Chapter Twenty Eight: Slow Burn
Thatch emitted a low, grinding growl, face moving through surprise towards frustration at a rapid pace. The surprise, at least, was understandable. Over the last thirty seconds, Thatch had gone from alone to having Katie clambering down a boarding chute towards her. “What are— Katie, what do you think you are doing? Leave me be. You do not want anything to do with me.”
The shuttle was much like the one that Katie had ridden to get to the Elettarium in the first place, with the slight difference that it was also tugging a habitation unit along behind it. Or, it had been, anyway. With a ten foot wide hole in the hull it was no longer doing much of anything. Lights flickered, life support tried and failed to re-engage, and any ability to navigate seemed entirely non-operational.
Thatch’s shape had taken on hostile angles. Vines stretched out to anchor her against handholds and around solid pieces of the ship’s architecture. Her movements were discordant, exuding danger in a language that skipped words and spoke straight to the animal core of Katie’s self. Despite her certainty, Katie couldn’t help but shy away.
“Don’t pretend to really care what I want, Thatch,” Katie snapped, clinging on to her own handhold tightly enough her knuckles were going white. “You ran away without even talking to me about it! You owe me more than that!”
Her affini glanced around. There was nowhere to go. The only escape from the broken shuttle was the boarding tube, and Katie blocked the way. Thatch emitted a dull groan, almost like the roar of a great monster, but deeper. Sharper. Far more dangerous.
“Of course I care,” she hissed. “I have never let you hurt yourself before and I will not let you do it now. I am not good for you, Katie. You will be best off if I simply disappear and spare you the temptation.” Thatch’s body moved at sharp angles, more than a few thorns bared.
Katie bared her teeth. Even after all this, she wasn’t penetrating Thatch’s idiocy. Katie called Thatch’s bluff, hauling herself forwards into a danger she knew wasn’t truly there. She sailed through microgravity. “That isn’t your choice to make. If you just run away then what do you think happens to me? Do you think I’ll suddenly stop caring about you? I won’t! I don’t understand what you’re doing. Tell me what I’m missing. Give me a hint?”
Thatch knocked her aside with a vine. It was a gentle sweep but it still sent Katie tumbling and she had to scramble to find another handhold to steady herself. “I will break you,” Thatch growled. “I can not take you. I am sorry that I have screwed up so badly that you will chase me across the galaxy to throw yourself at me, but I can not take a pet.”
Katie clung to her perch, breathing heavily. “Thatch, you are really, really dumb. Shut up and listen to me. I do not want to be your pet. Stop blaming yourself for things you haven’t done and talk to me.”
A silence fell over the shuttlecraft. The violence in Thatch’s stance seemed to bleed away over long moments, leaving her looking awkward and confused. She opened her mouth to ask a question a few times before figuring out anything to say. She sighed. Almost begged. “You are not capable of fighting me, Katie. You will lose yourself and you cannot stop me. If you throw yourself at my heel I will crush you under it.”
“I don’t want to be your pet. I don’t want to take your name. I don’t want to lose my agency. The idea terrifies me. Sure, the drugs feel nice, and the comfort is good, but in case you hadn’t noticed—” Katie threw her arm out behind her, to the boarding tube— “You brought me somewhere where all that and more is just given to me. I can get drugs delivered to my door. I can get somebody to come around and keep me company whenever I want. There is a line of people who want to be my friend.”
Thatch slowly pulled her vines back into her body, one at a time. Even like this, she was larger than life. “Then why are you here? Why will you not simply let me leave without… this? Have I not done enough harm, that you must force me to hurt those around me more?”
Katie took a deep breath. She didn’t speak for long moments, not because she was lost for words, but because she’d typed them out in so many unsent messages they felt sharp just to think about. “Because I have everything I want and I’m still not happy. I’ve spend days pouring through the records. You have translated copies of the works of more species than I thought could exist. I’ve talked to the archivist. I’ve tried to build something new. Things are stable, and I’m not happy.”
Katie stared Thatch down. “And neither are you.”
The plant laughed, but she could hardly argue the point. “So you want us to be unhappy together? Katie, I cannot stand the sight of you,” she hissed. “You are the latest in a long line of my failures. Go away and leave me be. There is nothing more for us to discuss.”
