Love Potion Number Nine
Summary: If you happen to live in Eureka, "Love Potion Number Nine" isn't just the name of a song; it's a catalyst that reveals hidden feelings.
Disclaimer: All rights to the concept and characters of the Eureka television series belong to its creators; no tangible profit is derived from the borrowing of the characters for this fan fiction.
Spoilers: General Season 4 spoilers through the Christmas episode.
The only person who didn't even crack a smile was Security Chief Josefina Lupo.
Community reaction ranged from amused skepticism to laughing intrigue to outright disbelieving guffaws when a barely-known GD botanist announced that she'd discovered an aphrodisiac and named it – what else, after all? – "Love Potion Number Nine". Some of those in the audience thought it was no more than a joke, with Valentine's Day right around the corner. Of course that was before Dr. Gould's project ran amuck and covered Eureka with a pink mist that affected everyone from puberty to senility. Once that happened, people were too lovey-dovey to waste their time on consideration of the good doctor's whimsically-named formula.
"One whiff," the svelte silver-haired lady had beamed bright and early on Friday morning as she addressed the assembled group of her peers, "is all it takes to unite your hearts as one!"
As it soon became evident, one breath of atmosphere that had been saturated with the stuff united far more than hearts.
The overdose of Love Potion Number Nine caused emotions to run rampant as everyone acted on their attraction to others, and the effects seemed to intensify the longer people inhaled it. Within an hour of exposure, inhibitions faded to near-nonexistence, particularly among the youngest and eldest. Everyone within GD's EM field was affected – with the apparent exception of Jo Lupo. Of course she didn't realize the far-reaching scope of the event until later that day.
As head of Security, she'd been present at the outdoor presentation Dr. Gould had scheduled. The second Jo saw the scientist's blue eyes widen in alarm she'd known that the pink trickle of vapor wasn't supposed to thicken and expand, or continue to spray forth from the canister, either. Given Jo's plethora of experience with GD experiments-gone-wrong, she just heaved a resigned sigh when the anxious woman failed to halt the flow of Love Potion Number Nine before the canister was almost empty. Gould's distinguished colleagues scattered like sheep across the lovely grassy lea on which they'd been seated, but they couldn't escape the pale crimson that rapidly spread on the breezy air.
In short order… there was no order. Resigned to yet another "normal" day in Eureka, Jo waved irritably at the rose-scented air that swirled around her and stalked back up the hill and into Global, already on her phone before she was halfway there. Her guys at the Security Center would need to organize teams to round up the affected scientists – or that was the plan until she stepped through the door and discovered that the air inside the facility was already pink, too. The filtration system hadn't identified any foreign substances, so it hadn't purged them, and suddenly Jo had an epidemic on her hands instead of a couple dozen love-loopy academics on the South Lawn.
Almost immediately there were several alarms set off by personnel more attentive to their lab partners than their experiments. Between running from one lab to another, Jo realized this was going to get old fast – and potentially more and more dangerous, too – so she decreed that everyone had to go home, stat, and started shutting down labs and projects and herding everyone out of the facility. She was subjected to numerous spiteful accusations as she went around GD breaking up overly-amorous public displays and sending people off-site.
Jo stoically ignored the name-calling, the insinuations that she had no heart or wasn't human, and the attempted bribes; lab by lab and hall by hall she cleared Global Dynamics of scientists, lab workers and her own security staff. By the time the computers assured her the building was secured, she was thoroughly sick of saying, "You can do whatever you want in the privacy of your own home, but if I catch you doing that in public again I'll have to lock you up."
Fortunately, she'd had to tase a dozen or so repeat offenders to encourage them to heed her orders, and that took the edge off her irritation.
The only person she didn't forcibly eject was Douglas Fargo. Since he was busy slavering over his video footage of Claudia Donovan's visit instead of bothering her or messing with anything dangerous, Jo allowed him to remain in his office. Besides, there were things to be done, and she'd need the authority of Fargo's position to set things in motion.
By then it had been almost four hours since Gould's aphrodisiac had started spreading, but the formula-induced pink hadn't dissipated. There was no sign that the effects were wearing off the people, either. If this wasn't going to correct itself, then someone had to stop it. The only good news was that the EM field seemed to have contained the infectious concoction. She could only hope it would continue to do so. After confirming that Deputy Andy was working diligently in town to ensure public safety and decency, Jo sat down in her office and laid out a plan to find a solution.
She knew Jim Taggart possessed the requisite clearances and had already done a fair amount of pheromone study for working with his wolves, so she initiated a secure connection to his lab in Alaska and enlisted his help dealing with the outbreak of lovey-doviness. Once she'd transferred Dr. Gould's notes to him, she knew she could leave the science part in his capable hands.
Of course, it would be better if she could send him another pair of hands. Zane had been at his cabin taking a personal day. It was well outside Eureka's EM field, and Jo had no problem talking Fargo into ordering him to Alaska to assist Taggart rather than risk him being infected upon returning to Eureka. Fargo could all-too-easily picture the disruptive influence of a ladies' man like him being on the loose under the influence of Gould's potion.
Zane was much harder to persuade; he thought the whole idea of a community infected with Love Potion Number Nine was hilarious, and he wasn't happy about missing out on so much potential blackmail material. Jo overcame his objections by sending the high-speed ultra-sonic jetpack to his cabin, via autopilot, along with official permission to "test" it getting to and from Alaska. Coupled with her tart reminder that with his well-known libido there was a pretty good chance that if he came back to Eureka he'd be providing more blackmail material than he'd be collecting, Zane accepted his orders and consoled himself with the sweet opportunity of flying the jetpack.
Jo's next task was to set up a secure connection to Warehouse 13; as she'd hoped, once she had Claudia on the line it wasn't difficult to convince Fargo that it would benefit his long distance courtship if he demonstrated his competence in crisis management by working with the brilliant young woman. Jo channeled their joint energies into designing and implementing AI supervision of children left unattended as everyone over the age of puberty neglected them in pursuit of more adult activities.
Shortly after that, Andy contacted her with an urgent request for assistance when he discovered Dr Parrish in the act of installing a "borrowed" advanced holographic generator to give his lady love a picnic on the beach. In short order several other reputable geniuses were caught in similar illegal and potentially dangerous endeavors, so Jo coordinated with Andy to ensure that those most likely to pull such stunts were ushered safely to their homes, and then accessed the emergency master codes for the town and locked down their households – including Jack and Allison in S.A.R.A.H., and Henry and Grace at their home. In their cases, it was more to prevent them from wandering around saying things to one another that shouldn't be said in public. But with Henry and Allison both knowing so much about GD's white list projects, Jo didn't want to take any chances with what they could do under influence of this pervasive drug.
By mid-afternoon, problem resolution was in the capable hands of Taggart and Zane up north, and a Claudia-motivated-Fargo at GD. Potential trouble from the most dangerous geniuses had been addressed as effectively as possible, too, which left Jo and Deputy Andy free to focus on more practical concerns – like keeping their remaining, unrestricted citizenry from doing things that they'd regret once the Love Potion was out of their systems. Even with so many adults already contained, Eureka's above-average intelligence levels meant there was still a very high probability of love-induced creative disasters for both individuals and the community. There simply wasn't enough time for the two law officers to catch, transport and secure every single Eureka citizen in their own homes.
As a compromise, they cuffed or zip-tied youngsters and libidinous older folk to anything and everything in sight to protect them from acting on their raging hormones. Before too many more hours had passed, there were kids, seniors, and a sprinkling of other people attached to every light pole, traffic sign post, fence corner, and bolted-down bench or railing along every street in Eureka, each person just beyond the reach of the next one.
That worked so well that it was only necessary to subdue and imprison a handful of people behaving in an obsessive manner toward unwilling recipients of their affections. Luckily, it was extraordinarily mild weather for February, and there was no danger of ill health resulting from the impromptu "campout" of so many individuals.
Fortunately for everyone's peace of mind, there weren't as many instances of unfaithfulness between existing couples as Jo had feared from the national statistics Andy quoted. Dr. Gould's formula wasn't based on mere pheromones and physical magnetism; in most cases, physical urges were only magnified in conjunction with existing emotional attraction. If nothing else, the dispersal of the romance formula proved that Eureka was a relatively healthy town in terms of romantic bonding, even among its youngest citizens.
