by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by Tamago (卵)
Like any good scientific endeavor, the Parallel Universes Research Laboratory ran on rules, and we all had our favorites. It was hard not to — they were all absolutely necessary, and yet so weirdly specific that you sort of couldn’t not get attached. Maggie latched onto the one that banned hard-soled shoes from the room with the trans-dimensional portal, like it was a basketball court. Radha made a lot of jokes about starting a side hustle sending radioactive material into universes that had not signed all the required munitions treaties, in defiance of four pages of PURL’s detailed instructions on why not to do that. Kye had a stuffed lobster on his desk in honor of the transit and importation guidelines that specifically banned, by name, members of the family Nephropidae living or dead.
My favorite was the one about not meeting yourself.
Of course, it wasn’t actually yourself, so much as the closest approximation to you that a parallel universe could contain. But we PURL employees all had to do eleven separate pre-checks before working in the room during any trans-dimensional crossing, just to make sure nothing on the other side was enough like you to cause any alarms. Even before the first crossing was made from our universe, various psychiatrists had already published like thirty peer-reviewed articles about just how bad it would probably be for your sense of self to encounter an alternate you.
All of which was why I was going to kill Aaron. Possibly with an axe. Just as soon as I found my glasses.
I groped around the floor where I’d been thrown by the shockwave. Also, there had been a shockwave. I wasn’t quite ready to process that yet, nor exactly how much shit he and I were going to be in once we started calculating equipment damage. Fired, at a minimum. Fired and chucked into some parallel all-prison universe, definitely possible. He must’ve had a hole where his brain should’ve been, to run an experiment like this off-hours. And I must’ve had a hole where my brain should’ve been, to let him.
When my fingers touched the rim of my glasses, I felt a sinking feeling in my chest. Oh, there was nothing wrong with them, in that they weren’t cracked or warped or anything like that. They just weren’t mine.
Aaron was a theoretical physicist, which meant that he lived in the land of wild possibility. I’d been hired by the project for my engineering expertise, which meant I lived in the realm of what would be a good idea to do — or, more accurately, what wouldn’t. Damn everything, though, no one ever listened to me, least of all myself.
“Ollie?” I heard him call for me from the other side of the portal room, sounding concerned but not panicked. No, he was pure California surfer-boy chill by way of somewhere north of London. I didn’t think he was capable of panic.
I was, though, especially when I heard a voice too similar to his, from a similar part of the room, call out, “Liv?”
I put the glasses on and the room came into focus. Where there’d been one person in the room with me before, there were now three. In sheer self-defense, my mind defaulted to its comfort state of categorization. There was Person A, A for Aaron, the one I had expected to be there. There was Person A′, the Aaron analogue he’d intended to contact from the start, the one I had clearly seen through the portal before its sudden and violent collapse. And there was Person X–
No. I couldn’t think about Person X. Not right now. I would have to in a minute. But not yet.
“Bloody hell,” moaned Person A′, who continued to sound just enough unlike Aaron that it made my head hurt. What was different? It was the right tone, the right accent. Was it the wrong pitch? “Did it work?”
No, obviously it hadn’t worked, if one measured success by the metric of things not exploding. But from what I knew of physicists, very few kept to that standard.
“I don’t know,” answered Aaron, walking toward Person A′ with a slowness that belied a sense of awe. “Are you Aaron Cardoso?”
“I’m Aaron Cardoso,” answered Person A’, repeating exactly what Aaron had said, but as though what Aaron had said had been wrong.
There was a brief pause, then Aaron ventured, “Erin with an E, yeah?”
No. Absolutely not. Of all the things I was willing to accept, of all the variations I felt comfortable knowing inhabited a universe of infinite possibilities, there was no way to describe how unfathomably much this was not on the list. We had to stop the world right now; I wanted to get off.
“Yeah.” I could see Person A′, this Erin-with-an-E, smile, and it was a smile I knew intimately well. In the six years I’d known it, it had never spelled anything but trouble for me. “Holy shit.”
The suddenly paired physicists stood in front of one another, brilliant looks of excited wonder on their lovely faces. They were dressed in near-identical outfits, both bundled up against the unreasonable chill of the Minnesota winter outside. Their wild, dark hair was highlighted to the same golden tone, to the point where they seemed both due for retouching, as their roots had grown out to what looked to me like the same point. They stood about the same height and had looked to be about the same build, even if it can be tough to tell much about a body under the shapeless frame of a labcoat. In fact, the only immediately obvious difference between the two was that my Aaron had a neat little vandyke to accentuate his mouth, while Erin-with-an-E’s lips called attention to themselves with bright pink lipstick. Beyond that, they might have been twins — or, indeed, the same person.
“Holy shit,” Aaron repeated, looking his near-double up and down. “I can’t believe it worked!”
“Neither can I!” Erin raked a hand through her hair, combing loose strands back from her face. “Christ, I thought at best we’d get a–“
“Signal, yeah,” Aaron completed for her, pointing back to the portal, which was still sparking troublingly at one of its connector points. “But the resonance must have been–“
“The power coils!” Erin snapped her fingers in realization. “We didn’t count for the–“
It was like watching a tennis match, provided you’d recently suffered a traumatic brain injury and forgotten completely about the concept of tennis. As I stared at them, though, I felt my stomach start to churn again. The Aaron/Erin duo seemed to have passed the psychological challenge of this with flying colors, greeting one another with the enthusiasm of old friends. I was starting to feel I might not have been so lucky.
I glanced out of the corner of my eye, trying to be unobtrusive in my inquiry, but of course Person X was glancing in my direction at the same time. I knew exactly why, and I knew beyond my ability to prove that I wasn’t the only one here sweating with dread.
I’d agreed to help because the PURL portal was designed specifically so it could not be operated by a single person, and because Aaron had focused the whole discussion on what it would be like for him to meet his double, and because damn everything, my ability to say no to Aaron has only ever been measured with negative numbers. Somehow, in all Aaron’s promises about what we’d reach on the other side, in all his excitement for the chance to meet another version of himself, I’d stupidly never managed to wonder what it would mean for me to be there with him.
Well, there was nothing for it now. I took a deep breath and straightened my spine as tight as it would go, then turned at the same time Person X turned toward me.
It was sort of a weird sensation to finally know for sure what you’d look like as a girl, and to have the answer be, somewhat anticlimactically: exactly the same. In fact, the only reason I knew Person X was female was that the pair of glasses I’d accidentally picked up and put on my own face had little cat-eye points to the frames, a variation I’d considered last time I’d gone glasses-shopping, but ultimately rejected on account of its being just a little too feminine for me to wear without feeling conspicuous. Just my luck, those feelings had come home to roost anyway.
“Olivia,” she said, and it took a second for me to register that it was by way of introduction.
“Oliver,” I said in kind. “Ollie.”
She nodded. “Liv. Nguyen?”
“Nguyen,” I confirmed, assuming she was spelling it the same way and we weren’t having an Erin-with-an-E situation over here. I pulled her glasses off my face, trying to seem cool as I held them out to her, even though part of me knew that if there were one person in the entire multiverse who would understand exactly why I was freaking the fuck out, I was looking right at her. “These yours?”
“Thanks,” she said, lifting mine off the bridge of her own nose and making the trade. With her proper frames back on, it was a little less like looking in a mirror, though admittedly not by much. Her short, dark hair was styled in a bit more of what I’d maybe call a pixie cut, instead of whatever default trim the barber always gave me without asking. Her eyes were lined with makeup in a way I’d always suspected might look good on me, but which I’d never had the guts to try beyond one college Halloween. Beyond that, I could have been staring at myself.
With a sigh, I pointed over toward the chattering physicists, looking for something to think about that wasn’t the extreme self-reflective weirdness I was feeling looking at her. “Did you get roped into this for the same reasons I did?”
And really, I swear, I’d just meant it as a more generic inquiry: Are you here because your Dr. Cardoso asked you to assist her research? But as the words finished leaving my mouth, it hit me that I’d actually asked two questions here, and to the only other person I’d ever met who could hear them both at once. Yes, we’d gotten roped into it for exactly the same reasons, and no, those reasons had nothing to do with the love of scientific exploration. If anyone else in our lives — and I do pretty literally mean anyone — had asked either one of us to do something so stupid, dangerous, and absolutely firing-worthy, neither of us would have hesitated for a moment in turning down that person flat.
Liv exhaled through pursed lips, suddenly unable to meet my gaze. That’s okay; I wasn’t really feeling up for a lot of eye contact right now anyway. “Yours doesn’t know either, does he?”
“Let’s keep it that way,” I said, shoving my hands in my pockets in an attempt to look way more confident than I felt. Romance was a distraction. Crushes were for teenagers. Relationships got in the way of work. Emotions were perfectly fine as long as they stayed on other people. “Anyway, great meeting you; let’s fire up the portal and get you back where you belong.”
“Me?” Liv narrowed her eyes as she looked around the room. “This is our universe. We didn’t go through the portal.”
“Well, neither did we!” I pointed over to the console I’d been operating through the transfer. “I was standing right there the whole time.”
“So was I!” she said. I could hear the rising panic from her voice at the same time I could hear her trying to keep it out. I wanted so desperately to be looking at that console, opening it up and staring at the machinery inside. Machines made sense. Circuits did what they did and didn’t do what they didn’t do. They were predictable. Human beings, especially unexpected ones, absolutely were not.
A soft throat-clearing sound cut us off both mid-conversation. We turned in unison to see Aaron and Erin standing in the middle of the room, looking equal parts guilty and giddy. Never before had a more terrifying combination existed. “So,” said Erin, fidgeting with one of the bobby pins in her hair, “sit where you can see the whiteboard.”
“No.” Liv crossed her arms across her chest. “That’s impossible.” I knew that tone in her voice. That was the one she got when she was trying to be mad at facts to keep from being afraid of facts.
“It’s not, though,” Erin said, tapping a portion of the whiteboard that had some kind of nested, swirly diagram on it. (Honestly, I’d only been half-following at that point.) “It’s been predicted for at least a decade now. Didn’t you see that whole Chandrabaty’s Hollow World episode about it?”
“That’s science fiction!” I snapped — and yes, I had to admit, for the same reasons Liv had snapped. I somehow felt intensely seen by myself. “Those are the same people who think dinosaur labor built Machu Picchu!”
“To be fair,” Aaron pointed out, “at Coordinate 920-J30-4, that’s actually true.”
“And,” Erin continued quickly after, “even if it weren’t, we know that the resonant frequency of the portal is amplified by sympathetic vibrations. That’s why they don’t want you to be in the travel chamber if another version of you is likely to appear on the other side.”
I raised my eyebrows and looked over to Liv, only to find that she was making the same face back at me. Well, at least each of us now had someone to hold on to in the face of Cardoso ridiculousness. “No, that’s because of the potential for psychosis,” Liv said. Of course we’d read the research behind it. It was her favorite rule too.
“Well, yes and no.” Erin twirled a pen over the backs of her knuckles, something I’d had seen Aaron do countless times over the years we’d known one another. It seemed beyond obvious to say, but I couldn’t stop being shocked by how alike they were, even beyond the physical similarities. They had the same mannerisms, the same frenetic energy, even the same handwriting, down to the part where all their 8’s were two separate circles instead of one continuous twisting loop (not that I’d been staring at anyone’s handwriting long enough to notice that). “There’s been a lot of research done on it in universes where, unlike ours, the experts didn’t predict it would cause psychic collapse and put a ban on testing it.”
“There’ve only been a handful of documented cases where people have had episodes triggered by meeting their lasting parallel-universe selves,” Aaron continued on for her, “and those were all in situations where the individual had a pre-existing fragile mental state. Research has shown that most people are actually quite comfortable with meeting their own variants! Many either feel vindicated in their belief that they had made the right life decisions, or encouraged to change and eliminate self-destructive behaviors.”
“But!” Erin stopped the pen’s spinning and used it to point straight at Aaron’s chest, then turned back to the two of us. “So … you remember what we said about resonance?”
The sinking feeling I’d felt when first thinking about Person X had nothing on this. No, I didn’t remember a single thing they’d said about resonance. But I did remember resonance itself, especially since I’d been to a conference last year in which legendary mathematician Pedro Alcisci-Mori, one of the inventors of the portal technology we used, had given a talk. In it, he’d explained recent findings about how one of the ways the portal kept the connection between parallel universes stable was by being able to use telltale differences in the universes to keep them separate. But what would happen between universes that were too parallel? If such near-identical coordinate states could be linked, how could the technology connecting them know to keep which one in which place?
Liv was on her feet before I was, hurrying for the door to the portal room. I followed her, holding my breath as she opened it to reveal a perfectly ordinary-looking command center on the other side, complete with several workstations, the breakroom, and the flashy glass-walled PR perch the higher-ups used for press conferences. She didn’t stop, though. She barreled ahead, straight through to the door that led out to the main entrance, and threw it open.
That was when the world went funny.
My eyesight is beyond terrible. I’ve worn high-prescription glasses since I was a toddler. At the time this all happened, I was on the waiting list for a new corrective surgery, but it’d only been three years since my last one, and the doctors wanted to let me heal at least five before they tried something else. My glasses fixed the world well enough, though, so no matter how astigmatic I might have been on my own, I was used to having everything look pretty much fine whenever I had them on.
When I looked out into the front area of the building, I had to lift my hand to my face to check that my glasses were still there. They were, and they worked fine when I looked back into the control room. Beyond the doors, though, the world was … the only word that came to mind was misaligned. Everything was slightly away from itself, in a way that hurt to think about, much less look at. It was well after day’s end on Friday, which meant at least the PURL building was empty. I shuddered to think what a headache it might be to try and watch someone move through that.
From behind us, Aaron gave a little sigh. “So,” he said, scratching at his chin hairs, “we maybe kind of overlaid our two universes.”
