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[P] Wreckage
Topic Started: Thu Oct 12, 2017 3:30 pm (701 Views)
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Years ago a sunrise over the Gilliam farm would have been a peaceful sight. The sun crested over a distant cluster of mountains far behind the house, and inch by inch spread its golden light across the rolling acres of the farm's well-tended fields. The pasture where the animals grazed, the lettuce, the corn, the other greenstuff—and then finally the house, where the sunlight poured through the windows stretched across the floor in languid rays. The family was already awake and fed by sunrise. There was too much work to be done to waste a moment of light.

Now, Wendall wasted the light.

Atop Clara, settled in the saddle, with Daisy on his shoulder as always, Wendall watched the sun burn off its pink and orange strands as it came higher into the sky. A sunrise over the Gilliam farm wasn't what it used to be. The rolling fields were overgrown with weeds and wildflowers. Scarecrows covered in climbing vines stood guard, or else lay on the ground split in half from age and weather damage. The grass was too tall in the pasture and too tall as it lead to the house, covering up the stone pathway that once lead to the front door.

The front door wasn't there anymore. Neither was most of the roof. The house was blackened by a fire that burned it out completely. Some of the windows were empty portals; some still had glass, but it was a mosaic of cracks. Support beams were visible on the second floor, where the siding had fallen away. The barn was no better. Its doors and roof were blown off, as if there had been an explosion inside.

There had been. Whoever burned down the property had used Wendall's incubator to incur more damage. How Daisy survived, Wendall never quite figured out. Only three had survived the fire, and now all three of them were back here, looking at the house under the soft yellow light of a new morning. Wendall didn't know what he was looking for, but he didn't feel finished here. The last time he visited, not long ago, he'd found, under the floorboards of the kitchen, his mother's letter and her knives. There had to be more that survived.

Dismounting from Clara's back, Wendall brushed down his cloak and then tied back her bridle so she could graze freely. As he patted her neck, it was impossible not to think of how he'd seen the smoke and the sky and urged her faster toward the house. How he'd screamed. How he'd raced back to Kellen for help, how the authorities there could only put out the fire but couldn't bring any of it back.

Homeless. Jobless. Familyless, except for a horse and a harvest drake. Years after the fire, what had changed?

Steeling himself, Wendall walked toward the house to find new answers.
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Moving through the house carefully, avoiding weak floor where he could tell a step would fall through, Branse walked half in this world and half in memory of the dream. He's crossed the porch with a faded memory of Ora, pausing to watch a ghost of Elia.

The world of dreams seemed oddly closer since his time with his mother. Just beyond the fingertips, not so far from reality. He started up the stairs, forced to pause by the broken stairwell. Using his memory of the dream he looked to the only room he'd entered, the space where Wendall had lived his life.

Where he'd grown up. Where he spent his nights, where he'd lain as a sick child and as an injured adult. His innocence was tied to this place and may have started dying along with this home. The innocence left to him was atrophied. Weakened when he was forced from home and wasn't proving strong enough to survive Imythess.

Branse descended the stairs and moved through to the dining room. Falling debris had broken the flame-weakened table, breaking the altar at which this family had gathered every day. He felt a special connection to this room in any house. He could always feel how much of the family existed here. Years of joking and breaking bread together set into the structure. Skirting the damage, he entered the kitchen.

A floorboard had been pried up in one place. Ignoring the room for a moment, he knelt down and inspected the familiar sight. He smirked. It was just big enough to fit a box.

Looking over the ruined kitchen, he sighed and rested his front against a counter, reaching for a windowsill to look out over the overgrown fields. Somewhere under all the brush was rich soil, moreso for the ash from the fires.

Hanging his head, he began opening drawers. The first he found had a large chef's knife. Simple, but it fit the curve of his hand and was still sharp, ringing as he dragged a thumb across the edge. He had to smile at Elia's treatment of her tools, seeing the signs of someone with either a great respect for cooking or a long experience with a good knife.

Clopping began to fade into his hearing with the fading ring, much closer than it should have been if he hadn't been distracted. He turned and Stepped, suddenly against the wall of the dining room with a different blade in hand. This blade was a little longer than his hand, a fine crystalline pattern to the steel and a small throwing dagger clutched in his left hand.

Listening attentively, he heard the horse dismounted. Someone began to approach, one step heavier than the other. Easing slightly, he put his weapons away. He knew those steps, if not with a slight difference. The same way you knew who was walking the hall outside your door at home.

He kept a little tensed until he exited the dining room and stepped onto the porch, easing when he saw it really was Wendall. He walked smoother than he remembered, but everything else seemed rougher. Hardened to the world.

