Note: This work is a sequel to The Umbrella Hitch and although it can be read solo, it works best in context.

The Halloween Hitch by AnonyMPC (Mf, cosplay, 1st, slow)



Who doesn't love Halloween? It's a magical night, for so many reasons. There's the candy, which I may have grown out of since I was a child... but I still had a taste for sweet things. There's the costumes, either assembling one for yourself or watching others wandering around in theirs. And there's the kids, full of infectious enthusiasm over getting to go out in the dark and get a sweet treat.

If there's somebody who doesn't love Halloween, I don't want to know them.

That said, I might have been better off sitting out Halloween of 2015. It might have led to the worst chain of events to ever happen in my life. Or possibly the best. I'm honestly not sure, and I don't think I will be for years, no matter how much it might sometimes feel like one more the other. But one way or another, it was a momentous, and in some ways magical night.

Chapter One:

Despite my love for the holiday in principle, I planned to spend the evening of Halloween home alone. I didn't have anywhere to go, and anyone I felt comfortable inviting to my place had plans of their own. Even my mom was out for a night with the girls, where she often played designated driver.

Yes, I still lived with my mom, while going to college, although I wanted to save up enough to move out. It simply never seemed to work out... when I got close to having enough money, I'd have a sudden expense, or lose my job, and be set back a few more months. At least Mom was understanding... she blamed it on the capitalist system exploiting workers with wage-slavery, not to mention abominably high tuition costs.

Really, I agree with her that all of those are issues, but more immediately, the problem was that I wasted too much of it on books, transportation, and eating out when I really should have been saving. It didn't help that I was currently unemployed. Mom actually seemed happy about that... she always felt that it was a distraction having to work while school was going on, that ideally school should be subsidized completely by the government. Since that wasn't going to happen, and she had the means, she was happy to step in and support me while I went to school. But me? I liked having a job. I liked having my own money, even if I often wasted it. And I did want my own place, eventually.

But while I was sharing Mom's house, being alone was the closest I could get to that. I didn't have to worry about being asked to do something, or that an argument might break out, or even just have to hear the noise of somebody walking around. Mom was out on a well-deserved night of fun, and I didn't expect her home for the rest of the night, so, for Halloween, I could pretend the place was mine.

I didn't have any wild plans or anything... most people would find what I had in mind pretty boring. But it was Halloween, so I figured I'd go with it and watch some horror movies on my Mom's digital media player in the den.

Over the past few weeks a huge collection of them had been torrented off the Internet... but not by me. My mom's a bit weird, in a myriad of ways. Among other things, she doesn't believe copyright infringement is theft, she believes copyright itself is theft, and 'liberating media owned by a big corporation that works to deprive us of rights' is more moral than paying for it. What do you expect from somebody who intentionally named me after the father of communism? I'm somewhere more normal... I pay for a lot of the media I consume because I do believe creators deserve to be paid for their work, but if it's easier to access something for free than to buy it, and they don't need the money, I'll pirate and feel a little guilty. But considering how much my mom pirates, I spend a lot more than I need to. Maybe that's another reason I can't afford an apartment of my own.

During my planned horror movie marathon, I was left with one chore, of course, but it was a pleasant one. I had to be the one to hand out Halloween candy to the kids. That's why I watched everything in the den, rather than in my room. I had to be near enough to the door that I could easily hear the bell, pause and quickly get up and answer it. Which, starting at about six, I had to do every couple minutes. But I didn't mind, I loved the whole pageantry of the holiday, from the horror aesthetic, to the costumes, to the delighted smiles of kids as they walked up to people's houses and got candy just by asking for it. I had a costume of my own, too... even without friends to see it, I had to wear something, it just didn't feel right otherwise. I went with a classic... the pirate costume, silk shirt, puffy pants, a fancy hat, and an eye-patch, although that last bit was irritating so I ditched it after the first few kids.

But for me, Halloween was less about the ability to dress up as it was about getting to see everyone else all dressed up. It was always fun watching seeing those kids who went all out with a costume, and also to observe the trends for each year. This year there were still a lot of Frozen costumes, but not as many as years previous, and Star Wars had made a big comeback, because everyone was getting excited about the upcoming movie. Plenty of zombies as well, and people dressing up as characters from The Walking Dead even when you'd expect they're too young to watch it. Still far too many Minions, and if they weren't kids I might have rolled my eyes and made a grumpy comment about that annoying trend but they were so I smiled and said wow and handed out candy without discriminating against race, creed, gender identity, or horrendously bad taste in media.

Somewhere around 7:30, I had a surprise. It was one of those times where kids arrived, and I hadn't even sat down before the bell rang again and I had to go back out. I put on a smile to cover my mild annoyance, grabbed the bowl again, and opened the door.

Three girls, a blonde and two darker-haired girls, all adolescents, smiled up at me and said, "Trick or Treat." Actually two smiled up, one had her head down, but I heard the voice. My eyes briefly skimmed over the costumes. The blonde was something like Little Red Riding Hood, although sexed up far too much for a girl her age, with stocking that began at the knee, and her lip was a glossy-shade of bubble-gum pink. Beside her was a vampire, I think, or maybe just a goth, I don't know, she had pale skin and wore a slinky black skirt and belly-shirt, along with one of those chokers, and her lipstick was dark, almost purple, although still with a high gloss to it. She certainly didn't remind me of any particular vampire, but I'm not up on all the pop culture, maybe she was from a Disney show or something. The third girl was dressed in a Hogwarts uniform, though without the dress-robes. It was the basic grey sweater-top over a white dress shirt with red-and-gold tie, and a skirt that looked shorter than Hogwarts regulation probably should be, and her shoes were simply black running shoes. Aside from the Gryffindor color on the tie and sweater, she'd just look like a schoolgirl. She was the one whose face I didn't see right away. When I'd opened the door, it was hidden by her frizzy brown Hermione wig (which was a nice additional touch), because she was half-crouched and looking down, retrieving something from the ground. Maybe she'd dropped a piece of candy, or her wand.

I got a better look at her knees than her face at first. All of their legs were visible to some degree... each costume had a skirt, one that seemed way too short for girls their age, which I would have guessed to be in their late tweens, and that was an age range that was, surprisingly, and to my shame, no longer completely unsexual to me. In fact, even now, my eyes lingered down at the Gryffindor girl's legs there for a second, instinctively hoping for an impossible-from-that-angle look up her skirt, before I forced myself to avert my gaze and look, not at them, because it might land on Red Riding Hood's surprisingly prominent cleavage or somewhere else embarrassing, but rather into the bowl. The bowl was safe. The worst it could tempt me into was tooth decay.

"Great costumes," I said, and then started on the automatic spiel I'd said dozens of times already. "If you've got nut allergies, there's a second bowl, and if you'd prefer non-candy treats I can get you some of those too." Inclusivity is important to my mom. We've got a blue pumpkin out front to let people know that that's an option. The first few times I tried to say it pirate-style, but it got old fast and seemed to lead to more confusion than humor.

"No, we'll take the good stuff," said Red Riding Hood, which I assume meant the bite-size candy bars I had in the main bowl.

I thrust my hand into the candy bowl and came back with a small handful of bite-sized candy bars. "Here you go." I dropped a few in the vampire's bucket, since she was closest, then went back for more when I heard it, a friendly but slightly bewildered chirp of a voice.

"Hey... I know you."

I thought I knew the voice the moment I heard it, but I looked up just to be sure. There was the girl dressed as Hermione, looking at me, surprise still in her eyes. A part of me recoiled in fear inside, but a part of me was happy enough that the automatic smile I put on didn't look fake when I said, "Oh. Hello Astrid."

Chapter Two:

I'd met Astrid Hitch one memorable day in spring, a particularly rainy day, and we only met because I had an umbrella and she didn't. She latched on to me to help her get home without getting any more wet. Using some remarkably poor judgment, I'd followed her inside her house, talked to her about books and a few other things we seemed to have in common, and as a reward for that friendly conversation the twelve-year-old girl stripped down to her panties and offered herself to me sexually.

I wouldn't use the word "slut", even if I normally would. I don't like the word, particularly because it's used only against women, but even allowing for that, it wasn't that Astrid was naturally promiscuous or anything like that... she told me she was a virgin, in fact. She seemed to me to be a smart girl who was just a little lonely and maybe mistook having an instant connection to someone, based on a few common interests, as some great romantic love, a love she was scared she might lose if she didn't make a bold gesture. Thanks to our sex-saturated world, that seemed to her to be a logical way to keep me from walking out of her life.

It didn't work. By that, I mean, I did the right thing, in the end. I refused her advances, tried to put her on a better path, tried to make her think that we might be friends, but mostly just got the hell out of there. Since then, I guess you could say I did walk out of her life, and whereas before it would have just been circumstance, after that it became intentional. I'd done my best to avoid running into her, not taking that path home from work ever again and eventually quitting entirely in favor of a less-secure job in another part of the city. My home was still a respectable distance from her neighborhood and that made another random meeting unlikely, but I suppose on Halloween, kids roam a little more than usual, and they go door-by-door, which makes it harder to escape.

I'm making it sound like I didn't want to see her, but the truth was a lot more mixed. Since that day, months ago, I thought of her often, in both fondly affectionate and shamefully dirty ways, depending on my mood. I can't count the number of times that I wished I would run into her, just so I could talk to her, see how she was doing... but I was afraid by what that last interaction had revealed about my ability to be attracted to girls that I'm way too old for, and worried that if temptation offered again, I might not be able to resist a second time. She was the reason I felt nervous looking at tween girls, because I knew how close I came, and what happened once, could happen again. A twelve-year-old standing nearly naked in front of you willing to trade sex for a little attention... that makes it hard to look at girls that age the same way ever again.

Now, here she stood, like Fate. And I remembered that she'd asked for my phone number before I left, and I told her that if we met again, it should be like Fate. I was just trying to put a positive spin on walking away. I didn't really believe in Fate, but now... I had to wonder, now that she was, improbably, in front of me again.

I couldn't express any of these mixed emotions openly, so I did the only thing that made sense to me... acted casual, like this meeting was a pleasant coincidence between acquaintances, not worthy of any special meaning one way or another. "Funny running into you here. You're supposed to be Hermione, I take it?" Under the guise of taking a second look at her costume, I gave her a quick look-over, automatically, trying not to make it so obvious and not in a pervy way, but just... taking it all in. She'd changed... a little. The hair was the most obvious difference, but it was a wig. She seemed taller, probably by about an inch. She'd also filled out some, if it wasn't just my imagination. Not up top, though I didn't let my eyes tarry too long, but her lower body. Her legs didn't seem quite a thin as I remembered, her hips a little wider, though it was hard to judge with a skirt. All told, it looked a little like she'd started turning into a teenager from the bottom up, and was caught halfway. Her face, though, that was the same, childlike, innocent, expressive blue eyes, a small but round-tipped nose that nose that I knew sometimes supported glasses.

"Yeah. So, this is where you live?" she asked. Her friends looked back and forth between us in that way that people do when they don't really know the story.

"Uh, yeah," I said, hesitating only long enough to make the snap decision that trying to lie about it would only complicate things. "So... how have you been?"

"Good," she said. Now she was giving her friends a sidelong glance, like she herself wasn't sure she should be talking to me in front of them.

I wasn't sure either. I figured it was a time for a graceful exit. "Well, I won't keep you from your trick-or-treating," I said, and finally pulled my hand from the candy with a small handful, which I quickly tossed into the pumpkin-shaped bowl of Red Riding Hood. Not much... maybe I'd have given her more if she had gone all out and done a big basket instead of just orange dollar-store plastic.

"Wait..." she looked to her friends, and said, "Can you guys give me a sec?"

"Fine, but don't take too long," said the goth-vampire, and they walked off and disappeared from sight around the garage.

I nervously returned my gaze to Astrid, wondering what was going to happen. "It's good to see you again, Karl," she said.

"Yeah, um, you too."

"I thought if I saw you anywhere, it'd be over the summer, by the library or something."

I pictured her waiting around where we first met, at around the same time, hoping I'd show up, and my heart seemed to get too big for my chest at the idea and made me regret disappointing her. "Well, my job kept me pretty busy." It felt like a lie even though technically it was, at times, true, so I quickly changed the subject. "So, whatever happened to Hufflepuff pride?" I asked, noting that her Hogwarts uniform was clearly Gryffindor. We'd had a conversation about that. She said she thought she'd be sorted into Hufflepuff.

She smiled sheepishly and looked down at herself. "Well, maybe I'm still a Hufflepuff deep down, but... it's Halloween, so... I decided to dress up as something different." She then quickly added, "I mean, I actually wanted to go as Katniss, but my friends said I had to choose something with a skirt." One hand tugged at the skirt as she spoke.

"A skirt?" I repeated, eyes drawn there for a moment. I certainly liked it, but it seemed like a poor choice for Halloween, with unpredictable gusts of wind, not to mention people running around in masks who might feel emboldened to try things they otherwise wouldn't.

"Yeah... we're not really trick-or-treating, we're going to a party?" She said it with her voice rising up at the end like a question. "I mean, we figured we were a little old for trick-or-treating? But we decided we could hit a few houses on the way and snag some candy for snacks." As she spoke, she rolled up and down, moving back and forth from standing on her heels to her tiptoes.

"I don't know, I still did trick-or-treating when I was twelve."

Her face fell a little. "I'm, uh, thirteen now."

"Sorry," I said. Her being a teenager didn't change anything between us, she was still too young for me... especially I'd had a birthday since we met, too, and was now twenty. I wondered if we were ever teenagers at the same time. "But still true." I think I was fourteen when I stopped. I wanted to go when I was fifteen or sixteen, but most of my friends wanted to go to parties or watch horror movies, depending on the year and our relative popularity, and I didn't care enough to go by myself. Still, I could understand the impulse.

She perked up again. "So really it was kind of lucky that I stumbled upon your house, don't you think?"

"Yeah, I guess," I agreed, silently praying she wouldn't say the word 'Fate.'

One of her friends--I hadn't heard either of them speak enough to tell which one--yelled out from the vicinity of the sidewalk. "Come on, Hitch! If you don't hurry up we're leaving without you!"

"I'm coming!" she snapped, turning her head back in that direction. "Okay, well... bye, I guess."

I was a little relieved that she hadn't chosen to mention anything about what else happened that day we first met... my behavior may have been good, on the whole, but it was still an awkward situation to discuss. But, despite that, I still felt a pang of loss to see her go so fast. "Wait," I said, before she could start walking away. "You forgot your candy."

She smiled at me, and opened small the plastic bag she held open, and I gave her two huge handfuls of the chocolates. One just didn't seem like enough, and we always had some left over at the end of the night anyway. She backed up, raising up just the bottom half of her arm, to wave, two fingers wrapped around the wand that was part of her costume, and almost bumped into an eight-year-old with an Iron Man costume coming up to get his own batch of treats, guided by a tired-seeming parent. I tried not to look too long, conscious of the eyes of others, but I did glance back once after she'd turned completely and was walking away.

Once again, she was out of my life.

But not for long.

Chapter Three:

Halloween may have been all night long, but unless we've run out of candy early, I usually turn the lights out at about ten, and from nine on there are very few kids trick-or-treating anyway. After that time, most people out are either at parties or at home with the family. Or doing the types of things people always do in the evenings, and since it was a Saturday night, that left a lot of options. I'm sure more than a few parents rushed their kids through the Halloween festivities so they could drop them off with a babysitter and have fun.

So when the clock struck ten, I abandoned my post as candy distributor and retreated up to my room, which was more comfortable for me, leaving my pirate hat behind on the couch and taking a handful of leftover candy treats for snacking. Having had my fill of scary movies for the time being, I instead relaxed with some music and played video games. In honor of Halloween, I tried again to get into State of Decay, died almost immediately with a character I'd been working with for a while, and gave up in frustration and decided I'd try out a few games I hadn't played before in the hopes of striking something addictive.

In the middle of one uninspired platformer I got in a Humble Bundle months ago, I heard the doorbell. I ignored it and concentrated on trying to pass the level. Even after it rang out for the fifth time, I didn't get up, although the last four must have been from the person on the other side stabbing it repeatedly. But kids do that, and I figured if it was kids, they'd get the message pretty quickly... the lights were off, no one was coming to the door, and we were closed for business.

A few more seconds passed, and I could, very faintly, hear a knock, followed by another ring of the doorbell, and, with a sigh, I started reluctantly getting up. If it was a candy-hungry kid, they were a persistent one. But I was starting to think it might be something worse... either some older teen who was trying to make sure the house was empty before egging it or something like that, in which case it was better to make an appearance. Or maybe it was some epically bad news like a police officer at the door. I even considered that it was a home invasion of masked psychopaths like that movie The Strangers. These are the thoughts that go through my head, especially after a horror movie marathon. I'm a worrier by nature, but not enough to make me stop.

Those unlikely thoughts did make me stop at the peephole, though. At first I didn't see anybody, and thought maybe they'd gone away, but I was startled by a surprise knock, and, after a second, I saw a young girl back up and seemingly squint at something, maybe one of the decorations we had on the door.

That young girl was in a schoolgirl outfit with red-and-gold trim on the grey sweater, and a matching tie. It was Astrid, of course. The Hermione wig was gone, leaving her with just her natural straight, nearly black hair, tied back into a simple bun to better disappear under the brown frizz.

I held my breath, thought about going back to my room, pretending I didn't hear. Whatever she came back for, it couldn't have been good... even if it was just to say a friendly goodnight, it was inviting some kind of relationship when I knew I should have been pushing her away.

But I also knew that if I did leave her to go on her own, I'd forever wonder what she wanted, why she came to knock on my door late on a Saturday night. Probably too late, for a girl her age, for it to be any kind of casual whim. Leaving to her own devices could even be dangerous to her. So I took a deep breath, and opened the door.

Her face lit up as the door opened but it seemed fake, somehow... the smile didn't quite reach her eyes, even though her voice sounded chipper. "Hi, Karl!"

My voice was less enthusiastic. "Hi, Astrid..." While I waited for her to explain why she was here I took a closer look. Her face was flushed, and she was standing weird, legs crossed at the heel.

"Can I come in?" she asked, and as I opened my mouth to say the word "No," she added something that seemed to explain at least part of the story. "I really need to go to the bathroom." She hunched over, still with her legs crossed.

How could I refuse that? She really did look like she'd been holding it in. "Uh, okay," and stepped aside. Her feet uncrossed and she strode past me and into the hall, like she couldn't wait any more. "Down on your left," I said, pointing.

She gave a nod and broke into an almost run, dropping her purse by the side of the hall and disappearing into the bathroom. And I realized that there was a lingering scent in the air left in her wake, like smoke (both of the most popular kinds) and beer.

Well, she said she was at a party. I felt a bitter rush of disappointment, but I exhaled and tried to put it out of my mind. It was none of my business. It was what kids did. I was a little older when I started doing it, but I knew there were plenty of others who started younger.

Still, after the disappointment there was a faint tug on my heart, like I wanted to guide her through this perilous stage, even while I knew that anything I said or did would likely only make things worse. It wasn't my role anyway.

I heard the flush, and then the sink, about a minute later, she came out, smiling uncertainly. She had her glasses on now, which must have been hidden in some kind of interior pocket. "Thanks," she said, pushing them up on her nose with one finger.

"No problem." I waited, hoping she'd save me the trouble of asking her to leave, announce that was all she wanted.

No such luck. She started looking around the walls of the house like she was on a grand tour. "So where's your room?"


"Can I see?"

"No... you wouldn't want to anyway, it's nothing special."

Astrid saw through the polite excuses and realized that I just didn't want to. But she didn't stop. "Oh, come on!" She pouted, cutely, the kind where you know that she knows how manipulative it is, but it works anyway. "I showed you mine, you've gotta show me yours."

Chapter Four:

For a second I thought she wasn't talking about my room. The more traditional interpretation of that phrase made my cock twitch in anticipation, even though, technically, she hadn't shown me hers... at least, not her pussy, although she'd showed off her barely-forming breasts and was willing to go further before I stopped her. I wasn't sure I'd have the strength to do it again, if she offered. Or that, if she asked explicitly to see it, to refuse to show her my cock.

But she hadn't asked for that, she asked to see my room. That I could refuse, if weakly. "I don't think that would be a good idea," I said simply.

The pout softened and turned into a frown. "You know, I'm over that crush or whatever it was from last time," she said, seriously, earnestly, which gave me once again that curious mix of relief and sadness, one of two emotional cocktails that I'd come to know from interacting with Astrid. The other was a mix of fear and desire. "So you don't have to worry that I'm going to like get naked or anything if you take me up there." She held a serious look for about three seconds, then a smile broke and she added, "I mean, unless you want me to!" And there was the other cocktail. Her eyes widened like she just heard herself. "Sorry! Sorry! I was just joking. I don't know what's wrong with me tonight..."

"You've been drinking," I pointed out.

"I'm not drunk!" she insisted, like I'd accused her of that. "I'm just a little buzzed." Once again, before I could say anything, she found something about what she'd just said to comment on. "Jesus, I sound like Mom."

"You're too young to be drinking." I also hated sounding like that, like a parent, but it felt like I had to say something.

She shrugged. "Everybody does it. I really didn't have much, I swear. I was still able to find this place, wasn't I?"

"You should have found your way home."

Her face fell, and I had that awful feeling that I was being cruel to a little girl. Even though I knew that she shouldn't be here, I didn't know how you were supposed to say something like that without sounding like a jerk. "I can't go home."

"Why not?"

"Because I'm supposed to be sleeping over. Only now I'm not. But if I go home I'm going to get in trouble. I'd rather sneak into someone's backyard and sleep there."

The way she said that, like it was actually a valid option, scared me a little. "You can't stay here," I told her, a little exasperated but trying not to sound that way.

"Please? Just for a little while?" I shook my head, trying to ignore her pout. "Well, then you're going to have to drive me or something," she said when she finally gave up on me.

Fuck. That might have been the best call, only... I didn't have the car, Mom did. And I certainly didn't want my mom to catch Astrid here, there'd be too many questions. "I can't."

"Well then what am I supposed to do? You're not going to kick me out are you? Make me walk home after dark?"

That certainly didn't seem right. Plus, she'd already said she might just sneak into someone's yard to sleep there. "You can't call someone?"

She shrugged. "I can't think of anybody..."

"Your mom?" She gave me a look, like, obviously she wasn't going to do that. "Okay, maybe a cool aunt or something who won't rat you out?"

"I wish. My mom was an only child." I noticed, once again, the lack of a mention of a dad.

"Mom of a friend?"

Her face went dark. "Apparently, I don't have any friends." Clearly a story there, and a part of me wanted to hear it, console her, be her friend in many ways, but I didn't think I could afford to. It was just the how things worked. Unless you're related or have some socially approved connection, a guy my age can't be friends with an adolescent girl... we're automatically assumed to be predators. I didn't want to, but I had to push her away, albeit as gently as I could.

