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Like I've Never Been Gone

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This project was ridiculous. That was the only word for it, really: ridiculous. Sure, she understood the point of it: an investigative journalist could be assigned any topic at any time and would be expected to dig up any and all relevant information with scraps to start from. Anna was pretty sure, though, that unless she was writing for a religious magazine, nobody was going to ask her to write an expose on angels, and even then, they’d probably be less interested in the sort of stuff her searches were spitting at her and more interested in something inspirational.

Well, some of these search results were attempting to be inspirational. Mostly they came across as creepy though. Who wanted to think about invisible beings watching everything you do all the time? Maybe that could be her angle: the creep-factor in modern angel-fetishism. It didn’t quite fit the overall assignment or the specific topic she’d been given, but frankly, her topic sucked.

She wasn’t going to mention that part to her dad when he asked how school was going over dinner this weekend. It was weird, but somehow the idea of telling her dad that she was working on an assignment about angels and hating it sent a weird chill down her spine. It wasn’t like he’d be angry. He wasn’t like that. He’d probably agree that these weird little graphics people apparently plastered all over the internet were creepy and had little if anything to do with the angels found in the Bible. Still.

Anna thumbed the corner of her worn blue notebook and looked at the number scribbled there. She wasn’t sure that she really needed technical help to make this work. What she was probably going to have to do was call it quits with the internet and go dig around some musty old books that hadn’t been out of the stacks in years, and even that might not get her what she needed. It probably wouldn’t hurt to get some help with improving her search strings though, and this tutor’s flier had promised, among other things, that she could learn to find anything, no matter how obscure. Later, though. She’d try calling this Charlie guy later.

~0~

Three days, two phone calls, and a dozen sneezing attacks in the stacks later, Anna was in one of the cramped but quiet private study rooms the library let students book for two hours at a time. Next to her was Charlie, who had turned out not to be a guy at all but rather a woman who looked about Anna’s age and dressed in a bright pink t-shirt with a cat on it and jeans. She also looked just about as befuddled as Anna felt, which was not comforting at all. The room had been free, but the tutoring wasn’t, and she needed this session to be worth it.

“So basically, what you’re telling me is that this professor gave you a Sturgeon’s Law assignment,” Charlie said.

“Ninety percent of everything is crap, right,” Anna said. “I get the point of it. I just don’t seem to be finding the ten percent that would actually fulfill the assignment. Ugh, this guy isn’t even one of the regular faculty! He was a last-minute replacement when Prof. Emerson got some grant or something.”

“Bummer,” Charlie said. “Let me see what you’ve got so far.”

Anna passed over her laptop with her notes and draft windows tiled side-by-side. She chewed her lip as she watched the other woman scan over her work, emotions flitting over her features.

“Well, no wonder! You’re trying to write this like an article for the New York Times, when what you need to do first is pick a mythology and then write from an in-game point of view.” Charlie tapped a few keys on her computer and opened several windows.

“What does that even mean?” Anna asked.

“Think about it,” Charlie said, still typing. “What if the assignment had been the historical interactions of humans with dragons, or fairies, or … or elves? Maybe the publication you’d be writing for would be the Shire’s Daily Traveler, and your facts would come out of Tolkein and various commentaries.”

“Because they’re mythological creatures, the story has to exist in their mythological world,” Anna said softly.

“Exactly. It just seems different because more people believe in angels than believe in elves. Theoretically.” Charlie turned the laptop to face Anna. “Now, you’ve got a broader set of choices with angels. Are you going to go with the Christian lore? Muslim? Jewish? Other stuff that maybe doesn’t use the word but still seems to be about the same thing?”

Anna thought for a moment. “Starting from the beginning probably makes the most sense, so Jewish lore, I guess. If enough of it is in English.”

Charlie minimized several windows and brought up a blank Google search page, then passed the computer back over.

“So, what, I should just type ‘Jewish angels’ or something?” Anna asked.

“If you want more crap, sure,” Charlie replied. “Who is your target audience going to be? Researchers? Average Jane on the street? And what’s your in-world publication going to be, for a world where angels are definitely real and people know it? This is the stuff that’ll give you the search strings you need to find what you want.”

“Researchers, I think,” Anna said. “People who need to know what makes angels tick. What they can do and what they can’t.”

“Great!” Charlie smiled and it lit up her whole face.

She should really be a teacher, Anna thought. She obviously loved helping people figure things out.

“So,” Charlie prodded, “what’s your search string going to be then?”

Anna pulled the laptop closer and typed, “+angel +Hebrew +strengths +weaknesses.”

Two results, one of them on someone’s blog called an “InsaneJournal.” She clicked on it anyway. Charlie leaned in close to read with her.

“Maybe that string was a little too restrictive,” Charlie said with a wry grin.

Anna deleted the last term.

“Eighteen results,” Charlie said. “That’s more like it, even if the first two are Wikipedia.”

“What do you mean ‘even if’?” Anna asked as she clicked the first link and began to scan what it had to say about the Jewish hierarchy of angels. Charlie’s breath was warm on her shoulder as Anna scrolled down to the references. “An online encyclopedia, a probably-useless YouTube, and something called The Golden Dawn.”

“And that,” Charlie said with a smile in her voice, “is what I call a solid start.”

Opening another tab, Anna tried the same string, substituting “weaknesses” for “strengths.” Twenty-six results. She scanned through the first one, another wiki. It had even more references, and some of them might be good ones, but they didn’t grab her quite the same way. She clicked back over to the first tab, eyes lingering on the book by someone named Regardie. Something in her gut told her that was going to be the most useful of the bunch.

“You like that one, huh?” Charlie asked.

“Yes,” Anna said, “but I have a feeling the university won’t exactly have it in their collection.”

“Maybe not,” Charlie said, “but if this thing’s been in print for sixteen years? I’m betting someone’s put it online.”

“Somehow I don’t think you’re talking about a Kindle version.” Anna smiled. Now this was going to be the really good stuff, if she could learn how to find the not-exactly-legal-but-seriously-useful sources out there.

Charlie scoffed and pulled the laptop back towards her. “Please. Now watch this.”

~0~

“So, class,” Prof Cornel said, clapping his hands together, “several of you had some interesting takes on this assignment.”

A chorus of groans sounded around the room. Anna bit one back herself. Interesting rarely meant good.

“I mean, kudos on thinking outside the box, people. That’s an important part of journalism if you want to get noticed.” He picked up one paper. “If I ever want to know all about the care and feeding of Hobbits, though, I won’t be asking you, Jack.”

Anna winced.

“Some of you, though,” he said more gently, “some of you got it. Emily, I now feel very thoroughly educated on the political implications of recognizing werewolves as citizens.”

Anna’s eyebrows reached for her hairline. Clearly she hadn’t gotten the strangest assignment of the class after all.

“The piece that every single one of you missed,” he said, voice rising again, “is how to reach. Your. Audience. Who wants to know these things? Why do they want to know them? What do you expect them to do with this information? What’s your hook? Because, I’ve got to tell you, there are very few pure researchers in the world. Anyone who wants to know this stuff, wants to know it for a reason. Find that? You’ve found your audience’s hook. And that, my friends, is how you’ll get jobs once you graduate.”

Anna tapped her pen against her cheek as she thought about that. She thought she and Charlie had nailed that part of it, but obviously not. She’d written her piece as purely information someone might be curious about. Charlie was obviously into all of that Dungeons and Dragons stuff. Maybe she’d have some idea who’d want to actually use information about angels and why? And how. She could probably afford one more tutoring session. Too bad Charlie didn’t actually go here. Maybe then they could just bump into each other in the caf and not even necessarily talk about this project. The idea gave Anna a warm feeling in her belly, but she wasn’t entirely sure why.

“Hey, head out of the clouds over there,” the prof called out. He was holding up her paper and waving it at her.

Anna realized she was the last one in the room. When had that happened? She scrambled to gather her notes and book into her bag and collect her paper from him. When she reached for it, though, he pulled it back. She looked down at him, realizing that by perching on the desk like that he actually made himself shorter than her. That seemed an odd thing for a teacher to do. He seemed to realize it at the same time and stood. He still wasn’t much taller than her, but that definitely seemed much less weird.

“Interesting sources you chose,” he said, still keeping the graded paper out of reach. “You seem a lot closer to the type of piece I had in mind than most of the others.”

“Um, thanks?” she offered.

He snorted. “Don’t thank me. Fix it. I said the sources were interesting, not ideal. If you want people to be able to do anything with the information you’ve gathered here, you’re going to have to branch out a little.”

“What would anyone want to do with it, though?” she asked. “Most people just think angels are cute little babies with wings to paste on inspirational quotes.”

“Yeah, they’re not your audience,” he replied with a dismissive wave of her paper. “But then, I think you’d already figured that out.”

