The bright light around the four girls dissipated, depositing them in front of the lake. Under her left arm, Lily carried an anvil, made from the metal that formed the Warden. Their return to the construction site had been a rather happy affair, with Prei throwing herself into Lily’s welcoming arms. With the day they had spent in the town of Riasode, the three-day journey there, and the three-day journey back, they had spent a total of a week away from Iris and Prei, and Prei was overjoyed to see her mother, with Iris watching their happy reunion from the side with a smile.
Lily was not one to waste valuable time, however. As soon as Prei had gotten her fill of Lily’s pampering, Lily had taken all of them to the wasteland, where she had shaped Tate an anvil, her work directed by the younger girl. With the anvil prepared, she placed it on the ground in one of the empty spaces she had set aside for annexes and additions to the building. She then directed Prei to help Tate, trusting Tate’s intellect and ability to make full use of Prei’s absurdly powerful magic.
Leaving the two younger members of their family to their smithing work, Lily turned her attention to the foundations and the metal rods she had prepared, confirming what she intended to do. As she surveyed the work site, Iris sidled up next to her and hugged her arm close, leaning her head on Lily’s arm.
“I missed you, Lily.”
Startled out of her concentrated state, Lily quickly recovered and rested her own head on Iris’ head, smiling. She recalled with a hint of grief her breakdown in Riasode and recalled wishing that Iris had been there instead of Tate. It was a nonsensical wish: What difference would it have made if Iris had been with her instead? But Lily knew. She knew, somehow, that it would have made a difference. As for why, Lily had some inkling, but was afraid to confirm it. Iris’ feelings, after all, were programmed into her. Even if the girl returned them, how much of it would be genuine?
Her eye twitched as she considered her hypocrisy. So often she told Iris that it mattered not whether she was human, that Iris was Iris. And here she was, stubbornly refusing to let go of the idea that Iris’ feelings were artificially induced. Yet, despite knowing this, she could not force herself to abandon that accursed doubt. Perhaps, if they had met in some other manner, one where Iris had not been so utterly subservient to her, perhaps then…
Lily’s mouth opened as she tried to speak, but no words came. She closed her eyes as a painful expression crossed her face, then she shut her lips. Recollecting herself, she pushed herself away from Iris, giving her a smile that was heart-wrenchingly false.
“Well then, we should get to work too. Can’t let the children accuse us of slacking off.”
Iris did not laugh at Lily’s offhand joke. She was too busy watching Lily’s painful expression. A look of unease flitted across the android’s face, but she shook her head and followed Lily’s gaze to the empty plot of land, taking Lily’s offered retreat.
Iris mainly watched on as Lily knelt down and began to make numerous deep holes in the ground, like she had prior to their initial scavenging foray into the Wasteland. Iris felt a pang of guilt at being unable to do anything other than watch Lily work, but there was nothing Iris could do to help at this stage of the process. She could not clear and compact the ground the way that Lily could. She turned toward Tate and Prei, who were already hard at work. Prei was holding her hands in front of her, palms facing each other, as a round, compact ball of flame blazed between them. Tate was appraising the fire, placing a hand nearby to confirm its heat. Seemingly satisfied, she picked up one of the iron ingots she had attained in Riasode with a pair of tongs and plunged them into the midst of the fireball. After several moments, she removed it and placed it on the anvil, quickly hammering at it with a shaping hammer. The sound of metal striking metal resounded throughout the cleared plot of land, causing Iris to return her attention to Lily, worried that the sound might have distracted her.
Fortunately, Lily was completely immersed in her task, fully concentrating on forcing the ground down and apart. A soft sigh of frustration escaped Iris’ lips. How thoroughly vexing it was to be of no use. She briefly thought of replacing Prei as Tate’s furnace, since Prei’s innate ability to magically manipulate the earth would be able to replicate what Lily was doing. But Tate required a steady, controlled heat, unlike the explosive heat created by Iris’ in-built compilers. Iris gritted her teeth and clenched her fist. Never before had she felt so limited by her nature.
