"I'll tell you what really frosts my cookies. We're out there 24/7, 365 days a year, busting our cherubic little butts, and we get into December and it's all Santa Claus, Santa Claus, Santa Claus. I mean for cryin' out loud, he works what, one night a year?"
Tiberius has been my regional supervisor for the last three years now, and is used to the ranting I do on my visits to refill my quiver.
"And it's not like he has to do it on his own," I continue. "He's got all these elves working for him. Hell, he doesn't have to do his own flying."
"Because of the eight tiny reindeer." Tiberius nods in agreement.
"Tiny, my ass. I was an elf for six months. You spend some time cleaning up after those boys, you won't call 'em 'tiny' no more.
"And all those letters." I am on a roll now. "'Please bring me an X-box, Santa, cause I've been so extra good this year.' Like they aren't surrounded by stores where their parents can buy their own frickin' X-boxes."
"How many letters did I get this year? None. How many letters did any of the other cupids get? Huh?"
"Well, none," Tiberius admits.
Tiberius gives me a big smile.
"And exactly how much attention would you give them? 'Oh, Cupid, please make Bobby Smith fall in love with me.'"
"I'd look at them," I say after a grudging pause.
He starts laughing.
"You'd ignore them on principle," he says between laughs.
"If mortals were any good at falling in love, they wouldn't need cupids," I answer. "There certainly wouldn't be anywhere near as many divorces, that's for damn sure."
"There wouldn't be so many divorces in your district, Julius, if the cupid assigned there was even close to making his quota this year. You do realize, don't you, that your five years as a cupid is up in the middle of February?"
I glare at him. I know that all too well.
"You know," he continues, "we still have never had a graduate of the academy with a higher score on Aura Recognition than yours."
I smile. I have always been proud of that.
"But you were last in here four weeks ago for another quiverful of darts. Octavia's been in twice since then."
"Octavia," I mumble. I have no doubt that goody-goody Octavia will be reborn with a silver spoon in her mouth. She and I started at the same time, but by the time I was done with my elf internship, she had already finished the cupid academy. We were assigned adjoining regions, which always requires a good bit of inter-cupid cooperation. She has been exceeding her quota for the last two years.
"And she doesn't even have a college in her area."
"It's a very serious college, you know," I say.
"I know. Excellent academics. Top twenty and all that. But it's still full of horny kids. Remember, you only need minimum aura congruence."
"Minimum aura congruence." I spit out the words in disgust. "You mean they should all settle."
"What I mean is not always looking for the perfect at the expense of the good."
"Shouldn't people be entitled to the best love possible?" I say, bristling.
"In a perfect world, sure. But you're responsible for all the people in your area, Julius. Not just the special few that you can make perfect matches for. All of them."
"I know, I know. All of my matches are still together, though."
"You know as well as I do..." Tiberius begins.
"That that's not our department," I finish. "Yes, I know. Cupids on one end, lawyers on the other."
He bursts out laughing.
"That's a very cynical view, Julius."
"It's not my view," I point out. "I'm the guy with the perfect record."
"I'll tell you what," Tiberius says. "It's December twenty-fourth. You have less than two months. If you at least make your quotas between now and then, I'll see what I can do about getting you out. If not, though, I don't see a lot of hope. Which means five more years of cupiding. Or you could go back to being an elf..."
"No. I'll do it."
Another five more years of this would be hell. The real problem is that you can watch people falling in love, but you can never take part yourself. You find the match, you shoot your darts, and you move on. Oh, all right; maybe I watch for a little bit. And of course, being an elf would be even worse.
I leave his office and collect my quiver of darts from the tech at the warehouse.
"All ready?" I ask.
"Forty matching sets," he says with a smile. "Try not to be a pain in the ass, Julius."
I laugh, even though he tells the same joke every time I pick up more darts. I fly back to my aerie, in the bell tower of one of Berea, Ohio's finest churches. I skim the auras of those I pass along the way, committing them to memory. I spot two people with congruent auras, walking toward each other as it happens, and loose off two darts. She is a forty-something born-again Christian and he is a twenty-something atheist, but hey, if minimum congruence was what they wanted, that's what they would get. And good luck to you guys.
