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Seeing is Believing

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Art by Danceswithgary

Jack was surprised by how many people turned out at Cafe Diem to say goodbye to him and Zoe. He'd only been sheriff for a few years - unlike Cobb before him - so the stream of well-wishers was quite touching. So far he'd made numerous promises to write or email that he knew would never keep but it was the polite way to respond. He stopped to gaze around the restaurant at all the people talking in small groups, his eyes finally alighting on Allison.

He could tell she was unhappy, with her and Lexi comfort eating a huge slab of cake between them while Henry looked morose and a little angry next to them. As if sensing the scrutiny, Henry looked up and caught Jack's eyes. He pushed up from his place beside Allison and walked over to Jack, hands buried deep in the pockets of his overalls and shoulders slumped. On the other side of the room, Zoe was with her school friends, and Jack pressed his lips tight together when he watched Zoe and Pilar hug even though they'd see each other at school in the morning.

He had offered Zoe the chance to stay here in the town with Lexi until the end of the school semester, having seen how much she had changed in these few years from a rebellious juvenile delinquent into a Grade A student at Tesla High. She had refused, wanting to be with him even though she had found a home here in Eureka; a place where people understood her, and where she understood them.

Oh yeah, he knew all about her little white lie over her I.Q. score, and even though it had smarted that she'd lied to spare his feelings, he couldn't stay angry at her for long. Jack guessed he had to thank Abby for the genius genes she'd inherited. He wished he'd been born a little smarter too as perhaps then he wouldn't have felt so out of his depth in the town - intellectually. Yet, looking around at all the well-wishers, he knew he had made a difference here, and he had made a home for himself and Zoe. He hated having to leave all this behind.

Well, not all of it, he thought, because he wouldn't miss the really freaky stuff.

"I checked through all one hundred and seventy volumes of the town charter but couldn't find anything that would give me the power to overrule General Mansfield."

"Hey, Henry. You tried. Thank you."

"Damn it, Jack. You are my best friend and I don't want you to leave." Henry shook his head and then waggled his finger. "Now I've watched you making promises all evening to keep in touch, but I want you to keep this one to me. I want to hear from you every week."

Jack grinned and allowed Henry to pull him into a hug. "I promise. Take care of Allison for me."

Henry nodded solemnly. "For you... and for Nathan."

As always, the mention of Nathan's name sent a shard of pain through him that Jack refused to examine too deeply. He hadn't expected to miss the giant pain in his ass that was Nathan Stark, and was shocked when he still caught himself wondering how he could annoy Nathan with whatever new disaster had befallen the town. When Nathan was alive it had often been the highlight of his day trying to come up with a new made-up word or oversimplified term for whatever gizmo was the cause or solution to the problem, just to irritate the man. The constipated look was surpassed only by the incredulous widening of those blue-green eyes before Nathan rolled them in annoyance and threw back a sarcastic retort.

Once it was obvious that Allison had made her choice between them, he and Nathan had settled into a different kind of relationship. It was no less antagonistic and Nathan had still mocked his lower intelligence, but it had come without any hint of malice. Perhaps in time they might have become friends instead of frenemies. It wouldn't have been the strangest thing to have happened in Eureka. So now, whenever he thought of Nathan, he thought of missed opportunities, of a twinkling in those sharp, intelligent eyes as he was not so gently mocked, and of a bright smile on those rare occasions when all the pretense of animosity slid away.

Since Nathan's 'death', Jack had been there for Allison but he was surprised when he realized that his intense feelings for her had faded to a deep and abiding friendship. He still loved her, and who wouldn't because she was incredibly smart and she was even more beautiful with the glow of pregnancy, but he knew now that it was never meant to be more than friendship. All the rest had been him and Nathan caught up in macho posturing. Still, he had wanted to be there for her through her pregnancy, knowing how hard it had to be for her to face bringing yet another child into the world alone - Nathan's child this time.

He pulled back from the hug, smiling at Henry.

"I promise to stay in contact," he repeated solemnly, and this time he meant it because despite the huge gap between their I.Q. levels, Henry was his best friend, and had been from the moment they met. His smile widened when Zane pulled Henry away into a good-natured argument between him and Fargo.

Jack paused on the threshold before leaving, taking one last opportunity to look at the people he had come to know and care about since becoming Sheriff. He'd already said all of his goodbyes and couldn't face any more heartache today, so he slipped away, trusting Lexi to bring Zoe home later.

****

The following morning, Jack got up and bickered happily with S.A.R.A.H. about his dietary habits while he ate a quick breakfast. He was going to miss S.A.R.A.H. and her mothering. The only reason why they were not tossed out of the bunker when he was first fired, and into the Bed & Breakfast, was because no one else wanted to move into the bunker - and no one wanted to leave S.A.R.A.H. on her own after not just the B.R.A.D. incident but the gravity well problem too. It seemed the Carters were a rarity in that they actually enjoyed having a potentially deranged A.I. for a house, and she liked them.

Weeks of interviews with various three-letter organizations had kept him busy, and waiting to hear back from each of them was worse still. He wasn't in their prime recruiting age group anymore, and simply had to hope his experience in law enforcement would balance out that unavoidable fact. Being fired by the D.O.D. hadn't helped either, and if Homeland Security hadn't offered him a job then he would have had to start looking at less lucrative positions with private security companies.

The last few days dealing with the gravity well mess that S.A.R.A.H. had inadvertently caused had kept him busy, so it was fortunate Homeland Security had requested he report to the Salem, Oregon office to be given details of his posting and his first assignment. It was only a little over an hour away from Eureka, but they had asked Jack to be there by nine in the morning. As he didn't want to make a bad impression by turning up late on his first day, he started out even earlier. Once he knew where he would be posted, which could be anywhere in the country, he could make the necessary arrangements to pack up his few belongings and have Zoe and Lexi join him.

He sighed because it really was bad timing losing his job when he had the double responsibility of both Zoe and Lexi hanging over him, especially with Lexi pregnant. His health insurance with Global Dynamics, that he'd been so reluctant to sign up to in that first year, would have covered all his dependents, which now included Lexi for the foreseeable future. Hopefully the same would apply with the Homeland Security health plan or he would need to dig into his savings for Lexi, because no way was he going to have his sister give birth to twins without a hospital involved.

Jack smiled tightly at the guard as he went through the checkpoint at the door, nodding in thanks when he was pointed to the reception desk.

"Jack Carter. I have..."

"Oh yes. We've been expecting you. Follow me."

Jack scratched the back of his head before turning to follow the receptionist. He was led to an operations hub and spent a moment watching the organized chaos of people moving back and forth while others were looking at screens or taking calls. A man beckoned him up to a mezzanine level overlooking the operations room and Jack climbed the stairs quickly.

"Sir...?"

"This way, Agent Carter."

Jack stepped into an empty office and glanced around in confusion as the door closed behind him, leaving him all alone; he wondered if he was supposed to stand and wait, or take the seat in front of the desk. Feeling a prickle at the back of his mind, Jack frowned and cast his eye over the laptop and files neatly piled on top of the desk. He picked up a strange looking paperweight that seemed to be beckoning to be touched, almost dropping it when it glowed a bright blue.

Ancient blue device.jpg

Feeling guilty, especially as he'd often accused Fargo of having no restraint whatsoever, he glanced over his shoulder to check the door and gave a sharp, cut-off yelp in surprise when he found a middle-aged, black woman in a bright pink, matching dress and jacket standing right behind him. Jack looked between her and the door, wondering how he could have missed hearing her enter. He cleared his throat, accepting her small hand.

