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In His Shadow

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The heat is intense, incredible, and Carlos is trying not to think of his parents. He knows he can only be useful if he stays here, in this moment. The house is on fire, and someone needs him.

Stay focused. Stay focused. His instincts are telling him that someone’s alive upstairs. If he can just—

He misjudges a step, and his stomach turns inside-out as the floorboards collapse under his feet. There’s the flash of the flames around him, a flash of bright blue, and—

He’s in bed.

What?

He’s in bed, and he isn’t alone. He’s got his arm slung over some guy. How did this – why doesn’t he remember—

He’s in bed, and he’s extremely not alone. There’s a woman sleeping against his back as well.

What?

The woman shifts against him, murmurs something, presses a kiss against his bare shoulderblade. Carlos lies very still, trying to keep himself calm.

What’s the last thing he remembers? The rescue went wrong. How did he get out of there?

Why can’t he remember what he’s doing here?

Loss of memory from fire trauma? A hallucination? Reverie Syndrome?

There’s a phone by the side of the bed. He reaches cautiously past the mystery guy. Mystery Guy seems to be a heavy sleeper, fortunately.

Carlos retrieves the phone and turns on the screen.

It’s around seven in the morning, apparently. The phone interface is in Japanese, or at least he thinks it’s Japanese; Maria got really into anime not long before the fire, and he remembers trying to bond with her over it by helping her look up how to spell her name in katakana. He’s not sure which order they put the month and the day in Japan, but, assuming it’s not the twenty-third month of the year, he’s lost about sixteen hours.

It doesn’t seem possible that he’s gone from ‘single, not looking for either sex or a relationship’ to ‘in bed with two people’ over the course of sixteen hours. All he can think is that he must have been really exhilarated after escaping that fire.

The phone’s lockscreen looks like a wedding photograph, taken in front of some kind of shrine, bride and groom both laughing. The groom is definitely the guy in front of Carlos; he suspects there’s a good chance the bride is the person behind him. He came across a married couple looking for something new, maybe? And...

This is so weird. He’s never thought of himself as a ‘spontaneous threesome’ kind of guy.

A moment later he recognises himself in the background of the wedding photograph, and things are abruptly much, much weirder.

He extricates himself from the bed, very carefully, so he can go and freak out without disturbing this mysterious couple. There are some of his clothes slung over the back of a chair, and he retrieves them on his way out, grateful to see something familiar.

When he’s left the bedroom and looked out of the window and found himself one hundred percent not in the right country, he starts freaking out even harder than intended.

-

Carlos has been sitting for a while on a low couch with his head in his hands, trying and failing to put the pieces together in a way that makes sense, when he hears footsteps approaching. He stands, his heart beating hard against his chest. What questions is he going to ask? He has no idea.

It takes him a moment to realise that, whoever’s approaching, it’s not one of the couple he woke up way too close to. The footsteps aren’t coming from that bedroom.

“Morning,” a young woman – blonde, American – says through a yawn, wandering into the living room.

Carlos just stays standing there, frozen and staring. He doesn’t know who she is, but he knows that just the sight of her, the sound of her voice, fills him with something indescribable.

And then it hits him that he knows who she is, of course he knows, he sees her every day. He just hasn’t seen her conscious since she was a child. She looks like a different person in motion.

He tries to speak. He can’t.

She frowns a little, sleepily. “You okay?”

He covers the distance between them in two strides and pulls her into his arms.

-

Maria’s clearly worried about him by the time he eventually lets go. He apologises and excuses himself so he can cry in the bathroom, because he suspects she’s not going to be any less worried if he bursts into tears in front of her.

When he’s eventually composed himself, he emerges and finds her in the kitchen corner of the open-plan kitchen-and-living-room, scrambling eggs. He has to hold back the tears again.

“You were in there for ages,” she says. “Do you want eggs?”

“That’d be great,” Carlos says, sitting at the counter. “Thank you.”

“Nothing’s wrong, right? Akane and Junpei are okay?”

Akane and Junpei? Are they the people he woke up with? “They’re fine.”

How much does Maria know about his relationship with them? What... what is his relationship with them?

Maria serves them both eggs on toast and sits down next to him. He has to keep reminding himself not to stare at her. But it’s so hard not to. Everything she does feels miraculous.

