Mane walked out of a store holding a big candy bar made of milk chocolate. She tentatively opened its packaging-some kind of super biodegradable plant lining which had something resembling the texture of plastic-and crammed it into her pocket. She contemplated the bar in her hand as the last few days' events got stuck looping in her mind. Should she have surrendered? Would it have been wiser to try and escape?
As things stood, those questions' answers were almost certainly yes and no, respectively. Assuming she could teach herself how to pilot her father's deathtrap of a ship on her own, she'd be wanted by both the affini and the human resistance. The former, as well, would have any remaining human authorities barreling down on her ass too. Being caught by any of the three would put her in circumstances far worse than where she was now. This, again, also assumed that her efforts to learn how to fly her father's ship didn't end with her body smeared across an asteroid or crushed by a gravity well that she underestimated.
She cursed her father in her mind.
Even in death, he loomed over her like a vengeful phantom.
"I'm sorry," Mane sheepishly said in Effus' general direction. The human was hanging her head low. She broke a small piece off of the corner of the chocolate and popped it into her mouth (where it was quickly eaten). The chocolate tasted rich and light and familiar. She liked it. "That...that I blew up at you. Earlier." Effus came to a stop and her upper body pivoted almost one hundred eighty degrees so she could look at Mane. The affini spent a moment looking gently at her ward before she spoke.
"Sweetheart, you're under a terrible amount of stress and you're frightened. It would be terribly inconsiderate of me to hold a grudge towards you for it, no?" Mane sighed and gave the affini a defeated-sounding yes. Effus, visibly discontent with the answer given to her, swiveled her body about until all of it was pointed at the human wearing the red coat around her shoulders. "Sweetheart. It is okay. You have done me no wrong."
"I'm not sure…" Mane murmured and then paused. She flared her nostrils, took a deep breath, and stood slightly straighter. She angled her head upwards so she was meeting Effus' "eyes" with her own. "I'm not sure I...believe you. That you mean it...I guess." Effus' various flora seemed to be knocked momentarily out of the synchronized rhythm to which they all perpentually danced. They rustled out of time with one another. Stopped. Attempted a few times, stuttering, to start up again. This lasted about a minute before they seemed to get mostly back in time with each other.
"Mane, darling…" Effus sounded sad and worried. Mane almost hated it. Fifteen minutes or so ago this creature was telling her that her mind and personality might be permanently wiped away using her drugs, and that it wasn't a punishment, and that it was better than "barbaric" methods like violence. She didn't say anything accusatory. She probably didn't even consciously (not "really" like her mother would insist in these situations, CONSCIOUSLY) mean anything by it. The fact of the matter was that Mane had killed someone.
Effus thought she was better than her.
This creature, which nothing in the known universe could possibly threaten, who was perfectly content removing murderers and wealth-hoarding plant ruiners from the equation in a way which she herself considered a "kindness," thought they were better than her. It was easy for her to say. Her kind had starships with cargo chutes that could ensnare the greatest flying fortresses in human history. They weren't like humans either, specialists with tools that nullified the dangers of the world who without them became dangerous but easily slain persistence hunters. She knew what affini could do.
Mercy is easy when the enemy is powerless.
"Yes, Effus?" Mane tried not to be annoyed. She felt like a human kneeling before Prometheus, demanding to know why the fire had taken their home. But yet, her sick fucking head refused to listen to reason, let alone pragmaticism. She screwed her eyes shut and took a few deep breaths. Tried to think about something that would make her happier.
The chocolate tasted good. She broke off another piece and ate it. It felt nice on her tongue and going down her throat. She took off a third piece and ate that one too. Her body felt warm and good and-
"This isn't, like, drugged is it?" She asked, less out of paranoia or accusation than as a matter of curiosity. Effus leaned closer.
"It...shouldn't be? Not with any affini xenodrugs anyway. Humans generally react positively to caffeine, have you never had that before?"
"I'm familiar with caffeine, thank you." Mane ate some more. She couldn't-
When had she last eaten food that she liked? Besides the pancakes, anyway?
It dawned on her that her father had been in charge of groceries for the last year and a half of her life. A hunger awakened deep within her and compelled her to devour the remaining chocolate with an almost furious speed. She needed little convincing and destroyed what was left of it in seconds.
