15. Squeaky Clean

by anna//bool

Tags: #cw:noncon #D/s #dom:female #Human_Domestication_Guide #petplay #slow_burn #sub:female #anxiety #dom:imperialism #dom:internalized_imperialism #dom:plant #drugs #f/f #hurt/comfort #hypnotic_voice #nonbinary_character #ownership_dynamics #panic_attacks #pov:bottom #pov:multiple #pov:top #scifi #sub:the_horror_of_existence_in_a_caring_universe #transgender_characters

Chapter Fifteen

The Atlantis’s Fortune shook. A low boom rumbled through the superstructure along with the grinding sound of tearing metal. Katie ran for her vacuum suit, knowing that she wouldn’t have enough time to put it on before succumbing to asphyxiation if the hull had just been compromised.

Atlantis was a cheap wreck at the best of times. No bulkheads to separate sections; no double-lined hull; just thin, stamped metal between crew and the void.

The old radio in the engineering bay crackled into life. “Looks like things are about to get rough: we’re being boarded. Get your guns, everyone!”

Katie swore, sprinting to the side of the room. The Fortune didn’t even have dedicated temperature control in every room, but each did have a rack of weapons. She grabbed a small laser pulse pistol and held it in shaking hands, pointed at the room’s door.

It didn’t take more than a few minutes before she heard a voice from behind. Shit. They’d come from the other direction. “Drop the toy, doll.” Katie froze, feeling the mild heat of a space-grade targeting laser on her back. Her gun clattered to the ground. “Turn around, hands up.”

The pirate stood before her, apparently alone, with what looked like a whole Point-Defense Cannon carried on a thick strap, pointed straight at Katie. Her heart skipped a beat.

“Yeah, atta girl,” the pirate said. She wore a pretty high-end looking vac suit herself, something that was at least military grade. Possibly better, by the look of the thermal vents and what seemed to be the reflection of a targeting system on the visor’s glass. “Up against the wall, I ain’t gonna hurt’cha. I’m just here for the cargo and fuel.”

Katie stiffened, glancing over at her discarded weapon. They needed that fuel or they’d be dead in the water. The cannon in the pirate’s hands looked heavy, she probably couldn’t bring it around all that fast. If Katie went now, she could—

Katie’s attention was firmly grasped by the click of a shell loading into the barrel. “Nuh-uh, don’t even think about it, girlie. This ain’t your ship, you got no stake in this. Run the numbers for me, how much EM d’you need to reach a port? I’ll not drain your tanks so bad you can’t get somewhere.”

Katie glanced back at the gun, and—Crack!

The bright flash of a pillar of lightning failed to wake Katie. The Crack! of thunder that followed, however, knocked her out of bed like a physical force. She cried out, stumbled directly into a tree and fell onto her ass, breathing hard. She dived for the gun, coming up in a roll and—

No. That wasn’t how it had happened. She dropped the twig and closed her eyes, waiting the five seconds it took for her activity to wake Thatch up and catch her attention. The affini pulled her in out of the pouring rain.

“It’s okay, it’s just lightning,” Thatch said. She had to raise her voice to be heard over the downpour that was crashing around them. Their hard-won fireplace was struggling against the onslaught, though thankfully the lid on their cookpot seemed to be doing its job, still. Katie glanced up to see that Thatch was only half-formed, with her other half holding her sheet of plantlife overhead to redirect the rain.

“It’s just what?” Katie asked. “Thatch, I’ve lived in space most of my life! This is normal?”

Another rumble shook the trees like the world itself was coming apart. Katie squeaked and jumped closer to Thatch, who took the opportunity to finish her bipedal form, holding the blanket of leaves over Katie’s head to keep the rain from reaching her. The plant wrapped an arm around Katie’s shoulders and chuckled. “Natural correction for imbalanced electrical charge in the atmosphere, that’s all.”

The sky broke in half with a blinding light that burned a line across Katie’s vision. She whimpered, shuffling deeper into the protective sheet. “It— It looks like a weapon, are you sure we aren’t being attacked?”

