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Second Time Around

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Nathan blinked as the world refocused. Jack was still standing right in front of him looking just as injured as before, and still with that same worried look lining his face like a sad puppy dog. He noticed the way Jack was favoring the ribs on his right side, and could see the cuts and bruises on his handsome face, recalling Jack's words with crystal clarity that he wasn't going to survive another time loop. For all his faults, Jack wasn't really one for exaggeration, which meant his injuries were severe, possibly life threatening.

"We did it!"

Fargo was whooping with joy as he joined Jack in front of the containment chamber, but all Nathan could do was stare straight at the sheriff, who had still not moved an inch and whose face was growing more lined by the second as he added confusion to the obvious pain. A quick glance around proved to Nathan that everything looked the same as it had before he stepped into the containment chamber to accelerate the photon; the equipment, the walls, the readouts on the console, and even the components of the Swiss clock.

So why was Carter's uniform BLUE?

"We did it!" Fargo's voice trailed off and Nathan watched Fargo's triumphant smile fade into bewilderment. "Doctor...?"

Movement made him glance back at Jack only to see he had pulled his gun and was aiming it at him, firmly gripped in both hands. Those hands were shaking and Nathan didn't believe that was all down to the injuries he had sustained in the time loops. Jack looked rattled.

"Step out of the box," Jack ordered, and Nathan raised his hands, not liking the hard look that was trying to mask Jack's confusion and pain.

"Jack-?"

The hard glint in Jack's eyes warned him that it would be better to obey - for now - so he unlatched the door and stepped out, stopping about five feet from Jack.

"Who are you? How do you know my name?"

Nathan frowned, tempted to try for levity by pointing at the name badge pinned to Jack's chest but a glance towards Fargo made him remain silent. Fargo looked equally shocked and a little scared, his eyes wide as they darted between him and Jack.

"Jack? I'm Nathan. Nathan Stark."

Jack was shaking his head slowly. "No." He drew out the word, "There's no Nathan Stark in Eureka. What have you done with Doctor Weinbrenner?"

"Weinbrenner?"

Nathan felt suddenly nauseous because the blue uniform should have been enough of a clue that this was not his Eureka. It had to be an alternate or even a parallel universe. He should have anticipated that playing with time could cause a quantum shift that would ripple independently of time itself, like a stone skipping across a still lake. Now he was really looking at Jack he could see other small differences - the longer, and lighter colored hair that curled and waved. But if Jack had changed then...

"Allison," he breathed the name as he looked at Jack, shocked almost into numbness. "I was supposed to marry Allison today."

"Marry...? She was planning to renew her vows today, but not to you!"

Nathan could almost hear the disdain in Jack's voice, and he swallowed hard. "To you?"

Jack lowered the gun a fraction while giving Nathan a look of incredulity. "No. Why would you think...?" Jack scrunched up his eyes and moaned, the gun dipping but he pulled himself back upright. "What have you done with Leo Weinbrenner?"

"Whoa, Carter! I haven't done anything with him. When the seals failed, I had to synchronize time manually-."

"A quantum shift!" Fargo exclaimed. "You must have switched places with Leo-."

"Not exactly," Nathan murmured, recalling the charcoaled remains of Weinbrenner's body back in his own time line.

He had a theory that the time lines were momentarily in sync when the Leo Weinbrenner in both universes had tried to manually slow the photon, and it had destroyed both of them, leaving just a single body. Certainly, that would explain the resonance that Henry had found during the autopsy, realizing it was of two bodies with identical DNA but out of sync with each other due to the quantum shift. Nathan decided against mentioning any of this for the time being because Jack's whole body was swaying, likely on the verge of collapse. He took another step forward as the gun wavered.

"Fargo, get Carter to the infirmary."

"What?"

"I'm not going anywhere until-." Jack's blue eyes started to roll back in his head and the gun fell from lax fingers, clattering to the ceramic tiles. Nathan moved forward swiftly, catching Jack before his head hit the hard, tiled floor of the Time laboratory.

"Fargo!" he snapped, and saw Fargo dart away to get medical assistance, leaving Nathan alone on the floor cradling Jack's semi-conscious body.

He settled in behind Jack, feeling the weight of Jack's head lolling against his shoulder, the longer strands of blond curls were surprisingly soft, and he could feel them tickling under his chin even through his beard. The warmth of Jack's body was bleeding through the thin, expensive, pure cotton dress shirt that Nathan had chosen to wear on this warm day for his wedding, and Nathan reached up to loosen his silk tie. His best suit was getting wrinkled and dirty, possibly even stained with Jack's blood, but none of that seemed to matter any more as there wasn't going to be a wedding - at least not for him.

It felt strange holding Jack, yet in a uncomfortably good way, and Nathan couldn't quite make out why having the rival for Allison's affections in his arms should make him feel like this. Part of him wondered if it was just his mind's crazy attempt to hold onto something familiar as his world was turned upside down.

Almost familiar, he thought, as he gazed down at the longer hair and the blue shirt and navy pants.

The gold-colored, seven pointed star pinned to Jack's chest still depicted the same Eureka emblem but the patch on his arm was a different color, matching the blue of his uniform. A simple thing like a uniform color change for the Sheriff's department should have been the least of Nathan's concerns right now, but it meant the differences between the two time lines had started long before he was even born. The first sheriff appointed to Eureka was back in the early Fifties, and the town's leaders had chosen the beige to continue the link between local law enforcement and the military police used on the base. The military still provided security at Global Dynamics, mostly ex-rangers or ex-special forces. Sheriff Cobb had been military intelligence and his deputy, Jo Lupo, a special forces marine.