I ran through the options in my head. I could call her a cab, or an Uber. But it would cost money, and there was no way I was gonna just put her in the cab and leave her, I'd have to go along and drive back. Or I could walk her home, I guess, and save some cash at the expense of time and a lot of energy. Of course, I saw a problem with both options, aside from the inconvenience, that I'd have to be with her, in public, late at night. Yes, most people would assume I had a good reason to be with her, but not necessarily everybody, and especially people who knew her or knew me. And what if she made another move on me in the cab and he reported me? Or what if her mom freaked out when I walked her to the door, thinking I'd just taken her on a date?

In retrospect, I was probably exaggerating the dangers... all of that could happen, sure, but mostly, I think I was looking for an excuse to come to a decision I wanted but wouldn't let myself admit. I wanted an excuse to spend time with Astrid again, I was just scared of the consequences... but if I was going to be scared of consequences either way, it made it that much easier to be... friendly, to embrace her rather than push her away, metaphorically speaking. Although I did want to give her a for-real hug when she said she didn't have any friends.

I felt like I was out of good options, and the only thing to do was fall back on my natural position... to make a compromise. I knew my own Mom, despite the fact that she rarely drank, probably wasn't going to be back until her favorite bar closed, which was two a.m. Maybe three if she had to drive friends home. So I had some buffer time. "Listen, I'll make you a deal."

Chapter Five:

Astrid's face lit up with delighted expectation, like someone for whom "make you a deal" always meant that she was unexpectedly getting at least a little of what she wanted. "I get it, you don't want to get in trouble for drinking, or going to a party, or whatever. So I'll let you stay here a little while..." Her smile widened at these words, but I continued, "Sober up a little, get yourself together, but then you find an excuse you can use on your mom to pick you up, or think of someone else to call you can stay with the rest of the night. Okay?"

"How long is a little while?" she asked.

I didn't want to give her a blank check. "I don't know, maybe an hour or so."

"Deal," she said.

"Okay, but one thing, though... if my mom comes home you need to sneak out the back. I'll borrow the car after and give you a ride."

She nodded, then, after a moment slyly asked. "So... you want to keep me a secret?" She seemed pleased at the prospect.

I turned awkwardly away from her and shrugged. "I just don't want anybody to get the wrong idea." Of course, then I realized that if anyone saw her sneaking out the back as my mom arrived, they absolutely would get the wrong idea. But I'd deal with that if it came up, not worry about contradicting myself.

"The wrong idea," she repeated.

I was at a loss for words... trying to explain that people assume that I'd be trying to have sex with her just seemed like it would give her an excuse to move the conversation into more dangerous waters, like offering just that. I turned back and asked, "So... do you want to talk about what happened at that party?"

"Not really," she said, smile fading. But only for a moment, before she looked playful again and said, "I'd rather see your room."

I opened my mouth to say, "I..." as in "I don't think that would be a good idea," or something, but she didn't let me get the word out.

"Come on, you already said I could hang out. I just want to see your room, that's all."

"It's kind of a mess."

"Duh. I already know you're a boy, Karl." That was a little unfair. Not all guys are slobs. Though I guess I was, a little bit, at least within the confines of my room. "I just want to see your books, you said you had a lot, didn't you?"

I guess I had. That was one of the things we'd first connected over. And, if nothing else, it would give us something fairly safe to talk about now that I'd already given her permission to stay. "Okay, fine."

"Yay! So, upstairs then?" She darted for the first step, turned to me, and bit her lip like she was waiting for permission. I nodded, and she turned back around and started ascending. I followed and remembered that she was wearing a skirt. When a girl walks up the stairs ahead of you wearing a skirt, you can't help but look up it, even though most skirts, unless they're cut unnaturally short or you peek in an obvious way, won't actually let you see panties from that position. It doesn't matter, you look anyway, getting a good look at leg in the process and imagining what lay underneath the skirt. It also doesn't matter that the girl's way too young for you. Some things, guys are just wired to look at.

That had been a recurring theme in my experiences with Astrid, me being transfixed, staring at something I shouldn't have that she was innocently exposing. First her breasts through a soaked top, then her panties underneath a long t-shirt. Now, I was walking behind her trying to look up her skirt and praying for an astronomically unlikely gust of wind.

I didn't get that, but I did get to see her stumble, one of her feet not landing far enough on the other side of an upstep and leaving her off balance. I put my hands up defensively to catch her and supported part of her light body by the waist while she pulled herself back forward along the railing. My hands had pushed the skirt up and I imagined I saw a flash of dark fabric beneath them for a second, just out of the lower corner of my eye. "Sorry," she said. She pulled her glasses up to rest on her forehead... she needed them to see far away, and maybe, right now, she needed to focus more on the steps immediately in front of her. "I guess this is why they call it tipsy, right?"

"I guess." My hands let go of her hips and waited for her to go another step, watching carefully, I told myself, to make sure she wouldn't fall again. But she didn't move right away, like she was still dizzy and waiting for it to pass. "Too bad you weren't really Hermione," I said. "You could probably just magic it away." And she could magic herself home, or at least call the Knight Bus. Although goody-two-shoes Hermione probably wouldn't wind up drunk in the first place, at least not at Astrid's age.

"Yeah," she said with a laugh. "I should have gone with Katniss though." Because of the skirt, I wondered, or.... "Actually, I wanted to go with Princess Cimorene," she said, and then looked back over her shoulder at me as though hoping I'd recognize the name. I didn't, and quickly averted my gaze from her legs.


"Oh, she's from this old book this librarian recommended for me." She started moving again, more slowly now, and soon reached the top of the stairs, and waited for me to get up so I could direct her, as she continued about the source for her first choice in Halloween costumes. "Dealing with Dragons. I liked her more than Hermione, anyway. She runs away from home and goes to live with a dragon because it's better than being forced to marry the prince her parents want her to," She looked into my eyes for one last look of recognition, then said, "But you see, nobody else would have got it. Even you wouldn't have. Probably not even if you read the book. That's the thing about books, they're great but sometimes they're still lonely, you know? Nobody else knows exactly what you see."

"Yeah," I agreed, and nodded my head back towards the front of the house, where my door was slightly ajar and music was playing.

She went ahead of me, and I followed her in, watched her pull her glasses down over her eyes, take one visual sweep of the room and gasp theatrically. "So the legends are true!"

Chapter Six:

That finally won a smile from me, a real one, the first I could remember since she showed up the second time. I may have put an automatic one on my face for politeness, but there was just a knot of tension about her being in my house, and potentially getting caught, that I can't say I unreservedly enjoyed her presence, until that moment, that joke, like she'd stumbled onto a lost treasure.

She was referring to the books, which, like her room, were all over the place, only I was much older and so had more time to build a collection. I had at least one shelf on every wall and most of them were stacked. My room was also a mess, as I'd warned her... not as bad as it could be, but enough to give me a pang of shame. My mother taught me to pick up for myself, and do my share of the cleaning around the house, but she also gave me the right to be lazy in my own room. She just wouldn't clean it for me. I took that to heart... I had an shirt hanging over a chair (the one I'd worn just before changing into the pirate shirt), the bed was always completely unmade, with the covers basically tossed over half the bed, and there was currently a short stack of tiny plates and an assortment of unwashed glasses near the computer. I intended to bring them back down to the kitchen, I just kept forgetting. A pair of jeans in a pile on the floor... but no dirty underwear there, at least.

"So you're still a big reader then?" I asked Astrid after she took a few steps in, her skirt swaying slightly as she slowly spun in half circles before reversing direction, seeming torn between where to look first. It was almost hypnotic in its way.

"Of course!" She sounded a little surprised, though not offended, that I asked, and maybe it was stupid but a lot of people fall out of reading suddenly, especially when they start getting popular. Then again, maybe that hadn't happened, considering how she'd declared that she didn't have any friends.

I still wanted to probe that, but, not right then. "So what are you reading now?"

"Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut?" Her voice rose at the end like it was a question, and maybe it was, asking if I had read it.

I had, though I was surprised she'd been exposed to it at such a young age. "Really? Wow, you're still impressing me." It was quite a jump up in sophistication from Lord of the Flies or some of the other books we talked about last time. She'd seemed to mostly read the kind of books targeted to kids and teens.

"It's actually my second time through. It's interesting. Kind of deep, but funny too, you know?" I nodded, and instinctively moved towards the window. From there, I could see the driveway in case Mom showed up early. "What about you, what are you reading?"

I looked back to her, shrugged in mild embarrassment. "Nothing as high class as you, I'm afraid."

She had a pleased look on her face, and sat down on the edge of my bed, adjusting her skirt on her legs automatically, idly scanning the bookshelves with her glasses-enhanced distant vision. "I don't know if it's high class..." she said.

It isn't often you get a chance to bump a girl's self-esteem, without saying anything inappropriate, and I jumped it. "It is. It's taught in literature classes, like, college." That's actually where I read it. One of the few books in that class I actually enjoyed, as a matter of fact. "Compared to that, I've mostly been reading a lot of schlock."

She gigglesnorted. "Schlock. That's a funny word." I smiled back at her, gave her a half-shrug, half-nod. "Anyway, I like a lot of schlock too. I still read a lot of Young Adult stuff."

"So do I. That doesn't necessarily mean it's bad." I read a lot of other stuff too, but there's nothing wrong with enjoying young stuff. Books, I mean.

"So? Go on, show me your schlock." My penis pulsed, like it thought maybe somebody had just called its name but then realized after a quick look around that it only sounded similar. Thank goodness for puffy pirate pants.

I pushed off the dresser I was leaning on and my eyes scanned the room for where I left what I was reading. Then I remembered it was in my backpack from school on Friday. But I saw something almost as good. "Well, I just finished this one." I picked up a thick paperback and reached out to her with it.

She took it, raised her glasses and looked at the cover. "Wool?" she asked. "What's it about, killer sheep?"

I smirked. "No, it's about, like, after a war or something, and everybody lives in this huge silo under the ground, because you can't go on the surface without dying."

She looked at it again, opened it up, started flipping through the pages, while I retreated towards the wall near my window. "Oh, cool. Kind of like City of Ember. You like it?"

"Yeah, it's pretty good, actually. It's really like five shorter stories that are connected to tell one larger story."

"Neat." She suddenly shifted, swinging her legs onto the bed and lying on her back as she continued to slowly thumb through it.

And now I really could look up her dress. She was wearing panties, or I suppose it could have been a bathing suit bottom, but probably panties. Really, it was just a small splash of red that stood out. I wasn't actually seeing very much, it was far away... no shapes poked through, nothing slipped to the side, but it was alluring nonetheless. I realized she had said something. "What?"

She held the book above her, but now looked at me, a smile on her face. I wondered if I'd been caught. "You said you just finished it, so what are you reading now?"

"Some older one my Mom gave me, called Swan Song. It's also about after a nuclear war."

"Is that like your favorite type of story or something?"

"Heh... no, but I've been reading a bunch of them lately. I guess I'm just getting myself in the mood, Fallout 4 comes out next month."

She raised an eyebrow. "Game?"

I nodded at her, but was surprised I needed to. She seemed so worldly. "You've never played Fallout?"

"Should I have?"

I shrugged. Tastes in games were like tastes in books, different people liked different things, and that was okay. Still, "Fallout 3 was like, probably the best single-player game when it came out. I've been waiting a long time for this."

"Maybe I'll check it out then." She put the book at her side, dropped her glasses looked over at me like a sexy nerdy schoolgirl in my bed. "Hey, you know what?"

"What?" Despite the casualness of the question, I somehow expected to be startled with something intensely personal.

It wasn't. "Cat's Cradle sort of fits in with your theme." I raised my eyebrow thinking back to it. "I mean, it's not like a nuclear war, but, it's sort of about the end of the world, you know?"

"Yeah, I guess you're right."

She pointed back and forth between my head and hers. "It's like we're linked." I thought that was a bit of a stretch, remembering what I did of the book. But then, she had been drinking, it's easier to make logical leaps when you've had a few. "I like your bed. It's comfy." Her eyes closed to slits.

"Well, don't fall asleep on it," I said. Maybe that would be the best thing, let her sleep it off a little, but I worried I might not be able to wake her up if she did.

Her eyes opened again, wide, like she had just fallen asleep for a split second and then caught herself. "Then we should do something. To stay awake." And she lifted her leg high in the air, giving me the best look yet (at least on this day) at her panties, the rumpled fabric covering the space where her legs met, and letting me notice that the panties weren't just red, but they had a yellow trim around it I hadn't noticed in previous glimpses, because it blended too closely to her skin. I realized, of course, that even though it wasn't quite gold, it was close enough to Gryffindor colors that it had to be intentional, and was both amused and aroused that she'd gone that extra step. It felt at the time like it took forever, her hanging there in space and letting me look deliberately and notice her attention to costume detail, but then she sort of half-rolled over as the leg fell to the ground beside the bed and I realized she had never stopped moving, it had all been over in a second or two, she was just, awkwardly, getting up into a seated position. And she wasn't staring at me for my reaction, or definitively looking away, either. She looked, if anything, dazed, and I decided it must have been accidental.

After a second, she shook her head tossed her hair, some stray strands landing over her eyes. "Whoo, that was..." She shook her head, unable to finish the sentence, and putting a hand out to steady herself but finding nothing.

"You okay?" I instinctively approached, to check make sure.

She waved a hand weakly in front of her. "I'm fine, just... sat up too fast. Lil dizzy."

Second time, after the stairwell. "Yeah, that happens." When you drink. "You eat anything at the party?"

"Just candy."

Booze AND a sugar high that was probably wearing off. No wonder she was starting to get loopier. That was one thing we needed to fix. "Okay, you need some real food."

"I'll be fine," she said. She still look flushed, her eyes not entirely focused. "Just get me some water and I'll be fine."

"No, that's not enough." If she'd been drinking, water might help, but she needed something substantial. Not something that would dissolve on her tongue and go right into her bloodstream, but something that would sit for a while. I leaned forward, extended a hand. "You need something solid inside of you."

Chapter Seven:

She was hesitant, but took my hand after a second and rose to her feet, although her full strength gave out partway through so it felt like I had to strain a little to prevent being pulled onto the bed with her. After a few tense seconds, we made it up, and then all of a sudden she stumbled towards me, not entirely into me, but close, steadying her free hand on my chest for a moment. "Sorry," she said, and it sounded like she meant it.

"It's okay." I led her out of my room, and although once she was walking she no longer seemed to be dizzy, she never let go of my hand, either. I enjoyed the warmth, the simple sensation of human touch, but I didn't want to give her any wrong ideas, so when we turned around to go down the stairs, I casually slipped my hand free and took the railing.

We walked downstairs quietly, and she followed me to the kitchen, where I opened the fridge. "What do you want?"

She helped herself to a seat by the kitchen table, knees together but feet apart, and shrugged. "I don't know. I could just have a sandwich, maybe."

That didn't seem like very much. "Did you have dinner before you left?" She shook her head. "Then that's not enough." Hell, I was a little hungry and I did eat something for dinner, albeit an early dinner, before the kids started showing up. I tried to remember what people were supposed to eat when they were drunk to help sober up. Was it the same or different as what you were supposed to eat to cure a hangover? I had a feeling it was the same principle in either case, which, if I remembered correctly, meant fluids as well as a meal high in protein and carbs. Like breakfast. "Do you like omelets?" I asked.


"Omelets. Eggs, cheese, you know."

"Umm... yeah, but you don't have to..."

"Nonsense." Her eyes widened as I took eggs out of the fridge. "You need some real food in you." And it felt good to be doing something that was just unambiguously taking care of her with no worries about being dragged into a compromising position or unintentional innuendo.

I got the seasonings together, then fished a bowl out of one of the high cupboards and began cracking eggs into it. Four, I figured, would be good enough. More than enough for her, but I might as well make some for myself too. Besides, that way if Mom asked later I could truthfully tell her I made an omelet for myself.

Astrid watched me crack the eggs like it was some kind of magic trick. "So you cook?"

"What, are you surprised?" She shrugged, but I could see she was. "I'm a man of many hidden talents. Anyway, people like different stuff in their omelets, veggies and stuff, so look through the fridge and grab what you like. Get something to drink, too."

She hopped off the chair and went to the fridge, stopping a moment to look at the stuff held on the front like magnets, but then going inside. I got the whisk from the cupboard and broke the yolks, scrambled everything, then added salt and pepper and a bit of garlic powder. I glanced up at the microwave, where I could see a reflection of Astrid at the fridge... bent over at the waist, not the knees and again, accidentally presenting an alluring sight. I managed to force my gaze away... like dark magic in a fairy tale, the fact that it was only a reflection made it easier to resist. "Pass me the sour cream and shredded cheese while you're in there, too?"

"Um, okay." She put a small tomato and a half of a green pepper wrapped in plastic wrap on the cutting board beside me, then went back to the fridge for a second and returned with a tub of sour cream and a bag of shredded cheese. I put the bag aside, since I wouldn't need it until later, but took out a spoonful of the sour cream and mixed it with the beaten eggs, then beat them again. It makes them a bit fluffier, in my experience.

Next I got out the knife and began chopping the veggies. Meanwhile, Astrid went back to the fridge and came back with more, two large white mushrooms and a package of sliced ham, and a plastic bottle of water under her arm. "Wow, you really like it stuffed, don't you?" She nodded and smiled. Well, if she wanted me to stuff her eggs, I'd stuff them good, fill them to the brim...

She seemed suddenly unsure of herself, maybe because I'd been quiet too long, maybe just remembering her manners. "Is that okay?"

"That's fine." Usually I like either ham or mushrooms but not both, and I'd rather have onions than tomato but I could work with it. At least she didn't take any of my mom's spinach... I never could understand how anyone could stomach that, and if Mom noticed any had gone missing it might raise questions. I continued the chopping.

"So, you, like, support Bernie Sanders?"

I almost cut myself on a mushroom just because the question was so unexpected. "Huh?" I looked back at her, saw her looking at the pamphlet on the fridge. "Oh. Well, my mom does. I guess I'm leaning that way, I like some of his ideas, but it's a little early for me to get worked up. My mom's really into him though." Still, I was mildly excited that I'd be voting in a presidential election for the first time next year.

"I like him," she said, but didn't elaborate. "Is that where you learned to cook? From your mom, I mean, not Bernie Sanders."

I smirked. "Yeah. When I was thirteen, she told me she wasn't going to cook for me ever again." Astrid's eyes widened in surprise. "She said it's every man's responsibility to be able to cook for himself. She'd teach me, but I had to do it. You learn pretty quick like that. I mean, I'm no expert, but I get the job done. And it's kind of fun, sometimes."

"And she never cooked for you again?"

"Oh, god no," I said. "She was trying to make a point." Years later she told me it was sparked by a breast cancer scare, luckily false, that made her determined to stop babying me and get me ready to take care of myself, not just with cooking, but learning things like laundry, washing dishes, and financial stuff. It was a rough year. "Now, it depends. Sometimes she cooks for me, sometimes I cook for her, mostly we just cook for ourselves." Though, if I had to be honest, she cooks for me much more than I do her. Moms gotta mom. Even mine.

"Cool. I can cook, you know," she said, like she was trying to impress me. "Some things, anyway. Never done omelets."

"They're not that hard."

"So, your mom taught you how to cook," she said. "What about your dad? Is he, like... not around?"

"I never knew him." I said it flatly, but it wasn't a sore spot anymore. I certainly didn't blame him. He probably didn't know I existed. I didn't blame my mom, either, at least not for that. I blamed her a little for telling me at an early age that she essentially got knocked up by a stranger she met at a political rally, a one-night stand, and that she didn't even know his real name, had had similar relationships like that before and since (though she always used protection now), and then turning that into a lecture on how bad it was for society to judge women for that type of behavior while covertly or overtly praising men. That's a lot to put on a kid who just asked what happened to his father. Couldn't she at least have lied and said she was a soldier who died in Afghanistan or something? I didn't miss having a dad, though, at least not much.

"Me neither," Astrid said. "My mom says my dad left town when he found out she was pregnant, never looked back." Ouch. But she didn't seem particularly sad about it, maybe, like me, she'd just accepted it. "So I guess that's another thing we have in common." A second passed, and she asked. "You like living with your mom?"

I shrugged. I've always been a little defensive about it despite the fact that I'm hardly the only one. Living with your parents while going to college may be a good financial move, but there are too many stereotypes attached. "I'm trying to save up for my own place. But it's hard. It's not so bad, though. We get along. Mostly. She's... she's a little weird." Most kids were afraid of their mom scolding them or treating them like a baby in front of their friends. When I was little, I was afraid mine would argue politics with anyone I brought over, or suggest that they challenge gender roles by playing with dolls.

"All moms are weird," Astrid observed. "I mean, everyone thinks theirs is."

"True enough." I'd finished the chopping, so I grabbed a frying pan, put in some oil, and let it warm up. "How's your mom weird?"

She shrugged. "I don't know. We're nothing alike. She'd rather go out drinking than read." A curious distinction, especially considering the whole reason I was making omelets, but I just looked in her direction, where she gave me another shrug. "I don't know, I still love her, but I don't feel like she's part of my karass, y'know?"

Chapter Eight:

The word tugged at the edge of a memory, but it wouldn't come. "Karass?"

"You know, from Cat's Cradle? The people whose lives are tied up with yours?"

I was nodding as she spoke, remembering the gist of it with only the name from the book. "Right. It's been a while. Took a second to click." There was silence for a while, and finally I ventured, "So you say you're nothing alike, but you went out drinking tonight." I instantly regretted it, the words came out far more judgey than they sounded in my head.

She shrugged, with her forearms raised and palms up. "And look how that turned out."

"Do you want to talk about what happened?"

I saw her jaw work, like it was getting ready for a long story, but I guess she must have just been mulling, for she said, "Not really," and then brightened. "Show me how you make an omelet."

Reading signals isn't my best skill, but I know when someone wants to change the subject. I was okay with it, I was a little relieved not to have to deal with teenage drama, but I'd done my duty by asking.

"I told you, it's not really that hard, it just takes a little more effort. If you can cook an egg, you can cook an omelet. So what do you like cooking?"

She shrugged. "I do some pretty decent spaghetti."

"Spaghetti's pretty good."

"Maybe I'll make you some sometime."

Not if I had anything to say about it. Only because I was a coward, I wouldn't say it, I'd just do my best to arrange things so that wouldn't happen. That would be harder, now, because she knew where I lived. I might have to be harsher with her than I like at some point. But not right then. "Anyway, you just fry up the stuff you want to put in the omelet for a couple so they won't be raw." I put all of them, except the ham, into the oil, where they began to sizzle and crackle. The ham I'd put in the last few minutes... if it was cubes of ham, I'd put it in with everything else, but cut up slices tended to dry out too quickly so I put them in a little later. I stirred them around with a spatula and waited until mushrooms turned that darker cooked color, then threw the ham in for another thirty seconds or so. Astrid didn't say anything, just watched, but I was fine with that. When it was done, I scooped out the veggie mix and put it on a plate, leaving most of the oil. I returned to the egg mixture to beat it once more, just to get a little more air in there, and, when the oil was hot enough, poured it in and watched as it began to solidify. "See, the pan does most of the work." I smiled at her, and the corners of her mouth upturned, but that was about it. "Put some toast in, would you?" I asked, pointing at the breadbox. Astrid moved quickly, took out two slices, and put them in the toaster.