All in all, Eureka came through its dose of Love Potion Number Nine relatively unscathed, both corporately and personally.
Almost four days after it started, a very weary Jo released the lockdowns she'd placed on her friends' homes. Henry and Grace hadn't even tried to emerge until the formula's effects began to fade, and then Henry had tapped into Global's network in time to see that Taggart and Zane's antidote was already succeeding in dissipating the Love Potion Number Nine that had engulfed Eureka in a pink haze all weekend. The couple emerged from their home bright-eyed and eager to help with the final clean-up stages.
Jack and Allison's long-suppressed feelings for one another had strengthened the effects of Love Potion Number Nine to the point that they'd barely even noticed the passage of time, they'd been so wrapped up in one another. Fargo's call informing them that they were authorized to leave S.A.R.A.H. was a rude awakening; they were shocked to realize that they hadn't even wondered about their children over the weekend, and Fargo had to assure them that Kevin and Jenna were both safe – Jo had seen to it personally – to quell their panicked guilt. After Allison had spoken to Kevin, the couple was able to calm down, and they sheepishly agreed to report to his office right away.
With his Security Chief standing at parade rest at his shoulder and several stacks of tablets on his desk, Fargo explained the steps that had been taken to secure GD and Eureka, and to distribute the antidote. "It looks like Taggart and Zane's measures have been wholly effective, so Deputy Andy is releasing the people on the streets as we speak. We need to turn kids back over to their parents and reprogram the AI babysitters to return to their usual work. Zane won't be back until later today, so Henry, please handle the AI issues. Allison, you need to organize mobile medical units to run checks on people. Grace, I know it's not your area of expertise but you're a good organizer, so I'd like you to oversee the collection of all the smart tents and supplies that were commandeered from the Commercial Lab for the people restrained on the streets -"
Carter jumped around the desk toward Jo as she sagged, but she caught herself and straightened again. "I'm all right. I just haven't slept in a few days," she admitted huskily.
Fargo blinked in consternation. He hadn't noticed that. He and Claudia had scheduled rest for themselves, and he'd dozed here on his office sofa until it was time to log on with her again to maintain the children's care and monitor the teens and adults in the temporary tents along Eureka's streets. He'd thought he was holding it together remarkably well, but he'd missed the fact that Jo had been going twenty-four-seven since this all began. Contritely, Fargo waved her off. "Go home, Jo. We can handle the cleanup."
"I can drive you," the Sheriff suggested.
"No, I have a cot in my office. That'll work, and I'll be handy in case something comes up," she summoned a smile to reassure her friends and started toward the door.
"Jo," Allison stopped her with a hand to her shoulder. "How are you?"
She knew what the doctor meant, but avoided a direct answer. "I'll be fine once I've had some sleep. It's lucky for you guys that Taggart and Zane weren't here to be affected by the formula. If not for them, you'd all still be going at it like bunnies." Jack winced and grunted in protest of the phrase, and she added wryly, "Zoe's words."
He blanched. "She knows?"
Jo's sighed, rubbing her forehead. "Oh yeah, she knows. S.A.R.A.H. answered Zoey's vid phone call and she got an eyeful. She called me right afterwards and once I explained what was going on she suggested that we close down off-site communications. She had a good point." She gestured back to the data pads stacked on Fargo's desk. "One of those has the codes to 'repair' Global's dysfunctional communication satellites."
Jack nodded somberly. "Thanks, Jo. You did a great job keeping everything under wraps and dealing with the situation. You've really come into your own on this one."
A genuine smile flickered briefly on her lovely face, and her dark eyes warmed. "Thanks Jack." She gestured to the door again. "I'm out of here. Good luck with the clean up."
The door closed behind her; her friends settled in to review the data she'd left for them. Within minutes they were each on their cell phones organizing the process of getting Eureka back to what passed as normal.
"You sure you're good to fly this thing home, mate? Jo'll slow roast me over a spit if you don't make it back in one piece."
Zane grinned up at the easy-going Australian he'd been working with the last few days. "No worries, Tag. Six hours is plenty of sleep."
Taggart shook his head, chuckling, and slapped him on the shoulder. "Ah, you youngsters! You have so much energy! Give her my love when you dock."
The younger man nodded as he strapped on his helmet and lowered the visor. "I will."
"Good. Off you go, lad." He stepped back several paces and gave Zane a broad smile and two thumbs up.
Zane touched the starter and grinned widely as he felt the powerful vibration of the jets on his back. "Nice working with you, Tag! Remember to stop by and say hey next time you're in town!" he shouted, and toggled the launch control without waiting for an answer.
The ground beneath his feet disappeared in a cloud of swirling snow, and Taggart ducked and shielded his exposed face, staggering back under the force of the mini-maelstrom the take-off generated. Yet by the time Zane leveled out several hundred feet up a few seconds later, the fur-clad Aussie was upright and waving cheerfully in his direction.
GD's resident "bad boy genius", as Fargo had labeled him upon his arrival in Eureka, checked his bearings and headed south. He activated the cloaking feature as he increased to maximum speed and swooped over the treetops with glee, reveling in the incredible power under his control. He really owed Jo big time for wrangling him permission to undertake this so-called test run, regardless of what her real motive might have been. Flying with this jetpack had to be the third awesomest thing he'd experienced in his whole life!
Of course the Sky Cruiser was slightly better, since he'd had the privilege of working on its design and it only responded to him – not that he'd done that on purpose… much. Smirking, Zane surged higher, skirting along the mountainside as it rose up before him; he followed the range southwest. He'd have to tinker a bit more with the Sky Cruiser now that he'd flown with the jetpack; he had several ideas about how to duplicate the freedom of movement that was so natural with the jetpack. Up until now he'd been using principles he'd tested in motocross racing, hang gliding, windsurfing and piloting light aircraft, but the nuances of jetpack flight control were excitingly unique from the other piloting systems. If his ideas bore fruit, he should be able to correct the Sky Cruiser's stabilizer balance, which would give it a much smoother ride and steadier control. Of course once he had it debugged, it'd be safe enough for them to assign someone else to the project and it would no longer be his baby.
But that was okay. Fargo had stopped shifting him from one brain-dead project to another like he used to do. Instead, much to Zane's bemusement, after two years of spinning his wheels with stuff he'd been able to do blindfolded since he was six, he was finally being given genuinely challenging assignments. Henry Deacon had specifically requested him on a four stunningly cool projects, as had several other Section Five project heads now that he had a track record for being a problem solver instead of being the problem.
Lupo should've been pleased at the progress he was making, if for no other reason than that he wasn't causing her any trouble. Well, okay, there'd been a few minor incidents with lab animals, but living creatures shouldn't be caged and used for experiments, especially when those projects didn't benefit them. Moreover, rather than writing him up for the infractions and locking him away in a cell – which she'd have done in the blink of an eye before Founder's Day – Jo had dismissed these recent instances as antics not worth the paperwork.
Yet even without the written reports it somehow became common knowledge that the culprit had successfully pulled off each stunt without leaving evidence that could identify him (or her). No fingerprints or other trace evidence, nothing on the security footage and no explanation for how security had been bypassed… obviously technical skills that almost anyone at GD could envy. Everyone seemed to know it had been Zane, yet instead of snide disparagement, the prevailing attitude toward his pranks morphed almost overnight into peer admiration at the cleverness exhibited. In the face of public opinion, the outraged demands for his incarceration faded away and in a shockingly short time he found himself a cult hero instead of the GD scapegoat.
More than a little flabbergasted by these developments, it was several weeks before it finally occurred to him that Josefina Lupo had orchestrated the whole thing: the professional respect he was currently basking in; his improved reputation for getting a job done; the increased demand for his expertise around GD; the tolerance for his masterful mischief; all of these things meant that he hadn't been tased, cuffed or jailed by Security Chief Lupo since the DED incident – in other words, no face-to-face confrontations, and no time together with him behind bars and her monitoring him to be sure he actually stayed in the cell.
With awed admiration for the subtlety of her tactics, Zane realized he'd been out-maneuvered by an expert. She'd arranged for him to be so busy that he didn't have the time to follow up on the mysteries surrounding her, and at the same time she'd almost eliminated any reason for physical contact between them.
