Cleo woke up and felt something sir beneath her “good morning sleepyhead, time to wake up.” A few vines had coiled around her body and gently pulled her up from bed, she was soon in Mertha’s vines. Not that Cleo had bothered to open her eyes yet but the voice and the vines and the subtle rhythm in the air were all Mertha’s.
A bit of her pride woke within her “you know I can do this myself. I’m not that helpless.” A few vines began to pet her head, damn that was nice.
Mertha chuckled a bit “oh I’m sure you can, but if you don’t wake up soon we are going to be late for your appointment. Also, the real question is not whether you can, but do you want to?” That was a solid point and a good question. There was no productive benefit to waking up oneself. The fact that she needed to expend less energy, Mertha helped with ‘relieving stress’ and all the other unproductive qualities that Serla harped on about, meant in conclusion that Mertha waking her up like this was beneficial.
Therefore, she could give a small concession “okay, you can help me up…let’s say 80% of relevant situations.” Mertha ruffled her hair, it was a delightful sensation, her scalp was still a bit sensitive from yesterday.
The affini sounded confident “why not 100% of ‘relevant situations’? I think that sounds more reasonable.” Mertha held a strong position and a compromise had to be reached.
Cleo began to gently open her eyes “what about 95%? That is a generous compromise in your favor.” Mertha chuckled more and dragged a vine over her cheek. Cleo opened her eyes fully and looked up at her warden, Mertha smiled with clear pride and happiness. Seeing her like that made Cleo’s heart soar, that was a new experience.
Mertha conceded “alright, I guess you win these negotiations. Let’s eat breakfast, though you should probably leave that here.” A few vines began to gently remove the plushie that she had been hugging. Wait…had she been holding that the entire time? and the entire night…Cleo felt a blush develop on her face.
She tried to sound dismissive. “Of course, it must have been the xenodrugs…I don’t need it.” Mertha did not buy it for a second.
That was obvious from the tone of the voice “oh you held on to it for hours after the xenodrugs stopped affecting you. it was so cute, I took a lot of pictures.” Oh no, her face felt warm, this was so embarrassing. Mertha placed the plushie on the bed, tucking it under the covers “don’t worry, it will be right here when you go to sleep again.” Now the plant was just teasing her.
Mertha carried her out of the bedroom and into the kitchen, she was put down in the chair. Her warden had prepared a nice steaming stew with potatoes, meat, and vegetables, it smelled divine. Mertha looked at her expectantly, like she waited for her to ask something. A vine moved towards the spoon, Cleo grabbed it first “I can feed myself, thank you very much.” She tried to sound more offended than she actually was. Mertha looked at her in a way that told her, that if asked she would be fed without comment or judgment…No, she would not slip that far from self-reliance.
After the first spoon of stew, the entire situation was forgotten. The vegetables were just soft enough, the broth was salty and warm, the meat so tender it almost melted in her mouth, it was so good. Cleo spent a few minutes just enjoying each spoon of stew with her eyes closed. No wonder she had denied herself this, if the food her previous chefs could make was even close to this, it would indeed have distracted her from every negotiation.
She took a pause and saw Mertha looking at her with a wide smile as she took pictures with the data pad. Cleo felt herself blush again “why do you do that?” The affini’s smile grew even wider.
There was ear-melting happiness in the affini voice “first of all I need to make sure that I can look back on these wonderful moments in the future. And also, how else am I going to prove that I have the cutest, most adorable little flower in my care? I think bragging rights is the human term.” Cleo blush reddened, Mertha was laying on thick today…not that she was going to complain.
As she ate Cleo became sure that there was definitely something different about Mertha. She sounded more confident, moved with more purpose, and felt so…wonderfully protective around her. If this was how it was to be a floret, being sure that every physical and emotional need would be met and cared for by someone so wonderful…perhaps the offer was more tempting than she had realized. Not tempting enough, but still…tempting.
After a few more moments of savoring every mouthful of food, she jumped down from the chair. Mertha was a bit distracted by the data pad, do doubt sharing pictures of her eating. Cleo cleared her throat “so you said we might be late, is that still true or do I have time for some work?” Mertha looked up from the data pad slightly bashful.
The affini straightened herself out “no, we should leave now. Though there is a high likelihood that we will meet Ida at the vet. Do you think you will be fine?” right, Ida... She had yet to meet Vonzin’s floret while not on class-J.
Cleo thought about it for a moment “I think I should be fine, the class-C-t should help. Though perhaps you could give me a very tiny dose of class-C. I think being socially and emotionally cut off from every human for the good part of a decade has left me a bit….socially numb. Not too large dose though, last thing I want to do is apologize to the ground I walk on.” Mertha nodded and walked up to the compiler.
