"Seriously," Jack whined. "Why are we stuck filling out all these forms when it was some idiot at the DOD who deleted them in the first place?"
"Because it's the DOD, Carter," Stark ground out from the opposite side of the desk they were working at. "Just be grateful that all of these are pre-filled out in the system and just need signatures. This should only take a few hours instead of days."
"Hours?" Jack groaned. "How many hours? We've already been at this for," he glanced at his watch and blanched. "Crap! It's five-thirty already. She's gonna kill me."
Stark watched amused as Jack fumbled in his pockets for his cellphone.
"Hi, S.A.R.A.H.. I... That sounds really good. You know it's one of my favorites. Really. I mean it but... S.A.R.A.H.. S.A.R.A.H.! I'm sorry. I didn't mean to shout but... That's just it. I'm stuck at GD for?" He looked enquiringly at Stark who shrugged.
"Four maybe five hours."
Jack gaped at him. "Oh come on."
"That's just the paperwork you need to sign. I'm not getting out of here before midnight." Stark had no sympathy. Jack's head thunked down on the desk, his voice muffled when he spoke.
"Did you hear that, S.A.R.A.H.? Yeah. Someone at the DOD managed to delete all of the forms we've submitted in the last six months. Would you let... Thanks, S.A.R.A.H.. I really am sorry about dinner. Leftovers for lunch tomorrow would be awesome. Night." Jack hung up then proceeded to lightly bang his head on the desk before Stark rolled his eyes, sliding his hand in the way. Jack looked up enough to quirk an eyebrow at him.
"You're going to damage my desk doing that." Stark removed his hand and went back to signing papers. He glanced at Jack who was pouting but also signing again. "So what was S.A.R.A.H. making for dinner?" He asked casually.
"Beef Stroganoff over egg noodles," Jack sulked. "I love her Stroganoff. Stupid DOD minion."
Stark couldn't help snorting at that comment but it did remind him they were going to need to eat and he wasn't in the mood for the GD cafeteria. He scribbled out a food order on a piece of scrap paper; hitting the intercom to summon Fargo.
"Yes, Dr. Stark?" The young man appeared in the doorway seconds later. Stark held out two pieces of paper.
"I need these forms printed. Call in an order for delivery from Cafe Diem. And this stack is ready to be sent over to General Mansfield's office."
"O-of course, Dr Stark."
"You could have asked if I wanted anything," Jack muttered once Fargo was gone.
"I don't ask questions I already know the answer to," he replied not looking at him. "I doubt you'll have a problem with what I ordered. If you do then more for me."
Jack smiled at his paperwork.
Three Months Later
Jack strode into Allison's office whistling cheerfully only for his steps to falter slightly and the tune die off when he saw that Stark was already there. The taller man was slouched comfortably in one of the armchairs; his long, lean suit-clad body on display.
Bad, Jack. Bad, he mentally snapped at himself. He did not need to be thinking these things. Dropping into the other chair, he smiled at Allison instead. "What's going on?"
"Apparently congratulations are in order," she said with an amused smile. "Though I have to say I'm disappointed I wasn't invited to the ceremony, gentlemen."
Jack opened and closed his mouth a couple of times though no sound came out. He noticed Stark was frowning at her like she was a particularly odd experiment. Finally Jack went with, "Huh? What ceremony? Do you know what she's talking about?"
"No. For once I'm as in the dark as you are, Carter. Care to explain, Allie?"
Not bothering to hide her smirk, she placed a sheet of paper on her desk in front of them. "I'm talking about your marriage, well, civil union technically. The DOD is sending a Relationship Auditor next week to determine it's viability,"
Jack was gratified that Stark was wearing the same slack-jawed look as him as they stared at Allison. Jack was the first to find his voice. "Civil union? Relationship auditor? What the hell is a relationship auditor? Since when are we married?"
"Check the date," Stark said, handing him the paper he'd picked up from Allison's desk. Jack snatched it to read. It was a Civil Union certificate with both their signatures on it dated...
"That was the day of paperwork hell. I don't remember signing this," Jack insisted.
"Do you remember any of what you signed that night?" Stark asked blandly.
"Yes! Maybe. A couple of them," Jack sighed. "So what does this mean? It can't be legal, right? And no one's explained what the hell a relationship auditor is or why one is coming to Eureka."
"Yes, it's legal. A Relationship Auditor is the DOD's way of determining the viability and stability of romantic relationships between people in key positions on important projects. An unstable relationship can cause a hazardous work environment. Nathan and I had to go through it when we were married," Allison explained.
