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Posted August 7, 2010
Fan Fiction: Here For You
Title: Here For You (The Time and Again Remix)
Author: Jedi Buttercup
Disclaimer: The words are mine; the world is not. I claim nothing but the plot.
Summary: When Tess Fontana made the last-minute decision to surprise her old roommate on her wedding day, she hadn't expected to end up playing a starring role in her own romantic drama. But sometimes the universe does things for strange reasons-- especially in a town called Eureka. 30,000 words.
Spoilers: This is an AU remix/fixit for the early third season episode, "I Do Over". Minimal dialogue borrowed from the episode, and from other episodes later in Season 3.
Notes: Contains adults behaving like adults, and occasional saccharine moments. Written for the 2010 Small Fandom Big Bang. Much love to MaeveBran for her support, and for dragging me into this 'verse; and to RevDorothyL, for her incisive last-minute beta services.
Dr. Tess Fontana lifted a hand from the steering wheel to glance at her wristwatch again and sighed. When she'd made the last-minute decision to drive all the way out to Eureka to surprise her old roommate on her wedding day, she'd been envisioning a quiet, giggly morning at Allison's place, not a trip up to the Global Dynamics building at eight a.m. on a summer Saturday. Tess supposed she should have known better, though; this was Dr. Allison Blake, PhD, PhD, MD, and agent of the Department of Defense, who reacted to any kind of stress by working harder. Of course the morning of her second wedding would be no different.
At least the drive up had been gorgeous. Tess had been living in coastal California for years and liked it well enough, but there was something about the crisper air, the enfolding ridges of fir-clad hills, and most importantly the prospective company up there in western Oregon that made her wonder why she hadn't taken up any of Allison's previous invitations to visit. It had to have been at least two years since the last time she'd seen her friend in person, and if she hadn't impulsively cleared her weekend schedule to attend the wedding there was no telling how long it would have been until she would've found another excuse to visit.
Eureka already employed half the astrophysics rock stars in North America, after all; they didn't often need to call in extras, especially ones whose major specialties were actually in communication. And it wasn't every day that either Tess or Allison had a personal event significant enough to justify the trip if it didn't coincide with something job-related, either.
Okay, okay. So Tess wasn't any better about time management than Allison, when it came right down to it. And it was kind of ridiculous that they'd been working on the same side of the same country for ages and she had yet to see the inside of Allison's Eureka home. Even if they did spend the next ten hours talking science over coffee and paperwork instead of doing each others' hair up and dishing about their lives-- well, who cared? It would be more true to who they were than a glamour day would be, anyway.
She rolled down the driver's side window, trailed a hand out into the shallow slipstream enfolding her Audi, and smiled as the breeze tugged at her scarf. It was a glorious day, and she was going to count it as time well spent, no matter what.
The remaining miles up to the facility slipped away under her wheels almost without her notice, until the two-lane blacktop dignified with the name of 'Old Post Road' finally dead-ended at the illusory defenses Allison had described to her. Even knowing the truth behind it, Tess' stomach dipped a little as she headed for the proverbial leap from the lion's head, and she entertained a brief, whimsical wish for a fedora. People survived driving off abandoned bridges in movies, maybe, but in real life human beings were a little more breakable than that. She could write out the equations that made such large-scale holograms possible while blindfolded, though; and even if the illusion had been real, it would probably be the least deadly of Global Dynamics' defense systems anyway. Tess smiled wryly at the thought, then sped up again and drove on.
It was around eight-twenty by the time she finally parked her car in the VIP visitor's area and headed for G.D.'s security entrance. Allison had supplied her with a guest badge some time before in the vain hope that she'd be able to make it to town after all, and Tess' work with SETI gave her a ridiculously high clearance level regardless, which meant she didn't have to jump through all the hoops an ordinary visitor would. The security technicians watching the monitors at the entrance frowned a little when they didn't recognize her, but no alarms went off, and they let her through without comment.
Tess left the entrance hallway, then paused a moment at the edge of the rotunda, gazing around at the large, open space. The flooring was predominantly pale marble, marked with a darker symbol in the center; shimmering wall panels and dramatic strips of lighting separated the various corridors and stairwells that led away from it, and the wide, thickly paned window one story above was obviously where the current head of G.D. would look out from her office to watch her minions scurry about their business. For a year or so that office had been Allison's, but some corporate fixer named Eva Thorne had recently been brought in to try to make the place more 'profitable'. Tess had her own doubts as to whether that could be done without sacrificing the scientific principles the town had been founded on, but it wasn't up to her, and she had no intention of cluttering up Allie's day with her misgivings.
Several other employees passed through the security entrance behind her while she took in the scenery, the computer calling out each name for all to hear. Tess listened absently, wondering whether programming adjustments were ever made for people with truly embarrassing legal names, then cast a grimace back over her shoulder as the speakers announced a name she recognized.
Leo Weinbrenner. Ugh. That was him all right, standing between the scanning posts in a blue jumpsuit. Tess had run into the temporal physicist when he'd still been employed by NASA, and their spirited debate about his attachment to the outdated Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox and its potential applications in regards to time travel had ended with pretty sour feelings on both sides. Any modern physicist knew that the 1935 paper was more an illustration of how quantum mechanics violated classical intuitions than a proof that quantum mechanics was an incomplete theory, of course, but Weinbrenner had been completely unwilling to listen to reason on the subject. The last thing Tess wanted to do was waste her time reopening that discussion.
She hurried out onto the marble floor of the rotunda and headed for the next most likely information source: the desk of Dr. Douglas Fargo, which was bound to be close by the Director's office. She remembered the man from a few phone calls back when Allison held that post; even if he was Thorne's assistant now instead of her friend's, Tess was sure he could still point her in the right direction.
Unfortunately, Tess' attempt to corner Fargo was even less successful than her attempt to surprise Allison at home earlier that morning. Then, she'd only had to deal with the pleasant woman looking after Kevin. Fargo's desk, on the other hand, was guarded by a creepy twenty-something kibitzer who introduced himself as Larry Haberman and seemed abnormally interested in who she was and why she was looking for the Director's assistant.
From the way he kept denigrating Fargo and exaggerating his own qualifications, she had a sneaking suspicion he thought she might be some kind of 'mystery shopper' type sent in to evaluate the administrative staff. So much the better for her, though; Tess wasn't eager to have word of her presence reach Allison's ears before she herself did, and the easiest way to keep the man's obviously gossipy tongue from wagging in her direction would be to let him run down a false trail.
Biting back a smile, she let him run his mouth for awhile, then worked in a question about Fargo's whereabouts, implying that given the concerns Larry'd just aired, she thought she ought to speak to the other scientist as well. Larry seemed a little taken aback by her insistence, but obligingly coughed up the information, with a puzzled, calculating expression.
"It was a pleasure to meet you, Miss...?" he added, clueing in at last that she had never actually told him who she was.
"Doctor," Tess corrected him with a polite smile. "And the pleasure was all mine." Then she turned to head for the lab where he'd said Fargo would be setting up for an important new piece of equipment due for delivery that day. Did anyone at Global ever take a weekend off?
She shook her head, then made her escape while Larry was still parsing that last comment. Unfortunately, she was just a little too late-- again-- to find Fargo in the lab in question. By the time she caught up to him, he'd already met up with Dr. Nathan Stark, whom Tess had been planning to avoid until the wedding itself.
God knew the man was fiendishly attractive, and when he'd been paying attention to his first marriage with Allison she'd heartily approved of his effect on her friend. That hadn't lasted, though, and the demise of their relationship had taken Tess' respect for Nathan with it. His move to D.C., abandoning Allison and Kevin in Eureka, had piqued Tess' temper and prompted an unfortunate phone call even more acrimonious than her discussion with Leo Weinbrenner about the man's ridiculous theories.
In hindsight, she might have been just a little harsh on Nathan-- though she still maintained that he'd totally deserved it. So he might have been justified in being harsh with her in return-- though of course all his accusations had been skewed way out of proportion. She'd been kind of hoping not to have to talk with him again until after his and Allie's second honeymoon, when he might be in a forgiving enough mood to overlook the things she'd implied about his ancestry and his research methods, and she could pretend he'd never referred to her as 'a joke to the scientific community.'
Just the sound of his voice carrying down the hall was enough to make her wince, but she wasn't going to give up now just because of a little social discomfort. Tess pasted on her best 'you don't intimidate me' smile and kept going, determined not to let him derail her into another argument. Allison had forgiven him; that should be enough for her.
"Well, well, well," he said as he caught sight of her approach, looking unbearably smug in his smart suit and evil twinnish beard. "If it isn't Tiger Tess. I thought the force of your disapproval was going to keep you away from the wedding? Allison was so disappointed when you failed to RSVP."
"Now, now, I don't call you Neglectful Nathan, do I?" she chided him, tone syrupy sweet as she feigned equal pleasure at the greeting. "I had a work thing, but I managed to postpone it a few days so I could drive up and surprise Allison. Speaking of which. I don't suppose you would know where I can find her this morning?"
He shook his head, the corners of his mouth curled up with suppressed amusement. "No. I was banished from the house last night as per tradition, even if it is the second time around for us. I take it she wasn't there?"
"Ah, no; Ms. Thorne said she was going to call her in," Fargo interrupted apologetically, inserting himself edgewise into the conversation. "There were some last minute concerns about the quarterly balance sheets due Monday, and a few more redactions to take care of. She hadn't told you about them yet?" He seemed exactly as geeky in person as he'd always sounded on the phone, but in a motivated way; which made sense, if four separate G.D. directors had kept him on in his position with the likes of Larry attempting to brown-nose their way up the administrative food chain behind him.
Nathan's smile soured a little at Fargo's question. "Director of Research now, not Operations, remember?" he said. "Balance sheets aren't my area of concern anymore. What is in my area of concern is today's important delivery. So if you don't mind, Tess? We are in a bit of a hurry."
"Not at all," she said, gesturing toward the end of the hall. "If you could just tell me where her new office is? I guess she must have stopped for coffee or something on her way up; I'll wait for her there."
"She does love her Vinspressos," Fargo agreed, then cleared his throat and gave her directions-- which would lead her right back along the path she'd taken to find him and across the rotunda. Great. Her feet, still complaining from long hours of driving, ached at the thought... though she had to admit, she was at least getting her exercise in for the morning.
"Try not to get lost," Nathan added when Fargo had finished, his tone more serious than before. "Now that I know you're here, I can and will make your life miserable if you disappoint Allison again and fail to show at the wedding. I don't care what you think of me, but I do care how she feels, so don't screw it up, okay?"
"The park at six p.m., right?" Tess replied, tempted to roll her eyes at his attitude. "Don't worry, I'll be there."
"I'll hold you to that," he said, frowning, then turned and strode off down the hall, Fargo trailing behind him.
"Insufferable ass," she muttered to herself, then shook her head and set about retracing her steps.
She had already reached the rotunda again and started across when she finally spotted Allison, approaching from the other side in the company of a man wearing a tan uniform. The insignia on it identified him as Eureka's current sheriff, the man Tess' friend had asked to walk her down the aisle. That had seemed an unlikely choice when she'd told Tess about it-- why not someone Allison had known a little longer, like a family member, or even their old T.A. Bruce Manlius?-- but she assumed Allie had her reasons. It would be a little premature of her to pass judgment on him before she even met him.
Another woman, dressed in a gray power suit with a touch of blue at the collar setting off short, professionally styled red hair, was also crossing the rotunda toward Allison, a few paces in front of Tess. Tess ducked slightly behind the woman to keep her interposed in Allison's line of sight as they got closer, eager to preserve the surprise until the last possible moment. She hoped she wasn't about to interrupt anything important-- but even if she was, there wouldn't be a better chance to stick her nose in, and what could be more important for Allison than her wedding that day, anyway?
The bride-to-be-again looked a little tired, but dressed for the kill as usual. She was holding a spirited discussion about something 'momentous' with the sheriff; the slightly rumpled look of the blond man's uniform and the red blot on the front of it subtracted a few points from Tess' potential opinion as she got a better look at him, but Allison's ease with his presence in her personal space encouraged Tess to balance those out with a few positive points, too. Allie didn't relax around just anyone, so there had to be something special about him.
"Big day. Nervous?" the unnamed woman asked, voice fairly dripping with sugar as they all came together in the middle of the room.
The sheriff had turned his back toward the woman's path as he spoke to Allison, but he turned around at the sound of her voice-- and earned himself a few more points for noticing Tess over the shoulder of her human shield without saying anything to bring her presence to Allison's attention.
"Of course not," Tess said brightly, leaning out from behind the redhead's shoulder to catch Allison's attention with a wave of greeting. "She's hardly a first time bride."
"Tess...?" Allison blurted, momentarily stunned to stillness, then laughed and opened her arms for a hug. "Oh, I knew you couldn't stay away."
"Hi, Al." Tess grinned and wrapped her arms around her friend.
The other woman, Tess saw as she pulled back again a moment later, seemed a little nonplused at the interruption. The sheriff, on the other hand, looked pleased-- his eyes on Allison's expression, not Tess'. Ah. So he was that kind of friend, then, Tess thought, amused and for some reason just a tiny bit disappointed.
She held her hand out to him with a smile. "Dr. Tess Fontana," she introduced herself. "I'm an old friend of Allison's."
"Jack Carter," he replied, reciprocating with a genial smile of his own. "Ah, Sheriff. New friend of Allison's. Ish. Do you work here now?"
"No, no," she laughed, "I'm just up for the wedding. I was going to surprise her at her house, but...." She trailed off with an expressive shrug.
Allison looked sheepish at that, but it was the other woman who answered the implied question, stepping forward to make herself the center of attention again. "Sorry. I hated to call her in, but quarterly balance sheets are due Monday and this couldn't wait." The director-- for of course she had to be Eva Thorne-- pulled a sheaf of papers from the folder she carried under one arm by way of elaboration, handing them to Allison with an apologetic expression.
Allison glanced down at the papers in evident dismay, her face falling at the sight of them. "Another set of layoffs? There's over a dozen people here."
"Good thing you called in the cavalry," Thorne replied, something about her manner even more self-assured than Nathan's had been but without any of the charm. The hackles on the back of Tess' neck rose as the woman turned to dismiss her.
"Ms. Fontana, was it? Hopefully with the sheriff's help, it won't take Dr. Blake long; would you care to wait in the visitor's lounge?"
"It's Dr. Fontana, actually," Tess said sweetly, matching her tone for tone. "And no, I actually do have enough clearance to accompany Allison to her office, so I think I'll keep her company."
"Ah." Thorne raised both carefully-manicured eyebrows at that, then turned her attention back to the sheriff with an air of dismissal. "Bloodstain?" she asked, glancing at the blot on his shirt.
"Uh, no, breakfast. Laundry day, last clean shirt, you know how it is...." Carter trailed off with a wince in the face of Thorne's bland expression, and cleared his throat. "Or, maybe not. Anyway." He glanced down at the pages in Allison's hand. "This is going to take hours."
"Time's a-wasting," Thorne said with one last, false smile, then turned to head back toward her own office. "Wouldn't want to miss your beautiful wedding."
Tess shook her head as the woman walked away. "What's her problem?"
Carter snorted. "You didn't invite her, did you," he commented, throwing a knowing glance at Allison.
Allison rolled her eyes in response. "No. I'm surprised she's offended by it, actually. I would've thought she'd be glad to miss the invitation list, just the opposite of this one here." She reached out to Tess again, drawing her back into another hug. "I'm so glad you changed your mind," she said, warmly.
"Oh, just had to cancel a few projects, move a few things around," Tess replied, with a mental wince. She really had been letting her friend down, hadn't she? "After all, it's not every day my old roommate walks down the aisle."
"Well, however you're here, it's good to see you," Allison said, then sighed, her smile fading. "Although, Jack is right; if I attend to the budgetary ramifications and the bureaucratic aspects of the redactions, and he takes care of actually notifying the employees in question, this is still going to take hours. Are you sure you want to just sit around in my office and stare at me while I do paperwork? Vincent down at Café Diem makes a mean espresso, and there are probably at least a few old colleagues of yours not at work today who'll be passing through there for breakfast or lunch."
Tess bit her lower lip, considering. Neither option really appealed to her. She'd come to Eureka to catch up with Allison, but she knew quite well that when Allie was absorbed in her work Tess wouldn't be able to get two words out of her; and while she'd heard enough about the Café and Vincent's talents to look forward to taking a meal there, Thorne's attitude had irritated her enough that retreating now would feel like surrendering the field of battle. There'd be time to touch base with her other friends later. So where did that leave her? She glanced speculatively at Carter and decided to offer a third option.
"Or... I could tag around with the sheriff?" she suggested. "You've told me so much about the wonders of Global Dynamics, I'd kind of like to have a look around myself."
"I don't know..." Allison said, glancing between them with a hesitant expression.
"Come on, Al," Tess coaxed her. "I do have clearance, you know, and I'll be careful not to poke my nose in any high-security areas. Besides, I haven't had a chance to gossip about you in a very long time, and I'm sure your friend the sheriff has a lot of fun stories to tell."
Allison looked affronted at that, but also amused, as Tess had intended. "Carter?" she prompted the sheriff. "Would you mind?"
"Of course not," he replied, eyeing Tess with a little more interest. "But what makes you think I'd gossip about Allison with a stranger, anyway?"
