Chapter Fifteen: Loneliness
Ilen went to two dinners during Berehel, and one during Pehahel. But this was more out of a sense of obligation than anything else: he owed his friends and family, didn't he? He didn't like the crowdedness, even though he tried to time it for when Korulen said there would be a low turnout. He didn't like the way everyone talked about Hallai, or the fact that they wouldn't even stop talking about Hallai if he asked them. He didn't like the anticipatory dread while he traveled there or the sickening discomfort that pervaded the meals themselves.
He only felt right when he was working, at either job, or at home, alone or with Hallai.
He didn't go to any dinners in Rohel.
At the daycare job, he had more opportunities to make friends than he did at translation. And Hallai didn't mind them, as long as he didn't neglect her to see them outside of work. He got along well with the other workers, and the few parents who took the time for more than perfunctory conversation as they came and went.
"So," said one of his co-workers, Tysal, as she chopped apples for snacktime. "Ilen, do you have any little ones of your own?"
"No," he said, shrinking somewhat and adjusting his hold on a two-year-old who needed to be held before he'd go down for a nap. "My girlfriend doesn't want any."
"Oh, that's such a pity," Tysal said. "Me and my husband are trying for our second now. You've met Bylea, of course." One of the perks of the job was permission to bring one's own children to work every day; Ilen had indeed met Tysal's daughter.
"Yes," Ilen said. "You're lucky to have her."
"And him," Tysal said with an indiscreet giggle. "Why doesn't your girlfriend want any? Childbirth isn't so bad. My apothecary gave me some powder and I barely felt anything."
"That's not why," Ilen said.
"Why is it, then? I know they're expensive, but you'd bring them with you for free, you wouldn't have to spend that much extra -"
"It's not that either. We have three jobs between us and we're doing okay. She just -" He simplified. "She doesn't like kids."
"That's silly," said Tysal, kissing her daughter's forehead as Bylea approached with artwork made from colored glue to share.
"She doesn't like most people," Ilen said. "Kids just aren't an exception."
"Well, I hope she likes you an awful lot, if she's going to be all you have at home," Tysal remarked primly.
"She does," Ilen said. That he knew. Whatever anyone said, he knew Hallai loved him, and that meant he couldn't trust anything else they said about her. If they'd deny that they could be making up anything they said, just to get rid of her. She thought they were out to get her, and he... was not at all confident that she was wrong.
"That's good. What's she like?" Tysal asked. She'd finished cutting up the apples and was plating them alongside little dishes of honey and sweet vinaigrette to dip in. Most of the kids wouldn't touch the vinaigrette, but she'd gotten an entire case from her cousin and was trying to get rid of it.
"She's..." Hallai defied description, to his mind, and he wasn't going to borrow anyone else's. "She's got a lot of passion," he tried.
That stumped him. She had hobbies, but wasn't intense about them; she had work, but didn't care much about it; she was wrapped up in Ilen, but that seemed like the wrong answer, somehow. And "for life in general" seemed wrong too. "I didn't mean it like that," he said at length. "I just mean - I think I've told you about how Elcenian dragons have different, um, powers, and ours is empathy? She can put a lot of force behind hers, when she wants to. Most people can't. It's not that we only share what we're feeling, but if you don't feel intensely about things at least sometimes, you can't do it."
"Oh," said Tysal, but she didn't seem to understand.
The child in Ilen's arms was breathing evenly and had his head resting limply in the crook of Ilen's elbow. Ilen went to put him down on one of the mats they used for napping kids, and moved on to clear away a dollhouse setup that hadn't been touched in at least an angle.
Then a pack of little boys wanted him to settle an argument about who had hidden a shared ball. Ilen had become a favorite for this purpose because he could tell who was genuinely indignant and who was hiding shame, as long as the children all agreed to have him mediate. Some of the older kids had started to skip straight to confessing their crimes as soon as someone came up with the idea of going to Ilen, but this expedience was lost on five-year-olds, who only understood that anyone refusing to talk to him was probably guilty.
Once he'd identified the culprit and made sure that no one was too belligerent in getting the ball's location out of him, Ilen went to supervise a music period and make sure no one was breaking the instruments. Bylea had a sliding whistle and was trying to imitate the birds outside.
Then a little girl wanted a lion ride, which he had let on that he could provide the week before, and he loped around the room with her pulling on his green mane until someone else demanded a turn.
When everyone was tired of lion rides, he shifted back to human form, just in time to bandage a cut a boy had managed to open in his hand. Ilen knew more first aid than the average Elcenian, because it was not at all uncommon for newly-shapeshifted shren babies, exuberant with analgesia and unaccustomed to bodies not protected by scales, to injure themselves while running around in new shapes. The light only came to the house every other week unless it was an emergency. So he'd only had to learn a simple translation from Elcenian supplies to Barashin ones.
