Gay little stories about big gay plants

A Shadow On The Waves

by Fluxom

Tags: #cw:gore #cw:noncon #dom:internalized_imperialism #drugs #Human_Domestication_Guide #scifi #sub:capitalism #anthology

I actually wrote this one back when I was young and foolish and had only written like ten chapters of abscission, when I suddenly got struck by an idea and proceeded to stay up until 5am writing this one in one fugue state before immediately collapsing on my couch and sleeping.

I've also been told that this is the best thing I've ever written, so, don't know how to feel about that in hindsight


ANYWAY

CW for:
not a lot of actual kink in this one?
but oh boy is there ennui
there is so much ennui
i had to reread this to edit it and then I just stared out my window for a while as I contemplated my feelings

Theta didn’t know what they had lost.

They were born of a stray utilitarian’s dream and a wayward attempt at creating yet another subspecies offshoot of humans. Born inside a glass womb and frozen for 5200 years, Theta didn’t know they had lost a malign family to an ethic’s committee's review and a lengthy attempt to disassemble a cult’s many labs. When they finally drew their first breath they didn’t know they had lost countless years to a machine’s frozen hand, nor did they know the names they were supposed to speak nor the hands they were meant to hold.

Raised on the surface of Calypso 12, they didn’t know of the countless structures that had once dotted it’s surface, the mountain ranges that had been eroded by time, the people and cultures lost to dust in the wind. They never knew the days where the ground had run thin and the air flew foul. They never knew the oceans weren’t always brimming with fish, nor the ground teeming with insects. Theta didn’t even see signs of what was once a road until they were already 20, nor the rotted remains of an armored truck’s tristeel hull until they were nearly 30.

Theta’s personal possessions only began with a box of inherited goods from one of their genetic donors, and a gifted home that overlooked the sunsets on a bay. They grew up breathing pure ocean air that had once been opaque with smog, walking barefoot through the sand where concrete had been. They looked up into a sky that brimmed with an abundance of brilliant white clouds, where the rare floating structure would occasionally drift through the white blankets in and out of view.

Within the box of goods Theta had found a broken instrument, and when they had become an adult they sought out a practiced hand to repair it. Their days were filled with a casual leisure, and they took to filling their free time with learning to play the old thing, and soon after they had developed a habit of wandering into the small village that perched on the ocean’s edge to play in an open bar that let the light of the setting sun in each night.

Perched on their small stage, Theta didn’t know the days where bombs had once fallen beneath their very feet, nor the screams of anguish that dotted the long since lost streets that had once crossed around it. They didn’t know the history of the musical tool in their hand, nor the countless songs written for it. They didn’t even know a lick of musical theory.

But despite all that Theta didn’t know, they knew they enjoyed the awkward noises they had made when they first picked up the instrument. They had a countless abundance of free time, blissfully unaware of the fears of losing their home, their clothes, their food. They climbed the trees in the forests that overgrew land that once held malls, traveled the beaten paths of valleys that held tall grass for miles on end, and they played their instrument every day. On sunny days they’d recline on the beach, letting the sun kiss their deeply tanned flesh and play their instrument until sweat coated their form. On rainy days they would perch under a balcony and play in tune to the raindrops that tapped over their cover while neighbors would lean out their window to listen.

When Theta played in the bar, coated in the dying lights of the day’s sun, they played music they had fabricated from lessons learned only by practice. They lost themselves to the daze of the songs they had formed listening to the waves crash around their ankles, the chirps of insects nested within the trees, the hum of the wind through the shaded paths of the village. They played until the sun dipped beneath the edge of the ocean waves, giving one last brilliant emerald flash that covered them in a green light. When they were feeling particularly happy, they would time their musical finish to that glimmer of verdant light, and leave the bar in a moment of silence with the first touch of night’s shade in tandem.

---

Perched along the length of the bar sat the usual array of Theta’s friends. Cirsium, an affini from a distant world who had settled in this village seeking rest from a life of idle science labs. Alette, Cirsium’s floret that she had met within a station built into an orbital network densely packed around a distant gas giant. Rye, a beastial person whose wide frame belied their preference for simply sleeping in a sunbeam all day.

