Negotiations on shaky vines

Chapter 57- Final preparations

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

Took a bit longer to write this than expected, so hope you enjoy!
Remember to eat, drink, sleep and take your meds!
Once Cleo had parted ways with Trexal she looked at her data pad, she still had 20 minutes before she was supposed to be home, more than enough time. Her conversation with Hyacynthia felt like it had lasted much longer, it was almost like she felt a bit older….Perhaps just a side effect of talking to a creature so ancient. Either way, she now had a goal and a plan for the coming days. A lot of things needed to be done and most of them in relative secrecy. 
Cleo embarked upon the first tram on the way home, being late would doubtlessly hamper her plans. Just before she could sit an irresistible yawn reminded her of the danger, perhaps it was wise to stand until she got home. The last thing she needed was to be kept home for the next couple of days, she did not want to worry mistress again. Just imagining the coming evening was enough to fill Cleo with warm anticipation….when had life become so good? 
With a bit of concentration, she managed to stay awake to disembark at the right stop. Now it was only a measly 8-minute walk until she was back in Mertha’s vines, she could practically hear her biorhythm already….wait, she could literally hear Mertha’s biorhythm!
Before Cleo could react to this revelation a set of vines lifted her and she was secured in a thigh embrace. Cleo looked up into Mertha’s warm eyes “there you are, my little kitten.” Why was mistress here? Was she late? No, there were still 10 minutes before she was supposed to be home. Mistress's voice turned curious but stern “so, want to tell me why you left the ship without telling me?” dirt…
Cleo looked down, avoiding the gaze “…how did you know?” The vines holding her began to coil a bit tighter, instinctively she nuzzled closer into the vines.
Mistress looped a vine around her collar and forced her to look up “You proved 2 days ago that you are not capable of following my instructions when I let you out on your own…” Cleo’s heart sank a bit, she had disappointed mistress…
The leash tugged lightly on the collar again “It is not your fault that you fell asleep, that is just what sleepy kittens do. But I can’t be left wondering where you are each time that happens, it is just not acceptable. So, yesterday I inserted a tracking device into your collar.” Oh…… “now, would you mind answering the question?” Cleo hesitated for a bit, she had to be honest.
Cleo looked into those wonderful blue spheres “Trexal brought me to the Innax to talk to someone….” There was a brief flash of frustration in mistress’s eyes, and the vines got tighter once again “but nothing bad happened….is it okay if I tell you about it when I feel ready?” Even if things made more sense now, the meeting itself still required more time to be processed into something she could tell Mertha. 
Mistress relented “okay, as long as you are fine….but next time Trexal comes anywhere near you…” a few of mistress’s vines curled in frustration. Mertha began to move, and the grip softened just a bit “how was your day at the office?” Cleo allowed herself to fully relax into the vines and let out a soft yawn, she was a sleepy kitty after all.
Mistress gave her a vine to hug. “It was nice, the other affini are very welcoming. I wish they would be a bit less desperate, the floret moratorium..” A yawn broke up her report “…can’t end soon enough.” She squeezed the vine in her embrace and allowed drowsiness to take a stronger hold.
Mistress began petting her in calming and soothing motions “it is reassuring to know that you are getting the affection you need but remember who you belong to.” Cleo bathed in the warmth and affection from the words and music that were so omnipresent, lulling her to sleep. 
 She nibbled on the end of the vine “I belong to you mistress…no one else.” Her pledge was rewarded with a long-lasting head pat and some more affectionate words. Perhaps she could fall asleep now, mistress would wake her when it was time “I heard from Serla that Nora has recovered fully, would you like for them to come over today? Or are you too sleepy?” She jolted back to awareness, the drowsiness dispelled in a moment. 
Nora was awake? The slight worry that she had felt was replaced with hesitation and doubt. Would Nora be the same person as before? How would the implant change her? She had to know “I can stay awa-” another yawn broke through her deception, mistress did not look very convinced. “Please, I promise I can stay awake, please mistress!” Cleo tried to look as endearing as possible, the wiggling of mistress vines proved her success. 
The pets intensified for a moment “awwww, how can I say no to such a cute girl? Okay, I will tell Serla they can come over after dinner.” The biorhythm from mistress began to grow in strength and Cleo instinctively fell into its rhythm. The pats became slow and calming “now you need to sleep, awwww such a good girl.” She was a good girl….she was also a very sleepy girl….