Thatch slowly shook her head. She glanced to the side for a moment and all her various little flowers began to glow, pushing back against the darkness surrounding them. The rest of the forest seemed to have gone dim to protect itself, or perhaps it was simply harder to see when compared to such displays of power. “I am quite certain, do not worry. It will not hurt us so long as we stay near the trees.”

Another strike, this one nearby, had Katie squeezing her hands over her ears. The rumble rattled her vision when it arrived a fraction of a second later and by the time it was over Katie was hiding between Thatch’s body and her sheet of foliage. Katie had to be careful of the thorns, but as she gently touched the less sharp sides of each Thatch folded them away.

“Promise?” Katie asked. This was an unusual perspective to view the affini by, and Katie was in desperate need of something to focus on that wasn’t her dream or the storm. She watched the way that Thatch’s leaves subtly shifted their angles as she took air in with which to speak. A few quickly buzzed back and forth, almost too fast to see, imparting into the air the vibrations that made up speech, though clearly less limited than Katie’s own vocal cords.

“I promise, yes. You know how this works, I expect. What would happen if you put a large area of charge high above a planet?”

Katie squeezed hands over her ears after another flash shone through the gaps in Thatch’s weave. The rumble came a moment later. It still drew a flinch.

“I… um… electrical charge? It would… air is a bad conductor, so it wouldn’t go anywhere!”

Thatch nodded. Katie could tell, through her sixth sense. “Quite so. Now, leave it there and keep increasing the charge. What happens?”

Was this really the time for a physics lesson? Katie whimpered, but tried to set her mind to the task regardless. “It… eventually it’d have enough charge to arc, if there was a connection to ground anywhere, but…”

“But…? Where might we find a neutrally charged ground source around here, Katie?”

Thatch asked as if it were a simple question. In her experience, ‘Ground’ was a kind of wire, usually attached to the aeroframe of a spaceship, that provided a big sink for electrical energy so that circuits could have a charge differential across which to do their work. Where would they find something like that around here?

Katie poked her head out from around the blanket for long enough to spot a pillar of fire briefly join the sky above and the ground beneath. She flinched back, but she had her answer. “The actual ground! That— that’s probably where that term comes from, huh,” she said, feeling a rising blush on her cheeks. “Oh! So it’s— It’s hitting the trees because they’re better conductors than the air. It won’t hit us?”

Thatch nodded. “It won’t hit us.”

Katie crawled out from behind her, finding a comfortable spot where she could lean against the affini’s side. A little bit of tugging was enough to get the sheet lowered to hug against her body. It wasn’t quite as effective at keeping the rain off, so Katie felt a few of the nearby splashes against her face, but it was good enough and far more cozy.

The next strike produced a much smaller flinch, and the one after barely a reaction at all. “It’s quite pretty, actually…” Katie declared, after a while.

Thatch was smiling. Katie didn’t have to look to know that, she could feel it. “Yes, it is. The universe is full of such wonders.”

Katie glanced up, attention captured by a brief rustle, to find Thatch looking down at her. Katie returned the smile.

“I’m gonna try to get some more sleep,” she said, as Thatch’s lights dimmed. “I’ll…” Katie yawned, shifting her position slightly, resting her head in Thatch’s lap as she fell into slumber, trapping the plant in place.

The following morning, Katie was chewing on a bowl of soup. The fire thankfully hadn’t quite gone out during the storm, so while the world around them still dripped and dried, they had a little oasis of dry to hide within.

“This is getting good,” Katie admitted, halfway through the bowl. Thatch seemed to spend some of her downtime each day fiddling with it. It was a meal they could both enjoy, though it was down to Katie to eat enough of the solid chunks to keep Thatch’s consumption of the liquid balanced.

The plant’s smile widened. “Thank you! I am using a new blend of local spices this time, as well as some carefully engineered chemicals of my own design.”

Katie squinted down at the bowl, suddenly suspicious. “This isn’t doing anything to my mind, is it?”

