Chapter Thirteen: The Healing Power Of Conversation
Thatch Aquae, Second Bloom, carefully stirred a bubbling pot. The vegetables within swirled in dense patterns, pulling a mix of spices behind in a complicated dance that it was easy to get lost in. The first batch had not been quite to Katie’s taste, but Thatch was feeling better about the second. More spice, more time boiling, vegetables thinner cut to give them more opportunity to mellow out. It would have been preferable to give Katie some more variety, but unfortunately this was what Thatch had to work with, and so she was determined to make it work.
She looked up at her student, who was busying herself with the final stages of constructing a tank, of sorts, for her new pet. Thatch had carefully guided her towards a design that would work, and now she was building something which would hang into the rushing water below, with carefully cut holes to allow some water flow without subjecting the weaker fish to the full force of this area of river.
It was hard not to wonder whether she was doing the right thing. Thatch’s injectors itched, watching the poor creature struggle with her own emotional state like this. Anybody else in her position would already have Katie so wrapped up in chemicals that she wouldn’t be capable of this kind of mood swing. Thatch couldn’t even disagree that it would be better for her.
She stirred the soup, injectors dry. Not having the drug loadout for it was a poor excuse, she knew. She’d gathered enough basic ingredients that she could have synthesised something better than she had. If she couldn’t even get this soup right, though, then how could she possibly trust herself to manage a delicate emotional state to Katie’s benefit?
The girl paused, halfway through whittling one of the support structures on which the tank would descend. She set the thorn she was using down and lay the half-finished piece over her lap, attention drifting towards the setting sun. Her sigh was a brief exhalation, but it seemed to echo as a refutation of Thatch’s efforts to date. There was only one other sapient on this planet and Thatch was somehow failing to make her happy.
Thatch could leave the soup to simmer. She hung the makeshift ladle onto a burr in the harness above and quietly made her way over to the riverside, then sat to Katie’s side. She took up the half-finished project and extended one of her own thorns, so she could pick up where Katie had left off.
“How are you feeling, Katie?” Thatch made a conscious effort to keep her hands doing things that Katie’s would be able to, in case the girl was watching for tips.
“Like shit, still. I dunno why, please don’t feel like it’s your fault.” Katie spoke with a flat affect, sounding a mix between exhausted and actively frustrated by the question.
It was Thatch’s fault, though, wasn’t it? Somebody else in her place could fix it. She focused on the twig in her hand, cutting a little floral pattern into it as she went. Perhaps simply providing company could be enough.
Their local star was well on its way beneath the horizon now, but she didn’t need to look to check. Thatch could feel the rhythm of this planet. Her body urged her to respond. To join in on the evening’s festivities by lighting up and attracting insects and other small creatures.
It was easy to ignore, but still an uncomfortable experience. The material that was usually available for transplantation aboard a ship had its daily cadence bioengineered out. That there was an urge in the back of Thatch’s head that she hadn’t put there was discomforting; how much worse must it be for Katie, who had never experienced the lack of such things?
Katie seemed to be staring out over the river, though it was unclear what she was actually paying attention to. Perhaps the growing illumination of the forest had her transfixed again. Thatch saw no reason to rouse her, if that were the case.
After a few minutes, Thatch moved on to the next piece of wood. The design she’d led Katie to wasn’t a complicated one, but it did have a few moving parts and the little one seemed to struggle with the detail.
When the next piece was mostly done, and halfway decorated, Katie began to speak. “I think you’re probably right. This doesn’t feel like me. Healthcare is way too expensive, so I never talked to anyone about it, but I do wish that I’d gotten that chance.”
Thatch lowered the wood, mid-chisel. She had to help, didn’t she? “I have several kinds of medication which could help, if—”
Katie shook her head, emphatically. “No. No, I… That wasn’t worth it, last time.”
Silence fell across them, for a moment. Human psychology was much harder without powerful tools for making precise adjustments. Thatch bridged the gap between them with a hand, taking one of Katie’s and giving it a squeeze. Touch and warmth were still capable, and simply from that alone, Thatch extracted a brief flash of smile.
“Come, sit closer,” she insisted. Katie would resist if pulled, Thatch had found, but any untamed beast could be tempted if offered one of its basic needs. The girl relented, shuffling close enough that Thatch could drape an arm over her. “If you will permit me a few minutes to work, I could—”
“I don’t want any drugs, Thatch.”
The affini’s injectors twitched. She should ignore the demand. Katie was suffering and she could fix it. She aught to fix it. If she weren’t so stars-damned hesitant then Katie wouldn’t be so stars-damned miserable. She hoped that her internal turmoil didn’t show on the outside. It really wouldn’t do for Katie to be aware of the sharp needles a centimeter away from her skin, dripping with something that would be good for her.
