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Something to Soothe the Mind (Part 4) by Fantasy Weaver


Direct continuation of part 3. Please read other parts for context. Sorry for the longer wait, I hope it was worth it. The story pace will be slowing a bit. Enjoy.

-Fantasy Weaver


Note

1:Some foul language ahead

Something to Soothe the Mind

Part Four

XXXXX

There was something wholly different about waking up that morning. The haze of sleep, that terrible grogginess that seemed so hard to shake off, felt more oppressing as the darkness gave way to the morning’s first sun rays. Hands, so ashen and frail, lay near his pillow, lightly balled into lose fists.

Perhaps the missing presence of long, satiny black strands of hair was what chased away the lingering sleepiness. How disconcerting to awaken to the sight of his pillow covers barren, without any sight of stray locks. Even worse, to bring a hand up to his head, to feel nothing but smooth, bare skin, to be able to feel the cotton under his head, and the chill in the room "maybe that chill was from waking up to this terrible fate.

Dari blinked slowly. His eyelids were heavy and swollen from the feel of it. No doubt if he looked in a mirror right now, he would see redness in his eyes.

Mirrors…he sighed. The last thing he wanted to do right now is see himself in one. Would he recognize himself, if he were to go in the bathroom, stand before the glass and examine the reflection cast upon it?

No. And yet, he already knows what he looks like now.

Gingerly, he pushed himself up on his side, one hand venturing automatically to his head out of sheer habit, and the shocking feeling of his fingers on his bare scalp had a shiver coursing down his spine.

‘Breathe’ he recalled, instructions given to him by Tarek.

He swallowed hard.

Removing his hand from his head, Dari threw the covers off his body, and slid along his mattress to sit at the edge of his bed. He sat there, for God knows how long, staring down at the dark grey carpet, thinking over last evening.

It was only when he cast a look at his round nightstand, the integrated digital clock blinking "9:19" at him, that he remembered something Tarek had asked him to do. On his nightstand, the bag from Hair Therapy stood, its contents untouched, including the silk night cap that he should have worn to bed.

He couldn’t really blame himself for forgetting. Last night, when he had finally arrived back home, he had all but thrown everything, the bag included, off of him: clothes, armband, shoes, everything. All he had wanted had been to sleep that terrible evening away, perhaps hoping that when he woke up, it would all have been some awful dream. Wearing the cap would have been the last thing on his mind.

And as Dari looked around his room, he could see the evidence of his struggle, in the crumpled clothing lying in sparse piles around the floor, and the absence of hair on his head. The Hair Therapy bag just sealed everything in really.

Dari licked his dry lips. Brown eyes flicked to the door of his bedroom, thinking about going to the bathroom to shower, but the prospect of encountering his reflection did not please him.

‘You wanted this,’ his subconscious reminded him none-too-kindly, ‘You could have looked for other solutions. You could have kept your hair and maybe it would have gone away on its own, but no. NO. You just had to f***ing shave your head for some stupid treatment-’

Dari took a deep breath, and tuned out the rest of the thoughts rampaging in his skull, opting to go clean himself anyways, even if that meant looking at himself. Maybe he could just put a towel over the mirror or something…

He stood, back cracking loudly as he stretched out. The young man padded nude towards the bathroom, paying no mind to the discarded shoe lying in the hallway.

As he was about to enter into his spacious glass shower, he slowed, feet stopping despite himself in front of the sink.

He shook.

‘No.’ Biting his lip, Dari entered the shower, calling out to his home system, "Shower, custom ‘hot’ setting, full body and mist." A tone indicated the instructions had been heard, and not but a second after, the round shower head had been turned on, and steam rolled onto the glass.

Dari still had trouble believing he didn’t have any hair, but when he ducked his head under that shower spray, and was able to feel every stream and drop that hit his nude scalp, he could scarcely keep himself together. That, at the fact that the water was too hot. Before, with his hair insulating his scalp, this had been the perfect temperature, but no more.

He instructed the home system to turn the temperature down a few degrees, which helped alleviate the stinging sensation, but the alien feeling of the water running over his skin did not abate.

Eyes cast a saddened glance towards the shampoo and conditioner bottles. He wouldn’t need those for a while.

After washing and rinsing his body, Dari instructed the shower to cease, and walked into the bathroom, steam still lingering in the air around him. He towelled himself dry, hesitating when it came to his head, but did so mechanically.

Again, the mirror beckoned him to take a peek, to see the consequences of his actions first hand, without Tarek’s infinitely blue eyes on him, without the veil of apathy, or the blurred vision granted by his tears.

He glanced at the smooth, reflective surface, towel still held in place on his head by his hands.

He gazed for a second, two, maybe three.

Swallowing, Dari slowly took the towel away, and breathed unevenly at the sight, once more face to face with this person he could hardly believe was him.

It looked just as smooth as it had yesterday, and still felt it too. The mellower lighting in his bathroom, at the very least, made his skin tone look a lot less ashy than the bright clinical lights at Hair Therapy.

Hesitantly, Dari lifted a hand, and ran his palm over his crown. He pursed his lips, breathing slow, steady breaths. There’s no point in panicking, there never was, but he still loathed what he saw in the glass. Carefully, he tilted his head, examining the skin closely for any scars, deformities or spots.

He actually did find a flat beauty spot, what some people might consider a mole, but it did not feel uneven with the rest of his skin, at the very least. The spot resided at his right temple, almost above his ear, and it had a dark brown color to it. Not ugly, but not flattering for some.

Of course, he was avoiding the elephant in the room by not acknowledging the visible difference in color between his alopecia patches and the rest of his head. He looked at them now, tracing the patches of bare skin with his fingers. Tarek had shaved him as close as he could with the traditional tools he had used, but the almost non-existent dark stubble on the rest of Dari’s head still stood out in an odd grey color.

The more he looked, the more he thought about his friend Ambrose; more specifically, he thought about her cat, Bastet. What in world had she said the breed of it was? Something about Egypt? ‘Sphynx’ he reminded himself. The breed of the cat was a Sphynx. The particularity of such a breed, apart from the ridiculous price tag of getting one, and the endless hours of care dedicated to owning one, is the cat’s genetic hairlessness. Dari could recall the numerous times he had been to Ambrose’s home, to be greeted by that naked, alien-looking cat, and had pet it to find the velvety softness of its skin. He recalled the cat’s skin to bear patterns like any hair-having cat would, and that they were distinct by the color of the skin, darker and lighter in some parts.

