Cleo was regretting her choices, at least the shopping trip had distracted her from the imminent disaster. It had been a slow morning, so they had both just finished breakfast and it was already time to leave. Meeting Nora would be difficult, Cleo felt afraid of the coming confrontation. How would Nora react when she explained her actions? Was Nora even the same person now that she was domesticated?
For a second she considered telling Mertha to cancel but pushed the hesitation and fear down. No matter what happened she would get through this. Even if Nora hated her afterward it was still the right thing to do. She also missed Nora terribly, not having her around felt like something was missing. Nora had been an ever-present fact of her life, but soon that would never be the case again.
She took a few slow breaths and made sure she was ready. She had elected to wear the new denim jacket, much to Mertha’s delight. She made sure to comb her hair, I was reaching down to the middle of her shoulders now. It reminded her of how it had once been when she and Nora were close, when the world seemed so much less dangerous, when she had been happy…
She stepped out of the bathroom “Mertha I think we should leave now, if not we are going to be late.” Mertha looked back at her with concern, her worry must be quite obvious.
Mertha closed the distance between them and leaned down “are you sure you are ready for this?”
No way back “yes, I’m a bit afraid but I don’t think that will stop soon. let’s go before my nerves fracture completely.” Mertha nodded hesitantly and they both walked out of the hab.
The walk to the park felt like a walk towards the gallows, Mertha lent her a vine to hold. What was she going to say to Nora? How was she going to explain the fact that she had undermined their relationship just for power? Mertha got her attention by tugging on her hand gently.
Mertha’s voice was warm “if you want I can give you something to help with the stress. You will still be able to talk to her, but without all the tension in your body.” Cleo noticed now how tense she was, her body was ready to run at a moment’s notice.
She would face this alone, she owed Nora that much “no thanks, but it helps that you are here with me. Thanks for….well everything.” There was a bit of guilt, Mertha would be much happier with someone else…
Suddenly and without warning, they had arrived, at a large square filled with cafes and restaurants. It had a good view of the park that was only a few minutes away. The center of the square was a small park in itself with scattered benches and paths cutting through grass. In the center of the square was a massive tree that reached high up beyond the top of the buildings around it.
There were also to her surprise, a good deal of people here. Perhaps 30 affini and a bit fewer of that number of florets. Affini were talking over drinks while petting the florets in their lap, sitting on benches, and watching their pets play with each other in the grass. There was even what seemed like a small impromptu match of some board game near the tree. It was by far the most amount of activity she had seen so far on the Agraria. It was calming, seeing people enjoy their lives so carefree and happy.
Her observation was interrupted as Mertha tugged a bit on her hand again and led her to one of the cafes on the other side. She walked hesitantly, forcing each step. She did not want to do this, but she had to.
Cleo saw Serla first, the multicolored affini waved with a hand as she saw them approach. Next to Serla, on…a leash that led to a collar was Nora. She looked happy, excited, and perhaps a bit nervous. Even at this distance, Cleo could see that Nora was far more lucid than the other florets they had walked past. She looked fully aware and….normal. It was a relief, perhaps voluntary florets were allowed to keep more of their functions intact?
Nora spotted them and waved as well, guilt welled up like black bile in her mind. Cleo continued to force each step forward, looking down at the ground, until she was close enough that she needed to look up. Nora looked so happy, so relieved “Cleo, you look good…” Nora’s voice tore at her heart, she did not deserve this.
Her words were choked, forced out “thanks….you look good too….” Nora smiled and moved forward, Cleo knew what was about to happen but was too frozen to stop it. Nora embraced her in a warm and powerful hug. Nora had always been around her height when not in armor, now she was easily a head taller. She was also just as strong as before, the hug was inescapable. Despite what she knew was right she returned the hug, she had missed Nora so much. She felt tears begin to well up in her eyes, this was wrong but felt so necessary.
Nora pulled back and smiled warmly, a few tears in her eyes as well “I’m thankful that you’re okay, I was so worried.” Cleo nodded, at least she could put that worry to rest.
Mertha and Serla had talked a bit already “Serla and I think that it is best if you have some alone time, we will sit over there so just tell us if there is anything you need.” The affini moved away, leaving her and Nora alone.
Nora pointed to a human-sized table a few paces away “we can sit there. I already ordered some hot chocolate, hope that’s up to your standard, President” Cleo tried to laugh at the implementation of her old title, but it just came out tortured and nervous.