Had that changed too?

Jack groaned and Nathan wrapped an arm around him to hold him still when he tried to move.

"No. Stay still," Nathan murmured against the soft hair. "You're injured. I sent Fargo for assistance. Medics should be on their way."

Jack lolled his head and blinked up at him, looking confused; the blue of his uniform bringing out the deeper blue of his eyes.

"Who are you?"

"Thought we already covered that," Nathan muttered with the hint of a smile in his voice, but cleared his throat and stated wryly, "I'm Nathan Stark, and in a universe a quantum shift away from here, I was the Director of Global Dynamics."

"And you thought you were marrying Allison."

Nathan grimaced, feeling a twinge of pain that was a lot duller than he expected. More of an ache inside than the sharp stab of grief. Perhaps it hadn't really sunk in yet that Allison was getting married to someone else; someone who wasn't him or Jack Carter.

"So who is the lucky man?"

Jack frowned. "Her husband?"

Nathan rubbed his free hand over his eyes. "I'd forgotten how excruciating it is to talk with you sometimes." He sighed heavily. "Let's try that again. What's his name?"

"Doctor Blake. She's re-affirming her vows with her husband, Doctor Kevin Blake."

Nathan felt the shock ripple through him that time because he and Kevin had been best friends and work colleagues since first meeting at MIT, right up until the laboratory accident that took Kevin's life only months before his and Allison's son was born. He had been Kevin's best man at the wedding, and Nathan had stood by her through the grief that followed. Never once had she blamed him for the accident that took Kevin's life, even though he had been in the laboratory with Kevin that day. She had named her son after his dead father, and eventually accepted both Nathan's proposal of marriage and his request to adopt Kevin as his own son too.

He had always refuted her claim that he had married her out of survivor's guilt and a sense of responsibility towards his best friend's family. Now, knowing that Kevin was alive, all Nathan felt was an overwhelming feeling of relief rather than grief at losing Allison, as if the world had set itself back on the right course. He realized that he'd been fooling himself for years, and for her own reasons, Allison had let him do so... for a time.

Yet, if his friend was still alive then at least one major event had differed in this time line, and Nathan knew he could expect a knock-on effect radiating out from that single change alone. It begged the question though, of where was he in this time line? Eureka had been his home before he headed to MIT but perhaps he had never come back. Certainly, his reason for taking the Head of Global position in the old time line was out of his desire to win back Allison's affection following the breakdown of their marriage, but if they had never been married then where had this Nathan gone?

The pounding of feet and the rattle of wheels heralded the arrival of the medical team, and Fargo ran in breathless with the trauma team at his heels, making Nathan wonder if he'd run all the way up to the medical section rather than comm'ed them. Thinking of the Fargo in his own universe, he knew that was entirely possible.

With all their attention on the injured sheriff, everyone seemed to forget all about him so Nathan followed them up and stayed out the way in the corner of the medical center as they worked on Jack. Some things hadn't changed and he never ceased to be impressed by the way the medical staff worked around each other, each completing their own task without hindering the work of another. He watched as they stripped Jack efficiently, attaching and I.V. port into the back of his hand and taping it down securely in preparation.

"Nathan?"

The shaky but so familiar and yet almost forgotten voice caught his attention and he felt his heart stutter in his chest at the sight of his lost friend. Kevin looked just as shocked, as if he had seen a ghost too, and in that moment Nathan knew why neither Jack nor Fargo knew of him. He was dead in this universe.

Kevin approached but stopped an arm's length away, eyes straying over his face with growing elation.

"Hey, Kev. Surprise!" Nathan stated.

Kevin's fingers brushed his arm as if expecting to go right through him and when they hit solid muscle and bone instead, he dived in and wrapped both of his arms around Nathan hugging him tight before slapping his back. The reunion ended just as quickly as their attention was caught by the activity surrounding Jack, watching as he was wheeled away into surgery.

Kevin squeezed Nathan's shoulder and turned, and that's when Nathan saw Allison. She was still in her wedding dress but had partially covered it with a doctor's coat, and he wondered if that was the same dress she had picked out to marry him. With his heart in his throat, Nathan followed Kevin across the floor, watching her visibly shake off her own shock at seeing him to pull on her professional 'face'. He was pleased because even though this wasn't his Jack Carter, Nathan felt a connection between them, and this Jack needed all of her undivided attention.

"Some or these are percussive injuries. What I'd expect to see following an explosion... but the readings are strange. Blast lung without severe lung damage. Abdominal injuries without the perforation expected from..." She trailed off. "The evidence and the injuries don't seem to match up, as if they took place but were then mostly eradicated."

"He said the injuries were bleeding through each time loop," Nathan stated, only then realizing that Kevin - and likely Allison too - had no idea what had been happening as the only person still alive who had moved through each time loop was Jack. All Nathan - and yes, Fargo - knew was what Jack had told them, proving he was not insane by singing Weinbrenner's complicated formula to him and Fargo.

"Time loop?"

"Leo Weinbrenner created an experiment that froze a single photon in time..."

A new voice interrupted, and it was Nathan's turn to feel shocked as another ghost from the past returned to haunt him. Kim Anderson had stepped into the infirmary with Henry, both of them still beautifully attired having come straight from Allison's wedding. Nathan blinked. Kim was alive?

