The Florette's Dilemma
18- Thou Shalt Die
"Alright, we can talk about it," Mane answered awkwardly. She reached up with a hand and tried to ignore the cuff around its wrist as she brushed hair out of her face. "Where...should I start?"
"You're very on guard," Erias remarked with precision, almost as if she were sniping at Mane using her words. "That, right now, could be lots of things. Guilt, fear, a calculated effort to gain the upper hand by controlling flow of information, hostility, distrust, it could be just about anything-nevermind the countless permutations of them and the fractally more numerous combinations of factors that could potentially be motivating you towards each one." Erias paused in her speech for a moment and contemplated one of her...Mane hesitated to call them "hands," despite their having five digits at the end and those digits' evident use to manipulate tools. Erias flexed and unflexed each of that hand's analogues to fingers one at a time, then turned her "face" towards Mane as the digits continued to move. "Let's begin there, shall we? Tell me what's wrong, if you can."
Mane felt exposed. The affini were old, alien creatures experienced with what was likely more varieties of sophont than she was animals. Most of them, though, seemed to...only mostly get her. She would crumple under their gaze, no doubt, if she didn't deny them their customary toolbox, but without it they had to try. She was a mouse, maybe, but she was in a maze just a bit too small for the cats on her tail. Erias seemed different. Her gaze was remote, uncompromising, without the lens of affini superiority that led the likes of Effus to make assumptions about her. Mort had been different too, but he had the energy of a young, overeager scientist. She understood that.
Erias was foreign. Erias, it felt, could see right through her.
Could she dance around the inevitable? Could Erias already see the red on her hands, forever stained with the blemish of a killing committed not in the heat of passion nor in self defense, nor even in cold blood, but a killing enacted with the obscene joy of a cat tormenting her prey? Mane tried not to let her face show her terror but she didn't need a mirror to see that her efforts were in vain. What was she to say?
"I am to understand that humans do not generally deliberate this long while relaxed and telling the truth," Erias said gently. "Most of the classic signs of deceit outlined by your scholars are generally nonsense, as you might know-indicators of stress or fear interpreted to indicate falsehood based on the assumption that the two must always share causation. I do not believe you are trying to lie to me, little one. But you are clearly not at ease, and whatever shackles are restraining you are evidently heavy indeed. Is my summation here correct?"
"Y-yes," Mane admitted, too afraid of this being to lie after being cornered. At this rate, they would tear the truth from her within the hour. The more she blatantly showed her distrust in the affini, the sooner they'd realize she wasn't cooperating, the sooner she'd be pumped full of-
No. No, no, no. Thinking about that right now was a death sentence, just as surely as it was to be honest with her father when she was younger. She was GOING to get through this. She wasn't going to let herself betray Melody's faith in her a second time. That would be truly unforgivable.
"Yeah, I'm...affini scare me," Mane considered lapsing into a crying fit, releasing the pressure valve on her fear and trying not to let on exactly why she was scared. She knew herself too well for that to be an option, though. She would let out some hint of the truth and this affini would seize a hold of it and use it as leverage and tear her mask off. She'd functionally be put into checkmate the moment that happened. Her only choice was not to let the possibility go on the table. "You're huge, and imposing, and-" Mane considered letting on that creatures, especially sapient beings, substantially bigger than her scared her. Up to recently in her life that had almost exclusively meant large men and big dogs (which weren't *actually* bigger than her but her animal brain didn't measure its stimuli with a scale). She chose not to.
"-The whole, viewing all other creatures as pets thing, I'm super not comfortable with that, and like I get that most Terran propaganda is probably a load of shit, the same pipeline also gets angry that capitalism is gone, and the human-run planets, or the 'human-run' planets under you guys are doing good and all, but I still get 'boot rations are at an all time high' vibes from you guys just because you could super easily do that, and like you said a lot of affini seem to have a strained relationship with the idea of reality's limits...applying to them?" Mane realized she was rambling and clamped her mouth tight. Erias seemed stimulated. Her petals trembled and buzzed across her edges like the teeth of a motorized saw.
