PPC Bleepka Bar
Summary:An awkward start doesn’t prevent Jenni and Suicide from having a most satisfactory first date.
Timeline:Summer, 2011; follows “Ring Child” and “Tough to Take.”
Rating:PG-13/T - Non-graphic adult situations and Suicide’s foul mouth.
Players: Neshomeh (Jenni Robinson, FicPsych personnel)
Tungsten Monk (Suicide)

Agent Suicide did not, as a rule, class himself as a social drinker in either sense of the term: he hadn’t boozed in friendly company since his original death, and he was not at home to Mister Moderation. However, if questioned, he would admit that he was always open to the possibility of change—especially when a good-looking woman was part of the equation. And when weighed against the above-mentioned good-looking woman, even engaging in social drinking could be considered acceptable.

As far as Suicide could tell (HQ time being what it was), he had been released from FicPsych about three days before. He’d been laid up there for almost a week, recovering from the combined mental and physical trauma inflicted by one Archir the Emerald, and had spent the occasional moment of lucid consciousness attempting to get to know one Nurse Jenni Robinson. (Ah, Jenni, who was sharp as a xiphos and got such an interesting look on her face whenever she read his medical records . . .) His plans to ask her out for a drink had been temporarily halted by a mission into a continuum he didn’t know, but after fighting with both self-insert troll Sues and his own abysmal communication abilities, he’d finally managed to send her a note and arrange an assignation/date/meeting/thing.

To Suicide, the bar was a good spot for a rendezvous. It was fairly public and had decent lighting, meaning that if she tried to knife him, there would be plenty of witnesses to corroborate the facts and no way for her to hide the weapon—both important considerations in Suicide’s past interactions with women. Granted, Jenni was a class act and therefore completely out of his realm of experience, but Be Prepared was the kind of motto he would’ve had if he had a motto.

Plus, the Bar had pretzels. He liked pretzels.

He perched himself on a stool by the taps, ordered something with three Xes and a biohazard symbol next to it on the menu, and sipped his drink while glancing around at the clientèle. For a moment, Suicide thought he glimpsed an animated teddy bear in the corner, but he shook his head and double-checked his drink. Damn, that must be some good stuff.

Jenni was pretty sure she was running behind when she made it to the Bleepka Bar. Thus, she was less composed than she had intended to be when she made her entrance, possibly even a little flustered. It took her a moment of standing in the doorway to adjust to the relatively subdued atmosphere (the occasional peanut notwithstanding) that accompanied the drowning of unpleasant memories. She had no trouble spotting Suicide, however, with his height and distinctive long, gray hair.

Her own hair hung loose, reaching the bottom of her shoulder-blades and still wavy from the braid she usually wore. She pushed it back behind her ears as she approached and touched one of the Scythian’s large shoulders once near enough.

“Hi,” she said with a sheepish smile. “Sorry I wasn’t here sooner. I got called in at the last minute to process some characters I’ve never even heard of, and I had to stop by the Nursery to see Henry.” She also had to rifle through her wardrobe for something nicer than usual, which meant the only top she owned that could be described as a blouse rather than just a t-shirt. The article in question was not dyed, but was worked with trailing little flowers in various colors around the sleeves and neck, and it had buttons. She took a breath, cutting herself off before she started to ramble about a silly thing like that, and offered a proper smile. “It’s good to see you, you know, not concussed.”

Pivoting to see her, Suicide found himself actually glad that Diocletian had ordered him to change into a clean uniform. Jenni looked . . . well, nice, but that didn’t nearly seem to cover it. “Classy” might be closer to the mark. (It wasn’t a word that normally applied to a woman who was as handy as Jenni was with a set of psychiatric restraints, but there was something damned classy about a woman who was that good at her job.) He did a quick mental review of everything Dio had drilled into his head about modern behavior and pulled out a seat for Jenni.

“It’s a limited-time offer,” he said with a grin as he did so. “But you did a hell of a good job fixing me up, so I thought you might like a chance to get acquainted with your handiwork before I wind up wrecking it again.”

Wait, was that sleazy? “Sleaze” was a concept heretofore unfamiliar to Suicide until Dio defined it as “you, between drinks one and eight.” He took a sip of his hell-brew to cover his momentary confusion.

“Want something to drink? The Bleepka Collins isn’t half bad.”

Jenni slid into the seat with a nod of gratitude and shuffled herself closer to the bar.

“Thanks, but I’ll stick to soft drinks. I’m what they call a total lightweight. Featherweight, even.” She opened her mouth to say something hilarious about the last time she’d slipped and wound up in an unplanned situation as a result, but second thoughts declared that a bad topic for a first date, so it turned into an awkward pause while she scrambled for something else. She couldn’t think of anything that didn’t involve even more awkward references to classified medical documents, and she shook her head.

“Damn. They say never date a patient, but I never learn. Help me out here. If I’m getting to know my handiwork, tell me something about you that isn’t in your charts.”

The truth was, she was every bit as confused as Suicide. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d properly dated anyone, wasn’t even sure she ever had. Most of the places she’d had lives didn’t even know the concept. This middle ground between restraint and passion was as alien as an immigrant from Alpha Centauri.

“Featherweight, huh?” Suicide raised an eyebrow, trying not to look as if he was filing that information away for future reference and failing miserably. Judging by Jenni’s expression, there was a story or two there, and he usually liked stories like that. His mental Diocletian gave him a smack, though, and he tried to respect Jenni’s attempt to change the subject. “Soft drink for the lady,” he added to the bartender. Dorf, privy to the mysterious oracular abilities that every bartender in the multiverse seemed to possess, likely already knew what kind she wanted.

“And as for things that aren’t in my charts,” Suicide continued while the drink was being fetched, “you’ll have to be a little more explicit—” Gods-damned Freudian slips “—exact about what you want to know. I’m pretty sure FicPsych’s records have covered some parts of me pretty thoroughly.”

. . . wait. Shit. Double-entendre? He didn’t know. Dorf brought the drink, thank Apia.

“Tell you what,” he continued, setting down his own drink. “If I believed in fairness, I’d say it was unfair that you got to see my records while I have to guess. So I’ll trade you fact for fact.” What was that thing that Ithalond always said when he’d had too much Dorwinion? Oh, right. “Quid pro quo, Clarice.”

Jenni had made the mistake of taking a sip of her drink, a lime soda, thinking he was finished and it was safe before the man trotted out that last line. At least the resulting undignified splort might mask the effort she’d been making not to laugh previously.

“Okay, hold on,” she said once she’d recovered sufficiently, grinning. “I’m not a criminal behaviorist and you’re not a serial killer the last time I checked, but . . .” The whole eating people thing could only lead to an off-color joke. After he’d been trying so hard not to go there, she couldn’t very will dive into the gutter herself. She cleared a remnant of soda from her throat. “Sure. What you said. Tit for tat.”

. . . Damn.

Suicide took a mental memo: never repeat anything Ithalond said when he was into the Dorwinion. On the other hand, it had partially broken the ice, which was of a distinctly awkward and small-talky variety. Desperate times, desperate measures, et cetera.

“As a matter of fact, I might . . .” Okay, was mentioning the fact that he’d killed an awful lot of technically-innocent people back in the day considered a turn-off? It sure worked for the camp followers, but again, this was definitely new territory and “I might qualify as a serial killer” sounded like the kind of thing that would make his partner groan and hit him with a copy of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. He switched tacks. “I might be able to work with that.”

He wasn’t even touching the tit thing. Which was too bad, because he could do a lot with . . . did mental entendres count?

Picking up a little cardboard coaster (printed with a picture of a cactus), he absentmindedly tore it in half. “I’ll start while you catch your breath, shall I?” Jenni gave him a Look, which he responded to with a “who, me?” expression. “Hmmm, here’s a good one. When I was nineteen, I pissed off my master by falling asleep during an eight-day training trial. He was so angry, he threatened to release me from service and set me up with a pension. Had to grovel for forgiveness until he let me off with a beating.” He laughed a little at the memory. Ahh, good times, good times. “I don’t think FicPsych knows that story; I’d hate to have them think I was, y’know, crazy or something.”

He took a sip of his drink, still grinning a little. “Your turn. Tell me something strange about yourself.”

“That is a little backwards by many people’s standards, but maybe not insane. Maybe.” She grinned back, then grew thoughtful. “Something strange, huh? Hm.” She took a drink of her own to buy time to think. There was a fair bit of strangeness to choose from, but most of it was a bit too strange for day one, in her opinion.

“Well . . . there was the one time I nearly got myself killed by vampires. Not your cute, sparkly modern vamps, mind you. Think wolves, only human-shaped and smarter. This was a generic fantasyverse, a different life altogether, and I was also nineteen.” She grinned at the coincidence. That wasn’t why she’d chosen the story, but it was even more fitting for it.

“I was with this village, helping with a minor epidemic, and I learned they had an ongoing problem with these guys. When I finally saw one, I couldn’t believe it—she was a pathetic, scrawny little thing sniffing around the edge of the quarantine tent. So, in my infinite wisdom, I took it upon myself to go talk to them and get their side of the story. I figured, hey, they’re intelligent, surely something can be worked out so nobody has to suffer. Luckily I was right, but only insofar as I was personally novel enough for the guy in charge to let me off with a couple of scars.”

She lifted her chin and pointed to the place on her throat where the little white spots were, kept as a reminder not to get cocky. She did it with a smile, though. After the bite, it hadn’t been all bad.

“Still, it’s hard to negotiate when both sides think you’re out of your wee little mind. The village kindly packed my bags for me and I never found out what happened, if anything changed or not. I doubt it, but nothing’s impossible.” She shrugged and resettled herself, then tilted her head in the universal questioning gesture. “Your turn.”

That got a bark of a laugh from Suicide. “In my experience, that kind of thing usually happens whether you make time with the local monsters or not. I’ve never seen a small village play nice with the Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman act. Remind me to tell you about the villagers near Thermopylae some time.” He arched an eyebrow, remembering what Jenni had said when he’d first come stumbling into FicPsych. “Or maybe not. That might be too Greek.”

He tore each half of the coaster into halves again, then pushed them back together with the tip of his finger, while he considered what to say next. He had to say, he liked the way Jenni had shown off the vampire bite: he appreciated a lady with spirit. (Somewhere, the universe groaned, but Suicide was technically unaware of the cliché and survived with only yet another few years’ worth of bad karma.)

“Okay, here’s a good one. Everyone says Sparta was ruled by the men, and most of the time, it was. But nobody was going to actually believe it while people like Gorgo and Arete were around.” He shook his head, remembering. “The lady Arete was actually the wife of two of my masters—first Iatrokles, and then when he died, she married his brother Dienekes. Well, she knew me from when I was sixteen on; she’d already been married to Iatrokles when I came to Sparta.

“When I’d been enough of a shit that even a pension threat wouldn’t do it, Iatrokles or Dienekes would send me to Arete. She had this way about her—just giving you this look, like she knew everything and could just turn you inside-out. She had the real andreia, and the gods help you if she thought you were threatening her family.”

Suicide cocked his head, offering Jenni a lopsided grin. “Even she never broke out the restraints, though.”

Jenni’s smile had a tendency to wander off to the right when mischief was afoot, and it did so now. “Well, to be fair, you were going on about spines being removed and evil testosterone-eating ficubuses coming after you from beyond the veil. Powers only know what would’ve happened if we hadn’t strapped you down. I wasn’t about to let you run off and do more damage to yourself, or anybody else. Gods help you, indeed. Arete sounds like my kind of lady.”

She drummed her fingers on the counter top, trying to come up with another story.

“I don’t personally object to Greekness, by the way,” she said in the meantime. “It’s just another variation on the theme of being human, which I rather enjoy. Though I will admit to being curious about that incident. Ilraen had more questions than answers, poor kid.” She shook her head, dispelling that train of thought. “Never mind—I’ll bet you don’t want to talk about that now. Let me see. It’s hard to come up with anything that doesn’t touch on my sordid past as a fan character, and nobody wants to hear that crap. Is there anything in particular you do want to know about?” She leaned her chin into the palm of her hand and peered up at him.

Suicide didn’t shudder, but for a moment, it was a near thing. Archir the Emerald, the dewy-eyed three-year-old “Istari child,” would be cropping up in his dreams for a looooong time to come.

“Now that is a story for another time,” he said as he continued shredding the coaster. Dorf the bartender gave him an irked look as the little pile of cardboard confetti began to mount. “I will say that I like gods a lot better when they’re not sitting on peoples’ laps and putting the Mind Whammy on anyone with a functioning brain. But since you’re not sharing sordid pasts, I’ll hold off on the sordid present.”

He considered her for a moment, thinking. She definitely seemed to have more stories than he had guessed before, and that tilt of the head seemed almost teasing . . . Hmmm.

“How’d you join?” he said finally, adding another little piece of cardboard to the pile. “The PPC, I mean. I got hit with the resurrection stick and shanghaied, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t your route.” He nodded towards the bite marks on her neck, his tone a little sly. “Unless your friend with the overgrown dental implements got a little—overenthusiastic?”

It was Jenni’s turn to laugh, though not before quietly stilling the cardboard destruction by covering his hands with one of hers. She hadn’t meant to further agitate him, and getting on the bartender’s bad side was a bad idea, too.

“No, I survived that. I haven’t ever been killed, that I can recall.” This was potentially an odd remark, at least in different company, but she said it with a straight face. “Anyway . . . the full explanation gets kinda meta, but in brief, I had a bit of an existential crisis in the Potterverse and realized I had better quit my wild ways and settle down before I really lost myself out there. HQ is easy to find if you’re heading nowhere in particular, because that’s where it exists, like veins running through the rock faces of space-time.” She gestured with her free hand, indicating the vast complexity of the multiverse to which a geology metaphor really couldn’t do justice, before her mind’s eye returned to the here and now.

