Titus opened the door the rest of the way, frowning slightly. On the other side of the door was a young elf woman with golden hair, staring up at him. A golden-haired elf who practically looked like she’d come from a party a lot less reputable than he’d consider attending, judging by the low-cut dress over her not-insignificant chest. He suppressed the urge to ask her just what the hell she was wearing.
“Your appointment isn’t for another hour or so, Nadia,” Titus sighed. He was relieved that it was someone he knew, but still, he was entitled to feel a little annoyed that she was just dropping in on him without warning. “I don’t mind when you come to the office early to make sure you’re on time… but a house call? That's a little…” he trailed off as he saw Nadia shrink under his stern gaze. He hadn't meant to actually make her feel bad.
Nadia, on the other hand, was holding back a smirk. She’d been Titus’s patient for years, and could read him like a book. He was a big softie. Overreacting to his annoyance pulled on his heartstrings and made him a little more accomodating. Titus might have been great at reading her in a therapeutic context, but the poor dear was just a bit dense. She doubted he’d read into the fact that, while her posture changed, her eyes remained fixed on him with the same focus and drive as before.
“Sorry. I just know you’re having difficulties with your, ah, roommate, and thought you might appreciate it if I came by and lent a hand for a bit. Took some of the menial tasks off your plate that she keeps you too busy to handle, you know,” Nadia smiled, her tone perfectly selected to be both innocent and sincere. Neither of which was totally a lie. She did genuinely mean to help him, and that decision was indeed motivated by his current living situation, but she hadn’t put on such a revealing dress or learned to play him like an instrument for nothing. “Where is she, anyway? You can’t leave her unattended, if I remember correctly?” she mused as she noticed that Arianna wasn’t standing behind Titus as usual.
“She’s in the therapy room. I set her up with a recording and slideshow, and had just gotten to the point where I was able to leave her to the automated system while I came to see who was at the door,” Titus explained, stepping aside to let Nadia in. As much as he was put off by her unexpected arrival, he couldn’t deny the help would be useful, and she was already here… so, there was no harm in being hospitable. “Once she’s done, we can have your session,” he added as he led Nadia to the living room and got her settled in.
“And how is her progress?” Nadia wondered. “Any closer to being able to send her back out into the world?”
“Had you asked yesterday, I’d have said no. But today has been… surprising, to say the least. I don't want to make a call too soon, but I am optimistic.” With that, Titus took a seat on the adjacent couch. He was keeping an eye on the time, and he’d need to go back to monitor Ariana soon, but he didn’t want to be a rude host by just ditching Nadia here. He could probably leave Ariana in the chair for now, but if she abreacted or began seizing up, like she had at the very beginning, he didn't want to leave her to suffer.
“That’s great!” Nadia said, then paused. “But… why does the house smell… like a barbecue?”
Titus sighed, chuckling. “So there was this commercial during breakfast, which advertised a product that would 'Burn away your messy food remains'…” Nadia snorted in surprise. “The remnants of my table aren't the most pleasing smell.”
“I can tell,” Nadia chuckled. Well, that meant there were things she could be helpful with, and if the kitsune girl had done something bad, that would make Titus less inclined to want to keep her around once she was functioning again. She couldn’t do anything about the kitsune being in close proximity to Titus - that was, she admitted, necessary - but so long as the girl kept screwing up like this, she wouldn’t be a threat.
Reaching into a pocket on her dress, Nadia pulled out a laptop that should’ve been too large to fit, courtesy of a tricky bit of thaumaturgy that was finally deemed safe enough for the mass market. It was an expensive feature for clothing to have, but it more than made up for it, in her opinion. She set the laptop on her lap and opened it up, absently putting on her reading glasses, pulled from the same pocket.
“Well I don’t want to keep you from your work. I’ll just look up good deals on a replacement table while I wait. I remember what yours looks like pretty well, so I’ll find something similar at a good price,” Nadia said, smiling up at Titus.
Titus returned her smile with a small one of his own. “Thanks. That’ll be a big help. You’re the best, Nadia,” he sighed in relief, getting up to check on Ariana.
Nadia giggled a bit after Titus was out of earshot. “He said I’m the best! Heck yeah!” She blushed as she realized what she’d just said, then composed herself with a blush before starting to browse.
Titus came out of the therapy room periodically to check on Nadia, and she wasted no opportunity to squeeze information out of him on something that needed doing around the home. As always, he was too distracted trying to juggle handling both Ariana’s therapy and being a polite host - or he was just that dense - to notice the subtle manipulation. Even if he had, though, she was being quite helpful picking up the slack around the house. He had been a bit annoyed by the sudden visit, but in hindsight, he appreciated her volunteering her time to help him out.
By the time Ariana’s session with the recording and slideshow were done, the house had been tidied up quite a bit, a new table had been ordered, the smoldering remains of the old one had been taken outside, and Nadia had carefully worked up just enough of a sweat to make her skin glisten in the light.