After he'd kissed her – which was abso-frickin-lutely The Number One experience of his life to date, hands down – it was a given that she'd avoid him. Considering the magnitude of the secret he suspected she was guarding, he couldn't blame her. He hadn't preplanned The Kiss – which was how he thought of it, capitalized like it deserved to be. It had been a spur of the moment action sparked by his frustration with her refusal to be honest with him, and his long-simmering desire for her. The Kiss had proven she was vulnerable to him; it had been powerful stuff, undeniably hot and incredibly familiar, shaking both of them with its intensity. Caught off guard, she'd responded with a sweetness that stunned him. Then he'd made the mistake of releasing her so he could press for more information; very dumb move on his part, but he hadn't really been thinking straight.
Between the endorphins flooding his system from the inexplicably stimulating and intimate kiss they'd shared, and his driving need for answers, he hadn't fully processed the likelihood that her obvious susceptibility to him would cause her to withdraw the tentative friendship of the last few months. Zoey's noisy arrival had allowed her to escape, and Jo hadn't let her guard down for a single moment since.
No one else seemed to have noticed that these days he and Jo were only in the same place when there were plenty of other people around. He hadn't even realized it himself at first, as active as his daily schedule had become. Once the truth of what she'd done dawned on him, he couldn't help but appreciate the effectiveness of her strategic maneuvering. Jo didn't openly avoid him, but she maintained a quiet, professional reserve he couldn't break through when their paths crossed at GD or in town. She never allowed him close enough for conversation when she was alone, evading him with apparently-effortless skill that he found freakishly hot, despite his frustration.
The end result was that with a few simple policy changes and subtle leaks of information from investigations of his pranks, and maybe a little pressure on her friends to include him in better projects, she'd protected herself more effectively than he'd have believed possible if he hadn't experienced the whole thing for himself.
No matter how outrageously epic The Kiss had been, it had been beyond foolish of him to corner her like that. Yes, he'd had cause. He'd spent the whole previous night in lockup with nothing to do but stew about the slew of mystifying changes in Jo and her friends – not the least of which was how to explain that she'd had his grandmother's ring – and both Jo and Carter had known he wasn't guilty of sabotaging the DED containment field, yet they'd left him in there with Deputy Andy staring at him for interminable hours. He'd had good reason to expect an explanation from Jo. But justification didn't change the fact that he'd pushed when he should've persuaded, and the cost had been their budding friendship. The distant politeness with which she treated him now was almost worse than the antagonism she'd dished out prior to Founder's Day, especially since he'd had a taste of what being friends with her might be like.
He wanted that back. It hadn't been his for very long, but he missed the way Jo's eyes had lit up when he entered a room, and the way her smoky voice warmed while they'd talked. She'd made him want to mind his p's and q's just to watch the way her smile dimpled in approval. He'd been suspicious of her motives at first, warily waiting for the other shoe to drop, expecting any moment that she'd be back to busting him. If he'd only exercised a bit more self-control, waited before demanding answers… But he hadn't.
He wasn't willing to resign himself to the fact that she'd shut him out, but he hadn't been able to come up with a way to change it. She'd built a wall of aloofness toward him almost as thick as other-Jo's, and it looked like hell would freeze over before she'd give him another chance.
Not that Taggart saw it that way.
A warning beep drew his attention back to his flight path just in time to angle away from impact with a rocky, snow-covered peak. Zane reminded himself that he couldn't zone out while piloting the jetpack, or General Mansfield was bound to send him back to the Feds no matter what Fargo and Jo said. He couldn't just fly on autopilot – wait, yes he could! Duh! Jo had sent it to him on autopilot, and he knew the coordinates that could be programmed for the return trip.
"Just goes to prove that that woman turns my brain to mush!" he muttered to himself in disgust, and quickly set the autopilot so that he could concentrate on reassessing the data gathered while he was in Alaska. He was already more than half convinced that Tag's hypothesis was correct, but what if it was wishful thinking? He needed to review everything and, if he still found the theory valid, he had to formulate a plan before he touched down at GD.
Taggart. The main reason for his reluctance to journey to Taggart's lab in Alaska had been that he'd never been able to wrap his brain around the idea of someone as vibrantly beautiful and self-disciplined as Josefina Lupo having an affair with a charismatic-but-eccentric scientist old enough to be her father. Taggart had abruptly vanished from Eureka not long after Zane arrived, so there'd been no chance to get to know him. However, since Zane was living proof that most salacious rumors had little or no truth to them, he'd decided that the majority of the stories he'd heard about Taggart and the Enforcer were no more than spiteful gossip.
Well, these last few days with Taggart had forced him to revise that opinion. The man came across like an innocently harmless oddball… sort of a benign mad scientist. Like Sheriff Carter, he was eerily perceptive. Unlike Carter, the man was unabashedly open about every facet of his life. When Zane touched down in front of the igloo-lab and removed his helmet mid-afternoon on Friday, Taggart had been waiting with an ear-to-ear welcoming smile. He'd probably never know why the older man felt the need to be so explicit with him, but almost before the jetpack was unstrapped, Taggart had cheerfully and nonchalantly disclosed the information that he adored Jo and that they'd been both friends and lovers. While he led the way into his lab he'd floored Zane by adding, "Of course, I bowed out as soon as I saw which way the wind was blowing with you two."
"You – wait, you did what?"
"I bowed out. There was no love lost on either side anyway; it was a heat-of-the-moment sort of thing, but I knew it'd be awkward for her, so I left. Did it all wrong, naturally," he said with a note of regret. "Jo doesn't make friends easily, and it hurt her when I disappeared like that. Lucky for me that she's got a heart the size of the Outback and she accepted my apology."
At that point Zane had still seen his banishment to Alaska as another of Jo's moves to avoid him, and although he'd accepted and more than enjoyed the bribe of the jetpack, it still stung. So he'd snorted, "Heart? Lupo? You sure we're talking about the same person?"
Taggart had stopped in his tracks and looked down at Zane in surprise. After a moment of keen scrutiny, he'd smiled ruefully. "She's got you chasin' your tail, eh?"
Bristling, he'd denied it. "You don't know what you're talking about. Do you have any idea what's going on in Eureka?" He'd used the communication array in the jetpack helmet to access the security feeds several times while he'd been flying north. He'd been abso-frickin-lutely right that being there would have provided him with plenty of material for mocking his fellow-citizens – except one, of course. Amused as he'd been at what was going on, though, his main reason for checking had been to see for himself whether or not Jo had a softer side and would be found making out with some smuck she'd had a secret crush on. Much to his disappointment, there was no sign of her cuddling up to anyone. She was all business, even though she was breathing the same Love Potion Number Nine air as everyone else. So Zane was sure of his facts when he sneered, "Lupo's cold as ice. She's the only one under the EM field who's been unaffected by this so-called Love Potion Number Nine. She's got about as much heart as Deputy Andy."
Scowling at the younger man, Jim Taggart had shaken his head and proceeded to explain some things to his guest. "The very fact that you're here is proof that she's affected, boy-o. It's what Jo does, protectin' her loved ones. Come on, take a look at this!"
In short order he'd led Zane down into the center of his lab – underground, of course, like most GD facilities – and called up the same security feeds Zane had accessed. Taggart interpreted what they saw much differently than Zane had when he'd first watched the footage of Gould's assembly. "You need to remember that Jo's Special Forces, mate; it's drilled into that lot to do what has to be done no matter how you feel about it, no matter what condition you're in. Jo was raised in that whole military mentality and discipline, yeah? Army brat, three big brothers, mom passed away when she was just a little tyke, you know?" Zane had nodded, and the older man had continued, "So you ought to know it's drilled into her to react the way she was raised, the way she was trained. See there where she's on her phone right after the formula is released, while she's headed up to GD? Wanna take a guess who she was calling?" Taggart's blue eyes twinkled as he swiveled to another screen and pulled up the Security Office footage with the same time stamp, very sure of what he'd find.
The guard Zane had fought with during the rage incident answered his cell. "Yes, Chief? Donovan?" He leaned over and checked a monitor. "Unless he's ditched his bike, he's still at his cabin. Sure, I'll let you know if he leaves."
