Title: A Normal Grocery Run During Which No Domestication Occurs
The initial shock of everything Irene had been through wore off quickly enough, and with it, the immediate profound comfort and safety she’d felt in that affini woman’s arms. This wasn’t to say she immediately sprung backward into completely mistrustful of the Compact, but once Irene had been set back down and given a chance to take in her surroundings, a healthy bit of caution had crept back into her mind. At the very least, her new affini friend had respected her request for a bit of space and a moment to sit and catch her breath, quickly carrying her off away from the protesters and into a small indoor community center the affini had set up. The space was clean, well furnished, and air conditioned, providing Irene a comfortable place to calm down relaxing in a cozy recliner.
Strangely, however, despite being a community center, and a nice one at that, Irene was the only human there. The affini woman, who introduced herself as Curbita Mosch, Second Bloom, seemed to sense Irene’s suspicion at the lack of other humans, and explained there were few humans lingering about in the immediate vicinity simply due to how recently the surrounding district had been claimed. The affini were still retrofitting the buildings in their new territory so as to meet their standards of accommodation, as such few humans had reason to hang around. Those who lived in the surrounding apartments, Curbita assured her, had not been forcibly relocated or anything of the sort; instead, she explained, they were mostly still just “a bit skittish.”
Irene couldn’t help but take note of the woman’s word choice, how it carried an inherent sense of playfulness and affection, but also no small amount of condescension. Apparently winning the hearts and minds was a difficult task for hyper-advanced alien plants too, not just humans. Either way, Curbita had explained, any rebel cells who had once occupied the area had been disarmed and pacified, and had been “taken in by caring guardians,” and didn’t pose any threat to anyone. Despite herself, Irene couldn’t help but feel a tad more secure from just how much care and effort Curbita put into assuaging her worries, though she was starting to feel a tad restless; the long she spent lingering the more likely something might go wrong if the affini weren’t as benevolent as they appeared on the surface.
Seeming to notice Irene fidgeting a little, Curbita gave an understanding little nod and withdrew a tablet from somewhere inside her vines, which was quite a surreal thing to watch, a person just reaching inside herself and pulling something out like her whole body was one big pocket. Casually, she crossed one leg over the other in mimicry of attentive human posture, and leaned forward with the tablet resting on her knee. “I can see you’re growing a little impatient, Irene, I didn’t mean to ‘daily doily’ as you humans say,” she giggled to herself a little, seeming as pleased with her apparent use of a human expression as she was oblivious to its incorrectness. Irene had to admit, it was hard to be scared of someone who went out of her way to act like a dork but couldn’t even do so the way she’d intended. “Let’s get started with your placement, I assure you that despite this rather cobbled together accommodation,” she gestured around herself, indicating the incredibly comfortable and luxurious room around them, “we have plenty of wonderful homes available that will more than suit your liking.”
Irene stiffened, her heart rate rising and breath catching. Curbita thought she was trying to relocate? Suddenly things didn’t seem as fine as she’d thought. Irene had to act fast, who knew what sort of liberties such a creature might think to take with the kind of person who would willingly seek over to the care of a species reputed for keeping humans as pets? “Um, well, y’see, I um…. I’m not here to move in. I just um, I just came to get some food,” Irene stammered. Cocking her head to the side and blinking a few times in confusion, Curbita seemed to take a moment to process what she’d just heard. Was this really that unusual?
“So, if I am to understand you correctly. You walked into affini territory simply because you were hungry, and you wish to return to your current accommodations outside our territory after that?” Curbita’s tone suggested she hardly believed what she was saying.
“Well, um, yes? I d-don’t really want to move. I like my current home,” she lied. “And if I moved here wouldn’t I have to be a pet? I definitely don’t want that,” Irene told herself as much as she did Curbita. Irene tried not to remember how nice it had felt to be wrapped up snug and safe in Curbita’s vines. It didn’t work out, and perhaps the wistfulness she felt was also written into her expression, as something seemed to catch Curbita’s attention. She raised a quite literally perfectly sculpted eyebrow and her lips curled into a smirk.
