On the day of Brendon's funeral, Ryan was young again.
Follow up to And Some You Do For; will not make sense unless you have read that. Art by the lovely tardis80. Warning for character death.
t Brendon's funeral, Ryan was young again. It was not quite a conscious decision; Ryan had been dreading, of course, having to face all of the people there, who would look at him with compassion and care and say, it must have been seventy years, they were, or thereabouts, but he did not do it deliberately. He just woke up on the morning and noticed briefly that his back did not ache as much as usual, and then he picked up a comb almost absently, standing in front of the mirror, and it took almost two minutes for him to realise that the face staring back at him could have only been twenty-five, at the oldest.
He wasn't entirely sure he liked it, but he supposed, without Brendon, there was no real reason to suffer the indignities of old age. Even if he had liked certain aspects about it, had liked the way he finally seemed to have warm skin. Everyone always said that it was easier to get cold, when you were older, but Ryan had found it the other way around. Perhaps years of living with Brendon, Human Heat Furnace, had just finally rubbed off on him.
Nobody at the funeral recognised him beyond a few puzzled glances. There wasn't anyone left, really, who had known him young – either moved away to other places, other cities at some stage in the last seventy years, or gone in a different sense. Jon and Spencer five years ago, within a few months of each other (and oh, how that had hurt, and Ryan had thought nothing could have been worse, nothing in the world, but he had been wrong); Greta, too young, nearly fifteen years now. Ryan was the last one left. Ryan would always be the last one left, he knew.
("And how old are you?" Brendon tripped his fingers over Ryan's ribs, still full of that insane, curious delight that had always been there, the first decade or so. Ryan remembered thinking, even that very first Christmas, that there couldn't be anyone in the world who knew him as well as Brendon. He'd had no idea how much there still was to know, to learn.
Ryan made a face. "You make me feel perverted," he said. "It's different, in Faerie, we age differently, so even if I – I'm not really that much older than you, maybe two or three years or something, properly—"
"Ryan," Brendon said, sing-song, and Ryan laughed.
"In human years," he told him, "I am nearly five hundred and four years old," and Brendon burst out laughing.)
(And then again, many, many years later, when Brendon was sick for a long time, almost two years, and Ryan and Spencer and Jon had moved quieter for it, had not been able to talk so well, with their voices stuck in their throats, because for a while everything had seemed terrifying, then Brendon had asked another question.
Ryan shook his head. "No," he said. "No, don't make me—"
"I'm just," Brendon said, and sighed, collapsing back against the pillows. It was a bad day. "I'm just wondering. When I—"
"No," Ryan said again, and crawled in next to Brendon, curled around him, careful, so careful.
"Ryan," Brendon said, firmly. "How long, in human years?"
Ryan swallowed hard. "One thousand years," he said, quietly, "is considered average lifespan."
"Okay," Brendon said, "Okay," and then, after a while, after a too long while, Brendon got better, and Ryan forgot that the idea had even existed. Which, as he reflected afterward, was very stupid of him.)
He stayed for a month after the funeral. There were things that needed to be fixed up, after all, and even though he was already starting to fade out of the townsfolk's memories, their eyes slipping past his (increasingly smaller) shop, Ryan still managed to fix things. He went walking through dreams one night, seeking out the desires and hopes of the people of Thornton Hill, and he tried to leave small gifts, things they could appreciate. A thank you present, he thought, was probably appropriate.
They weren't big things. Ryan still didn't trust things like that. In the end, he settled for promises and things yet to come: a kiss in the rain, just like that movie; one perfect afternoon with an elderly mother who was beginning to forget; an unexpected day off work, and a fishing trip. It was the simple things, Ryan had found, that counted more.
Then one day, he wished away his shop until it was empty and barred up and ready for lease (though he left the tree, as people seemed to be fond of it). He visited Spencer and Jon's graves one last time, and did not venture near the newer one in that cemetery, and then he left Thornton Hill.
It was not easy to settle, and Ryan didn't think it would happen ever again, so he did not try. Instead, he wandered. Even in this modern world, there were still circuses and travelling markets, and most of them did not mind a solitary traveller joining on for a week or so to do magic tricks.
He never stayed very long. Brendon and Spencer and Jon had taught him, had kept teaching him, how to make friends, how to love people, but now that they weren't there anymore, Ryan would just rather not, anymore. Things were too different and too lonely, and Ryan felt a little ashamed, a little selfish, but he did not want new friends. He had liked his old loves.
Really, Ryan thought, he felt all too human these days. He had been used to it, he'd thought, because Brendon always made him feel human, made him feel alive, like he was conscious of every part of himself and all of it alight, all of it growing and blooming and reaching for Brendon, but it wasn't like that anymore. Now he was just conscious of the parts he lacked.
(They seemed to be, most conspicuously: a gnawing, hungry feeling in his stomach; a lack of space in his lungs that made him yawn a lot, ducking his head; and surprising amounts of nothingness in his head, when he got too weary to even think about things anymore. He wished, sometimes, a little bitterly, that the feeling of emptiness and non-existence would extend to his heart, but that was always there, beating and feeling, every fucking second.)
