Negotiations on shaky vines

Chapter 29- Shopping on an empty ship

by Exhausted_ambition

Tags: #dom:female #f/f #hypnosis #petplay #pov:bottom #scifi #anxiety #CW:dubious_consent #cw:violence #dom:internalized_imperialism #dom:plant #drug_play #Human_Domestication_Guide #ownership_dynamics #sensation_play #sub:capitalism #sub:female #trans_egg #transgender_characters

Once more the chapter got much longer than I anticipated, that might mean that there are a few more errors. hope you enjoy the chapter!

 
Cleo woke and was met with the sensation of her mind being full of wool. As she struggled to wake up her thoughts were slow, not connecting and forming as they should. Almost like her mind expected something else to do it for her. 
 
Just as she was about to force herself up and awake, she considered just slumbering for a bit on the comfortable sofa. Cleo decided that she really shouldn’t deserved to snooze just a bit more…the last days had been hard after all. 
 
Relaxing in half-sleep also gave time for her mind to slowly return to normal. With each coherent and self-formed thought, it became easier and easier. Her mind was still a bit fuzzy but at least now she could think properly. 
 
The sofa was incredibly soft, something she had usually hated but right now it was nice. For the moment she was comfortable and safe, there was no good reason to get up as far she was concerned. While her body began to reluctantly awake there was movement close by “are you awake?” Cleo responded with a half-hearted groan and turned around, she needed to get up now she could sleep a few more minutes. 
 
Something sat next to her on the sofa, Mertha’s voice was filled with adoring warmth “a bit sleepy?” Sleepy…no, she was a well-disciplined person. Cleo was confident she could get up whenever she wanted, there was just no reason to wake up when the sofa was so comfortable and safe.
 
Cleo was a bit puzzled, why did she need a reason to get up? Waking up early and quickly was its own reward. Perhaps it was the comfort that was dragging her down safe, safe….It was very nice to feel safe. She had not felt safe since…being on class-j, if she ignored that embracement then last time was………… When had been the last time she felt safe? fully, comfortably safe? 
 
Cleo realized that she could not remember, it had always been something. Failing her parents, dying in the streets, getting fired, assassination, losing The Game, her own mind. There had always been a threat lurking around in the corner waiting for her to slip. But now she knew that she was safe, as long as she stayed comfortable.
 
Mertha’s voice was worried “Cleo, are you alright?” a few vines moved to dry the tears that had begun to roll down her cheeks. She did not want Mertha to be worried about her being happy,. At last, there was a reason to wake up. 
 
Cleo opened her eyes and pushed herself up into a semi-sitting position on the couch “I’m fine, just dizzy” She flashed the most genuine smile she had made in ages. She dried the rest of the tears herself and sat up fully.
 
Mertha’s look of concern melted into a wide smile “I understand. The class-H should have worn off fully by now, but you might feel a bit of an aftereffect.” The class-H? right she had been……oh stars. She tried to remember what had happened. All she could remember were colors, words she could not understand, and feelings….that were not relevant or necessary to think about. 
 
Cleo felt conflicted, she remembered what they had agreed on. Did this mean that the thoughts she had were no longer fully hers? Could the safety she felt when comfortable be trusted? It made rational sense that she was still in danger safe. Did it? she felt confused. 
 
This was exactly like when Mertha had made her trust her, except that she had agreed to this in advance. If she wanted or needed to think these things and it was implemented in her mind by someone else was it still not technically her thoughts? And what was the big difference between this and when she had to change how she was thinking to survive The Game? The hypnotics were also more excit-..interesting, than Shivar’s shouting and punishment. 
 
That was enough philosophizing, it was something that had to be done for the plan to work. That was all that mattered in the end. This was a step forward in her job, working against it would be counterproductive. Her eye caught some movement near the kitchen. 
 
Serla was still there and examining her expectantly “her pupils are still slightly dilated, your reaction to xenodrugs is truly remarkable Cleo. I don’t think I have ever seen someone fall so quickly and so deep, was it fun?” That was a question she did not want to answer.
 
Cleo stood up from the bed “you’re still here, how long was I out?” best to just sidestep the question entirely. 
 