"Agent Carter, I'm Mrs. Frederic." She frowned at him, pointedly looking down at his other hand.

Startled when he realized he was still holding the strange glowing object, he hurriedly replaced it on the desk, giving her a sheepish, apologetic look; the object stopped glowing the moment he released it.

"Mood stone?" Jack asked, recalling Lexi's fascination with stones that had 'magical properties', although he'd never really believed in all that New Age mysticism.

"Something like that," she replied. "Take a seat, Agent Carter."

"Yes, ma'am."

"You have a unique gift, Agent Carter. You have an exceptional talent for finding things, and I want you to find something for me."

"O...Kay, but I'm better at finding people than things."

She smiled enigmatically. "I know." Her eyes flicked towards the desk meaningfully. "Everything you need to know is right there, Agent Carter."

Jack glanced over his shoulder at the laptop and the stack of folders on the desk.

"And what exactly am I loo...?"

Blinking hard he looked around the now empty office, and shut his open mouth with a snap of his teeth. He'd shaken hands with her so he knew she was real and not a hologram, so she was either really fast or she must have one of those time gizmos like Anderson, or an invisibling device. Grimacing, he wondered if she was still in the room watching him, and he manfully resisted the urge to squirm and turned back to the desk. He noticed that the glowy paperweight was gone too, and scratched the back of his head to ease the prickling sensation of being watched. With a sigh, he walked around the desk and sat down, opening the laptop and tapping on a few keys ineffectively before pulling the first of the folders towards him.

It was labeled 'Laptop Instructions'. With a sigh, he started reading, rolling his eyes and then shrugging in acceptance when he noticed the secondary title, 'An Idiot's Guide'. Nathan could have written this guide, and probably would have just to show off and belittle Jack at the same time - if he'd still been alive. As always, the thought of Nathan's death cut into him, and he pushed it away, knowing he needed to force those emotions into a box in his mind and seal them up tight.

Two hours later he had a rough description of the object he was supposed to find - a temporal cohesion and stabilization artifact. All he needed to figure out now was what the hell that was supposed to be, what this artifact looked like, and where to start searching for it. Henry would know the answer to the first question - and Stark would have known too, a voice whispered inside his head. It was a voice he tried to drown out as much as possible, born out of guilt and other emotions that he really, really didn't want to face right now.

Box, he thought, imagining that box in his head and mentally adding a few extra strips of duct tape to seal it, but to no effect as the memories seeped back out.

No one had outright admitted that they blamed him for Nathan's death because that would have diminished Nathan's sacrifice, but Jack knew a lot of people had thought it, believing he should have been the one to die that day. Nathan Stark had been a Nobel Prize winner and joint head of Global Dynamics, with an I.Q. of a gazillion and numerous PhDs, whereas he was Jack '111' Carter, who had barely scraped through the entrance exams for the U.S. Marshals. He was just the lowly Sheriff who always managed to look like an idiot even when he saved the town - and sometimes the world - from imminent disaster.

Perhaps Eva Thorne had been right. According to her figures, the number of incidents had risen dramatically following his appointment as Eureka's Sheriff, so maybe Nathan's death had been his fault somehow. Maybe Cobb had been smarter, and had managed to control or prevent problems before they bubbled over into potentially life and universe threatening disasters, whereas his knowledge and ability to understand was too limited, leaving him only capable of reacting after everything had already gone to hell.

"Numbers don't lie," Nathan had stated.

Just as his thoughts began to spiral down into self-destructive criticism, the office door opened and a younger man poked his head round.

"Agent Carter?"

Jack stood up. "Yes."

The man stepped up to the desk with a smile and held out a hand holding a large, takeout coffee. "Agent Steve Jinks. I've been sent to give you a hand."

"Coffee!" Jack reached out, taking the coffee and moaning in appreciation after the first sip. He smiled brightly, feeling so much happier as the caffeine hit his system, and gave a heartfelt thank you. "Call me Jack."

***

"So we are looking for a... glass eye," Jack was confused and skeptical, wondering if this some sort of joke because it was a glass eye. Even the thought of it made him feel twitchy.

"Yes. Edward Page Mitchell's glass eye," Jinks repeated, nodding and smiling almost triumphantly.

"Edward Page Mitchell. A science fiction writer from... centuries ago."

"The late 1800s, according to Wikipedia."

"Okay, I'll bite. What has a glass eye got to do with a-a temporal co...herent and stabling gizmo?"

Jinks frowned but obviously decided to ignore Jack's mangled description of the artifact. "Edward Page Mitchell was the Father of Science Fiction. He published the first known time travel story, even before Helena wrote The Time Machine."

"Helena? Wait! I saw that movie with the cave creatures and-," Jack crowed but then frowned. "I thought The Time Machine was H.G. Wells."

"It's a long story."

"Yeah," Jack stated emphatically, nodding his head, "I only got through the first four chapters of the book."

Jinks frowned. "Not quite what I meant but... The point is, according to historical information, Edward Page Mitchell lost an eye in an accident and then went blind in the other eye for no reason. He regained his sight in the damaged left eye but not in the good right one. Eventually he replaced the right eye with a glass one, and while recovery from the surgery, he wrote the first of his science fiction short stories."

Jack spoke slowly. "And... now we want that magical glass eye because...?" He let the question trail off in hope of an answer.

"It's a temporal cohesion and stabilization artifact."

Which didn't tell Jack anything but Jack nodded anyway because it wouldn't be the first time he hadn't understood something sciency; he tilted his head slightly. "And artifacts are bad."

"Not always but... Yeah. Pretty much."

Jack nodded decisively. He'd heard and seen weirder things since arriving in Eureka, and as Henry once said to him, 'magic is misunderstood real... stuff', or something like that. He wasn't really paying much attention at the time.

"Okay," Jack shrugged. "So all we have to do is find the magic eye ball."

Jinks smiled hesitantly and nodded.

"So the obvious place to start looking is where he was buried in Glen Ridge, New Jersey," Jack added, "Because people tend to be buried with all their parts. Real and prosthetic. Except, I can't go to New Jersey. I have a daughter, and she's expecting me home tonight."

"Tomorrow then, Agent Carter," came the warm yet authoritative voice right behind him, and both Jack and Jinks startled. Mrs. Frederic handed them flight tickets. "And pack for more than a few days, Agents."

Jack cleared his throat. "Mrs. Frederic! Yes, tomorrow. Pack for New Jersey."

Both he and Jinks glanced at each other and when they looked back, she was gone.

"How does she do that!?" Jack exclaimed. "Does she have some invisibling device? Is she still here?" He glanced around worriedly, in case she was listening, feeling an idiot when he checked under the desk because it was unlikely he'd find her hiding there. "Or is it some time... stopping gizmo or, or a short-term memory wiper like the one Hen-." Jack paused. "Yeah, maybe I shouldn't mention..."

"You get used to it... eventually."

"Have you?" asked Jack skeptically because Jinks had startled just as much as him.

"No. Not really."

They made plans to meet up at the airport in Portland and then went their separate ways for the night.

***

"How was your first day in your new job, Jack?" S.A.R.A.H. asked as soon as he walked into the bunker a little over an hour later.

He had noticed she was more familiar with him since he lost his job as town sheriff but the alternative had been Mr. Carter until he got the letter from Homeland Security, giving him back a title of 'Agent' along with a little of his lost respect. Anyway, he figured he'd known S.A.R.A.H. long enough to dispense with the titles, plus she acted more human than some of the people in Eureka anyhow.

