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Crossing the Coffee Table

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There was a knock at the half-open door to Room C-14.

“Come in,” Jenni called, and glanced down at the chart one more time to be sure she got her newest client’s name right.

Jacques Bonnefoy: a recently recruited replacement of Jack Harkness from Torchwood. Jenni knew very little about the Whoniverse in general, and less about the spin-off. She suspected that was part of the reason she’d been assigned Jacques’ case. Sometimes it helped for a replacement to talk to someone who wouldn’t be comparing them to their doppelgänger all the time, subconsciously or otherwise.

Nonetheless, one heard things about popular canon characters, so she was not entirely surprised when she looked up again to find a handsome, square-jawed brunet leaning rakishly up against the doorjamb. He wore boots rather than shoes, black pants, and a black military jacket with the ESAS waterlily flash patch on the shoulders. This last was worn buttoned nearly all the way up, showing barely a hint of the deep purple shirt collar underneath. The overall impression was of a cool action hero ready to swoop in and beat up the bad guys with one hand while sweeping the fair damsel off her feet with the other. But of course, the look in his blue eyes seemed to say, there were no bad guys around at the moment . . .

Jenni stood from her desk chair a little more abruptly than she’d meant to and smoothed down the front of her burgundy v-neck. “Hi. Jacques, right?”

“That’s me. And you must be . . . Jenni, right? Or do I have to call you Nurse Robinson?” Jacques bent his face into the most winning smile he could produce at the moment, wishing he could walk right back out of FicPsych. He really didn’t want to be here.

On the other hand, even by his admittedly broad standards, Jenni Robinson was gorgeous (and he’d be happy to tell her so. Maybe it would even work in his favor). She had green eyes that were a bit too sharp for his liking in an assigned therapist, though in a person he wasn’t about to be prodded by, they would have promised an intriguing time playing verbal games. The long brown hair was nice, too (he wondered if she ever wore it down), and oh, that jawline . . . he was a sucker for a defined jawline. He’d love a closer look at it. At least he’d have someone nice to look at, if he did end up sticking to the plan they’d oh so helpfully drawn up for him.

“‘Jenni’ is fine,” she said. “It’s nice to meet you.” She smiled back—who wouldn’t?—and put out her hand.

This was intended as a handshake, but when Jacques came forward and took her hand, he raised it to his lips.

“Charmed,” he said with a flirtatious smile. “How long have you been with the PPC, Jenni?”

The nurse looked down at her hand, which Jacques had not yet released. She was amused—it was always intriguing when they tried to distract her, and Jacques’ approach was fun. Under other circumstances, she’d have happily gone along with it. However, ten years of working under Dr. Freedenberg and Head Nurse Suzine had managed to instill a moderate level of professionalism in her. As regrettable as it was, she had to shut him down.

With her chin still tilted down, she raised her eyes for a skeptical gaze. “Long enough not to swoon for every pretty face that comes to my door, Jacques.” She pulled her hand free and gestured to the small, buff and brown sofa to his right. “Please have a seat. Would you like some tea? Coffee?”

Jacques grimaced slightly. “Tea, thanks. I’m off coffee right now.”

“Just as well; I’ve only got the instant stuff.” Jenni gave an apologetic smile and turned to her desk, where she kept an electric kettle on constant standby. “Let’s see . . . Are you a cream and sugar guy?”

“Oh, I’m an everything guy,” Jacques said, smiling warmly at her. “Especially sweet things.”

Jenni laughed in spite of herself. “Okay, but I think sugar, cream, honey, lemon, and a drop of whiskey would be overdoing it a tad. Let’s keep it simple.”

In a jiffy, she fixed up two mugs with tea-balls of loose leaf black tea and added creamer. She made sure to stir extra sugar into Jacques’ before she handed it over.

Jacques sipped the tea, mostly to be polite, and glanced around. It seemed to be everything in one room, here. There was the area obviously intended for Jenni’s work, which contained her desk and chair, as well as the sofa he was standing in front of and the coffee table between him and Jenni’s chair. This was all arranged with just enough distance to be professional and just enough open space to suggest approachability; definitely intentional. In full view—a few feet to his right, in fact—was the sleeping area. Two beds, with soft toys scattered over the smaller and on the rug next to it (a child? Who slept in here, rather than the Nursery? Not being a field agent came with a different lifestyle, it seemed), and a wardrobe against the wall. The only missing components were kitchen and washing facilities; given the lack of doors other than the one he’d entered through, those were probably separate and shared, unlike in the response center he’d been given.

So. A pretty therapist, with eyes that promised not to miss much, who lived in a small room with a child of . . . three or four, perhaps, judging from the toys.

He really hoped he could distract her. Having her on his case with her full focus would probably result in far more scrutiny and piercing questions than he wanted to have to try to deflect.

“Like what you’ve done with the space,” he said once it was either that or give her the blandest (or creepiest) smile imaginable, neither of which would get him anywhere useful. With no other options, or at least a dearth of good ones, he bit the bullet and sat down. It wasn’t like he couldn’t get up again—and ooh, but there were so many ways one could pose on a sofa . . .

“Standard accommodations; we work with what we’ve got.” The nurse trotted out the line by rote, and added “Thanks” with a sincere smile. Usually people complained about the beds if they said anything at all.

She put her own mug on the coffee table in front of the couch and settled into her chair, one leg crossed over the other. “Now . . .” Time to get down to business. “Someone probably explained everything to you already, but just in case it was Immac and she got distracted by something shiny halfway through: you’ve been referred to me for maintenance sessions, which means the Flowers That Be have found your baseline sanity to be somewhere between ‘knurd’ and ‘flamethrower’ and would like me to make sure it stays that way over the course of the next year or so. Does that all make sense?”

“Immac, knurd, and flamethrower maintenance,” Jacques rattled off with a wink. “Never heard of a ‘knurd’ before, but I think I get the gist.”

“Ah, you’ll have to brush up on your Pratchett.” Jenni gestured at the collection on the bookshelf next to her desk. “You won’t get far in the PPC without paying the proper respects to the Great God Pterry. But, for now, ‘knurd’ is the inverse of drunk. Being so sober it hurts.”

“Pleasant,” Jacques remarked. His lip curled slightly. “I think I’ve been there a time or two.”

“Now you have the word for it.” Jenni tilted her head slightly, but his expression had already returned to a more-or-less attentive mask. She wasn’t likely to get far down that road on the very first day. “Well . . . to start by making sure I have my facts straight, how long have you been with the PPC?”

“April, 2013,” Jacques said. “And yet, somehow we haven’t run into each other before.” He smiled at her, and stretched his legs out in front of him, the very image of relaxation but for a hint of tension in his shoulders. He’d have to work on that.

“Just a couple of months, then,” Jenni answered her own question, since Jacques hadn’t. She noted that he was still doing his best to distract her with his charm. “I imagine you’ve been kept busy so far, and . . . April, we had that Blackout. Were you caught up in that?”

Jacques had to smile again. “I was. It was . . . interesting.” He sipped his tea, watching her over the rim of the mug.

She was watching right back, quietly studying his posture and expressions. “That’s certainly one word for it. But you’re from somewhere that regularly deals with bizarre creatures and other incursions of mind-bending nonsense, right? Maybe it was a walk in the park for you.” She raised her eyebrows just a little, playfully daring him to deny it.

“I wouldn’t say that, but it was pretty fun,” Jacques said. “‘Tuesday without much danger’ wouldn’t be a bad description.”