“Please tell me you remembered it this time,” Theta asked, unaware how the timbre of their voice had been quite literally engineered to be like music to the affini’s ears. From their pocket they produced a glass cube with thin layers of opaque material sealed within, an arcane memento from the inherited goods that had somehow traveled the many years without once being scratched.

The affini, ever the flirt, made a mock show humming and hawing over the possibility of her forgetting once again. “I don’t know,” She said in a playful tone. “I was so busy adoring my lovely Alette all morning, I might have forgotten again.”

“You did do that and you did forget.” Alette cut in, producing a handheld machine from her bag. “But I remembered.”

Theta gasped excitedly and ran over to Alette’s side. “Alette, you wonderful bean, you are my hero.” They said, practically leaping upon her in a tight hug, before disentangling themselves to step over to Rye and give him a warm kiss upon his fluffy cheeks as well. Alette, meanwhile, gave a kiss to Cirsium’s cheek as condolence for her having forgotten, again, to bring the requested machine.

Rye hummed idly, his voice a warm rumble of a purr as he did, wide finger tracing the rim of his long finished drink. “So what do you think it is this time?” He said, reminiscing over the many relics and knickknacks Theta would excitedly come running in with when they found them lying on the wayside.

“I hope,” They said, happily fiddling with the old device. “that whatever it is, it’s interesting. No more old… what did you call them, Cirsium?”

“Bullet shells.”

“Whatever those were,” Theta continued. After a small twist and a click, a slot on the side of the device popped open, the perfect size for the glass cube Theta had brought. With another click and a twist, they popped the cube in and spun the machine back around.

Nothing happened.

“It works, right?” Alette asked.

Cirsium leaned over her floret to inspect the device. “It should, it took me a while to hunt down and find one that worked and I’d be quite upset for it to break now that it’s here.”

“You need to push the On button.” Rye said, and clicked the little green dot on the top of the machine. A flat pane of glass flicked to life, littered with a countless array of staticked dots that slowly organized into an image. The view inside the glass pane was completely unknown to Theta. Tall structures of solid stone, glass, and steel. Sharpened metal shapes covering the space below it. Black pillars of smoke in the distance.

“It’s a photo?” Cirsium cocked her head to the side.

Theta flicked a switch on the side of the machine, and the image switched to one of crowds of people wearing strange fashion and packed tightly together in a street. Another flick changed the view to a deep trench in between rusted factories that overflowed with water. Another revealed two people wrapped up together in each other's arms, perched before a soft fire in their home.

Rye tapped a talon next to the edge of the glass pane. “See those numbers? Those look like co-ordinates.”

Alette leaned in closer to peer at the small red scribbles in the edge of the pictures. “So they are.”

“The stellar ID matches this planet. Where did you find this, Theta?” Cirsium added.

Theta flicked the switch again, changing the picture to an expanse of cultured crops under a toxic sky. “Inheritance from one of my genetic donors, lady told me I was the closest relative.” They answered, not really aware of what it meant. 

Theta didn’t know how that work painted their flesh. Wide eyes of a brilliant purple hue, soft lips that shined beautifully when they smiled, dark hazel flesh that ran with soft gradients and sharp lines to highlight their form. All markers of a specific view of beauty that Theta never once even considered. To them, their appearance was wholly unremarkable. To a stranger many stars away, they were an unreal vision.

“Do you think we can visit these places?” Theta asked.

“It’s been a long time since these were taken, I think. But if any were taken in this area we could easily find them tomorrow.” Rye answered

“Can we please?” Theta asked excitedly, grabbing Rye’s forearm as they did.

Alette turned to Cirsium. “Would we be able to use your boat tomorrow?”

“That sounds like a delightful little adventure,” Cirsium smiled in response.

“Wonderful!” Theta practically leapt out of their seat, machine in hands, leaping into the air with fresh energy from the prospect of a new flight of fancy. “I should get these printed- can I get these printed?”

Rye plucked the machine out of their hands to inspect it, then flicked a button on the side. With a soft whirr small paper squares slid out of the side of the device, one by one until a stack of black sheets with white frames landed on the counter.