And then he handed off a pair of siblings to their father, who picked up one and held the other's hand and led them away.
But Ilen got to borrow them, for part of most days.
And that was going to have to do, because he couldn't do without Hallai.
"You could write him again," Kilaer told Tsuan.
"He didn't answer the first time," Tsuan said. "I don't want to bother him." Usually when Tsuan expressed a desire not to bother someone she sounded self-effacing, like she expected her presence to be distressing. This time she sounded defensive, felt resentful, and he extrapolated: she didn't want to bother Ilen, even though through proxies he'd bothered her for an intolerably long time. Only writing the letter and sending it with the cookies had gotten her out of her therapy sessions.
"I suppose." Kilaer hadn't spoken with his elder son for some time himself. Once, Keo's friend Rhysel had extended an invitation to a dinner party, but Ilen hadn't been there when Kilaer had appeared and he found it awkward to eat dinner in a stranger's house. Even if he'd insisted on bringing a few sticks of bread. Ilen had never asked Kilaer over to his own home. And unlike Keo, Kilaer couldn't begin conversations without proximity or an exchange of communication equipment.
According to Keo, Ilen hadn't even been talking to her much. He worked in another world, a barrier sufficient to keep even her out.
But Kilaer supposed it would be only reasonable for Ilen to take a while - maybe years - to set his own pace for integrating into the family. If he decided that was what he wanted to do at all.
He had the Alar name to remind him that he was welcome. Kilaer didn't suppose he had any business being more intrusive than that.
"Maybe later," Tsuan said placatingly. "But now I just want to go back as much as we can to how things were."
"All right," said Kilaer. He'd read her letter. He'd mailed it on her behalf, for all that this mistrust had left her in a bad mood for the next two days. He couldn't claim that she hadn't put forth the effort he'd asked of her.
"Our beans have gone off," she remarked, looking into the cold cabinet. "I'll pop out and buy more and we can fix dinner."
Tsuan swept off, trailing green hair and long drapey sleeves.
The children at the daycare couldn't have caused more internal conflict in Ilen if they'd tried.
He knew enough to tell the difference between someone else's wants and his own.
When he'd followed Eryn's advice that hadn't been about anything he wanted. He'd overheard enough conversations he wasn't supposed to, back when he'd been going to Rhysel's for dinners, to know that his family and his friends (were they really?) thought that Eryn had been right, that for his own good he needed to be rid of Hallai, but it had just been a disaster.
They didn't seem to be able to imagine that he really did need her, really couldn't get along on his own, really didn't mind if she wanted to be in charge and have some say in what he did all day. She wasn't unreasonable, not relative to what Ilen wanted, only relative to what other people thought he ought to want. She hadn't hedged out Eryn until Eryn had done harm. She hadn't demanded that they live on a mountaintop in Mekand, inaccessible to anyone who wanted to speak against her in Ilen's ear.
She hadn't asked him to quit his second job.
And so every day, except when the workload for translators at the Senate was ratcheted up, he was buried under adorable children who were not his.
Suppose someone provoked Hallai again. He couldn't think of anything that would incense her as badly as his leaving had, but there might be something. Rhysel wouldn't likely interfere to get charges dropped a second time. He'd have to live without her for at least a while if she were trapped in jail. If she wound up doing something that got Barashin authorities angry with her, she might cease to exist; he'd heard stories about personality revision that made his skin crawl. If he'd encountered them earlier he'd never have let Corvan into his mind to cure his panic attacks.
Suppose she died; it wasn't impossible, and even if she didn't die an untimely death, she was seventy years older than him and might go first anyway. She said she wanted him to be taken care of, if not by her, then by someone. He believed her. But the people he could possibly ask for that much help were family, and presently he didn't really trust them to look after Ilen instead of someone they'd made up who they thought made more sense. Except perhaps Korulen, but she was only a girl.
Suppose Hallai simply became bored of him. He didn't think he had much to recommend him, really, and there was a reason dragons usually married outside their species until they were at least a thousand years old. Ilen thought he could sustain a good long relationship with someone who'd parent children with him, that would be an endless shared project and fascination, but that someone was not Hallai.
Suppose, suppose, suppose -
One way or another he was likely to need to be able to do without Hallai. Putting it off until he had no choice wouldn't change that.
Moving it sooner could change something else.
Suppose he did leave Hallai. Again. She wouldn't have anyone but him to blame if the reason was that he couldn't do without children for the rest of his life; she wouldn't attack anyone. He knew she wouldn't attack him. She hadn't last time. She loved him too much.
Suppose in spite of that he left her a second time. She could go back to the conclave; she'd seemed to get along with the dragons there. Or she could go to Mekand like she'd wanted. Or he could let her have the apartment and he could go somewhere else. It might make more sense to live in Barashi anyway.
