Chapter Thirty Eight: Separation Anxiety
Katie glanced around at the party ongoing around her. She couldn’t do this. She didn’t know anybody here. At the same time, it was important that Thatch, like, actually engaged with the society she was a part of, and the second to last thing that she wanted to do was force her to abandon her checkup to come get Katie. The last thing Katie wanted was to disappoint her owner, though, and she knew Thatch would be disappointed in her if she melted down without asking for help.
Apparently Katie looked helpless enough that she attracted the attention of whichever Varie wasn’t currently busy talking to Serrat and Cici, who quickly broke off their own conversation and moved over to kneel down in front of her. “Hey, Katie, you’re looking a little overwhelmed there. Would you like to be introduced to everyone? Alternatively, over there in the hab we filled a box full of blankets and snacks and you’d be more than welcome to spend as long as you like inside of it.”
Katie couldn’t help but laugh. It was a ridiculous suggestion and exactly what she wanted out of this party just then: to not actually be at the party. “That’s actually really appreciated,” she admitted, with a soft blush. It should have been embarrassing, she thought, to be treated like she was that soft… but she was that soft. The universe had been dangerous enough that she’d had to harden up, but those emotional callouses were softening day by day and maybe it was okay to admit that she was an easily frightened pet.
The difficulties of existing certainly made a lot more sense when Katie realised that they were difficulties meant for the Affini to handle, while she was meant to be in a smaller, more supportive role.
Katie blinked. There was a decision to make and her brain was hitching on it. She reached for her gut feeling and again found it unhelpful. She tried to make the decision on more rational grounds and quickly grew overwhelmed. She stared up at the affini for long enough that they laughed and patted her on the head.
“Don’t worry about it, floret. I’ve seen that look in a cute pet’s eyes before. Are you comfortable with me making the decision for you?”
Stars, please. Katie nodded quickly. The jingling of her nametag was loud enough to draw the attention of the room’s two total strangers. The Varie giggled, wrapping a vine around Katie’s wrist to pull her over towards them. “Come now, sweetie, we’ll introduce you to everyone and then see how you’re feeling.”
Katie nodded rapidly, grateful for a reason to stop her mind from trying to make the decision on its own. “Thank you, Miss Varie.” The animal part of the back of her mind that had once driven her anti-authoritarian streak had been firmly broken in, but if Katie was honest with herself she was mostly being polite to avoid admitting that she still didn’t know which one of them she was talking to. She got a comfortable scritch behind the ear anyway.
The new affini waved as she neared. “Katie! Good to see you looking so healthy. The last time we met you were rather… well, less like yourself.”
“Uh,” Katie replied, trying to filter through her memories with little success. Did she know this one? Katie was starting to realise how scrambled the time before Thatch had broken her was becoming. She remembered the broad strokes and a lot of the details, but how it all fit together was slowly drifting apart. It was all just… the time before she’d been herself. Like a half-remembered dream from some other perspective.
Thankfully, Katie was rescued by whichever Varie had a hand resting on her head. “Ah, how lovely if you’ve already met Avium Prunus, Katie!” In a stage whisper, she added: “You may have met xem through xer work leading most of the hyperspacial engineering efforts on our little ship; recording documentaries and comedy shows with xyr floret; and xey do a lot of the virtual architecture for our digital gardens.”
“Xe and I also did the floret cut of By The Stars In Our Eyes, if you decided to catch up on old Terran dramas,” Avium added.
Oh? Oh. “Oh! Hi! In the engine room! Sorry, that whole day was a lot and I guess I don’t really… like thinking about the time before that if I can avoid it? But hi! Thank you for helping me—” Katie paused. Most of the affini she’d met used she/her pronouns, a handful used he/him, but this one used something else? As far as she knew, gender as a concept didn’t really map to alien life, so they were surely just adopting things to seem approachable, probably? Either way, Katie had no idea what title to use.
The Varie rescued her again with another stage whisper. “I believe xey use ‘M’ as an honourific, floret.”
“Thank you for helping me get back to Miss Aquae, M Prunus.” Katie finished her sentence with a smile and a deferent nod of the head. She held her hands politely behind her back and gave a little bounce. Maybe she could deal with this, actually. The world still felt flat without Thatch here, but with a little help she could still engage with the partygoers. There was a whole new set of rules for how she should behave in this society, but unlike the unwritten rules of Terran conversation these were clear, benign, and helpful. Katie had something to fall back on that was both comfortable for her and socially acceptable for everybody else.
Maybe she could even have some fun getting to know people. Maybe she could do this.
“Well, haven’t you become a well mannered little Terran?”