I probably just shouldn't care so much. At the academy, they had taught us to perceive the aura as nothing more than a set of colors. You match one person's set with another, and if enough colors line up, you have minimum congruence. I was the one who had figured out the color spikes that corresponded with major events. The Christian woman, for example, had a vivid red spike at C-7, which told me, apparently alone among the cupids, that she had watched the moon landing in 1969. She didn't have the dark blue spike at B-6 that corresponded to the assassination of President Kennedy, so I could pretty confidently peg her age as somewhere in her middle forties. It was the same with the atheist. He had the purple at E-8 (Challenger disaster) but not the green at D-24 (Reagan assassination attempt). And as far as their religion went, after four years of cupiding, I could just kind of tell that from the shape of the aura.
Maybe the others are right; maybe I should give it up. Maybe I should just hang out at bars and parties — everywhere significant numbers of humans were likely to gather — and do what I have been trained to do.
And then I see Gwen Williams. The first thing I notice is the aura, of course. It's striking, and I rack my brain to recall a similar one I had seen over a year ago. While I'm thinking, I notice her eyes, her exquisitely luminous eyes. I nearly lose myself in them until suddenly it comes to me: Luke Turnquist. Those two would be perfect together. I have never seen auras with better congruence than theirs.
Tiberius and the other cupids probably think I spend most of my time watching porn flicks, never realizing how much work it actually takes to do these things my way. All they see is a fuckup who can't make quota. The problem, though, as it is with most of the matches I create, is that Gwen and Luke have no idea that each other exists. Even assuming that Luke is still in the area, the district is large enough that there is a distinct possibility that they will never run into each other. Unless someone arranges something different.
Seven days later, on New Year's Eve, I have the shot. It hasn't been easy getting the two of them to the same party. Each of them was easier to connect to Kevin Bacon than to the other. But here they are. Within feet of each other. Their auras are incandescently similar, the tendrils almost reaching out and intertwining in an orgy of color. I take two darts out of my quiver and slip them into the bow. And fire.
"Fuckin' A! Who the fuck was that!"
I am fortunate that humans can neither see nor hear us cupids, although at a party this loud, no one probably would have noticed my cursing. But damn my eternal luck. I can't believe that someone walked in front of Luke just as I loosed the darts. And now there they are, standing and looking at each other. Oh, fuck.
I'll never forget the first time I saw Danae Swift. It was at that damned New Year's Eve party my friend, Patty, had dragged me to. Patty had disappeared some time before, and I didn't know anyone else there. I was just lamenting the fact that it was 11:40 and I had no one to kiss at midnight, when the crowd parted, and there she was. Danae. Tall and slim, with a boyish figure, her eyes raked down over my body and back up to my face.
Danae. God, even her name sounded exotic, fleeting, poetic. She seemed to be bathed in golden light, with her spiky blond hair and tawny skin. As she sauntered toward me in slow motion (or so it seemed), even her caramel-colored eyes appeared flecked with gold. My stomach dropped as a smile split her heart-shaped face. I gazed at the full lips and gleaming white teeth that slightly overlapped in front, perfect in their imperfection. The wild hammering of my heart drowned out everything in the room, and I realized she must have spoken to me and was holding out her hand to shake.
"Uh, I'm sorry?" I spluttered, heat suffusing my cheeks.
"I said I'm Danae Swift."
She took my hand and leaned closer as she said it. She'd been holding a bottle of beer, and her fingers were cool and damp. Her fresh green fragrance tickled my nostrils.
"Wendy?" she asked.
"Oh, no." I leaned even closer. "I'm Gwen."
Danae laughed again. "Oh, good. Somehow, you don't look like a Wendy. Nice to meet you, Gwen."
"Nice to meet you too." I smiled back.
"I don't remember seeing you before. Are you a friend of Jay's?" Jay was our host.
"No, I actually came here with my friend, Patty, but she seems to have disappeared."
"Patty?" Danae pondered for a moment. "Oh, yeah, I know her. Redhead, right?"
Danae reached for the cup in my hand and peered inside.
