Ariel was physically about 17, emotionally about 7, and intellectually a cat chasing a laser pointer. Bright and clever, sure, but severely ADHD. She’d bonded with Angel early in both of their lives, but had been separated from the others a long time ago. Since they never changed physically, they didn’t know how long she’d been alone, but I got the feeling it was longer than I’d been alive. Maybe a lot longer.
Her presence disrupted our comfortable routine. No, that’s not accurate. She disrupted me, with her eagerness for physical contact and her sleek, sexy body. She craved affection, rubbing against us every day and sleeping between us every night. And the fur that covered her just enough for modesty (mine; she didn’t have any) was so soft it got me going even when she wasn’t pressing her firm breasts against me. And she purred; oh, god, the purring.
What made it even harder was that she clearly approved of my interest, and openly flirted and teased. Only Angel’s increasingly-silent presence was keeping me from trying for a piece of tail, and something had to break.
Ariel wrapped herself around me so tightly that the air rushed out of my lungs and the blood rushed straight to my… just-bitten shoulder, fortunately. At her size there was no safe place for my hands, and she was definitely all woman, and she was purring. The pain wouldn’t keep me down for long, and I desperately needed a distraction.
Which she provided, suddenly leaping back over to Angel with a question that turned our assumptions sideways. “Do names make you grow up?”
It hit her hard. “It… I don’t… maybe they do, for us. Maybe the reason we don’t grow up is because we don’t have names.”
“Or maybe that’s the reason you weren’t given names.”
As if we needed another reason to despise whatever Powers were in charge of there.
Angel moved toward her slowly, talking in a low, soft voice, like she was trying to rescue a lost kitten. Which she was.
“No, honey, you’re not. Virginia’s the big one who liked to break our toys. Do you remember her? Do you remember me?”
The catgirl moved so fast my heart stopped, but it wasn’t an attack, it was an embrace. They clung together for a long time, and then Angel took her hand and firmly pulled her over to me. I did my best not to look like the kind of guy who’d hit a girl, even one with fangs and claws.
“This is Jack, my very close friend. Like you. He was alone for a long time before I came here, because Virginia left him behind like a broken toy. He named me Angel.”
That wasn’t quite the scenario we’d been discussing recently, but there was certainly some truth to it. Not that it mattered, because her ears and tail had shot up at the word named. She looked up at me with huge, hungry eyes, like I was holding a fish just out of reach. Seriously, it was adorable, but I could feel Angel’s eyes as well, a quiet pressure begging me not to screw this up.
“You’re close like sisters, and you move like the wind. Would you like to be ‘Ariel’?”
Catgirls don’t hug, by the way, they glomp.
“I’m pretty sure this one isn’t her. Or you.”
I winced as Angel bandaged the bite on my shoulder. I’d managed to avoid the claws somehow.
“What, you think we don’t bite?”
I was pretty sure she wouldn’t appreciate any details about what she had done with her teeth, or with her…
“Oh, hell, the pronouns are giving me a headache. Does she have a name, or can we give her one just so I can keep it straight in my head?”
She snorted as she finished patching me up, and started listing off possibilities. “Bitch, Slut, Witch, Wackjob, …”
“Cruella, Satana, Sinistra, Sextina, …”
“No, I think she’d like those.”
“Virginia.” Our eyes met, and our grins widened into laughter. She’d hate it.
“am… i… virginia…?” A quiet, halting voice came from behind me, and I turned to find our newest redhead peeking out from behind a tree. She looked frightened, and I remembered lashing out with a fist when she’d jumped us from behind the rock and sunk her teeth into me.
She was tiny, maybe a foot shorter than Angel, who’d recently shot up to about five-foot-six. It wasn’t a child’s body, though; she was a perfect miniature woman, with gentle curves covered by short, rust-colored fur.
Yeah, we’d come home and found a stray catgirl on the porch, complete with ears, tail, and the same face as every other redhead I knew.
“I kind of liked the hero thing.”
She grinned, then hugged me again to soften the blow to my ego.
“I think she found a hero. Here, on that rock, pulled across by a real Power, but left unwatched and unguarded. She staked her claim, then used the connection to shift back along your lifeline and take the credit. That’s something we can do.”
Remembering precisely how we’d been connected when I arrived, I looked down to find Angel blushing furiously.
“When we’re older. So I’ve heard. Change the subject, please.”
“So you think she was, what, poking around in there’s dusty little corners, and stumbled across something she could use?”
“Exactly. And that rock is the way in. It’s where she found you, it’s where you found me, and it’s where we’ll find her.”
Would you believe we found another redhead waiting to pounce on us?
I think most people carry an image of themselves that’s out of date. Younger, healthier, still able to fit in those pants, things like that. Me, I was a 26-year-old pizza guy who’d been chasing 20-year-old college girls until he caught the wrong one and ended up here. Twelve years ago.
“It’s not like we own a mirror, but I see my reflection sometimes, and I look older, more like my dad.”
“Because you know you’re supposed to. You came from a place where it happened to everyone, so you expect it. I didn’t, so I don’t. And you’re not.”
I carefully pushed her away, just enough to look in her eyes. She believed it, and it scared her a little.
“What if it’s not here being there, but me being here? How I got here. How I… died.”
I hadn’t thought about her much since Angel arrived, but she’d been very focused on my death, even if she’d gotten the date wrong. And she’d said she brought me back.
“I don’t think she has that kind of power. We’re not, well, for that, and it’s always bothered me about your story. Whisking a man away at the moment of his death to hump him back to life as a hero, like some kind of slutty valkyrie? Not a chance; she probably got that story out of a comic book.”
Angel was always trying to make our exploration more effective, so it surprised me one day when she said, “I think we need to go back.”
We’d been together for about two years, moving steadily away from the cave in a widening spiral, learning about our world and each other. I stopped picking fruit and gave her my full attention.
“I think we’re looking for the wrong thing. Or the right thing in the wrong way.”
“I tried smoke signals once; nobody turned up.”
My weak joke earned me an expected weak smile and an unexpected big hug, which lasted long enough to remind me that she was growing up fast. If at ten she’d looked twelve, at twelve she looked fifteen, but I was saved from further fifteen-will-get-you-twenty thoughts by her next words.
“I don’t think this world is real. I think it’s part of there.”
“I don’t understand. If we’re there, how come you’re getting older?”
“How come you’re not?”
Sometimes, late at night, comforting each other, I told her about my life, and she told me about there.
How much of it was metaphor, and how much was real, I never understood. It was hard for her to put it into words, but somehow important to try. She talked about a room full of doors full of rooms, where the way back was never the way you’d come, and once said it was less a place than a “collection of layered experiences”, most of them imperceptible to a merely human mind.
Angel counted herself among the merely human, something I suspected wasn’t completely true. The others like her, the ones she wasn’t sure weren’t her future selves, were capable of navigating between the layers of there. I was pretty sure she’d done it herself at least once, escaping to here, but I never asked.
I didn’t care what she was, or might have been, or could become. She was my friend, my partner, my damsel-out-of-distress, my anchor. I believed she had the power to leave, but chose to stay.
I was happy, maybe for the first time. I think she was, too.