"What's this about boots, dear?" Erias asked. Her voice shimmered with delighted curiosity, momentarily raising Mane's hopes, but there was no hunger behind it. She could not use this opportunity to distract the affini from herself, only to stall for time-and only very briefly at that.
"It's...a thing from an old book. About...fascists and the way they train people to take their word over facts. The dominant political party asserts that boot production is at an all time high even though half the populace of their capitol goes barefoot. That kind of thing," Mane elaborated. She was both visibly and audibly nervous. Her eyes refused both to stay put and to point themselves at anything besides Erias' stiltlike body-but only the vines, never the core. The affini casually entered some data into a tablet seated on a counter next to her, but she did so with all of her body language clearly declaring that Mane had every last drop of her attention.
"Interesting. So, tell me-if you feel comfortable doing so, of course-do you suspect this of us? Or are you merely held back from trusting us by your knowledge that, if we chose to do so, we'd be able to?" Mane felt an almost physical pain as yet another admission was wrenched from her hand. She had to sacrifice this piece-she had no other choice.
"I...don't think you would, no." Mane didn't actually admit she was doing either, only that she was confident she wasn't doing one of them. It implied that she was in the latter category without stating it outright, and it wasn't a foolproof foothold that they could use against her later if she came to contradict herself. Erias' gaze seemed to lighten itself with amusement for just a moment. Mane felt her tension mounting even higher. Erias probably wouldn't care about her verbal footwork. All it took was one question she hadn't prepared for to destroy her.
"So-and forgive me if this seems rude or redundant, I wish only to understand you-do you think that this idea of what we're capable of, makes it harder to trust us?" Shit. She saw right through it! Mane felt a wave of anger towards herself. Of course she couldn't play this ancient, wispy tree alien like one of the shitty psychiatrists her father employed. This was never going to work. "Please understand Mane. I am not here to hurt you." That's what they all say, Mane felt herself snarling back. She tried to push it out of her mind. Her baggage could fucking wait its turn.
"I-yes, I suppose." Mane sounded beaten and she also felt beaten. Whatever clever ruse she was trying to pull crumpled into dust. "I'm sorry, I know that-"
"Why are you sorry?" Erias asked. Her tone left Mane confused. It was...soft, curious, intrigued. Erias didn't want her to stop, Erias wanted to know. Mane blushed for a second.
"Wha-I'm sorry, I dunno, I just…" the words died in Mane's throat.
"Overly apologetic Terrans are a common theme in this clinic," Erias explained, "and I find it is often a consequence of trauma. You're so used to everyone around you being hostile that you constantly seek to mollify them, as you cannot predict when it will be needed. Am I incorrect, dear?" Fuck. Yet another piece was escorted off of the board, leaving Erias with more and more avenues of attack available to her. Mane regretted having said anything.
"Yes, Erias," Mane admitted. She felt like she was being held under a microscope and taken apart. Gently, scientifically, with an air of respect and dignity perhaps, but no less helpless. "I'll try not to apologize so much. I'm-hhhrg. Sor-fuck."
"That's quite alright Mane. You have nothing to apologize to me for. Now, you're traumatized and our power and abilities makes it hard for you to trust us. That's perfectly understandable, okay?" Erias' patience felt...different from Effus'. Mane couldn't quite put a finger on how, but it-Erias saw her as a dynamic thing, maybe, with reasons and causes and a brain. Erias wanted not to change, to fix, nor even yet to heal-Erias wanted only to understand.
But being understood was dangerous. Being understood meant being known, having her monstrousness scrutinized. Being understood by the affini promised the death of all that she was, but a death devoid of a grave and its dignity. A death that wouldn't just force her body to continue living without her, but which would give her tombstone to some other being, that was almost her but...wasn't.
If they understand you, Mane knew in her soul, death, thou shalt die.
"I-I suppose, yes. That's fair, that's accurate," Mane conceded. Her eyes risked leaving Erias to check the room for a clock. They scoured it and saw none. If this room had such a thing it was directly behind her. They returned to Erias, now failing harder than ever to conceal their nerves.