She laughed again. “See, what did I say? Sordid. But, I promise I’m stable. Working in FicPsych has definitely helped me get my head on straight, and I’ve got Henry now.” She grew fond at the mention of her adopted son and turned the expression on Suicide. “You’ll have to meet him eventually, if this goes on.” Clearly, she hoped it would. The man had a sense of humor and nice eyes, and certainly depths to be explored.

As far as Suicide knew, Jenni hadn’t been a Potterverse native. But if she’d been there when she had her crisis, and only found the PPC after . . . hmmmm. More to her than met the eye, it seemed, though Suicide wasn’t exactly shocked by that. Her hand was smooth, with just a hint of callus on a couple of the fingertips—probably from too much time spent subduing self-destructive canons and possessed agents.

“Sordid’s just another word for ‘fun’ as far as I’m concerned,” he said, offering her another crooked grin. “But you gotta be careful talking about it, because the Universal Laws of Irony probably don’t appreciate a PPCer with a dramatic-type backstory.” He shot a glance at the ceiling, as if checking for gathering ominous clouds or lightning about to strike them. “Nothing so far, but better safe than sorry.”

He didn’t miss the change in her expression at the mention of her son. His upbringing told him that an adopted child was considered blood, but he couldn’t quite wrap his head around adopting what was effectively a combination of Harry Potter and Snape. Still . . .

“Fair warning,” he continued. He wasn’t quite deadly serious, and he didn’t quite know how to phrase things, but if he was going to talk to Jenni any further then he had to suck it up and touch on a serious topic that he normally didn’t have anything to do with. “You probably should know that I know nothing about kids. Except Ar—you know, the Sue kids—or the young rankers, and I’m pretty sure you don’t want anyone pushing yours into a tree to toughen ’im up.” Was that gauche? His mental Diocletian was oddly silent on that point. “But I know Ilraen likes him, and as far as I can tell, the fuzzy centaur’s got good instincts. He sounds like a good kid.”

Falling silent a little awkwardly, Suicide shot another glance at the ceiling. Y’know, just in case. PPC headquarters tended to be vindictive when it came to seriousness.

She raised an eyebrow at the tree remark, but since what he said was no more than the truth she nodded and let it pass at that.

“The warning is duly noted,” she replied. “I appreciate that you probably didn’t have much time for little kids in your life. I’m not worried about it, though.” She smiled and patted his hands. They practically told her everything she needed to know about him without words: strong, rough, and scarred, yet she’d seen their proficiency with a bandage, too.

She followed his glance at the ceiling, perhaps sensing the Laws of Narrative lurking. The bar seemed to have gotten quieter, which would generally herald somebody unfortunate walking in, or a fight breaking out, or something else descending on them to ruin the moment, but a glance around the room revealed nothing.

“The Ironic Overpower is thumbing its nose at us,” she remarked, rolling her eyes. “Bugger if I know what to do about it, either. No topic is really safe. And, if I’m being honest, I’ve had Nume’s accusation of snaring and clutches buzzing in my ear. I see where he gets it, so I’m trying to sort of sit back and not steer too much to prove him wrong. Is that lame?” She glanced sidelong at Suicide with a wry grin. It wouldn’t have surprised her if that particular personage had been the one to walk in on them, if such had been the will of the Ironic Overpower. Not one bit.

Suicide laughed a little. “Nah, it’s not lame. But Nume can—” The sentence that followed was guttural and nigh-untranslatable, its origins and true meaning lost in the mists of time since the Scythian people had joined their Grecian and Caucasian cousins in cities and forsook the life of the roving tribesman. Its tone might be approximated by the phrase “go piss up a rope.”

“That kid doesn’t know a thing about clutches or snaring,” Suicide continued, mentally writing off every fellow male under the age of 35 as feckless juveniles, “or he wouldn’t be trying so hard to avoid ’em. But if you’d prefer to let me steer, then I suppose I’ll just have to live with that.” His mental Dio smacked him again, but he told her to shut up and waved something shiny until she went away.

“As for the Ironic Overpower, then what happens will happen. Once you’re dead, it can’t get you any more, so [untranslatable euphemism] to it.” He shot one more glance at the ceiling just in case, but nothing had yet struck him down where he sat. Maybe he was suffering from a low irony content.

Jenni hadn’t run off yet or tried to knife him, which was nice. He ran a thumb over her back of her hand, feeling the soft texture of the pale skin there, and smacked down several unbidden and highly personal thoughts. Damn, he really had forgotten how to relate to other people.

“My turn, right?” he said after a moment, clumsily trying to steer the conversation out of angsty waters. “My mother was a priestess.” That sounded a little more dramatic and Overpower-baiting than he’d meant, so he hurried to explain. “After hearing her stories about the higher virtues, the Greek sheepfucking gods were one hell of a surprise. When I first got here, I thought Sues were goddesses that the world was finally wising up and killing before they could transform anyone into something humiliating.” He snickered a bit. “That was before I ran into the possession-Sues. Talk about being turned into pigs . . .”

Slightly stunned by the number of things she could have said at various points, Jenni found herself settling on general amusement and, thanks to the “kid” remark, contemplation of the apparent discrepancy between their ages. She supposed she should have considered the fact that Suicide looked at least twice her age, but it simply hadn’t crossed her mind before now. She had never bothered to count the number of years she’d lived in various incarnations, but she suspected she could have called most of the people in HQ “kid” with room to spare. Still, stranger things had happened.

She sat up straighter for the talk of gods and Sues. “Well, you can’t say the two are mutually exclusive, that’s for sure. Having power doesn’t make you a god, though. I’m not really sure what does make a god, and I’ve met a few. Hades, for one—well, a version. Probably not precisely the same one you would’ve heard about. This was in the Lounge, see, back when I first joined up. We had all sorts in there, everything from agents to canons even to authors, sometimes.” She paused. “Uh, stop me if any of this freaks you out. I don’t know how you feel about matters of the fourth wall, and stuff.”

“If they’re in the here and now, with human foibles and making human errors, then they’re not the real gods.” That was the considered opinion of Professor Suicide, a man with the metaphysical certainty that can only come from being surrounded by large angry philosophical types with spears.

“I mean, there may be more to it than that,” he continued, shrugging one shoulder a little. “But if there’s anything I’ve picked up from the Word Worlds and all this continuum crap, it’s that we haven’t yet seen the infinite. Each of the worlds has their gods, and those gods are supreme there, but the real ones—the ones who made and rule all the worlds—aren’t going to be that visible. Only the virtues exist in both their worlds and ours, and that’s the only way we know the gods in this life. You can’t have a pint with Oetosyr.”

At which point he cleared his throat, turned slightly red at the realization that he was in danger of committing Badass-Reputation Seppuku, and took a mouthful of his drink to cover the confusion. Fortunately, nobody seemed to be listening in; most of the inhabitants of the Bleepka Bar were there to drown sorrows and/or each other, and after the days PPC agents tended to have, most of them wouldn’t have eavesdropped on a dramatic heart-to-heart if you’d paid them.

“Forget it,” he said, putting down the mug. “But if gods aren’t gods, then Sues sure as hell aren’t.” He offered Jenni another lopsided grin. “Most of ’em die too quickly anyway.”

Jenni took the turn away from the topic of the fourth wall as an indication that Suicide was one of the ones whose minds tended to slide away from the implications regarding their own nature as fictional characters, and made a mental note to keep quiet about it. At least until further evidence turned up. As far as she was concerned it was all a matter of perspective, and it didn’t much bother her, but she knew herself to be a little odd on that score.

The turn he did take was fascinating enough, and she relaxed again listening to him, leaning an elbow on the bar top. She couldn’t help but feel a touch of affection at his embarrassment at waxing philosophical. Hidden depths indeed. The instinct to dig deeper kicked in firmly, despite her success thusfar at keeping it at bay, and she had to think about what to say next.

“Sues aren’t gods,” she agreed for a start. “I think the Narnia aficionados would get a bit cheesed off if you told them Aslan wasn’t a proper god because he likes to turn up in the form of a lion, though. And Eru . . . well, there’s some debate about a possible physical incarnation. But anyway, they pass the ‘human foibles’ test.

“On the other hand,” she went on, picking up enthusiasm for a topic close to her heart, “why do the ones who don’t pass go among the mortal people except to see what it’s like on the other side? I think it’s a case of greener grass, so to speak. On one side, you’ve got power and immortality, not to mention a great view, but the insider’s view is pretty amazing, too. Experiences mean more when they’re limited and focused on just one moment. The hurts hurt more, but the good things, when they happen . . . the pain is worth it, if you ask me. Without the bad stuff, the good stuff, the virtues, are meaningless. That’s why I—”

She stopped short, afraid that she’d avoided digging just to climb a tree instead. She even had the wide-eyed look of a spooked cat about her, which she hid by studying the ice melting in her glass, but only for the moment it took her to realize that obviously covering for something was just as bad as saying it outright, not to mention an attention trap that she considered beneath her. Oh well; too late now. She glanced up again with that wry smile. “I’m not really used to talking about what’s in my head. There’s the Ironic Overpower for you. I definitely believe in that one.”

Suicide couldn’t quite follow the leap of Jenni’s logic, but the way she seized on the topic—and her own embarrassment—definitely signed to him that this was something she too had done a lot of thinking about. Her own evasive comments about the Potterverse and “waking up” had already done some heavy hinting, but this was even more interesting.

Even so, though, he wasn’t made for long philosophical debates. He’d heard Athenians take logic in circles that made his head spin, but he didn’t really think of himself as a debater: he knew what he knew, deep in his gut, and it stayed there no matter what he saw and heard. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall etcetera etcetera. He wasn’t sure he could provide the in-depth thinking that Jenni seemed to be after.

Still . . . “Eru and Aslan are gods of their own worlds,” he said, finishing his drink in one mouthful. “That’s their business, and I don’t question that—mainly because it gets Dio and Ithalond pissy. But I don’t think we’ve seen the great gods yet. The ones who created the creators of the Word Worlds, the ones who’ve stayed quiet despite all of this . . . They stay on their side. Only the virtues cross between, and those are the true things that come from them. Everything else is just bitching about the details.

“The base things—the fear and greed and anger—do make the virtues feel finer, but they don’t come from the same place. Even if there wasn’t any evil, good would still be good. It would just feel different.” He swept aside the pile of cardboard and put his mug down in the wet ring it had left on the bar. “But we can’t know that, or anything like it, because at the end of the day we’re only human.”

He cocked an eyebrow and surveyed the bar, which currently boasted seventeen different species and Frank, the Hooloovoo secretary. “So to speak.”

As he said that, Suicide’s eyes flicked over Jenni. He was not a subtle man, or a particularly wise one, by any definition of the words—but he’d spent a lot of time staring at people who were angry, mourning, or even just righteously pissed off. He wondered what was going through Jenni’s mind. Hell, he wondered what was going through his mind. Dr. Freedenberg had once supplied him with a copy of the novel in which he’d been created (and if that didn’t fuck with a guy’s head, nothing did) and the narrator had said his talkativeness was uncommon. Was it possible for he himself to be out of his own character? Not something he wanted to bring up in casual conversation.

“I’ll buy the Ironic Overpower,” he said finally. “Mainly because I think it’s telling me I’m acting OOC.” To the bartender: “Same again, okay?”

That seemed to be a cue to let the subject go. Volumes yet could be spoken on Jenni’s part, but not at the expense of sending her date OOC! “We surely can’t have that. Especially not with my boss’ secretary hanging around.” What a sentient shade of blue could even find to do in a bar, she had no idea. Maybe just soaking up the atmosphere? Anyway, she grinned. “If you’re really worried I bet we could bum a CAD off somebody, though.”

As for herself, she wrestled briefly with just saying to hell with the enigmatic crap she was perpetrating, but by this time keeping certain secrets was a deeply ingrained habit, not easily shed. Anyway, if there had been a moment for it, it was past now. She followed Suicide’s example and drained her own drink with finality.

Suicide signaled to the bartender, and Dorf brought both of them refills. The Scythian paid in Azeroth gold, which Dorf took without complaint: with the thriving black market throughout Headquarters, he would doubtless be able to exchange it at a ludicrously advantageous rate, and it was unlikely that anyone was checking the Bar’s books anyway.

Jenni’s offer to break out a canon analysis device had Suicide failing to suppress a laugh. “No thanks. If I’m gonna die, I’d really prefer that the CoD not be a CAD. Those lunatics in DoSAT don’t need any encouragement.” He shook his head. “Please, tell me FicPsych is planning to do something with them. I swear to any god you care to name that they’re working for the other side.”

She was pleased at the laugh. Maybe calling “OOC” was going a bit far, but this did seem much the more natural way to be.

After waving a hello to Maeryn, who had just entered, and noting that the Bad Slasher didn’t seem to intend on joining them, Jenni nodded thanks for the refill both to Dorf and her companion. His last remark left her a bit puzzled.

“What, you mean do something with DoSAT? Nah. They might be lunatics, but they need it to be brilliant. As far as I’m concerned they’re all big damn heroes, especially Dann, and Makes-Things, of course. I mean, nobody’s sure exactly what happened anymore, but the guy stood off against giant macroviruses and apparently survived—though I heard one theory that says he actually cloned himself and downloaded a copy of his mind into the clone, and that’s what we have now, and you have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?” She stared a moment, registering the confused look she was getting. Most of the people who had been there tended to take it for granted that everyone except the newest of newbies knew about the epidemic and the invasion, and she was no exception. Suicide, however, had not been there and hadn’t had the opportunity to find out sooner. She recovered with a quick headshake and a sip of her drink, briefly wishing it was something a little stronger than lime soda.

