Disclaimer: Characters and situations are all from my imagination.
Warnings: Sex and love between women
Feedback: Constructive criticism and feedback, both welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org
Author’s Note: It’s always thrilling to be invited to play along with these invitationals!
by Geonn Cannon
Copyright © 2013 Geonn Cannon
She didn’t stand out in a crowd, but anyone who spent more than a few seconds looking at her would realize she didn’t exactly fit in, either. She wore a football jersey with the number 8 under a surplus army jacket that dwarfed her, ripped jeans, and army boots with loose laces that threatened to trip her on every step. Her hair was cut short and dyed blonde with a streak of pink at the back, and six hoop earrings crowded the shell of her right ear. She paid no attention to the stares she drew as she passed through the courtyard, her left hand curled back to hold the bottom of the quiver hanging across her back. People who noticed the bow and arrows momentarily wondered why security wasn’t paying more attention to her, but their concerns faded the moment they looked away.
It was lunch so the courtyard was filled with people who had swarmed from surrounding buildings like children at recess. They stood in clusters and ate fast food from greasy wrappers, sat perched like birds to balance paper plates on their laps, or gestured with fuming cigarettes as they chatted with friends. The girl was a non-entity to them. She moved through the crowd until she found an alley with a clear line of sight and ducked into the shadows, shrugging out of the quiver as she took a knee.
She took a leather gauntlet from her jacket pocket and fitted it onto her right hand. It banded around the base of her forefinger and thumb to protect her fingers while still giving her the feel of the string. She flexed her hand a few times and then took out the ticket. There was a time the assignment would have been written on a vellum scroll in calligraphy. Now it was spat onto paper by little jets. Progress... sure.
“Well, I guess there is this one person who... I mean, it’s silly. I don’t even know her name. But we see each other every day and I guess I sort of have a crush on her.”
Underneath, the Amores had listed the names and locations of the targets. The top name was the man who had made an idle wish, and the name underneath was the woman he hoped would notice him. She scanned the courtyard and spotted the man, their unwitting client. According to the research, this courtyard was where he always saw his paramour. They would chat and he would go back to work kicking himself for not making a move. Well, today would be different.
Today he had Cupid on his side.
Carys was an American Cupid, and her assignment had her in New Orleans, one of the last few jobs she had to complete before the big day. On Valentine’s Day they were always rushing; infatuations turned to desperate love, friendly love turned romantic, and sort-of-like turned into you’re-good-enough-for-today. There were a few romances shattered that helped stem the tide a little bit, but for the most part Cupid Agents of the Amores Council were run ragged. She nocked an arrow and leaned her shoulder against the wall, arrowhead pointed at the ground as she awaited the second target.
The first target, their client, was named Mark Lee, a bland name for a bland person. He sat on a concrete step, holding his sandwich with both hands, chewing each bite thoroughly as he looked around. He didn’t speak to anyone, and only a handful of people seemed to know him. They greeted him politely but none invited him to join their cliques. He looked as if he would have turned down any invite anyway. Carys felt a bit sorry for him. He obviously needed all the help he could get, but she was used to that. Amores only tended to help those who couldn’t help themselves.
Mark perked up and Carys matched his attentiveness. She raised her bow and followed his line of sight past businessmen and -women, through the crowd to... to...
Carys lowered her bow and straightened slightly. Mark Lee’s attention was focused on a most singular creature that had just appeared in the courtyard. She stood on a milk crate with her arms extended out in front of her, palms forward as if she was telling someone to stop. She was bent forward at the waist and, as Carys watched, she turned her head slightly and looked to her right to give one of the people nearby a wink.
Her clothes were beautiful but dated, with frilled sleeves and collar. It had started life as white but was now a dingy pale brown as if it had been dragged out of a trunk. She wore handmade trousers, the front and back pieces held together by thick string that ran up the outside of each leg. Her feet, at first glance, seemed bare, but Carys realized she was wearing a pair of flesh-toned finger shoes. She didn’t remember what they were called, but they hugged the shape of the toes. Her face was covered with white pancake makeup that faded to her natural darker skin tone halfway down her throat. There was a small heart painted in the center of her mouth, a permanent purse that lent her a coquettish air. Underneath her left eye was a sigil shaped like a stylized female symbol.
