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Just want to put him in my pocket

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“Good morning Sheriff Carter,” S.A.R.A.H’s voice says in that tone that’s too bright for the ungodly yet familiar hour of 6AM. Jack rolls out of bed, mumbling a request for her to get an extra-large cup of coffee ready for after his shower. He got home late last night after having to respond to what started as a noise complaint and ended up turning into a literal wild goose chase. Taggart’s robotic geese malfunctioned, leaving them flying around town making continuous honking noises. They were unresponsive to commands, so Jack had to round up every last goose to be manually reset.  

He’s eating breakfast when he hears Zoe come down the stairs. “God, I hate this stupid class!” She groans from the living room, shoving a textbook into her backpack with excessive force.

“Well don’t take it out on the backpack. It didn’t do anything wrong.”

“It’s electricity and magnetism,” Zoe continues as if she didn’t hear him, “which I thought I understood. It’s just memorizing some basic formulas and figuring out what to integrate. At least that’s what it would be if I went to school in a normal town that wasn’t filled with geniuses. They’re having us analyze the circuits for a whole system of magnetic nanoparticles.”

“Ah, magnetic nanoparticles. Yes, I definitely remember… never learning that.”

“The homework problem made no sense. I kept getting a positive magnetic force when the answer’s apparently supposed to be negative. But I do not understand how the nanoparticles could be attracted to each other with the current running in that direction.”

“Well, now your dad actually does know something about that,” Jack says with a grin. “If I learned one thing from being married to your mother, it’s that sometimes you just can’t explain attraction.”

Zoe just gives him a loud groan as she hurries upstairs to grab the rest of her things before he drives her to school.  

Jack miraculously makes it all the way until 11AM at the station before getting his first urgent call of the day. It’s Allison telling him to get down to GD right away. She hangs up before he can get more information than that, so he says a quick goodbye to Jo and heads out.

When he walks in, Allison’s there to immediately greet him at the entrance.

“Thank God you’re here. We’ve got a situation.”

“Well good morning to you too,” he says with a smile. “My weekend was fine, thanks for asking. Save for an unasked-for game of duck duck goose all across town, starring Taggart’s robo-geese. Gotta tell you though, it was a honkin’ good time.”

She doesn’t even give him a hint of a smile, which means this must actually be pretty serious. Right. Time to go into sheriff mode.

“One of our lab bunnies escaped. It’s trapped inside one of the labs and we need to rescue it as quickly as possible.”

Or… not so serious. “I’m sorry, did you seriously call me here to rescue a lab— did you say bunny?” The cutesy word is at complete odds with her serious tone.

“Bioengineered to Undergo iNcreased Youth,” she explains. “That B.U.N.Y. is 35 years old, which is over three times the typical lifespan of a rabbit. It’s our most successful test subject so far in our experiments to counteract the effects of aging. Anything happening to it would be a devastating loss.”

“That acronym’s a bit of a stretch, don’t you think?” Jack says, pointing out what’s clearly the most important part of that information. Allison just rolls her eyes.

“Well it’s better than their original plan of calling it a Jackrabbit with Artificially Suppressed Senescence, or JackASS. That one didn’t manage to get approved.”

“Aaaand there she is,” Jack says, pleased at finally getting a smile out of her.

“I’m sorry, I’m just stressed. General Mansfield is coming in this afternoon for an important demo in Section 5 and we really do not need any chaos.”

“So why can’t you just send Taggart in with a carrot and a box? Why call me?”

“It’s not that simple,” Allison says while walking into the elevator. Jack steps in next to her.

“No, it never is.”

-------

As it turns out, the bunny managed to make its way into a lab in Section 3 and proceeded to bite through wires that set off a small explosion, leaving the room largely inaccessible. The equipment in there is dangerous enough that if it bites through the wrong wire, it could lead to an even larger disaster that could wipe out the entire floor.

Stark is the most knowledgeable about all the different types of equipment in the lab and what’s safe to touch, so it’s decided that he’ll go with Jack.  

“You requested a carrot?” Stark says dubiously, handing Jack a carrot and a small cage.

“Well I don’t think I’m gonna get him to come to me just by being charming.”

“Couldn’t agree more,” Stark mutters under his breath.

Allison walks over with her arms crossed, looking nervous. “Be careful. Both of you.”

“We will,” Jack says with an easy smile. As far as danger levels go in Eureka, this seems pretty minimal.

Allison and the others wait in Stark’s office, monitoring the security system to be ready to send help if it detects anything catastrophic. The floor has already been evacuated, so the hallway is deserted as Jack and Stark approach the lab.

“Here, bunny bunny,” Jack calls, holding out the carrot. They make their way around the room for a minute or so, which isn’t a trivial task due to the debris from the explosion. Finally, they hear a soft rustling noise coming from across the room. They follow the sound and see an ear poking out from under a table with a bunch of exposed wires.

“If he chews that red wire…” Stark warns.

“Right. Come here bunny, don’t you want a tasty carrot?” The bunny pokes its head out to look at the carrot and starts sniffing it. Jack reaches his other hand slowly over, not wanting to scare it, while Stark readies the cage. He makes a quick grab for the animal, but it hops away right before Jack touches it and goes behind a pile of broken furniture, out of sight.

“Shit,” Jack mutters.

“Your skill with animals is astounding.”

“Oh shut up, like you could do better.”

Jack heads over to the furniture and starts climbing over it. Just as he’s clambering over an upside-down chair, he sees a flash out of the corner of his eye. Everything after that seems to happen in slow motion. He turns his head to look and sees that one of the machines is starting up, with smoke coming out of one end and sparks that are flying faster and faster.

“Get down!” Jack shouts, running back to grab Stark and tackle him to the floor. There’s an ear-shattering bang, and for a split-second Jack feels a searing pain like his body is 1,000 degrees. Then, all at once, there’s complete silence.

“What was that?” Jack asks, rolling over and rubbing his head. He hit it when they went down, but he doesn’t think it was hard enough to worry about a possible concussion.

“Bunny must’ve tripped one of the wires. You see him anywhere?”

Jack doesn’t need to look around, because just then the bunny hops right on top of Jack’s chest and starts nibbling the carrot.

“Oh, now you want the carrot. Of course.” Jack grabs onto the bunny before it can do any more damage and puts it into the cage.

Stark takes out his PDA. “We’ve got the bunny. Any damage to the other labs?” They just hear static. “Allison?”

“Maybe the explosion interfered with communication?” Jack suggests.

“Let’s go find them and get this little troublemaker back where he belongs.”

They take the elevator down to meet Allison in Stark’s office. But there’s no one there. Looking out the window, Jack can see that the lobby is eerily quiet as well. Usually there’s a constant stream of scientists and government officials passing through, but right now there’s absolutely no one.

“Where’d everyone go?” Jack asks the obvious question. Maybe the computers predicted the explosion and Allison had to evacuate all of GD. Stark, however, doesn’t look quite as confused as Jack feels. In fact, if he had to label the emotion on Stark’s face, it’d be dread mixed with realization. “What is it?”

Stark doesn’t say anything, just leads them back to the elevator. Jack feels oddly light on his feet as they walk, probably a result of his head still being a bit foggy from the loud blast and his impact against the floor. 

“You sure it’s a good idea to go back into the lab that just exploded? Shouldn’t someone make sure it’s safe first?”

“Oh, you mean like the Sheriff?” But the way Stark says it doesn’t have the same bite as usual. Something is wrong. Stark marches into the lab and starts intensely studying the equipment and typing into the computer. Jack decides to not interrupt and just let him do his thing, since he doesn’t seem to want to answer any questions.

Finally, after 10 minutes, Stark sits back and whispers out a harsh “Fuck.”

“Ok, would you please tell me what the hell is going on?”

He finally looks away from the computer and up at Jack. “The device the bunny got into is a Dimensional Multiplexing Generator. It can essentially create a space that’s folded up into dimensions we don’t normally experience.”

“And that means…”

“It’s not that everyone else is missing from Global. We’re missing from Global. Well, that entire world, really.”

“So what, we’ve entered into… an alternate timeline?”

“No, not quite. It’s called a pocket universe. It was created in the room we were in and must have formed around us, sucking us in.”

“I’m sorry, a what?”

Stark nods, clearly having expected Jack’s confusion. “A pocket universe. They’re basically like miniature universes that can have their own unique laws of physics. Global’s been trying to create them for decades. We’ve had some success, but they always end up unstable. And we’ve never sent anyone inside. Or anything, for that matter.”

“Ok… unstable how?” Jack asks slowly. He thinks he already has a pretty good idea of the answer.

“Typically? They implode on themselves. Or blow themselves apart.”

“Great. Well that’s just… great.” Stark just keeps looking and moving around the room, acting largely unbothered. “So uh, miniature universe? We got in somehow, right, so can’t we just… go out the way we came?”

“It’s not that simple.” It’s one of Jack’s least favorite phrases, second only to ‘theoretically’, and this is already the second time he’s heard it today. Instead of continuing to explain, Stark takes a coin out of his pocket and drops it on the ground. Then he picks it back up and tosses it in the air, again watching it fall to the floor.

“Not simple how?” Jack prompts, exasperated already.

“Now this is fascinating. Gravity seems to have noticeably less of an effect here.”

“Great, so in this universe we’ve unlocked the power to super jump? Does that help us get to an exit door, or…”

“It’s interesting because we’re currently standing in Global Dynamics. Everything we’ve seen so far looks identical to the building back home, except there seem to be no people. That would stand to reason that we’re on a duplicate Earth. But gravity’s different, so either the Earth is different, or the laws of physics here are different.”

“Or both,” Jack says. “And if gravity’s different, who knows what else we might discover.”

Stark nods, then finally goes back to Jack’s initial question. “Getting into a pocket universe is straightforward, at least in theory. It takes up a physical space in the real universe outside, but that space is extremely small. Think of it as if we’re trapped inside a bubble. We got in by it forming around us, which is probably the only way we managed to survive the huge energy blast it would’ve given off. But inside of it, there’s no exact way to find the real universe outside. It's technically around us, but we can’t see it or interact with it.”

“You can see out of a bubble,” Jack points out, just to be difficult.

Stark brings his hands to his temples and takes a deep breath. “Fine. A solidly colored bubble.”

“But they can see us, right? The pocket universe, it’d be visible, or at least detectable, to the people in GD?” Stark nods slowly. “So maybe they’ll find a way to get us out.”

Stark sighs and looks away. “No they won’t. Time doesn’t run the same here as it does there. The dimension distortions involved… for every second that goes by there, roughly a month goes by here. We’ll be ancient by the time they even realize what’s happened to us.”

“So… what? We’re stuck here?”

Stark thinks quietly for a few moments. “Maybe… but maybe not. We are in Global Dynamics, and somehow all the equipment seems to be in working order. I’ll start running tests, see what we’re dealing with.”

Stark turns and strides down the hallway, shouting out a quick, “You coming?” Well, looks like it’s time for Jack to start learning something about this scientific method he’s heard so much about.   

-------

They end up in a room full of blinking sensors and other equipment. Stark’s been silently running tests for the past hour, leaving Jack with nothing to do but worry about their entire situation. He can’t help but think about Zoe. If what Stark said is true and time runs differently here, she’ll never even know he was gone. But he still wants to know for sure that she’s ok.

“This is taking forever. I’m just gonna go outside, see what we’re dealing with directly,” Jack says.

“Sure, go ahead. If you want to be potentially irradiated. Or freeze to death. Or suffocate in an atmosphere replaced entirely by nitrogen. We have no idea what could be out there, but we do know that Global is safe. There’s no reason to rush this.”

It makes sense, but Jack’s feeling antsy. He hates not being able to do anything to help. “Fine,” he grumbles. “Well I’m just gonna explore around in here then.” Nathan gives him a dismissive wave, so he goes ahead and steps out into the hallway.

He turns to walk in the direction away from the main elevator to investigate the part of this floor they haven’t seen yet. As he makes his way down the long hallway, he peeks into each lab to see if anything is obviously weird. All of them look about how he’d expect. The number ordering on the doors check out as well, so it doesn’t seem like the building’s been rearranged in any way. But after door 1264, the numbers go back to 1201 and start increasing again. Jack rolls his eyes to himself. Of course GD couldn’t just number things normally. It gets strange, however, when he sees the main elevator up ahead. This hallway is almost perfectly straight. There’s no way he had gone in a circle. Is there another elevator he didn’t know about?

As he keeps walking, he eventually reaches room 1240, which is the number of the lab he was just in with Stark. He opens the door slowly, unsure what to expect.

“Back already?” Stark says when he steps inside the room.

“Well, I didn’t mean to be. This floor doesn’t run in a loop, right?”

“You’ve been Sheriff for how long, and you still don’t know the layout of this place? No, it doesn’t run in a loop. Would you like me to draw a map on your hand so you won’t forget?”

It bothers Jack immensely that he knows Nathan is making fun of him, yet that actually is his go-to strategy for remembering things.

“I walked straight down this hallway, didn’t turn once, but somehow I ended up right back here.”

Stark looks up, considering. “Show me.”

So Jack does. They take the same route, and at the point where the numbering changes, Stark pauses. He crouches down to look carefully at the floor, and then the walls.

“Fascinating. Come on.” Stark leads them to the elevator and then down to the main lobby. He heads straight for the front door.

“Hang on,” Jack says. “What happened to the whole ‘we’ll get flayed alive if we go outside’ thing?”

“I never said we would, just that we could. But I suspect…” Stark opens the door, but instead of the parking lot, there’s a hallway.

“Well that’s different,” Jack says. “So how do we get outside?”

“I’m not so sure there is an outside.”

“What about the roof?”