“It’s fine, though!” Erin said before Liv could even open her mouth — and I could tell she was going to open her mouth, because I was about to open mine. “Everyone out there, totally fine. Nobody’s even noticing it.”
“We’re at least ninety-nine percent sure nobody’s noticing it,” Aaron said. “Though, you know, probably going to be a slight uptick in ghost sightings reported, maybe people hearing one or two noises that shouldn’t be there.”
“Totally fine,” Erin repeated. “And not permanent!”
Aaron nodded. “Not permanent. It’s more like, say, we rung a bell! And we’ve got to wait until that bell stops vibrating.”
“And it’s a really big bell,” Erin said.
“And it’s a really big bell,” Aaron agreed. “Like, say, a bell that’s going to stop ringing … sometime tomorrow night, we’re pretty sure.”
Erin clapped her hands together. “Sunday morning at the latest! And when our universes stop vibrating quite so sympathetically, this little patch of overlap” –she gestured around her to the part of the world that didn’t seem to be trying to tear itself away from itself– “will uncouple and go back to being two separate things again.”
“So we’re just going to sit tight,” Aaron nodded, “and take some measurements while we’re here, of course.”
“This is going to make an amazing paper,” Erin said, practically hopping in her soft-soled boots. “Oh, but don’t go out there. It’s … it’s probably not good for you.”
“Probably not,” Aaron said, nodding. “You didn’t, say, have any plans this weekend, did you?”
Goddammit, I didn’t.
When I say “parallel universes”, you’re probably thinking one of two things: Star Trek, where it’s the same cast but with goatees and pleather, or Planet of the Apes, where everything’s different to the point of rewriting evolution itself. And you know, since they say the multiverse is theoretically infinite, I can’t outright tell you that you’re wrong. But also, as far as my own experience goes, that’s not really it.
For starters, PURL’s technology is designed so we can only connect with other universes with their own versions of PURL or PURL-like facilities. That means that we’re not popping out anywhere that’s a lifeless wasteland or limited to Bronze-Age technology or filled with rabid isolationists or anything like that. (There are some other universes out there that have unobtrusive view-only technology they’ve been using to map non-PURL-compatible coordinates, but you need an Earth that orbits a binary star for those energy needs, so we pretty much leave that work up to them.)
But really, finding enough differences is rarely the problem. Most parallel universes I’ve seen aren’t like recent historical what-if movies, speculating on what might’ve happened if the American Civil War or the Space Race had gone a different way. There’s an entire field of anthropology developed in the last decade, one dedicated to sussing out the first moments of divergence in cultural development between universes. Most of those initial branching points they locate are tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of years back in human history, and usually come down to something far too mundane to write science fiction about. One severe drought changes the course of the Nile millennia before human civilizations began there. Extra volcanic activity makes Japan a single island instead of seven thousand. A fluke of prehistoric seed distribution makes tomatoes a native European crop. Whatever it is, my point is that these points of divergence are so far back that I’ve never met a universe where Germany won WWII, but I’ve seen dozens that have no idea what Germany is, period.
So when I say the odds of the similarities involved here were one in a literally unimaginably big number, I mean it. “Sixteenth president of the United States?” Erin asked me.
Aaron had taken Liv off to the breakroom, where he was presumably conducting a similar interview with the only other guinea pig they had at hand. “Abraham Lincoln,” I told her.
She scribbled it down on a piece of paper. I think we were all a little past the point of trusting technology at the moment. “Who directed Jaws?”
“Steven Spielberg, right?”
“What continent is Oslo in?”
“Europe.” Being grilled like this was less like a shared reality assessment and more like getting checked out after a concussion.
“Do you know what Honey Nut Cheerios are?”
“Why are you asking all of this?” I frowned at her. I’ve never been exactly what anyone would call a people person, and answering a bunch of unimportant questions from a stranger was not exactly my idea of a relaxing weekend. Erin had the slight advantage going for her that she reminded me of Aaron, which got her a lot more grace than most other people would have been afforded in the same situation.
With a smile undaunted by my suspicion, Erin put her pen down atop her paper. “Trying to figure out the points of overlap,” she said, kicking back and putting her boots up on the far edge of the table. “This is the most similar I’ve ever seen two universes be. Probably the most similar anyone has ever seen them be. In fact, even after establishing continuity on the most common elements of non-alignment, about the only differences we’ve been able to come up with so far are that my chromosomes X’d when Aaron’s Y’d, and the same for Liv and you. I mean, presumably. Not like I have the expertise to test for that sort of thing, even if we did somehow have the equipment on hand. And speaking of equipment, can I ask about your genitals?”
“I’d really prefer you didn’t.”
“Right then!” chirped Erin, as undaunted as Aaron ever was. “Though if you change your mind later, I’m all ears.”
I had no doubt. “Especially if you’re going to put that in whatever you decide to publish after this,” I added after a moment, stirring another packet of sweetener into my coffee. It was gearing up to be a long weekend. “As data points go, I’m not feeling very anonymized.”
Erin made a little snorting laugh at that. When I looked at her, I saw a fondness in her eyes I knew I personally hadn’t been the one to earn. It seemed she wasn’t the only one benefitting from similarities. “God, you’re so like her.”
I didn’t need to ask who the ‘her’ in question was. “A grump and a buzzkill?” I asked.
“You always say that about yourself! And it’s never true! Unless–” With a frown, Erin swung her feet back down toward the ground, then glanced off in the direction of the breakroom. We couldn’t see the others from where we were, nor could they see us, but the implication was clear. “Does he say that about you?” she asked, her forehead creased with sudden concern.
Part of me wanted to lead her on into believing that her counterpart had indeed co-signed my very sensible self-assessment. “No,” I admitted instead, suddenly finding my shoelace very interesting. “In fact, this makes you the second person ever to argue that point with me.”
Erin’s expression lifted again. “That just makes me the second person to be right,” she said with a shrug. She stretched her arms above her head and leaned back in the chair, letting her spine crack a few times. “Can you name the Beatles?”
“John, Paul, George, Ringo.”
“John with or without an h?”
“With,” I said after a moment’s hesitation. The worst part about answering questions about basic facts was that it had me starting to doubt said facts.
I frowned. “What, like … the concept of parents?”
That made Erin laugh. She had a sweet, smoky laugh, a bit more reserved than Aaron’s, but no less effervescent. “Your parents. What are their names?”
“Han and Constance Nguyen.”
“Han’s your dad, Connie’s your mum, yeah?”
I nodded confirmation. “Is that the same for Liv?” I was already trying to picture my father as a woman and my mother as a man, and more than slightly hurting myself in the process.
“It is, yeah. It’s the first time Aaron and I checked when we thought it might be everyone. But no! Otherwise, the Cardosos are the same: father Phillip, mother Rose, sons Steve and Chaz, daughter Kate. It’s like it’s just us two. Or four, more accurately.” Erin went back to twirling her pen across her knuckles. “Han and Connie are nice. I met them a couple times. They come to visit Liv every so often, drop by PURL on her birthday with a big cake for everyone.”
She pretended to hate it and secretly, desperately wished for that kind of affection and attention more than once a year. Ask me how I knew. “Is she…” How to word this? “Is she seeing anyone?”
Erin shook her head, then stopped and quirked her mouth to one side in a thoughtful frown. “If you were seeing anyone, would Aaron know about it?”
Fair point. “I’d mention it,” I said, having no idea whether or not that was a lie, seeing as how it had never come up. Sure, I still had the occasional low-stakes hookup. But the last time I’d properly dated anyone, we’d explorationally held hands in the dark of a movie theater and then I’d had to call my mom afterward to pick me up because I hadn’t gotten my learner’s permit yet. There was something great about the all-consuming nature of STEM disciplines that made people just assume you had no love life and stop asking.
With a little smile I couldn’t read, Erin looked back down at her paper. “What element did Taylor Swift discover?”
She loves you, I didn’t say. She’s in love with your reckless, manic ass. She feels it like an arrow to her heart every time you say you’ve got a date. She thinks sometimes about what she’d do if she had the courage to grab you by the lapels of your coat and kiss you right there in the middle of the lab. She knows you wouldn’t say no; that’s not the problem. She worries that your ‘yes’ wouldn’t mean more than a single night before everything went back to normal for you, but not for her. She’s tormented by the thought of never having you, but paralyzed by the thought of having you for a second and then losing you because she just doesn’t matter enough for you to keep.
“She a pop star,” I said instead. “At least, that’s her day job. If she uses her royalties to fund a chemistry hobby in her spare time, I don’t know about it.”
“Just checking,” Erin said with a wink.
Around two in the morning, the Cardosos sort of seemed to give out in unison. One minute they were talking excitedly at one another, sitting on the floor of the command center with papers and diagrams spread around them; the next they were both splayed out on that selfsame floor, snoring gently. Aaron rarely did anything by degrees, and it seemed now that sleep counted too. “Think we should … I don’t know, cover them with a blanket or something?” I asked.
Liv shrugged. We were both still awake, night owls by nature and anxious beings by temperament. We were both too wound up by half to think about sleeping, even though I’m sure we both knew we needed it. “Want a cigarette?” she asked instead.
I wouldn’t call myself a smoker. To me, that term implies more of a dedication than I strictly possess. I have cigarettes, and sometimes I even manage to smoke the entire pack before it gets weird and stale. But sometimes there are situations that call precisely for the application of a single cigarette, and we had both judged together that this was one of those times.
“I’ll get the door,” I said.
The PURL building had been designed with standard alarmed fire escapes. They were so standard, in fact, that it took me twenty-eight seconds and a screwdriver to dismantle them. I’d slip out into the grey and hollow stairwell sometimes, usually when I wanted to smoke but the Minnesota weather wasn’t cooperating. There were no smoke detectors in there, and nobody else seemed to notice the occasional smell. It was perfect.
So that’s how Liv and I wound up on the ground-floor landing, leaning up against the wall facing the one-way door that led outside. We didn’t really want to think about outside at this moment. She lit the cigarette from the pack she’d grabbed from the second drawer of the desk that was either hers or mine, it really wasn’t clear. She took a deep drag and tilted her head back all the way to exhale straight up, like exhaust from a furnace. I made small noise of curiosity, which made her eye me suspiciously. “What?” she asked.
“Nothing, I–” I sighed. It was strange, having exact empathy for what I’d be feeling if our situations were reversed. “Your throat, it’s just … it’s very smooth.”
“Smooth?” she asked. She handed the cigarette to me, then ran her fingers up and down the skin at the front of her throat.
“See?” I took a drag and tilted my head back in the same manner to exhale, only now I let my fingers point out the Adam’s-apple bump at the front of mine. It wasn’t much, not like some men have, but it was pronounced due to my general skinniness. “I’ve sort of been … looking.”
It would have been a much rougher confession if Liv hadn’t nodded in kind. She’d been doing it too, the same out-of-the-corner-of-our-eyes examination, trying to look beneath grooming and clothing to our bodies themselves. What was different because we made different choices, like haircuts and frame selections — and what was different because it was different without our choosing to be? What choices had our bodies made for us?
We both glanced up to the door. We’d left it open just a crack, with an accompanying note on a whiteboard, so that either Aaron or Erin didn’t panic if they woke up and couldn’t find us. But they’d both been pretty asleep when we’d left, and we hadn’t even been gone for that long. “Are we about to play the weirdest game ever of You Show Me Yours, I’ll Show You Mine?” I asked before I could think better of it.
“You mean, do you want to see what you look like with tits?” Liv asked.
I shrugged, then nodded. “Kinda, yeah.”
Having grown up in Minnesota, I was accustomed to the cold, and the stairwell was insulated enough that it kept enough of the building’s residual heat to make it almost comfortable. Still, I realized as I got my shirt off, it was chilly, enough to make my nipples stand erect. And then I realized I wasn’t looking at my nipples at all.
I’ve thought through this moment plenty of times since, and I still don’t know if I can convey just how not weird it was. It wasn’t any stranger than, say, coming out of the shower in an unfamiliar bathroom and having to move to the right angle to find your reflection in its unfamiliar mirror. Once you find it, everything fits and can proceed as normal. It was like that there, where I could see a body that was mine, but with breasts that weren’t, but just because they weren’t mine didn’t mean they were wrong.
Liv’s breasts were fittingly small, little peaks that rose from her chest, topped with the slightly puffy rises of her nipple tissue. There was no bra among her discarded clothes, just the same small undershirt I’d been wearing. Noticing her body made me more aware of the dimensions of my own; my chest was flatter, my nipples less prominent. Somehow it became easier to understand my body given this contrast. Nothing about myself had to exist in isolation anymore. I could be understood in terms of more or less than, larger or smaller than, lighter or darker than. It relaxed me to have this reference.
“You look good,” Liv said — then paused, catching her lips between her teeth for a second. “Does that sound really conceited?”
“How about I say you look good too, and we’ll call it even?” I asked, still unable to take my eyes off her breasts for more than a few seconds at a time. I caught myself in the middle of unconsciously licking my lips. “It’s, um. It’s been a while. For breasts. And other parts. I mean, that aren’t mine.”
Liv nodded a confirmation that it had been a while for her too. I guessed sometimes that I might’ve had a lot more luck on the scene as a a bisexual woman compared to a bisexual man. Turned out, I was nothing if not universally consistent.
I sort of wish I could explain better the transition between interdimensional accident and stripping to our waists in the stairwell. It seems kind of comically sudden when I tell it like that. But the truth was, I was suddenly face-to-face with the only person out there who didn’t need an explanation, and so was she.
