Actions

Work Header

Not The End of the World

Work Text:

Gorgeous Artwork by CLEX

The rain had held off until the evening, coming down harder as he started up his faithful Jeep Cherokee and headed out of town with a tired but happy Zoe in the passenger seat. He was glad she had come home even if it was only for a few, admittedly hellish days.

"High beams, moron!"

Shock rippled through him as they passed the other car coming in the opposite direction, recognizing his younger self from five years earlier as the driver. He caught sight of a fifteen-year-old Zoe's shocked expression from the back seat, matching the one that was now on the older Zoe's face. Jack plastered on a grin, hearing Zoe's laughter as she recalled how shocked and creeped out she had been that day, just before Lojack ran across the road causing the accident that brought them to Eureka. She had never mentioned that first time warp incident after the initial wig out and Jack had forgotten about it over the years.

"Deal with that tomorrow," he said nonchalantly, smiling and pretending it was nothing to worry about, and for once she didn't see through the lie. However, Jack knew he would be contacting Henry as soon as he had dropped Zoe off at the airport in Portland and was back at the Sheriff's office. After all the zany things he had witnessed in this town, and after experiencing a day filled with bisecting wormholes where he had seen his own weird flashback of his time in Eureka, complete with things that had never happened to his knowledge, nothing felt inconsequential any more.

He hadn't discussed it with anyone else yet, but some of those flashback moments from his life were seriously wrong.

What he didn't realize then was that this was the beginning of the end of the world... or the end of the beginning of the end of the world... or maybe it had just been the first noticeable sign of the coming apocalypse. All this temporal stuff confused him, but the one certainty was that in a town like Eureka, where they dealt with the craziest of things and messed with higher orders of physics without a second thought, he never anticipated that he could be the ultimate cause of the destruction of the whole universe.

****

After the celebration, and his sudden promotion to Director of Global Dynamics, Henry had simply not been able to resist heading to Global. Trevor, or rather Charles Grant had bought Eureka, saving the town and Global from being dismantled. It made sense really as aside from the military weapons, most of their innovations eventually became household products: microwaves, Velcro, to name but two.

Henry glanced around the almost empty office, having swiftly taken over without all the usual pomp, paranoia and circumstance demanded by the D.O.D. as this was Grant's show now.

He had lived through four years of a timeline where he had been the head of Global Dynamics so he knew exactly what to expect when he sat down at what was formerly Fargo's interactive desk, and activated the touch screen surface. Windows popped up displaying data from all sections and he sighed when he realized his highly restricted mailbox already had fifteen reports and a dozen video and text messages. Henry frowned when he noticed that one of the most recent messages was from Jack, sent from the Sheriff's office barely ten minutes earlier. A quick glance at the clock showed that it was after midnight. His frown deepened even though he doubted anything had happened to Zoe on the way to the airport as Jack would have phoned immediately in a panic if that had been the case, rather than left a message. He drummed his fingers on the desktop as he debated on whether or not to open the message but Jack would have waited until tomorrow if it was just a personal call, which meant this was work related.

Henry shook his head and smiled, "And you accuse the rest of us of being workaholics," he murmured as he selected it, wondering what could be more important to Jack than heading straight home to Allison.

"Hey Henry, you know my first day in Eureka, before the car crash? Did I ever mention that Zoe claimed to have seen us... as in me and Zoe... or at least another me and Zoe, driving past in the opposite direction? Well... It kind of just happened, while I was taking Zoe to the airport earlier, just inside the town limits." Jack looked to the side as if something had momentarily distracted him. Probably a noise outside, Henry thought, but he saw Jack turn back to the screen. "Anyway, with all these wormholes and time... stuff... I thought I'd mention it. See you tomorrow..." His eyes drifted towards the clock in the Sheriff's Office. "Crap! Is that the time? Allison's going to kill me."

Henry couldn't resist a chuckle at Jack's completely unprofessional signing-off technique but his smile faded as he began to replay the message in his head, almost missing Jack's soft, "By the way... congratulations, Henry."

"And you too, my friend," he replied softly, recalling Allison's good news earlier, of being pregnant.

The window darkened as the message ended but Henry continued to stare at the screen, lost in thoughts of temporal shifts, wormholes, exotic particles and time looping in on itself. This had happened once before, when he had tried to change the past to save Kim, with those past events intruding on the present. He sighed, holding the memories of those lost years close to his heart, aware that he had erased - or at least blocked - the memories of that timeline from the only other living person who had experienced those years with him - Jack - which was why Jack had not understood the significance of what had happened to him and Zoe tonight.

I blame you!

His memories resurfaced as he recalled the bitterness of losing Kim, and how he had blamed Jack even though none of it had been Jack's fault. Jack had done what needed to be done in order to save the universe and both of them had lost everything they had held dear in the process. In the reinstated timeline, Nathan had not been redacted from Eureka following Kim's death, and after the incident with Fargo and the personal force field, he had turned down an offer to work for his billionaire cousin in Stark Industries' San Francisco office. Instead Jack had seen his future with Allison fall to pieces as she fell back in love with Nathan, and accepted Nathan's second marriage proposal.

Nathan had died within months of Kim's death, and even now Henry was unsure who had been more devastated by the loss - Allison, or Jack.

There were still times when Henry regretted taking away Jack's memories, wishing he'd had someone else who remembered those four happy years, but he knew deep down that he had shown Jack more compassion than he had shown for himself. By erasing his memories, Jack no longer faced the pain of knowing Nathan would still be alive if he had resigned from Global and left Eureka, rather than accepting a lesser position. And at least Henry had spared Jack the loss of remembering Allison heavy with his child, just days away from seeing his son born.

Yet, other than Nathan's death, the only major difference between those two particular timelines had been the addition of Nathan's daughter, Jenna. In both timelines Jack had waited for Allison to get over Nathan, not wanting to be a rebound, before he found a way to win her heart. It had simply taken a little longer in this current timeline as they dealt with the double blow of Nathan's death and Jenna's birth.

Perhaps it was a kind of universal balance but Henry felt so fortunate to find love not once but twice in his lifetime, amazed at the heart's capacity to love both Kim and Grace with equal ferocity, yet knowing he might never have felt this depth of love for Grace if Kim had lived. Until this moment, Henry truly believed the universe had righted itself for Jack too, recalling Jack's boyish excitement earlier today when he related Allison's news. Not only had the universe given him Allison eventually, but it had also given him back that lost child - or so it had seemed only a few hours ago.

"I thought this timeline was stable," Henry murmured.

Grant had changed the future when he stole Jack's cell phone back in 1947 and used it to transport himself forward in time. Unlike before, where time had started to erode after only a few years, it had remained stable for the past sixty-plus years. Henry had truly believed the universe-threatening problems that had existed in that other timeline with Kim had been largely overcome, with the universe smoothing over the differences since 1947 like an ocean absorbing a single drop of rain.

Now he knew he was wrong, just as he'd been wrong to try to save Kim.

He knew he would have to run more tests to be certain but, in his heart, Henry already knew that this was the beginning of the end. The past and present would begin colliding more and more frequently until the universe collapsed in upon itself and then exploded in a new Big Bang. Everything would come to an end, simply ceasing to exist, and the only way to stop it was to turn back time - to undo what they had done when they traveled back to 1947. Yet, just by being there they had changed everything: they had been seen, they had talked to people, and in Allison's case, even saved a life, so the only way to turn time back on itself was to stop them all from traveling back to 1947 in the first place.

He thought of the small group that had traveled with him to 1947 and back again. So much would be lost for all of them but he could see no alternative.

Henry sighed and dropped his forehead into the palm of his hand, trying to massage away the headache that was building behind his eyes. Of all of them, Jo had lost the most following that fateful journey into the past and had only just managed to get back to where she had once stood with Zane, with a promise of marriage. The rest of them might not fare as well if everything was reset once more.

He thought of Allison returning from 1947 to discover Kevin was not autistic in this timeline, aware that by resetting time, Kevin would no longer be that bright, normal teenager who adored his step-father, Jack. Fargo had found love with Holly Marten, but Henry knew they might never meet in the old timeline, or Doug might lose her to his rival, Isaac Parish. Grant had stepped into a bright future away from the early post-war years and built a small but powerful empire, rather than be a footnote in history as an extraordinary scientist who had never achieved his full potential, dying too soon. Henry didn't want to think about his own life, aware that he and Grace would be strangers once more. He would have to court her anew while all the recent memories of their life as husband and wife mocked him. At least he knew she existed as he had met her just before the time incident.

And then there was Jack.

Playing with time was always problematic, holding the terrifying power to create alternate timelines, loops, wormholes and paradoxes that could unravel the whole structure of this universe. And there lie the paradox as to stop them from being transported back in time, someone HAD to go back to that Founder's Day. Someone had to prevent Kevin from fixing and switching on Grant's temporal bridge device, and it couldn't be Jack this time around. He couldn't ask his friend to sacrifice his current future with Allison, Zoe, Kevin, Jenna and his unborn child again, even if Jack wasn't aware that it would be a second time around.

Jack was his best friend. A true friend; standing by him through the good times and bad, and doing everything in his power to bring Henry home after he was arrested for both the Global lock down and unintentionally aiding Beverly Barlowe in her escape. Henry rubbed his hand across his tired eyes as he recalled those weeks in prison when Jack had visited him as often as he could, and Henry was so grateful for the loyalty and friendship that he felt he had never truly deserved after the way he treated Jack following Kim's death.

Having seen it once, Henry couldn't bear the thought of seeing that depth of pain in Jack's eyes again, from knowing what could have been. Instead, Henry steeled himself, knowing that he would have to do this alone this time, and he couldn't tell any of the others because it simply would not be fair on them to learn that their lives were about to be reset, right when they thought they had everything figured out.

Especially Jack.

No, it was better if Jack was simply reset in time like everyone else.

The only consolation was that Henry would be the only one who knew exactly what each of them had lost or gained, and he alone would have to live with the consequences, just like before. Sadly, he had learned from the other two timelines that things didn't always work out the way they hoped. Instead he had to believe that everything would work out the way it was supposed to be, even if that meant Jack and Allison never got together, and even if it meant living through the loss of Nathan for a second time. More than ever, he knew he would have to have faith that something good would come out of the realigned future, even though at times like this, it did seem as if the whole universe was plotting against them.

With the thought of sleeping now far from his mind, Henry set his plan in motion. He headed down to the Time Maintenance laboratory, where he had stored Grant's bridge device, and began the work of rebuilding it from the schematics found in the old archives.

"Henry?"

Henry glanced up sharply to find Jack standing just inside the door, having lost all track of time while he worked.

"Jack!" He offered a smile, pleased to see his friend even though he was worried that Jack would figure out that something was going on beyond Henry's single-minded pursuit of science.

"Grace said you didn't go home last night. I figured it had to be something important to keep you away... so I brought breakfast." He held up a large bag and a recyclable tray holding two Vinspressos, while a warm grin lit up his often too solemn face.

"You, my friend, are a life saver," Henry remarked as he indicated towards the table against the wall on one side of the room.

Jack set down the bag and handed over one of the coffees before pulling out two of Vincent's breakfast specials. He pushed up to sit on the table, legs dangling like a five-year-old as Henry took the only lab stool, smiling indulgently as Henry took his first bite. Vincent had excelled as always.

"This is good. Thank you, Jack."

Jack looked around, his grin fading. "I haven't been back here since..."

"Since Nathan died," Henry finished solemnly when Jack trailed off. One of the first things Henry had checked when they arrived in a changed timeline from 1947 was what had happened to Nathan. Part of him had hoped that, just like in the Kim timeline, Nathan had left Eureka but instead the events had mirrored the original timeline. Except after Nathan's death and Eva Thorne's disappearance, Allison had stepped down as the Head of Global, preferring to take up the slightly less stressful Director of Medical Research post, and the D.O.D. had appointed Fargo in her place.

Henry took one last bite. "So what else brings you down here?"

"Last night, I left you a message."

"Yes. I saw it."

"And now you're here." Jack gave a deliberate glance around the Time Maintenance lab, and Henry sighed. Jack was far more intuitive and intelligent than most gave him credit for, especially after learning his official I.Q. level. It lulled them into a false sense of superiority around Jack, not seeing him as a threat until it was too late.

Henry smiled. "All this talk of time anomalies gave me an idea." He swept into a detailed scientific diatribe that had Jack's eyes glazing over in confusion and bemusement, well aware that Jack wouldn't understand a word of it. Part of him felt guilty for the subterfuge but at least it meant he hadn't lied to his friend.