He looked at his head now, and rubbed at his smooth skin with his fingertips, eyeing the dark stubble and the light alopecia patches.

The resemblance was uncanny.

He took a rattling breath into his lungs, eyes pinching shut. ‘Oh, God, really? You’re going to cry over this?’ he berated himself. And truly, this WAS a pathetic excuse to get worked up over, but sue him.

"No. Okay, just…calm down…" he whispered to himself, eyes lowering from the mirror. So his head looked like Bastet the cat, so what? This is temporary, he reminded himself once more. Soon, he would have his hair back.



Not soon enough.

XXXXX

Dari held the silk nightcap in his hands, thumbs running over the smooth, cool fabric, deep in thought.

His eyes wandered over to the bottle of protective serum, a Hair Therapy product Tarek had given him to apply to his scalp before bed. The small vial was the exact same as the one the hair specialist had used last evening on his head; the same pipette cap could be used to apply the oil-like substance.

He returned his focus to the black cap in his grasp, the same one he had forgotten to put on last night, and examined it more closely.

Shaking his head, he put it by the sink, and turned his focus to the mirror. He had done just about nothing all day, had avoided answering texts from Callum or Ambrose, and had generally tried to make sense of his situation and put order back in his mind. He had barely eaten: his supper had consisted of an energy bar and a cup -or two- of jasmine tea. Before he had known it, night had already settled over the city, the bright, colorful lights illuminating his loft with rainbow tones.

Tomorrow, at two-thirty in the afternoon, he had an appointment with Tarek. So soon. He didn’t even know if he had recovered from last evening. If he looked at his reflection now, despite his face finally having returned to an un-swollen state, he could still see the evidence of the painful experience in the tiny red specks dotted over the bridge of his nose and around his eyes.

He could recall in childhood, when he would throw the mother of all tantrums, or that one time at seven years old when he had fractured his arm, he would cry so hard the same little dots would appear on the skin around his eyes. ‘Capillaries and vessels breaking and leaking red blood cells’ he recalled.

Dari hadn’t seen the phenomenon in so long, but he could clearly remember how long they took to disappear, from a few days to over a week for some.

They would still be there tomorrow, without a doubt.

He sighed, shaking his head as he reached for the pipette bottle, and unscrewed the lid. Having read over the instructions, he measured out the right amount to apply to his scalp, and tried not to think about the fact that he would have to touch his bald head to rub it in.

Carefully, he applied droplets of serum to his scalp, fingers squeezing the pipette until all of the product had been spewed out. He replaced the lid, eyes scanning the liquid rolling down his skin as he did so. Pursing his lips, Dari brought his hands up, but hesitated despite himself. Tarek had shown him the manoeuvres for applying it, but the young man drew a blank. Certainly there had been some sort of rotational movement, but other than that, he couldn’t really remember anything. Had he really been so out of it at the end of the session? ‘I mean, can you really blame yourself?’ he thought, recalling the whole affair once again.

He shook his head. Tarek had said they would go over the manoeuvres again at their next appointment, so what use was there to try and recall the movements now?

Dari didn’t really want to spend a lot of time rubbing his bare scalp. In fact, the less he had to touch it, let alone look at it, the better. That’s what he told himself, but when he brought his hands to his crown, palms spreading the protection serum, his gestures slowed. The texture caught him off guard; slick, smooth. He hated it.

Releasing a frustrated growl, he shut his eyes to the sight and quickly worked the serum over his scalp, rinsing his hands when he had deemed he had worked it enough.

The silk cap taunted him from its place by the sink. He grabbed it now, thumbs sliding around the rim. He recalled Callum’s mother wearing something akin to this when she woke up in the morning, the difference being her night cap had been much bigger to accommodate for the magnetic rollers she placed in her hair. This, at least, looked to be skin tight, like a hat or beanie.

He wasn’t one for either of those, preferring to slip on a hood over any other headgear, but this was part of the Keralite treatment; Tarek wouldn’t have given this to him otherwise. Sighing, he slipped the black cap over his head, finding it to be a perfect fit. He stared at his reflection.

He shook his head, turning away from the glass, "Ridiculous" he muttered derisively.

Despite that, he must admit that the cap was quite comfortable. It did not irritate his scalp or rub against his skin, nor was it too tight or too lose. And, as he laid his head on his pillow, allowed for him to adjust his head without the light stubble dragging against the cotton of his sheets and pillowcases.

It was only as he was beginning to settle into sleep that he took notice of the cooling sensation on his scalp, no doubt provided by the serum and accentuated by wearing the night cap.

The load of new stimulus to his head had been an ongoing struggle during the day; last night, he had been too exhausted to take notice of it, but now, he wondered how he would even fall asleep.

He already had an appointment tomorrow. Dari’s lips thinned. He would be tired going in, and drained going out. Wonderful.

XXXXX

Dari rubbed at his eyes, mouth opening in a deep yawn. The skytrain jostled him awake from the impromptu nap he had taken -one that could not have been more than ten minutes- and made an agitated sigh escape his lips. The night had not passed by in the most restful manner; having awoken from his disruptive slumber at nearly four in the morning, Dari could feel the effects of sleep deprivation creeping up on him. The nap he had taken while sitting in the skytrain had felt almost good, had it not been for the turbulence the vehicle had experienced just now.

He looked out the polished window, eyes trained on the sun’s reflection in the city skyline. In the glass, he could just make out his own reflection staring back at him, and caught his breath. He uttered a silent curse, hands reaching for his hood, where it lay upon his shoulders, decidedly not where he had left it when he had fallen asleep.

Quickly, he replaced the dark blue hood over his head, still much too self-conscious to be seen out in public with his…new look.

His eyes darted around the train car, but at this hour of the day, the passengers were few and far between, each minding their own business in their seats, or leaning against the poles and walls of the pod, eyes focused on their personal screens or, like he had been doing just moments prior, getting some shut-eye during transit.

