Girls spend their entire lives looking forward to the fateful Matching Day - and whether or not they will admit it, boys, too, have at least a healthy curiosity. It's so reassuring, knowing that in your eighteenth year, you and your age-mates will be paired off, brought together with another from their own community or a surrounding one that match them perfectly. No song-and-dance dating rituals, like the ones in the books Lenei liked to read, no old maids, no riotous bachelors; just simple, comforting compatibility.
"Have you heard?" The hushed, conspiratorial tones issued from the pink-lacquered lips of Lenei's best friend, Miska.
"What?" Lenei's low-pitched voice always made her sound disinterested, but she paid close attention to Miska when her friend sounded this urgent.
"There was a big accident over in Micrague. One guy died!"
"Oh, that's terrible," Lenei murmured, letting her eyelashes drop and rise again to half-mast in a brief show of empathy. It was all she had time for, as Miska leaned suddenly, ever more urgently forward, gripping Lenei's arm in both hands.
"That's not the worst thing," she rolled on. "The guy who was killed? He just turned eighteen. That makes the numbers for tomorrow's Matching uneven!"
Two full breaths, painful to the impatient Miska, passed before Lenei spoke in response. "So, what, someone won't be paired? A girl will be left without her match?"
"Whoever matched with him will have no pair on Matching Day," Miska proclaimed ominously. Her eyes were wide and glittering with morbid excitement.
"What do they do about that?" It was unheard of, as far as Lenei knew; there were always even numbers, always a perfect match for everyone.
Miska gave an exaggerated shrug. "Maybe she'll never be matched."
Lenei was surprised into laughter. "They can't leave her without a match forever," she said with certainty. "Maybe they'll search out another community for someone that fits even better than that poor boy who died."
Her reassuring confidence sent Miska, humming, away to terrify someone else with proclamations of an eternity alone for some poor girl. The thought nagged at Lenei for the rest of the afternoon, though. What if he was matched with me?
"Verin Massada," the stern voice called from the central platform, and a stick-thin brunette drifted toward the three steps that lifted her above the circle of impatient teenagers.
"Philip Pressia." The broad-shouldered redhead that stepped up to take Verin's hand smirked and bowed at the polite smattering of applause that ushered the happy new couple off the stage. Lenei smiled approvingly; Verin needed a little more humor in her life.
Lenei watched each girl she'd grown up with walk back into the circle, shyly clutching the hand of her new mate, and twisted her skirt nervously in her fingers. It seemed forever before the 'R's were called, and the wad of boys brought in from all the different communities steadily shrank. She met the clear grey eyes of one of the remaining boys as Clanley Ritchell was met by a generic-looking, dark-haired boy, and she thought fleetingly, I hope I'm matched with him. He seemed to be thinking the same thing; his face fell a little when he was called up to greet a willowy blond on the dais.
"Danica Soress," the voice demanded, and Lenei stood a little straighter with a sharp intake of breath. Had she been skipped?
All the vague, incoherent fears that had accompanied Miska's morbid pronouncement coursed through Lenei, charged with shame as some girls recognized the omission and turned to look at her with expressions of varying pity. Lenei felt on the edge of tears.
She saw the blond - that wretched Salvia - pull the grey-eyed boy down to whisper cruelly in his ear and point in Lenei's direction, and she contemplated melting into the dirt.
With the blood roaring loudly in her ears, she heard no other names called, and stared fixedly at a nondescript blade of grass in front of her to avoid the glances that were flickering toward her. How can this be? she thought frantically. How can I not have a match?
"Lenei, what's going on?" Miska's face held ghoulish curiosity with only an edge of concern for her friend, and Lenei couldn't deal with her. She turned without a word and marched to the fountain a good distance away from the platform. People were breaking off now, finding secluded spots to get to know this person with whom they'd be partnered forever. Lenei, wrapping her arms tightly around her gut, had never felt so alone.
How could she have lost a lifetime of companionship without ever tasting it? It was too, too cruel. What right did that boy have to take away everything in one fell swoop? How could he die? She wanted to shake her fist at the heavens, demand an explanation, but she just trailed her fingers through the rippling water in the fountain basin, swallowing hard against the wave of emotions that threatened to show itself grotesquely in her features.
