Chapter five: The fifth of November
Will was gazing into nothing. People were talking all around him, squeezing around tables that were too small for them. Will was the only one who seemed alone, apart.
When Bran approached, Will raised his head slowly. He smiled, but there was something very wrong in the smile. Careful, Bran reminded himself. Keep it casual.
He placed both pints on the table, and pushed one towards Will. "Here. Have a drink."
"Thank you." Will raised the glass, took a tiny sip, and lowered it. Bran was filled with a sudden urge to touch the white foam that clung to his upper lip. Then a pink tip of a tongue slipped out and removed it. Bran watched that, too. Firelight flickered on Will's pale hand, wrapped around the dark brown glass.
"You look as if you needed that," Bran ventured. "Are you ill? You look..." Awful, he nearly said, but Will could never look awful to him, in this new and wondrous world Bran now found himself in. Shocking, though. Heart-breaking. Broken.
"Just tired." Bran could see the lie in Will's weary smile. "I haven't been sleeping well – noisy neighbours and fireworks, I expect. And I've had a lot of work…"
"I…" Bran swigged his beer, hiding whatever it was he had been about to say. He did not even know himself what it was.
"I'll be better tomorrow, I expect." Will took his hands from the glass, but his fingers trembled minutely. He grasped the glass again, holding tighter than before. He was more hunched than normal, too, as if his neck barely possessed the strength to support his head.
Bran considered several things that he could say, and dismissed them all. "I dropped by your room yesterday, but you weren't in," he said. And the day before, and the day before that, and every day since Halloween. "I asked around a bit, but no-one remembered seeing you." He gave a laugh, carefully careless. "Maybe you were in, but hiding from me."
Will froze, glass half to his mouth. "I wouldn't do that, Bran. I've been asleep sometimes, in the afternoon, or else closeted in the Bod. working on the English Reformation."
"Well, you're here now."
Bran glanced over at the other faces around him, laughing and unconcerned. Why had this become so difficult? It had felt marvellous, the day he had realised just what he felt for Will, but this was the reality after the dream. Every day spent without him was grey and flat and interminable. Hours spent with him were shot through with fear. Every word, every silence, was suddenly invested with extra meaning. When Will looked miserable, Bran knew it was because he did not like the company he was in, but when Will smiled, Bran came alive, and knew that his feelings were returned.
"Half way through term already," Bran commented, because he had to say something, and could not say those things that he wanted to say. "It's gone so quickly, but at the same time, it seems as if I've been here for years. What are you doing at Christmas?"
"Going home." It was quiet, almost bleak.
"Well, me, too." Bran smiled. "But what are you doing when you're at home? Any… plans?"
Will shook his head. "No-one else will be there for the first few weeks. James' university finishes two weeks later than we do. Mary's going abroad. The others… Everyone's left. They'll all be back for Christmas itself, though. All of them. A house full."
A firework shot into the sky, a screaming curve of gold. Bran glanced up to watch it burst into red sparks, but Will did not. "It will be just me and my Da," Bran said quietly, "though John Rowlands always comes around on Christmas day. Sometimes…" He took a sip of beer, wiping his mouth as he lowered the glass. "Sometimes I think it would be nice to be part of a big family like yours. But that quiet life of ours… It suits me… I mean, sometimes it suits me. It's good to have quiet to retreat to, especially if it's with someone…"
He stopped. He had said too much already. Say something, he urged Will. Will's silence forced Bran to fill the gap, and he had no idea what new words would come spilling forth, committing him to truths that perhaps should not be spoken, not yet.
"Even in a large family," Will said eventually, gazing into his drink, "there are places of quiet. I always knew how to find them. Now, of course…"
Bran watched his hand on the glass. He watched the lock of brown hair on Will's brow, and the firelight flickering on his cheek, from the hot braziers that kept this courtyard warm even on a winter night. His own heart blazed as if he was drinking scalding liquid. In the firelight, he thought, Will ought to shine like the sun, but he was muted, lost in shadow. Something happened to him, he thought again. Something happened, and I…
"It's your birthday just before Christmas, isn't it?" Bran said brightly. "See? I remembered. What do you want?"
"A present, idiot." Bran gave Will a playful slap on the arm. There were layers of clothes between them, but even that simple touch felt like fire. "What do you want me to give you? Or shall I surprise you? Remember your fourteenth birthday when I got you…"
"A rock." Will's smiled seemed genuine.
"A fossil, thank you very much," Bran chided him. It had taken him weeks to find the perfect one. On his previous visit, Will had said something about ancient rock and past lives living on in stone. The fossil had been a memory of a perfect moment. It had felt right.
"I've still got it." Will was still smiling. "I brought it with me to Oxford, actually. It's…" His smile faded. He took a drink, but Bran thought his cheeks were redder now than they had been a moment before, or maybe that was just the firelight.
