Erias walked across the Crest with fire in her roots. The wild and unconstrained churning and writhing of the stickish vines that composed her form grew ever more chaotic as she read the account sent by Effus. Lone cherry blossom leaves zipped along the outer edges of her vines at breakneck speeds like singular teeth orbiting the blade of a chainsaw. Her core had lost its usual color and become a lustrous off-white. She smiled politely at all who looked her way, but it was plainly evident her mood was not one of joy. Younger affini gave way before her, for which she made sure to give her thanks each time. She stepped around florets but not without regarding them and taking care not to jostle or frighten the little things. The gravity of her situation was no excuse to be rude, after all.
She rehearsed what to say in her head. Arliss's behavior was, to word it bluntly, not just unacceptable- it was unforgivable. She wasn't just angry with him either, she was…absolutely LIVID. Not just for his blatant disregard for common kindness, but for dragging her into getting entangled in this childish disaster. She had plenty of patience for other sophonts. They lived brief lives, full of danger and betrayal and trauma. Many had their brain's chemistry literally damaged by a lifetime's worth of unjust suffering before it was even finished developing. Affini, though? She often questioned why a species of such longevity produced so much of this needless, insecure posturing.
"Greetings," she said to an affini as she crossed into the affini section of the ship. They didn't answer her, but it seemed like they simply hadn't heard what she said.
"What you've done was cruel, juvenile, and petty," she practiced saying in her core, "And you are going to leave this solar system immediately." That may be too abrupt, she thought to herself briefly, so it was worth reviewing. Did she have the influence to force him out? She certainly knew that her understanding of Mane's situation would outweigh his in the eyes of other affini. She was both an elder and a specialist, not to mention her personal involvement with the specific sophont in question. She could probably get him expulsed if she had to, even if he decided to be an impudent whelp instead of taking her word and leaving. She didn't want things to come to that, though. It would drag out this already embarrassing rootshow even worse than it already had been.
Well…hopefully it wouldn't. Her discussion with the relevant channels on the ARGOS had established that he was understood to be unhealthy for her to be around, and that the bare minimum was he leave and spend a while closer to the core world being taught to better care for other species. She didn't need to confront him, strictly speaking, but it seemed prudent to get it over with. She stepped into the library and nodded her face at the affini who rested behind the counter. This was…her name was Gebram, Erias believed. Gebram Aiz.
"Erias!" Gebram squeaked, shooting up to attention. "Fancy seeing you here- is one of your clients having a panic attack? Oh gosh, I'm so sorry, I usually keep a pretty good watch-"
"No, no, you have nothing to apologize for," Erias reassured as she crossed the counter and slid more than walked over to a panel in the wall. She positioned her body to let an adjacent scanner read her core. "I'm just here to pick up some paperwork. You do excellent work here, I'm sure. Gebram, correct? My memory is fuzzy sometimes."
"Yes ma'am!" Gebram answered, her voice revealing that she felt abundant relief. "May I ask why you're getting it here then?"
"I have business to attend to on this ship," Erias droned at a low rumble. She tapped at the panel's screen a few times and a cavity opened beneath it. In that cavity, a specialized mini-compiler got to work fabricating the relevant paperwork. "Out of the locations where I could do this, this library was the one that required me to go the least out of my way." She tried not to reveal how weary and annoyed she felt, but some of it still slipped through.
"Efficient," Gebram muttered, visibly shaken by the sound of Erias in a bad mood. "Is this about Mane? She comes in here pretty frequently, I've been wanting to learn more about her. Some of the other affini say she's dangerous but she seems to me like she just wants to be left alone and read cute romance novels, I've been wondering why that is."
"Gebram, has anyone told you that it's bad form for a librarian to be a gossip?" Erias's question was asked not with venom but the off kilter amusement of someone giggling at an obscene cloud.
"Right, sorry. Will she be okay?" That question dug into Erias's core like the talons of a wicked bird.
