After Liliac left, Simeon and Aprevalii looked at each other.
Aprevalii nodded. “Yeah, so that happened. Apparently you live here now?”
Simeon licked his lips. “Yeah, I guess so? I should have known Liliac was up to something.”
Aprevalii raised an eyebrow.
“Liliac’s always up to something.”
Aprevalii laughed hollowly. “You’re not wrong. So… how exactly does this work?”
Simeon paced, thinking. “Well, I’m not qualified to be your therapist” (strictly speaking, with the signing of the Human Domestication Treaty, he wasn’t qualified to be anyone’s therapist since psychotherapy was not sufficiently backed by clinical evidence) “so there’s a few different ways this could go. If we want to go informal we could just be roommates and I’d help you out when you had a problem at home, but we could also formalize it so I’m your personal care assistant or something like that, assuming you guys even have personal care assistants.”
“Not really,” said Aprevalii. “Affini are robust enough that we almost never need something like that and sophonts who need that degree of care usually become florets.”
“Well, I’m not taking you on as my floret,” said Simeon with a chuckle. “Is that even possible?”
Aprevalii considered. “I honestly don’t know. ‘Species’ is a nebulous category at best and I’m not sure the paperwork for domestication actually requires that the sophont taking on the floret be affini. It might just be understood implicitly.”
Except nothing regarding bureaucracy in the Affini Compact was implicit. Somewhere there would be a document specifying exactly who could and could not domesticate a floret. Finding it… would be best left to a non-affini who did want a floret.
“I wouldn’t actually want a floret,” he added. “Actually, I almost became one after the war ended.”
“Why didn’t you?”
Simeon grimaced. “I’m a sub by nature, I assume you know what that means.” Aprevalii nodded. “But my desire to submit is also very much a desire to serve, to be needed, to be useful. There’s no point is submission, as far as I’m concerned, if it’s just so I’m taken care of. There are florets like Mats who go into it for self-actualization, but I don’t exactly want self-actualization. And none of the affini I interviewed actually needed me. A few needed a floret, but that floret could be anyone.”
“You wanted to be special?”
“Not exactly. I wanted there to be a reason that they wanted me as their floret. When Nerys was my domme—”
“Wait, what?” Aprevalii interjected. “This is Nerys Syringa we’re talking about? Nerys Syringa, Nineteenth Floret. The one in a perpetual state of semi-lucid adoration? Even when she’s sober?”
“Yes, that Nerys. I don’t know the full story. She was a terran rebel and got captured, of course. Somewhere along the way she became Liliac’s. But before the war she was a switch. Anyway, when Nerys was my domme she needed me because we were in love. Sure, there was nothing I could do for her that another person couldn’t, but she didn’t love another person, she loved me.”
“And becoming the floret of a random affini seemed… unromantic?”
“Exactly. Sure we’d fall in love and then they’d need me, me specifically, that is, but yeah, that didn’t appeal to me either. And my skills are mostly in areas that affini think should be ‘for entertainment purposes only.’ ”
Aprevalii seemed intrigued. He pulled out a pad and began writing. “Do you mind if I document this?” he asked. “My current project is on terran alternative medicine, which I assume is what you’re talking about.”
This was good. Aprevalii was engaged and doing something he liked. Simeon needed to encourage this. “Please do,” he said. “So yeah, I’m trained in psychotherapy, if I hadn’t already told you, but I’m also trained in reiki, acupuncture, and Ayurvedic medicine. All of which the Affini Compact regards as even less evidence-based than psychotherapy.” Reiki especially was a sticking point. Simeon had to say on his paperwork for the other treatment modalities that his services were for entertainment purposes only and should not be used to treat any actual medical or psychological condition. If he wanted to do reiki his clients would have to sign a form that essentially read “I acknowledge that there is absolutely no conceivably possible scientific basis for this service and I should probably get domesticated immediately so I don’t endanger my health.” Simeon no longer did reiki.
“Did your clientele change after the Treaty?”
“Some did. Plenty of people went on xenodrugs that could treat them more effectively, but I already had a lot of clients who mistrusted conventional medicine; most of them stuck with me. I also get a few people who are just… interested in ‘primitive medicine.’ Which is fine, I’ve made peace with living in a society that thinks what I do is pseudoscience.”
“And how do you feel about xenodrugs?”
“They do a better job then terran medicine did at most things—Class G’s changed my life—but there’s no… soul to them. You go to the doctor, she runs some tests, and hands you a pill or an aerosol or something. Part of what I offer is that I sit down with my clients, I find out about their lives, I advise them on changes they can make and support them in making those changes. It’s probably less effective but I think it can also be more rewarding, especially with psychotherapy.”