"You need another drink," she said. "Come on."
She led me to the makeshift bar in the corner. When we got there, she snatched the cup from my hand.
"What have you been drinking?" she asked.
"Rum and Coke."
I watched as Danae expertly mixed my drink, ending with a squeeze of lime.
"Lime?" I asked.
"Trust me," Danae said, handing me the drink. "I used to be a bartender."
She watched as I tried it.
"It's really good," I said. "Thank you."
Danae nodded and bent over to retrieve a beer from the cooler at her feet. To my surprise, I found myself checking out her ass. She caught me as she stood up and winked with a knowing grin. It was strange and slightly embarrassing. I didn't remember ever looking at a woman that way before.
Taking my arm, Danae guided me over to a group of people engaged in an animated discussion. After introducing me around, she became involved in the conversation, and I stood watching her and quietly sipping my drink. She had a commanding presence and moved with the grace of a cat. A regal lioness, I thought, and giggled.
The sound drew her attention back to me, her expression that of one looking upon a precious, enchanting child. Wrapping her fingers around my upper arm, she leaned close once again.
"You have an adorable laugh," she said very close to my ear, her breath stirring my hair and bathing me in goose bumps.
This made me giggle more, and I leaned back with alcohol-slowed movement to look into her eyes.
"And pretty eyes," she murmured with a smile.
"I like yours too," I replied, staring as Danae's pink tongue licked slowly across her top lip.
What the hell was happening here?
"Look." She pointed to the big-screen TV that dominated one wall of the room.
Dick Clark had started the countdown in his convalescent's voice, and the ball was dropping.
"Eight, seven, six, five," the crowd joined in. "Four, three, two, one. Happy New Year!" The room erupted into cheering and the cacophony of wind-up noisemakers and little horns.
Danae reached up to cup my cheeks in her cool hands and pressed her lips to mine in a tender, soul-wrenching kiss. I'd never kissed a woman before—the intensity, the passion, were intoxicating. I don't remember whether I kissed her back or not. She pulled back for a moment, leaned her forehead against mine, and swallowed. Then, sliding her palms back further, her hands braced my neck, her fingers twining in my shoulder-length brown hair.
My hands found Danae's waist, one of them holding my cup against her back. I tipped my chin up and kissed her again. The rest of the room seemed to vanish, leaving the two of us alone on a tiny, silent island. Danae's lips parted, and the tip of her tongue brushed mine. Her obviously untethered breasts pressed against me, the hard points of her nipples grazing my chest behind the silky fabric of her top.
Immediate and complete, my arousal stole my breath and weakened my knees. Danae's liquid gold heat traveled from my mouth right down to my stomach, where it curled into a strong wave of aching desire, melting my insides and flowing out of me like molten lava. A woman's touch was doing this to me. Shocked, I pulled back, and the rest of the room reappeared and spun around us. We stared at each other, our chests heaving.
"Wow," I gasped, rubbing my fingertips across my lips.
"Yeah. Wow is right." Danae grinned. "Happy New Year."
An hour later, we were sitting close on my sofa, drinking hot tea and talking. Danae had set her mug on the coffee table and was stroking the backs of her fingers up and down the back of my hand and forearm. She took my mug and set it down, as well.
"Listen," I said. "I need to tell you that I've never been with a woman before. I'm straight."
"I know that."
She continued stroking absently, watching my face.
"So, you know, earlier, I guess it must have been the alcohol or ... something."
I caught Danae's hand to stop the stroking, which was driving me crazy, but ended in holding her hand, which was worse.
Danae touched my bottom lip with the tip of one finger.
"Pink baby lips," she whispered, leaning forward and replacing the finger with her mouth.
Catching my bottom lip between her own, she sucked lightly and let it go with a pop, shaking me to my core.
"It wasn't the alcohol," she murmured.
We kissed again, deeper this time, our mouths open, tongues grazing, drinking each other in. Danae pushed me back gently, so that I was lying down with her body resting between my legs. Then I was gone. All rationality fled, desire and the pursuit of pure pleasure taking its place.
