Audrey stops at the mahogany door, and takes a deep breath, looking at the polished wood. There's a deep brown nameplate on the door, with bronze letters inset; "Dr. Clematis, Hypnotherapist." Below that, a hand-colored mandala has been stuck to the door with sticky-tack.
She raises a hand and knocks, three soft raps.
The door opens a little, and a woman in a squashy brown sweater pokes her head out, her teardrop earrings shining in the soft light of the hallway. She smiles. "Hey, can I help you?"
"I, um, yes. I'm… looking for Dr. Clematis, for hypnotherapy?"
"That would be me." She smiles, and steps back from the door, opening it wider. "Come on in and make yourself at home."
The room beyond is dappled in amber light that streams in through a bank of stained-glass windows along one wall. Planters below them are filled with sunflowers and tomatoes, and the fresh garden scent of earth and new-made air fills the room. There are no less than four couches scattered around the large room, a deep shag rug with a Bowers console on it, and more hand-colored mandalas stuck to the walls. A small kitchen nook with a mini-fridge stands off to one side, and there's a door on the other side of the room with a small sign marked "PRIVATE".
Audrey blinks. "Do you… live here?"
Clematis settles down onto a couch and nods. "Yeah, I run my office out of my private rooms. Staff get free residence in the Bowers. And this way makes it really easy for people to drop in on me."
"Where's your… receptionist? Don't you have a desk or something?"
Clematis smiles and shakes her head. "Reception is handled by central Bowers dispatch, and with the Bowers' customization controls I can just summon whatever I want. I prefer to work with a tablet on my lap and thought-dictation." She holds up a small silver pendant. "Machine telepathy interlink."
Audrey cautiously takes the couch across from Clematis, looking around at the room. "This is a really nice place."
Clematis looks over at her tomatoes. "I think a lot of people don't get out to touch greenery enough, so I brought a little into my meeting room. It helps a lot of people relax and feel at ease. Can I offer you coffee or tea? I'm afraid I only have decaf - as a therapist I'm kind of obligated not to contribute to people's caffeine addictions."
"Coffee would be nice. It would… give me something to do with my hands." Audrey looks down at her palms.
Clematis gets up and heads over to the kitchen nook. "What kind of coffee?"
"Ah, a connoisseur." She taps twice on the nook's counter, and an espresso machine appears wedged into the corner. She starts the grinder, and the whir of beans being reduced to grounds fills the room. "How many sugars? Cream?"
"Cream, one sugar."
"Coming right up." Clematis gets down a demitasse from the cupboard above the machine, taps twice for sugar, and puts a small scoop in. Then she reaches into the mini-fridge, gets out a small carton of cream, and pours a measure in. "So, how did you hear about me?"
"I… the girl I'm dating said you were her student, and that you were worth talking to if I wanted to try hypnotherapy… And she encouraged me to, a little."
Clematis stops, as if struck. "… Someone I was a student to… That has to be Eva, right?"
Audrey tenses. "Yes."
Clematis nods to herself as she flattens the grounds from the espresso machine and puts the filter into the extractor, followed by the demitasse. "Eva. I haven't seen her in - it must be thirty years, now. I never knew what happened to her, she just stopped talking to me abruptly… But all this is ancient history." She starts the machine, and the scent of fresh-made coffee wafts across the room.
"I actually… wanted to talk to you about Eva, today…"
"Ah." Clematis half-turns and looks back over her shoulder. "Relationship worries?"
Clematis takes the demitasse out of the machine and brings it over to Audrey, setting it down on the console in front of her. "Alright. Are you comfortable with me advising you on Eva, despite my personal connection to her? Professionally that's a bit of a conflict of interest, but I haven't known her for three decades at this point, so I'm not going to force you to go to another therapist if you don't want to."
Audrey picks up the demitasse and sips softly. "I'm - more comfortable going to you than someone I've never heard of. And I want specifically a hypnotherapist." She takes a deep breath of the coffee's aroma and cradles the small cup in her hands. "… If you think you can be neutral, I'd like to stay with you."
Clematis nods, and sits down across from Audrey. "Alright. So, tell me a little about Eva. What's the old biddy up to these days?"
That startles a little laugh out of Audrey. "Biddy?"
Clematis grins. "I mean, she's ancient, and at least when I knew her she could stand to be taken down a few pegs. Has she changed?"