Serla looked disappointed “only for about an hour, I need to make sure the suggestions are working properly. You must be hungry, come eat.” Only an hour, that was good. The day was still young, she could get a lot more work done before it was over.
 
Cleo was indeed hungry so climbed up on the chair, steeling herself for getting through another far too good meal. Mertha also sat down next to her while using a vine to take a plate out of the fridge. ‘Fridge’ was perhaps a bit of a wrong term as the pasta on the plate was steaming hot when it was placed in front of her. Perhaps it was more of a temperature-maintaining device. 
 
The pasta was thick with a white cheese sauce, it smelt wonderful, this was going to be hard. While the two affini looked at her she took the first bite. It tasted beyond what she had expected, it was far too buttery and delicious. She took another fork full almost as soon as the first one was swallowed. It was so good, she had to be careful and there was nothing wrong with that. 
 
Cleo devoured the meal in rapid fashion without a single sting of guilt or fear. She knew that it was because of the hypnosis but that did not matter for the moment. Enjoying the food without concern made it so much better. Her plan was working perfectly…..she had been so engrossed in the meal that she had not noticed the excitement of the two affini. 
 
When she glanced up at them, Mertha was looking delighted and Serla looked excited “did you enjoy your meal cutie?” More of Serla’s condescension, luckily she was in too good of a mood for her to bring it down.
 
Her reply was tart “yes, I actually did.  Your constant condescension, not so much.” Serla’s reaction was not what Cleo had expected. The affini shrunk back a bit, a few vines detangled from her form and her expression turned guilty.
 
Serla looked guilty “I’m sorry……it is not my intention for it to come across that way, but I understand that it does. I was going to apologize for my behavior a few days ago, but you were……not in the mood. I do think you would make a wonderful and happy floret, but I also have confidence that you can make it through this if you want to. You are exceptionally strong-willed and driven, I believe in you.” That was not what she would have expected Serla to say, not in a hundred years. 
 
It felt good to have someone besides Mertha believe in her “thanks….that means a lot.” Serla straightened up and collected the stray vines into her form. Serla still looked apologetic but less guilty than before.
 
Then the therapist's face gained a concerned quality, like they were preparing to kick a beehive “Another thing that I need to tell you…you know that Nora has been staying on the ship, with me and Darla.” Cleo remembered mostly the first part of her meeting with Nora, after that she had…well Mertha had distracted her. Serla continued hesitantly “a few days ago Nora…became my floret.” 
 
What?! They had done what to Nora?! “Why?! She is not a danger to herself or anyone else, on what basis could-“ Serla interrupted her.
 
The words were rapid “she asked for it, she volunteered. I did not make her do anything.” The anger that had rapidly built up was filled with confusion. Volunteered?
 
Cleo was tired of being confused “what do you mean volunteered? Why would she volunteer to become something like ‘that’?” a vine coiled around her left hand, it was reassuring to feel Mertha’s presence.
 
Serla leaned a bit forward “I think it is best if you ask her that yourself. I was hoping for you two to meet each other tomorrow. Do you think you are ready for that?” Cleo felt ice fill her veins, she did not want to do that. Meeting Nora would mean facing the fact that she had used the only person who had cared for her and was still alive. Used by her for her own ambition and goals, the guilt was back. 
 
A few of Mertha’s vines coiled reassuringly upon her shoulder “you don’t need to be ready now, we can take it when you feel ready.” That sounded much better. But….was she just going to let Nora live with the understanding that she had manipulated her to have? Also, Nora being a floret….it scared her...She had to make sure she was safe, it was the least she could do. 
 
She breathed out “no, I’m ready now. When and where tomorrow?” There, she had committed to it. 
 
Serla smiled warmly. “I was thinking of a café not far from the park, around noon would be good. The area is quite beautiful at that time.” Cleo nodded in agreement 
 
Mertha sounded hesitant “are you sure? There is no harm in waiting a bit.” Mertha was trying to give her a way out. 
 
She had to close that way off “it’s okay, there is no benefit in waiting either. Let’s do it tomorrow.” Hesitation was one of the most dangerous emotions, one she would not indulge. 
 