Branse leaned against a post and crossed his arms, visibly tense at Wendy's approach. The post groaned, but held. He felt like he should say something witty or smart-assed. Break the tension. Let him know things were going to be okay, like old times. But it struck him things might not be okay.

He had sent Wendy away in his panic. Hadn't seen or written him in ages. He wanted more than anything for it all to be okay again. Like that first day at the cabin. That night.

He looked up to meet Wendall's eyes, looking past the scar unconcernedly. Branse was visibly uncomfortable, looking much like his old self, but despite the slightly gaunt appearance, he seemed denser. More. Stronger, deadlier, but right then, he looked ashamed and apologetic and fragile. Raw. He was unshaven, hair pushed up in a rough semblance of how it had been styled, but it was shorter. Simpler to keep.

"Hey there, farmboy." He said a little shakily, like he hadn't spoken to anyone in a long while.

It had been meant to come out sure and suave, but he couldn't find the will to pretend just then.

"Wendy, I want to say I'm sorry. I've acted like an ass to you. You didn't mean for anything to happen and I forgive you. I know there's nothing really to forgive, so I should just shut my damned mouth, but I miss the absolute hell out of you and I'm sorry I haven't gotten ahold of you sooner, but I haven't been able to get word out, and--" he stopped, throat wrenching itself tightly shut to stop the rushed stream of words.
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When Branse appeared suddenly on the porch, Wendall’s steps faltered. A hole opened in his stomach, and out of it poured simultaneous horror and bliss. For a moment he looked awestruck and innocent, and the angry scar that divided his face did nothing to inhibit that youthful expression of surprised delight. Hardened as he was, there was still such light in him—light that streamed easily when there was a source of joy nearby.

But the look faded quickly into confusion. His brows came together. His lips parted somewhat as if he were puzzling over a trap. Keeper Leihra thought his mind played tricks on him—he’d been so sure of Hearne’s paper horse, but no one ever saw it except himself. Now Branse stood before him, open and vulnerable and full of forgiveness, saying the exact words Wendall had hoped to hear him say. Day after day, night after night, for a little more than a month, Wendall had waited, and in that waiting he imagined over a hundred different ways Branse would come back. In those daydreams, Branse always said the same thing: I forgive you, I still want you, I’m sorry.

I want to be happy with you. Live in a bigger, better home with you somewhere beautiful.

Somewhere far away from now there’s a house I’m living in with you.

It was too perfect. And too awful. Wendall’s mouth became a thin, unimpressed line, and his eyes narrowed as he surveyed the house and Branse more closely. The sight of Branse emerging from home to greet him as he arrived was so precisely the future Wendall wanted that he didn’t trust his senses—he was searching for a blip in the illusion, some shimmer that gave away the magic.

But there was no magic. Wendall stepped closer and closer, searching and searching, but this wasn’t magic. It wasn’t a dream, either. This was Branse. Looking stronger, deadlier. Disheveled. Hungry. Weight had fallen off of him. He talked as if he hadn’t talked in months. As if he were a little more broken. And he was saying all the right things.

But he wasn’t in the right place. The circumstances were wrong. This wasn’t where Branse was supposed to find him. Wendall had wanted to be waiting. Ready. He’d wanted to be able to open a door and let Branse back in.

“What are you—” As soon as he started talking, a lump grew in his throat. All he wanted was to take Branse in his arms and ask what had happened to him. But he was so angry—angry that Branse hadn’t come for him, that Branse hadn’t let him explain anything, that Branse was in his house. “What are you doing here?”

Wendall closed the distance between himself and the porch. He looked up at Branse, a sense of betrayal poisoning the joy he’d felt earlier.

“You shouldn’t be here. This isn’t yours—it’s not—why?”
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He'd wanted Wendall to say everything was okay. For a moment he thought he saw the sliver of light in his eyes that said the door was cracking open to let him in.

But he didn't say anything.

As Wendy stepped closer he had to grip his own bicep harder to keep from going for a knife out of instinct. After that brief second of joy bled from Wendy's eyes he couldn't find the courage to keep looking. He averted his gaze from that look of betrayal and anger, feeling all too deeply that it was certainly his fault.

Looking to the side, at the ruin of the barn and the mess that was all that was left of the incubator, he swallowed a painful lump. "I... I had to know if it was real." He kept squeezing, knuckles losing their color at his grip.

"I've been in and out. Dreaming. I wasn't sure what was real and what was..." he closed his mouth, biting off the next few words. He didn't want to sound crazy.

"It's been hard. I don't even know how long I've been gone. I couldn't eat, could hardly sleep without being attacked. I had a dream about you. The first real rest I got in weeks. I don't know what it was, but I saw things." He shivered, thinking back to his time in the old mine.

