Weeks would go by when he wouldn't think about it.
The gunslinger had gotten good at letting the dusty desert winds wring him dry. Out here, the sandstorms could peel the flesh from his bones, and so he had learned to rebuild. Imperfectly, reinvent.
He used what he had left, what had survived the long journey from Gilead. Fifteen years of training and discipline, and far more nasty memories than good ones to filled the gaps in between.
Some of what he remembered was true – some of it must have been the truth – but the desert had bleached his memory as white as bone. He couldn't be sure of how much anymore. He couldn't even be sure anymore if it mattered.
Weeks would go by when he wouldn't think about it. And then he would.
By the time Roland awoke, they had left the green hills of the Mejis behind. The last thing he remembered was that the air had smelled like wet pine and charred flesh. Strange, he thought; he had only seen Susan Delgado's death in the Wizard's Glass, and so there should have been no reason that he was still able to taste smoke on the back of his tongue, still hear the eager popping of burning wood.
But Roland knew he had never had much in the way of an imagination.
He must have been, Roland realized. It seemed like it had been a long time since someone had talked to him in a way that made sense. The journey from the town of Hambry had been a blur of bird-language, of eating and drinking when food and water was offered, of closing his eyes when he was prodded into bed.
"Cuthbert…?" Roland muttered, and he made a little noncommittal motion with his head. He couldn't say he felt better, not while keeping a straight face. Right now, he only felt numb. Hollowed, as though the pain had been driven deep inside, deeper than he could touch right now.
"How long has it been?" he said instead. "A few days?"
Cuthbert laughed, but it was a thin, nervous sound. "Try a few weeks."
"Oh." He blinked in what might have passed for surprise. "That's… a long time
"Roland…" Cuthbert sighed. Roland had never seen him struggle for something to say before. Never seen his eyes skate away like that when Roland looked at him, turn down so they were cloaked behind long lashes. "We were pretty worried," Cuthbert finished at last.
"I'm sorry." He ought to have said more, Roland thought; it seemed he owed Cuthbert and Alain a great deal. But he wasn't sure where to begin.
Cuthbert sighed. "Don't say that. You'll only make us both feel worse if you do." He shifted a little, and his hand fell abruptly over Roland's, a hot insistent pressure. "If you want, we can palaver…"
Roland shook his head. "No. No… I don't want to talk about it."
But he let Cuthbert's hand stay, and even twisted a little in his grip, to lace their fingers together. All at once he was reminded of when they were young. Cuthbert used to wait until they had a moment alone, and then he would reach up and take Roland's face between his hands. And he would laugh a little, softly, and then kiss him.
He said he was only practicing. Gunslingers were supposed to be great lovers, that's what all the women said, and so they ought to get good now so they wouldn't disappoint.
Roland hadn't been able to argue with logic like that. And then Cuthbert had stood a little taller on his toes, and kissed him again.
"You know," Roland said abruptly. "You know…"
"What?" Cuthbert leaned closer, against his shoulder. He was quiet for a while, waiting for Roland to speak. "Roland…" he murmured. Roland hadn't known Cuthbert could be so quiet. "Please say something."
"You know…" he tried again, "I told her that she was my first. My first… everything." His blue eyes flashed like heat lightning raging on the horizon. "Even my first kiss."
"I don't understand," Cuthbert said.
But he did. Even in this dim light Roland could see the blush heating across the bridge of his nose.
Cuthbert's shoulders fell in defeat. "Don't be weird, Roland," he said. "You know those didn't count for anything."
Cuthbert shook his head, but he didn't look up to meet Roland's gaze. "Of course not. We were just boys. It's not like… it meant anything."
There was a hesitation as he spoke those words, a tentativeness, but Roland didn't think too hard about it. He was afraid that, if he did, he would realize they were a lie.
Cuthbert had done so much for him already. He didn't want to be ungrateful.
And the other boy gave his hand one last squeeze before pulling away. He pushed to his feet.
Maybe he was a little shaky, but Roland was trying not to notice that, too. "You should eat something," Cuthbert said. "Alain did the cooking tonight, so it's not so bad. I think there's a snake left over."
Roland glanced up at him and smiled fragilely. "That would be fine."
What he really wanted was to thank Cuthbert for everything, but the words didn't come. They never would. Though perhaps he understood already; Cuthbert had always been good at things like that.
The gunslinger lifted a hand to shield his eyes from sun and sand.
On the horizon, a vulture wheeled across the cloudless sky, tracing a series of concentric circles, before folding its wings and dropping out of sight. He couldn't see the man in black anymore, but he knew that he needed only crest the next dune to catch sight of him again.
He thought that sometimes, late at night, the people he wanted least to remember crouched in the shadows just beyond the reach of the light from his campfire. Watching him and grinning fit to kill.
Maybe it was just the sun, but these days he remembered Cuthbert's face only in his dreams, his voice only in his more vivid hallucinations.