Disclaimer: This is an original work of fiction, and may not be reproduced without permission of the author. © October 2007
Thanks: Thanks go to Yuri, my beta-reader, without whom I would do little to no writing at all. His services as a beta-reader, sounding board and cheerleader are priceless. Also, thanks to Alex and Derek, who also read through this story: Alex, for getting all of my jokes, no matter how obscure, and Derek for calling me on it when I’m being a comma-whore.
Feedback: Any and all comments, questions, etc. are welcome, and can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org
Nothing Scarier Than Love
Halloween is the busiest time of the year for us. Not only is there the regular day-to-day business of escorting the newly dead to the entryway of … wherever … there’s the fact that, on that one night, the veil between life and death is thinnest, and the spirits of the dead can slip through.
There are two kinds of Grim Reapers: Gatherers and Hunters. As you would guess Gatherers collect the recently departed and Hunters track those souls who have made it back to the world of the living.
I am a Hunter, and I’m one of the best.
I take my work very seriously. I wasn’t created to have fun, or to feel things like pity or remorse or love. I am a Harvester of Life. I am a Reaper of Souls. I answer to no one and nothing except Death himself. I am feared everywhere I go.
And the only thing I’m scared of is love.
This isn’t my story, though I play a part. This is the story of Val and how, one Halloween, she learned there is nothing scarier than love.
It begins with a harebrained scheme cooked up by one of Santa’s Elves and the Easter Bunny.
No, I’m not pulling your leg. Grim Reapers don’t make jokes.
Piper took a deep breath and straightened her thigh-length green tunic, standing in front of the apartment door. She looked down for a quick visual check of her green shoes and red tights as she wiggled her toes. The bells perched on the end of the pointy tips shone brightly, their high chiming sound happy and cheerful. She adjusted her hat, and the same sound greeted her ears.
She was stalling, she knew, but she needed help and there was nowhere else to turn. Bunny was supposed to meet her in the lobby twenty minutes ago, but she hadn’t showed, and Piper was running out of time. Pressing her lips together and giving herself an inward pep-talk, she raised her hand to knock, only to lower it when the distinctive ‘ding’ of the elevator sounded.
Piper turned as the familiar music sounded, the earthy drums and ‘va-va-voomy’ brass sounding in time with the woman sauntering down the hall. Her fishnet stockings, short skirt and halter top called attention to Bunny’s soft curves and toned muscles, though they really didn’t need the help. Piper shifted from foot to foot, feeling awkward and plain, which was her usual reaction to being in Bunny’s presence.
“Piper, honey,” Bunny said, tossing her glossy black hair over her shoulder with a casual wave of her hand, before leaning her weight onto one leg and placing that hand on her hip. “You’re not having second thoughts, are you? I thought you’d be inside by now.”
“You’re late,” Piper said, frowning up at the taller woman.
“You could’ve started without me,” Bunny pointed out reasonably, winking at Piper and pursing her lips, making the innocent words suggestive.
“Bunny!” Piper protested, putting her hands on her hips and attempting a glare. The merry chiming of the bell on her hat ruined the effect.
“Piper!” Bunny said, echoing Piper’s tone and posture. “Come on,” Bunny said, dropping the imitative stance. “You can do this without me.”
“No, I can’t,” Piper said, her eyes widening in panic, her earlier resolve forgotten. “I’m not as convincing as you. I don’t have your …” Piper said, her eyes drifting down over Bunny’s generous curves and a blush rising up before she looked down at her own waif-like build. “… anything!” she blurted.
“You are so cute,” Bunny cooed, lifting up Piper’s hat to ruffle her short, shaggy red hair before dropping the hat back down. “And you just need a little confidence.”
“So you’re not going to help?” Piper asked, looking up at Bunny with pleading green eyes and a crestfallen expression.
“Of course I’m going to help, sweetie,” Bunny said. “I’m just saying you don’t need it.”
“Thank you!” Piper said excitedly, rushing forward and wrapping Bunny in a great big hug, almost taking out her eye with the bell on the tip of her hat.
“Watch the bell! Watch the bell,” Bunny said, moving her head back out of the way and patting Piper on the back.
“Oh, sorry,” Piper said, letting Bunny go and adjusting her hat with a sheepish little grin. “Let’s do this,” she said, knocking on the door before she could talk herself out of it.
“Go away!” a voice yelled from inside.
That’s Val. She isn’t usually so surly or pathetic, but she’s been having a rough time lately.
A cherub’s job is to open the human heart to love. There’s a common misconception that cherubs create love with their arrows, but the truth is that the only thing the arrows do is open the eyes, the mind and the heart so that love has room to grow, and they create a temporary infatuation that will grow or fade naturally.
If two people who really aren’t compatible get shot with those arrows, it’s not going to do much. This is why cherubs work so hard all year long to find two people who will really work out.
Piper jumped and squeaked in surprise at the response to her knock and immediately turned to leave, only to run face-first into Bunny.
“Knock again,” Bunny said, turning Piper back around.
“But she sounds … angry. Clearly she doesn’t want visitors, so we’ll just …” Piper protested, even as Bunny gave her a little push towards the door.
“Piper, sweetie, if you don’t do this, you’ll always wonder what might have been,” Bunny pointed out.
Piper frowned at the door, and realized Bunny was right. She had to do this, and Val was her only chance.
Piper knocked again.
“Go away!” the voice responded.
Lips thinning with determination, eyes narrowing, Piper knocked again, much louder. She would not be denied.
The door swung open suddenly, and Piper took a step back, colliding with Bunny who steadied her when she came dangerously close to losing her footing.
The figure that appeared in the open doorway was worthy of a step back in its own right. Wild blond curls and bloodshot hazel eyes accompanying an angry scowl greeted them. Val’s usually neat and white toga was rumpled and stained, and the feathers on her wings were in as wild a state as her hair, as if something indecisive and manic had tried nesting in both.
“I said, ‘go away’!” Val growled.
“Uh – sorry!” Piper squeaked, turning to go again, only to be turned right back around by Bunny again.