You may have picked up on the part where a lot of what makes me me doesn’t leave my head. I was always a quiet little kid, to the point where my parents had me evaluated to make sure I wasn’t having any speech delays. Turns out, Oliver is just a quiet little kid is a real diagnosis. Except I wasn’t quiet, not really. My thoughts were loud and interconnected, so much that I would sometimes lie awake at night, just staring at the ceiling and thinking all the loud, interconnected thoughts I could. Small wonder I went into engineering. It’s an entire red-wheelbarrow discipline about how one thing you’re thinking about has to depend on the other thing you’re thinking about, and so on and so forth all the way down the line.
When I did start trying not to be so quiet, around the time I started being not so little without even trying, I’d found conversation hard. Or, more accurately, I’d found people found conversation with me hard. I remember when I was eleven, one of my cousins (who generally liked me, so this wasn’t meant to be cruel) called trying to talk to me “exhausting”, because I just moved from topic to topic seemingly at random. I wanted to say that it wasn’t random, that it all made sense, that everything connected. But explaining how seemed impossible. Better to connect things with wires than with words.
And then there was Liv. I had a manic moment of desire where I just wanted to lie on top of her, to see if whatever had overlaid our universes together would somehow come back for the two of us. Maybe we could be the same, at least for a minute, like the desk that wasn’t hers and wasn’t mine, like the pack of cigarettes that wasn’t mine and wasn’t hers.
Was she thinking the same thing? In a way, it didn’t matter. If she wasn’t, she’d still understand why I was.
Liv narrowed her eyes at me, sizing me up in the green glow of the EXIT sign above the one-way door. I realized I was giving her the same scrutiny. “Do you want to see what you look like with a dick?” I asked, already going for the buckle of my belt. I knew what the answer was going to be.
I’m sure I’ve done stranger things in my life than strip to my skin on the bottom landing of a poorly insulated stairwell with my near-double from a different universe, but they weren’t coming to mind. We took a minute to shimmy out of everything on our bottom halves — minus our socks, as per the aforementioned poor insulation — then sat down on top of our discarded clothes. I had one red and one white one on today; she had one grey and one black-and-yellow striped. I knew I was looking at her socks to keep from looking up. So I looked up.
I realized then that breasts, conceptually, had been easy. This was a bit rougher, to the point where I could understand some of the psychological reasoning behind why my favorite PURL rule was in place. Looking at the soft pink folds between Liv’s legs was a different mirror experience entirely. It was weird to think that if I’d had a pussy, it would’ve been a cute one, but here we were.
As for my dick, Liv was getting a good look. Something about the intimacy and the scrutiny of the situation had gotten its attention, stirring it up to at least a half-mast state. I knew that if we kept going, it would too. It was on the smaller size of average, to the point where I’d never had any complaints, but I’d never really had any compliments either. I guess if you wanted the dick equivalent of a cute pussy, that’d be mine.
“You’re circumcised,” Liv said, which as observations went was a correct one.
“Yeah,” I said. I guess being a vagina-owning only child didn’t really give Liv a lot of information about how our parents would jump on that particular decision. I let my fingers linger on the dividing line between the darker skin of the shaft and the lighter skin of the tip. “I don’t know why, honestly. I always figured someone sold them a line about hygiene reasons, or something.”
Liv nodded. “I don’t think I would’ve asked either.” That at least was worth a shared chuckle about the ridiculousness of asking our parents about sex anything.
I realized my fingers were still brushing lightly along the length of my erection. Liv’s own hand was between her legs now too, starting to trace the folds of her lower lips. I watched her work, learning from each touch not just how she moved, but how I would have too. For my own part, I guess I was showing her the same.
“You don’t shave,” I said, making my own correct observation. She was about as un-hairy as I was, but that also meant she was about as hairy as I was too. She had a little trail of dark fuzz that stretched up from her pubic hair to fade out just underneath her belly button, which was cute too. I didn’t want to examine why that kept being my reaction to her body. I didn’t know how I felt about having that be someone else’s reaction to mine.
With a shrug, Liv looked down to her legs. “You don’t make the bed when company’s not coming over.”
Didn’t I know it. “I guess it’s something I thought I’d just have to do, if I was a girl,” I said.
Liv made a thoughtful little sound. “You think about being a girl a lot?”
I got the substance of her question: Was one of us wrong? Was there an accurate and a variant? Had her chromosomes performed as intended, while mine betrayed our intended design?
“I don’t think so,” I said after a moment’s consideration, my hand still comfortably resting on my cock. “Not a lot. I mean, not like…” I gestured in a way I knew she knew meant actual, full-bore dysphoria. At least, I hoped she knew it meant that, because the closest alternative was my describing a cloud of moths flying around my head. “You think about being a boy?”
Liv shook her head. “No,” she said, then paused and looked pointedly between my legs. “Sometimes.”
We didn’t actually either of us ask the other if we wanted to touch. Yeah, we did. In an awkward little rearrangement, we shuffled our bodies closer, keeping our discarded pants under our butts so nobody’s tender skin was actually touching bare concrete. We wound up with our backs against the wall, side by side, her legs spread a little more than mine by anatomical necessity. Our shoulders pressed against one another, and our heads leaned together. I could smell her shampoo, which was the same as mine. She put her hand on my belly and I let my fingers curl in around her bare inner thigh. And then we went to work.
As alike as we were, there was no magic groove we could settle into, instantly knowing the other’s body as well as we knew our own. There was still a learning curve, minus the immediate feedback of masturbation. At the same time, though, it was good because it was the least anxious I’d ever felt during sex. I felt relieved of the burden of worrying about what might happen if my partner found my desires bizarre, or got their feelings hurt because I wanted them to do something slightly different. The strange symmetry let me settle into enjoyment without worrying what the other person thought. I knew what the other person thought. We were thinking the same thing.
I let my fingers work their way between the slick folds of Liv’s pussy, dipping into the wetness from her slit before slipping back up to rub at her clit. At the same time, she worked her hand up my shaft, keeping the light, dry pressure going in a way that made me shiver. I let my hand move down again to tease at her entrance. “You want me in you?” I asked, not realizing until I spoke the words how hot the offer was.
Liv shook her head. “Not now, just … just keep doing that.” She brought her free hand to her clit, rubbing it as I continued to tease the sensitive flesh near her slit.
Well, if this was going to be a two-handed operation for her, it seemed only right I should get my chance. I brought my free hand down to cup at my balls, softly squeezing them together between my fingers. I made a soft moaning sound as her thumb brushed over the head of my cock, smearing precome all over the taut skin there. “That’s really good,” I said, or tried to say. The words came out mostly as air.
“Yeah,” Liv agreed in the same whispered tone. She turned her head so her lips were against the curve of my jaw and planted a small kiss there. “You thinking about him?”
Well, I hadn’t been, but I was now. In fact, it was now impossible for me to think about anything but Aaron: his voice, his laugh, his knobby hands, his sparkling blue eyes. With anyone else, I would’ve been embarrassed to reveal how many nights I’d done something much like this, dreaming of impossible scenarios where he’d corner me in the breakroom or catch me in this very stairwell or even invite me back to his place before pinning me sexily to the wall and having his way with me. “Yes,” I whispered, feeling the pace of her hand quicken.
“Tell me about it,” Liv purred, her soft lips right against my earlobe. “Tell me what you’d do if he were here right now.”
“He’s straight,” I felt compelled to note before we got too far into it. And admittedly, Aaron had never outright said that his inclinations were heterosexual-only. But he’d only ever talked about romance in the context of having it be with women, or at least women-sounding people, which I felt made a compelling enough argument.
“So’s Erin,” Liv said, and if there was a hint of bitterness in the way she said it, then we’d both just ignore it together. “So what? It’s all fantasy. Tell me what you’d do anyway.”
“Suck his cock,” I said. He’d have to let me do that, right? Even if everything else was too weird, even if he didn’t want me at all, that at least would be okay, wouldn’t it? “God, I want to taste him.”
I could feel the shift as Liv’s mouth curled into a smile. “I bet he tastes good.”
I nodded. I didn’t even like giving oral, as a general rule — nothing against the act itself, but I wasn’t a fan of how it tended to leave me with my own thoughts, which was a bad idea at the best of times, and ten times worse of one during sex. Thinking about sucking cock, though, was a great compromise, provided you ignored the part where the actual act wasn’t happening. “He’d just … that smug little smile. Like he’d just gotten away with something.”
Liv chuckled, and I knew she was thinking about that very expression not framed by facial hair, but outlined by lipstick. “Like of course you want to,” she said. “Who wouldn’t get on their knees for that?”
I laughed too, which was not something I associated with sex, or at least not in a good way. But the way Liv stroked me even faster then led me to realize that it had been the correct response. “Like he’d just been waiting,” I sighed, to turned on to sound sufficiently annoyed by this hypothetical response. “Fuck, I still want it, though. I want to suck him so far down I’ll feel him in the back of my throat for weeks.”
“He’d want you to come for him, too.” Liv took my earlobe between her teeth for a second and gave it a tiny tug. “It wouldn’t be enough just to know you did it. He’d want to know you got off on it too. Making you shoot off with his cock still in your mouth.” She put her lips up against my ear and spoke so quietly that I felt more than heard the words: “Show me.”
Had I been made of stone itself, I wouldn’t have had the resolve to resist that. Letting out a cry that worked with the acoustics of the stairwell far more effectively than I’d imagined it might, I came all over Liv’s hand and my own stomach. I couldn’t get the thought out of my head of Aaron looking down at me, watching me, smiling at me, maybe even getting hard again seeing exactly how hard he got me. “Fuck, yes, fuck,” I gasped, all eloquence gone. I could deal with dignity later. Right now it was all about feeling good.
I’d barely caught my breath again, though, when I remembered it wasn’t all about me — and now that it wasn’t my own arousal in the spotlight anymore, I could take the reins again. I shifted our positions until I was the one on my side and Liv was sitting upright again, her legs spread. Instead of putting my head on her shoulder, I bent down so I could tease her nipple with my teeth. My hand still between her legs felt a rush of wetness at that, which let me know I’d chosen well.
“You want her inside you?” I teased. I’d never been much for talking during sex; it won’t surprise you to learn I’m too self-conscious by half. But if this entire event was about self-consciousness, then what did I have to lose? I pressed my fingers against Liv’s pussy, glad I kept my nails short as a matter of course. “Her hands are bigger than mine. I bet they’d feel good.”
Liv moaned and rubbed away at her clit. “God, yes,” she murmured. “Fuck me with her fingers while she smothers me between her thighs.”
I pushed again near the entrance to Liv’s cunt, testing the waters about my earlier offer. This time she didn’t hesitate, but let her legs fall wide again, lifting her hips to encourage me inside. I took two of my fingers and pushed them inside. She moaned as I sank into her, slowly stretching her with my hand. Like we’d both said, it’d been a while.
“I bet she’s got the best toys,” I said, my teeth still perched lightly around the bud of Liv’s nipple. “And she’d love to show them all to you. Like Goldilocks, keeping you in her bed and fucking you with one after another until she finds the one that’s just right.” My hand began to move, pulling almost all the way out before pushing back in again. When I got in all the way up to my knuckles, I held my hand there, deep enough to make her gasp and squirm. “How many times do you think she could make you come in a row?”
“Don’t you fucking give her any ideas,” Liv growled, sounding about as mad about that as I had about Aaron’s smirk. “God, she’d wreck me.”
I suckled at Liv’s nipple as my hand drove faster. “Get a vibe in each of your holes and sit on your face,” I said. I didn’t even know if that would be comfortable, but it was the thought that counted. “Hope you’re as good with your tongue as I am, or you’ll be there awhile.”
“Oh, fuck you,” Liv said, but she was laughing — and then she was moaning, her hips pumping around my hand. I closed my lips around her nipple and sucked hard as she rubbed herself off. It was her turn to make the sounds of orgasm echo throughout the stairwell. I could feel her pussy muscles clench around my fingers as spasms shook through her body. “Fuck you so much.” She bent her head down and pressed a kiss into my hair in a way that felt strangely big-sisterly from someone with my fingers still shoved inside her vagina.
Getting dressed again became a fairly urgent prospect, as both of us got the same post-orgasmic temperature sensitivity and didn’t want to be cold any longer than we strictly needed to. I wiped off my dick and stomach with my underwear, while she scrubbed between her legs with her own pair, making a face. I supposed there were cleanup drawbacks no matter what kind of equipment you came with. I held out my hand and she deposited her soiled fabric into it, giving me the look that said she wished we had an on-premises incinerator. I gave her the look back that promised to bury them in the most remote trashcan I could find. Given the circumstances, two pairs of underwear were an acceptable sacrifice to interdimensional harmony.
“We are never telling them about this,” Liv said, picking up the unattended cigarette butt from the now-cold pile of ashes it had become.
“Never,” I agreed, retrieving one of my shoes from where it had somehow gotten kicked into the far corner of the landing.
And that, I think we both figured, would be that.
I woke face-down on the couch in the breakroom, aware that there was someone else in the room. “What time is it?” I murmured, reaching for my glasses so I could at least see which Cardoso it was.
“Noon,” said Aaron, whose voice identified him in the split-second before I he came into focus. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“No, it’s fine, I–” I went about the process of sitting up after spending a night on the couch while in your thirties, which is a process far more grueling than experiences in your twenties might have suggested. I leaned my head to once side and winced as my neck popped. “Where’s Liv and Erin?”
“Running some synch tests.” Aaron opened one of the high cabinets above the sink, the ones I pretended didn’t exist because I couldn’t use them unless I got a stepstool involved. His face brightened as he found a communal box of saltines there, which he retrieved with a flourish. “Or so they say. I think they’re mostly just sending emails and seeing who responds.”
Something about the way Aaron described this let me know the “they” in this scenario was Erin at the keyboard, with Liv sitting by and making sure her Dr. Cardoso didn’t manage to trigger a universe collapse, or something like that. “Great,” I said. I tilted my head to the other side for an equivalent number of little cracks.
