Everyone Is Happy Here

Donna was wearing the pastel-sweet tunic of a married follower when she walked into the teacher's offices that morning. It was finely pressed—free of wrinkles—and Steven Metcalf assumed there were several more just like it waiting their turn in her closet. For followers, only one style of outfit would ever be needed (or allowed) in their lives.

Steven, on the other hand, was wearing a crisp blazer with some dark-wash jeans. He'd put the ensemble together after much serious thought the night before and only made one slight alteration—the color of his socks—this morning. He was happy with the final outcome. Of course, his mother had to pop her head in and say something along the lines of how life would be so much easier with the tunic, which soured things. But he didn't let bad feelings persist.

"Lovely, lovely," Cherry, the principal, crooned at Donna, floating to her in a cloud of burgundy silks, and taking her hands. "I knew the simple tunic would look good on your figure. Me, the old lady, must hide a few things!" They both laughed.

"Hardly," Donna replied. "But thank you." She was beaming. Other teachers rose to congratulate her on her recent marriage, and she thanked them as well. Steven, for a moment, considered abstaining, but he knew better than to do that. He went to Donna, standing before her ethereal pinkness.

"I'm so glad you're happy with the match," he said.

"Happy? Why wouldn't I be?" Donna's eyes were wide with genuine confusion. Steven was vaguely reminded of the day he met her. She'd been wearing a dozen hemp bracelets on each arm. "Oh!" she said, "Steven, don't be silly. I'm very happy with this."

Was he imagining the tightness of her smile? Or maybe his own bias was making him see things. After all, Donna had chosen this path, unlike most followers. So she must be happy. "Then—congratulations," he said softly, holding his hand out to shake hers. When they broke apart, he slunk past the other teachers to his desk to gather his thoughts.

Oh, damn! He'd just been planning to ask Cherry about leaving campus grounds when Donna showed up and now if he mentioned anything, everyone would say he was souring the mood with his personal beliefs. Now he would have to wait until the excitement died down, probably until well into lunch.

"How's the apartment?" he heard one of the teachers ask Donna.

"Wonderful! There's a living room and a den, it's practically a house. I've never lived in anything so big since I left home." Everyone tittered with excitement and envy. Donna got to leave the drab teacher housing now that she was married, so of course she'd have even more to brag about.

Stop being a wet blanket, Steven chastised himself, opting to gather his things and head out instead. Class was about to start, anyway. He threaded his way through the rip roaring throng of students, clutching his books and papers close to his chest, until he reached the room that had been assigned to him on his very first day teaching at Kennesaw.

Kennesaw—where leaders are formed. At least, that's what the homecoming banner above the main entrance proclaimed. And people seemed to believe it. All the small leaders-apparent of rich families descended on the hallowed grounds of Kennesaw year after year, and then were churned out as freshly polished men and women of action. Soon, some time in or after college, they would then be married with—or rather given—a follower.

Funny that Steven's oasis of freedom was the very epitome of everything he desperately wanted to escape.

Enough. He pushed through into his classroom and was not the least bit surprised, but still happy to see a certain student of his: Ricky Thurman, who sat in the front row with his paper and pencils out and ready. Catching sight of Steven, he sat up a little straighter. "Mr. Metcalf! You're early."

"You are too, Ricky," Steven replied. "Is it really so fun to hang around the classroom with your teacher so early in the morning?" He spoke teasingly, of course, because he knew how much Ricky enjoyed their little one-on-ones. Never before had Steven truly felt like a mentor to some young, earnest mind, until Ricky had walked into his classroom.

"Very funny—I wanted to show you something I've been working on," Ricky replied, bouncing from his desk to Steven's at the front of the classroom, where he laid down a pamphlet with great ceremony. "Won't this go just great with the protest? I mean, we could hand them out to people and everything."

Steven didn't know what he admired more: the sincerity of Ricky's involvement, or the amount of effort such a young man—and truly a man who had better and more interesting avenues in which to spend his time—put forth. He inspected the pamphlet, shaking his head with utter amazement. The headline was Matchmakers: Corrupt? "This speaks volumes, Ricky," he said. "Wonderful work! I think letting the reader question the status quo rather than making proclamations is a brilliant way to go."

Ricky beamed. "If you look here," he said, his fingers brushing over Steven's as he unfolded the pamphlet, "I've put together a timeline of the Matchmakers' influence in political affairs, and how they're connected to powerful businesses."

"Very concise, A-plus work in my opinion," Steven replied, winking up at Ricky, who blushed with pleasure.