Serla’s stood up “if you change your mind just say so, and you two can meet later. I’ll go home and inform Nora. The suggestions seem to be working fine but tell me if you notice something that you don’t like.” Serla smiled mischievously “such a brave and good girl.”……. Wait, was that it? no jab or condensation? Just a compliment and a fact? That felt very unlike Serla. 
 
While Serla left, Cleo noticed that Mertha looked at her affini friend with slight irritation. 
 
Mertha turned to her “we still have the whole rest of the day, I have a good idea of what to use it on. How would you like to go shopping for some new clothes…or anything else for that matter?”  Shopping? 
 
Cleo had no want for that “I think I would rather stay home and wor….or I guess we can go shopping.” Mertha’s face displayed a stubbornness that Cleo knew she would not overcome. She sighed in defeat “can’t we just use the compiler? Why do you even have stores?” if all resources were available at home then stores did not really serve any function. 
 
Mertha was putting away the dishes “handmade or custom-made items can hold sentimental value, the compilers make everything too perfect to be genuine. Take food, for example, a compiler can make it, but it will never taste good like a home coked meal.” Cleo was about to argue that the compiler-made food was perfectly fine, but she probably had astronomically low standards. 
 
Cleo made sure her hoodie could cover her face “If we are going to shop we might as well do it now. I’m ready.” 
 
Mertha flipped her hood back “I think you look much better when you’re not hiding, you have such wonderful hair!” The compliments were nice but…
 
Cleo put the hoodie back on again “thanks but I don’t want to scare any humans that we meet. Don’t need that right now, ok?” she did not want a repeat of the café, best if people didn’t know who she was.
 
Mertha looked a bit taken aback “oh…well, I’m sure it will be fine, you look very different now.” Right, she probably did. It had been a long time since she, and not under call-J ‘she’, had observed herself. As far as she could remember she looked quite different from when she started on class-G. 
 
They left the hab and traveled down onto the street “I have an idea for where to go but it is far away. So, we will take the rail, it’s this way.” The rail…Cleo did not yet know the full extent of the Agraria, this would be an opportunity to see more.
 
The streets showed no sign of life, it was like walking through a ghost town. Each time Cleo saw the outside of the hab, it looked more and more deserted. This was a new direction, leading further into the district. A bit further in the facades of the habs looked white and generic, they were like hexagons stacked on top of each other. The habs closer to home were usually in different shapes and had décor and colors, creating a unique and well-matching tapestry. Perhaps these habs weren’t in use, and they could later be decorated to the owners' wishes. 
 
They finally got to what could be called a station. Except for the rail cutting through the middle, it looked more like a small park with flowers, tables, chairs, and empty stands. Two gently sloping bridges went over the rail and down on the other side. Just as they arrived one of the trams came into the station.
 
It was not too different from the underground rail that she had ordered built on Centhia. It was larger to accommodate affini, and more colorful. Unlike the gray concrete stations and metal gray trams planetside, these looked a lot more welcoming. 
 
Once they got inside the difference was more obvious. On Centhia the inside had small, crowded seats and locations for people to cram themselves like fish in a barrel. Here there were tables with large affini-sized chairs, a compiler, and much more space. In one area of the cart, there was an area filled with pillows, plushies, and soft flooring, likely for florets. Once again however they were alone in the cart and perhaps even the entire tram. 
 
She had really fucked it up, hadn’t she? Even the affini were strained to the max trying to fix her failures. If she had just purged the Terran rebels earlier or sabotaged them before the negotiations…. There were a million things she should have done but didn’t. Now everyone else was paying for her mistakes. Instead of fixing her own mistakes, she was going shopping….it was ruthlessly unfair. 
 
Mertha must have recognized her expression “it is not your fault Cleo, you are just one person. The people on Centhia are doing fine, mostly thanks to you. We should not have let you carry all that responsibility.” The words would have been reassuring had they not been so demonstrably false. She was not just one person, she was the President. She had proved that she could do more than anyone expected time and time again. Even if Mertha believed she should not have held the responsibility, she had held it….and failed. 
 
