Serla spoke softly “we can end for today and talk more later, I understand this is very difficult. There is no reason to push yourself”. She was impressed by the amount of progress they had made so far, but the human was still weak, Serla did not want to push too hard.
Hendrik seemed half lost in thought “no...it’s fine, I want to continue.” She could not force herself to stop him when he was this determined. He clearly had something he wanted to say so she gave him a signal that he could continue.
Hendriks’s voice was only half focused “The exams were only two months away and it’s not like I would have any second chances. The fact that I lived at the academy at least meant I had a roof over my head. I needed to pass or else their deaths would have been in vain." Serla had heard many core-shattering stories over her life, this did not make this one any easier.
Despite herself, Serla maintained a clam and soothing tone “did you have any way of processing their death’s?” She could guess the answer but still didn’t want to be right
His eyes were far away, likely reliving those horrible months “I just worked……forced myself to focus on school. I was afraid that if I began thinking about…. Them, I would shatter…… I couldn’t let that happen, so I pressed on”. There was something he wasn’t telling her, no human at that age could just work their way through something that traumatic. The small amounts of class-D that she had puffed in his direction were probably leaving his system by now.
Mertha had told her not to use any xenodrugs. Despite this, the number of mental blockades that Hendrik had meant that it would be impossible to help him without a small amount. It had barely been a whiff of class D, just enough to make him a bit less suppressed. It would not even be noticeable in his blood an hour from now.
It was probably a good idea to end it here “I think we should stop now. You are still recovering and talking about such issues is hard for both body and mind. We can continue the conversation next session, how does that sound?” A frown had begun to develop on Henrik’s brow. Pushing it any farther would have been a bad idea.
Hendrik straightened his back “before you leave, perhaps you can answer one of my questions?”. The drastic shift between the emotional and traumatized Henrik of 5 minuets ago, and the cold calculating one siting before her now was truly uncanny. The amount of mental repression that humans were capable of was as remarkable as it was sad.
It was strange how Mertha had even managed to convince Hendrik to agree to therapy. Perhaps he wanted information out of her? In that case this question was probably planed in advance “I guess I can do that, had a specific question in mind?”. She stood up, stored her data pad in her chest and looked down on the human.
His eyes were clear and focused, there were signs of anger underneath “you want to domesticate me, don’t you?”. It was less of a question and more of an accusation.
Serla could not help letting out a laugh “I have no intention of making you my pet, little one”. Teasing the human at this point was perhaps not the best idea, but it was far too tempting.
She would not be dishonest “Other affini on the other hand, I’m sure there are plenty who would love to have you as their pet.” She let the sentence hang in the air, was that a blush developing on his face?
He jumped down from the chair and raised a finger towards her “So, I was right, you want to control me. Eliminate me as a threat.”
Serla walked up in an instant and let him truly feel the difference in their size “the only thing that you are a threat to, little sophont, is yourself." She walked towards the hab exit. She gave Hendrik a mischievous smile “if you want my professional opinion, I am certain you would make an excellent floret. See you soon!” She gave a final smile and wave before she left, he was definitely blushing.
She hummed to herself as she made her way back to her hab. She should have started teasing Hendrik a long time ago. Showcasing that he was not perceived as a danger would probably be good for him, even if he found it humiliating at first.
“Hi! Serla.” Serla looked towards the sound. Coming from an intersecting street she saw Mertha, her vines were holding several bags of food.
She waited for the xeno-sociologist to reach her “how did the meeting with Trexal go?" The frustration and borderline anger that was suddenly displayed in her friend’s rhythm was a clear indication. “Not well?”
Mertha rolled her eyes “they wanted Hendrik to do some speech so that the humans don’t think we’ve killed him or something.”
Drama might not be good, but it was extremely entertaining “What did you say?”
Mertha's voice was irritated “Obviously I told him no, I will not let Hendrik take up any responsibility like that.” the protective tone was clear as water. Oh, what Serla would have given to be in the room during that exchange.
Mertha let out a frustrated gust of air before consolidating her form “never mind that, how did your meeting with Hendrik go?" Mertha had lost all signs of frustration and were looking at her hopefully.
