27. Ah.

by anna//bool

Tags: #cw:noncon #D/s #dom:female #Human_Domestication_Guide #petplay #slow_burn #sub:female #anxiety #dom:imperialism #dom:internalized_imperialism #dom:plant #drugs #f/f #hurt/comfort #hypnotic_voice #nonbinary_character #ownership_dynamics #panic_attacks #pov:bottom #pov:multiple #pov:top #scifi #sub:the_horror_of_existence_in_a_caring_universe #transgender_characters

Chapter Twenty Seven: Ah.

It was dark and silent. The air was the comfortable kind of warm that could be easily forgotten. Neither too hot, nor too cold. There was no clank from adjusting panels or whirr from struggling life support. No banging of footsteps or of people grabbing handholds. The bed was a kind of comfortable that seemed like something out of a faerie story. Seemingly endlessly soft yet still providing the exact right support for Katie’s body regardless of whether she tried to sleep on her back, her side, or her front. If she lay out flat, it was comfort beyond imagination. If she curled up, it was cozy to a degree she would never have dared consider.

She tried every different way of sleeping and all of them were perfectly comfortable and none of them let her get back to sleep. There wasn’t enough light to see if Katie’s eyes were open or not, but they were. She could tell.

Katie groaned, forcing herself to sit. Soft red night lights rose with her, drawing her attention over to the door and warning her of all the room’s edges.

“No, no, I’m awake, ugh,” she groaned. How was she meant to actually control these lights? June had said voice would work, right? “Uh, can I have the lights on normally?”

No change. Katie sighed. She wished she could go back to sleep, but she’d been trying for longer than was okay and she’d only succeeded in getting herself frustrated. “Please?”

The lights transitioned over to their prior gentle yellow-white over the course of a few seconds. At their peak, the floor-to-ceiling window that formed the far wall of the room returned to transparency, revealing the height of Dirt’s mid-day sun. Katie shied away, groaning as the light burned her retinas, but thankfully it only took a few moments to acclimatise.

Katie grabbed her communicator in clumsy fingers as she dragged herself out of the bedroom. The main room was exactly as she’d left it. The gentle sounds of the stream were the only noise she could make out and nothing had moved. This was hers. It was baffling and she had no idea what to do with it.

Bathroom. She stumbled through the door into the small, functional bathroo—

Into the biggest bathroom Katie had ever seen. It was still a bathroom, but the titular bath was closer to a swimming pool. Katie wasn’t sure she’d ever seen a bath, never mind one this big. It wasn’t something that was done in space, it was ridiculous. In space, you cleaned with a cold damp cloth and your own disappointment.

Bathing wasn’t Katie’s goal, though. She took a few minutes to figure out how she was meant to use a toilet that didn’t involve uncomfortable tubes, and then she washed her hands in a fancy but ultimately familiar sink. Katie looked up at the large, well lit mirror and jumped. She didn’t recognise the person reflected back at her.

Katie whirled around with her heart racing, but there was nobody there. Just her. Her gaze returned to the mirror and her breath left her body. She raised a hand to her face and dragged slender fingers over soft skin. They hadn’t exactly had mirrors on Dirt, but it really hadn’t been long enough that she’d been expecting to see anything unusual.

Katie saw Katie.

Cuter than she looked in the pictures, according to Rosaceae. It hadn’t been condescension. It had simply been a fact. Katie saw her own smile and started a rapid process of checking herself over that ended up with her half-burned Cosmic Navy jumpsuit forgotten on the floor to one side. She wasn’t perfect—goodness knew that the many marketers of Terra had ensured she would know that—but the progress was undeniable. Thatch’s guiding hand over Katie’s form. Katie snapped a few pictures and made a note to send them to her affini, and only her affini. Regardless of what this culture thought about propriety, Katie was not about to start sending nudes to people she didn’t know on her second day.

A quick rummage through the wardrobe back in the bedroom confirmed that the affini had no idea how to make clothes. Every one felt like it was so smooth it would fall right off, and most had cuts so alien Katie wasn’t even sure how to begin putting them on. She returned to her jumpsuit, as scratchy as it seemed by comparison.

Kitchen. The not-quite-dirt was soft against her toes on the short trip over to the kitchen. How would she start her day? Usually it wouldn’t take more than a few seconds for Katie’s movement to wake Thatch and after that everything generally went quite smoothly, but of course, she’d been rescued from that. This was better. Katie had the freedom to do whatever she wanted.

