They had been travelling Mid-World a month, not even a full lunar cycle, when Roland began to notice odd things happening with Jake. It was little things at first. The odd spark here or there when the boy touched something. Then there was an incident with the burn suddenly bursting skywards as though a bottle of good whiskey had been poured onto it. The most recent thing was during their stay in a little town when a local boy tried to pick a fight with Jake and, before Roland could separate them, the bully ended up being thrown twenty feet through the air without Jake even touching him.
Roland wasn't a fool.
He knew what it meant even if he wished he could ignore it.
Jake had the blood of a Gunslinger, he had Roland's blood, but he also had sorcerer blood.
There had always been a chance that Jake would inherit Walter's abilities, his talent for magic and the like.
Roland had just wanted to believe that the Shine was the extent of that inheritance. He had been desperate to believe it. But he knew, in time, there would be no controlling what his boy could do. Eventually he would have to seek out a tutor, someone he could trust, someone who could train Jake to control his power. To use it instead of allowing it to use him.
The problem was that, even in Mid-World, finding someone skilled enough, trustworthy enough, would be difficult. Perhaps impossible. But Roland would try. Jake had risked everything, had lost too much, for him to continue to ignore what needed to be done.
It was two days after he decided they should circle around the desert towards Mejis, where he hoped to find someone powerful enough to teach Jake, when he was woken by the sound of a familiar whistle.
"Jake," he called out, rolling to his feet, gun in hand, the boy waking with a start and blinking up at him with sleep clouded eyes. "Up. Now."
Jake scrambled to obey and Roland felt the boy's untrained power hum through the air and he ground his teeth together as, from the slowly fading darkness of dawn, that damnable whistle came again.
"Now, son," Roland said, turning, hoping to give his boy time to gather his things and escape. "When I tell you to run, you run, and you don't..."
Roland snarled and spun as he heard a footstep, firing off a shot, only to hear a thoughtful hum from the direction he'd shot in.
"Now, now, old friend," a voice came from the shadows and, though it was strange, different, Roland knew it was Walter. "Is that any way to greet your An-Tet?"
"Not my An-Tet." Roland watched with a fierce scowl as a man emerged from the shadows. "You haven't been that since you told me what you planned to do to use our son for."
Jake was suddenly at his side, glaring, too brave or too foolish to run like most children would and Roland couldn't help the small swell of pride in him.
The man before them, dressed in dark clothes and a familiar black coat, was young, younger than Roland appeared but older still that Jake. A grown man but face still youthful, unmarred by time or the decay of foul sorcery. Bright blue eyes sparkled and a smirk twisted that beautiful face. Others might be fooled but not Roland. And certainly not Jake, who could feel the familiar sharpness of magic from the man. His appearance might have changed but there was no denying who the man was.
Before Roland could say anything, Jake took a daring step forward, his hands clenched tightly at his sides.
"What the hell," Jake's voice was sharp, brittle like broken glass. "Do you want?"
Walter frowned, looking at Jake like he couldn't understand why the boy was being so hostile to.
"I'm here for you, darling," Walter said, smiling now, like a proud parent and Roland's finger twitched against the trigger of his gun. "I sensed your power surge the other day. Surely you've noticed how things have been changing. How you've been able to do things you couldn't before. Even with your powerful Shine."
Jake scowled and looked at Roland, who grunted and shook his head, finger twitching against the trigger of his gun.
"You aren't wanted here, Walter," Roland replied, voice cold and sharp as Jake's. "Not now. Certainly not ever."
"Don't be foolish, An-Tet." Walter shook his head. "Our boy's powers are growing. He needs to learn to control them."
"Not from you."
"I'm the only one," Walter snapped hotly, taking a step forward only to still when Roland thumbed the hammer back. It was the only warning the man would get and he knew it. "Now, An-Tet, don't be rash. You shoot me and Jake will never be able to learn to properly control his powers."
"I'm taking him..."
"To Mejis," Walter hummed and Roland blinked. "What? Did you think I wouldn't know that?" Walter tsked. "How many sorcerers do you think are still in the world, Roland? In this or any world? I can't believe you, An-Tet! I am the best choice, the only choice, and I am going to teach our son to..."