"It was... different." He sighed. "Look, S.A.R.A.H., I have to go away for a few days and..."

"It will be an honor to look after Zoe and Lexi in your absence."

"Yeah, not quite what I was aiming for but... thanks." He winced. "Actually, I've asked Jo to keep an eye on both of them while I'm gone."

"I could arrange a sleepover! I like it when Deputy Lupo has a sleep over. There's a new romance movie that I've been hoping to see, and the latest episode of Desperate House-."

"Yeah. That's a great idea, S.A.R.A.H.," Jack added quickly before S.A.R.A.H. started into the nonsensical plot of some chick flick movie; he took the stairs two at a time as he headed for his bedroom. "I have to go pack now. Let me know when Zoe and Lexi get home."

"It will be just you and Zoe this evening, Jack. Lexi is having dinner with Allison Blake."

For once he was glad that he'd not been invited to join them as he suspected it would all be pregnancy and baby talk.

Jack pulled out his go-bag, having never got out of the habit of keeping it ready, and added a few additional items. Zoe arrived home soon after, having finished her shift at Cafe Diem, and he joined her downstairs where S.A.R.A.H. had just finished preparing dinner for them. He really was going to miss S.A.R.A.H.'s cooking most of all when they left Eureka, even if she wasn't anywhere near as good as Vince.

Zoe sat at the end of the kitchen counter and began picking at her meal while grilling him over his first day as an agent of Homeland Security.

"So tell me about this Agent Jinks? Is he tall, dark and handsome?"

Jack swallowed hard as an image of Nathan swam in his head; he cleared his throat as he forced that image aside. "Not exactly. He looks more like the ice guy in X-Men."

Zoe's eyes lit up. "Is he single?"

Jack hated to crush her teenage hopes but, "I don't think you're his type."

"Dad, you only met him today."

"Wrong gender." Her eyes widened in realization and she sighed, shrugging in acceptance. "Anyway, I thought you had hair boy?"

"Yeah? And for how long before we have to leave Eureka?" She grumbled.

"Hey, Sweetie. I told you I'd figure out a way for you to stay here, if you wanted. Both Henry and Jo have offered to watch over you and Lexi-."

"So not the point, Dad." Zoe let her knife and fork clatter to her plate. "I want to stay here with YOU."

"I got fired, Zoe. I can't change that."

"General Mansfield was wrong to fire you."

Jack shook his head slowly. "Right or wrong, it was his call, Zoe."

She folded her arms across her chest defensively. "Well, he was wrong."

Jack smiled, looking at his beautiful, strong minded and intelligent daughter, and wondering how he'd got to be so lucky. For all the near-death experiences and weird happenings that had occurred in this town since his arrival, he would always remember Eureka as the place where he'd reconnected with his daughter... and met a man who could have become the love of his life had Jack not been so deep in denial. The thought hurt, wiping a little of the smile from his face and leaving it brittle but, fortunately, Zoe had gone back to her food by then so she never noticed.

He headed up to bed early, wanting to get in at least one good night's sleep before the possible mayhem of the next few days but, as always when he'd been thinking of him too much, Nathan came to him in his dreams. He saw again the Time Maintenance laboratory, and the cylindrical chamber where Nathan stood tall and courageous. He was wearing his best suit in preparation for his wedding; the one that fit him to perfection, accentuating his tall frame and broad shoulders and long, long legs. His hair was all dark and glossy curls, and his beard neatly trimmed. In those last few seconds as time counted down, his blue-green eyes shone brightly and Nathan lifted his face and smiled at Jack.

All the denial melted away as if Allison no longer existed between them. There was no more resentment or ridicule, or feelings of inadequacy or entitlement. Just the realization that he was about to lose something - someone - profoundly important. In his dream Nathan spoke just as always but this time he didn't say, 'See you around, Jack'. Instead, his hand reached out, palm pressed to the window and eyes bright with fear and desperation.

'Help me, Jack.'

Jack startled upright, heart racing, and gasping for breath.

"Are you all right, Jack?"

S.A.R.A.H raised the lights to around ten percent, revealing his bedroom in the bunker, and yet it still took a moment for the dream to fade. He brought his racing heart back under control, slowly his breathing, before he could answer.

"Yeah." He croaked, and cleared his dry throat. "Just a bad dream."

He rubbed his hands over his face before pushing his fingers through his short hair, forcing that deep well of despair back down where it belonged. Nathan Stark was gone. Dead. And though he knew it wasn't his fault, he had never quite managed to convince himself that Nathan couldn't have shown him how to operate that damn clock in time.

"It should have been me," he whispered into the semi-darkness of his room where only he, S.A.R.A.H. and the ghost memory of Nathan could hear him. "It should have been me."

***

Jack headed out to the airport early the next morning. It was a six hour flight so he and Jinks arrived in Newark by mid-afternoon. The flight itself had been different, with Jack realizing he had a lot in common with the other agent. They had both worked in law enforcement - Jinks as an ATF agent while Jack was in the U.S. Marshals - and they both had plenty of tales to tell of near-misses, but Jack could tell they were both holding back on the classified incidents. He didn't need to be able to read minds to see how often Jinks opened his mouth to say something before changing his mind - and the subject - and Jack had been just as bad because a lot of what had happened in Eureka had been classified. What he hadn't done was lie about any of his past, although his dad used to say that omission was still lying. Fortunately, Jinks was versed enough in the need to keep some things classified so he let Jack's 'skating the edge of the truth' comments go unchallenged.

Jack found Jinks - Steve - surprisingly easy to talk to despite the age gap between them, and he wondered whether it was because Steve was pretty open about his sexual preferences, refusing to hide the fact that he was gay. Eventually, Jack couldn't resist asking him a personal question.

"Have you ever had a-a crush on a woman?"

"No. I'm just into guys," Steve stated softly, but his eyes narrowed a fraction. "Have you ever had a crush on a guy?"

Jack opened his mouth to deny it but remained silent instead, awkwardly aware that his silence was an admission. Steve relaxed back against his seat, smiling softly.

"Tell me about him."

"He died," Jack stated flatly, clearing his throat and looking away.

"I'm sorry. Was he an agent?"

Jack released the tension in his body and shook his head slowly, realizing that he needed to talk to someone about Nathan, but he would be damned if he'd go to a psychologist like his ex-wife or Beverly Barlowe. In so many ways, Steve was not so much different from him. They understood each other in a way that the Beverly Barlowe's and Abby's of the world never could.

He smiled softly in remembrance of Nathan Stark, bane of his existence.

"He was a pain in the ass from the moment we met. Arrogant, egotistic... I swear I don't know how he managed to fit his ego into G..." Jack caught himself from revealing the existence of Global Dynamics. "We fought over everything, including..." he huffed, "...Especially over his ex-wife. A beautiful, smart woman that I thought I was in love with." Jack smiled wryly. "She chose him, but I guess it wasn't really much of a competition. He was... He looked like he'd just stepped off the front cover of G.Q. magazine. Tall, dark, handsome, successful... and clever. Really clever, like Einstein clever."

Steve rolled his eyes. "I've met a few like that. Jack, we might not be geniuses, but we have our own special skill set... and you're pretty hot for an older guy." he held up both hands. "Not my type but definitely got something."

Jack smiled shyly and glanced away from Steve, feeling a little embarrassed at the compliment from another guy.

"You want to know the worst of it?" Steve nodded, and Jack gave a self-deprecating smile because he could bet Steve already knew the answer to that question. "I didn't figure it out. What he meant to me. Not until it was too late. Not until I watched him die."