Carys’ hand wavered on her bow. The arrow was trembling as she carefully released the tension on the string. Mark Lee stood up and wadded the paper of his sandwich into a ball. He tossed it into the first trash can he passed and then smoothed both palms over the front of his suit. Carys watched him approach the crowd gathering around the woman he adored, and she straightened as she began her performance.
It was a clockwork dance, an intricate display of jerky movements somehow transformed into something fluid and beautiful by the performer’s talent. She moved her arms as she straightened her back, rolled her shoulders and twisted her hips while keeping her lower body facing forward. It seemed impossible to think the girl was a living, breathing person. She moved so convincingly in her clockwork persona that it was almost easier to believe she was really some life-sized toy brought to life.
When she sees Mark Lee, she needs to feel a sudden burst of love and affection toward him. She needs to feel such an overwhelming desire that she wonders how she ever lived without him. She knew her mission and brought her bow back up. She drew the string back and lined up the arrowhead with the automaton girl’s chest. She closed one eye for accuracy. She braced herself for the snap, judging the wind speed and direction before she let it fly. The breeze died down so her shot would fly true. The moment to release was here...
Carys lowered the bow and exhaled sharply as if shocked at herself. The clockwork girl finished her dance and the lunchers put money in a moth-eaten top hat she’d placed in front of her crate. She bowed her thanks to each one, blew kisses to the crowd, then jumped off the crate to sweep up her takings. As she was counting it, Mark Lee approached her and struck up a conversation.
Now. She’ll justify it as something he said, a sparkle in his eye, a sudden realization of how much he means to her.
Carys brought her bow up again, took aim. She watched the girl’s face, the smile and the casual manner with which she spoke to Mark. Her fingers began to shake again. She didn’t love him. She liked him fine, and she considered him a good friend, but Carys had seen enough love to recognize its absence. She lowered the bow and removed the arrow, already rehearsing her excuse for the debriefing. An Amores agent failing their assignment was simply not done. She stuffed the arrow back into her quiver, slung the strap over her shoulder, and stood up to leave the alley.
Halfway across the courtyard, Mark Lee crossed her path. He didn’t look crushed, but it was obvious he hadn’t gathered the courage necessary to ask out the girl of his dreams. Carys tried not to feel guilty about his predicament. She could be facing a demotion for what she’d just done, and she had bigger things to worry about than some sad sack sitting along in his apartment on Valentine’s Day.
Carys backed up a step and blinked at the clockwork girl. She was out of character, her top hat emptied and placed on top of her braids. She smiled and Carys suddenly wondered how she had ever thought the girl to be inhuman. Her eyes were too alive, her smile too brilliant, to be anything but human. But those eyes and that smile were directed at her. That was almost as wrong as the fact Carys hadn’t fired the shot.
“Are you talking to me?”
“Well, yeah. I just wanted to say I liked your jersey. Number 8. Who is it?”
Carys had no idea. “I have no idea. It’s a lucky number in Japanese culture.”
“Cool.” The street performer held out her hand, which was clad in a fingerless glove. “Mireille. I saw you over there in the alley and... well...” She plucked a ten dollar bill from the leather band around her wrist. “I wanted to make sure you ate something today. Go on. Take it.”
“You think I’m homeless?”
Mireille’s eyes widened. “Oh, damn. Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to...” She folded the money into her hand. In her flustered state, her Southern drawl became more and more pronounced. “I just... your clothes, and you were crouching in that alley, and I assumed...”
“It’s okay,” Carys said. “I’m not offended. It was very kind of you. It seemed like most people only gave you coins, so I can’t imagine you made much more than ten dollars today yourself. I appreciate the gesture.”
“I was in your position not too long ago. I know how tough it can be. Sorry, I didn’t get your name, though.”
“Carys.” She wasn’t supposed to give that out; she was breaking rules left and right today, it seemed. “I’m Carys.”
“Good to meet you, Carys.”
“You too. You’re very talented.”
Mireille smiled and bobbed her head. “Yeah, I try to keep a hand in. Clears my head. I used to do it for a living, now I do it whenever I have a free morning.”
