Eleanor is staring at a painting of a clown and putting a staggering amount of effort into keeping her face pleasantly neutral when Michael turns, sweeping an arm toward the doorway.
“And this is your soulmate, Tahani,” Michael says.
Please don’t be a clown, Eleanor thinks, and tears her gaze from the primary-colored portraits on the wall to investigate the love of someone else’s afterlife.
Huh. Not a clown.
If Eleanor were a better person, the kind of person who deserved to be in the good place, the kind of person who was about to meet her actual-facts soulmate, she might have had some expectations. Maybe she and Stone Cold Steve Austin would even now be flinging themselves ecstatically into each other’s arms. Then again, if Eleanor were a better person, she’d probably also be less shallow or whatever, and would care less about how glorious Stone Cold Steve Austin is, and how magnificent this Tahani woman is, even in comparison, which shouldn’t even be possible but damn.
“Tahani,” Michael is saying, “Given your superb event-planning skills, I thought you might want to host tonight’s welcome party. Of course, we’ll want Eleanor to say a few words, just a short speech, since she was the number one points-getter in the neighborhood. We’ll be presenting her with the ‘Best Person’ award, giving everyone a chance to celebrate her truly remarkable achievements.”
Tahani’s face does something that could almost but not quite be described as a smile. If Eleanor were squinting. And blind. “Of course!” she says, and comes toward Eleanor, arms outstretched, palms down. Is Eleanor supposed to kiss her hand? “I’d be more than delighted. I don’t like to brag, but my friends Sasha and Malia both told me that the birthday parties I threw for them were their absolute favorites.”
She’s still holding out her hands, exquisitely-polished fingertips slightly curled, waiting. Eleanor slides her palms underneath, then hesitates. Do they shake? Is this some sort of hideously genteel version of the hand-slapping game? But Tahani just exerts the slightest pressure down, a delicate press of smooth skin and the barest scrape of jewelry before she breaks contact, letting her hands fall to her sides. Eleanor is left with her hands held before her, palms up, feeling indescribably stupid.
Fuck, Tahani even smells good. Like the kind of perfume Eleanor would have shoplifted if she hadn’t already been escorted out by security.
“I’ll leave you two to get acquainted,” Michael says. “Tahani, I know you must feel beyond honored to have your soulmate be someone whose contributions were just so much greater than anyone else’s. And Eleanor, I can’t wait to hear the words you used to inspire so many people in your lifetime. Your speeches truly left the rest of us speechless.”
And just like that, they’re alone.
“So,” Tahani says, casting a critical eye over the place, “You must really love clowns.”
“Oh, um, yeah,” says Eleanor. “Actually, I just love these portraits so much, I’m a little worried all this direct light will damage the paint. They’re so, you know. Vibrant. Maybe I should take them down and put them in storage, just in case.”
“Of course,” Tahani says, nodding. “So they don’t fade. Janet!”
“Actually, it’s Ele-aaah!” Eleanor cuts off as another person pops into existence beside them. Another tall, shapely brunette. It figures. Is everyone here stupidly tall? Couldn’t Eleanor have landed in a neighborhood with more normal-sized people?
“Hi, I’m Janet!” says Pantsuit Brunette.
“Janet is the informational assistant for the neighborhood,” says Tahani. “Janet, could you help us move these...lovely clown portraits?”
“Somewhere far away,” adds Eleanor. “Far, far away.”
“Of course!” says Janet, and suddenly the creepy clowns are gone.
“Wow! Um, thank you?” says Eleanor. Maybe this place won’t be so bad after all. If only there were stairs to get up to the bed.
“That will be all, thank you, Janet,” says Tahani, and Janet nods before disappearing. “Eleanor, I’m afraid I have to leave you now to prepare for the party. I’d hate to disappoint you at an event where you’re apparently to be guest of honor! I’m sure you’ll find some way to keep yourself entertained until tonight? Perhaps you can have Janet help you find some heels that will make you less, well. Well. Of course you’re absolutely perfect as you are, my sweet, tiny, pocket-sized soulmate.”
She leaves in a swirl of diaphanous blue chiffon, and Eleanor scowls after her. “Forking giraffe lady. What the fork! Why can’t I forking swear?”
“Eleanor, you look simply adorable,” Tahani says, wafting over to her. “That dress is so quaint! Does it hold some sort of sentimental value, from your childhood, perhaps?”
Eleanor grits her teeth and forces a smile. It’s easier after the first shot of tequila. The second fills her with enough goodwill to offer one to Tahani, who accepts and then curls her tongue around the salt and lime in a way that rivals Eleanor’s favorite porn. Damn, Tahani is hot.
“Tahani, Eleanor, there you are!” Michael wraps an arm around each of their shoulders and steers them toward the stage. “Tahani, would you like to say a few words introducing Eleanor before her speech?”
“Of course!” says Tahani. “Welcome, everyone! I hope you’re enjoying the party. We’re all here, of course, because we lived truly exemplary lives, marked by our devotion to humanitarian and environmental causes. And while some of us raised billions and billions of dollars to help the needy, that apparently pales in comparison to the contributions of my adorable little soulmate, Eleanor. Please, give her a round of applause. She’s prepared a speech for us, which I’m sure will be the height of excellence.”
“Bench,” Eleanor mutters.
