Strangers in Strange Lands: Episode 17

Fennik climbs the steps of the Nivet Embassy on his way to visit Seruffin for his second donation, in preparation for his imminent trip in-T.

Fennik is actually looking forward to talking to Seruffin again. Seruffin is a man of his own age and professional dignity, and he has a certain fellow feeling for him, although he'd be quite surprised if anyone pointed that out.

Fennik feels pretty much the same about his own physician, which doesn't make the hands-on part of his checkups any pleasanter. The discussions in the physician's handsome and elegant office, fully clothed, are another matter.

Milivar is taking a turn at the front desk, thanks to Bonstard being in hard need just now. She herself is less than a week past transfer, and so she is deemed to be not in danger from random out-Territory Gens.

Fennik enters the lobby and approaches the reception desk. The receptionist looks a lot more competent than that poor boy who was there the last time he visited the embassy.

Milivar is in her low thirties, but looks a little older thanks to her habit of napping in full sunshine. She does have a nice tan, though.

Milivar zlins a Gen coming in, and reluctantly sets aside the report she's got to get finished this shift, somehow. She smiles professionally, with minimal attempt at a nageric reinforcement that a Gen couldn't have zlinned anyhow.

Milivar sheathes her tentacles as the Gen approaches.

Milivar: Can I help you?

Fennik didn't realize from across the lobby that the receptionist is a Sime, but manages not to be more than ~~ somewhat surprised ~~ and ~~ slightly uneasy ~~

Fennik: Good afternoon. I have an appointment with Hajene Seruffin.

Milivar: Hajene Seruffin? You're part of the Foreign Relations negotiating team, then?

Fennik: No, I'm not.

Milivar looks at Fennik with a bit of ~~ polite skepticism ~~

Milivar: Hajene Seruffin is a very busy man, just now. Perhaps if you told me your business, I could find somebody else to help you?

Fennik: Madam, he made an appointment with me for this time, so he's already allotted the time to see me. Perhaps you might confirm that with him. I'm Professor Jon Fennik of NWU.

Milivar's laterals flicker out for a moment as she zlins that Fennik at least believes what he's saying.

Fennik is politely watching Milivar's face and notices the flicker only in his peripheral vision, so isn't particularly alarmed.

Milivar: Well, if you will have a seat, I'll ask Hajene Seruffin if he can see you.

Fennik: Thank you.

Milivar gestures with one handling tentacle towards a comfortable bench set against the wall. She then heads off to see if Seruffin is in his office.

Fennik is a little ~~ startled ~~ by this casual tentacle gesture but maintains a dignified and calm appearance as he sits on the bench. He reflects that receptionists are much the same regardless of larity.

Milivar returns before too much time has gone by, and gestures for Fennik to follow her back into the administrative bowels of the Embassy.

Fennik follows, determinedly thinking of the opportunity to learn more about Simes and Sime culture from Seruffin, and not the inevitable, but mercifully brief, intimacy of the donation.

Seruffin remains seated as Fennik is shown in, unsure just how comfortable the Gen is likely to be with a moving Sime in the room.

Fennik: Good afternoon, Hajene Seruffin, Sosu Gerrhonot.

Gerrhonot nods from his comfortable chair. He'd been reading an exciting novel about a Householding besieged by Raiders, but put it aside as Fennik came in.

Seruffin: Professor Fennik, it's good to see you again. Have you been well?

Fennik: Yes, very well. And you?

Seruffin: Well enough, well enough. Have your travel plans fallen into place?

Fennik: Yes. We'll be leaving day after tomorrow. Ah, may I try the in-T version of the handshake on you?

Fennik has read about it, but never see it performed. He offers his hand somewhat awkwardly.

Seruffin: Certainly.

Seruffin reaches across his desk to brush Fennik's offered fingertips with two handling tentacles.

Seruffin zlins Fennik carefully for his reaction.

Fennik completes the gesture without showing any alarm. He mostly reacts with ~~ interest ~~ and a bit of ~~embarrassment ~~.

Seruffin cocks his head at Fennik.

Seruffin: Why did that embarrass you? Simply because it's different from what you're used to?

Fennik looks down.

Fennik: Well, I've never actually seen it done, just read about it.

Fennik looks up and smiles a little.

Fennik: I don't want to appear any more gauche than I can help.

Seruffin chuckles, and waves Fennik to one of the visitor's chairs.

Seruffin: Gerrhonot, would you mind getting our guest some tea?

Gerrhonot: Sure, Hajene.

Gerrhonot lights the burner under the kettle. He noticed that Fennik didn't drink the trin last time, so figures he'll make some fresh tea, something familiar like peppermint.

