It was seven-thirty. Allison was going to kill him, and then poor Jo would be stuck with so much nasty paperwork… Jack leaned against the doorframe, surveying the scene. After a moment he cleared his throat dramatically to make his observation.
“You know, for a guy who was stuck in a time loop, you’d think it wouldn’t take you so damn long to pick out a tie.”
Even if he didn’t see Nathan’s reflection rolling his eyes at him in the mirror, it was utterly obvious in the sarcasm liberally coating the words.
“Seeing as a time loop is, by definition, a continuously repeating loop of time, your entire argument is based on a fallacy, Carter.” Nathan paused in the tying of his tie to raise an eyebrow and his smile grew. “Not that I’m surprised, mind you, just sharing.”
Jack shook his head.
“Remind me again why it was so vital for us to pull you out of the loop?”
Finishing his knot with a flourish, Nathan turned to spread both his arms wide theatrically.
“Because how could you not miss this?”
Jack groaned, but then thought again of that day, of sitting Allison down to tell her that Nathan was gone, that her fairytale day of wedding and laughter was over before it began.
“Allison sure did,” came out of his mouth almost without him meaning too, too caught up in the memory.
Nathan’s expression tightened a bit too and for a minute he looked down, fidgeted with the cuffs of his shirt
“And so did I.” He swallowed. “But, bygones,” he continued briskly. “We’re already late.”
Jack made a face. Leave it to Stark to complain about being late when it was his own fault.
“Hey,” Jack asked, “isn’t it a little screwed up that you can dismiss losing a year and a half frozen in time as ‘bygones’?”
“That’s Eureka for you, Jack.”
“Never mind,” Jack said. “You’ve already made us late. Much longer and Allison will call again. She’s been up for the past two days with Jenna because of her cold. Do you really want to be subjected to a new mother rant when you don’t have to?”
“Fair point. Let’s get going.”
Jack kept his mouth shut as they got into his jeep and headed out to the main road (an over long bunch of meetings meant that it was quicker to head out together, but Jack knew if he brought it up Nathan would insist on driving and they’d be even later), but finally he couldn’t contain himself.
“Isn’t it a little late to having a party for you? I mean, you’ve been back for nearly a month. What, they couldn’t fit it into Global’s social calendar for March?”
“It turns out that when you make a miraculous reappearance in the space-time continuum, the government gets a little bit suspicious.”
“Don’t remind me,” Jack said with a groan. “I’ve had more paperwork dealing with your return than I’d even though possible, and I’ve been a Marshal, don’t tell me about lengthy paperwork trails. Did you know there was a form for what happened?” He shook his head at the memory. “Physical Matter Recombination Due to Temporal Reversal. Forty-seven pages, double-sided.”
Nathan raised an eyebrow expressively.
“Just be glad you didn’t have to fill it out in triplicate. And that’s not even counting the blood samples.”
Nathan shook his head, leaning back against his seat. Outside, the road was empty, the car’s headlights the only brightness against the constant line of forest on either side.
“I’ve been poked and prodded and interrogated eighteen hours a day for the past four weeks,” Nathan said. “Now that the state department and the DoD have decided that I’m not a threat to national security and every biological physicist Global can get their hands on agree that I’m not a threat to time as we know it, we can actually be happy I’m here.”
“Hallelujah,” said Jack dryly.
“Just shut up and drive, Carter.”
It’s definitely awkward to be late to a party, especially one thrown expressly for you. Jack could see Allison glaring at them when they walked in the door, but people surrounded her, so glaring was all she could do.
“I’ll go calm her down,” Nathan said, and Jack watched him go. The way Allison instantly relaxed around Nathan was miraculous; he could see her shoulders loose their tension and she even smiled.
“Should make him sit in the next time Allison wants to yell at me about something,” Jack muttered. As much as he appreciated (and yeah, probably enjoyed, just a little bit) that Nathan was back, watching him and Allison together still stung a bit (bygones, as Nathan would say), so he turned to find a drink.
Vincent was manning an amazingly overstocked bar, and the amount of drinks being poured out as Jack approached had him mentally evaluating the amount of cell space and backup he might need if things got out of hand.
“Sheriff!” he called out. “You’re just in time to try my latest tongue-tingling libation!”
“Uh,” was as far as Jack got before he had a glass of something pink that glowed.
“Don’t worry, Jack,” said a voice to his left, and Jack turned to see Henry grinning at him while holding a distinctly un-pink non-glowing beverage. “All tongue tingling is simply a metaphor.”
“Still, I think I’ll stick with a beer, Vincent, if it’s all the same to you.”
“You have no sense of adventure, Sheriff Carter,” lamented Vincent, but he obligingly traded Jack his pink… whatever for a beer. A normal looking beer, Jack was happy to see. He tilted the bottle in Henry’s direction. “So I hear you’re the man to congratulate for setting up tonight’s shindig.”