Jenni had to smile. He was funny. Funny, and clever, and not giving much away, not even given the chance to engage in tales of adventure and heroism, which most people would jump at. Especially ones as cock-sure as Jacques wanted Jenni to think he was. Very interesting.

She nodded. “So what’s a Tuesday like for you these days?”

Jacques shrugged. “What’s anyone’s Tuesday like? I’m in ESAS. I go into the canon of the day, and I protect it. Simple.”

“And here I thought the point of ESAS was to deal with problems that are not simple,” Jenni said. “Superpowers, giant monsters, demigods, that sort of thing. The kind that make most of us shake in our boots.”

Jacques shrugged again. “Like you said, I’m from a place where I was regularly dealing with bizarre creatures and incursions of mind-bending nonsense. Most days, this is actually easier—not nearly as much paperwork, for one thing.” He winked at her. “Less paperwork can make anything easier, don’t you think?”

Jenni chuckled. “Absolutely. To tell the truth, I never had paperwork before I started here, not the ‘please file in triplicate’ sort. That was an adjustment and a half for me, having someone looking over my shoulder all the time. Did you ever feel like someone was just waiting for you to screw up so they could get you for it?” In a calculated move, she shifted into a more relaxed pose, leaning back into her seat with her legs crossed loosely at the ankles.

Jacques snorted. “I’m pretty sure that’s the point of paperwork.”

“Right?” Jenni grinned and picked up her mug to give herself a moment to think. This guy was a tough nut for sure. She liked him. “Well. Good to know the job isn’t causing excessive anxiety. I don’t suppose you’re having much trouble socializing, either, with nice manners like yours.” She gave a small wink, a slight twitch of the eyelid. Playing this game might be a bad idea, but to engage Jacques’ attention, to establish a rapport and get him rolling, it seemed a worthwhile risk.

Jacques smirked. “Oh, it’s been a very long time since I’ve had trouble socializing.” He drew out the final word into an implication it didn’t normally carry.

Oh, boy. “Yes, I do get the impression you’ve been well socialized,” Jenni teased. “But sometimes a man of your temporal status can start to feel less energetic . . . disconnected . . . lonely?” She kept her tone suggestive, but that was a feeling she knew all too well herself. She had good, strong roots in the PPC now, but when she’d joined it had been a-whole-nother matter. The desperation of coming unmoored and struggling to find one’s place in a skeptical multiverse was something she wished on nobody.

Jacques raised his eyebrows, struggling against a glare and a snapped comment that it was none of her business how he’d dealt with—how he remembered dealing with being an immortal man out of time, much less how he might or might not be handling it now. “You realize I’ve been out of the fifty-first century for, oh, a hundred-forty years, right? And traveling in and out of it for a good decade before that? Hell, arguably longer than a decade? If it was going to affect me, it would’ve already happened. And,” he added, leaning forward, “it’d happen less here, given the places and times I end up going for missions. Not to mention DoSAT’s been working on my wrist strap—I’ll be time travel capable again within the month.”

Jenni waited a beat before responding. It seemed she’d touched on something too sensitive for him to just brush off. She mentally filed it away for future reference, but chose not to pursue it further now, at the risk of sending him deeper behind his walls.

She sat forward attentively and mimed writing in his chart while faux-reciting, “Experienced with the old in-and-out . . . Fully capable with strap-on.” She looked up again. “Did I get that right?” Her tone of innocence was as fake as the notes, and given away by a big grin.

Jacques relaxed, snickering, though his gaze was still a little too intense. “If you’re trying to give me ideas—mission accomplished. Congratulations.” She could definitely banter, and banter well. If she hadn't been holding a clipboard with his file on it, it might have even hinted at good things ahead; what a shame.

“There’s plenty more where that came from.” Jenni leaned back, content with his response. Not quite the full tension-relieving laugh she’d hoped for, but it was a start. “I’m full of ideas. Sometimes even good ones.”

Jacques smiled at her. “Aren’t we all?”

Jenni raised an eyebrow. “You said you’ve been here for two months? You know the answer to that.”

Jacques tipped his head. “I guess I do.” He sipped his tea again and shifted, crossing one ankle over the other in mimicry of Jenni’s pose.

This was not lost on her, and she moved to the edge of her seat with both feet flat on the floor. “So, do you always talk in deflective non-answers, or am I getting special treatment?”

Jacques’ gaze swept over Jenni before he met her eyes with a smirk. “Anyone who wouldn’t treat you specially is an idiot.”

Completely against her will, Jenni felt her face flush at the flattery. Damn it, that was a good play. Well, heck, maybe it would help if he felt like he had one over on her. “Tell that to my boss,” she muttered with a wry half-smile. “Actually, don’t. She’ll think I used my wiles on you.”

Jacques raised his eyebrows. “Oho, you have wiles?” He gave her another lazy look, and smiled. “No, I can see you do. And so do I—maybe even good enough ones to convince that boss of yours.”

Jenni laughed and put a hand to her mouth to rein it in. “I would truly love to see you try. Shards, why didn’t I ever try that? No—” She shook her head. “I definitely wouldn’t get away with it, that’s why. I’d get stuck on the dead shift for a month.” She chuckled some more and drank some of her tea to re-wet her throat. “Thanks for the mental image, though!”

Jacques grinned. “It can be more than that, if you like. Who’s your boss?”

“Hm . . .” Jenni pursed her lips to one side. “Now that you mention it, three options, each entertaining in their own way. Who would you rather try, the icy head nurse, the kindly old doc, or the telepathic kudzu plant?”

Jacques shrugged, and rested his mug on his leg. “Who would you rather I try? Flirting with the Flowers is fun—never really goes anywhere, which is fine, but apparently not too many people do it, so the reactions are great—”

“Wait, really?” She’d only thrown in the Kudzu as the kicker in the classic “arson, murder, jaywalking” gag.

“Mm.” Jacques nodded. “It surprised the Marquis, I think, especially the first time. I’m pretty sure none of the ones I’ve tried are even remotely attracted to humanoids, but I can live with that. It’s just fun to see how much scandalized leaf-waving I can get out of them once they catch on.”

He was serious. Jenni was impressed. A slow smile spread across her face as she considered the scenario less hypothetically. “D’you know what, it’s just possible the Kudzu might go for it? I’m fairly certain she’s fascinated by all of us mammals and our alien social behavior, and that could extend to a degree of openness to experimentation. You know, For Science. Vines, though . . . wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea. So to speak.” She sipped hers, and watched Jacques.

Jacques smiled. “Clearly, you’ve never met the Trees of Cheem or anyone like them.”

Jenni was intrigued, and furthermore, she saw an opening. “I’ll take that to mean you have. Do tell.”

That got her a chuckle. “It was a while ago. A really long while ago. One of my first times out on the Time Agency’s dime, actually. I ditched my partner and stepped into a bar, and before I knew it, someone straight out of my old school texts was eyeing me from three seats down. They’re arboreal humanoids, the Trees of Cheem. Fascinating people. They’re highly intelligent, very wealthy—it’s something to do with land holdings, I remember that much—and they’re . . . well, they’re trees. Descended from . . .” He frowned. “Rainforests? Tropical? Some sort of forest on Earth. Anyway, they’re made of wood, apart from these vines they’re really secretive about.”

One corner of Jenni’s mouth turned up. “Oh, my.” She pulled off a passable George Takei.