Fennik: I've been trying to accustom myself to the idea of being surrounded by Simes using their tentacles naturally. Unfortunately, the best I've been able to do is look at reproductions of in-T art.

Seruffin: I'm glad that you've been reading up on Sime Territory etiquette. It's amazing how easily the little differences in manners can cause difficulties.

Fennik: Yes, ever since Fridda changed over, I've been trying to learn more about Simes and in-T culture. But there are limits to what one can acquire from reading.

Seruffin: Indeed. Etiquette serves the same purpose on both sides of the border: to allow people to associate without giving or taking offense. However, the methods can be quite different, at times.

Fennik: I hope the Simes and Gens I meet in-T will make allowances for any faux pas I might commit.

Seruffin: I expect they will, especially at an interTerritorial conference.

Fennik: I hope that by the time I see Fridda, after the conference, she won't have to ... zlin any discomfort from me at her appearance.

Fennik says he doesn't believe one can pick it all up from books, but he's an academic: he doesn't really believe the remainder can be all that significant.

Seruffin reaches for the cup Gerrhonot offers with handling tentacles, a natural, unselfconscious gesture.

Fennik watches Seruffin use his tentacles with ~~ interest ~~.

Seruffin: The primary differences in etiquette on the Sime side of the border stem from the fact that Simes can sense emotions as easily as we hear words.

Seruffin: For instance, you can avoid inflicting unpleasant emotions on a Gen by not acting as if you feel them. For a Sime, you have to actually prevent yourself from feeling the unpleasant emotion.

Seruffin: It does take practice. Most young Gens and Simes in-Territory spend their first few weeks after changeover or establishment being told to mind their manners, before they get the hang of it.

Fennik nods. This matches what he's read.

Fennik: I hope that people will make allowances for my clumsiness in that regard, and that being low field will help.

Seruffin: It will.

Fennik: Can you offer me any advice?

Seruffin considers.

Seruffin: The most important thing to remember is that you can overcome unpleasant emotions much faster by facing them down, than by trying to ignore or suppress them. Many Simes view people who act one way, while feeling another, as akin to hypocrites.

Gerrhonot has been watching Fennik closely, in case he does anything that might require him to protect Seruffin. The man is so stiff and formal. He wonders what Seruffin is zlinning under the surface.

Seruffin: On the other hand, rigidly attempting to force yourself to feel something, or not feel something, also comes across as "unnatural". It's not considered as rude as flaring unpleasantness, but it does imply that you are trying to hide something.

Seruffin zlins to see if Fennik recognizes himself in this description. He's found that a lot of out-Territory Gens have been suppressing their emotions for so long, they honestly have no idea what they're feeling half the time.

Fennik: It's not clear to me what level you zlin at. It seems to me that... emotions aren't that simple or unmixed, or .. all at one level.

Fennik's forehead wrinkles as he tries to imagine what a Sime zlins.

Seruffin: They're not. How much a Sime can zlin depends on individual sensitivity, the need cycle, and frankly, how much effort she puts into it.

Seruffin: However, most Simes, zlinning you right now, would be able to tell that you are trying very hard to force yourself to feel in particular ways.

Fennik is ~~surprised ~~. He doesn't feel like he's forcing himself to do anything. He's just being calm, objective and dignified, having a civil discussion with a fellow professional in a different discipline.

Fennik: I suppose I may be trying to appear more confident than I really am. I do want to avoid appearing... boorish or ignorant.

Seruffin: I think it's mostly that you're used to maintaining your customary self-control at a much shallower emotional level than is the custom in Sime Territory.

Fennik is ~~ puzzled ~~

Seruffin: On your side of the border, it doesn't matter how you feel, as long as you can act appropriately. So you control inappropriate expressions, words, and posture, but you don't really know how to not-feel something except by suppressing it. Which zlins like hypocrisy, as I said.

Seruffin zlins to see if any of this is making sense to Fennik.

Fennik begins to have a ~~ sinking feeling ~~ that he hasn't figured this out at all, which puts him back at square one in preparing himself to go in-T, associate with Simes, and ultimately visit Fridda.

Seruffin: It's a matter of confronting your emotions and overcoming the negative ones, rather than trying to pretend they don't exist.

Fennik is ~~ earnestly trying to understand ~~ what Seruffin is telling him, but hasn't the first idea of how to go about doing something like that. He studies Seruffin's face.

Fennik: What are you zlinning from me now?

Seruffin returns the gaze ~~ calmly ~~, having long since made his peace with most of his personal hangups.

Seruffin: Confusion, a bit of distress, and a determination to reject both feelings. Accept them honestly, and they won't be as bothersome.

