She fell back onto her glorious ass and her hands flew up to cover her face. “Yu bwoke by nodse!”
“You haven’t changed. I have. If you can’t send me home, take me to the entrance. Maybe I can get in without you.”
She dropped her hands and grinned wickedly. Not a mark on her. “I’ll just pull you out again, and next time I won’t give you the chance to say no. I’ll fuck their stupid names right out of your head, and when I’m done, you’ll do as you’re told. Forever.”
Names. Names had power over them. Power to change them, make them grow. And we’d named her, together, Angel and I.
“You’ll pull us all out, Vir-”
I stopped dead, reflexively obeying the command. After all, he’d drilled me mercilessly, back in the life I’d thought was so simple.
She shrugged, her dress artfully falling open. She was recovering her composure, slipping back into character. “We’re connected, intimately, and you signed that contract at least a dozen times, in something better than blood. I can find you anywhere, and when I couldn’t go to you, I pulled you back to me.”
Her lips curled in a faint sneer as she continued. “Your little princesses never gave it up, did they? That’s why you left them behind. You’re my hero, and I’m going to make you forget them right now.”
She stood up; her clothes stayed in the chair. She was a wet dream walking, making promises that I knew she’d deliver on, again and again, as long as I served her needs. I thought of Angel, Ariel, and our hard life in that empty world, holding them up against the soft sweetness that was swaying toward me, and then I hit that. Hard.
In the face. With my fist. Bitch.
She counted it off on her fingers. “Slay the dragon, save the kingdom, bed the princess: Heroing 101. I always start at the end, to make sure they’re motivated and don’t ask too many questions.”
It had certainly worked on me. If she had come back in five months, or maybe even five years, I’d have slain any dragon she pointed me at, with a salt shaker and a butter knife if necessary. She’d been extremely motivating.
“Problem was, you weren’t one of mine. You were protected, maybe by the Power that made that world, maybe by something else that had just stashed you there. It took me three days to fuck you back to consciousness and forge a connection to your lifeline.”
“I’m sorry I missed that.”
The mental image of that magnificent body riding me for three days straight was causing a painful reminder that it had been thirteen years for me, and it had been her the last time, too. She noticed, and a raised eyebrow was enough to make the offer: Hero Wanted, Apply Within.
I forced some blood back up to my brain and focused on what I really wanted. “If you couldn’t get in, how did you get me out?”
She held up a hand to ward off my angry outburst. “I can’t go there any more, and I don’t know why.”
She slumped into the nearest chair like a person, not a professional temptress. Without the Manic Pixie Fuck Bunny pose, she wasn’t the redhead I remembered. Not necessarily someone I’d like, and definitely not someone I’d trust, but I thought I was seeing something real.
“I found it a long time ago. I don’t know what Power created it, but it felt abandoned, unused. It was my refuge when I needed one, my ‘fortress of solitude’. I kept it a secret from the others, and was careful never to leave behind any trace that I’d been there, that it mattered to me. We weren’t… nice to each other.”
“Angel said you broke their toys.”
She laughed bitterly. “Oh, I’m horrible to everybody, especially the new ones. We’re the meanest pack of Mean Girls in the universe, and we never grow up or grow old, but sometimes we get replaced.”
“When I got back from my last job, there were three new girls. I’d never seen that many at once before. All of them older than your sweet Angel, sexier than your weird little hybrid Ariel. Sexier than me, which meant my days were numbered. I ran away to my safe place, and found something I never thought I’d need: a hero.”
Her panic receded a bit. “That’s… surprisingly accurate. We’re not those Muses, of course, and not all about poetry and music and such. Although I make an awesome groupie.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet you do. Maybe I should have said Catalyst, or in your case, Succubus. Whatever you call yourselves, your job is to make men change. Inspire, tempt, seduce, distract, mother, annoy, whatever it takes. You pick a target, or someone does, and then you show up in his life again and again, pushing him in a certain direction. And when you’re not around, he forgets you. Mostly.”
“Holy shit, you really have been with Angel for three years.”
I found clothes laid out on a table, and started getting dressed. “Every hour of every day, and you’re taking me back to her, now.”
The names hit her like fists, and she dropped the tray in shock. She hadn’t known they were there, had never heard the names I’d given them, but I could see the recognition in her eyes.
“I came back for you as soon as I could. It couldn’t have been more than a few hours.”
“It was thirteen years. The first ten alone, then most of three years with Angel; Ariel joined us a few months ago.”
“I don’t understand. How could you have been there for so long? How could they have even gotten in? How could you have given them real names? Do you even know what we are?”
She was honestly bewildered, and there was panic rising in her voice. She’d walked in certain she was holding a Royal Flush, only to find out we were playing Twister.
“Yeah, I think I finally do. Seeing you drop the slutty valkyrie act was the last piece in the puzzle.”
“You’re a Muse.”
Ariel suddenly burst into tears and began wailing, a high-pitched, hopeless sound. She was horny, not stupid, and had followed the same chain of logic I had, but to a different conclusion: she was the one who’d be abandoned. Again. We both scrambled to comfort her, ending up in a three-way hug, promising to stay together and somehow make it work.
When I woke the next morning, they were gone. Or maybe they were still there, together, because I was definitely gone. The satin sheets were a pretty big clue, and I had a feeling I knew who they belonged to. Sure enough, my least-favorite favorite redhead showed up as if I’d just rubbed her lamp, carrying a tray full of something she probably thought was breakfast.
Surprisingly, she was fully dressed. I wasn’t, but I’d been bathed and shaved, and all the little scars I’d picked up over the years were gone, like it had all been a bad dream.
She looked at me like she was expecting praise, and I was happy to disappoint her. “Take me back.”
“Wait, what? I told you, I resurrected you to be a hero. There’s no going back, you’re dead there.”
“Not to Earth, to the place where you really found me. The rock in the forest, in the world without people. The world with the only people I care about.”
“Take me back to Angel and Ariel.”
It was Angel’s temper that broke first, shoving us both into an icy mountain stream. Mind you, she’d had to trick us into going ten miles out of our way so that there was ice water to be shoved into, but her anger had been building up for weeks.
Central to the epic rant she delivered while we shivered around a fire was the fact that Ariel was obviously going into heat for the first time in her life, and it was obviously my fault because I’d named her.
Guilty as charged, sure, and after the cold shower it was obvious to me, too, but identifying the problem didn’t solve it. Ariel was a cat, and she couldn’t stop being a cat.
But we could stop being together, the three of us. The thought chilled me in a way the fire couldn’t touch.