"But we're not married."
"According to the paperwork you two filed with the DOD you are. And, by the way, General Mansfield requested I tell you he was not happy that you thought you could just slip this in among the rest of the paperwork and have it be ignored."
"But we didn't. This is just a mistake."
"Yes," Stark said, "and this is Mansfield's way of telling us he knows that but isn't going to let it slide."
"I..." Jack looked between the two of them. "I don't get it. Mansfield knows this isn't real but is going to hold us to it anyway? Why the hell for?"
"You mean besides the fact that we're two of his least favorite people?" Stark drawled.
"There are a number of reasons, Carter," Allison explained, shooting Stark a quelling look. "One is that mistakes like this shouldn't be made. Not by two of the people who hold such prominent positions in this town. By admitting that this was just a mistake we run the risk of the DOD sending in people to audit everything in town. Something like that can be a disaster in a lot of ways. I'm sure you can understand that."
Jack winced but nodded. "So what do we do about this?"
"Isn't it obvious, Jack? We have to pretend to be married."
Jack's mind instantly filled with images of Nathan in his house, trading insults back and forth over dinner. Nathan helping Zoe with her homework; watching the ball game with him. Nathan in his bed.
"No." Jack was on his feet in an instant, pacing the width of Allison's office as far away from Stark as he could get. "Just no. I get that this town seems to love finding new ways to humiliate me but this affects Zoe and I won't have it. Find some other way."
He was out the door, slamming it behind him before either of them could say anything. Storming through the hallways, he was only mildly surprised by the speed at which people jumped out of his way. Reaching his truck, he threw himself into it but didn't start the engine. He stared out the windshield instead. Jack knew he was going to get talked into this farce. Really there was no way around it but he could try to put off the torture for as long as possible. Because as attracted as he was to Allison, as good a mother he knew she was and would be to Zoe; he found himself undeniably drawn to Nathan. The intelligence and sarcasm and he wasn't bad to look at either.
He was so screwed.
When the passenger side door opened he really wasn't surprised by the familiar figure that got in. He didn't say anything though; just kept looking forward.
"I would never do anything to hurt your daughter, Carter."
Jack sighed. "I know. Do we really have to do this?"
"Yeah. We do. I'm not exactly happy about this either."
Jack let his head roll on the head rest so he could see the other man. Stark had his arms crossed over his chest while frowning at the dashboard.
"So what happens now?"
"We have a week until the auditor arrives. Hopefully whomever they send will stay less than a week but I've seen them stay up to two weeks. They'll follow both of us around for awhile; ask horribly invasive questions, and since we're already married do a home visit. Between now and their arrival we need to get comfortable enough with each other that they don't automatically decide the whole thing is a sham."
"What if they do decide that? I mean, don't we want them to deny the relationship?"
"We want it denied because it's unstable and could create a detrimental working environment. We do not want them to take one look at us and decide the whole thing is a lie. That would have other consequences including us possibly losing our jobs for committing fraud."
"Oh, that's just great. This just gets better and better." Jack stared out the windshield again, mulling things over. They had to pretend to be married but they had to give the DOD reason to believe their relationship was unstable. He snorted. That wouldn't be difficult. First they had to prove they were married which meant living together.
"I need to talk to Zoe tonight. Unless she has a major meltdown we can move your stuff in tomorrow."
"Who says we're living at your place?" Stark quirked an eyebrow at him.
"Uh, because you don't live in a house with abandonment issues?"
"Point. Do you want me to explain things to Zoe with you?"
"Yeah, no. This is going to be bad enough with just Zoe. I don't need both of you laughing at me."
"You do realize I'm as much at fault as you are. Maybe moreso. She'll be laughing at both of us."
"As comforting as that is it's still better I talk to her alone tonight. Crap. I have to tell S.A.R.A.H. too. Oh, this is going to be so much fun. Not."
Tilting his head to the side, Stark smirked at Jack. "I don't know if it's really amusing or really sad that you're so frightened of your house."
"Oh, shut up," Jack groused. "I'm not scared of S.A.R.A.H.. Believe me, if I was I would not be living there with my daughter."
Stark nodded conceding the point. If there was one thing everyone in Eureka knew it was how overprotective of his daughter Jack was.
"It's just... Living with S.A.R.A.H. is kind of like being married again only without the sex or any physical touch really." Jack sighed. "Not unlike the last few years of my marriage with Abby. Except S.A.R.A.H. doesn't go out of her way to make me miserable all the time. Or belittle me in front of everyone. Or cheat on me." Realizing how much he'd said, Jack snapped his mouth shut, his hands gripping the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white. The only saving grace was Stark keeping his mouth shut. When he finally felt like he wasn't about to blurt out every thought in his head Jack started the Jeep.