Katie’s smile faltered and dropped. She looked away, definitely feeling her own emotions intensely now. She tried to keep her enthusiasm going but that one tiny knock seemed to send her into a downward spiral. It was stupid. It was such an easy mistake to make. She did look like a Terran. She looked exactly like a Terran. it shouldn’t surprise her that anybody would mistake her for a terran she was fucking so clearly a terran
the affini was saying something but katie just winced and shied away. how could she be sure it wasn’t something else that would cut through her mental defenses and stab her in the heart
that wasn’t fair
it was an honest mistake
all katie had to do was say and xey would apologise and correct xemselves and everything would be okay everything would be fucking okay if katie could just say
katie was— Oh, Katie was being put into the box. The Varie carried her through to the main room of their hab unit, gently stroking Katie’s hair, and set her down within the blankets. The ‘box’ appeared to be made out of some kind of cardboard, and was packed so tight with blankets that once Katie had been placed inside it didn’t really matter that they were in microgravity because she was being gently squeezed from every direction and thus held firmly in place. A little bag of snacks was tied to one of the flaps, where Katie could reach it. The Varie knelt down, carefully stroking a hand across the top of her head.
“You back with us, Katie?”
Katie nodded, sheepish, and mumbled an apology. The affini shushed her with a sharp tut. “None of that, floret. You don’t want me telling your owner you’ve been self-deprecating, now, do you?”
Katie shook her head. Didn’t want to disappoint Thatch.
“I thought not, so behave. Avium is a big plant and xey’re very sorry for not checking upfront, and xey would like to apologise when you’re ready—but I think it’s best if you stay in here and get some rest until you’re ready to come back out. Nobody is going to think any less of a cute little pet getting overwhelmed. It’s okay to not be used to people yet; you’re still new at it. Now, stay here, nibble, and do whatever you need to relax. If you don’t come back out by yourself then I’ll walk you home when we’re all done, or earlier if you ask. If you do become ready to come out, then just send me a message and I’ll come get you. If you just want to come and sit in on the main event, that’s okay too. I should be in the registry under Zona Varie, Third Bloom. You gonna be okay if I leave you alone in here? I can stay if you’d prefer.”
Katie nodded. “I- No, thank you. Alone sounds nice, actually.” She felt like a dumb, panicky animal, but she was also being treated like one and being put somewhere quiet and still where she could calm down without anything scaring her. She wasn’t sure if that was affirming or humiliating. Possibly it was both.
“I’ll just be through there if you need me, and I’ll make sure nobody disturbs you.” Zona gave Katie a quick tickle under the chin, spent a moment straightening out her hair, and then leveled an expectant look at her until Katie realised she was waiting to be thanked.
“Thank you, Miss Varie.” Even now Katie knew her first name, it still seemed more comfortable to fall back on her new social guidelines. Zona gave her a pleased scritch and left her be.
Katie was hiding in a cardboard box. If they were intentionally trying to invoke stereotypical Terran pet imagery, then… well, it was working. Katie curled up a little tighter and pulled the flaps closed, making for herself a dark, enclosed space to pull out her communicator and wiggle the Thatch petal.
katieflower: hey!! how’s it going?aquaetor: Greetings, flower! I am in the process of having all manner of measurements taken that I have already provided so that the doctor can tell me what I already know. You are a little early with your checkin: Tell me how you are doing.katieflower: yes MIss aQuae! but um, shouldn’t You be paying attention?aquaetor: I am told that entire planetary invasions have been delayed so that the elected general could spent a few minutes with their floret; I suspect nobody shall think twice of me taking a few with mine. I gave you an order, pet.
Katie twitched and fumbled her communicator, sending it slowly spinning away. It took a few moments to grab it and pull it back in. Gosh, she hoped Thatch didn’t think she was being slow.
katieflower: ys Miss sorry Miss! Miss Aquae, i mean, um, dirtaquaetor: You are very cute. Get on with it.katieflower: uhhh i got here okay! met cici and somebody i don’t know and we went to lily’s shuttle, or, i guess xona and zylem’s shuttle?aquaetor: Usually it is the affini in the relationship who own the domicile directly, yes, though as ownership is a transitory relationship it ultimately makes little practical difference.katieflower: …Thatch was that a flirt? that might be the worst flirt You’ve ever doneaquaetor: Did it work?katieflower: yes, but!!! um,, dirt this isn’t fair
Katie was smiling. It wasn’t the same as having Thatch by her side, but having a line of communication open helped. Some of the colour had come back into the world.
aquaetor: :::Paquaetor: Continue with your story.katieflower: oh um, so, i had a chat with cici and i think it might be a little upset with us? i’m not sure it was kinda evasive, but i think it wants to spend more time with usaquaetor: Hmn. It is very cute, I shall reach out and see what I can schedule.katieflower: thank You, Miss! um then i started meeting everyone and i met aviam, one of the people who i got to jump the eletrum to come get Youkatieflower: but i kind of had a bad time ‘cos xe called me a terran and i feel pretty dumb because xey want to apologise and i just locked up?katieflower: but xona put me in the box so i’m cozy at leastaquaetor: Ah. I am sorry, darling. Should I be concerned about ’The Box’?katieflower: i don’t think so, it reminds me of my cave. just, kinda, warm and darkaquaetor: At least you are being treated correctly, then. Would you like me to come pick you up?