The tram came to a stop, and they walked out, it was like being on an entirely different planet. The road was, instead of cobblestone, made from small white hexagons of a material….Cleo had no idea what was. The structures around them were entirely dominated by small and large shops in an endless number of styles and types of merchandise. If anything, it looked like a mix between a shopping mall and a farmer’s market, if such a thing was even possible. The place was also covered in vines that spread over the walls and shops, over different shops there were different flowers and colors on the vines. 
 
Mertha seemed to know where they were heading so Cleo just followed. When they got to a large glass fence around a large pit downwards, Cleo realized this was just one floor of what must be an epicenter of commerce. Perhaps not right at the moment, most of the stores were dark and only a scant few seemed to be open. It made Cleo uneasy, this was not how a city was supposed to feel and operate. 
 
Mertha stopped in front of one of the larger shops, it looked rustic and almost a bit dusty. Mertha smiled with satisfaction “they are still open! I thought we could stop by here before going and finding you some clothes. Here they sell a lot of different stuff, most of it Terran in some manner. I’m quite a frequent visitor here.” Mertha was clearly fond of the place.
 
They walked inside, it was filled to the brim with old furniture, paintings, useless things, and old useless things. It was also disturbingly quiet “are you sure the owner is here? Perhaps we should come back later.” Mertha continued to walk inside. The wooden floor creaked slightly under her vines
 
Mertha seemed quite comfortable intruding like this “it’s no problem, I know the operator quite well. She might be out and getting more inventory, as long as we leave a note of whatever we take it will be fine.” Mertha began to inspect a rug with rose-colored patterns. 
 
Cleo was not very convinced “it will be fine? That we steal from the store? I know you don’t have money, but this looks like high-quality and rare goods, there must be some system of exchange.” How else would one distribute in an organized manner?
 
Mertha chuckled “it’s fine as I said. The point of the ‘store’ is that we find something that makes us happy. if we do that then we do our part, no system of exchange is needed.” So, it was just cultural norms that kept it together, the affini were an interesting people. It must have taken a lot of effort in creating a system where so little power accumulation was possible.
 
Mertha looked very interested in that rug, Cleo got a sneaking suspicion that much of the habs furniture and decor came from this place. Mertha looked towards her “just go and explore, perhaps you will find something you want to take back to the hab?” It was better than just standing here.
 
Walking past the old Terran furniture and artwork she felt a slight sting of nostalgia. It was much in the same style as the presidential residences. A mimicry of old Terran styles had always been a mark of the colonies. One would think that Centhia with its spirit of independence from the homeworld would be different, but it was not. Nothing here was interesting past the memories it woke in her. It was still nice to be able to walk alone with her thoughts in such a calm place. 
 
She came to a spiral staircase downwards, on the railing next to it “watch out cutie, don’t fall!” Even here Cleo could not escape the constant condescension. She walked down, making sure to not prove the sign right. The floor below was similar to the first but less with light and more dust. Mertha was probably not ready to leave, and her warden deserved a break doing something she loved. 
 
The bottom floor had slightly more interesting stuff; books, old Terran technology, and even some ancient board games. Just as she was about to leave and head back up she spotted it. ‘It’ was an open black case with a black wooden pen in it. It sat on an old wooden desk, and next to it was a pristine-looking stack of thick paper. She walked over, the pen looked similar to the one she had in her office…she missed that pen.
 
Carefully, Cleo lifted the pen up from its case and tested it in her hand. It was perfectly balanced, the surface smooth but just enough friction to hold it, even if your hand was sweating. The edge of the pen was sharp enough to create the exact shapes on the letters, but not sharp enough to harm the paper in any way. It was a pristine and wonderful pen, made with remarkable craftsmanship. 
 
She let one of her hands stroke the top of the paper stack. This was not just paper, it was handcrafted quality paper. The kind that she would treat herself with for a document she was extra proud of. It awakened memories of diligent meetings, careful deliberation, and wonderful lawmaking.
 
Cleo got an idea, she flicked one of the papers from the stack and placed it down on the desk. She sat down in the creaky chair and lowered the pen to the paper
 
Cleopatra Hansen  
 
The pen flew over the paper like silk, it was a wonderful and sublime experience. The pen was an extension of her hand and the words an extension of her mind. The name looked good, a better and truer signature than she had ever written before. Her moment of bureaucratic delight was broken as she noticed a shadow move toward her.
 