"Get out of my truck, Stark," he said with a smile to take the sting out. "I have to talk to my house then get mocked by my daughter and my deputy."
Stark snorted but complied. "Call me later and we'll figure out tomorrow."
Jack just gave him a wave before pulling away.
Walking back up the stairs to GD, Nathan wasn't surprised to find Allison waiting for him.
"He's going to talk to Zoe tonight and I'll move in tomorrow. What do you know about Carter's divorce?" He asked suddenly, not meeting her eyes.
"Not much," Allison sighed. "I know it wasn't pleasant. He divorced her though he's never said why. She used his job as a Marshal to limit his contact with Zoe. She seemed nice enough when she was here though."
Nathan gave her a look but didn't comment. Dr Abby Carter had reminded him of more than one politician he'd had to deal with over the years. And to hear she'd deliberately tried to keep Jack from his daughter did nothing to endear the woman to him. Even more surprising that Allison was so blase about it considering how she would react if someone tried to keep her from Kevin. He frowned. "She won't be able to use this whole mess against him, will she?"
"I doubt she'll ever hear about it," Allison assured him. "And if she does Zoe will probably be too old for custody agreements. She's sixteen now. A little over a year and she'll be in college. Possibly sooner based on her grades." She looked at him knowingly. "You've accepted this situation a lot easier than I expected you to."
"I understand the ramifications of trying to fight this," Nathan shrugged. "I don't see the point in getting worked up over it."
"Of course," Allison agreed. "It has nothing at all to do with all the flirting you've been doing with him."
"I have not been flirting with Carter."
"Of course not."
"We fight. That is not flirting."
"I understand. You always bicker with people you hate. Like whatshisname at MIT."
"Allie," Nathan blushed.
"I love you, Nathan. I always will but I'm not in love with you anymore. And while I admit having you two competing over me is an ego boost Bevarly was right when she said my lack of decision was more about ambivalence than anything else. I care for you both but right now I care more about my son, my independence, and my career and in pretty much that order. I don't want to be married again. I think that if you give this thing with Jack a try you might find yourself surprised. After all, if you convince the auditor that it's a real relationship nothing says you can't make it one." She gave his hand a squeeze before heading back into the building.
Nathan stared after her, finding himself unsure of what to do. It was a feeling he'd never particularly cared for and had always countered by committing himself to whatever course of action he'd decided on. That's what he'd do. He'd come up with a plan of action and stick to it. Jack Carter would never know what hit him.
Pulling up in front of the bunker, Jack cut the engine but didn't get out of the Jeep. He had no idea how he was going to explain this to S.A.R.A.H. or Zoe. Granted once Zoe found out it would probably be awhile before she stopped laughing at him. He'd kind of gotten used to that though. As a teenager her default modes with him seemed to be anger or mocking.
This was different. Jack knew Nathan wasn't exactly one of her favorite people thanks to his biting sarcasm and Jack couldn't blame her for that. This was never going to work.
Jack jerked at the sudden sound of his cellphone ringing and fumbled it out of his pocket. He frowned at the caller ID. "S.A.R.A.H.?"
"Is everything alright, Sheriff? You have been sitting in your vehicle for 5.36 minutes without moving."
"Uh, yeah, everything is... No, everything isn't fine. I'm okay though. I'll be inside in a minute. There's something I need to talk to you about."
"Would you like a beer waiting?"
"I wish but no thanks, S.A.R.A.H.. I'm still on duty."
"Of course. I'll make it a root beer then."
Jack let out a soft chuckle as he hung up then sobered. He really had no idea how S.A.R.A.H. was going to take this. She'd never seemed to have an issue with Nathan the few times she'd interacted with him but she'd hated Abby and hadn't really tried to hide it. Then again Abby had been trying to take Zoe away from them.
Shaking his head, he got out of the Jeep and headed inside. Sitting out here wasn't going to get this done.
S.A.R.A.H. waited until he was sitting on the couch with his root beer before speaking. "Is this about the Civil Union paperwork you and Dr Stark filed and the relationship auditor the DOD is sending?"
Jack choked on his mouthful of soda, coughing harshly to clear his burning airways. "How did you know about that?" He wheezed.
"I set the Global Dynamics system to alert me whenever your's or Zoe's name is entered."
