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Posted April 19, 2010

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Fan Fiction: No Place Like Eureka

Title: No Place Like Eureka

Author: Jedi Buttercup

Disclaimer: The words are mine; the worlds are not. I claim nothing but the plot.

Rating: PG-13.

Summary: B:tVS/Eureka. "Nathan-- this is your daughter, Dawn. Dawn Michelle Stark. You remember her, don't you?" (Or, an Alternate History of the Key). 21,300 words.

Spoilers: Specific for B:tVS "No Place Like Home" (5.5) and "Blood Ties" (5.13); and for Eureka "Right as Raynes" (1.8), "Once in a Lifetime" (1.12), "I Do Over" (3.4), "Ship Happens" (3.14), and "Shower the People" (3.15).

Notes: A B:tVS/Eureka crossover AU and quasi-fixit fic for certain events in Eureka Season 3. Winner in the 2010 TtH Crossing Over Awards.

Photoshopped Image by jedibuttercup

Photoshopped art © 2010 by Jedibuttercup

Chapter Index:

  1. Prologue
  2. Chapter One: Down the Rabbit Hole
  3. Chapter Two: What Seems to Be
  4. Chapter Three: Oh, Boy
  5. Chapter Four: All Made Up
  6. Chapter Five: Wanting What's Best For Her
  7. Chapter Six: Signs and Wonders
  8. Chapter Seven: Secrets of the Universe
  9. Chapter Eight: Maintaining Scientific Objectivity
  10. Epilogue


"It is done," the monk charged with the Key's protection sighed into the darkness of the monastery's great hall. It did not matter that they had been found, that they might perish for removing the Beast's desire from Her grasp; they had done their duty, and It was now in the hands of a far more capable protectrix.

Swiftly, he reached his magical senses outward to ascertain the success of the spell; he had been forced to rework portions of its specifications in order to send the Key half way round the world from their location, sufficient that he had been unable to make any changes to its form as well. Personally, he would have preferred creating a new vessel actually able to protect itself, but the ancients who had written it must have had a reason for choosing a female human form. He would have to trust in their sagacity-- otherwise all of their deaths would have no meaning.

The previous vessel was clearly empty, no longer lit from within with verdant light; the faceted jewel was a dim, dully sparkling form in the darkness. But as he reached out, his satisfaction soured into horrified dismay; the energy link he'd long since established to his charge through familiarity and ritual led not to the distant western shores of California as he'd expected, but to a strange piercing wrongness disrupting the fabric of reality somewhat northward of the wound in the supernatural essence of the world that was the Hellmouth.

He'd been counting on the pull of that multidimensional portal to ensure that the Key's own complex, extrareal energies followed the path laid down for them to coalesce at the Slayer's side. Whatever had torn through the space-time continuum-- projecting both forward and backward from a knot that he could not begin to decipher in the brief moment he had available to probe it, whose origin must be in some other reality entirely-- had clearly provided a more powerful drawing force.

"Lord preserve us," he muttered in Czech, then bolted to his feet as whatever She had sent against them battered through the remains of the monastery door. He gathered up the vacant vessel, the candle, and as many of the protective amulets as he could gather in his two hands; the pair of brethren who had assisted him likewise scrambled to their feet, and followed him as he ran for the safety of the tunnels.

The heavy form of the Dagon Sphere thumped against his thigh, secured in its bag, as he ran; he knew the others had no such protection against the Beast Herself, but refused to allow himself the draining sentiment of guilt. He could not afford to stop and assist them; nor could he afford to leave himself exposed anywhere She might find him again. It would be one thing, had the spell been an unqualified success; it was another, now that he had no idea where It was, nor in whose care, nor whether It had even taken the form intended for It.

His only consolation was that She would have just as difficult a time locating it in the other reality as he would have finding it again. Perhaps the world would have a chance at surviving Her appearance, after all.

Somewhere else-- somewhen else-- an inadvertently created time loop collapsed, catching in its teeth the form of the abrasive, brilliant scientist who had stepped in to stop it. The Key's energy paused, assessed; It had been enchanted to manifest at the side of the best Warrior in the immediate vicinity of Its destination, but there were two here whose fierce convictions and protectiveness vibrated from their auras like heat from the local sun. It tasted of them both, then projected backward to the mystical alignment chosen for the date of Its recreation, and determined that only one would still-- would have-- been nearby then.

All conditions now met, the spell concluded, snapping into effect. The energies of the Key disrupted the anomaly as It passed through, dislocating the man caught within and displacing him forward along the temporal line of the fourth-dimensional rift it had created-- and incidentally collapsing the only means both Glorificus and the Order of Dagon had of tracking Its relocation.

In the year 2000, Dawn Michelle Stark, eight-year-old stepsibling of Kevin Blake, materialized in her room, scribbling fiercely in her diary about the unfairness of her father's current marriage. If her blue eyes and attitude owed a little more to a certain U.S. Marshal than to her deceased mother-- it would take several years, and the enrolment of Zoe Carter at Tesla High, before anyone would ever think to laughingly propose such a relation.

...And in the year 2009, a shocked, stunned lab technician paged the director of G.D.

Chapter One: Down the Rabbit Hole

From the instant the vacuum seal had failed, Nathan had expected-- had known-- that the moment he activated the machine to shut down the time loop would be his last. He'd seen the results of Leo Weinbrenner's attempt to do the same thing, after all-- and though he was certain he would succeed where the other scientist had failed, he didn't expect victory to be any easier on the body standing inside the chamber.

If things had gone according to plan, he'd have been on his way to Allison's side at that moment, where he'd take her hand and smile over it at his antagonist and chief rival of the last two years. Instead, the pair of them were standing together without her while he sacrificed his life to save the world... but he couldn't quite regret making the choice to manually synch the field, either. Someone had to do it; he was the one best suited for the job; and if he had to die-- well. He'd made things right with Allison; there was someone there to take care of her and his daughter if he couldn't; and the entire world would owe its survival to his actions. What more could a man ask for on his epitaph?

He poised his thumb over the activation button on the touch-screen tablet, took a deep breath, and looked up at Carter, determined to go out with a smile. He wanted Carter to be able to tell Dawn and Allison that they'd have been proud of him; wanted Carter and Fargo to remember him this way, strong and commanding right to the end. Even if heart quailed at the last second, even if he really wanted to live--

The moment came, and he swept his thumb over the button. Their lives for his; there was really no question, he mused, as the world dissolved around him in a shower of light.

...And reappeared again, as though he'd never left. He blinked the spots out of his eyes, staring around the time maintenance lab in confusion, wondering where the hell Carter and Fargo had suddenly gone. It had worked, obviously, but just as obviously, something had happened...

A lab tech he didn't recognize suddenly shrieked, just off to the left of his field of vision, a wordless scream of shock and surprise. He jerked his head to the side to get a better look at her, then staggered and dropped the tablet computer from his hands as the spots he'd been seeing returned with a vengeance. He could feel the blood rushing from his face, and gravity pulling inexorably at his body; he recognized the signs of an oncoming faint, and collapsed to his hands and knees in dismay. What the hell had just happened to him?

"Dr. Stark!" the tech said breathlessly, finally recovering her voice, and hurried over to him in a clatter of sensible heels on hard flooring. "Oh, my God, I have to call Dr. Blake!"

Allison, he thought dizzily, and sank to the floor as his vision went entirely black.

When Nathan blinked his eyes open again, it felt as though it had only been a few seconds; but he knew better than to trust his timesense. From the way his head was throbbing, it was clear he must have been out for awhile; and just as clearly, there must have been some kind of time lag while he stood in the machine. He only hoped that the wave had carried him forward, rather than into the past.

"Ally?" he murmured, squinting over at the slumped female form seated next to the infirmary bed he found himself on. She looked just as beautiful as she had the last moment he'd seen her, except--

His mind froze, arrested by the sizeable swell at her waist, evidence of just how much time had gone by. Not hours, not days; months. And that's if-- if the child was-- if this was even the same year.

"Ally?" he called again, reaching out to stroke a manicured finger over her smooth cheek.

She startled awake with a gasp, reaching up to clutch at his hand, tears springing into her eyes. "Nathan," she said, breath catching on a sob. "We thought-- it's been months. Jack said you dissolved into light, we held a funeral-- I can't believe you're really here."

He chuckled wearily, drinking in the sight of her. "I almost can't believe it either," he said. "I was sure I was about to die, but I knew it would all be worth it if you were all right." His eyes dropped to her abdomen again, and he felt a smile tug at the corners of his mouth. "Did you know already?"

She furrowed her brow, confused, then followed his gaze to her stomach and smiled too, curving a protective hand over the rounded swell of the child within. His child. "I suspected," she said, "but I wanted to wait to surprise you until I was sure."

His mind boggled, just looking at her; he could hardly believe it, but he didn't doubt her, either, and the evidence of his eyes was right there in front of him. Months; he'd already missed most of her pregnancy, and who knew what else in that brilliant blink of an eye. He'd always expected that if he ever had a child of his own flesh, he'd be there from the first moment to the last; he had tasted what it was like to be a father with Callister and Allison's son Kevin, and wanted all that and more with a son or daughter of his own. He'd just have to make up for the lost--

"Dad!" a young female voice called from the door to the infirmary, and a rush of sneakered feet approached his bed. Nathan looked up to see a blue-eyed girl with long brown hair about Zoe Carter's age; she seemed familiar somehow, but not enough to account for the expression of disbelieving hope on her face.

Nathan put out a hand to stop her as she lunged to throw her arms around him, and furrowed his brow at her. "I'm sorry," he said. "Do I know you?"

She froze, then chuckled a little, her voice watery with tears. "Very funny, Dad," she said. "Seriously. I know you've been gone a long time, but--"

"Dad?" he blurted, staring at her. Images fluttered at the back of his thoughts-- little hands begging him for help with math homework, crossed arms and a furiously trembling lip facing him after an argument with Allison, a voice loftily informing him that she'd be staying at Zoe's for the evening-- but he could bring none of them clearly to mind. And none of them showed him a girl any younger than eight or so years old. "What are you talking about?" he asked, confused.

There was a crushed, disbelieving silence; then Allison broke it, sitting up straighter in her chair, worried lines bracketing her eyes. "Nathan-- this is your daughter, Dawn. Dawn Michelle Stark. You remember her, don't you?"

Daughter? "I'm sorry," he said helplessly, aware that something had gone very wrong despite his survival. "No, I don't."

Chapter Two: What Seems to Be

Could Stark have possibly chosen a worse time to pull his little reappearing act? Jack had to wonder; though he couldn't keep the wry smile from his face as he turned his worried attention away from Zane to glance over at the other occupied corner of the infirmary. Of course the biggest ego in Eureka would have to stage his comeback in the middle of one of G.D.'s craziest crises to date.

Allison and Henry had both been especially distracted the last day or so; and no wonder, what with the Kim factor and the added worry over whether the time shift had done any permanent damage to Stark. The passing out seemed to have been a simple consequence of the jolt to Stark's system; the incident that had sent his daughter running out of the building in tears (which Jack knew about mainly because she'd turned up at his house to cry on Zoe's shoulder) was something else altogether. They were keeping him under observation until they could figure out what might be causing it.

Jack turned his attention back to Zane's case in time to catch Jo wigging out, and talk her down from the first, drastic action she wanted to take on her boyfriend's behalf. Blaming the cloned organic computer was a little hasty, he thought, and besides-- it seemed too much like a person to just kill out of hand. Too much like Kim, which made him feel uneasy on several levels. The simplest was that it would devastate Henry-- again-- and he wanted to avoid that if at all possible.

Once Jo was calmer, he sent her down to the observation room with a promise to join her in a minute, then took a quick detour by Stark's bed. He didn't know when he'd next have a chance to talk to the man Zoe insisted on referring to as his 'frenemy', and it was the first time he'd caught him awake since his unexpected reappearance. He'd missed the give and take of their arguments, and couldn't resist the opportunity to provoke one now that it was possible again.

Stark looked up from the tablet computer he was tapping away on at Jack's approach, and threw him an amused look. "Sheriff," he said, with a slight nod, then paused. "It is still Sheriff, isn't it? That Mayor nametag of Henry's caught me a little off guard."

Jack smirked. "Yeah. There was this whole thing with a high school science project, a second sun, and my sister throwing a write-in campaign; you'll have to ask him for the details later. I got myself fired a week later, but as it turns out the mayor has to actually approve when the Department of Defense tries to fire a peace officer..." He trailed off with a shrug.

"Damn. The town almost got rid of you, and I wasn't even here to enjoy it," Stark sighed ostentatiously. Then he drew his eyebrows together a little. "Did you say sister? Please tell me the Carter infestation hasn't spread."

