Ms. Kistia insisted on Gale taking a short break for a cup of tea and a top-up on her xenodrugs before their final meeting. Admittedly, very little insistence was required to overcome Gale's token show of polite deflection, but Gale had to try all the same in order to wrangle out a compensatory bargain to avoid falling into debt. Of course, the Affini were so far beyond scarcity that the value of the gifts themselves were irrelevant, but it was the principle. Ms. Kistia was providing her consideration, and so Gale had to reciprocate. She did so by going out of her way to fetch a glass of the strange Affini beverage which she knew Ms. Kistia particularly enjoyed from the food court while acquiring her own tea. She had no idea what it was, but she had heard Kistia order it in the past and could repeat it phonetically well enough to be understood.
It was disconcerting to be there on the ship - whose name she had already forgotten in the process of parsing the data about the Phrygia 3 Station situation - surrounded by so many unfamiliar affini. That said, she was always uncomfortable with crowds. Taking that into account, she couldn't decide if being surrounded by affini made her feel more or less at ease than being amongst humans.
The concerns were very different. She had to be meticulous in her dealings to avoid ceding any leverage, of course, as with any affini. She also had to keep a decently wide berth from any affini walking about, alone or accompanied by their florets, lest she risk offending them by rejecting their insouciant caresses and familiar gestures.
Thankfully, Gale's old standby trick for deflecting social interactions availed her still, yet for the opposite reason that it worked on humans. She walked with purpose, fixing her gaze firmly ahead as she carried the drinks back to their table on the edge of the courtyard, beneath the canopy of a broad tree with spiraling azure leaves. Humans, she had found, were generally intimidated and unwilling to question someone who presented the clear impression that they knew what they were doing and belonged. With the Affini, particularly those who comprised the crew of this military ship, they were absolutely perplexed by the curiosity of seeing a sophont self-possessed enough to be aware of their surroundings and have any sense of belonging outside of their owners' arms.
Inaya had mentioned how the affini who crewed military ships tended towards the more orthodox dispositions of Affini culture, as a general rule. And it made sense that those who preferred more strict, hands-on domestication styles would be the ones involved in military operations, given that Affini 'military operations' generally ended with the aliens picking out and taking home whichever rebels they found most appealing as pets.
Belatedly, as she watched an affini lead a human floret with short-cropped pink hair past her on a leash, it dawned on her that almost every human on this ship - refugees notwithstanding - would all be former Terran military or rebels. And yet, seeing the delighted expression on the young pink-haired man's face as he caught up to his owner's heel, she felt not the slightest pangs of fear for her safety. It was clear to see that if the floret had ever possessed any violent tendencies, they had been thoroughly expunged.
Ms. Kistia looked up from her datapad as Gale approached and smiled. "Ah, very thoughtful of you, Ms. Gale, thank you." Ms. Kistia stretched out a leaf, into which Gale deposited the affini beverage.
"Of course," Gale replied. Ms. Kistia extended a number of her vines as stairs for Gale, which she used to walk up to and into her own seat while maintaining her dignity. Settling down into the seat, she took a nice long sip of her tea - nowhere near as good as Heather's but still far better than the synthetic swill she'd had at her old quarters - and sighed. "The more time I spend here, the more I realize just how much we've actually accomplished on Xenia. Just trying to get to the counter on my own and order a cup of tea was... infuriating. Xe had to lean all the way over the counter to see me. And by the looks of the other affini nearby, I'm dead certain that it's at least partially just to make their florets have to ask for their help."
"Prevailing research on handling formerly rebellious Terrans indicates that the adaptation period is minimized when florets come to depend on their owners early." Ms. Kistia confirmed.
"Which isn't particularly helpful when one has no owner to help them. No wonder the Phrygian refugees are so anxious, surrounded by so much hostile architecture. Surely it wouldn't be that much work to compile the work we've accomplished on Xenia for other affini to follow?"
"No, it shouldn't. And given the atrocious state of so many formerly privately owned settlements at the fringes of Terran space, I suspect there will be many more undomesticated Terrans in need of assistance and transport who will appreciate your thoughtfulness."
Gale flushed under the heat of her superior's praise. "It's really the least I can do, in my position." She pulled out her datapad and added a reminder alarm to schedule a team meeting once they were back on Xenia.
"Any additional information about what we'll be dealing with in this last meeting?"
"I have been reviewing their profiles, as well as the reports being provided by those monitoring refugee activities. The crew have been following up on our previous sessions, and it seems that the promise of living on a luxury Terran resort world, with ample space, privacy and unrestricted access to food, appears to be the most effective at mollifying the immediate concerns of the undecided sub-populations based on preliminary analysis."
