Title: Here For You (The Time and Again Remix)
Author: Jedi Buttercup
Disclaimer: The words are mine; the world is not.
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.
Warnings: Adults behaving like adults; occasional saccharine moments.
Notes: 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.
Acknowledgements: Written for the 2010 Small Fandom Big Bang. Much love to MaeveBran for her support, 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?