By this time, the egg has firmed up enough. "Now," I said. "Here's the trickiest part of the whole thing. Flipping it. It's a matter of timing, mostly. I say it's better to do it too soon than too late. That way, you can just turn it into scrambled eggs and say you planned that all along." I'd had practice though, and I only had to have scrambled eggs about one in five times. This time was one of the other four. "Ta-da!" I said, and started spooning the filling in. "Hand me the cheese?"

Astrid did it smoothly, like she was a trained assistant. I pulled out a hefty clump of shredded cheese and put it the middle, spread out, and then folded it over, and sprinkled more cheese on top. "Now it's mostly just a matter of letting it melt and get your eggs all gooey, and we're done." Before long, I removed the frying pan and slid the omelet onto a plate, then used the spatula to divide it down the middle, and slid half from one plate to the other. "Here you go." The toast popped up. "See, perfect timing."

"My eggs are ready?" I nodded and passed one of the plates over to her.

She took it and walked to the kitchen table with one slice of toast, where there was already a tray of butter and a knife. I grabbed the other plate on the way and tossed it on her plate and went back to the drawer for forks. "That was yours," Astrid said when she noticed the extra bread. She tossed the one she'd been buttering onto my plate, then started buttering the other.

I handed her one fork, then sat down on the other side of the table, and tossed the buttered one back on her plate. "You need it more than me. Carbs help soak up the alcohol." Or close enough, anyway.

"Yeah, even without the toast this thing is big enough to push me into childhood obesity."

"You?" I raised an eyebrow of disbelief. "Please, you're about the farthest thing from fat." Maybe she looked just a little bottom heavy, but I was sure that would even out as she grew.

She looked down at her plate and smiled at my compliment, then stabbed at the omelet with a fork and took a piece to her mouth. I waited, watch the gooey mouthful pass through her soft lips, a strand of cheese dangling out when they closed around it, then mostly sucked inside as she chewed and swallowed.

"Well?" I asked. I don't often get to cook for other people, aside from my mom, and you can't trust your mother to give completely accurate feedback.

Astrid, though, made a convincing "mmm" sound, and followed it up with, "This is so good." I shrugged modestly and watched as she took another bite, and then finally dug in myself. Yes, it did taste pretty good, if I did say so myself.

We ate quietly together for a minute, and then suddenly she stopped and looked down at her plate. And she didn't look happy, she looked like she was struggling with something inside of her.

Chapter Nine:

Her sudden change in demeanor got me pretty worried. "Uh... if you think you're going to be sick, I'd appreciate a little warning." I started looking around for a pot or something that could minimize the mess, if that was the case.

She shook her head slightly. "No, it's just... just..." I waited. "You're being so nice." There was a quaver in her voice, like tears were about to fall, and sure enough, her eyes were glistening. "You cooked for me, like, a real meal. I mean, I can't remember..." She trailed off.

"It's nothing," I said, attributing the sudden flood of emotion to drunk mood swings.

"That's what I mean. It's nothing. I know you don't want me here. Not really. You're just being nice, and I'm taking advantage of you. But you're treating me better than...." She wiped her eye with one hand dipping beneath her glasses. "...than I deserve."

"No, I'm not," I said, uncomfortable at that level of praise. Everyone deserves to have someone take care of them when they're feeling down, don't they? "Maybe better than you THINK you deserve, but that's not the same thing."

She wiped her eyes again, this time pushing her glasses up entirely and resting them on her head as she drew in a breath that sounded full of mucous. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'm not usually like this. Or maybe I am. No wonder nobody likes me."

"That can't be true."

"Oh, it is."

"I like you."

She looked up at me with those huge, innocent eyes, like they were peering into my soul, and frowned. "No you don't."

If she really was peering into my soul, she must have seen the mixed feelings. "Yes I do."

She was quiet for a while, moving pieces of her omelet around without eating them, then said, "When you like someone, you don't 'leave it up to Fate' if you'll ever talk to them again. And then try to get them to leave when Fate does step in."

I guess she was more perceptive than I thought. But less perceptive than she thought, because the truth was, I did like her. I was just scared to death of the consequences of being around her, but like was definitely underneath all of that. "Look, Astrid... it doesn't mean I don't like you... it's just..." Fuck it, I decided. If she was mature enough to read Cat's Cradle, she could grasp this point. "It's part of the way of the world."


"You know how there are certain... downsides to being a girl? Just because of the way the society is. Like, if a guy's assertive it's a good quality, but if a girl is, she's called bossy. If you're online and people know you're a girl, you're going to get people harassing you." If you have sex with a lot of people as a guy, you're an inspiration, if you're a girl, you're a slut.

"You mean privilege."

My mom would be pleased. They're learning the vocabulary and concepts young. "Yes, exactly. Well, there are also problems guys have, that we don't talk about but we all know. And one of the big ones is... we can't be around anyone too much younger than us. Women can, but guys can't. Not unless there's a good excuse, like they're related or he's a teacher or something, and even then..." I shook my head. "You know that if there's a lost child wandering around alone, most guys won't help, because they're afraid they'll be accused of kidnapping?"

"But that's stupid," she said.

"Maybe. But it's the way it is. A woman can give a hug to a child she doesn't know, a guy can't. And that's why I seem like I'm pushing you away. I am, I guess. But it's not because of you. It's because people will assume that I'm some pervert. It doesn't matter how much I like you, or would want to hang out with you, if things were different. I have to keep a distance." Especially since the last time I got too close she got almost naked and offered herself, and worse, that I was tempted to accept. "I mean, I've had a woman yell at me and threaten to call the cops because I was looking something up on my phone and she thought I was taking pictures of her kid, imagine what would happen if somebody found your number on my phone, or mine on yours." Scariest moment of my life, until I showed her what was on my phone and went through my recent photos with her to prove they were nothing nearby. At least she had the grace to apologize. I had another near miss when I stopped to sit down and read a book in a park and got the stinkeye from mothers who assumed I chose that spot so I could watch the kids.

Astrid shook her head slowly while listening to my explanation, but finally took another bite of her egg. I guess her appetite had returned. And at least she seemed puzzled more than sad. "That's stupid," she repeated. "Anyway, you helped me. When it was raining."

When we first met, she meant. "Yeah, I guess I did," I said. "But that wasn't a normal situation. If there were a lot of other people around, who knows?"

She chewed, swallowed, and said, "I think you overthink things. I mean, I get older guys talking to me all the time." I felt a cold hollow sensation in my stomach, a nameless anxiety. It was like somebody swimming pointing out a shark fin to somebody on shore and saying, "Look, it's a dolphin!" She only added to the feeling when she said, "There were guys your age at the party tonight. Lots of them were friendly."

Shit. So far I'd pictured this party, mostly, as teenagers who snuck alcohol from somebody else, and word spreading even to a few middle schoolers. If Astrid had gone to a college Halloween party? I could only hope they didn't know her age... or maybe that explained her sadness, that they kicked her out when they realized how young she was. Maybe. But drunk horny college kids on a Saturday night? I've been to parties like that, and doing the right thing was not high on anyone's priority list. "And how did that turn out?"

She frowned, looked down at her meal, avoided the question. "I'm just saying that it's dumb to be scared of talking to me, it's not like I'm in any danger here. I know you're not going to hurt me, and I'm sure most people are the same way. It's not as bad as you think."

I couldn't let this girl keep swimming with sharks. "Or it's worse than you think." She looked up at me, and I continued. "I mean, you're right, it IS dumb that guys like me, who wouldn't hurt you..." At least, I hoped. "...feel they can't even just be friendly. But it's true. And since it is... it means that the older guys who ARE friendly... they're exactly the kind of people you should avoid."

"Because nobody could really want to talk to me?"

I had a feeling she understood what I was saying, but just took the opportunity for some self-pity. Still, I had to be sure. "No, they can certainly want to. But if they're willing to take that kind of risk and actually do it... it probably means they want something, that they're willing to take advantage of you."

Then again, she once offered herself to me. Maybe she just wanted to be taken advantage of. I forced the thought out of my head and fell silent.

"But you walked me home that day. And came inside." My eyes widened in alarm. I never... Oh, right, the house. "So were you planning on taking advantage of me, and just chickened out? Am I in danger here, Karl?"

I could feel my face growing red. "No," I said, and it was only true depending on how you defined "taking advantage." Both of us knew I was aroused when she came onto me, and I refused, but I was never entirely sure if she knew that a big part of the reason I followed her home was because her shirt had become transparent in the rain. Was taking some illicit peeks "taking advantage?" Maybe. But that's all that I had intended, and, at the very least, I didn't want her to know.

"But you just said that if a guy takes a risk like that..."

"There are exceptions to everything!" She just smiled though, like she'd caught me at something, which, in some ways, she did, and then took a huge bite of toast, her teeth crunching into it.

"Okay, fine," she said. "Don't worry, I know there's no way you'd hurt me." Her eyes brightened, voice suddenly cheery. "New subject!" I raised my eyebrow at her, but continued to eat while she came up with one. "So, like, didn't you have any plans or anything tonight?" Her eyes widened, looking over my costume. "Wait, DID you have plans that I screwed up?"

I shook my head. "No plans. Well, aside just chilling at home."

"Why not?" She sucked back a swig of the bottled water. I envied her. I didn't get anything to drink for myself. Part of me envied the bottle, too. "Why didn't you go to, like, a Halloween party or something?"

I shrugged. "I don't know, I guess I just wasn't in the mood."

"I thought, like, college guys were all about the parties?"

"Not all of us." I took a bite of mostly mushroom and said, "I mean, I go to parties, but I have to be in the right headspace for it. Otherwise I prefer just small groups." And, the truth was, I'd struck out every Halloween so far, even in parties where it seemed like everyone else was randomly hooking up. It was getting to the point where I was starting to think it was a curse... The Curse of The No-Halloween Nookie. Pity, too, because I always liked the idea of having sex in costumes.

My eyes looked over Astrid's costume again and I immediately chastised myself for a thought that had barely formed. "And you didn't have a date or anything?" she asked.

"No. Sorry, I'm pretty boring."

She laughed. "No you aren't. It's more fun being here with you than that party anyway."

Chapter Ten:

I didn't really know how to deal with that compliment, it wasn't just that it didn't feel true, but it didn't feel like it should be true even if it was... so I just gave a weak smile and went back to eating.

A few seconds later, she said, "Can I confess something to you?" I looked up, she bit her lip, like she was nervous about whatever it was, that it might change my view of her. Here it came, I thought, she was going to tell me what happened at the party. "I never really wanted to go to the party that much. I mean, I was excited that I got invited, but... I really just wanted to trick or treat..."

That probably wasn't what brought her to my door, at least the second time. It was cute, though, and she seemed to crave reassurance, so I gave a genuine smile. "There's nothing wrong with that. If I could get away with it, I probably would too."

"My friends all think it's dumb." I noticed she said 'my friends' again. Was she still going back and forth in her head about what had happened, or did she merely forget that she disavowed them earlier?

"Fuck 'em," I said, regretting the swearing, but on some level it was hard to imagine her as a kid, in need of protection from words, or anything else. And yet, I was consoling her, like an adult to a child. "Besides, I bet at least some of them feel the same way."

She twirled her fork into a lump of cheese-covered egg. "I doubt it."

"You came knocking on my door," I pointed out.

"That was just for a laugh," she said. "And for snacks for the party."

"Were you the one who came up with that idea?"

She shook her head, and her eyes widened as she must have realized what she'd probably hadn't considered before, that the suggestion to do something "just for a laugh" might have been an excuse to do it for real.

I gave a knowing snort. "That's one of worst parts of being a teenager. Pretending to not like stuff because your friends are also pretending not to like it."

"I bet you never had to do that."

"Sure I did. Especially with music." Maybe I listen to shitty music, female pop stars. But I had to pretend to like a lot of music I found even shittier just to fit in with my friends, and for a long time mocked anybody... any guy, at least, who admitted to liking Taylor Swift, even while I secretly grooved along. Also, for a long time I had to pretend to care about wrestling. And one more thing that I'd forgotten for years. "Even worse... there was a girl I liked... really liked, actually. But... she wasn't exactly the hottest looking, and sometimes they made fun of her." Her face was on the pretty side of plain, maybe at her worst looking a little birdlike, but she was flat-chested. The one joke that sticks in my head was 'What do you call a chicken with no breasts? Justine.' "Never when we thought she could hear, we were never that bad, but... still, I joined in, and I never made a move because I thought my friends would think less of me. I'm ashamed of that now."

"Huh," she said. "Would you make a move now?"

"She's actually married now." A little young for that, in my opinion, but it was her life and I hoped it was going well. "And I don't really feel that way anymore. It happens that way sometimes, if you don't follow your heart, your heart... changes."

"But what if you liked someone now your friends made fun of?"

I shrugged. "I hope I'd go for it." Of course, these days I'd be more scared of the rejection than the reaction of my friends. At this point, I was already done eating... I'm naturally a fast eater, so I went to the sink and began washing my dishes. I'm not a neat freak, I just didn't want Mom to wonder about there being two plates out.

"So... if you had a pirate ship, what would you name it?" I guess she must have been inspired by the sight of a guy in a pirate outfit washing dishes.

I was happy enough for the change in topic, as random as it was. Well, not completely random, considering I was dressed like a pirate. I thought for a while, trying to think up something cool, but couldn't. The only pirate ship names I could remember were from the Depp movies. Finally, I just went with the first thing that came to me that wasn't from the series. "I don't know, maybe The Redistribution of Wealth."

"I like it. And what would your pirate name?"

I looked back at her. "I don't know. Maybe I wouldn't have one. I'd just be the Dread Pirate Karl." She smiled. "Or maybe I'd keep it secret. More mysterious that way. What about you?"

"Hmm... I think I'd call my ship A Special Vessel." She dropped her fork with a clatter on her plate and leaned back. She'd finished eating her meal, except for a few bites of the second piece of toast. "And I'd call myself Her Royal Highness Herself. So when people saw my ship they'd say, that's A Special Vessel, captained by Her Royal Highness Herself, and they'd leave me alone."

"Clever," I said. The nitpicker in me didn't bother to point out it was unlikely to work. "Is that what you'd want out of the pirate life? To be left alone?"

"I don't know, I guess. I don't really want to hurt anybody. Maybe I'd rob people, but just bad people, you know? Like Robin Hood."

"What'd Robin Hood ever do?"

She let out a fierce giggle, like she was half annoyed at my deliberate mistake and yet found it funny anyway. "No, I mean, be like Robin Hood, and rob bad people like, I don't know, slavers or whatever. And free the slaves too, of course." She grew serious again, contemplative. "But mostly I'd just like to sail and do what I want when I want. Come on, wouldn't it be nice to not have to follow anybody's rules, or expectations, or whatever? Just your own conscience?"

"Yeah, I guess." The problem was, if everyone did that, the world gets fucked up fast. "But of course, a lot of rules are there for a good reason."

Astrid exhaled out of annoyance. "It's a fantasy. That's the best thing about fantasy, we don't have to worry about all that."

"Yeah, you have a point. It's the same thing with things like Fallout... the whole idea where society's collapsed so you can do what you want." Well, mostly. Of course, some society always manages to survive, and if you stray too far from decent behavior the decent people will try to kill you on sight.

She stood, plate in her hand, and put it on the counter next to the sink, looking up at me. "So what would you do if the world ended?"

"I don't know, I'd have to think about that one." I had, a fair bit, but the sad truth most of it boiled down to 'get a place to live, fill it with books and movies and TV seasons and just spend all my time not spent surviving, enjoying the products of civilization.' "I guess it depends on what kind of apocalypse it is."

I thought she was going to propose one. If she'd brought up a zombie apocalypse, I'd be on more solid territory... everyone's got a survival plan. But instead, she swung her hips so that her butt bumped into my side, as though to get my attention, and suggested, "You want to wash and I'll dry? It'll almost be like we're married."

I swallowed the saliva in my mouth. I didn't want her thinking in that way, even if it was just a joke. As much as I liked the idea that she might have a crush on me, it wasn't something I should encourage. "Nah, I think I'm done washing." I'd only intended to wash one plate, and a few forks, to disguise the presence of two people, although while we were talking I'd gotten into a rhythm and done a few more things that had been left in the sink. It gave me something to do with my hands and eyes so they weren't on Astrid. "So, you feeling better now?"

"Mm-hmmm," she said. She did seem to be in a better mood.

"You ready to call somebody?"

Her face fell. "No, not yet. It hasn't even been an hour yet." She cheered up again, or put on a happy face at least, and tugged at my hand. "Come on, let's go back to your room."

Chapter Eleven:

Even though we'd just been in my room, it didn't seem like a good idea to return. There seemed to be way too many opportunities for her to lie on my bed and innocently give me peeks at things I shouldn't be peeking at. "I don't know..."

"Come on," she said again, like deep down she knew I wanted to, but was just being a chicken. "You said I could hang out here, might as well do it where there's the most stuff to do, right? Besides, I want to show you something."

I raised an eyebrow, my mind automatically conjuring up another flagrant attempt at seduction... her "showing" me what's under her skirt, and what's under the panties under the skirt. My heart started pumping for a few seconds before I realize that it probably wasn't anything like that... we were already alone, so she could just as easily try that there in the kitchen. And, at least upstairs, I could better watch out for my mom's car pulling up. "Okay, fine," I said, wiping my hands one last time on an already damp towel.

She let go of me and turned around, not waiting for me as she went up the stairs, since she knew where my room was. I only had to follow, and I could take my time. Probably should, to avoid looking up her skirt on the way up. I might not be able to resist while it was right there, but I could not put myself in the situation. That seemed to be the key, to me.

As I left the kitchen, and she was already halfway up the stairs, I noticed she took her bag with her this time, and I thought that it must have something to do with what she wanted to show me, although it turned out she just wanted her phone.

Upstairs, I found her already in my room, making herself at home... in my computer chair, facing my screen, on which was my desktop. I should have put a lock password on it, but there didn't seem to be much point since Mom was big on respecting privacy, and not many people were in my room without supervision. But now Astrid was, and I prayed for a moment that I'd made sure not to have any porn in my websearch history (although I usually remembered to use incognito tabs)... only, she wasn't on a web browser. Instead, she'd opened up Steam. "What are you doing?"

"Just a sec..." she said. I got closer, so I could look out the window, and I noticed she had her phone on her lap. I remembered the last time we met, she said she didn't have one... maybe it was a birthday present. She turned all her attention to the phone like too many teenagers these days, and started swiping through menus like an expert. "Hey, what's your guest wifi password?"

"Uhm... '1tacocat1'." I didn't think it would do any harm, the range isn't that great anyway. A little bit more of a concern was her actually being on my computer. I could see, now, she had my profile open. Her tiny fingers danced along her phone screen as she first input the password, and then called up the steam app for her own phone. She searched for my name, and I realized what she was doing, even before the friend request box appeared on my screen.

I wasn't sure what to say, but I started with another "Uhm...."

"Look, you don't have to accept," she said, as though anticipating my objection. "But what you said, downstairs? It doesn't have to be that way. We can be friends. If you really want to."


"It's just Steam. It's not like I'm on your phone list or anything. I've got plenty of friends on Steam who have no idea how old I am. They don't even know I'm a girl." Sure enough, I got a brief glimpse of a friend request, and the icon, some 8bit character I couldn't identify, didn't look particularly girlish. The name was Hitchhiker, with a few symbols on either side, but that was the only thing that looked even arguably childish, and I've known plenty of adults that used those symbols too. "I don't have a mic so how are they going to know unless I tell them? You probably have already people my age right now on your friends list, and just don't know it." I couldn't deny that it was possible, maybe even probable. I tended to accept anybody as long as they weren't completely annoying, and I hardly ever even looked at their profiles. Still...

It was again like she had read my mind, or at least got the gist from my hesitation. "I won't bug you all the time, I promise. I mean, I don't have a data plan on this phone, and at home my ability to get online is... sporadic." If her Mom was anything like mine, turning off the Internet was one of the first stages of punishment. "But it would be nice to be able to talk once in a while. Like, discuss books and stuff. If you wanted. But you don't have to accept."

Her words, her posture seemed designed to give the impression that it didn't matter to her, but in her eyes was such genuine desire, almost desperation, that it felt like my heart expanded, like it wanted to physically reach out and give her a hug, but it couldn't so instead, I said, "Okay. Click accept." I supposed I could block her if it got too bad... if I remembered correctly, it just made it look like you were never online to that one person. She smiled, and the smile widened dramatically when I add, "I'd like to talk to you too, once in a while. Just try not to say anything that could get me in trouble if somebody was reading it over my shoulder, okay?"

Astrid nodded, happily, her whole posture and expression relaxed, although with a bounce and sway to her movements. Perhaps emboldened by her victory, she didn't surrender the computer seat, but instead browsed through my games. "Maybe we could even play a game sometime, when my Internet's up." She went back to scanning my list. "You have Minecraft?"

She obviously didn't see it on my list, so the question wasn't rhetorical. "I do, somewhere. I didn't connect it through Steam, though. I don't use it much."

"Oh. It's fun, sometimes, to build stuff, you know?" I nodded. "And maybe I can show you my private area."

"Uh, what?"

"You know, where I keep all my personal projects on Minecraft." I looked into her eyes, trying to figure out if she worded it that way on purpose, but she seemed the picture of innocence. "I mean, there's nothing too impressive there, but I like playing around with it." Gah, more bad mental images.

"Sure, I'd like to see it sometime," I said, to be polite. She smiled at me, and her eyes slid away first before her whole head turned back to the screen. She minimized the steam window and I found myself once again worried she'd start looking through my browser history. "Do you want to play some kind of game now or something?" Innocent game.

"I don't know, you got any good games two people can play?"

I probably did, but none of them immediately sprang to mind, at least no computer games. After a few seconds of pushing an unwanted idea out of my head, a couple names did pop up, but they were games that we'd have to share a keyboard, which meant being shoulder to shoulder, if not having her on my lap. The fact that that appealed to me scared me, so I didn't mention it. Besides, I thought with one reflexive look outside, it'd be better not to get distracted. "I don't really feel like playing, but you can play something if you want."

She shook her head, still looking at my screen. I was about to ask her that, if she could get off if she wasn't interested in games, or at least to figure out how best to phrase it, when she said, "I'd rather just talk." And, I saw, she opened my music player. Seconds later, she started a playlist. "There we go," as the first bars of the first randomly selected song began to play. She spun in her chair towards me. "It was just so quiet in here, you know?"

I actually have a few playlists set up for easy access. One's my usual mix of mostly female vocalists with a tendency towards pop. I have a second version with many of the same songs, but oriented towards the slower and quieter tunes that I play while I sleep, and another recent one, a mix of songs from or appropriate to the Fallout games (which were often old-timey). Just to get me in the mood for the new game. I considered making a Halloween playlist but there just aren't that many Halloween songs that I really like. Astrid chose the first playlist, which was probably a good call since, judging by last time, our tastes were similar. Then again, tastes change fast at that age.