Next thing I knew, we were naked, legs and arms wrapped around each other, both of us writhing and moaning and gasping for breath. Danae's hand trailed down the curve of my abdomen to find my pussy very wet and open and ready.
"Mmmm, perfect," she said, sliding her body lower.
Pushing my knees up, Danae wrapped her arms around my thighs and pulled my outer labia apart with her thumbs. Her tongue touched me just above my anus and stroked a slow, hot line all the way to my aching clit. As the tip of her tongue touched it, she blew out a puff of warm air, sending me over the edge. Spasms racked my body, as waves of pleasure assaulted me again and again.
As I calmed, I looked down to see Danae gazing up at me from between my legs.
"Been a while?" she grinned.
"Uh, yeah." I cleared my throat. "Sorry."
"Don't be, baby. Just enjoy it," she said, lowering her mouth back to my waiting flesh.
Danae was a skilled and generous lover. Her patience with me knew no bounds, as she took on the role of teacher to my somewhat clumsy and awkward pupil. Her joy in pleasing me made me want to reciprocate, while her expertise made me feel slightly inadequate. It was new and different and beautiful, though, and began to feel somewhat familiar after a while.
I awoke very late the next morning with no hangover, amazingly. Danae lay on her back beside me with one arm flung above her head in peaceful abandon. The quilt was pushed down to her waist, and I stared at her nakedness, not quite believing this magnificent creature was really there in my bed. What the hell had I done? Not wanting to wake her, I slipped out of bed and out of the room, escaping to the bathroom.
For what seemed like a long time I stood in the shower thinking about the night before. We'd made love all night long, literally. The brief pauses in between were filled with touching and kissing, so that each time melded into the time before and the time following, creating one long chain of delicious pleasure. I shuddered, realizing the memories were turning me on, making me want her again.
The shower door opened, and Danae stepped inside. Her sunny smile squeezed my heart.
"Want some company?" she asked.
"Do I have any choice?" I laughed.
"Uh, nope," she replied, pulling me against her and kissing me hard.
She leaned back into the spray, smoothing back her hair with her hands. The water rushing over that golden skin made my mouth water. I squeezed some shampoo out onto my palm, rubbed my hands together, and lathered up Danae's hair. She groaned as I massaged her scalp with my fingertips. After her hair was rinsed, I scrubbed her body with a loofah dripping with scented body wash. She propped her hands against the wall and closed her eyes, enjoying my ministrations.
Finally, I could stand it no longer and pressed myself against her soapy slick body, my belly against her back, my hands gliding up her sleek abdomen, squeezing her soapy breasts, then sliding down to cup her sex. I felt I'd hung back a bit before and wanted very much to please her now. I brought her off with my fingers, as she leaned back against me, the warm water sluicing over both of us.
Later, we returned to my room to dress, and I loaned Danae some clean clothes. The idea of her wearing my clothes made me really happy.
"Are you hungry?" I asked.
"Mmm, yeah. Starving."
"I could make us some breakfast. I think I have some bacon."
She turned, looking fresh and young with no makeup and unstyled hair. "Um, you mean, like, real bacon?"
I laughed. "Yeah, you know, like Porky Pig?"
She visibly blanched.
"I don't eat animal products," she said.
"Oh, I'm sorry. So no eggs either?"
She shook her head.
"Okay, um..." I thought about what I had in my kitchen. "Toast?"
"What kind of bread?"
"I don't eat white flour," she said, looking regretful. "Or refined sugar," she added.
Nonplussed, I thought for another moment.
"I have fruit!"
"No, sorry," I mumbled.
Danae laughed. "It's okay, baby. I can eat later."
I sat down beside her on the bed.
"So, what happens now?" I asked.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I'm not sure how this works," I explained. "I mean, was this a one-time thing, or what?"
Danae looked thoughtful.
"What do you want it to be?" she asked.
"What do you want it to be?"
"I asked you first," Danae replied with a giggle.
"Actually, I asked you first." I smiled, although I felt more confused than amused.
"Okay," she paused. "I'd like to see you again."
"Really?" Now my smile was genuine.
"Yeah! How can you ask me that now?"