"Are you stupid?!" Jake's shout drew the attentions of both his fathers, though Walter again looked like he couldn't understand why Jake was so angry. "I'm not learning anything from you! You killed my mom!"
"Jake," Walter took a step towards the boy and Roland reflexively fired a shot, dirt flying in front of Walter's feet and the man shot the Gunslinger a scowl. "Really, old friend? You honestly think I'm going to hurt our boy?"
"Hurt me?!" Jake shouted again, starting forward but stopping when Roland grabbed his arm, tugging him back to his side. "You've already hurt me! You killed my mom and strapped me in a chair that made me feel like my brain was being torn out of my skull through my eyes! I hate you! I hate you for what you've done! I don't want anything from you!"
Walter looked almost stricken by Jake's words, his obvious disgust and hate, and he let out a sound like a wounded animal.
"You heard him, Walter," Roland snapped, drawing Walter's gaze again. "He doesn't want your help. We'll find someone else."
"There is no one else." Walter shook his head. "And even if there was do you honestly think I'd let some halfwit magician teach my son? Our son?!"
"Better some halfwit magician," Jake fired back fiercely. "Than you! You're a monster!"
Walter jerked back a bit and blinked owlishly as he looked at Jake.
"Well that's pretty rude of you to say," he said with a frown. "But, I suppose, given what little you know of me that it is to be expected. I did not mean for you to..."
"I don't care what you meant!"
Jake's shout was accompanied by a sudden burst of his power, something not even Walter was ready for and the surge of magic threw everyone back several feet. Jake gasped as he hit the ground, the wind knocked from his lungs, and he instinctively looked for Roland, finding his Gunslinger father several yards away, laid out flat but eerily still. He forgot, for a moment or two, all about Walter as he struggled up, his power humming through his veins, scrambling across the distance between him and Roland. He fell, twice, before reaching his father. A frightened sound falling from his lips as he saw a broken piece of branch protruding from the man's side, blood pooling slowly beneath him, staining his shirt a dark red.
"No, no, no, no," Jake sobbed, hands pressing around the wound as best he could. He didn't know what to do. "Don't...Don't die on me...please...please..." He hiccupped, tears spilling down his face. "Please...Please don't...I'm sorry...I'm sorry, I didn't...I didn't mean to...I didn't..."
He tried to do something, anything, with his power, his magic, but he didn't know how. Didn't know how to save Roland.
"Move," Walter's voice made him jump and he looked up at the man, the monster, and saw something in those fierce eyes. "Move, Jake." When he didn't comply, afraid Walter would seize the chance and kill Roland, Walter grunted and carefully nudged him aside, pushing his hands away with his own.
Jake started to protest, to tell Walter to get the hell away, only to fall still and watch as Walter's magic somehow dissolved the branch. He sat there, watching, tears still streaming down his face, as the wound slowly closed. Walter had healed Roland. Had saved him. But why? Was it a trick? A way to convince Jake to trust him? Well it wouldn't work. He wouldn't be tricked.
Moving swiftly, Jake snatched up Roland's fallen gun and took aim at Walter, who merely blinked at him.
"Jake," Walter said softly, looking hurt by Jake's reaction. "Are you that upset with me? That you would shoot me?"
"I won't let you kill Roland," Jake snapped, hand shaking slightly. "I won't let you take him from me too."
Walter let out a low sound and slowly, carefully, moved away from Roland, mindful to keep his hands where Jake could see them.
"It will be some time before Roland wakes," Walter pointed out. "The healing sleeping I put him under will last a few hours at least."
"I'll watch over him." Jake kept the gun aimed at Walter, feeling his power surging through his veins again and he struggled to keep it in check. "You can leave."
The shot rang out but the bullet missed Walter by at least a foot.
Walter blinked, surprised that he hadn't had the foresight to realize Jake was serious about shooting him.
"That wasn't funny," Walter said and Jake, hand still shaking, let out an angry sound.
"I'm not trying to make you laugh, stupid! I want you to go away! I want you to leave us...to leave me...alone!"
"I want to..." he started but Jake cut him off quickly.
"I don't care!" He gripped Roland's gun with both hands then, trying to steady his aim. "I don't care what you want! You killed my mom!"