Fennik: I'll certainly accept that I'm confused, and not very happy at not being able to understand how to do what you're suggesting.

Seruffin chuckles.

Fennik: I'm also getting rather worried that I'm not as prepared to go in-T as I thought I was.

Seruffin: Of course you're not. The only real way to learn Sime emotional etiquette is to have the Simes around you shooting dirty looks in your direction whenever you slip up.

Fennik imagines the ~~ humiliation ~~ and shudders, then looks at Seruffin and smiles.

Fennik: It must be easier when you're a good bit younger.

Fennik has forgotten that humiliation and fear of humiliation are a pretty constant feature of adolescence.

Seruffin: Not at all. I don't know any creature who's more apt to fall to pieces over a simple mistake than a youngster. You at least have some perspective.

Seruffin: If you pay close attention to the reactions of the Simes around you, you'll pick up a lot of what you ought to know by the time you see your daughter.

Fennik: I hope so. I... I'm quite worried that I might inadvertently have a bad effect on her. Can you advise me about this?

Seruffin: Judging from your response to me, I don't think that you're going to suddenly overwhelm her with rejection, hatred, or terror. You will probably find the sight of her tentacles more upsetting than you find mine, however, if only because she's your daughter, and they're the most obvious sign that she will never be able to share your life as she once did.

Fennik nods.

Seruffin: That will affect her least if instead of trying not to feel upset, you accept the feeling, but concentrate at the same time on how much you love her. If you try to reject the feeling, it will come across as a rejection of her, and you will suppress your love for her, as well.

Fennik thinks this is vastly more complicated than he imagined.

Seruffin: She'll be dealing with a similar response of her own, you know.

Fennik is ~~ startled ~~

Seruffin: She's never zlinned you as a Gen, and she may find it a bit hard to adapt to that.

Fennik: How strange. I knew she'd zlin my emotions but... there's a whole persona Simes perceive through zlinning, isn't there? A sort of.. nonvisible appearance... behind the changing emotions? I wonder what I'll look.. zlin like to her that way.

Seruffin: You probably won't zlin exactly the way she's imagined that you would: how could you? How many times have you imagined what a correspondent would look like, and been wrong?

Seruffin: In addition, although she's known you're Gen for most of her life, in the past few months her definition of "Gen" has changed radically.

Fennik finds that a bit ~~ chilling ~~. Does Fridda think of him as prey, subconsciously? Or... how do Simes think of Gens?

Fennik: How... ~~ acute embarrassment ~~

Seruffin: To Simes, Gens are fragile, often blind to things that are obvious to us, and absolutely vital to our existence. You have to admit, that doesn't correspond very closely to Fridda's childhood view of you as her strong, all-knowing father.

Fennik: I think I understand now why it will be upsetting for her to meet me again. She probably hasn't... really realized...

Fennik takes a deep breath.

Seruffin: Neither of you have. On the other hand, if the two of you want to have any sort of adult relationship, you'll have to start somewhere.

Fennik: Maybe it will help that I've assigned my donation payment to her. She may be more prepared to think of me as really a Gen.

Seruffin: It might help.

Fennik: You know, I don't really think of her as an adult. And that's apart from larity. My own father was giving me well-meaning advice long after I'd established my career and married.

Seruffin: Simes don't have the liberty of ignoring it when their children grow up. Not that that prevents many of them from offering unwanted advice, of course. Although knowing precisely how much the advice is unwanted tends to curb that behavior.

Fennik smiles, and wonders whether Seruffin was the donor or recipient of such advice. He assumes Seruffin comes from a background similar to his own.

Seruffin doesn't, which goes to show that the proverbial leopard can change his spots.

Fennik recalls that Seruffin is a busy man, at least according to the receptionist.

Fennik: I greatly appreciate that you've taken the time to help me understand these things better.

Fennik thinks for a moment, and realizes that he's about to suppress some strong emotions. ~~ chagrin ~~

Seruffin smiles reassuringly.

Fennik: Hajene, when you took my donation, I'm sure you zlinned how distasteful I found the experience. I want to tell you that it certainly isn't personal, it's not even that you're Sime.

Seruffin: Yes, I did notice.

Seruffin keeps his tone quiet and neutral, rather than accusatory. He isn't above using the foreign out-Territory etiquette, when it helps.

Fennik: I... I'm very averse to most people touching me. Of course, Fridda is an exception, but ... well, even my physician -- we're good friends, we went to school together, but ... I really have to exert myself to stay calm for some of the procedures in a routine checkup. ~~ embarrassment ~~

Seruffin: I see. I gather some of them are quite uncomfortable?