Eventually Jack held up a hand. "I didn't understand any of that. Okay maybe one or two words, and none of those sounded good." His face became serious. "I thought we'd agreed never to meddle with time after what happened to Nathan."

Henry reached out and squeezed Jack's shoulder. "And I won't." Which was a half-truth because he had no plans to meddle with time, simply reset it back onto its proper course. Jack sighed and nodded, prepared to accept his word.

"Anyway. Go home soon, or Grant might try to sweep Grace off her feet now he no longer has a chance with Allison," Jack joked, and he pushed off the table, straightening his uniform before hooking a thumb over his shoulder. "I got to go now. Sheriffing to do."

Henry grinned. "You are aware that isn't a real word?"

Jack grinned. "Hey! It's a living language so who's to say it can't be from now on?"

Henry pointed a finger at him. "True."

He waited until Jack had left before turning back to the bridge device, his smile fading. Jack hadn't mentioned any more incidents but Henry knew it was just a matter of time. Despite his assurances to Jack, he spent another two days preparing the device in secret for fear that Grant would stop him if he learned of Henry's true intention; just as Henry had tried to stop Jack and Nathan from resetting the timeline that had given him those four wonderful years with Kim.

By the end of the third day, the collision of past and present became apparent to everyone - and not just in Eureka. The world had begun to fall apart around them, and only the knowledge that he was going to fix it stopped Henry from falling to pieces too, especially when he witnessed Zane and Jo ripped away from them in a tornado that struck Global out of nowhere. Jack's anguished cry, and their screams of agony as they were torn apart, limb from limb, echoed in his mind as he raced to the elevator, needing to get back Time Maintenance lab to finish what he had started.

Jack tried to follow, and Henry could only watch in shock and despair as Global's ceiling collapse on top of his best friend, burying him under tons of debris.

Almost blinded by tears, Henry made the last few adjustments and, less and hour later, the device was ready. He flicked the switch just as the ground beneath him began to crack apart, wishing he'd been granted one last chance to say goodbye to this universe's version of Grace and Jack.

****

The world seem to shudder around him, and Henry blinked rapidly, shaking his head in the hopes of clearing his mind.

"Henry? Did you see my message?"

Jack was leaning against the door frame of Henry's garage, with a small smile playing about his lips, and Henry couldn't help but smile back softly as he took in the handsome, relaxed man, oozing that familiar boyish charm, so alive and whole again. Jack was dressed in casual clothing for a change - jeans, pale blue t-shirt and gray hoodie - looking so different from his day-job as the town's Sheriff, and so different from the scared and bloodied Jack that Henry had watched die in another timeline less than an hour ago.

"Henry? You okay?"

"Been a little busy," Henry stated with an apologetic tone to cover his momentary lapse. "My mind's been elsewhere." He knew Jack was too perceptive at times and would pick up on something amiss, so it was far better to divert his attention with a half-truth. After all, he had been busy - saving the universe. "Why don't you tell me now?"

"It's Founder's Day," Jack emphasized. "You were going to help me escape the obligatory 1947 costume-wearing part."

"Right!" Henry pointed at him, relieved that he had at least arrived on the correct day. "Though I don't believe the Sheriff's uniform changed that much over the years anyway," he added for good measure.

"Now that's what I said," Jack replied smugly, and Henry had to shake his head, "But Allison insists, no uniform."

"Well," Henry glanced at the chronometer on his wall. "It's still early so let's take a walk down Main Street and see what's going on. Maybe I can come up with a few ideas."

Jack grinned and waited as Henry cleaned oil from his hands before they set off. He listened, caught in the pleasure of Jack's living presence as Jack chatted away obliviously about some scientific experiment that had gone haywire and left two scientists stuck up in a tree.

"Stark... used to ask if I'd saved any kittens from trees lately," he chortled, but Henry had heard the way Jack's voice cracked a little as he said Nathan's name. Nathan had been dead for almost three years in Henry's mind but right now, for this Jack, it was only months ago.

"I still miss him too," Henry stated softly as he reached out to grip Jack's shoulder, squeezing gently.

Jack eyed him warily for a moment but then sighed and patted Henry's hand. "Yeah. You know, I probably never told you this but I think we'd started to become friends towards the end, especially after Fargo and the shield, and then the whole survive Global in super lock down mode to save Allison and Kevin ordeal." Jack went very quiet, his smile fading into sadness. "His very last word was my name."

Jack's voice seemed a little choked up so Henry squeezed the shoulder beneath his fingers just a little tighter, recalling the security video footage that had played back the final moments of Nathan's existence. To anyone who knew him well, it was obvious from the look in Nathan's eyes that he knew what would happen to him and had let his true feelings for Jack show in those last few seconds of his life.

See you around, Jack.

It was probably the only time Henry had heard Nathan call him Jack instead of Carter, Sheriff, or a small number of derogatory terms that Henry had always bristled at because Jack was his best friend. He'd tried to get through to them separately, insisting they could be good friends too if they'd only put aside their petty differences. Problem was that they could both be too stubborn and pigheaded, and had seen each other as rivals for Allison's affection from their very first meeting - and that was mostly Nathan's fault. He'd always been so possessive and competitive.

As much as he liked Allison, Henry always wondered how it might have been if she hadn't come between his two friends. Certainly, the look in Nathan's eyes, fixed on Jack to the bitter end as he was erased from the time stream, revealed his regret and despair.

Henry let his hand drop from Jack's shoulder as they turned the corner onto Main Street. Knowing what to look for, he froze when he saw Kevin ahead of them in the middle of the street, playing with a device that was all too familiar to Henry now. Increasing his pace, Henry moved swiftly towards it and reached out, disconnecting the power nodule. Instantly, Kevin became agitated and distraught.

"What is it?" Jack asked, having followed him, unsuccessfully trying to console Kevin, who was trying to grab back the nodule.

"A temporal transportation device built in 1947 by Dr. Trevor Grant." Seeing Jack's blank look. "A... time machine. Grant never managed to get it to work but it looks as if Kevin may have figured it out."

"And that's... bad?"

"Yes. Very bad. You've heard of the butterfly effect?"

"Like in the movie?"

"One small change in the past can have serious repercussions in the future, creating paradoxes and cascading failures in the time-space continuum until the universe itself implodes."

Henry noticed Jack's jaw tense and twitch. "Seems like anything meddling with time is bad."

Henry knew Jack was thinking about Nathan again, and how accelerating that one photon to re-synchronize it with the present had deleted Nathan from the time stream from that point onwards. Only now, when he was no longer wrapped up in his own grief, could Henry see the despair filling Jack's eyes whenever he thought of Nathan, no matter which timeline they inhabited. With sudden clarity, Henry knew that it hadn't just been Allison who had needed time to get over losing Nathan, and he wondered if Jack had ever acknowledged, even to himself, how much he had loved and respected Nathan too, perhaps even been in love with Nathan.

The thought hit him like a cold shower, chilling him to the core of his being because it explained so much.

"I'm so sorry, Jack. I never realized..." He let the words trail off as Jack turned to him in confusion, realizing that denial was a pretty effective way to protect the mind from a tragedy that would otherwise be too hard to bear. He wished he could have had the same luxury after losing Kim. Perhaps he wouldn't have made the mistake of pushing Jack away, blaming him for losing Kim not once but twice.

Henry turned back to the bridge device. For good measure, he removed a few more essential parts, wanting to take no chance of it being activated. He spent the rest of the day feeling nervous as he recalled his own words about the butterfly effect, but as midnight rolled by, Henry began to breathe a little easier. Founder's Day had gone by without further incident and Henry had managed to survive his first encounter with Grace with his heart intact. He'd felt his chest hurt when she looked at him as if he was a stranger, but this was the sacrifice he'd chosen to make in order to save the universe.

At least her smile had given him hope for the future.

****

Two Years Later

Jack leaned in the doorway of Henry's garage and watched his friend working, waiting for Henry to notice him. Over these last two years Henry had seemed so sad, as if he had suffered too many losses in too short a time. It was confusing, especially when Jack recalled seeing the conflicting pain and joy in Henry's eyes when he saw Zane and Jo walking hand-in-hand together, or when he saw Allison struggling with Kevin and Jenna. Or when he saw Jack sitting alone in Café Diem.

Henry turned and sent a soft smile in his direction, dark eyes filled with pleasure and pain as always.

"Hey, Jack. Did Zoe get off without a problem?"

"Yeah. Her flight was on time." He moved further into the workroom and picked up an item from on top of the bench, turning it over in his hands while he tried to figure out what it was. Henry reached out and took it from him, smiling almost paternally.

"You really don't want to switch that on by mistake," Henry admonished before cocking his head a little to side. "You sure everything's all right?"

Jack shrugged and looked away. "House is going to seem empty without her."

He heard Henry give a heavy sigh. "She was only home for the weekend, Jack."

"Yeah." He stretched out the word, "I know, but it seemed a lot longer... in a good way."

Jack could read regret in Henry's eyes again, and he wished his friend would share whatever it was that had left him so sad over these past years. After all, it wasn't as if Grace had been the one to string Henry along for weeks after he proposed before admitting that she simply couldn't go through with marrying him - the way Allison had with Jack. Deep down, Jack understood why, and he wondered how he had ever thought he could fit into her life without a double-PhD in something. She hadn't even mentioned their engagement to her family, and he couldn't help but feel that it was because she was ashamed of his average intelligence in a town filled with her pick of super-geniuses.

At least he no longer had to live in dread of the Blake Christmas gathering of double and triple doctorates, the same way he had dreaded Abby's social functions. Stark had smirked but Death by Dull had been the understatement of the year. There had a been a few occasions when he would have gladly taken another bullet in the gut rather than spend another hour in a room filled with people treating him like a nonentity or today's social-psychological experiment. Abby and her psychologist-psychiatrist-whatever colleagues were the reason why he avoided shrinks even when ordered after particularly harrowing cases - and even after being shot.

Maybe the break up with Allison had been for the best anyway as Jack had felt more relieved than devastated, which he was sure wasn't the right reaction. If anything, until she walked away he'd felt almost obligated to be with her, unaware until then that he was fulfilling a promise to take care of her and Kevin; a promise made to his arch-rival for her affections all those years ago.

A promise made to a dead man.

He knew it would never have worked out between him and Allison. He winced. Okay, maybe it would have worked for a time, the same way he and Abby had managed to stick with each other through a decade of marriage. Except Abby had become pregnant with his child, and as both of them had been determined to make it work for their daughter's sake, she had forced him to give up a job he loved out of obligation. Taking a desk job had been a short-lived mistake, and eventually he had found more and more reasons to stay away from home, burying himself in his job rather than trying to save their unhappy marriage. He'd hurt Abby - and Zoe too - and had never found it in his heart to blame Abby for looking outside of their failing marriage for the companionship she needed despite her own feelings of guilt for betraying him.

He forced his mind away from morbid thoughts of failed relationships.

"Weirdest thing though," he stated almost nonchalantly, toying with another gizmo on the bench, and smiling when Henry pulled that out of reach too. "Just before we hit the outskirts of town, I swear we saw another version of me and Zoe heading into Eureka. Difficult to tell in the rain but Zoe always swore blind that she'd seen us leaving the town that first day we arrived, before the whole Lojack and running off the road crash thing."

He looked up and frowned when he noticed Henry had paled.

"You okay?" Jack reached for him but Henry stepped back, waving a hand absently at him.

"I'm fine. I'm..." Jack watched as Henry gathered himself together. "Okay, I'm not fine. Jack... We may have a problem."

By the time Henry finished, Jack's head was reeling, but at least he now understood why Henry's eyes had held so much regret and sadness over the past two years.

"Jack, I know I was wrong to say nothing but I'd hoped... I don't know what to do. I thought preventing everyone from going back to 1947 would put everything back the way it should have been... and I was wrong."

"What can we expect? Something similar to when... Stark died?" Jack asked.

"No. This isn't a time loop as such. This is events in different timelines colliding... past and present... breaking all the laws of physics until the universe as we know it can no longer withstand the stress and collapses in upon itself..."

"And then explodes. Destroying everything," Jack finished, finally understanding. "The Big Bang. I remember you, Zane and... Stark talking about it when you were running that Big Bang experiment several years back. Stark thought the Big Bang was an end of one universe and the beginning of a new one."

Jack's cell phone rang, breaking the ominous silence that had followed his remembrance, and he flipped it open. "Go for Carter."

