After Kiki’s repeated curious glances into the lower floor of the embassy, the plant lady (affini?) had finally acquiesced, and together they had made their way down to the park. Laria brought them to a nice, ornate bench naturally cushioned in a pad of soft flowers. After settling in, she brought the pet down onto her lap, and finnicked with her things.
Kiki meanwhile was starting to feel very odd. Being able to speak and think a little more clearly was helpful, but the effort needed to do so was still a massive expenditure. She hoped some food and rest might fix things, and a nice walk in the embassy interior might help her get her thoughts together. Even getting some fresh air outside of the medical centre was making her feel just a little less overwhelmed.
“Alright, little one. Why don’t you try to get these gloves on?”
Laria unzipped the bag containing what looked to be two ornate leather gloves. Organic patterns traced the outside, lines that almost looked like the concentric patterns on an elevation map. Kiki wondered what their purpose was, and stretched her fingers out in anticipation.
Or at least, she tried. It seemed like a basic task, something anyone could accomplish… but Kiki felt some kind of obstruction to opening her fists. She tried stretching the fingers of her hands apart, but couldn’t get her joints to be quite mobile enough. The struggle to execute such a basic mechanical task was starting to frustrate her. Some memories flashed back into her mind as she gazed upon her curled up digits; menial report writing at a desk, clothing and unclothing herself daily with buttons and zippers; handling extremely dangerous experimental weaponry, index finger on the trigger. She blinked and shook her head. Why were they failing her now? What was happening?
After a final attempt, she let out a whimper. “Kiki… Kiki can’t…”
Vines wrapped around Kiki, and soon she found herself in Laria’s lap.
“It’s going to be okay…” The plant lady soothed. “I’ll get your fingers open and put these on for you, okay?”
The human shivered and nodded. She hadn’t even thought about the loss of agency before, but Laria’s ask suddenly forced Kiki to engage with some vague reality that was beginning to set in. She was suddenly even more grateful that Laria was being so… nice to her.
She thought about that flash of lucidity she had earlier… if these plant ladies were “affini,” and Affini were invaders… then Laria (and everyone else in the embassy, for that matter) was either playing some kind of immense trick on her, or… maybe Kiki herself had been tricked into thinking of the Affini as bad aliens. Could it be?
Her train of thought was derailed once more as tiny vines wedged themselves under both of Kiki's fists, pinkie side first. She watched as Laria slowly and deliberately pressed, vines wrapping past her thumb and index finger grip. A strange, smooth sliding sensation gently pried at her clenched hands until Kiki realized, indeed, that they were held open again. A bundle of vines firmly held the digits open, and a fungal pod pressed into her palm, relaxing Kiki’s hand muscles for the first time in hours.
Laria smiled. “There we go.”
Kiki felt her heartbeat quicken. The treatment Laria was giving her was a touch more intimate than she was expecting. Now that her sense of “boundaries” was beginning to return, she found all of this attention immensely affectionate.
The plant lady must have noticed her reaction, because after a beat Laria’s voice began to hasten. “And um, here. Your gloves, Kiki.”
Another set of vines brought the gloves over, sliding neatly onto Kiki’s hands. They were soft on the inside. Silky smooth. And somehow with enough give to keep her hands from entirely curling in together…
An electronic tone emanated from her new mitts, and suddenly Kiki felt them begin to reshape. She let out a breathy gasp. Her hands began to tingle as the glove’s outer layer whirred with nanite activity, buzzing and warping. In a few moments, the motions settled, and Kiki found, attached to her arms, a set of soft, blunt claws with flat ends designed for… walking. They almost looked like the hooves of some ungulate creature.
“Lesly said you get nauseous standing up, which is why we got you these. To help with walking on the ground. I hope they’re to your liking,” Laria spoke, a nervous quaver in her voice.
Kiki tested her new simulated appendages, right hand first. There was a satisfying amount of rigidity to the glove which paired well with her strange condition. Her pinkie and ring finger felt almost bound together, as well as her middle and index. She noticed by wiggling them, she could manipulate her two claws a tiny amount, enough to add impulse to push off the ground. Finally, her thumb, which had rotated slightly to accommodate the new shape of the glove, was seated behind the rest of her digits as additional support. The nanomaterial provided support for her wrists too. Altogether, it all felt very natural, which was odd considering that Kiki was a human and not a four-legged animal. Still, she felt some euphoria knowing she could continue walking the way she had been without injuring herself.
“I know it’s not ideal… there are different modes if you don’t like this one! Whatever works for you.”
Red heat spread across Kiki’s face. On the one hand (or hoof?), there was a distinct sense of pleasure that she felt while on all fours. On the other hoof, it was so instinctive that it flustered her a little. Wasn't Kiki a human? Why did being smaller than Laria and lower to the ground feel just so good…? She couldn't help but feel like she was debasing herself in some way.
She tried not to dwell on it too much, and looked over at her protector with a shy smile. Laria looked nervous about this whole arrangement, and she tried to think of things to say that would get the affini to relax.
“Thank you, Laria. Hooves… good…”
It seemed like her words worked. The Laria let out a sigh, and rolled her shoulders back.