Something about him-- about his open face, bright blue eyes framed by faint smile lines, an amused tug at the corner of his mouth, the solidity of his presence in that uniform-- made Tess want to ruffle his feathers; made her want to slide as many barbs into the conversation as she could, just for the pleasure of prompting him to respond in kind. It was a surprisingly difficult impulse to restrain, despite the fact that she'd more or less just asked him for a huge favor.
"Then you must not gossip much at all," Tess said, brightly. "Is there anyone else in this town-- other than you, I assume-- who doesn't qualify as strange in some way?"
He blinked, surprised, but his smile didn't waver. "You do have a point," he said, then turned to Allison with a shrug. "I have no objection."
"Really?" Allie replied, a faint note of relief in her voice. "That would be a load off my mind. I really am sorry, Tess; I'll wrap this up as soon as I possibly can. I'd love to do lunch at Café Diem before we have to finish setting up for the wedding; we can talk then?"
Tess reached for one of Allison's hands and clasped it reassuringly. "It's my fault for not warning you I was coming. I'll be fine! Go on, shoo: go be important, and I'll see you when you're finished."
Allison relented. "Okay," she said, returning the squeeze of fingers. Then she gave Carter a mock-stern look. "But be careful, all right? Between your luck and hers, I really don't want to think about how much trouble you could get into, and today is not a good day for spontaneous volcanoes, random attacks of hyper-intelligent lab animals, uncontrolled human combustion, or whatever new disaster we're due to face next."
"Understood," Carter replied, grinning, and gave Allison a sketchy salute.
With one last firm, amused glance at each of them, Allison walked off, already thumbing distractedly through the sheaf of papers Thorne had given her.
Carter watched her go, then thrust his hands into his pockets and tilted his head inquisitively at Tess. "So, how old of friends are we talking about, here?" he asked.
Tess snorted. "Old enough to see she must rely on you a lot," she mused. "She never used to name-drop Sheriff Cobb, but ever since you came into town it's Carter this, Carter that every time we're on the phone. Well," she corrected herself with a quirked smile, "Nathan this, Kevin that, and Carter yadda yadda. And she teases you. She doesn't do that with just anyone."
Carter cleared his throat and rubbed at the back of his neck, amusement shading into embarrassment. "Yeah, well," he said. "She's-- she's great. If it hadn't been for her and Henry-- and Vince-- my first few months here would have been a much more difficult adjustment. Stark still does his best to drive me crazy, but..." He lifted a shoulder.
"That's Nathan for you," she said, wryly. Then she clapped her hands together and rubbed them briskly. "So. A dozen people to visit? You can pass on some of that newcomer experience along the way. And I was serious about the gossip; it's been years since I saw Allie in person, and I know there's stuff she hasn't been telling me."
He studied her a moment, then nodded, a mischievous light dancing in his eyes. "Okay. But only if you trade me story for story, how's that sound? And call me Jack."
"You're on," she said, delighted. Yes; this would be much more fun than retreating back into town. "Where to first?"
"Security office first for the checklist; not much to see there," he replied, gesturing toward one of the halls opening onto the rotunda. "But I wouldn't be surprised if Thorne has me set to roam all over the building; that would be just like her. Don't worry, you'll have plenty of chances to take in the sights."
"Sounds like a plan," Tess said, falling in at his side as he turned to walk toward the hallway in question. Then she gave into the impulse to lag back just a bit, taking in another sort of sight altogether. Damn; Allison had good taste. And if she'd chosen to throw this one back in favor of a flavor she already knew, well... more for the rest of them, right?
Carter caught her looking, and flushed a little before ducking his head like an embarrassed schoolboy.
Much more fun, Tess thought, and caught up again with a grin.
"So. I get the gossip angle, and the not wanting to back down from Thorne," Carter said as they left the security office a few moments later with a tablet computer loaded with the redaction checklist. He kept watching her sidelong out of the corners of his eyes as they walked; probably still getting a read on her, Tess ventured to guess. She found herself almost unconsciously straightening her posture in response and tucking her hair back behind her ear to present her profile to best advantage, and had to mentally roll her eyes at her own behavior.
"But how serious were you about wanting a newcomer's perspective to this place?" he continued, candidly. "I'm really not a scientist; I have no idea what kind of detail you're looking to hear-- unless you're actually thinking about coming to work in Eureka, in which case my advice would be more along the lines of 'don't make me pick up after you', and 'make sure you have a good life insurance policy'."
He was smiling as he said it, but his tone was more serious than he'd probably intended. "Seen things go wrong a few times too many here, I take it?" Tess asked. Her particular scientific field wasn't exactly prone to disaster, but genius was, as Edison had famously said, ninety-nine percent perspiration; and as Allison's occasional horror stories proved, all that striving was bound to sometimes go spectacularly wrong.
"You have no idea," Carter replied, shaking his head as they stepped into the elevator and set off for Section Three. "Fargo alone is enough to give me nightmares, though at least when he screws up it generally isn't intentional. Some of the others...." He shuddered. "If I'd known how deadly this place could be when I first passed through town, I'm not so sure I would have got involved in the Perkins case, and then they might have picked someone a little more science-minded to replace Sheriff Cobb."
"Oh, I'm sure you make up for that in other ways," Tess drawled teasingly, letting her eyes drop to certain portions of his anatomy again. Then she looked back up and smiled at his flustered expression. "Seriously, though, if the powers that be hadn't been impressed with you, there had to've been plenty of other candidates available. What did you do before you came here?"
He snorted at that, glancing back down at the list of names on the piece of paper he carried with the tablet as the elevator stopped and they exited into a dark, polished corridor. "Kind of the opposite of what we're doing today, actually. I was a U.S. Marshal, on the Fugitive Retrieval Task Force."
"Bringing them in instead of letting them go?" she asked, then couldn't resist adding: "And did you always get your man?"
"Well, you know, I don't like to brag," Carter said, throwing her a sideways grin.
"Well, there you go," Tess chuckled. "We can't all be lab rats; some of us need to have actual people skills. I like to think I have a foot in both worlds, myself; I'm actually a communications expert."
"Really," he drawled, brightening a little at her statement as they stopped in front of a door marked Records. "Then I definitely have the right partner in crime for the day. I never know what to say to people at times like this."
"That's... not the type of communications I'm usually involved with, though of course I'm willing to help," she said, smiling wryly. "Unless any of the employees here happen to be aliens?"
"Aliens?" he blurted, blinking at her. "Why would you even....?" Then he shook his head, answering his own question. "This town, I swear. Though it would explain a few of our more unusual residents." He tapped his knuckles against the door in front of them, then opened it without waiting for a response.
Tess could see why he'd just barged in, once she stepped through after him. A vast, open space spread out before them, filled with shelf after shelf packed to the brim with a truly astounding number of file boxes. She'd never seen so much paperwork in one place in her entire life, and she raised her eyebrows at Carter in disbelief. "Do they keep copies of everything in here? I would have thought, with all the computer technology at Global...."
He shrugged. "I know what you mean," he said. "Don't knock it, though. This room saved Fargo's life once, when the computer system was locked down for a change of management and we needed to find a particular inventory record. And given the kinds of things Global is involved in? Keeping backups for the backups is just common sense."
Tess shrugged. "Still, I'm not surprised Dr. Thorne wants to cut-- what, one of the archivists?"
Carter glanced down at the list again. "Yeah, one of the two assigned here: a Dr. Herrington."
"It isn't exactly what an outsider would see as a high priority position," she observed.
He sighed. "I know. Still. Sucks to be Dr. Herrington-- or her former co-worker, who'll have to carry both of their jobs for the foreseeable future."
"Did someone say my name?" A tall, slender woman with stylish eyeglasses emerged from one of the aisles between the shelving units, blinking owlishly at them.
"Ah, yeah." Carter cleared his throat as he turned to face the scientist, holding the tablet in front of him like a shield. "Dr. Herrington, I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but your position is being redacted."
The archivist's jaw dropped open, and she glanced between Carter and Tess with a look of disbelief. "What? Have I done something wrong?"
"No, nothing like that," Carter assured her. "I'm sure you've done an excellent job."
Dr. Herrington's jaw firmed up again as she recovered from the shock, and she scowled at him. "It's that Fixer woman, isn't it? She doesn't think my position is essential for her precious bottom line? Well, I'd just like to see her do all the filing around here. She'll regret this, when she needs to find something that hasn't been filed yet because Jen couldn't keep up on her own!"
"I'm sure she will," Carter replied, placatingly. "But I'm still going to need you to turn in your badge by six p.m. today. It'll deactivate then, and I'm sure you know what'll happen if you get caught inside the security perimeter without it."
"And that's it? No two-week notice? Just clear my things out and go?" she replied, indignantly.
"A lot of good people are losing their jobs today," Carter said, apologetically. "I'm sorry you had to be one of them. Believe me, I know how important this department is."
Dr. Herrington's expression softened a little at that, and she cast a glance back toward the stacks of files. "I remember. I had to clean up after you and Deputy Lupo last year."
Carter winced. "I'm sorry about that, too, but it was kind of urgent."
"It always is." The woman took a deep breath. "Well. So much for catching up on the backlog. Do I actually have to stay the rest of the day, or can I just leave now?"
"Considering how long the redaction paperwork takes to fill out...?" Carter shrugged. "I'm sure you already know what that's going to look like."
Dr. Herrington snorted. "You have a point," she said. "Well, I'm going to go ahead and pack up then. Don't let the door hit your ass on the way out."
Tess watched her stalk back into the aisle she'd appeared from, then gave Carter a sympathetic look. "Well, you handled that one all right on your own," she told him, trying to lighten the atmosphere a little.
"You think all of them are going to be that easy?" he scoffed. "You really are new here."
"Then lead onward, O Guide," she said, and opened the door with a flourish.
"Don't mind if I do," he said, bowing mock-courteously to her in return.
By the time they spoke with the second to last employee on the redaction list, a specialized custodial worker named Lincoln that the sheriff referred to as 'the excrement guy', Tess had a much better picture of the extent of Global Dynamics, its employees' opinion of the shift from Allison's management style to the 'tyrannous' changes introduced by Dr. Thorne-- and was well on her way to thinking of her chosen tour guide as 'Jack' rather than by his last name or his title.
He was a little awkward, sure; he hadn't been kidding when he'd said he didn't know what to say when duty required him to ruin other people's days, and she did in fact step in to help him smooth over conversational rough spots a couple of times. But the awkwardness was somehow endearing rather than annoying, as it obviously came from a place of caring, and it was also pretty clear that most of those being redacted were annoyed more at the message than the messenger. Jack was respected in the town despite his lack of military connections or high security clearance, if the nods and smiles he got in the halls were any indication. A pretty neat trick, for a non-scientist who often ended up reining in those same researchers, as Allie's tales would have it.
Not to mention his own stories. Jack told her about several hair-raising and mostly hysterical cases between stops on his list, most of them featuring the bride-to-be in some way, just as she'd requested. Tess wasn't sure she'd have believed him if she hadn't already heard similar stories from Allie; the sheer variety of near-disasters the town had faced was incredible. It was a wonder they hadn't destroyed themselves long since. Perhaps even more surprising was that despite Jack's obvious role in solving many of those problems, he didn't seem inclined to brag about his prowess.
So he was charming, and he was cute, and he lacked the arrogance she was used to encountering in competent men. He was also unexpectedly good at coaxing Tess herself to talk about things she usually didn't bring up around complete strangers, like why exactly she'd gone into her particular field of astrophysics in the first place and whether she thought humans would ever really communicate with beings from beyond the stars. He seemed kind of pessimistic about the topic himself-- both about the possibility of aliens existing, and about the odds of any such aliens reaching a hand out in friendship rather than conquest should they actually travel to Earth-- but he kept encouraging her to talk anyway, reflecting her smiles back with pleased looks of his own as though basking in her enthusiasm.
Allison was an idiot for walking down the aisle with the guy rather than to him. To each their own, though, Tess figured; and even if he was fixated on the bride-to-be and Tess wasn't going to be around more than just the one day anyway, she was really enjoying her time with him. Maybe she'd have to make more excuses to visit Allie in future. Maybe. If he was still single the next time she was in town, and not on the rebound...
But that was a concern for later; in the moment, she'd tucked her hands into her pockets to keep herself from latching onto Jack's arm as she accompanied him on his quest for the last guy on the list, the same Leo Weinbrenner she'd been intent on avoiding earlier that morning. The prospect seemed a little less daunting now considering that he was about to be canned-- besides the fact that if she was going to make peace with Nathan Stark of all people, perhaps it was time to bury the hatchet with 'Loser Leo' as well. Never let it be said that Tess Fontana was incapable of winning graciously.
Not that she was winning anything. Or that he was really a loser. It was just that.... "Sometimes I feel like I'm still twelve years old," she muttered to herself as they left Lincoln and the waterfall hallway behind them, heading off in search of Maintenance. Probably Time Maintenance, knowing Weinbrenner, though the redaction orders didn't specify.
Jack raised his eyebrows and eyed her up and down ostentatiously at that, returning her favor from earlier, then met her gaze with a distinct twinkle in his eye. "Hardly twelve," he drawled. "I think you got your numbers reversed; twenty-one, maybe. Though not a day older."
"Flatterer," she said, and freed up a hand to hit at him with.
He dodged the weak blow with a smile and raised an arm as though to defend himself. "Are you always this aggressive toward people who pay you compliments?" he teased.
"No, she's just that aggressive toward everyone, I'm afraid," a familiar, unwelcome voice spoke from behind them, interrupting the mood.
Tess sighed; she'd heard the footsteps approaching rapidly from behind them, but hadn't cared enough to do more than check to make sure she and Jack weren't obstructing traffic. Of course it was Nathan, and of course he couldn't just pass by without comment.
"Coming from you? I'll take that with a grain of salt," Jack responded, then-- apparently as unable to resist prickling at the guy as she was-- added another wry comment. "Hey, shouldn't you be at a beauty parlor? It is your big day."
Nathan snorted, but didn't stop walking, hurrying down the hall with Fargo at his heels in an echo of her earlier encounter with him that morning. "Supervising an important delivery," he said, dismissively.
"Time sensitive!" Fargo seconded him, tapping at his watch.
"What, still?" Tess asked incredulously, raising her eyebrows at them.
Nathan gave her an irritated look over his shoulder, then cut his eyes sideways at Fargo. "Someone found a few more i's to dot and t's to cross that should have been taken care of before it arrived," he said, continuing down the hall as he answered her question.
"Hey!" the Director's assistant yelped. "I thought Larry was taking care of that part."
"And that was your second mistake," Jack muttered, then glanced at his list again and blinked. "Oh, hey. Wait, guys!"
Nathan rolled his eyes at that, but he did finally stop, turning and crossing his arms across his chest with a long-suffering expression on his face. "Do you need something, Carter?" he inquired patiently, with a tired version of the same smirk he'd faced Tess with hours before. "Other than a bodyguard to defend you from your new friend, here?" His gaze dipped a little to the red blot on Jack's shirt, then up again, his smirk widening at Jack's flustered reaction.
"That's not-- I don't--" Jack paused, then took a breath and started again. "I just need to find the last guy on my list, a Leo Weinbrenner? He's supposed to be in Maintenance."
Fargo had been fluttering his hands impatiently; as soon as Jack had finished speaking, he practically stepped all over himself to answer. "Basement."
"Just do whatever you have to do, but please, don't be late to the wedding, and don't forget the--" Nathan cut himself off there with an irritated glance at Tess, then pinched the bridge of his nose. "You know what I'm talking about." Then he spun on his heel and set off again, Fargo at his side.
"Oh, I can't believe she's marrying him again," Jack commented irritably, shaking his head at Nathan's retreating back.
"Well, he does have a lot of things going for him," Tess said defensively. Ordinarily she wouldn't have bothered, given her own opinion of the remarriage, but she felt a little peevish at the way Jack's attention had focused so wholly on Nathan the moment the other man had entered the scene, and a little irritated that Jack had ignored his casual insult toward her in favor of trying to get the information he wanted. Of course she was aware that both reactions were unfair to the sheriff; he did have a job to do, and he'd known Nathan a lot longer than he'd known her. But like she'd said before: twelve.
She scraped up some scraps of maturity, then smiled at Jack again, hoping to dispel the gloomy expression she'd just helped create. "I thought the same thing, though, when Allison called to tell me the news. His best feature, in my opinion, was always that he made her happy; if he falls down on the job again, I've reserved the right to pound some humility into him with a shovel."
He brightened at that. "Oooh, can I help?"
"I don't know about that, a girl's shovel is kind of personal. But you could bring your own?" she teased.
"You have yourself a deal," he said, extending a hand to shake.
Jack's hand was warm; his fingers rougher than hers, callused by hard work. Tess let her hand linger in his a moment, then cleared her throat and pulled back, gesturing to the list. "So. One more left, right?"
"Down to the basement we go," he agreed. "Though why they call it that, when it's definitely not the lowest part of the facility, I have no idea."
"Because it sounds better than 'the lowest subfloor in this section'?" she suggested.
"An ego thing; yeah, that sounds about right for this place," he replied. "All right then; this way. I think."
Now that he'd been supplied with a location, it didn't take Jack long to locate the room in question, even when the lighting in the corridors grew dimmer, implying infrequent use. He glanced one last time at his list, then at the large steel-gray door marked with the word 'Maintenance,' and swept his arm at it in a courtly gesture. "And voila: I present to you our last stop of the day, before I return you to Allison's care. I'm not sure what type of maintenance goes on in here, though, since I haven't been called down to investigate the guy before. Probably something safe and uninteresting, given the way the domino tends to fall around this place."