There was a brief and gentle flash of light before Mertha pulled out a tiny syringe “I’ll make sure to do some grafting done while at the vet. Then you can have it more easily available, finding the right dosing might take a few attempts but I have a counteragent if you feel it gets too strong. You should know how happy it makes me that you feel comfortable making such decisions, you are being such a good girl.” She was a good girl! Making Mertha so happy was the best, and all she has to do is continue being such a good girl. Cleo embraced the happiness, it felt less intense now, but not any less good.
As the high wore off, Mertha injected the tiny syringe into her neck, a warm buzz started in the back of her mind. The world suddenly looked a bit more friendly, a bit less cold. Mertha leaned down “are you feeling fine?” Her feelings for Mertha were amplified, she loved her affini.
Not enough to say it in an embarrassing way like yesterday “yeah, I think this dose works fine, thank you Mertha! I’m ready, let’s go.” As they walked out, Mertha offered her a vine to hold. Cleo hesitated only for a few moments before grabbing it. Not only was it good sophont behavior, something she was getting better at, but it was also nice to hold Mertha as they walked.
The walk to the clinic was calm and peaceful, just her and Mertha walking together. Cleo felt much stronger than before, walking did not feel like a pain or a strain on her body anymore. She was still slow but that might also be because she was not in any rush. Before all movement had been hurried, calculated, and with purpose. Now she could walk as wanted, they had plenty of time and nothing else to do. They made it to the clinic way faster than before and she did not even feel tired.
When they entered Cleo was surprised, there were other people there. 3 other affini with their respective florets occupied the usually empty waiting room. 2 of the florets were talking to each other while their owners did the same, the last one was relaxing in their owner’s lap…Cleo felt a tinge of jealousy but squashed it rather fast. Tempting, but not enough.
A slight tug from the vine she was holding got her attention. They walked up to the reception desk, Ida was looking at a screen and had yet to notice them. The worry mixed with happiness, she hoped this would go well. Mertha got the floret's attention “Hello, I and my ward are here for an appointment. Is Vonzin ready?” Ida did not look up.
She did not seem to have recognized Mertha’s voice “sorry but we are a bit overburdened at the moment, you will have to wait for a….oh! it’s you guys!” Ida finally looked up and saw them. She suddenly looked much happier “Hi Cleo! How are you?” Ida’s voice was filled with newfound enthusiasm.
Cleo felt a bit nervous but holding Mertha’s vine reassured her “I’m good, seems like Vonzin has more than one patient today.” Ida smiled and over performatively rolled her eyes.
The floret stood up from the desk “you will probably need to wait before mistress can see you. I would love to catch up with you. We have a sophont waiting room, why don’t we go there and talk?” That sounded good but…
Cleo was slightly confused “can you just leave your job like that? What about the other patients?” Ida turned the screen around and made a few edits.
She smiled “oh the computer can do that for me, I mostly just welcome people. It will be fine, I deserve a break either way.” Ida pointed to a door on the other side of the room.
Mertha smiled and retracted the vine “you two have fun, I have some grafting to do.” The affini gave her a pat on the head and walked down one of the corridors.
Cleo followed Ida into the other waiting room. The floor was made from a soft carpet, it was filled with pillows, plushies, and some board games lying around. It was luckily empty of any other humans, Ida led her to a small nock into the wall where they could talk.
Ida looked very inquisitive “so how is it going? Still, working on being cute for your ‘Owner’? Ida's voice was full of playful teasing. Oh right, she had said that, hadn’t she?
Cleo tried not to blush “that was just because of the class-J. Mertha is not my owner, and neither do I want her to be. I want to be independent.” She tried to speak with as much surety as she had.
Ida stifled a laugh “you are very different when you are not on class-J. Though I saw how you looked at her, you’re a total seed, aren’t you?”
Seed? “I’m not a seed….whatever that means. Mertha means a lot to me, and she is helping me get better and become accustomed to affini society.” Her cheeks were burning slightly.
Ida chuckled some more “and part of that is looking so ridiculously cute? Or is this that strategy you talked about? By the way, I have used it sometimes and you are right. Vonzin is very easily affected by cute-looking eye movements. Also, a seed is what we call people who have yet to realize they want to be florets, people like you.”
Cleo tried to defend herself “being cute is part of standard sophont behavior so I have to at least try. I don’t want to end up forcefully domesticated.” Why did everyone think she wanted to be a floret?
Ida seemed to back off the point “totally, just being a normal sophont.” She did not sound convinced.
Cleo felt a bit curious “Did you get to choose?” Ida smiled mischievously
She sounded remarkably relaxed about it “nope, I was in the navy, so I was forcefully domesticated. I don’t resent them for a second, I have it much better now.” Interesting…
Cleo had only become more curious “so how did you meet Vonzin? Was she your caretaker or did she choose you or…?” Ida smiled like she was thinking of a joke.