“Literally!” chimed in Vincent, before he bustled off to pour drinks for a couple at the other end of the bar.
“Literally?” Jack asked, after a sip from his bottle, still pleased to find that his drink not only looked but also tasted like regular beer.
Henry nodded, looking a little smug.
“The newest in architectural innovations. This whole building went up in exactly three point two hours, from basement to rafters.” He raised an eyebrow. “Give me a day, and I could have built the Taj Mahal.”
“I don’t think we need to inflate Stark’s ego any more than we already have.”
“Oh come on, Jack,” Henry said. “You have to admit that it’s nice having Nathan back.”
Jack looked over to see Nathan shaking some scientist’s hand (a geneticist? A paleontologist? He could never keep them straight) while Allison stood next to him, laughing. He hadn’t seen her laugh in a while.
“Nice to not be the only one to blame if our town blows up, you mean? Or did you mean nice to have someone else who calls me up to complain that I’m not doing my job right? Yeah, I suppose the phone lines were underused lately.”
“Jack…” said Henry, amusement warring with warning in his voice.
“Fine!” Jack said, raising his hands in defeat. “I admit that having Stark back is not exactly terrible and if nothing else I have finally been demoted to Back-Up Babysitter detail, for which my dry cleaning bill thanks him. And, of course, there’s one more person to keep an eye on what Fargo is doing… uh-oh. What is Fargo doing over there?”
“Judging by the look on Jo’s face, we should probably go find out.” Henry said. “Before you have to arrest one of them. Or both.”
“So, explain this to me again, Fargo…” Allison was standing in front of Fargo, hands on hips. Fargo looked nervously around the group—which had grown to include Stark, Jack and Henry as well as Jo—and swallowed. He could tell as well as the rest of them that Allison wasn’t really looking for another explanation.
“I’m sure you meant it to be fun, Fargo,” said Henry in a comforting tone, and what little support there was in the words calmed Fargo enough for him to speak.
“Exactly! A fun activity! Using the latest in gaming technology, an interactive virtual hide and go seek game! Because it’s like a metaphor, Dr. Stark,” he turned to Nathan, who was too busy glancing worriedly at a fuming Allison to notice. “You were hiding in time and we sought you out…OW!” Jo had slugged him hard in the arm. “Too soon?” Fargo asked innocently, and then yelped “ow!” when Jo smacked him again.
“All right, let’s all calm down,” Jack said, moving to place a hand on Jo’s shoulder. “While I’m sure Fargo had the best of intentions, it’s clear that maybe this is not the best… venue for this activity.”
“My party does not need to have games like I am a six-year-old,” muttered Nathan sullenly, but Jack gamely ignored him and continued talking.
“So Fargo will pack up the equipment,” Jack raised his hands to gesture at the varied arrangement of computers, visors and cords that littered the corner of the room, “and the rest of you can go back to enjoying yourselves, how’s that sound?”
“I thought Dr. Stark would appreciate the gesture…”
“Pack it up, Fargo,” Jack said sharply.
“Yes, Sheriff,” Fargo mumbled. He wandered off to belligerently poke at a computer keyboard, and Nathan immediately took Allison’s hand to pull her towards the dance floor. Allison was laughing again, Jack could hear it above the crowd.
“Dr. Blake sure seems happy,” Jo commented as she came to stand next to Jack.
“Yup,” Jack said.
“You and Tess having problems?”
“Yup… no! What? Why are you asking that?” Jack sputtered.
Jo shrugged with a show of innocence.
“Well, you’ve been looking at Dr. Stark and Dr. Blake with big wounded puppy eyes all night. Your personal phone calls have been definitely less frequent in the past week. …and Zoe might have mentioned it when we talked yesterday.”
“Aww man, she told you that?” complained Jack. He wasn’t sure to be more weirded out that Zoe and Jo were talking (gossiping, plotting, same difference) without his knowledge or that his sneak of a daughter had spilled the details. “Nothing terrible’s going on, it’s just she’s been really busy with her lab and being in Australia and we… haven’t been talking as much. That’s all.”
“Uh-huh,” said Jo, which was exactly the same thing Zoe had said when he’d told her, which was kind of creepy and probably a bad sign at all once.
Jakc opened his mouth to argue that really, it wasn’t a big deal at all (which was really a lie, judging by the weight in the pit of his stomach) when all of a sudden the whole room went dark. Dark and quiet, at least for a moment, and then there was the buzz of people who were not actually panicing but definitely on their way there.
“Carter?” That was Allison, somewhere to his left.
“Yeah!” he yelled, and then, because it was pretty obvious, he yelled, “Fargo!”
“oops,” came quietly from next to Jack, and then there was a small scattering of yellow sparks.