"I am your mother!" Walter shouted in return and Jake, startled and frightened, jerked back and, as a result, his powers surged up again and the resulting pulse of magic threw them both several feet away from Roland.
Jake landed with a thump, the wind was knocked from his lungs, Roland's gun flying from his grasp, his head smacking sharply against a rock. Pain exploded through his head and he let out a wheezing sound as he struggled to breathe, to draw air into his burn lungs, even as he felt something wet trickle down the side of his face. He heard something, someone calling his name, but his vision was hazy and he kept fighting to get his breath back.
He blinked as hands touched him, gentle, lifting him and, for a moment, he thought it was Roland but as the haze in his mind faded away he recognized the voice.
"...okay. You're going to be okay. Just stay still now. There you go, just be still. I won't hurt you, darling."
Jake, able to breath again, did not react well to Walter touching him, holding him, and he snarled and struggled, shoving against the man's chest, fighting to free himself.
"Get off!" Jake's lungs still burned from the lack of air but he was still able to shout. "Get off me!"
Walter barely dodged an elbow to the face as Jake struggled and, in the end, had no choice but to release the boy who scrambled quickly away, stumbling to his feet as he turned and glared at Walter.
The sorcerer knew that if he was not careful the next burst of magic could easily do a great deal more harm. Possibly kill one of them. Drawing a deep breath, Walter sat there, watching Jake, wishing he could reach out, wanting to finish healing the wound on the side of the boy's head but knowing his help was not welcome. His very presence, he found, was unwanted by his son. And, truthfully, he had no one to blame but himself.
Oh, he could keep blaming Roland, and he would, none of this would have come to pass if the Gunslinger hadn't stolen their son away like some bandit in the night. But, he supposed, in his own way Roland had been doing his fatherly duty to protect Jake.
"I don't want to hurt you, Jake," he said softly, seeing the anger burning brightly again in those watery eyes and hurried to keep speaking before the boy, his boy, could start shouting again. "I never meant to hurt you. I...That was not what I wanted."
Jake glared, hands, shaking, clenched tightly at his sides, tears beginning to shine brightly in his eyes.
"Then what did you want?" Jake snapped, voice still raspy from having the wind knocked out of him the second time. "When you murdered my mom, when you left that spell so that I would see what you did to her, what did you want if not to hurt me?"
"I..." Walter shook his head, crouching on his knees, tempted to reach out, to try and draw Jake to him. "I was trying to make you see. She didn't...She didn't want you. Not as you truly are. She was willing to send you away. She was willing to send you to what was in all but name an asylum."
"Because she loved me and thought that's what was best for me," Jake fired back. "That's what moms do! They aren't supposed to hurt their kids!"
"I never meant to hurt you," Walter said, eyes all but pleading with Jake to understand but Jake remained firm in his belief. "I never...I thought you were powerful enough...that being my blood...that the chair wouldn't effect you like it did the others."
"I was screaming in pain! In agony!" Jake took a step forward and Walter felt the boy's magic hum through the air. "I was screaming and in pain and you...you just watched! You put me in that chair and you hurt me!"
"I never wanted that."
"Then what did you want?!"
"I want to take care of you," Walter said quietly, voice barely above a whisper, as though admitting that made him weak. "You...You're my son. I carried you. I birthed you. I saw your future and it was glorious and bright and I...I wanted you to have everything you were destined to have." Walter couldn't help the tiny smile that graced his face as he remembered those visions, the hints of his son's future. "But now...now I just...I want to protect you because..." He glanced from Jake to Roland and back again. "Because you are proof."
Jake sneered. "Proof of what?"
"That once, just once, the despised and feared and most wretched Man in Black did something good."
Silence fell over the clearing as Jake and Walter stared at one another.
Jake could all but hear his heart pounding in his ears and, beyond that, the slow, steady sound of Roland's breathing, reminding him that his father was still alive. That he was alive because of Walter. Jake had thought, had been all but certain, that Walter had only done it to trick him. But now he wasn't as certain. Drawing a deep breath, Jake looked over his shoulder to where Roland lay, watching the man for a moment before looking back to Walter.
