Welcome! says the cheerful sign in front of Rosaline's eyes when she opens them. Everything is fine.
That doesn't seem like very appropriate hospital waiting room decoration, and Rosaline is sure she must be in a hospital waiting room. The last thing she remembers is a screech of tires, a swerve, and Juliet shouting her name … she sits bolt upright. “Juliet!”
The door of the waiting room swings open, revealing a man with wavy hair and a bit of a beard and a twinkle in his eye. “Ah, Rosaline, I'm pleased that you've arrived.”
“Where's my cousin? There must have been an accident, is Juliet okay?”
He winces. “I think perhaps you'd better come inside. There's things to say that you won't want to hear.”
“Oh God, she's dead.”
“Oh no, she's not, just you.”
Rosaline gapes at him, then at herself. She's not hurt. She's wearing her favorite dress, which got torn past repair a year ago. “I'm what?”
“You're dead, my dear, now won't you please come in?”
There's not much else to do, so she follows him into a very nice office and sits in what seems to be an ergonomic chair. “Are you God?”
“Oh heavens no, where did you get that from? Instead, call me the scriptor of this place—your afterlife and those of all who live in this, your neighborhood, designed for you.” He smiles. “Just call me Bill, it's easier to say.”
“Okay. Bill. Can you explain all of this to me?”
He does. She died in a car crash. Livia and Juliet are alive, but when they die perhaps she can take a day trip to visit them. She is, to her relief, in heaven, rather than, well … the alternate. She's been assigned to a neighborhood full of people she's sure to be afterlife-long friends with, everything bent to her pleasure and theirs.
Bill walks her through the neighborhood's downtown, showing her all the shops and buildings, waving at people as they pass. “Two more surprises,” he promises in a murmur, “then I'll leave you be. The first: your home! I know it's your ideal.”
They stop on a quiet street, and there's a lovely little cape, painted butter yellow with green shutters. Rosaline swallows. It is her ideal, the best home she could imagine. It's just also an exact copy of her childhood home, where both her parents died. She's not sure she can walk across the doorstep. “Yes, my ideal. I don't want to hold you up, though. What's my surprise?”
“Each person here has a true soulmate, too. Perhaps you'd care to meet him, or perhaps, I'd say, meet this young man again. You've met.”
“Who is it, then?”
“My dear, you'll be so pleased.” Bill ducks through an alley to one of the omnipresent doughnut restaurants (Doughnut Even Bother)and beckons her inside. Rosaline instantly sees a familiar face and her stomach flutters, because there's Escalus, who died six months ago in a plane crash, and isn't it everyone's dream, confirmation that the one who got away is the one? But Bill is walking past his table (and is that Isabella giving her a startled wave, when she died with her brother?), Escalus is looking tight with misery, and at the counter, there's another familiar face with a mouth full of Boston crème and a look of dawning horror.
“Oh, no,” says Rosaline.
“Oh, fork,” says Benvolio Montague.
“His name is Escalus.”
“Which I knew, because I'm not a complete dumbaxe.” He groans. “Not even axe? Can we lift the restriction during dirty talk, do you think? I don't want to tell Helena the hot AI that I want to fork her.”
“I think the only person you're supposed to fork is me,” says Rosaline with as much acid as she can manage.
“Don't be so conservative, Hamlet from that ridiculous Gothic fortress has two soulmates, and something's up with those four with those woods cottages. We can have an open soulmateship.”
Rosaline groans, pulling him down a side street where no one is walking. “We can't have a soulmateship at all, Montague, because we are not soulmates. There was a clerical error because of our cousins.”
Benvolio makes a face. The only thing they've ever agreed on is their opinion on that relationship. “Yes. Right. We just have to talk to Bill and it will all work out.”
“Exactly. We'll find him now.”
“Fine,” Rosaline snaps, suddenly annoyed again, and stalks off to find Bill.
“I'm just glad. You and Isabella died six months ago, for me. Where is she?”
“She's asking Helena absolutely everything she can think of about the way this place works, since according to Bill she contains most if not all the knowledge of the universe. And I thought maybe we should catch up.”
Rosaline lowers her eyes. “I'd like that.”
“I hate how we left things. Isabella read me a lecture like you can't even imagine.”
“You had to live your life.”
“Apparently not.” He pauses. “You and a Montague? Healing the greatest family department store rift the world has ever seen?”
“Really not happening. We think there was a clerical error because our cousins are disgustingly in love. Bill is looking into it.” She neglects, for her own sanity, to mention that Bill said the chances of a mistake are 1 in 3,482,116. “Who's your soulmate?”
Escalus sighs. “Soulmates can be platonic, apparently. It's Isabella. An eternity of chances to repair where we went wrong in life.”
Right now, that mostly sounds exhausting, but Rosaline smiles. “Then I wish you the best.”
His smile is wry. “That's what the Good Place is supposed to be, isn't it?”
Rosaline is glad for the privacy as she makes herself open the door to her too-familiar house and walk inside. It's not quite her childhood house on the inside. The pictures are different—recent selfies of Livia and Juliet and Rosaline all grinning together framed by the door, an empty picture frame next to her parents' wedding picture that makes her feel a little queasy because she suspects the afterlife does a brisk business in weddings.
The only bedroom is the master bedroom. It's decorated like her room, but it's the same shape as the one she remembers visiting when she had nightmares, and Rosaline stays in it for approximately five seconds before walking back out. “Helena,” she says, and tries not to jump when she hears the little bell noise that always precedes her arrival.
