Laria braced herself.
Twice the normal amount of scandescant stems and fungal tendrils tightened around her structural trunk as she trudged her way to the Office of Domestic Administration. The intent was to provide extra physical support for herself, as though doing so would account for and make lighter the sophont sitting on her shoulder harness, a cage of vines that held Kiki tight against her. She was so focused on this effort that she hadn’t heard Kiki say her name until she felt a soft kick and wriggle from the harness.
“Oh dear…” Laria mumbled, slowing down her stride as she glanced over to the pet. “Is it too much? Is it too tight?”
Kiki made a soft bleat. “MMmmrrrh… is fine. Feels good. Tight is good.”
Laria let out a sigh, and relaxed a little. “Excellent. What is the issue, little one?”
The pet simply hung her head.
“Is the Laria okay?”
The Affini scout took a pause to think.
After dinner, Kiki described her “tummy” as “uncomfy,” and due to the lack of specialized compilers at the park diner, they couldn’t manufacture digestive medicine there. Laria offered to carry her again, which spawned a series of verbal jabs from their receptionist acquaintance (“Everyone knows physical contact is the first step to biorhythmic pair-bonding!”). After the bubbly affini was shooed away, the excitement of the food experience was beginning to fade, leaving Laria with further anxiety about the search for Kiki’s owner.
Truthfully, the question Kiki asked in the diner only further served to steel Laria for her quest. The scout wanted Kiki to be happy— no, Kiki deserved to be happy. And if the antics in the embassy park were preventing her from being reunited with her owner, then she was wasting the human’s time. The more time the two of them spent together, the more difficult it would be to separate them. It would serve both of them well to be quick and professional about the ordeal, and Kiki’s words were a saccharine reminder of her duty to the pet.
Of course, none of this was anything she wished to express to the young one, so instead Laria managed a grim smile. “I’m fine. We’re almost there. We just have to go a little farther.”
A soft murmur of acceptance, something incomprehensible, was Kiki’s reply. Laria felt herself twitch, and relax a little. Even without fully verbalizing anything — or perhaps because she wasn’t — Kiki had a calming effect about her. Once again, Laria struggled briefly with the thought of the pet being cared for by another affini.
She was never mine to keep, she gently reminded herself.
In any case, it was more important to be focused on the task than worrying about her own feelings. The scout turned her attention to the front desk affini at the ODA. After a brief conversation (where she thanked the stars for being much less exhausting than interacting with Meiple), Laria followed the secretary’s directions to the Reunification Wing. A few twists and turns in some administrative hallways, and finally…
“Here… we are.” Laria breathed, as they entered the hallway. She scanned the signs hanging above; this way to Pet Reclamation, that way for the Feralist Processing Centre. Laria made way for the first office.
Ever since the two entered the embassy, she knew Kiki would likely stay here, though for the last few hours she actively had been trying to block out the thought of doing so. It was objectively the correct choice; assuming there was a proper match found with Kiki’s biometrics, the Pet Reclamation Centre would be able to provide a more suitable temporary home than Laria’s residence, especially without any reasonable modifications for human-scale accessibility.
Still, a part of her mind fretted, they don’t know Kiki like I do. What if her stomach hurts again? What if they don’t know about the way her brain is healing?
…What if I could do a better job of giving her what she needs?
Under most circumstances, the centre would be a small footnote in the embassy’s regular business. However, in the midst of an ongoing domestication project, this area in particular was buzzing with activity.
The space was spartan in comparison to the embassy proper, not meant for social use. Designed for the very serious purpose of getting lost florets back to their owners, there were few visual distractions, so as to facilitate efficient and quick work. While not banal in the way Terran feralists constructed things — the high skylight-spackled ceiling and walls were dusted with beautiful ochre shades, and the couches and ottomans sprinkled about the room looked fairly comfortable by Affini standards — there was a sense of officialness to the area that differed largely from the rest of the embassy. The sophonts here looked unsettled, the affini clearly looking worried and the pets seeming lost and confused.
