Aprevalii Phores, Ninth Bloom woke up screaming. “A nightmare?” the duty nurse asked.
“Maybe, I… honestly don’t remember,” he lied. It had been the worst in awhile, a far-too-vivid recreation of watching Sephal die, their ichor burning him—her, at the time—as she cradled them in her vines. “I’ll be okay,” they’d whispered, “you need to put me down, I’m hurting you.” She hadn’t cared, had welcomed the physical pain as a distraction from the emotional agony.
He looked around his room in the hospital. He wasn’t there because of the nightmares (he refused to admit that being there because of the nightmares might be a good idea), but because the hrevl ichor still poisoned him. Reblooming had failed to purge it from his system, and the Affini Compact hadn’t been able to learn much about hrevl biology; by the time her rescuers had arrived they were all dead. A lot of things had been dead by then.
“There, my annual night in the observatory. Can I go now?”
“There are actually a few forms you need to sign first.”
He sighed. Aprevalii did not share his species’ love of paperwork. But he dutifully went through the forms, initialing, signing, dating, and checking boxes as needed.
She’d had to fill out a lot of paperwork when they’d arrived. Had to answer a lot of questions. “Why were you so far away from the Affini space?” “Why were you alone?” “Are you sure you don’t want to cuddle my floret?”
She hadn’t wanted to cuddle the florets. She hadn’t wanted to fill out the paperwork explaining her actions. Had really not wanted to spend decades in the Affini core systems wrapped up in medical tests, talking to counselors who could never understand, filing so much sap-ridden paperwork on the hrevl. Yes, it all needed to be documented, he understood that. But did it need to be documented by him? “Who else, Aprevalii?” he’d been asked. He hadn’t had the answer then (or now), and at least the hrevl were enshrined forever in the archives. He hoped someone would bother to look.
But he wasn’t in the core systems now. He’d petitioned his university to to join one of the field work projects among the terrans. He’d also petitioned his university to let him do field work with several other recently domesticated species—there was no chance of his ever being allowed to join a Cotyledon Program again and he didn’t bother trying—but he’d been denied each time until now.
“I think you’re ready for this, Aprevalii,” his dean had said, “But be careful. I know you don’t like drugs but they are an option. And of course you’re always welcome to come back home.”
Aprevalii didn’t plan to return. Not that he planned to die; he hadn’t contemplated suicide in decades, except maybe in idle moments when nothing was going on. But he’d found, as expected, that it was far easier to avoid affini in recently domesticated spaces. Of course, he did have to report for an annual overnight observation, but for the most part he was free to live in terran communities with few other affini.
Back in New Melbourne he resumed his interview with Dr. Aesh.
“You said terrans often prefer to manage psychological problems without medication. Why is that?”
They picked up a pen and toyed with it. “I’ve read your latest papers, why are you asking me a question you’ve already had answered for you a dozen times?”
Because the hrevl hadn’t had medication. They’d had to cope with the trauma of their impending extinction with only a few priests and an affini to relieve their distress.
But that wasn’t the answer to give Dr. Aesh. “I’m an ethnographer; getting multiple perspectives is a big part of what I do.”
The look they gave him indicated that the doctor didn’t believe a word he was saying, but they answered anyway. “Terran psychopharmacology was fairly primitive, but it wasn’t just that. There’s been a stigma against using medication for years. Not just for psychiatric problems, either. There were groups that eschewed medication entirely in favor of spiritual healings, groups that preferred to die of plagues than receive a safe inoculation, even a few that refused blood transfusions. And that was for physical problems. You can imagine how people felt about using them for mental problems.”
“And even now, you don’t prescribe drugs, affini or otherwise.”
“Most of the people I treat come to me specifically because I don’t. I’m not opposed to them, but they are. They prefer alternative medicine. And when it comes to psychology, the main traditional alternative to medication is psychotherapy.”
“Does it work?”
“I’m required to advise my clients that my services are for entertainment purposes only and not to rely on them as an alternative to psychiatric xenodrugs, but the reality is that therapy can be effective. It’s just that the client has to want to change.”
The same answer he’d heard from all the other psychotherapy practitioners he’d interviewed. The clinical literature said it was better than nothing, but not by much. Terrans like Dr. Aesh said it was a holistic method that treated the entire patient, not just their biochemical makeup. Not that Aprevalii really understood what that meant. He’d tried, but terrans, like the hrevl, tended to understand themselves as something other than their bodies, something other than their minds. He’d never fully gotten what that meant for the hrevl, and he’d spent a blessed century with them… and a cursed eight years.