The clapping is dying down, and Eleanor still has no idea what the real Eleanor, the good Eleanor, would have to say to these people. She throws back her last shot of tequila and smiles as brightly as she can. “What can I say,” Eleanor says, “that you don’t already know? We’re all in the good place. We all, all of us, including me, did amazing things in our lives. But we’re dead now. And we can focus on what brings us joy. Like you,” Eleanor points to some guy in the crowd. “What brings you joy?”
“Biti—” his companion elbows him, and he starts over. “Uh. Teaching disabled orphans how to do mechanical engineering so they can build themselves a better life while also improving drinking water in their villages?” says the guy.
“Okay, sure,” says Eleanor. Weird start, but whatever. “That brought you joy in life. What brings you joy here?”
“Oh, I guess just spending time with my soulmate,” says the guy. “He’s just so fun and kind and awesome to be around.” He gazes dotingly at his companion, who smiles back like they weren’t just elbowing each other in the ribs. Maybe that’s what love is; it’s not like Eleanor would know.
There are murmurs of agreement throughout the crowd, except for one corner, where a dorky-looking guy is looking agonized. Eleanor decides to ignore him.
“That’s right!” she declares. “Soulmates! So you don’t want to hear me give some dumb-ash speech when you could be getting down with your soulmate, do you?”
There are a couple shouts — some yes, some no, which, nah, Eleanor isn’t even gonna try to read the room. That’s not the point. “So let’s do some shots and enjoy this amazing party! Let’s have another round of applause for Tahani!”
Tahani giggles and drops into a mock-embarrassed curtsy, and Eleanor ducks off the stage and swipes a bottle of tequila from the bar. By the time she’s managed to pocket a few limes, the time for speeches has clearly ended and the party is back in full swing. She has a minor tussle over the salt with some guy wearing a nightgown or wizard robes or whatever, but emerges victorious — she clearly needs it more than he does, anyway. Everyone else is all smug and happy and secure in the knowledge that they actually belong here. They don’t need salt and limes and tequila like she does.
She finds Tahani gushing something at Michael, and snags her by the arm, towing her behind a convenient pillar. Why does this room even have pillars? What kind of pretentious castle of a home has indoor freaking pillars? Whatever. Eleanor has more important priorities right now.
“Soulmate,” Eleanor says, handing Tahani the bottle of tequila. “I know we’re destined to spend eternity together, or something, honestly I wasn’t really listening to that part of Michael’s speech, but you seem like kind of a bench. A bench. Forking fork it, bench. You know what I mean.”
“I really don’t,” says Tahani.
“Anyway. I don’t really like you, and you don’t really like me,” Eleanor starts, and Tahani cuts her off.
“Of course I like you, Eleanor! You’re my soulmate! My tiny, foul-mouthed, clown-loving soulmate!” She pauses, then frowns, which Eleanor is annoyed to discover does not make her any less hot. “No, you’re right, I’m not sure I like you, but we are soulmates, and I’m sure once we get to know each other better—”
“Tahani, shut up,” Eleanor interrupts. “I have an idea.” She sprinkles some salt on her wrist, grabs the bottle of tequila back from Tahani, and hands her a lime. “Want to do some shots and get to know each other biblically without all the small talk?”
Tahani’s unfairly gorgeous doe eyes widen. “I do like shots.”
Eleanor leers. She’s already been banned from any knife-handling. “I’ll show you messy,” she says.
“That’s terrible. You’re terrible.” But Tahani is smiling; not the forced cheer from earlier, but a small smile that plays around the corners of her lips.
It’s not quite hate-sex. Tahani is sweet and funny and as much as Eleanor thought she would, she doesn’t actually hate her. And of course Tahani thinks they’re soulmates, which means this is all happening under the kinds of false pretenses that normally even Eleanor would balk at, but, well. There’s something achingly tender about the way Tahani kisses her, and Eleanor tugs gently at Tahani’s hair, nips at her throat, and nuzzles her way down Tahani’s stunning curves.
“I don’t belong here,” she whispers into the side of Tahani’s hip, and Tahani’s long fingers twine in her hair.
“Where else would you belong?” Tahani asks, only barely paying attention to their words. Her thigh twitches against Eleanor’s shoulder, and Eleanor ducks down, does that thing with her tongue that made previous exes stay with her far longer than they otherwise would have. Tahani’s back arches, and they’re done with words for a while.
Most of their arguments are resolved with sex. And on one memorable occasion, a food fight, although Eleanor still isn’t sure how Tahani ended up laughing despite the cream puff in her hair.
It’s surprisingly nice? It’s honestly the best relationship Eleanor’s ever had. And she thinks it might be the most real one Tahani’s had, even though Eleanor still hasn’t come clean about her pre-afterlife life.
In the end, getting to really know each other is what ruins them. Tahani is nestled in bed beside her, wine-tipsy and half asleep, when she starts reminiscing about her sister. Four rambling and increasingly bitter sentences about Kamilah later, Eleanor narrows her eyes and sits bolt upright.
“You were an ash-hole!” she exclaims. “Fork, ash — you know what I mean. You were a selfish jerk, too.”
Tahani startles, a flush rising on her cheeks. “I was not!” she says, indignant. “I just wanted to be better and happier and prettier and better than her in every possible way, oh my god. Oh, no. Oh, I think you’re right.”
“If you were a jerk, and I was a jerk, then it’s not just a fluke that I’m here!” Eleanor says. “Fork, Tahani, I think this is the bad place!”
“Oh, balls,” they hear Michael say, and then everything goes blank.