The delicate scent of Casablanca lilies greeted me as I opened the door. On the desk sat a large bouquet set in a hand blown crimson vase whose deep red matched the stamen of the lilies. A box sat next to it, huge gold bow an affront to the ethereal blossoms beside it. I didn't have to open the box to know what was inside it.
"It's that time of year again." The silken petals were cool to the touch and released their sweet scent into the air. I should be thankful. These were real flowers, after all, and real flowers required lots of water to grow, water that was a pricey commodity nowadays. The card attached to the blossoms predictably said, To my lovely daughter on her special day.
Opening the box revealed a white dress with lace, same as every year. The cut and style changed, but never the dress. Virginal white, classy lace, a dress meant to give the wearer an air of angelic poise.
The dress always fit, though part of me suspected Grandpa raided my room while I was at school to find out the size. I opened my jewelry box and pulled out last year's present, a gold necklace, and put it on. He probably doesn't remember buying it, but wearing the present of the former year became a ritual I engaged in regardless.
I closed my eyes and indulged in the scent of the flowers. The only beautiful thing about today belonged to this nostalgic scent.
"Ow!" Pain shot up my side. The vase wobbled. "No!" I gasped, catching it before it fell.
"Aria?" Grandpa said as he opened the door.
"The car is here," I finished for him.
I tried to hid the iciness in my tone, but it never seemed to work. He smiled and rubbed my arm. The Buddhist calm Grandpa embodied seemed to take the fires of my anger and frustration and turn it into a warm sun.
"It's only one dinner," he said.
Indoors we couldn't wear shoes. The wooden floors of the temple were a rare commodity, a protected relic of the past before the eruption, and thus we only wore soft socks inside. Walking became more of a skating motion due to their slickness. One of my duties was making sure the floors retained their pristine shine. At the front entrance I put on my heels. The soft hiss of each step became a hard clack.
Michael opened the door and held out his arm in a grand gesture. As a child I loved seeing him and pretending I was a princess being escorted by a butler. Now I saw his gestures for what they were, an elaborate show.
"Lady Aria," he greeted.
I nod to him. "Good evening."
"You look beautiful, as always."
Michael only saw me once a year, same as Father. How then, could he say I was always beautiful? Not that it mattered. I put on the show every year to get it over with as quickly as possible. Rebelling against it only prolonged my suffering.
A hoary city of ice. Concrete everywhere. Skeletons of trees, brittle branches, a bitter reminder of the eruption's destruction. Gray skies, not promising rain, but the remnants of ash floating over us. A permanent chill lingered in the air.
We stopped at a restaurant named Azalea. The name meant nothing to me. A bill here could feed a family for months. Grandpa kept things simple. Our meals weren't fancy, but they were better than anything this place could offer.
"Good evening," the maître d' greeted. "What is the name?"
"I have Aria Tenzin-Adorles here, a guest of Senator Ezekias Adorles," Michael answered.
"Ah yes, Senator Ardorles has already been seated. If you'll follow me, please."
As we walk through the restaurant, I see a familiar golden curled hair ahead. My chest tightened. It's only a coincidence. It's not him. He laughed at something and confirmed my fears. It wasn't a case of mistaken identity. "Seth," I whispered in muted horror.
I huddled into myself. He can't see me like this. Vulnerable. Aria Tenzin-Adorles was a woman of strength, of stubborn pride, a woman who never backed down from a challenge, especially a challenge set by him. He was my rival, my antithesis, the ice to my fire.
Today my flames were nothing but ash.
The familiar silhouette of Father tapping away on his tablet lay a short distance ahead. Just a little more, maybe he won't notice you.
Cold fingers wrapped around my wrist. "Aria?"
I swallowed the lump in my throat. I turned around and came face to face with a set of ash-colored eyes. I forced a laugh. "It's a small world, isn't it?"
His gaze flickered over my face and body. I should have known better to acknowledge him. I should have shrugged off his hand and continued to the table Father sat. The slight raise of his eyebrows confirmed he thought something was awry. The question of whether he'd capitalize on my weakness thickened the air.
"You look nice today."
His words sparked a warm flame in my chest. The most maddening thing about Seth was the way he simultaneously invoked a sense of nostalgia and rage in me. I knew the moment I met him I hated him, yet every time I saw him I also had a sensation of nostalgic warmth. In the same way I felt a connection to the past, I felt like he too, belonged with it.
He gestured to the men beside him. "My brothers. Roman, Joshua, and Mathieu."