Katie leaned back, staring into the darkness for a few moments. Did she? She felt calmer now, at least mostly. Just getting to check in was doing a lot for her mood. Any amount of contact with Thatch, honestly. It was getting harder to avoid the conclusion that Katie had a strictly limited capacity for being away from her.
No. Katie felt more stable, and she did want to make new friends. The day could still be rescued, maybe?
katieflower: i don’t think so, unless You disagree ofc. talking helped. i think it could be nice to go back out and try to say hello again? lily said i could probably help with their rocket and,, i mean,, i dont kno what that means but it sounds cool?katieflower: xona helped too, she was nice and didn’t pressureaquaetor: Very well. You’ll check in in another half hour, though it does not have to be much. Just show me a smile if you’re having fun. If you can’t check in, or send me something bad, I’ll be right there, understand?aquaetor: I shall confer with your host and see if I can have things made more suitable for you. My appointment is proceeding expediently, so I should be attending myself later into the event.katieflower: yes Miss! thank U, i think that helps
Katie took a deep breath. Yeah. She could do this. Thatch knew about her troubles and was going to fix it. Hearing that Katie had been having a hard time hadn’t been a disappointment, and everything was going to be okay.
Katie spent a few minutes quietly nibbling on the supplied snacks while browsing the ship’s wide collection of floret memes. She had found them utterly incomprehensible as an independent sophont but she was growing an appreciation for them now. They were extremely relatable, with a simple kind of humour that Katie was finding herself drawn to over anything that could claim to have layers. Eventually, Katie sent Zona a quick message. It took a few minutes more before there was any response.
The door opened, letting the quiet roar of the party in for just a moment while Zona entered. The affini paused. “Ah, I see I enter an empty room,” Zona cooed. “Yet I was promised by a very well behaved pet that she was ready. I suppose she must be in hiding. Katie? C’mere, katie katie katie?”
Oh. The box was still closed. Katie started the complicated process of disentangling herself from the blankets enough to push it back open while the affini made a show of searching for her. It took long enough that she still wasn’t quite free when she felt something grab the outside of her box and lift it up, and then a moment later the flaps were pulled open to reveal… yeah, Katie still couldn’t tell them apart by sight, but it was presumably Zona.
“There you are! Such a silly pet, you know can’t hide from us.” She placed a finger beneath Katie’s chin and gently scratched. “I was told you like this, but now I can see for myself that you love it. Who’s a good girl? Is it you, huh?”
This was humiliating. She was being treated like she was some dumb animal. Less than human. Katie squirmed, biting her lip with a soft whimper while she felt the weight of expectation being lifted from her shoulders. She didn’t have to be a person now. She could just be… whatever she was.
This felt different when Thatch wasn’t involved. It didn’t feel bad. Katie just lacked the instinctive trust that Zona would get it exactly right, but there was still something comforting about all the expectations that came along with being a person having been taken away. She looked up at Zona with uncertainty in her eyes and apparently earned another moment of indulgence.
“I’ll tell you the answer in a second. I took a few extra minutes to come over because your owner reached out to me and we had a brief discussion on how we could maybe help you feel more comfortable. Thatch thinks it would be a good idea. I assume you do not disagree.” Zona smiled down with a smugness that Katie was certain the her of two months prior would have wanted to shoot.
Instead, she opened her mouth to confirm that she did not, in fact, mind. She was immediately interrupted with a finger on her lips.
“Shush now, katie. Good pets don’t talk without permission. Make all the cute lil’ noises you want, but I don’t want to hear a word out of you until your owner gets here. Figure out some other way to communicate. That’s rule one for tonight. Rule two is that you’re going to be good and just do as you’re told. The rest of the party knows you had a bit of a hard time and to be gentle with you. Rule zero, of course, is that you won’t follow any of the other rules if you aren’t comfortable—but do you want to know a secret?” Zona’s grin grew impish as both hands entered the box, so that she could scratch both sides of Katie’s jaw at once. The girl squirmed, but she was trapped within the blankets and could do nothing about it.