On the worst days, Ryan conjured up a memory and lived in that for a while, on the outer, watching with his knees pulled up to his chest, his chin propped on his knees. He tried not to stay too long.
In the end, it was all too easy to spend a lot of time doing nothing. Ryan became quite expert at it. He would lie on green fields and stare up at the blue, blue sky, and imagine that he could feel bodies on either side of him. On occasion, he would go back to Faerie, and check that everything was okay there; other times, he'd return to Thornton Hill, just for a little while, because he had been happy there.
Ryan was five hundred and eighty-six years old. A mortal lifespan was so very, very short, and Ryan thought that maybe he was wrong to have gotten so fixated on Brendon, to have had him become all that Ryan would want in any life, no matter how fleeting, because now he had another four hundred years to go and oh, he was very tired, and very lonely.
He thought, now and then, about that first Christmas, talking about Christianity and whether or not they had believed in it. In the last few years of his life, Brendon had stared to fall back towards religion – "Not as something organised or deliberate or definite," Brendon had said, tucked under Ryan's arm in their bed. "Just… I hope in God, I suppose. I would like there to be some ultimate love out there." – and now, even though Ryan still doesn't believe, not really, he can't help but be drawn a little to it. Not for the concept of unearthly beings or a final reckoning, but just because he wanted to believe so badly that there was some place after this, that there was going to be Brendon again, there was going to be Spencer and Jon, and Ryan would maybe, maybe be okay.
Still. "Mythologies," he said, face tilted to the night sky. "And you are but balls of gas."
It was easier, he found, to fall back into the formal tongues of old without Brendon around to habituate him to "dude" anymore. Ryan just wasn't sure he liked them as much anymore.
Seasons began to pass when Ryan wasn't looking. It was harder and harder to keep track of which world he was in, and frequently he would look around him and find that he was back in Thornton Hill, wandering down Main Street or – more often – standing on the original hill that the town was named after, looking down over the houses.
There had been a thorn tree on the hill once, Spencer had told him, and Brendon had chimed in with, it was struck by lightening and died, the year me and Spencer were born. That night there had been a thunderstorm, Ryan remembered. He hadn't been scared, but they'd curled up under the blankets all the same, whispered to each other. (Ryan liked these memories, liked the ones that made him remember how much love there had been, but really, he liked all the memories, and he would spend a whole day sitting cross-legged and thinking about one of the stupid, irrepressible blow-ups they had had, Brendon screaming and red-faced, Ryan cold and shaking, and both of them slamming doors. Ryan liked all the memories. He just wished they didn't have such bad side-effects.)
He was having increasing trouble with time. His hair grew longer and wilder, untamed by thought or magic or even scissors, and he would close his eyes and nap for a half hour or so, only to open them to a new year. He had had anchors for a while, he knew, his friends, the town, his friends, oh, his friends, but now he passed through places unhindered. Nobody watched him leave, or arrive, and Ryan did not mind this so much, or at least not very often.
He stood on Thornton Hill, staring down at the town, watching people live their lives. He stood in snow and rain and fog and sunshine, stood watching and sleeping and wondering and remembering, and after a while, the half-hearted wanderlust in him died away completely, and he felt hardly any urge to move at all.
He barely noticed when his feet took root, though the sudden stiffness in his arms surprised him. In the end, though, he rather liked it, so with the last available movement in him he tilted his face up to the sky and sighed, as his skin grew rough, his hair longer and in different directions, unfurling new, young leaves. It was the first time Ryan had felt young in a long time. He almost laughed when he felt the apples begin to grow on his branches.
The people of Thornton Hill were by now fond – and somewhat superstitious – of trees. They adopted this new one as if it had always been there, especially once it was realised that the apples that grew on it were sweet and delicious, and the blossoms in spring especially fragrant. Children played in its branches, built tree houses that were left to crumble and then be remade again, ate the fruit, sang their songs; lovers snuck away to meet there with a blanket and wide-eyes and bright smiles.
News of the tree spread to Faerie as well, something not quite earthly about this specific place in a world they did not care much for, and they visited it as well. Its fruits could ease the pain of even the worst Faerie illnesses, and the bark – if taken lightly – proved a powerful ingredient for many potions. Often while they were there, the Faerie folk would bestow gifts upon the town sleeping below, to thank them for sharing their gift. The apple tree grew green and strong.
Ryan did not sleep anymore, though time still passed differently. He drank in energy from the sun and then spread it out through the branches, and everything was easier than this – not better, but easier – and Ryan remembered now, what it was like, to love things, to give, to remember and love what was past but also to remember to love today, as well.
He had not, he thought, ever really forgotten.
People left Thornton Hill, like they always had, but in greater numbers. Some of them built a new, bigger town nearby; some of them left that part of the country and never came back. After a while, some men with lots of money and big ideas demolished the remains of it, and Ryan grew on the hill overlooking his reservoir. He slept again, woke, put out fresh apples, slept once more. Years passed.