"But that would cause a quantum shift that could destroy time itself. No one would ever have sanctioned such an experiment."

Kevin stepped forward. "Nathan, this is Doctor Kim Deacon, our Head of Section 5."

Nathan glanced across at Henry sharply, feeling another weight lift from his shoulders from knowing that in this time line at least, Henry had not lost Kim in the explosion resulting from Beverly Barlow's sabotage of the Artifact experiment.

"Nathan." Henry's voice was filled with raw emotion as he stepped forward but he quickly drew himself back under control. "What happened to Leo?" Henry asked.

"I have a theory, but first I have to ask... even though the evidence already points to it." He took a deep breath. "Am I dead in this time stream?"

Kevin's dark eyes filled with anguish, giving Nathan the answer he needed. "You died in a lab accident," Kevin stated as he glanced towards Allison. "Thirteen years ago."

Nathan gave a noncommittal hum. "In my universe, it was you who died that day."

Nathan saw Allison raise a hand to her mouth to cover her gasped shock.

"But it does add weight to my theory. Leo Weinbrenner tried to speed the photon back up to resolve the time loops in both universes."

"Oh no," Kim stated softly. "If he was standing in the exact same place at the same time then his molecules would have reacted against each other and spontaneously combusted."

"We found his charred remains in our universe."

Henry snapped his fingers. "Which is why you're here!" Henry looked stunned. "You didn't exist in this universe, and this universe needed to balance out the loss of Leo Weinbrenner's matter so it brought you through." He frowned. "But that means you would have ceased to exist in your own universe."

"Which means I can't go back," Nathan added with soft finality.

"I am so sorry, Nathan," Henry replied, but even though the words were spoken with genuine regret for Nathan's loss of his whole universe, Nathan could see the joy in Henry's eyes - and in Kevin's - at seeing him alive again in their universe.

****

At least some things were still the same, Nathan thought as he signed the bottom of Form 924/B - in triplicate. He was now officially 'undeaded', to use a Carterism. Nathan suppressed a smile, wondering when he'd started to make up words too. Carterism. Perhaps he should get that one added to the English language; a word made up when you didn't quite know the actual word for something, usually tenuously associated... like invisibling.

As he pushed the signed paperwork back across the desk, Deputy Lupo smiled up at him in her usual shark-like, non-trusting way; the smile that said, I'm trying to act polite but I have a big gun and I know how to use it, so don't give me cause. Nathan had gotten used to that smile over the years, and had even seen a few genuine smiles since Jack took over as Sheriff. As much as his Lupo - and probably this Lupo - had coveted the Sheriff's job, she had at least recognized that Jack had an innate ability to handle people well, even geniuses who thought themselves far superior to him. Nathan included himself in that list.

He suspected that this Jack would be no different judging by the small history lesson he'd taken from the Deacons and Blakes yesterday evening.

According to Henry, this Jack Carter had arrived in the town under the same circumstances as his Jack, and the only minor differences over the past two years had come from where his and Jack's paths had never crossed. In some ways it proved that Jack had been instrumental in resolving many of the incidences in the town, requiring any genius in a particular field to assist with the technical resolutions, and that he - Nathan Stark - was actually responsible for a few of those incidences. It was a small blow to his ego to realize that he'd not made as much of an impact in Eureka as he had believed - at least of the right kind.

It reminded him of his argument with Henry when S.A.R.A.H. held them hostage during the lock-down incident in the bunker. Henry had berated him for abandoning science for politics and, at the time, he'd argued back that it was his smoothing the way with politicians that meant scientists like Henry could work on important breakthroughs. He had truly believed that only he could have accomplished this but now he was not so sure, wondering what he - personally - had to show for all those years attending dull receptions and boring meetings, trying to charm dullard Senators and Generals into releasing funds for research. Most of his triumphs over the past few years had been politically based, but it appeared that between them, Kevin and Allison were just as good at diplomacy in that respect.

At least he had still earned and collected his Nobel Prize before dying in the lab accident in this universe; it had always been his pride and joy. For a moment he wondered where the framed award had gone after his death, suspecting that it had ended up with his parents.

Damn, he thought. His parents. Should he let them know he was alive in the hope that he could fake his way through any childhood memories that differed from their recollection? He'd never had a great relationship with them anyway, mostly because they were too involved in their own careers and research to care about the only child they had brought into the world. His childhood had been remarkably short due to his high intelligence and their lack of interest in him beyond his academic achievements.

He recalled Jack once yelling after him, "Who raised you!?"

It certainly hadn't been his parents in the other universe, and he had a feeling that his childhood here had not been far different.

They had ended the evening at that point, with Henry and Kim offering Nathan their guest room until Kevin could get him officially signed off as back from the dead, and allocated a place of his own.

Kevin and Allison lived in the house that Nathan had tentatively called home in his own Eureka - tentatively because he'd never really settled there and had barely unpacked half of the boxes even after two years back in the town. He guessed a part of him had never anticipated staying in that house for long; he had always intended to move in with Allison after he won her back, as that was easier on their son, Kevin.

Nathan closed his eyes and rubbed a hand over his forehead and eyes. It was going to be confusing for a time, hearing the name Kevin and thinking of the son he'd left behind. It had been just as confusing for a while after Kevin was born, hearing the name and thinking of his lost friend.

His thoughts came back to the present as this Kevin added his signature to the bottom of all three copies, and once everything was in order, Kevin slapped him on the shoulder.