"Not to worry, she's come and gone already," Jack replied. "Pregnant with twin boys, actually, but her-- I don't know what to call him, her partner in crime? I don't think they're actually getting married-- anyway, he tracked her down here and dragged her off again. Smart guy; he's kind of interested in settling here for a few years, if G.D. ever needs an epidemiologist. Allison can vouch for his qualifications."

Stark made a production of shuddering at that. "The very fact that Allison can vouch for his qualifications suggests that even being a Carter by proxy's enough to endanger Eureka; between you and your daughter, I think the town quota's full enough already."

"One could say the same about Starks," Jack fired back. "But every time the town gets rid of you, you just keep turning up like a bad penny."

Stark's amused expression slipped a little at that. "Speaking of Starks..." he said, cautiously.

Jack nodded; yeah, that was the other reason he'd wanted to stop and talk for a moment. "She's fine," he said, casually. "Bunked down with Zoe last night; they were up watching tearjerkers and eating ice cream until after midnight. Normally I'd tell S.A.R.A.H. to cut them off at curfew, but what with the whole zombified tower-building thing this week and your miraculous return, I thought I'd cut them a little slack."

Unspoken went the question: do you remember her yet?

Stark let out a frustrated sigh. "I didn't mean to upset her, but when she came in-- for a moment there, I genuinely didn't know who she was. It was as though all my memories of her were a third-hand recording, like they had happened to someone else; they didn't feel real. I have most of them back now, but still nothing before the age of eight or so; I clearly remember storing something in the spare bedroom one day, and the next walking in to talk to Dawn about not slapping boys at school no matter how rude they were to Kevin. I'm not sure which bothers me more-- that the disconnect is there at all, or that I didn't find it unusual at the time."

"And... you think this means she's not actually your daughter?" Jack frowned, trying to understand. "Isn't it more logical that something to do with the time device scrambled your memories?"

Stark's request for an investigation was going to have to come behind all the mess attached to the Columbus' return, not to mention the paperwork for his own reappearance, but Jack would have to follow up on it sooner or later, and he wanted to understand the man's motivation a little more before diving into it. He knew how Stark felt about his kids; he'd seen how he was with not only Dawn, but also Kevin Blake, and Callister during the android's brief return to the town. He was as rabidly defensive of them, in his own egotistical scientist way, as Jack was of Zoe. So when he tried to imagine his own reaction to the first few years of his memories of Zoe disappearing, and came up more on the 'obviously, my brain must be faulty' end of things rather than 'she can't be my daughter'-- it was clear something else was going on.

"About as logical as the idea that I'm not actually your Eureka's Nathan Stark at all, and got here from some other nearly identical reality," Nathan said with a snort.

Jack pondered that idea for a moment. "Could that seriously have happened?" he asked. It was hard to tell sometimes whether Stark-- or any other scientist for that matter, including Tess, though Tess tended to look cuter doing it than Stark did-- was actually being serious with him when they stated these ridiculous things, or whether they intended to sound ridiculous, and expected him to scoff along with them. If that were the case, it had just whizzed right over his head. Again.

Stark shrugged. "It's possible, I suppose. Not that it would matter, if it were true, since I'd be stuck in this Everett branch regardless. What I meant, though, is that it's not just that some of my memories are 'missing'-- because they're not. I remember everything that's happened in my life since Dawn was supposedly born. It's just that she's not in about eight years' worth of those memories, nor is the woman who's supposed to be her mother. She just appeared in my life about nine years ago, from my perspective, and no one questioned it-- not even me. I've compared my recall with Allison's in several cases, and in all of them, we remember two distinctly different sequences of events: one without Dawn, in my case, and one with Dawn, in hers."

"Okay," Jack drawled, thinking that over. "That's creepy. So you're thinking more along the lines of deliberately altered memories?"

Stark nodded, solemnly. "Don't worry, I'm not planning on disowning Dawn, no matter what the tests show. Whatever reason they had-- whoever they are-- for inserting her into my life, and going to all the trouble to make everyone believe she belongs there, I fully intend to keep her. I just want to know why."

Jack still thought the conspiracy theory angle a little egocentric and insane even for Stark; but the man made a decent argument for it, and hell, it wasn't like a little DNA test would hurt anything. If he'd been wrong, then they could simply move on to the next potential explanation, no harm done.

"Okay," he said. "I have to go help Jo question Kim-- the computer, I mean-- so. Keep me posted, all right? She can keep staying with us for now-- that'll give you and Allison more time to get reacquainted, anyway."

"Thanks, Carter," Stark replied, with a more genuine smile. "See you around."

Jack couldn't resist smiling back at that. "Yeah," he said, as he turned to go. "You will."

Chapter Three: Oh, Boy

Henry could hear Nathan approaching the lab before he saw him; a low-pitched, one-sided conversation carrying a familiar note of paternal reassurance. It made Henry smile, still feeling the joy of having his former student and friend returned against all expectation; and worry, just a little, about the teenaged girl probably on the other end of the line.

By all rights, they should all still be celebrating Nathan's return, or dealing with the fallout from the landing of the Columbus and its organic, human-cloned computer, not questioning the existence of Nathan's daughter. Henry, Jack and Allison had all decided, however, that if it would help put Nathan's mind at rest, a simple DNA test would be easy enough to run; and so Henry had run down to the labs to take care of the matter himself.

Simple. Hah. They should have known; nothing was ever simple in Eureka.

"Nathan," he said, greeting the younger scientist as the man came through the door. He was dressed casually, in jeans and a white tee shirt; not quite the sharp suit he'd habitually worn to G.D., but better than the scrubs Henry had last seen him in. "I see Allison agreed to spring you from the infirmary?"

"You said it was urgent," Nathan shrugged casually, putting his phone away. "And truthfully, there's nothing wrong with me that a little rest won't cure. As long as I stay under observation tonight, I'll be cleared to go home. Whatever the problem is with my memories, it doesn't seem to be physical."

"Then why didn't it affect any of the rest of us?" Jack asked from the far corner of the room, the voice of pragmatism as always. He was still in uniform, arms crossed in front of him as he studied Nathan; and Henry didn't think he was imagining the warmth underlying the sharp calculation in Jack's gaze.

"And-- why's he here again?" Nathan asked, glancing briefly at Jack before raising his eyebrows at Henry. "I thought you wanted to talk to me about Dawn?"

It boggled the mind. God knew they'd faced down any number of crises together over the last few years, enough to promote a real foundation of respect, and Henry trusted his own science; but he still had trouble imagining how the two men in front of him could possibly have gone from constant bickering and competing for Allison's attention to-- to-- well. He shook his head. He was getting ahead of himself; and there could still be another explanation, after all.

"I do," he replied. "But I think Jack should be a part of this conversation, too."

Jack and Nathan shared a glance, again; this one palpably apprehensive. No doubt they were wondering just what crime Henry might have uncovered that would require the town sheriff's presence. He was fairly certain they'd both be shocked by the answer.

"If you think it's best," Nathan said, "who am I to argue with you?" Then he stepped further into the lab, resting his hand on the edge of the table where Henry had spread out the paperwork from the tests he'd done. "So-- you have the results?"

"Yes, I do," Henry nodded, lifting a specific set of sheets from the pile and handing two over. "The good news is, she's definitely your daughter. Better than a 99% probability."

Nathan took the pages, but didn't so much as glance at them; he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then opened them again, locking gazes with Henry. "Then why don't I remember her childhood? Who's her mother? Allison says there's a whole photographic record back at the house, but the woman she says I was married to before-- I barely knew her. We had one class together in college, and shared a lab for a while; but I certainly don't remember any kind of a relationship that might have led to this." He waved the pages through the air. "I'm not my cousin, Henry; I don't do casual. And even if I had slept with her and left her pregnant, why would she have kept Dawn from me for eight years, only to dump her at my house after I married Allison and make us all believe I'd been raising her all along? How could she have done it? Frankly, she didn't have the access, or the inventive capacity, to have come up with a device that could reweave memory that thoroughly. Even G.D. doesn't have equipment that could do that."

"Not yet anyway," Henry agreed with him. Which was, of course, the whole crux of the problem. "And you're right; I ran a full comparison with the DNA profiles obtained-- voluntarily-- for Dr. Stefano's abandoned DNA monitoring system, and was able to identify the second parent as someone already in our records."

"He got far enough along for samples to be taken?" Nathan asked, eyes brightening with interest; then he shook himself, tracking back to the question at hand. "Nevermind; I'll catch up on what I've missed from the files later. You're saying-- it couldn't have been her, because she never came to work at Global Dynamics, and thus wouldn't have had a sample taken."

"Exactly," Henry agreed, nodding.

"So-- who is it, then?" Jack asked, curious and a little wary. "Who's her mother? And-- am I going to have to arrest her?"

He'd just have to restrain that curiosity a little longer; there was no way Henry was going to drop this on them without laying a little groundwork first. "Before I answer that question," he said, "I have a story to tell you both. And yes-- it's relevant. It's something I'd hoped I'd never have to explain; but needs must. And I suppose it's time."

"That doesn't sound ominous at all," Nathan observed, dryly. "Could you be a little more vague, perhaps?"

A smile tugged briefly at the corner of Henry's mouth; yes, he had missed his friend's sharp tongue. The usual brainstorming sessions with Jack just weren't the same without Nathan's added insight and wit. "Let me summarize, first: I think I know how she may have got here."

Nathan perked up at that; Jack straightened out of his slouch, frowning intently at Henry. "So you agree with Nathan, then. She definitely wasn't with him until she was a grade-schooler; and everyone that remembers otherwise was brainwashed somehow into believing another version of events."

"Close enough," Henry agreed. Then he took a deep breath. "To give you some perspective and background on how I think it happened, I need to tell you about the alternate future I created over a year ago, when-- Kim died." He swallowed, then described briefly the incident with the Artifact, and the four years he'd spent fighting to get into a position where he could access Walter Perkins' tachyon accelerator and send his own consciousness back to prevent the accident from ever happening. "The two parallel realities eventually began collapsing into one another, and in order to stop the chaos from growing worse-- another traveler's consciousness was sent back to stop me from ever making the change to start with. Because he stopped me after my initial jaunt back through time, though, I retained all the memories of my version of those four years-- the ones I'd spent fighting to get Kim back, not the four in which I had apparently succeeded. And for all four of those years-- I had no memory of Dawn."

Both men had thankfully listened patiently to the story, asking minimal questions-- though Henry could see each of them silently tallying things up to ask him about later. The salient part, the part that applied at that moment, was the last piece; and if he could have simply mentioned it without explaining the rest, he would have.

"None whatsoever?" Nathan asked. "Not just a missing childhood?"

"None whatsoever," Henry confirmed. "And what's more, I had no idea anything was missing during that time; you left for San Francisco alone, and I never thought anything of it until I came back in time and saw Dawn sitting with you in the infirmary after your little flirtation with spontaneous combustion. I remembered everything about her, remembered knowing her since she was an infant-- but I also remembered her not being there, and that seeming perfectly normal, too. That bothered me, since anyone present in the past should also have been carried into the future I constructed, but I dismissed it as a strange anomaly possibly caused by exposure to an upgraded version of the memory erasure device I was testing."

"That's weird," Jack commented. "The whole thing with Nathan and Allison having two different sets of memories regarding the same events is strange enough, but this alternate reality thing?" He wrinkled his brow, putting more pieces together. "Hey, you said someone else came back from the future, too-- can that person corroborate? Did they experience the same thing?"

Henry winced at the irony of Jack asking that; he'd known the question would come up eventually, but had still been hoping to be able to avoid it. He wasn't proud of the way he'd buried hatred under a brittle shell of friendship and lied to Jack's face for so much of the prior year, and had hoped Jack would never have to know the full extent of it. "Unfortunately-- he can't," he admitted, quietly.

"He who, Henry? And what happened?" Nathan asked, gently.

He sighed, wringing his hands slightly around the curled sheet of paper he still held. "You see, after our respective returns, the other time traveler and I both had trouble adjusting to this Eureka, which was already evolving differently than either of us remembered. It was-- painful, for both of us, and as I mentioned, I had a prototype memory erasure device on hand. I reprogrammed it to take out the entire four years' worth of experiences in the alternate reality, and asked his permission to use it, promising to flash myself with it, too."

"You didn't follow through on that, though, did you?" Jack asked, sudden worry-- and suspicion-- bracketing his mouth and brow with faint lines.

"No," Henry admitted. "I didn't want-- I thought there might still be a way to save her, even given the consequences I'd encountered before. I was furious, and grieving; I didn't want to forgive and forget. I thought she deserved better from me."