She was not alone! Her mind told her to run like she had so many times before. The shadow was faster and two large vines covered in leaves stopped her chair from tipping over. The figure had her trapped. “I’m sorry I startled you little one.” Cleo’s heart began to calm down, it was just another affini. 
 
The figure moved into the light of a nearby lamp, the affini was smaller than Mertha. It had leaves covering its arms and form, it stopped near its neck where the leaves gave way to light almost white bark that formed the head. Draped on top of its head, in a remarkable reproduction of human hair, were vines that formed a long-intermingled mess. 
 
The affini had an adoring smile on its face “I did not want to disturb your little walk, but your delight over the pen and paper was far too cute to go unacknowledged.” A vine moved to ruffle her hair, she tried to avoid it and failed. 
 
Her hand moved the vine away with growing iteration “no touching.” The affini seemed just as oblivious to her wanting to be alone but removed the vine. 
 
The affini looked up “is that your owner? The one above us?” there was some squeaking from the floor above them. 
 
Cleo felt her frustration rise further “no, she is not my owner.” She tried to say it as firmly as possible. 
 
The affini continued to smile “ah so she is just pet-sitting, is your owner on the planet?” How many hints would be enough?!
 
Cleo tried to remain calm. “I do not have an owner, simple as that.” The affini’s reaction finally changed.
 
At first, the affini looked surprised before a predatory light began to develop “a cute thing like you don’t have an owner? Are you looking for one yourself or waiting for adoption?” Cleo was glad that she had expertise with this. Due to her age, she had met endless amounts of condescension over her career. She knew how it was played, a compliment meant to push the other down in a socially acceptable way. A demonstration of power imbalance, to keep the lowers in their place. By the time she had become governor, none had dared to use such tactics against her. Now the affini were laying it on thicker and thicker every day. 
 
The affini must have mistaken her effort to not become enraged at the plant with something else “I don’t have a floret, I have been too busy for so long. but not anymore…would you like to go get something to eat?” Cleo had no idea what the plant was talking about but found a good way to defuse the affini’s assault in a satisfying manner. 
 
She smiled at the affini “I’m sorry, I have not introduced myself. I am Cleopatra Hansen, president of the Centhian republic, traitor to the accord, the iron governor, destroyer of the agrarian revolt…she/her.'' The affini backed off a bit and looked perplexed. Cleo stood up “also the person above is my warden that I have a previous arrangement with, so I cannot accept your proposal for dinner.” The affini looked disheartened and disappointed. Not the result that Cleo had hoped for but good enough, she began to walk away. 
 
The affini slithered in front of her “I am Betul Neriga, 6th bloom, they/them. I would be very happy if you took the pen and the paper that you enjoyed so much.” Two vines held up the items separately. 
 
Cleo accepted the gifts, not only because it would make it easier to leave but also because she really did want that pen. As she made it up the stairs the affini had picked up the paper with her signature and waved to her, Cleo hesitantly waved back. 
 
Once she got up she saw Mertha stick a green tag onto a fine-looking closet. There were several of these tags on different furniture “oh you found something! What is it?” Mertha sounded unnecessarily excited.
 
Cleo tried to play it off “just a pen and some paper, tools for work later.” She was in truth quite excited to use the pen later. Mertha must have seen through her for she continued to smile despite the ‘work’ word being uttered. 
 
Mertha offered a few vines “I can carry it, if we are done here we can make our way to our next destination.” Cleo gave the paper…and then the pen a bit more reluctantly. Getting out of here was a good idea, talking to Betul had been a test of mental restraint that she did not want to repeat. 
 
They made their way out onto the abandoned town square and headed towards one of the largest buildings in the area. It was several floors tall and took up an entire grid alone. Once they got close it was made clear that it was a clothing store. Unlike the old-timey and rustic feel of the previous store, this one reminded her more of the fashion stores in the Deileem district in New Hamburg. 
 