Being alone had not literally killed him.
He was going to live such a long time.
Long enough to have a dozen children if he found almost anyone to love other than Hallai.
Maybe even long enough to learn to be just Ilen, without her.
It was a fearsome idea.
But he was used to fear in almost the same way he was used to pain. And he was no longer psychologically capable of dropping over the edge into heedless panic.
For something he wanted badly enough maybe he could face it.
But not right away, Ilen decided. It could wait.
<Keo,> Korulen thought. She'd never gotten used to that, since in every other context she called her mother Mom, but Keo couldn't keep an ear out for thoughts of the word "Mom" the way she could for her name without being flooded by false positives.
<Ilen hasn't been at dinners for a long time now,> sent Korulen.
<I know, but he's at work a lot, and hasn't tended to want to talk to me on occasions when I can catch him in the same world. I haven't had a chance to ask him why.>
<Did you notice the last time he was there how he felt the whole time?>
<I avoided paying attention, and you should too; it's his business,> Keo sent.
<I've been trying! I'm new at this! But I did notice and it was awful and - it was steady. Does that make sense? I haven't seen it often enough to find a dedicated word for it, but it didn't quiver like people's feelings usually do,> Korulen sent.
There was a pause. <Is it possible that's a side effect of what Corvan did to heal him?> Keo asked.
<That was my first idea, so I got Corvan to tell me what he did. Not to the point where I could do it myself, it's really complicated and took forever to go through all the steps, but I know what the side effects were, and that wasn't one of them. Delayed emotional reactions yes. Not blocky ones.>
Keo didn't answer. Korulen went on. <But I thought of something else that could do it. Projections cause that, don't they, Mom.>
<I thought it was the best of a lot of bad options to suggest that he go back to Hallai, but if she's doing this...>
<You can check,> Korulen sent.
There was no tussle over whether this was ethical; even if Hallai hadn't been as targetable as she was, it was fairly easy for Keo to answer single questions like that without touching anything else. Korulen waited.
<Yes,> sent Keo.
<I'll tell him,> Korulen replied swiftly.
<He's probably more likely to listen to you,> acknowledged Keo.
<I'll monitor you. If you run into her I'll make sure you're safe,> Keo assured her.
<Mom.> That was Korulen's test for whether Keo was really listening, or just sitting ready to listen.
<I'm here. Do you want me to come in person...?>
<No. I'm fine.>
Korulen reached Ilen's apartment. His emotions weren't as squared-off and smooth as they had been at dinner.
Hallai's signature was not within automatic-pickup range. Korulen sought it out and found it present in Elcenia, off to her left, not moving at a sharp enough angle to suggest that she was just down the street.
Korulen knocked on Ilen's door.
Ilen answered. "Hi, Korulen," he said. "Come in."
"Where's Hallai?" Korulen asked.
"She's having dinner with Samia. Why, did you want to talk to her?" Ilen asked, surprised.
"No, just you. Do you know when she'll be back?"
"In about an angle, I guess. Hallai doesn't mind you, though, I wouldn't have thought you'd avoid her like some people do."
"She's not going to like me anymore," Korulen said, swallowing. "Uncle Ilen... why haven't you been coming to dinner?"
"I haven't enjoyed it," he said, "the last few times I've been. I just don't like it anymore."
"Why?" pressed Korulen.
"It's... crowded," he said.
"Aren't your jobs crowded?"
"I guess. Not in the same way. Why does it matter?" Ilen asked. "And people use the dinners as excuses to say nasty things about my girlfriend, and no one stops when I ask, because they think the fact that I don't want them to do that is just more evidence against her. No one does that at work."
Korulen bit her lip. "Well, um."
"You're here to say something nasty about Hallai," sighed Ilen, looking away, "aren't you."
"It's true, though. I checked. I made sure," Korulen said softly.
"What is it? How did you make sure?" Ilen asked.
Korulen swallowed. "I'm bad at not paying attention to what I get from my empathic sense when I don't have permission," she said. "I'm working on it, but I couldn't help but notice how you felt the last time you did come to one of Rhysel's dinners. And it was..." She made a vague gesture. <Mom, what is the word?>
<Aszinu,> Keo supplied.
Korulen would have located the word in her bottomless vocabulary with a few more examples of the phenomenon to help triangulate it, but asking worked too. "Aszinu," she concluded.
"And Mom checked," Korulen rushed, "and she found out that yes, Hallai was doing it, she's been projecting at you to feel lousy when you're doing things she doesn't approve of. And I guess you haven't noticed because like you said you were desensitized to a light touch, since she had to hit you with so much calm all the time before Corvan helped you, so if she didn't do it with all her power you wouldn't notice that it was happening but it would be enough to steer you away, over time..."