“Well, yeah,” she admitted. “But if we’re supposed to be writing for someone to actually use the information we’ve dug up … who would?”

“That, my dear, is yours to figure out,” he said with a cryptic look. Finally, he handed the paper to her.

Anna took it and flipped through quickly. There were comments in the margins and even between lines, but nowhere did she see a grade.

“Don’t worry. None of you got grades yet. Your GPAs couldn’t take it. You’ve got a week to shape this up into something gradeable. I suggest you use it wisely.” Hands now free, Prof. Cornel grabbed a lollipop from a pocket of his jacket and popped it into his mouth. As an afterthought, he pulled out another and offered it to her.

“Uh, no thanks,” she said, waving him off.

“Suit yourself.” He tucked it back in his pocket. “More for me.”

“Right.” This was getting weirder and weirder. “I’ll just … go now.”

“Okay.” He gave a shrug. “You can stop by my office hours if you have any more questions. But don’t expect me to hand it to you. You need to work this out for yourself.”

“Of course.” She tucked the paper into her bag and made her escape.

Once out on the quad, she turned and looked back up at the stone building. If this wasn’t the weirdest class she’d ever taken (that definitely went to the “psychology of art” class) then he was definitely the weirdest teacher she’d ever met.

“Where’d they even dredge him up?” she muttered. She supposed when a professor up and decided to go on sabbatical right before the start of the semester, they had to take whoever they could get.

~0~

Back in her dorm, Anna pulled out her journal and started to write. Writing had always been the best way to organize her thoughts. That was what had nudged her in the direction of journalism in the first place: the desire to learn things and organize them.

This professor is nuts. I mean, completely. Why would anyone want to use information about how angels have affected human history? It looks like he really likes all the stuff I dug up about their supposed strengths and weaknesses, but seriously, why?

I think I need to call Charlie again. Well, probably not really. She gave me enough of a start with that one session, and with everything the prof said today, I think I get where to go from here. Like she said, write it from an in-game perspective. But I kind of want to call her anyway. That’s not weird, is it? I mean, it’s not like I don’t have plenty of friends, but you can always have more, right? And she seemed pretty cool. I wish she went to school here. She never did say where she goes, actually. But I do have her number.

You’d think I had a crush on her or something. Which I don’t. I don’t think? Pretty sure I’ve never had a crush on another girl before. Not that that would be bad or anything. Just … new.

Anna closed her journal. Before she called Charlie or did anything else, really, she needed to make sense out of Prof. Cornel’s comments. Considering his handwriting, that was going to take some detective work all on its own.

~0~

“So he really does want you to write it in-game,” Charlie said with a little smile. “Cool.”

“I thought that’s what I did,” Anna replied. “Obviously that wasn’t what he wanted.”

“Yeah, but look at this here.” Charlie pointed to a particularly unintelligible scrawl. “‘If an angel can teleport anywhere, how do you stop them?’ and over here ‘So if they’re about to smite you, what would you do?’ He’s basically asking you to treat them like opponents in a game.”

Anna just shook her head. “Why?”

“Who cares?” Charlie asked with a shrug. “It’s what the prof wants. You want the grade, you give him what he wants.”

“I guess.” Anna slumped in her chair. “Nothing we found the last time even begins to answer questions like that though.”

“That’s because we decided your in-game readers were scholars. Now they’re … angel fighters of some kind.”

“But that’s just it. Who’d be fighting angels?” Anna demanded. “Bad guys, right? So why would I be writing an article to help them?”

“Guess you’re one of the bad guys.” Charlie gave her a conspiratorial grin. “Way more fun. Seriously.”

Anna couldn’t help but smile back. Charlie’s enthusiasm was contagious.

“All right then, tutor. What kind of search terms do I need to find anti-angel weapons or spells or whatever?”

“Honestly? Start with that.” Charlie opened Anna’s laptop and pushed it towards her. “See what you get and go from there.”

Anna tried the first phrase, scanned the results, and snorted. “I don’t think the Great Nordic Biker War is going to be much help.”

“Maybe not, but bookmark it for later, because that sounds like an awesome read.” Charlie peeked over her shoulder, her breath tickling Anna’s ear as she added, “Even if it is on Wikipedia.”

“I’ll email you the link.” Anna quickly did so, then tried her second phrase, carefully ignoring the warm shudder that ran through her. “Spells seems to be a better term.”

“At least you’re getting something to do with actual angels,” Charlie agreed. “Try that link there.”

They both just blinked at the screen for a moment.

“I’m not sure the roses all over the place are exactly screaming ‘credible source,’” Anna said with a sigh.

“Maybe not, but I have a hunch it’ll lead us to one. Just keep clicking.”

With a shrug, Anna scrolled through and found the one thing labeled “angel spell.” It basically looked like an alphabetical laundry list of names, with a few made-up sounding titles thrown in to make it work. Some of the names sounded real. Gabriel, obviously, from the whole nativity story. Raphael sounded familiar, though she couldn’t remember which Bible stories he might have been in. One name towards the end made her shudder in a whole different way than Charlie’s proximity had. Maybe the so-called witch who’d published this thing had made it up to sound specifically creepy.

“That,” Charlie said.

“What?” Anna asked, turning to find that Charlie was still right over her shoulder, nearly nose to nose in this position.

“Whatever just gave you a chill? Follow that.” Charlie winked at her. “That’s your instinct telling you you’re onto something.”

Opening another tab, Anna intended to just search on the name of that one angel but found her fingers typing out “how to banish Uriel.”

“That’s the spirit.” Charlie clapped Anna on the shoulder.

Anna tried to smile but was pretty sure it didn’t work.

~0~

The best part about spending a couple of hours researching what had mostly turned out to be dead ends related to various games and anime shows was going out to blow off some steam afterwards. Anna had been sure Charlie would beg off, wanting to keep their relationship purely professional and was pleasantly surprised when she agreed to come along. Not that there was anything super-special about The Thirsty Scholar, and this obviously wasn’t a date or anything, but Anna still spent an extra couple of minutes in her dorm room after tossing her laptop and notes onto the bed just making sure she didn’t look terrible. If that happened to include throwing on a quick refresher to her mascara, well, that was no big deal, and the butterflies in her stomach needed to shut up about it.

The bus ride to the bar was noisy and didn’t really allow for conversation. The bar probably wouldn’t either, come to think of it, and Anna started to doubt her decision to bring Charlie there. When they arrived, it seemed Charlie felt the same way, but for a different set of reasons.

“Thirsty Scholar, huh? Not sure they’ll let me in.”

“Why? You’re twenty-one, right?”

“Well, yeah, twenty-two actually, but not so much with the scholar.”

Charlie looked suddenly shy and not at all the self-assured woman Anna had come to expect.

“Shut up. You’re brilliant.” Anna took her hand and dragged her to the door. “Come on.”

When the bouncer asked for their university id’s to get the discounted cover price, Anna started to get an inkling of the problem.

“C’mon,” she pleaded, “we’re classmates, obviously. Can’t you let her slide?”

After a bit of grumbling, the burly man let them both pay the student rate and strapped brightly colored bracelets on their wrists to show they’d paid.

Once they’d ordered their drinks, a hurricane for Anna and a Sambuca and soda for Charlie, they found a table off to one side to sit and chat for a bit. The music from the dance floor throbbed through the walls, so they had to practically shout.

“So I guess you’re wondering about that,” Charlie started.

“What? So you’ve already graduated.” Anna shrugged. “I should’ve by now too, really. Just wasted a couple of semesters on the wrong major.”

She knew it wasn’t the truth, but she wanted to give Charlie an easy out. Her respect for the other woman went up a few notches when she didn’t take it.

“Not exactly.” Charlie took a gulp of her drink. “I kind of never went.”

Anna’s eyebrows shot up towards her hairline. “Well, you’re probably smarter than half the teachers. I’m guessing would’ve been a waste of your time.”

Charlie smiled shyly and shrugged. “Guess I’ll never find out.”

“Hey.” Anna reached across the table and put her hand on Charlie’s. That sent a gentle wave of warmth up her arm and she couldn’t help brightening her smile. “You’re brilliant. You don’t need some piece of paper to prove it.”

“Like the scarecrow?” Charlie forced a laugh. “That’s what I should do. Get a Ph.D. in Thinkology.”

Anna giggled but didn’t take her hand away. Charlie finally looked up at her, and Anna didn’t understand how she couldn’t have seen just what a pretty shade of green her eyes were until they were in this poorly lit place. She felt frozen in place, unable to look away or move.

“This song is awesome,” Charlie said suddenly, breaking the tension. “Come on, drink up and let’s dance!”

Anna took a long sip of her drink—no way she was going to be able to finish it completely—and let herself be led to the dance floor. The song playing was vaguely familiar but not really the sort of thing Anna usually listened to. Still, it had a steady beat that was easy enough to follow, and she found herself moving easily to the electronic rhythms. Charlie, she saw, had absolutely no inhibitions about just letting the music take her away, hands waving overhead and hair flying with her movements. Anna was sure if she closed her eyes and just jammed like that, she’d bump into someone for sure, but somehow Charlie never did.

