“You’ll be okay?”
“Yes.” Jo smiled broadly, both to be reassuring and because Zane’s concern struck her as wildly misplaced. She wasn’t the one planning to spend the next several days in a drug-induced twilight sleep. “I’ll be fine! I’m just going to Portland! See some movies, go the mall.” Buy lingerie. Though that last was not information he needed right now.
Of course, if his concern wasn’t about her safety, exactly, then, what? Her heart? That had always been his. She thought he knew that. She frowned. “Will you be okay?”
“Yeah.” It was his turn to shrug off misplaced concern with a forced grin. “I’ve been doing this for years.”
She knew it wasn’t the same. He hadn’t been bonded, before, when he chose to be sedated through this. But, he’d spent a lifetime in this world and she hadn’t. It had been only months since her unexpected visit to 1947 had changed everything, past, present, future. She owed him the courtesy of following his lead.
He started to turn toward the infirmary doors, then looked back. “Leave me messages?”
He’d reminded her several times already. Reminding her again was surely a sign of his own uncertainty about how bad it might be, now. So she nodded firmly and uttered the next line of their new ritual. “Of course! Call me as soon as you’re awake?”
“I will call you as soon as I’m awake. Drive safe, Jojo.”
She wanted to touch him, to hug him good-bye, to hold him close and whisper that she loved him more than time itself, but she knew that would only hurt. Literally and figuratively. The longer she delayed, the stronger and more unmanageable her own desire to touch him would get, the harder it would be for him to resist. And the more likely he’d be to dismiss anything she said. Insisting on writing it off as the heat talking, and not her heart.
So she raised her hand, gave him a cheerful wave, then turned and marched herself back to the elevators, pulling out her phone as she went.
She hit dial as soon as she stepped into the rotunda. Carter answered on the second ring.
“It’s time,” she told him. “I’m heading home to change and get my bag. I’ll see you in a week or so.”
“You sure this is what you want? What both of you want?”
“Yes. I am absolutely sure, Jack.”
She tucked the phone away, thrust her hands into her jacket pockets and headed for the exit.
“Not so fast, Deputy Lupo.”
Jo whirled to see Nathan Stark bearing down on her. If she’d been four strides closer to the main doors she would have turned and run for it, screw decorum and fuck pride. But she was six strides away. At least. Damn.
“Director.” She found herself slipping into a parade rest stance, and deliberately folded her arms and thrust out her hip instead. In this world, Jo Lupo had never served in the Special Forces, never won a marksmanship trophy, never piloted a helicopter. In this world, Jo Lupo did not have to salute anyone. Ever.
“You are making a mistake, Deputy. You and Donovan both.”
“In your opinion.”
“Walk with me.”
“To my office?”
“How about to my car.”
Recognizing an unstoppable force when he saw one, talented physicist that he was, he bowed his head and gestured gracefully to the exit. “After you, Deputy.”
Jo nodded and kept quiet. If he wanted to talk, let him. She had nothing further to say.
He waited until they were through the doors and walking across the wide concrete apron outside the building before he repeated, “A mistake, Lupo.”
She merely shrugged.
“The pair bonding is most powerful during the omega’s cycle, more fulfilling, more transcendent. It’s what it’s all about, Jo.”
“It’s a dopamine high. It isn’t any more transcendent than fucking while on ecstasy or coke.”
“Yes. It is. You say that only because you haven’t done either. I’ve done both. But passing through the cycle with your omega is an entirely different experience.”
“Fine. Glad to hear it.” She picked up her pace, cursing that she had parked so far away, and having no desire to explain to him what she had and hadn’t done after she got home from Afghanistan. A war that hadn’t been fought here anyway. Or at least, not at that time and for those reasons.
Stark’s long legs easily matched her stride. His breathing didn’t even change. Nor did his subject. Tenacious son of a bitch. “Giving up on the bonding during heat is to give up on the most intensely intimate aspect of your relationship with your omega. You are responsible for him, you know. You should not let him set the terms of this.”