Still, Astrid's smile when she recognized the song, Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off," told me it hadn't in her case. Okay, yeah, it's overplayed, but I still liked it, and apparently Astrid did too. "See, that's what I'm talking about!" When the chorus started, she pushed herself off the seat, took her glasses off her head entirely and placed them into a pocket in her shirt beneath her sweater, then took the center of my room as though it was a stage. Once there, she shook her head back and forth a few times, paused for a second and undid the bun her hair was tied up in with a surprising ease, letting it roam free then began dancing in earnest, whipping her hair around, and her hips wiggled back and forth making her skirt do a similar but more subdued motion. It didn't particularly match anything in the video that I recalled, aside from generally shaking herself, but it was fun to look at anyway. She seemed happy, at least, and I must have smiled at least a little because she caught my eye with a gleam in her own and outstretched one hand towards me. "Come on, join in."

"Oh, uh, no... I'm not very good."

She let out a burst of air from her lips. "Pfft. Who cares? Come on, you need to loosen up... every time I see you it looks like you're afraid to smile." She did smile, though. "You just need get those hips moving. " When I still didn't move, the smile faded a little. "What, you're afraid you're going to look like a fool?" I shrugged. "Well, too bad. You're always trying to give me advice, time to take some. Sometimes you just gotta do what feels good, even if you might look bad." She had a point, but still... "Come on, do I have to sing? Cause I'm pretty awful, but I'll do it." I must have looked skeptical, because she began singing along as her hips swung. It wasn't the first time I'd heard her sing... she'd sung along with a song on my phone that she liked, while we walked in the rain... that time she didn't seem self-conscious about her abilities. This time, like the last time, she actually didn't seem that bad to me, but then, I don't think my tastes are that great... I like when girls sound a little bit off, even if it's from bad Autotune... and half the time when I watch those music competition shows, I wind up liking people they reject as having no hope. Maybe my tastes really are shit, but I don't care. I guess objectively speaking singing was probably not Astrid's strong point... and she didn't even get the words right half the time, except for the really obvious lines. But she tried, despite calling herself awful, and she just looked so uninhibited with her dancing that I felt the urge to join her.

Finally, I said to myself, "Why not?" and as my body began to slowly and awkwardly move to the music, not just through the end of "Shake It Off" but into the next song, dancing like an idiot but having fun regardless, and Astrid dancing with me, full of life. And a part of me felt like I was thirteen again too, only not how I was when I was actually thirteen, but the thirteen-year-old I should have been, one who wasn't quiet with everyone except close friends, one who danced with girls and made a move on the ones I liked. It took until I was sixteen before I started to grow out of who I was at Astrid's age, and even since then, I felt like that awkward thirteen-year-old was always inside, whispering doubts in my ears. But not now, now he was having fun.

We didn't quite finish that second song before Astrid suddenly she fell back on my bed as though she had expended all of her energy in that one burst. I sat beside her, on my side and leaning back, and as the song began to fade out, kept looking into her eyes, her smiling face, and, still in that thirteen-year-old mindset, I wanted to kiss her, and before I could push that down, another thought struck me... I'd finally found the Manic Pixie Dream Girl I'd always yearned for.

Chapter Twelve:

If you haven't heard the term before, you'll probably still recognize the concept when I explain... it's one of those characters in movies that are quirky and just perfect for the main character, who, through inspirational words or just her uninhibited presence, encourages him to embrace life, break out of his shell, pursue his dreams, and resolve any of the problems holding him back. Virtually every character Michael Cera plays needs a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in his life, though he doesn't always get one. Zooey Deschenel seems like she was born for that role, though she doesn't always play one.

I learned about the concept from my mom, of course, back when we still watched stuff together. We used to do that a lot, she'd torrent something and we'd watch the pirated movie or show together. We haven't had cable since as long as I can remember, but we still watched many of the most popular shows produced by the big networks. Mom believes that while it's immoral to financially support an evil media corporation that has market dominance already and is using that power irresponsibly, when you could be using that money on smaller independent creative types... that didn't mean you should be left out of the cultural conversation. That attitude probably gives you a clue why I haven't really watched much with her since I was fifteen or so, despite us often liking the same things. It's not that I have anything against pirating when you need to (although part of my teen rebellion did include starting to pay for music and movies when I really liked them), it's just that Mom is always On about something. She's the type who, when we're watching something, always has to bring up that the cast isn't diverse at all, that this character has been whitewashed or fridged, or is an overused stereotype, or this plotline is problematic. And, even though I usually agree on principle that it's an issue in the business as a whole... I just want to watch something to have fun, and not be exhausted or made to feel guilty over it.

Still, before I broke away into watching things on my own, Mom introduced me to the concept of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. This was largely done through complaints, that this or that character in something we were watching were just MPDGs, like that were a bad thing. I never told her, but I usually really liked these characters, maybe even had innocent fictional-character crushes on them... they were usually the kind of women I wished would walk into my life. I suppose I really shouldn't have been ashamed of it, since they are Dream Girls... they wouldn't be called that if they weren't deliberately appealing, right? But I was anyway... I felt like there was something wrong with me for wanting that. It never stopped me from wishing, though. And now, it seemed my wishes had been granted, with a Hitch. She was only thirteen and even as I looked at her, I felt another rush of guilt. Not only did Astrid Hitch, this quirky, energetic book-lover, seem like the type of stereotype I shouldn't yearn for, but she could also get me thrown in jail. Not that I had planned anything inappropriate, despite my desires... but jail could still happen just from someone making assumptions. And yet, as I looked into her flushed, smiling face, hair tousled over her bright eyes, eyes that seemed to shine just for me, a part of my mind kept whispering, "Look! Real-Life Manic Pixie Dream Girl! Go!"

Of course, very soon after that, I realized there was a flaw in my assessment. One of the defining features of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and the reason she was problematic in the first place, wasn't just that she was quirky and fun, but that she didn't have anything going on in her own life, she was mostly a prop in a guy's story. Maybe part of me saw Astrid that way, but I knew there was stuff beyond that, and certainly something beyond my charming personality that brought her to my door for the second time tonight instead of being with her friends, and every so often something would remind me of that.

The next reminder started as the next song did, one by an artist I'd been listening to a lot lately. We both continued to rest on the bed... this song wasn't especially danceable anyway, at least nothing fast. She listened to it for a while, then asked, "Who's this?"

"Melanie Martinez?" My voice rose on the end automatically, like it was a question, like I wasn't sure, but of course, I was. She was something of a recent obsession, and I'd actually thought before that Astrid was part of the reason why. She'd released something of a concept album (which I actually paid for, after sampling illegally), where all the songs seemed to revolve around some kind of object or concept related to childhood. But they had mature themes and words like "fuck" were tossed around pretty liberally. That mix of innocence and the opposite made me, on the first few listens, always think back on Astrid, nearly naked and offering herself... only often in my imagination I didn't refuse her. Of course, I didn't mention any of that. Nor did I especially worry about her hearing the song, sure she'd heard much worse. I was curious to see what she'd think.

Astrid made a hmm, sound, like she was evaluating it, then said, "I'll have to look her up. She seems to know what she's talking about."

That particular song was called "Sippy Cup," and while a number of the lyrics could have seemed especially relevant to her (even more if she had someone close to her die recently, which she'd never mentioned), one jumped immediately to mind, where she sings "Kids are still depressed when you dress them up," and then goes on to rhyme with "sippy cup." Maybe if it wasn't Halloween I'd have not been confident enough to ask, "Are you depressed?"

Her face twitched, like I'd rubbed on a sore spot just by asking. She was quiet for a while, looking at the ceiling, and I thought tears were starting to build up, ready to fall at any moment. She might have had a good meal in her, but, I remembered, she'd still been drinking and her mood could easily change on a dime. Or, of course, she could be a Manic-Depressive Pixie Dream Girl. "No," she said finally. "Depressed is when there's something wrong with you. Like, chemically." She let out a breath. "I'm just sad a lot."

Sad, I mentally filled in, is when there's a reason, there's something wrong in your life. "What's making you sad?"

Astrid's gaze stayed fixed on the ceiling. "Take your pick." I waited, trying to choose some words to prod her, but she spoke again, "I don't fit in anywhere."

"Everyone feels that way," I said. Her gaze slid back to me, but side-eye, and I knew then that it was patronizing, what I said, even if it was true. Which it probably wasn't... sure, the popular guy or head cheerleader who's secretly deep and isolated may be a common trope, but was it true? It certainly didn't seem like it. "Okay, maybe not everyone. And some people probably more than others. But I honestly believe there's a place for everyone... it just takes some people longer to find theirs." She shrugged, unconvinced, and looked back at the ceiling. "Is this about what happened tonight? With your friends?"

"They're NOT my friends."

"You sure about that?" That got me another brief side-eye. "I just mean... well, maybe things will look better in the morning."

Astrid snorted derisively. "I doubt it."

"So what happened?"

"I don't want to talk about it."

"Okay, you don't have to," I said, gave her a second, then added, "But, you know... if you and I are going to be friends?" There was the side-eye again, but it was wider this time, looked a little more hopeful. "This seems like the kind of things real friends talk about." It was cheap move, but I couldn't help it. I was curious.

Now she turned her head to look at me directly. "I guess I might as well. It was kind of your fault anyway."

Chapter Thirteen:

"My fault?" How could it be my fault? Unless maybe one of her friends also found me hot, and they mentioned it, and got into a fight over me... nah, I couldn't believe that. As much as a part of me relished the idea, it was foolish to think I somehow made underage girls want to throw themselves at me. I mean, not that they have the best taste in the world judging by the boy bands that get screaming hordes, but I'm not even that level of good looking.

Astrid raised her body up, supporting on her elbow, and after a few seconds just sat up entirely. "Could I have some more water or something?" She wiped her eyes, though, which made me think that she was playing for time to compose herself.

"Sure. I'll be right back." I went back down to the kitchen, not running but moving quickly, fetched another bottle (while throwing her last one in the recycling bin), then returned. She did seem calmer, and now sat back on the computer chair, but turned away from the screen and towards the door. Her legs spread, not intentionally, seductively, but like a girl who'd never been told to cross her legs. I tried not to look. "Here."

"Thanks. I'm so thirsty." She took a drink, then put the bottle down on my desk. "Anyway... I'm not sure where I should start." She tapped her bare knee nervously. "So, Brooke and I, well, we'd never been that close, but we had a group assignment together and it went well and we had been talking a bit, and her friend Mia and I'd been over to Brooke's place a few times."

"So they were your friends," I filled in, since she seemed to be rambling.

"I thought so. And we went to the Halloween dance at our school the other day? But we didn't really dance, or at least I didn't. Brooke and Mia did a little but we still sort of kept each other company and we agreed that the dance was so dull... and that's when Mia started talking about this party they were going to, tonight. And they made it seem like they had it planned for a while, and I was left out, but I guess they saw I was upset and they said the only reason they didn't invite me was because they didn't think I'd be allowed to go, but then they got all excited about taking me because there'd be guys there... not like a stupid dance and teachers everywhere, but, like, with no supervision?" I waited to see if she'd bring up meeting me while Trick-or-Treating, and some fight that it caused, but no, she blew right past that event without even mentioning it. "So, we get there, and we were eating candy and stuff and mostly keeping to ourselves and then a couple of other guys showed up that like they knew? And Brooke introduced me to this guy, Alec? And I was a little freaked out because, I mean, I guess I knew that it was a college party, but I thought it'd be different and I didn't know that Mia and Brooke already had boyfriends there and they basically just abandoned me to go be with them. But the guy seemed nice, and he really liked my costume and he got me a drink."

I felt a sinking feeling in the bottom of my stomach. This did not seem like the beginning to a story that had a happy ending, or one that was likely to have an unhappy ending that wasn't horrifying. And yet, she showed up here, and didn't seem to be traumatized.

"Anyway, we talked for a while and he was being super nice and asking about me and complimenting me, and he was sort of rubbing my leg a lot which was maybe a little fast but exciting too, you know, like he wanted me?" She paused a moment, looking at me as though wondering if I was going to interrupt. "So I let it happen and then he asked if he could kiss me and I said yeah, and we were, and then suddenly his hand was in my underwear." Now she blushed, but the rest of her face looked like she was either completely unaware of it or trying badly to pretend that she wasn't bothered. "And a couple minutes later he told me to take my clothes off."

"And?" I asked. While she was maybe trying not to blush, I was definitely fighting down a rush of blood moving down below. It was awful, but I couldn't help it, my brain imagined me in place of the guy.

"I asked if maybe we could just hang out and talk more. I could tell he was upset, but he was still nice about it at first, he gave me another drink and said it was natural to be nervous the first time, but like, since this was why I was here we might as well get to it. And I was, like, 'Uh, I was just here because it was a party and have some fun and MAYBE hook up.'" I wondered if 'hook up' meant make out or actually have sex to Astrid. "And Alec said that the only reason I was invited was because my friend said I wanted to have sex, and that I was down for anything if he'd buy the drinks. Anyway, he made another move and I managed to pull myself away and I went to find Brooke and, like, she was already doing, you know, oral with her guy?" I wondered whether Brooke was the vampire or the Red Riding Hood. Just so the mental picture would be accurate, the color of hair bent over a lap, the exact shade of glossy lips at work... but I didn't ask. I just imagined the gothy girl. "And we got into a huge fight and we all got kicked out of the party because the guy who's house it was found out we were only thirteen and not fifteen like they thought, and we had an even bigger fight on the lawn, and then finally Brooke and Mia got in their boyfriends car and drove off and I was all alone."

I relaxed a little. That didn't sound too bad, at least not for Astrid. "Okay... well, I'm sorry you fought with your friends, but... maybe it's not as bad as you think. You might be able to patch things up." Granted, telling an older guy your friend would have sex with him, without telling her, was a pretty scummy thing to do, but... maybe they thought they were doing her a favor.

"Oh, no." She seemed pretty firm about that. "You weren't there. Things were said. Things that can never be unsaid."

"Oh. Well, okay then." I wondered what those things were, but there was one thing I was wondering even more. "I'm not exactly sure how any of that was my fault, though..." Then I thought of one way... if, back then, I had accepted her offer, she wouldn't have been a virgin trying to keep up with her more advanced friends. She might not have been put in the position in the first place.

But that wasn't quite it. "Because I was going to do it." Her voice was very soft, gaze averted towards the floor. "I was going to have sex with Alec. I didn't really want to, but I thought, hey, at least somebody wants me, for once. How bad could it be? And it's supposed to be fun, right?" She stared me in the eye as though daring me to disagree, or maybe to offer to demonstrate. "But then I thought about you, and what you said, back in May? That I should wait until it was right, until it was meant to happen?" Something about that warmed me, that our brief encounter, as ill-advised as it was, had made a positive difference in her life. "And because I found you tonight, of all nights. Like it was... Fate or something, telling me not to be with Alec. That you and I were meant to meet again. And, after, when I was walking, trying to figure out what I was going to do? Alec? He drove by and offered me a ride. Said he felt bad that my friends left me. But I didn't really have anywhere to go, so I thought, maybe I'd risk it... except... then I remembered I knew where you lived. So I could try, ask you for help. See? Fate."

Considering the first time we met, she decided that I should be her first time based on little more than a shared love of books, talk of Fate made me nervous, so I tried to downplay that part of things. "I don't know if I'd say it was Fate, exactly.... I think you made the right choice, though. I don't know who that guy is, but he's probably not the kind of guy you should accept a ride with."

"Yeah, you'd better believe it. I mean, he was skeezy enough to be in on the video plan, so.... "

Video plan? "Wait, what?!"

"Yeah, I didn't tell you? They were going to sneak in the middle, record it and... I don't know, post it on social media." She shook her head, and the tears started welling up again. She wiped them away. "I can't believe I thought they were my squad." A deep breath, and she went on. "And they said Alec knew about it." They said... the words stuck in my head. Maybe this video plan wasn't even real, it was just something one of the girls said they were going to do, in the middle of the fight, to twist the knife in. At least I hoped so... the idea of thirteen-year-old girls being vicious enough to actually do something like that didn't sit well with me. "So if he knew, he's probably the type to drive me somewhere private and rape me or something." For a moment, I thought maybe the whole story wasn't true, that Astrid was playing me, making it up, or at least exaggerating the scenario with wild twists, because she was more matter-of-fact about being raped and probably murdered than she was about her first time being caught on video. Maybe those tears were for my benefit, to get me on her side. But then I decided that was paranoid... it was probably just that she had much more personal experience with betrayal and humiliation than rape, so it was much more real to her, instead of just a theoretical danger. "I mean, I had my thumb on 'Call-911' the whole time he was driving beside me."

"Well, I'm glad you came here rather than going with him." I meant it, but the way she immediately brightened worried me again. "Have you thought about who you're going to call?" And it went away. I felt like I'd just kicked a puppy.

"I don't know," she said. "I'm still thinking. Anyway, you said I had an hour."

An hour was just about up, I thought. Although to be fair, I hadn't looked at the time when she arrived. I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt, another half-hour maybe. I tried to think of some advice, like, "Don't go to college parties you're too young," but anything that came to mind sounded patronizing. And Astrid didn't seem to be as talkative since I reminded her that she'd have to go soon. So we just continued to listen to music, but no more dancing and singing along, and not even speaking much except for the occasional "I like this song," or "Who's this," type conversation.

Eventually, she stood up and said, "I need to use the bathroom again."

I tried not to act embarrassed but pointed her towards the one in the upstairs hall, and she went in and I went to look out the window while I waited. After she was gone a few minutes, just after I'd had time to think that she'd been gone a long time, even though I'd already heard the flush, there came a sound that made my blood run cold, at least once I realized what it was. At first I thought she was just washing up again, or maybe throwing water on her face, like maybe she'd been in there crying and was just trying to make herself presentable again before she returned... but then I heard the distinctive thump as the switch was hit that diverted the water from the bathtub faucet to the shower head.

Chapter Fourteen:

I chewed on my lip, stood up ready to knock on the door and demand she stop, and then changed my mind and paced, trying not to imagine what she would look like in the shower, running the soap over her erect nipples, or a tiny hand perhaps straying between her legs and rubbing intently, steam rising from hot water that seemed to echo her own feelings...

I said I tried, not that I was very successful. But it's not like that was all I was doing, it was just an intrusive thought that kept popping in, in-between my paranoia over what might happen if I got caught with a young girl in my shower, and trying to figure out how to, as soon as she left the shower, get her out of my house as quickly as possible without hurting her feelings. I didn't want to do that. I didn't even want her to go, not deep down, even though right now I was pissed at her for jumping in the shower to extend her time here. I liked just talking to her, and the idea that I might be there for her, to in some small way help her through some of the loneliness and self-doubt that comes with an awkward adolescence, still held a weird but strong appeal. But I also still had a strong feeling that this wasn't going to end well, one way or another.

Eventually, of course, the water turned off, and after that, it was only a few minutes before the door opened. I was waiting for her in front of it, and she gave me a winning smile as though there was nothing wrong with what happened... but of course, I wasn't really looking at her smile.

She had a towel wrapped around her chest, and that was all. It seemed pretty secure, but at the same time like it could fall off at any moment and leave her naked from her head down to her toes. With her hair still soaking wet, she reminded me much more of the way she was the day she met, vulnerable, in need of help. I was still angry, but it melted me a little... maybe mostly, but I had to put a little bit of frustration in my voice when I said, "What the hell? Don't you usually ask before taking a shower in someone's house?"

Her lips curled up into a pout. "What? I thought you'd be happy. You said I should get myself together so I could call someone... I certainly can't do that if I smell like I've just been at a party."

I sighed a little in exasperation. I could sense it was a ploy, but at the same time, I wasn't sure enough that I wanted to call her on it. "Fine. Just... get dressed please?"

"Sure," she said. "As soon as my clothes are dry."


She moved aside to let me see. The sink was full, her skirt and shirt were in there, and her glasses on the rim of the sink. The clothes looked like they'd been wrung out, but they were still very wet. "They smelled bad too. I thought maybe a quick rinse would help." I literally facepalmed. As my hand slid down my chin, she brightened. "Wait! I know what we can do!" Astrid practically skipped back into my room, where she had her handbag, and returned with the small magic wand. She pointed them at the sink then waved her wand and said, "Evaporatum Textilus!" She looked back at me after a second. "I don't think it's working." Maybe that was because her wand was made of plastic colored to look like wood rather than unicorn hair and pixie farts. In any other scenario, I'd have smiled, but this time, I was thoroughly not amused, so she added, "Don't worry, just throw them in the dryer and they'll be done before you know it."

I exhaled sharply, trying to calculate how long it'd take to dry. Probably not that long, but at least half an hour, probably. I thought that was doable... I didn't think my mother would be home by then, unless she came home much earlier than usual, and in that case, I was already screwed. Of course, from past experience, drying just two or three things alone didn't work as well as you'd hope, you needed something to keep everything moving. "Okay, I need a towel." I was thinking out loud, rather than asking for one.

Astrid's fingers went up to the top of her towel, at the tucked in corner that presumably would release it, and my heart practically stopped. "If you say so, but then what am I going to wear?" But she didn't move beyond that, and I could see it in her eyes. She was teasing me.

I moved to the small closet beside the bathroom. "A fresh towel." I grabbed one, then pushed past Astrid into the washroom and put the skirt, sweater, and shirt inside. I noticed that her Gryffindor tie, as well as her underwear (also red and yellow, but not an officially licensed product) and black socks, all hadn't been soaked, they just lay, dry, on the toilet. I made a mental note of that and started downstairs. "Stay here," I said. "Look out the window, if you see a car pulling in the driveway, yell down at me." It seemed that if I had to choose, a girl wearing wet clothes was easier to explain than a girl in a towel. She saluted with the wand and went into my room, and I practically sprinted down the stairs and into the laundry room. I turned the heat on high and threw everything in, along with a scented dryer sheet to help eliminate any trace of party-smell, and then returned up to the second floor.

Astrid was there, looking out the window, and now she wasn't looking quite so mischievous. In fact, she looked vulnerable. Especially in a towel. "Are you mad at me, Karl?" She gave that look, her eyes nervously looking up at me, like a puppy that knew it'd done something wrong.

"No." I let out a sigh. "It's just... you're making this very... difficult for me." I almost said hard. Saying she was making it hard for me would be an opening that could be taken advantage of.

"It doesn't have to be." She abandoned the window, and went to lie down on my bed. She was still wearing the towel so the dark void between her legs was more alluring than ever. I couldn't see anything, if she was trying to allure me she wasn't being blatant about it, but if she spread her legs I'd be able to see everything.

"Yes, it does. If my mom caught you here, I'd be... well, I'd be in huge trouble." Would she assume the worst? I didn't know. Somewhere, deep down, I thought she would. Whether she turned me in for it was another matter, but she would never look at me the same way.