“Well, it’s a tale and a half, if you want to hear it. This was back in ’08, a couple of years after—after you lot disappeared,” she corrected, figuring that a mention of the cause of disappearance would go no better with Suicide than it did with Nume, who had tended to look like he was being strangled with naughty things soaked in naughtier fluids. Which, given the badfic in question, might not have been far from the truth. Of course, he was better now, what with all the Bleepka—the look was now more of a desire to strangle the speaker—but that still didn’t warrant bringing it up on a whim to anybody.

“Ran away, you mean? Let’s leave it at that,” Suicide responded, though without animosity. The bartender had put a little umbrella in his drink for some reason, and it was beginning to char slightly. “Easier on the scumble next time,” he said to Dorf as he picked the umbrella out.

“’08 was a year for plagues, then. Dio and I missed Corrupted Blood, but we were on the ground floor for Azeroth’s Great Zombie Invasion,” he continued after the poor abused umbrella had been disposed of. “All I know about what happened in HQ is what I heard from the Marquis, though, and that mainly consisted of ‘do you know what I’ve been put through? Look at my petals! Look at my petals! I’m shedding everywhere, I swear I am! Macrovirus epidemics, Mary Sue invasions, and now it turns out two agents were hiding unregistered in a canon? You’re going to give me Dutch Elm Disease! I ought to have you both dried and turned into tea!’” Suicide’s imitation of the Marquis’s psychic voice was about as accurate as a vocal imitation of thought-speech could be, although the Marquis probably wouldn’t have followed it up with another snort of a laugh. “I didn’t dare ask because he might’ve sent me back to Bad Slash. Seems there are fates worse than death.”

He turned in his seat to face Jenni a little more head-on. “Enlighten me, would you? And does this have anything to do with Nume and his Bleepka problem?”

Jenni tried hard to restrain herself to a polite chuckle, but by “Dutch Elm Disease” she was laughing out loud. “Oh, that’s just like him. That’s very good,” she managed to say.

In response to the prompt, she shifted herself, mirroring him. “No, that goes way back, and I can’t say it’s much of a problem. If you’d known him before Bleeprin . . .” she shook her head. “Another time. Anyway, about 2008. You’ll have to ask more people than me to get a really good idea of what went on, but I’ll tell you what happened to me:

“I’d literally just come back from an assignment with Nume and Ilraen. It was a Pern crossover, and I was called in as a canon expert. The mission itself is another story, but the important part is that I recruited Derik from that fic, and the poor man lost his dragon and was a complete wreck. I wasn’t in great shape either,” she added offhandedly for the sake of truth. “So I stumbled in to FicPsych half-carrying him, and nobody was there at the door. I found out they were preparing for a test of some never-before-heard-of lockdown system, and the Kudzu ordered me off to rest.” She was still irked at the memory. Leaving somebody in the state the former rider had been in, even in the care of trusted colleagues, rubbed her the wrong way. “By the time I woke up, we were in lockdown, and fat lot of good it did. Plenty of people think it was just a ruse for something else, but whatever it was, it didn’t keep the infected Sues out.”

She paused for a drink to wet her throat. “So that was the start of the Macrovirus Epidemic. We went from a bullshit lockdown to a very real quarantine, nobody in or out of the department—including the Kudzu, who’d gone somewhere with the other Flowers. We’d already packed off the agents, thank goodness, but we were stuck with a bunch of canons who gradually became more in-character and aware of what was happening as it dragged on. I spent most of my time with them and Derik, but there was fighting at the front doors. Those things got huge, hence macrovirus. We didn’t even see the worst of it, but we lost Bogglish and Pablum, and nearly Parwill and Immie, too.” Another pause, this one solemn.

“About a month, this dragged on. Plenty of people were stuck in their response centers, but the ones who were in the field for the lockdown were luckier. This is where DoSAT helped out—they’d duplicated TARDISes, and picked up the folk in the field. Those agents were able to get around. And that’s how the DIA picked me up for a job.” She glanced down at the floor a moment, considering, then looked up again. “This is the part where I mention I have certain extrasensory abilities and hope you don’t run screaming. As a rule I don’t use them unless I have to.”

Suicide nodded as Jenni spoke, trying to picture it all. The idea of being trapped in a few rooms, just waiting for the Sues and giant monster viruses to break in . . . you wouldn’t catch him saying it, but the thought was eerie. He’d never been in a battle that didn’t end in a charge, and waiting for the enemy to break in and kill you gave him chills. Jenni was hard for him to read, but the fact that she hadn’t been able to do much in that situation either seemed to be eating at her. There was the slightest waver in her voice when she mentioned Bogglish and Pablum.

“A month-long siege,” he said finally, when Jenni paused. “What a fucking mess.” He briefly considered saying “I wish I’d been there,” but everyone would know it was a lie. One agent wouldn’t have made much of a difference, especially in a rats-in-a-trap situation like that.

The thought was so distracting that it took Suicide a minute to catch up with the last thing Jenni had said. Then his brain grabbed him by the collar of his uniform, gave him a good shake, and painted the words “extrasensory abilities” in bright red across his cerebral cortex. Normally not fazed by bizarre things (between the Dutch-speaking Elf, the living microwave and all), Suicide seriously objected to having someone reading the kind of thoughts he’d been entertaining since Jenni had started playing with his hair that day in FicPsych.

“Extrasensory abilities,” he said. “Fair enough. Bartender—tinfoil hat, please?”

Jenni’s smile was a little tighter at the edges than a purely amused expression would warrant, perhaps finding the joke in bad taste since she’d just said she didn’t make a habit of flaunting her assets. This was exactly why she didn’t make a habit of mentioning them, too. Still, the concern for personal privacy behind his reaction was well known to her by dint of long experience with people unused to her sort, so she hastened to reassure him.

“I don’t go where I’m not invited,” she said. “Promise.” A return tease, about being able to guess the filthy male fantasies an ancient soldier like him was almost certainly entertaining without actually peeking into his thoughts, was shelved as being in even worse taste than the tinfoil hat thing. It did temporarily put a proper smile back on her face, but there was the story to continue, and that wiped it away again.

“Anyway, yeah. Big fucking mess. So, the DIA agent turned up in a TARDIS and shanghaied me off to New Caledonia. Dr. Freedenberg was not thrilled, let me tell you, but we didn’t have a choice. The good thing was I got an explanation of what the hell was going on, even if it is the most cracked-out explanation possible.” Her tone took on an ironic note, reflecting her opinion of how much sense was made by any of what she was relating. “It seems there’s a mirror multiverse out there, where we’re the Enforcers of the Plot Continuum and the agents are Sues, and there was an incident where some of our agents got swapped with some of theirs a couple months before the lockdown. I’m not sure I buy the part about the lockdown being in response to a threat from them, but anyway, this is important because the EPC’s version of Honesah—the pegacorn Sue?—was part of an underground movement who sympathized with us and wanted to help. Her plan was to use her Sue-powers to control a handful of Daleks from her ’verse, and direct them to just kill the bugs. Our side was understandably skeptical, so they asked me to be a human lie detector. I still can’t believe a batshit plan like that worked.”

She shook her head and went for the soda again, going off the tracks of her narrative in wide-eyed remembrance of the surreality of the situation. “I mean, frelling Daleks! Seriously! But she was on board, and in about a week they’d cleared HQ of all the big ones, and Medical was able to get the cure into the atmosphere. Don’t think this is the end of the story, though. It isn’t. Just give me a second to catch my breath.”

It wasn’t so much the talking, but the emotional backlash. It had been a rough time, and the short-lived relief between the end of the epidemic and what came next was bitter. She definitely considered topping off the soda with something alcoholic, but kept quiet.

Suicide’s numerous mental voices made a return, this time conjuring up a memory of Dienekes cuffing him hard in the back of the head for passing comments about one of the Peers’ wives. “Don’t be an ass to a citizen,” was all his master had said. Judging by Jenni’s reaction he had just violated Dienekes’ rule, though he wasn’t quite sure how.

But now the story had changed, from defense to offense, and he couldn’t help paying attention. “Wait, wait, wait,” he said, holding up one hand. “Stop the messenger. No, shoot the messenger. There’s an alternate universe PPC? Where there’s evil versions of us?”

Suicide shook his head, flabbergasted by the thought. What the hell would an evil AU version of himself be like, anyway? A character who didn’t commit patricide, or maybe fought for Xerxes? Someone who worked for the [expletive deleted]ing Sues, too. That was a downright creepy thought, and he didn’t care if Jenni heard it.

“And it took Daleks to fix everything?” Suicide added after a moment, still clearly trying to process it. “I would think I’d hallucinated this conversation, but I don’t see any nine-foot-tall Persians in ugly costumes.” He rubbed the back of his head, which was still tender even after several days: when Archir hit people with trees, he didn’t mess around. “Granted, I never did make any claims of being in my right mind even without hallucinations, but that . . .” Another headshake. “If you walked into a meeting with a gods-damned pegacorn Sue, you must’ve been really desperate.”

That took guts, he had to admit.

The touch to the back of his head did not escape Jenni’s notice, and it snapped her out of her head and back to the present.

“Are you okay? It wouldn’t be unusual for the effects of a hit like that to linger quite a while. You tell me if anything’s wrong,” she instructed. She had automatically lifted a hand to reach out before her own inner voice warned her against overreacting to a casual comment, and it hovered about an inch above the bar top in anticipation of an answer one way or another.

“No worries, I’m fine,” Suicide said, dropping his hand as if he’d been scalded and trying to hide a sudden guilty expression. “Like you said, it’s lingering for a bit.” That didn’t seem to reassure Jenni, who apparently shared the modern real-world attitude that brain damage wasn’t a normal part of going about your business. “If I start feeling dizzy or seeing anything weirder than usual, I’ll have a smoke and sit down for a bit.”

He put his hand on top of hers, gently pushing it back down onto the bar top. “Question is, are you all right? I know it’s common to get the shakes, thinking about an old war.” The words felt strange and awkward in his mouth; this was definitely a more personal conversation than he’d had in a long time, and for a moment he reconsidered that CAD. Still, he remembered the men with their phobos and katalepsis.

The smoking comment got a raised eyebrow that very clearly translated to “over my dead body,” but she was distracted from saying so by him turning the tables on her.

“I’m not shaky,” she said quickly. This was a lie. Perhaps not so much on the outside, but inside there were definite butterflies, and not just from the hand and the intense look he was giving her. “Heck, I never did any real fighting, unless the assault on Medical counts, but that was more getting other people moving again. But that’s getting ahead.”

“War’s war,” Suicide said, “and it’s rare it doesn’t get to you.” His own expression conveyed, equally clearly, that he didn’t believe she hadn’t been affected and furthermore, that the curative properties of a good Sobranie were highly underrated by the medical community. (It was a very eloquent expression, involving the deployment of both eyebrows.)

“And nothing wrong with getting ahead.” A grin edged its way back onto his face. “My RC’s console had a terribly regrettable accident, so I don’t have anywhere to be for a while.” He gave her hand the slightest squeeze, but his expression was tending mischievous. “Still, if it’s going to be problematic, try a different tack. We’ve broken through the hard part with the sadness and flashbacks. Now it’s time for you to indulge in the other great pastime of people who’ve lived through a lot of shit—bitching about it and one-upping anyone who says they’ve lived through worse. That’s therapeutic, right?”

“It probably is,” she agreed cautiously, and started to say that she really hadn’t done that much and didn’t have anything to complain about, but her own thoughts gave her the lie. And he seemed to know it. She wondered when she had become so transparent. It wasn’t the first time someone had suggested unburdening herself, but it usually took longer, and never before had anyone been quite so direct with an invitation to bitch and moan. She wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.

She had to say something, though, so she picked a thought out of the tumult. It came with a return smile. “It’s sweet of you to try to make things easier on me. I want to finish the story for you, though, and I think I’ll satisfy both of us this way.”

She took a deep breath to begin with. “So, the quarantine was lifted. We were able to get most of the canons home at last, and we got Immac and Parwill to Medical. I thought I would finally be able to take care of Derik beyond just keeping him from dying, but no. See, here’s what I have to bitch about,” she interjected with a lopsided grimace for Suicide’s benefit. “Suzine didn’t even give me five minutes to look in on him before I left, and then when I checked in a bit later I found out they’d lost him. A man who’d been in a catatonic state for a month suddenly decided to get up and take a walk—later I found out he’d been provoked by Leroux!Erik, and honestly I’m grateful that he was able to achieve what we couldn’t for Derik—and they were too overwhelmed to deal with it. I could have killed Mirrad and Suzine when they told me, but there wasn’t time. They needed anyone with any experience in Medical. And this, when we were just starting to pick up the pieces and we were all exhausted already, this is when the Sues invaded.

“For my part, like I said, I really didn’t do more than anyone else. Dr. Fitzgerald declared that the doors would stay open so people could come to us in Medical, but his staff were too busy to take it further. I got the agents who could manage it to organize a defense, which Sedri led—I stayed with them because you can’t get a possessed agent past a psychic—but fortunately we didn’t need it. The Sues that did come our way were annihilated by Omicron. I don’t know if he was one of Honesah’s Daleks or something else, but anyway, he got the job done, and we were able to get back to the business of fixing people.

“I checked in on FicPsych, and found to my great relief that Derik had turned up again, minus Sue-induced good looks but plus a purpose in life after stumbling into a Reality Room. He fought his way back to the department and, of course, collapsed from the strain. Later he got up again after I’d dosed him with enough fellis juice to put down a gold dragon and helped defend the department.” She shook her head at the man’s insane tenacity, then looked at Suicide again, considering. “You’d like him, I think. He’s a lot like you in some ways, and he could use a proper male friend. Remind me.”

This was more a note to herself than to him, though, and she pressed on to avoid getting side-tracked.

“I had to go back to Medical, since more agents were coming in hurt from fighting the Sues. There were battles all over, but the big ones were in the Cafeteria and the final stand at the Tomb of the Unknown PPC Agent. The only plan the agents had was to lure as many Sues as possible into the Cafeteria and let Honesah’s Daleks blast the hell out of them, and it worked as far as it went. I heard about it from Ilraen, after I found him and Nume standing around in the ward, looking forsaken.”