“Hey, c’mon!” Charlie took her hand again and twirled her. “Loosen up!”

Now Anna did close her eyes, letting the pressure of Charlie’s hand against hers guide her through the song’s bridge and into the next verse.

“See?” Charlie asked with a laugh. “I knew you could do it!”

Anna grinned and decided to turn the tables, giving Charlie’s hand a little tug and pulling her in before spinning her back away. She hadn’t danced herself in years, but her parents did swing-dancing, so she’d learned a thing or two along the way. And if that move was a little more like something that ought to have ended in a kiss than it maybe needed to be, well, Charlie probably didn’t know that.

Somehow that shifted things into a contest, Charlie breaking out a set of moves that would probably look like some kind of seizure on someone else, Anna coming back with some fancy footwork that she hadn’t even realized she remembered. Back and forth they passed the lead each time the song shifted, until they were both laughing almost too hard to keep dancing. Too soon, the song ended, and the one that followed was one of those awkward ones that was too slow to dance the way they had been and too fast for slow-dancing. Not that she and Charlie would be slow-dancing. Would they?

It was really getting too warm on the dance floor. Anna waved for Charlie to follow her and headed across the club to the patio. Once outside, she took a deep breath of the cool spring air and willed the color in her cheeks to fade.

“You’ve got some moves there!” Charlie said, coming to stand beside her.

“So do you,” Anna replied.

“Nah, I just do whatever I feel like. You were doing actual, you know, real dancing.”

Anna laughed. “I don’t think swing dancing is about to make a big comeback on the university club circuit.”

Charlie cocked an eyebrow at her. “Maybe it should.”

And there were those eyes again, drawing her in. Anna didn’t know what to make of that. She’d never felt this way about another woman before. Well, except maybe Jill, back in seventh grade, but that was different, right? Everybody got girl-crushes on the popular girls in junior high. This, though, this felt like a first date. She’d had plenty of those, just always with guys. What was she supposed to do here?

Apparently laughing awkwardly was what her body decided was the answer to that. Charlie’s flirtatious look shifted to uncertainty, and Anna wished she knew how to fix that. She was way out of her depth here.

“Anyway, I should probably get back to my dorm and try writing up some of the stuff we found that wasn’t total crap,” were the words that poured out of her mouth before she could stop them.

“Right,” Charlie said, her smile gone too bright. “Good luck with that. Give me a call if you get stuck again.”

“Or we could do this again sometime. When I’m not, you know, staring down a deadline.” Clearly Anna’s mouth had completely disconnected from her brain, because that was nothing like what she’d been going to say.

It seemed to be the right thing to say though, because Charlie’s smile softened and spread to her eyes.

“Yeah, that’d be fun.” Charlie nudged her shoulder. “Give me a call when you’re ready.”

Anna smiled, nodded, and for all intents and purposes fled, barely noticing her surroundings until she was safely back in her dorm room. Despite her supposed intent to get back to work on her paper, what she pulled out wasn’t her laptop but rather her journal.

~0~

It wasn’t until the next day she actually got back to work on the paper. Tucked away in a study carrel in the mustiest part of the library, she wove what little useful information she and Charlie had culled from yesterday’s efforts into an article for Demons Weekly. The title was corny, but it would do for now, and it did identify her target audience, the only beings she could think of who’d want to know these sorts of things about angels.

Beside her sat the most beaten-up book she thought she’d ever seen. Considering it claimed to be the Greater Key of Solomon, whatever that meant, she supposed it had been around for a while. It was full of symbols that gave her the creeps, which, if she followed Charlie’s advice, meant she was onto something. Her eyes strayed to her scrawled notes and a name that they’d initially dismissed as sounding too fake. John Dee. Now that gave her the same sense of the hairs on the back of her neck prickling, while it hadn’t yesterday.

Saving her document, she opened a browser window and did a search on the name. He apparently had a society named after him. That didn’t mean he wasn’t a crank, but did suggest there might be more to this guy than some badly formatted website by a kid in Peoria.

Apparently he’d been a brilliant mathematician … who’d done Queen Elizabeth I’s horoscope. Maybe that was the sort of brilliant but crazy she needed for this ridiculous assignment. A few more clicks and she found herself staring at a list of books that included The Enochian Evocation of John Dee. With a shudder that was fast becoming familiar, she submitted an interlibrary loan request for it, sighing when it came up as unavailable for at least two weeks. She had only a few days now.

Not that she could really afford to throw any more money at this paper, she did a quick search, using some of the tricks Charlie had taught her, to see if the book was available online. It was old enough that it should be public domain, right? Sure enough, she found several download links, some of them even legitimate. She chose one, and as it downloaded, she flipped through the Key of Solomon. It wasn’t really indexed in a way that was particularly useful to her, but she supposed if a person was really going to try to do magic that affected angels, they would have to start from the beginning and work their way up.

Anna shook her head to clear it. She was actually starting to buy into this nonsense. Sure, this stuff looked less hokey than Lady Pixie Moonbeam’s Angelic Recipes, but the idea that people could do magic that would affect angels was absurd. She’d never really given them a whole lot of thought before now. The sermons at her church tended to focus more on people helping each other than angels or any of that.

Now, though, she was researching how to summon, control, and banish angels and starting to believe this stuff was real. Never mind why someone would want to do that, it just seemed like a really bad idea. Something in the pit of her stomach made her want to hurl the book across the room, and she honestly thought she might have if the computer hadn’t bleeped an alert that it was done downloading.

Anna took a breath and clicked on the file to open it. Her hand seemed to move of its own volition, scrolling until a strange wheel filled the screen, indecipherable script at the center and odd words radiating out to the edges. She felt that shudder again, along with the certainty she had just nailed her paper.

~0~

Anna wasn’t sure what she was doing in this office. There were people in cubicles everywhere, but somehow she knew they weren’t reporters or copy editors. The feel of the place was all wrong. Actually, she was pretty sure there wasn’t a word strong enough to express just how very wrong this place was.

A familiar laugh drew her attention, and she turned to see Charlie joking with someone at the next desk. Her desk had an impressive amount of computer paraphernalia and a bobble-headed figurine of Hermione Granger. That made Anna smile. Charlie pretty much was the Hermione type, despite her lack of schooling. Scary-brilliant.

That sent a completely new shudder down Anna’s spine. She didn’t know why, but she needed to get Charlie out of there. Now. She reached for Charlie’s hand.

“Hey, wow, long time no see!” Charlie’s face lit up. “What brings you to …”

“We have to go,” Anna said, pulling Charlie to her feet.

“Um, much as I’m all about the free spirit thing,” Charlie said, “this is kind of my job. The thing that pays the bills, you know?”

“This is more important than bills,” Anna said, and she wasn’t sure how she knew it, but she did. Charlie needed to be as far away from here as possible, because this place couldn’t even exist. It was impossible. An abomination.

“Right.” Charlie turned to the fellow at the next desk. “Cover for me?”

“Always, my lady.” He winked.

Anna rolled her eyes and pulled Charlie towards the stairs.

Once they made it to the ground floor, Charlie stopped letting herself be dragged along.

“Seriously,” she said, “we go out past the security checks, and there’s no way even I can make it look like I’ve been at work all day. This is as good as it gets for security-camera-free zones, so spill.”

Anna didn’t know what to say.

“Because, you know, you show up after I haven’t seen you for three years and tell me I have to leave my job, that it’s more important than having money to live on. I think I deserve an explanation before you actually get me fired.”

“Three years?” Anna asked. “I just saw you yesterday.”

“Whoa, amnesia much?” Charlie took a step back.

Realization seeped in. “This is a dream.”

“Pretty sure it’s not,” Charlie replied. She pinched her own arm and made a cute little yelp. “Yeah, definitely not the holodeck.”

“Not your dream,” Anna said exasperatedly. She didn’t much want to pinch herself to test it though. Why? Because she didn’t want to wake up? Or because that wasn’t the best test?

Reaching out a hand to palm Charlie’s cheek, Anna looked into her beautiful green eyes. Charlie didn’t pull away. Smiled, even. The smile melted away when Anna pressed their lips together. With a sigh, she let her fingers slide into Charlie’s hair, encouraging her to tilt her head just so. Charlie’s lips parted, and Anna took the invitation, first just brushing her tongue along Charlie’s lips, then thoroughly exploring and caressing her soft, warm mouth.

Eventually, they both needed to catch their breath, though Anna was reluctant to pull back. She still felt certain they had to get away from this place. Was that why she’d kissed Charlie? Did she think that would convince her to run off? Things like that only ever happened in the movies.