One that she was about to share “she chose me. The ship I was on was part of the 31st defense fleet and we had been sent to help defend Terra. Suddenly, just as we finished jumping the Agraria entered right next to us and disabled all our ships. I was so scared, I had heard what the affini did to their prisoners and I was only a nurse. Vonzin was part of the group that boarded the ship, when she tried to gain access to the medical wing I attacked her with a bone saw in desperation. Suffice to say, it did not end well. When I woke up I was informed that I was her pet, quite the shock.” Cleo was impressed by how nonchalantly Ida shared the story of her capture.
The image of Ida trying to attack the giant Vonzin with a tiny saw was hilarious. she could not stop herself from laughing “a bone saw? You tried to fight an over 3-meter tall affini with a bone saw?” Ida joined in the laughter.
When the laughter died down Cleo remembered something “wait the 31st fleet? That was the one that was supposed to attack Centhia after I removed the Terran loyalists.” The atmosphere got a bit more serious.
Ida almost looked guilty “yeah, I did not know why of course. Only that it was a secret mission and that you were a traitor and a bunch of other things the propaganda told us you were. You knew about that?”
Cleo smiled, that had been a good scheme “knew about it, I was the reason you were redirected and captured. I bribed your commanding admiral with sanctuary on Centhia, all he had to do was follow a route I had made for him first. The route was of course planned so you would intercept the arrogant and predictable affini fleet movements.” Ida looked staggered, her mouth agape.
Ida shivered a bit “so if you had not done that then…”
That had not been good “you would probably have died trying to take Centhia, I had a contingency plan if the bribe failed. Good it never came to that.” Ida’s look of confusion turned into a smile.
The floret suddenly tackled her into a hug “so you’re the reason Vonzin found me?”
Cleo tried to hold her balance and failed, they fell into some pillows “I guess, but I had no intentions-.”
Ida leaned down and kissed her on the cheek “I guess I got to thank you then, President.” The kiss made her flustered, but the title felt wrong.
She sat up “You shouldn’t thank me. I only did it to remove a threat, I would probably have sent you into a solar flare if that was more convenient. Also, please don’t call me that. I don’t like thinking about….all the things I did…” before she could react, Ida hugged her tightly.
The floret sounded sad “I’m sorry, I also did things…I was not proud of when in the navy. What matters is where we are now. I would be dead or still in the navy without what you did, so don’t be too hard on yourself.” It felt reassuring, building upon what Mertha had said. But there was still something wrong with it, something unfair.
Cleo hugged back “you have helped me so I think we can call it even…..I would still like to be your friend…as you offered while I was on class-J. I know that I am quite different, probably a bit scary so you don’t have to say yes...” Cleo looked away, saying that was hard.
Ida looked confused again “why on Terra would I think you were scary?” she was probably just being nice.
Cleo tried to laugh, it sounded very forced “I know how people view me, even those who supported me were afraid. The propaganda they showed you probably showed me as some horrible tyrant, right?” Ida looked down now.
Her voice was quiet “yeah it was much in those tones, but I know that’s not true. You look so cute and soft, I don’t think you could hurt anyone, even if you tried.” That was obviously wrong, if she was in the right position, had the power once more. She would hurt people again and find a good reason for doing so.
Ida seemed to notice “hey, we don’t need to talk about it. I would love to be your friend, you can always come to me and mistress if you want to hang out.” Cleo locked the guilt away once more, best to not think about it.
Cleo smiled, “that sounds very nice, perhaps you could come over to us as well.” Ida nodded and leaned into her, the physical closeness was more comforting than words could ever manage,
They sat together and cuddled until there was a knock on the door. Ida gave her a kiss on the cheek and stood up “that must be mistress.” She walked over to the door and opened it, correct to her words the huge affini stood outside.
Vonzin gave Ida a pat on the head “thank you for taking care of Cleo while I was busy. Cleo, it's time for your checkup.” She stood up and walked over, Ida gave her a final hug and waved goodbye.
Vonzin almost sounded guilty “sorry that you had to wait, a new selection of vets had to travel down to the surface, so more work for me.” Was there any part of society on the ship that was not strained?
They entered the doctor’s office, it felt wrong for Vonzin to apologize for something she had caused. “don’t worry, I can live with a bit of waiting and it was nice to meet up with Ida.” Cleo walked up to the chair and sat down, she knew what to do.
Vonzin began to check her levels while asking her a few questions about food, sleep, and the regular. After a few minutes it was over “you seem to be recovering smoothly, well done. Keep going like this and you will be in perfect health in a month or so. Here, have a treat.” The affini presented her with one of the lollipops, and Cleo accepted it with only a tinge of reluctance.