He couldn't eat the meat they brought him. He didn't want to ask who it was. If he closed his eyes, they would wait. He'd wake up to the old woman's knife. To claws. To terrors. Hunted until he could sense when someone was near. That dream had been his only real rest. Seeing Wendall, what could have been if things had been just a little different. If they'd met earlier.

It had given him the strength he needed to keep going. To survive. To eat. Accept what he was so he could see.

"I had to know if it was real or just another hallucination. I needed to survive so I could see you again. I didn't think I'd see you here. I thought I was going crazy."

He palmed at his eyes, stopping the hot pain before tears fell. "I know I shouldn't be here. But I had to know."

He slumped, sitting a little on the broken railing, passing his hand through his hair in old habit but found little purchase in the short hair.

"This place is damned hard to find, even knowing where you're going. Even the second time around." He was tired, broken. The strength had fled him, weakened by the wrong he saw in Wendy's eyes.

"I'm sorry. I had to know. If we could have been better."
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“You were so angry about how I violated your past and then you show up here—”

Wendall covered his face with his hands, which trembled now with anger and disappointment. He couldn’t look at Branse, couldn’t look at the house, couldn’t look at the grass or the barn or anything else. Everything here was a memory of how good his life had been and then how it had been ruined, each little thing, one by one.

Since the last time they saw each other, Wendall had replaced his right hand. It had been two-fingered and hardly maneuverable after the plains, the bones shattered and the nerves damaged. Now it was made of colorful metal, pinks that eased into yellows that eased into blues and neon greens.

Tearing his hands from his face, Wendall turned away, looking out over the property where he’d grown up. He wanted to stay angry. His heart felt sliced open, seeing Branse here in his house, but he mentioned a dream. Mentioned not being able to eat or sleep—what happened to you, how can I make it better, Wendall wanted to say, but he couldn’t go there yet.

It was the dream Wendall couldn’t let go of. How green the fields had been, how alive his family was. How young he and Branse were in it. How wonderful it was to be so happy before anything terrible happened. Taking a deep breath, Wendall found the courage to face Branse again, just as he palmed at his eyes and apologized.

“My mom always said you dream about something, you aren’t finished with it,” Wendall said quietly. “Can’t be over someone or something if it’s there when you sleep.”

Was it possible that they’d had the same dream? Wendall looked art Branse for a long moment. It was only after he woke up that so many parts of the dream couldn’t have belonged to him, like Branse standing over the bodies of two men, or the shadow that pulled him away.

“I had a dream about you, too,” he said. “Here.” He opened his palms, gesturing around them. “And my parents and my sister were alive and you were here and…”

Wendall laughed. It was a hollow sound.

“And it was so perfect it hurts.”
Edited by Wendall, Thu Oct 12, 2017 6:57 pm.
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"Sounds like mine. I was here with you, young and innocent. We had dinner. You argued with your brother. Were embarassed by your sister. I was interrogated by your mother and had a talk with your father." He shook his head, looking around.

"It's the same. Burned, yes, but it's the same buildings. Halls. Rooms. The fields are there. I found my way here by a memory I didn't have. How did I know what the house looked like?" He rubbed his arms, relieved that Wendy didn't seem overly angry anymore but neither was he embracing him and forgiving him.

Branse looked out over the fields quietly for a time, reflecting on the dream.

"You know. We were so young. Innocent. I didn't know the first thing about l-- liking someone," he caught himself. "And it was all just a dream. But I remember one thing more clearly than the rest."

He bit his lip and forced himself to look at Wendall directly. "I felt the exact same thi ng when I looked at you. So gods-damned happy and secure in myself. In us. I want that security. To know that we're solid. That we belong together."

He rested his head agaibst the post, eyes closing. "Is it awful that I wish I never woke up? To want to live in that dream and never wake up. Knowing our future was solid."
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A frown pulled the anger out of Wendall’s face. The betrayal, too. Instead there was a deep sadness, a sorrow so long and so old that he didn’t know what to do with it. Shoulders slumping, Wendall looked to Branse, then to the house behind him, which just a few dreams ago had been full of life and movement. Ora on the porch, Edric and Pop in the barn, Ma in the kitchen. All of them breathing, speaking, warming up to Branse—Branse, who had tended to his leg, and kissed him in his childhood bedroom, and been so, so young.

Nothing like what he was now. Whatever innocence Branse had in that dream was gone now. He wasn’t a healer, but the exact opposite. A seasoned killer. But Wendall wasn't what he'd been in that dream, either. When they first met that night at the Green Gryphon, there had been shades of that happy, carefree boy in him still.

They were both broken.

