Mane burst flailing out of a terrible nightmare. The sound of an affini voice, specifically Effus', had awoken her, but her brain was firing on way too many cylinders to properly grasp that information, let alone actually comprehend the words or their meaning. Her limbs thrashed wildly all about at random, like an insect which had been smashed but not quite killed. She heard the sheets rustle through the air from being kicked. She forced an arm to snatch them and swing them towards her head, as though covering herself could possibly save her. An awful scream, animalistic and devoid of anything resembling restraint, blasted up out of her lungs into the air.
Mane returned to the fetal position and trembled. Words, and she didn't know which, tumbled and rolled out of her mouth one after another. She begged to be left alone, to be spared, for the affini not to hurt her, she cried, she was gripped entirely by terror. The affini, whose tremendous shape she could see silhouetted on the other side of the sheet, moved its vines about for a few seconds. Were they listening? Please, Mane begged, go away go away go away!
The affini went somewhere else. Her screams (she had been screaming?) died down into pathetic, wet, gargling sobs. Streams of tears rolled with zero resistance up to her eyes and then out her tear ducts and down the sides of her face. Her cheeks were hot and wet and burned with despair.
A more human shape approached her, slowly and carefully. It caught her attention enough to distract her for a moment from her misery. The shape came to a stop at her bedside and leaned over. If Mane's choked gasps were quieter, she might have been able to hear the other person's breathing. They stayed there for a moment, just standing leaned over in Mane's direction. The tension lessened gradually by the slightest little bit. A hand tentatively extended towards Mane and rested on her shoulder. It was warm, soft, gentle, and above all it was human and compassionate. Mane felt herself relax slightly the instant the small area of pressure touched her.
"May I keep you company?" Asked a voice which Mane was now, just barely, composed enough to recognize as belonging to Melody. Her barriers thoroughly shredded in the light of this outburst, Mane nodded only to resume her ferocious onslaught of tears. Melody tugged at the sheets once. Mane didn't let go. She tried again, and this time didn't work either. Melody lifted the side of the sheet and scrambled into the space under it. She was a good bit bigger than Mane (despite, at five foot ten, being half an inch shorter) but the mattress had a little more space than was needed to house both of them with some room left over. She gently rested a hand on top of Mane's head.
Mane's crying slowed substantially in an instant. She felt hormones her brain had functionally forgotten how to make as of just three days ago flowing out of her brain. They were warm and gentle like a soft fluffy blanket, and they trickled like a stream of water out into her limbs and heart. Mane's crying quickly slowed down as Melody stroked her hair. Her body relaxed and her heart rate dropped down to more normal levels. At this point Mane was calm enough to hear that Melody was...humming. Melody's voice was slightly deeper than hers, and Melody's singing was a rich and smooth alto. The stray human's body quickly sank into the bed and she almost couldn't feel the crust of dried tears on her pillow.
Melody lifted Mane's head, shifted something around, and then rested it back where it had been. The pillow under it was fresher, cooler, softer now. Mane's head drooped helplessly down into it. She relaxed swiftly, in a wave that started in her tired fingertips and toes and stretched lazily up her arms and legs, across her torso and back, through her spine. She was smiling now. She was happy and relaxed. She was…
She was sleepy…Mane was sleepy. Mane was tired and sleepy and her body was heavy. Her eyelids were heavier, still.
Mane drifted quickly back to sleep. She didn't have especially pleasant dreams this time either, but they were warm and dull. Nothing bad happened in them.
For six hours, Mane slept decently.
Mane woke up in the air mattress with a pillow fort set up around it. This was her third time waking up here in this affini hab, but only the second morning during which she had done so. The human girl sat up and used her left hand to rub sleepily at her eyes. She felt gunk around them, and spent a minute or so using her nails to rid herself of it. With that task complete, she yawned (and then sighed immediately afterwards). She did not feel as rested as she had when she woke up the day before. That wasn't too big a surprise, in retrospect, seeing as she'd gone to sleep with assistance from xenodrugs the night before that.
Then she realized, groggily, that there was something fuzzy under her right hand. She froze for a second, fearful she was touching some kind of horrible alien spider. Her eyes shakily, jerkily, twitched over to the side and put her hand in view. Relief washed over her as she realized it was a stuffed animal.
It was Pengi.
"PENGI!" Mane lept with joy, both her hands seizing the penguin against her chest. She hit her back on the fort and sort of awkwardly flopped out of the air onto the floor, but it didn't matter to her. She hugged her precious penguin tight.
