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Something to Soothe the Mind (Part 1) by Fantasy Weaver


Hi, it's been a while. For those who know my writing style, why yes, this is another headshaving story (we write what we love, no?), though I would like to point out that the themes of this story will be a bit more different, and that things will kind of go in reverse to my normal narrative...you'll see once you start reading. I have no idea how long this will be, as I'm already at more than a third of the length of "Of Hesitation and Doubt" and have a lot of things planned (Speaking of that story, I've started being active on the Hair Story Network as well and have posted it there).Feel free to leave suggestions in the comments on things that could happen in the story, and I might consider them.

I'm trying out my hand at a slightly futuristic setting, since it worked well with the ideas I had in mind. I don't know if it's good, but hey I tried.

Okay, enough prattling on from me. Enjoy the read!

-Fantasy Weaver


Note

1:Some foul language ahead

Something to Soothe the Mind

Part One

XXXXX

"I won't beat around the bush Dari, your condition is probably caused by stress."

He already knew that. Dari did not make an appointment with his doctor to know what the cause was; he made it to find out what to do.

"Spare me the stress talk, Howard," he sighed back, settling further back in the floating seat. The chair rocked lightly against the gesture. "I just want to know if there's a way I can fix this."

Howard, his long-time doctor, appointed to his family since Dari's birth, leaned against his white desk, his doctor's pad glowing a faint blue with whatever notes were probably strewn in there about his patient. "There are different medications you could take."

Dari scoffed. Pills. He already had too many with the one antidepressants. The only reason he took them was because he had yet to find a better alternative. Even in their modern age of science, options for the mentally ill were few and far between. While the medication itself had gotten better and more affordable (every person in the country had healthcare, so with the insurance his pills cost, what, five credits?) Any other options were too expensive or far-fetched.

He had tried a few, without his doctor's input. Of those had been light therapy and isolation chambers. Light therapy had done close to nothing for him, and well, the isolation chamber had led to more accentuated stress than anything else. He had a panic attack while inside the sensory deprivation unit, and had to be taken out early.

He had enough of running around trying things. He needed something that would work for once.

Howard, bless the old man, seemed to understand his need for results, as he told him, "I know it's not what you want to hear. I myself prefer other methods than medicine."

Dari scowled. Not at his doctor, but more to himself. His hand raked through his long black hair, feeling the spots along his scalp known as alopecia: hair loss.

The condition had shown itself a few months ago, and at first he hadn't really noticed, since the worst of it was at his nape, hidden under his long hair. But he had noticed a change in thickness, and a few friends had mentioned spots when he had his hair up in a bun.

The condition had slowly started to worsen. Thankfully most of it was still concentrated at his nape, but his left temple and a few spots along that side of his head had grown sparse, and now he had to brush his hair to the left to hide it.

He didn't want to lose all his hair. Call him insecure about his looks, but he didn't. And he knew he was stressed out. He had gotten an extended time off from his work as a secretary because of it. He could still remember breaking down in front of his boss, a man he had come to hate more and more as time went on. The workload he had been given would have been too much for anyone, which resulted in a very long burnout.

He still earned a livable wage courtesy of the benevolent government under which the country fell, enough to pay for all his accommodations, food and still have some left over for emergencies.

He dreaded the thought of going back to that work environment, and knew that the stress from those thoughts was eating him alive. Hence the hair loss, and probably his lack of sleep as well.

"Just tell me there's something I can do to stop this from happening," he sighed at long, one hand rubbing at the bridge of his nose in an open sign of desperation.

Howard leaned back in his own seat, one had tapping the armrest in thought. Then, he turned his kindly old face to Dari. "There is one thing I might recommend..."

Dari lifted his head, his dark brown, almond shaped eyes focusing intently on his doctor, urging him to continue.

Howard leaned forward, taping his doctor’s pad so the screen presented itself to Dari as a floating reflection of itself. "Many other doctors have started to recommend this hair loss clinic...ah, here."

The screen flashed the website for said clinic, and Dari read the name, "Hair therapy: effective treatments and solutions for hair loss." He paused, remembering something from a few years ago. "Isn't that the company that created the hair-growing treatments?"

Howard smiled. "Precisely the one."

Dari couldn't blame himself for forgetting such a thing existed, having never needed something like this before, but now he could see where the good doctor was getting at.

"You think they could regrow my hair?" He asked, trying to drown out the hopeful tone in his voice. He didn't want any more disappointments.

The doctor slid his fingers to the touchscreen on his desk as he answered his patient, "Many of my colleagues' patients, and some of my own, swear by their methods. It could be worth a shot, don't you think?"

Dari once more dragged his hand through his hair, and frowned at the few dozen strands that came loose.

Anything to not go bald.

XXXXX

He tried not to think about the dark hairs that littered his shower that morning when he washed himself. Perhaps, like the water from that morning, he could wash this whole mess down the metaphorical drain after going to Hair Therapy.