"Uh huh. So you were alerted when Stark and I accidentally filed that Civil Union certificate? Why didn't you say something then?" He demanded.
"Due to all the paperwork you were filing that night I had turned off the alert," S.A.R.A.H. said sheepishly. "I didn't know about it until today when General Mansfield contacted Dr Blake."
"Figures," Jack muttered. "At least I don't have to explain it to you. Right, so thanks to this auditor person coming Stark and I have to pretend this wasn't a mistake; that we are actually in a relationship which means Stark has to move in."
S.A.R.A.H. was silent for a brief moment as she contemplated this. "Doesn't this make you happy? You are attracted to Dr Stark. Ninety-three percent of the time it's his name you call out when..."
"S.A.R.A.H.!" Jack turned beet red. He knew even with privacy mode engaged she was still watching but she'd never openly acknowledged that before.
"I was simply stating a fact, Sheriff."
"That doesn't make it better. And no, the fact that I'm attracted to Stark just makes the whole thing worse. He'll end up finding out and, assuming he doesn't just punch me, I know I'm going to end up endlessly mocked for thinking I might have a chance with him."
"Unfortunately I do not have enough data to support or deny that statement. He was concerned for you when I thought you were leaving Eureka and when you were trapped within Dr Barlowe's therapy device."
"If you say so," Jack muttered."Anyway, I was thinking we'd store his things in the office for now since I don't really use it. I'll move some of my extra clothes into the guest bedroom so he'll have room in mine. Something tells me he's a bit of a clotheshorse."
"Are you sure sharing a room with him is wise if you wish to keep your attraction a secret?"
"Oh, it's not wise at all but it would look really suspicious if two newlyweds weren't sharing a bedroom." Jack scrubbed a hand over his head. "I have to get back to the office. Do me a favor and don't mention this to Zoe. I'll tell her when I get home tonight."
"Of course, Sheriff. Shall I prepare one of her favorites for dinner tonight?"
"Yeah, that'd be great. Thanks, S.A.R.A.H.."
Pulling up in front of the Sheriff's Office, Jack quickly made his way inside. He suspected he was just being paranoid but he couldn't help feeling like everyone was staring at him; like they all knew already. The quick glance Jo gave him over the rifle she was cleaning did little to reassure him. She remained quiet though as he settled at his desk and logged into his computer.
Several minutes of silence passed with her shooting him quick looks until he couldn't take it anymore.
"Alright. Out with it. Just say whatever it is you want to say."
"Me? I don't know what you're talking about," she said with a straight face.
"Really. Nothing to say?" Jack leaned back in his chair disbelieving.
"Really. Although," her look turned sly. "I am curious."
Here it was. "Curious about what?"
"Should I call you Sheriff Carter-Stark or just Sheriff Stark?"
Jack's head hit his desk with a thunk as she laughed at him. When she finally tapered off he lifted his head. "Does everybody know?"
"I doubt it," Jo replied still chuckling. "Allison called to tell me. When are you planning on telling Zoe?"
"Tonight. How upset do you think she's going to be?"
"I think she'll surprise you."
"That wasn't exactly the answer I was looking for."
Jo just shrugged refusing to say anything else.
"Honey, I'm home," Jack called out, walking into the bunker that night.
"In here," Zoe called back from the kitchen.
Joining her, he found the table set for dinner and her homework spread out on the counter. He gave her a quick kiss on the temple. "How was school?"
"Interesting," she replied watching him retrieve a beer from the fridge.
"Good or bad interesting?"
"I don't know," she shrugged. 'It depends on if it's true that you and Dr Stark got married without telling me?"
Jack barely managed to keep from snorting his beer, setting it aside with a sigh. "It was an accident."
"Wait. It's true? You and Dr Stark are married? Since when? And how exactly do two guys get married by accident?"
"You remember the night I was stuck at GD filling out paperwork that the DOD had accidentally deleted?"
"Yeah. You stumbled in right as I was leaving for school whining about carpal's tunnel and stupid DOD minions who were worse than Fargo."
"I was working on it with Stark who was having Fargo print out all the forms we needed."
"Let me guess, he printed the wrong one but neither of you noticed what you were signing by that point. Wow." Zoe gave him an almost impressed look. "I'm not sure if I'm horrified or amused. Certainly explains why S.A.R.A.H. made my favorite comfort food for dinner."
"Horrified by?" Jack asked cringing.
She definitely looked amused now. "By the fact that I'm now going to be known as the girl whose dad managed to accidentally marry the scariest guy in town; the guy you've totally had the hots for for the last year."