Jacques grinned at her, and took up the thread of the story again. “Anyway, that’s what I was looking at: a pretty, humanoid tree in a spring-colored dress. It took me a good two minutes to remember what was safe for them to drink—didn’t matter, though, because she made a move first.” He paused to sip his tea, glad of the moisture. “She said she was like me: one of the younger ones, new to being off-world. We bonded some, had a few drinks . . . had a few more drinks . . .” He grinned.

The nurse’s eyebrows twitched briefly in concern at the heavy drinking, but she said nothing. She wasn’t about to derail him the first time he gave her more than three sentences together, especially not when the story was getting interesting.

No more talking, Jacques thought. That was odd . . . oh. So that was her game. Well, he’d have to be careful what he said, that was all, lest he find himself boxed in.

He shrugged mentally and continued. “Anyway, she was a lot more fun than my partner for that mission. He was a pain to work with—he walked in the next morning, and you know what he did? Told her to get out, like he had the right to do that, and threatened to leave without me. And then, when I’d joined him for the observation—we’d finished the mission, we were only hanging around to make sure it stuck—he tried to lecture me about sleeping with civilians.” He shook his head. “I think I told him . . . yeah, I said it was too bad he wanted to sleep with me so badly, since he’d lost his chance.” He smiled, and ran his thumb over the mug’s handle. “See, no one cared if we slept with civilians so long as the jobs got done. Hell, it was encouraged.” He nearly added that it was sometimes a great way to get information, but caught himself just in time.

Jenni stared a moment, caught up in a reaction that was too personal to be allowed a voice in a professional setting. The end of the story had reminded her of an incident in her own past when she’d been criticized for being in bed with someone by a jealous man who had no business passing judgement. In contrast to Jacques, she wasn’t sure she’d ever had the luxury of no one caring what she did with civilians or non-civilians, especially if they were canon natives. At the least, she cared enough to police her own impulses, which had frequently left her miserably lonely, with no one to tell, because it was no one else’s burden to bear and most people wouldn’t understand anyway.

But she wasn’t about to say gosh, that must have been nice to a statement that was objectively kind of callous.

“Far be it from me to ever criticize the affection of two sapient adults,” she said distantly, then refocused. She had an opportunity for a response that fell within the scope of her job and might even satisfy some of her curiosity, too. It would be a shame to blow it on selfish envy.

She rolled her shoulders and sat up straighter. “Can I ask what the Time Agency is? Off the top of my head, I can think of four or five organizations that fit the general premise, but I get the sense that yours may be more meddlesome than average.”

Jacques eyed her in silence for a bit, then nodded slowly. “You don’t know much about Jack Harkness, do you.”

Jenni shook her head. “Only the broadest strokes. Sorry, maybe I should have said. I assume that’s why you were sent to me: so you’d have space to be you.”

“Mm.” Jacques looked at her, considering. That changed things: it meant she hadn’t been trying to steer him towards uncovering differences between himself and Jack, wasn’t dissecting him mentally to see where exactly those differences were—it meant she could possibly be seeing him first.

He’d spent the last couple months around people who, well-meaning or not, saw his face before they saw him. It didn’t help either that, thus far, it was turning out to be the case that he and Jack shared a large handful of surface similarities: they flirted with everyone, could do misdirection as easily as breathing, had the same accent and look and similar speech patterns . . .

But a CAD had determined that he wasn’t Jack, as had six agents and the real Jack in a plothole—and hadn’t that been unsettling. Time travel he could deal with; looking at what had always, to his memory, been his own face and trying to understand that he was someone else now had been covered under no training that he remembered. So here he was, stuck with people prodding him to find differences that generally ran far too deep for him to be at all comfortable bringing them up or answering questions about them.

Now, though, there was Jenni Robinson, and she . . .

She was prodding, but she wasn’t trying to get at whatever might prove him different and dismissing the similarities. She seemed to want to get to know him.

Now there was a dangerous thought.

Still, she was there and she was waiting, with those unsettling (striking) green eyes watching him as he watched her.

Why not.

He grinned at her, fixing a large sign labeled THERAPIST at the front of his mind as he began to talk. He had a feeling he’d need the reminder. “So, you want to know about the Time Agency?”

Jenni’s mildly concerned expression relaxed into a smile. “Sure I do. I’m woefully ignorant. Help me out?”

“I can be very helpful,” Jacques said with a wink. “All right. The Time Agency is an organization that exists to keep the timelines from fracturing. See, by the fifty-first century—hell, before it—time travel devices had become available. Expensive, but still available. So . . . well, you’re the therapist: you tell me. What happens when people get access to unregulated time travel?”

Her eyes widened and she let out a puff of breath. “Oh, boy.” It didn’t take much effort to imagine how that could spiral rapidly out of control; others had considered the question before her. “Bit tangential, but you don’t happen to know the card game Chrononauts, do you?”

Jacques shook his head. “No, but from the name . . . it’s something to do with time travelers?”

“Well spotted.” Jenni smiled and tipped her head to him. “Multiple time travelers, each trying to create the conditions of the alternate reality they came from by altering key events in history—and possibly trying to steal the Mona Lisa or pick up a collection of dinosaurs while they’re at it, for profit. Fun. Especially when one possible outcome is an Earth inhabited by a race of super-evolved cockroaches who really want World War III to happen so they can exist.” She paused. “I hope you didn’t run into anything quite like that. Right idea, though?”

Jacques was wincing long before she finished. “Definitely the right idea. When people suddenly get time travel devices—when they’re available to whoever in the public can gather together enough money or just plain steal one—some of them start thinking they can do whatever they want. You get the joyriders who want to meet everyone, the righteous ones who want to stop tragedies, the ones who just want to go see some event they’ve been studying but don’t dress right or leave advanced technology there by accident . . . it becomes a mess. A very big mess. The Time Agency was formed to . . . I hesitate to say ‘police it’, but I think that might have been the original idea.”

Jenni nodded. “Sounds a bit familiar. I feel what you mean about this job being easier, though. The rules of fiction are clearer than the rules of reality—‘reality’ being the continuum you happen to be living in at the time.”

“Less complicated, too,” Jacques agreed. “Fewer perspectives to take into account, for one thing. Though, funnily enough, setting things to rights because ‘that’s the way it goes’ overlaps. Only here, nothing’s left up to our discretion apart from how to rehome anything uncanonical.”

A brief frown crossed Jenni’s face. Former multiversal joyrider that she was, she couldn’t quite let go of her frustration over being obliged to accept “the way it goes” when everyone’s perspective ought to matter and everything could go so much better with a little more love and acceptance in the mix. That was why she chose to be here, where she could actually make a difference.

She schooled her expression and refocused on Jacques. He was nice to focus on, and nicer now they were having a more free and open conversation and some of the strain had left his eyes. “Like yourself?” she asked gently.

Jacques’ expression had been friendly, even open; now something behind it hardened.

“If you like,” he said shortly. This was what he got for starting to forget why they were here. “Anyway, it’s been a while since I was a Time Agent. Ancient history, really.”

Jenni inwardly ran through a string of curses. Wrong question, wrong time. Bugger. “Right,” she said regretfully. “I understand.”

“Mm,” Jacques said. “So you have your facts straight—I was working for an organization called Torchwood before I came here. Running it, actually. Nothing to do with time travel, everything to do with defending the Earth from alien threats. That’s where I ended up.”

“Thanks.” She offered a conciliatory smile. “I know of it, but not much beyond the name.” And the fact that Jack Harkness ran it.