“Wow,” Charlie said. “You couldn’t have done that, like, three years ago?”

“It hasn’t been three years,” Anna insisted. “There’s something very wrong here.”

A chime sounded, and Charlie pulled out her phone. She touched something on the screen and stuffed it back into her pocket, saying, “I have to get back. Any longer and they’ll know I ditched.”

Anna wanted to tell her why that was a bad idea, but she didn’t really know herself. She was just certain something about this place was wrong. Evil. Slimy. She was about to remind Charlie that she’d been the one who’d taught Anna to trust her gut when another chime sounded.

And another.

And another.

It was coming from the railing. Anna flung her hand out to make it stop.

Under her fingers, the snooze button for her alarm clock depressed, clicked, and rose again. The ringing stopped.

Charlie was gone. It really had been a dream.

Anna rubbed her eyes and looked around the room. Her roommate was already gone, bed neatly made. She was probably at the track like most mornings.

Obviously she’d been spending way, way too much time looking up weird magic stuff, if it was giving her nightmares. Well, not nightmares, really, except for how … off that place had felt. Parts were nice though. She had to admit that.

Sitting up, Anna tried to remember just exactly what she’d been looking through last night. The last thing she remembered was clicking on the downloaded book. She couldn’t even remember reading any of it, never mind getting herself back to her dorm. But there was her laptop, secured as it should be, the Key of Solomon next to it. Plus the simple fact that she was here, in her pajamas. So obviously she’d gotten herself back somehow. This was absurd. She needed to just bang out this paper and get it over with so she could get back to her life.

First, though, she thought it might not be a bad idea to see if Charlie wanted to meet for breakfast.

~0~

“Whoa, so you really hit Smaug’s hoard,” Charlie said in between a bite of eggs and a sip of coffee. “Guess you don’t need any more help with your searching skills.”

“I guess not.” Anna smiled and ducked her head, playing with the syrup next to her French toast. The rich cinnamon scent was delicious, but for some reason she wasn’t all that hungry. “Thanks for that.”

“So, not that I mind, but what’s with the breakfast meeting then?” Charlie took another sip of her coffee.

Anna shrugged. “Just wanted to say thanks, I guess.”

“Thank me when you ace the paper,” Charlie replied with a wink.

Anna’s heart skipped a beat and she realized, no, it wasn’t that she wasn’t hungry. She had butterflies in her stomach. How ridiculous was that? She smiled in reply, hoping she didn’t look like an idiot. “Yeah, I still have to finish actually writing it.”

“You’ve got the framework, though,” Charlie said. “All you need to do is add some of the spells you found, and you’ve got yourself a how-to manual. Article. Whatever.”

“For demons.” The back of Anna’s neck tingled.

“Hey, like I said, playing the bad guys is more fun sometimes,” Charlie said. “You ever play Dungeons and Dragons?”

“No,” Anna said with a chuckle. She remembered some of the older kids playing it when she’d been about eight. A bunch of people made a big deal about it being Satanic or something, but her parents had always said that was nonsense. Satan had better things to do than play board games. “Do people even still play that?”

“Oh, yeah.” Charlie’s eyes lit up. “I mean, it’s been through a few incarnations, and now you can even play it online, but the classic board game is still the best if you ask me. You should totally come over and play sometime.”

“Maybe once I’ve got this paper done,” Anna agreed. “I could use something like that for a break before the next big project comes along.”

“Careful, you might get hooked,” Charlie said with a grin.

“Not too worried about that,” Anna said with what she hoped was a confident smirk. Truth was, though, she was pretty sure she already was hooked, just not on some board game. And while she might not know what to make of her dream, one thing was clear: her subconscious was definitely telling her to seize the day.

“So when are you turning it in?”

“It’s due Thursday.”

“Perfect. So seven o’clock Thursday night?”

Anna smiled. “See you then.”

~0~

Anna’s hand hung over her journal, pen at the ready, for several minutes before she settled in to write.

So, yeah. Weird dream last night. Can’t remember all the details now, but parts of it were like a nightmare. The most important part, though? I kissed Charlie. And now I think she just asked me on a date. Sort of. Maybe. I don’t know. If it is, it’s the kind of date where you can get away with saying it’s just friends hanging out if it doesn’t seem like it’s working.

Do I want it to be a date? I think I kind of do. I can’t really say I’ve never felt this way for another woman before, but I don’t really know how much junior high crushes count.

I feel like I should be more worried about this. I mean, yeah, if this is a date, if this does turn into something, then there’s a world of stuff I’ve never had to think about before that we’ll have to deal with. I don’t think my parents will mind. I mean, I hope not. Dad always helps organize the Pride service in June, so he’s not exactly homophobic. Mom’s got friends who are lesbians, so ditto.

I just realized that I wrote “we’ll have to deal with.” Huh. I mean, it’d be new to me, but I don’t think it would be for Charlie. I could be wrong. Could be reading the whole situation wrong, really, though I don’t think I am.

So, if I’m not worried about my parents’ reaction, like most people in this situation would be, what am I worried about? That I don’t know what I’m doing, mostly, I think. And that I don’t know what that means about me. Am I a lesbian after all? I mean, I’ve had boyfriends, and I’ve liked them. I’ve enjoyed sleeping with them. So maybe I’m bi? Not super-bi, though, because I can’t think of anyone more recent than junior high that I’ve been attracted to. Except maybe Scarlett Johansson. Everybody’s attracted to Scarlett Johansson, though, so I don’t think she counts.

I guess it doesn’t matter, really. Maybe down the road I’ll worry about it, but right now, I just want this maybe-date to go well. And, you know, finish this stupid paper.

~0~

“So, this time, you’re all getting actual grades,” Prof. Cornel said. “I hope for your sakes you’ve managed to substantially improve what you handed in last time. Now, go on, get out of here before you’re late for your next class or lunch or whatever.”

Anna jumped when he grabbed her wrist as she went to set down her paper on his desk. She pulled her hand back and he raised both of his.

“Sorry, just wanted to talk a second.”

“Of course, professor,” she said, still nervous.

“Please, just call me Jerry.”

“Um, okay, Jerry.” This was getting weirder by the minute.

He looked at her expectantly, then sighed. “So, did you find some better sources and target your article more appropriately?”

“I hope so,” she said with a shrug. “Guess I’ll find out once you grade it.”

“I hope so too, sister,” he said, cocking an eyebrow. “I mean, your GPA is pretty good, and you’ve only got one more semester after this. Am I right?”

Anna nodded nervously.

“See you next class then,” he said.

“Sure, see you then.” Anna turned and made a beeline for the cafeteria. She wasn’t particularly hungry, but she wanted to get away from Professor … Jerry … Cornel and around plenty of other people.

~0~

Anna wasn’t sure what she’d expected Charlie’s apartment to look like, but it certainly fit her. The walls were covered with posters of everything from The Lord of the Rings to Star Wars, a real-looking sword mounted over her desk. Charlie, herself, was dressed as usual in a cute t-shirt, this one with some kind of robot on it.

“Welcome to my lair,” Charlie said as she gestured around the space.

“No roommates?” Anna asked. It wasn’t quite a studio, but it was clear there was only one bedroom.

“Nope. All mine.”

“That must be nice,” Anna said wistfully. Being an only child, she’d found adapting to dorm life difficult. She’d been lucky with most of her roommates, but sophomore year had been a nightmare. This year, she got along fine with her roommate, but there was still little in the way of privacy.

“You know it,” Charlie replied. “Can I get you something to drink before we start?”

“Um, sure.”

“Coke okay?”

Anna nodded nervously as Charlie went into the kitchenette and could be heard rummaging around in the refrigerator. When she returned with a glass of soda a minute or so later, Anna accepted it with a smile and took a long drink, half wishing it was something a bit stronger.

“So, D&D. Have you ever tried any kind of role-playing game?” Charlie asked, turning to open up the box she already had out on the coffee table.

“Not really,” Anna replied. “I’ve always been more into puzzle-type games. You know, Scrabble, that kind of thing.”

“Then you, my friend, are in for a treat.” Charlie motioned to her to sit next to her on the couch. “Just to let you know, this game tends to work best with more players, but we can totally manage with two. I’ll just have to create some NPCs … that’s non-player characters … and control them. First, though, we need to create your character. We’re going to go with a home campaign to start, so no need to worry about that.”

Anna looked at the pieces. Apparently this wasn’t like choosing the shoe in Monopoly.

“So, what have you always wanted to be?” Charlie asked. “Thief? Bard? Ranger?”

“I … uh … don’t know?” Anna replied.

“Okay, would you rather be a fighting kind of character, who does some damage? Healer who picks up the pieces and puts them back together?”

Anna thought about it for a moment. “I’ve spent the last couple of weeks learning about fighting angels, so maybe a fighter.”

“Good choice,” Charlie said. “Now we need to pick a race.”