Once they got inside the size made the albescence of people that much more obvious. The floor and walls were shining white in a triangular grid pattern. The clothes were on stands or displays all over. The last time Cleo had been in a clothing store was over 7 years ago, the massive number of options was almost overwhelming. Not only that but there were at least 6 more floors of this and one subfloor.
 
Mertha looked down at her “see anything you like?” Cleo had not made a conscious choice about what to wear since…forever. The Game required certain attire and that is what she had worn, suit and tie. At the same time her dislike of vanity, which she now could identify as suppressed dysphoria, had made her wary of even experimenting in her free time. She had no experience and no frame of reference.
 
Cleo felt bashful “I don’t know…..we already did some shopping perhaps it is enough for today?” A desperate but possible gamble. 
 
Mertha looked at her with a mischievous glint. “Well then, I guess I’ll keep your data pad then.” Mertha turned towards the store exit. Right, she still had that from tomorrow morning.
 
That data pad was how she worked “hold on, you can’t just do that. I need it.” Mertha turned around still mischievous.
 
She held out the data pad from her form “I guess you can have it if you try on at least 10 outfits.”  10? That was far too much.
 
Cleo sighed “I guess I can try a few, what about 3?” 
 
Mertha smiled “because you are so cute, I can reduce it to 8”
 
So, it was this type of game “4, that is more than enough” 
 
Mertha shook her head performatively “7 is the least I can do, your wardrobe is so terribly bland for such a cute human.”
 
A middle point was natural: “we can meet halfway at 5.” As long as you ignored that Cleo had started at 3.
 
Mertha looked thoughtful for a moment. “6 can be done, but then you need to bring at least 3 of them back to the hab.” 
 
Cleo pushed a bit further “6 and I take home 2, that sounds reasonable to me.” Mertha began to walk towards the exit again. For star's sake “ok, ok, you win. 6 and 3.” 1 point to the plant. 
 
Mertha turned around with a wide smile “I think I’m getting better at this negotiation thing.” 
 
Cleo crossed her arms “it’s just because you have all the leverage.” Just like in every other situation with the affini…she had one tool, but she would not stoop to that level. 
 
Mertha was still smiling “if you say so, I’ll wait here unless you want me to accompany you.” Cleo shook her head, this would be easier without the affini constantly doting on her. 
 
Cleo began to walk and look at the clothes, it could not be so hard, it was just clothes. Most of them were obviously made for florets. Cute, soft, and colorful were the best words to describe the selection. Not indecent, but it was clear that these clothes were not for people pursuing a serious career. She wondered what percentage of the population would be drugged up pets when the affini had their way. 
 
The first floor seemed to be dominated by the dresses that most florets wore; she found a few pieces of more casual clothing that did not fit that category before she had to go up to the next floor. There was more traditional human clothing here but still affected by the affini’s corruption. Denim pants that were far too soft, clothes favored warm colors over neutrality, plant motives, or cute marks all over. After a bit of searching, she did to her surprise find a black suit and red tie. She was about to pick one with her old measurements when she realized that her new….proportions would require a new cut. 
 
The third floor was more practical in nature, or at least she thought so. Jackets, work clothes, shoes of a hundred different kinds. It was clear from the design that these were not made with the intentions of any humans getting into scrapes, but rather appropriate some of humanity's more hardy nature for affini enjoyment. She did find a denim jacket that she hoped would work well with some other top, this was pure improvisation. 
 
The fourth floor held something interesting, a section with human-designed clothes.  To her immediate disappointment, it was not free from affini corruption either. Her goal had just been to pick the most neutral and boring clothes that she could find but those were nowhere in sight. Her attention was dragged to a rather practical-looking hoodie and pants, they had a bit of the flower motif going but nothing too bad. She touched it, it was deceptively soft, so she needed to leave it deserved it. 
 
With enough clothes to reach the deal with Mertha she began to search for a changing room. Not that she had met anyone in the building…hopefully Mertha was right and Centhia was stable. She found it and entered the changing room, oh stars! there was a girl there already….no that was a mirror. 
 