“Hi,” says Helena, whose sweet if somewhat plastic smile makes her at least a somewhat reassuring presence. “What can I do for you?”
“Could I ...” Rosaline swallows around a sudden lump in her throat and thinks about Livia and Juliet and a hundred nights when they were teenagers, before Rosaline's parents died, before they were expected to get involved in the family business. “Could you get the supplies for a blanket fort in the living room, please?”
Helena keeps smiling sweetly, waiting for more information. “How many people are you planning to fit in it?”
Livia and Juliet must have planned her funeral, attended it. She can't think about anyone else, can't bother with regret or thinking about Benvolio Montague at all. Another time, she'd be happy to invite Isabella, but Isabella has her own problems to deal with. “Just me.”
Helena gives her a concerned look look. “Some people have trouble adjusting to being dead. Counseling services for this neighborhood have yet to be established, but since the Architect is still present—”
“No. Thank you, no. It's heaven. I'm sure I'll get used to it soon.” Lord knows how a Montague made it to heaven, but that question seems unworthy of someone in the good kind of afterlife, so she doesn't ask it aloud. “Just the pillow fort will be plenty.”
“Of course.” She snaps her fingers. “Just say my name if you need anything else!”
With that, she disappears, leaving her alone again, and she looks in the living room. She made the pillow fort for her instead of giving her something to fill her time, but that's probably smart of her. It's hard to make a fort alone.
Rosaline gives her a hug. “How are things with you and Escalus? One doesn't really think of soulmates as being a sibling kind of thing, but ...”
“I always wanted to be close to him, I just hated how Father assumed our lives would work out. I have time to get to know him, and there are a few other platonic soulmates around, so at least I don't have to go the rest of eternity without sex. Plus, I'm pretty sure I can get sex toys upon request.”
Isabella dead already seems freer and lighter than Isabella alive, and Rosaline feels horribly guilty not knowing if it's just that she forgot so much about her in six months or if it's that something about heaven has already relaxed her, barely a day after the neighborhood opened up. Rosaline doesn't feel relaxed yet, but that's because they haven't worked the clerical error out yet. “Sex toys are the last thing on my mind right now, honestly.”
“I'm sure they are.” Isabella covers Rosaline's hand with hers. “Maybe you and Benvolio are platonic too.”
“I don't think we're anything. I think there was a bureaucracy error because our cousins are in love. Bill will get it sorted out within a few days. In the meantime, I'll just steer clear of him.” She gives an involuntary glance next door. He's strolling around his upstairs without a shirt on. Of course he is. Maybe Helena will provide him with curtains. She makes a mental note to ask. “How … God, I hate myself for asking. How is Escalus?”
Isabella bites her lip. “Not exactly pleased to be dead. Or pleased that you and I are both here but somehow I'm the one who's his soulmate, but who knows? If it's a clerical error, maybe there will be shuffling and I'll be assigned—someone else.”
Rosaline stands up, abruptly sick of sitting around in the place that's supposed to keep her content forever, and dusts her hands off. “Come on, no use sitting around wishing. In the meantime, you can catch up on six months worth of gossip and we'll eat some doughnuts. Are there no restaurants besides doughnut ones in this whole town?”
Isabella laughs. “Helena will provide you with whatever other food you need, and the doughnut shops are for socializing. So let's go socialize, shall we?”
Next door, Benvolio is still strolling around like he's putting on a show. Rosaline turns firmly away and tucks her arm through Isabella's so they can go eat and she can pretend it's just like any normal day.
Rosaline wants to say that she knows her soulmate quite well already, thanks, but it seems uncharitable, and Escalus and Isabella will be there too, so at least she'll have some protection. Helena greets her at the entrance to the park, though, and hands her a basket. “It's full of your favorites!” she says, with her usual cheer. “You and Benvolio are over there.”
She looks, with a sinking feeling, to the edge of the park, where Benvolio is sprawled on a blue checked picnic blanket, and then to the opposite edge, where Escalus and Isabella are talking with a few people she doesn't know yet. “We can't pick our own seats?”
“You already have advantage already knowing your soulmates, so this is a good time to get to know your neighbors as well as each other!” Helena chirps, and pointedly turns to greet the next couple behind her.
For a moment, she thinks about finding Bill and complaining, but it hardly seems worth the effort. She can talk to her neighbors, or really anyone but Benvolio, and escape as soon as it seems polite. With that firmly in mind, she clutches her picnic basket to her chest and goes over to Benvolio, who greets her with his hand shading his eyes. “Oh good, you brought food, this soulmate shirt might work out after all.”
“Just for that, you figure out what's in the basket,” says Rosaline ungraciously, and shoves it at him.
Benvolio doesn't complain, she'll definitely give him credit for that. He just goes digging through the basket, pulling out some sandwiches and chips and what looks like a potato salad for two. “There are no doughnuts,” he says, sounding surprised. “I sort of thought that was all this place did. A sort of charming quirk. The sandwiches aren't even on bagels, which would at least be thematic.”
Rosaline opens one of the packaged sandwiches. “Ugh, tell me you're fond of egg salad, because I'm not, and I really hope the other one is something else.”
“Egg salad is … egg salad is good,” he says, but he sounds more lost than argumentative, and Rosaline thinks about asking, and then she thinks about the pillow fort that she's definitely going to be sleeping in for the indefinite future and decides to leave it be. Adjusting to being dead takes some time, no matter what. Even Helena said so, and it's just as true for Montagues as for Capulets.
