It was early morning as Titus woke up in his bed and groaned, opening a groggy and disoriented eye to see the time. His alarm wasn’t set to go off for another few hours, and the sun had yet to rise to shine through his window and disturb him… and he hadn’t gone to bed early and woken up because he’d gotten enough sleep… no, he definitely needed more sleep... but something had woken him regardless.
He knew without looking what the culprit was - or rather, who it was. He could feel her under the covers with him. Her naked body instinctively cuddling up close to him, bare breasts pressed against his back. He considered it lucky that he wore pajamas to bed instead of just his underwear, or sleeping nude like some people did… the amount of trouble he’d get in if he was naked in bed with this woman wasn’t something he even wanted to think about. Especially not when he was this damn tired.
“This is the third time this week,” Titus muttered as he extracted himself from the woman’s grip and got out of bed. “Gods give me strength…”
Deciding he needed to be fully awake before he could address the situation, Titus left the bedroom, heading into the attached bathroom so he could splash some water onto his face. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror as he dried his face off and sighed, the bags under his eyes were worse than ever now. He’d been getting woken up like this too often. He was a healthy man in his late twenties, average build, with no health conditions to speak of… but you wouldn’t know that from looking at his face right now. Practically dead on his feet, pale skin, dark shadows under his eyes. His brown hair was messy and unevenly cut, thanks to a mishap with the woman in his bed a week ago… and his morning stubble wasn’t helping the look either.
Titus liked to think of himself as a decently attractive man. He was physically fit, on the taller side, and kept himself clean and well-dressed under normal circumstances. But the last few months had been brutal. He hadn’t been able to leave the house to get a proper workout, and had been forced to subsist on food delivery and frozen dinners for about a month and a half before he’d managed to get the woman to a point where she’d let him cook real food. The sleep deprivation and the recent incident with the haircut had taken their toll as well. He looked, in a word, awful.
With a sigh, he did his best to tidy himself up at least a little, telling himself it was just part of the job. When the job was done, he could take a vacation and recover. A vacation sounded really nice. Somewhere quiet, where he could sleep undisturbed, eat well, and start feeling like himself again. Dismissing that thought, he returned to the bedroom and stood at the side of his bed, arms crossed.
“Ariana,” Titus said insistently, looking down at the woman. Under different circumstances, he’d have loved to wake up in the same bed as a woman like this. She was a kitsune, with brilliant long red hair, piercing emerald eyes, a soft furry tail, and a gorgeous body that was in peak physical condition. From what Titus knew of her kind, she was relatively young - as indicated by her only having the one tail. Her files claimed she was the equivalent of a human in her mid twenties, in terms of her kind’s life cycle. But regardless of how physically attractive she was, he couldn’t really appreciate it given her mental state.
Ariana didn’t respond to him, still sound asleep, so he tried again. “Ariana, wake up,” Titus said, but again he got nothing. He repeated himself, this time physically putting his hand on her shoulder and shaking her slightly, but she didn’t do much more than before. All that accomplished was getting her to shift around under his grip. With a defeated sigh of resignation, Titus rubbed his temples and braced himself to say the thing he knew he needed to say if he wanted to get her out of his bed anytime soon. “Wake up, slave,” he grimaced, trying to sound as commanding as possible.
Ariana’s eyes shot open instantly, her ocean-blue eyes fixing on Titus as she smiled and sat up. “Yes, Master,” she responded in a monotone, staring at him. Her eyes were focused on him, but there was no recognition or thought behind them. She may have been physically awake, but mentally she might as well have still been asleep.
“What are we going to do with you?” Titus sighed, holding his face in his hands. He knew she wasn’t capable of answering the question any more than he was. He was practically at his wits end with this one.
Titus was a hypnosis rehabilitation therapist - in a world full of both science and magic, there were plenty of cases where things went wrong, either by accident or on purpose, and people ended up with some sort of damage to their mind. Memory loss, cognitive impairment, or in cases like Ariana, complete brainwashing and loss of independence. His job was to use both conventional hypnosis, and, where necessary, magical means of control to help treat these sorts of conditions. He was trained in and practiced other forms of therapy as well, but his job primarily involved taking care of those whose minds had been unnaturally altered, helping them to return to normal lives. Most times this was a minor affair, like most kinds of therapy. See the patient once or twice a week, have an hour or two session with them, send them on their way.