"I wanted that, too. I wanted to stay there forever," he said. "I tried so hard to go back to sleep and go back to that dream. I wanted so badly to live in a world where you didn't hate me."

The frown deepened, and lines furrowed his forehead. Wendall turned away for a moment, took a deep breath, then carefully climbed up the front steps to the porch so he could stand next to Branse in front of the burned out house. His leg was heavier now, and he worried at any moment it might fall through, but the wood out here seemed sturdy enough to hold his new weight.

He didn’t know how to look at Branse, so instead he looked into the house, thinking of the dream and his life.

“You didn’t even let me explain,” he said. His voice came out in a hurried, hurt breath. “You didn’t even give me a chance to—to tell you what happened—” His voice hitched as a lump grew in his throat. Groaning with frustration, Wendall shook his head, swiped his hands through his hair nervously. “I’ve felt like the worst person in the world since I left the cabin, I’ve hated myself, I’ve waited every day and night and I thought you’d come, and then I thought it was just like the first time when you lied, and you weren’t coming, and you never planned on coming, that your heart closed up to me entirely—”

Drawing a deep breath, Wendall looked over his shoulder at Branse, then turned his body slowly and approached him until he was standing just in front of him, separated by mere inches. Wide, earnest eyes searched Branse’s face, noting the differences in the way he looked. There wasn’t anger in Wendall’s expression now, but a deep, deep hurt.

“I don’t think I’m a terrible person,” he said quietly. “I don’t think it’s fair I had to feel like that. I know I did something terrible to you. I’m sorry. I’ll be sorry forever, but I didn’t know what he was going to do.” He reached out at last, and touched Branse’s arm gently with the hand that was still flesh and bone. “What happened to you? Why couldn’t you send word?”
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Branse choked up again, trying not to let the pain splitting his heart show on his face. "Gods Wendy, I don't hate you. I never hated you. I was scared of you at first. Then with everything he did... I needed time to process. I wanted to suffer that alone. I didn't want our relationship tangled up in all of that, so I had to chase you off." He took a deep breath, steadying a little.

"I think I've very much proven I don't make the greatest decisions under pressure."

At Wendy's approach he wanted to lean over and rest his head on Wendy's shoulder. But he didn't dare initiate contact. It was Wendy who had been hurt, he had to respect that and let him decide if he was ready. Where they stood.

"I'm sorry. You aren't a terrible person. You've acted like any good, reasonable human being would given the circumstances. It wasn't fair to you. I wasn't fair." He tried to meet the boy's eyes, gut wrenching at the hurt he saw there but accepting it as his due.

Jumping at the touch, he quickly relaxed and leaned into it, hanging one hand on Wendy's wrist. "I left that night. Went walking through the woods. I didn't have a direction in mind, just picked a tree and passed it and kept moving one foot in front of the other. I calmed down after walking that night and sleeping in a tree. When I woke up I nearly fell out trying to roll over to touch your shoulder." He huffed a quiet chuckle.

"My mother found me. Or I found her. I think I wound up in Calmonah. She decided it was time I learned from her side of the family." He shivered, remembering the feasts he'd sat quietly through with the two of them. Three of them, really.

"I've been stuck starving in a cave since we last saw each other. Really saw each other, I mean. Every night I went to sleep hungry, refusing to eat what they brought me. I slept for an hour or two. They took it in turns attacking me in my sleep at random intervals. Taught me to defend myself." He squeezed Wendy's forearm and wrapped a hand around his waist, pulling him in tight and resting his forehead against his ribs.

"That dream was the first full night's sleep I got since Norwood. Until Saethe pulled me out." He shrugged, trying to cut off the topic. Leaving out the last part of his "training". The part when he'd decided to do whatever it took to leave them and come back. Whatever it took to fulfill the promise he'd made to Wendall's father.

It seemed silly now, trying to keep a promise to a dead man he'd made in a dream and never really known, but pretending it didn't mean anything didn't stop the feeling of obligation. Or the obligation that came with this care he had for the boy.

"I got away, but time's been strange. To me I've been gone four months or so, but I don't think it's been that long here. Hard to say with them." He stood, turning to embrace Wendy properly.

"I know I've said it a lot between us, but I am truly sorry for how I've treated you. You deserve so much better than me. Better than what I've provided." He squeezed and broke the hug, looking into his eyes.

"I'm not splitting up with you. I'm going to try my best to be good for you. Treat you like someone capable and grown as you are, instead of the naive young man I thought you were at first." He let go, looking nervous.

"I'm going to make mistakes. I'm going to [removed] up now and then. But I want you. I want us. If... that's okay with you."
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I don't hate you.

I never hated you.

I wasn't fair.

