He’s so close to the edge. Once upon a time, Brane would’ve condemned this as the coward’s way out. Once upon a time, he was a hero. The water licks his boots, leather the only barrier between him and death. He’s so close.
“Hurry up, slowpoke.” The Black Book snaps, jabbing at him with a sharp corner. “We don’t have all day.” The jab is a little softer this time. Brane doesn’t have to look at the Book to see its hidden grief. Instead, he focuses on his surroundings. They’ll be the last thing he sees, after all.
It’s a beautiful day outside. Brane almost doesn’t feel right about killing himself on such a wonderful day like this. It’s his duty though, and at the very least, he might as well see it to the end. Brane takes a shaky step forward, and—
“Brane?” He startles, stumbling back and turning around to meet Harty’s doe-eyed gaze. She’s not the only one there, unfortunately. Phoelin and Nurv stand behind her, their expressions a muddled mixture of anger and hurt. The Black Book shakes ever so slightly, and Brane understands with striking clarity in that second. They’re not supposed to be here.
“Why are you here?” His voice, hoarse and slow, is a stranger to his own ears. The waves nearly drown him out, tangling his voice in reeds and dragging him beneath the surface. While Phoelin and Harty stumble for something to say, Nurv - ever the eloquent one, ever the green eyed monster - can’t keep his eyes from the water at his feet.
“Brane,” His oldest friend, one of many forgotten allies, looks fearful — his voice cracks with a desperation Brane didn’t even know he had. There’s a panicked note that he almost wants to hear more of. Shame how dying the first time didn’t elicit these reactions out of him. “step away from the edge.” No, he’d really rather not. A dying ember of defiance flares.
Looking Nurv solidly in the eye, he takes another step back. Phoelin lets out a strangled noise, her grab towards him only stopped by Nurv. The water pools at his boots. If they were of any other fabric, Brane would have been in pain by now. He’s not sure if he would mind. What’s a little pain when you’re an abomination of nature?
“Brane!” Phoelin shouts, trying to talk him down and shove away Nurv at the same time. Brane wouldn’t expect anything less. “Brane, you moron, step away from the edge! You can’t just let us believe you died and then go and- and-!” Her voice fails.
“-kill myself?” Brane finishes for her, almost relishing in her flinch. Suicide has always been a taboo, a certain damnation from God for throwing your life away. But Brane’s already damned. What’s another sin?
Maybe he should just get this over with. Except... “How did you find me?” He figures the flowers would have knocked them out for at least a day, taking their memories with it. “The flowers should have kept you asleep. You shouldn’t have remembered anything.”
“My students, they um,” Harty stutters out, twisting and untwisting her hair with anxious fingers. “one of them had been working on a counter to the Forget-Me-Nows, and well, it kinda worked. They, um, also figured out it was you, though they were pretty surprised. I mean, we all thought you were dead.” She’s lying; small ticks that he shouldn’t remember reveal themselves before his eyes. There’s something she’s not saying, but Brane won’t push it. Not now.
“And then she woke Phoelin and me up,” Nurv finishes quickly. There’s an air of panicked elegance to him. “please, Brane, just talk to us.” It suits him.
“Why do you care?” The Black Book snaps, seemingly fed up with their conversation. Don’t interrupt, Brane wants to say, but the book keeps talking. “You have your fame, your riches, your glory - what more do you want from him? He has nothing left. No memories, no personality, nothing, nada, zilch!”
The other three look stunned, Phoelin’s mouth moving to form words but her vocal chords are shocked into silence. Whether that’s because the Black Book talks or because they’ve learned that Brane is a shadow of his former self is anyone’s guess. “What do you mean nothing?” Phoelin finally gets out.
“What I mean is that your buddy here is just a shell of his old self.” The Black Book says, one lone eye narrowed in anger. “Scram so he can fulfill his destiny. You did it the first time.” Brane winces lightly. Though he’s not on the best terms with his old team, even he knows that’s a low blow.
“Um…I don’t think-” He winces as the Book jabs him harshly.
Harty flinches, before steeling herself. “We’re not leaving him.” she says, quiet determination brimming in her voice. “Not again.”
