When Nathaniel walks into the crowded restaurant and sees the girl in the yellow dress sitting at the table, he frowns and lifts the tablet to his mouth. "Coach, is this a mistake?"
She's not unattractive, per se, just chubby and most certainly not his type, especially compared to the hot leggy blonde he's just had a whirlwind thirty-six hour romance with.
"No, she is your match," the system replies.
"Seriously?" Nathaniel groans, watching her fidget and not-so-subtly glance around the room.
"Everything happens for a reason."
"Yeah, right," he mutters under his breath. Settling his shoulders back and straightening his jacket, he saunters over to the table. "Hi, I'm Nathaniel."
Nathaniel feels somewhat gratified when she visibly checks him out, glancing up and down the length of his body. "...Rebecca."
When she doesn't show any intention of standing up or shaking his hand, Nathaniel takes his seat, smoothing his napkin down his lap. She has nice eyes, he notes, big and green and bright, but she's clearly on edge, and still hasn't made any attempt at small talk.
Not that he particularly wants to talk to her either— it's just that he doesn't want to sink to her level.
Nathaniel clears his throat. "So...how are you?"
Rebecca looks at him as if he's grown a second head. "Um...not great, if I'm being honest."
He raises an eyebrow at her. "Care to tell me why?"
"No, actually," she says, through gritted teeth. "I would not care."
Nathaniel keeps his mouth shut; he's not touching that attitude with a ten foot pole.
They maintain the awkward silence for what feels like an eternity before their food arrives; he receives his customary plate of carrot sticks and hummus and glass of green juice with a smile, and she immediately digs into...well, whatever that thing is.
"What?" Rebecca demands, her mouth full, when she catches him staring. "You've never seen a cheeseburger pizza before?"
Preoccupied by the thought of all the carbs and dairy in that monstrous thing, he shudders, taking a sip of his smoothie.
She grimaces at him, another slice of pizza halfway to her mouth. "What the hell is that?"
"It's a kale smoothie," Nathaniel says, after he's swallowed a bite of carrot. "It's healthy."
Rebecca just shakes his head. "Why are you doing this to yourself? What's the point of life if you can't even eat good food?"
"I just don't like to pack any extra ounces," he says defensively.
She nods slowly, realization dawning on her face. "Ah, so you're one of those guys."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"Like, you know, a corporate hardass who won't admit he has body issues."
"You don't know anything about me," Nathaniel huffs, trying to fight the heat creeping up his neck.
She crosses her arms, and smirks. "Sure I don't."
Nathaniel's about to retort back when Rebecca squeals and ducks under the table. "Shit, shit, shit—"
His patience is quickly wearing thin. "What is it now?"
"It's the guy I just had a relationship with," she hisses, jutting her head to the right. "He's on a date."
Nathaniel glances over; a few tables away, he sees a buff guy wearing a tank top and cargo shorts pulling out a chair for a girl and grinning from ear to ear. "So? Isn't that what you're supposed to do?"
"Yeah, but he doesn't have to look so happy about it," she grouses, before clutching her face and groaning. "Oh God, she looks like a sexy yoga instructor or something. How the hell am I supposed to compete with that?"
"I thought the whole point of the system was to get rid of competition," Nathaniel says, trying to be the rational one. "Also, he looks like a human flip flop."
Rebecca straightens up and glares at him, clearly appalled. "He's not a human flip flop," she snarls, smacking a hand down onto the table. "His name is Josh and he is the man of my dreams."
Oh, boy. "He's not your ultimate match, so obviously not."
"Well, the system made a mistake," Rebecca says, matter of fact.
The guard in the corner is looking suspiciously at them. "The system doesn't make mistakes." Nathaniel says quickly.
After this trainwreck of date, he's never doubted it more. What could the system possibly gain from pairing them together? He's Nathaniel Plimpton, for God's sake, and she's— she's—
Rebecca buries her face in her hands. "God, can we please just get out of here? I can't watch this anymore."
Josh is reaching over to take his date's hand; she giggles, batting her eyelashes at him. "What, you don't wanna say hi?" Nathaniel simpers.
Glowering at him, Rebecca jumps to her feet and tugs at his arm. "Come on, asshole. We're leaving."
The entire ride to their shared quarters, Rebecca refuses to shut up about Josh. "Yeah, we were only together for, like, three months, but it felt like it mattered, you know? Whenever we touched, it felt like...glitter was exploding inside of me."