"You are nervous, Mane," Erias said gently. "Would you care to take something to help with it? I have plenty of means of varying intensity, to take the edge off. I think it would help you, if only with the nerves. You deserve to feel safe here, do you not?" Mane tensed for a few seconds. There it was: her death knell. Should she take it? She might be better able to squeeze out of Erias' grasp without so much fear hanging like a slain albatross from her neck, but she could barely trust herself with this task sober. Mane ran a quick check in her mind on the pros and cons of her current state.
Fear was making her visibly nervous and thus closing off any tactic which relied on convincing Erias everything was okay. It was also compelling her sometimes to speak more hastily than she might be able to get away with. It was no doubt impeding her, but it was bolstering her ability to hide what she needed to. If she wasn't scared, she might have a lapse in judgment and give away incriminating details. She'd be less thorough in tracking the consequences of her words. The knife at her neck restricted her, but many of the paths it blocked off might as well have led to a guillotine.
She needed this fear. She wanted to cast it off-that alone made the offer tempting-but the relief Erias offered was akin to the parasite that ate a mouse's fear of cats and left it comfortable in danger. If she accepted it, failure was imminent and the consequences would be swift.
"No thank you," Mane declined. Erias paused for a second.
"Very well, I respect your autonomy," Erias said in a quiet tone, "but Effus has remarked that you have a strong aversion to xenodrugs. There's nothing wrong with that, on its face-but I'm curious what motivates it. May I ask you about that?"
"I...guess," Mane grumbled, her fear pupating into a beast made of ice and sound. It rumbled inside her brain and spread the cold all through her.
"Let's start with a summary, okay? You seem," Erias started, "to have issues regarding control. You fear creatures bigger than you. You fear the abuses our power could allow us to enact if we wished to do so. You feel as if the affini see themselves as above you, and their influence frightens you not because of it on its face but what it could potentially accomplish put towards evil ends. Is this a correct observation?" Save for the last statement, none of this was material Mane had not already confirmed. She was essentially being given an opportunity to accept or challenge the last one alone. Mane nodded yes. "Understood. Now, it seems to me to be consistent with your fear of xenodrugs. Effus reports that you are aggressive in your rejection of using them for any reason outside of a select few, none of which support your psychiatric well being directly. The exceptions she noted were for sleeping, transition, and as daily prescribed medicine to perform upkeep on yourself. Is this report correct?"
"I do, and those are the exceptions, but I wouldn't call the report 'correct,'" said Mane, using air quotes to accentuate the last word. "Those very much DO directly improve my psychiatric health."
"That was my first thought too," said Erias with a kind of haughty, mirthful pleasure tinged by annoyance at the affini. Mane felt...seen. related to. "An elementary mistake, and one unbefitting of her station. I will be sure to reprimand her for it."
"D-please don't," Mane interjected, "she has been kind and patient with me, mostly, so...uh…" Erias looked her over. Mane felt like the affini was smirking.
"I'll be sure to do it gently then, and give her your praise." Erias tapped yet more information into her tablet. She turned back to Mane. "Let's say I only prescribed enough to treat the kind of background anxiety you clearly have. It shouldn't change anything, just...rein in that impulse of yours that danger is everywhere. It shouldn't affect your decision making skills or fine motor abilities. Some class G's of course-"
"Don't you need to like…do blood tests?"
"Yes, but Effus can take care of that. It's only really to check for the correct dosage, what meds are decided by the body type you want. You can explain that if you want, but Effus says your friend out in the lobby told her. You can override-"
"No no!" Mane stammered. "She's right. Heck."
"Adorable. Anyway, some anxiety meds, some ADHD medication to help with your executive dysfunction and other symptoms, the class-G's, and would you like sleeping meds?"
"Y-yeah," Mane said. "I'd take them every night if it was...for me to take." Erias seemed pleased with herself, perhaps for having her theory validated.
"Now that your prescriptions are out of the way," Erias sang jankily as she tapped into the tablet, "let's loop around. Tell me about your caretaker?"
"Huh?" Mane's stomach fell. "It's not-over?"
"Mane, did you think I asked if you wanted anxiety medication on the spot just to immediately prescribe other medicine and end the meeting?"
Fuck. Mane wasn't safe yet.