"Carter!" It was Jo. "We've got problems..."

He listened in growing concern, flicking his eyes towards Henry.

"I'm on my way." He snapped shut the cell phone and looked to Henry. "Looks like its already happening." He took a step forward. "Henry? You've got to figure out a way to stop this."

Henry shook his head. "I don't know what to do."

"Jo is with Zane at Café Diem... and my old jeep just crashed through the roof. The one I lost when all the gravity switched off? People are hurt, Henry."

Henry shook his head, and Jack had never seen him so frightened.

"Look. I'll head to Café Diem, and I'll send Zane over to you, and Fargo if I can find him... to help you figure this out."

Jack rushed away, sparing Henry one last look. He was almost at the Sheriff's office when that huge laser missile thing from years before just appeared in front of him out of nowhere. Jack slammed on the brakes, but still smashed into it at only a slightly reduced speed from that first time around. The air bags deployed as his body continued forward, caught between the restraining seat belt and the air bag inflating from the steering wheel. He felt the bite of the seat belt across his chest and shoulder, jerking his body, and felt the pain of the bag hitting his face even as it cushioned the blow. A scream of crushing plastic and metal echoed around him as the vehicle's body work gave way at the crumple zones, protecting him by absorbing even more of the impact.

Shocked and dazed, he batted at the deflating air bag, pushing it away from his face, but noticing the droplets of blood splatter bright red against the white of the bag.

"Crap," he groaned, letting his head fall back against the seat's head restraint that had stopped him getting whiplash. He fumbled for the door handle and shoved his shoulder against the door when it didn't open smoothly, and stumbled out of the jeep, falling flat on his face. Looking up he could see a blur of a tan uniform rushing towards him.

"Carter!"

"Hey, Jo."

She helped him to his feet and half-dragged him towards the Sheriff's Office, reminding him that she had a lot of strength for someone so small compared to him.

"I've had reports of other disturbances. Cars and people appearing out of nowhere... and there's an extra moon in the sky."

She helped him into his seat, and only then did he notice the streaks of blood and dust on her uniform and in her hair. Jack cradled his sore face in one hand.

"Henry's working on it..." He looked around "Where's Zane? I told Henry I'd send Zane and Fargo over, to give him a hand."

"Zane went back to Global as soon as it happened, thinking it was some experiment gone haywire. He'll be in Section Five by now. No comms."

"Then we need to get up there. Now."

"How many fingers?"

Jack tried to focus on the moving pink blobs and took a lucky guess. "Three," because Jo always held up three fingers. She frowned.

"Fine. Let's go, Carter."

She helped him into the passenger seat of her car and took off at speed. Jack considered mentioning that he'd just crashed into a previously nonexistent missile in the middle of Main Street, but stopped when he spotted the large tree that had come down in the storm last year, and protruding from inside it, with just his head and one arm and a leg showing, was what remained of Seth. Just ahead was Henry's garage and Jack made a decision.

"Drop me at Henry's then go find Zane and Fargo. We'll meet you at Global."

"Carter-."

"Jo," he pleaded, and saw reluctant agreement.

He staggered from the car, cradling his ribs, and the car moved off as soon as he slammed the door behind him, picking up speed. Jack made it back into Henry's garage, surprised when instead of working, Henry was sitting with his back propped up against the bench, head in hands.

"Henry?"

Henry looked up, and Jack could read the devastation in his eyes. "Jack. I can't fix this because I don't know what went wrong. I don't even know WHEN went wrong."

Jack dropped down beside him carefully, nursing his ribs.

"When Weinbrenner was trying to fix the time loop, he went back to the same moment over and over, giving himself time to try to figure it out. Can't you do the same? Go back those two years again and work on it some more? Give yourself time?"

Henry pulled up straight while Jack was talking, and Jack recognized that look on his face.

"Oh God," Henry murmured, and pushed to his feet. "You're a genius, Jack."

Jack blinked in confusion and tried to stand too, moaning as a wave of pain overtook him. He waited for Henry to continue, knowing from years of experience that Henry would explain everything once he had straightened it out in his own head first.

"I didn't go back far enough! The Weinbrenner time loop. How many times did you go through the loop, Jack? Three, four times, and Leo perhaps several times before you stumbled into the ultra-indigo beam and ended up looping with him?" Henry huffed. "How many time lines diverged from that first loop? How many events happened differently, tearing at the fabric of the universe?"

"Then you need to go back to... " Jack moaned and pressed his hand against his bleeding forehead,"...Before Weinbrenner."

"Exactly. I need to stop Leo."

"I'm going with you."

"Jack. No. You can't."

Jack reached out and grabbed Henry's arm. "Henry. I have to, because I was the one who experienced that time looping."

***

The trip to Global could only be described as harrowing. Jack wasn't quite as dumb as some people believed. He knew that the gravitational forces of the second moon had started to affect the whole planet, and that it would be only a matter of time before the tidal pull affected the oceans, causing tsunamis - if it hadn't already started to happen. As they raced towards Global in Henry's tow truck, Jack couldn't help but think of Zoe, terrified that her flight would be brought crashing down.

Jack saw the tornado forming as they reached Global recalling the potentially devastating effects from when the weather guy had messed with the climate, causing all manner of weird events. Unlike the one he remembered, this one touched down on the other side of Global and began to tear at the very fabric of the complex. It was huge, and Jack was momentarily shocked by the sheer power and menace of it as he watched the roof ripped from the furthest building.

"Jack! Hurry!" Henry seemed frantic, looking back at him in terror as if he was expecting something terrible to happen.

Jack ran after Henry, hunching over as debris began to fly around them. He cried out in pain as something sliced across his arm, but struggled onwards into the relative safety of the building. They raced to the elevator, with Henry's fingers twisted tightly into the material of Jack's uniform, refusing to let go until they were safely inside the elevator.

The car dropped quickly. A couple of times Jack felt it shudder ominously, and he backed into the corner, spreading his arms so his hands could brace him against the side walls. He shared a fear-filled look with Henry. This far down the tornado could not hurt them - unless it tore off the top of the elevator machinery and sent them plummeting to their deaths inside that small metal box. When the doors opened, he leapt out quickly, dragging Henry with him. Henry looked just as relieved as him to be out of the elevator, and they moved swiftly towards the Time Maintenance laboratory.

It still looked exactly the same as it had on that fateful day with Stark. No one had dared to touch anything after all the failed attempts to reverse what had happened to Stark, leaving it as a monument for a remarkable scientist, and hero.

Jack hovered at the threshold, heart thumping wildly in his chest as memories assailed him.

Once he realized they could not bring Stark back, Jack had avoided this room. He hadn't wanted to be reminded of those last seconds and all that could have been between them if they had stopped fighting so hard over Allison and had taken a good long look at each other. They could have been friends, and in a sudden Epiphany as he caught sight of the transparent box at the center of the room, Jack realized that he might have wanted more than friendship from Nathan. In hindsight, it was entirely possible that all the bickering and digs had been his way of suppressing deeper feelings for Nathan that he hadn't wanted to explore.

The big, bad sheriff and former U.S. Marshal had been nothing more than a coward, hiding behind his badge, his masculinity, and his self-denial.

Not that it had mattered what he had wanted as Nathan would never have been his regardless. If Nathan had ever entertained similar feelings for him then he'd pushed them away just as hard and fast. He had made his choice when he asked Allison to marry him for a second time, and Allison had made her choice between them when she had accepted. He almost laughed aloud, bitterly. The most pathetic aspect of that whole day is that he spent one time loop trying to convince Allison to cancel the wedding and take a chance on him instead, when it was clear now that the person he had truly wanted to spend his life with was Nathan.

His whole life was a running joke, though if Henry couldn't fix this latest disaster, he wouldn't have a lot of time left to sulk over it.

Henry broke into his internal revelations, drawing his attention back to the universe-destroying problem. Henry had moved to the far corner of the laboratory, and was busy flipping switches.

"I had the bridge device moved here after my previous attempt to stop the universe collapsing."

By now Jack had taken several steps into the room, and he spun round at the sound of running feet from the corridor beyond, gasping at the pain from his ribs and head from the sudden movement. Zane raced into the Time lab and stopped abruptly upon seeing Jack, only for someone to crash into the back of him, knocking him forward into Jack. All of them went down in a tangle of arms and legs with Jack caught at the bottom of the pile.

"Fargo!" He managed to shove at Zane, knowing instinctively who to blame for the latest slapstick comedy moment. It was always Fargo... or Taggart. "Where's Jo?"

"Here!" He rolled his eyes as Jo pulled Fargo off him and Zane with so little effort,

Jack pushed to his feet carefully, already hurting from the car crash earlier and he suspected he now had bruises on his bruises. He and Jo listened in on a heated debate that was probably in English but the words were filled with so much technical jargon that it might as well have been Swahili. He understood occasional words that had ominous connotations - like destruction, end of the universe, Big Bang. Zane and Fargo started to argue that they should be allowed to go back instead of Henry, and surprisingly, Fargo was the most insistent.

Though maybe Jack shouldn't have found it that surprising. He recalled those first few days after losing Nathan, and how Fargo had blamed himself for not standing up to his mentor and taking Nathan's place in the chamber that day.

"I spent months here after the accident... spent all my free time trying to figure out what went wrong. I know how to fix it. Do you?" Fargo asked Zane pointedly. "I can work with Leo. Fix it before it ever went wrong."

"He's right," Zane agreed with a resigned sigh, though it was obvious that he was reluctant to admit it.

Henry shook his head. "No. I'm not going there to fix it. I'm going there to stop Leo. I need to be there just in case we're wrong and that was not the defining moment when time fractured." Henry rubbed a hand over his tired face, and all of a sudden, Jack could see all the extra years of stress in his lined face.

"We need to be there," Jack stated softly, reminding Henry of his intention of going with Henry. "At the very least, we'll have Weinbrenner and... Nathan to help figure this out if this doesn't work," Jack added, stuttering only slightly over his name this time.

Jack could see the shocked realization on the others' faces, and Henry spared a moment to stand in front of Jack, raising one hand to squeeze his shoulder gently.

"Allison never deserved you, Jack. None of us ever did."

Henry turned away before Jack could figure out a way to respond, showing the others how to reset the bridge device. Moving out of their way, Jack sank down with his back against the transparent chamber where Nathan had died while Jo hovered just behind Zane, grounding him with her touch. On the surface, high above their heads, Jack knew the world was being torn to pieces, shredded by time, and he closed his eyes and offered a small prayer to whatever deity might be listening that they could fix this.

"Jack?"

"Yeah." He rubbed his eyes, realizing he had fallen asleep in those few minutes, tired beyond belief by the stress and pain. He accepted a hand up from Zane, noticing how Zane kept hold of him even after Jack was steady on his feet, and he offered Zane a small nod of thanks. "We ready?"

"Yes," stated Henry from beside the machine. "I just wanted to say thank you, Jack. You have always been such a good friend and I haven't always deserved that."

Jack surged forward against Zane's restraining arm, realizing what Henry was about to do...

...and jerked back as he caught a face-full of cold water.

"SARAH!"

The shower settled back into the temperature he preferred and Jack stretched tiredly. He had barely slept last night because today was the day he would see all his future hopes, dreams, and probably a dozen great fantasies, washed away like water down the drain in this shower. Nathan had asked Allison to re-marry him and, eventually, she had said yes.

Today was the day they renewed their vows before half the town.

"Shower off," he stated morosely, for once almost regretting asking Fargo to replace the sonic shower. He grabbed a thick, warm towel, wrapping it around his middle as he moved to the sink and pulled out his shaving kit. Distracted by the day's upcoming events, Jack swore when the razor snagged and cut his cheek. "Damn it!"

This day was already bad enough and seemed to be getting worse with each passing minute. He pressed a tissue against the cut until it stopped bleeding, almost tempted to forego the rest of his shave. Perhaps if he had not accepted a role in today's wedding proceedings then he might have gotten away with it, but he had agreed to walk Allison down the aisle. Still, he knew a lot of eyes would be on him today for different reasons. His feelings for Allison had not gone unnoticed by some of the denizens of the town.

He grabbed his clean, pressed uniform from the bedroom wardrobe and dressed quickly, aware that he still had sheriffing duties to perform before he needed to change for the wedding. Zoe was downstairs, drinking the lawn as usual, and he waved off her concern. She'd already had her say last night about Allison asking him to give her away when Allison had to know how he felt about her. Zoe thought it was a slap in the face and, though unintentional on Allison's part, Jack did feel the sting.