But Ariana was one of the extreme cases. She didn’t have any known relatives to take care of her, and was completely incapable of caring for herself. Not long ago, she’d been recovered in a police raid on a major slave trafficking ring. She’d been captive there for a long time, apparently, and her mind had not fared well. The investigators couldn’t pin down exactly how long, as nobody had ever officially reported her missing, but the best guess was four or five years. During which time, she’d been passed off from owner to owner dozens of times, each one applying yet another layer of their own personal brainwashing and conditioning…
While the police’s on-staff therapists were able to deprogram her somewhat, removing most of her trigger phrases and freeing her from her most recent owner, they had a lot of victims to treat. And, in Titus's experience, they lacked the time or experience to undo such extensive damage to a mind, and to undertake restoring free will and personality. So her case had been outsourced to him. And since she had no caretakers, and her programming meant she couldn’t live alone, that meant he was stuck with her - at least until she was able to fulfill her own basic needs without supervision.
This wasn’t the first time Titus had needed to do this sort of thing with a client. It was relatively common, actually. But she’d been living with him like this for four months now, twice as long as his most difficult client before her. He’d been working on her case almost exclusively, only leaving the house to do basic errands like grocery shopping, or to provide sessions to some long-term patients who he hadn't been able to refer to other practitioners. Yet despite how much time and effort he’d put in, the results had been lackluster at best. He’d broken some of the conditioned behaviors that made taking care of her… difficult, but having her take care of herself was still a distant dream. Every time it seemed like there was about to be a breakthrough, she would relapse, or she ended up performing the task so poorly that Titus wasn't sure he wanted to leave her to do it herself.
Still, he wasn’t giving up on her. Kitsune lived incredibly long lives, and she had a lot of time left in hers. He couldn’t just leave her like this for the rest of her days… so he would keep trying until he got through to her. He just hoped that happened before she drove him insane.
“Slave, why are you not in your own room?” Titus asked slowly. He knew the answer, but if he was going to condition her out of it, she needed to confront it directly.
“Slaves must sleep with Master. Slaves must be naked and ready to service Master at any time of night if Master is aroused,” Ariana replied automatically.
“No. You must sleep in your own bed. We’ve discussed this, slave,” Titus said, cringing at the last word. God, he hated calling her that, but it was the only thing she responded to. He tried to make a point of calling her by her actual name, hoping that eventually it might click for her… but so far, nothing.
“Sorry, Master. Slave will punish herself for her disobedience,” Ariana droned. Titus rushed to grab her hands before she could move to do so.
“No! I mean… that will not be necessary this time, slave. Just do not forget this rule again,” Titus said hurriedly. Ariana’s punishment programming was… unpleasant to watch. He had to constantly be careful not to trigger it, and was always on watch to quickly intervene when it came up. His chest burned with cold rage when he thought about the bastard who must’ve come up with it. Sure, he was rotting in jail now. But that didn’t make Titus feel any better about someone like him, having been out there, causing so much suffering, for who knows how long.
Titus shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. “Get up and return to your bed, and sleep until your alarm goes off,” he ordered, trying to hide his discomfort. Ariana nodded, doing as she was told without delay. Titus awkwardly averted his eyes so as not to watch her as her naked form walked out of the room.
Once she was gone, he sighed and sat on the edge of his bed, holding his head in his hands. Was this too much for him? Was it a lost cause? So much effort, and the only accomplishment of note so far was that she’d allow him to cook food without insisting she do it for him because 'it was her duty.' He’d learned immediately that letting her cook in her current state was dangerous. The deprogrammers who'd sent her to him had handled much of the easy-to-reach stuff. That meant that she wanted to, needed to serve, to cook for him... but she didn't have any programming that actually told her how to cook safely, so she was a hazard to herself and others in a kitchen.