"That-- explains so much about what happened last year," Jack added, looking stricken.

"Yes. It took almost losing my place here for me to finally come to grips with her loss, and to regain my perspective," Henry said, meeting gazes with them both. For all he'd more or less betrayed Jack, he'd never told Nathan and Allison the full truth, either, and he wasn't sure how his friends would react to the spin that knowledge would put on the events with Kevin and the Artifact.

"And now she's back again-- or something that looks, and acts, very like her," Nathan murmured, eyeing him speculatively. "Did you know that would happen?"

Henry shook his head. That had baffled him as well. "The ship never returned in the other timeline; I wouldn't have been so surprised, otherwise. Perhaps it was the fact that Zane was never in Eureka to build the automated road network in the first place, so the signal had nothing to connect to and thus doomed the ship to take a slower approach? There's no way to tell."

Jack had been eyeing Henry the entire time he was talking to Nathan about the Columbus; now he took a few steps forward, an echo of old pain in his eyes. Henry had never been sure whether Jack had retained anything of those four years; plainly, he'd kept enough to put it together now. "Henry--" he said, unhappily. "It was me, wasn't it? The other traveler?"

He swallowed. "Yes. I'm sorry, Jack." Part of him still blamed Jack for what had happened; but that small part had long since been buried under his own guilt, and the weight of what their friendship meant to him.

Jack smiled sadly at him. "Don't be. I understand, I think. I'm just-- glad we're still friends, now."

"Me too, Jack," Henry agreed. What else was there to be said?

"So-- how does this explain what happened with Dawn?" Nathan asked lowly, steering the conversation back into safer waters. "What does her absence from the alternate reality mean?"

Henry cleared his throat and allowed the shift in gears. He'd already dealt with more than enough emotion for one day. "I'm pretty sure it means that she's traveled back in time," he replied. "If she were from the future of this timeline, somehow-- physically sent back at a future point from a reality that could evolve only from this specific chain of events, in which Nathan did not leave Eureka for San Francisco as he did in both the other outcomes I'm aware of-- then that could explain why she wasn't in the other futures; the circumstances that would result in her having been sent back could not have happened then, ergo, she wasn't there at all. But once I returned and everything was more-or-less reset-- the circumstances lined up properly, and she was."

Jack blinked owlishly at him. "I'm not sure I followed all that," he said. "But-- I think I got enough. Time travel? Seriously? I thought that wasn't possible; which was why we almost lost Stark in the first place." He gestured toward the equally surprised scientist.

"It is a rather-- daring-- suggestion," Nathan said, frowning. "I assume you have proof? Or at least a logical reason why I might have sent my own daughter back in time?"

"Something like that," Henry agreed with a bare smile, then uncurled the paper still in his hand and held it out toward Jack. "Congratulations," he said, dryly. "You're a father. Again."

"I'm what?" Jack sputtered in shock, staring down at the test results.

Nathan shook his head in disbelief. "Tell me you're not implying..." he said, slowly.

"I'm not implying anything," Henry said, bemused by their reactions. "I'm stating it. You're both her fathers; the DNA tests proved that fairly conclusively. And as we didn't have that kind of technology eighteen years ago, not to mention neither of you were in important enough positions then for someone to take that kind of liberty without your knowledge..." He trailed off suggestively.

Jack looked up from the test results, to glance at Nathan; Nathan stared back for a long moment, then they both turned back to Henry, intent and inquiring.

"You're saying Dawn's my daughter as much as Zoe is," Jack summed up, "except that since she obviously can't have been born the normal way, she must have been sent here, probably by us, when she was a kid. From the future. Which means it was probably Stark who rewrote everyone's memories with some other kind of technology we don't have yet either, so it's his own fault it's falling apart on him now."

That earned a glare from Nathan; but it was pretty close to what Henry had worked out, for a layman's explanation. "Pretty much," he said. "I don't know why her arrival didn't threaten the stability of this reality like every other example of time travel we've seen. Perhaps it's that it wasn't simply a change of event, or a repetitive loop; she literally didn't exist before she arrived, so this parallel reality, if you will, isn't close enough to its neighbors to risk overlapping their time-space continua. Regardless, the fact that she's apparently been here for years without ill effect suggests that whomever sent her back knew exactly what they were doing."

"And whatever their reason for doing so-- they wouldn't have done it lightly," Nathan mused.

"Forget why," Jack snorted, shooting another look at Nathan. "What about who? Seriously, a daughter of ours?"

"I don't know, Carter; maybe we were accidental test subjects for the technology?" Nathan rolled his eyes. "This is Eureka, after all; your guess is as good as mine."

Henry shook his head, keeping his own ridiculous speculation quiet. The less said the better on that subject.

Jack apparently thought so, too. "So," he said, turning back to Henry and abruptly shifting the line of conversation. "Two daughters, then."

"Two daughters," Stark agreed, thoughtfully, undoubtedly thinking of his and Allison's yet-to-be born child; she'd just found out it would be a girl, from what Henry knew.

"Good thing she and Zoe are already friends," Jack mused aloud. "Can you imagine them being so close in age, and not?" He shook his head. "That would be a nightmare."

'"Given how similar they are in temperament, and how much trouble they tend to get into together..." Nathan murmured, smirking in agreement.

"In retrospect, we really should have known, shouldn't we?" Jack chuckled. "Not to say I don't still find this pretty bizarre, but..."

"Agreed," Nathan said, then sighed. "So the next question is, I suppose-- how do we tell her? And do we tell anyone else?"

Henry shrugged as Jack turned an advice-seeking, deer in the headlights expression toward him. "It's up to you two, though if you do tell anyone other than the girls and Allison, it's going to attract a lot of outside attention."

Jack looked down at the test results again, and sighed. "Oh, boy."

Chapter Four: All Made Up

"Daaaaaawn," Zoe sighed, punching a button on her controller to pause their game. "Are you even paying attention?"

Dawn winced and jerked her eyes away from the clock, making an apologetic face at her friend. "Sorry. It's just-- I haven't seen Dad in person since I wigged out on him in the infirmary yesterday. What if he still doesn't remember me? What if he's just faking it for the phone calls? What if I embarrassed him, running out like that? What if--"

"Calm down," Zoe said, rolling her eyes dramatically. "He's your dad, Dawn. And he's alive. Trust me, been there, done that, even if my dad was never gone for as long as Dr. Stark was. It's okay to be upset and worry that he's going to leave you again. But looking at the clock isn't going to make the time go any faster."

Dawn scoffed and shifted on the bed, flopping over to her stomach for a better grip on her controller. She was not going to break into tears again, not even in front of just Zoe. "You don't have to try and sound so wise and everything, it's not like you're any older than I am," she said, scornfully.

Zoe didn't release the pause on the game, though; she sat there several seconds longer, staring at Dawn. Then she sighed, playing with the ends of her blonde hair. "Not to sound cliché or anything, but it really isn't the years, it's the mileage," she said. "You never went through the über-rebellious phase I did, except about Allison, which is totally understandable; I mean, if Dad had remarried when I was a little kid-- if we'd lost Mom for some reason-- I'd have thrown the mother of all shit fits. But I know from trying to reject a parent before they can reject you, okay? And trust me, it's never worth it."

"If you say so," Dawn said, sniffing a little-- because of allergies, totally not because she was upset.

Everything was going to be perfect. Her dad was going to show up, and everything would be okay, and he'd take her home and Momison would stop looking like she'd been stabbed in the heart all the time and Kevin would start smiling again, and then she'd have a baby sister and they'd all be one big dysfunctional family. That was the way it was going to be; it was stupid to worry about it. Just because every other person who'd randomly shown up in Eureka when they weren't supposed to be there had turned out to be a clone or a malfunctioning A.I. she hadn't even known she should be calling brother or a potentially contagious organic computer, didn't mean there was anything seriously wrong with the dad-shaped person who'd reappeared in the time maintenance lab.

It didn't, she repeated savagely to herself, jabbing at the buttons on her controller after Zoe finally unpaused the game.

It was so satisfying, the way the evil minions poofed into dust when she stabbed them with just the right pixellated weapon. She and Zoe had campaigned this new vampire-themed MRPG through all the basic zones already, and were due to gain entrance to the Delerium plane if they could just level up a couple more times before the weekend; clues dropped by Fargo (whom she suspected of being half the mind behind designing the game, since it only ran on Eureka's specialized OS) suggested that the newly released area was going to be seriously sweet, stocked with all kinds of new enemies and magic weaponry and craft items and things. So even if things weren't okay, it wasn't like she was going to just sit around all mopey Queen of Pain. She didn't care what the latest not-Beverly said; cooperative video gaming was a productive coping method, so there.

She was thoroughly absorbed in a hack-and-slash battle against a gang of uncreatively named "Chaotic Demons" with disgustingly well-rendered, drippy, slimy horns when S.A.R.A.H. spoke suddenly overhead, startling Dawn into jumping and dropping the controller again.

"Welcome home, Jack. I detect an elevated heartrate; did you have a stressful day?" the computerized voice said, carrying in from the main room of the Carters' bunker home. "Your beer is pouring now."

After a murmured reply from Zoe's dad, it continued, announcing the name Dawn had been waiting to hear-- plus a couple of others she hadn't been expecting. "Dr. Stark, it's good to see you again. Dr. Blake, Dr. Fontana; greetings. Would you like refreshments as well?"

"See? Told you the time would go faster this way," Zoe said, nudging Dawn's arm as she paused the game again and shut it down, saving their progress to continue later.

Dawn swallowed; her mouth was starting to go dry with nerves again, but focusing on the mystery of why her stepmom and stepmom's college roommate had tagged along was successfully distracting her from a full-on panic. Momison-- okay, if she had someone else staying with Kevin and wanted to talk about this as a family, she could see her tagging along with Dad; though doing it at the Sheriff's instead of waiting 'til the Starks went home seemed a little strange. Tess, though?

"What is she doing here?" she muttered under her breath.

"Who, Dr. Fontana?" Zoe shrugged. "I don't know, maybe she's here for me. I mean, I am planning your stepmom's baby shower with her, and I've kind of let that slack the last couple of days. Which-- oh God." Her face went suddenly blank with comprehension, and she sat up straight on the bed, controller dropping from her hands. "Dad's going to be so disappointed; Dr. Blake's not going to need him to be her birth coach anymore, is he? He was really looking forward to that."

Dawn wrinkled up her nose. She and Zoe usually just agreed to disagree on the issue of parental romance, but she'd seriously thought this particular topic was behind them. "I thought he was over her," she said, frowning as she tucked a strand of loose hair out of her face. "No offense, you wouldn't make a bad step-step-sister, but she's still totally stuck on Dad. I mean, I haven't talked to her much in the last couple days, but..."

"Oh, I know, I know, I'm not saying he still wants to date her," Zoe waved a hand between them as if erasing words from a whiteboard. "It's just, he didn't exactly get to do a lot of that dad-type stuff when Mom was pregnant with me, so...." She trailed off with a sigh, turning to stare at the darkened TV panel. "He just... missed out on a lot of things when I was little because of his job, and he was thinking of this as a second chance at being a good role model. Especially since Aunt Lexi left; don't tell him I told you, but he was kinda looking forward to having a couple of little boys underfoot. Besides, I'm pretty sure he's crushing on Dr. Fontana now, anyway."

"Seriously?" Dawn asked, surprised. The few times she'd crossed paths with Tess while the scientist had been in the sheriff's proximity, they'd been totally snarking at each other, like he'd used to do with Dad. "When did that happen?"

Zoe smirked. "Get this," she said, leaning forward and speaking in a low whisper. "She showed up at his car while he was watching for-- well, us-- with a tofu pizza the other night. And he ate it. And then when she said she was all sad about maybe missing out on that meteor shower? He totally volunteered to go with her. Why did you think he was out late last night?"

"No way," Dawn breathed back. Zoe was right; that was total crush behavior-- on both their parts. She'd heard enough about Tess, and endured her visits often enough over the years since Momison had married Dad, to know that the scientist had been terminally awkward around guys in college and hadn't improved much since. If she was snarking and offering food and watching stars with him, she was totally weak in the knees over him.

"Way," Zoe nodded, authoritatively. "I wasn't so sure about her at first, but she makes him smile, so I'm letting her have a probationary period before I go evil potential stepdaughter on her ass."

"Really," an interested voice spoke up from the open doorway of Zoe's bedroom. "Now that's an intriguing development."

Dawn gulped as she looked up to see her dad's face; she couldn't help but remember the blank incomprehension looking back at her when she'd run into the infirmary to see him-- but he was smiling at her now, that gentle, warm smile that his employees almost never got to see. Her breath whooshed out of her lungs in relief; and then she was bolting up off the bed, tripping over the disordered blankets in an effort to fling herself into his arms. "Dad," she gasped, blinking back tears again.