Still a month? “I feel fine, are you sure it will take that long?” The doctor sighed.
Vonzin pulled up her data pad “your muscles are atrophied, your adrenaline production is unbalanced, your body is just beginning reestablishing healthy routines and levels. I could put you on class-J for another week, that might do the trick.” Cleo understood and held up her arms in defeat.
She took the lollipop and tasted it. “I understand, class-j will not be necessary.” The lollipop tasted amazing.
Vonzin smiled “it's good to see you finally understand your own fragile health. I heard that you had a bit of an incident with xenodrugs yesterday. Do you feel fine now?” it made sense for Mertha to share that, but it was still embarrassing.
She focused on the lollipop “yeah I feel fine, don’t worry.”
Vonzin shook her head “it's my job to worry, xenodrugs might not harm you like the drugs you have taken in the past but can still be problematic. You are remarkably susceptible to xenodrugs so you will have to be more careful in the future.” So that was why Darla and Nora had seemed less affected by class-A. Cleo could suspect why this happened but there was no reason in questioning.
There was a knock on the door <come in.>, with Vonzin’s consent Mertha entered the room. She had a few new flowers that had replaced some of the others. Affini biology was very fascinating, the new flowers must be used to synthesize class-C.
Mertha smiled, “I hope I am not interrupting.” Her affini moved to sit down in one of the affini-sized chairs.
Vonzin put away the datapad “no, we were just wrapping up. Your ward is in much better health, but should still be relaxing and enjoying life, no long bouts of work.” Those last stern words were directed at her. Vonzin turned to Mertha again. “She needs to move around a bit if she is to recover some of her lost muscle mass, so take her on some walks.” Walks? She could have said exercise, the affini probably didn’t even realize how it sounded.
Mertha stood up “that is exactly what I had in mind for the rest of the day. Cleo, I think it is time you saw more of the Agraria, I have a perfect location in mind.” That did sound interesting, she could work later today.
After saying goodbye to Vonzin they left the clinic. Cleo was curious “where are we going?” She grabbed one of Mertha’s vines as it was offered.
Mertha smiled knowingly “exploring the whole ship will take far too long, I think it is bigger than you are expecting. So instead, we are going to a place that has a great view of the entire interior of Agraria. There is also a nice restaurant there that I thought we could eat at afterward. Does that sound good?” She had little knowledge of the specific affini ships, but they dwarfed Terran vessels to the extreme.
She smiled up at Mertha “that sounds good, hopefully, the restaurant makes as good food as you.” The subtle compliment earned her a few pets and a proud smile from Mertha.
They continued to walk “so how was your chat with Ida?” The vine Cleo was holding slowly tugged her closer and closer to Mertha.
Cleo allowed it to happen, being close to her was so nice “it went well, she invited me to visit her and Vonzin and I extended the same invitation to her…I should have asked first, I hope it's okay.” It was Mertha’s hab, even if she considered it her home.
Mertha did not seem concerned in the slightest “no need, it's wonderful to see you make some friends. Such a good girl!” The guilt and stress that had momentarily built up over the day was washed away by the joy. She was a good girl, and there was nothing she would rather be. She moved a bit closer to Mertha, almost beginning to trip on her vines.
They soon made it to another rail station, it was a bit different from the one closer to the hab. It was an intersection for 2 rails that moved in different directions, one of them above the buildings and one below. That meant the city was large enough to need several rail lines, perhaps none of these was the one she and Mertha had used before. Mertha’s words had tickled her imagination, how big was this place really?
Mertha seemed to have noticed “excited?” It was a bit patronizing, but yeah she was excited. Cleo gave a nod, and soon one of the trams pulled into the station. They embarked and to Cleo’s delight, this was the one that went over the buildings, giving a great view of the city below.
Mertha sat down in one of the affini-sized chairs on the tram, next to it there was a human-sized chair, elevated so that it could look out the window. She really wanted to see “could you help me up?” Mertha used her vines and in no time at all she had a great view of the outside as the tram moved at incredible speed.
The district outside was different from the one near their hab, but she had little time to fully analyze it before the district changed and another architectural style took its place. The tram moved so fast that it was hard to fully view each district and its qualities. One thing was clear, they were works of passion and art. Clearly inspired by a different theme or feeling, the city looked more like a canvas that artists had used and less like a place for functionality.
It was fascinating and made her remember Centhia. She had spent years developing the 11 major cities that covered a huge part of the planet's surface. Developing infrastructure, removing slums, and building massive housing projects. All of these projects had held practicality in mind, the artistic expression had never taken priority or even been considered. Gray and shadow-casting housing, small streets for civil control, drab and boring walkways that only served to bring a person from point A to point B. It had been necessary, it was more important that people had places to sleep than that they liked the look.