He leaned his head against his seat on the sky train, watching the numerous vehicles on the roads below and the strings of hovering vehicles above them. They passed many other sky trains, zigzagging through the modern architecture of skyscrapers, lit with neon colors and signs in the evening sunset. Soon, the city would be lit brightly not by the sun, but by those florescent lights decorating every facade and alleyway.

He still found the city an odd sight after growing up in more rural areas inland, where many nature preserves had been permanently forbidden from being stripped of their resources. Despite the clean energy solutions the world had gone through, and climate change having been averted for around 80 years now, the world had probably changed a lot from those days.

Cities still got bigger, but forests and natural landscapes had as well, in some ways. Dari longed to be back in his smaller hometown, where the buildings were smaller, where the lights shone less aggressively and he could walk a mile or so and be out in pine-scented forests. Alas, he had earned a well-paying job in the city.

'But at what cost?' He thought sourly to himself. The only thing this job had given him so far was a headache.

A musical tone played through the sky train, followed by a pleasant computer-generated female voice, "The Skytrain will now be stopping at Grand Square Station. Please make sure to check your seating area for any belongings before exiting the pod..."

Dari tuned out the rest of the voice's instructions, having gotten used to the lady telling him to not forget his stuff. He got his bag on his shoulders, and lifted himself to his feet as other people did the same around him. Rush hour had passed already, thankfully, so there weren't too many passengers on the train with him.

The sky train made its smooth stop, and soon the pneumatic door had lifted up for them to exit. Dari did so as the female voice said her final "Thank you for using the Skytrain. Have a pleasant evening."

Dari put his hood over his head, walking towards the escalator once he was out of the docking station. The light green steps glowed a little brighter as his weight settled on them, and he walked them two at a time until he came to the landing.

Exiting out into the city, the lights from all the signs and vehicles already lighting up the streets, he pulled out his wrist and taped on the small screen on his leather bracelet. A small hologram of the city showed up, with the directions to the hair clinic.

Dari followed the instructions, passing through two streets, going up escalator steps and walking into interconnecting glass passages through the city, until finally, the clinic came into view.

The raven entered through the sliding glass doors, and removed the hood from his long black shirt. He found himself in a large waiting room, with one side of the vast space lined with windows. He could see a glowing garden in the late evening sunset outside the glass.

Inside, there were several sofas, a few floating glass tables, and some plants strewn around the softly lit room. A long circular desk area at the back had four receptionists working, and the waiting area had a few patrons waiting around.

Dari couldn't help but peek at the clients here, as he made his way to the reception. Among the people waiting were a couple of older men, probably around forty years of age, with male pattern baldness. There was what Dari assumed was the family of a young girl with a bald head.

He frowned at the sight. Despite many years of research, cancer was still a bitch. Not in getting rid of it, that was fine, but some of the side effects of treatment, hair loss being one of them.

There were women with thin hair, both old and young. A few people his age littered about, some like him, who had the signs of alopecia, or others who had premature hair loss. There was a man in his thirties who looked to be practically hairless, perhaps from a nervous shock of sorts.

He swallowed. That could be him if he continued loosing hair...

Dari tore his eyes away from the sight when who he assumed was a doctor came to take the man to his appointment.

The lady at reception looked up from her touchscreen when Dari approached her. "Good evening. What can I do for you sir?"

Dari held out the arm with his leather bracelet, showing on his small screen his doctor's note. "Doctor Howard Flynntike made an appointment for me for seven o'clock. I'm here to register."

The woman nodded her head, and pointed her pen at his screen, picking up a copy of the information to pass through the system. "Alright, this will just take a moment to see if the appointment is here."

Dari shoved his hands in his pockets, looking around as more of the patrons were lead off into the clinic by the various men and women who worked here.

"Ah, here we are," the raven turned his attention back the receptionist, "Mr. Dari Shodunn, for seven o'clock, here for alopecia evaluation and initial treatment, is that correct?"

He nodded, and when she turned her screen to him so he could check that all his relevant information was correct, Dari confirmed a second time.

"Perfect. Your hair specialist is Tarek; he should be with you shortly, if you would like to sit in the waiting area."

"Thank you," The young man uttered, pacing towards one of the light cream couches.

He sat down, and flicked his wrist to send his screen to his hand, and adjusted the opacity levels so only he could see. It was six-fifty, so he had a few minutes of waiting before this Tarek would come get him. Dari fumbled through his bag, pulling out a set of wireless ear plugs, and put them into his ears to listen to some music for a while. Howard had recommended a while back to listen to something nice whenever he was feeling stressed. So he did as per the doctor's orders and closed his eyes while he waited.

No more than two songs had elapsed before a light tap to his shoulder got Dari out of his daze. He tensed slightly at the sudden touch, eyes opening and hands taking out his plugs. "Sorry, I was listening to musi..."

Dari blinked, the rest of his phrase dissipating in the quiet air of the waiting room.

"It's alright. I was afraid I might have scared you," the person, man, said, but Dari scarcely heard him.