The smell of food woke her up, she was still in Mertha’s vines. While holding her Mertha took the lasagna out of the oven and put it on the table “Dinner is soon ready, I hope you enjoy it.” Cleo knew without a doubt that she would. Mistress was benevolent enough to let her rest in her vines until the food was ready.
When the lasagna had cooled down she was placed in her chair and Mertha began to feed her. Cleo happily let the vines guide her eating, she was getting very used to it by now. Having Mertha feed her felt more intimate than she had first recognized. While her affini could not eat the same food as her, this was a beautiful way of sharing the experience. As she had known, the food tasted amazing, perhaps even better than usual. How Mertha could so accurately predict how salty, sweet, and what consistency she preferred was a mystery that she was happy to leave unanswered. 
While being fed she looked up at Mertha, the white and yellow flowers were in full bloom all across her form, a happy glint filled her eyes, the vines formed such a magnificent form, and her smile was so warm. There were so many wonderful details, it was like inspecting a work of art “you are beautiful.” The words kind of just fell out, like they were an empirical truth that had to be spoken.
Mertha stopped the vine that was about to feed her more, she looked surprised for a split second before her smile grew wider “awww, thank you! you are very beautiful yourself.” The words made her heart melt, and for what had to be at least a minute they just stared at each other lovingly. 
Then Mertha broke the tension by dragging her into an embrace, she almost sounded a bit sad “I love you so much, more than anything else….you do know that, right?” Cleo returned the embrace, the emotions coming from both herself and Mertha’s song were almost overwhelming.
She felt herself begin to cry “I know….I love you too….more than anything else.” They continued to hug for a good while. It was almost perplexing that she had only met Mertha less than two months ago, living without her felt impossible at this stage. Even imagining it was deeply unpleasant, luckily her plan would make such a reality impossible.  
After a while Mertha began to feed her again, all the while petting her gently. Not long after she was done and Mertha had decompiled all the things that needed cleaning, the hab-AI chimed “hi cutie, you got visitors!” Nora! Cleo got out of the chair and walked rapidly up to the door, she hesitated a moment before she opened it.
Serla was standing there and on a leash connected to her collar was Nora. She looked….not much different. A bit more relaxed, but far from the glassy-eyed florets that she had seen. Nora smiled and then a second later looked very confused, she looked up at Serla “You told me they had not signed the contract yet…” Serla also looked confused, though a smile was spreading on her face. 
Cleo sighed “I am just testing it out, nothing more…until I have made a decision.” She had made the decision, but Mertha was still within earshot and the plan required secrecy. 
Nora beamed at her teasingly “you won’t regret saying yes, but if you say so…I guess Mertha likes to play with her food.” Cleo blushed a bit, the implant had not impacted Nora too significantly. 
Serla smiled knowingly “At this point, you are only missing the implant and paperwork. I am sure it won’t be too long now. Speaking of paperwork, I heard that you managed to wiggle your way back into the bureaucracy.” Serla deserved to gloat a bit, she had been right from the beginning after all.
Cleo led the guests inside “just for recreational purposes and only when mistress permits it.” The pair looked at her for a moment, Serla’s smile grew wider, and Nora looked at her like she had just said something hilarious. 
Nora’s voice was filled with mirth “you called her mistress!” The floret looked up at Serla with a bit of a pout “you didn’t allow me to call you that before I signed the contract.” 
Mertha appeared from behind and began to pet her head, Cleo leaned into the hand “different pets require different approaches. Cleo just needs a firm vine and some rules to follow.” The merciless petting was making it slightly hard to follow what mistress was saying. 
Serla was practically grinning at this point “I see you finally broke through her bratty exterior, well done. She seems very well behaved, such a good girl.” She was indeed very well behaved, which made Serla happy and her a good girl. Hold on….
Serla was not supposed to use the trigger without asking, she strained to collect her words through the head pats “don’t... use the trigger, it’s not fair.” Not the most eloquent retort but it would have to suffice. Mertha really needed to fix the trigger, unless the goal was to make her think that she made everyone happy….fuck, that probably was the goal…
Mertha chuckled a bit “don’t worry, Serla is just reinforcing good behavior. Now tell me, how did the surgery and recovery go?” Right, the implant, that was the important subject at hand.  
Serla smiled proudly “oh it went perfectly, Vonzin really knows her craft. Nora acted so utterly adorably during her recovery as well.” Nora blushed slightly at the last comment.
