Flash Fiction: Matched (1096 words)

Jaera watched Norei turn the key and settle both hands on the iron bars of the door to yank it open. Even unbolted, the door was weighted to stay shut and she had to lean back to earn her first inch of motion. At the same time, as if pushed by the same wave, Jaera’s cell mates leaned back too, shoulders to the wall, though it looked lazier on them. They didn’t look at the door, and didn’t pause in what idle chatter echoed between the stone walls. Jaera herself stayed as she was, sitting in the corner. She thought Norei was coming for her, but she wasn’t sure what time of day prisoners were released.

The door creaked, and Norei stopped pulling when she could plant her feet in the open space. The door leaned back toward her, and she kept her foot at the base of the first bar to hold it steady.

“Jaera,” she called, without looking at anyone in particular. “Time to go.”

Jaera pushed herself to her feet, one hand against the wall and came out slowly. Everyone here seemed to move slowly. Jaera wasn’t sure why, didn’t care to ask, and simply mimicked the motions as she approached the guard. Norei met her eye when she was close, nodded once, and backed away to let her out.

The door clanged shut. The lock screeched back into place. Norei replaced the key on her belt.

For a moment, they looked at each other sideways in the hall, though Jaera didn’t know what they were waiting for. Then Norei shifted one foot, starting to turn away, as if she had spent enough time on this task already.

“You’re free to go,” she said, not unpleasantly.

Jaera nodded, and the guard turned to work her way farther down the hall. Jaera pointed herself toward the main door and left the prison in eight strides. In the sunlight, she took a breath. She had only been locked away for five days. She thought for a moment that the sunlight and the breeze might taste different now, but they didn’t, and the thought that they should faded away in an instant.

The silence was eerie. Tucking her arms over her chest, she glanced both ways down the street, deciding which way would take her to her house fastest.

Then she stopped. Terius stood across the street, waiting in a shadow. She shut her eyes and took a breath. Then she met his eye and they looked at each other.

The silence settled a little, and stretched out lazily beneath her feet.

Glancing behind her, then both ways down the street at the straight-backed buildings and slanting light, she stepped toward him. The shadows met her halfway, cool and easy. Terius watched her come and barely moved, though his eyes traced her stride as if he could read something important in them.

“Hello,” Jaera said when she was close enough to greet him quietly.

“Hello,” Terius said. She smiled when he hesitated over the word. His hands were in his pockets, and he still hadn’t moved an inch toward her, except to lean his head down so that he met her eye. She almost laughed. His nervousness was absolutely unnecessary.

“Did you miss me?” she asked, and she knew it was a little mean, but she hoped her widening smile would prove to him she was only joking.

He broke into an awkward smile of his own and looked away. “Of course, I missed you,” he said. “I’m sorry, I–”

She shook her head. “You have nothing to apologize for.”

“My father sentenced you and I just stood there–”

“Stop,” Jaera said. She looked away for half a moment too, looked back up, shaking her head and still smiling. “It’s all right.”

He focused on her face, eyebrows drawn together. “You’re not angry…” he said, disbelief under every word even as he stated it as fact.

She shrugged. “I made a mistake. What’s there to be angry about?”

Terius blinked at her. He leaned his head forward, inviting her to run that past him again with a sideways glance.

Jaera let out a laugh and took in a breath. “I knew I wasn’t supposed to be in the Court of Lords. I knew what would happen if I got caught there. I still went, and it wasn’t even the first time. Someone didn’t like the look of me, called the city watch and… I ran from them. I shouldn’t have run from them. I probably could have talked my way out, but… I don’t know what I was thinking. I did it. And it’s done.” She spoke as carefully as she knew how, taking a breath every time she wanted one, keeping her voice low. “I knew,” she said and had to stop for another breath, but she pushed through it. “I knew that I don’t get second chances.”

“Jaera…” Terius murmured.

She forced a brighter smile. “No, it’s true. I don’t. From anywhere. Call it luck, or fate, or… I don’t care what. I don’t get away with things. You do. Zain does. Galen does.”

He touched her arm, so gently she almost didn’t feel it through the weight of her sleeve. She looked down at the cloth. It was smeared with dirt, and she couldn’t help feeling that he shouldn’t be touching it.

“I don’t,” she finished, quieter than before. “And that’s all right. I don’t know why I think I should. And it works out all right except for when I forget.”

“It’s not fair,” Terius murmured.

Jaera paused. “It’s not?”

“No,” Terius said. He moved a little closer, tightening his fingers around her arm.

Shaking the hair out of her eyes, Jaera looked up at him lightly. “Who am I supposed to tell?” she asked. “Because I’m pretty sure the person I would run to, just told me.”

Terius went still again. He looked at her, reading what she wasn’t saying in the lines of her, and failing to understand. She touched his elbow as gently as he had touched her arm.

“If he already knows, what good does it do to scream it at him?” she asked.

He blinked and looked down. “What can I do for you?” he whispered.

“I’m sort of hungry,” she said. Squeezing his arm, she let her hand fall back to her side and smiled until he could look her in the eye again. “Come eat with me?”

It took him a long moment to nod, but he did. Turning to set his shoulder beside hers, he matched his feet to hers as they moved up the street.

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