Gladialis nodded and settled in, tablet in hand. They sat there in comfortable silence, reading, until about an hour later, Kitten grunted. Gladialis watched as the Terran turned her tablet off and sat there for a moment, as if trying to absorb something. Before she could ask, Kitten stood and put her tablet away.
"Well…that was…Gladialis? So I read up on these 'Class-A's'. Interesting stuff, if it works as advertised.” And she was serious, it HAD been interesting. Chemicals, all plant based, that could specifically target specific neurotransmitters and receptors. Boosting the efficacy, but also lowering the threshold for the neurons to fire. All the while, it increased activity in the part of the brain that dealt with sensations, the somatosensory cortex in the parietal lobe. But it clearly also affected the intraparietal sulcus and the adjacent gyri, the little folds of that region of the brain, which was why anyone on it got uncoordinated, and was stumbling around. And there were multiple plants, such as Aponycia, or Sutirla Alendenii, each with a very slightly different effect. The Affini picked up plants from every species they Domesticated, it seemed, and made use of them somehow. There was an appended note that said that Class-A's should be given in conjunction with a Class-E, unless it's a recreational setting. But also that there was some significant cross-over in action, depending on the agent used.
“Of course it does, Kitten. What do you think your cuffs are loaded with?”, Gladialis asked, getting up. Which involved lengthening vines, lifting up the rest and reforming her legs. Which, now that she had a moment to experiment, she made them look like Terran feet. Because why not, and maybe it would make Kitten a bit more comfortable. And, she realized, toes were interesting. Like little foot-fingers, but not.
“I see”, Kitten said, looking at her cuffs again. “Is that why…umm…all the cuddles and stuff?”, as she followed Gladialis.
“What do you mean, Kitten?”, Gladialis said, leading the way to the mag rail again.
"Well, a lot of florets that I see, that I think are on Class-A's, are all ….umm…there's lots of touching and stuff." Kittens face was bright red, and she spoke haltingly.
"Oh yes. Adoring florets is one of an Affini's greatest pleasure, and florets in that particular moment can take the greatest pleasure from the cuddling. But, to be honest, florets enjoy it even without the xenodrugs, as do we Affini."
"I see", Kitten said as she followed Gladialis back to the mag rail. They waited a few minutes before the next capsule came, just standing there. This time there were more Affini inside, most with a floret, one with two Terrans on their lap. They were cuddling together, nuzzling into each other while vines encircled them, holding them close. Kitten blinked and blushed, remembering seeing some couples back home who looked like that. Happy with their partners' presence, at peace with everything. And she also remembered just how her father had muttered about appropriateness and the moral backsliding of the colony. Kitten looked again, and not for the first time, she wondered if she'd ever meet someone and have that. Wondered if she deserved it. Then she saw the collars and realized they were both florets. Gladialis stood next to her, but not touching her, and kept anyone else from touching her. But there was almost no room, and she pressed in on herself, arms held tightly across her stomach.
Gladialis watched Kitten blush and fidget as some of the florets got some cuddles and nuzzles from their Owners. So at their next stop, she smiled, said "let's go, Kitten", and got out of the capsule, vines spread out over Kitten protectively. Keeping anyone from accidentally touching her. Standing there on the platform, Gladialis looked at Kitten as the little Terran looked up at her with some confusion and asked why they got off here. "I saw that you were uncomfortable with everything that was going on, and the lack of space", she said, shrugging. "I certainly couldn't ask other Affini not to adore their florets, or magically make more space, so this was the next best option."
Kitten blinked. That was NOT the answer she'd expected. It was thoughtful and kind, but not what she was expecting. "You didn't..umm..didn't need to do that", she said, blushing. "I can survive being uncomfortable for a bit."
"You could…but why should you? Not when it's a simple as…look. Here's another capsule."