They fell silent after that, with Jack wrapped in his memories of Nathan and all the times when he'd come so close to figuring it out and breaking through the denial. It wasn't like he'd never been interested in another guy before Nathan but, admittedly, that had been in High School and a few fumbles in the locker room didn't make him gay. At least, that's what he'd always told himself.

They landed soon after and picked up a rental to take them the rest of the way to Glen Ridge. It took the best part of another hour due to traffic but they found the cemetery and made their way to the family plot where Mitchell had been laid to rest back in the 1920s.

The grave looked undisturbed.

"I have a bad feeling about this."

The coroner had been waiting for them and he looked over the paperwork one last time before nodding to the cemetery workers. Jack stood back with Steve as they quickly exhumed the body.

"You done this before?" Steve asked quietly.

"Yeah," Jack replied, "Once or twice," he replied, recalling Susan Perkins.

He shivered because he hated cemeteries. He'd gone to too many funerals over the years; friends and colleagues in law enforcement, cut down too soon, and then later in Eureka with one too many senseless deaths after arrogance overruled common sense. Sometimes there was a body, and sometimes, as with Nathan, all they had left to bury was a memory.

"You ready?" The Coroner asked, and Jack nodded, watching as they pried open the coffin lid.

Jack grimaced but he didn't need to have a medical doctorate to know the glass eye was not in the socket. Still, he had to be certain it wasn't in the coffin somewhere.

"I don't suppose it fell out and rolled..." He indicated towards the skeletal remains and sighed when he realized he was going to have to do the searching himself. "Sometimes I hate my life," he murmured, pulling on some gloves and beginning a check, but his gut feeling was that the glass eye had not been buried with the body.

Steve seemed to have a particular aversion to seeing a long-dead body but he assisted nonetheless. Eventually Jack stepped back, pulling off the strange purple gloves that Steve had handed to him. He nodded to the coroner, and moved a few feet away to give the man more room to seal the coffin and arrange for it to be replaced in the grave. Jack turned away, closed his eyes and stretched out the kinks in his back from the six hour flight, and the car drive, bringing both hands up to his head and rubbing them briskly through his short hair.

"Guess the next step is to find the will and see who might have inherited it," Steve stated.

Jack opened his eyes and froze. "Son of a-."

Steve joined him. "What is it?"

Jack pointed to a grave marker near the large Mitchell family plot. It read, 'Sleep My Angel. Beloved Wife, Mother and Daughter. Miriam Charlotte Weinbrenner. Born 1957, died 1984'.

After the time loop incident, Allison had spoken with Nathan's family but had left notifying the family of Leo Weinbrenner to Jack. The next of kin had been Weinbrenner's father because his mother had died when Leo was a young boy. Miriam Weinbrenner was Leo's mother.

"Did you know about this?" Jack turned an accusing glare at Steve.

Steve held up his hands defensively. "No. No I didn't. I've never heard of the name Weinbrenner." He paused and looked at Jack in concern. "Jack? What is it?"

"A temporal artifact," Jack murmured. "Leo had a time device," Jack realized.

***

By now it was getting late but Jack wanted to find out what the hell was going on. He recalled that all of Leo's personal belongings had been shipped to an address in Garfield, New Jersey, but hadn't made the connection even though the time loop incident was always at the back of his mind these days. Now he thought about it, he could recall seeing what he thought was a large, creepy marble among those possessions. What he couldn't remember was the street and house number.

"We need to get that address. I can call Hen-."

"On it," Steve replied, and Jack watched him take out a weird video phone and make a call. "Claudia, I need an address for the father of Doctor Leo Weinbrenner."

As soon as he heard Claudia's response, Jack nodded. "Yeah, that's it."

He checked his wristwatch and realized that it was just after six. Garfield was maybe twenty minutes away so they had time to go see Harold Weinbrenner this evening. Jack took the wheel and they drove in silence but he could feel Steve looking at him and could sense him holding back on his curiosity.

"Just say it," Jack gritted.

"Is this anything to do with the guy that died? The one you-."

"Yeah. It has everything to do with it," he replied bitterly.

A few minutes later they reached the address and Jack strode up the path to the door, hesitating a moment before ringing the door bell. It was a nice residential area, with kids riding bikes up and down the street and playing normal kids' games, unlike Eureka. The pavement had chalk drawings of silly kids' stuff like Hopscotch rather than brain-boggling math equations, and another small group of boys were huddled around playing Jacks or maybe toy soldiers. Jack couldn't tell from this distance, but it reminded him of his childhood back in Los Angeles, before he got into surfing, baseball... and sex. He waited a minute before trying the door bell again but gained no answer. His U.S. Marshal instincts told him that no one was home; something about the heaviness of still air that played on his cop instincts. He sensed movement behind him though and started to turn.

"Are you looking for Mr. Weinbrenner?"

A woman around Jack's age leaned on the fence separating the two properties, and Jack put on his most charming smile as he approached her, reaching in to pull out his Homeland Security credentials.

"Agent Jack Carter, and this is Agent Jinks. Yes, we were looking for Mr. Weinbrenner. Do you know where he is?"

"He's visiting his daughter in Maryland but he's due home tomorrow."

"I don't suppose he left you with a key?" Jack asked, smiling warmly, "To bring in the mail and papers?"

"Oh, yes, but I wouldn't feel right about handing that over to you." Jack could see she was unsettled by his request and knew he could probably persuade her to give him the key using his credentials and saying it was a security issue, but it didn't seem right. Almost three months had passed since the time loop incident so one more day wasn't going to matter.

"Sure. We can come back tomorrow."

They walked back to the car with Steve casting him confused looks. "Shouldn't be too hard breaking in," Steve murmured.

"Without a warrant?" Jack was surprised Steve would even suggest it. He had bent the rules while on fugitive hunts but Weinbrenner was just an ordinary citizen who deserved the protection of the law. "No. It's waited this long; it can wait till tomorrow."

Steve shrugged. "There's a motel about 4 miles from here."

Jack nodded. Maybe this was for the best anyway as he needed time to get his thoughts and emotions back under control, and he needed something to eat because it was a long time since breakfast. He'd forgotten how field missions played havoc with his eating habits, having gotten used to breakfast at the bunker and lunch at Cafe Diem. He could use a coffee too... and a beer, and not necessarily in that order. Seeing Weinbrenner's name had wrung him out emotionally, especially after talking about Nathan on the plane.

The motel parking lot was almost full so Jack had his suspicions long before they were confirmed at the reception desk.

"Sorry, sir, we have only the one room left, a king room, and that's only because of a late cancellation. Got a lot of people in town for the Redskins game this weekend."

Jack groaned. He'd been so busy trying to sort his life out after getting fired that he'd forgotten the football season had started; the Giants and Jets shared a stadium not far from here. He'd always preferred baseball anyway. He glanced at Steve, feeling a little uneasy at the prospect of sharing but they really had no choice unless they wanted to find another motel further out. Steve gave a nonchalant half-shrug.

"Fine. We'll take it."

Jack signed them in and accepted the key. When they reached the room and the door had closed behind them, Steve spoke up.

"Are we okay, Jack?"

"Sure. It's fine," Jack lied, and he saw Steve's face harden, knowing he'd been caught in a lie. It occurred to him that Steve might have misunderstood his reluctance to share a room - and bed - with a gay man. "Okay. No. It's not fine."

"If it's because-."

"I have nightmares. Ever since..." He threw his go-bag onto the bed in anger, shoving a hand through his hair before turning on Steve. "It should have been me! I was supposed to protect him. That was... my job." He stabbed himself in the chest with two fingers in emphasis. "And every time I close my eyes I have to relive that moment with the knowledge that I wasn't fast enough.... or smart enough to save him."

