Within minutes, Nikhila and her pet arrive. Mara slides herself onto the seat opposite Elvira, who avoids her direct gaze. Nikhila follows her closely, a vine possessively curled around her arm. The two affini begin to converse in their own language, and Mara is first to break the silence between the two humans. “Hey, Elvira,” A brief, awkward pause, “it’s nice to see you again.”
Elvira glances up from her small pile of torn napkins, towards Mara’s face. She is beautiful as ever. She’s relieved that the implant hasn’t changed her perception of Mara, at least. “H-Hi Mara. It’s good to see you too.” She squeezes her eyes shut for a few moments, her free hand strumming anxiously on her leg. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry about what I said, what I called you. I didn’t consider what you wanted, I just wanted to get away, and I just assumed you felt the same as me.” She inhales, and feeling the reassuring pressure from Akash’s grip on her hand, she continues. “I shouldn’t have tried to… Escape, in the first place, either.” As she finishes, her eyes are full of shameful tears. “Mara, I’m so sorry!”
Mara remains silently in thought for a few seconds, and then smiles, reaching out a hand to Elvira who takes it gladly. “I accept your apology, Elvy.” Elvira gasps in relief as Mara continues. “I should’ve just told you that I’m content here. I was afraid you’d hate me, so I hid it from you; I was terrified I’d never see you again.”
Elvira responds, voice cracking as her tears flow freely. “I was so caught up in my hate for Mistress and the affini that I hurt you.”
She laughs softly. “Being her pet is kinda nice, actually, now that I’m used to it.”
This catches her Mistress’ attention, and vines slither smoothly around her arm, eliciting small whines of pleasure.
Mara laughs in turn. “Yeah, belonging to my Mistress has been very relaxing! No more astrogation, no more cleaning air filters.” Elvira makes a mock disgusted face. “No more interface tank, and definitely no more polishing laser lenses!” They both giggle at their mutual distaste for shipboard maintenance. Their lives were much more straightforward now, devoid of substantial responsibility.
Mara tightens her grip on Elvira’s hand. “I actually have something to apologize for too.” She glances up at Nikhila, who gestures affirmatively. “I was a spy. I was feeding our navdata to Affini Compact Intelligence.” Elvira stares at Mara for several tense seconds, expecting her mind to erupt with rage that didn’t seem to come. “H-how long for?”
Mara swallows nervously. “Since before we met. I saw the way the war was going, knew we couldn’t last long. So I made a deal with the affini. My freedom for navdata. It just made sense.”
Elvira injerects, “Does this mean our relationship wasn’t real?” Insidious terror that Mara never loved her starts to creep into her mind. That the tender moments when Mara had helped her realize she was a girl were all fake. That the woman who supported her throughout her transition had just been using her.
Her panicked spiral is broken by Mara’s emphatic almost-yell, “No! I fell in love with you on that ship, Elvy.” She has a look of determined sincerity on her face, barely holding back tears.
“I knew you wouldn’t agree to collaborate with me, so I asked my handler,” she gestures to Nikhila, “if I could alter the deal. I would become her pet, in exchange for making sure you got assigned to Miss Akash. That way we could stay together.” Elvira blinks rapidly, unsure exactly how to process this information.
“It was planned that we’d all be captured together, but Security was onto me, and I had to be extracted early.” Mara looks regretful. “I was worried I’d lost you then.”
“When I heard that the Spirit of Jupiter had finally been captured, and that you had been saved, I was so relieved.”
Elvira pulls her hand away from Mara’s, gently but quickly. “This is… A lot.” She rests her forehead on her hand.
Now Mara’s eyes drip with tears. “I understand if you don’t feel the same way about me anymore. I wish I could’ve just told you the truth. Maybe I should have.”
“Mara, I…” Elvira trails off into thought. This is all so much. Mara has forgiven her for what she’d done; but could she forgive Mara? All those memories of nights together drunkenly cursing the affini, watching old media, holding each other close. They all have a new context now.
But, she recognizes, Mara had been afraid, just like she had. In the end, she’d sacrificed her own freedom so that they could be together. Who cares if Mara betrayed the Cosmic Navy! They don’t even exist anymore! They were all fools. She had been a fool!
Most of all, she can’t say it was the wrong decision. She’s seen for herself the might of the affini armadas. Ships measured in 10s of kilometers, possessing energies greater than terra had ever even imagined. They’d had no chance. And she can’t deny that Akash’s care has grown on her. It simply feels so wonderful to obey, to be touched, to have this implant moderating her thoughts.
If Mara had told her the truth back then, Elvira would’ve turned her in, she realizes. Mara would’ve been court martialed, probably executed. And she would’ve died alone in space, knowing that she’d sent the person she cares for the most to be killed. With a gasping sigh, she tears herself from this forsaken imagined past, and focuses on the now. Mara had made the correct decision, and because of that, they were together again.
Some part of her recognizes the implant must be part of why she’s thinking this way, but she doesn’t care. She loves Mara, and she loves her Mistress, and she doesn’t want to be without either of them.
She grabs ahold of the other human’s hand again. “I love you, Mara! You did the right thing!” Her last ember of resistance is nearly spent. Mara smiles, sighing a relief of her own. “Thank you Elvira, I love you too.” She hugs Nikhila onehandedly, the affini running a hand down the back of her head, smiling.
She turns to face Akash, still gripping Mara’s hand. “I…”, she hesitates for only a moment, and in that moment her ember extinguishes. “I love you too, Mistress!”
Akash grins as broadly as Elvira has ever seen, small golden flecks appearing in her cyan eyes. She makes a pleased exhalation, and pulls Elvira against her, vines coiling around the blushing woman. “I know you do, my darling Elvy. I love you as well~”.
Their meal arrived shortly after, stereotypical terran food — Rice, ramen, fries, and various frozen treats. Akash permits Elvira to feed herself this time, but soon she and Mara end up feeding each other bites of food across the table, giggling all the while.
Before long, the two humans are laughing and happily reminiscing together. Recalling how they met when the Spirit of Jupiter was commissioned, and the way that they instantly took to one another. How Elvira renamed herself after a character from an ancient holomedia program they watched together. What they’d done together in the darkness of their cabin in the void between stars.
All the while, their owner’s vines creep over them, covering their bodies with elated sensation. Their implants infuse them full of xenodrugs, far beyond what a baseline human could tolerate. Their vision swims with color, each touch against the other full of joy.
Eventually, the two humans, blissed out and barely conscious, slouch over onto their Mistresses, who pull them close, eliciting gentle, contented sounds.
Akash and Nikhila look down at their vine-tangled and xenodrug-addled pets with pride. They know as well as any affini that other life needs their guardianship — That they are fulfilling their role as the universe’s caretakers. That this is how things should be.