"I hope so," Erias whispered. She took the newly-made packet of paperwork into a tightly-wound hand made of hardened stick-like vines. Erias turned and walked out of the library, and she leafed through the paperwork in her hand as she did. Sure enough, it called for Arliss's immediate debriefing and departure, and had the signatures of-
Eighty seven affini?
Eighty pollinating seven affini?
"How many enemies does this sporecore have?" Erias muttered quietly. The call would be making its rounds for half a day or so, gathering more signatures and undergoing revisions until it could be given a second signature from each affini on board signalling they deemed it complete, then given a stamp of finality. Ideally, this wouldn't be necessary. Just knowing how quickly it had garnered this number would probably be enough to convince him to go.
Plus, there were at least two more names that would be added to it in the next half an hour.
She pondered whether to visit Effus. She wouldn't just impose herself on Arliss in his home like he had for them. At the very least she had to ask Mane what she wanted done first. Would these signatures be enough to show her that Erias could be trusted to protect her? She certainly hoped that they would be.
She decided to ask Ursula.
Erias lowered herself onto a big affini couch out in public and looked at her tablet.
Erri Erri Erias: Hey, is Mane doing any better?
Erri Erri Erias: I intend on going to chew out the asshole who did this but I need to ask if it's what she wants, first.
Erias decided to look again through all the signatures.
Eighty seven affini wanted him gone out of just those who could access the paperwork within that span of what, two hours? How was that even possible? She was fairly sure she'd never seen anything like it.
Mane emerged sheepishly from her room and carried two plates to the sink, where she left them in a pile along with one that was already there (left by Aria, presumably). She was glad not to see Effus out and about. It made this journey less awkward if she didn't have to consciously try to avoid engaging with her. The girl in the coat paced about the living room trying to decide whether grabbing some extra snacks was a good idea. She felt like crunching into, like, some pretzels or something. At the same time though, what if Effus got mad at her for eating in her room?
Fuck it, thought Mane to herself.
She rooted through a cupboard and found a small bag of little hard pretzels (made, as usual, from that recyclable plant material that vaguely resembled plastic). Mane grabbed it and hopped about kicking the air with unconscious joy. When had she last eaten pretzels, come to think of it? She got lost in thought and stood still as she checked her memories. She was…fairly sure she hadn't had any since the affini got her. When the last time before that, though? A year? Two years, possibly? In the end she just shrugged and veritably skipped back to her room to talk more with Ursula.
She bobbed and bounced across the hab to her room, opened the door, and walked in. The ghosts of her encounter with Arliss still hung over her, but good food and better company robbed that foul specter of its power to haunt her. She smiled at Ursula and hopped into bed, sitting up with her legs dangling off the side. Her hands pulled at the sides of the bag's top and opened it easily with a nice, satisfying noise to boot. It was probably engineered specifically for that, though.
"I'm back!" Mane chirped happily. Ursula was standing over by the dresser. She turned and gave Mane a warm smile and the slightest hint of a nod. Mane popped a pretzel into her mouth and munched it down easily. Its crunch was satisfying both on a tactile level and for the sound that came with it, as was the punch of its salt hitting her tongue. Her legs started to gently, happily kick back and forth where they dangled. "Love you, Ursula!"
"I love you too, cub," Ursula purred happily. "You got better quickly. Are you sure you're doing better already?"
"Not at all!" Mane squeaked with absolutely zero of her usual reservations or caution. "I'm one hundred percent repressing it, but I'm not doing it consciously and if I actively dig it back up I'll just melt down again." Mane elected not to dwell on the obvious look of concern on Ursula's face, and instead chose to focus on eating another handful of delicious, crunchy pretzels.
"Cuuuub," lamented Ursula, very much distraught. She ran a finger over the top of Mane's dresser as she thought about what to say. Mane continued to, wordlessly but very much not quietly, scarf down her snack. Ursula's hand bumped into something, so she turned her head to check what it was. "Oh, a plushie! This from your life…you know, before?"