The man standing by the couch must have been around the same age as Dari, dressed in the same white uniform with blue detail as the rest of the staff. The raven searched for a name tag, finding one on the left side of the tunic, writing out "Tarek" in bold, cursive letters.

This...couldn't be his caretaker. No. He couldn't be.

"I uh..." Dari stammered, lifting himself off the couch to stand in front of the man, finding himself to be shorter than him by a good few inches, "I'm fine, don't worry about it" he said, in reference to Tarek's worry from before.

The soft smile that answered him sent his brain into overheating mode, and Dari felt suddenly very aware of his appearance. The taller man held out his hand, greeting politely, "I'm Tarek by the way. The receptionist told me that you're Dari, is that right?"

The raven glanced between the offered hand, noticing faint freckles on the exposed skin and the man's face (whose cheeks and nose sported the same almost-not-there spots). Finally, he gave a handshake in greeting. "Yeah, that's me. Thank you for seeing me so soon," he said this while reminding himself of what he was here for, knowing that he was lucky to have an appointment so soon after talking with Howard about his hair issues.

"It's not a problem. That's what we're here for," Tarek answered him, a light tone in his professional voice. He tilted his head towards the hallway in the back of the waiting room, one hand gesturing towards him, "Come, we'll get you settled in and evaluate your situation."

Dari, flicking his wrist to close his screen, nodded automatically, and followed the taller man towards the hallway.

With the man's back turned to him, the raven found himself more openly admiring his specialists' physique and features, or at least the ones he could gaze at from behind. Tarek, as stated earlier, was taller than him, but also slightly broader in musculature, evidenced by his square shoulders and the lightly veined flesh of his forearms. The tunic he wore fit him perfectly in almost every way. He wore the uniform like it had been specifically tailored made for him.

Dari glanced at his head, noticed the modified color of the man's hair; a slivery-white that shone almost iridescent blue in the right lighting. It was a short, stylish cut, with a curved hairline at his nape, blended in perfectly to his skin. From his scrutiny in the waiting area, Dari had seen that the hair on top of his head was feathered, held in a layered sweep with a near-matt, almost silk-like product, and his side burns were trimmed into neat, faded points.

He looked striking, to say the least. And every hair on his head seemed present, following whatever tight control Tarek held over the wintry strands.

As they kept walking by numerous doors, the raven couldn't help but think about his own looks, how dishevelled, thin and out of order his black hair was. It paired well with his tired, baggy eyes, his ashen skin tone. While Tarek was pale, he had a healthy glow about him that Dari, sadly, lacked considerably. 'Depression is a bitch' He thought saltily.

"Here we are," Tarek remarked absentmindedly, his hand pressing into the digital pad near a locked, white door. Dari observed as the man's hand was scanned and heard and audible click when it was done. Tarek turned to him with a small tilt of his lips, and opened the door for him, "Please, go on inside."

The raven flicked his eyes from the man's sharp face to the room beyond the door, and as he took the steps over the threshold, he let his eyes wander the space.

The place was familiar in a way, resembling many hair salons he had gone to in his lifetime, yet there was additional equipment which he was unfamiliar with.

A bright, clinical light lit the room, bathing everything in a cool white. The walls were white, the equipment and furniture, everywhere he looked: white. He felt like he was back at the hospital so sterile it seemed. A blue light back-lit the majority of the walls, and accentuated certain pieces of equipment.

To his direct left was an office desk and chair; probably Tarek's workspace. There were screens and pads on his desk, and a floating examination chair stood at the other side of the desk.

To the right, a semi-circle countertop held a neatly organized array of hairstyling tools. A large mirror took up the middle of the counter, and there were adjustable lights hovering mid-air above the space in front of the counter. Another chair took place there, but unlike most seating these days, this one was built into the floor, and reminded the raven of 21st century barber chair with a contemporary twist.

His eyes lingered on the tools and products laid out on the countertop, focusing for longer than he would have wanted on the scissors and clippers. 'Don't panic. You'll be fine,' he tried to reassure himself, with little success.

As Tarek closed the door behind them, the young man continued his perusal of the space, eyes landing at the back of the room where two separate washing sinks resided, one of which had a reclining seat, and one with a long, bed-like table, reminiscent of a massage table.

There were seats with odd, rounded equipment near the headrest, and other oddities Dari couldn't even begin to care about, unless they were somehow going to be used on him.

Tarek's hand landed softly on his shoulder, removing him from the anxiety-fulled scanning he had found himself doing. The raven turned his face to regard the hair specialist, aware of the furrow in his brow.

Despite his stress, the sight of the handsome man before him, smiling, sent a warmth through his being that subdued the tide that threatened to pull him under. Tarek's eyes were soft when he spoke, "If you're ready, would you like to sit down so we can start?" He pointed to the examination seat in front of his desk.

Dari pursed his lips, nodding, "Yeah, sure. Let's do this..."

