Mane took a deep breath. After lunch, Effus had asked her whether she wanted to come grocery shopping or just give the affini a list. The thought of time away from Effus had been too tempting, so she settled for writing a list of food that she liked. Effus had led her back to the hab after that, and left her with instructions to have Aria take care of her for the rest of the day. Mane didn't feel like that was really necessary, of course. She could handle herself, and while the thought of a girl as cute as Aria taking care of her for a day certainly charmed her...it felt selfish to even entertain the notion. Her hand hovered over the doorbell. She could make a break for it, she realized. She could sprint away, right now. She'd fail, of course, but success wasn't on the table anymore. The high of Ih's affection was wearing off. The novelty of cute girls caring about her would only last so long, and when it left her she'd be high and dry.
And alone. Afraid.
Sure, the affini could no doubt change her mind. Physically, chemically, they could reach into her and brand her insides until they squelshed and boiled into a more docile shape. She was entirely at their mercy. They could have her happy and compliant and free of regret in a few hours, probably, if they wanted to. She was always a lightweight and the taste of oblivion would surely whisper into some frightened animal part of her that she'd be far too weak to restrain. The instant they smelled how weak she was she'd be doomed. Mane wouldn't die howling defiance or digging her nails into the hide of a tyrant. She'd be phased out of existence. Replaced. She'd die on such a deep fundamental level that even her family would be content to smile and accept the new, traumaless, improved version of herself that took her place. Perhaps, even if there was an afterlife, it would even be that version of her that passed the threshold into infinity, leaving her to die alone and worthless and unloved, to be remembered by no one. Just like her dad said she would.
Mane felt something fall on her trembling hand. Tears?
Yes. Tears. She marveled over her hand. More fell on it. Why was she crying? That rotten bastard was dead. She killed him. He couldn't hurt her any-
I'm a monster.
The thought trundled uninvited into her mind like a dinosaur shaking the earth beneath its monstrous stride. A pit opened inside of her. It was cold. It consumed all. It was breathing.
I'm a monster.
As her father had screamed and writhed in agony she'd been...smiling. She enjoyed it. With each time the wrench crashed through his helmet and deformed his head and sent more teeth and globules of blood all about she'd gotten a spike of...of...of joy.
I'm a monster.
The shaking spread up her arm, along her body. She heard his pathetic begging in her mind. The feeling of bliss, of POWER, the feeling of the wrench's weight in her hand. That ecstacy of watching his disgusting face become less recognizably human with each strike. Smashing flesh and bone and plastic and glass together into a space-flavored pulp. She fought the urge to shiver with joy as she remembered the way his feeble resistance slowed to a stop, until his corpse only moved jerkily about following the inertia of her wrench.
Mane shook. Fuck. She tried to put the thought out of her mind. She didn't want to be like this. She didn't want to hurt people.
Mane heaved. Everything started dimming. Her cuffs started beeping-
Her cuffs were beeping.
"Breathe." It wasn't a gentle reminder to herself, it was an order. She forced her breathing down to normal. She forced herself to stop crying. She forced her body to de-escalate. If the beeping got too bad Effus would come back. If the beeping got too bad she might be…
No. No thinking about those drugs. No thinking about the way the affini would react to the real her. She just had to mask. Pretend that her trauma hadn't twisted her up inside so severely that she could do...what she did. Pretend that the guilt in her ribs came from killing a man, and not from the fact it was one of the happiest moments in recent memory.
As the shock of the ordeal wore off, she knew, it would get harder. She could pass off her fear of the affini and her fear of herself as one and the same-they were deeply linked after all-but if she allowed them to realize just how content she was with killing him things would go to shit quickly. She waited and breathed. Her cuffs grew quiet. She forced a straight face. Mane pushed the button and rang the doorbell. A few seconds later, Aria opened the door.
"Hello! Where's Effus, sweetie?" Effus' pet human asked. Mane wasn't looking at the floret speaking to her. She couldn't. She was stuck looking at another floret, one who was holding Aria's hand.
It was her ex. It was Melody.
"She's…" Mane barely managed to make herself say out loud. "She's...getting groceries. I gave her...she had me give her a list."
Melody looked at Mane. She was tall, lanky, thin, all just like she'd always been. She had the same beautiful silky hair, robbed of some of its luster by poor care as it always had been. She had the same sharp features and soft looking skin as she always had, though the fuzz of the reddish hair on her chin was new. She had the same red coat, white faux fur lining its collar and cuffs, and she was still wearing it hanging off of her shoulders like a cape.
She had the same green eyes, the same perpetually-dry and perpetually-picked-to-hell lips, and she couldn't see it but Melody would be surprised if Mane's back and shoulders didn't have the same light array of acne as they once had, back when she was dating their owner. Her face seemed older somehow, maybe it was the facial hair, and now Mane was practically flat chested, rather than completely titless. Other than those details, though, very little about her body's appearance had changed. Her posture and spirit, on the other hand, were like if the Mane she had dated had been broken.
"Hello...Mane," Melody greeted first. She took a step forward and raised a hand, tentatively, towards Mane's face. "It's been a while. You're having a rough week lately, aren't you?"
"Y...yeah,." Mane stammered. She seemed to smile when Melody did, but her eyes kept flicking to where Melody's and Aria's hands were clasped together. Right, that...that was probably a little bit insensitive of her. It took some wriggling to make Aria understand, but Melody managed to get her girlfriend to let go of her hand (and she did the same, too, of course).
