The Compact

By Laura Schiller

Based on the Matched Trilogy

Copyright: Ally Condie

Staring out the window at the city lights flashing by below him, Ky Markham wondered why they called it the "air train". It didn't fly. The tracks were built above the city, on high support struts advertising the brilliance of the Society's engineers, but the white, bullet-nosed electric trains themselves never left those tracks. A train that really flew might be interesting, he thought, smiling wryly at his own reflection. Too interesting, most likely. Anyway, people who needed to fly used airplanes.

He was so abstracted, and so tired from a draining day of work, that he didn't notice Em Romano sliding into the seat next to his until it was too late.

She was in Match Banquet attire, a light yellow dress with butterfly sleeves, her black hair out of its ponytail and flowing in glossy waves over her shoulders. She buzzed with energy, like a Farmland bee among her flowers, and smiled when he nodded to her in greeting. He wondered, for one moment, how Cassia had looked on the night she was Matched to Xander. He flattened the thought at once.

"Hey!" Em sang. "I didn't expect to see you here! Late night?"

"You could say that." He shrugged. "Congratulations on your Match."

"Oh, thanks! It was a wonderful evening. Just like Cassia said it would be. I feel a bit silly now, worrying so much."

She giggled. Her black eyes flickered from her dress, to the window, to him, to the flock of laughing Matchees and their families who had breezed in at the same stop, and back to him again. Her face was flushed. Her hands were in her lap, clutching something he couldn't see – her tablet container? An artifact?

He realized, with dawning unease, that it was more than joy making Em so high-strung tonight. Or perhaps no joy at all.

His gaze dropped to what she was holding, and so did hers. Quick as a flash, quicker than he would have expected of someone like her, she slipped the thing into the pocket of his trousers. It was round and flat, and when he felt with his hand, it was smooth and metallic to the touch. There were curving lines engraved on one side of it. It reminded him of nothing so much as …

A flash of gold in Cassia's slender hands. Whispered poetry in the forest. The snap of a stick.

Her compact?

"It's Cassia's," Em whispered, her bubbliness gone, her whole body tense with guilt. "She - "

"Just act normally," said Ky, making an effort to keep his own face. "Try not to draw attention."

The trains were actually some of the most private places in Oria, because no port could have recorded all the dozens of conversations going on at once. Still, after all these years being spied on, it was his habit to be cautious.

Em's eyes widened. "Oh, no. So it was wrong, wasn't it?"

"Was what wrong?"

"Cassia lent it to me." Her head drooped a little, like a leaf in the rain. "You know, to make me feel better. And it really did. But I don't know whether I was allowed to bring it with me, since I'm not the registered owner. Can you give it back to her for me? Please?"

Ky's hand, unseen by any of the passengers, closed protectively around the compact. He could not believe the absurdity of this country sometimes, how they would make a seventeen-year-old girl feel guilty for carrying a bit of comfort on the most nerve-wracking night of her life. At times like this, he could almost begin to forgive his father for wanting to tear the Society apart.

Almost.

"Of course," he said, just a shade more fiercely than he intended.

"Thank you." Em slumped into her steel-gray seat cushion with relief.

"So she lent it to you." He could easily see that. Cassia's compassion was the first thing he'd ever noticed about her, when she was ten and frightened for Xander at the pool. "Sounds like Cassia."

He didn't realize that the corners of his mouth had tipped into a smile until he saw Em's eyebrows rise. She opened her mouth to say something, closed it tightly, then gave a tine shake of the head. She looked like someone who had just discovered something she had been suspecting for a long time, and wished she hadn't.

"She's a good friend, isn't she?" said Em.

"She is," said Ky, noncommittally.

"I worry about her."

"Oh?"

"About both of you." Without the compact, she clasped her empty hands together in her lap instead. "I – I mean … hiking's sort of risky, isn't it? Out there in the wild. Plus she says the instructor isn't even with you most of the time."

Cold sweat trickled down the back of his uniform. Em knew – if not everything, then something. What did she imagine was going on between him and Cassia? If even she was suspicious, how obvious were his feelings really? And why, in the name of all that was holy, could no one in this country ever come right out and speak their minds?

"Just … be careful, okay? I know you will. She'll be safe with you on that trail. I … I trust you."

Was she giving him her blessing to court Cassia, or was she saying she trusted him to never ask for anything but friendship? Knowing her dedication to the rules, he suspected the latter, but still, this was no Official trying to manipulate him. This was a good girl who cared about Cassia almost as much as he did. Despite himself, his anger faded.

"I'll look out for her," he said. "Don't worry."

Let her interpret that however she liked.

"I owe you one, by the way," she said. "Speaking of looking out for people. If you hadn't … "

If he hadn't joined the others in blocking Em from view and ordered Xander to give her his green tablet, she would be locked in a psych ward by now instead of riding home from her Banquet. She was asking for a trade, one favor for another. He knew what he wanted to ask.

He knew, in the marrow of his bones, that he had to finish what he had started. If he were sensible, he would pretend to be dull and simple with Cassia for the rest of the summer until she got her vocation. But he was sick and tired of being sensible. Xander would have Cassia for the rest of their long lives, and Ky would keep up his façade for the rest of his short one – but let him have just one summer, to love her and to show her his true self.

He could begin by showing her his compass, which was so much like her compact that it felt like they were connected centuries before they met. Cassia was a poet in the making. She would know exactly what he meant.

"You just go ahead and enjoy your Match," he told Em gently. "Don't worry about a thing."

Look the other way, he willed her to understand. Don't watch us. And if you do find out the truth, don't betray us.

"I won't," said Em, in the voice of someone making a promise.