"Safe, maybe," Tess shrugged. "But more ludicrous than uninteresting, if I had to guess. I've met this guy, actually. He studies time: both the keeping thereof, and the mechanics of it."
"Time?" Jack repeated, frowning doubtfully at the lettering on the door. "Time maintenance? What the heck is there about time to maintain? Doesn't it kind of... just happen on its own?"
She laughed. "It probably means he watches over the clocks in this place, keeping them as close as possible to the atomic time, in exchange for the opportunity to do his research. Timekeeping can be pretty important in experiments, after all. In fact, I'm pretty surprised Thorne's cutting his job; even the most reliable computer system tends to drift off true after awhile."
"Huh. Well, I'm sure she has what she thinks is a perfectly good reason," he said. "We'll see if it holds up, though; she caved on charging for food at Café Diem quickly enough, after enough complaints poured in."
"I can imagine," Tess said, dryly. A town used to free food cooked by an imaginative master chef would find sudden price tags hard to stomach. Especially if Thorne had tried to impose anything like what market prices would be elsewhere for the café's reportedly exotic fare.
"In the meantime, though, I've still got to put this poor guy out of a job," he said, smile fading.
"Once more unto the breach," she offered, sympathetically.
"Or close up the wall with our scientific dead?" He half-completed the quote, then shuddered, taking the comment more seriously than she'd intended. "Let's not. I've seen enough people die in this town as it is; you should see the charts Thorne had drawn up."
With that, he stretched out a thumb to the wall sensor next to the door and waited for it to slide open.
The light inside the lab was even dimmer than the hall outside, if that were possible; Tess wrinkled her nose at the deeply blue, almost liquid lighting effect produced by whatever lamps Leo was using, and followed Jack hesitantly in as he called Leo's name. Something about unusual side-effects produced by theoretical wavelengths of light niggled at her, but she couldn't quite bring it to mind; it must have had something to do with his experiments. She was sure it would occur to her later.
"Anybody here?" Jack continued to call as he picked his way into the lab, squinting against the intense glow that seemed to permeate the air.
"Wait, Jack..." Tess reached out a hand to stop him, latching onto his elbow as she became aware of a high-pitched whine rising somewhere in the lab. "Do you hear that?"
"Hear what-- Whoa!" The fabric of his sleeve slid through her fingertips as he flinched backward and raised a hand to shield his face, just a few seconds too late to protect his eyes from the blindingly brilliant flash of light that lit up the dark room.
"What the hell was that?" Tess blinked around the space through watery eyes, wondering what on Earth Leo had been up to, but didn't object when Jack flailed out an arm for her again and started stumbling back toward the doorway.
"I don't know, but I think he just earned himself another day," he said, shaking his head.
Tess couldn't argue with that, though she was sure Thorne would have words for him later.
He delivered her back to Allie's office after that, his attitude more subdued, occasionally blinking at the spots probably still dancing in front of his eyes. He didn't seem very inclined to talk anymore; not that she blamed him, given the day's uncomfortable assignment and the wedding yet to come. She'd almost forgotten over the last couple of hours that he was apparently hung up on her friend; it was a little disheartening to see his gloom grow as they approached the administrative area of the building again. She didn't push, and did her best not to take it personally.
Allie was already shutting down her computer session as they walked in; she smiled absently at Jack, then more genuinely at Tess, and rose from her desk to give Tess a hug.
"I'm so sorry it took me so long," she said. "Not what you thought you were looking forward to when you drove up here, I'm sure."
"Oh, don't worry about it," Tess assured her. "It's not your fault you were called in to work today, and the sheriff was an excellent tour guide."
Allie nodded at Jack again over her shoulder. "Thank you for looking after her, Carter. I'll take her off your hands now, though; it's time to start getting ready."
"Uh, yeah." Jack thrust his hands in his pockets, suddenly more awkward than he'd been around Tess all morning. "I'll, uh, see you there, then."
He shot Tess one last look before he left, a nod of recognition; Tess returned it, then sighed in frustration as he disappeared out the door.
"Something wrong?" Allie asked her, a wrinkle of worry marring her brow as she pulled back from their hug and reached for her briefcase.
"Oh, no, I just have terrible timing," Tess assured her, shaking her head and vowing to dismiss the sheriff from her thoughts. "Nothing important. So! Did you get the dress cleaned okay, or did you end up choosing another one?"
Allison blinked at her. "What do you-- oh!" Her eyes widened in realization. "Carter told you about that, did he?" She chuckled ruefully. "Volcanoes in Eureka: yet another unexpected line item to add to Global's safety documentation. The lengths people will go to for competition in this town never cease to amaze me."
"I trust they're putting all that on hold for this evening, though?" Tess teased her. "It wouldn't do to try to one-up the bride, after all."
"We'll just have to wait and see, I suppose," Allie smiled. "I should hope not, but I've learned never to say never around here. You never know what might happen."
Tess spared a wistful thought for her own unexpected encounter that day. "Yeah. I guess that's true."
The next few hours seemed to fly by; Tess and Allison stopped at Café Diem on the way back to Allie's house to collect Vinspressos and a light lunch and to look over some of Vincent's more experimental creations for the buffet lines, then picked up the dress and spent a little time with Kevin.
Allison's son greeted Tess with the weekday she'd been born on rather than her name, but seemed otherwise in a brighter mood than usual, and no wonder. His mom was remarrying the only man he'd ever known as a father, since his biological dad had died before he was even born.
The dress was fabulous, too: a simple but elegant sleeveless confection of white satin with a mauve tie around the waist. Tess knew instantly that Allie was going to be gorgeous in it. Not that she wasn't already, but the photos would be spectacular, and every other woman there would be jealous. Even the frilly dressing gown she'd picked up to wear while her hair and makeup were being touched up was gorgeous: a concoction of sheer white fabric and lace no heavier than a whisper.
"I'm so happy for you, Allie," she said, hugging her friend carefully as the sheriff's deputy, a no-nonsense woman in a little black dress, entered the tent to help Allie change shortly before the ceremony.
"Even though...?" Allie asked, searchingly.
"Even though," Tess said, reassuringly. "How long have we known each other now? If he makes you happy, that's good enough for me."
"And if he doesn't, you have a shovel with his name on it, I remember," Allie smiled, looking pleased and just a tiny bit relieved. "Thank you, Tess. It means the world to me that you're here."
Tess clasped her close again, then backed away with a nod for Deputy Lupo. "I'll go find a seat now; I'm sure it's going to fill up quick. Knock him dead, girl."
Allie laughed, joyfully. "I will."
"Send the sheriff this way if you see him, would you?" the deputy added as Tess put a hand to the flap of the tent. "He's running late."
"No problem," Tess assured her, then pushed out into the slightly cloudy Oregon sunshine and cast an eye over the rows of seats. There were a few still empty near the front in the friend-and-family rows; Tess picked her way over to them, then paused as she saw the sheriff's car pull up to the curb on the other side of the greensward.
Nathan was waiting there for him, arms crossed in impatience. Jack emerged from the Jeep freshly dressed in a suit and tie, just as roughly attractive as he'd been earlier that day, this time with an added dash of polish. Tess sighed, then shook her head and took her seat, trying not to follow his path across the lawn as he left Nathan behind and approached the tent.
The deputy emerged from the tent in time to intercept him; Tess didn't have to interfere at all. And a few moments after that, the music began.
And that was that: Allie was getting married. To Nathan Stark. Again. Tess allowed herself one last moment of concern, then dredged up a bright smile and watched the groom take his place in front of a flower-bedecked archway. Nathan's former mentor, Henry Deacon, emerged next, wearing a dark suit with a red collar; she hadn't heard that the man had been ordained in any church, but somehow, she wasn't surprised to see him standing there. Of all the geniuses in Eureka, he was probably the closest the town had to a true polymath-- a Renaissance man for the twenty-first century. Though she thought she remembered him having more hair?
Henry cast a glance over the small crowd, sparing a smile and a slight nod for her as he saw her sitting among them, then focused on the aisle as the music changed and Jack led Allison out. Tess followed his gaze; Allie was glowing, smile fixed on her once-and-future husband waiting at the front, though her companion seemed as sad as he was pleased, glancing frequently at the woman on his arm.
Seriously bad timing, Tess castigated herself. Of course, that was her own fault!
The pair exchanged a cheek kiss at the front, then Jack handed Allie off to Nathan, and the ceremony began: simple, sweet, and short, the way Tess would want it if she ever got married herself. Not that she expected that to ever happen, the way her life was going. But it was nice to dream, sometimes.
"Love is timeless," Henry said, smiling benevolently at the couple and the audience there to support them. "Transcending everything we know, everything we understand, and giving us strength and comfort forever. What is past, is now present, and what is present, will become your future. That is what love is: never-ending. Now, before you share your vows: if there is anyone here who knows why these two should not be joined together, speak now, or forever hold your peace."
Half the audience shot covert glances at Jack then, Tess among them; though she noted that there were no held breaths, as no one seemed to expect him to actually speak. His crush on Allie must have been awfully public. Tess was surprised, though, to see just how little he seemed to be paying attention to all the looks; he was staring up at the sky above the arch, a worried expression on his face.
Curious, she turned to follow his line of sight.
She hadn't quite made it when the world seemed to suddenly, brilliantly rip itself apart.
Tess flinched against the wall of white and noise that overwhelmed her senses without warning, and let go the steering wheel to bring her hands up protectively in front of her face. Allie had been right; anything certainly could happen in Eureka. Who would have predicted an explosion, or whatever it was, going off above the ceremony? She couldn't hear anything beyond the blur of background sound in her ears; and she should have been hearing something from the other people at the ceremony. Had anyone been hurt?
...Wait, steering wheel? What steering wheel? There hadn't been one in her hands at the wedding! Tess blinked open her eyes again as she registered the sensation of movement beneath her seat, the kind that meant tires on asphalt... veering dangerously off to one side! She cried out in surprise, lowering her arms, and fought for control of her Audi just as the right tires started kicking up gravel, completely confused about what was going on. As quickly as she could without endangering herself, she applied the brakes, slowing the vehicle to a stop at the side of the road.
What the hell had just happened?
Tess took a few deep, calming breaths, then summarized the last few moments she remembered in her mind again: Allison's dress, Henry's speech, Jack looking up into the sky-- then finding herself on the road again, after a burst of light and sound.
The road, too, unless she was completely lost. The Old Post Road, past Allie's place on the way up to Global Dynamics: the very same road she'd been travelling that morning. It even looked as though the same angle of light was filtering through the fir trees. Disoriented, and not at all sure she wasn't dreaming, she glanced at her watch to verify that assumption, and found that it agreed with the sun: apparently, it was just after eight a.m. Saturday morning.
"Did I just hallucinate a whole day?" she muttered to herself, stunned and a little shaky.
It didn't seem possible; the level of detail in everything she'd experienced had been incredibly realistic. But the other obvious option-- that she'd somehow traveled back about ten hours through time-- didn't seem possible, either. The arrow of time was only supposed to point in one direction; everything she knew about the subject suggested that folding time back upon itself, if it were even possible, would result in the eventual collapse of the space-time continuum.
She sat there a few moments longer, listening to the engine tick as it cooled, trying to objectively analyze the situation in the midst of her shock. Did she feel like her consciousness had been altered somehow? No. But then, if it had been, would she even be able to tell? For all she knew, she could be in a virtual reality program experiment, one she'd made herself forget plugging into to reduce the risk of contaminating the results, and the seeming loop back of time was the result of a programming glitch.
...Or someone else's virtual reality program experiment? Tess glanced up, as if she could stare at the sky through the roof of the Audi, then shook her head at her own whimsy. It would make for a good story, if she ended up starring in her very own alien abduction, but the odds on that were even longer than those on the possibility of time travel, and this was definitely a case where Occam's razor should be applied. If she ever made contact with another species, surely it would be through her work at SETI, not some random encounter while she was on vacation.
Whatever was going on, though, at least she'd already been headed for the best place on the planet to figure it all out. Tess laughed at herself, took a deep, deliberately refreshing breath, then turned the key in the ignition again and eased the car back onto the road. She felt her nerves calming further as she drove, and relaxed a little more, focusing more on the bizarre scientific possibilities than the panic induced by the strange experience.
The illusory defenses, when she reached them, were just as she'd seen-- or imagined-- them during the ten hours that apparently hadn't happened. Tess smiled at the sight of them, the first real evidence that she hadn't been making the entire thing up, and passed through without incident. She reached G.D. a few minutes later than she had in her dream-- or vision-- or whatever, due to the time she'd spent pulled over at the side of the road, but the security procedures were exactly the same as she'd foreseen them, too: right down to the metallic pillars calling out the names of each badge wearer who walked between them.
"Leo Weinbrenner," the computerized voice announced, just as she joined the queue to enter.
Right; because of course he'd be ahead, instead of behind Tess, given her own change of behavior. Time travel, however impossible it still seemed to her, was looking like a more and more reasonable explanation. "Curiouser and curiouser," she murmured to herself, and followed Leo through.
He didn't turn at the "Authorized Guest" announcement attached to her own badge, and she debated for a moment whether she should break the strange script she was participating in and just speak with him up front; but he was gone before she made up her mind, hurrying away across the rotunda.
It was just as well, she reflected. Totally beyond the what, Tess also needed to know who else had experienced the mysterious incident, and without any kind of physical evidence the only way to know would be to test herself against someone she'd interacted with on a more personal level than security scanners the first time through.
Cautiously, Tess headed back toward the desk where she'd encountered Fargo's apparent nemesis. Surely she wouldn't have dreamed up someone like Larry Haberman?
Well, no; but someone like Sheriff Jack Carter... perhaps.
Tess smiled to herself, bemused, then paused as she rounded the corner and caught a glimpse of Fargo's desk. Well, the odds looked good for a certain blue-eyed law enforcement officer in her near future. Larry was indeed standing there, just as she'd met him the first time: close-cropped dark hair, a dark vest and tie over a crisply starched blue dress shirt, and a supercilious expression currently aimed at whatever he was snooping into in his fellow assistant's workspace.
She backed away without approaching him, not eager to go through a conversation with him a second time, whether she needed confirmation or not. Just the sight of Larry was proof enough that Tess was definitely repeating the same day, not hallucinating. Unless she'd somehow been induced with a sudden case of Pythian foresight?
She considered that possibility a moment, then shook her head and dismissed it. She could quibble about the relative merits of equally unlikely physics-based versus psychic phenomena when she had some way of determining the actual cause; at the moment, whether it was the universe at fault or her own mind, a difference that made no difference was not worth trying to differentiate. Either way, she still needed to check whether she was the only one who remembered Allison's Wedding, Take One.
The next person Tess had chased down the prior morning had been Fargo; she was still running behind that schedule, though, so he probably wouldn't be where she'd tracked him to before. If he and Nathan knew what was going on, they would probably be in a lab or an office somewhere, working the problem already; and if they didn't, they'd still be on the way to that important delivery of theirs, long past the hall where she'd found them. That was all right, though; the main reason she'd gone looking for Fargo in the first place had been to discover Allison's whereabouts, and she already knew where to find her friend. If events continued to unfold as she recalled, Allison would shortly be crossing the rotunda.
Tess edged her way back into the corridor she'd emerged from before, then tucked herself into an alcove set into the wall near where it joined the larger open space. From there, she could watching the ebb and flow of scientific personnel through the heart of Global Dynamics without being in the way. All she had to do was to wait for Eva Thorne to walk by. If the 'Fixer' showed up on schedule, that would mean Allison was about to make her appearance, too.
In the meantime, she didn't want to look like a lurker; the last thing she needed was to get hauled off by security for ominous behavior in a top-secret government sponsored facility. Thankfully, Larry had given her all the cover she needed with his suspicions earlier. She took out the small notepad and pen she kept in her purse for those wild random ideas that tended to strike at inconvenient moments, and began taking notes with a pursed expression as though passing judgment on everyone that walked by. With luck, anyone who did notice her would just assume she was working for Thorne.
What Tess was really doing, though, was taking notes on exactly what she remembered of the day 'before'. Hopefully, she would be able to compare her recall with someone else's to find the cause, or identify some kind of pattern or trigger that wasn't immediately coming to mind. The writing would all disappear if the day reset again, of course, but she had a pretty sharp memory; the effort wouldn't be a complete loss. And even if it was-- well, if she let herself start thinking that way, she might as well just sit down on the floor and give up. No sense defeating herself before she'd even tried.
She'd fleshed out a rough timeline up through the start of the wedding by the time she finally spotted Thorne. The businesswoman was headed her way, folders in her arms and a tech wearing a headset at her side. Neither looked Tess' direction; they were in the middle of a clearly absorbing conversation as they drew into her earshot. She perked up her ears, curious what had Thorne so concerned.
"I'll need all the calibrated equipment in a truck by five at the latest," Thorne was saying as she stopped just within Tess' audible range, turning to give the young man a significant look. "There's a time factor here, and I don't want to miss my window."
Unfortunately, that was the end of the conversation; Thorne waved the tech off, then resumed walking toward the rotunda.
Window? Tess thought with a raised eyebrow. Of time? She paused to tuck notebook and pen back into her purse as the tech passed her once more; she must have just missed him the first time she'd followed the older woman across the pattern-tiled floor. She took a deep breath, then carefully matched her footsteps to Thorne's as she made the trip for the second time, walking out toward a distracted-looking Allison and a sheriff with a wrinkled brow approaching from the other side.