“Of course not, dear. As long as you keep being a good girl we won’t force you into domestication.” Curbita’s tone lingered and luxuriated on that magic bit of praise which seemed to so universally turn women like Irene to jelly. It worked; she squirmed in her seat, blushing and breaking eye contact. A delighted little giggle rang out musically from Curbita’s lips. “Only those who are a danger to themselves or others are forced into domestication. You’ll live here as an independent citizen, not a pet. You’ll have your own place, one far nicer than whatever ramshackle hovel the old system built, along with access to all the luxuries the Affini Compact has to offer, all at no cost, of course. That being said, if you do change your mind about ‘not wanting’ to be a pet, you could always volunteer. I assure you our florets are afforded only the peak of comfort and luxury, and I’m certain a human as adorable as you could have her pick of an owner.”
There was a look in the affini’s eyes, like she knew that Irene had spent a few too many nights up late wondering if it really wasn’t too good to be true. Irene shivered; She tried not to think about all the propaganda broadcasts she’d seen of happy, gorgeous human women collared and dressed in colorful dresses, speaking in voices full of distant bliss about how happy and in love with their owners they were, all while nuzzling into the sides of tall, equally gorgeous plant women. Irene tried not to imagine herself in their place. It didn’t really matter, though. She didn’t need to; Irene had already spent plenty of nights doing exactly that. Shaking her head, Irene centered herself; she couldn’t let this plant get under her skin. Irene was only here to get in, find something to eat, see what life under the compact was like, and get out, not to sit around being flirted with.
“Well, um, that’s nice and all but I really am only interested in getting enough food for another week or two, and then I’d like to go home. I’m really quite content where I am.” Would anyone who heard that believe it? She hardly sounded confident, and simply by virtue of being here to get food didn’t that imply that her living situation was actually quite bad?
Expecting the affini to show a hint of disappointment at her rejection, but this time, she didn’t even look surprised by Irene’s response. Instead, Curbita flashed another smile, it was calm, serene, but in control, like Irene rebuffing her was nothing more than another step in a choreographed dance. There was a certain smugness to it, but for some reason more than anything Irene just found it comforting. Curbita was such a pretty woman, and had been very understanding so far. Surely if she meant Irene any harm she already would have done so, right? She was alone with her, out of sight, if she had any attempt of snatching Irene away to some prison or factory this would be a golden opportunity. Instead she’d just been… nice, patient, understanding, attentive and accommodating of her every little hesitation.
The affini cleared her throat and on cue Irene immediately snapped back her attention to the present, focusing her attention back on her host, which certainly seemed to please Curbita. She gave Irene a gentle pat on the hand. “That’s quite alright. We certainly don’t want to force you into relocating to somewhere you don’t want to be. I would be happy to help you with your food troubles, though; honestly it breaks my heart that you even have such a problem to begin with! There’s a grocery about a half kilometer south here. It’s rather small, but I’m sure you’ll be able to find whatever you need there. I can take you, if you’d like.”
In one smooth motion, Curbita rose to her feet and beckoned Irene to follow with a warm smile; without waiting for a response, she turned and began to stroll out the door. Words of protest gathered in the back of Irene’s throat, but she swallowed them down, and rushed to follow Curbita. She didn’t want to be caught alone out here; sure, Curbita had been kind to her, but who knew what kind of impression some other affini might get from a human girl wandering alone. Just because one affini didn’t seem to mean her any harm did nothing to suggest that among an entire race of intergalactic conquerors there couldn’t be some unsavory characters. As such, Irene never strayed too far from her companion; Curbita didn’t seem to mind, though, neither did Irene.
