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Unfamiliar Times

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The Time Agency was baffling. But not for the reasons you would expect.

Arriving at the TimeHaven to begin his traineeship, Jack – though he wasn’t called Jack yet in those days – was a raw young recruit from a far-flung backwater on a minor colony world, yes, but he was already in firm possession of first tenacious tendrils of the self-assured charm that would serve him so well in later years. Vortex manipulators? Time paradoxes? Temporal jumps of a century or more at one go? Jack had read the literature, knew all about ‘em.

The sex, though.

Out of a series of increasingly high-ranking recruiters who had visited the Peninsula to woo Jack for the Agency, apparently none had seen fit to mention just how flexible life among his new colleagues would be. The recruiters, alluring in their Alliance suits, so modish against the subdued hues of Boeshane’s beaches, had painted endless bright pictures of the job’s perks, the liability insurance policy extending to all known alternate universes, the paid time off anywhere and anywhen in the galaxy. They hadn’t mentioned, though, that on Jack’s very first day on the job, one of the agents from his newly assigned team would invite him out for a hallucinogenic drink and a three-species threesome. And not even in that order.

By the time he landed himself in the 20th century in the thick of the London Blitz, of course, Jack had long since reached the point where he could say, Oh, this century, they’re so quaint, with their labels and boxes, and truly mean it. But at 18, fresh from an outlying colony world, young Jack was a naïve kid who in his life so far had had sex with a grand total of one alien – an exchange program visitor who’d joined their collective for three months – and fancied himself quite daring for it. The world that met him when he left Boeshane was nothing that a child of the Peninsula’s pleasant beaches could have imagined.

Jack’s first Supervising Agent at the TimeHaven was a man named Harken, 25 years old in linear time but 40 in Agency years. He was ruggedly handsome and the most charismatic person Jack had ever met; was it any wonder Jack imprinted on him like a helpless duckling?

Rather surprisingly, Harken never slept with his staff, never even kissed any of them, though he flirted like nobody’s business and could leave Jack melted into a metaphorical puddle on the floor with a single word and a lift of his eyebrow.

“Don’t sleep with your subordinates, Young Boe,” Harken said on more than one occasion. Harken had a saying for every situation, and a nickname for every agent. And Jack, it seemed, was never going to escape his reputation as the hick boy from Boeshane, a label that amused his superiors to no end. When dispensing his sage advice, Harken would cock a warning eyebrow and waggle his finger. On him, somehow, even a finger waggle was sexy. “And if you break the rule of not sleeping with your subordinates, Young Boe, you better have a damn good reason.”

Jack nodded vigorously at this advice, and tried hard to look like he wasn’t at that very moment picturing, in great detail, what it might be like if he could come up with a damn good reason for Harken to break his own rule.

Jack’s first time out in the field with Harken, they jumped fifty years back and a couple planetary systems over to sort out a small-world collective that had gotten itself in a muddle with double-crossing timelines. As the youngest of the four-agent team that responded to the call, Jack got put on kid duty, keeping the collective’s children entertained in a common area equipped with big, plush couches, while his colleagues took care of the real work.

After the breakneck pace of Agency training, Jack didn’t mind at all having an afternoon with no responsibilities beyond clowning around with a bunch of little kids, letting them climb on his shoulders and swing from his arms. One thing confused him, though, and that was the way the kids talked about the adults in the collective. Increasingly baffled as the afternoon wore on, Jack started paying closer attention and eventually counted that each child referred to at least four or five different adults using terms that would seem to indicate parental status.

There was “marb,” which seemed to be a particularly nurturing parent of any gender. “Amm,” as far as Jack could tell, was the one who’d actually borne the child, but that didn’t rank anywhere near as high, in the way the kids talked about the adults in their lives, as “naar,” which seemed to be the one in charge of discipline and upbringing.

“My naar doesn’t let me climb on the couches,” one child declared self-importantly to another.

“Yeah, well, my naar says…”

And so on, ad nauseam.

Then there was a “dra,” which seemed to be a protective young adult mentor figure, somewhere between a big sibling and a parent. And some kids also talked about their “ban,” a wise and respected older nurturer that Jack estimated was roughly like a grandparent. But when he tried to ask that question of one of the kids, translated into terms that would make sense to her (“So, your ban, is that kind of like the…naar of your naar?”) the girl just frowned at him. “No. My ban is my ban.”

How could a child have five parents?

Debriefing with the rest of the team over a round of cocktails (non-hallucinogenic this time; he’d learned that lesson) in the TimeHaven’s house bar that evening, Jack made the mistake of raising his question about those kids and their odd use of kinship terminology.

Harken threw back his head and laughed. “Oh, Young Boe!” he said, when he’d finally stopped laughing too hard to speak, as Jack waited, increasingly irritated. It couldn’t be that funny. Harken cuffed Jack affectionately on the back of the head. “Children can ‘have five parents,’ as you put it, if they live in a place where people share sexual partners and raise the kids communally. Why did you think they call it a collective?”

The other two agents guffawed, and Jack felt his ears going red. Fine, okay, apparently everyone else had known that. He didn’t think it was as obvious as they were making it out to be, though. Back on Boeshane, “collective” just meant a group of families that farmed together. He’d only ever known his own parents, and other parents like them, all politely coupled up and raising children together. How was he supposed to know what was possible in the wider world? The Boeshane Peninsula had been a place of pleasant sameness.

It was true, though, that even before losing Gray and his father, even before throwing himself carelessly into the devastating war that lost him his best friend – even before he had reason to desperately want out of the Peninsula, in other words – Jack had always felt vaguely itchy at the thought of following in his parents’ footsteps, settling down on a quiet colony world to farm grindroot or herd nargs and raise a family with a nice, compatible boy or girl. Boy or girl, either was fine with him, but did it have to be just one?