"Dr. Stark!" she heard Zoe exclaim behind her, as he wrapped Dawn up in a hug.

"Hello, Zoe," her dad replied, voice rumbling tangibly in his chest where Dawn was pressed against him. "Keeping my daughter out of trouble while I've been gone?"

"Oh, I've been trying to," Zoe replied, wryly. "But you know Dawn."

"I do indeed," Dad chuckled. "Though I suspect the good Sheriff would say the same thing about you."

"Hey," Dawn objected half-heartedly into his shirt on both their behalves. "Right here, you know."

"Mhmm. So how about you move 'right here' downstairs for a little while, Zoe?" he replied, pulling back a little to set Dawn at arm's length from him. "I've got a few things to talk to my daughter about." He had that worried little thinky wrinkle between his brows, and Dawn's stomach sank again.

"Uh, sure. I'll just...." Zoe quickly finished stowing the controllers for the game, then ducked sideways out of the bedroom door, giving Dawn a thumbs up and an encouraging expression where her dad couldn't see it.

Dawn gulped as he turned and shut the door behind her friend. "Just so we're clear," she blurted, after he finished ordering S.A.R.A.H. to activate the noise-canceling system to isolate the room from the rest of the bunker. "You really do remember who I am, right? And you're not dying, or from an alternate universe, or secretly an organic computer, or anything else like that, are you?"

He chuckled, then sat down on the bed and patted a space next to him. "Take a deep breath, sweetheart. No, I'm not any of those things, and yes, I remember. Except for a specifically delimited span of time, which we've come up with some theories about. That's why I brought the others here; we have some things to discuss as a group. But I thought you deserved to hear it from me alone, first."

She swallowed, still nervous. "So you think you've figured out why you forgot me at all in the first place?" she asked. "Which, uh, which memories are still gone?"

He studied her a moment, then touched her cheek, brushing that stubborn heavy lock of hair back behind her ear again. "The ones before you turned eight years old. And-- we think it's more that they were never really there to begin with," he said, seriously.

Dawn stared at him for a long moment as that sank in, then drew a deep breath, and another, trying not to spaz out.

"Are you saying I'm not-- real?" she managed to ask after a moment, the specter of Callister in her mind's eye again. He'd always said Callister was the only one of his artificial intelligence experiments to succeed, but what if he'd been wrong? What if he'd got it right earlier than that? They'd had organic computers in Eureka twenty years ago, after all; just look at the A.I. freaking Henry out up at Global Dynamics. What if Dad had made himself forget that he'd succeeded, like it was part of the experiment, and now it was all falling apart?

"Of course you're real," her dad objected instantly, pulling her into another firm hug.

"But if I wasn't here..." she objected, faintly. "How? I remember being here. I don't remember being anywhere else. If that's all made up, what else is?"

"Shh, shhhh," he soothed, rubbing wide circles on her back. "Nothing, I promise. I had Henry do a DNA test just to be sure, and you're really my daughter. I'd have kept you regardless, believe me, but you really are my daughter, one hundred percent, and nothing's ever going to take you away from me."

Dawn gulped, sniffing back incipient tears again. That he'd been worried enough to have the test done-- not good; but that it had turned out the way it had-- "You mean that?" she asked, plaintively.

"I mean it," he replied, firmly.

"Then-- what's the what?" she asked, thinking things through a little more thoroughly now that the first blinding moment of WTF-ery was fading. "You have to have some idea what happened. And it has to be weird, or you wouldn't have wanted to break it to me alone."

"You sure you want to hear it?" he said, pulling back again to look her in the eye. Stupid truth-assessing habit; she had the hardest time lying to him like that, and he knew it.

"I-- I think so," she said, biting her lip. "I mean, better to rip the Bandaid off all at once, right?"

"Good girl," he said, smiling encouragingly before putting on his Serious Scientist face again. "The short version is, we believe you're our daughter from a future alternate timeline, sent back to nine years ago because of some crisis we couldn't avert. We don't have any idea why we'd have brainwashed everyone instead of leaving ourselves some kind of note or warning, other than wanting you to be as happy as possible, but it's the only explanation we can come up with that fits all the available evidence."

Dawn blinked at him, digesting that for a moment. From the future? She'd never heard of a case of time travel that hadn't gone wrong. But if it finally had-- if she had--

"Wait," she said, frowning at him. "We?" Did that mean her other parent-- "Is, is Allison..." she asked, suddenly breathless, forgoing her usual nickname for her stepmom.

"No," he said gently, shaking his head. "It would be a lot easier if it were; Ally would be thrilled. I don't pretend to understand it, but..."

"Does that mean it's Tess?" Dawn blurted, knowing it had to be one of the other people downstairs. "Or, oh God. Zoe?"

Her dad's face twisted up at the first name in a similar degree of antipathy; but he snorted in amusement at the second, and she blew out a breath, relieved. That would have been seriously freakish.

"Close, but not quite," he said. "It's-- and I know this will sound strange, but it's part of why we think you were sent from the future-- your other parent is Jack." He paused, making a face, then clarified, "Sheriff Carter."

"Because there's so many other Jacks we know," Dawn said dryly, as she processed the notion. "You mean to say I have two dads? Like, literally two dads?" she had to clarify.

"Genetically, anyway," he said, nodding in confirmation.

"Does he know?" she asked, hesitantly.

Her dad nodded again. "Henry told us together," he said, cautiously. "Are you okay with that?"

Like she had a choice; but-- she supposed it wouldn't be so terrible. She was at his house several days a week anyway, and he tended to treat her in a kind of distantly affectionate way, like he did most of Zoe's friends, except a little more intently with her because of her dad.

"Is he okay with it?" she asked. What Zoe'd said earlier about him wanting more kids around soothed her nerves a little; but she did kind of come full grown, and all.

"A little nervous about how you'll take it, but pleased too, I think," her dad assured her.

Good. Good. And-- "This means Zoe's my sister now, right?" she said, perking up as that sank in. The past couple years, Zoe had been a better friend to Dawn than anyone except Kevin, who'd for some reason always been able to connect better to her than to anyone else in their age bracket; as a linguistics-and-humanities type geek rather than the typical hard-science nerd, Dawn hadn't fit in particularly well at Tesla High. Zoe was refreshingly normal, but still smart enough to keep up with her; no, she wouldn't mind calling her sister at all.

He quirked a smile. "Poor compensation, I know; but yes. Technically, she's your half-sister."

Dawn took a deep breath, then let it out, feeling exhausted and overloaded and a little weirded out and relieved and cautiously happy all at once. "Yeah," she said, tossing her head a little as she pulled her 'tude back together, "I think I'm good with it. It could have been a lot worse, anyway."

"That's my girl," he said, smile widening. "Ready to go downstairs, then? We're not going to share it with the world yet-- it would be just a tad difficult to explain-- but there were a few people we thought should know right away, and Carter's got copies of all the paperwork for you to tuck away in those diaries of yours."

"One last question?" Dawn said, as she stood up to follow him out.

"Anything, sweetheart," he replied.

"Does this mean I get to call him Mom?" she asked, impishly.

The long-missed sound of her dad's laughter filled the room, warming her heart-- and finally convincing her, down deep where it counted, that everything was going to be okay.

She took a deep breath, then followed him down the stairs with a smile.

Chapter Five: Wanting What's Best For Her

"So," Dr. Fontana said, sitting down on the stool next to Zoe.

Zoe looked up from the milkshake she was methodically stabbing with her straw and gave the other woman a half-hearted smile. "So," she said. Whatever Allison's friend wanted to talk to her about-- or her dad's girlfriend, Zoe wasn't sure which capacity Tess had come in yet and wasn't sure she really cared-- she wasn't going to make it easy on her.

Vince came over to the counter, a query in his eyebrows for Dr. Fontana and a concerned glance for Zoe.

"I'll have one of those," Tess told him, gesturing to Zoe's shake, then took up the thread, such as it was, of the conversation again. "So, you left awfully quick," she said. "Did you hear Allison mention that the baby shower is going to be postponed?"

Zoe shrugged. "No, but I figured," she said, shortly. "What with Dr. Stark being back, and all."

"Yes," Tess agreed. "Between that, and what's going on with the Kim clone at G.D., not to mention Dawn, Ally's week is pretty full. I told her she should take a few days off, but...." She shrugged. "She says she'll already be taking six weeks when the baby's born, there's no need to take more now."

Zoe made a noncommittal noise in response.

"On the bright side, though," Tess continued, refusing to take the hint, "it means no more meetings with the harpies in Infant Development, at least for the next week." She smiled at Vince as he returned, and took a long sip of her milkshake with a happy sigh. "Mmmm."

"Good," Zoe muttered. "The way they act sometimes, you'd think they were still infants themselves. Me, me, me, like everything's all about them and their projects. Might mean excellent gifts for Dr. Blake, but if it were me, I'd rather have people at my party that wanted to be there because they cared, not to show each other up."

Tess let that statement rest a minute as they both savored some more of Vince's creations, then spoke again, tentatively. "So, is that what this is about?"

"What what is about?" Zoe retorted.

"Your dad caring-- either too much about Dawn, or not enough about you, I couldn't quite figure out which," Tess said, calmly.

Zoe pressed her eyes briefly shut at that statement and took a deep breath. "No," she said. "No, that isn't what this is about. I know he cares, okay? Why do you think I live in Eureka at all, and not back in L.A. with my mom? You haven't been here that long, you don't get to assume things just because you've been on one date with him."

She could hear her own voice getting fierce and angry by the last few words, and winced inwardly; she really hadn't intended on getting all 'evil potential stepdaughter' on the woman just yet. Dr. Fontana made her dad giddy, when he wasn't worrying about Allison or the latest crisis at G.D., and that was a look Zoe hadn't seen on him in far too long. But the nerve of her....!!!

Not that that was even the real reason why she was angry. Forget potential family; the actual was enough to give her a headache already. Though she wasn't even sure why she was angry, really; it wasn't like there was any less of her dad to love, or any less love in his heart to give her, just because she'd magically acquired a half-sister. A half-sister she was already friends with, even. A half-sister who wouldn't even live with them, because she already came with a magically reappearing much-loved other father of her own and a great stepmother who got along with her most of the time. It was just... it was just....

"Ouch," Tess said, sitting back slightly as she looked at Zoe. "I guess I know where I'm not wanted."

Zoe made a face. "No, no," she sighed, "that was out of line, I'm sorry." She dropped her straw into her milkshake again, and rested her chin on her cupped hands, staring down into the icecreamy depths of the glass. "It's just-- I'd just got done talking with Dawn about how nervous she was seeing her dad again after freaking out on him, because I had so much experience with that, and all. She never did the über-rebellious thing. She never ran away, or stole someone's identity, or committed credit card fraud, or anything, and she's beautiful, and she's brilliant, in areas my dad can actually talk to her about." She swallowed.

"Ah." Tess said. "The perfect daughter, in other words."

"I know it's stupid," Zoe said, feeling wretched. "I know he loves me, and he really wants me here. We just went through all that last year when my mom wanted custody of me again. Like I was a piece of property, or something, after all I'd gone through to be here. I was so mad at him for not fighting for me the way she did, but it turned out-- he really did just want what was best for me. Like he always does. Dawn-- Dawn being my sister now isn't going to change that. But-- I can't help compare myself to her anyway, and I feel...." She trailed off again.

"Like second best," Tess sighed, with a sympathetic grimace.

"Exactly." Zoe shrugged, feeling awkward. "Sorry to unload on you about it."

"That's all right," Tess replied. "Better than bottling it all in, and I did come in here kind of asking for it. I was-- a little thrown by it all myself, though not for the same reasons, and when you left, I told your dad I would go after you. He, uh. I thought he and Allison and the Starks needed a little more time to talk about what all this means for their families, and I didn't think either my status as Ally's best friend, nor one night spent watching stars with Jack on the hood of his jeep, qualified me for that conversation."

Zoe blinked-- first wondering what exactly Tess' reasons might have been, and then again at the sudden mental image. "Ew, TMI," she said, throwing an incredulous look at the older woman. "I so do not need the details."

Tess chuckled. "Sorry. I'll keep them to myself in future." Then she sobered and looked down into her own glass. "If there is a future, that is."

Zoe snorted, remembering her conversation with Dawn about their now-shared paternal unit and his painfully evident crush. "I don't see why there wouldn't be," she said. "I mean, so he's going to be a little distracted on the Dawn-front for awhile, but whatever made him ask you out before isn't suddenly going to change just because he found out he had a daughter with Stark of all people. And if him having another daughter has changed your interest in him?" She let her voice grow fierce again. "Then you better let him down easy, because if you break his heart I will make you regret it."