The counselor on duty, on the other hand, was taut with focus at their station assisting another affini with her search. Tan tendrils reached here and there, tapping away on hundreds of panels and interfaces. It seemed as though their work was neverending. Even as their head, a leafy crown and brilliant violet flowers for eyes, shifted to glance in Laria’s direction, their attention to their terminals hardly waned.
“We have a match!” they exclaimed. “Your little one is currently in The Human History section of the Library Archives, Floor #7. The clerks are assisting them with their research.”
“Thank you so much, Counselor Kudzu,” their patron graciously spoke, grabbing their things. “I thought Kaya wandered off there but I was so busy attending to their new habitat. I’ll go right away!”
After a brief farewell, the affini in front of them absconded, leaving Laria as the next one in line.
“Hello, scout,” Kudzu gestured for Laria to move forward. "What’s the business?”
Laria straightened up a little and approached. “Yes. Ah… Kiki here is a lost floret. I discovered her while out on patrol, and am looking to reunite her with her owner.”
“Ah, wonderful!” Kudzu let out a hearty laugh, enough to vibrate the air in front of them. Though Laria found it a little discordant with the space’s atmosphere, they were clearly enthusiastic about their position, which had to count for something.
Kiki began to shiver; perhaps she didn’t quite appreciate the counselor’s spirited energy. Noting the pet’s tremors, Laria snuck a flexible vine towards the pet’s mouth, who immediately took it and began to gnaw, a soft and comforting, rhythmic munch. Good — she was calming down. Laria made a mental note to find a stomach-relieving, basic pH herb graft to help Kiki treat her own stomach issues in the future.
The counselor must have not noticed anything was wrong, as they continued their inquiry. “Why don’t we get started? Have you her biometrics on hand?”
“Yes… hold on.” Laria tapped a few buttons on Kiki's collar leash, and the information streamed from the device to Kudzu’s complicated looking console.
The counselor briefly took a break from busying their appendages with the interface, shaking their vines out with a lethargic stretch. Kudzu then let out what sounded like a human yawn, a mannerism Laria was acquainted with, although it was quite peculiar-looking.
“I suppose you’re wondering why I am imitating this human act at the moment.” Kudzu leaned in as though to share a secret with Laria, although their voice hardly dropped in volume. “The truth of the matter is, I find it relaxes the other sophonts to see me take a recess every so often. I also find it quite pleasurable.”
“I… I see.” Laria nodded awkwardly in response to what must be Kudzu's attempt at making small talk, and casted a glance around the room. The few pets that remained looked tired, and they echoed Kudzu’s behavior, letting out long sigh-like breaths and fluttering their eyes tiredly. Even Kiki mimicked the act, softly stirring before going back to grazing on Laria’s vines.
“In addition to these beneficial aspects, it is a good way to telegraph what time of day it may be.” Kudzu pointed up to the skylights with a thick root. The cycle of the sun was now far beyond the horizon. An inky cobalt sky was all that could be discerned from Laria’s optical sensors. She had been so busy that she hardly had noticed, but the counselor was right.
The counselor grinned widely, exposing their sharp wiry impressions-of-teeth. “In an hour or so, we’ll be putting the little ones to bed. Hopefully when they wake, their owners will be by their sides.”
“They’ll be taken good care of…” Laria murmured, her mind elsewhere. She hoped there would be a nice bed for Kiki tonight…
An unhelpful beep emanated from the worker's console, causing Kudzu to shift a little in their desk, and make a quizzical glance in Laria’s direction.
“Biometric search is complete, and it seems… well. Strange!”
Kudzu let out another chuckle as if it would mask his confusion. Laria raised an eyebrow.
“Strange? Strange how?”
“This pet, Kiki, has very few entries in our database,” the counselor explained. “Her visit to Dr. Ozier’s station was her first visit to the embassy by our records.”
The scout made a double-take. “Excuse me? That can’t be.”