Katie stared at the recessed box that was whatever June had called the magic replication machine. This was the first day of the rest of her life and it seemed important to start as she meant to go on. So, a quick, satisfying breakfast, and then she’d find something good to do with her day.

What was breakfast? What could breakfast be?

“Uh, do you have a menu?” Katie directed her question towards the box. It felt silly, but Katie guessed that a reliance on vocal interfaces made sense when you couldn’t really be sure whether any particular species would even have fingers.

“Of course I do, sweetcorn!” the box chirped. Katie groaned. She could practically see the exclamation marks piling up in her mind “I don’t have any special little filters set up for you, wow! I guess you must be a very special—” The voice cut off mid-sentence and another picked up. It was clearly somebody else speaking. “Error! Species translation not found, whoops! Please contact the local administrator for Error! Species information not found, whoops!”

The original voice returned as if nothing had happened. It spoiled the illusion a little but it was somehow comforting to know that the machines weren’t really sapient. “Tell me what you’d like and I’ll whip it right up for you! If you’re having trouble deciding, that’s okay! I’m sure your— Error! Owner reference not found!” There was a cough and then, more quietly, as if the person doing the recording had looked away from the microphone. “Do we really need to record all these? When is this ever going to happen?”

Katie pulled a face, but she did actually feel grateful for the momentary distraction, even if it was only because she’d found something she needed to change. “Can I get the non-floret translations, please?” she asked.

The machine buzzed for a moment, and then continued talking. The voice was a lot less enthusiastic. “Awaiting instructions,” it said. Katie couldn’t help but imagine the affini who had recorded the line sitting there bored and restless. Why had they recorded it at all?

Katie stared at the box. It would do anything she asked. She had no idea what she wanted.

“Actually, I’m fine, don’t worry about it.”

“Acknowledged.” The voice wasn’t grumpy, it just wasn’t engaged. It wasn’t engaging. It reminded Katie of every automated speaker system or voice command system in the Terran Accord, though in those cases the voices usually sounded miserable instead of merely bored.

So why record it? Hell. It was for her, wasn’t it? She had no idea who’d written and recorded those lines, but they’d done it specifically so that Katie and others like her could be more comfortable even though it was clearly a sacrifice for them.

If there was one thing that the Terran Accord seemed to far outstrip the Affini Compact in it was weaponising its understanding of human psychology. Surely even the most dead-set rebel would have to realise when faced with this machine speaking bored words simply to help them feel more at home that the Affini couldn’t possibly be the monsters they’d been warned about?

Katie gave up on food for the moment and went to sit in one of the unreasonable number of chairs, sofas, or seats dotted around the hab. She grabbed her communicator as she went. Still no response from Thatch. That was getting worrying. She sent a quick extra hello and decided to finally check her inbox.

She’d been on board for about a day and hadn’t expected any mail at all, yet the thing was already packed. Katie skimmed the titles. Elettar-I-M and you! Using internal messaging!!; Greetings from your new shipmates!; Here’s a useful list of lists!!; and Please don’t forget to take your medication!! (and drink lots of water!!!) were all present and sent by the ship itself, or at least some automated system that claimed to be it.

Katie asked the compiler for a glass of water. It complied and compiled, but it seemed as bored with the idea as Katie was. Thatch had given her a little bottle of pills, and there were several more in stasis with instructions to take them daily, so Katie did.

She scrolled down her inbox. The section for messages from actual people was significantly longer than she’d expected. Maybe a dozen messages that were just some variation on hello, with a brief introduction to the sender and an explanation that they were part of the welcome brigade aboard ship. Katie spent a few minutes figuring out how to type before realising she could just respond by voice and have the device transcribe it, and then spent a few minutes more replying with her own greetings in turn. They’d all suggested that she should ask questions if she had them, no matter how little, and seemed very enthusiastic about it. Katie wasn’t sure how to feel about that. She’d never had anybody be enthusiastic to meet her before.

Each name had a few little icons, numbers, and other decorations around it. It didn’t take long to figure out that it was a shorthand for the more ceremonial parts of people’s names around here that designated them either by the number of lifetimes they’d lived, or about as commonly the number of pets their owner had had. The latter had the cuter symbology by far, with every name having its own iconography and styling.

After the greetings there were still a few mails left over. One from June, or rather from June via Erica, with the little icons decorating the mail clearly depicting the power imbalance there. It would have been enough to make Katie blush, except at this point she worried it was all starting to feel normalised. It was essentially another greeting, but she’d attached a bunch of links to documentation on Katie’s new home. Erica had added a note at the bottom confirming that Katie was welcome to come hang out any time, and had attached a picture of her and her florets waving.

