something inside you breaks.
stars, you're so tired
you are frayed and frazzled and so far gone that delicateness doesn't even occur to you.
"Going to eat me?"
oh, how she smiles.
"I could, couldn't I? I could make a meal of you. I could sweep you off your feet and devour you, like something from your darling stories."
at least she's not even trying to hide it now. at least she's being honest. at least she's giving you the last little kindness of not saying something like oh, no, i would never eat a cute little human–
"And it would be such a waste, little one."
You are closer to magic than you've ever been.
you don't say it. you just--you just imagine yourself saying it. you feel around the edges of the words like a half-melted morsel of hard candy in your mouth.
you want to say it. stars, you want to say it. you want to say it 'cos you can't look at them without guilty little pangs and pulls at your heartstrings, 'cos there's a thorn in your side shaped like a desperate impulse to fill the silence somehow, that flailing frantic instinct to scrounge up something to try and make it better, and you've known the ache so long you're pretty sure it's just a part of you now
how do you imagine that conversation going?
oh, sorry, you stumbled onto a spell-soaked superfund site shaped like a seven-foot-tall nightmare domme? you've all been doomed by dumb luck?
"--do you think--"
(a voice like a sped-up lullaby, like a lovestarved music-box ballerina trying to speedrun soothing even if she doesn’t quite mean to)
do you think it'll end well?
(another voice that makes you flinch. sharp and squeaky and shaken.)
y--you're not dreaming. you don't think? you don't have the luxury of hiding from your dreams, but you can hide from the two of them.
a willow-femme with too many teeth. like--like the edgelordiest affini in the universe came up with a hurt/comfort-flavored humansona.
(edgeladiest? you're not even sure if--once upon a time you simply told yourself that monsters were beyond simple silly considerations like gender, but maybe you feel really sheepish about the realization that wow, okay, maybe you don't know how Affini genders work even if you're trying to talk yourself down from panicspiking in the middle of this by reminding yourself over and over again that oh my God it's not like you can just plug Terrifying Plant Monster Genders into Wickerpedia or--)
she's--she keeps her distance, like she's a little bit afraid of her body. like all the guardrails are gone from the tutorial. like she's scared--
(you can see it in her eyes, can't you?)
like a rebel catching a whiff of weakness.
like someone turned up all her instincts and she's terrified. like she desperately wants to be better, if not for herself then at least for--
(a starved little stray with a single solitary flower in her hair. stars, it's so red. too red, like flowers overlapping and bleeding through, like--)
(like a mark of your monster's favor.)
all the stray’s fears spill out like sobs on her monster's shoulder. half-questions cut short 'cos she knows the answers the moment she starts to speak. harried hypotheticals on the subject of how much harm it takes for your monster to turn her back. because she is a monster, right? she's a monster and she's toying with her food and, you know, maybe it's like old vampire films, maybe if we--
(she dances around the word. deep down, she dismisses it as oh, i've lost my nerve, but maybe it's something deeper still.)
--you know, the head, um, plantpire? maybe if we--then she--
and she thinks that through, starting with the suddenly very obvious realization that she'll have to face the Affini to, well--
then the tears really come, wracking sobs and shudders and hiccups and you know in that moment that you never needed to tell her ‘cos she knows--
she is closer to magic than she's ever been. too close, even, taking big panicky gasps like she's scrambling for the last few breaths of normal in the whole of the Penumbra and finally--
in spite of herself, her monster takes a few tentative steps forward. (she's like a deer, if a deer was optimized for ominous looming and omnivore vibes. but she's trying.)
(she doesn’t know why she does it. she–rationally, she knows it’s all wrong. she knows El is–stars, maybe she was a plant all along? she imagines a deadpan PSA about the dangers of Definitely Normal Humans with non-standard numbers of teeth luring Good Girls down the path of plant drugs and plotting mutiny. she imagines a glassy-eyed march into some genteel vampire’s grasp. she hates how stupid and needy and broken she is. she–
(she doesn’t know how to deal with the idea that she’s good or a girl.)
she comes a little closer in turn, and then a little closer still, and clings.
her monster stiffens, flinches, settles. the words come out slow and skittish and oh-so-deliberate like charybdis lovemail, like barely fighting off the fear that kind words aren't For something as monstrous as you
“You’ll–we’ll be okay.”
a muffled squeak in the vague shape of a you-promise? there’s a weight to it, a sense that the strange magic your monster’s brought to this place seeped into their words, too.
And it is magic, clearly it’s magic, a spell that soothes away every last tear and sells her on the idea that there’s shelter in El’s arms.
“If she tries to–you know--”
a too-toothy grin.
“I’ll bite her.”
"....what's your name?"
you don't know why you ask. you don't know why it matters. it's--it's stupid, right? an Affini is an Affini is an Affini is an Affini. they'll all eat you in the end.
"A name is a precious thing, little one. A name can sting, a name can bind, a name can unmake.”
y--what? you don't know how to bind or unmake. you don't even know how to do a tarot reading. (velouette did one for you, once.) you just--why did she have to make this weird?