"Come on, Nathan. Let's head up to Global. I have some things we need to discuss."

Nathan remained silent as they drove through the town, glancing out the side window at all the familiar faces, yet aware that most of them would consider him a stranger now. Café Diem was there, and he hoped Vincent was still running the place. He would miss his Vinspressos and amazing meals if not. Once they had cleared the edge of town, he took a deep breath.

"Allison was pregnant when..."

"A boy," Kevin grinned. "We had a son." He sobered. "We called him Nathan after you."

Nathan took a moment to let that sink in. It made his death in this universe feel all the more real.

"Is he...?"

Kevin frowned and flicked a glance across. "Is he?"

"Autistic."

"Who? Nate? No. Why would you..?" Kevin fell silent. "Oh. I gather he was autistic in your universe." Kevin shook his head. "No. Here he's just a normal teenage boy. Or as normal as any kid with an exceptionally high I.Q. can be here in Eureka," Kevin huffed out a laugh.

Nathan smiled even as his heart broke a little from knowing he had lost his son. Kevin had only just started to recognize him again rather than refer to him by his birth date alone, having reverted back following the removal of the Artifact from his mind.

When they reached what used to be Nathan's office at Global overlooking the main atrium, Allison, Kim and Henry were already waiting for them. DNA testing yesterday had proved Nathan was exactly who he said he was - just a quantum shift away from his own universe but perfectly stable. His presence wasn't going to cause any cascading time events leading to the destruction of time and space, and as it could take several lifetimes to calculate how to get him back without a catastrophic collapse of both universes, Nathan knew he had to make a new life here.

Released from a burden of responsibility that he had denied for over a decade, Nathan had spent part of last night lying in his bed and thinking about his future. If he had been in love with Allison then remaining in Eureka would have been out of the question. He wouldn't have been able to face every day knowing she was in love with someone else - even if that someone was his lost best friend and her first love.

This thought had made him question why he had been so determined that his Jack wouldn't win Allison, and it pained him to admit that his denial had run deep where both Allison and Jack were concerned. If he hadn't felt something for Jack too, then he would have been happy to see Allison move on with someone else; anyone else.

Anyone but Jack Carter.

With him erased from their universe, Nathan wondered if Allison and Jack would get together now, or if he had successfully destroyed any hopes of them finding happiness with each other. For all his faults - his arrogance and selfishness - he hoped they did find each other eventually. They both deserved to be happy, and he had at least tried to impart that to Jack before his 'death'.

"Fargo, hold all calls until further notice." The door sealed as Kevin flipped the privacy locks. "So you were the Director in your universe-."

"Yes, but I shared the responsibility with Allison... and Eva Thorne."

"Eva Thorne? The Fixer?" Allison asked, slightly aghast.

"The very same, I suspect. I take it she hasn't been assigned to 'fix' the budget problems at Global yet. To make it more profitable. She was the reason why our Weinbrenner pushed his research forward too fast. He was about to get redacted."

"There have been rumors of Thorne being brought in," Kevin replied softly. "But I have a strong feeling that, despite that major difference, not much else has changed here."

"The uniform," Nathan stated, because Jack was very much on his mind right now. The others looked perplexed so Nathan explained. "In my Eureka, the Sheriff's uniform was beige, not blue." He huffed out a small laugh. "I know. Not much of a difference but-."

"Hmm." Henry leaned forward, steepling his fingers. "The idea was to create a visual link between the former military police and the new local law enforcement after Eureka became a small town... rather than a military research station," he stated. "Air Force Intelligence ran the show back in those days, and they still provide security here at Global... hence the blue."

Nathan nodded. It was the same reasoning but for a different branch of the military, and Nathan wondered how that may have changed the direction of Global's research.

They went on to discuss projects, letting Nathan lead just to see how much he knew, especially regarding Section 5. He thought they might refuse to reveal any classified information but he learned that in this universe the Artifact was still very much alive. However, Carl Carlson was 'dead' under the same circumstances, and Jack had almost died too that day when Carlson deflected a pulse shot that hit Jack square in the chest, so that incident hadn't changed in either universe.

"We plan to take a sample from the Artifact tomorrow," Kim stated softly, after receiving a nod from Kevin to answer Nathan's question of what experiments they had performed so far.

"Is Doctor Beverly Barlow still the psychotherapist in Eureka?"

"Yes." Allison looked bemused by his question when it likely seemed unrelated to the discussion on the Artifact.

"I'm not saying it is the case here, but in my universe she was a... Consortium spy. She sabotaged the sampling test, destroying the Artifact and killing several good people in the process." He cut a glance towards Kim, unable to cover the pain he still felt at Kim's loss, and seeing Henry's eyes widen in realization.

"Then I will cancel the test until I am positive that it is safe to proceed," Kim stated, and Nathan noticed how Henry drew closer to her.

They ended the discussion at that point and Nathan found himself at a loose end while the others asked for time to discuss what they were going to do with him.

Kevin had granted him a level of access for Sections 1 through 3, which included Medical, and even though this Jack Carter had never met him before yesterday, Nathan was surprisingly eager to see him again. He knew Jack was out of surgery after a few surprisingly minor repairs, and he was now resting in the infirmary alone as his daughter would be at school at this hour. Allison said she would likely release him tomorrow but wanted to keep him for a minimum of twenty-four hours under observation in case there were any lingering side effects from the time loops. Under the circumstances, it didn't seem overly cautious.