He sank down onto the edge of the bed and buried his head in his hands.

"I've lost people before but..."

"But you were in love with him."

Jack was shocked for a moment, wanting to deny but the realization hit him hard as the last of the denial slipped away.

"Yes," he whispered, finally admitting out loud that it wasn't - hadn't been - just a crush. "This case... This is so messed up... and cruel."

"I don't presume to know you, but you would have wanted to be on this case, to find the truth. To find closure."

Jack let Steve's words sink in before sighing and replying softly, "Yeah."

"So are we going to have to fight for which side of the bed...?"

Jack gave a wry smile. "Depends on if you want to sleep on the right."

"I prefer the left."

"Then, no." He rubbed at tired eyes and sighed. "We need to eat... then sleep."

Steve smiled. "There was a place about a block away."

***

Jack hurt with every breath he took, one arm wrapped around cracked ribs, but he couldn't take his eyes off Nathan. The seal had broken and someone had to manually reset time, and Nathan said he couldn't teach him this - not in the few minutes remaining. He could see Nathan's lips moving but the words were fogged in his pain-filled mind; he nodded anyway, knowing Nathan would want Allison to be cared for, and loved. Jack could feel himself detaching from the world, falling apart as if his body and mind was scattered across all the loops of this same day. He could feel the count down to zero - to 6 p.m. - in every atom of his body, with layers of memories of this one day overlapping. At 6 p.m. exactly, Nathan reset time and everything converged inside Jack even as he was hollowed out by grief and loss when Nathan dissolved into sparkles before his eyes.

A soft rumbling noise brought his focus from the silent, empty chamber to the floor, and he watched as a glass eye rolled across the laboratory floor, stopping at his feet. Ghostly fingers formed around the eye and a hand lifted it up towards him.

'Help me, Jack!"

"Nathan?"

He reached back but as their hands met, Jack saw both their fingers begin to dissolve, the sensation quickly crawling up his arm, tearing him apart molecule by molecule, and dragging him into the void between seconds in time; Jack screamed.

"Nathan!"

"Jack! Jack!"

Strong arms were holding him and the final images of the nightmare slowly faded, replaced by Steve's worried face in the low light from the bedside lamp that Steve must have switched on. Jack sagged into Steve's arms, burying his head against the other man's neck and shoulder as hands stroked his back soothingly. It took a moment longer to regain control, leaving him feeling foolish and embarrassed as he pulled back; he cleared his throat and looked away.

"Sorry. As I said... nightmares," he croaked softly, voice roughened with residual fear.

He felt slightly bereft when Steve moved away, accepting the press of a cold glass of water into his hands moments later.

"Thanks," he murmured as he sipped the water.

"Do you want to talk about it some more?"

"Yeah. No. Not really."

Jack put the glass down on the bedside table and flopped back down, hands drawn over his face for a moment before he turned onto his side, facing away from Steve. He closed his eyes and noticed the increased darkness moments later when Steve turned off his bedside lamp. Part of him wished he could accept the comfort of Steve's arms but that wasn't fair on either of them.

"Thanks, Steve," he whispered into the darkness, sensing the body next to him relax at his words.

Eventually, he fell asleep again, and didn't wake until morning.

***

"Mr. Weinbrenner, you may remember me. Jack Carter? We talked after Leo's death."

Harold Weinbrenner's eyes widened. "Oh yes, I remember. How can I help you, Sheriff Carter?"

"It's Agent Carter now. Homeland Security. Long story," Jack added quickly to forestall the question in Weinbrenner's hazel eyes. "My colleague, Agent Jinks."

"Please come in." Weinbrenner led them through a hallway into a reception room. "Take a seat."

Jack sat on the edge of the couch with Steve sitting next to him; he leaned forward.

"I sent all of your son's personal effects, but there was something among them that I need back. A glass eye."

"An eye? Oh my! You mean that strange, large marble that Leo was always so fond of? It's an eye?" The man gave a small shudder.

"Yeah, I know. Creepy."

"Well, all of Leo's belongings are still in the box in the study. I just haven't had the heart to..." Jack could see the emotion choking up the man, reminding Jack that he wasn't the only person who had lost someone he loved to the time loops. Weinbrenner had lost his son. "I'll show you."

Weinbrenner led them into a back room and pointed at the crate, hovering behind them as they went over to it. Jack could tell someone had opened it as the shipping seal was broken. He glanced over his shoulder, seeing the haggard look on the man that had to come from grief. He knew he didn't exactly look his best either. Zoe and S.A.R.A.H. had nagged him over his poor eating habits these days, and the broken sleep and nightmares most nights had also taken a toll on him. Yet, despite the bad dream that had woken him in the early hours, he had slept better last night than in the whole of the previous week, wondering if that had more to do with not sleeping alone.

However, the nightmares were getting worse over time rather than easing and, creepy though it sounded, he was starting to feel Nathan's presence even during his waking hours, as if he had followed him back from his dreams. Jack wondered if he ought to take advantage of still being in Eureka to have a quiet word with Doctor Suenos, the dream guy. Perhaps he could shed some light on it, because the alternative was seeing someone like Beverly or Abby.

"Can you tell me anything about the glass eye. Where it came from?"

Weinbrenner hummed softly, reminding Jack of Henry. "He was just a kid and if I recall correctly, he won it from the Mitchell boy who used to live down the street. After that he seemed obsessed with the damn thing; carried it with him everywhere, and called it his lucky marble. He started having all these flights of fancy about time machines and... kid's stuff." Weinbrenner smiled in remembrance. "Leo was a bona fide genius but never got over that obsession with time." He looked at Jack intently. "You said he died in a tragic lab accident but you never really explained how."

The cover story had stuck as close to the truth as possible, considering the state of the body. Allison and Henry had found the marble - the glass eye - in the charcoaled remains, barely blemished by whatever had happened to Leo. At the memorial service, Henry had mentioned to Jack that he recalled seeing Leo with a small glass orb when he knew him at NASA, calling it his lucky 'marble'.

"There not a lot more I can add, sir. A piece of equipment malfunctioned and caught fire, and he wasn't able to get out before the doors sealed to stop the fire spreading to the rest of the building. By the time it was under control..." Weinbrenner looked stricken so Jack added, "If it helps, I don't think he suffered. I think he was gone before the fire reached him."

Jack cast a glance at Steve, seeing him frown at the obvious lie, but Leo's body had been cremated and the autopsy record sealed so no one could dispute Jack's story, and if those words gave Leo's father a little comfort then where was the harm? In truth, Leo had stepped into the chamber and instead of setting everything to rights, time had looped again, leaving Leo's burned remains behind. Jack wondered if that had been an extreme version of what he'd been going through, with injuries bleeding through each loop so he started each repeated day in an ever-worsening physical condition.

Even if the time loops had gone on indefinitely, Jack knew he would not have survived much longer, and he recalled telling Nathan as much.

"Thank you," Weinbrenner whispered before turning away, leaving Jack and Steve with the large crate.

"So what was the real story," Steve asked.

"Sorry... classified," he replied as he watched Steve pull two sets of purple gloves out of his pocket, handing one pair across to Jack. "Really? I thought the gloves were because we were handling the long-dead guy in the cemetery. These are for the eye?"

"They... neutralize its properties."

"Yeah, now that's what I don't get. How can a glass eye be some sort of time gizmo? Doesn't it need to have wires and batteries?"