She had been proud of what she had accomplished there. Gray and uniform housing were far less depressing than the massive slums that Centhia had been riddled with since the first colony ships had landed, centuries ago. Still, the work of the affini made her doubt. How could she be proud of her accomplishments when it could be compared to this?
A vine was placed on her shoulder “is something wrong?”
Cleo looked away from the window and back to Mertha “I’m fine, I wished I could have made something like this. Instead, Centhia is a prison of concrete and neon signs. This place looks like it was made to live in, what I have made was just for survival.” Mertha smiled reassuringly
The vine traced up to her cheek “don’t worry, you did what you could and that was more than anyone could ask. Once we get things going I’m sure that things will look much prettier, but that could not have been done without you.” Cleo was about to question the words but remembered that Mertha had probably read a lot of the encoded documents on city redevelopment.
She allowed the reassuring words to sink in. Part of her was jealous that she had not been able to do the same as the affini, being able to create a utopia must be nice. The tram came to a stop and Mertha stood up “this is where we get off.” Before Cleo could even ask, a few vines helped her down from the elevated chair. Once they were out on the station, Mertha extended a vine for Cleo to hold, something she did immediately.
Mertha led her up a nice winding path between some stone buildings. The entire district looked remarkably old. Most of the buildings were more human-sized and made with high-quality stones, the streets were wide and there were several cafes and pastry shops along the road. It reminded her of when she had studied architecture at the academy, it was an old Terran style called Italic or something like that. Why it shared a name with font modification on bureaucratic forms she had no idea.
The path was gently sloping upwards, the district had a warm afternoon summer kind of feeling. The feeling she had tried to enjoy in the park outside the presidential residences when she had allowed herself breaks. At some point, the path cleared of houses on one side and it was replaced by a great view. Mertha stood in the way though, Cleo tried to peak but a few vines guided her head forward “I think it is best to save the experience for when we get to the top.” Cleo was curious, and now that she had been denied, very curious.
She did as Mertha said and enjoyed the walk up the path. Despite the fact that the district was just as empty as many of the others they had visited, it felt more alive and lived in. Almost like it was supposed to be few people outside at this point of the day. looking up she saw that they were much closer to the ceiling of the ship, it curved above them and released gentle light. The fact that this was all artificial was still a bit difficult to believe.
Mertha tugged a bit on the vine “do you think it is fine if I carry you the rest of the way up? you are begging to sound a bit out of breath.” Mertha was right, she had been so lost in thought that she had not even noticed.
Cleo smiled, being carried did not feel as demeaning as it had before “thanks, I didn’t notice. I would be happy if you carried me.” The fact that she had not felt her own limits did not scare her as much as it perhaps should, she felt safe that Mertha would make sure she was okay either way. A few strong vines helped her up into the cradle of vines, it was so comfortable and safe there. Mertha made sure to hide the view from her, and the tension of the surprise grew slightly more.
Finally, they made it to the top, the path widened to form a circular town square. There was a statue made of metal depicting some sort of tree in the middle, sounded by a fountain. There were benches and beds of flowers in circular patterns around the square. Suddenly there were a few vines in front of her eyes “just wait one moment” She was lifted upwards, out of the cradle, and onto Mertha’s shoulder, vines kept her safe from falling. “Now you can see.” The vines parted and Cleo finally saw the Agraria in its full beauty.
It was not large, not huge, nor any words that humans had made to describe size. It was simply beyond her words. The view was also indescribable, and it took a few seconds for Cleo to even begin to process what she was seeing.
There were not a few districts, there was an endless amount of them. They were organized in rings that slowly rotated in unison. The rings with their countless districts were almost invisible beneath the buildings, with only a few gaps revealing that this was not one singular piece of structure. The rings were perfectly organized and fitted with each other in beautiful harmony. The rings' width increased the closer to the middle of the ship that they were, and smaller towards their position and the other end. Not that she could see to the other end of the ship, the moisture in the air formed fog that blocked around a 1/3 of the ship's true size.
The city was enormous, it staggered the mind that this could fit inside a spaceship. It was not bigger than the Centhian metropolises, but you would never have such a great view there due to the smog. The rail network flowed together and the trams she could see moving like tiny fish in a tank were perfectly synchronized. Everywhere she looked she found a new piece of infrastructural art, from the largest ring down to the tiniest detail.
Cleo remembered that she had to breathe “it's…beautiful…” She had much more she wanted to say, so many more details she wanted to take in, but she felt overwhelmed by the sight. The clear amount of thought, effort, and passion in every part of the ship betrayed that this was a work of love and dedication. She wanted more time to study this masterpiece later “could you take a picture?” Mertha smiled and took up the data pad, first taking a picture of the city below and then turning it around to take a picture of them.