It was a surprise, the day a warm hand ran down the back of his trunk. It had been a long time since he had had company other than the birds – even the folks of Faerie, those with long memories, visited less frequently. Ryan suspected that maybe the town with all its love and humanity had had more of a pull over them than they would have liked to admit.
Now, he searched for some memory of what to offer. It wasn't the season for apples, but the first days of spring had arrived, and Ryan could already smell the faint, early smell of blossoms. Maybe, he thought, some cool shade would be enough. He sighed, stretched out his branches, rustling in the wind.
Then warm laughter, and a hand tugging his hair. Hair. "Hey, dreamer," someone said, clear and familiar, "Wake up." And oh, yes, it must be a dream, because Ryan hadn't heard that voice for nearly three hundred and forty years.
"Brendon," he murmured, and there was that laughter again, and Ryan felt smaller than usual, but not in a bad way. He felt a little like he had on the day of the funeral, when he had realised that his bones weren't stiff anymore, only not so dreadful and despairing and wrong. Ryan smiled slightly, and someone nuzzled up against his face, lips brushing along his cheek, the line of his jaw.
He opened his eyes at that, couldn't help it, because no one had touched him like that in so very long, and he wasn't a tree at all. He and Brendon were standing on the top of Thornton Hill in the sunlight.
"I – this isn't real," he said. "A dream, or illusion, or—"
Brendon laughed again, as though he couldn't help it, as though there was something wild and joyous about the very world, and all Brendon could do was delight in it. It wasn't Brendon as Ryan had last seen him, skin lined with age, hands trembling in Ryan's. He was as young as the day they'd first met, though not nearly as wary, and dressed in his favourite Beatles tee, the one that Bogart had ruined long ago.
"Come on, Ross," he said. "I know you're a better judge than that."
"But," Ryan said, and stopped, because he didn't know what his objection was, only a steady sense of disbelief.
Brendon smiled at him. "I'm sorry to keep you waiting," he said. "There are certain rules even magic can't break. I'm glad you were a tree. I was worried you'd do something stupid."
"I," Ryan said, and Brendon reached out and pulled him close, and Ryan stumbled and gasped, and suddenly he couldn't stop touching Brendon, cupping his face in his hands, skimming his hands over his back, his arms, his shoulders, down to his hips, up to tangle in his hair, and Brendon smiled back at him, strong and happy under Ryan's scrutiny.
"Well?" Brendon said, after a while. "Do you believe I'm real, yet?" He twitched one eyebrow up, and Ryan had – had forgotten how he would do that, and he moved properly for the first time and clung to Brendon, burying his face in Brendon's hair, and Brendon's fingers dug into his back, pressing hard through the cotton of his shirt. Every now and then he pulled away just enough for them to exchange a hard, exuberant kiss, mouths banging almost painfully together, both of them laughing and staring and oh, Ryan thought, oh, yes, this will be good, I can be good now.
Eventually, Brendon pulled away and said, "Come on, then."
"We're going?" Ryan tried not to look to unhappy. "Why do we have to go?"
Brendon rolled his eyes, and took Ryan's hand. "Well," he said, "They must be getting really bored by now, that's all." Then he turned and led Ryan down the hill, away from where Thornton Hill used to be, and at the bottom, Spencer and Jon were waiting for them, hands tucked in their pockets, grinning.
"Oh," Ryan said, and then they were all four of them together, holding on. He mumbled after a while, "I don't know how—"
"There are certain rules," Brendon said, "That even death can't break."
They walked, all four of them together, for a long time. Ryan was fairly sure they passed through Faerie at one point, and the human world, too, but now they were in regions he had never been before, walking past vast lakes and mountains and deserts. They didn't get bored. They had a lot of talking to do.
After some time, though, they came to an ocean and a pier and a single wooden boat, just big enough for all four of them to fit. Ryan said, "Oh."
Spencer looked at him, gaze straight and fair. Ryan got a pleasant little jolt every time he smiled. He had forgotten how blue Spencer's eyes were.
"You don't have to, yet," Spencer told him now. "You still have a few centuries left, and you know you can have us once you're done. We never really left."
"No, I'm ready now," Ryan said, and they all climbed into the boat. Jon raised the anchor and Brendon unfurled the sails and a steady wind picked up, dragging them out to sea with no effort on their behalf. After a while, Ryan said, "I am a bit confused about where… I mean, obviously you weren't in the – the human form of the afterlife, right? Where were you?"
They all three smiled back at him, warm and kind. "Waiting for you," Spencer said.
"Haven't you heard the stories?" Jon asked. "You told us some of the stories."
It was Brendon, of course, who never really believed that he was clever, that quoted quickly and fluently, half-smiling, "Explicit liber regis quondam regisque futuri, Ryan."
And yes, Ryan thought, yes, that made sense, and he loved that story, he did. He looked towards the horizon that the ship was pointed firmly at and said, "Well, Avalon sounds about right."