God, he looked good! The beige uniform couldn't be called flattering, and it didn't exactly cling to him, but it was still possible to tell there wasn't an ounce of spare flesh on his body, and he was just damn cute in general . Tess drank him in with her eyes-- then held her breath as he broke pattern, his gestures to Allison just a shade off from what she recalled. He was the first person she'd seen that morning whose actions didn't exactly match what she remembered. Was she imagining things?
"Big day. Nervous?" Thorne asked, as the two groups drew together.
"Aw," Jack said, stealing Tess' line as he turned toward them, "she's not a first time bride."
He was wearing an amused smirk-- one that faded, just a little, into a more genuine smile that reached his blue eyes as he spotted Tess over Thorne's shoulder. "And you must be Allison's friend, Dr. Fontana," he continued, reaching a hand out to Thorne's right. "It's good to meet you."
"Excuse me?" Thorne protested, pivoting a little and taking a startled step back out of arm's reach of everyone else.
He does remember, Tess thought, surprised despite herself. She'd hardly realized until that very moment just how much of her attention she'd been putting into not reacting to the uncertain absurdity of her situation; it was so reassuring to know for certain that she wasn't the only one affected. Dazzled with relief, she broke out into a huge smile and said the first thing that came into her mind.
"Oh, you don't need to play coy with me, Jack," she said, accepting his outstretched hand. "I know our first meeting was under kind of unusual circumstances, but I promise I won't hold that against you."
He froze in shock, mouth gaping slightly open, then blurted, "Tess! You-- of course!" Then he beamed at her with at least as much elation as she was directing at him. Apparently, she hadn't been the only one questioning her own sanity; that was kind of reassuring to know, too.
"Tess?" Allison echoed him, staring back and forth between her two friends with a thoroughly confused expression. She finally settled on Tess, probably as the less explicable presence, and broke into a smile. "Oh my god, I can't believe you're here!"
Jack's eyebrows twitched together a little, a wincing gesture that spoke worlds; Tess rolled her eyes minimally at him in return, then let go his hand with a warm squeeze and opened her arms to her friend. "Hi, Al," she said. "I was able to clear some space in my schedule after all."
"That's wonderful! I'd almost given up on seeing you today," Allison said, hugging her tightly back. Then she pulled away, glancing between Tess and Jack again with a slight furrow forming between her brows. "But I didn't know you knew Carter....?"
Thorne chose that moment to interrupt them again, clearing her throat delicately. "I apologize for interrupting this touching reunion, but I'm afraid the quarterly balance sheets are due Monday, and this can't wait. Dr. Blake?" She pulled out her sheaf of papers again and handed them to Allison.
Allie gave Tess a speaking glance that promised a thorough interrogation later, then visibly shook off her distracted mood and accepted the papers from her boss. "Another set of layoffs? But there must be more than a dozen people on this list!"
"Twelve, exactly; which makes eighty-seven since you got here," Jack added, frowning at Thorne with barely a glance at the pages to excuse his detailed knowledge. "I guess the new Consumer Research Products Lab must not be paying off as well as you'd hoped?"
"On the contrary," Thorne parried with a lofty expression, "there have simply been a few-- unexpected expenses to account for these last few weeks. While I don't disagree that the actions you took preserved lives, the environmental damage to the lake alone has cost us a fortune in repair and legal costs, not to mention the waste of resources that went into setting up an ultimately unused out-processing environment for the inhabitants of Lab 27."
The words meant nothing to Tess; but the wince from Allison and the brief, steely clench of Jack's jaw told her all she needed to know about Thorne's intent in saying them. "Well, then," she said, clapping her hands together as she butted back into the conversation. "It's a good thing Allison called in the cavalry, isn't it? I'll help him run down the checklist; it'll go quicker that way, and it'll give us a chance to catch up. If that's all right with you, Al?" She smiled serenely at her friend. "I'll come find you in your office when we're done, and we can go pick up your dress and have our girl-talk."
Thorne frowned at her. "You're not an employee of Global Dynamics; I hardly think that's appropriate."
"Oh, she has more than enough clearance; she's worked on the other side of several joint projects G.D. has run in the past with NASA and SETI," Allie objected on Tess' behalf, looking nettled. "But Tess-- are you sure?" she added. "I know that's not what you came up here for."
"Please," Tess said teasingly, stepping closer to Jack and threading one arm daringly around his elbow. "I know you have a job to do; I'll be fine. Besides, If I'd known Jack was the Sheriff Carter you were always going on about, I might have had to visit sooner."
Allison bit her lip, but nodded. "All right. But I definitely want to hear that story, later."
"Later," Tess agreed, sunnily.
"Speaking of which," Thorne added, raising an eyebrow at Allison. "Time's a-wasting. Wouldn't want to miss your beautiful wedding."
Allison watched her go, then sighed, glancing at the pages she held again. "This is going to take hours, even with your help," she told Tess. "I guess I'd better get started if I don't want to be late to my own wedding. You're sure you'll be all right?"
Tess gave her another hug, then shooed her away. "Trust me," she said. "Everything's going to work out the way it's supposed to."
"Thank you," Allie whispered into her shoulder, then pulled back and gave Jack a frown. "Watch out for her, would you, Carter? Her luck's nearly as disastrous as yours."
"Don't I know it," Jack replied, with a nod of acknowledgement.
Allie rolled her eyes at that, then finally turned on her heel and left.
Tess smiled after her, then turned to Jack at her side and gave him a thorough once-over. "Breakfast?" she asked, touching a finger to the catsup on his shirt and then to her tongue, tasting the tacky, tangy sweetness of it. "Again?" she smirked.
He flushed a little at the gesture, and gave her a sheepish grin. "Hey, not my fault this time. I was actually trying to avoid it; but Zoe was trying to be helpful."
It had only affected Jack, then; not the teenage daughter he'd mentioned the day before. "I'm guessing your experience has been like mine?" Tess asked him. "Flash of light, then the whole day starting over again at about eight o'clock, only no one else seems to remember it?"
He nodded. "I wasn't sure yet whether I was just imagining things, or having déjà vu, or what. You have no idea how relieved I was when you recognized me."
She laughed. "Oh, only about as relieved as I was when you recognized me," she said, finally-- and reluctantly-- letting go of his arm. "So. You want to go through all those redactions again, or would you rather ditch for Café Diem and compare notes about what happened?"
He furrowed his brow a little, considering. "I suppose if we're the only ones who remember, then something we both encountered must have been involved...? It makes as much sense as anything. If it was something we caused, then skipping all those redactions should make sure it doesn't happen again, and I can make it up to Thorne tomorrow. But if it wasn't, and it happens again regardless, we'll be better off for having shared information." He nodded, then gave her a cautious look. "We should probably check with at least one more person before we leave G.D., though...."
"I know. Nathan," Tess sighed, scrunching up her nose. "I was thinking of him, earlier; if anyone remembers besides us, it'll either be him and Dr. Fargo, or they'll have heard about it. If they're already working the problem, then there's no sense in us duplicating the effort."
"All right, then," Jack replied. "Sounds like we have a plan."
"Quick thinking, by the way," Jack said, as they followed a lead from one of the security techs to Nathan's location. "Back there, I mean; the way you greeted me. I might have made an ass out of myself otherwise; I already had Allison thinking I was crazy, I'm sure. I'd tried to talk to her about the time repeating thing, but she didn't believe me."
"It is supposed to be impossible," Tess shrugged, apologetically. "I wasn't even sure the whole thing wasn't just in my head, so once I realized you remembered me I wasn't about to pretend not to know who you were."
"Only in Eureka," Jack sighed, shaking his head. Then he smiled at her, an appreciative expression that reached out to wrap her up like a warm blanket on a cold day. "I liked your dress, by the way-- at the wedding. In case I don't get another chance to see you in it."
"Why, thank you," Tess replied, surprised into a blush by the unexpected compliment. "You looked pretty good yourself, you know-- when you stormed right by me on the way to Allison's tent."
"Sorry about that, I was running late," he said, then grinned wider, his eyes lighting up along with his smile. "I didn't catch a glimpse of you until I'd handed Allison over; if it hadn't been for that rift in the sky, I might not have looked at anything else all service."
"Now, I know that's an exaggeration," Tess scolded him, pleased though she was by the added hyperbole. "It's Allison's day, not mine, you know."
"And thank god for that," Nathan Stark broke in, turning around as they came to the doors of the freight elevator, where he and Fargo stood waiting. "Tess. Carter. My two least favorite people. Please tell me that's all you have in common; otherwise I might be scarred for life."
"Aw, Stark. I knew you wanted me," Jack responded, turning that teasing smile of his away from Tess again.
She felt the loss of his attention like a shadow drifting in front of the sun, and mentally rolled her eyes at herself again. At least she knew this time through that it wasn't going to be a case of out of sight, out of mind with him; or he wouldn't have been so pleased she remembered him. She mentally upgraded her estimate of own her mental age from twelve to fifteen, and bit her lip to squelch any hasty comments.
"In your dreams, Carter," Nathan replied smoothly, a sharp-edged smirk betraying his amusement. Then his eyes dropped to the front of Jack's shirt. "Hmm. Speaking of unlikely things. Bar fight?"
"Hardly," Jack replied, then frowned, the levity leaching out of him. "We've got a problem, actually."
Nathan's gaze flicked over to Tess, then back to Jack, and he frowned at the sheriff in turn. "Carter, I don't have time for this. Look. Just do what you have to do, but please. Don't be late for the wedding, and don't forget the necklace."
Jack sighed. "It's not about the necklace," he said. "Something's wrong with today."
Nathan's eyebrows rose. "You walking Allie down the aisle?" he suggested, a combative light in his eyes.
Tess raised a hand to cut him off at that. "Look, could you cut the posturing for one second?" she said, not keen on the idea of letting them steer the conversation off into that particular minefield. "He means, with the time loop we just experienced, which has nothing to do with the wedding. At least, we don't think it does. I'm guessing you don't remember it, either?"
Nathan furrowed his brow. "I don't know what you're playing at, Tess, but you know that's not possible. Time flows in one direction. If time were to fold back upon itself, it would affect causality. It would delete us from the time-space continuum."
"So conventional wisdom says," she replied, dryly. "But there are two witnesses standing in front of you who are living through this day for the second time."
"Do you have any empirical evidence of that?" Fargo asked, frowning.
"What do you think?" she sighed. "The only things we brought back with us were our memories. That's why we're here, actually; we were hoping the two of you were already looking into it."
Nathan's irritated expression deepened. "Clearly, we aren't," he said. "And frankly, I find it a little suspicious that the two people with the least reason to want my remarriage to go smoothly are the ones to corner me with an impossible problem like this." He glanced between them both, then settled his glare on Jack. "You're not going to convince me something terrible will happen if I go through with the wedding, no matter how hard you try. This is Allie's big day, Carter. I don't want anything to screw it up for her."
Tess made an aggravated noise and opened her mouth to argue further-- did he honestly think they'd pull a prank that cruel?-- but stopped herself short, aware that she wasn't going to do anything but escalate the argument with him in that mood.
"All right," Jack said, settling a conciliatory hand on Tess' arm. "We'll table it for now."
"You do that," Nathan said, then turned back to the doors of the freight elevator as they finally opened, revealing a tall, dark, octagonal container marked with red-and-black caution stripes. Whatever it was, it was clearly important, enough that it had its own armed guard in tow-- but not something she was going to get any more information on at the moment, either. Tess frowned at Nathan's back, wondering if the delivery could have anything to do with their predicament, then dismissed it, reasoning that he would have been affected before she and Jack were if that was the case. Then she turned to follow said sheriff as he strode back down the hall.
"Wow," she said dryly, as she caught up to him. "He was even more suspicious of you than he was of me. Forgive me if I'm being too forward, but I thought your thing with Allison never actually, you know, became a thing. What's his problem?"
Jack shook his head. He'd tucked his hands in his pockets, and his body language had pulled back in a little, not quite as open as before. "No, it's okay. I don't mind you asking. I think... I think that was more about him imagining what he might have done if I'd been the one marrying Allison, than any real suspicion on his part. Though you're right; she never really gave either of us cause to believe that was a viable option." He chuckled, a little bitterness in the tone. "He's not really that bad a guy, though. I'm sure if we can find what did it, or who did it, or some other kind of indication outside our own minds, he'll be the first to volunteer to help us do whatever needs to be done."
Tess' curiosity deepened as she unpacked that explanation, despite the clear possibility that she might hear more than she really wanted to know. "His attitude bothers you more than you want to admit," she observed, sliding sidelong glances at him as they approached the rotunda again.
He chuckled again, this time accompanied by a slight smile. "Sometimes. I think if it hadn't been for Allison, we might have made decent friends-- even if he is kind of an asshole. But I can't wish I'd never met her, either, so... I've learned to put up with it."
Tess considered that a little more as they crossed the rotunda to the exit, nodding to herself. "I can see that," she said, sliding her hands into her pockets. She'd found Nathan pretty damn fun to be around herself once upon a time, back before he'd broken Allison's heart. "He never saw my friendship with Al as a threat the way he obviously does yours, but after they separated and I chewed his ear off...." She trailed off with a sympathetic shrug.
"We'll argue it out with him later if we have to. For now--" Jack paused to open the door for her. "Next stop Café Diem. Do you mind if we take my Jeep, or do you want to drive separately?"
She eyed the drab, official vehicle parked at the far end of the lot, then bit her lip and glanced over at her beloved shiny black Audi. "How about we just take my car instead?" she offered.
He followed her line of sight to the sleek car, and gave it a long, appreciative look before matching gazes with her again. "Tempting," he said. "But I'm still kind of officially on the clock, so...."
"Jeep it is, then," Tess declared, smiling at him.
Jack grinned back at her, a curl of genuine delight at the corner of his mouth. "Great."
The café at the heart of Eureka looked just the same as it had when she and Al had stopped there for lunch; a cheerful, welcoming place. Tess smiled as she followed Jack in the door; she could see the white, tiered wedding cake on the counter pending final decoration, and the friendly face of Vincent behind it, along with a blonde, teenaged waitress she hadn't met before.
"Hey, Dad!" the waitress chirped, smiling at Jack as he led Tess toward the counter. She had to be Zoe, then. Tess eyed her curiously, cataloguing similarities and differences between Jack and his daughter, and wondered whether the girl were the type to totally freak if her dad was dating.
Not that Tess was making actual plans to do so. Necessarily. Regardless, intel on Zoe's potential as friend or foe would be good to have.
"Hey," Jack replied, then turned to Tess and dropped a hand to the small of her back, gesturing to his daughter with the other. "Zoe, I'd like you to meet Dr. Tess Fontana; she's a friend of Allison's, drove up for the wedding. Tess, this is my beautiful and brilliant daughter, Zoe Carter."
Zoe rolled her eyes in the exact same way Jack did, but she held out her own hand in greeting, smiling politely at Tess. "Nice to meet you," she said, eyeing her father's hand on Tess' back with speculation in her equally incisive blue eyes.
"It's nice to meet you, too," Tess replied. "I've only been in town for a day, and I've heard a lot about you already. All positive, I promise."
Zoe's eyebrows arched in clear disbelief, and she shot a speaking glance at her father as she released the handshake. "I'm sure you have," she replied, dryly. "Ask me later, and I'll have some stories to share in return."
A woman around Tess' age seated farther down the café's counter chuckled at that. "Some things never change, do they, Monkey?" she said teasingly, waving a hand at Jack.
Jack winced, though couldn't entirely keep a smile of his own off his face at the sight of her. "I thought I asked you not to call me that. Especially in front of people I might like to impress." He gave Tess a sheepish look. "Speaking of which--"
"Lexi Carter," the young woman interrupted him, leaning over to reach out a hand. "This block of wood here is my brother."
"Lex...." Jack sighed, wearily.
Tess cleared her throat. "Dr. Tess Fontana," she replied, studying Jack's sister curiously. He'd mentioned Zoe the day before, but not this Lexi; he hadn't mentioned any siblings, in fact. Though given that Jack's sharp tongue appeared to run in the family, perhaps that wasn't such a surprise; they might not normally be in close contact.
"Around here, I'm assuming that's a hard science doctorate, not medical?" Lexi asked, studying her back with equal curiosity.
"Three of them, actually; in different branches of physics and communication," Tess explained. "Are you in medicine, then?"
Lexi smiled, apparently pleased with that answer. "I've been with the World Health Organization for the last six years," she replied.
"That must be fascinating work," Tess said. She'd done a lot of traveling herself, but mostly for education, or on a rare vacation. Jack's sister must have seen parts of the world, and peoples, that Tess had never even heard of, spending so much time with the public health arm of the United Nations. Abruptly, she wondered what Jack and Lexi's parents were like, that their children should have both taken up lives in public service. Tess' own parents would have been horrified if she'd ever so much as hinted at quitting college and abandoning a life of publication and research.
"Yes, well, it's had its moments," Lexi replied. Then she arched her brows and leaned forward a little, finally getting to whatever point she'd had in mind. "So," she drawled. "You're a-- friend-- of Jackie's?"
Tess smiled at the nickname, and the completely audible air quotes in Lexi's question. "We just met today," she temporized, biting her lip as she glanced up at Jack.
"Oh, don't take anything he says to heart then," Zoe chimed in, leaning over the counter with a conspiratorial expression. "He's a little nervous about the wedding."
