiting just inside sporting a pair of stretchy white booties and a ten-thousand-yard stare.

The foyer ended at the base of the stairs to the second level. To either side of the stairs were entrances to two different living rooms, along with a short, tiled hall that led to the garage off to the left. The air inside the house smelled faintly...citrusy, in a strange, sourceless way. In the left-hand living room, past the garage entrance, the TV had collapsed forward off its stand and shattered on the coffee table. The children’s toys strewn along the baseboards and colorful kid DVDs stacked near where the TV had fallen sent a cold wash down Jim’s spine.

“Shit,” Carolyn swore and stepped back so that her shoulder fetched up against Jim’s chest, halting him. She sucked in a shallow breath and reached out to rest a hand on the lead tech’s arm to get his attention. “Hey. Hey, Don.”

Shaking himself, the lead tech greeted them both and said, “Kids are with grandma.” His eyes flicked between Carolyn and Jim before settling on Carolyn. “Weekly overnight.”

Carolyn loosed her breath in relief, a measure of tension easing from her shoulders , and Jim couldn’t help but agree with her. When she’d gathered herself again, she asked, “So what have we got?”

“Basement seems to have the worst of it,” the lead tech indicated the other end of the house with his thumb. Presumably there was a door somewhere in the direction. “Two bodies, none more that we’ve found, and the whole level’s flooded, much as it can be. It’s a walk-out, and it’s been leaking. Beyond that, nothing big.” He leaned past Carolyn and gestured at the TV and the solid-oak coffee table that had staved it in. “‘Sides that. As you clear rooms, we’ll move in behind you.”

“Duly noted,” Carolyn said with a nod. “Alright, then. There a place we can use?”

“The foyer here’s probably the best you’ll get. I’ll find your bagger and let you do...whatever you need to do to start, yeah?” Another glance toward Jim, a brief almost-nervous flick of the eyes.

At Carolyn’s nod, however, the lead tech stepped back out to gather his flock, leaving Jim and Carolyn behind to settle down to business.

“Jesus,” Carolyn said, running a hand over her hair.

Jim glanced around the foyer. The guidelines ‘strongly suggested’ he take the initiative and pick his position for going into working abeyance. His professionalism warred and lost against the combined strength of his irritation and that lingering off-kilter feeling, and he waited.

Carolyn rested the heels of her palms on her temples and breathed deeply.

The techs outside were organizing themselves. The coroner van would be called when Jim finished his sweep so it wasn’t hanging out on the street and riling the crowd. Voices from the concerned neighbors overlapped each other, their questions mostly going unanswered.

After a long moment of breathing, Carolyn dropped her arms and asked, “Are you sure you want to go into abeyance? I brought you up out of the last one badly.”

Jim settled into parade rest and didn’t quite look at her. She hadn’t brought him up out of anything, badly or not, though she sure as hell hadn’t been following any relevant post-abeyance checklist either way.

“No,” he said, poking at the guidelines like a sore tooth. It wouldn’t hurt to remind her that he’d been ‘feral’ in Peru, since Nolty had been so damned concerned. “But I almost never need to go into it.” Carolyn’s eyes widened just enough to catch, and he scowled off at a black-pipe art deco monstrosity of a hatrack. “Even for a scene like this.”

The pulse in Carolyn’s throat kicked up and she stared at him for a good minute. He almost didn’t want to know what her response would be, considering that this was neither the time nor the place to buck GSP, not with a double homicide beneath their feet.

When she finally did say something, however, it was, “What do you mean ‘a scene like this’?”

Thrown, he frowned at her. “My gut says something’s off.”

“Okay.” Carolyn visibly centered herself with a breath and a tiny nod. More firmly, she continued, “Okay, that’s part of the investigation. We still need to—abeyance. Yes or no?”

Jim reined his irritation in—she hadn’t bit on his defiance, and they did have a job to do—and self-evaluated. He was angry, tender-headed, and a little shaky. He really shouldn’t, and not just because he didn’t want to.

There was only one problem with that answer, however. He grimaced and said, “Nolty.”

Fuck.” Carolyn made an inarticulate sound of frustration. “We’re still in observation period, and the techs wouldn’t know not to say anything. How bad will it suck?”

“I’ll survive.”

“Not what I asked.”

“Had worse.”

At that, Carolyn laughed, unhappy. “Military Sentinels. Fine. Knees.” She gestured him down. “You spike or zone, I’m kicking Nolty’s ass whether it means my job or not.”

Jim dropped to his knees on the foyer’s hardwood, tilting his head back to track her face in a little bit of defiance that she met with a hand through his hair. Soothing. Focusing. The techs outside were about to boil in and they were whispering among themselves about how long they were supposed to give for a working pair to get started.