Yet, no matter how much it hurt, Allison was still his friend, and he had agreed to walk her down the aisle. It also sent a message to all those still sending pitying glances his way, that he had accepted her choice and was happy for her.

If ever there was a day for beer and cereal, then this was it, but Jack snagged a muffin from Zoe's plate instead, ignoring her exclamation, and headed for the door. Thorne had ordered him to Global and Jack suspected she had another round of redactions for him to deal with before the wedding. The woman was relentless in her pursuit of saving money. The bunker's door opened before he reached it and he was surprised to see Lexi. She hadn't been due for another two or three days. He hugged her and listened to her explanation about Geminis traveling on Saturdays or some other New Age nonsense, before leaving her in Zoe's capable hands.

As he drove towards Global, he hoped SARAH liked cats.

Allison was waiting for him in the lobby and he teased her for working on her wedding day. "Don't you have a salon appointment or something?"

She smiled indulgently. "It's not the 1950s, Jack."

Thorne arrived and, with dismay, Jack accepted the latest list of redactions just as he'd suspected, waiting until Thorne had moved off before shaking his head at Allison.

"You should have invited her to the wedding." Allison sighed and tried to take the list back from Jack but he held on tight. "I'll handle these."

She leaned in and kissed his cheek softly. "Thank you."

Jack watched her leave and set to work, finding the first person on his list quickly. He hated this part of the job. At one time he thought it wasn't as bad as having to tell someone they'd lost a loved one, but for many of the geniuses in this town, their work was their life and first love. Telling them they were no longer wanted was tantamount to ripping their lives away from them.

After giving the redaction notice to one guy, Jack walked right into Stark as he tried to work out where to find the next person on the list.

"Carter! As observant as ever," Stark stated as he reached out to steady Jack before straightening his jacket. "Aren't you supposed to be getting ready for my wedding?"

"Redactions," Jack offered darkly in response and Stark grimaced just slightly, obviously not as cold hearted as he often appeared.

Stepping back, Jack took a surreptitious look at Nathan and felt that all-too familiar tightness in his chest and belly. Stark looked good, dressed impeccably in a suit that probably cost several month's wages for Jack - and it probably wasn't even the suit he planned to wear to his wedding. It fitted Stark perfectly, accentuating his broad shoulders, slim hips, and long legs. Seeing him like this, Jack wondered why he had ever felt he could compete with him for Allison. Stark was the very epitome of tall, dark and handsome, with brains to match, and if Jack hadn't already been infatuated with Allison then he could easily have fallen for Stark.

Judging by the admiring looks Fargo cast in Stark's direction, he wouldn't have been the first or only one with a man-crush on Stark.

"Carter? Don't forget the necklace."

Jack patted his top pocket and took a couple of steps before remembering that some of the names on the list were unfamiliar to him so he needed directions.

"Where would I find Leo Weinbrenner?"

"Time Maintenance lab," Fargo answered, giving the level number which was way down.

"We have a Time Maintenance lab?"

Stark raised his eyebrows in that condescending way that he probably spent hours perfecting in the mirror, and all for the purpose of making Jack feel like an idiot.

"Of course we do," Jack answered his own question. "The same way we had a Poop guy before he got redacted today. I just hope Thorne isn't expecting me to clear up that mess too," he grumbled, and saw Stark desperately pulling back a smile.

"Not in the job description, Sheriff?"

"Only here to clean up your mess, Stark." He moved off before Stark could come back with another sarcastic comment. After all, it was probably bad luck to shoot the groom on his wedding day.

Jack took the elevator down and was surprised to find Henry about to enter the Time lab.

"Hey Henry! Haven't you got a service to prepare for?"

"Hey Jack."

Jack frowned because Henry was looking... shifty. "Something I should know about?"

"No. Just wanted to have a word with Leo before you..." Henry pointed at the list in Jack's hand.

"Yeah. Thorne has great timing. I didn't think anyone could be worse than Stark but..." Jack trailed off with a shrug.

"Can you give me a few minutes?" Henry asked, and Jack shrugged again.

"Sure. I'll wait out here."

Instead of entering the lab, Henry took a step towards Jack and grasped his shoulder, haunted dark eyes holding Jack's. "Jack. I don't say this often enough but... you're a good friend and you deserve so much more than-."

Jack patted the hand on his arm, knowing Henry had to be talking about his feelings for Allison and the impending marriage. "I'll be fine."

"Jack. Look deeper into your heart. I think it might surprise you, who you really love. And they might surprise you too."

Before Jack could ask after the cryptic words, Henry had turned and entered the lab leaving Jack with nothing to do but mull over his words. He loved Allison, but as Henry knew he had feelings for her, that couldn't exactly be considered a surprise to either of them, which meant Henry was referring to someone else.

Jo?

Unlikely. She was pretty, highly competent, and she knew more than thirty ways to kill a man with her bare hands, which was pretty damn impressive, but he had never felt more than brotherly affection for her. However, if Eureka had taught him anything at all then it was that anything was possible. Yet, somehow, he didn't think he could have a secret crush on her because nothing other than brotherly affection stirred inside him as he thought of her. Plus Zane would kill him if he put any moves on Jo.

His short relationship with Callie had ended with the mutual agreement that they worked better as friends, and there'd been no one else since then who held any great interest to him. At least no one female. That thought brought a familiar heat curling through his belly, as if his subconscious knew something that it wasn't prepared to share with his conscious mind but had decided to give him a hint. Before Abby he'd fooled around with guys as well as girls, though only hand and blow jobs with a little frottage and one memorable intercrural orgasm thrown in for good measure. Oh yeah, he knew the right terminology for different kinds of sex without needing a PhD in the subject, courtesy of having a shrink for an ex-wife. A couple of guys had wanted him to go further with them, wanting to take him or wanting him to take them, but he'd balked at the idea. He had wanted to save that particular virginity for someone special.

Abby had been special to him once, but for all her easy psycho-analysis talk of sex, she had been surprisingly vanilla in her preferences.

So who did that leave? Henry?

Nah, he thought. Henry was his best friend, and though he would do anything for him, Jack didn't feel sexually attracted to the man. That left a number of other guys and he reeled off their names in his head alongside various internal dialogs that flitted from horrified to ludicrous - Fargo, Zane, Taggart, Vince. He then thought of the ladies' favorite muscle-bound sculptor, Christopher Dactylos, but nothing stirred within him beyond a frisson of sexual interest in a good-looking, well-built man.

That only left Stark.

The sensation that rolled through him made him blink in shock.

"No way." He shook his head. That was not sexual attraction; it was just a reaction to their rivalry over Allison and couldn't possibly be...

"Oh crap."

Of all the days he could pick for this major Epiphany, it had to be the day he would stand by and watch Stark remarry Allison. He glanced up towards the ceiling, hands spread wide in disbelief to whatever deity was listening in and, most likely, laughing its head off right now. Of all the people he could have developed an unhealthy crush on, it had to be that arrogant, egotistic bastard who liked nothing better than to disparage Jack's level of intelligence, his job, and mock his whole life in general.

"So unfair!"

The door to the Time lab opened and Henry walked out with Weinbrenner following. Weinbrenner stopped in front of Jack and sighed heavily, shoulders slumping, and Jack felt all his irritation with Stark transfer immediately to Thorne for putting him in this other unenviable position. He really, REALLY hated redacting people, admittedly with a few exceptions.

Carthrick had been a pleasure to redact after he deliberately messed with a quarter of the town's water supply just to test out an experimental drug that triggered people's worst nightmares. The hallucinations caused the deaths of two people and had another fifty-three temporarily hospitalized after displaying suicidal or homicidal tendencies, though fortunately not including himself. SARAH had filtered out the chemical, sparing him the harrowing experience of living out some of the terrible nightmares that haunted him from past cases as a U.S. Marshal. It was bad enough reliving some of those nightmare moments of his life in his sleep without facing them in the daylight too.

For once, he and Stark hadn't argued over Jack putting the man in handcuffs and handing him over to Jo to lock up. Instead, Stark had issued an immediate redaction order, much to Jack's surprise. Jack had happily signed all the paperwork that day before handing Carthrick over to the D.O.D. to face criminal charges.

Weinbrenner didn't deserve this though, and neither did the poop guy.

"I was so close to completing my work," Weinbrenner stated solemnly, and Jack could only nod and sigh. He heard the same words uttered by most of those redacted but at least Weinbrenner had taken it stoically, unlike one scientist - Griven - who'd threatened Jack with a test tube of... something obnoxious during the last round of redactions.

Henry stayed beside Weinbrenner all the way back to Weinbrenner's house in Eureka, talking softly with the Time scientist while the Global clean-up personnel got to work. Jack left them to it because he still had two more names on his redaction list, and then he had a wedding to attend, which would be the perfect end to this crappy day.

Arriving back at Global, Jack was surprised to see Stark and Fargo still around but, apparently, they were taking delivery of some atomic clock that would make even the Swiss envious. Jack guessed the Swiss must like clocks or something. Normally he would shrug it off but normally he would not be ultra-aware of Nathan Stark following some major Epiphany of having a major man-crush on him. He turned to watch Stark from a distance.

For the first time he really looked at Stark, from the dark curls and trimmed beard, perfectly framing a handsome face with soft green eyes, down his long, toned body - still looking immaculate in that perfectly-tailored, expensive suit - to his equally costly dress shoes. His gaze traveled back up to catch Stark frowning, and Jack realized he'd been caught raking his eyes down the man's almost too-perfect physique. Jack dropped his list and scrabbled for it. When he straightened up, Stark was just a few feet away from him, still frowning. Dropping his eyes back down, Jack quickly found an excuse for his open appreciation.

"Nice shoes. Is this the wedding outfit?"

"No." Stark sounded a little hesitant, and when Jack looked back up, he noticed Stark was still eyeing him strangely.

"Of course not. I expect you have an even more hideously expensive suit hanging up behind the door at home."

Both of Stark's eyebrows rose, and the frown became a smirk. "Laid out on the bed, actually. And I hope you're planning to change out of the uniform, Carter. Sack cloth and ashes, maybe? Don't want you to spoil the wedding photos."

Jack smarted, knowing Stark was rubbing it in because he'd won their private little war over Allison. But what was the saying? To the victor goes the spoils? It was a shame that it had taken until today for Jack to realize that it was Allison who had come out victorious rather than Stark where Jack was concerned.

"Oh, I made sure to dig out my one and only suit for all occasions. Weddings, fugitive hunting... funerals."

He didn't wait for Stark to respond, moving away swiftly with the weight of Stark's smarmy stare burning a hole in his back.

***

Nathan let the smirk slip and frowned as he watched Carter stride away, caught yet again by the fluid movement and the way his uniform - ugly though it might be - fit so perfectly. Broad shoulders tapered to narrow hips framed surprisingly well by the gun and utility belt, then lower to the sweet curve of his ass and strong thigh muscles. He cursed under his breath because these were not the thoughts that ought to be filling his head only a few hours before his re-marriage to Allison.

He thought he was going to spontaneously combust from the heat of Carter's gaze traveling down his body only moments earlier. As it was he was glad his suit pants were generously tailored, enough to hide his physical reaction to that gaze. Nathan cursed again. Trust Carter to complicate everything just when he thought he had it all figured out. Deep in thought, he ignored Fargo's inquiries and headed towards the lobby, finally answering when he could ignore Fargo no longer.

"Fargo! It's my wedding day. I'm sure you can manage to plug in a clock without my supervision."

Fargo backed off and Nathan strode away, quickly climbing into his car in its reserved space close to Global's entrance, and heading out. Partway back to town, he took a side road turning on a spur of the moment decision, and headed towards the lake. He parked in a secluded spot, spending a moment staring across the still water before hammering his fists down hard on the steering wheel.

"Why? Why now?"

Nathan blamed himself entirely for what had happened between him and Carter. When he returned to Eureka to replace Warren King as the head of Global, he had no intention of trying to salvage his marriage to Allison. He and Allison had drifted apart for a reason. They were both headstrong, both too involved in their careers and obsessions, and despite what Allison believed, neither of them had been willing to compromise. He might have packed first and left for Washington but she'd already been gone before then, accepting the D.O.D. liaison role at Global and simply assuming that he'd follow along and take up whatever science post was offered by Warren.

He should have stayed away.