They quickly go back to the elevator and take it all the way up to the top floor. They head up the set of stairs granting roof access, but when they go through the door at the top, they find themselves in yet another hallway.

“Where are we?” Jack asks.

“Basement.”

“That’s super trippy.”

“I’ll need to run tests. Come on, Carter, we’ve got equipment to move.”

The rest of the day is spent transporting equipment from a bunch of different labs into one large lab that Stark seems to have deemed as his headquarters. Stark’s fairly confident that when the Dimension… Multiplying… Maker thing formed the pocket universe, it copied over Global in the exact state it was in at the time, with the exclusion of any conscious beings.

The disconnection from Eureka’s main power grid stopped nearly all the running experiments, which is a Godsend – they probably couldn’t handle thousands of suddenly unsupervised experiments going haywire. But Global’s generator automatically took over all the major systems since then, giving them power, water, and computer access. It just takes some rewiring and changes to the main computer settings to get power up and running to the equipment Stark will be using.

By the time they’ve finished moving everything, Jack’s absolutely exhausted, but he tries not to let it show. Stark with his fancy daily gym workouts wouldn’t hesitate to use that as more material to mock him with. But fortunately, Stark also seems ready to call it a day, so they go down to the cafeteria to evaluate the food situation. The refrigerator, which rivals Vince’s in size, is completely stocked. And with Global’s fancy food preservation techniques, they could probably get by for decades without ever worrying about going hungry.

“You like burgers, right?” Stark asks.

“Uh, yeah.” He didn’t realize Stark knew, well, anything personal about him.

Stark throws some patties on the grill while Jack chops tomatoes. They move around the kitchen in companionable silence getting everything ready.

While they eat they talk logistics. It looks like they’re going to be stuck here for a little while, so they might as well get comfortable. Global doesn’t have a wide variety of clothes available, but there are a few options. The best seem to be high-quality workout clothes that could pass as casualwear, and pajamas that Medical keeps in stock to make patients more comfortable. Stark runs them each through a health scan, complete with taking blood, urine, and semen samples, to make sure their bodies didn’t get damaged from the whole universe hop. It’s kind of awkward, but it’s nothing Jack’s not already used to dealing with living in this town. At least he doesn’t have to get naked in front of him.

Medical also has what turn out to be reasonably nice bedrooms for when patients need to be isolated for extended periods of time, each with an attached personal bathroom. Stark takes the room next-door to Jack’s so that if there’s an emergency in the middle of the night, they’ll be able to quickly reach each other.

At the end of the day, Jack sits on his bed wondering how he’ll ever be able to get to sleep with everything there is to worry about. But when his head hits the pillow, exhaustion settles over him and he’s unconscious within minutes.

-------

Stark’s all set up to start running tests the following morning, so Jack decides to do some investigation. It might be nothing, but no one had seemed to know how that bunny had escaped and gotten itself all the way into one of the more explosive-prone labs at GD. It seems a little too coincidental. And if Stark’s right about this being an identical copy of Global, he has an entire building of perfectly preserved evidence at his disposal.

Jack decides to start at the source, heading down to the lab where the pocket universe was created, though he’s not sure what exactly he’s looking for. After a cursory look around, he crawls next to the machine that he remembers seeing the sparks flying out of. He’s careful not to touch any of the wiring, but there’s something strange scattered about the area. It almost looks like clumps of dirt.

Jack picks a few up and sniffs them. Rabbit food. That’s what it has to be.

He heads back to where Stark is working and goes straight up to the bunny, who’s sitting in its cage off to the side. He offers out his hand with the pellets, and the bunny sniffs them carefully before eating them. Theory confirmed.

“Hey Stark?”

Stark sighs. “What is it, Carter?”

“I was just in that lab where the whole pocket universe incident happened. And I found rabbit food sprinkled all over that machine that went haywire.”

Stark stops what he’s doing and looks up. “You think…”

“I don’t think any of this was an accident. Someone trapped us here on purpose.”

-------

They fall into a routine, with Jack investigating who created the predicament they’re in, and Stark working on a way to get them out of it. Jack’s doing his best, but he’s limited to the physical and digital evidence that existed in GD at the time of the pocket universe creation. So he spends his days looking through security footage, personnel files, and timestamps on location data for the scientists. The location data is fairly limited, only providing information on elevator use and transitions between sections with different levels of security clearance. And the security footage itself has been a dead end so far. The bunny cage was conveniently located on a table out of view of the camera, and no one unusual entered the lab in the 24 hours before the incident.

Stark spends his time analyzing data about the pocket universe itself – which laws of physics have changed, details on the spatial distortion, and a bunch of other things Jack doesn’t even begin to understand. Sometimes they work in the same room, sometimes not. But they always meet up for meals. It helps to have someone to talk to so they don’t go insane, even though they wouldn’t have been each other’s first choice for company.

Stark’s gotten into the habit of using Jack as his rubber duck. His words, not Jack’s. Apparently it’s actually a thing and not some weird kind of insult. Stark talks through the problems he’s currently facing with his experiments while Jack listens. Most of the time he realizes where he’s going wrong without Jack even saying anything.

For the first two weeks, Stark mainly ran simulations and tests to figure out the basic laws of physics here. Since then, they’ve started working on ideas for getting out, though as far as Jack knows there hasn’t been much progress.

“In some ways it’d almost be a shame to leave,” Stark says at lunch one day, about three weeks into their time here. “There’s so much to learn from this place. The same laws seem to govern this universe, but the universal constants are different.” At the lost look on Jack’s face, he adds, “Like gravity, for instance. Given the mass of this place, we should be floating on the ceiling. It’s been hypothesized that even a slight change to those constants could drastically alter matter, space, and even time itself. But all of that is more or less unchanged here. It’s possible this set of constants is a stable point in the set of all possible values. But that implies there might be other stable sets of constants as well. A whole function, even, determining what universes can possibly exist. It’d be a huge breakthrough.”

“Yeah, well, I’m sure you can write down all the values to remember for when we get out of here. Any new ideas on that?” Without some prodding, Stark tends to go down a rabbit hole of scientific theory that Jack neither understands nor feels is relevant to their actual problem.

“I’m thinking matter relocation might be our best bet.”

“You mean teleportation? Does that actually exist?”

“It… does. I worked on a project studying it a long time ago. There’s a somewhat functional prototype at GD, but it’s never been tested on humans. And I have absolutely no idea how to set the coordinates for someplace outside of this universe.”

“Why didn’t it ever get tested?”

“I worked on it before I came to Global, back in grad school. I transported one of our early prototypes to GD after I first got hired, but I never really intended to work more on it. My lab partner, Dr. James Serady, knows more about the science behind it than me, unfortunately.”

Jack nods. “Well, where is this prototype?”

It turns out the prototype is very, very far down. So far down, in fact, that Jack’s ears aren’t happy with the pressure change as they descend from Stark’s office. Well, more like descend in Stark’s office, which evidently also functions as an elevator. A very slow elevator. Supposedly it’s a lot faster if the security system declares an emergency and has to keep the head of GD safe, but in the current circumstances it’s going to be entire minutes before they reach the bottom.

“So what happened with the research?” Jack asks to break the silence. “Why didn’t you keep working on it once you were at Global?”

“James and I… had a falling out. It was clear that we couldn’t work on the project together anymore. And since it was his idea in the first place, it only seemed fair that he be the one to get to continue it. I’m not sure how far he got with it.”

“What, was he jealous you got hired by Global and he didn’t? I bet you were totally obnoxious about it.”

“It wasn’t like that. More…” Stark hesitates. “Emotions between people can run high when working together closely, especially in that kind of high-pressure environment.”

“Sounds like a lovers quarrel to me,” Jack snorts. Stark is strangely quiet in response. “Ooh, so it was a lover’s quarrel? Really?”

“Leave it alone, Carter.”

He does not leave it alone. “So what was it then? A drunk evening of experimentation after finishing up work on your experiment? A crazy night of spin the beaker?” Oh, he cracks himself up.

Stark stares at him, the corner of his lip quirked up. “You assume it was some one-off thing.”

“Well, yeah. I mean, you’re not…” Stark used to be married to Allison. Lots of people experiment in college, sure. But Stark clearly likes women.

“You know,” Stark says, “I think you just can’t fathom the idea that someone who’s attracted to men might just not be attracted to you.” Stark gives him a cheeky smile.

“Oh,” Jack says, a little off kilter. “So, are you messing with me, or… you’re bisexual?”

“I don’t see what reason I’d have for messing with you,” he says in a perfectly flat tone.  

Jack thinks about it for less than a second. “Yeaaah, still can’t tell.”

He can see the hint of a smirk on Stark’s face, and then there’s a loud sound of the elevator reaching its destination. “Come on, it’s right through here,” Stark says, leading the way to a back room.

Inside there’s a raised platform with what looks almost like a dentist chair sitting on it, some metal paneling lining the walls, and a few computers near the room’s entrance.

“It’s gonna take a few days, at least, to get this thing up and running. But it seems to be in relatively good condition considering no one’s touched it for nearly two decades.”

“Well,” Jack says, “I think that’s cause to celebrate.”

-------

Thank God this pocket universe recreated Global so exactly. Having access to all the lab equipment is a positive for sure. Food and water, A+. But right now what Jack’s extra appreciative for is the extensive liquor supply. Apparently Global hosts fundraisers and galas for a lot of important people who expect the best of everything.   

“What do you think?” Stark asks him after he finishes his sip of the very expensive whiskey they just opened. They’ve already gone through an entire bottle of red wine that Jack’s sure was fancier than any he’s had before, so they’re both fairly tipsy.

“Oh, it’s um, good. Very… austere.”

Stark snorts. “You don’t know what that word means, do you?”

Jack laughs. “Nah, I’m more of a beer guy. But it’s good. It’s um, fun to try new things.”

Stark looks at him silently for a moment, swirling his drink. It’s pretty dark in the room, but Stark’s eyes stand out against everything else. It’s easy to forget how light they are in color, when the rest of him screams dark and brooding. Like windows into the kinder, softer part of him he hides away. A part that Jack’s really only gotten to see glimpses of when it comes to Allison or Kevin.

“You never told me about you.”

Jack raises his eyebrows. “I’m sorry, what?”

“You dug into my past sexual experiences, for no reason, but you never offered up anything about yourself.”

“Oh, who says there’s no reason?” Jack says, waggling his eyebrows. It earns him a light chuckle out of Stark, but he doesn’t drop the subject.

“I’m serious though. I mean, I bared my soul to you.” There’s a fun gleam in his eye that Jack doesn’t get to see much. It’s nice, drinking together. Getting to let loose. “Come on, return the favor.”

“Oh, you bared nothing. You neither confirmed nor denied anything that happened with that James guy. Not that I’d expect any different from you.” 

“Well if you want me to bare something…” Stark says with a shit-eating grin. Jack picks up the wine cork and throws it at him.

Still. There’s something about the atmosphere of the evening – sitting together late at night, the dim lighting, joking around – that’s making him feel comfortable sharing things he normally wouldn’t. The alcohol certainly doesn’t hurt, but if anything it’s the unusually open and curious expression on Stark’s face that pushes him forward.

“I mean… ok, fine. There was this guy in high school. We weren’t even friends, really, but every time we ran into each other, it was like there was this… energy, I guess.” He trails off, remembering the overwhelming feeling he used to get whenever he interacted with Owen Wendon. He was good-looking for sure, but that wasn’t exactly why he’d stood out to Jack. At least, not entirely. He was confident, cocky, even, but despite that he always seemed more genuine than most everyone else at that school. He didn’t give a shit about all the popularity bullshit other people seemed so obsessed with.

“I thought maybe it was just a curiosity, you know? Or maybe that I wanted to be like him, not that I... Anyway, one day after school, we both ended up in the gym locker room. And he kissed me.” Jack breathes out a laugh. “That was actually my first kiss. And I liked it.”

Stark is looking right at him, attentive, pensive. Jack keeps going. “But you have to understand, the town I was in… people weren’t as accepting back then of everything, you know? And I didn’t even know if it was just because it was my first kiss, or because I was curious, or if I really was into guys. It never happened again, and I started dating a really nice girl after. Really nice girl.” Jack tries not to get choked up thinking about Angela, and all the ways he failed her.

“And it’s not like I never think about it,” he continues. “I mean, that guy in high school isn’t the only guy who I’ve thought… you know. I’ve always been pretty… aware of men who are attractive.” He snorts and adds, “It’s how I knew for sure, before I even knew who you were, that you were gonna be a huge threat to my whole Allison plan.”

Stark tilts his head and gives him a wide grin. “Why Sheriff Carter, did you just tell me you think I’m hot?”

“Oh please, like you need anyone to tell you that. Don’t worry, your personality more than cancels it out.”

“Right back at you,” Stark says, still grinning.

“Oh? Which part?”

Stark just smirks and says, “So that was your only time kissing a guy?”

Jack narrows his eyes. “Yeah, why? You offering?” He’s joking when he says it, but something in Stark’s expression makes him wonder. How serious is Stark being right now? And how serious might Jack himself be if this conversation keeps going?  

But Stark stands up, shattering the moment. “It’s getting late, and I am drunk.” He starts walking away and calls out a careless, “Goodnight, Carter,” behind him.

“Night,” Jack says to the empty room.

-------

Another week goes by while Stark preps the teleportation machine for testing, which seems to be going well. Jack, on the other hand, has hit a wall with his investigation. It’s nearly impossible to solve a case where the people he’d like to interview are in an entirely different universe. So he finds himself, more often than not, wandering down to watch Stark while he works.

Stark had hunted down a few science books for him that are introductory enough for Jack to have at least a chance at understanding. So when Stark’s not using him as a rubber duck to bounce ideas off of, Jack works his way through the books and keeps a list of questions to ask Stark when they take meal breaks.