Thatch shook her head. “Flavour only, no significant mental alteration beyond the obvious good feeling from a filling meal. No chemical releases you wouldn’t find from any meal you enjoyed.”

Katie pouted down at it for a moment. That wasn’t quite a no, was it? She shrugged and took another bite. It was good. Satisfying. “How do you usually draw the line between something that makes someone feel good and chemical stimulation? Like, touch naturally feels comforting because of chemicals, right? Where do you put the distinction between that and simply injecting those chemicals directly?”

Thatch shrugged. “We don’t,” she answered, simply. “But I trust you will tell me if I am not abiding by your wishes.”

That made sense. Katie finished the bowl and handed it back, so Thatch could take it over to the river for a good wash. As the bowl crossed between them, the plant took a long look at her.

“When did you last take care of your hygienic needs, Katie?”

Uh. Shit. Katie cringed, pulling in on herself a little. “I’ve been getting the important stuff done,” she claimed.

Thatch raised a vine to Katie’s side and drew a leaf across her shoulder, while taking off towards the riverbank. More respectful of her agency than simply picking her up and carrying her there, perhaps, but the implication was clear. Follow. Katie followed.

“What is ‘the important stuff’?” Thatch asked, while lowering the bowl into the water, just downstream of Leviathan’s tank. Katie busied herself checking on the fish, making sure it was okay after the night’s interruptions, and tried not to think too hard about how Thatch’s interrogation was making her feel.

“Y’know! Stuff! Body stuff. Shaving and- waste and, y’know, the essentials.”

It didn’t take long for Thatch’s dexterous vines to scrub the bowl free of its contaminants, which unfortunately meant she was free to focus on Katie more directly.

She raised a hand to Katie’s jaw, gently resting it on her cheek. “Open wide.”

The cheek quickly burned red, the shade seeming to spread out from their point of contact. “Thatch, don’t be ridiculous! I can take care of myself!”

Thatch’s other hand came up to the other cheek, gently pressing against the muscle in the spot where Katie’s jaw and skull met. It was uncomfortable and tingly and Katie kept her mouth firmly closed.

Thatch’s thumbs came up to the sides of Katie’s mouth and slowly pressed in. Katie could have tried to resist it, but they both knew it would have been a pretense if Thatch had allowed it. As Katie’s jaw opened, Thatch pressed in a little harder with her fingers and Katie reluctantly opened it the rest of the way.

The plant leaned in, glancing around, while Katie tried very hard not to focus on how good her thumbs tasted resting against the sides of her tongue, or, secondarily, the embarrassment of being inspected for something she knew she was screwing up.

“Hmmn,” Thatch rumbled, removing her hands and letting Katie close her mouth back up. “When was the last time you brushed your teeth?”

Katie’s blush did not want to go away. This wasn’t fair. “Thatch, we’re stranded on the bloody deserted Planet Dirt, is this really our biggest concern?”

The affini rolled her eyes, tilting Katie’s head up to face her with a pair of fingers. “I see you have a dirty mouth in more than one way today. Yes, your health is my biggest concern here. When was the last time?”

“Thatch!” Katie complained, practically begging for relief. “Equals, remember?” she asked, hoping to distract the plant with philosophical musings.

It didn’t work. “I expect you to call me out when I am being unhealthy too. When?”

Katie whimpered, speaking in the smallest voice she knew how to produce. “Probably a few weeks.”

Her equal partner’s eyebrows rose. “Long before we got stranded here, then. When did you last wash your hair?”

Katie spluttered a formless protest. She’d given the answer, she’d given this damnable weed what it wanted! Torture ended when you gave the answer, didn’t it?

“Katie,” Thatch warned.

“There’s— Nobody around here can see us! I don’t have anything to wash it with! I have more important things to do!”

Thatch didn’t bother speaking, this time, simply allowing her flat stare to do the work. Katie’s indignation withered. “About a week,” she mumbled.

Thatch’s raised eyebrows asked a question.

“Hey, that one isn’t my fault, it takes a while to wash long hair and ship water was pretty rationed.” Katie could at least be somewhat firm when she didn’t know deep down that she should be embarrassed by this, and Thatch thankfully seemed to accept that justification.