He’d had minor victories here and there. Teaching her how to perform certain basic tasks like showering, putting on clothes, and going to the bathroom… but she wouldn't do any of those without being ordered to do so. It was a step up from him having to command her through each motion of a task, but that wasn't a high bar to clear.
But if he couldn’t help her, nobody could. She had no family, no money to pay for a private practitioner. He was working this case on behalf of the police, so it was on their dime, not hers - and he technically hadn’t been given a time limit for her treatment. But if he failed to help her, it was unlikely she would just get sent to another therapist. So, he got to his feet, pushed down his doubts and fears, and decided he had no choice but to succeed. So he would. If none of his current skills worked, he’d just learn new ones. Determination renewed, he left the bedroom and went to the kitchen to brew himself some coffee. He had a long day’s work ahead of him.
A few hours later, the time Titus had actually intended to wake up came to pass. It was still fairly early in the morning, but he was getting in the habit of starting early. That way, when Ariana woke him early, it impacted him a bit less. It also ensured he woke up before she did, most of the time, and was around to take care of her.
Titus set the table in the kitchen for two, and made a breakfast of eggs and toast. He had it ready to eat when Ariana’s alarm went off and she reported to him for her morning orders. Unfortunately, she hadn’t thought to put on clothes again after stripping down last night.
“Gah! Ah, right, I never told you to get dressed. That one’s on me,” Titus groaned as he waved his hand over the stove, a motion sensor turning the burner off as he went and escorted Ariana back to her room, laying out three potential outfits in front of her on her bed.
“Alright, Slave. Choose the one you like most, then put it on,” Titus instructed. This was a pretty simple exercise he used to try and instill independent wants and desires in her. While she wouldn’t choose to get dressed on her own, over the months he had gotten her to at least be capable of selecting from a limited range of choices, so long as it pertained to a command she had to follow. Small victories here and there, but that was the way of things with this job.
He was adding another layer to the test this week, though. Up until now, while she would indeed choose an outfit, it was done at random. Oh, she was choosing, but not based on personal tastes or desires. By instructing her to choose the one she liked, Titus hoped to overcome that.
After some hesitation, Ariana chose a red t-shirt and jeans from the assorted options. Titus checked his notes as she put on the articles of clothing. This exercise had been promising so far. He only had a few days of data to go with, but she did seem to be consistently choosing the color red and jeans when presented with those options. Time would tell if this was actually the result of her preferences or just a statistical fluke, but he was hopeful.
With that out of the way, Titus instructed her to go through her morning routine, a set of commands he’d bundled together to handle her basic morning tasks. Going to the bathroom, putting on deodorant, brushing her hair, and other self-care activities in that vein. It was here he’d noted another promising sign. Since he had never set up an official sequence for these activities, she was free to do them in whichever order she wished. He made a point of rearranging objects in her bathroom to make certain orders more or less convenient each day, and she often changed the order of tasks she performed accordingly. It was another subtle sign that there was some level of independent thought going on in her mind. Another small victory.
Bringing Ariana back to the kitchen, Titus ordered her to sit and eat, and then sat down himself. Glancing over to the TV, he tapped a watch-like device on his wrist, turning on the news while he ate. He didn’t personally care about the early morning news segments, but occasionally something would prompt some kind of response from Ariana, so he had incorporated this into the routine.
“—meteoric rise of the idol group ‘Feywild’ has been met with increasing controversy due to the inclusion of a succubus among its members,” the newscaster said, picking up mid-sentence. “Critics claim that the succubus is using glamour magic to force people to like the group’s songs, and have called for her removal from the group.”
“Stupid…” Titus muttered. “Succubi can’t do large scale stuff like that. Their magic only works on one or two people at a time. Really powerful ones can glamour small groups, but an entire concert venue? Just leave the poor girl alone and let her sing… damn bigots think every succubus is some evil schemer trying to undermine society.”