"Yeah," Mane mumbled through a mouthful of hardened wheat, then paused to swallow it. "Melody gave me that for Christmas one year. I don't…remember which one it was. It was the year before the ring."
"Ah!" Purred Ursula. "Is there any personal significance to it, or is it just a lumpy penguin?"
"It's from a monster collecting game we were big into," Mane admitted with a blush on her face. "We first met in my school's video game club playing it, so for Christmas we both got each other a plushie of our own, like…ace." She looked down and twiddled her thumbs, realizing how silly it was. She used to have a lot more, but…they were at her old home. She never wanted to go there again.
"Oh my god, that's SO SWEET…" Ursula's voice rumbled. She looked at the plushie again, this time with a deep respectful sense of fondness. "And you kept it after you broke up?"
"Yeah…" Mane squirmed. Seeing Melody give that much thought and respect to the silly things that made her happy was overwhelming sometimes, but getting the same from Urdula, someone with no personal connection to them, was…she felt cared about in a way that was strange and foreign. Her face burned bright. "I could…never throw away Pengi. I even smuggled him with me when dad…dragged me into doing business with the rebellion. He…means a lot to me." Ursula nodded.
"I'm sure your Penzefen plushie means a lot to her too." The fact that Ursula knew exactly what creature Melody's plushie would be merchandise of, despite her relative lack of involvement with the series, specifically from paying attention to Mane when they spoke, listening when she rambled, remembering the little things that ultimately wouldn't matter beyond their importance to her, even when they hadn't exchanged a word in over a year…
"Y-yeah," Mane looked away. "She kept hers too. How'd you know…? Did she tell you?"
"No," Ursula murmured. "I just know that no one, human being or affini or otherwise, with a pulse would be heartless enough not to treasure a gift from you with so much personal history and care behind it."
"What makes you say that?" Mane asked. Her voice cracked and splintered heavily. Ursula walked over to her and took a seat just to Mane's side. She pulled Mane into a soft embrace, loving and gentle and patient. Mane listened to Ursula's heartbeat: slow, gentle, patient. It was a lot like Ursula herself. The sound was soothing and quiet and soft. Mane's own heartbeat steadily, gently, started to even out to match hers.
"Because," Ursula purred. The sound rumbled out through her skin against Mane's. She could feel Ursula's care in almost the same way she could feel Ursula's arms around her. "You're precious. A sweet, caring girl capable of doing so much, of sparing so much kindness for so many people, despite how much you've been hurt and let down by everyone who should have treated you better." She kissed Mane's head and leaned backwards. The two slowly fell onto Mane's mattress, which was soft and comfy as always, but…it felt even softer and even comfier with Ursula there to share it with.
"But…" Mane protested. "But I'm so unstable, and I hurt people too, people who love me, people who haven't done me any wrong…!"
"Shhhh, there there." Ursula squeezed Mane against her body. One of her hands clutched the back of Mane's head supportively. "Every one of us hurts people they love by accident. It's part of being human. Getting close to people involves learning, and it involves mistakes and hurt, on both ends. That's just…how relationships work. You watched Vivid Gospel Ministrism, you know that. It's the Hedgehog's Dilemma, remember?"
"It didn't originate the phrase," Mane tried to say in protest.
"And 'the world is your egg' isn't from a nineteen nineties animation either, you big dork."
Both young women shared a laugh as the tension in Mane's soul lessened slightly. Things went quiet afterwards. They stared contemplatively up at the ceiling, each lost in their wondering what the other was thinking. Ursula absentmindedly toyed with a length of Mane's hair. Mane nestled closer to Ursula and clung to her.
For a while, they just…existed together. It was nice.
"I missed you…" Mane muttered. She sounded small, weak, vulnerable.
"I missed you too," Ursula purred. "I'm glad to have you back now."