I nearly fell out trying to roll over to touch your shoulder

Branse always softened him. One way or another, just as Wendall felt his heart hardening, blackening, turning into a squirming mass of grief and anger, Branse soothed it out of him. With a tender look. With an earnest word. With a hot meal or a true apology. Clenching his eyes shut, Wendall bowed his head as his entire body trembled. He'd been so sure Branse hated him, that what he'd done was beyond forgiveness. As he traveled from Norwood to Cascadia, to the Broken Cliffs to Kellen, he became surer each day that he would never see Branse again. The hurt had been real, and the anger, the betrayal—the regret that they'd slept together, the harsh bitterness that Branse knew anything personal about him and then just abandoned him.

It had been real. But Branse's hurt had been real, too. Four months starving in Calmonah with a mother and a cat. Wendall remembered how his own mother turned gray, features shifting just slightly, in the dream. A cat sat beside her. He knew without needing to be told that his own dangerous mother had become Branse's.

Branse stood, still talking, still explaining, and embraced him. Wendall'a grip on him was soft, nervous. Uncertain. Forgiving Branse was so easy when he talked like this. Wendall forced himself to consider Branse throwing the knife into the kitchen wall, to consider his voice which rang like the sharpening of a dagger through the cabin. Branse had not been wholly good to him. But Branse had spent his days protecting him from assassins before Wendall even knew of the hit. Welcomed him into the cabin. Fed him. Clothed him.

For what seemed like a long time Wendall stood there, uncertain, pulled between wanting to forgive and wanting to stay angry forever. Wanting better for himself. From the porch, Daisy hissed and growled at Branse, trying to encourage Wendall away from the perceived threat.

But ultimately, he wanted Branse, and that was why, at long last, Wendall stepped forward and embraced him again, arms wrapping around the older man tightly, fingers tightening around the fabric of his shirt as if he couldn't stand the idea of letting him go. Ducking his head into Branse's shoulder, Wendall pecked him with a small kiss, then just held him so that affection could be what reigned in his heart again.

"I'm not a child," said Wendall, pulling his head back so he could look at Branse. "I made mistakes too." Taking Hearne's hand. Keeping the memory a secret. Running away from the Mare. Not telling Branse the truth as soon as they met in Norwood. Running away again. Answering Hearne's request.

Wendall unwrapped his arms from Branse so that he could cup his face instead in his palms. He was nervous to touch him with the bismuth hand, but did it anyway. He didn't want Branse to be able to look away.

"The next time, I won't leave." Wendall swallowed over a dry throat, let his words hang in the air for a moment, then continued. "The next time you try to push me away—it's all right, I know you will, it's who you are. But next time I'll be who I am, too. And I'll stay. No matter how many knives you throw or how toothy your mouth gets. I'll stay." Wendall smiled a little. "I've run out on you twice now. And both times I should have stayed put. Fought a little harder. Pushed back when you started forcing me away. I'm not going to make the same mistake again. I promise."

Wendall pushed his left hand, the one that was still flesh and blood, through Branse's hair. It was shorter now than it had been before. Wendall couldn't play with it as easily now, or fix it, or push it out of Branse's face. But still his gesture was tender, sweet.

"I just wish we hadn't… found each other here." Wendall frowned. "Gods, not here." Sighing, Wendall lowered his hands from Branse's face, but couldn't quite stop touching him entirely; his hand trailed down Branse's arm, still desiring contact. "You went inside? Did you—see anything, I—I came back to try and. I don't know. I thought maybe there were other things I needed to find. Like the letter. Gods, it sounds paranoid. I don't know what I'm doing."
Edited by Wendall, Sat Oct 14, 2017 6:27 pm.
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Branse felt the twist in his gut begin to ease and loosen up as Wendy came in for a second hug. He hadn't been sure at first, not knowing if he would be forgiven. He cloed his eyes, resting his head against Wendy's.

"But yours are understandable. Easy to forgive." He winced at first at the cold touch of the metal hand, skin blackening at its touch like a warm hand against frost-covered glass, but after the initial contact he leaned his cheek into it.

"If I start to push or lose my temper, please call me out on it. Tell me when I'm being unreasonable. I don't want to lose you again." He returned the smile, eyes drifting closed at the hand through his hair.

Where the bismuth had touched left a print on Branse's cheek, as if he'd been slapped with an ink-covered hand. It remained for a second before color crept back in from the edges, returning to normal in the space of three heartbeats.

Holding his hand securely, Branse took his metal hand and brushed his lips against the fingers. His lips were left black and smooth, but color returned shortly.

"I wish we could have met again in a better place. Somewhere romantic and not so somber." He shook his head. "I didn't see anything, but I wasn't really searching. Just... remembering. I do have this for you, though." He pulled the letter from his back pocket, offering it out to him. "You left it when you... when I asked you to leave."

