Interlude: When

When was it? Don't ask me, I don't know. It's sort of like one of those scars that you didn't always have but you certainly can't remember getting. (Yes, scars; you might run to the light for every scratch but try convincing a fifty-year-old shren to do the same thing.) Or like trying to remember exactly when you first ate a piece of toast. It's toast, it's so ordinary, it's part of the world, it's not an event.

I can tell you for sure it wasn't when he hatched. He was a whiner from very early on, and I was seventy-one and thought I was very grown-up. Besides, none of the babies then had ever seen me crying, so I could pretend I never had. He was a very tiny baby. He looked fragile and thin, like some abandoned waif on the street, instead of the well-cared-for abandoned waif that he actually was. He didn't eat much. Didn't talk much either. I picked up one of his scales, once, and kept it in my pocket until I lost it two years later.

It wasn't when his parents didn't come to pick him up when he could shift, either. Lots of us never got picked up. I hadn't been or I'd never even have met him. Why should that make me feel sorry for him particularly, over any of the others who were left behind? He didn't even seem that broken up about it at the time; he hadn't been getting letters, didn't know his parents' names, wasn't really expecting them like some of the little ones did. He moped about it and never signed up to go on the outings with the rest of us, but that isn't so unusual. It didn't really start to seem unusual until he turned fifty and still had never gone out, but no one was going to press him about it. He didn't have to go out if he really wanted to stay indoors.

It certainly couldn't have been when he had his first attack. He was anything but lovable then, crying his lungs out and shaking in a corner in the hallway and projecting panic at anyone that got near. The projector then wasn't very strong - he tried, but the jadeling eventually got the better of him and then everyone was a mess, with him screaming terror into their brains and Uthrae not even able to help them. There were a couple of other green-groups, but they were so used to relying on the projector that it never even occurred to them to try.

So of course it fell to me, and oh, it was hard - hard to sort out what I was really feeling from what he was making me feel, hard to remember how to concentrate on calm enough to be able to share it when he and everyone else around me were screeching fear, hard not to just run out the door and leave it to all burn itself out. But I did it, I was only a hundred and forty and I did what the professional projector couldn't. Ludei told me I was strong, and asked me to help Ilen if it ever happened again, and asked me to take the job on entirely when the projector packed up and left. Of course it did happen again. We learned what set Ilen off but we couldn't board up every window.

It wasn't when I became the projector when the last one left - stresses of the job, he said, and he wanted to live somewhere where not everyone was always sad or angry or afraid, where sometimes if he listened he could pick up a happy signal. How could it have been then? I was so busy all of a sudden, having to constantly listen to a chorus of emotional pain to make sure none of it got out of hand, and some of it was so alien to me, to how I dealt with it - and there was no projector for me, not anymore, I had to quell my own anger and my own hate to be able to get through the day.

It was hard, but I learned. When anger gets this strong you send this much calm, when fear gets this strong you send this much safety, when sadness gets this strong you send this much contentment - contentment, never joy, you can't overcompensate or their minds will rebel and know that it isn't really what they're feeling and it won't work at all. Never joy, there's no joy in that house. From when I woke to when I slept, whatever was the matter, I had to be there at all times to fix it - but not really, not in any way that would stick, because we can't repair ourselves, we're broken forever. That's why we're here.

And it couldn't have been when Ilen got a job of his own and really started being an adult. Sure, he wasn't really the most stable of people and we did get some very disapproving looks, when parents came to get their babies and he just so happened to have an attack while they were there. (Well, if they didn't want to trust us with their babies they shouldn't have left them here.) But he loved the children so much, he was so patient with them, content to stay inside all day to watch them and not run out just to get away from the house like some of the others were prone to doing. And even though he was never as strong a projector as me - even during an attack, though that made it closer - he could do enough to keep the babies from fighting with each other, which was an asset. And he read to them, even the ones big enough to know how to read themselves, and he talked to them about anything they wanted in that quiet, patient voice of his, and so what if two or three times a month I had to haul him screaming out of the room and let someone else take a day off from whatever else they normally did to cover his job. It couldn't have been then, because then I saw him even less, just a quick check-in each evening instead of him loitering in my office with his schoolbooks just to be safe.

But I know it had already happened when those bastards came to take him from me -

So you tell me, when did I fall in love?