Rebecca bats him on the elbow. "You just don't understand."
"I really don't," Nathaniel replies. "The longest relationship I've had lasted two weeks."
She gapes at him. "Seriously? That's crazy!"
"It's all a blur, honestly," he says casually. "I barely remember any of them."
"Wow," Rebecca breathes out, shaking her head. "I can't imagine."
"Speaking of…" He holds his tablet up to her. "Want to check the expiration date?"
"Oh, um, okay." She fishes hers out of her pocket. "On three?"
After counting together, they each press their buttons, watching as the countdown flashes on their screen.
Nathaniel catches himself just before he sighs in relief.
Rebecca stares down at her disc, the glow illuminating the confusion on her face. "Oh, that's...short."
Is it just him, or does she sound...disappointed? You're probably hearing things, he tells himself. She obviously hates your guts.
Nathaniel just shrugs, and pretends like he doesn't care.
"Nice digs," Rebecca comments after he unlocks the door and they step inside, walking through the living room.
Nathaniel really doesn't know why she bothers; he's lived in countless houses here and they're all pretty much identical. Still, he nods and follows her into the bedroom, where she spins around and collapses onto the bed, her curls splayed out against the pillows.
"So what should we do now?" Rebecca asks. "We could watch a movie, play a board game…"
He perches on the edge of the bed, barely stifling his laughter. "Isn't it obvious?"
She shoots him a quizzical look; it's weirdly adorable. "...what?"
"We should have sex."
Rebecca bolts upright and scooches away from him, stammering. "What?!"
Of course she's surprised. Nathaniel rolls his eyes. "We're literally having a one-night stand. What's the point if we don't sleep together?"
"Did you miss the part where I said I was in love with Josh?"
"So? You were with him for a while, the sex probably got lame, we've all been there."
"Um, no, actually, we had great sex," she says, somewhat frantically. "All day, every day sexy-sexy time."
He smirks at her. "Whatever you say."
"Listen, um," Rebecca says, still looking vaguely panicked, "instead of having sex, why don't we get to know each other in a platonic way?" She sits up against the headboard and pats the space beside her; he reluctantly crawls up to join her.
"Okay, I'll start," she says, clearing her throat and forcing a bright smile. "Hi, I'm Rebecca Bunch, I'm from Scarsdale, I'm an Aries-Taurus cusper, and I'm a Ravenclaw."
She scowls at him. "What, you think Harry Potter is stupid?"
"No," he says carefully, "I think that when people say they're Ravenclaw, they really think that they're Gryffindor, but they don't wanna sound too braggy."
"Wow, okay, so you've seen one of the movies," Rebecca huffs. "Cool?"
"No, I read all the books." When she raises her eyebrows at him, he elaborates. "The girl I had the two-week relationship with was super boring and the library in our house had them, so I read them in a week. You know, since I didn't have anything better to do."
"And?" She looks at him expectantly.
"And...I think they're modern classics," Nathaniel admits. "Happy now? The 'corporate hardass' likes a child wizard book. Go on, spread the news."
"I think it's...nice, actually," Rebecca says, biting her lower lip. "It almost makes you seem human."
He gives her a stern look, trying to repress his smile. "Don't be a dick."
They talk for hours, losing track of time, and he pretty quickly learns that she's basically an extremely neurotic walking encyclopedia.
"Okay, okay, fine," she sighs. "Maybe I'm a little bit Gryffindor."
Nathaniel pumps his fist in the air, and Rebecca nudges him in the shoulder. "Oh, come on, you're totally a Slytherin."
"I'm not ashamed of that," he says. "Slytherin are proud, cunning, ambitious—"
"And evil," Rebecca adds. "Which totally fits you, considering you tried to steal me from another man."
"Steal you?" Nathaniel scoffs. "Your precious Josh is probably having sex with his hot yoga instructor right this instant."
"Do you have to remind me?" she says, through gritted teeth.
"I'm just saying, you should stop being naïve about all this," Nathaniel continues. "You're not together anymore, the system's already decided."
"God," Rebecca says, covering her face with her hands, "don't you ever question it sometimes? Whether any of this is right?"
All the goddamn time, Nathaniel thinks. "It's just so easy here," he concedes, and leans in, looking her straight in the eye. "You get a match, you sleep together, you know when it's all gonna end. I kind of miss the pursuit...don't you?"
