Airy walked across the affini hab pod. She pointed out the bedroom, the bathroom, a living room, a kitchen (which she explained was largely redundant), a couple tvs, some game consoles. Effus was a common sort of substitute temporary caretaker, she explained. This pod served briefly as a liminal space of a home for lots of pets to be.
Mane barely heard any of it. She had retreated into her head. She was overwhelmed, regretful, and a little bit afraid. What had she done? What was going to happen to her now? She had no idea and the unknown terrified her.
Nope! Nope nope nope. Not going down that train of thought here. She didn't know they couldn't read-
"Hey," said Aria, turning back and looking concerned. "Your cuffs are beeping. Is something wrong?"
"Huh?" Mane snapped back to the present. It took a second to realize what had been said. "They-right-shit! Shit shit shit!" She realized the cuffs were in fact beeping. What did that mean? She flashed a scared smile at Airy. "What does this mean?"
"It does that when your heartbeat is high," Airy said with worry. She squeezed Mane's hand in a supportive fashion. "Is something wrong?"
"N-no not at all!" Mane laughed a little. She forced herself to regain composure. It was difficult, but she managed. Slowly the cuffs stopped beeping. Aria frowned.
"You don't...look better." Mane considered telling the truth. She had no reason not to trust Aria, after all. Not because she was proven safe, mind, but because suspicion couldn't help her. Yet, after her contemplation, she felt she shouldn't.
This sweetheart didn't owe her anything, least of all the burden of dealing with her baggage. Mane smiled softly. "I'm better. I promise."
"You know, being a florette isn't that bad." Huh? Mane blinked. Had she said something? Aria looked deep into Mane's eyes with a look of soft, gentle concern. "I don't know what happened to get you caught, but...they love you. Effus loves you. That's why-"
"My dad's Catholic." Mane cut her off with an acid that felt acrid and terrible on her mouth as it stung its way out of her. Why did she say that? She stepped away and retracted her hand from Aria's grip. "I got this talk daily for a while, I don't need it from you." Fuck, fuck! That was mean! Why was she bullying the cute girl!?
"I...I'm sorry," Airy murmured. Her eyes softened with pain and tears. Mane started to reach back out but stopped herself. Aria seemed to be on the verge of tears...and then went rigid and shivered. She calmed down. Must be the implant, Mane figured. Something inside of her was put off, but she shook that feeling easily enough. Besides, it was fixing her mistake.
"I-what?" Airy seemed confused. "Wh-what do you-"
"Your implant." Said Mane. "It made you feel better. I'm thanking it for its service fixing my mistake."
"I um...well, the implant is a part of me," Aria said and gently touched the base of her spine with two fingertips. "Every bit as much as my bones or my flesh." Mane frowned.
"Can we put a pin in this?"
"In my implant? Why? What would that accomplish?"
"It's-it means, I'm asking, can we talk about something else."
"Yes, Mane. Whatcha wanna chat about?"
The two sat on the gigantic couch and talked for a while.
"Hey, Effuslucia?" Said an affini named Cordelia. She was a strange sort, with pinkish vines and leaves instead of the usual green. Effuslucia turned to face her and nodded.
"What? Cordelia-what does that MEAN?" Effus' tablet lit up. Poor little Mane seemed stressed. Also, some kind of reaction from Airy's implant. Oh dear, what was happening?
"Your logs suggest you've given out one too many capture cuffs today."
"Cordelia. That phrase will NOT catch on."
"My florettes use it!"
"Ugh, fine." Effus sounded annoyed with her pink friend, but this was the playful fake kind of annoyed. "I wasn't sure what kind to give Mane. She surrendered peacefully, in theory, but…"
"In theory?" Cordelia asked. Effus tapped at her tablet a few times, instructed it to send Airy a small dose of calming brain juice by way of her implant, and answered Cordelia’s inquiry without so much as looking up.
