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Part 3

 

                Nathan is reluctant to respond to Allison’s summons, suspicious that she’s sent the request through Fargo and it’s mere hours after their earlier “conversation.” Yet a part of him admits he wouldn’t mind having a mediator around when he next sees Carter. (He’s sure this is why she called.)

                The elevator opens and he takes a deep breath before stepping out. He’s partway up the stairs to Allison’s office when he sees Carter, who clearly does not see him since the man’s scowling down at his feet. Nathan tenses, realizing that Allison’s decided to manipulate the situation without inserting herself into the equation. Damn it. This is not a meeting that should be taking place in a public stairwell.

                Carter stumbles to a halt a couple steps above Nathan, eyes widening. “Crap.”

                Expression cool, Nathan meets the man’s gaze unflinchingly. Carter quickly looks away and starts rubbing the back of his neck in a familiar gesture of nervousness.

                “Some, uh, disaster – accident – thing I need to know about?” Carter asks, still looking intently at the wall.

                “This morning? No.”

               Carter looks at him sharply and Nathan can clearly read the emotions that play in quick succession through his eyes – shock, worry, regret, hurt.

                Shit.

                “Okay.” Carter breaks eye contact, this time staring straight ahead, jaw tight. “I’ve got work.”

                The stairway is wide enough to let people walk side-by-side but Carter stays put. Nathan figures it’s best to cut this off now before either of them says something stupid – although it seems he’s already said the wrong thing. However, he can’t make himself move and has the uncomfortable urge to apologize.

                Carter’s lips tighten as he shifts closer to the wall. With a shuttered gaze he looks at Nathan and casts his arm toward the top of the stairs in invitation. His lips part but Nathan speaks over him,

                “Carter—“

                Carter’s voice raises to cut him off, “Jack.” Baffled, Nathan shuts his mouth and stares at the man. “Jeez, Stark,” the name suddenly seems forced and Carter’s lips turn down as he says it. He shakes his head and chuckles without humor. “You had your dick up my ass, I think it’s a little late for formality.”

                Nathan shivers and only hopes it isn’t visible. Carter—Jack’s language sparks a memory of his voice brushing against Nathan’s ear, promising lewd actions in wholly inappropriate venues.

                “Why’d you…?” The confusion in Jack’s voice breaks through his distraction.

                Nathan’s eyes widen as he pulls away from the flashback, realizing too late that their gazes have been locked the entire time. The sheriff’s expression has given way to confusion and hurt and this is so completely out of hand.

                “Sheriff,” he begins, voice firm.

                “Forget it. Just… jeez, Nathan, what the hell do you expect?”

                Nathan lets the other man push past before reaching out to grab his shoulder. “Sheriff… Jack. Look—”

                “Go on,” Jack snaps, pulling away. “Get to your damn meeting.” His pace speeds up as he continues down the stairs.

                For some time Nathan stays there, idiotically staring after Jack Carter. He has no idea what to do at this point except maybe go up and blame Allison for putting him in this position when he hasn’t had enough time to plan.

                The self-righteous head of steam he builds up on the way to the office is spoiled when Allison greets him with crossed arms and a frown on her face. She’s standing in front of her desk and fixes him with a disappointed glare.

                “What?” he snaps.

                “You are an idiot,” she announces.

                He takes a deep breath instead of responding to the jibe.

                “You know why?” she prompts. No, and he really doesn’t want to know. “You can’t see that the reason he’s upset is because he thinks last night is the consequence of an experiment.”

                “It was,” Nathan replies with an irritated eye-roll.

                Allison sits on the edge of her desk with a sigh. “Why did you leave Global last night?”

                “It wasn’t supposed to transfer by skin contact,” he defends.

                “But why not go home? Call me? Why go to Carter’s? You had options, you could still think. It certainly sounds like everything was consensual. Did you really have no idea what you were doing?”

                Nathan can feel his lip curl at her audacity. She’s had no part in recent events, no experience from which to make critiques. The fact that her demands are drawing out questions that have previously been faint shadows at the edge of his thoughts makes the inquiry all the more galling.

                Allison never entered his thoughts during the night, but the sheriff had been on his mind. Earlier in the evening he’d been distracted by recollecting the sheriff’s latest upstaging of a GD scientist’s plan with a relatively simple, yet far more effective, solution. The man had surprising depth considering his overall dull background and usual presentation of the village idiot. (Admittedly, Eureka’s version of the “village idiot” would be considered above-average intelligent anywhere else.)

                So he’d been thinking about Carter prior his encounter with Teng’s experiment. Nathan believes that explains how he ended up at the bunker. Yet he can’t quite disregard Allison’s suggestion that he could have gone home, alone.

                His memories of the night are astonishingly clear and without gaps. So yes, he’d known what he was doing, but he’d still felt out of control.

                “I couldn’t stop,” he mutters.

                “Did you want to?” Allison reads his silence correctly. A touch of amusement affects her voice when she asks, “And did he want you to stop?”

