Title: Trusting Carter

Author: icyfire

Summary: "And as Nathan Stark died, he trusted Carter." Can he trust him as he struggles to get his life back?

Rating: I've never been good at judging ratings and it's been so long since I've finished a fanfiction--I'm going to go with "T".

Spoilers: "I Do Over" for this section

Author's Notes: Stark and Carter friendship fic. Not beta'd. Constructive crit always welcome. A WIP, but I think this part might stand alone.

E E E

"We either trust Carter, or we don't."

As he expected, Fargo offered no further protests. His assistant, like so many in this town, trusted the man, a fact that still surprised Stark. When he met the new sheriff, Stark knew he would be like so many before him—gone within weeks. He was a remnant from a time long past. He was Mayberry in the world of Star Trek. He helped to maintain the status quo in a town of people who hated the status quo. Every rule pointed to Jack Carter being a fish out of water in Eureka, and yet, somehow, he'd managed to become an essential part of the community.

And Nathan Stark, who learned before he could walk to trust no one, trusted him. He doubted they would ever be friends, but somehow Mayberry managed to destroy barriers so old that Stark didn't remember building them. Trusting Carter was easy. Not only with his life—which would soon come to an end—but with that which was truly important to him.

Carter would protect this town, these people, even as they looked down their noses at him and considered him slightly inferior. They would mock him, even as they loved him, because they would never—could never--truly understand him. He was an oddity in their world, and scientists weren't comfortable studying puzzle pieces that did not fit.

As Stark stood in the chamber waiting to die, he made his requests. He saw the growing understanding on Carter's face as he told the other man what he wanted done. The sheriff truly was much smarter than he looked, truly smarter than Carter himself realized.

He asked that Carter watch over Allison even though he knew there was no need. He wanted to give his approval for what he knew would eventually happen between the two, but he couldn't voice those exact words. Not on the day he was supposed to marry Allison again. He didn't bother to ask him to watch over Kevin, because, again, he trusted Carter. He would watch over him with the same fierce protectiveness that the man showed for all those he felt were his to protect.

He heard Fargo yelling that they had done it, but the words were slow like a tape that had begun to drag. Carter's sadness surprised him, and he wondered if maybe one day they might actually have managed to become friends.

And as Nathan Stark died, he trusted Carter.

E E E

He was immediately blinded. He managed to put his arm up to block the lights, even though it felt weighted down. Stumbling, he tried to see where he was, tried to understand what his senses were telling him. It was loud. It was bright. Machines beeped and squeaked.

He fell to the floor and something cut his hand. He felt the warmth of the blood on his palm. Closing his eyes, struggling to get control of his breathing, Stark focused on the one part of the world that still made sense: himself.

He didn't believe in heaven or hell. He believed that life ended at death. There was no spirit, no soul. So where was he?

"I've called the sheriff. He was already on the grounds and will be here in just a moment," a highly annoying voice howled. The words seemed to echo over the din of the machines.

Stark winced and struggled to see the speaker. She stood in front of the bright lights, a shadow of nothingness. His throat was dry but he managed to croak, "The sheriff?"

The shadow nodded with great vigor. "Yes, you have ruined weeks of data! This room is for authorized personnel only, and you don't have a badge."

Stark felt as if he were back in elementary school. It wasn't a pleasant feeling. Maybe hell did exist after all: it was grade school.

"Oh, Sheriff!" The voice sighed using a much lower and sweater tone. The annoying tattletale had a crush on the "teacher". Stark's stomach rolled, and he wasn't sure if it was the dying or the sappiness that was causing the nausea.

"Nancy, you said—"

The words drowned away as Stark's heart began beating faster. He knew that voice, had been annoyed by it far more than once. But hearing it now could only mean that death had not been the outcome of earlier events as expected, but instead something far more insidious had happened.

The lights, the blinding lights, were finally turned off and the temperature in the room dropped immediately.

"Nathan?" He wanted to laugh at the shock in Carter's voice. He watched as the sheriff cautiously walked towards him—shock, horror and relief etched on his face. He took in the details, noting each one, knowing the evidence was quickly compiling towards one inescapable answer.

The familiar brown uniform had been replaced by an unfamiliar blue one. There were several more lines on Carter's face, especially around his eyes. There were hints of gray hair that had not been there only moments before when this room had been Leo's lab.

"Nathan?" Carter's voice was louder, more urgent. And Stark couldn't breathe. "You're having a panic attack, Nathan. I need you—"

Stark struggled to tell Carter he did not have panic attacks, but before he could find the words, the world went black, and he finally found relief.

E E E

He opened his eyes and immediately knew that he was in the infirmary. An unfamiliar doctor was at the foot of the bed and Carter stood by his left side. Stark studied the familiar ceiling. He had been here more than once over the years, and he managed to find comfort in the fact that at least the ceiling was the same.

"How many?" His voice sounded firm, resolute, showed none of the confusion that had overwhelmed him earlier. Was overwhelming him now.

"Nathan—"

He finally tilted his head to stare at Carter. More than one Global Dynamics employee had fled at the look, but he knew Carter was made of sterner material. Besides, Stark knew the sheriff. Carter was feeling guilty. He believed Nathan Stark needed his protection, so he wouldn't leave, no matter how hard Stark pushed. What pissed him off the most was that Carter was right. Stark needed him.

"How many?"

"Five."

