Mane set foot on the AS-22 ARGOS and took a deep breath. It was the local affini station, and a hub for the Terran Protectorate as all such things were. She had last been here just three days ago, during the hours before she killed her father. She had two companions with her, rather than one: namely, they were Effus and Melody. Aria, at Mane's insistence, had stayed behind in the hab. Mane felt somewhat guilty about that in spite of the girl's reassurances that everything was alright. Now, though, guilt came after her for entirely different and much darker reasons.
"Your appointment is soon," Effus reminded her gently, "we've not time for pause." Mane felt resigned, somewhat, to her fate: she had murdered a man and as kind as the affini were capable of being, they were not going to overlook it. This information was only now starting to properly take root in her mind, despite having occurred to her before. Or perhaps it had, and its progress had been reversed at some point by the misty haze of trauma the last few days were soaked in. Mane took small steps after Effus, gripping a vine tight in one of her hands. Melody was wearing a collar, and that collar was anchored by a vine to the affini's body. One had been offered to Mane as well, but she rejected it immediately. Were she asked now for a second time whether she wanted to wear one, she'd resolutely give the same answer a second time.
"Which vet are we gonna visit, Effus?" Melody asked, practically having stars in her eyes. "Ander? Hress?" She listed off names which Mane could only assume to be those of the station's medical affini. Effus responded the same way to each name: by shaking her head no.
"No, Melody, First Floret," Effus answered patiently. She and Melody both picked up speed slightly, forcing Mane into a bit of a jog. She kept up with relative ease, but flashes of the haunting dream she endured the previous night still lashed at her from inside her brain. "We're going to see the oldest affini on this ship. She's...a specialist. And-"
"And Mort's girlfriend!" Melody squealed with a sort of macabre excitement. This elicited a joyous spasm from the flowers on Effus' body.
"Mort's crush, little one. Her name is Erias, I think you'll quite like her. Come, come." Effus continued to lead the two humans across the fields and hallways that made up the Argos' spacious interior. There were crowds-both far denser and far bigger than those of the Crest. Through these Effus pushed and strode with no difficulty at all, owing to the size and flexibility of her physiology. Melody had some more trouble, but experience guided her to the other end of each encounter without fail. Mane, on the other hand, struggled heavily. She had trouble squeezing or pushing past clusters of other humans, let alone the affini that so towered over them. The vine in her hand occasionally writhed in such a way as to encourage other members of the crowd part a bit and temporarily give her more room, but this assistance still didn't make her task easy for her. Mane stumbled and pushed past the fourth such crowd of their journey, having encountered the cowd near the edge of a grand food court of a plaza, and found herself emerging just outside of some kind of clinic.
There, just outside the door, stood Effus. Two vines dangled from her body, one of which led to the tip that Mane held in her hand and one of which had affixed itself to the collar around Melody's neck. Melody trotted up to Mane and hugged her. The floret purred into Mane's ears and whispered encouragement. All Mane did to respond was shake off the praise and pant.
"Made...it…" Mane muttered. A mild fear which had built inside her gently dissipated and left her feeling better, but very much still tired. She hunched over for a few seconds, hands gripping her thighs through the thin knee-length dress she was wearing under her coat (which she was wearing properly this time) to help support her weight. Mane breathed heavily for a bit and then stood straight up. "So it's here, then?"
"That it is," Effus hummed gently. All the tips of her vines and petals flexed and curled in unison with her words, like in saying that sentence she'd given herself goosebumps. "Go on in, you two. I'll be on my tablet for a moment. I have to let Cordelia know you two got here okay."
"Thank you!" Melody squeaked. "Thank her for letting you bring me with you, too, please?" Effus regarded Melody for a second with a bemused smirk on her wooden mask of a face.
"I suppose that's an amenity I can provide, little one." Melody seemed pleased with that response. She took Mane gingerly by the wrist and marched inside, her ex in tow.
"Ah," said a human woman behind a counter, "this is Mane?"
"Yup!" Melody said with a confidence that Mane could never have imagined her ex being capable of. "She has an appointment here, right about now, with one affini by the name of Erias?" Melody fluttered her eyelashes at the receptionist, who eagerly seemed to accept the gesture with a smile and some blushing.
"That lines up with the schedule!" Said the receptionist as she checked her computer. "That's my owner, by the way, she'll take wonderful care of both of you. That's a promise. If you two darlings have a seat, she'll be with you in just a moment." Melody smiled and led Mane away to some waiting room chairs. They each took a seat in one. Melody pulled some kind of stimming device out of her pocket and began to absently play with it while Mane watched.
"Waiting rooms are quicker here," Melody chuckled to herself. She smiled, her face full of warmth, in Mane's direction. "And nobody has to worry about...debt, you know? It's nice." There was an awkward silence between them. Mane seemed agitated. Melody sought to alleviate it. "I wish the affini had come, you know...earlier. Maybe if they'd overthrown capitalism a few years earlier your dad couldn't...have. You know." Her heart hurt, it really did.
Mane had hurt her, sure, but the poor thing had been hurt enough. She deserved to be happy god damnit, she deserved to HEAL. Forgiving her might have been difficult a month after things got bad, perhaps even two, but she just didn't have it in her to hold grudges like that. Mane had been hurting too, and while that didn't excuse the girl's actions back on Gisk, it did make the whole shitshow hard for Melody to blame on Mane. She placed a hand, gentle and compassionate, on Mane's thigh. She smiled wide.