Rosaline lets him have a moment of privacy and looks at the other sandwich. There appear to be vegetables, which is a vast improvement, and prying it open reveals a BLT, much to her relief. “Then I will happily take the superior sandwich.”
“So, you like BLTs,” says Benvolio, sounding far too keen about it.
Rosaline raises her eyebrows. “Yes, though why it matters to you I don't know.”
“It sort of seems like a Newlywed Game could break out any minute, the kitsch is strong with heaven. So if they ask your favorite sandwich I can say BLTs, and you can say egg salad. My actual favorite is these paninis they served at a shop around the corner from my apartment, but it doesn't matter what the truth is, it matters that we conspire to have the right answers.”
“Are you really talking about cheating at a theoretical Newlywed Game where we are the newlyweds?”
Benvolio frowns at her. “I'm talking about strategizing and thereby winning a Newlywed Game where we are the newlyweds. You've got to admit that the prizes in heaven are probably to die for.” Whatever face she makes at that makes him laugh and then frown. “Okay, I admit that's a little too soon.”
“Do you think?”
“In my defense, I haven't made a full survey of when everyone around here died, some of them have obviously been in stasis for a while, but who knows, we could have been in there for hundreds of years and some people in the neighborhood have lived on Mars or something.”
That's enough to silence Rosaline, both the thought that she could have been dead for any amount of time and the thought that Benvolio Montague, of all people, has apparently paid enough attention to the neighborhood that he already has guesses about how long some people have been dead. She hasn't really paid much attention to anyone but Escalus and Isabella, and now that he's said it she feels somewhat guilty about that.
“We can't have been dead for that long,” she says, mostly to reassure herself. “Then Livia and Juliet would probably be dead too, and Bill would have let me know when I could go see them. He said we could arrange it.”
“Shirt. This being dead business sucks, Capulet, did you know? What is with all these neighborhoods? I want the chance to see Romeo, and—other people. You know.”
Rosaline doesn't, she realizes with a sinking feeling. She hadn't actually thought of Benvolio as anyone but his cousin's keeper and thereby the second-most bearable of his relatives. She has no idea who he'll miss besides Romeo, and presumably Romeo's father. They may not be actual soulmates, but he's her ally on the other side, at least sometimes. She should perhaps know who he cares about. Especially since having sides in heaven seems somewhat petty. “I wonder if Helena would let us look in on our families. She's here to make us happy, right?”
Benvolio looks dubious, but the man on the next picnic blanket over chooses that moment to raise his voice and interrupt their conversation. “Look in the bottom of your picnic basket! It looks like everyone's got some conversation cards.”
Both of them look at the picnic basket like it's filled with snakes. “I really thought we could do without icebreaker games in the afterlife,” Rosaline says mournfully, and goes about digging them out while Benvolio watches in horror.
What's the kindest thing you did in your life? asks the top card, in the same cheerful inoffensive font as the Everything is fine in Bill's office. On the next park bench, the man is eagerly telling the starry-eyed woman next to him about the children he mentored. Rosaline shuffles through the rest of the cards. What's your biggest regret? Who will you miss most? What was your ideal soulmate like, when you imagined them? “That sounds like the question that could lead to divorce among normal people,” Benvolio observes, reading upside down. “Live people. How are we supposed to refer to that, anyway? Come on, then, what did you imagine your soulmate would be like?”
Rosaline refuses to think about Escalus, and ignores that refusing to think about him is sort of thinking about him. “Kind,” she finally says. “If I was going to get married, I wasn't going to settle. He was going to be kind, and respect me, and love me, and Livia and Juliet were going to love him too, and ...” She stops, because she can feel the lump in her throat and she won't let her voice crack. She's in public.
“Ah.” Benvolio snatches the cards from her and shuffles through some more. Talk about what you like in bed! says one card. Rosaline sincerely hopes that the deck is different for platonic soulmates, because otherwise Escalus and Isabella are going to have postmortem aneurysms. “Well. Bad luck, Capulet.”
She's sitting in her pillow fort again, which seems rather pathetic. She ought to be learning how to fly, or reading all the books she meant to read but never got to, or reminding Bill that he really ought to fix that clerical error so she and Benvolio are no longer saddled with each other. Instead, she's engaging in what she tells herself is a strategic retreat.
Strategic retreats often involve chocolate.
Of course, just as she's settled in and asked Helena for reading material, there's a knock on the door. She tells herself it's Isabella or Escalus or just a friendly neighbor, which of course means it's Benvolio at the door. He's looking harried, but she's feeling harried, so she doesn't have much sympathy.
“I'm about as happy to see you as you are to see me, but I honestly have no one else to go to right now,” he says, and it's hard not to invite him in after that. Of course, as soon as he's through the door, he's raising his eyebrows at her pillow fort, which is slowly taking over her entire living room. “Belatedly checking off your childhood bucket list?” he inquires.
“If you must know, my ideal home is apparently my parents' home. I can't sleep in their bedroom.”
“Oh.” He sobers. “If it helps, I am literally living in a glass house, so I'm kind of worried about throwing stones. And also not being fully clothed at all times. I feel very exposed. Also, I've been thinking and I'm sort of worried that I'm not supposed to be in heaven.”
Rosaline gapes at him. “That seems like a bit much clerical error. The soulmate thing is maybe understandable because of our cousins, but you not being meant to be here entirely?”