If Hendrik did not end up in Martha’s vines by the end of this, there was something wrong with the universe “it went quite well. We talked about his early life. Unsurprisingly a quite tragic story, at least talking about it seemed to help him.” She tried to hide a mischievous smile, Mertha saw it and looked concerned.
She would have to explain “I may also have teased him a bit…perhaps a lot at the end. He might be a bit riled up. I’m sure you can handle it." Mertha poked her with a vine in annoyance.
She wanted to talk more but she had been away from Darla too long “After you have put him to sleep I would love for you to come over and talk. You seem to have done excellent progress with him so far. Also, make sure the compiler restricts those nutrient bars, the boy needs real food.” Mertha looked a bit confused at the last comment. They waved goodbye and Serla made her way to her hab.
As Serla entered her home she was met with complaining “Mistress! Nora is cheating, make her stop!”.
“it’s not my fault you chose the wrong technology to research” the other girls voice was filled with gentle teasing.
Serla entered the living room where the two adorable sophonts were playing a game while halfway buried in pillows. She looked down on the ex-bodyguard, she had no intention of domesticating Henrik. She had another target.
Mertha entered the hab with slight concern, hopefully Serla would not have gone overboard. She found Hendrik sitting on the floor, reading something on the data pad, he looked troubled.
“I’m back, how did the talk go?” Hendrik noticed her and his worry was replaced with a smile. At once all the frustration that had built up in her core disappeared and was replaced with joy, how precious!
He stood up and put the data pad on the table “it went well, I think. It was hard to talk about…it….but I feel a bit better now. How are you?” he was perfectly genuine.
She restrained herself from petting him “right now I am doing wonderfully, I will soon make you an excellent meal with ice cream for dessert. First we should take care of your hygiene”. Hendrik seemed to be a bit conflicted before he nodded. She indulged her curiosity a bit “what were you reading?”
Hendrik looked away a bit bashful “just doing some research, most of the files were in affini so I dint learn very much”. Perhaps she could get him the files he wanted later, for now he needed to be clean.
He followed her into the bathroom, the mirrors were clear again. Hendrik did not seem to notice before he looked at the mirror over the wash. The reaction was instant, he recoiled like a spooked animal and looked away.
Oh no, “Hendrik, what happened?” she crouched beside him, making sure to block the mirrors from his line of sight.
He looked shaken “it’s…it’s nothing. I just haven’t shaved yet. Do you have a razor that I could use?” she could still sense him trembling slightly.
She fished out a razor form a cabinet next to the wash “of course, perhaps I should do it. You only have your left hand, and I can’t have you cutting yourself."
His voice was a bit calmer now “that’s ok, just make sure to thorough”. Mertha begun using the razor and cut away the stubble that had grown. Perhaps this was the best time to broach the subject?
She made sure to be as soothing as possible and have a few vines ready in case he flinched “do you want to talk about what happened?”
Hendrik waited a moment before answering “I just don’t like looking unprofessional, nothing more than that”. A lie, perhaps one he had been telling himself.
She was halfway done with shaving now “people don’t have so strong reactions to looking unprofessional. You can be honest with me, okay?” Henrik seemed to deflate a bit.
She made sure to shave under his cheeks as well “Yes,….I’m sorry. I don’t really know, I have always just disliked it, and mirrors in general”. He sounded a shameful and lost, poor thing.
She put the razor away for a second and used a vine to tilt his head upwards so she could get eye contact. “I have a question for you, if you don’t feel confrontable answering you just tell me right way. Can you do that?” he nodded. She had these suspicions for some time now, she just hoped she could handle it well.
“Are you sure that you are a man?” the question went unanswered for a few tense seconds. She saw in his eyes that this was a question he had considered before.
Hendrik looked down “do you mean that I might be woman instead?”. Mertha used a vine to hold his hand.
“Not necessarily, you might not be either or you could be something else. The main point is that I have seen you display a lot of discomfort with your body” he gripped the vine and pressed it hard
“You mean dysphoria?” his voice had begun to tremble slightly.