Cleo straightened a bit up “could I talk with Nora in private?” The two affini looked a bit surprised, and perhaps even a bit suspicious. She sighed in frustration “You inserted mind-controlling plant matter into my friend’s nervous system. I think it is fair that I can ask her how it feels without you two looming over us.”
Mertha shrugged her shoulders, quite the mesmerizing moment due to all the vines moving in unison. Serla seemed to be about to talk but then Nora poked her in the leg, the affini moved down and Nora whispered something. Serla smiled and stood up again, now smiling once more “of course, just don’t spend too much time. My little rose needs to sleep early today.” Cleo raised an eyebrow at the exchange, but at least she had gotten the opportunity to move her plan forward. 
While still watching Serla suspiciously she and Nora moved into her room. As soon as the door closed behind her she inspected Nora again, the red-haired ex-bodyguard smiled “it is still me, I promise.” Her behavior was the same, her speech was the same, the slight twitching on the edges of her mouth was the same, the slightly loose and combat-ready pose was the same, it was her: it was still Nora. 
Cleo motioned towards the chairs around the chess table “I had to make sure, care for a game?” In truth, chess was perhaps the best game to play for serious conversations. 
Nora sat down “I don’t expect I stand much of a chance, but I won’t make it easy for you.” Cleo sat down opposite and took one worker from each side, hiding them in her palms. 
Nora pointed towards the left one, Cleo revealed the white worker “you go first…so how was the ‘procedure’?”
Nora took the piece and made her first move, her face cringing slightly “Before the surgery I was honestly quite nervous, it is freaky when you think about it.” That was a massive understatement.
Cleo moved a piece “Freaky? You have a piece of plant matter implanted into your spine, that then grows into your brain and limbs, freaky is a kind word.” Nora chuckled a bit, before moving a liquidator into a threatening position. 
She did not seem overly concerned “yeah, but it is just not some random ‘plant matter’. It is Serla’s core as well, we are connected now. Mistress and pet, forever…It is reassuring and amazing in a way that is impossible to describe.” 
Nora looked thoughtful for a moment “even when you are with the person you care the most about in the world there is still some disconnect, right? No matter how close, there is still that barrier that human minds can’t cross. But now, with the implant….she is here, there is no barrier between us anymore.” Cleo pretended that she was looking at the board, never being alone….that was the great and undeniable promise of the Haustoric implant. 
She moved a mercenary to counter the liquidator “It might be beyond the horizon of my understanding, but I can see the appeal. What about the surgery? Vonzin promised me that it would be painless, is that true?” Nora moved another one of her workers.
The floret looked thoughtfully out the window for a moment “there was no pain, but the recovery period was…weird. It was like slipping in and out of strange lucid dreams…But I felt safe, mistress and Darla were always close.” Based on the substantial amount of anesthetics and the fact that a foreign entity was connecting to one’s nervous system, a few weird dreams were not that surprising. 
Cleo mobilized one of her liquidators “so except for the fact that you are connected with Serla, what else has changed?” There was far more to the implant than just biorhythm bonding.  
Nora moved another of her liquidators in return, they were both fighting to wrest control of the central squares “I guess I can now get my xenodrugs without needles, or at least the few one’s mistress has configured it to produce. I don’t use that many xenodrugs anyway so it’s not that much of a change.” Cleo stared back down on the board to hide her slight blush. With the healthy blend of G, C-t, and C xenodrugs that she was on, she was probably more of a glassy-eyed floret than Nora despite the difference in legal status. 
Cleo moved a piece without much thought to disguise her pause and looked up, Nora was looking apprehensive. After a long silence, Nora finally talked “I have also agreed with mistress for her to control…or redirect is perhaps a better word, some of my thoughts.” The momentary embarrassment was forgotten, there was pain in Nora’s voice.
She reached out and grabbed Nora’s hand “what do you mean? I promise I won’t judge, I trust you and Serla have made a good decision.” Nora nodded solemnly, a few tears had built up in her eyes. 
Her words were slightly choked “When I lived on Centhia…I hurt people…I killed people…” For a moment there was a slight twitch in Nora’s eyes, then the pain receded “I know that it was beyond my control, it was to protect you or in self-defense…but it still hurts. So instead, when my mind reaches for those memories, the implant gently nudges me in a better direction….” Cleo could sense the question that burned in Nora’s mind, the same she also struggled with.