"Maybe this year I should get you a plant, then," Bran said. "Or a box full of a good, Welsh air. Or a book, or some shoes, or a horse, or a football, or a tape of a Welsh choir, singing as God intended."
"You don't have to get me anything, Bran." Will raised his glass, gazing over its brim at Bran, caught and pinned by those fire-shadowed grey eyes. "This is enough."
Bran moistened his lips. His hands tightened, fingers curling into the wooden table top. "One drink?" he said with a laugh. The gaze was broken; Bran breathed again. "You come cheap."
A firework exploded directly overhead, silver sparks falling down towards then like rain. Bran jumped at the sound of its explosion; Will glanced up with calm suspicion, as if he was expecting some inevitable attack.
"Fancy some crisps?" Bran asked. "They can be your Christmas present."
Will nodded, smiled. Bran stood up, and wove through the seats and tables in the courtyard. Inside the pub, the air was thick and smoky, and very warm. Bran pushed past conversations that had planted themselves in the aisles, and ordered his crisps. Somebody brushed against him, and muttered an apology. He felt the warmth from a dozen other bodies, and words and laughter lapped around him like a warming sea.
Outside felt colder this time. The braziers gave off intense heat, but the cold still prickled on the side of his body away from the source of heat. A rich spicy smell reached his nostrils, and he realised that the pub had set up a table outside, selling mulled wine. On impulse, he bought two glasses, and balanced them precariously as he headed back towards Will.
"Mulled wine," he explained, placing one glass in front of Will, and the other in front of his own empty seat. He stepped over the bench and sat down, tearing open the packet of crisps so they could both share it. "I hope you like salt and vinegar. It was that or chicken."
"Mulled wine." Will picked the glass up, wrapping his hands around it, though when Bran tried to do the same, he found that it was far too hot for him. "I remember when I was young, before… When I was young, anyway. We used to go carol singing through the village, and we used to get mince pies and punch and chocolates and cake. It was fun. I particularly liked the cake. I ate far too much once, when I was about seven. But once, I remember, there was mulled wine. My Dad had to tell me that, no, six year old boys were not allowed to drink mulled wine, no matter how lovely it smelled. I think I might have cried."
Bran watched Will take a sip. "Was it worth the twelve year wait, then?" He tried drinking his own, but it was still far too hot. "I think you must have superhuman powers," he said, grimacing, "to be able to drink that. It's hot!"
"It's good." Will placed the glass back on the table. Firelight filtered through the wine, making his hands glow ruby red. "Probably not good for six year old boys, though. I'll have to tell my Dad that he was right."
"How is your Dad?" Bran asked. He had been wondering briefly if one of Will's parents had died, and if that explained the change in him. "And… the others?"
"Fine," Will said. "Dad's still working in his shop. It's not work to him, really, but a pleasure, a passion. Mum found it a bit lonely when we all started leaving, but she's started working part-time at the local school, and has joined all sorts of voluntary groups. Everyone else… James and Mary are at university. Paul's doing a doctorate in music. Stephen and Gwen are married, and Barbara's pregnant, though she's not married – Mum's a bit shocked about that, but doesn't say anything. The others… They're all out there, working, creating lives of their own. I see them at Christmas and Easter and at my parents' wedding anniversary in the summer. Mum writes with all their news, but…" He shrugged, sighing.
Bran tried his wine again, but it was still too hot. Holding it gingerly by the top of the glass, he blew across the dark red surface, setting specks of cinnamon dancing. "I'd like to see pictures."
Bran had never met Will's family. When they were younger, Will had told Bran stories of what his brothers and sisters had been getting up to, and to Bran, living his solitary life in Wales, they had been suffused with the glamour of a fairy tale or a Hollywood film. Bran wanted Paul and Stephen as his own big brothers. He wanted Mary as a sister to tease, and Gwen and Barbara to cook him cakes and scold him when he went outside without a coat. He wanted a James to play with and compete against and argue with, because everyone needed someone to argue with, when things were hard.
Not that he had ever said any of this to Will, of course, and he never would.
"I'll bring some next term," Will said. "I got a camera for my eighteenth birthday. I suppose I ought to learn how to use it."
Bran had a picture in his room, showing himself and Will, smiling and unaware. John Rowlands had taken that one. He had a picture of his father, and a picture of John. He had pictures of his school friends, and a picture of Jane, taken on her sixteenth birthday and sent through the post. John had bought him a cheap camera when he was fifteen, and he had taken pictures of his friends and the mountain, and Will. Then Will had told him he was never coming back. As far as he could remember, Will had never taken a single picture of him.
"You've never used a camera before?" he asked, incredulous.
Will shook his head. "I didn't need to."