Then what? Katie would spend the next few weeks happily learning about spacial routing. Katie would wake up every morning with a smile on her face. Katie would fall asleep each night in the comforting embrace of her clodding de-facto owner and then at some point Thatch would make a mistake and break her.
Thatch blinked a few times in rapid succession, as something tapped against the side of her face. She glanced across at the poor thing she’d accidentally trapped when she’d lost focus on her form and consciously forced herself to relax. Thankfully, Katie used her newfound freedom of movement to lean into the embrace, not to escape it.
“But this is nice,” the girl admitted. “Company; closeness. I wish we could be doing more, but honestly, I’m exhausted.” Her head fell to the side, nestling against a vine or two. Thatch shrugged the spare biomatter she had hanging from her back over to cover the girl and keep her warm, carefully regulating her rhythm to avoid lulling Katie to sleep.
“You okay, Thatch?”
“You needn’t worry about me, little Katie.” The rhythms were hardly conscious. It may have been something Thatch’s species had always been with, or perhaps it was something developed in the early days of their campaign. Perhaps it was only her. Thatch would freely admit to being more interested in recent history, not ancient tales. Her body thrummed with heat and life in a slow, gentle dance. Her voice harmonised to the same tune, and unless Thatch took particular care to avoid it, gentle movements tended to match up as well. There were no metronomes in the Affini Compact, because their cadence was simply natural.
Thatch was sure that most found it convenient, but she had to put particular effort into keeping herself discordant enough to avoid sending Katie to sleep when they were this close together.
Thatch felt a sharp exhalation of breath against her side. A sigh, probably. In a feeble attempt to forestall the inevitable, she held Katie tighter against her side, but it was not enough.
“That’s not a yes.”
Dirt. If she couldn’t come up with a convincing answer, then what little comfort Thatch had been able to provide would be undone before it had truly begun. Somehow, Katie kept managing to see through her misdirection, and Thatch couldn’t bring herself to lie.
“No, it is not. I feel as though I should be able to help you more than I am.”
Katie stiffened, a little. Dirt and decay, was even that too much? Thatch was not about to let her own morosity become contagious.
Vines carefully stroked across Katie’s hair and down her arms. For a moment, Thatch indulged herself, letting warmth, the motion of vines, voice, scent, and light fall into the same harmony. “Quiet now, little one,” she whispered. “You are in no danger here. Your wishes will be respected.”
The poor thing calmed back down, lulled into comfort. Katie spent a moment breathing out a slow sigh, lowering her chin and gently tugging the sheet of plantlife further over herself.
It was not to be for long, unfortunately. Katie grumbled, raising her head and fumbling around with an arm until she managed to grab ahold of one of the strands of flower-laden vine that made up Thatch’s hair. She yanked, and Thatch obliged, leaning down to look at her.
“What did you just do?” Katie asked. Her voice was soft, but her eyes were hard. Little chance of distracting her further, at least not without Thatch declaring herself a liar. Lying to a compliant ward was at best distasteful, and at worst a significant moral quandary. Not an option Thatch wished to consider.
“I was simply providing comfor—”
Katie’s hand raised to press Thatch’s mouth closed. That would not actually prevent her from speaking, but the intent was clear enough.
“No, none of that technically correct but misleading stuff,” Katie insisted, drawing a wince out of an affini that had thought herself clever. “You did something, I… I think.”
Katie paused, head lowering back to rest against Thatch’s side.
“W’s nice,” she admitted, voice quiet, speaking more to Thatch’s torso than anything else. “Don’t stop?”
Thatch felt a low, throbbing heat settle in her core. The rustling of her own undergrowth was enough to cause a breeze. How was she supposed to handle this? She couldn’t. If she took charge of this girl she would break her, and what was this but the first step down a slippery slope?
Carefully discordant, Thatch stroked a hand down Katie’s hair. “I think that you may wish to reconsider. We have agreed not to, to use your words, ‘mess with your head.’, no?” Her touch earned a contented mumble, but her words earned a titter.
“If we take that literally then even talking to me is wrong. I meant… your chemicals and stuff, anything where you’re putting something inside of me to change how I feel. Just talking to me isn’t that, that’s just conversation. Come on, I’ve been awful all day, don’t tell me you’ve been holding out on me because you thought cheering me up would be wrong.”
Thatch contracted. Was that what she was doing? So afraid of doing wrong that she’d let a living creature wallow in easily fixable pain simply to spare herself the responsibility? Her people would be ashamed.
A low rumble buzzed through her form. Not one of the mannerisms she put on intentionally. The low, slow bass line of her own music, and the sound Thatch drew comfort from in moments of uncertainty.
“Very well.” She spoke in only that low beat. A complicated arrangement of dexterous growths deep within her body drew in air from all around, imparted vibration, and let it escape. Usually, Thatch would direct it towards her mouth for the sake of keeping up appearances, but there was no reason to be so limited here.