"She was obviously distressed. Her options were to die in the vacuum of space, die in the hands of rebels, die alone in a cramped vessel with a dead person, or-"
"I get it, I get it," Cordelia wiggled uncomfortably. The thought of a sad scared human alone in space chilled her bark so bad she could almost feel it peeling. Adding rebels to the mix threatened to make her flowers wilt. "You don't think…"
"We know, Cordelia. The man in the ship with her...Mane killed him. She admitted it in her SOS signal, plain as the sun on a desert world or as the black of a night sky. She's clearly upset about it. I just...I don't think she's violent. She's a damn good actor if she is, and you know I wouldn't leave anyone with Airy who might hurt her."
"Ohmygoshno nothing of the sort!" Cried out Cordelia suddenly. She sounded apologetic and intensely worried, and not just in her voice. Her leaves and vines rustled wildly as a wind passed through them which wasn’t there. “You’re the best owner a human could ask for!" She elaborated in full transparent sincerity, "I know you’d never do that!”
“Then what were you implying?” Effus would be frowning if she bothered to put expressions on her simulated face when talking to other affini. It seemed that Cordelia knew it, too. The pink mass of plant matter squirmed uncomfortable for a few too many seconds.
“I...didn’t actually mean to imply anything. I don’t...think, anyway,” Cordelia admitted with a shakiness to her speech. Effus reached past them and opened a cabinet. “I’m sorry. You’re a very good owner and I trust your judgment almost more than I trust my own florettes.”
“That’s alright, it happens. Here,” Effus added, retrieving a bottle of pills with a vine. It maneuvered to hold the bottle in front of Cordelia, and did so with ease even though it was readily apparent that Effus wasn’t looking in its direction. “Here’s your second florette’s prescription. She’s still insisting on human medicine, even with her implant?”
“Yes,” Cordelia said as she took the bottle graciously out of Effus’ grasp. “I appreciate everything you do for our pets, sweetheart. We all do. The ship would never be the same if you left.”
“I know that,” said Effus. She put her tablet away, having instructed Airy to share hers with the new girl until Effus could get her one of her own. "Thank you, though. Tell her I'd love to see her."
"Why don't you come visit!" Said Cordelia, her excitement visible in the rustling of her leaves and the twirling of her flowers. "Oh, it would be positively lovely!"
"Perhaps," mumbled Effus, "but you must remember, Mane is in a new environment. She's stressed out and she's afraid. She just killed someone in a panic, if you recall."
"Please-" Cordelia practically hissed. Her vines whipped unhappily all about. "Please stop reminding me that poor baby had to kill someone. It's going to give me nightmares."
"You'd have to go to sleep first," Effus teased. "Now go, I have other patients today."
"Got it, got it. Bye!"
"Hey! You wanna play on my tablet?" Asked Aria. She picked it up from a table next to the couch. "It's got games! And the overnet. And a bunch of old human shows. Effus likes rom coms but I'm really into cartoons."
"Oh, uh, what kind?" It was something of a relief to Mane how human Aria still was. She was a girl, she was independent (enough), she was just...also a pet. Like a cat. Mane liked cats. She liked Aria.
"Oh, ummmm...just, anything sweet and funny and colorful, I guess?" Aria said with just, the sweetest and most darling look anyone had ever pointed at Mane. She tried not to be overwhelmed by it and just barely managed not to squeak.
"Ah. You'd...probably not be much of one for my tastes, then. A-and I don't mean that in the pretentious way! I'm not too good for you!" Mane clarified, both of her arms swinging back and forth as if to physically dissipate any false impression she was giving off. "They're just...messy. and about...pain, I guess, a lot of them."
"Cartoons about pain?" Asked Aria. She looked absolutely lost. It made Mane smile. Made her think she was safe. She knew she wasn't, obviously, but it was fun even for a moment to just pretend otherwise. "Like...those really wild old slapstick ones?"
"Not...not those, no. Like...okay, there was one I watched growing up that...I've kind of outgrown it, but it's...it's about depression. The central thesis-" she physically fought her body not to make a joke about its theme song-"is that humanity longs for each other, but it's an intrinsic property of us as flawed beings that in growing close we are bound to hurt each other. It's...the show calls it the Hedgehog's Dillemma. We're like hedgehogs longing for warmth-alone we suffer, but if we try and band together our spines are predetermined to hurt one another." It was at this point Mane realized how utterly CRUSHED Aria looked. Fuck!