“Val, honey, you look terrible,” Bunny said, taking Piper by the shoulders and using her as a bumper to bump Val out of her way so she could propel Piper into the apartment.
Val sighed and closed the door behind them, following the pair into her dark and unkempt living room.
“’Go away’ does not mean ‘come right in’,” Val pointed out, bypassing her unwelcome guests and flopping down on her couch. She pushed a few empty bottles out of her way to reach the one that still had some alcohol in it. She filled her glass, then drained it, then filled it again before turning her attention to Piper, who was looking back at the front door longingly like she wanted to turn around and leave, and Bunny, who was looking around at the sorry state of Val’s apartment with a raised eyebrow.
“The maid doesn’t come until next week?” Bunny asked.
“Why don’t you just tell me what you want, so I can say ‘no’, and then you can leave?” Val asked with a roll of her eyes, rolling the liquid around in her glass.
“Why don’t we start with why you’re in this sorry state, sugar?” Bunny said. Piper looked at Bunny with wide and panicked eyes, as if Bunny had just poked a bear with a stick.
A big, crazy, rabid, elf-eating bear.
“What?” Val asked, spreading her hands. “It’s my night off.”
“It looks like it’s been your month off,” Bunny said, looking pointedly around the room.
“I’m on suspension,” Val said shortly, looking away from Bunny and Piper.
“Oh, honey,” Bunny said, stepping carefully around the scattered bottles, cans and wrappers to sit on the couch gingerly. She laid a hand on Val’s shoulder and started to rub gently. “What happened?”
“What didn’t happen?” Val asked, snorting into her drink. “That’s the real question. And what didn’t happen is, the last twelve couples I tried to get together didn’t work out.”
“But – but that’s impossible!” Piper blurted out. “You’re the best cherub in the business!” At least, that’s what Bunny had told her. Though, when Bunny recommended her friend, the cherub, she hadn’t mentioned that Val was so … surly. And just a little pathetic.
Val looked at Piper with burning eyes that started to brim with unshed tears.
“Piper, honey, why don’t you make some coffee?” Bunny asked.
“Coffee. Right,” Piper said, scampering off to the kitchen, her bells tinkling merrily as she made a hasty retreat.
“Val, baby,” Bunny said once Piper had left the room. “It’s not your fault. Sometimes these things just don’t work out,” Bunny said.
“Not my fault?” Val asked incredulously, pouring herself another drink, only to have Bunny take both the bottle and the glass neatly out of her hand and make them both disappear. “If it’s not my fault when people don’t stay together, then it’s not my doing when they make it,” Val pointed out.
Bunny frowned. “Well, not necessarily –“
“And,” Val said, interrupting Bunny. “If it’s not my doing when people make it, what’s the point? Why do what I do? Why do I exist?”
“Oh, sister,” Bunny said, rolling her eyes. “Here we go.”
“Do I even exist?” Val went on, steamrolling ahead on expressing the thoughts that had been bouncing around in her skull for the past week. “I mean, we’re all just the product of the collective human consciousness. So, really, we’re just thoughts. Ideas. Are we even real?”
“Val, you have to knock this off and snap out of it, sugar,” Bunny said firmly, ducking her head down to try to make eye contact with Val, only to pull her head back when Val stood suddenly.
“I can’t,” Val said, shaking her head as she started pacing, her wings twitching in agitation. “I just can’t … I can’t stop thinking that there’s really no point anymore. I used to really know what I was doing. I knew what I was here for. I was this grand champion of love, putting people together so they could be happy, dammit, but for what? The perpetuation of the human species? It’s not like they really need help. Did you know there are over six billion people on the planet?”
“Well, yes, but –“ Bunny tried to answer.
“I’m not sure I believe in love anymore,” Val said, turning back to Bunny with a defiant lift of her chin.
“Don’t believe in love?” Piper asked, coming back from the kitchen at just that moment, a steaming cup of coffee in her hand. Her eyes widened and the mug slipped from her fingers and fell to the floor with a muffled thud, the hot liquid splashing all over her shoes and tights. “Oh … oh!” Piper said, hopping back and quickly picking up the mug.
“Oh, Piper,” Bunny said, darting up to the couch and rushing over to her friend, waving a hand over her body and replacing her clothes with fresh ones and fixing the burns in one smooth motion. “You okay?” she asked, ducking her head to look into Piper’s wide, shocked eyes.
“She doesn’t believe in love?” Piper asked weakly, her eyes darting between Bunny and Val. Realization slowly sunk in, and Piper’s shoulders hunched with the weight of defeat. “She can’t help me,” Piper said, her voice a low, devastated whisper.
“That’s right. I can’t,” Val said firmly. “So whatever it is you want, just go away.”
Piper nodded weakly and started to leave, only to be brought up short by Bunny’s hand on her arm.
“Now, both of you hold on,” Bunny said, her eyes narrowing. “You can help each other. Val, you’ll feel more like yourself after a shower and some coffee. Piper and I will clean this place and turn on some lights. When you’re looking and feeling like a cherub again, we’ll talk.”
“How about you two just get out?” Val shot back. “I’m not in the mood to help anyone, and –“
“Oh, really?” Bunny asked, arching an eyebrow and sauntering towards Val, the earthy drums and brass section kicking in as she ate up the distance between them. “Just hear the poor girl out, honey,” Bunny cooed, stepping into Val’s personal space and trailing a finger lightly up her arm.
Val’s heart rate picked up and her breathing grew shallow. Bunny really should have warning labels plastered all over her body, she mused, and not for the first time.
She shook her head, trying to clear out the music and the haze of sheer sexy that permeated the room. A shiver raced down her spine, and everything in the room except Bunny seemed to recede from her consciousness, to the point where she didn’t notice Piper let out a squeak and run into the kitchen.
“Bunny,” Val said, her voice tight and low. “This isn’t fair.”
“All’s fair in love and war, baby,” Bunny said, moving even closer to Val. “I just want you to listen,” Bunny went on, breathing the words into Val’s ear.
“Oh, God,” Val said on a groan, stepping back and pressing the heel of her palm into her eye. “Just … just stop the music,” she said, waving her drink. “Please, make it stop.”