Half a kilometer was hardly a long walk, a few blocks at most; Irene hoped she would at least be able to use the opportunity to get a better look at what life under the affini compact was like. Unfortunately, she couldn’t glean much from the immediate area. Just as Curbita had suggested, the entire area was mostly abuzz with affini working to retrofit, and at times demolish and reconstruct entire buildings. It was rather strange, watching a familiar neighborhood be completely transformed, but all the renovations she saw being made appeared safer, cleaner, and quite frankly prettier. When Irene asked herself what was actually being lost here by all this construction, she came up with very little besides a legacy of prideful, inflexible cultural stagnation and brutal capitalism.
Irene did at least manage to catch a glimpse here and there of a few other humans either going about their business, or watching the activity from a distance. None of them seemed harmed; some looked a tad nervous, but Irene suggested anyone could suggest the same thing about herself. Really the people she saw just seemed normal, not much to take note of at all. Perhaps the most striking thing of all, though, was just how quiet the flurry of affini activity was.
Everywhere Irene looked she saw heavy machinery and materials in some state of assembly, but none of the usual racket she would have expected came with it. There certainly was some noise, but it was hardly distracting, mostly quiet whirring and humming from the various construction vehicles. “Surprised?” Curbita asked, seeming to already know exactly what Irene was thinking. Irene gave a small nod. “One of the earliest things we perfected was how to make our technology bearable to be around. This is a residential district, some of the locals may not like us being here, but we have no intention of disrupting their days or, stars forbid, keeping anyone with an atypical sleep schedule from getting a healthy amount of sleep! Actually one of the first things we do for any retrofitted habitation building is install proper sound insulation! It’s so unacceptable how your Terran… or... Durian ‘habitation lords’ pay such little consideration to something so basic!” Irene gave a thoughtful hum; considering her apartment faced a nearby business’s loading dock she certainly appreciated the sentiment, considering work often started as early as four in the morning for their employees. “You seem surprised,” Curbita commented.
“Just not used to that level of consideration for others’ wellbeing.” A question was forming in her mind; namely, just how much performative consideration could any conquerors be expected to showcase before it became impossible to call performative? Before she had the chance to properly consider such a question, she felt a gentle push from her left side toward her right. She paused and glanced toward Curbita, who had wrapped a vine across her back and over her shoulders to gently guide her rightward.
“You seem a little deep in thought, dear; we’re supposed to follow this street here to the right now and you didn’t even notice me start to turn.” Another gentle tug from her vines and Irene blushed, then hurried to follow, allowing the tug of the vines to draw her closer to Curbita than she’d been before. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of, Irene dear. I’ve known plenty of sophonts prone to letting their minds drift. Stick close to me, okay, little one? That way you won’t get lost.“ If Curbita heard the little squeak which escaped from the back of Irene’s throat, she didn’t noticeably react.
The pair walked one more block, before rounding another corner to the left—this time, Irene was ready for the gentle tug at her side indicating the turn, and eagerly complied, earning an approving smile from Curbita which sent little tingles down her back. Upon rounding the corner, what had to be the grocery Curbita had mentioned came into view, though, it was somewhat perplexing; Curbita had called the grocery ‘small,’ and perhaps it was, if one were to compare it to a mega mall.
The building and its surrounding area was easily four stories tall, and took up an entire city block; it was also clearly entirely affini constructed. In fact, Irene even remembered what used to be there: a collection of business parks full of nameless, faceless corporate offices. In its place was a gorgeously designed building with huge, artful glass windows, decorative flourishes all around the outside and a sprawling plaza complete with a dazzling fountain, lively garden and outdoor seating area for eating or relaxing in. A number of small food hawkers littered the area, each with a respectable line. The smell of delicious and diverse cuisine—not that ‘traditional Duri cuisine’ crap—wafted through the air. She could almost taste the rich aroma of honest to goodness spices wafting through the air. “This is… small?” Irene asked, struggling to take it all in.
