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Plausible Deniability

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Technically speaking, the first time Nathan Stark kisses Jack Carter it’s entirely accidental. At least, that’s what Nathan told himself at the time, kneeling in the vacuum-lock passageway with Jack dead -- dead -- before him and Dr. Carlson channeling power from the artifact through the blast door and into Jack’s wrecked shell of a body.

Nathan Stark hadn’t meant to kiss Jack Carter’s ear when he bent over to help Dr. Carlson position Jack’s body, move him micromillimeters closer to life (death?) -- it was just that Jack’s neck rolled, bringing his scruffy hair in contact with Nathan’s nose, and the upper curve of Jack’s left ear into contact with Nathan’s upper lip, damp with sweat borne of terror.

Please.” Nathan had found himself whispering into Jack’s ear, the overwhelming smell of charred flesh and the iron taste of blood at the back of his throat nearly choking him. “Survive this you stupid, stupid bastard.” At which point he’d pressed a kiss against the soft skin of Jack’s jaw, just above Jack’s ashen earlobe, and scrambled back to let Dr. Carlson work wonders.

He remembers wiping the back of a shaking hand across his mouth, remembers the creeping realization that he doesn’t want Jack to die -- really doesn’t want Jack to die. Remembers how that realization failed to help the tremors at all, remembers how he shook through Jack’s healing, through sending him off to the hospital center, through Dr. Carlson’s … absorption? … into the artifact, through a full bottle of water and half a cup of coffee and a power bar before Allison came to find him in his office:

“What are you doing up here, Nathan?”

“I -- can’t --” He feels exhausted, like he was the one who almost died. He looks up at her, trying to focus. “I can’t -- “

"Here, let me look at you.” She strides across the room, in control again now that the crisis is over. It’s always been like this, part of why they work so well together, professionally: he usually holds it together until after the crisis, at which point Alli has finished dithering and can move to take over while he falls to pieces very quietly in a corner.

He needs her, he just -- they never -- not like that.

Not like he suddenly thinks that he might need Carter. Jack.

Alli’s got his hands out in front of her, watching them tremble, takes in the half-eaten power bar, the empty Evian bottle, the styrofoam cup of coffee from his little office percolator.

She studies his face, eyes sharp and soft at the same time.

“There’s nothing you could have done for Carl,” she says, gentling. “No one will--”

“It’s not -- that’s not --” He coughs, shakes his head to clear it, then starts again: “Carter?”

“They’ve got him in Medical, but it’s mostly just -- he’s fine.” She squeeze his hands and lets them go. “Whatever Carl did before -- before --” not knowing what, exactly, happened she finally lets the sentence die. “Anyway, he’s good. You should go see him.”

Nathan knows this, has known since they wheeled Jack away that he needs to see him, reassure himself, but he’s also panicking -- it’s part of the panic, knowing Jack is alive and well (and yes, Jesus fuck yes, Nathan’s relieved but --), because Jack’s still here, still part of the equation, so Nathan will have to deal with the fact that whatever the hell he feels about Eureka’s new sheriff is more powerful to the power of ten than he’d thought it was. What had started out as an idle flirtation, a spark of interest, has just catalyzed into a -- a -- a --

“Nathan? Nathan.” Alli is shaking him gently on the shoulder. He heaves a breath and with effort focuses on her. Quirks his mouth in the semblance of a smile.

“I know, Alli. I’ll be -- just give me a -- thanks.” He shakes his head again, coughs. Stands. “I’ll go see Carter.”

Carter is, as Alli promised, still in Medical. They’ve got him propped up in one of those hospital beds you can raise and lower, and he’s mostly sitting up against a generous allotment of pillows.

Nathan stumbles as he crosses to the bedside, though he’ll never be sure in the weeks or months after which of two factors nearly brought him to his knees: the fact that Jack is whole or the fact that he’s naked. Draped with a sheet and a cheap wool blanket, sure, but obviously naked, because Jack hasn’t been careful about tucking the sheet around his hips and Nathan can see where the waistband of Jack’s boxers or briefs should be visible and isn’t.

“Stark.” Jack looks up from the crossword puzzle he’s got on his knee, face open, mouth quirked in the genuine version of the smile Nathan had tried a few minutes earlier in front of Allison. “They tell me I’m fit as a fiddle,” he coughs, clearing his throat, then gestures with the hand holding the stubby pencil at the array of monitors to which he’s tethered with a strap on his upper arm. “Never been better. Whatever Carlson threw at me was, um,” he blinks, “non-fatal?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes.” Nathan folds his hands in front of him, aware that his shoulders are painfully tight. He’s aware, too -- in the part of his brain that’s not keeping track of what he can and cannot disclose to the sheriff about recent events -- that what he wants more than anything in this moment is to perform a sort of laying on of hands: to fall on his knees at the side of Jack’s bed and touch. Begin with his chest, where the skin had so recently been burned away, the cavity so deep Nathan is pretty sure that he caught a glimpse of Carter’s heart frantically, futilely, pumping blood through mangled arterial veins. Move on to his shoulders and arms, the inner elbow, the steady wrist, run fingertip along fingertip and back again, span the back of Carter’s neck with his palm and reel the man in, breath words against the curve of Jack’s antihelical cartilage, words Jack would actually hear this time.

Words Nathan would have to stand behind.

Carter raises an eyebrow, “I’m not gonna get a straighter answer than that from you, am I?”

“I’m afraid not. Classified.”

“That’s wearing thin as a response, Stark, if you expect me to -- I don’t know, do my job?” But the tone is more weary than combative, as if Carter owes it to himself to point out the problem (and yes, Nathan understands why to Carter this seems like a problem) despite the fact he knows the battle is lost before it’s begun.

“We can talk about that another day,” Nathan says, and then before he can stop himself he’s leaning forward and clapping his hand on -- god, Jack’s skin is warm -- the other man’s shoulder, a good-fellows-well-met gesture that he utterly destroys by tilting unsteadily into that seductive warmth and, for the second time that day, once again under cover of clumsiness, finds his lips a hair’s breadth from Jack’s ear.

He feels his breath catch in his chest, and for a second thinks Jack’s does the same. “Just--” he whispers, feeling his breath warm the space between them, “just -- you just concentrate on not dying again today, okay?”

Jack lifts his free hand and for a moment Nathan thinks he might be reaching for Nathan’s shoulder or neck or -- fuck -- but then seems to think better of the impulse and lets his hand fall back and the moment is gone. Nathan pulls back and takes in Jack’s quizzical look, a look like he’s come across a clue in the crossword he thought he knew the answer to but which turns out not to fit with any of the other intersecting words.

Nathan clears his throat. “Anyway. I have -- I need to go see about --”

Jack lifts his hand in the ghost of a mock salute, “I’ll have a copy of my report on your desk by Friday. Well, Allison’s desk, but I imagine you’ll want --”

“Yes. Thank you.” Nathan nods and turns away, hands in his pockets, wondering what the hell he’s going to do now.