When Cleo woke she was still in Nora and Darla’s embrace, the absence of mistress’s biorhythm bothered her, but being so close and cozy dampened it. She nuzzled closer into the cuddle pile and felt herself drift off again.
Something stirred next to her, and she opened her eyes, Nora had woken up and was looking at her groggily. Cleo rubbed her eyes and lifted herself carefully up, trying not to disturb the still sleeping Darla. The bed they were sleeping in was more than large enough to fit all three of them, it took up most of the space on the left half of the room. The other half looked like some kind of artist workshop, with paint, brushes, and both blank and filled canvases littering the area.
Nora sat up as well “sorry, it’s messy at the moment…” there was a tinge of embarrassment in her voice. Cleo suspected it had more to do with her seeing Nora’s work, rather than the chaotic state of the room. Her bodyguard had always shown great trepidation in showcasing any of her artwork, not that she had a good reason for this besides general artistic insecurities.
Not only would it be good to get back at her for yesterday, but Cleo was also curious about what Nora had made “sooooo….want to show me a few of your pieces?” Nora’s face turned a few shades of red and looked toward the different canvases.
The tone of her voice was remarkably similar to when Cleo had asked her the same thing many years ago “I don’t know…..Most of them are unfinished, and those that are….they are not very good…“ no way Nora was going to squirm herself out of this with such a lazy excuse.
Cleo got out of the bed, oh good she had legs and hands again, and began walking up to the canvases that looked the most finished. “You say that every time, you are just underselling your abilities….let me see here.” She could hear Nora get up from the bed behind her and Darla make an unsatisfied noise in her sleep as the warmth she had been clinging to left.
There were quite a number of paintings that caught her attention, but one stood out. It was painted on a rather large canvas and hung on the wall, far more on display than the others. In the center of the painting, there was what looked like a heart wrapped in iron plating. On the left side, the colors were red, dark, and unstable. The right side had a gentle green and blue with these colors rippling into the rest of the painting in gentle waves, driving away the darkness and seemingly peeling away the iron around the heart.
While Cleo did not possess the strongest artistic skill, she still found understanding in the work. Pain, chaos, and fear had forced the heart to be strong and protected. But the arrival of something genuinely good allowed it to open up and show its true colors.
She suddenly realized that Nora was standing beside her, oozing embracement, and some excitement “I made it right before I asked to become mistress’s floret……what do you think?” Cleo continued to look at the painting, the inspiration certainly made sense.
She turned to Nora “I think it looks magnificent….beautiful!…You should find a gallery to display it in!” Her excitement made Nora’s face turn shades of red that almost competed with her hair. But before Nora could protest she turned her head, a moment later Cleo heard it as well…Mistress!
She walked as quickly as she could without waking Darla, Her biorhythm growing louder with each step. The door to Nora’s room opened and Cleo saw Mertha talking with Serla, her heart soared as she ran towards her owner. Mistress only had a second of warning but that was more than enough to catch her as Cleo threw herself into Her loving vines.
Mertha smiled at her lovingly as several vines began to smother her ruthlessly. Nuzzling into the vines Cleo breathed out in relief as Her biorhythm surrounded her once more “I missed you…” Her owner had been away for over 36 hours, that was 36 hours too many.
The intensity of the pets lowered “I know my little flower, did you have fun while I was away?” one vine began to gently scratch her behind one ear.
Yesterday had been fun, if a bit embarrassing “yes mistress!….but why did you do the things with the paws right when I was about to win? you didn’t tell me they were remote-controlled….” Her slight whine was halted as the vine scratching her ear became a bit more intense. Cleo forgot her complaint almost immediately and leaned into the vine, hoping for more pats.
Mistress obliged her “you don’t need to win at everything, you should remember that for today as well.” What was she referring to? Was there something she was…oh yes! The bureaucratic championship!