"No, I'm not," Jack replied, warningly, then turned to shake a finger at his sister. "And don't you start."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Lexi replied, blue eyes widened innocently. Then she gestured to Vincent behind the counter. "Two-- no, three banana milkshakes, Vincent. You like banana, don't you, Tess? Banana shakes calm Monkey down."
"Coming right up," the café proprietor replied.
Tess chuckled at the look on Jack's face. They'd come to the café to talk business, not visit with his family, but she was willing to be flexible in exchange for the opportunity to see him with more of his defenses down. She gestured toward the table nearest his sister. "Come on. We've got a few hours, and maybe your sister will have some ideas."
"Ideas? Oooh, about what?" Lexi asked, brightly.
Jack glanced between them, torn; then heaved a sigh, and gave Lexi a rueful smile. "All right, Lex," he said, then pulled out a chair for each of the women. "Promise you won't laugh, though?"
"I don't know about that," Lexi replied. "But I promise I'll at least listen to the whole thing before I make fun, how's that?"
"Fair enough," Jack replied, then exchanged a look with Tess. "You want to...?"
"No, you go ahead," Tess gestured to him, and sat back to listen to his explanation.
They were halfway through the milkshakes by the time he finished; and though banana wasn't usually Tess' flavor, she thoroughly enjoyed every sip of it. Vincent didn't seem able to create any food item less than superlative for its type, as though he were cooking from some kind of newly rediscovered ur-recipes that had been passed on to the rest of the world in diluted form.
Lexi took the tale far better than Nathan or Allie had; she listened actively, focused completely on her brother except when his tale referenced Tess, and asked pertinent questions as the story unfolded. Then she sat back in her chair, stabbing her straw absently in the remnants of her shake. "You know, there have been documented cases of repetitive cognizance brought on by extreme psychophobia of a particular upcoming event," she said, speculatively.
Jack looked a little skeptical at that. "But I'm not the only one who remembers," he said. "If it's all in my head, then how does Tess remember it, too?"
Lexi shrugged, unconcernedly. "Maybe it's affecting both of you?" she said. "Sometimes the universe does things for strange reasons."
Tess remembered her own speculation about visions and psychic phenomena that morning, and couldn't dismiss the theory entirely, no matter how ridiculous it sounded. Occam's razor, again; it was definitely more plausible that two people might be having shared delusions, than that an entire universe had spun back around them. Either way, it was a fascinating experience, one she'd probably want to write a paper on once she was a little more divorced from the subject. "Amen to that," she said.
Lexi smiled at her. "If it was just you, Jack, I'd have thought it might have something to do with this Allison. You like her, right? And I'm betting you've never told her how you feel."
"Well...." Jack drawled, looking down at the table.
"You really think he'd be stuck repeating the day until he talked to her about it?" Tess asked, skeptically.
"Mmm, more than that," Lexi said, a touch of dreaminess in her expression. "They'd have to kiss. There's a reason the myths all talk about true love's kiss as though it's something magical, you know; there's a science to this love stuff. It's the only way to know on a truly cellular level if two people's energies are meant to combine."
"You're not serious," Jack said, looking horrified. "Look-- Allison's about to get married. To Stark. I'm not just going to march into her bridal tent and lay one on her."
"I should hope not," Tess snorted. "If she didn't deck you for it, I would." And not just because of the crush she was busy developing on him, either; for the sheer inappropriateness of it.
"And I'd deserve it." He shook his head.
"No, no," Lexi chided them both, making quieting gestures with her hands as though talking to a roomful of schoolchildren. "The fact that it's happened to both of you suggests that the problem lies... elsewhere. Unless Tess is secretly in love with this Stark, too?"
Tess choked on her milkshake at the very idea. "No, I think I can safely say that's not the case," she replied, after she'd cleared her airway of the excess banana flavored drink.
Jack chuckled. "I wouldn't wish that on anyone. At least Allison already knows what she's getting into."
"So what do you think we're supposed to do?" Tess asked, curious what Lexi's answer would be.
The other woman glanced between Tess and Jack with an amused, fond smile. "I think I'll leave you two kids to figure that one out on your own," she said, then got up from the table and moved back to the counter, leaning over to ask something else of Vincent.
Tess choked on her milkshake again, and pushed it away from her, straw and all, once she'd finished coughing up the wayward chilled liquid.
Jack patted her absently on the back, following his sister's move with a puzzled wrinkle between his brows. "What was that supposed to mean?" he asked, irritably.
Tess just shook her head at him. It looked as though she'd just discovered one of his flaws: absolute cluelenessness. Even if the rest of the conversation didn't pay out, she supposed it was worth it for that alone. Not that she wasn't looking forward to testing the rest of the theory, too-- if he agreed to it.
She let her gaze drop to his lips for a moment-- and wasn't surprised when he drew a sharp breath.
"You don't think she meant...?" he started to say.
"I think so," she murmured, still tracing the contours of his mouth with her eyes. "What do you think the odds are that she's right, as opposed to just trying to set her brother up?"
His eyes widened, gaze dropping to linger on her mouth in turn, then lifted to hers again, slowly darkening with emotion. "Um," he said. "I-- she usually means the things she says, no matter how insane they might sound, but...."
"Good enough for me," Tess mused, biting her lip. "I've heard crazier ideas."
"And what if this whole time-thing--" Jack waggled the fingers of one hand in the air in some kind of vague illustration, "--wasn't the universe trying to send us a message, or an experiment gone out of control, just some kind of accidental one-off catastrophe?"
It was a reasonable question. Tess wasn't inclined to spoil things with a reasonable answer, though. "I suspect your sister would say there's no such thing as an accident when the universe is trying to send you a message," she teased him.
He swallowed. "It's just that I'd kinda like to know for sure if destiny is screwing with me, you know?"
"You think destiny wasn't involved in your ending up in this town?" she replied, raising her eyebrows. "I did hear that story from Allie, you know."
"You do have a point," he said, throwing a brief, considering glance at his daughter.
"So..." Tess drawled. "If you want to give it a try...?"
"What, right here?" Jack yelped, self-consciously. "I usually try not to do that sort of thing in public."
"Maybe you should," she replied, smiling slowly at him.
He hesitated a second longer; then laughed and shook his head. "Ah, why not," he corrected himself, with a warm, widening smile. "Who am I to fight destiny?"
Then he leaned toward her, giving her plenty of time to move away if she wanted; Tess didn't want, and pulled him closer by the fabric of his shirt. Their mouths met, lips against lips, with enough force to feel it but not enough to bruise against teeth; then lingered, skin whispering over sensitive skin, tongues reaching out to mingle and taste. A hand cupped around the back of her neck; Tess felt it like a brand as she leaned closer in, losing herself in the textures and sensations.
"Mmm," she said, slowly blinking her eyes open when he finally pulled back.
Jack laughed a little, embarrassed, reaching up with one hand to touch the back of his own neck; his ears were turning a distinct shade of red at the catcalls pouring in from the rest of the café's patrons, including his sister and daughter. But his lips looked as kiss-swollen as hers felt, and the more-than-friendly light in his eyes made her heartbeat stumble and catch.
"Well, I have to say, that was pretty magical," he murmured, then cleared his throat. "But, uh. We should probably discuss the rest of it still, just in case?"
"Oh, I totally agree," she said, beaming back at him. "On both counts." She winked.
"Let's get out of here, then, huh?" he said, getting up from the table to pull out her chair.
"I can handle my own doorknobs and chairs," Tess scolded him, though she was still floating too high to put any real heat into it.
He shrugged, smiling sheepishly. "It's the principle of the thing," he said. "I just-- want to treat you like a lady. Do you have a problem with that?"
"Just so long as you don't start referring to me as the little woman," she replied archly, charmed despite her long-standing feud with what she privately thought of as 'glass ceiling behaviors'. Oh, this was definitely becoming more than a crush.
True-love's kiss, yeah, right. But she couldn't quite squash the teenage girl deep inside that still dreamed of such things, and hoped. How many years had she spent mooning over her and Allie's dreamy T.A. at Oxford, Bruce Manlius, again? Jack wasn't really anything like the guy, but--
Was she setting herself up for heartbreak, as she so often had before? Or would it be worth seizing the chance this time, regardless of how it all turned out?
Put that way, Tess knew exactly what she wanted; she threaded her fingers through his as he began tugging her toward the door through a gauntlet of amused and curious faces. She hadn't got where she was by waiting for things to happen to her; she took her chances, let the chips fall where they may-- and enjoyed every moment of it.
Jack wasn't going to know what had hit him.
The sheriff's station stood just across the street; Jack gave it an oblique look as they exited Café Diem, then looked up at the sky. "Weather's gorgeous," he said. "What do you say we find a bench in Archimedes Park to talk?"
Away from both landline and radio, in other words-- though Tess would bet he still had a high-tech pager on him somewhere. "Sure," she agreed, easily. "Allie and I didn't have time to stop there yesterday. I mean, the other today. Whatever." She shook her head, bemused. "The English language really isn't built for talking about time travel, is it?"
"You'd know that better than I would," he shrugged, "Dr. Fontana."
"Oh, don't give me that." She swatted him lightly on the arm. "There's no way you'll convince me that you aren't smarter than you dress."
"Thank you... I think?" he replied, teasing her again with that quiet, delighted smile.
"Seriously," she laughed, "even considering you stumbled into an investigation in this town of all places and solved it right under Sheriff Cobb's nose, they wouldn't have asked you to come back if you weren't qualified to hold the position. What's your degree in?"
"Do you know, you're the first person in Eureka to ask me that?" Jack snorted. Then he made a dismissive gesture, as if brushing the negative implications away. "To be fair, I'm sure some of them got it out of my file, and the rest probably assumed as much; it's just not that big a deal, compared to all the multiple PhD's flying around here. I got a bachelor's in criminal justice through night courses back when I worked for the LAPD-- I met Zoe's mother in one of the law electives, actually-- and finished about a year's worth of graduate credits before my job in the Marshals Service got too busy to keep a regular schedule. I wouldn't have made it as far up the ladder as I did without at least that much education."
"And then you got shuffled off to this place," she said, picking up on the quiet pride in his tone as he talked about his old job. "I'm guessing you had some mixed feelings about that?" Sheriffs were usually elected officials, after all; transferring a U.S. Marshal from the Fugitive Task Force to Eureka to take over a small town's law enforcement duties couldn't have been any kind of typical career path.
"Oh, a few," he shrugged. "They called it a promotion, but it felt a lot more like punishment at the time. I wouldn't take it back now for the world, though. It's been wonderful for Zoe, and... it feels great to be part of a community again, even if it does nearly get blown off the map every other week."
"And why do I get the feeling you're not exaggerating about that?" she mused rhetorically, tipping her head back to feel the sun on her face as they entered the park.
A brief breeze was kicking up; a few strands of hair blew into her face as she looked up, eyes closed, and she felt the brush of Jack's fingers against her cheek as he tucked them back behind her ear.
"Probably because I'm not?" he chuckled. "You remember all the stories I told you yesterday, right? Well, that's just the tip of the iceberg around here. And I'm afraid it's only going to get worse, at the rate Ms. Thorne is redacting people. Stark says most of the research departments have been decimated, and I believe it. Scientists here aren't careful enough as it is; I worry that a lot more of them are going to start disregarding security precautions now that they've been asked to produce twice the results with two-thirds of the personnel."
"You never know; maybe they'll realize how much more valuable their time and equipment is now that there's less funding to go around," Tess chided him, tipping her head back to level as he guided her to an empty bench.
"You always that positive?" he asked dryly, taking a seat next to her on the smooth, hard surface.
"Annoying?" she asked him, archly.
"No, not so much," Jack replied with a smile. "You'll see, if you stick around here very long, though. So... note comparison?"
"Note comparison, right," she agreed, allowing the change of subject. Would she be sticking around long? Before yesterday-- before that morning-- she would have said no. There was no reason she could possibly think of that was good enough to outweigh what she'd be leaving behind. Now, well... emotion was putting up a pretty persuasive counter-argument.
"Let me tell you how my day began..." she said, as she pulled her notebook out of her bag.
"...and then I was suddenly back in my freezing cold shower," Jack finished some time later, wrapping up his version of the day's events. "You'd think a smart house would realize that subzero is not an optimal temperature for cleaning bare skin, but I guess Zoe must have asked her to change the settings again without telling me."
"Brrr." Tess shivered at that-- and was thankful Jack couldn't tell how much was in sympathy for his rude awakening, and how much appreciation for that mental image. "That's nearly as bad as the initial condition I jumped back to."
"Nearly?" Jack groused, good-naturedly. "At least you were warm-- and clothed."
"And in danger for my life," she said dryly. "What were you going to do, fall on your ass in the shower? I nearly ran myself right off the road."
He made a pained face at that. "Thank goodness you didn't. I don't even want to think about what I would have done today if you hadn't been there, proving that I hadn't gone suddenly crazy. Which, as long as we're on the subject... if the day does reset again..."
She quirked a smile at him. "Don't worry, I'll be careful."
"Good," he said. Then he slapped his hands on his beige-clad thighs. "So. The only places we crossed each others' paths all day were the labs we visited together up at G.D., our separate stops at Café Diem, and the wedding itself. I really don't think Vince's cooking had anything to do with it, or there'd have been a lot more people affected; ditto the wedding. So it pretty much has to be one of the projects the people we redacted were working on."
"I agree," she replied, frowning. "Any of the other possibilities I can think of would have affected other people as well... unless there happens to be someone in Eureka with a reason to deliberately target only the two of us. I know there are probably a few scientists here who don't have any great love for me, but of those, the only one I can think of that would also have a grudge against you is Nathan."
"And this so isn't his style," Jack commented, shaking his head, "as happy as I would be to blame it all on him. Besides, we've been kinda, sorta, working together better since Allison told him 'Yes' and knocked me off the game board. I doubt he'd have been so angry today if he were behind it all."
"So that just leaves the twelve people whose walking papers we delivered," she mused. "All we have to do is figure out which of them had the theoretical background to mess around with the fabric of space-time, and might have been tempted to do something rash."
"Eleven, actually," Jack corrected her, absently. "You remember-- the last guy, Leo Weinbrenner, wasn't in his lab. There was something up with the lights in there, and I put him off until tomorrow."
Tess stared at him, jaw dropping as a series of dots finally connected in her mind. "Weinbrenner. The lights. I can't believe I missed that!" She covered her mouth with one hand.
"Missed what?" Jack's eyebrows drew together, and he straightened his spine, probably completely unconsciously; Tess could practically see him shifting into 'pursue the suspect' behavior. "What makes you think Weinbrenner's lights had something to do with it?"
"Because he's a temporal physicist," she explained, excitedly. "Or was, back at NASA. Dr. Deacon could probably tell you more; I think their tenure there overlapped. Remember, I said he probably did time maintenance? Well, before he came to Eureka, he did a little more than just watch clocks. He had this theory about bending light in order to alter the flow of time.
"The thing is," she continued hastily, as Jack opened his mouth to interject something. "It didn't occur to me to suspect him before because-- well-- the basis of his theory is complete nonsense. Not only does it extrapolate from a supposed 'paradox' that really isn't one, the idea of isolating objects from their timestream by simply bathing them in a heretofore undiscovered wavelength of light is-- is--" She gestured wildly, in an effort to imply what she couldn't find the words to articulate. "Just about the only part of his last paper that made any sense was the procedure he cited for sending single photons backwards in time, and that only because it's been documented before. For example at the University of Rochester in 2006. Where it didn't cause any noticeable time-warping effects. Barring some kind of, I don't know, magical reality warping field, creating a time loop via his methods shouldn't be possible. But...." She shrugged, helplessly.
Jack blinked at her, frowning. "I don't know anything about that level of science, so I'll have to take your word for it. But what I do know is that Eureka is the kind of place where six impossible things happen every day. Sometimes even before breakfast." He blew out a breath. "Okay. We have a suspect. Is he the only one? Or are any of the others potentially suspects as well? I want to make sure we've looked at all the angles before we go back up there and confront anyone else."
Tess quickly ran through the list of redactees again in her mind, then nodded cautiously. "He's the only one with any real background in temporal physics, to my knowledge, though that doesn't necessarily rule the others out completely."
"Lab partners, significant others, I've done the drill before." Jack nodded. "I'll have Fargo or Larry run those names down, if the Weinbrenner angle doesn't pan out." He stood then, stretching slowly with one hand to his back; they'd been sitting on the hard park bench for quite a while. Then he held out a hand to her. "You want to get it over with?"
Tess thought wistfully of asking to stop for a late lunch first; but he was right, the sooner they discovered whether Weinbrenner really was at fault, the better. Allison would be wondering where she was soon enough; if she and Jack took much longer on this little field trip, they'd have a lot of awkward explaining to do. "Sounds like a plan," she said, and took the hand.
He pulled her upright, then paused, still standing close enough that his spread feet framed hers. She breathed in his personal space for a moment, flushing as the electric mood from their encounter in Café Diem returned with a vengeance, and tilted her head up, absentmindedly licking her lips.
"I still like Lexi's explanation better," Jack said, gaze dropping to the sweep of her tongue. "Just so you know."
"So do I," Tess admitted, hoarsely. Then she gave into temptation, took a grip on the front of his shirt and pulled him down for another toe-curling kiss.