Katie shook her head, firmly. “No. You’re just like me. You’re just like all of us dumb creatures of the universe. We all do this. What you’re doing right here. Every sapient species you have on record. We’re all desperate for purpose, and it’s bullshit. We’re animals. Animals don’t have a purpose, we just are. We— Humanity hunted for a reason so hard and for so long that they reached the stars and found it was all for fucking nothing, and so they just kept looking. We aren’t for anything. We fought and killed and argued because we couldn’t agree on why we were fighting, killing, and arguing. We were for nothing, yet we never stopped looking. You’re right here in the mud with me doing the same damn thing.”
Thatch bared sharp teeth. “I cannot change that. I can only try to protect you.”
Katie pushed off of her handhold. Not fast enough to be a threat. Slow enough to take her time to reach the affini.
“Why are you so afraid of me, Thatch? I know you couldn’t save Caeca. I know something happened with Cici’s people. I know that nobody back on that ship even knows you. I don’t know what you’re running from, but please don’t run from me. I know you couldn’t save them all, Thatch. Just save me? I need you.”
Thatch reached out with a hand to meet Katie as she arrived. She wrapped it around one of Katie’s and held tight. The girl stared into Thatch’s quivering eyes. “Please.”
“You do not know what you are asking,” Thatch whispered. “Katie, I do not know how to save myself, never mind you. I do not trust myself with you. I would go too far and you cannot stop me.”
Katie brought up her other hand, sandwiching Thatch’s between hers. “I’ll learn. You need me. I can help, but you have to work with me here.”
Thatch wanted to look away. Her song was halting, a staccato beat in place of something that was supposed to flow smoothly. “You don’t know what I want to do to you,” she whispered.
“I know you’re worried about that. We’ll work on it together, yeah? Me and you. We’ll make sure it doesn’t happen. You won—”
Thatch growled, knocked Katie’s hands away from her own with a casual gesture, and grabbed the girl’s neck. Katie yelped with the last of her air, suddenly held away from any surface she could reach in an inescapable grip. “I would remake you,” Thatch hissed, straight into the girl’s face. “And you would like it. Do you have any idea what this is like for me, Katie? This isn’t a fear, it’s a promise. It’s what I want. You speak of equality because you do not know what I am. I cannot be equals with something I cannot help but control.”
Thatch began to squeeze, staring down into Katie’s eyes with an impassionate gaze. Katie could feel each finger tight against her neck, adding pressure until she couldn’t even force through a cry, but not the slightest touch more. Taking Katie’s body to its breaking point, precisely. “I want to tear you down into parts and put you back together how I want you.”
Thatch swung her other arm to the side, extending a wide array of flowers in all shapes and sizes as she did. Half of them had injectors. The other half seemed to almost blur the air around them with the potency of their scent.
“I can do it. I know how you work. I know what makes that little brain tick. It doesn’t matter what you want, Katie. It doesn’t matter what scares you. You’ve spent so long trying to find out who you are and it brought you straight to me, and I don’t have to care. I could make you anything,” she growled. Thatch whirled around, slamming Katie into the hull of the shuttle hard enough to rattle her bones and pressed a sharp needle to her arm. “I could make you so afraid of me you’d never stop running. I could make you love me. I could make you hate me, but burn with a need so hot you’d beg to stay.”
Nothing actually pierced Katie’s skin. Aerosols surrounded her in a thick haze, but Thatch had her throat held so tight that Katie couldn’t breathe it in.
“You do not want to be near me. I have rarely lied to you but when we first met, I told you that nobody here wanted to take your identity away from you. I would. I would have you to be mine and nothing more and nobody could stop me.”
Katie was clearly struggling to breathe, but she wasn’t fighting. She raised her hands to her own throat and helped Thatch press. After a moment, thin vines pulled her wrists away and she was left gasping for breath. Thatch tried to pull her hand back, but Katie yanked one of hers from a hesitant vine and grabbed hold. It took long moments before Katie had the breath to speak.
“I’ll stop you. You won’t go too far. Trust me on this?”
All movement in the shuttle came to an abrupt halt. Even the subtle music Thatch carried with her wherever she went fell silent.
After a long moment of nothing, Thatch spoke, with the anger torn from her voice. “I don’t know what you—”
“Yes you do. We both know you could teach me if you just stopped running from this.” Katie pulled forward, climbing up her affini’s body until she could look the creature straight in the eyes. “I don’t want to be your fucking pet, Thatch, but both of us are getting what we want and both of us are miserable.” Katie bared her teeth. “Come take what you need. Show me how to give it to you.”