If Titus noticed the subtle accentuation of her body, he didn’t show it as she settled into the therapy chair. Ariana was looking at her with an odd expression as she sat by his side, though. She certainly seemed more alert and perceptive than previous weeks. Normally, she’d hang onto his arm, eyes staring sightlessly ahead as she awaited orders, but seeing her focusing so intently was a bit unnerving. Nadia brushed it off, she was here for Titus, not Ariana. So long as the kitsune stayed quiet and out of the way, there wouldn't be any problems.
“So remind me again, what were we talking about last session? Any problems with the counterconditioning of your general anxiety or height insecurity?” Titus asked, flipping through her case file to refresh himself. While Nadia wasn't short by human standards, elves had a stereotype of being long and slender, so her coming in a couple inches below Titus made her think of herself as practically a runt. Normally he remembered most of these details about his regulars without much issue… but normally he got proper amounts of sleep.
“No, those have been fine. Last week we worked a bit to address my social anxiety. We were discussing my issues being honest with myself about my feelings, which you believe has been impeding my treatment,” Nadia recounted. she had worked through a lot of personal issues, conditioned and natural, thanks to Titus, but the final remnants of her conditioned anxiety and insecurities were stubbornly refusing to go away. Titus had theorized it was some kind of recursive programming, forcing her to go deeper. She knew that wasn't entirely wrong, but she couldn’t admit that out loud. If she did, Titus would stop seeing her. So she nudged him towards other reasons that were plausible enough to keep him busy trying to solve them.
Titus looked at the file, confirming what she was saying with his notes. He scratched his head a bit in consternation. He was pretty sure that, by now, the artificial sources of Nadia’s insecurities should’ve been thoroughly eradicated. If anything, he’d have expected her to have become overconfident and arrogant as overcompensation. While she had presented various ideas as to what the final obstacle was, and they all sounded reasonable enough, it was still somewhat unnerving that he hadn’t found it yet.
“I’m really not convinced that alone is the reason for your persistent anxiety, though. While being honest with yourself is important, it’s not usually a thing that requires my kind of help,” Titus sighed. “Frankly, I’m running out of ideas of what to try here. At this point I wouldn't be surprised to learn someone was hypnotizing your anxiety back into you while you’re away and undoing my work. If that's true, I'd like to find him and strangle him.”
Nadia laughed a bit at that idea. Maybe a bit too hard? But Titus didn’t notice. “That would be silly. Who would do something like that if they knew I was coming here all the time?” she grinned nervously. “What would the point be? Some sort of extreme shipping situation where they’re hoping we’ll end up as a couple if they keep throwing us together?”
Titus shook his head. “That's a bit more silly than I was imagining. I was thinking of someone trying to recapture you. Besides, it’d be a massive breach of ethics, and also the law, if I were to start dating you while you were also my patient,” he grimaced. “I’m not planning to risk my career and maybe my life by crossing that line.”
“Ah… right, that makes sense. Guess it’s not that then,” Nadia said, internally cringing. Crap, was it actually illegal? Ethically questionable, sure, but she hadn’t heard of any actual laws against dating patients… But she supposed it made sense, though. Considering the position of power and control he held over her mind, and the minds of other patients, it would obviously raise questions if he started dating a patient. Obviously there would be the concern that whoever he was dating had been manipulated into it. Titus wouldn’t do that in a thousand years, but she couldn’t vouch for every single hypnotherapist in the world.
“I guess for this session, we’ll do more of the routine stuff. Confidence boosting, suppressing anxious feelings, and such. As for the questions of what's causing it, I’ll send some messages out to some colleagues and get their opinions on the matter, and make sure the police aren't tracking any slavers,” Titus said, producing the enchanted crystal necklace he used for Nadia’s inductions. The simple thaumaturgy worked on it would draw in someone's focus, making it perfect for patients who didn't need extensive reconditioning.
“That’s… that’s fine,” Nadia said hesitantly. She was panicking now. She needed to mentally prepare herself or she’d admit everything while she was under, but the tidbit about the legal barriers had thrown her off too much. And he was about to start! She quickly pretended to be distracted by a notification from her wrist, forcing the alluring image of the pendant out of her mind as she gasped. “Ah! That’s today?” she exclaimed in false alarm, making Titus pause.
“Is something the matter?” Titus asked, putting down the necklace as Nadia leapt to her feet.
“I’m so sorry!” Nadia said. “I actually scheduled a doctor’s appointment for today by accident, and the reminder just popped up, and I have to run if I’m going to make it… I’ll still pay for today’s session though! And I’ll be back later this week for that session, sorry again!”
Without giving Titus a chance to respond, Nadia rushed out of the room, leaving him stunned. He supposed mistakes like that happened from time to time, but the speedy exit and the way she’d reacted felt intentional. Had it been something he said? Or had Ariana done something without him noticing?
Titus glanced over to the woman holding onto his left arm, who looked back at him silently. Well, she hadn’t moved or done anything that he could see. So, something he’d said? Wait. he’d mentioned the danger that a hypnotherapist would coerce their clients. What if that was what scared her? Maybe she was having a panic attack at the thought of being under his influence after something like that.
“Shit… if she tries to cancel our next appointment too, I’ll have to apologize,” Titus groaned. That had been careless, particularly around someone he had been treating for anxiety and insecurity. Titus sighed. He really did need more sleep than he was getting.
