“j—S—you,” Illaria stuttered.
“Nova,” came the response. “They/them. I didn’t know you needed to rebloom.”
She sighed. “It’s something I’ve been putting off for… longer than I’d care to count.” But not longer than she had counted, she silently added to herself, feeling the weight of those seven Terran lifetimes slowly lifting from her petals. “I’ve been doing my best to hide it, but…”
Illaria looked down at her former ward, gently sitting up with their wings outstretched, and felt a gentle and uncharacteristic trembling in the tips of her vines. “What are you even doing here, petal?” she asked. “Why do you want to talk to me now?”
The terran reached out a hand in her direction, and then hesitated and pulled it back before it was in danger of making contact. “Because I miss you,” they said simply. “I still feel hurt, and scared, but I miss you. And I tried to handle those feelings on my own, and it didn’t work. So I needed to see you.”
“No, you didn’t,” Illaria snapped. “You still don’t. There are a hundred thousand affini on that ship, and I guarantee every single one of them would be better for you than me.”
“Maybe,” Nova replied, and Illaria couldn’t help but feel a deep twinge of guilt. “But none of them are you. And as long as I’m independent, I get to make my own decisions, right?”
Illaria was stunned silent, trying very hard to deflect from the topic at hand and coming up empty.
Nova, on the other hand, was certain in their words. “Because I know exactly who I want to be talking to right now. I know the woman who rescued me from purgatory at the hands of the Accord, the woman who’s been on my mind every second of the past two months for good or ill. And maybe you don’t want me, and maybe I won’t want you, but for right now I need you.”
The light in their golden eyes, burning bright and intense, bore through Illaria straight to her core, her mind spinning with the realisation that even after all that heartbreak, all of those missed messages and locked doors, there seemed to be almost nothing she could do to help dissuade the poor terran from this obviously dangerous course of action.
But ‘almost’ wasn't nothing.
“Then you’re too late,” she said, casting her gaze to the newly formed hole in the patch of grass. “I left that woman behind already. Now, if you’ll excuse me, Illaria Biflora, Third Bloom should continue her important work.”
She tried to step away, back into the building, and was stopped in her tracks by a force pulling intently at her waist. Looking down, she found the source: Nova, again, arms and wings wrapped around her as tight as they could manage.
“I don’t believe that for a second,” they spat.
Illaria shook her head. “Believe what you like, but it’s the truth. I would not have tried to avoid reblooming as much as I did if that weren’t the case.”
“Then who are you now?” Nova interrogated, their limbs still holding firm. “What happened to the Illaria I knew? Where did she go? Don’t tell me she’s in that hole.”
A flash of memory. Lavender flowers reaching, digging, searching. Illaria sighed, and then gently reached to Nova’s hands and wingtips with a few spare vines and gently pulled them away.
“Would that it were so easy,” she sullenly answered. “If she were, any competent affini botanist could have extracted what was lost and returned it to the source. If there were an atom of my old self in that soil, it would have been trivial to find and reattach it.
“The Illaria you knew is somewhere no one could ever hope to bring her back from. The past.”
Illaria turned around, and the terran was looking up at them, eyes wet with tears. “You don’t mean that,” Nova insisted. “You can’t mean that. There’s no way you could have forgotten about me.”
“I know we haven’t known each other long, but I know full well what you think of me. Your angel. Your everything. You can’t possibly tell me you don’t remember me.”
“Of course I do,” Illaria whispered. “I love you, Nova, more than anyone in the world. So don’t make it mean anything. Don’t make me hurt you more.”
Nova just kept staring at her, a determined look on their tear-stained face.
Illaria pushed them back, careful not to injure them, but forceful enough that they would get the message. “I mean it,” she said, and Nova sighed.
“No, you don’t.”
“I–” Illaria tried to respond, but the words caught in her mind before she could say them. I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t deserve to know you. I don’t want to forget you.
“Illaria,” they said, and she snapped back into focus. “I know what deflecting sounds like. And I know you care enough about me that you wouldn’t use that as an excuse to push my own feelings aside unless there was something very wrong. So tell me. What are you actually feeling?”
And then, she snapped.
The call of a few bluebirds sounded, as they flapped their wings to flee from the loud noise, and then there was silence. The affini lay down on the grass, before abandoning the pretence of a human form and sprawling out her vines in a formless mess; Nova sat next to her.
Illaria whimpered, “I’m terrified. More than you could know, more than you could possibly feel.”
“What about?” Nova asked, laying a hand down on one of the vines and causing Illaria to shake.