He knew he probably shouldn't, that Roland would be mad, but as he drew a shaky breath, his power humming quietly through his body, he knew he had to make a choice.
"Do you think you can teach me that?" He nodded towards Roland. "To...To heal, I mean. None of...None of that bad shit you do."
Walter seemed to perk up at that, seemed to immediately brighten, and he scrambled up to his feet, though Jake took a hesitant step back, still wary about the man.
"It takes time," Walter said, smiling as though Jake had just handed him the whole damn world. "More time than we have before Roland wakes."
Jake gave a nod. He believed that. He knew that nothing you learned was easy or quick. But, he remembered his mom once saying, nothing worth learning was ever learned quickly. He drew another deep breath.
"I'll...I'll talk to him," he said softly. "But...But once I can handle this...this power...once I know what I'm doing...you...you need to back off."
Walter's smile wavered again.
"Jake, darling, I..."
"I'm still angry," Jake explained. "And I...I still hate you for what you did to me, to my mom and to Roland, but I...I need to learn otherwise...otherwise I'm going to keep hurting people." He looked at Roland. "I don't want to do that."
Walter nodded. It was not quite what he wanted but, he thought, perhaps it would be a start.
He couldn't help the way he smiled though or the words that fell from his lips next.
"You know, it's almost funny, but you're sort of cute when you're angry," he said, still smiling, glancing at Roland in what could only be described as fond. "You get that, I think, from Roland."
Jake blinked even as he felt his cheeks heat and he quickly looked down and away, mumbling about Walter leaving before Roland woke up.
Jake hadn't been wrong, Roland was not pleased when he woke and Jake told him about his deal with Walter. The Gunslinger had wanted to run. To get Jake as far away as possible, to find another sorcerer, any sorcerer, to teach the boy. But in the end it came down to Jake saying four words that cut Roland deep.
"Do you trust me?"
Roland had stared at Jake like he'd grown a second head before sweeping the boy into a fierce hug, holding him close. The Gunslinger told him to never doubt the trust he had in him again before grudgingly allowing to merely keep guard while Walter taught Jake how to control his power. He didn't have to like it but he wouldn't interfere because, deep down, Roland knew that Walter had been right. The odds of finding another sorcerer capable of teaching Jake was slim.
Besides, better the devil you know.
Walter gave them an entire day before showing back up and Roland did his best to ignore the man as he began working with Jake, focusing first and foremost on teaching Jake how to rein his power back in when it felt like he was about to lose control. Roland lost count of how many times he had to put the campsite to rights again before Jake managed, two weeks later, to finally control his power.
From there Walter began to teach Jake how to channel his power, how to use it to do what he wanted it to do.
Roland watched, closely, carefully, unwilling and unable to trust Walter in any capacity.
He did his best to ignore the sorcerer, truth be told, but in the end that failed.
Walter, he knew, did not take well to being ignored, especially not by Roland and, when he and Jake took a break one afternoon, Jake darting off into the long grass, his little billy-bumbler bouncing along after him, Walter's attention shifted from the boy and to Roland.
"You're ignoring me, An-Tet," Walter said and Roland heard the whine in the sorcerer's voice even if another would not. Roland didn't reply. Didn't so much as look up from the rabbit he was skinning for supper.
Walter let out an upset sound, a soft whine, and Roland's fingers twitched but he didn't look up or acknowledge the other man.
"Stop ignoring me," Walter whined, actually whined, and Roland couldn't tell if it was a trick or just Walter being petulant or not. "Roland." Another whine, long and drug out this time, and Roland twitched but still didn't look up. "An-Tet, stop ignoring me!"
Roland, without looking up, flicked a piece of rabbit flesh towards Walter, who let out an indignant squawk as he ducked. Roland, being petty, flung another chunk, nearly taking the sorcerer between the eyes with it. He would have, he silently mused, if not for Walter's magic
"Get that thing away from me!" Walter snapped, sounding more like himself and Roland almost smiled. "Savage barbarian."
"Who's a barbarian," Jake asked, suddenly returning, Oy trotting happily alongside him.
Walter huffed and flicked his fingers towards Roland.
"Your brute of a father is, dearest," the sorcerer replied, tone shifting immediately, going sugary sweet and Roland watched the man from the corner of his eye.