Dari was torn from his musings by the female voice over the intercom, "The Skytrain will now be stopping at Grand Square Station. Please make sure to check-"

‘Was I asleep for that long?’ Dari thought as he gathered up his backpack. A quick look at his bracelet’s screen showed that far more than ten minutes had passed since he had closed his eyes "to rest them" as he had foolishly told himself. The skytrain made its stop at the station a minute later, and the bald man took his leave of the pod, heading towards Hair Therapy’s building.

As he passed through a glass tunnel, beyond which was a park filled with greenery, he slowed, and stopped completely. The tunnel up ahead would lead out into a walking street, and beyond the left corner would be the hair clinic.

His eyes stared at the park beyond the glass, their owner lost in thought. The young man stood, hands stuffed into his pants’ pockets, letting the warmth of the sun heat his chilled body. He didn’t really know if he wanted to go back, not so soon after their first appointment. What would Tarek have him do this time?

The concerns were unfounded; he had read through the therapy program, multiple times at that, and knew perfectly well what to expect. The first week of treatment would consist of scalp treatments at a washing station, with moisture, heat and stimulation given to the scalp through various means to promote the carrying of nutrients to his deficient hair follicles. He had READ this. He could even guess which Keralite products Tarek would use.

Pinching his eyes shut, he sighed. No, he knew where his apprehension came from: it was the fear that Tarek would shave him again. He would, of that, Dari was one-hundred percent certain, but would he do so today? There was barely any stubble on his scalp; just enough that dragging his hand against the grain was a bit harder than when Tarek had just freshly scalped him.

He didn’t WANT to sit in that big chair again, engulfed by white an all sides, head included, to have Tarek drag that sharp blade against his skull.

The young man took a breath through his nose. He had an appointment, and the more he stayed planted here, the more troublesome it would be to explain to Tarek why he would be late. Overthinking this would only make him feel worse, and with the few hours of sleep he had gotten last night, it was clear to him that he was hanging on by but a few threads of sanity: threads he didn’t want to break any time soon.

Perhaps he could make it clear to his hair specialist that today would not be a good day to go through shaving his head again, despite not having any hair to mourn the loss of. The act in itself felt like a violation.

It took no less than a few minutes of walking to be back at Hair Therapy, and as usual, he was greeted by the sight of couches, patrons and the reception at the back. However, today came with a surprise that had Dari’s heart pumping fast as soon as he entered.

Tarek was at the reception desk at the back, going over a digital document with one of the receptionists. He was clad in the same white and blue uniform as always, bluish-white hair styled impeccably.

Dari hadn’t expected the man to be here already. In fact, he had hoped for a little time to himself to gather his thoughts before engaging with him.

That chance was not given to him, and he hadn’t even taken three steps inside the waiting area that Tarek had already spotted him from the corner of his eyes. The man’s freckled face turned to him suddenly, and a beckoning hand urged him to come forward.

Dari swallowed, feet moving of their own volition towards the taller man. His throat felt parched, and the thumping in chest seemed hard enough to make him sick.

Brown eyes flicked up to meet cool blue for a fraction of a second before shifting restlessly elsewhere.

Tarek gave back the digital document in his hand to the receptionist, a smile gracing his features as he greeted his patient, "It’s good to see you again, Dari."

The young man flicked his gaze back to the other, noticing that the smile he was being given look a bit…rehearsed; far too professional compared to any other time Tarek had giving him a grin.

He bit his lips, the memory of their awkward goodbye from Monday night hanging heavily in the air between them. But then, Dari realized he had been standing there staring at the barber for God knows how long, and the uncomfortable silence between them seemed even more oppressing. Shifting anxiously on his feet, Dari supplied a strained, "Hey."

‘How very eloquent,’ he mentally slapped himself. He wondered what the receptionist behind the desk must be thinking watching their uneasy interaction.

A look at Tarek showed his smile had died down, and only the slightest lifting of the corner of his lips indicated it had ever been there to begin with. "I know it’s about five minutes early, but if you want to start right away, I can wait until you’ve been registered and we can head to my office?"

The statement had been said as a question, Dari noticed, and wondered why the man was even asking it. Obviously he wouldn’t stay in the waiting room for another five minutes just because he was early: the hair specialist was here now, and even though Dari had wished for some time to mentally prepare, he was far less excited about the prospect of awkwardly waiting out until two-thirty rolled by for unknown reasons. Maybe Tarek thought the question was a bit stupid as well, seen as how he cleared his throat at Dari’s unimpressed stare.

The young man nodded his head, pursing his lips slightly. "Yeah."

Neither said another word to each other as Dari dealt with the receptionist, and but a few moments later, he had been registered. Shuffling nervously on his feet, the bald man turned his hooded head towards the barber, who had been leaning against the desk during the minute he had been occupied. Tarek nodded to him.

"Let’s go?"

Dari blinked, head lowering in acquiescence. As per usual, the other lead the way to his office, and just like all those times before, the trip in the hallway seemed rather tense. There was so much lingering awkwardness between them that Dari wondered if Tarek noticed it too. How couldn’t he? The silence that reigned between them could only be the product of how their last session had ended -without even going into detail about how it went.

Thinking about Tarek shaving him again had the young man pursing his lips and looking anywhere but at the other’s slim back as this one pressed his palm to the digital lock. And as Dari entered behind him, his eyes travelling automatically to the barbering chair at one side of the room, he was reminded of how terribly he had wept in here, of how many sobs had ripped through his mouth, of how many tissues he had discarded, and, most notably, how many times Tarek had given him calming words and gentle pats on his shoulders.

Perhaps Tarek noticed him staring hard at the white seat, for he had turned to him and taken a few steps closer, head tilting to be able to look him in the eyes. "Are you alright?"

Was he alright? Tarek couldn’t be that much of a fool. "I just want to get this over with" he answered between unsteady breaths.

"Oh. I see."

Dari furrowed his brow, noticing the distinct tone of disappointment in Tarek’s voice.

One of his hands wandered up to his bicep, rubbing his arm absentmindedly. His lips thinned. Why did the barber’s tone make him feel so guilty?

"Dari?"

The man in question lifted his eyes to the other, saying nothing as he awaited what Tarek wanted to say.

Those blue eyes seemed to darken sadly. A pale, freckled hand raked through silky white hair. "I think we ended our last session a little…abruptly."

A snort released itself from Dari’s lips before he could stop it. ‘What gave you that idea?’ he thought to himself.

