Chapter Fourteen: Sadness
Ilen went to work, when called in. He waited for the daycare center to process his application ("two or three tendays", they'd said, "we have to go through the personnel office and they're very backed up." He didn't want to ask Rhysel's sister for another Senatorial cutting of red tape, not when he didn't even know her personally.) He steadily cleared out the cupboards. Then he looked up what his sort of moth ate after all, and bought a bottle of honey to water down and sip at. It was sweet and filling.
He didn't wind up going to Rhysel's for dinner. It sounded too exhausting, and he had nothing left to be exhausted with, not after putting in as much as he could for work. (His translation supervisor was listed as a recommendation contact for the daycare application.) When he had spare time, he spent it napping, or doing take-home written work for the bonuses it would earn him.
And sometimes he spent it stretched out face-down on the sofa, weeping, and alone, and with no realistic hope of anyone coming to spirit him away and urge him into calm contentment that was so hard to prop up on his own. No children, no classroom next door, no common lounge across the hall full of people who'd know to get Hallai.
And no Hallai.
Whatever Eryn had said about his friends and family, he wasn't up to asking any of them for anything. He didn't even know what to ask for. Food that wasn't mock nectar eaten as a moth? He was already turning down weekly dinner invitations. Money? Not until the next time one of them brought over a child for him to watch and he could justify the request. Company? They'd wind up sitting with him and relentlessly bad-mouthing Hallai, ten times as cruelly as ever, because they'd know she was gone and couldn't defend herself.
For all they'd say about her given half a chance, she'd still been defenseless when Ilen, of all people, had turned on her.
And he was paying for it. She'd been right, he needed her.
And he knew his friends wouldn't agree with him that he deserved every bit of retribution his life threw at him after he'd abandoned his protector.
So when Keo spoke in his mind he told her he didn't want to talk. When Rhysel left a note asking whether he'd be at the next Fenen dinner he didn't answer. When a box of cookies came in the mail with a long letter from his mother he didn't read it.
"Have you heard from your uncle Ilen at all?" Rhysel asked Korulen after a class session during which she'd filled in for Corvan.
"No. Is he coming to dinner tonight?" Korulen asked.
"I don't know. I wrote him to ask, but didn't get an answer. I haven't had a chance to go to his place and check on him in person, but it seems unlike him."
"He doesn't always come," Korulen said.
Rhysel frowned. "Has anyone told you yet that he broke up with Hallai?" she asked.
"I would have expected it to get back through Lutan to you. Did you know Eryn was attacked?"
"Lutan said that Eryn wasn't turning up to classes, but didn't know why. Eryn's not back yet or I suppose Lutan would've grilled her about it. What happened?" Korulen asked. She couldn't imagine Ilen developing the backbone to dump his girlfriend, and couldn't think what Eryn had to do with it.
"Long story," said Rhysel, but Korulen stayed put, and Rhysel told her.
"This is my fault," murmured Korulen.
"Because - oh, no," Rhysel sighed. "Eryn would have picked up on enough to start poking around sooner or later without you. Narax would have told her, or she'd have gotten it from me, or from Ilen himself. You didn't tell her to advise Ilen to break up with Hallai. She made that decision all by herself. I'm just glad she lived through the fallout."
"So now Hallai's living in a conclave sick with three kama's wraths?" Korulen asked. There had been a short tutorial on forbidden kamai and kamai that was not actually forbidden. Kama's wrath was the second kind for purely historical reasons: it hadn't happened to help provoke the kyma purge. That didn't make it a nice thing to do.
"Yes, although for obvious reasons she's not suffering as much as most people would," Rhysel said. "She said she wasn't trying to kill Eryn. I know enough mind kamai that I could have told if she were lying to me. I've talked Eryn and her sister out of - do you know Mysel?"
Korulen shook her head; Eryn's sister was a new hire teaching wild kamai and didn't have Eryn's habit of sitting in on others' classes.
"Well, I've talked them both out of pressing charges. I don't think a legal fight would do any good and I don't think Hallai's still a threat to them. But they're taking some time off. It was traumatizing."
"I'd imagine." Korulen was shy about using her new empathy powers at all. Even having them dialed down all the way, the sensations were strange and sometimes disorienting. Even when she was far enough away from people that she couldn't sense any of them, she was no longer a creature who lacked the sense, any more than being in a dark room would make her blind. "Yeah. Is Ilen okay? How is he holding up?"
"I don't know. Possibly badly. I was wondering if you could swing by his place before dinner and see if you can get him to come."
"Sure," Korulen agreed.
"Thanks, Korulen," said Rhysel.
Korulen teleported to just outside the door of the apartment. It was much less distressing a destination when Hallai wouldn't be there.