"I just wasn't sure."
"I have some stuff to take care of, and then I'll call you, okay?" she asked.
It turned out the "stuff" she had to take care of was a live-in girlfriend/roommate, who Danae had apparently been on the outs with for some time. Upon finding out that Danae had spent the night with me, the roommate moved out in a huff, leaving Danae free to spend as much time with me as she liked. Luckily for me, she liked to spend a lot of time with me. We saw each other almost every night for the next couple weeks.
Danae was a full-time Pilates instructor and encouraged me to enroll in a couple of classes. She also encouraged me to eat healthier by putting me on her own eating plan, which excluded all animal products, including eggs, butter, and cheese, much to my horror. I'd never been an especially bad eater, but as a life-long carnivore, the new diet made me feel deprived. The ban on ice cream was nearly unbearable. Rice and soy products just weren't doing it for me.
One night, lying in my bed, Danae was quizzing me on what I'd eaten that day. I'd had a bagel with light cream cheese for breakfast, which apparently disappointed her.
"Look, you know you'd feel better if you stuck to the plan, right?" she asked.
I sighed. "Sure, I know."
"You'd have lots more energy, and maybe you'd get rid of this," she said poking me hard in the belly with a finger.
That hurt. Tears stung my eyes, and I was glad it was dark. No, I didn't have Danae's washboard abs, but I wasn't exactly the Pillsbury Doughboy either. Before I met her, I'd been working out a few times a week and not eating too badly. I was curvy. I thought she liked my body. I turned my back to her and pretended I was falling asleep.
"I'm sorry, Gwenny," she whispered after a short while. "I know I go too far sometimes. It's just that I want you to be healthy and happy because ... I love you."
I gasped. Turning over, I searched for her face in the dark.
Danae scooted closer and whispered, "Yes."
We kissed, and the tears that had been filling my eyes spilled over.
"Do you believe in love at first sight?" I blubbered.
"Uh-huh," she murmured, kissing me again.
"I love you too," I said and smiled against her lips.
Sex between Danae and me had gotten better as the days went by. I was less inhibited but couldn't help feeling something was missing. Work and exercise classes and Danae herself kept me so busy, I didn't have much time to dwell on it though. There always seemed to be a whirl of activity surrounding her. I felt really lucky and really in love. The love buoyed me up, made me feel as if I was floating on air.
My "food plan" wasn't exactly going so well though. Though my kitchen was filled with "good food," on the nights Danae wasn't around, I found myself running to Burger King for a Whopper and fries. I felt horrible afterward, but that didn't stop me the next time. I also had a secret stash of chocolate tucked way back in one of my desk drawers and a package of Pepperidge Farm cookies hidden in a shoebox in my closet. I'd never felt compelled to hoard food before. Yeah, I was turning into a closet fatty.
After work one day, I stopped at a bookstore. I love to read and thought a book would be the perfect thing to share with Danae. What kind of book though? It had to be something special. Finally, I settled on The Other Side of Welcome, a new novel by Edward Rankin, an author whose short stories I loved. Standing in line at the checkout, I found a pretty bookmark and a little card to go with it.
Having a nice gift for Danae excited me. Inside the front cover of the book, I wrote Danae, I hope you enjoy Rankin's work as much as I do. I love you. Gwen. She was coming over that night after her last class, so I wrapped it in pretty paper and left it on my coffee table to await her arrival.
Danae and I spent the whole evening together. We went shopping at the mall and then out to dinner. The food was really good and a nice "sanctioned" break from my plan. When we'd finished, the waiter brought around a dessert tray.
"Can I tempt you ladies with a piece of Death-by-Chocolate or Peanut Butter Dream pie?" he asked.
"No thanks," Danae responded without looking up or even asking me.
The waiter must've seen me eyeballing the pie, because he tried again.
"How about one dessert and two forks?" he suggested.
"Yeah, we could share," I said, winking at Danae.
"You don't really need any dessert, baby. Do you?" It wasn't really a question.
I shook my head and looked away, and Danae asked for the check.
At home, she seemed excited about the gift. She looked inside at the inscription, thanked me with a sweet kiss, and laid the book back on the coffee table. We sat close together, holding hands.