"I think it would be a little premature to say anything," Tess said, shaking her head, "but I don't plan to, okay? I'm just-- terribly awkward at all this. And I don't know why I'm telling his daughter that, anyway."

"Same reason I'm warning you in advance, that there will be shovels in your future if you hurt him?" Zoe summoned a weak smile.

"Right," Tess smiled back, sharing a look of mutual wariness and recognition-- that was finally broken by the sounds of another patron's arrival at the Café.

"Zoe?" she heard her dad calling her name. "Zoe, are you in here?"

Zoe swallowed. "Over here, dad," she said, lifting a hand in the air as he looked over in her direction.

"I'll just..." Tess said, sliding out of her stool and taking her milkshake with her. "Talk to you later, all right? I'm sure everything's going to be fine."

"Thanks," Zoe said, nodding at her as she walked away-- then squinched up her nose as she saw Tess greet her dad. There wasn't even any touching going on, but that look! Total crush.

She didn't hear whatever they said to each other, but a moment later Dr. Fontana was out the door and her dad was sliding onto the stood she had occupied, clasping his hands together atop the counter. "Hey, Zoe," he said. "Tess said you were okay....?"

"Yeah," Zoe nodded, pushing her milkshake away to fold her hands in echo of his. "I just needed some air, to think about things for a minute. You know how I hate surprises."

He smiled a little at that, though his forehead was still creased with worry. "I know, yeah; your mom always says you get that from me."

"We sure picked the wrong town to live in, then," Zoe said, chuckling half-heartedly.

"True, true." He studied her a moment longer, then sighed. "So?" he said.

"So?" She stared back, reluctantly amused by how much the start of this conversation was resembling the one she'd just finished.

"So... are you okay with this?" he clarified.

"Why wouldn't I be?" Zoe asked, carefully bland. Just because she'd unloaded all over Dr. Fontana didn't mean she was going to spill on her dad; she didn't want to hurt his feelings, or Dawn's either, really. It was her own damn fault she'd got upset over this, not theirs-- it wasn't like Dawn had chosen for Dad to be her other parent, or that this version of her dad had even known she was coming.

"You left pretty quickly," he said. "And you seemed-- I dunno, a little upset. Dawn was worried about how you were taking it."

"Dawn was worried?" She raised her eyebrows at him.

"And-- okay, I was, too," he admitted. He unclasped his hands to reach out and lay one over hers, squeezing gently. "You know this doesn't change anything for us, right? You're my girl, Zo. I love you, and I don't want to do anything that would hurt you. If this thing with Dawn is going to cause a problem-- she does have Stark and Ally; I'd feel bad about ignoring her, but there must have been a reason we sent her to him and not me, right? She'll be okay. It's you I'm worried about."

"Well, don't." Zoe sniffed. "I'm fine. She's my friend, right? And she's eaten dinner with us a lot since Dr. Stark-- well, not died, I guess. Disappeared. So I'm already kind of used to having her around. I'm sure whatever arrangements you guys were thinking about are going to be fine."

He shrugged. "The occasional weekend," he said. "A couple of weeks with us after the baby's born, while Ally and Stark are settling back in. Whatever sleepovers you guys want to arrange between yourselves after that. Otherwise, not much different than it's ever been. I'll probably, um. Take Dawn to coffee or something a few times, like getting-to-know-you conversations, but you can come along for those, too; I've only really talked to her in context of her friendship with you before or her missing Stark, not things like what her goals in life are or who her favorite authors are or what have you."

"Do you even know what my favorite authors are, Dad?" Zoe asked, amused and a little reassured by his earnest babble.

"Uh...." He blinked at her, then pasted on a smile. "See, perfect reason for you to come along!"

Zoe shook her head and chuckled. "It's okay," she said. "I'm fine with it, really." She slid one hand out from under his, patted it, and reached for her milkshake again. "Like I said, I just needed a minute."

"Good," he said, relieved. "Good."

"Do you think you'll ever know why she ended up here to begin with?" Zoe asked, deliberately changing the topic of conversation.

He shook his head. "I don't know. It's been nine years already; you'd think any clues would have come to light, if they were going to. If it hadn't been for what happened to Stark disrupting his overlaid memory patterns, no one would ever have had any idea."

"Maybe, maybe not," Zoe mused aloud. "If you or Stark wanted to leave yourselves a message, one that you would only look for if you figured out that it had to be there but wouldn't be accidentally discovered in the meantime, where would you hide it?"

"That's... a very good question, Zo," her dad said, thoughtfully. "A very good question."

Chapter Six: Signs and Wonders

Allison sighed as the meeting in her office began to break up, Jo and Fargo splitting off to pursue their separate aspects of the investigation into Dr. Monroe's bizarre death. Was it too much to ask for a single week off? Even a single night? If she hadn't cancelled the baby shower-- if Dr. Monroe had been at the Carters' bunker with all of the rest of Allison's coworkers and friends, rather than working late up at G.D.-- would she have made it home safely, rather than drowning in her own car? All Allison had wanted was some time to reconnect, alone, with Nathan; and in doing so, she may have opened a window of opportunity for the death of a woman she'd only begun to get to know.

That was life in Eureka, though. One day might bring the realization of your wildest dreams; the next might bring about the death of all your hopes. Allison rested a hand on the swell of her stomach, thinking of Nathan returned to her and Kevin safe after the trials of the previous year, and wished Dr. Monroe had had a little of her luck.

Or Jack's, Allison thought, bemused, as the sheriff lingered in front of her desk. "Before I go..." he said, cautiously. "When I was talking with Zoe about Dawn the other night, she had a question I thought you guys might be able to shed some light on."

"Sure," Allison said. The questions of where Dawn had come from, and why, had been bothering her as much as anyone since Nathan's memory glitches and some rather unbelievable DNA test results had revealed her stepdaughter's unusual origins. "What's on her mind?"

It still baffled Allison that Nathan's daughter-- the little girl she remembered having had a hand in raising since she'd been a preschooler-- had actually been sent back from a future where Jack, not Allison, had been her other parent. The whole concept had thrown her a little; if she'd ever thought of the future and a Carter baby in the same context, back in the days before she'd reunited with Nathan, it had been with the vague thought that that child might also be hers. She'd never have imagined that her two men would have a child together without her; it made her wonder where she'd been in that future, and worry about what had happened to the child she was carrying now.

"If Stark and I were going to leave a message for ourselves," Jack replied, oblivious to her distracted thoughts, "one we'd only look for if we'd figured out something was up, but that wouldn't be accidentally discovered if we didn't... where would we hide it?"

"That's a good question," Allison said, intrigued by the thought. It was pure speculation, as much as the fanciful construct of reasoning Henry had concocted to explain Dawn's parentage in the first place; but like that explanation, seemed more likely than any alternative she could imagine. Knowing her sometime husband, if he had been involved in sending someone else back through time, he would have wanted to leave himself a signpost, just in case.

She glanced over at Tess, who still stood at Jack's side. "Tess? You're the communications expert."

"Probably in Dawn", Tess said, furrowing her brow thoughtfully. "You said you think she was eight when future-you and future-Stark sent her back, right?" She waited for a nod from Jack, then continued. "That's a little young to expect anything too forethoughtful of a kid, even a Stark, who'd just lost her parents and her entire world. I could see someone trusting her to press the button on whatever memory device was sent along to make everyone remember her always being around, but arranging a message, too? One she wouldn't even remember after the device was activated?" Tess shook her head. "I'd expect a subcutaneous transmitter of some kind, shielded from casual detection, or a message inserted into her genetic code, or something else that wouldn't have required her active participation."

Jack nodded, his expression set in serious lines. "That's pretty much what I thought," he said, "but I wasn't sure exactly what the possibilities were. Allison, do you think you and Stark could arrange to test her for something like that without alarming her too much? I know there's a lot else going on, and it's not exactly urgent after all this time, but...."

"We all want to know what happened," Allison said, in perfect agreement with his motives. "Especially Dawn; I don't think she'll have any objections. I'll call Nathan and see if she'll agree to stop by after school and run a few minimally invasive tests; it won't take long to rule out the most obvious options."

"Thanks," he said. "I'll be back at some point before Kim's test-- if you could let Henry know?-- but feel free to call me sooner if you find anything before then."

"Will do," Allison promised.

He made as if to turn to go, then-- but Tess spoke up again before he could head for the door. "Oh, by the way," she said, her tone incongruously light, "there's an asteroid event tomorrow night. Feel like stargazing again?"

"Again?" Allison blurted, eyebrows climbing her forehead as she glanced back and forth between the sheriff and her friend. She'd been so wrapped up in Nathan, Dawn, and her pregnancy, she hadn't been paying as much attention to others' interactions as usual; the hint of playfulness in Tess' behavior seemed to come right out of left field. When had they gone stargazing in the first place? Surely not-- that meteor shower Tess had waxed eloquent about the night the Columbus had landed?

What else had she missed? Allison wondered, finally putting a few clues together as she took in the flirtatious smile Tess was aiming at Jack and the awkwardness coming off him in waves. She hadn't thought a thing of it when Tess had slipped that morning and called Bruce 'Dr. Manly' instead of 'Manlius' the way she'd occasionally done as an appreciative joke back in grad school, or when Bruce had talked about scheduling a victory dinner with Tess for 'just the two of them', but thinking back on the conversation now, she definitely remembered a frown forming on Jack's face.

Had there perhaps been more behind Jack's inclusion of Tess in the conversation about Dawn than just the fact that Tess would probably end up involved anyway as the head of Section Five and one of Allison's close friends? Allison considered that for a moment, and was unsurprised to find that her first, instinctive reaction to the idea was dismay; as much as she loved Nathan, a small part of her was probably always going to be possessive of the Sheriff, too. If Tess could make Jack happy, though, Allison knew she had no right to object. She didn't need to have his romantic attention to have his friendship and support, after all, and that was the really important thing. He'd promised to always be there for her; she'd just have to trust that he'd uphold that even if his heart followed another path.

Jack glanced at Allison, clearly hesitating, then nodded slowly to Tess. "I-- suppose I can," he said.

"You suppose?" her friend replied, flirtatiousness fading into surprise and a little hurt.

Jack hesitated again, then winced and explained. "I was just thinking that Allison and I had our first birthing class tomorrow," he said, "but then I remembered that that's not on my schedule anymore." He shrugged. "Still getting used to having Stark around again."

"Aren't we all," Allison replied, then smiled at him, touched that he'd remembered the date even though it was no longer relevant. "I didn't know you were that into it," she added, apologetically.

She actually hadn't discussed the classes with Nathan yet-- they'd had too much else on their minds-- but she certainly wasn't going to let Jack continue with them; from how badly he was failing at this conversation, she gathered that he was having as hard a time letting go as she was despite new interests, and she wasn't going to let him take refuge in the past anymore now that she was aware of what was going on.

"It's-- never mind. I'm just glad he can be there for you after all," Jack told her, then glanced at Tess again. "So, uh. Can we talk about the-- the asteroid thing later? I have to go figure out how a woman could drown in the middle of a highway."

"Of course--" Tess started to say, then stared after him as he turned and walked out of Allison's office without further adieu. "Uh, bye?"

Oh, Jack, Allison thought with an inward shake of her head. She didn't know how she'd missed it before-- or how he and Tess were ever going to get anywhere with each other without help, as clumsy as they both were about romance in general. How long had Jack spent dancing awkwardly around her? And forget Tess having the finesse for anything more than what she'd already displayed that morning. An intervention was clearly in order.

That would have to wait, though; Tess was needed in Dr. Manlius' lab to help set up the initial test of the organic computer's download process, and Allison had to find a way to break Jack's suggestion to Nathan and Dawn. Nathan had confided in her about his daughter's fears that she might not be real, the night they'd shared the news with everyone; they'd have to be careful not to give Dawn the wrong impression about the reason for the new tests.

Still. She couldn't resist sounding Tess out a little on the subject before they got back to work. "So," she said. "What was that all about?"

Tess sank into the chair across from her, looking lost. "I wish I knew," she said, plaintively.

Allison smiled to herself and imagined Nathan's likely reaction to this conversation. Yes, life in Eureka had definite ups and downs-- and this had a great deal of potential as an 'up.'

Regrettably, that moment in her office was the last pleasant conversation Allison had all morning. The strange drowning case soon claimed two more women-- and it was only by the sheerest luck that someone saw Dr. Bell go down in time to prevent a third scientist from joining that tally. They'd put her on life support, but her prognosis wasn't good. And neither was the second Kim's; Manlius' effort to simultaneously preserve her and her data had hit an unfortunate snag. The news that she was actually decaying had hit all of them hard, especially Henry.