Benvolio paces his way farther into her house, which is the opposite of what she wants, but he's having some sort of crisis, so she won't kick him out. “You can't just be an average person and get into the good place, right? You have to do big good things. And you mother your sister and your cousin, so you're probably set, and Isabella and Escalus did all that charity, but what the fuck did I do? Drop out of art school, disappoint my uncle ...”
“I'm sure you have other qualities,” says Rosaline, but she sounds doubtful to her own ears. “I think it's unfair that you have to be so high in points to keep from being tortured for all eternity. Shouldn't just plain decent people who screw up sometimes have just as much right to a happy afterlife? Only really awful people should have to deal with the torture.”
“I think I'm supposed to be feeling honored that I'm not awful enough to be relegated to an eternity of having my intestines ripped out, but mostly I'm terrified that I'm going to be, I don't know, deported. Whatever the word is for getting kicked out of heaven in favor of hell.”
“I'm pretty sure that biblically it's referred to as falling, but I'm not at all sure of what to think about the bible right now.” Rosaline tries to pull herself together. She may not be Benvolio's biggest fan, but she's fairly sure that he doesn't deserve an eternity of horror. “If you don't think you're supposed to be here, you just have to behave irreproachably,” she finally says, as firmly as she can. “Maybe they'll review your case. Things we do after we die have to count, if we're still conscious.”
“It's enough to make me wish I were a philosophy dropout as opposed to an art dropout.”
Rosaline blinks, a little startled. “You're an artist?”
“You need to listen better. I am an artistic dropout. Turns out that drawing naked women almost exclusively was far more acceptable in the Renaissance than it is now. My uncle didn't want me to get pretensions of taking over the business, so my vague artistic leanings were encouraged, and now I'm easily the most pretentious person at every business party.”
There's a prod of guilt for not knowing what sounds like a basic fact from the way he's talking about it, but more than that, Rosaline thinks about her aunt and uncle and just how much they don't want Rosaline and Livia involved in the family business, the way they encouraged Rosaline into the recesses of academia even while complaining about the money. Both of those are things she should perhaps think about later, but for now, she's allowed herself to be distracted, and Benvolio came to her for a reason, God help them. She supposes she could try to cheer him up a bit. “You seem less pretentious than many Montagues, if it helps.”
He snorts. “I wish I could say the same, but I really can't.”
“You must belong here,” she says, and he winces. She would apologize, but he came to her, not Escalus and Isabella, who are much better at being diplomatic than she's ever cared to be. “Charity donations, or being nice to dogs, or something.”
Benvolio frowns. “I was nice to dogs, but that's a fairly low bar, I feel.”
“Nice to dogs is a very important thing,” says Rosaline. He doesn't look convinced, but he looks a little less wretched too. “Either way, there's no use borrowing trouble. You're here. And while I certainly think our cousins messed up the whole soulmate thing, I think it would be a much larger clerical error to have you in the wrong place completely.”
“It's not like I'm going to ask. I just hate the nagging worry.”
Rosaline finds herself in the novel and not entirely pleasant situation of sympathizing with Benvolio Montague. “Well, it's not really much good worrying, so in the meantime you should enjoy the amenities.”
Like he's flipping a switch, Benvolio gives her a salacious grin. Rosaline continues with her unpleasant wonderings, this time about whether all this time whenever he's been grinning and teasing her he's been worried about something. “The amenities are indeed gorgeous.”
“Oh, don't start being an axehole, I couldn't bear it.” Rosaline makes a face. “This swearing thing really is annoying.”
“Finally, we agree on something!” says Benvolio. “Come on, let's show willing and go out for dinner, there is at least one restaurant here that serves something besides doughnuts. No one will ever suspect I'm a terrible fraud if I'm with one of the most upstanding women in the neighborhood.”
It's like it never happened, him needling her again instead of whatever the hell he came here hoping for, but now it feels like a veneer and Rosaline hates it.
She goes out to the restaurant anyway, though.
“It would be unpleasant both for us and for everyone around us if we didn't,” she says, shrugging a little. They're in the park, and nearby, Helena is dealing what must be a fairly thorny problem for one of the residents, since she didn't just immediately appear and disappear. Isabella is watching her with a half-familiar expression on her face, and Rosaline isn't asking, because she has no idea what to ask. “And he's always been one of the less terrible of his clan.”
“I rather like him,” says Isabella, looking away from Helena and refocusing on Rosaline. “I did in life, I mean. Romeo seemed like a sweet kid, but Benvolio was sharp, and interesting.” She smiles a little. “Just like you.”
“If you tell me you think we're well-suited—”
Isabella's smile turns wry. “I wouldn't dare. Besides, I may like him, but we both know that I always hoped you and Escalus would find your way back together. That might be a bit awkward now, though.”
Escalus is still mostly avoiding her, and she can't blame him. There's so much history between them, so many unmet expectations and hopes, and the other consequence of the afterlife is that everything feels frozen in place, like it can't move forward. “I think so. I don't know what's going to happen if it turns out there was a clerical error after all, though.”
“Maybe we'll swap soulmates.” Isabella makes a face. “You get the better end of that deal. Or, I suppose, Escalus does.”
Rosaline almost says something light and joking, but she and Isabella don't talk about the way Isabella asked her out in the first few weeks of college, so sweet and hopeful, and how Rosaline had to gently turn her down and then ended up dating her brother too soon after. Perhaps eventually, given eternity, it won't matter, but for now, it seems to, because every joke she tries to make dies on her tongue. “I'd never thought I would get married or anything,” she says instead. “I just wanted to research and work and spend time with my friends and spoil Livia's children rotten.”