Nathan struck the steering wheel again in anger. He'd always been possessive. His kindergarten teacher had reported that he didn't play well with others and didn't like to share his toys. As an adult he hadn't changed much in that respect, so when he saw the way Allison glanced at this gorgeous, sandy-haired, blue-eyed Sheriff in the infirmary that day, he'd felt a double blow. He hadn't wanted this man stealing away his estranged wife, and he hadn't wanted his estranged wife stealing away this man.

His possessive, competitive nature placed Allison on the apex of a love triangle, leaving him competing with Carter instead of pursuing him. By the time Nathan realized the mistake he had made, their bickering and alpha male posturing was too ingrained to stop... and then Allison had said YES.

He recalled his renewed marriage proposal to her after the Global lock down incident, wondering why neither of them had realized at the time that his words were all about family and belonging, about assuaging loneliness rather than about love. He'd tried to remedy that with his wedding gift for Allison, wanting her to know that he did love her and that he intended to not make the same mistakes as last time. He'd promised to always be there for her, to always be with her. Forever.

And it wasn't a complete lie. Not really. He did love her, he had missed being part of a family, and he had wanted to try again. He truly believed that he wanted to make it forever this time around until Carter gave him that look.

He was getting married in less than two hours, and Carter had chosen now to make his interest in him obvious, though in hindsight, it had always been there in every word and gesture. Nathan had just been too caught up in this fighting over Allison to realize it, even when all the clues had been right in front of his face. Yet he had always prided himself on his observational skills and mocked Carter's. The bickering bordered on flirting, and even Taggart had commented on it. Then there was the way he vacillated between no regard for Carter's personal safety - allowing Allison to use the mind probe on Carter and Thatcher - and a completely over the top reaction against Carthrick, which he'd put down to reckless endangerment of others when it had been the thought of seeing Carter reduced to a mental and emotional wreck that had sired his anger.

Carter drove him crazy in a way he'd never felt before from any man or woman - not even Allison. Carter made him justify every decision, made him question the ethics of every experiment, made him want to be a better scientist, a better man, a better husband to Allison and father to Kevin. He made him realize that there was more to life than what could only be quantified by science, more to sex and desire... and love than biology.

"Fuck!"

As far as Nathan was concerned, profanity was the lowest form of communication, belonging to half-wits and the socially maladjusted, but with the way he had acted over the past years, he fitted in perfectly with that less than illustrious group right now. For all his vaunted intelligence, he turned into a complete moron whenever he interacted with Carter, and it was only now that he could admit to why.

He was in love with Jack Carter.

He wanted Jack, with his abuse of the English language, his 111 I.Q., his stupid grin, naiveté, and wide-eyed awe at everything Nathan took for granted. Jack was like a child staring wide-eyed at the world around him - and he forced Nathan to let go of his jaded view of life and see the universe with fresh eyes, with Jack's eyes. Jack made him feel alive.

Nathan groaned and dropped his head onto the steering wheel.

At some moment over these past years, he had somehow fallen in love with Jack, and now he knew with unwelcome clarity that he had run head first into the familiarity of marriage with Allison rather than acknowledge the conflicting emotions that Jack invoked in him. For the first time in his life he really didn't know what to do, and silently wished he could turn back time and not make the same mistakes again.

For a moment he toyed with that idea. Theoretically it was possible, but he'd seen Weinbrenner's calculations, and those of Trevor Grant from his 1947 experiment with a time bridge device that had never functioned - fortunately. All the math so far had pointed to time slowly unraveling, with alternate timelines colliding and the universe collapsing if they meddled with the time continuum.

At this moment it seemed almost worth the risk. He could go back in time to that first day as the head of Global Dynamics, and turn his attention to courting Jack's attention in love instead of rivalry.

He sighed in frustration at the useless fantasy. There was no easy way out of his predicament except to go forward. He needed to weigh up the evidence. Allison was waiting for him in her wedding dress, willing to give them a chance to make their marriage work this time around, whereas Jack was an unknown quantity with just one fleeting moment of realized interest that might all still be in Nathan's head.

He took a deep breath and started the engine, slowly pulling back onto the highway. He was getting married to a woman he loved, even if he wasn't in love with her anymore, and he planned to be on time.

****

Just Over Two Years Later:

"Hey, Henry!"

"Jack! Oh my!"

Henry moved to embrace his friend, shaking his head in pleasure at seeing Jack again. Eva Thorne had fired Jack soon after Allison and Nathan's wedding, and he'd returned to the U.S. Marshals office but had kept in contact with Henry as promised. For the first time in his life, Henry had made a point of taking vacations purely to visit Jack, knowing Jack had no intention of ever returning to Eureka. Usually when he went to L.A., he was laden down with care packages from Vince, who was still convinced he could re-educate Jack's palate eventually, with enough persistence.

Except here Jack was, standing in Henry's garage workshop looking healthy and fit, if a little tired. Henry pointed a finger at Jack.

"Zoe's graduation."

"Yeah. I wouldn't miss it, no matter how I feel about this place."

It was a weird turnabout that Abby had moved to Eureka to take over Beverly's role as town psychologist, moving into a small house with Zoe, while Jack had moved back to L.A. Twice a year, Abby would take Zoe to the airport and put her on the plane to go visit her father, unless he was too caught up with work. Henry knew Zoe missed her dad a lot but her ties to Eureka had curbed her 'running away from home' tactic. Instead, she had immersed herself in her schooling and spent at least two hours a week chatting to her dad on a video feed, having shown him how to set up the webcam on his laptop.

"You want to grab a coffee at Café Diem?" Jack asked.

"I'll make us a coffee. Call me selfish but I want to spend some time with my best friend before he's swamped by everyone else in town."

Jack grinned and carefully moved some books off a stool beside the bench, settling in as Henry poured out the coffee. Henry watched as Jack took a sip, blue eyes widening in appreciation.

"It's good. Better than the swill we drink back in the Marshal's office." He took another sip. "So what's happened since I last heard from you?"

Henry's smile faded a little. "Allison and Nathan dissolved their marriage last week."

"I didn't know they were having problems."

"And I'm sorry I didn't tell you."

"Water under the bridge, Henry."

"It should have been you... and Nathan," he added so Jack didn't think Henry was referring to Jack marrying Allison. A late night drunken confession while he and Jack were alone in Jack's apartment in L.A., had confirmed what Henry had already suspected. Jack had finally come to realize that he'd been in love with Nathan all along.

Henry watched Jack's jaw clench for a moment before he responded lightly. "As I said. Water under the bridge... and talking of which. I thought I saw Carl on the bridge on my way into town."

"Carl?"

"Carl Carlson. I stopped to say hi, but when I looked back he was gone." Jack laughed. "Couldn't stop myself from checking over the side though. Just in case he'd decided to jump or fall... again."

Henry joined in the laugh, and carefully changed the subject to let Jack in on all the rest of the town gossip. An hour later, he decided he had monopolized Jack enough.

"I'll buy you a cheeseburger."

"Oh, that'll please Vince," Jack joked back.

Henry slapped him on the back. "I don't think he'll mind this once."

Henry was right about that, and about the crowds too. He laughed as Jack suffered through a bear hug from Vince as others gathered around to hug or simply touch Jack, recalling a similar time when Jack had almost died after becoming trapped in Barlowe's virtual Eureka therapy device. A lot of people had liked Sheriff Cobb but he'd always remained aloof, whereas Jack had always been affable, tactile, and empathic, reaching out to comfort others. They had liked Cobb, but they had trusted and loved Jack.

The noise level dropped suddenly and Henry watched Nathan falter on the threshold, obviously unaware of Jack's presence until the crowd parted. Henry watched Nathan move forward slowly, mirrored by Jack.

"Marshal Carter. I wasn't aware you were back in Eureka."

"Zoe," Jack stated by way of explanation.

Nathan's eyes widened in realization, recalling it was Graduation Day at Tesla High, and he nodded before holding out his hand. "It's good to see you."

"Yeah, no it's not," but he smiled and grasped Nathan's hand nonetheless. "But no hard feelings."

"No. None."

Nathan let go and walked away, and Henry couldn't help but witness the pain Jack successfully concealed from all except those who knew him best. His eyes followed Nathan's retreat, noting the tension in his shoulders, until Nathan was blocked from view by the crowd surging forward again. Jack covered the pain quickly with another grin and a quip towards Stan Leung about his carnivorous plant that had once tried to eat him.

"Carter! Why didn't you tell me you were back?"

"Hey, Jo!"

Henry used that moment to slip away, quickly catching up with Nathan, who had slumped down onto a bench hidden just off main street.

"Henry. I'd rather be alone-."

"Where's Carl Carlson?"

"What?"

"Is he back in Eureka?" Henry narrowed his eyes, reading the guilt easily as Nathan looked away. "He never left, did he?"

"Henry," Nathan warned.

"I need to know."

"He's dead. After healing Jack, he locked us out of the containment corridor, and walked into the artifact."

Henry took a moment to push aside the anger of being lied to by Nathan. The radiation levels alone would have killed Carlson in seconds without a suit, but if Carlson and the Artifact were dead, then who had Jack seen on the bridge that morning? Jack had seemed adamant that it was Carlson, and Jack was not one to make mistakes like that. One of his strengths as a U.S. Marshal lay in his ability to recognize a face in a crowd, and that left only one possibility.

"Then it's happening again. I thought I'd fixed it this time around."

Nathan looked to him in confusion. "What's happening, Henry? What did you fix?"

"Time. I thought I'd fixed time."

Nathan paled. "I saw Jack earlier."

"Yes, in Café Diem five minutes-."

"No. In my office half an hour ago. Except it wasn't my office any longer. It was the Time Maintenance lab, and I saw myself inside an enclosure, and Jack was wearing his Sheriff's uniform and looked... battered. And I said, See you around, Jack, and everything faded away." Nathan looked at Henry and paled even further. "I thought I'd fallen asleep and had a bad dream, but... that's not what happened. Was it?"

Henry swallowed hard, remembering another timeline.

"Leo Weinbrenner slowed down a single photon and caused a time loop that threatened to destroy the whole universe. You had to manually sync it back into our time stream... and died for nothing. All you did was put a band aid on an arterial bleed."

"What did you do, Henry?" And when Henry didn't answer fast enough, his voice hardened. "What did you do?"

"It's a long story."

"Then you better tell it fast on our way to Global because if I'm right then we haven't got much time left."

"We'll need Zane and Fargo."

Nathan pulled out his cell phone and barked a few orders as they moved towards Nathan's car, telling Fargo to meet him in the Time Maintenance lab, and to bring Zane with him. Henry climbed in next to him and Nathan peeled away fast, taking no heed of the town's speed limits. It reminded Henry of how much Jack had hated people speeding.

Henry blinked hard as a thought struck him. "Jack."

Nathan glanced over quickly before turning back to the road ahead. "What?"

"Jack's the common denominator. The incident on the bridge happened to Jack on his way into town an hour ago. The time before that, it was Jack and Zoe leaving town, seeing themselves arriving from five years earlier. Why didn't I see that?"

"See what, Henry?"

"The incident with Jack seeing himself. It happened before Weinbrenner's experiment. Weinbrenner couldn't have been the initial cause."

"The artifact."

"No. Jack stopped that alternate timeline."

Seeing Nathan's confusion, Henry told him of his attempt to save Kim, and how everything had been fine for four years. Until this very same day in that other time line; Zoe's Graduation Day. He mentioned how Nathan had left to work for his cousin, Tony Stark, and how the only way to save the universe had been for Jack to go back in time and stop Henry.

"Henry..." Nathan licked his lips worriedly. "The artifact arrived in Eureka on the same day as Carter. It was traveling by road in a high security, sealed container, but we registered an energy build-up just after the turn off to Global. We thought it was contained."

Henry frowned. "So how does Jack fit in?"

"There was a single car on the road about a mile behind us."

Henry felt sickened. "Jack and Zoe."

He and Nathan had reached Global by now and were halfway across the lobby towards the elevator. Nathan waited until they were alone inside the elevator car before continuing.

"But why affect only them? Why not the driver or... the technician accompanying the Artifact?" Nathan asked.

"Why Carl Carlson and Kevin?"

Nathan could answer that. "Kevin was autistic, and Carlson had Asperger's with associated OCD. Their brain chemistry was different from..." his words trailed off and Henry saw him pale. "Carter was in the lab with Carlson when it was flooded with the undetected exotic particles that evolved Carlson. Why didn't it affect him too?"