He never liked science in school, but now he’s actually finding it interesting. Maybe it’s just a result of the boredom from having nothing else to do. But there’s also something about the way Stark explains things. He hasn’t stopped making fun of Jack completely, but he’s become surprisingly responsive and patient with Jack’s questions. Instead of throwing around fancy words and getting all theoretical, he’s taken to using examples and analogies to things Jack’s familiar with. It’s closer to the way Henry would talk to him. And it’s a nice surprise whenever he sees Stark’s eyes sparkle when he explains something he’s particularly excited about.

Today Jack slept in later than usual, so Stark’s already down in the teleportation lab when he gets there. When he exits the office-slash-elevator, he hears Stark’s voice coming from the lab room.

“What do you think of that, Ralphy? Would you eat a carrot that’s been rematerialized using 1500 Hertz for the restoration frequency?” There’s a pause. “Good choice. Because we both know that 1500 Hertz could cause instabilities in the molecular structure of the hydrocarbons. Who’s the smartest bunny in the universe?”

Oh, this is a gift. He is never going to let Stark live this one down. He positions himself leaning casually against the door.

“Am I interrupting something?”

Stark actually jumps in the air. He turns and takes a couple seconds to school his face into something casual. “Carter. Glad to see you managed to wake up before noon.”

Ralphy?”

Stark shrugs. “It’s his name. Ralph E. He was fifth in the line of lab B.U.N.Y.s we tested.”

“And they were all named Ralph? Wow, scientists really are quite a creative bunch.”

“Oh, we can be very creative with some things.” The way he says it definitely sounds like an innuendo. Jack feels a tiny flutter in his stomach that he is not about to try analyzing.

“So what would be the right restoration frequency? Or should I ask your esteemed lab partner?” He gestures over to where Ralphy is watching them from his cage.

“I’m running it at 2200 Hz. Ready for our first test on organic matter?”

Jack nods and watches as Stark finishes some final calibrations. Then he places a carrot on the machine and tells Jack to step back. He presses a button on the keyboard and the machine roars to life with a zap, disintegrating the carrot within seconds.

“Well that’s cool. Uh… is it gonna reappear somewhere?”

“Give it a second.”

After a beat, the carrot rematerializes inside Ralphy’s cage.

“Ha ha!” Stark exclaims, sounding genuinely triumphant for the first time since they’ve gotten here. “There you go Ralphy, a reward for a job well done. You were a fine replacement when a certain someone abandoned me for extra beauty sleep.”

“I don’t know whether I should be flattered that I’m important enough to warrant replacement, or insulted that a bunny can do my job just as effectively.”

“We all choose to believe the things in life that make us feel better, Sheriff.”

Jack rolls his eyes. “So the carrot worked. What’s the next step?”

“Next, we move to animals. You can have your job back, Carter. Ralphy’s getting promoted to stunt man.”

-------

Stark spends the next few days testing a variety of other objects to make sure there won’t be any surprises. He claims it’s because they only have one animal to test on and can’t afford to lose it, but Jack can tell he’s gotten attached to the little guy. It’s kind of adorable how concerned he is about hurting him.

Finally, 4 days later they’re ready to run the test. Stark places Ralphy onto the device and says, “Ok, Ralphy, you ready? One small subatomic translocation for bunny, one giant hop for bunnykind.” Then he starts up the machine and goes up to the computer. “Alright, here we go.” He presses the button and the machine revs up just like it has in all the other tests. But when it starts to settle back down again, Ralphy is still sitting there in the same place.

“This doesn’t make any sense,” Stark mutters. “Everything else got transported just fine. Ralphy shouldn’t be any different. Maybe something about the DNA calibration. But the plants all worked…”

Stark paces around while he talks out loud. But Jack gets an idea of his own. Instead of trying to explain it and get shot down, he goes right up to the teleporter and puts his Sheriff badge on the platform. He’s seen Stark operate the machine enough times to know how to run it at this point. It’s just a couple button presses. Stark’s so caught up in his thoughts that he only notices what Jack’s doing when he moves to the computer to hit the final button.

“What are you—”

The device makes its typical noise, but the badge stays put.

“You must have set it up wrong, hang on.” Stark examines the table and the computer, and then presses the button again. Nothing happens to the badge.    

“What if it doesn’t have anything to do with the DNA,” Jack says. “What if there’s… something that makes us different from all the other stuff here. We’re from a different universe, maybe it somehow senses that we don’t belong?”

“You think the universe has a magic spidey sense?” Stark says incredulously. But then he thinks for a moment. “Hmm, it’s actually an interesting theory. Maybe something in the matter vibrations that makes them unresponsive to the field… I’ll need to do a full body scan. Come on.”

They go to a room Jack doesn’t think he’s been in before, but the equipment doesn’t look too unfamiliar. The main item is a fairly large glass chamber in the center of the room. Stark sits down at a chair by a computer.

“Strip down and go inside the chamber. I’ll set up the scans.”

“By strip down you mean…”

“Everything off. Unless you want your clothes to catch on fire.”

Jack starts to undress, muttering under his breath. Stark just watches him.

“Do you mind?” Jack says.

“I’m gonna be looking at you naked for the next 20 minutes while I run all these tests. But if you’re self-conscious about the way you take off your pants, then sure, I can look away for now.”

“Alright, alright,” Jack mumbles, removing the rest of his clothes. He stands there and throws his arms up in a little ta-da motion. Stark stares appraisingly for a moment, expression unreadable, before turning back to the computer and pressing the button to open the chamber door. 

Jack steps onto the raised platform and waits for at least a minute while Stark busies himself checking settings and typing commands. Finally, the platform starts slowly rotating. He hears a whirring sound as a bright light starts scanning him from the feet up. This goes on for several minutes, with different pieces of equipment coming to life at different times.

“Oh, wow,” he hears Stark say. “Now that is something.”

“If you’re talking about my ass, I know, I’ve been told before,” Jack jokes.

“Well whoever they were, they were right. Your ass is, quite literally, vibrating off the charts.”

Jack bursts out laughing. “Ok, and what does that mean for us exactly?”

“I… am not quite sure. It means the matter we’re made up of has some kind of special signature. But I’m going to need more time to process all the data.”

“Ok, so does that mean I’m done here?”

Stark nods and grabs Jack’s clothes off the floor, entering the chamber to hand them over. When Jack reaches out to take them, Stark holds onto them for just a moment too long and runs his eyes unashamedly up and down his body.

Jack clears his throat nervously and turns around before Stark can see the blush creeping up onto his face. “You know, maybe we should scan you too,” he says. “Just in case.” And definitely not just because it would give Jack a chance to even the playing field and get a peek at Stark’s body.

“Way ahead of you,” Stark calls out. Jack buttons up his pants and turns around to see Stark, well… stark naked right in front of him. Jack does his best to school his expression into something reasonable but… goddamn. Maybe he should have spent more time at Eureka’s gym if this is the result. He can’t help but take a moment to rake his eyes over Stark’s biceps, his pecs, his abs, the line of dark hair trailing down toward—

“Just press the green button over by the computer, it’ll start the scan automatically.”

Jack clears his throat. Again. “Right.” The desk chair offers an even better view. When Stark is rotated away from him, he’s free to look without the fear of being judged for it. It’s probably rude to stare like this, but it’s not like Stark is acting at all shy about his body. If anything, he’d looked pretty damn smug, the prick. For good reason, but still.

“Does it look good?” Stark calls from the platform, mid-scan.

“Wh-what?”

“The readings, are they all coming in good?” Jack thinks he can hear a smile in Stark’s voice. He’s doing his best to fight off a blush before the platform rotates Stark enough to face him.

“Oh, yeah. It all looks like… numbers.”

When the machine finishes, Jack starts bringing Stark his clothes, but instead of handing them off to him he tosses them over from about 8 feet away.

“Well, uh, good luck with all the data processing. I’m gonna go. Look for motives, see if there’s anything that… stands out to me.” Besides the person who’s right in front of him. He heads out quickly without waiting for a response.

-------

That night is… odd for Jack, to say the least. He has a dream that starts out normal enough. He gets called into Global for some emergency and heads to Stark’s office to get briefed on what’s going on. When he gets inside, Stark swivels in his chair to face him, stroking Ralphy sinisterly like he’s the Godfather. An insertion that’s likely a result of too much time spent showing Zoe all the good classic films she’s been missing out on.

Stark starts explaining something about a dangerous chemical needing to be contained, and then a bunch of sirens go off. Stark tells Jack it’s already too late, that the chemical is airborne. He paces around for a few moments before muttering “god dammit” and surges into Jack with a searing kiss. Dream-Jack isn’t even surprised by this, backsolving that this behavior must be the result of whatever that chemical was.

Upon that realization, he’s immediately consumed by an absolute need to touch Stark everywhere. They make out furiously, hands grabbing at each other as Stark backs Jack up against the wall. They shed articles of clothing with a frustrating amount of clumsiness, and Jack breathes out a sigh of relief when he can finally get his hands all over Stark’s bare chest.

For some inexplicable reason, right when Stark’s about to take off his underwear Jack gets worried about Ralphy and looks around to see where he’s gone off to. But Ralphy’s not there, and has instead been replaced with that dog Taggart’s always chasing around. Then Taggart bursts through the door exclaiming “I’ve got you now!” which, thank God, startles Jack awake.

He lies in bed breathing heavily with one of the most confusing boners he’s ever had. He’s so hard he doesn’t think he’s actually capable of ignoring it until it goes away, so he reaches down to touch himself. It only takes about five strokes before he’s falling over the edge, picturing blue-green eyes paired with a cocky smirk.

Ok, he thinks to himself as he catches his breath. This might be a problem.

-------

So Jack knows that Stark’s not a mind reader. Logically. And he also knows that their rooms are fairly soundproof, and he wasn’t making a lot of noise anyway. He hopes. No one’s ever told him he talks in his sleep, at least. But regardless of that, he can’t help but interpret every look Stark gives him, every small comment, as the equivalent of him saying I know you jerked off thinking about me last night.

“You particularly fond of balls, Sheriff?”

“I’m sorry, what did you just say?”

He nods toward the stress ball Jack’s been absentmindedly passing from hand to hand. Right. “You’re always tossing them around.”

“I don’t know, it’s relaxing. Helps me deal with stress, get my mind to focus on something else.”

“Hmm. You know,” Stark says, taking a few steps closer and looking at Jack with playful intensity, “There are other forms of stress relief.”

Jack gulps. It would be so easy to play into this. Flirt back, or even try to force Stark to say what he means outright. But instead, he latches onto the first escape route that pops into his head.

“Zoe and I tried Zumba once,” he blurts out. “For uh, stress relief.” And then immediately regrets it as a conspiratorial look takes over Stark’s face.

“Oh, I would pay money to see that. You still remember the routine?”

Jack narrows his eyes. “I’m not gonna dance for you, Stark. Money doesn’t even mean anything here.”

“How about, you show me that routine, and I handle all the cooking and cleanup for a week?”

God dammit. It’s actually a tempting offer. It’s not that Jack particularly hates making dinner, but the opportunity to rub his freedom in Stark’s face while he has to slave over a sink and a hot stove is very appealing.

“Why do you want to see this so badly? I’m shit at dancing.”

“You’ve answered your own question.”

Jack sighs. “Fine. But you’re going to be disappointed.”

-------

Judging by Stark’s reaction to Jack’s performance, he is anything but disappointed.

“Wait, wait! Do that again!” Stark says during a fit of laughter, talking loudly enough for his voice to carry over the music they have blasting through the speakers. “The thing where you bring your foot up!”

After the initial reluctance and embarrassment, Jack’s actually started having fun with this. Stark’s laughter is at least slightly less mocking than he expected, and it’s kind of contagious.

“No wait, I can do you one better,” Jack says. “This is a little something I learned in Cabo. But…” he reaches his arm out, “it needs a partner.”

“Oh, hell no. You are not getting me up there with you. We had a deal.”

“Come on, Stark. Live a little.” Stark still doesn’t budge. “Unless you’re too intimidated by my skills. Could it be that there’s actually something Dr. Nathan Stark is bad at?”

Stark rolls his eyes. “Ugh, fine. But this better be good.”

“Ok,” Jack says, getting excited. “So first we each walk toward each other with one step, and then we kick each other’s right foot.” He acts out the moves while explaining them, with Stark slowly following along with a dubious look on his face. “Then we back up two steps, and do the whole thing again. Ok, so this time we do it one more time but we kick twice, and then we grab hands. And now we hop around in a half-circle on one foot.”

“You have got to be kidding me,” Stark says. But he sounds amused, at least, and follows along.

“Ok, ok, from the top! 5, 6, 7, 8!”

It takes them several attempts. Both of them keep messing up the number of steps and how many times they’re supposed to kick. By the time they get a mostly successful run-through, they’re both cracking up. After nearly falling over on the hop sequence, Jack finds himself leaning forward on Stark’s shoulder to keep himself upright.

“I swear it works!” Jack insists through his laughter. “We just have to time it right. We’ve almost got it.”

“That’s it, what qualifies as a ‘dance’ to you is clearly some alternative definition left behind on a playground in the 80’s. Let me show you a real move. Unlike you, I’ve taken actual classes. Ballroom.”

“Seriously?” Somehow he’s not even surprised.

“Knowledge is power. In all things, not just science. Now all you have to do is stand like this—” he positions him so his left hand is on Stark’s shoulder and his right hand is behind his back, “—and trust that I’m not gonna let you hit the floor.”

“No. You are not dipping me.”

“I wouldn’t call it dipping exactly...”