(you feel a little ridiculous for asking the question at all. gee, why did the towering toppy terror elemental made of hashtag aesthetic treebark make things weird? she wears her weirdness like noble regalia, exudes it like exhaled air. what did you think she was going to say? hi, my name’s molly murderthorny and i’m pleased to eat you?)
"Of course, I'd be delighted to share a name with you."
there’s a catch, right? there’s a catch. there has to be a catch.
"But I believe it's only fair if you let me bind you in turn."
“What do–how do you–” everything comes out small and stammeryscratchy like all the words in your throat suddenly dried out, like–
like the room is suddenly so small. like it’s an extension of her. like faces in the walls and finally realizing your hometown’s deep in a monster’s maw. like you’re stupid, so stupid, and now she’s going to–
little one. little one. a squeeze of your hand from something not meant for squeezing. soft sweet pain. little one.
there’s something so wounded in her eyes and it’s not fair, it’s not fair she lies so well you’d swear she cares, she–
a distant crash, a drizzle of something, a miles-off thunderclap buried in a blanket of her.
and panic’s natural, of course
panic’s normal, of course
but there’s so much–natural. natural. roll it around on that charmed tongue of yours, won’t you? feel it out, ruminate a bit, really consider the breadth of it, every last little thing in nature.
if panic’s natural, then its inverse is as well, yes? soothing it and shrinking it and sinking, that’s just as natural. perhaps even more natural, for a dreamy delicate little thing like yourself.
(a pause, just long enough to gather her thoughts. she allows herself a smile.)
it’s just your natural state, isn’t it? how you cope with the slings and arrows of survival?
so if you feel the dreams start to drag down your eyelids and encroach, if you feel them start to soothe away every last spiraling thought and ragged breath and sob, if you feel yourself sink–
all you can think of is Velouette’s other pet, the one who spent weeks with her nose in a botany text. the one who swore she’d find the secret to stopping the Affini in some sub-subparagraph.
you remember the moment you realized her horticulture hyperfixation was just–
you remember her eyes, but more than that you remember–
(oh, my lovely little robin.)
she said you were meant to be a pet.
(if i were one of the witches of old, would i whip your heart into egg whites? would i make a teatime snack of all that adoration?)
she said you were meant to be her pet.
(how could i be so cruel when your fawning’s such a feast?)
hers and no one else’s. certainly not theirs.
(it’s not enough to know what’s coming, you have to be prepared.)
there’s a strange weight to the word. prepared like a tithe. prepared like a bride. prepared like a meal.
(what hope could a pet possibly have on her own? they’re all impossible snares and pretty lies, the Affini.)
they–their eyes were a trap, she said. their eyes were a home to hide in. their eyes were a pit to drown in. you can’t look them in the eyes, she said. not unless–
(a pet’s eyes are windows to her heart, she said.)
you can meet someone’s eyes–it’s the purest act of vulnerability there is, but you can--if you trust them, she said.
(meeting a pet’s gaze is as good as grasping the strings to her heart.)
“don’t you trust me?”
you didn’t meet anyone else’s eyes for a month. it’s not that you didn’t trust them, it’s just–
(and then you did, once, and it felt good. it felt good feeling–feeling small, and weak, and easy. it felt good getting a break from the quiet everyday terror of Are The Affini Coming?)
it’s scary, slipping under so easily. she made you like this so effortlessly and it’s scary. even if–she said it was for your own good, right? velouette said a glance was all they needed to enthrall you, so she’d teach you not to look. (it’s an expression of my love, she said. like training a puppy, she said. won’t you let me keep you safe?)
(you wondered if they liked you better as an emotional support trancepet than whatever you were before. you wondered, is it okay if i’m okay with that?)
you met hers, though.
(lilac. her name was lilac. you think her name was lilac? you hope her name was lilac, you hope her name was hers and not something velouette gave her so you’d match)
it was her voice, you think, shaky and quaky and five seconds from falling apart.
you tried to tune out the sleepy tv-snow seeping into your awareness and focus on–
that book. she’s got that book again, holding it like the last stuffed animal she’d let herself keep after a long move. you try and listen and it’s hard to pick out words but the tone’s enough to take you off your feet–
we have to keep looking, we have to
or else we’ll
or else she’ll
she isn’t bad, you know? she’s just–
if, if we find something, Velouette won’t have to–
we can all go somewhere and forget about–
(her eyes, wild and desperate and pleading, like she stuffed a shaped charge full of every last little hope in her heart only for it to go off early. like–)
she crumpled, hid in her book.
“.....I–” an ashamed little squeak from behind its spine.
i think they’re pretty, she said. you know, flowers.
do–do you think there are different kinds of them, too?
she points out a page.
it’d be nice to meet a tulip Affini, even if she eats me.
the first thing you see is a cell without a door and all you can think of is,
doesn’t the way it’s shattered remind you of a tulip?