“And now you have a soulmate and an ex-boyfriend around.” Isabella sighs, and this time her glance at Helena seems involuntary. Every other sentence she says, some days, seems to start with “Helena says,” because of course Isabella would attach herself to the most knowledgable person in the neighborhood, even if she's not precisely human. Rosaline really does need to ask about it sometime. “It's all very complicated.”
“How are things with you and Escalus?” she asks instead of asking about Helena, since it's just as important a question. Isabella frowns, and Rosaline thinks about backing off, but if they can't confide in each other after so long, who can they confide in? “You don't have to tell me everything, but I know how things are with you two, and on top of that you might be feeling a little sad that you don't have perfect-for-you romantic partners out there.”
“Perhaps a little. But we'll figure something out together.”
“You're getting along?”
“Quite well,” says Isabella, but her expression shutters in a way that makes Rosaline wince. She must see the reaction, because she shrugs a moment later. “If you must know, Bill accidentally let slip that he got more points than I did, and you know us.”
Rosaline does, and wishes Bill had never put the thought into either of their heads, because there are already plenty of arguments between them about who is making the right choice at any given time. Adding the fact that one of them was apparently an objectively better person in life is enough to make anyone wince. “You're both here. That matters more,” she says, without much hope.
Isabella goes back to watching Helena, who throws her a smile just a shade more real than the ones she gives when someone is asking her for something. Isabella's smile is a lot sadder. “Yes, I suppose it does.”
The afterlife, overall, is more awkward than she ever supposed it to be, on the rare occasions she thought about it.
“Enjoying the stars?” Benvolio asks a few weeks in, passing her one evening and waving off Miranda and Ferdinand from down the lane, who he seems to have befriended.
Rosaline looks up automatically. She doesn't recognize any of the constellations, but then again, she couldn't really do that when she was alive either. “Just the night air. Wanted a bit of variety from my blanket fort.”
He stops where he looked like he was going to go on, and Rosaline waits for mockery, or really anything but what she gets, which is a concerned frown. “Still sleeping in there, Capulet? Isn't that hell on the spine?”
“I asked Helena for an extra mattress a few days in. It's fine.”
Benvolio purses his lips. “Want to come over to mine a nightcap?” Rosaline must make some kind of horrified face, because he winces a moment later. “Not a sex nightcap—as though I would. A get-out-of-your-tragedy-house-and-maybe-get-drunk nightcap.”
“Oh good, glad we cleared that up.” Part of her wants to be petty and send him away, but the thought of being drunk sounds appealing and the thought of spending time with someone whose good opinion she doesn't care about is even more so. “But yes. I'd like very much to get drunk in your incredibly ugly house.” She stands up, brushes herself off a bit, and goes down to the street to meet him.
“Joke's on you, I imagine the endgame of this afterlife is to live with your soulmate, so we're going to have to find some way to mate the aesthetic.” Both of them stand in the street, looking from her cozy house to his modern monstrosity, neither content with either of them. “It might be a tough job.”
“We might not be soulmates at all, if you'll recall.”
“Of course, Capulet. God forbid you let your guard down for even a moment, lest someone assume that perhaps you don't hate me.”
Rosaline considers apologizing but very much doubts he'd let her. Instead, she starts toward his house and lets him trot a bit to catch up to her. “I haven't been in yours before. I suppose if nothing else we ought to be neighborly.”
“Does that mean I can borrow sugar? I really need some. You know I bake cookies all the time.”
“I don't think I have any. I haven't been cooking at my house.” Rosaline sighs, but if she's going to try, she's actually going to attempt conversation. “I'm a pretty bad cook, actually. I can make a few things, but mostly I don't care to do it.”
“Me too. I spend half my budget on takeout and restaurants. Spent. At least food is free here, even if the doughnuts are starting to get a little old. Do you think they'll change restaurant themes every couple years? Soups are nice and versatile, we could get by a while on soups.”
“I think there's just the one restaurant, whatever Helena provides, and doughnuts.” Rosaline makes a face. “For eternity.”
Benvolio lets them into his house, though it's just like the outside but hotter due to sunlight through glass. “I hope they change things once in a while. We're not meant to deal with the exact same situation forever. It sounds like a good way to go absolutely mad.”
“You just say that because you want to sleep around.” Rosaline curses her own too-fast mouth, because Benvolio looks legitimately hurt about that. “No, you're right. The same thing for eternity, even if it's the good same thing, sounds awful. Maybe they shake things up every five years. Let you move neighborhoods, change the restaurants, give Helena a new outfit, I don't know.”
“The thing that bothers me,” he says, heading for a cabinet that seems to be stocked full of all the best alcohol and getting out the makings for a whiskey sour before she can even request one, “is that the afterlife seems to be all about that white picket fence life, settling down and getting married. Doesn't that usually come with children? Can we procreate when we're dead?”
“I don't know. I won't, though. I never wanted kids—I practically raised Livia and Juliet through most of their adolescence, and that was plenty for me.”
Benvolio pours them both a generous serving of alcohol, bustling around his kitchen. “I can't blame you. I never really wanted them either.”
Conversation flows more easily from there, lubricated by at least one point of agreement and enough alcohol that she'd have the devil's own hangover if she were alive, and Rosaline is surprised hours later when she looks out his ridiculous windows and finds the neighborhood lit up for the night, well past dark. There's a party in town tonight, but she wasn't really in the mood to go to it anyway. “I should probably go home,” she says, with more reluctance than she means. She can see her house through the windows (and really ought to ask Helena for some curtains), and it ought to look welcoming and cozy, but mostly it looks like a dollhouse, no life to it at all.