Audrey hides a smile behind her cup. "She's - graceful, and kind, and she hypnotized me… I'm not sure I'd say she needs to be taken down a peg…"
Clematis nods along. "What's the trouble, then?"
"Well… It's just, she's like five hundred and I'm twenty-four, she's rich, I can barely afford the Bowers, she's polyamorous and super experienced, I'm a virgin…" Audrey looks down into her coffee cup.
"I can hardly blame you for being intimidated, especially when you factor in how persuasive Eva can be. Do you mind if I get some coffee as well?"
Audrey shakes her head. "Go ahead."
Clematis taps the console twice, and a mug of black coffee covered in little hearts appears. She picks it up and takes a drink. "I like to make it myself, but this way we don't interrupt the session as much. Can you talk a little about how those contrasts between you and Eva affect your relationship?"
Audrey takes a deep breath, and curls her fingers closer around her cup of coffee. "I… It feels like she's always leading. She's wealthy, she's charming, she - gets what she wants, I guess. And she wants me, so…"
"And you're not sure if you want to give her what she wants?" Clematis takes a drink of her coffee.
"No, I - I want to, I just - I don't trust it." She sets her coffee down on the console.
"… Like you said, she's very persuasive, and…" She crosses her arms over her body. "I…" She picks up her coffee and takes a drink.
Clematis gives Audrey a measuring look. "You're not sure if you want it because you want her, or if you want it because you want sex."
Audrey blushes and nods.
"Have you tried dating anyone else?" Clematis tilts her head.
"No, not really. There was this girl who hit on me once before I got my True Persona, but - I was way too awkward to do anything about it. And she was probably straight." Audrey sighs.
"You said you're a virgin. Have you… fooled around, any?" Clematis' fingers trace a circle on the rim of her mug.
"Not before I came to the Bowers. Once I got here, I - I let one of Eva's other students, a woman named December, hypnotize me and give me pleasure and arousal suggestions. Eva suggested it. Well, not specifically that, but she suggested that I try kink with December and December suggested the specific stuff." Audrey rubs the back of her neck.
Clematis smiles. "Doing that kind of thing might make some people wonder if you were attracted to December."
Audrey tilts her head sideways. "I… never really considered that. I don't think it's - like that. We - did that together - but it wasn't… Eva spotted, and it just made me think about Eva even more."
Clematis nods. "When you think about Eva, what kind of things do you want for you and her?"
Audrey crosses her arms over her chest and hunches forwards. "I… I think about sex, obviously." She looks down at the floor. "And - other things. Kneeling at her feet and kissing them. Holding her hand. Listening to her voice and following her directions…" She touches her knuckles to her lips. "It was really, really nice to hold her hand and kiss it…"
Clematis blinks. "You held her hand and kissed it? When did that happen?"
"I… She confessed that she was attracted to me, and I froze up…" She takes a deep breath, picks up her coffee again, drains it. "I couldn't move, couldn't talk. She - wordlessly offered to hold my hand - and I accepted. And then… something possessed me to kiss it…"
Clematis hides a smile behind her coffee cup. "You found a way to express your attraction and adoration despite not being able to talk. That speaks to a depth of feeling, doesn't it?"
Audrey exhales. "… Yeah, I guess it does."
"Have you ever heard of the triangular theory of love?" Clematis takes a drink.
Audrey shakes her head.
"It hypothesizes that love is composed of three major things - desire, intimacy, and devotion. Different proportions of each lead to different kinds of love, with so-called 'true love' consisting of all three. It's a little bit reductive, but it's useful to pull it out when people are wondering if they're in love or not. Shall I apply it to your case?"
Audrey nods quickly, scrunching up a little more on the couch.
"Obviously, desire is covered. You're having sexual thoughts about Eva and you admit it and you want to act on it. So let's move on to intimacy and devotion." She drains her coffee, and sets it down on the table. "You daydream about holding Eva's hand, and you were able to communicate with her under stress and tell her something really difficult - that you're attracted to her. True intimacy can take a while to blossom, but I think you have the seeds of it." She taps the table twice, refilling her coffee. "As for devotion… you daydream about service to Eva, about kissing her feet, about obeying her directions. Overall, I would say you meet all three conditions - you've at least got a crush on her. Whether that crush develops into anything more depends a lot on how you two interact in the future."
Audrey leans in closer. "What do - What do you think about that?"