“How’d you sleep?” asked Aaron, sitting down in a chair facing me.
Like a log, was the correct answer; like a log who’d just beforehand had a fairly intense orgasm thinking about the man now seated in front of him, was the complete answer. I ran my hands over my mouth to make sure I hadn’t drooled in my sleep, then carded my fingers back through my hair to make sure I didn’t look like I’d stuck a fork in an outlet. My score was marginal on both elements. “Good,” I said. “You?”
“Oh, fine, pretty fine.” Aaron set about opening one of the packages of crackers. “Think you were smart to find a sofa, though. Floor’s a bit hard.”
“Floors are like that,” I said. I squirmed a little in my seat, wondering for a second why my pants felt weird, before remembering that the buffer of my underwear was no more. And that just brought me back to the stairwell, and Liv, and thinking about Aaron. I yawned and pointedly refused to return to those thoughts. “So, what’s on our mad scientist agenda for today?”
Aaron looked at me, mouth caught mid-saltine, with a curious expression, one which I had to wait the duration of the cracker-eating process to understand. He swallowed, then leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees. “Ollie, I…” He let out a soft sigh through pursed lips. “I wanted to say I’m sorry.”
That was hardly the first apology I’d heard from him in the years I’d known him. A person who would rather beg forgiveness than ask permission tends to wind up begging a lot of forgiveness. The way Aaron got away with so many of his rash decisions wasn’t that he was brilliant and his harebrained ideas usually at least semi-worked — though he was, and they usually more than semi-did. He managed through the failures by being very good at being willing at his core to admit that he’d been wrong. If anything, that made it even more frustrating when he was smug, because you knew he wasn’t doing it because he didn’t deserve it.
“It’s fine,” I said, brushing the air with my hand as though trying to swat the words away. He was as good at giving apologies as I was bad at receiving them. Call it my peacemaking personality, or call it my extreme discomfort with dealing with other people’s sincere emotions. In the daylight, they’re mostly the same. “Could’ve happened to anyone with a trans-universe portal and a lot of math.”
A little smile played at the corner of Aaron’s mouth, but he still looked a bit kicked. “I am, though,” he tried again. “I didn’t … we didn’t think it’d be you too. You two. You two, too.” At least, I assumed that was what he was saying; there were a lot of homophones going on there. “We found each other and we were just … we were so excited that the resonance came so close! It was like coming upon two snowflakes so identical that all but one of their electrons all were spinning in the same direction. We just thought it’d make contact possible, so that we could at least establish a signal line through the portal.”
The mind-bending thing was, though Aaron kept saying “we”, I knew there had been absolutely no prior planning or communication between Aaron and Erin before the moment of connection. They had just been so alike in purpose and intent that they had both acted to the same plan, despite working independently. They had been able to make decisions together across impossible distances because the rhythm of their thoughts was the same. Again, ask me how I knew.
“We always knew there was a possibility that you’d be there,” Aaron continued after a moment, “but we figured it’d just as likely be someone else. Maybe you’d turned me down and I’d needed to get Kye, or Liv had to make sure Tarik or Maggie was free instead, or something like that. Even if one of us would get you, the other would have to go for someone else.”
No, it would always have been me. Maybe the Cardosos didn’t know that, but I did. It would always and only ever have been me there — and, by extension, Liv. It stung a little to think they didn’t know that, but I supposed our cowardly asses deserved it.
“But I am sorry. I really am. I should’ve told you. Or…” Sighing, Aaron sat back in the chair. He raked one side of his hair back from his forehead with one hand; the other side, I could see now, was pinned back with what I assumed were some of Erin’s bobby pins. “I just didn’t want you to say no.”
“I wouldn’t have,” I said, before I could think better of it. Damn all this strange situational turmoil and lack of proper sleep, making it harder to keep on the inside what was supposed to stay on the inside.
Aaron perked up at that, the little cloud of shame hanging around him seeming to disappear at that. “I’d told you all this, that it might happen, and you still would’ve stayed and helped?”
God, whatever natural defenses I had against that kind of genuine enthusiasm were completely gone this morning. I was well and truly at the mercy of my brain and its random thoughts — for instance, the one that suggested it’d be a good idea for me, right now, to cross the six or so feet between us, drop to my knees in front of him, and start unzipping his pants so I could suck the apology right out of his dick. Was it appropriate to respond to I’m sorry with a blowjob, even if the guy was straight? Or was the idea that he might be okay with it just a crazy fiction I’d co-written with Liv because it’d sounded for a moment like the best idea in the world?
I did none of any of that. “Of course,” I said with what I hoped was a casual shrug. “I mean, you’re a lunatic. That part’s a given. But…” I sighed, trying to think of how to word this in a way that wouldn’t sound too pathetic, or desperate, or both. “I know you wouldn’t hurt me.”
“Never,” Aaron said, and his voice was a kind of serious I didn’t hear often from him. He leaned forward on his knees and pressed his hands together in front of his lips. “If I had thought this might happen, that you would’ve gotten caught up in it, I never would have tried. Never.”
“I know.” I sighed and let my shoulders slump a little. If he could be that honest, then so could I. “I’m … I’m glad you did.”
The smile that broke across Aaron’s face then could’ve powered solar arrays. “They’re great, aren’t they? Working with Erin is brilliant. We get so much more done like this. I’m over here with half of a thought, and she’s right there with the other half of it, and yeah, sure, we could’ve worked it out on our own, but we don’t have to. It’s all resonance and amplification. Hell, it’s amazing.” I was just about to agree that, yes, it was nice having such a like mind around sometimes, when Aaron continued, “And Liv, of course, Liv is also, just, wow.”
It was as though someone had just plunged my entire soul into a bucket of ice water. Fuck, everything made a horrible sense there. Of course he would like Liv better. And of course I’d destroyed any chance I might ever have had with Aaron not because of something I’d done, but because of something I wasn’t. On a fuller night’s sleep, I could have dealt with this like an adult.
“Yeah,” I agreed through clenched teeth. “She’s pretty great.”
I had the wild thought of how maybe I should find a way to hook the two of them up. Liv knew about the stairwell as well as I did, after all. Maybe I could distract Erin with something, like volunteering to field more questions about pop culture in search of points of dissonance, while Liv spread Aaron out on a blanket in the stairwell and climbed on top of him, her tiny breasts prominent as she slipped his cock inside of her and rode him until he saw stars. It was an image both arousing and depressing, which made it the perfect accompaniment to the teenage-worthy sulk I was conjuring up.
In retrospect, I find it hilarious just how myopic this plan was, how many good ideas and moving parts it tossed to the wayside just because I couldn’t imagine any Cardoso, regardless of universe or gender, expressing interest in me. It didn’t cross my mind for an instant that Erin might be saying the same thing to Liv, or that Liv might be gritting her teeth through the same exhaustion I felt.
I could see what was good about Liv, when it was on Liv. It just became invisible once it was on me.
Aaron suddenly sniffed the air like a bloodhound, then looked at me and frowned. “Have you been smoking?”
I needed a shower. I needed ten showers. I needed a completely different life.
The good news was, I kept a spare outfit in my locker. The bad news was, so did Liv, which meant we were now two bodies with a single change of clothes.
We both agreed that she could have the underwear, due to anatomical considerations. That meant I got the clean slacks, though, which I appreciated. We both got the chance to swap out our tops, where she took the clean dress shirt and I took the undershirt. I told her I’d be happy with either, but she decided on the one with sleeves, saying that she wasn’t entirely comfortable having her unshaven underarms visible, even in such close company. I understood.
These changes done, we looked a bit more like two different people. It was hard to say how I felt about that, so I decided not to feel anything about it at all.
I’ve seen it played as a joke in movies, where scientists can’t stop being scientists, being single-minded in their pursuits even when the world around them is collapsing. But that’s not a joke; that’s just the way we tend to be. The four of us took a good look at our shared, strange situation and came at it with the same response: measure, document, quantify.
I’m not sure what I would have spent that Saturday doing — maybe fixing up something around my apartment, or going grocery-shopping for the week, or something else useful and otherwise uneventful. Instead, I found myself pointing a magnetometer at Erin while she sat cross-legged atop our co-worker Tarik’s command center station. “And then at five I broke my finger when Chaz slammed a car door shut on it,” she said, poking at her phone’s screen.
“On accident,” Aaron chimed in from the other side of the open door to the portal room, where he was running some kind of scanner over the walls. We were all trying to keep our voices down a bit, as Liv was napping in the break room. At least our earlier explorations had shown the PURL equipment hadn’t been anywhere near as broken as I’d feared at first. That was something, at least.
“On accident,” Erin conceded. Both she and Aaron had ditched their sweaters at some earlier point, and were both now wearing the t-shirts they’d had on underneath, making them look even more rumpled than usual. Erin’s had “Hongdae Funshine” on it in sparkly bubble letters, and Aaron’s read “심장!! Attack!! Attack!!” in something I could only describe as a danger font. I guessed those were both K-metal bands, though I couldn’t tell from their merch if the shirts were for two different groups, or the same one with two different designers. I hadn’t known he was into K-metal.
I hadn’t known he was into a lot of things, in fact. Spending this much time with Aaron — or, well, near Aaron, close enough — was starting to drive home just how much more there was to him. Sure, we knew one another from work, and he chatted at me about things on the regular, and I reliably let him rope me into whatever big idea was fueling him at the moment. That wasn’t the same as knowing someone, though.
Worse, I was starting to realize how much of that distance was actually my fault. It wasn’t like Aaron didn’t try to open up around me, or to talk to me about personal things, even inconsequential ones. I’d thought I’d been friendly enough with him, trying to keep things genial while hoping that arm’s length would disguise whatever stupid bits of my stupid crush were bubbling up to the surface at any moment.
Seeing it on Liv, though, meant that I could see from the outside that the space between us stretched far beyond a single arm’s length. We’d established, of course, that Aaron liked her, which I tried to stay positive and not grit my teeth about. But it didn’t take much of my watching them together to seen that Erin did too. She so obviously thought the entire world of Liv. It was clear any time that Liv was in the room, Erin had a hard time paying attention to anything else. Even if the feelings weren’t necessarily romantic (and I absolved myself from having to try and gauge that, because no), Erin so obviously thought Liv was the coolest person she know. I had no idea how Liv herself had failed to notice.
…I wasn’t ready to measure these findings against my particular situation, though. Aaron’s attitude toward me was still dissimilar enough that comparisons could not apply. Maybe things were just easier when we were girls, I rationalized. Maybe girls were just better at … you know, stuff.
No, I had to remind myself that Liv wasn’t any closer to admitting things to Erin than I was to Aaron, so that hypothesis didn’t hold up. Maybe it had nothing to do with gender. Maybe it was just us Disaster Nguyens. Doctors of Failosophy. I laughed so I didn’t cry.
Erin tapped the phone screen a few more times, then held her phone as high above her head as she could reach. “Anything?”
I looked at the magnetometer and frowned. “It just says ‘ERROR’.”
“Figures.” With a sigh, Erin dropped her phone down the front of her shirt. My eyes went wide as I waited for it to fall out the bottom, and then a bit wider as I realized what must have stopped it partway. I guessed when you had a rack like hers, it was as convenient a place to store things as any. “No wonder we’re not getting any signal in here. Everything outside’s just enough out of phase that any kind of frequency would have to do some serious compensation to get in or out clean.”
I had no idea whether or not that actually made sense, but it wasn’t the strangest explanation I’d heard in the past twenty-four hours, so I was going to go with it.
With the magnetometer declared more useless than not, Erin had me chase her around for a bit with a Geiger counter, even though we both knew that residual portal radiation made those readings weird even on a good day. After Liv woke from her nap, Erin grabbed her and seemed to repeat the whole series again, only this time with Liv holding the instruments. Meanwhile, Aaron pressed my suddenly free self into service as his aide. “Hold this,” he said, offering me the gizmo he’d been pressing up against the wall.
“Why?” I asked, taking it from him before getting the answer. Was there anything a Cardoso could tell me to do that I wouldn’t?
“Because the color matches your eyes.” Before I could even wrangle my facial muscles into a response, Aaron laughed. “Because I’m using the building to measure resonance decay. If I can calculate the change in that, I can give us a better estimate for when our two universes should — for lack of a better term — decouple. Right work for an engineer, eh?” I didn’t even bother explaining that I’m not even that kind of engineer. For starters, I knew he knew.
It did occur to me that both Erin and Aaron were like doing this not for any measurable scientific gain, but to make Liv and me feel better if we thought our time trapped here was actually worth something — and, by extension, to make both of them feel less guilty for having been the ones to trap us here. But I would’ve felt like such an asshole pointing that out that I just kept my mouth shut about it.
Besides, son of a bitch, even if it was a usefulness placebo, it did make me feel better.
We walked along the perimeter of the main portal room, with me taking measurements at every location Aaron pointed to, then reading off the device numbers that he tapped into a tablet. I held my breath a little as we got near the door to the stairwell, but he passed on by it without so much as having me point the sensor in its direction. I made a mental note to make sure the alarm circuit was good and reconnected next time I could be sure no one was looking.
After about an hour of this, I heard a little series of clicking noises behind me, and I turned to see that Liv had the probe for the Geiger counter aimed at me like a hostile magic wand. Erin peered over her shoulder at the readout. “About what I’d expect,” Erin said with a shrug. She put her hand on Liv’s shoulder, and my heart skipped a beat in sympathy. “I wish we had access to the fourth-story lab. All the fun toys live there.”
I had a small moment of gratitude that we’d been spared scrutiny by any device a Cardoso declared “fun”. “What are you measuring, anyway?” I asked, hoping that she understood I was looking for an answer more complicated than “radiation”.