Thankfully, Tarek ignored the derisive noise. "I know that this treatment plan is radical in some things, and from what I saw last session, I think it’s understandable that you just wanted to get away after I shaved your head."

Him saying it, "shaving his head", it just felt like he was twisting a knife in an open wound. The young man bit his lips, shifting his gaze to the side.

Maybe Tarek could see how uncomfortable this discussion was making him, for he changed subjects, slightly, "Did you put the protection serum on before bed?"

He nodded. "Yeah."

"And in the morning?"

For a second, Dari furrowed his brow, until a light licked on in his head. Right…Tarek had instructed him to apply the serum in the morning too. He bit his lips, feeling the back of his neck heat up in embarrassment at his slip. "I…forgot."

"Hm," Tarek intoned, but no condescension could be heard in his voice. "Have you been wearing the cap to bed?"

Here, Dari lowered his gaze to the floor, recalling that he had not worn it the night he came back from the clinic. Would Tarek admonish him for his forgetfulness this time? He shook his head, voice quiet, "I only put it on last night."

He stared at Tarek then, to gauge his reaction, but the man simply nodded in understanding. "It’s okay if you miss a few days. If you need to set yourself a reminder to wear the cap or apply the serum, I recommend you should. Though," one corner of his lips lifted, a bit more genuinely, "I get why you might have forgotten for the first time."

At that, Dari didn’t say anything.

"Well," Tarek said, making Dari look at him, "Since you ‘want to get this over with’, we’d better not stand around forever."

The way he had said it, so quickly, had Dari regretting the words he had uttered. He didn’t want the oppressing air to remain around them, if only to make this a more liveable experience. "No I…" he took a breath, "Please, take your time. I don’t know why I said that."

Tarek had already started to turn when he had spoken, and now the hair specialist looked at him over his right shoulder, eyes visibly softening at the confession. The look made something in Dari’s stomach flutter, and despite his initial aversion to coming back here, he sincerely hoped that Tarek would make this session less stressful, as he had tried to do last time -albeit fruitlessly.

The taller man turned to him fully, and walked up to stand beside him.

Dari tried not to stare at the man’s freckled face too much, as the longer he looked, the more his stomach seemed to churn not-so-unpleasantly.

Those blue eyes seemed to entangle his though, and he found himself gazing into their oceanic depths despite himself. "Could you remove your hood?"

Lord. He had nearly forgotten about that. But with the request uttered, Dari found it quite difficult to keep his self-consciousness at bay. And then, more importantly, there was that burning question that he had wondered about while coming here. What if Tarek would shave him again? He wasn’t ready for that experience to relive itself so soon.

He licked his suddenly dry lips, eyes shifting to stare at an unspecified point in front of him. He would have to remove his hood for the treatment anyways, no matter what the outcome of doing so may be. Still, as lifted his hands to the rim, that sickening nervousness, the stress that ate away at him, only grew tenfold when he grabbed the edges of the dark blue material. Slowly, he pushed the hood back, revealing his patchy skull to the very person who had uncovered it but two days prior.

His lips had started to shake, as had his hands, he noticed, far too late to hide that fact from the barber.

"Hey."

Dari flicked his head up, pursing his lips tightly in hopes of making the trembling stop. Tarek smiled at him, one pale hand coming to pat his left shoulder encouragingly.

He had to know. "Are you going to…" the bald man swallowed, voice but a terrified whisper, "Are you going to shave it again?"

Blessedly, Tarek shook his head, "It won’t be necessary for today, since the stubble is still pretty short. Depending on how fast your hair grows back, maybe at our next session I will."

Dari released a relieved breath, glad that for today at least, his head was safe from the straight razor. The knowledge that his next appointment may include a shave though, did not ease his stress.

"Just focus on today, alright?" Tarek told him, sending him a reassuring glance accompanied by the squeezing of the hand still lying on his shoulder.

He was right of course. There wasn’t any use worrying about their next session together yet. For now, Dari would have to keep his mind in the present. No doubt Tarek had a few things to tell him about the treatment. ‘Plus,’ his subconscious provided, ‘I need to ask him about the manoeuvres for the serum.’ Yes, he had to concentrate on the day’s goals.

Tarek removed his hand then, giving him a fuller smile. "I think we should start off by getting you comfortable."

"Huh?" Dari watched as the man eyed him momentarily, before he led him to a sliding door to one side of the room, a cryptic smile plastered on his face.

XXXXX

Dari eyed himself in the full-length mirror of the changing room. After Tarek had left him here, with the instructions to remove his clothing and don the hair clinic’s treatment wear, the young man had done just that. This felt so at odd with the nature of this place; a place where one came for medical treatment for their scalp and hair. Wearing the clothing he now did, this felt more like a spa day than a clinical therapy plan.

The only article of clothing he had kept from his casual wear was, unsurprisingly, his underwear. Everything else was the same Hair Therapy white and blue as the rest of this place. On his feet were white slippers, and his body was concealed from the neck down with a long, white robe, similar in design to a normal bathrobe mixed with…what were they called? He had been to Japan on a trip with his family once, and had visited a bathhouse there; the staff had given them traditional robes to wear -Yukata- he recalled.

The robe was tied with a blue sash around his midriff, and the long, wide comfy sleeves ended a bit above his wrist. The material was soft enough, not chaffing his skin at all. At least this wasn’t some hospital gown, which despite many years of human progress, had not changed much since their invention, and were still just as airy as ever.

Dari took a peek at his head, still reminded of that damned cat whenever he gazed upon his shaved skull. Tarek had seen heads similar to his own before, and Dari almost wished he had that same perspective, if only to wash the image of Bastet the sphinx out of his mind’s eye.

A sigh escaped his mouth. He had dawdled around enough in here, even though he felt a bit embarrassed about coming out looking like this in front of the barber, he knew he had not much choice in the matter.

The door slid back for him as he approached it, and the lights automatically shut off as he alighted in the treatment room. Tarek had stayed close by, waiting for him, and when the young man came out dressed in the proper attire, the other nodded approvingly.

"Comfy?" He asked lightly, blue eyes filled with mirth.

Dari stared down at the robe, a hand dragging along his smooth nape, "I feel naked…" he muttered under his breath.

