Samantha lounged over the café sofa as she dramatically sipped her latte. She grinned, examining her prey, watching him grow more impatient with each second. The art of creating tension was one Samantha’d practiced for years. There was no better way to control someone’s every action. But like any art, it required precision. Anything, from a misplaced word to the tiniest stammer could ruin everything. Sun Tzu once said one must be subtle to the point of formlessness, but fortunately Samantha was the goddess of subtlety.
Before her sat a man who had begun to grow irritated by the silence. Samantha had known Nico for years, a man defined by frustration and ambition. His leg began to silently quake, a sign. It was time to strike, and so at last she began to unwind her tale.
“It’s about Bonnie,” she started, and Sam watched as his eyes grew narrow.
Bonnibel Kim, there was a topic that always drew his attention.
“Elliott’s planning to propose.”
And she watched as he silently lost his mind.
Samantha smiled. This feeling. This familiar feeling was what she’d been after. Every big rumor or scandal she started brought her back to that first sensation. The exaggeration, the drama. The right words to the wrong ears can make all the difference. It is those words that allowed her to rise from unnoticeable sixth grader to tyrant of the social ladder by high school. From the passed over youngest child of a family trapped in poverty, to a monarch with as many handouts from her subjects as she pleased. After years of neglect, it was what she deserved.
Nico sat up, taking a sip of his espresso as he contemplated the situation displayed before him. Bonnie, Samantha, and him. Once upon a time they’d all been friends, the power triad at the top of the world. Nico, student council president. Bonnie, reigning basketball champ. And Samantha, the infamous Gossip Queen. Though it’d been years, Nico was wary. He knew better than to trust her.
“How do I know you’re not tricking me again?”
“It’s been six years since that happened. It’s in the past, ok? I’ve changed.”
Nico scoffed, and he stood up to leave.
A twinge of panic coursed through Samantha. At first all she’d wanted was some fun, a distraction from life. As she continued, it grew into something more. A desire to for once have control over her life, and then when the opportunity came, to free herself from hardship entirely. In her mind this was her chance to get it all back.
“Bonnie said something else.”
“She seemed… anxious the whole time we were talking. She said she was having her doubts about the whole arrangement. Who knows? You might have another chance.”
“...I’ll think about it.”
And with those words he walked out the door.
Samantha leaned back in her chair, letting out a sigh of relief. She’d given a sloppy performance, but it would work, she was sure of it. The dominoes had begun to fall, all she could do was see where they landed. She took one last sip, and walked out the door.
Nico barged into his office, slamming the door so abruptly Aarati nearly spilled her filter coffee. This was not unusual behavior for him, in fact Aarati had seen it plenty of times. But this seemed personal. Aarati had worked as Nico’s business partner for the past few years. In that time they’d become friends, stalwart allies during times of crisis. Yet she’d never seen him like this, so revealing of emotion. To a businessman such as Nico, whose only desire was to succeed, every small business deal or act of small talk was war. Those who know their enemy and know themselves need not fear the result of a hundred battles, and so Nico was adamant to know everything about everyone, and ensure they knew nothing about him.
Nico collapsed into his chair across from Aarati.
“Are you alright?”
Nico groaned, a million violent thoughts racing through his mind.
“Have I told you about my ex?”
“Well, her asshole boyfriend is going to propose.”
Nico slowly recounted the tale. The tale of a spineless newcomer arriving and usurping all that was his. His status as council president, then his girlfriend, “My Bonnie…”, his social standing, his entire future and now that Nico had finally put his life back together, he returned to rub it in his face.
Nico spoke with a subdued fury, a slow but violent cadence that terrified Aarati. Aarati regarded herself as a peacekeeper, a mediator of sorts. Nico, meanwhile, was a man defined by dispute. He had been raised from birth to succeed at all costs, to fight for what was his. In many ways this made Aarati a great ally, able to restrain the combative spirit within Nico in front of clients. But now that it was loose, she didn’t know quite what to do. At that moment Aarati noticed something.
“You said Bonnie, right? Bonnibel Kim?”
Nico suddenly froze. His eyes were full of a focused curiosity. Aarati knew Bonnie from college, she revealed. They had been good friends, and largely still were.
A thought sparked in Nico’s brain. Aarati was a persuasive woman. If he just steered her in the right direction, perhaps he could win after all. He sat down and took a deep breath.
“I’m just worried, is all. I’ve known Bonnie since sixth grade. She’s a nice girl, and even if things didn’t work out between us, I wish her success. She isn’t going to get that with… Elliott. He’s a cheater, a manipulator, a slob. I’ll spare the details, but let’s just say he didn’t become president on merit alone.”
“Wouldn’t be surprised if he’s cheating her too. From what I’ve heard she’s having doubts about him.”
A chill went down Aarati’s spine. Cheating, that struck a sensitive part of her soul. Nico looked down at his watch.