Jacques shrugged. “I hear there’s a television series that’ll tell you everything you want to know.”

“Yes. Somehow, I’ve just never gotten around to it.” Jenni picked up her tea, which she’d all but forgotten, and nursed the cup while trying to think of a way out of the hole she’d dug herself into.

Jacques watched her, running a fingertip around the rim of his mug. He’d really been starting to like her, was the problem: she was quick, quicker than anyone else he could think of in HQ, and playful into the bargain. The idea of seducing her out of her position as his therapist had never really left his mind, especially not with how well they’d been clicking. He’d already known that, had they met in a different setting, he would have flirted with her as hard as she’d let him. After the revelation that she had far fewer ulterior motives than he’d expected, he’d begun to understand that he would normally be trying to set up something more lasting.

And now this, with its completely irrational sting of betrayal, and suddenly he was back to being stuck in a room with a brilliant woman who was being paid to dissect his thoughts and emotions and never, ever flirt save to put him at ease.

Some days, he hated the multiverse.

“Jacques?” Jenni looked up again. “I’m sorry. I thought maybe we could talk about more recent history, but I understand if it’s too raw.”

Jacques pursed his lips. “That’s your job, isn’t it? To pry into everything?”

She flinched from the all-too-true accusation. “That’s not the only reason I do it. I chose this job to help people. Why’d you choose yours?”

Jacques raised his eyebrows. “Which one?”

“The last one. Protecting the Earth.”

Jacques snorted. “I needed something to do. I was waiting for someone—the Doctor, maybe you’ve heard of him—and I thought, well, where better to keep an eye out for a time-traveling alien than inside an organization monitoring alien interactions with Earth? And hey, where better to hide for a while if I wasn’t going to move around?”

Jenni held back another emotional retort. His response frustrated her. Her instincts and the scraps of meta-information she had all told her it wasn’t the whole truth. Heck, her reasons for joining the PPC could be summed up similarly as going to ground and needing something to do. Those being the facts didn’t preclude having genuinely honorable motivations, too. She would have sworn she and Jacques were similar in that regard, and she’d wanted him to admit it, so they could talk about it.

But . . . It’s not about you. Don’t forget that.

She let off a dry chuckle, mostly at her own foibles. Damn it, but she wanted to talk to him as a peer, not from this enforced remove. It had been a while since the bounds of professionalism had felt this restrictive.

“All right, maybe I’m off-base,” she said. “I’m not always right. Alert the press.” She gave a self-deprecating smile, and hoped admitting to fallibility would make her seem more like a normal person and less like an examiner with a scalpel.

Jacques smiled back without much humor. “Didn’t know we had one. How’s the quality?”

Jenni’s eyebrows rose in surprise and delight. “Oh. You haven’t encountered the Multiverse Monitor yet.”

“No, I haven’t,” Jacques said. “Should I be fixing that?”

“Depends.” Jenni leaned forward. “Do you enjoy outrageous tabloids that are rarely true, often scandalous, and always have a Page Three whether we like it or not?”

Jacques grinned. “Do I ever. Who goes on Page Three here? Agents, or canons?”

Jenni’s smile grew to match. “Agents—more pin-up shots than topless ones, but girls and boys and everything else.” She was not about to mention that she herself had featured in the 2006 October edition. Likely she’d have to deal with it later, but oh well. Possible awkwardness later was worth definite camaraderie now.

“Glorious,” Jacques said. He took a sip of tea, and licked his lips thoughtfully. “So how do I get a subscription?”

“Write to—wait, it’s changed recently. I think it’s Response Center 2536 now? And then don’t blame me for any mental scarring you might end up with if you actually read the articles.” She wrinkled her nose playfully.

Jacques grinned at her. “I’m a bit hard to scar. I doubt you’ll hear any complaints.”

Jenni nodded. “Good.” Then she slapped her thigh in happy realization. “Oh, I almost forgot, there’s a Canon Character of the Month, too. Which they used to call ‘Lust Object of the Month’. They’re trying to be classier.” She shook her head and rolled her eyes: fat chance.

Jacques leaned forward slightly. “Canon characters from all over, or just a few different canons?”

She had to think for a moment. “In theory, all over. In practice, the enduring classics and whatever’s most popular at the time.”

“Sounds like a good time.”

Jenni agreed, but a bit of their earlier conversation about encounters with civilians came back to her, and she tilted her head. “I hate to do this, but I think I’m contractually obligated to stress that, while Upstairs tolerates agents having strong feelings about canon characters because it motivates us to do our jobs, there’s a pretty strict ‘look, don’t touch’ policy. Something about egregious fraternization compromising the integrity of the plot continuum, and so forth. If you’re going to touch, stick to consenting residents of Headquarters.” She gave another small wink.

Jacques waved a hand. “Oh, no, I’ve been told that already. And complied with it, too,” he added. “Although, if you’ve got a particular resident of Headquarters to recommend . . .” He smiled, and let his gaze trail pointedly down to her mouth—and then less pointedly along the curve of her jaw. It wasn’t much of an act: he really, honestly wanted to know what kind of response a kiss or three there would produce, even after all the uncomfortable questions. Perhaps especially because it might stop more of them, unlikely as that was beginning to sound (and damn that for making her seem more attractive, not less).

“One or two.” Jenni’s smile broke wicked. “Have you met Agent Luxury? By which I mean been glomped by Agent Luxury? She’s very welcoming. Loves new people.”

Jacques grinned and lifted his gaze back to her eyes. Luxury was always a good topic, and it wasn’t every day he met someone who seemed to share that opinion. Jenni was really starting to grow on him again. “Yes, and yes. She’s great.”

“She is!” Just as surprised and pleased, Jenni nodded once in firm approval. “The poor woman is incredibly misunderstood, but she’s really sweet, and she knows how to let go and have fun. No baggage, no strings, just . . . fun.” Sexy fun.

Jacques chuckled. “Yeah, she’s . . . fun, like you say.” He eyed her. “I take it you’ve had some fun with her before?”

“That’s a bit of a personal question.” Jenni’s eyes danced.

“Which you asked first,” Jacques pointed out.

“Yes . . .” Jenni dialed it back a bit. “But I’m sworn to confidentiality, and you’re not,” she said with careful levity, not wishing to stress the job so much it would unravel the rapport they’d just gotten back. “That’s why I get to ask the personal questions and not answer them. Even if I’d like to.”

“Touché,” Jacques murmured. “Although, you realize, I could refuse to answer.” Probably will again, if you ask the wrong questions. He smiled. “I can be very good at not answering.”

Jenni smiled back gently. “I’ve noticed.” She decided to try a more direct approach. “Frankly, if you wanted to just sit there and make that old couch look good, I could live with that. It’s my office—I have ways to fill an hour here. As for you, when you get right down to it, it’s your choice whether you want to get something out of this or not.”

Jacques pursed his lips. “So, basically, if I bring a book and some pizza to our next session, you won’t say a word.”

“If that’s what you need.” She meant it, but the tilt of her head and the cant of her eyebrows suggested he might try to sell her a bridge next if he thought she believed it.

Jacques smiled slowly. “There’s always the chance you could convince me to share the pizza.”

“In that case, make it a movie and pizza, and it could still be a constructive use of time. Gotta keep up with the big franchises. The MCU is a nightmare, for one.” Jenni grimaced, thinking of the state of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers the last time they’d been in the department. Imposed ABO just wasn’t a good look on anybody.