“Oh certainly,” Curbita insisted. “There’s an entire galaxy of different cuisines out there; we barely even managed to satisfactorily cover the fifty most popular styles of Terran cuisines by ethnicity while still ensuring accommodation for the most common dietary limitations. I’m sure you’ll find the selection for less popular Terran cuisine styles and non-terran cuisines sorely underwhelming; besides, this place doesn’t even have an in-built habitation complex, and its community recreation area is sorely underwhelming. Of course, as we build things out we’ll make improvements. But… well,” almost conspiratorially, Curbita leaned in close, stooping low and practically whispering to Irene. “Don’t tell any of the people for whom this is the closest grocery option, but I hear it won’t even be getting its own dedicated transit station for a few months.”
From the perplexed look Curbita gave Irene in response to her open mouthed disbelief at what she was hearing, it seemed the affini was not only being completely genuine, but honestly considered such things to be the norm. “I um,“ Irene began. “Right.” Again, she looked around, taking in what must have been hundreds of humans, all clean, comfortably dressed and healthy gathering around to eat and enjoy themselves. There were also several affini around, intermingling with the humans, helping run the food stalls, or simply relaxing in the sun. Nothing about the scene before her suggested to Irene that humans and affini were doing anything but simply coexisting. She even saw a few pairs of human and affini who looked suspiciously similar to some of the affini and pet pairs she’d seen on the propaganda broadcasts and Irene couldn’t help but think if that really were the case then they looked genuine—she silenced the line of thought before it could conclude.
Luckily, in that exact moment Curbita gave her something new to focus on. Her vines lightly caressed Irene’s shoulders, then slid off her, causing the girl to shudder. “Well, dear, here we are. Remember now, you’re welcome to as much of whatever you see inside the grocery—as well as from the surrounding restaurants or stalls. Honestly you’re welcome to pretty much any good or service in the area, up to and including a home, just as a reminder. I assume from here you should be good on your own, though? If you do wind up a little lost I’m sure there are plenty of affini willing to give you all of the... direction you might need, little one.” Curbita’s tone practically dripped with implication. “Either way best of luck, dear, do be sure to look me up when your part of the city is finally integrated into the Compact, I would be delighted to catch up.” With slow deliberation, she began to turn away, slowly gliding off in some other direction entirely.
A moment of panic gripped at Irene’s chest. She couldn’t just wander around affini territory on her own! Any number of things could happen like… like… well, she wasn’t entirely certain what, but Curbita would certainly make sure none of them did! Besides, she didn’t know the first thing about navigating an affini grocery store and what if she had questions about the food or what if someone had questions about why someone from the other side of the border was running around in affini territory? What if people thought she was a rebel spy or something? What if she got lost and asked an affini for directions only for them to assume she was an escaped ex-rebel pet-to-be on the run and said affini just gave her a condescending but also very hot smirk then snatched up her in their big, strong, gentle arms and pumped her full of pleasure drugs before carrying her off to be assigned an owner who would force her to spend the rest of her life in a constant state of mind-numbing bliss lovingly splayed out across some hot plant-lady’s lap?
Face flush, and breath’s coming quick, Irene looked from the departing Curbita, to grocery, then back, before dashing after the affini woman and grasping her by the hands. “W-wait!” Irene cried. Curbita stopped short, and turned slowly, smiling sweetly down at the girl. For a moment, Irene thought she saw a hint of smugness in the plant’s eyes, but it was probably nothing.
“What is it, dearest?”
“I um, do you think that maybe uh... I just don’t really know my way around affini customs and that building looks so big and I don’t want people to assume the wrong thing about me! Do you think you could maybe, um, do you think you could come with me?” Irene was honestly impressed she’d managed to get any of that out at all, considering how much she was stammering and blushing the entire time just from looking at Curbita. The affini was standing so close to her. It had the combined effect of both making the whole interaction feel intimate, and causing Curbita to absolutely loom over Irene, forcing her to look way up just to glimpse the affini’s smiling face.
“Of course, little one; I’d be more than happy to accompany you. It’s perfectly okay to ask for help, you know, nothing at all to be ashamed of. Some humans just need a bit more guidance and care than others. That’s what the Affini Compact is all about, providing and accommodating for everyone’s needs, no matter how involved.”