Taggart smirked at Zane. "See? First thing she did was make sure you were out of harm's way. Then she focused on her duty to GD, while Deputy Andy was doing his duty in town. And when the problem persisted, she started the wheels in motion to protect the entire community. She called me and put me to work on the antidote, she sent you here to get you further away from the danger zone, and she made sure her friends were accounted for and looked after. Check it out."
In short order, he'd shown Zane the footage of Jo arranging to provide balance for Fargo by enlisting Claudia – "Very savvy move, that; the girl's a bright little filly, isn't she? She certainly has the Director wrapped around her little finger." – and overriding security protocols to send the jetpack to Zane – "A bribe?" he repeated when Zane huffed his assessment. "Maybe, if that's how you want to look at her giving you an incentive she knew you'd get a kick out of. She could've just arranged for Mansfield to transport you, willy nilly," Taggart pointed out with a smirk, rocking back on the heels of his polar bear skin boots.
Zane hadn't considered that. It certainly would've been acceptable for her to have the military transport him, but she'd gone out of way to provide the jetpack. He watched with a bit more of an open mind as the video file showed Jo taking steps to lock down Carter, Allison, Henry and Grace, and to ensure that Kevin and Jenna Blake were located and looked after. Only then had she coordinated the remaining plans with Deputy Andy. Taggart had nodded sagely, holding the younger man's gaze as he insisted, "Our Jo has more heart than most anyone else you'll ever meet. She just keeps it under wraps, like they taught her at home and in the Rangers."
Zane hadn't accepted Taggart's version of things right away. But he'd thought about it as the other man changed the subject and brought him up to date on the start he'd made on creating the antidote for Love Potion Number Nine. And he'd thought about it while he was double-checking Taggart's analysis of Gould's formula… and while they were brainstorming possible counter-agents… and while they were running test simulations… and while they scrapped their first unsuccessful trial and started over…
Taggart, who turned out to be a fairly cool guy, quirky as all get-out, but an amusing and interesting coworker, didn't nag Zane about misjudging Jo. But he wasn't at all subtle about pointing out additional incidents over the next few days that reinforced his theory that Jo was in love with Zane.
Zane found that he couldn't take offence at the smug self-assurance with which Jo's one-time lover urged him to view the Enforcer through different eyes. It wasn't just visual evidence like the security feed they used to communicate with Jo; Taggart kept up a running commentary. "She left this feed open for us; told me to keep an eye on developments in case she loses it and it's up to us to call in the cavalry, and when I asked her whether Mansfield would consider it a security breach, she said it didn't matter because she had no doubt you'd hack the feed anyway," Taggart grinned widely and clapped Zane on the back. "I always knew you were a right 'un, but when she told me that last bit I knew we two would get along just fine."
When Zane had looked blankly at him, the Aussie added, "Y'know, because you care about her, too." The younger scientist instinctively scoffed and denied it, but Taggart nudged his shoulder and amiably teased, "Come on, lad; a bloke'd have to be blind not to see the attraction between you two from the moment you met! You weren't exactly the epitome of discretion when you gave her all that lingerie – smooth move, by the way. Jo needed someone to treat her like a woman instead of just as a warrior."
Zane's jaw had dropped. "She hated that lingerie!"
"Naw. Kept 'em, didn't she?"
The younger man's eyes had narrowed. "How would you know that?" The very thought of Jo wearing his lingerie when she'd been with another man had made his skin crawl and his stomach clench.
Taggart smirked. "Don't get your shorts in a twist, boy-o. We weren't a steady couple. Like I said before, our being lovers was more a heat-of-the-moment thing. We were both high on the adrenalin rush of workin' a hostage situation together, and since the sex was good and she was lonely, we did the friends-with-benefits game for a little while. But things had taken their natural course and eased back toward the just-mates stage before you arrived." He chuckled at the taken-aback expression on Zane's face. "Sorry; I do tend to ramble a bit. Let's see, what was the point? Ah yes. The point is, she never modeled 'em for me or anything like that. I saw 'em at her place when I went to pick her up the last time we went paint balling. Those Liza's Lingerie boxes were open on her coffee table. I'd already heard about you having the packages delivered to the Sheriff's office, so I asked her about 'em. She shrugged it off, playing like she didn't care for the frillies, but she reached over and touched the red ones in the top box," the big man's expression softened as he imitated the tentative gesture he recalled, "with the cutest little smile on her lips, and a hint of pink on her cheeks..." He cleared his throat and went on, "That's when I knew she didn't need me anymore, and my being around might be counter-productive to a new relationship. So I split. I'd had it in mind to do some research up here and I'd been hankering to get it started, but I didn't want to leave Jo hanging after the last bugger left her high and dry. Once you were in the picture, she was in good hands… or so I thought." He'd eyed Zane sadly and said, "I didn't find out until recently, but you sure bollixed it up right quick, didn't you?"
If it had been anyone else, it might have ended in a fistfight… or Zane might have messed with his research in retaliation for the meddling assessment. But Taggart's tone hadn't been insulting. The man had been sympathetic! Zane wondered what the big man meant about him messing things up with Jo, but at that point he was afraid that if he actually asked, he'd get a lot more information that he wanted.
That had been only one of many equally-strange but enlightening conversations.
In between their intensely complex scientific brainstorming and periodic reviews of where things stood in Eureka, Taggart continued to "ramble" about Jo Lupo. What he was doing was obvious, but Zane wasn't averse to a helping hand in piecing together a better knowledge base about the feisty beauty who'd been driving him nuts for the past two years.
Since he'd hacked her personnel file and studied her pretty closely, he was already aware of much of what Taggart told him. But he'd never realized that she'd been chosen for the deputy job in Eureka by the same talent scout that had delivered him to Sheriff Carter, or that she'd been in training to replace the town's previous law officer, Sheriff Cobb. Jo, he was unsurprised to hear, had been furious at being passed over for the expected promotion.
Zane had never noticed any strain between Carter and Lupo, and he was amused at Taggart's enthusiastic description of the virtual cold war Jo had waged against Carter the whole first year after he walked into the Sheriff's job. He'd eventually won her loyalty, partly because of his stoic tolerance of her passive-aggressive tactics, and partly by proving Cobb had pegged him right as the man for the job. "Jo learned a lot about people skills from working with Carter," Tag had chuckled absently as he refocused the microscope lens on their latest sample. "And she managed to teach him enough about weapons that she finally let him have the keys to the Sheriff's armory when she was promoted to Security Chief at GD."
"Yeah, Carter recommended her for the job, didn't he?"
"He sure did. Smart man. I happen to know a fellow at the DOD, and it was Carter's referral that turned the trick. Not many people realize it, but with her brothers so far away, Carter and Zoey are the first family she's had in a long time. She'd sooner cut her heart out than betray either of them, but especially the girl." He'd given Zane a long sideways glance.
He'd rolled his eyes, knowing the older man was referring to his "dating" Zoey Carter. "She's just a kid, Tag, still playing the field. Once she'd made Lucas jealous enough to grovel, she was done with me."
"Ah, so that was it, eh? Too bad Jo didn't know."
There wasn't anything he could say to that.
If he'd been back at GD Zane would have been annoyed at how often Jo called to check on their progress, and accused her of not trusting him, or in this case, them. But Taggart interpreted her frequent calls much differently. He waggled his brows and smirked at Zane as he spoke to her, making it clear to the younger man that Jo had called as much or more to hear about Zane than about their progress. "Yeah, he's right here; good hard worker," he'd say, or, "He's right here; you wanna talk to him?" – which she never did – or, "Nah, I'm not working him too hard; yeah, we ate and we both caught a nap; don't fret Jo." Moreover, for as often as she called, the video footage the two men kept up and running showed many more times that she picked up the phone and started to dial, only to force herself to hang up again, unfailingly followed by some kind of strenuous physical activity to force her emotions back under control.
Taggart pretended not to notice when Zane gave in to his curiosity and zoomed in on her cell to see for himself if the older man was right about who she wouldn't allow herself to call. It was Zane's cell phone number almost every time. The few times it wasn't his personal cell, it was Taggart's lab number that she stopped herself from dialing. This new aspect of her behavior left a funny feeling in his chest, and he appreciated that Tag didn't mention it again.