“You’ll hear her out?” Bunny asked, the music stopping suddenly.
“Yes. After a shower. A very, very cold shower,” Val said, letting out a long breath and practically staggering from the room.
There are some things in this world that I just have to accept are true, even though I have no frame of reference for them. The recuperative powers of a hot shower and the miraculous effects of coffee are two of those things.
The products of the collective human consciousness are many and varied. Some of us turned out more “human” than the rest. Santa’s elves, for instance, are basically ridiculously long-lived people with an inexhaustible supply of energy, a very high tolerance for cold weather and a communal society. Cherubs are a lot like people, except every last one of them is a competitive loner whose entire existence revolves around their arrows-to-couples percentage. When their numbers are down, so are they. Grim Reapers don’t eat, sleep, sweat, or do anything else that’s considered human, except for walking and speaking.
Then there’s Bunny. Bunny is … something else entirely.
In this instance, Bunny was right.
Val felt a lot more like herself after a shower and some coffee.
“So, you want me to make some lady in marketing fall in love so she won’t start running Christmas ads two weeks before Thanksgiving? So you’re not too busy to spend time with your new girlfriend?” Val asked to make sure she’d followed Piper’s rapid and expressive explanation of why, exactly, she was there.
When she had emerged from the shower, Bunny had been lounging on the couch and Piper was polishing the brass knobs on the drawers inset in the coffee table.
All the trash was gone, the dishwasher was humming, and every surface in the entire apartment gleamed. Even the wobbly chair in the dining room had been repaired.
“Right,” Piper said with a nod.
“So see her after Christmas,” Val said, sipping her coffee. “Or take this Christmas off. There are plenty of elves to get everything done in time.”
“Time off? But it’s Christmas!” Piper asked, her voice rising to a squeak. “And Hanukkah! And Kwanzaa and … and all the other winter holidays! We make toys and decorations for all of them, and I’m slated to make dreidels this year. Do you think dreidels make themselves? That’s insane!”
“Right, sorry,” Val said, waving a hand as if to wave away her temporary insanity. “But I’m still a little … confused,” she admitted. “Why is this marketing woman so important?”
“Haven’t you been listening?” Piper asked, standing up and pacing, her hands behind her back. “She’s jumping the gun! If she finishes her Christmas ad campaign on time, they’re going to start running it two weeks before Thanksgiving. Two weeks! Before Thanksgiving!” Piper said, stopping and waving her arms wildly. “After those run, everyone else will get their ads out in a hurry, and … and it’s a slippery slope. Bad enough that Christmas has started earlier and earlier every year, but do you know what running these ads that early is going to do to the demand for toys?”
“It’ll … go up?” Val hazarded. Cherubs tracked the sale of greeting cards as a love indicator, but they really didn’t pay attention to toys.
“Yes, it’ll go up!” Piper said, continuing her pacing. “And if it goes up, I’ll be so busy, I won’t get to see her, and if I don’t get to see her, she’s so wonderful and kind, and … and … wonderful, that someone else will snatch her up, I just know it!”
“So, who is this girl?” Val asked.
“She’s a tooth fairy,” Piper said.
Bunny and Val exchanged a look, and Bunny just shook her head a bit and gave a subtle little shrug, as if to point out there was no accounting for taste.
“A tooth fairy?” Val asked. “Aren’t they a little …” Val said, trailing off as she tried to think of a diplomatic word for ‘creepy’. “… creepy?” she finished, giving up on her search.
“Hey!” Piper said, her hands on her hips and her brow furrowed, every inch of her bristling with indignation.
“I just meant they’re a little … ummm …” Val said, looking over at Bunny for help.
“Freakishly obsessed with teeth in an Edgar Allan Poe kind of way?” Bunny supplied helpfully.
“Mitzy is different,” Piper said, crossing her arms in front of her chest and looking down at the floor. “She’s … she likes being a tooth fairy because she gets to make children happy. That’s why I like being an elf,” Piper said, looking back up. “We have a lot in common, and she’s so easy to talk to. She’s really sweet, and kind, and pretty …” Piper said, trailing off with a dreamy look on her face.
Val took a deep breath then let it out slowly, considering her options. She wasn’t up for this. Piper might believe in love – and have a creepy tooth-fairy girlfriend – but Val wasn’t sure what the point of existing was anymore, let alone what the point of love was.
Could she even do it anymore? With the long string of failures behind her, she wasn’t really the right person to be asking anyway.
“I think I’ll take this opportunity to point out that you owe me, honey,” Bunny said, smiling at Val softly.
“You’re going to call that one in for this?” Val asked, her eyebrows crawling up her forehead.
“Honey, how long have you been cooped up in this apartment by yourself, drinking?”
“Umm … about a month?” Val said.
“Well, then,” Bunny said, spreading her hands. “I think it’s obvious you need to get out of here. Why not help out Piper while you’re at it?”
Val considered this. She did owe Bunny a fairly huge favor for her help resolving a love triangle a few years back.
“If I do this, we’re square?” she asked.
“Absolutely,” Bunny said.
Val had the time, being on suspension. And she may have lost her touch, but Piper and Bunny weren’t asking her to make a permanent love match. They just wanted her to get some woman so infatuated she was too distracted to finish an ad campaign.
“So who’s the target?” Val asked.
“So you’ll do it, sugar?” Bunny asked.
“Yeah, I’ll do it,” Val confirmed.
Piper squealed and clapped. “Oh, thank you – thank you!” she said excitedly, giving Val a great big hug.
“So who is this woman?” Val asked, easing Piper away from her.
“Her name is Susan Leighton, and she’s, umm … she’s a regular on Santa’s Naughty List,” Piper said.
Time and Space are also products of the collective human consciousness. They’re artificial constructs by which the measureless is measured. Time, being endless, cannot be measured. It has no beginning or end. Same thing with Space.
While Time and Space are, in and of themselves, infinite, the Time and Space that a human being can occupy is finite. For this reason, the collective human consciousness created Time and Space in relation to themselves.
For instance, a day is the amount of time it takes the planet earth to revolve around once on its axis. But what’s the starting point? The earth was spinning long before humanity, and it will spin long after.