“Well, I don’t mind missions there,” Jacques mused. He met her eyes and smiled. “Sounds like a nice date. I might be in.”

“Are you free this time next week?” Jenni grinned.

“I’ll have to check my schedule,” Jacques drawled. “I might have work, you see. I’ve got this great job, but the hours sure can shift.”

Jenni nodded, turning serious. “That’s the truth. It can be frustrating, if you’re sensitive to it. Which, as a seasoned time traveler, I’d guess you are.”

Jacques shrugged. “It’s a bit to get used to, but I’d take it over a time loop any day. And it’s a lot more interesting than the usual sort of linear time, if I’m honest. I don’t really mind it anymore.”

For a brief moment, Jenni considered pointing out what she knew about this particular timeline from a non-linear vantage, just to see if it would shake his blasé, everything-in-stride façade. But, no. That, to use the common parlance, would be a dick move, not to mention revealing far more about herself than she intended to.

“It is amazing what you can get used to,” she said. “In February, I helped throw a party for a friend of mine, and I know there were people there who’d already lived some events from October. And some from next year, even, but one of them was a Time Lady.” She gave a small shrug.

Jacques grinned. “You mentioned the Blackout, earlier? I was recruited after it happened.”

“Oh, jeez.” Jenni chuckled. “How’d you end up going back? Any idea, or did it just happen that way?”

“Slipped through a plothole?” Jacques suggested. He shrugged. “I know that I know, but it’s . . . fuzzy. I just know I got there and back again, and had a good time doing it.” He winked at her.

Jenni shook her head, smiling. “So what’s it gonna take to get the whole story? Enquiring minds who were stuck in FicPsych dealing with headaches and crazy canons the whole time want to know.”

Jacques laughed easily, and leaned back against the sofa. “Honestly, I’ve already told the story so many times I’m sick of it. Suffice it to say I made some new friends and helped solve a mystery.”

“Sounds like the makings of a Saturday morning classic. But all right, fair enough.” Jenni leaned back herself. “Friends are good. I’m really happy to hear that.” She loaded the statement with sincerity. The recruits who couldn’t connect were the ones who eventually lost their minds and snapped, or just vanished, never to be heard from again. She had a soapbox dedicated to lecturing agents to think before recruiting for just that reason.

“Friends are good,” Jacques agreed. The emphasized sincerity amused him: he’d obviously chosen the right details to mention, whether or not she actually believed him. “Especially in new places.” He leaned forward, lowering his voice confidentially. “See, they tend to know all the shortcuts and the best places to buy essentials. Make a little effort to befriend people, and you’ll be settled in with a good sense of community before you know it.”

Jenni gave a slow blink. “I’ll be sure to tell Dr. Freedenberg you’ve read his book. He’ll be delighted.”

Jacques raised his eyebrows. “He’s got a book? That didn’t come up.”

“It’s not terribly professional to flog your merchandise to a client,” Jenni said. “Well, not in this profession.” Her mouth turned up on one side. “But there’s a whole box of ’em hanging out in the break room, if you want a copy or five.”

Jacques chuckled. “One is probably plenty,” he said. He settled back against the couch again, resisting the urge to shift around even more. “I’ll have a look. Thanks for the tip.”

“I hear that’s what friends are for,” Jenni said with perfect mildness.

Jacques raised his eyebrows. “Let me guess: you read it in the book?”

Jenni shook her head. “I find experience is the best teacher.”

“Oh, I agree,” Jacques said, smirking faintly. “I’ve always liked learning through experience.”

Jenni let her own smile spread. “I reckon you could teach me a thing or two, if you wanted to.”

“Oh, I want to,” Jacques said, and borrowed some of her earlier sincerity for good measure. “I’d love to.” He leaned forward again, smiling warmly. “Just say the word.”

Jenni didn’t answer right away, because she was mentally kicking herself for saying too much already and still wishing she could say more. The cruel thing was, she honestly believed she would do Jacques more good as a friend than a shrink. The two of them were very clearly cut from similar cloth, and she herself would happily bare her soul to someone analyzing her out of impersonal obligation when Hell froze. A clinical setting just had that effect on some people. Jacques was one of them, and he was smart enough to give her the runaround all day.

Likely, that was all this was, and she’d be an idiot to fall for it. She decided to call his bluff. “Supposing . . . just supposing . . . that I said yes . . . ?”

Jacques’ smile didn’t budge; if anything, it intensified. “Then we’d be having a far more interesting time of it.”

Jenni gave a minute shake of her head. “You’re very interesting, Jacques. You’ve had my attention since you walked in—and that’s not because it’s my job.”

Jacques winked at her. “Glad to hear it. You’ve had my attention since I walked in, too . . . and not because of your job, either.”

She folded her arms. Time for a harder test. “And what if I told you I have a sometime partner? We’re open, but would that change your tune?”

Jacques considered it for all of a second. “If you’re open? No, not at all. Although I have to wonder why you think it would.”

A sometime partner—that could mean good things, he thought. If there was any chance at all that she'd go for him, a sometime partner meant space for something entirely pleasant to develop.

He did wonder who the partner was. Maybe he’d ask around HQ later. Subtly, of course. He couldn’t imagine Jenni being too happy about him adding substantially to the rumors around HQ, especially if she and this partner had mostly been keeping their involvement private.

Jenni tried and failed to determine by Jacques’ face alone whether his last remark meant he was really that much her kind of guy or just an opportunistic scoundrel. He didn’t give her the sense of the latter—not much, anyway—but the former seemed too good to be true. “In my experience,” she said, “when it comes to this sort of thing, most people either get very skittish about numbers greater than two, or they just don’t care what they might be barging into. I don’t have time for the former and I’m not interested in the latter.”

Jacques chuckled. “Luckily, I’m neither. I’m one of the people who’s already had a good long walk in your shoes, and liked the fit. I don’t get skittish, and I don’t try to stampede over established relationships, either.”

Jenni was still a moment, then shook her head with a frustrated “tch” of tongue against teeth. “Okay, so here’s my problem right now: I’d really like to believe you, but my bullshit-o-meter has been reading a mean fifty percent this whole time, and I can’t tell if this is part of the bullshit smokescreen or if this is real talk. I have to make a decision about what to do next, so do you think you could be serious for a hot minute so I make the right one?”

Jacques shifted against the back of the couch, intrigued. “Sure, I can do that.” His gaze remained on her, openly attentive for once.

She nodded. “What do you want? Meaning,” she quickly clarified an impossibly open question, “you’ve got the option of continuing with me in a professional capacity, which . . .” She smiled wryly. “It could be managed. Probably. Or, I can refer you to someone else. You’re not getting off the hook for maintenance sessions, just so that’s perfectly clear. So: what do you want?”

Jacques tilted his head to one side. “What exactly happens if you refer me to someone else?”

“Exactly?” Jenni tapped one finger against her knee, thinking. “Hm. Probably Mirrad . . . He might ask you to meditate, or he could give you one of his ineffable Minbari koans at the start of each session, and you’d only have to talk at the end, when you explained what you got out of it to him, and he would say something like ‘Hm, that is very interesting, Jacques, thank you’. Meanwhile, I would face a certain number of raised eyebrows and a certain number of mostly-friendly jeers, because there is absolutely no keeping secrets in this department and everyone would eventually know, or think they know, why I did it. But, I sincerely hope, it would be worth it, because you and I might actually be able to get to know one another, and have a good time doing it.” She mirrored his head-tilt. “Does that about cover it?”

