Title: Beginnings and Endings
Fandom: The Wheel of Time
Status: One-shot, completed
Genre: Reflective
Rating: 12+
Characters: Rand, Mat, Perrin
Date: 2009/10 - 2013

**

Sometimes, Rand wondered.

He'd lie back on the hard ground and stare at the sun burning in the Aiel sky, drenching them with heat. He'd stay there for a while, keeping his eyes on the flaming ball above his head. He'd try not to blink for as long as he could—if he blinked, then the light would go out.

Rand wondered what happened when that light went out—was there a world beyond, or was death just nonexistence? What was out there, really? He didn't know—and, when he got to thinking deeply about it, he didn't want to.

But death couldn't have been the absolute end, he'd try and console himself. After all, there was a reason they called it 'the Wheel of Time'—it was always turning, time was always passing, and history would always be repeating itself. There would be another Cycle of the Ages, he knew—and, with it, another Third Age. There'd be another Dragon, another Dragon Reborn, another ta'veren. It wasn't the end.

Sometimes, though, he wondered. Just because someone lived on didn't mean that they led the same life that you did—that they were you in a different era. They weren't you, he thought, and you wouldn't know it. They weren't you, and you weren't them—they were just people in the same position as you, many years later.

Still, though—Artur Hawkwing and the others always knew that there'd been others like them, that there always would be others like them. They came whenever the Horn of Valere was blown—talking about the past and very much alive. So, Rand reasoned, if there wasn't a world beyond, there was that, at least—if he was a hero as great as Artur Hawkwing and the others. People called him that, but. . . .

He didn't know, Rand would think, closing his eyes. He didn't know if he were a hero not—they called him one, but surely there was no way he could compare with those great men and women of the past. He'd killed—the thought would make him close his eyes—just because he hadn't emptied his mind and freed himself of emotion.

He'd never known what happened after death, and he never would—at least, not as long as he remained alive. No one knew—not even the Dragon Reborn. Perhaps especially not the Dragon Reborn.

Sometimes, Rand wondered.

He'd stare up at the sun burning up in the sky and hold his hands up to it, watching blood trickle down his palms and over his arms. He'd stay still, watching them bleed with the blood of those he'd killed, watching them bleed with pain and hurt. He'd stare at them for as long as he could without blinking—if he blinked, the blood would be gone, and he would be nothing but an innocent shepherd in a world not meant to be saved.

Sometimes, Rand wondered about what happened after death. Sometimes, Rand wondered, but he could never find the answer.

Sometimes, Perrin wondered.

Sometimes he was so simple, so—so primitive. Staying up with the wolves late at night, tearing apart the meat and eating it with them; running with them after their prey; finding a place to sleep during a cold night.

It was his life—Perrin knew as much—but he didn't know what to make of it. There wasn't really much he could do to change it—he could rejoin the others, but he went faster and more efficiently if he went as a Wolfbrother, and—as of the moment—they had no need of them.

As of the moment. Perrin lay down one night, curling into a tight ball to preserve his warmth, but he didn't fall asleep. He'd rejoin them before long—the Last Battle was coming, closer now than ever before—but, until then, he'd keep moving, living the life of the wolves. It was a living life, he thought—a life where creatures moved, where everything was alive. Not the kind of life the others were living—a life where they channelled, where they fought each other, where they knew they could die at any time.

He could, too—Ba'alzamon would find out where he was eventually, but not for a while—not if his Myrddraal kept getting killed in the process.

Killed. He looked up at the sky. They had no minds, he told himself, just brains. No hearts and souls. They weren't people—they were creatures. Worse, though—they were living evil.

There'd been others, though—those Whitecloaks he'd killed so many years ago. And still more others, their eyes haunted before his, deep and stark in their featureless faces.

War, he thought, was nothing but killing. Killing for no reason.

He curled back into a ball. There was no way to stop it—Ba'alzamon had to go down. He just had to, whatever the cost was.

The cost was innocents—innocent men, defending their nations and their fields and their villages.

And the not-so-innocent. Perrin pressed his closed eyelids even more tightly together. Someday, he, too, would die in this war—he'd die, and then it would be over. There might be something beyond—he didn't know, but he didn't think he cared. Living like this—with the pain of those killed—was enough. He didn't need to live through death like this, too.

Perrin's eyes snapped open and he took about a minute to look all around him. The wolves sleeping beside him, the insects buzzing in the air and walking in the ground and in the trees, the mice sleeping underground. There was life all around him—life everywhere. Someday, some way, it was going to all come down to an end. Just like his was.