“Oh, that works.” Theta clambered up over Rye’s shoulder, wide eyes staring intently towards the prints. Cirsium meanwhile took Alette in hand and scooted closer, moving her floret to her lap in the process. They all stood in silent awe as the black tones shifted into color replicas of the images they had seen on the glass pane, with the numbers in the corner preserved in bright red hues.

Rye plucked the photo of the two humans perched before a fireplace and set it aside. “I think that one is a bit personal for us to hunt down.” He rumbled.

“That one is on the other side of the planet, so it’ll be a little out of the way.” Cirsium said as she plucked another photo from the pile and set it aside. 

The lot repeated this process through the pile of pictures one by one, sorting out the sights that were of a personal value like a photo of a mysterious person standing next to an array of baked goods, or a close up shot of a stuffed animal Theta couldn’t recognize. Next went the pictures of places that would be lost to time, such as inside shots of cramped architecture. Thirdly went the pictures that were simply too far away to be of use, like a lovely photo of the world taken from a long lost space station. Theta couldn’t help but notice that the planet seemed far more grey than they knew it to be now, but they didn’t have the knowledge to understand why.

The fourth group of photos to go were events that Theta didn’t understand. The deeper into the pile of pictures they went, the more common those photos were. Great oval shapes dotting the horizon, fire in the distance, rubble through the streets, a curtain of light that crossed the mountains. On and on the pictures went, and each sent a chill down Theta’s spine with the certainty that they couldn’t even begin to know the meaning of it. “Do you know what any of these are?” Alette had asked her affini.

“I’m afraid these pre-date me by a long time, little floret.” Cirsium had answered.

When all was said and done they were left with three photos on their to do list. One, a picture of a great tree on a hill. “That’s an old species.” Cirsium had said. “It could easily still be around.” The second was a series of mechanical structures dotting the length of the oceanside. The structures were most assuredly gone to time, but the location was not too far. Last was a tower on a cliff whose construction was unlike any of the other buildings they had seen. That picture was the last one the person had taken.

“We’ll need to take a train to reach the tree, but the other two we can reach by boat.” Cirsium said as she bundled up the photos they had set aside and returned them to Theta.

“Train tomorrow, boat the next day?” Rye asked.

“I like that plan.” Alette answered.

“I’ll meet you all at the station then?” Theta replied.

“It’s a date.” Cirsium confirmed.

---

The next day the sun shone softly in brilliant rays of light through the blanket of clouds. When Theta walked to the train station they admired the distant view of rolling hills mottled by spots of brilliant sunlight and the soft cast shade beyond them, ever unaware that once those hills had been mountainous in their heights.

At the station they leapt onto the platform with a comfortable ease, unaware that many ages ago they would have ever had to fish out their wallet and hunt down a ticket, then leapt into Rye’s open arms for a hug before clambering up onto his shoulders to play lookout for Cirsium. The affini and her pet arrived soon after, the two wearing matching sundresses that complemented Cirsium’s radiant aura of leaves which danced around her in the winds. “There you are!” Theta said with a warm joy, arms resting comfortably atop Rye’s head.

“Sorry we’re late,” Cirsium said. “I was so busy adoring Alette’s beautiful cheeks that I completely lost track of time!”

“It’s true.” Alette huffed. “She wouldn’t stop pinching them.”

The four shared a comfortable laugh at that. Less than a leisurely hour later the train arrived, and the four boarded to enjoy their trip. Within the metal ride Theta found a place to sit next to Rye, arm wrapped around his and leaning comfortably into his fur, kicking their feet up in the luxurious space and as ever blissfully unaware of the idea of trains being austere, underfunded, overcrowded machines. From beyond the window the pair saw the world pass them by, sun drifting up from behind the distant mountains as it went. Rolling hills became brilliant clear lakes, which soon became a forest of massive red trees that reached high into the sky. Beyond that was a tunnel which the train sped through before revealing the wide valleys between the stone giants.

Cirsium was the first to notice their stop approaching, and promptly ran around rousing everyone from their dazy mid-travel nap to actually get them to make their intended escape. The four ran out into the mountainous air, Theta running into a nearby clothing dispensary to get a warm coat to wear over their linen crop top as soon as the first cold chill hit them. They didn’t know to expect the chill this high up.