It wasn't lost on Nathan that he had been granted a second chance to get to know Jack without the rivalry over Allison's affection hanging over them. Heading down towards the medical section, he found Jack in a curtained off area, propped up several pillows. Jack frowned when Nathan sat down next to him, and something in his handsome yet slightly battered face told Nathan that he'd made the right decision.

"Stark, isn't it?"

Nathan smiled. "You can call me Nathan."

Jack gave him a hard, assessing stare for a long moment before relaxing back, now looking more intrigued than suspicious.

"Okay... Nathan. Henry told me what happened to Leo, and where you came from." His blue eyes narrowed. "Were we...?" He waved a hand between them.

"Lovers?"

The blue eyes widened comically. "Uh, I was thinking of something a little less intim... but..."

"We were friends," Nathan stated firmly and, technically, they were friends at the end so it seemed a good place to start now, though the more he thought about it, the more Nathan was convinced that they could have been far more than friends if Nathan had ever given them the chance. There were times when he was certain Jack was seeing him as someone other than a rival for Allison. There were times when he'd seen the blue eyes darken during their verbal sparring sessions, and watched the color rise in Jack's cheeks that wasn't all to do with the heated conversation.

"Which is why you called me... Jack."

Nathan shrugged. "It is your name after all, and you have the name badge to prove it." He flicked his eyes to the bedside cupboard where Jack's name badge and Sheriff's star lay on top having been removed from his damaged uniform shirt.

"You always this funny?"

"Hilarious."

Jack hummed softly. "There's something you're not telling me." Nathan had almost forgotten how astute Jack was, but then his blue eyes brightened. "But as I'm sitting here bored out of my mind, I'll give you a pass for now... as long as you entertain me."

"Entertain you?" Nathan tried and failed to hold back a grin. "Trivial Pursuit?"

"Somehow I get the impression that this is about as entertaining as you get."

"Oh, I can be very flexible while entertaining... Jack."

"What...? What does that even mean?" Jack narrowed his eyes. "Wait. Are you flirting with me?"

"Do you want me to?"

"I... I don't even know how to answer that."

Nathan shrugged again. "Oh, I think you do, Jack. Your eyes have dilated, cheeks flushed and," he glanced up at the monitor over the bed, "pulse has risen." Deliberately he looked down at Jack's lap, grinning as Jack dropped his hands there guiltily.

"I think that's enough entertaining at my expense," Jack grumbled and Nathan laughed out loud.

He had forgotten what it was like to get a rise out of Jack Carter, though this wasn't the kind of rise he had aimed for in the past, preferring to infuriate rather than seduce. However, he had to admit that it was far more entertaining, especially since now he could let go of his guilty feelings of responsibility towards Allison.

The rising pulse brought a response from the on-duty nurse, who came over to check on Jack, flicking a curious look between both men.

"I think Sheriff Carter's had enough excitement for one day," she stated firmly, and the pointed look she gave Nathan had him moving swiftly towards the door.

He turned on the threshold though to look back at Jack, and smirked when he found Jack watching him, head slightly tilted in curiosity, but those eyes had definitely been checking him out. Seeing the color rising on Jack's cheeks at being caught was worth the extra glare he gained from both Jack and the nurse.

****

On the following day, Nathan was surprised when Kevin offered him the position as Head of Section 8. The best he had hoped for until that moment was perhaps a research role, with a chance to prove he was capable of better. After all, they had only his word that he was still capable in his former fields of expertise, already aware that he had spent most of the past five years walking the political line rather than being engaged solely in research.

"I'm not going to turn it down but... Kevin? Why?"

"I'm not doing this out of sentiment, Nathan. Just to be kind to an old friend. You're still the guy I knew thirteen years ago. Still fired up by the same discoveries, and still brilliant." He shrugged. "So you spent the last five years in the political arena... but I bet it didn't stop you getting your hands dirty. I bet you read every report that passed across your desk, and went through the math, pulling theories to pieces and putting scientists in their place."

Nathan gave a wry smile in response as he'd done all of that, and more. He didn't get to be the Director of Global Dynamics by always being a nice guy, and his skill across multiple disciplines had made it easier for him to spot when a scientist was simply trying to bluff their way through. Sometimes, if the idea was outlandish enough, he'd let them try because sometimes they stumbled upon something no one else had thought of before in their attempt to impress him, and save their job.

He nodded his thanks. He had already gone through the standard Global contract the night before, reading all the fine print and negotiating anything that stood out as too nebulous. Kevin handed him a new form now but it was a single sheet requiring just a signature at the bottom to confirm he was the new head of Section 8. As soon as it was signed, Kevin dangled a set of keys in front of him.

"There's a company car parked in your bay out front, and the other keys are for your new house." Kevin looked a little uncomfortable. "It was Weinbrenner's. I realize you're filling dead man's shoes-."

"But so apt under the circumstances, don't you think?" He tried to hold a straight face but the twitch of his lips must have given him away.

Kevin laughed. "Damn it, Nathan. I'd forgotten you had a dark sense of humor."

"Black."

"Pitch black." They cried out together, grinning at the old joke until Kevin snapped his fingers.

"Oh yeah. I've had a bank account set up for you and transferred some funds across. It should be enough to cover any immediate expenses until your first salary check arrives."

"Thank you," he replied in all seriousness.