“Oh.” Carys looked toward the street. She needed to get to the pickup so she could admit to her failure as soon as possible. “Well. Um.”
“I shouldn’t keep you,” Mireille said. “I’m glad I was wrong. And that’s a pretty cool bow you have there, too.”
“For a second there it looked like you were aiming it at me.”
The air seemed to still between them. Carys furrowed her brow and tilted her head to the side. “Do I look like someone who would do that?”
Mireille pursed her lips and clucked her tongue. “So far our whole entire relationship’s been based on not judging books by their covers.” She touched the brim of her hat with two fingers as she backed away. “I hope to see you around sometime, Carys. Hopefully without the bow, but we’ll see how things shake out, yeah?”
Mireille chuckled, turned on the ball of her foot and seemed to trot away. She drew her knee up with each step, swinging her arms up so high that she could touch her chest with the fists on each upward arc. Carys watched, realizing the theatrical exit was part of the show. The lingering lunchtime souls watched her go, smiling at the performance before they went back to their daily grinds. Carys spotted Mark Lee walking back to his building looking none the worse for wear for having not fallen in love. Carys assured herself whatever damage she’d caused could be undone easily enough.
Besides, the closer to Valentine’s Day Mark and Mireille fell in love, the more romantic it would be in the end. Carys assured herself the assignment could be salvaged and she wouldn’t suffer any long-term consequences because of her sudden crisis of emotion.
She was staying on the top floor of a building that had been abandoned since Katrina, occupying a small corner apartment that afforded her a great view of the river. She was standing near her bedroll and held her phone in front of her so she could speak into it like a walkie-talkie. Esme’s voice issued from the small speaker, berating her for that day’s failure. The rant was unnecessary since her superior wasn’t saying anything she hadn’t already said to herself. It was foolish and idiotic to not strike, and hours removed from the situation she couldn’t understand why she hadn’t done it. She had a reputation to uphold. She apologized profusely to Esme, who accepted her sincerity enough to give her another chance. Tomorrow at lunch, Mireille and Mark would be in close proximity again. She could recover the assignment and she could make amends.
After the dressing-down was over, Carys hung up the phone and tossed it onto her pillow. She crossed her arms and looked out at the river, the city of New Orleans, and tried to make sense of what had made her hesitate. Agents of Amores never hesitated, even when they understood the truth behind the relationships they were creating. Abuse, heartbreak, adultery, lies... they never promised life-long romance when they let loose their arrows. All they promised was a little love, the lifetime of which depended on various human factors.
“We open the door,” Esme often said, “it’s up to them to make it work.”
It was Carys’ job to open that door for Mireille and Mark, and she’d failed. She walked back to her bedroll and sat down. Eighteen years she’d been doing the work, eighteen years and hundreds of relationships formed. She opened a lot of doors and watched the spark light up in all kinds of eyes. She had been a normal girl for a long time, over two decades, but that all ended abruptly in a car accident caused by the fact she’d let her drunk friend drive. Her last thought had been wondering why she’d never known love. She died a virgin in a small town that had prevented her from coming out.
The Amores Council heard her, and they brought her into their fold on the way to Whatever Came Next. She was given the opportunity to know love before she passed on, and she took it without hesitation. She wished they had explained exactly what they meant by the offer. She wouldn’t experience love, but she knew it. She knew how quickly someone could go from adoration to irritation. Doting became obsession. She’d seen rejection enough to know how devastating it could be, and she had watched as someone’s greatest wish came true only to know a few years down the line it would lead to unbearable heartache.
Carys lit a cigarette and pinched it between her teeth, watching the smoke twirl up in front of her. Love wasn’t worth the pain or the effort. It was just a distraction from everything else, all the bad flowing around in the world. She stretched out on the bed and crossed her feet, hands behind her head, and puffed her smoke up toward the ceiling. Her bow was resting against the wall by the door, ready for her to grab it when she left the next morning.
The Amores Council had granted her wish when she died. She’d spent the last twenty years moving across the American south, drawing her bow and sending arrows of love into strangers. She had watched helplessly as they surrendered to the feelings she lit, stood silently by as they took the first steps into their tragedy, and she’d done nothing. She was an assassin, destroying lives with every nocked arrow. She was a goddess of love, according to her official job title, a cherub, a Cupid.