Together the four hitched a ride on a tram out to the base of the valley, where even from a distance they could see the tree in the photo still grew. In the years since the photo was taken it had only grown ever more grand, reaching up into the sky and creating a wide canvas of leaves that blanketed the valley floor in shade. Once they reached the bottom of the path the four practically ran out of the tram, across the bridge that cleared a natural moat, and off over the beaten path to the tree’s base.

“It’s still here!” Theta shouted excitedly, practically jumping the whole way and throwing their fists into the air as they went.

“Of course it is,” Cirsium wore an open tone of pride. “I told you it would be, didn’t I?”

Alette, who was holding Cirsium’s hand the entire spree, did not sound convinced. “You also said we’d be on time today.” Cirsium folded up in embarrassment for being called out.

Theta clambered up over the massive roots of the tree, handhold by handhold making their way up to rest against the trunk, spinning around to sit down on one of the gnarled bits of bark and admire the view beyond. Thousands upon thousands of years ago that tree had been the only mark of beauty in this area, the rest long since poisoned by mercury and apathy. But Theta only saw the fields of green that spread out in every direction, marked by the tram line that led further down to a mountainside town and up back to the train.

Rye climbed up after them, Cirsium and Alette clinging to his shoulders for an easy ride, and all three took a seat to soak in the view. Theta drew in a deep breath, enjoying the feel of cold air dancing through their sinuses and bringing a momentary clarity to the air that flowed through their chest. “It’s beautiful up here.” They said with a wistful smile.

“We should come again some time.” Rye said.

“Oh?” Theta said, leaning over to put an arm on Rye’s shoulder. “Did you finally find the will to ask me out?”

“What can I say?” Rye held up their hands in mock surrender. “You’re simply so beautiful that I’ve been intimidated all this time.”

“Oh hush,” Theta waved off the compliment. “I’m hardly anything special.”

“Oh my god you two are incorrigible,” Alette blew a stack of loose leaves into the two’s direction. “Haven’t you been fucking for months now?”

Theta broke out into joyous laughter, catching the leaves that flew their way before they slipped and landed into Rye’s lap.

---

The four retained their high spirits all through the day, feeling the fresh rush of spirit as they hopped the tram to go down and get lunch. Together they sat at a table with a beautiful open view of the fields where goats grazed and flowers waved in the wind. Together they wandered the central paths of the town all hand in hand before the sun began to creep away and they all returned to the tram back up.

Back on the train heading towards home the four were full of energy, excitedly chattering about over all the beautiful things they had seen on their little journey. When the tunnel became the forest became the lake again their spirits had calmed down, and Theta plucked out their instrument once more to improvise a tune inspired by the day’s sights. Alette and Cirsium cuddled up together and sighed wistfully as the sights drifted by outside once more. Rye, meanwhile, tried to be polite but couldn’t help but enjoy the sight of Theta’s soft tummy fat as they danced to their own tune.

By the time the train returned to their own station the night had already returned and blanketed the bay in the soft glow of the night’s stars. “Tomorrow we take the boat, right?” Theta asked as they stepped off the train, holding Rye’s and Alette’s hands comfortably.

“Of course.” Cirsium answered, holding Alette’s other hand herself. “I’ll just come by and pick you up at yours?”

“Perfect! At the pier?”

“Sounds lovely.” Cirsium and Alette took turns giving Theta a kiss on each cheek, which Theta returned in kind. “See you tomorrow!” The affini and floret waved them goodnight, retreating off into the dark together.

Theta turned to Rye, still holding his hand. “So, sounds like you might as well crash at mine again.”

“I can’t believe Alette thinks we’re fucking.” Rye sighed, putting a paw over his face.

“Shh, I’ll message her later to explain, okay?” Theta said, putting their free hand on Rye’s cheek. There were many things Theta didn’t know, but the platonic nature of Rye’s affections was one thing they did know quite well.

“Thank you,” Rye’s voice melded back into a purr, warm vibrations playing through their body to resonate into Theta’s hand. “I mean it.”