At this point, her ability to cover her feelings ended. She cared about everyone she worked with, and she was personally invested in Derik, but those two were her friends, and she’d found them alive after a month of not knowing. Tearing up at the memory was inevitable. She wiped her eyes and kept talking through it, though.

“They’d seen fighting,” she continued. “After being locked up for a month, they would have faced the Balrog Sue and been happy about it.” She actually laughed. “If you can imagine the two of them charging down the corridors through a sea of Sues to get to the Cafeteria, like some kind of screwed-up knight and warhorse . . . well, that’s not how Ilraen described it, but he can’t hide anything from me. It can’t have been anything but awkward, and I’m sure he never wants to do anything of the sort again. Nume was a damn mess. He’d got himself thrown from Ilraen’s back and concussed, and he’d been off Bleepka for ten days by Ilraen’s count. Poor guys.” She shook her head, but she had a smile for relief that they were alive and relatively well after the ordeal.

“I don’t really know anyone who was involved in the Battle of the Tomb, except Lux, and she’s too flighty to give a good account. That broke the Sues, though. They’d painted it urple and wilver, I heard”—her lip curled at the insult—“and that incited everyone to a huge effort. The rest was just mopping up, and it was finally over.” A puzzled frown crossed her face. “Lux did tell me the agents can-canned to ‘Man of La Mancha’ afterward. Trust Lux to be in the middle of something like that.”

Shaking her head, she took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then looked up at Suicide again with her eyes still slightly wet. All the same, she looked satisfied at coming to the end. “Any questions?”

She held it together remarkably well, considering the yarn she was telling. Sure, a story of a victory ought to be good for the one telling it, but even victory could get bloody damned quickly. As she spoke, Suicide felt an old familiar chill touch the back of his neck: the idea of the Sues graffitiing a tomb made him wish he had been there, if only to try doing something that Upstairs seriously frowned upon and was technically illegal everywhere except Mississippi.

He listened ’til the end, though. He always had time for stories about battles. Nume pulled through, did he? Good for him; maybe the kid actually had some stones on ’im, though Suicide wouldn’t have guessed it by the way he threw a punch. Ilraen . . . the fuzzy centaur was still an unknown quantity, though Suicide made a mental note to not get on the wrong side of him. Derik he’d never met, but he got the impression that it wasn’t a big issue at the moment.

Jenni’s eyes were still watering. He silently handed her one of the bar napkins.

“Not really,” he said, once she’d taken a moment to mop her eyes and calm down a little. “Those ghosts sound like they could do with being put to rest. Once a battle’s over and done with, the best thing to do is to honor your dead, burn the corpses of anyone who dared to try and fuck with you, and send a few heads back to their leaders to make sure they never try anything like it again.” It occurred to him only after the fact that talking about severed heads might not be the best thing for Jenni to be hearing right then, but another part of him said “fuck it, catharsis is catharsis.”

“It sounds like it went as well as it possibly could have,” he continued in a slightly quieter voice. “Unlike the other side, there’s only so many PPC agents to go around.” Three hundred versus ten thousand immortals? Quit thinking like that, Suicide, you can’t blame every way you think on Thermopylae . . .

Jenni wasn’t the bragging sort, and even if she had been, as a healer her perspective on war was exclusively grim, whether her side won or not. Not that it wasn’t necessary, not that she wasn’t grateful they won, but her work didn’t end when the battle was over. For that reason, even a victorious fight wasn’t something she could truly be happy about.

With a minimum of fuss, she accepted the napkin and composed herself. Crying was a hell of a way to behave on a date, and the less said about it the better. On the heels of that thought, it struck her that Suicide wasn’t shying away or telling her to buck up or anything even the slightest bit marginalizing. That was heartening, and helped her get it together again without feeling humiliated.

“That’s true,” she replied, nodding. “But we lost far more to the macroviruses than we did to the Sues. If not for that I doubt if we would have so much as batted an eye at them before taking them down—it’s not like it’s the first time Sues have tried to come at us directly, after all, and it’s a bad strategy to put us in a position where we have nowhere to go but through them. Not that I know much about strategy,” she added, half-smiling. “That’s just a law of nature.”

“Not necessarily,” Suicide said, his lips quirking a little at the corner. “But the nowhere-to-go-but-through-us strategy loses its appeal when it’s not something you chose to do.” Three hundred Peers, all fathers of sons. Molon labe. “And it’s a lot more fun when you’re on the other side of the line.” Watching the Argives’ phalanx crumple while the little bastards shat themselves in terror—that sure had been fun.

Jenni had left the now-dampened napkin on the bar top, and he swept it up into a pile with the mess he’d made of the coaster. The things someone said and did after a fight weren’t accountable to them later: he’d seen Leonidas himself tremble at the knees, after all. A few tears were nothing, even after some time had passed.

“Medical must’ve been full, though,” he said, whisking the unpleasant topic of last stands out of sight along with the torn and tear-stained paper. Talking in circles around something that could anger someone (and possibly get you whipped or threatened with pensioning by a pissed-off Peer) was a valuable skill for any veteran squire. “Not that I’d know. I keep meaning to spend more time there—damn hard to keep the field medic skills sharp when nobody will let you practice on them—but every time I try, someone locks the door and tells all the patients to be extra-quiet until I go away.”

Okay, so running her mouth about tight situations with ridiculous odds had been a stupid error. She should have known better; she knew enough about him to know better. Not something she would allow to happen again unless she decided she wanted to go opening old wounds—which, with her, was always a possibility if she decided the thing hadn’t healed properly and needed purging. But definitely not right now.

Listening to him and watching his face change, she slipped her hand out from under his and put it on top, curling her fingers around his in a light grip. Her turn to be the stable, comforting presence again. She felt better for it.

She was also happy to let the conversation move on, and his tale of being shut out of Medical got a laugh. “No offense, but you’d have to take some serious retraining first. Believe me, I’ve practiced medicine in plenty of low-tech ’verses, and I cringe to think of the limitations.” She physically did. The times she could have saved somebody if she’d only had penicillin, or decent needles, or help that didn’t swear by the panacean properties of extensive bloodletting . . . what a nightmare. Still, patients dying was just part of the job. She didn’t like it, but she was able to view it objectively.

“Still,” she went on contemplatively, “if what I saw of your work with a bandage is any indication, I’d say we could have used you then. Shards, the number of times I personally could have used a big, tough field surgeon stagger the mind. I’ve never been good with massive trauma. The odd broken bone, sure, but there comes a level of severity that takes more than just one woman with a bag.”

She was rambling on again. How did this keep happening? She reached for her drink, which she’d forgotten temporarily, and drained about half of what was left.

She was trying to . . . comfort him? A strange idea, not so much wrong or irritating as just plain weird. Suicide couldn’t think of the years he spent as a squire without some emotion, but he’d never gotten so far as to quantify or understand it. Still, the gesture was kindly meant, and Suicide appreciated it.

This was an odd business all around. So much minutiae; gestures here were small, voices were lower, the tone and inflection of everything was much more important than volume or force. Some of his old skills—like the talking-in-circles bit—were useful, but Suicide felt vaguely like he was out of his depth. It was less like chopping down a tree and more like the delicate work of flaying a man’s arm for a quiver. The smallest nick or misused word could ruin the work before it was half finished, and it made him uneasy in some ways.

On the other hand, the woman whose company he enjoyed had just called him big and tough. That he could definitely live with.

“Battle’s a good place to learn medicine,” he responded. Had he been in lots of battles? Why, yes, and he wasn’t above peacocking for her just a bit on that score. Or wait, was a nurse less likely to be impressed by all the injuries he’d inflicted? Shit. Mental Dio, help! “At least, that’s what my masters always said,” he added, while his mental Diocletian told him to leave her alone and sort out his own messes for once. “We didn’t have any of the . . . technically, they’re modern, aren’t they? Present-day?” He grimaced a little at the idea. Not only was he in a different dimension, but Earth was more than two thousand years past his time. “The modern advances everyone here has. We’d douse a man in sour wine to ward off the affluent evils and sacrifice a black dog to Hecate if someone thought his wound was cursed. But you have anesthetic now. We didn’t even have a word for anesthetic.” He shook his head. “Actually, we did. It meant ‘wineskin and a big rock.’”

He wondered if that would make her laugh again. Some strange part of him—the one that remembered his mother’s wagon and appreciated Jenni’s hand on his—wanted to make her laugh. It felt odd.

It did get a laugh, because she’d been there (metaphorically speaking; she’d never actually been to ancient Greece) and knew it for fact. “Yeah, you make due with what you’ve got and hope for the best. That doesn’t change in any time period. The only difference is what you have to work with. Which . . .” Inspired, she took his right hand palm-up and pressed her thumbs into the muscles. “. . . is often just these.” A hand massage could technically be considered the use of wiles, she supposed, but what the hell, it was an enjoyable thing to do and almost universally pleasant for the receiving party.

“We take them for granted, but without them we’d be entirely other than what we are. Most people don’t even think about the little muscles and tendons in here.” She dug into the narrow spaces between the metacarpals, just to emphasize the point, being sensitive to any irregularities caused by previous injuries. Details and minutiae were something she was quite good at. “Then again, there’s an awful lot of mysticism about the hands. Palm-reading, reflexology and such. Some of it isn’t even total nonsense.”

Suicide’s pupils dilated as Jenni pressed into a knot below the ball of his thumb, working through the pain and smoothing the muscle into place. His whole arm tensed for a moment, reacting automatically to foreign pressure, but as Jenni worked her magic the hand relaxed and the fingers spread. The Greeks might’ve created Western civilization, but between the hands and the laugh, Suicide’s urges were rapidly tending very uncivilized.

Nume had said wiles. Suicide mentally marked the kid down for another point. Then he subtracted that point, because Nume had made those wiles sound like a bad thing.

Jenni was closer than ever, the two of them sitting facing each other while she worked her magic on his one remaining original hand. The left hand, regrown skin over a steel and carbon-fiber skeleton, dropped onto his knee—no, onto her knee, and slid upwards almost independent of thought. The denim fabric of her jeans felt rough: the new skin hadn’t quite gained the protective coating of scars and calluses that the old layer had had.

The hand stopped at midthigh—barely. It took him about that time to remember that, hello, that wasn’t the way people did things any more. Or was it? He couldn’t remember, not with her turning his muscles to jelly with the skill of a Bacchan whore. Jenni’s smile seemed mischievous.

“The only thing that separates us from animals,” he said. His grin had an edge to it. “That’s what the scholars say, isn’t it?”

If her smile tended mischievous, it might have been because she was enjoying watching him melt in front of her like this. No, scratch that. It definitely did, and she definitely was. These were not precisely the clutches Nume had been referring to—he never would have sat still for this much touching to know them—but they definitely fell under the heading. And this was just what she could do with one of Suicide’s hands.

She was focused on what she was doing with his right, so it took a second or two for the mental proximity alert to go off on his roving left. Her breath hitched slightly when she noticed. Oh ho, so she was really on her game tonight. And he wasn’t lagging behind. Her smile went from mischievous to devious.

“I think that’s the brain, actually, but who’s counting?” She leaned in just a hair and lowered her voice. “Are you going to let me get on with this, or do we need to go somewhere else?” Unhurriedly, never slacking on kneading the knots away, she glanced down at her thigh and back up again. This was simply to say “I see you hesitating there and I dare you to make up your mind.” As far as she was concerned, civility was overrated, but drawing out the time before plunging into the wilderness had its charms, too.

Jenni was in trouble in one respect: unless no clothes were involved at all, Suicide was not a believer in delayed gratification. He was right-handed, and Medical or not, the limb had been battered all to hell with the rest of him; what Jenni was doing felt damned good, and he aimed to reciprocate.

Yes, that expression was definitely mischievous. Ms. Robinson, it seemed, was trying to seduce him. Was he likely to get knifed if he—? Well, only one way to find out.

He leaned forward (just a little. Not much space between them by that point) and kissed her. He’d spent so much time in Suefics that some part of his mind half expected to taste strawberries, but the only taste that lingered on his tongue was the merest trace of the lime soda she had been drinking. The other senses, on the other hand? The hint of roughness where she’d absentmindedly bitten her own lip, the faint herby smell (tea, perhaps, or something from the infirmary), the sound of her heartbeat . . . was that his hand, creeping up the back of her shirt? Yes, it was.

As a first kiss, it was definitely not perfect, but it made the point very effective. It might have gotten even better, too—if Dorf the bartender hadn’t broken the spell by rapping hard on the bar and giving them both a stern look. “Not in here, you’re not,” he said flatly. “I just polished the bar top.”

Suicide stifled an irritated groan. He had automatically tensed when he let Jenni go, his brain remembering similar situations where he’d nearly gotten killed before, but she didn’t seem to be rethinking the knife option. “So what do you think?” he said. He was a little breathless, but there was a glint in his eye. “Your continuum or mine?”

Well, so much for plan A, then. That was all right. Plan B had been a possibility in her mind from the start, despite her decision not to actively nudge things in any particular direction—which had lasted up until a couple of minutes ago, to her credit. Oh well. Anyone would allow that it was difficult to keep one’s resolve in the face of someone plainly volunteering to be nudged.

She leaned into the kiss, lifting her hands up to brush the sides of his jaw and neck on the way to cupping the base of his skull with her right hand and stabilizing herself on his shoulder with the other. It was awkward, what with being on the edge of how far the bar stools could support, but worrying about that was secondary to soaking up the sensations of warm, firm muscle under his uniform shirt, his hand on her back, and the musky, masculine scent of him overlaid with the brew he’d swallowed, still on his breath, and an indistinct hint of soap.