"You like it, then?"

"Of course … of course." A small frown weighed on Steven's lips. "Although, I'm not sure where we could get this printed. The school would balk."

"Dad will do it," Ricky immediately replied.

Steven hummed in thought. He didn't like the idea of a parent getting involved—not that he believed he was in the wrong by having Ricky take part in his little action, but parents, and most especially rich parents, tended to cause uproars over very slight issues. "Let me see what I can put together first," Steven said finally, "And then perhaps your father will have to play the ringer."

"I'm the ringer," Ricky said, his grin all but splitting his face apart.

Steven barked with laughter. "Silly kid, you don't even know what that means. Anyway, back to your seat, class will start soon and I don't want all your little peers thinking we're colluding like some sort of illicit prep school cabal."

"Aren't we?" Ricky replied playfully as he retreated to his desk. Steven just gave him the eye as he swept the pamphlet into a drawer right when the bell rang. But still, he smiled. Despite the rather dismal vision of Donna bedecked in follower finery, this morning hadn't been quite as dreary as it could have been.

-#-

He hadn't wanted to dampen Ricky's mood, but there was still the matter of permission—permission for Ricky to leave campus because he was a student, and seventeen to boot, and permission for Steven because he was a follower.

But, no bother. He'd dash out between class periods and find Cherry. She was rather fond of him, as older, married leaders tended to be in a sort of parental way, so he felt more secure in asking her permission than that old bat helming the attendance desk, Lue.

Steve found Cherry making small talk with some students out in the main quad, and waited until they had walked off before venturing forth with his request.

"Ricky Thurman?" was the first thing she said, rather thoughtfully. "And where is this protest, Steven?"

"Just down at city hall."

"Oh, really. Well, I suppose if it's on the weekend—although I do wish you would find more valuable ways to spend your time." Her attention was drifting off towards some students edging too close to the grounds border.

"That's a yes, then?" he said, trying not to appear too eager for the sake of propriety, which he knew Cherry felt was very important—especially for teachers.

"Ricky will need his parents' permission," she replied. "And there are a few forms you'll need to fill out."

"Wonderful! I'll do that at lunch. Where can I find them?"

Cherry's pleasant gaze found him again. "Why don't I bring them to you, Steven. That way we can make sure you have everything you need."

With a smile, he nodded his thanks, and dashed off back to his classroom just as the late bell rang out.

-#-

During lunch break, he sat in the teacher's break room, reading the local newspaper's itinerary for the upcoming 'social' event of the year, at which the county Matchmaker showed her most imperial face. All the citizens of Fairvalley would amass at city hall in a few days to welcome Lady White at the grand luncheon held in her honor.

A perfect time, in Steven's opinion, to hold a gentle protest. He (and Ricky) had spent hours devising slogans and ra-ra chants to deploy while people passed them into city hall, and had constructed banners to wave about as well. They would be quite the sight!

He smiled to himself, flipping the paper's pages one way and then the other, but most of the articles were fluff pieces on the impending visit. "They act as if no one can visit White at the county seat," he said to himself, not realizing that someone else was in the room.

Donna, in her tunic of soft pink, had apparently become as light as the garment itself as she daintily settled in the chair opposite Steven. "What are you moaning about now?" she said, smiling.

He pushed the paper across. "Not that it's of your concern, anymore."

"No, I suppose not." Was that a hint of wistfulness? Perhaps. "She was so kind when I went in for my appointment," Donna continued, "and didn't act rushed at all. She could tell I was nervous, and even hesitant, and she didn't hold that against me either, even though she knew I was a teacher."

"That's nice," Steven replied.

The door to the break room opened, and Cherry appeared, laden with paper. She scanned the room, caught sight of Steven, and headed over—where she pulled a scant two pages from the top of the heap, and then dropped the rest in front of him. "Forms for you," she said with a long breath. "And forms for you." She set the remaining few pages in Donna's waiting hands.

"For Donna? Is she … getting permission to leave campus too?" Steven eyed the difference between their stacks with some skepticism.

"Oh, no, don't be silly, dear. Those are her retirement forms."

Retirement? Steven quelled the urge to snatch the papers away from her. "Are you, really? I thought you said you'd stay on even with the marriage."

Donna shrugged. "Turns out that's not allowed."

"It's frowned upon," Cherry amended.

"Well!" Steven was beside himself. "Add another item to the growing list of concerns I'll be protesting against at the luncheon."