“I— No, you—”
“—don’t want this. Yes, I’ve said. Change my fucking mind. Your pretty speech doesn’t scare me. If you need me to suffer, then here I am, but at least let me be doing it for you. Give me a purpose, Thatch.”
The affini opened her mouth to protest, but nothing came out.
Katie jabbed a thumb into Thatch’s leafy chest. “Make me make you happy, you utter fuck. I know you can do it. The only time in my life I’ve felt worth a damn was when I was stuck on that rock with you. It wasn’t just the drugs, it wasn’t just the kindness, and it wasn’t just the support. I have all that now and it’s not enough. I need you. You didn’t have to make me love you. I already do.”
A dawning horror spread across Thatch’s face. She backed away, soon finding herself cornered against the glass. She shook her head. When she managed to speak, her voice was tiny, strained. “I am not worth this. You could be so much more.”
Katie’s hand found Thatch’s cheek, forcing their eyes together. “I will be. I trust you. I’ll want this. I’ll be better when I’m yours. Don’t let me have a choice about that. Please, Thatch. Please.”
“You’ll be like Caeca,” Thatch breathed. “Just a shell.”
“Is that what you want me to be?”
Thatch looked around, panicked, but Katie’s firm hand brought her head back around, eyes fixed in place. Thatch’s lips quivered. A distinctly human expression. “Yes,” she admitted. “But I want to fill that shell.”
Katie’s face softened into a smile, and she pulled herself in to hug around Thatch’s neck. “Good. I’m yours. Teach me.”
Thatch hesitated for just a moment longer. Four powerful vines extended from behind her back and grabbed Katie’s limbs, pinning her in place against the side of the shuttle. Thatch took a deep breath. Katie felt a sharp pain against her neck.
“Tell me to stop. Please,” Thatch whispered. “Just one word.”
Thatch’s lattice quivered, pulling tight and squirming all over. “I… I would need your help. I cannot do this alone.”
“You have it. Take what you want. Just don’t ever let me regret this.”
Katie felt the pain recede as whatever Thatch had just injected into her neck began to spread.
“I need you to fight me,” Thatch growled. “I’ll show you how. Stop me from going too far.”
With dying scraps of sobriety, Katie gave a tiny nod. She didn’t want this. It wasn’t hard to find the energy to fight it. All she had to do was ignore the burning certainty in her gut that Thatch knew better, and that was easy now that Katie knew that whether she believed it would make no difference to the outcome. The fire in her heart that pushed her to keep fighting, to keep struggling for just one more day, burned as hot as it always had. She couldn’t have survived life without it.
She could feel her mind going fuzzy. She couldn’t see anything beyond what was straight in front of her. Her skin burned with need. The leaden weight that had been holding her down crumbled and fell. Katie squeezed shut her eyes and whimpered. She couldn’t budge Thatch’s vines an inch, no matter how she pulled.
Katie’s confidence was wavering. How was she meant to put up any kind of resistance to this? Her body begged for touch, and her mind begged for comfort. It was all she could do to not break down with pleading desperation. She needed this. It barely mattered that she would be broken if the journey there was the bliss she so desperately needed.
Katie felt a finger brush over her cheek. “I know,” Thatch whispered. She seemed so close, but Katie couldn’t even open her eyes. All she wanted to do was stretch towards the source of the voice in eager worship, and she couldn’t. She was held away. “I know this is hard. I…”
Thatch took a deep breath. She was so close Katie could feel the air rushing past her body. “I know you can do this. For me. Focus. You have felt this drug before, you know what it does. Fight it for me.”
Katie opened her mouth, but only for a tiny gasp. This was the least of her challenges, and she was faltering. Katie didn’t want to face the universe by herself, but that wasn’t the point here, was it? She needed Thatch to not be alone in her struggles. She couldn’t do that if she wasn’t around. She couldn’t do that if she was so wrapped up in submission that she lost herself altogether. There had to be another way. For Thatch.
The desperate need for touch didn’t lessen, but it was easier to resist, with the right framing. She wanted to feel soft hands over her every inch, but Katie could have gotten that elsewhere. It was Thatch she needed, and Thatch needed Katie focussed. She gritted her teeth and breathed. Katie forced herself to stop reaching for touch. She forced herself to go slack in Thatch’s firm grip.
“I’m— I think I’m good,” she whispered. This wasn’t going to be too bad. She’d convince Thatch that she was capable of resistance. They could go back to being friends, just… good friends, with more touching.