“Honestly,” says Benvolio, lazy with drink and laying on the floor since every piece of furniture in his house is a modern monstrosity that looks amazing but feels just a little bit off. “You should just stay, Capulet. I'll protect your maidenly virtue. Especially since I'm not entirely sure I can get off this floor right now. We're soulmates, right? I'm not going to importune you, but we can at least spend the night.”
Rosaline ought to say no, but she's tired and more than a little drunk and more lonely than she cares to admit. She hates her house even more than she hates his, and his is a crime against architecture and common sense. “Don't you ever hate the lack of privacy in here?” she asks instead of answering.
“Forking constantly,” he says.
“You should have a blanket fort too,” she decides. “Before we go to sleep. Helena.” She manages not to jump when she appears with a cheerful greeting. “Benvolio needs a blanket fort as well. Can you do that? We're too drunk too.”
“Of course, Rosaline,” says Helena, and half a second later Benvolio's hidden in a nest of blankets and pillows and she's gone, just like always. The only person she ever seems to linger around is Isabella, who can ask her questions for hours on end.
Benvolio's voice emerges from his cocoon. “Capulet, I'm never judging you about the fort again, you're a genius. Come in here, and I promise I'll only spoon you instead of fork you.”
“You're the worst,” says Rosaline, but she climbs in after him. At least it's spacious.
Benvolio is snoring gently, mouth unattractively open, and Rosaline feels a complete absence of hangover headache, which is just as disconcerting as it is delightful. When she pulls her knees back and eases farther away from him, he doesn't so much as twitch, so she breathes out in relief and sets about extricating herself from the blanket fort.
He doesn't wake the whole time she's getting out, and she's not going to wait around for him to get up or wake him up, so instead she asks for Helena and then a piece of paper and a pen, which she uses to write a note thanking him for the night out and hoping that he's as hangover-free as she is before letting herself very quickly out of his house.
Of course, because it's just her luck, Escalus is the first person she sees, going for a morning run. He looks momentarily horrified to see her coming out of Benvolio's house before his face shutters. “I'm glad to see you two getting along.”
Rosaline wants to say something tart about not being a kindergarten student, but she's never been able to be tart with Escalus. “The house is a bit too much like my childhood home for comfort.” She shrugs. “We drank and slept in a blanket fort. That doesn't make him my soulmate, just … well, a decent person, apparently.”
“It doesn't make you curious? Why you were matched with him, and not—anyone else?”
“I'm quite sure it's a clerical error, because of Romeo and Juliet. It will get straightened out, and then ...” Who is she supposed to be with instead? Surely Escalus, standing there watching her with his serious expression on the verge of a frown, and then perhaps Isabella could be with someone else, who might keep her from a crush on Helena that's sure to end poorly. And Benvolio could have … someone. She has no idea who could keep up with him.
“And then,” says Escalus, and Rosaline wants to pay attention to that, to tease it out, since it looks like he's saying something, but there's a shout of laughter in Benvolio's house, and she turns when the door behind her opens.
“Capulet, if you're going to walk of shame your way out before I wake up, at least have the decency to get off my lawn.” Benvolio is yawning, still wearing last night's clothes, and he gives Escalus a friendly wave. “Morning. Don't let me interrupt, but I desperately need doughnuts.” He turns to Rosaline. “Thanks for the note. You're welcome anytime, get out of that pile of idyllic rustic suburbia and into our really amazing blanket fort. I'm never going back now that I have something comfortable in my house.”
His easy invitation draws her up short. One night of drinking and apparently he thinks they're friends, and she has no argument to the contrary that isn't based on prejudices that she should have left behind in life and honestly before she died too. “Perhaps I shall. But don't let me keep you from your doughnuts.”
Benvolio lazily salutes them and wanders away, leaving Rosaline still standing in his yard with Escalus only a few feet away. Escalus has hidden his thoughts away again, though, and Rosaline is too distracted to make him tell her what he was going to say, or at least what he wants. “It sounds like things are good for you,” he says. “I ought to continue my run, but we should get lunch one of these days.”
“Of course,” says Rosaline, and she's used to feeling a little twist in her heart whenever he walks away from her, but this time no matter how she waits for it, it doesn't come.
“Fast cars and perhaps some explosions sounds like just what I want right now,” Rosaline admits, and Benvolio lets her into the house with a beam and points her toward the fort, which has definitely grown since she was last in it to swallow most of the living room. From outside, she can see all the blankets and pillows made into a strange structure, but it's very different from the inside.
“I knew you wouldn't let me down.”
Rosaline is starting to realize that when she forgets about his last name, Benvolio is actually the kind of asshole she could get along with. It's a strange thought. “I'll certainly try not to,” she says, and follows him inside.
Rosaline blinks at him. “My what?”
“Young Montague is not your mate. Though I must say, the news is bad for him.”
“And why is that?”
“He ought to be in hell.” Rosaline gapes at him. “The error was extensive, I admit.”
“Extensive? That's not extensive, that's ...” She trails off, abruptly out of words for exactly how terrible it is, how selfish it is that she's only just now realized how terrible the thought of anyone being in hell is if they aren't murderers or child molesters. In life, she might have said, half-joking, “or Montagues,” but Benvolio doesn't deserve to be in hell. He may be an ass, he may be smug and lazy and selfish and have horrible taste in everything, but he deserves to be here. “No, you can't send him away, you can't let someone into heaven and then tell them that as bad luck has it, they have to go and be tortured for eternity.”