Clematis taps the handle of her coffee mug. "Well, the question is obviously 'does Eva reciprocate.' She's said she's attracted to you, so desire is probably covered. Again, that wordless communication you had speaks to your having some intimacy. So the thing you might worry about is devotion - otherwise known as commitment." She looks at Audrey. "Do you have any indications either way about what Eva thinks about that?"
Audrey bites her lip. "She said that I was special, and that she was… considering dating me, rather than just having a casual relationship like she usually does."
Clematis smiles. "That's encouraging. I'd say she's not sure about how much she wants to commit, just yet, but she's willing to consider it and give you a try. So if everything goes well, the possibility of a serious relationship isn't off the table."
Audrey takes a deep breath. "I… don't know how to feel about that."
"I don't think you're supposed to, this early. That's what dating is for." Clematis takes a deep drink of her coffee. "The more you learn about Eva, the more certain either way you're likely to become. I would just caution you about letting your fear keep you from giving it a proper try - particularly since you're trans and a virgin, you might shrink from affection at first since you're not used to it."
Audrey nods. "Yeah, it's… hard, being so fresh in this body…"
Clematis tilts her head. "How so?"
"I'm… I'm honestly not used to it yet. I still keep flinching away from my reflection, even though it's not - what I'm afraid of, anymore. It feels a little… too good to be true." Audrey slips her hands into her dress' pockets.
"Were you on estroglyphs or anything like that before your Assume True Persona?" Clematis takes another drink of her coffee.
"Yeah, for about a year. They had some effect, but it's still a stark contrast between what I look like now and what I looked like then." Audrey sighs.
"Dissociation and a sense of alienation from the body is really common in trans people," Clematis says. "I have an exercise we could do to help with that, if you were interested."
Audrey perks up. "Really?"
Clematis smiles and sets down her coffee cup. "Yeah. I will warn you, it involves looking in a mirror."
Audrey flinches, then takes a breath. "- I can do that."
Clematis nods and smiles. "We can do this with hypnosis, or without hypnosis. If we do it with hypnosis, it can help you internalize the lesson on a subconscious level, and I can give you some suggestions to help you remember the lesson and apply it in your daily life. Hypnosis does come with some risks, though; primarily, the formation of false memories, though we aren't going to be working with memory here, so it's not likely it'll occur." She taps the coffee cup twice, and it vanishes. "Which would you prefer?"
Audrey takes her hands out of her pockets and folds them together in her lap. "With hypnosis."
Clematis gets up off the sofa, bringing her tablet with her. She taps at it, and a full-length mirror appears in place of an unoccupied couch. She walks over and stands next to it. "If you're okay with being hypnotized right now, could you come over here?"
Audrey gets up and walks over to Clematis, her gaze slipping away from the silvered surface of the mirror.
"Wonderful." Clematis offers her right hand to Audrey. "Shake on it?"
Audrey extends her hand to shake, only to find Clematis' left hand grabbing her wrist. She brings Audrey's hand up to her face, pointing at it with her right hand. "Look at your hand." Audrey looks on instinct - "And the eyes lose focus as it comes closer…" Clematis brings it inward. "And
sleep." Clematis lowers Audrey's hand, and Audrey sways on her feet, her gaze going unfocussed.
"Well done." Clematis smiles. "So deep and calm and empty. Following my words like glimmers of far-off light. Little sparkles in the deepness. In this state of clarity, it's easy for you to follow my commands. It's so easy to obey."
Audrey nods slowly. "Easy…"
Clematis steps in, and holds a finger in front of Audrey's eyes. "Follow my finger." She moves it slowly in a figure eight pattern in front of Audrey, back and forth, back and forth; Audrey's gaze follows it, focussed and intent. "Good. Keep following my finger." She steps backwards, shifting towards the mirror, and brings her finger down to its silvered surface and taps it gently. "Look here."
Audrey stares into the mirror, looking but not seeing.
Clematis steps away. "There's a girl in the mirror. Can you see her?"
Audrey's gaze focusses a little. "Yes."
"Watch the girl in the mirror. She's looking at you. Meet her gaze."
Audrey stares into her reflection's eyes, her breath hitching.
"Good. I want you to raise your right hand, slowly."
Audrey slowly raises her right hand.
"See how the girl in the mirror's raised her right hand too?"
Audrey's hand trembles a little. "Yes."
"And now slowly lower it, and watch as the girl in the mirror lowers hers."
Audrey lowers her hand slowly, and takes another breath.