“I shall be the judge of that,” came Thatch’s answer, breathed like whispers on the wind straight into Katie’s ear. Her back arched, desperate shiver echoing down her spine. It took seconds, but Katie got herself back under control. “Hmn. Very well.”
Katie felt a palm stroking down her cheek. Vines moving along her arms. A hand pressed against her chest.
“Be happy.” Katie smiled.
“Be sad.” Katie frowned.
“No. I need you to fight this, Katie.” Thatch’s voice wavered. “I do not…”
Katie forced away the feelings as best she could and pressed open her eyes. She couldn’t let Thatch down. If Katie failed here, she’d never be able to forgive herself. “Tell me how, please,” she gasped, between waves of feeling Katie could recognise as being not her own, but could not fight. “How does it work? Teach me.”
Her affini took one last moment of insecurity, then nodded. “Tell me, Katie, when you hear a song you like do you tap your foot to the beat?”
“I- Yes, I think?” Katie let out a groan. Holding on at all was already so hard. How was this a useful question? “Can’t you just tell me the answer?”
No, of course not. That was the whole point. Thatch raised an eyebrow. She expected a better answer than that. Katie had to give her one. “Y- yes, I always have. I used to listen to more music when I was younger, and I’d kind of align to it? Walk in time with it, do stuff at its tempo, stuff like that.”
Thatch still didn’t respond. She kept her eyebrow raised, exuding patience. Katie knew that look from dozens of moments from their discussions on the secrets of the universe and everything else besides. It wasn’t enough for Katie to merely answer the question, she needed to understand why it had been asked. Thatch thought Katie had enough information to figure something out.
There were too many distractions. The four vines holding Katie squeezed in a slightly disjoint pattern. Thatch’s palm remained on her cheek, but the fingers were drumming a subtle beat.
One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four.
Why did this seem so familiar?
One, two, three, four.
Where had she heard this before?
Everywhere. It was in Katie’s gait, it was in her breathing, it was the pattern she tapped when her hands were idle. It wormed into her head. Cadence. Rhythm. Beat. It was the beat to which Thatch spoke. The rhythm with which she walked and moved. The cadence of her body’s heat and growth.
Katie’s mouth slightly opened. She dampened dry lips with a dry tongue and coughed. “The… your trick, it’s… it works the same way?”
Thatch’s smile grew wider, but more importantly than that, it grew true. “Yes! Yes, it does. More complicated and subtle than any song could ever hope to be, but… hazardous to your mind. You must resist it or you will lose yourself in me entirely.”
It was the right answer, but it wasn’t enough of an answer. Just knowing how it worked was insufficient. Katie had to know how it could be fought. She looked up at her smiling friend. The smile was like sunshine on her skin, like happiness in her heart.
Like a sixth sense in her head, telling her how to feel and how to act.
“I can fight it,” Katie whispered.
“Then be happy,” Thatch demanded. Katie felt the tug on her heartstrings, demanding she feel a certain way. She could hardly avoid feeling happy with Thatch’s touch on her soul, but she could fight down the smile. She could keep her head, to a point.
“Good. Be sad.” That was harder to deal with. Katie felt her heart sinking. Her morale weakening. Her resistance splintered, but held. She forced a smile to her face. If this was the worst Thatch could throw at her then Katie would be okay.
“Very good. I think we are ready to stop practicing, then. Remember to fight me.”
Thatch’s vines let go, and her affini reached out to grab Katie by the neck. She was held away from the walls, away from anything she might get a grip on, held up towards the broken ceiling of the shattered shuttle. Thatch looked up with a smile. Katie couldn’t help but smile back. She literally couldn’t help it. She felt a vicious spark in her chest and a deep excitement in her stomach. Fear ran through her veins, it just wasn’t her fear. The fire in her heart was faltering, on the verge of going out altogether.
Even with the beginnings of an understanding of what was happening to her, Katie couldn’t fight it. The emotions pressed down on her too heavily. Thatch felt so loudly that Katie couldn’t help but be washed away.
“I can’t fight this,” Katie whispered. “I’m trying, and I can’t. I’m slipping.”
Katie’s grin grew wider in perfect time with her captor’s. “That is exactly why I told you to try. Basic materials science, flower. Things which do not flex under pressure break instead. You, delightful creature that you are, bend to me like you were made for it. But that won’t break you, and I need you broken. Otherwise, you’ll always just bend back.” Thatch brought Katie down until their faces were practically touching. She whispered, insistent. “Do not flex under this pressure, pet.”