She shakes her head. "I never really cared for the chase."
Their faces are barely inches apart now; he can see every fleck of gold in her eyes, smell her sugar perfume. "Seriously?" Nathaniel asks, almost in a whisper.
They stare at one another for a long moment.
Without warning, Rebecca grabs his face and crushes her lips to his, and it's so good, better than he'd expected, her tongue running along the seam of mouth, her hands tangling in his hair—
She pulls away all of a sudden, covering her mouth and looking horrified. "I need to go," she blurts out, scrambling off the bed and practically sprinting towards the living room.
Nathaniel flops facefirst into a pillow, exhaling shakily, and tries to figure out what the fuck just happened.
Nathaniel wakes up at 6 am the next morning and gets dressed for his run, still reeling from last night. When he tiptoes into the living room, he finds her sprawled out on the couch and snoring loudly, her hair a big frizzy mess.
He throws a blanket over her and readjusts her pillows before heading out, trying to force the image of her out of his mind.
Apparently Rebecca sleeps like a log; she doesn't so much as stir until after he's showered and made the two of them breakfast, rolling over and yawning when he approaches the couch.
"Morning, sleepyhead," Nathaniel says, putting her bagel and scrambled eggs on the coffee table.
Rebecca sits up, rubbing her eyes. "You made me breakfast?"
"I'm not a complete dickhead." He grabs his smoothie and sits next to her, careful to leave a good few feet of space between them.
"I beg to differ," Rebecca scoffs, shoving a forkful of eggs into her mouth. Her eyes widen in surprise. "This is really good, actually."
"No need to sound so surprised," Nathaniel huffs. It's actually one of the things girls seem to like the most about him — all he has to do is bring them breakfast in bed, and boom, heart eyes.
"It's not like that," Rebecca says defensively, before her eyes soften. "You're just...not what I expected."
Nathaniel looks pointedly at the ground. You're not gonna get attached, okay? She's no different than the others.
She's worse, actually, he tells himself. Less attractive, in terrible physical shape, dramatic and obsessive and all-around weird. He can't wait until they say goodbye and never have to see each other again.
When their time is almost up, they go stand awkwardly outside, both averting their eyes.
Their separate cars pull up, and Rebecca clears her throat, gamely holding her hand out to him. "It was nice meeting you."
"Yeah, you too." Nathaniel takes it, holding on for a second too long before she smiles and pulls away, turning to her car.
The next time they meet, they're both at a pairing day celebration for two guys named Josh and Darryl who look so disgustingly in love that Nathaniel can't help but gag at the sight of them.
In his defense, he's currently in the midst of a six-month relationship with a mousy girl named Maya who never seems to shut up and has actually driven him to the verge of a mental breakdown.
Nathaniel ditches her at the first available opportunity, mumbling something about getting a drink when she's busy chatting with Darryl. He's lining up at the bar when the girl in front of him turns around, holding two beers and a plate of mozzarella sticks.
"Nathaniel?" Rebecca gapes at him, and pulls him away from the line. "Wow, it's, um, so great to see you!"
"Likewise," he replies, trying to act casual. "So...how have you been?"
For some reason, she tries to shove a whole mozzarella stick down her mouth, and ends up choking.
"Are you okay?" Nathaniel asks her, but she just keeps gagging. "Oh God, you're not being serious. Alright—" He stands behind her and awkwardly slaps her back until she spits it out, wheezing.
"Thanks," Rebecca says, when she's regained her breath. "You look well."
"Yeah, uh, I'd return the compliment, but you just spit cheese on my shoe, so—"
"I was doing you a favor, actually," she scoffs. "It's an ugly ass shoe."
He's still thinking of a comeback when a guy wearing jeans and a flannel materializes behind Rebecca. "There you are," he says, putting a hand on the small of her back. "I was getting worried."
The guy narrows his eyes at Nathaniel.
"Oh. Oh! Um...Nathaniel, meet Greg, Greg, meet Nathaniel. We were together, for a hot sec," Rebecca whispers to Greg, astonishingly loudly.
"Hey, man, how are you doing?" Greg asks, holding out his hand.
Nathaniel shakes it as firmly as he can without cutting off Greg's circulation. "Not bad, not bad."