Okay. Here’s what he can piece together. Maria recovered somehow. She’s been discharged from the hospital. Carlos apparently celebrated by having a threesome with a married couple, while Maria stayed over at their home, which doesn’t really seem the most appropriate way to celebrate your sister’s recovery. Oh, and at some point they flew to Japan.

All in the space of sixteen hours.

It is clearly not possible for all of that to happen in sixteen hours.

And then something else occurs to him.

“Hey,” he says, “what’s the time difference between here and the West Coast?”

Maria frowns. “Uh, like, fifteen hours, I think?” She pulls a phone out of her pocket, enters something into it. “Yeah, sixteen. We’re sixteen hours ahead.”

It is definitely not possible for all of that to happen in no hours. “Okay. Just to be sure. What year is it?”

Maria laughs. “What? I’m the one who gets to be confused about years. I missed pretty much all of the 2020s.”

So she still had Reverie Syndrome, she’s saying that still happened. But she also said pretty much. She recovered before the 2020s were over? “Humour me.”

“It’s 2031,” she says. “In the US and Japan, if you’re wondering.”

“May, right?”

“Yeah. What’s this about?”

So he fell through the floor of a burning house and woke up, at exactly the same moment, five thousand miles away, in bed with two strangers. With Maria nearby. Awake.

“I have no idea,” he says.

-

He splashes water on his face in a stranger’s bathroom, closes his eyes, breathes for a moment.

How do you pin down what’s real?

He combs through his memories, as far back as he can go, and they all tell him the same thing. He doesn’t know the people he woke up with. He’s never been to Japan. There’s no way he could afford it. He’s been working every moment he can to earn money for Maria’s treatment. She’s unconscious, in hospital, in the US. Where he should be as well.

That’s consistent, and it’s what’s in his head. It feels like he can’t have made all of that up.

But it definitely feels like he can’t be making this up either, what he’s experiencing right now, which feels real in every respect other than the fact that it makes no sense at all.

He’s a little afraid to look too deeply into it. If this is a dream, he might wake himself up from it, he might lose Maria all over again.

If this is a dream, though, he has to wake up. The real Maria needs him.

-

The mysterious woman – what did Maria call her? Akane? – emerges from the bedroom when they’ve just finished eating, looking tousled and incredible and still definitely not like anyone Carlos has ever met before, no matter how hard he tries to remember. She and Maria exchange cheerful greetings, and then she... leans over and kisses Carlos right there at the kitchen counter, in front of Maria, so he guesses at least part of whatever’s going on here isn’t a secret.

He has no idea whether to kiss back. He kind of freezes up, to be honest.

Akane draws back and looks at him for a moment, frowning slightly. “Maria, could you go out and buy us some coffee, please?”

“What?” Carlos asks. “Don’t just send her out on her own, I’ll go with—”

“Hey, I can buy coffee on my own,” Maria says. “I’m not a kid.”

She may not technically be a kid, but how much life experience does she really have? She spent her teenage years semi-conscious.

“She’ll be okay, Carlos,” Akane says. “I was hoping to talk to you.”

To be honest, the alternative prospect of having a serious conversation with someone he doesn’t remember sleeping with isn’t making Carlos want to accompany Maria any less. But Maria takes some money from Akane and disappears out of the apartment, and he’s left alone with the stranger.

A moment passes in silence.

“You’re another Carlos, aren’t you?” Akane asks.

“What?” Carlos asks.

“From another timeline. You shifted here.”

Carlos mouths the words a few times to himself. It doesn’t help them to make sense. “What?”

Akane closes her eyes for a moment, and he’s startled to see tears in them when she opens them again. “I thought so. Were you at Dcom?”

He’s getting the impression that ‘act like nothing’s wrong’ isn’t really an option here. “What’s Dcom?”

“Do you know me at all?”

He hesitates.

“You can be honest,” she says. “I won’t be surprised if you say no.”

“I’m really sorry,” he says. “I don’t know who you are. I don’t know how I got here.”

He’s wondering whether he’s about to get an explanation at last, but instead she gives him a quick, strained smile and goes back into the bedroom.