She hadn't slept, because it was her focus on her job and the well-being of Eureka's citizens that enabled her to resist the infection. The Enforcer patrolled GD's empty corridors at least twice a day to verify that labs remained locked down – and refrained from seriously injuring the handful of miscreants that snuck into the facility and tried to break into their labs. She maintained an irregular pattern of dropping in on Fargo to make sure he was still occupied by Claudia and keeping up with his necessary tasks, and she spent a fair amount of time out in the countryside tracking and securing citizens that weren't in town or at GD when the formula was released. She continued to perform her usual professional duties, monitoring GD's security, reporting to General Mansfield, and responding to various inevitable minor emergencies with Deputy Andy.
She also checked personally on Kevin and Jena several times a day, making sure they had meals and confirming that their AI was taking proper care of them at their house while Allison was locked up with Carter. Kevin was one of the young teens most affected by the hormonal impact, and she spent extra time with him each evening, playing video games and keeping him as entertained as possible.
Yet even in the middle of a conversation with someone else, her hand would drift to her phone and she'd start to dial, then realize what she was doing, tense up, and close the connection. By the time he'd seen it a dozen times, he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Taggart had been right; she was just as affected by the pink haze of Love Potion Number Nine as everyone else. She was just controlling it with rigid self-discipline, constantly moving from one task to the next.
He was less certain whether the crazy Aussie was right about Zane being the one she was yearning for – but the concept was reinforced by both the incomplete phone calls and the fact that she ended up outside his apartment staring up at his balcony seven different times that he knew of from his sporadic checks on the town security feed. If Tag was right… then Zane was a luckier man than he'd ever believed possible.
Once he accepted the idea that Jo… cared… maybe even loved him?... he'd bluntly told Taggart about The Kiss – but not about the whole thing with his grandmother's ring – and about how Jo had avoided him since.
That had stumped the older man. "That makes no sense. Everything I know says she's crazy about you. There are only two reasons she'd avoid you – if she was mad at you, or if she's feeling defensive about something. You'd know if she was genuinely mad at you; she wouldn't be messing with tasers and handcuffs like she's been playing at the last couple years; she'd decimate you, believe you me. That leaves protecting herself. Hmm… Can't have been just that kiss of yours; Jo's a very passionate woman. And you say you haven't actually dated since that first time? She wouldn't still be holding that against you." he'd said, frowning. "I've never known Jo not to forgive and forget once an apology's been offered."
Taggart had taken one look at his deer-in-the-headlights expression and rolled his eyes, clicking his tongue in exasperation. "Tell me you haven't let that go this long without apologizing!"
And this time, for the first time, Zane found out where he'd gone wrong with the Enforcer. Apparently several other people at Café Diem that day had noticed what he'd done on their first and only date, but no one had ever bothered to clue him in. Of course with an eidetic memory he had no problem recalling their conversation that night. In retrospect he could see why she'd never gone out with him again. He'd been so busy impressing her that it had never dawned on him that he'd basically told her that what she did and who she was weren't as important as his abilities and his genius – or, as Taggart succinctly phrased it, "You made her feel dumb, mate."
It didn't take a genius to realize that continually flaunting her authority practically every day since then had only reinforced the impression that he had no respect for Jo. No wonder Taggart believed he'd "bollixed it up". Knowing what he knew now, he'd have to agree.
Yet in spite of his ridiculously inept screw-up, based on the effect Love Potion Number Nine had on Jo, she apparently still cared.
"You definitely need to make up that first date business," Taggart had decreed, scratching his head, "But I've got a funny feeling that there's more to it than that. There has to be something else going on in that pretty head of hers, something neither of us knows about. I'd suggest that you talk to Carter. I don't think anyone knows Jo better than Jack Carter. The man's a wonder with people."
Zane knew it had to be the first date screw-up that caused his difficulty with the Enforcer; that made perfect sense. But apologizing for that wouldn't help with her recent avoidance, because if his half-formed theories were right, this wasn't the same Jo as the one he'd gone on the date with so long ago. He couldn't explain that to his new friend, … but Tag was probably right that Carter could offer useful advice. The question was, would the Sheriff be willing to help him? He must know Zane was investigating the causal event that had changed him, Jo and their friends. There had to be a way to convince Carter that he had no intention of harming Jo… somehow.
With a start, Zane realized the buzz he'd just felt was the EM field; he was almost back at GD, and while he was about 99.9% positive that Jo… might… love him… he still didn't have a plan for what to do next. Maybe he should skip Carter and go straight to Jo. Coming off the Love Potion Number Nine and sluggish from the little sleep she'd probably had since the others took over, maybe she wouldn't be so quick to evade him. If he could catch her with her defenses down, he wouldn't need Carter's help. This time he wouldn't push; he'd confess his idiocy and grovel, and maybe, just maybe, she'd give him another chance?
It was close to sunset, and the streets of Eureka were unusually silent as he flew over the town. He smirked at the thought of how many people were probably holed up in their homes squirming over their behavior the past few days. If he was any judge, things should be relatively quiet for the next day or so as everyone stuck to their best behavior. Jo would have a sell-earned chance to rest up before the next crisis.
Zane touched down on the helipad and expertly cut the jetpack engines. One of Jo's guards stepped out to greet him. "Welcome back, Mr. Donovan," he said with a respectful nod.
He'd never stop getting a kick out of that. "Thanks, Pete." This was one of the men that Lupo used to post outside whatever lab he'd been assigned to that day. He removed his helmet and clasped it between his knees, then rapidly unclipped the straps and slipped the jetpack from his shoulders. "Can you take this back to Lab 722 for me?" he asked, handing it over.
Zane grinned and shook his head as the man executed a snappy military turn and carried the jetpack away. Nope, it'd never get old. Helmet now under his arm, he strode toward the parking lot where his bike should be waiting. It was one of the first things Jo had arranged once the town was no longer infectious, yet another piece of irrefutable proof that she'd been thinking of him.
Ninety long minutes later he was no longer grinning.
He stalked into the Sheriff's office and, after a quick look into the empty holding area, faced the seated Sheriff and demanded, "Where the hell is Lupo?"
Jack Carter met his gaze with a frown of his own. "In her office. But don't bother her; she hasn't slept since last week."
"No, I checked there as soon as I found out she wasn't at her place, and she left hours ago. Too many people kept coming in and out or calling and waking her up, so she took off." Zane paced back and forth in agitation. He waved a dismissive hand as the Sheriff reached for his phone. "Don't bother. Her cell phone is off – can't blame her, the way everyone was bugging the life out of her – and her car is still at GD. I checked the security feed, and she apparently had Fargo's limo AI drive her into town. It dropped her off at Vince's but she never went in, and I can't find anything that shows where she went from there."
Carter sat back in his chair and thoughtfully studied the anxious younger man. "She was pretty tired. She'd go somewhere she'd feel safe and comfortable."
"Why do you think I'm standing here?" Zane shouted with an angry wave around the office. "After I checked her new place I went by the crater where her old house was; she'd not there. She's also not at your place, or at Café Diem, or at the Blake's or Henry's – I even checked that campsite she likes up on the mountain. I've been everyplace I can think of, Carter, and no one's seen her. You know her better than I do. Where else might she go?" Zane pushed a hand through his spiky hair and stopped in front of Carter's desk, watching him expectantly.
Curious, the Sheriff suggested, "What's the rush? You could always wait until she surfaces."
Zane shook his head and spread his hands helplessly. "She's exhausted, Carter, and it isn't like her to just up and vanish. You're supposed to be her friend. Aren't you worried?"
A small smile curved Jack's mouth. "I think you're worried enough for the both of us," he said, and ignored the answering growl. After watching Zane pace back and forth like a caged animal for a little longer, he said slowly, "There is one other place she might have gone, especially if she's not thinking clearly and she's looking for refuge."
Zane shifted his feet impatiently as Carter contemplated him in silence without any sign of continuing. "Yeah, so… where?" he prompted.
"Her boyfriend's place."
"Aw come on! Jo doesn't have a…" his voice trailed off and he stilled, three hundred and forty-one different things flashing through his mind. The three major ones were that she'd accepted his proposal on Founder's Day, she'd been wearing his grandmother's ring on a chain around her neck the day she'd told him she'd been romanticizing their relationship, and, of course, the Number One experience of his life, The Kiss that hadn't felt like a first kiss… He'd known they had to have been close, but… "Nah. No way."
