Ben surfaced slowly from sleep, savoring every moment of the sluggish, dreamy warmth in his head as shifted position slightly. He knew he was losing the moment, his brain gradually shifting gears to wakefulness, but there was just something so wonderful about waking up without an alarm that he wanted to make it last. His eyes slowly opened...
...and took in the woman next to him.
Ben closed his eyes again, very tightly, just for a moment. Then he opened them again. The woman was still there, huddled under the covers, snoring in a just-barely-audible tone.
Some men might have been used to waking up next to strange women, but Ben knew that they at least had a few prerequisite conditions they met before it happened. Ben hadn't left the house all night, he didn't drink, and nobody had been throwing any parties in his apartment. No guests or visitors, no practical jokers, so who was she?
Ben pulled back the covers a little and just stared at the woman for a long moment. She was naked--at least, what he could see of her was naked. He didn't want to disturb her just yet, at least not until he could greet her without an awkward lack of recollection as to exactly how they'd wound up in the same bed together.
She was beautiful, as well. Sleep lent her features a child-like innocence, and her slim, boyish figure helped complete the illusion. For a moment, he wondered if some runaway teenager had slipped into his house looking for a place to spend the night, but then she shifted just a little in her sleep, and her short blonde hair fell away from her ears. They tapered up to tiny points.
It was a dream. It had to be a dream. He'd been writing too much for too long, shunning his friends and ignoring his family, and now he was having crazy, vivid dreams. That was it. That was the only answer. He'd prove it. He reached out to touch the girl, knowing she'd have the insubstantial, unreal touch of a dream-figure.
Her shoulder was warm under his hand. She smiled in her sleep and wriggled up closer to him. Ben took his hand away gently, not wanting to wake her.
No dream. But how--when--why-- Ben stilled his brain. No point in sounding like an old-school newspaper editor. This whole thing seemed crazy, but Ben hoped that by gathering his thoughts and back-tracking, he might remember.
She hadn't been here when he'd gotten home from work, that was a near-certainty. The door was locked, and the...elf? Fairy? Vulcan? She probably didn't have a key. Maybe she could magic her way inside, walk through solid doors, but...Occam's Razor. 'The simplest solution is usually the correct one.' Assume he came home to an empty apartment.
Lord knows, he'd made enough of a habit of that over the last few years. Ever since Annie had died, he just hadn't really made the effort to socialize. His friends had been a lifeline, keeping him together during those first few terrible months when it seemed like his whole world had shattered, but he'd known deep in his bones that there'd never be anyone to replace Annie. He just wasn't the dating type. If she hadn't sought out the quiet, bookish young man with the notebook he kept scribbling into during class and asked him what he was writing, Ben knew he'd never have found anyone at all. It was cold comfort, now that Annie was gone, but he knew that brief as it was, it was better than nothing and it would never have been long enough.
He shook himself out of his reverie and continued reconstructing the night's events. He'd been grocery shopping, so his hands were full when he came in, but he'd just moved away from the door long enough to set the bag down on the counter before he turned back to close it. That had to have been when she came in. He'd closed it, locked it, put up the chain. He hadn't opened the door since then, all the windows were shut and he was on the third floor even if they weren't. She must have slipped in during that split-second his back was turned.
He thought back to the mundane matters of his nightly routine, checking his voicemail--his sister had called again, worrying. She said he was "becoming a recluse." Probably true, but not in the way his sister was thinking. Ben admitted he had a tendency towards solitude, even one that had worsened when Annie died. But in general, he made a conscious effort to fight that tendency. Dinner with his friends every week, visit to his sister every month. He didn't skip those often, because he knew that every time he did, it would make it easier to skip it the next time, and the next, until soon he'd forget how to be human at all. Annie wouldn't want that.
But when he was working on a project, he suspended the rules just a little, and the last few weeks, he'd been writing heavily. Ben stifled a laugh, not wanting to wake the woman sleeping next to him. It sounded like alcoholism when he put it that way. In a sense, it was. Annie had once joked about him "writing to survive", but they both knew she hadn't been joking. Ben wrote because if he didn't get the words down on paper, they crowded out his thoughts and made his life a misery of constant distraction. Every session in front of the computer screen helped get the words out of his head where they were frozen, pinned down, not subject to the vagaries of thought and memory.
