[ being, together. ]

"PAIGE. CAN YOU HEAR ME? WAKE UP, PAIGE."

"Mott, I see you. Stop shaking me."

He stopped. "Are you okay?"

Paige blinked up at him. His face, wrinkled with mild concern, was dark when juxtaposed against the vibrant blue sky. She could feel tree bark prickling at her neck and trying to penetrate the fabric of her sweater. The white ribbon was clutched in her fingers.

It couldn't have been more than a few minutes that she had been there. No one else had come around, no cleaning crew, no other people - come to think of it, Mott shouldn't have been there, either. But then, neither should have she.

The brightness of the setting was disorienting. She had been expecting to be preparing for her death - she had watched the flames start to lick around her ankles, or at least as much as she could have from within the thick smoke. She had been waiting for the warmth, and then the sweat, and then the burning.

But the sun in the sky bore no threat to singe her flesh.

"What are you doing here?" Paige asked. She had only intended to lie out in the sun for a bit against a tree, had only intended to examine the ribbon for a little bit and muse on why it hadn't been collected by the Groundskeepers yet. She hadn't meant to fall asleep.

Mott, who had now seemingly calmed from his panic, plopped down beside her. "I was on my break," he said, leaning against the tree as he watched a bird float in between two branches, "I was just going on a walk, and I found you here with that ribbon in your hand." He sighed as he picked up a fallen leaf and began to pick at its veins. "Sorry. I just got a little worried when I saw you just lying there."

The afternoon sunlight came in patches; branches mostly concealed the full force of it, but Paige didn't mind. It was a beautiful sight. She wanted to stare at it forever, to soak up the happiness that the scene created in her, the peace she felt when sitting under this tree with no queen encouraging her to break rules and live a life that she hadn't prepared to live for, no stories about Ritual Girls past or founders with her own name, no Pill Technical Specialists to bring her frustration and only add more confusion to her thoughts. The day was calm. Paige enjoyed it.

She sighed, as he had done, though hers was less relieved and more concerned. What she had intended was a small nap. What had come out of it was a worried Mott and a bad dream.

She leaned against him as they sat there, taking in their surroundings. The wind was quiet; the river was still. Paige imagined that it hadn't been particularly calm when Ingrid had been in there. It had been a particularly windy day - perhaps it had been an accident? But no, Queen Moira had assured her, she had definitely done it on her own. If Ingrid had been taking her pills, it might have been accidental, but Ingrid had been freely thinking. No one had pushed her - there had never been a murder in the community's history, and for one to have occurred, someone would have to have not been accounted for.

Everyone had been where he or she ought to have been. Ingrid had jumped in herself.

Paige wondered why Queen Moira hadn't automatically told Ingrid about the fact that she had wanted the girl to live. Perhaps the queen hadn't gotten around to it yet; perhaps she had intended to do so that afternoon, just after Ingrid had returned from her break.

What a difference fifteen minutes made.

Ingrid could have been there after the break. It could have been her, instead of Paige, to visit the bakery that morning, to visit the Age-One learning centre that day and to walk by the apartments, musing at the entirety of the community's purpose later that day. It could have been Ingrid who had dealt with the prospect of living past her designated life expectancy, Ingrid who lead the new world in its sure-to-come moments of chaos, Ingrid who realised the immense amount of upcoming changes. Paige would have gone unaware of all the political plotting, by herself, looking after the Age-Ones, playing "Go Fish" with her family and Mott, watched with careful eyes all of the potential Match Assignments that might have been assigned to her, perhaps even considered someone like Beck, to whom she might have grown closer after working with him every day for a year.

She might have denied Mott. She might have overlooked him while he watched close by, unknowingly providing him with a sense of pain that she could not have possibly understood or even been conscious of in the slightest. She might have allowed him to slip right through her fingers. She might have had Beck's children instead, and Mott might have gone back to the pills to numb himself, or he might have simply made himself feel the pain, without pills.

He was warm underneath her head now. She liked how comforting the whole thing felt. She felt safe, as she always did with him, but at the same time, she was faced with the terror of the nightmare that she had just fallen out of. His chest was soft, but firm - not too hard that it wasn't comfortable, but not too soft that it wasn't supportive - and she enjoyed how she could see the freckles on his arms peek out under the sleeves that he had rolled up on his Pilot-in-Training uniform. He had bits of near-invisible hair on those arms, also, and she loved how soft they were against his skin.

The only tears he had had on this skin were reparable. Scratches from when he'd fallen (constantly) as a toddler, bruises from when he'd bumped into something or another; never something so damaging that a quick visit to a Medic couldn't fix it. Ingrid had probably been facing the real possibility of unchangeable damage to her body. Paige wondered if that was why she had jumped into the river.

Perhaps Ingrid had seen the terror that was her own future. Perhaps the lack of the pills' influence had been so strong that Ingrid had imagined the Ritual, had seen it for herself in her own head, had felt such fear that she couldn't possibly bear it. Paige had never felt that fear.

She shuddered as she imagined it.

"What's wrong?" asked Mott.

"Just imagining what might have gone through Ingrid's head."

"That's a bit neurotic."

Paige shrugged. "I found her ribbon." She showed it to him.

He frowned. "Where'd you find it?"

She knew he was wondering the same thing she was - why the Groundskeepers hadn't found it yet, as they were usually so thorough. But the ribbon was covered in dirt, and Paige had had to brush the dried mud off of it. "It was hidden pretty low on the rocks," she said, "I figured they'd just missed it."

"How low?"

"Low enough. Trust me."