There’s rustling, muffled conversation, and then a very loud exclamation that, Japanese or not, is definitely swearing.

The guy Carlos woke wrapped around storms out of the bedroom, hastily followed by Akane. Carlos guesses this is Junpei.

“Carlos is dead?” Junpei demands. “This guy killed him?”

“What?” Carlos asks. “I’m Carlos. I haven’t killed anyone. I wouldn’t—”

“Nice try,” Junpei says. “I still remember the time you killed me.”

“You know what you just said doesn’t make any sense, right?” Carlos asks.

“He’s still Carlos, Junpei,” Akane says.

“He’s not our Carlos. You can’t tell me to act like he is.”

“He’s not.” Akane looks over Carlos for a moment. “But we’re not in a position to judge other versions of ourselves for shifting.”

“Can someone please explain what’s happening?” Carlos asks.

“Our Carlos isn’t necessarily dead,” Akane says, which seems like a ‘no’. “Or at least not in every timeline. Carlos, can you tell me what happened before you came to this universe?”

“I don’t—” He cuts himself off in the middle of saying I don’t know what you’re talking about, because it’s just occurred to him that maybe he does know what she means. There’s definitely a point he can pin down that kind of felt like a switch of universes. “I was looking for survivors in a burning house. The floor collapsed.”

Akane nods. “And that’s the last thing you remember?”

“That’s right.”

“You see,” Akane says to Junpei, “it’s certainly dangerous enough to trigger a shift, but that isn’t necessarily a guaranteed death. Carlos has a lot of experience with fires, and he’ll have the equipment to deal with one. Even with the surprise of shifting, there might be timelines where he escapes alive.”

“Oh, great,” Junpei says. “So this guy just took our Carlos away from us and killed some versions of him. I guess that’s fine.”

“You’re saying the me who used to be here ended up in that fire?” Carlos asks, horror slowly creeping up his back. Just the thought of it – that he could have been sleeping, at peace at last, knowing Maria’s okay, and then suddenly found himself falling through the floor of a flaming building—

And even if he survives he’ll find that Maria’s still unconscious, that his – his – well, whatever Akane and Junpei are to him, he’ll find they don’t know him. It looks like maybe he’s been building some kind of life here, after years focusing on nothing but finding the money Maria needs, and that’s just been... stripped away.

“You’re saying you didn’t know about that?” Junpei asks, sceptically.

“He might not, if this is a version of him who hasn’t consciously accessed the morphogenetic field yet,” Akane says. “You remember what a terrible actor Carlos is, right?”

“Hey,” Carlos says, weakly.

“You didn’t come here on purpose,” Akane says, meeting his eyes very seriously. “Did you?”

Carlos shakes his head. It kills him to ask when Maria is awake, but if he’s accidentally stolen someone else’s life... “Is there any way I could try to switch back?”

“What, are you crazy?” Junpei asks. “It’d probably kill your body. You’ve already taken our Carlos; you want to leave us with no Carlos at all in this timeline?”

“No, I didn’t – I don’t know how it works, I was just saying—”

“We appreciate the thought,” Akane says, smiling at him, although Carlos suspects the ‘we’ is optimistic. “You may have missed it, but Junpei just admitted you’re better than nothing. I’m sure he’ll warm up to you.”

Well, it’s good to know he’s better than nothing. He guesses.

-

Akane explains the concept of SHIFTing and parallel universes to Carlos. Honestly, it seems a lot more likely that this is a dying hallucination while he chokes on the fumes from the fire. But it feels real.

She glances over at Junpei, who’s glowering at them from the couch. “Don’t mind Junpei. He finds it harder to see people from different timelines as different aspects of the same person.”

“I’m really sorry,” Carlos says. “I swear I didn’t know what I was doing.”

“I know,” Akane says. “I wish this hadn’t happened, but I believe you. I’m sure this is hard for you as well.”

It’s strange, conflicting. He feels terrible for what he’s apparently done to the version of himself who used to be here, and for abandoning Maria. But having a chance to see a Maria who’s alive and awake... well, that’s worth a lot to him.

“I know our Carlos will look after your Maria,” Akane says, gently. “In every timeline where he survives, at least. He’ll probably be able to bring her out of her illness.”