“You. Me. The future. The past. Everything.”
If she hadn’t already started to dig her roots into the soil, Illaria felt like she would have fallen apart already.
“You are right, Nova,” she tentatively admitted. “I am still the same person, even when I rebloom. But that doesn’t mean I don’t change. Reblooming is supposed to cast off the damaged parts of you, let you heal and grow anew, but… it’s impossible to not lose yourself, at least a little, every single time.”
The clouds floated across the sky, pushed by a wind too high up to be felt.
“When I was in my second bloom, I noticed something. My memories started fading. There were things that I recalled in perfect clarity, and some that were just… outlines. Shapes. Things that were important to me, that before I even knew what had happened were all but gone. I showed you my sunshower, right? The flower from the planet where I was born?”
Illaria didn’t dare look, but she felt the slight movement of Nova’s shoulders pressed against her as they nodded.
“I no longer remember anything else from that planet. All that time I spent there, the people I met as a child, the many other plants and animals who lived there, even its name… gone. Continued only in the records, and in those who still remember pieces. But I moved on from there, travelled to your galaxy, and the affini who lived on that planet and remembered it no longer exists. And I realised that after a time, the memories I held dear right then would fade just as well, that I’d move on again and change even more, and I’d spend the entirety of my immortal life saying goodbye to the people I used to be. Fifth bloom. Sixteenth. Forty-first. Twenty-seven thousandth.”
She felt a drop of water on one of her vines.
“So what am I supposed to do with you?” Illaria pleaded. “How am I to love you, without that heartbreak? I tried keeping my distance, and that pulled you closer. I tried being selfish, and that just hurt you. I tried to not feel it at all, and it broke me so badly that even all of my grafts couldn’t keep me from needing to finally rebloom. And then, as hard as I could, I tried to just give in, to accept the inevitable, to let my past be gone, and yet here you are. Loving me back.”
And then another drop, and then another, as the sky slowly opened up. Without even thinking about it, she held herself together in a tight weave, holding her body over Nova and keeping them sheltered from the rain.
“And now, all I have left that I can do is to just break your heart now, make sure that neither of us get too attached before both of us are gone. And I can’t even do that right.”
The two of them laid there, listening to the sounds of rain and frozen in place.
“…You know,” Nova eventually managed. “I don’t think I’m too disappointed that you can’t hurt me on purpose.”
Illaria’s vines trembled.
“Like, that’s your thing, isn’t it?” they continued. “Incredible, universe-bending, benevolence. You came from a galaxy away in a spaceship the size of a city and you’re worried about hurting the feelings of one person you’ve known for a couple months. That’s pretty amazing.”
Suddenly, she had a flash of realisation, the cadence of that voice hauntingly familiar. “…Art?” Illaria tentatively asked.
“I’ve been here,” he said. “And you’re not the only one who’s changed since we last met. Nova isn’t just a new name, they’re a new alter.” The terran paused for a moment, and continued, “Don’t worry, it’s not quite as bad as it sounds,” their voice subtly switching back to the tone it had earlier.
“But it is bad,” she countered.
Nova considered that for a moment. “Well, yes,” they admitted, “waking up naked in a bed with a girl out of nowhere did make me freak out kind of a lot. But I don’t know that that’s your fault?”
“I shouldn’t have been responsible for putting you in that situation, though!” Illaria pulled Nova a little further to her core, and then rested her tired vines down over her and on the soil. “I should never have made any kind of advances on you in your state, and without having found out about your other alter, and– and–”
And then the terran wrapped their arms around a vine, and Illaria felt herself start to calm.
“Maybe you shouldn’t have,” Nova tenderly replied. “But jan Sala was not going to tell you, and if you had poked around in my mind to find out for yourself, it would have broken my trust even more. Would there have been a better option?”
“You don’t understand. I would have been your owner. And yet I let you be hurt. Not only that, my actions were directly responsible for that hurt.” Illaria felt a tighter squeeze from her companion, still clinging on. “There needed to have been a better option. I should have found it.”
Her weave of vines started to loosen, gently letting streams of water down into the little pocket of dry soil in which Nova was sheltered. They didn’t move a bit, though, instead letting the rain wash through their hair as they sat there.
“…Illaria, I have done enough therapy to know what self-deprecation is,” they commented. “Do you really think you need to be perfect?”
She froze, again. “I… Protecting a floret from harm is an important part of ownership,” she answered. You deserve perfection, she didn’t say.