Aprevalii nodded. “That’s consistent with what most of the providers I’ve interviewed say. A lot of focus on the journey. Sephal would have approved.” He flinched at the last.
“Sephal?” Not a name Simeon had heard before.
“They were… not exactly my floret, but they were my floret, if that makes sense. Do you know anything about the hrevl genocide?”
Simeon shook his head.
“The hrevl were a species that, at the time, were in a region of space scheduled for domestication in about a century or two. A lot of cute sophonts in between the newly domesticated regions of affini space and their system. I’d served as an ethnographer on several cotyledon teams and I wanted to do something… different. So I took a small craft and flung myself into remote space to see if there was anything in that region. And there was. I landed and set about observing and recording.
“The hrevl were… not exactly expecting me, but you have to understand that they planned for contingencies in a way terrans never did and affini have never had to. They had a contingency, had several contingencies, for first contact by aliens. And since I was friendly I was essentially greeted with open tendrils and welcomed in. The community I landed in was something like a monastery, I guess you’d call it, and was an ethnographer’s paradise. Direct exposure to one of their biggest religions, an enormous library, and a lot of contact with pilgrims and tourists visiting from other parts of the continent—the hrevl’s world, Astasheth, makes Terra look dry in comparison; it’s 90% water.
“There were problems, of course. The hrevl, most of the life on Astasheth for that matter, was toxic to me. We managed to find soil I could safely extract nutrients from, but I had to be careful about what I ate and avoid getting any of their ichor on me: it burned. There was also a bunch of debate about the correct response to the imminent prospect of domestication. No one was foolish enough to propose opposing the affini, but there was an extensive discussion about exactly how to negotiate integration. They actually… they looked through my records of other domestication treaties and wrote up one of their own to present when the others arrived. A lot of it was to ensure certain sacred spaces would be left untouched, but there were also concerns about the potential toxicity: no one was supposed to be allowed on or off world without rigorous screening for compatibility. Not things they really needed to worry about, I told them, the Compact would never let anything harm their environment or accidentally let them poison someone else’s. I promised them safety, well-being, the universe.
“And I made friends. One of them was Sephal. We, I guess you’d say we fell in love. They wanted to to be my pet, volunteered to be the first cotyledon, but they were also my mentor when it came to their religion. They taught me to pray, the various rituals used at the monastery, the… funerary rites. They were glorious. Our biggest fear was that affini and hrevl biology would be too fundamentally incompatible for the haustoric implant. But we were both content to wait a century or so to find out—the hrevl are, were extremely long-lived compared to you humans; Sephal could have lived to be four or five hundred.
“They didn’t, of course. While I was caught up with them, another species, the ketalec, was expanding their own empire. They saw other sophonts as a threat to their… I don’t even know the word for it. Purity? Unity? Perfection? So as far as they were concerned, the cute sophonts on Astasheth had to go. Somehow they must have worked out who or what I was, because my craft was one of the first things destroyed when they began bombing. I had no way of calling for help. If I’d been sending regular reports back home, maybe that would have been noticed, but I hadn’t been.
“Later they started landing, rounding up hrevl, and working them to death. And I couldn’t do anything. I tried, I did, but I wasn’t prepared for this. War for the affini is just the quick process of bringing another species to heel, I’d never considered the possibility of being on the losing side of one. And the hrevl hadn’t ever considered the possibility of an alien species that wanted to wipe them out of existence. Sephal told me, near the end, that they were glad they hadn’t. ‘Better to have enough charity that the thought never entered our minds,’ they told me. Well, that’s a translation, obviously.
“In the end there were eight of us barricaded in a sub-basement beneath the temple. Sephal was dead by then. But the ketalec hadn’t found us; I’d finally managed to keep us hidden. Except the food ran out and they couldn’t eat me; I was as poisonous to them as they were to me. So I watched them starve to death. By then I was catatonic; couldn’t move at all. I waited until the lights burned out. Then I waited… until the Compact arrived. Too late for anyone but me.”
Aprevalii grimaced. “And none of them understood. Yes, they were horrified by the genocide, by the fact that they hadn’t arrived it time to stop it, but the hrevl were abstract for them. Species-wide genocides are rare, but not unheard of. The only difference, to most of them, between the hrevl’s and, say, the guerachadet’s, was that they arrived a year too late for the hrevl’s instead of a millennium too late.”