Nora breathed in and they locked eyes “is that fair?......I feel like a coward…” Cleo swallowed and squeezed Nora’s hand. 
She continued to look into Nora’s eyes “Fair?....I don’t think there is such a thing. What I do know is that you deserve to be happy. you are the bravest person I know, letting go of the pain does not make you a coward.” There was a tender silence before Nora smiled, the emotional weight of the moment began to drain from the air.
Nora moved a piece and took one of her liquidators with a slight chuckle “you are getting sloppy….now then, care to tell me about your plan?” She must have looked surprised. “don’t give me that look, I have seen that glint in your eyes enough times to know when you got something in the works.” Cle smiled and began explaining while they continued the game. 
It did not take long to lay out her reasoning and the actions they would result in. By the end Nora was grinning, Cleo cleared her throat “what do you think? Care to help me with this scheme, for old times’ sake.” 
There was not a moment’s hesitation “You know you can count on me, and I think it is an amazing plan. Convincing Serla though, that might be difficult.” True, the relentless psychologist would be needed for the plan to work. 
Cleo took one of Nora’s horses with her remaining mercenary “every person has their price, I believe that rule extends to plants.” She just needed the right bribe “Tell her that next time I am over, I will cuddle with you three and she can give me as much class-A as her core desires.” That would have to be enough. 
Nora grinned even wider “I can’t imagine she will refuse such a generous offer. Hell, now even I can’t wait.” She needed Nora and Serla as allies for this plan, it would be a small price to pay. 
For the rest of the game they talked specifics, though teasing tangents made the conversation pleasantly unproductive. Cleo could not stop herself from smiling as the conversation flowed, it was nice to talk without any pressure or concern weighing on their mind. It reminded her of the early days when she and Nora had just met and spent the evenings talking, playing, and sharing space in her apartment. The fact that they would be able to share many such moments in the future was deeply pleasant. 
Before Cleo could secure the game she noticed that Nora was beginning to look sleepy “we can finish the game later, I did promise your owner that we would not take too long.” Nora nodded and yawned, a second later Cleo felt the irresistible urge to yawn herself. 
They left the room, Serla and Mertha were sitting around the coffee table. A large pot of tea was on the table, both of the affini had dipped their vines in it. Serla looked at them inquisitively “had an interesting chat?”  
Nora smiled innocently “it was nice, I can tell you later…I am just very…sleepy at the moment.” The floret could hardly speak between her yawns. 
Serla stood up and lifted their pet into their arms “I understand, it might be time for us to take our leave.” Serla gave her a knowing look, perhaps the affini could tell that something was going on. 
Mertha stood up as well “you have been very pleasant company as always.” Mistress’s attention fell upon her “I hope you two had a good time, but I think you also need to sleep. We are going shopping tomorrow so you will need the rest.” Cleo did not bother to protest, more sleep did sound nice. 
Serla left shortly after, and Nora waved sleepily goodbye as she was carried away. Before she could do anything Cleo was lifted into far too comfortable vines “you seem to have had quite the exciting day, ready to tell me about it?” Cleo shook her head lightly as she sank into the soft embrace. Mistress sounded only slightly disappointed “awwww, I guess I will have to wait…” the vines began to pet her lightly and the beeple plushie was handed into her arms, Cleo hugged it….it was not her fault it was so soft. 
Mistress continued to speak but it was too distant for Cleo to follow properly, the words sounded affectionate and that was all that mattered. Why had she resisted sleep and rest for so much of her life? it was wonderful to be a sleepy kitten…
“Are you sure you don’t have any preferences?” Mertha was beginning to sound a bit frustrated.  
Cleo looked up and down the massive collection of vegetables “I am sorry, but it has been ages since I made food myself. I don’t know what I like, hell I don’t even know the name of half of these.” She gestured towards the produce.    
Mertha frowned in a very affini way “you must have some meal presences…What about the first dinner we ate during the negotiations? You must at least have selected that meal.” 
Cleo sighed “it was flavored to taste like….well, I am sure you can guess. I do have a meal preference: whatever you make. You have yet to make a meal that does not taste amazing, can’t you just continue with that?” Why did Mertha suddenly require her feeble advice? “This sounds awfully a lot like you are making me have a choice. That was not the deal, you want to be my owner? Figure it out, it’s not my responsibility, nothing is.” Mertha let out a performative sigh.