The sadness hit her first. That was one of the four basics, so simple that she couldn't miss it even if she "squinted" to blur out the distinctions between things like bereavement and depression. She hadn't been around anyone really, intensely sad since turning dragon. People would register in that direction a little if they got a bad mark on a test or woke up in a lousy mood, and she'd flinch back from them, but this was worse, this was nauseating, she didn't know how other dragons stood it.
Korulen had a flood of fellow feeling for her sister, always desperately nosing at sad people around her trying to find out what was wrong. No wonder it took years to learn not to do that. No wonder even adults slipped.
She took a deep breath and stepped back into the stairwell, where the sadness didn't bear down on her unless she looked for it. She could sense it at any range. She'd left plenty of time before the start of dinner, and could practice a little, tasting it a little at a time, before going into a room with... that.
Eventually she thought she'd be able to interact with Ilen without making horrible faces or needing to pause to run crying from the room. It wasn't exactly that being around him while he was sad made her sad - it just made her intensely, sensorily aware that he was. She supposed it might have been satisfying if she'd loathed him. Maybe that was why Hallai had found an empathic assault satisfactory revenge.
Korulen edged towards Ilen's door and knocked.
"Come in," said his muffled voice.
She pushed the door out of her way. The cloying misery wasn't any heavier close to Ilen, but approaching would make it harder to escape. "Uncle Ilen?"
He didn't even look all that different. Come to think of it, Ilen always looked kind of sad and alarmed. Korulen didn't think he was always this bad underneath that, though. He couldn't be. "Are you okay?"
He peered at her hair. "You dyed your hair green."
Korulen swallowed. "I'm here about you. How are you doing?"
His face closed; he looked as neutral as he ever did. But he couldn't fool Korulen. Anymore. "I'm fine, Korulen."
"Rhysel really wants you to come to dinner tonight," Korulen said.
"I was thinking I'd stay home today." He was avoiding eye contact.
"I don't want to go."
Korulen closed her eyes. "Uncle Ilen, I know you're really, really upset -"
When she opened her eyes, he had one of his hands on his face as though searching for a traitorous facial expression, and he was looking at her hair.
"But," she went on, "we'd all really like it if you came."
"That will only make things worse," he said, apparently giving up on pretending he was fine.
"What would make things better?" The unhappiness streamed toward her from his direction in a continuous ray, but if she tried to sidestep it, it would follow her. "What could we do to help you?"
"I don't want you to help me," he said softly.
"What do you want?" Korulen asked desperately.
"Hallai," whispered Ilen. "But I ruined things - she's gone - she'll never have me back -"
Korulen sat on the floor; she didn't want to have to dedicate attention to Ilen and to standing and suddenly have the latter fail catastrophically. "How exactly did you even break up with her? I can't imagine it."
"I just - I told her what Eryn said - she put the rest together herself," Ilen said. "I could never have gotten it out - I only - Eryn said it was a good idea."
"Did you actually tell her that you wanted to break up?" Korulen asked. She'd done a little bit of reading of emotions before, with mind kamai. She was sure that Ilen hadn't been that sad. Hallai was obnoxious but Ilen didn't deserve to be so terribly mournful. Hallai had hurt some people but not this badly, Ilen had to have been like this for weeks.
"No, I guess not. That would have been even worse," Ilen said. "I didn't want to - I thought - I don't know what I thought."
Korulen cast about for other ideas. "Do you want me to try to - help you?" she asked, touching her hair.
Ilen blinked damp eyelashes. He shook his head, but then paused, seeming to change his mind. "I guess you can try."
She'd never tried projective empathy at all, but it was there like a new limb, the way her wings had been the first time she'd figured out how to shapeshift. Relieved at the possibility that she could do something to alleviate his woe, she pushed. Happy. Be happy. Please, please, cheer up.
His mood lifted. A little. Almost not at all.
"I think I'm probably desensitized to a light touch," he said. "I can barely tell you're doing it."
"Mom can try," Korulen said, backing off and biting her lip. "She's got to be stronger than even Hallai -"
Ilen shook his head. "No - I almost didn't let you - Hallai always used to - it doesn't feel right."
"The way you feel now doesn't feel right," cried Korulen. Sympathy tears, or maybe tears of frustration, were stinging her eyes. She twisted her knuckles against her eyes to wipe them away. "Uncle Ilen -"
"Keo has to sleep sometimes, she can't just project at me all the time," Ilen pointed out, almost inaudible. "And if she changed something permanent, I'd... well. I trust her not to mess with my head without my permission. If I gave her any permission, though, I don't think I trust her to do just one thing."
"You think she'd do... what?"
"Make me forget Hallai? Or hate her like everyone else does, maybe. Something like that. But I don't want to. I love her and I wronged her and if that makes me feel like this that just makes sense," Ilen mumbled.