"So, you're still sticking to your plan, right?" Danae asked.
"Yeah, pretty much," I replied.
"What does that mean?"
"It means for the most part, yes, I am sticking to the plan," I said.
"Hmm." She looked at me with one eyebrow raised. "Not sure I like the sound of that."
"I don't want to talk about it right now," I murmured, nuzzling her neck.
"Gwen? Oh..." Danae gasped as my teeth nipped at her skin.
She never did finish what she was about to say because my hands were under her top by then, my thumbs raking over her nipples, as I kissed and licked her neck. Running my tongue up the side of her neck, I sucked her earlobe and briefly flicked the tip of my tongue into her ear. Our mouths found each other and clung together, our teeth grazing and tongues dancing. Danae lifted her arms, and I pulled her top off over her head. Then she did the same for me.
My pants came off next at Danae's hurried insistence. Our breasts rubbed together, our nipples erect, glancing off the other's. Our legs entwined, and I slid my hands down the back of her pants to squeeze her beautiful ass. Writhing together, we rolled off the couch and onto the floor, still kissing and touching. Danae scooted her body across the carpet, away from the coffee table, and, still attached to her, I followed.
Lying on top of me, she kissed her way down my chest to my breasts. Her hands pushed them together, jamming both nipples into her mouth at once. Unable to get good suction with both, she let one breast go and closed her mouth around the opposite nipple and sucked hard. My back arched, and I held her head in my hands, urging her on. Her teeth scraped across my areola and closed around the turgid nub, eliciting a guttural moan from me.
Danae's pants were still on, but open in front, so I slipped my hands inside along her hipbones and pushed them down. She kicked them off and spread her legs, pushing her mound hard against mine. Wrapping my own legs around her waist, I thrust my hips up, so that our pussies were rubbing together, our juices mingling as we slid back and forth. Both of us were moaning and panting by then.
"I need something inside," I gasped. "Please. Something inside me."
Slipping a hand in between us, Danae ran her fingers along my drenched slit. Her long fingers glided up and down between my lips before two of them plunged inside me. Feeling along the top of my channel, she found my sweet spot and pressed her fingers into it, rubbing in tight circles. Moaning her name, I came hard and fast, my pussy clenched around her fingers.
She gave me no rest though. Almost immediately, she turned her body and positioned her crotch over my face, her face at mine. Pulling me open with her fingers, she sunk her face into my slippery cunt and sucked on my clit. She'd suck and then release. Suck and release.
I've heard that nobody eats pussy better than another woman, but in my case that wasn't really true. Danae's pussy was more open and meaty than mine, with the glistening inner lips hanging outside. Holding her ass in my hands, I pulled her down to my mouth and pushed my tongue into the crease between the inner and outer lips on one side. I licked down one side and up the other, then sucked the dangling flesh into my mouth.
Just as my tongue pushed into Danae's slick channel, my desire evaporated completely, with a suddenness that left me cold. I thought I felt her falter too, but she carried on, licking and slurping away at my unresponsive flesh. With a half-hearted effort, I licked along her slit again. The smell of her, which had always fueled my arousal before, was having the opposite effect now. I dropped my head to the floor and looked up at her pussy. The rippled curtains of flesh were repulsive. I hated the way they stretched in my mouth as I sucked on them. I really didn't want to do it anymore. Not at all.
Sensing my discomfort, Danae raised her head and sat down next to me on the carpet.
"You're not into this at all, are you?" she asked, wiping my wetness from her face with the palms of her hands.
I sat up too.
"I'm sorry," I mumbled. "I don't know what happened."
"It's fine," she said, not looking at me.
She stood and walked into the bathroom and closed the door. I heard the shower turn on a moment later. I sat there on the floor for a while, feeling numb and defeated. Finally, I pulled on my panties and the sweater I'd been wearing and turned on the TV. A few minutes later, Danae went into my bedroom and got into bed. With some irritation, I realized I'd been hoping she'd go home.
I fell asleep on the couch and woke up disoriented some time after midnight. After a quick shower, I crawled into bed beside Danae. We didn't speak, but I could tell she was awake.
