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And the Gunslinger Followed

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Charles no longer remembers the past. 

He can’t recall the life he lived before this non-life, this parody of a life. He does not hold the face of his mother in his mind, no treasured memory of her voice, her smell, the touch of her hand. He did, once, a very long time ago, but none of that is his any longer. 

The passing of a year doesn’t mean what it used to. If anything sticks, it’s small, fragmented. A wisp of conversation, an impression, brief images and sounds. He’s lived hundreds of lives and novelty is a luxury that no longer applies -- he doesn’t need to remember what he’s already done, feelings he’s already experienced. It’s superfluous. Such things have ceased to matter.

Charles does not know his own name. He chose the one he answers to now many hundreds of years ago, and only then because it felt right at the time, because it rolled off his tongue in a pleasing manner. Before that he went by another, and before that still others. It’s likely they were no more true to his original self than the name he bears now, but the possibility doesn’t bother him, the way that most things don’t bother him anymore. The names serve their purpose. They tell him who he is, tie him down to the earth for a little while, keep him in place when the sands of time are forever seeking to pull him onward, feet never touching the ground.

It’s always surprising to him, the realization of how seemingly easy it might be to simply float away, even when he’s burdened under so much weight.

Charles does not remember the past, but he carries it with him. The past sits crouched and invisible at the back of his mind, waiting for its moment to speak, to make itself known. He is conscious of too many things for one discrete lifetime, says things sometimes that make his skin prickle in recognition, as if they’ve been said before.

It’s not a particularly bold assumption to make, though it never gets any less eerie, having no memory of where his knowledge stems from. It simply is. It floats to the surface of his thoughts like an offering, a forgotten object clearing the murk.

Charles is very, very old. There’s little left to learn, if anything.

His existence is a strange thing, especially strange to others of his kind, a fact which he is all too aware of. He persists because he enjoys the complexities and variation of life, as much as he can anymore. He immerses himself in the identities he assumes for as long as he cares to, or remembers to, always wondering if they bear any resemblance to who he was before death. Which ones are closest.

Perhaps this state of being should distress him, but Charles knows no other. He cannot imagine how it should be different for one such as him, how it could be. 

Charles has long since forgotten what it is to want anything at all with the same kind of focused intensity as he does the blood that sustains him. He has desires, and indulges them because it’s easy enough to do so, but the notion of a greater, all-encompassing longing for a life other than his own is so completely, utterly foreign.

This is what distresses him, when he lets himself think on it -- the inference that there was once a time in which he could have, and quite possibly did, feel that particular kind of longing. For what, he can’t fathom. A person, a place, a circumstance. He doesn’t know. 

There is only one longing now: for the taste of warm, coppery wet in his mouth, the necessary fuel to perpetuate the inexplicable quickening of body and mind.

It’s the only thing he’ll ever need, the only thing he takes with him.

And then he meets the boy, and quite suddenly, a great many things begin to change.

 

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The cafe is small and hot, uncomfortably so, windows fogged with condensation and the air gone close and damp. 

Erik sits at the scratched formica table and eyes his mother at the counter, ordering them something quick and simple to eat. He should be watching his surroundings, as he’s been told many times, but the hunger gnawing at his insides keeps his attention focused solely on what matters most in this moment: food, soon to be acquired, soon to be eaten. They’ve been driving for six hours already today, and a single packet of tough jerky doesn’t go far when you’re a twelve year old boy already growing into his hands and feet.

His mother returns to their table holding a tray loaded down with sandwiches for them both, a black coffee for herself, and a can of Coke for him. She sets it in front of Erik then digs out a handful of loose change and a scrap of folded paper.

“I’ve got to go make a call,” she tells him. “Go ahead and start without me.”

She tosses him a small, pinched smile, and disappears out into the street. The bell above the door rings as she leaves.

Erik’s stomach twists. All of a sudden he feels too exposed, too conspicuous, a lanky young boy with a lean and hungry look, eyes older than his face would otherwise suggest. People don’t need much of a reason to stare, and there’s always been something about Erik that draws their gaze more consistently than most. His usual response is to stare back until they look away, unnerved, and it tends to work pretty well. This time is no different. Only once everyone around him has returned to their own meals does he relax, but he still reflexively pats his jacket pocket for a little extra reassurance, comforted by the familiar shape of his butterfly knife hidden there.

Halfway through his sandwich, Erik looks up again. There’s a man sitting at another table across the room, newspaper folded primly in front of him, and his eyes are fixed on Erik like there’s nothing else in the room worth looking at, head propped up and resting on one palm. 

A cold shiver drifts down his spine, a small tendril of unease that should make Erik want to run. He knows this feeling, has trusted it before and not been proven wrong, yet for some reason running is suddenly the absolute last thing on his mind, the last thing he would ever want to do.

I should go and talk to him, he thinks. A quieter voice adds, tell him to mind his own business.

Erik takes his sandwich and crosses the room, approaching the man’s table slowly. He sits, takes a bite. “Hello,” he says, through his mouthful. 

Up close the man is striking for reasons Erik can’t quite put his finger on. He continues to stare at Erik, but the corner of his mouth lifts in a tiny grin.

“Hello.” His voice is warm, slightly accented, and doesn’t appear to match his face. Erik’s not sure what he was expecting, but it’s certainly not this smooth, enthralling burr. “What’s your name, young man?”

“Erik Lehnsherr,” he replies blithely, even as he remembers how dangerous it can be to reveal such information to strangers. His mother would be furious, but Erik isn’t bothered by this slip in judgement. The man has a trustworthy face; he’s only being polite.

