Aubin by Annabelle Rex

1

“He did what?” Mia said.

Sophie knew she could count on Mia for outrage. The sight of her friend’s perfectly groomed eyebrows dipping into a deep frown took the edge off some of Sophie’s churning emotions.

“Let me get this straight,” Mia said, “he went and got the Match test behind your back?”

“No, he told me he wanted to do it, I told him not to, then he did it anyway.”

The eyebrows went a little deeper. “He told you he wanted to do it? What the fuck, Ant?”

“Mia,” Divya said, putting a placating hand on Mia’s arm, “let’s give Sophie a chance to explain the situation fully before we jump to angry conclusions.”

Mia glowered in Divya’s direction, but nodded her head. Mia and Divya used to fight and fall out all the time when the three of them were kids, but age and experience had taught Mia when it was right to lean in to Divya’s calm, analytical nature, and taught Divya when it was right to let Mia’s wrath have full rein. And Sophie, always the bridge between the two of them, loved them both all the more for it.

“So,” Divya said, sitting up straighter, twining her fingers together as she fixed her attention on Sophie. “What’s the full story?”

The urge to defend Anthony rose, the words bubbling out of Sophie in a rush. “It’s not as bad as it sounds. He doesn’t want to be Matched to someone else. He wants to be Matched to me. He thinks if I take the test, we’ll be Matched.”

Mia’s eyebrows didn’t budge. “He wants to be Matched to you? He’s already with you. You’re practically married, is that not enough for him?”

Sophie could feel the colour creeping in to her face. Mia wasn’t saying anything she hadn’t yelled at Anthony the night before, but somehow hearing her own words made it sound so much worse.

“It’s a very new world, Mi, we’re all learning to navigate it,” Divya said.

“Of course we’re good enough for each other. We wouldn’t have lasted this long if we weren’t,” Sophie said, even as she cringed internally to be parroting Anthony’s arguments. “But ‘good enough’ isn’t the benchmark any more. Perfect is.”

When the Intergalactic Community - the aliens - came to Earth three years ago, they brought their Match test with them. A test that supposedly could find you your perfect partner based on your DNA. Of course, most Humans thought it was nonsense - too good to be true. But a few people took the chance. Matches were made, and the couples were ridiculously happy. Then lead ambassador for the Intergalactic Community, Prince Cael, had Matched to an English girl, a Londoner. After that, uptake of the Match test sky rocketed and suddenly everyone was pairing off with alien partners.

Which was all well and good if you were young or single. But where did it leave you if you were in a long term relationship? Did you just give up on that person? Cut your losses and take the test? Or did you try to make a go of things, always wondering in the back of your mind whether or not there was someone better out there for you.

“The way I see it,” Sophie said, stabbing at the slice of chocolate cake on the plate in front of her, “nothing’s really changed. Before the Match test, we still would have those thoughts about whether or not there was someone better out there for us. And maybe there was, maybe ‘settling’ for ‘comfortable’ was always a bad thing. But it’s what people have always done. Weighed up the risk of leaving versus the possible gains. Weighed up the limitations of staying versus the pain of losing your partner.”

“True,” Divya said, scowling at Mia as she reached across, spearing a chunk of Sophie’s cake with her fork.

“I can’t bear to see good chocolate cake wasted,” Mia said, her own plate of red velvet cake long since licked clean.

Divya just rolled her eyes, then continued. “But if you’re thinking about it that way - in terms of odds and statistical probability of happiness… the Match test does rather weigh in favour of taking it.”

Sophie looked down at her plate, then pushed it towards Mia. She didn’t have any appetite anyway.

“I know,” Sophie said. “I know it does. But Anthony isn’t talking about being unhappy with me or looking for the possibility of Matching to some alien girl from across the Universe. He wants to Match to me.”

“Mm,” Mia said, around a mouthful of cake. “That’s what makes it fucked up in my head. If he wants to be with you, why risk taking the test?”

“Exactly,” Sophie said, “that’s exactly what I said.”

“Anthony must have had his reasons,” Divya said, but Sophie thought there was a hint of aggression in the way she took a bite of her salad. Angry chewing was about as far as Divya let her temper loose.

Sophie sighed, pushing her fine blonde hair back from her face. Mia just watched her, paused between bites of cake, waiting for her to spit it out.

“Well?” she prompted after a moment.

“It’s bad for our brand,” Sophie said.

God, it was embarrassing when said out loud like that.

“Your brand?” Mia said, eyebrows arching now. “Fuck that noise, you’re a couple first. The ‘brand’ is secondary. That shit doesn’t matter as much as the two of you, does it?”

Sophie thought not, but it wasn’t as simple and clear cut as Mia made it sound.

When Sophie met Anthony at a vlogging conference six years ago, she’d been small time. A travel vlogger with a niche following who loved and supported her. She made enough from adverts and endorsements to pay her way round the world, and that had been everything she wanted. Living that life had been a dream come true - she woke up every morning in amazing places, pinching herself that this could be her ‘job’, while friends were settling in to the corporate rat race, or getting jobs as teachers and nurses and talking about how stressed they were all the time. She might not have owned her own house or even a car, but as long as she had her phone, a change of clothes and enough money for her next plane ticket, Sophie had been happy.