“Trying to find whose is whose, universe-wise,” Erin said, pointing back and forth between our pairs. “Our best bet is to measure us, since we know where we’re from, and then to measure everything else and do a comparison. How’s it with you?”
“Definitely Monday,” Aaron announced, tapping the tablet’s surface. “Anywhere between three and seven in the morning. Give me another hour for comparison and I’ll have you a narrower window.”
That was a bit more than “Sunday morning at the latest”, and I could see Liv’s eyes widen a fraction at the same time mine did. We’d been banking on maybe twelve more hours here to fill with our best attempts at both scientific busywork and pretending like we hadn’t jerked one another off in the stairwell. Learning that it might be closer to thirty-six put the road ahead of us in perspective. We needed to pace ourselves.
Around dinnertime, the Cardosos declared all food in the refrigerator fair game — including packed lunches, takeout containers, frozen meals, and the leavings from various office functions. We’d been munching on the more communal foodstuffs since the night before, but if we were going to be here until Monday, we might as well stop holding out. Aaron’s claim was that surely anyone employed at PURL would be more than happy to give away their leftovers in the name of science and also keeping their coworkers from starving. He had a higher opinion of our colleagues than I did, but I wasn’t going to argue.
Dinner then became a chaotic smorgasbord: half-microwaved, half-cold, with no coherent theme or guaranteed quality along anything. I wound up with two of the leftover sandwich slices from Wednesday’s all-staff meeting, most of a bag of carrot sticks from an intern’s brown bag, and the promise of the apple cobbler from Erin’s frozen shrimp scampi meal once she was done with the rest. I didn’t point out that this was probably fancier than whatever I would’ve scraped up for myself at home. I am many things, but neither a chef nor a gourmand among them.
“No, no, that was the night before we got booted from the hostel,” Erin said, reaching over to kick Aaron’s shin. She and Liv were eating over their laps on the couch, while Aaron and I had taken two of the chairs around the room’s tiny table.
“Right, right,” Aaron said as he stabbed at a container of lo mein. “Sorry, scratch that bit — we were just outside of Strausberg when the van broke down.”
The conversation during the shared meal had turned quickly into Aaron and Erin jointly telling us a lengthy, convoluted story of the time they’d gone backpacking in Belgium and wound up being the roadie for a touring indie band for two months. It seemed like the world’s most implausible series of events, and yet if it had happened to anyone, I knew it would have been Aaron. Or Erin, depending.
“Who, the Polish jugglers or the Albanian drag kings?”
“Nah, no clue. Kept thinking I’d see them on Eurovision someday, though.”
We were back to the amnesiac tennis match, but even I couldn’t be cynical when they were obviously having such a good time remembering what had clearly been a defining period in each of their lives. Aaron lit up as he recalled this particular adventure — even if I could see why it wasn’t one he’d brought up before in a work setting, given the amount of petty theft, sex work, semi-justified vandalism, and transportation of arguably legal substances across international borders it involved. I found it strangely easy to picture him in his early twenties, dangerously attractive and sick of school, gone to figure out his life through a series of misadventures.
The truly new part of this experience, though, was hearing Erin tell half of it. I’d already resigned myself to my somewhat pathetic crush on Aaron and gotten used to how much I loved listening to him talk, even when I felt compelled to feign disinterest so as not to give myself away. I had no such natural immunities against Erin. Now, I saw the stars in Liv’s eyes every time she looked at Erin, and I was fairly sure that if there were a mirror nearby, I’d see the same in mine.
“Now at this point, we didn’t even know what a heckelphone was.”
“Much less that you could have different kinds of one.”
“And much less that €50 is about the price to breathe on one, not take it home.”
“Which we figured out around the time the cops arrived.”
It wasn’t hard to see why Liv was crazy about her. Erin wasn’t more or less cool than Aaron was, but she was differently cool. She was a little more archness than enthusiasm, a little more sharpness than sweetness — a little less innocent, a little more deliberate. It was like she always had one more little layer surrounding her, a suit of invisible armor built up to support what you needed to be when you were the kind of woman who could get away with the same shit Aaron did. I was on the record as swooning over Aaron’s easy warmth, but damn me if I hadn’t started feeling a flutter in my stomach at Erin’s cooler tones.
I felt bad about it, I swear. She was Liv’s counterpart and crush after all, not mine, and there had to be some sort of bro or bro-adjacent code that prohibited a guy from stealing a love interest from himself. I mean, isn’t that the whole plot of Cyrano de Bergerac? (If it isn’t, don’t tell me.)
“And so that was the take they wound up using on the album, but they credited me as ‘Bertram’.”
“They credited me as ‘Bertram’ too! God, I wonder what kind of miscommunication went on there.”
“Did we even know a Bertram?”
“Maybe it was that guy with the pompadour–” Erin began, but she interrupted her own sentence with a small yelp, then dropped the fork she’d had in her hand. It clattered to the ground, taking with it the bite of Lean Cuisine linguine she’d been gesturing with. She shook out her fingers as though she’d just gotten a bad shock. “…Huh. Guess that’s your fork,” she said, looking at Aaron.
“What do you mean?” I asked. It just looked like one of the communal utensils we kept by the breakroom sink, no more Aaron’s than anyone else’s.
Aaron reached for it and picked it up from the floor with no problem. He held it in front of his face and turned it back and forth, examining its sauce-covered tines as though there were some great mystery to be uncovered there. “Things are starting to phase out. We’ve been speculating that objects that exist in both our universes would be a bit more stable than those without counterparts.”
“But it seems like someone from our side pinched a fork once upon a time, and here we are.” With a chuckle, Erin rubbed her fingertips together.
“You okay?” Liv asked, brow furrowed with the effort of trying not to show too much concern.
Still smiling, Erin shook her head dismissively. “Oh, I’m fine. Didn’t even really hurt, just … strange.” She held out her hand, palm flat, and Aaron placed the fork gently atop it. This time, everything stayed where you’d expect it to under less extraordinary circumstances.
For a moment, we all sat there for a moment, staring at an otherwise unremarkable metal fork. For all the measurements and calculations we’d been doing today, this was a tangible reminder that where we were right now could not last. The perfectly synchronous space we four inhabited could not hold. Whether we wanted it to or not, sooner rather than later, this would fall apart.
“It’s two o’clock in the afternoon,” I protested even as I took the little dixie cup from Aaron’s hand. At least our water cooler had the ones with the flat bottoms. I wasn’t sure about anyone’s ability to handle cones right now. It was Sunday afternoon, and we’d run out of official, scientific things to do with our time, and the world had started splitting more at the edges, collapsing in on itself by degrees. Thus, we’d abandoned the breakroom and command center, choosing instead to gather near the portal and wait it out until our universes separated sometime Monday morning. It seemed the stablest place to be, anyway, and stability counted for a lot these days.
Erin blew a raspberry at me. “What, are the Proper Coppers going to show up and nick you for Uncivilized Drinking?” she asked with a giggle. “You said ‘dare’, so come on.”
It was true, I had said dare. I peered down into the cup’s contents, which looked like a pale amber liquid and smelled like paint thinner. It was a mixed blessing that enough PURL employees were high-functioning alcoholics that we had been able to rally together a fairly substantial liquor cabinet for this impromptu party. “I should speak to the directors about maybe some kind of intervention,” I said, glancing over at the cache of bottles we’d raided from various desks and drawers and lockers. “This can’t be healthy.”
Liv shrugged. “Or we could just keep stealing them and no one would ever suspect it was us.”
That caught Aaron mid-sip, and he nearly choked on trying to drink and laugh at the same time. “God, they never would, would they? It’s the perfect crime! But you’re stalling.” He pointed again to the cup in my hand. “Bottoms up.”
I didn’t know whether to be grateful or insulted that I was apparently such a sad sack that drink a shot that’s a little of everything we’ve got mixed together seemed an edgy dare for me. Nonetheless, I was compelled. I made the theatrical gesture of pinching my nose, then put the cup to my lips and tossed it all back in one go. It was terrible, but of course it was meant to be. I coughed a couple times as everyone else applauded lightly. “Okay, Liv,” I said at last, wheezing through the still-burning dryness in my throat, “truth or dare?”
She pursed her lips as she considered the choice. “Dare.”
“Show them your tattoo.”
Liv’s face fell as Aaron and Erin both perked up like flowers after a soft rain. “A tattoo?” they both said in near-comical unison. The looks on their faces said this was clearly the greatest and most unthinkable thing they had ever considered. I could hardly blame them; I never would have suspected it of Liv myself, had I not known her so well.
With a grouchy look, Liv slipped off her sock. We’d all gotten sick of wearing shoes hours ago, but the bare floor was still a bit chilly. With a sigh, she pulled up her pant leg to reveal the ink she’d gotten around the end of grad school, when she’d been exhausted and delirious and looking for some way to externalize the agony that is the doctoral process. It was in a location I knew, but a design I didn’t recognize: a delicate tangle of branches that wreathed the lower part of her right calf, sprinkled through with cherry blossoms. The work was exquisite. It had taken hours, and she’d gritted her teeth through every second to prove how tough she was. If she could make it through that, she could make it through a dissertation defense. She just had to keep breathing.
“Wow,” Erin said, her voice soft with amazement. I saw her reach as though to touch it, only to stop midway and draw her hand back before she even came close to making contact. “Livvy, that’s gorgeous.”
“It’s nothing,” Liv said, reaching for her sock a few seconds later. “Just something I got done. Which reminds me, Ollie: Truth or dare?”
“Truth!” I said quickly, trying to avoid reciprocity. Most truth-or-dare games I’d been in on prohibited asking back the person who’d just asked you, but a number of rules had to be suspended when your party was this small.
I should have known better than to try and put something over on myself. “What, in great detail, does your tattoo look like?” Liv asked with a smirk. “Though in lieu of a description, our judges would also accept a showing.”
Let no one say I hadn’t deserved this. I exhaled heavily through my nose, then did the same as Liv to reveal my own choice. Where she had branches, I had water, the surface of a still pool atop which floated a single gold-orange lotus blossom. Even with all of them staring, I still could count on one hand the number of people who’d ever gotten a good look at it. “Happy?” I asked.
Liv gave a satisfied nod. “Dare complete,” she said, resting her folded arms atop her knees. She still looked a little sore about having been called out like that, but she was smiling. So was I, for that matter. There was something to be said for shared experiences as a buffer against embarrassment.
“Those are beautiful, both of yours,” Aaron said, a soft little smile resting on his lips. “When you said ‘tattoo’, I thought, I don’t know, maybe your uni friends talked you into going along with them and doing a little star on your ankle or something. Those are art.”
I hoped the flush rising in my cheeks could be chalked up to the alcohol. I was sure Liv was hoping the same thing, even though I could tell just by looking at her that our hopes were in vain. “What, did your friends once talk you into getting a random tattoo?” I asked.
Aaron folded his arms across his chest. “Going to have to ask, aren’t you?”
“Fine.” I exhaled through pursed lips. “Truth or dare?”
“Dare,” Aaron answered with enormous confidence, and Erin tipped over laughing.
“Dare,” I echoed with a sigh. At least with Liv, I had the home-court advantage. Thinking up dares for other people was tough; thinking up dares for one’s crush was an express train to Nightmare Town. “I dare you to…” Oh, this was the worst. All the dares that kept coming to mind were more of a dare for me than they’d ever be for him. “I dare reveal any tattoos that you have.”
With a grin, Aaron went for the hem of his shirt, and I swear, I had a moment where I was congratulating myself for havings simultaneously the best and worst dare idea that anyone had ever come up with in human history — when he stopped, gave it a little tug down, and laughed. “Already doing it!” he announced, gesturing to his clothed body to indicate a lack of ink, exposed or otherwise.
Erin chuckled, then added, “Same here, before anyone gets any ideas.” She pulled up the hem of her shirt and gave her soft, bare belly a gentle smack, as though that somehow proved that the rest of her skin was un-tattooed. “Good try, though, Ollie-o.”
I shrugged, not quite sure if I should be grateful that that had ended with everyone’s still keeping their clothes on. No, that was silly. Of course I was grateful. We all had better things to do with our lives than to have Aaron strip just so I could perv on him. “Thought it was worth a check,” I said, trying to sound casual, like I was a grownup, like we were not all sprawled out on the floor, acting like teenagers.
“My turn!” Aaron announced. He took a swallow from whatever bottle was nearest to him, then pointed its open neck toward Liv. “Truth or dare.”
I don’t even remember what she answered, because it didn’t really matter. Whatever truth she had to reveal or dare she had to accomplish, it was mild, as was whatever she doled out to whomever she chose afterward, and the next round after that, and so on and so forth down the line for about half an hour or so. After a while, it turned more or less into a progressively drunker version of the personal questions Erin had asked me that first night. Who was your first kiss? (Liv and I both said Molly Parsamyan, tenth grade.) What’s the worst date you’ve ever been on? (Erin and Aaron both said to the British Museum, though under different circumstances.) Have you ever gone skinny dipping? (Emphatic nos from both me and Liv.) What’s the best pickup line you’ve ever used? (The Cardosos, it seemed were fans of, “Are you going to let me buy you a drink, or do I have to lie to my diary?” The infuriating thing was, I could see how it had had so much success for them.) It was easy, fun, the kind of information that maybe you wouldn’t offer to the general public, but you wouldn’t so much mind if other people knew. Between that and the alcohol, I settled into a comfortable sort of place, one where I didn’t mind confirming that the person I texted the most was my mom, or that my favorite album growing up was Adele’s 47. In fact, it was shaping up to be the best night I’d had in a long time.
Then Aaron, damn him forever, my own Dr. Cardoso blew up the entire world by looking at Erin and asking, “What’s the biggest dildo you own?”