Another. Katie smiled. An update from Cici. Somehow, its halting style of speech still came through in text, with words and snippets in different colours, sizes, or fonts as it pieced the message together. It wasn’t a very long message, just a quick update to say they were doing well and they’d made a friend. Given the iconography around that friend’s name, Katie had to wonder how long they’d remain just friends.

Another message. The name on this one was garish in a way that stood out, “Wing Vidalii” with each letter twinkling a different colour. Another floret, though curiously sending the message under her own authority, not that of a caretaker. Even so, part of the decoration around the name linked off to the affini who owned her, while other parts exposed pronouns, species, and a link to a brief biography. This message was, like all the others, a greeting. Katie’s heart fell as she continued on to read a warning that her paperwork wasn’t quite valid and not having species markers would probably cause some problems, followed by an invitation to come have a chat at some address Katie was sure her communicator could lead her to.

Katie sighed. It all should have been exciting, but it wasn’t. It all should have been beautiful, but for whatever reason, she felt like half the colours in the world were missing. This was a utopia and Katie had no idea what to do with it.

Katie put the device down and let out a breath. Okay. It was time to start her day. There were still a few last things to do as part of moving in, but one of the messages in her inbox was somebody asking when she’d be able to have Leviathan delivered, and after sending a quick confirmation the fish was carried over in a small self-contained tank a few minutes later. Katie spent a little while fussing over it and getting it settled into the river that was to be their new home. She compiled some rocks and built a little castle, which Leviathan moved into happily. New homes for both of them.

Still no response from Thatch.

Katie somehow felt cramped. Her walk the day before had been nice, so she decided to repeat it, leaving her apartment and wandering around the ship without much by way of goal. She got a few looks, but nothing by way of hostilities. Just curious smiles and waves, as if the sight of a lone human-looking girl in Cosmic Navy uniform—even if engineering garb was a lot more casual than the actual officers would wear—were, if not normal, not wholly outside of expectations.

The walk helped, a little, but Katie mostly just felt lost. There was so much to see that she didn’t understand and nobody there to tell her about it.

Still no response from Thatch. She was fine. Imagining Thatch in any kind of trouble was almost laughable. Katie knew what it took to stop her affini and nobody else around here had any old Terran battleships to throw at her. It was easier to imagine her being inconvenienced, though. Held up by the system around them or by byzantine rules? Katie grit her teeth. It wasn’t fair, Thatch had been nothing but good to her.

But still no response.

By the time Katie was tired out, she’d walked up and down the arc she now lived on. It didn’t actually seem all that long, though that was before she noticed there were multiple decks on each arc, and that realisation was enough to make her feel small again. Katie made her way home, found some junk television from her childhood, and ate Terran Cosmic Navy standard synthveg ration cubes. She’d start being more adventurous tomorrow.

The next day came and went. As it happened, the bed never stopped being comfortable. There wasn’t really much of a reason to leave it, save for biological necessities. Fascinatingly, the Affini seemed to be cataloguing all of human culture, near as Katie could tell. She spot checked a few of the things she remembered, from back before she was spending too much time in deep space to keep up with anything. It was all there. They even had some of the lost episodes, which Katie had figured were gone for good.

Weirdly, some of the shows had alternate versions now, or at very least new subtitles, for the English/Floret translations. Katie wasn’t sure how to feel about that. They were preserving Terran culture, sure, but it would be their versions that were seen going forward.

Not that there was much in Terran culture that seemed worth keeping. She spent most of the day in bed watching the floret cuts of old cartoons and, begrudgingly, appreciated the way that a lot of the problematic jokes and product placement had been replaced with better things. The plots were tighter, though all the sharp edges and sense of real danger had been filed off. She didn’t appreciate the way it paused every hour to remind her to stretch and drink some water, though in fairness, she did need the reminder.

The day passed slowly. Still no response from Thatch. Katie sent another quick hello and rolled over, hoping to sleep, but the silence was deafening and the bed’s heat, no matter how comfortable, seemed unwilling to truly warm her. The blanket was heavy, pressing down on her like a whole-body hug, but as the night went on the only weight Katie seemed to feel was that of her own anxiety.

By the next morning, Katie inferred that she must have gotten some sleep, but she didn’t feel like it.

Enough was enough.