Greg turns to Rebecca. "The taco truck is here. Wanna stop by?"
Her eyes immediately light up. "Yes, please!" She has just enough time to give Nathaniel a quick smile and wave before Greg's pulling her back into the crowd, leaving him alone by the bar.
Maya tries to get him to dance, but he refuses, plopping down at a corner table and sipping glumly at his scotch as she teaches some weird move to everybody at the party.
Greg and Rebecca are there, too, kind of holding onto each other and swaying at the edge of the dance floor. They look good together, he realizes. Happy.
When they're all leaving the party, Nathaniel can't help but glance back at her. She has her arm around Greg, helping him stumble drunkenly up the cobblestone pathway, and gives him a measured smile when their eyes meet.
Trust the system, Darryl had told the crowd from the stage, clutching onto Josh's arm and beaming. It always works out in the end.
"Nathaniel, what's wrong?" Maya asks him, tugging at his hand.
"Nothing." Tearing his eyes away from Rebecca, Nathaniel grits his teeth into a smile, and tries not to think about how he's supposed to survive the next four months. "It's nothing."
After his relationship with Maya is (finally) over, Nathaniel falls into another string of short flings. They're all gorgeous, of course, slender and tan with million dollar smiles, but he finds himself rereading Harry Potter way too many times and trying not to think about which character a certain someone is most like.
You need to get a fucking grip, he tells himself. You didn't even sleep together.
When Nathaniel shows up to the restaurant for what feels like the millionth time and sees her sitting at the table, he has to pinch himself to make sure he's not dreaming.
Rebecca stands up when she sees him walk over. "Nathaniel?"
She looks different, he realizes— she's straightened her hair and dyed it a darker shade of brown, traded in her yellow sundress for a low-cut white gown. And she feels...lower energy, somehow, more lethargic, her shoulders slumped back, bags under her eyes.
He tries not to think about what could've happened to her.
"Is this right? I didn't think the system would put us together again." Nathaniel takes his seat, still in disbelief, and frowns at his tablet. "Coach, are we at the right table?"
"Yes, that is correct," the machine says.
"Alright, then," Rebecca says, straightening her shoulders. When Nathaniel instinctively taps the "info" tab on his screen, she stops him. "Um, is it okay if we don't check the expiration date?"
When he raises an eyebrow at her, she heaves a sigh. "Josh and I got put together again, for a few months, and it was really great, but knowing how long we had left just drove me crazy, you know? Like, I couldn't even enjoy it 'cause I was always thinking about the end."
Rebecca tilts her head back and stares at the ceiling, looking defeated. "I'm just...so sick of it."
Nathaniel feels a twinge of something that feels dangerously like sympathy. "Okay, we won't check it, then. It's a deal." He holds his hand out to her.
She accepts it gratefully. "Deal."
"So before Greg, I had a twelve-hour thing with this guy, and he had these weird carpal tunnel balls he wouldn't stop playing with, and I wanted to sex with him, but I just couldn't, they just smelled so weird— the balls, that is."
"Sounds riveting," Nathaniel remarks, following her into their house.
"Then after that, there was Greg, and I really liked him, I did, but he had a lot of issues and it only lasted for, like, a month, and it was kind of a shitshow. He got paired up with his ultimate match after me— Emory. Apparently he's really happy now.
"But enough about me," she says, turning around to face him. "What's going on with you? You were with Maya, right?"
He grimaces. "Yeah, for six months. It was pretty awful."
"Oh, come on," Rebecca laughs, plopping down on the bed and leaning back on her hands. "I think she's sweet."
"Well, you didn't have to hang out with her 24/7," Nathaniel retorts, leaning against the dresser. "She drove me up the fucking wall."
She seems to ponder this for a moment, before snickering. "Oh my God, what's it like to have sex with her?'
Nathaniel shudders. "Thankfully, I have no idea."
Rebecca looks deeply unconvinced. "You were together for six months, and you never fucked?"
"I told her I was celibate."
"And she believed you?" she says incredulously. "Seriously? You?"
He cocks his head to the side. "Why is that so surprising?"
"I mean...it's just you. The way you look," she says weakly.
Nathaniel smirks, and draws closer to her, so he's standing between her legs and looming over her. "How do I look?"
She averts his eyes, crosses and uncrosses her legs. "You know."
"Do I?" Despite her attempts to hide it, he can still see her blush. "Please enlighten me. What do I look like?"