“We don’t expect you to take the out. If you didn’t have one you’d worry, you’d feel out of control, you’d think you were being forced into this and that you didn’t really want it. So, we tell you we’ll stop at a word, and we will, but you won’t tell us to stop, will you?” The affini leaned in closer, staring down into Katie’s eyes. The alien eyes sparkled in a way that could easily have been hypnotic, were she not already enthralled by another. Zona was so close Katie could feel a foreign beat drilling down into her. She didn’t know how to understand it, like she did Thatch’s, but the presence alone was calming. The world still lacked its colour, but at least there was music. It wasn’t as good as Thatch’s music, but it was better than silence. “Such a good girl. It’s a silly little trick played on a silly little pet. We let you feel like you have control so we can take it away without you worrying. You’re such a simple little creature I can even tell you this, and it still works, doesn’t it? Nod your head. Smile. You do want this. I can see it in every quiver of that little pet’s body of yours. I could see it in your eyes the first time we met, back when you were still lying to yourself. Independence isn’t good for you, and nobody around here is going to make you pretend at it.”
Katie stared up, unable to sharpen her thoughts enough to put together any more competent a response than a breathless nod and a dumb smile. She did want this. Independence wasn’t good for her.
“So, katie, we come back to the most important question of all.”
Zona placed a hand atop Katie’s head and paused. The affini’s music swelled, and Katie could tell she was about to say something important.
“Who’s a good girl?”
Oh stars above, this was so much easier with Thatch. Katie lacked the comfortable fuzz around the edges of her mind that came from feeling her owner’s subtle emotional control. She actually had to think her own thoughts. No, that wasn’t fair. Katie could think around Thatch. Here it felt like so much of her brain was consumed with all the little demands of existing that she had no time left over for anything else. With Thatch, Katie felt like she could do anything she’d been told to do, but was sometimes permitted to simply quieten down and kneel. Without her presence Katie was just an animal and was capable of nothing more.
Katie reentered the shuttle on a leash, or at least a vine curled around the ring in her collar. She couldn’t crawl in microgravity, but she could be tugged along.
As she entered the room Katie got a few glances and smiles but little more. Apparently they knew to try not to overwhelm her this time. Zona leaned down and scratched the top of Katie’s head. “Avium has something xey would like to say to you, katie. Would you be okay to listen?”
Katie opened her mouth to speak, and got another tut. “No words, katie. There will be consequences if you break the rules, so be good.”
There was something about the way Zona was saying her name that felt different. Some subtle change in emphasis that stripped her noun of its proper, like she was just a thing. People got capital letters. Katie didn’t need that kind of pressure.
Katie nodded in response. With a little space, her earlier reaction felt kind of embarrassing. It hadn’t been intentional, and xey knew better now. Katie was taken over to the plant, who went down to one knee and extended a hand out towards her. After a moment, Katie pushed her head into it and xey began to stroke down her hair. Much too gentle. Xey didn’t know how to do it like Thatch did it, but then, Thatch did everything wonderfully. Her strokes were on the edge of what Katie could handle, and all the better for it.
“I am sorry, katie. I should have checked before getting here and I should not have made assumptions. I’ll do better. You’re a very polite katie.” Xey glanced at xyr own floret. “You could learn a thing or two from her, Xe. I bet she doesn’t break her owner’s plates.”
“Okay, first,” the floret protested, “it was plate singular! Second, I refuse to believe anybody called kitty doesn’t break her owner’s plates.”
Both affini snorted. Zona corrected: “It’s katie, but yes, close enough.”
“Thirdly, I can fix the plate! I went to pottery classes, don’t you know!”
Avium squinted down at xyr pet, clearly skeptical. “Really? When?”
“Before your time. I got some good footage before they caught me, too!” They grinned, then reached out to scratch behind one of Katie’s ears.
This was… actually quite nice. Katie was present, even a little involved, but she wasn’t being expected to take an equal share of the conversation.
Well. Equals, remember? No such thing. Everybody deserved to get the accommodations they needed without being burdened by equality. Katie let her eyes slip closed as she leaned into the petting, mumbling wordless sounds of appreciation.
Once the scratches were, regrettably, retracted, Katie leaned forward and headbutted the other floret, telling them exactly what she thought about their joke. The affini present cooed, petted, and laughed and it was treated like a contribution to the conversation.