“Stark—”

The rest of what Jack was going to say is swallowed up by a shriek as Stark lifts him briefly up into the air and rotates him so that his body is tilted back, head almost touching the floor, with his butt resting on Stark’s thigh. Stark keeps him there for a couple seconds and then rotates him back up.

“That was definitely a dip. But I have to admit, it was kind of fun.” Jack’s grinning as Stark steadies him, and he reaches out to grab onto Stark’s shoulders for balance.

“Lemme show you one more,” Stark says. “This one’s a real lift.”

“Ok, I don’t care how much you work out, there’s no way you can lift me.”

“First of all, I definitely could. But second, lower gravity, remember? Might as well take advantage. Come on. Live a little.”

“Fine. What do you need me to do?”

“It’s simple, I promise. You just need to grab onto my shoulders and jump up. I’ll do all the rest. When you’re at the top, let go.” Stark puts his hands on Jack’s hips. “Whenever you’re ready.”

“Ok. 1, 2—” He bends his knees and jumps up. As he does it, Stark’s hands slide down just below his ass and suddenly he’s in the air, quite a bit higher than he expected. He can hardly even reach Stark’s shoulders, so he lets go, half-certain he’s going to lose his balance and send them both onto the ground. But Stark holds him steady, spins them around once, and then slowly brings him back down. Jack’s arms naturally fall wrapped behind Stark’s neck, and Stark moves his hands back up to Jack’s hips. They’re practically pressed against each other, but they both continue to just stand there without moving apart.

“See?” Stark murmurs. “That wasn’t too bad, was it?”

Stark’s mouth is so close, he can feel his breath against his face. It would be so easy for Jack to just tilt his head up a bit more, lean forward ever so slightly. He’s starting to do it before he consciously makes the decision to. He doesn’t close the entire distance just yet, but it’s enough for his intention to be fairly clear, though still leaving him with just enough room for plausible deniability. The song’s finished playing by now, and in the near silence he hears Stark’s breath hitch. Jack’s heart is beating so fast and hard he wonders if Stark can actually hear it. He could swear Stark starts to sway closer to him, nearly touching their foreheads together. But before their lips can meet, Stark steps back.

“Well, I’d better turn in before I let myself get talked into choreographing a whole routine.”

“It’s early,” Jack says stupidly, still in a daze.

“Oh, I’m sure I’ll stay up for a while.” He gives Jack a long look, face unreadable, before turning around and heading down the hall.

Was that… the way he said it sounded almost like an invitation. Jack heads back to his room to think. He takes a shower to clear his head, going through all his options. The most obvious one is to simply let the whole thing go. It’s not like this is the first time they’ve flirted with each other. It’s probably all just a game to Stark, so actually doing something about it might be a terrible idea. But on the other hand…

Stark is extremely attractive. Stark knows this. Stark even knows that Jack knows this. So really, how big of a leap is it to go from ‘I am aware you’re hot’ to ‘I would be interested in sleeping with you’? And tonight wasn’t exactly normal flirting. This is the first time something’s almost happened between them. At the very least, Jack doesn’t think he’d look ridiculous for following up on it. Worst case, things are awkward for a bit. They’re both adults. It would blow over.

Jack gets out of the shower and spends some more time thinking. Finally, he reaches a decision. He puts on a new set of clothes and marches to Stark’s door. He paces in front of it for a few moments, psyching himself up, before forcing himself to knock.

“You can come in,” Stark’s muffled voice calls out. Jack opens the door to see Stark lounging back on his bed holding a book, wearing pajama pants and no shirt. “Need something, Carter?” he asks with a smug raised eyebrow.

“So um, I was thinking that… I mean, it’s not that I expect… it’s just that, it seemed like—"

“Jesus, Carter. I know you have a limited vocabulary, but I didn’t expect you to have this much trouble with the word ‘sex.’”

“Um. What?”

“You came in here to ask me to have sex with you.” It’s a statement, no hint of a question. Jack just stares at him dumbly, unable to think of how to respond. “Am I wrong?” Stark prompts. 

“Well, I wasn’t necessarily… no that’s um. Yeah.”

Stark nods. “It’s not particularly surprising. I’ve seen plenty of experiments where lab animals get forced into close quarters. Eventually, they fuck. It's a perfectly natural response to our circumstances.”

“Ok… so we’re what? Lab rats in this analogy?”

“Mm, I’d say closer to apes. Rats actually have a tendency to eat each other…” He waves a hand dismissively as that wonderful image starts going through Jack’s head. “Don’t get too caught up on it.”

Stark waits as if expecting something, but Jack can’t manage to do anything but stare at him blankly.

“In my experience, this is typically an activity that takes place on a bed,” Stark says slowly, as if talking to a child. He gestures to the space beside him. Oh shit. So this is actually… oh shit.

“Um. Ok.” Jack tentatively sits down on the bed. He’s waiting for Stark to laugh him out of the room, turn this all into a joke. But he simply continues to look at Jack calmly.

“You ever been fucked before?”

Jack’s eyes nearly bulge out of his skull at the bluntness.

“I told you I’d only ever kissed a guy once—”

“Doesn’t mean you haven’t been fucked. I’m talking with anything. A dildo, someone’s fingers, getting pegged with a strap-on…”

“Oh, uh. No, I’ve never done any of that…” He’s fighting a losing battle to keep his cheeks from turning bright red.

“You want to?”

“Well, I mean… I don’t know?”

“So you came in here to ask me for sex, without knowing what it is you actually want,” Stark says. He doesn’t sound angry or even annoyed, but God he can be a dick. This is not how Jack was expecting this to go. He thought maybe they could work up to it, see where things naturally go. It figures that Stark would immediately turn this into some kind of business negotiation, laying everything out in advance. Seizing on any opportunity where the other party is unsure so he can gain the higher ground. 

“Fine. Yes. I want you to fuck me.”

Stark smiles. “See, that wasn’t so hard, was it?”

“Oh, fuck you,” Jack mutters as he takes off his shirt. He figures if this is how Stark’s gonna be, there’s no point of making a show out of it. Might as well get right to it.

“Pants too,” Stark says calmly. He hasn’t moved an inch from his position on the bed. He’s even still holding his book.

“You know, in my experience this is typically an activity where both people take their clothes off,” Jack challenges as he starts unbuttoning his pants. Stark just smirks.

“We’ll get to that.”

Once Jack is completely naked, Stark maneuvers him so that he’s lying back on the bed, a pillow placed underneath his hips. He starts running a hand lightly over Jack’s body with just enough pressure to not be ticklish. He starts at his neck and then drags it across his chest. Jack squirms under the attention. Stark’s just silently gazing at his naked body, looking strangely thoughtful. Jack feels like he’s on display at some kind of interactive museum. It’s slightly uncomfortable, but for some reason it’s also turning him on at an inexplicably rapid rate.

It’s something about the calm control Stark’s exuding, mixed with a look of definitive interest – appreciation, even – in what he’s seeing. It’s driving Jack crazy. He’s about to say something to get Stark to hurry up, to stop staring at him and actually do something already, when Stark brings his hand to Jack’s right nipple, rubbing around it and then pinching lightly. Jack gasps.

“Hm, I always thought you’d be sensitive,” Stark murmurs, moving to the other nipple.

“What do you mean ‘always’?”

Stark ignores the question and leans down to lick over it, sucking while Jack only somewhat successfully fights off moans, until it becomes too much and Jack has to pull him off. Stark keeps his mouth on Jack’s body, trailing downwards towards his stomach. He brings his hand lower to ghost over Jack’s cock, which twitches embarrassingly in reaction. If Jack wasn’t already fully hard, he definitely is when Stark thumbs at the head, finally giving him a bit of the friction he’s desperate for.

Stark gives him a few slow strokes, and then takes out a bottle of lube from his nightstand and squirts some onto his fingers.

“Hey, where’d you get that?”

Stark raises an eyebrow. “You seriously think Global would have every chemical known to man, but no lube?”

Jack huffs. “Just might’ve been nice to have. I wasn’t gonna risk jerking off with something that turned out to be some sort of skin-dissolving gel.”

“Well I’ll be sure to get you some. Now stop talking.”

Stark slowly circles the outside of his hole, finally pushing the tip of his index finger inside. At first it feels strange. It’s not unpleasant, per say, but it’s not something his body is used to.

“Carter, you’ve got to relax. It’ll make it better, I promise. Do you trust me?”

Jack breathes out a laugh. “Is that a trick question?”

Stark looks at him with an almost curious expression. “No,” he says mildly.

Jack takes a deep breath. “Yeah. I do.” He surprises himself by how much he means it. He’s been depending on Stark for a while now. To figure out how to get them home, to explain things in a way he can understand, even just to keep him company, which sounds like a simple thing but is actually pretty significant given the circumstances. He does trust Stark, completely. He forces his body to relax, and Stark pushes his finger in deeper. 

“Oh, shit that feels good.”

“That’s it.”

Stark keeps moving his finger, and brings his other hand to rub over his own clothed cock. He takes a quick break to take off his pants and underwear before bringing his hand back, this time going further inside and hitting a spot that feels so intense it startles Jack into a yelp.

Stark grins, a twinkle in his eye. “So responsive. This is gonna be fun.”

Jack loses track of time after that. It takes some fighting with himself to override the part of him that wants to take back control, but once he allows himself to fully relax into it, it’s just pure pleasure. He lets go of his thoughts of responsibility, what his brain is trying to tell him about what he’s supposed to do, and just lets himself feel. At some point Stark adds another finger, and then a third. Jack feels stretched out and relaxed, aside from the deep-seated feeling of wanting more. The relaxation slowly morphs into desperation, and he finds himself thrusting his hips hard into Stark’s hand to get him to go deeper, faster, harder.

“God,” Stark breathes out, and finally, finally takes out his fingers and lines himself up. “Oh shit, I forgot. I can use a condom, if you want, I have some here—”

Jack laughs. “You were that confident, huh?”

Stark’s responding smile is gorgeous. “Well, you have been ogling me for days. You’re not exactly subtle. And I like to be prepared."

“Oh. Well, that’s not embarrassing at all.”

“I certainly didn’t mind. But anyway, those health scans I ran when we first got here were very thorough, including checking for STDs. We were both negative for everything. But it’s completely up to you.”

“Oh, yeah. No condom’s fine then.” This conversation, while necessary, has already delayed things enough. And Jack really wants Stark inside him already.

It’s a lot to take at first, even with all the prep. But Stark goes slowly, both of them breathing heavily, until he finally bottoms out. Stark pauses there. For a moment just the feeling of the fullness itself is satisfying enough. But imagining what it’ll feel like when Stark actually starts moving makes him impatient.

“Stark. Please.”

“Yeah. Yeah just… fuck Jack you’re so tight.”

Jack lets out a whimper. He wants to kiss Stark so badly. But he’s not in the right position for it. Stark would have to bring his head down to meet his, and before he can even think to ask for that, Stark finally moves. It’s one tentative motion, back just a bit and then forward again, but it’s enough to make both of them cry out.

“Seriously, Stark. Come on.”

For once in his life, Stark listens to Jack without any argument. He starts thrusting in earnest, and it’s fucking fantastic. It’s not just the physical sensations. Up until this point, Stark has remained perfectly in control. It’s almost aggravating how much he’s been affecting Jack while appearing so collected himself. But as he pushes faster and increasingly erratically into Jack, it’s apparent that his self-restraint is finally failing him. And Jack loves it.

Stark eventually brings a hand to Jack’s cock, and Jack internally curses him for it. He wants this to last longer, but he’s so close already and the extra sensation is bringing him quickly to the edge. Stark gives him a few long strokes, and Jack can’t hold back any longer.

“Stark, I’m… I’m gonna… fuck—” and then he’s coming, pulsing in Stark’s hand, his back arching of its own accord.

“God, that’s so fucking hot. You want me to stop?” Stark says in a rough voice.

“No, it’s ok. Keep going.” Jack knows he should be oversensitive, and he is in some respects. But he doesn’t want Stark to leave just yet. He wants him finishing inside him.

It doesn’t take long. After a few more seconds, Stark’s pace suddenly speeds up, his movements getting shallower, and then he’s collapsing full against Jack’s body and gripping tightly onto his arm as he comes. The sound he makes isn’t what Jack would have expected. It isn’t quite a moan, more of a higher-pitched cry. Jack’s captivated by the unfamiliarity of it. He’s never heard Stark sound like that, and he really, really wants to make it happen again.

Slowly, Stark releases his grip on Jack’s arm and pulls out with a soft sigh. He rolls over so they’re lying next to each other, both of them staring at the ceiling.

“So, um. That happened,” Jack says.

“Eloquent as always.”

Jack breathes out a laugh. “Right. So… thanks? I guess?” Stark looks at him with some kind of mixture between confusion and amusement. “Anyway, I’ll just… goodnight.” Before he can make things any more awkward he throws on his clothes (which… has it always taken him this long to put on pants?) and escapes out the door. Once he’s back in his room he takes a quick shower for the second time tonight and then collapses onto his bed.

Yeah. That happened.  

-------

So they’re not talking about it, apparently. At least, not directly. Jack refuses to avoid Stark because that would make things even more weird, so in the morning he heads straight to the main lab. After their failures to teleport anything originating from their own universe, Stark’s been doing his research here instead of in the basement with the teleportation device.

Jack only sees him briefly that morning, though. Enough time to say a simple good morning, and for Stark to say with a smirk, “You know, the lab down the hall has softer chairs” when Jack gingerly sits on his usual chair and shifts around, trying to get comfortable despite the soreness.

After that, Stark works quietly for a few minutes until he finally grumbles, “Alright, that’s it,” and leaves the room. Jack doesn’t see him until lunch. When he gets to the cafeteria, Stark seems to be in a particularly good mood.