Tarek didn't make any remark about his nervous attitude, for which the raven was immensely thankful. Instead, the tall man had the seat turn towards him, and beckoned him to sit in it. Dari did, feeling the chair settle in the magnetic field, the gentle swaying almost lulling him into a state of calm.

He swivelled the chair towards Tarek, who had seated himself across the desk from him. His eyes scanned the screens in front of him, leaving the back transparent so Dari could see what he was looking at in his patient file. He could plainly see that the snow-haired man was looking into the file Howard had put together about his hair history (a term Dari knew he used in lieu of the medical term).

The urge to mess with his hair itched at him, and with any mirror too far away from him to make out his reflection, the raven could only be left to wonder if the balding spots showed at all.

"Dari," the man in question snapped his attention back to Tarek, who had leaned forward with his hands laced together on his desk. Despite the smile on his face, Dari knew he meant business now. "Since it's just the two of us here, I just wanted to let you know that there's no need to be too professional. I know I've called you by your first name, and I would feel perfectly fine with you calling me by own, but," he paused, adjusting himself in his seat, "If you would prefer this to be more clinical, I respect your choice, otherwise, just consider me a barber with a doctorate."

Tarek laughed as he said this, and Dari found himself smiling ever so slightly at his attempt at familiarity, however, he feared his anxiety over this matter still took precedence over everything.

He cleared his throat averting his eyes to his hands, folded together in his lap, "Thank you, ah, I don't mind you calling me Dari." He had answered honestly; it would feel far too weird between two men of the same age to be calling each other Mister.

Tarek nodded, eyes lingering on his head. He tilted his own, seemed to think for moment, before proceeding, "According to Dr. Flynntike's initial assessment, he thinks the likely cause of your alopecia may be stress."

He hadn't said it as a question. This was a statement, one Dari had heard all too often. "Yes," he said, even though Tarek had not asked him if this was true.

Again, the specialist -barber, Dari reminded himself to refer to him as such- took a moment to gather his thoughts before speaking. "The hair clinic isn't just for solving the problem of hair loss," he began to explain, his eyes searching the raven's own for signs of discomfort on the subject, "Every caretaker, myself included, have also studied some psychiatry, to better help with the root cause of the hair loss, whether it be from illness treatment, exposure to radiation, or more often than not..."

Dari averted his gaze, hating that he knew where this was going.

"Stress" the man finished, the word hanging in the air like a bothersome rain cloud that threatened a downpour on them.

Dari fidgeted anxiously with the tips of his black shirt, finding it hard to look at Tarek after what he had just said. Still, he managed to speak, a little harsher than he had intended, "Are you saying you're going to be my therapist?"

"I'm not a licensed therapist, no," The other turned to the barber then, one eyebrow raised questioningly. Tarek's eyes were all serious now. "But throughout the treatment process, I am here to listen." He said this, emphasizing the last part.

The raven regarded him, brow furrowing despite himself.

Tarek's smile faltered a bit, seeing that his words, like with most of his patients, affected Dari more than he let on. "Well...it's a thought to keep in mind during the whole process."

A silent nodded answered him. It was all Dari could muster.

With a twist in his seat, Tarek stood up. The raven followed his movement as he asked him, "How about we take a look at your hair and we can come up with a solution. Sound good?"

Dari blinked, his right hand unconsciously lifting to his head, brushing a few strands aside from his face. He always hated the moment someone inspected his hair, and he wouldn't pretend it didn't discomfort him. Tarek seemed to understand, as he did not engage him right away.

As Dari calmed his nerves, he observed the barber sliding open a slim drawer from his desk, the compartment smoothly coming to settle at a comfortable height for Tarek to manipulate the tools laden inside. Inquisitive brown eyes stared at the array: a scanner-like tool took up most of his attention, but he did notice a few different combs, as well as a sheet of shiny material.

Tarek took the sheet first, unfolding it to reveal a vinyl cape with sleeves and a few clasps to attach it at the neck. The man moved over to the examining seat, holding the cape in one hand as he approached.

Dari forced his hand down. It would do him no good to delay the examination. He already knew that he would be subject to one, though with the variety of tools on display, he knew this would be much more thorough than his doctor visits.

A look at Tarek had him feeling heat pool in his cheeks. There was a reassuring glimmer in his eyes, something so out of place in this cold, clinical environment. He held out the cape with both hands, "If you would just slip your arms in the sleeves, please."

The raven took a second to compose himself, but not a second more. He slipped his arms in, finding the material to be slick to the touch, a bit like touching a snake. Tarek shifted behind the seat, and pulled the cape around Dari's neck, securing it with the clasps. After adjusting the material around him, the barber had the tool tray float closer to him.

"If I may ask," the taller man started, hand reaching for a tailed comb, "Do you think your doctor is right about you being stressed out?"

Dari tried not to focus on the comb passing by his field of view; he had resorted to using his finger to get rid of knots in his hair, as his brush or comb pulled out too much hair for his liking. Seeing Tarek was about to use one did not make him feel good in the least. Alas, this was his job. The man probably knew what he was doing.