And so, for any given human being, one day is the amount of time it takes for the earth to spin on its axis, starting from where they’re standing.
Many of the products of the collective human consciousness are bound by Time and Space, just like people are.
Grim Reapers are not.
It’s hard to explain.
Time and Space don’t affect us, unless we’re attempting to affect something that exists in Time and Space. As long as we’re just observing, we can see anything, anywhere, anytime. When we’re actually collecting a soul, though, we exist within Time and Space and are subject to its laws. So, once we’ve stepped into a Time and a Space, we can’t go back and change something that happened before the Time we stepped into.
We can’t create or fix a Time Paradox.
Even though we can’t affect something that happened before a Time we stepped into, we can go back and look. When we’re looking, we can even pick up thoughts, if they’re particularly strong.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that, yes, even though I wasn’t there, I witnessed all of this happen when I went back to find out exactly how I had gotten into this mess.
I’ll explain about the mess I’m in later. Right now, I’ll explain about the mess that was Val’s first day of work as a copywriter working for Susan.
Val put down her pen on her completed forms and leaned back in her chair, stretching out her wings a little, but being careful to keep them within the confines of her cubicle, before rubbing her eyes.
Being a new hire involved paperwork. Lots of paperwork. Val blinked a few times then started double-checking her forms, grumbling to herself about the huge waste of time.
It’s not like Val was going to be here long enough for any of this to be relevant, anyway. She’d decided to just get Susan infatuated with the first remotely viable candidate, and then go home and forget about this whole situation entirely. Piper would be happy, Bunny would be off her case, and she’d have the peace and quiet she needed to figure out just what the point of existence was, and why she bothered when love was an exercise in futility nowadays.
“Umm … hi,” a soft voice said from her cubicle entryway. “You must be the new copywriter, Valerie Valentine?”
“Please call me Val,” Val said automatically, looking up into soft brown eyes and smiling reflexively at the slightly harried and shy look that greeted her.
“I’m Bess,” the woman said, shifting a precarious-looking stack of files over to one arm, hugged against her chest, before extending a hand.
“Nice to meet you, Bess,” Val said, standing up to shake Bess’ hand and looking her over.
Bess was about 5’4”, with light brown hair pulled back into a bun and glasses starting to slide down her nose. Her skirt-suit was a soft blue-grey, professional and appropriate, but not terribly expensive, as were the shoes.
Her own appearance, she knew, was one of competent professionalism. While, technically, she was wearing a toga and sandals and had great big feathery white wings sprouting from her back, she imagined the clothes she wanted to project. The people she ran into would see what she wanted them to see unless she wanted them to see her true self, and that only happened in the most drastic of situations with the most hard-headed of individuals.
Val looked deeper, behind the glasses and into Bess’ eyes. Being a cherub had certain advantages, and the ability to read people was one of them. Like other cherubs, Val could look into someone’s eyes and see a person’s hopes and dreams, some of their history, and the focus and direction of their affections.
The first thing Val noticed was an echo of sadness in those eyes. She had an impression that this woman was usually friendly and open, and the shyness exhibited in her demeanor was due to some recent pain. After that, Val noticed the soft, familiar ‘ping’ of her flawless cherubic gaydar and she felt the corner of her lips twitch.
Cherubs were, by nature, attractive people. The presence or absence of even a whisper of attraction from the people a cherub read was a perfect indicator of sexual orientation. From Bess, Val caught an attraction like a fanfare of trumpets that was quickly and decisively stifled by a wave of sadness.
Bess was clearly getting over some kind of heartbreak.
Val tried to look deeper, wondering where that heartbreak was directed, and if, perhaps, it wasn’t too late to do something about it. Then Val inwardly rolled her eyes at herself. There was no point in trying to do something about it. The fact that this adorable woman was running around with a broken heart merely reinforced her case that love just didn’t work anymore.
Despite her inner admonishment to herself, Val wondered. Maybe it was the shy smile and the shining eyes, but there was something about this woman that made Val want her to be happy.
But Val couldn’t get any deeper, and her brow furrowed. Something about this woman was hard to read, and Val couldn’t help but wonder if she’d lost her touch, and that was why her matches had failed so miserably recently. Maybe love wasn’t the problem: maybe Val was the problem, and she just couldn’t do the job properly anymore, in which case Bess would be better off if Val just stayed out of it.
Which was when Val realized she’d been holding Bess’ hand for a little longer than would be considered appropriate.
“Oh, sorry,” Val said with a sheepish smile and a blush. “You can have your hand back,” she said, letting go of Bess’s hand. “There’s something about filling out endless forms that turns my brain off. Kind of spaced for a minute there.”
“Yeah, I do that, too,” Bess said with a little laugh and a wave of her hand before she quickly brought that hand back to balance the files that were slipping from her grip.
“Here,” Val said, taking some of the precariously perched files. “Let me help with those.”
“Thanks,” Bess said with a smile and a roll of her eyes. “It’s been that kind of day and it’s only ten in the morning.”
“Can I help you carry these somewhere?” Val asked.
“Actually, I’m here to pick up your paperwork and tell you that Ms. Leighton will see you tomorrow morning at 8am. She usually has an interview with new hires before they start, but we’ve had that job posted for three months, and we’re all in crazy mode with the Christmas campaign coming up,” Bess explained.
“There,” Val said, picking up her paperwork and adding it to the stack she was carrying for Bess. “Lead on. I was just going to head to the break room for some coffee and to see if I could find someone who could give me a little hint as to what I’m supposed to be doing other than ‘write copy’,” Val said with a smile.
“Thanks,” Bess said, ducking her head and pushing her glasses up her nose. “This way,” Bess said, heading through the maze of cubicles.
“So what do you do here?” Val asked.
“Oh, sorry,” Bess said, shooting a look over her shoulder at Val. “I’m Ms. Leighton’s administrative assistant. I’m also your contact person for any HR needs, and I handle the scheduling, so if you need time off, you come see me.”