They sat down, the tension was palpable. Nora noticed it of course “Cleo…are you okay? your heart is beating very rapidly.” How was she to respond?
She just had to start, before she convinced herself that the lie was better than the truth “I’m…..I’m sorry.” Nora looked a bit surprised.
Cleo had to continue “I’m sorry for putting you in danger…I’m sorry for using you for my pointless and horrible ends…I’m so, so sorry” her tears were dripping down on the table.
Nora frowned as she had half expected this “you never used me, Cleo, there was danger, yes, but I chose that myself. I wanted to protect you.” That was a lie!
She felt her throat tighten “that’s not true…I manipulated you…I made you think we were still friends…while I….treated you like you were barely a person….I’m sorry.” Nora grabbed her hand forcefully and made her look up.
Nora’s eyes were determined, her voice strict “that is one of the stupidest things you have ever said. I didn’t stay because you ‘manipulated’ me, I stayed because I wanted to. If you think you could have manipulated me like that then you must either think that I am very stupid or that you are far better than
you actually are. You were distant and cold sometimes, but you never treated me poorly. You cared for me, far more than you cared for yourself.” Was she right? But…
Cleo forced the words past her lips “but I held you, sister, as a practical hostage, you were economically dependent on the job….i put you in so much danger…” Nora tightened the grip around her hand.
Nora’s voice was firm “I could have found a new job…tell me, if I had quit, would you have stopped paying for Frederika’s treatment?” The mere thought horrified her.
The words came out instinctively “no! of course not, I could never have done that to her.” Nora smiled
Nora's voice was reassuring, warm “see, how can you say that you used me when you have given me so much. You saved my life, you saved my sister, you gave me a job and education, and you even gave me amazing hearing. I got into a few scrapes, but I survived.” ‘A few scrapes’ was a massive understatement, Nora’s voice wavered “if…if anything it is I who failed you.” Cleo’s guilt and growing but reluctant relief were replaced by confusion. What on Terra was she talking about?
Nora began to shake slightly “I….I should have protected you….but I let you get captured and….and hurt…I’m the one who should be sorry.” That made no sense in any way.
Cleo felt almost angry at the injustice of the statement “Nora, I created that situation! just like I created all the others that we suffered through. I will not allow you to be guilty, for not managing to perfectly protect me against every enemy that I made in my pointless quest for power.” Nora had begun to cry.
Her voice was shaking “you…you almost died, I was almost too late…I even hit you…I should have-“ Cleo could not stand hearing Nora blame herself for another second.
She interrupted with as much authority as her voice could muster “had you not hit me I would be dead, all because of my stupid pride. Do you know what would have happened if I had my way? If my hollow purpose to control everything had gone to plan? I would have died Nora. My body was a few days from going into a coma from exhaustion. You and Mertha saved my life.” Nora looked shocked and then even more guilty.
Nora looked away, her voice quiet “if I was a good friend then I would have stopped you from ever getting to that point. I should have done something, instead, I just watched as you were crushed under all that pressure and work.” This was not how this conversation was supposed to go.
Cleo could not even begin to understand why Nora felt like this “I did that to myself, there was nothing you could have done.” The tension began to ebb away as they sat in silence for a little bit.
Nora looked back at her, her eyes were hard. “you didn’t change like that on your own, it was that abusive shit Shivar.” Cleo was taken aback, what?
She felt a need to defend her mentor “Shivar was not abusive, he saved me and helped me survive. Don’t talk about him like that.”
Nora’s voice was angry “he hurt you, I heard it. He was the one who pushed you to cut your hair….to be constantly afraid. He was not a good person Cleo.” But Shivar had done so much for her, even if he had been strict at times.
Cleo felt cold “he never hit to hurt me, it was only to make me understand. I-“ Nora stood up from the chair so fast it tipped over.
Her eyes were enraged “he hit you?” Cleo almost felt afraid.
Her voice was stuttering “on...only when I had made a mi…mistake.”
Nora’s muscles flexed like they were ready to break the table in two “if that vile man wasn’t dead already I would kill him myself! He never cared for you, he just wanted some heir to satiate his own ego.” Cleo felt hollow, Shivar had been like a father to her. Someone older who believed in her and made her try harder. But Nora was right, she knew Nora was right, but it hurt to acknowledge. Shivar might have been like a father, but that did not mean that he was a good one.