Jake rolled his eyes, dropping down next to the fire, Oy crawling into his lap.
"You just think that because he doesn't fall for your crap," the boy replied with a cheeky grin, fingers running over Oy's fur. "He's too smart for that."
Roland couldn't help his grin then even as Walter huffed indignantly and flicked his fingers. When Jake suddenly burst out laughing, twitching sharply, legs flailing, Oy leaping away, barking sharply, Roland jerked, about to lunge for Walter before he realized all the sorcerer had down was use his powers to tickle the boy.
"Oh," Walter cooed, sounding almost innocent, almost grinning himself as he twirled his fingers, making Jake all but howled with laughter as the boy flopped back on the ground. "Are you ticklish, dearest?"
Jake laughed so hard he was almost crying and Roland couldn't help but shake his head, about to tell Walter to stop, to leave the boy in peace for a bit, when Jake's voice, high and sharp from his laughter beat him to it.
"Stop! Stop!" Jake was almost breathless as he continued to laugh and twitch. "Please...Please...Mom stop...please Mom..."
Roland's head snapped up even as Walter's face seemed to freeze in an expression of surprise, his magic fizzing out sharply and Jake, struggling for his breath, seemed to realize the gravity of the words that had passed his lips only seconds before.
No one moved and no one spoke.
All too afraid of the fragile truce that had been holding breaking.
And then it broke, like a cracked teacup falling from a table, it shattered.
"Jake," Walter whispered, starting to move, starting to reach for the boy, who was staring wide eyed at the sorcerer. It was hard, even for Roland, to guess what was going through Walter's mind beyond taking the boy, their boy, into his arms and holding him. But it was clearly something Jake was not willing to permit.
He proved his Gunslinger blood.
Between one heartbeat and the next, Jake was up and bolting towards the field of long grass, Oy giving a startled yip, calling Jake's name in his broken way, before giving chase.
Walter went to stand, to follow, but Roland had his gun in hand and aimed at the sorcerer before he could take more than a step.
"Leave him be," Roland rumbled softly, watching Walter, waiting for a sign of his anger or defiance.
"Leave him be," Roland repeated, thumbing the hammer back, frowning deeply. "You leave him be."
Walter scowled and, for a moment, there was a familiar flicker of fiery anger in those impossible blue eyes.
Roland fired a shot, the bullet kicking up dirt by Walter's boot and, perhaps most surprising, the sorcerer jerked to the side, no doubt remembering how their last fight had ended.
"Leave." It was a warning as much as a command. "Now."
"The next bullet will go in you rather than the dirt." Roland regarded him silently then. "Leave."
When Walter didn't move Roland sighed.
"Give him a few days, Walter." Roland saw the surprise flicker in Walter's eyes at the advice but the sorcerer said nothing. "Just..." Roland sighed again, slowly uncocking his gun and lowering it. "Give him a few days."
Walter seemed to almost hesitate, glancing off towards the fields where Jake had disappeared, but in the end he nodded and turned sharply, vanishing into the ether as was his way.
It was hours, nearly dark, before Jake returned to the campsite and, as he did, he moved slowly, cautious, looking around.
"He's not here," Roland called out, tending to the fire, looking up at the boy. "Gone off for a while."
Jake nodded and moved closer, sinking down to sit across the fire from Roland, accepting the covered tin of cooked rabbit and roasted vegetables and a cup of water from the Gunslinger. Neither spoke, merely sat there while Jake ate, feeding bit of the rabbit to Oy. When Jake finished he set the tin aside, running his hands over Oy's fur as he watched the dancing flames and Roland busied himself with cleaning his guns until, finally, Jake found his voice.
"Do you believe in ghosts?"
Roland looked up, slowly, finding Jake's gaze fixed on Oy, and he set his guns aside.
"I've seen ghosts," he said softly, remembering the thinnings and the things in the high hills out where the world had started to move on. "Been haunted by some my entire life." He slowly stood and made his way over to sit next to Jake, looking gently at thhe boy. "What have you seen, Jake?"
Jake swallowed and kept his gaze fixed on Oy.