"Way," Carter grinned, apparently pleased at whatever he saw in Zane's expression. "She used to spend a lot of time there." He let Zane process that for a moment, then said casually, "You know, Henry and I had a really interesting discussion about whether people are always the same, at the core, even if they'd been born in a different time or place."
Zane's brow creased, still trying to process the first part about Jo spending a lot of time at her boyfriend's – at his place. Was that why she'd gone there so often over the weekend? And what in the world was Carter talking about now?
"You know, philosophically speaking. Like, would Hitler still have started a world war if he'd been born in this century instead of the last one? I'd lay odds that he'd give it his best shot. Like I told Henry, I think that even if the world goes topsy-turvy, who people really are down deep inside stays the same. Henry said we'd have the perfect chance to test that theory." He leaned back, folding his hands over his stomach and nodded to himself. "I'd say you prove my point."
Zane was listening carefully now. Was Carter really talking about what he thought he was talking about? The man had gone from Jo being at her boyfriend's place to topsy-turvy worlds to people changing but staying the same… regardless of the time they were born into? Time? Was he reading the man right? Cautiously he repeated, "I prove your point?"
"Absolutely. For a genius, you're just as clueless as ever, and if even you were given, say, another two years to get your act together, you'd still get under her skin and drive her nuts just like you do now, just like you have since the day you first met."
He meant clueless about Jo, obviously, but was Carter attempting a subtle reference to more than his relationship with Jo? If so, this might be as open an admission of a timeline change as he was likely to get in a public place that didn't have sonic protocols – and maybe a not-so-subtle confirmation that Jo loved him? Rapidly formulating his next question, Zane carefully said, "Tag thinks I need to apologize for my complete lack of tact on our date, as well as my moronic behavior since… Is there more that might be bothering her?"
Carter's brows arched up in surprise at Zane's use of a nickname he'd only ever heard Jo use for the peculiar Aussie. He smirked. "Tag, is it? I'd like to have been a fly on the wall for that little chat," he chuckled, then added, "Yeah, I'd say an apology is in order. But I wouldn't sanction discussing anything else with her; it could get you into trouble."
Zane blinked and fell back a step, floored by the immediate connection between the mystery about Jo, the possible hints about a timeline change, and the two words on which the Sheriff had placed a slight emphasis. Sanction you. Suddenly it all clicked into place. This was the missing piece of the puzzle.
Tag had been partially correct. Jo was acting defensively, but she wasn't just protecting herself from being hurt by Zane, as they'd both assumed. Jo had undertaken the task of protecting her friends and their families, too. It wasn't The Kiss that had spooked her that day. He'd told her that he knew something had happened, and of course she'd known that he wouldn't rest until he had the truth. Jo was doing her level best to keep Zane so preoccupied with other projects that he wouldn't be able to focus on figuring out which "impossible" something they'd done that caused the changes he'd noticed. Mere wormholes, or an alternate universe… those could be scientific advances. But if it really was time travel, as he now believed Carter had just confirmed, his continued research would undoubtedly have triggered watchdogs at the DOD.
There were protocols about time travel. There were sanctions.
At minimum, public exposure of what they'd done would mean incarceration of the five – six if someone tracked down Grant. It would mean the separation of Allison from Kevin and little Jenna, the separation of Carter from Zoey, the end of Henry and Grace's marriage – Grace's sanctioning, too, because of course she'd been told but she hadn't reported it – and would the DOD believe Zoey hadn't known? Of course they wouldn't. And even if Zane had been willing to keep the secret, too – which he abso-frickin-lutely would have, although they'd had no way of knowing that based on his behavior back then – knowing the truth and not reporting it meant he'd be in just as much danger as the others.
Jo had protected all of them – including Zane, according to Carter – the only way she could. She'd sacrificed the chance of a new relationship with him to make sure everyone else would be safe. This was why she'd been evading his every effort to talk or to rekindle the brief flash of friendship he'd enjoyed after Founder's Day.
He met Carter's keen blue-eyed gaze, momentarily at a loss for words under the weight of the damage he might've done if Jo hadn't turned him into an honest man. He swallowed hard and finally said, "She really is awesome, isn't she? She – she deserves better."
Carter's grin vanished. Very solemnly he said, "I think you'll do."
Zane didn't think he'd ever received a greater compliment.
Jo stirred slowly, her mind cataloging details even before she opened her eyes: morning birdsong outside the partially opened window; the feel of a light breeze across her shoulders and face above the flannel sheets; the contrasting warmth of the large male body beside her; the scent of fresh coffee nearby… and the essence of Zane's cologne much closer.
She blinked sleepily and smiled. Zane was already awake, propped on one elbow as he watched her. "G'morning," she said huskily, reaching over to lovingly caress his unshaven cheek.
"Morning," he replied softly, turning his face enough to press a lingering kiss to her palm. "Coffee's ready when you want some."
"Mmm, thanks." She started to snuggle closer to him, only to realize that he was lying atop the covers instead of tucked in with her. She pulled back a little, and noticed he was also dressed. "You're up before me? Must be a really big project," she teased, smiling drowsily up at him.
"The most important one of my life," he agreed, but so seriously that Jo laced her fingers with his on the bed between them and scanned his handsome features with a bit more alertness.
"You shouldn't worry, Zane. Whatever it is, I'm sure you'll nail it," she assured him with absolute faith.
He swallowed hard. "You may not say that once you wake up a bit more. And I really, really don't want to blow this. I don't want to lose you, JoJo."
Jo's brow puckered. "You couldn't lose me if… you… tried…"
And just like that, she remembered.
Even as her carefree expression shuttered, she slid back off the bed, rising to her feet – her very bare feet, at the bottom of very bare legs beneath one of Zane's tee-shirts that hung only to the top of her very bare thighs. She looked up from realizing her state of undress in time to see him suck in a deep breath of appreciation at the view, and she blushed furiously. "About face!" she barked.
Much to her bemusement, Zane jumped off the bed and turned his back in immediate obedience, taking up a parade rest stance. She stared at him for a moment, startled, before she scanned the room in search of her clothes, all the while cursing herself. How the devil had she ended up in Zane's bedroom, of all places? Why had she taken off her underwear, not just her outer garments? She hadn't done that since… since the old time line, when she'd often spent the night here and she could expect Zane to join her at some point during the night.
Watching her in the mirror over his dresser, Zane suppressed a grin at the panicked bewilderment she wasn't concealing now that he was facing away from her. He saw the moment it clicked that she'd come to her boyfriend's place, as Carter had called his apartment; she blushed hotly and buried her face in her hands for a moment before she started looking for her clothes again. She was utterly gorgeous, flustered and pink-cheeked, her beautiful hair tumbling freely about her face and shoulders, and those legs that went on forever! She was just as enchanting now as she'd been when she'd first awakened, when she'd been so unguarded and at ease with him, wholly unselfconscious, openly displaying the affection he'd never seen from her before but definitely hoped to see again, soon. If he didn't blow it.
She pushed her hair back with shaking hands, still looking around for something – anything, at this point – that she could wear to put her at less of a disadvantage. Nothing. Naturally. Not even a pair of Zane's baggy old sweats were anywhere in sight, and she couldn't go rooting around in his drawers with him standing right there. She was in so much trouble here.
Zane saw her glance at the open window, no doubt calculating whether she could escape through it, before she glanced down at herself again and rejected the idea of trying to slip back to her own house dressed in only Zane's tee-shirt. She gnawed nervously at her lower lip, and impatiently brushed at the glistening moisture in one eye, then the other before she bowed her head, her slender shoulders slumping. How had he never known this whole vulnerable side to her exited?
Only a moment later she lifted her head and squared her shoulders, bracing herself to do what had to be done, and her familiar Enforcer mask dropped into place in the mirrored reflection, right before his eyes. Of course; this was why he'd never known who she really was; she'd hidden it. If he hadn't blown it on their date… maybe instead of two years as adversaries, he'd have memories that included giving this incredible woman his grandmother's ring. She opened her mouth – and before she could humble herself and ask, he said quietly, "Your clothes are in the ensuite."
Jo's eyes widened in amazement. He was giving her an out from this humiliating moment without a single smart remark or sexual innuendo? Well, she certainly wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth. She padded toward the ensuite, keeping a suspicious eye on his back, because he was behaving really oddly. Once she reached the door she ducked quickly into the bathroom, leaving the door ajar just in case he was up to something.