“Got it,” Val said with a nod, checking out Bess’ assets from behind as Bess led the way to her desk. It was, Val assured herself, a purely professional interest as she wondered what Bess’ hair looked like when it was down and what her body looked like under the inexpensive suit. All in all, Val decided, Bess was a fantastic candidate for a match. Hooking her up with someone wouldn’t be too hard, as she had to guess that every available lesbian in at least a ten-mile radius would be interested.
“Here we are,” Bess said, stopping at a desk separated from the cubicles by a wide-open space. The desk sat in front of a door with a big brass nameplate on it that said ‘Susan Leighton, Marketing Director’.
“Bess!” bellowed a voice from behind the closed door.
“Gotta’ go,” Bess said, placing the files on her desk and heading to the door, speaking quickly. “Go see Miriam Fisher. She’s always in the breakroom at 10:15, like clockwork. She’s the Senior Copywriter, and she can get you settled.”
“Older woman, gray hair,” Bess said in a rush, before disappearing through the door.
Val placed the files she had carried for Bess on top of the files Bess had left there and shook her head to clear it. She couldn’t worry about setting Bess up with someone when she had a job to do, and from the sound of it, setting up someone with Ms. Susan Leighton was going to be quite the job.
If the opportunity presented itself, she could try to set up the cute admin with the sad eyes, but she had promised Piper she would treat her request like it was an official assignment, and that meant finding the right person for Ms. Leighton was her top priority.
That decided, Val headed towards the break room to meet Miriam Fisher and to get settled into her job and, if she were lucky, to find out just who was hot for the boss.
I’ve watched that scene over and over. And over.
I’m not used to human interaction. None of my kind are. We’ve seen quite a lot of human existence, but we really focus on the end of it, not all the messy entanglements leading up to that point. That’s why I didn’t see it, at first. That’s why I had to watch it over and over again to pinpoint the part where everything went horribly, terribly wrong.
What I can’t figure out is how Val didn’t see it coming.
“Excuse me,” Val said politely. “Are you Miriam Fisher?”
Amused brown eyes looked up at her, and Val couldn’t help but compare them with the brown eyes she had looked into just moments before.
This woman was, indeed, Miriam Fisher, and she was easy to read.
Val smiled, both in relief that her reading abilities seemed to be fine, and in response to what she was picking up from Mrs. Fisher.
For a cherub like Val, what stood out the most was the love. This woman was still as madly in love with her husband after thirty years of marriage as she was on the day that she had married him. She was getting close to retirement and was looking forward to spending more time with him and spoiling her six grandchildren.
And that, Val considered, is what had been missing from her life. She hadn’t seen a match like that in ages, and Val didn’t know why. Was real love and commitment passé? Were people too cynical to really open up to each other even when a cherub helped them along? Or was Val just making bad matches because she didn’t really believe in love anymore?
“Yes. And you are?” Miriam asked, squinting up at Val before putting on her glasses and blinking twice.
“Valerie Valentine,” Val said, sitting down. “But please call me Val.”
“Valerie Valentine? Like that’s a real name …” Miriam said, snorting her disbelief before sipping her coffee. “So what is it? Witness Protection? You worked as a stripper and witnessed a mafia hit? Running from an abusive boyfriend or on the lam from the fuzz?”
Val stopped and blinked.
“Okay …” Val said slowly, drawing out the first syllable and taking a seat.
“Sorry,” Miriam said with a little smile and a shrug. “I’ve been told I have an odd sense of humor. How long have you been a copywriter?”
“About two hours,” Val said, pouring herself a cup of coffee and sitting down. “Bess said I should see you to get settled.”
“So you’ve met Bess,” Miriam said with a smile. “Lovely girl. Really, if you need anything, skip seeing Susan and go straight to Bess. Or see me, and I’ll skip seeing Susan and go straight to Bess.”
“I haven’t met Susan yet,” Val said, her expression thoughtful. “I have an appointment with her tomorrow morning at 8am.”
“Hm,” Miriam said thoughtfully. “I don’t know whether to tell you to dress warmly to stave off frostbite, or to get some fire-retardant underwear in case she breathes fire all over your ass.”
Val raised both eyebrows.
“Is this another bit of artistic license on your part, or should I be genuinely worried?” Val asked finally.
“Well, first, you’re going to be ignored the first little bit you’re in there; second, she’s going to look at you like she can’t imagine what you’re doing in her office; third, she’s going to look over your resume while you sit quietly and try not to fidget; and fourth, she’s basically going to re-interview you, and it will be nerve-wracking,” Miriam said, ticking off each item on her fingers.
“Oh,” Val said, not bothering to point out that she hadn’t technically interviewed for this position in the first place. Cherubs didn’t do interviews. They just decided they needed a job, and which day they wanted to start.
“Now, you’re probably expecting me to point out the advantages of working for Susan so I don’t scare you off, but I don’t believe in glossing over the truth when I’m not working on an ad,” Miriam said, looking at Val seriously. “She’s hard to work for because she’s a micro-managing control-freak with anger management issues, no regard for other people, and she’s let the fact that she’s gotten where she’s at by the age of 35 go to her head. Serious power trip.”
“Seriously?” Val asked, her expression incredulous. No one was that bad. She genuinely hoped that no one was that bad.
“Seriously,” Miriam said. “You’re low enough on the totem pole that, after this, you should only very rarely see her, though, so it’s not so bad. Just remember that if you need something, skip Susan and see Bess.”
“All right,” Val said, nodding slowly. “I’ll remember that.”
“And don’t worry about it,” Miriam said. “Like I said, after tomorrow, you’ll rarely see her, and she can’t actually fire you. At least, all of her terminations have to go through an HR review before they’re finalized.”
“Why?” Val asked, then wondered if she wanted to know. This was just getting worse and worse.
“There were a few issues and, well, lawsuits regarding a few of her terminations awhile back. Then HR noticed she had a huge turnover rate in her department, and it was due to the large number of firings,” Miriam said, trailing off and looking away.
“Uh-oh,” Val said softly, leaning in and looking around. “That sounds like there’s something I might need to know.”
