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More Than A Mark

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Jack was numb and shaking by the time he made it to the tent where Allison had been preparing for the wedding. Fargo had tried to convince him to go to the infirmary, but Jack was bound by his duty as sheriff and made the young scientist drive him to the wedding area despite his protests. Said scientist was going off to find Henry and let him know what had happened. Jack would let them take care of the wedding party, but he had to tell Allison in person.

She was still in her wedding dress when Jack stepped into the tent, staring at her reflection in the mirror resolutely. When Jack slipped through the tent flaps, she turned. Her mouth opened to say something, but the words didn't come as her expression turned to shock. The lovely bride took long strides over to Jack, putting a hand gently on the arm that he had wrapped around his aching ribs.

"Oh my god, Carter; are you okay?! What happened?!" She asked hurriedly. Jack's face slid into the resolute mask that he had worn far to many times when delivering bad news.

"Allison... I'm sorry... There was an experiment that went wrong and... Nathan..." Jack swallowed hard. "Stark sacrificed himself to save the town." He forced the words out, gentle but blunt. He could see the horror in Allison's eyes before he'd even finished.

A delicate hand rose to Allison's mouth. Tears covered her eyes and spilled down her cheeks. She shook her head. Jack put a hand on her arm, trying to comfort her despite feeling very much like crying himself. Allison slowly sank to her knees. A sob broke past her control, and once there was one, many began to follow. Jack knelt beside her. He wrapped his arms around her, even though the movement made his aching head spin, and tried to murmur words of comfort as she cried into his shoulder.

The tent flaps opened, admitting Henry, Jo, and Fargo. Upon seeing Allison and Jack on the ground, Jo knelt down. She gently transferred the crying woman to her own shoulder, rubbing her back in soothing circles. Jack looked up at Henry, his sorrowful gaze meeting the same on the older man. Henry leaned in. His hands were firm and soft as he helped the injured sheriff to his feet.

"Fargo filled us in." He murmured, glancing at Allison. "Jo is going to take care of Allison and I'll handle to assembly outside. Fargo will take you back up to the infirmary at Global."

Jack opened his mouth to protest. Henry fixed him with a look. It was stubbornness and worry and pain. With his sore body and the lead weight in his heart, the sheriff couldn't bring himself to argue. He cast another glance at Allison, then let Fargo lead him from the tent.

---

Jack laid awake in the infirmary bed, late in the evening a few days later. He couldn't stop thinking about Stark. The sad smile the scientist gave him at the end was haunting him. The words "See you around, Jack" were floating right under the surface, like a grim and twisted mantra. Those green eyes were staring at him; staring into him, every time he tried to sleep. The first two nights, he had broken down and cried. Helplessly sobbing into his hands, curled into himself as tightly as possible in the cramped confines of the infirmary bed.

He was trying hard not to do the same thing tonight; forcing his eyes onto the smooth ceiling and searching for any blemishes that could keep his mind occupied. There weren't any. The walls had probably been painted with some fancy Eureka gadget that gave a completely smooth finish. Without anything to distract him, his eyes began to sting again.

The sound of the door opening to his left gave him a much needed relief. He turned his head towards the sound, curious who would be visiting so late. He was stunned to see Allison as he'd never seen her before. Her hair was in a sloppy pony tail, her face clear of makeup, and she wore simple slacks and a soft shirt. She was beautiful as ever, just not the buttoned up professional he was used to.

She gave him a raw, pained smile as she sat down in the chair beside his bed. Jack swallowed.

"Allis-" His underused voice broke, making him need to clear his throat. "Allison? What are you doing here?" He asked in a hushed undertone. The woman flashed another brittle smile. Her eyes were red rimmed from crying, perhaps only temporarily dry.

"I'm sorry to come so late, but I had a feeling you wouldn't be asleep." Her voice was tight, like she was forcing it to stay firm and collected. "I've been thinking a lot and I couldn't quite convince myself to wait until tomorrow to talk to you." Allison took a slow breath and looked at him with a friendly warmth in her eyes. "Zoe and Lexi have been helping me the last few days. Making sure Kevin and I are okay. I... I know you probably asked them to." She paused and Jack could see her organizing her thoughts quickly. "I just wanted you to know; you don't need to feel guilty Carter. I know why Nathan did what he did. And it's not your fault. Nathan made the decision to go into that chamber and you shouldn't get it in your head that it should have been you." Allison reached out to give his hand a squeeze. Jack squeezed back gently.