The fact that he was aware almost made it worse “so you know about it, have you considered it before?”. Knowing Henrik, he had likely repressed it, but she still needed to know
Hendrik looked away “Some years ago, I was assigned a situation where LTIZ, a medical corp, had tried to deny medicine to a high-class admiral’s daughter. To gain a bit of favor with the Terran military I went trough hundreds of documents and recordings to nail LTIZ to the wall. The things I read and heard from the patients stirred something in me.” His voice was apprehensive he almost sounded afraid
“I began to recognize why I was uncomfortable with things. Having a reason for the pain only made it more obvious, it just hurt more. Then something happened and I didn’t have time to think about it more. I pushed it down” he began to cry, Mertha offered the poor human a hug and thankfully he accepted.
She pulled him a bit closer “You don’t have to do that anymore. I can help you figure it. I have two things I want to try if you’ll allow me”. she extended a vine and let a tiny bit of clear sap spill forth.
Hendrik looked apprehensively at her vine “what is that?”
Once again she thanked her previous self that she had been so diverse with her grafting “With this I can quickly, safely and painlessly remove all the hair on your face. If you figure out that you regret it we can get it back easily. Though I have a suspicion you will be very happy with the results”.
Henrik looked at her with wide eyes, looked down for a second and looked back up. “It sounds a bit to good to be true, but I trust you, I’m ready”. He closed his eyes and lifted his head to give her access.
She applied the sap to all the relevant parts and after a few seconds washed it away with water and some soap. “Ok you can check now” Hendrik lifted his working hand to touch his cheek. His hand grazed over his skin.
“Oh stars, its…so soft” he looked at her and gave the most core warming smile she had ever received. Hertha felt brave enough for the second test. She bent down and whispered into Henrik’s ear.
She made sure to drag it out “I’m so proud of you, good girl!”. A shiver went trough Hendrik like lighting. “Did you enjoy that? good girl!” another shiver, Henrik was blushing a deep red.
Deciding to not overwhelm her ward she pulled back and walked to the door. “I’ll go make you some food and desert now, come when you are ready” she was stopped from leaving by Hendrik still holding onto the vine.
He was still blushing “I just wanted say thanks…it means a lot for me to have someone I can….trust”. during the last part his words trailed of a bit, he must be quite tired.
She smiled at him “I am very happy you feel that way. Now don’t take too long, you need to sleep soon”. She left the human to clean and went to make an amazing meal.
The door to the bathroom closed and he was alone again. The amounts of emotions he had felt today were far more than he was used to. And the last part where Mertha had called him…. It was almost too much. Despite this there was something far more ominous pressing on his mind.
What was it that he had said: that he trusted Mertha? And he did! He felt safe around her, he believed honestly that she was nice with no ill intentions. It was wonderful, only problem was that it made no sense at all.
He didn’t trust people, he hadn’t for over 7 years. There was always the question of possible lies, traps, or hidden intentions. Even Nora, who had held his life in her hand so many times, that had served him for so many years was not exempt. Of course, he trusted her to a certain extent, but the thoughts of betrayal or deception was never far from his mind.
How was it possible that he trusted this affini more than his most loyal protector? He wanted to trust Mertha, more than anything. Of course, it made little sense, trust could only be built to be broken, he had learned that. And even if he wanted to trust her, he needed to know that it was truthful, not some trick. For once the logical path that had guided him the last 10 years of his life and the yearning that he had developed the last 2 days were in agreement: he need to ask Mertha.
Before he continued he touched his cheeks again. It was so soft, not a hint of stubble left. There was a warm tingling sensation in his chest. He asked the ai to make the mirrors opaque again and washed himself quickly. With only one hand it was quite difficult, but he managed. When he was done he picked up the new gown that Mertha had left him, it was grey with a subtle flower pattern.
When he was done and walked out into the living room the food was almost done. Salmon with creamed pasta and lemon sauce, it smelled divine. Mertha extended a few thick vines that he could use as a makeshift ladder to get onto the chair.
Mertha placed the food in front of him and a small bowl of water for herself. Should he ask her now? Perhaps he should wait until after the meal.....Unless the food was the things affecting him, no! Martha wouldn’t do that. Or was that just what he had been manipulated into believing.
Mertha’s voice dragged him back to reality “don’t you like the food? I tried to find something that matched the archives but perhaps I made a mistake”. He had just been picking at the food.