Her affini reluctantly began to pick up some vegetables and placed them in the large hovering trolley “fine, fine…you can be very uncooperative when you want to be. Promise me that you will at least tell me if you want something.” 
Cleo placed her hand on her chest in performative shock “I am the most cooperative and well-behaved ward this side of the core Terran sector. I just don’t want to give advice in a field I have no knowledge in…in the very unlikely case that I do suddenly manifest some expertise I will tell you.” Mertha shook her head humorously as they moved further into the grocery store. 
Well, first of all, it was not a store and secondly, it was far larger than it had any right to be. It had been a few years since she had the time to shop for her food, but she could distinctly remember that they were not the size of a massive resource storage. The place seemed to have everything; lab-grown meat, fresh produce of every type, ‘treats’, spices, and a bunch of other things that Cleo had never even seen before. She suspected that almost all of it could be replicated and no one would know the difference. likely the depo only existed so that the people that wanted to farming could be more fulfilled, affini society was far beyond being merely post-scarcity.
While Mertha got all of the ingredients for what had to be a month’s worth of meals Cleo looked around, slightly bored. There were still parts of her plan that needed to be completed and she did not have that much time. There was suddenly a pling from her purse, she took out the data pad. It was a message from Hepatica.
[Purplebloom]: A problem has come to my attention, and I would like to speak with you. I know it’s your day off, but we have received several complaints. Think you could stop by for a brief talk?
That did not sound good, for a moment she felt that far too familiar panic. Then she felt Mertha put a hand on her shoulder “hmmmm, have you made some mistakes with your paperwork?” Her affini were looking down on the data pad. Yes, that had to be it…just a minor mistake, there were probably no deadly consequences….probably not…she was safe…right?
She looked up at Mertha “maybe…is it okay if I go now? I know it’s probably nothing…but what if-” a vine turned her around to face mistress directly. Cleo could feel her heart beating fast and her breathing was becoming a bit hectic. 
The hand moved to pet her head gently “I understand, you don’t have to explain. Let's go now, do you want some class-E?” Cleo nodded, there was a slight sting in her arm and then the anxiety began to fade away. As they began to move she noticed that her movements were clumsy, her limbs moving a split after she commanded them to. 
Mertha packed all the food into a box shaped drone near the exit, someone had drawn a cute face on its side. A moment after Mertha typed something on her data pad and the friendly-looking drone moved towards a perfectly fitting slot in the wall and disappeared, probably some kind of transportation system. 
There was a rail station right by the grocery depo and they were not too far away from the bureaucracy. Not that it mattered too much, the rail system was satisfyingly fast and efficient. They got on a tram, for a moment Cleo almost stumbled as she embarked but mistress caught her with a few vines. Instead of just helping her up, Mertha placed her in her lap instead and a few vines began to pet her as the tram started moving. 
Once they got there she immediately noticed that the bureaucracy was unusually choked with affini. It did seem like her talk with Trexal had paid off, her plan was in motion. On the way to Hepatica’s office, they were intercepted by Chaeno “hello there Cleo, hi Mertha. What a pleasant surprise.” The large affini smiled warmly. 
Mertha nodded “we are just here to clear up some misunderstanding. Cleo is not allowed to work before tomorrow, and after that, I think she will have to take a small break.” 
Chaeno extended a vine and began to pet her “yes, I have sent a complaint about the situation myself. Don’t worry, it is nothing major. Cleo has been a tremendous help, such a cute and smart little bureaucrat, you are very lucky.” She felt herself begin to blush from the words and the feeling of pride from Mertha’s biorhythm. 
The bark-covered affini looked down at her “will you be attending the competition tomorrow? I hope one small defeat did not discourage you too much.” That raised her competitive instinct. 
Still, she had a plan to follow “Sadly, I have a lot going on tomorrow so I will have to abstain. But don’t worry, I will win next time, no matter how many vines you use.” Chaeno ruffled her hair a bit and then left, only now did Cleo notice the ridiculous stack of paper they were carrying.
As they arrived in front of the office Cleo realized that she would need Hepatica assistance with the plan. That meant it would have to be kept secret. “I think I can talk to her alone, Chaeno did not seem too worried so it is probably nothing.” Despite the lack of evidence showcasing any severe problems and the persistent work of the class-E she still felt a bit nervous. 
Mertha looked thoughtful for a moment “okay, I will wait out here.” Cleo was surprised, mistress usually required more convincing to drop the possessive attitude. Whatever the cause, it was beneficial for the plan. She knocked on the door and a moment later Hepatica signaled that she could enter.  