Anthony changed all that. Meeting him had been like being swept up by a hurricane.

His channel hadn’t quite exploded at that point, but it was obvious to everyone in the room that it was only a matter of time, that he was on the cusp of greatness and that by next year’s conference he would be a panelist, not one of the crowd. The list of companies he had been sponsored by had some pretty big players on it, and his stats were on the exponential up. He was the man of the moment, and everyone there wanted to try to get close to him, to see if they could ride on his coattails just a little further up.

Sophie hadn’t been interested. She didn’t much want to grow. Back then, dreaming of more than what she had already achieved felt like tempting fate - as if daring to ask for more would make the internet gods take everything away. Anthony just laughed when she said this.

“There’s only one person in charge of your success, Sophie,” he said. “And that’s you. If you want more, you go for it. The world is out there for the taking. You just have to be brave enough to try.”

He offered to meet her for dinner, go over her numbers and give her some pointers, and she’d agreed - because he was kind to offer, but also because he was handsome and her stomach did little backflips when he leaned in close, eyes glimmering with enthusiasm.

Over dinner, he confessed he mostly just wanted to get her alone. They didn’t even glance at any statistics. Business plans didn’t nudge their way into the conversation once. Instead, they’d talked about travel and food and music and dreams and Sophie had never smiled so much on a date.

Not wanting the evening to end, Sophie suggested a walk. Anthony took her round the hotel grounds, showing her some of the gardens, before bringing her back to the front of the hotel. She remembered it so vividly - a large fountain, all lit up. Every half hour or so, the water jets would start moving, like a little dance, music playing from somewhere. Somehow, Sophie had managed to never be near it when the routine started, but Anthony timed the walk perfectly so that the moment they stepped up to the fountain it started. She laughed with delight, and he bent down and kissed her.

At first, Sophie worried that she was an unequal partner. Anthony was so much bigger than her in the vlogger community - and therefore more wealthy, more respected, more famous. But it turned out that she brought more to the table than she imagined. Anthony’s followers loved him, but they loved him and Sophie more. The tipping point that catapulted Anthony’s channel from ‘burgeoning’ to ‘gargantuan’ proved to be their relationship. Everyone wanted a piece of them, and those early days of learning each other, falling in love with each other, were so intrinsically tied up with skyrocketing followers, brand endorsements and business growth that it could be hard to separate out sometimes.

“Our followers…” Sophie started.

Mia jabbed at the air with her fork so violently that Sophie shut up.

“Relationships are between two people,” Mia said. “The ‘followers’ need to butt the fuck out.”

“Mi, these people paid for our house. Because of them, we have the lifestyle that we have. Every business class plane ticket I’ve ever bought is because people out there are invested in me and Anthony and what we do. The car we drive, the food we eat, the clothes on my back - all because of them.”

“Every business owner ever could say the same thing,” Mia said. “Look at that guy Divya works for. He didn’t even have enough cash to buy his next meal when he launched his first website and now he’s one of the richest people in the country because of his followers. But they didn’t have a say in what happened between him and his Mrs.”

“It’s apples and oranges, Mi,” Divya said, a hint of a blush creeping in to her cheeks the way it always did whenever her boss was mentioned. “Faizal Ahmad sells a fitness program. His ex-wife had nothing to do with it. Anthony and Sophie sell a lifestyle. Being a couple is part of that lifestyle.”

“Being the perfect couple is part of that lifestyle,” Sophie said. “If I don’t take the test, that’s like saying I don’t think Anthony is perfect. It makes everything we do a lie.”

And now she was parroting Anthony’s arguments word for word. Last night, she’d been furious at him. Today, she hated how logical and rational it all sounded.

“So you don’t take the test and you lose all your followers, everything you’ve built,” Mia said.

“Probably,” Sophie said. “Maybe not straight away, but people will lose faith. Then they’ll lose interest.”

“But if you do take the test, you could lose it all immediately if you’re Matched with someone who isn’t Ant.” Mia frowned. “Do you think that’s likely to happen?”

“I think the chances of physically finding the one person in the Universe who happens to be perfect for you are infinitesimal,” Sophie said. “Statistically, we won’t be Matched with each other.”

Divya nodded at this, sympathy shining in her dark brown eyes.

“But Ant didn’t have a Match?” Mia said.

“No.”

Which made it so much worse. Because if Sophie now Matched to someone other than Ant, it would look like she was the one betraying him. He would be left with no one, and she’d have someone else. Never mind that he’d put her in this position by taking the test in the first place. Never mind that her Matching to someone other than him meant he was supposed to Match to someone other than her… Sophie just knew it wouldn’t be seen that way.

“I suppose that’s just filled him with conviction that he made the right choice?” Mia said.

Sophie nodded, then waited for Mia’s anger. She hoped it would be cathartic.