"Like a Greek god, okay?" Rebecca blurts out. When he smirks at her, she just rolls her eyes, exasperated. "Don't let it get to your head— the Greek gods were petty, and narcissistic, and definitely not celibate, which is actually why I made the comparison in the first place— anyways, I definitely didn't—"
He kisses her to shut her up.
As soon as they finish round two, Rebecca sleepily tucks herself into his side and rests her head on his collarbone, yawning.
Nathaniel's never been much of a cuddler, mostly prefers just dozing off afterwards, but he can't bring himself to shrug her off. He tentatively cards a hand through her damp curls, massaging circles into her shoulder with the other.
"Mm, keep going," Rebecca mumbles. "That feels nice."
Nathaniel tries to lose himself into the warmth of her around him, but still manages to get stuck inside his own head.
He can feel her studying him. She lifts her head up with a frown. "Hey, man, what's wrong?"
"It's nothing," he says, pointedly looking away.
Rebecca bites her lip, sitting up so they're shoulder to shoulder. "You can talk to me, you know."
Nathaniel lets out a long breath. "It just...I don't know, this just so...different for me. Like, Maya and I never did anything, of course, and then after I had a bunch of one-night stands, and it was just so detached. I mean, I barely remember any of it, and I— for all I know, this could just another one of those. I don't know why it feels so different."
He half-expects her to tease him, the way she always does. Instead, she reaches up to touch his cheek, her eyes going soft. "That's a good thing."
"I know you've had this before— with Josh, and Greg, and God knows who else. And I just— I keep thinking that you're thinking about them, right now, but for me, it's just you, because I don't— I don't have that. Because I've never really…" he trails off.
"Nathaniel," Rebecca says, holding onto his gaze, refusing to let him go. "This isn't about anyone but you, okay? I promise."
She takes his hand and squeezes it tight, and he tries to believe her.
Their relationship is so normal that it almost scares him.
Their daily life is fairly mundane— they lay in bed and read, she shows him Singin' in the Rain and The Sound of Music and actually gets him to eat a grilled cheese sandwich, he drinks tea by himself at donut shop while Rebecca and her friend Paula gossip loudly. Basically, it's everything Nathaniel should find boring and terrible.
(He doesn't, somehow.)
Every now and then Nathaniel feels tempted to check the expiration date, just out of curiosity, but mostly he leaves his tablet in his bedside drawer and forgets about it, content with— well, whatever this is.
He's been trying to get her to run with him, lately, makes her smoothies and bullies her into a pair of leggings. It's a futile struggle, though; halfway through their current run, she gives up, and they spend a few minutes bickering before compromising on a long walk around the lake.
"What if there is no scrutiny?" Rebecca's saying, her arm looped through his. "Like, for all we know, it could just be putting us together randomly, and we just keep going along with it 'cause they're always telling us how amazing it is."
"Yeah, but it works," Nathaniel replies. "99.8% success rate, remember?"
They stop walking, stand in the gazebo beneath the willow trees and peer out over the lake.
"But how do we know they're perfect matches?" Rebecca insists. "I mean, what if it's just wearing us down, randomly putting us in one shitty relationship after another, until you're just so sick of it that you'll settle for anyone? And then you have to spend the rest of your life convincing yourself you didn't."
"Well done," Nathaniel deadpans. "That's the most depressing thing I've ever heard."
"Thank you, thank you." She bows dramatically. "So what's your theory?"
"Alright," Nathaniel says, and takes a breath. "Let's assume the system isn't random, it's as sophisticated as they say it is. So using these," he lifts up his tablet, "it takes in all your reactions, builds a really in-depth profile. Every crazy thought you've had, all your dreams, all your weaknesses—"
"Your crazy theories," she adds.
"Exactly." Nathaniel nods. "So if it's everything in your head...does it have thoughts?"
"What, do you think we're stuck in a simulation or something?" Rebecca teases.
Nathaniel shrugs. "Well, how do we know we're not?"
She thinks about it for a moment, before pinching him on the forearm. Hard.
"Ow," he mutters, pulling his arm away from him.
"Now we know," Rebecca declares with a smirk, flouncing away from him.
"Maybe I was programmed to say that!" Nathaniel calls after her, before following.