“Well, great!” she smiled. “Why don’t we test them out for you, then.”
For the first time the human wondered if the affini were all as cute as her.
Internally, Laria panicked.
Oh stars how is she this cute oh stars oh stars—
It was all Laria could do to pry her eyes off of those cute hoof-like gloves that Kiki now had installed onto her hands. It was too much. Something about Kiki’s curious experimentation with those gloves, first putting a little weight on them, then taking tottering steps was filling the affini with a sense of pride. How smart the pet was! If Laria had a "heart", as humans did, she was sure it would have "skipped a beat." Goodness…
As the affini watched Kiki begin to trot, then turn back to Laria with a look as if expecting a compliment, she felt a jealous protectiveness wash over her. After all, what kind of mistress would just leave such a well-behaved pet behind like this? It wasn’t fair… none of this was fair. Whoever Kiki belonged to clearly had never seen the human like this, never seen the sweet little thing bring so much joy—
Laria caught herself. This sudden possessive attitude of hers… this wasn't professional. Not in the slightest. Especially since Kiki wasn't even hers.
Laria blinked, and made eye contact with Kiki. She was sitting expectantly on her butt, new hooves held high in the air as if awaiting feedback.
The affini huffed. There was no winning with a pet this adorable. She extended a few vines to administer an affectionate ruffle of Kiki's hair like a responsible owner might. The pet bleated softly and slowly let her new limbs fall to the ground.
"You’re doing great, Kiki. Come on, let's go for a walk. Give ‘em a test run."
Together the two of them began embarking on a short hike through the embassy. With each bend in the path it became clear that Kiki was adjusting quite readily to the new appendages. Without a tail, though, maintaining balance seemed to be a bit of a chore, so the pet couldn’t run more than a few paces past the affini before being forced to slow down. This suited Laria just fine; she didn’t exactly want Kiki to wander too far off, but made a mental note to order a planttech appendage for the pet once she finished their walk.
Despite the fact that every step Kiki took only made Laria more and more eager to just end the investigation early, the scout did her best to steel herself. "Cherry blossom" probably was just as worried about Kiki as Laria was. This inquiry needed to be swift and decisive. For the sake of the Compact, she needed to do her damn job, and stop thinking silly thoughts like the idea of having custom doormats for a pet to wipe her hooves off on, or stocking a newly compiled fridge with whatever snacks a human might enjoy…
Laria, get a hold of yourself! With a groan, she tried to stuff her frustrated feelings out of mind.
“Your pet is just adorable!” "Yes indeed! How lovely!"
Laria looked up at the voices that addressed her. A pair of slender, auburn affini with cattail-like spines seemed to be out on a walk with their own pet, a dazed but smiley woman in a set of pink flowery shorts and a cute button-up. Of course she wasn’t the only one on the trail, but she hadn’t expected to be bothered by anyone here.
"She's uh… she is not actually mine," Laria clarified apologetically, suddenly deeply aware of Kiki's collar, and all of the implications which came with it.
Realizing the ambiguity might leave Kiki open to being propositioned at a moment's notice, she quickly blurted another statement. "...But she is currently my responsibility!"
The two cattail affini exchanged glances of mild confusion, then returned to look at Kiki, who herself briefly sized up the other human before retreating behind Kiki's legs with a shiver.
"What a responsibility you have!" "She's so cute, may I pet her?" The affini drew closer, and Kiki shrunk back a bit more.
The gears in Laria's brain turned slowly until she finally had an answer ready. She straightened her back and took a breath. "We have a… social function we have to get to. Sorry."
"Well… have a good walk then!" The two chirped in near unison, and continued on their way. Laria glanced down again at Kiki, who was still between her legs, face flushed with heat.
"Are you alright Kiki?" Laria asked with concern.
Kiki looked back up with a flustered expression and baa'd softly. "...hungry… maybe Kiki will say something after eating?"
The affini scout cocked her head. This was new. Kiki had, for the last several hours, been working with the attention span of a mayfly. Lesly's antidotes must have started returning some of her core functions, including planning thoughts ahead of time.
This is good, Laria reminded herself. We're getting closer to solving this mystery…
"Then… let's get some dinner for you, little one."
Kiki made a big smile, an innocent expression that looked impossible to suspect. "Mhm!"
"Goodness! You both sure look tuckered out."
Kiki found herself sitting on a cushion under some pavilion diner in the park. It seemed like most of the furniture here was designed to accommodate sophonts of all sizes, with Kiki and Laria sitting on the more human-scale side of the table, and Meiple sitting opposite on the Affini side. The receptionist’s voice occasionally drifted over to her consciousness, but she was currently occupied with opening her jaw for Laria to shovel bits of what tasted like stir-fried broccoli and eggs into her mouth.
"Aaaaaa…" she vocalized, and was rewarded with a spoonful of umami (soy sauce?), the crunchy texture of sturdy greens, and the soft pleasant taste of lightly seasoned eggs which stimulated her senses greatly.