“Master, who was she?” Ariana piped up, interrupting his train of thought.
“Huh? Oh, that was Nadia, she’s been here lots of times while you were around, but I guess you… didn’t notice before. Huh.” Titus mused on that as he began packing up Nadia’s file and the pendant and putting them away in his desk. He took a sip of his coffee.
“Is she your lover?” Ariana asked.
Titus did a spit-take. What in the world? Where did Ariana get that impression from? Even if her memories of Nadia were fuzzy from lack of focus, surely nothing in this interaction should’ve given her that idea. Sure, Nadia might be physically attractive, and she was a nice enough girl, but she was his patient. He made a point of not getting attached to his patients like that. He wasn’t comfortable with that power dynamic even once she wasn't his patient anymore. He’d never know for sure if they liked him legitimately, or if it was a side effect of the hypnosis sessions and positive life changes he brought about for them. Plus, he’d always have that hypnotic influence over them, and he wasn’t sure he trusted himself with that kind of power over anyone outside a professional context.
“Absolutely not! Nadia is my patient. I could never have that kind of relationship with her,” Titus snapped. “What made you ask that anyway?”
Ariana shook her head. “Just… a hunch?” she said, blinking in confusion. “She… reminded me of someone… I think…”
Titus put his coffee down and dried himself off a bit before sitting back down in his chair, turning it to face Ariana, and gesturing for her to go on and elaborate on her statement.
Ariana frowned. She rubbed her temples as if trying to massage the memory out of its hiding place. She was sure there was something she was missing… something about how Nadia had acted seemed… familiar? She’d been sitting in certain ways, dressed to show off her body… laughed a fake laugh… and the way she looked at Master… familiar.
Ariana shifted in her seat, mimicking how Nadia sat before. Leaned slightly forward to show off her cleavage, arms crossed underneath her breasts to prop them up a bit… her outfit wasn’t as revealing as the dress the elf girl had been wearing, but it was the same movements.
Titus was acutely aware of her sudden shift in position. He blushed and averted his gaze, unsure of why she was doing… this. Sure, she had been conditioned with plenty of sex slave programming, so sitting in seductive poses was something she used to do a lot. But she hadn’t really done that much since getting here. It caught him off guard, and that made him flustered - which was something that Ariana noticed.
As Ariana watched Titus blush and look away, something seemed to click. So that’s what it was! The way Nadia had been acting, she was trying to…
Ariana suddenly let out a wordless scream as pain became her world. She doubled over and clutched her head tightly, squeezing her eyes shut. It faded quickly, but it was awful.
“Ariana! Are… are you ok?” Titus moved forward without thinking, putting a hand on her shoulder and kneeling down beside her. “What’s wrong? If trying to remember hurts too much, you can…”
Ariana shook her head, cutting him off. “It’s… it’s ok… it… passed quickly… sorry, Master… didn’t mean to make you worry.” Her voice was still pained, but lucidity returned to her voice. More lucidity than before, Titus noticed with shock. Slowly, she opened her eyes, looking around at the room. She noticed some of the equipment used for inductions, and the screen in the room. Then she looked at Titus at her side, concern painted all over his face. There was a dull throbbing in her head now… she was close to figuring something out, she was sure of it.
She could feel a whole cluster of memories just out of her reach, like trying to grab at her reflection in a pond. She plunged her hands into the water, clawing at it, but it ran through her fingers. It was right there, but she just couldn’t grasp it yet… and she was tired. But she… hadn't done anything? Why was she out of breath?
“Master… I… I’m sorry but… am I allowed to get some sleep?” Ariana asked softly. “I don’t… feel right…”
Titus nodded. He wasn’t sure what had just happened, or why, but he would bet that something in her mind had just broken down. For better or for worse, he couldn't say. Maybe something about Nadia had triggered some memories? It was clear that the true Ariana beneath it all had been closer to the surface than ever today… maybe that had pushed something over the edge? Or maybe there was some deeply buried trigger that neither he nor the police deprogrammers found, and they'd been set off?
He didn’t know, but he could say with certainty that whatever it was, it was something big. Sleep was a very useful tool for a brain trying to recover from things, and was also a large part of encoding memory. Letting her sleep might backfire, though, letting whatever breakthrough she might’ve had now fade away while she rested… but it was the best option he could see right now.
“Alright, go sleep. You can come talk to me more once you wake up,” Titus reassured her, and she nodded in acknowledgement.
“Yes, Master…” she said softly as she stood up dizzily, holding her head, but shaking off Titus’s grasp as he tried to stabilize her. That was far closer to an act of defiance than she normally would go. After a moment of recovery, she walked out of the room to the bed assigned to - no, her bed. Slave was sure now… if she could just get some rest… she could finally piece things together. Master, Nadia, the equipment, the memories just out of reach, the changes Master wanted to see… it was all so close to fitting together…
Ariana didn’t bother changing out of her clothes as she flopped down onto her bed and closed her eyes. Master usually made her change clothes, but she didn’t need that now. All she needed, all she wanted right now… was sleep.
Special thanks to Lunar Circuit for their substantial and invaluable help in editing/revising.