She was a monster.
Carys slept and had dreams of clockwork girls with pale faces and dark necks, soft palms pressed against hers and easy smiles. She dreamt about the kindness in Mireille’s offer to buy her food and she felt something bloom in her chest. She didn’t know what exactly it was, only that she liked the way it made her feel. When she woke she was confused and conflicted, angry at herself for letting her subconscious run wild, and she compensated by sharpening her arrowheads. They would never actually pierce the flesh. They were constructed in the mind, created to give form to an intangible idea. In reality there were no arrows and she had no quiver, but what she fired created a real enough sensation. The arrows only existed to make sure she hit her target, and no mortal would ever see them.
The shaft was marked with Mireille’s name, and Carys ran her thumb over the dark letters. It was such a beautiful name, one she’d never encountered before, and she wondered what it meant. She pushed aside the curiosity; she didn’t need to know the definition. In twenty-four hours she would have moved on to her next assignment and Mireille would be just another poor soul set adrift in the sea of a ruinous relationship.
“And it shall be my doing,” Carys whispered. A moment later she shook her head, set her jaw, and shoved the arrow into her quiver. She stood up, slung the strap across her chest, and headed out. She had one more chance to make things right or she’d face the wrath of Esme and the Council. Worse, she would face her own wrath. She wouldn’t allow herself to be a failure twice.
She walked with a determined stride through the streets, eager to prove her dedication. Not to Esme, not to the Council, but to herself.
The courtyard filled at lunchtime. She was already in place, bow at her side, quiver propped against the wall. She put on her gauntlet and glove, tightening the straps around her forearm. She flexed her fingers and made certain her bow was ready. When she looked up she saw Mark Lee again, this time with a small Tupperware container and plastic utensils. Carys drew the marked arrow and brushed her thumb along the tip. Sharp as a tack. All she required now was the target.
Mireille arrived at the same time as the day before, only this time she was dressed in a black velvet suit and red gloves. Her movements were a graceful dance, her arms and legs swaying like wind-tossed reeds as she placed her milk crate on the ground and stepped atop it once more. She held out her hands and turned in a slow circle to take in the crowd as it gathered. She wore her top hat again and, with a theatrical bow, she popped it off her braids and bent down to drop it at her feet. Today her face was painted like a skull, with wide ocular orbits and a wide toothy smile. It should have been morbid, but the sigil under her eye was three pink hearts hanging off a grapevine with leaves that spread out alongside the curve of her cheekbone.
As she danced, Carys brought up her bow. She would wait until Mark was in the crowd before she let go of the arrow. Any second now and her ridiculous confliction would end. Her fingers were still and sure on the string, and she closed one eye to improve her aim. She lined up the arrowhead with the breast pocket of Mireille’s jacket and waited. Wind speed was practically nil. There were no clouds overhead to suddenly take away her sun or add peculiar shadows. Any second now. Any moment Mark would take an interest... Mireille would notice him...
The girl turned so she was facing straight-on to Carys. The sudden attention surprised her so much that she lowered her weapon and stared. Mireille was smiling at her behind the death’s-head grin. She mimed drawing a bowstring, released it, and traced the path of a loosed arrow through the air until it landed in one cheek of her rear end. She hopped forward, made a pained face, and rubbed the impact area with a pursed look of irritation. She shook her head, wagged her finger in admonishment, and then plucked the lapels of her jacket in a jaunty move as she apparently put the attack behind her.
Mark tossed a few dollar bills into Mireille’s hat. She didn’t acknowledge his presence and, after a moment, he walked back to where he’d been eating.
Now. Goddamn it, Carys, NOW!
Her voice was a shriek in her head, but she somehow found the strength to ignore it. Her mouth was dry as she watched Mireille dance. Her eye was attracted by movement at the edge of the courtyard and she looked to see Mark gathering his things. Carys muttered a curse, brought up her bow, and aimed it at Mireille. She only had one more chance.