"May I?" Melody smiled as patiently as she could. Mane seemed hurt but consented. Melody began using the backs of her fingers to gently stroke Mane's face. "There, there, good girl. I'm proud of you." It was something Mane said to her often, back when they were together. "You got away from your dad, finally."
"I killed him." Mane sounded ashamed. She sounded...scared. That was understandable. Her father was an incorrigible Free Terranist, after all. The rebels probably weren't going to take it lying down that she'd removed his assistance from the equation.
"I know, Mane. It's okay. You're safe now." Melody took a step closer and tried to put an arm around Mane's waist. Mane did not resist. Melody double checked to make sure this was okay with Aria. Airy looked distressed, but in a worried for Mane kind of way. Melody made a note to negotiate dos and don'ts later.
"Yeah! The affini are happy to have you!" Aria chimed in awkwardly. She gave Mane her best smile and Melody's heart melted. Her girlfriend was such a good girl. "And now you're here with us! You're gonna be so happy, I promise." Mane nodded awkwardly and tried to step away. Melody allowed it.
"I...I've heard as much," said Mane. "Several times." It was hard to tell whether she believed it or not. Mane walked in a circle around Melody and looked her over. Her eyes seemed to settle for a few seconds on the scar she got from having Impy installed.
Somewhere in the back of Melody's mind she made a connection that Impy didn't like. The thoughts were separated and silenced before she could tell what they had been. She tried not to dwell on that and Impy helped her to that end. What to think about instead? Ah! Of course! How wonderful it was to be a floret!
"So, um...Mane," Melody began speaking, "you're...becoming a pet, probably, aren't you?" She watched Mane's face as carefully as she could. Her ex seemed put off but not terribly angry or surprised.
"Yeah...I arranged a sort of implant-free trial period, but...beyond that, I'm more or less screwed." Mane sighed and sadly pondered her hands. "I suppose you're going to try and sell me on it?"
"Sweetie," Melody whined. "Can...actually, can I call you that, still?" Mane reluctantly nodded. "Sweetie, I'm not trying to 'sell' you on anything. Capitalism is gone. The affini don't ask anything of us, except that we let ourselves be happy. I'm still...me, okay? I still…care about you." Mane winced. Melody wasn't sure what she'd expected. "Being a floret is lovely, Mane. I get to be loved, and belong, and all my needs are taken care of and I don't have to worry about affording to eat. They're not controlling, at least not-"
"Not any more than I was." Mane finished her sentence for her, her prediction inaccurate but not incorrect. Lots more connections tried to form in Melody's head but Impy dutifully discarded all of them. The air hung heavy between the three humans.
"Not...I suppose," Melody said, her words chosen strategically. Mane's face was clearly not one of positive emotion, but the concoction of foul energies behind it was too complicated for Melody to feel confident trying to identify. Not after the two had gone so long with zero contact. "Sweetie...are you still mad at yourself?"
"Of course I am." Mane was indignant, almost angry. She spat the answer out like it had expired in her mouth and started rotting. "I hurt you, Melody. Of. Fucking. COURSE I'm still angry at myself." Memories came flooding up of Mane's ill-thought attempts at apology, each made encroaching on her when all she needed was space. Impy seemed to be struggling to suppress all of her negative memories and feelings fast enough.
This was hardly a surprise. Mane had never been a forgiving person, except to the people she loved. She held grudges for everything.
"Sweetie, it's okay. I forgive you, see?" Melody gave Mane a nice big smile and tried to bat her eyelashes. The sight of her making a happy face seemed to reach past Mane's defenses and it made her falter...but only for a second.
"So?" Mane's eyes narrowed. "You forgive me. So what? Is that supposed to make it okay? You, the girl with a piece of alien growth grafted into your spine to filter out all negative feelings, forgive me?" Something about the way Mane painted Impy as gaslighting her lit a match in Melody's soul. Against her better judgment and his guidance alike, she snapped back with agitation in her voice.
"And YOU'RE any better an arbiter of right and wrong? You, who once had to ask your friend whether you loved me or you just liked having any kind of POWER over ANYONE?" It was a low blow and Melody knew it. Fuck. "I...I'm sorry." Fuck. "I...I know that was the irrational self loathing part of you back then, and I know that it was inventing bullshit to make you hate yourself, but-"
"Was it?" Mane's eyes seemed tired and cold. It was like the green of her eyes had shifted from that of grass to freezer burned peas. "I'm not so sure, Melody."
"G-girls?" Airy, tears in her eyes, was biting her nails and looking back and forth between the other two humans. "A-a-are you gonna fight?" She heaved in a heavy wet gulp of a breath. "Pl-please don't fight I love you both I'm sorry I'm sorry please stop fighting!"
Mane and Melody froze. The fire inside Melody went out and the ice gripping at Mane thawed. They looked at each other. Both seemed like they felt guilty.
"There, there," spoke Mane first, doing her girl voice for the first time since she arrived. It was sweet, lilting, slow and gentle. Aria seemed to freeze out of surprise alone. "I'm sorry Airy. We won't fight anymore. Okay?" She threw a look in Melody's direction. Melody knew what it meant:
Not in front of her. Understood.
"Yeah," cooed Melody in a soothing purr. She joined Mane in snuggling Aria. "Come on, let's put some cartoons on for you."