Katie demanded Thatch’s address from the ship’s registry and headed out. If her affini needed help then Katie wasn’t about to let anything get in her way. It would be a short ride on the ship’s rail system, but Katie needed some time to clear her head and properly wake up. Her communicator suggested it would take about an hour to walk, and that suited her just fine.

Despite the many sights and sounds of shipboard life, Katie could not be distracted. If Thatch needed her help, she was going to provide it one way or another.

It didn’t feel like the whole hour before Katie was knocking on Thatch’s door. Thirty seconds or so passed, but it eventually slid open. Katie’s face split into a smile, suddenly relieved. Thatch looked okay. More green was poking through, healthy-looking growth slowly overtaking the darker shades of Dirt.

“There you are!” Katie exclaimed. “I’ve been messaging you, are you okay?”

Her affini looked momentarily taken aback. The leaves around her chest rustled as she glanced away. “I am very well, thank you. My apologies, I might have missed the incoming messages. My own communicator is far out enough that the retrieval drone has not yet returned.”

That made some kind of sense. It didn’t explain what had stopped her from stopping by, but surely something had been going on.

Katie nodded, stepping forward into a quick hug around one leg. She took a deep breath, savouring the familiar scent and the comfortable heat, and finally felt her blanket of anxiety began to lighten. Her grip tightened, clutching to her affini’s leg like she was afraid it would walk away. Thatch froze for a moment, but quickly recovered, resting a hand over Katie’s shoulder and gently prying her free. “It is nice to see you,” Thatch mumbled. “I… had been— Never mind, that is in the past.”

Katie smiled upwards but it again took a moment before one came back down, and even that seemed almost reluctant. Katie felt her heart waver. She should have come sooner. “It’s a lot to get used to, being here, huh?” Katie asked. There was a moment without an answer, and Katie was starting to feel awkward standing on the doorstep. “May I come in?”

A pause. “Oh. Yes. It’s— Please pay no mind to the mess.”

Thatch stepped back and granted Katie access. If her own hab was a work of art, then this one was… not. After experiencing a dwelling designed for her own scale, Katie found one scaled up to Affini size felt almost cramped. She laughed at her own absurdity, knowing that even at this size the home was absurdly luxurious. A clean, white, oversized sofa took up one of the hexagonal wall pieces, and on the other side of the room was a kitchenette that, strangely, looked far more traditionally human than Katie’s did, albeit scaled up.

As for mess, she found none. In fact, there were barely signs of life at all. No books, no decoration, no letters, no pictures. A small collection of glasses hung partially out of a recession in the wall—Katie guessed an atomic compiler of Thatch’s own—but aside from that it could have been brand new. There was a desk at the far side of the room that had a few tools and what looked like a half-completed project, but that was the only concession to life in the entire space.

Katie looked up at her plant with concern. Thatch waved her off and retreated back to the sofa.

“Are you sure you’re okay, hon? You’ve been acting a little off basically since we got here, and I think I’ve lived in places more personal than this.” Katie hurried over and spent a moment trying to climb onto the sofa. She almost had it once or twice, but gravity soon discouraged her, so she just sat on the floor instead.

Thatch seemed distracted. Certainly she reacted to Katie as quickly as she always had, but the focus wasn’t there. Katie wondered if the ship was simply so safe that Thatch no longer felt the need to pay attention, but that didn’t quite fit. Thatch had never been one to call things safe enough.

“I am fine,” Thatch stated, firmly. She didn’t seem fine.

“Thatch, I haven’t heard from you in days. Are you s—”

“Katie, I do not need you checking up on me,” Thatch snapped. “I can take care of myself and you have more important things you should be doing with your time.” Thatch wasn’t even looking at her. Katie stared for a moment, blinking rapidly. She felt the force of the rejection almost physically, like she’d been slapped, and she didn’t know why. Was Thatch even saying anything unreasonable, there? They were, at best, friends and none of the friends Katie had ever had, before everyone had slowly drifted away, would ever have chased her down like this. Was she just being clingy?

A thick kind of silence settled over them. Katie looked down, suddenly feeling the urge to inspect her own extremely worn standard issue Cosmic Navy shoes. “Sorry,” she mumbled, eventually. It drew a sigh from up above, and a moment later the comforting sensation of Thatch’s gaze having fallen upon her.

“No, I am sorry. You do not deserve that. You are here now, so please, tell me about how you’ve been.” Thatch’s hand trailed down to press a finger or two against the top of Katie’s head. There was a sensation of a soft smile from above. The girl smiled back, leaning up into Thatch’s fingers with closed eyes. She’d missed this. The bad feelings slipped away.