Early the next morning, I was awakened by something falling on the quilt over me. I opened my eyes to see Danae upending the kitchen trashcan over my bed.
"What the fuck is this?" she screamed, as the Ben & Jerry's container from a few nights before rolled off of me, the last drips of melted ice cream dribbling onto my quilt.
"What the fuck are you doing?" I screamed back, sitting up and pushing away the garbage-strewn quilt. Burger King wrappers and an empty Fritos bag fluttered to the floor.
"You lied to me, bitch!" Danae yelled as she threw the garbage can on the floor and stomped back to the kitchen.
I followed and found her ripping open drawers and cupboard doors, rummaging through the contents. She opened the fridge and found a container of French onion dip hidden in the butter compartment and hurled it at me. As it hit the wall, the lid came off, and the contents spattered along the wall and floor.
"Stop it," I screamed.
"Fuck you, you goddamn liar!" Danae tossed over her shoulder, as she headed toward the living room.
She jerked open my desk drawers one by one, causing paper clips and errant pens and mail to scatter across the room. She found the bag of chocolates and hurled that at me as well. I caught it and flung it back, hitting her in the stomach. This only fueled her rage, and she stomped on the bag a couple of times with her bare feet before pushing me out of the way and running back to the bedroom.
When I got there, she was pulling all the boxes off the top shelf of my closet. She ripped a box open, and the package of cookies fell out. She seemed to lose steam then and sunk down to the floor, dropping the box beside her.
"What the hell is the matter with you, Gwen?" she asked in a weary voice.
"What the hell is the matter with you, crazy bitch?" I yelled. "You fucking dumped garbage on my bed. You trashed my apartment. You have no right!"
My hands were trembling, so I crossed my arms across my chest, tucking them into my armpits.
"I was only trying to help you," Danae continued. "Instead of letting me make a fool out of myself, why didn't you just say you didn't want my help?"
I said nothing. I simply looked at my toes and dug my fingers into my t-shirt. I just wanted her gone.
Danae shook her head and leaned her forehead on her knees.
"I can't do this anymore," she said.
Octavia is sitting next to me at a bar just over the line in her district. I'm nursing a beer; she has one of those little cocktails with an umbrella in it. We are invisible to the mortal world, of course, although I have been making sure that nobody is interested in sitting at our end of the bar.
"Seriously?" I ask. "Two women, their heads between each other's thighs, one's butt up in the air, the other's exposed by her bent legs. Even I could hit those targets."
"That big, huh?"
"No, not at all," I sputter. "I'm not that bad a shot."
"Julius, if you hadn't been so good at auras, you'd have flunked out of the academy. You were a horrible shot. You hit the instructor one time."
"Antonius." I nod, and feel a smile coming over my own face.
I haven't really gotten that much better since then. Sometimes, I didn't even manage to hit buttocks. I shot one guy in the butt and his "true love" in the right boob. The darts dissolve upon impact, of course, and people are more than happy to consider the momentary discomfort as just another one of life's pains in the ass. But this woman apparently thought that she was being groped so she turned around and decked the guy standing behind her, who, of course, turned out to be Mr. Right.
"So we're not talking big girls here?"
I smile again and take another sip of beer. "Danae — the lesbian? — has an amazing body. And Gwen must have been working out in the last few weeks too, because she looked incredible. Not big at all. Perfect, in fact."
"What is it with men?" Octavia asks. "Why are you all the ass-half-empty types? What's wrong with a nice curvy butt, anyway?"
"Octavia! You made a joke."
I become conscious that I am staring at her as if she has just constructed a scale model of the Taj Mahal out of Popsicle sticks.
"Sorry," I mumble.
"You should be," Octavia says with a toss of her hair. "I make plenty of jokes. I know you all think of me as some sort of airhead future heiress, but there's a brain in here, pal."
"But you are, aren't you?"
"An airhead?" She turns on me quickly.
"No, no. A future heiress."
"There's nothing wrong with wanting the best." She's become defensive. "I've put in five hard years as a cupid."