"It's gonna be okay, sweetie. They'll help you. You're safe." Mane nodded along but her heart obviously wasn't in it. Mane was scared, she was tense, she was...angry. Melody supposed that Mane had in some ways always been a hypocrite like this. No amount of carefully chosen questions or piercing assertions would get her to submit the truth. Melody knew this from experience. Trying would be a waste of time. That was the affini's job now. "I'm here," she whispered, her voice tinged with a kind of desperate worry. Where had Mane been since they last met? What heinous tales of her father's evil now crowded parts of Mane's mind that had once been open and joyful?
No, Melody told herself, they had always been. Mane was just older now, tired and worn. This battle had been happening when they met, no doubt. It pained her to think about.
"Why...didn't you come with me?" Melody asked.
"Simple," Mane snorted, "you lost." Melody remembered that tearful last match they'd had a few months after senior year ended. She didn't surrender to the affini then, but it was the day her decision became set in stone.
"But...you still could have come with me," Melody murmured. "I would have happily taken you with me. You'd have been happy, and safe...away from your family, forever, for good. I had so many nightmares, Mane, about all the things that I could have saved you from, all the awful things you endured because you didn't become a floret like me, I…" was she upset? Was she angry? Sad? She genuinely had no idea. Impy wasn't telling her anything.
"I chose not to," Mane mumbled. "That's all there was to it."
Was it? She might have rejected the offer because she felt herself beneath it, or out of fear of change, or...perhaps even to ensure a chance to kill her father.mane wasn't being honest, with Melody OR with herself. Melody wanted to reach into her ex's face, and tear off that damn mask, and force the real her to speak up like Mane used to do for her…
But that was just the thing. Back in their days together, she'd consented. Mane was too guarded. Too afraid, fundamentally, of herself. Whether the real Mane was the snarling hurricane of teeth and venom that slew her father, or the terrified gentle little thing that cowered if Effus shouted at her, or the confident woman that once melted her mind with words alone, the Mane in charge could only ever look at her as a monster to be chained up and silenced. Melody's heart broke at the thought. Mane was not fundamentally a bad person.
"Would the Terran named Mane...EMPTYDATAFIELDERROR, please stand up?" Mane stood and turned towards the sound. It was an affini, but...an unusual looking one. Where most affini were massive, thick, soft creatures of foliage and flowers and vines, with bulky silhouettes, this one had proportions like a stick figure. Thin arms and legs made of even thinner lengths of tree matter, spiraled tightly together like the threads of a screw, connected to a torso no thicker than its limbs. The bark appendages were dotted not with flowers or leaves but petals and fruit, and they seemed to twist and convulse and grind on each other passively. The affini was some eleven feet tall, and where a human's body would have a sternum her body had what Mane could only assume to be her core.
It was a bright pink thing, half-exposed like a heart emerging from its ribcage. Also like a heart, the spherical body part seemed to contract and relax in pulses, though it seemed to do so completely at random. None of the body's twisting reedlike tendrils seemed to follow any proper rhythm either, not even that of the other members of any given set forming a coherent part of her body together.
Mane approached slowly and cautiously. The affini turned to her and the "head" above her core made an exuberant expression. Her body twisted all around, calling yet more attention to her needlelike proportions.
"There you are, little human! Pleased to meet you! I am Erias Haun, Seventeenth Bloom. Are you ready for a little health checkup?" Mane rolled her eyes and nodded. The affini led her back into a hallway. As the human girl entered it, she cast one last look, whether of fear or surrender or what have you she didn't know, over her shoulder at her ex. Melody met her gaze with a smile and two thumbs up.
If only Mane felt the same confidence with another affini. She followed them down a big spacious hall to a room with oversized furniture. Always with the oversized furniture.
She found a way up onto the patient bed and took a seat on it. Her eyes warily locked onto Erias, whose outer decorations she could now tell resembled cherry blossoms. Erias stepped into the room and past a table which had a conspicuously human sized bowl on top of it...one filled with lollipops. Suspiciously, it was filled with exclusively orange lollipops, her favorite kind.
"So!" Erias declared as she sat straight up, her proportions almost giving her the look of a gigantic skinny insect. "Normally I dive straight into medicine but...you're something of a unique case. You're scared, I can tell, and that's no state to be in around a doctor."
"It is for me," Mane snarked. Erias tapped at a tablet and grumbled.
"Well, anything less than secure, freely given honesty impeeds the process. I take it Effus is a bit more..affini than you'd like?"
"What do you mean?" Asked Mane, tentatively curious.
"I mean that...well. There's a phenomena I've noticed where cultures that...let's say, sever themselves from their cognition of their surroundings," Erias said, waving a hand, "they tend to develop certain...attitudes towards certain things. A species that thinks of themselves as land creatures will fear the ocean more than one that thinks of themselves as above nature. We affini...many of us have similar ideas about death. Our culture tends to see the universe as...things we must caretake for," she purred. "Death, failure, chance, entropy...many of us don't quite grasp that they still apply to us. That can be extremely offputting. You killed someone. I'm guessing affini reception has been frustrating?"
Mane clasped her hands together.
"Let's talk about that."