Effus turned the corner to the hall where her hab was. Her core immediately turned to ice in her body. Standing there, just outside the door, was the worst thing she could possibly have seen. Arliss leaned against the wall, a tangled mess of only vaguely humanoid arms sprouting from a rich, dark green core. One such arm ended not in a hand like the others (their fingers upsettingly big and fat for the arms in question) but an affini version of a human face. It was pretty, in the sense that a sculpted masculine face might be said to be pretty. Handsome, angular, to the point. The face pointed itself at her. Had he...taken this form specifically to upset Mane? To intimidate her?
Effus extended an arm and, reminding herself Mane didn't want to be touched right now, bent it in front of her ward like a shield. Arliss exuded an energy she didn't like. His face was a peaceful smile, perhaps one a sophont might call inviting, but there was a smug confidence behind it that she could tell Mane wouldn't respond well to. Her thoughts raced. What in space was this affini doing here? The meeting had come to the conclusion that Mane was starting to recover, and she was owed the chance to do it on her own, if she could.
"Hello, Arliss?" Effus asked. "What brings you here?" She felt something stir inside of her. Mane was afraid of him. She was...looking at him...how she had looked…
"Hello, Effus," the shambling mass of arms said as it approached, his limbs carrying him forward by moving in full rotation like a wheel. The arm sporting his head reached up and around. Its movements weren't dissimilar to that of a long-necked turtle. The head tilted to point downwards, its eyes aimed squarely at Mane. When he spoke, though, he was still clearly addressing Effus and Effus alone. "I take it you've been filling out the acquisition requests you've been getting?" There was a genteel malice in his words. "Presumably one could safely guess that a high profile sophont like her is getting at least a few?"
"I've fallen behind," Effus grumbled. What was this about? "She seems comfortable with me." A realization hacked at her roots like a spade. WAS Mane comfortable with her? The days together had been so perilously rocky...she thought Mane did to some degree, recently at least, but was she? She could hardly ask right now, though- Mane would feel coerced to say yes, and that would poison the well for later. She'd feel a need to stubbornly double down on it...and it would be nobody's fault but Effus's.
"She seems to be? That leaves a lot of room for questions. An owner should be decisive and-"
"Fuck off!" Both affini froze. Mane had her hands in her coat's pockets. The fear seemed to be gone from her, replaced by anger. "If you care so much about my fucking wellbeing, then ASK ME YOURSELF!" Effus tried not to let her bark peel at the sight of Mane moving and hunching over to hide herself even as she tried to stand her ground. Poor thing…
"I see your ward's temper hasn't improved. That's hardly reassuring," Arliss mused with a cruel smile. "What kind of burden must she be carrying on those little shoulders, that she'd speak such vulgar words to an affini- in front of her owner, no less!"
"I'm not," growled Effus, "her owner." She put another vine in front of Mane, then two more. Three more. She wanted the little one to understand that Arliss could not touch her, not with Effus here. "She is my ward."
"Ward, floret, all such trivial distinctions." Arliss chuckled. His mouth didn't move when he vocalized, but his core did. "A silly little stray in that much pain needs more than kind words, Effus."
"And you think scaring her like this makes you look better?" Effus noticed that Mane was staring angrily at Arliss's core. No, little one, she silently worried in her head, don't do it, please just hold out a little longer. "With all due respect she's made wonderful strides already! Mane doesn't need to be drugged!"
"Ah, you believe that," Arliss laughed again. "But I am older, and wiser, than you. I broke my fair share of hard headed feralists in my day, but none were as wild as this adorable little stray." His expression darkened. "Is what I would say if she weren't a danger to every other floret on the ship."
"She's harmless!" Effus snapped back. "Today she met a sad floret in the arcade and helped her look for something she lost! And then-" fuck. Effus had given away too much. Arliss snapped onto this handhold like an alligator.
"And then?" He laughed. "Do tell, what comes after that?"
"Enough!" Mane shouted. Her hands started to leave their pockets and she stepped forward. Effus gestured with her curtain of vines to stop, and Mane seemed to be dissuaded. Nevertheless, she maintained her angry snarl. "I've had a bad day and I'm not in the MOOD for two affini to fight over me! So forgive my language, Senior Fuckhands, but go the hell away!" Effus stifled a laugh. Arliss cast an annoyed look down at the human- seeming to properly be affected by her words for the first time that conversation- and then loosed an alien noise that resembled a simulation of a sigh.