“I… you don’t—”
“You can’t even be honest with him — how did you find him? Why would you even bother coming here, knowing that this is what he’d do? Why—!?” Sick of being ignored and cut off, Brane grabs the book and promptly shoves it in his bag, stumbling back from trying to lock it against the book’s protests. Just as his fingers shut the clasp, he slips, falling back into certain death. Instinctively, he shuts his eyes as the water rushes up to meet him—
There’s no pain.
Brane hesitantly opens his eyes, and there they are forming a chain, Phoelin holding on to his shirt, Nurv and Harty keeping the two of them from falling in. His eye lowers to Phoelin’s feet.
Brane doesn’t resist as the three of them pull him up and onto the sand, the image of Phoelin’s damaged legs stuck on replay. This is all his fault. His eyes flick over to the water. He really is a monster, only able to hurt others. The sprites were right, they had always been right about his less than human status. He should have just died—
“Oh, hell no!” A heavy weight slams into him, pinning him to the sand. Phoelin raises her arm up and punches him in the face, kneeing him in the gut for good measure. “We’re not doing this again!” Struggling to breathe, Brane doesn’t put up a fight as he’s dragged towards the nearest tree and tied to it.
It takes him a few moments to regain his wits. “...did you have to punch me?”
“I saw how you were looking at that ocean, jackass.” Well, she isn’t wrong. “Now, what’s up with you, Brane? The book? The, uh, new look?” Nurv takes the opportunity to inspect Brane closely, his fingers brushing over his eyepatch. Brane’s subsequent flinch and instinctive lean back into the tree doesn’t go unnoticed.
“Brane, what happened? You still had your eyes when we were in the forest.“
Memories of that horrible night ( it hurts, please someone help, R**i*a, my promise, I’m sorry ) rise up unbidden, and he sucks in a breath. He can’t calm down, he’s— he’s pinned. Brane’s pinned, alone, and the monster is tearing, biting away at his arm, his legs, there’s so much blood , his sword lying a little ways away but he just can’t reach it—
“Brane!” He can’t move, he’s going to die . No matter how much he squirms, he can’t escape the monster’s grasp, Goddess, he’s going to die alone! “Get— the book—”
Faintly, he can hear paper fluttering. “Brane.” A soft voice lilts in his ear. The Goddess?
“You’re safe. Brane, you’re by a beach. You’re sitting under a small tree nearby.”
No, he’s not, he’s dying—!
“It’s okay, Brane. You’re not dying. The sky’s pretty today. Can I touch you?”
Brane gives a small, slow nod. The paper is soft underneath his fingertips, and he can feel creases under his fingertips as he drags his fingers across the page. Writing blurs together, ink smearing slightly on his hand, but the Black Book doesn’t even flinch, prattling on about the sky and everything around them. Brane has never been more grateful.
“...When was I untied?” The Book hums, not answering his question. Taking a couple more deep breaths, Brane looks around, shakily standing up. Harty, Nurv, and Phoelin are huddled by the stone monument, the former two trying not to stare. Phoelin has no such reservations, watching him with wide eyes. She’s the first to start moving towards him, ignoring the calls of the others.
“Brane!” She shouts, cautiously approaching him. “Are you alright?” She’s more tactful than he thought she would be. He nods. Brane doesn’t feel like speaking to anyone but the Book right now. He can’t avoid not talking about it forever, but…
“He’ll be okay. We’re leaving.” What? “Sorry, Brane. Unless you want to retraumatize your old pals further…” No, the Book has a point. They’ll simply have to go back to the Southern Woods for now. Brane can wait a few more days. The two of them start towards the path.
“Wait!” Nurv calls out, grabbing Brane’s hand. He can’t repress his flinch, and Nurv immediately lets go, a pained look crossing his face. “Sorry, I just… where are you going? We, we don’t want to lose you again.”
Brane bites the edge of his lip. Should he really tell them? The Book doesn’t seem to think so, its one eye narrowing slightly at the other male. Not only that, but if he tells them, then they’ll get roped into his problems. And considering what happened last time… “It’s your choice, Brane.” Harty says quietly. “It’s our fault this happened to you. If you never want to see us again…”
That was why he chose them in the end, wasn’t it? They would always stand by his wishes and decisions, even if they thought otherwise.
He can’t save the princess alone.
“The Southern Forest.” He says quietly. “Follow me.” Brane turns, scarf swishing behind him. As the other scramble to follow him, the Black Book gives him a sharp look, but doesn’t say anything.
Brane’s not sure he’d be able to answer, anyway.