“You should go, it’s closing time. I’ll clean up here.”
“Oh, alright. Bye, Nico.”
As Aarati walked through the door, a million thoughts ran through her head. She didn’t know what to do.
Aarati sat at the dining table, picking at her peas. Her expression was clouded, unfocused. Asha had come to be able to identify her wife’s mood to a science. Yes, this was the face of worry.
Asha snapped, breaking Aarati from her trance.
“Ughh, I dunno…”
“Alright. I’ll give us a coffee break.”
Asha stood up from her seat and walked towards the coffee machine as Aarati sat in her chair, compiling her thoughts. It was a ritual the two had gone through dozens of times, a moment of break before serious conversations to ensure both were mentally prepared. Coffee simply helped them focus. For Aarati, sweet Indian filter coffee. For Asha, a bitter black.
“It’s about Bonnie. Elliott is going to propose.”
“Took them long enough. Congrats, I suppose. What’s the problem?”
“Well, I was talking to Nico… He told me Elliott is cheating on her.”
Asha’s brows furrowed. Coffee in hand, she returned to the dining table.
“Doesn’t sound like him.”
“I know, but… Him and Nico went to high school together. Apparently Elliott did some nasty stuff. Cheating, lying, stealing… Nico was furious just thinking about it.”
“Bonnie’s smart, I trust she’ll make the right choice.”
“...Nico said Bonnie had been beginning to have her doubts too. I just don’t want this to turn out like my parents.”
Aarati grew up in a household ridden with fights between her parents, over things that at her age she couldn’t comprehend. But what she did understand was the fear, the stress caused by constant yelling and destruction. The other thing she realized was that the fighting stopped when she entered the room, whether to protect her innocence or their reputation in the eyes of their daughter was unclear. The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting, and from then on Aarati took that message to heart, a commitment that continued into school. Whenever anger erupted, Aarati would be there to calm down the situation, and, when she was old enough, to negotiate peace. And it worked, until the day Aarati and her mother discovered the truth.
Asha had heard the story only once but made sure to never forget it. It was the conflict that shaped her wife into who she was. A pacifist, intent on making friends with all. But it also made her particularly sensitive to ill news, making her jump to the worst conclusions.
“How sure are you Elliott is cheating?”
“I don’t know. But Nico seemed fairly certain, and we can’t pretend there isn’t a possibility! We don’t know him, not really.”
“...Alright. I know what I’m going to do.”
“I’m going to talk to Elliott.”
Elliott had been preparing to go to bed when he got the text. Asha Kumar-Raphael. Four words: “We need to talk.” He recognized that name, if only barely. One of Bonnie’s college friends. He’d met her once or twice, they’d exchanged numbers. What did she want though? Seconds later, another message. “Can you call?”
Asha was aware she was being blunt, but she wanted this over as soon as possible, ideally before her coffee ran out. There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare, the general had one said, and she believed in that doctrine fully. Asha had lived in Somalia during the outbreak of the civil war, before destruction forced her family to move West. From there she watched as her old home continued to be ravaged by conflict for the ensuing decade. She just wanted it to end. She came to view all conflict through that lens, and so often to achieve that hasty conclusion, she would take up the charge to clean up the mess, no matter how blunt she had to be. Thankfully, she got a response quickly.
Elliott clicked the call button not knowing what to expect. Part of him wanted to go to sleep but he didn’t want to be rude, not to Bonnie’s friend. Plus he had instant coffee coursing through his veins, more in the cup beside him, and he certainly couldn’t take that back. He didn’t have plans tomorrow anyway, and so the call began.
“Hey! Good eveni–”
“Sorry, I know it’s late but I have a question I need to ask you.”
“Oh. Sure, what’s up?”
“Are you cheating on Bonnie?”
Elliott sprung out of his chair. Elliott was generally a relaxed person. He preferred to remain in wait, only moving when needed. But this made something snap within him.
"Absolutely not! Are you kidding me? You call me this late at night, and that's your question? Who the hell gave you that idea?"
“Of course. So Perez told you I was cheating on Bonnie?”
“He told my wife, but yes.”
Asha contemplated the situation. Elliott seemed genuine, but she couldn't leave it there. It wasn’t over, not yet. She didn’t have the full picture.
“If I may ask, what is the history between you three?”
“Will it convince you I'm not a cheater?”
It’d been years since Elliott had thought about the incident. Passing thoughts of that incident came frequently, but he hadn’t paid them mind until now. At the center were four people. Samantha, Nico, him, and of course Bonnie. Elliott was a newcomer, a transfer student from Germany. He was alone, unfamiliar with the society he now found itself in. But from day one, three people stood out to him. Samantha Anderson, popular and quick-witted. Nico Perez, ambitious and outspoken. Then there was her. Bonnibel had been assigned as his school guide while he adjusted. As a result, the two became friends, good friends but nothing more. Someone had taken notice of the relationship, and began to grow jealous. Nico and Bonnie had been dating at the time, the reigning power couple of the school sitting at the top of the school. Elliott’s inclusion threatened the balance.