Mireille put her knees together with her feet apart, one hand over her mouth and the other waving frantically in a ‘please don’t!’ mime. It was all in fun. She couldn’t see the arrow, couldn’t erroneously think she was actually in any danger, but Carys found her resolve slipping. She cursed herself even as she lowered the bow, the arrow sagging uselessly before it fell to the ground and clattered at her feet. Hating herself as she stood and secured her weapon, Carys left the arrow behind as she stepped out of the shadows. It would fade in time, and no one would see it in the interim.
She approached the crowd and watched the rest of Mireille’s performance, mesmerized by her movements. Though Mireille was entirely focused on her work and never let her eyes linger too long, Carys knew the performer was watching her carefully. It was a surveillance carried out in the corner of an eye, through the lashes of half-closed lids, and with furtive but meaningful twists of her head. When the dance ended, Mireille was rewarded with a handful of coins and even a few folded bills placed in her top hat. She bowed to the people as they dispersed, then dropped down to the pavement to gather her earnings. She looked up when Carys approached and smiled.
“You came back. I was hoping you would.”
“I... I had to.” She furrowed her brow and wet her lips. “You were good today.”
“Thanks.” She put her money into the pocket of her jacket and settled the hat on her head. “So do you work around here or just move in around here or something? I’ve never seen you around, now two days in a row...”
“I came here to see you.”
Mireille took a moment to process that, then her smile widened behind her grim skeletal visage. “What did you say your name was? Karen?”
“Right. I knew it was pretty. Listen, Carys... you want to get something to eat? My treat. People are always extra generous on payday.”
Carys wanted to say no, but all that awaited her at home was a phone call from Esme berating her for another failure. She was hungry, and maybe getting to know Mireille would help her understand why she was suddenly having trouble with the execution of her duties. She nodded without fully understanding what it meant, and Mireille smiled.
“Excellent. I know a place.”
They walked out of the courtyard together, Mireille behind her mask of paint and Carys holding her bow against her side. The diner was a half block away, and they arrived just as the lunch crowd finished clearing out. It was designed to look like a trolley car, with framed pictures of paddleboats hanging over each window. The matronly woman behind the counter glanced up when the bell rang over the door and shook her head as she finished clearing someone’s plate.
“Girl,” she said as she turned to put the dirty dishes in the pass-through, “one of these days you’re gonna give me a heart attack walking in here with those faces on.”
“You wouldn’t even recognize me if I came in here looking like myself.”
Mireille led her to a booth at the far end and sat down facing the wall, allowing Carys to sit facing the door as she preferred. She was sure it was an accidental allowance, but she felt oddly appreciative nonetheless. She put her bow between her and the wall and nervously considered where to put her hands. She ended up folding them in front of her as Mireille removed her hat. She placed it reverently on the booth next to her and then smiled at Carys.
“So you didn’t really answer my question back there. Are you from around this area, or...?”
“No. I’m just... visiting, I guess.” She looked out the window and half-expected to see Esme watching her from across the street. “I had a job I was supposed to do, but now I don’t know if I’m going to do it. It’s really complicated.”
Mireille said, “Okay. We don’t have to get into it if you don’t want.”
The woman from behind the counter approached with a yellow pad. “Okay, Mary. Who’s your friend?”
“This is Carys. Carys, this is Luce. She’s my mentor-slash-mascot.”
“Nice to meet you,” Carys said.
Luce said, “Well, she’s certainly more polite than the last one.”
Mireille cleared her throat. “She’s just someone I met at the show, Luce. Can we get a Caddo Creole Burger, hold the onions, and...”
Carys realized she was meant to order. “That sounds fine. With a Coke?”
“Two Cokes,” Mireille said.
Luce scribbled it down and swished away, pausing to give Mireille a meaningful look before she slipped behind the counter into the kitchen.
“Sorry about that,” Mireille said. “I bring a couple of my girlfriends here and Luce starts thinking everyone I’m with is a date.”
Carys blinked. If Mireille was a lesbian, then the problem wasn’t with her. It would be an error on the part of Amores, and her hesitation would be marked down as keen intuition. Her job might be safe after all. She tried to keep her voice as casual as possible.
“You date women?”
“Women, men, couples.” She grinned. “I’m kidding about that last one. I just don’t feel like limiting myself. I’ve been in love with both, so.” She shrugged.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.”