“Can’t I just be human?” Anna asked.

“You can, but it can be more fun to be an elf or a halfling,” Charlie said. “Opens up your options on some things.”

“How about I stick with human for now?”

Charlie shrugged. “Sure thing.”

For some reason, Anna felt relieved by that, which was silly. It was just a game, after all. Maybe she should’ve chosen to be an elf or something. But this was all new territory, so hanging onto something familiar just felt like a good idea.

“Now we just need to work on your powers.”

“Human characters have powers?” That didn’t seem right to Anna somehow. In a world with elves and ogres, why would humans have magic?

“Sure. They wouldn’t do too well against the others if they didn’t, right?” Charlie replied with a wry look.

“I guess not.” Something about it still felt off to Anna, but she shrugged it off. It was just a game, after all.

“So, here are your choices …”

Anna smiled as Charlie leaned closer to show her the character sheet, pointing out various options. Their shoulders brushed. Anna still wasn’t sure what she thought about the game, but she was glad she’d come.

~0~

Anna wasn’t entirely sure she was sold on the game, but by the time Charlie declared the evening’s “campaign” a success and started putting the board and other paraphernalia away, Anna was sure of one thing: she wasn’t ready to call the evening done. She never moved this fast with guys, well hardly ever, but the sense of urgency from her dream the night before was still there. She had no real idea what the next move should be, but that didn’t look like it was going to be a problem.

“So, I guess you probably have a class at the crack of dawn tomorrow,” Charlie said as she set the box on a shelf and came back to the couch.

“Actually, my first class on Friday isn’t until eleven.”

“Oh. Cool.” Charlie smiled and inched just a bit closer.

“Why is that cool?” Anna hoped she knew the answer.

“Means this doesn’t have to be a good-night kiss.” Charlie raised a hand to Anna’s cheek and just let it rest there a moment.

Anna’s heart felt like it was beating so loudly they should both be able to hear it as she mirrored the gesture. Whatever doubts were left in her mind vanished as Charlie pressed their lips together and quickly deepened the kiss, and oh yes, she knew what she was doing. None of that propeller nonsense most guys tried, and Anna sighed with pleasure as their tongues caressed each other in turn.

Her breath caught when she felt Charlie’s hand skim down from her face, along her neck and shoulder, to rest for a moment at her breast, silently questioning. In answer, Anna buried her hands in Charlie’s hair and kissed her hungrily. Charlie gave a gentle squeeze of understanding but then, surprisingly, pulled back.

“What’s wrong?” Anna asked, breathless.

“This is your first time with a girl, isn’t it?” Charlie looked concerned.

“That obvious?”

“Only a little.” Charlie smiled, taking the sting out of her words.

“Not the first time … at all,” Anna managed to say. “If that matters.”

“Nah, I don’t care about gold stars,” was Charlie’s cryptic reply. “But … you sure you want this? I mean, we can totally just be good friends and pretend this never happened.”

“Is that what you want?” Anna asked. It didn’t seem like it, but right now she wasn’t sure of anything except that she wanted them to be kissing again. But not if that wasn’t what Charlie wanted.

“Don’t get me wrong. I don’t actually mind being someone’s experiment now and then.” Charlie rolled her eyes. “Long as she’s hot.”

Anna gave a nervous laugh and wondered where this was going.

“But I really like you, Anna. If you’re going to regret this in the morning, then yeah, I’d rather just stay friends.”

“I really like you, too, Charlie,” Anna said softly. “Like, a lot. And I think the only thing I’d regret in the morning, or ever, is if we met up in some random office someday years from now, and you asked me why we hadn’t done this sooner.”

“In that case …” Charlie’s face broke out with the brightest smile Anna had seen yet, as she took Anna’s hand and led her towards the door that must lead to her bedroom.

Her room was very much like the rest of the apartment: posters and collectibles everywhere. There was a definite theme in here though, from Leia to Selene the vampire. There wasn’t much time to take it all in, though, because the next thing she knew, Charlie was pulling her into another kiss, this one somehow both gentler and more passionate than the last.

How they got to the bed, Anna wasn’t quite sure, but suddenly they were tumbled together, blouses and bras being discarded with jeans following soon after. For what seemed like an eternity, they just lay side by side, kissing and exploring. It was so very different, and yet somehow so familiar, to caress someone with soft curves rather than harsh planes. When she lowered her mouth to Charlie’s breast, grazing the nipple gently between her teeth before simply latching on and suckling, the sounds Charlie made were both like and unlike the ones Anna knew she’d make if (and hopefully when) the tables turned.

Turn they did, and Anna gasped as warm wetness engulfed first one nipple, then the other, before Charlie pressed Anna onto her back and trailed kisses down her abdomen. As she hooked her fingers in the waist of Anna’s panties, she looked up, a request for confirmation in her eyes. Speech was long since past Anna’s abilities, and she just nodded, then watched as Charlie slipped them down and off.

Charlie peppered Anna’s thighs with light kisses as she worked her way back up to her goal. Anna knew she was just being careful, taking it slow and giving Anna time to freak out and change her mind, but there was no danger of that. After an eternity of teasing, Charlie spread her open and slowly traced Anna’s folds with her tongue.

Burying her fingers in Charlie’s hair, Anna closed her eyes and reveled in the sensations as Charlie explored and then (oh how nice not to have to draw a map) fastened her lips around Anna’s clit and sucked. Anna was pretty sure the words coming out of her own mouth weren’t English, or probably even words, but she didn’t care so long as Charlie just kept doing … that.

A finger pressed into her, then two, and Anna amended her previous thought. This, this was what she needed Charlie to keep doing, and oh, was she going to get to do this to her too? She could practically taste the other woman’s sweetness in anticipation. Between that and the way Charlie crooked her fingers, firmly pressing against Anna’s g-spot, it was only moments before Anna’s orgasm crashed over her like a wave. Still, Charlie kept on, suckling and stroking Anna through her climax until she was far too sensitive and tugged gently at Charlie’s hair.

Charlie crawled up over her, knees to either side of Anna’s waist, and kissed her. The heady scent and taste of her own musk overwhelmed Anna’s senses, and she felt herself melt bonelessly into the mattress beneath her.

When Charlie broke the kiss and Anna collected herself, she looked up to see Charlie grinning smugly at her. A trace of uncertainty remained in her eyes, and Anna realized she was still worried Anna was going to freak out. She didn’t think she was, but it took her a minute or two to figure out how to communicate that.

“My turn?” she asked at last, giving her best suggestive smile.

Charlie’s eyes cleared as she rolled them both over and replied, “Oh yes.”

Looking down at Charlie was disconcerting for a moment, but Anna was quickly distracted by her breasts. She bent to kiss and suckle first one, then the other, as she let a hand explore Charlie’s waist and hips. She took note of the spot that made Charlie suck in her breath, and when she began to work her way down, she spent several minutes kissing and nibbling right there.

When she eased Charlie’s underwear off, though, she paused to look at the tattoo she’d uncovered. Above her, Charlie giggled.

“I was drunk,” she said after a minute. “It was Comic Con.”

“It’s cute,” Anna said lamely.

“It’s ridiculous,” Charlie said, looking down at her. “And distracting at all the worst times.”

Anna took the hint and proceeded to pull the underwear the rest of the way off.

She knelt between Charlie’s legs for a moment, suddenly uncertain.

“Hey, come here,” Charlie said softly, reaching a hand to her.

When Anna took it, Charlie pulled her so that she was lying over Charlie again, face to face.

“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to,” Charlie said. “There’s plenty of other things we can do.”

“But I do want to,” Anna said, no longer surprised by how very much she meant it. “I just … I don’t know …”

Charlie pulled her in for a kiss, and Anna could still taste herself on Charlie’s lips.

“Just do what you like,” Charlie said once she broke the kiss. “If it doesn’t work for me, I’ll tell you, okay?”

“And you’ll tell me if there’s something you want that I’m not doing?” Anna asked.

Charlie nodded. Anna kissed her again quickly, then knelt back.

It still took her a moment to figure out just how to get into the best position. Finally, she gently parted Charlie’s lips and traced a finger along her folds. When that elicited a pleased sigh, she lowered her mouth and took her first taste.

After that, she was lost in the heady, musky sweetness of Charlie, circling Charlie’s clit with her tongue, then pressing it inward before returning to suckle at the sensitive bud. She used her fingers, as Charlie had with her, searching and finding the spot that made her arch off the bed and curse in what was probably Klingon.

When Charlie fisted her sheets and yelled, Anna felt Charlie’s walls shuddering around her fingers. She gentled her movements, not sure if Charlie got as oversensitive afterwards as she did, but not wanting to stop otherwise. Charlie didn’t say or do anything to suggest she wanted Anna to stop, so she kept on, licking, suckling, and gently stroking, until finally Charlie reached for her hand and pulled her to lie side by side once more.