Cleo saw the picture of them and felt something in her heart. She was sitting on top of Mertha’s shoulder and…smiled, she looked so…happy. Mertha was smiling as well, warmth and joy streaming from her eyes. It looked almost unreal, that she could be in this position…something about it did not sit right with her. She wanted to embrace it, that she was in fact this happy but….something held her back.
She tapped Mertha on a vine “this was very nice…. I think…I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed, could we find a place to sit?” Mertha smiled and brought her back into her arms, she then found one of the affini-sized benches and sat down. While Cleo rested in the bed of vines she could not shake that there was something wrong with the situation. The only part that felt right, was the sight of Mertha’s happiness.
They sat together in beautiful silence, right now they did not need words to express their love for each other. The silence was broken by her stomach letting out a loud rumbling noise, Mertha chuckled “I guess it is time to eat, I think you will like the place.” Mertha carried her from the view and into the streets between the old-looking buildings.
Cleo tried to push the feeling of wrongness down, but it worked only slightly. This was supposed to be a nice outing, and it was in all objective aspects. She could not understand the feeling that was weighing on her heart or its source for that matter. Mertha patted her on the head to get her attention “here we are, I found a place I hope is to your tastes.” She was put down, the restaurant in front of them looked remarkably high-class.
Cleo looked down at her hoodie and soft pants “I don’t think I am properly dressed for this…” Mertha patted her on the head again, unconcerned.
Her warden’s smile was wide and proud “don’t worry, you look very cute. There are no such silly expectations on you here.” Cleo could not argue with that, Mertha opened the door for her, and they went inside.
The restaurant was empty, except for 2 affini talking at a table in the corner. Mertha found them a table with one affini and one human-sized chair. After climbing up and sitting down Cleo took a bit of time to drink in the surroundings. It felt familiar with red velvet curtains over the windows, fine black carpets, and thick black cloth over the table. It reminded her of a restaurant she had visited a few times during her time on Centhia.
Cleo looked up at Mertha, how had she known? Mertha tried to look innocent before her stare wore her down “okay, I might have done some research. This type of place was one of the few restaurants that you visited, and I thought I deserved something nice for how well you have been doing.” For a moment Cleo was about, to tell the truth, that the only reason she had visited this was to meet someone else. But that was not necessary, this would be a nice evening either way.
There was some movement in their periphery, Cleo put on the hoodie. Best not to scare any human that decided to come close. The other human walked up “hello! Glad you wanted to visit. Do you have anything that you would like to order?” The voice was eerily familiar, Cleo felt her heart stop for a second.
She looked up, and the smiling face of a young man met her, there was a collar around his neck “Leto?” The world seemed to fall away as her heart rate increased. Not too distant memories that she had locked away streamed forth.
Hendrik entered the restaurant and made a motion for Nora to stay at the entrance, this would hopefully be a quick and productive affair. His eyes scanned to pompous locale until he found the waving hand of the young Terran “over here Hendrik!” Hendrik stifled some of the forbidden emotions he felt.
He faked a smile and walked over to the young man, he was one of the few people in The Game that was about his age. Leto Neradain was a Terran official, one of those with the most oversight and power. This was not attributed to the naïve boy’s talent or competence but due to Henrik’s hard work and manipulation. To choose one’s enemies was good, having a friendly pawn in your enemies’ ranks was even better.
Leto looked happy as always, he had no idea of what was about to happen. Hendrik sat down on the other side of the small table. Leto smiled “I’m so happy you took the time. I ordered the regular, hope that is okay.” Hendrik did not ‘take the time’, Leto might still have intel worthy of this meeting. The food was of no concern, this meal would not last long.
Hendrik smiled back “of course it is, I’ll be busy soon, so it was important that we could talk.” Faking this friendship had been more work than he had first anticipated.
Leto did not catch the latent meaning in his words “you will soon be busy? Hendrik, tell me one day that you are not busy. You should take a vacation.” Was that a threat?…no, only an ignorant statement from someone too soft to survive this world.
Leto seemed to grow serious “Admiral Agder has been very insistent that the warships are delivered soon. I tell her to give you time but there is only so much I can do, we are at war after all.” Hendrik felt satisfied, that would not be a problem, the plan was already underway.
He might as well reveal a card in his hand “there will be no warships from Centhia or other resources for that matter. Terra is going to fall, either way. I’m not wasting good people and ships on a hopeless cause.” Perhaps he had shown too much of his hand, but he wanted Leto to understand. Manipulating him had been unsatisfyingly easy, there was an element to Leto he did not understand, he wanted to find out what it was.