Until Dorf banged on the counter. Startled, she almost lost her balance as they both let go, and she didn’t quite succeed at holding back her own annoyed grumble.

To Suicide, however, she responded with a grin and a glint of her own. “Hon, I’ll show you around the whole multiverse if you want. For now, though, I did take the precaution of letting the Nursery know they might have Henry overnight, if you don’t mind walking through FicPsych to get to my room.”

She stood up in preparation for leaving.

Some asshole with a snarky sense of humor had put “A Whole New World” on the bar’s jukebox. What kind of jukebox even had “A Whole New World” on there, anyway? Suicide did his best to tune it out, which in the end, wasn’t that hard. Jenni had casually passed a comment about why yes, she wasn’t going to have a child possibly interfering with interesting nighttime activities (a good thing, Suicide supposed, since while not a merciful man he had no intention of accidentally turning Henry Robinson into Rorschach Jr.) and stood, one hand disentangling from his. The one simple motion, a smooth rise from the hips through the long line of the spine, had done wonderful things for his admittedly one-track imagination.

It also triggered some nasty thoughts. There were plenty of things Suicide disliked about his PPC duties, but only one he actively loathed—the way it made him question the reality of something. For a moment, paranoia clutched at his guts: between the universal laws and his myriad experiences with beautiful woman-shaped creatures who were not what they appeared, his survival instinct (yes, he had one, mangled as it was) gave a momentary shriek of panic. He squashed it, silently cursing the reaction, but he knew his body had tensed momentarily at the thought. Hopefully Jenni hadn’t noticed.

Some great Scythian he was, doubting things simply because he had almost been killed numerous times by selfish would-be gods and goddesses who wanted to control the . . . best not to finish that thought. Simultaneously angry with himself and amused by the whole thing, he slid an arm around Jenni’s waist, pulling her a little closer to him as they stepped out of the bar. She felt real: solid, well-shaped but not unearthly in the way that the fictional worlds often favored. That was good enough for him. No knife, either: that had to count for something.

“Hang on a second,” he said, stopping Jenni as they reached the first intersection in the halls. “I just want to check something.”

Suicide was eight inches taller than Jenni, and with both of them standing, he had to bend to kiss her again. Not that it was much of a hardship: she was just the same, the smell and the feel and the lips all too real, leaving him with the exhilarated feeling of being slightly drunk. A passing secretary whistled at them, but though Suicide’s scruples had been satisfied, he didn’t let Jenni go right away. This was a piece of narrative realism he could definitely spend some time lingering over.

“Sorry about that,” he said finally when they both came up for air. Not that he was actually unhappy with what he’d just done, but Jenni might have objections to being seen doing that kind of thing in the halls. Granted, she didn’t look too unhappy right then. “Definitely,” he added, “all in order.”

Someone had triumphed akoniti, but he’d be damned if he knew who.

Mostly, Jenni was just confused, though not at all displeased at being kissed again, whistler or no whistler. She smiled even as she tilted her head in the universal gesture of not having a clue. “What . . . ?”

She didn’t usually miss things when it came to reading people. True, her brain was flooded with happy chemicals at the moment, but that didn’t usually stop her from putting two and two together. She had, in fact, noticed when he’d looked just for a moment like he was considering heading for the hills. He wasn’t—what, nervous? That didn’t seem to fit at all. . . . Shit. Maybe that head trauma was playing up, with the stress—good stress, surely, but still stress—she was putting on his system. Increased heart rate and blood pressure, hormone levels rising, brain sparking away . . . dammit, that would just figure.

Her expression turned doubtful, and she took a reluctant step back for a better view (though she left her hands where they’d automatically gone around his waist). “Look, uh . . . backpedaling is the last thing I want here, but it’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt, right? So, actually, that’s the last thing I want. Please tell me if something’s wrong, or if you have doubts, or anything.” This was definitely odd, coming from her to a giant warrior who had just soundly kissed her and seemed happy about it, but then, men could be odd about covering up what was really going on in their heads, physically or psychologically. She smiled and added, “You won’t lose man points or anything. That would be pretty much impossible.” She winked at him.

Suicide mentally cursed again as Jenni’s words cut through his newfound good mood. For a moment, he contemplated distracting her from the question; he figured he had a 55% chance of managing it, with a remaining 45% chance of it going horribly wrong and pissing her off. With someone he actually liked as much as he did Jenni, those weren’t odds he liked.

Damn the woman; between her role as a psych nurse and just being who she was, she was infernally hard to contemplate lying to. And she seemed genuinely concerned, though how much she knew about his thoughts he couldn’t guess. Extrasensory abilities, she’d said. Had she read his mind?

Once again, Suicide did his best to stamp down his paranoia. That way lay . . . well, madness was hardly a novelty, but madness of the second-guessing, self-doubting kind that always seemed to attend politicians and priests.

Though he had to admit, the idea of him being cautious was pretty damned funny.

“Just thinking,” he replied, shaking his head a little at her mention of doubts. “It’s a bad habit, I know.” When Jenni gave him a not-buying-that look, he struggled to elaborate. “Still getting used to the PPC again,” he said finally, doing his best to keep a dry tone. He’d lost his taste for any form of drama a long time ago . . . Shit, and he’d gone and left his lampshade back in the RC, too. Damn thing was never there when he needed it. “This business of getting close to someone—” He ran one hand up the long smooth curve of her back, admiring the sweep of it “—is a lot simpler when there’s no thinking about universal laws and suchlike.”

He offered her a wry grin. “Too much time reading the Words, I guess.”

Jenni nodded in sympathy. She personally had a terrible history of complications when it came to getting close, and—she blinked, checking herself. Son of a bitch, she’d just about let it get the better of her, too. Well, nice try, universe, but not this time. It owed her, damn it, and no way was she letting it off the hook now, not when things had been going so well. Not that she could really blame either herself or him for having concerns, but since hers did not apply, that made things very simple.

Intently, she looked Suicide in the eyes. “In that case, you had the right idea in the first place, and for both our sakes I apologize sincerely for allowing this ‘thinking’ to continue. Let’s fix that.” Eight inches upward was a bit of a stretch, but she got up on her toes and wrapped her arms around the back of his neck, taking the initiative for a deeper kiss and trusting that he’d get the idea. How did that joke go, “if I said you had a nice body, would you hold me against you?” Eh, something like that.

So much for doubts. Suicide got the idea, and while most of his thoughts that followed were generally incoherent, part of him definitely decided that the height difference was going to be a pain in the neck. His arms were already around Jenni; it was pretty simple to brace his back against the wall of the corridor and, shifting his hands on her hips, lift her up and rest her weight against one cocked leg. Now they were eye-to-eye.

Much better,” he murmured against her lips. “Problem solved.”

Though he didn’t say it, he meant both problems. The gray Generic Surface felt cold against his back, and most of Jenni’s weight rested against his right leg, sending a few phantom pains flickering through the cybernetic limb. There was still the edge of awkwardness between them—the certain caution of two people who didn’t quite know each other yet. But it was real, and there was one hell of a spark there, and Jenni . . . Jenni definitely knew what she was doing. In the middle of Word Worlds and fiction harpies and author wraiths and gods-damned Archir the Emerald, Suicide finally had his hands on something quantifiably, achingly real.

Hades’ teeth, and there were religions that forbade this kind of business?

“Apology accepted,” he added after a long moment. Ye gods, he did like green eyes.

Jenni experienced a little thrill at how easily he plucked her up, like the effort was nothing. The voice of caution pointed out that he could probably do anything he wanted to her without breaking a sweat, and her only recourse would be a use of power, but she had no trouble shushing it. She felt supported and secure in his arms, and she was running the show for the moment. With him doing most of the work of keeping her in place, one hand was free to rake through the hair over his ear, combing it back from his face and adding a little flourish to this kiss.

The Narrative Laws supplied a passing agent shouting at them to “get a room!” This was summarily ignored.

And he forgave her balking and almost messing everything up, and took the trouble to say as much. How great was that? “I’m glad,” she responded with warm smile to match her tone.

This close, she had to lean her head back to actually focus on his face. The awkwardness of this arrangement was becoming more apparent by the second. She shifted herself and slid back to the floor, then took him by the hand. “Come on. You can’t be comfortable like that. We can do better.”

She led the way, and for a wonder it wasn’t all that long before the double-doored entrance to Section 31 appeared. For an even greater wonder, whoever was supposed to be at the nurses’ station had apparently nipped out for the moment, so they were able to slip into room C-14 without any embarrassing run-ins. No doubt the Ironic Overpower was storing up an extra helping of hilarious mishaps for later, but at the moment it wasn’t worth worrying. Not this time, universe, not this time.

“Well, here we are,” Jenni said once her door was safely closed and locked behind them.

The room was not large, but she’d arranged the furnishings such that it was effectively divided into a sleeping space at the far end and a working space they’d entered into. Each side had a rug, and she’d found spaces for a few useful plants (the non-sentient sort), which softened the harsh Generic Surface construction. The whole room held the complex herbaceous scent Suicide had noticed on her earlier, emanating in particular from a cupboard above her desk, but there was also a hint of the sweet smell that seemed ubiquitous in the presence of small children. The desk, sitting against the left wall, straddled the midline of the room, with a computer on the office side and a much-used hotplate and tea paraphernalia on the other. Also against the left-hand wall, nearest to them, there was a bookshelf that faced a two-seater couch on the right-hand wall—because what shrink’s office would be complete without a couch?

The far end of the room showed signs of her hasty departure earlier. In the back right corner, a smallish wardrobe hung open, showing its slightly disheveled contents. Her white jacket hung over one of the doors. A child’s bed sat in front of it against the right wall, with toys haphazardly dropped on top. Jenni’s own bed against the back wall was festooned with a few discarded shirt options and a particularly bedraggled, brown, dragon-shaped plush toy.

She grinned apologetically. “Uh, sorry about the mess. Give me two ticks to pick up.” She started with the fire-lizard plush, tossing him gently to Henry’s bed.

So this was it: the lair of the beast, the place that would’ve given Nume an aneurysm if he’d known Suicide was in it. It even had a dragon . . . albeit a plush brown one, which somehow didn’t quite carry the level of menace Nume had predicted.

Jenni seemed a little embarrassed by the little bit of disorder— a couple of discarded shirts and all that. Yes, she should never be allowed to come back to RC 2771a. Though Mithiriel was constantly on the lookout for disorder, both Suicide and Diocletian were used to living rough, and the socks under the console had recently discovered crop rotation and the three-field system. On the other hand, Jenni’s room looked—well, civilized, for lack of a better word. These were the quarters of a woman who had traveled widely, found herself settling down (perhaps unexpectedly?), and done her best to make do in a limited space. The room fascinated him: so . . . normal. It said that if she’d been from his time, she would have been a respected citizen-woman who wouldn’t have been caught dead with a foreign squire.

Nah, that wasn’t right. Nobody who ended up with the PPC could qualify as respectable in any time, and he knew already that there were more unusual facets to Jenni than she was owning up to. So why was she fussing about a few pieces of clothing lying around? Who gave a damn about that?

He crossed the room quickly and wrapped his arms around Jenni again, trailing a kiss down the side of her neck. The sound she made was definitely not respectable, and was infinitely appreciated.

“Never mind the mess,” he said. A few strands of hair had fallen down over her face, and he flicked them out of the way with his thumb. “I think we’ll manage somehow. But if you’re that worried about it, there’s always—” his hands slid lower, enjoying the sensation of the fabric and smooth skin “—the floor.”

Jenni wasn’t that worried about it. True, she was a woman who liked a certain level of order, and she generally maintained it for the purpose of letting her visitors know that she had everything under control and it was safe to relax. It was a habit she’d acted on without thinking. But of course, that was silly of her.

If he’d deliberately considered the best place for that kiss, he couldn’t have done better, as her involuntary response proved. He had her full attention. She tossed aside the shirt dangling from her fingers, deciding she’d much rather deal with his instead, and went to work with a smile.

“Point taken,” she muttered. “We’re just gonna make it worse.”

Whether someone actually remembered to hit the lights or if the narrative itself induced a fade to black, they would not later recall. Given the circumstances, the latter was probably most likely.

. . .

Jenni had set an alarm at some point, though. In most cases she woke at first light, but in a place with no sun that didn’t work, so artificial methods had to suffice. Was she a morning person? Well, as a woman who routinely had things to do and places to be, taking advantage of the day just made sense, but she was not offensively chipper about it by any means, especially when it was dragging her from a very good night. The noise wasn’t as loud or annoying as a console’s beep, but in her head she cursed it just as thoroughly as any agent would have done a console. She’d ended up on the inside of the bed somehow—not her usual—so she had to stretch across Suicide to slap the damn thing silent. The brush of warm skin on skin just about made up for it.

As usual, Suicide’s awakening was accompanied by pain. He vaguely registered the shrilling of an alarm, but that took a distant second to the litany of other standard complaints—mainly joints that didn’t want to move and prior injuries taking the opportunity to remind him of them. The phantom pain of old arrow wounds spread a dull ache across his shoulders.

On the other hand, Jenni was reaching across him, one arm extended and her chest brushing his as she reached to slap at the alarm. Now that was a good way to wake up.

Now other aches were making themselves known—aches of the much more preferable kind, the result of a willing and enthusiastic woman who had let him make good on every promise he’d been mentally making since that day in FicPsych. Was he too old for this kind of fooling around? Probably. Did he still feel like Herakles on earth? Definitely. Was he all right with the night being over? Not even a bit.

“Piss and blood,” he muttered, raising his head from the rumpled pillow and shooting the alarm clock a death glare. Jenni had tried to retreat back to her side of the bed, but he rather preferred her where she was, and made his opinion known by running a hand down her back and grinning up at her. “You don’t have to get up, do you? The patients aren’t gettin’ any crazier.”