Mott nodded, as if he finally did trust her, as if he had reason not to trust her to begin with. If it made sense to him, though, it must have been acceptable - perhaps even true. But what other situation made sense? It was there, and the Groundskeepers intentionally didn't bring it back, so that it could remain there, a monument to the Ritual Girl Who Almost Was? That was masochistic. No one spent enough time by the river in the first place that anyone could have planted it there him or herself. No one even had access to a white ribbon with the exception of the queen, who granted it to the Ritual Girl herself at the Role Assignment Ceremony. And what purpose would the queen have to do so?

No, Paige decided, someone had simply overlooked it. Not everything was a conspiracy. Not everything was planted so that it could be something for her to figure out. That was just the way the community operated sometimes.

There was no point, anyway. It was just a ribbon, hidden, that had gotten caught. Mott was overly paranoid. Paige understood why, though - were she in his position, she might have been the same way. She couldn't blame him. If she had been without the pills as long as he had, constantly questioning how things were arranged in the community, trying to decide if it was fair or not, trying to figure it all out for herself, left to her own devices without advice from anyone she trusted - she might have felt the same way. But then, he had his parents, didn't he? But who could they trust? It was a strange, dangerous game they all played - trusting generation after generation of someone who had once decided that the pills needed to be done-away-with. Their lives all depended on it, and it was based on one woman's word from over sixty years ago.

One woman with her name.

"If you say so," murmured Mott.

He was trying to protect her, she knew. Part of her, though, was frustrated: she didn't want to be protected all the time. And why did he have to be the one constantly providing the protection? Why not Paige?
Of course, the moment she thought it, the moment she knew the answer: she was new to all of this. Mott had been the one not taking pills his entire life. He had been the one dealing with emotions, training himself on how to deal with the more intense ones, the same ones that had been hitting her hard for the past few days.

But it frustrated her, still. Despite all of its irrationality, Paige wanted to be the one to protect Mott.

Without warning, Paige felt an enormous pain in her stomach. She winced. It wasn't from anything outward, she knew; it was from the wrenching knowledge that she was helpless. Why the pain, then? What purpose could this pain possibly have, sitting in her belly without any external reason?

She wished for a word, an appropriate reaction, a method of expressing this frustration. But none came. She only had the vocabulary she had grown up learning, and whatever Mott and the queen had been providing for her for the past few days.

She let out an anguished groan, then let her face fall into his shoulder.

"What's wrong now?" It was said with concern, but Paige was growing impatient and felt that impatience was hiding somewhere beneath his tone.

"It's just ridiculous," said Paige, nearly wrenching the ribbon apart in her hands. "I don't like this."

"Neither do I, but you've already thought about keeping things the same, haven't you?"

"Of course I have."

"And?"

"And...I can't do it."

"Why not?"

It was the question of the hour, really.

The community clock chimed. It was the turn of the afternoon hour; only a quarter of the work left for Paige and Mott.

She didn't want to go. It was that same irrational sense coming back to her again, the one that said that if she sat here next to him for the rest of her life, everything would be fine. His warmth was available to him regardless of whether his shirt was on or off, and she could be at home wherever he was.

"Because...I can't leave you."

It was the simplest form of the truth that Paige could have said. For all of the surprises the past few days, the only thing that had failed to surprise her had been how much she loved Mott, how safe she felt with him, how much she felt at-ease with the idea of death or life, so long as he was with her for the rest of it. The same little boy who had broken his leg so many years ago was now the source of her contentness - and perhaps he always had been - now that she didn't have a mainstream Community Role and now that she was being removed from her family and wasn't destined for an ordinary path of life.

He looked at her for a moment and their eyes held a silent conversation. Hello, they said, as they had many times before; they didn't need to ask how the others were, because they already knew; that meeting, that gentle look that they held within each other said it all. It probed into the intimacies of their minds, all through that single glance that they shared, because the memories that they had seen flooded through them within that moment.

Perhaps, to Zara, Paige's words might have sounded sweet. They might have sounded romantic or something preposterous like that - as if anyone had the resources to afford being romantic, to afford following emotions on a whim. But to Paige, the words were a matter of fact. They existed as a physical manifestation of that which Paige had building up inside her, they existed to explain her state of being. She could not leave Mott. She had no desire to do so, and now that she'd had a taste of what being with him every day was like, particularly when she had free reign to kiss him whenever she pleased and that there was no extent to how much she could access his warmth, both emotionally and physically, she refused to even consider it. The thought that it might even be a consideration in itself was nonsensical. She couldn't understand it.

The feeling in her stomach had been nonsensical, as well. She didn't enjoy how it had taken her by surprise; in a sense, she didn't like things that took her by surprise, generally. But it couldn't have all been so bad. After all, Mott's first kiss had done so, and that had led to something she couldn't imagine her life without.

She imagined being in her dream again, preparing to burn, watch the smoke fill her vision and create a wall separating Mott from her. She imagined what it would be like for him on the other side of the wall, watching her skin flake away into ashes while her life disintegrated before his eyes.

It was more than she could bear.

This - this sitting side-by-side on an unproductive afternoon, this chatting about anything and everything, this discovery of the impossible - was a relationship she could not leave, on impulse; something within her would not let her abandon it.

He smiled at her. She smiled back. For now, they could be, together.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx xxxx

A/N: Not a particularly eventful chapter, I know, but I felt they needed a small break. Did you know I have a Twitter? I'm just starting to learn how to really use it (even though I've been registered for about two years now). Follow me here: /ellielatraille

I have a facebook page, too: pages/Ellie-LaTraille/159851857483978?ref=hl