Leto looked surprised, but not upset. “Oh, I guess I’ll tell her that then.” Leto looked away for a moment, was he understanding the implication? Leto looked back, there was a tender determination mixed with fear “Hendrik…I have been thinking. This war….it’s not going well, and I don’t think we can win it.” That much should have been obvious, but there was no ‘we’ in this situation.
The Terran official was not done “and furthermore…I don’t think that the affini are as bad as claimed. I have done some digging and I don’t think they are any, if at all worse than the accord.” Hendrik felt a bit surprised, Leto had always struck him as a very sheltered person from Terra’s upper class. Perhaps there was more here than he had assumed…perhaps he could convince Leto to fall in line after what would happen today.
Best to see where Leto was going with this “my intel suggests much the same, what are you getting at?” Leto looked around cautiously, and Hendrik leaned in.
Leto’s eyes took on a determined energy, but in a gentle way “the longer we stay here the higher the risk, we both know that Centhia could erupt into war at any moment…” Leto’s hand reached for Hendrik’s own, His voice was warm “so perhaps we should get out of here while we can. I have managed to secure us a fast ship. If we make it to affini controlled space we can explain our situation, I’m sure they will be welcoming. At least more than what is about to happen here.” Hendrik pulled his hand back, was Leto insane?!
Was this a trap? was Leto trying to get him killed?! “You think I would abandon everything I have worked for? Put my fate in the hands of aliens or anyone else for that matter?!” Leto recoiled, good.
Leto looked despondent “Hendrik, the accord will fall. Staying here is only going to get you killed…I don’t want that to happen.” The fool, Hendrik felt frustrated, this had been a massive waste of time.
He sighed and snapped his fingers “Leto, the accord will fall but neither will Centhia nor I. I will secure this planet and this sector, then I will build a new future free from Terra’s corruption and incompetence. You will have the pleasure of watching that from the inside of a prison cell until I deem it productive to free you. Guards!” Four guards walked briskly out from the kitchen where they had been positioned, Leto was in complete shock.
The Terran official barely managed to make a sound “wha….Hendrik, what are you talking about?” There was desperation in his voice.
The guards arrived and circled Leto, one of them handed Hendrik the arrest form. There was a thumbprint on the form from the glove of the guard, a stare brought the offender back a few steps, and that would be enough of a reminder. Hendrik slid the form forward to Leto “you are hereby under arrest for high treason and corruption. Centhia shall be free of Terran influence from this day forward!” He made sure his words were even and powerful.
Leto still looked shocked “I…I thought we were….why would you do this?” The farce of this relationship was over, with nothing more of value to be gained.
Hendrik stood up “we were nothing, you have been a useful pawn. Reflect on your mistakes in prison, perhaps then you can be useful again. Guards, take him away!” the guards grabbed Leto and hauled him up from the chair.
Leto did not struggle, there were tears in his eyes “why? You don’t have to do this!” There was genuine compassion in his voice, what utter folly.
Hendrik let his voice rise “of course I do. I will remake this sector to fit my vision and all obstacles must be removed, no matter how trivial. This is just one part of many, you are just one pawn of many. You will see that I am right when you are released, no matter how long that might take. I have no more time for this, there is a power vacuum that I need to fill.” There was an emotion welling up, one of the forbidden ones, Hendrik squashed it.
Leto was hauled away by the guards, he tried to say something else, but Hendrik could not make it out through the tears and movement of the guards. Then the restaurant was silent, the other patrons knew better than to speak.
Hendrik moved towards the exit, his feet were tired. He walked out of the restaurant and Nora followed right behind him “did it go well?” Nora did not sound too optimistic.
Hendrik sighed “no, it was rather unproductive. But today was a great victory, let's get back to the office. I have work to do.”
“I’m sorry, do I know you? I can be a bit forgetful sometimes” Leto’s voice brought her back to the real world.
“Cleo, are you okay?” Mertha sounded worried. Cleo looked around dazed, both of them looking at her with concern.
Leto did not recognize her, of course he didn’t. A part of her wanted to play it off, to just pretend like it was normal. That she did not know the person who she had ruined the life of…but she couldn’t.
She looked at Mertha and then a Leto “sorry, I just….Leto, I do know you. Do you think we could talk in private for a moment?” Both of them looked at her with surprise.
Leto smiled like he always did “sure, we can talk in the storeroom, if that is okay with you owner that is.”
Mertha seemed to be a bit suspicious “She is not my floret, dear. Cleo, what is this about?” There was no need to lie, even if the final result was something Mertha would not like.
Cleo held her voce calm “he is an old acquaintance, one I would like to apologize to.” Mertha still looked worried but nodded in acceptance.