"Oh, Steven, don't. It's for the best." Donna folded the papers with a crisp line and put them in her lap as if that would turn his attention to something else. "I would have been so useless anyway, what with all the domestic responsibilities now sitting squarely on my shoulders."

She gave a bright, tittering little laugh, and Cherry rested an approving hand on her shoulder. "That's so good of you, dear. It took my Alby three years to really understand the importance of staying home. And there will always be more teachers, the poor, selfless dears."

For a brief moment, Steven had seen a faraway look in Donna's eyes, but then she stood, swatting Cherry on the shoulder. "Are you calling me selfish," she said with a laugh.

"Hardly, hardly. You're simply following the path laid out for you. That's never selfish."

If Donna were appeased by Cherry's proclamation, Steven didn't get to see it. Having tuned their conversation out, his attention had gone back to his own forms—of which there were at least fifty. The rest of the load turned out to be various bindered rulebooks and permutations of the school bylaws. "Are these new? Last time I left school grounds, the forms were slightly less … comprehensive."

"Oh," Cherry replied. "Well, that was just a field trip with the children, wasn't it?"

He fanned the papers out, eyebrows pinched. "Does the purpose matter? And some of this seems very redundant, there must be a more expedient route ..."

"No, dear, this is how it's done. Just fill out the forms and bring them to my office when you're done' it's simple as that, really." Cherry gave a dramatic sigh. "I must go now, who knows what the kids have been getting up to in the past ten minutes." And with a flourish, she was gone.

Donna, who apparently had pulled her papers back out, finished the last word on her form with a flourish. "It's not so bad, Steven; look, I've finished already."

To leave the school for good, and she was already done, while Steven, who just wanted a half-day off campus, was apparently required to pen an entire novel. He was baffled, sifting through the forms, by the amount of questions. "Yes, well …" he said rather anemically.

Standing, Donna gave him an encouraging smile. "Perhaps you can write a letter to the Matchmaker if you can't make it to the luncheon. Oh, and then she may write back. Wouldn't that be fun? Anyway, I'll leave you to it as well."

-#-

As it was, the forms stayed with Steven wherever he went, which turned out to be many times to Cherry's office. At first, in the break room, he had felt confident and made headway through several pages until he found an addendum that stated instructors who'd been living at the school no less than five years but no more than six must have the written signature of four tenured faculty members that were not in the same department as him.

When he found Cherry and asked how he could supplement this requirement, considering there were only two tenured instructors at the school, one of whom was in Steven's department, she appeared understanding and told him she would ask the HR rep. Fine, he thought. He'd follow up about that the next day. There was plenty of time.

But around two in the morning, as he found himself only a third through the stack, he ran into the required documents section—one from each categories A through C, or two from Category A and one from either Category B or Category C, or just one from the list in Category D.

This, at first, was not daunting. Surely there had to be a lot of options with so many categories! But Steven's mood dipped as he scanned down the lists. He didn't have a record of employment with a government office, he didn't have a transcript from a state university, he didn't have a military record, and never in his life had he given blood, having never been given the opportunity.

He could perhaps, scrabble together a birth certificate and a social security card if he could get his elderly parents to scan the documents in time, but that still left Category C.

And when he asked Cherry about this the next morning, she, with a slight hint of straining patience, said, "What about your driver's license?"

He nearly yelled. But with a smile, he replied, "Followers aren't allowed one until after marriage."

"Oh, that's right. Dear Alby was so pleased when he got his little permit." Cherry sighed. "Well, leave that for now, dear. I'll see what HR has to say."

He nodded slowly, licking his lips with frustration. And then he gently ventured, "Cherry, what if … let's say, you just turn a blind eye? I'll only be gone for a few hours, surely that—"

"Steven, no. And you want to bring a student, that!" She paused, her expression smoothing to something maternalistic. "Darling, darling, I understand the frustration but these things are done like this for a reason. Try to understand."

He didn't understand. Later that evening, he sat in his small teacher's apartment staring at the goddamn forms, wondering who had written them. Only near the bottom was it mentioned that Steven would have to get the forms in two weeks before he intended to leave campus! There had to be an easier way to get permission. This was just … unfair.

Grabbing his phone, he was about to call Cherry despite the suspicion that she was growing tired of all his questions, when there was a tentative knock at his door.

He slowly set the phone back on the receiver. Visitors were rare, and he couldn't imagine who it was. "Yes?" he said.

The door opened, and a cautious face peeked in: Ricky. "Is it all right?"

"I suppose so," Steven replied, sighing. He was too worn out to fret about rules. "But leave the door open, would you?"