One morning, Rebecca seems more jittery than usual— shrugs him off when he leans in to kiss her, drinks too much coffee, stares blankly at her magazine for minutes without ever turning a page.
He wonders if it's something he did— or even worse, if she's thinking about Josh. She still hasn't told Nathaniel much about him, their relationship, why she seems so hellbent on getting over it. The only time anything slips out about him is when they're laying in bed, and she's drowsy, unfiltered, confessing that something she'd seen that day had reminded her of him, that maybe she'd just idealized him all along.
Eventually, Nathaniel can't stand it anymore, and confronts her about it. "Is something wrong?"
"It's nothing," Rebecca says, too quickly, gripping her coffee mug until her knuckles flash white. "I'm fine."
He slides into the seat next to her, leaning on the counter. "You can talk to me, you know."
"Ha ha," she mutters. "You can do the quotey thing."
"I'm being serious," Nathaniel tells her. "What's going on?"
"I don't know, I'm just feeling weird," Rebecca snaps. "It happens, sometimes. I just need space, okay?"
Nathaniel's well aware of her weird moods, whether she's bouncing off the walls and trying to get them to do something spontaneous, or completely shutting him out. This feels different, somehow; he just can't pinpoint why.
He does leave her alone, though, shakes his head and slinks off to their home gym and spends the rest of the morning doing crunches and trying to push her out of his head.
They're at the mall later that day when Rebecca seems to reach her breaking point. "I checked the expiration date last night," she blurts out, right after they've stepped off of an escalator.
Nathaniel whirls around, gaping at her. "You what?"
"I'm really, really sorry," Rebecca says, looking desperate, panicked. "But I just had to know— it was killing me."
"Do you even hear yourself right now? You're the one who asked me not to check," Nathaniel retorts, and shakes his head. "This makes absolutely no sense."
"I know, I know, but don't you get it? That's just who I am— nothing I do ever makes any sense," she says in a rush, pulling at her hair. "I'm crazy."
"You're not crazy, it's just—" He falters.
A guard notices them standing there and starts towards them, reaching for his taser. Nathaniel grits his teeth into a smile and waves him away.
"Don't you wanna know what it said?" she asks, timidly.
When all he does is glare at her and cross his arms over his chest, Rebecca just heaves a sigh, clapping a hand to her forehead. "God, it doesn't even matter anyways— it's almost done."
Nathaniel feels the dread pool up in the stomach. "How almost done?"
"We've got, like, an hour."
If he wasn't angry before… "Why didn't you tell me this before?" Nathaniel asks, through gritted teeth.
She bites her lip, shifts uncomfortably from foot to foot. "I didn't wanna ruin today."
"Like this hasn't ruined it?" It comes out harsher than he means it to.
Rebecca winces, wringing out her hands. "It was supposed to be five years, I saw it, but then something happened, it started going down. I don't know what it was—"
"So you broke it?" he asks, incredulously. Five years.
"No, no, no. I mean, I don't...I don't know," she trails off.
"Why did you have to look at it?" Nathaniel asks again, trying to suppress— well, everything. He's only just figured out how to do feelings, really, and this is way too much for him to handle right now. "I'm just trying to understand, Rebecca."
She blows out a long breath, and reaches out to touch his arm; he hates what that does to him, even now. "Look, I was thinking we could overcome it, somehow—"
"What the fuck, Rebecca?" He shrugs her off.
"It's 'cause I like you," Rebecca says, pleading. "Like, actually, really like you."
Nathaniel tries to act like that isn't destroying him on the inside. "And that wasn't enough for you?"
"That's not the point. I looked, but that's not the real issue here." Rebecca vehemently shakes her head. "It doesn't matter how long the time was— we would've had to break up eventually. And I don't want that."
She gasps, and latches onto his arm. "Listen: what if we just ignore it?"
On second thought, maybe she is crazy. "We can't. That's impossible."
"How do you know?" Rebecca demands. "We could climb over the wall, get out of here."
"There's nothing out there."
"How do you know?" she echoes.
When he doesn't reply, Rebecca shakes her head, and pulls away from him. "I'm sorry. You're right, I did ruin everything. I should just go."
Before Nathaniel can stop her, she turns on her heel and storms away, leaving him gaping after her, dumbfounded.
Nathaniel loses himself in another string of one-night stands, trying not to think about Singin' in the Rain and sugar perfume and her laugh, loud and warm and intoxicating.