"So your mom's the only reason you're trying to get rid of me? I mean, if you lived alone..."

"If I lived alone, it'd be even a worse idea for you to be here."

"Why not? It's not like I'm in danger from you." Her legs drifted ever so slowly apart.

Before she could flash me, if that was indeed what she was doing, I looked away, walked back to the bathroom, where I picked up her underwear. I tried not to think about what I was holding, but I did anyway. A little girl's underwear... freshly worn, for that matter. It was just cotton, but somehow it felt softer than the kind of underwear I wore. Part of me wanted to take a sniff. She wouldn't have known, since she was still in the other room. Instead, I gathered up the rest of her remaining clothes (no bra, I noticed), and returned, tossed them to her. "Here, you can put these on, at least." I pointedly turned away, looked out the window.

"Okay, I'm done."

I turned. Then quickly turned back. I'm not even sure I really saw anything beyond a blur of skin broken up by a few splashes of color. But nonetheless a perfect vivid image formed in my head and burned there... this little thirteen-year-old girl standing near my bed wearing only underwear, socks, and an incongruous tie around her neck. In this mental picture the tie dangled enticingly between two soft and erect nipples which themselves were proudly standing on small but noticeable breasts, and the end of the tie pointed, like an arrow, down to the top of her mound protruding through the tight panties.

Okay, NOW she was making it hard.

Chapter Fifteen:

I couldn't possibly have seen all those details that I remembered, nor the alluring smile I thought I saw, in the fraction of a second my head was turned in her direction. At least that's what I told myself, that it was only a fraction of a second, that my mind filled in the blanks. I squinted my eyes in a futile attempt to banish that perfectly vivid memory, while I said, "Put your towel back on, please."

I heard the soft rustle of moving fabric, and then Astrid saying, "It's not a big deal, you're not seeing anything you haven't seen before."

"It's still very distracting," I said, regretting the words immediately. I should have told her that she shouldn't been showing herself like that, or something like that, but it seemed like a bad idea to admit I'd be distracted by the sight of her wearing nothing but panties (and socks, and a Harry Potter-themed tie which dangled between... no... out, mental image, out!). Shouldn't a girl her age be wearing a bra, too, even of the training variety?

"Okay, it's safe," she said, and I risked another look back, ready to turn back at any moment if it turned out she was wearing the towel on her head or something. But no, she was much like she'd been before, except the tie hung out over the towel. And Astrid seemed more than a little amused at my discomfort. "See? I told you I'm not in any real danger here. You won't even look... you certainly aren't going to try anything."

"It's not you who's in danger here," I agreed, or at least I thought.

"Right, just like I said." She seemed to completely ignore that I meant I was the one in danger. "Why do you think I thought I should come here? I knew you wouldn't force me to do anything... anything I didn't want to do. Right?"


Her smile widened into a grin as she sat back down on the bed. "In a way, I guess you could say I tamed you."

"Tamed me?"

"Yup. I mean you looked before, but now you won't. So I guess I tamed you, right?" She looked thoughtfully up towards the ceiling. "Which I guess means I'm responsible for you."


"If you tame something, you become responsible for it, forever."

I closed my eyes and shook my head. Forever? Was she trying to make some excuse to stay around here forever? Or was this just drunk talk? "Where did you get that idea?"

"It's from The Little Prince."

"Oh. I still haven't read that one." Her face fell a little, like she was hoping I had. Well, she needed to get used to being disappointed. "And anyway, you didn't tame me. If anything, I tamed myself." Of course, I shouldn't have needed to be tamed. I should have simply been uninterested in her because she was too young for me. Like seeing a toddler run around without a shirt. It was too bad life didn't work out that way.

"Either way," she said. "I feel safe with you. Even when I'm here in a towel. Or not even a towel." The music was playing an up-tempo energetic song again, and she grinned. "Want to dance this one out?"

I looked her over, eyes settling on the towel just under her collarbone, held their by friction and which could be dislodged at any moment. It was easy to imagine some vigorous dancing doing just that. It was slightly harder to imagine the panties slipping off in the same movement, but somehow I managed that before I caught myself. "I think we'd better not. At least not until you have something on that isn't in danger of falling off. No matter how safe you might feel it's better for my own sanity, okay?"

Astrid rolled her eyes, but she seemed amused while she did it. "Fine." Since she couldn't dance without freaking me out, instead she lay back on the bed, then reached over to my night table, picked up the book Wool, flipped through it idly. "What if there really was a nuclear war or something?"

"I don't think that's very likely tonight."

"No, but, I mean, what if. And we met up, out there, in the ruins of civilization. What would you do?"

Oh, we were playing the hypothetical game again. At least that was safer than dancing. "I don't know," I said. "Probably avoid you."

She glared at me, offended. "Avoid me?"

"Well, for all I know, you're a mutant or a raider or something. It's nothing personal, I'd avoid everyone I didn't know." I paused. "Wait, do we already know each other in this scenario?"

"What if we didn't? And I didn't look like a threat, and that I needed help."

"I guess I'd try to help you."

She nodded. "And what if once I knew you, I wanted to travel with you? Safety in numbers."

Of course I'd let her, maybe even jump at the chance, but the real question was whether I should admit that. "I don't know, it'd depend on the situation. In the wasteland, I'm not really cut out for looking after somebody."

"You wouldn't have to look after me, I can take care of myself. But we could watch each other's backs."

"Yeah, I guess so. It might make sense. At least until we found somewhere safe."

"Maybe there wouldn't be, though. I mean, it's the end of the world." She took a slight breath, spoke ever-so-slightly more quickly. "And what if there weren't any other girls around...?"

I could see what she was getting at. And, as much as I wanted to, thought it might be best to, I couldn't tell her that I wouldn't be with her if she was the last girl on Earth. But I couldn't play into the game, either. So I had to redirect the topic. "That's never going to be the case. I don't know about you, but believe me, I'm nothing special... so if I survived the apocalypse, then plenty of others did, too. Even in Fallout there's plenty of settlements... they're just... grungy."

"Can I see it?"


"The game. You have it, right?" I must have been just too slow to react, for she continued, "I mean, we've got time until everything's dry anyway, we gotta do something."

"I suppose." She put the book down and hopped off the bed, taking that mild agreement for success, and I went to the computer and called up Fallout 3. It wasn't quite as polished in many ways, but I still preferred it to New Vegas.

Astrid leaned over my shoulder as I started the game up, then called up a save game. It was an eight-year-old game (which brought home that she must have been five when it first came out), so she was used to better graphics, but she didn't seem to mind, and she actually lit up a little when we ran into a combat with a raider and I showed her how to use VATS. "Ha! Yeah, that's what you get for messing with us!" A slow motion head-shot is always a people-pleaser, I guess.

I was relieved she didn't notice that the character I created looked a little like her. Who knows what she'd read into it. I hadn't even realized I'd done that, until I was watching Astrid play with herself... an older version of herself, anyway. I normally play female characters, but this latest game I'd started after meeting Astrid and I guess I'd unconsciously modeled it on her... but not closely enough that she pointed it out. Then again, most of the time you were watching from a first person perspective and didn't see your actual character. After a few minutes of playing, she asked, "So is that all you do? Wander around, collect bottlecaps, kill stuff?"

"Oh no, there's a whole storyline about searching for your father, and along the way you visit various towns, talk to people, get involved with different things... and if you have really high intelligence, or charisma, you have options for different things to say than if you're just dumb muscle. And you can have companions, like a dog, or a giant mutant." In addition to the ones from the game, there were also a few other potential companions I'd added as mods, including a young girl you could meet in Little Lamplight, but I didn't mention that and she wasn't on this save. "And you can either be a good guy or a bad guy, and depending on what you do you might hear stories about yourself on the radio. It's pretty engrossing. But I don't know, often, I just like wandering around, exploring."

"Hmph. Sounds like fun, I guess. Maybe I'll have to check it out when I get some money in my steam wallet. It's probably cheap since it's so old." She looked up at me with a glint in her eye. "But you know, if I turn into Fallout trash, I'm blaming you."

"I'll live with it." But I liked the idea of her becoming a fan, because of me. I was around her age when I first played the game, and it made a big impact on me. A familiar shifting of the light played along the walls, coming from the window, and I heard another subtle but distinctive engine sound. "Oh shit."

Astrid's eyes were on the screen, and she moved her character viewpoint around like she was looking for some threat on the game screen. "What?"

"Shit, shit, shit, shit," I repeated, got up and checked the window, hoping against hope that I was wrong, that it was just someone pulling into the driveway to turn around and go the other way. But no. "My mom's home." From one end of the world to another.

Chapter Sixteen:

Astrid let her mouth hang open, like she wanted to suggest something but didn't know what, like she was stunned too... as though, in all her teasing and stalling she genuinely didn't think this might happen. And meanwhile, my mind was racing. I had an almost naked girl in a towel in my room, and her clothes in the dryer downstairs. Could I just tell Mom? I wondered again. Would she believe me? No... Mom might want to, but she seemed to be the type that would automatically assume that a man in a situation like that was being a predator. She might pretend to believe me, as long as Astrid didn't cry rape or anything, but in the back of her mind, I was sure that she would think of me as the enemy from that point on, think of me the same way she thinks of Woody Allen. And I didn't want that.

But if I could hide Astrid... maybe, just maybe I could get away with it. Of course, if I tried and failed, it would look even worse for me... maybe if I wasn't in a rush, I'd have considered that more thoroughly, but right then, it was barely even a passing thought... I just wanted more than anything to get out of that night without anything happening. And the first step of that was collecting Astrid's clothes. "Just... just... stay here. Don't make a sound." I darted out the room, and when I passed the doorframe I abruptly changed direction, returned to the computer, exited the program, and started my playlist again. I figured it was a good idea to have something playing that might cover any incidental sounds of a person in the room, and my mom might be savvy enough to recognize the sounds of a game that I'm not there to play, so music was the best. "Don't make a sound," I said again, and this time stayed long enough to see Astrid nodding.

I made it down to the laundry room when I heard Mom opening the front door. That left me in a pickle. Well, one above and beyond the whole "nearly naked thirteen-year-old in my room" thing. If I went upstairs with her clothes I risked being seen with them. If I didn't, I risked her finding them.

I'm either a genius under pressure, or an idiot, but I could only think of one thing. To shove her clothes down my pants.

It made a little more sense than it sounds. My pirate pants were pretty puffy, and there was room in the leg area. So I shoved the skirt down one leg, hooked it under the waistband of my boxers so it wouldn't slip, and then reached for the rest... at which point I noticed the hamper, and realized that if I put the towel on top, I could probably hide it unless Mom looked through my hamper. She might see the edge of the shirt or sweater-top, but all folded up, they looked close enough to other type of clothes that I might wear. I wasn't sure the skirt would pass similar muster, so I kept it in place next to my crotch, pulled up my pants, and carried everything upstairs.

I saw Mom on her way to the kitchen after having kicked off her boots. In addition to those dark leather boots, she wore pants, that were similar to my pirate pants but darker, a long cloak with a hood, which she was presently taking off, revealing her purple hair underneath, and a belt with fake daggers on it, and, incongruously, a bright pink t-shirt that said, I think, "Death To The Patriarchy!" It was the finishing touch to her outfit as a Social Justice Rogue. I'm not sure the t-shirt actually said that and not some other activist slogan, I didn't really read it... my mom was short but busty, and every time I glanced at her torso area for more than a few seconds I had a flashback to a time when I was eleven and I stared too long while she bent over in a low-cut top. The memory still made me cringe. And I had other things on my mind than her t-shirt, I was trying very hard to act perfectly normal, so as not to raise even a suspicion. "Oh, hi, Mom," I said. "I didn't hear you come in. I just realized I needed to clean a couple things for tomorrow." As I spoke, I knew I was explaining too much, and already failing in my prime objective, but I couldn't help myself. I never was good at acting normal, even when I wasn't trying to hide things.

Luckily, Mom didn't seem to notice or care. She went to the sink and poured herself a glass of tapwater. She looked... tired. Really tired. Far more tired than she would normally be for this time on a Saturday night, although the circles of dark eyeshadow around her eyes (to accentuate the "Rogue" look) probably exacerbated the effect. My Mom, well, for her age she actually looked pretty young... she's usually mistaken for being in her early thirties, although her short stature and wild hair colors has something to do with that, but right now her expression looked worn out, which made all of her look that way. "How was it tonight?" she asked. "A lot of kids?"

"Yeah, a good number." One too many, maybe.

"What about with the blue pumpkin?"

"Only like, five or six." She nodded as though that was expected. Most kids are there for candy, not toys, but there was no reason to leave someone out of an experience just because they were a minority. "How about you, how was your night?"

She grunted in frustration. "I'm telling you, it's a good thing we decided to call it a night early. I've got a migraine, and it's only going to get worse." That explained her look. At first, I felt sorry for her, but then I relaxed muscles I didn't know were tense. I'm not a monster, it sucked that my mom was in pain but... that would make things easier tonight. She'd be less likely to poke around in my business when she had a migraine because usually it meant she went right to lie down...

Fuck. Shit fuck shit. She went right to lay down, true, but most of the time, she lay down downstairs, on the couch, right in front of the TV... something about how the position of her neck made things better if she wasn't completely horizontal. It wasn't a sure thing... sleeping on the couch often made her back stiff and sore, and sometimes she was willing to endure the pain of now to save some later, and it depended on how bad things were, but usually, the migraine won out, at least for a while. Sometimes she'd trudge up to her actual bed later, but as long as she did stay on the couch, it meant that to sneak Astrid downstairs, I'd have to go right past her. Not literally in front of her, but the stairs were visible from the couch.

Mom didn't notice my reversal of feelings, mainly because she wasn't even looking at me. She was now standing on her tiptoes, digging into the cupboard where she kept some of her prescription pills. Mom may complain about Big Pharma all the time, but when she gets a migraine, she goes straight for the heavy duty stuff and doesn't fuck around with alternative medicines. Of course, she herself says, a person who doesn't have contradictions is a caricature.

It was then I saw an almost fatal oversight. Astrid's shoes. They still rested near the door. While Mom was wrestling with the child-proof top, I crept to the door, grabbed the shoes, and slipped them under the towel, letting out a silent exhalation of relief that she hadn't looked my direction while that had occurred, and giving me the time to move back towards the foot of the stairs.

After washing the pills down with a freshly-poured glass of filtered water from the fridge, Mom took a fresh look around the kitchen. "You had eggs?" The smell must have lingered, although I was still too used to it to really be aware.

"Yeah, I was feeling hungry, so..." She nodded, losing interest in whatever thought caused her to bring it up, and I could see her wince as a fresh jab of pain went through her. "You know what, we can talk tomorrow. Why don't you get to bed?" Upstairs, I tried to telepathically suggest.

She passed by me, raised her tattoo-covered left arm to muss my hair affectionately, which was a stretch because I'm taller than her. "Yeah, I think I'll just crash on the couch for a while." I tried to keep the disappointment off my face, not to mention the absurd fear that she'd see the inappropriate shoes and clothes under the towel in the basket I was carrying, but she must have saw something... in my face, at least. "You doing okay?"

I put on an awkward smile. "Yeah, I, uh, just, have something going on upstairs." I almost broke and told her, used the moment as a chance to confess, try and salvage whatever trust I may have had by admitting it and not having her find out later, but... the words wouldn't come. Instead I let her think that I was preoccupied with a game or something. "But if you need something..."

"No, go," she said, and walked around me. "Just, you know, keep the noise level considerate." I nodded, kept the smile up, and retreated back upstairs, seeing, on my way, her settle onto the couch and turn the TV on. When she got like this, Mom liked to have a little murmur of voices or music of her own, something to keep her mind distracted from the pain, although she usually turned the brightness setting way down.

In the hall upstairs, I fished Astrid's skirt up and put it in the basket so no one would ever see where it was, all the while feeling a little foolish about doing it in the first place. Inside my room, Astrid froze as I opened the door, like she was expecting it might be someone else. The towel was on the floor. Which wasn't to say that she was naked, if anything, she was slightly more presentable, now wearing a long t-shirt... one of my own t-shirts, the one I wore before I went pirate, only on her tiny body long enough that it just barely covered her underwear, and not looking any less innocent. If anything, it looked like something a girl might throw on after having sex if she couldn't find her own clothes.

Chapter Seventeen:

"What are you doing?" I whispered.

Astrid got the hint and kept her voice down too. She pulled at the fabric of the shirt, showing that stretched to mid-thigh, and in doing so also stretching the top tight against the small bumps that defined her chest. The shirt was already on the threadbare side. I couldn't quite see through it, but it was close enough that I almost thought I could. "I'm sorry, I just thought this would be better."

It was, in a naive way... it certainly covered more of her than the towel, but I didn't think it would be at all better for somebody to find her like this. At least a girl in a towel comes with an explanation... and while why a thirteen-year-old girl just took a shower in our upstairs bathroom raised questions, why a thirteen-year-old girl was wearing almost nothing but my old t-shirt in my room seemed to raise even more. But I doubted Astrid knew that, and at least she was trying, so it was hard to be angry. I let it go.

"Okay, look, my mom's downstairs, so we have to be very quiet. Whispers only, okay?" She nodded. I put the laundry basket on the ground near my bed and checked on my computer. I hated to do it, but I lowered the music. I didn't shut it off, but Mom rarely expected that. After all, she had the sounds of the TV and that didn't bother her. "Considerate" meant that it should be kept at a level that was unlikely to be distracting if heard in another room, and that seemed to be what to strive for here. Living with a mother who occasionally gets migraines, I pretty much had what I considered "considerate" volume settings already memorized, and just put it a notch or two above that. I wanted it to be loud enough that she could dismiss any unexpected sounds as being from the music or television, but quiet enough that she wouldn't come up and ask me to keep it down.

The music, now much quieter, was still loud enough to be heard at least when we weren't talking. I looked back at Astrid, who was watching me, still wearing my shirt. "Take that off," I said. She tilted her head and blinked numbly, like she hadn't expected me to be so bold, and I added hastily, pointing to the basket, "Your clothes are in there." And because I felt like I needed to explain where she made her mistake, I followed up with, "Wearing one of my shirts looks more like a girlfriend thing." The tilt in her head adjusted an angle, like she was trying to understand what I meant by that, like she was evaluating whether I said that because I was just worried that my mom might think she was my girlfriend, or if I was going out of my way to point out that she wasn't. But after a second, she moved towards the basket.

Mercifully, she turned around before she began to undress. Shamefully, I didn't. At first I just didn't think of it, but once she started, I was transfixed. It was like she instinctively or deliberately did it for maximum impact without showing anything. With her back to me, she first pulled the t-shirt over her head. She still wore the tie, under the shirt, and her underwear of course. Then she bent down to the basket, seemingly thrusting her butt towards my face, but of course she wasn't even close enough for me to touch by outstretching my arms. It just seemed like I was. Some part of my mind analyzed again the differences between how she looked in May... especially because now I could compare directly with the last time I saw her bent over, in underwear, in front of me. It was when she was doing her own round of drying wet clothes, at her house, after I walked an already-soaked little girl home in the rain under the protection of my umbrella.

I didn't think it was my imagination... her hips and butt definitely seemed a little wider this time, more womanly... it was still possible that my memory had just played tricks on me, made her look younger and more innocent to justify how I refused her. Or maybe this physical development was a signal that she was more mature, now, maybe even old enough to... no, best not to think that way. Most likely it was somewhere in between, she was still childlike, just a little larger, and the difference was accentuated because now her underwear looked like it was designed to be somewhat sexy. It wasn't quite a thong, but it was tight and clung around her body, and did narrow between the buttocks before widening again to just barely cover her more intimate areas. But even with that, when she bent over, I once again I thought I saw the swell of a lip, peeking around the edge of the fabric, like had played over in my memories so many times from the first time. This time, if anything, it seemed even more prominent.

I pulled away from my mix of reminiscing and leering when she straightened up to put her shirt on, managed to turn my head so that when she whispered, "Okay," I could look like I had been a gentleman the whole time, although when I looked back there was a shadow of a smile on her face and a glint in her eyes, as she pulled the tie out from under the dress shirt, that suggested maybe I wasn't fooling her. "So, what's the plan?"

"Plan?" I repeated, like I didn't know what she was talking about. Of course I did. I just didn't actually have a plan yet.

"I mean, if you were going to introduce me to your mother, I think you would have already..." She sat down on the edge of my bed, knees together, feet apart, waiting.

"I don't know," I admitted. "She's lying down on the couch... she might sleep there, but she's a really light sleeper." I took a deep, frustrated breath. "Just let me think for a second." That was when panic started to set in. Because not only did I not have a plan, I felt like I had an anti-plan, like anti-matter... a situation that was so against the normal flow of the universe, that even trying to come up with a plan was likely to lead to disaster, that my mind wanted to shut down and just stay here without moving until the situation went away.

That wasn't realistic... or was it? I mean, obviously, just shutting down wasn't an option, and I did need to plan, but as I forced my mind into motion it seemed like maybe... not doing anything genuinely could possibly be the best move. Sneaking her downstairs was out of the question at this point, you can't say, "Oh, by the way I had an adolescent girl up in my room I didn't mention." And sneaking her out another way just didn't seem practical... even if it wasn't unacceptably dangerous to try to get her out of a second story window (I might risk injuring myself with some kind of elaborate parkour descent, but even a small risk of hurting Astrid seemed too much), an adult man sneaking a little girl out a window late at night is the kind of thing that gets noticed even in a community that minds its own business most of the time. Even if no one was looking out the window, all it would take is one passing car at the wrong time and I might as well have walked her down the street holding her hand and stop for deep sloppy tongue-kisses at every corner.

To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, once you eliminate the impossible, in whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must lie the solution. If sneaking her out was out of the question, there seemed to be only one option. Or at least, only one that came to mind. In the weeks that followed, other things I could have done occurred to me... not great, but at least with some chance of success... ranging from sneaking her into the garage while Mom was taking a bathroom break to asking Astrid to play along and saying she, just this minute, snuck into my window drunk thinking she was on the wrong street and sneaking into her own room, but none of that genius came to me then. I sat down beside her, so I wouldn't be tempted to look at her legs, and also so that I could be even more easily heard while whispering. "We might have to hide out here. Until she goes to up to bed at least."

She beamed. "Okay!" It was said just a shade too loud for my comfort, or maybe it was the eagerness more than the volume that made me flinch. When she continued, it was more subdued. "How long is that going to be, you think?" she asked. "All night? I mean, because that's fine with me, I just wanna be prepared."

Chapter Eighteen:

I shook my head, in wonder more than denial. "You want to stay here all night?" It was weird, when you're whispering, it makes everything sound weird... in this case, instead of expressing my incredulity, it sounded almost like I was inviting her.

"Of course. At least then I won't have to find somewhere else to go."

"I should be finding a way to get you home," I said.

She frowned. "Yeah, that wasn't ever going to happen." I glanced at her and she shrugged. "Remember when I said I'd go sleep in a backyard if I had to? I wasn't kidding. If you tried to take me home, I'd have ditched you at the first red light I recognized. This actually works out so much better."

