The man's lips were moving, but whatever he was saying was lost on Aldrin, who was distracted by something far more interesting, his ears. The man was like a fossilized rock, ancient in his body and beliefs. He had deep wrinkles lining his features especially around his eyes and lips where time had dug in and decided to settle. His purple skin had faded to a sickly grey, his hair, which for whatever reason he had not yet shaved off, were four long clumps of blonde strings. But his ears, as if held in some sort of stasis field, had preserved their youth. They were a plump vibrant purple, skin smooth as a child's, with a blush of rose, hanging at the side of his head like ripe fruit. It was fascinating. How? AIdrin wondered had the ears retained such life, when the rest of him was a foot from the grave.
"Do you understand my frustration?" he said, slamming his fist on the desk, his face contorted in rage.
“I do,” she lied, then rubbed her eyes and Leaned back; trying to focus on his words.
That morning, thirty minutes after she opened her office, her assistant informed her that a couple had come for an unscheduled consultation and were demanding to see her. They swam in for the consultation, bickering like torrents, tails swishing wildly, and inciting rawim around them to bubble furiously from the heat of their outrage. Aldrin had adjusted her glasses and steeled herself for the long day ahead. After them, it was a Winforan politician riddled with anxiety concerning the public's satisfaction with his term. Each time he took a panicked breath, his Artificial Gill system, (AGS), made desperate squelching sounds as it struggled to keep up with his rapid pace. Now, this man, with his purple ears, Lord Rigon of Giwhan, had spent the last two hours discussing his family's lack of respect for hair color.
She wrung her hands together under the table, making sure to keep a neutral expression on her face. She knew the man’s worries were significant to him, and she tried her best to understand her client’s concerns, but her usual empathy was nowhere to be found. she couldn’t understand how it was a personal offence to the man that his grand children wanted to dye their hair or put it in braids. She let out a small sigh, and offered the man water, so her ears could have some relief from his strained voice.
By the time she saw off her last appointment and sent her assistant home, the pink morning light had deepened to the blue of evening, and she was beyond exhaustion. Exhaling a deep sigh, she released her hair from its tight bun, and leaned on her desk. She quickly finished some paper for the clients she had seen, then turned off her office lights. Her office was located in a building that rented out working spaces, so her office opened out to a hallway with multiple doors. Instead of heading for the exit though, she swam into the unlocked room across from hers. As soon as she entered the room, she was bombarded with the sound of a chisel hitting stone, and the unique smell of rocks.
“Your late” Jolden said with his with his usual blasé tone and put away his tools.
“I know” she said, then laid down on his couch, closed her eyes, and settled in for her own decompression session. Jolden placed a blanket over her, then put on his current relaxing track of choice, "Nature sounds from Granda," before sitting across from her.
This had been their routine for the last two years, taking turns each week to venting to each other, to allow a healthy release from the stress of work. They had never met outside the building, but in the space of Jolden’s studio, they were able to share their most sincere thoughts and emotions. Lying and avoiding questions were forbidden and she had always stuck to this rule, and as far as she knew, so had Jolden.
“Tell me about you day” he said smiling gently.
She sighed for what felt like the hundredth time that day, then smiled. She couldn’t speak about her client’s issues, but she talked about how unreasonable some them were, how even with years of training, sometimes it was difficult to not make Judgements, and how the sound a cheap AGS felt like barnacle scraping against her brain. She felt like she was ranting but continued to tell him everything she’d been bottling up, until she had spoken all her frustrations away. Through all this, Jolden listened intently, while his tail swayed, languidly manipulating the rawim into large bubbles, shaped like animals, plants and strange abstractions from his mind. Aldrin was always transfixed by his patience and grace, and she was riddled with guilt because she knew that these days, she benefited more from their sessions than he did.
"Don’t you ever get tired of hearing me complain?" she asked attempting to make a joke, but instead the words came out heavy and despondent.
"Sometimes," he said teasing, "but you know, every time I listen to you, you're able to gain a small measure of relief from your weekly stress. And besides, these sessions can't even compare to how you helped me two years ago.”
"You don't need to feel indebted to me" Aldrin said sullenly remembering when they first met. He was slumped in front of his door, clothes messed up, face bruised, and drunk from his tenth bottle of wine and an excess of success. He didn’t want a counselor then, so she had become his friend. Now, he looked like a completely different person. He was much healthier physically and mentally, and Aldrin was truly happy about it, but she couldn’t help feeling that she had become obsolete in their relationship.
Her statement hung between them for a while. The rawim around them moved along a gentle current. Then Jolden leaned towards her, and when he spoke, the words rolled out like they'd been at the threshold of his lips, just waiting for their cue.
"I don't feel indebted. I just like you being in this space, seeing how animated to get when you speak, hearing your voice, seeing your strange hand motions when you describe things, the way you admire my sculptures, your occasional condescending glares when I act foolishly, and..." he paused, looking off to the side, before finally, in a quiet but resolute voice saying "you are irreplaceable."
When he finished speaking, they fell into an awkward silence. Aldrin looked down, playing with her hands. She heard her heartbeat pounding in her head, and she tried to hold back the lunatic grin that was trying to spread across her face.
“Oh, I see,” she said, then looked at Jolden, and gave up on keeping a straight face “I see,” she said again, embarrassed by the weird giggling sound she made.
“Really?” Jolden asked wide eyed and taking her hand.
“Really” She replied confidently, looking into his eyes, His face held the same expression of joy and wonder as hers did. She’d never seen him so expressive.
“I’m glad” he said, trying to conceal his embarrassment, “now tell me more about that man’s purple ears” he said intertwining their fingers.