While she was at it, Jenni flicked on the bedside lamp before—retreating? No, no. Making some tactical readjustments. Lying half across a chest the size of the former squire’s wouldn’t stay comfortable for long. She settled down on her right side instead, head pillowed on his bicep while her left arm rested across his middle. She couldn’t see very much from this angle, but given the choice between looking and cuddling, she took cuddling. Enthusiastic was a good word for the night’s activities. Now, the path of least resistance had a special appeal.

“Mm, not as such,” she replied, her voice hazy from sleep. “I mean, I can’t stay here all day . . . as tempting as that is.” Speaking of which, there was no chance that her hands, or at least the free one, would stay still for long, not with so much bare skin available for slow, casual exploration. She didn’t understand how people could be as uptight as most of them were about touching in everyday life. The tactile sense was her favorite, bar none. She couldn’t get enough.

“G’morning, by the way,” she added, feeling a proper salutation was in order. “Sleep all right? I know I was worn out.” She grinned—even if he couldn’t see her face properly, he could probably feel it against his arm and hear it in her voice. As with the start of the evening, there had been trial and error, and there was room for improvement, but all Powers, learning was fun.

Mmmmm. The aches were still there, but with Jenni’s soft curves molded against him, they were hardly worth dwelling on. She’d pinioned his left arm quite neatly, especially since the feeling of her lips on the worn skin there was as strong an incentive as possible for not moving. If someone came barging through the door intent on mayhem, Suicide would have to throw her off before he could reach for the knife buried under his discarded clothes. At the moment, though, he was hard-pressed to give a damn.

(That same knife had provoked a Look from Jenni when she found it hidden in the small of his back last night . . . good times indeed.)

“Morning to you, too,” he said, shifting his weight a little to get comfortable on the rumpled sheets. He gave a slight hiss between his teeth as Jenni’s wandering hand found one of the old disembowelment scars (not a good time) but didn’t tense. That itself was a sign of how relaxed he felt.

“Slept like the dead,” he added after a long moment. His voice was hoarse and rough; his body simply wasn’t used to getting eight hours any more, especially not after having been so thoroughly worn out beforehand. He pulled Jenni a little closer and ran his right hand over the curve of her hip. “Better than I have in a while, in fact.” A thought struck him, and he couldn’t help grinning a bit himself as he stroked a thumb over Jenni’s hipbone. “In fact, I think I might actually be sane this morning. So technically, you can say you’ve been on the clock this whole time . . . which means you’re about due to come off shift and have some downtime yourself.”

At the hiss she paused her wandering and propped herself up on her right elbow to scope out what she’d touched. She hadn’t been thinking about wounds and charts, but when she saw the extensive scar below his left ribs, and the others visible across his body, she matched them to the descriptions she’d read. A twinge of empathy momentarily intruded on her calm, but perhaps deliberately, Suicide didn’t allow her time to dwell on it.

She was happy to snuggle closer. With all the moving around she’d done, despite her best intentions to be lazy, she’d almost completely lost her covering of blankets. She drew up her raised leg and crossed his thigh with it. Her hand went back to gently stroking his chest and abdomen, scars and all, with the occasional detour into light kneading where she sensed it would be appreciated.

His suggestion about having been on the clock got an all-too-ironic laugh. “Well, I’m glad, but . . . no . . . I don’t think my bosses would approve at all. Shards, I wouldn’t approve. Confusing business with pleasure is one sin I managed to avoid, and here you are encouraging me. You’re a bad influence,” she accused, looking down her nose with mock alarm. “Somebody should have warned me about you.”

Suicide had, out of long habit, stolen most of the blankets. When Jenni put her leg over his, he belatedly realized that she didn’t have anything on or over her. After taking a moment to admire the picture she made, he untangled one of the blankets (it had gotten quite knotted before being kicked aside) and reluctantly pulled it up just far enough to hide the leg.

He raised his head just enough to grin down at her. “Yep. Bad influence, me. Let’s see . . . I’ve influenced Nume into punching me in the face, and influenced you into lowering your standards enough to sleep with a Scythian helot. Not a bad start.” He shifted his free hand under the blanket to Jenni’s raised leg, running a rough palm over it and stroking along the lines of muscle that stood out beneath the smooth skin. Ye gods, that felt good. “So far I’m two for two on corruption. What d’you think I should do next? Besides keep you here as long as possible.”

Jenni grinned back. “Sorry to disappoint, but I didn’t have to lower my standards to sleep with you. I just plain like you. Dock yourself a point.” She shifted herself upward enough to plant a kiss on his mouth for emphasis on the most important of the things she’d said there.

Feeling fully awake now, she added, “And I think you should tell me what you want to happen while you’ve got me here. Apart from Henry, my routine usually involves tea, breakfast, and some days a shower, all of which I’m happy to share with you, but you don’t seem ready for that much activity yet.” That . . . well, sadly it made sense. She couldn’t be distracted from healer mode too long. He did seem to be moving as little as possible, barring what was involved in petting her (which was very nice). She would see what he said, but she promised herself to show him what she could really do with her hands sooner than later.

Was she questioning his manhood? Eh, probably not, but she had definitely twigged to some part of what was going on with him. Living as long as Suicide technically had (barring a death or two) came with mixed blessings: women impressed by scars usually weren’t quite as impressed with posttraumatic arthritis. (Ah, the words he’d learned when Medical was putting in his new limbs.)

Two possibilities occurred to him. One, he could execute a quick roll onto her (no hard task for anyone who’d spent time as a wrestling partner for pissy warrior types) and make good on demonstrating just how much activity he was ready for. Two, he could own up to the usual morning aches and see how she reacted. The former would be more fun in the short term, but it ran the risk of Jenni seeing it for the avoidance tactic it partially was. The latter, on the other hand, might get him something more than a hand massage—but possibly damaging his (so he believed) reputation as an unstoppable killing machine in the process. Decisions, decisions: waking up in bed with a woman like Jenni should not have given rise to that many questions.

There was always the middle path. Turning onto his side, he hooked one leg around hers and pulled her a little closer, echoing her earlier brief kiss with more intent and meaning. “I already told you,” he said with a lazy smile, running a hand through her loose hair. “You wore the crazy right out of me. I feel perfectly gods-damned justified in taking my time waking up.

“And I’ll be keeping that point, thanks. Nume expended some real effort in telling me how duplicitous and . . . clutches-y you were. A prize manipulator should know better than to sleep with someone they actually like.” A gender-neutral pronoun with a double edge, he thought. Though he counted himself less a manipulator and more a maimer, really . . .

Ooh, touchy. She was onto something, and between the nabbing, the kissing, and what sounded almost like a challenge, he was trying to throw her off. He was putting forth a respectable effort, too. Her leg had ended up somewhere very interesting, and his kisses did wreak havoc on her concentration.

On the other hand, he’d made a crucial error by giving her access to his back. She debated the wisdom of taking advantage, but in the end she couldn’t resist the opportunity to let him know she wasn’t fooled and to fulfill her promise to herself. Some quick seeking with her fingers found a little-remembered spot just below the spine of the scapula, and she put her thumb knuckle into the muscle. This shoulder had undergone some reconstruction, if she remembered right, so she went cautiously to begin with. It would be awful to screw up and do something that caused true pain instead of the “hurts-so-good” of a well-done backrub. If he decided his pride could tolerate it, she would continue wherever she could reach.

“Sorry, still no point,” she said. “Nume was just being an ass to protect some secret he thinks I might learn from you, and I’m not with you for that. My lustful motives remain pure.” She grinned. Getting into a man’s pants for its own sake wasn’t usually considered pure, but usual was way less fun. “And you don’t have to justify anything, by the way. I wasn’t criticizing you.”

Oh, she had his attention, all right. Suicide tensed as she pressed her thumb into the hard knot of muscle: a momentary stab of pain shot through it, but as she gently twisted her fingers, the muscle began to relax and the pain became less sharp. An involuntary sound, a mixture of a sigh and a groan, escaped from his lips.

Both his shoulders had been shot in the first of the battles at the Gates, and that was only the beginning of the injury laundry list. Things had been fixed quite well—hell, he was alive, wasn’t he?—but the residual aches remained, a consequence of simply being his age and still living despite the hell he’d put himself through. Now, tangled together with the pliable softness of Jenni, feeling the leaden pain of an old injury fade and shift like pack ice breaking up . . . He murmured something, an old Scythian curse, and almost unconsciously tightened his grip on her.

“Pure, huh,” he managed to say. The mixture of pleasure and good pain—enough said. His constant paranoia whispered in his ear, telling him that it just meant she had access to his medical records and knew where to hit him, but Suicide could honestly acknowledge that right then, he didn’t give a damn. Today was a good day to not die.

That sound was music to her ears, and it brought a beatific smile to her face. She’d got it right. It was a relief, and she found herself relaxing. She hadn’t realized how much she’d tensed up, unconsciously worrying that things might take a bad turn. Much encouraged, she tucked her head under his chin, wriggling as close as she could get to allow her arm as much freedom as possible. This was not the ideal way to go about this, but she wasn’t quite sure he’d let go of her now, and she wasn’t quite sure she wanted him to. It would do for a start.

“Okay, you got me,” she said to his collarbone. “It’s not all lust. I have a deep and abiding drive to care for others that sometimes gets me into trouble. I can’t help it, so you’d better get used to it.” She wasn’t being facetious, despite how silly the claim could have sounded. It was the simple truth that defined her existence, pronounced in a moment of communion.

The words sounded strange in Suicide’s ears; awkward, maybe, like he wasn’t quite sure the world fit into place around them. It didn’t surprise him, somehow. She seemed to have momentarily dropped any defenses she had, and unguarded, spontaneous moments of heartfelt expression rarely sound like they do in the epics. He could understand someone having such a moment, and wasn’t about to make fun of it. Campfires, winter hares and merchants’ wagons, talk of the glue that held a phalanx together . . .

(It was that factor that kept Suicide’s brain from screaming “HEALING SEX! Head for the hills!”)

“‘Mother to a nation,’” he said, his voice guttural as Jenni worked her magic on the knotted muscles. It was a quote, but likely one Jenni didn’t recognize; he didn’t think that myth had even been translated into Greek, let alone English. “Can’t change who you are; shouldn’t try.” Well, quid pro quo and all that . . . He shifted a little, making them both more comfortable.

“I’m a patricide and deserve to be dead.” A small, wry grin appeared, evident in his tone as he echoed her earlier words. “I’m going to keep trying, too, so you’d better get used to it.”

Another straightforward pronouncement, devoid of the angst that usually accompanied phrases like ‘I deserve to be dead.’ He wasn’t speaking out of emotion, but out of sheer metaphysical certainty. A father-killer was an unnatural thing; for the world to be right again, the murderer had to be murdered. E = mc2, where E equals death, m = paterfamilias, and c2 = the square of the velocity of the murdering son’s knife arm in centimeters per second.

It wasn’t as though she hadn’t known to a degree; it wasn’t a big secret with his name and history being what they were, so the sting of hearing him say it wasn’t as much as it could have been—a static shock rather than touching a power line—but it was enough to make her pause while her worldview settled back into place around the admission. There were mitigating factors. The way he said it, it was clear it wasn’t a matter of self-hatred, which she could not have stood, but simply a certainty that death was coming and it was just, so he might as well meet it halfway. Also, perspective was key: she was not mortal, and she would lose all her friends here eventually, whether she left first or something happened to them, whether they wanted it or not.

She gave Suicide a quick one-armed squeeze, then went back to work on him with gusto. “I know,” she said. She did now. “I sure can pick ’em, huh?”

Suicide considered responding to that—maybe by pointing out that she’d picked a brain-damaged, 11% artificial man who had just mentioned his plan to follow up the pleasantry of the last twelve hours with a spot of trying to get himself killed—but something told him sarcasm, however lighthearted, wouldn’t be appreciated at that moment. Furthermore, something very peculiar seemed to be happening to his verbal facilities: attempts to form words were being stifled halfway and turned into something approaching a moan.

Anybody who’s suffered the pain and indignity of a major injury knows that, healed or not, that injury will be with you for the rest of your life. Break an ankle at ten, and it will still be aching sixty-five years later. This goes some way towards explaining why Suicide, who hadn’t gotten eight hours in his-or-any-other-gods-only-knew-when and couldn’t count all his collected injuries on both hands and feet, was having trouble expressing himself. He knew about working out muscle knots—a squire had to—but modern medicine had added some tricks even the Bacchan whores hadn’t had.

Somehow he wound up lying on his stomach, Jenni leaning over him. He could feel the warmth of her breath on the back of his neck as she worked, smoothing out the aches and dodging neatly around the green-and-purple bruising still leftover from the gods-damned Archir incident.

“You know,” he managed to say after a long pause, his voice hoarse, “this isn’t going to guarantee you getting to work any faster.” She hit a particularly sensitive spot, and he hissed between his teeth. “Perfect. Perfect. Gods, tell me you need something killed . . . I’ll have its head on your desk by noon.”

Good grief. From her kneeling crouch over his hips, Jenni shook her head, glad that he couldn’t see the part amused, part disgusted expression on her face. Typical fighting man. She did appreciate the sentiment behind the tasteless offer, but . . . “No, my friend, I couldn’t hold you to anything promised under duress. Actually, take a breather. And stop strangling my pillow.”

She switched from directed pressure to broad, shallow sweeps up and down with her palms, giving him a chance to unclench and get his breath back. Once she got into the sort of work she’d been doing, she didn’t mess around. Her hands told her what was necessary, and she did it, whatever the spasms and vocalizations. (As the latter went, “Perfect” was pretty damn good to hear.)

Meanwhile, she glanced at the time and grimaced. “Shards. We do have to wrap this up. I’m not late, but I have things to do before work, the chief among which is making sure Henry knows I didn’t forget him. The Nursery’s good, but they don’t quite have the crèche mentality down—too busy. Maybe Ilraen . . . never mind. Before that, I aim to have a quick wash and some breakfast. You can stay here as long as you want, or tag along. What do you say? And, anything in particular I should hit quick before I let you up?” Well, that might be overstating his ability to move just a bit, but the effect was temporary.