She had changed more than she had ever believed to be possible. Cleo took down the hood and inspected her new form with increasing fascination. She was at least 15 cm shorter at this point, a nice 170 cm tall. Her proportions had indeed changed quite a bit, instead of a tall rectangle of a person she now had curves. Nothing too spectacular but definitely there, and she even had breasts.  
 
Her face was maybe the most significant change. The sharp angles of her face had been rounded out, there was not even a hint of stubble. Cleo had to admit that she looked much healthier, far less exhaustion and stress was shown on her face. For a second she wondered how anyone could ever recognize her.
 
Despite her avoidance of seeing herself when she could, she had still seen herself in propaganda or news. Whether it was made to support or attack, they all focused on her eyes. It was the eyes of a careful and stern watchman, a cold-hearted tyrant, a machine working for progress, or of a monster prepared to do anything to get their way. 
 
Her eyes still held much of the determined focus, hard and disciplined for examining the world and all its threats. There were small, almost invisible differences, they were slightly softer, less bloodshot, and cold. Like frozen metal slowly melting into something else….. 
 
It scared her, both in how little they had changed and that they had changed at all. It was no wonder the floret in the café had been terrified. Her eyes were still much the same that had held a whole sector in fear and uncertainty. Not by accident, but through intended measures. Was Mertha right? Had she tried to do good on Centhia or was that just a lie she wanted to believe? 
 
Cleo noticed she had looked at herself for far too long, she had a job to do and a data pad to get back. She began to try on the outfits, this would be interesting at the very least. The suit worked reasonably well, she could at least look serious in it. The cropped and gray denim jacket left a lot of room for selection with other clothes, it also had some quite practical pockets…It might also look a bit cute….but the productive part was the important quality. The hoodie and pants were extremely comfortable just as she expected, they were a dangerous temptation safe, and a good choice. She had to admit that it was a bit fun, though she still had no idea of what she was doing.
 
With her quota met, she discarded the others in a designated basket and made her way down. just on the second floor, she saw something scarlet red. It was a flowing dress, it was elegant and graceful. The velvet consistency almost made it seem regal. It was not grotesque, just dignified. It was tempting to try on this one as well, very tempting. Why was that? In the end, Cleo decided that it would be easier to just try the dress on at home, it was not like she had to pay.
 
She took it back down where Mertha was doing something on a data pad, probably chatting with Serla. Once she got close enough she caught the affini’s attention “we can take these home, satisfied?” Mertha took the clothes and looked at them and looked at her surprised before she smiled and put them in a bag. 
 
Mertha’s vines were wiggling slightly “I’m very satisfied, good job. You can get the data pad back when we come home. Is there anything more you would like to do?” Mertha had obviously discovered that she had picked 4 outfits, which was embarrassing. The data pad was also still confiscated, Mertha was being unfair today. 
 
Cleo felt a bit hungry, a nutrient bar would be perfect “could I get some tasty food?” the words came out of her before she had time to think them through. What had she just asked for? 
 
Mertha smiled knowingly “that sounds like a perfect idea! I think there is an open restaurant close by, let’s get you something nice.” Mertha began to move, and Cleo was left with little choice but to follow, she had asked for it after all. Why had she asked for something like that? 
 
There was indeed an open restaurant quite close, she made sure to keep her eyes close to the ground. They sat down around a fine square metal table, it was more affini design than human. The entire place had a high-tech feel, most of the furniture and the walls were made of the same material that the street was made from. They were the only guests and a few moments later a figure approached. 
 
Based on the lack of footsteps Cleo assumed it was an affini and looked up. The affini looked more like a short pine tree than a human. There were still slight illusions of limbs and head, but the needles hid most of that. The affini smiled warmly “hello! So nice for you to stop by. It’s been such a slow day, what would you like to eat?” The affini arm reached out towards her, this time she managed to dodge.
 
She looked at the affini with a glare “no. touching.” The affini chuckled and turned towards Mertha. Humans were frightened of her and the affini never took her seriously, could there not be a middle path? The conversation had turned to the affini, trying to keep her in the dark? That would no longer work. 
 
The stranger was the one who had changed language <your floret seems a bit jumpy, I’m sorry if I startled her. She is just so cute, you must be very proud.> Even when speaking in their own language they were putting her down.
 