Nora put the chair back up and sat down “sorry for the outburst, I shouldn’t get so angry.”
Cleo could not blame her, if Nora had told her something similar she would likely have the person assassinated within the hour “it’s okay….”
They sat in silence for a bit, it was awkward but still nice. It was nice to finally be able to talk to Nora again, she had hardly realized how much she had missed it. Then she realized what she had to do and her heart sank again.
Cleo breathed out “I can’t accept that you think you failed me because of my mistakes. It just won’t do.”
Nora leaned defiantly back in her chair and crossed her arms “and I can’t accept that you think you exploited me when you have done so much for me.” There was a brief staredown. Nora’s eyes were stubborn, Cleo would guess her eyes were as well.
A voice broke the tension “then perhaps you can both forgive yourselves, that seems like a good compromise that leaves everyone happy.” Serla was standing next to the table with two cups of hot chocolate in her vines.
Cleo protested “what I did was not the same, I had the power, so I had the responsibility.”
Nora countered “I destroyed your life’s work, I disobeyed a direct order.”
“Good, it was for the best either way. I put you in danger. How many times were you hurt while protecting me? I bet you can’t even remember.”
“That was my job, Cleo. Was I supposed to let you die? Over my dead body.”
Serla tried to speak “what?!” both Cleo and Nora looked at the affini with blistering irritation
Serla sighed “while it is very cute to watch you argue over who has the right to feel guilty it is not helping either of you. It seems to me that it is more important to both of you that the other one does not feel guilty than that you feel guilty yourself. If both of you forgive yourself, you both get what you want.” The plant was making a great deal of sense, even if she did not like it.
Cleo locked eyes with Nora again “fine, but you better do so. I will not forgive myself if you continue to believe that utter nonsense.”
Nora snorted indigently “sure, but I know you, Cleo. If I see even a hint of guilt next time we meet I’ll tell Mertha.” A credible threat.
Serla smiled “such good girls you both are! here you deserve a treat.” Serla put down the drinks and then walked back towards Mertha who had observed the whole situation.
Cleo noticed that the tension in her body had all but disappeared, then she noticed Nora’s collar and remembered the second reason for being here. Cleo took a long sip of the chocolate, fuck it tasted good. She put the cup down and pointed at the collar “so…you’re a floret now…how is that working out?”
Nora blushed a bit “it’s working out well so far, Serla is a very good owner. I would not have chosen her if she wasn’t. Though I don’t think I have heard about a bad affini owner.” Right, Nora had chosen Serla, not the other way around.
Cleo felt curious “why did you decide to do it? you also look far more lucid than most florets I have seen.”
Nora blushed a bit again “I want to be taken care of and honestly I am so tired of responsibility. I love Darla and Serla so that made it kind of obvious, just had to make the leap. And yeah I have yet to get the implant, so I am not on xenodrugs 24/7 like many others.” Implant?
Cleo was at least relieved that it had been a legitimate free choice “good to hear that there was no force involved. For me, I am kind of teetering on the edge of having it forced upon me. What do you mean by ‘implant’?”
Nora looked a bit surprised “the Haustoric implant…you know the thing you get when you become a floret…Cleo, do you know anything about what being a floret entails?” Cleo felt a bit embarrassed.
It was not like she knew nothing “I know enough, you lose your rights and become property. I assume there is some mental reconditioning to make you docile. I know the results, but intel on the process was surprisingly hard to come by. Few people had time to get to know it and then have the mental power to send a report.” It was not like it had been important to know.
Nora almost giggled “some of that is true, but it is a bit more complicated than that. The floret and owner sign a contract. That contract does include losing your rights and becoming the property of the owner in question. In return, they take care of you, make you happy, and be the best version of yourself that you can be. The floret and Owner can add specifications to the contract if they want so that both parties have their wants satisfied. There is no mental conditioning unless the owner finds it necessary.” That did sound more mutually beneficial than what she had first assumed.
She was not convinced yet “and the implant?”
Nora fidgeted a bit with her hair “it is a plant…thing that they operate into the top of your spine so it can connect to your nervous system. I know that sounds scary, but it is really just so the owner can make sure the floret is happy and healthy.” yeah that did sound scary as hell.
