The first time Jack Carter kisses Nathan Stark it's a deliberate invitation, an act of provocation. It's a kiss that's been growing inside of Jack for days, weeks, and ripening for hours. What started out as a minor irritation, a tickling awareness in the back of his skull, has crept like a slow burn out along his nerves until his skin feels fever-hot with it.
He's been cognizant for months that Nathan was flirting with him, though at first he thought Nathan was the sort of man who flirted with everyone, so Jack didn't take it personally, just caught it like a fly ball and pitched it with a gentle underhand back to the plate.
He never imagined he'd do anything about it, never imagined he’d walk through that door Nathan seemed to be leaving cracked open.
(Though for the first time in a long, long time – since long before Abby, since dim, jumbled memories of his last months of high school, his first months of college, when sex and friendship and love and longing had tangled up together in a confused, confusing knot in the pit of his stomach – for the first time since then, Jack feels the thrill of open possibility, finds himself waking at night from half-remembered dreams of touching, tasting, needing, having.)
He's got Zoe to keep track of, after all, and things with Abby are unworkable but complicated (and familiar) and opening doors that have been closed for nearly twenty years takes no small measure of bravery and how long is he going to be in this damn town anyway?
But then he'd stood in the rain at the bus station, with Zoe safe and sound beside him, and watched Nathan keep vigil over his – his son's final moments – with a presence and quality of attention that filled Jack's chest with something so big that for a few days he can't even look at it, just hold it gently and gingerly like a giant bubble of glass, blown so thin it's feather light and a breath too strong will shatter it, leaving behind nothing but shards of lost possibility.
He sits at his desk and fiddles with his wedding ring, feels the groove it's worn in his ring finger over the past nineteen-odd years.
What if – ?
But Nathan Stark is a dangerous thing, a bright, hot spark of creation and destruction. He's egotistical and brilliant and mad and entirely, entirely out of Jack Carter's league. Sure, Stark's willing to flirt and tease (Jack isn't as clueless as they all think, after all, and Nathan isn't as good at concealing the way his eyes flicker across Jack's ass as he thinks he is) but every time Jack cautiously flirts back Nathan's eyes shutter and he's – gone.
Jack thinks about his wedding ring, and about the papers Allison says Nathan still hasn't signed, and wonders, and waits.
Except that, in a moment of desperation, he can't wait any longer and without even consciously working through motivation and method he goes with gut instinct and pushes, sending up a silent prayer that Allison will forgive him for – well, what turns out to be a fairly pleasant kiss, all things considered.
The messy little secret being, of course, that while Jack is kissing Allison all he can really think about is the fact what he really wants to be doing is kissing Stark. How, if he were kissing Nathan Stark, he'd have to reach up instead of down, how his hands might rest on Stark's hips, slide round to skim up his spine, come to rest on the broad curve of his shoulders.
Or maybe it’s not so secret after all: “You need to tell him, Carter,” Allison says, coming up beside him at the dance and handing him a glass of punch.
Jack pockets the ring he's just pulled from his finger, aware his body language is as guilty as a teenage boy caught shoplifting a tube of lipstick. “What?”
“Nathan. You should go after him,” she nods in the direction of the doorway through which Stark has just vanished (Jack hadn't been watching him, exactly, but these days when Nathan's in a room Jack can't help but be aware of where he is). “He thinks it's me you're interested in.” It's not a question, exactly, but she takes a sip of punch from her glass watches for his reaction.
Jack flushes, “Allison, I--”
She puts up a hand, “Hey, Carter, please. I had, shall we say, a front row seat this afternoon, and I do have some experience when it comes to men who swing both ways.” She looks out over the crowded dance floor where, a few minutes before, she and Stark were shuffling companionably while Jack was trying (and failing) not to feel jealous and overwhelmed and not a little bit scared.
She sighs. “Look, I won't pretend I don't miss him, that way; there are days when I do. We're a good team, but it doesn't – we never – you get what I mean when I say it just didn't work?”