“It’s okay. The subject came up, we discussed it, now we can move on.”
Luce came back with their sodas and quickly made herself scarce once more.
“So what do you do?” Mireille said. “This job you came to town that you’re not sure about... maybe I can help convince you one way or the other.”
Carys pressed her lips together. “It’s not really that simple. It’s pretty damn complicated, actually. I think I just need to work it out myself.”
Mireille said, “Okay. Here’s what I do: I find a quiet spot, and I explain the situation out loud. A lot of times, the answer presents itself.”
“Worth a shot, don’t ya think?”
Carys shrugged. “Maybe. Of course now I may not have the option either way. I was supposed to do it yesterday, and when I didn’t I got chewed out by my boss. I failed again today.” She plugged the top of her straw and lifted it to look at the carbonated beverage trapped inside the tube. “I don’t know what’s going to happen when I report in.”
“You think you could get fired?”
“This kind of job, you don’t really get fired. I’m not sure what happens.”
Carys was surprised to find her eyes filling with tears.
“And you knew the consequences when you decided not to do the job?”
“Then not doing it must have been the right choice.”
Carys looked up and frowned. “What?”
“You knew you were facing the hounds of hell by not doing the job. You decided not to do it. Twice! Despite the consequences. You don’t seem like a self-destructive type, so you must have made a moral decision. You knew that doing the job was wrong, and you knew it wasn’t worth the hell that would rain down on you, so you didn’t do it. Good for you.”
Carys surprised herself for laughing. She brought one hand up to her face and wiped away the tears right before they started falling.
Mireille snapped her fingers. “I got her to smile!”
Luce arrived with two thick burgers on plates. She saw Carys’ tears, put down the plates, and slapped Mireille’s arm with the back of her hand.
“Ow!” Mireille wailed, the volume much louder than the blow deserved.
“What did you do to her?”
Carys said, “It’s fine, Luce. Really. She didn’t do anything.”
Luce narrowed her eyes and pointed a pudgy finger at Mireille. “You make another girl cry in this diner, I’m-a make you cry. Y’hear?”
Mireille pouted, but nodded.
Mireille shrugged. “Sometimes there are breakups...”
“I see. I’m sorry I got you into trouble.”
“Pft. It was worth it just to make you feel a little better.”
Carys took a deep breath to steady herself. “I don’t know what’s going on with me. I’ve never backed out of a job before, and I’ve never... cried in public. I feel like a fool.”
“Well, things change. People change.”
“I haven’t changed.”
“So it must be an outside thing that changed. What’s different about this job that didn’t affect the others?”
Carys almost said she didn’t know, but suddenly she realized that she did know. She didn’t let the arrow fly because she didn’t want Mireille to fall in love with Mark Lee.
“Aha. I think the mystery just solved itself. Wanna share?”
Mireille shrugged. “That’s fine. I’m just happy I could help.” She reached for the condiments. “Want ketchup or mustard?”
They lingered over their lunch, talking about their lives. Carys had to speak about her life before joining Amores, of course, and doing so forced her to remember things she’d long ago forgotten. Her family and friends, the life she’d given up in Pennsylvania. It made her realize just how narrow her life had become. She moved from one assignment to the next, firing arrows and moving on before any painful consequences reared their ugly heads. Her only real acquaintances were fellow employees of the Council. God, Esme was her closest friend. The thought depressed her.
Mireille noticed and said, “Seems like you might be ready to go back.”
“Well. I mean, not to pry, but you obviously left wherever it is you’re from. You’re talking about everyone in the past tense. But you miss them. Time heals wounds, but you have to go back for the healing to start.”
Mireille shook her head. “I can’t go back again. To be honest, I don’t want to. I just want to find something to take its place. I’ve been looking for a long time, and all I’ve found is my job.” She looked down at her hands. “I keep finding happiness for other people. That’s what I do for a living. I make them happy, then I move on.”
“And this time you couldn’t do it?” Carys nodded. “Well, then maybe you’re full up on sacrificing. You wanted to keep a little bit of happiness for yourself. Nothing wrong with that.”
Carys said, “Tell that to my boss.”