“Hey,” Carolyn said, quiet, drawing his attention back to her. She searched his face as he gazed back at her with his throat bared. “You ever feel like doing this to focus your senses is a little much?”

Her understatement caught him under the ribs and he huffed out in amusement before he could stop himself. “Like lighting a candle with a blow torch.”

“Yeah,” she said, smoothing his hair. “Yeah.”

She let his head drop forward and stepped away, and he turned inward.

He shuffled his thoughts, putting aside both the phantom ache in his skull as well as his emotional state, and allowed himself to chase that floating feeling where all he needed to know was Carolyn’s next directive. He had a task to do and he was going to do it well, and justice would come if he did.

Receptivity stole over him as the trance-state took hold, and when he thought he was as deep as he was going to get, he looked up to find Carolyn peering at his eyes from too close. He couldn’t have recoiled if he wanted to.

Like this, he didn’t want to.

He flared his nostrils at her, taking in the scent of her frustration along with burnt plastic, soapy water, and the effluvia of death. His personal feelings were tucked beneath the immediacy of the imprint and his need to know her next instruction.

“Good,” she said soothingly, looking between his pupils. “Up we go, then.”

He got to his feet as the techs came in the front door, sun-warm and bringing with them the heat of the day and the scent of crushed grass and latex.

“Stay there while we clear the first room,” she ordered them, then touched Jim’s elbow to reclaim his focus. “Let’s start with the undisturbed living room, Ellison. We’ll work our way in a loop. Report as necessary.”

Jim rolled his shoulders and began the hunt.

Violence lingered in the air of the house along with the citrus scent, but the ground floor contained little evidence of it. Nor did the second floor, beyond the sheen of dried, soapy footprints that he pointed out and waited to have flagged. Carolyn had to remind the tech that caught up to them with their tiny flags and evidence bags not to hum.

As he prowled, Jim remained half-attentive to Carolyn, his focus wobbling between her and their surroundings. The off-kilter sensation redoubled beneath the faint lap of water against metal from the basement and the voices of the techs trickling in behind him to perform their duties.

He wouldn’t have had trouble splitting his attention on a normal day.

The little orders Carolyn sprinkled into their task helped him to focus, but there was nothing to find in either of the upper floors, and his mental balance was only growing worse. The house, as big as it was, grew close and stuffy around him and the impulse to expand his awareness clawed at him, anything to prove that he wasn’t shut in a box stuffed with cotton wool.

Halfway through the second story bedrooms, the shadow of pain behind Jim’s eyes began to solidify. Not a sensory spike, not with Carolyn keeping him on task and mostly under with gentle touches and ever more concern in her voice. More like a physical manifestation of whatever was wrong with the scene.

Same with the fact that there were no cat smells in the house, nor dog; there was no way he’d be able to mistake that. Still, Jim caught flickers of movement at the corners of his eyes, like a large, dark-furred body darting just out of sight as he turned his head. The first time he caught himself following the pad of footfalls across the tile of the upstairs bathroom he clenched his teeth hard enough that Carolyn placed her hand on his lower back and asked him quietly if he was alright.

“Fine,” he said. Even if the Carpenters had had a cat, they would never have had one anywhere near that large.

Which meant it wasn’t theirs, but his.

“I’m fine,” he repeated, and clung to abeyance as if it would stave off the migraine he could feel coiled around his eye socket, waiting for him to resurface.

They left the living room with its shattered television for last. From there, violence had left a trail in the smattering of blood that led toward the back of the house, through the kitchen, and to the basement door.

At the top of the basement stairs, Jim paused. “Steel your stomach.”

Carolyn’s hand settled once more on his back. “Let them bring us waders, first.”

The citrus scent was stronger with the door open, one with floral undertones and a bit of spice, and he couldn’t place it. The scent of plain white soap overlaid everything, strong enough that Jim could taste it.

Don, the lead tech, brought them calf-high waders and a warning that the coroner was ten minutes out.

The basement carpet was soggy with about two inches of still water, just enough to reach the lower lip of the sliding glass door that led into the backyard. Jim and Carolyn sloshed their way around the perimeter of the space to the laundry room beneath the stairs.

“They shut off the water from outside,” Carolyn said. “We should be the first ones down here beyond the guys that found the scene.”

The laundry-room sink’s faucet still dripped, its deep basin full. On the floor next to the sink laid a large, ten-gallon bucket that had tipped and released white, soapy sludge into the standing water. Homemade laundry soap. The two bodies themselves were surrounded by bloody halos disturbed by Jim and Carolyn’s steps.

The scents of death and detergent overwhelmed Jim before he could do more than glance at the bodies, forcing him back and out of the small room immediately, Carolyn at his heels. Blood and other fluids swirled in their wake as they waded back into the main room. Palm over his mouth, he stood and breathed, trying desperately to claw his way back to equilibrium and cling to abeyance at the same time.