“Look,” Miriam said quietly, glancing at the door and also leaning in. “There are a lot of rumors flying around about what happened with our last copywriter. If you’re listening, you’ll hear a wide range of things, from the copywriter getting fired for making a very, very clumsy pass at Susan, to Susan sleeping with her, breaking up her marriage, and then firing her when the relationship was getting too serious.”
“You have got to be kidding me,” Val said, her eyes widening. Clearly, she needed to get some more information on Susan.
“Nobody really knows what happened,” Miriam said with a shrug. “We just know that something >did< happen, and crazy rumors are flying around. The only advice I can give you is, no matter how hot Susan is, don’t go there. She’s bad news on that front, regardless. Don’t fall into the ‘she just needs the love of a good woman’ trap.”
“Duly noted,” Val said seriously, her mind turning over this information. Because Miriam was right. Sure, a case where a cold-hearted unrepentant bastard was actually redeemed by the love of a good man or woman happened once a decade or so, but those were very special cases, and they were very rare.
Still, she hadn’t met Susan yet, and until she did, she didn’t really know what she was dealing with. Maybe Susan was just misunderstood, and had some genuine human feelings somewhere in there. It was Val’s job to find out.
“Good,” Miriam said, looking at Val speculatively. “So, do you swing that way?” she asked bluntly.
Val laughed. “Why, are you looking to set me up?” she asked. Amateur matchmakers always amused Val.
“Maybe,” Miriam said with a little shrug. “Maybe not. Depends.”
“On what?” Val asked.
“On whether or not you’re worth it,” Miriam said.
“You’re very straightforward, aren’t you?” Val said, her tone one of certainty.
“Pretty much. You ready to get started writing copy?”
“Absolutely,” Val said.
Which came first? The muses that created human imagination, or the human imagination that created the muses?
I think about things like that sometimes, when I’m outside of Time and Space and don’t have anything better to do. Did Reapers come into being when mankind realized what Death was, or were Reapers necessary to facilitate the first human Death?
That way lays madness, if Grim Reapers were capable of going mad.
Maybe I’ve watched the part where Val is surly and pathetic a few too many times, but I’ve wondered about the nature of existence quite a bit recently, and I really don’t have any answers. Perhaps that’s the way in which all of us products of the collective human consciousness are most human.
Or maybe it’s our penchant for gossip that’s most human.
“How did you two get in here?” Val asked, shutting her apartment door and looking suspiciously at Bunny, who was lounging on her couch, and Piper who was washing Val’s breakfast dishes.
“I asked the apartment manager to let us in … nicely,” Bunny said with a wink and a grin.
“Remind me to have a little chat with you about using your powers for good,” Val said sourly, slipping off her bow and quiver and putting them next to the door. “So what are you doing here?”
“How did it go?” Piper asked, actually putting down a dirty dish to bounce into the living room to ask Val about her day.
“It was only the first day,” Val said with a shrug. “I didn’t even get to meet her yet.”
“But what about the other people? Do you know who you’re going to set her up with yet?” Piper asked, her brow furrowing into a worried look as she wrung her hands together.
“Not yet, no,” Val said with a sigh. “She’s not really popular with the staff.”
“Oh,” Piper said, her expression downcast.
“Hey, I’ll find someone,” Val said, looking over at Piper with what she hoped was a suitably confident expression. She wasn’t lying, exactly. There was a good chance she would find someone, and as disturbing as Piper’s everlasting cheeriness was, a despondent Piper was worse.
“Really?” Piper asked, brightening visibly.
“Really,” Val said. “You want to help?” she asked after a long moment of silence.
“Can I?” Piper asked, her eyes lighting up and her bells tinkling. “Do I get to use the bow?”
“Uh, no …” Val said slowly, shaking her head. “But could you swipe one of Santa’s files?”
“Swipe?” Piper asked, her eyes widening. “You mean steal!?” she said, her voice rising to a squeak on the last word. “But … but …” she went on, sputtering helplessly as she tried to find exactly where to start verbalizing her long list of reasons why that was absolutely out of the question.
“No, not steal,” Val said quickly, raising a hand. “Borrow. I meant, could you borrow Susan’s Naughty and Nice File? It’ll really help.”
“Umm … I …” Piper said, looking over at Bunny, who just nodded her support of Val’s request. “I guess it wouldn’t hurt if I just … borrowed it.”
I sometimes wonder if there’s a God. Lots of humans are completely convinced, but it’s not like I’ve seen Him or Her.
And if there is a God, is He or She a product of the collective human consciousness like we are, or the creator of the collective human consciousness?
It’s a mystery. It’s a great big cosmic mystery.
Like Santa’s files. No one but Santa and the Elves know how they keep track of that many files, when every single file has a first name only on it, and usually a cute childhood nickname at that. But they do, and if you ask how they do it, they just look confused like they don’t understand the question.
No one knows exactly how Santa gathers this information, either, but it’s always completely and perfectly accurate. It’s a good thing that humans can’t possibly get to Santa’s North Pole: from a human government perspective, Santa’s files just might be the most valuable commodity in the world.
Which is why removing Santa’s files from the North Pole and bringing them into the human world is a big no-no.
“Hey, Bess – she in?” Val asked, walking up to Bess’ desk, where she looked like she was already neck-deep in work. “And how early did you get here?” she asked.
“She’s in,” Bess said, looking up and letting out a short breath, blowing some hair out of her eyes. “I’ve been here …” she said, pausing and looking at the clock. “I’ve been here for two hours already.”
“Please tell me you get paid by the hour,” Val said.
“Nope,” Bess said, shaking her head with a soft smile. “Salaried.”
“Tell me about it,” Bess said dryly. “She told me to send you in when you got here, so you can go on in.”
“Great, thanks,” Val said, moving to the door. She paused and looked over her shoulder, and Bess was looking back at her, giving her an encouraging smile.
“Oh! One more thing!” Bess said quickly standing up and putting her hand on Val’s arm to stop Val from opening the door. “She’ll tell you to call her Susan because being on a first-name basis is company policy, but she hates it. Call her Ms. Leighton unless you’re trying to get her goat, which is a bad idea,” Bess said softly.