He'd arrived in this universe with just his gold wristwatch and the expensive clothes on his back - though he'd ruined his suit soon after. Any money or assets acquired by the Nathan Stark of this universe, including his Nobel Prize money, would have gone to his next of kin after his death all those years ago. Back in his own universe, Nathan had changed his will only a few days earlier to leave everything to Allison, and that would hold even though he had 'died' before they could remarry. Her family were rich enough that he hadn't truly needed to worry on her behalf, but he preferred knowing she was now financially independent.

"Oh, and Nathan. Carter was asking about you... and I don't think it was all for professional reasons." The sly smile reminded Nathan that Kevin was one of the few to know of Nathan's interest in both women and guys.

He accepted this tidbit of information and his upgraded access card with a nod of thanks before following Kevin to Section 8. They found Kim Deacon waiting for them in Nathan's new office. She typed in her passcode and waited for Nathan to type in his, formally handing over all responsibility for Section 8.

"I am more than happy to relinquish the extra workload," she stated, having taken it on-board after Weinbrenner's 'death' two days earlier. "Most of Section 8's work is theoretical anyway, dealing with the data derived from the Big Bang experiment held three months back."

Nathan had hoped as much but knew he had to be careful not to make too many assumptions based on his memories from his Global Dynamics.

The one time Nathan had regretted his choice of politics over science was when he'd had to hand over all of the research from that experiment to others. Zane Donovan had called all those eagerly grabbing scientists Big Bang Whores, and it was an apt description. To get just a little piece of the research, some of those scientists had made offers that would have scandalized Allison if she had been the one to approve or deny those requests. He hadn't taken advantage of a single offer, though one or two had sounded tempting at the time. There was one in particular, he recalled, but Allison would have killed him if Jack had looked like a Smurf for a month and she'd discovered he'd had anything to do with it. He did give Simmons some of the research though, because just the image alone - of Carter bright blue from head to toe - had greatly amused him at the time.

With far fewer administrative duties, he could assign some of the Big Bang research to himself. Perhaps he could build on that data, alongside both Walter Perkins and Leo Weinbrenner's quantum equations and his own additions, to create a whole new level of understanding of time and space.

There could even be another Nobel Prize in it for him.

He realized that this gave him the same giddy feeling of excitement that he'd gained from teasing Jack earlier, except he knew that he loved mathematics and he loved his work so that meant... Nathan shied away from that thought, not wanting to commit his whole heart too soon even though he knew the physical attraction was returned by Jack. It was easy to forget that he was still little more than a stranger to this Jack Carter. Nathan had an entire history with another Jack that needed to be handled with care. He wanted to learn from the mistakes he had made in that time line, hopefully without making too many new ones here.

He was looking forward to both the academic and personal challenges though.

His thoughts sobered for a moment, feeling a little guilty from knowing a few people would be grieving for him in that other universe, though it pained him to know that it would be only a few people: Allison, Henry, probably Fargo... and Jack. He had never made himself popular, forced to keep too many secrets to find it easy to make and keep friends. He wanted that to change here. He didn't want to be that man any more, not when he had a chance to redefine himself and his life.

"Why don't you take the rest of the day off, Nathan." Kevin paused on the threshold. "And you could do me a small favor and take Carter home. I hear he's so bored he's driving my medical staff insane."

"Really?" Nathan went for nonchalant but could tell Kevin wasn't fooled in the slightest.

When he arrived at the medical center, Jack was dressed in a pair of faded jeans, sneakers and a pale blue t-shirt. He was moving carefully, favoring his ribs even though they were bruised rather than cracked now. Even the surgery had been minor keyhole and, momentarily, Nathan wondered how the other Jack was faring especially if that Jack had taken the brunt of the most life-threatening injuries. Henry had a theory, and Nathan agreed, that as the two universe grew closer together, the injuries sustained by one of them had bled across into the other. His Jack had been caught in an explosion, and it was likely only the reset of the time loop and the sharing of those injuries between the two that prevented those injuries from being fatal.

This Jack had slipped in the shower, cracking the back of his head on the tiled wall but again, the reset and sharing of the injury had lessened its physical impact to a bruise and a mild headache - hopefully for both Jacks. As time moved on following the manual synchronization of the photon, some of the injuries had 'ghosted away' for want of a better term, but the temporal sickness had left this Jack weak and tired.

"Oh. It's you again."

"Yep. The proverbial bad penny."

Jack gave him a half-smile. "Not the impression I've gained from... various sources."

It reminded Nathan that Jack had been asking Kevin, Allison and Henry questions about him. Personal questions.

"So... Can I help you?" Jack asked.

"Actually, I believe I'm here to help you. I'm your ride... home." The blush was well worth the double entendre.

"You've got to be kidding me," Jack murmured, color heightened, but when he realized Nathan was an early ticket out of the infirmary, he picked up his few possessions from the bedside cupboard with some alacrity. "Lead on."

The bunker looked exactly as it was in his universe, and S.A.R.A.H. greeted them both warmly.

"Welcome home, Sheriff Carter, and it's a pleasure to meet you, Doctor Stark. I've heard a lot about your arrival and wanted to discuss-."

"How about later, S.A.R.A.H.," Jack interrupted.

"Of course. You must still be tired. I recorded yesterday's match, perhaps you'd like to rest while I prepare dinner. I do hope you are planning to join us for dinner, Doctor Stark. I'm making Jack's favorite."

Nathan glanced across at Jack and saw him roll his eyes and nod.