The inside of the office looked just as normal and ordinary as last time. Hepatica motioned towards the new human-sized chair, how nice of them. 
Cleo sat down and looked up at the purple affini behind the desk “so, why did you want to see me?” Hepatica took up a small stack of documents and handed them to her. 
There was genuine concern in her voice “we have had a few complaints regarding your profile.” The anxiety returned with full force. Trexal, you had one job…okay, maybe it was more than one but that fake profile was part of the deal. She did not sell the sector for an imperfect forgery. 
Her voice remained calm and innocent “oh….” She looked over the profile… “What is the problem?” It looked pretty solid to her, but there was no doubt a mistake that had tipped Hepatica off.
Hepatica tilted her head a bit “right, you are not that familiar with sophont profiles. When an affini finds a sophont they would like to have as their floret, they can send an ‘application of future domestication’ to us here at the bureaucracy. If the sophont ever wants or needs to be domesticated then that affini usually get them as their floret. It also showcases that the sophont is ‘taken’ so to say.” A condescending and very affini practice but what did this have to do with anything?
Cleo indicated for Hepatica to continue “The problem is that you don’t have such an application on your profile, and this has caused quite a bit of confusion.” A few vines pulled out several documents “usually your caretaker would have filed such an application by now, but for some reason, Mertha has not done so.” At least that part made some sort of sense.
Cleo nodded “she wants it to be my choice, I still don’t understand how this can cause complaints.” At least the forgery stood up to inspection, that was the most important part. 
Hepatica smiled and handed her the additional documents “the complaints are from the other affini that have wanted to submit applications of future domestication.” …..what? Hepatica continued like nothing was wrong with that statement “it is clear from the documentation that Mertha cares for you a great, great deal. The lack of application has made a lot of u…them unsure about if she wants you or not.” And if they could have her instead, that was the obvious implication. 
There were at least 20 complaints, even if ‘complaint’ was a strong word. They were more gently worded inquiries with far too many detailed descriptions about how cute she was. The first one aged back to a few weeks ago and was from the operator of the antique shop. About half of the ‘complaints’ were from people within the bureaucracy. 
Cleo gave the documents back “I see…I know what to do, but I will need a bit of help. Allow me to explain….” 
Once she was finished Hepatica looked at her with utter adoration and perhaps a bit of disappointment “that is so sweet of you, I will make sure everything is ready for tomorrow. It also resolved the situation perfectly, I’ll be sure to inform everyone who has sent complaints.” The plan was coming along perfectly, but it could always get better, and she wanted every advantage.
Cleo stood up “I can inform the first two who sent complaints, and thanks for the help, it means a lot.” Now all she needed was some subtlety and then all would be ready. 
Hepatica waved a vine dismissively “it would be a crime for me not to help, send me a message if there is anything else I can do.” Cleo considered it but there was nothing else that needed to be done. 
She waved the bureaucrat goodbye and left the office, Mertha was leaning against the wall a few paces away. She looked thoughtful and did not respond to the door closing “Mertha, I’m done. It was just a misunderstanding, all sorted out now.” 
Mertha looked at her with a smile, was there regret hiding behind it? “Good, do you want to go home?” Not yet, she had to fix something first. 
Cleo pretended to consider something, she had already planned the sentence while in the office “I am actually quite hungry. Remember the restaurant we visited a few weeks back? Could we eat there? Maybe we can visit the antique shop after that. I need to thank Betul for the pen. If I have the energy we could even find me some new clothes.” that seemed to lift Mertha’s spirit. 
A vine looped around her collar “A great idea my little kitten, but you should tell me before you get hungry. I am sure I can find something very tasty for you to eat, come along.” There was a slight tug on the leash and Cleo followed mistress. Part of her now suddenly wanted to tell mistress everything, but she could not ruin the plan. 
Mertha exited the study and looked at the empty living room, Cleo was still not home. Her human had a few minutes left but she was cutting it short, she had been cutting it short a bit too much lately. While it was clear that Cleo enjoyed the bureaucratic work she would have to curtail the amount in the future…..the future…..
She sat down on the couch and let her vines spread, the future felt uncertain. Tomorrow the committee would hold their assessment and decide if Cleo could be independent or not. She could make a strong case for both Cleo’s mental health and integration into the compact, independence was a likely outcome. What Cleo had done in the past did not matter beyond what it might indicate of future behavior, and she was certain that she could convince the committee that Cleo had changed.  
