“Oh, hi there, Sara!” the voice from the screen rang out. “Is everything alright? Your background is moving a lot.”
I gasped for air, and then frantically replied, “Teddy, I’m on my way to the train station, please tell me Dr. Salix is around, I need to talk to hir.” My footsteps were louder than I’d like them to be, even on the grass pathway; hopefully, I didn’t stress them out too much.
Theodore’s image turned around on the screen and looked about for a second, before turning back towards me and chirping, “Ze is making lunch right now! Should I pass the call over?”
“Um. No. Please. Just, tell hir that I’ll be there in like twenty minutes and it’s–” I paused, trying not to say the word emergency. “It’s important. If ze’s free.”
“Well, if it’s important!” They turned back around again, and called, “Mx. Alba, it’s Sara. She wants to know if you’ll be free after lunch for something important?” There was some unintelligible chatter from the background, followed by them turning back to the camera with a big smile. “You’re all set! Um, are you doing okay?”
“Yeah,” I lied. “Later,” and then I ended the call before I could freeze up any further.
Fuck. Teddy was a floret. And Salix was their… oh no. Oh fuck oh no. This was a bad idea, there’s no way I could trust hir about this, I–
No. Don’t panic. Just, keep running. I had a plan, and I had a destination, and I sure as hell couldn’t talk to anyone else I knew; Illaria was off-limits, and Tabby was… my brain just bounced off the subject. And then I remembered what Illaria said about there being a third one of me, suddenly realising exactly why my brain was bouncing off of those memories, and then the ground was a lot closer and a lot wetter than I remembered, and then I felt the touch of a vine on my ankle and I flinched.
"Don't touch me," I choked, and then felt guilty and added, "please."
“Oh, sorry!” the strange voice behind me sang. “Are you alright, dear? That looked like a pretty nasty fall; is there anything I can get you?” I strained my head around, and there was another affini reaching out to me—not one I’d met before, this one with light-coloured wood built into its body, leafy and forest-y and exactly the way Illaria was not and trying to touch me and oh god I was crying a lot.
They leaned down a bit further and asked, “Do you need me to get you to your owner, sweetie?”
“NO,” I said, and then “I’m sorry,” and then “I’m so sorry,” and then, “I… don’t have an owner. I’m going to the train station. To see my doctor,” through a series of ragged breaths and sobs and burying my face deeper into the grass.
Minutes later, when my tears had all left my face enough that I could wipe my face and sit up, that affini was still there, and I jumped back a bit.
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to touch you again if you don’t want to,” they said, making a point of holding their hands behind their back. “I didn’t know that that would upset you, but I should not have done it, and I apologise. But you seem like you need to not be alone right now, so if you’d like, I can walk with you?”
I sniffled, and replied, “I… I don’t want to take up your time. I’m sure you’re very busy.” They simply beamed back at that, though.
“Little one, I know that we just met, but you are feeling sad, and so there is nothing more in this world that I would rather do than help you feel better as best I can. The worst you’d do is make me go out for another lovely little walk to the library tomorrow.” Their voice radiated such intense sincerity and kindness that it was impossible not to believe them.
“B-but…” I squeaked, still feeling the tears run hot down my face. “If you’re sure…”
“And I am,” they replied, and that was that. “Can you manage getting up on your own?”
I nodded, then took a deep breath and tried to steady myself for a moment, slowly moving my weight onto my hands. Then, with a push and a flap, I managed to at least get myself up to my knees, at which point I completely failed to adjust for just how much weight I suddenly had pulling me backwards and very nearly fell back down onto the ground. God, I probably looked so pathetic… I was so pathetic.
Okay, no. Don’t cry now. Please, please just stop crying.
“It’s alright, you can cry as much as you need to,” the affini said, their voice coming out of nowhere and startling me enough that I did actually lose my balance and fall over. I was so glad that all of this grass was soft enough that it didn’t actually hurt, but…
When I did manage to actually pick myself back up again, dusting off my hands and palms and flapping my wings clean, they were still waiting there, that same patient smile across their wooden face. I took a deep breath, did my best to clear the thoughts from my head, and kept walking forward.
Just, step. Step. Keep walking. I could do this on my own. I didn’ (mi wile ala weka e jan ante)t need to think. I just needed to go. Step. Step. Down the ramp. Into the train. Sit down.