“Then,” she spoke, forcing herself to loosen up a little so she had the flexibility to raise her pitch. She selected a relatively small, sensitive vine and directed it to Katie’s hand, carefully closing her fingers around it. “I will stop if you ask, or if you lose your grip.”
The girl was stubborn, holding it tight. Thatch took a few careful breaths. She didn’t breathe to extract oxygen from the air, like Katie, but running it through her body was still a good technique for centering and focus. More so than that, however, Thatch had been holding her natural rhythms apart for so many years that though she felt like it should be easy to slip back into, the muscle memory was no longer there.
It would be a strain no matter whether she let herself sing or tore her harmony apart, then. She had not done the former for more than a few seconds at a time in decades. In all likelihood, she wouldn’t need more than that now, either. Her delicate problem would fall asleep or ask her to stop and either way Thatch would no longer have to worry that she was holding herself back selfishly.
“Please take a deep breath, Katie, and allow your eyes to close.”
Thatch spoke, all the different tones of her voice finally lining up. It was so much easier to speak this way, when she could direct her whole body as one piece, not holding different parts of herself to different standards so they could sing to an unnatural beat. She had worried that matching it to the rhythm of her own movements would be hard, but it wasn’t. Her vines danced across Katie’s skin in precise tempo, where the peaks of her words were joined by the apex of her heat and the strongest of her touches.
It was natural. It was normal.
“And breathe out,” she instructed, hand brushing down Katie’s cheek as she did so. Body cooling, touch growing lighter, voice growing quieter. It drew Katie in like a moth to a flame.
“Let’s take another breath,” Thatch whispered, though in truth she could have stayed silent. Her voice was an important part of the melody, but only part. With Katie so close, her every sense would be feeling it, in swells of scent and heat, the quiet music of plantlife in motion, the brush of soft leaf on skin, and, much to Thatch’s own surprise, the gentle light of her new bioluminescence, reacting to her natural pattern as if it were an integrated part of her.
“And out,” she whispered, voice so quiet it could barely be heard. She dipped one leg in a way a real biped never could so that Katie’s natural option was to shuffle closer still, arriving on the affini’s lap. Thatch doubted that Katie would complain about a little cheating. Not right now. Her grip on the safety vine remained tight, though Thatch noticed with interest that Katie’s strength was dancing to her tune now too.
A series of vines made careful adjustments to Katie’s position, making sure she wasn’t lying uncomfortably or in any way that would harm circulation. Thatch’s warm hand stroked down the back of her head, fingers tapping to the same soft song as all else in Katie’s world.
They repeated the breathing exercises a good few times. At the end of each, Thatch could feel Katie’s grip growing weaker, but never quite loosening entirely. The affini chuckled, a low chorus of wordless sound that fit into the melody without much by way of conscious effort. “You’re not going to let go of that vine, are you, little one?” she asked, more to herself than the girl. Depending on how relaxed she was, she might not even read the soft sounds as speech. They fit into the same score as everything else, after all, what about them would draw attention?
Katie’s head gave a tiny shake. “Not going to let go…” she whispered, voice tangled deep in Thatch’s strings.
“Comfortable like this?” Thatch asked, a vine tilting Katie’s head up as she spoke, so girl and sentence reached a pinnate apex, entwined together.
A tiny nod. Eyes remained closed. Breathing slow, matching Thatch’s cycling warmth with impressive precision. “Comfortable… this,” she mumbled, first word a little too long, second a little too short, so that it still matched the cadence of their song overall.
Thatch’s breath ran up through her back and out through her front, ruffling Katie’s hair. The girl took a deep breath, smile deepening a little. Adorable. This was safe, Thatch thought. Hoped. Just comfort and quiet words, no more than that. No lasting effects, other than hopefully a stronger bond of trust between them.
A careful hand tilted the precious flower’s head back down, letting her curl up against Thatch’s chest in a position perfect for a quiet embrace. Thatch didn’t speak, but she didn’t have to. She was her rhythm, in a very real way. It took some effort to maintain, still, but it was easier than she’d expected. Perhaps this new form lacking the accumulated harm of fifty years of denying herself this made it easier to find again. Perhaps it was simply easier to let herself be when she had a focus.
Either way, Thatch sat and watched the sunset while Katie half-slumbered in her lap, enjoying the slow descent into night, while she fussed and fiddled with her smiling ward.
Katie wasn’t going to let go of that vine.
She was comfortable like this.
She breathed in, and the heat and light intensified. That Thatch could match her motions so precisely was impressive indeed, but Katie found herself not dwelling on it. She just focussed on her breathing. The dark mood that had settled over her all day could find nowhere to hide while Thatch’s light filled her so, and all Katie needed to do to feel that was to breathe.
