It was good, not being alone. The dynamics were a little weird at first, with Angel being older and younger, more stable and more vulnerable, but we fit somehow. As partners, I mean, not physically. I’d be lying if I said that I never desired her as the woman she was rapidly growing into, but I never made a pass, and she never teased. We often slept together for warmth or comfort, touching-but-not-that-way as she’d put it, but while it occasionally came up, she never reacted to its presence.
Partners. Friends. Explorers in a world that didn’t seem to have anyone for me to save, or anything to save them from. A world that she didn’t know any more about than I did.
On the plus side, she was awesome at catching rabbits, which significantly reduced the amount of bugs in my diet. I was the better cook, which surprised us both, once we had a variety of things to cook. She was smarter and better educated, filled with ideas for how to improve our lives and extend the reach of our exploration together.
Always together. By unspoken agreement, we never went off on our own, never went out of earshot.
She jerked in surprise, then relaxed in my arms. “It’s… not entirely appropriate. Are you sure?”
“It was either that or Anchor.”
She laughed and pulled away slightly, staring at me with those older-than-she-looks eyes, understanding what I wasn’t saying. A tiny smile grew into a big one, and we finally met.
“Hello, Jack; I’m Angel. My name is Angel.”
“Hi, Angel. How do you feel about eating bugs?”
“Beetles and crayfish, mostly. Sorry, I’ve been away for a while, so the larder’s bare, and I usually have terrible luck catching rabbits.”
“This is a terrible resort and I shall be leaving a scathing review.”
I hugged her. She needed it.
She clung to me fiercely, and something shifted inside. She wasn’t the wrong redhead any more, not an underage replacement for the one I’d spent so much time wanting to screw or strangle or both. Suddenly I hated there, whatever it was, and whoever had made her live nameless and afraid. I wanted to destroy what had hurt her, protect her from being hurt again, and…
Huh. I wanted to be a hero. For the first time, maybe really the first time, it wasn’t about me.
Ji, ta, shizen. A phrase that mattered to my cranky old sensei, that I’d just memorized to keep him teaching me new things. Self, others, nature. Caring about more than yourself. Caring for more than yourself.
Turns out I’d been alone long before I got here.
I’d thought about this a lot over the years. “The three weeks?”
“Yeah. It’s not like there are rules, but she’s not stupid. She must have snagged you on the right day, then went back to set you up the night before, and somehow missed. Like something changed between A and B, or from your viewpoint B and A, and it threw off her aim.”
I tried to wrap my head around the idea that she’d slept with me before I slept with her, but found myself more focused on the girl beside me. “You’re not really twelve, are you?”
“Ten, technically; we’re early bloomers. But we don’t really change when we’re there.”
She shivered a bit as she said that, and I caught the implication: she’d been ten years old for a very long time, in a place she was glad to be away from. There was a lot more I wanted to ask her, but I changed the subject to try to lighten the mood.
“I’m Jack, by the way. And you’re…?”
She shrank inside her furs, suddenly looking lost and very, very young, and in a tear-stained whisper I could barely hear, begged, “please… give me a name”.
Well, that hadn’t worked.
(I’ve moved all these asides after the jump, so the series pages flow better)
Everything started spinning as I unpacked her awkward sentence, and I stared in shock. It was her face. Her voice, her hair, her freckles, her everything-that-was-still-growing.
“You… she… how does that even work?!”
“We’re complicated. I don’t really understand it very well myself, but I think there are about a dozen of us. It varies from time to time, and I’m certain that at least two of the ones I’ve known were the same person at different ages, but I don’t know if they were also her, or me, or…”
She shrugged apologetically. Oddly enough, that gesture gave me the confidence to say, “you’re not her; you’re… more grown up.”
I’d surprised a smile out of her. “Thanks. When I say it in my head, it sounds like wishful thinking, but for what it’s worth, you’ve seen us both from the outside, without all the complications.”
“Can you at least tell me if it was all bullshit? I know this is isn’t the world I’m from, but did I really die there, and am I really supposed to become some kind of hero and save this world?”
She closed her eyes and sighed, and when she opened them again she looked much, much older. “I’m sorry, but yeah, it’s probably true, at least in broad strokes. It’s hard to move between worlds. Moving someone else must have been a lot harder, even with a solid connection, and she wouldn’t have tried something like that without a good reason.”
“And I think she screwed up.”
She didn’t need any help getting up the path to the cave, which was probably for the best. I waited outside while she rummaged through my furs and made herself decent, and then we talked.
“How long did you sleep with her?”
We were definitely thinking of the same redhead. “It was a long time ago, and I didn’t really keep score, and are you even old enough for that conversation?”
She sighed and tried again. “Not like that, I mean sleep-as-in-sleep. How much time did you spend together, touching-but-not-that-way?”
“One night. Supposedly my last, although it wasn’t, quite.”
She looked confused, so I told her everything. Dine-and-dash, “tomorrow you die”, amazing sex (without the details), the state she left my kitchen in (with all the details, because that made her laugh, and for a moment she seemed as young as she looked), the three weeks of fuzzy memories, and finally waking up here with her on top of me, vanishing as soon as she finished.
“That bitch. I really hope I’m not her, because I’d hate to turn out to be someone that I’d turn out to hate being.”
As she curled up into a tight ball and began sobbing, I realized it wasn’t me she’d screamed at. I don’t even think she knew I was there until I reached out and lightly touched her shoulder. I’d never had much practice at comforting children, especially ones that looked exactly like a fresh, innocent, untouched, virginal, naked, budding, pure, stopstopstopstopstop.
I rebalanced my disappointed hormones and resolved to platonically comfort the little girl. It wasn’t easy, but by the time she looked up at me with startled, tear-filled eyes, it wasn’t hard, either.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m… I’m not hurt. I’m not there. And I’m not alone. I think that’s okay enough for now.”
She had the same voice, too.
“I’ve got a little food in my cave, and furs and hides that you can cover up with. It’s not much, but…”
Her eyes narrowed at the word cave, then widened at furs and hides. “Where the hell am I?!?”
“Beats me, kid; I was dumped here ten years ago by a woman who looked like a 20-year-old you, and I’ve been alone ever since.”
“Oh crap, her. I am not okay any more.”
I’d found a naked redhead where I expected to find a naked redhead, but it was the wrong one. This one was just old enough to be way too young, even for a guy who’d been alone for ten years. She was also asleep or unconscious, which allowed my firm disappointment to subside to the point that it wouldn’t scare her off.
I felt only mildly dirty as I looked her over. They had to be related: same lovely face, same shaggy mane of red hair, same delightful freckles everywhere I could see without risking a felony. For a wild moment I thought that it was her, fucking with me in a way that didn’t involve actually fucking with me.
Then she sat up and screamed. In fairness, I hadn’t exactly been keeping up with my grooming.