Cleo managed to press past the bliss of the head pats “no, I am going to win, whatever it takes.” For a moment Mertha, looked hesitant, that could not be accepted “you promised to let me compete if I behaved, have I misbehaved?” She looked up at her owner with big helpless eyes, the threat of unending floret disappointment on full display.
Mistress shivered slightly and relented “fine, you have been a very good girl, so I will let you compete. But that means we should leave soon, it will start in not too long.” Cleo nodded enthusiastically and savored her victory.
Mertha turned to Serla “it seems like we are on a stricter schedule than I had planned, we will have to drink tea later.” At this point, Nora had come out of her room and was lazily enjoying some head pats from her owner.
Serla did not sound too disappointed. “We can talk during the celebrations later today, see you both then.” Mistress responded with an affirmative nod, and after saying goodbye they left for the bureaucratic center.
Mertha could not help but feel overjoyed as she finally held Cleo in her vines once more. Her trip to Centhia had been important but not being able to communicate with her little kitten in any other way than those adorable messages had been irritating. Now that she was safely and firmly in her grasp once more, she would spoil Cleo rotten, just as both of them deserved.
Her pet seemed to be deep in thought, likely planning for this bureaucratic championship that had captured her attention. While Cleo’s ambition was currently ebbing low as the floret had requested, the drive to prove herself was certainly still there in full force. She silently wondered if it was a bad idea for Cleo to compete, she was certainly talented but there were affini with several blooms’ worth of experience. If her little kitten lost the disappointment would have to be rectified with some class-A cuddles and a good-tasting lunch with desert….not that she had not already planned the next 14 meals anyway.
As they embarked on the mag rail tram she felt a great deal of satisfaction. Before Cleo had come into her life she had often avoided large crowds and public areas. Seeing other affini taking care of their florets and going about their business with purpose had only contrasted that much harsher with her own aimless wandering.
Now however she moved with confidence and direction, and most importantly of all, she had a wonderful treasure to take care of. Her pride and love for Cleo could not properly be described, not in affini or any of the many other languages and cultures she had studied. It had been a rough journey, but Cleo had persevered and bloomed into such a wonderful person, and perhaps best of all they had done it together. Some other affini might find the challenge of helping a sophont such as Cleo fascinating and fulfilling. Mertha could not help but think that cooperation was a far more fulfilling way of doing it, because she could be certain that Cleo would have wanted this.
They arrived at the bureaucracy and her floret had broken out of her planning phase and looked very excited. She put Cleo down and attached the leash around the collar, there was still a slight tinge of worry “don’t push yourself too hard now, okay?”
Her floret looked up at her and nodded, so adorable! “Don’t worry, mistress, it only lasts 30 minutes. Can you give me full access to the overnet now? I need it so I can wipe that smug look off Chaeno's face.” Full access? Was that really a good idea? She did not want her to be overwhelmed, Cleo looked up with begging eyes “please….mistress, I really want to win…” how was she supposed to say no to such a cute request?
Mertha ruffled Cleo’s hair as they entered the office “all right, you can have your full access, but only for the competition.” A wide smile spread on her florets face, something she could only respond to with more head pats.
In the office, the desks had been aligned into a clean grid formation, on each one, a large stack of paper was placed along with several pens. She gave Cleo a final pat “good luck!” Her human’s face was determined and serious as she took her place on the desk that was comically much smaller than all the others.
Hepatica came up to her as the other contestants took their place. “Glad you two could join us for today, I was afraid that Cleo might have got discouraged after last time.”
Mertha could only chuckle “oh no, she waited for this a long time, her defeat only made her more determined. By the way, thanks for helping her set up the contract negotiation.” As they were speaking Cleo and Chaeno shook hands in an amusing display of friendly rivalry.
Hepatica looked proud “it was my pleasure, you truly have an amazing floret….if only she was mine…oh it's starting.” The room went silent and filled with competitive tension. Then a whistle was blown by one of the bureaucrats and the sound of pens scribbling on paper filled the room.
