“Well, that was one way of getting their attention, I guess.”
Lilith handed her a can of something cold. An ugly cat-dragon thing was crudely detailed on the surface, a speech bubble from its mouth declaring the flavour to be lime. It was one of those kapsule kreatures, she thought, accepting the proffered can of SUNNY Up! and pulling back the ring-pull, lifting it to her lips, the sharp taste of sweeteners and lime, of carbonated water. They weren’t kidding with the flavour.
Phoenix lowered the can and smiled, trying to look confident. The scent of burning clung to her, her hair still smelling as if she had been standing before a bonfire.
“Thanks.” She lifted the drink again. “For this too.”
The two of them were idling in the parking lot of the Family Mart across the street. The sun was setting on the horizon, casting the entire island in a dim red glow. Something inappropriately festive, Phoenix considered. Not, of course, that it ever snowed on Sarah Ann.
“So, do you feel like you did what you came here to do? Three days is a pretty good record.” Lilith said, taking a sip from her own can.
Phoenix looked away, staring directly into the setting sun, contrary to all the advice she had received when younger. About her neck, the bell on her choker swayed restlessly, the soft sound of it prefacing her reply.
“I guess,” she answered, paused, and then added, “No, not really.”
Unseen, a smile touched the older girl’s lips.
“Let me ask a different question then. What did you really come here to do?”
Phoenix did not turn back. She had told Lilith that she wanted to train her homunculus, that she wanted her simurgh to get stronger, to be better equipped when it came to dealing with things like the owbs. Clearly she had not believed her, and, in her heart, Phoenix began to wonder if she really believed this answer herself.
“I did want to get stronger,” she said quietly. “I wanted my simurgh to get stronger, but…”
The words trailed away. At her back, the other girl waited patiently.
After a moment or two, and with a sigh, Phoenix continued.
“But then when I used flamethrower, for a moment beforehand, I saw my simurgh as it really was.” She looked back, the bell chiming once more. “I’m not going to lie, it’s not that I didn’t feel good about beating those owbs, but I’d just… I never looked at my simurgh like that before, never stopped to think that there was a framework beneath all that fire, and that it was the same as… the same as that thing we saw last summer.”
Hastily, she averted her eyes again, staring down at the cat-dragon thing on the can, the kragon.
Lilith downed the rest of her drink and tossed the can towards the bin, the sound of its clattering descent ringing out in the lonely evening.
“Hmm, that shit last summer threw us all for a loop,” she agreed, “but you shouldn’t let that define how you relate to your simurgh.”
Phoenix said nothing, even though she wanted to agree.
“Nor should you let how you feel about Poppy get in the way.”
Sharply, Phoenix looked up, annoyance on her face.
“Look, I get it, it’s fine. You don’t have to like her; you don’t even have to like me. If you stop and think about it, despite all that happened last year, it was just one moment, one summer, and I’m pretty sure you’ve got a good few summers ahead of you yet. Unless you do something really stupid that is.”
Phoenix’s annoyance faded into the suggestion of something else, something sad.
“I’m scared,” she said at last. “I’m scared of how big that thing was, I’m scared of how big the Foundation is, how it has so much money that it can just make things like that. I’m scared that maybe all homunculi are the same as that one, that my simurgh is no different.”
Her hand tightened about the can, pressing against the depiction of the cat-dragon, warping its features.
“I’m scared that I don’t know how to fight such a thing.”
She flinched as she felt cold liquid well up from within the can, spilling out over her hand, bubbling effervescence running down the skin and pooling on the gravel at her feet below.
A surprisingly earnest expression crossed Lilith’s face.
“You don’t have to. It’s not your job. People get paid to deal with shit like that, it’s just our bad luck that we were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Phoenix felt a sudden anger as hot as any of the simurgh’s flames.
“And if it hadn’t been for Poppy Labyrinth, our luck would have been even worse.”
In frustration, she threw the can down to the ground, the last liquid seeping out amidst the stones. The sun was hot on the back of her neck, her face full of emotion.
She sighed, reached a hand up, pushed her hair back from her face.
“Sorry,” she murmured.
“It’s fine,” Lilith said, reaching down to pick up the can and toss it towards the trash, a trail of lime flavoured carbonated water bubbling through the air behind it. “It was one summer, Phoenix. Some of the people from your class who were there, you’re probably never going to see again. Hell, the way things are right now, you’re probably never going to see Poppy again.”
The words resonated with an unhappy shock, stirring a feeling that she did not want to acknowledge.
She might never see Poppy again, she thought, and her fists tightened at her side, a sense of uselessness welling up inside of her.
“I hate her,” she said quietly, standing there in the setting sun, her vision suddenly blurred.
Lilith laughed gently.
“I know you do,” she answered, that mischievous smile on her lips once more. “She’s cute as fuck, right?”