“What?” Carlos asks, looking sharply at her. He’d assumed this was a timeline where she just happened to recover, but... “I know how to treat Reverie Syndrome in this universe?”

“We figured it out at Dcom,” Akane says. “Oh, right; I should probably tell you about Dcom.”

-

They all go very quiet when Maria returns to the apartment, and it’s clear that she picks up on it. Carlos knows he can’t hide this from her. He just... wishes he could.

He’s asked if Akane can be the one to tell her what’s happened. Maybe it’s cowardice, but he can’t be there for the moment Maria goes from seeing him as her brother to seeing him as the stranger who stole him away. He can’t.

Akane draws Maria aside, into the room where she’s staying, and they’re in there for a long time.

When Maria emerges, everything in Carlos wants to look away, but he feels he owes it to her to meet her eyes.

She’s in tears. She half-runs across the room at him, and he’s expecting a punch, he wouldn’t be able to blame her—

She throws her arms around him.

“The Carlos who was there when I woke up wasn’t the one I remembered either,” she says into his ear. “It’d been too long. But I still loved him.” She pulls back and looks fiercely into his eyes. “I know I can love you as well.”

A tightness takes hold of Carlos’s throat. He pulls her into a hug again, kisses her hair. “I’ve never deserved you.”

-

“You’d better sleep on the living-room futon tonight,” Akane says. “I don’t think Junpei’s ready to have you in the bed.”

“Can I ask...” There’s been so much going on that he hasn’t really had an opportunity to clarify this. “What is my relationship with you two?”

Akane considers him for a moment. “What was happening when you SHIFTed over? In this timeline, I mean.”

“I was, uh, in bed with you,” Carlos says. “Both of you. Sleeping.”

“Hmm,” Akane says. “Truly a mystery.”

“Is that something we... do a lot? Or did it just happen to be that night?”

Akane shakes her head. “We’re in a relationship.”

“All three of us?”

She smiles. “All three of us.”

“Wow,” Carlos says. “How did that... happen?”

Akane raises her eyebrows.

“Not that you’re not both very attractive,” he says, quickly. “I guess I’m just having trouble believing I’d ever get into something like that.”

“I know,” she says. There’s a strange fondness to it. “It took a long time to persuade you. But you were happy with the arrangement, I think.”

He hesitates. He doesn’t know whether to say this. “I’m sorry I made it all wasted effort.”

“It wasn’t wasted,” she says. “We still had that time with you.”

-

Carlos sleeps better than he might have expected, better than he has in a long time, despite the strangeness of the situation. Beneath all the confusion and the guilt, there’s a peace in the knowledge that Maria’s nearby, and she’s conscious, and she doesn’t hate him.

When he wakes, he’s still on the futon, still in Akane and Junpei’s apartment. If it’s a dream, it’s an ongoing one.

He wants to check on Maria, make sure she’s still here and well.

He should probably let her sleep.

-

“Access the... what?” Carlos asks.

“The morphogenetic field,” Akane says. “It can give you the memories of the versions of yourself across different universes. It’ll probably be easier for you to pick up Carlos’s life here if you can remember it.”

“Would I basically be overwriting myself? It’s kind of like becoming a different person, right?”

Maybe it’s selfish to worry about that. This would be a way of making himself closer to the Carlos he took away from them, wouldn’t it?

“It’s not the same as SHIFTing,” Akane says. “Your consciousness stays where it is, and you keep all your old memories. You’re just informed by your experiences in other timelines. I think of it as becoming a more complete version of yourself.”

It’d probably mean he doesn’t feel so out of his depth all the time. And, if some version of him has spent the last couple of years with a conscious Maria, he wants the memories of that. “Okay. How do I access it?”

“Hmm,” Akane says. “I don’t think it’s so essential it’s worth putting your life in danger on this occasion.”

“Good,” Carlos says, after taking a moment to process that.

“Familiarity can help. Going through experiences you’ve already undergone in other timelines. Déjà vu is a brief morphogenetic connection.”

“Please don’t kidnap me and lock me in a bomb shelter,” Carlos says.

Akane laughs. “I had something else in mind.”

-

“No,” Junpei says. “No, Akane.”

“I don’t think either of you is seeing the bigger picture here,” Akane says.