The brief window of time Allison had scheduled into her day for her family came as a welcome relief when it finally arrived. One of the first things she'd done that day had been to reinstate Nathan's clearance as Director of Research at G.D.; the position had gone unfilled since his disappearance, its duties defaulting to the head of Section Five, but she hadn't thought Tess would mind that extra layer of responsibility being lifted from her shoulders. Nathan wouldn't have an official workweek for awhile yet-- Allison had preemptively marked him down for paternal leave-- but the credentials gave him full run of the building again, and allowed him to escort Dawn straight to the labs without being stopped by security.

They would have been able to bring her down there without that authority, of course-- but they would have had to mention the tests they were conducting in Global Dynamics' official reports, and Nathan was hoping to keep Dawn's unique origins from the attention of the Department of Defense for at least a little while longer. Following protocol was one thing; putting their daughter under the microscope of people who'd see what she represented before who she was, was something else altogether. All the reasons Nathan had destroyed his artificial intelligence lab rather than let the DoD know about Callister's existence applied even more strongly in Dawn's case, especially after the previous year's debacle with Kevin and the shadowy Consortium that had taken an interest in his connection to the Akashic field, and Jack and Allison were in complete agreement with him on the matter.

Unfortunately, none of the scans they ran showed any trace of a message from Dawn's original parents. She was retaining a little water due to the current phase of her hormonal cycle, and her system showed signs of recent mild sleep deprivation, but aside from that, her physiology was completely normal for a teenage girl. No concealed microchips. No immediately obvious codes written into the telomeres of her DNA. Nothing two of the supposed best of G.D.'s minds could point to-- though they'd double-check the results against Jack's unique intuition later just to be certain.

The only thing at all unusual they'd discovered was an unexpected energy reading detected in Dawn's blood. They almost hadn't caught it; if they'd chosen a different lab to conduct the tests in, or if that particular set of radiation sensors had not been accidentally left on while Allison was drawing a vial of Dawn's blood, it would never have been noticed. As it was, they still had no concrete answers; the reading the machines had taken was closer to the emanations the Artifact had put out than anything else they could compare it to, but not identical, and it was only evident when blood was actively flowing. As soon as they'd staunched the tiny wound with a Band-Aid, the sensors had cleared again, leaving Allison and Nathan with only a brief, baffling segment of data to illuminate Dawn's mysterious past.

Even that much, however, was enough to strengthen their worries and concerns regarding whatever she might have been sent back to escape, or avert. No one had thought to run any such test on Kevin's blood when he had been the Artifact's host; and they had no idea where the Artifact's energy had gone when they'd used the teleporter to separate him from it. Even the slightest possibility of a connection between the Akashic field and Dawn would complicate matters enormously if it ever became public.

"Maybe... maybe you thought that would be message enough," Allison murmured to Nathan as they crossed the rotunda back toward her office. "I mean, the implications are obvious."

"And what if we'd discovered it before the Artifact had been destroyed? Before Kevin played host to the field for awhile, and we realized it could connect with human beings?" he muttered in return. "There has to be something else."

"I don't know," Allison sighed, pressing a hand to the small of her twingeing back. "If there is, it's not with Dawn herself, and frankly-- I'm not so sure now that we should keep looking."

"Allison..." Nathan began, that same exasperated and pleading note in his voice he always used when he thought she was being unreasonable.

It was times like these that reminded her why she'd divorced him. "You always have to know things, Nathan," she said, "but this knowledge could be dangerous not only for you, but also for Dawn. We're lucky there weren't worse consequences from what happened last year. Maybe this is one mystery we should just let rest."

He sighed, hanging back as Dawn entered the office ahead of them, and turned to face her. "I can't promise to stop investigating altogether," he said, "but I will be careful. I just want to make sure my family's safe."

It was also times like these that reminded her why she'd agreed to remarry him. "Just don't do anything rash," she said, "and for God's sake, keep me-- and Jack-- informed."

"Will do," he promised her, solemnly, as her pager finally went off with more news from Jack regarding his investigation of Dr. Rivers' synthetic water. "Go, be the Director-- I'll take Dawn home, set her and Kevin up with pizza and a movie, then come back in time for Manlius' next test."

"Thank you," Allison said, smiling gratefully at him.

"My pleasure," he said, smiling warmly back, then bid her farewell with a reassuring kiss.

Chapter Seven: Secrets of the Universe

Tess glanced away from the radiation chamber as the glass protective shield came down in its doorway, checking Bruce's expression for traces of the worry and uncertainty she herself was feeling. If the last-minute nutrient bath treatment Henry and the organic A.I. had created to repair her cells while filtering and cushioning the effects of Bruce's laser didn't work, the results of their second attempt to access the computer's data storage would be just as painful, and ineffective, as their first try earlier that day-- and everyone knew how personally Henry was taking the artificial Kim's fate. No one wanted to see him hurt any further-- or the computer, who was rapidly taking on a personality of her own.

She caught Jack and Allison entering the lab out of the corner of her eye as Bruce took his place in front of the monitors, and saw the worry in their faces as well. Both were close personal friends of Henry's, she knew, and both had at least met the original Kim before her death. Jack looked stressed, even more than he had when they'd all met to investigate Dr. Monroe's bizarre drowning, and Allison had a hand pressed to the small of her back; she'd probably been on her feet most of the day, and was feeling the physical effects of late pregnancy in addition to the heavy emotional load she was carrying.

The pair were also standing less than six inches apart. Tess swallowed, then wrenched her attention back to the radiation chamber, mentally kicking herself for being a jealous idiot. Allison and Jack had known each other for more than two years; Allison herself had denied that there was anything currently between them; and Stark was back now, so Allison wasn't available even if Jack were still interested in her. Their closeness really shouldn't be bothering her-- but Tess couldn't help but remember the way Jack had blown off her invitation to the asteroid event that morning, with only a barely mumbled excuse about a birthing coach lesson to cover his indecision.

Right. If that wasn't code for 'I'm just not that into you,' Tess didn't know what was. She didn't know where she'd gone wrong; she'd really thought she'd picked a good one this time, and that he was as interested in her as she was in him. After the stakeout, the meteor shower, and the way he'd included her so easily in the revelations about Dawn Stark, she'd been sure of it. Even his other daughter, Zoe, had seemed reluctantly accepting of the possibility that Tess might start claiming more of his time; his sudden hesitation just didn't make any sense.

She heard the door open again as the system began to warm up, and Stark's voice greeting Allison; then Jack's voice, asking a question about the pipes than ran around the chamber. She took a quick breath, determined not to let her emotions affect her job, and turned to answer-- but Stark beat her to it.

"It's a hydroelectric cooling system, Carter," Stark told the sheriff, in warm, amused tones. "Radiation, remember? The equipment puts out a lot of heat."

Stark had taken up a position on Allison's other side, aiming a smug grin at Jack in front of Allison's long-suffering expression. He had Dawn with him, which seemed a little unorthodox given the security level of the lab, but she knew all the parents involved still had questions about Dawn's origins; he'd probably brought her in for some tests and simply didn't want to leave her alone in his office. Tess glanced between him and Jack, then back at Dawn, and had to admit the girl resembled both of them more than a little; once she'd accepted the unlikely possibility, it was easy to see that their future selves had somehow made one good-looking kid between them.

Maybe Stark's return was why Jack had suddenly lost interest in her? Tess entertained the thought for a second, then dismissed it, amused and chagrined by the prurient direction of her imagination. It would be less of a blow to her ego to speculate that he had simply changed 'teams' rather than rejecting her personally, true, but she'd seen the way both men acted around Allison, and the way Jack had acted around her before his apparent change of heart. No, whatever his problem was, it wasn't connected to Stark; in fact, if she had to guess, she'd say that something must have changed his mind just that morning--

"Yes, well," Bruce cleared his throat beside her. "Starting the download-- now."

Tess blinked, automatically glancing at her former colleague before turning to watch the progress of the experiment. She did know of one new variable that had been introduced to the equation that day, though surely that couldn't be it. What reason could Jack possibly have to be jealous of--?

She shook off the distraction as data intake windows began flashing up on the computer screens; there were more important things to worry about at the moment than her love life, though she would definitely have to revisit that line of thought later on.

"It's working," Henry breathed, enthralled, as flashes of energy continued to light up the nutrient bath and Kim's recumbent form. Kim glanced briefly in his direction, then laid her head back and closed her eyes, and Tess couldn't hold back a smile. The organic A.I. was probably relaxing into the treatment, which was good; it should make things go even more smoothly--

"You're sure it's not hurting her?" Dawn's worried voice carried through the lab, followed by shushing noises from her stepmother.

Kim's eyes fluttered open again at the interruption, and she turned her head slightly in the buoyant fluid, probably checking to see who had spoken. She must not have met Dawn yet, Tess realized; this was the first time the girl had been at G.D. since Kim had been deemed non-hostile, and if Dawn hadn't been in Café Diem during Henry's visit there with the organic computer, they wouldn't have had an opportunity to cross paths.

Kim's expression seemed to convey more than mere interest or surprise, though; the artificial woman looked shocked. An audible alarm echoed through the lab as she gasped and lifted her head for a better look. She stared at Dawn for a long moment, then turned to look at Henry while error messages flashed up on the screens-- then lay back again, the interrupt warnings lapsing as suddenly as they'd begun.

"What was that?" several voices asked simultaneously, Henry's the loudest. He glanced at Bruce, then back at the screens, then back to Kim, hands curling into tense fists.

Bruce's fingers flew over the keyboard, and he shook his head. "I don't know," he said, frowning. "The download stuttered for a moment, but there doesn't seem to be any problem with the data stream now. It could have been affected by her level of concentration; I've used the laser extraction method on organic computers before, but never on one with a consciousness of its own, and never with a nutrient medium, so I can only guess."

"Guess?" Henry made a choked noise, then clenched his jaw, staring worriedly into the chamber.

Kim gave a distressed cry as the laser continued to probe the nutrient bath, but she firmed her jaw in determination, and the data continued to pour in over the screens. Henry shifted in agitation, but before he could demand a halt to the procedure again, Kim spoke up, her voice muted by the glass between them. "No-- let it continue!" she gasped, twitching as the blue energy played over her body.

Henry clenched his hands tighter, but kept quiet; Jack crossed the room to stand at his side and reached to grip his shoulder. In the back of the room, Stark and Allison stood together, Dawn now pressed between them. Tess reminded herself to breathe deeply and furrowed her brow at the screens, anxiously tracking the progress of the download. The tension was really starting to get to her; her chest was beginning to feel tight, and she could feel herself starting to sweat.

"Come on, come on," she murmured under her breath, catching her lower lip between her teeth.

The download process seemed to carry on interminably as Kim jerked and twisted in the bath, her brow furrowed in pain. Henry flinched every time she did, and if there hadn't been so much at stake, Tess would have aborted the process herself, but she knew there would be no other possible chance to save both the organic computer and its data if the current attempt failed. More than that; they were running out of time to save the data at all-- and it was Kim's expressed wish that they do so.

Finally, the screens cleared and a new window flashed up on the main monitor: "Download complete."

"Shut it off!" Henry demanded immediately, blinking unshed tears out of his eyes. Bruce hit a few keys, and the glass door to the chamber began to retract into the ceiling.

Henry ducked under the door before it could even finish opening and immediately thrust his arms into the bluish bath, lifting Kim's upper body free of the liquid. "Are you all right?" he asked, clutching her close to his chest.

"I'm... fine," she replied haltingly, smiling faintly at him. "The data?"

"We got it all," Henry assured her. "It worked. But something happened--"

"I know," Kim said. "I was going to shut myself down, to stop it-- but then I saw the light." She shifted a little, turning her head against the damp cloth of his shirt to look at Dawn as the group of onlookers crowded into the chamber with them.

Everyone glanced at Dawn then, Tess included; but Stark was the quickest off the mark, giving voice to their concerns. "You're talking about Dawn," he said in worried tones, a hand resting on his daughter's back for reassurance. "You recognized something about her?"

Kim changed her focus from Dawn to Stark, eyes widening in surprise. "Dawn? You see it as your daughter?"

"It?" Jack objected, spine stiffening in alarm. Tess was still standing nearer to Bruce than she was to him, but at the sight of his distress she moved closer, laying a hand on his arm for support.

"I see light," Kim continued wonderingly. "Green light; the visible form of an energy matrix vibrating at a dimensional frequency beyond normal human perception. I had thought to force a permanent download so as not to cause Henry further pain-- but I have seen that light before, and I did not wish to go before I learned its nature."