She spun to face him, getting so close he actually backed up a half step as she got inside his personal boundary. Putting all her fury at Stark’s presumption, at his stupid, messed up world into her voice rather than into her fists, she growled, “His body. His terms.”
Stark barely flinched. Alpha or non-alpha, the man had always had a big, brass pair.
“You belong to each other now,” he insisted. Patronizingly. The way he did.
“Right.” The urge to throttle him was very strong. Possibly aided by her mounting desire to run back into the building and find Zane. Right now. She kept her feet planted and her fists at her sides. “So when he asks me to respect this, I do.”
She flung up her arms in utter exasperation. “What?” He actually leaned backward to get out of her range. Which was grimly satisfying. “Why the hell is our sex life so fascinating to you? It’s no slam on you and Jack. Fuck however and whenever you want. But leave Zane and me out of it.”
“You just don’t understand–”
She cut him off. “No. You don’t understand. Or you forgot. He hates everything about being an omega. He especially hates how vulnerable heat leaves him, how out of control it makes him feel.”
“He won’t feel out of control when you’re around. Trust me.”
“Right. Because nothing says ‘safe’ like giving yourself up to your once and future rapist.” She made no attempt to hide her bitterness.
“No! You didn’t…, it’s not...” he trailed off, wilting under the heat from her glare.
“Yes, I did and yes, it would be. If you can’t say no, then you can’t say yes, either. And no science-y mumbo jumbo is ever going to make that go away.”
She saw him take a breath, telegraphing some bizarre urge to comfort her, so she rushed to stop him before he embarrassed them both.
“We’ve dealt with it.” They had. More or less. Though it had involved telling Zane everything about the time travelling. And they had made plans to deal with it again, on the off chance they ever had too. There was a tranq-gun at home and tasers in their cars and in his bike. She had no idea if Zane would be able to bring himself to use them. But she prayed to a God she was pretty sure had abandoned this world that he would. “The pair bond still feels as much like a trap as a stroke of good luck, for me and for him. So to the best of our ability, we come together only when we are as clearheaded as we can be. Don’t you dare try to take that away from us.”
“Of course not.” He drew himself up. “I’m sorry. I was only trying to help.”
Jo sighed. Somehow despite all the Alpha/Beta/Omega dynamic crap in this timeline, managing male egos remained a central task for every woman she’d met, even those who dealt with it by deciding not to. That most omegas were women and most alphas men had not helped matters. At all. Fucking patriarchy. How did it work? It would probably outlast even the damn cockroaches.
“I know.” She gentled her voice and took a step back, aiming to diffuse the tension. “You found your pair bond long after you gave up all hope it would ever happen for you. It’s better than your wildest dreams. So now you’ve got a bit of a missionary thing going on.” She smiled. Sympathetically. She hoped. “I get that.”
He actually flushed a bit, and his lips twisted ruefully. “Maybe. I’m fond of Donovan. Used to worrying about him. As for you, well, you’re family now.”
Jo shrugged uncomfortably at this. She had no doubt he was sincere, and trying to be kind, but it only made her miss her own vanished family more.
“You’re a better alpha for him than any I could have imagined. I just want the two of you to be happy, and from where I sit, it’s like you’re giving up on all the best parts.”
Family or not, the man was seriously stepping way to far into her business. She raised her chin. “We have our own best parts.”
He frowned, and managed to look so genuinely worried and concerned that Jo decided to give him a little bit of information he had no right to, but that might relieve his mind. Because she did believe that he cared about Zane. And that he wanted him to be happy. And she never, ever wanted to have this conversation with Stark again. Not in this or any other time line.
They had reached her car, so she pulled off her jacket and tossed it on the hood, then started undoing the buttons of her long-sleeved uniform shirt. Her hair was up today, slick and military tight in its bun. She’d done that because Zane liked her hair down, and anything that put up a barrier was a good choice today. But it also meant less trouble now.
Pulling the collar aside she tilted her chin so Stark could see the bite bruises along her collarbone, below the neck of her uniform blouse and above the edge of her white tank undershirt. As he whistled under his breath, she rolled her head and pulled aside the other half of her blouse, showing him the matching set marching along her skin to the edge of her shoulder.