Cleo raised an eyebrow “right….the florets I have met so far seem to either be so high on xenodrugs that they don’t know who they are or slightly more lucid people that have lost all ambition. All of them seem to worship their owners with undying adoration. You can claim that there is no metal condition but why is every one of them so docile?” it was unnerving, there was so little…edge to them. Like all their rough parts had been polished into something the affini found more pleasing.
Nora smiled “have you considered that it might be because they want to? There is not just one way to be a floret. Some want to be literal pets, unable to talk and understand speech. Some want to live life without any of the anxiety or stress from their own life. Some people just want to chill with their owner while having no responsibilities. Some florets, like me, want to create art or entertainment or run a café or restaurant. There are almost as many ways to be a floret as there are florets, the affini are very accommodating. You call it docile, I just see people that are happy without the stress and pressure from the old world.” Nora spoke with a confidence that held weight, perhaps her view had been too singular.
Nora looked at her mischievously. “In fact…you seemed to be a very happy floret only a few days ago.”
Now it was her turn to blush “I was on class-J, that does not count. It was an embarrassing and humiliating affair.”
Nora just smiled wider “you did seem to like it…you haven’t considered-“
Cleo felt her face red with embarrassment “no! I have not. It might well work for you, but I will not become some affini pet. I don’t want to talk anymore about this.” Nora let out a small chuckle.
Nora backed off “alright, alright, I understand. Do you find the affini so bad? I think I have yet to meet one that was not super friendly.” Cleo was still a bit irritated but welcomed the change in topic.
The affini… “friendly, sure. They are all very friendly and nice. I just wish they would stop with the constant condescension. You can hardly have a conversation with one without it putting you down. Cute this, cutie that, it is bloody irritating.” Nora seemed confused.
Nora looked a bit taken aback. “They might be a bit condescending by accident, but most of it is just flirting.” Had she heard that right? Flirting?
Preposterous “Flirting? Are you serious?”
Nora almost looked upset “yes Cleo, flirting. Have you not…..oh my stars. You are hopeless.” It was a ridiculous notion.
The fact that Nora treated it like it was obvious was irritating “Nora, I know how condescension sounds. Also, why would they flirt with me of all people?” it made no sense on any plane of rationality.
Nora sighed “Cleo, you do understand that being called cute is a compliment, right?” that’s not how it worked, it was used to show disrespect…right?
When she did not answer Nora looked even more upset “Cleo they are flirting with you because they think you are cute, and you are quite fucking cute. Ok, tell me about the last time you spoke with an affini that was not Serla or Mertha.” Well, the pine-looking affini was the last but that whole interaction was embarrassing.
Cleo did not know what Nora wanted to get at, but indulged her “yesterday I was with Martha in some type of antique shop. While I was testing an excellent pen one affini sort of snuck up on me. They were immediately under the impression that I was a floret. When I painstakingly explained that I was not a floret, they then asked if I was looking for an owner. They said something about not having a floret themselves and asked me to go eat with them. Like I can’t even get food on my own. I managed to refuse the condescending offer and leave, they did give me the pen though, so that was nice.” Nora’s face showed more and more disbelief with every sentence.
Nora facepalmed “she was asking you out on a date you oblivious…agh! I saw you once figure out some admiral's plot while talking about types of cheese! How can you not understand that the affini was interested in you?!” hold on…..the affini didn’t….that could not…..oh. That made perfect sense.
Except for one part “why me though? I don’t think-“ Nora grabbed her hand again.
Her voice was frustrated “Cleo, I need you to understand this. These people have conquered galaxies in the search of cute sophonts, you fit that description perfectly. I bet that if you walked up to Mertha right this second and asked she would make you her floret in an instant, no hesitation.” Cleo felt her heart sink when she heard that last part.
Cleo looked down into the now empty cup “you’re probably right, but that would not be good. Mertha would be much happier with someone else.” Nora’s expression changed in an instant.
She was serious now “what do you mean? you two look so happy together.”
The remnants of the chocolate at the bottom of the cup were suddenly very interesting “I’m a broken person Nora. I have to be on xenodrugs to not suspect everyone around me of plotting against me. I need hypnotic treatment to just eat like a normal person. I’m a fucking mess that resists every attempt at getting better. Mertha is such a wonderful person who has done so much for me, she should be with someone better than me…someone that can let her be happy like she deserves.” The words hurt, but they were true.