Effus must have gone back for him! Mane nuzzled Pengi and checked over his spikes using her fingers. Sure enough, he had the same manufacturing error bump that made him one of a kind. This was the real deal. Her Pengi was safe!!!
"I'm so sorry Pengi…" Mane muttered, still on the floor as she cuddled the stuffed animal happily. She rested there for a little while, just holding him close and letting that mix of relief and dull happiness wash over her. Once the surprise (and the rush of feelings which it inspired) passed she stood up and very deliberately set Pengi into place sitting on the side of her bed. "Gotta guard my pillow fort!" She giggled to herself as she sat Pengi down and set up the pillow so he could lean backwards against it. "Very important job. Gotta do a protect."
"You're up now?" Asked Effus' voice from somewhere behind her. A shock slashed at Mane's spinal cord and sent her hopping sideways as she tried to regain her composure. This process proved to take a few seconds.
"Y-yes Effus, I'm up," Mane laughed awkwardly. She came to a stop and scratched the back of her head. Mane set her weak gaze on Effus, who seemed to be absently using a few vines to fill out paperwork (which she had affixed to clipboards). "Good...good morning?"
"Good morning, little one," Effus said to Mane with a soft patience in her voice. "You had a terrible nightmare last night. I hope you're not too lastingly distressed?" Effus was looking her over, Mane realized-and looking for something specific, it seemed. Mane's legs fell limp at her sides as she tried to think of what the appropriate thing would be to say. She felt an unspoken timer ticking down-she had to get something out before it hit zero, or Effus would become angry. She knew the affini would deny having such a thing in place, that there was even a chance she wasn't doing it on purpose, but experience had taught Mane that those factors were irrelevant. Effus' eyes seemed to regard her with a set of emotions that Mane could not easily dissect based on visuals. This only increased the stress. It meant her task would have to be completed using nothing but improv.
"Yeah, I had. I had a nightmare," Mane let the words stumble awkwardly out of her, like they were all actively fighting to stay inside her body. "It was pretty bad, I guess, but I'll be fine." She smiled. Would Effus believe her? It seemed unlikely, bordering on farcical. "There's no need to worry all that much over it, I promise. I'll be okay, really. I mean it." Her awkward expression of half-baked easy go lucky confidence tinged by a few highlights of self-consciousness and joviality seemed to have next to no effect on the affini. It was unsurprising, but Mane had to try.
"Sweetheart, that was BAD. You're not doing anyone any favors-yourself least of all-by trying to pretend it wasn't a big deal." Mane swallowed. She felt dread, like cold skeletal fingers, grasping at her. She could tell Effus felt...angry? Frustrated? At wit's end? It was plainly clear she had failed in her efforts to convey that she needn't be fretted over. Shit, shit! If Effus didn't think she could be worked with, the affini would just pump her full of drugs! No, no, no!
"I just didn't remember, I guess," Mane said with a dismissive little laugh. "I fell back asleep so fast, I guess not a lot of it really managed to stick. That's good, isn't it?" She flashed her best smile at Effus in hopes of easing her worries. If she could just find the right buttons, hammer them at the right times, she could stall the inevitable. She could...live, for a few weeks, before her incompatibility with the ideals of a floret inevitably sentenced her current self to be...executed.
"Mane. Mane of no surname, forfeitor of legacy." Fuck. On one hand, that title fucking SLAPPED. On the other, Effus had just invented a middle and last name for her, just to show her irritation by using both of them. Mane felt herself starting to sweat in fear. "You are decidedly NOT okay. You are lying, to me, about your health. I can tolerate foolishness, human, but I will not have any more of your lies." She held up a bunch of bark, which curled and twisted into the shape of a human hand. All of its fingers curled into a fist. Then, the pointer and middle finger extended. "How many fingers am I holding up?"
Shit. Was she doing this? Mane felt ice in her lungs. This was it. The affini were officially sick of her shit. She laughed nervously, because she knew better than to scream. "T...two fingers? Are you doing the-however many fingers you say, Effus, hahaha," Mane tried to deflect with humor. She could feel that if she had a dog's tail it would be curled under her in defeat.