“Raises a few questions, but otherwise, yeah,” Jacques said. He smiled. “So. It’s as simple as that, huh? I tell you my choice, and it goes into effect?”

“More or less. It’ll be my name attached to the end results on paper, but it’s like I said earlier: ultimately, it’s up to you to decide if you want to get something out of this whole process, and indeed what that something looks like. My role is to take what you give me and use my expertise to facilitate the best possible outcome.” This statement was delivered straight-faced and not, as might have been expected, as an innuendo.

“And if I decide that what I want to get out of this is to take you to dinner?” Jacques raised his eyebrows.

Jenni allowed herself to smile. “I think there’s something like a two-week, mandated probationary period after the cessation of a therapist-client relationship before I would be free to take you up on that. But I’d like to.”

Jacques smiled back at her. “Then that’s my decision: refer me to someone else.” He rolled his shoulders, leaning back more comfortably than he had all session and stretching his legs out in front of him. “Are we allowed to talk in the meantime? Get to know each other outside of all this,” he waved a hand at her office, “but not yet at dinner?”

Poor guy, Jenni thought. He’d been that wound up, and the most effective way she’d been able to help him relax was simply to resign the obligation to do so. It was a little sad, but on the other hand, she was gratified to know she had done the right thing. It would be all right.

“Technically, no, I don’t think so,” she said. “But it’s not like I’m going to ignore you if we run into each other in the halls. And, well . . .” She glanced over her shoulder at her computer’s clock. “We’ve got about twenty minutes left here, if you want to just hang loose. No pressure.”

Well, then,” Jacques said. “In that case, let’s take advantage of those twenty minutes.” He smiled at her. “Why don’t you come join me over here, and we can make some fresh tea? We can try out having a more even conversation, too.”

“It’s like you read my mind.” Grinning hugely, Jenni got up, removed their mugs to her desk, and restarted the electric kettle. Somehow, the fact that he had no clue about the irony of her remark made it better. “Just have to reverse the order of operations A and B. How was the tea, by the way? Should I do anything differently this time?”

“It could steep a little longer,” Jacques said. “I’m used to drinking it strong. Other than that, don’t change a thing.”

Jenni leveled a mock-critical look at him and affected a haughty, upper-class accent. “My dear Mr. Bonnefoy, I don’t know how they do things in the fifty-first century, but in civilized eras, one does not make ‘strong’ tea by steeping it to death. One uses more tea.” She dropped the act and smiled. “Which I will happily do for you.”

Jacques raised his hands in surrender. “You know, somehow, when I got recruited, I thought I was done dealing with strong opinions on tea. I see I was wrong.”

“’Fraid so.” Jenni couldn’t quite bring herself to be sorry about it. Her smile stayed put as she prepared fresh balls of loose leaf. “I’m the nice tea nut, though. I know people who think adding anything to it is blasphemy and will fight you, and Powers forbid you suggest any infusion but Camellia sinensis is tea!”

Jacques shook his head. “I’ve known people a bit like that. I can’t say I’ve ever understood it, but hey—a hundred-forty years still doesn’t make it my home culture. Some things you just . . . learn to let go. Mostly things like the classification of different types of food and drink—you know, I once overheard a very long argument about whether or not a hot dog is a sandwich?”

“Hah! It won’t be the first or the last,” Jenni said, rolling her eyes at the nonsense. “The answer, of course, is that it depends on how you look at the question. Paradoxes stop being a problem when you realize that everything is true somewhere.” She poured the freshly boiled kettle.

“Depends on the paradox,” Jacques said. He got up and went to join her, happy to stand close even if all that was happening was the brewing of tea.

She looked up at him—he had about five inches on her—and smiled. He was a tall drink of water for sure, with an intense presence she could practically feel enveloping her, and he smelled good. “Like what?”

Jacques shrugged. She was lovelier up close—and he’d definitely been right about appreciating her eyes more under new circumstances. Wow. “I’ve seen some paradoxes. The last one only stopped being a problem when we broke what was powering it. A change in thought perspective wouldn’t have done anything.”

Part of him couldn’t believe he was even able to bring that up casually. Another part, though—that part of him remembered the moment with furious satisfaction.

Ah. Real paradoxes. Jenni tilted her head. “Now you’ve got me curious about what happened.” This close to him, she could see the sudden wariness enter his eyes. She put a hand lightly on his forearm: please don’t go away. “You understand I’m in the job because it’s who I am, don’t you? It’s not the other way around, or a switch I can just turn off. I want to know you because . . . I just do.”

Jacques nodded slowly. “Jenni . . . if I’m honest?”

“That’s usually best for everyone.”

That got a chuckle, though he soon turned serious. “People who want to know me, really know me—I’ve got a lot more experience not letting them than anything else. The last person—forget whose memories they are, it doesn’t matter, but—the last one I remember beginning to try with was Ianto Jones, in 2007 or so. Before that? So long ago I can’t even remember. It’s been very, very rare, you see, that I've found people I thought would take even some of the truths about me well, let alone all of them.”

He felt Jenni’s hand tighten on his arm, and paused for a moment to take her in. Her lovely eyes were wide, her lips parted as though she wanted to talk but was restraining herself. He thought for a moment that he could actually feel recognition radiating from her—but no, that was unlikely, wasn't it? Or was it, given that this was HQ? He’d have to find a way to bring up the question sometime.

For now, though, he had more to say, and so he went on before her self-control could fail. “Being here? Back where just about everything is taken as normal? I’m not used to it, and even if I was, people tend to know a lot about me by the time I open my mouth. Hiding in the same way . . . there just isn’t much point to it. Which is fine, but it hasn’t exactly made me more eager to start spilling my secrets. In fact, I’d say it’s done the opposite.”

Jenni waited an extra moment, just in case he had more to tell her. When it was clear that was all, she let her fingers trail down to brush the back of his hand, and then curl under to hold it. “I get it,” she said with feeling. “I . . .”

Her voice hitched, and she paused. She wanted very badly to tell him how well she understood what he meant, but hypothetically giving herself the freedom to share alike was one thing; really doing it was another. But this was the whole point, wasn’t it? Moments exactly like this, where the importance of letting someone know they were not alone was paramount.

She sighed, making up her mind. “Truth for truth: I’m not strictly ‘what you see is what you get’ myself. Not strictly mortal, not strictly human, even. Not letting on is a hard habit to break. Choosing who to be when you’re not sure, and it feels like everyone already has assumptions about you . . . that’s hard, too. I know.” Her gaze had fallen away to stare vaguely at the top of her desk, but now she met Jacques’ eyes again. “Listen: I don’t know Jack Harkness. I want to know who Jacques Bonnefoy will choose to be. And I’d like to help however I can. That’s the truth.” She gave his hand a squeeze.

“Want another truth?” Jacques murmured. He closed his fingers around hers and shifted closer, raising his free hand to trail along her jawline. “I’d really like to kiss you right now.” His eyes were intent: this was not the calculatedly playful flirtation of earlier, but a straightforward confession of one person to another.

Jenni’s sigh now was of an entirely different character from the last one. She leaned her cheek into his touch. “I would so like to let you. Really shouldn’t, though.” If that arrow were loosed, she was certain there would be no calling it back; the line of tension strung between them had a heavy draw. Before her emotions overcame her resolve, she took a step back and let Jacques’ hand go. She wrapped her arms around herself and looked down at the cups of tea steeping on her desk. “You might be getting that extra-bitter brew after all.”