Steve shrugged as if he didn't know the answer to that but Jack suspected he knew far more than he was letting on. Although he hated it, Jack was used to getting only half the picture after working in Eureka, where everything seemed to be classified above his clearance level. He was sure that was Nathan's favorite phrase whenever Jack demanded anything from him.

'Sorry, Carter. Classified.'

The smug expression was always at odds with his apology, proving he really wasn't that sorry at all. Nathan had always loved being in control... of everything, and that's partially why they butted heads so often. Nathan might have dreamed of world domination, but Jack had been determined Nathan wouldn't control him.

Between them, he and Steve searched through the entire crate but the glass eye was nowhere to be found. At a loss, Jack moved to the window and looked out over the quiet street. All the kids would be at school...

"Kids."

"Jack?"

Jack motioned with his hand for a moment to think. Weinbrenner's next door neighbor had a boy's bike carelessly dropped on the front lawn, and a basketball hoop attached to the side of the house. It was a long shot but, judging by the size of the bike, the kid had to be around ten or eleven, and he would have had access to Weinbrenner's house using the key left with his mother.

"I have a hunch I know where to find it."

***

Before heading out to the school, Steve managed to use his connections to obtain everything they needed to know about the boy next door. His name was Mikey Wilkes; he was ten years old and attending a local school within walking distance of the house.

"You know the lunch bell would have sounded by now?" Jack mentioned, aware that it might make tracking down Mikey Wilkes just a little harder, but when compared to the many fugitive hunts he'd taken point on, he knew it should still be a piece of cake. At least the boy would be within the confines of the school yard.

As they pulled into a free space in the parking lot, Jack saw a strange Indigo light erupt from the playground, similar to the one that had bathed him that fateful day at Global, and he shuddered as a terrible sensation swept over him. He felt as if every molecule in his body was trying to break free. He felt a trickle of blood on his cheek, exactly where he had cut himself shaving that fateful morning, and his ribs began to ache. He felt an unnatural pressure on his internal organs as if they were being crushed.

A sudden sharp pain in his leg made him cry out.

"Jack?"

Jack recalled the concussive force of an explosion in one time loop, and the fatal injuries that had partially bled through into the next loop.

"Something's... wrong."

Ahead of them he could see the playground, and a bunch of kids slowly backing away in fear from a boy kneeling on the ground. Jack staggered from the car, his leg giving way under him as if the fractures from that nonexistent explosion had reappeared. He cried out again in pain, the sting of pain on his cheek from the shaving cut almost negligible compared to the agony ripping through him. It felt as if every blow from every alternate time line in the loop was converging upon his body.

"There!"

Jack pointed ahead of him, drawing Steve's attention to the kneeling kid, who seemed to be slowly dissolving before their eyes, just as Nathan had disappeared that day. Jack was shocked when he looked down at his hand, horrified when he realized that he was beginning to disappear too, as if his nightmare from last night was coming true.

Steve seemed to hesitate for a moment, torn between staying with Jack and going for the kid, but then he was off running, dragging another of those purple gloves and a strange bag from an inner pocket. He rushed into the playground and as darkness started to close in around him, Jack saw Steve scoop up a handful of marbles and drop the whole lot into the bag. A bright flash of light erupted from the bag, and Jack gasped as all the pain vanished instantly. The boy was back to a corporeal state - and yeah, he even knew how to spell that word now - and so was he.

Glancing down at himself, Jack felt whole and healthy for the first time since that terrible day. He pushed himself to his feet, stretching this way and that as he reveled in the release of pain that he hadn't realized he was carrying. Walking slowly into the playground, he smiled broadly at Steve's triumphant expression.

"Snag it, bag it... and all that's left is to tag it," Steve crowed, before looking Jack up and down in an unspoken question, though the relief was evident in his blue eyes.

"I'm okay. In fact. I'm better than okay. I feel great." Jack looked down at the boy. "How about you, Mikey? You okay?"

The small boy nodded. "Yes, sir."

"You know stealing is a crime," Jack admonished, deliberately putting on his hard face but he relented when Mikey looked small and scared. "Just... don't do it again," he added softly, and Mikey nodded, suitably chastised.

Jack looked at Steve and smiled. "I think our job's done here. Let's go-."

An incoming call on his cell phone interrupted him and he pulled it out of his suit's inner pocket as he and Steve made their way back to the car. It was an unknown caller I.D. but Jack decided to take it anyway.

"Go for Carter," he stated.

"Jack?"

Jack froze in place as the familiar voice washed over him - the one that haunted his dreams and nightmares - and yet it couldn't be that person.

"Who is this?"

"You know who it is, Jack."

"Nathan," he whispered.

"Surprise!" The voice sounded choked with emotion.

The cell phone fell from his numbed fingers clattering to the pavement and Jack found himself sprawled on the ground next to it with his back leaning against the car door, uncertain how he got down there because he didn't recall sitting down. His head was swimming and he was having trouble drawing breath. Steve had snatched up the cell phone and was talking while simultaneously pushing Jack's head down between his knees.

"Yeah, he's fine. Or he will be in a minute." Steve smiled at something Nathan said while staring at Jack and nodding. "Yeah. I'll tell him." Steve ended the call and sank down next to Jack. "He said he'd see you soon, Jack."

"I don't...? How...?"

A call came for Steve on the weird video phone but this time Jack could see the tiny screen. The girl looked only a few years older than Zoe but having lived in Eureka, Jack knew age often made very little difference. He guessed this was Claudia - a younger, female version of Zane Donovan judging by Steve's description of her - and that was confirmed almost immediately.

"Hey, Claudia."

"You get it?"

"Yep, snagged and bagged."

"Yes!" She punched one small fist in the air. An older man looked over her shoulder, and he looked just like Carl Carlson, but with a beard.

"You must bring it straight to the warehouse. And bring Agent Carter with you."

"Uh, sure. We'll catch the first available flight." Steve ended the call and shrugged. "Looks like you'll have to wait for explanations until we get to South Dakota."

"South Dakota?" Steve grinned and stood up, offering a hand to Jack and helping him to his feet. "No. I need to get back to Eur... home. I need to go home."

"You really think you're in a fit state to see this Nathan right now?" Steve sighed before trying another tack. "South Dakota is on the way to Oregon."

Jack closed his eyes in resignation and nodded because Steve was right. He needed answers, and he needed time to prepare himself before seeing Nathan alive and whole again. Perhaps he'd gain both at this stopping point in South Dakota.

***

"Welcome to Warehouse 13." The man who looked remarkably like Carl Carlson greeted him. "What? What is it?"

"You look like someone I..." Jack shook his head; it seemed like a day for ghosts turning up in his life but all of Artie's mannerisms were wrong. He might look like Carl but it was obvious that he wasn't the OCD scientist. Jack shook his head. It had been a long day and even though he'd managed to take a short, though interrupted nap on the plane, he still felt exhausted. "Never mind."

"Where is it?" Artie demanded impatiently, holding out a hand.

"Manners?" Claudia remarked.

"This is one of the most incredibly dangerous artifacts we've ever handled. More so than Magellan's Astrolabe as it can destroy the whole fabric of the universe. Hand it over."

Steve handed Artie the bag containing the glass eye and pulled a funny face as Artie began mumbling to himself.

"I still don't understand how...?" Jack stumbled over his question. He wanted to ask how something so small and, yes, creepy but otherwise insignificant could have caused such a major catastrophe. He wanted to know how Leo had used it to loop time? How Nathan had saved the universe yet not himself, and how it had brought Nathan back to him?

