I needed to leave. I had to. I had to. My limbs scrambled for purchase as I found myself entangled on a bed with three others. The demon wasn't here but the rest were. I fled until vines pulled me back in. My eyes shut and I struggled against Paeonia's hold.
I let myself be lulled in by her game of drugs and hypnosis, but it was wrong. It felt wrong. She shouldn't have been doing it for me, and I shouldn't have let her. I was worthless and stupid and awful and causing problems. Even trying to escape to not cause problems caused problems. Being a burden was my default state and I couldn't fix it. It couldn't be fixed. She was wasting her time trying and I needed to leave now so I didn't make her suffer too.
"Little one, open your eyes." She told me.
They stayed shut as I continued to struggle against the indomitable vines. Her hold was unbreakable, but the pain and fear and anxiety forced me to struggle against her hold. I was being awful and disappointing her and I needed to disappear forever. Somehow I needed to not be her problem or Dianthus's or Abies's or Nilla's or anybody's. I-I-I-
"Open your eyes." Her words were forceful to the point that it felt like I was being torn in half trying to disobey. Not obeying made me feel even worse which made it harder to listen. The sick feedback loop of being terrible made me act more awful. She hated me. I hated me. I was a worthless waste of space.
The sing song voice of Dianthus cut in. "A shepherd cannot herd a wild beast. Prey must be hunted by a huntress."
The vines released me and I scrambled out of the bed. Frantically running. Away. I just had to leave and be nothing and nowhere. Escape. I needed to escape. Dressed in nothing but a nightgown, I made it to the front door. For a moment, I was terrified it was locked until I heard its voice.
"My wayward little kitten run and hide. The hunt shall follow til my quarry spied."
The doors parted and I sprinted out into the morning ship. The first thing I noticed were sophonts. Too many. I frantically weaved between the habitation units to get away. This ship was big. Too big. There was room to hide b-but I had to find it.
My breathing was labored from the panic and the physical exertion. My head kept turning to make sure it wasn't following. I knew it was. She was. Dianthus said she was going to hunt me. She treated me like a feral animal. That was all I was to the affini, an animal to be hunted or tamed. I wasn't even worth the hunt. The lurker in the vines would waste her time trying to bring me back. I was burdening her too. So-so worthless. A burden. Useless. Defective.
I spotted the thicker foliage of a park in the distance. Somewhere to hide until I could breathe and run and escape. With the last vestiges of movement I possessed, my bare feet carried me into the curated greenery aboard this city ship.
Within a small bush, I curled up small and tight making sure nothing stuck out. Just a useless lost ball of a defective doll imitating a person. Worthless and lost. I was breathing heavily, but also attempting to restrain my breath to not give myself away. The attempted restraint ended up being a mix of labored deep breaths and moments of not breathing at all, as my ability to control my body failed in a dramatically Evie fashion. Nothing ever responded right. My mind, my body, and every piece of both just didn't work. There wasn't enough functional me left to fix. Broken objects were supposed to be thrown away.
Everyone except the affini knew that. My employers, my coworkers, my classmates, my acquaintances, and even my parents. I was worthless and not even worthy of the time to be told how worthless I was. They'd pretend when it was necessary or made themselves look good. But they didn't care. Any attempt to assert that I existed as a thinking, feeling being was met with a reminder of why I wasn't supposed to reach out to others.
Acquaintances, friends who were only friends when I existed within eyesight and earshot, were the closest I had. Any attempt to be more open was ignored or shunned. I wasn't supposed to talk about myself. No one wanted to listen. I was supposed to ask them how they were and nod and pretend I could follow along with whatever they said. In exchange I got to feel like I wasn't entirely alone…
My labored breathing was strained with the quietest sobs I could manage. I was good at sobbing quietly. Men don't cry. Or at least not where others could see. That's what I was told when I was ten. Evies weren't allowed to cry either. Crying just made people hate me, so I had to hide it really well. It didn't help that hormones made me a massive crybaby.