“I’ve been looking for our quantum processing chips for the past two days, and I finally found them. In Section 5 of all places. No idea what they were doing there, but now I can finally start making progress on isolating the field vibrations to sync them up with our matter.”

“Well that sounds… good.”   

Stark continues to explain how the chips are crucial for the device to be able to finish calculations fast enough during runtime, and Jack does his best to listen. Everything is exactly how it usually is. Which, why shouldn’t it be? Sex is sex, it’s not like they need to act differently around each other. In fact, the normalcy of everything should come as a relief.

The day continues on, and a little while after dinner they both go to their own rooms. Jack wonders if he should go back to Stark’s room tonight. He certainly wants to. He can’t get last night out of his head. But that would make him seem far too needy. Let Stark come to him, if he wants. Jack is perfectly capable of controlling himself. He’s spent every night here save one alone, and there’s no reason he can’t do it again. It takes him longer than he’d like to fall asleep, but he manages it. And if he dreams about Stark, he doesn’t remember it in the morning, so he counts that as a victory.

-------

Two days and some sexual frustration later, they’re both sitting in the lab. Stark’s setting up some kind of simulation, while Jack does his best to focus on the chapter he’s reading in a physics textbook about circuits, and to not creepily steal glances at Stark every 30 seconds. The fact that he’s been on the same page for the last 20 minutes is testament to his failure in that department.

“There. It’s gonna take about fifteen minutes to run,” Stark says, rolling his chair back from the desk and stretching his arms.

“Ok, cool.”

They sit there in silence for a minute as Jack continues to struggle with his book. It might be a lost cause, but he wants to try using this extra time to learn something about what Zoe’s doing in school. And maybe impress Henry by actually having some idea of how all the things he builds work. He’s in the middle of taking a sip of his coffee when Stark says, completely out of nowhere, “Want me to blow you?”

Jack sputters, managing to swallow the coffee down, but still chokes on it in a completely obvious manner. He’s sure Stark timed his question just to get this reaction.

“Um… right now?”

“Why not?” Stark shrugs. “Got anything better to do?”

“I mean I guess not—”

“Good. Lean back against the desk, pants down.” Well. Fuck.

Stark approaches the blowjob like he does everything. Calmly, confidently, and, like any good scientist, a willingness to explore all of his options in order to get the best results. Jack does his best to not let it show just how much Stark’s making him come undone. But he’s been thinking about this obsessively for days, so it doesn’t take much before all his focus is going into preventing himself from bucking his hips into Stark’s face and choking him.  

It isn’t long before he can’t help himself anymore, and he grabs onto Stark’s hair with one hand and grips it tight. “Oh my God, oh my God,” he pants. It’s ridiculous that he’s falling apart like this just from a simple blowjob, but he can’t help it. He’s getting close, and Stark must be able to tell, because he pulls off and looks up at him.  

“I bet you’d like me to swallow, huh? I could. But you know, I think I’m gonna have you make a mess all over yourself instead.” Stark puts his mouth one last time over Jack’s cock, deepthroating it all at once, and Jack’s instantly coming on a choked-off gasp. Stark pulls off quickly, leaving Jack to come almost entirely on his stomach. He tries to get his shirt out of the way in time, but he doesn’t quite make it.

While he catches his breath, Stark stands up gracefully, brushes off his pants, and goes to sit back at the computer.

“Seriously?” Jack says between pants. “You’re just gonna go back to work after that? Don’t you need to…”

Stark doesn’t look up while saying, “Time for that later. Data’s ready.” Jack continues to gape at him, but he looks entirely absorbed in whatever the screen’s showing him. Fine, then. Jack makes his way toward his room to change.

-------

It’s been two days since Stark sucked Jack’s brain out through his dick. And apparently, that’s Jack’s limit when it comes to not obsessing unhealthily over Stark’s body. He’s lying in bed, hard just from remembering the feeling of Stark’s tongue licking over his cock. Asking himself why Stark wouldn’t let him return the favor. Wondering what Stark’s dick would taste like. Which he realizes sounds like an incredibly stupid concept, but the thought is there, nonetheless.

He reaches his hand under his boxers to touch himself. It’s good, but it’s not enough. Not when he knows that Stark is just a room over. All he’d have to do is knock on the door, and maybe Stark would let him in. Let Jack show him that he’s perfectly capable of taking him apart the same way he did to Jack. But Stark doesn’t need any more boost to his ego, and Jack crawling to him in the middle of the night begging for his dick is probably not going to gain him any points of respect.

But then, why should he deny himself something he wants just because he’s worried what Stark will think of him? Finally, Jack rolls out of bed, both his horniness and determination to prove himself outweighing the shame and embarrassment. He hesitates over whether to put on a shirt and pajama pants, but then figures, fuck it. There’s no point in modesty at this point. He’s just going to go ask Stark for what he wants, consequences be damned.

He opens the door to the hallway and is startled to see Stark standing right there, pants but no shirt, hand raised as if about to knock. A moment passes between them as they both stare at each other. Stark’s eyes darken rapidly, and seconds later he’s barreling into Jack, kissing him full on the mouth. There’s no build-up whatsoever. One second Stark’s standing in front of him, and the next his tongue is forcing its way insistently into Jack’s mouth, his hand gripping the back of Jack’s neck hard, like if he doesn’t Jack will disappear.

It’s so different from the cool, detached control Stark almost always shows. Even during those previous two times together, Stark acted above it all, like he was largely indifferent to Jack but fine fooling around for fun. That does not seem to be the case at all right now. Stark’s pressing into him with so much force he’s worried he’s going to fall over before they get to the bed.

This is also, Jack realizes with a jolt, the first time they’ve actually kissed each other. It’s an incredible feeling, Stark’s tongue demandingly licking into his mouth, their noses pressing up next to each other as they both fight for control of the pace of the kiss.

Stark lets out a surprisingly loud moan into Jack’s mouth right before pushing him roughly down so he’s sitting on the bed, the wall supporting his back as Stark straddles his lap. Stark grinds into him and lets out a quiet gasp when he feels that Jack is already hard.

“Been thinking about me?” Stark says, moving his lips to suck rough, hot kisses over Jack’s neck.

“Yea-ah,” Jack stutters out.

“I bet you can’t stop,” Stark says. “Not after knowing what I can do to you. What my body feels like against yours.” He accentuates his point with another roll of his hips while pressing a hand flat against Jack’s chest.

“You’re so full of yourself,” Jack manages.

“But I’m right, aren’t I?”

Jack pushes Stark off of him, throwing him onto his back and hovering over him. “I want to suck your dick,” Jack says instead. “You gonna let me this time?”

Stark smirks. “So that’s what you’ve been thinking about, huh? Getting your mouth on me? Think you can do as good a job as I did? You came so hard for me.”

This fucking arrogant son of a bitch. He pulls Stark’s pants off and presses his palm against his rapidly hardening cock through his underwear. It’s almost embarrassing how much Jack likes just this simple thing. Feeling the proof of Stark's arousal, showing him how much Stark wants this right now even if he won’t say it outright.

Jack may never have actually sucked a dick before, but he’s been on the receiving end enough times to have a pretty good idea of what to do. He gets Stark’s underwear off and starts trailing wet kisses around his thighs. He’d wanted to tease Stark for a bit, get him all worked up, but Jack’s too impatient for that right now. He gives up and licks over the head of Stark’s cock before wrapping his lips around it and taking it deep into his mouth, not quite reaching the entrance of his throat.

“A+ for enthusiasm, Sheriff,” Stark says, laughing breathlessly.

Jack surprises himself by how much he’s enjoying doing this. He’s trying to figure Stark out, show him that he can be a very fast learner in some subjects, thank you very much. He’s gaining a feel for what spots make Stark moan, how to time the motions to get his breath to hitch.

Jack gets lost in it, spurred on by Stark’s words of encouragement and occasional instruction. It isn’t until Stark’s breathing picks up and hips start making tiny thrusts upward that Jack comes back to himself enough to realize he’s been stroking himself with his free hand nearly the entire time.

“Hang on. Carter, stop for a second.”

Jack begrudgingly pulls off and lets Stark drag him up so he’s lying partly on top of him. He gets his boxers off, and then Jack tucks his face into Stark’s neck as Stark wraps his hand around both their cocks, moving over them at the same time. Jack pushes his hips in time with the motions and, needing to do something with his mouth, starts sucking on Stark’s neck. Neither of them are saying any words, and the only sounds in the room are skin against skin and increasingly frantic grunts coming from both of them. Jack finds it slightly absurd that this feels this good. Essentially they’re just rutting against each other. But the heat of Stark’s body, his ragged breathing, and the tight grip of his hand, are just so fucking satisfying.

Fuck Jack,” Stark moans as his motions stutter and he comes all over them both. Jack can feel it against his skin, the throbbing pulses of his dick and the warm come spurting over him. He’d been getting close before, but Stark coming while saying his name like that practically wrenches his orgasm out of him before he can even process it. He’s coming with a shocked gasp, and it seems to go on and on until the feeling of Stark tugging on his hair brings him back to himself. It’s then that he looks down at Stark’s neck and realizes he was not only sucking very hard, but also biting quite hard. The spot is violently red and is definitely going to bruise.

“Shit, sorry,” Jack pants out as he collapses on top of Stark.

“Not like there’s anyone around I’ll need to hide it from. Besides, I like it a little rough.”

Jack files that away for later while he catches his breath. The skin-on-skin contact feels so good right now, and he’s fighting the overwhelming urge to wrap his arms around Stark and hug him close.

“Well, I’d better clean up,” Stark says far too soon for Jack’s liking. But he rolls to the side to let him get off the bed. “Night Sheriff,” Stark calls out as he exits through the door, still naked and carrying his clothes in hand.

-------

It goes on like that for a while. Every couple days, Stark waltzes into Jack’s room and they fuck. Jack’s slipped up a few times and called him Nathan in the heat of the moment, and Stark’s called him Jack on more than a handful of occasions. But they go back to their usual formality of last names in the day.

Everything is… fine. Kind of. Jack’s been missing Zoe a lot more lately. And Stark seems to be going through something similar himself, though he hasn’t mentioned anything. Talking about feelings isn’t exactly in Stark’s wheelhouse. But Jack can tell something is off. Stark used to tell him all about his progress with the teleportation device and what the next steps were, even though the majority of it would go way over Jack’s head. But for the past couple weeks he’s been quiet about it, giving vague answers to Jack’s questions like “still working out some bugs” and then changing the subject.

It’s been 3 months to the day since they first got here when Stark’s weirdness finally becomes too much to ignore. It’s a quarter past 1 and Stark still hasn’t shown for lunch, which has never happened before. Jack goes looking in all the normal labs they frequent, and even Stark’s bedroom, but still doesn’t find him. He then goes on a slow search through the other floors and finally finds him slumped against the wall in the hallway right outside the liquor storage room.  

“Jack!” Stark calls out with a wave and a too-wide smile. “This,” he says triumphantly, holding up a bottle, “is a Macallan single malt, aged for 55 years. Runs about 10 grand. And I just downed a third of it in shots!” He starts laughing so hard he looks like he might keel over, so Jack crouches down and puts both hands on his shoulders to hold him up.

“What do you think about building an anti-gravity chamber?” Stark says suddenly. “We could play 0-G tennis and float around like birds. It would be like in Willy Wonka when they fly to the ceiling!”

“If I’m remembering right, didn’t they almost get killed by a fan blade?”

“Yeah. But you know what they did then?” Stark gets an evil twinkle in his eye and then unleashes a loud burp.

“Ok, I think you’ve had enough,” Jack says, moving the bottle out of reach. “How long would it take to build something like that, anyway?”

“Oh, probably 6, maybe 7 weeks.”

“Don’t you think there are more important things to be working on? You know, like getting us home?”

Stark scoffs and averts his eyes for a moment. Then he looks back at Jack and grabs him clumsily around the waist.

“It would be fun, though,” he says. “I never get to have fun. Except with you. Let’s have some more fun.” Then he pulls Jack into a kiss. Somehow this seems to be the one thing Stark isn’t sloppy about while drunk. The kiss is damn near perfect, aside from the fact that one of them is far too drunk to consent to anything, and the risk of getting puked on at any moment is a valid concern.

“Ok, ok, let’s just take a breath, yeah?” Jack says, pulling away. “Talk to me, Stark.”

Nathan. I like it when you call me Nathan. I like it so much.” Fuck. Jack’s heart does a somersault. But this is not the time to be having those kinds of feelings.

“Ok. Nathan. What’s going on with you? You can talk to me.”

Stark’s face finally turns serious. “The teleporter isn’t going to work.”

“Well, yeah, it might take a while to figure it out, but—”

“No, I mean it can’t work. A couple weeks ago I hit a wall, and I’ve spent all my time since proving that what I’m trying to do is literally impossible. It breaks one of the most fundamental laws of physics.”

Jack takes a moment to absorb that. “Ok. Well are you sure there isn’t another angle to try? Maybe if we talk it through—”

“There is no other angle!” Stark shouts. Jack’s never, ever seen Stark shout before. It’s kind of terrifying, in more ways than one. His voice levels out when he says, “The only thing that might’ve had a chance at getting us home can provably never work. So I might as well invest my time into building dumb shit that’ll help get us through the monotony of living out the rest of our lives in this place.”

“Ok.” Jack takes a deep breath. “So the idea you had doesn’t work. That isn’t a reason to just give up entirely.”

“Carter. Doing all this, the research, the investigating, it’s fine for keeping us sane. But at a certain point, you have to admit it’s pointless. There’s no way we’re getting back home. I can spend the rest of my life running tedious test after test to figure this place out, but nothing’s going to change the fact that it’s physically impossible to get out. If you’re still having fun playing detective, by all means do what you want. But come on, Jack. None of this matters.”

