There was something pressing against his face.
Breathing was difficult.
He fought against whatever was there, trying to break free, but something stronger than he was held him down, pinned his arms...
"Achenar, calm down." The voice was slow and even. "Relax and breathe."
Someone stronger, then.
He tried again, even more desperate to get loose.
"Please believe me," the voice pled. "You're safe, I swear it."
He collapsed into a fit of coughing.
"Achenar!" A hand on his, guiding it up...
He was wearing a breathing mask.
He coughed again, but just lay there.
Another hand at his forehead. "That's right. Rest. You've been injured."
He couldn't quite place the voice.
There wasn't supposed to be another voice. There wasn't supposed to be breathing equipment. He was on his own. If he was hurt too much for him to handle, he was supposed to simply die and face his judgment.
That's what being in a prison Age was.
"Where?" he gasped, a pained croak that left him trembling.
"You're in Tomahna, my son."
"Do you remember what happened?"
He thought a moment. "Sirrus. Yeesha came for refuge." And then everything got strange.
"She's shaken but fine." A pause. "You breathed poison to save her. It nearly killed you. I expect everything would feel jumbled right now."
Achenar took a deep breath. It hurt. "You should have let it."
"No!" Atrus sounded horrified.
"I'd have stopped being a problem." He got his eyes just open enough to see that Atrus looked horrified too. "Would've felt the same to me."
Atrus stroked a hand through his hair. "I'd rather you were a live problem."
It felt enough like being groomed that Achenar relaxed into the touch involuntarily.
"She's away for a few days, thank the Maker. You should be at least recovered enough to be properly awake before she gets back. Losing Sirrus is going to be bad enough."
He coughed a few more times. "Something wrong with him from the start."
He knew he shouldn't have said it the moment he got the words out.
His offenses were his own. Sirrus might have led him there to start with, but his choices were his own.
"I've become inclined to agree."
It was the longest civil conversation they had had since Achenar was a teenager.
He tried to shift a little, but it was too much and he lay there trembling.
"Don't worry about anything right now," Atrus told him. "Your mother was already convinced you'd reformed, and if anyone else has a problem with us not deciding anything until after you can walk across a room..."
The hand in his hair stopped.
"Please..." he reflexively begged. Then he felt ashamed because he had no right to ask for any affection at all from his father. Not after what he'd done to him. Not after what he'd planned to do. What he and Sirrus had planned to do.
The hand began again. "I read your journals from Haven and on Serenia." Atrus' voice was nearly conversational. "You've slept for two days. I know . And however I act toward you from now on, I do it knowing ."
Achenar shivered under his touch. "I'm sorry."
"I believe that."
Silence between them.
"My friend is watching her. She's not alone. He's not leaving until I can leave one or the other of you alone for an hour without risking a crisis." A heavy sigh. "And don't try to tell me she needs me more. She doesn't like me leaving you right now. Even when we were all sure you weren't ready to wake up again yet."
I love you, Lil Sis.
He coughed. "Throat hurts."
"I can't risk giving you anything for the pain."
"Used to that. Never found anything on Haven."
A sort of casual low-level horror hung in the stillness that followed.
A prison age merely needed potable water, food of some sort however meager, and a means to avoid death by exposure. Less was an execution or murder outright.
Atrus hadn't considered natural medicinal sources when he wrote the Descriptive Book for Haven. Achenar had simply gone without.
"Maybe water?" Achenar finally suggested. But no, the mask covered his mouth. He regretted saying it even before Atrus had a chance to answer.
"By now, you probably need to drink anyway." Atrus seemed to consider how awkward it ws going to be. "And I think you may be okay without the extra oxygen for a few moments."
Achenar might not have had a science lesson in over two decades, but he knew that sounded scarier than it should have. "Father..."
"Fine, as in it won't harm you."
That wasn't reassuring either.
"You could survive without it now," Atrus told him quietly after a pause. "You would just feel worse for longer. I don't want that for you if we can avoid it."
Right. Of Course. The sooner he was well enough sending him away wouldn't be murder, the sooner he'd be gone. Mother wouldn't like it, but that's what would happen anyway.
Same as she'd had to sneak him supplies behind his father's back. As if a new shirt could cut nara.
Maker be kind, if he'd read... he knew about the mangrees. About Shrieker.