"Consider getting a muzzle for your beast." Effus felt Mane tense up with regret. Protective anger swelled up in her. NO, YOU DON'T GET TO DO THAT TO HER.
"I'd never dream of it. Her voice is *lovely.*" Arliss wheeled off, huffing to himself. Effus whisked Mane into her hab.
"Good damn riddance," Effus sighed. "Hey, Mane, that- that seemed rough, are you okay?" She extended a vine gingerly for Mane to take it. Mane smacked it away.
"N-need alone," she whimpered and ran into her room. The door shut and locked behind her and she started sobbing from the other side. Effus stood outside the door, feeling deep pain at not being able to help.
"That damn…!" She would wring Arliss out for this! How DARE he! She was taking a while, yes, and...there WERE things to worry over, about her care, but this was not one of them! She wanted to hug Mane, cradle her, tell her she was safe from Arliss and that everything was going to be okay, but-!
"Airy?" Aria came bounding over.
"Hello mistress! What...happened, with...Mane…?"
"It's a long story…" Effus mumbled quietly. "Another affini came up to us and he was...really, really mean to her, to put it lightly. Could you...help me cook something she likes?"
"Yeah!" Aria squeaked. "Melody said she likes tacos, can we make tacos?"
"I dunno, well...hmm. Yes, let's do that." .
"Yay!" Aria did a little twirl. "Can we invite Melody?"
"Well…" sure, why not. "I'll ask Cordelia if we can borrow her again. I don't...think she would mind too much. I hope not, anyway. Perhaps…" Cordelia had only recently taken her second floret. She probably wanted time to adjust before even thinking about a third. And Mane wasn't just another floret, either, the girl was a desperate, scared little thing with a wounded heart. "Hey, Mane?" She cooed at the door. "We're gonna make tacos." No answer. "You like those, right?" No answer. No matter. "That's okay, we'll save you some. You can eat in there if you want, ok?" Nothing.
Ursula was flying high. She skipped and twirled through Erias’ clinic, delivering paperwork and refilling stationery and singing all the while to herself as she did. She kept picturing that absolutely massive muscular lady from the previous week in her head, and the fact they’d agreed to go on a date with her still hadn’t properly sunk in. She was still happy enough to purr and chirp as she zipped about tending to her work. When Erias entered the clinic, she warmly regarded Ursula with a fond expression.
"Has something garnered your excitement, Berry?" Erias cooed. She lifted a clipboard and reviewed the paperwork on it, which was her schedule for the day. "A cute pet in your future?"
"Big powerful girl!" Ursula flexed one arm. Erias chuckled. Her voice was low, rumbly, and powerful. It had a very distinct vibe from most affini, which was part of why Ursula gravitated towards her. Of course, being a pet hadn't worked out- but she did get an adorable pair of bear ears from the ordeal, which in her eyes was well worth it. "Daisy, from the other day!"
"Ah!" Erias laughed again. "I was about to say, usually you're the big muscle girl. But I guess that's a hard niche for a Terran to fill competing with her, isn't it?" Both of them shared a brief, energetic laugh. Erias turned towards her office. Ursula's tablet beeped.
"Oh, I," Ursula frowned at the device. "It's M-I should really go take that,"
"Then go take it," Erias purred. "You're excused. Not that you need to be." The two shared a meaningful nod and then Ursula scurried off, her tablet rapidly absorbing all of her attention. The message was from Mane.
Mane Dee Dog: poke?
Mane Dee Dog: I'm not feeling okay
Mane Dee Dog: An affini was a dick and I'm sobbing
Ursula found what she had once affectionately dubbed "the panic closet" (she was better now) and hunkered down inside it. Then she tapped at her tablet and wrote out an answer. An anger set in as she did.
Ursa Pager: Oh no!!!!!
Ursa Pager: It wasn't your "caretaker" was it
Ursa Pager: I'll have you taken from her in a heartbeat, if I get my hands on her I swear to god
Ursa Pager: (who is dead)
Mane Dee Dog: no, i
Mane Dee Dog: it was another affini
Mane Dee Dog: big scary one with a bajillion arms and a weird fucked up facehand and
Mane Dee Dog: he told Effus to muzzle me and
Mane Dee Dog: fuck
Mane Dee Dog: he's really insistant she just drug me into compliance ;;-;;
Mane Dee Dog: he was insistent my proper adoption's taking toolong what if he gets me im scared
Ursa Pager: GRRR
Ursa Pager: can I talk to Erias about this sweetheart?