He slides over enough to reach for the bottle and takes a swig. Jack’s too stunned to even think about stopping him.

“I’m not playing detective,” Jack finally says. “I’m the sheriff of Eureka. It’s my job to figure out who’s responsible for this crime, and unless someone tells me I’m fired, I intend to keep doing that job.”

“You want to keep acting like the sheriff of a town you’ll never get to see again? Go ahead. But I’m done.”

“Jesus Christ. You’re Nathan Stark. You have a Nobel for crying out loud. Well, had a Nobel until I gave it to Dr. Thatcher… The point is, you’re one of the smartest people in the— the other universe. And the smartest person in this one!”

That actually gets a small smile out of him before his face falls again. “Yeah, well. Not much point in being smart if it’s not enough to get me back to any of the people I care about.”

Oh. Jack knows he shouldn’t take that personally. All Stark means is that he misses Allison and Kevin, his family who he loves more than anything. Just like Jack misses Zoe. And even then, Jack’s perfectly aware that he’s nothing special to Stark besides being the guy he happened to get stuck here with. What reason would Stark have for caring about him? But the words still feel like a punch to the stomach.

“Yeah,” Jack says quietly. Because he can’t think of any other response.

If it weren’t for this whole disaster, Stark would’ve fixed things with Allison, and Jack would’ve spent a while pining after her, never realizing the full extent of what he’d actually be missing out on. Stark would have just remained the annoying guy who always managed to one-up him with everything. But now that he’s realized what Stark could become to him – has already started becoming, even if it’s all one sided – they’re in the wrong place for him to ever be anything more than Stark’s last resort.

The wrong place…

“Wait a minute,” Jack says. “A while ago you said you found the… the quantum thingy-majigs—”

“The quantum processing chips?”

“Yeah, those— in the wrong lab. Section 5. Right? That you’d been looking for them and couldn’t find them?”

“Yes…” Stark says, obviously unsure where Jack’s going with this.

“Well, I didn’t come across any equipment transfer on file for them. Everything else has been where it was supposed to be, right? Why was that different?”

“I don’t know, maybe… someone in that lab borrowed them unofficially…” Stark trails off, uncertain. As director of GD, he already knows what Jack’s learned from his months of studying the personnel database. There’s no overlap between scientists who would have access to both of those labs. While it might not be a huge deal for someone to walk into a lab and briefly borrow something without doing the paperwork, this would’ve required either coordination from multiple people or hacking the security system. Both of which are a much bigger deal.

“Allison had mentioned something about Section 5 the day we got trapped here," Jack says. "That there was a big demo happening. What if this entire thing – Ralphy escaping, the pocket universe, all of it – was all orchestrated to distract everyone from something else? Something having to do with Section 5. Do those, um, quantum chips have anything to do with the demo?”

Stark’s lips are pressed in a tight line. He closes his eyes as he takes a deep breath. “We’ve been looking in the wrong place. We've been so focused on the pocket universe creation itself, but this whole thing has always been about the Targeted Molecular Destabilizer demo.” 

At the lost look on Jack’s face, he says, “This is technically classified, but fuck it. The device being demoed is basically a giant laser gun that destroys stuff.” He snorts. “Huh, being drunk actually makes explaining this stuff easier. It only breaks down isolated chunks of matter in a pre-programmed location. But the quantum processing chips… I found them in the control room for all of Section 5. I don’t know why I didn’t realize it before. The chips have a super fast computing time that could be used to hack into the Targeted Molecular Destabilizer from that room and change the settings, which would override the fail safes.”

Jack takes a few seconds to rerun Stark's words in his head, trying to process everything. “So someone wants that demo to fail. But why?”

Stark’s quiet for a few moments and his eyes grow wide. Whatever he’s just realized, it can’t be good. “Oh, fuck. I have no idea why. But whoever they are, they’re either a terrorist or they aren’t closely involved enough with the project to understand how it works. The machine is currently in warm-up mode, and any changes to the settings during that phase will make it dangerously unstable. It’ll easily trigger an explosion that would destroy all the matter around it.”

“But there are safety features, right? I mean, it’s a matter-destroying laser gun. You must have planned for that and put it in some kind of… containment unit, right?”

“The device is just a prototype. The safety features are still largely in software, not hardware. As it stands, it would just be able to destroy any physical containment unit we put it in. We took precautions to plan against all kinds of accidents, but not a sophisticated software hack like this from inside Section 5.”

“So how bad of an explosion are we talking?”

“It’s not the explosion itself I’m worried about. It’s what it’ll do to everything around it. Section 5 is filled with dangerous equipment. Atom bomb level dangerous. This will destroy all the shielding we have in place around those experiments, not to mention the floor underneath them, and potentially even the experiments themselves. The disturbance could set off a nuclear blast that’ll wipe out all of GD, if not the whole town.”

“Well, shit.”

Stark stands up, looking far more sober than a few minutes ago. “It’s not too late to stop it if the chip hasn’t finished gaining access to the system yet. But we're the only ones who know about it. Before, we wanted to get back home. Now we need to.”

-------

They meet up early the next day for a brainstorming session. Fortunately if Stark had a hangover, it seems like it’s gone by now. In fact, he’s apparently already been up for a couple hours before Jack gets there. He explains that he was down in Section 5 double checking his theory about what the quantum processing chips were being used for. Any hope that Stark was catastrophizing last night in his inebriated state immediately gets thrown out the window.

He tells Jack that he found one of the chips plugged into the Section 5 control computer. And, just as expected, the analysis he ran confirmed that it was hacking into the Targeted Molecular Destabilizer. Apparently the chip was programmed to change the demo device's settings so it would destroy matter within a larger and less predictable volume than it was supposed to. It’s slightly dangerous, but nothing that, on its surface, should cause significant problems besides making the researchers all look incompetent at the demo. It’s unclear if the person who did this knew how dangerous it really would be to change the settings during the warm-up phase.

Stark estimates that with how far the chip's gotten past the firewalls so far, it’ll be 4-5 minutes (outside-universe-time) before it gains full access and everything goes to shit. No one will notice anything's wrong in that amount of time, especially with all the attention the creation of the pocket universe will draw. They really need to find a way out of here.

“Ok,” Jack says, sitting down on a stool. “So teleportation is out. What other options do we have?”

“I’ve been trying to figure that out myself for the past 2 weeks and I’ve gotten nowhere.”

“Yeah, well, maybe that’s because you’re shooting down ideas too early because you think you know they won’t work. I have the key power of lack of expertise.”

Stark rolls his eyes. “Ok, so what do you and your supposedly brilliant lack of knowledge think we should do?”

Jack hops up and goes over to the chalkboard. “Ok. So you said it’s impossible to teleport us out of here . What if we teleport the pocket universe somewhere else? Eh?” He writes it down as he waits for Stark to respond.

“Nice try. But the whole issue with teleportation is being able to set coordinates for anywhere outside of the pocket universe. We can’t move anything anywhere out in the real world.”

“Right. Of course.” Jack crosses it off his one-item list. “Well what if we use that thing that lets you go through stuff, like walls? Then couldn’t we just… walk out?” He excitedly writes it down.

“That works for walking through matter, not dimensions. This whole place wraps in on itself. Currently when we go through the door to the roof, we end up in the basement. If we instead use that device to walk through the ceiling of the roof, we’d still end up in the basement.”

“Yeah,” Jack says, crossing it out. He throws out a couple more ideas, each of which is immediately shot down in similar fashion.   

“Ok, new idea. What if this whole thing never happened?” Jack says. Stark laughs.

“Uh, yeah, wouldn’t that be great. Is there a suggestion buried somewhere in there?”

“The suggestion…” For dramatic effect, he turns to the board and writes it down before turning around and announcing, “…is time travel.” He waits for the inevitable rebuttal, but Stark takes longer to think this time. Jack starts doodling the DeLorean from Back to the Future on the board while he waits.

“Time travel is… messy,” Stark finally says. “It’s mostly impossible, but for complicated reasons. I could rework the tachyon accelerator, but it would send everything into an alternate timeline that would almost certainly result in an unstable universe. But…”

“But?”

“But we have two universes at our disposal. If I can anchor the time travel to the pocket universe, the one out there might be fine.”

“So… we’re building a time machine?” Jack asks hopefully.

“Well, there’s a lot I have to work out first, but… yes. We’re building a time machine.”

“That’s what I’m talking about! I’m gonna take a look at security footage for those quantum processing chips, see if that gives me any new leads. I’ll see you for lunch this time, right Stark?” He starts to turn toward the door.

“Yup.” But then Stark walks over to him, standing close. “And Carter, I did mean what I said. Seems kind of ridiculous at this point to be calling me by my last name.” It always takes Jack by surprise when Stark’s voice is soft like that. A lot of the time when he talks he sounds like he could be presenting to a room full of people. It makes these rare moments when his tone is quiet and almost gentle feel incredibly personal. Intimate, even.

“Oh. Right. Yeah, and uh, same goes for you.” Stark— er, Nathan claps him on the shoulder.

“Alright. Now I’ve got to invent a machine that unravels the laws of time and lets us bend it to our whim, while you sit around watching videos of other people sitting around. But don’t worry, both are equally important.”

Aaand regular Stark is back.   

-------

It takes a few hours, but Jack is finally able to pinpoint when the chips were taken out of the quantum computing lab, including who did it. The footage shows that the day before the pocket universe incident, Beverly Barlowe had walked into the lab when it was unoccupied and looked through the crates stored on one of the shelves. Her back was to the camera when she left the room, but there are a few frames where Jack can clearly see her holding the same box Nathan showed him earlier that's used for storing the chips. Now the question is whether she’s actually responsible for all this, or whether something more complicated is going on. But at least they have a suspect.

“Beverly?” Nathan says when Jack tells him what he found at lunch. “She shouldn’t have access to the quantum computing lab, or anything in Section 5, for that matter.”

“So she was brought into Section 3 as a guest – it got approved as a necessity for a therapy session with a client. So that must be how she got into the quantum computing lab. But I haven’t looked into Section 5 yet. I don’t have clearance to access that footage.”

“Right. We’ll look at it together.”

What they find does not disappoint. About 15 minutes before the pocket universe incident, by which point Nathan and Jack were already on their way to rescue Ralphy, Beverly had gone into a supply closet with a scientist who has Section 5 security clearance. It looked like a typical workplace seduction – inappropriate, but not exactly shocking for Beverly. But what is surprising is that she came out of the closet alone, with the scientist never re-emerging. She'd headed straight for Section 5 afterward, using a badge to gain access. The logs confirm that the badge she used belongs to that same scientist.

There’s no doubt about it anymore. Whether Beverly worked alone or had help, and whether or not she knew how destructive this would be, she’s definitely responsible.

-------

There’s not much more for Jack to do, now that the investigation is pretty much complete. He mostly spends time in the lab, hanging out with Nathan while he tries to build a time machine. From what Jack can tell, Nathan's making surprisingly good progress on it. They also plan out their actions for when (Jack refuses to entertain ‘if’) they get back home so they can successfully put a stop to everything. They'll need to quickly find a third person who's familiar with the GD computer systems to help them override the hack in time. But as long as they don't run into any issues with that, it should be fairly straightforward. 

Nights with Nathan become a more common occurrence, until it’s pretty much the default that Nathan comes to his room each night. They usually have sex, but sometimes they just lazily make out without it going anywhere. It’s… nice. As long as Jack doesn’t think too hard about how it all has an expiration date.

“You know, if we’re gonna do this every night, you might as well stay?” Jack says one night when it seems like Nathan’s about to take his typical leave. “I mean, the bed’s big enough and it just seems like it’d be more… convenient.”

Nathan slowly turns his head to fix him with a glare. “Don’t tell me you’re a cuddler.”

Jack laughs. “Please, like you’re not? I see how you are with Ralphy. I bet you’re just longing for someone to give you a nice warm snuggle.” Nathan’s continued glaring makes it even easier for Jack to maintain his shit-eating grin.

“Please never say ‘snuggle’ again. If I stay tonight, I don’t want anything cutesy happening, got it?”

“Ok, so just to be clear: I can put your dick in my mouth, my fingers up your ass, but wrapping my arm over your waist is a step too far.”

“Yup, sounds like you’ve got it.”

“Oh, come on, you have to know how ridiculous that sounds.”

Nathan flicks off the lamp. “Goodnight, Jack.”  

When Jack wakes up, one of Nathan’s legs is thrown over his hips, and an arm is wrapped tightly across his chest. He can’t quite see Nathan’s head, which is buried underneath his pillow, but it’s pressing right against Jack’s shoulder. Oh, this is too rich. Jack rolls side to side a bit to wake him up.

“What did I say?” Nathan grumbles from underneath his pillow. Jack tries to hold back his laughter. “No cuddling.”

“Yeah, I’m sure I was the one who wrapped all your limbs around me. You know, without waking you up in the process.”

Nathan raises his head up, the pillow falling off to the side. He looks at their position and immediately groans. “Bed is too small,” he mutters under his breath while untangling himself.  

The following night, Nathan turns out the light and rolls onto his side, facing Jack.

“Roll over,” Nathan says without fanfare. Jack does as he’s told, puzzled, until Nathan scoots in to press against his back and wraps an arm around him. “Say one word, and you’ll be sleeping alone.”

“I mean, I could always bring Ralphy in here—”

“Jack.”

Jack tries very hard not to laugh with delight, and simply says, “Ok.” Definitely a cuddler.