"I... What... No... That's... I... But..." Jack spluttered before heaving a sigh. "How?"
"Dad, I love you, but you're not as subtle as you think you are."
"I'm not sure how I feel about that considering I only just recently figured out how I feel about him."
"Yes, but that's because you're a guy. Guys always take longer to figure these things out," Zoe gave him a patronizing pat on the arm as she picked up the two plates of Baked Ziti S.A.R.A.H. had prepared, taking them to the table. She waited until he sat down to ask, "So what are you guys doing about the whole accidental marriage thing? Filing for an annulment?"
"Actually, unless you have any major objections, he's moving in tomorrow." Jack couldn't help smirking when she choked on her bite of food.
"What?" She demanded when she could breathe again. "What happened to dating first? If he moves in you can't say anything about me and Lucas."
"Yes. I can. Because you're only sixteen and still living under my roof. And he's not moving in because it's a real marriage. It's just for show," Jack grumbled stabbing his food.
"You lost me somewhere."
"General Mansfield found out about the civil union paperwork but rather than ignore it, because he knows it was an accident, he decided to send a DOD relationship auditor to determine the 'viability' of our relationship. We can't just say it was mistake because then all of Eureka will get audited. At the same time if the auditor person figures out it's all fake we could be fired for fraud. Basically Mansfield is being a bastard because he doesn't like me or Stark. Don't repeat that."
Zoe held up a hand in acknowledgement, slumping back in her chair. "That... really sucks. You're damned if you do, damned if you don't and Dr Stark may or may not know about your feelings for him."
"Considering he hasn't punched me yet or run away as fast as he could I'm thinking not."
"Or he doesn't object and just hasn't said anything."
"You really think he'd pass up on prime mocking material?"
"Okay," Zoe wrinkled her nose, "You may have a point but I could be right. He can't be all bad if Dr Blake married him."
"She also divorced him," Jack pointed out.
"You need to be more optimistic. Pessimism is bad for your complexion," she grinned at him when he huffed out a laugh. "So I'm guessing he's not going to be staying in the guest room."
"God, it would make my life so much easier. Unfortunately one of the things we're expecting is a home visit. So..." He waved his fork vaguely.
"So sharing a room." Zoe contemplated her food for several minutes as they ate. Finally coming to a conclusion, she said, "You should have him come over tonight."
"Uh, why?" Jack stared at her. Zoe rolled her eyes.
"What were you two planning on doing? Having some movers pack up his place tomorrow and dump all but the necessities in the storage room here?"
"Maybe?" He said tentatively.
"Ugh. You're both helpless. S.A.R.A.H., call Dr Stark and tell him to come over."
"What? No! Zoe."
"Ignore Dad, S.A.R.A.H.. He's being an idiot."
"Dad, seriously. It needs to look like he lives here. Not that you just moved him in yesterday and hoped no one would notice. Because someone whose job it is to pick apart relationships? They'll notice."
"Fine," Jack huffed, tossing down his fork. "Call him over. I'm going to take a shower. Let me know when he gets here."
He dropped his plate in the sink before heading upstairs. Zoe watched him go with a sigh. This could be either the best or worst thing to happen to her father.
"Dr Stark is on his way, Zoe," S.A.R.A.H. announced.
"Thanks. Could you give me ten minutes with him before you tell Dad?"
"May I ask why?"
"I want to make sure he understands the consequences of using this mess to hurt my dad."
S.A.R.A.H. was silent long enough that Zoe began to worry. Her response was a relief when it came.
"I agree. I shall let you know if Sheriff Carter leaves his bedroom before the ten minutes is up."
"Thanks, S.A.R.A.H.," Zoe grinned up at the ceiling.
"You are my family, Zoe Carter. I don't want to see either of you hurt if I can prevent it."
"We love you too, S.A.R.A.H.," she said with a smile.
Fifteen minutes later S.A.R.A.H. announced Dr Stark's arrival as she let him in. Zoe looked up from her homework, amused by the slightly nervous look he was giving her. "Dr Stark," she greeted him.
"Zoe," he replied shifting from one foot to the other but not leaving the foyer. "You're father told you about the... situation?"
"The situation. That's one way of putting it and, yes, he told me. Have a seat, Dr Stark," she gestured at the chair across from her. "I haven't bitten anyone since I was eight and Jimmy Malone totally had it coming for stealing my Malibu Barbie."
That startled a laugh out of him as he joined her at the table. "Considering the circumstances you should probably call me Nathan. Where's Carter?"