"I didn't ask them to help you out because of guilt Allison. We're friends." He mustered up a small smile, which Allison returned. "I'd be there myself if the doctors would discharge me already." He didn't address the other half of her statement. They both knew it was in his head and the guilt wasn't going away any time soon.

The woman fixed him with a soft, amused gaze. "You need to stay here until you're completely healed Carter. I've got more than enough people looking out for me right now anyways."

Jack felt a sheepish grin rise above his melancholy. "You're feeling mothered by all of us?" He asked, knowing the answer. She gave a little huff of laughter in response. Her heart wasn't really in it, Jack could tell by the sound, but it was reassuring to see her acting a bit more like herself. "I'll see if Zoe can tame the rest of them down a bit. Their hearts are in the right place, but I can see how it would get overwhelming."

Allison gave him a thankful look. "I appreciate it. Not just for me. I think there have been a few too many people around for Kevin's comfort too. I want to make things easier on him... I... I don't know how well he's dealing with losing Nathan... It can be hard to tell what he's feeling." She added softly. Her eyes lowered, sadness creeping into her voice. Jack had to respect her even more; trying to help her autistic son through this rough time while she was suffering herself. He gave another squeeze to their linked hands.

"I'll make sure people give you two some space. They'll understand. Everyone loves Kevin; they wouldn't want him anxious or hurting." He said, and he meant it. Kevin was a special kid. Brilliant and sweet. No one would ever want to cause him pain.

Allison nodded. She looked relieved, like one of many burdens was gone. She rose to her feet, looking down at their linked hands.

"Well, I should go. You should at least try to sleep." She was about to say something else, but took a sudden interest in his wrist. Jack raised an eyebrow at her curiously.

"Allison?"

The woman snapped out of her inspection, looking up at him. "Sorry. I... just... I don't think I've ever seen your mate mark before." She explained. Jack's confusion melted. So that was what she was looking at. He almost forgot he even had one.

"Oh. Yeah, I usually keep it covered with my watch band." He glanced down at the pale green star and concentric circles on his wrist. When he was young, he used to think the star represented him; the baseball star he would someday become. When he'd grown up a little, he dismissed the notion and accepted that it was probably just a random combination of shapes.

"Why cover it? Don't you want to find your soulmate?" Allison asked softly, looking between him and the mark.

"My mom taught me that it was more important to get to know someone before sharing my mark. She said it created stronger foundations.... And when I got older, I thought I was headed for the major leagues. I read stories about crazy fans getting players' marks tattooed on them to scam their way into their lives. Then, when I got into the police academy we were taught not to show our marks, since criminals could find ways to get to us or our mates if they knew our mark."

Allison's expressions ranged from intrigued, to amused, and finally settled on a grimace at the thought of the last point. "I suppose I understand... I'm guessing you aren't in the SM Mark Database then... Do you ever think about checking? Just to see if you have a soulmate out there?" She let go of his hand and loosely crossed her arms.

Jack rubbed the back of his neck. "Well... after everything that happened with Abby, sometimes I think about it... It sounds a little too fairy tale perfect, but it would be nice..."

Allison's sad smile returned. "When I met Kevin's father, I was surprised by just how much settled into place. A part of me had expected the soulmate stories to be exaggerations... but I was never happier." She looked at the floor. "If you want, I could upload a picture of your mark to the Database. It'd give me a distraction..." She looked back up into Jack's eyes and he saw the same aimless feeling that he'd been having reflected there. Knowing how much a distraction was needed these days for him, he decided to indulge her.

"Sure. What could it hurt?" He held out his hand, wrist up, as she pulled out her small Eureka phone to take a picture.

"I'll let you know if there's a match." She said as she slipped the phone back into her pocket.

"Thanks." Jack genuinely meant it, even though he wasn't feeling in the mood for romance lately. But as much as it was a distraction for Allison, it was a distraction for him as well. Anything to make him stop thinking about Nathan.

"Get some sleep Jack." Allison pressed a friendly hand into his shoulder. He was comforted by the momentary warmth; a novelty in the cold and sterile infirmary.