The stomach pain from not eating breakfast matched the chest pain from the feelings. I deserved it. This was what Evie deserved and it's what I always got. Crying silently alone wishing I could just not exist to make the pain stop.
A soft rustling sounded close. I froze. Not breathing was preferable to being heard crying.
The rhythm of the huntress carried on the breeze. It was familiar. So familiar. I'd felt it in her words. In her movements blending into Paeonia’s own. She was here for me. The huntress wouldn't let me go, but it was different. I wasn't some pitiable person to it. I was prey. I was a trophy of a hunt. An object of desire. Objects couldn't be failures. They just had to exist.
"Oh, listen little broken doll of mine. The hunter lurks so near and close to say. Do come out come out dearest darling prey."
I couldn't run so I had to stay hidden. Silent and hidden. Every rustling of leaves practically gave me a heart attack. I'd be internally screaming, but that might be too much noise. Still. Everything was still.
From the small curled up ball in the bush, I peeked with one lone eye to double check… Four shimmering golden eyes stared back at me with an intensity that could kill. My heart skipped a beat. Possibly all of them. "Found you~"
Before I mustered an involuntary scream, vines bound every segment of my body and ripped me from the bush. She pressed me down against the soft cold dirt. I was face first in the grime. My limbs bound and shifted until the affini had me tied up like a present in her vines. I whimpered. My emotions had to catch up with the fact I wasn't running or hiding. I had been caught. The entirety of me was at her mercy.
She wasn't going to tuck me into a nest and pet me. Dianthus was not the same vein of affini as the other two. "Oh little doll, little kitten, did you for one moment believe you could get away? Did you believe I'd let you? You're ours. You're mine. Let me make this oh so clear to your simple little mind."
The vines around my neck tightened for a moment before withdrawing. The pressure was replaced a moment later with the sound of a click and a tightening around my neck. A-A collar. She collared me. Like those worn by Nilla, Synna and every other pet I spotted.
"Worry not little prey, there is no corner of this universe that can hide you from me. You are mine. There's no escape. Now beg me to free you." Her voice was so sinister and playful in equal measure. All of her vines moved to that subtle breezy sway of hers. They moved my body to it as well. Her patience wore out. "Beg."
My with face still against the dirt, I begged. "P-Please let me go. Please."
Her words were swift and uncaring. "No. Your mewling isn't worth my consideration."
"For stars sake let me go! Please? I-I don't want to be a burden. Please don't make me your burden, or Abies's or Paeonia's or anyone else's. Please Please? They hate me. If they don't yet they will and-and I can't-I can't handle that. I don't want to hurt them or anyone. I've never wanted to bother anyone. I'll be good. Just let me go. Let me leave. Please Dianthus. Let me disappear. Please?"
"Ahhhh, there it is. Such a sweet and lovely sound of a trapped little prey spilling its heart. Bleeding its true self. You make such wonderful noises. Little. Mewling. Kitten. It's time to mark you as mine~" She turned me over to gaze upon the mass of vines that had caught me. The four golden eyes held my attention hostage.
From the dark shadows of herself emerged her face. The thorny maw looked sharp enough to tear me to shreds. It stretched inhumanly wide into a parody of a smile. My heart was pounding so hard it hurt my sternum. Sweat was coming from every pour.
She leaned close and bit me. Her thorns sank into my neck and collarbone. She punctured my skin and I bled. The pressure and the pain mixed into something new. A gasp escaped my lips. As she pulled away back into the recesses of her vines I saw my blood drip from her fangs. The huntress ran a vine over the wounds. "Enjoy your mark. May it forever remind you of who owns you."
She bit me. She marked me. She collared me. Dianthus owned me. I was beyond helpless. Th-There was no escape. I couldn't run away because this affini would never let me go. It'd turn into a game. A game I'd lose.