“That’s not a no,” Nova sighed. “Illaria. You are wonderful, spectacular, caring, kind, honest, more words than I can possibly imagine. You’re enough. You don’t need to be perfect.” They reached up, and grabbed hold of a few more vines; Illaria didn’t resist as more and more of them was pulled into their embrace. “Like, for one, how would you even stop me from ever coming to any harm, ever? Sanding off all the edges of life so much it barely counts as living? I know you don’t really think that’s what’s best, or I would be on class-Os already.”
Illaria had no idea how to respond to that, but… she couldn’t deny that Nova was more right than she wanted to admit.
“I’ve had my fill of living in a little box with nothing bad ever allowed to happen to me. I want to do things. I want to see every corner of this moon, that planet, this galaxy. I want to meet people, discover things, write stories, make music, learn and change and grow. And sure, the person I am now won’t always exist, but I guess that’s a little easier to accept when I’m already a different person every other hour?”
They giggled at that, and Illaria couldn’t help but laugh along, the sounds of their voices entangling in the garden where the two of them lay together.
“Who knows what the future holds,” Nova mused. “But at the very least, I’ve got the present right here. And if you’ll have me, I would love it if you would be with me for it.”
That, though, was something to which Illaria knew exactly what she wanted to say. “I accept,” she declared, and then returned the hug, the two of them now thoroughly soaked.
“So,” Nova said, once the two of them had eventually retreated from their embrace, “should we head back to the ship? I think there’s a form we need to fill out, no?”
“Is there?” Illaria asked. “What for—wait, you don’t mean…?”
Nova burst into even more laughter. “I do mean! And I am glad that you still have a few imperfections, because you taking that long to realise was adorable.”
“And you’re sure? You really want me?”
“Of course I do, Illaria. More than anything in the world.” Nova stood themselves up, holding onto their partner’s vines, and then looked down into her eyes. “Now, let’s at least get out of the rain, shall we?”
“I’m still worried,” Illaria said, her arms wrapped tight against and merging slightly with her body.
I tilted my head at her and gave her a little smile. “I know, darling. But it’s going to be okay. I know you well enough to know that you’ll make sure of it.”
“And if… when, you get hurt again?” she fretted.
“Then I’ll have you by my side to patch me up and make me feel better again.” I reached across the table and held a hand out, and after some hesitation, she laid one of hers on top. “And if you get scared and run off, I will follow you to the moon and back to be with you again. Ask me how I know.”
I smiled again, and looked into Illaria’s eyes, waiting for her to say the thing that was really bothering her.
“…And you’re sure it’s all of you that wants this?” she managed. “There’s not some part of you that’ll be upset?”
Well. That was a fair concern.
“Dr. Salix did a scan a couple of weeks ago, and at the very least, there’s not a part that I don’t know about?” I told her. “As for the parts I do know about…” I took a deep breath and a moment to collect my thoughts.
And then exhaled. “Nova says they trust you,” I reported; “more than anyone else, more than themself. They think they’ll be happiest with you. Sara wants to keep spending time with you, and she’s more than happy no matter what form that takes. Art… he says he doesn’t want to do any sex things, but you did save his life, and he has more of a soft spot for you than just about anyone.
“And jan Sala… would like to talk to you directly, if you’ve got your translator on?”
Illaria reached into her body with her free arm and pulled out a little computer chip on a plant chain, and then nodded. I closed my eyes, and…
‘jan Ila o,’ mi toki. ‘jan ale la sina suli mute. sina mama e mi, li awen e mi, li wawa e mi. tenpo sike mute mi la, jan ala li sama pilin e sina.
‘mi poka e sina la sina pana taso e olin tawa mi. mi sona e wile mi: mi wile e olin sina. sina pana e ni tawa mi la, mi pana olin e mi tawa sina. ni la mi ken ala sona e lon pona mute. mi la sina ale.’
mi kama jo e luka pi jan Ila kepeken luka mi. mi pini toki: ‘lawa mi o.’
I blinked, and felt myself flowing back to the front as jan Sala gently receded her consciousness. “I’m as ready as I’ll ever be, darling. Shall we?”
Illaria sniffled, and smiled, and reached into the desk drawer, pulling out and passing me a handwritten sheet of paper and a blue ballpoint pen. I held the paper in my hands, slowly reading through the contents.
- Above all else, you, Nova, must obey your guardian, Illaria Biflora, Third Bloom in all things. This is for your safety, well-being, and care. 🔳
I uncapped my pen, and pointed the tip towards the word ‘all’. “A bit presumptuous, no?” I dryly asked.