“Thanks for the tip,” Val said with a grateful smile, glancing down at Bess’ hand on her arm.
“You’ll do fine,” Bess said, giving Val’s arm a squeeze, then sitting back down at her desk.
Val took a deep breath.
This was it. She was finally going to meet Susan Leighton, she of the bad reputation, for whom she somehow had to find a match.
Val walked in.
The first thing Val noticed was the desk. It was impossible to miss, and it looked like it should have the Presidential Seal of the United States stuck to the front.
The second thing she noticed was Susan, who was completely ignoring her.
Val waited patiently, studying the woman. Susan was probably somewhere around 5’6” with long blond hair. She was absorbed in something on her desk, so Val couldn’t see her eyes yet. From what was visible, her suit looked expensive and tailored, and her watch, necklace and earrings looked like the real thing.
Time ticked on, and still Val waited, standing still and quiet by the door. Even without Miriam’s warning about how, exactly, this meeting would play out, Val wasn’t one to fidget. She just stood steady, like she had her bow in her hands and was picking her shot.
“Who the hell are you?” Susan asked, looking up at Val with narrowed eyes.
“I’m Valerie Valentine, Ms. Leighton, your new copywriter,” Val said calmly. “I was told to come in.”
“Hmm … that’s right,” Susan said, leaning back in her chair and looking Val up and down. Susan smiled slowly. “Why don’t you take a seat?”
Val sat down and waited, watching Susan as Susan watched her.
“I have your resume here,” Susan said, shuffling a few papers before producing Val’s resume. She held it in front of her and started reading it while Val waited, Susan’s eyebrows climbing higher and higher on her forehead.
Val continued waiting, trying not to react. There was no doubt that Susan intended this whole session as a test to see how a job applicant handled stressful situations.
“You spent three years dressing up as a cherub and delivering singing telegrams?” Susan asked slowly, her voice deceptively mild.
“Yes, Ms. Leighton,” Val said simply, inwardly cursing Bunny. She knew she should have handled her resume herself. Usually, on an official job, the older cherubs who weren’t such good shots anymore handled support work, like putting together resumes and arranging job positions near one of their targets, but as this wasn’t an official job, Val had make do with who she had available.
“And for the same timeframe, you did seasonal work as one of Santa’s Elves in the mall?” Susan asked.
“Yes, Ms. Leighton,” Val said. Piper. She’d have to have a little chat with both of them later.
“I could go on,” Susan said, tossing the resume down. “But I believe I’ve established that there isn’t anything on your resume that qualifies you for this job, which begs the question: why did you get it?”
“I interview very well, and my writing samples are impressive,” Val said.
“Really?” Susan asked slowly, her tone indicating her great doubt as she raised an eyebrow. “And just why did you want to work for our company?”
“This company is known throughout the industry as innovative and leading edge in marketing,” Val said simply, grateful that she had, at least, done her own research on the company. “People change careers about four times in their lifetime, and I’ve always been interested in marketing. I’ve always tried to learn from the best when I was interested in something.”
“And what benefit does the company get from employing you as opposed to someone who has experience in the field?” Susan asked, leaning forward, her eyes narrowing dangerously.
“All of my previous work involves face to face time with all kinds of people,” Val said, mentally crossing her fingers that this was true. Really, after she had a little chat with Piper and Bunny, she’d have to take a moment to kick her own ass for not reading her resume. “Marketing involves tailoring a pitch to the target demographic of the product, and there isn’t a demographic in existence that I haven’t had a great deal of experience working with on a personal level. Rather than making me unqualified, this makes me uniquely qualified because I have first-hand experience with consumers themselves, instead of relying solely on studies and focus groups.”
“You’re right,” Susan said slowly. “You do interview well. That was a very impressive bit of bullshit.”
“Thank you, Ms. Leighton,” Val said with a smile.
Susan’s lips twitched. “I’m supposed to tell you that you can call me Susan.”
“I’d prefer ‘Ms. Leighton’, if you don’t mind,” Val said. “You’re my boss, not my buddy.”
“I’m glad you realize that,” Susan said, standing up, causing Val to immediately follow suit. “Tell Bess to give you copies of the print ads for the Christmas campaign. Write me five pieces of copy for each graphic and give them to Bess before you leave today,” she said extending a hand. “Let’s see what your time in green tights taught you about Christmas shoppers.”
“Yes, Ms. Leighton,” Val said, stepping closer to the desk to shake Susan’s hand when Susan extended it.
Val took Susan’s hand, finally close enough to look into her eyes. The ping of her cherubic gaydar went off loud and strong, and Val almost dropped Susan’s hand. The sense that Susan was sizing her up and evaluating how she could be used for Susan’s ends, both personal and professional, was the only thing that came across before the handshake was done and Val took a step back.
This woman used people and discarded them, pure and simple.
“Will that be all, Ms. Leighton?” Val asked, trying not to let her distaste show on her face. She understood, now, just why this woman had such a bad reputation. Everyone manipulated others, whether consciously or not, and for a variety of reasons, but most were innocuous interactions. Susan’s manipulations were calculated and cold.
And she was supposed to find this woman a match?
“Yes, that will be all,” Ms. Leighton said, sitting back down and going back to her paperwork, ignoring Val as Val left the room.
Val didn’t notice or care that she was being ignored. Her mind was racing as she tried to imagine what kind of person would work with Ms. Leighton. Vampires, sadly, were actually fictional, as opposed to mostly fictional, so that was out. Still, the common enjoyment of bloodsucking probably would have worked.
She took a deep breath, closing the door behind her and inwardly admonishing herself. That was a little harsher than she needed to be. It’s not like she’d had the time for a full read of Ms. Leighton. The cold, manipulative people-using impression she’d gotten was just what was on the surface. Maybe, deep down, Susan actually cared about people.
Or maybe she really was the kind of person who would spit in the milk of human kindness.
“How did it go?” Bess asked, smiling up at Val, her expression warm and open, her whole demeanor a refreshing change from the shark in the suit she had just left.
“It was … interesting,” Val said, shaking her head and heading over to Bess.