The deep, rattling cat-noise of the massive black jaguar lounging across the back of the basement sofa informed him in no uncertain terms that he’d just passed his tolerances. He only saw his jaguar when he was stressed beyond his limits.

And somehow—somehow—the worst thing about the whole situation was that his pairing with Carolyn was actually helping. She was a stabilizing force as everything else about his senses spiraled out of control.

“The scent,” he managed from behind his hand. “The...bucket.”

“Bergamot,” Carolyn said with a light touch on his elbow as he struggled to remain in the receptive state. “You know it?”

“Do now.”

Beneath it: soapy chemicals Jim was intimately familiar with. More than once he’d made his own laundry soap just to escape the stink of artificial perfumes. He’d never added any oils, though, and the late Carpenters had used a hell of a lot in this batch. Jesus.

Breathing shallowly, he debated tapping out entirely and blaming Nolty when his jaguar leaped down from the couch and splashed through the water to slip through the glass. It paused beyond the door, only the tip of its tail visible. Chase me. The tail flicked.

Carolyn was trying to speak to him.

Fuck abeyance anyway.

Jim strode to the sliding-glass door and flung it open. Stepping out in a slosh of soapy water, he let go of the last vestiges of the trance-state that had been mostly wishful thinking since the second-story bathroom and followed his intuition. With one hard breath out, he then sucked in as much air as he could and released his stranglehold on his senses. Half the pain lingering in his skull dissipated.

Like at the station, his awareness expanded to encompass the house full of techs, the yards front and back, the street with cars slowly crawling past, and the neighbors in a crowd that had only grown since he’d entered the house. Tar and rotting fruit and distant traffic and sprinkler water. The laughter of children untouched by what had happened at the Carpenters’.

A man’s voice sprang to the forefront of the layered sounds and scents and tastes that came to Jim on the summer air.

Shame about the parents, but at least the kids are alright.

Other neighbors murmured responses. Shock and gossip and helplessness. A few strident comments. A loud conversation between women who smelled of perfume and disposable diapers. A baby’s cry.

But the man. “I wonder when they found them. The basement’s not really the first place you look, is it?

More inane comments full of details no officer or anyone else allowed on a crime scene would ever reveal to random bystanders, especially in a double homicide with the perpetrator at large and the bodies barely cool.

Jim started up the slope of the lawn toward the front, pulling off his waders and leaving them on the grass. The man’s comments continued, little needling ones designed to invite speculation as to the killer, to how it was done and why.

“Ellison,” came Carolyn’s voice loud behind him. Worried.

Jim stalked toward the cordon and the crowd until Carolyn darted in front of him and halted him with a hand in the center of his chest.

“Ellison,” she repeated more quietly. They were standing in the center of the front yard in full view of a now-silent audience. He had well and truly snapped his leash.

Jim flexed his jaw. Carolyn hadn’t sounded angry.

“He’s here,” he told her, looking down at her. She’d been nothing but professional, but even that much trust felt dangerous. They had no plausible deniability here; she couldn’t claim that she’d thought he was in abeyance. Sensing the murderer had been all him.

But she didn’t focus on his blatant, feral breach of the GSP. Instead she asked, “Where?”

He indicated the crowd with his chin. “Rubberneckers. One of them.”

“You know which one?”

“Not yet. Just his voice.”

A shadow of a smile flicked across her face. “You’re going to spook him.”

“He’s going to—”

With an ostentatious snap of her fingers, she pointed toward the van nearest the crowd. “You need to rest, for fuck’s sake.” Her voice rose. “I know it was a lot, just breathe.”

Whispering among the crowd. Curious questions and a relaxation of tension as the realization spread that Jim’s jacket said SENTINEL.

For his ears only, she added, “Now, have a Sentinel breakdown or something so we have a reason for you to have charged across the damn yard straight at our murderer.”

“Fuck,” Jim said and scrubbed at his face. His skin still buzzed just on the edge of over-sensitive. He was keyed up and ready to deal with a threat to his people, to his Guide. The air outside had helped some with his head, but he needed to move.

What the hell did he even look like when he was having a spike? “You want me on my knees?”

“Oh my god, Jim.” Carolyn covered her eyes with her hand. “Just go to the van.”

Carolyn escorted him as he picked his way across the grass and settled on the tailgate. A spare tech and one of the officers were both sent on a scavenger hunt for ‘Sentinel distress’ items (water bottle and shock blanket and who the hell knew what else) to play for their audience. The ruse seemed to work and the chatter picked back up, though more than a few eyes were fixed on him in curiosity.

Once he was situated, blanket over his shoulders and water bottle half empty, Carolyn ghosted her hand over his hair.

“I’ll ground you,” she said and laid her hand on the back of his neck. “Do your thing and I’ll be here.”