Reality intruded on them again soon enough, and they walked back to Jack's Jeep, with only a lingering brightness in their eyes and lightness of step to betray what they'd been up to. Not that everyone in town hadn't apparently heard about the kiss in the café already. Jack waved off a number of catcalls on the way to the car; Tess tangled her fingers in through his after about the third one, giving in to the urge to behave like a teenager with a crush. Might as well enjoy it while she could, before things resolved one way or the other.
She settled her fingertips on his thigh in lieu of his hand on the drive back up to Global; he settled his fingers at the small of her back again as they proceeded through security. He seemed about as inclined to let her out of his reach as she felt in return, though that paradoxically made her sense of impending disaster even stronger. Which was of course ridiculous; it had been less than a day, in terms of absolute hours, since she'd met him.
Less than a day. She'd always been sympathetic to the assertion of one of her favorite novel characters that time alone did not determine intimacy; but somehow, she'd never quite expected to be half of one of the 'seven day', or rather 'seven hour' couples, either, falling into each other's arms almost right from the start. And maybe that was the problem; having apparently achieved such a lightning stroke, she was half-expecting it to end catastrophically, just as that fictional relationship had. Sternly, she reminded herself of her decision earlier-- let the chips fall where they may-- and followed Jack down to Weinbrenner's lab with a much calmer mind.
The scientist was right where they'd expected him to be; in fact, it turned out he'd been there the last time as well, he'd simply stayed out of sight in an effort to avoid a confrontation. Even more surprisingly, he wasn't annoyed to see Tess; he was thrilled, in fact, almost gloating as he gave the junk science explanation Tess had already worked out for what he'd done.
It still didn't make any more sense than it had the first time, years before, when she'd critiqued him for his faulty logic. She could see the apparent gravitational frame-dragging effect created by his 'ultra indigo' bulbs, it was true; but the notion of 'closest wavelength to pure black' was even more nonsensical than all the rest of it, and she just didn't buy that the frequency itself was responsible for the spectral dislocation. Clearly, there had to be some other explanation-- but as it seemed as likely to defy Occam's Razor as the fact of the time travel to begin with, Tess was willing to let it go for the moment. She held her tongue, and let Jack handle the bulk of the confrontation.
"Just-- make it go forwards again," Jack finally concluded, after Weinbrenner finished apologizing for catching them up in his research. Not for running the experiment in the first place, Tess noted; just that they'd been in the wrong place at the right time to get involved in it themselves, when he'd tried to do an end-run around Thorne's attempt to replace his job with a sub-femtosecond atomic clock.
Weinbrenner's expression crumbled a little at Jack's demand. "Uh, that's actually what I've been working on in here for the last two days," he said.
"You don't know how to reverse it?" Jack exclaimed. "Isn't that a little like jumping out of a plane and trying to invent a parachute before you hit the ground?"
"I had to," Weinbrenner winced. "I was being redacted. Thorne made it very clear I had to vacate the premises by six p.m. She didn't care how close I was!"
"I could buy that if you were the only one whose life was being risked," Tess finally spoke up, "but you effectively risked everyone but yourself, by sending the universe back around you."
Jack rubbed at his forehead. "And I thought Stark was the only one with delusions of godhood around here." He sighed. "So. Leo. Is this time loop you've created permanent?"
"Just until I figure out how to get things back to normal," Weinbrenner said, hands held palms-out, placatingly, in front of him. "But I gave myself all the time in the world-- ten hours at a time. I think I'm about half-way to the solution; if I'm right, it'll just take a couple more loops to finish working the bugs out. And since I've seen no ill-effects so far...."
"I wouldn't count on that holding," Jack said, grimly. "When we ran into Stark earlier, he seemed pretty convinced any kind of a time loop would wind up deleting people."
"Yeah, and I'll just bet he said it was impossible to begin with, too," the scientist pointed out, shooting a pointed glance at Tess. "Everything will be fine. In fact, it might even be better that I have witnesses; Thorne won't be so willing to get rid of me after you tell her I made it work. You think she won't be able to come up with some commercially viable uses for this technology?"
"Yeah, and that's what scares me," Jack drawled.
Tess shook down her own horror at the notion and returned Weinbrenner's proud look with a frown. "So why haven't you dragged him down here, or Henry, or someone else who could help you out with your equations? You could show them the proof just like you showed us, and they could help you come up with the solution much more quickly."
"And risk having them claim partial credit? I don't think so. I can do it myself," Weinbrenner said, jaw set firmly. Then he softened a little, gesturing toward a wipe board covered in blue-inked equations across the room from them. "Of course, if something goes drastically wrong, I've made sure Dr. Stark could figure it out from the base equations-- but I don't think it'll come to that."
"You're sure about that," Jack pressed him.
"Of course I'm sure," Weinbrenner said, lifting his chin. "You think I'd risk the universe for my ego?" Off Tess' incredulous expression, he winced and added, "Any more than I have already, I mean? I know exactly what I need to do; once I've come up with the right program, I just need to load it on a tablet, hook the tablet up to the photon decelerator, and use some kind of timer to determine the exact moment of synchronicity to activate it. I haven't actually invented the timer yet, either, but if worse comes to worst I can always use my baby, the old G.D. clock. Then everything will go back to normal; time will move forward on its linear way."
Jack narrowed his eyes at him, scrutinizing him intently as though trying to stare right through him to the truth. "And how sure are you about that time figure? Two more loops...?"
"At least one more," Weinbrenner agreed. "Probably two. No more than that, I swear."
"Are you sure you don't want help on this?" Tess pressed him. "It bothers me, just-- leaving you to work on this alone. I won't try to claim any of the credit."
Weinbrenner raised an eyebrow. "And I'm supposed to trust you about that? You think I'm a joke; I know it, and you know it. You don't even really believe in my science, even with what I've just showed you; I could tell from your expression when you were listening to my explanation. No. If something happens, I give you full permission to work on it with Dr. Stark. But not until then."
Jack took a deep breath, gazed focus inward. Then he nodded. "Okay. Two conditions, Leo. First, you page me the instant you figure out a solution. And second-- if something goes wrong, if the universe does start trying to eat itself, you take all the help you can get immediately, no questions."
Weinbrenner studied him for a moment, as if trying to figure out a counter-argument; then his gaze dropped to Jack's badge, skittered over to Tess, and finally softened. "Sure. I guess that makes sense," he said. "So what are you two going to be up to, if you aren't here?"
Jack shook his head, though he couldn't stop his eyes from straying toward Tess again. "That's not really any of your business," he said.
Tess smirked back at him. "I'm sure we'll think of something," she added, blandly.
Weinbrenner's expression got a lot more speculative at that, and Jack responded by clearing his throat and gesturing toward the door. "So-- good luck with that, Leo. Keep us posted. I seriously do not want to end up cleaning your charred body out of here."
"Got it, Sheriff. And-- thank you." The scientist gave him a thumbs up and a reassuring smile.
"You're welcome. Just don't make me regret it, all right?"
By the time the door to the lab slid shut behind them again, Jack was frowning, completely preoccupied again, and Tess' fledgling hopeful mood was fluttering back down to the ground. "You weren't thinking about us when you told him it wasn't any of his business, were you?" she said, tentatively.
"What? No," he said, absently, then blinked and turned to grasp her hands before she could back away. "No, sorry, I meant-- not just that. It's great that I'll get to spend another day getting to know you before this weekend is over. I'm, I've never been good at long-distance, just ask my ex, and damn, I promised myself I wasn't going to have this conversation with you. At least, not yet." He squeezed her hands, his expression pained. "I'm not so good at this communication thing, as I may have mentioned earlier. But the thing is, this gives me a perfect opportunity-- maybe the only clear opportunity I'm going to get-- to do some research on Thorne, maybe ask some really direct questions, without worrying about long-term consequences."
"And so the shift into job-mode." Tess pondered that for a moment, just allowing herself to dwell on the strength of his grip, the texture of his calluses against hers, his earnest expression; this sheriff-side of him was just as much him as the flirtatious and caring side he'd shown during most of their brief acquaintance. Was that part of him as admirable as all the rest of it? Yes, it was; which meant putting up with the downsides of it, too.
Really inconvenient timing, though.
He really was a perfect match for her, wasn't he?
Tess smiled wryly at the thought, then more genuinely as Jack's expression lightened in response. "Okay," she told him. "I'll go find Allison, you ask your questions. Oh! And if you have trouble tracking Thorne down, I overheard her this morning telling someone she'd need some calibrated equipment in a truck by five-- you can probably find out where the truck is, then follow it to her."
"Thank you," he murmured, blue eyes darkening with emotion. Then he stepped forward, wrapping his arms around her in an unexpected hug, and pressed a kiss to her forehead. "I don't know what I did to deserve this," he continued, kind of incoherently, "especially considering, you know, everything with Allison, but...."
Tess enjoyed the calm embrace for a moment, resting her cheek above the thrum of his heart; then pulled back, grinning teasingly at him. "Don't be too thankful, yet; you never know, I might be more punishment than reward."
"Then I really want to know what I did to deserve it, so I can do it again," he replied, grinning back at her.
Then he kissed her again. And again. And again.
"Practice makes perfect," she said breathlessly some minutes later, as they finally pulled apart. "Go on; I'll see you again this morning."
"I'll try and get there early enough to meet you at the door," he agreed. "Have fun with Allison. And tell her-- wait, here." He pulled a small jewel case from his pocket. "Give this to Stark for me; he's supposed to give it to her. Tell her-- I got caught up in something, and I'll make it up to her."
"Got it," she said, taking the case. Then she bit her lip, staring after him as he turned with one last awkward nod and headed for the stairs.
"Damn," she sighed to herself. Then she opened the jewelry case, too curious not to look.
"Wow," she sighed again, dazzled by the logic diamond nestled within on a fine chain. Allie was one lucky woman, even if Nathan was a workaholic egotist who was probably going to break her heart again within the year.
Tess closed the case and put it away in a pocket, then lifted a hand to touch still-tingling lips, musing about the apparently equally workaholic sheriff she'd become attached to so quickly. It looked a little different from the other side of the equation, didn't it? She really did owe Allie an apology.
She smiled ruefully to herself, then turned and headed for her old roommate's office.
Allison, of course, was all curiosity the moment Tess appeared, distracted from the last of her paperwork by looming question of when she'd met Jack. And how well she knew him.
Tess had almost forgotten about her earlier promise, and blushed, caught completely off-guard, when Allie's gaze zeroed in on her still kiss-swollen lips.
"Now I've really got to hear this story," she said, eyebrows arched high at Tess.
Tess sank into a chair on the other side of Allie's desk, biting her lip as she tried to figure out how much to say. "There's not really much to it," she protested. Then, remembering Allie's own apparent interest in him prior to Nathan's second proposal, she added, "And it's really pretty recent. Just a project he got caught up in, one he wasn't supposed to know about. That I wasn't even supposed to know about, so I can't tell you much about it. But we, um, spent a few hours together with only each other for company, and...." She trailed off with a shrug.
"You like him," Allie replied, eyes still wide with surprise.
"Like, like like him?" Tess couldn't stop the smile from tugging at the corners of her mouth. "Well, yeah. I mean, I'm pretty sure I do. It's not like I'm exactly good at this, or anything, but...."
Allie chuckled, remembering their college days as well as Tess did. "And, does he...?"
Tess let her thoughts drift back to their last kiss, and sighed softly. "Yeah, I'm pretty sure he returns the feeling."
"Wow." Allie shook her head, looking stunned. "I-- wow. That's-- unexpected. But great!" she hastened to add. "He's-- well, I'm pretty sure you know my opinion of him."
Tess' smile saddened a little at the freight of meaning in that sentence. "Yeah, I do. And if it weren't for the fact that I'm up here for your wedding to someone else, I wouldn't trespass, believe me. But-- he's just so--" She pressed a palm over her heart. "I don't know how to explain it."
Allie swallowed, then reached out to cover Tess' other hand where it still lay on the desk. "I know. And there's no one else in this world I'd recommend more. Just-- don't hurt each other, okay? I don't know which of you to even threaten with the proverbial shovel."
Tess laughed at that. "Don't worry," she said. "I know a good thing when I see it, and he's been nothing but a gentleman so far."
"Good," Allie said, with a slightly lopsided smile. Then she let go Tess' hand and pushed back from the desk. "Well, I've done about enough paperwork for one day, I think. I have a few last wedding-related errands to run, if you'd like to come with?"
"Of course," Tess said, rising from her own chair. Then, on sudden impulse, she walked around the desk and wrapped her friend up in a hug. "I know I haven't been a very good friend lately, especially about Nathan and your wedding. And I just wanted to say-- I'm sorry. All that should matter is that he makes you happy; and I can see that he does. I hope you make it this time."
Allie froze at the first touch, surprised; then wrapped her own arms around Tess. "I hope so, too," she said, resting her head against Tess'. "And-- apology accepted. Thank you so much for being here today."
"No problem," Tess replied, heart full. "What are friends for?"
Then she let go, and waved Allison toward the door. "So. Tell me all about Thorne; you said she's been interfering with G.D., but that sounded a little more personal this morning...."
The rest of the afternoon went much like it had the previous time through, only-- even more pleasant, if it were possible. Once the frustrations associated with the morning's work had worn off, Allie faced everything with the effervescence of a bride secure in herself and her chosen partner, and Tess was not only feeling cautiously excited about her own romantic life for once, she felt closer to Allie than she had in years. Maybe the idea of moving out to the Pacific Northwest, of having her work and her best friend (and, maybe, Jack) all together in the same place wasn't such a far-fetched idea, after all.
Provided, of course, Global ever started hiring again. And that they'd want a 'lady ham radio operator from SETI' on their payroll when they did. But the point was moot, for the time being. She'd just have to wait and see if that changed any time soon-- and see how she felt when it did.
Regardless, she sailed through the rest of the afternoon with a smile on her face. She didn't even face the heckling she'd expected when she and Allie stopped at Café Diem again to look over Vince's catering one last time and pick up a snack. Vince himself merely twinkled at her and didn't comment, and the rest of the sparse crowd present at the time took up his cue, undoubtedly quelled by the presence of Allison.
Not that it would have made a difference to Tess, either way. But she was just as happy not to mute the bride's thunder so close to the wedding. Allie deserved to spend the rest of the day in a cloud of bliss.
There was only one sour note in the entire production: Jack's absence at the ceremony itself. Nathan's expression grew more and more thunderous the closer the clock approached six, and it didn't lighten much when Tess passed him the necklace with Jack's apologies, either. And Allie's expression, when Tess passed her his apologies through a puzzled Deputy Lupo, flashed briefly on hurt, before she asked the deputy to walk her up the aisle instead. Tess wavered between wanting to add her own apologies and excuses on Jack's behalf, and being grateful that it wasn't their last attempt at the event.
Though the look on Deputy Lupo's face at being asked to stand in was a sight to see.
As she stood in the audience listening to Dr. Deacon for the second time, Tess Fontana's last coherent thought of the day was a random: He was right; he didn't get a chance to see me in my dress again.
Then the sky ripped open in a curtain of fire, and she was back in her Audi, on her way up to G.D. for the third morning that day.
For a day that had re-begun in such an auspicious manner, though-- she only barely jerked the wheel, and completely skipped the whole embarrassing noises of surprise part-- it soured almost immediately and failed to improve for hours.
She really should have been expecting something to go wrong. But she'd let her optimism get the best of her again; and those were the kinds of errors that always hurt the worst in the long run.
First of all, Jack wasn't there to greet her when she pulled up in the G.D. parking lot. Tess consoled herself with the thought that it had probably taken him at least a few minutes to throw his clothes on, reassure his daughter, and dash out to his Jeep; and as pleasant as those mental images were, they got her through the next few minutes without another worry.
He wasn't there when she entered the building, either, though; nor did he appear at any point between the moment she took up station again off the rotunda, and the moment Thorne walked by, the cue for her to step out and meet him and Allison. Fair enough, she mused to herself; perhaps he'd been caught up talking to her friend, presuming Allison had had more to talk to him about given the additional time available before meeting with Thorne.
Jack didn't even show up with Allison, though. And that omission hit Tess like a cold bucket of water. She stared at the empty space at Allie's side and the furrows of worry on the other woman's brow, sick with dismay, and decided not to bother sneaking up on her friend again. It wouldn't be the same without him there. She waited in her chosen alcove until the director had already handed over the redaction paperwork, then strolled out to greet Allison with as warm a smile as she could manage and a wave of greeting.
"I'll call Deputy Lupo in and get right on it," Allie was telling Thorne as Tess approached, mouth drawn into an unhappy frown.
"Good; I wouldn't want you to miss your beautiful wedding," Thorne replied, as smugly as ever.
Allison sighed as Thorne turned to walk away-- then lit up as she finally registered her friend's presence. "Tess! You're here!" she exclaimed, drawing her into a tight hug.
"Yeah, I was able to clear a space in my schedule after all," Tess said, consciously echoing her own earlier words. Then she cleared her throat and went off-script. "Though it looks like you're a little on the busy side this morning?"
Allie glanced down at the papers she held and made a disgusted face. "Yes, unfortunately. Do you mind sitting in the office with me for a couple of hours-- or, if that sounds too boring, going for a coffee at Café Diem? This shouldn't take long if I can get someone up here from the sheriff's office to help me, but it really does have to be done today."
"Your office is fine," Tess replied, then took the conversational opener she'd been offered. "I guess law enforcement has to work a seven-day schedule even in Eureka, huh?"
