maybe it's a relief.
you imagine--you tell yourself it’s not you, it's just what you're picturing, but–
she’s holding court in a grand ruin, your monster. a reclaimed terran skyscraper's just as good as a withered old castle, right? every inch writhes with life, cloying green leylines coaxing you closer. her closer. the hypothetical girl who isn’t you closer 'cos you're not--you're not, you know, you're not, you're just thinking about what would happen if she got out, what would happen if–
she's trying to be brave, too. she's--she didn't come weighed down with arms. she just brought herself. she told herself that the faeries and frightful creatures of old weren't bested with bazookas, but with cleverness.
she looked in the mirror and said she'd figure something out. she gave it a look like a braver her's desperately trying to keep the rest of her together.
and in that moment
(a shadow-puppet chorus stringed with ivy clasping their hands in joy. negative-space smiles.)
(a thorn, and another, and another. a pleasant pain. the camera drifting down with no small amount of trepidation. she's cosseted in climbing-rose shibari and all you can think is, gosh, maybe she-just-brought-herself is understating it.)
it was always going to end like th–
(not a daydream. a nightmare. just a nightmare. sweaty and shaky and whimpery and distant, and harmless, and over. right?)
maybe you feel a pang of embarrassment as you collect yourself, but–but, you shouldn’t beat yourself up too much, right? Time gets–time gets funny in space. Harsh lighting and monochrome metal and nothing but darkness outside, how could it not? It’s even worse when–
they mean well. they mean well. you keep telling yourself that like it’s an incantation that will seal away your chuuni powers of Being A Jerk As A Coping Mechanism. (you are not actually that good at being a jerk.) they mean well when they say, oh, you just need to stick to a routine. it makes you want to laugh, dizzy and discordant and delirious, because what good is a routine when you’re ragged from dodging people who’d prefer you as a pet or a punching bag day-in, day-out? but they mean well, so you just say–
you don’t say anything. not anymore. she’s upended whatever routine you might’ve had, and you’re thankful.
it’s only been a few days but there’s a change in the air.
(for once, you can empathize with them. you can feel it, sidelong looks and frantic whispers. you know what it is to soak in endless listless fear ‘til you break down and do something. and you know what the crash feels like, too. the sudden sickly realization that oh,
the moment when the delirious overconfidence of we’ve-captured-an-Affini turns into we’re-trapped-with-an-Affini.)
you--you’ve read about old Terran stuff, here and there. Maybe not enough to get called a Terraboo or something, but--but you know some things.
you read about barbecues, once. it felt like a nightmare barbecue, like--
like the...grill? like the grill's belching out bottled paranoia from the Junji Frito Pie someone set out to finish baking, like everyone's one ruined lunch away from tearing each other apart, like--
like counting the seconds ‘til consequences catch up.
but they weren’t expecting this.
they’re gentler with you, ‘cos you are not their prey anymore, ‘cos there’s an unspoken understanding you can taste on the air that you are her prey. a tribute. a tithe. a sacrifice. the last bride promised to the vampire queen.
(they dress it up as a duty and a privilege, as a lowly little conscript redeeming herself, as–it doesn’t matter. you know they’re lying. they know they’re lying. you’re just grateful for the reprieve. you don’t think being eaten will hurt less than getting spaced for–stars, for whatever the Resistance is spacing people for this week, but you hope it’s quicker.)
himself. himself? you’re–you don’t know. maybe it’s–you’ve heard stories, about all the ways they can twist your shape and sense of self, but you have a story, too.
Before you ended up on the Penumbra, you–
a strangeness swept over the scraps of Terran military the Affini left standing in the early days, in the little forgotten places too unimportant for immediate attention. twitchy horny superstition with a thousand little variations.
strength recognizes strength, private velouette said. she pinned pressed flowers to her chest like sergeant's bars. she was in charge now and we were her charges, she said. (remember when that made you feel safe? remember when that made you feel loved?) she–
it's not just about strength, she said.
(brush my hair out and braid it, for i cannot evade the Affini’s snares when my mind wanders so, she said.)
i have to show them i am worthy, she said.
(bring me tea and cake, for i cannot plot our victory on an empty stomach, she said.)
i have to show them i am kin, she said.
(sleep for me, my lovely little robin, for i cannot bear to let such a sweet pet suffer so, she said.)
i have to show them–
(good girl, good girl, good girl, she said.)
she said you were meant to be a pet. that you were meant to be a–
you think about it sometimes. you think about–
you used to have panic attacks, after you went–does it count as going AWOL if you ran away from velouette’s mine-resistant ambush polycule? is there even a military to go AWOL from anymore?
you used to have panic attacks. it started with feeling her absence like hunger pangs, this scared starved ache for the simple certainty of someone sinking you and setting out how to think and how to feel and what to do and–
going into good-girl withdrawal.
it starts there. it starts there. then it spirals, frantically asking yourself–do you like this, or did she make you like this? is she–because you’re not. a girl. right? you only felt good when she called you that ‘cos she made you that way, right? and–and, and what if you’re just broken now? what if you’re a liability now? what if she molded you so thoroughly you’ll hop right in the jaws of the first Affini you meet? what if–
what if she got her wish?
you imagine her at some great and terrible Affini’s side, a wisteria-waterfall of hair down to the small of her back, eyes to drown in. you imagine her finding you. a great smile and an i-missed-you-little-one. a frozen fearful moment just long enough for her to close the distance. you imagine–the Affini eat people, everyone knows they eat people, so if she’s like them surely she does too, right?
a phantom kiss on your neck. a whisper that sends your heart sinking.
for I cannot plot our victory on an empty stomach.
you close your eyes. you’re–you think about this moment from time to time. you think about how it will look and how it will feel and how it will end and in those rare moments of bravado you maybe tell yourself that you would never ever cry but
in this moment, you are super fucking crying.
the tears sting and scorch your cheek in a way that makes you wonder if you’re not dreaming, or maybe if monsters have a way of eating at the distinction between dreaming and wakefulness, and you know*
you know that there is no way this ends–
you feel so small, so flighty, so fragile and frantic and ragged as the colorless light of the cell comes back into focus.
an ache in your throat and all-over exhaustion. no hope of hiding it now.