"I will if you will." He countered. She smiled the tiniest bit, and for the first time in the visit it seemed genuine, and walked out of the room.

Jack's eyes remained in the door for several minutes after she left. His mind replayed the conversation, making notes on the things he would need to talk to Zoe about when she visited after school. When there was nothing left to analyze, his mind started to creep back to that moment in the Time Maintenance Lab. The moment he would never forget. He grumbled and rolled to lay on his side, tucking his pillow more comfortably under his head.

His soulmate. He should think about that instead. How they should like baseball, and they should get along with Zoe. How they should have a good sense of humor. He didn't know what they would look like and he let his mind wander through all of the different traits he found attractive. As he started to feel the slow, warm daze of sleep coming over him, Jack had an abstract image of his ideal mate. His eyes fell closed on the thought of someone tall, dark, and handsome. Maybe even... with green eyes...

---

Jack had been back on duty for half of the day when he noticed something was up. He had only been in the infirmary for a week, and his injuries weren't really that bad. But for some reason, everyone was treating him like a fragile piece of china.

First it had been Zoe and Lexi. They had been nice to him when he met them in the kitchen for breakfast. Nice was fine, but the usual teasing was strangely absent, even when he tried making jokes himself. He caught a look that the two cast towards each other. While he was deciding whether or not to call them on it, Zoe pecked him on the cheek and escaped to school.

Then it had been Cafe Diem. He had headed in for his morning Vinspresso. The entire diner went quiet. Jack had looked around in bemusement. Vincent was the first to get over... whatever it was that had caused the silence, and he asked if the sheriff was there for his usual. When Jack said yes, the rest of the diner seemed to take Vince's lead and began to chat amongst themselves again. Jack frowned, but took his Vinspresso and left.

Next was Jo. She was doing paperwork when he walked into the station. Paperwork. She hated paperwork. They both did. It was reserved for incredibly dull days or long nights on call or when the D.o.D. was breathing down their necks. Or, perhaps, for keeping occupied so as not to talk about whatever this strange, town wide secret was that everyone was keeping from Jack.

He had processed the scene before him in less than a second, and stifled his paranoia and irritation in under ten. He quietly walked over to his desk. He sat down, taking a bolstering drink of coffee, and stared at Jo. She pointedly stared at the papers before her. He knew she was trying to ignore him. Jo was good at looking busy, but he knew from experience that she had sensed his staring right away. For several more minutes, Jack stared and Jo determinedly wrote on her paperwork. It was finally Jack that broke.

"What aren't you telling me?!" He demanded, setting his Vinspresso on the desk and leaning forwards. Jo furrowed her eyebrows at the page.

"Hmm?" She hummed, feigning distraction.

"Come on Jo! I'm not an idiot. I can tell everyone's hiding something from me. What is it?" Jack placed his hands flat on his desk, frowning at her.

"I don't know what you're talking about Carter." She said evenly. Jack hid a growl of frustration. This was like a game of chicken, but one where he would have to take a full day to make his deputy break and tell him what he wanted to know.

He finally just sighed and got up, grabbing his coffee. "I'm going to Henry's. Call me if something happens." He told her, his tone clearly frustrated. Her murmured assent followed him out the door.

Henry was in his shop as usual when Jack got there. The jack of all trades was wearing his mechanic badge and leaning over the engine of something that Jack decided definitely didn't fit in a car. It looked a little like an engine, yes, but not one he had ever seen before.

"Morning Henry." He greeted, expecting one of two responses. Either Henry would cheerfully greet him back, or he would give Jack the same pitying look everyone in Cafe Diem seemed to be wearing earlier. It turned out to be the later, as Henry turned to look at him with a frown clearly in place.

"Jack. I wasn't expecting to see you today. You're... back on duty already?" The man pulled a rag from his pocket to wipe the oil from his hands. Jack narrowed his eyes at his friend.

"Yeah. The doctors discharged me yesterday. I'm supposed to be on light duty for the next few days... but this is Eureka, so I'm sure I'm fine." He replied, leaning his hip against the edge of a workbench.

Henry smiled grimly. "I see... And you're getting weird looks from everyone in town and want to know why; am I right?" He guessed. Jack smiled, sensing that Henry, as usual, would actually give him answers instead of avoiding his questions.