"Two fingers! Ah, that's strange, little one, I seem to remember things wrong. Perhaps you can re-educate me?" She lowered the pointer finger. Mane felt offended and afraid until she realized Effus didn't seem to know what the gesture meant. If she weren't so scared that would've put her out of commission in a bout of laughter. "Back on the ship, you said THIS was the number you humans call two! So which is it, Mane of no name, forfeitor of legacy? HOW MANY FINGERS IS THIS?"
"O-one! That's one!" Mane squeaked. Fear ruptured her brain. She remembered being a child, her father screaming in her face. "I'm sorry! I won't lie anymore!"
"There, there, that's all I wanted to hear," said Effus. She unwound the hand and seemed to regain her composure. "I'm...terribly sorry. That was unacceptable of me, okay?" Mane shook her head. She was fighting tears.
"A-are you…?" She whimpered. The question seemed to rip deeper into Effus than any manmade knife possibly could.
"Yes, dear! Absolutely!" She lowered herself towards the ground and gazed up at Mane with big gentle eyes that looked more hurt than Mane felt. "I will never shout at you like that again, I didn't know it would affect you so badly, I promise, okay?" Mane nodded again. Effus came unwound and swirled around her. Vines rubbed her back and held her arms and stroked her face.
"I'm sorry," Mane sobbed. She clung to Effus, who hummed gently in her ear.
"No, little one, don't apologize. You've done nothing wrong, okay? I can't lose my temper like that, it's unbecoming of me and unhealthy for you. NEVER apologize to me after I hurt you, understand?"
Mane didn't. She didn't understand. She didn't understand why Effus should be the one apologizing to her, she didn't understand why she should have any reason not to do so herself, she didn't understand this show of care that was currently happening. A vine took a hairbrush. "Melody said you have trouble brushing your hair. May I?" Mane just whimpered out a yes. She'd normally say no, but she wasn't complying out of fear or anything. She just…
She did need it brushed. Quite badly at that. And she was no good at doing it herself. The vine took the brush to Mane's hair. It tugged gently in smooth stroking motions. The brush had thin bristles that felt gentle and nice on her scalp, giving it a wonderful scritchy sensation. The sides of the bristles, on the other hand, separated her hair and extracted dead strands and helped to gently undo knots. Effus purred a soothing rhythm into Mane's ears as she worked, treating the human's hair like it was a delicate work of art made of especially fragile silk. Mane blushed. She wasn't used to...this.
"Thank you," Mane mumbled. Was she just saying it out of habit? Obligation? The girl wasn't certain, honestly.
"No need to thank me, darling," Effus whispered, "especially not after I mistreated you like that." For a moment, Effus continued her task in silence. Then she added, "I am merely showing you the care and decency you are owed, and it's a debt which has evidently grown rather cavernous."
"I thought you were post capitalism, post scarcity?" Mane ribbed gently. "Is that part of the propaganda? Because the idea of both sides' propaganda agreeing on a statement which is totally false…" Mane laughed. The thought amused her.
"No," Effus reassured the human, "we don't believe in debt...mostly. not in those terms. But it's clear you have been denied affection and protection that you couldn't properly function without," Effus explained, "and I make it my duty, when such a wrong has been dealt to a human in my care, to pay them back. Think of it as a mission I assigned myself, rather than any proper transactional necessity." Mane nodded along. She gripped the vine which had pressed against her right hand. It turned and coiled in order to grasp back. "I would like...if you feel comfortable with it, to perhaps talk about your life in detail sometime. It might help me sidestep these triggers of yours." Effus spoke gently. It was clear that she did not blame Mane for her reactions to the triggers in question. Mane felt herself growing wary regardless.
"I don't...know if I want to consent to that. Will...will you start using drugs?" Mane asked with fear.
"If other means prove insufficient then yes, I may be forced to employ xenodrugs," said Effus. "I cannot stress enough that those measures are NOT a punishment. You will be happier and healthier using them to assist in your care, and-"
"No." Mane practically sliced the words out of Effus' body. The affini's flowers rustled out of their rhythm momentarily. Effus shifted around and released Mane from her grasp. The brush was completely covered in hair now. That task was complete. "I refuse, as long as I have a say in the matter."
"Stubborn human…" Effus mumbled to herself. She set the brush into a box to be cleaned later. Before either of them could say anything more, Melody burst out of Aria's room. She hurled herself through the air, collided with Mane, pulled her into a very grabby hug, then hit the ground along with her.
"Airy said she heard you yelling is everything okay?" She asked, peppering Mane's face and neck with kisses. Effus made a sound resembling a chuckle.