The weight of her hand, firm and unmoving, sent a wash of warmth through him. For once, her imprint seemed to be working as intended; he didn’t need to focus on her to know that she was there, shoring him up. His tactile sense hooked gently into the whorls on her fingertips and anchored him as he cast the rest of his senses into the crowd.

A myriad of scents, sights, and sounds inundated him and he mentally staggered. Carolyn’s guidance kept him from being swept away.

After a few deep breaths—more than enough to give veracity to his supposed ‘Sentinel distress’—and a reassuring squeeze from Carolyn, he began to sort through the crowd, cataloguing and discarding sensory information. It was like untying a knot one tiny pluck at a time, loosening the whole ball so he could follow one thread.

As a second-hand Sentinel, he’d never properly trained for this kind of civilian work, only for diving into enemy territory and shepherding his men back out, always with a Guide to hold his leash. In Peru, he’d shed every last scrap of his conditioning, and relearning it after being pulled from the jungle had taken up most of his prep for civilian life. Carolyn and Captain Banks had taken a massive fucking chance on him, experienced as he was, and for her to willingly junk the GSP even for a moment so he could do his job—

Bergamot.

Hand lotion. Discard. Perfume base. Discard. Earl Gray. Discard.

Damp canvas and warm rubber and fresh soap and just a hint—a hint—of bergamot oil. Like it was clinging to the crevices in a recently-scrubbed pair of shoes. No wonder the scene had felt wrong. The caution tape had stopped short of including all the evidence.

Jim snapped his gaze toward an average-looking man carrying a large paper cup of coffee. A white man with buzzed brown hair and brown eyes, sweatpants and a t-shirt, nothing at all to make him stand out.

Do you think they were stabbed?” the man asked the woman next to him, nothing in his tone to indicate anything other than innocent curiosity. A small, secret smile found its way to his lips, though, as the woman answered him with speculation.

Only Carolyn’s hand kept Jim seated.

“What is it?” she asked under her breath.

“Found him,” Jim said, his stare fixed upon the suspect. “Buzzcut caucasian. Next to the woman with the purple jacket. Coffee and the white Cascade Days Festival t-shirt.”

Carolyn shifted. “I see him. I’ll call an officer.” She waved at the one who’d brought Jim the blanket.

The suspect turned from laughing with the woman in the purple jacket and glanced their way at Carolyn’s motion. His eyes met Jim’s and he froze.

“He’s going to run,” Jim said, already gathering himself.

“What? Ellison, you don’t—”

The suspect dropped his coffee and bolted.

“Ellison!”

Jim vaulted the caution tape and tore past the crowd.

“For fuck’s sake. Jim!” Carolyn’s voice was already losing power to distance. “Stop!”

But he wasn’t in even a shallow working abeyance, and her order couldn’t combat his visceral need to tackle the suspect to the ground and set his teeth at his throat. If Jim took his eyes off him, the suspect might get away.

Unacceptable.

As Jim outdistanced both Carolyn and the scene, he could hear her giving other orders and not to him. Cordons and backup and drivers.

The suspect ducked into a side yard and Jim followed, plowing through fences and across toy-strew grass in pursuit. A swingset nearly caught Jim’s ankle. A hose hidden in the grass tripped the suspect and helped Jim close the gap between them.

The chase slowed and sped as they scrambled up hilly backyards and slid down into soft dirt. Loose stone and the looming ridge that backed the neighborhood forced the suspect to follow the curve of the street. Jim was gaining; the suspect was already flagging. Jim’s breath came heavy, his focus narrowed.

Bursting from the shrubbery of the last home on the block, the suspect stumbled off the curb as a sedan and a patrol car pulled to hard stops at the crossing. Carolyn flung out of the sedan, hand already on her service weapon, shouting for the suspect to halt.

The suspect arrowed toward Carolyn. Light flashed off something metal gripped in his hand. Carolyn drew and aimed, ready to protect herself. With a desperate war cry, the suspect lunged inside her guard before she could fire.

Time slowed. Primal impulse reached inside Jim, the same gut-level need that had him go for Nolty, and drove him forward. Instinct and muscle memory, bypassing thought.

Jim’s tackle took the suspect out at the waist.

Both of them slammed hard against the side of the sedan and began to grapple. Jim tried to get an arm around the suspect’s throat. The suspect’s knife scored Jim’s forearm. Their struggle took them half under the sedan’s wheels.

For all the suspect’s myriad flaws, he knew his way around a knife. Jim couldn’t get it away from him. He slashed at Jim’s face and Jim reeled back, long enough for the suspect to stab not at Jim, but at the sedan.

The blade raked against the old sedan’s metal body with an unholy metal-on-metal screech. Shrill and ragged, the sound shot straight to Jim’s Sentinel hindbrain. He hissed and yanked away, skin crawling with gooseflesh. Every molecule where knife and car met wailed at him in discordant chorus.