"Questions. Always questions," Artie grumbled loudly.

"Grumpy much?" Claudia admonished.

Artie sighed. "I'll answer them later once we're back at the house."

Steve shrugged at Jack, and Jack startled slightly when Claudia walked over and linked her small arm through his.

"Something to show you... Agent Jack Carter, former Sheriff of Eureka."

Jack raised both eyebrows but allowed her to lead him through a doorway onto a balcony. From all the strange things that had happened, he should have guessed that the people here knew of Eureka.

"Oh! Oh!" Jack was speechless for a moment as he gazed across the biggest warehouse he had seen in his life, leaning onto the balcony rail as if that could give him an even better view. "Is that a real pyramid?"

Jack had seen some incredible sights over the years, especially since arriving in Eureka, but this, "This is... awesome." It had to stretch back into the mountain because the building certainly hadn't looked that deep on the outside.

"Nickel tour another time. It's late, and we have guests waiting back at Leena's," Artie stated sharply, but Jack knew an order when he heard it.

Claudia shrugged and smiled, and reluctantly, Jack tore his gaze away from the incredible warehouse and followed the others back to the cars outside. A short while later, they drove up to a small town Bed & Breakfast that reminded him of Beverly Barlow's place in Eureka. He was pulling his go-bag out the truck when Steve nudged him, making him look over to where Steve was indicating.

"Tall, dark and handsome?" Steve remarked curiously.

Jack's breath caught in his throat as a tall, lean, suit-clad shadow detached from the shadows on the porch, stepping into the last of the late afternoon daylight. Peripherally, he noticed Steve gently push everyone else inside to leave Jack and Nathan alone, waiting as Nathan took the final steps down off the front porch, slowly closing the distance between them.

"Jack?"

Hearing his name was all he needed, his go-bag dropping to the ground as he covered the remaining ground between them in several long strides and pulled Nathan into a hug. He half expected Nathan to tense up and push him away but, instead, Nathan seemed to melt against him, holding onto him just as tight. He could feel Nathan's beard against his cheek, both soft and scratchy at the same time, and could feel Nathan's warm breath against his skin, slowly coming to his senses when he realized the hug had gone on far longer than was considered seemly. Embarrassed by his public show of affection, Jack started to pull back only to feel Nathan's arms grip him tighter. Nathan turned his face, capturing Jack's lips beneath his own. It was too much and yet still not enough, filling Jack with want and confusion, fear and desire, but his heart won over his head, and he kissed Nathan back just as hard and desperate.

This was Nathan Stark, beautifully alive and in his arms, just as he had fantasized a hundred times in the last few months, since believing him lost forever. Jack didn't want to let go just in case it was another dream or nightmare, afraid to watch Nathan fade away into sparkles of light once more while he could only stand by and watch uselessly.

The sound of someone clearing their throat made them spring apart, and Jack flushed with embarrassment as Mrs. Frederic stared hard at them both, yet he could see a twinkle in her eye and the slightest curve of her lips that implied she approved.

"Gentlemen."

Nathan cleared his throat.

"Mrs. Frederic, I believe you promised me... us... an explanation," Nathan stated with no sound of embarrassment coloring his voice.

This was the voice of the Nathan Stark, Director of Global Dynamics, who had stared down Generals and Senators, and who demanded answers and usually got them, though Jack suspected he might have met his match with Mrs. Frederic. A smile hovered over her lips as if she had read Jack's mind.

"Then you'd better come inside," she replied.

Jack was surprised when Nathan took his hand, refusing to let go. He did allow Jack to make a short detour to pick up his go-bag before they followed her inside to where the others were bickering around a large table. Jack caught Steve's eye, noticing the way those eyes fell to where Nathan still clasped Jack's hand tightly, and he felt his cheeks warm even more at Steve's knowing smile.

"Tell me about Leo Weinbrenner's time equations, Doctor Stark?" Mrs. Frederic asked.

This time it was Nathan who looked confused. "The work was brilliant, building on the quantum equations created by Walter Perkins... and yet flawed. There were inaccuracies which should have made it impossible for Weinbrenner to freeze a single photon in time."

"And yet he managed it." Her eyes narrowed. "I was impressed by your solution, Doctor Stark, and by your sacrifice. You saved this universe." Her eyes turned to Jack, "With Agent Carter's help."

Nathan took a breath. "I still don't understand how-."

"Artifacts come in all shapes and sizes. Some are man-made, while others are the twisted limbs of a living entity from before the birth of this known universe." From Nathan's expression Jack wondered if she was talking of the once living fossil still housed in Section 5 - the artifact that had affected Carl Carlson and had almost killed Nathan and Kevin.

"Some are the size of pyramids." She directed a knowing smile to Jack, reminding him of what he had seen inside that Aladdin's Cave of a Warehouse. "While others could balance on the tip of your finger, or sit comfortably in the palm of your hand." He wondered if she was referring to the paperweight that had glowed a bright blue as soon as he touched it.

Suddenly Jack understood and felt slightly sick. "Or in an eye socket." He looked at Nathan. "Eva Thorne gave Allison a list of redactions that morning, and I offered to deal with it. Leo's name was on the list." Jack shrugged. "He must have been desperate to make his experiment work before he lost everything, so desperate he used the artifact... the Glass Eye."

Mrs. Frederic nodded in approval.

"Edward Page Mitchell's Glass Eye, to be precise," Artie added. "A temporal cohesion and stabilization artifact."

"Yeah, now that's what I don't get because I don't recall seeing any cohesioning or stabilizing," Jack stated.

"Yes, he said cohesioning," Nathan gave a smug look.

Jack shot him a slightly annoyed look in return. "The point is, it didn't stabilize anything. It un-stabilized things."

Nathan twitched his lips but refrained from mocking another of Jack's made-up words; instead he shrugged. "He has a point."

"Every artifact has its downside," Mrs. Frederic replied. "In this case the artifact stabilized the photon but destabilized the rest of the universe. Doctor Stark's valiant effort managed to switch that around, stabilizing the universe outside of the chamber. Except for you, Agent Carter, because you were already under the direct influence of the artifact."

"The strange purple light," he realized, and saw Mrs. Frederic nod. "I saw it engulf the kids in the playground."

"Yes, and once Agent Jinks had neutralized the artifact, the effects of that light, of the artifact, dissipated." She looked from one to the other. "For both of you."

"But not for Leo," Jack added bitterly.

"No."

It was still a lot to take in and Nathan looked as if he had a load more questions but, for once, he kept silent. His hand tightened on Jack's reminding Jack that he was still holding onto him, which seemed very un-Stark-like. Usually Nathan exuded confidence and independence, and Jack couldn't recall a single time when he had seen Nathan holding anyone's hand for comfort, not even Allison's.

A beautiful woman called Leena approached them, smiling warmly. "You're exhausted. Let me show you to your room, Agent Carter-."

"Jack," he stated abruptly. "Please... call me Jack."

Her smile widened and she nodded. "Let me show you to your room, Jack, so you can freshen up before dinner."

Nathan let go of him reluctantly, and Jack felt those green-blue eyes burning a hole in his back as he followed Leena up the stairs to a comfortable room with a bed large enough for two to share. He needed a shower and a shave - though on a psychological more than a physical level as he wasn't exactly grimy or disheveled. He simply felt like he needed to wash away the last echoes of the artifact's effect on his body, and from the hours of traveling on a busy flight filled with crying kids and noise that had disturbed his one attempt to sleep. The problem was that he also needed to be close to Nathan, just to be sure the man wasn't going to disappear on him again, so he made it a quick shower and changed into more comfortable clothes of jeans and a old and comfortable, soft t-shirt.