                He closes his eyes, flashing back to the moment when Jack pulled away from an intense kiss and laid back with his thighs parting wide in invitation. Nathan’s mouth goes dry and he doesn’t dare look to find what Allison’s seen in his expression.

                “No,” he admits in a low voice, “we didn’t stop.”

                “Nathan.”

                Strangely he’s unable to interpret her tone; even when he opens his eyes to meet her gaze he’s unsure what to think. She looks calm, relaxed. He’s reminded of the time before their romantic entanglements and how their friendship had been amazingly simple and comfortable at the start.

                She makes sure she has his attention before continuing. “I don’t doubt that the serum affected you, but you need to acknowledge that in some capacity you wanted this to happen.”

                Destabilizing of inhibitions, perhaps. Teng is working on various alterations of the initial serum to observe the effects of each adjustment…

                “Has Dr. Teng sent you notes about last night’s formula?” Nathan asks.

                Allison rolls her eyes, then fixes him with a pointed stare. “Does it matter?”

                He hesitates.

                His gaze wanders to the windows overlooking the lobby and he finds himself imagining a dozen different times he watched the sheriff make his way towards this office. As he considers these phantom images he realizes that he’s had his eye on Jack even before he can recall the first stirrings of attraction.

                Allison makes a small noise, returning his attention to the present. Her question replays in his mind.

                “No, it doesn’t.”

---

                It seems that inevitably everyone ends up at Café Diem whenever something’s gone wrong, or been successful, or the person is in need of a pick-me-up. This being the case, Nathan enters the café with a clean bill of health after a long day at Global, his tie absent and top button of his shirt undone. He settles onto a stool at the end of the bar and debates whether he’s hungry enough to order dinner.

                A tall glass of chai latte comes into view, placed on the counter by a slim, clearly female hand. Nathan glances up warily to meet the intense stare of Zoe Carter. Damn.

                Going for casual, he stirs the straw in his drink and arches a sardonic brow. “Buying drinks for older men? What will your boyfriend say?”

                The teen rolls her eyes dramatically before resting her elbows on the countertop. “Oh, it’s going on your tab. And you’re buying me my end of shift Deluxe Smoothie.” Nathan can’t quite hide his surprise at her assumption. She smirks in response.

                “Now, private chat,” she says, turning serious. Her lips purse in irritation and he also notes the worried glint in her eyes. “You visited awfully late last night and disappeared too early this morning.”

                Nathan’s unsettled by her conviction, wondering what she knows while aware that Jack wouldn’t have shared any relevant information with her. He’s not inclined to provide her with any details, either.

                “Oh please. Don’t plead the fifth.” She crosses her arms and leans forward. “You screwed up, big time. Just admit that to yourself and tell my dad, too!”

                “I don’t believe this is any of your business,” he says, though that’s not quite true.

                Zoe looks utterly appalled. “Not my business?” They get a few strange looks at her raised voice. Thankfully she quiets again, but she’s glaring daggers at him. “He’s my dad! You were trying to suck his tonsils out in the hallway of my house! How the hell is it not my business?”

                Nathan gives into the urge to cover his face with his hand. Oh shit. What all had she seen? I swear to God I better not be blushing, he thinks irritably as he feels his face heat.

                With a sigh, Zoe seems willing to back off a bit. “Dr. Stark, you really suck at hooking up.” It’d be amusing, this girl telling a grown man about relationships, if her attention wasn’t focused on him. “Thank God Allison turned you down.”

                Nathan looks up sharply at that, offended and slightly hurt. Zoe’s expression isn’t hard, though, and she looks nearly sympathetic – except for that moue of frustration. “But she knew it, didn’t she? Hey, maybe I’m late to the party but I still have women’s intuition working for me.”

                What the hell…?

                “I’m not an idiot,” she defends, rolling her eyes at his suspicious glance. “You might be a real jerk, but so’s my dad.” She makes a face. “I can’t live with Dad being moody, and who knows when S.A.R.A.H. will decide to hold another intervention? Fix this, Dr. Stark.” She glares at him with a determination that rivals Allison’s. Nathan’s surprised to realize he’s slightly intimidated.

                When he doesn’t say anything, she threatens, “I’ll get Jo to hurt you! She doesn’t show it, but she’s awfully fond of Dad.”

                Well, he’d already decided that he should talk to Jack – and soon. With both Allison and Zoe prepared to get on his case about it…

                He’s standing before he’s fully thought this through. Zoe clears her throat and the mischievous look now crossing her face spells trouble. Nathan narrows her eyes as she says all-too-casually, “Oh, did I mention I’m staying at Pilar’s tonight?

                “So, y’know, have fun!” She waves him off, though a sudden scowl spoils her light tone. “And for god’s sake, keep it in the bedroom next time!”

                Nathan doesn’t dignify that with a response as he makes his escape – of course walking as casually as possible to avoid giving the curious onlookers any further material to gossip about.

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