Everyone but Henry exchanged alarmed glances at that; Henry just kept staring at her, speechless. Jack and Stark both seemed lost for words as well, and Dawn looked positively terrified as she backed up into her father's arms, so Tess cleared her throat and spoke for all of them.

"Nine years ago," she clarified, remembering the timeframe Stark had extrapolated from his contradictory memories. "You saw this-- light-- nine years ago?"

Kim furrowed her brow, calculating for a moment. "After accounting for the effects of relativity-- yes. It would have been nine years ago. The light was very distant, and lasted only for a moment; but it was very bright, and seemed to exist outside of normal space-time. It was unlike anything else the ship's sensors recorded during its entire journey."

"Oh my god," Allison whispered, glancing over at Stark; the description clearly meant more to her than it did to Tess.

"The Artifact," Stark said quietly, nodding at her, then looked over at Jack.

Tess swallowed. She did know that reference; Allison had told her about the strange, artificial, prehistoric construct G.D. had kept in Section 5, its apparent connection to the zero-point subspace nexus of knowledge known as the Akashic Field, and its part in the death of Kim Anderson nee Yamazaki and the strange things that had happened to Allison's son the previous year. No one had ever found any clues to the fate of the Field since it had been separated from him. Until now.

Jack stared back at Stark, aghast, then looked down at Dawn, who had gone chalk-pale, freckles standing out on her cheeks. "But-- she's our daughter," he said, bewildered. "Is it like what happened with Kevin?"

"No," Stark said slowly, shaking his head. "I think she's saying-- that Dawn is the light."

He looked at the false Kim for confirmation; she nodded back, slowly, and said, "Yes."

"But you said I was real!" Dawn said, clutching at Stark's arm as she found her voice again.

"You are. Shhh; you are, you're just even more special than we thought," Stark soothed her, pulling her into a tight hug. She buried her face in his chest, looking a lot younger than seventeen as her world was rearranged under her feet for the second time in as many days.

Allison laughed a little, breathlessly, on the edge of hysteria. "I think we know now why she always got along so well with Kevin," she said, rubbing a hand up and down her stepdaughter's back.

"And why we would have gone to such lengths to protect her," Jack added, grimly.

"But how is that even possible?" Tess had to ask. "Did it just decide to incarnate and happened to pick you two to be its-- her-- parents?"

Jack swallowed. "If so, it must have buried that knowledge along with everything else when it became Dawn, because she's Dawn, not some profoundly mysterious source of knowledge. And I have to say, kiddo," he added, reaching out to briefly touch Dawn's shoulder to catch her attention, "Even if Kim's right, it doesn't matter; I won't let anyone treat you any differently."

"And if it matters to me?" she replied tremulously, peering at him through damp lashes.

Henry chuckled harshly, breaking in on the conversation. "Never mind all that," he said. "You said you wanted to spare me pain? You were going to force us to put you through the dissolution process instead of downloading you intact, and you thought that would spare me pain?"

"Uh," Tess said, glancing between Henry, the tight cluster of Stark-family-plus, and the clearly fascinated silent onlooker, Bruce. Dawn looked hurt and panicky; Henry was hurt and oblivious; and everyone but her was totally caught up in their dramas. "Maybe we should give Kim a chance to clean up, and regroup in your office, Allison?" she suggested hastily.

Kim didn't wait for privacy to answer Henry; she made a mournful noise and pulled back a little, sitting up in the tank to look him full in the face. "I'm just a copy, Henry," she said. "I'm not Kim."

Bruce took the hint immediately and retreated outside the chamber to the bank of computers and their new wealth of data; it took Allison a moment longer as she glanced between Kim and Henry, but she finally nodded to Tess in agreement and began ushering Stark and Dawn out of the lab.

"You think I don't know that?" Henry replied, the words as rough as though they'd been torn out of him. "That doesn't mean you have to die just so I won't be reminded of her!"

Jack lingered a second longer, torn between new daughter and old friend, but let Tess push him along with her until they'd left the chamber. The glass door came down behind them for privacy again; Jack stopped just outside it, resisting Tess' urge to keep moving.

"Jack," she prompted, softly.

"Just a minute," he told her, then nodded to Bruce. "Dr. Manlius-- the security cameras for this lab. "Would they have recorded that conversation?"

Bruce looked confused for a moment, then startled, then drew his brows together. "Yes, they will have," he said, "but I can erase the last ten minutes of footage, easily. You'll have to have Allison or Tess take precautions in the office, but I can take care of things in this lab."

"Good," Jack said, breathing a sigh of relief. "Good, and-- thank you. We appreciate the discretion."

Discretion. Tess swallowed. She'd been expecting to unearth some of the secrets of the universe that day, yes; but she'd never expected any of those discoveries to be so personal, or potentially devastating to people she cared about. "Bruce--"

"Go," he said, sympathetically. "They'll need you more right now."

"Thank you," she mouthed at him, then followed Jack out of the room. Her palm was a little damp as she slipped it into his-- her nerves were apparently still getting to her-- but he didn't seem to mind; he squeezed it briefly and gave her a grateful look as they rushed to catch up with Allison. The hurry brought the tight feeling back to Tess' chest, and she coughed, trying to dispel it; it wasn't a good time to be coming down with something. That was the last thing she needed, cherry on top of the sundae of stress and worry that had started with Dr. Monroe's death that morning and only--

Oh god, she thought as the penny dropped. "Jack," she gasped, stopping short in the hall as she coughed again. She wiped at her forehead with her free hand and drew it back shaking, covered in a thin film of water. "The synthetic water."

He stared blankly at her for a second, mind still half a hallway ahead of them, then sucked in a breath in comprehension. "Oh no," he said, "Not you, too. Not now!" He glanced back up the hallway, then shook his head and wrapped an arm around her, ushering her toward the elevator instead. "Crap. We've got to get you to the infirmary; I'll just have to call Allison from there and let them know."

Tess gasped, trying to ignore the tickling sensation growing in her lungs, and surrendered herself to his care.

Chapter Eight: Maintaining Scientific Objectivity

Bruce felt what seemed like half the muscles in his body unwind when Dr. Fargo looked up from his screen to announce that Tess' system had been cleared. Until that moment, he hadn't truly been certain that their hastily cobbled together solution would work; science beyond the bleeding edge of the known always carried some degree of guesswork, and it had been the brainchild of the decidedly unscientific Sheriff Carter rather than any of the scientists whose extremely technical projects had contributed to the problem.

Including his own. Bruce swallowed at the sight of Tess relaxing limply in the nutrient bath where she'd been thrashing wildly only moments before, suffering from the unforeseen consequences of Dr. Rivers' synthetic water reacting to his irradiating procedures. He took a step away from his workstation, his first impulse to make sure for himself that she was okay-- but another thought stopped him in his tracks a moment later, and he paused, glancing over at the Sheriff where the man stood breathlessly awaiting the outcome.

Carter caught the look and returned it, worry clear in every tense line of his features. Reluctantly, but certain he was doing the right thing, Bruce gestured in the direction of the chamber.

Carter blinked, then raised his eyebrows and pointed to himself as if to ask, 'who, me?'

Bruce nodded confirmation. The man needed no other sign; he bolted to Tess' side without further ado, sliding his arms into the tank to lift her wetsuit-clad torso free of the solution and help her remove the respirator mouthpiece. Tess' expression was soft and open as she slid up her goggles and gazed into the face of her rescuer, and Carter had eyes for no one else in the room.

Bruce closed his eyes at the sight and took a deep breath. Yes, it had been the right move to make, even if he would rather have been the one inspiring that look from Tess. So what if he'd come to Eureka with certain expectations after he'd found out that Tess had asked for his assistance by name-- expectations that had been upheld when Tess had smiled dazzlingly at him and called him 'Dr. Manly' again in her introductions? Expectations were not reality-- only theories without evidence-- and the evidence was that there was more brewing between that pair than a simple professional acquaintance.

Just as events had proved Kim Yamazaki's duplicate to be far more than the impersonal, if extremely complex, organic computer he'd expected to work with when he'd agreed to come to Eureka.

Just as Nathan Stark's daughter had turned out to be far more than she appeared, as well. Bruce recalled how the Kim-clone had described the girl when it had been her turn in the nutrient bath: "the visible form of an energy matrix vibrating at a dimensional frequency beyond normal human perception."

He didn't think Allison and the others had intended him to overhear their subsequent conversation about 'incarnation' and some kind of unnamed Artifact, but he'd picked up enough to glean some idea of the unbelievable implications. Any type of light that could have been seen at a considerable distance from Earth nine years ago while simultaneously embodied as an apparently ordinary human being was quite clearly not anything known to Earthly science.

Bruce scrubbed a hand over his face, tearing his eyes away from the scene in the irradiating chamber to take in the other watchers. Allison had rushed back from her office with Stark and his daughter after Carter had called from the infirmary to report Tess' condition; Henry had shown up shortly afterward as well, eyes still reddened but the second Kim accompanying him. Both 'artificial' beings were behaving in a perfectly human manner, as far as he could determine from a casual glance: Dawn hanging onto her father's arm with obvious insecurity, 'Kim' sneaking frequent, searching glances at her co-designer.

He wondered if Dr. Deacon actually thought of the constructed woman as the second coming of his lost love, or more as a sort of daughter sprung full-grown out of nowhere-- an echo of Athena, the mythical goddess of wisdom. The parallels with Dawn Stark's situation appealed to him: a pair of daughters, far more than merely human, gifted to men who cared more for who they were than what their existence might signify.

Bruce pinched the bridge of his nose, then asked the nurse present to take Tess back to the infirmary for precautionary follow-up observation, and return with Dr. Bell so they could give the other afflicted scientist the same treatment.

He'd come to this town-- one of the scientific pillars of the modern world-- expecting to play a part in uncovering untold secrets of the universe; instead-- well, in addition to, really-- he'd played witness to an exploration of the mysteries of the human soul. Who was to say that Dr. Deacon wasn't right about the organic A.I.'s potential for growth? And who would dare suggest that Miss Stark didn't deserve the same rights granted to any other pretty teenaged girl-- mooning over boys with her friends, attending school dances, and anything else her father allowed her? He could hardly support the latter while continuing to deny the former's personhood; it would be more than a little hypocritical of him.

Carter left with Tess, of course; and as her gurney passed by the other group on their way out of the lab, Bruce watched the sheriff pause a moment to wrap an arm around Dawn's shoulders.

"Sorry about all this, kiddo. How about we talk after they let Tess out of the infirmary?"

"It's okay," the girl replied solemnly, leaning into the hug for a moment. "It's not like it was your fault everybody timed their crises for today."

"Hey," Tess objected weakly from the bed, smiling at the pair. "It's not like it was my idea, either."

Carter returned the smile over Dawn's head, then pulled back, holding the teenager at arm's length by both shoulders. "You good, then?" he asked her.

Dawn glanced over toward her father and stepmother, then nodded at him. "I'm good," she reassured him. Then she turned to Tess and visibly scraped herself together, adopting a lofty expression. "You get better," she said imperiously, "so I can help Zoe give you the shovel speech, okay?"

Tess chuckled painfully. "Got it," she rasped, as Carter stepped back to the gurney and helped the nurse wheel it carefully through the door.

The others also dispersed after Tess' departure: Stark to return home with Dawn, and Henry undoubtedly to a similar destination now that 'Kim's' data had been downloaded and it was a lot less likely that someone might demand her return as though she were a misplaced hard drive. Only Allison stayed-- in her capacity as Director of G.D.-- and Bruce took a moment to speak with her alone before Dr. Bell's arrival.

"I don't pretend to understand everything that happened here today, Allison," he told her, quietly. "I'm sorry about what happened to Drs. Monroe and Draper, and the sauna attendant. I should never have taken for granted that the safety setup had caught every possible danger, given the unprecedented nature of my experiment; I should have examined the procedures more thoroughly. And I'd also like to apologize for my detached behavior with the organic-- with Kim."

"It's all right," Allison told him, smiling sadly. "None of us spotted the issue with the pipes, and most of us have been working here far longer than you have. And as far as Kim goes...." She sighed. "You were trying to maintain scientific objectivity, I get that. It's a lot harder for those of us who knew the original Kim to achieve that, especially Henry; but the fact remains that she isn't human, and it was your methods that enabled us to extract her data. It's a miracle that we were able to preserve them both."

"With some help from your friendly neighborhood sheriff," Bruce joked mildly, then sobered again. "Seriously, though, Allison, if you need anything else from me...." he trailed off, shrugging. "I am an expert in anomalous neural pathways," he suggested further. He didn't want to hint any more closely to the subject of her stepdaughter, but he thought she'd get the idea without need for elaboration. "Anything I learned, I'd be more than happy to keep between just us."