"Sure, that would be lovely, S.A.R.A.H.," he replied.

He glanced around the house as something struck him. In his universe, Jack's sister had turned up on the day of the wedding but he hadn't heard of her visiting her brother at Global, whereas Zoe had visited both before and after school since the incident.

"Looking for something?"

Nathan raised both eyebrows. "Your sister... Lexi?"

Jack's eyes widened. "My sister was here?" He looked sharply around, almost comically, as if expecting his sister to leap out from behind him.

"She was in my universe... Monkey."

Nathan guessed she had given him the same sibling nickname in this universe too, judging by his horrified and embarrassed expression. That piece of gossip had spread through Eureka's grapevine at warp speed after Lexi called him that in front of Vincent - the font of all the town's gossip - and it had been too good to resist. He'd planned on teasing his Carter with it at some as yet undetermined date after the wedding, knowing Jack would have been silently praying no one had let him know. At least he hadn't missed that opportunity.

Jack opened his mouth a couple of times but was obviously at a loss for words. In the end he shook his head and turned away, flopping down onto the couch.

"S.A.R.A.H.? Beer me."

"I'm afraid I cannot allow you any alcohol, Jack, on Doctor Blake's medical orders."

"How about a banana milkshake instead?" Nathan asked with feigned innocence, enjoying Jack's glare, and decided he had teased Jack enough. "Make that two, S.A.R.A.H."

"Certainly, Doctor Stark."

Nathan picked up both glasses and sank down next to Jack, handing one milkshake over. He saw a sense of peace steal over Jack's face, eyes closing and lips curving into an appreciative smile as he sipped at the milkshake. Nathan might not have known about the 'monkey' nickname before a few days back, but everyone knew to give Carter some space when he ordered a banana milkshake at Café Diem. It seemed the same was true in this universe too.

Zoe arrived home a couple of hours later and awoke Nathan from a deep sleep. He looked at her blearily before settling on her father, seeing Jack still fast asleep with his head pillowed in Nathan's lap. He must have slipped sideways while they watched the game, and then made himself comfortable while he slept. In sleep he looked so peaceful, almost angelic, and Nathan couldn't resist playing his fingers through the soft hair and across his slightly bristled cheek, forgetting Zoe was there until she cleared her throat softly to remind him.

Mortified at his lapse, Nathan looked up but she was obviously suppressing a laugh judging by the way her eyes were crinkled in mirth.

"I heard all about the flirting from Jo. Just so you know, Doctor Stark. Jo knows at least a hundred ways to kill you with her bare hands if you hurt my dad, and I know at least a dozen places to hide your dead body." Her voice was still tinged with laughter as she spoke, but he knew she wasn't joking. "Can we eat now? I'm starved, and I have a sleepover study group tonight, but I can totally cancel if-."

"I could babysit your father," Nathan offered.

Her smile was a beautiful cross between her father's and her mother's, bright and happy. "I suspect you both need adult supervision." Her attitude turned nonchalant. "But I'm willing to leave him in your safekeeping."

"Thank you."

"Who's leaving who safe?" Jack yawned widely, then startled when he realized where he was lying. He grimaced when he moved too quickly, pulling on tender ribs.

S.A.R.A.H.'s voice echoed around them as Nathan stood up. "Dinner will be ready in five minutes."

"I need to..." Jack pointed towards the bathroom, hesitating before accepting Nathan's hand up from the couch. Nathan watched him walk away slightly unsteadily.

"Doctor Stark?"

"Zoe?"

"Is my dad all right?"

He nodded. "He's fine, Zoe. Just tired and a little sore."

"Okay."

****

Epilogue:

Nathan laughed as he watched Jack chasing Jenna around the small park area, hearing her delighted screams. It was sometimes hard to believe that he had only been a part of this universe for three years. Jenna squealed again.

He recalled an embarrassing conversation with Kevin not long after arriving in this time line. Kevin couldn't father any more kids after a lab accident left him sterile, and he and Allison had both agreed to use a sperm donation the other Nathan had made back when he and Kevin were at MIT together. Nathan remembered a similar event in his own universe, but he had changed his mind by the time he reached the sperm bank, deciding he didn't want some kid coming up to him in eighteen years time and telling him he was the kid's father.

No one had expected Nathan to come back from the dead barely a week after Allison was impregnated but as he pointed out, he wasn't that Nathan Stark, more like a twin brother. However, it did make him regret that he had never fathered a child, even by donation, not unless Allison had fallen pregnant after that one time they'd had unprotected sex just before the time loop incident. He guessed it was possible but he knew he would never know for certain if Jenna ever existed in that other universe.

Jack caught hold of Jenna, whirling her into the air before settling her on his hip; her shrieks had been almost ear piercing but gentled into baby laughter. Her small arms reached up to Jack so he moved her up higher so she could wrap her arms around his neck. She was kissing Jack's cheek as Jack turned to Nathan, his blue eyes sparkling with happiness and his smile wide and bright; Nathan was mesmerized by the sight. Jack was wonderful with kids and sometimes regaled him with stories of when Zoe was small. A thought struck him. He knew Taggart had succeeded in a human gene splicing trial, using two sets of male DNA instead of male and female... and if they found a surrogate to carry the baby then he and Jack could have a child that would be theirs.

It seemed almost a natural progression in their relationship.

Looking back, courting Jack had turned out to be so natural and easy, and he never did move into Weinbrenner's house, except superficially. Not that it fooled anyone because they always called Jack if they couldn't reach him, or simply turned up at the bunker looking for him.