“Standard language in these forms, dear,” Illaria quipped back. “Besides, you wouldn’t want to disobey, would you, petal?”
I thought about it for perhaps longer than I should have, and then shook my head and ticked the box before moving my gaze down to the next line.
- Your guardian, Illaria Biflora, Third Bloom, owns you. You are her property. You do not have political rights in the Affini Compact. 🔳
“Wait, what rights do I have now?” I asked.
Illaria tilted her head. “Voting, primarily,” came her answer; “in elections for ship council, every few months or so, and on the rare occasion some scale of government needs a plebiscite. Petitions to council, requests for action, and so on and so forth… But I will, of course, advocate for you to the best of my ability as your owner.”
“Thank you, Illaria.” I looked up at her and gave a gentle smile. “Though I’m not sure how much it matters, really? Politics doesn’t seem nearly so important when I’ve already got everything I need right here.”
“It’s really not,” she admitted. “Half of all the votes on this ship are for high-level strategic decisions even I couldn’t understand, and the other half are for tiny minutiae I wish I didn’t.” I chuckled, and ticked the box.
- You do have a guarantee of your well-being, as defined in section ___ of the Human Domestication Treaty. This does not preclude corrective measures being imposed where discipline is required. 🔳
Illaria flashed me with a huge grin. “Would you like to find out together?” she asked, in a tone that sent pleasant shivers racing down my spine and hot blood rushing to my cheeks.
“I-I’ll be good, don’t worry,” I stuttered.
- As the property of your guardian, she may add, remove, or modify conditions of your wardship at any time for any reason within reasonable limits, and within the limits to be established by the Human Domestication Treaty. 🔳
This one was a little abstract. “What sort of limits?” I asked.
“Mostly, to forbid anything that would interfere with your well-being,” Illaria explained. “Only so many changes in a short time, so florets can keep track of anything; nothing that would limit your ability to experience pleasure; nothing that contradicts previously-established boundaries, unless it can be proven that those boundaries have shifted. It’s rarely necessary, but florets are a vulnerable and very important social class, so the Compact does everything it can to protect them from any potential malicious actors.”
“You know, I really thought this would be more romantic than bureaucratic,” I said, and stuck my tongue out at my partner. “That does make sense, though.”
Illaria returned the gesture, but instead of an actual tongue, she simply used a single broad leaf. “Bureaucracy is romantic, darling. It’s like you know nothing about the affini.”
- From this moment forth, your full legal name is Nova Biflora, First Floret. You will answer to, and refer to yourself by, any name your guardian permits you. 🔳
“That will include your alters’ names, of course,” Illaria clarified, gently rubbing her thumb along the back of my hand. “And if you want to have those names as legal names too, the form can always be amended.”
“I appreciate it, but I don’t think that will be necessary,” I replied. “Worst case scenario, I can just correct people if they use the wrong name?”
Illaria smiled. “And I could do so for you, petal,” she suggested, and my cheeks flushed again.
- The following are additional terms that your guardian, Illaria Biflora, Third Bloom, has stipulated.
a) You agree to voice any conscious discomforts to your guardian promptly and to the best of your ability. 🔳
“Of course!” I exclaimed, marking off that box almost immediately.
Illaria chuckled. “I thought that might be the case, flower; I just wanted to be sure, because I know you’re still not quite comfortable with me finding those answers directly, and I do need to be able to take care of you, after all. One more?”
- b) You agree to be as wonderfully and fantastically imperfect as possible for your wonderful and imperfect owner. 🔳
I blinked. “That’s definitely not standard language.”
“I’m not sure what you mean,” Illaria replied, nonchalantly leaning back. “It’s on the form though, so I think you should mark it off, petal.” I rolled my eyes, and did so.
Sign here to acknowledge your understanding and acceptance of these terms.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
“…So, what happens next?” I asked, my mind whirling with possibility.
Illaria lifted my hand up to her mouth and gave me a tender kiss. “We go to the ship’s records office, submit that form, and make arrangements to have your things moved back to my hab. Then, we spend the rest of the day having a quiet little celebration, I get you in a brand-new and pretty collar, and we head to bed bright and early to be ready for tomorrow.”
I stared into her eyes, the bright metallic purples giving way to a flush of pink, and even on my class-Cs I still felt pulled in, enamoured, completely and thoroughly loved. “And after that?”
“Who knows what the future holds?” she smirked, and I couldn’t help but let out a dreamy sigh.
“It holds me, and you. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”