“Right means over here, Carter. Keep up.” Nathan somehow could sound both distracted, pissed off, and smug all at the same time. Jack could only imagine the look on his face. Imagining was it, because even in the basement it was still pitch black. Of course this would be the day that his emergency flashlight ran out of batteries, as well.
“Didn’t Henry build in some kind of emergency lighting system?” he asked, then swore as he stumbled over nothing in that special way you do when you can’t see a damn thing.
"Whatever Fargo did to the wiring system in the building shorted out everything, even the backup generator," Nathan said, irritatedly.
"That's a huge amount of power." Jack paused. "Why do you let Fargo work for you again?"
"At times like these," Nathan sighed. "I'm not quite sure."
Five minutes, Jack promised himself. Henry had said that it would take five minutes to find the breaker box against the south wall, flip the switch and then maybe this party could continue with a decided lack of chaos. Just left at the-
"Ow." said Jack, because it was the kind of thing to say when you found yourself with a face full of wall where you thought there was a hallway.
"What happened?" Nathan's voice got closer until he was standing next to him.
"Must have misheard what Henry said. It must have been right."
"While you frequently mangle the simplest of directions into complete incoherence, this time I have to disagree. Henry definitely said take a left."
"So where'd the wall come from?" asked Jack.
Nathan paused and Jack could practically hear his mind working.
"Oh shit." Nathan said.
"That does not fill me with confidence that you have solved our problem in a happy way."
But Nathan was apparently digging around in his pocket. In a moment, there was a dull glow as Nathan clicked on... a penlight?
"Where was that two minutes ago when I was walking into a wall!" Jack complained.
"Focus, Carter. Apparently when Fargo shorted out the wiring, his virtual reality problem cross-connected with the converters Henry's used for the building and instead of a simple basement we now have..." he slowly panned the light around and in the dim glow Jack could see a spider-like twist of hallways branching out in every direction.
"The mother of all mazes," Jack finished. "Perfect. What else could go wrong?"
In the previous silence, there was a rumble and though it was crazy, Jack could swear the walls were moving.
"Why did I say that," Jack grumbled to himself. Then, "ok, man with the plan, pick a direction before we have a whole different kind of matter disruption!"
"At least we wouldn't have to do the paperwork," Nathan said, but then they were off, turning down a hallway, then another, pulling back when another rumble and shift of wall began. It was like a labyrinth created by a sadistic six-year-old. Which was probably the best description of Fargo that he'd thought of recently. If they made it out, Jack would have to tell Jo all about it.
The rumbles stopped and for a minute Jack and Nathan were silent, trying to get their breath back.
"What the hell was that?" Jack finally managed.
"My guess is that Fargo has an algorithm that continually shifts the maze, to make it even more difficult to complete. But I've been timing the intervals-"
"Of course you have. I'd hate to think you were bored while we were running for our lives!"
"We have about twelve minutes to make a new plan."
"Fantastic." Jack felt a little bit of the adrenaline pounding through his muscles slow and he became aware of the sting of of cuts and bruises on his elbows, and a rough sort of burning feeling across his right arm which meant that his fall against the floor three turns back hadn't been as incident free as he'd hoped. "We're going... that way." He gestured vaguely.
"Got a lot of confidence there, Carter." Nathan said dryly.
"Well, seeing as my watch's compass says that way is north, and Henry said the fuse box was against the south wall, I actually am pretty confident, thanks for asking," Jack finished triumphantly.
"Where'd you get a watch with a compass? And why didn't you mention that already?" Nathan sounded pissed.
"It was a present from Zoe last Christmas. And... I forgot." Jack said sheepishly.
"If we can measure the angles of the shifts using your compass and my calculations..." Nathan mused.
“Then…” prompted Jack.
“Then I might only have to fire Fargo when we get back upstairs and not kill him,” said Nathan with a smirk.
When you actually knew when the rumbles and shifts and changes were going to happen, the maze was kind of fun. A short time (well, it was actually an hour, but who was counting) later, Nathan and Jack reappeared upstairs.
“Where have you guys been?” Allison demanded, and uh-oh, that was the pissed off over-stressed mom voice.
“Ran into some problems downstairs, but Carter and I figured it out,” Nathan said easily. “Now if you’ll excuse for a second, Alli, I have to talk to Fargo about something.”
“What does that mean?” Allison asked of Jack after Nathan had stalked over to Fargo and whatever he was saying, by the hand gestures, it wasn’t exactly going well.
“Eh, Nathan can tell you.” Jack said with a smile.
Allison shot him a ‘you’re not going to get away with this, mister’ look that she must be practicing for when Jenna was older and walked over to Nathan.
Henry appeared with a fresh beer for Jack, miracle of miracles.
“So, still think Nathan back is ‘not entirely terrible’?” Henry asked, with a grin.
“Well, maybe it’s pretty much okay.” Jack allowed with a grin.
“I’ll toast to that,” Henry said, and the two of them clinked bottles with a smile.