[ red. ]


For a moment, they just stared at each other and said nothing. The words of Paige's parents hung in the air, over the muffled sound of whatever else it was they were talking about now. Neither Paige nor Mott could hear what their exact words were. Neither of them really cared, either.

It was silent.

And then it was just quiet.

"Do you remember," Paige whispered in the thin darkness, almost as if she were afraid of penetrating whatever precious space of safety was there between them, "when you were an Age-Six, and we picked all the dandelions in the central park?"

Mott would have been able to see the timid smile that began to form on the corners of her lips. He would have been able to see how, within that beginning of a display of happiness, there was a hint of terror, of uncertainty so pure that the only way to deal with it was to mask it. Implicitly, they both would have understood this. They would have understood this instability without quite knowing what it was, without quite comprehending the depths of what the feeling's name had meant to their ancestors. And when their eyes met, they both did understand.

Yes, but she'll be gone next year, you know. It was so matter-of-fact. There wasn't a question to it; they'd accepted it, understood that there was to be an end to their relationship with her. Grown up all the way, they'd said. Would've kept each other happy.Paige knew it was getting cold in the room, but hadn't notised that she'd been shivering until Mott slid an arm over her and pulled her closer to him in the bed, holding her to his chest.

"I remember," he said.

He was warm. Warmer than she remembered. Hot. Not warm enough. Or she didn't have enough of him.

She would never have enough of him.

Would he really leave with her? She hadn't expected him to say 'yes.' She seriously suspected that he had taken her suggestion as something paltry, a moment's query for a moment's answer. Nothing that would have lasted longer than that, no commitment that he was making for a lifetime.

"We would pick the dandelions and make chains with them," whispered Paige.

"Mm-hmm," murmured Mott.

"And we'd make ice pops."

Mott didn't say anything. She could feel his head moving slightly, and she assumed that he was nodding.

"Strawberry ones, just for us and your family."

He moved his head again.

"Nobody knew except your family and you and me."

Mott lay there quietly, not moving, just holding her. He was listening to her story, she assumed. Letting her tell it, letting her cope. He rubbed her back in circles over her blouse as she talked.

"I told you we weren't supposed to be making them," said Paige. "Remember that? And I cried the first time you picked a dandelion. You told me they were just pretty weeds, so we were helping the grass grow better. And you said they would make pretty necklaces." She paused, closing her eyes, picturing the memory. It was all in glimpses, blips of mental images that she managed to keep hold of. Most people had excellent capacities for memory - they were taught from a young age how to maintain memories as much as possible, because what other luxury did they have? - but Paige's was exceptional. She held on to every detail she could, especially as of late, especially with her memories of Mott.

She remembered that summer when they were Age-Sevens, the strawberries ripe in the fields where Mott's father worked. The air smelled so sweet, and the wind was just subtle enough that when Paige opened her mouth, she could have sworn she could have tasted the strawberries then and there. Mott's father was commenting on what a job the crop engineers had done that year, the strawberries we're juicier than ever, and Paige, dandelion necklace hanging neatly around her neck, had been allowed to taste one off the vine.

There was the tiniest bit of fuzz on the outside of the fruit, and the skin was just barely taut enough to contain the juicy flesh long enough to make it to her teeth, after which she gnashed the fruit all around her teeth and her tongue until it was the finest of pulps and finally had to swallow. There was only a hint of tang, just enough sweetness, and everything about the strawberry was perfect, from the taste to the texture to the amount of seeds (an equal number on each side).

She remembered the guilty feeling she'd had when Mott's father told her she couldn't tell anyone, and that it was the same feeling she'd had when she'd used her fingernail to puncture the stem of that first dandelion. She had thought the dandelion was bleeding, cried for it, tried to soak up the sticky wetness that stained the stem a darker green, was horrified that she'd caused it to hurt. And Mott had come over, told her it was okay, showed her it wasn't in pain. He put an arm around her shoulder and made her look at it again; he rubbed her back in circles. There was no blood, because weeds didn't bleed. He wiped her eyes with his cotton sleeve, pushed her hair away from her face, wove two dandelion stems together, encouraged her to add another. Tentatively, after a few moments, she obliged: she added one, he added one; they made a chain, they picked strawberries.