Seruffin has never been through an out-T style physical examination, but he's heard things that make him want to cringe.

Fennik: Some are, but even the ones that aren't... Well, I'm sure he realizes that I'm uncomfortable about it, but not as much as you would.

Fennik reveals, without realizing it, that for him, etiquette in these matters is for both participants to pretend the emotional discomfort isn't happening.

Seruffin: That's true.

Fennik: I.. can you advise me... I don't want to repay your kindness with... an unpleasant experience for you, too.

Fennik would really like Seruffin to explain how confronting his emotions can be made to make them go away.

Seruffin: Then the solution is not to find it unpleasant yourself.

Seruffin voice is a model of tact as he stands up and walks around the desk, hands extended in invitation.

Gerrhonot gets up and follows closely. He remembers what condition Seruffin was in after Fennik's previous donation.

Seruffin: Accept my touching you, rather than rejecting it, and you'll be well on your way to overcoming the problem.

Fennik takes off his jacket and rolls up his sleeves.

Seruffin is very glad for Gerrhonot's support.

Fennik: I'll try. ~~ brave ~~ determined ~~ embarrassed ~~

Fennik wants to ask Seruffin to help him somehow, but can't look that weak. He offers his hands and mentally girds his loins to accept Seruffin's touch. ~~ suppressed dread ~~ anticipation of embarrassment ~~

Seruffin feels Fennik's rejection building. He takes the Gen's offered hands.

Fennik tries to be, not just appear, calm and accepting, with the result that he's neither.

Seruffin: Professor Fennik, relax. Nothing is going to happen here that you can't accept -- you know that, because you did it last month.

Fennik: Yes, I'm not afraid of you. I... I'm making it worse, trying not to do it, right?

Gerrhonot puts a hand on Seruffin's shoulder and projects ~~ strength ~~ reliability ~~ sympathy ~~ admiration ~~

Fennik takes a deep breath and closes his eyes.

Seruffin: Well, yes and no. You're not projecting rejection as single-mindedly as last time, but that's also letting some of your other feelings come to the fore.

Fennik opens his eyes again. ~~ confused ~~

Fennik: I'm embarrassed that I can't... can't control my feelings.. not the way I should be able to.

Seruffin is ~~ genuinely puzzled ~~

Seruffin: Why do you think that you should somehow immediately be able to master a difficult task that you've never had a chance to practice?

Fennik is speechless. Why indeed? Because... because he's a grown man. He should be able to control himself.

Seruffin slips his hands up to Fennik's wrists, and extends his handling tentacles to wrap around the Gen's arms, while he's trying to find an answer. He notes that Fennik is at least distracted from his distaste of touching by the novel idea.

Fennik comes up with an idea.

Fennik: Fridda's hands would be warm like yours, wouldn't they? Her tentacles too. I wouldn't be upset if it were her touching me.

Seruffin realizes that Fennik really doesn't understand about self-deception.

Fennik thinks about Fridda touching him and feels more ~~ calm ~~

Seruffin: But it's not. It's me touching you. And there's really no more reason to be upset about that, than about her touching you.

Seruffin thinks there's actually a lot less reason, considering that Fridda is a renSime in First Year, and he's an experienced First Order channel.

Fennik: I know that...

Seruffin zlins to see if Fennik is understanding what he's saying.

Fennik takes another deep breath. He's ~~ embarrassed ~~ at looking so weak with this dignified gentleman. His embarrassment overrides his squeamishness. But he's getting used to Seruffin's touch now.

Seruffin: That's much better. I'm making lateral contact, now.

Seruffin suits actions to words.

Fennik doesn't react very strongly, since it's not all that much extra stimulus, to him.

Seruffin: Good. I'll let you make the lip contact, when you're ready.

Seruffin hopes that Fennik is more comfortable touching than being touched, at least a little.

Fennik does feel a little better, more in control, given the choice to make the contact. He tries again to relax, be accepting. He thinks about how Fridda will be glad to know he's done this again for her.

Seruffin zlins the result of this exercise with ~~ interest ~~ as he waits.

Gerrhonot looks at Fennik, with a sympathetic and encouraging expression, over Seruffin's shoulder.

Fennik decides he can do it without cringing and presses his lips to Seruffin's. He feels a little ~~ proud ~~ that he did it without, to his knowledge, hitting Seruffin with another blast of rejection. He finds he can relax a bit further, with that thought.

Seruffin zlins Fennik thoroughly, to make sure there aren't any health problems that have developed within the past month, and to make sure that Fennik's emotional state is more or less stable.

Seruffin views the Gen's current emotional state as less unpleasant than last time, but definitely more precarious.