"Exactly! What's going on with everyone?" His voice was earnest and exasperated. Normally the tone would get a chuckle out of Henry, but today it only seemed to elicit downcast eyes and a slowly shaking head.

"I hate to be the bearer of bad news, Jack... It's been running through the gossip mill that your mate mark was just uploaded into the SM Mark Database." He explained. Jack furrowed his brow.

"What? That's got them all feeling sorry for me? It's no big deal." He shrugged dismissively. Henry's eyes grew sad.

"It's not that, Jack. It's.... The Database found your match."

The sheriff's eyes widened and his heart faltered for a painful second. Part of him knew what was coming. It was obvious and it was sad and it was exactly the type of thing that would make all of Eureka pity him. Self preservation kick started the process of denial and repression before Henry could even finish speaking.

"It was Nathan, Jack. Your mark matched Nathan's." The older man finished gently.

Jack gave a broken, apprehensive laugh. "That's... ha... these marks are pretty unreliable then... There's no way that Nathan Stark would ever..." Another uncomfortable scoff left his mouth and he raised a hand to the back of his neck in a familiar nervous gesture.

Henry stepped forwards to put a hand on his friend's arm. "Jack..." His tone was soft and gentle. It made the sheriff's heart ache. He automatically deflected.

"Besides, he had Allison! They're way more... compatible..." Jack's voice was a little to high and tense. He cleared his throat, trying to force his mind to something else, and his brain grabbed on to one of the more pertinent bits of information. "... Allison..."

"She knows. She had asked Fargo to double check the Database. And Fargo being... well Fargo; he went to Cafe Diem with the results." Henry was trying to look Jack in the eye, but the sheriff was feeling incredibly childish and averted his gaze.

"Oh god... This... She doesn't deserve this..." Allison was still grieving over losing Stark. The last thing she needed was the entire town talking about him being someone else's soulmate. Jack could already imagine the rumors flying. It was definitely easier to focus on how this must be hurting her rather than letting in the pain that this revelation was waiting to cause him. "I should go talk to her."

"Jack-" Henry tried and failed to catch his arm as he turned on his heel and headed for the door.

"Sorry, Henry, but I should really get out ahead of this mess." The sheriff called over his shoulder distractedly. Henry watched him go, feeling helpless. It would be impossible to get past the emotional barriers Jack had erected. He was swimming in denial. Henry had to hope that his friend would let him be there for him when reality came crashing down.

---

Jack found Allison in the Director's office. Like him, she was the type that didn't handle down time very well. And as much as she would want to spend time with Kevin these days, he needed his alone time too. As his mother, she put his needs ahead of her own. So instead, she was here. Working on an impressive stack of paperwork.

She didn't seem to have heard his approach, so he knocked on the open door frame. Startled brown eyes blinked up at him, clearly adjusting from the paperwork to the world at large.

"Carter. Is there something going on?" She glanced at her computer screen as if looking for an alert she had missed. Jack shook his head and motioned to one of the chairs in front of her desk.

"Do you mind if I sit down and talk a minute?" He asked gently. His tone must have tipped her off to his intentions. He saw her eyes turn guarded and her lips pursed together. She motioned him to take a seat.

"I have a few minutes. Thorne wants me at a finance meeting in an hour, but I don't have anything pressing until then." Allison leaned back in her chair, neatly setting down her pen. Jack moved into the room, lowering himself into the seat. He wanted to give her a reassuring smile, but he couldn't manage to make his lips form the shape. He swallowed hard and forced out some half-planned words instead.

"The mate mark stuff doesn't mean anything." The words spilled out somewhat cruder than he had intended. He wanted to be frank and blunt, but not mean. It was hard to tell if he was managing it. "No matter what anyone has to say about it. He loved you. If anything, the marks are just wrong in this instance. Stark would never have-"

"Carter." Allison cut him off. His mouth snapped shut. He tried to read her expression. It wasn't quite grim determination and it wasn't quite sympathy. More like a mixture of the two. As they held each other's gaze silently, the look in her eyes began to lean more towards sympathy. "Jack... You don't need to do damage control with me on this. I knew how the town would react when they found out. I considered it before I had Fargo double check my findings." She leaned a little deeper into the comfort of her chair.