“What a delightful sight with which to start my day!”
she doesn't mean it that way. she doesn't bask in your tears. somehow you know that the casual cruelty of a rebel catching a whiff of weakness is beneath her. much too mundane for a monster. much too unfair for a fairy. whatever she is, whatever they are, you know she will not gloat because she does not find it sporting.
"Come, now. Deep breaths, little one."
you're not so far gone you can't give her an are-you-kidding-me Look.
(she laughs, rich and full, and stars, you notice for the first time how much more of her there is now.
maple veins and a light in her eyes.
she is winter, but she's wearing autumn like a warning. like a carmilla kinnie in a carmine gown. like a big bold skull next to her healthbar.
a smile. sharp. hungry. like you're the most excitement she's had in ten lifetimes.
"Oh, you know I didn't mean it like that. Where's the fun, little one? Where's the challenge?"
(thinking. thoughts racing, endlessly turning over those last three words.)
(she wants a challenge.)
(she wants to work up an appetite.)
breathe out. stifle a big messy sob that threatens to send you tumbling back down.
(she’s giving you a reprieve. is that worse? you don’t know if that’s worse. you tell yourself it’ll give you the time you need to cobble together a Happily Ever After but you know these stories only end in being A Snack For Leaves Ever After and–and, and it’s so unfair that she–
it’s not like you–
y, you didn’t find her! you didn’t want any of this! you can’t remember a time when every little speck of your being wasn’t singularly focused on getting through the next five minutes but they had to root around in that derelict and now we’re–)
“--being a very good–”
you flinch. you brace. you don’t know why. maybe you’re just startled. maybe you’re just–you don’t know. you don’t know. you don’t know.
into you. through you. like your heart’s a jigsaw puzzle and she is a Buddlea Bobble forum superstar.
(the Buddlea Bobble forums were a fansite for an Affini-themed romhack of a forgotten retrogame about bubble-blowing dinosaurs, but they branched out a little after the followup romhack Puzzle Buddlea Bobble proved a gateway drug to “the erotic possibilities of Brain Teasers But Literally, Send Tweet.” it culminated in a semi-infamous Affini propaganda video entitled “Erotic Sudokufication” that didn’t even have anything to do with Sudoku, really, it was more of a russian-roulette-for-people-who-yell-This-Is-Main-when-they-see-Snow-White-eating-the-apple thing featuring a thousand-piece recreation of the Verdant Dawn, a captured rebel, and a very excitable Affini insisting that everything from the rebel’s ridiculous threats to a butterfly she saw that morning “reminded her of a puzzle.”)
She stage-pantomimes an oh.
you’ve done it now.
you’ve–this is not the first time you’ve danced to this tune. (right?) a monster’s mercy is just as conditional as any other kind of strings-attached kindness. get a step wrong, feel like your feelings matter, trick yourself into believing your youness is what they’re yearning for, and that gentleness is as good as gone. (half a memory. another flinch. no redos on a tell-me-what-i-want-to-hear-how-i-want-to-hear-it ritual of reciprocation.)
you feel so foolish.
all these heroic daydreams in your head and none of them matter
because this isn't that kind of story
and you aren't that kind of heroine
or any kind of heroine
you’re just a–a snack? a sacrifice? a snackrifice? with a head full of useless facts and fears and now you're–
"--a very good girl."
you stammer. you squirm. the ground’s gone out from underneath and you’re scrambling for a sliver of stability. (this time, she basks. a grin that grows and grows, joy seeping out like cracks in a dam.)
it’s not–maybe it’s not unwanted, not exactly. maybe it feels–
maybe it fits.
maybe you tell yourself velouette was a witch. (that has to be it, right?) maybe you tell yourself she made you like this. maybe you paper over the gaps in those fuzzy fogged-over memories with pictures of her penning a love letter to the Affini on the inside of your heart. it’s fairytale enough to fit, isn’t it? certainly easier than trying to think through why you’re Like This.
maybe you imagine yourself being marked, velouette burning off all your boyness and making a beacon of the ashes. it doesn’t feel any fairer, but maybe it was always going to end like this makes the world make sense in a way that your crewmates are catastrophically dumb and caught you in the blast doesn’t.
maybe there’s something romantic about Doomed Heroine TF. something storybook. maybe–
“--you’ll make a charming adversary indeed.” she says it with the gentle, affectionate weight of a hand in your hair, stroking, petting. good girl, good girl, good girl.
maybe you realize that all the maybes in the world don’t make a difference. what-ifs don’t change what is. you are who you are, even if you did not choose to become it.
“But–oh, where are my manners?”
a smile like she’s put on a pot full of promises to bind you in and the kettle’s just started whistling. like a faerie’s poisoned hospitality.
“We really ought to better acquaint ourselves first, little one.”