“Dear Rosaline, your kindness is sublime, but rules are rules and they say he is damned.” He hesitates visibly. “Unless, of course ...”
“Unless what? Please, just say.”
“No, no, I just can't ask this much of you.”
“I'll help him out, just tell me how I can.”
Bill frowns and waits for a long moment, until Rosaline's heart is in her throat. There has to be a way out of this, but whatever it is, it's not going to be good. If he asks her to sacrifice herself instead, she's not sure she can do it. “The folks in charge believe in love, you see—so much they might believe he is redeemed. If only ...”
Rosaline has a sinking feeling. If he's not meant to be here, he's not meant to be her soulmate, and maybe things can be rearranged and heaven will stop feeling so off. “I would have to keep him, right? Say I love him, that I need him—”
“No. Of course I know I can't ask that of you. Perhaps you'd come with me to bear the news? A friend's support might help to ease the blow.”
If she asks if she'll be given another soulmate, she won't be able to follow through. Even if it's not Escalus, the thought of a true soulmate, perhaps someone without all the terrible baggage from their lives, is tempting. But if a true soulmate comes at the cost of knowing she's doomed Benvolio to an eternity of torture, she doesn't know if she can do it. “Don't tell him.”
Bill rears back a little, clearly shocked. “What?”
“He's staying, so don't tell.” She closes her eyes. “He doesn't have to know. Just between us?”
“You really ought to let him have the choice.”
“And who would choose eternal torture, Bill?”
“A man who wants you settled and content.”
Benvolio teases her constantly, but he never asks her to leave when she spends increasingly long hours on his horribly uncomfortable couch or in what he always refers to as “their” blanket fort. Perhaps he was an asshole in life, but then again, so was she at times, and apparently she deserves to be here. Even if she's not in love with him, might not ever be able to be, she would feel guilty for eternity if she sent him away. “I won't be if he's somewhere being harmed.”
“I must insist we ask him, though. I merely thought you ought to know the choice ahead, so you have time to think.”
Rosaline squares her shoulders. “All right then, let's go have a little chat.”
“There's really no need to be noble and self-sacrificing,” she says when the quiet really gets to be too much. “You stay, we pretend none of this ever happened.”
“Honestly, the most shocking thing about this is that you think I'm capable of being noble and self-sacrificing.”
“God, I was awful to you, wasn't I?”
“Capulet, if you start being nice to me, I may not survive it, and I have no idea what happens when you die in the afterlife,” he says, which is its own kind of answer.
“In my defense, you're a massive dick.”
Benvolio laughs, unfreezing a little. “There you are. Now, I'm not wild about the idea of being tortured for eternity, definitely, but also … Escalus is right here. We've all known this entire time who you'd rather have. Do you really want an eternity of being stuck with me knowing you could have had him? I'm prepared for this, remember. I told you days in that I thought I shouldn't be here at all.”
“Of course you should, the whole concept of hell is awful and I'm going to complain to the management. And I doubt they'll assign me Escalus. I don't know who they'll find for me instead, what will change. This whole situation seems unprecedented, but apparently he and Isabella matched, rather than he and I, so there must be someone else out there.” She shrugs helplessly. “I'm really not the important part in here. Are you … I mean, you aren't. But one has to ask. Are you okay?”
“I lived a life of idleness and debauchery and was frankly shocked not to be getting my just deserts before this, like I've said. I'm going to no doubt have a very manly and dashing panic attack in approximately ten minutes, but even when you're being nice to me you can't say this is a surprise.”
It isn't, and Rosaline feels horrible again just thinking it. She decides that something needs to be done instead. “Isabella and Escalus know more about the law than anyone else I know, and even if the laws aren't the same here, they'll be able to help. There will be some kind of way for you to stay, some kind of grandfather clause or loophole or something. Can I send for them?”
Benvolio sighs and waves a hand. “Do whatever you think you should, but don't mind me if I go to the bathroom while you have Helena summon them.”
Since Rosaline had been preparing to go out in search of them, she feels very silly for getting a solution from him when he's rightfully distraught. She covers it by waving him off right back. “Go, do what you need to do, and we're going to solve this.” He disappears, still shattered, and Rosaline takes a few deep breaths before calling Helena's name.
“We can't exactly sue heaven,” Isabella says gently. Escalus, beside her at the table, is quiet. “I don't know the rules, the precedents, anything. But of course we'll help if you'd like. Won't we?”
Escalus looks at Rosaline, has done little but watch her through the whole conversation while she made tea in Benvolio's kitchen and walked them past the blanket fort and the disaster of Benvolio's living room, where their clothes are both tossed around because it's practically a permanent campsite now. “You're sure this is what you want?”
“What kind of person would I be if I said no?”
“Capulet,” says Benvolio. “Bill said it's my choice, remember? I may belong in hell, but I can at least be enough of a gentleman to let you have your actual soulmate. Can't a man be in charge of his own eternal damnation?”
Now Isabella and Escalus are both looking between them, thoughtful and startled and reminding Rosaline strongly that they're siblings, even if things are always difficult with them. Rosaline does her best to ignore it. “Not if you're going to be stupid about it. We're friends, aren't we? I think this whole being-kept-in-our-own-neighborhood thing is bullshirt, and if it has to be true, then I'm certainly not going to lose any friends.”
“A year in and you'll resent me, don't pretend you won't.”