Fortunately no one remarked at him dressing down for dinner as the others were dressed just as casually. Even Nathan had taken advantage of the wait for dinner to change into casual clothing, and Jack felt his heart speed up at the gorgeous sight. Two additional Warehouse agents - Pete and Myka - joined them, and Jack enjoyed the banter around the table as they talked of some of the weirder and funnier artifacts they had dealt with over the years. He laughed as they all started bickering with each other, though it was good-natured, feeling the tension from the last few months ease away with the sound of Nathan's deep yet soft voice arguing happily.

Every now and then he would catch Nathan watching him, feeling an unaccustomed shyness steal over him, and once the meal was over, Jack wasn't surprised when Nathan pulled him aside.

"We need to talk."

Jack swallowed hard. "About?"

"In private."

Jack bade good night to everyone even though it was only mid-evening, gaining another secret smile from Steve and a 'thumbs up' from Claudia. It was a little unsettling as it was obvious that Nathan was heading upstairs with him. Inside his guest bedroom, Jack offered the chair to Nathan but Nathan ignored it, stepping into Jack's personal space and cradling the back of Jack's head in one hand. He leaned in but Jack twisted away, putting a little distance between them.

"Jack?"

Jack rubbed the back of his own head, confused as he looked hard at Nathan.

"What are we doing, Nathan? You have Allison waiting for you."

"No. Seems the universe didn't want me to marry Allison," he almost sing-songed quietly, with a half-smile that disappeared just as quickly as it appeared. He took one step closer. "Jack, I wasn't... unaware of time passing while I was gone. I was connected to you. I saw everyone else move on. Saw them mourn for me, yes, but they accepted I was gone. All except you. You pushed at Henry, at Fargo and Zane for answers long after they had given up on me. You had S.A.R.A.H. combing through papers on Quantum and Temporal physics that you couldn't understand, but you'd bring them to Henry's attention, ignoring the pity in his eyes."

"If you weren't... gone, then you also know Allison's pregnant with your child."

"Yes, and I want to be a father to my child." He shook his head slowly, "But not a husband to Allison." Nathan smiled bitterly. "If this has shown me one thing, it's that Allison and I were fooling ourselves into believing we could make it work when nothing had changed between us. She deserves better."

Jack shook his head in disbelief because Nathan had fought so hard to win Allison back, but he couldn't help admitting, "Yeah. She does."

Yet he knew he wasn't the one for Allison either. He still loved her but romantic desire had long since dimmed, turning to simple, platonic friendship when she chose Nathan over him. Perhaps it had always been that way, with the competition between him and Nathan misdirecting desire onto the wrong person, or away from the right person. Away from a person he believed to be even more unobtainable than the beautiful Allison Blake; the person he knew he truly loved.

Nathan.

Strange as it seemed, he'd never felt an overwhelming passion for Allison even in the beginning, and his dreams of Allison had always seemed more like reliving memories, filled with complacency rather than contentment, like those last years with Abby just before everything turned sour between them. In contrast, his dreams of Nathan had always been filled with passion, with want and desire and need. His encounters with him in the real world, though aggravating on most occasions, had still left him feeling more alive than at any moment spent with Allison or Abby.

Only a day ago he had finally admitted out loud that he'd fallen in love with Nathan at some point, but now he wondered if he'd always been in love with him, from the moment they first met.

Nathan reached for him again and this time he took Jack's silence for consent, pressing his lips against Jack's in a soft, tentative kiss. He gave a soft moan, almost a sob, when Jack finally reciprocated, drawing Nathan closer and deepening the kiss. Passion flared between them as the last of Jack's doubts faded away, barely even aware of them pulling at each other's clothing in near-desperation to be skin to skin.

Somehow they ended up naked, with Jack sprawled on his back across the bed with Nathan half on top of him. His whole body seemed on fire with Nathan's hands everywhere; touching and caressing, stoking the flame that burned deep inside him, fueled by a passion that he'd never felt for anyone before Nathan, not even for Abby. He felt Nathan's large hand wrap around both of their hard cocks, and he thrust into the tight circle of fingers and palm, against Nathan, with each stroke pushing him higher until everything whitened out with intense pleasure. When he came back to his senses, he felt hot, unsteady breaths panting against his throat matching the rapid rise and fall of Nathan's chest against his body. Jack let his head loll on the pillow until his lips were pressed against Nathan's forehead, tasting the salty beads of perspiration.

"You okay?" Nathan asked and Jack smiled wildly because he was better than okay; he felt amazing.

"Yeah."

He wrapped his arms tighter around the man sprawled partially across him, not wanting either of them to move; almost wishing they could stay like this forever, frozen like that photon in the Time Chamber. Eventually he had to stretch out, slightly dislodging Nathan in the process, and feeling bereft when Nathan rolled off onto his back. Jack pushed up onto one side and leaned over Nathan, unable to stop smiling especially when he saw Nathan was looking just as satisfied as him.

He leaned down and brushed Nathan's lips softly with a kiss full of promises, content when it was returned in full.

***

Epilogue:

Jack checked himself over in the mirror. He hadn't expected to miss the Sheriff's uniform so much - or the job really - but it felt great to be back. He had considered becoming a Warehouse Agent but Mrs. Frederic said he and Nathan were already fulfilling important roles by managing the madhouse that was Eureka.

For some reason she had insisted on taking his prize baseball bat, the one he'd damaged when he beat the hell out of S.A.R.A.H.'s fusion, or was it fission reactor to save Zoe. Apparently, his actions coupled with his love and fear for his daughter, and willing self-sacrifice, had created an artifact that day. According to Mrs. Frederic, it hadn't become a problem as yet but every artifact had its downside, and she thought Jack and Nathan had enough to deal with in that lunatic asylum called Eureka without adding another artifact into the mix.

"You look handsome, Sheriff Carter," S.A.R.A.H. stated softly. "As do you, Doctor Stark."

"Thank you, S.A.R.A.H.," Nathan replied as he finished straightening his tie. He smiled at Jack's reflection in the bedroom mirror.

Jack smiled back at him. He had no idea how Mrs. Frederic had managed to get both of them reinstated, but today was their first day back, with Nathan taking over as joint Director of Global Dynamics with Allison, while Jack was Sheriff once more. The only person she hadn't managed to reinstate was Jo as the D.O.D. had insisted on Sheriff Andy becoming Jack's deputy in her place. However, Nathan had offered Jo a far better position as Head of Security at Global, and that suited Jack just fine. He and Jo would finally be equals, and still be able to work together.

It was amazing how everything else had simply fallen into place, with no one even slightly surprised when the recently resurrected Nathan Stark moved in with Jack, Zoe and Lexi rather than with Allison. It was actually embarrassing that the whole town had known they were in love with each other long before either of them had figured it out, but Jack was used to having his dignity wounded in this town. He smiled because it would be a totally new concept for Nathan to grasp.

"Idiot by association," Nathan murmured when Jack casually mentioned this to him, but the warmth in his eyes took away any sting from his words.

"Yeah, and I'm your idiot. Just remember that."

Nathan wrapped his arms around Jack from behind, hands sliding under the uniform shirt to rub over Jack's chest. He nuzzled Jack's neck and cheek, finally drawing him around far enough to kiss him.

"Don't plan to forget." He kissed Jack deeply once more before letting go of him with a soft moan of regret; Nathan headed for the door. "See you later, Jack."

Jack smiled brightly because he knew, this time, he would see Nathan again.

END

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