The speed at which the documents were filled was truly astounding. The competition was no doubt a great help with making a dent in the backlog the bureaucracy still faced. Despite only having one hand to write with, Cleo was not lagging behind, sometimes her hand was almost a blur as it moved across the paper.
Feeling curious, Mertha took a brief look with her datapad at the data that Cleo was accessing. It was almost hard to keep up as her floret delved into every part of the bureaucracy archives for either document codes, data, or verified forms. It was almost concerning how much data her little kitten was accessing at once, she reminded herself that the uplink was outfitted with control measures against overloading the sophonts brain capacity.
Only 15 minutes in it was clear by the stacks of paper alone that Cleo and Chaeno were the two frontrunners. The fact that Cleo could keep up with an affini using six vines was impressive, no matter the result her little kitten would deserve a treat after this. Another stack of documents was deposited on the rivals’ desks and their speed only seemed to increase.
Mertha could see the sweat dripping down Cleo’s forehead as her human continued to write with an undemanding frenzy. Ten minutes later and the other affini showed clear signs of slowing down, likely not from physical but rather mental exhaustion. Looking at those documents could give her a core ache on the best of days. Why bureaucrats took such enjoyment in this was far beyond her.
The two main competitors were still going strong, but by the flushed nature of Cleo’s cheeks, it was obvious that she was tired. Despite this, her hand still flew over the papers and filled them out, one by one. Just as Cleo reached for another paper the whistle was blown again and the competition was over. Before her floret could even sink down in her chair, Mertha closed the distance and picked her up.
Cleo was panting and looked exhausted but also satisfied “I…Think...I did...quite well this…time.” Mertha thanked herself for remembering to bring some water. As soon as the water bottle was in her florets hands she began to drink ravenously.
A slightly ruffled and exhausted-looking Chaeno “that was some intense speed little one, you might actually stand a chance this time. An impressive improvement over your last performance to be sure.” There was some playful condescension in the words, as well as some lightly concealed pride.
Cleo took a brief pause from drinking and tapped her forehead with a finger “It helps to have access to the full bureaucratic archives of the Agraria with a mere thought.” There was a flash of surprise on the tall affini’s face, a surprise Cleo quickly dismissed “don’t complain, you have like 20 times my life age worth of experience…and as you like to remind me, you have six vines to write with.”
Across the room Hepatica ‘cleared her throat’ and the room went silent once more “the winner of this week’s championship in department 34-B is……” the silence grew tense, and she could feel Cleo’s anticipation and excitement “….Cleopatra Verina!” The tension broke into cheering.
Cleo pumped a fist into the air “HA! You see, an effective mind can beat any number of appendages!” The pride that radiated off her floret was almost infectious in its strength.
Chaeno grumbled “Hepatica, how far was I off?” The overseeing bureaucrat looked down at the massive stacks of documents for a moment.
Then she responded “you were actually ahead by 2 points, but you filled in the industrial compiler form wrongly. Alloys for spaceship hulls are energy level seven, not six.” Chaeno vines curled slightly in frustration.
The affini looked down at Cleo. “I guess you won today, don’t think you will be so lucky next time.” Apparently, her floret was far from the only sore loser, Chaeno pride had clearly been stung.
Cleo reached out a hand “Today was a good match and I am always up for challenging and humbling affini pride.” Really now? Mertha tightened the vines wrapped around her kitten and Cleo blushed a deep red “….not your pride mistress, you know that….” All the bluster and arrogance dispersed from her pet’s biorhythm.
The predator inside her grinned “awww such an obedient pet I have…you deserve a treat, why don’t we get some ice cream before we head home?” Cleo hid her face in her vines in embarrassment but nodded into them as well. Making her blush like this was never going to get less satisfying “It seems my little kitten is all tuckered out. See you later Chaeno!” As she carried Cleo out she could not help her mind from planning all the ways she was going to spoil her human the rest of the day.