“You are not just this,” Sephal had told him—told her—gently wafting their tendrils through her leaves. “Nor are you just the thoughts that go spinning through your head. Once you learn to clear all of that, you might actually wake up.”
She hadn’t, of course. Meditation had certainly helped her, prayer had too, even if she didn’t believe in Sephal’s deities. But he remained what he was: a body, a mind, a mess.
He’d tried drugs, of course. When they’d rescued her she’d been put on them without a second thought. But his reactions to affini medications were unpredictable; hrevl poisoning interacted strangely with them. It was safer to avoid drugs that weren’t absolutely necessary.
A word stuck in Aprevalii’s short-term memory. “You said psychotherapy was the main traditional alternative to medication. Were there others?”
“There were some extremely primitive alternatives, but psychotherapy was, is, an integrated medical practice. It was never just about talking. That’s what the affini think, yourself excepted of course, that all I do is listen to someone talk at me for an hour. And sometimes I do that, although it’s a lot more complicated and involved than just ‘listening.’ I help people analyze their thoughts, identify thinking errors, untangle perceptions, and reframe understandings. Plus I advise them on diet and exercise, give them assignments to work on at home, recommend changes to their life and surroundings. It’s slow, it’s difficult; it’s much easier to use xenodrugs, but there’s a sense of pride and accomplishment from self-improvement from therapy that I don’t think xenodrugs can match.”
He hadn’t intended to research terran alternative medicine, but New Melbourne was home to some extreme traditionalists. There were people here who refused to eat replicated food, who barely tolerated terran medicine let alone affini medications, who still wanted to exchange goods and services for currency. Backwards, perhaps, but also so refreshingly not affini.
He left Dr. Aesh’s office and walked to the bar he’d decided to observe for the evening. The bouncer scowled at him. “No hitting on the patrons,” she warned. “None of us are going to become your pet.”
“Joran, don’t be rude,” a customer behind him in line said. “Aprevalii hasn’t hit on anyone since he arrived three years ago. It’s why we like him.”
“I don’t want a floret,” he told Joran.
Liliac Syringa, Sixteenth Bloom had left him a message. He was invited to the birthday party of Nerys Syringa, Nineteenth Floret and was not permitted to refuse. “What if I do?” he messaged her.
The response was so rapid he suspected it had been pre-loaded. “I dare you to try it.”
He wouldn’t refuse, of course. Liliac had been part of the rescue team that had found her alone in a shelter that had become a tomb, surrounded by the decaying bodies of the last hrevl. She’d been catatonic at that point, unable to perform the funerary rites she’d promised she would. Liliac had performed the funerary rites for her, even if she didn’t understand why it mattered so much to Aprevalii. Hadn’t once said, “But they’re already dead, they can’t care.” or “Don’t we have more important things to worry about?”
There had certainly been things to worry about. Domesticating a species that had just successfully genocided another out of existence was not going to be easy. But Liliac had taken each hrevl body to the roof of the temple, cut their hearts out—they’d been dead long enough that the ichor poisoning risk was minimal, placed them above their heads, and kept vigil for three days and two nights as bird-like creatures came to feast on the remains. It had been distressing for her, not as distressing as it would have been to Aprevalii, but still…
The party might not be so bad. Liliac wouldn’t actually force him to socialize and her pets understood that he didn’t like to be touched. She just wanted to see him, make sure he was okay… which he wasn’t, but he was doing much better than he had been the last time they’d met face-to-face.
Liliac lived far enough away that visiting her would be a bit of a trip, but he probably needed the vacation. Of course, visiting her meant getting on a ship not unlike the one that had rescued her. Going to a hab ring not unlike the one he’d lived on in the core systems. Surrounded by affini who couldn’t understand, who didn’t believe him when he said that drugs were too dangerous, affini for whom war was just the inevitable progress of victory upon victory, with any setback minor enough to shrug off. War for Aprevalii was bombs falling while she had shaken with fear for herself and her friends. War was ketalec soldiers rounding up hrevl and massacring them. War wasn’t the inexorable process of victory, but the inexorable process of defeat.
The terrans on New Melbourne had a term for Aprevalii’s mental sickness: Post-traumatic stress disorder. They understood him. Once he’d explained to them why he couldn’t handle loud noises they’d stopped without question. When he had a flashback no one thought it was weird or pumped him full of a drug that he might react badly to. No one asked him why his eyes were constantly darting, why he tried to keep his back to a wall at all times, why he insisted on sitting near the exit.