A light chuckle informed him that he hadn’t been so subtle. He felt the tip of his ears heat up in embarrassment at his slip. What could he say? Certainly the robe wasn’t too airy, but he thought he might have been more at ease in his normal clothing.

Tarek’s disposition seemed to have changed now that the awkwardness had been addressed; more his usual self, both casual and professional in equal measure. He extended a hand towards the back of the office, where Dari had spotted the two washing sinks and accompanying seats the first time he had been here. He glanced momentarily at his hair specialist, worry creasing his brow. ‘No. It’s fine. You’re getting a head wash or something’ he told himself, the information about the treatment seeming fizzle out of existence in his mind the longer he exposed himself to Tarek’s presence.

Following behind the man, he led them to the first sink, the one with the reclining seat. Like a lot of the equipment in the otherwise modern space, the seat for this sink was grounded, and seemed to have a complex mechanism holding it up. A glance around them showed that the barber had prepared the space in advance: there were floating trays with a variety of products measured out in special application bottles or bowls, and behind the sink was a hovering work seat. A storage unit behind it held an array of neatly folded towels and large bottles.

As the young man watched the barber go towards those shelves, he examined the sink closely, finding a slit to the side of the station with a screen activator, telling him that there was something that could be programmed to come out of there, should Tarek need it. The sink itself, like everything, was white. There was, however, a tube with a peculiar nozzle stuck in place on a specialized clamp, and the transparent shower head resided right beside it, a soft lavender light illuminating the inside.

Upon closer inspection, Dari also noted the presence of small holes on the sides of the sink. For air perhaps? But this wasn’t a hot tub, obviously, so perhaps they served another function?

There was a headrest in the sink, composed of three distinct pieces: a longer, cushioned rectangle that could be moved back and forth, as well as two protruding round cushioned pieces to support the head were it to turn on one side or the other, placed in a way that did not interfere with the person working on someone’s head.

Thinking about it now, Dari felt a bit nervous about Tarek manipulating his head, touching it and whatnot. He had trouble when his own palms would rub his scalp, so what would the other man’s touch feel like? He tried recalling the sensation of Tarek spreading the protective serum on his scalp before he had left last Monday, but he had been too out of it to really take notice. In actuality, the most he could remember was how oddly nice getting his scalp rubbed had felt, but that could have been the fatigue clouding his judgment.

The barber came over to him then, a tray in tow with towels placed upon it. Tarek placed himself near the reclining chair, gesturing to the cushioned seating, a light tone to his voice, "Make yourself comfortable."

Dari glanced at him briefly, before his eyes settled on the seat. Licking his lips, he did as he was told, and lowered himself into the chair. He didn’t feel quite so small in this compared to the massive barber chair that loomed in the space, but he could still move around without feeling restricted.

"So, about today’s treatment," Tarek started, hands busy unfolding a linen sheet, "We’re going to focus on cleansing your scalp and pores, as well as stimulating blood flow and therefore nutrient reception to your hair."

Dari nodded, eyes shifting between the man’s actions and his lap. "Alright…"

Tarek caught his inquisitive stare, and smiled. "You don’t look sure."

Dari’s brown eyes stared at the blanket the man had just unfolded. "What’s that for?"

A simper answered him. "As I mentioned during our first visit together, the treatments can drag out for a few hours, which is why the patient’s- your comfort," the man caught himself, "is the priority. As well as mine." Here he nodded to the work seat behind the sink.

"I’m not cold," Dari stated matter-of-factly as he continued eyeing the blanket Tarek was approaching him with.

The white-haired man let himself grin knowingly. "You will be," he explained. "Most people get a bit sleepy during this treatment, and when you’re tired, you get more sensitive to temperature changes, which will happen a lot with today’s treatment."

He held out the blanket, one brow rising playfully. Dari turned his face away, ears prickling at the sight. Begrudgingly, he accepted the sheet, letting the taller man drape it over his lap, leaving it up to Dari whether he wanted to cover his arms with it during the process.

Tarek proceeded to unfold one of the towels and came over to him again. "Lift your head a bit, please." This towel was tucked into the robe’s collar at the front, and another draped over his shoulders and tucked in at the back.

Dari crossed his fingers on his lap, patiently -anxiously- waiting for further instructions, but none came. He glanced over at Tarek, who was now walking behind the sink.

"Alright, we’ll be ready to start. The chair’s going to position itself, so don’t get startled when it starts moving," the barber informed him, and not a moment later, the seat began to move.

At first, Dari was smoothly lifted in the seat, gaining height, until the seat began to recline. As he descended, his eyes darted to Tarek standing over the sink, hands hovering nearby to hold his head steady.

When those warm hands supported his head as the seat immobilized, Dari’s breath caught in his throat. "Tell me if the headrest isn’t positioned right" Tarek told him, but the bald man barely heard him, too focused on the feeling of the barber’s hands sliding out from underneath his head. He was glad when they were no longer touching him, the sensation so unfamiliar and new to his virgin scalp.

He dragged a breath into his lungs, trying to calm his nerves. Certainly, this wasn’t as nerve-wracking as shaving his head had been, but knowing that just a simple touch to his scalp made him feel like this did not make him any less nervous. Staring at the ceiling -and trying to not look directly into the bright lights- Dari moved his head and neck around, but found that it did not take tremendous effort to feel comfortable. The way the chair positioned his body made it so that his neck was straight and his head perfectly supported; no straining or odd aches.

If he titled his head right, he could just see Tarek sitting behind him, and caught the man staring down into his face.

At that moment, the young man recalled the still-visible red dots around his eyes and over his nose, having examined himself before leaving for the appointment, and knew that those spots were not the only thing clearly visible under the clinical white lights of the treatment room, as those dark bags under his eyes must appear even more blotchy and purple now.

He must look like a mess, especially paired with the patchy state of his scalp, like some sick patient in a hospital. His lips thinned, and the urge to hide his face from that analytic blue gaze intensified, fueled partially by the self-consciousness eating away at him, and the attraction he had felt for Tarek the moment he had laid eyes on him.

Fingertips brushed at his temples suddenly, bringing him out of the dark place he had ventured into while thinking. The thoughts, however, did not dissipate right away, in fact, for a moment, Dari pursed his lips as he fought with the need to slink away from the gentle touch.