Seruffin neatly begins his draw.

Fennik begins to feel ~~ guilty ~~ at what he's putting Seruffin through, then realizes that zlinning his guilt is not likely to be any more pleasant.

Fennik tries not to feel guilty or embarrassed. Wait, he's supposed to feel accepting, right? ~~ confusion ~~

Seruffin zlins Fennik start to lose what control he's managed to muster, but dares not stop before the Gen is as low field as it's reasonably possible to make him.

Fennik fumbles around trying not to feel, no, trying to feel, wait...

Seruffin doesn't want Fennik to face Sime Territory with any more nager than absolutely necessary, given his level of control -- or lack thereof.

Fennik focuses on thinking about Fridda, how he hasn't lost her despite changeover, and that he's going to be seeing her soon. ~~ slightly strained happy anticipation ~~

Fennik tries hard not to feel how friggin embarrassing it is that he can't manage this whole thing properly, when millions of in-T Gens do it with no difficulty.~~ frustration ~~ exasperation ~~

Seruffin tries his best to ignore the emotional shifts, as he finally finishes harvesting all the readily available selyn and breaks lip contact.

Seruffin: There, it's done.

Fennik: I'm sorry, Hajene. That must have been even worse than last time for you. I suppose I was trying too hard, certainly trying the wrong way. ~~ embarrassment ~~ guilt ~~

Seruffin leans heavily on Gerrhonot's nager, and attempts a reassuring smile.

Seruffin: You'll get the hang of it, before long.

Seruffin retracts his laterals, then lets Fennik go.

Fennik rubs his arms, then feels ~~ acutely self-conscious ~~ about it and rolls down his sleeves.

Fennik wonders whether he might feel better if he donates to a channel he doesn't regard as his respected equal next time.

Fennik: I certainly hope so. I don't want to put another channel through this either. ~~ guilt ~~

Seruffin: It's part of our job.

Fennik: Yes, but...

Seruffin: I know. It should be an affirmation, not a duty.

Fennik: Is there some way I can learn the kind of control I need? There are no Simes here...

Fennik realizes how stupid that sounds and suppresses a groan. He's in the friggin Sime Embassy!

Seruffin: The first step is just to become more familiar with your emotions. Get used to stopping and thinking about what you're feeling, and you're halfway there.

Fennik pulls himself together and puts on his tweed jacket.

Fennik: I'll try. Thank you again and... my apologies.

Seruffin nods a courteous acceptance of the apology.

Fennik: Good afternoon, then, gentlemen.

Seruffin: Good afternoon, and I hope your visit with your daughter goes well.

Fennik nods and departs, trailing a cloud of emotions so mixed even a professor of literature couldn't list them in his native tongue.

Gerrhonot puts an arm around Seruffin and projects ~~ comfort ~~ admiration ~~ compassion ~~

Gerrhonot: I feel sorry for that guy.

Seruffin: So do I. He's changing more than he knows, and I expect that's going to back fire on him at some point.

Gerrhonot: ~~ inquiry ~~

Seruffin leans against Gerrhonot, basking in the non-negative emotions.

Gerrhonot strokes Seruffin's left tentacle sheaths with his free hand. ~~ kindness ~~ affection ~~ devotion ~~

Seruffin: He's a very conservative sort of person. I expect it's been a long time since he's confronted a new idea.

Seruffin lets his handling tentacles emerge to squeeze Gerrhonot's fingers in thanks.

Gerrhonot: ~~ delight ~~

Gerrhonot: It's like he's so busy being a professor that he's forgotten how to just be a person.

Seruffin: Yes.

Gerrhonot runs a finger lightly under each of Seruffin's extended tentacles. ~~ affection ~~

Gerrhonot: I hope it will work out with him and Fridda.

Seruffin: I expect it will, if they both want it to.

Seruffin squeezes once more, then lets go.

Seruffin: I'd better get back to work. That report won't write itself, more's the pity.

Gerrhonot: Um. Do you think you're working too hard, Hajene? I think maybe you are.

Seruffin: Well, perhaps, but it still has to be done. I promise, when I've got an acceptable draft, I'll let you coax me out into the gardens. All right?

Gerrhonot: Okay. The linden tree is in bloom. We can sit under it and enjoy the scent and I can work on you nagerically. I think you should try to enjoy yourself more.

Seruffin chuckles.

Seruffin: I wonder what Professor Fennik would think, if he realized that Donors like you view Simes as just as fragile as Simes tend to view Gens?

Gerrhonot: You're not fragile, Hajene, but I still want to take good care of you and make you happy if I can. ~~ nageric attraction ~~ love ~~

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