"I'm not... I'm just..." Jack trailed off, realizing that she was right. Allison was a smart woman. There was no way she didn't know the ramifications of her actions.

"Jack," She said, a little too gently, "It's okay. Really. Nathan... Nathan and I always knew that he could possibly have a soulmate out there somewhere. I knew him for years before we first married and I saw how much he wanted to find his soulmate. He even re-wrote the Database code when we were still in college so that the findings would be more accurate." Allison folded her hands over her stomach and smiled faintly. "We went into a relationship knowing we were each other's second choice."

Jack rubbed the back of his neck, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. "That doesn't mean... that it wouldn't have worked... Or that you didn't love each other... I know you're still grieving and I don't want a bunch of rumors to make things even worse for you." He replied softly and honestly.

"You're suffering too, Jack. Who's looking out for you?" Allison countered gently. Jack looked up into her serious gaze.

"I don't need-"

"My point is... I'm not the only one, Jack. You. Henry. Fargo... We're all hurting right now. And we do need time to grieve. But I don't want to be the one getting all of the careful treatment. I'm still an adult. I can deal with Eureka's silly rumor mill... and I can deal with this." Her shoulders dipped and she looked very tired. "I'm sad that I lost Nathan... But knowing that I might not have been the right person for him is far less of a blow. I'm upset, yes, but I'd rather have him alive and with you as opposed to... this."

Jack looked down at the floor. One hand fidgeted with the fold on his pants leg uncomfortably. "I guess I'm probably being overprotective... I just hated the thought of this hurting you..."

Allison's eyes scanned over him and she adopted a much to familiar look of pity. It seemed to be contagious. "Are you really so worried about me... or are you perhaps deflecting so you don't have to deal with how this situation if affecting you?" She asked, her tone making it clear she already knew both the truth and the answer he would give.

"Worried about you. You're my friend, Allison." Jack replied, semi-honestly. She smiled at him gently.

"I'm sure that's part of it... But I won't press you. Just take care of yourself, Jack. I promise I'll do the same." She stated. The sheriff felt the conversation come to a close and nodded.

"Okay. Have a good day, Allison." He stood up as she responded in kind and made his way out of the office.

---

It didn't get any easier to ignore the heavy heart thudding dully in his rib cage. The first night after learning he'd lost his potential soul mate saw him crying himself to sleep. The second night, he'd tried to distract himself with beer and baseball. He cried himself to sleep again, all the while cursing his inability to hold back the tears.

Zoe wisely kept quiet about the whole situation. She was there for him, of course, but she didn't pressure him to talk. She sat with him while he watched tv, studying or texting while she sat close enough to hug at a moment's notice. She seemed to be waiting for him to break. Jack appreciated her closeness; her affection, but there was no way he would let himself break down in the presence of his teenage daughter. Even though it was hard to keep himself together, when the momentary wandering of thoughts brought up memories of wit and green eyes, he would stave off those oppressive emotions until he could be alone.

It didn't get better. A week passed. Then a month. Then two. Jack cried less frequently, but the heavy weight in his heart remained. He missed the snark and the sarcasm. He missed the planet sized ego and the genius and the smirk. Tall, suit clad apparitions haunted his nightmares and he couldn't do anything about it. It seemed like this was the world he had been left in. Not a ruined place, but a bleak one. An empty one.

---

Jack was getting up to pour himself a fresh cup of coffee when Henry came in. Jo was out patrol and the day had been relatively quiet. Jack turned to his friend and dredged up a small smile for him.

"Hey, Henry. What can I do for you?" He asked, taking a drink from his freshly warmed mug. Henry fixed him with a smile so big and bright that it was almost disconcerting. A part of Jack worried Seth Osborne had been growing those messed up pollen plants again.

"I have good news!" Henry said excitedly. "Fargo, Zane, and I were working on a theory over the last month that finally paid off!" Jack felt a sliver of amusement.

"It's not gonna explode this time, is it?" He inquired with a tone half teasing and half worried. The older man chuckled and shook his head.

"No, Jack. Everything went off without a hitch. Fargo and Zane came up with a way to reconfigure Weinbrenner's machine! They pulled me in to help isolate-"

"Leo Weinbrenner? The time maintenance guy?!" Jack's weak smile fell away and his entire body tensed. "You can't be messing with time again! Last time-!"