Kissing now was something entirely different, as they were both sloppy and sated, but the mingled taste of both of them was something Anna didn’t think she could ever get enough of. Still, their kisses became sloppier and sleepier, until it only made sense to get under the covers, because even though it was well into spring the nights were still chilly. She fell asleep with her head resting on Charlie’s shoulder and an arm around her waist, and she didn’t think even sleep could erase the smile from her face.

~0~

Waking up in someone else’s bed for the first time was always awkward at best. Waking up with the first woman you’d ever slept with for the first time … Anna wasn’t sure what the etiquette was. Most guys would just as soon you were gone by the time they opened their eyes. She wasn’t sure who was worse, those guys or the ones who wanted you to make them breakfast. The good ones were up before you and you woke up to the scent of coffee.

Charlie was still asleep. So, was she supposed to get up? Was she supposed to stay? She actually wouldn’t mind putting on breakfast, or at least some coffee, but she didn’t feel right about just rummaging around Charlie’s kitchen. How was this supposed to work?

Her bladder finally decided for her. If nothing else, she absolutely had to get up and go to the bathroom, so she did, scooping up her panties and blouse on the way. For good measure, she splashed some water on her face and borrowed Charlie’s brush to turn her hair into a bit less of a rat’s nest. After a moment’s consideration, she put a little toothpaste on her finger and rubbed it over her teeth, swished it around her mouth with a bit of water, and yes, that definitely felt better.

Still not entirely sure of herself, Anna went back to peek in the bedroom and see if Charlie was still sleeping. To her relief, the other woman was propped up on one elbow, blinking at her sleepily. Her hair was at least as tangled as Anna’s had been, and Anna decided that was a sign of a good night.

“Off to class already?” Charlie asked.

“No, it’s only a little after eight,” Anna replied. “I mean, it’d be good if I looked over the chapter before class. History’s not my favorite and it doesn’t always stick, you know? But there’s plenty of time.”

“Cool.” Charlie smiled and threw herself out of bed. After a minute, she found her t-shirt and pulled it on as she headed for the bathroom herself. “Morning-after special coming up soon as I’m decent.”

Anna smiled and sighed with relief. She wasn’t sure what Charlie’s idea of a “morning-after special” was, but the fact that she had one sounded like a good thing.

As it turned out, her “morning-after special” was waffles with strawberries and an insane amount of whipped cream, really good coffee, and bacon. She adamantly refused to let Anna help with anything other than setting the coffee table, which meant little more than putting out silverware and napkins. Still, it made Anna feel less awkward with something to do, so she fussed with the silverware a bit more than was strictly necessary to keep her hands busy until Charlie came out of the kitchenette with two breakfasts that looked more like dessert.

“Wow.” Anna looked at hers for a bit once Charlie had set it down. She wasn’t sure she could even finish all that.

“Hey, really good sex like last night takes a lot of energy,” Charlie said with a grin. “Gotta refuel.”

“O…kay.” Anna wasn’t used to her partners being quite so direct. Maybe that wasn’t the word. Matter-of-fact. That was it. She decided she liked it and dug in only to find that she was a lot hungrier than she’d realized. Charlie must have a point.

They ate in silence, which Anna found surprising. It wasn’t unusual for her, but Charlie was usually a chatterbox, even while eating. Then again, even though they’d had breakfast together the day before, this was the first time Anna had seen her first thing in the morning.

“So, history at eleven,” Charlie said at last, once her plate was clean. “Then what?”

“‘Media as Social Institutions’ at two,” Anna replied before finishing off her coffee.

Charlie picked up her TARDIS mug, then gestured to Anna’s Hogwarts one with a lift of her eyebrows. Anna nodded, and Charlie took both to pour refills.

“Sounds fancy,” Charlie called from the kitchenette. “What does it mean?”

“Oh, you know, kind of the whole art reflecting life versus life reflecting art thing,” Anna called back, lowering her voice as Charlie came back and sat next to her. “It’s kind of philosophical, not very hands-on, but I like it.”

“Then it sounds cool.” Charlie smiled as she took a sip from her mug.

“It kind of is,” Anna agreed.

Before the conversation could grind to a standstill, Charlie continued, “Any big plans for the weekend?”

“Not really,” Anna replied. She hoped she didn’t sound like she was too eager to find out why Charlie was asking, but really, she very much was.

“Well, now that you know the basics, I have a D&D group that meets on Saturday afternoons, if you want to come with?” Charlie looked at her hopefully, then backtracked a bit. “I mean, if you had fun last night. With the game, I mean.”

“I did,” Anna said. “I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I really did enjoy it.”

Charlie smiled and let out a breath that might have been a sigh of relief, but Anna tried not to read too much into it.

“It really is fun with more people. More characters, more interesting storylines, you know?” Charlie asked.

“Yeah, that sounds like fun.” She paused. “I usually go home on the weekends, but it’s not far. I can just go for Sunday. What time is the game?”

They ironed out the nuts and bolts of where to meet and when as they cleared the coffee table and Anna tried to convince Charlie to let her help with the dishes.

“Maybe next time,” Charlie said with a wink, and that was the best thing Anna thought she’d heard all morning.

“I’ll hold you to that,” she replied.

“I bet you will.” Charlie grinned as she wiped her hands on the kitchen towel that had some blocky green robot-thing on it and took a step closer. “So, three at The Laughing Ogre?”

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Anna said softly before Charlie pressed their lips together, and she felt her knees melt.

“You’d better go,” Charlie said when she broke the kiss after an unmeasurable bit of time. “Don’t want you to miss history class.”

Anna’s eyes darted to the wall clock. Quarter of ten. “Yeah, I’d better get going. See you Saturday then.”

With that, she gathered her things, including the character sheet Charlie reminded her to take, and headed out to catch a bus to campus.

~0~

The Laughing Ogre was not what Anna would have expected for a comics store. When she’d thought about what it was going to be like, she’d imagined racks and racks of comics everywhere. To be fair, there were a lot of comics, but they were mostly on shelves with only a couple of the spinning racks she’d pictured. Higher up, there were shelves holding the sort of collectibles Charlie had in her apartment, some from movies or books Anna recognized but most not.

In the center of the store, though, there was a wide open space that held three long tables. On the first, there were people playing cards.

“Magic,” Charlie told her.

“What?”

“The game they’re playing. It’s called Magic: The Gathering. Once I get you well and truly hooked on D&D, maybe we can give that a spin.”

Anna laughed. “Don’t forget, I’ve still got to have time for school. Some of us aren’t naturally brilliant.”

Charlie preened under the compliment, then said, “Hey, don’t sell yourself short. You’re pretty brilliant yourself. And here we are.”

The second table was set up with a board like the one Charlie had used the other night. There were three people there already, and Anna was sure she’d never seen so many dice in one place. They all greeted Charlie, and then Charlie introduced Anna to them.

“This is Don, otherwise known as Imdur the Ogre.”

Don, who couldn’t be out of his teens and might not even need to shave, nodded and growled, shaking his long, blond hair.

“Janice, aka Lyra the Halfling Paladin.”

“A pleasure to meet you,” Janice/Lyra said with a flourish and a giggle. She continued playing with a couple of the dice, rolling them and picking them back up over and over like a nervous tic.

“And finally, our Dungeon Master, Mark, aka Profax the Underdwarf.”

Mark/Profax shook Anna’s hand firmly. “Great to meet you, Anna, or should I say Miri? Charlie’s told us so much about you.”

“Really?” Anna laughed nervously. When had Charlie told them what? They’d been working on her project for a couple of weeks, but did they know they were … whatever they were? “Hope it was all good. Great to meet all of you too.”

Mark/Profax set up the background for the afternoon’s campaign, and they all gave a little background on their characters, presumably for Anna’s benefit because they must all know who the others played. Anna made it through her description without reading off her character sheet too often, but the others had done that once or twice too, so she decided that wasn’t too lame on her part.

The game began. Charlie was right. It was more fun with more people. What was surprising, though, was how much was just socializing completely outside the storyline. Charlie’s character got into a duel with Don’s, and that left the rest of them free to chat for awhile.

Turned out Mark went to Anna’s school but was an engineering student, which, along with the size of the student body, was why they’d never met up. Janice was an older woman, maybe in her thirties, with two little kids that her husband watched on Saturday afternoons so she could have some time to just relax and have fun. They were an odd group, nothing in common, really, except the game, which was kind of neat in itself, Anna thought.

By the time the game wrapped up, it was nearly time for dinner, according to Anna’s stomach, and it seemed the group’s weekly ritual was to pack up the game but continue the socializing at a nearby pizza place. The server knew them, only asking Anna what she wanted to drink but apparently assuming the rest would have what they always did. That didn’t really help Anna decide between soda and beer, but she decided to err on the side of not looking like a lush and ordered a Sprite.