This time Henry answered quietly. "Maybe because he was already affected." He huffed angrily. "We're clutching at straws, forming theories and hypotheses with no basis in fact. There's no empirical evidence, only a... gut feeling that in all the time lines, only Jack has been a common factor. Not you, not Zoe, not Carlson or Kevin. Jack."

By now they had reached the Time Maintenance lab, where Fargo and Zane were waiting. Henry listened as Nathan ordered security to bring Jack into Global, momentarily shocked when Jack was suddenly right in front of them, face battered, bloodied, and uniform dirty, holding himself awkwardly as if trying to conceal internal as well as external injuries. He walked right through Henry, making Henry shiver from a soul-deep coldness, and they watched as Jack took up a place in front of the transparent containment unit; Nathan appeared inside it.

"See you around, Jack."

Fargo's triumphant voice registered from behind them, but Henry's eyes remained fixed on Jack and Nathan, seeing the smile freeze on Nathan's face before he began to break down molecule by molecule before Henry's eyes. He hadn't been here when it happened, and only had Jack's description of Nathan's death and the video footage, but it was shocking to see it now. Behind them, both versions of Fargo were in shock and Henry could only stare at the uncomprehending shock on Jack's face as he blindly lifted his hand towards the now empty container.

The image vanished just as quickly, leaving just the four of them standing frozen in the laboratory, with their Fargo still pale with shock.

"That's what I saw earlier," Nathan stated quietly.

The various ring tones from their cell phones broke the spell and each moved away from the others to answer, but Henry knew what was happening outside. Time lines were colliding exponentially, and the radius of the effect would increase rapidly, spreading out from Eureka to encompass the whole world, and eventually collapse the entire universe.

Fargo gave out a girly scream, and when they looked to where he was pointing, they saw the burned remains of someone inside the containment unit. It vanished just as quickly, replaced with other images, of a white board filled with an equation that Henry partially recognized. Walter Perkins had some of this within the pages of equations in his research notebooks, from when he created the tachyon accelerator that became Jack's first major case in Eureka, before Jack was made Sheriff. He felt an hysterical laugh bubble up as Leo Weinbrenner started to teach Jack the equation to the tune of a children's song... Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. It was surreal and yet...

Time was unraveling, going backwards and forwards, colliding with other timelines as they watched the Ultra-Indigo light encase both Weinbrenner and Jack, then it was just Weinbrenner, flashbacks coming faster and faster. Henry knew the outside world would be experiencing something similar, or worse.

"The artifact," Nathan exclaimed, and rushed out of the room.

Henry froze for a moment, sharing a puzzled look with Zane and Fargo, before they all raced out after Nathan, reaching the elevator just as the doors opened and Jack stepped out. The real Jack from this timeline, dressed in a suit and tie rather than the tan Sheriff's uniform. Nathan grabbed his arm and dragged him back into the elevator, barely waiting for the others to jump in before closing the doors.

"What the-?"

"We'll explain it later, Carter," Nathan stated firmly.

"Jack?" Henry reached for Jack's arm. "When you first came into town five years ago, did you see you and Zoe passing in the opposite direction."

"What? No!"

Henry rubbed his hand across his forehead. Perhaps this timeline had deviated even more than he realized.

"But Zoe said she did. Was pretty insistent on it. There was a car, and it looked like my old Cherokee but visibility was bad. Heavy rain, which is why we skidded off the road when Lojack-."

"Where was Zoe in your car?" Henry asked, recalling the car he had helped tow back onto the road and to his garage that day.

"What?"

"Was she sitting in the passenger seat next to you."

"No. I put her in the back, like the little felon-."

"You used your car for prisoner transport." Henry said as much to himself as he looked to Nathan, but it was Zane who got it instantly, probably because he'd been in the back seat of a law enforcement vehicle a few times in his shady past.

"A Faraday cage."

Nathan nodded. "Or it acted like one for Zoe, protecting her from the pulse from the Artifact. But not Carter." He turned to the man in question. "You were up front... driving."

The elevator door opened and Nathan overrode the security to Section 5, unsealing the thick containment door that led to a long, narrow corridor. At the end of that corridor they still housed the twisted remains of the dead Artifact. Each of them gasped at the chill of someone walking through them - a security guard carrying Jack's dying body. Carlson and another Stark followed, and they watched as Carlson formed a living connection between the artifact and Jack while the other Stark looked on in awe, seeing the blackened and burned mess of Jack's chest swiftly heal before their eyes. They saw Stark reach down and pull Jack to unsteady feet, half-carrying, half-dragging him right through everyone as if no one had stood in his path, with all of them turning to see Stark hand Jack over to two more security guards and turn back in time to see the hatch seal.

The door ahead of them opened to a light too beautiful to describe.

I need to know, the ghostly Stark begged.

One day you will. But will you be ready, Carlson said as he stepped inside, the door sealing behind him, plunging Henry and the others back into the cold, darkened corridor of their current timeline.

Nathan rushed forward and unsealed the door, looking out across the gray, twisting branches of the dead Artifact. He looked back and Henry saw his eyes capture and hold Jack's, drawing Jack forward to take a look too. A flicker of light inside the room caught Henry's eye, and he realized the Artifact wasn't truly dead after all, perhaps hibernating or... perhaps hidden elsewhere. He looked at Jack and saw a glow about him.

"I am ready," Nathan murmured, waiting until Jack was standing next to him, looking confused, before Nathan turned to Henry, Zane and Fargo.

"Stay here. Please."

Nathan reached out gently to place a hand on Jack's shoulder and he took another step inside the chamber, drawing a reluctant yet curious Jack along with him. Henry was positive he saw an even stronger glow emanating from Jack before the door sealed behind them...

****

Nathan awoke from the dream with a start, blinking rapidly as he took in his Washington apartment. He checked his bedside clock and noted he still had an hour before his direct flight to a secluded Air Force base just outside Portland, Oregon. Warren King had invited him down to oversee the handling of the Artifact and to make a final check to ensure that all the necessary security and safety precautions were in place before it arrived. What Warren didn't know was that he had made alternative arrangements to ensure the security of the Artifact and had sent it on earlier.

To reduce the risk, only two people knew of the change in the arrangements. By now the Artifact would be in transit by air to the Air Force base in a special container that looked completely unremarkable from the outside, waiting to be picked up by him and the driver. From there it was just under an hour's drive to Eureka, and Nathan hoped the forecast of rain would hold off until after they reached Global.

He was still debating on whether to accept a permanent position at Global or stay in Washington, even though every neuron in his brain was firing with the desire to study the Artifact. The stumbling block was Allison, and he hoped he could avoid seeing her over this coming week because he had too much to do and couldn't spare the energy or time for yet another confrontation over the career choices that each of them had made.

He still loved her. She was beautiful and smart, but he'd learned the hard way that there was big difference between loving and being in love.

Pulling on casual clothes, he checked his case one last time before heading out. The helicopter was waiting for him with a flight plan that would send it straight to Global even though Nathan had a different destination in mind. He took a deep breath and smiled as they took off, waiting until they were close to Portland before making the changes to the pilot's flight orders. The container would have already rolled off the plane by now and by the time Nathan's helicopter landed, the container was being hooked up to a truck that looked normal on the outside but was anything but within.

Minutes later they were on the road, with Nathan fully engrossed in readings and silently moaning the accuracy of the weather forecast. Rain made visibility hard but Nathan barely looked up, leaving the driving to the man with him in the specially sealed cab of the truck.

The driver spoke quietly. "Turn off for Global is less than a mile ahead. Road is empty save for one car about a mile behind us."

Nathan felt a strange sensation at the back of his mind and was tempted to ignore it. The car behind them was too far away to see them turn off so it really wasn't a problem and yet he felt this incredible urge to stop and wait. It was stupid, and he gritted his teeth to ignore the feeling but, at the last moment he relented.

"Pull over. Let it pass."

"Visibility's low. The driver might not see us."

"I know, but I have a feeling..." that he couldn't describe. Just a niggle at the back of his mind that he needed to let this car pass them before they continued on with their journey to Global.

A minute later, Nathan saw the car's bright headlights come over the slight rise and bend in the road, and it swerved past them, probably not seeing them until it was almost too late. Nathan could imagine the driver swearing at them right now but the car carried on towards Eureka. He waited another full minute to let the car move far enough ahead of them before speaking again.

"Okay. Let's go."

As the truck turned onto the road leading towards Global, it hit a tree limb that had fallen onto the road in the rain storm, and Nathan braced himself against the dashboard as the truck bumped over it. The readings from the Artifact went off the chart for a split second, and Nathan ran through a series of tests but registered no exotic particles - or at least none that his instruments could detect.

"That was close," he murmured.

A week later, Warren King was removed as head of Global Dynamics after suspicious activity concerning highly classified Section 5 technology and a tachyon accelerator that had gone haywire at the same time as the Artifact, and Nathan was offered King's job; he accepted immediately. At the end of the obligatory computer lock down and inventory, he had the first of what would be many official visits from the town's new Sheriff, accompanied by his estranged wife.

"Surprise," he said, but if looks could kill then, from the metaphorical lasers shooting from Allison's eyes, Nathan would have been a blackened carbon patch on the wall of his new office. Perhaps he could have handled that better, or at least pre-warned her, especially as she hadn't known he'd already been here for over a week locking down the Artifact in Section 5. He had still been undecided about staying despite his fascination with the Artifact, but the D.O.D had upgraded the offer from Director of Research to the top position, and that had made his mind up for him.

Not much later, despite his attraction to the rather wholesome and handsome, but intelligence-deficient Sheriff, his possessive nature started the rivalry between him and Carter for Allison's affection.

"Are you sleeping with my wife?" He cocked his head. "No. But you'd like to."

All his previous assertions that he was no longer in love with Allison fell by the wayside as he imagined her with Jack Carter.

Two years later, he proposed to her again, ending their rivalry in the most final way possible when he eventually wore her down and she said yes, and that was when he finally came to his senses.

Sitting in his car overlooking the lake, Nathan thumped his hands on the steering wheel, for once giving into the temptation to be profane.

"Fuck."

He was getting married in less than an hour, silently cursing Jack Carter for finally showing some interest in him when it was too late to do anything about it. He had seen the way Carter's eyes had raked down his body earlier, igniting a passion within him that had been missing with Allison for far too long. Confused, he squeezed his eyes closed and banished the memory of Carter by conjuring up an image of Allison. He loved her, and he knew she loved him. Maybe he wasn't in love with her anymore but he knew they would both try and perhaps this time they would find a way to compromise with each other and make it work. That had to be better than taking a gamble on a momentary flicker of interest in Carter's eyes that could just as easily have been Nathan's imagination running wild with him.

At this very moment, Allison was waiting for him in her wedding dress, surrounded by their closest friends and colleagues, and Henry was getting ready to preside over their nuptials. By now Carter would be there too, dressed in his one good suit - for weddings, fugitive hunts... and funerals - and ready to walk Allison down the aisle.

Only a few hours earlier, Nathan had reveled in the idea of his love rival giving Allison away... to him. Now he was going to have to stand before Henry with Allison beside him, trying hard not to look at Carter in case everything he felt for the man showed on his face. With a heavy heart on what should have been a joyous day, he started the engine and moved off, heading home.

The expensive suit he had ordered for the occasion was exactly where he had laid it out on the bed in readiness, and he quickly showered and dressed. He avoided looking into his own eyes as he smoothed down his shirt and silk tie, afraid of what he might see in them. He focused instead on how good he looked in the well-tailored suit that he had ordered especially for the occasion. Taking a deep breath he turned away from the mirror and headed out.

Carter was waiting for him, dressed in a cheap but well fitted suit, leaning against the Sheriff's car. He pushed upright as Nathan approached, and it took everything Nathan had not to openly appreciate the strong body and gentle blue eyes, snapping at Carter instead about the logic diamond necklace. Carter handed it over, though the gentle teasing from Carter could not completely erase the lines around his eyes that spoke of similar emotional stress... or distress. Thrusting hands deep into his pockets, Carter moved off towards the tent set to one side, where Allison was making her final preparations, and Nathan found his eyes following the forlorn figure.

"Damn it," he murmured.

Shaking his head to banish the sight, Nathan walked up the aisle alone and took his place, wondering if the ground beneath him was waterlogged as every step forward seemed to take more effort than the one before. Eventually, he stopped before Henry and offered a tight smile when Henry looked at him with concern. Before Henry could say anything, the music started, and Nathan turned to watch Allison approach with her small hand tucked into the crook of Carter's arm. She looked lovely but Nathan found his eyes sliding from her to the solemn man walking beside her. The sun was shining down brightly, lighting up the wheat gold strands in Jack's sandy hair, and the color of an azure sky reflected back from his eyes in a deeper shade of blue.