Despite this being what she wanted, she could feel a slight tinge of regret. Cleo was in such a better state now: she was making friends in the office, finding fulfillment in her work without it hurting her and ironically enough taking charge of her own life. Her little kitten had come so far…so far that she might not need someone to take care of her anymore…
The trial had lasted for a whole week at this point, and still, Cleo had not made a decision. She had neither ended the trail nor wanted it to become permanent. The first few days the uncertainty in Cleo’s biorhythm had made it clear that she was still unsure. However, after she came back from the Innax that uncertainty was no longer present. At first, she had suspected that Cleo had decided to become her floret but instead of bringing up the subject she had instead begun to show more self-reliance and want for privacy. 
If Cleo wanted to be independent that was fine. That was her right and the way for her to become her best self. Still, Mertha could not shake the feeling of regret…had she allowed Cleo to slip out of her vines? Was Cleo merely indulging her until the committee had made their decision? 
She would not lose Cleo, even if she did choose to become independent. But what if Cleo decided to overwork again? Or isolated herself again while dedicating herself to some new cause? How could she make sure Cleo was safe, happy, loved, and fulfilled if she did not….or perhaps she was just being selfish. Perhaps she had indulged that predatory side too much and for too long. 
Mertha knew that if she wanted she could make Cleo her floret, like so many other affini before her. It was not unusual for her people to push adorable sophonts in that direction, sometimes with frightening amounts of force and lack of consideration for the sophonts freedom. 
It was that cultural attitude she had disliked that she had tried to shield Cleo from. But now that she had felt the sublime wonder of having a floret in all but name, she could not blame her people for this attitude. When you have seen how fragile they can be, how fulfilling it is to make them happy, how desperate the want to protect them becomes, and how strong the connection could become….
No, despite her instincts she still held to her belief: The freedom of choice over one’s future, as long as the choice did not harm them was important. More important than her own feelings on the matter, if Cleo decided to be independent she would live with that…she could live with that. 
Mertha looked at the antique clock on the wall, Cleo was late by more than 5 minutes. Before she could take action there was a pling from her data pad. 
[ComfortVoice]: Are you coming? The committee and Cleo are already here. Is something holding you up?
Frost and fire! How could she have been wrong on the date of the committee hearing?! Mertha threw herself out of the couch and out of the hab. The elevator down took painfully long to get down. As soon as she was out onto the street she moved as fast as her form could take her. While she did not detangle completely she did loosen her form a bit to increase speed. She had been sure the meeting was tomorrow, how could she have made such a grave mistake? 
Luckily a tram to the bureaucracy arrived at the station just as she did. She sent Serla a message while trying to ignore the strange and curious looks she was getting from the other passengers.
[RestlessAnnoyance]: I am on my way, should be there in a few minutes. Please apologize on my behalf and make sure Cleo is okay. 
She should be there to comfort Cleo, no doubt her little kitten was very nervous. Mertha received an answer only a few moments later.
[ComfortVoice]: Cleo is doing fine, and the rest of the committee has agreed to wait. We are in meeting room JR-47. 
Thank the Everbloom, at least her mistake was not catastrophic. Coming in late would no doubt be very embarrassing, but she would just have to deal with it. She already did have a reputation for being a bit disorganized, this would not help with dispelling that in the slightest. Mertha looked at the tracking device monitor, as suspected Cleo was already in the meeting room. She hoped Serla was right, and that Cleo was doing okay. The last committee meeting had been downright traumatizing for the poor sophont. 
She got off the tram the second the doors opened and rushed towards the meeting room. Why did it have to be one of the far-away ones? Each corridor she passed through and corner she turned left her a bit more anxious, at least this part of the bureaucracy complex was rather empty. Then finally she arrived….
Standing in front of the door to the meeting room was Nora, clothed in a cute black suit that very much reminded Mertha of the first time she had seen the girl without armor. Why was Nora here? Did Serla take her along? And what was with the outfit? 
She closed the distance while Nora looked at her but was otherwise unresponsive, it almost looked like she was standing guard. Mertha stopped in front of Nora who was still blocking the way to the door. Nora looked up at her and raised a teasing but serious eyebrow “are you going to enter the negotiations looking like that?” 

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Next chapter should come out shortly, have a wonderful day!

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