Cleo yawned as the credits for the show began to roll down the screen. Mistress gave her a few gentle pats. "Serla was right, the ending was very sweet."
She had also been right, the evil emperor had been obliterated by some sort of magic...but at the same time, both the cat person had sort of been redeemed in the end. Stars, even the head villain from the beginning, were sort of allowed to be left alone. The ending had been more hopeful than she had imagined when they started to watch the show, it had been very sweet indeed.
A few scritches behind her ears made her thoughts fuzzy for a moment "I hope you are not getting sleepy already, we still have the party to attend." It was not her fault that the vines were so comfortable, or that Her biorhythm was so soothing, or that the ice cream had made her sleepy.
After she gave a yawn as an answer mistress stood up and carried her to the bathroom "such a sleepy kitty I own. Guess I will have to do everything for you." Cleo agreed fully and Mertha began to clean, groom, and then clothe her.
The warm water, soothing grooming, and soft fabric of her clothes did not make her any less sleepy. Staying awake was the only thing she was required to do as mistress carried her around, but even that proved difficult.
As mistress carried her to the door of their hab, she seemed to consider putting her down "still sleepy?" Cleo yawned again and nuzzled closer into the vines as usual. Mertha’s voice was filled with adoration "just take a quick catnap and I can wake you when we arrive." Having gotten permission Cleo drifted off to blissful sleep in a matter of moments.
When she opened her eyes there was green all around her. Vines entwined in each other built a cocoon, trapping her inside. For a moment it felt claustrophobic, with so little space and no way out. Then the vines began to open at the top, unfurling to reveal a star-clad night sky. Each of the stars shone with a beautiful intensity and unique color, calling out to her from far above.
Cleo tried to raise her arm to reach for them but she was too weak, a vine warped itself around her arm and guided it up. With the plant's help, she could touch the stars, each one held such vast potential for the future. The celestial objects were not made of plasma and radiation, instead, they were made of future memories, happy memories…there was soft music playing in the void.
The vines helped her to stand up and reach for even the most distant of the burning suns, and as the music grew louder more stars appeared in the sky. Cleo felt stronger and somehow knew that she could reach for the stars by herself if she wanted.
But she did not. For the vines brought such warmth, closeness, and comfort…And what use was visiting all the stars, if she could not do it with the song that now dwelled in her heart by her side? She had been used to the quiet and empty office of her past life for far too long, it could not compete with the love and sound of the song.
The song grew more distinct “…..” almost like it was talking to her “cle….” The vines underneath her stirred “Cleo, wake up.” She opened her eyes and stared into the most beautiful stars of them all, her mistress’s eyes.
They were walking up the long cobblestone slope, soon at the top. Mistress coaxed her awake with a few pets “you need to wake up little one, I don’t think Leto would appreciate you sleeping through the feast he has prepared. Cleo stretched and shook herself into a more solid form of consciousness, her heart was filled with a strange new emotion.
Mertha continued to walk and like last time covered for the view, though this time it was likely unintentional. Cleo tugged at a vine “could we stop at the top and look at the view?” There was something she wanted to say, she didn’t quite know what it was yet.
Mistress nodded and soon they were there at the top with a full view of the Agraria….it looked beautiful. It was late so the rings were dark, but a million small lights lit them up like the night sky. The Agraria looked at once like the urban sprawl of the planet below and the universe that surrounded it. Mertha found them a bench and they sat down, Cleo sitting in her owner’s lap.
A tender and long silence followed as they both stared out, onto the city and the lights that illuminated it. The feeling in her heart had welled up and for once Cleo spoke without thinking “I look forward to tomorrow….” The realization came after the words, she looked up at Mertha “I look forward to all our tomorrows’.”
Mertha leaned down and kissed her on the forehead “me too kitten, me too.” Then they stared at each other for a long time and Cleo had another realization. The universe was far warmer and more caring than she had long assumed.