A shaking breath rattled his lungs as Tarek’s calm voice broke the silence, "Let’s dim the lights a bit."

Not only did the lights dim, but the intense white dulled to a less aggressive warm tone, and the bright blue lights backlighting the walls turned off completely, leaving them with enough light for Tarek to see what he was doing, and for Dari to more easily relax to -at least, that’s what Tarek was hoping for.

The taller man hadn’t removed his hands from where they rested against their patient’s skull, but now, Dari felt them move upwards, towards his forehead. "This isn’t me shaving your head or anything," Tarek began, "but I think we can start off by relaxing you a bit. I’ll relieve some tension around your eyes, temples and sinuses."

Dari wouldn’t ask why. He didn’t need to; his hair specialist had to have seen the clear indicators present on his face, those pertaining to how badly he had wept after getting his head clipped. He knew he was just being polite by not saying so directly.

It did not make him feel any better.

A prickling sensation built up behind his eyes. ‘For God’s sake, it’s over! You’re head’s bald, you cried enough, haven’t you?’ his mind cried out in exasperation, and honestly, his inner voice was right. What use was there crying now-

"Ah…"



That sound…couldn’t have been from him, could it?

Pressure was applied along his crown, in a straight line down the middle. The pressure stopped, then it came again, at another point, down that same line.

That little sound issued again, from his throat, he noticed, and then the nagging voice in his head slipped away, tamed by the downward push of Tarek’s thumbs along his crown.

He clamped his mouth shut, but internally rejoiced at the touch. Tarek lifted his hands, and his thumbs came to press right beside his nostrils, and applied pressure there too, before moving along his cheeks towards his ears. Dari breathed deeply, eyelids closed in silent appreciation. He had been pessimistic about this session, and all those coming after, but after having cried to the point of having a migraine, this light massage, along the pressure points of his face, felt near-heavenly.

"Have you been having headaches recently?" The barber’s quiet voice asked of him, accompanied by his fingers pinching his brow lightly.

The question took a moment to register through the calming haze of the massage. Dari cleared his throat, hoping his voice didn’t sound as weak as he felt, "I um…yeah, yes, I have."

"I see," Tarek spoke, and there was a smile in his voice as he said it. Dari swallowed, unwilling to open his eyes to find out if the man was laughing at him. "Is the pressure alright?"

"Mm-hm…"

This time, the other did let out a small laugh, but Dari couldn’t find it in himself to feel irked, not when those fingers gently dragged under his eyes and made little circles at his temples.

As the massage went on, the prickling of tears he had felt before faded away. His hands, which had previously been crossed together tightly, had separated, lying motionless on his lap. As Tarek worked his hands along his non-existent hairline, in a circular motion, the young man became increasingly aware of how very little sleep he had gotten the night before, and with the lingering ache in his forehead and sinuses being alleviated, that nap he had taken in the skytrain seemed lacking in restfulness.

He took a sudden deep breath, licking his lips. He couldn’t fall asleep here, what was he thinking!?

"When we start," Tarek spoke up again, ripping Dari’s focus away from his current predicament, "I’ll explain what I’m doing as I go. How do you feel?"

Dari shifted in the seat, quietly exhaling as fingers were pressed in the center of his forehead, "Better, I guess." Who was he kidding? Sure he felt better, but this was downright wonderful.

"Good, good…" The barber’s hands rested near his temples, motionless. "I’ll start the procedure by giving you a quick rinse and shampoo."

Despite his disappointment at the lack of further massages, Dari had to ask, "Is a shampoo really necessary with…you know?"

Dari’s eyes were still closed, so he couldn’t make out what Tarek’s expression at his hesitancy was, but the man answered him nonetheless. "The shampoo gets rid of any product or oils on your scalp, which will make it easier for the treatment products to penetrate your pores. Considering this is a cleanse, I’d think it’s important."

"Oh." Dari said nothing more, a bit embarrassed that he hadn’t thought of such an obvious thing.

"If you’re ready, I’ll start rinsing your head."

Here, the bald man opened his eyes, tilting his head back to look at Tarek, and found the man looking down at him in turn, a calm reassurance in his infinitely azure irises.

Feeling lightheaded, both from anticipation and embarrassment, Dari put his head back in its original position. He nodded, eyes trained on the ceiling, "Alright."

Not a moment later, the hair specialist’s hand retrieved the shower nozzle, and after some fiddling with the temperature and pressure screen for the sink, water began spewing out in a steady stream from the end. From the sides of his head, Dari could see steam rising up, but a lot more than what he thought would be safe going on his scalp.

"That looks hot," he remarked worriedly, scowling.

"Don’t worry; there are steam jets on the sides of the sink, so it looks hotter than it actually is."

Steam jets. That would explain the holes he had spotted before. "What are they for?"

He closed his eyes when Tarek brought the nozzle forward, and felt water cascading down the sides of his head. The sensation was still just as alien as ever. "The hot steam helps open the pores and dislodge grime from them. Is the water too hot?"

He shook his head, and Tarek cupped his left hand around his hairline, shielding the other’s face from the multitude of droplets bouncing off his skull from the nozzle. The barber wet his head expertly, hands sliding behind his ears to ensure no water would get into them. He lifted his head, and Dari stayed still just as he had instructed him beforehand, letting the other do all the moving for him. The spray was aimed at his nape, where Tarek’s left hand held him.

The touch at his nape, sliding out from beneath his head, left Dari feeling conflicted. One the one hand, this did feel good, but then the load of new sensations, from someone else touching him, were just so odd. The absence of hair from a wash like this, which he had experienced so many times at the salon, tore at his heart.

The barber turned the water off with a flick of his wrist. "I’m applying the shampoo now."

Dari heard a pumping noise, and then Tarek’s hands rubbing together, a wet noise emanating from the motion. Soon, those hands were upon him again, spreading an even coat of shampoo over his scalp.

The white haired man slid his hands along the smooth skin, moving along the young man’s scalp in large, circular movements. Dari held his breath, still so unused to this, but the shampoo did not last very long, what with his lack of hair. Soon, Tarek had started rinsing him off, the suds washing down the drain.