He does; he and Abby had tried for the better part of a decade to make it work against the odds, and despite the pain they're learning to be better parents to Zoe, a better team, a day's road trip apart than they ever had been together.
“I--” he clears his throat, flexes the hand not holding his punch, feels the emptiness where the ring used to be, thinks about the band of gold in his pocket.
“Let me let you in on a little secret, ex-wife to future boyfriend,” Allison leans over and pitches her voice low, “Nathan will flirt forever, but I was the one who had to make the first move.” She downs the rest of her punch in one swallow, coughs, and then nudges him in the arm with her shoulder. “Go on. I'll make sure Jo gets Zoe home safe at the end of the night. You need to go put Nathan out of his misery.”
Stark hasn't gone far; he's left the close air and noise of the hall for the relative quiet and darkness of Eureka's main street but seems to have stalled out rather than taking off for – wherever it is he lives; Jack realizes, suddenly, that despite having known the man for over six months he's only ever seen him at GD or in public spaces, in the context of their work together, or at town events. Does he even have a home to go to? Maybe Stark has – what, a stasis chamber? – at the office he just puts himself in at night? Jack can feel a bubble of hilarity in his throat, tight from nervous tension.
He's really, really rusty at this.
Stark is leaning against the brick facade of the community hall, hands in his pockets, head tilted back, eyes closed, throat exposed where the top buttons of his shirt are undone. Jack swallows, stopping a couple of feet away as if the glass bubble he's been carrying for these past weeks is caught between them, preventing him from moving closer.
He takes a breath. Then another.
“Nice night,” he offers, just to break the silence.
Nathan cracks open an eye, closes it again. He looks … weary, Jack thinks.
“You foiled my plans at world domination,” Stark observes, dryly, “and yet you don't seem concerned that I'll take you out into the countryside and bury you where Jo would never find the body.”
“I wouldn't be so sure about that – she does have Taggart teaching her a thing or two,” Jack tosses back, lightly, fighting the dryness in his mouth. “She's a force to be reckoned with, your Jo.”
“World domination, huh?”
Nathan makes a noise in the back of this throat, neither denial nor assent.
“See, that's not what it looked like from where I was standing,” Jack is aware he's moving in toward the moment of truth here, can feel the glass bubble between them shivering with tension, knows that inside a minute or two he'll be the one to break it and then there'll be no going back.
“No?” Stark has both eyes open, now, watching Jack in the light filtering out from the hall windows. He's gone still and quiet in a way that Jack hasn't seen before, except at GD or maybe Henry's workshop, when Nathan is in the middle of solving an insoluble problem. It's a breathtaking balance of strength and vulnerability, an openness to the world, a nakedness without being physically naked, as if his soul itself is stripped bare, rubbed raw, the better able to understand the atoms that make up the universe.
“No.” Jack has to work his throat for a minute before squeezing the word out, and even then it's in a whisper. It's terrifying to have that quality of attention focused on him. But he can do this – needs to do this – can feel the need plucking at the end of every nerve. “The nanoids might have had world domination in mind – they're Taggart's creation, after all, and his projects terrify me,” a comment that elicits the intended huff of laughter from Nathan, “but it wasn't the nanoids I was paying attention to. It was you. And while I've never been very good at reading the signs, and I'm twenty years out of practice, I have it on good authority that my hunch is accurate and what you had in mind was something more like this.”
He steps forward, feels the invisible bubble shatter, stumbles slightly at the vacuum it leaves behind, and is suddenly there: one hand on the brick next to Nathan's shoulder, the other splayed against Nathan's chest, mouth licking distance from the man's lower lip.
Under his hand, he feels Nathan's pulse racing, feels his chest rise and fall with a careful breath.
He waits for the strangeness. The foreignness of dude and not-Abby and Stark. Instead, it only feels right.
“You kissed me,” he says, suddenly breathless and certain, “that day when – with Dr. Carlson.”
Nathan looks at him and simply says, “Yes.”
Jack closes the space between them, and opens Nathan's mouth with his own, feels the slow burn kindle into a startled, unexpected flame.