Kitten turned to see another capsule glide up to them, this time with less Affini on board. Getting on, she climbed up onto the seat, and looked up as Gladialis sat down across from her. She opened her mouth to say something, and then changed her mind, shaking her head as Gladialis asked her what was on her mind. Gladialis merely nodded, not wanting to press the issue.
"Kitten, I was thinking that I could make you something simple for dinner. Like noodles, or possibly some chicken, if that's ok with you. We could also eat out, if you like." She was interrupted by another Affini walking over, their floret held in their vines.
"I'm sorry to bother you, but your floret is an absolute cutie, and I love her outfit!! My Elena would look splendid in that outfit. Where did you get it?"
Gladialis smiled, and gently shook her head. "You can ask her, she's a ward, not my floret."
"Oh! My apologies, little one. Wherever did you get that lovely outfit?" A vine absently petted the Terran girl held there, and she purred, smiling. Kitten could see something faintly under her skin, almost like circuitry. A robot? Did the Affini need companionship so much they made robots that looked and sounded like Terrans? Like a child getting a stuffed animal that sounded like the real thing. It would explain why they were so focused on Domesticating Terrans. So was this like..like some kind of comfort doll for Affini that didn’t have florets?
"Ummm..it…it was at Leiara's shop", she said, swallowing as the other Affini pressed in a bit too close for her. And backing up a step.
“Leiara Sensila, Thirteenth Bloom?”, the other Affini asked. “She’s making clothing now? I hadn’t heard that, I thought she was still off being an artist. Or was it a musician?”, they asked Gladialis.
“It was being an artist, and that was a Bloom ago. Now she’s a tailor. And can you please back up a little? You’re making her a bit nervous.”
“Ahhhh. Apologies, little one. Well, thank you both for the information. I’ll need to go first chance I can.” The other Affini smiled, and waved goodbye as they walked off, Kitten breathing a quiet sigh of relief. Moving back to where she’d been sitting, she swallowed, and looked up at Gladialis.
“Umm…is that…you mentioned that Affini are very touchy in general. Is that always going to happen, just random strangers coming up like that? Talking or trying to touch me?”
“Well, in their defense”, Gladialis said, looking down at Kitten, “You ARE fairly cute. And they ARE just trying to be friendly. But it does happen quite a bit. Affini culture isn’t Terran culture, Kitten. I know that in Terran culture, it’s considered unseemly to just walk up to a stranger and talk to them, but for us it’s quite normal.”
The rest of the rail trip passed by in silence, Kitten mulling over things. When it was their stop, she got off and walked, not a sound as she thought. The “sun” was definitely lower, casting shadows on the ground as she walked. She knew that stars did that, the Sun on Terra had done that. She’d read books about it, but it had never been something she experienced. Certainly not in her underground home. They’d had lamps that mimicked the Sun so they wouldn’t get the sads (a term that she still laughed about, even after learning about SAD), and everyone spent at least an hour or two in what the kids called the “lamp room.” Looking up, she saw that the Windsong building looked…different. There seemed to be an outcropping that she didn’t recognize, almost like a small blister on the side. Before she could ask Gladialis about it, they were walking into the lobby.
It was just like before, Terrans and Affini in the lobby, the latter watching the former with happy expressions on their faces, and vice versa. There were some new Affini that Kitten had never seen before, and they called out to Gladialis in that flowing language that she didn’t even begin to understand. While they talked, Kitten stood there, but walked over to a group of Terrans who were beckoning her over. They lounged on beanbag chairs, some sort of game between them. Except one who had what looked like butterfly wings sprouting from her back, so she instead lay on her stomach on the floor, smiling. “So…welcome to the building!! Harry told us he’d met you!! I’m Laria Xendrin, Fourth Floret, She/Her. This is Evan Kithrunida, Third Floret, He/him. Dugilit Jubadinira, Ninth Floret, He/him. And last but not least, Khaya Midaber, Eighth floret, They/them.”