Jim landed on his ass, hands on his ears. All sound but the shriek of metal still shivering through him dropped away. The scuffle of other officers grew distant. His mind drowned in the shriek and sent him into one prolonged shudder, every muscle locking on the edge of a twitch.

If he got stabbed now, he’d probably never even feel it.

Sensation crept into his awareness as familiar thumbs brushed his cheeks. Warmth laid upon the line of his jaw, hands cupping his head. The wash of bright in front of his open eyes fractured into a too-close view of Carolyn’s worried face.

“Hey,” she said gently and caressed his face.

Reality coalesced in a slow, viscous wave a half-sense at a time: the scent of coffee on Carolyn’s breath and the salt of the sweat that dappled her hairline. The pain of his knife-wounds and the taste of his blood on the air. Adrenaline arousal and the crawl of tension as he swayed toward her.

Carolyn held his face firm. “Can you hear me?”

The migraine he’d been sure of failed to materialize as he came back to himself. His head ached, yes, but without the sick throb of a neurological event. Even so, he wasn’t verbal yet. He settled for looking her in the eyes.

“There you are, that’s it. Follow me back.”

He was, he was. The imprint gave him a foot in the door. Her first, then everything else.

“We’ve got him cuffed. I’m safe and so is anyone else he had mind to murder.” Her tone remained coaxing and warm. “That’s it. Come on. One less budding serial killer at large.”

“Idiot,” Jim rasped.

Carolyn’s lips twisted with amusement. “You, me, or him?”

“Yeah.” Jim had a body again and right now he wasn’t too keen on that. He pulled away from her hands and rolled his shoulders. “He wasn’t stopping.”

“He brought a knife to a Sentinel fight is what he did.”

Jim snorted.

Carolyn stood and offered him a hand up. “Let’s get you home, Detective Rambo. They don’t need us.”

With her help, Jim levered to his feet. The suspect was ten feet away, clear of the sedan and pinned to the asphalt by an officer, cuffs already in place. Jim bared his teeth. That was one problem solved. His thoughts sloshed in his head and all he could think to say was, “We didn’t finish the house.”

“You just came out of a zone. No way in hell am I putting you back in there.” She dusted him off. “Besides, we need to get you patched up and documented.”

Jim examined the slice on his arm and very firmly did not wobble. “Guess we do.”

“Of course we do,” Carolyn said and steered him toward her sedan.

Chapter Text

A blanket shouldn’t have seemed strange, and, on its own, it wasn’t. What was strange was the glass of orange juice that rested on the side-table next to Carolyn’s couch, waiting for him. And the bag of cheesy popcorn she dropped into his lap while her coffee was brewing.

“You okay with the smell?” she’d asked before she’d punched the buttons on the coffeemaker. With the blinds drawn, the apartment was left in semi-darkness. The lights from the coffeemaker’s display cast thin blue shadows.

Honestly, Jim wasn’t quite sure what was going on. “Sure.”

“I ordered take-out,” she said, towelling off her hair as she waited for coffee to materialize. “From that Chinese place. The good one.”

“Yeah, okay,” Jim said and continued to sit, wrapped up in a fluffiest afgan in Carolyn’s apartment.

“How’s your head?” Carolyn asked as she came to sit down next to him on the couch with their coffee.

She was still warm and damp from her shower, and she’d used Jim’s same soap. Everything about her seemed more familiar than it had two, three hours ago. Very much like the moments after he’d finished his imprint of her, but...settled , like something had balanced between them.

“Migraine?” she pressed. “And did you get your bandages wet? We need to change them?”

“By some miracle, no,” he answered all of the questions with the same answer. The hospital had duly photographed his injuries for the report and patched him up. He hadn’t even needed stitches. “Worth the risk for the shower, though.”

“No kidding.” She laughed and set two mugs down on the table. “I dunno if you think caffeine might help or hurt. You sure no migraine?”

“I’m sure.”

Carolyn fussed with her own blankets, swimming in a massive sweatshirt emblazoned with a basketball behind the Cascade Jaguars logo. She didn’t seem nervous, exactly, but full of energy. Stressed beneath the clean scent of her drying hair. Her expression, easy enough to see in the dark with his vision (mostly) back to normal-for-him, was contemplative.

In the two weeks since Jim had come to live with her—had been dropped off like a wayward puppy and installed in her Sentinel-ready extra room—he’d never seen her quite this flustered. She was going down the post-abeyance and post-zone checklists both at the same time, mushing them together with a determination just shy of aggressive.

The bag of popcorn loosed a puff of cheese as she ripped it open and deposited it in Jim’s hands. “Eat something.”

“We have Chinese coming,” Jim said, bemused.

“It’s not here yet.”

Jim ate a handful of popcorn as she squinted at him in the dim. Cheese particles coated his fingers and she relaxed a bare fraction.