“Oh?” Bess asked casually. “How so?” she said, busying her hands with shuffling papers. Val’s eyes narrowed as she watched Bess move papers with no rhyme or reason in an attempt to look busy.
“Well ….” Val said, sitting down in the chair next to Bess, trailing off and waiting patiently for Bess to raise her eyes.
“Well what?” Bess asked, looking up, and Val figuratively pounced, looking at Bess intently as she tried to get a read on what was making Bess nervous.
Val stifled a gasp as the answer was right there, plain as day, in a very brief flash of what was either a memory or a fantasy that Val really didn’t want to know about.
Bess was hot for the boss. Bess had a thing for the bitch. Bess, who was kind and sweet and good, was also still idealistic enough to think that Susan Leighton was, somewhere deep down, worthy of that kind of feeling on her part.
“This is so fucked up,” Val said, her eyes widening in time with Bess’ as she realized she’d said that out loud. “Sorry!” Val said quickly. “Sorry, sorry … I just … umm … let me start again,” she said, trying to cover her lapse.
“Are you okay?” Bess asked, looking at Val with concerned eyes and a bemused expression.
“Yeah … the interview wasn’t that bad,” Val said, shrugging. “I did, however, get assigned a very important project which, considering it is my second day, has me a little rattled, hence the earlier, inappropriate comment.”
“I’m sure you’ll do fine,” Bess said, her bemused expression transforming into a smile. “What’s the project?”
“I’m supposed to get the graphics for the print ads for the Christmas project and have five pieces of copy turned in to you before I leave today,” Val said. “And all I heard about yesterday was how important that particular campaign is, so …”
“Oh,” Bess said, wincing a little. “Yeah, that is a little …”
“… like throwing a three-year-old into the deep end of a swimming pool and letting Darwin sort it out?” Val asked dryly.
“You’re hardly a three-year-old,” Bess said, her voice equally dry, looking Val up and down.
“So kind of you to notice,” Val said, smiling slowly and returning the once-over, before inwardly kicking herself. Bess had just become a target. She was not allowed to flirt with a target, even if they started it.
“You need copies of the graphics?” Bess asked, her voice a little high as she blushed.
Val’s smile widened. She couldn’t help it. Bess was just so cute … and way, way too good for Susan Leighton, even if she was her only shot at fulfilling her mission.
“Yes, please,” Val said politely, wrestling the smile off of her face and trying to get things back on a purely professional level.
“I’ll just … go make copies, then,” Bess said, gathering up a file and retreating from her own desk, leaving Val to her thoughts.
It’s almost funny.
After that, Val still didn’t see it coming.
“Hey, Bess?” Val said, approaching Bess’ desk.
She’d spent a good thirty minutes that morning trying to figure out just what she was going to do. Setting up Bess and Susan was a recipe for disaster. It might work out for a little while, but eventually, it would end in pain.
Even if Susan and Bess developed genuine feelings for each other, the inevitable flood of rumor and innuendo would destroy at least one, if not both, of their careers, and in all likelihood, Bess would end up coming out the worse for it.
But maybe she’d misread Bess, or made some other kind of mistake. She’d decided she needed to spend some time with Bess to try to figure that out, and, if it were a mistake like she hoped, try to get more information about Susan to come up with a different candidate.
“Yes?” Bess asked, cocking her head and finishing what she was reading before looking up at Val with a smile. “Did you need something clarified, or …”
“No, actually,” Val said, smiling back at Bess. She just had that kind of smile. “I’m finished,” she said, holding up the ads with her copy attached.
“Really?” Bess asked, surprise and delight in her voice. “Let me see those,” she said, taking the ads and reading through them, her head resting on one hand as she twirled a pen in the other.
Val watched her carefully, seeing the myriad of expressions cross her face. There was the little half-smile of amusement, and then the wistfulness, and then the full-on grin.
“These are … really good,” Bess said, looking up, her eyes twinkling. “I told you you’d do fine.”
“I was inspired,” Val said with a shrug. She owed the Muses a favor now, but unlike some, they were very reasonable when they collected. They’d probably just ask for love-life advice when they needed it in return for the inspirational conference call they’d had with Val that morning. She’d considered asking the Muses to just write this stuff for her, but the idea of handing Bess someone else’s work just didn’t sit well with her.
“Very inspired,” Bess murmured, flipping through the pages and rereading some of Val’s work. “You’re really good at this.”
“Thanks,” Val said, blushing faintly under Bess’ praise. “So … is the boss in?” she asked, looking at the door that separated Susan from her staff. She knew Susan wasn’t in, having seen Susan leave the building with a woman who reminded Val of Bunny, and was either a pro or a very talented amateur.
“Lunch meeting,” Bess said shortly, looking over Val’s ads again.
“Hmm,” Val said, her lips pursed together and her brow furrowed. “Let’s see …” she said to herself, getting down on the floor and looking under Bess’ desk.
“Umm … what are you looking for?” Bess asked, standing up a little to see Val on the other side of her desk.
“Hold on,” Val said, raising a hand, then circling around Bess’ desk, poking and prodding at it in places. With an experimental air, she tugged Bess’ chair away from the desk gently, then back again, then repeated the motion.
“Val?” Bess asked, amusement evident in her voice. “What are you doing?”
“Well, contrary to popular opinion, you don’t seem to be physically chained to your desk,” Val said, leaning against the office furnishing in question and smiling lopsidedly at Bess. “So how about lunch?”
“I’ve got to –“ Bess said, starting to sort through the piles of work on her desk.
“You’ve got to eat,” Val interrupted. “Please take pity on the poor new person,” she went on. “I only really know you and Miriam, and Miriam is so convinced that ‘Valerie Valentine’ isn’t a real name that she keeps trying to guess why I had to go into the witness protection program.”
“All right,” Bess said.
“And besides,” Val said, before realizing that Bess had just agreed. “That’s a yes?”
“Yes,” Bess said, retrieving her purse from underneath her desk and standing up. “I have been working for six hours straight. I think lunch sounds good.”
We’ll just skip ahead here. The walk to the corner diner and their lunch orders are not at all interesting.
Trust me. I’ve seen it before.