Taking a deep, slow breath, he looked back into the house.

"Lead the way, lover." He waved to the door. "It's your home."
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“Wait, does this—does that hurt you?” Wendall jerked his bismuth hand back after the kiss. The black spot on Branse’s cheek dissipated within seconds. The round imprint of Wendall’s fingers on Branse’s lips faded, too. Branse didn’t flinch, but then, Wendall felt sure that Branse could withstand trace amounts of pain without acknowledging it.

But was it his mind playing tricks? Had Branse’s skin changed at all?

When he took the letter, it was with his flesh hand. Tucking it away into a pocket with a nod of thanks, Wendall surveyed where he’d touched Branse, looking uncertain and almost afraid of himself. Averting his eyes quickly, Wendall stepped to the door and crossed over the threshold.

“Come on in.”

Sunlight streamed through the glassless windows, highlighting dust motes swirling in the air. The pale, early morning yellow stretched across the floor as if reaching. A thick layer of dust coated the blackened floor, imprinted by faded raccoon and rabbit tracks. Two years later, smoke still stained the ceiling. Ash still clung to the corners of the room, washed off the walls into wet, ugly piles by seasons worth of rainstorms. A charred section of the wall near the kitchen indicated a blast, either due to some kind of magic or an explosion.

Wendall took a deep, shuddering breath. His eyes scanned the floor, the walls. It was impossible not to think of his childhood, rich with love and joy, as he stood in the skeleton of the place that held every memory.

“Ora knocked my tooth out, right over there,” he said, gesturing vaguely. He went to stand in the spot, careful still with his leg so that it wouldn’t fall through the floor. Where he stood there had once been a couch and a table. Remnants of the furniture remained in a sad, broken pile; it was impossible to discern what they’d once been. “Punched me right in the mouth because I said something stupid. It was a milk tooth, but Ma was so angry.”

Wendall laughed weakly. He wanted to share all these moments with Branse, and not in dreams. He wanted to be able to tell him about his life. His family. What they’d been like. It was difficult not to wade through memories as he stepped through the rooms—his entire life took place in this house until two years ago. Every birthday. Every Midwinter. Every death.

“Branse, there’s so much I have to tell you,” he said. “I don’t even know where to start. There’s so much you don’t know.” And so much Wendall didn’t know, either. He especially didn’t know how to tell Branse anything about the plains, or about his visit to Hearne. “Gods, I just have this feeling—there’s something here, I know it.” Disappearing into the kitchen, Wendall began opening and closing the cabinets. He didn’t know what he was looking for, but he knew there was something here, waiting for his discovery.

“I got a new leg. Not lopsided anymore. I’ve been practicing my knives,” he said. “And got a new hand, too. That should help. I’m right-handed. Doing anything with my left is hopeless. They’re both bismuth. If it hurts you… I’ll get a new hand. Make one myself. After I left Norwood I went to go apprentice with a friend I met in the plains. He’s a doctor, specializes in grafts.”

There was nothing in the cabinets.

Drawers next, then. Wendall began opening every single one.

Wendall found the knives that Branse had found earlier. Carefully he removed them and set them on the counter.

One of the drawers had a false bottom. “Shit. Shit shit shit.” Falling to his knees immediately, Wendall toyed with the false bottom for a while before he was able to lift and remove it. There were a dozen little objects inside. Mementos. The first thing Wendall touched had a few sharp corners. He lifted it up out of the drawer.

An iron star with a lifted, pointed center.

Wendall inspected it for a moment. He’d never seen it in his life. Except for—

“Branse?” Wendall looked up from his palm. He didn’t stand up yet. “Branse, isn’t this—?” The star from the dream. Looking back into the drawer, there were a dozen tiny souvenirs from all over Imythess. His face paled.

Keepsakes from missions completed successfully.

Setting the star down, Wendall sat back on his feet, still kneeling. He chewed his lip.

“We… should talk about it. The dream.” He nodded as if to convince himself. “And not the good parts of it.” He looked over to Branse, expecting he would understand what Wendall meant: the warps where memory intercepted fantasy.
Edited by Wendall, Tue Oct 17, 2017 6:52 pm.
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Branse shook his head as Wendall jerked his hand away. "Not at all. It's nothing to worry about. I promise." He kissed Wendy's hand as he took the letter.

He followed him into the house. It was different with Wendall here, that feeling of recognition so much stronger with his being physically here with Branse. Walking through was one thing, but being shown the home and told some of its history firsthand was more powerful.

"Sounds like siblings. And from what I've heard and seen of her, she could say plenty on her own to earn a bruise or two." He smiled sadly.