“You know, I don’t need all this stuff,” he said, tilting the open bag toward her. “Uncle Sam always skimped on the checklists.”

“God, I bet they did.” She rustled the bag, shoved her own handful of popcorn in her mouth, and set to licking her fingers. “Fuckin’ military.” She sucked the cheese off her thumb. “You and your wanting to do everything with nothing, for chrissakes. They half fuckin’ ruin Sentinels.”

He raised his eyebrows, not sure whether to be offended or not.

She took that as an invitation. “Just. You’re—they’re—just so fucking obedient, but in the worst possible way. You take instruction so beautifully, like nothing I’d ever even dreamed in a million years. But with that, you’ve been trained that the goddamned weight of the world rests solely upon your shoulders and then—God—and then you’re just expected to carry it.”

Carolyn stole the bag of popcorn out of his hands and glowered at him. Before he could speak, however, she continued, much more quietly, “And you do. You carry it and you ask for more. You could do more. Fuck.”

“I can, though,” Jim said, thrown by her vehemence.

“You don’t need to. Not at the expense of yourself. You tackled the guy and zoned yourself. You risked a migraine after that spike. You risked being stabbed. Stabbed, Jim.”

“And I was just supposed to let him come after you with a knife?”

Yes. I’m not military, but I earned my rank.”

“I have a responsibility—”

“To yourself. God. Just. That’s exactly what I mean.”

“You’re my Guide,” Jim argued, feeling ridiculous wrapped up in her afgan with a damned glass of orange juice waiting at his elbow while he had this argument. “I’m not just going to let you be threatened if I can do something about it. That’s not military, that’s…” He ran out of words or any other way to explain. “You’re my Guide.”

“If you’d known me for two weeks in any other context, would you be so willing to throw yourself in front of a metaphorical bullet for me?”

“Stupid question,” Jim growled. “You know what an imprint does.”

For a long moment, Carolyn simply stared at him over the bag of cheesy popcorn.

“I do,” she said at last. “So help me, I do. I know. It’s just frustrating.” She slumped back against the couch. “But I don’t know why you’re so determined to martyr yourself when you’re not ‘defending your Guide.’”

“I’m not—” Jim started, stopped, and frowned at her. “That’s what you’ve been hearing when I say I could do more.”

Something in his tone made Carolyn sit up, eyebrows rising. “Yes,” she answered, even though he hadn’t meant it as a question.

Jim remained silent for a long moment. She wasn’t wrong, exactly, but pointed in the wrong direction. He wasn’t quite sure he could explain. What struck him, however, was that he wanted to.

“Peru,” he said.

She pressed her lips together, watching him, her eyebrows drawing together. Listening.

“What they call going feral is…” He wanted to stand and pace, but the couch was warm and he was tired. More than tired for trying to explain any of this, especially to a Guide. Her anger, though, made him think that maybe, just maybe, she might be the kind of person who’d understand. “What do you know about it?”

“Feral?” She shifted, tucking her feet up under her. “Sentinel's brains sort of switch off, I thought? They start riding their instincts. Get uncontrollable. Honestly, I thought it was an urban legend until Simon handed me your file.”

“It is,” Jim said. “An urban legend, that is. There’s a protective instinct, but that always has a purpose.” He hesitated, plucked at the afgahn, and marshalled his thoughts. “But that last bit. Uncontrollable. That’s what they mean. No abeyance. No Guide like they mean a Guide. But the Sentinel is—I am—still functional. You saw it today when I took off without you. That’s ‘feral.’”

Carolyn’s eyes widened. He could almost hear her putting together the pieces. Of him in the foyer of the house, grinding out a confession before he went down on his knees. “Oh. Oh, that’s how you know you don’t need to—”

“Pretty much.”

“Even though a Guide still helps—”

“Yeah. But that’s not my point.”

Carolyn blinked at him. It took her another moment, but then she said slowly, “You figured out you didn’t need abeyance at all.” With a self-deprecating snort, she added, “At all. Ha. No wonder you laughed at me when I asked if it was ‘a little much.’”

Jim kicked up the corner of his lips at that. “Yeah. I got used to being a person.”

For a jolting moment, he thought he’d gone too far—she was his Guide—but Carolyn only said, “Jesus Christ,” and curled around the popcorn bag. “Jesus Christ.”

The scent of coffee lingered in the air, their mugs still steaming, and in the silence, Jim caught the sound of a car door outside accompanied by the scent of fried rice.

“Food’s here,” he said quietly.

“Oh, I’ll. I’ll get it.” Carolyn pulled herself up off the couch and left him behind with his thoughts.

He’d taken a risk in being honest, and before today he’d have been the first to declare it too big of one to bother with, but Captain Banks pulling him aside had apparently changed more than he’d thought. If Jim believed him, he had backup against his Guide, of all people.