Korulen was silent. Ilen looked at her, like she was a work of sculpture. And he was sad, he howled sadness into Korulen's new ears, he shone like a miserable sun to new eyes.
"You didn't actually say you wanted to break up with her," choked Korulen.
He shook his head, like it was heavy.
"So," Korulen said, "you could maybe convince her you weren't trying to."
Ilen didn't go to Fenen dinner. Instead, after Korulen had gone, he packed himself a few bottles of fake nectar, filled out one of his leave-of-absence forms for work, and went to the circle.
On Barashi, Hallai's signature was immediately evident when he looked for it. She was sad. Not as crushed as he was, mellower and more level, but he knew a fresh wave of guilt about it. All his fault. He'd have to make it up to her.
He got above the buildings of the city the Restron circle sat within, shifted to dragon form, and flew.
He didn't pay much attention to the passage of time. When he got hungry, he stopped, poured some of his nectar into his bottlecap, and drank until he could go on. He wasn't in transit long enough to need to stop to sleep.
When he got closer to the signature, enough that its angle started changing noticeably, he had to navigate more, weaving around mountains. But he found the conclave easily enough: a valley dotted with caves on its mountainsides and a forest full of game in the bowl of the landscape.
Ilen didn't land too close. He hadn't worked out what to say, and Hallai would notice him if he got within thirty feet of her. He perched on an outcropping that wasn't too near any cave entrance, but near enough hers that he could hear her talking.
"- is that what you'd call it? No, we just call it 'breathing fire'," said Hallai.
"We don't call it 'sparking electricity'," said a higher, younger voice. "I think 'flaring' is a better word for what you do like 'arcing' is a better word for what we do."
"You didn't even get a whole arc," said Hallai. "Just a little around your wingtip."
"Well, I'm little! When a bunch of grownups do it together, though, they can do lots of lightning," said the child's voice.
Ilen crept closer.
"I'd," Hallai began, and she stopped short.
"Hallai?" asked the high voice.
"Hang on a tick, Miln," said Hallai.
And then she crept out of the cave, craning her neck, and he saw her, shining in the sun.
"Ilen?" she whispered.
Miln slipped off without complaint, waved away with a gesture of Hallai's wing. Ilen clung to the mountainside above the mouth of the cave, and Hallai stood half-in and half-out, neck twisted around to look at him.
"Did you come to bring me my stuff?" Hallai asked hollowly.
Ilen shook his head. "I don't have - I didn't bring anything," he replied. "I - thought - I wondered if - I never said I wanted to -"
He trailed off, and Hallai appeared to tire of holding her head up. "You can come in," she said. "I'm not contagious."
Hallai coughed a copper fireball against a scorched part of the cave wall. "Eryn's sister infected me three times over with a magic disease. It's in all my forms. I'm not over it yet."
"I didn't know that," Ilen murmured. Three times? Why three...?
"Yeah. All I was doing was scaring Eryn. And she attacked me."
Hallai was obviously too tired to attach a lot of complex judgment to her tone. She was just reporting on what had happened. But this still sounded wrong to Ilen. Empathy wasn't nice to attack someone with, but it was in the forgivable province of words or maybe petty theft. It wasn't violence. Eryn's sister had escalated to another level. "I'm sorry," he said.
Her eyes closed. "Why are you here?" she asked.
"I miss you," he said, dipping his head. "I don't know what to do without you, Eryn was wrong, I do need you."
She opened one eye. "What, Eryn just left you like that?"
"I haven't seen her since," he said.
"What about everyone else?"
"Korulen came over once. She's the one who said you might take me back," Ilen said softly.
"I knew there was a reason Finnah liked that girl," Hallai muttered.
"Is that a - is that -"
"Yes," said Hallai tiredly. "But I'm still sick. I can't go much of anywhere."
Ilen lay beside her on the floor of the cave. "I put in for a leave of absence at work. And they haven't called you in for the last week so I don't think they know you left. I can tell them you're sick."
She closed her eyes again, and so did Ilen.
The next morning saw them both awakened by the little dark green dragon who'd been talking to Hallai. Miln, Ilen thought her name was. Miln had a young elk hanging from her jaws. "Ng," she said.
"Hi, Miln," said Hallai.
Miln dropped the animal. "Hi, Hallai. Is this your boyfriend you were talking about?" She was using a Draconic loanword for "boyfriend"; on inspection, the language of the rest of the sentence didn't have a reasonable facsimile for anyone who hadn't fathered at least one clutch of one's eggs.
"Mmhm. Ilen, this is Miln. She's been making sure I don't starve."
"Thank you," Ilen said to the Barashin dragon.
"Are you going to come join our conclave too?" Miln asked Ilen.
Hallai answered for him. "We're going to go home when I'm better," she said. "You guys have been very nice, but I don't really want to live here forever."
"Oh," said Miln. "Will you visit?"
