Mane walked in step behind Cordelia. Melody and Aida were there with her. The two of them were chattering with each other about this thing and that, mostly clothes (which made sense given the objective of this outing), and occasionally Cordelia chimed in with some input of her own. At first Mane tried to keep up but she simply lacked the context to do so. It was hardly surprising, really, given the amount of history this trio had with each other that she herself did not share. She tried to ignore the various bad feelings this was starting to stir up by lazily looking around and taking mental notes about their surroundings. The thickened atmosphere of the affini part of the ship no longer registered to her, which she'd find deeply unsettling if it hadn't been pushed down so far on her priorities by other, more immediate causes of dread. There were affini, florets, collars, obnoxiously colored dresses, all becoming irksomely standard to her. The quartet passed the fountain where she'd...first allowed herself to show Effus weakness.
That was nice, whispered some traitorous part of her brain that clearly wanted to be annihilated. I miss that. It had been an error, a compromise, a product of stress and fear not to be repeated, she reminded herself. She couldn't trust the affini. Not because the affini couldn't be trusted, but because they couldn't be trusted by her. She felt a sudden urge to cry. Maybe they'd be merciful? They were understanding sometimes, after all, maybe Melody had already-
God. She'd told Melody. A horrible dread washed over her like ice water. Did Cordelia know? Maybe she should try and ask her- wait, no, that was a terrible idea, it was an unspeakably awful one, it was tantamount to signing her own death warrant. She tried to throw these scary ideas out and just focus on the present, but every time she attempted to tune in, it was less and less time before her anxieties pulled her back out again. Melody must have noticed, because she reached over and-
Melody's hand was as gentle and warm and cherubic as Mane remembered. It slipped between her fingers and gently, sweetly took hold of her own hand. Melody's skin was softer than ever, more relaxing, more...confident. It was as though her very touch was speaking directly to Mane's heart and her nervous system, telling both of them, "It's alright. Everything is going to be okay. I'm here with you again and I'm not going anywhere." Mane's fears calmed down slightly, even if this new distraction made it even more impossible to pay attention to the conversation. That wasn't a tradeoff that Mane was upset about having to make.
They passed a window. It was massive, much like every goddamn window was in this part of the ship. It was made of some kind of see-through material which resembled glass but, as she'd been informed by some of the more droll books she partially inhaled during her research, that material was not glass. The infinite inky black on the other side didn't seem the same as usual, and it took Mane a second to figure out why that was.
"Is that…" she muttered out loud, stunned both visually and audibly, "is that a planet?" Mane stopped in her tracks, the foreign celestial body so imposing and dreadful to her that it made her body react like a woodland creature caught in a pair of headlights. The others noticed her distress and stopped to make sure that she was okay. It was Cordelia who spoke first.
"Little one, is something wrong?" Cordelia asked as she stooped over with concern taking hold over her humanlike artifice of a face. She did not touch Mane but something about her movements, especially those of her head, during the next few seconds suggested she was performing some kind of diagnostics. "Are you frightened? Is your stomach bothering you, would you like a softer vine to hold?"
"What…" Mane spoke, louder this time, "what...is that?" Melody and Aida took up position next to her so they could look out the window themselves. Aida seemed shaken as well, though nowhere near as drastically as Mane was. On the other hand, Melody and Cordelia seemed to be completely and totally unaffected.
"Oh, that!" Melody piped up with excitement coloring her words. She stimmed happily with the hand that wasn't comforting Mane (and a little bit with one of her legs, too). "That's the Genesis Moon!" She sounded like a kid bragging about their favorite spot in the local park or something. Mane normally found it cute and endearing, but circumstances robbed her authentic joy of having the full soothing quality it normally had. This wasn't to say that it annoyed her right now, the dissonance was simply jarring.
"It's the…" Mane responded, the words barely too loud to be described as having been "murmured." She felt shock punch her in the brain. "The what."
"The Genesis Moon!" Cordelia happily filled her in.
"That's not a moon," Mane protested with a sweat forming in her scalp. "That...that thing is way too big to be a moon!"
"Well yeah, cause it's not a moon," said an inexplicably smug Melody. "It's a space station."
"Hooooly shit," Aida almost purred. Any remotely astute observer to the conversation would have been able to hear the hairs on the back of her neck rising as she spoke. "Is that, like, the affini mothership or something?"