“It’s Cha-Ya”, the sophont who had been pointed to said patiently, with a smile. “Don’t worry if you can’t get it right. Khaya will do. So, they call you Kitten? That’s a cute name, come join us”, and they patted the empty beanbag next to them.
Kitten blushed but sat down, a slight exhalation as the unfamiliar item suddenly conformed to her shape. “This..this is comfy”, she said, blinking and everyone nodded.
“Those things be the best”, Dugilit said, smiling. “So, ye’re living with Gladialis Dulcisa? Is’m hab as cool as we’lll think? She’s really nice-nice, and she’s also one of the first Affini that we’ll ever seen actually wear cloth clothing. Her door be also real interesting”, and everyone nodded again.
Kitten thought about it, and nodded. “She…umm…she’s ok. She’s got a lot of old stuff, like really really old stuff from Terra.” She glanced over at Laria, and blinked as the wings fluttered slightly. “Those…those are real!?!?”
“What, my wings? Oh yea!!”, Laria said, fluttering them again. “When Master asked me if I wanted any mods or anything, I told him that I wanted fairy wings for the longest time. So he made all the arrangements. We had to change ALL of my clothes, since none of them would fit, and now I need way more help getting dressed in the morning, but it was worth it. See?”, and she showed them how her clothing had snaps and little hooks worked in so that she was covered.
“That’s…umm…that’s really…wow”, Kitten said, thinking. “And you didn't have..I mean, they just…” and Laria nodded.
“But…umm..can you..you know…fly?”, Kitten asked, fascinated. Gladialis had mentioned body mods as had Dr. Manku, but to actually see something so non-human and so grand was amazing.
“Oh no. I’d need way more muscle, different bones, a few other things, like a faster metabolism. It’s just not feasible, but they sure look pretty, and that’s good enough for me. And like Master says, if I’m happy, He’s happy”, Laria said with a smile.
“Yup!! So…you wanna join the game? We were just about to start another round.” Kitten nodded. The game seemed interesting, but a completely different version than what she had expected. It looked like Monopoly, but the rules were so vastly different that it was almost unrecognizable. Instead of owning property, the goal was to work as a group to make the properties as “nice and comfy as possible for the cute sophonts living there”, Evan had said. The boy was a bit uncoordinated, his speech slurred but nobody seemed to give it a second thought, even when Evan started giggling halfway through the game and stared off into space for a moment. When a player landed on a property, then they had a choice. To stay there and make it better, or move on. Staying would garner points more quickly even if they couldn’t move, but they could entice others into forgoing their own pursuits and come aid them in developing. Properties grew quicker, the helper got a few points on their own, and once the maximum level had been reached, they could move on. But the helper could jump to them from anywhere on the board, so clearly, helping someone else was advantageous. There were other spaces that gave benefits, and landing on some made the player pick a card at random from the pile.
“Ooooh, this is a good one”, they all cooed as Dugilit picked a card and grinned. “Ye’ve found a sophont and made ‘em your floret!!”, he read. “You can’t do anything this turn cuz ye’ve been busy loving ‘em, but ye upgrade the nurxt place even faster, since ye’ve a cutie to care for and to love!!”
Kitten blinked, unsure why everyone was smiling. “But…ummm…you..umm…that’s an interesting accent. Never heard it before.”
“Me? M speak fine-finely. Ye’ve the accent, Kitty. Where ye from?”, Dugilit asked. “‘M from The Nick, a city on Rigel Six. You?”
“Oh…umm..I’m from…umm…we just called it Home. A…a small mining colony on…on…on a place. Not much to tell. So…umm…how…how does the game end?”, Kitten said, trying to take attention off of her.
“Well, when all the properties are upgraded as much as they can be. Then we tally up the points, and whoever has the most wins the most cuddles and bragging rights”, Laria said. They kept playing, Kitten sipping from her water bottle, until the game was over. By that point, Evan had already been collected by his Affini, waving goodbye as a mass of vines engulfed him as he laughed. Kitten had paled and shrank and scrambled away, her cuffs beeping once, but calmed when nobody else seemed worried and waved goodbye.