Perrin closed his eyes. Someday, he thought, there was going to be an end. Maybe an end, maybe the end. Someday, though, he was going to die. Perhaps that would be the end of it—perhaps not.

Until then, he thought, looking from each of his wolf companions to the other, the only thing he could do was survive.

Sometimes, Mat wondered.

He'd hold a hand to his aching head, stare at the new pile of coins on the now-empty game table he was sitting at, and wonder when it would all end. For it was bound to end eventually; that was inevitable. The question was just how, and when.

Still, there wasn't much he could do about it—nothing at all. He'd try and spare his own neck, of course, and those of the others, but at the end of the day he was ta'veren, and he doubted that he would die before his time—whenever that time would come.

Mat would sigh, pocket the money, and leave the tavern, mind lost in thought, sometimes racing in tandem with his heart. He didn't know what to think; the truth was, he was scared it would come sooner than he thought—and come soon. His life was far more dangerous than he or any of his friends made it out to be—they just went on, doing their best trying not think about the fact that they probably brushed with death every single day of their lives. But, even though they never expressed it, never even thought about it—despite that, Mat knew, the possibility of death, imminent death, was always lurking ominously in the backs of their minds.

But Mat had grown out of the habit of accessing these death thoughts directly. He just lived with the constant fear of it hanging over his head, his heart, his body, his life.

He walked rapidly through the town now; night was falling, and he didn't want to be left alone. He missed the others; they had split up in their own directions, but would converge again soon. He missed them, though—far more, indeed, than he had realized he would. They were only a few days away from seeing each other—but oh, he missed them.

Maybe, he thought darkly as he paid the pretty girl at the in—winking, of course, since that was his job at this point, to pick up information—he missed them because he didn't know when—or if—he would (ever) see them again. And not just Rand and Perrin, either—he missed them all: Nynaeve, and Moiraine, and Egwene, and Aviendha, and Loial, and Lan, and Elyane... As though he hadn't seen them a few days ago. Heck, he even missed Faile a little bit.

What was wrong with him? They were nowhere close to death, to the Last Battle—of course, they could die at any moment, but... No, that had to be it. He didn't know...but of course he would. They hadn't done anything dangerous recently; they were just scouting.

Speaking of which... He took a seat at the bar and asked for a drink. The barkeeper, a pretty woman with curly red hair, gave it to him, and he slid her an extra coin as tip. "How have things been around here these days? I haven't been in this in area in months."

"Not much is happening," she said, with a smile that told him she knew what he wanted. "Why, what kind of news are you after?"

They made pleasant, flirtatious conversation, but, Mat thought as he walked to the staircase some twenty minutes later, there was nothing of interesting. The chatter he picked up while eavesdropping wasn't much, either; Four Kings was the same sleepy little town it had always been.

Mat came to the room he'd been given, ill at ease. It wasn't really his friends he was worried about anymore, now. He knew he would see them—but worse than the thought of not seeing them was the thought that— He didn't want to think about it, but...

The truth was, death scared Mat—just like it did for every other human in the land. The thought that he was scared was a little annoying—he was Mat Cauthon, ta'veren, and there was something disproportionately enjoyable about being seen as "special"—but, of course, that wasn't what bothered him. He sat up in bed, unable to sleep, rubbing his head, inside which a sharp ache was squeezing out the insides. No, death scared Mat, scared Mat beyond all means, beyond all rationality, all... Well, that was it, wasn't it? The totality of the end—the feeling that, well, there would be no no feeling. He believed in the afterlife—but he was scared, so scared it wasn't real, just a human construct designed to help people cope with the incredible sadness that lay on their shoulders, the inevitable ending—of living, of life, of this world—which they all, each and every one of them, had to face.

Outside the window, the moon was peeking out between the storm-gray clouds. Mat rolled over in his bed so he could see it fully. The moon. The ending of another day—a day that was terrible in its infinite, unbroken tension, in its unrealized dread of the future, in its knowledge—sharp as if brand-new—that he, Mat Cauthon, would die, and maybe someday soon. Probably? He sure hoped not.

In the darkness, Mat turned over in bed and closed his eyes. Today may have been an ending, but it was also a beginning—with the hope that he held for the future, and all the friendships he would share with those he cared for. A younger Mat would have thought he was being overly sentimental—but now, he was just glad to close his eyes, go to sleep, and wake up to tomorrow, a new beginning.