When he'd come home from work last night, it was with words filling his head as he drove. He remembered turning on the stove impatiently, wanting to toss a pork chop on and eat quickly so that he could get to writing. His thoughts kept drifting over to the work in progress as he rummaged around in the fridge for some vegetables to go with the meal. He never felt like he could write fast enough, get enough words down on paper in each session in front of the computer. He couldn't keep pace with his own imagination, that was the problem.
Well, that, and the fact that he'd accidentally cooked both pork chops. Just further evidence of his distraction, Ben supposed. Tossing one pork chop into the skillet was deliberate; glancing down and seeing two simmering gently in the pan was evidence of a mental lapse. It wasn't a big deal, or anything. The second chop would reheat fine. (Crap. No, it wouldn't. He'd never put it away. It was probably still sitting there in the pan.) Just one more example of absent-mindedness brought on by the need to write. He'd decided he really needed to finish eating and get some of this down on paper before he went nuts.
The writing hadn't gone badly, despite weird computer glitches that occasionally got on his nerves. The thoughts had seemed to flow well, even though he wouldn't really know until he sat down to revise it. He remembered occasionally getting up for a soda, a break, a chance to stretch his legs. He hadn't seen any strange woman during all that. Where had she been hiding? In the bedroom? Under the bed, perhaps? She was slim enough to fit. In the closet? It wouldn't have been hard to hide in there, either.
Which meant she'd probably seen him...Ben blushed a little as the woman stirred in her sleep, rolling over just enough to expose her left breast. Wait. That had happened later. Go through step by step.
He thought back to the writing again, the strange and annoying behavior of his PC. He still couldn't figure it out. Every time he'd taken one of those little breaks, when he sat down, the computer had jumped to a different page of the document. Didn't matter how long he was away, whether he was just running to the bathroom or drinking a soda or washing dishes, he'd get back and it wasn't where he'd left it. Never happened while he was sitting there.
Hang on. Occam's Razor, Ben told himself again. There'd been another person in the apartment. He knew that now. She must have been in the study with him while he was writing. That would fit the facts--it'd explain why he never saw her when he left the study, it'd explain why his computer did funny things when he wasn't in the room...she must have been reading what he'd been writing.
Which meant that she hadn't seen him in his room after all. Ben breathed a little sigh of relief. Not that there was anything too shameful about it. He'd been a little wound up after writing, and decided to masturbate. He had urges, the same as any man, and he'd gotten all too used to the idea that if he didn't relieve them, nobody else would. So he'd put in a videotape, fast-forwarded to a scene he liked, and...
Ben smiled faintly at the memory. It had felt good. Better than usual, in fact. He'd been pumping up and down on the shaft of his cock, but it had been like fingers rubbing his whole body. His skin had felt sensitized, electric with pleasure in a way it hadn't in years, and Ben remembered his nipples tingling and stiffening like an imaginary tongue was running over them, remembered his balls seeming heavy and full and tickling with pleasure. He'd drawn out the pleasure, let it build and ebb for what seemed like ages before finally coming onto his hand. It had felt...
A little memory clicked into place, a stray thought that had been nagging for his attention for several minutes now, and all thoughts of the end of the night were forgotten. He'd taken a break from writing to wash the dishes. He'd washed the plate, the glass, and most particularly the pan. He remembered, because the grease was always tough to get off and every time he washed it, he kept thinking that the Teflon was almost completely scraped off and it was time to get a new one. He had most definitely washed that pan, and that pork chop wasn't in it.
It wasn't in the pan, it wasn't on the plate, he hadn't put it away, and he hadn't eaten it. The pork chop vanishes, to mangle Hitchcock. Time to abandon Occam and take up company with Sherlock Holmes. 'Once you have eliminated the impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.' Ben looked down at the girl and her tiny pointed ears again. Perhaps Douglas Adams would be better. 'I, however, do not like to eliminate the impossible.'