"I know, I know." I try soothing her. "So have you heard whether you got it yet?"
"Not yet. Oh, Julius, it would be so nice. They're such a great couple. Apart from the money, there's just such love between them, and I know that their little girl is going to be the most-loved baby in the world. Whether she has my soul or somebody else's. Touch me, Julius."
Octavia is a nice kid, but we have been taught to avoid touching, whether it's mortals or immortals.
"Touch me and let me show you." She extends her hand toward me, the fingers splayed apart, and I instinctively meet it with my own. I nearly pull back, so odd is the effect of seeing her memories through her eyes. We watch a Bill and Elise Collins walking through the park, the woman quite pregnant, the two of them obviously in love. It is an idyllic scene, and it takes effort to pull my hand back.
"Wow!" I exclaim. "I didn't know we could do that. How long have you known that?"
"Since the academy. Sybilla and I used to..."
She starts blushing.
"Don't tell anyone, okay, Julius?"
"So how much time do you spend watching those two?"
Her blush deepens.
"Got it," I say. "Don't tell them that, either. So when do you find out?"
She shrugged. "If Elise delivers before my time's up, it won't be me. Can't have a baby without a soul, you know. They'll just assign somebody else."
I know that as well as Octavia does. Our rebirth into the mortal world depends on both hard work and luck. Like me, Octavia's previous life ended when she had died before being baptized. Until recently, Catholic theology had confined those children to "Limbo." Recently, though, the Church had had an epiphany and decided maybe that wasn't such a nice thing to do after all.
Yeah, like they knew squat. The truth is that those kids become the world's elves and cupids and fairies and leprechauns. If we keep our noses clean and do our work, we're entitled to be reborn into a new body. If we fuck up, we get recycled for another five-year stint. Rumor has it, in fact, that the head honchos are about to make it seven years. Medicine is doing so much better at keeping babies alive that the supply of immortals is dwindling. We cupids are being assigned larger and larger districts, and they've pretty much done away with leprechauns altogether.
"Good luck, honey."
"You too, Julius. I heard you made your quota last month."
I smile into my beer. Of course I made my fucking quota. They wouldn't let me back into the warehouse until I had emptied my quiver. And the warehouse was the only place I could get two darts filled with the "anti" that I needed to dissolve the ill-starred relationship between Gwen and Danae. It was a bitch, really, with the holidays. The college students were off until January fourteenth, and we were absolutely forbidden to go near high schools. If someone wants to marry their high school sweetheart, that's their business, and I wish them the best of luck. But a teenage body filled with both hormones and a dart filled with love serum is a powder keg. College students are bad enough, the randy little rabbits.
So I hung out in bars, at parties, and at churches. When I found two auras that were above minimally congruent — young, old, gay, lesbian, whatever — I took the shot. I was determined to get back to Gwen and Danae and undo the damage that I had done. I had studied their auras at the party where I had inadvertently put them together. Their relationship was destined for incredible highs and soul-searing lows before it finally flamed out; the "anti" would just hurry the process along.
In truth, I have never seen the stuff work so quickly. Love serum works fast because it has to. In most cases, there is a single moment that will determine whether or not a couple will ever get together. Our job is to arrive there before that moment and make it work. But "anti" is usually quite slow; relationships take time to end. In this case, I took it as a sign that Gwen was never intended to be a lesbian. Or perhaps it worked so quickly because no other cupid had ever been so stupid as to put together two such mismatched auras.
"Uh-oh, check it out. The fox at one o'clock and the guy at the end of the bar."
Octavia's excitement pulls me from my reverie. I turn around and find the guy first and then look back over my shoulder for the woman. I turn back in horror. Octavia has already pulled two darts from her quiver.
"Octavia, no. Please."
My voice is a hushed gasp, barely able to make itself heard. I am extremely conscious of the inappropriateness of my request. We are in Octavia's district, and she is entitled to match whomever she likes. In all honesty, their auras are congruent, although just barely.
Octavia stops. We are close enough that she recognizes the urgency of my request. She raises an eyebrow, inviting me to continue.
"It's her," I blurt out.
"Her?" She invites me to continue.