“Looks like we ought to ‘hold all of those horses’ on this one, as the humans love to say,” Kudzu nodded to themselves self-assuredly. “Perhaps wait until we can cross-reference with the galactic database.”
“Perhaps…” Laria felt her hopes dwindle rapidly. She had hoped that this would be a simple procedure, but instead there were just more questions, more mystery. How could Kiki have been domesticated if she wasn’t entered anywhere on the database? She was hoping that whoever might have injected her with neurochemicals would at least have recovered some sample or something… nothing was adding up right.
Laria felt her harness rattle, and turned her attention back to the pet. Kiki eloquently sniffed the air for a moment, and then opened her mouth.
The scout blinked. “Do you smell her, Kiki?” she asked, attentive once again. She loosened the harness and lowered Kiki to the ground, where she hopped off on all fours.
The pet sniffed the air again, and her eyes rolled back just a little. Laria and Kudzu both watched with rapt attention as she raised a curious front hoof.
She was onto something.
That scent was returning again.
Kiki didn’t know what direction it was coming from, but it pulsated through her nostrils stronger than ever. She didn’t know what was causing it… but she had to try to find the source. She had to be brave for Laria and find her owner!
Stepping away from the two affini, she followed the smell the best she could. There was a clear accent pulling her towards the center of the room. It was… inviting, like the taste of honey or cinnamon, but also intoxicating like whiskey or nicotine. Nicotine… what did that even mean? Kiki shook her head, closed her eyes. Another one of those strange words from her past that she didn't understand. She needed to concentrate right now; memories from the past were hardly helping—
Kiki bleated in surprise as she careened headfirst into a mass of soft black and yellow fluff. She backed up, rubbing her face with a hoof before taking a closer look.
A soft, alien… what Kiki could only describe as a bee-person hovered in front of her. Kiki warily retreated a step. Although they looked extremely cuddleable, the glassy, geometric latticed eyes and three fingered hands were enough to give her pause. Wrapped around their body was some kind of sparkly harness dotted with gemstones, and around their neck, a collar with a display tag.
“Apologiezzz… you zeem a little confuuzzzed, little one,” the bee-thing spoke. “What is it zat you zeek?”
Kiki frowned, and let out an apprehensive honk. “Cherry… blossom… are you Kiki's owner?”
The bee let out something of a buzzy giggle and an accompanying jovial dance, shaking and doing a big loop-dee-loop.
“You would be mizzztaken! I am one-three-zashay Fumarii, zecond floret to ze wondrous Papavier Fumarii, Zixth Bloom!”
As the bee-person bowed dramatically, collar tag chiming, Kiki felt her tummy ache return. This was a little too much all at once. She slumped onto her butt to try and put all of it together.
“What… wha bee person doing here?” Kiki finally asked.
one-three-sashay smiled brightly. “Papavier is retrieving our cotyledon, rannah Fumarii, zird floret. rannah enjoyzzz azzizting with ze domestication of her zpeciezzz… but zee hazzz been prone to occazzzional lozz of conzentration. We had zimply looked away, and zee was gone from her office. Papavier azked myzelf to watch over zis area if rannah happenzzz to wander in.”
Kiki scratched her chin with a hoof. Cotyledon? Domestication of her own species? She wasn't sure what all of that meant. Fortunately, she could already hear Laria's rapid footsteps approach. Perhaps her guardian would be able to understand this better than her.
“I am sorry, little floret,” the affini apologized, standing beside her. “Kiki here thought she smelled something…”
Laria proceeded to shake her vines and pods, producing strange buzzing and fluttering noises. The bee person responded with similar sounds, zigging and zagging in place, before doing a spin in the air. Laria reciprocated the movements to the best of her capacity, and then there was something of a synchronized dance between Laria and one-three-sashay. Their movements were almost hypnotic… Kiki watched, gaze switching between the two and their strange ritual. Her owner’s scent continued to follow the beeple as they moved, though, so it seemed like something was coming of it. Finally, the scout turned back to Kiki. Noticing her bewildered expression, Laria clarified quickly.