"Thank youuu Effussss," she practically groaned at the plant as her body shook a bit. "I...I don't know if I ate anything yesterday. That probably isn't helping with, you know, the er...the mood swings. I keep having."
Effus had her doubts but was quickly ensnared by the worries about her ward's health. She dropped low to the ground instantly, which put her face and Mane's inches away from each other. "You. Proper meal. Nutrition. Now." Mane sighed and nodded along.
"Yeah, that...that sounds about right, okay." Mane said with a weak sigh. She averted her gaze and frowned, lost in thought. "I'm...again, I'm sorry that I'm such a wreck. I know you probably don't want to waste your time on me."
"No no, dear," Effus insisted in a voice intended to provide her ward some reassurance. "No sophont is unworthy! Spending my time with any one of you could never be a waste, okay?"
"Yeah," answered Mane, becoming lost deeper in her head, "thank you for that." She resisted the urge to point out the way her current train of thought painted that sentence.
It would be a waste of time anyway. It was already clear to her that Effus would place her and her father as equals.
"You're welcome, dear." Said Effus gently. "Now, what kind of human food do you want for lunch? Would you like to go grocery shopping right after that or do it later? We could bring Aria or I could send her with you in my place if you want?"
Effus was starting to reach the end of her vines. The previous night (and to some degree, that morning) had been such a promising development! Mane bonded with Aria quickly and easily, consented to being lead around holding a part of her as a leash, and let Effus both tuck her in and put her to sleep! She wanted to knock Mort around some for the wrench he had thrown into this poor human's life. Mane was obviously terrified already! There'd been no need to scare her like that! It was cruel and unnecessary.
It also made her job much harder. The class-O program was never a fun one to try and explain, even for the sweetest and most open-minded sophonts. Mane was obviously not one of those. In fact, if she didn't know any better, Effus might have mistaken her current ward for a Free Terranist! Fortunately, that didn't seem to be the case. She hadn't brought up the human government once since they met.
"Here we are," said Effus with as much warmth as she could muster. She gestured with a big imitation of a human hand at a place that sold "Italian," whatever that was. Effus had no idea what the word meant. Nobody did.
Mane and her entered the place. They found a booth and took a seat. A sweet human girl with slightly glazed over eyes greeted them and asked what drinks they wanted. Effus got a nice nutrient pool while Mane settled for water.
"You seemed to have some kind of revelation halfway through the chocolate," Effus purred in hopes of finding another door to Mane's heart which had not been slammed closed. "Do you wanna...talk about it, dear?" It was almost demeaning to sit here with the poor thing and watch her hurt and have the tools to help but not permission to use them. Effus was GOING to succeed on those terms, though. She would mend Mane's bleeding soul and she was going to do it with trust, care, and love.
THEN the drugs could enter the picture.
"I just, ah, my dad was in charge of getting food while I was with him." Mane laughed nervously. "And if I stopped to try and get food I might have the spoons to eat, he'd blow up at me. Eventually I just...didn't. So he'd get a bunch of stuff that either I hated or never had the energy to prep, and like...bread. So I lived off of bread. Before the war ended we lived on planet, close to my mother even, so she'd buy me groceries, but...like I said. Last year and a half, nope. I realized earlier I hadn't had food that I actually...WANTED in a while."
"That's horrible!" The affini sitting across from Mane remarked. Bits of thorns and leaves whipped about the outskirts of Effus' body.
"Yeah, uh, not too bad I guess. I could prepare the food if I really needed to…" Effus squinted. Well, she didn't LITERALLY squint, but her attention narrowed in the same kind of investigative and doubtful manner. Mane wasn't…
"Mane. I would like to ask a question. I want to inform you it is entirely void of qualitative judgment. I simply wish to have an answer." Mane was taken aback. She stammered a bit.
"I-sure, I g-guess?" The human responded timidly. Effus took a moment to formulate her exact inquiry before she gave it. She didn't want to waste this opportunity to start making progress again.
"You are...making excuses for your father. The man who you killed because he mistreated you. Am I correct?"
"I…" Mane's voice fell. "Yes, Effus. I'm sorry. I shouldn't make excuses for him."