Then she opened the cuff buttons, pulled the tails from the waistband of her uniform trousers and shrugged out of her shirt altogether, tossing it beside her jacket. Shivering in the cool autumn breeze, she held her arms out in front of her, palms up, so he could see the bites that tracked up from her forearms to her biceps.
“Since I can’t see the ones on my neck without a mirror, I asked for these. So I can see them whenever I want.” She ran her fingers across the bruises on her left arm, pressing gently into each one, shivering again and not from the breeze. “And feel them. Feel him.”
She raised her eyes again to Stark’s. “Leave us be. Please.”
Stark nodded, a faint smirk on his lips, his eyes still glued to her arms. She kept still and didn’t turn her back on him. The marks on her back, on her ass, her breasts, her belly and her thighs were for her and Zane alone. It had taken him a long time to achieve the effect he wanted. She had rarely felt more cherished.
Stark raised his eyes to hers, and she knew instantly that he had already guessed at the rest anyway. Smug bastard. At least he had the good sense not to leer, because then she would have punched him. “Boy’s got some fine alpha instincts for an omega. Sending you off marked and claimed like that.”
“Man. He’s almost thirty years old. He’s a man. And his instincts,” she said, shrugging into her jacket, “his instincts, like his heart and his mind, have been at war with his body for as long as he can remember.” She opened the driver’s side door and tossed in her shirt. “Then his alpha turned out to be a woman, turned out to be me. He’s thrilled about that, don’t get me wrong, but, you have to see it, right?”
Dear God. She hoped she didn’t have to spell it out for him. He was staring at her with his arms folded and his brow furrowed in confusion.
She waited a beat. His expression didn’t change. She was going to have to spell it out for him. A freaking Nobel Prize Laureate. Maybe you had to be especially brilliant in order to be so colossally fucking stupid.
“The biological changes that go along with his dynamic?” She raised her brow in expectation. “That he has always hated? As a sign of weakness and debilitation?”
Nope. Nothing. Stark was still frowning in confusion. She felt a shriek begin to build in her gut. “It feels to him now like part of some grand cosmic joke. At his expense.”
He was still frowning. “Why? There are plenty of ways for the two of you to take advantage…”
Part of the shriek she was stifling must have leaked out somehow, because he stopped talking with a startled, “Never mind.”
Sex tips from Nathan Stark. Perhaps there was a God still, and he had condemned her to some kind of special hell for some particularly grievous sins she couldn’t remember committing. She would give words one more attempt, and then she was done. “I know you didn’t make this world, but you’ve learned to live with it and in it easily. Not everyone else has the same experience.”
He nodded, though she could see from his eyes that he didn’t really understand. But he stepped back to let her go, and she did.
Later, driving away from Eureka and toward several days as far from Zane as she could get and still be able to return quickly as soon as he started waking up, she wondered if she’d ever be able to make Stark and the rest understand. That his strange new world had nearly destroyed the brilliant boy she’d loved and lost. It had consumed the dissertations in string theory and the origins of space-time that would never be written, the ice core he’d never dig up, the spaceship he’d never nearly die trying to decode, all that and more reduced to dust that had never been.
It had given her back a damaged, angry, brilliant man who had lost the promise of his youth to a vicious and sadistic father. Marked as prey in a world of predators, he survived by turning his skills and talents to other ends. That he had managed to make it to Eureka at all was a minor miracle.
Maybe, with time and love and safety, he’d write something his other self could never have imagined, build something so remarkable that it would light up the stars. But today, today she could only give him the freedom to make his own choices.
Including the choice to sleep through this ‘most intense’ part of his sexual cycle, local customs, dopamine highs, and Stark’s starry-eyed bullshit notwithstanding.
Shaking her head to clear it, she reached for her phone.
“Hey babe. I’m about an hour northwest of town, just past the state park where we went climbing a few weeks ago. It was raining earlier, but now the clouds are lifting and the sun is setting. The light is turning the trees this most amazing green gold…”