In, hold… and out. The out was important, she knew, despite the emptiness it brought. She couldn’t rush it. She had to give Thatch time to complete the cycle. The out left her feeling cold, left her skin with a needy tingle, but Thatch didn’t seem to mind her leaning closer in, and the creature’s hand running over her scalp did a lot to soothe the sharp edges.
That part was nice. Still, it was her least favourite part. As soon as she could, Katie breathed in. A nice, deep breath. As her lungs swelled, so did all else. Heat radiated in from all around her, like a warm and heavy blanket. It could have been so warm as to be stifling, but the breeze picked up too, bringing with it a sweet, soft scent. A quiet rustling filled her ears, something to focus on with every sense.
With those, it might have been a wonder that Katie didn’t simply drift off to sleep entire, but even with closed eyelids, the rising light kept her awake, conspiring with the rest to fill her with a comfortable, safe, warmth.
But Katie had been comfortable, safe, and warm, and she knew full well she could be miserable there too. The heavy weight of Thatch’s soft fingers, and the occasional touch of a careful vine, ensured it was impossible to feel alone. The creature was paying so much attention to her that it even knew how she was feeling.
“Not sleepy in there?” Thatch sang, voice so subtle as to slip into the tapestry of inputs that Katie floated through.
“Not sleepy in here,” Katie whispered. She wasn’t. Totally awake. Maybe she could fall asleep, but there was so much going on to keep her attention that her mind could hardly quiet.
Thatch’s hand left her head. Katie complained loudly enough that it returned.
“It is getting quite late.”
Katie nodded. She was right. She’d just been thinking that, hadn’t she? “It’s… quite late,” she agreed. Maybe she should be sleepy? It was hard to tell.
“We should get you ready for bed, soon.”
She should be sleepy. Yeah, that made sense. Katie nodded, absent mindedly, and tugged the soft blanket of leaves over herself. “Ready,” she sighed, cheek nestling into a comfortable bed of leaves.
Katie heard the familiar sound of Thatch’s rumble for a few short moments, before the blanket was slowly pulled back. The evening air was cool and gentle, but a cycle or two of rolling heat was enough to get Katie used to it.
“You aren’t ready for bed yet, are you?” Thatch asked. Katie wasn’t, but… why wasn’t she? She shook her head, mumbling something unintelligible under her breath.
“Because…?” Thatch prompted, but Katie wasn’t sure what the affini wanted from her. She repeated the word, hoping it would bring a connection along with it, but she had nothing.
Even Thatch’s sigh was melodious, starting at the peak of a cycle and lasting to its end, finishing with a low “Mmmmh.”
“You wouldn’t want to forget your medication, would you?” she asked, drawing the connection Katie should have made for her. Oh, that. Katie shook her head. “Don’t want to forget my medication,” she admitted, trying for a few moments to roll over, but finding her body strangely unwilling to respond. A soft hand helped her get her back against Thatch’s stomach, where she would need to be to take her meds.
“All ready,” Katie said. Or had Thatch said that? No, it had been her. She’d said it. She must have, because as the next cycle reached its peak, Thatch’s scent intensified a dozen times over. Katie moaned softly, trying to lean towards the source, only for a hand to stop her.
“Let’s have a deep breath for me, hmn?” Thatch spoke, while the intensity of her heat and light and scent rose.
“Deep breath for you…” Katie agreed, as it fell.
Deep breath. Thatch stretched out her own rhythm here, light and heat and sound swelling more slowly, and holding at the peak, matching Katie’s need to pause as a lungful of soft, tingling sweetness spread out to her chest. To her arms, slowly sliding down until even the tips of her fingers tingled. Down to her stomach, and then to her legs, her calves, her feet, her toes. All tingling, but gently. After all else was covered, the sensation moved up into her head, too, and the tingle was everywhere.
The heat and light fell quickly. Katie released her breath before she’d even noticed it was time. Before she had chance to consider that, everything was rising again, and like just one more player in an orchestra, Katie breathed in again, taking the intense tingling back into her lungs, and then… waiting.
Basking in the heat, filled with Thatch’s light, hands heavy against her skin while the comforting sensation of her body being slowly fixed spread through her. Long seconds passed where there was nothing beyond the warmth but firm hands doing their best to satisfy Katie’s need for touch.
Eventually, finally, Katie remembered to breathe— She was reminded by the dying light— No, she remembered. The tingles sank in, becoming simply a part of her now.
Her head fell slowly to the side, until it rested comfortably against something soft. The powerful scent had retreated, leaving only Thatch’s usual intensity.
“Hmnn. Tired now?” her blanket asked.
Katie nodded. “Tired now,” she accepted, failing to stifle a yawn.
“That’s quite alright. Time to sleep, then, hmn?” Thatch replied, on the downstroke of a cycle, and as the next began she kept her lighting stifled.
Katie got halfway through a response before drifting off into unconsciousness, hand finally letting go.