Milliara Xylerem, first bloom, returned from the bioengineering meeting in a panic. It had been a disaster. The plans for contacting the Hessau, those adorable sophonts on the far side of what had been Terran space, were barely a year old. The Affini had known about them for longer, of course, but the Caprifoliaceae and her sister ships had been busy with the humans until relatively recently. Nothing could really get started in anything more than broad strokes until they had some Hessau biochemistry to work with, and that had only been more recently still.
And now Milliara was fucking things up and failing to get their part of the bioengineering work done in time and the whole domestication of the Hessau was going to be delayed because of them and everybody knew it. They were suffering unnecessarily and would continue longer than they should because Milliara couldn't get their shit together. The meeting had been nothing but a slowly tightening ring of contempt and disgust for them; it had been all they could do not to dash out before it even ended, leaves coming off in their haste and despair. They needed their floret desperately. She was the only thing that could help them.
That floret, Karla Rhaman, formerly of the Terran colony Neuheimat and now of the Caprifoliaceae, was waiting in the main ground-floor room of their shared residence when Milliara burst in. "Hey," she said, and then—clearly noticing Milliara's state—said "hey" again in a very different tone of voice. "What's wrong?"
"Everything!" wailed Milliara. They hadn't intended to wail. They had more self-control than this. But it was hard to be cool and collected when your entire life was disintegrating around you, especially when it was all your fault. "I fucked everything up! They all hate me!"
Karla put down her book and walked over to Milliara. "Millie. They don't hate you. I've met Fabacaea and the others—I don't think they're capable of hating someone, let alone you."
"They do! I've had the samples for weeks now and I still have nothing to show for it! Not one good class-D or even—"
"Millie," said Karla sharply. "You're spiraling."
They were. They knew it—had known it even before Karla had said it, really, but knowing and caring were two different things. "Why shouldn't I be! The Hessau are going to—"
Karla raised her leafy green right arm. "Milliara Xylerem, first bloom," she said. "Open yourself for me."
Milliara didn't want to, really. The anxiety was in control now, and they wanted to just sink into the panic, helplessly let it ricochet through their mind and body like a tiny, frightened animal in a hollow log. But Karla was even more in control. Their bipedal form disintegrated in a second at their floret's command. The whole Karla-facing side of them split, vines untangling and branches pulling apart. What had been an approximately human-shaped body was now splayed open, revealing a thick, fleshy mass of succulent in the centre.
Karla's arm had split open in synchronicity, the green humanoid fingers and hand folding back in very inhuman ways, revealing its own core, a vicious assemblage of spines and thorns that had been buried approximately in the forearm. "It's all right," cooed Karla as she stepped inside Milliara. "It's all going to be fine." And she rammed the spikes into the soft watery tissue of Milliara's heart with all her force.
It wasn't really Milliara's heart, of course. They didn't have one, and it wasn't even particularly vital to their continued existence. But it was wired into their vascular system about as centrally as a human heart, and had been made a big, soft, crunchy target for just this purpose. Milliara could feel the drugs pumping from Karla's arm into them, and couldn't actually feel (but could imagine) the way they quickly circulated through their body. The panic ebbed. The world shifted, slightly, all the sharp edges suddenly clicking away.
"Oh," said Millie, dreamily. "That was silly of me."
Karla backed out of them. Their front tried to reassemble itself, but slowly and clumsily. "It's fine," said Karla sympathetically. "It's not your fault that you sometimes feel like that." Her arm reassembled itself too, much quicker and more smoothly. She flexed her plantstem fingers once and then let her arm drop to her side.
It was primarily a prosthesis, of course. It could have been made from any number of things, including simply grown out of Karla's own muscle and bone cultured into a new limb, but Karla had thought that, as a floret, it was more appropriate that it be made of Millie. She gotten it along with her haustoric implant, after all—it wasn't like she wasn't already in some important way part of Millie. But once it was there, more flexible than a human limb both physically and metaphorically, options had opened up.