“I'd rather resent you than hate myself.”
“See, and I'd rather you fondly and sadly remember me as a friend who nobly sacrificed himself for you, it appeals to me, I read too many books about swashbuckling as a child.”
Isabella clears her throat. “There must be another option. Having everything be perfect is one thing, but once we're oriented, surely we can make our own choices? To swap partners, change homes, ask for different kinds of restaurants … it's only logical, or eternity would get rather dull.”
Rosaline hasn't actually seen much evidence of that, but she remembers Isabella's probable crush on Helena and refrains from saying so. Neither Escalus nor Benvolio looks very hopeful, though. “Bill didn't say we need to decide within the next few days. He just said that, well. It's me as his soulmate or he ends up in hell.”
“It's some kind of forking trap, Rosaline,” says Benvolio, and she's startled by the use of her first name. “If I stay, I'll know I'm making your life worse and then they win because I'm being tortured anyway. It's a nice little solution for them. But frankly I'd rather the whole thing with the cactus beds Helena mentioned than psychological torture.”
“Maybe we should go,” Isabella says, already halfway to standing. “We'll think about solutions, but it's clear you two have some things to talk about.”
“No, wait a minute,” says Rosaline, because her mind is racing. Now that Benvolio has said it, she can't stop thinking about houses so impossible to be in that they've had to camp out in a blanket fort, about everything being chosen for them, about all four of them having soulmates that they never would have chosen for themselves in a million years, about the isolation and the waved-off promises about getting to see her sister again someday and a hundred other things. “Holy shirt, we need to go see Bill right now.”
Benvolio looks hopeful when he should look the opposite. “You thought of something.”
“Yes. But nothing we'll like,” she says grimly, and slams out of the door before anyone can talk her out of it.
“What if I said fine, I'm sending him to hell for eternal torture? What would you say?” Escalus makes a bitten-off noise behind her, but she doesn't have time for that.
“I'd say that I would listen to your choice. Though I admit there would be much regret. Benvolio, I'm very fond of you, and wish there were some way that you could stay.”
“You'll find one, though,” says Rosaline. “Some last-minute way of keeping him around. You don't want any of us to leave.”
He keeps looking mild and curious, but she thinks she sees his eyebrows twitch a little. “And why would you believe a thing like that?”
“Because this is hell. It's some kind of long con, it's psychological torture, call it what you will, but I agree with Benvolio—I'd rather you just torture me, if you're going to do it.”
“I disagree—I told Capulet I was quite happy to be tortured, but please continue to mess with her head rather than chopping it off,” says Benvolio, misguided but stepping up to her side to support her. She has no idea if he believes her, since Isabella and Escalus both seem to be shocked and disbelieving, but he's not going to leave her on her own. “But I have to say she's just raised an interesting theory. Want to dispute it?”
Bill's smile changes, tilts from vague and pleasant to something wicked. It makes her like him better and trust him far less. “I have to say, you're smarter than I thought.”
“Why do all of this?” Isabella asks.
“Because I'd waited for too long to see a group suited so well to this new form of torture—you have been a model group.”
“So you found us all, dead, and knew that if you put us together, we'd just … make things unpleasant for each other?” asks Escalus, and he's looking at Rosaline again, so sad she wants to comfort him.
Her heart is sinking and she's so angry, at no one more than herself, for being so smug and not realizing that her constant unthinking hatred of any and all Montagues would of course not put her in heaven. “Of course he did. We were ripe for it, weren't we? Estranged siblings raised not to talk about what was pissing them off, people on opposite sides of a family feud who couldn't get along … all he would have had to do was put us in the same room, but it went farther.”
“You always were the clever one. Pity.” Bill stands up. “I know it doesn't help the four of you, but you're a grand experiment for me. Death itself must keep up with the times, and this solution's too good to resist. I guess I'll just restart it all once more. You've given me some very helpful tips. Now where's the reset button, do you think? Excuse me while I find it, would you please?”
With that, he walks right out of the office, leaving them there like he's not even worried that they might ruin his plans. And of course he's not. He's a powerful being and they only figured out what's going on five minutes ago. She doesn't like the sound of a reset button, but if she figured it out once, she can figure it out again. Next time, she'll tell the others but not Bill, they'll find a strategy, they'll do something. They have to be able to figure it out.
She can trust all three of them, she thinks, but it's Isabella she turns to first. “Call Helena, give her something to get us a start if you can. Write a note and stuff it in her pocket or something, I don't care, she's our best hope of doing this unless she was part of the con too.”
Isabella blinks her way out of shock, and Rosaline turns to Benvolio next. “You can make all the plans you want, but we don't know what he's capable of,” he says.
“I know. That doesn't mean we can't try. Look, before anything happens, you're somehow the best thing about this place, Montague. You gave me a place to stay, you let me figure out that I'm an asshole—whatever this is, I'm glad I'm doing it with you.” Benvolio blinks, and they're standing so close together that it feels natural to put her arms around him, hold on for a few seconds. Over his shoulder, Escalus and Isabella are frantically scribbling something on a piece of paper and Isabella is handing it to Helena, clasping her hand as she does and saying something in a low voice.
“I'm glad I'm doing this with you too,” says Benvolio into her hair, voice a little shaky.
“Ah, there it is,” says Bill's voice from the next room. “I left it on the—”
She doesn't seem to be hurt from the car accident, they wouldn't have her in a waiting room if Juliet had been badly hurt, so of course everything is going to be fine. Why wouldn't it be?