"Not that you can't drive people crazy with your mouth, can't say I'm all that surprised.

Walking with Wendall, he grew a little somber. The brief, exciting flare those first couple of encounters had faded down a little, replaced by comfort and a low-burning flame. That flame could burst into another spike of heat at any time, but for now he was content just being near him. It was a foreign feeling, one that kept him coming back to the young man.

"I want to hear it. Everything that's been happening in your life. I noticed the new hand and leg. They look good, I'm glad they seem to work much better. And I promise they don't hurt. You're just fine."

He searched along with him, checking drawers and cabinets. He didn't find anything else, the cooking knife being the last of it where it sat on one counter. He had an idea for that.

Hearing Wendy's exclamation, he turned to see him pulling the star out of the drawer. He recognized it immediately, once again seeing the workmanship. The familiar shape. Hells, he'd seen a couple like it long ago.

There were implications to that star. As far as he could tell, Wendy hadn't seen it before the dream. But they'd seen it there, and it was obviously real. This star alone was a silent confirmation that something had Happened in that dream. It was more than memory.

He knew immediately what Wendall meant. He'd seen the burned faces. The bird creature. His mother. Jorah.

"I think we should." His voice was a little shaky, unsteady as he lifted himself to sit on the counter with a hand to his gut.

"What happened to you? There were things in that dream I've never seen before."
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What happened to you?

Wendall's blood ran cold. With a slow, deliberate motion, he looked back to the star in his palm. The dream was more than memory, more than a world where younger, happier versions of themselves could build a life together that wasn't steeped in wreckage. He thought of his father, in the barn, explaining the details of a history Wendall didn't know but which he felt had to be true. He wasn't a Gilliam, not really; Gilliam was just a name chosen at random, without any sort of history. He thought of his father becoming Hearne—it will break him.

He was already broken.

I broke, he wanted to say. I broke but I still try.

"Edric died when he was ten," said Wendall. "Tuberculosis." Wendall pulled the drawer out completely and set it on the floor beside him so he could have a better look inside. A glass figurine of a dolphin lay on top, made in the Cascadian style: blown clear but with a single blue streak from the indent of its blowhole to is tail.

"Ora was fourteen. We were never really quite sure what it was. Some kind of pox. Mom and dad kept her quarantined. I wasn't allowed to see her at all. You saw both of them in the dream, right? Flashes of the way they died."

A soldier-doll. Wendall recognized the style of dress as utterly Tarasian. A successful kill in Taras, too, then.

"I had other siblings. There were ten of us altogether. I was the youngest. So some of them, the oldest ones, had already died by the time I was born. My whole family is buried not far from here. I'll show you after."

He was avoiding the true nature of the question by sharing more about his life. He couldn't talk about the Plains. Ora had become a bird-monster in the dream, and praised Soliyrn's name. More had happened in the plains than war. Wendall had told Branse about boiling people alive. That was easy compared to telling him that he'd been adopted, that one day he would be in charge.

"Um. I… feel… like I owe you an apology for my dad becoming—Hearne." Wendall could barely say his name. He spoke that single syllable such vitriol that his tone alone could have set the house on fire again. "That's what he said to me. When… at the Mare." Wendall's heart began to pound. Looking up at Branse, he sighed, and shook his head. "I don't know how—I'm ashamed. I'm sorry you saw it. I'm sorry." For the memory. For the vision. For keeping the secret. The depth of sorrow of it swelled up inside him again. Wendall felt he could apologize for the rest of his life over what he'd done.

Standing at last, Wendall heaved the drawer onto the counter and went through the rest of it. Figurines and knickknacks from all over Imythess filled the bottom of the drawer. From Striberg charms to Norwood carvings, an entire history of two people who loved Wendall dearly but who were ultimately strangers to him lay out across the countertop.

He stared at all the mementos, lined up like a timeline, for a long moment. Then, with his bismuth hand, he swiped the empty drawer to the floor. It crashed, splintering apart into three separated planks of wood. A nail or two went rolling across the burnt floor. Wendall swept both hands through his hair. A smile of utter disbelief came to his face and he laughed. Shrugging, he clapped both hands against his sides, then began to gesture wildly.

"I can't [removed]ing believe them," he said. "All this shit about how much they hated that life, and how they wanted to spare their children from it, and they kept these things." He shoved both hands toward the line of tiny trophies, but didn't have the heart to break those. "You know what the worst part is? They probably deserved this."

Disgust twisted his mouth. Whether it was aimed at himself or his parents was harder to distinguish. Then, after a moment, he worried at his lower lip and looked away from Branse, softening just a little. Resentment still pulsed in him, just under the surface.