Against his Guide.

Like Jim was a whole separate person and not a pet.

Carolyn murmured with the delivery-person, every word as clear as she was standing next to him. Jim drank some of his orange juice and lost the thread of her words in the squeak of a ballpoint and the shift of styrofoam against styrofoam.

In retrospect, she’d half-started from the same premise as Captain Banks even with all of the Guide indoctrination weighing her down. The slack rein she’d led him with, what he now knew was her refusal to saddle him with the ‘weight of the world’ as much as she could, Banks’ choosing her as a Guide for Jim at all—signs, all of them.

Burdened with three days worth of takeout for someone without Jim’s appetite, Carolyn made her way back to the couch and began to arrange cartons and bags on the coffee table. She hummed just under her breath as she opened everything, sniffed it, and set it back down. She didn’t avoid eye-contact with him, not entirely, but she handed him his chopsticks and one of the fried rice cartons without speaking.

She could be an ally.

When the realization hit him, Jim let out his breath in a ragged sigh and rested his chopsticks on the edge of his carton. He’d never thought of a Guide as an ally before. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he hadn’t really thought one could be. An ally. Jesus.

And she’d gotten attacked by a knife-wielding murderer today as much as he had. That the man hadn’t reached her didn’t make a difference; she’d still drawn her service weapon on someone living. She’d experienced the murder scene. Had sent him down into abeyance as many times as he’d gone. Guides had checklists too.

When she sat down again, he made himself speak. “Are you—doing alright?”

Carolyn’s hands froze on a carton of broccoli beef. “Yes?”

Jim checked her over, then, like he might do in Guide-focused abeyance, but with all his faculties intact and an eye toward her as someone who’d been thrown headfirst into a pairing with him and no idea what she’d been getting into. “You’re.” He didn’t quite have the words. “You’re running the Guide checklist.”

She considered her carton. “Yeah.”

“Anything I can do?” An offer he could make an ally.

She stalled, picking at her food with her chopsticks. “It’s something I hate even asking for.” Her brow furrowed and she withdrew without moving. “With Nolty just fucking...hovering in the back of my head. Lurking there with his suggestions.” She glanced up at him, caught the expression on his face, and laughed at herself. “God, I’m making this worse. Touch. Contact. I need a damned hug.”

“Huh.” A second later, he repeated, more thoughtfully, “Huh.”

His fried rice continued to cool uneaten in his hand. Now that she’d said something, he became aware of the same impulse, that need for creature comfort. Reconditioning had reminded him that Guides were dangerous; suppression had always been the most sensible defense. But he’d never denied that abeyance stressed both Sentinel and Guide in ways that really did require every checklist that nobody ever followed.

Letting the need for touch bubble back up into something he could feel was almost painful. His skin prickled and he let out a slow, measured breath.

“Yeah. No, yeah. That’s.” Abandoning speech and jabbing his chopsticks into his rice, he lifted his near arm up to sling it across the back of the couch and beckoned her in.

Hesitation rippled across her expression, but she firmed her jaw and tucked herself up against his side. “I won’t be sorry about this, but. Thank you. I just—I needed to know that I didn’t damage you irreparably.” She turned her face toward his shoulder and spoke into his t-shirt. “Logic wasn’t sinking in.”

He settled his arm around her shoulders and squeezed her against him. “I’m in one piece.”

“You tough-ass military motherfucker,” she teased, then dug back into her carton.

They ate in silence, shifting around one another when logistics demanded, and the sounds of the city outside of her apartment were comforting whitenoise as he let her warmth and weight sink into him. The scent of his soap and her body left him strangely content as he devoured his way through nearly half of the takeout and considered the last container of orange chicken.

Carolyn took him by surprise when she said, without preamble, “I’m sorry I didn’t do this after Nolty,” breaking through the quiet of traffic and their upstairs neighbor running the dishwasher. “Every time you go down, I’m supposed to. And while I’m starting to think Guide training is fucked in a lot of ways, I don’t think they’re wrong about this.”

Jim shifted uncomfortably, though not enough to seperate them. “To be fair, we didn’t really have time. And you didn’t exactly bring me up. I brought myself up.”

“What?” She squirmed against him until she could see his face. “How—?”

“After I went after Nolty, you lied to him about my spike.”

The words came out as more of an accusation than he’d meant.

“Oh,” she said.

Carolyn slid out from beside him and took refuge on the other end of the couch. “Strong emotion can do that. And you were angry. Before we left.”

A flicker of the same anger washed over him, but he was warm and fed and the room was dark and the ground beneath his feet had changed so radically that all he said was, “So were you. Your reaction to his innuendo was like being slapped in the face with the sun.”

“God, and then you went right after him. Was that the protective instinct? Because I was angry?”