Clematis' voice is soft, gentle. "You control the girl in the mirror, you can make her do whatever you want. Make her dance, make her laugh, make her jump up and down... Whatever you want to make her do, you can make her do it. Because the girl in the mirror is you, and you're the girl in the mirror. She's only your reflection. Nothing but your reflection. Take a close look at the shape of her face, how her hair falls. Smile. That's your smile."
Audrey stares into the mirror like she's never seen herself in it before. Despite herself, a smile comes to her face.
"She's you. That's your body."
Audrey takes a deep breath, and nods, blinking back tears.
"The other body you had in the past, that's gone now. It's only a memory. This is what you look like now, and how you will look for as long as you decide to keep this body."
The tears are streaming freely down Audrey's cheeks, now, her breath trembly and unsteady.
"Look closely, and tell me something you like about her body."
"I... like the shape of her face..."
"Say that again, but use the word "my"."
"I like the shape of my face."
"Can you think of anything else you like?"
Audrey blushes slightly through her tears. "I like h- my breasts. They're - not the largest - but they fit... me."
"Just tell me one more thing you like."
"I like... her pink hair. It's vibrant and eye-catching and really cute."
"Again, say that again using "my.""
"I really like my pink hair. It's... vibrant and eye-catching and... really cute."
"Well done. How do you feel?"
"I -" Audrey bows her head. "I feel… All light-headed and weak and - like something's fallen off my shoulders - my stomach's going crazy - I -" a giggle slips out of her mouth, "I, wow -"
"Audrey, listen very carefully. I want you to remember this feeling. Whenever you look at a mirror, I want you to remember how it felt to connect again with the self you found there. Remember this relief, this happiness."
Audrey takes a shuddering breath. "I -" she blinks back tears. "I will."
"Good. Now you're going to wake up for me. Alright?"
"Waking in five… four… three… two… one." Clematis claps loudly, and Audrey startles. "You're awake, you're alert, you're okay. That was amazing, should I get you some tissues?"
Audrey stands for a long moment, still looking into the mirror, then raises a hand to touch the tear-tracks on her cheek. "… Yeah, I…" She sniffles. "I should probably - do that."
Clematis walks over to the console and taps twice, then comes back to Audrey and passes her the tissue box. "Doing okay? I can give you a little time alone if you'd like."
Audrey takes a tissue from the box, wipes at her tears and blows her nose. "I, uh… Yeah, that would be good."
Clematis snaps her fingers in front of Audrey's face. "Wake. You're agreeing to everything a little too easily. Are you really sure?"
Audrey presses her palms to her eyes and gives her head a little shake. "Yeah, I - no, it would be better to have you here. Could you - could you get me another coffee?"
Clematis smiles. "Certainly." She walks over to the console and picks up Audrey's empty demitasse, then walks over to the kitchen nook and starts working the espresso machine again.
Audrey's left alone by the mirror for a moment, with the tissues in her hand. She takes long breaths, and snatches another glance at the mirror. Gosh, she's grinning. This is - It's better than her first dress was, by a long shot. How had she managed to duck this for a month running…?
She dabs at her eyes with another tissue, and settles down onto the couch, setting down the crumpled tissues and the box on the console. The crumpled tissues disappear without her even having to tap.
Clematis comes over with another cup of coffee. "Here you go. Can I offer you something to eat? Pudding cup? Fruit cup? Chocolate pretzels?"
Audrey takes a deep breath. "- fruit cup, please."
Clematis nods, and goes to dip into the fridge again. There's some rummaging noises, followed by the sound of a drawer sliding open and then closed. When she comes back, she has a fruit cup and a plastic spoon in her right hand. "Fruit cup."
Audrey accepts it with a thankful nod, tears off the fruit cup's thin plastic lid, and digs in.
Clematis sits down across from her, taps the console twice, and a beat-up fantasy paperback bearing the title Pair of Pawns appears; she picks it up, and begins to read.
Audrey eats her fruit cup and drinks her coffee, her breath settling out as she goes through the routine motions, her eyes still red but no longer tearful.
Clematis closes her book just as Audrey finishes, and sets it back down on the console. "Doing a little better?"
Audrey nods. "Yeah, that was… A lot to take in."
Clematis nods sympathetically. "Do you want to continue the session, or come back later?"
"I - would like to keep going, if that's alright with you."
Clematis smiles. "Certainly. I don't think there's too much more to cover - just a little bit on risks and boundaries, I think."