Atrus might think sending him back to Haven was too dangerous for Haven.
"Achenar?" The hand in his hair moved to his forehead.
He was thinking more clearly now, properly awake, even if he was almost too tired to stay awake.
He couldn't let himself get used to this. He'd break again. He could blame some of the kills on the cerpatee, but trying to keep karnaks out with a ground-level fence...
Bent-Ear's mate was pregnant. If he went back to Haven, and broke enough to be a threat to the little one...
If they stopped trusting him near their children, he'd know. The poison he made from the bushes wasn't painful, only sedating, addling, and it worked on things larger than him. He'd... if they decided he was a threat...
Didn't matter if it was an offense against the Maker, not compared to the rest of what he'd done with his life. Trading his life for Yeesha's without thought for the consequences might have been enough to keep him out of Jakooth's Age.
But he hadn't. He had survived. Mere willingness didn't count.
And so none of the old warnings about the final judgment before the Maker mattered.
"Achenar." He could hear the fear in his father's voice. "Please don't shut me out right now. I don't have a way of telling if you're unwilling to speak or unable to speak."
"Easier if I don't get used to this," Achenar tiredly told him. "Could break again."
"No matter what, I promise you it won't be like when you were first trapped on Haven. I won't do that to you, and your mother would never speak to me again if I tried."
Achenar managed to barely open his eyes again.
"We were trying to see if either of you was reformed enough to come home. If there was no chance you were, we wouldn't have let Yeesha get attached. I... Don't worry. It'll be okay."
Achenar focused on a glass of water sitting on a table behind him.
Atrus turned to follow his gaze just before Achenar couldn't keep his eyes open any longer.
"... I can assume it's been years since you could afford to have an aversion to drinking after someone, can't I?"
His father was so hesitant it was nearly comical.
Achenar didn't respond. The answer was obvious enough.
It was awkward and there was nearly more water on him than in him when it was over, but they managed.
"You should be stronger soon," Atrus assured him.
"Used to canteens," Achenar toldhim weakly. "No one to judge me for drinking straight from them all the time."
"Rest, now. All that can wait. Words will come easier when you've recovered more."
Here we go.
And then Achenar realized that for once, he had absolutely nothing to lose. And his father was already on the defensive. If he simply admitted it...
He regretted it as soon as he said it.
"Son, you're addled right now. Give it a few days..."
Anger rose. Achenar tried to keep from showing it.
"Grandmother had figured it out," he blurted. "She was going to talk to you, only..."
Silence neither of them would break. They both knew what had happened.
"Words take me longer. She was willing to give me the time. And then no one was."
"Messed up a few times, after you started visiting. No one on Haven cares if I say the wrong thing, too much, too little..."
"And then I decided you'd gone savage. Instead of recognizing it was just my son being my son." The guilt was thick in his voice. "I..."
For once, Atrus was the one who couldn't find words.
"Mangree's simple enough. Thought about trying to speak it properly. But I was never going to learn the Art."
"But how did you... Ah, I am stupid. The language of the tree dwellers was simpler than English or D'ni, and so many of the emotional modifiers were in delivery..."
He felt his face burn from shame.
He shouldn't have abused and exploited them.
He should have made up something about long-term cultural study and moved in. Changed his primary language by a necessity his father couldn't have denied.
He should have done a lot differently.
Atrus slipped a hand back into his hair. "By order of the Maker, time only moves one way." His words were soft. "You cannot go back and change anything, only go forward."
"I know." He leaned into the touch as much as he could.
"You've been living among social groomers," Atrus mused aloud, clearly amused at the thought.
He heard his father start to stand again. He felt the hand leave him.
"I'm not going away." His footsteps did just that.
Then the bed under Achenar shifted as Atrus climbed in on his other side.
It was more than slightly frightening to have something as large as himself there next to him. His mind kept telling him he should run from the predator.
But then his father's hands found his hair.
"I knew hugging you would be a bad idea," the older man admitted. "But if this doesn't feel like a threat..."
What it felt like was when he'd twisted an ankle badly enough he'd been off his feet in the treestand for a week and the mangrees took turns comforting him through the sheer boredom of injury.
"It's not a threat."
"Good." A pause. "Then I won't bother warning Yeesha against braiding it."
Achenar smiled and yawned and slept.