"Oh no," Cordelia giggled with a dismissive wave of a vine, as though physically brushing the silly question aside. "We aren't hierarchical like that. The affini don't have a mothership. If we didn't start out in a set place in space I'm not convinced we would even have a homeworld!" Aida nodded and returned to being awed by the massive structure on the other side of the window. Mane, on the other hand, did not grow calmer.
"Then what," Mane asked, "is it?"
"It's Thunder's passion project," Cordelia elaborated. "He's an affini, but like…old. Not old like me- hey Mane, do you know what a bloom means, with affini?"
"Not really," Mane answered. "It has something to do with age and rank right?"
"Just age," Cordelia corrected. "Affini live for like…two hundred, three hundred years. At the end of that, our body kinda…'dies' and then restarts. We call that a bloom. Affini differentiate themselves by how many times it's happened to them. Your o-your handler, Effuslucia, she's only second bloom. By adult affini standards she's a baby. I'm fourth bloom and Mort is fifth, though- his second bloom was a little short and his third only lasted like six months so he's essentially just a late third bloom. Erias-"
"Seventeenth," Mane said to herself. It occurred to her now that that was absolutely wild. Erias had been very upfront that she was old even by affini standards, but that...that was incomprehensibly old...for a living being she could speak to, at least.
"Correct! And Thunder is...Thunder lost count."
"He lost count? Where?"
"Over a hundred," Cordelia remarked. Mane was so overwhelmed that she looped around to being essentially unaffected. She turned away from the window and chuckled.
"That's...enough of a detour," Mane pushed. Cordelia cast one more concerned look at her, but then she turned back around and carried on. The three Terrans followed her. Melody gently squeezed Mane's hand to reassure her.
Melody and Aida giggled and chattered as they grabbed cute clothes and held them up to mirrors to check how they'd look wearing them. Cordelia lovingly watched the scene from a short distance away, and Mane found herself doing the same. Her heart certainly grew warm to see Melody feeling so free and...having...so much…
A poor choice of words on her part, without a doubt. She tried not to let the moment of discomfort that passed over her show on her face. Melody was absolutely behaving more authentically than she'd ever been safe to back on Gisk, that much was clear. Did that bother her because she felt guilty that she couldn't have given it to Melody herself, or angry at Cordelia for doing it better than she could, or-
No. No matter how much legitimacy her worm-addled, traumatized mind tried to lend to the idea that Mane was a cruel bitch, she wasn't evil. She felt guilty, and seeing Melody so happy just recontextualized the Melody she'd known on her home planet in uncomfortable ways. Of course she was angry-at Gisk, and at the Accord, and at Melody's parents!
Her brain didn't want to accept that answer. It insisted that Mane was lying to herself to feel better, that she was clearly angry because Melody was happy and it wasn't attributable to her. It insisted that no good person in her shoes would ever feel such a petty reaction to the joy of a loved one as rage. She was a poorly trained beast, something deep inside of her hissed, a monster clinging to the one person stupid enough to have ever wasted kindness on her like she deserved to own them.
Perhaps, at one time, that hideous voice had a point, Mane conceded, but not anymore. Melody was happy, Melody was safe, and she did feel happy seeing Melody's precious smile- she DID! But the fact of the matter was that Mane held no ill will towards Cordelia. She even tried to, for a moment, as an exercise, and all she could feel was bad with herself for doing such a thing after Cordelia was so patient when they met. That put the terrible feelings to rest for a little while.
"Would you like to do some shopping of your own, Mane?" Cordelia gently asked her.
"Aren't you going to have Melody do it?" Mane tried to deflect, letting out a nervous laugh as she did.
"No reason you can't both do it, darling," Cordelia said back. She sounded excited at the idea, and Mane could only conclude that Cordelia was eager to see her open up a little. That was alright- in this highly specific arena, there was no real harm in letting herself be a bit more open. Mane nodded.
"I, I like coats," Mane stammered out. "Big heavy ones, especially with fur- fake of course! Though I guess you guys could probably lab-grow real fur on its own with no need for industrialized animal harvesting or poaching or anything, now that I think of it." She laughed nervously, hoping that she hadn't stepped on some land mine she wasn't enough of a floret to spot. Judging from Cordelia's bewilderment at the sudden defensive shift in tone, she hadn't. Mane quickly pushed herself back into the frame of that first statement by adding, "Nothing to replace this one of course! But I can't wear it every day. Gotta...you know, wash it sometimes, and stuff."