Tactics these extreme just seemed insane. Unless... "Are you, like, a runaway?"

Her half-confused, half-amused expression told me the answer even before she whispered, "No, of course not."

I sat down beside her, both to reduce the distance sound had to travel and to try to subliminally inspire her to confide, like we were sharing secrets. "So what's so bad about going home?"

"I told you. My mom thinks I'm with friends. And she's got a guy over for the night. She never gets to do that when I'm there. You think I'm going to screw that up? She'd kill me."

I felt like there was something more than that, that there had to be. Fear of getting in trouble had to be outweighed by the danger she could be in all alone. "She would not. She'd rather you be safe than you be out on your own. I bet if you told her the truth she wouldn't even punish you." It's what my Mom would do when I was young, if I'd gotten drunk or something against the rules, but I was smart enough to call her when I needed help.

Astrid rolled her eyes. "See, you just proved it." I looked at her, confused. "Just because you're older doesn't always mean you're any smarter."

My face burned a little. She was right, I had no idea about her family situation, some parents are strict to a ridiculous degree. I might be luckier than most... sure, my mom might be a weird quasi-communist, but at least she could be reasoned with when it wasn't about social justice. "Okay, maybe she would punish you, but... she'd still want you to be safe." That seemed like a pretty universal parental truth.

"We discussed this. I'm safe here." She pointed down to her lap.

I let out an annoyed breath, almost a grunt of frustration, that was probably louder than our recent whispers. Yes, she might be safe here, and we might be stuck in this situation for now, but I hated the thought of letting her go on believing that she could take this kind of risk with someone that, realistically, she barely knew. "Well, I'm not giving up on getting you home tonight," I told her. "And if I do, I'm taking you home, even if it gets you punished."

A grumpy silence overtook us, but then she said, "It's not just the punishment." I looked back at her, and she continued, "It's just... she was happy when I said I was having a sleepover with friends. I'm not good at making friends. I don't want her to think I failed again."

So there was a little more to it after all. I could hardly blame her... especially since not wanting to disappoint my mother was the major reason she was still here. I wasn't going to let her out of my promise, but there was another point that needed to be pressed. "You didn't fail," I said. She shrugged. "What happened earlier, none of that was your fault."

Another shrug. The classic multipurpose expression covering almost all of adolescent emotional complexity. When I was her age, I used it a lot... now I could see how frustrating it was to be on the receiving end. Was she shrugging because she knew it in her head but didn't feel it? Because she still thought it was her fault? Because she just didn't want to tell me I was right? She spoke after a few seconds, and looked to me. "I keep butting in where I'm not really welcome." Her eyes were wide, plaintive, like she wanted me to tell her she was welcome here. I didn't rise to the bait, although man did I want to, and finally she looked away again and asked, "So, what do we do now?"

"I don't know. Whatever it is, it has to be something quiet." I nodded towards one of my shelves. "You can grab a book if you want."

She made a grimace. "My mind's still a little fuzzy. And... and I'm tired. Do you mind if I just sleep, for a while anyway? Until you decide it's time to kick me out?"

I winced at the harshness, but said, "No... no, go right ahead." It was probably the safest way to spend time. You know how it is, if you're awake, you'll need to move around, take trips, get water, go to the bathroom... but if you're sleeping, or trying to sleep, everything's calm and quiet.

Astrid looked around the room, and asked, "Umm, where...?"

"You can use the bed," I said, and stood up to give her room. I watched as she slid back and curled up into the fetal position, away from me. "I'll be right back." She looked over her shoulder, nodded, and then nodded again when I put a finger to my lips to remind her to be quiet.

Then I slid out of my room (opening the door only the minimum necessary, in case Mom was somehow, impossibly, right there), and went to the bathroom myself. The night might have gone a whole lot differently if I'd masturbated while I was in there too. I considered it, but it seemed somehow more unsavory, and anyway, right then, I wasn't particularly aroused (except, for a moment, when my cock stiffened at the thought of masturbating while a young girl lay in my bed), so I decided against it. That decision was one of many decisions that night that might have changed my life if I'd gone the other way.

Other than masturbating, there's only so much you can do in a washroom, even if you're trying to kill time. Ideally, I wanted Astrid to fall asleep while I was out. But I couldn't stay out there forever, so I just peed, washed my hands, splashed water on my face, and went out, taking a short detour on my way back to see what if I could hear Mom downstairs, either snoring or moving about. All I could make out were the faint sounds of television, quiet enough that I could barely hear it over the music still coming from my room.

I crept back there, closed the door behind me. In my absence, Astrid had quietly maneuvered herself underneath my covers, and it seemed like I'd accomplished my goal. Her eyes were closed, and she was peaceful as I looked down at her. In my bed, she looked both cute and fragile, and I wanted to curl up beside her and hold her, not for sexual reasons, but just to protect her. Then of course, I thought about how it might look if we were caught that way, especially if... I was suddenly seized with the thought that getting under the covers might not have been the only move she made, maybe she'd gotten naked, too.

Chapter Nineteen:

I circled around the bed, but there were no piles of clothes anywhere, aside from my own, just her purse and shoes, and glasses, nothing made of cotton or silk, which made me relieved and somehow disappointed at the same time. Just as, even though when I looked at her, peaceful on my bed, I wanted to protect her, there was some part of me that wanted to do the kind of things that I was so worried people would assume if they caught her here. I can't remember ever having sets of feelings that were so contradictory when Astrid wasn't around.

Her eyes flew open as though she could read minds. "What?" At least she remembered to whisper.

"Nothing," I said, feeling embarrassed for having been caught looking, and made a show of inspecting the floor. "Just trying to decide where I'm going to sleep."

Her face relaxed into a beautiful, natural smile. "We can share. I mean, it's your bed." I shook my head, and Astrid's smile faded and she rolled her eyes. "There's plenty of room. We won't even be touching." She had a point, the bed was a decent size, and she was very little. Still, it didn't seem right. "Fine, then, I'll take the floor." She sat up and swung a leg over the side of the bed.

"No, no, stay."

"How am I gonna sleep knowing I'm stealing your bed?" I winced at the volume. She wasn't exactly loud, but this time, she had forgotten to whisper, and I was oversensitive. I put my finger to my lips, and she looked guilty for a moment, then smiled with a glint in her eye. "So do you want to argue about this more, or will you just get in the bed?" I gave her a glare, but circled around to the other side of the bed. "Turn off the light, too, kay?"

I hit the switch, went to the computer to quickly switch to my "music to sleep by" playlist, then returned to sit on the bed beside her, on top of the covers. The light from the street, not to mention my computer screen and clock, all provided just enough illumination to see by, which is how I often slept anyway, but now it meant we could still see each other, especially as she'd rolled back to face me. "See?" she whispered. "It's not so bad like this." Her eyes flicked up and down my legs. "You usually sleep on top of the covers?"

"Tonight I do," I said. "And with clothes on." She snorted softly, even though she'd already obeyed that rule. So my pointing it out seemed exceptionally prudish, even to me. "Just... try and get some sleep." She giggled, a short quiet one that was still too loud for comfort. "What?"

"Nothing," she said. "It's just I've never shared my bed with a pirate before." Another giggle. I'd hoped the drunkenness had worn off, but apparently it came and went. Maybe lying down had done something, sent a fresh rush of alcohol to her brain. "Good thing I can trust you, huh? I don't have to worry about you trying to ravish me."

Ravish? Of course Astrid would use a word that's probably only ever used in books. I tried to "shhh" her, and she said, mercifully quietly but still more active than I would have liked. "Don't worry, I'll be quiet. I promise. Even if you do try to ravish me." I could swear I could feel her breath in my ear on the last part, and I squeezed my eyes shut and rolled away from her, hoping she'd get the point. It seemed like she did at first, for she was quiet except for a little bit of shifting around in the bed. Until finally I felt a gentle tap-tap on my shoulder. "Karl?" she whispered. "Thank you for letting me stay. I'm sorry. I know you don't like me."

I sighed. "I like you, Astrid," I said, and it was true, although now wasn't her most endearing moment. "It's just... very hard right now." I realized too late that I could have worded that better, but either the innuendo went over her head or she gracefully decided to ignore it. "Just try and get some sleep. Or is the music too loud?" I didn't want to lower it too much, but if it was keeping her from sleeping better that than us keep talking. Conversation, actual conversation... it has a rhythm you don't get from music or even most scripted shows, and even if Mom couldn't hear words, I was afraid she might somehow notice that rhythm.

"No, I like it," she said, and was quiet, and soon that was the only sound there was, the soft music, sometimes louder or more fast paced, but all familiar and comforting enough that, to my great surprise, I soon found myself drifting off to sleep.

I awoke several times that night, for different reasons and for different lengths of time. A song louder than expected, a clearing of the throat from Astrid, an inadvertent bump, all of them could trigger it me lurching awake. I'm normally a pretty sound sleeper, and this was the least restful night I could remember outside of the night before a big exam.

The first of the more notable interruptions was, there was a text, or something, from Astrid's phone, that made a soft sound, a vibration, not a chime. She quickly got up, whispered, "Sorry, sorry," and silenced it, spent a second reading whatever notification she got, and typing in a quick reply, then put it away and got back into bed.

"What was it?" I asked.

"It's nothing. I turned it off."

I suppressed a sigh of frustration and tried to get back to sleep. Before it could happen, I felt her sitting up again, and when I looked she tugged up at the bottom of her sweater. "Clothes on," I reminded her softly.

"Just the sweater," she said, equally softly. "It's just I'm too hot." Yes, that was one of the problems. But I could see her point as well.

"Okay, But the shirt stays on." She didn't answer, just completed taking off the sweater, lay it casually beside her, and she loosened but didn't remove the tie. When she lay back down, I closed my eyes again, not think about the fact that I was turned towards her instead of away, and pulled the covers back over me, too.

Yes, though a process I can only attempt to reconstruct after the fact, I somehow had gotten under the covers with her, albeit not touching her. It's hard to sleep on top of covers, I think, your mind, once it gets sleepy enough, remembers that something's not quite right while it forgets the reason for it, and attempts to correct it. I think that I had slid to the far side of the bed, and later, once Astrid had stolen the covers from me, semiconsciously tugged them back, on top.

I barely even thought about it at the time, but the next time I woke up, it was with my hand on her thigh and I remembered why it was I tried to face my side of the bed, and sleep on top of the covers . I quickly pulled away, onto my other side, but thought attempting to get rearrange the covers would be a waste of effort, and besides, after noticing the physical contact, I had an erection that I'd rather hide under covers and clothes than just in pirate pants. I took a few deep breaths, willed it down, and tried to quiet my mind.

The next thing I knew, I heard boots stomping up the stairs, and with a mighty crack, the police were bursting through my door. Astrid's mom put out an Amber Alert on her daughter, and they'd tracked her location by her phone, and caught her in my bed. Worse, she'd ignored my instructions and taken off all the rest of her clothes in the night and when they burst in she was naked and in a position where it looked like to them she was about to suck my cock.

What could I do? I tried to explain, but nobody would believe me. I was in prison for life, and a couple thugs were closing on me, sizing me up for a beating or gang-rape, and I had just enough time to realize that it was awfully odd that I'd been tried and sentenced within a few minutes of being caught when my eyes opened and I realized that I was still in my bed.

Chapter Twenty:

Nightmares... they're not like they are in the movies, at least for me. I didn't scream out. I didn't bolt upward into a sitting position, covered in sweat. I barely even moved, in fact. My eyes just snapped open and my heart was going in overdrive, but soon I realized that it was just a dream. An alarmingly plausible dream, though, the accelerated timeframe notwithstanding. I was on my back, and so I looked over in Astrid's direction. She was turned away from me, and to my relief seemed to still be clothed, but that relief was short lived as I noticed her breathing was strange, like a series of regular short gasps. And she wasn't still, either, she was trembling or twitching.

After one irrationally calm moment reflecting how interesting it was that we were both having nightmares at the same time (maybe we really were in synch!) I started to panic again. I might have never woken up screaming from a nightmare, but for all I knew, Astrid might. I grit my teeth and decided to make a move... waking her now might startle her, but at least I'd be ready for it. If she woke as the dream reached its ultimate climax, I couldn't guarantee that. So I turned over, got one hand ready to clap over her mouth in case she started to yell, and gently nudged her shoulder with the other. "Astrid!" I whispered, putting my hand down, very gently, on her mouth just to suppress any moment of alarm. "It's okay. It's just me."

She stilled immediately when I put my hand on her, tensed up, but didn't make a sound, at least not for a few seconds, and finally I took my hand away and pulled away. She said, very quietly, "What the hell?"

"Sorry!" I regretted the action, realizing that my putting my hand on her probably scared her more than whatever she was dreaming about. "You looked like you were having some kind of nightmare."

"Oh," she said. "Uh... thanks. I'm okay now. Really." She flipped onto her back, breathing a little more heavily but a lot more regular, and her arm and legs moved around under the cover for a few seconds, like she was scratching an itch.

Assuming she was just trying to calm herself down with physical sensation, to remind herself the difference between the real world and a particularly scary dream world (as I sometimes did), I offered, "Do you want to talk about it?" By now, between my nightmare and panicking about Astrid's nightmare, I was wide awake again for a while, and I thought maybe talking about it might make her less scared of it and better able to sleep. Moments after I made the offer, I once again grew bizarrely hard for no reason I could figure out, nor could I understand why, this time, it didn't go away so easily. It wasn't as though I was aroused by talking about nightmares or anything weird like that.

Not that that was ever in the cards. "No. I don't really remember," she said. And she went quiet, leaving only music for what seemed like a minute or so, I heard, "Karl?"


"Do you think..." Hesitation, and she rephrased. "I mean... say it was the end of the world. Like Fallout or whatever." I knew what was coming, but I couldn't cut her off this time. In fact, my cock gave a fresh swell of anticipation. "Do you think you might, like, want to date me?"

"It's not a matter of want, Astrid," I said, knowing it was a mistake, that it would only encourage her, and yet I couldn't stop myself. And the way my erection was threatening to turn my pirate pants into a pirate flag proved that at least part of me wanted it very much. I turned onto my side, again facing away from her, trying to look like I was just trying to get back to sleep but at the farthest part of the bed from her. "It's that I don't think it'd be good for you."

"Well, if we were in Fallout, it would be, wouldn't it? I mean, what better choice am I going to have? I mean, I might wind up with a slaver or raper."

"Raider," I corrected.

"Whatever. I might wind up with a raider."

"Maybe. But we're not in Fallout."

"We could pretend." And she shifted in the bed, and I felt her arm go over my waist as she scootched in close, like we were already lovers. If I'd done that to her, she'd be feeling my penis... and as it was, she was very close to that from another angle, her hand on my belly just above. The thought didn't make it shrink, if anything it tried to stretch and reach her.

"Astrid," I said, in something of a warning whisper, but I dared not put too much venom in it. It struck me again how precarious a situation it was. We were communicating in whispers and I was in constant fear of being overheard. It made every objection sound weak and hollow. I couldn't yell at her. I couldn't storm away. Even if my whispered words grew too harsh, I risked making her cry, and if there's one thing a mother can hear over anything it's a crying child. And none of this made any difference to my penis, which was still refusing to acknowledge the danger, except as an excuse, like it was manipulating me with it, telling me that, maybe, it was even too dangerous to refuse her at all. I felt like I had to ignore that part of me though. "This isn't a good time to discuss this."

"We're being quiet," she said, practically just breath in my ear with a hint of pattern. "I mean, I could be louder, if I wanted to. But I can control myself. I won't be loud, I promise." Was that a threat? Or a genuine promise that she wouldn't get loud and upset no matter what happened? Or was Astrid savvy enough to realize that even a sincerely-meant promise not to get loud carried with it the reminder that she could ruin me at any time?

I felt like laughing bitterly for a moment... Mom would say that the whole reason this kind of relationship was wrong in the first place was the unfair power dynamic... but really, Astrid was the one with the power here. If she knew enough, and was ruthless enough, to say, "Be my boyfriend or l tell everyone," then I wouldn't have any choice but to comply. I waited, half-hoping she would say those very words.

Instead, she sounded sad as she said, still quietly, "I know, you don't really want me. I mean..." And here, her hand strayed downward, like she already knew what she'd find there, and that hard, traitorous part of my body lurched towards her hand, cursing the pirate pants and thin boxers between us. "A little maybe. But not as a girlfriend." What could I say. Luckily she didn't grab, or I might have shot off in my pants, or moaned, or jumped, but instead it was just a slow rub through fabric. She let off. "It's okay. But I still think you're part of my karass." That sounded nice, but I didn't really believe in the concept, that we were destined to be entwined in each other's lives. To my relief, she slid back, her body shuffling around the covers, and I thought she had given up and returned to her side of the bed for the night, but then she dropped the bombshell. "That's why I think we should have sex anyway."

Chapter Twenty-One:

I had to turn onto my back and look at her, even though I still had this traitorous erection, one she already knew about, which is why, I thought, I needed to look her in the eyes and be convincing when I told her, "No." I couldn't have sex with her. Well, I could, but it would be wrong.

"Hear me out," she whispered, and I didn't really have a choice, short of raising my voice. "You said you're worried about what's good for me. If that's true, you should... you know. Be my first, right now." I waited in silence to see if she had any explanation or if that was the entirety of her argument. It seemed remarkably persuasive enough as it is, even if I knew I was still going to have to turn her down. But she spoke again, "Because I'm going to do it, one way or another. I've made up my mind. Soon. Just to get it over with. To know what it's like." Her voice sounded wistful, awed, like it was a great mystery she'd been wondering about for years... but of course, that could have been the whisper doing that. "So it can either be with you, and safe... or be with someone else I'm less sure about. I know you won't hurt me. Or tell everyone. Or even get obsessed with me if I decide later I don't want to do it again."

She moved quickly then, far more quickly than I would have expected. She flung the cover back, and rolled on top of me, pinning me down... although, in truth, I could have thrown her off, if I had to, I felt frozen in place. She was straddling me, on my stomach more than my waist, which meant that my throbbing cock wasn't crushed, but merely more pinned by the fabric, and bumping up into her ass-crack... which might have been more torturous, in its subtle way, than if she had actually sat on it. She was still wearing the Harry Potter outfit, except for the sweater top, and, also, now I could tell that, although she'd followed my instructions to keep the shirt on... all of the buttons were undone. That was potent knowledge, even though I couldn't actually see well inside because she was mostly backlit. What I could see was her looking down at me intently as she held me gently down, her hands on my wrists which were resting above my head so that I wouldn't reach out and touch her. "You're my friend, right? Friends don't let friends have bad first times."

"It's not that simple. You could get pregnant." I hoped that would scare her out of this insanity.

"No I can't, I'm on the pill. And I'm ready. Feel." She straightened her back and pulled my arm down, without any resistance, and it went under her skirt, made contact with her warm thigh, and then towards where her panties would be... if she hadn't also removed them.

It was smooth, soft, warm, and above all, wet. Extremely wet. There was a faint smell, not unpleasant, and not strong... if she hadn't been right on top of me I might not have noticed, at least not consciously. It smelled unmistakably sexual. And it suddenly occurred to me what a fool I was... she wasn't having a nightmare at all when she was twitching beside me, she was wide awake. If I hadn't interrupted her maybe she would have taken care of herself and not gotten so bold with the person she with whom she already shared a bed and, in her mind, a special connection.

A part of me still screamed that this was wrong. On the other hand... this was her decision, she was making all the moves. What she was doing to me was practically sexual assault, if I wanted to claim it... if our ages were reversed, or if our ages were the same and I'd done this to her, it would certainly be considered such. Of course, realistically speaking if it ever went to court, even the situation as it was would probably, somehow, be considered me assaulting her.

It didn't feel like assault though, in either direction... it felt like an offer, and more, a genuine plea. Maybe she really was curious enough to just do it with some random person... or, call it what it is, she was horny. I was, at her age, the only difference was, I wasn't able to find anyone who wanted to until much later. She would be. There didn't seem like much of a shortage of people who might be willing, especially if she turned to the Internet. And whoever did find her, who took advantage of that desire... they might be bad people.

Or maybe they'd be like me, convinced they were good people even while doing something they knew deep down they shouldn't be doing.

"Look what time it is," she said, and my eyes went to the illuminated digital clock. It was 1:38. It meant nothing to me, until she said, "The clocks jump back tonight. If we do it now, tomorrow, it'll be like it never happened." It was the most ridiculous logic I'd ever heard.

But right then, at least, it seemed like just another excuse to say yes. It was Manic Pixie Dream Girl logic, and it just sang to that part of me that always wanted one. What's more, my body was already leaning that was already. I had been unconsciously rubbing her slit since she'd put my hand there, but I only now noticed it.

Desire might have won out over morality by that point, but self-preservation still had sway. I pulled my hand away. "I can't. Not... now, at least. Maybe later, but... if anyone heard us..."

"Later you'll just say no." She was probably right about that, right now my hormones were overwhelming my common sense. Once I'd calmed down, I was sure I'd make the right choice. "I can be quiet," she promised, and let go of my hand, leaned into me, nuzzling into my neck, and at the same time, sliding backward. "Please." My pirate pants, boxers, and maybe the folds of her schoolgirl skirt still provided a barrier between her hole and my throbbing cock, but it was close. "If I make noise, you can just cover my mouth." Closer, now, like my cock didn't just grow but I thrust against her ever so slightly, as though my hips acted of their own accord. "Just... do me right." Just that, not "Do me right now," which maybe I could find myself, refuse, but "Do me right," like I was already doing her right now, but half-assing it. And if I was already going to hell, I might as well do it in style.

Justifications, rationalizations, they can often seem ridiculous after the fact, especially where sex is involved. I didn't understand that before then... I privately scoffed at every time in a TV show where someone said "It just happened!" because they cheated, or woke up with someone they shouldn't have, but now it was happening to me. It was just happening. For ridiculous reasons that somehow seemed very convincing, and most of all because it seemed like she wanted it. It was easy to refuse when she was just a temptation, forbidden fruit. When what she wanted didn't mean a thing, and it was all about me and what some perverted part of me wanted versus what I knew was proper behavior, choosing to be the good guy was the obvious choice. But the more I'd spent time with Astrid, the harder it became to dismiss what she wanted as something that didn't matter, to deny this wish to a girl I genuinely cared for. I had no reason to believe she didn't really, truly want this and was sure would soon find a way to make it happen with me or somebody else. I wanted this, or at least most of me wanted to give in to her wishes. My body wanted me to, my heart wanted me to. My mind gave up the fight it had no hope of winning and switched to making sure it lost as safely as possible. "We have to be very, very quiet."

Chapter Twenty-Two:

Astrid pushed back up on her arms like she was trying to read my expression, like maybe she was afraid I was just teasing or something, but as soon as she decided I wasn't, she began nodding excitedly, and made a gesture that I think was supposed to be a "my lips are sealed" motion.