“Carlos is probably dead, and you’re asking me to sleep with his corpse?”

That’s a disconcerting way of putting it.

“Fine,” Akane says. “I can do it without you.”

“I think I should get a say in who my wife has sex with,” Junpei snaps.

Akane folds her arms. “I knew I should have married Carlos instead. It would have solved all the visa problems.”

“Really,” Carlos says, “I... appreciate the offer, but it’s too weird. I don’t know you guys.”

A part of him is tempted by the idea, excited, nervous. He should be capable of falling in love with them, shouldn’t he, if another version of himself managed it? But it seems hard to picture feelings developing naturally when he first met them by waking up in bed with them. He doesn’t know how he can look past the knowledge of how his other self felt about Akane and Junpei to see how he feels about them.

And how Junpei feels about him is clear enough, and it isn’t good.

“We could sleep in the same bed, at least,” Akane says. “That might help.”

Junpei makes a frustrated noise. “Akane—”

“We need Carlos to help us catch the fanatic, don’t we?” Akane asks. “He’ll be more use to us if he can remember everything we’ve done so far.”

-

Carlos leaves a respectful distance between himself and Akane that night when he beds down under the covers, wearing pyjamas. Akane tried to encourage him to sleep nude, for ‘authenticity’, but it’s a little too much for him. He met these people two days ago. Sharing a bed alone is strange enough.

Junpei is firmly established on Akane’s other side, holding her like he thinks she’ll disappear if he lets go.

It takes a lot longer for Carlos to fall asleep than it did on the futon.

He’s a little afraid that he’ll shift in his sleep, end up cuddling up to them without realising it. When he wakes and finds himself still at the far end of the bed, though, separated from the other two, he’s taken aback by how isolated he feels.

-

“You were with Akane and Junpei last night?” Maria asks.

“I was in their room,” Carlos says, carefully.

Maria beams. “I’m so happy. I just – I didn’t want you to lose them. I know how important they are to you.”

Carlos taps out a rhythm on the kitchen counter.

“I don’t know how important they are to me,” he says. “Not really. It’s weird.”

“You’ll be okay,” Maria says. “You don’t have to be so scared of them, you know?”

What? “I’m not scared of them.”

“Really? They’re kind of scary.”

Carlos starts to laugh. “Wait, am I meant to be scared of them or not?”

-

This should probably have occurred to him earlier, but he guesses he’s had a lot to think about.

“Am I supposed to be working?” Carlos asks, looking out of the living-room window at what he now knows is Kyoto. “Like, am I paying you to stay in your home?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Akane says. “I don’t charge Junpei to stay here, do I?”

“Yeah, but Junpei’s your husband. It’s different.”

“It’s not that different.”

These people were... really serious about him, huh?

“We have the money from Dcom,” Akane says. “You don’t need to worry about our finances. And you’re working with us to catch the terrorist, aren’t you?”

“I’m not much use to you if I can’t remember, though.”

“You can stand in the corner and be annoyingly good-looking,” Junpei calls from the bedroom. “That’s pretty much all past you did.”

Carlos is startled into smiling. It’s not very friendly, maybe, but it feels like the least hostile thing Junpei’s said to him since he arrived here.

“It’s an important role,” he calls back.

-

He wakes curled up, facing away from the other two. But Akane’s forehead is against his back, and Junpei, his arm stretched across her, has his hand resting on Carlos’s side.

Carlos lies there for a while, his eyes closed, not sleeping. Eventually Junpei groans and stirs and, after a moment, jerks his hand away like it’s been burned.

-

He’s trying so hard to remember. He feels so stranded, so out-of-place. But the memories just aren’t coming to him.

The other two are loosening up a little in their sleep, getting worse at keeping their distance, and he kind of wants to reciprocate. It’s strange that he can still feel so alone when he wakes up to find Akane tucked against his chest. There’s an impulse calling in him to put his arms around her; maybe it’d help him to feel more grounded here, maybe it’d help him to reach his other self’s memories at last. If nothing else, it’d mean he’s not just lying there awkwardly, no idea what to do with his hands.

But he doesn’t feel he has the right to touch them. They’re not his. There’s another Carlos who should be here instead.