She assessed the situation while she dressed. She must have stripped down when she'd come here yesterday, donned one of his shirts like she used to in the old timeline, and crawled right into his bed, completely on autopilot. Thankfully, her military background meant that even after more than eighty hours without sleep, she'd followed training and hung her clothes on the hooks at the back of the door. She'd been so freaked out at finding herself in this situation that she'd forgotten the probability that her clothes would be exactly where they should be. No doubt her shoes were by the front door, also as they should be.
What must Zane have thought when he'd arrived back from Alaska and found her sound asleep in his bed? Everything she'd gone through to keep her distance, and she'd blown it with one careless move. There was absolutely no way she could talk her way out of this.
She studied her reflection in the mirror for a long moment, unwilling to go back out there without her full formal shields back in place. The comb on the marble countertop looked the same as the one he'd used to have, and her hand hovered over it for a long moment before she yielded and used it and the elastic she'd tucked into her jacket pocket to tame her hair into its usual slick ponytail. She needed to look as professional as she could if there was a prayer of holding it together out there, especially without the extra height of her shoes, which she wouldn't have until she could reach the front door.
Everyone's well-being depended on how she handled Zane in the next few minutes. She'd be damned if she'd let them go down on her watch. Whatever it took, she couldn't let him get to her. She had to quit stalling and go face him. Come on, Jo, she scolded herself. Think! There had to be something – and there was.
She breezed back into his bedroom to find him standing exactly as she'd left him, facing away from the bed, and said, "I appreciate the use of your apartment, Donovan. It's the only place in Eureka where no one would've thought to look for me yesterday. Sorry I didn't ask first, but I figured you'd stay away a bit longer to play with the jetpack."
When he heard her clipped, impersonal tone of voice, Zane sighed. The Enforcer was back, and she'd come up with a valid cover story. It was so good that he almost hated what he had to do next. He turned and said genuine admiration, "Good thinking, JoJo. You're right. This is the last place that anyone would expect you to be." He saw the almost imperceptible breath of relief and the barest relaxation to her taut posture. Regretting that he couldn't leave it at that, he added, "Except the people that really know you, of course. Carter knew right away where I could find you."
She absorbed the blow of failure without a blink, and even as she mentally scrambled for another excuse she repeated, "Carter?" with narrowed gaze.
"Yeah, after I'd looked everywhere else under the sun for you, I went to him. I should've started there, because it didn't take him more than a minute to send me home." Zane nodded toward the hallway. "Want that coffee now?"
Carter had told Zane to look for her here? Carter? He'd been trying for several months now to talk her into working things out with Zane. He kept telling her they were destined to be together, like him and Allison. He was far too romantic for everyone else's good. She sighed, very much afraid that her well-meaning friend had undone all her hard work. She still hadn't come up with an alternative reason for being here, and she certainly couldn't tell Zane the truth. "Yes," she said flatly. "Coffee would be good."
He grinned and walked down the hall ahead of her. As he'd hoped, citing Carter had at least made her willing to listen. It was a start. "You know," he said over his shoulder, "even if he hadn't steered me in the right direction, I'd have found you when I came home. And after what you said to me when you woke up…" Her step faltered behind him. He didn't have to look back to know that absolutely adorable crease must be back on her forehead as she tried to remember exactly what she'd said. Lest she think that he was expecting her to open up to him without any reciprocation, he added, "I bet when we were together I liked to wake up with you nearby, even if you did used to get up before me."
Jo swallowed audibly as she followed him into the kitchen, floored by both his words and the wistful tone with which they'd been uttered. She stopped short just inside the doorway, keeping her options for retreat open, while he went on to the coffee maker on the counter. He poured the dark liquid into two mugs, and carried them to the island, where he had sugar and cream waiting. When he looked at her expectantly, she cautiously moved to the opposite side and accepted one of the mugs for herself. "Thanks," she murmured.
Zane waited until she'd taken her first long sip; she closed her eyes in appreciation and the corners of her lips turned up as the caffeine hit her system. "You are so hot," he blurted out, startling a crack of laughter from her.
Jo couldn't help it. It was so… Zane!
Thankful to see that her dark eyes were twinkling at him, he sheepishly grinned back. Oh well, at least his outburst seemed to have put her a bit more at ease. Zane sobered and cleared his throat. His only chance here was utter sincerity. "The way you touched me, the way you looked at me, and the way you talked to me when you were waking up… I liked it, JoJo. I liked it a whole lot."
She looked down, wrapping both hands around the coffee mug. He was putting himself out there and she knew how difficult that was for him to do. This was going to be the hardest thing she'd done yet. She had no choice but to shoot him down, no how much it would break her heart. It didn't matter that every fiber of her being urged her to give Zane exactly what he wanted. It was what she wanted, too, after all. But the stronger mandate was to keep him safe, and she wouldn't willingly add him to the list of people who would be sanctioned if any one of them slipped up.
"Don't be scared, JoJo," he said softly, aching for the burden she was shouldering so staunchly.
Her head snapped up. "I am not afraid!"
"Not for yourself," he agreed, raising a placating hand. "But for the rest of us?"
Shocked, she stared at him a moment and then looked away, fighting her rising panic. Okay, that sounded like he understood exactly what was at stake. This was bad. If he knew, it meant that he'd carried out his research without her realizing it, which in turn meant that some spook at the DOD was probably even now organizing a strike team to drop out of the sky and "clean" the contamination from Eureka.
Zane frowned as he watched her tension increase instead of subsiding. He'd hoped that once she saw that he'd grasped the truth and was on their side, she'd relax a little. What was he doing wrong? Oh wait – truth! Research! "Oh. Oh, no – no, JoJo;" his hands slashed through the air in a negative gesture. "No prying into forbidden avenues of research, I swear. You've kept me too busy for anything that might've triggered trouble, just like you intended. Everyone's still safe, and they'll stay safe if I have anything to say about it." The steely determination in his voice regained her full attention. So he sucked in a bracing breath and tried again. "I'm scared too, but it's not protocols that scare me, Jo. I'm scared you and I will both end up alone… because you won't let me share the duty and the privilege of protecting the people we both care about. I don't want to give up on what we could have because of fear about what might never happen."
Tears filled her eyes, and she blinked them away, desperately trying to think this through. He knew she'd manipulated him, and why, but instead of loathing her as she deserved he was talking like he wanted to be with her anyway? Was this some kind of weird hallucination? It couldn't be real, could it? The things he was saying… He knew, and he was stepping up. God wouldn't be this good to her twice in one lifetime, would He? After she'd resigned herself to losing Zane again? Wait – what was she thinking? God was good, so of course He would be this good to her! Her chest felt like that impossibly large bullet was in there again at the magnitude of what Zane was offering. "How –" was all she was able to croak out.
Fortunately, he'd apparently anticipated the question. He shrugged and cast her a lopsided grin. "Tag said some stuff that got me thinking. Carter added a little into the mix… and after all, I am a genius," he added lightly, puffing out his chest. When she didn't even smile, just stared at him with huge, uncertain eyes, he scratched the back of his head self-consciously. "Look, Jo, I had all night to think while I was watching you sleep. I don't have any doubts about what I want. I can't know what it was like for you before, and maybe I'm totally out of line here, but I can't imagine any reality where I'd let go of anyone as awesome as you without fighting for a chance to be with you. I don't mean just for sex, either. I'm crazy about you."
Jo swallowed, but didn't say a word. Did he mean what she thought he meant? How could she be certain this wasn't just some kind of weird side effect to the Love Potion Number Nine?
Zane's brow puckered at her unfathomable expression. He'd thought his words were reaching her, but now he wasn't so sure. What was he doing wrong? "This was a lot easier to say when you were asleep," he grumbled. "It sounded so much better in my head. Let me try again. Jo, as much as you want to keep your family safe… and me safe… I want to keep them safe, too… and you. I want to keep you safe. I want to make sure you eat right and sleep right and maybe have a little fun now and then. Tag said you used to go paintballing together? I like to play. Don't you think it'd be fun to whoop my ass at paint ball, or laser tag, or, or… Scrabble?"
Jo blinked. "Scrabble?" Okay, she'd never have imagined him saying that word. Plus, she'd blinked and he was still there, watching her expectantly. Did that mean it was all real? God really was giving her a second chance with Zane?