"He's upstairs. I wanted to talk to you alone first." If he was surprised Zoe couldn't tell. If anything he seemed relieved.
"I wanted to talk to you as well."
"Really now. What did you want to talk about?" Zoe leaned back in her chair; arms crossed over her chest. The very image of a suspicious teenager while inside she was practically jumping up and down with joy. She had a pretty good idea of how this conversation was about to go.
"What did you want to talk about?" Nathan countered.
"You first," she insisted. "What I have to say will probably change depending on what you say."
He frowned at her before taking a deep breath. "I realize we're going about things a bit backwards but I... That is to say, if you don't object, I was thinking that maybe... I was hoping..."
"Oh my God," Zoe groaned, "you two are horrible at this."
"Excuse me?" He blinked at her in surprise.
"This is you trying to tell me that you're actually interested in my dad, right?"
"Oh no. This is not something to be undecided about. Either you are or you aren't interested. Because if you're just playing with my dad I will end you and Jo and S.A.R.A.H. will help me make sure there's nothing left of you to find. Understand?"
"I understand," he nodded solemnly, "and I am interested in your father. I'm guessing it's safe to assume the interest is mutual?"
"Seriously? How are you the smartest man in Eureka and not know this?" She demanded.
"Some times what's right in front of us is the hardest thing to see."
"Is this a not seeing the tree for the forest thing?"
"Something like that," he laughed. "He's interested then."
"Yes," Zoe sighed, "but he's not going to believe you if you just tell him."
"He doesn't trust me," Nathan sighed.
"To save Eureka; with his life; with my life, yeah. To not use this to mock him? Not so much."
"I guess I deserve that," Nathan scowled, running a hand through his hair. "What do you suggest then?"
"Subtlety. Win him over with the little gestures. And don't suddenly stop snarking at him. Beyond the fact that he enjoys arguing with you it'll make him suspicious. Just figure out what can be used for mocking and what should be off limits."
"I don't suppose you have any hints on that?"
"Part of a relationship is figuring these things out on your own."
"In other words I have to prove myself to both of you," Nathan surmised.
"Yeah, pretty much," she agreed with a broad grin. "Alright, S.A.R.A.H.. You can tell Dad he's here now."
"I try. Now. Did you have the same brilliant idea as my dad that you'd just pack up all your stuff but the necessities, shove it in a corner and think this auditor guy wouldn't notice?"
"Maybe not all my belongings," he started.
"I'll take that as a yes," Zoe sighed cutting him off. "Luckily for you tomorrow is Saturday so I can come over and help you decide what of yours we can integrate around the house and what should go into storage for now."
"I'm not sure what the point of putting my things out is," Nathan said looking around. "Carter hasn't bothered to decorate either."
Zoe shrugged. "Yeah. Dad's kind of minimalist. It's from travelling so much for the Marshals I think. He does have a few things in storage that I wouldn't mind getting him to put out which makes this the perfect opportunity. Now, and these could be a deal breaker, how do you feel about baseball?"
"Sabermetrics are an interesting mental exercise," Nathan answered amused by her scoff.
"There are worse answers," she begrudged. "Favorite college football team?"
"The schools I went to weren't exactly known for their football teams so it's not something I ever got into."
"I can work with that," Zoe grinned.
"Work with what?" Jack asked as he came down the stairs. He was barefoot in faded jeans and a short sleeve Los Angeles A's jersey.
"Nathan's never bothered to follow college football so he doesn't have any bad habits we need to break him of," she replied happily.
"Is that so? And when did he become Nathan?" He asked joining them at the table, sitting next to Zoe.
"I thought it was appropriate considering the situation, Carter," Nathan answered for her.
"Okay, that has to stop," Zoe announced drawing their attention to her. "When you're at GD or dealing with each other because of your jobs you can and probably should call each other by last name. Here and when you're off duty it's first name only because people in love don't use last names unless they're flirting." She looked between the two of them expectantly. "Well?"
Jack rolled his eyes while Nathan smirked.
"See. That wasn't hard. Now. I'm going to help Nathan tomorrow with deciding what can be put around the house and what will go into storage. Tonight we're going to go through what you have in storage, Dad, because we need to put out more than just your autographed baseball bat."
"It's a collectible!"
"That doesn't make it a decorating scheme. Before we start I'm going to be nice and give you ten minutes to hide anything you don't want us to see."
"What?" Jack stared at her.
"The stuff in storage? I'm perfectly happy to look for blackmail material," she smirked at his nervous look.