"Good girl," said Effus to reward the human for their honesty. Mane blushed and almost seemed to smile. Yes, thought Effus, progress! She was back on track! Her flowers twirled and waved about in a show of delight. "I know humans have this...tendency, let's call it, to downplay or normalize ways they were mistreated," started Effus. She was speaking in an almost neutral tone befitting scientific explanation. Perhaps, she thought, this was why her words seemed to snag Mane's attention more easily than normal. "To us, with how we see you, it doesn't make any sense. But it's a survival technique. Believing that whatever wrongs you've endured were just or unavoidable, while unhealthy, does theoretically allow one to compartmentalize and survive with it better. But it gets in the way of healing, AND of changing things for the better. It's important for both of our sakes that you start internalizing something, little one." She reached out with a vine. Mane allowed it to cradle her face. "Whatever awful things your father did, you didn't deserve them. They're also not your fault. Okay?"
Mane nodded weakly. She was trying not to cry. Effus did her best to calm the small sophont, but with xenodrugs unavailable as an option her flowers were clipped.
The nice waitress came back and gave both of them their drinks.
"I noticed you seem distressed," the florette said to Mane, leaning over slightly. Her considerable chest got smooshed between her arms which, for some reason, caught Mane's attention. All the previous signs of distress in Mane's body language were replaced by a weird concoction of happiness and embarrassment. "We're slow right now. Is there anything I can do to help make you comfortable?" Mane's eyes flashed between the waitress and the affini several times. Part of Effus wanted to speak up, but watching Mane deal with this delightfully human, adorably harmless form of pressure was honestly refreshing.
And maaaaybe it was nice to partake in some harmless revenge.
"Go on Mane," Effus encouraged. "Anything, anything at all. Well, nothing harmful to her, of course. But anything." Mane forced a smile.
"Can I, um, errrrr-canIpleaserestmyheadinyourboobsforalittlebitalsowhat'syournameyouareveryprettynicetomeetyou." The floret stifled a laugh and ran her hand through her bright blonde ponytail.
"Oh, absolutely! I loooove snuggling with other sophonts! Oh and I'm Ih." The waitress sat down, her smile seeming to have an effect on Mane similar to a cold-blooded creature basking in the rays of a gentle sun. Mane laughed nervously.
"S-sophonnnT-!?" The waitress yanked Mane into a soft hug and nestled the girl's face in her breasts. She giggled a bunch too.
"Ohhhh, you must be NEW. Well! A sophont is any species other than an affini." Effus was tempted to cut in with a slight correction-specifically, that sophont was a Terran word serving as a noun describing a sapient species-but she didn't want to interrupt. "It's the affini word for alien, sorta, but it translates more closely to 'pet.'" The waitress began to stroke Mane's hair lovingly. "This human's hair is all matted. You need to brush her more often." The waitress looked at Effus.
"She's not MINE mine," Effus explained. A set of roots extended out from her and plunged into the tall pitcher full of her slurry, then started draining it of nutrients. "She's a...ward, I suppose. Poor thing is all traumatized and needs help adjusting to domestic life." Effus deliberately worded her statement to provoke a reaction. Mane took the bait.
"Hhheeeey!" She lifted her head out of the natural resting place that Ih's body served as. "Th-"
"AWWWWW!" cooed Ih. Mane went silent instantly and flopped back into place with, and Effus was amazed that she actually phonetically annunciated the word, a "mew." "Pooor thing. If you ever want a floret to spend time with I'm here for you. What's your name, dear?"
"M-Mane," Mane whispered. She was just about limp now.
"Well, Mane, I'm glad you're here now, where you'll be safe and loved." She squeezed tighter and went back to stroking Mane's hair. A moment later her eyes went wide. "Oh crap! I didn't ask what food you want! I'm sorry-"
"Shhhhh." Effus shushed her gently. "Mane here is having a rough week. Love on her a while longer, okay?"
"Okay." Ih smiled wide. She held the precious human in her arms and cradled her head. "There, there. Everything's okay. We care about you. You're sooooo much safer now, I promise."
Well, Effus thought to herself. It was a shame to rely on humans to do her work for her, but the abundance of cute florets on the ship meant that she always had a secret flower to charm this gay little disaster with. Maybe there were more doors open for her than she thought.