I wanted to say something, to derail it all, to laugh about how obviously this was a joke and couldn’t Aaron read a damn room and come on, that was just kind of rude. But I couldn’t for two reasons. The first was that my heart seemed to have lodged in my throat, blocking off my entire windpipe, making both speech and breathing impossible. And the second was that Erin, damn her forever, just smiled sweetly and asked, “Thickest or longest?”
Aaron hummed thoughtfully. “Thickest.”
“God, it’s this purple one, yeah?” Erin held out her not-small hand and made her thumb and forefinger into a circle, but with well over an inch between their fingertips. “That one’s a beast. Got to warm up to it. It’s slender at the top, but by the time you get down to the bottom? It’s like getting fucked by a tree trunk. You can’t sit right for a day or two.” She smiled and made a little moan that made it clear exactly how much she liked thinking about that. “Worth it, though.”
I couldn’t look over at Liv, because I was sure that Liv was dead, that she had died of all of this and gone straight to whatever awkward afterlife we both belonged in. I liked Liv. I didn’t want my Aaron to be the reason that she was dead.
Then it was my turn to join the ranks of the deceased as Erin looked Aaron in the eye and completely bypassed all truth-or-dare protocols to ask, “What’s the biggest one you own?”
“Thickest or longest?” Aaron asked back with a smirk. I had it on good authority that was not the way a straight man would answer a question like that.
Aaron held up his two index fingers and placed them easily a foot from one another — then frowned, considered the spacing, and moved both digits another inch or so apart. “It’s a double, actually, so it’s not like it all goes in just one of you. It’s really more novelty than not, sadly. A fun conversation piece … though I’ll admit, it’s gotten more than one person interested in trying anyway.”
That was it. I had expired. I had shuffled off this mortal coil and rid myself of this accursed flesh, and I was surely not sitting with a bottle of Jim Beam between my legs, trying both to hide my erection and to remember to keep my jaw from falling on the floor. I cursed all the random factors of every universe for not supplying me with less telltale genitalia.
“What color?” asked Erin, as though that were a reasonable follow-up to someone’s telling you he occasionally gets co-fucked with something longer than his forearm.
“Kind of…” Aaron frowned, thinking. “Purplish-blue?”
“Got the same one!” Erin announced, and they high-fived. “Never tried it up my own arse before, though.”
“You’re missing out,” Aaron said with a shrug.
I wondered if I could take them both to HR over this — not because the sexuality was somehow inappropriate, but because they were both participating in an ongoing verbal murder of two of their colleagues. I managed to glance over toward Liv, only to see that she was short-circuiting exactly as much as I was. And also that her nipples were suddenly very visible through the thin fabric of the shirt she’d chosen. Maybe I needed to take back my earlier comments about telltale physiology.
The Cardosos laughed and scooted even closer to us on the floor, both in the guise of reaching for liquor bottles they hadn’t really needed to move to touch. When they settled again, we were all now within only a few feet of one another. The temperature in the room seemed to have gone up several degrees. I could feel a little bead of sweat trickle from my forehead down my jawline. I found myself wishing I’d insisted on keeping the sleeved shirt; my bare shoulders made me feel more exposed than I liked to be.
“Best sex you’ve ever had?” Erin asked, completely violating all the very spirit of truth or dare itself and poking Aaron square in the middle of his chest, around the second t in the first Attack!!
Aaron moved more swiftly than I would have assumed a drunk person could and grabbed her hand, closing his fist around her accusatory digit. “Are you going to say that couple in Paris?” he asked her. “Because I’m going to say that couple in Paris.”
“Yes, that couple in Paris!” Erin snatched her hand back and filled both their cups again with something that didn’t look like what they’d been drinking before. I supposed there was no longer any accounting for taste on the part of anyone here. “Claudine and…?”
“God, what was his name?” Aaron asked. “Absurdly French. Jean-Something.”
“Jean-Something,” Erin echoed with a nod, apparently satisfied with the approximation. “And he got to pick us because it was–“
“His birthday!” Aaron finished for her, laughing. “Though Claudine had no complaints.”
Erin wiggled her eyebrows. “Not after we ate her out for a solid hour, no.”
Aaron exhaled, a dreamy sort of grin on his face. “Between that and sucking Jean-Something’s cock for about as long, our jaw ached all the next day.”
“Worth it, though.”
“Extremely worth it.” With a sigh, Erin leaned back against one of the bolted-down tables that surrounded the portal architecture. It seemed about as sturdy of a place as any. “Remember that flogger?”
The way they smirked at one another should have been illegal on the grounds of being hazardous to public health. My health. I was part of the public; it counted. “That was what made us want to get one of our own,” Aaron said. “Even if it mostly just sat in a drawer once we did.”
Erin shrugged. “Suppose you need that Hot French Amateur Dominatrix energy to get the same effect.”
“True,” Aaron agreed. “An aesthetic we have never cultivated.”
I had by this point worked my way through two different little paper cups, worrying them between my fingers until the waxed lip disintegrated. Okay, so maybe I’d never actually thought Aaron was completely straight. Maybe I’d always been willing to allow for the possibility that he might, under the right circumstances, be willing to entertain the thought of bedding another man. But learning that he was suck-dick-until-his-jaw-was-sore levels of flexible was making me re-evaluate a number of crucial assessments I’d made over the years.
Including, that was, a number of assessments I’d made about his behavior toward me. I’d always proceeded from the baseline assumption that anything that looked like romantic interest on Aaron’s part was just a function of his being a friendly person. There would never be more to be read into it, and I’d be foolish to let my stupid crush lead me on. He was just like that with everyone, wasn’t he?
And then, as though remembering that we were still in the room, both Cardosos turned back to us. I had the feeling you get when you pass by a caged tiger and see its eyes lock on you, tracking your steps. There were no bars here, though, unless you counted the impromptu one we’d thrown together from our scavenged booze. Speaking of alcohol, I poured myself another shot and knocked it back. I had a sudden feeling I’d need all the liquid courage I could get.
“Liv,” said Aaron, all but licking his lips, “would you rather wear a strap or take one?”
Liv’s expression didn’t budge. In fact, it didn’t budge so much that her stoicism was more of a tell than any expression would have been. “Um,” she said after a minute or so. She didn’t seem distressed, just … frozen. The truth was, I knew I would’ve had the same reaction if the spotlight had been turned to me right after that — too much to process, too concerned about the wrong answer, too scared to reveal what might be rejected.
I was just as scared as she was, but with a difference: I could choose this. In the great annals of courage, that had to be worth something.
I didn’t know if it counted as chivalry if you did it for another one of yourself, but I was willing to give it a shot. “I’d take,” I said, snatching the question from mid-air. “I mean, I know it’s … I mean, I sort of come equipped already. But even still. Yeah. I’d take.”
“Me too,” said Liv half a second later, clearly not wanting to leave me out to dry all by myself. It was strange, how brave we were capable of being for others, yet how little we were willing to advocate for ourselves. I quietly declared myself too drunk to learn any sort of lesson from this moment and moved on. “I … I have worn them before. And it was nice. But with the choice? Yeah. Take.”
We had clearly just confessed to a pair of tigers that we were entirely made of meat. Liv and I looked at one another, seeing our own eyes look back at ourselves. This was dangerous territory we were entering, and we didn’t want to do it alone. There was less than a foot of space between us, but we both reached across it together, joining our hands and twining our fingers. I gave her a little squeeze, and she squeezed right back.
“Oh, do we get to get close too?” asked Erin, and before we could even reply, she was already in Aaron’s lap, facing him and straddling his thighs. Aaron, for his own part, looked supremely pleased to have become a seat for his female double. “What do you think?”
What did we think? I thought the circulation in my hand was getting cut off, Liv was gripping it so tight, and I was sure I wasn’t being any kinder.
Aaron smiled up at Erin as he stroked her hips and ass, then craned his face up to meet hers as she bent down to kiss him. It wasn’t a friendly kind of kiss, either; this had tongue and hands and intent. This was a special kind of narcissism. They’d have to create entirely new medical journals about it. God, I wanted to see them fuck more than I’d ever consciously wanted anything in my whole life. Stories about double dildos notwithstanding, I was still all but certain this was the closest I would ever get to having my crush realized.
And yet, there was something off about the level of familiarity they were exhibiting (literally) here. It was, I realized as Aaron stuck his hand up under Erin’s shirt, too familiar. Even with all the thoughts and impulses they clearly shared, there was still a lack of negotiation that seemed completely off-brand for someone like them. After all, I knew from experience that no matter how similar you were, there were still a couple ground rules you wanted to lay down first. I mean, the other night, Liv and I had–
The other night. The only time both Cardosos had been left unsupervised since this had all started. And here we’d just assumed they’d been asleep.
“Were you two listening?” asked Liv before I could.
They broke from the kiss laughing. “You mean when you were fucking in the stairwell?” Aaron asked.
I would murder them both just as soon as my dick stopped being so hard.
Erin grinned at us, then lifted her arms to let Aaron peel her shirt off over her head. Her breasts were something to write home about, as they threatened to spill over the soft lilac half-cups of her bra. I was immediately filled with awe and envy at the sheer power move that was wearing something like that to work. “God, that was hot,” Erin said, steadying her knees on either side of Aaron’s thighs.
“We weren’t–” Liv started, and then stopped, because maybe we hadn’t been fucking, but we also hadn’t not been fucking, and there seemed like too many hairs to split there. Maybe one or both of us might have tried to mount a more serious defense to those charges, had they earned a more negative reaction. But there seemed nothing negative about the way Erin said that, or about the way Aaron pulled her down more securely onto his lap.
Aaron played at the front of Erin’s bra, teasing at what appeared to be the clasp without quite snapping it free. “Do you think they’d give us a demonstration if we asked nicely?” he asked.
Erin smirked. “You mean, they’ll show us theirs if we’ll show them ours too?”
“Think they can give that French couple a run for their money?”
“Think there’s only one way to find out.”
It was a good thing I didn’t quite see what was coming next before it arrived, because I probably would have panicked or done something else boneheaded and ruined the moment for everyone. But all I had time to do, really, was to make sure I had a good grip on Liv’s hand. Then the tigers pounced, scrambling their way across the few feet between us, and before I knew it, Aaron was kissing me.
I should have been better at everything. I should have tried harder, prepared more, found some way to do lip exercises, I don’t know. I was so certain that I was going to be a massive disappointment here. I started to entertain the thought that maybe he’d gotten confused and grabbed the wrong one of us. Even with the shirt situation, we did still look almost completely alike, especially now that Liv’s makeup had rubbed off and the gel in our hair had given up the ghost at least a day previous. They were both pretty drunk. There could have been confusion. Maybe we needed to stop and get this all sorted out.
Aaron’s hand cupped my cheek, blocking my bashful impulse to turn away. He rubbed his thumb over my lower lip, then pushed it inside. Not knowing what else to do, I closed my lips around it. That appeared to have been the right answer, from the way Aaron’s eyes half-closed in response. He then bent the join of his thumb downward, working almost like a hook around my bottom teeth. When he tugged forward, I came along with him, forward into another deep kiss.
Of course I’d thought about kissing Aaron before, sometimes to distraction. Having it actually happen, though, was so weird that for a moment, I couldn’t quite process it. Aaron was kissing me. Aaron was kissing me. Aaron was kissing me. The sentence didn’t seem to work no matter where the stress fell. It was like if you were staring at the Penrose steps and suddenly found you’d looked at them long enough that you’d started to think they might actually work. Things didn’t connect like that, like this, like us.
After a moment, Aaron pulled away and placed his forehead against mine. “You good?” he asked softly, not for show, but out of genuine concern.
“Yeah,” I said, not sure if I meant it or not. I was good, right? This was good. It had to be good, because what was it if it wasn’t?
I must have sounded unconvincing, though, because Aaron’s eyebrows veed down into a cautious frown. “Are you, Ollie?”
Oh, thank God, he knew who I was. I mean, he knew which I was. The relief was kind of ridiculous. I laughed in a gasping sort of way. “I don’t know, I–” I ran a hand back through my hair. Was this the actual reason why you weren’t supposed to meet your parallel self? Because you’d end up hooking up with your crush and have no tools for processing anything that was happening? “I didn’t think you … this. With me.”
“I kind of didn’t think you this, with anyone,” Aaron said. Behind me, I could hear Liv and Erin’s voices, indistinct sounds meant only for one another. I could guess the substance of their conversation, though. I hoped Liv was managing to hold her shit together better than I was mine. I knew she wasn’t. “And then we heard you talking and … Christ, it was the sexiest thing we’ve ever heard.”
My cheeks were on full red alert. “Um,” I said, because I was apparently a lot less eloquent when I didn’t have Liv’s hand around my cock.
Aaron nuzzled my cheek, the soft hairs of his beard gentle against my skin. He kissed his way up my jaw toward my ear, where he caught my earlobe lightly between my teeth and flicked his tongue across its curve. “So maybe we’ve been flirting with you, a little,” Aaron murmured, his voice soft. “Maybe more than a little. Maybe for more than a little while. And maybe we’ve finally figured out that the problem isn’t that you didn’t want to, but that you kind of … didn’t notice?”
Then Aaron’s hand was between my thighs, cupping my erection through my pants and making me gasp. He definitely knew which one I was now. “Oh, fuck,” someone moaned, and I wasn’t sure if it was Liv or me, or the both of us.
“You can say no,” Aaron said as he squeezed my cock lightly. It seemed like a hell of a coercive thing to say, but I also knew Aaron at least well enough to know he meant every word. “But at least now you can’t say you didn’t know.”
It was true. It was absolutely true. After this strange experiment, this bizarre encounter, this weirdest weekend of my life, there were kind of a lot of things I couldn’t ignore anymore. But only one of them was feeling me up right now, and so I decided to give him my full attention.