Despite the onslaught of flavor as she munched on her food, she could tell somehow that Laria was upset. The affini looked deflated, her bundle of fungus and vines a head shorter than usual. She stared into the polished granite table they were sitting at like there was something wrong with it.
"You haven't heard the half of it, Meiple. Every other affini that we walked by wanted to dig their thorny little roots into her… it was just nonstop."
Laria wasn't wrong. It seemed like a lot of plant ladies were intrigued by her at best. At first she had thought it was because of her hooves and unconventional mode of travel. Kiki glanced down at her gloves. They were pretty cool, after all. Nice and shiny.
After the first couple, though, it almost seemed like they were "hungry" for her. Some kind of desire was palpable, that was for sure. And that was stirring all kinds of bashful emotions from her…
Meiple giggled. "Well of course they did! Kiki is such a cute sophont. Aren't you?"
Kiki swallowed her bite of food, and contemplated that question for a bit. Well, she had never really thought of herself as desirable before. It wasn't like she hasn't had relationships before, fuzzy as they were to recall. It was just that… well, she was an agent. An OC… OC… a secret agent. And secret agents didn't get much affection.
Not that that mattered. Her owner was still out there, somewhere. And if she had an owner, then that probably meant that she had been domesticated for a good reason, right?
That thought process was rudely interrupted by further scritches from Meiple, nullifying her thoughts and replacing them with an electric pleasure.
"That's a good girl!"
Kiki felt her hind leg kick idly and bleated happily.
Laria's voice grumbled from across the way. "Hey… she was clearly in her thoughts. Don't distract her."
"I'm so sorry your pet is so adorable," Meiple retorted.
"See, this is exactly what I'm talking about! This is why I prefer being out in the field, Meiple!"
"So you can pretend that you don't have to get social enrichment like any sophont needs, hmm?"
"Ms. Zossix! You… you are testing my patience."
"And you, Ms. Xylon, are the stuffiest little ‘shroom I've ever taken out on a date!"
Out of nowhere, the two Affini had begun to bicker. It was almost bizarre, watching Laria lose composure and Meiple pressing the attack with tease after tease.
The sudden change in dynamic was disconcerting for Kiki, and for a moment she had the impulse to bleat loudly and distract them, but shook the thought: no. If she did that they would just pet her and make her brain thoughts scatter.
Meanwhile, Laria was puffing her pods up just a little. “This isn’t a date, Meiple. Let’s be clear about this! We’re here so I can feed the little one.”
Meiple, to her credit, was simply turning her cheek, but her barbs were no less inflammatory. “ ‘The little one!’ Awwww… you should really listen to yourself speak more, scout.”
Kiki poked her chin with a hoof. She had to use her words! She had just relearned them, after all. Finding two words that sounded right in her head, she took a breath, then brayed them at the top of her lungs.
In an instant, the two affini had quieted down, and together they turned, both looking almost disturbed by the outburst. They weren’t the only ones; it seemed like her words had also caught the attention of other park-goers, who were beginning to turn their heads.
Kiki balked. She wasn't expecting this plan to work this well. A stream of words fell out of her mouth to follow up the best she could.
"Um… both you… Affini… good to Kiki… so why not be good to each other?"
After a beat, Laria straightened herself out and sighed. "Indeed… some of us just lost track of what's important here."
"Yes! Some of us." Meiple replied unassumingly, before turning to address the passersby. “Nothing to worry about here, everyone.”
The others began to walk away, and Kiki let out a sigh. That was almost too much social stimulation for her. Any more and she was sure she would have panicked. She opened her mouth and made a quiet “aah” for another spoonful of food, and Laria obliged.
After a swallow, Kiki spoke again. She wanted to figure something out, something that had been worming its way through the folds of her brain the last hour.
"Laria? There was that other human in the park…?"
“Ms. Xylon” cocked her head and nodded. "Yeah, what about it?"
Kiki rubbed her hooves together, as if doing so might help her piece together another thought.
"She had a leash. Was she their… pet too?"
Laria nodded again, curious. “That likely is the case. I believe that most of the humans in the embassy tend to either be pets or ambassadors.”
Kiki blushed a little, and glanced away for a second.
The last few hours of experiences in the embassy left her feeling so fulfilled, more fulfilled than anything before this. Even though there wasn’t much Kiki could recall of her owner beyond that sweet scent, she was a little apprehensive. Everything from before was a haze to remember… but the small flashes she recalled gave her nothing but anxiety. Her hands used to be able to do so many things, but none of them seemed appealing to her. She was scared of the Affini before, but for reasons that didn’t seem logical, especially now. She was some kind of secret agent, an objectively cool thing, but she was… lonely. Would going back to her old owner mean going back to all of that?
She couldn’t say any of this, though; the thought died on her tongue, and when she fumbled for her words, a different set came out, no less honest but certainly less nuanced.
“She looked so happy. Kiki wonders… if Kiki will be that happy when we find Kiki’s owner.”
Kiki looked up to gauge the Laria’s reaction. Once again, that not-quite-happy, not-quite-sad look was returned in her direction.
“Laria?” she asked quietly.
Her savior’s facial expression shifted to something a little more stern.
“Let’s go find your owner, Kiki.”