Jim tried to keep emotion out of his words. “The imprint made you the center of my world and abeyance puts all my instincts on hair-trigger, so yeah. Couldn’t have helped myself if I’d tried.”

She frowned, wrapping her arms around herself. “And afterward you shouted at me about being the only one with the opportunity to fuck you. I couldn’t wrap my head around that when you’d just—it was automatic, attacking him? Did you have any idea why I was angry?”

Jim flexed his jaw. “The bullshit Nolty was spewing wasn’t anything new.”

“Ellision,” she said. “Jim.”

His name captured his attention. Her eyes were dark in the apartment’s blue-tinged twilight.

She didn’t speak until he was looking at her. “Nolty was outright suggesting I use you like an object.”

“And you got angry over that?” He couldn’t quite bring himself to look away.

You did.” She held his gaze. “And I did. Angry that he was wink-wink-nudge-nudging like I would ever...like I would... Shit.” Shifting, she reached out for his hand and he, without conscious thought, gave it to her. Her earnestness bored into him. “A yes isn’t a yes if you can’t say no, even for—especially for—a Sentinel when their Guide asks.”

Jim dropped his eyes from hers to their clasped hands. Her words set off something in his gut, relief and pain and horrified realization that even with her defense of him, he’d harbored the fear of Nolty’s words, that her following the guidelines had primed her to wink back at their observer. Dry-mouthed, he managed, “I see why you passed the Captain’s muster.”

Laughing once with another sharp, humorless ha, she squeezed his hand, then released him. “So. If you want sex on the table—”

Jim couldn’t help it. He snorted.

“Don’t laugh,” she warned him. “It’s a figure of speech.”

“On the table,” Jim said. Laughter bubbled up from deep in his gut, loosing tension he hadn’t known he’d been carrying. The release left him lightheaded.

“Fine”—she spoke over him with exasperation—”on the table or anywhere else! But that’s where we start.”

Tension gone all in a burst, Jim nodded as his chuckles trailed off.

“But not tonight,” Carolyn said firmly.

Jim echoed, “Not tonight. We’ll play it by ear.”

He then lifted his arm again, freeing up space at his side, and tilted his head.

Carolyn scooted back across the couch to lean into him gingerly, and he dropped his arm around her just as cautious of the delicate, new thing between them.

With his arm resting around her shoulders, they breathed together in the dark.

The ice machine in the refrigerator rattled as it tipped new ice into the dispenser and began to hum. He stroked her shoulder. Her sweatshirt was soft and worn beneath his fingers, comfortable. This, whatever this was, was unfamiliar territory.

“So what now?” Jim finally asked.

“What do you want?”

Of all the questions she could have asked him. “I don’t even know.”

“Did they give you any choice at all before they paired you with me?”

“They—” Hadn’t. “Only where I wanted to be sent. And the...category of Sentinel jobs.”

“You picked Cascade and police work?”

Something was wrong with his ability to keep his damn mouth shut since he’d been to Peru and back, because he corrected her without thinking. “I picked home and protecting it.”

“And that’s an important distinction,” she said mostly to herself, patting his chest. “So Major Crimes. For now, you want to stay.”

Maybe Banks was the root of today’s changes, his pulling Jim aside having planted the seeds, but with Carolyn as an actual ally, he could really do something. “Yeah,” he said, and the word tasted true. “I think I do.”

He felt her shift against him in silent laughter, then announced, “I want Nolty’s job. Or the whole department. Guide-Sentinel Relations.”

Emotion lurched beneath Jim’s ribs; he was only just coming to terms with her as someone he could pair properly with. “Ambitious.”

“At the very least, Nolty has to go. But beyond that, I just...I have to.”

Today, all of it, from Nolty to the crime scene to them here, now, had shifted something for her and not just them together. The realization settled him.

“You don’t have to do anything,” he said after a moment, “but it’s right.”

“I want to try.”

“I’ll help you.” The promise was easy to make.

“And I’ll help you deal with less bullshit. We toe the line and play by the rules, but then...do things right.” She poked him gently in the ribs, suddenly somber. “But we’re not a matched set, Jim, you know that, right? I don’t—I don’t want to keep you past when you need me.”

The heady concept of a successful stable pairing aside, he did know. “Yeah.”

“And maybe that’ll change. But it doesn’t matter for this, what we want to do.”

On one level, he appreciated her clarifying that she wasn’t going to use her power over him as a Guide to confine him. That he had Captain Banks’ words lurking below hers and could almost trust what she was saying now. On the level of the imprint, however, he hated the idea of letting her go—to another department or another Sentinel or anything else in between.

Even so, “You’re right. It doesn’t matter.”

Satisfied, she patted him on the chest again, then pulled away to offer her hand. A handshake. “Do we have a deal?”

Jim allowed himself a smile and shook her hand. “Deal.”

~FIN~