Allison clasped his hand, briefly. "You're a good friend, Bruce," she said. "I'm glad you were available for this project. But-- I think we're going to leave that other matter where it is, for now. It's up to Dawn to decide whether she wants to pursue it further, or not; and Nathan and I have decided let her do that in her own time. I'm pretty sure Jack will agree."

Bruce smiled wryly back, professional curiosity raging at the further hints towards Dawn's unique origins and parental situation, but knowing it wasn't his place to ask. "No doubt. I trust I'm leaving my other favorite student in good hands with him?"

Allison snorted. "Carter's used to taking orders from strong women, if nothing else," she said, lightly. "I don't think he'd hurt her deliberately. But I'll be sure to keep you posted if that changes-- Dr. Manly." Her cheeks dimpled in a teasing smile, lifting a little of the accumulated weariness from her expression.

He chuckled, acknowledging the hit. "That's good to hear," he said, then nodded to acknowledge the end of the conversation. He moved back to the control station, setting the chamber to flush and fill with a clean, sterile batch of the nutrient solution.

One of the sub-panels was flashing a warning that the temperature of the water in the coolant pipes was slightly warmer than optimal; he ignored it, as it was a direct consequence of isolating a loop of the synthetic water system from the main body of the recirculating flow, thus limiting the volume of H2O available to disperse the heat of the radiation he had used to trigger the decompression of the molecules in Tess' lungs. There was nothing to be done about it, unless they wanted to risk inflicting the same effects on yet more people in the course of healing the two surviving victims; should the chamber be needed again in future, someone would have to entirely redesign the cooling system.

By the time he looked up again Dr. Bell was being wheeled into the room, awake now and watching his every move with pained eyes. Fortunately, her extraction went even more smoothly than Tess' had. Dr. Fargo announced the release of the molecules with more aplomb the second time, and Bruce himself helped the recovering woman out of the tank. She'd been suffering the symptoms longer than Tess, and was weeping with relief and exhaustion by the time the nurse escorted her back out.

He didn't see Tess again until after her release from the infirmary more than twenty-four hours later. Bruce had finally finished the last of his reports on both the information extraction project and the various incidents with the synthetic water, and was on his way across the rotunda to deliver them to Allison when he noticed the familiar blonde figure standing with Carter in the center of the tiled floor. She was flirting with the man, displaying all the mannerisms he'd become acquainted with when he'd been her target-- and a moment later, practically swallowing his tonsils.

Bruce sighed and continued past them, pride slightly stung by the display-- what had all that 'Dr. Manly' business been, if she'd already had the sheriff on her string?-- but well aware he'd never had any actual claim to her to begin with. So much for that celebratory "just the two of them" dinner; but there was no arguing with emotion, as he'd just had occasion to observe at great length, and she did deserve every happiness life could bring her.

He'd have other compensations for this visit, anyway. The expertise and credit he'd gain from two completely unprecedented procedures-- even if the details were classified-- would be a boost to his career when he returned to Bethesda. And he'd make sure to keep in touch with Allison on a more regular basis, afterward; he'd meant it when he'd offered his help with anything they might need in regards to Dawn's future development.

Bruce would keep the secrets he'd learned here, both great and small. But he didn't doubt that this week, and all its opportunities-- both lost and gained-- would continue to haunt him for the foreseeable future.


"All this over a key?" Angel frowned, staring across the conference table at his former girlfriend. "A magical key to a mystical lock that won't be accessible again for thousands of years? I mean, I remember it was a big deal a few years ago when that Hell-goddess tore through Sunnydale looking for it, but I thought you said she'd disappeared when its window of usefulness was over."

Buffy frowned back at him, dropping a hand under the table to squeeze Willow's fingers in reassurance. Glorificus' little rampage through their hometown sounded a lot less traumatic in Angel's abrupt summation than it had been to actually live through; Willow's first girlfriend had lost her sanity and later her life at the Hell-bitch's hands, and Tara hadn't been the only casualty of the goddess' unshakeable conviction that the Slayer had somehow stolen her mystical get-out-of-jail-free card. Dozens more civilians, allies, and enemies had been swept up in her wake, including Angel's defanged grandchilde, Spike. But Angel hadn't been there for any of that; it was no surprise that he didn't understand just what that deadly MacGuffin meant to them, now that they finally had a lead on its location.

"It isn't just a key," she told him, her expression falling into deadly serious lines. "Yeah, Glory wanted to use it to open a portal, and the Order of Dagon was created to stop her from doing that, but we're pretty sure there's more to it than just some kind of mystical garage door opener."

Willow took a deep breath, then launched into the next part of the explanation. "The Watcher's Council's books refer to the Key as an energy matrix, vibrating at a dimensional frequency beyond normal human perception. Energy that could be anything, do anything-- and holds a scary amount of power." She shook her head. "Unfortunately, the perception clause means that only those outside reality can see its true nature. We ran into some guys in chainmail a couple of times that year that seemed to think it was the font of ultimate evil, but they didn't know much more than that, either-- or if they did, they weren't willing to tell us. Whatever it is, though, it's dangerous, and a lot of monks gave their lives nine years ago to make sure it remained hidden."

The furrows in Angel's brow deepened. "But like you just said, that was nine years ago," he said. "Why the urgency now?"

"Because one of the monks survived after all," Buffy told him. "He turned up a few days ago. And we weren't the first ones to find him."

She'd faced, and conquered, stronger opponents since meeting Glory, but the Hell-goddess had been the first to make her feel truly impotent: the first to really press home just how small the Slayer was in comparison to the true evils of the world. Buffy had no doubt that if Glory hadn't finally realized that the Key had not been sent to Sunnydale after all, the fashion-challenged goddess would have eventually killed all of them. Instead, Glory had just disappeared one day, out of sight, out of mind-- until a wounded man had turned up, gasping her name, on Buffy and Willow's doorstep.

A girl never really forgot her first, in any sense of the word. The unexpected threat of facing Glorificus in person again had made Buffy's knees go all wobbly... and brought out a black-eyed rage in Willow she hadn't seen in years. They'd been stupid to let it go before, too distracted by grief and school and the idiot Trio to follow through on the Hell-goddess' disappearance while it had been fresh, and remembrance of pain had dissuaded them from doing so since. They wouldn't make that mistake a second time.

"He knew where it was," Angel concluded, raising his eyebrows.

"He knew what had happened to it, anyway, and he had a good idea how to find it again," Buffy agreed. "He had this Sphere thingy that was supposed to repel Glory, that was all attuned to the Key's energies."

"He was going to bring it to Sunnydale," Willow added, frowning, "back when the Order wanted to send the Key for Buffy to protection, but after that went wrong--"

"So she was supposed to have it?" Angel pounced on that tidbit.

"Supposed to," Willow agreed. "Only the spell malfunctioned, and it ended up sending the Key to another dimension instead. But rather than tell anyone what happened, or find a way to warn us, he ran away and hid so Glory would still think it had been sent to the Slayer."

"Leaving you to face the consequences in his place," Angel said, eyes widening in realization.

"I guess he thought that was the lesser evil," Buffy smiled mirthlessly. "When she didn't find it before the day she was supposed to do her ritual, she went looking for someone else to help her instead. And found them. All they needed was that Sphere."

Angel blinked. "Wait, are you saying...." His face fell as he finally realized why, exactly, they'd asked for a meeting at his despised place of business. "Do you mean Wolfram and Hart? Why didn't I know about this?"

Buffy snorted. "You're still under the impression you're using this place instead of it using you," she said, bitterly. She'd done some moronic things in her time, she had to admit, but that one still boggled her mind-- and he never had been willing to listen to reason on that point. Whatever rationale he'd had, he'd ranked it above his own people's objections, and over any value he might still have put on their relationship.

She squeezed Willow's fingers again, gently, then disentangled them and stood up, bracing her hands on the table and leaning forward slightly to emphasize her point. "Check your records, Angel. We're going after her, whether it's with you or through you; we're not just going to let her have it."

She forestalled his next objection with a firm shake of her head. "This isn't just because of what she did to us, either. If she gets her hands on this Key she could rip the universe apart; it's not like she has anything else to do now that her chance to go home is gone. And frankly, I don't trust your team to take care of it. Not after she waltzed through right under your nose."

Angel balled up his fists on the table, clenching his jaw furiously, then took an unnecessary breath and smoothed his hands out on the flat surface again. "I'll have Wes and Gunn look into the records and find out exactly what was done to help her," he said, "and in the meantime, I'll see about purging the customer relations department again. If you'll excuse me?"

Buffy studied the pent frustration in his body language and the carefully bland expression on his face, then gave a tight nod. He meant well. He always had. He just had a tendency to make spectacularly bad judgments when his personal goals ran into conflict with reality.

Hard to imagine, now, that she'd ever thought they might end up together again when all was said and done; they'd just have ended up reinforcing each other's worst qualities. Cordelia was welcome to him.

"We'll wait," she said, sitting back down again. "You might want to warn your receptionist that Giles and Anya will be here soon, too; they caught a flight back from England last night, and we told them to meet us here. Oh, and maybe you could have some sandwiches or something sent up?"

Beside her, Willow began casually retrieving a stack of research tomes from the seemingly-empty backpack they called her Bag of Holding, spreading them out over the conference table as if settling in for a long session. Angel eyed them in apparent dismay, then reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose. "Yeah, why not," he said. "The more the merrier. Just make yourselves at home."

"Thank you, we will," Buffy said, then deliberately looked away from him, reaching for the nearest dusty book and carefully turning back its aged leather cover. Silence reigned; then the door creaked audibly open, and stompy footsteps marched away.

Buffy sighed, then turned to look at her companion. Knowing green eyes studied her back from under a fringe of stylishly cut red hair; twin streaks of white and black twined down from her left temple, a reminder of all their triumphs and losses since the day Buffy had first met her all those years before. Of all the Scoobies, both those who'd been there from the beginning and those who'd joined them over the years, they were the only two who'd never managed to leave the Hellmouth behind them. They'd seen the best of each other, and the worst; and she knew Willow knew exactly what had just been going through her mind without even stretching her telepathy.

"He'll come through for us," Willow assured her. "He's been a big fat jerk lately, but he still cares about you, and he doesn't want the world to go poof any more than we do."

"I know," Buffy sighed. "He just makes me so angry, sometimes." She smiled sadly, remembering. "Like Spike said, that time he kidnapped you."

"That you'd never be friends?" Willow raised her eyebrows.

"Yeah, that. Never thought I'd miss the bleached wonder, but he did have a way with words. It's just-- never let that happen to us, okay?" She felt her lip wobble, and looked away in embarrassment; this whole mess had her off kilter, and she didn't like the feeling. She needed to be strong. Had to, especially now; this was going to be the most difficult task she'd ever faced as the Slayer.

"Hey, shhh." A warm hand rested on her cheek, turning her face back toward her witchy partner. Then Willow leaned toward her, wrapping Buffy up in a reassuring hug. "Don't worry," she said. "You're stuck with me for life, got it?"

Buffy let herself rest there a moment, burying her nose in Willow's sweet-smelling shoulder, then leaned back again, smiling through a wavery curtain of almost-tears. "Got it," she said.

They'd conquer this, just like every other seemingly insurmountable problem they'd faced. Wherever that Key was, they were going to find it and stop Glory from using it, no matter what-- or how long-- it took.

Somewhere else-- somewhen else-- a satisfied blonde curled around Eureka's sleeping sheriff. Something had startled her awake-- a flash of light, or a pinprick twinge of pain in her abdomen, or some kind of noise, or all three-- but whatever it was it didn't repeat itself, and Tess relaxed again, drowsing in her partner's arms.

She'd gone to Jack Carter's place for dinner that evening half-hoping that he would convince her not to take the opportunity she'd just been offered in Australia. There was still work to be done with the Columbus data; just nothing that offered as much advancement as the new job. In the end, though, she hadn't even had to bring it up. Dawn had been staying with the Carters for the weekend, and she and her half-sister had carried on a lively, teasing conversation, effortlessly including not only each other, but also their father, the house's AI, S.A.R.A.H., and Tess in a warm, entertaining whirlwind of words. She had felt more at home in that moment than anywhere else she'd been in years.

Tess Fontana, PhD, PhD, PhD, had sacrificed a lot to her career over the course of her life; maybe it was time she slowed down, just a little, to smell the roses. Be a stepmom. Maybe be an actual mom, too; maybe introduce a baby boy to the Carter household for a change? She'd always liked the name Ben.

With that thought, Tess curled an absent hand over her stomach, then snuggled closer to Jack's warm body and went back to sleep.


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