This comes from the 64 Damn Prompts on LiveJournal (by rashaka). I will, most likely, be working through all 64, because I can't bear to leave such a lovely thing unfinished. I will also include the song that helped me write it/find inspiration/that I thought fit the mood.
P.S.~ These were supposed to be drabbles—by which I mean 100 words—but my brain exploded, so they are not. Forgive me.
Prompt 5: Degrees
Music: Ordinary Day, by Vanessa Carlton
Rowan didn't know why they called him a hero. He was just like them, just as flawed, just as imperfect. He was rude and blunt and aggressive and picked fights, and human. Defeating a dark mage was good, amazing, but he had only done it because he had no choice.
Above all else, Rowan had always wanted to protect his friends and family, but he had also wanted to be normal. There was no one, though, who saw him as anything but a magician from an old family, a brat with too much power and too few manners, who then lost his power and became nothing.
Rowan should have liked being nothing.
It was boring, this day-in-day-out feeling of trudging from one monotonous action to the next, then going to bed in order to get up and do it all over again. Maybe that was why he stopped sleeping as much—anything to vary the rhythm, to change to way he half-lived. He couldn't have said that was the reason, though, any more than he could have said why he chose for one night's wandering to lead him to the park where he had made his first official dark creature kill, when his mentor Erin had taken him to teach him a magician's duty. The only reason he could come up with was that it was quiet, and still, and while he was there he could pretend—to himself, at the very least—that he was one of the Others again, invisible against the darkness, standing guard against the monsters as he kept watch over the peaceful town.
The rare drifters who passed through the park in the silent hours after midnight never noticed him as he kept to the shadows under the trees, wandering without purpose. He didn't have one, at least not anymore, and that made it all the more painful. Still, it was a pain that reminded him he was alive, that he had survived—even if, at times, he half-thought it would have been better to have died in battle. At least then his family would not tiptoe around him as though he had received some debilitating wound. His friends wouldn't carefully edit what they said, for fear of mentioning something that was "a reminder." As though everything wasn't a reminder of what he had had, and what he had lost.
He settled on the swing set, tipping his head back to stare up at the faint stars above, and then closed his eyes. Almost, almost, he could force himself to believe for the briefest second that he was a magician still, with his staff thrumming on his back and the power crackling inside his head.
Then footsteps sounded on the pavement behind him, and the moment was gone.
Rowan didn't move, even as the person stepped off the paved path and walked carefully across the playground mulch to take a seat on a swing a little ways from him. Something—maybe a lingering sixth sense, maybe simple intuition—let him know that this was no random stranger, but someone who knew. No matter how much he wanted his old life back, though, Rowan didn't want to see Sasha or any other sorcerer, or his father, or one of his friends—finally, and what took them so long? Why couldn't they face me?—or anyone else he had known "before," so he kept his eyes closed and ignored the visitor.
The silence stretched out for a long while.
Then, without warning, the man said, "I should be furious with you for what you did to Devin."
Glancing to the side, Rowan saw an older man, his father's age, with white hair and his best friend's features, only streamlined and yet somehow rougher. In his neat grey suit, he looked completely out of place in a deserted playground, but if he thought so, he didn't acknowledge it in any way. He was staring up at the stars, too, a pensive look on his face.
Rowan looked away, feeling shame and residual horror curl through his gut. He hadn't known what was happening, hadn't realized what tapping that much elemental power could do to his sanity, had barely been able to stop the monster in his skin, but he still felt that if only he had done more, done something, Pierson wouldn't have been hurt like that.
"You should," he agreed quietly. "I was supposed to stop the Shadow King, and I couldn't even stop myself. I failed."
The elder Pierson made a noise of agreement. "You did. But I think that losing your powers as you did was punishment enough. After all, one must always expect a child to make mistakes." With that, he rose smoothly to his feet and strode away, vanishing into the darkness at the edge of the trees.
Rowan remained where he was for a few long minutes, wondering why that one statement felt so much like absolution.
The next night also found Rowan in the park, wandering around the edge of the area where the Shadow King and his lieutenants had first appeared, where he had first confronted them. He had not gone back to the playground, even though he had been tempted to. Something—remorse, maybe, or self-disgust, or regret—kept his feet from seeking that path, and he had, like a coward, turned away. Not, of course, that he thought the elder Pierson would be there again. It had probably been pure coincidence that the man had even seen him in the first place. There was no deeper meaning behind it.
But, despite his thoughts, Rowan found himself unsurprised when the white-haired Pierson separated from the shadows and fell into step beside him. They didn't speak until Rowan finally came to a halt at the edge of the crater the battle had left.