Now that I'd given up, given in, I had to realistically consider how to do this, to have manage to have sex with an underage girl while my mother rested downstairs. I still seemed impossibly risky, but I was committed. So, after thinking for a few seconds about the logistics, I reached out and put my hands on her sides, under her shirt, still nervous about the prospect of touching her despite what I'd already decided to do, but not letting it stop me as I gently guided her to the side and off my body. Her on top might have been the best position all in all, but I wanted leverage if I needed to cover her mouth, and I needed space to get my pants lowered. And, in truth, I wanted to see her better. With her on top of me, at least at that position, most of the light came from behind, so while I could still see her, the details of her features, the subtler expressions on her face, they were hard to make out, and I needed to see... not just because she was adorable, but for any sign of second thoughts. For as much as the media tells us that a girl Astrid's age couldn't consent, in my heart, I felt she could... not just because she had practically thrown herself to me, but for another, deeper reason. For, no matter how much I wanted to have sex with Astrid right then, I was certain that I'd have stopped the moment she changed her mind. Consent, my mother had drilled into me when I was young, was an ongoing thing, it could be withdrawn at any time and you had to respect it no matter how far along you are. If Astrid hadn't given me consent, there was no reason to be concerned that she might take it away, and that just seemed irresponsible. But, yes, also because... maybe I'm crazy, but if I'm going to take a risk like this, to have sex with a young girl who could get me thrown in jail, I at least want to see her enjoying it.

She seemed to already be enjoying it, or at least the realization of what was about to happen. Her face was bright, eager, her teeth showed in her smile, but soon it wasn't her smile I was looking at. Her hands went to her schoolgirl skirt and yanked it up, but not off. In making this motion, the dress shirt also fell more to the side, exposing her nipples, the ones that got me into this mess in the first place, but although I felt a spurt of warmth at their sight, like spotting an old friend, I was still more interested in the part I felt but hadn't yet seen, at least not directly for any extended period. That was like uncovering a beautiful work of art, even though it didn't seem that different from things I'd seen in porn, albeit tinier. Her vulva glistened and there was a visible hole and folds in between the two edges, and a perky nub at the top, but it was otherwise compact, tiny, yet alluring. Also somewhat unexpected, she did have hair, though, just a little, sparse, more like ornamentation of her mound, drawing attention down to the slit, rather than concealing anything.

I got on my knees and watched her eyes, as I moved my hand into position at the top of my pants, for any sign of doubt. Seeing none, only curiosity, excitement, anticipation, I finally unleashed my inner beast. I was hard enough that my foreskin retracted, and if she noticed any difference between mine and other penises she'd seen online (assuming she had seen some, but I was sure anyone as curious as her looked it up at least once) she didn't give any sign, save for leaning back and spreading her legs more. No preliminaries, no porn-plot-esque offer to suck it, she was here for a defining moment and the moment was what she was waiting for.

I wasn't in such a rush. I got closer, sure, carefully moved myself into position between her legs, but I wanted to give her a little bit of time to back out. I went back to rubbing her with my thumb and one finger, pressing ever so gently in, judging not only the tightness but also her tendency to make noise.

The only noise was a change in her breathing, like she was holding it when it got too intense, until she had to let go. As for tightness... it was tight, but also yielding, at least at the hole. Still, I needed to warn her, which I did with a whisper while looking her in the eyes. "You know it sometimes hurts the first time, right?" She nodded, and clapped her own hand over her mouth, like a promise.

I pressed into her with my thumb, gradually, feeling her take me in squeeze me, getting into the first knuckle and returning covered in gleaming slime. In all that time, she'd just given the softest squeak, barely audible through her hand. I couldn't resist, I put the thumb to my own mouth and tasted. It tasted like nothing and everything at once, which is to say, it tasted like my thumb, mostly. It wasn't really the flavor that had excited me so, but the knowledge of what I was tasting, how wrong it was, how right it felt (especially with the delighted look in her eyes as my thumb, which had been in her, was now on my tongue). All of that imbued the moment with so much more enjoyment, more erotic power, that my dick jumped in readiness.

I was ready to go, more than ready, but I wanted another taste, wanted to give Astrid time to back out... or, to be honest, I hoped at this point to give her another reason not to back out, and so I leaned forward, like I was pulling her hips and butt upward to where I could enter her more easily, but instead, I moved my mouth to her instead, wriggling my tongue inside her hole and then, once I heard another of those soft squeals, pulled out, letting my tongue trail near her clit, which seemed to pulse with a heartbeat of its own.

I pulled back up, holding her legs just slightly off the bed, and looked Astrid in the eyes. She took the hand off her mouth and gave me the tiniest nod, like she was saying, "Do it." Or maybe "Do that same thing again."

But I felt like I had to give her one last chance, to confirm her consent which also would convince myself that she could give it in the first place. "You can still change your mind," I told her, and then lied, "It won't disappoint me."

"I want it."

Okay then. But there was one last thing. She didn't make much noise with my thumb inside her, or my tongue, but there was some, and what was about to enter her was a lot bigger and would go a lot deeper. I couldn't trust her to cover her own mouth, to not cry out. "I'm going to cover your mouth at first, okay?" She nodded. "If it hurts or you can't breathe or you just change your mind, just... lick my hand, okay? I'll stop right away."

"I'm ready. I want your cock."

Wow. Manic Pixie Dream Girl in the streets, Porn Star in the sheets. Though even as she said it, there was some hesitation between the words, like that phrase didn't come naturally to her, but it was something she knew was said at times like these. And maybe because of that, my dick did another jerk. I did the last bit of positioning needed so that my dripping cock was pushed up against her hole, then put my hand over her mouth. A squirt of precum landed inside her slit, like it was preparing the way, and I looked her over one last time, up and down. Her pussy was twitching, like a mouth trying to give a kiss. One of her nipples was covered by the Gryffindor tie, but the other, I could see, was a hard erect little bead, something I didn't even expect would be possible on someone her age. And most importantly, her eyes, even though my hand was covering her mouth, seemed to be urging me on. Feeling no tongue on the inside of my palm, I pushed forward.

Chapter Twenty-Three:

It was almost anticlimactic, in a way, which I guess is a horrible way to refer to anything sexual, but I only mean there were no moments of drama involved in the entry itself. There was no forcing my way in, no tearing of any thin membranes inside of her, no tears, no screaming barely contained by my hand. I pushed in against a steady but forgiving tightness. The only sign of any difficulty at all on her end was from feeling the erratic exhalations out of her nose on the edge of my hand. Before too long I was inside of her, with only about an inch of my shaft left outside. Maybe I could have even gone balls deep, but it was growing progressively more difficult to push further, and I didn't want to risk hurting her. I'd already taken her virginity unless she'd lied about that, and I didn't think she did, despite no evident hymen.

What the experience lacked in drama though, it made up in pleasure. The part of me that was inside her felt incredible, enveloped in a soft warm tightness that it felt like it was made for. At least it felt that way to me, but I wasn't the only one there. "You okay?" I asked, looking down at my partner, making sure she wasn't uncomfortable. She nodded under my hand. Well, if she was okay with it, there was one thing missing, that would have made the sensation perfect. "I'm going to start moving." I felt her lips move, and I wondered for a second if she was going to lick, but I soon realized it was a smile I was feeling. She still wanted this.

I pulled out, and pushed back in, soon building up a slow rhythm that seemed a good counterpoint to the song currently whispering out of the speakers. I'll remember that song forever now, "Cool Kids" by Echosmith. I remember thrusting forward on the words "cool kids", "fit in" and wondering if I was reinforcing the idea in Astrid's head that this is what cool kids did. Our bodies bumped together and apart at a slow, leisurely pace, more like some kind of slow dance than sex, and at the very least a far more gentle fuck than you might imagine from a guy covering a little girl's mouth. If you could call her a little girl. She certainly didn't feel like one as we fucked tenderly in the dark.

Nor did it feel entirely one-sided... her legs progressively wrapped around me and after the first few thrusts she pushed in when I did, her pelvic muscles squeezed with a gentle but insistent motion, like her goal was giving me as much pleasure as possible. This seemed even more true when she reached down with one of her hands, not, as other girls I'd been with had, to rub her own clit and get herself closer to orgasm, but rather to feel me, my cock as it slid in and out of her and that last inch or so that still wouldn't go in and cover it with manually transferred lubrication. She also rubbed at the point of our intersection a fair bit, and so maybe it wasn't entirely selfless, but at those times it felt more like she was reassuring herself that it really was going inside her than that she was trying to squeeze some more pleasure for herself.

But that didn't mean that she got no pleasure from it. Or maybe it was from me. Because I could hear, feel even, little moans through the palm of my hand. We hadn't even been going at it that long, but then, she'd had a head start on me.

It was probably for that reason more than anything that she came before I did. I guess the fact that I was moving slowly so as to make the least amount of noise as possible also contributed. This wasn't headboard-banging-against-the-wall sex that I'd had with other girls, it was slow and gentle, like I was an ocean wave advancing and retreating without even as much force as to destroy a sandcastle except through slow erosion. But sometimes, that's enough, and especially with her own fingers in play, and I felt her body stiffen tightly and then.... relax, like jelly, and her eyes rolled up in her head, even her breath temporarily stopped. Only one part had not stilled, the muscles surrounding my cock which seemed to be in spasm every second or so.

I slowed down some to enjoy the sensation, but as the length between spasms lengthened, I couldn't wait anymore, I needed my own orgasm, so when I felt her breathe one long exhalation out through her nose followed by it slowly returning to a normal rhythm, I once again picked up my pace, maybe even going a little faster than before.

I was planning on pulling out because, even if she was on the pill, they're not 100% reliable, but the selfish, hedonistic part of me wanted to get as close to the edge as I could before I pulled out. I wasn't sure where I was going to shoot it... this part hadn't exactly come up in my hasty planning... but I knew I didn't want to finish inside her.

What I wanted ceased to matter the moment I began to hear the weak but recognizable sounds coming from outside of my room, the creaks and thumps of somebody climbing the stairs.

"Shhh," I whispered, as quietly as I could and I felt Astrid nod. I'd frozen in mid-thrust... I didn't dare move in any way... it seemed like even pulling out would risk my bed making a noise that might make Mom think I was still awake and that it was okay to check in on me. Or she might be headed that way anyway, to ask me to lower the music, or even just peek in to watch me sleeping, something I knew she'd done sometimes when I was little but hoped she'd given up. So, I was frozen, as deep inside Astrid as I'd ever been, for I heard the noise while I was on the in-thrust.

Chapter Twenty-Four:

A funny thing happens when you're already extremely close to orgasm and you just... stop. At least, it happens to me, your genitals may vary. On the rare times this happens, my cock feels like it it's practically vibrating, and more, like it's spewing out a steady, weak stream of cum, like I'd turned off the faucet but not all the way. It's an illusion, mostly... I mean, there's usually a fresh gush of precum or two, but from inside, it feels like a constant dribble, more coming out with every heartbeat. I don't normally suffer with it for long, because the urge to make a few more strokes is almost irresistible, but at this moment, my cock buried in Astrid's pussy and me petrified, worried that any moment my Mom might come in and catch me in the worst of compromising positions, that wasn't an option, so I was left just waiting, feeling like I was squirting into this girl the whole time.

It seemed like forever, hearing my mom climbing the stairs, my heart pounding in my ears and my balls. My mind raced through possible, ridiculous explanations if she opened my door, even though I realized it was more likely she would knock first, having no reason to believe that I was committing a felony in here. If she knocked, I'd have the excuse to pull out and maybe I could get Astrid to hide. Or Mom might not come near my room at all. Until I knew what was going to happen, though, I was frozen in place, in mid-fuck. I would have thought fear, the sure knowledge of such clear and present danger of being caught would have made me shrivel up, but instead I stayed rock hard, and with the sensation of dribbling an infinite stream into the womb of a thirteen-year-old.

I may have been keeping as still as possible, but it takes two to tango, and soon Astrid must have grown impatient with the lack of motion. Her upper body remained mostly still as well, but her thighs twitched, pussy seemed to contract. Maybe it wasn't even conscious, and just like an automated door, detecting no movement, trying to close, with no awareness that there was an obstruction in the way. But a part of me felt it was more than that, like she was trying to tell me to finish the job, that it didn't matter that I was about to get caught... if I was, wouldn't it be better to be caught finishing inside her?

That thought combined with the stimulation caused the inevitable chain reaction, the pressure in my balls that put lie to that phantom feeling that I was already dribbling inside of her, because the real thing was unmistakable. I pulled out a fraction of an inch and pushed back in one slightly bigger fraction, and then I really was spurting inside of her, burst after burst of cum that was dangerous but no longer of concern to me. All I could focus on, other than the rush of pleasure, was the certainty that I couldn't make any noise.

Once I could think clearly again, it became clear to me that my mother wasn't coming... or, at least, that she didn't climb the stairs because she came to check on me, or she heard some suspicious noise. If that was the case, she would have arrived already, caught me in the act or interrupted with a knock. I couldn't tell exactly what was happening elsewhere on the second floor, but she had probably gone into her bedroom. I let out a deep breath, feeling more confident that, if I was careful, once my dick had mostly softened, I could pull away from Astrid in a series of short, quiet moves that wouldn't be suspicious.

At least, I could have if she cooperated. Instead, she licked my palm, which was still covering her face. I hesitated for a second and a half, worried that, in this worst possible of times, she'd choose to make a noise, but then I worried more that maybe she was having trouble breathing or something and I hurriedly let go. She did take a breath, but then she backed up, supporting herself on one bent arm and whipped the other around to reach around my neck, and pulled herself up to me. She planted a soft kiss on the corner of my lip. "Kiss me," she said softly.


"Just kiss me." We were already making too much noise for my comfort, just in the slight adjustment of our positions, so I shushed her. "Kiss me and I'll be quiet."

So I did, knowing it was a bad move, but doing it anyway, I locked my lips to hers and kissed her, sinking down into the bed together in an embrace almost passionate as our tongues met, and, it felt, inspiring one more spurt of ejaculate from a penis that I'd thought had already given its all. Somehow, making out with a thirteen-year-old in my bed still counted as an alluring taboo even after fucking her.

I gave her a good thirty-second kiss, and then she pulled away, satisfied. I took the opportunity to roll over onto my back and away for her, even though my cock was still dribbling. I pulled the boxers and pants up, desperate to return to the appearance of normalcy even if it left a cum stains on my clothing, when I heard Astrid's voice again. "Sorry," she whispered, although seemingly more relaxed. "It's just... what would it mean if my first time didn't include a first kiss?" I supposed on some level I could understand that, but I didn't answer. "I know it doesn't meant we're dating or anything."

A part of me wanted to scream in frustration. What was with her? She could keep silent losing her virginity but after, when it was she couldn't stop talking and just go to sleep. I let out another soft 'shhh' noise so that she would get the hint. "Just try to sleep."

She went silent then, and I tried to follow my own advice, but it was impossible... at least, for a few minutes. I usually got drowsy after cumming, but my constant worry about what my mom was doing kept me alert and starting to regret what had just happened. It was stupid, it was immoral, it was way more exciting than it should have been but that only made the comedown worse. For all the justifications and rationalizations, it reflected badly on me that I'd done what I'd done... but there was no changing the past. I was now the kind of person who would do that, the kind the whole world would consider a heartless monster.

Of course, I knew that wasn't completely true. If I didn't have a heart, what was beating so dramatically? What was it that was worried, even more than for my own safety and freedom, that I might have somehow hurt Astrid, or that, if this got out, if would hurt my mom? What wanted me to roll over towards this beautiful girl and cuddle next to her, whispering devotion in her ear and give her the kind of kiss she deserved? I may have been a monster, but I had a heart. It was my brain that was occasionally defective.

While pondering this, I finally heard a reassuringly familiar noise... the sound of my mother closing the door to her bedroom. The danger wasn't completely over, but she was less likely to hear anything going on in my room when she was locked in hers. I let out another deep breath and felt sleep overtake me.

Chapter Twenty-Five:

Waking up was like a soft kick in the balls. Literally so, in fact. I was on my side, facing Astrid, and she was facing away, and one of her feet had curled up and banged into my crotch. It wasn't hard enough to be painful, but it was alarming, and it woke me with a start. The contact, or maybe my sudden movement when I felt it, must have woken Astrid too, because she mumbled "Sorry."

"It's okay," I reassured her, and I may have drifted off again, because the next thing I remember, she was softly pushing against my shoulder. "What?"

"You're poking me."

"What?" No, she was poking me, wasn't she?

"You're hard again. We should do it again." I honestly can't be sure if I really was hard when she said it, or if I became hard because she made that suggestion, but I was sure that she was right, I was rock hard. And out of my pants. Hadn't I pulled my pants back up and over after we'd parted? Yes, I was sure of it. So did that I'd done it myself, my subconscious desiring a reprise? Or could it be that Astrid was playing with me in my sleep?

Now I was even harder, at that thought. I felt her shuffle backwards, towards me, and soon after I felt her smooth skin against my cock, her ass or some portion of her leg, warm and electrifying, removing the likelihood of falling back asleep. Seconds later, I felt a slick kiss on the shaft as I definitively made contact with her pussy from behind.

Fuck, I'd already sinned once, would one more be so bad? Morally, no, at that point it didn't seem to be a problem for me. Even though I knew in the harsh light of day I'd feel guilty, right now, the only concern would be the noise, and Astrid made that easy for me too. She lifted herself and reached over for my hand, which had been weakly pinned when she pushed against me, pulled it outward and settled herself against it, so that her head was lying near my shoulder, and then, moved the palm itself so it was firmly over her mouth. I had a feeling, a worry, that I was somehow defining what hot sex was to her... slow, quiet fucks in the dark with a hand over your mouth. It was darker than I would have chosen for her, but it was all I had to offer right now. Maybe next time, some part of me whispered, the same part that pushed my hips forward in search of that wet place.

I found it easily enough, but I had to use my other hand to help direct it, to work the head in at first. Once that was done, I wrapped that arm over her stomach and grabbed her on the side that was against the bed, and pulled the bottom part of her in to me, feeling the warmth of her surround me once again. It was easier this time, and maybe the position helped. Even Astrid helped, more than putting everything in place, she pushed back into me more vigorously, and I felt that last deprived inch that hadn't been satisfied last time sink into her. She stiffened and made a sound into my hand when that happened, but I felt no tongue and so assumed no complaint, as long as I wasn't in there long and got there slowly.

Again and again I rocked into her, withdrew, returned, still conscious of the noise and any sign of her discomfort, but I felt none. And since she was doing half the work pushing into me by now, I held her more loosely and the hand not guarding her from making noise began to wander, explore her flesh. It slid beneath the tie and still-open shirt and closed against one of her breast buds, a small swell of softness against the hardness of her breastbone. It reminded me a little of the soft, moldable handle of the umbrella I had the day we met, something I also couldn't stop squeezing when I got my hand on it... but this was topped with a hard point that felt wonderful against my fingers, and a little more wonderful squeezed between two. She made a sound when I did that, one I assumed was pleasure because she hadn't tried to open her mouth, and I sensed her hand navigating around mine to reach between her own legs.

This time, there wasn't as much of a sense of urgency... I was still worried about all the things I should have been worried about, but I had just cum only hours ago (if that), so the sex wasn't an intense rush to get off that had to be done frustratingly slowly, it was a guilty pleasure I could enjoy leisurely at the pace available. I even had time to realize that I'd finally broken the Curse of the No Halloween Nookie, which caused me to savor the visual from outside. Remove the covers, add some lights, and what we were doing would look like some evil pirate raping... or, at least, ravishing a young wizard girl from Hogwarts.

I didn't like that image... or at least, not all of me did. There was a part that did, but I didn't want to be that part, so I tried to convince myself that my embrace wasn't to silence her or force her, but rather to protect her. A pirate embracing a Hogwarts kid and making sure she felt safe and loved, that seemed at least a little better, and to that end, I found myself kissing her head through her hair, as though reassuring her that everything would be all right.

Astrid seemed to squeeze on my cock with that, like it was something she really liked, which made me worry about the action, that it might be taken the wrong way, as a romantic gesture. And I did feel romantic towards her... even while I told myself I couldn't go down that path, a part of me realized the song now playing softly over the speakers was Lorde's "Royals," and I spent the next few thrusts wondering if she would think that was our song. Sure, it wasn't the first song we fucked to, but it was the first one we realized we both liked on the day we first met. And in some ways the second fuck is the one that matters... once is easy to write off as a mistake, twice usually means something. Maybe that was why she'd woke me up to offer it, so maybe this song would be appropriate.

Despite the song, I wasn't exactly treating her like a ruler in this situation, still covering her mouth, making much of the motion, squeezing her developing breast like I had every right to it... but that didn't seem to be a problem to her either. I could feel it in her, she was having another orgasm, trembling in my arms, the wind from her nose, her head suddenly rolling back towards me. And as good as the sex felt, that feeling topped it, knowing I'd made her cum before me, twice, now. In all my other experiences, I'd always cum first, unless I'd done a lot of foreplay devoted to the girl's pleasure at the expense of my own... and sometimes not even then. I'm no sex god... but being with Astrid made me feel like one. And riding the high of that feeling, my dick started to get the ultra stiff feeling, my balls kicked into gear again, and I knew I was going to have to decide where to cum.

I pulled most of the way out... then slammed back in, then halfway out, and with a final thought of "fuck it" (for I had already shot off inside her once, and doing so a second time seemed less risky and messy than pulling out and doing it on the bed), I went all the way in again, as far as I could. I exploded inside her, and this time with no worry of somebody walking in on us. I still had the residual worry and guilt over what I was doing and who I was doing it with, but that was low enough to be washed away in a moment of pure pleasure.

As my ejaculations were winding down, I let my hand fall off Astrid's mouth and she took a deep breath in and out, synching with my own exhalations. This time there was no demand to kiss, but I kissed the back of her head again anyway, on impulse.

We didn't speak, just lay and breathed together, and I didn't let her go. I wanted to stay holding her a little while... it felt good, felt right, and felt like too much of an effort to turn away again while my thoughts were starting to feel fuzzy and quiet. I fell asleep like that.

I woke up like that, too, with her still snuggled up against me, not awaking because of a movement but because of words, words she was saying so quietly even I could barely hear them, and only then because the music had quieted between songs. "... You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible..." and then the music started again, and the next quiet moment, Astrid, too seemed asleep. I wondered about her words for a moment, then begun to wonder if I was merely dreaming, and pretty soon, I was.

Chapter Twenty-Six:

The next thing I remember, I was again being woken up. "Sorry, sorry," Astrid whispered, after her pokes on my chest (through the open neck of my pirate shirt) caused me to jerk awake. I twisted my head from side to side, surprised by something being different but taking a few seconds to realize that it was how bright the room was. The sun had risen, and although it wasn't blasting directly through the window, there was enough indirect light that I could see everything more clearly. Astrid's tousled hair, her worried expression, her still-open shirt and, breasts and, yes, those familiar nipples that had started this whole mess, looking like doe-eyes making an innocent expression like, "Who me?". I checked the time on the clock by my bed. Just a little after 7:30. No... I hadn't set that clock back, and it didn't do it automatically like any modern device with a clock in it should... really it was 6:30.