Fuck, could Effus tell!?
Shit shit shit! You can't just let yourself into someone's house and make their pet cry! That was unforgivable!
"Ohhhhh um sorry sorry shhh it's okay please don't try and extrapolate anything about that from me I just think its neat!" Desperate, Mane threw her arms around Aria and hugged tight. "See! We're allll cozy up with each other and neither of us is hurt!" It wasn't true, obviously. She'd hurt Aria's feelings twice now. The girl smiled at her anyway and hugged back, but it wasn't earned. Mane knew it wasn't earned. "Let's watch some cartoons you like, okay?" Aria perked up like a kitty. Mane laughed almost in spite of herself.
The darkness gnawing at her heart snarled, but it could fuck off at the moment. She had a few hours before Effus came back and it was going to stew in the corner like good emotional repression while she had a taste of some happiness for once in her goddamn life. She snuggled up to Aria's soft comfortable body and rested against it. Occasional glimpses of various insecurities stabbed at her. Had she done this all for nothing!? What if she got good people hunted down!? God, what if someone found out about her and came after her!? What if someone-
No, no. She was safe, and frankly...that was all. Perhaps it was selfish. Bordering on evil, possibly, to enjoy this with her mother back home. Her parents were divorced, and her dad was an overconfident dipshit anyway so it’s not like he’d be in the game long without her. She forced her focus onto the tablet. A trio of cute lil ladies were like...fighting crime or something. It was cute. Some kind of pun-based visual gag happened and Mane burst into hysterical laughter, all the chains she was keeping herself in check with acting far too slow to stop her. Her laugh was loud and unrestrained and wild and she made the noise when she breathed in rather than when she exhaled so she almost sounded like she was choking on a squeaky toy. It took almost a full minute for her to wind down and then she giggled for a while longer.
“Sorry about that,” Mane apologized sheepishly. “I haven’t...laughed properly in a long time.”
“Awwww! You poor girl!” Aria hugged her close and nuzzled her lots. “All those mean rebels didn’t let you be soft like you need to, did they?”
“Not...technically a rebel,” Mane grumbled. “But otherwise, you’re right.”
The image of what she’d done flashed through her mind. It hit her-
What if they found out?
She didn’t HAVE to kill him. What if they figured that out? God, she should have tossed his body first, fuck, fuck, but she didn’t want to have to handle a dead body and there was so much blood everywhere and-
“Your cuffs are beeping again! Do you have some kind of heart condition? Are you having a panic attack?” Aria was visibly worried. “I’m going to call Mistress, okay? She’s a vet she’ll know what to do-” Reflexively Mane grabbed the tablet.
“What does-why would having combat exp...oh. Oh you mean the other kind of vet.” Mane laughed. It was weak.
“Mane...your fake laugh isn’t very convincing. It’s all empty and restrained and your real one, just...they don’t sound similar at all.”
“And your point?” Mane almost hissed. Then she caught herself again. “I’m...I’m sorry. I’ve been nothing but awful to you, you’ve been so kind and sweet to me anyway and, fuck uuuugh, I’ve been a cynical abrasive dickhead anyway…”
“No you haven’t,” Aria insisted. She wriggled closer to Mane on the couch. “You’re scared and going through a rough time. It’s okay. I forgive you.”
At the words “I forgive you,” Mane dissolved into a puddle of flesh and tears. She sobbed openly. Emotions she’d been binding down and chaining up and stabbing when they reared their ugly heads flooded her, took control of her lips and her jaw and her arms, and she sobbed and grabbed at her scalp with her nails and begged the world to understand, that she was trapped and scared and just wanted to be allowed a life and she missed her girlfriend and she wanted not to hurt anyone, she’s not a monster she’s not a monster she’s not a monster!
"Mistress," Aria said into her tablet, "The new girl is freaking out real bad and I'm worried. What do I do?"