None of them looked like they were blood related, but in this day and age anything was possible. Every baby was genetically modified to some extent, even myself.
"Nice to meet you," I greeted, thankful my voice sounded more confident than I felt.
"We go to school together," Seth continued. "She's the closest thing I have to a rival."
"Don't talk like you're the one on top," I snapped. "We're neck-and-neck."
His lips lifted into a smile. "Are we? As I recall, I scored three points higher than you on the last chemistry test."
That ever present cockiness quickly became infuriating. "And I scored three points higher than you on the last history test."
"And I had the highest score on the midterms."
I gritted my teeth. "By one point."
Mathieu laughed. "Don't feel bothered. Knowledge is something that comes naturally to this family."
Oh god, that cocky attitude is hereditary. I cut off my bitter thoughts but couldn't manage to keep it completely out of my voice. "And the world is thankful for it."
"You could sound sincere when you say that," Seth teased.
I shifted my weight to move forward but felt resistance. I looked at Seth, and for a moment I saw worry in his expression. You're acting weird, I read in those furrowed brows. I put on a smile. "It was nice meeting you, and seeing you, Seth. But I have a yearly dinner to attend."
His eyebrows arched as he let go. "See you tomorrow."
I nodded. "Of course." As I walked to my father my stomach knotted with guilt. I wasn't mad at Seth, I took out my aggression towards my father at him. Not that there weren't plenty of things to be upset with Seth about, this just wasn't one of them.
"How lovely it is to run into friends, don't you think?" The maître d' commented.
In this high-class world, even negative interactions were considered positive. Father set aside his tablet and put on that campaign smile. "Happy Birthday, Aria."
"Thank you." I sat across from him.
"Father tells me everything is well."
"Yes, it is."
"And have you decided on your future path?"
"I have not."
"You are a junior in high school," he replied with an air of contempt in his voice.
My voice came out as tense as I felt. "I am well aware."
"Have you thought of it at all? Or are you too interested in boys?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
He arched an eyebrow and nodded to the direction I came. So he saw me and Seth. "He's no one important."
"And what is his pedigree?"
My fists clenched as fires of rage ignited inside. "He can afford to eat here."
"As can everyone that attends that school. But that doesn't speak much, does it?"
"He's of the Macrum family, and he is barely edging me out for first in class. So yes, his pedigree is more than adequate."
"Macrum? They only recently came into money, then. You shouldn't associate with those types. They'll blow through their fortune in a single generation."
"That fortune came from creating a desalination process that made survival in the post-eruption world feasible. They're not as foolish as you think."
"I wouldn't say that." A chair thudded against the ground.
My heart stopped. I knew that voice. "Seth."
"Things seem to be getting a bit heated." He straddled the chair in a casual manner, spoiling the formal customs of the restaurant."Everyone can hear you. And considering I'm the topic at hand, I should at least take part, don't you think?"
Heat rushed to my cheeks. Then he heard me defending him. I'm never living this down.
He held out his hand. "Mr. Adorles, I take it?"
Father looked at his hand with obvious contempt, but took it and gave it a shake.
"I'm Seth. I go to school with your daughter."
"That fact has already been established." He reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet. "How much do you want?"
"For what?" he replied, confusion inherent in his voice.
"For getting out of my daughter's life. She has yet to decide on her path, and the last thing I want is a boy keeping her from realizing her potential."
Fire-hot rage incinerated my self-control. Seventeen years of disgust, anger, and frustration bubbled at the surface. It wouldn't matter if I made a scene. Seth said the entire restaurant could hear us. This "quiet" yearly dinner with his daughter already had a segment reserved on the evening news. As I opened my mouth Seth slammed his fist on the table.
"The most important things in life have no price." He grabbed my hand. "Come on, Aria."
The fire inside sputtered. Father's twisted scowl resembled one of the demon statues in the temple. I snorted. The snort turned to a giggling fit.
Seth dragged me out of the restaurant. Once free of the depressing atmosphere the giggles became a belly-aching laugh. "You have no idea how good this feels. Did you see his face?"
Seth's brows furrowed, but he said nothing in reply. The emotions of the day continued to spill out in laughter. Each laugh shot pain up my side but I couldn't stop.
"Lady Aria?" Michael questioned. "Are you okay?"
I held up my hand. "I'll be walking home, Michael. Give my regards to Father." Each step away from that accursed restaurant became lighter to the point I nearly skipped down the sidewalk like a child.
"How far is home?" Seth asked.
His voice startled me. I didn't even notice he walked beside me. "A ways."