Nerys’s birthday party ended up being relatively low-key by Liliac’s standards. She hadn’t tried to hug him when he arrived, thank the stars, just said “I’m so glad you’re here, Aprevalii,” and introduced him to her friend Heyacinth.
Unlike most of the other affini at the party, Heyacinth had not assumed a humanoid form; she was a sphere supported by four legs with antennae poking out the top. “Heyacinth is a philologist and my other super-duper-smart friend,” said Liliac as Heyacinth fluffed her leaves in appreciation, “aside from Mats, that is. He’s in his room if you want to say hello. Heyacinth, Aprevalii is the ethnographer I told you about.”
Heyacinth turned her antennae towards Aprevalii. “A pleasure to meet an esteemed colleague,” she said.
“Thank you and likewise,” said Aprevalii. He sat down next to Heyacinth.
“So you know Mats, too? I met Liliac through him when she took him to a conference.”
“Yeah, I like Mats. Bit of a one-track mind but that’d be… how do they say it… ‘the colander saying the sieve has holes’?”
“Something like that, I think.”
As usually happened when Liliac threw a party for one of her florets, the situation quickly devolved into the affini guests sitting around the edges of her playroom while Liliac’s florets, her guests’ florets, and their independent terran friends got high and frolicked.
“Whoa, little one!” Heyacinth caught up a floret who had run straight into her. “Is he yours?” she held up the terran for Aprevalii’s inspection.
Aprevalii didn’t need to inspect. “No.” He had no florets hadn’t had florets since Sephal had died, if you could count them as a floret. She’d been offered florets, practically had them thrust upon her, when she was rescued. “They’ll do you good,” Liliac had said. “Something to take care of to keep your mind on the present.”
Aprevalii had tried, some of the potential adoptees had been adorably cute, but he barely felt up to taking care of himself some days, and on the days when he did he couldn’t shake off the memories of Sephal, Ezrash, Diah… all of them, dying as she watched, helpless. Not quick deaths, and not deaths after a long, fulfilling life. She hadn’t been able to protect them. He was in the core space now, it didn’t make sense that he was still worried about protecting a pet, not when it was almost physically impossible for anything to threaten one here.
“I’m not anyone’s!” the terran spluttered.
“A cutie like you?” Heyacinth started to pet the terran, but stopped as he wriggled out of her vines.
“I’m not cute! Can’t any of you plants accept that some of us don’t want to be pets?”
“Sorry, little one.”
Aprevalii put a vine on one of Heyacinth’s “legs.” “If he doesn’t like being called cute he won’t like being called ‘little one.’ ”
The terran was cute, of course. Sophonts always were. The hrevl had been adorable when they weren’t dying, screaming in pain, ichor running in rivulets down the streets, burning her leaves, and the smell… the smell…
“Are you okay?”
She heard the voice, but couldn’t identify it. It was the wrong voice, the wrong language.
“Look at me, plant.”
There was nothing to see. It was dark, and there was too much smoke, there was always so much smoke…
“Can you see me?”
There was nothing to see. And the voice was wrong. Something touched her leaves. It was cold, wet…
The terran had splashed a glass of water in his face, water dripped down his vines.
“Can you see me?”
“Yes.” Aprevalii could see the terran.
“What else can you see?”
Darkness had come as a blessed relief. Everything had gone quiet hours? days? ago, but the lights had stayed on longer. She could have turned them off, except she couldn’t move, could only watch and listen. But there was nothing to hear because…
“Can someone help me? He’s having a panic attack! I thought you affini drugged all that stuff out of existence.”
Wait, no, no, they couldn’t… he could never predict how he’d react…
“No drugs, no drugs! I’m… they don’t work right on me!”
Two of his vines were caught in hands and tugged, hard. It hurt, but the pain was refreshing, present, not an ache from centuries ago.
“Okay, no xenos then.” He could see the terran again; he had wrapped himself in Aprevalii’s vines. Reflexively, Aprevalii squeezed and pet the human. “It’s okay, you’ll be all right.”
Centering on the terran brought the room, the present, back into focus. Liliac had come over; she was peering at him. “Let’s get you somewhere quiet to calm down,” she said. “Simeon, do you mind if I put the two of you in Mats’s room? No one else will disturb you there and I just put him on some serious Class Z’s; he needs them when he finishes his manic bouts.”