Only once the train had started moving did I look up from my own head and realise that that affini was still with me. They were sitting a little bit away, clearly maintaining a respectful distance, but still gently looking down at me and not saying a word. “Thank you,” I whispered, wary about letting myself feel too many emotions at once.
“Of course, dear. How many more stops?” I only just noticed that their mouth didn’t actually move when they spoke; the whole lower half of their face didn’t even seem like it could move, being just a single delicately-grown piece of wood stitched into the rest of their body. It looked kinda… Nope. No feelings. I nee(this definitely isn’t actually healthy)ded to just do what I was supposed to.
“Three. Hir office is right outside station 48E.”
I swear, if I didn’t know any better, I’d’ve sworn their smile got even wider. “Then would you like to rest for a bit until we get there?” they innocently asked. “I’d be more than happy to keep an eye out for you.”
And suddenly, the dam burst.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m so sorry. I just want to feel normal and I don’t think that’ll ever happen and I just feel so scared and hurt and I shouldn’t even be telling you this but I think my best friend hurt me or maybe I hurt myself and maybe I can’t ever fix it and I don’t know what to do and…” I took a deep breath to try to collect myself, but instead I just broke down even further, wrapping my wings around myself and trying not to panic. Any harder than I already was, at least.
I peeked out through my feathers. The affini was still there. “What am I supposed to do?” I asked, desperation pouring through every word. “Who am I supposed to trust? To believe? To be?”
“Little one, those are very big questions, and I’m not sure I can tell you the answer to any of them,” they gently reassured. “But if you’re on your way to meet with your doctor, that sounds like it will help you find your own answers. And until then, you do look like you need rest.”
Okay. I could do that. I cou(mi wile kute e jan Ila)ld take advice from a stranger. I just needed to lean my head against the window for a minute and… rest… for a bit…
When I eventually got shaken awake by my impromptu travel partner, I instinctually got up out of my seat and hopped onto the platform, and before I had the chance to say thank you the doors were closed and the train was quickly racing away.
Well, hopefully I’d get the chance to see th(her)em again.
As soon as I made it into Salix’s office, I dove for the sofa and curled up in it.
“Sara? Is something the matter?” ze asked, still walking over to hir chair and understandably very confused. Of course ze didn’t understand, ze probably wanted to hurt me too, this was a mistake, I shouldn’t have come here, I needed to– “Sara, could you talk to me, please?”
I shook my head, and then immediately regretted it and tried to actually say something, which proceeded to not work at all. Instead, I just settled for wrapping my arms tighter around myself and whimpering, which didn’t seem to appease Salix much at all.
“Alright,” ze said, having now settled down fully and looking down at me. “I can tell that you’re still very stressed, so I’m not going to pressure you. If and when you feel comfortable answering, just nod your head; I’d like you to not leave the room until then, so that I can keep an eye on you, but I assure you that you’ll be safe and well-cared for as long as you’re here.”
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, and then panicked and held my jaw shut. If Salix noticed, though, ze didn’t indicate it at all, just still sitting patiently in hir chair.
I wasn’t sure how long I ended up spending laying there, but after a while, I couldn’t help but relax, my body gently giving out after that much constant stress. I felt suddenly scared and vulnerable, and then those feelings faded too as I remembered where I was. Salix wasn’t going to try to hurt me, ze wanted to help me, and I just… slowly and deliberately nodded my head.
Ze caught the gesture and replied with a gentle smile, and then with, “Thank you, Sara. Could you tell me what brought you in on such short notice?”
“It’s hard to explain, but I’ll do my best,” I sniffled. “I… think that Illaria wants me to be a, floret? Is that the word?”
Salix nodded in reply. “And you don’t want to be one?”
“I don’t know!” I took a deep breath and calmed myself before continuing, “I think that I like Illaria, and I like spending time with her, and I’d be her floret in a heartbeat if that’s all there was to it. And her and Tabby both said that it was also about… being taken care of? I guess that sounds okay. But it just seems like such a very big and permanent thing, and I don’t know that I wouldn’t just end up regretting it. But I’m not sure I have a choice now? I’m not really sure what I should be feeling, honestly–”
Salix held a hand in the air, and I stopped in my tracks. “Could you clarify what you mean, about not having a choice?”