But without pictures, all you had was memories, and memories faded, and soon were gone forever. Bran had no pictures of his mother. If they had not met in Oxford, Bran would have disappeared from Will's memory entirely, with no pictures to hold him there. And he had nothing of his own family. He did not seem to care. Oh, Will, he thought. What happened to you?
"You're so… separate," he blurted out, the foolish words fuelled by scalding wine, and the beer already in him. "You never used to be like this."
"Yes I was." Will's hand closed on the glass, white fingers outlined with glowing red. "You never knew me."
"Then let me," Bran begged him. "I want to help you."
Will looked at him. "You do, Bran. You always did."
Bran wanted to laugh. He wanted to cry. He drained half his glass of wine, feeling its heat burn through him, hurting as it went. "Then why…?"
"Drink," Will said quietly. "Drink and fireworks, the night, and I'm so tired, so very tired. It doesn't mean anything, what I said. You should forget it."
"But how…?" Bran scraped his fingers through his hair. The crisps lay untouched on the table between them, scattered on their silver-lined packet. Fireworks trickled gold above them, and half of his body was burned by the brazier, and half of it was icy cold.
"I think you're right." Will's hand was shaking. "I am ill. I need to go home."
Home, Bran thought, or just to his room? He finished his wine, left the dregs of his beer and the untouched crisps. "Let me…"
"I'm fine." But Will stumbled as he stood up, and Bran was there. He caught Will, one hand against his chest, one on his shoulder. Will's face was an inch from his neck. Bran felt as if he was holding the sun. Nothing else in the universe existed but Will.
"Fine," Will whispered again, and they parted, and the world resumed its course again. "Just tired." He turned to Bran, and Bran almost gasped, the transition was so sudden. Will's face was calm, his stance strong and firm. No-one glancing at him would think for a moment that anything was wrong with him. "I owe you two drinks now."
"It's like I said." Bran tried to laugh. "They're your birthday and Christmas presents. You can't expect anything else from me now." He played back what he had just said, and it seemed crass, but he could think of no way to undo it without saying too much. Instead, he laughed again, hoping that Will would realise it was a joke.
One after the other, they walked along the narrow alley-way that led to the pub's courtyard, then out into the street. Once there, Bran stepped up so that he was at Will's side again. They reached the open square, and fireworks filled the sky, set off from dozens of gardens, their bangs echoing from building to building.
"Hey, Bran!" a voice called. Bran looked up to see a group of boys from his College, heading back from the off-licence. "You coming to our Bonfire Night party? We've got booze, food and girls."
Bran smiled, waved a hand, and called out, "Not tonight."
"Oh well, you can drop by later, if you want to." They walked on, laughing. "See you at the meeting tomorrow!" one of them called.
The shadows seemed a little deeper around Will after they had gone. "You should go," he told Bran.
"I'm going to make sure you get home safely," Bran said, "then make you some tea and tuck you up safely. I'm a regular knight in armour, you see."
"I'll be fine," Will said. "You should go." He took another step, then paused. "Who were they?"
Is he jealous? Bran was jubilant. He clenched his fists at his sides to still the excited trembling. "Friends from College," he said. "I have lunch with them, go to parties, and the like." Will was looking at him, his face unreadable. You give me so little, Bran wanted to say. I'm always the one looking for you, and you're always making your excuses and going away. I have to have more than just you. I need other people, too.
"Is one of them Rob?" Will asked.
"No." Bran was surprised that Will remembered his name. "He and I… Well, as I said at the time, we just got talking on that first day, so stuck together for a while, but didn't have anything in common. He seemed to take offence one day when I went to see Jane instead of twiddling my thumbs while he visited his school friends. I haven't talked to him in week. Actually…" He frowned. "I haven't seen him in the lunch queue for a while, either, since… Was it Saturday? Friday? Since last weekend, anyway. I wonder if he's got a girl and is eating at her College. He was talking about a girl last time I overheard him."
"Still, you should go," Will persisted. "Tonight and tomorrow… You're better with…"
"I'm better with whoever I say I'm better with," Bran burst out, "and tonight that's you. You want to go home? Fine. But I'm taking you home. I'm not letting you make your excuses and run away again, leaving me with a half-empty pint and an empty table, when I thought I had company for the evening."
How was it possible, he thought, to love somebody, and almost hate them, both at the same time? How could you love somebody when the time you spent with them hurt so much? How could you love somebody who hid so much of themselves? He did not know the answer, but he knew that it was true. He loved Will.
"Maybe," Will said, after a while, when they were half way down the lane that led to Merton Street, "I don't want to go home after all. The fresh air will clear the alcohol away, and there's fireworks…"
"Watching fireworks in the Meadow," Bran said. "I wish I'd brought a thicker coat." He did not say the rest of it. He did not point out that Will could keep him warm, and he could keep Will warm, close to him forever.