“New to the Baiera, huh?”, Laria asked as she sat primly on a beanbag.
Kitten nodded, watching as the Affini reformed from this mass of vines into a tall humanoid form with Evan held in their vines, rubbing Evans back as he looked up at it, his gaze growing slack as he stared in adoration. “To..umm…yea. All of this.” She swallowed hard, and rubbed her arm, letting the edge of her nails scrape and scratch gently. The feeling was comforting, something that she’d gotten used to. Laria nodded, and asked if she’d like a hug. “I…ummm..I…umm…yea, that—” and her sentence was cut off as she was suddenly hugged. FIRMLY. It was a good hug, and she’d gone for so long without one, or without being touched in any way that wasn’t anger-filled that she had to close her eyes or start sobbing. Wings filled her vision as she opened them back up, and the wind they made as they slowly flapped brushed over her face. “Ummm..that’s…ummm”, as she hugged back and Laria looked up.
“You give good hugs, Kitten. You have blanket consent to hug me anytime you want or need, ok?”, she said, hugging her again. Not trusting her own voice right now, Kitten just hugged her back for a moment, and then let go. Blushing, she turned to see Gladialis and another Affini cooing at her, smiling.
She blushed even harder, shrinking back, shoulders hunching up. “I…umm…”, but was rescued by Laria who suddenly took her hand.
“You thirsty?”, Laria asked. Poor Kitten, she mused to herself. She seemed so wary and shy. Like she expected something bad to happen. Or worse, for something good to just be taken away. “There’s a water fountain over there. You can refill your bottle from there also.”
“Umm..can you..umm…over there?”, she asked, looking and pointing. “Sure…I’ll…I’ll be right back” as she pointed at her water bottle, holding it up so Gladialis could see and then at the corner where the water fountain was. Gladialis nodded and gave her a pointer finger up. Cocking her head, Kitten made a thumbs up and Gladialis frowned, and then nodded and switched, sticking their thumb up.
She was back quickly, having had to dodge one Affini who tried to pet her for being “ a total cutie.” Giving a panicked sort of whimper, she practically ran the way back, and was met with Gladialis who got up and stood next to Laria. “Kitten, you ok?”, she was asked, and she swallowed hard. “I…I just don’t…I don’t like being touched that much”, she said. “and especially not by…by someone I don't know.” She didn’t add, ‘And not some Affini either’, but it was implied.
“I see that, Kitten. Well, I’ll tell all the other florets that I see. And I’ll let Master know, and then he can tell some of the other Affini that live here”, Liara said, sounding sympathetic.
“I’ll tell some of the others also”, Gladialis said. “Kitten, are you hungry? It’s been more than a few hours since you had nothing to eat for lunch besides ice cream.”
Kitten blinked, and then thought about it. It HAD been a while, she just hadn’t realized HOW long it had been. She nodded, blushing. “Ummm…I..I guess.”
“Ok, then. Say goodbye to your new friends, and then we’ll go.” Gladialis turned to the other Affini there, and wished them all a wonderful evening in the local Affini dialect. She also asked them to spread the word that her ward didn’t like being touched without asking first. They all wished her the same, the nearest entwining their vines in hers in an Affini handshake, promising to let the rest of the building know.
Kitten said goodbye to everyone, and got another hug from Laria and a fist bump from Dugilit. Khaya nodded, and offered her a handshake. “We usually hang out here most nights. Unless one of us is…no, we’d come here even if we were on a xenodrug high. Come join us if you want”, the other sophont told her. Kitten had blushed and stammered, something about not really wanting xenodrugs. Khaya nodded and smirked. “Gotcha.” Waving, Kitten walked back to Gladialis and they made their way to the elevators.