Cleo looked up at Nora, she looked thoughtful. Like she was mulling something over “I watched without doing anything last time, I am not making that mistake again.” What? Nora turned her head “Mertha! Could you come over?” hold on!
If Nora told Mertha…. “Nora, you can’t tell her what I said, please!”
Mertha’s shadow was cast over the table “can’t tell me what?” how was the affini this quick?
Cleo looked at Nora pleadingly “sorry Cleo this is for your own good.” Nora looked up at Mertha “Cleo just told me that she believes that you would be happier with someone else. That you deserved someone who was not such a ‘fucking mess’ as she put it.” Nora…..how could you?
Cleo did not even dare to look up, she could feel the gaze of the affini “Cleo…Is this true?” Mertha’s voice was low, almost threatening.
What was she supposed to say? “I think maybe there is a bit of a misunde-“
Mertha interrupted her “are you saying that Nora is wrong? Could you repeat what you ‘’did’ say?”
Cleo felt sweat prickle forth on her forehead “Just that….perhaps…maybe...you know” her words were completely failing her.
A vine shot forward and coiled around the loop in the collar. The vine pulled, and she was forced to look up. Mertha’s eyes were shining with the closest to anger that Cleo had seen “Cleo! I warned you about what would happen if you entertained such thoughts.” Mertha turned to Nora and smiled “I hope your meeting was fun. Cleo and I have a few things to talk about, so we need to leave now.” The vine pulled on the collar, and she was forced to stand up.
Cleo looked at Nora in disbelief, how could she have done this? Nora gave a mischievous smile “it was very nice to meet Cleo again, you two have fun.” Mertha began to move, and Cleo was forced to follow.
Serla intercepted them “did something happen?” she looked shocked at the display
Mertha’s voice was firm but warm. “Cleo and Nora had, by what I can tell, a wonderful reunion. Your floret was so kind to tell me that my ward has had some rather silly ideas about what I deserve and her own worth. I thought I had addressed this already, but it seems I must be more…persuasive.” That did not sound good at all.
Serla looked amused now “Good to hear that you got it handled. For being such a smart girl Cleo can have some rather silly thoughts.” They were talking like she wasn’t even there.
She strained against the collar “can’t we talk about this? I’m sure we can come to a mutual agreement. This is not necessary Mertha, at least let go of the collar!” The two affini did not even look at her.
Serla extended one of her pointed vines “you know, your ward has a tendency to talk a bit too much. Wouldn’t you say?” What was that supposed to mean?
Mertha nodded in agreement “yes, especially when she is trying to get out of trouble. You wouldn’t happen to have something for this?” something for ‘this’? It felt like the affini were toying with her.
Serla extended the vine further, it had white flowers blooming along it “I do, now that you mention it: some class-W. I can give her a dose, I have some counteragent on me as well. Give it to her when she gets home so she understands the lesson.” Mertha nodded again and the vine stung her before she could react.
What was that something to make her stop talking? She opened her mouth to speak, to chastise Serla for injecting her with something she had not asked for. Instead of words her mouth just made an angry mewling noise. What?!
Cleo tried again, her mouth made no words, just incomprehensible but arguably cute noises. Serla leaned in and petted her on the head. Serla said something, but the words made no sense. She tried to understand the next sentence but the words were unknown and floated into each other. She tried to demand an explanation, but another mewling noise came out instead.
Mertha presumably said bye to Serla and then began to pull with the vine again. No matter how hard she tried she could not form any words, just more frustratingly cute sounds. When they had gotten out of the square Cleo decided it was enough. She dug her heels in and pulled on the vine, not one step further.
Mertha turned around and walked up to her, the affini looked more intimidating than Cleo could ever have imagined. She held her ground until Mertha towered right over her and spoke. The words did not make any sense, but they were powerful and strict. Even without knowing what Mertha had said the meaning was clear: she was to walk obediently and behave.
The fight left her body almost immediately and she took a step forward. Mertha smiled and patted her on the head before moving towards their hab again. There was no point in fighting this, Cleo followed as best as she could. There was luckily no one that could see this embarrassing display.
Cleo tried to speak at least 5 times more, just out of instinct. The fact that she couldn’t talk was frightening. Words were her one singular weapon, the one she used for everything. Right now, she was defenseless. Despite this Cleo feared what was to come even more.