To add to my humiliation. She carried my carefully tied up and bound form with her as she glided across the ground. Every affini, pet, and free sophont could see me tied, bound, collared, and marked. They looked. They saw the bloody curve of her mark. No one stopped her. Not one of the kind caring Abies and Paeonia type affini did anything. Not even a question of if I was okay. No one cared.
The huntress hauled me into the habitation unit. Her prize set onto the ground before Nilla and Paeonia. My face was covered in dirt, dried snot, and dried tears. Maybe I had some blood stained on me too.
The pink flowered one reached out her vines and interwove them with some of the violet flowered one’s own. Her entire posture of worry and concern evaporated into a calm. Something happened and she didn't seem to mind.
The shapely gay xeno knelt down to my crumbled and hopeless body on the floor. "Don't worry flower. I'm not going to hold back anymore. You're mine, and that means you won't be allowed to suffer. Not one bit. I will rip every bit of trauma and pain out of you and you don't get a say in this." She patted me on the head.
On the floor a sheet of paper was placed. A domestication contract. The ornate border had been changed from the first I saw to a blend of pine needles, pink furling flowers, and violet starry ones. They mixed together to show what the text stated.
- Above all else, you, Evie, must obey your Guardians, Abies Fir, Fourth Bloom, Dianthus Glacialis, Fifth Bloom, and Paeonia Glacialis, Third Bloom in all things. This is for your safety, wellbeing, and care.
A pen was placed between me and the contract. Dianthus's vines released me and she said. "You know what to do little prey."
They both left me space. Both affini were close enough I could feel that mixing song of theirs, but there was a gap between us. They even left an opening. It was deliberately a space to walk away towards the door. I could leave again…
The lingering pain of the bite, and the pressure of the collar were still there. They already owned me. This document was a formality. The ability to leave was a formality. They both knew and I knew that I was going to sign it. The only question was how long I'd make them wait.
My hand touched the bite mark. A finger rubbed over found no blood. Something like a waxy seal had been placed on every small thorny puncture wound.
My eyes flickered between the pen and the contract. The pen and the contract. A rhythmic stimming of eye movement danced between them. My focus narrowed. The door wasn't important, only the pen and the contract. The otherwise immobile stimming held me captive.
I barely noticed the door to the habitation unit open. Only the ruffling sound of pine needles pulled my attention up. I had a clear line of sight to them. To Abies. They came and placed themselves to plug that gap left towards the door. His hand came down on my head. "Sorry, I was late, little one. These two only informed me at the last minute so I dropped my work to come here for you."
"Y-You shouldn't have… I-I'm not worth-"
Paeonia cut me off. "You're worth it little one. That's the trauma speaking. The days of you suffering and toiling alone under the Accord are gone and they will never come back. You Evie Glacialis-Fir, First and Third Floret have worth. We all can see it, and that's why we placed that contract in front of you."
Abies continued. "Flower, you have so much worth and so much to give the universe just by being yourself. It's okay to need help, to need to be reassured and comforted. You're a very good girl and I'm so happy I got to be the one who found you."
Dianthus didn't need to say anything. Instead, she moved Abies aside and showed me the door. A grand statement. This wasn't the invitation to walk away from earlier. It was a challenge. If I thought I was worthless and hated and undesired, she'd show me how viscerally wrong I was.
While each was wholly unique, the sight, sound, and motion of all three had found a common flow. A unity in one thing. It made my heart swell, and-and for a brief moment the clarity of their feelings found its way into me. Taking me as a floret was not something done lightly, yet they still wanted it. They still cared. These xenos who had known me for less than a handful of days, loved me. They loved me. I could feel it. They made me feel it.
A tear went down my face, and Paeonia got up for a moment and came back with a glass of water. She was too nice. "Drink, you're dehydrated."
My shaky hands brought the glass up and her vine held it steady so I didn't spill any on myself or the contract.