Where Allison looked lovely, Jack looked beautiful, almost unearthly.

The logic diamond felt heavy in his pocket, imprinted with promises that he had made to love Allison forever, and to always be with her. Words spoken sincerely and with determination because he had truly believed in those words at the time. He understood the capacity of the human heart to love more than one person, breaking the science down to pheromones and hormones and mental compatibility. It shocked him now to discover that he loved both Allison and Jack equally with all his heart, but it had taken just a single unguarded look from Jack for him to realize that if there was such a thing as a human soul, then Jack owned his, not Allison.

"If anyone present knows of any reason why these two people should not renew their vows and become man and wife once more, let them speak now... or forever hold their peace."

Nathan recalled a British movie that Allison had made him sit through with her, about weddings and funerals, and found himself almost praying that someone would stand up and say something to stop this disaster in the making. He closed his eyes as the silence lengthened, only opening them when Henry touched his shoulder. Henry leaned in and spoke softly so his words would not drift beyond them.

"Nathan? What's wrong?"

"Henry. I'm... I'm not in love with Allison," he replied almost breathlessly, so only Henry could hear. "I do love her but... but I'm not..."

Aware that something was wrong, Allison reached out and touched his arm, her eyes flicking to Carter and back in concern. "Nathan?"

He had one of the highest I.Q. levels in probably the whole world. He had captained the debate team at M.I.T. using words as a razor sharp implement of choice, but as he turned to face her, he couldn't find one single word except...

"Sorry."

His long strides took him away fast, reaching his car before most people had even managed to push up from their seats in shock. He wasn't even sure where he was going as he sped away, only that he needed to get away. Far away. He didn't stop until he ran out of road, finding himself on the lake shore once again. The engine died with a flick of the key and he sagged forward, head pillowed onto his arms on top of the steering wheel. He slumped even further as he heard the unmistakable sound of another car drawing up close by, followed by the quiet closing of a single door. The crunch of feet on pebbles preceded the opening of the passenger door and someone slid in, closing the door behind them.

It took only a quick peek to confirm what his olfactory sense had already told him as he breathed in the familiar cheap yet pleasant aftershave that Carter always wore. The silence lengthened into minutes, and Nathan had a strong suspicion that Carter could easily wait him out. No doubt a skill he had picked up from long surveillance details and fugitive hunts when he was part of the U.S. Marshals. Nathan sighed heavily and raised his head from his arms, staring through the front screen at the lake.

"I was an idiot to think I could just turn back the clock and everything would be fine."

"Did you just call yourself an idiot?"

The light teasing wasn't what he expected, not after what he had just done to Allison. No one deserved to be left at the altar, especially not the woman he had loved from the moment he first laid eyes upon her, and especially not by him. He choked off a laugh.

"I was expecting you to punch me."

"Oh, that's coming... but not for this." Carter looked at him, jaw tight with tension. "Public humiliation aside, it was better to stop it now before you ended up hurting Allison even more later."

Nathan buried his head in his hands - his misery and shame doubled from the guilt of knowing that his greatest feeling was of relief.

Carter sighed heavily. "Can you at least tell me why, so I can explain it to Allison?"

Nathan knew he didn't owe Carter an explanation, and he certainly didn't want to admit that he had stronger feelings for Jack than for Allison. He couldn't admit that he'd fooled himself into believing he was still in love with her when it was really all about Jack, and had been from the day they met.

"I love Allison..."

"Then why-?"

"...But I'm in love with someone else. Someone I didn't think I could have."

Carter's voice seemed a little choked. "Do I know them?"

"It's a small town, Carter. You know them extremely well." Nathan gave a deprecating laugh at his small concession to the truth, and saw Carter frown in confusion, obviously going through a list of names in his head and trying to see a connection. It occurred to Nathan that he'd already made a gigantic mess of everything today so what was one more indiscretion, one more confession. His voice hardened. "It's you, Jack. I'm in love with you."

Carter's eyes widened and his mouth dropped open in shock. He snapped it shut with a click of teeth, mouth tightening in anger.

"Your timing sucks, Nathan."

"Interesting." Nathan raised his head and looked straight at Carter.

"What?"

"I just confessed to being in love with you, and all you do is talk about timing? No denials. No outrage, or letting me down gently... or otherwise." He stared hard into Jack's shocked blue eyes. "Are you in love with me, Jack?" he asked softly.

Jack looked rattled by the question. "What? No! Of course I'm... I can't... This is Allison's wedding day!"

"Jack?"

"Fuck you!"

Nathan recognized the guilt, shame and desperation behind the anger. He'd avoided seeing the same flood of emotions on his own face in the mirror earlier, refusing to meet his own eyes. Jack shot out of the car, storming away and Nathan followed, grabbing at Jack's arm. Jack twisted suddenly, and Nathan barely registered the fist before he felt it, knocking him flat on his ass. He reached up to cradle his jaw. He could taste blood in his mouth, knowing from the sharp pain that he'd split his lip and knocked loose a tooth. Jack hadn't pulled the punch at all, but at least he was no longer storming away. Instead he was pacing like a caged animal, cradling his fist.

When Nathan made a move to stand, Jack stopped and glared at him, so Nathan sat back down and waited. His tongue found the loose tooth and he couldn't help probing it. Eventually Jack slowed and sank to the ground beside him, just beyond touching distance. Together they stared out across the lake until the sun began to set and a chill grew in the air around them.

"I think I broke my hand on your face."

Nathan started to laugh but hissed in pain instead.

"How's the jaw?"

"Sore."

"Good." Jack pushed up to his feet and took a hesitant step towards Nathan before offering his good hand. Nathan grasped it, allowing Jack to help him to his feet. "Can you drive?"

Nathan looked pointedly at Jack's damaged hand. "Can you?"

Jack sighed. "I'll manage. I'll follow you to the Global infirmary."

Two hours later, they were seated across from each other in Café Diem and Nathan was not surprised when little sympathy came his way despite the darkening bruise and swelling across the left side of his face. In contrast, Jack was treated to nods of approval as they took in the cast that covered his broken hand. It was easy to guess what had happened between Nathan's face and Carter's fist. Vince slapped Nathan's order down on the table in front of him before gently placing down Jack's cheeseburger and fries. He gave Nathan a disapproving glare before stalking away.

"Guess I'm persona non gratis this evening." Seeing Jack's frown, he translated. "Unwelcome person."

"Are you surprised?"

"No." He tried to sip from a glass of water.

"Do you need a straw?"

"God, yes." He breathed. Half his face felt thick and numb, making it difficult to eat or drink, but once the drugs wore off he had a feeling he'd be wishing it still felt that way. He was heading for a world of pain, but he deserved it. "Sorry about your hand."

"Nah. Deserved it for forgetting everything I'd been taught about punching."

Nathan had chosen something soft to eat, and it was cold by the time he was halfway through it. He pushed the plate aside, not really hungry, just going through the motions. He noticed that Jack had barely touched his meal either.

Jack sighed. "Come on. Fargo hightailed it out of here half an hour ago but Zoe can drop you home on our way."

Zoe wasn't best pleased to be doing anything for him under the circumstances, but acquiesced to her father's request. The car pulled away as soon as Nathan closed the rear passenger door, and Nathan walked into his empty house alone on what should have been a one of the happiest days of his life.

****

The day after the disastrous, aborted wedding, Jack and Henry sat around Henry's garage with a beer in hand, talking generally, and Henry let on about a little known secret regarding Allison and Nathan's previous break-up.

"A week before Nathan packed his bags and moved to Washington, Allison was in Eureka looking at houses. She'd already accepted the D.O.D's post as liaison and I think she'd simply assumed Nathan would follow. Apply for work at Global as a researcher to fit in with her career."

"That's a bit harsh."

Jack hadn't been the greatest of husbands but he had at least involved Abby in all the decisions, especially major ones. He had turned down one post that could have led to an earlier promotion but would have involved moving to New York, aware that Abby had a career too, with a practice in L.A. that she couldn't afford to simply drop. He'd even tried a desk job for six months after Zoe was born, just to make Abby happy but instead made himself miserable. He'd never been cut out for a desk job, shuffling papers, which is why Eureka had turned out to be such an amazing opportunity once he'd realized what it entailed. He got the best of all worlds as Sheriff, including semi-regular hours that allowed him time to be a real father to Zoe.

Less than a week after the wedding fiasco, Jack wasn't surprised when Allison accepted a job offer outside of Eureka. He knew it would be hard for her to stay when Nathan had no intention of leaving the town. Thinking back on that conversation with Henry, he had made a few calls and this time he was a little surprised when he saw the date on the paperwork. He wondered if she had been planning to spring that particular surprise on Nathan on their honeymoon, holding him to a new pledge to be with her forever.

He watched several men load up a truck with Allison's personal belongings while she dished out orders. He smiled softly, having not really noticed until now that she was just as much of a control freak as her ex-husband. Talking of which, he caught sight of a black BMW parked just around the corner, aware that it would be difficult for Allison to spot but not for him from his vantage point. He hadn't seen Nathan since the wedding day and that awkward meal in Café Diem. Jack waited until Allison disappeared back inside the house and walked over casually, half expecting Nathan to drive away before he got even halfway there. He considered stopping by the driver's window but, instead, he pulled on the passenger door, staring at Nathan through the side window until he gave in with a heavy sigh and released the lock. Jack slid in and closed the door behind him, remaining silent as they both continued to watch Allison organize the movers.

Jack broke the silence first.

"Did you know about the job offer?"

"Yes. She would have turned it down if not for..." Nathan waved a hand between himself and the distant figure of Allison. "Joint Head of Global Dynamics is far more prestigious than Director of Medical Research at our sister town in Switzerland."

"I'm not so sure about that. The paperwork was signed two days before the non-wedding."

Nathan seemed to tense up beside him, saying nothing, but Jack knew from his discreet inquiries that Allison had arranged for additional paperwork to be drawn up for Nathan to sign. The same Swiss town had planned to offer Nathan the Director of Quantum Research position. It would have been a step down from running Global Dynamics, but was still prestigious in its own right. Jack didn't need to be a mind reader or psychologist to know Nathan would have been hard-pressed to refuse the job offer so soon after promising Allison that he wanted to be with her and Kevin as a family.

"Hmmm. Still trying to control my life." Jack turned in the seat, waiting for him to continue, and saw the wry smile. "I know what you're thinking, Jack, but she genuinely thinks she's doing what's best for both of us... and for Kevin. Director of Quantum Research would have given me more time for my own projects rather than wasting time schmoozing with Washington pen pushers, the Pentagon, and the D.O.D. It might even have given me the chance to work towards a second Nobel."

"As if one isn't enough for most normal people."

Jack had his own theory regarding the move to Switzerland. Allison had wanted a fresh start, away from Eureka and its reminders of the alternate paths their lives could have taken if she had chosen him instead of Nathan.

Away from him at first, but now it was a chance to be away from both of them.

The silence stretched between them again, and Jack studied Nathan's profile, seeing the greenish tinge of bruising that had almost healed. His own hand would take a few more weeks even with all the advances in medicine at Global, and that seemed totally unfair. Seeing it as a great way to change the subject and ease the tension filling the car, he said as much to Nathan and gained a sideways glance and an irritating half-smirk.

"Maybe I should punch you again, Nathan," but Nathan merely pointed to his already damaged right hand. "I have a mean left hook too," Jack added.

"Then you'd have two broken hands."

"But you'd have a broken nose."

"I can think of better things you could do with your hands, Jack."

"Let's not go there," he stated perhaps a little too harshly, so he softened his words. "Yet."

Nathan tilted his head, a smile playing about his lips, and Jack knew it was because he'd given Nathan hope that they would 'go there' one day, but not today, or even next week. They both needed to rid themselves of the emotional baggage carried from their rivalry over Allison before they started anything new between them. Except maybe they had already started, Jack thought, as he realized Nathan had called him Jack rather than Carter or Sheriff, and he had called him Nathan without a second thought or a reprimand for being too familiar with the arrogant scientist.

Jack got out of the car but leaned back in, testing the name again. "Go home, Nathan."

Nathan looked as if he might argue, but then deflated, head bowing. He reached for the keys and gave them a twist, bringing the engine back to life.

"See you around, Jack."