Audrey sets down her empty coffee cup. "Okay, go right ahead."
Clematis pulls her tablet into her lap and scrolls through it briefly. "You said earlier that it feels like Eva is 'always leading', because of her experience and her persuasive nature. Could you talk a little more about that?"
Audrey settles her hands in her lap. "I, uh… I like her, and I want to serve her, but at the same time I feel sometimes like she - gets to decide where the relationship goes, and I don't. Because I'm inexperienced and - it's just better to listen to her experience."
Clematis nods. "I think it's important to keep in mind that nobody is more of an authority on your feelings than you are. If Eva assumes something, or pushes, or in general does something you don't like, you can and should push back on that. Both for your own sake and for hers."
Audrey looks down at her hands. "But… she's five hundred, how am I supposed to - gainsay that?"
"Everyone makes mistakes. If Eva is reasonable and wants you to be happy then she'll be happy to be corrected. Asserting your boundaries not only makes you happier in a good relationship, it'll show you more quickly if there are red flags you should be noticing."
Audrey crosses her arms. "I guess that makes sense."
Clematis nods. "Trans people generally have some trouble asserting their boundaries because their families tend to have - expectations for them that they can't live up to, because of their gender identity. I don't know if that applies to you, but it's something to think about."
Audrey nods soberly. "Okay."
Clematis looks back at her tablet. "I think it's also relevant to discuss your desire to serve Eva."
Audrey blushes a little, and sinks a little into the couch.
Clematis looks back up and smiles. "You're allowed to follow that desire! But at the same time, it's your responsibility to make sure you don't follow Eva off a cliff if she does something reckless or stupid. You give her permission to control you, and that's something you can and should revoke if she misuses it. Again, if she's reasonable and cares about you she won't want you to follow an order you think is stupid or that you hate."
Audrey nods. "Yeah. I don't think it's likely to happen, but…"
"Again, everyone can make mistakes. But if she pushes, or acts like you should obviously bow to her superior knowledge, then I'd say that's a red flag."
Audrey shakes her head. "She hasn't done anything like that, I don't think."
Clematis smiles. "That's good news. Overall the picture of her I've gotten from your descriptions is of someone who cares about you and wants to be close to you - but people can and do change, so it's reasonable to be prepared in case of the worst."
"Yeah…" Audrey hunches a little. "The worst is… pretty bad, here, with Eva being so rich…"
Clematis nods. "There is some extra risk involved in dating powerful people, because if they turn out to be abusive you have less recourse. I think it's sensible to consult RACK here."
"Risk Aware Consensual Kink. Fundamentally, there is no sexual activity that doesn't involve some amount of risk. What you can do, however, is walk in willingly with your eyes open and take reasonable steps to mitigate the risk. For example, if your kink is bondage, going to workshops on how to properly tie bondage knots so they don't bind or cut circulation, rather than going in with no preparation. Can you think of any steps you could take to reduce your risk with Eva?"
Audrey crosses her arms and tilts her head to the side. "Hmmmm. Well, I could learn more about hypnosis, or use a spotter, like December did. If she's abusive, I could always get a restraining order like she was any other person, and to keep it from getting there in the first place I could do - regular check-ins with her and some explicit negotiation?"
Clematis smiles. "Sounds like a good start to me. Doubtless you'll think of more as the relationship gets deeper. One thing I would caution you about is to keep your self-reliance for a good long while - don't jump into planning your new life of leisure as her partner, don't move in with her quickly, keep your day job for a while. It's tempting to be swept off your feet, but if she decides to drop you afterwards you could be in a sticky situation."
Audrey nods. "I wasn't planning on that, but thank you anyway."
Clematis leans back onto her couch. "Alright, then. Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?"
Audrey shakes her head and rubs her red eyes. "No, I think - I think that's all. Thank you."
Clematis gets up from the couch and gathers up Audrey's empty cups. "Alright, then. I'll just clean up a bit; feel free to let yourself out."
Audrey nods, gets up and stretches. She looks over at the full-length mirror again and a little smile comes to her lips. Then she turns to face Clematis' back as she runs the sink in the kitchen nook to clean the cups.
"… Really, thank you."
Clematis flashes a smile over her shoulder. "Helping is its own reward for me. Now go put your lessons to good use, okay? And feel free to come back anytime."
Audrey smiles. "Alright."
She lets herself out, and closes the door behind her.