Gale grinned in satisfaction. Focus on the free food. Works every time. The path to a Terran's heart - provided that pervasive nationalistic propaganda that focuses on tribalistic divisions of human society between the in-group and a scapegoat is off the table due to the obvious moral problems inherent to that approach - is through the stomach.
"However, the report writers have also, repeatedly, made sure to note just how much of a positive impact you, Ms. Gale, are having on the spirits of the refugees. The knowledge that there is a non-Affini individual receptive to their concerns and empowered to act on them has subverted many of their preconceptions about the Affini. Moreover, just about every single one has mentioned being impressed by you in particular. You seem to have developed a reputation amongst the refugees for your boldness, standing up for humanity against the oh so fearsome Affini." Ms. Kistia was clearly amused by this notion, playfully voice layered over the soft rustling of Affini laughter.
Gale covered her face with her hands, embarrassed and mortified. "I. No, that's. That's not. I'm trying to help them work with us! It's not adversarial!"
"Of course, dear Ms. Gale." A comforting vine pats Gale on the shoulder. "But this proves that our delightful show of banter is successfully catching the eye of the hesitant Terrans."
She wasn't panicking, if only because of the xenodrugs, but she still felt the gnawing uncertainty of anxiety in the pit of her stomach. "The affini watching, they know I'm not a... feralist or anything like that? That my commentary is just exaggerated for effect to help establish rapport? I don't want them to think I'm some radical firebrand, trying to start trouble or-" A leaf tip lighted gently on her lips, shushing her.
"Breathe, Ms. Gale. You have nothing to worry about. I explained our process in advance to the ship's crew when approached for assistance, and they were not only understanding but delighted to see a sophont like yourself taking such an active role in helping others adjust to life in the Compact." Kistia rippled delightedly, her voice warm with such pride that Gale couldn't help but echo it back with a smile of her own.
"I couldn't do it without you, Ms. Kistia," Gale said, instinctively minimizing her contributions. "It's a team effort. I'm just glad to be of assistance."
"Of course it is, as is most everything. You'll find that, unlike the Accord, we don't pretend that anything is truly accomplished alone, or that only solitary achievements matter. As such, if you think you can avoid being acknowledged on the basis of helping others, I'm afraid I'll have to disappoint you. Your eagerness to cooperate will only endear you further."
Gale laughed, shaking her head. "Roots, of course. Blasted plants can't even let a girl deflect compliments freely. What's wrong with a bit of humility?" She noted with a mix of amusement and disquiet that her light-hearted 'blasted plants' epithet seemed to draw the attention of several nearby affini in the dining area. It was subtle, something she would certainly have missed before, but she'd spent more time with affini than humans over the past several months. She knew enough of their tells to know she'd drawn their attention.
"Nothing at all, Ms. Gale. But I won't allow you to equivocate humility with self-sabotaging denial." Ms. Kistia stared right through her, and Gale held her gaze. There was something about affini eyes, some optical illusion in their composition that trapped the light. They looked deep, beyond the constraints of their physical dimensions, the sort of impossibly infinite depth of a mirror tunnel or cloudless sky. Each polished facet provided a new vista to map, ever so slowly shifting and changing by minute degrees over time until realization dawned that it had become entirely unrecognizable.
Ms. Kistia tilted her head.
Ms. Kistia smiled. "In fact, for that attempt, I'm going to be forwarding you some of the relevant messages from the crew which I expect you to read."
"Yes, Ms. Kistia," she acquiesced, then took a sip of tea to wet her parched lips. Her datapad began pinging and, as she drew it out, she noted the affini around them had entirely lost interest. Likely, the nonchalance of Ms. Kistia's response established the tone as familiar and jovial rather than combative and rebellious. That being said, she still had no desire to accidentally draw any negative attention from a misunderstanding affini. "Just for my peace of mind... is there any way you could explicitly make it known that I have no, well, negative feelings towards the affini, or feralist sympathies, or the like? I don't want anyone to accidentally get a negative impression by some chance misunderstanding."
"If it will ease your worries, then it's no trouble at all, my dear assistant. I'll take care of that while you finish your tea and read the messages from your fans."
Fans? Gale drew up the first message, unsure what to expect.
To Kistia Esera:Thanks to your help, this whole operation is going smoother than I could have hoped. That assistant of yours is something else! Glad she's on our side! Give her my regards, if you would!-Nematanthus Hypocryta, Fourth Bloom
That was... actually really nice. Gale smiled, despite herself. Working with Linden had not acclimated her to recognition for her efforts. It was a good feeling. She flicked over to the next entry, snipped from a larger report.
To the spectacular Ms. Gale, I have to say I haven't seen such a performance in blooms! She makes a delightful little assistant, doesn't she? I am certain that with her around you must never want for help.