---

The next day the sun rose to greet the world with an orange glow, and Theta greeted Cirsium and Alette by running off the pier into a jumping stride, misjudging the distance, and landing face-first into the ocean water. Luckily, Rye had predicted their excitable nature and had told Theta to wear a swimsuit before going out and leave all the pictures in Rye’s bag with a beach towel.

Ten minutes and one awkward swim back into Cirsium’s boat later they took off. The vessel slid into a position that just barely grazed over the ocean’s surface, cutting a line through the surface off it’s razor edge and sending the wind whipping through the lot’s hair, fur, and leaves as they traveled. Theta faced the forward path with an open smile, unaware that such a trip would be considered an unlikely luxury in days long past. They only knew that they loved to be with their friends, enjoying the myriad pleasures of the world in the moment that they happened. They delighted in the wind strikes of air that flowed over their skin, sent their hoodie dancing about behind them like a cape in the breeze, and filled their lungs with a crisp taste of salt as they went.

Two hours and one break for cheese and crackers later the lot drifted up near a jagged patch of massive stones dotting the length of the beach. Theta held up the photo of the rusty factories for comparison, and found they could only barely see any comparison. “Are you sure this is the place?” They turned to the affini and asked.

“Absolutely sure.” Cirsium brought the boat down to a soft pace, letting it float back down to rest on the ocean’s surface properly as they took in the sight.

Alette looked at the photo to the beach again, frowning in uncertainty. “What do you think happened to the stuff that was here?”

Cirsium shrugged. “Don’t know. Time? Maybe it all just washed out into the ocean one day.”

Rye rumbled in response. “Or it got disassembled.”

Theta sighed. “Well, I guess we got lucky with that tree then, huh?”

“I doubt a tree could wash out to sea from a mountain valley.” Alette answered flatly. Theta and Cirsium broke into a fit of giggles at that, but Rye just seemed confused at why they had found that funny.

---

It took the four another three hours before they found the tower in the last photo. The cliff that the building had rested upon had long since crumbled into a small peninsula, but the tower still remained. Resting at its base was a building made of wood and surrounded by lush fields of plants There was even a dock, with another boat lashed to its side. Beyond it there was nothing but grass as far as the eye could see, curling up the length of the once-cliff-now-slope before disappearing into the bushes of the wild.

The four didn’t hesitate to drift up to the dock and step off onto it. As they did, a stranger emerged from the garden nearby, standing several heads taller than even Cirsium did. Theta strolled on towards the garden, holding up the photo in one hand and looking up at the tower that looked as pristine now as it did in the picture taken long long ago. “Hello there!” Theta said with a wide smile, happily bounding up to the garden’s fence and resting against it. “Can I bother you for a moment of your time?”

The stranger approached closer, revealing herself to be an affini just as Cirsium was, but one that had decorated herself with an array of yellow flowers that circled her head like a crown before trailing down to drape over her shoulders. “Hello there, strangers. To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Cirsium, Alette, and Rye all stepped forward and introduced themselves one by one, giving a polite bow to the affini as they did. Last was Theta, who flipped the picture to reveal it’s contents to her as they spoke. “I’m Theta! It’s nice to meet you! We found these old photos and felt like going on an adventure to find out where they were taken, which led us right here.”

“Oh!” She leaned in closer, squinting as she looked over the picture. “It’s been a long, long time since my home looked like that.” She said, “But do please come in, if you’ve come all this way it’s only polite for me to give you the tour.”

“This is your home?” Alette asked as she gestured towards the tower.

“Yes, yes, well, sort of.” The affini answered, then waved her hands around as she stopped in place. “But wait, first, where are my manners?” She twirled around, kicking up her myriad vines and leaves into a billowing wave that circled around her twice before curling up tightly. “Barbarea Exigis, fifty-sixth bloom, at your service.”

Cirsium seemed to tense up in shock at that.

“This tower you see is one of our many carbon recapture stations that we had set up a long time ago. Well, was, it broke down a few thousand years ago and there is no more need for it, so…” She gestured vaguely to the side. “I guess it’s just a pretty sight, now.”