He took a piece of fish and swallowed, it was difficult despite the amazing taste. “No, it’s not the food, its amazing” he tried to give a convincing smile and failed. Mertha noticed something was wrong but waited for him to ask, there was no way of delaying it now.
“Did you do something to me?” he looked at Mertha, his voice was shaking. Please say no.
She looked confused “in the bathroom with the sap? It contains no xen-”.
He interrupted her “no not....it has nothing to do with that. It….when I’m around you I feel safe. When you give me a compliment… I believe you. When you are around I feel calm and…happy. I care about you….. I trust you…….Why do I trust you?” his throat felt sore as he ended his rambling. He didn’t want to watch Mertha’s reaction, but he had to.
He looked up, she looked sad and a bit confused. Then she went still for a moment. “Oh no…..” her voice was filled with a melody so sad it almost hurt to listen to. Her form collapsed into itself. In a primal showcase of saddens her form revealed that the human-like form was a mere choice, not something solid.
Her form returned again as the vines tried to collect themselves into human shape, it was far from perfect. “I’m so sorry….I did not do it on purpose…I promise…” the harmony that usually underpinned Mertha’s voice was full of discord.
“What do you mean? What happened?” of course he had been right, why did he have to be right?
Mertha’s looked at him with such deep regret that he had to look away “do you remember when we first ate breakfast together, I asked you a question…..and you had a panic attack. The collar calmed you down and put you to sleep”. he was silent, why did he have to ask?
Mertha continued “When you woke you told me that…..you didn’t know what you were….. and that you wanted to….. give up. After what happened in the cell…..I couldn’t allow that to happen again… seeing you suffer like that was to much. I……I used xenodrugs and my biorhythm to put you into a trance”. So that was how it had happened, Ice filled his veins.
“You affini can do that? I thought it was a myth” just deny it please, I’ll believe you.
Despite his inner protests Mertha continued, her voice was destabilizing more and more “yes we can, we are actually very good at it. With you in trance, you mind would accept any and all of my words as truth. My only goal was to give you hopeand that beautiful determination that you have. I hope…. I hope you can believe me. Right before I brought you out of trance….I told you that…..you could trust….me.” she sounded so heartbroken “it wasn’t intentional…..it was a mistake….careless words that your mind could not help but absorb…and now I’ve ruined everything”. She fell silent
He felt something inside him break, the world disappeared from focus. How could he have been so stupid, thinking that he, HE! could trust anyone like that. He had destroyed that part of himself, just like he had destroyed everything else. The fact he had tricked himself into thinking that he could ever be normal, safe relaxed….happy. it was all a sick joke.
He was player in The Game, all that existed was the climb. It wouldn’t let him go. He was nothing, just a specter, a soulless machine. Pushing forward with no reason, destroying everything in its path. He hadn’t noticed it was what he had become and by now it was far to late. He felt that his face was wet with tears, but he couldn’t muster the strength to care.
He was woken by Mertha’s voice “-I’m so sorry. I understand if you can’t forgive me.” The defeat in her words were like cold poison. “I can remove the conditioning now…and tomorrow….. you will have a new affini to take care of you….im so sorry”. the words hit him like a sledgehammer and jolted him awake.
She wanted to take it away? And leave? He scrabbled backwards away from her vines, fell, and hit the carpet. She looked horrified at his reaction to her “I promise I won’t do anything else. You have to believe me. Please...” she moved towards him slowly, like approaching a wounded animal.
He scrambled back as fast as he could “no, please… you can’t! You can’t take it away from me, please… I don’t.. I don’t want to go back. I want to trust you!” he was sobbing but managed to get the last words out clearly.
Mertha stopped, she seemed confused for only a second “you are only saying that because what I did to you, it will all be better soon” she closed in again. He tried to get further back but hit a wall, he couldn’t escape.
BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!
If one of the vines stung him it would all be over. He would return to being the soulless monster that he really was. He pleaded “please, don’t…. I….I”. he couldn’t breathe!
Suddenly he felt a sting in the back of his neck. All the energy and terror begun to seep out of his body. He fought to remain conscious, he felt vines pick him up “please….I don’t…I don’t want to be alone”. The final bit of strength left him, and he fell into the abyss .