"I made a mistake here, too," he said without conscious thought. "I thought I could control the power in the layline, but it nearly got three of my friends killed. If Sasha and Gideon hadn't arrived when they did, the Shadow King would have won because I was too arrogant."
Devin's father was silent as he drew a cigarette out of his pocket and lit it. He took a deep breath of the sharp-scented smoke, then blew it out and nodded. "Yes," he said. "He would have. But no one ever fights alone, even when they're fighting one-on-one." Then he cast a sideways look at Rowan. "You haven't asked your father anything. Is Marcus really that incompetent as a father?"
At one time, Rowan might have bristled at the insult, but now all he felt was tired. He shook his head. "I just…can't ask. Maybe someday. Not now. He already thinks I'll break apart if he even mentions power or magic around me. I won't make him more uncomfortable, explaining something he obviously wants to keep a secret. It doesn't matter anymore, anyway, why the Shadow King wanted our power specifically."
Pierson sighed and muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, "Marcus, you imbecile," under his breath, then added in a more normal tone, "He said you wanted to be normal. But you aren't happy. Why?"
The wind was picking up, and the night was getting colder. Rowan shivered slightly, dropping down to sit on the edge of the crater. "I might have wanted to be normal, but I wanted to protect people more. My friends, my family—I know they're fine without me being a magician, but I don't know it, really."
"Hmm." The man joined him, standing on the lip of scorched earth. Abruptly, he said, "Callum. My name is Callum. That's what your father always calls me, so I suppose I've grown used to it."
"Rowan," Rowan offered in return. "You probably call my dad Collins, no matter how close you are, just to mess with him, so you don't have to call me that."
Callum chuckled and stubbed out his cigarette, tucking the butt into a pocket. "Rowan," he repeated. "Despite your father's insanity, your mother—may she rest in peace—always did have good taste in names." A slim, strong hand, calloused in the same way that Devin's was, touched Rowan's shoulder briefly, then retreated. "Mistakes either make us stronger or kill us. The difference lies in our ability to overcome them and move on."
Like the night before, he vanished soundlessly, leaving only the faint scent of clove cigarettes to mark his presence, along with a tingling warmth where his hand had rested on Rowan's bare skin.
There were, Rowan was learning, different degrees of affection. What he felt for his sisters, for his brothers, for his father, for Sasha, for Erin—and now, it seemed, for Callum. It was probably foolish. It was most definitely foolish, but that didn't stop the feeling from growing. Each night, as they walked through the darkened park, or down the deserted street, or stood together by the riverbank, the warmth—tingling and achy and fascinating and just a little bit terrifying—grew stronger. It increased with each touch, with each brush of skin on skin or each glance from sharp brown eyes that saw too much and, above all, knew him.
No one else knew him like Callum did.
The elder Pierson wasn't immune to it, either. Rowan often caught his sidelong glances, the slight softening of his expression when Rowan admitted to one of his mistakes, the divulgence hovering somewhere between a confession and a plea for help. Callum never told him that it wasn't his fault, that it wasn't a mistake. Instead, he acknowledged it, gave a small sign to show that he had heard, and offered something in return. It wasn't always advice—though what advice he did give often left Rowan deep in thought for the entire next day. Sometimes, it was a story, something inane and meaningless about his father's antics, or his mother's kindness, or about Devin as a child.
Rowan wasn't certain which he was more grateful for, but both helped, settled him when he wasn't even aware of having been unsettled. Those nights, those walks, gave him a connection to the world around him, instead of leaving him grasping futilely at the severed connection to his old life. After all, Callum had also left that world—by choice, perhaps, but he had left it nevertheless. He understood.
One clear evening, four months after their first brief meeting, found them on the riverbank again, staring down into the dark reflection of the sky above. Rowan, who had been debating whether to say something for quite some time, took a deep breath and opened his mouth. However, before he could say something, a soft pair of lips cut him off, and he found himself held in firm, wiry arms, gasping at the suddenness and the burning warmth that flooded him with every press and release and nip and lick.
It was Callum, and it was wonderful, and he couldn't bring himself to care that this man was his friend's father and his father's friend.
It was Callum, and Rowan loved him for everything he was, for everything that he knew Rowan wasn't.
They slowly pulled back, separating reluctantly when the need to take a deep breath became overwhelming. Rowan looked at Callum across their one inch of height difference, wondering and curious and scared to believe, to hope.
Callum just smiled, ever so slightly, and said, "I understand."
Then he moved forward again, erasing every degree of separation between them.