He focused his gaze on his hands, balled into light fists on the shiny white cape. "I didn't need my doctor's opinion to know I was stressed. I needed to know if it was causing all this," he gestured vaguely to his head.

"I see. How long have you felt like this?" Tarek, Dari knew, was not prying, but trying to assess his situation to best help him. Despite this, the young man still had trouble talking about it.

He felt the tip of the comb's tail section out his hair, right down the middle, and he tried not to think about the spots doing that would reveal. He sighed, "A few months, maybe six, seven?"

The barber began lifting and coming out sections of hair on his left side. "According to your file, you've been off work for two months now. Could that have anything to do with your stress or depression?"

Dari tried not to cringe when Tarek's manipulation of his hair began making strands fall to the cape. He absolutely hated this feeling of helplessness when faced with the reality of his situation. Frankly, he was glad he couldn't see himself right now.

He pursed his lips as he tried to focus on the conversation. "I had a burnout. Before that I had panic attacks. The meds for my depression kind of just mellow out the stress to a manageable level."

"So you have depression and anxiety?"

He scoffed. "Great combination right?"

The fingers at his scalp were gentle, as was the comb lifting his hair, but a flurry of black threads still landed on the cape.

Hands shifted his head slightly. "Tilt your head for me."

There were adjustable lights above the examination seat, and Dari watched as his caretaker moved them as he needed to inspect his head.

The inspection was thorough, as were the questions the other asked him. Was he seeing a therapist? What measures was he taking to manage his anxiety? Was he more sensitive to pain? Was he happy with his work, his life?

That last one, Dari didn't know how to answer. Thankfully, Tarek didn't push him for a response.

He could feel the handsome man's digits rub against the sparse patches on his head, could feel the heat of his fingers against the exposed scalp. Every time he combed or brushed his hair aside, more strands came loose. Tarek even found new patches forming on the right side of his head, news that Dari did not welcome happily.

Eventually, the barber put the comb back in his tray. The raven noticed black hairs stuck in between the teeth, and scowled. Tarek took the scanner he had spotted before, and the end of it shone with a bright, lavender light.

"This is an epidermal scanner," the barber explained, turning the examining seat around to face the screen on his desk. "It's made to enhance the view of your scalp, and I can show you some of the problems happening directly underneath as well."

Dari nodded, watching the screen as Tarek began moving the scanning end on his scalp, right on an alopecia patch. The image showed uneven strands of hair, some, a lot, all the way down to his scalp.

It pained him to see the damage up close like this, with Tarek of all people showing it to him. His hair specialist could have been anyone, but the fact that it was this handsome specimen just made him feel all the more self-conscious about the state of his hair. Scratch that: the state of his looks. After all, even his face bore the signs of depression.

Tarek kept the scanner stable with his right hand while indicating the image on the screen with his left, his voice professional as he explained what they were seeing. "You can see that you have different lengths of hair, but that most of the damage goes all the way to the scalp." Dari hummed in understanding. "This to me looks like your hair is getting weaker in patches. As in, your hair isn't getting enough nutrients to sustain it, making it brittle and easy to tear. There may be something else, but I’ll get to that in a minute."

He pressed on the scanner, and the raven could now see just under his skin, where the bulbs of his hair grew.

Tarek continued, "Getting nutrients to your hair is important for it to grow properly, and that starts with the bulb; the root of your hair." Here, he pointed to a long strand of hair, at the base of which was a round root. "This is what healthy bulb looks like. This," he said, pointing to a nub of hair in the bald patch, "is what an unhealthy bulb looks like."

The bulb's shape was off. Unlike its healthy counterpart, the root was thin, oblong, and certainly abnormal to the roundness of his healthy hair.

"Once the bulb looks like that, it usually means that that hair follicle is about to die and fall out, which, in normal circumstances," the barber explained, "happens to everyone and their mother. It's a normal part of the hair cycle. But usually, it doesn't take long before a new bulb is made and hair starts growing from it."

Dari shifted in his seat, fingers worrying. "But that's not happening here" he stated, hoping his voice sounded steadier than he felt.

Tarek nodded. "It's not happening because the conditions for bulb regeneration are either not met, I.e. there aren't enough nutrients getting to the scalp, or more likely in your case, your stress caused your immune system to attack your hair follicles." He paused. "Usually, your hair has an immune privilege that prevents this from happening, but again, high levels of anxiety can cause this protection to be breached."

Dari closed his eyes, breathing deeply, a futile attempt at calming himself. "You're saying my anxiety has...overridden my hair's immunity?"

He couldn't see the other's face, but he was certain that there must have been pity in his eyes. "Unfortunately, yes. Stress," he added with a sad tint to his voice, "can cause a multitude of problems, not just psychologically, but physically, like it has done here. In barber school, we were often taught that you can tell if someone is stressed by looking at their hair."

The raven squirmed, the conversation dragging out for much longer than he would like. "So you're telling me I have to stop being stressed to make my hair grow back?" The question was a desperate one. He needed a better solution.

