you don't want to be here.
you tell yourself that like it makes any difference. like it's a magic spell that'll wish you right back–
(okay, maybe not. you feel like maybe you'd be better at wishing yourself home if you had the faintest sense of what a home is, 'cos right now the best you can do is flailing in the direction of what a home is not. a ruin, a barracks, a bunk, a brig. walls soaked through with shouts and sneers and sweet it's-better-than-nothings.)
but magic isn't real. right?
(or so you tell yourself. you imagine yourself laughing this dry drained laugh because you know it's cooler in your head than it'll ever be out loud. you imagine looking a cute kind of weathered like it's Baby's First Flirtation with Asceticism. you're fine. you don't need a home, or a place, or friends, or--you're fine. you're fine.)
in this moment you're closer to magic than you've ever been and it is the worst.
(maybe getting lost in your own head for a moment makes it easier. a doofy oh-you're-finally-awake speech from some glassy-eyed pet doing A Bit. do they....do they have games? and memes? or is it just chaotic-horny carnivores all the way down? wait, what if they just--what if they just tell you they have games to lull you into a false sense of security? like one moment you're playing puyo puyo tetragrammaton and then right at the exact second when you're trying to decide between letting the biblically accurate puyo angels brainwash everyone into perfect order under benevolent puyo principalities or diving headlong into anarchic TETROMINO TETROMADNESS you don't even see the fangs sink into--)
the snap of a branch, a raspy giggle, a crooked briar-smile. you flinch. (just a little. you're
trying to be brave.)
you don't know why the Penumbra has a "containment wing." you've heard rumors, sure. a medical ship the rebels stole, a Terran military testbed for affini-human hybrid experiments, a mobile blacksite they repurposed when threats from without scared them more than dissent from within.
maybe it doesn't matter.
in this great off-white room with cells and seals and reinforced everything and no way to get out without some button-pusher in the next room letting you
is that you are here with her.
watching her. (someone's idea of a joke. press a gun into the hands of a scrawny skittish thing with prey vibes and tell he--him, tell him he's on guard duty, watching the great thing Kellen captured.)
being watched by her. appraised. you wonder–
(indistinguishable from magic. they’re indistinguishable from magic. she’s indistinguishable from magic, terrible and towering and elegant, all cruel thorns and bare branches and a look like she’s here to punish you for saying mean things about winter.)
no. no time for wonder. you try to push all the wonder out of your voice and drown the dregs in resolve.
oh my god you can't say that
you can't just say oh, hey, i'm robin and i'll be your guard today! because! she'll sniff out weakness like they all do and she'll be like ooooo hello little floral arrangement and while you're trying to figure out whether that's an insult or some kind of weird horny Affini thing she'll devour you like a two-bite brownie!
(a silence that looms, a silence that makes you want to scurry. you almost do. maybe a small starved sliver of you dreams of someone praising you for staying rooted to your spot.)
a little pang of guilt. monster or no, you can't just lie to her, right? it's not going to be alright. they're--
there is no way that this ends well. there is no way that this ends soon.
it's paralyzing, isn't it? it's suffocating, isn't it? there are so many choices and all of them are different flavors of wrong and every second you wait to do something makes everything worse but if you don't stumble into the best bad choice then you'll--
it's draining. it's a little like--like all of this, you know? sometimes you just want to give up, fling yourself into their arms in a fit of manic self-destructive something. at least then you'd have the certainty of knowing--
maybe there's a little bit of that in what happens next. you don't--you don't plan for it. the words just spill right out, sudden and squeaky and frantic.
"Ifyoudon'teatmethenIwon'teatyou! And--and really if you think about it that's an amazing deal for you because I'm scrawny and bony and anxious and--and, and I've read those stories! Anxiety tastes terrible! You wouldn't enjoy it at all and the aftertaste would be worse than our rations and--and, and they’re so bad i’m still starving after! i’m so hungry i could eat a tree! but–"
when did she
when did you get so close?
"But, but I won't eat you 'cos I'm nice solongasyoudon't--"
a chuckle and something else you don't quite register and it feels like
like thorns on skin and a leaf-rubbing on your heart, like wandering into the forest and knowing you've awakened something, like
(she uncoils. reaches. smiles.)
like a goddess revealing herself to a devotee who’d long since dismissed her as an awful fairy-story.
like the seals are broken.
like the seals are broken. (it sets in.)
you're shaking. eyes shut tight, nowhere to run, you're--oh, god. this is it, isn't it? this is the punchline to the joke.
(she smells nice. kind of. copper and camellias, like a vampire queen. one last little mercy before--)
a scratchy-soft stroke of your neck. a pinprick. this is how it starts, isn't it? this is–
you don't hear her words, but why would you need to? the tone of her voice is a labyrinth to lose yourself in. why would you need to understand the words when you can feel them? something enthralled, something enamored, something teasey and toying and taken with you.
she's so warm. you're falling under her spell over and over again and you've never known anything that felt so much like home.
(is that, in fact, How They Getcha? convincing the plucky heroi--convincing the plucky hero that he wants to lose? that the comfiest place in the world is under the villainess' spell?)
but you aren't the heroine of this story. so this won’t end well, will it?
maybe you're okay with that. maybe a little bit of warmth is worth it.
any second she's going to eat you, but--
but that feels distant, abstract, fuzzy. not like her.
she’s right here, warmth like a cocoon you can hide in, voice like your favorite meal waiting at home after the worst day you’ve had all year. she’s so here it’s maybe hard to remember anything outside her exists. she’s–
your sense of time skips a beat and you’re here (curled inward like a kitten just up from a catnap) and she’s all the way over there in her cell and
“....was that a dream?” (you don’t know how to keep the words off your lips. you don’t know how not to sound this tiny. you don’t know, you don’t know, you don’t know.)
“Maybe it was a nightmare, little one.” a ringmistress’ flourish. “What is a monster but a nightmare in the waking world?”
maybe this is what understanding feels like. maybe this is what compromise feels like. hearing someone say something as ridiculous as what is a monster but a nightmare in the waking world? and holding your tongue for what feels like forever and meeting their eyes just long enough to silently agree,
you won’t ask why she’s playing up the fairytale villainy if she doesn’t ask why you’re blushing.
(which, okay, the human body is weird and sometimes blushing just *happens* and you’re definitely not blushing because of her and–and maybe you’re not blushing! maybe you’re not blushing at all! maybe you just–maybe she did something to you! maybe that flower blooming on her collarbone, which–which you’re pretty sure wasn’t there before!--gave you the plantfluenza and you’re just running a fever and you need tea and rest! or you’re going to turn into a horrible plant monst–
the hiss of a lock, and then another, and then another. a voice that makes you flinch.
“Time to go.”
softer than usual. (it’s almost….kind? the cadence of someone who didn’t expect you to survive your shift and suddenly finds himself faced with a mess of complicated feelings about it.)
he doesn’t linger. you shouldn’t, either, but–
but you do. just for a moment. just a glance. (it’s stupid. right? it’s stupid. there are *stories*. all it takes is one look in their eyes and you’re lost. but–but you need to know that you didn’t imagine this. didn’t imagine her.
and you didn’t!
looking this joyful.
“Come back soon, my brave little bird.”