He felt every ounce of air leave his body. Five years. He had lost five years of his life in one moment.

Some distant, analytical part of his mind thought he should be celebrating. Losing five years had to be better than dying, but at this moment Stark wasn't sure. His entire life was gone. The world had moved on without him, leaving him behind. For a man used to being in the front of the crowd, it was disconcerting that he was now behind everyone else.

He looked down at Carter's hands, searching for and finding a gold ring. He remembered Carter wearing one when he first came to Eureka, even though everyone was aware he was in the process of getting a divorced. Stark had seen it as further proof that Carter didn't fit Eureka. Sentimentality was overrated in Stark's opinion.

Carter lived by it. But Carter had eventually taken off that ring and faced the reality that his marriage was truly over.

As Stark was forcing himself to do.

"Allie's?"

Carter looked down at the band of gold. The guilt on his face should have allowed Stark a moment of amusement. It didn't. The sheriff nodded.

"Nathan—"

He shook his head, not wanting to hear any apologizes or excuses. "I knew it could happen, Carter."

He wanted to tell the other man to go away and leave him in peace. But for the first time in his life he was afraid of being alone.

"She really loved you."

"I know," Stark said, struggling to keep his voice even. "I noticed that she's not here. Did she—"

"She's not in town right now. I haven't let her know. She's at Missy's."

Stark frowned. "Her college roommate?"

"Yeah, she wanted some away time. I couldn't leave, and Missy invited her, so—"

Stark nodded, relieved that Allison wasn't avoiding him. Yet.

"I haven't let anyone know, yet. Outside of Doug—"

"Doug?"

Carter looked guilty again. Stark wanted to stuff that guilt right down Carter's throat. "Doug Richardson, he's the head of GD now. And, of course, Doctor Lincoln knows who you are." Carter looked around for the man who had stepped out of the room several minutes ago. "I didn't know what—I didn't want you to be overwhelmed."

Carter had seen his terror in that lab, had seen Stark at his worst. If it had been anyone else in the world, Stark would hate them for seeing him weak. But he knew Carter would never tell anyone that panic had overtaken him, even though Carter probably liked him even less than Stark liked Carter.

He struggled to continue the conversation. There were a million questions zooming through his mind, but he couldn't seem to concentrate on any single one. He tried to focus on what was important—important but not an emotional mine field. "Fargo?"

Carter smiled and Stark relaxed. "Happily married and a father, if you can believe it."

He chuckled. "I can't."

Finally relaxing, Carter put his hands on his hips. "He's really come into his own since you've been gone."

Tightness hit his throat. "Since I've not been here to hold him back?"

Carter held out his hand while shaking his head. "No, no, no. He's just—he wanted to make sure you were proud of him. Telling him that you knew what he was capable of really made a difference to him."

He should have told him years before instead of taking a few moments before dying. But then Stark had always excelled with the mental, not the emotional, part of life. One of the many reasons he'd never liked Carter. The man managed to make the emotional look easy, wearing his heart on his sleeve for the entire world to see.

He pictured Fargo with a miniature Fargo in his arms--glasses and all. He chuckled. "Did you and Allie have any children?" So much for avoiding emotional land mines.

Carter's smile disappeared and the arms crossed over the chest before he finally managed to nod his answer. Stark rolled his eyes. Carter would just have to get over the guilt. "She's a wonderful mother."

"Yeah," Carter said, looking at everything in the room while avoiding looking at Stark, and considering how little was in this room, that feat was quite impressive. "She is."

After appearing to find the answer to an unasked question in the blanket folded at the bottom of Stark's bed, Carter sighed and reached back to pull out his wallet. Oh, wonderful. Proud papa photos. As much as he loved Kevin, Stark had never felt the need to show anyone his picture. Unfortunately, so many parents had not returned the courtesy.

Carter took the picture out of the wallet and handed it to Stark. He wanted to give it a cursory glance, like the ones he gave all such pictures, but he couldn't. This child was the child of the woman he loved. He looked older than Stark would expect given the time frame, but he wasn't very good at judging children's ages. Kevin's development had been different. As he had gotten older, their focus had been on his mental growth. The physical changes had barely registered for them.

He studied the picture and noted that the boy had Allie's beautiful skin tone. And apparently her hair, but the shade seemed wrong to him. He definitely didn't have Carter's blond locks. In fact, no matter how hard he studied the picture, he couldn't find anything about the boy that resembled the sheriff.

"You have a beautiful son, Carter."

"Yeah, I do," the sheriff said, his voice breaking just a little. "We do."

Stark was momentarily surprised that Carter was rubbing salt in the wound. That was more his style. "Yes, I'm sure Allie—"

"No." Carter waited until Stark looked at him. "I mean—" The sheriff took a deep breath, studied the blanket at Stark's feet again, and then finally looked Stark in the eyes. "He's not mine biologically."

Of course, Carter wasn't crowing about his victory. He was being literal. We have a beautiful son. All of them. Carter and Allie, who were raising him, and Stark, who was only starting to realize exactly how much he had lost when he stepped into that chamber.

"Get out."

"Stark—"

Desperation clawed through him. He used a word that seldom passed through his lips, but that he knew Carter would respect. "Please."

He'd said the magic word. Carter stopped, studied him for only a moment, and then nodded. "I'll come back in the morning."

He left, leaving Nathan Stark all alone.