Her uncle was looking at her in shock, and his emotions were fluttering like a butterfly with one wing pinned down.
"I know you love her," Korulen said. "I know it was awful when you went without her. I know you're a grownup and you can decide who you want to hang out with and who you want to date. But it's not right that she's doing that and you deserved to know. And if you need help I'll help you, and Mom will help you, and Uncle Narax -"
"Like before?" Ilen asked.
Korulen swallowed. "I don't think anyone knew what you needed. I still don't know, really, but if you ask..."
Ilen looked away. "Thank you for telling me, Korulen."
They were each silent, until Ilen said, "Was that all?"
"Er. Yeah, that's all I needed to say," Korulen said. "But you know you can ask me if you need anything, right?"
"Yes. Thank you," said Ilen again.
Korulen shuffled awkwardly towards the door.
"I don't mean to be - I really am grateful," Ilen said. "But I just can't be unambiguously furious with her. It isn't like this feels vindicating for me the way it might for... your uncle Narax, say. She's done so much for me."
Hallai was home when she'd said she would be.
Ilen was sitting on the sofa, hands clasped over his knees, pensive.
"What's the matter, sweetie?" Hallai asked.
"A couple of things," Ilen said. "I don't know how to fix them."
"Tell me what they are, I'll help," Hallai said.
"I don't think so," Ilen said.
"Well, if it's that bad, you have to tell me," said Hallai.
Ilen looked up at her. "The first thing is that I don't think I'm ever going to stop wanting children. And I don't think you're ever going to start."
Hallai chewed on her lip. "If it's that big a deal, we could look for adoptable ones who I can interview first and see if I can tolerate. Miln would do except she's got parents and wouldn't fit in the house..."
Ilen's heart clenched. "You don't want to be a mother, even if you could stand having one or two kids live with us," he said.
"Right, but if we can shop around enough and it'd make you happy, if the daycare isn't enough -"
"And that doesn't have anything to do with the second thing," Ilen said.
Hallai sat down, frowning. "What's that, then?"
Ilen didn't want to name Korulen, or Keo, even though the latter could protect them both easily enough. Would it be implausible for him to come to the realization himself? Maybe not. "I was thinking about why it felt so unpleasant, to go see everyone at Rhysel's dinner parties, even when Eryn wasn't going to be there," he said.
Hallai was carefully expressionless, but he didn't miss the flicker of worry.
Evidence he'd been ignoring piled up as he spoke. "It was sudden; I didn't have the problems before. You avoided going to work on Fenen evenings so you wouldn't be in Barashi at those times. It didn't depend on who was there and who wasn't. And it didn't stop when I left the tower, it didn't stop until I took off to leave - and the direction I was relative to you would have angled up."
Hallai was sitting very still.
"I'm not trying to figure out whether you did it," he said. "But I'd like to know why."
"They're a bad influence on you," Hallai said. "They don't have anything but insults to say about me, they think you're stupid and weak. I thought I could trust Eryn and I couldn't, and I didn't want anything like that to happen again."
"You could've asked me not to go," Ilen said.
"I didn't think you'd listen to me. Not after one of them asked you politely to please come be their dancing long lost relative, anyway," Hallai said. "You only do what I think would be best if you have an emotional reason for it."
"If I said, yes, let's go visit some orphanages and you can meet all the kids and see if you like any of them," Ilen said, "would I feel inexplicably anxious the whole time we were at any of them?"
"Or if we brought home a little boy or girl, if we found one you liked, one you could care about, one you could love as much as you love me," Ilen said, wiping at one of his eyes, "and that little boy or girl broke a house rule or made a friend you didn't approve of or wouldn't listen to you, would that little boy or girl, our son or daughter, feel like bursting into tears or like curling up in a ball out of fear, as some kind of punishment?"
He looked at her, blinked away more tears, and said, "I think I loved you enough to live without children because you didn't want them. I don't think I love you enough to live without them because they wouldn't be safe from you."
Hallai had her hands clenched in her skirt; she was radiating kaleidoscopically negative emotions ranging from outrage to guilt; and she didn't try again to start a sentence.
He took her silence as a chance to inhale deeply, once, twice, thrice, and then he said, "This time I'm doing it on purpose. We have to break up. This time I'm not going to come find you and ask for you back." He looked away. "You can have the apartment if you want. It doesn't matter to me."
"I'm so sorry," Hallai whispered. Her eyes were open so wide, and everything about her sang pain.
"I know," he said.
"It's yours," she said. "It's all yours." She got up, picked up her embroidery bag and her jacket, and took a running leap off the patio.
Ilen ran after her, to make sure she caught herself, and he saw a flash of copper feathers swooping upward.
He stood on the patio, looking out at the city, until the sun set.