Theta didn’t know what it meant to carbon recapture.

“I’ve been living here since it was first put down though, and in more recent years I’ve decided to try to… pretty up a bit I suppose.” She giggled softly to herself as she walked through the garden, showing them the various plants she had grown. Myriads of flowers, bushes, thorny shapes and curled stems all abound. She had arches made of trees that intertwined together and cast their shadows over a fountain in the middle where water sprung between bundled roses to flow into a stone bowl. She led them to a series of wide stone benches in the comfortable shade and took a seat, gesturing them to do the same. There she asked them of their stories, where they came from and who they were, the things they had seen, and she hung on their every word.

From Rye she heard tales of a home on the other side of the planet, where he had spent his days fixing old vehicles before a wanderlust had him packing a bag and taking to the road. From Alette she heard of the gas giant where rings of stations were all connected together into a net that covered it’s entire atmosphere, with great platforms dipping into the cloud layers and stripping mass for what felt as if an endless supply of raw materials. From Cirsium she heard of how the affini had wandered into the station on an idle whim, and found a girl who detested the idle busywork of shipping gaseous masses from one end of a machine to another.

When she turned to Theta they had already sifted through Rye’s bag and pulled out the stacks of photos they had set aside. “You lived here all the way back then, right? Could you tell us about these pictures?” They asked, inadvertently cutting off Barbarea’s questioning in the process.

“Of course, dear.” She said, plucking the photos one by one. “Ah… these are quite old.” She plucked the photo of the oval shapes dotting the sky. “See these? Those were affini ships back when we first landed here. Back when it was… honestly I don’t even remember what the old government was called at this point. But when our ships flew down we saw this world poisoned near to death, and imperialists as we tend to be, decided to take over it.” She huffed at the memory, sending a gust of wind dancing out along the sides of her neck.

Theta looked up at the sky and saw only brilliant blues mixed with beautiful white tones. They looked out to the sea and saw only blue-green waves playing along the golden shore.

“You wouldn’t know about back then, would you?” Barbarea continued, sifting through the photos as she did. “It’s been so long I suppose most wouldn’t. It was a different time and place back then. The world was coated in cities and roads, the air was full of smog, and there were so many more people than there are now.”

“Did you save it?” Alette asked, leaning against Cirsium.

“We silenced the machines, broke the weapons, claimed the people we deemed threats, but honestly…. No, I don’t think we really saved anyone that day.” Barbarea’s face bent into a frown. “Theta, was it? Have you lived your whole life here?”

“Most of it,” They answered. “I was told that I was born elsewhere, but when I was very young I was moved here.”

“Hrmm, and have you ever felt hunger?”

“No.”

“Have you ever worried you’d be left out in the cold, alone and afraid?”

“Not once.” Theta scratched the side of their head, not understanding this line of questioning.

“And when you need things, do you ever feel as if you won’t be able to get them, even if it means life or death?”

Theta shrugged. “Not as far as I can recall.”

“How about you, Alette. When you left Cirsium, did you go with her by choice?”

“Of course! We’d already been dating for a while by then.”

“And you Cirsium, did you ever feel that this human was afraid of you?”

“Not for a second,” Cirsium answered, ruffling her florets hair as she did.

“And you, Rye, how many of your kind are around?”

“Uhm, a lot?” Rye answered. “Is that unusual?”

“When we arrived, yes. You were near extinction.” Barbarea slipped up from her seat. “I suppose we saved at least four people then, even if I only know of you now.”

Theta cocked their head in confusion. “I don’t understand.”

“That’s quite alright. How about I treat you to dinner and tea?” She gestured to her home at the base of the tower, and the four agreed readily to share dinner with her.

---

“So tell me, how did you happen upon those photos?” Barbarea asked as she set their plates and poured their tea all at the same time in a delicate dance of silverware and vines.

Theta proudly produced the glass cube from Rye’s bag in response. “From this! I got it from an inheritance package a while back, with this instrument.” As soon as they produced the instrument Barbarea’s dance froze in absolute shock, her eyes flying wide open as they glanced over the shape.