"His name was Bracken, if that helps," said a voice behind her, and she jumped, throwing water onto her dress. She turned to see that grey-eyed boy approaching, and she prepared herself for the humiliation she was sure to experience at his hands; he had, after all, been matched like everyone else, and she was alone - possibly forever.
He did not mock her, though; his eyes held the soft, cautious understanding of someone who pitied another, but was not sure whether that person desired sympathy or not. When she said nothing, he shrugged self-consciously. "Sorry, I realize you might not have wanted to know. I just...he was my best friend. I thought if you did want to know about him...I'd at least let you know who you could ask."
A flood of gratitude made it temporarily impossible for her to speak, and then she forced a smile. "I think I'd like to know," she said hesitantly. She wasn't sure; would it be better to know nothing about what she'd never have, or to at least have pleasant thoughts about what could've been? "Can I ask you something now?"
"Would I have liked him?"
The boy nodded. "I think so. He was quiet at first...it took a while to get to know him. But once you did, there was no one you trusted more." He added, with the hesitation of an afterthought but the seriousness of something he'd intended to say all along, "Seeing you here, there's no doubt that he would have liked you."
He gave Lenei one last smile and lay his hand over hers for a moment, ignoring the water droplets that sat on it like dew. For a warm second, she felt a rush of what it might have been like to have someone get to know her intimately over a lifetime, to love and understand her and for her to love back, and then the grey-eyed boy was walking with wide strides back to Salvia, and nothing but a hollow sadness remained beneath her breastbone.
Lenei hated them. All of them.
The girls with their softly rolling curls, teased and coached for hours in order to look casually delicate when the boys, their shirts tucked in and their shoes shined, arrived at their doorsteps carrying one or two or twenty flowers in one hand and a shining invitation in the other. They walked with springing steps the short distance to the gathering hall in the center of town, hand in hand or arm in arm, and Lenei wanted to throw rocks at the whole lot of them.
She had been invited, sort of, to join in on the festivities. The community officials, not sure what to do with the first single person over eighteen in a century, had hesitantly allowed for her participation in all the new couples' activities; so far, she had partaken in none of them.
Desperately, she wanted to be a part of the revelry, but she could not force herself to walk into the rooms full of happy girls and their happy boys, and have nothing herself. Her mother, unable to comfort her, had begged her to go to the dance. It was the last night before all the boys would be returning to their own communities, taking their matches with them. It was the last night she would seek Miska, who had paired with a boy from Onek.
And she'd tried: she'd gotten dressed, piled her hair up on top of her head and pulled her elbow-length gloves on, but nothing could motivate her to step outside her house as streams of giggling lovebirds trickled by on the way to the hall.
"Go, Lenei," her mother said, coming up behind her with a basket of laundry on her hip. "You should at least go long enough to say goodbye to Miska."
"I can't, Mama. Think of how they'll look at me!"
Her mother bent Lenei's head down to kiss her on the forehead. "It's not your fault, Neinei, and they know that. They feel bad for you. They all want to see you. The world didn't end when that poor boy died."
"Bracken," Lenei said defiantly. Her mother had refused to say his name, insisting that it was better for Lenei to know nothing about what she had lost.
Patting her daughter's shoulder, she adjusted her basket and turned to leave. "Go."
Lenei had retreated around the side of the gathering hall, standing just outside the golden pool of light that poured like honey from the windows. Sobs caught in her throat and were choked down, unvoiced, as she watched Miska and Verin and Danica and dozens of others receive chaste pecks from shy boys as they spun by in their brightly-colored dresses, waving fluted, bubbling glasses and laughing with abandon.
And there, the grey-eyed boy, Bracken's best friend, was seated quietly with his hands folded in his lap, listening politely to an enthusiastic rendition of some trivial event or another by Salvia; it was always easy to tell when she was excited about something, as her arms pinwheeled and hands fluttered with no thought to how the gestures went along with the story.
He glanced up, and his eyes met, for a moment, Lenei's. He looked surprised to see her there, and then a bit sad, and then his gaze drifted back to Salvia, who had grabbed his knee in her earnestness.