“Next, when did you last wash your body?”

This was unfair. Katie squirmed, trying to step away, but the gentle brush of leaves against her skin made it clear that her lack of restraints was an illusion. She was going nowhere. “Also about a week,” she admitted. If she just answered the questions then this would go faster, right?

“Filed your nails? Or—” Thatch raised one of Katie’s hands to check. “No, clearly just bitten. I’ll not even ask about skincare.”

Katie knew that Thatch was capable of growing taller with each word, and she couldn’t prove that that wasn’t exactly what was happening.

The plant sighed. “Okay, well, we have some time this morning before we can do anything useful anyway. Let’s get you cleaned up.”

Katie took a step backwards. A rustling of leaves provided a firm suggestion she return to her place, and so reluctantly she ended up putting her chin back against Thatch’s fingertips, which had stayed static. “I can take care of myself, Thatch,” she insisted.

“So you say. If I leave it at this, will you remember? Be honest with me.”

“Ah— I—” Katie grit her teeth. Thatch never lied to her, did she? Misleading wording, sometimes, but no lies. Breaking that trust would hurt both of them, at this point. Katie did not, however, actually have to answer the question, so she stayed quiet.

A few seconds later, Thatch nodded. “Yes, as I thought. Come.”

All of a sudden, Katie was released from her gentle prison. She could have refused to follow. If she refused enough, Thatch would relent. She always did. Unfortunately, Katie knew the cursed xeno was correct here, and so reluctantly followed along, down the side of the river until they reached a spot where the water level was high enough for Katie to reach.

Once they got there, Thatch seemed to hesitate, looking momentarily uncertain. “I, ah, I realise the only thing I have which will work to clean your teeth may have a few side-effects,” she admitted. “If you wish, we can do this once I’ve figured out how to filter the sap.”

Oh, goddess above. Have this hanging over her head for who knew how long? Katie shook her head, she was already humiliated enough. “No, I— Let’s get this over with, I feel dirty, now.”

Thatch nodded, then gestured for Katie to come closer while raising a vine that had been coated in some sort of thick semi-fluid. It was mostly transparent, and a pale green. Katie looked up at Thatch with a deep sense of betrayal. “Can I not do this myself?” she asked, wanting to find a hole to climb into and hide. Maybe if she jumped into the river, the current would steal her away quickly enough?

No, of course it wouldn’t. Thatch would catch her before she’d even gotten wet. She was trapped here.

The plant shook her head. “Unfortunately, you didn’t bring a toothbrush and I haven’t a mirror, so this is the best I can offer.” A gentle rustle against Katie’s shoulder prompted her forward, into the jaws of this beast she’d somehow become bunkmates with.

Thatch knelt down, bringing her head just a little above Katie’s own. Thatch’s fingers came up to press into the muscles at the girl’s jaw, tilting her head up so Thatch could get a better view, and Katie knew better than to refuse this time. She opened her mouth.

Thatch’s vine slid between Katie’s lips and began gently rubbing against her teeth. The vine itself was small and, though a little abrasive, smooth enough not to hurt the sensitive skin of Katie’s mouth. The substance on it was a sweet smelling thing that reminded Katie very much of Thatch’s own scent, which was hardly a surprise when she thought about it.

After a moment of ensuring the makeshift paste was properly distributed, Thatch began to brush more thoroughly. Her hands held Katie’s head in place and her jaw open while she worked, making sure every tooth got individual attention. If Thatch’s hands hadn’t been there, Katie had no doubt that she would already have moved, no matter how hard she tried to stay still. The gentle glide of vine on skin felt divine, and some little of the sap had already made its way to Katie’s tongue, prompting little whimpers and pants. It was delicious, almost setting her tastebuds alight with a tingling fire.