"And you're going to walk back the entire way?"
I shrugged. "It's no big deal."
"If it's about money, I can call a cab…"
I put my hands on my hips and glared. Money was of no object to either of us, and he knew it.
He scratched his head and sighed.
"You don't have to come with me. I'm a big girl, I can take care of myself."
He frowned and said nothing in reply.
I turned and continued walking.
He caught my hand. "It's okay to rely on others."
I yanked my hand out of his. "And sometimes people need to be alone."
He glared. "You're obviously not yourself today."
"And? What better reason for me to be alone?"
"It's about to be dark soon."
"I'll be fine," I insisted with a hint of a growl to my voice.
His lips thinned to a straight line. Between the two of us, the fires of our tempers could melt steel. Unlike schooling hours, I didn't have to restrain myself.
"Fine." He turned and walked away.
Evening set in and the streets were mostly empty. The daytime always had a nice chill, but the nights were as freezing as the heart of winter. The cold rarely bothered me. I always felt warm when others were cold. As odd as it sounded, sometimes I felt like I was the embodiment of fire.
Two girls walked out of the internet café in front of me. I sucked in a breath. Just like Seth, they had a warm nostalgia to them. I've never seen them before, I'm sure of it, but I can't deny this feeling that at one point, I knew them, and we were close.
"Ilia, it's cold!" the blonde whined, hanging off her friend's shoulder.
"I told you we should have left earlier."
"We can't leave in the middle of Rebel's livestream! Besides, wasn't she perfect?" She did a poor imitation of a dance move.
I couldn't help but crack a smile at her antics.
"Well, if we hurry, we can make it to the train station in five minutes," Ilia stated.
As they walked by, the blonde and I made eye contact. My heart throbbed painfully in my chest. She smiled and huddled back into her friend. "Did you see that girl? She's gorgeous! She must be one of those prep girls. I wish I could go there too!"
No, you don't. It's not worth it. I frowned and quickened my pace. After a while, small flecks of white were in the air. The ash peppered my dress. Black rain, gray snow, the once colorful beauty of life was reduced to grayscale.
By time I made it back to the shrine my feet ached and my white dress had become a gray dress.
"Ah, you're home," Grandpa greeted. "I was starting to get worried about you."
I shook my head. "Just needed a walk to clear my head."
"Your father called me. Something about someone named Seth? Ring a bell?"
I sighed and lightly dusted off my clothes. "He's just a classmate."
"There's nothing wrong with being in love, you know. I had quite a few flings in the past, myself." He stroked his chin. "My first girlfriend, she was a little lacking in the upper compartment, but she had legs that went on for days. The fashion of the time was miniskirts and I enjoyed the easy access, if you —"
He laughed. "You're young. That's what youth is for."
I crossed my arms. "I don't need anyone. I don't want a relationship."
"Have you decided what you're going to do after graduation?"
Great, even Grandpa asked that question now. "No."
He smiled. "You'll always have a place here, as the shrine's number one apprentice monk."
I rolled my eyes. "I'm the apprentice monk."
"And the best." He hugged me.
"Grandpa, you're getting ash all over your robe," I chided. But thank you. I needed that.
"The bath is ready and warm, if you like."
I smiled. "Thanks." I went to the back of the shrine to the bath. The water smelled like chemicals. The purest water was used only for drinking and crops. The ranges of purification depended on the necessity. Bathwater was low on the list and required a treatment before use. I gave up trying to diffuse the smell long ago.
The warm water eased my aching feet. I stretched out my legs and rubbed them. The water clouded from the ash. No matter how hard I scrubbed, the ash never seemed to completely disappear.
I wonder who those two girls were. They wore uniforms from the nearby public school, but this was my first time seeing them. Granted, I didn't go out much after school. My life revolved around the shrine and keeping my grades high. When it came time to choose a path having higher grades would open more doors than not.
Nothing seemed appealing. Nothing would ever be appealing. I belonged to the past. Not the world before the eruption. The one seen in history books, the ancient time when humans were interconnected with the earth and its spirits. The time when this temple filled with the footsteps of the enlightened, the time where Buddha walked and breathed the air.
In meditation, when the entire world became still and the pulse of the earth became connected to mine, the voices of spirits, softer than a whisper, echoed in the stillness.
I furrowed my brows.
Half said words, half whispered syllables. A chorus, a mass of intelligible words.
Fi...stor... to... ar... se...
The sounds swirled around my body. I reached out, as though I could grab them and force them together to words.
And in that, one single word came to mine. Fire.