-

One morning he sleeps late, emerges from the bedroom to see Akane, Junpei and Maria playing a card game. He pauses in the doorway to watch them. Finds himself smiling. Maria was always a bad loser as a kid, and he’s amused to see that apparently that hasn’t changed.

Junpei looks up from his cards at last to catch Carlos’s eye. “You gonna join us or what?”

“Yes!” Maria exclaims, immediately. “Yes. I can definitely beat Carlos.”

“I don’t think I know this game,” Carlos says, coming closer. “What are the rules?”

Akane hesitates. “Just to warn you, you’re bad at it.”

“Don’t tell me that before I start! Maybe this version of me is better than any of you.”

He’s extremely bad at it. Unfortunately, failing completely at cards doesn’t seem to bring back any memories.

-

Carlos stays up late talking to Maria that evening. He wanders into the bedroom eventually, yawning, vaguely wondering how well they’ll manage to maintain the space between them tonight, and pauses.

Akane’s been sleeping in the middle, every night, a barrier between Carlos and Junpei. But she and Junpei have switched places tonight. Carlos hesitates, watching them sleep, not sure whether he should get into the bed at all.

In the end, he goes to stay on the futon.

-

Someone kicks him awake in the night. Not too hard; it’s more startling than painful.

“Ow! What the – what—”

“What are you doing out here?” Junpei asks.

Carlos stares at him for a moment, trying to collect his scattered mind together; what is he doing out here? “I’d have been next to you. I didn’t know if you were comfortable with—”

There’s enough light filtering through the thin curtains for him to catch Junpei’s eyeroll. “It wasn’t an accident. We didn’t forget about you. Get into the goddamn bed.”

He escorts Carlos into the bedroom, gripping him firmly by both arms. Carlos refrains from saying that he knows where the bedroom is, which seems like it might not go down well when Junpei is in this kind of mood.

“You found him?” Akane asks from the bed.

Junpei doesn’t answer; he puts his hands on Carlos’s chest and pushes him up against the wall. It’s a gesture, rather than a real show of force; Carlos is strong enough to break away easily if he tries, and he’s pretty sure they both know it. But it’s a gesture that sets Carlos’s heart hammering.

“He was such a bad kisser to start with,” Junpei mutters. “You really need your memories back, or we’re gonna have to teach you all over again.”

It feels like Carlos might be dreaming. Everything seems so unreal in the darkness.

Junpei presses closer, and then steps back with a frustrated noise. “Fine. You’ll have to kiss me. I’m not getting on my toes for it. Why are you so fucking tall?”

“You know I’m not him, right?” Carlos asks. He can barely find the breath to speak.

“Oh, yeah, I completely forgot about that major event in my life. Fucking kiss me already.”

Is it morphogenetic memory, the way those words catch in his chest? Or is it something he’s feeling himself?

It feels like a final acceptance, kissing Junpei. That this is where he lives now, that there’s no going back. It’s probably for the best that he does it before he can think too much about he was such a bad kisser to start with and make himself selfconscious.

“I see,” Akane says. “Only I need permission from my spouse.”

Carlos breaks away at once. “Oh, God, Akane, I’m so sorry, I—”

But Akane is laughing. “I really don’t mind. Am I going to be allowed in?”

Carlos is feeling breathless and dizzy and this is really happening, isn’t it? He looks to Junpei. “Is it okay if...?”

“Turn the light on,” Junpei says. “I want to see.”

-

He can’t stop thinking about the other Carlos, afterwards. Practically speaking, he supposes this can’t really make any difference to the other Carlos’s situation, but it still feels like Carlos has stolen one last thing from him.

He wishes he could access the other Carlos’s memories, get a better idea of how he would feel about this. But...

“You still don’t remember?”

“I’m sorry. I don’t.”

Junpei groans, pressing the back of his hand across his face. “Guess we’ll have to try it again, then.”

Carlos’s heart sinks at his reaction. “We don’t have to. I don’t want to do this if it’s just going to be a chore for you. There’s probably some other—”

“Oh, fine, make me say it,” Junpei snaps out, irritably. “That was good. I missed you.”

Akane begins to laugh. Carlos breathes out, slowly, carefully.

“I don’t have his memories,” he says. “But I think I’m starting to understand how he felt about you guys.”