“...I’m sorry, were there any people in the photos you found?” She asked, her voice gone faint but tinted with a nebulous emotion. Rye produced the personal selection of pictures and handed them over to her, and Barbarea’s shock turned into an open gasp as she started to sift through them and pulled out all the pictures that had a certain woman in them. Her vines quickly returned to setting the table, now shaking awkwardly as they did while her eyes remained locked onto the images before her. “Where did you say you got these?” She asked, her voice now little more than a whisper.

“An inheritance package.” Theta asked, bewildered beyond comparison. “I was told I was the closest relative available, but I don’t know who it was from myself.”

Barbarea held up a picture as she turned towards Theta, revealing that a dark blue sap had begun to flow from the cracks in the wood around her eyes. She stepped over to Theta quickly, putting one hand to their cheek as she held up the photo against them. “You look just like her.” She said.

Theta glanced left and right awkwardly, unsure what was happening. “Um, what do you mean?”

“I- I’m sorry,” Barbarea retreated suddenly. “I just, I’m just shocked, there was someone I knew a long time ago, she came here hoping to escape the chaos way back when and-” She put her head into her hands, breathing in sharply to create a breeze through her body before she continued. “I’m sorry, here, let me finish setting dinner and then I’ll explain.”

Barbarea moved with a quiet passion after that, hurriedly giving all of her guests a more than abundant serving of food as she did before taking her seat at the head of the table.

“Again, I’m sorry for my little outburst there.” She started. “Back then, when we arrived, things were chaos. We saw ourselves as saviours of a wayward species, and paid little mind to how much damage we did as we came down to help them. People fought, and died, to resist us, and when it became apparent they couldn’t win they took to more desperate measures in an attempt to stop us.”

Theta reached over and took Rye’s hand as the story continued, glancing down upon the curtain of light depicted in one of the pictures on the table.

“They tried to glass the planet. We stopped them, but it still caused horrific damage to the atmosphere and ended a large portion of life here. When I saw the devastation from the ground, and all the weeping bodies that passed my way, I just, I… guess that was when my illusions started to break.” Barbarea paused once again, hands tensing against the table. “Cirsium, I understand this may be upsetting for you to hear if I continue.”

“Please continue,” Cirsium answered, looking towards Barbarea unblinkingly. “I’m listening.”

“When the affini invade, we hurt people. We drive them into a corner and then they hurt other people in turn. When we claim their resistance and break them we cause untold amounts of pain and fear in the process, and pat ourselves on the back for doing a good job just because they can no longer complain about our actions.” She said. Theta reached over with their other hand and took hers, and Barbarea accepted the gesture with a quiet relief. “After I saw the glassing I turned to the affini in our ships and saw them celebrating their success while the scars on the population here still burned. From this tower I saw the whole process of the affini establishing the puppet governments, the luxury machines, creating this… loving tyranny of a government we live under now.”

Barbarea paused, tightening her grip on Theta’s hand.

“Theta, dear, you’ve been gifted your whole life as a beneficiary of all the pain that happened back in those days. All these thousands of years for the wounds to wither away into forgotten scars and for the world where the affini’s rule is as natural as breathing.”

Theta shivered. “I… I don’t understand.” They said, their voice shaking with uncertainty.

“It will probably take you a long time to understand, and I’m sorry for that.”

Theta fell silent, eyes glued on the curtain of light captured in time in the photo below.

“And what of the woman in your picture?” Rye asked, sensing Theta’s paralysis.

“Ah, yes, she was a… friend, I suppose you could say. Back then, after the glassing, Ezra had run away from the cities in the hopes of outrunning the rebel terrorists that were still active then. They’d-” Barbarea’s voice hitched on the words, but only for a moment. “They’d destroyed her home, killed her family on the belief that they were affini sympathisers, and she was afraid they’d come for her. Had nothing but a camera and that instrument on her person when she found me and collapsed in my front yard.

“I gave her a home to stay, protected her as best I could, built the first house that this one was based on just for her, and in return she gave me a friendship that warmed my soul. Many nights I spent listening to her play that instrument as I drifted off to sleep.” Barbarea’s mouth tilted into a smile as she reminisced. “But, sadly, not all things were meant to last. She grew old while I remained young, and before the scars on this world had even begun to heal she parted ways with me.”