The water was turned off again, and the barber’s voice resonated in the quiet room, "For the first product, I’m going to apply the Keralite Cleansing Paste," the man explained, prompting Dari to open his eyes cautiously, and to tilt his head back to stare at him, but Tarek was occupied with the tray of products. "It’s a thick mask that I’ll put all over your scalp, and then I’ll close the sink to do a steam treatment with it."

Dari observed as the man came back into view, left hand holding a bowl, and right hand mixing the product in it with a tool of some sort. He watched as he lifted the mixing implement away and noted the indeed very thick consistency of the Cleansing Paste. He breathed, hands fiddling with the edge of the blanket in his lap. The barber picked up the product on his right hand, scraping the bowl clean before putting it back on the tray, turning to concentrate his attention on his client’s alopecia-ridden scalp.

He caught Dari staring, and smiled lightly, "Close your eyes, relax."

‘Easy for him to say’. Dari scowled, but tried as best he could to follow the advice, letting his eyelids fall back into place, and repositioned his head.

Tarek’s fingers touched his scalp, and the sensation of that viscous substance spreading over his crown had him shivering. Freckled hands spread it out further, to the sides of his head, coating every inch from his forehead, to behind his ear, to his occipital bone. And when the paste needed to be coaxed onto his nape, Tarek once more slid his palm beneath his head and lifted, his right hand smearing a good amount of the mask there as well.

Dari couldn’t help the expression of disgust from surfacing on his face. Maybe he just wasn’t used to the sensitivity of his scalp, but the texture of that paste rubbed him the wrong way. And when Tarek proceeded to rub his scalp with that coating of product, he couldn’t stop himself from cringing and scrunching up his neck in discomfort.

"Are you okay?" Tarek asked, hands still rubbing.

The young man lifted a hand, reaching blindly, unconsciously, for Tarek’s hand. "Stop. Stop, just stop" the word came out repeatedly as he opened his eyes, head shaking disapprovingly.

"Okay, wait just a moment- Hey, whoa, whoa, whoa!"

Dari wrenched his head to the side, causing the barber to lose his grip on him, and his left hand grabbed hold of one of Tarek’s wrists, ensuring that this hand, at least, would not continue its ministrations. He scowled, eyes pinching shut as he took a deep breath.

The barber didn’t move. He stayed still as Dari calmed himself.

A few seconds passed. "Dari?"

Those threads of sanity he tried to keep from snapping seemed even more precariously attached to one another. Not letting go of Tarek’s wrist, "What?" he snapped lightly.

"I just want to know what you’re having trouble with." As an afterthought, "I’m here to help you, remember that."

The hand holding the taller man’s wrist shook, its death-like grip loosening. Tarek would think him some whinny child if he said what was on his mind. But then, that statement, about helping him, said so softly, made his mental defenses tremble unstably. There wasn’t anything wrong with admitting this; he was just raw from the continued attacks on his psyche. That’s all.

It still took tremendous effort to allow himself to speak it though. "It feels wrong." There.

"What does?" Tarek asked, but then his voice took on a slightly more urgent tone, "Does your scalp feel like it’s burning or stinging?"

"No, no I-" Dari sighed, frustrated with his lack of clarity. "I don’t like it."

There was silence, and then, "Is the texture bothering you?"

He nodded, hand losing its grip. His arm was getting sore from keeping Tarek’s own at bay. The barber must have noticed this, for when he spoke next, his calm voice prompted, while his left hand pushed Dari’s own away, "Why don’t you put your arm back down?"

Biting his lips, Dari did, slowly. A light touch to the side of his head coaxed him into straightening his neck out. Both Tarek’s hands slowly pressed into the sides of his head, the mask creating a squelching noise as he did, and causing another shiver to run up the bald man’s spine.

"I understand that your scalp is sensitive," Tarek remarked, immobile, "Some things might not feel too great at first, so it’s alright if you’re having some issues with the mask. But if you have any other issues, don’t be afraid to tell me. I don’t want these treatments to be a source of stress for you. Alright?"

‘Not a source of stress, huh?’ so far, he couldn’t say Tarek was being successful on that end…but then a lot of the problems stemmed from his own anxiety.

Sighing, he nodded. Before Tarek continued though, he implored, "Just don’t rub it in, please."

Tarek gave a sigh of his own. "Well, it’s spread out enough for now, but I can’t make any promises for the future."

Dari let his hands fall back into his lap, a puff of air escaping his nose.

"I’ll close the sink so the steam can help cleanse your scalp a bit."

At this, brown eyes opened to stare at the rounded glass panes being shut over the top of his head. A rubber rim placed itself over his forehead and around his temples, completing the dome that formed over the sink, trapping the steam inside. He heard Tarek slide his fingers over the digital screens for the backwashing station, and after a second or two, the steam jets increased their output, fogging the glass enough that one could no longer see inside it.

The heat and moisture permeated his product-slicked skin, and for now, without the manipulation of the mask, this didn’t feel so bad. He couldn’t move his head much, though why would he with it being supported so well.

Movement to his left caught his eye, and Tarek appeared, hovering along on his work seat. He settled beside the reclining seat, blue eyes trained on Dari, an odd expression on his face.

The bald man looked away, at the ceiling again, his gut telling him that Tarek was about to have some deep conversation with him, if the look on his face meant anything. He shifted, hands burying themselves under the blanket.

Maybe Tarek had been thinking about talking with him, but instead, the man gestured towards his hands, "If you’re cold you should put the blanket up."

"I’m not." He was, what with the difference in temperature between his heated scalp and his covered body, though he wouldn’t let Tarek know.

The man lifted himself from the hovering seat, his tall form approaching Dari’s side. Lying down as he was, he felt small as Tarek loomed over him, and since the glass cover was trapping his head in the sink, he had little in terms of places to hide himself from that handsome face.

A look of surprised flashed across his widening eyes when the barber placed his right hand at the junction between his neck and shoulders, his left hand holding his arm steady. At the questioning stare the young man sent him, Tarek let his lips lift in a small smile. "Since you’re going to be stuck there for a few minutes, what do you think about a shoulder massage?"

‘I think I’m about to faint’ were words that came to mind, but they never came out. No, he flicked his eyes back to the ceiling, and to his mortification, felt heat creep up onto his cheeks. "Do I need one?" he questioned stupidly, slapping himself mentally the moment he uttered the words.