Jacques sighed as well, but let the new distance between them stand. He did know something about professionalism in this century and the last, for all he remembered making a career out of frequently ignoring bits of it. If Jenni thought it was this important, he'd play along. “Well, see, that’s what the sugar’s for.”

“Yep.” She busied her hands with putting the final touches on the tea. “I’ve heard salt is actually better at cancelling bitterness, but that is tea blasphemy. Here you go.” She gave Jacques his cup back with a rueful smile.

Jacques took it, making no effort to keep their fingers from brushing, and tipped his head at the sofa. “Shall we?”

“Mm.” Jenni nodded and went one way around the coffee table, leaving him to go the other. Free association suggested something about a high road and a low road, but she wasn’t sure this was either. She usually preferred a middle path anyway. This was fine. This would be good, and do no harm, and probably not result in her getting reprimanded for conduct unbecoming of her authority in the meantime.

She made an effort to quell her sudden nerves—no doubt amplified by the spike of adrenaline she’d just had—and smiled at Jacques as he joined her. It wasn’t his problem to worry about, and she wouldn’t let it become so.

Jacques, being Jacques, sat down close enough for their knees to brush. “Well, this is a lot nicer,” he said, smiling. “It’s a comfortable little sofa, but I’ve got to say, I like it a lot better shared.”

“Can’t argue with that. I think most things are better shared.” Jenni was happy enough to have and return the contact, however limited. She watched him with an open expression.

“Certainly seating arrangements,” Jacques drawled. He sipped his tea, frowning slightly. She seemed to be waiting, letting him take his turn at asking questions, of which he had so very many. The problem, of course, was where to start. He could bring up the ‘sometime partner’, but . . . no. There were more pressing matters. “So—great tea, by the way,” he said, losing the frown momentarily as he winked at her.

“Oh, good.” She cautiously tasted hers and wrinkled her nose. “A little overdone by my litmus, but not too much.”

“Underdone, by mine, if anything,” Jacques said, smirking. “But very good. Anyway.” The frown returned, and was soon joined by a searching look. “You mentioned being neither strictly mortal nor strictly human. Not that either of those are so unusual here, but . . . care to elaborate?”

No was Jenni’s gut reaction, and it told in the slight but clear hunch of her shoulders. “It’s a little complicated,” she muttered. Out of a sense of fairness, she wanted to explain, but, well, old habits. With an effort, she found some words to use. “I guess the simplest way to put it is that being corporeal is optional for me. It’s the option I prefer, though.” She sipped her tea again, as if to say this was one of the chief perks. It wasn’t untrue.

“Huh,” Jacques said. He’d caught her discomfort. In response, he found himself pulling out the distraction brand of flirtation that Jenni’s earlier prodding at his own secrets had elicited. Employing it on her behalf might surprise her, in light of the previous context; still, fresh starts, right? “Well, it’s definitely a preferable option in my book.” His gaze swept over her, lingering—lingering more, in fact, than it had before. When he met her eyes again, it was with a smile. “Did you get to choose what you look like, too?”

With a more than tolerant smile for his scrutiny, she tilted her hand, yes and no. “I think I could look different if I wanted to, but . . .” She shrugged. “Can’t say I’ve tried. Not for an extremely long time, anyway. This feels right.”

“If it feels right, you’re probably on the right track,” Jacques said. “So, I have to ask: are you a bit telepathic? I could’ve sworn I felt something earlier, when I was telling you about trying to open up to people before we sat down.”

Her cringe this time was more pronounced and accompanied by a fierce blush. “You noticed that? I’m sorry—I slipped. What you said . . . resonated, for reasons that may now be obvious. This—” she gestured toward her brow “—it’s not a secret, but I don’t go around advertising. It makes people nervous.” She glanced up at him sidelong, questioning. He didn’t look nervous, but he probably wouldn’t show it even if he were.

“I’ve had some training meant to help me catch on to the subtler uses of telepathy,” Jacques said. “That’s more often the kind of thing you need to watch out for—how often do you run into a strong telepath, much less one who thinks you’re worth the bother of anything more than a few nudges in the right direction?” He shook his head. “I’m guessing you follow some sort of rules about it?”

Jenni nodded, frowning pensively at her knees. “I don’t go where I’m not invited. I’ll talk that way to my friend who’s an Andalite—they only have thought-speech—but otherwise it’s pretty much under lock and key.”

“Must get pretty frustrating, being limited to talking and body language,” Jacques said. He braced his arm against the back of the sofa, turning farther toward her. “Especially around people you want to help.”

She laughed softly through her nose. “It’s challenging, for sure. Fortunately, I like a challenge.” She glanced up again with a small smile.

Jacques smiled back. “You really do, don’t you? I’ve got to say, it’s a pretty great character trait in my book.”

For a moment, Jenni just looked into his eyes and enjoyed what she saw there: sympathy, acceptance, interest. The polar opposite of the wariness and suspicion she usually got when people found out she could, hypothetically, influence their minds. “You’re not put off, then? That would be extremely unfortunate at this point.”

“‘Put off’,” Jacques repeated. “No, I can’t say that’s what I’m feeling. So long as you stick to your morals about it, which I suspect you do, I can’t see it becoming a problem. It’s just another part of who you are.”

It was Jenni’s turn to be moved deeply enough to throw propriety to the wind and kiss the man, but she held it in and retreated back to slightly crass humor. “I am a woman of excellent parts, as the saying goes.”

“Very excellent,” Jacques purred, with a look up and down to punctuate the sentence. “You know, we should revisit some of those parts in two weeks. I think it could make life even more interesting.”

“I like the sound of that.” Jenni returned his gaze in kind. “You’ve got some pretty nice qualities yourself.” She grinned. “Intelligence, curiosity, good sense of humor . . .”

“A great smile,” Jacques suggested with a grin and a wink.

Jenni gave him a nod and a wink back. “That, too.”

Jacques leaned back against the sofa, lowering his arm. “Well, now I’m looking forward to two weeks from now even more.” He raised his mug and took a sip, holding eye contact perhaps a moment or five too long for innocent conversation.

“Yeah.” Jenni raised both eyebrows and sighed, communicating her regret for the enforced delay. But it was necessary. Feelings born in the heat of a moment could, theoretically, change in two weeks’ time. She didn’t think it was remotely likely in this case, not when the two of them were so much alike and in sync already, but Da Rules were Da Rules.

When the moments were enough verging on too much, she picked up her own tea again and let the silence stretch out and get comfortable.

“Right,” Jacques said eventually. “Not that I wouldn’t love to keep enjoying the quiet with you, but since we’re a bit short on time . . .”

“You have more burning questions?” Jenni shifted so she was leaning as much against the arm of the couch as the back, an invitational posture.

“Just a few,” Jacques said, smiling. He hesitated. “Never ask a lady her age, I know that well enough, but—ballpark figure?” He smiled winningly. “I’ll answer a question for you in return, if you like. I don't see any reason why this can't go both ways.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Charm won’t get you quite everywhere. But, no . . . the truth is, I don’t know precisely. Best I can say for certain is more than several lifetimes, because that’s what I can pin down to rational, linear time.”

“And how long is a lifetime, by your count?” Jacques asked. It felt like a reasonable question: even limited to one species on one planet in one year, life expectancy varied.