Abies's vine came down on my head when I finished. "Good Evie~ Good Girl~"
They were waiting. I was being a burden and selfish by making them wait I-I-
"Take your time, flower." Paeonia and Abies said together.
I sniffled. "B-But you all keep doing things and-and I can't repay all of th-the kindness and stuff. I don't know how. I-I-"
Paeonia's vine silenced me. "Relationships, even pet and owner ones, aren't transactional, hon. You don't owe us anything, but if you want to reciprocate the kindness we'd greatly appreciate it. If you don't know how then we will teach you."
"Evie, I am sure you are familiar with the concept of a gift. You are far too smart and observant of a girl to not know. Gifts aren't bought. They aren't a transaction. They are not given with the expectation of repayment. Gifts are free. Our kindness, love, and care, are gifts. Repayment is not needed." Abies's explanation made me want to protest… but the logic was sound. That was how gifts work but-but I was supposed to repay it. I-I needed to. His words contradicted that in a sound logical way…
The affini of pink flowers added. "Petal, if you gave any of us a gift, would you expect repayment?"
"…no." Th-That explanation wasn't fair! The unspoken 'exactly' was felt. I-I-I "But it feels like I should? I want to give you kindness and stuff back. I just can't. I want to but-but I can't."
She replied. "That's okay. You have lots of little and big troubles, but we are going to help you through them. You don't need to be perfect or whole now. It's okay if you never are, we still love you and will care for you."
They didn't get it. I-I-I was worse than imperfect and broken, I was worthless. Trash to be thrown aside and- A vine tilted my head towards the front door. Dianthus's vine. That same challenge. The power of my own self-hate was enough to strain against my aching muscles and get me to walk towards that door. A light tapping sound on a tablet coincided with the opening of the door.
I stopped a foot from the exit. The sounds of those three were fainter over here. I wasn't surrounded and drowning in their presence. It was behind me. Including her presence. The huntress. She was waiting for me to leave. My shaking hand touched the waxy seal on my bite mark.
I fell to my hands and knees. I couldn't even leave properly. Every step further away tore at my open damaged heart. "I'll fail. I'll be a burden. You'll resent me. I'm defective trash that isn't worthy of any of you. No matter how much I want to reciprocate any of the kindness and stuff I'll fail. I'm broken and can't be fixed and-and you'll waste your time finding that out."
Paeonia replied in the distance. "Hon, you don't need to tell us what you think you are. We know. Tell us what you want, and what you want to be."
"I-I-I-I-I-I want to be yours. All of yours. I want to be nice and worthy of you all. I want to be good. I want to make you all and everyone feel good and better. I want to not feel like trash. I want to let myself be loved. I don't want to be a burden. I-I want to give each and every one of you everything I can. I want to be useful. I want to help. I want you all to tell me what to do. I want to let myself be cared for. I want the pain and the tears and the panic and the anxiety to go away and never ever come back. I want to be Evie Glacialis-Fir, First and Third Floret… I want to be your all's p-pet."
It hovered over me. The huntress's movements were silent and unnoticed until she was on top of me. "Oh kit, oh pet, oh little prey of mine. A mewling tiny kitten broken and bound. Such lovely darling cries our pet so sings. Oh Evie once was lost and now is found."
A single vine traced the mark she gave me. I whimpered. Her vines entangled and enthralled me. Dianthus placed a gentle kiss right in the middle of my mark. "Caught you~" She cradled me in her vines and drifted back to the affini circle around the paper.
I was deposited cross legged right in front of the contract. Her vine tilted my head to see that the path to the door was still there. Left open. I even saw a familiar deer and demoness peek in. They were all waiting on me. They'd keep bringing me back here… because these three loved me for some unknown reason.
A trembling hand picked up the pen and Abies's fuzzy vine wrapped around it to steady it. "You're not alone anymore. Check the first box."
- Above all else, you, Evie, must obey your Guardians, Abies Fir, Fourth Bloom, Dianthus Glacialis, Fifth Bloom, and Paeonia Glacialis, Third Bloom in all things. This is for your safety, wellbeing, and care.