"Sure." Ricky came bounding in, flopping himself over Steven with one hand braced on the desk as he peered down at the forms. "How's this all working out?"

"Dismally." Steven leaned back without thinking, his head bumping against Ricky's middle. "Sorry."

No reply. And then, after a moment, "My dad said okay."

"Now there's some good news!" Rejuvenated—he really thought parental consent would be the hard part, not having to prove his own citizenship in eight different ways—Steven rose and headed for his tiny kitchen area. "How about some tea?"

"Great." Ricky went to the couch, easing down, then popped back up again to join Steven in the kitchen, where he leaned against the counter, watching him put the kettle on the stove. "You're quite good at that."

Steven laughed. "What? Making tea?"

"Making me—making guests feel at home. You're very domestic, actually."

"Oh, please." Steven pulled the loose leaf jar from the cabinet and filled two strainers. "So, you've gotten permission, did he send a letter? Call in?"

"He signed a form and faxed it to the office. I think he was a bit tickled about me helping your protest, I mean of course he was—he's a typical leader, thinking anything a follower does is just a fancy."

Steven smiled a little, heart-warm at Ricky's cavalier attitude towards backwards social conventions. "He is your father, though, so I'm sure he had some concerns?"

"He just wanted to know who you were and all, and I said you were my favorite teacher."

Steven chuckled as he poured the boiling-hot water into two mugs and dropped the strainers in.

"Do you have any more of those sugar cookies you made?" Ricky asked, and Steven nodded at the porcelain jar atop the fridge. He watched Ricky stretch to reach it, back muscles outlined against the thin fabric of his white pajama shirt. He turned, holding the jar to his chest and pulled a cookie out to munch on. "I love these," he said with a full mouth. "You make cookies better than anyone."

"Thank you, I will add that to my resume," Steven replied with a wink as he held one mug out to Ricky, who sat the jar down on the counter and took it. "Now back to business—I'm afraid things aren't going so smoothly on my end, but I've placed a couple of enquiries with the principal and I'm hoping she can sort things out in time."

"Okay, sounds good. Let me know if you want me to say anything to her." Ricky sat back down at the table, brushing the forms aside to make room for his tea and cookies. "I've been thinking about what to say if the Matchmaker actually talks to us."

Steven sat back against the counter, bringing the mug to his lips. "Oh?"

Ricky, who had been looking at him, froze, then blinked. "Y—yes. Well, Lady White has to be smart, right? If a leader comes to her saying 'look here, followers need more say-so in their lives,' she would listen, I think."

"Maybe—"

"And honestly, this whole matchmaking business seems a bit off, in my opinion. There's too much margin for error. People say the Matchmaker always knows who your soulmate is, and you will definitely end up with your soulmate, but … how could that be? I mean, that just can't be possible. Not if you—I mean, not if people like teachers don't get matched. Doesn't that mean they have no soulmate?"

Steven was a bit flummoxed, not having expected this sudden outburst of passion. He tried to rally. "Of course, Ricky. That is part of the argument against matchmaking, but I'd prefer not to put a spotlight on exemptions. That seems … ill-advised."

Ricky bit into his second cookie. "Why are teachers exempt?"

"Well, the common belief is that … followers make good nurturers, so … they make good teachers. Also, we have to be approved, so … I suppose it's true that the Matchmaker believes we have no soulmate."

Ricky's face had gone very dark. "Bullshit," he muttered.

"Indeed. It's all bullshit. But I wouldn't recommend saying that to anyone." Steven chuckled. The last time he'd so blatantly criticized matchmaking's core fundamentals, a parent had called him a brainwashed heathen. God knows what anyone might say if they heard him encouraging such thought in a student. "Next thing you know, people will start saying you believe in right of separation."

Ricky sat up a little straighter, eyebrows pinching. "Right of what?"

"Separation … you know, dissolution of a marriage. Ending a relationship."

There was blank incomprehension on Ricky's face for a moment, until the color drained from his cheeks and his jaw tightened. "Separation?" he croaked. "There are people who believe marriages can be … People think they can just … leave?"

Clearly this was college-level theory and too much for Ricky. "A small minority, a fringe group really," Steven cooed, setting his mug down and going to his student to pet him gently on the head. "No one really wants that."

"Right …" Ricky still seemed a bit shaken, but the color had returned to his face at Steven's touch. "Right. That's just sick." He bit his lip, took a deep breath, and then stood up—slightly taller than Steven. He put his hands on Steven's shoulders. "Trust me, this protest will really make waves. I don't think the Matchmaker could ignore a leader joining in. You can count on me, Ste—Professor."