Unable to bear it any longer, she turned her back on the construction, facing the forest, where none of the girls could see her begin to cry. Here was the person that meant the most to her, the person that she loved the most, and Iris was unable to do anything to help her. For the umpteenth time, she keenly felt the difference in their base natures. It was a thought that had crossed her mind multiple times. Whenever she saw her companions eat, whenever she watched them sleep as she kept watch throughout the night, whenever she opened one of her in-built storage compartments. More recently, when she had opened up her heart to her companions, showing them the pulsing crystal that contained her heart. It was an irrefutable fact that she was not like them; she was not an organic being. She was manufactured. Others had parents, she had creators. Usually, when these troubling thoughts came to mind, she was able to easily dismiss them: her difference was usually an asset to the group, allowing her to keep them safe and lightening the burden of keeping the party fed. But now, in this instance, when it became a hindrance, when it rendered her a burden, she keenly felt this difference, and it weighed heavily on her mind.
Her tears continued to flow, but she made no sobs. She was a machine. She had no need for breath. She silently cried, unnoticed by the rest of the group. Then she felt a cool metal hand on her shoulder. Rapidly blinking away her tears and refreshing the texture on her cheeks to remove the tear stains, she turned to Lily, wearing the same gentle smile that Lily clearly enjoyed seeing. Lily narrowed her eyes, scrutinising Iris’ expression, but then shook her head and continued speaking.
“Alright, this is where you come in.”
“…Sure, what do you need me to do?”
Iris, surprised by the sudden appearance of a task, had her processing speed slowed by a factor of five, meaning she took half a second to reply. Such a difference went unnoticed by Lily, who smiled and spoke her request.
“I need you to cut thin planks of wood, completely smooth on both sides. They need to be about as long as the rods,” Lily gestured at the pile of metal piles on the ground, “and when four of them fit in a square, they should completely fill out these four holes.” She gestured at the four square-shaped holes in the ground which she had just finished creating. “I’m going to pour the mortar into the container made by it, and we should end up with square pillars of just the right size after it dries and we break away the wood.”
Iris nodded and immediately headed to begin felling and preparing a tree. While she did so, Lily mixed the mortar mix she had obtained in Riasode with water, forming a sticky-looking mortar. The two finished at the same time, and Iris placed sixteen neatly cut, precisely measured planks on the ground alongside the metal rods at the same time as Lily brought back a barrel of mortar. Lily turned to Iris.
“Next, I need you to place four of the planks flush along the sides of the hole. Also, I’m going to need a platform to pour this in from.”
Iris nodded wordlessly as she picked up four planks and strode over to the hole closest to Lily. As she walked, her back opened up, releasing her precious Varia. They interlocked and formed a platform, which she positioned at the top of the enclosed square formed by the high planks. Lily nodded in thanks and leapt on top of the platform in a single bound, beginning to pour the mortar into the makeshift cast. While the contents of the barrel continued to flow out, Lily spoke, addressing Iris directly.
Iris looked up at Lily and tilted her head sideways in confusion.
“You have so much knowledge and can do so many amazing things, but I’m making you help me with something so trivial. I’m sure you must be bored out of your mind.”
Iris’ face continued to wear its expression of confusion for a fraction of a second, before she broke into a charming smile. It seemed that Lily had interpreted her frustration as boredom, when it was really anger at herself for not being able to do anything for Lily. The misinterpretation showed that Lily did not fully understand Iris. And perhaps that was for the best. They were two different organisms. Lily was an organic, Iris was a construct. That was an irrefutable fact. It was natural that Lily would not understand the amount of importance a mechanical being like Iris accorded to the state of being needed. It was natural that Lily would not know, and yet Iris wanted her to know. She wanted Lily to know. She wanted Lily to understand. Before she could process her thoughts into edited vocal data, they escaped her lips.
“It’s no trouble. If it’s for you, Lily, no task is trivial. As long as I can be useful to you in some way, I will be happy. So please, continue to use me, in any way you wish.”
Lily watched Iris for a moment, gaze lingering on the mechanical girl’s upturned lips, then closed her eyes in satisfaction as she spoke.
“And there’s your real smile.”
Surprised, Iris touched her hand to her lips. She had made sure to generate a perfect replica of her usual smile, so how had Lily known…? But as Iris watched Lily’s own kind smile, she understood.
Her hand moved down to her chest, resting over her gently pulsing magical core. Iris closed her eyes, her body filled with the warmth of sudden realisation. Of course Lily knew. Of course Lily, who had experienced so many emotions on both extremes of the emotional spectrum, would know. Lily, perhaps more than anyone else, knew that a smile came from the heart. And as Iris was just now realising, perhaps Lily realised that Iris had, at some point, developed a heart.