My hand, with aid, did a little flourish. A vine patted me on the head causing me to blush. "Good girl~ Now read the next one."
- Your Guardians, Abies Fir, Fourth Bloom, Dianthus Glacialis, Fifth Bloom, and Paeonia Glacialis, Third Bloom, own you. A pet is property. You do not have political rights in the Affini Compact. All existing rights and privileges are invalid and inapplicable.
A-all my rights… They wanted me to give up everything. "Check the box." My hand slowly moved the pen and checked it off. "Look at the next one for me."
- You do have a guarantee of your wellbeing, as defined in Section 57 of the Human Domestication Treaty.
Human Domestication Treaty… I *was* human so why did that feel off? Paeonia's vines rested on my shoulders. "You aren't human if you don't want to be. Signing this won't change that. You're our little Evie and that's all you need to worry about." S-She was saying I was like Nilla… I was pretty sure I wasn't a deer. In fact I was more sure of that than the not human part. Nilla was a lovely deer, but I wasn't.
"Hon, check it off." Her words moved my hand.
- This guarantee of wellbeing does not preclude your Guardians from disciplining you, as outlined in Section 61 of the Human Domestication Treaty.
"Little prey~" Its words struck me. A shiver ran down my spine as I couldn't check it off fast enough.
- As the property of your Guardians, they may add, remove, or modify conditions of your wardship at any time for any reason within the limits established by the Human Domestication Treaty and within the limits defined in the Charter for the Mutual Ownership of an Adorable Pet Evie.
"Ch-Charter?" That was a ridiculous name for a legal document and definitely couldn't actually exist.
Abies pet my head. "Oh course. We needed to legally define the rights and responsibilities of our joint ownership of you."
"The charter would be half the length if Abies would simply move in with us." Paeonia accused. "You've been petsitting for us since we first picked up Synna when we arrived in terran space. Just move in, you're already a part of the family."
"I'm not having this discussion again. I've made it clear the last fifty times you've mentioned it. I'm staying in my own habitation unit."
Vines pulled me in and sealed me off from the argument. "Little prey need not listen to them bicker. Rest with me and I shall silence them." Her vines wove tight and did not yield to external sound waves. The huntress's vines bound me tight and secure. I heard her and only her.
After a minute, it unbound me and placed me back in front of the contract. I got two separate pats on the head, and both called me, "Good girl~"
Abies took my hand in his vine and helped me check that off.
- From this moment forth, your full legal name is Evie Glacialis-Fir, First and Third Floret. You will answer to, and refer to yourself by, any name your guardians choose to permit you.
I checked it off without even being asked and got a head pat and a "Good girl~".
- Below this line are additional terms that your Guardians, Abies Fir, Fourth Bloom, Dianthus Glacialis, Fifth Bloom, and Paeonia Glacialis, Third Bloom, have stipulated.
- You, Evie Glacialis-Fir, First and Third Floret, confirm and acknowledge that you are a very good girl and are deserving of all the love and care your guardians bestow upon you.
I dropped the pen and a vine caught it. Th-the others were handing over ownership, this was asking me to lie. The entire section was ridiculous sounding and completely untrue. I wasn't a-
"Good girl~ Such a wonderful girl. A good little Evie." Abies immediately cut in.
Paeonia turned my head to face her. "Little one, what are you to do if you feel unhappy or upset?"
I looked into her eyes…
… and my hand checked off the box.
With a small smile I looked at the signature line and vines helped me sign off on the document. A vine from Dianthus came up and pricked my index finger. She let a single drop of blood drip onto the biometric bit.
The covenant was struck. I was theirs. They all owned me as property to share and care for. It was an intense morning and afternoon. I bled my feelings, my heart, and my blood. I was tired. I was hungry. I was filthy.
Three sets of vines embraced me. I was home.