Zoe had taken it all in stride like most teenagers, and they'd eventually fallen into a new routine that improved immensely when Nathan increased the bunker's size and installed a second bathroom for him and Jack to use. One of the perks of being a Section Head at Global Dynamics. Even though Zoe had since moved out, having accepted a place at Harvard, they occasionally had guests staying over or looked after Nate and Jenna when their parents had to go away on business trips, so the second bathroom still came in useful.

He'd also installed a back door into S.A.R.A.H., both in her programming and physically - a ladder that could be dropped from the skylight in the main area. This S.A.R.A.H. had never gone all B.R.A.D. on her occupants but Nathan really didn't want to take that chance, especially while he was living there with Jack.

He watched as Jack handed Jenna off to Allison before heading over and sinking down into the seat next to Nathan, automatically turning in for a kiss, which Nathan was happy to oblige. Nathan hummed in pleasure, unable to resist deepening the kiss as Jack's lips parted beneath his... until rebuked by a small fist hitting his shoulder.

"Parental PDA! Brain bleach warning. Remember," Zoe stated before holding out a plate stacked high with a selection from Vincent's heavily laden buffet table.

Smirking, Nathan pulled back from Jack and took the plate while Jack looked endearingly awkward and embarrassed.

"So how long is Spring Break,?" Jack asked Zoe, and she rolled her eyes. Apparently, she'd picked up that trait from him, according to Jack.

"You love me being here," she teased back before leaning in and kissing her father on the cheek, and it was true. They both loved it when Zoe came home to stay with them during the breaks.

The rest of the afternoon passed just as pleasantly - talking with friends while sneaking small displays of affection that had Zoe rolling her eyes or fleeing from them. It was fun, and Nathan was glad that he'd convinced Jack to take a couple of days off 'sheriffing', and let Jo take charge.

The evening was warm as they walked home together, one arm wrapped around the other's waist, and both pleasantly buzzed from a few glasses of Vincent's punch. He could feel Jack warm against his side and desperately wanted to hold him closer still, letting the anticipation build as they walked down the steps and into the bunker.

"Welcome home. I hope you enjoyed the Spring Fair."

"It was great, S.A.R.A.H." Jack stated warmly. "Can you please engage privacy mode?"

"Certainly, Jack."

Nathan smiled and took advantage immediately, pressing Jack up against the closed door and kissing him deeply. He tasted of Vincent's fruit punch with a sharper tang of alcohol beneath. As a leg pushed between his, Nathan moaned into the kiss, feeling Jack's hard cock against him. With a groan Nathan nipped at Jack's lower lip and pulled back.

"As much as I want to strip you naked and take you right here, I think we embarrassed your daughter enough for one evening," he murmured and backed away, grasping Jack's hand and pulling him along with him.

"Yeah, that is so not happening... again."

And Nathan laughed, recalling more than one embarrassing moment when they thought they were alone in the bunker, or became so distracted that they forgot Zoe was there, much to Jack's mortification. He led Jack upstairs to their bedroom, letting the anticipation build even higher as they stripped each other slowly, taking time to explore every inch of newly exposed flesh, until they were both naked. Gently, Nathan pushed Jack down onto his back on the bed and moved between his spread thighs. With practiced ease, he prepared Jack before slowly sinking into his willing body, still awed by the sensations and feelings welling within him that went beyond physical.

This was Jack. His Jack arching in pleasure beneath him; head thrown back and eyes closed, and with the fingers of one hand clenched in the bed sheets at his side while the other hand worked his hard cock.

"Jack," Nathan whispered hoarsely as he thrust deeper. He was rewarded when Jack looked right at him, pupils blow so wide they left only a thin circumference of blue. It was all Nathan needed, sending him hurtling over the edge, and taking Jack with him.

As the last sparks of pleasure faded away leaving him sated and happy, Nathan pulled Jack into his arms, pillowing Jack's head against his chest and sighing in contentment. He loved the weight of Jack's strong, firm body pressed against him; loved it when he was all loose-limbed and pliant after great sex, arching sweetly into Nathan's caresses. He loved the mock argument over who got up to fetch a washcloth to clean up the other, and the soft, passionless yet intimate kisses shared afterwards as they moved towards sleep.

These days he rarely thought about the universe he had left behind. He didn't miss the politics at all, feeling more than happy to leave that dubious pleasure to Kevin and Allison. Instead he enjoyed spending more time on his research than on administrative affairs, often working alongside Henry these days, and he had finally learned how to balance work with a healthy home life, spending time with Jack.

He smiled as Jack snuggled in closer. Sometimes they'd spend an entire day lazing around the bunker, leaving their bed only to eat or use the bathroom, and he decided that tomorrow would be one of those days.

"Thinking too much. Giving me a headache." Jack's warm breath ghosted across his skin.

Nathan smirked. Sometimes it was too easy to tease Jack, and where was the fun in that?

"I can feel you smirking." Jack pulled back slightly so he could look Nathan in the eyes, and the sight took Nathan's breath away; the kiss-swollen lips curled into a smile, the heightened color, and the sparkle in his blue eyes, heavy with sleepy contentment.

He was beautiful, and Nathan had come to thank the day that time looped, sending him into another universe and giving him a second chance at finding true happiness. Perhaps it wasn't always plain sailing, but Nathan loved his life with Jack, and he wouldn't change that for all the time in the universe.

END