Elliott hadn’t wanted to move to the states. He was one who waited for the opportunity to strike as opposed to seeking it out. But regardless he was there now, and was intent to make the most of it. Making use of Bonnie’s connections, Elliott quickly found his footing, and a community began to build around him. When the time came, he utilized his popularity to run for student president. From that position he did little but relax and let the school exist in peace, much to the annoyance of newly-dethroned Vice President Perez. Then something happened. Elliott never knew the full story, but he knew the broad strokes. Samantha started a rumor that Bonnie was cheating with Elliott, and Nico went berserk, confronting Bonnie in a violent outrage. While the rumors were unfounded, the reaction was enough for Bonnie to see Nico’s true colors, and left. Afterwards Nico was sure to drag Samantha down with him as a liar. Eventually Elliott and Bonnie would become a couple, and so life moved on without conflict, until now.
Asha was satisfied with Elliott’s answer.
“Alright, thank you for your time. Good ni–”
“Wait. You ask me a question, I ask you one, ok? What prompted Nico to say this? Who told him?”
“...I can’t say for sure, but from what I know he is the type to hold a grudge. Perhaps he wanted to drive a wedge between you, create a fight like the old rumor had. Maybe he’s planning on taking her back.”
A third snap. After his last conversation with Bonnie, he couldn’t afford any more risks. The quality of decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon, and Elliott’s life was nothing if not waiting for the right time to strike. Now was his final chance.
“Ok, thank you Asha. I’ll see you later.”
Elliott was already sprinting out the door by the time Asha’d hung up. He knew what he needed to do.
Bonnie waited patiently at the café, twitching. Maybe it was the strength of the Ristretto she had just downed to keep her awake this early in the morning, maybe it was the worry her plan would backfire. As she went through the words in her head, a looming shadow took a seat beside her.
“Hey Bonnie! Long time no see!”
“Hey Sam! How’ve you been?”
As Sam ordered her coffee, the pair caught up on the separate lives they had lived for the past many years. College, jobs, family, everything. Something to build trust with Samantha before she enacted her plot. They’d both changed greatly since the incident that tore them apart, Bonnie only hoped that Sam hadn’t changed too much. Know thyself, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories. She ensured to study and analyze her opponents before any game. It was all up to if her knowledge of Sam held true.
Bonnie was an athlete. Her mother had instilled in her the values of exercise and a love of the outdoors. It was from their countless hikes and camping trips that Bonnie discovered her love for sport, and once in high school, decided to pursue her dream of becoming a professional basketball player. Her father, meanwhile, preached the adrenaline of competition, and the necessity of strategy. It is from him that Bonnie discovered her mentor, and the Art of War.
Sun Tzu’s practices had been well ingrained into Bonnie’s head from years of both reading and execution on the court during her matches through highschool, college, and now the professional world. This was the ultimate test of her training.
Sam let out a comfortable sigh.
“It’s been really nice catching up with you Bonnie.”
“It really has.”
“So… you said you had something you wanted to tell me? What is it?”
Bonnie’s expression shifted, clouded with doubt and anxiety. Part genuine, part rehearsed.
“You have a lot of relationship experience, right? I just needed your advice on something.”
Samantha leaned in, her curiosity piqued.
“I’ve been having doubts about Elliott, honestly.”
“We’ve been dating for years now, and last week I talked to him about getting married, settling down. But he’s been reluctant, something about not wanting to be tied down. And, I don’t know. I love him, but if we have different needs then it might be better if we...”
Samantha grinned, cogs turning in her head. Bonnie had seen that expression enough times to know what she was doing. She finished her coffee, and stood up.
“I have to go now, got an errand to do. See you around, Sam!”
Samantha pulled out her phone. She knew exactly who to call.
Bonnie sat on her couch, watching TV. She wondered if she’d made the right choice talking to Sam. But regardless all she could do now was wait. The dominoes had begun to fall. Who knows how long it would take.
Then suddenly, the doorbell rang.
Elliott had never run so fast in his life. He wondered how Bonnie could even fathom doing that for a living. He barely had a moment to catch his breath before the door swung open, revealing his confused girlfriend. After wheezing for a solid minute, he managed four words:
“We need to talk.”
“Remember the conversation we had last week? I’ve decided. I’m ready.”
“Let’s just say something happened. You’re important to me, Bonnie. I can’t lose you. We’ll take it slow, but I’m ready.”
Collapsing onto one knee, Elliott looked up, a sweaty but evercharming grin on his face.
“Will you marry me?”
Bonnie’s mind raced. She hadn’t expected it to move so fast. Yet here she was. Endorphins and adrenaline surged through her body as her great plot finally came to a rest. She’d never felt so alive.