“Fuck it,” I grumbled, and I reached for Aaron’s stupid hair, borrowed bobby pins and all. I heard his stupid laugh as I dragged him back into a kiss, this time on my terms. I couldn’t let him get to thinking he was somehow the boss of this situation, or there was no telling what universe we’d end up in next.
It was beyond infuriating that kissing Aaron was exactly as mind-blowing as I had always thought it would be. I’d never even really thought of kissing as something you could be good at. In my experience, there were only two real settings: bad and normal. I’d always been pleased that I could at least front a normal-good level of kissing skill. But Aaron was something else. His beard was soft, and he knew how to use it to nuzzle in just the right ways to make me feel like this was not only passion, but also affection. I was being romanced. It was ridiculous and he was ridiculous and I wanted it to stop approximately never.
He leaned back, using my grip on his hair to pull me back into his lap, and I followed. Instead of having me straddle him, though, Aaron spread his thighs and bent his knees so I came down sitting on the floor between his legs. He took a second to pull his own shirt off over his head, then went for mine, until our bare chests pressed together. His hands grabbed at my sides, then slipped down to tug at the waistband of my pants.
I was just drunk enough that sex on the floor of my workplace, right next to some of the most dangerous equipment on the planet, sounded great. With a wiggle that was far more awkward than I had hoped it would be, I let him push my pants down off my hips. Aaron grinned into the kiss as he squeezed my cock. “Can’t wait to hurt my jaw on that,” he said, which is one of those statements that sounds so ridiculous out of context and nearly made me come right there. The thought of Aaron sucking me was one thing; the thought of Aaron looking forward to sucking me was something else entirely.
He turned me sideways in his lap, and I had a strange and almost jarring moment of remembering that, right, we weren’t alone. Just a few feet away from us, Liv was in about the same position as I was between Erin’s thighs, and just as naked to boot. Though turned so she could face us, Liv had an arm up around Erin’s neck, holding on tight. Erin’s bra had long been discarded, as had Liv’s clothes. I’d seen her body before, of course, but this was a world away from a half-dark stairwell, moving more by touch than by sight. Erin had Liv’s legs spread wide, showing the pinkened folds of her pussy. One of Erin’s hands stroked her there, while the other played with one of her nipples.
It occurred to me that I was exactly as exposed as she was, almost exactly as spread as I leaned back against Aaron and let him slowly work his hand up and down my cock. It was easier, though, to think about it when I could see how pretty Liv was like this. She looked absolutely blissful, content in Erin’s arms. Erin kissed her hair as she rubbed little circles over the tip of Liv’s clit. “How’s it going over there?” Erin asked, as though she were checking in on some experiment we were all engaged in. I suppose, in a way, we were.
Aaron chuckled, and I could feel the sound rumble through where my bare back came to rest against his bare chest. “Rather well,” he said, giving my erection a playful little squeeze. “Yourself?”
“Oh, doing just fine,” Erin said with a breezy shrug. She nuzzled the side of Liv’s cheek. “God, she’s so wet already.”
“I can see,” Aaron said. It was true, there was no mistaking how turned on Liv was by all of this. Her thighs spread wide, she moaned as Erin’s fingers slipped down deeper, teasing at some deeper penetration. “She’d look good riding your cock.”
Erin wiggled her eyebrows. “He’d look good riding yours.”
The fussy, irritatingly rational part of my existence informed me that both of those were ridiculous suggestions at the moment; neither pair of us had the equipment nor the supplies to facilitate that kind of penetration at the moment. At the same time, I moaned at the thought of it. Yes, I wanted him to take me like that, and good sense be damned. I wanted to feel him want me from the inside out.
I watched as Liv writhed under Erin’s touch, my heart pounding in my ears. Ordinary sex logistics would have demanded we take our glasses off by this point, if only to keep from having to clean them later. But there was no way either of us was missing a moment of this. She caught her lower lip between her teeth, and I felt the bite against my own. No wonder Erin was so in love with her.
And Erin was, that much was obvious here, with the tender way Erin cradled Liv’s body and kissed her hair. Even while putting Liv on display, there was a tenderness to the way Erin touched her, down to the way Erin teased her. If Liv had shown a second’s distress, I had no doubt Erin would have stopped what she was doing immediately and turned to something Liv lived better. Even the way Erin’s thighs held Liv’s in place was a curious sort of protective, where Erin wasn’t holding her down so much as making sure Liv knew she was bounded. Erin wasn’t going to abandon her, or mock her, or let her do anything wrong. Liv had always had a place in Erin’s arms, a place made all the more obvious by how well she fit into it now.
I did not care to think about this realization reciprocally at the moment.
Erin’s fingers dipped deeper into the folds between Liv’s legs, making Liv moan. Her whole body was pinkened now, her skin rosy with alcohol and arousal. We’d never been bad at drinking, per se, but we’d always been a little cautious of the flush we tended to get. Now, though, it just seemed to egg Erin on.
A low chuckle near my ear brought me out of my focus on Liv and back into the fact that I, too, had a body, and some very nice things were happening to it at the moment. “Want to go help them out?” asked Aaron, giving my balls a light squeeze.
Talking wasn’t one of my more reliable skills at the moment, so I just nodded. Yes, I wanted that very much.
With a gentle little shove, Aaron got my weight forward on my hands and knees. He gave my bare backside a playful smack, one that made both Liv and Erin smile to see. It feels undignified to say that I crawled toward them, but that’s pretty much what got me across the few feet of space between us. Liv reached out her arms to me, and I melted into them, kissing her hard.
I felt something poke me from behind, then realized it was Aaron’s rigid cock, nudging up against the cleft of my ass cheeks. He seemed to have taken the opportunity to finish getting naked himself, and though I couldn’t see him from this angle, my knees went weak as I felt him press against me. If Liv hadn’t been holding me up, I might have collapsed against the ground completely. As it was, I made an obscene sort of noise against the kiss.
“Fucking hell,” Erin moaned. I felt a hand stroke my cock and realized, given our positions, that it must have been Erin’s. Her fingers were slick already, and it took me a moment to connect that it was because they’d been inside Liv. “He’s gorgeous.”
“So’s she,” Aaron said, reaching down between our bodies to tease at the folds of Liv’s cunt with his fingertips. This time, I didn’t feel any irrational spikes of jealousy. I understood the compliment for what it was, not for what I wasn’t.
There wasn’t really any discussion about what came next, but there also didn’t have to be. Erin leaned back, drawing Liv with her into a reclining sort of position, and Aaron nudged me forward between Liv’s hips. Our eyes met, and Liv gave me a little nod, so I gave her one right back. Then I braced my weight on my knees and pushed the head of my cock inside of her.
Liv let out a soft moan of clear approval. She lifted her legs and wrapped them around my waist, pulling me the rest of the way inside. It was my turn to make noise as I slipped deeper and deeper in, until there was no closer either of us could get.
Erin looked down between our bodies, then let out a soft whistle of approval. “That is unquestionably the hottest thing I’ve ever seen,” she said, tugging at Liv’s nipples with both hands now. She pressed her lips up against the curve of Liv’s ear. “How does he feel?”
With a little whimper, Liv nodded. “Good,” she managed.
“I bet he does,” Aaron said, pressing his cock against my ass again. He put his hand on my hip and kissed the curve of my shoulder. “Well, what are you waiting for? Go fuck yourself.”
Considering the circumstances, it was the nicest thing I’d ever been told.
I’m not going to say I’d never thought before about what I looked like during sex; of course I had, I’m a bisexual with an anxiety disorder. I’d never liked the idea of being watched — or, God forbid, recorded — during the act itself, because I’d never been comfortable with thinking of myself as something worth watching. Even being with Liv in the stairwell had been closer to masturbation than an observational event, at least when it had come to the sexual parts. I was more comfortable of thinking of myself kind of as … there, but otherwise not worth taking any note of, if that makes sense.
This was different, though. There was no denying how lovely Liv was like this, with her hair mussed, her lips parted, her glasses slightly askew. She made the prettiest sounds whenever Erin pinched her nipples, or when I bottomed out inside of her. She had a habit of catching her lower lip between her teeth when she thought she was being too loud — even though it didn’t make her any quieter, it just made a different kind of noise. Her limbs were long and lean, and she looked good when she reached her arms back and wrapped them both around Erin’s neck. I was even actively into the wispy little fluffs of dark hair under her armpits, something I’m sure she would’ve been shocked to learn.
And in seeing all this, I had to admit at last that maybe, just maybe, there was something worth seeing when someone looked back at me. I couldn’t ignore that any more than I could ignore the feel of Aaron’s erection as I rubbed against him. I wasn’t entirely ready to process that then, sure. But when I was, it’d be waiting.
In the meantime, though, I had more important things to focus on. Like, say, making Liv make that noise again.
The Cardosos were a united front in their appreciation, as I could see Erin’s and feel Aaron’s. And of course, there was no way to mistake hearing them. “Look how beautiful you are,” said Aaron, or at least I think it was Aaron. The recognizable differences in their pitches blurred when they were both being soft and sultry like this.
Beautiful wasn’t a comment I often got, nor was it something I could ever say I’d aspired to. But hearing it from Aaron (or maybe Erin) was an entirely different experience. Aaron pressed himself up against my back, moving with me as though he were thrusting into me every time I moved inside of Liv. Still with Liv resting back against her chest, Erin kissed her and rubbed at her clit in a way that made Liv gasp and squirm. She was beautiful like this, soft and vulnerable, at the center of such loving attention. And so, by extension, I must have been.
After a while of this, I was barely able to summon enough wherewithal to meet Liv’s gaze. “Okay?” I panted, hoping she understood the substance of my inquiry. I wasn’t sure how much more explanation I could front at the moment.
Her answer didn’t surprise me in the slightest, given that we both seemed to have some very similar preferences — ones that included, it seemed, this particular bit. Even so, it’s hard to describe how earth-shatteringly hot it is to see your own dark eyes look back at you, and to hear your own voice whisper with undisguised eagerness, “Come inside me.”
I did. Groaning and shaking, I pressed myself inside her as deep as I could. I held my breath for a fraction of a second, feeling everything around me: Liv’s body beneath mine, Aaron’s hips rocked up against my ass, Erin’s hands stroking us both as she held Liv tight. Then I came so hard my knees gave out, and I collapsed on top of the women before me.
I was spent, but Liv wasn’t. Erin’s fingers worked at both her clit and her nipples, making her shudder. Her moans had no words left in them, just desperate little pleas. Without pulling out of her, I lifted my face so that my lips were just at the curve of her ear. “Show me,” I murmured, hoping as I did in so many things that the effect would be sexy instead of stupid.
It was. Gripping my body so tight with her legs I was afraid she might snap me in half, Liv let her own climax shudder through her. I could feel the muscles inside of her pussy grip rhythmically at my softening cock, which just made me gasp again. My weight against her held her back in Erin’s arms, and Erin embraced her with such tender affection. “We’ve got you,” Erin promised her, pressing kisses into her hair. And it was true. We did.
When at last I collapsed completely and slipped back out of Liv, it was straight into Aaron’s embrace. He laughed as he kissed me, rubbing his hands up and down my sides. The gesture made me aware that I’d worked up quite a sweat, but Aaron didn’t seem to mind at all. “God, you’re amazing,” he said as he pressed our foreheads together long enough for us both to catch our breath.
“Me?” I murmured. My previous bashfulness was creeping back up over me again. And here I thought everyone’s eyes had been on Liv.
“Yes, you.” Aaron kissed me again. “What would you think about doing that with just me sometime?”
I was glad I was already lying down, because if not, I would have managed to find a way to fall over. “Giving or receiving?” I asked, as though the answer to his question were not yes, whatever you want, as long as it’s you.
“Both,” Aaron said with a wicked smirk. God, he was going to be the death of me, and it was going to be so worth it.
“Buy me dinner first?” I offered, trying to sound casual, even blasé about it. The fact that I couldn’t stop smiling was ruining the effect a little. RIP my cool exterior.
…Oh, whatever. That would just have to be worth it too.
Aaron practically cackled as he squeezed me tight. “It’s a date,” he promised. It seemed now so silly to worry that he might have regarded me as one-night-stand material, fun for a friendly conquest before moving on to something better The way he had his arms around me now, I thought I might need a crowbar to get him to let go. And I’d start looking for one, sure. Just as soon as I got tired of being held like this. Any minute now.
That was when I felt a yank at the scruff of my neck. “Give him here,” Erin demanded with a laugh. “Everyone’s had a piece of him but me so far. I’m getting jealous.”
I yelped as Erin pulled me off Aaron and tossed me right against the floor, pinning me down with her hand just below my ribs. Honestly, I’d figured that now that Erin had her paws on Liv, she wouldn’t even bother noticing me, much less getting anywhere near jealous about it. Guess the Cardosos still had room to surprise me.
Aaron tutted at her, shaking his head. “Why are you still wearing clothes?” he said, tugging at the waistband of her slacks.
Erin slapped his hand away. “I’ll take them off when I’m good and ready,” she announced — then, after a pause just long enough to make it clear this was her idea, not his, she shimmied out of both her pants and underwear. “There. Happy?”
Making a thoughtful sound, Aaron lifted his fingers to his chin and pretended to stroke his beard in deep contemplation. “Could be happier, I suppose.”
Aaron pointed a finger in Liv’s direction, then beckoned her toward him. “Fair’s fair, after all,” he said, his voice rich and tempting. “Come sit on my lap, my dear?”
I wanted to tell Liv not to encourage him, it’d just make him worse — but I was hardly one to talk, pinned to the floor as I was and already getting hard again. The truth was, I knew there wasn’t a thing in the world (within reason, of course!) that either of them could have asked for that Liv or I would have refused. It was the same as it had always been … just a little nakeder now. Or a lot nakeder, really, I noticed as Liv crawled over me onto Aaron’s lap, and Erin climbed on top of me right after her.