Mireille paid the check and waited for Carys to slip the quiver back onto her shoulder before guiding her outside. They walked down to the river in companionable silence, Carys surprised at how easy it was to not say anything with the skull-faced girl. Some people gave them a wide berth, cautiously looking at the weirdo with the bow and her facepainted friend, but Carys ignored them. She was glad to just be with Mireille even if she didn’t fully understand why.
“Back at the diner, I told you I’ve dated men and women and I didn’t much prefer either way.”
“Would you ever go with a woman?”
Carys had never really thought about it since her death, when all options were rudely and she thought permanently taken away from her. “Depends on the woman.”
Mireille pushed out her bottom lip, thought for a second, and then nodded. “I’ll take that answer.”
“I like you.” The words were out before Carys could stop them. “I really liked watching you in the courtyard, and now that I’ve gotten to know you, I like you even more. And I’m not supposed to.”
Mireille moved in front of Carys and stopped. “Why?”
“Because...?” Mireille prompted, raising her eyebrows. “Race? Gender? None of the above? Look, you use ‘supposed to’ for things that are obligations. Liking someone or loving them, that’s not an obligation. Might as well say it’s something that can be earned or given away. You can earn trust and respect, but love doesn’t work like that. It’s just something that happens. And it just so happens that I like you, too. You’re a little quiet, and a little weird, and I want to get to know you better.” She put her hands on Carys’ face and leaned in slowly enough that Carys could have pulled away if she wanted to.
She kept her eyes open as their lips touched, Mireille’s tasting of talc and cosmetics. Mireille moved her hands to Carys’ neck, her fingertips tickling the fine hairs there. Carys realized she was holding her breath but didn’t want to release it just yet, her body stiff but her hands resting on Mireille’s hips so she wouldn’t take it as a sign to back off. She curled her fingers under the tail of the velvet jacket.
When Mireille pulled back, Carys saw the painted teeth over her lips had been smudged. Mireille smiled and wiped her thumb along Carys’ bottom lip, and she realized it had been transferred to her mouth. She smiled nervously as the makeup was smudged away. Before Mireille could move her hand, Carys took the thumb into her mouth and nipped it gently.
“Ow! I’m going to have to be careful around you, aren’t I?”
Someone slammed into the girls at that moment, knocking them roughly to the side. Mireille’s arms instantly closed around Carys, drawing her close and protecting her from anything else. Carys pressed against Mireille, her fear almost overwhelmed by the feeling of safety and concern. They both looked in the direction of the pudgy boy in a blue jacket, watched him weaving through the crowd that had stopped to watch the brazen theft of the items he now had tucked under his arm.
“He just stole your bow and arrows!”
Carys blinked, the broken strap of her quiver still hanging off her shoulder. When she stepped away from Mireille, the leather slithered down her body and fell limp at her feet.
“We oughta do something. I can catch up with him.”
Mireille leaned forward as if to run, but Carys caught her hand. “Don’t.”
“He took your stuff!”
“I don’t think I need it anymore.”
Mireille looked at her. “You sure? We could at least find a cop.”
Carys shook her head. “Come on. Let’s walk some more. I want to get to know you.”
Mireille was confused, and she glanced over her shoulder again as she took Carys’ hand. Something seemed to shift, a tilting that made Carys afraid she would fall over. She fought through it well enough that Mireille didn’t seem to notice, and she nudged her arm to get them moving again. Mireille turned away from the thief, who had already vanished around a corner, and faced forward. She didn’t have to check her cell phone to know it was no longer in service. She didn’t have to try calling Esme or the Council from another phone just to find out there was no such number. Somehow she just knew.
For the past two decades she thought she’d signed a lousy deal, believed the Council was an indentured servitude pyramid scheme that trapped people with false promises. Now she understood. She’d finally found what she had spent so long searching for, what she was willing to sacrifice to have. Working for the Council meant that she knew how hard it would be to make things work. She knew there was every chance she and Mireille wouldn’t end up in an old folks’ home together. She wouldn’t let herself get bogged down with hypotheticals and focus only on how things might potentially end.
She would just hold hands with a pretty girl, walk down the street, and enjoy her new path for as long as it lasted.