Steven beamed. He really, really did like Ricky. "Thank you," he said, not sure what else he could put out there to show his sincere gratitude. "You don't know much that means to me." And, carried away by the moment, he hugged Ricky tightly, smiling even more when Ricky clutched him back.

-#-

In the end, Steven snuck out.

He'd spent days and days filling out forms, refilling out forms, and realizing there was duplicate information, which would inexplicably bar him from leaving. He'd gone to the school's HR department (which, in actuality, was helmed by the librarian) and begged for some kind of probationary exemption. One afternoon was all he needed!

Yet he was still told no. He was told to just fill out the forms. And the day in question had come with no permission to leave, so he decided he would just do the doing first and make apologies later.

He met Ricky at a little side-street cafe where they each had a hot chocolate and scones before heading off to city hall.

The crowd was immense.

What began as clusters of people became a solid, swarming mass as Ricky and Steven shouldered their way through to the front steps. Luckily, everyone seemed to be in good cheer, and didn't protest their journey. Still, feeling guilty for whatever reason, Steven threw out a "have to meet up with the children!" every few minutes. Ricky kept a firm grip on his hand.

Trumpets, or some such, made a racket as they reached the edge of the crowd, and Steven stopped, awed despite himself when Lady White emerged from the darkness of city hall's main entrance. Her coral peplum dress glistened in the sunlight. She had blonde hair that curled down in angelic waves to her waist. And she seemed to look directly at Steven.

"Now, now, now," Ricky said, dragging Steven forward. Suddenly, he found himself running up the steps away from the crowd and towards Lady White without fully knowing what exactly he would do when he reached her. But as they ran, Ricky yelled, "Justice for followers! Matchmakers are corrupt!" Over and over he chanted.

Steven saw security guards running for them, and then Lady White beckoning the guards to stop, and then all of sudden there he was standing before her with the crowd booing behind him. Here was the moment he'd been waiting for, building up to, dreaming about for years it seemed. All the unfairness of his position as follower, and now he would get to speak his piece—

Ricky spoke. "I'm a leader, and I say it's unfair, what you do to followers."

Lady White's ice-blue gaze shifted from him to Steven and back again. "What is it that I do?"

"Condemn them to servitude," Ricky replied—the words that had stewed in Steven's gut for so long.

"Or do I tie them to the one who will love and cherish them most? Who will guide them through trying times? Who will always know what is best for their soulmate?"

Ricky's expression darkened, his gaze flicking to Steven, who found himself quite paralyzed. "That can't be right," Ricky growled.

Then, Lady White really looked at Steven, as if seeing him for the first time. She seemed to take note of his uniform. "You are a teacher?"

He nodded, shaking.

She smiled. It was a cold, inhuman thing. "I see."

And that was when the security guards tackled them.

-#-

"What do you have to say for yourself?" Cherry asked, distraught. At the end of a long conference table, she sat in her usual burgundy. From her, a line of school board members extended down the table. They all stared at Steven. "I have championed you for so long, Steven. I have made the case over and over that followers can be good teachers, but here today—you've proved me wrong."

"H—" Steven stopped. He composed himself, clearing his throat. "May I ask how? Yes, I brought a student out, but I was showing him a civil action. I was showing him critical thought!"

Cherry's frown was empathetic, her eyebrows drawn together. Stressing each word, she said, "But you didn't turn in the forms."

"The forms?" Stevens arms went out wide. He couldn't believe it.

"Yes, the forms. We have a very reasonable system here, Steven, which you chose to bypass without any reserve. It makes me wonder how fit you are for an independent life, by not following simple rules. Rules that were put in place for your protection."

"I—I tried," Steven said, slightly dizzy. "I really did." He met Cherry's gaze, searching for understanding. "You must have seen how impossible those forms were?"

She was smiling now with her thin lips. "Dear, sweet dear," she said. "They were quite standard."

A buzzing overcame him and his mind, the rest of the words these people spoke lost. But he didn't need words. He could see it in their faces.

First, Steven would go to his parents a few states over and say goodbye. Then he would disappear … somewhere. It would be fine. Perhaps he could find a new teaching position somewhere out of state, or preferably out of country.

He simply nodded along with the rest of the meeting, hearing phrases such as "stripping you of some superfluous exemptions," and "This is for the best, Steven." And then he'd left, going straight to his rooms.