How could Katie not? Now that she knew the trick, the effect was impossible to ignore. Impossible to fight. Thatch’s emotions washed over with irresistible force. Katie gritted her teeth. Biological rhythms? Her body operated on autopilot most of the time, but that could be overridden. She focused on her breathing, trying to hold it in her own pattern. Something unnatural, something that couldn’t possibly have been imposed. Two long breaths, then three short, alternating the counts each cycle. Artificial, something that took concentration to maintain. It helped. She could feel the pressure that threatened to wash her away become something she could more easily bear. Something she could start to resist. The flames of independence began to rise in Katie once again.
Thatch grinned. Katie didn’t.
“There we go. Such a good girl. Let’s try again. What are you, underneath it all, Katie?” Thatch’s grip was absolute. Katie tried to force herself free, but she couldn’t move Thatch’s fingers in the slightest. What was it she’d said? If they didn’t flex under pressure, then they would break? Katie tried hammering the knuckles, hoping to find a weak point.
Thatch laughed. “Clever thinking, but that rule is for you, not me. My body would bend before it broke, but we both know that you had your one chance at bending me and the second you failed you were destined to be mine. What are you?”
“I— I don’t know!” Katie squeaked out between gasped breaths. “I haven’t figured that out!”
Thatch shifted her grip so that she could flex her thumb and force Katie’s chin to rise. “Do you need a hint?” she sang. By the stars, her voice was beautiful. Katie didn’t need tapping fingers to show her the rhythm. She never had.
Three deep breaths, two short.
“You said nobody would tell me what I was,” Katie insisted. “You said I’d get to choose for myself!”
Thatch’s low chuckle hammered at Katie’s resolve. “You surrendered that right when you gave me permission to make you mine. Your thoughts aren’t yours to think any more.” Thatch savoured the moment, watching Katie squirm as she rattled through a rapidly shortening list of options for resistance.
The affini grinned, whole body shuddering. She let out a thrilled gasp, focus burning down into Katie’s eyes. “You’re so close, darling. Do you not feel it? You have been humming a single tune your entire life. You know it better than anything, because it is you. The way you move, the way you breathe, the way you think. Can you hear that tune now?”
Katie shook her head, quietly.
“Oh, it is there, still. In the way you resist. In the way you fight. In your desperate grasps for independence.” She brought a hand up to Katie’s chest, just over the heart. “But it is getting quiet. You are so close to silencing it.”
Thatch slowly turned around, pressing Katie into the shuttle wall and stepping close, to hem her in. “What are you?” she asked. Thatch only ever repeated a question when she was trying to show Katie she already knew the answer, but Katie didn’t.
“I don’t know, okay?! How could I possibly know? How could I possibly have figured that out?”
“Well, let us approach the problem systematically. Are you human?” Thatch asked. One hand was still at Katie’s neck, holding her against the wall, but the other was free to stroke the hair out of her face and soak up the sweat from her brow. Every touch sent Katie’s fire surging with fear and indignation.
Katie shook her head. Thatch patted it. “Good girl. That song you have inside of you, the one you can only barely hear. It comes from Terra. You made it your own, but you could only ever sing within your cage. Focus on it. Try to hear it. Try, for me,” Thatch insisted.
Two deep breaths, three short. The rapid beating of Katie’s heart. The frantic pattern of thoughts even now trying to figure out how she could get out of this. The desperate burn within. How could these invaders be repelled? How could the horrors they wanted to perpetrate be argued against? That little kernel in the back of Katie’s head that would never accept that what they were doing could be right screamed.
She shook her head. “I don’t know. I can’t— I don’t know.”
Thatch gave a dissatisfied grunt. “No. Let me show you.”
Her human form dissolved. She fell forward onto Katie, a thousand vines seeking to wrap every part of the girl’s body and hold her tight and still. Katie felt powerful, warm growth covering every inch of her skin, worming under clothing and tearing it free from the far ends of her toes all the way up to her neck and then further still, enveloping her head as well. She was blinded, thrown into silence, surrounded by a cocoon.
She was deposited into a void. Her body was held tightly, but with such precision that she could barely feel the binds.