Ursa Pager: he won't lay so much as a leaf on you, cub.
Ursa Pager: I promise.
Mane Dee Dog: *sob*
Ursa Pager: There, there, darling. Is it okay if I visit?
Mane Dee Dog: h uh?
Ursa Pager: I don't trust an affini would be able to help you right now
Ursa Pager: not with...your current caretaker's track record, especially
Mane Dee Dog: effus is getting betternow please don't hurt her..
Ursula typed out a few different drafts of her next message before she settled on one that was...considerably gentler than the previous ones had been. They had been jests, assuredly, but it still felt like a bad idea to say them out loud. To broadcast them, then, promised to be even worse.
Ursa Pager: if you wish it so, I shall not. I'll be there soon, okay?
Mane Dee Dog: u don hav to..
Ursa Pager: sweetheart.
Ursa Pager: you're scared, and hurting, and I love you.
Ursa Pager: I'll have Erias let your caretaker know I'm coming
Ursa Pager: do you think she'll let me wear the claws
Mane Dee Dog: U R S U L A
Ursa Pager: I know, I know. I hope that at least got a giggle?
Mane Dee Dog: maybe a little..
Mane Dee Dog: youcantellEriasjustpleasedonthurteffus
Ursa Pager: I promise, if you insist
Ursa Pager: I'm gonna talk to Erias now, ok? I'm here I'll be there soon
Ursula put her tablet away for a moment and pursed her lips angrily. She wanted to find whichever affini made Mane cry and drive them off to a lonely corner of space to be alone forever...but alas, even a floret had more functional political power than she did (by pleading to their owner and hoping for the best) and she couldn't hope to hurt him physically. Not that she wouldn't try.
She emerged from the closet and walked briskly up to Erias' office. She entered without knocking, and it got her a concerned look from the unusual-looking affini inside. Erias was behind a desk, sifting through paperwork as affini were wont to do. She seemed, though, to immediately notice that something was wrong and drop the task in favor of giving her attention to Ursula. When she spoke it was with hurt and concern.
"Berry, dear, is something amiss?" Erias asked. Ursula finished stumbling into the room and came to a stop leaning over Erias's desk with her palms on it.
"Yes, some dickhead affini harassed Mane," she growled. There was a time when she would sooner be caught dead than risk verbalizing anything negative about the affini, in plural or otherwise, around the plant in front of her. Those days were behind them now. Erias was reasonable. She understood. "A masculine one, from the sound of it, if that-"
"Of course," muttered Erias. The ends of her vines-the ones currently forming her digits- sharpened and grasped angrily at the edges of her nice wooden desk. "Of course he goes and tries to push things along himself, uuuurrgrraaaah!" Hearing Erias angry was rare but, for Ursula at least, it had progressed in the last year or so from "an almost unthinkable horror" to "highly unusual and pretty upsetting." "I know exactly who it is, Berry, he tried to appeal to me first-"
"And you told him to fuck- I mean, you told him to go pollinate himself, right?"
"In more polite terms, assuredly, but yes." Erias pressed a thin hand made of tightly entwisted vines, all wriggling erratically in ways and patterns independent of one another, against her forehead. "I can't believe that ignorant upstart- you know what, that can wait. Is Mane alright?"
"No," Ursula muttered. She still sounded angry, but now it was an anger stained by fear. "I was going to ask if I could take the day off and go to the Crest to try and, you know, help her."
"Berry, dear," Erias's eyes shined with care and pride, "You needn't ask under the best of circumstances, and these are hardly the best. You may leave, do you know where Effus's hab is in the Crest?"
"I...no," Ursula felt embarrassed that the thought had not occurred to her.
"I'll send you directions and a map," said Erias as one of her hands snatched a tablet and got to work typing into it. "And as for the rule where Effus isn't allowed to talk to you...I'll waive it for today, out of necessity."
"I don't want to talk to her," Ursula growled.
"You may criticise her for her past abuses all you feel is called for," Erias answered calmly. "I think it might do her some good. Just, try not to be too...what's the word? Sadistic? Vindictive?"
"She. Hurt. MANE." Erias paused and the two locked eyes. After a moment Erias conceded.
"Try not to let it bring Mane down, though, if you can? Seeing a long-time companion enraged in her defense and not being punished for it would do her some good, but...we don't want her feeling guilty that she dragged you into it or is making your life worse, like she's liable to if you seem too distressed or angry yourself."