Yep, he’d said something wrong. In a way, though, he’d almost expected it; there was a mental gap there, citizen to helot in its manner (there was no other way he could think of it, when a few years as a character were nothing compared to almost forty back home), and he couldn’t be surprised that he’d made a misstep. Still, it didn’t seem to have hurt Jenni . . .

Trying to curb his behavior in order to not offend someone was a relative novelty in his life. But Jenni was a citizen-woman and as good as a battlefield medic, a firm hand and a smile with a challenge in it. She was a friend.

And she had worked miracles. As she spoke, Suicide pulled his arms in and braced his palms against the mattress. The muscles still pulled oddly in his shoulders and biceps, but there was a wonderful freedom of movement. He moved slowly, not intending to give anything away to Jenni right away, while she told him she had to get up. That’s right, she had work, and she needed to see her son. Well . . .

“I should let you go,” he said. Then, in one smooth motion, he pushed off from the mattress and executed a quick roll. Jenni had still been crouched over him, and with his leg hooked around her, he landed her neatly on her back. Another twist put him on top, leaning over her. The ends of his long gray hair draped down onto Jenni’s messy brown, creating an odd tiger-stripe on the pillow. He kissed her hard again, showing his appreciation for her particular talents. Reluctantly—very reluctantly—he let her up after a long moment.

“But it’s damned hard,” he added, leaving one last nip at her neck. Wait, was that a double-entendre? Somehow, it wasn’t as big a concern as it had been the night before. “I’ve probably got another mission waiting, too.” The unspoken Gods damn it was clear.

Jenni yelped as she went over and reflexively put up her arms in defense, but of course that meant nothing to a big warrior like Suicide. His weight pushed her hands right down, and by that time she’d cottoned on to what had happened and wasn’t worried about it anyway. She was impressed that he’d pulled it off, and that was about as far as she was able to think until he relented. The pass at her neck left her sighing in disappointment when he then moved off. Brat. Tease. If she didn’t have things to do . . . but she did, and since he sounded every bit as frustrated as she felt, she forgave him for toying with her. This time.

“Yeah,” she agreed breathlessly to everything, said and unsaid. Abruptly, she pushed herself upright and got off the end of the bed, and started assessing what had become of yesterday’s clothes. “Well, if it hurts, do it fast and get it over with, as they say.” Did people say that, or was it just the band-aid thing? Eh, whatever. “Come on. I know you can shift yourself now.” She smirked at him. She’d almost extended a helping hand, but after the stunt he’d just pulled she immediately thought better of it. She’d be more of a challenge in the future, so help her.

“That’s not what I always heard,” Suicide said, because honestly, if there was ever a phrase that cried out for an innuendo and an eyebrow raise that was it. And frankly, he remembered a few times where something that hurt had been . . . dammit, no point thinking about it now, not when they both had places to be and things to do. They’d probably baited the Universal Laws by having as much time as they had.

Still, Suicide took a moment to admire the picture Jenni made standing beside the bed—wearing a smirk and nothing else, a combination he definitely approved of—before reluctantly sitting up himself. Instead of standing up, though, he leaned over the edge of the bed and reached around Jenni to retrieve part of his uniform, taking the opportunity to trail a quick kiss across the smooth skin of her hip while he was in the neighborhood. Okay, okay, they really had to get up and that was technically not helping, but with Jenni still right in front of him he considered it extenuating circumstances.

Eventually, he managed to find all of his clothes (how the hell had his belt wound up all the way over there?) and began reassembling himself. Jenni had changed into fresh clothes and was brushing out her long hair, a hair tie already looped around a couple of fingers in preparation for making a quick braid.

A thought occurred. Suicide silently promised himself that, yes, they did have to go and all that, but . . . dammit . . . he literally was an old-fashioned guy. Ancient-fashioned, even.

“C’mere,” he said, pulling Jenni down to sit on the bed next to him. She seemed surprised, but she complied.

Plucking the hair tie from her hands, Suicide ran his hands through the long dark-brown hair. It was clean—a change from what he’d usually worked with, back in the day—but there was also more of it, which he approved of. It took him a moment to remember how he used to begin (only one of his current hands had done this, and the years were hard on the body memory) but as he ran one strand through his fingers, it began to come back. Jenni habitually wore her hair in a braid, didn’t she? Divide into three plaits, twist and weave, don’t yank or the master you’re doing this for will have you beaten with an olive branch. Out of habit, he used the more complicated braid that began at the crown: any loose hair in a fight could be damned dangerous.

In a way, it was a more intimate act than any of the (admittedly excellent) things they had gotten up to the night before. It was something he’d done only for the great men he’d served, usually when they’d broken an arm and couldn’t dress their hair themselves. He was oddly unsure why he was doing it now . . . Something about the whole situation, sharing stories about last stands the way they had, had gotten a modicum of trust from him.

“What . . . ?” she started as he sat her down. She kept finding herself playing catch-up with this man. This was the quickest realization so far—once he took the elastic tie from her it was quite plain what he intended—but also the most surprising, even more than being tackled minutes before. That fit with everything she expected from him. This was different.

He was so quiet. She wasn’t sure what she thought he should say, but that was only part of it, an intent stillness that she felt from him. Why was he doing this? How did he know how to do this? The only times she could remember anyone braiding her hair for her had been times when she was small, and it was a mother- or sister-figure doing it. This didn’t feel like those times. He wasn’t patronizing her in the slightest, he was just . . . helping.

And he was good at it. It was a little uneven thanks to the angle created by sitting beside each other, but it was a good weave nonetheless: secure, but not so tight as to pull the scalp and be uncomfortable. This was another example of what she’d observed of his handiwork with a bandage before, such unusual dexterity and gentleness from someone so rough around the edges. Forget sarcasm; she really could pick ’em.

When he’d finished, she turned to face him and took his hands in hers, brushing the knuckles of each with a kiss. “Thank you.”

Suicide shrugged a little, unsure of how to respond. He knew only that it had seemed like the right thing to do at the time: it was a sign of partial trust, at any rate, and a good thing to do for someone who was going to be spending the day with psychotic patients and their possible hair-pulling tendencies. (He was speaking from personal experience. When he’d first awakened, inexplicably alive and incapable of understanding what anyone was saying, he’d grabbed his “captors” by anything he could get his hands on.) That wasn’t something that warranted thanks in his opinion; it was a given, a part of being in war with another living being.

“You’re welcome,” he said after a moment. His mental list of modern behaviors reminded him that it was the appropriate thing to do, but Jenni could likely tell that that response—unlike the shrug, and the silence before—was rote. He felt like he’d said and done everything that really meant anything on that score already, and adding more words to it would make the whole thing moot. He’d said his best piece by already doing it.

“I told you last night,” Suicide added, straightening up a little. “Quid pro quo, right?” He took the opportunity of Jenni being so close to steal another kiss, but the clock was relentlessly advancing and even his underdeveloped sense of duty was beginning to prod at him. Reluctantly, he stood up and checked his sheathed knife. “So much for getting dressed in a timely manner, I suppose. I hope you know that you’re incredibly distracting.”

Jenni got up after him, smiling a little uncertainly. She felt like she’d put a foot wrong, but somehow landed the right way up anyway, and without being able to explain any of it. He seemed almost as confused as she was, which was no help. Maddening. Well, no time to figure it out now. She would have to hope for another chance.

She shrugged at his last remark, and her smile took a firmer hold. “What can I say, I was made this way. You’re not so bad yourself.” She winked, and then reached out to touch his arm above the elbow in a forestalling gesture. “Listen, speaking of time . . . I know scheduling anything is impossible, but would you keep me posted when you’re around? And feel free to just drop in. If I’m in the department, my door is usually open.”

She refrained from spelling out just how much she was interested in seeing him again. When rule number one was “no promises,” it seemed like that would be overstepping a boundary on her part. An open line of communication and standing invitation would have to do.

Now that was something he was on better terms with. Suicide paused when she touched his arm, running a hand through his shaggy gray hair (doing absolutely nothing for it; the man seemed to generate an internal scruffiness field).

“It’s too late,” he said cheerfully. “You’ve gone and fed me after midnight, and now you’re stuck with me.” The gremlin analogy seemed appropriate, especially considering that he’d left several bite marks. “The Universal Laws have probably lined up another mission for me, but—” He momentarily contemplated the virtues of when I get back versus if I get back, and decided to slither out of the issue by doing a quick rephrase “—but I’ll be coming by again as soon as I can. I’d say feel free to drop by the RC, but—Mithiriel.” The name spoke volumes: Lemon-Pledge-scented, Glare-of-Doom-wielding volumes.

He moved towards the door, but stopped himself halfway through the motion. Jenni still seemed a bit on edge, and it seemed to him that a couple of things hadn’t been covered yet.

“Thanks,” he said to her. The word came out oddly, a little blunt, but with feeling. “You’re a good woman.” Ouch, rhetoric was definitely not his bag—yet that was the only way to put it as far as he was concerned. He couldn’t picture her telling someone to come back with their shield or on it, but citizen women were worthy for more than just their stoicism. There was something horribly ironic about him holding up standards for what made a “good” person, especially considering that he routinely got rid of self-proclaimed good people, but he could only go by what he remembered and knew for himself. Like his own impending death, it was a certainty. “Friends?”

It might not have been great rhetoric, or even good English, but it got the job done. With each word, Jenni felt her lingering uncertainty fade and optimism take its place. Not explicitly, but tacitly, with bluff sincerity, he’d given her permission to look forward. That had been the hangup, and with that dealt with, she answered with a smile of unrestrained gladness.

“Perfect.” There was no way she was not hugging him at this point. How did anyone not hug someone who’d just said you were good and wanted to see you again, and looked so damned adorably scruffy while doing it? Some things had to be spoken, but for two tactile creatures such as themselves, this was more eloquent than any words could ever be. The door could wait half a minute. Or a whole one. Or—

“Okay, no, really.” She was laughing, but she brought up both hands on Suicide’s chest and pushed herself firmly back a step. Even with the height difference making it less easy than it could have been, turning a hug into a kiss was as inevitable as the hug, and it took a real effort of will to stop there with the feeling of the newly cemented connection vibrant between them. Yet, by the same token it was easier, too. She wasn’t worried about losing it now, making it possible to reach over and quickly unlock and push open the door.

Jenni started to say something about going and doing his job (shield optional), but her eye caught a low shape in the hallway. Her mouth dropped open momentarily, but pressed shut again in a vexed expression before she spoke. “Fern. What brings you here?” Her tone suggested she already knew the answer.

Oh, bearing messages, as usual, the potted fern replied casually. The nurses have a little betting pool on your appearance and asked me to mark the time for them as a neutral observer. Elms will be quite pleased, but I’m afraid you’ve disappointed poor Mirrad. He expected you sooner.

Jenni hadn’t blushed right away, but she did now. Mirrad’s opinion meant something to her.

She stared a moment, looking puzzled. “We didn’t see anyone. How did—?” The lightbulb went on, and she snapped her fingers, rolling her eyes at how oblivious she’d been. “Frank.”

The fern ruffled its fronds in amusement. You didn’t think you could escape notice, did you? In this department? They’re putting up the banner in the break room, you know.

That was unexpected. “You mean the ‘You Got Laid!’ banner?” It did. “I thought we got rid of it after Suzine threatened us all with No-Drool Videos the last time!” She shook her head, fighting hard not to laugh, and turned to Suicide. “This is . . . I was in on inventing the thing. It didn’t seem fair that only the guest should have to take the Walk of Shame, you know? Of course, I have no shame.” She grinned. “You don’t strike me as the type, either. Am I right?”

Jenni seemed to have figured out what he meant, and expressed her good mood in a manner that Suicide decided he could definitely become accustomed to. He was still wearing a grin when the door slid open and the Fern interrupted. His hand automatically went halfway to his knife—inevitable when something surprised him—but as it explained, its psychic “voice” carrying just the tiniest hint of amusement, he understood what was going on.

Oh, he knew that one. The addition of the banner was a nice touch, he had to admit, but it was still a routine that was old even in his day. Didn’t mean it wasn’t funny, though.

“Someone once accused me of being shameful,” Suicide observed, glancing around and taking his bearings. “He’s dead now. Hey, Jenni, which way is the lounge?”

When she pointed it out, he nodded and took stock of himself and his resources. The Fern wouldn’t be much help, but then plants never were. (Suicide was not racist or speciesist. Kingdomist, absolutely.) He himself was already a rumpled mess, and his hair . . . ahhh, the hair. Like Dienekes always said: nothing like long hair to make a handsome man more comely or an ugly man more terrifying. He ruffled his hair a little more, giving it the extra volume it needed to be really Wolverine-shaggy and manelike, and made sure the sleeves of his uniform shirt were pulled up for that “no time, things to do” touch. The knife, in its curious white leather sheath, he shifted to his hip: “Very Byron Sully,” as Dio had once said.

Taken all together, he appeared the antithesis of someone who would even be caught in the same zip code as the concept of shame.

“C’mon, Jenni,” he said. “Let’s go say hello.” With a small grunt (no comments, please, it was still early for him) he picked Jenni up entirely. There was another of those wonderful surprised squeaks from her, but it didn’t seem to bother her too much: it was obvious she’d sussed out what he was thinking, and probably shared it. Suicide arranged her as artistically as he could, finally settling on a hold that left Jenni halfway between bridal-style and a ’50s damsel being kidnapped by the monster of the week. He strode off down the corridor, balancing her fairly easily and feeling decidedly cheerful. Rubbing his excellent night in the faces of everyone in the lounge sounded like a good start to the day.