"I'm just gonna... yeah."
Zoe snickered as he hurried away before turning her gaze to Nathan. "So. What do you know about vector calculus?"
Happy for a familiar unemotional topic, he reached for her text book. "Show me what you're working on."
By the time they'd finished with her homework Jack had gone through the bulk of the boxes hiding anything he didn't want seen; which thankfully wasn't much. He had to wonder though when Zoe went straight for certain boxes if she hadn't already been through them all. That was a... scary thought.
In the end she had them bring out three boxes. A blanket Jack's mother had knit was draped over the back of the couch. Jack's small collection of fiction novels went onto an empty shelf.
"I never would have taken you for a Tolkien fan," Nathan commented, a dog-eared copy of The Hobbit in his hands. Jack took it from him with a nostalgic smile. He flipped gently through the pages before putting aside to dig through the box it had been in. In short order there was an equally worn set of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion sitting next to it.
"Grammy Carter found these at a used bookstore and read them to me when I was ten," Jack explained. "A week into summer vacation I broke my leg and wasn't allowed out of bed. I was driving my mom nuts until Grammy started coming over every day. She read me the entire series. Best summer of my life."
Zoe hugged his arm, leaning against his shoulder. Clearing his throat, Jack looked at Nathan. "What about you? Fond memories of reading them?"
"More like bittersweet. I was fifteen, in college and trying to impress a Liberal Arts major who was five years older than me. She tried to let me down gently but I was fifteen." Nathan shrugged. He looked startled when Zoe hugged him as well.
"Dad read me The Hobbit when I was eight and had the Chicken Pox. Mom was away at a conference so he'd taken vacation time to stay home with me. Okay. Enough nostalgia. Finish unpacking."
The rest of the books went out followed by an assortment of family photos though only one had Abby Carter in it. A quick look around and Zoe pronounced them done for now. She then turned a critical eye on them making them both squirm. Well, Jack squirmed. Nathan folded his arms over his chest.
"Right." She clapped her hands. "We have to make the two of you look like you're in love. You can get away with some awkwardness because no one likes having their relationship examined and, you know, it's the government. Luckily you're guys and you're, well, you two so no one expects any major touchy-feely pda's from you. It's going to be all about the small gestures."
"When did we decide taking relationship advice from a teenager was a good idea?" Jack asked leaning towards Nathan.
"See! That right there." Jack froze when Zoe pointed at him but she was smiling. "Leaning towards each other just a little to say something. That's an intimate gesture."
Of course this made Jack blush and jerk away from Nathan who rolled his eyes.
"Jumping away from him like he's a leper is a bad thing, Dad," she huffed.
"Yeah, I get that," he grouched. "I'm just not comfortable with the direction of this conversation."
"Too bad, You, both of you, lost the right to object when you accidentally married each other. Small gestures," she paced in front of them like a drill sargent. "A hand on the small of the back from whomever leaves second. A touch to the arm or the hand. Typically as a greeting or way to get attention but don't go out of your way to do it. That'll just look weird. Stand so that your shoulders are just touching. Gently squeezing the other's wrist can be a comforting gesture or a goodbye or even both at the same time. Really what it all amounts to is being comfortable in each other's personal space. If you want to go the arm around each other route Dad should go low and you should go high, Nathan."
"What?" They asked simultaneously.
"Nathan is taller so to prevent you two from doing some weird arm maneuvers he should default to his arm around Dad's shoulders and Dad's arm around Nathan's waist. I suggest practicing over the next week so it's more natural when the auditor gets here."
"We can try that," Jack allowed, arms crossed defensively.
"Good. Of course it'll be a whole other ball game when you're at home. Actually I wouldn't be surprised if whomever gets sent doesn't blatantly ask to see you kiss each other."
Jack whimpered. Nathan's cheeks turned red beneath his beard while suddenly feeling the need to clear his throat.
"Yeah. Reacting like that will be a dead giveaway. Alright. On your feet," she ordered.
"Nope. If I leave this up to you two you'll be fired within five minutes of meeting this auditor. On your feet facing each other. S.A.R.A.H., play something romantic please."
"Is this suitable?"
The soft notes of an acoustic guitar filtered through the house speakers. Zoe smiled.
"Perfect. Now you two are going to kiss each other. And not just a quick barely there peck. It has to be at least ten seconds."
"I'm not kissing him in front of you."
"This is your idea of subtle?"
"You have no idea. Shut up and kiss each other."
"Zoe, seriously, I'm not..."