It really only made sense for Katie to close her eyes. That way she didn’t have to watch Thatch glancing around, inspecting every inch of her mouth to make sure she was doing good work. Not looking at it at least made the humiliation a little more abstract, if barely. She focused on the sensations in her mouth, the flavour, the smell. She could feel something going fuzzy on the edge of her mind, but it didn’t seem to matter. It was all fine. All good.

After a few minutes, Thatch retrieved her vine. “Spit,” she said. Katie spat, letting the sweet tasting mixture of saliva and sap go free. A container was raised to her mouth and a little liquid poured in. “Don’t swallow, just mix it around and spit again.”

Katie mixed, though she had to fight the urge to gulp it down. As soon as the sap mixed in, the liquid was divine, leaving her whole mouth tingling, longing to feel touch again. Katie’s lips slipped, letting a little dribble down her chin, spreading that soft tingle further. Thankfully, Thatch’s thumb was there to catch it before it could contaminate her entirely.

“Spit, remember.”

Katie spat.

She forced open her eyes. Had everything always been this colourful? She glanced up at Thatch’s eyes and cooed. So bright and captivating, so many colours all slowly moving in their own secret pattern. Maybe if Katie stared for long enough she could figure it out.

After a moment, Thatch sighed. “Ah, a little stronger than I’d expected, then.” She blew out air through her mouth. “I’ll whip up an antidote, one moment.”

She gave Katie a vine to play with instead. The girl spent a moment feeling it, then shook her head. “I’m… okay, no, this is fine,” she insisted. “You did say, and this isn’t much.”

She raised a hand and held it out straight, as proof. It felt a little sluggish, but only a little, and the effects seemed limited to her sensations. Katie was still perfectly able to panic over almost nothing, so it couldn’t be effecting her all that much, and not in any of the ways she was worried about.

“Hair or body next?” Katie asked, to try to hurry things along. The longer this lasted, the worse it would be.

Thatch rumbled. She was still kneeling, and very close by. Katie could feel the hot, humid air that expelled against her face. Her eyes slid half-closed, breathing deep of the subtle aroma. Thatch’s two fingers against her chin elicited a quiet squeak. “Last time, you told me I shouldn’t listen to you while you don’t have a clear head. I should give you this antidote regardless, I think.”

Katie’s cheeks flushed. She spluttered. The damn plant was ignoring her clearly stated boundaries! She grumped. “Yellow,” she said. “I’m fine, really. Head is pretty clear, I can think just fine. Just a bit of tingling.”

The gentle sensation of a leaf brushing against Katie’s cheek drew out a soft gasp, somehow paired with yet another intensification of her embarrassment. “See, fine. I can do some mathematics for you if you want proof.”

Thatch emitted a low drone again. Katie smiled as the air rolled over her. “What exotic matter density would you want to jump a ship like your last one from Sol orbit to Jupiter?”

Thatch had a really pretty voice. Almost enough to dance to. Regardless, the question wasn’t hard, and if anything Katie could focus better like this. Her attention all jumped at once to the last input, but that was a lot better than it trying to spread out to cover everything at once like it usually did. “Uhh, one and a half moles per mole of hydrogen,” she answered, after a few moments.

“Huh, really?” Thatch asked. “You seem confident, so let us assume that is true, but… wow is that a lot. Perhaps you’ll get to see the Elettarium’s drive once we’re back, you may actually be able to appreciate the engineering.”

Katie grinned. “Thank you, Thatch,” she chirped. “Green?”

The plant nodded. “Hair and body we can do at much the same time. Clear-headed or not, I do not think you are sober enough to be in charge of our ride. I could take you up to where the river is slower and give you some privacy?”

Katie considered it, but shook her head. “If I can’t drive then I don’t wanna.” She grinned up at the plant for a moment. Now that she’d proven her head to be clear, she didn’t have to worry about Thatch thinking her altered, but still had the perfect excuse for being a little bit of a brat. What was the plant going to do, spank her?

Katie’s cheeks burned the brightest red at the thought alone. She jumped into the river.

As expected, ten different vines caught her before she’d even touched the water. “Katie, no. You are still dress— Well, I suppose I should wash your clothing as well, actually. Come on, take them off.”