“On average?” Jenni’s eyebrows contracted as she thought; then she shook her head. “Too much math. The thing is, I haven’t always bothered with the whole process of aging, so it gets a little confusing. A few years here, thirty or so there. I properly hit a hundred a couple times, though, so . . . long story short, I’m older than you.” She smiled.

Jacques nodded slowly. “I guess you are. Well, all right, then.”

Jenni ran her eyes interrogatively over him. “Does that offer of a return question still stand?”

Jacques nodded. “Go ahead.” He had promised, after all, even if worry was beginning to gnaw at the edges of his thoughts.

Jenni thought another moment. What to ask that wouldn’t bruise his trust? She ruled out anything from before, from Jack Harkness’ life. Something more recent—a question Jacques could answer as Jacques.

She sat up and touched the star above the waterlily on his flash patch. “Why did you pick ESAS? Or, did they give you a choice?”

Jacques shrugged. “I think I was going to have more of a choice, but one of my recruiting agents said ‘DBS’, another said ‘Luxury, though’, and the Marquis shivered, so ESAS it was. Well, ESAS for my paperwork, and finding out who or what Luxury was for my free time,” he amended. “But really, especially once Bad Slash is out—where else are you going to put a man who can’t die?”

Jenni let her hand rest on Jacques’ arm. “I would put him where he would be happiest. But they don’t ask me.” She said it playfully, despite the annoyance she always felt at the pragmatic yet bizarre way the Flowers tended to make decisions.

Jacques’ expression softened as he smiled at her. “I’ve been happy enough in ESAS. It’s a nice sort of challenge, a lot of the time. And hey, Lux wants to take me on a mission with her sometime, anyway. If I like that more, I can always try putting in for a transfer. It works out.”

Jenni nodded, accepting that was so. “Although, Narrative Laws being what they are, you’d probably end up getting advanced species slash,” she mused. “Oh, be glad you were not here in 2008. I think the whole Bad Slash department still has sympathetic trauma from the Land Before Time dinoship horror Agent Trojanhorse had to deal with.”

“Somehow, I get the feeling my 2008 was still worse,” Jacques said darkly. He took a quick sip of tea before he went on, wishing he’d asked Jenni for a drop of whiskey in this cup. “Anyway, since it’ll be a mission by invitation, I can always tell her I’ll catch the next one. Perks of unmandated interdepartmental cooperation.” He smiled at Jenni; she didn’t know he liked Luxury well enough by now that, if asked, he'd join her on almost anything rather than make her go alone, but she also didn’t have to know. Especially not if she was concerned about his happiness, which, apparently, she was. It felt a bit strange.

She wasn’t smiling back like he’d expected. If anything, she was frowning.

He thought back, wondering if he’d said something to cause it—but no, unless she knew a few more details about Jack than she’d let on or was actively offended by the implication that anything could be worse than a year including some form of, from what he could tell, horribly done relationships between dinosaurs, he couldn’t see it.

He reached out, resisting the urge to frown as well, and laid his fingertips on her shoulder. “Jenni? Don’t tell me you’re not a fan of interdepartmental cooperation.”

“What?” She blinked, shook herself, and laughed nervously. “No, sorry . . . I was just thinking . . . I guess 2008 was a pretty terrible year all around. But that whole story is one I don’t especially want to rehash.” Not only was the subject of the double-whammy Macrovirus Epidemic and Sue Invasion an unpleasant one, getting to know a guy by swapping war stories would be a bit repetitive for her, and might garner unwanted attention from the RDR. “I won’t ask for yours, either,” she added. “It’s fine.”

“It’s in Jack’s information,” Jacques said after a brief hesitation. He watched her, not giving anything away. “Not even obscure, either—it’s a major set of episodes on Doctor Who. It doesn’t go into full detail, but the outline’s there, all right.”

She studied him in return, wondering what he wanted her to do with that. The last time he’d mentioned one of his canon sources, it had been a taunt. This was a test—bait he was dangling to see if she’d snap at it.

She gave a delicate shrug. “I don’t like to jump into a show in the middle. If I decide to get into Who, it’ll be awhile before I get there.”

“I wish I had that luxury,” Jacques admitted finally. He sighed. “But no—I’m from there, so I’ve already been getting missions. I’ve—” He broke off, but the reminder that she wasn’t his therapist, and he also wasn’t likely to have a second lengthy conversation with her before two weeks had passed, made him press on. “I’ve been putting it off a bit, actually—the watching, I mean—but that’s getting less and less sustainable. Especially on missions without a partner.”

Jenni’s response to that was a no-brainer. “Jacques? We were kidding before about pizza and canon, but if you want, that could be an actual thing. I mean, not right away . . .” She pulled a grimace. “But, you know, down the road, if some company would help.”

Jacques nodded. “Maybe. It might be easier to get through if I’m watching with someone who doesn’t remember pieces of it, or the people. We can talk about it again in two weeks, I guess.”

“We can.” On that note, Jenni checked the time and sighed heavily. “And we’ll have to leave it at that, because I’ve got that delightful paperwork thing to do before my next appointment comes around. Including recommending a referral for you.” She gave Jacques a smile.

Jacques smiled back. “Don’t get me wrong—I’m sure you’re a very good therapist. You’re certainly quick enough.” He leaned in a little. “The thing is, Jenni, I really like having you sitting next to me.”

Her smile turned into a grin. She knew exactly how good she was. She liked the rather strong nonverbal signals he was giving her at the moment, too. “Same.” She raised a hand to cup his face, just for a moment. “You’re going to do all right, you know. In my professional opinion.”

Once more, the cliff-edge of propriety loomed, and she had to pull back. Leaving her mug on the coffee table, she stood and walked around to her desk. She dug through a drawer for a slip of paper and jotted down a long string of characters.

Jacques took a final sip and set his mug beside hers, standing up. “Don’t tell me you’re giving me your number,” he teased.

She turned around and shook her head, eyes full of mischief. “Not exactly. E-mail. Or ICE post, as they insist on calling it.” She handed over the slip, taking her time about pulling her hand back. “For later, mind you, but you’ll need a way to let me know when you’re free. My schedule is usually relatively regular.”

“That’s unusual.”

Jenni shrugged. “Infrastructure.”

“Lucky Infrastructure,” Jacques said. He read the paper, and then folded it in half and tucked it carefully into a pocket. “Not for use until two weeks from now, huh?”

“Do not open until Christmas,” Jenni said by way of agreement. At the rate her sense of anticipation was building, the day a fortnight from now might well feel like Christmas.

Jacques winked. “I’ll send you a card.”

Jenni laughed. “Sounds good. I’ll watch for it.”

That being pretty much all there was left to say, she gave a resigned sigh and made herself lead the way to the door.

Jacques took his time following her, but all too soon he was there, looking down at a woman he was actively forbidden from kissing. Fun.

On the other hand, two weeks wasn’t such a long time here. He could wait.

“Well,” he said, and, for once, left it at that.

Jenni hated these moments of parting enough without the additional frustration of having to restrain the natural impulses that came with them. But she was an old hand at that. She nodded in sympathy and shrugged. “Best get it over with.” She turned the knob and tugged the door open. “I’ll see you around, Jacques.”

Jacques nodded. “Looking forward to it,” he said. He turned to go—then turned back, all smiling mischief once more, and bent to kiss her cheek.

He straightened up again and grinned at the stunned look on her face; then, with a cheerful “See you around!” he was out the door with a spring in his step.