"I did not say that," Tarek admonished him lightly. "Besides, you can't just tell someone to stop being stressed. That's just rude, wouldn't you agree?"

Dari flicked his gaze to his lap, frowning. He felt bad for snapping at the man, when all he was doing was trying to help him in the best way he could. "Sorry, I'm just..."

Tarek removed the scanner from his head, and walked around so they could see each other. Again, that reassuring smile made an appearance, and Dari found himself warm all over again. "I understand this might be a difficult time for you. So I won't take everything you say to the letter, at the risk of sounding snobbish." His smile morphed into a grin.

Dari felt his ears prickle at the sight, and averted his gaze.

Tarek placed the scanner back in his tray, and with a swish, it floated back into his desk. Dari lifted his head when the man's warm hands unclasped the cape, and watched as the barber disposed of it in a laundry chute, the lost hairs disappearing with it.

Happy to be out of the cape (and out from under that analytic gaze) the raven leaned forward as the snow-haired man took his seat behind his desk again.

"If I may be blunt, for just a moment," Tarek began, hands crossing in front of him, "It is my understand that most people who come to Hair Therapy have high expectations of our main treatment, 'Keralite'; the hair-growing products the company patented." He gave Dari an assessing look, but nevertheless continued. "And that's reasonable. These products’ renown come from being able to regrow hair."

The barber passed his pad to him, showing him multiple before and after photos of people with alopecia. Dari felt that faint hope of his surge at the sight, of seeing the patchy heads, so reminiscent of his own, and the post-treatment stills of the same people with full heads of hair.

He looked at Tarek, and this one was regarding him with a peculiar expression. He didn't know what the man was thinking, and this worried him now.

"These are the results of several alopecia treatments. The process is tailor made for each patron, with how they react to the different steps." He stared at him with serious blue eyes, all mirth gone. "I take it these are the results you want?"

Dari licked his lips, fighting to not nod furiously. "Yes. Yes this would make me more than happy," he sighed.

"These results," the barber now informed him, "are the product of three weeks of constant treatment. You would have to come to the clinic every two days to receive the Keralite therapy, which can vary from an hour to four hours of total time for a single session."

If it would bring his hair back, Dari couldn't care less. Besides, he had nothing better to do during the day. "Look, I don't care how long it takes, I just want it to work. That's it," he emphasized, gesturing vaguely with his hands.

But then Tarek pursed his lips, and suddenly Dari felt there was more to it than what he had said.

"What?" He asked, his voice but a mere whisper in the silent office.

The taller man stared at him long and hard, the weight of his gaze rendering the raven motionless. "There is one very important factor that I think you might want to consider before making your decision."

The young man watched as the pale hands swiped over the tablet a few times, and the images changed.

Dari's heart started to beat to a sickening rhythm.

The images were labeled with "In progress", under which the number of days and weeks were present. The images shown to him were that of bald, shorn and short-haired heads. The first two weeks of progress for each individual showed almost always a shaved head, in which he could see alopecia patches slowly disappearing, until the last week where hair was growing freely, thickly, and healthily.

He took a deep, shuddering breath, eyes slipping away from the tablet to stare at anything but the images there. Nausea mounted, and the beating of his heart had grown more rapid, in time to the frantic thoughts ricocheting in his mind.

Tarek left the pad there, to the raven's great discomfort. "I won't sugar-coat my words, Dari," Tarek explained slowly, clearly, "The treatment for alopecia like yours involves shaving your head and keeping it shaved for a while. Two or three weeks, depending on how long it takes for your hair to react to therapy."

He panted. Once, and breathed in through his nose. A panic attack now would not help him. He needed to remain calm, no matter how disconcerting the words Tarek spoke were.

"I won't say you should be thankful for the amount of time," the man continued on, gauging his client's reaction to the news, "but you must consider the fact that within a month, at most, your hair will be back to its original length. Without our treatment, it could take months, years even."

"Enough. Stop. Just-" Dari rubbed at his eyes, finding that if Tarek kept speaking he would probably faint. "You can't do the therapy without sh-shaving my head?" He asked incredulously, shaking his head at the other man, eyes wide and pleading. "There's another way isn't there? This can't be the only option." He raked a hand through his hair, pulled a few strands out, but he barely noticed this in his panic.

One of Tarek's hands slid the pad away from the fretting man, got rid of the images on it as he did. His hands came back to rest folded together on the desk. There was a saddened look to his features. "Hair loss can be quite hard to accept, and coming to terms with getting rid of it all, even more so," he said gently, eyes softening. "Alopecia treatments require serums and masks to be applied directly to the scalp, along with other therapy options which I think you would more greatly benefit from, but you will have to endure a few weeks without your hair."

The raven laughed; it was a bitter sound, borne of his resentment for the idea, and for himself and his dammed anxiety for being the cause of all this.

His lips thinned, pursed. He bit them, all laughter gone as he held a hand to his mouth. His eyes were cast downward, and the tell-tale prickle of tears stung at them.