"Your father and brother deserved it, too," he said. His voice was quieter now, almost tender. He forced himself to meet Branse's eyes. "I saw you standing over them. All the blood. I think I would have done that, too, after what they did to him."

To Jorah.
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"Wendall Gilliam. You do not owe me any kind of apology. What happened was not your fault. There was no good way to react." He said as Wendy set the trinkets out on the counter. He flinched as the drawer was thrown down, but didn't look at the mess.

Wendall was losing his temper, unable to understand why his parents had held onto mementos of a darker time. He kept his eyes on the trinkets, studying each item intently.

At the mention of his father and brother, he closed his eyes.

"Wendy." He moved to stand beside him, reaching out to hold his bismth hand in his own. "I know you might have a hard time understanding why they did what they did. These are all reminders of the things they did. The lives they took."

He took a steadying breath and squeezed his hand, wondering if he could tell. "A lot of us do it. Keep reminders. Trinkets. Things to remind us of who we were and what we've done. It doesn't mean they were lying about hating that part of their lives. Once they moved on, it's entirely possible these took on a different meaning. Forgetting what they'd done would be a disservice to these people." He motioned at the line of trinkets.

"Sometimes you need a reminder of what you used to be, so you don't head back down that path. I do it too. Did it too, anyway." He reached into his back pocket, taking out a soft piece of cloth stained a deep, dark red. Lying it at the end of the line on the table, he tried to meet Wendall's eyes.

"This has touched the blood of everyone I've killed. So a part of them is always with me. I don't poison or kill from a distance. I do it up close, so I don't ever forget their face. I keep part of them with me so I don't forget the monster I am." His voice was shaky by the end.

"The first blood that cloth ever touched was from the first blood on my hands. It came from Jorah's shirt. I held that shirt in bloody hands after he died. Managed to hide a piece of it when the shirt was torn from me." He placed a hand over the cloth, thumb brushing it.

"The next blood on it was the man that fired the crossbow. Then my brother's. And then my father's. That cloth is my burden to bear. These trinkets were your parents'. They had this family and tried to be happy after so much heartbreak. But all that while they kept this burden close. They didn't forget it. They did the right thing." He stepped back from Wendy, crossing his arms with shoulders hunched and cloth wrapped in a white-knuckled grip in his left hand.

"We aren't good people. But some of us have something resembling honor. I understand if you're upset by this, but it's who I am. And I made a promise to your father that I would protect you."
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Seeing Branse’s hand darken to black reminded Wendall of the sheer amount of blood on his hands. Snatching his own hand away, he listened to Branse’s rationalization of the trinkets with increasing impatience. The muscles in his jaw worked while he gnashed his teeth, and the absolutely unforgiving austerity in his eyes showed how effect this talk had in swaying his heart.

“Heartbreak,” he said flatly.

Stepping out of the kitchen, Wendall disappeared into an adjacent room. Once it had a door, but the door was gone now—all that remained of it were its scorched hinges. As soon as he crossed the threshold, a knot welled up in his throat. His shoulders drooped. His jaw loosened.

All that remained of the bed was its frame, which had collapsed into the floor. The glass of the large window was cracked. Chunks of it lay on the floor below the sill.

They did the right thing.

There was no good way to react

They couldn’t tell him the truth. They couldn’t hide it. There was no good way to approach the subject of their past with any of their children. There was no good way to sit a child down and say you are hunted. And now they were gone. If he’d never gone to the Fallen Sky Basin, he never would have known his family’s history warranted further investigation. He’d told the Torokh that it was better to know the truth, even if it was painful.

And so he began looking through what remained of his parents’ bedroom. It finally made sense to him why they slept downstairs. It was easier for them to protect the children, in their beds asleep, should an assassin come in the middle of the night.

He went into the drawer of the bedside table, where he found Elia’s comb. A few strands of hair sat wound, miraculously, around its teeth. He went to the closet, and looked up. The box she kept her knives in was gone—she’d buried it under the kitchen floorboards, and he’d found it already. He thought of himself and Ora, trying to reach the box and open it, while Edric lay dying in his bedroom upstairs. They did the right thing. For the most part, they did. All but a single child died, but none of them had ever been killers.

Until the war.

We aren’t good people.

You acknowledge you will do terrible things for those you love. You will kill and do the hard thing…

There was nothing to find here. The room was obliterated by flame.

“I’m the one who issued the order,” he said, loud enough for Branse to hear if he hadn’t followed him into the bedroom. His voice was ragged. Tired. Scared. What would Branse think of him now?

“I’m the one who said it.”

He forced himself to meet Branse’s eyes.

“I’m the one who said no mercy. I’m the one who said destroy them.”
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