"For the love of..." Nathan cut Jack off mid-sentence, his hands cupping stubbled cheeks as he slanted his lips over Jack's. For a brief second Jack froze then he surged up into the kiss, hands clutching at Nathan.
Zoe stared, blinking a couple of times before she gave in to a self-satisfied smile. "Alright," she murmured backing away to the stairs. Heading up to her room, she quietly said, "Child privacy level five, S.A.R.A.H.. Don't interrupt them unless you have to."
Zoe paused at the top of the stairs to look down at the two men still kissing, completely wrapped up in each other. Dr Stark might not be who she'd pictured for her dad but as long as he made him happy she'd be on their side. And, okay, ignoring the fact that it was her dad, they did look kind of hot together for two old guys.
"How can you sit there looking all calm about this?" Jack huffed, pacing in front of Nathan's desk. The past week hadn't been perfect; he and Nathan were both too used to using sarcasm as a defense mechanism but he'd still been happier than he could remember being in a long time. Waking up each morning wrapped around each other; sharing meals at home and Cafe Diem with and without Zoe; sharing the couch while Jack watched a ballgame and Nathan cycled between watching, reading or working but always pressed up against his side.
Content, Jack thought. He was content. He wanted to see where this was going with Nathan and the thought that the DOD had the right to tell him, tell them they couldn't be together was sending his blood pressure into orbit. Nathan's laid back attitude wasn't helping. "Aren't you the least bit concerned?"
"Just because I'm not pacing a hole in the floor doesn't mean I'm not concerned, Jack." Nathan stood to block his path on his eleventh circuit. Resting his hands on Jack's waist, he ignored the disgruntled look Jack gave him. "You need to relax. This isn't the big deal that you're making it out to be."
"Really? How is this not a big deal? Some DOD stooge is coming to assess our relationship which didn't exist before last week. If they don't believe us we could get fired. Even if they do believe us they could still deny us the right to a relationship and how is that even fair? Who are they to say we can't work well together just because we're seeing each other... married... whatever?"
"We do work well together and we are in a relationship," Nathan said, moving Jack backwards until he was pressed against Nathan's desk. "I've been through this before. We'll be fine. Trust me."
"You think I'm worrying over nothing," Jack poked him in the chest though his lips were starting to curl up in a smile.
"I think," Nathan pressed closer to him, "that you are worrying excessively over nothing."
"I just... Whatever this is between us has only just begun and thanks to Mansfield and the DOD butting in they could put a stop to it before we have a chance to see if it'll work."
"Not going to happen," Nathan cupped Jack's face in his hands, brushing his thumbs lightly over his cheekbones. "If you think for one minute that I'm going to let Mansfield and the DOD dictate our relationship now that I've got you then maybe I need to remind you just how stubborn I can be."
"Yeah," Jack huffed out a laugh, "I think I've got a pretty good idea just how stubborn you can be, Dr Stark."
"Then let me show you how persuasive I can be, Sheriff Carter," Nathan murmured before sealing his lips over Jack's in a passionate kiss. Jack moaned low in the back of his throat, mouth opening beneath the questing tongue. Jack's fingers curled tightly in the fabric of Nathan's dress shirt, pulling him even closer. Eventually he pulled away, breathing a just a little ragged.
"So," Jack lightly ran his tongue over his lips, grinning at Nathan's groan, "as much as I love this method of persuasion, a, you better not use it on anyone else. I don't share."
"Good to know because I don't share either," Nathan growled pressing for another kiss that left Jack looking dazed when he pulled away. "And b?"
"Huh?" Jack asked eyes narrowing at Nathan's smirk.
"You said A. Typically if there's a Point A there's a Point B."
"Smug bastard," Jack muttered. "Point b was I thought we agreed we weren't going to do this in GD?"
"You decided that. I never actually agreed," he grinned against Jack's lips.
"Smug," Jack repeated between kisses, "bastard."
Looking over, they found an amused Allison standing in the doorway. Next to her was an officious looking man whose head barely reached her shoulder. He was making notes on the clipboard in his hands. He reminded Jack of Vizzini from the Princess Bride only in a suit.
"Dr Stark? Sheriff Carter?" Vizzini in a suit asked.
Jack groaned letting his head drop against Nathan's shoulder while Nathan said, "If we say no will you go away?"
"Well, that answers those questions," the man made a few more notes.
"Nathan, this is Dr Warren Hughes. The DOD Relationship Auditor," Allison said giving him a Look to which he rolled his eyes.
"So," Hughes chirped, "who wants to be interviewed first?"