Allie smiled ruefully as she headed for her office, heels clicking on the smooth floor. "Yes, I suppose it's a little much sometimes with only the two of them, but they're compensated well, and there are plenty of slow weeks up here when there's virtually nothing for them to do. It worries me that Carter isn't answering his pager, but I know Jo will be able to handle the redactions before she has to be at the park with the wedding party, and that's all I have time to worry about right now."
Tess swallowed, a sudden specter of him slipping in the shower, dead of a broken neck before she'd even parked her car at G.D., flashing through her mind. "And you tried calling his house?" she asked, just a little too sharply.
Allie gave her a puzzled look, eyebrows raised. "Of course," she said. "Which is why I'm worried; his daughter said he left this morning without even eating breakfast, and didn't tell her where he was going. I just hope he gets whatever it is he's up to done before the wedding."
"I'm sure he will," Tess said, reassuring both her friend and herself.
Not dead, then. And he had left his place early, as he'd said he would. Where on earth had he gone, then, if not to Global Dynamics? She shook off the speculation and followed Allie into her office, taking a seat beside her friend's desk.
"Are you sure you're all right with this?" Allison asked her, taking a seat behind the desk and shuffling the redaction paperwork into a stack on its smooth surface. "I don't want you to feel like you have to sit around and stare at me while I wrangle red tape."
"Don't worry about it," Tess assured her again, waving a dismissive hand. "I've brought my notebook; and there's a theory I've been working on that could use some additional calculations. I can keep myself entertained. And if you feel the need to break the monotony up with a little gossip about some mutual friends while you're working...." She trailed off with a smile.
Allie laughed, lightly. "Thank you, Tess," she said. "I'm so glad you're here." Then she turned her attention back to the first page, eyes skimming down the columns of details.
Tess felt her smile slip a little, then shook her head at herself and reached into her purse to retrieve the notebook she'd mentioned. She stared at it for a moment, then opened it and flipped to the first blank page; pristine whiteness mocked her where rows of cramped script had detailed all her observations about her experiences the morning before. She ran a thumb over the lightly textured surface, then took a deep breath and started writing down everything she could remember from her discussion with Weinbrenner, and the glimpse she'd seen of his formulas.
Hopefully, it would end up being wasted effort, but it would at least help clarify the scientific basis for Weinbrenner's bizarre success in her own mind, and maybe she'd even be able to spare him the risk of synching with G.D.'s main system. She ought to be able to come up with a timer in her sleep.
Humming lightly to herself, Tess checked the clock on the wall, then lost herself in the work.
The new day was already a little over two hours gone when a soft knock at Allie's door heralded the late arrival of one Sheriff Jack Carter. Tess missed Allison's first reaction to his presence in the grip of her own reaction; it felt as though her entire skin flushed hot, then cold, and her pulse automatically jumped into another gear. It was ridiculous; hadn't hadn't her observations that morning proved that she'd got way ahead of herself with the depth of her infatuation the loop before? But she couldn't help the excitement, any more than she could help searching him from head to foot for any evidence of what might have prevented him from keeping his promise. He looked a little scruffy, but otherwise the same as usual-- though there was a conspicuous absence of catsup on the front of his shirt.
He was also staring at her, an expression on his face she wasn't sure how to read. Tess swallowed, at a loss to know what to say.
"Jack, there you are," Allie spoke, distracting Tess' attention as she dropped her pen on the desk. "Where have you been? I must have paged you six times; I ended up having to call Jo in to help with Thorne's new set of redactions this morning."
"Uh, Allison?" Jack replied absently, tearing his gaze away from Tess for a moment. "Can we talk about that later? I kind of need to borrow Tess for a moment."
Allison blinked at that, then turned to fix Tess with an assessing stare. "I didn't know you knew Jack," she said, voice lifting at the end of the sentence in a half-asked question.
Tess bit her lip. "It's kind of a long story, Al," she said. "And I'm not even sure exactly where it's going."
Allison stared at her a moment longer, then sighed at Jack and picked up her pen again. "That explanation had better be a good one," she said. "Go on. If you're going to talk, I'd rather you did it outside my office, anyway; I've still got a lot of paperwork to get through."
Tess glanced at Jack again, herself, and winced at the troubled expression he was now favoring her with. Then she sighed, put her notebook back in her purse, and stood. "I'll be back later, Al. And don't worry; I'm sure everything will work itself out the way it's supposed to." Then she headed for the door.
Jack waited until she'd passed him, out into the hall; then he shut the door behind her.
"'Not exactly sure where it's going'?" he repeated, sounding hurt, though he kept his voice low enough not to carry.
Tess frowned, crossing her arms in front of herself. "Well, I'm not now," she said, indignant that he was trying to play the defensive side. "Where the hell have you been?"
"Where the hell have I been?" he echoed her again, eyebrows raised. "I told you exactly what I was going to be doing! Only I found out some things from Thorne that I had to double-check with Henry, after I figured out how to track him down, which meant a stop at Café Diem since he wasn't answering his phone, which meant yet another idiot fight with my sister, which, before you even say anything, yes, I was completely male and totally in the wrong this time as I've already been amply informed by my daughter, and if you'd just bothered to call me I could have reassured you hours ago!"
Tess rocked back a little at the force of all that fervently whispered ire. "And why should I have had to call you when you were the one who said you'd meet me here first thing!" she fired back.
"Because you never gave me your number!" he gritted out through his teeth, stabbing a finger at her. "And it's not like there's exactly anyone here I could ask for it!"
"...Oh," Tess replied, deflating-- and feeling more than a little foolish-- in the face of that logic.
Jack closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then let it out through his nose and opened his eyes again. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to go off on you like that. It's just been-- a very frustrating morning."
"I can tell," she joked, half-heartedly. Then she swallowed, and added her own bit of inconvenient truth: "I was afraid you might have been lying dead in a ditch, somewhere. I know that sounds ridiculous, but-- you told me to be careful yesterday, and never promised to be careful yourself."
"Oh," it was his turn to say. Then he lifted a hand to touch her cheek, his expression softening. "Tess."
"Jack," she replied, managing half a smile or so past the churn of turbulent emotions half-choking her.
He took another step closer, into her personal space, and for a long moment she wasn't sure if he meant to kiss her or not, or whether she really wanted him to. Then he drew his other arm around her, pulling her into a hug, and she rested her cheek against his broad shoulder while her breath calmed and the storm inside her eased a little.
"I am sorry," he said again, before he released his hold, stroking thumbs over collarbones and down the lengths of her arms as he let go. "I think the whole, been awake for more than twenty hours thing is starting to get to me, but that's no excuse."
"I hadn't thought of that," Tess said wanly, smiling at him. "You're probably right. Remind me when Weinbrenner calls us, I should probably double-check his math-- it would be really dumb to get that far and rip the universe apart because he got tired and made a basic arithmetic error, you know?"
"I will," Jack assured her. "Though that's probably not going to be until tomorrow-- I stopped by his lab before I came up here, just to double check."
Tess sighed, her sense of weariness growing heavier at the very thought of another eighteen hours ahead of her until the world could be set right again. "Great," she said. "So what do we do in the meantime?"
"Well," Jack said slowly, drawing the word out. "Before I lost my temper, I had this whole plan worked out, to sort of make this morning up to you. I don't know if you're still interested...?"
Tess rubbed her palms against her thighs as she considered that, hope beginning to flicker around the edges of her uncertain feelings once again. "You did? I mean, of course. What kind of plans...?"
"Well, I know you said you hadn't seen much of Oregon before, and you mentioned a few of your favorite things to do yesterday, so I thought we'd make kind of a tour of it," he said, tentatively. "There's a planetarium a short drive south of here, in Eugene, and they have a summer night show on weekends at twelve-thirty that we should be able to make. Not real in-depth or anything, but, you know. It sounded fun. Then we could drive up to Salem for a late lunch; I've got some restaurant recommendations to try out. Maybe take a walk in the park by the capitol building after that. Then over to Keizer-- the local minor league ball club has a game at five-oh-five. We won't see much of it before the reset at six, but...." He shrugged.
"Wow," Tess said, a smile dawning on her face as she took it all in. "You really put some thought into this, didn't you?"
"Well." He shrugged, hands in his pockets, and looked down at the floor. "I'm kind of rusty at the dating thing, and it's not like we've really done anything the normal way since we met. I just thought-- I wanted to have at least one really special day with you, while we have the chance. Just to see how well we really get along, away from all the drama."
"And while it won't have a serious impact on your pocketbook," Tess teased him, gently, trying not to show how touched she was by his line of reasoning.
"Well, I won't lie and say that wasn't a consideration...." he said, finally smiling again as he looked back up from studying his shoes.
"Okay," she said.
"Okay?" he replied, hopefully, raising his eyebrows.
"Yeah," she answered, smile widening into a grin. "On one condition."
"And what's that?" he asked.
"You change into something a little more casual," she said, eyeing him from head to toe again. "Oh; and we take my car."
"I think I can agree to that," Jack said, eyes twinkling.
"Well then, c'mon," Tess said, reaching out to link one of her hands with his again. Palm to palm, fingers interlaced and inner wrists touching as they turned down the hall, she still felt as though she'd fallen backward in personal time, not just literal; maybe a heady seventeen now, rather than the earlier stages of pigtail-pulling and crushes. She wasn't sure what that meant; wasn't sure where they'd end up, but was more sure than ever, even after their brief fight, that it was somewhere she wanted to go.
"Let's get going," she beamed at him. "We don't want to miss the show."
The rest of the day seemed to pass at the speed of molasses, and simultaneously at the speed of light. Despite the fact that they'd actually left the bubble of Eureka to enter the real world for a change, it felt as though they had created a tight, private space of their own instead, a magical niche suspended between past and future where consequences were something that happened to other people and all they had to do was simply relax into each other and enjoy.
Sprawled on her back under the dome of the planetarium, pressed up against Jack's side as she pointed out her favorite features of the night sky. Horrifying him with her fava bean and artichoke salad at a little French bistro in the capitol, and sneaking bites of his artery-defying, half-pound gourmet burger. Sharing a pitcher of dark, locally brewed craft beer-- a taste they'd been delighted to discover they shared. Brushing drifting pink petals from his hair as they walked beneath flowering trees in the capitol park mall. Giggling as she buried her face against his shoulder on a narrow metal seat at the tiny Class A franchise stadium, while he shouted in indignation at another fan who'd dared speak ill of the Red Sox.
Hands molding to hips. Lips against lips; teeth, nipping along the prickly edge of a five o'clock shadow. Breaths, exhaled shakily as they teased at the edge of arousal, standing in the shadow of the bleachers. There wasn't any need to rush; the day had been all about taking the time to get to know one another better. The other kind of exploration could wait.
She didn't think her toes stopped tingling the entire day.
They talked, too, of course, between creating memories to preserve later like a series of crystalline snapshots. She asked him about the fight with Lexi that had so disturbed his mood, and learned about a boy who'd always idolized his very conservative father and the younger sister who'd never been able to sit still her entire life, who'd finally come to him looking for help. In return, he'd asked her about the apparent bad blood between her and Leo Weinbrenner, and she'd ended up spilling more than she'd intended about her experiences as a young, attractive, assertive woman in the hard sciences. Some of those experiences had been positive; but many hadn't, especially when she had been younger. She'd earned her hatred for guys who assumed that any disagreement on her part must simply be evidence that she did not understand their theories properly, rather than having fully knowledgeable reasons of her own to object.
He asked about her coffee preferences. She mocked his dislike of tequila. He bought her half a dozen extra large diet sodas, easy ice, and didn't complain about the frequent bathroom stops that ensued.
Tess was still a little nervous about the speed at which things between them were moving, but a larger part of her had started to look on the whole event with wonder: the universe was already exposing one of its secrets to them; what was so farfetched about the idea that they might have been gifted with another? She'd never been in love before, but she was pretty sure the chips were starting to fall in that direction. And even better: that Jack felt the same way.
Would it be enough, when the world was set back on its axis? When his prior feelings for Allison and the distance enforced by her job became factors in their lives again? If they'd only had the one chance at the day, no matter how cute he was, no matter how much fun they'd had-- she didn't think it would have. But they'd spent the last few days laying out a foundation that felt more solid than anything she'd ever built in past romantic encounters.
Forget teenage uncertainty; she felt old enough to toast her own success now, and make a mature decision. So much change, in so little time; but it felt right. She'd wait to say anything until Jack did, but she knew what she would choose when the option was presented.
"Ready for this?" she said as her watch ticked off the last few seconds before the time loop's end.
He put down his snacks, then stood and tugged her to her feet, ignoring the complaining spectators behind them. "Yep," he said. "One more time through; and this time, we play for keeps."
"Yeah, for keeps," Tess said, smiling at him. "Thank you for today, Jack. It was wonderful."
"My pleasure," he said, grinning back, looking pleased and a little smug. "See you in a few minutes?"
"Mmm." She snaked her arms around his neck for one last kiss, and closed her eyes against the roar of noise and the wash of light that followed.
...and the wash of water that followed that.
Tess coughed, leveraging herself slowly up from a slick tiled floor, hand pressed to her ribs where she'd fallen hard on the unexpected surface. Sprawled against her, Jack sat back and up, shifting to give her more space; the oozing red line of a fresh cut marked his cheek, and his eyes were wide with dismay.
"What the hell just happened?" she asked, completely disoriented.
He glanced down at his damp shirt and then swallowed. "I have no idea." Then-- almost as an afterthought-- he looked up and added, "S.A.R.A.H.? Off."
"Sheriff Carter!" the ceiling announced as the water pattering down around them trickled to a halt. "I sense bruises and lacerations! And an intruder!"
Tess gaped. She was in Jack's house. In his shower! Whatever Weinbrenner had said, the space-time continuum was clearly starting to collapse within the loop, if things had bled through this badly. Maybe the dislocation had been made worse by their distance from the origin point and thus the range the frame-dragging effect had had to cover to return she and Jack to their starting places, which had been further complicated by the fact that they had been touching when the end of the time loop arrived-- she should have thought of that!-- but she wouldn't be willing to bet on it. This had to be the last loop, no matter what; the scientist would just have to suck it up and accept help. And--
Wait. If she was in Jack's shower, then what did that mean for--
"Oh, my god," she muttered, hand flying to her mouth in horror. "My car!"
Fortunately, neither of them had broken any bones, and the wet-clothes problem was fairly easily remedied. Jack's last clean uniform was still waiting, as it had been every morning that day, in his bedroom; and Tess had brought a couple of extra changes of clothes in her car. They left Jack's place before his daughter could stir and investigate breakfast, then hurried over to the stretch of road where her Audi had suddenly lost the benefit of its driver.
Tess stared at its slightly crumpled form in mourning for a moment, then sighed, removed the keys from the ignition, and took her suitcase out of the back. It had drifted off the road at a slight curve and driven the hood straight into the trunk of a fir; the damage wasn't too extensive, but she'd be there another day or two minimum while the proprietor of Henry's Garage made sure it was safe to drive.
Well, at least it gave her another excuse not to leave right away, she thought with a wry smile. Then she marched back through the weeds and ankle-high grass of the verge and tucked herself into the back of Jack's Jeep while he called the accident in on the radio.
"Just going to change my shirt," she said, when he turned to give her an inquisitive look about her choice of seating. He raised his eyebrows, eyes lingering where she gripped the bottom edge of her white shirt with her hands, then smiled appreciatively and turned away again to give her space.
She bit her lip, trying not to blush, or to imagine the next time she might undress in his proximity; then she stripped the shirt off quickly, tucking it and the water-spotted pinstripe vest she'd worn over it into one of the outer pockets of her suitcase. She replaced it with a stretchy purple three-quarter sleeve top that wasn't quite as dressy as she'd intended to be that day, but would do in a pinch-- and at least had the benefit of being something Jack hadn't seen her in before. Then she accessorized with a chunky necklace from her jewelry bag, closed up the suitcase, and slid back out of the Jeep to take the passenger seat in the front.
"All done," she told him.
"Here, too," he replied. "Henry's not answering his phone this morning any more than he has been every day so far, and I didn't want to waste the time to track him down in person again, so I got hold of Spencer-- his old assistant-- who's in town for the wedding. He remembered where the keys to the tow truck are; he'll get it taken care of for you."
"Good," she said, then frowned. "So what now? I know we were planning on going through the whole redaction cycle today like we did the first time, but now that we know for sure there are consequences to the time looping...."
He wrinkled his brow, then took his pager from his pocket. It was blinking to notify him that he had a message-- probably the one from Allison asking him to help her out with the newest round of redactions. "I think I'd better go ahead and go through with it," he said, slowly. "If you think you'd better stick with Leo in the lab, though, I'll help you convince Stark first. The more minds working on the problem, the better chance we have of making sure this doesn't happen again."
"I agree," she said, then reached out to twine the fingers of her left hand through his right. "The next time we end up in the shower together, I don't want to have the fate of the universe on my conscience."
He chuckled. "Yeah, that tends to be kind of a mood-dampener." Then he squeezed her hand and let go to start up the Jeep and put it in gear. "I just hope Allison forgives us for disrupting her fiancé's schedule on their wedding day."
"I'd be more worried about Nathan's reaction if I were you," Tess laughed. Then she buckled in, leaned over and tucked her head against his shoulder. Jack had been right; the strain of spending over thirty hours aware, in addition to the sleep deprivation of her original drive up, was starting to affect her. They'd better have everything fixed in ten more hours; she didn't even want to think about how exhausted and error-prone she'd be, never mind Leo Weinbrenner, with another day under their belts.