Still, shit, she'd stayed the whole night. If Mom had already woken up, I was screwed... but no, after my heart had already gone into overdrive, my brain started working, telling me that it was unlikely, after a night like that, that she'd be up at the crack of dawn. We probably had a few more hours. I relaxed, looking down at her underdressed torso again. Maybe even enough time to... no, why tempt Fate? "We've got to get out of here," I said, and launched myself out of bed.

"Okay." Astrid also got out of bed, more slowly, and then added, "Except... I've really gotta pee. That's why I woke you."

I facepalmed myself out of instinct, but it wasn't so bad... at least, not much more dangerous than moving her downstairs in the first place. "Okay, just... get dressed, we'll do it on the way, okay?" She nodded, and began buttoning up her shirt. I watched for a moment, then looked away.

Down at myself was where I looked, really, as I realized that I was still dressed like a pirate, puffy pants, frilly white silk shirt. If I was going to drive her home... I couldn't do anything about her clothes, but I certainly did not want to look like I was doing the walk of shame with her. It would raise questions.

I pulled off my shirt and went to my dresser to pull the first clean shirt out, which was grey, safe, conservative, not looking like a child molester at all, which seemed like top priorities. I looked back at Astrid, who was looking at me with a slight smile on her face and I felt momentarily embarrassed, more at the fact that she'd seen me than that she was currently pulling her red-and-gold panties back up her legs to cover the hole I'd recently dumped two loads into. It was possible my cum was leaking into those panties now... okay, by this point I was embarrassed by the fact that I was thinking that and I had an erection, and I needed to change into less ridiculous-looking pants, and she was still staring at me.

Speaking of loads of cum, my boxers did have that smell that they'd just absorbed some of the sexual juices. Maybe I couldn't do anything about Astrid, since going without panties seemed to be even worse if we happened to be caught (and I didn't see any obvious stains on her), but at least I could look and smell less like I'd had sex, with a complete clothing change... so I grabbed a fresh pair of underwear, and my jeans from yesterday off the floor, told Astrid, "Don't look," then turned, shimmied out of the pirate pants and boxers and quickly into the new stuff. I looked back at Astrid. She'd watched the whole thing, and gave me a devilish smile and a shrug, like, "What did you expect?" I brushed it off. It wasn't like she'd seen me completely full frontal, and it wasn't like even that was anything worse than what we'd already done, so I knew I really was being ridiculous.

Now she looked presentable, I looked presentable, all that was left was to make our escape to a place where us being together didn't scream "felony in progress." And that meant getting past my mom, and doing a quick bathroom stop. Even if the risk was low, it was still the most dangerous part of the plan, and I wanted to take it safely. I instructed her quietly, "Okay, get your shoes, purse, everything you need to go, and get it ready. When I come back and wave, you follow, okay?" She nodded, and started looking for her shoes. "Shoes off till we get downstairs." Another nod of confirmation. It was some relief that she at least knew how to be quiet... even without my hand over her mouth, me thrusting deep inside her...

No, think about that later! Right then, I needed to focus.

I cracked the door to my room an inch, praying that I wouldn't see my mother's disappointed face waiting on the other side. Luckily, no, it was just an empty hallway. I slid through the narrowest possible opening in the door, and crept down the hallway on the balls of my feet. First I peered over the railing by the stairs, trying to see if I could find any sign of life from below. But there was nothing. I continued down the hallway to the door of my mother's room, knowing even that was a risk, but... I had to know.

She had her own music on, old stuff from the nineties mostly, and much softer, and above the melody I heard the sporadic sound of something like one of those sidewalk cleaning machines with the big hose, sucking up dust, a sound which was disturbingly phlegmy but right then came as a relief. Mom snored, and if she snored, she was asleep, which was good for me. I realized then that I hadn't even considered if Astrid might snore when I let her sleep beside me, and that if she had, it might have blown everything. But it hadn't... if there was a God, it seemed like He was, improbably, on my side.

I cautiously returned to my room, and found Astrid waiting by the door, shoes on top of her purse and held in her hand. I waved her forward, and we went for the stairs, slowly... as we passed the bathroom, I shook my head and pointed downstairs, indicating we'd use the one downstairs, it was just slightly safer.

We made it down, we made it to the bathroom, and I let her go inside while I first grabbed the car keys and then waited by the stairs, listening for any noise that might signal my doom. My luck continued to hold, though my bladder started to complain that it needed to use the bathroom too. No matter, I could hold it... this stealthy escape that was, so far, going smoothly could be thwarted at any moment and I wasn't going to risk another thirty seconds if I didn't have to.

It felt more like a minute with Astrid's washroom break, and her washing her hands, but finally the door opened, and I led her through the door to the garage. Once inside we stopped for just a second to let her put her shoes on, and I opened the car, shut the door, locked it for a placebo feeling of additional safety. We looked at each other, and I exhaled deeply, and she just laughed, then, finally speaking in a normal tone of voice, said, "Well, we made it."

"Yeah," I said. "That was..." I couldn't find the words, so I just shook my head, started the car, and activated the garage door opener. "Umm, could you bend down and hide a little? Just in case somebody's outside looking?" She shook her head, a smile on her face, and I thought maybe she was refusing, but she did, folding herself over. The garage opened, I pulled out, hyper-aware of any observers, but it was quiet, virtually dead, as you might expect for early Sunday morning. The road looked damp, like it'd been raining overnight, and maybe that kept people out too. I drove to the end of the street and, still seeing nobody, said, "Okay, it's probably safe now."

Chapter Twenty-Seven:

It was a good thing nobody was around to see, or it might look like Astrid was giving me road head or something when she returned to a normal upright seated position, popping out of nowhere. Her hair had fallen over her face, and she brushed it back as she looked back at me. "See?" she said finally, after a few silent moments. I met her eye. "I told you I wouldn't be any trouble." Making herself completely at home, she leaned forward to turn on the radio, like our interaction being without pop music seemed unnatural.

"Yeah, well... I'd hardly call that no trouble," I said.

She shrugged and raised an eyebrow at me, leaning towards me ever-so-slightly. "Well, did I at least make up for the trouble?" Her hand edged across the divider, like she was going to reach across and onto my crotch, and attempt to 'make up' for the trouble one more time.

It didn't cross over to my side completely, but it lay there like she might continue the move at any moment. I had to shut the idea down. "Look, Astrid... about... what happened, last night."

She turned her body towards me, a smile on her face, a sense of swagger in her posture. "You mean when we had sex?" In contrast to her self-confident appearance, her voice dropped to a near whisper for those last two words, even though there was now no possibility of anybody hearing us. But because of that it reminded me even more of her innocence, the innocence I'd violated. She was a girl who couldn't talk about sex without lowering her voice. Isn't that a clearer signal than anything that she's too young to be having it?

"It was a mistake, we shouldn't have done that."

The hand pulled back into her lap. She rolled her eyes and looked back out the window of her side. "I wanted you to."

"It's no excuse. I'm supposed to be the responsible one here."

"Well, I don't care. I loved it." Now she looked back and the smile returned, like it had been beaten but not broken. "Don't worry, I promise I'm not going to tell anybody if that's what you're worried about."

It was, but it wasn't all I was worried about. And worried more that if I offended her, that promise might melt away like my own resolve when she offered herself. Still, I couldn't leave her with misconceptions. "Regardless, it... well, what happened between us, us... sleeping together." Christ, maybe I'm too innocent to be having sex. "It... it doesn't mean..." Her smile faded, jaw set, expression closed off. I waited for the demand, the instant reversal, that unless I agreed to be her boyfriend, to have sex with her on her terms, that she really would tell everyone what happened.

It didn't come. She didn't seem angry... maybe a little sad, but not dramatically so. "I know. This isn't some romantic story. This was just... a special occasion." I couldn't tell you whether I was relieved or disappointed. Probably a little of both. "But we are still friends, right?"

I let out a breath. It was a relief, at the very least, that she took it so well. "Right. Friends." And that made me want to please her, and seeing a fast food sign up ahead, I asked, "Are you hungry?"

"Maybe a little, yeah."

"I'll buy you something. What do you want?"

"I don't know." We passed the sign I saw, but there were always more places, so I let her think while I drover farther and farther away. I didn't even know where I was going, exactly. Finally, she pointed up a sign to a coffee shop. "Maybe a muffin?"

I pulled into a drive-thru of the next donut shop I found, which was almost empty, and we placed our orders. I was a little worried, but there was nothing inherently wrong with someone my age and a young girl in a car together. As far as anyone else knew, she could be my cousin that I was taking to Sunday school. But nobody challenged us, or even seemed to pay us any attention... server at the pickup window seemed half-asleep herself.

Astrid decided on a pumpkin-spice muffin and I got her some orange juice to wash it down. I got a coffee for myself. We parked in the corner of the parking lot to enjoy it, or at least so I could enjoy mine, without risking both of our lives. As soon as we came to a stop, Astrid tore the top half off the muffin and presented the other half in my direction. "You want a taste of my muffin?"

Her streak of making me think of double entendres continued. I'd hoped actually sampling her muffin might have cured that, but no such luck. "No thanks," I said and took my first sip of blessed caffeine which started to clear out the cobwebs in my skull, though I knew my bladder would be a problem soon.

"You sure? A good breakfast is important." I shook my head, enjoying my own liquid breakfast. She shrugged like it was no big deal, and bit into the top piece. The orange juice was held upright between her legs. As I noticed that, my eyes darted around and took one last look for any telltale streaks on her clothes or legs, but she was clean, seeming innocent again. "Thanks for buying me this."

"It's nothing." It was the least I could do. Almost literally. The girl gave me her virginity and I repaid her with a breakfast combo. Besides, she was right, a good breakfast was important. At least providing that's some small step towards behaving responsibly again...

Responsible. The word triggered a memory, back to last night, after the second time. What was she talking about? I wasn't sure if I should ask, and I put it off for a while, but it nagged at me. I let her finish eating, and drink about half of the orange juice, while I finished my coffee. In the meantime, we listened to music, and sometimes she bounced and wiggled her hips in her seat along to the tune. "So," I said, when she was done eating. "Can I take you home, now?"

"I guess." Her voice was apathetic, but her shoulders slumped when she heard the question, making it clear that she still didn't seem too happy at the prospect. "Yeah, I mean... it's not like you can spend the whole day with me, right? I've already imposed on you enough."

Imposed. As accurate as it was, it seemed unnecessarily harsh. "I mean, if you've got somewhere else you'd rather go... as long as it's safe. The library, or something?"

She spoke automatically. "Library doesn't open until noon on Sundays."

"Right. Home, then? I mean... it's going to be alright for you there?"

"No... I mean, yes, I'm sure it's fine."

She didn't seem tremendously bothered, just disappointed, like what she really wanted was to hang out. As much as I wanted that too, it wasn't going to happen. We'd already spent far too much time together, and it was time to bring it to an end. I had to go home and do what I could to erase any sign that she'd ever been there, just for my own sanity. Luckily, she ate relatively cleanly, catching many of her crumbs in a napkin and wadding it up along with the muffin liner when she was done, but even so I knew I'd sweep them out of Mom's car just so she would have no reason to ask, and I would have no need to lie. But that was a task for later. So, I started the engine and pulled out, then headed towards where I remembered Astrid lived.

As we got closer, I realized that this was probably going to be my last chance to satisfy my curiosity. "Listen can I ask you something?"

"I think we're past the point in our relationship where you have to ask permission to ask me questions."

"Right. It's just..." Now I wasn't even sure if I wanted to bring it up. "Last night... I thought I heard you... whispering something. Something about... responsibility? And... taming?"

"Oh." She looked down, like there was an answer in the orange juice bottle still between her thighs. "It was just... a quote."

I remembered, she'd used it earlier in the night, and jokingly said she'd tamed me. But a joke and a whispered mantra to herself were two different things, and I felt an uneasy feeling in my stomach. "That was from The Little Prince, right?"

She nodded, brightening. "The Prince meets a fox, and the fox says he cannot play, because he's not tamed. And the Prince asks what that means, tame. "'It is an act too often neglected,' the fox says. 'It means to establish ties.'"

"Establish ties," I repeated.

"'Just that,' said the fox. 'To me, you are still nothing more than a boy who is just like a hundred thousand boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred other foxes." She spoke now with a certain rhythm, and I knew she was reciting it word for word, or nearly so, from something she's read many times. Which was impressive... for all I've read, I might, at best, be able to quote a sentence or two of one of my favorites without looking it up. "But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world..."

People don't often drop long quotes out of nowhere, so it was only natural that I began searching for a deeper meaning behind it. Was last night, offering herself, a way to establish ties with me? To make sure that we couldn't forget each other, that she'd always be important to me. If so, I suppose it worked. She'd always be this astounding lapse in judgment that I had to remember, to avoid in the future. And I'd always be her first time. Maybe more. Maybe even her first kiss. But she also said "we shall need each other." And as much as part of me wanted it, as much as part of me felt the same way, I couldn't have her developing romantic feelings for me. "Astrid."

"Don't," she said, taking a ragged breath. "Just, don't say it. I know. I know, okay? I'm not as immature as you think. We're not together. That's not what I meant. I didn't even mean anything at all. I just whispered it because I do that sometimes, recite my favorite passages... it helps me sleep. It wasn't easy with you leaving the music on. Also, you snore."

"I do not."

"You do so. Not much, but enough to keep me awake. I mean, I suppose I could get used to it. If I had to. But I don't. The story's not even about romance, anyway. It's about friendship. That's all I meant. We've established ties."

"Okay," I said, though it still seemed that she meant more than that. But it was too uncomfortable to press on that wound. "So, did I tame you or did you tame me?"

"I don't know. Maybe we tamed each other? It doesn't matter. As long as we're friends. We are, right?"


She twisted her body and leaned over the divider some, smiling solicitously. "Friends with benefits."


"Kidding!" Her hands flew up defensively, like I might playfully punch her shoulder in response, then dropped again. "Well, not kidding, exactly. I mean, I'm up for it if you ever wanna..." This time, she wasn't looking at me except out of the corner of her eye. Like when it was a joke, she could be forward about it, but when there was a grain of truth, a real offer, she turned back into a shy little girl, at least in body language.

I tried to ignore it. The last thing I needed while I was still coming to terms with my sin was an open offer to sin again. I knew I must be strong, even as my dick began to shift and wake up at that very interesting offer. "Let's just stick to friendship... no benefits." Even friendship was a danger, realistically... but it was a danger I was becoming resigned to, somehow.

"Your loss," she said, again acting like it was just a casual offer between friends. She slapped the cap of the plastic bottle between her thighs repeatedly with alternating hands, like it was a tiny tiny drum. Each hit must have been a tiny vibration on her crotch, and that thought got me wondering. I'd said no to making it an ongoing thing, but what if she got wet and horny again, and she offered one last fling?

It was ridiculous, but I figured I'd better get out of that situation before it developed, considering how weak-willed I'd turned out to be. I sped up, ever-so-slightly, then got ready to turn on a side street that led more directly towards where she lived. I got to the intersection right as the light turned red, but couldn't turn immediately because there was an old lady crossing the street. "Hey, remember when I said if you took me home I'd ditch you at the first red light?"


She undid her seatbelt and reached for the door lock before I could react.

Chapter Twenty-Eight:

Before I knew it, Astrid was outside the car, but leaning in through the partly opened door. She held her orange juice bottle and the wadded up napkin in her hand. "Thanks for the ride... and... well, for everything. Goodbye!" She gave me a little wave, like this was a done deal.

I realized that it was. Trying to keep her from leaving or chase after her would get the police called on me by the old lady who wasn't paying anything but the most cursory attention right now, but easily could if I acted out of place. Even trying too hard to convince Astrid to let me drive her the rest of the way might look weird. All I could do is play along.

"Uh, okay, I guess," I said. "Have a good day." She closed the door, backed up onto the sidewalk, and waved again. I turned, because I'd already signaled, and as I left I watched her in the mirror. She seemed to hold my gaze, smiling, maybe a little sadly, but it was hard to tell.

A part of me missed her, even already, and even though I was just trying to get her home as quickly as possible. But it was also like a huge knot in the core of my body had loosened, I was relieved that this frustrating but delightful girl was no longer immediately risking my freedom and morality, and finally having that peace of mind felt good, even as losing her seemed to leave a void I craved to fill. One more emotional cocktail for the road as I watched her slowly dwindling form.

Soon I couldn't keep her in sight anymore without doing something suspicious, so I drove to a coffee shop and this time went inside, first to use the restroom and then for another coffee, which I nursed for about a half an hour before returning home, making one stop at the corner store to buy some milk, which gave me an excuse for running out so early.

Not that I needed one. Mom was still asleep when I got home, and I knew she might be until sometime in the early afternoon. I swept any remaining crumbs from the passenger seat, did a few dishes, made myself a quick lunch, and went upstairs, all the while my thoughts turned back to Astrid, what we'd done, and especially the story she quoted right before she left.

Maybe, I realized, I could get some insight, see exactly where her head was at, if I read it for myself. It might help to figure out if I was going to have an obsessed murderous teen stalker on my hands or just a girl with weird ideas about friendship.

So I fired up Google, searched for "If you tame me" and "Little Prince", and got an online text of the novel. Actually, I jumped just to Chapter 21, which was the source of that particular quote. I thought that, perhaps, I would one day read the rest, but it didn't seem so important right then, and the book seemed like a collection of loosely linked but independent stories.

Chapter 21 wasn't a story that seemed like a parable for great romance, like I thought at first. It seemed wistful, all in all, like it was about two people seeking connection, just to add something new and different and wonderful to their lives and the taming was a ritual to accomplish that. If that was why Astrid had sex with me... well, it seemed like someone who genuinely did just want a friend, and went about perhaps the worst way to do it.

But then I read on, and, to my surprise, the fox and the boy don't spend very much time together... literally the next sentence after he has tamed the fox, it begins, "And when the hour of his departure drew near--." The fox is sad, and even though he wouldn't have hurt so much without being tamed, he is thankful for it anyway. After a few more words of wisdom, they part ways, and, although I didn't read the rest, I looked it up, the fox doesn't appear anywhere else in the book.

I was already looking for parallels, for signs in the story that might foretell how Astrid saw the future of our relationship, and so my heart ached, faintly but noticeably, as I wondered... perhaps Astrid really meant this to be goodbye. Maybe she recognized that we lived in two different worlds and she only wanted one night, to be important to me, to build a memory for herself that she could hold through all her quiet times, of being appreciated, desired, connected. Maybe she was the kind of Manic Pixie Dream Girl who dances out of your life forever at the end of the movie.

Logically speaking, that was the best outcome for me, to never see each other again... unless, perhaps, if she one day came to believe she'd been abused and we'd meet again with the full force of the legal system behind her, but that was a possible future I now had to live with no matter what. At least I couldn't get myself in any more trouble.

It should have made me happy. Instead, I yearned for another chance to talk to her, to be more for her than that. Not for the sex, so much, but as a real friend, to talk about books, or video games, or ridiculous hypothetical scenarios, to be a shoulder to cry on, to give her hugs and maybe build up her self-esteem, and, selfishly, to be a person that somebody else wanted to have around, to build up my own.

It's always when you've lost something, or when you think you have, that you appreciate it most, I guess. I spent the next few hours in a mild funk over the possibility that I was becoming more and more sure was the case.

Then she contacted me on Steam.

Chapter Twenty-Nine:

I'd forgotten, for the time being, that she'd done that, made us friends, in a digital, potentially traceable, way. That worry still echoed in some part of my mind, but now it was like a lifeline when I saw her message pop up and read the contents: "Hi, sorry I had to leave like that. It was just too early to go home yet, and I didn't want you to feel obligated to spend even more time with me." She actually typed it like that, not in the shorthand, no capitalization, grammar-free way of most text interactions, a hallmark of a heavy reader. Actually, she skipped the period, which I remembered because some part of me later made a panicked prayer that it wasn't some kind of omen for the future. Mostly she used line-breaks instead.

After a time that I hoped would look like I didn't just read her message the moment it arrived, I typed back, "Where'd you go?"

"There's a park near my school. A little kids playground. So I just waited there. And read. Sorry, by the way."

"It's okay." I wasn't sure what she was sorry for... since she had already apologized for leaving so suddenly, it had to be something else, didn't it? But as curious as I was, I didn't want her to elaborate when this chat transcript could conceivably be used one day in my criminal trial.

A few seconds later, a new message arrived. "I'll get it back to you next time we see each other."

That gave me pause. Huh? Curiosity outweighed caution. "What?"

"Your book. Wool. It seemed interesting so... I borrowed it. Without asking." Smiley face. "You said you were finished, right?"

I looked over where I'd left the book, but of course, it wasn't there. It's weird the things you don't notice, even when you've spent a borderline obsessive amount of time making sure a place looked exactly the same as it did 24 hours ago. "Yeah. It's okay, you can keep it." I actually liked the idea of giving her something tangible, that it couldn't be argued would hurt her.

"No, no, I'll give it back. Next time we see each other." I wondered if maybe that was the whole reason she took it, as an excuse to see me again. Was she that manipulative? "I'm about halfway. It's pretty cool so far... even though my favorite character's gone now."

"Yeah," I typed. "They do pull the rug out from under you a few times."

"Anyway, I won't bug you, and I've got some homework to do. I just wanted to let you know I got home okay. In case you worried."

"Thanks," I typed, not willing to clarify whether I was thanking her for not bugging me or for letting me know she got home. The truth was, I was thankful for both.

"K... I'll talk to you later then." And, just when I was about to type "Bye," I saw the notification that there was more to come from her, and one last message, "I'm so glad we're friends now."

Before I could reply, she logged off. I could of course still have replied, left a message for her to read when she got back, but... when she wasn't there, there wasn't as much pressure to reply. And again, I wondered, if that was planned, to let me off the hook, for having to say it back... or to let her off the hook, in case I wasn't going to. At the very least, it left me free to not worry about which path I was going to take.

It was true that, when I thought that Astrid might have the romantic idea that we should never see each other again, I was sad. But the revelation that this wasn't the case didn't make me feel much better.

I guess you just can't win. My interactions with her were still serving up mixed emotional cocktails. Now in addition to that, I also had to walk a tightrope, trying to keep a girl I genuinely liked at a distance for fear that she'd grow too attached, and worrying that if I pushed her away too harshly she might retaliate.

Maybe it wouldn't be so hard, if I could keep it to just being friends. Of course, everyone knows, it's hard to be just friends with somebody you've had sex with, but I didn't see any way around it. While I tried to put a friendship with benefits off the table, a friendship with a Hitch seemed like a risk I was going to have to take.

The End (for now)

Maybe Eventually: Friendship With A Hitch

Disclaimer: Any justifications made for sex with underage girls are purely to service the story and should not be taken as endorsement for similar acts in reality.

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