His heart nearly burst from his chest when he heard a knock at his door, but when he swung around, it was only Ricky who came through. "Well, that was nuts!" Ricky laughed, and when he saw Steven's suitcase, his expression of joy sank so quickly to fear that he must have felt whiplash. "What are you doing?"

"Packing," Steven said, going back to stuffing clothes into the suitcase. "I've lost my place here I think, but don't fret. When one door closes, another opens."

"Packing? Wait, wait, wait. It was just a stupid protest, and I had permission to be there!" Ricky shoved Steven aside, knocking the suitcase to the ground. "You can't go."

Steven shook his head. Ricky was a child, and couldn't truly fathom the undercurrent of menace Steven had felt from the board members. "I do; it's the only way."

There was silence for a moment. And then Ricky replied, "I'm going, too. Where are we going?"

"I'm going to cross the border. No silly Matchmaker there. You will stay here and flourish as a leader." Steven started piling his clothes back into the suitcase, less caring of organization the second time around. "Believe me, Ricky, nothing has meant more than your support. But I don't wish my fate on you. You have a future here."

"I don't want it!" Ricky knelt beside Steven. "I'm coming with you."

They stared at each other, and Steven had the distinct feeling that he wouldn't be able to dissuade Ricky. Well, that could come later, on the road, away from all the trappings rich leaders enjoyed. He was impressed, however, that Ricky seemed to think he could sacrifice all that.

And for whatever reason, Steven felt slightly better at the thought of company on this lonely escape. "Fine," he said. "But we're going. Now."

-#-

They managed to make it out of the dorms and halfway across the main lawn before they were stopped by men Steven didn't recognize. But he did know the symbol on their uniforms: Matchmaker's Affairs.

"I don't understand; am I arrested?" he kept asking while Ricky kept demanding that the men stop touching Steven.

They were led to Cherry's office. She was sitting to the side on a small bench, while behind her desk sat Lady White. Steven gaped as he was perp-walked to one of the two chairs in front of the desk. He was pushed down while Ricky was politely asked to sit.

Lady White smiled. "Hello, children."

Steven became distinctly aware of how many people were in the room: guards, Cherry, school board members, and other assorted types in suits. His stomach roiled. He was in deep trouble, perhaps even facing a suspension.

"It's come to my attention that I have made a mistake," Lady White said, her crisp, confident words cutting through Steven's thoughts. "And that I owe both of you an apology."

She stood up, one delicate finger tracing along the surface of the desk that she circled around. "Today, I met both of you for a second time. Ricky: I met you when you were born, and immediately knew you were a leader. Steven: I met you several years ago and—thought you were meant to be a teacher."

She smiled. "I was wrong."

She stood in front of them both, fingers steepled. "I was wrong to exempt you from matchmaking, when it is so clearly written in the stars that you have a soulmate."

Stomach dropping, Steven felt dizzy. "No, I … no—" And beside him, Ricky was screaming something about how it couldn't be true.

But then Lady White held her hand up. "Steven, it is written by the Powers themselves. Your soulmate is here, in this room. Your soulmate is …" She let it trail off as her warm gaze shifted to Ricky.

Oh. Steven nearly laughed. Ricky? All of his dread, all of his fears washed away. Ricky didn't believe in this nonsense! Ricky would set her straight! It was all over. Ricky—

Ricky was staring up at Lady White with wide eyes, his face flushed. "Is it true?" he breathed. Why… why did he look so excited?

Lady White, looking benevolent and not the least bit gleeful, nodded.

"Ricky—" Steven said.

But Ricky had stood. "He's mine?"

Wait...

"Yes," Lady White said.

"He has to live with me? Marry me?" A nod. "We're soulmates?" Another nod. Ricky's chest rose and fell with panted breaths.

He spun around, kneeling in front of Steven and taking his hands. "It is real, Steven. How else could this have happened? All along, I—I thought that if you couldn't be matched, then there was no such thing, but. It's true. We belong together." His grip tightened. "She said it, Steven. You're mine."

His? "But you don't believe in soulmates, Ricky…" Steven said.

The look Ricky gave him was pure, happy confusion. "Of course I do," he said like Steven was the silliest and most adorable creature on the planet. And just like that, Steven was pulled up bonelessly into a crushing hug. "We'll marry right away," Ricky babbled in his ear. "You can quit … and make tea and cookies …"

His joyful words faded off as Steven felt a sort of listlessness take over. All his plans, all his dreams, seemed to be packed away in a little bag to be mothballed somewhere deep in his soul. He was tired, and it was over.

Will I have to wear pink taffeta? was his final thought before the rest of his life began.

END