Tarek couldn’t keep himself from laughing at that, which only added to his patient’s embarrassment. He reigned in his chuckling however, not wanting to mortify Dari any further. Since he hadn’t rejected the proposal outright, the hair specialist reassured, "I think you’ll find it feels nice."

He glanced down at the prone man, watching as his brown eyes closed again, and noted the slight downward turn to his lips. Right; this is still a nerve-wracking experience for him -perhaps not as horrible as shaving his head, but stressful enough. He could tell that the awkwardness from their goodbye at their last session had been mostly forgotten, for both of them, but that didn’t mean Dari felt comfortable during treatment, at least, not yet. They would get there.

It was with practiced carefulness that Tarek began easing the muscles in Dari’s shoulders and neck. Cutting hair and applying products was one thing, but the barber always found that the addition of upper body massages, like he had given Dari before and the one he gave him now, added to the overall treatment.

He wondered if his patient understood that he took the things he said to heart. Tarek had told him his comfort came first, and that’s exactly what this was about.

His thumbs dug into the tense muscle of the other’s shoulder, and saw the bald man’s lips open on a quiet groan. Sounds like this were often elicited from his patients as he worked on them, and it posed no problem to him. If Dari felt like expressing his gratitude towards the motions on his neck, then he was welcome to do so.

Though, much like before, when he had applied his fingers to the pressure points of the young man’s head, Dari seemed to close his mouth and keep whatever sighs or moans that tried to pass through to himself.

He pulled the flesh from the pale column of Dari’s neck down towards his shoulder, and applied intermittent pressure on his upper arm, slowly making his way down, before repeating the same movement again. At the second pass over his neck, a hiss released from the other’s tightly closed lips.

The barber’s hands stilled. "Where does it hurt?" he asked, fingers pressing gently into the smaller man’s shoulder, probing.

His patient’s face was scrunched up in discomfort as he said, voice straining, "It’s just a knot, I’m fine."

"I can get rid of it," Tarek suggested, fingers finding the bunched up muscle. As he massaged over it, Dari’s hand shot up, aiming to still his hand as he had just minutes ago, and Tarek understood this to mean he should not push. "Alright, just put your hand down, I’ll go massage your other shoulder, relax" he entreated.

He saw the other’s lips thin in displeasure. Up until he had hit that knot, Tarek thought Dari had been enjoying the massage. ‘Shame’ he thought sadly, taking up position at his patient’s right side.

This time, Tarek was more careful, not allowing himself to rub out the other knots he found on this side as well. Even though he knew that Dari would feel far less sore if he massaged them out, he told himself to let him relax as he saw fit. He looked much calmer with a more gentle approach than a tension-relieving massage.

After what seemed like fifteen minutes, Dari felt the other let go of his shoulder, and heard him move back towards the sink. He adjusted himself in the seat, wincing at the pain Tarek had uncovered in his neck. Certainly, the massage had felt nice in some ways, but not with those hands pressing into his knotted tissue.

The rim around his head lifted, and the glass slid back to uncover the sink. Steam billowed up from the opening, before dying down. Tarek must have adjusted the output back to its normal state. He moved his head, freed from the dome at last, but kept his eyes closed. He shivered, finding that the sudden decrease in steam made his head feel colder, and in turn, his body was not as warm as he would like it to be.

Begrudgingly, he lifted the blanket over his torso, covering himself up to the towels around his neck. Tarek didn’t give any playful remarks about his sudden change of heart, which Dari thanked the heavens for. He was embarrassed enough as it is.

"I’m going to clean off the paste with a hot wet towel. You might find it not to your liking since I will be rubbing your scalp while doing so," Tarek explained to him while the nozzle was turned on. Dari heard the plug being pushed in, and soon, the distinct sound of the basin filling up drifted to his ears.

After a moment, the water stopped, and he listened as Tarek swished his hands around in the sink, no doubt soaking the very towel he would be using on him. The young man took a deep breath, preparing himself mentally for having to feel that thick mask being smeared around on his head.

But, unlike before, when his barber placed the wet towel on his head, and subsequently dragged his hands over his head with it, the sensation felt…pleasant.

He relaxed his neck against the headrest, mouth falling open at the feeling. Tarek had spread his fingers out, the tips of which were rubbing in large, firm, slow circles over the entirety of his head. The towel, moved by the ministrations, wiped away the mask, dirt and grime from his scalp, leaving nothing but the firm press of Tarek’s hands, and the slight abrading sensation of the synthetic cloth towel rubbing over his sensitive skin.

When the towel was removed, Dari almost asked Tarek to put it back, but found that unnecessary; the man had soaked the towel again, riding it of the mask, and did the same movements again, dragging the cloth with a slide of his hands, his fingers. They dragged over his crown, slowly and -dare he say- tenderly.

Hands lifted his head, and the towel was dragged up his nape too, fingers lightly pinching his skin through the cloth, just enough to pull the taught muscles there. Again, Dari found it hard to keep anything more than a quiet moan to himself; every time Tarek pulled at his neck, removing the paste, he felt himself go laxer and laxer. What had he thought about before? About how very little sleep he had gotten last night? Yes…and now, being covered up in blankets, clothed in a simple, comfortable robe, with his head -his hairless head- getting massaged like this…

He barely heard the rumbling sound that escaped his mouth, too focused on the deliberate path those hands were making over his scalp.

The barber rinsed the towel and placed it back on his head. This time, his fingers went for his temples, for a while, before Tarek tilted his head to the right, leaning it on the headrest. His left hand smoothed the towel up his neck, around his ear, up the side of his skull, applying even -heavenly- pressure down.

Tarek moved his patient’s head to the left, found that Dari head had gone heavy in his hands. Curiously, his blue eyes glanced at the young man’s face, and saw closed eyes, not pinched shut as they had been before, and a slightly open mouth, from which even breaths were coming through.

Smiling, Tarek wondered if he should wake the man. Dari would probably be a bit mortified once he woke up, having discovered he had dozed off on him. But the hair specialist thought against the idea. A single look at Dari’s face showed exactly how tired he was; from the bags under his eyes, to the way his brow was always knotted, and in the tautness of his jaw and temples which Tarek worked to mellow out.

He watched his hands swirl the towel in the basin for a second, before nodding to himself.

Let him sleep. He deserved this moment of respite.

XXXXX

TBC

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