“Of course!” Katie chimed, happy for the opportunity to rescue them from the silence. She would have preferred for Thatch to see the hab for herself, but it seemed a worthwhile sacrifice to describe it to her instead. To Katie’s surprise, her enthusiasm was not reflected.

“I do not know if it is so wise to cling to the past like that, Katie. We are here now and it may be best to focus on what you can build anew. Let… all that become just a faded memory.” The fingers against Katie’s hair shied away.

Katie blew out a breath and shuffled around, raising to her knees and grabbing Thatch’s hand before it got too far away. With both of hers, she pulled it in and held it close. Something wasn’t adding up here. “What is up with you, Thatch? Tell me what’s wrong.”

The fingers in Katie’s grip curled, but didn’t break free. Thatch spent a moment with her body churning, gaze pointed over towards the door. “I said that I do not need this,” she complained. Her voice lacked a sharp edge.

“We’ve been taking care of each other, right? That doesn’t stop just because we’re here, does it?” Katie held the fingers tight and pulled them closer. Kneeling on the hard floor wasn’t comfortable, but Katie wasn’t about to lose the moment by moving.

“Katie, I…” Thatch seemed to be intentionally averting her gaze, but thankfully that left her unable to break out of Katie’s grip. She had the strength to do it, of course, but Katie knew that she wouldn’t dare do so without being certain Katie wouldn’t be hurt, and that required attention.


“I think it would be best if you tried to focus on building your own separate life here. I have many things to do. I have applied to be part of the team extracting the others of Cici’s kind and I should focus on where I can be useful. You should focus on other things.”

Katie’s sixth sense was all over the place. One moment she felt distress, the next panic, anger, sadness, or hate. She pulled the hand closer, though still failed to capture Thatch’s attention.

“I don’t think I understand, Thatch. We can both be doing our own thing without having to lose this, can’t we? What am I missing?” Katie’s fingers tightened, clutching Thatch’s hand with a strained grip.

It took a few moments for Thatch to respond. Her more human mannerisms were controlled, but Katie could tell something wasn’t right.

“No, we can’t. I am sorry. I am not so broken that I need your constant attention. You have more useful things to do.” Her voice dripped with a kind of poison, but Katie didn’t get the sense it was aimed at her. It stung, all the same, to hear Thatch speaking of herself that way.

“Th- Thatch, I don’t think—”

Her plant growled and turned her gaze back for just long enough to pull her hand free of Katie’s grasp. “No, you do not think. You are not aware of the consequences of your actions. I can not work with somebody who does not understand what they are doing.” Finally, the poison was aimed at Katie herself. She flinched.

“So teach me?” Katie spent an awkward moment pushing herself up to her feet, with stiff knees and uncomfortable ankles. Even standing at her full height, she somehow still felt shorter than she had on her knees just a moment ago.

“I can not. I have failed with you, Katie, do you understand? I have tried to teach and you have not learned.” Katie’s eyes darted across the quiver of her friend’s lattice. Tension, maybe even anger? Katie had only seen it a handful of times before, and never directed at herself. It still didn’t feel aimed at her. “You can not learn.”

“What the- What haven’t I learned?” Katie asked, taking an involuntary step back. She was missing something here. Some crucial fact that justified the sudden turn. She could figure this out. It could still all be okay. She just had to focus. “I’ve been trying! I thought I was being a good student? I— I’ve been doing my best?”

Katie let out a quick growl—though it sounded more like a whimper—aimed at her own failing body. This wasn’t the time to start crying. She had a problem to solve and that wasn’t helpful. Logic and emotion did battle and, like always, logic was revealed for the sham that it truly was. Katie’s frustration sublimated into a thick cloud of upset. She couldn’t focus on anything useful when she was fighting back tears.

“I—” Thatch’s voice wavered, paused, and then transitioned into a sigh. Two firm hands reached down to grab under Katie’s armpits and lift her up onto the sofa, into Thatch’s waiting lap. “No, flower, you have been the best student.” One hand tugged free a bundle of leaves from over Thatch’s shoulder and brought them up to Katie’s nose, while the other nested in her hair. “Blow your nose. I am sorry. Let us talk as the equals we are supposed to be.”

Katie nodded rapidly, making the humiliating sound of nose blowing directly into plantlife, which Thatch quickly discarded. She curled up tighter, leaning into her plant’s body, then grabbed the other arm and forced Thatch into a hug. “What did I do wrong?” Katie asked. “I’ll do better, I promise. Please?”