This infinitesimal rejection, the refusal to even meet her eyes for more than a moment, pushed Lenei over the edge. Tears, burning like acid, washed over her face, and she stumbled away from the window, crying with pitiful lack of restraint.
She staggered into the sparse forest, the trees providing scattered shelter from curious eyes, if any should choose to drift away from the golden party, and the darkness of the night fit her mood, a strangely soothing thought.
"Are you alright?" For the second time, the grey-eyed boy's voice jolted her out of her own misery. She would not face him; not now, when her eyes were puffy and irritated, her nose red and her face streaked with dirty tear tracks. He would see her and compare her to Salvia, and she would fall short; she could not handle right now seeing him weigh her that way and find her lacking.
His hand on her back was another surprise, and then both his hands weighing down on her shoulders as he stepped closer behind her. "Hey," he said gently. "Everything will turn out fine. Maybe...maybe you'll find someone better than Bracken could have been for you."
She forgot her resolution not to face him then, turning toward him with her eyes narrowed to angry slits. "How could I, when everyone is paired already? Besides, I had my chance - he just managed to get himself killed before I could even meet him!" The words came out much harsher than she intended, and the young man in front of her actually took a step back from her ferocity, hunching like she'd landed a blow to his gut. "I'm sorry," she said immediately, automatically. "I shouldn't have said that. He was your friend..."
"It's alright," he said, giving her a ghost of a smile and waving his hand with a nonchalance that didn't show in his eyes. He had that gentle look of quiet appreciation of life that came to some people who lost loved ones, but knew that lost friend would be offended if they did not continue to smile. "I know it's probably really hard on you, seeing everyone so...happy." He trailed off, not looking happy in the least.
"Speaking of happy people, shouldn't you be in there with Salvia?"
His face took on the contemplative expression of someone deciding how to phrase something delicately. "Salvia...she's not quite what I expected to find, on my Matching Day. She's..."
"Lively?" Lenei suggested. "Brazen? Exuberant?"
"--obnoxious," the grey-eyed boy said decisively. "I don't like her at all."
Lenei smirked. "Well, you have to like her. She's your match. You love her."
He shook his head. "No," he said quietly. "I don't."
"But she's your perfect match," Lenei insisted.
"But what if she's not?"
Lenei heard her heart beat twice before she asked, "What?"
"What if Salvia is not the perfect girl for me? What if the girl that I would love more than anyone else in the world couldn't be matched with me because...there was someone else our age who she would like a little bit better?"
"That doesn't even make sense," Lenei said, shaking her head. "The matches have always been perfect: even numbers, complete compatibility--"
"--but this time they messed up, right? I mean, you should know. You're the person who's affected more than anyone else."
"Well, yes, but--"
"So why isn't it possible that they aren't right on everything else? What if they didn't match this girl with me because she would love this other guy more?"
"Well, so, maybe they did. But if you would love her so much, surely you would want to see her happy, with the man she was meant to be with...right?"
"Yes," he said, very seriously. "I would want to see her happy."
"Then you should leave her in peace with the person she was matched with, and focus on learning to love the girl you were paired with."
The interminable silence stretched between them as the grey-eyed boy stared down at the leafy ground and Lenei watched the way his hair blew across his forehead in the breeze. At last he said, "What if she wasn't matched with anyone?"
Lenei's heart sped up, beating double time as she realized what he'd been saying all along, what she'd been too dim to put together until he'd spelled it out. "But you are matched," she said numbly. "Salvia has you."
He leaned dangerously far forward, his lips brushing her ear as he whispered into it, "I don't want Salvia."
Lenei shrank back, confused. These were dangerous words he uttered, dangerous thoughts. People were matched with the people they were meant to be with. How could there be any other way? They couldn't be wrong; there'd been no divorce, no infidelity, no broken hearts in the decades people had been paired this way. Surely it was the right way. It had to be.
"I don't even know your name," Lenei said resolutely, as though that settled the matter and proved him wrong. She pushed against his chest to force him back, feeling the blazing heat of his heart under her palm.