"Maybe," said Hallai. "It's nice here. Not a lot to do, though. I guess it'd be a good vacation spot."
"But I'll be bored if you go," Miln said. "There isn't anything to do. All my friends are Asleep."
"Too bad," said Hallai without heat.
Ilen could have carried Hallai home, even if she couldn't fly on her own, but maybe she thought she'd fall from his back, or she'd rather Miln feed her than Ilen. "I should tell the Senate you're taking sick days," he said.
"Yes," said Hallai. "Come back? When you're done?"
"Okay," Ilen said.
Once Ilen returned, he didn't leave Hallai's side until she'd recovered enough that Ban could banish the last of the sickness from her airway and her joints. He caught up with her about what he'd been doing (not much, except for the daycare job application) and what she'd been doing (not much, although she'd befriended some of the local dragons).
"You seem to like Miln," he said tentatively, after she'd brought them a flock of dead pheasants.
"She's decent company."
"I thought you didn't like children."
"I don't like most people. Including most children. Miln's just one. I like her in particular." She paused. "I'm not going to change my mind about wanting kids, let alone as many as you're probably thinking, Ilen. They wouldn't be likely to be people I'd happen to like."
"You're not thinking you'll leave me, again, over that, are you?" she asked. "It's not my fault."
"I can't live without you," he said. "I can live without kids. I have so far."
"And you'll have your daycare job, if they take you," Hallai said comfortably.
"Right," Ilen said.
"Oh, and, Ilen."
"I don't want you to talk to Eryn. Ever again. I might or might not have scared her off for good, but if I didn't, she's proven she's willing and able to screw around with your head until you do stupid things. That's not a good influence. I'll put up with everyone else, such as Korulen, if they're not with Eryn, or passing messages from her, or starting to sound too similar to her. Come to think of it, same goes for Eryn's sister, if she pokes around at all. Okay?"
"Okay," said Ilen. Listening to Eryn had caused intolerable results. Listening to Hallai never did that.
"Which means you'll have to find out if she's attending before going to any of Rhysel's dinners. Don't do anything obvious like turning it into an ultimatum, or they'll never leave you alone about it, but keep it in mind when you decide whether you're going any given Fenen."
"Okay," repeated Ilen, relaxing onto the floor of the cave and against Hallai's side. He could do that. That would be easy.
"Good," purred Hallai.
After Hallai had been sick for two weeks by Elcenian time, Ban healed her the rest of the way, and she stretched her wings, bade Ban and Sal and Miln all goodbye, and went with Ilen out of the valley.
Ilen got the daycare job.
He spent a lot more time at work once he had that every day he didn't have translations. And he loved it. He had to spend a tenday in training - "retraining, really, since you know children of another sort already," his supervisor Tynn said. And then he was just one of the daycare workers, supervising storytime and meals and making sure no one got hurt or ran off out the back door or argued too strenuously with the other kids.
Together with having Hallai again, the job made Ilen feel infinitely better than he had. Children were relaxing, children were simple, children's problems were generally easy to solve. Children liked Ilen and didn't try to tell him what to do, who to like, whether he was associating with bad company or not.
Ilen asked Korulen to tell him each week whether Eryn would be at dinner or not. She agreed - she understood, at least enough to know why he'd want the information, and she could get one of her friends to tell her about Eryn's whereabouts without notifying Rhysel. He got a note Fenen morning.
"I might go this time," he said, when he received a note saying that Eryn wouldn't be present due to a date with her girlfriend.
"She won't be there?" Hallai asked, looking up from the sampler she was working on.
"She won't," Ilen said. "Korulen's friend says that Eryn and her girlfriend are going out tonight."
"Her girlfriend cancels on her a lot, assuming it's the same girlfriend," said Hallai, fingers tightening around her embroidery frame.
"If I sense her signature when I get there, I'll leave," he suggested.
Hallai didn't answer, and dinnertime approached. Hallai cooked. She was making something with a lot of basil and nuts. It smelled amazing.
"So you're going?" Hallai asked lightly.
"Will there be leftovers of that?" he asked.
"If you don't have your portion tonight, yeah," she said.
He got up to kiss her. "I'll be back after," he promised.
"All right," she said.
Ilen left by the balcony, and flew to Rhysel's, but the whole way there was a sense of trepidation that he couldn't shake. When he landed on her doorstep it bloomed into the nearest thing he'd felt to a panic attack since Corvan had rid him of those. He was still functional; he could ring the bell, and remember to check for Eryn's signature, but even failing to find it wasn't relieving.
He picked at his food, and didn't talk much, and left as soon as he was able.
As soon as he took off again from Rhysel's front yard, the feeling was gone. And being at home with Hallai that evening was as comforting as ever.
"I love you," he told Hallai, before she replied in kind and the lights over their bed dimmed.