Leto still looked confused but led her to a storeroom, it was a bit chilly and smelt of spice. Leto’s voice was a bit embarrassed “so I know you? I’m sorry that I don’t remember, a lot has happened in the last month.” That was the understatement of the millennia.
That aching in her heart demanded this, even if it would be painful. She looked Leto in the eyes, at least he looked far less stressed than he had been on Centhia. Cleo tried to steady her voice for what was to come “I’m Hendrik. Or at least I was, I go by Cleo now but…its me.”
Cleo looked into his eyes, she knew what to expect. First recognition, then surprise, then finally hatred and disgust. This was what had to happen, she had done too much, treated him too poorly, this was how it was supposed to be.
Instead, Leto’s eyes were filled with recognition, surprise and then….relief? Leto almost looked teary with happiness “you survived!” no…this was not how it was supposed to go.
Her voice was shaking “I survived? Is that all you have to say?” Leto moved to hug her, but she stepped away. Why?
His happiness became tainted with worry “what are you talking about?” how did he not understand?…why was he not….
Cleo started to shake “I…I betrayed you…I had you thrown in prison! I used you…” Leto took a step back, suddenly mellow.
His voice was also a bit shaky “But you helped me survive, we were friends…I understand that you had to do what you did…” No, that was wrong, none of that was true.
Cleo took another step back “I just used you, made you believe we were friends so I could trick you. don’t make excuses for what I have done. Why are you not angry at me?...Why don’t you hate me?” The storeroom felt much colder than I had a moment ago.
Leto stepped forward “why would I hate you? some of what you did was…bad. But I still care about you!” no, this wasn’t right. This was not how it was supposed to work.
Cleo felt her voice rise “because I am a terrible person! And I did terrible things to you, and everybody else.”
Leto looked despondent “but if you hadn’t done that then I-“ Cleo could not hear that one more time.
Cleo would have shouted if she had the strength “don’t say that, don’t you dare say that! Don’t tell me that what I did was okay because it led to something good. I didn’t care about you, I didn’t care about the crew of the 31st fleet. I didn’t care about any of you….I…I…” she didn’t know how to continue.
She looked up, Leto was upset “that’s a lie! I know you cared, I saw it. Don’t tell me our friendship was based on nothing, I know that is not true. If you truly did not care, then why do you look so guilty now?” because…because…she did know the answer, this wasn’t right.
It’s not fair “why? Why are all of you like this? I don’t deserve your forgiveness, I don’t deserve this happiness. Why?! Why won't anyone hate me for what I have done….” She couldn’t keep the tears away anymore. She slid down onto the ground, she didn’t deserve any of this.
The door to the storeroom opened “are you two okay?” Cleo looked up at Mertha, she wanted to believe that she made Mertha happy, that she deserved that. But for everyone else, she had just created misery. Mertha moved quickly to get her up from the floor “Cleo, are you okay? What happened?” She couldn’t answer..
So, Leto answered instead “we knew each other on Centhia, she is guilty for what she had to do.” How could he speak a lie with such conviction?
it was so unfair “I didn’t have to do anything! I should have taken your offer, escaped. But I didn’t, is that not all you need to know about me, what I am?” Leto looked like she had punched him
there was guilt and tears in his eyes “The escape was a trap, okay! Terra knew about it, I heard it from the other prisoners. They planned to blow us both up, and I didn’t even know. If you had trusted me…. then I would have gotten you killed!” what….no, that was not the same.
her words choked by something in her throat “but you never…that was not what you-“
Leto interrupted her, he was crying “so I deserve the benefit of the doubt, and you don’t?” All the guilt inside her was confused.
Mertha picked her up into her vines “I think that is enough for now. Leto, I think you should go to your owner and talk about this. Cleo and I will do the same. I think Cleo is a bit too tired for dinner, but we will hopefully come back again soon.” Cleo felt so very tired.
Leto dried away some tears “okay, I hope we meet again Cleo…it’s a beautiful name by the way.” Cleo tried to respond but she couldn’t. She managed a nod, Leto looked a bit relieved. Then Mertha carried her out of the storeroom and then out of the restaurant.
When they had gotten a bit away Mertha stopped and looked down on her “Cleo, speak the truth. What happened there?” Cleo felt the tears begin to well up again.
She pressed close to Mertha “I…I wanted him to hate me…for what I did to him, but he wasn’t angry…all of this is just not fair. I don’t think I deserve all this, not after all that I have done…it’s not fair.” Mertha draped a sheet of vines and flowers over her.
Mertha looked sad “oh Cleo, you deserve all the happiness in the world. We will talk about this more later, for now, it's time to get some rest.” a flower puffed out some spores, and Cleo breathed them in without question. She felt herself begin to fall asleep and welcomed it. The aching in her heart was slightly less painful but still remained.