-------

It’s another lazy morning, about 4 months and counting since they got trapped here. Jack’s bouncing a ball against the wall as Nathan runs more tests. It’s a habit he picked up a while ago, with the original intent of trying to annoy Nathan. But as it turns out, he doesn’t actually mind it. Apparently a little external noise grounds him, helps him stay focused. Jack could be anywhere right now, really. Not like he’s much help to Nathan when he’s running data analysis. But the company is nice. He still finds the emptiness of Global eerie, and being around Nathan shockingly puts him extremely at ease nowadays.

Jack’s invented a new mini-game for himself where he tries to hit this one particular dark tile on the wall as many times in a row as he can. He’s gotten pretty consistent with it and is up to 14, when suddenly the ball goes further than usual, striking a much lower spot on the wall and bouncing at a strange angle away from him. He squints at the wall. It looks odd, almost curvy in a way it definitely wasn’t before.

“Hey, Nathan?”

“Not now, Jack. In the middle of something.”

“Does this wall look… different to you?”

“Seriously, I don’t have time right now to—”

“Would you please just look?”

Nathan sighs and looks up. But then his eyes widen. “Well, shit.” He walks over to a corner of the lab and grabs a device out of the drawer, scanning the wall. “This could be a problem.”

“Why, what is it?”

“The way space works in this universe isn’t the same as our own,” Nathan begins to explain.

“Right, like how Global just circles around on itself.”

“Exactly. There’s a certain measurable curvature to it. But it’s large enough that it’s not noticeable on a small scale. Locally, objects appear about the same as we’re used to. But from the looks of this, that curvature is starting to decrease.” A loud banging noise comes from underneath the floor. “And from the sound of that , I’d say it’s accelerating pretty fast.”

Jack hops up out of his seat. “Ok, so what does that mean for us?”

“Worst case? This universe is collapsing in on itself. Eventually the curvature will get so small that it’ll become a single point in space.”

“You mean like a black hole?”

“Hey, someone’s been doing their reading!” Nathan says in that patronizing manner of his. It actually helps to calm Jack’s nerves to know that Nathan isn’t panicking. Yet.

“Ok, so something has to be causing it, right? This didn’t just start happening for no reason.”

Nathan starts pacing in a circle, rubbing his hand over his face. “I don’t think so,” he says after a long moment of silence. “I’ve been taking readings since we’ve gotten here. A few weeks ago they started changing, slowly at first. I thought it was just a miscalibration, maybe some kind of power issue. I hadn’t gotten around to looking into it.”

Nathan moves to a different computer and starts typing quickly. The screen prints out a long series of numbers that seem to mean something to Nathan.

“Damn it!” He shouts, banging a fist on the table. He takes a deep breath in through his nose. “It’s just like our other trials.”

“What trials?”

“Every other pocket universe. None of them were ever stable, they only lasted for a few seconds. I thought this one was different, but…” Nathan takes a deep breath and then turns to look at Jack. “This universe is caving in at an exponentially increasing rate. And looking at these numbers, it’ll completely destroy itself within the next three to six hours.”

-------

A few hours later, Jack and Nathan are sitting on the floor, their backs against the wall in the hallway. At least this way they can get some kind of idea of how fast everything around them is coiling in on itself. Nathan had spent two hours pacing the lab and running computer simulations while Jack called out nonsense ideas, but neither of them had come up with any kind of workable solution. The time travel device still needs a lot more work before it could possibly be ready, and even if they had another good idea, they wouldn't be able to build it in time. Now they’re resigned to trying to enjoy their last moments as they watch the universe come undone.

“You know,” Nathan says with a snort, swirling the can of beer in his hand, “you would’ve been the last person I would have ever wanted to be trapped with in another universe.”

“Yeah, I know,” Jack says with a grin.

“I mean, really. The last person. I would’ve picked Fargo over you.”

“Ouch. Wait, seriously?”

Nathan looks at him and grins. “You’re not so bad, Jack.”

Jack sighs. “If I could send just one message back to our universe… well, it’d be to tell Zoe I love her. But if I got two messages, I would send Allison a recording of you saying that. She still probably wouldn’t believe it.”

Nathan hums in agreement. Jack thinks back to the last time he saw Allison. ‘Be careful. Both of you,’ she’d said. They had, but careful’s never enough in Eureka. You can be standing there minding your own business and an entire new universe can just form around you.

He wonders if they’ll ever even know what happened to them. Nathan had said the pocket universe would be detectable to the outside world, but it’s only existed for a few seconds, their time. It’ll be gone before anyone even gets to the room. If a bubble pops in a lab but no one’s around to see it, did it ever really exist?

Despite the complete brokenness of the metaphor, it actually gives him an idea.

“Nathan, the pocket universe occupies a physical space back in our universe, right? You said it was like a bubble?”

“Yes…”

“So what if we destroy it before it can destroy us? Pop the bubble. Would we just appear back in the room where it was formed?”

Nathan takes a deep breath, sounding exasperated. “And how exactly do you propose we do that? We’re in the pocket universe. If it gets destroyed, we get destroyed.”

“Well, you said, uh… that there was something different about us, right? My ass!” Nathan turns his head to stare at him as Jack stumbles on, trying to remember the scientific jargon Nathan had used. “You said it was uh, vibrating off the charts, remember? That our vibrations are different?”

Nathan perks up. “Yes. That could… our matter’s frequency is tuned into the universe we originated from. That separates us from everything else here. So if we can mess with the frequency of the matter here, send out some kind of—”

“Ray of ultimate destruction!”

Nathan shoots him a quick glare, but there’s no heat behind it. He maybe even looks a little fond. “We can use the Targeted Molecular Destabilizer. If we amplify it and set it to just the right kind of destructive interference… it’s basically what Beverly’s doing, but bigger, and targeted only for the matter that originated here. This could actually work. It’s a huge risk, but—”

“But we have a shot,” Jack says.

Nathan smiles at him and puts a hand on his shoulder, giving it a light squeeze. “Yeah. It’s a good idea, Jack.” Nathan stands up and starts pacing in a tiny circle. “I think our best bet is to start up the device from the control room and then get to Section 6.”

“Wait, there’s a Section 6?”

“It’s really just made up of one safe room. The machine could still kill us just from raw power if we’re too close, even though it won’t be tuned to our matter frequency. Section 6 is basically a bunker designed to protect against nuclear explosions, so it should weaken the signal enough that we should be ok. 

“Alright, great. So Section 5 control room, let’s go!” Jack jumps up and starts jogging down the hallway.

He turns left just as he hears Nathan say, “Wait, Jack, that’s not—” and then he can’t quite make out the words anymore. He looks behind him, and the hallway looks completely different. It’s not going off in the same direction he came from. It looks bent, and there are corridors coming off of it that confuse him completely. He tries to backtrack, but nothing makes sense. He turns at what he thinks should be the corridor leading back to Nathan, but it’s just more labs. He even recognizes the doors on some of them, and he could swear that the numbering system hadn’t been this messed up before. At one point he actually finds an elevator, but pressing the buttons doesn't do anything. Probably the shaft is too distorted for it to run properly.

He wanders around for what feels like at least 20 minutes, getting increasingly panicked. He doesn’t know if he should be looking for the control room, or if Nathan’s already turned on the machine and he needs to get to the bunker. It doesn’t really matter either way, because he hasn’t been able to find either one. 

“Jack?” The sound of his name bounces around, the source of where it’s coming from impossible to discern.

“Nathan?” He calls out. It’s like one of those funhouses he always hated as a kid. The walls are curving all over the place and none of his senses match up with each other.

“Jack, what are the room numbers around you?”

“Um, there’s 43 and… 52?”

“Got it. Stay right there!” A minute passes, and then Jack feels a hand on his shoulder. He whips around to see Nathan, slightly out of breath and holding a tablet.

“Thank fuck, I thought I wouldn’t be able to find you,” Nathan breathes, pulling Jack into a quick but tight hug. When they pull away, Jack notices that he looks more distressed than he’s ever seen him. His hair looks like it’s been pulled in every direction, and his eyes are rimmed with just a hint of red.

“Hey,” Jack says softly, reaching out to squeeze Nathan’s hand. Nathan bites his lip and squeezes back before letting go and looking away, immediately straightening out his posture.

“From now on we stay within five feet of each other, no matter what,” Nathan says sternly. “We get to the control room, turn on the machine, go to the bunker, and get the fuck out of this place.”

So he hasn’t turned on the machine yet. Neither of them know how much longer they have until everything collapses. Nathan could have powered it on and made sure to save himself. But he looked for Jack instead.

“I’ve mapped Global using the spatial collapse simulation, so we shouldn’t have any trouble finding it,” Nathan continues, gesturing to the tablet in his hand. “The bad news is we’ll only have two minutes to get ourselves to the bunker before the beam goes off. Once the machine is powered on I can’t control when it goes off from outside that room.”

“Will that be enough time?”

“Well, everything’s getting closer together. If we start it up at the right moment, we should be able to make it.”

“Ok,” Jack says, “but you also said it was collapsing at an exponential rate. Will we be able to finish everything before the whole place squishes us into dust?”

Nathan tilts his head to the side in an almost shrug. “It’ll be close. We just have to time it right. And then run fast.”

“Right.”

Getting around with Nathan’s simulation is infinitely easier than the bumbling around Jack had been doing. Once they're in the control room, it takes Nathan a while to get all the settings adjusted on the computer, but finally it’s ready. He takes out his tablet and looks at the screen.

“Ok, I’ll start it up in 60 seconds. Then follow me, and don’t fall behind.”

“Got it.”

When the minute is up, Nathan presses the button. The computer must show that the device was successfully turned on, because Nathan races for the door. They get about halfway to the stairs before Nathan stops in his tracks.

“Shit, Ralphy!” He says and runs toward one of the doors to their left.

“Nathan, we don’t have time to—”

“It’ll just take a second!”

Jack’s not willing to separate himself from Nathan and get lost, so he waits for what is definitely at least 8 entire seconds while Nathan runs into the room and emerges with Ralphy in hand.

“If this little detour is what kills us, I swear to God…” Jack grumbles as they run toward the staircase. “What was he even doing down here?”

“The hum of the machines helps him sleep.” Good God.

 When they open the door to the stairwell, Jack immediately feels nauseous. Space has been distorting unevenly in all three dimensions, so it makes sense that the stairway is a dizzying mess of curvy, uneven steps. But somehow he hadn’t thought far enough ahead to expect it.

Nathan starts bounding down the steps, taking them about three at a time. Jack considers for a moment, before settling on a better solution. He sits down on the railing and pushes himself down, using his hand and occasionally his foot to steady himself on the sharp turns. He’s feeling pretty impressed with himself when he gets to the bottom before Nathan, but a bit less so when he looks up to see that the time difference was about 2 seconds, at most.

“Points for descending in style, Indiana Jones,” Nathan says.

“I try.”

They sprint down the hallway until they reach a huge metal door that’s evidently the entrance to the bunker. Jack bounces on his toes as Nathan types in the entrance code, and then finally, finally, the door opens and they both throw themselves inside. It closes automatically behind them.

The room is smaller than Jack expected. And it’s getting smaller by the second. Damn, Nathan wasn’t kidding when he said things would collapse exponentially faster. The ceiling has lowered to a point where it’s nearly hitting Nathan’s head, so they both crouch down.

“Shit. How much time until the beam goes off?” Jack asks. Nathan looks at his tablet.

“15 seconds.”

Jack scooches in close to Nathan, trying to minimize the amount of space they’re taking up as the walls get closer and closer. Nathan wraps an arm around him and pulls him in tight, holding Ralphy close to his chest with his other hand. Despite the intensity of the situation, Jack can’t help but breathe out a laugh.

“Oh, this is perfect for you. Physically forced to cuddle. You finally have an indisputable excuse.”

Nathan laughs in surprise and turns to give Jack a genuine smile. “Yeah. There are worse things.”

The walls are close enough at this point that Jack could reach out with his foot and touch them on either side. 5 seconds left on the timer, but it’s unclear if it’ll be enough. It’s like the walls are Denethor’s teeth and they’re about to be the tomato. Why did he let Fargo convince him to watch those movies? Now that’s going to be the last image in his head before he dies.

Just when one of the walls touches Jack’s leg, the whole floor vibrates and there’s a burst of light. Jack closes his eyes and clings to Nathan.

When the vibrations stop and he opens his eyes, he sees the inside of the lab that created the pocket universe. He looks around but doesn’t let go of Nathan, not sure if he can believe it yet. That they’re actually back home.

“Um, hey guys… I was just coming to check that everything’s ok. We detected a huge energy spike,” Fargo says with a confused look. Right. Jack and Nathan are both sitting on the floor in the middle of the lab holding onto each other for dear life, which must be an odd sight. Jack lets go and clears his throat.

“Fargo, I never thought I’d be so happy to see you,” Nathan says while standing up.

“Thanks Dr. Stark! Um, why?”  

“Nathan, the chip,” Jack says.

“Right, we’ve gotta get down there. Come on, Fargo.” Looks like they've got their third person. Now they just have to follow their plan without making any mistakes.

They run to the elevator, with Fargo following behind. When Fargo sees that they’ve pressed the button for Section 5, he speaks up.

“Um, Dr. Stark, I don’t have clearance to go there, and Sheriff Carter—”

“Well, today’s your lucky day. Just get in the elevator.” Fargo’s eyes widen but he doesn’t argue. “And here, hold onto him,” Nathan adds, handing over Ralphy. Fargo squeaks when the bunny tries to wriggle away, but manages to hold on.

When they get off the elevator and start down the hallway, Jack takes out his cellphone.

“Jo, I need you down at Global. Beverly’s on her way out and I need you to put her under arrest.”

“Got it, on my way.”

“Hurry. And don’t let her get away.”

They reach the control room and Nathan immediately goes to one of the computers. Jack can hear Fargo on the phone behind them, saying, “Yes, they’re ok. But we’re in the control room in Section 5 now for some reason? – No, I don’t know why, no one tells me anything.”