"I remember," said Mott, even more quietly than before.

She remembered when her tongue got stuck to the ice pops they made with emergency forks and an ice cube tray. If a real emergency happened, they might have eaten the strawberry ice pops for an entire day as sustenance. Mott's family could have been disciplined by the Council for having a day's worth of extra frozen emergency meals, because it meant that they hadn't provided nutrition to their bodies and were therefore using self-harming behaviour. That was the sort of thing, the history books said, that led to too many citizens on welfare, too many people with unnecessary eating disorders, too many citizens unfed for no reason at all. Providing everyone with that food, with just the right amount and right nutritional value for each person, had been the result of the efforts of the Founders to eliminate hunger and obesity. It had worked. To defy that was to defy the entire community, to push forth into possibilities of indulgence in other forms, to purposely plummet in health and negate the work of too many people before them. It was selfish, the beginning of a potentially contagious decline.

So much fuss over a few ice pops, she thought now.

Mott had laughed at her when her tongue had gotten stuck. Paige hadn't thought it was very funny at the time. It had hurt. Now though, she found that the memory made her smile almost genuine.

Paige stared at the wall opposite them. It was, like all of the other walls in the community, painted beige.

At some point in her life, she imagined, she had felt beige. When she had been less aware, before the all-too-real feelings for Mott and the constant sense of uncertainty - perhaps she'd felt...neutral, somehow. As if there were no reasons for her own existence, or anyone else's, no sense of purpose for her life. And when she became Ritual Girl - a sense of reluctant saviourship, an elevated beige, but still neutral, under something else's command.

She didn't feel beige, anymore. Right now, she felt-

Blue? Too cold, too calm. Purple? Too extravagant. Red?

Like the strawberries, tart and sweet and ripe.

"They were really great ice pops," said Paige.

Suddenly, her face felt wet.

Mott's face was, too.

It was a surprise to see him crying. She wondered how long he had been silently tearing like that. She had always been the fragile, gentle one; she'd bet that the last time she'd heard him cry was when he'd broken his leg as a child.

"Are you afraid?" Paige whispered.

Mott shook his head, but didn't speak.

"What's wrong, then?"

For a while, Mott didn't move. Paige considered poking him to see if he was still alive, then berated herself for having such terrible thoughts. And then-

He grabbed her around the waist and rolled onto his back, pulling her on top of him. He kissed her with indulgent intensity, not beige in the slightest but red - tart, sweet, ripe - red with his blood boiling beneath his skin, red with her blood rushing through every vein in her body, red with their lips meeting and tasting readiness of some sort they had never known was there.

Everything was rushed in the moment; it was as if the Ritual had come early and everything was burning, from head to toe, and the two of them were caught up in some sort of flame. They kissed as if they would never kiss again; they reveled in each other's warmth, and when it wasn't enough through the clothes, they removed the fabric and let the heat transfer through skin. The red was all that mattered in that moment - that vital exchange of heat, thoughts, emotions. They were caught up, couldn't stop, warm-hot, pushing to a rhythm of motion, a rhythm of exchanges - words, kisses, fluids. She wanted all of him; she wanted to give him all of her, in worry that they wouldn't have the opportunity later.

He slipped inside her; there was a little more red (because humans, unlike dandelions, did bleed); the heat continued.

It didn't stop until at last they both lie there, tangled up in each other, shivering in the silence and trying not to let their heavy breaths be heard.

And at last, Paige understood the emotion that had been underlying on Mott's face the day after their second kiss, the emotion that had been clear on Mott's face when she'd asked him to go to a new land with her, the same emotion that underlay both of their faces in their indulgence into the unknown.

It was fear.