But Mia just frowned a little deeper, then sighed. “Damn. No wonder you can’t even eat your chocolate cake.”

The tears bubbled up. Sophie swiped at them, angry with herself.

“What am I supposed to do? If I don’t take the test, I look bad because I don’t trust that it will Match me to him. If I take the test and I don’t Match to him, I’m the bad guy for leaving him. Either way, I lose Anthony and everything we’ve built together.”

Divya reached across the table, grabbing her hand and squeezing it while she blubbed, ugly tears running down her cheeks, tickling across her jaw before dripping to the table below. Sophie was grateful for the relative privacy the booth they were in afforded them. The last thing she needed was someone taking a picture of her distress and sharing it with the world.

After a moment, Mia reached into her handbag, pulling out a tissue. This was the reason Mia was the go-to friend in their little circle for emotional needs. Not only could you count on her to be outraged at all the right moments, she always had tissues and a spare pair of sunglasses on hand to mask any signs of emotional distress.

“Listen, Soph,” Divya said, still holding Sophie’s hand, still stroking a reassuring thumb across her knuckles. “You probably aren’t going to like this, but… if Ant was the perfect guy for you, then would he have put you in this position? Or would he have put the two of you first before the business, before the ‘followers’?”

“He doesn’t…”

“I know, I know, he probably has some romantic, starry-eyed idea that you’re going to Match each other and all will be sunshine and rainbows, because Ant is that sort of guy. And I like him for that, I do, but not when it’s hurting you. If he can’t see past his own optimism to reality, and that’s causing you this much unhappiness… Do you even want to be Matched to him?”

“I love him,” Sophie said. “I don’t want to lose him.”

“We know,” Mia said. “We know that. And believe me, I’m beyond furious with him for taking the risk of throwing everything you have away.”

“What do I do, Mi?”

“I don’t know, Soph. Punch him? That’s what I want to do.”

But punching Ant, though probably deeply satisfying in the moment, would not solve anything. As one, Mia and Sophie turned to Divya.

“Okay,” Divya said, massaging her temples. Sophie recognised the gesture - Divya made it whenever presented with a difficult problem to solve. “Logically speaking, you have to take the test.”

“I do?”

“Yes, and forget about the followers and the business. You have to do it for you, for two reasons. One, he’s taken it now, so if you don’t take it, you’ll forever be waiting for someone else to Match with him, and for him to walk out. It will drive you insane within the space of a year. Two, even if that doesn’t happen, if you don’t take it, he’s going to think that you don’t trust enough in your relationship and that will drive him mad. Either way, you lose him. Statistically, there’s a chance if you take the test you will Match to him. Don’t take it, you definitely lose him. Take it, you might not.”

“Can I Match to your cool, logical brain?” Mia said.

Divya gave an imperious toss of her head, her long black hair flicking dramatically. “We’d burn too hot, darling. The Universe isn’t ready for us.”

Mia snorted. “You mean you couldn’t tolerate me messing up your nice tidy house?”

“And you wouldn’t be able to tolerate me colour coding our fridge. We’d definitely kill each other.”

Sophie smiled, amusement at her friends’ antics enough to beat back the hurt for a moment.

“So you both agree, I should just get this over with, take the test?”

“Well, I’d say go home, screw his brains out one last time first…”

Divya cut Mia short with a hand over her mouth.

“We know you, Sophie, you won’t be able to rest easy as long as you haven’t taken it. I’m so sorry Ant put you in this position, but I think you’ve only got one realistic choice you can make.”

Which was how Sophie ended up sitting inside a Match clinic with Anthony that evening.

“This is going to be so good for us, Soph,” he said, speaking the words into the crook of her neck. Normally Sophie loved it when he whispered things against her skin. It felt so intimate, his words meant only for her. When you lived your life on camera, that kind of thing became so important. But right now, his touch just made her anxious. What if this was the last time he whispered to her that way? What if in five minutes they’d be going their separate ways, left only with the mess of trying to detangle their lives from each other.

Sophie considered running straight out of the clinic, but Divya’s calm analysis came to her mind.

Don’t take it, you definitely lose him. Take it, you might not.

A lot was hinging on that ‘might’ right now, the microscopic probability that she and Ant were perfect Matches.

If the nurse administering the Match test recognised them, she was at least professional enough not to say so. Sophie was grateful for that, at least. Sophie opened her mouth for a cheek swab, then sat for the five minutes it took to process trying not to look like someone waiting on some sort of horrible medical diagnosis. Anthony looked relaxed, confident beside her. If Sophie hadn’t been so busy trying not to panic, it might have infuriated her.

Finally, there was a sound from one of the machines, almost like a microwave ping. The nurse went over to it, collecting a bunch of papers as they printed out. When she turned back to Sophie and Ant, she was all smiles.

“You have a Match,” the nurse said.

Sophie felt Anthony tensing in anticipation. Her own heart felt like it had stopped beating altogether.

“His name,” the nurse said, “is Aubin.”