Cardosos, man. What else were we going to do?
A soft chime from one of the computer stations woke me from my half-doze. I lifted my head and squinted at the clock display on a nearby monitor, one big enough that I could make out the numbers even without my glasses. “Shit, it’s Monday,” I murmured, reading a clear row of illuminated red zeroes.
“Yeah,” Liv said. She grunted as she extricated herself from the vise-like embrace of Erin, who was still snoring happily along with Aaron in the pile of naked bodies we’d eventually all collapsed into. They were cute when they slept, though no less dangerous. “Not much longer now.”
She was right. Even without my glasses on, I could tell that the far edges of the room were already starting to fall out of phase. Soon the sympathetic vibrations would no longer be sympathetic enough for even the most similar of objects to occupy the same space, and we would be taken back to our appropriate universes. And then we’d be on our own.
Liv scooted across the floor until she was sitting next to me. She glanced at the pile of discarded clothes, then snatched off the top of it the undershirt I’d wound up wearing. With a determined nod, she pulled it over her head. “There,” she said, raking her fingers back through her hair. “Felt a little tits-out.”
I knew what she meant, even if the statement might have seemed a little silly, considering all the other skin all four of us had on display. “Think if I put on your clothes, we’d fool them?” I nodded back to the sleeping Cardosos, both of whom were contented dozing messes. I’m not going to make a list here of the number of places semen and other bodily fluids had wound up, but suffice it to say, it wouldn’t be short.
After a moment’s consideration, Liv shook her head. “No.”
“Me neither.” It was true, though. For all I’d worried about Aaron’s confusing me for Liv, I knew now how keenly both he and Erin felt the differences between us. As similar as we were, even we weren’t the same person, identical to the point of interchangeability. We were always ourselves — though perhaps each of us also contained a little bit of what the other could be.
Liv leaned against my shoulder in a way that was, again, very big-sisterly for someone who definitely still had a fair quantity of my semen inside of her. “I like you,” she said.
Each sentence is its own universe, with a million parallel meanings that originate from its points of divergence. I could hear them all: I like the individual person that is you. I like the aspects of being a person that you embody. I like the things that you do. I like the things you make me think about. I like having you here with me. I like what it feels like to be you. I like the things we do together. I like you, and reciprocally, I may actually find that I like myself.
“Me too,” I agreed.
We sat there in silence together, waiting for the world around us to fall out of phase. On Friday evening, I had wanted nothing more than for these vibrations to separate, to take us away from this uncomfortable mirror. Now, I was having trouble imagining going forward without Liv and Erin within arm’s reach at all times. What was I going to have to do, go back to explaining myself to other people? Talking about my thoughts and feelings? It seemed easier to mash two universes together and hope for the best.
“Can we try something?” I asked.
Liv nodded. “Try what?”
And that was how I wound up on my back, looking up with some trepidation as Liv straddled my waist. Our bare lower halves pressed up against one another in a way that could have been sexy, had we both put a little more thought into it. Now, though, she was concentrating on her work, and I was concentrating on not getting stabbed in the eye.
“Hold still,” she told me, so I folded my arms across my chest and tried to obey. “You know, you’re not actually supposed to share eye makeup.”
“How come?” I asked, before remembering that talking and holding still didn’t exactly overlap.
Liv put the pad of her thumb against the outside corner of my eye. I could feel her give it a little tug, drawing the skin taut before bringing the dark pencil down. “Germs.” The nub of the pencil was cool and waxy as she traced the curve of my eyelid. “Though I wouldn’t worry too much. I’ll take them back with me when I go.”
Sometimes I could feel her hesitate, then pick up the pencil and put it back against skin I thought she’d already drawn over. This must have been harder to do on someone else, to say nothing of doing it at such an angle — or with a tool that didn’t strictly belong in the same universe as the person it was being applied to. She finished one of my eyes, then went for the other one. I closed my eyes and let her touch me as she needed to. I tried not to flinch, and failed repeatedly.
“Okay, open your eyes and look up,” Liv ordered. I did, looking at the ceiling above the top of her head as she returned to her work. “I don’t always do the bottom lid. It’s a little dramatic for everyday wear.”
“I don’t mind.” I supposed today warranted drama a little more than your average Monday did.
After a minute or so of careful tracing, Liv shifted her weight back, balancing more of it on my thighs than on my torso. I took her lead and propped myself up on my elbows, looking around at what few things fell inside my field of uncorrected vision. I guess I’d been expecting somehow to be able to see the eyeliner, in the same way I can always see my nose or the frames of my glasses. It made sense that I couldn’t, but I’d learned that a lot of things didn’t strictly have to make sense to be true.
Liv smiled and reached for the little pen case she’d pulled out of a nearby drawer. It looked just like mine, a little pouch of assorted writing implements and styli — except hers also came packed with this spare eyeliner pencil, which she deposited back inside. “That’s all I have at work, though,” she said nosing around its contents. “Wasn’t expecting it to be such a long weekend.”
I supposed we’d all come a bit unprepared for the events of the last few days. “How does it look?”
“See for yourself.” Liv pulled out a little rectangular mirror, about the length and width of her thumb, then handed it to me. I hadn’t really known they made mirrors this small, nor that they were things people might just have on hand. I held it up in front of me, trying to find the right angle and distance to let me see my own face.
When my eyes passed within its reflective borders, I almost dropped the mirror. I gripped it tighter between my thumb and forefinger, then moved it back a few inches. There I was, staring back at myself, but from behind deep black-blue lines. I widened and narrowed my eyes, watching the way their shape clearly changed. “Wow,” I said, turning my head to the side as my eyes tracked the motion. “Makes me look like you.”
“Makes you look like you,” Liv said with a shrug. I raised an eyebrow, and she nodded. “You look like you like it. I look like I look weird without it.”
“I think you look good without it,” I said. “And before you say anything about having my glasses off, I know you know I’m close enough to see you just fine right now.”
Liv snorted, having had thwarted her first line of defense against rogue compliments. “You’re used to your own face. You think I look okay without it because I look like you.”
“No, I think you look okay without it because you look like you,” I said, turning her logic back on her with all the authority I could muster. …Which, considering that I was still completely naked and she was sitting on top of me, wasn’t all that much, but I’ve learned to work with what I have. I let out a long, slow breath. “I think that maybe we don’t know what we look like anymore.”
“If we ever did.” Liv sighed and put her hand on my chest, letting her fingers brush against the flat plane just above my nipples. “I wish I had some more for you, though. Lipstick, eye shadow. Mascara, but it sometimes makes your lashes so long they hit your glasses.”
Sounded strange. Sounded pretty. Sounded like something I could be, maybe, someday. Only sometimes, though. I think I’d feel just as stifled by eyeliner as Liv did if there were some expectation put on it, some social laws that I needed to follow about it, or else. I supposed we all had our favorite rules about these things, too. I only wished they came written down as neatly as PURL’s did.
Then again, maybe there was something to be said for realizing that your favorite rule is one better broken.
“You know we’re not the same anymore,” I said.
Liv nodded. She’d been thinking it too. The reason the Cardosos had been able to connect our two universes with such efficiency had been because of their similar thought processes, despite their lack of communication with one another. But the same was true for Liv and me as well. We’d been living the same life separated because all our experiences and circumstances had led us to those shared points, with only slight variations for taste and expectations.
This was our point of divergence, the place past which nothing would be the same for us — and possibly in completely different ways. Aaron and I might stay together forever, while she and Liv might break up in a year. I might get hit by a bus tomorrow, while she crossed the same street safely. She might decide to get a new tattoo I’d never considered. I might adopt a cat that didn’t exist in her universe. Her PURL might burn down. My parents might divorce. She might get pregnant. I might get a new job. There were no guarantees past this moment that our lives would continue to operate in tandem as they had before.
That was okay, though. We didn’t have to be identical twins to love one another. We could just be us, no matter what came next.
Liv sat back, putting her butt down on the ground between my calves and stretching her legs out on either side of mine. She let her fingers trace the tattoo around my ankle, and I did the same to hers, following the twining branches as they made their way around her skin. They were as beautiful and complicated as she was. “I think I need a new tattoo,” she said.
“Of what?” I asked.
A mischievous little smirk quirked up Liv’s lips, and she lifted her foot to poke me in the chest with her big toe. “You’ll just have to wait until we see each other again to find out.”
The easy part was cleaning up the mess we’d made of the floor and a few associated surfaces. The hard part was corrupting the security footage in a way that didn’t look like deliberate sabotage. Nonetheless, with the four of us working together, we managed both those tasks, plus all the medium ones in-between. By 6:00 that Monday morning, PURL was back into working order and ready for the week ahead.
“Three minutes, maybe,” Erin said, glancing down at the instrument in her hand. We were huddled around the portal, together in the last place our universes still overlapped. From all we could tell, everything outside seemed to have separated without incident, with no side effects worthy of making the news. The place we stood now was nothing more than the last few little ripples in the pond, just before everything became still again, and we became the lotus blossoms atop it all.
Aaron nodded, his hand tight in mine. “Next time, we’ll know how to pack better,” he said. “With the two of you around, I may need to bring the whole toy box.”
“Say, engineers!” Erin gave Liv a little nudge in her side. Liv frowned in a way that, damn it, really was both recognizable and unfortunately adorable. “Think you can set us up next time so we overlap in a spa? Some nice resort hotel?”
“With a shower!” Aaron bounced on the balls of his feet. “Or even better, a really big tub.”
Dimensional portal technology was highly proprietary, hugely expensive, and prohibitively large, to say nothing of the power it took to keep the whole thing running. There was a reason PURL was a whole building, complete with regulations and oversight. It was in no way, shape, or form the kind of thing that anyone would approve of setting up inside of a honeymoon suite before leaving a DO NOT DISTURB sign on the door for a couple days.
But damn it, if there had ever been a reason to figure out a different way to make next time happen, it was the people standing around us right now. “We’ll see,” I said with a sigh.
“No promises,” Liv added.
Aaron smiled as he squeezed my hand again. “Or I suppose we could just find some third-party location to meet. I hear 392-WΦ4-4 has some great hot springs.”
“If you don’t mind the sentient cockroaches,” Erin added.
I minded the sentient cockroaches very much. “We’ll see,” I said again. I had a feeling we were going to be saying that a lot going forward, now that we seemed to have attracted the romantic attention of the wildest dreamers in two universes. Liv just shot me a long-suffering look that said, They’re lucky they’re so hot. Didn’t I know it.
In the end, it wasn’t anything dramatic. There wasn’t even anything sudden or startling about it. The world just shuddered in a way that reminded me of a time I’d been in Indonesia during an earthquake. It had been a small one, barely enough to rattle some glassware, but I’d been sitting on a hard concrete floor at the time, and I could remember feeling the vibrations shudder all the way into my bones. I closed my eyes against the disorientation, and when I opened them again, Liv and Erin were gone.
I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding, then relaxed a death grip I hadn’t realized I’d had fixed on Aaron’s hand. The world was suddenly very quiet.
I expected some kind of joke from Aaron, something to lighten the mood and bounce us forward into whatever came next. But instead he turned until he was facing me and took my other hand as well. The height difference between us meant I had to tilt my chin up a little to meet his eyes, but it didn’t make me feel small. In fact, I felt big enough at the moment to stretch across universes. I was large; I contained multitudes.
“I think I’m going to take today off,” I said.
“Yeah?” Aaron smiled. “And do what with?”
I shrugged, trying to keep things casual even as my heart was racing. “On if I can exchange the dinner you owe me for a breakfast.”
“No,” Aaron said, even as he squeezed my fingers with obvious excitement. “But you can add a breakfast to the list of things I owe you, and then use your day off to collect on both.”
“Throw in” –I sniffed myself and pulled a face– “at least three showers, and you’ve got yourself a deal.”
With a delighted little laugh, Aaron bent down and kissed me. There was incredible affection and tenderness in that touch, yet at the same time I had no problems imagining what he had in mind to justify those other two showers. I was emotionally and physically exhausted, and yet so excited I could barely contain myself.
When he pulled back from the kiss, he smiled and brushed his thumb down my cheek. “I really like the eyeliner,” he said.
“Thanks.” I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I was still fundamentally the same person who’d stayed after work on Friday, but now I knew how to see him — them? — differently. It made me think of the difference between reading something in translation and studying enough to be able to read the original. I was finally learning to speak my own language. “I think … I think I’m trying something new.”
“I love it already,” Aaron said, nuzzling my nose.
I wanted to learn what else he loved. I wanted to hear all about K-metal and dinosaur labor and the train of thought that had gotten us here in the first place. I wanted to hear about the Hot French Amateur Dominatrix aesthetic he’d never cultivated and the drag queens he wanted to see on Eurovision. I wanted to be in love with him as much as I was already in love with my idea of him.
And of course I wanted to get my mouth on him and make good on every sexy thing he’d overheard me say in the stairwell. “Your place is closer,” I said, because it had to be. Mine was twenty minutes away, and I was going to explode if I had to wait that long to see him naked again.
Aaron smirked. “What about breakfast?”
I shrugged. “You order. I drive. We’ll see if we can beat the delivery there. And if you get enough for lunch in the same order, I won’t have to put on clothes until at least tonight.”
“You really do think of everything,” he said, kissing me again.
I hoped that on their side of the multiverse, Liv and Erin were having the same discussion, ordering the same delivery, planning the same destination, twining their fingers together as they went to find their keys and leave before anyone else showed up. And even if we weren’t all precisely in sync anymore, that was okay too. It would give us something to talk about the next time we shared space.