"...I don't like this," Ursula muttered. "Mane deserves to be treated with kindness and respect, and…"
"The same gentle patience she gave you when you needed it?" Ursula nodded. Erias's face warmed.
"You're a good girl, Berry. This old swamp crone is proud of you."
"I called you that one time."
"Yes. But consider: it was very funny." Both women laughed. Ursula's tablet beeped as it downloaded the instructions and map Erias had sent to it. "Now, then. A sweet girl is hurting. Go tend to her, okay?"
"You promise that if Effus ever yells at Mane again you'll get her a better caretaker?"
"And if she hurts Mane physically I'll ensure she never comes within line of sight of a non-affini ever again." Erias nodded her head. "Of course."
"She...thank you. I owe you everything for this." Before Erias could say anything, Ursula turned around and bolted out of the room. Erias sighed and drummed at her desk. "Hey, Cira?"
The receptionist's voice came from her desk. "Yes, Mistress?"
"Call Tea and Ansibel. If they can both reschedule, I might close the clinic for the day."
"Why is that, Mistress?"
"I have paperwork to file and an abusive affini to disempower."
"Absolutely, Mistress. Should I mention it to them?"
"You can tell Tea. Ansibel would probably feel pressured to say yes even if it weren't okay."
"Yes, Mistress. We love you." Erias felt her old, cracked vines wiggle in perfect unison for just a second. "Ursula seemed upset. Should I send something to her hab?"
"No, Cira. That's quite alright. Do feel free to message her later and ask how she's faring, though."
"Yes, Mistress. If you do close the clinic, do you want me to go home and prepare dinner when you'll be home?"
"That would be greatly appreciated, but don't make me any, just make dinner for yourself and the others. I don't know when I'll be back."
"Yes Mistress." Cira disconnected her desk from the device attached to Erias's. No doubt she was calling Tea now. Erias rolled her eyes and stood up.
She hated when affini couldn't be the rotting adult in the room. Was "trust your elders and specialists" not one of the first things these chattering fools learned?
She groaned. She shouldn't have been surprised that a military affini who barged into her office to demand a sophont be made to comply using brute force would then defy her when she told him to chill and stop it, but...she liked to think sometimes that there weren't any affini who balked at her idea that even florets deserved respect. His florets were in danger, were they? Yes, she would say, they were by definition in danger, because he owned them. Should she try to have them taken away, as a precaution? No, that would come across as needless escalation. Perhaps he was a "good" owner, to those who did submit or already had, and he was just so caught off guard by the idea of his florets having any chance at all of being hurt that he dedicated himself reflexively to destroying it.
In any case…
"Both calls complete. They both said they were willing to fill in your empty timeslots tomorrow."
"Excellent." Erias stood from her chair. "Send Ansibel a bouquet of apology flowers, if you can. I'm on my way, let me know when you get home safely."
"Yes Mistress. I love you, Mistress."
It wasn't the words that made Erias happy. It was the...security behind them. The once thin and shaky voice now confident and unyielding. There was no doubt, not of herself or her feelings or her motives. It was the voice of a healthy mind, of someone with a healthy heart. Cira was regrettably going to occupy only a tiny fraction of Erias's lifetime, but the service of helping her- of taking a scared, shaking little sophont and helping them recover, teaching them that they deserve to be cared about and to be cared FOR…
"I love you too."
It made her inevitable passing less tragic. Cira would depart from this life content and loved, healthy and whole. Cira was safe and cared for, and Erias cared back.
That was worth more to Erias than any declaration of loyalty ever could be. It was why, when a sophont like Ursula tested having her implant and chose to starve it, she never minded.
Of course, Ursula was kind of a terrible example. She had only ever accepted it for the chance to grow cute fuzzy bear ears, and only for lack of other equally effective options. Still, the sentiment stood.
Affini like Arliss, though, saw no beauty in the act of collaborative, willing restoration. There were sophonts who preferred an approach like his over her own, and as a younger thing she had always found it perplexing. Now, though, she...got it. Their lives were short and terribly finite. Some didn't have, or felt they didn't have, the strength for her method. Some simply wanted to be better, for whatever definition they chose as their own, as quickly as possible. It still hurt her core to contemplate, but not for the reasons it once had. She exited her clinic and typed up a message to send to Effus.
"Hello. I heard that an affini (and it's Arliss. Correct me if I'm wrong but I would bet his life on it) harassed you and Mane today. I'm on my way to fill out paperwork and speak to him. Could you possibly tell me about the encounter so I have as thorough a grasp as possible of what happened?"