Tarek's own features dropped at the sight. This would not be the first time the news of having to give up one's hair had made a patient cry, and he knew it would not be the last. Having been a witness to this type of reaction before, he knew it best to let Dari calm himself.

Tarek offered him the neat box of tissues on his desk, not saying a word. Dari looked up, eyes glimmering with unshed tears. Seeing the man offering him the wipes, he let himself go, let the tears streak down his cheeks as he reached for the tissues.

The raven averted his wet gaze to his left, staring unseeingly at the white wall there as he snivelled, weeping quietly to himself.

The barber waited patiently, not saying a word as he did this. The man was far too accommodating, too understanding. Well, he gave him what he had been seeking: a solution to his stress-fueled alopecia.

But he didn't want to shave his head. The whole reason he was even doing this was to stop losing hair, not get rid of it all.

He knew he was selfish, childish even. The barber was right; without this treatment, how long would he have to wait for his hair to grow back naturally, were he to lose it all? All he had to do was suck up a few weeks with a bald head...

He tried to imagine himself without his hair, hair that went down to his mid-back in length. Never had he had his hair so short, and certainly not shaved. The image he conjured in his mind did not make him feel any better, in fact he wept harder, wiping furiously at his eyes to stop himself from crying so much.

He breathed, slowly, deeply, and tried to put some form of order back in his mind.

"This isn't an easy decision," Tarek spoke, his voice everything soft and gentle in this world, and the young man felt like crying all over again. "If you need time to decide if you want to proceed with the treatment, we can end the appointment here, and I can send you all the relevant documents about the therapy plan I have in mind for you, if you want it."

Dari's eyes darted to the barber's face, and back at the wall. He rested his chin on his closed fist, and nodded once. "Yeah. Okay, thank you..." he sniffed.

They took a few more moments to let Dari compose himself, and once he had, Tarek led him back out to the reception, all the while glancing at his patient to make sure he was alright.

After they had agreed on a follow-up appointment with the receptionist, Dari was about as ready to leave as he could be. His eyes still stung, and his body was practically begging him to go home and lay down in bed, but Tarek captured his attention with a tap to his arm.

The young man gazed tiredly into cool blue eyes, found them as mellow and reassuring as they had been in the treatment room. Perhaps in an attempt at lightening the mood, the snow-haired man smiled, "Try not to worry about all this tonight. You look like you could use a good night's rest."

Dari bit his lip, refusing the strong urge to break down in the middle of the waiting room. It was with much difficulty that he bid Tarek a good evening, "Thanks for...thanks. Good night."

He didn't give the barber the time to reciprocate. He just jogged towards the exit and headed home.

XXXXX

The sun shone brightly in his loft. Too brightly in fact.

"Close the curtains" Dari muttered to his home system, a hand pinching the bridge of his nose. A small tone played, indicating that the order had been registered, and not a second later the curtains slid shut on the view of the city.

Dari sighed, bleary-eyed and all too tired.

He had taken the day yesterday to mentally recover from his appointment at Hair Therapy, and the subsequent news that if he wanted his hair to grow back, he would have to shave his head.

It sounded so counter-productive to the desired end result. But Tarek -how could he forget about the near-perfect man?- had explained and rationalized the how and why for such a choice.

Dari removed his hand from his face, letting it fall with a light "thud" to his sleek black couch. His eyes slowly blinked open, and came to rest on his floating, rectangular coffee table.

Upon the smooth surface, Tarek's digital document laid untouched.

An agitated sigh made its way up his throat, and he found he couldn't look at the opaque tablet. He knew what had to be done; it was just a matter of if he had the guts to do it. At the moment, no, absolutely not. However, he knew that he was being irrational about this, that he was listening to his emotions and running on fumes.

The documentation was there. All he had to do was take a look. It was the very least he could do. Even if he ended up abandoning this project, he would have at least given Tarek's methods a chance by going over them.

Still, after having witnessed those progress pictures, he wasn't sure he wanted to chance a peak at whatever might be in that tablet.

Another sigh blew out of his nose as he debated with himself.

He moved, leaning forward to take the pad in his hands. At the touch of his fingers, the opacity lifted; pads like these were only meant to be read by the individuals to whom they were addressed and the ones that had written them, by way of digital prints and facial recognition. The fact that the pad showed its contents to him meant all was working as it should be.

The raven sat back in his couch, worry clearly displayed in the furrow of his brow. He flicked his hair aside, ignoring the few strands that loosened from his head as he did.

He stared for a long moment at the bluish-white screen, staring unseeingly at the Hair Therapy logo and Tarek's name and credentials underneath.

'Just read it you stupid man' his subconscious berated him after a minute. Reigning in his mounting trepidation, Dari swiped the screen upward to lay the documentation out.

He did not know how long he must have spent pouring over the different sections and appendices of Tarek's treatment plan. There were numerous things to go over, words and terms to look up, side-effects and optional treatments, the list went on.

More than once he had to stop just to take a mental break from the images of shorn heads, still not on board with the idea that this could be him.