“Good call,” Charlie mock-whispered to her. “The beer here is awful.”

Janice looked affronted, but the others laughed, so Anna guessed that was a running joke of some kind between them.

Don continued the story he’d started earlier about the prank his classmates had played on their gym teacher and had them all in stitches. By the time the pizza arrived, they’d been through tales of Janice’s two-year-old’s adventures in the backyard with a squirrel, Mark’s worst math teacher ever, and Anna’s bizarre journalism professor.

“And, I mean, most profs get mad if students eat in class, but this guy?” Anna laughed. “Half the time he’s sucking on a lollipop and then using it like a pointer.”

“Hey, with the assignments you said some of your classmates got, I’m half surprised he’s not playing the game,” Janice said as she grabbed her beer and shifted back to give the server room to set the pizza down.

“Maybe he does,” Anna said with a shrug as she reached for a slice, smiling when she and Charlie brushed hands reaching for the same one. “Or did. He definitely has a thing for mythological creatures.”

Conversation died off a bit as they ate, and once they were done, they said their good-nights and went their separate ways almost right away, each back to their own very different lives. There was a story to be told there, Anna thought, and she hoped her next assignment was a little more open-ended, so that she could put the time into it that she’d like.

“I know you said you were going to go see your folks tomorrow,” Charlie said once the others had gone and they stood alone on the sidewalk, “but do you want to come back to my place for a bit?”

“I thought you’d never ask,” Anna replied with a smile that Charlie answered with one of her own.

As they walked, Anna realized something. She debated whether to bring it up for a bit but then finally asked, “Charlie, did I miss it, or were you the only one not telling some kind of stories today?”

Charlie didn’t answer at first.

“It’s okay. If that’s not a good subject or something …”

“No, it’s just … well, my life is kind of boring.” Charlie shrugged. “That’s why I’m into all of this stuff, you know? Besides, the stories I’ve been telling lately have been about my tutee with the weird journalism assignment, and you pretty much had that covered.”

“I see.” Anna thought about that for a bit. She really didn’t know much at all about Charlie. She knew Charlie liked high fantasy and science fiction stuff, knew she did tutoring as a side job, but that was about it. Somehow, they’d skipped right past the “getting to know you” phase. Anna wasn’t sure how she felt about that. It would seem awkward to start asking questions now though. She guessed they’d have time to get there eventually. She hoped they would anyway.

“So, did you have a good time today?” Charlie asked a little too brightly.

“I really did. I’m not sure I’m hooked on the game, but the overall experience is lots of fun,” Anna replied.

“Do you think you want to come again next week?” Charlie pressed.

“Are you asking me for a regular weekly date?” Anna asked.

Charlie fish-mouthed for a minute, then said, “Yes?”

“Sure?” That would mean changing her pattern of going home, maybe even just staying in Columbus some weekends altogether. And she could probably miss a game every so often, maybe do something just the two of them on a Friday instead and then she could have a whole weekend at home. And wow, she was already thinking of herself and Charlie as an established couple working out all those sorts of things, and this was at best their second date.

They both broke out laughing, though Anna had the feeling they weren’t laughing for the exact same reasons. Charlie stopped walking, and then Anna realized they’d reached her building.

“So, come up for a cup of coffee?” Charlie asked.

“It would have to be earlier than last time,” Anna replied. “I’ll need to catch the eight o’clock bus.”

“Then I guess I’d better set my alarm,” Charlie said with a grin.

As Charlie pulled out her key and unlocked the main entrance to her building, Anna found herself grinning back. This was … nice. Good, even. She thought she might be able to get used to this.

~0~

Anna steeled herself before stepping into the classroom. This was it, the day they’d get their grades on the world’s most absurd research project that constituted fifty percent of their grade for the class. She really hoped she’d at least managed a B. For all the work she’d put in, she deserved at least that, right?

Then again, she’d pretty much found Charlie because of this paper, so even if the grade stank, she couldn’t exactly complain.

Everyone was at their desks, and Prof. Cornel wasn’t there yet. Anna grabbed her usual seat and pulled out her notebook and pen. Nervously, she played with the cap of the pen and scribbled in the margins of her notebook.

Finally, Prof. Cornel swooped in with an armload of papers.

“Aaaand, it’s Tuesday!” he announced, then added, “again. Only a few more of these before the semester’s up, so enjoy them while they last.”

Nobody reacted.

Prof. Cornel sighed. “Fine. I can see I’m not going to be able to do anything with any of you until you get your grades. Most of you did better, though some of you clearly still don’t get it. Adams?”

He called each student up alphabetically by last name. Anna wished he’d gone by first name, but at least Milton would get called sooner than Winston.

When she finally got her paper, Anna scanned it from front to back. There still wasn’t a grade. She looked up at the professor, confused, only to have him mouth “later” at her, which wasn’t helping with the whole creep factor.

She wasn’t sure what he lectured about, and she hoped there hadn’t been another assignment given, because the rest of the class went by in a blur. Had she failed? Then why not just give her an F? What few comments he’d written seemed to question her sources. Did he think she’d just made it all up? That would have been much easier!

Once the last of her classmates had left, Anna made her way to the front of the room, paper in hand.

“So, I guess you’re wondering why I didn’t give you a grade,” he said.

“Yes, I am,” she replied.

“Here’s the thing, Anna,” he said with a sigh, “it’s good. It’s too good. So I need to know if you had any help with this.”

“What? No! I mean,” she backtracked, “I did work with a tutor to improve my online searching skills, but she didn’t write it for me or anything.”

“Don’t worry,” he said patronizingly. “I’m not accusing you of plagiarism. It’s just that I made sure I knew what was available in the university library before I gave out these assignments, and some of this stuff? Definitely not exactly easy to find anywhere.”

“But you didn’t say we were restricted to the university library,” Anna protested. “What would be the point?”

“You weren’t restricted.” He gave an exasperated sigh and stared at her unnervingly. “Charlie Bradbury? How in the world did you find her?”

“She … she has flyers up offering computer tutoring,” Anna said, hoping that she wasn’t getting Charlie in trouble. How had he even come up with the name?

“No, she’s not in trouble. Not so long as I can find her too. This is way too early in the game for her to be getting any hints. Assuming she’s around to be getting any at all, that is. No guarantees there.”

“What … game?” Anna started to back away. This guy wasn’t just weird, wasn’t just creepy. He was nuts! Was he going to hurt her? Was he going to hurt Charlie?

“I’m not going to hurt you, sister,” he said softly. “I’m trying to help you.”

“You called me that before,” she said. “Why? Why are you calling me that?”

“Just a bit of slang I picked up,” he replied with a shrug. “Doesn’t mean anything.”

“I think it does,” she said, her voice rising. “Your eyes … they … flash … when you call me that.”

“Do they? Must be a trick of the light.”

Anna took another couple of steps backwards toward the door.

The lights flickered.

“Calm down,” he said. “Can’t go spooking the locals.”

“You’re insane,” she retorted. “Stay away from me!”

The lights flickered again, and the one directly overhead blew out.

“Oh, I will,” he said. “Professor Jerry Cornel is going to be suddenly called away by a family emergency. If things go either very well or very badly, you’ll never see me again. Kind of depends on how well you did your homework.”

“What?” she demanded.

“You cited John Dee and his crew,” he said, pulling a candy bar from his pocket. He raised his eyebrows and offered it to her, as if she’d take anything from him. He shrugged, opened the wrapper, and took a bite. “But the thing you left out was their whole bit on how to trap and bind an angel, specifically an archangel.”

Anna shook her head, half-hoping that would make this conversation begin to make sense. It didn’t.

“I know you must have read it. At least I hope you did. But I’ve got to know, why did you leave it out?”

“I … I wrote the article for an audience that wanted to learn how to successfully defeat an angel,” she said. “The binding stuff they did … kind of backfired pretty badly.”

“Yeah, it would,” he said with a sigh. “Because they were only human. Only so much a human can do, even with Enochian, considering they can’t even really pronounce it right.”

“So, your point is … what, exactly?”

“That the spells were fine. They just need to be cast by angels.” He took another bite of his candy. “Mind you, any other type of angel tries it on an archangel, the best they’ll do is buy themselves a little time to get away.”

“Like inflicting damage on an opponent with superior armor,” she said. Anna was starting to wonder if she’d fallen asleep during the game last Saturday and had been dreaming ever since.

“Exactly! Now you’re getting it.” He finished his candy bar, crumpled the wrapper, and tossed it across the room into the waste basket. It was a pretty impressive shot. “Maybe it’s a good thing you met up with Miss Charlie after all.”

Anna had no answer for that. Right now she felt like meeting Charlie was one of the best things that had ever happened to her.

“Oh, no. You didn’t.” He stared into her eyes again. “You did. Sister, I so wish I could let you keep that. But I can’t. I really thought I could just fix this one thing, but … that’s the problem with trying to fix the past. There’s always something you can’t account for.”