Katie’s grin fell away. She wasn’t going to get naked in front of this thing? “I, hang on!”

Thatch rolled her eyes. “Katie, there is nothing to be embarrassed about. I am a sapient plant from another galaxy; I can assure you that clothing or not makes little difference to how unique and squishy you seem to me.”

Did that help? Did that make it worse? It was impossible to tell, especially with ten little points of tight contact massaging tingles into Katie’s flesh with every tiny motion.

“Well, I can hardly take my clothes off here, can I?” Katie asked, though quickly realised that that wasn’t quite true. She actually had an awful lot of mobility. She was being held in place, yes, but if she tried to move a limb then the vine grasping it would barely take a moment to register that and move. It was like wearing a little suit of powered armour. A little more embarrassing, but like Thatch said, it was hardly like this was something that made a difference to her. Katie used her freedom to carefully turn away from Thatch, so she at least had some privacy.

A little grumpy, Katie started pulling off items of clothing and throwing them to the side. Where a vine would have gotten in the way, it was temporarily removed, and then replaced once the item was done. Further vines snatched the items out of the air a moment after Katie had let go. It only took a few minutes before she was naked entirely, and…

Wow, she’d been wearing those clothes for a while, hadn’t she? Just touching them had been kind of uncomfortable. She was filthy. Katie reached out to one of the vines Thatch had hanging about in the air around her and grabbed on, using it to adjust her position. As Katie moved, Thatch made sure there was always a vine like it within reach. The black ones held her in place, but generally let her move her limbs as she liked. The red ones didn’t budge an inch, but instead let Katie position herself.

It was like moving freely under her own power, except both of them knew that it was the exact opposite.

Katie dipped a toe into the flowing river. It was fast moving, but not too cold. As she climbed in, she was grateful for the vines. She could tell from the pressure on her skin alone that without them she would be being whisked away. Katie glanced behind herself, to make sure Thatch could handle it. The creature wasn’t even looking at her, but was instead busying herself sorting clothes, with a few vines tightly wrapped around nearby trees to provide support.

Katie dunked her head under the water. Just the flowing stream alone worked wonders. Her hair had gotten tangled and filthy, utterly bedraggled. Katie ran her fingers through it, wincing every time she came to a knot. Before she’d gotten more than a few inches down, she could tell that she’d be getting nowhere without a comb. Obviously they didn’t have a comb.

“Thatch?” she called, attracting the creature’s attention. She gestured to her hair. “I don’t… really have the equipment for this?”

Thatch left Katie’s clothing in a sorted little pile. She hopped into the river herself, using a couple more vines to counter the increased load but otherwise not seeming to care about the rapid flow. With a soft smile, she raised her fingers and gave them a wiggle. “May I?”

Even with the incredible cooling potential of being mostly submerged, Katie’s blush felt like it was heating her face a few degrees. Not trusting herself to speak, she nodded.

“Then just hold still and let me take care of everything,” Thatch spoke, voice gentle, though still audible over the rushing water. She placed her hands against Katie’s hair, and Katie really hoped the soft gasp was drowned out. Gentle fingers pressed against her scalp, and before long Katie could feel the sensation of a gentle lather being worked up.

“What’s that you’re using?” Katie asked, voice as steady as she could manage despite the way her thoughts so desperately wanted to sink into the massage.

“The same sap,” Thatch admitted. “It’s a very flexible substance.” As if to accentuate the point, a pair of vines joined in, slowly rubbing down Katie’s arms, leaving distinctive bubbles of soap behind them. Katie moaned gently, feeling the same tingle from before sinking in to her skin.

Hands worked through her hair. It wasn’t really anything more than Katie herself could have done, getting the strands good and coated in their best substitute for shampoo and then gently teasing the knots apart. Thatch was, however, very good at it. Katie supposed it made sense, she must be used to disentangling large collections of long strands. Probably that became second nature after the first century of being a weird plant monster.