So when he reached the TimeHaven and learned that, no, it most emphatically did not have to be just one, it became a game to him, for a while. Had he slept with anyone from Saurier Five yet? No? More than enough excuse to chat up that alluringly tentacled creature at the bar!

In his years as a Time Agent, Jack learned that there were species whose lovemaking involved subtle shifts in quality of light. He met species for whom sex was entirely dependent on emitting and perceiving certain exciting frequencies of sound. With every encounter, Jack’s eyes just grew wider.

But he loved it. He loved learning all of it.

By the time he met John – who was not at that time known as John – Jack was an expert in turning on the charm, with a reputation as a wildly innovative lover. He could seduce pretty much anyone in under a minute with the mere power of his words, if he was putting the least bit of effort into it. And he’d long since learned to regulate his own pheromones as needed, of course. He kept all the various species-appropriate forms of contraception and protection handily available in his back pocket. Literally in his back pocket. You never knew when you might need them!

Still, though, most of what he knew, John taught him. Which, in retrospect, probably explained a lot.

For example, it took him a while, once he was living his way through to the 21st century on the slow path, to learn that not everyone considered till-first-blood hand combat to be a form of foreplay. And people in this era were weirdly specific about their partner preferences. They mostly slept with men or with women, and once they’d picked, they rarely crossed over. Jack still didn’t get that. If you were open to sleeping with more than one man over the course of a lifetime, why weren’t you open to sleeping with more than one person, full stop? Even back on sleepy Boeshane, nobody had cared about that.

His first attempt to pick up a man in 1869 got him punched. Actually, so did his second, third, fourth and fifth attempts. So he dated women for a while. He wooed a prolific but reclusive poet in Massachusetts, and several leading abolitionists. But he never was able to explain his temporal abnormality in a way his partners could understand. Nineteenth century Earth just didn’t have the imaginative capacity to conceive of 51st-century-style time travel. The 21st century, it turned out, was much more open-minded, and there was a sentence Jack had never expected to say.

So, after accidentally landing himself in the 19th century, he spent a few years willfully abstinent out of misplaced spite at the world. Cursing his broken vortex manipulator, cursing the Doctor for leaving the Game Station and not bothering to take Jack with him. Oddly, he never felt the need to curse Rose for her part in his predicament. After all, she’d been rather busy saving the world at the time, and a few little slip-ups were only to be expected. And besides, if it hadn’t been for her, he’d be dead. So there was that.

Then he got in that gunfight on Ellis Island and discovered he couldn’t die. And that made things rather more complicated.

Dangerous adventures lost their thrill, it turned out, when they didn’t actually have the power to harm you. Sex, weirdly, also lost much of its appeal. He’d never have guessed it back when he was a kid on Boeshane, singing around campfires with Gray and their dad, living a child’s untroubled life with a child’s unshakeable certainty of his own permanence in the world, but there was something about being mortal, fragile and finite that made all the rest of it feel worthwhile. The 1890s, as he grappled with his own non-mortality, were not Jack’s favorite decade.

He mostly moped and missed the Doctor. Not his finest moments.

What pulled him out of it, eventually, was thinking himself back into the mindset of his early days with the Time Agency. Learning to navigate – and, taking an optimistic view of it, perhaps eventually enjoy – the mores of the 20th century was something he could choose to see as a fun self-improvement project, much like building his “innovative” reputation at the TimeHaven had been. Jack got his mojo back by treating his life like a game again, for a while. Had he seduced an emphatically heterosexual male Cubist painter from Spain who was soon to revolutionize the world of art? No? More than enough excuse to take a little side trip to Paris!

The empathy snuck up on Jack more slowly.

He’d known the 21st century was going to be an important time and that he should probably stick around long enough to see that through, but he wasn’t expecting to like it. He wasn’t expecting to come to care for this strange, backward era he’d gotten himself stuck in. He wasn’t expecting to fall in love, repeatedly, in ways that broke his heart, but expanded it, too.

He tried to keep himself aloof, telling himself he was just a contractor carrying out missions for Torchwood because it passed the time, just a lover passing through. What was the use in getting attached, when he would only ever be leaving people behind?

The logic was sound, but in practice it never worked, not quite.

There was always a moment that did him in. A moment when his current lover laughed in delight at some small, beautiful thing, or cried into his shoulder and soaked his shirt with hot tears, or shot him a look that Jack had learned so well on so many faces over the years, the one that said, It would really help if you would not be quite so damn charming right now, because I am trying to stay angry with you.

And Jack would gaze back in surprise and wonder, undone by the realization that he wanted more than anything for this person, the one currently staring laser beams at him across a cluttered bedroom, to be happy.

The 20th century was when Jack learned that giving was at least as fun as getting. (And yes, he meant that in a sexual sense.) The life he lived, while marking time all through those slow decades, taught him to see people as people rather than as a game, and he wasn’t too proud to admit it was a revelation that surprised him.

And then in one blood-soaked blink of the eye, as the world outside celebrated 1999 crumbling at last into the year 2000, Jack found himself standing alone, yet again, but this time with responsibility weighing down his shoulders, this time tasked with building his team back up from the ground.

His team.

They were his family, more perhaps even than his mother and father and Gray had been, and Jack quickly learned he would do anything to protect them.

Oh, he still flirted, and teased, and made a game of his hard-earned charm. He still sometimes looked up at the stars and yearned to be among them.

But by the time the Doctor deigned to turn up again, with a different face, and whisked Jack off around the universe again and got him killed a whole bunch of times and only then offered to let Jack come with him as a proper companion – by that time, Jack could smile and tell the Doctor that thank you but no, he was heading back to his team.

It turned out the 21st century was indeed when everything changed for Jack. But not for the reasons he’d expected.