He felt the warmth of the presence behind him; not the warmth of light, though that was certainly there, but rather the warmth of knowing. It was hard to explain Miki’s homunculus. It looked like a teddy bear, a short stout teddy bear with white fur and marble eyes, and yet, against all odds, the AI that controlled it insisted it was not a bear but in fact a kitten. It seemed like a glitch to him, a bug, he thought with amusement, but everyone else seemed to take it really seriously.
Then there was the weapon the homunculus carried, the massive bastard sword twice its size, the blade dwarfing both it and any around it—yet only rarely had Yuusuke seen the homunculus use it, and, in truth, he suspected it was more to dissuade conflict than it was to engage in it.
Still, he could not deny, for all the weirdness of it, that there was something about the homunculus that made it different, that made it seem more alive than others.
It happened from time to time, when the AI had been around for long enough, when the homunculus and the owner had known each other for long enough—Mauve’s epimeliad, Penelope, had been like that—but this one, Polar Kitten, as Miki called it, was different, as if it had always been that way, an old soul made flesh. It confused him and awed him at the same time.
Before him, the bugachug seemed similarly enraptured by the presence of the kitten, the stout figure strolling past Yuusuke without a care, pausing only to heft up the huge sword and drive it into the ground, abandoning it before continuing to approach the crowd of insects.
With other homunculi, Yuusuke found it easy to just think of them impersonally, the way you might when catching a glimpse of a dog jogging alongside its owner, but on each successive occasion that he saw Polar Kitten, Yuusuke began to think of the homunculus as a distinct individual, a him, not an it, and that in itself caused him a small amount of discomfort, as if the Foundation’s homunculi were somehow becoming more human, despite their distinct differences.
His cniht tensed, apprehensive of Polar Kitten approaching the adult bugachug.
“It’s okay,” Miki said as she passed him, laying her hand briefly on the cniht before passing it also. “We’re done fighting for today, I think.”
The bugachug clicked, its head twitched, the mandibles clacking back and forth, and Yuusuke wanted to call out to her, to warn her that the insect was dangerous, that she shouldn’t get so close to it, but there was a strange discomfort in this too, a sense of hypocrisy in that he had been so willing to think of the little teddy bear in human terms but was utterly unwilling to afford the stuttering bugachug the same dignity.
At his side, the cniht seemed indecisive, reading his own emotions and watching the unfolding scene unhappily. He wanted to say something, to reassure his companion, yet he felt so similarly bewildered that there seemed little point. Instead, it was Lilith who spoke next, hefting the Adidas bag off her shoulder and pulling the zip open.
“These might help,” she said, and tossed the bag to the ground, the weight of it landing with a thud before the bugachug.
The insect skittered back slightly, but, catching sight of Miki and Polar Kitten, seemed reassured.
Yuusuke began to feel like a dunce. He had thought the whole deal here might have made him look cool, that he’d get to show how in sync he was with his cniht and how cool his homunculus was and everything, but instead, it now dawned upon him that the goal of coming out here had never been to fight the bugachugs, but rather to feed them.
In the open bag, a month’s worth of foil wrapped Foundation livestock rations caught the fading light, wedges of corn and wheat, oat and barley in silver packaging. They could have told him this, he thought with faint resentment.
“You could have asked,” Lilith said, quiet enough that Miki did not hear, her attention fixed ahead on the bugachug.
Gently, Miki crouched down and reached into the bag, removing one of the rations and holding it up, tearing it open to reveal the foodstuff within. The bugachug tilted its head, clicking its mandibles once more, and still with the ration in her hand, she stood up and reached out, taking the claw of the creature and depositing the foodstuff in its grasp.
It looked down in confusion, and then surprise as Polar Kitten took another bar, likewise opened it, and placed it in its other claw.
“It’s your job to open the packets so the others can eat,” Miki said earnestly. “Can you do that?”
The insect chittered in what Yuusuke guessed might have been affirmation.When they had set out, he had thought that they were just Lilith’s backup, that the point of them being there was to beat back the bugachugs whilst her Samael ran interference with its inhuman chorus of voices, and yet instead, despite her reputation, it seemed that the entire plan all along had been for them to support Miki.
He watched as the bugachug lifted first one ration to its mouth, took a bite, and then enthusiastically turned to the other, the lesser developed insects that surrounded them clicking with curiosity and eagerness, all malice now absent.
“Why didn’t you tell me this was the plan?” he asked aloud this time.
“Because you weren’t interested in listening,” She turned and flashed him a smile, “and I like making boys look stupid.”
He was briefly angry, and then the resentment subsided and he just laughed and shook his head.
“Aren’t we going to be back here in like a month’s time to clear up all these wrappers?”
“Nope. Our benevolent friends at the Foundation already thought of that. They’re biodegradable.”
“I should have guessed.”
Miki and Polar Kitten came to join them once more, the latter leaving his sword wedged in the ground. Yuusuke smiled, looking at the two of them side-by-side, the homunculus standing about as tall as her waist.
“So we’re done here?” he asked.
Miki and Polar Kitten nodded in perfect time with one another.
“We’re done here.”
“No thanks to you,” Lilith smirked, giving the boy a shove as she passed.
Around them the bugachugs lost interest in their movements, focused solely on the elder of their number and the ration bars it was now doling out.
“Next mission though!” he called out as she strolled off. “Next mission, I’m going to be the star of the show, just you wait.”
Lilith waved over her shoulder.
“Whatever, dude,” she called back.
Again, he laughed despite the mess he had made of the situation, and then, with surprise, felt Miki’s arm interlock with his.
“Come on, I’ll buy you a milkshake,” she grinned.
Ah, maybe the whole thing wasn’t a complete bust after all, he thought happily.