“Um. Illaria said she was going to have me sign some forms about it? I wasn’t really following that clearly, my memory is kind of fuzzy.”
“And you haven’t signed them yet, have you?” Ze tapped a few times on hir tablet and looked down at the screen for a moment. “At the very least, it looks like they haven’t been submitted to the records office,” ze said, turning back towards me; “I think that that means it’s still up to you.”
I stammered back, “B-but, I don’t want to hurt Illaria’s feelings,” and Salix just shook hir head.
“If you’re not ready for this, then saying yes would just serve to hurt you,” ze patiently explained. “It’s very sweet that you want to avoid causing any sophont pain with your actions, but sometimes we are placed in situations where it is unavoidable, and if you want to minimise your hurt, I guarantee that Illaria can weather a rejection better than you would the loss of your independence before you were ready.”
“I-independence?” Suddenly, the scale of what happened started to bear down on me, managing to push past my exhaustion and get my arms shaking, just a little. “Salix, what… exactly, does being a floret entail?”
“More than I can possibly explain,” ze replied. “But I’ll do my best.”
The vines around hir torso pulled apart, and inside hir body, clinging tightly to a branch, was Teddy. Salix gently grabbed them in hir arms, spinning them around to show the dazed and happy look on their face, and then reformed hir body and held them tight in hir arms.
I very nearly gasped at the sight.
“To be a floret is to completely give oneself up to an affini,” ze said. “A floret is property, a toy, a personal possession of the affini who owns them. They have exactly as much autonomy as their owner gives them, and no more; they forfeit their political rights in the Affini Compact, and do as their owner wishes.
“And to own a floret is for an affini to fully devote oneself to one’s pet, to ensure that they are cared for, nurtured, and loved as much as possible. An owner is to a floret friend, partner, teacher, caretaker, safe haven, and so much more; a floret never wants for anything in their life, because their owner provides them with everything they could possibly need, helps them to live the best possible life that they can.” Ze gently stroked hir floret’s head, and they let out a gentle giggle, a big smile still plastered on their face.
Then, Salix turned them around, revealing a little clasp on their collar; reaching down with a single catkin, ze unclasped it, revealing a small incision on the back of the terran’s neck. “And as part of this symbiosis, a floret receives a little part of their owner. A Haustoric Implant, to merge into their nervous system, help them grow the way their owner wants them to, pull the negative thoughts and memories from their brain so that they are never again hurt.” Ze reattached the collar, and finished: “And if you can live happily and healthily on your own, and you would not feel comfortable with that arrangement, then there is not a single sophont in the Compact who would compel you to be a floret.”
I slowly blinked, very much struggling to process any of this. This was all… so much more than I could possibly have anticipated.
It was definitely scary to think about giving myself up like that. I hadn’t even been on this ship for a month, and I was actually enjoying my new-found freedom—well, technically not completely free, but I certainly had a lot fewer restrictions than I ever did with my parents or on Evea. But Illaria was definitely good at making me feel happy, and if I needed that freedom, then she’d give it to me? But as much as I wanted to trust that all of that was true, and I absolutely did, I didn’t know for sure, and that definitely scared me. Maybe I was just trying to be talked into it… but that didn’t make sense. I had felt Salix’s xenodrugs before, when we first met; there was no reason to talk me into something if I could just be–
“Hypnotised,” I whispered, memories clicking into place in ways they definitely shouldn’t have. Raising my voice, I hesitantly asked, “What happens if… one of my alters wants that, and I don’t?”
Salix paused to consider the question for a moment. “Well, if you don’t want it, it would be hard to imagine why it would happen,” ze answered. “Would you mind if I talked to Art, though, to get his thoughts on the matter?”
I shook my head. “Not Art. A… different alter.”
“...I was assured that you and Art were the only ones present,” ze replied curtly. I shrank in on myself a little bit; this was the first time I’d ever heard hir voice anywhere close to upset.
“I-I’m not sure? I think Illaria didn’t know about them either, until…”
All at once, the emotions that had been dancing around the edges of my brain snapped into focus, overwhelming my previous calmness and leaving me shaking. “She thought that they were me, and they were saying yes, and she– touching them, and also me, and– and…”
Through my tear-filled eyes, I stared at Teddy, still tight in their owner’s arms, still smiling vacantly without a care in the world. Then I looked up, and Salix was sad.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled.
