Part 4: Devil's Advocate
"What the hell did you say?"
"I hate you! I hate you, I hate you! How dare you be so callous? I loved you!" A girl's voice, shrill and bursting with pain.
"Well, you said I should be honest! How long would you have wanted me to lie to you, to pretend I loved you if only for your sake? Tell me!" A man roared.
There was a brief moment of slience, then the boy heard the sound of sobs escaping into the distance. He didn't chance a look round.
A creak of the tree's bark alerted him to a nearby presence.
"I didn't wake you, did I?" A young man asked, eyeing the boy.
"Oh, no." The boy lied, shuffling himself into a more upright posiiton.
The man sat down next to him, sighing. "Must have scared a few birds, though."
A brief silence.
"Relationships are nothing but trouble," the man said quietly, staring at the ground in front of him, jabbing the earth with a twig.
"Are they?" the boy replied, a hint of disagreement colouring his voice. The man turned to look at him.
"Well, they're not just trouble. But they certainly cause a lot of it."
The boy shrugged. "I guess they do. But... it doesn't have to be like that. You just need to find the right person."
"Yeah, but once you find them, they have to find you back. Love isn't a one-way process."
There was another awkward silence. The boy glanced over at the man, who had thrown the twig away and was now staring into the leaves of the trees above them. "Is that why you two had an argument?"
The man laughed. "Not really. I doubt there was ever any real love in it. When we met she was lonely and I was unsatisfied. The circumstances forced us into something that wasn't really tangible. So we were never right for each other in the first place."
"Ah, I see." The boy rested his head against the tree and looked out onto the landscape. The sun had appeared, shedding its golden light over the cliffs, hills and trees. The river weaved its shimmering path through them, trailing off into the distance.
"So what about you?" The man's broken silence caused the boy to jump. He smiled nervously.
"What's your take on love?"
"Oh... I don't really know."
The man drew back. "What do you mean 'You don't know'? Haven't you ever fallen in love with someone?"
"I don't know. People have fallen in love with me, but I don't think I ever gave myself a chance to love them back."
"What were they like?"
The boy gave a questioning look to the man, who gestured for him to answer.
"Well... they were all nice. I'd certainly be friends with all of them, but..."
"Okay, so why didn't you love them?"
"I didn't want to hurt them."
The man laughed. "That's absurd! How can loving them hurt them?"
The boy tensed. "It's not that I'd hurt them by loving them, it's more that I didn't want to commit myself to something when I didn't know what I wanted for myself yet. I'd hurt them if I discovered that I would be happier elsewhere."
"So what, did you just run away?"
"I told them I'd give them an answer once I knew what I was looking for."
"And have you answered any of them?"
The boy fell silent. They wouldn't still be waiting for him, would they?
"I see." The man leant forwards, resting his elbows on his knees. "You're quite dangerous, kid."
"Yeah. Love won't wait for you- you have to take it while it's there, otherwise all you'll feel is regret."
"But how do you know when it's real love? People have told me that they love me but I haven't loved them back. Does that mean I should take them and be done with it?"
"No, but you should at least be honest with them. Leaving them hanging on like you have only leads them to disingegrate until they're a shadow, merely waiting for you to come back. And even if you did, they probably wouldn't be the same as when you left."
"You don't know that! What's to say they won't forget about me and find someone else?"
"Listen, you know people and I know people. And I get the feeling you're the kind of guy a girl could get very attached to. A rarity. If you aren't honest with them then all they'll do is keep trying to find you, even though all they're doing is chasing an unreachable dream."
"But... I don't know if I love them or not."
"Choose one. You can't love them."
"But I don't know..."
"You don't know much, do you? Just pick the one you like best and go with her."
The boy rose to his feet. "That's ridiculous. It doesn't work like that!"
"Oh, then how does it work?"
"You don't know, do you? Are you honestly going to tell me you're going to search the entire world first and then make your decision? That's impossible!"
The boy bit his lip, turning away.
"Even if you did manage to do it, by the time you did you'd be too old and you'd have forgotten to live. You die, alone, having never reached anything despite having the opportunities handed to you."
The boy said nothing, but his hands shook.
"Okay, maybe I phrased it wrong," The man said, more quietly. "But my point is that you won't know what love you want unless you let yourself experience it. Believe it or not, once you've given them a chance to love you then they'll be more prepared to let you go if it's not suitable. Just do it."
"You mean I should say I love them knowing it's not going to be forever, like you did to that girl? I don't want to hurt people in that way. If I know it's not going to last then they're better off finding someone who will really love them."
There was another silence. The wind began to blow again.
"How many people have told you that they loved you?" The man asked.
"Five," the boy whispered.
"In those exact words?"
"Not all of them."
"What did you say to them?"
"I said... When someone says they love you it's only right that you should return their feelings. There were different forms of love being shown to me: sexual, crushes, kindred spirit. They all wanted to hear my love in return. I wanted to return it, and in some cases I did. But I didn't lie. I did love them, but love itself is too broad a term for an affection that can be felt in hundreds of different ways. The love I felt for some was stronger than that which I felt for others and it manifested itself in different ways, but even then I didn't see what I was looking for."
"Then what are you looking for?"
"I don't know yet. But I think I'll know when I find it."
"And how are you going to find it if you don't look properly?"
The wind blew again. The two of them stared at each other in silence. Finally, the boy picked up his bag and slung it over his back.
"If you can tell someone that you don't love them, that's half the battle. Never mind how that may hurt them- if you don't do it, all you'll do is hurt them more. And if you can't tell someone that you don't love them, then I think you'll have found what you're looking for."
"So where should I go?"
The man stood up and brushed off his coat "I think your first task should be to give those who you promised answers to an answer. You can't let yourself be blinded by sentiment when something so important is on the line."
The boy nodded. "I've been doing this the whole way. I didn't mean to lead people on like this. But I didn't want to be nasty to them."
"Hey, it's alright. We all make mistakes. And some people are just more attractive than others, even as friends. Just make sure in future that they know from the start where you stand, and anything else should be theirs to deal with. If you try to take everything upon yourself all you'll end up with is a trail of uncertainty and trapped grief. Have faith in people that they can heal themselves over time, but they can only if you hand them the key with which to do so: your answer."
The boy smiled. "All right. Thank you, sir."
A hearty slap on the back almost knocked the boy over. "Go on, get out of here. You've some people to catch up with."
A grateful smile spread over the boy's face. He gave a last grateful look back over his shoulder, a quick wave goodbye, and began walking back towards the village he'd left that morning.