"We could make copies for-" Cordelia started. Mane's eyes narrowed not with the killing intent that had them alight when the two first met, but with a fire of a similar vein. Her lips curled somewhat with what was either animalistic rage or an all-too-human disgust.
"None of you are doing anything of the sort," Mane growled. Not three seconds of stunned silence from both parties later, she seemed to catch herself. The color drained from Mane's face and was quickly replaced by shame and fear. Fuck! "I-I'm sorry," Mane stammered, all too aware that none of the rules of engagement she'd established in her verbal clashing of swords with Effus couldn't protect her worth shit here, "Please forgive me I'm not angry I don't know where that came from-"
"Dear." Cordelia's voice was sweet. She lowered herself almost to Mane's level, her eyes shimmering with pained concern. "If the coat is special to you, of course you don't want the big scary aliens mass-producing it. If a floret's owner gave them something and I offered to make copies, they'd have every right to be upset. Okay?" Mane disliked the comparison but knew that explaining why was a bad idea. Explaining to authority figures why they pissed you off, after they decided to spare you, was *always* a bad idea.
"Yes, Cordelia. Thank you," Mane said softly. Cordelia rose back to her original height and seemed to smile.
"Come, let's go look at some coats."
Cordelia, true to her word, let the vines connecting her to Aida and Melody detach. She readied her tablet, used it to send some kind of message (to Melody most likely, Mane reasoned), then nodded at Mane and led the girl through the store. Mane walked side by side with, making a point to stare Cordelia defiantly in the eyes when she noticed. The affini seemed put off but, much to Mane's relief, she said nothing on the subject. She just walked across the store, past massive aisles and aisles of clothes, to a section with lots of coats.
"I'll need your measurements," Cordelia said as she gestured to some fancy markings on a nearby wall. "Do you mind standing there and letting me take a photo? You'll have to take your coat off, for it to work its best, so I understand if you don't want to." Mane sighed and removed her coat, then handed it to Cordelia, then went and stood against the wall. Cordelia happily took a photo with her tablet and put it through an app while Mane returned and threw her coat back on. Within seconds, the app gave Cordelia accurate readings of all of Mane's measurements, enough to get just about any garment tailor made for her.
Mane went around looking at the coats. They came in all kinds of colors and materials, though most of said materials proved somewhat too complicated for her to like feeling them on her skin. There were fancy petticoats, the thick heavy sports coats that were the only male dress wear she actually liked having on, and even rain coats (odd for a spaceship, but whatever). She decided on a thick heavy button down sports coat.
"So, do we like, just take it? I don't see any on shelves or racks," Mane asked awkwardly. Her hand hovered over the coat's shoulder, wholly unsure whether or not she was allowed to touch it. This got a laugh out of Cordelia, who regarded Mane with a fond smile.
"We ring this bell," Cordelia explained, tapping a button on a nearby counter. Her tablet beeped. Less than ten seconds later two girl florets appeared, both smiling and wearing identical suits. "She'd like that coat please. My tablet just gave her measurements. Any specifications, dear?"
"Oh, we'll attend to that," said one floret with a wink. She walked, almost sidled, up to Mane with an inviting grin. "Do you want it to come down to your waist? Your thighs? Just past your knees perhaps?"
"Big or small buttons?" Asked the other. "Perhaps you'd like a design on them, of your favorite affini or an animal or your significant other? Maybe your name?" The two crowded Mane into a nearby changing station...looking...thing. She flashed looks of agitation towards Cordelia but they did seem to be mostly jovial ones. After she was brought inside the two florets had her answer lots of questions, posed in a far more orderly and considerate way than that initial barrage of them had been. She showed them where it should reach down to, how long she wanted the sleeves to reach, and what kinds of buttons she wanted (big and plastic to make buttoning them easier).
The process was only about ten minutes long but the constant energy and enthusiasm radiating at her from two strangers made it feel like it took much longer. When Mane emerged from the booth with a slip letting her know where to retrieve the finished product, how long it would take (about two minutes), and what number it would be labeled with, she seemed almost dazed. She didn't even question or resist or hesitate when Cordelia slipped a vine into her grasp.
"Let's check up on the others," said Cordelia.
"Okay," said Mane.