"It's Mason," he said quietly, and his words had the sound of discussion-ending power to them too. Lenei was conscious of the fact that she had not moved her hand from his chest; her fingers curled slightly, enjoying the silky feeling of his shirt over his skin, and the warmth that radiated from his flesh.
"Go back to Salvia, Mason," she whispered. She realized she was shaking from head to toe, and not from cold. Here was everything she had ever wanted, everything she had imagined when she thought of her Matching Day, but he was not hers. "Please, go back to the party."
With a sigh, Mason touched her cheek briefly, the lightest of butterfly wing contacts, and then he turned and vanished into the night, not toward the party, but deeper into the forest. Lenei stood for a long time without moving, her mind racing and her heart pounding like a runner's feet, and then she walked, slowly, directly away from Mason.
"You didn't come to the party last night," Miska said, breaking the silence that stood like frosted glass between her and Lenei.
"No." Lenei had gotten no sleep the night before; lying in bed, replaying continually the frightening moments with Mason, her heart had never slowed.
"Well, I just wanted to say goodbye..." Miska twisted her hands for a moment before wrapping Lenei up in a warm and desperate hug. "I'm sorry, Lenny. I'm going to miss you so much."
The tension between them melted, and Lenei returned the hug tightly, sighing. "It's hard to believe I'll never see any of you again - all the girls I've known all my life! Except for Maize and Crista...they're the only ones who matched with boys from here, right? And I don't really even know them."
"Well, you'll see Salvia too, for a little while."
Breathe in. Breathe out. "Why's that?"
"Oh, that fellow she paired with - Mason, isn't it? - his parents have some sort of huge wedding ceremony planned, and they've got a house mostly built for the two of them. They told him to stay here a while, get to know his partner's family for a bit, let her spend some more time with them, and then head back once the house and all the plans were done."
Wedding were an extravagance, a luxury that most people went without, especially if they didn't have the means to make it a massive event. The fact that Mason's family was going to such lengths meant they must be well off indeed.
"So Mason...and Salvia...will be around for a while?"
"Yeah, at least a month, I'd say."
A buzzing numbness in her extremities made it difficult for Lenei to respond. She had thought Mason would be gone today, that she'd never have to see him and Salvia together again. But they would be here for a month...
"Speak of the devil," Miska said cheerfully, skipping over to greet Salvia as she pranced up the path with Mason's hand gripped in her own vice-like claw. The dark circles under his eyes said that he, too, had had a night with little sleep.
"Good morning, Miska, Lenei," he said politely, giving each of them a little nod. His eyes lingered on Lenei, though, and she found herself blushing and rushing to hug Miska goodbye again and begging for many letters describing life in Onek in great detail.
But then Miska left, and Salvia, Mason and Lenei were left standing in an awkwardly isosceles triangle. "So..." Lenei said at length, rocking back and forth in her slippers. "How was the party last night?"
Salvia's face split into a smug smile, and her eyes flickered over Mason possessively. "It was great fun, of course. Although I preferred what happened afterward." Her voice held a torte of suggestive layers, and Lenei felt a little sick as she pictured Mason cornering a coy Salvia, taking out his frustration at Lenei's denial in an aggressive, passionate--
"For heaven's sake, Sal," Mason said, sounding irritated, "I wish you would stop talking like that. You know nothing happened after the dance. All I did was walk you home!"
Salvia flushed brilliant crimson, her smile sliding off as if greased. "Mason!" she hissed, but he rolled on, unperturbed.
"And what are you trying to prove to Lenei, anyway? It's not like you can have some sick competition going with her, like you do with Danica and that twit she paired."
Lenei thought, for a moment, that Salvia was going to slap him, but instead she stormed away, her face schooling itself into a grin again as she spotted Verin coming up the way with her redheaded match, who was carrying a good chunk of her possessions on his back.
"If she tells one more person what a great time she had 'after the party,' I swear..." Mason muttered, just loud enough for Lenei to hear. She suppressed a giggle; it wasn't that she wished ill on Salvia, really, but it was nice to see the girl taken down a peg or two...especially by Mason.
"Have you thought at all about what I said last night?" Mason asked quietly.