Gale's eyes flicked up to Ms. Kistia momentarily, though the affini was focused on her own datapad. She hoped that Ms. Kistia was as satisfied with her performance as the message writer suggested. Presumably Ms. Kistia wouldn't have relayed such a message if she didn't agree? She moved on to another excerpt.
I must say, it's hard not to feel indirect pride for that assistant of yours! I've never seen a human have such a way with words... Evidently, you've made her feel just as useful as she seems to be! I speak only for myself, but I can see how you were drawn to such an endearing and welcoming sophont, and frankly, I envy you for her work ethic.
She definitely flushed with embarrassment at that one, and covered it up with a drink of tea. These compliments felt so distinctly affini, twisting familiar phrases like 'work ethic' into something far more genuine and playful than the original pernicious Terran intent. She'd heard plenty about work ethic from bosses, professors, private tutors and, ad infinitum, from her parents. All spoken with the covert meaning that any amount of time spent on relaxation or personal care would be better spent on productivity.
But coming from an affini, the words carried a distinctly different weight. These were affini on a military ship. Certainly any amount of work accomplished by a non-affini around here would show exceptional dedication, and earn an overwhelming lavishing of praise from their owners. That said, there was something in the idea of a superior making one of their reports feel useful. Actually improving instead of breaking down their confidence. What a peculiar notion, one which felt far more Affini to Gale than it probably should have.
She flicked to the next, a short standalone message.
Dear Kistia, I must thank you for bringing your darling assistant to help with reassuring the frightened little terrans. Many who initially seemed to be incorrigible feralists have started to lose their fear of affini, and some have even expressed an interest in domestication themselves. Though I fear they may have gotten the wrong idea about the precise nature of your relationship with little Gale.
Gale snorted slightly. Wouldn't be the first time. Were working relationships like the one she shared with Ms. Kistia so abnormal that everyone immediately jumped to conclusions? Perhaps seeing the way she and Ms. Kistia were able to work together would help free people from their preconceptions.
Oh My Kistia! You simply have to tell me what xenodrug regimen your dear assistant is on! I can't remember the last time I saw such a skilled, friendly and understanding sophont this soon after domestication. I hope your dear assistant isn't too tired and make sure you give her proper thanks for all her help when you're done!
Due to rather unfortunate timing, she nearly spat out her tea in shock. Was it really so obvious that she was taking xenodrugs for the trip? That would account for a lot of the misunderstandings. She'd have to be more careful to keep her composure, maybe take a moment to tidy herself up in the washroom before the last meeting. Certainly not a group she'd want to give the wrong impression to if she wanted a hope of reaching a breakthrough. Determinedly ignoring what an affini who mistakenly thought Gale was a pet would think proper thanks consisted of, she quickly moved on to the next item Ms. Kistia had sent: an item of correspondence much longer than the others she had sent thus far.
To: Kistia EseraI feel obligated to compliment you on a job well done with your assistant Ms. Gale.Around half of a Terran hour after the first session you held, a charming young woman came up to my desk, and practically begged me to inform her of what exactly the Human Domestication Program entails.As I'm sure you can guess, she was all the more excited when I told her I could show her instead!As I write this, she's curled up just adorably in my vines, and she has your assistant to thank for it.Please tell Ms Gale that she's a fine example of her species, and that if more of them were like her, the pacification program would've been over in Terran months, rather than years!From: Erena Vasil, 10th Bloom, Domestication Clerk
There was a picture attached. Gale opened it.
Framed by a thicket of spiral curled vines, it showed the familiar face of the girl from the first session. The curious one, who kept asking all the helpful questions. Her eyes were vacant, unfocused. She was thoroughly bound and smiling so wide. Helplessly lost to the fae.
And she had Gale to thank for it.
Gale had seen it in her eyes. She was taken in by their glamour, lurking at the edge of the faerie circle. Perhaps she would have overcome her caution and crossed the threshold alone in time. But it had been Gale, perched ever so carefully upon the edge, who beckoned her forward and sealed her fate.
She looked so happy.
Gale read the message again once more, before her eyes flicked up to Ms. Kistia. The affini was reading, a playful pseudo-smile dancing across her leaves, plain as daylight to Gale.
The fae were pleased with Gale's offering.
Should... should she feel proud? Guilty? This wasn't her intention... not explicitly... but she knew it was a likely outcome all the same. She had, on some level, accepted that being an emissary of Terran Domestication meant furthering the process of Terran domestication as well.
The smiling face of the floret-to-be looked out from the picture.
She couldn't ask Ms. Kistia. She didn't need to ask Ms. Kistia. She knew exactly what the affini would do, and say, and asking whether Ms. Kistia thought she should be this proud would only elicit further questions.
She kept it to herself. She finished her tea. She saved a copy of the picture. She stowed her data pad away.
"Alright, I'm finished with my drink. Shall we?"