The document went into detail about the different serums, masks and lotions that the Keralite therapy used, in what steps they were used, how they could be applied and so forth. From what he had read, the majority of the treatment, as Tarek had specified, would be concentrated at the scalp, in the forms of massages with the products, washes, and the application of light therapy on the scalp.

He had almost scoffed and closed the document then and there, having had his fill of light therapy (which, he reminded himself, had done absolutely nothing), but had continued reading and found that the light therapy worked in conjunction with many other products applied to his scalp, and that the light would activate some of the ingredients and properties within them.

He noted that the treatment plan also focused a lot on relaxation, the term being used quite liberally throughout the pages.

He pursed his lips. His hair specialist had said something about being there to listen to his worries. He wondered if that had anything to do with this.

The final week of treatment, from what he read, was similar to the rest of the process, though the addition of the hair-growing serums and shampoos made it so that his hair would finally experience the accelerated growth he was seeking to repair the damage to it, and different manoeuvres and equipment would be used in this stage to finalize the therapy plan.

There was aftercare necessary for the continued health of his hair. In the first four months after the treatment, he would have to go back every week for a check-up and follow up treatments if necessary. Then for the two months after that, it would be every two weeks, and once a month for the rest of the year. After that, it would be up to him at what frequency he visited, if at all.

He hadn't gone over the part where Tarek explained that he needed to shave his head, as he could clearly see what that entailed.

Two to three weeks without hair...

He supposed being in extended time off work saved him the embarrassment of being seen by people. The only people he did see were two of his friends, Ambrose and Callum. Occasionally he would visit his family, or they would visit him, but they had come just two weeks ago, so he doubted he would see them in person any time soon.

Even so, the number of people who saw him without hair mattered little to him. Dari didn't want to see HIMSELF without hair. It had always been long, even as a kid his hair had been, at its shortest, a medium length that grazed his shoulders. He had started growing it out in his teen years, and had kept its maintenance up until very recently. Since his symptoms had showed up, he couldn't go to the salon to have it trimmed anymore, not with the patches and the constant shed.

What would he look like without hair? Would the patches show even more without the rest of his dark hair hiding them from view? What if he had spots or scars on his scalp, or his head shape didn't look good?

He wasn't vain. But like most people, he still cared for how he portrayed himself, and recently he has not been feeling like the most dashing specimen in the world. He felt thin and weak, his skin was ashy and there were prominent purple-ish bags under his eyes. He had taken up working out at home to give himself something to do, and to maybe keep in shape while not commuting to work, but he felt so sore all the time that it hadn’t established itself as a routine.

The thought reminded him of a question Tarek had asked him during his scalp inspection, about his sensitivity to pain. Howard had told him, at the start of his first batch of anti-depressants, that depression could cause a higher sensitivity to painful stimulus. This, he had confirmed multiple times; even something as small as scratching himself produced a dull ache that otherwise would have been there and gone in a second. These aches could persist for a few seconds, even a minute before they ebbed.

He had trouble sleeping, hence his gaunt appearance. Weak, pained, tired, spent of all physical and mental energy, with hair loss to boot... No, he did not enjoy his overall outward appearance.

Shave his head, and what would he have left to enjoy?

It was only for two or three weeks, he reminded himself again. Surely his self-loathing could lay off for that amount of time, knowing that his hair would indeed grow back healthier than before.

He rubbed at his eyes, refusing to cry over this again.

Tarek had said he would be there to listen. The man has had patients with his condition before, and had most likely dealt with worries and apprehensions similar to his own.

Tarek. His face came to mind; how contradictory his physique was to the raven’s. Maybe this decision wouldn't be so hard, if the person who would shave him was anyone but Tarek. The fact that it was him, a man his age -his type- just made it all the more...frustrating? Sad? Embarrassing? He didn't know. He just knew that he didn't want someone so put-together to see him break down over a f***ing haircut.

Then, what would he prefer? To do nothing, and watch day by day as the patches of missing hair grew larger and larger, until only wisps of frail black hair littered his head? To watch himself go bald gradually, in the most humiliating display possible?

At least, with the clippers, he could retain some of his dignity. At least with shaving his head now, he was making the choice of getting rid of his hair, and wasn't letting it get worse.

It would take nothing but a few minutes of his time, whereas if left as is, it could drag on for months until he looked like...

Dari wouldn't be able to shave his head himself, of that much, he was certain. Tarek would probably do quick work of his hair, and it would be over before he knew it.

As much as he tried to convince himself of that, he still found himself shaking nervously at the thought.

He looked around his loft in a daze, eyes scanning the pale wood flooring, and the dozens upon dozens of hairs littering every space available.

His eyes lingered on the tablet, on the image of a bald head, and he made his decision.

XXXXX

TBC

Well this is embarrassing. This first part was going to be longer but, um, the next scene didn't fit in it's entirety, so you'll have to wait until I've written more for the next part.

Feedback and constructive criticism is appreciated.



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