"Aw, he's mostly bark," Jack groused. Then he turned the radio on something soft and settled his arm around her. She sighed and closed her eyes, then let her mind drift for the rest of the ride up to Global Dynamics.
Jack was mostly bark, too, she'd noticed. She kind of liked that about him.
Allison and Thorne were already in the rotunda talking when Tess and Jack entered, arm in arm. Allie looked frazzled, as expected; Thorne looked, as always, smug. Allie's mood improved markedly when she saw the pair of them, though. Tess greeted her, dodging her questioning look with a smile, and promised to catch her up on everything later. As planned, Jack quickly agreed to take care of the footwork for the redactions-- as soon as he'd got Tess settled with 'something to entertain her while you're busy' and asked a quick question of Nathan.
Thorne didn't particularly care, as Tess had hoped; she whisked off to do whatever it was Jack had spent the late afternoon investigating two loops before, with only her habitual injunction to make sure Dr. Blake wasn't late to her beautiful wedding. Allie was a little more difficult to convince, but neither Tess nor Jack wanted to ruin the day for her any more than it had been already; brilliant as she was, Allie's skills lay primarily in other subjects, and three theoretical physicists (or four, if Dr. Fargo joined them) would crowd Weinbrenner's lab as it was. No sense worrying her with something she couldn't do anything about.
Nathan was, as he had been every other time she'd run into him, considerably less pleased to see them.
"Tess. Carter. What did I do to deserve the two of you in close proximity today?" he asked acerbically.
"It's not so much what you did, as what Leo Weinbrenner is doing," Jack replied, leaping hastily onto the offered conversational opening.
"Really." Nathan raised a sardonic eyebrow at him. "Considering that his job becomes obsolete the moment we activate this clock," he said, gesturing to the delivery elevator behind him, "and its arrival has been on the schedule for weeks, I fail to see how anything to do with the man could demand my attention."
"He's managed to create a time loop that's been running for about four days now," Tess said, quickly, "and it's beginning to collapse. I know that's theoretically impossible, but...."
"Impossible? Try crazy," Nathan said, crossing his arms and giving them a distinctly unimpressed look. "Do you really think there's a break in the space-time continuum and I don't know about it, but the two of you do?"
"Does your ego even fit in this building?" Jack interrupted, rolling his eyes.
Nathan glared at him. "If this is some attempt to convince me that I'm better off not marrying Allison...."
Tess shook her head, holding up placating palms. "No, this has nothing to do with you and Allison, except that Weinbrenner just so happened to go off the rails on the same day as your wedding. And, okay; I know I was probably a little harsh on you before. I apologize. As long as you keep making her happy the way you have the past few months, I'm actually glad the two of you are back together."
"Really," Nathan replied dryly, the tense lines across his forehead relaxing a little at her olive branch.
"Really," Jack said, taking up the thread of the conversation again, more calmly than before. "I know you have no real reason to believe me, either, not that your ego would even accept it if you did, but I want what's best for Allison as much as you do, and so help me, you seem to be it." He grimaced a little, then threw Tess a wry smile. "But like she said, this has nothing to do with you and Allison. Good old Leo decided he needed a little more time with his research before Thorne locked him out of his lab, and he managed to do something with a photon and a set of really intense almost-black lights that I didn't follow that have made us repeat the same day for about half a week now."
"Almost black lights," Nathan repeated skeptically. "Do you even hear yourself, or is the idiocy unintentional?"
"It's a frequency he calls ultra-indigo that seems to produce an observable frame-dragging effect," Tess filled in for him. "We stumbled into the experiment accidentally the first time Jack tried to redact him. He was adamant that he didn't want any help when we finally tracked down the source of the problem, but the side-effects are starting to become noticeable, and I'm pretty sure we're going to need a fresh mind that hasn't been working on it thirty hours straight to double-check the solution."
Nathan stared at her intently for a moment, as though trying to catch her out in a lie; then he glanced at Jack, eyes narrowed. Finally, he sighed. "All right. I'll give you five minutes to convince me. Fargo? Stay with the delivery; if I'm not back by the time you're through here, join us down in Maintenance."
"You got it," Fargo said, straightening his spine where he stood next to the freight elevator.
"Great," Jack said, sighing with relief. "Frankly, I thought that would be harder."
Tess reached out for his hand, and gripped it tightly one last time before they parted for who knew how many more hours. "Thank you," she told him. "I'll see you when I see you?"
"Yeah," he replied, smiling affectionately at her. "Good luck."
"Everything will turn out the way it's supposed to," she reassured him, then let go and shooed him toward the stairs.
"What, he's not coming with us?" Nathan objected, frowning.
"No; he's got another job to do," she said, still smiling after her-- her what? Her boyfriend? Tess' grin widened. "So let's go do ours."
The furrows on Nathan's brow deepened even further as he stared at her, as though trying to decipher what had so improved her mood. Then he shook it off and gestured toward the nearest personnel elevator. "After you."
Weinbrenner was not best pleased to see them arrive, either, when they reached the Maintenance lab in the basement. "Dr. Fontana--" he began, a frustrated look on his face, when the door slid open.
"Time wave, Leo," she replied crisply, fixing him with her best disapproving stare. "Tell me you didn't get thrown around a little that time through-- because Jack and I sure did. You promised us, if things started going wrong, you'd take all the help you could get immediately, no questions."
His obstinate expression crumbled at that, and he nodded, abashed. "I suppose you're right. I never meant to hurt anyone, you know."
"If I never hear another scientist say those words in Eureka, it'll be too soon," Nathan said, looking down his nose with distaste at the board full of equations. "It's true then, what Tess told me?"
"About the time loop? I'm afraid so," Weinbrenner sighed. "I've about got the procedure for reaccelerating the photon worked out, I just haven't managed to work on the timer yet."
"Well, while Dr. Stark double-checks your work, why don't I see what I can do about the timer problem?" Tess said, brightly. "I know you probably don't think you need it, but considering just how many hours you've been working on this straight, having a fresh set of eyes on your equations only makes sense. When you're as sure as you can get that it'll work, then I'll show you what I've come up with, and we'll get it all set up."
"It has to activate at the exact moment of synchronicity with the timestream; otherwise, the effects will start becoming permanent in another two or three loops," Weinbrenner said. "The rough specs I had worked out for the timer are on that computer, there."
Tess moved to the computer workstation in question, jogged the mouse to see what he had open, and nodded. "I can work with this, I think," she said, glancing over at Nathan.
He was frowning at the wipe board. "This is the part, here, that determines the length of the time loop?" he was saying, pointing at one section of equations with a manicured fingernail. "What made you pick ten hours?"
"Well, those were pretty much the only hours security would allow me to be in the lab today; I figured, why waste the energy blocking out extra time?" Weinbrenner shrugged.
Nathan heaved a sigh. "I don't think I need to tell you that was a short-sighted decision," he groused.
Mostly bark, Tess thought, and smiled. She hadn't felt so charitable toward the man in years; thanks to Jack, she was remembering why she'd actually considered him a friend all those years ago. Perhaps they would be friends again, soon-- provided they made sure there would be a soon, and not just an endless, disintegrating present.
She cast her mind back to the ideas she'd scribbled out in her notebook the morning before in Allison's office, and dug into the coding with a will.
Amazingly, with the three of them working together-- four, once Fargo had finished settling the new G.D. clock in place and making sure its synch window was set-- they managed to wrestle the science to a workable solution by the time Jack had finished the rest of the redactions, just after what would ordinarily have been lunch time. With her timer code in place, it didn't even require any of them to remain there in person, though Weinbrenner volunteered to do so just to be absolutely certain nothing went wrong at the last moment. Tess was pretty sure it wouldn't-- without the inherently risky requirement of manual intervention, the process of reacceleration should go off without a hitch-- but she did agree that in this case, it was better to be safe than sorry.
"Great," Jack said, beaming at her as she explained what they'd done. "So I can drag you out of here, then? No more last second equations, or anything?"
"Why, did you miss me?" she smiled, threading her arms around his waist in full view of the other three scientists still conferring about risks and consequences on the other side of Weinbrenner's lab.
"Well, that, and I'm still holding your suitcase hostage for good behavior," he smirked down at her, little crinkles around eyes and mouth betraying the depth of his good humor.
"Oh? And what constitutes good behavior, in your opinion?" she teased back.
"What, you want a checklist?" he drawled.
"So that's where your suddenly magnanimous behavior comes from," Nathan said, in the tones of one who has just received a great revelation. "Now it all makes sense. Except for the way it really doesn't-- does Allison know the two of you know each other?"
"Well, I do now," Allison said, joining the rest of them in the lab with eyebrows raised.
"Oh, no," Jack said, turning to wag a finger at her. "This is your day; our story will come later. In the meantime, though, I'm starving; I'm going to drag this one off for food, and we'll see you again in a little while at the wedding."
"You'd better; I won't be answerable for what will happen if you screw things up at this late date," Nathan replied, ominously.
"Now, Nathan...." Allison chided him, stepping into his personal space the way Tess was currently standing in Jack's.
Fargo, a slightly forlorn look on his face, heaved a sigh at the sight.
"And on that note," Tess said, disentangling herself from Jack's arms. "C'mon."
Together, they made their way out the door.
She was a little curious why he hadn't let her loose with Allison to run the rest of the wedding errands, as she had the first two times the day had unspooled that far along its normal track, but was willing to play along; she figured he had a plan. Probably something to do with his daughter, since they were headed for the café, and they'd met her and Jack's sister there before.
Her guess was proved right when they strode into Café Diem a short while later just in time to hear Lexi mentioning the World Health Organization to Vince, who stood behind the counter with Zoe putting the final touches on Allison's wedding cake. "Hey, guys," Jack said, announcing their presence as they walked toward the counter.
"Dad!" Zoe exclaimed, smiling at him. "And-- who's this?"
"This is Tess," Jack said, smiling back at her, dropping a possessive hand to the small of Tess' back again. "Dr. Tess Fontana. She came up for Allison's wedding, so I thought it would be the perfect time to introduce the two of you. Tess, this is my amazing daughter, Zoe Carter; and the young woman over there who's just returned from six years of traveling around doing good deeds is my lovely sister Lexi."
"Why, you sweet talker, you," Lexi said, smiling, though she looked a little perplexed at the praise.
"Wait, introduce introduce?" Zoe raised her eyebrows, though she, too, was smiling as she held a hand across the counter. "Um, great to meet you!"
"It's great to meet you, too," Tess said, shaking her hand. "I've heard a lot of good things."
"And I-- actually haven't heard any things, I'm sorry. Dad's kind of-- lacking that way, sometimes."
Tess laughed, and feeling a little daring, decided to tease back. "Yes, I'm already well aware I'm the communicator in this relationship," she said.
"Relationship?" Zoe's voice rose.
"What other kind of introduction did you think I meant?" Jack interjected, still smiling. "We met through Allison, but she works in California, and this is the first time she's been able to visit. Hopefully not the last, though."
"Not if I have anything to say about it," Tess said, smiling happily up at him.
"Aw, I haven't seen Monkey this relaxed in years," Lexi chipped in.
"Nice, Stretch," Jack said, taking a seat at the bar next to his sister; Tess settled into the one on his other side. "I've missed you too, you know."
"You haven't called me that since I was twelve," Lexi said, looking touched.
"Yeah, well, you used to hate it."
"Because I was five foot nine in seventh grade," she chuckled, rolling her eyes.
"Fair enough," he smiled. "You know, I'm glad you came early. There's a lot of people in town today that you might not get the chance to meet for awhile otherwise. Though I see you've already made the acquaintance of one of the town's most important residents...?"
Vince looked up from the cake again at that, a long-suffering expression on his face. "By that, I take it you're placing an order for your usual, sheriff?" he said, lightly.
"If you would, Vince?" Jack smiled. "And, Tess...?"
"Oh, I don't care; hit me with your best shot," Tess decided, smiling at the café manager.
He brightened at that. "Oh, I approve of this one, Sheriff," he said, beaming, then bustled off into the back, leaving Zoe to watch the counter.
Zoe grinned, then leaned forward, bracing her elbows on the smooth surface. "So, tell me. What exactly went through your mind the first time you saw my dad?" she asked, in conspiratorial tones.
Not the type to freak if her dad were dating, Tess thought, remembering her concerns the first time she'd met the girl. Though she didn't mistake the current conversation for anything but a covert interrogation. If she were anything like Jack, though, Tess thought she had a good idea how to handle it. "Actually?" she smiled, casting her thoughts back to her first glimpse of the sheriff at Allison's side nearly thirty-six hours before. "I think it was something like, 'what the hell is that on his shirt?'"
"What?" Jack spluttered at her side. "You didn't tell me that!"
Tess laughed at him. "Don't worry," she said. "The next was something like, 'Well, Allison trusts him, so there's got to be something special about him'. And sure enough, you proved me right."
"Well, then," he drawled, looking somewhat mollified.
"And what was the first thing you thought of when you saw her?" Zoe pressed, grinning with delight.
Jack glanced at her, then smirked. "Actually," he said, "I probably shouldn't throw stones, since it was something along the lines of, 'Oh god, I hope she doesn't turn out to be Thorne's apprentice'."
Tess snickered. "I don't know whether to take that as a compliment, or not."
"Definitely a compliment," he said, eyes twinkling.
The rest of their lunch passed just as smoothly, with good food, better company, and excellent spirits. Jack took her back to the bunker on Coriolis Loop to change once they'd eaten, then dropped her by Allison's house while he took care of a few last things; the next few hours passed in a blur of excitement and joy both on her part and Allison's, and when the time came for them all to assemble in the park again, she was feeling more in tune with the world than she had in years.
She made sure to take a seat near Zoe and Lexi, with one left open between them for Jack; and when he joined them after walking Allie up the aisle, she nestled within the circle of his arm, beaming at the happy couple as Dr. Deacon began the ceremony.
"You know, my sister says weddings are like funerals with champagne; final, yet festive," he whispered into her hair, a contemplative note in his voice.
"Not so final as all that. You'll see," she whispered back.
Moments later, Dr. Deacon gave the traditional challenge, and paused to wait for the audience to answer; though this time, hardly anyone turned to look at Jack. Tess smiled to herself, and held her breath as the final seconds of the time loop crawled by.
Jack froze at her side. Then Dr. Deacon turned to Nathan, a proud smile on his face. "Nathan Richard Stark. Will you have this woman to be your wedded wife?" he asked.
Tess pinched herself. Then she glanced up at Jack. "See?" she whispered.
He let out a long sigh of relief, then pulled her closer to him. "I never doubted you," he murmured.
"Shh!" Zoe hissed, elbowing her father, though she was smiling at them as she did so.
Tess bit her lip, then settled back to enjoy the rest of the wedding. It was six-oh-one, and all was well with her world.
Only two more uncertainties marred the next forty hours of their acquaintance: the first, when they returned to the bunker after the wedding, and the second when Tess left Eureka Monday morning.
The first was easily dealt with. Jack paused for a long, awkward moment in the living room, pointedly not inviting her to stay-- then hesitantly explained that his sister was already staying there. Equally hesitantly, Tess pointed out that she'd taken a room at the town's bed and breakfast for the weekend-- and was gratified to see his face light up in response.
That night, and the next, were everything she could have dreamed of, the next-to-the-last hurdle in their potential compatibility crossed with a positively Olympic flourish.
Only one thing remained: the conversation, the one they'd been skirting around the entire week-long weekend.
"I've had an amazing time with you, Jack," she concluded, studying his expression as they stood next to her hastily-repaired car. "And I'd like to continue it; I want to see what we could be like together over the long term. But I don't know when, or even if, I'll ever be able to move here."
"You're only nine hours' drive away, not on another whole continent," he replied, with a warm, very serious look in his eyes. "Don't worry; I'll be here for you whenever you get the chance to visit. And hopefully, I'll get the chance to visit your place, soon."
Which, of course, he did. And when she finally got a job offer from the tiny scientific Mecca a few months later, he was, in fact, waiting the moment she crossed the electronic barrier around the town.
She hadn't actually expected to find him standing next to her car as she emerged from the woods after a quick rest break, courtesy of one too many diet sodas on the long drive, but only because she hadn't called ahead; she'd been hoping to surprise him at home. But it was very Eureka of him. She would have been more surprised if everything had gone according to plan.
"You do know you can't park your car in the middle of the road," he said, grinning at her. "Though I grant, that's one way to get law enforcement's attention."
"I didn't think I had," she said with a shrug, grinning back at him. "I guess I must've really had to go."
"Or it could be that you just bring chaos with you whenever you visit," he smirked.
"That's always a possibility, too, I suppose," she said, resting her palms against his chest as she finally approached within arm's length of him. "What are the odds, do you think?"
"I think the universe sometimes does things for strange reasons," he said, eyeing her admiringly as he settled his hands on her hips. "But strange doesn't necessarily mean bad."
"Amen to that."
"Hello, Tess," he murmured, leaning forward to breathe in the scent of her hair.
"Hello, Jack," she replied, breathing deep against the crook of his neck.
"...You do know you're still going to have to move your car, or I'll have to cite you."
Tess burst out laughing at that. "Jack!" she exclaimed, swatting at his chest. "No, I thought I'd just leave it here," she giggled. Then she leaned up for a proper greeting.
"Here is good," he said hoarsely, a moment later.
She smiled at him, knowing exactly what he meant. "Yeah. Here is good."
Cheesy handdrawn art © 2010 by Jedibuttercup
© 2010 Jedi Buttercup.