He grinned, relieved to finally have a response, even if it was only one word again. "Well, we'd have to play at least one game that I'd have half a chance at winning, just to keep my morale up." He was relieved to see her smile, albeit only faintly.
Then, as if she was finally processing everything he'd been telling her, she blushed. "Tag? You mean Taggart?"
He knew better than to smirk, but he couldn't resist saying, "Interesting playmate."
Her blush deepened. "You two talked … about me?" she all but gulped.
Wryly Zane admitted, "He doesn't give a guy much choice." Jo tilted her head and considered that briefly, then nodded with resignation. Encouraged, he went on carefully, "Actually, he gave me some really good pointers. Told me I'd bollixed it up between us that night at Café Diem... our first date, I mean," he added at her blank look. There was a flash of remembered hurt that she quickly hid by looking down. So, not something this Jo was holding against him, but still a bad memory. He should do what he could to set it right, in case the other him hadn't. And he knew just how to make certain she remembered what he was about to tell her. Sternly, he scolded, "Josefina Lupo, don't you ever let some guy make you feel dumb again!"
Jo stiffened, her head shooting up, ready to fight at his tone. But before she could say a word in her own defense, Zane was going into elaborate detail about just how much respect he had for the intelligence and cunning of anyone who could create and carry out the complex strategies she'd undertaken in the last few months to make an honest man of him. She knew he saw her flinch at that last phrase, but to her relief he let it go, at least for now, in favor of telling her that he'd always been fascinated by her professional proficiency with innumerable weapons, which, he emphasized, was no mean feat and was, of course, "incredibly hot!". Jo looked down again, a small smile playing about her lips.
He barely took a breath before he continued, and she watched him, captivated, as he told her that it took a rare talent to master the multitude of manual armaments Jo was expert with, and it blew him away that she also handled the high-tech stuff as if it was second nature to her, even if the science behind them was sometimes beyond her. Add to that her hand-to-hand skills, he said with clear awe in his tone, and her ability to quote both the legal code and Eureka's unique rules and regulations, and in his book, he concluded, she was as much of a genius as everyone else who'd been recruited to work in Eureka... with the possible exception of Carter, who he hadn't made up his mind about.
"I mean, come on… sometimes I think the guy's a closet Einstein, and other times I wonder how he ties his own shoes," Zane frowned, sidetracked by his ruminations. "Maybe it's some kind of idiot savant condition…"
Jo was thankful for his momentary distraction. She was more than a little overwhelmed by what he'd just spewed out as if he couldn't hold it in a moment longer. She'd never had any doubt that Zane was physically attracted to her, but this… this stuff was stunning. He wasn't lying to her or exaggerating for effect. She could tell by his earnestness and the urgency with which he was speaking that he meant every single word. "Zane," she said slowly, and was a more than a little disconcerted that she instantly had his full attention again.
She moistened her lips. "Did you… did you ever try to tell… me… any of this before?"
He grimaced. "Absolutely not! She'd have laughed her head off at me, then tased my ass into next week." But almost instantly he shook his head. "No, I don't think I can't say that for sure any more. Looking back… I don't know. Carter said he and Henry were discussing how people don't change at the core of who they are. So if you lo-…" he faltered and met her gaze before dropping his own, unwilling to flat out use the "L" word on the slim chance that Taggart and Carter were both completely wrong. So how could he say this without exposing either Jo's or his emotions too much? "If, uh, if… if I'm crazy about you like… other-me before must've been to give you that ring… and deep down the Enforcer and you are the same… then maybe she – you, I mean, wouldn't have shot me down, like you-you hasn't. Maybe. Tag thought she – you – she liked me. He said she, uh, you, I mean, kept the lingerie, at least long enough for Tag to see it before he left. That might mean you – she – you always liked me, right?"
Jo looked up through her lashes at him and said a little shyly, "All that lingerie was still here before Larry blew up my house."
Zane caught his breath. "She – you – all that time?" Well, if that wasn't proof of whether or not the Enforcer had secretly liked him, he didn't know what was! If he'd gotten his head out of his butt sooner, his life – and hers – might have been so different! He groaned and slapped a hand to his forehead. "Idiot!" he snarled, pacing angrily back and forth on his side of the kitchen island. "All that time, and I could've had," he paused and gestured at Jo, scanning her from head to foot, "I could've been with you – her – you! and I was too busy being a screw-up to make it right! No wonder she – you – she kicked my butt every chance she – you got!" He grabbed fistfuls of his hair in utter frustration, and growled at his inability to keep his pronouns straight. "Man this is confusing!"
Jo giggled – actually giggled!
He dropped his hands to his sides, stopping in his tracks to stare heatedly at her. "That is so hot!" He started moving again, but this time he rounded the corner with a purposeful stride, his eyes dark with hunger.
Her mouth abruptly went dry. "Zane," she warned, raising one hand, every nerve screaming "danger" at his sudden aggression.
He caught hold of her hand and pulled her toward him.
Jo twisted, gripped his hand, bent and flipped him. He landed hard, flat on his back, with Jo's right knee pressed into his chest, her left hand clenched around the base of his neck and her right fist raised and ready to chop down. She froze, a horrified expression crossing her face.
Zane, however, stared up at her in utter delight. "I've got the abso-frickin-lutely hottest girlfriend in the world!" he exclaimed with an ear-to-ear smile, and he pulled her head down and kissed her, pouring his whole heart into the contact.
She kissed him back, just as she had the one other time he could remember. And it was every bit as enthralling this time as it had been then, and as freakishly familiar for each of them. This time he pressed his advantage, but Jo didn't object when his hands slid down her back and molded her to his lean length. She'd missed him too badly to reject this unexpected opportunity to be close to him again. Now that he knew almost everything, and he'd told her how much he cared about her – even if he couldn't say the actual word yet, she did remember him saying he didn't want to lose her – she knew there was no way her adorable but stubborn bad boy genius was going to allow her to carry on as she'd been.
He soon realized she was fully yielded to their mutual passion, and the urgency of his need lessened with the knowledge that she was accepting him back into her life, danger and all. He took another pull on her very sensual lower lip and whispered, "If I replace the lingerie Larry blew up, will you model it for me, JoJo?"
Jo was puzzled, wondering why he wanted to wait for new lingerie, until she recalled that she'd pulled the last surviving scraps of silk and lace from the inner pocket of her jacket when she'd dressed in his bathroom. Zane apparently hadn't seen them, so he didn't know… "I'm wearing the last set now," she whispered back and nipped at his earlobe. She eased back, her hands on his chest as she raised herself so she was straddling him. "Is now soon enough to model them for you?" she asked with a wide, knowing grin.
Zane gaped up at her. "You're wearing them now? Seriously?"
His face lit up like it was Christmas and his birthday all rolled into one. "Best Valentine's Day ever!" he crowed, surging to his feet and drawing her up with him.
Jo laughed as she steadied herself by gripping his forearms. "That was yesterday."
"Close enough. Bedroom. Now, Lupo! C'mon, Ranger, double-time it!" he shooed her ahead of him back down the hall, belying his own haste by stopping her every couple steps to gather her into his arms again for a few more lingering, delicious kisses before he'd break away and gasp for air while he steadied himself and steered her a few steps nearer the bed again.
It was more for her benefit than his, this giddy game he'd instigated; Jo basked in his attention, soaking it up after far too long without him, laughing at his antics, blossoming before his eyes into the exotically beautiful carefree woman he'd caught such a brief glimpse of as she awakened this morning. This time she was flushed and flustered because of happiness, not panic, and keeping her that way was going to be the new Number One experience of his life, one he fully intended to continue perpetually. Interestingly, he could even envision giving his grandmother's ring back to Jo one day soon… once he'd ordered that new lingerie.
The way things had been going, if it weren't for the mishap with Gould's Love Potion Number Nine, he and Jo might not have revealed their hidden feelings to one another for months – or even years, which was such a truly dreadful thought that Zane was forced to haul Jo into his arms again and kiss her long and hard. His zeal left Security Chief Josefina Lupo smiling dreamily while he hustled her over the threshold of his room.
As he followed her, Zane made a mental note to upgrade Dr. Gould's lab computers, ASAP.