Mertha thankfully sounded more serious <she is not my floret, just my ward. She is shy so try not to touch her without asking.> She was not shy, she just preferred to be treated like an equal. Mertha ordered some food for her and some water for herself and the other affini left.  
 
Cleo looked at the street outside “this is a nice city, larger than I expected as well.” Mertha smiled and then looked like she got an idea.
 
A few of her vines wiggled “I know where to take you next! There is a very nice place at the far end of the ship with a great view of the entire city. It also has some restaurants that I would love to take you to. It should also have a few more people, not every part has become as….empty at this one.” It was clear that Mertha was trying to make her feel better.
 
Cleo smiled as best as she could “that sounds nice, though having more affini intruding on my personal space is not the top of my wish list.” At least she could try to be slightly less a drain on Mertha’s happiness. 
 
Mertha smiled back “then I will plan our next trip to be quite soon. Also, try to bear with my fellow affini, they usually act more restrained than that. Affini have a biological need to take care of sophonts, at the moment there has been little chance to indulge in that need, so some are perhaps a bit….needy.” Mertha sounded a bit embarrassed, for her own sake or for her peoples’?
 
Cleo decided to pry “well you seem to have less of this biological need than the others. You have been quite respectful for the most part if we don’t count the class-J period, of course.” Mertha’s look of embarrassment increased in its intensity.
 
She almost sounded shameful “I have tried my best….are you angry or hurt about what happened when you were on class-j? if you are I want you to know that I am truly and deeply sorry…” Was she angry….
 
She felt shame and a bit of embarrassment, but only towards how she had acted “no, at least I don’t think I do. If I remember correctly I was the one who initiated a lot of the……interactions. If this biological need is a true phenomenon then I am almost surprised you were so restrained as you were.”  Mertha looked relieved, good, Mertha had nothing to feel shame about. 
 
The disrespectful affini came back with the food, Mertha had picked for her some fish and potatoes. It looked delectable, fish was a rare delicacy on Centhia with its low amount of unpolluted water. Before she could begin to eat the pine affini spoke “I’m sorry I didn’t ask before, but do you think I can pet you?” 
 
Cleo considered it, perhaps some positive reinforcement around personal space would be beneficial for the affini “sure, just as long as I can still eat.” A large hand was already on her head the second she had finished the sentence, it began to ruffle her hair and gently scratch her scalp. She tried to not let it distract her, but it was surpassingly nice. Had she missed this? No, of course not, what a ridiculous notion. 
 
While she was being petted with a gentle intensity she began to eat the food. The fish was perfectly seasoned and tasted absolutely amazing. Between the food and the pets, she almost began to space out, she had to stop this now was safe and deserved some comfort. 
 
The affini sounded delighted <she is absolutely adorable, does this beautiful sophont have a name?>
 
Cleo answered between two forks of fish “Cleopatra….Hansen.” The pets intensified, they had no right to feel this good. The affini sounded impressed now <so you know our language, what a smart girl!> Cleo looked at Mertha, she looked happy and….perhaps a bit jealous. 
 
Mustering her will Cleo signaled to the affini to stop, and the pets ceased. She finished her food rapidly and felt full and satisfied. She involuntarily let out a yawn “I…think I might be a bit tired, perhaps we should go back home? Thanks for the meal by the way.” The other affini had stayed and watched.
 
It took the plate and Mertha’s empty bowl “no problem little one, I hope you come back soon!'' They then went towards the door to the kitchen. 
 
Mertha smiled warmly “had a good day?” They both prepared to leave, Cleo’s legs were resentful of having to stand.
 
Cleo yawned again “it has been a nice day indeed, I think….perhaps you should carry me home.” The soft vines lifted her up and cradled her comfortably.
 
Mertha was making a nice pleasing rhythm “of course little one, let's go home.” Cleo felt sleep take her as they made their way to the tram. It had been a good day, if only the affini would be a bit less relentless. 

The chapters just keep getting longer and longer, from 2000 at the start to 7000 for this one…I need to limit myself. I’m a seasoned DM so I know how to run a shopping scene, perhaps that is it. next chapter will be nr.30- A two sided reunion

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