“Been a while since I’ve done Beeple-speak. I’m a little rusty…” Laria’s cheek-vines flushed a little. “I was just conversing with sashay about that smell you found, and I think we have a lead, though not a big one.”
Kiki's eyes lit up. “Lead? To owner??”
She scanned Laria's face, hoping to spot excitement, but only seeing confusion.
“one-three?” Laria offered, and the beeple nodded.
“Little zophont…” sashay lowered themselves until they were hovering at Kiki’s height. “What do you know of beeple honey?”
The human made an apathetic bleat.
The floret twisted their fingers in the air, gesticulating in a way that Kiki was sure a fellow bee-person would be able to understand, but to her seemed as enigmatic as their previous dance.
“You zee… beeple honey is used in ze production of Clazz-O drugs… normally we vape literzzz of ze stuff. But for you zophontz, it can be a little more… dangerouzzz.”
one-three-sashay did another spin before continuing. “However! Ze magnificent Papavier Fumarii modified the honey I produce! It no longer emulates ze obliterating neurochemicalzzz effect, but inzztead a pacifying, pleazzzure inducing cocktail known az Clazzzz-Jzzz!”
As if to demonstrate, sashay reached into the folds of their wings, and procured a single drop of a golden liquid, hanging just off of the edge of their finger.
The Scent rapidly crushed all other thoughts in Kiki’s mind.
“Cherry Blossom…” the words tumbled from Kiki's mouth like a stone weight.
“It muzzzt have zzome kind of zzzmell for you, I zzeee…”
Kiki was hardly paying attention to sashay… she was consumed by desire to be reunited with her Owner. Her pupils dilated; the only thing she could see was that drop of love on sashay’s fingertips. Her tongue, already outside of her mouth, began to salivate.
She mumbled and took a step forward. “Ch-cherry… B-b-blossom…”
“W-wait… hold on just a moment, Kiki,” Laria tried to say, but her voice was so distant.
All of it was less important than the Owner in front of her.
In an instant, Kiki’s mouth had wrapped itself around sashay’s finger.
“Oh, goodnezz…” sashay exclaimed, pulling away, but it was too late—
Her tongue burned.
Before she could react, Kiki’s body was rocked with wave after wave of pleasure, bleating and grunting wildly as the edges of her vision exploded into vibrant colors and her body collapsed—
She felt vines reaching to cuddle her… the Laria’s lovely, kind and soft fungal pods supporting her body and head as every sense in her body was inundated with
oh my stars
Laria watched in horror as Kiki tottered in place. Quickly wrapping around to the pet’s front, she placed arms on her shoulders and stared into her eyes, rapidly sizing her up, hoping against hope that Kiki hadn’t just swallowed a terminal amount of beeple-produced drugs.
“...oh dear…” sashay buzzed in concern.
With trepidation, Laria whispered: “Kiki? Are you okay? Talk to me.”
The human’s irises were practically non-existent, her facial muscles completely relaxed, saliva beginning to drip out of her mouth. For a moment she simply stared off into the middle distance, before glancing up at Laria with a blank expression.
Completely unaware of the implications of what she had said, Kiki’s legs gave away, and she slumped to her side. Laria instinctively released a series of vines to catch the human before she hit the ground. In shock, the pet in her arms, the affini was paralyzed with alarm. Her pods felt laden with titanium, her roots inflexible as stone.
For the longest second, Laria Xylon, Fourth Bloom, couldn’t move a stem.
A bitter but LOUD fragrance entered her olfactory sensors; a chemical message from Kudzu, and though not verbalized in any form, she understood the message immediately.
>SCOUT. TAKE HER TO THE MEDICAL CENTRE. NOW.<
She snapped into focus.
Without saying a word, Laria placed Kiki on her shoulders and moved, faster than she had ever moved in her life.