Katie let out a long, soft gasp as the two vines gently scrubbing her body did their work. Everywhere they went, they left behind a desperate need to feel their touch again, and thankfully they were happy to sate that desire at the same time. It was slow going, almost luxurious. Thatch surely could have done this faster, but neither of them were pointing that out.

As they worked, Katie ended up leaning backwards into her partner, now also apparently her stylist. It forced Thatch mostly underwater, but she didn’t seem to mind, and lying back was very comfortable for Katie. Once all the knots had been worked out of her hair, it was time to move on to the main event.

“You have wonderful hair,” Thatch whispered, as she worked a fresh batch of sap into Katie’s scalp with ten firm fingers. More of Katie’s hair was drawn into the lather over time, until the top of her head was naught but a collection of slightly green bubbles, tingling away. Each bubble that popped took a little stress with it.

Katie moaned appreciatively, nodding. “I’d be worried that you were doing something to me,” she admitted, voice at a whisper, relaxing into the gentle motion surrounding her. “But I did get to visit a stylist once and it was basically this good. Almost.”

The plant chuckled, taking a moment to brush the back of her faux-knuckles across Katie’s cheek, eliciting another soft gasp. “I see we have competition, then.”

Katie shook her head, whimpering softly as even that small movement filled her with more sensations than she knew what to do with. “Noooooo,” she breathed. “I don’t think the stylists could beat your ships.”

They both nodded, taking the point seriously for just a beat, before laughing. Thatch broke the silence that followed, while her fingers sectioned off bits of hair and held them down with individual vines, so she could focus on cleaning one small section at a time. “I am glad to hear that your life has not been constant misery, though.”

Katie tried to nod. A moment of tighter grip reminded her to keep herself still. “It hasn’t,” she agreed. “Just pretty close. Can you believe I had to pay for haircare stuff on the Indomitable? Whole civilisation’s gone and nobody else was using it and they still wouldn’t give it to me unless I paid with money backed by a government that didn’t exist any more.”

Katie laughed suddenly, as the vinepair cleaning her body reached somewhere sensitive. Her head jerked a little, but she was held tight. No ruining this.

Thatch didn’t respond to her laugh except by making sure her vines were more careful. “I would believe that, yes,” she muttered, voice dry even while nothing else was. Even mostly underwater, she managed to produce a pretty nice voice, though it did audibly suffer a little for it. “A lot of species have something like that. Something they never even think to let go of, long past when it makes sense to keep. Looking at the patterns between our various ward species is almost as interesting as exploring the differences.”

Katie felt like that was something she should have an insightful response to. Instead, she only managed an inquisitive moan. With hands against her head and vines scrubbing her chest, how was she meant to do any more than that?

“Mmh,” Thatch replied, most of her focus going elsewhere. “For the Xa’a-ackétøth it was war. They were so happy when we took their automated weapons away from them, as though they’d never considered it an option. For humanity, yes, it was capitalism. A simple fact of life to them, once, yet once we took it away they thanked us.”

Katie tilted her head back, subconsciously following Thatch’s direction, so the affini could start washing the substances out of her. The pair of vines started over at her shoulder, now focusing on cleaning away all traces of sap. She managed to mumble out “Mmmh, yeah, thanks for that,” between softly quivering lips before the sensations overwhelmed her, and she sank into silence. Thatch didn’t seem to mind, and continued quietly explaining all the various iterations of the seemingly unavoidable pattern of sapient life simply not knowing how to handle itself without the Affini’s guiding hand. Gambling, for the Furool; Genetic manipulation for the Hurkín; not being adorable little pets for the Beeple.

Katie simply mumbled an acknowledgment of each in turn. By the time she managed to put together a thought again, she was being carried in Thatch’s arms back to camp. Her eyes fluttered open. “All done?” she asked, voice a little distant and very soft. She was carefully deposited on a warm stone near the fire to dry off. Her clothes were hung on a strand of rope Thatch had tied between two sticks, in a makeshift line hanging near the fire.

Thatch nodded, sitting on her own rock and letting the fire dry off the excess water. “For today, yes. I’m sure it won’t take as long tomorrow.”

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