"I keep seeing my Mom," he murmured quietly, still refusing to look up, to meet Roland's gaze. "I...I've seen her ever since..." He trailed off though Roland knew what he meant and, immediately, he reached out to wrap his arm almost protectively around Jake.
They were quiet for a bit before Jake seemed to find his voice again.
"I've been seeing her less and less though," the boy all but whispered, finally lifting his head, looking at Roland with eyes full of unshed tears. "Ever since...Ever since..." He sniffled slightly. "I didn't mean to...to call him...you know..."
Roland nodded, tugging Jake closer, pressing a quick kiss to the top of his head.
"Blood does not always mean love," the Gunslinger said softly. "Walter...he bore you, true enough, but...my choice meant another got to raise. My choice meant you got to grow up a child rather than a weapon or a tool. My choice meant you were loved and cherished in a way that...at the time...Walter was incapable of."
Jake let out a soft sound.
"Shouldn't have called him that," the boy said softly, tears dotting his lashes now. "It's just...my Mom used to...to tickle me when we play fought and I just...I don't know..." He looked away, out at the darkness beyond the camp. "And I've been seeing her less and less. The more...The more he teaches me...the more she fades away."
"Perhaps it's not to do with Walter but you," Roland suggested, hugging Jake close. "She lingered because she worried for you, wanted to be certain you would be safe. Now she sees you will be. That you can protect yourself now."
Jake looked up at him, doubtful, and Roland told himself he had never told another.
"My mother," Roland said softly. "She lingered with me for a long time after her death." He got that far away look in his eyes he sometimes got when he thought too long of his past. "She was there the day my father died. She mourned while I thirsted for vengeance."
"Do you still see her?"
Roland shook his head.
"She faded," he said as he pressed his cheek to Jake's hair. "Not long after you found me." He smiled slightly. "I think she knew I would find my true path again with you and she did not need to watch me any longer."
Jake was silent for a moment.
"Do...Do you think that's what's happening with mine?"
Roland hummed, he wasn't certain, couldn't begin to even guess how ghosts worked or thought or if they thought at all.
"It could be," Roland said softly, looking at the fire as it crackled and danced. "You're growing so strong, both in your powers and your soul, perhaps she saw that you had the strength to stand without her now."
"So...So you don't think it's because...because of...Walter..."
"No." Roland's tone was firm. He might not be certain about many things but in that he was certain. Not even the great Man in Black had that sort of control over the dead. "He's not to blame for her fading. She would have faded in time regardless. There's...There is no known reason for why they stay or how long or why they fade. It just is."
Jake nodded but looked sad all the same.
"I don't want to...to forget her."
"You won't. She was your mother. No matter what was said or unsaid between you, nothing will ever change that."
Roland sounded so certain, so convinced of it, that Jake, though still sniffling, tears still trickling down his face, felt like a weight had lifted from his shoulders. He remained against Roland's side until he started to doze, crawling to his bedroll when nudged by the Gunslinger, Oy following loyally to curl up against Jake's chest.
Roland sat for a long while after that, lost in his thoughts, almost missing when, from the shadows around them, Walter emerged. His gaze narrowed in on the man and his fingers twitched for his gun.
"Told you to stay away," Roland murmured, not wanting to wake Jake.
Walter gave a delicate shrug and looked at Jake, sleeping soundly, arms around Oy, who snored softly.
"He's my son too," the sorcerer replied just as quietly, slowly sitting next to Jake's sleeping form, reaching out to gently brush Jake's hair back. "And I...I know I have failed at showing it but...but I do love him." He looked up from Jake's sleeping face and his gaze fixed on Roland. "Just as I still love you, An-Tet."
Roland grunted but didn't argue with Walter. He had long ago given up any real hope that Walter would mean what he said, especially when it came to the sorcerer claiming to love him. If he didn't believe it for himself he would never believe it when it came to Jake.
"You'll be gone before he wakes," Roland said softly, settling down, keeping a watchful eye on Walter. "And you'll stay gone for a few days. Or at least let him think you're gone for a few days."
Walter gave a slow nod and they lapsed into silence. Roland continued to watch Walter until sleep claimed him.
When the Gunslinger woke in the morning, Walter was gone.