Millie had always been prone to anxiety, to irrational fear, to compulsive unhappy emotion in a way that the Affini Compact was specifically structured around alleviating. It wasn't like the Affini had any shortage of knowledge in how to deal with this, either, and for the first century or so of their life they had let their fellows help them with it. Maybe that was why they were so uncharacteristically submissive for an Affini, or maybe it was just coincidence; but either way, when they met Karla and fell in love with the calm, centred, commanding human, and made her their floret, they had had the idea of putting Karla in charge of their emotional regimen.
Karla had agreed: "I'll be your haustoric implant back," she had joked, and Millie had giggled happily at the thought. Days and weeks of design of an organ that could synthesize all the biochemicals Millie would need without letting any of them leak into Karla's very different anatomy, and then weeks and months of careful training to get Karla able to control it and use it on them appropriately. And by the time Karla had decided she wanted to leave Terran space and help the Compact find and help new species (and Millie had agreed), it was clear it worked just the way they had imagined.
"How was the meeting, really?" asked Karla, gently. Millie had finally gotten themself back in shape, but somehow wasn't as tall as they had been—was sort of slumping around their floret.
"Fine," agreed Millie, unfocused. "The Hessau are weird. Everything's way too acid, all the syntheses are awkward. Nobody's expecting miracles yet. We have time to figure it out."
"Is that a quote?" asked Karla, smiling.
"Yeah, Fabacaea told me that. It just didn't register for some reason." Millie noticed, distantly, that Karla had twined her fingers—the human left ones—through some of their vines, and was twisting and tugging them. It felt good. Really good. The anti-anxiety drugs wouldn't do that, which meant that Karla had decided, on the fly, to integrate some Affini class-As into the cocktail. Fuck, thought Millie. She's gotten so good at this. I'm so lucky to have her. She always knows what I need and want.
"Thank you," said Karla, with a sharp and extremely pleasurable tug on Millie's vines. Had they said that out loud? Probably. They were on some real good stuff, right now.
"So was anyone mad at you at the meeting?" asked Karla, rhetorically but still with sympathy.
"No," said Millie, happily. "I'm not a failure, and that's an untrue thought that I don't need to listen to. I can ignore it."
"That's good," agreed Karla. She played idly with Millie a little bit more - all that effort to reassemble their shape rendered fruitless by a few moments of their floret's attention—and then said, in a more serious voice, "this isn't working, though."
The drugs had not ebbed nearly enough for Millie to feel fear at that. But a sensation of confusion and a tiny bit of discomfort passed through them. "What—?"
"My haustoric implant works so well because it's in me, all the time. It keeps me calm and centred, and I can't get out of hand like you did today."
"You never had trouble like-" Millie mumbled.
"Not the point," said Karla, waving her hand. "Other florets did, and don't now. I would never begrudge you space or time away from me, but it hurts seeing you in pain like that, and I know it hurts you more being in pain like that. If I'm going to serve this purpose for you, owner" —the word a teasing mockery of its ostensible meaning that made Millie shiver in delight— "either you need to let your colleagues help you when I'm not around, or you need to bring me with you."
Millie could lean on their colleagues, they knew. Any of them would help without hesitation or judgment. But that option had been open today, too, and they hadn't taken it. Asking for help would change nothing in their feelings about them, but in the moment it had seemed so impossible—admitting yet another layer of failure, inviting more imaginary contempt. The alternative, though—
They could already see it. Instead of the usual four or five florets moaning dreamily together in the middle of the meeting place, there'd be four or five florets and Millie. Instead of the imagined disgust, Fabacaea and the others would be feeling a very real, proprietary Affini affection towards them, barely different than they felt towards the other florets in the big cuddlepuddle on the floor. They probably couldn't even report their own findings next time—they'd be too busy being pleased and teased by everyone else in the room, blissed-out and semiconscious. Karla would have to read their notes for them.
"Oh yes," said Millie, anticipation managing to give their voice a little firmness even through the drugs. "Can we please do that one?"