He tries not to think at all.
Nathaniel's busy drying himself off after his morning swim when his tablet chimes.
He ties the towel around his waist, and grabs the tablet from his chair. "What now?" he snarls, scowling down at the screen.
"Congratulations, Nathaniel. You ultimate match has just been identified. Your pairing day is tomorrow."
He freezes. "We're meeting tomorrow?"
"That is correct. Tomorrow you'll be coupled with your ultimate match and together you will leave this place forever."
Nathaniel lets out a long breath, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Are you allowed to tell me anything about them? Do I know them already?"
He swallows back a gulp. "...right."
"There is one more thing."
Nathaniel rolls his eyes. "And what is that?"
"Prior to pairing day, you have been allocated a short farewell period with an individual of your choosing."
"A farewell period?" He straightens up. "I get to say goodbye?"
"That is correct. Data shows this can help provide psychological closure—"
"Rebecca, I choose Rebecca," Nathaniel says, all in a rush, without hesitation.
"Your choice has been registered."
Nathaniel's fully prepared to grab his clothes and get out of there when something occurs to him. "Hey, Coach?"
"Go fuck yourself." He chucks the tablet as hard as he can into the water, watching it sink to the bottom before turning on his heel and marching out the door.
Nathaniel stands up when she reaches their table, radiant in red, gathering her in his arms and kissing her fiercely, heedless of the fact that everyone is staring, the waiters and the guards and all of the other irrelevant people.
He sits back down, and she slides in to next to him, her knee pressed up against his, and leans in.
"I'm getting paired tomorrow," Nathaniel tells her breathlessly.
She nods, wide-eyed. "Me too."
"I don't want whoever the system picks for me, okay? I want you."
"I want you," she echoes.
"Failure to comply with the system may result in banishment," Rebecca's tablet says from her pocket.
"Oh, fuck off!" Rebecca knocks it off of the table, glowering, and Nathaniel doesn't think he's ever been more in love.
He tries to make himself breathe; it's just so goddamn difficult around her. "Do you remember where you were before you came here?"
Rebecca hesitates, before the realization dawns on her face. "I don't. Why can't I?"
"It has to be a test," Nathaniel says. "The system, the dates, all of it. The first night we were together, it felt...right."
"Like we'd met before," Rebecca adds, and he nods emphatically.
"Exactly. Like it happened before and it'll happen again, like it's happened a thousand times before." Nathaniel grabs her hand, and presses it to his chest. "It's a test, I'm sure of it. And to pass it—"
"We need to get the fuck out of here," Rebecca finishes. "Over the wall."
"Right over it," he agrees.
"So let's do it," Rebecca says, so casually that Nathaniel has to kiss her before pulling them to their feet.
Before they can reach the door, a guard steps in front of them and holds out his taser, crackling with blue electricity. Nathaniel feels Rebecca tense up beside him, and gives her hand a reassuring squeeze. Taking a deep breath, he places his hand over the taser, and watches as everything slows to a halt.
Rebecca inhales sharply. Without glancing back at her, Nathaniel tugs her out of the restaurant and into the night air.
They run for what could be a few minutes or a few hours— past houses and forests and rolling green hills, the gleam of the lamplights a blur around them. When they reach the wall, looming gray and dark above them, he helps Rebecca onto the ladder and climbs after her, adrenaline thrumming in his veins.
They're almost at the top when the world shatters around them, and goes dark.
When Nathaniel comes to, they're standing in a pool of pitch-black darkness, and all he can feel is the warmth of her hand in his. After a beat, Rebecca gasps, and elbows him in the ribs.
Nathaniel turns to see hundreds of versions of them materializing all around them, with numbers hanging above their heads. He glances at his Rebecca, the one in the red dress, and then up at their number. 998.
The Nathaniels and Rebeccas all begin to pixelate, floating up into the darkness.
1000 simulations completed. 998 rebellions logged. 99.8% Match.
Nathaniel checks his phone as he's sitting in his office. The app buffers for a second, before displaying a picture of a familiar girl with curly brown hair and a wide smile. 99.8% Match.
He glances over at the row of cubicles— at Rebecca, holding a donut and a mug of coffee, laughing and gossiping with Paula. Their eyes meet for a drawn-out moment, before Nathaniel tears his gaze away and shoves his phone into his pocket.
"This has to be a mistake."