Thatch let out a long sigh, shaking her head. She squeezed a little tighter, in time with her words. “You did nothing wrong. It is I who made the mistake, flower. I am only trying to act in your own best interests.”

There was a grunt from Thatch’s lap, and a gentle punch in the stomach. Katie sniffed down a surge of emotion. “If I wanted somebody to do that without asking me about it I don’t think I’d have any trouble finding it around here. Talk to me?”

Thatch’s hands curled again, but this time one was against Katie’s shoulder and the other was in her hair. The girl couldn’t help but smile, leaning into the tighter squeeze. Thatch’s warmth could chase her shadows away.

“You have been feeling aimless, lost, and uncertain. Like half the colour has left the world and you don’t know why. You forgot to brush your teeth this morning and, if you have taken your medication, I suspect it was because somebody else reminded you. I suspect that you have not been sleeping well, and eating only when you are too hungry to ignore it.”

Katie winced. “I wouldn’t… put it so bluntly, Thatch, I thought this wasn’t things I’d done wrong?”

“You have not. That was me. Now, you are feeling comfort.” Katie could hardly deny it. Her plant had her in a tight grip and there was nowhere safer to be. Thatch had her troubles, but Katie had this deep-seated certainty that if they could just stick together, they could deal with whatever came their way.

A vine brushed against Katie’s chin. She lifted it, staring up into Thatch’s waiting gaze. “You are feeling safe.” Hardly an answer that would win awards. What possible danger could face them here?

“Warm.” The vine brushed across Katie’s stomach, leaving a trail of tingling heat that begged for touch. “You want to get closer. You want to put your skin against my body.” Katie did? Katie did.

Thatch’s smile slipped away, and Katie felt a low chill running down her spine. “Cold.” As the heat died away, the need for touch only rose. “Desperate.” As the tingles became overwhelming, Katie felt her focus faltering. She tried to lean into Thatch’s body, but a vine kept her away. “Needy,” her affini sighed, as Katie rubbed her cheek into the vine that was trying to maintain some distance between them.

Thatch was so warm. Katie cold. Thatch warm and soft. Smelled nice. Felt nice. Tasted nice, though Katie wasn’t testing that just then. Not for lack of trying. Katie sighed, but it was a contented sigh, feeling Thatch’s warmth spreading through her core.

“Katie,” she snapped, pulling the girl back to the present, then helping her sit up. “You must understand, I did not know. I know that you did not want this, but I cannot reverse that which I have done.”

Katie blinked repeatedly, almost as if she was waking up from a light sleep. She frowned, looking up at Thatch with a gentle frown. “Sorry, I… think I drifted off, there. I didn’t sleep great last night. Could you say that again?”

Thatch placed one hand on Katie’s shoulder, and the other gently beneath her chin, making sure she could speak directly to Katie’s attentive face. “You did not drift off. I have spent weeks drawing you into a trap and you cannot even see it. It is not your fault. You simply lack any way of fighting my influence. I have tried to teach you independence and all I have achieved is turning you into this.”

Thatch’s fingers curled, falling away from Katie’s body. “What do you mean, ‘this’? What’s wrong with me? You said I hadn’t done anything wrong.” Katie’s frown only intensified as she tried to take Thatch’s hand again, though found it evasive.

Thatch took a handful of breaths, pauses, and sighs. Her hand raised as if she were about to speak, but fell several times, before she finally managed the words. She gestured to Katie in entirety. “This, Katie. This… eager, attentive thing sitting on my lap unable to even begin to comprehend the control I have over it. When we first met, you nearly killed me. When we talked, I found you a fascination, both willful and talented, albeit without any chance to have learned the skills you could learn here. You forced me into compromise and demanded your independence and I was happy to provide it.”

Katie stared up, not quite comprehending. There was a logical leap here that she felt like she should be making, but it just wasn’t coming. Thatch was speaking like she was any different, now, but Katie didn’t feel any different. Happier, maybe, for her experiences, but the essential Katie underneath was no different.

Thatch radiated a gentle desperation. Her expression fell over long moments. “And you cannot see it even when I dangle every piece before you.” She let out a long sigh. Katie smiled, feeling the gentle heat and smelling the soft scent. “That is why I say you cannot learn, flower. You cannot fight my influence, and my influence turns you into this. Katie, I am an alien from a culture practically inconceivable to you.”

Katie’s smile wavered. Why was Thatch saying these things? Katie wasn’t acting out of the ordinary, was she. She opened her mouth to question, but Thatch kept her quiet with half a look.