"Nathan's alive, Jack!" Henry cut him off. The sudden anxiety the sheriff had felt went silent, as did his heart. His hands trembled, making him set down his coffee mug before it could go crashing to the floor.

"...what..?" His voice barely came out above a whisper, strangled by the shock knotting his throat and his stomach. Henry was still smiling, but obviously noticed that his friend was about to fall over from the surprise. He eased Jack into Jo's chair, making him sit down before he could fall down.

"Nathan is alive, Jack." He repeated. "We brought him back. He's in the infirmary right now, but there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with him. We're just being cautious until we're sure he's stable." He sat on the corner of Lupo's desk, one hand tightly clenched on Jack's shoulder to try and ground him. The sheriff was still pale, with wide eyes staring up at Henry in disbelief.

"He's... he's back? He's okay?" Jack swallowed hard. There was a cautious swell of joy rising in his stomach. Weirdly, it was just making him feel ill. A hammering heartbeat pumped inside his chest like hummingbird wings.

"He's okay." Henry assured him. Jack blinked numbly. He was processing the new information too slowly. He believed Henry; he would always trust the man to be honest with him. Yet some part of his mind refused to let go of the suffering he'd felt the last two months, as if doing so would bring back the world where Nathan was still dead and Jack would have to feel his heart break all over again.

"I need... I need to file that paperwork... the 924/B... in triplicate." He finally said, falling back into the familiar territory of his job when he couldn't seem to gather up his messy feelings. Henry's smile dimmed a little.

"I'm sure Jo would be more than happy to do it. I thought I could drive you up to see him." His hand tightened briefly on Jack's shoulder. The sheriff swallowed.

"No, I should... It's my job. I can... He and Allison should have some time together." He replied, eyes firmly planted on the floor. That was right. That was the right thing to do. Allison... Stark and Allison were going to be married. He should leave the couple alone. Nathan... Stark probably didn't want to see Jack anyways. He was probably tired and didn't need the snarking and sniping right now.

Jack stood up, letting Henry's hand fall from his shoulder, and walked over to the filing cabinet to retrieve the 924/Bs. His friend watched him, knowing the distinct signs of Carter stubbornness when he saw them. He didn't want to leave Jack like this, but suspected the man would be ignoring him until his paperwork was finished. He sighed and stood up.

"Please at least consider going to see him, Jack." He offered gently. The sheriff hummed noncommittally as he sat down at his desk with the forms. With a lingering sympathetic look, Henry turned and left the station.

---

Jack was eternally grateful that Zoe was spending the evening at Pilar's house. They had a big project coming up and he was left blessedly alone. She would have pestered him to go see Nathan and he simply couldn't handle that right now. S.A.R.A.H. had brought up the idea, but respected Jack's wishes when he asked her not to touch the subject for a while. She had been unexpectedly understanding, giving him a beer and letting him order pizza without a complaint about his calorie intake.

He was on his second slice of pizza, eating slowly because his stomach hadn't quite come unknotted yet, when S.A.R.A.H. announced, "Dr. Stark is at the door."

Jack froze, the beer bottle pressed to his lips. He swallowed hard. "Um. Tel-tell him I'm asleep, okay?" He asked nervously. There was a moment of silence before she replied.

"He says he knows you are not asleep and he will hack open the doors if you do not let him in."

Jack sighed noisily. "Let him in." He conceded. He didn't get up when the door swung open. Didn't look back when the other man's footsteps sounded on the floor behind him. There was a pause, then Nathan moved around the couch and sat down beside him. Jack kept his eyes fixed on the baseball game playing on the screen before him, tensely chewing a bite of pizza more times than was strictly necessary.

The warmth of Nathan beside him made his entire body tense. His throat constricted when he tried to swallow his mouthful. There was a note of joy hidden under an ocean of nervousness. He'd never thought he would miss the scent of the man, something woodsy and fresh, but smelling it again brought back a tinge of happiness and nostalgia.

"You didn't come visit me." Nathan stated plainly. He didn't sound upset or angry. Just like he was making an observation.