Suppose that this girl, this strange fairy girl who was this very moment lying in his bed sleeping like a baby, had some power. Suppose that she could be...not invisible, there were too many laws of physics that broke and too many ways that she would still have been spotted. Suppose that she could affect people's minds, make them fail to notice her. Like the Shadow. She could cloud the minds of men (and probably women too, wouldn't be much use otherwise), and even if she was standing two feet away from Ben gnawing on a pork chop, even if she was in the same room with Ben reading his unfinished novel whenever he stepped out of the room, even if she was in bed with him...he blushed again...licking his nipples and fondling his balls while he stroked himself, he wouldn't notice her. He'd be convinced he was all alone.
And now she was asleep, he realized as the final piece of the puzzle clicked into place. Her ability must be a conscious one. When she fell asleep, whatever hold she had on his brain relaxed and he noticed her. Yes, a very sensible theory for a very unusual situation. Only one way to test it, though.
He gave her shoulder a tiny shake and said, "Time to wake up."
Her blue eyes opened dreamily, still a little glassy with sleep. She smiled a tiny smile, so beautiful to behold, as she looked at him. She let out a little sigh...and then her eyes opened all the way with an expression of panic, and she disappeared.
"Wait!" he said, leaping out of bed. "Wait, don't be afraid! I'm not going to...I won't hurt you or anything! I promise! I just...Who are you? Why did you come into my house?"
He was racing through the apartment now, trying desperately to figure out where she might have gone. All the while, talking, knowing she could hear him even if he couldn't see her. "I know you're in here!" he said. He didn't, though. Not anywhere specific. He looked in the study, in the kitchen, but he already knew that looking wouldn't do any good. He'd never see her, not even if she was right next to him.
"Please, don't go. I want to know..." Ben wanted to know who she was, where she'd come from, why she'd chosen to visit him, why she'd decided to stay the night, whether she liked the book. He wanted to know everything, but he could already feel the thoughts fading from his mind. It was getting harder to remember her with every passing moment, and he realized that even the memory of her was fading into that blindspot in the back of his head now. "Please, just...just don't leave yet," he said plaintively, not sure if he was speaking to the woman or her memory in his mind. He tried to fix her image, but it just slipped away further and further as he concentrated on it. He clung to one detail for as long as he could, the color of her eyes. They were...were...brown? Green? "I just...I just want to talk..." He trailed off.
He looked around the living room. Strange dream, really. Funny how vivid it seemed. That was always the way of dreams you got just before waking, though. You were just awake enough that it seemed to make sense to leap out of bed and run through the apartment shouting for an imaginary woman. Ben rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, and went to grab a shower.
Once he'd showered and dressed, he headed for the study. Might as well start the day with a little writing, and--he sighed in frustration. Had he really left the chain off and the door unlocked all night? Lucky no burglar had come calling. He locked the door and slipped the chain on, and went over to his computer. Sitting down, he turned the monitor on.
There was a document open on the screen. Ben squinted at it; had he written this, sometime in that last weird dream? He must have. Something he'd probably thought at the time would go well in his novel, a message from an Elven Princess. It didn't make any sense in the waking hours, though.
Thank you for your generous hospitality. I know I should never have let you see me, but I had stayed so late, and your bed was so soft and warm and welcoming that sleep overtook me, and our glamour does not work when we are not awake to cast it. You were kind to me at a moment when I was vulnerable, though, and I shall never forget it.
I hope you forgive me the intrusion--my family tells me I take too great an interest in the human folk, but your eyes told such stories. I had to follow you home and find out what they were. (The novel is lovely, by the way. There's a typo on page 127, though. You spelled "judgment" as "judgement." Don't feel bad. It's a common mistake.)
I expect to be punished when I return home--out all night following humans, and falling asleep in one's house to boot. It may be many weeks before I can return. But I promise I will. I need to know what happens next in your novel--and to the man writing it. And although trust does not come easily to my people, you have shown yourself to be such a gentle soul. Perhaps next time, I will let you see me as I see you.
Definitely not going to go into the novel, Ben thought. Still, some impulse prompted him to save it before closing it. There was an oddly sweet tone to it, something at once melancholy and cheering. Between that and the dream, Ben felt quite happy this morning as he opened up his novel and began to write.