Ariana looked at the screen as it changed to a shot of the group performing on stage. There was a mix of races in the group, an elf, the succubus the controversy was over, a fairy, and even a kitsune with similar fur color to Ariana herself. The kitsune was the lead singer for the piece showcased by the news, and Ariana seemed particularly fascinated by her. Titus jumped on the opportunity, glad to use anything that had caught her interest as a means to get through her conditioning.
“What is it, Slave? Do you like her singing? She looks a lot like you, huh?” Titus offered.
“Like… me… singing…” Ariana said softly, nodding slowly in agreement. Her voice seemed off, somehow, though. There was something more there. He should keep digging.
“Yes, she looks like you, and she sings to make people happy. Do you like to sing?” Titus prodded.
Ariana was quiet, staring at the screen with an odd intensity she didn't usually display. She didn’t reply right away, but after a moment of listening to the song, she opened her mouth slightly. A few moments more, and she began to sing a few notes of the music herself. Her voice was strained and halting, like she was forcing herself through some sort of mental block to do so - but she was singing for the first time since Titus had met her. Progress.
“Go ahead, you can do it,” Titus encouraged, sitting on the edge of his seat in anticipation. Was this going to be a breakthrough? Perhaps singing had been a hobby of hers before her enslavement, and this was triggering the repressed memory?
Ariana’s voice grew louder at the encouragement, singing a few more lines, but then the news broadcast cut away from the group and went back to talking about the controversy, blabbering on about things Titus couldn’t care less about. He watched in dismay as Ariana’s focus and interest faded. Her mouth closed, and she returned to eating in silence.
With a sigh, he returned to eating as well. This was a good sign though - even if it had been temporary, there had been a spark of something there. He hadn’t seen her act that way unprompted at all these past months, and she had been struggling to do so. That could mean she had been pushing back against her conditioning. That was an amazing sign! It proved that there was hope for her, and that he wasn't just going in circles. He’d have to make a point of exposing her to more music in the future, possibly more from that group… What was their name? Feywild? He didn’t much care for pop music and the like, but if their music could help Ariana…
“Like… singing…” Ariana said, shocking Titus out of his thoughts., “Master likes Slave’s singing?”
Titus mulled over his response. If he said no, it would definitely stop her from doing it again… but if he said yes, she might end up only doing it in the future because she was trying to please him. Either way wasn’t ideal. Better to try and dodge the question, or at least not give a definitive answer.
“I think singing is a very nice activity,” Titus said slowly, choosing his words carefully. “And if you want to sing again in the future, you may do so whenever you wish.”
Ariana frowned, looking at Titus with uncharacteristic concern. “But does Master like Slave’s singing?” she asked again.
That was a problem. She wasn’t letting him dodge the question after all… but why? She never behaved like this normally - hell, she rarely even asked him questions. Yet she was oddly insistent he answer this one. He couldn't tell if that was a good sign or not. But there wasn’t an easy way out of this, so Titus decided honesty was the best policy.
“Yes, I think you have a lovely singing voice, Slave,” he conceded. This seemed to please Ariana, who smiled and began eating again. She didn’t respond directly, but the smile on her face didn’t go away. Titus relaxed a bit. Perhaps he’d dodged a bullet. If she’d started singing right then and there, it would be clear this development was wasted, and her interest in singing would just be chalked up to a task to please her Master. She hadn’t, though, instead just returning to her prior task. It was possible that this might have made that association, but he was optimistic that it might just be the breakthrough he needed.
The news station cut to a commercial break for some magical cleaning tool that used heat to melt away dirt and grime off of plates and silverware. Titus didn’t pay it any mind, until…
“Burn away the messy food remnants on your plate, with…” The phrasing set off alarm bells in Titus’s head as he saw Ariana glance to the TV, then the remnants of egg and toast crumbs on her plate as she raised a hand. His eyes widened.
“Ariana, no!” he exclaimed, as a small fireball appeared in her hand. He realized too late that, in his panic, he’d defaulted back to her real name - but she only responded to 'Slave'. By the time he’d noticed his mistake, the fireball had left her hand. He could only watch and brace himself.
Special thanks to Lunar Circuit for their substantial and invaluable help in editing/revising.