"Thought you should have some time alone with Allison..." Jack replied. He tried to keep his tone bland and his eyes on the screen.

"Still could have made an appearance." He sensed Nathan turning his head to look at him. It was harder to keep looking forward, but he knew if he looked into those green eyes now, he would never be able to take the pain when he saw Nathan and Allison together later.

"Guess so... I wouldn't have pegged you for wanting me there." He was tempted to take another bite of pizza to distract himself. Somehow he doubted he could swallow it, though.

"... When are you going to acknowledge that I'm really here?" Nathan's tone was edging towards annoyed.

"Would I be talking to you if you weren't?"

Stark sighed loudly. "I should have known you were going to be immature about this."

"I don't know what you're talking about." He did. Oh boy, he really did. But he just couldn't do it. He couldn't let himself rejoice in Nathan's presence. There was too much pain lingering on the horizon. He couldn't deal with it right now.

"You're a terrible liar, Carter." Stark said, the scowl very apparent in his voice. Ignoring the usual boundaries, he reached over and took Jack's wrist. He turned it over to show the mate mark there. "What kind of idiot doesn't use the SM Mark Database?"

Jack closed his eyes wearily. "Who told you...?" Nathan's hand wrapped around his forearm, thumb caressing the mate mark.

"Allison... When she told me why she couldn't marry me." Was the soft response. Jack tensed, muscles straining even tighter.

"What? She... I wasn't going to stand in your way. I know you two love each other." He frowned, looking away from the game, but still not at Nathan. He sensed Stark shaking his head.

"I love her. I always will. But we were never really in love. We tried to be there for each other when we thought that we were both alone." Jack started to open his mouth to say something, only to be cut off. "Allison doesn't want to stand in the way of me being with my soul mate. She made it very clear that I can be part of her family without being married to her. That was what I wanted. To be part of a family. I thought I would never have that chance. I thought my soul mate must be dead..." His grip on Jack's arm tightened.

"This is just a rebound... I don't want to be picked just because of a mark on my skin." Jack ducked his head, pressing his eyes closed. Nathan was here; alive and offering him exactly what he wanted. But Jack couldn't take it. He couldn't do it when it wasn't real. Nathan didn't want him. Had never liked him. There was no way they were meant for each other and no mate mark should be the factor deciding otherwise.

"Jack..." Nathan's voice turned soft and sympathetic. "Do you really think my feelings for you started when I found out our marks matched?"

Surprised, Jack managed his first real look at the other man. Green eyes, a handsome face, and that lean, strong body that Jack had appreciated since the day he saw Nathan in the infirmary buttoning up a shirt so damn slowly he thought his brain would steam cook itself. His heart throbbed painfully in his chest. Nathan's eyes were fixed on him, his expression more open and honest than he had ever seen it.

"You hate me." Jack protested weakly.

"I don't fight and flirt with people I hate, Carter. They're not worth my time. I was worried I would lose out on my one chance to have a family, so I focused all my attention on Allison. I never hated you." The scientist explained earnestly. His hand slid up Jack's wrist to thread their fingers together. "And from what I've been told, you've been taking my death harder than anyone. So I suspect you don't hate me either. Unless I've been misled by Allison and Henry's accounts of the last two months."

Jack blushed, letting himself grip the warm, strong hand in his like a life line. "Don't be stupid, scientist. I couldn't hate you..." He looked down. "I liked fighting with you... And flirting with you... I just never thought I had a chance. My mom always said it was more important to establish a relationship before becoming soul mates. Formed stronger foundations."

Nathan huffed. "That's great, except when you make your soul mate think you're dead." He drawled sarcastically. Jack looked up at his wry smile. He felt a tentative ray of happiness creep into him.

"Well, I guess that makes us even." Jack snarked back. Nathan's eyes softened and he raised his hand to the back of Jack's neck.

"Seems we'll just have to make it up to each other then." He murmured, leaning in to kiss him softly. A bright burst of sparks spread through Jack's chest and sent shivers down his spine. He curled his hand into the suit jacket Nathan was wearing and kissed back.

It was only the first of many kisses to come. And with each one, a little piece of Jack began to settle back into place. Sadness was chased away and Nathan filled every empty void his death had once left. For the first time in his life, Jack really believed that the mark on his wrist was more than just a symbol.