Non-verbal communication was in many ways much easier. Katie didn’t need to think about it. She could just do. Avium and Zona talked, catching up with each other, but made sure to weave context and details into the conversation that they must already know. It could only really be for the benefit of the florets present. They left plenty of spaces for input as well, be it quips from Xe or appreciative coos from Katie. Avium was apparently the ship’s best architect, which sounded boring until it was revealed that the ship had a whole virtual reality double filled with impossible geometry, as well as the affini considering starship-scale jump drives to be a mere matter of hyperspace architecture. Xey also apparently had a fan following, and Katie dutifully handed over her communicator so xey could bookmark xyr hub page in the Records.
Katie nuzzled against xyr shin and, after a few moments of back and forth, managed to extract a promise they could talk about engines some time when Thatch was around so Katie could actually think straight. Katie figured she’d be able to care about that when her person was near.
Zona, on the other hand, was apparently some kind of explorer. She spoke of nights sleeping in the shade of alien trees on far-distant moons; close calls when a jump into uncharted territory put them a little too close to a pulsar; and one very strange incident where they, a thousand light years from any kind of civilisation, were crashed into by a little shuttle crewed only by one small Rinan who was very excited to have blown their rocket in half. Apparently they’d been inseparable ever since, coming up on seven years now.
Stars above, but Katie was starting to see what Thatch meant. These things were intimidating. One of them wanting to keep her as a pet was a compliment of epic proportions. The idea that she could be interesting enough to be worth their time was intoxicating. The universe was a big and scary place because these were the creatures who were meant to be handling it. If they had found Terra a thousand years prior they would have been revered as deities and Katie could hardly say anybody would have been wrong to do so.
As the stories closed, the conversation came to a natural end. Zona, Katie in tow, wandered over to her partner, who was currently engaged in a lively discussion with Cici’s friend. There had been no florets involved in this discussion so they were all chatting in Affini, and Katie found herself grateful to get to tune out for a bit. All three occasionally paused to pamper or pet her and otherwise Katie got to be present, but not really involved. It wasn’t quite as relaxing as spending time in the box, but to Katie’s surprise she was in a room full of people with three separate conversations all ongoing, and yet she was recovering social energy, not expending it.
It was getting harder to deny the truth that everyone around her seemed able to see. Katie was more comfortable as a pet than she’d ever been as a person. She couldn’t even seriously suggest that she’d been made to like this part. The other florets acted more human than she did. Thatch was having to learn how to treat Katie at the same time she was, so it could hardly be subconscious bleedover either.
Katie reached up and tugged on one of Zona’s vines, then stared up for a few moments until she got attention. The plant’s smile grew sly, as if she’d seen that look in somebody’s eye before. Dirt, she’d apparently ridden a supernova home the hard way, of course Katie was predictable to her.
“You got an answer for me yet, katie?”
Katie shook her head. Thinking was too hard. Instead, she had Zona pull her in closer so Katie could curl up against their chair and rest while the party buzzed around her. She listened to the conversations with a quiet smile on her face, occasionally sitting up and wandering over to one of the other groups to give a little input, though without words her attempts devolved into her getting petted until she forget what she wanted to add most of the time anyway.
Every half hour, something in Katie’s brain twigged and she pulled out her communicator to send Thatch a little “:)” and got a little “:::)” in return each time. She could always retreat back to Zona’s side when she needed to recharge, and Katie did, several times, until she eventually fell asleep.
Katie’s eyes opened wide. She sat up, frantically searching the room. The partygoers paused, everybody focusing on Katie while she looked for what had woken her. What was…
The shuttle door slid open, and it was like Katie could breathe again. It was like there was suddenly oxygen in the air; all the colour rushed back to the world; and Katie could finally think. She scrambled, kicking off of something nearby to send herself flying along the ground. She’d gotten the angle a little wrong, so she had to use her hands to keep herself from crashing into the floor, but that hardly mattered.
Thatch Aquae, Second Bloom entered the shuttle, looking a little lost and a little more disheveled than she had in the morning. Katie crashed into her shins half a second later and held on tight. There were laughs and coos from the partygoers, but Katie only had eyes for one right now.
Thatch knelt down to scratch Katie under the chin. Just right. Light enough to do no damage, but hard enough she had Katie dropping deep into petspace just at the touch.
“Missed me?” Thatch asked, after a dry chuckle.
Katie nodded hard, burying her head into her plant’s hand, and breathed deep. “Mmhm,” she whimpered.
A finger hooked under Katie’s collar and dragged her up into Thatch’s waiting arms so she could be carried inside. Once Thatch was actually clear of the entrance, it slid closed. “Well, we certainly are affectionate today!” Thatch’s spare hand ruffled Katie’s hair, harder than anybody else had dared yet not so hard as to hurt. “Who is a good girl?”
Katie gulped. Yeah, no, she knew this one, actually. “Me? Please?”
And all was right with the world.