Simeon sat down next to Aprevalii and the plant instinctively wrapped him in his vines. There was nothing to say in response to the story, so he said nothing. He just sat with Aprevalii in silence. Eventually, Aprevalii released him. “Thank you,” he said. “I wrote a book about it. The Hrevl and their Destruction: At Ethnography and Eulogy, but I don’t know if anyone other than academics reads it. There isn’t an English translation; do you read Affini?”
Simeon shook his head. “I bet you could get Mats to translate; I’d like to read it.”
“I’d appreciate it. They should be remembered.”
Simeon nodded. “For now, let’s return to the present. You are an affini who essentially has post-traumatic stress disorder, can’t take xenodrugs, and—no offense intended—isn’t managing his self-care or recovery all that well. It seems to me that what you need is something to take your mind off of yourself, and clearly your fieldwork isn’t sufficient, and someone or something to make sure you engage in self-care and monitor you for flashbacks. I can do the latter, for now at least, but that isn’t a long-term solution. For the former… what activities do you enjoy apart from your research?”
“Okay, what activities did you enjoy apart from your research before the hrevl?”
Aprevalii thought. “I did some gardening, I cooked, I usually had a floret or two to take care of. They tried to give me florets afterward, but look at me… I can barely take care of myself.”
Simeon stood up and paced. “A floret’s not actually a bad idea. It’d give you something to focus on, but you’re right that the traditional arrangement… wouldn’t be a good idea. How about gardening? We could put in some pots near the window, buy some seeds…”
Aprevalii’s leaves fluttered. “Some gardening would be nice. I think there’s actually a community garden in New Melbourne, although I don’t know if I could get a plot there.”
Simeon was getting excited. “A community garden would be perfect for you. You’d be outside, socializing, and doing something you love.”
Aprevalii was given a small plot near the northeastern corner. “If you make something out of it, we can look into giving you more space,” the community director, Rohel, had told him. “But you have to show you know what you’re doing first.”
Simeon wasn’t sure Aprevalii did know what he was doing; he had ignored Simeon’s hints that he should research what plants were suitable for the area, read weather forecasts and reports, and acquire tools. But once they reached Aprevalii’s plot the reason became apparent: Aprevalii was his own seed bank and tools. He let himself fall apart on the plot, vines digging and burrowing.
“Doesn’t that hurt?” Simeon asked, as Aprevalii detached one of his firmer vines and planted it upright in the soil.
“It can, but I’ve been preparing some vines for this. Need to provide some support for climbing plants.”
“Is this how you always garden?”
“It wasn’t on Astasheth. The soil was often toxic and I…”
“Focus, Aprevalii. Where are you?”
“This is New Melbourne?”
“And what are you doing?”
“I’m, I’m… I don’t know.”
Simeon put a hand on one of Aprevalii’s vines and followed it down to the hole it was burrowing. “You’re digging. This is a garden. Feel my hand, feel the soil.”
Simeon manipulated the vine to continue digging until Aprevalii took control of it. Aprevalii resumed digging, planting, and building. The sight was beautiful and it was good for him. He was grounding, figuratively and literally, and while Simeon had difficulty reading affini emotions, the plant seemed happier than he had since they’d met.
There was a vine wrapped around his waist! It had happened so slowly, so subtly that he wasn’t sure it had been intentional. But it felt good. More vines sought him out. This was nice. Simeon was wrapped in a cocoon and all around him Aprevalii was gardening.
Simeon was losing track of time. How long had they been doing this? He could have sworn that the sun had been at its zenith a moment ago, and the days in New Melbourne at this time of year were long. Had he fallen asleep? No, he didn’t think so. He was always a bit groggy when he first woke up, but he’d never felt so awake, so alert. The plant wasn’t moving, as far as he could tell, but remained spread out over his plot.
He tried to move, but he couldn’t. He wasn’t wrapped that tightly, was he? He tried to speak, but his mouth wouldn’t move, his vocal cords wouldn’t respond. There were vines growing into his skin. But it didn't hurt. Why didn't it hurt?
He couldn't move, he couldn't scream. His breath should, based on his emotional state, be rapid, but it was slow, methodical, like he was sleeping. The disconnect between his emotional and physical states only added to the panic. Simeon knew his body, knew how it reacted, knew what it did when he was out of control, terrified, and having strange things done to it. But it wasn't doing any of them. Did Aprevalli know what he was doing? Simeon wasn't sure whether he hoped he was or he wasn't. If he knew, then he was violating Simeon's bodily autonomy on an unimaginably horrific level, but if he didn't... then what the everloving fuck was going on?