“We have made pets of your civilisation. Even the individuals who are free still live under our rule. We have done this to humanity. We have done this to creatures that knew only war, or to those who knew only peace. We have done this to those on the brink of devastation and to those expanding at an exponential rate. We have done this to all of you. Do you think we have no tricks? The creatures of this universe are helpless before us. You are helpless before me. I am a fraud. You do not enjoy my company; you do not even know me. My every movement, my every breath, my every word worms through your will and binds you to me and you are incapable of resisting it. You believe you are feeling these things only because, on some subconscious level, I demand that you feel as I do. You cannot fight it. You cannot even see it, even when I lead you right up to the answer and ask you to take only the final step unaided. If I were to click my fingers and demand you be mine, I suspect you would feel relief and gratitude.” Thatch’s hands remained gentle, but hesitant.

Katie’s did not. She struggled until she could sit up. “What the fuck are you talking about? We’re equals, remember? You said we were equals. I’m not… whatever you’re talking about, I’m not.” One of Thatch’s hands came in to grab Katie’s chin, but they’d played that game more than enough times now. Katie set her teeth and stared Thatch down, and it was her affini who faltered. “Go on, then. Try it.”

“Katie, you do not want this. I have… corrupted you with a need I cannot fulfill. I guarantee that if you continue spending time with me you will be property by the end of the week.”

Katie couldn’t believe what she was hearing. This was bullshit. This was unfair. “You arrogant prick,” Katie growled. “Do you think you’re magic, or something? We are friends, Thatch.” Katie struggled up to her feet. Standing on Thatch’s thighs, she could almost reach eye level. “I do not want to be your fucking pet.”

“Yes, you do.” Thatch sighed. “You may not realise it, but you soon will. The decision is no longer in your hands.”

Katie raised her hands in an exaggerated shrug. “Bullshit. I don’t want to be anybody’s pet, Thatch, least of all yours.”

Two vines wrapped around Katie’s wrists and, with a sharp yank, pulled her back down. Another pair adjusted her legs as she dropped, forcing her back onto her knees. A hand rose to her chin, forcing it up to stare straight into Thatch’s eyes. Katie felt her heart beating hard in her chest. “Lashing out at me will not change the facts. We are not equals, Katie. We cannot be. We never were. I was a fool to entertain the idea.”

Katie bore her teeth, but a slight shift of Thatch’s grip was enough to render her unable to speak. She pulled against the vines binding her wrists, but no matter how she pulled, Katie couldn’t move at all. In fact, with just three points of contact she was immoblised, finding that no matter how she tried to move she always found herself stuck long before she could have achieved anything. It would have been an impressive show of understanding over the movement of Katie’s body if it hadn’t been so stupid.

“You have one choice left that you can make. Return to your home and focus on setting up your new life. Perhaps in a decade or two it will be safe for you to be around me again and I would very much like it if you would get in touch so that I can hear the story of how your life has been. Alternatively, find somebody you like and become theirs, let them give you that which I can not, and then I will happily spend as much time with you as they permit. Do you understand?”

Katie wanted to shake her head and Thatch’s grip kept her too tightly held to do so. The arrogant bitch would only accept a nod. Katie wasn’t about to give her one. They stared each other down until Thatch’s resolve faltered. Her stupid plant glared a hole in the ceiling for a few moments, biting down words until they burst out anyway.

“Katie, I am doing this for your own good! Can you honestly tell me that you do not wish to be mine?” Thatch’s hand fell away and Katie nodded, thick with exasperation.

“Yes! Yes, I can!”

Thatch’s teeth were many and razor sharp. Katie had stared down the maw of a dragon and known she would be safe, but this had the edges of a danger that she knew wasn’t meant to be present here. “Do not lie to me, little one,” Thatch growled, whole body taking on jagged angles. “You will speak the truth to me, and you will do nothing but. You trust me. Submit to this.”

“I am not lying!” Katie exclaimed. “I trust you because you’re a friend. I like spending time with you, and, yes, okay, I’m not very good at taking care of myself, and I appreciate your help! It’s nice to know that there’s somebody who actually gives enough of a damn about me to care whether I’m taken care of! Can you really not imagine that I might want to spend time with you without me having been tricked into it?”

Katie could feel the turmoil in Thatch’s soul drilling down into hers. Was she winning this argument? Was it even an argument? Katie was still missing something.

“I have seen it in numbers, Katie. You can lie to me, you can lie to yourself, but you cannot lie to our medical technology.”