“Did you take her as your floret?” Alette asked.

“No,” Barbarea frowned. “Never. She’d thank me for it if I had, but I couldn’t shake the knowledge that it would have been impossible for her to regret it. The influence, it… changes people. Once it begins it’s impossible to truly say the person they were would have still agreed to what they’d become.”

Alette tightened her grip on Circium’s hand.

Barbarea relaxed her expression again, tilting her head towards Cirsium. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to undermine your relationship. Things were just… different back then. At least I hope they’re different now.”

Cirsium wrapped her arms around Alette tightly. “I love her,” She said with absolute confidence. “I love her more than anything else in this galaxy, and I would never have asked her to be my floret if she didn’t love me in turn.”

Barbarea’s body seemed to relax at that, leaves settling down around her. “Thank you, Cirsium. I think I’ve been hoping to hear that for a long time.”

“Ma’am,” Theta spoke, rising up suddenly, instrument in hand. “Could I play a song for you?”

Barbarea looked up in open surprise, eyes shining in a myriad array of colors at the sudden prospect. “I- yes.” She then remembered where she was, and added “After dinner?”

Theta looked down at the warm food and flushed a red tone. “After dinner.” They said, and sat back down.

---

After a filling meal the five of them retired to the living room, Theta perched by the fire with instrument in hand and the rest comfortably draped about the room enjoying their tea. “I can’t promise to play like Ezra did,” Theta said with a quiet sort of comfort. “But I’ll play my best for you, ma’am.

Theta didn’t know what life Barbarea had lived. They didn’t know the explosions that lifted the streets from the earth and sent bodies scattering through the air, or the taste of ozone that would linger on the back of one’s tongue for years after the glassing attempt had happened. They didn’t know the suffering of those who were broken by forceful hands, or the fear of those who saw phantoms reaching out to them from deadly alleys. Theta didn’t know the poisoned oceans or leveled mountains or toxic air. But Theta knew their instrument, they knew their friends, they knew the rhythm of the wind through the branches of trees and the way that the waves would lap at the shore. They knew the slopes of mountains and the sound of fish leaping from rivers.

Theta knew a comfortable life in a world that lingered long after it’s destruction, and Theta channeled the sounds of that world into their song. They played until their body drew taut against the rhythm, and sweat beaded down their back from the effort. They played every beat of the soft light in their heart, and tinted it with the warmth they felt when they rested upon Rye’s chest or held Alette and Cirsium’s hands.

When the last note rung out, Theta opened their eyes to see Barbarea was weeping thick blue tears from her face, a smile warmer than any they had ever seen before joining it. “Thank you,” She said, hands over her chest. “I, for a moment it was like she was right here again.”

Theta gave a quiet bow to finish their performance. “If it’s not too much to ask, could I visit you again sometime?”

“Of course! You’re all welcome anytime, I promise. I’ll have plenty to eat and tea to drink. Oh, maybe I can bake some cookies for next time, too. Do you all still like cookies these days?”

Theta gasped excitedly. They knew with a beautiful clarity that they loved homemade cookies.

----

The next day the four bundled back onto the boat and began their trip back home, all warmed by a lovely breakfast at Barbarea’s hands and the embraces they shared before they left. Alette and Cirsium held hands tightly the whole trip back, holding each other lovingly with a new quiet appreciation. Rye watched the skyline roll by, acutely aware of what had once been and why it left.

Theta was sitting by the back of the boat, staring at the picture of the curtain of light that had once damned the world. They didn’t see a single sign of such awful events anywhere they had traveled in this day. “Do you think it was worth it?” They mumbled into the wind. The wind didn’t answer as it continued to brush across Theta’s skin. No plains of grass, valleys in the mountains, lakes of clear water, or beaches of golden sand would answer Theta’s voice.

The photo slipped free from between Theta’s fingers, and they watched it twirl off into the wind. It danced like a figment of light in the breeze, spiralling about in the air as it flew ever further and further away from them, until it was no more than a shadow floating on the waves of the sea. Then it too vanished, lost in the tides like so much more.

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