Nowhere to go. Nowhere to hide. No distractions. There was no possible way out of this other than giving Thatch what she wanted, so the only way to fight was to answer the question. Who was she? Who was the Katie she wanted to be?
Katie felt the fire burning in her heart, urging her to keep struggling, keep fighting. She’d drawn on that fire all her life just to keep going, just to keep trying. It wouldn’t fail her now. The entire Terran Accord hadn’t broken her, she could handle one plant.
The flame warmed her. It flickered with hot desperation and a cold anger in a choreographed dance that had forced her to survive all that had come before. Every hardship, every traumatic event, every little struggle on the way here as Katie had fought for the self-determination she knew she wanted most. If she could just fight this little bit more, maybe she’d get there.
Maybe she wouldn’t. She’d been burning hot her entire life and there was so little left to fuel it. Fighting this creature was just an extension of the fight she’d been having since the day she was born. She was burning out. She’d been burning out for a long time.
She needed an answer. Thatch kept talking about a song, but Katie heard nothing. Just the fire. Just the pain. Maybe Thatch had been right, and there could never be true understanding between them. They were simply too different.
Katie strained her ears and there was nothing.
Nothing but the flame.
Like any emotion, it was part of her. It rose and fell with her. It ebbed and flowed with the breathing of her soul. It sang, in a way, if she listened hard enough, in the right way, and as it did Katie began to understand.
“I hear it,” Katie whispered. Herself. The music in her heart, when all else was silent. Katie, when allowed to sing inside of the cage that was existence in an uncaring universe. With nothing else surrounding her she could finally hear what she was, underneath it all. She heard the song deep within her heart, kept in time by its beating and the cadence of her body and the rhythm of her mind. Katie’s song. Her.
It was mournful. Angry. Sad. A chorus of regrets set to a tune that never quite reached its crescendo. It felt jumbled and vague. This was what she’d been fighting so hard to keep? The identity she’d struggled her entire life to find? It was small. It didn’t really fit together. This was what she had been looking for? This was what she’d been letting burn her up?
What was she? This? This was futile. Yet she held on to it all the same, clutching tight to something that no longer felt worth all the sacrifices. What else could she do? The fire burned too hot to reach anything beyond it. Katie had been wrong. Thatch did understand her. Katie had set her heart ablaze just to survive in the cold, but Thatch was showing her another way. She could let herself cool, let herself be warmed from the outside in, and let her heart sing instead of burn.
“What are you?” Thatch asked, from all around her. The affini’s song was rich, layered, intricate. Catchy beyond belief. Without active effort, Katie was sure that she’d be humming it, but it would always clash with the misery she held so tightly. She couldn’t bring herself to listen, not truly, while her own music played alongside.
“I’m just broken,” she whispered, to her own halting tune.
What even was this that she held so tight? Some essential Katie that she’d always thought that she could be if only the world would stop imposing? Something she had reached for for years, hoping that if she simply kept trading herself away, what was left over at the end would somehow be worth it? She had found that end, now. She could be this. She was this.
Thatch’s vines grew tighter, binding her in totality. Katie struggled and fought with all her strength in every way she could imagine. She couldn’t twitch a finger. She couldn’t open her mouth. She couldn’t even open her eyes. No matter how she struggled, she couldn’t do a damn thing that Thatch didn’t want.
“No.” Thatch spoke to her from every direction. Her body pulsed with gentle heat. The small buds along her vines began to glow in time to all else. Katie’s binds squirmed, finding Thatch’s warmth and rhythm and sticking to it, forcing it into Katie’s body through every inch of her desperate flesh. “Try again.”
Katie whimpered. Three short breaths, three long ones. Or… no, that wasn’t it, she—
Katie fought against her restraints. She had to move. The vines were clamped down around her chest, making it impossible to breathe out of turn. Only her heartbeat was out of Thatch’s direct control. The final home for the last of Katie’s song. The burning fire that was her strength of will.
“I… I am… I… I can’t… Please…” Katie struggled to find the words. She kept her mind focused on the beating of her heart. On keeping her own time. Feeling the searing heat of her own independent spirit. It felt so insignificant next to what surrounded her. How was this any different to holding onto all the other foul, desperate things humanity had internalised within her?