“Are you here by yourself, Erik? Where are your parents?”

“I’m here with my mother. She’s just down the street making a phone call to one of her contacts.”

The man quirks an eyebrow. “Contacts?”

Erik nods, takes another bite of his sandwich. “Other hunters,” he says once he’s swallowed, his throat tight and dry. “We’re driving up to Washington. There’s something we have to take care of, so my mother’s calling around for information.”

Something in his mind pleads, STOP TALKING, but Erik doesn’t see why he should. 

The other eyebrow joins the first, and the man’s expression shutters a little. Erik wonders what it was he said that upset him.

“How old are you, Erik?” He sounds mildly distressed, a little bit angry. It seems an odd question to ask, but Erik doesn’t mind.

“I’m eleven,” he says, and the man’s face twists in disgust, a bewildering reaction if there ever was one. Erik lifts his chin defiantly. “I’m not a baby. I know how to shoot a gun, and I’m good with knives, my mother says so. I’m going to be a hero like her when I’m older.”

The man grimaces, and his eyes are a piercing, hectic blue when Erik meets them. His head feels strangely fuzzy, like he can’t quite remember why he was so indignant in the first place. Not when he feels the man’s regard like a physical weight, the concern and pity nearly oozing from his pores. He cares, that’s all. Erik should be grateful to have a perfect stranger care so much about his well-being. Certainly no one else in this dingy little cafe does.

“I have no doubt that you’ll be a mighty hero one day, Erik,” the man says gently, and though it seems like the words should sound patronizing, they don’t. “I can tell how much you want to protect those around you. It’s very noble.”

Erik feels a small burst of warmth in his stomach, a sensation not unlike pride. He preens, trying to sit up straighter, to appear even taller than he already is. The man takes note, nodding approvingly.

“You’re so very young though,” he continues, voice soft and contemplative. “Maybe too young, perhaps.”

Erik bristles. “I’m not!”

The man raises both hands in surrender. His mouth is lifting in a smile again, but his eyes remain so very sad. Erik doesn’t understand it, wants to follow that sadness as deep as it goes, chafes at not knowing the source.

“If you say so, Erik.”

“I do.” Erik says it firmly, with conviction. The man appears to believe him, if his solemn nod is anything to go by, and he reaches across to lay a gentle hand on Erik’s bared wrist. His touch feels like ice, his fingers like five searing lines of dry, papery cold curled over his skin, and Erik flinches away with surprise.

“My apologies, Erik,” the man says. “I haven’t had my meal yet today, and I forget sometimes how unpleasant it can be, to be touched by that hunger.”

For the life of him Erik can’t figure out what on earth he might mean by that. Something tells him he doesn’t want to know.

Another voice confirms it, no you don’t want to know, forget about it, it’s not important. Erik does so.

The man suddenly stands, tucking the folded newspaper under his arm. Erik stands with him.

“I’ve enjoyed chatting with you, Erik,” he says. “Thank-you.”

“Wait, are you leaving?”

The man smiles, but it’s still so sad. It doesn’t reach his eyes. “Yes, I really ought to. Your mother’s on her way back and she wouldn’t be happy to see me.”

Erik bites his lip, confused. “Do you know her?”

“No, I don’t.” He says it as if he wishes it were otherwise, voice hard and filled with regret. “But I know enough.”

It’s such a complete non-answer that Erik feels a fortifying surge of anger under his skin. He squares his stance, arms folded, trying to block the man from getting by. He gives Erik an amused look, but doesn’t attempt to brush him aside. “I don’t understand,” Erik says. “What do you mean? You’re not making any sense.”

There’s a long pause while they stare at each other in mutually assessing silence, the bustle of the cafe around them seeming far away, quiet and unconnected to this moment. After a while, the man reaches out again to touch, fingertips light against Erik’s temple before he can jerk away. “It doesn’t matter.”

Erik relaxes, mind going blank and unconcerned. No, it doesn’t, does it?

The man claps a hand on Erik’s shoulder and maneuvers him gently, coaxing him back to his original seat. Erik goes, tingling at the contact, even with his thick denim jacket acting as a barrier between their skin. Pushed a little, he sits down, folds his hands together in his lap.

“Goodbye, Erik,” the man says.

Erik looks down at his tray and wonders why his food has gone cold. He must have been daydreaming, and the thought makes his stomach roil and turn. Erik doesn’t often make mistakes, a fact which he knows makes his mother proud, and he’s glad she’s not here to witness his screw up. She would be so unhappy, so disappointed. He has to be perfect for her, he has to keep them safe. She shouldn’t have to watch over them both, not when doing so could get her killed. It’s just as much Erik’s job to pay attention as it is hers, and he’s failed.

When his mother walks back through the cafe door, Erik can’t meet her eyes. It’s as good as a flare in the sky announcing he’s done something to be ashamed of. She won’t ask, though. She’ll wait for Erik to twist himself up into knots until he comes clean himself, let him dig his own grave. Erik hates how well this method works. 

She picks at her own sandwich, sipping the stone cold coffee and grimacing. “Finish up, Erik. We need to get back on the road.”

Erik finally gathers enough courage together to meet her eyes. She looks back at him, blankly unconcerned. She’ll wait as long as it takes, and Erik knows from past experience that will be sooner rather than later. He scowls when she ruffles at his hair, palming her keys.

“C’mon. We’ve got work to do.”

Erik gets up, follows her out into the cold and the rain, hunching into his jacket. His mother takes his hand, and they go.