“Jack, watch the numbers on the screen over there and tell me when they reach 200. Fargo, I need you over on that computer. Terminate all running processes, immediately.”

Fargo springs into action as Jack watches the screen on the other side of the lab. After about 30 seconds, he announces that it’s reached 200. Nathan yanks out the quantum processing chip and holds his breath. When nothing disintegrates for a few seconds, he lets it out again. Before Jack has a chance to be fully relieved, Jo calls back.

“Suspect is in custody. Want me to bring her to you for questioning?”

“Nice work, Jo. Bring her to Stark’s office, we’ll meet you there.”

Jack and Nathan look at each other and both break out into huge smiles. They wrap each other in a tight hug, and Jack finds himself laughing in relief. It’s over. They’re back, everyone is safe, and Beverly’s been caught.

“Um… anyone want to explain what’s going on here?” Allison walks in raising a pointed eyebrow, with Henry following behind. Jack quickly pulls away.

“Allie,” Nathan breathes, and walks right up to her and gives her a big hug. Jack feels a pang of jealousy he knows is completely idiotic given the situation, but his happiness at seeing Allison outweighs it.

“Um… hi?” When Nathan pulls away, she says. “So why are we all down here? And when did the two of you have time to change?” Jack has to look down at himself before he remembers he’s not wearing his Sheriff’s uniform.

“Well, that’s kind of a long story,” Jack says. “One that Nathan can probably explain a lot better than me.” Allison’s eyebrows shoot up when Jack says ‘Nathan’, but she quietly waits for the explanation. Jack leads them to where Jo’s waiting with Beverly while Nathan launches into an abbreviated version of the past few months. They stop on the way to open the closet Beverly brought the scientist into, finding him alive but unconscious. He was drugged with something. Allison makes a call to medical to get him assistance.

Nathan gets through the most important bits of the story – getting trapped in a pocket universe, Beverly trying to sabotage the demo and nearly killing everyone, and escaping just in time – before they arrive to see Jo watching over Beverly, who’s restrained in handcuffs.

“Alright, Beverly,” Jack starts. “Your little plan to sabotage the Targeted Molecular Destabilizer—” he looks toward Nathan who gives him a nod of confirmation at the name “—didn’t work. Now talk. Why’d you do it?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“We have you on video stealing the quantum processing chips and bringing them into Section 5. With someone else’s badge, by the way. Someone we just found knocked out in a closet. So don’t even try to talk your way out of it.”

She considers for a moment. “Fine. Yes. I wanted to make sure the demo failed in front of the General. If he saw the machine lose control in front of him, he’d pull its funding. Do you have any idea what that thing could be used for? It’s a few simple modifications away from becoming a weapon more deadly than the atomic bomb.”

“That’s not its purpose,” Nathan says.

“Oh, you really believe the military is interested in local destruction of matter when they could have arbitrarily large destruction? Come on Dr. Stark, I know you’re not that naïve. The military only cares about one thing. Fire me if you want. I was just trying to prevent countless lives from being lost.”

“Oh really.” Nathan says, crossing his arms. “By causing a nuclear meltdown that would have destroyed everyone in the town?”

Beverly looks affronted. “What are you talking about? I wasn’t going to kill anyone.”

“You don’t understand how that device works, Beverly. Interfering with it like that during its warm-up phase would have caused it to destroy half the matter in Section 5. Which contains things that actually are as deadly as the atomic bomb.”

Beverly swallows, a look of pure shock on her face. “Oh my God. I swear I never wanted anyone to get hurt.”

Nathan walks up to her and stares her down. “You want to tell me that trapping me and Jack in that pocket universe was an accident, too?”

Beverly’s eyes dart down to the floor. “That universe was an exact replica of Global. You would’ve had your whole life to study and experiment with whatever you wanted. Like I said, I didn’t want anyone to get hurt, including you.” Then she looks Nathan in the eye. “Ever since you took over at Global there have been more and more military-related projects. It all feeds into the endless cycle of creating deadlier weapons than everyone else. We just wanted control of GD to go to someone who’s willing to put humanity’s interests above their own.”

“Right,” Nathan scoffs. “As much as I’d love to live in a perfect world where we get funded to make rainbows and unicorns, that’s not how it is. Politics and scientific research are intertwined. Compromises have to be made.”

“Beverly, who’s ‘we’?” Jack asks.

Beverly closes her mouth into a tight line. “I’m done talking, Sheriff. And I’d like a lawyer.”

“I’ll take her down to the station,” Jo says, escorting her out of the room.

“Well, that was a lot,” Allison says after a moment of silence.

“It’s amazing that you were able to get out of there,” Henry says. “You said you were working on a time travel device to get out, right? How close did you get?”

“Closer than I should have been able to. It was weird, actually. A lot of the equipment I dug up from storage to build it was already calibrated to the exact settings I needed, so there was a lot I didn’t need to work out myself. It was like… someone had already tried to build it.”

“Huh, imagine that,” Henry says.

“Henry,” Nathan says. “Sending someone back in time with a device like that… couldn’t that theoretically cause ripples in spacetime that would affect the device itself in the prior timeline? Or in this case, the parts that made it up?”

Henry puts his hands in his pockets. “Well, I suppose it’s possible.”

“So…” Jack says, looking between the two of them. “Freaky time travel device that was built before anyone invented it. How concerned should we be about that?”

“Eh, I wouldn’t worry about it,” Henry says. “Whatever happened to get the parts into that state would’ve had to be some sort of alternate timeline no one will ever know about.” Then he lets out a loud, though oddly forced laugh. “Or who knows, maybe we’ve yet to find out!”

Nathan continues to look at Henry thoughtfully.

“So how long did you say you were trapped there?” Allison asks.

“About four months,” Jack says.

“Seriously. And you didn’t rip each other’s heads off? Well color me impressed.” She gives them an amused, slightly smug smile. “It even seems like you bonded.”

“Sure,” Nathan says, shrugging. “Let’s go with that.” Jack has to bite back a laugh. Bonding is certainly one way to put it.

“So you two are friends now.” She says it like she’s still trying to process the whole thing. Jack really can’t blame her.

“We dislike each other significantly less, at least,” Nathan says, shooting Jack an honest-to-God wink. Jack looks toward Allison in panic, but she seems to have missed it. 

“Well,” Allison says. “I’d better go tell General Mansfield that we need to reschedule the demo. It’ll give us time to make sure nothing else got tampered with.” Henry follows her out.

“Fargo,” Nathan barks after they’ve left the room. Jack can see the hint of a smile on his face at getting to do that again. “Get Ralphy set up in a nice cage and bring him back here. Oh, and find some bunny treats.”

“Right away, Dr. Stark.”

That leaves Jack and Nathan in the extremely familiar position of being alone in a room at Global. But this time there’s a tenseness to the atmosphere Jack hasn’t felt in a long time. Now that they’re back, he isn’t sure how he should be acting.

“Well that all worked out pretty nicely,” Jack says. “We’ll have to interrogate Beverly more, of course, but I think we can count today as a win.”

“And what exactly are you counting as ‘today’?”

“Fair point.”

There’s a pause, and then Nathan’s face gets serious. “Jack… you kept a level head when we were in there. And when I was starting to spiral, you held it together. I just wanted to say… thank you.”

Jack smiles. “Not something I hear from you often. Or… ever.”

“Yeah, well don’t get used to it.”  

“Thanks for waiting for me. To turn on the destabilizer thingy.”

“You were able to say the full name of it five minutes ago.”

“Yeah, but it’s so long.”

Nathan smiles. “Yeah, well. No man or bunny left behind.”

They stand there silently looking at each other. Jack wants so badly to kiss him. It’s actually taking conscious effort for him to stay where he’s standing, several feet away. But he needs to start getting used to this. Things aren’t going to be how they were. Nathan has Allison back, and Jack will learn to be happy for them, eventually. Fake it ‘til you make it.

“Jack—”  

“I should go call Zoe. It’ll be good to hear her voice again. I’ll see you.” He gives Nathan a small smile and then heads out.

-------

Zoe’s supposed to be at Pilar’s house until pretty late, studying for some big test. But Jack doesn’t want to wait that long. Now that he’s in the same universe as her, he needs to actually see her. He makes a quick stop at home first to pick up some snacks. He didn’t think he’d miss a house so much, but it’s really nice to hear S.A.R.A.H.’s familiar greeting when he walks in the door.

He waits to call Zoe until he’s outside Pilar’s house, telling her to come outside.

“Um, hi?” She says. “What are you doing here?”

Jack can’t hold back his huge smile at seeing her. “Thought you could use some study fuel,” he says, waving around the plastic bag in his hand.

She peeks into it. “You came all the way over here to bring me potato chips that we have at home?”

“Well, who knows what snacks Pilar’s mom keeps in the house. She might be one of those health freaks who only lets you have vegetables. And it wouldn’t be a study party without junk food.”

“You’re being weird,” she says with a half-smile as she accepts the bag.

“Well, I’m your dad. Being weird is in the job description.” Then he gives her a long, tight hug.

“Is everything ok?” She asks, sounding worried.

“Yeah. Yeah everything’s good, now. I’ll pick you up at 10. Study hard! But not too hard.”

He smiles to himself as he walks back to his car. She’s the same exact Zoe he left, which isn’t a surprise, but it’s somehow still a relief. He considers going back home, but the thought of an empty house (save for the house herself) is pretty unappealing after so much time away from people. So instead he heads over to Café Diem and gets himself a table and his usual bacon cheeseburger.  

He’s missed Vince’s cooking, but he turns out not to be nearly as hungry as he thought he’d be. This is his first time eating alone in a while, and even though he’s surrounded by familiar faces at the other tables, he still feels lonely. He’s picking at the fries on his plate when he hears a familiar voice.

“Not a hard man to find.”  

Jack looks up to see Nathan pulling out the chair across from him and sitting down. He takes a look at the picked-at food on Jack’s plate and says, “What, did all the universe hopping alter your taste buds so you don’t like burgers anymore?”

Jack snorts. “Oh, it would take something a lot weirder to make that happen. Just not hungry, I guess.” There’s an awkward silence for a few moments as Jack continues pushing food around on his plate. “Thought you’d be spending time with Allison. Figured you’d be pretty sick of me after entire months forced to listen to my stupid jokes a million times.”

“You’d think, wouldn’t you. It’s great to see Allie again. And Kevin. But I figure as her ex-husband I ought to start giving her some space.”

“Oh. I thought you guys were trying to work things out.”

“She’ll always be my family. But no, I’ve told her that’s not what I want anymore.”

Well that makes no sense. Winning over Allison is pretty much all Nathan’s wanted since Jack’s known him. “What? Why?”

Nathan shrugs, and as casually as he says everything else, says, “Because I’m in love with you.” Jack thinks he hears a tray crash to the ground, but for all he knows it could have been the sound of his own heart slamming against his ribcage.

“Um,” Jack breathes. Nathan’s looking at him with his head cocked ever so slightly to the side, mouth quirked up in a barely noticeable smile. His eyes are piercing right into Jack’s, carrying more warmth than Jack’s ever seen from him before.

“Well in that case,” Jack says slowly, “I think you’d better kiss me.”

Nathan’s face lights up into a true, pure smile. He steps out of his chair and puts his hand on the back of Jack’s neck, leaning down and bringing their lips together. It’s a slow, sure kind of kiss. It feels almost way too intimate for a public setting, but Jack really can’t be bothered to care right now. At this moment nothing else exists. The world has gone quiet, where the only thing that matters is the feel of Nathan’s mouth against his, soft and open. He brings his hand to rest just above Nathan’s hip, pulling him in closer.

When they finally break away, Jack realizes that the world has in fact actually gone quiet. It seems that everyone in Café Diem has stopped their conversations and is staring right at them.

“Oh my God, oh my God!” Vince circles around their table buzzing with excitement. “Champaign. And shrimp cocktail! I’ll be right back!”

-------

The next morning, Jack takes Zoe out to Café Diem before school for breakfast. He told her everything last night, including the fact that he and Nathan are together. She was shocked for sure, mainly because of the number of times she’s heard him complain about the man, but perfectly supportive. He really has an amazing kid. They’re leaving the café when they run into Nathan on the sidewalk.

“Jack. Heading into work already?”

“Nah, just driving Zoe to school.”

“Right. You free later tonight?”

“Ooh, are you taking me out on our very first date? Why Nathan Stark, what a gentleman you are. How fancy are we talking here, because a guy needs enough warning to be able to properly prepare.”

Nathan sighs dramatically. “All I mean is you coming over, having dinner at my place, and having sex after.”

“Hey, there’s a child present!” Zoe says.

Jack just grins at Nathan smugly. “Sounds like a first date to me. Should I wear my tux? You need to tell me if there are gonna be flowers, because I don’t think I own a vase so that’s gonna take some preparation on my part—”

“Can you even act normal for 30 seconds?”

“Not a chance. And you love it.”

“I love you. Not all of your ridiculousness.”

“Yes you do.”

Nathan kisses him softly. “Yeah. I do.”

Jack smiles and goes back in for another kiss. He’s never really been able to just kiss Nathan before outside of sex. The pure simplicity of it, the ease of being able to do this whenever he wants, is… nice. It’s really nice. As much as he’d like to draw the kiss out for longer, he figures he’s scarred Zoe enough for one morning. He pulls away with a simple, “See you tonight.”

“You two are so gross,” Zoe says as they get in the car. But there’s fondness behind it.

“Well, sorry kid, but you might just have to get used to it.”

“I’m glad you’re happy. But seriously though, Nathan Stark?”

Jack shrugs. “It’s like I told you. Sometimes you just can’t explain attraction.”