“What?” Anna felt like she was saying that an awful lot today.

“If I hadn’t given you that assignment, you would never have called her, and you two wouldn’t have met and, well, everything. But if you two are still together come September, and that’s looking kind of promising right now, then she’s going to end up smack in the middle of everything years too soon.”

Anna wasn’t entirely sure why she hadn’t just left. Or screamed. Or done anything other than listen to this lunatic. There was something about him, though, something she couldn’t put her finger on, that compelled her to listen.

“So, that means I have some mopping up to do. Oh, and you told Mommy and Daddy? Guess I’ll have to check in on the gamer geeks too.” He heaved a dramatic sigh. “Still, could be worse. Just … try to remember that stuff when you need it, okay? It took humans to invent the spell, which is why you didn’t know it before, but it takes an angel to cast it.”

There was really nothing to say to that.

“As far as you’re concerned, for now, you did this assignment all on your own. Lots and lots of hours logged in the library, waaaaay too much screen time running searches, but you found it all yourself.”

“But I didn’t,” she denied.

Prof. Cornel snapped his fingers.

“You’re right,” she said. “It took much longer than I’d anticipated, but the sources were right there, once I figured out how to find them.”

“Atta girl,” he said with a smile that looked a little sad. “Run along now. Don’t want to be late to your next class.”

“Right. Thank you.” Anna wasn’t really sure what she was thanking him for. She’d earned that A with blood, sweat, and tears.

She didn’t actually have another class for a while, so she went back to her dorm for a bit. Kicking her shoes off, she grabbed her journal and flipped it open. Had she seriously not written in it in over two weeks? That wasn’t like her at all. That project really had been way too all-consuming.

She decided to try to jot down as much of it as she remembered, from her meetings with the reference librarian to the hours upon hours spent searching online. This was going to take forever.

~0~

ThirtyYears Earlier

~0~

Even with Uriel’s help, the fight was not going as well as hoped. Mary Winchester might not have been hunting for some time, but she was still a resourceful fighter. Her husband was more easily removed from the equation, his Marine training insufficient for this sort of battle. The sons, well, they were the biggest problem, but when Uriel disarmed and held Dean, Anna saw an opportunity and took it, ripping a pipe from the wall and stabbing Sam Winchester.

She took a step back. It wasn’t what she had wanted to do, but it was the only way. Heaven’s plans … how had things become so corrupt in her absence that this was what protecting their Father’s creatures came to? Anna turned to Mary Winchester, the woman who had just seen her son, albeit a son not yet born, die before her. Anna had seen that look before, in the eyes of this woman’s namesake, and in that moment, she knew how Pontius Pilate must have felt.

“I’m … really … sorry,” she said, knowing how inadequate her words were.

“Anna.”

It was the voice of John Winchester, and yet it wasn’t. Panic welled up in Anna’s chest. Her job wasn’t finished. Michael could kill her later, but not until she’d done as she’d told Castiel and scattered Sam’s cells, his very atoms, across the universe.

An image came unbidden to her mind: a circle, filled with Enochian sigils in arrangements clearly not created by angels. The syntax was all wrong. Still, it was intelligible, and she began the spell as she turned to face her brother.

He struggled to reach her with this inferior vessel, arm poised in mid-air. She could tell it wouldn’t hold him for long. She didn’t have that kind of power. At best, the spell might give her time to grab Sam’s body and flee, but first she had to finish it.

Behind her, she heard Mary scrambling for one of the discarded angel blades. To her left, Dean fell free of Uriel’s grasp but made no move towards her, the spell apparently affecting Michael’s true vessel as well. Anna hurried to the finish.

“ … TOH-GEE-LOH POO-GOH AH TAH-LEH-HOH!”

A ball of light exploded outward from Michael, throwing Anna back and through what was left of the cabin’s wall. She shielded her eyes and unfurled her wings … or tried to. Nothing happened. She slammed into concrete that shouldn’t be there, barely seeing the abandoned warehouse she’d left mere hours ago before darkness overtook her.

~0~

Four (or Thirty-four) Years Later

~0~

Chicago had been a decent city to lay low in for a bit. Lots of people. Easy to blend in. Something had shifted over the last few weeks though, and last night … well, Anna might not be an angel anymore, but she still had a good sense of when something wasn’t right. It might be the angels hunting her down. It might be Lucifer making another play for the apocalypse. Sam and Dean were still on the most wanted lists, so clearly Lucifer still had a viable vessel if he could reach him. None of that felt right, but neither did this city, not anymore.

Where to go next was the question. Looking at the board at the Cook County Bus Terminal wasn’t particularly helpful. No one city stood out from the rest. Other people came and went, checking arrival and departure times. Maybe she should just pick one at random, but short of throwing spit-balls at the board, she wasn’t even sure how to really do that.

The man standing next to her had been there a bit longer than she was comfortable with, and she looked over to see if he seemed like a threat. Not much taller than she was. Sandy hair, strangely gold eyes. Sucking on a lollipop like a child or that detective from TV. He caught her looking and grinned, pulling the candy out of his mouth.

“You know what’s important, if you want to get where you’re going?” he asked.

“I have a feeling you’re going to tell me.”

“Doing your homework.” He waved the lollipop at the board like a pointer. “Gotta do your homework if you want to find the right destination. Failing that? You need luck.”

“The luck I tend to have? Not very good,” she replied.

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. You’re here, aren’t you?” he asked. “So now, all you need is to know which one of these is going to be your lucky number.”

He was looking over her shoulder, and she was about to turn and follow his gaze when he announced, “Five! That’s your lucky number, today, sister. That’s where you want to go, the bus at gate five.”

“That the bus you’re taking?” she asked wryly.

“Who, me? Nah, no buses for me. I was just here waiting for someone.” He smiled disarmingly.

Anna looked up at the board. The bus at gate five was leaving in just a few minutes. So long as this weirdo didn’t get on the bus too, it was as good a way to get gone as any she could think of. Besides, while he might be weird, something about him just seemed … safe.

“Maybe I will. Thanks, Mr. …” she let her voice trail off.

“Jerry. Call me Jerry,” he said, extending a hand.

“Thanks, Jerry.” She shook his hand and hurried over to the counter.

Buying the ticket didn’t take long, but the bus was still just about to pull away as she reached it. Good thing she traveled light. The backpack could come on board with her. The driver huffed as she ran up the stairs and searched out an empty seat, checking over her shoulder a few times to be sure Jerry hadn’t followed her. There was no sign of him.

Anna shoved her backpack under an empty seat and, as the bus started to pull away, sat down hard.

“Ow!” said the woman beside her. “Watch it, Chewie.”

Anna was about to snap something back when she noticed the sling on the woman’s right arm. When Anna had sat down, she must have jostled it.

“Sorry,” she said instead. “Lost my balance.”

“It’s okay,” her seatmate replied with a huff. “Just been a bad couple of days.”

The woman turned to look at her, and Anna found herself drawn instantly to the green eyes framed by dark-rimmed glasses.

“Hey,” her seatmate asked, “do I know you?”

“I don’t think so,” Anna replied. She started to offer her right hand, then switched at the last second to her left. “Anna Blake.”

“Cathy Bujold.” Her seatmate smiled and shook her hand awkwardly. “So, where are you heading?”

“Mostly? Just away from here,” Anna said.

“Any heading, warp three? I hear that,” Cathy agreed. She reached into her pocket, pulled out a small plastic bottle and tried to open it single-handed.

“Do you need a hand with that?” Anna asked, reaching over to help.

“No, I think I’ve—”the cap popped off, soapy-smelling contents splashing over both their hands“—got it.” Cathy gave Anna a sheepish look. “Sorry.”

“No big deal,” Anna said, wiping her hand off on her jeans. “What was that anyway?”

“Oh, nothing. Just a … cleaning solution for my glasses.”

That didn’t sound like the truth, but it also didn’t sound like a lie worth worrying about. This woman didn’t owe Anna any answers after all.

“So, Star Trek?” Anna asked to change the topic as Cathy recapped her bottle and what was left of its contents and returned it to her pocket.

“You a fan?” Cathy asked.

“Not a big one,” Anna admitted. “I prefer more … Earthly adventures.”

“As in Middle-Earthly?” Cathy asked, eyes lighting up prettily.

“Among others,” Anna agreed, smiling back.

“Well, then, let’s start with … who’s your favorite elf?” Cathy asked, then went on. “No, let me guess. Arwen?”

“Arwen was cool,” Anna said. “Not really much for the elves overall though. Eowyn was probably my favorite character.”

“She was pretty badass,” Cathy agreed. “Now for the matter of hobbits …”

Anna decided that Weird Jerry had been right. Five was her lucky number. She still wasn’t sure where she was going, but it looked like at least this part of the journey was off to a good start.