“You have nothing to apologise for,” ze reassured. “But you are hurt, and I could probably help you more effectively if I had a better idea what was going on. Would you mind if I did a new scan to check?”
I reached up and wiped my eyes clean. “Wh-what sort of scan?” I asked. “I don’t think I ever had an old scan.”
“Then I will have to talk to Illaria about that. A medical scan is what I meant, if that’s alright with you?”
“Of course,” I stuttered. Salix gently tucked Teddy back inside of hirself, and then reached into one of the drawers by the door and grabbed a black metal headset.
“If you wouldn’t mind putting this on,” ze said, passing it delicately to me, and after some shaking I managed to do so. The screen on the inside was pitch-black, and then it suddenly lit up with an array of flashing colours and patterns. I stared at them intently, as the colours pulsed to a rhythm I couldn’t quite identify, and then…
The screen went black again, and Salix made a confused noise. “I don’t think that I’ve seen this hit an error like that before; are you taking any xenodrugs other than the ones I’ve given you?”
“I don’t think so?” I managed after a second. “Or, wait, Illaria did say something about an…”
An antihypnotic. Ze was trying to hypnotise me.
“Um. With all due respect. I think I need to be back home.”
“…If that’s what you think is best,” Salix conceded, still staring at me with a concerned look. “But we should talk more about this during our next appointment; I don’t want you to be stuck in these feelings if it can be helped, and it can be helped.”
I steadily got to my feet, holding my arms and wings close to me to stop any undue shaking, and replied: “Yes, absolutely, thank you. Um. I’ll see you then.”
As soon as I was out the door, I was running away as fast as I possibly could.
Home. I was safe here.
(You’re safe here for now, but Salix promised. Ze’s going to show up if you keep avoiding hir.)
That cosy blue duvet that reminded me of my old apartment, wrapped tight around me. The lights dimmed low, so I never had to worry about looking too hard at anything. All my medications and a water bottle by my bed, the compiler history pulled up on my tablet to make sure I actually took them.
(sina wile ala pona tan seme? sina wile e jan ante, e jan Ila. o toki lili e jan wan. sina wile.)
ValleyFlower: I’m so sorry, darling; I should have taken better care of you, and I let you down. I hope you can forgive me, someday
I was eating and sleeping, still. I wasn’t sure how often, I probably could have checked at some p(at most two meals and four hours a day)oint, but I mostly just laid there. Trying my best not to think about anything, just clinging desperately to consciousness out of resignation.
I didn’t deserve this. None of this was right. Why did random strangers care about me but the people I actually car
UnDeuxTrois: you okay sara? you kinda bolted this morning and i haven’t heard from you since, what’s up?ed about were just trying to use me?
After a while, one of the bottles ran out, and I guessed that meant I was allowed to stop taking it. Then a second bottle I knocked off my bedside table and just nev(o sona e mi! o lukin ala tawa weka e sona sina!)er picked it back up again. The class-Cs I still took, though, as often as I remembered to, out of shaking fear that I would lose myself again.
AlabasterWish: To whom it may concern: this is Dr. Alba, reminding you that the missed appointment from today has been rescheduled to two days from now. Please show up to this one; I’m beginning to get more than a bit worried.
I laid in bed, naked, wrapped under the covers. I stared up at the ceiling, until my vision went blurry and danced with colours and patterns. I idly tapped my fingers to the beat of a rhythm that was slowly fading from my body.
GenerallyGenial: Notice: [ERROR: Title not found] [Error: First name not found] Morgan, independent. A wellness check has been requested for you by: Salix Alba, Ninth Bloom. Please expect my arrival within one day, unless otherwise informed by myself or by: Salix Alba, Ninth Bloom.
I felt… (sad) (scared) (confused) (lon ala) (hurt) (weka e jan)
I felt nothing.
I heard a knock on the door.
“Excuse me, uh.
NovaLux?” the voice chimed, muffled by the door to the outside. Then it sounded again, much clearer and closer: “Is that you, under that blanket?”
Pulling the covers down from above my head, I blinked rapidly as my eyes tried to look at something new for the first time in a long while, eventually focusing on the light brown wooden face of an affini, one who looked oddly familiar.
“Are you… Nova?” they asked.
I shrugged. “Okay.”
ValleyFlower: I hope you’re reading this. I hope you’re feeling alright. I love you so much