Jenni was happy to go along with the general order of “Let’s go counter-harass your co-workers!” She wasn’t sure she could pull off the damsel in distress thing he seemed to intend, though. She was far too put-together for it—and nobody was touching this braid—so she did her best to look like the arrangement was her idea, relaxed but poised and a little bit smug. Why yes, she had tamed the wild man with the power of love (well, eros, anyway); how perspicacious of you to notice. It was close enough to her old schtick to be worrisome to those who knew her well, but removed sufficiently to be safe. Yes, it would do.

The nurses’ lounge wanted to be found. It was exactly where Jenni remembered it being yesterday, and the door was just slightly ajar—perfect for an adventurer-style surprise entrance. There weren’t any Beholders on the other side, but there were several nurses who all jumped at the bang. Mirrad the former Ranger slipped seamlessly into a fighting stance, of course, but Parwill, Elms, and young Alex all looked like they’d had their tails stepped on, and Immac actually said “eek!” Alex was nominated by the Narrative Laws as the Obligatory Spit-taker, and since Parwill was sitting across from him at the room’s single table, they shared in the honorary coffee-stain.

“Hi, guys!” Jenni said. “We heard you were throwing us a party. Love the decorations.” She nodded at the banner, taped up on the wall above the coffee pots. It was pastel yellow with “You Got Laid!” in magenta letters, possibly one of the most offensive combinations short of Sue-colors, and dotted with excessively happy smiley-faces. “So true. Mm, so true.” She grinned.

Elms, the curly-haired blonde standing under the banner with a roll of tape still in hand, was the least embarrassed of the lot—coming from a life as a barmaid would do that for you—but she still had the courtesy to be completely put out once she’d stopped being startled. “Jenni! Dammit, it’s no fun if you’re just going to advertise, woman! And what’s with this guy? Someone assigned Charisma as a dump stat this morning.” She leveled a skeptical look at Suicide over her blue glasses, no doubt speculating unfavorably on the rest of his character sheet.

Nobody could ever accuse Suicide of being charismatic, but in the true sense of the stat, he was actually quite good at making a lasting impression on people. If anything he had, to use the Discworld term, charisn’tma: people had occasionally been known to stick around him just to see what destruction he would cause next. And he was more than enough of a jerk to enjoy the surprise and irritation of the nurses, who reacted just as badly to having the tables turned as the young Thebans and Astakians had when their pranks were foiled.

He set Jenni down easily, but kept his left arm around her shoulders. There was a mischievous spark in her eye as she surveyed the room, which Suicide definitely approved of. So she was capable of cruelty—or messing with people, anyway, which was at least something to build on.

“Morning to you too,” he said cheerfully to Elms, and acknowledged the massed FicPsych personnel with a nod of the head. “And you have my sympathy. If this kind of thing’s so rare around that you have to make a fuss about it, we probably should’ve gone elsewhere and not rubbed it in anyone’s face.” A thought seemed to strike him, and he frowned for a moment before holding out his free hand to Elms. “Hell, where’re my manners? Sorry about that. Nice to meet you all; I’m Agent Suicide.”

That got a reaction. The hand was met with a flat stare—nobody in that room was going to take such an abrupt reversal at face-value, and Elms was no exception—but any comment she might have made was cut off by a squeak from Immac, who was sitting at the table next to Parwill.

“Oh! I’ve heard of you!” she said, bouncing slightly in her chair. “You’re the one whose partner came down with Bursar Disease, and you put that poor elf in here with a Dibbler pie. Nathonea told me all about it!” She was caught somewhere between excitement at making the connection and worry that Suicide was going to pull some sort of questionable pastry out of a pocket right then and there.

“Immie’s from the Disc,” Jenni said for Suicide’s benefit, leaning contentedly against his side. This was going to be interesting. “’Course everyone’s heard of Ithalond. I missed the Bursar Disease thing, though. Diocletian seemed sane enough when I saw her, allowing for circumstances.”

“Agent Astreth vanished before completing her course of treatment, I believe,” Mirrad intoned. The Minbari had relaxed once it became apparent that no attack was forthcoming, and stood with his hands folded serenely across the front of his cream-colored robe. At just under five and a half feet tall, he wasn’t someone most people would expect to hold his own in the middle of a fight with someone like Suicide, but then again, he did have the “bald man with a Denn’Bok” thing working for him. The others regarded him with clear respect when he spoke. “But no matter. Since our humorous prank seems to have rebounded on us, let us remember our own manners. Agent Suicide, please allow me to introduce Nurses Elms, Immac, and Parwill, and Intern Bjørnsen. I am Mirrad.” He raised his hands, one laid over the other with the palms inward, thumbs raised and touching to form a triangle. “Congratulations on a successful . . . courtship. It seems I underestimated just how successful. Elms was very astute, however.” His dark eyes definitely had a bit of a sparkle to them, for all his polite demeanor.

“I’m still not sure this is appropriate,” Alex murmured into the remainder of his coffee. The edge of his keenness appeared dulled by the stains on his jacket cuffs and an impressive blush that spread all the way up to his hairline.

Elms overheard and rewarded him with a comradely slap on the back that almost spilled his cup. “Loosen up, kid. If you can’t be nice and comfy with the things folk get up to at night of their own free will, you’ll never hack it in this department. Jenni gets it, even if her taste is gods-awful. The Dibbler pie guy? Really? And since we’re on the subject of the Disc, I gotta point out the whole Cohen the Barbarian thing.” She shook her head sadly, though the effect was spoiled by the persistence of a shit-eating grin. Being reminded that she’d just won a tidy little betting pool did wonders for her mood. “I’ve lost respect for you, Jen, I really have.”

The handshake was rebuffed, to Suicide’s complete lack of surprise, so he shrugged one shoulder and tucked the hand into a trouser pocket instead. He was hardly insulted or disappointed, not when everything was shaping up so nicely. The results of their entrance had been nicely chaotic, a couple of the nurses were clearly disappointed that their would-be moment of embarrassing had been defused, and at least one of them looked vaguely ill at the memory of Ithalond—which, to be fair, was entirely expected given what the Elf gone through. (Not long after the incident, Suicide had taken it upon himself to taste a Dibbler pie and had temporarily gained the will to live. It had been so unnerving that he’d privately promised himself that he’d be less hard on Ithalond.)

“Dio’s fine,” he said to Jenni. His arm was still draped around her, partially because it felt good and partially because he rather felt that the “my territory” message hadn’t quite been conveyed to the skeptical Nurse Elms enough yet. “She used to have her moments, though. Spending time on the Island Where Dreams Come True might not’ve been the brightest idea.”

He gave a genial, no-loaded-pies nod to Immac, and was about to reply to Nurse Mirrad (in the years since he’d come to the PPC, several painful experiences had taught him not to underestimate short bald men with uncannily serene dispositions), but Elms’ use of the shit-eating grin was deemed a matter for more urgent attention. That was his favorite expression, thankyouverymuch.

“If you think this is bad,” he added to her, his tone congenial, “you should’ve seen me before I died the first time. I wouldn’t question her taste, though: my masters always told me that when you find a woman who knows what she wants, the only thing you can do is give it to her as much as possible.” The sad thing was, that actually counted as a masterfully subtle innuendo where Suicide was concerned.

It got a laugh from both Jenni and Elms. The others variously smiled quietly, giggled, or pretended not to have heard. Elms nodded in approval—it seemed Suicide had earned himself some points.

“Wise man,” Jenni remarked, giving him an affectionate scratch between the shoulder blades. “Elms, you’re nineteen, aren’t you?” she asked with a grin, remembering stories from the previous night. “The multiverse looks awfully different at nineteen. You just don’t know what you’re missing—but alas, I don’t have time to enlighten you right now. Not that you lot don’t deserve every filthy little detail, but I’ve got more important things to do.”

Alex breathed an audible sigh of short-lived relief before Jenni added to Suicide, far too earnestly, “Of course, you could stay if you’re feeling civic-minded. I’m sure the Flowers would understand. Educating the youth is very important.” She couldn’t resist, really. She could practically hear the wheels turning in the nurses’ heads, calculating how likely was imminent trauma, how much Bleeprin it would take to erase it, and how quickly they would have to move to escape out the door.

Elms was nineteen, eh? Suicide mentally resorted her into the “kid” category, but like Nume, she was a kid who had shown some excellent backbone. Still—ai Na’an, he was being condescended to by someone less than half his age. He really was getting old. When he was nineteen, he hadn’t even expected to live to twenty, let alone to forty-something (how old was he, anyway?), and now he was the crazy old man people couldn’t believe someone would sleep with. How times change, eh?

On the other hand, there were serious benefits to being the crazy old man . . .

“Tempting,” he said, planting a quick kiss on the top of Jenni’s head. “But we might give the callow youth PTSD if we tried to enlighten them.” There was a moment of relaxation as the nurses breathed again. “But it looks like there’s still plenty to do around here. And I know it’s not the Medical Department, but you do have plenty of drugs and supplies here, don’t you? I did tell you I wanted to practice my field medicine. I thought I saw Legolas looking rather beat-up in the hallway, too.” He gave Jenni his best charming grin, which wasn’t very charming at all but got the message across. “I need to learn to use anesthesia some time, right?”

The moment of relaxation was followed by one of nervous anticipation. Even Parwill looked up from his—her—Parwill’s breakfast to watch Jenni for an indication of how seriously they should take this development. It wasn’t a question of whether they were being messed with or not, since Suicide’s expression left no doubt, but rather how far it would go.

Jenni herself seemed to be in some doubt on that score, looking up at him with a fixed expression, but as it turned out that was only because she was trying not to laugh. She gave up after a moment.

“You know, if you want me to strap you down again, all you have to do is say so,” she said with elaborate sweetness, eliciting a few groans and a facepalm from the nurses. (Mirrad notably did not react, but seemed to have designated himself the responsible adult in the room and merely kept an eye on things as he went about his own routine.) “But either way, I’m off.” She turned to the room and gave them a wave. “Thank you all, you’ve been a wonderful audience. Elms, hide the banner before Suzine confiscates it, and better luck next time. Alex, let’s talk when I get back, okay? Be somewhere findable.”

The young intern nodded, cooperative in spite of looking pinched with apprehension. Yeah, he definitely needed some reassurance about all this. Later.

“As for you,” she said to Suicide, “we did this dance already, but at least walk me out. I’m pretty sure you don’t really want to stay here that badly. Trying to anesthetize random canons would be a good way to earn a one-way booking, though.” She shook her head with a wry smile. “Mental images for the day. Thanks for that.”

Jenni was indeed the mother of a two-year-old, so she was likely familiar with some version of the expression that briefly flitted across Suicide’s face. It was similar to the one any small boy got when a parent would tell him to stop poking a helpless squishy animal with a stick. Fortunately, Suicide was not the type to pout (although there was definitely an aura of “taking away my toys” about him), and he offered Jenni his arm with the kind of perfect, studied gentlemanliness that suggested he hadn’t in fact been threatening people with gleefully non-advanced field surgery only moments before.

“Nice to meet you all,” he said, giving them his best “I’m not crazy, really” smile, which was about as close as he got to being normal in polite company. Once they were out of the room, though, he dropped it for something slightly more genuine, albeit definitely of the shit-eating variety.

“You’re right,” he continued contemplatively as he walked down the hall with Jenni. “I wouldn’t want to stay here forever. Being surrounded by psych professionals means they might wind up curing me of my unsociable impulses, and then where would I be? Talk about curing yourself right out of a job. I can’t see me going in for late-in-life retraining, getting one of those degree things.”

That was a little loquacious for him, but hell, the world could sue him. He was in a good mood: he’d spent the night with a fascinating and quite flexible woman, he’d helped said woman scare her coworkers, and best of all, there was a good chance of a repeat. He liked her: she was a good woman, though there wasn’t a way he could properly articulate that to her. The braid was a mute testimony to what had happened there.

It was getting on for what passed for morning in the PPC, and FicPsych was beginning to stir. Reluctantly, Suicide crossed the threshold. After a moment’s hesitation, though, he turned and flicked the end of Jenni’s braid lightly. “I’ll be around,” he said, risking that notorious moment of sincerity again. “Say hi to Henry and Ilraen for me, okay? And tell Ilraen that if he’s gonna make a habit of psychotic breakdowns on missions, he and Nume need to work out some kind of buddy system. When he went to pieces on ‘Ring Child,’ it was a complete mess. No form at all.” If Jenni squinted, she could possibly guess at how this was Suicide’s form of trying to be friendly towards the other agents.

“Thanks,” he added finally. A good night was at an end, but he had the sense that something even better might be getting started.

Amused at the stream of talk, Jenni raised an eyebrow at the words “professionals” and “degree,” but she suspected the fact that FicPsych was just like the rest of the organization in that the majority of the nurses had no formal training was not something she should advertise. They did the best they could with what they had, and it so happened that their best was pretty good most of the time. She was proud to be one of them.

She exited the department with Suicide, and in a gesture that might have been a sign of shyness in anyone else, tucked her chin and raised a hand to the angle of her jaw in response to the touch to her hair. She didn’t fully understand what had prompted him to braid it, so there wasn’t anything she could say to acknowledge it that would make sense. Still, he seemed to get the idea.

She did recognize the gruff practical advice for the sign of goodwill that it was—Nume, Mr. Cold Fish himself, was an accomplished practitioner of the art—and she nodded. “Will do. While we’re at it, thank Diocletian for letting me borrow you.”

And that was that, really. “Thank you,” she said back to him. “And hey, you know where to find me. I’ll be seeing you.” No overly dramatic last-minute gestures, just a smile, a wave, and a parting phrase with at least two distinct but related interpretations. Yes, she reflected as she started for the Nursery, this was definitely the start of something good.

This website is © Neshomeh since 2004. This page’s content was last updated 09.10.2011.
The PPC belongs to Jay and Acacia and is used with permission.
All characters belong to their original authors.