Jack shut the door and waited until Nathan was driving away before walking back across the street to where Allison had finished clearing the house and was in the process of locking up for the last time. She smiled softly when she spotted him.

"Jack."

He opened his arms and hugged her, aware that there was a time when this simple action would have had him walking on air for days, and more determined than ever to win her heart from Nathan. Now, all he felt was the bond of friendship, having finally accepted that any chance of romance between them had died when she made her choice between him and Nathan. He wished her happiness though, knowing she was too beautiful, compassionate, and smart to be alone for long.

He kissed her softly on the cheek and stepped back, smiling at Kevin, who was seated in the back of the car, before walking Allison to the driver's side.

"Take care, Allison."

"You too, Jack. And take care of him too."

He didn't need to ask to whom she was referring, and simply nodded, holding up his good hand to wave goodbye as she drove away.

****

With the Winter Fest coming up fast - less than two days away and appropriately timed to fall upon Christmas Day - the whole town was buzzing with ideas for how the town should celebrate this year. Over the last week Jack had seen a mish-mash of religious icons and pure commercialism appearing in every store front as everyone's views and faiths were taken into consideration. He whistled a happy festive tune as he crossed Main Street, heading towards Café Diem for his mid-morning coffee break. Despite last night's snow fall, the streets were ice-free, courtesy of some contraption created by someone in Global. It certainly made his life a little easier, especially as he was L.A. born and bred and hadn't seen much snow outside of the fake stuff at Disneyland. The only other time was a fugitive hunt that took them into the Sequoia National Park in Winter, and he really didn't want to think too hard about that one.

He stopped and stared as he saw a gathering forming at a small park area just a little way off near the Mayor's office, deciding to take a detour to see what was happening. The woman bending over a tiny patch of ground looked vaguely familiar, and when she turned slightly, he recognized her as Dr. Maria Leonardo, the town's dentra... No. Dendo... Tree specialist. She stepped back, checking carefully before hitting a control pad in her hand. Seconds later, a twenty-foot pine tree, perfectly shaped like a Christmas Tree, appeared to the applause of those watching. He grinned.

God, sometimes he loved this town.

Jack felt someone come up beside him and smiled slightly as he recognized the aftershave, not bothering to visually check.

"Nathan."

"Jack."

Zoe ran up, all excited, with Hair Boy following. "Did you see that? So cool!"

"Yeah. Cool." He had to agree, even though it wasn't his first instant-tree experience. "Wait. Aren't you supposed to be in school?"

"Duh! It's a snow day."

Jack looked around in confusion. "What snow?"

She rolled her eyes. "It's the Winter Fest preparation day. All the final decorations are put up today."

Before he could answer, she ran off to join Pilar and Lucas.

"Surely you got the memo, Sheriff?"

Jack cast an irritated sideways glare at Nathan. He had an overflowing mailbox filled with memos that he'd passed over to Jo to handle, asking her to sort out the important stuff. Obviously, he was going to have to have another talk with her over what she should consider to be important. At least he hadn't been flattened by some security system this time around, though his unintentional lack of festive support might explain the lump of coal he had found sitting in the center of his desk earlier.

Nathan was biting back on a grin, and Jack sighed and shook his head. Over the months since Allison left, they'd actually started to form a real friendship, with Nathan joining him and Henry for dinner twice a week at Café Diem. Henry had sent his apologies for this evening and Jack half-expected Nathan to say he was too busy as well.

"So you're here in town...?"

"Overseeing," Nathan finished the hanging question.

"Right." He drew out the word, voice tinged with disbelief.

Jack noticed Henry was in the thick of things, handling the remote for a device that was slowly placing lights onto the tree. At least it wasn't some kind of light-stringing cannon, like the one that Martha May used in The Grinch. Now that could have been a potential disaster. He could see the light-stringing was going to take some time so he turned and started to walk away, stopping to glance back over his shoulder.

"Coffee?"

Nathan gave a half shrug and followed him, sliding into the seat opposite Jack as Vince came over for their order.

"The usual, Vince."

"Sheriff, I have a special cinnamon, double cream latte with a dash of brandy, sprinkled with shaved toasted marshmallow."

"Wow that sounds great! I'll have the usual, Vince."

"Philistine!" He muttered under his breath. "Doctor Stark?"

"Sure."

Vince beamed at him and hurried away, and when the drinks appeared a few minutes later, Jack grinned at Nathan's latte.

"Trying to decide if you should drink it or eat it?"

Nathan laughed softly and took a sip, wiping off the creamy topping that caught in his mustache.

Jack grinned harder. "You missed a bit," and picked up a festive paper napkin, reaching across to dab at Nathan's face.

Nathan caught his hand, capturing Jack's eyes at the same time. A sudden peal of laughter at the counter broke the spell, and Jack looked away feeling a little flushed. He reached for his coffee and hid behind it as he took a slow sip. Nathan leaned in, voice low so only Jack could hear, and eyes desperate and serious.

"This is ridiculous, Jack. We both want the same thing. Don't deny it. You wanted to give us time to make sure we were both over Allison, and to make certain what we felt for each other was real. It is real, Jack. Least on my side it is." He shook his head a little. "Saying yes won't bring about the end of the universe. The only world it will change is ours... for the better, I hope."

Jack slowly pushed his coffee aside, moving Nathan's too, and reached out with one hand to cradle Nathan's cheek. He felt the silk of skin and the slightly coarser tingle of Nathan's beard against his fingertips as he leaned in to press his lips chastely against Nathan's.

"Okay," he agreed softly as he pulled back.

They walked out of Café Diem together, oblivious to the happiness on Vincent's face that was mirrored on Henry's when Henry spotted them walking away, with eyes only for each other.

****

Christmas Day

For the second morning in a row, Nathan woke to the soft strains of a traditional Christmas carol playing through the house except this time they were in Jack's bed rather than Nathan's, to appease SARAH, who hadn't wanted to spend all of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day alone. He stretched luxuriously, feeling Jack's warm body move with him, draped partially over him like a blanket.. or a limpet. He wasn't quite sure which fit best. He dropped one hand onto the sleeping man's head, brushing back the short strands of hair that Jack had allowed to grow longer than his usual almost-buzz-cut since the Summer.

Jack nuzzled against him like a big cat, gentle fingers trailing through the sparse hairs on Nathan's chest and sending a shiver of pleasure through him as the rough pad of a finger brushed over a nipple. He'd never realized he was so sensitive there before Jack, but Jack had this uncanny ability to surprise him.

He saw pale eyelashes flicker and a lazy smile broaden as Jack awoke, tilting his head up to gift Nathan with the beautiful sight of his sleepy, deep blue eyes pupils dilated from sleep. If he was at all poetic, and Nathan refused to admit that he could be, then he would feel like he was drowning in those eyes.

"Hey, Merry Christmas," Jack murmured softly, and Nathan smiled down at him, moving them so he could claim the smiling lips in a kiss that deepened slowly as their bodies moved together, legs interlacing, and arms wrapping round each other.

"Merry Christmas to you too," Nathan said as they moved apart just a fraction. "Is that my Christmas present?" he asked as he felt the hard cock press against his thigh, enjoying the way Jack flushed and grinned wider. "Looks like I got you the same," he whispered as he pushed against Jack in turn, dragging the head of his cock over the soft skin and hard muscle of Jack's lower body. He pulled on Jack's arm, drawing him up until their cocks were lined up, side-by-side, before sliding his hand between them and grasping both.

Jack gasped, eyes fluttering closed from the sensation, always so amazingly sensitive to his touch. Nathan felt Jack's teeth graze his throat beneath the edge of his beard, and let his head drop back to offer more as he brought them slowly spiraling towards a mutual, satisfying climax. He felt the warmth of Jack's breath against his throat, ragged breaths torn from both of them, hearts racing, and unintentionally brought his semen-covered hand up to hold onto Jack as he devoured him in a kiss that was no less heated or passionate for the boneless pleasure still thrumming through his body.

When they pulled back, Jack's eyes were laughing.

"Did you just wipe that hand all over me?"

Nathan winced. "Shower?"

"Damn straight! As soon as I can move."

Nathan laughed and dragged Jack harder against him, smearing their rapidly cooling come between their bodies. He had never noticed Jack was such a neat freak until a day ago, though it would explain why he always got so irritable whenever he got slimed or had to crawl around anywhere dirty.

"Oh! That's gross!" Jack squirmed against him and struggled away, laughing when Nathan refused to let him go at first.

Nathan sank back to the rumpled sheets and watched in open appreciation as Jack clambered out of bed and bent over to gather up the t-shirt and boxers that had been discarded in passion late last night. He watched the way Jack's nose scrunched up as he pulled clothes over his sweaty and come-smeared body, fastidiously pulling at the t-shirt where it was already sticking to his stomach before grabbing his ratty, blue robe.

"There are times like this I wished I had a shower attached to the bedroom," Jack complained before gathering up some clean clothing to take downstairs with him to the bunker's only bathroom. Nathan grinned and watched him leave, letting the memory of last night fill his thoughts before making a decision to follow Jack. He grabbed up his own clothes, not wanting to pull them on over his sweat and semen-slicked body. Moving down the stairs quickly in the nude, he slipped into the bathroom, eternally grateful that Zoe had spent last night at Pilar's house after the Christmas Eve party. Jack was already in the shower, and the thought of him stripping out of the dirty clothes as if they were riddled with plague germs, made Nathan laugh softly. He stepped into the shower behind Jack and slid his arms around his fastidious lover's waist, startling Jack.

"And what do you think you're doing?"

"Just doing my part to save the planet. Sharing water resources."

Jack grinned and turned in his arms, all wet and soapy. It was too soon to get a rise from feeling Jack's slippery, naked body plastered against his skin but just the simple pleasure of touching and holding and kissing was enough.

"So glad I convinced Fargo to convert this to a real shower," Jack murmured between kisses, and Nathan had to agree.

Banging on the bathroom door broke them apart, with Jack looking comically horrified.

"Dad! Hurry up in there! Some of us want to open our Christmas presents today."

"Uh... Zoe? Uh! Aren't you supposed to be at Pilar's?"

"Duh! I was, but we always have Christmas breakfast together, Dad."

"Right! Um. Give me a minute, Zo."

Nathan dropped his head and muffled his laughter against Jack's neck. Jack sagged against him, no doubt wondering if there was any way for them to sneak back upstairs without Zoe noticing. Though Nathan had no intention of hiding inside a closet until it was safe to leave the bunker. It seemed the concern was moot anyway as Zoe continued.

"Oh, and tell Doctor Stark I've gathered up his jacket, pants, shirt and tie trailed between the couch and the stairs, as well as your clothes, Dad. And you moan at me for leaving stuff all over the place!"

They both winced, recalling the frantic strip last night between passionate kisses, before they had the sense to take it to the bedroom. Pulling on their t-shirts and boxers - clean ones in Jack's case - they stepped out of the bathroom to face a highly amused Zoe Carter, who looked Nathan up and down in a most disturbing way.

"Now I've seen you in your underwear, maybe I should call you Nathan."

"Under the circumstances, I guess that would be..." Acceptable? Appropriate? Nathan really wasn't sure if either word fitted. "Fine."

She handed over both sets of clothing, raising both eyebrows and pointedly looking up the stairs. As the bedroom door closed behind them, Nathan bit into the inside of his cheek to stop himself from laughing out loud.

"She was going to find out sooner or later," he stated as solemnly as possible under the circumstances, "And... Surprise! The world didn't end." But then he made the mistake of looking across at Jack, and lost it; no longer able to keep from laughing, not even when Jack half-heartedly thumped him. He grabbed hold of Jack's t-shirt and dragged him forward, wrapping his arms around him, and holding him tight as he buried his face against Jack's neck.

After a moment, Jack relented, sighing heavily as he tightened his arms around Nathan.

"Yeah, guess it's not like the whole universe imploded just because my daughter found out about us."

Zoe yelled from the bottom of the stairs. "Dad! Nathan! Some time today would be great."

Jack grinned and pulled away from Nathan, with both of them dressing quickly.

He leaned in and kissed Nathan sweetly before grabbing his hand and leading him down the stairs.

"About time!" Zoe exclaimed impatiently, not waiting for them to settle onto the couch before she began opening her gifts. And if she did notice Nathan's arm draped around her dad, and her dad pressed up against Nathan's side as they watched her tear into the wrapping, she said nothing.

It was not the end of the world, after all.

END

Gorgeous Artwork by CLEX