Katie opened her mouth, head falling back in exasperation. “Is that 100% accurate? No mistakes at all, among a trillion trillion species? It’s so good that you’ll trust it over me?”

Thatch’s shoulders fell. She lost an inch of height and most of her fire. “No, but… Katie, I cannot take this risk. Please. I will beg if you make me. Yellow and red, I cannot.” Thatch’s panic was evident, screaming in over Katie’s sixth sense and every other sense beside. “If there is a one in a million chance that I would destroy you, then I cannot take it, and the chances are much greater than that.”

Her affini’s hands balled into fists, and her vines tensed. “You do not know me. You cannot. I have lived an entire lifetime, longer than you would ever have in a world utterly outside of your experience. We have spent weeks together. I am very fond of you, Katie. Another in my place would gladly take you, but I am not worth your time.”

Katie took in a long, deep breath. Ah. Was that what she had been missing?

“Do you… want to take me, Thatch?” Katie asked, voice wary. Nothing else had shaken her resolve, but Katie felt the sharp sense of danger here twisting to a point. Her affini looked up in alarm, leaning away as if to get as much distance from Katie as possible.

“It does not matter what I want, Katie, please do not ask me that.”

“Thatch. Do you want me to be your pet?” Surely not. No. Of course she didn’t. They’d talked about this. It was the foundation of their relationship. Katie wanted her freedom and Thatch didn’t want to take it away. It was what had made Thatch safe. Thatch had been meant to understand her. Katie’s eyes snapped around to Thatch’s hands, suddenly wary of where they might go.

Thatch raised them up by her head. “I…” The air was rustling through her body fast enough to form a breeze. The smell alone was enough to get Katie calming down. She felt sick. Katie didn’t feel like she should be calm. Maybe she hadn’t noticed it before, but now there was dissonance, and the problem was clear as day.

Katie was being manipulated.

She stumbled back, almost falling off of Thatch’s knees entirely in her hurry to get back onto her own two feet and away from Thatch’s scent. Had all of this just been a trick, to get Katie to lower her guard?

“Yes or no, Thatch. It’s a simple question. Don’t give me any bullshit. Yes or no?” Katie’s hands were balled into fists, but she was shaking. Going against Thatch like this was almost painful. Some deep part of her even now wanted to smile and accept whatever came her way. Katie wanted to be sick.

Thatch looked down, suddenly focused on the floor. “…Yes.”

Katie’s heart plummeted. She’d detonated a battleship just outside of this hull and failed to harm it or Thatch, but she felt like the force of her disappointment would blow open a Katie-shaped hole into space. Her lower lip wavered as enough emotions she couldn’t hope to place them all rose up from the gap where her heart used to be. The worst part of all was that Thatch was right. There was relief in there. There was gratitude. There was an urge to kneel and beg for Thatch to make it so. If it weren’t for the fire in Katie’s heart burning so hot she could hardly see straight, who knew if she might have done it?

“Explain,” Katie growled.

“Yes. I do.” Thatch’s voice was halting. “I have been feeling it for some time now. I— I would never act upon it, Katie, you must understand that. I know that the things I want are wrong. You— You are beautiful and precious and I love you and I wish I could trust myself around you. I would never break you, not really, I just—”

Thatch cut herself off, seeing Katie’s reaction. The girl was backing off, eyes wide. “Not really? What does that mean?”

Thatch let her hands drop, along with her shoulders and much of the rest of her body. She couldn’t bring herself to look Katie in the eye, or so it seemed. Katie was second guessing her every assumption, now. How had she missed this?

“Answer the fucking question, Thatch.”

There was silence for long moments. The Thatch that spoke next was quiet and hollow, barely more than muttering. “I wouldn’t have done it. I am… broken, Katie. Caeca’s loss has grown heavier each day and sometimes I can think of nothing but taking you apart and studying every piece. Sometimes I want nothing more than to put you back together again in so many new ways until I understand you so deeply that I can be certain that what happened to her will never happen to you. Sometimes I fear that I would fail and leave you broken.” There was a long pause. “Sometimes I want that. You would look… divine, with your mind filled with nothing but endless pleasure and memories that could never stretch more than instants back. Just like her.”

Thatch still didn’t dare look towards Katie. Probably she knew what she would see. Quivering limbs and betrayal. “Ah. I… should go,” Katie whispered, through dry lips and wet eyes, before fleeing the room in tears. She didn’t stop running until she made it to her own hab where the doors could be locked, the lights could be off, and nobody could hear her screams.

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