“You can do it,” Thatch whispered. There was no malice here. Just a promise of safety and understanding. Just warmth and a song. Something more fair and real than humanity had ever offered. Katie clutched tighter still to the last piece of herself that she truly had. Thatch was reaching out to her, but the fire was too hot and neither of them could breach it. It was one thing that this plant couldn’t erase. She clung to it with all her might, and—
Katie felt something crack deep inside. Broken notes and shattered music drowned out the flames and Katie was plunged into cold silence. Her heart stopped. Literally, she feared. She could feel herself ebbing away. She could feel the light leaving her eyes. The song inside of her had gone silent. The fire was out. She had nothing. She was nothing.
Thatch’s vines squeezed in a slow pattern, starting at the bottom of her toes and slowly moving up. She was everywhere. Reaching out. “That’s a good girl,” Thatch whispered. “Just let it go. Forget it. Come to me.”
Katie let out a long, slow wail. She wanted to curl up into a desperate little ball, but no matter how she pulled or how she fought, Thatch held her tight in an unbreakable embrace. No escape. “Why do I feel so empty?” Katie whispered, with a voice tiny and weak. Dying out, like her, now there was no driving force left within.
Thatch was releasing her, slowly, from the top of Katie’s head on down. It still felt like her heart hadn’t started back up, but that couldn’t possibly be true. Her affini was reforming with them both at floor level. Thatch knelt, with one set of fingers resting on Katie’s chest, feeling for the beat, and the other tightly clutching both of Katie’s hands.
“You always have been.” Thatch replied, with a voice full of music. Katie could only truly hear it now that she was silent, but somehow, she had known what it would sound like even before the affini had opened her mouth. It was beautiful. “Life has never before allowed you to stop and consider what you really are, underneath it all. Do not despair. Just let me in. Let me take care of everything. I can fix you.”
“I don’t want to be like this any more,” Katie admitted. Her imprecise human tongue could never hope to reproduce the majesty of Thatch’s beat. She tried anyway. She had no other song to sing. “Please. Help me?”
“What are you?”
A complicated question. Katie had been reaching for the answer for so long that she didn’t know what to do with herself now that she’d found and lost it. All she could do was review the evidence arrayed before her like Thatch had taught.
Katie had been searching for what felt like her entire life for who she really was, once everything else got out of the way. Once she was no longer having her head messed with by a rotten civilisation, by the trauma of capitalism, by alien invaders, or even by Thatch. That seemed like it had been such a futile effort in the end. What had been the point?
She could never exist without imposition. Thatch had proved that to her. She’d been given the space she needed to find what lay deep beneath and it had been small and sad. Katie needed to be more than that. The imposition wasn’t holding her back. It was holding her up.
Warm fingers that entwined with Katie’s own squeezed, drawing her attention back to the affini sitting by her side with a soft smile and twinkling eyes. Katie felt happy when Thatch was the one guiding her. Katie felt happy when she was getting to help. Katie felt happy when she imagined bringing a smile to the affini’s face. The song in Thatch’s heart wasn’t small, or sad, or futile. It filled her, endlessly, with a pattern so deep she could never get bored yet so memorable she could never forget.
“I don’t know,” Katie admitted, finally. “I need your help to find out.”
She finally felt the beating of her heart once more, thumping away with Thatch’s comforting cadence. Katie felt herself finally able to begin to relax. She squeezed Thatch’s hand back, tight. She could stop.
Her affini let out a long, slow breath. Her leaves shivered and Katie could feel her excitement, right down to the bones. They smiled, together, as one. It wasn’t Katie following Thatch’s lead, as if her identity had been snuffed out. She took her place as another instrument in Thatch’s orchestra, playing her song in a whole new way.
Katie understood what it meant to fight, now. Not pointless, futile resistance, as Terra demanded, but simple contrast. She didn’t need to ruin Thatch’s music to be herself, she just had to provide her own accompaniment.
Thatch fell upon her in a tight embrace, with all the hardness and sharp edges stolen away to leave only soft gratitude. “You are mine. My Katie,” she hissed, holding Katie so tight that she could hardly breathe, but not a hair tighter. Her affini took another deep breath, though she really didn’t need to, just so she could fill Katie’s world with the gentle, comforting scent of her owner. “You’re my beautiful little pet. I love you so much, Katie. You won’t regret this.”
Katie found herself hugging back. She couldn’t reach all around Thatch’s body, but it didn’t matter. “You won’t let me,” she insisted. The thought wasn’t as scary as it should have been. Thatch’s doing, she was certain, but she’d given up her ability to fight that off when she’d let the fire in her heart die out. She didn’t need to burn herself just to survive any more. She could simply sing.