"Just for a little while," Will said, "until we get too cold. But there's something… I have to…" Again that change came over him, the mask of calm snapping onto his face, but gentle this time, softly smiling. "Let's watch fireworks together in the dark, Bran, one more time."
Bran remembered an evening spent on the mountain, watching lights soar up from gardens in the valley below. They had been thirteen years old, and Bran had been quaking with cold before it was over, but John Rowlands had warmed them afterwards with cocoa and stories, neither of them protesting that they were too old for such things now. The following year, the fireworks came after Will had gone home, and Bran had gone down to the valley himself, to a party held by one of his new school friends. Throughout the party, though, he had glanced up at the dark bulk of the mountain, and thought of the magical other world that existed there, away from the lights.
"Yes." He grinned, though his eyes were pricking. Let's watch them together, Will. And maybe, just maybe…
Things could be said in the darkness that could not be said in the light. Hands could seek hands, fingers seek lips, whereas in daylight two people would sit an arm's length apart, and never dare to touch.
The garden again. It felt to Will as if, no matter where he went, no matter what he did, he could never escape the garden. Every night it drew him. Five nights ago, on Halloween, he had almost fallen here, holding off the Wild Magic, keeping the city safe.
Now Bran was beside him, but as far away from him as two planets revolving around the same sun. What did Bran see when he surveyed the darkness beyond the garden wall? Bran saw the fireworks, and heard the distant laughter; Will saw the things that moved beneath, and heard laughter more distant still.
"That was a good one," Bran exclaimed. "The green one, over there."
Will nodded; he had not seen it. He had brought Bran here for another purpose entirely – a selfish one. It had been a moment of weakness. Something had gone terribly wrong with the Wild Magic. It was stronger than it should have been, and was declaring war on the world of men. Will had fought it the only way he could, but the cost had been high. If he had to fight it again tonight, he did not think that he could win. But with Bran at his side… Bran was his anchor. Bran could hold him in the world of the living. And sometimes, for minutes on end, Bran could even make Will forget that he could never be anything other than alone.
"Did you ever play with sparklers?" Bran asked.
Will nodded. "I was scared of them burning down and getting my fingers," he admitted. "James laughed. Stephen lent me his gloves and told me I'd be quite safe. And I was, of course."
The pain was as strong as ever, coming in the wake of memories of when he was young. They had been such a close family, for all their size. He had worshipped Stephen, and had basked in the glow of having a dozen people who all loved him and cared for him. They had had such happy times. Now the happy times continued, but Will could not connect to them. He smiled at their jokes, but all he could see was the fact that one day they would be gone, and that he could never confide in any one of them.
"We should have bought some." Bran fidgeted against the cold, hopping from one foot to the other. When he finished, and stood still again, he was closer to Will than before. Barely the width of two fingers separated their shoulders. Will could see Bran's hand at his side, unprotected by a glove. It would be entirely unforgivable to grab hold of it, he knew that. "Maybe next year," Bran said.
Will could not remember what he had been talking about. He focused on the world beyond the wall. "Maybe," he said.
No voices whispered taunts in his head. The only people who moved in the garden were human. There was no particularly significance to Bonfire Night, and no reason why the Wild Magic should be stronger tonight, except that for centuries men in Britain had burnt fires in the darkness, re-enacting a death, and remembering a liberation. Such things had their own power, and the Wild Magic fed on such things. Like Halloween masks, fireworks could be a cover for many things, not all of them human.
"Of course," Bran said, as a firework exploded into blue stars, "they're not a patch on the fireworks at home. Good solid Welsh fireworks, that's what we need. Do you remember that night we sat out and watched them?"
"Of course." Will smiled, longing suddenly for the time of their uncomplicated friendship. Not quite fourteen, he had not yet truly accepted how different he was from those around him, and the implications of it. He had still been able to forget his true nature, and just be a normal boy, laughing with a friend. Then, a year later, had come the first stirrings of feelings for Bran that were not just those of a friend. That was when he had realised that he had to leave.
"Though I'd rather be here, tonight," Bran said quietly, "than back at home, even if the fireworks are better." He edged even closer, until their sleeves were brushing, and something trembled in his voice.
Will stopped breathing. Bran… he thought. Is he…? Twin fireworks exploded like flowers of gold. The scent of flowers came on the wind, drowning out the lingering odour of smoke. Then he let out a slow breath, cold and hopeless. Even if Bran had come to feel something for him, Will could not accept it. He could not let Bran tie himself to someone who was not even human. Will would never be able to give all of himself. Even in a relationship, he would be alone, and that meant that the other person would be alone, too.
He edged subtly away, trying to make it seem like an accident, as if he was oblivious to how close they had come to touching. "The stars are bright, too," he said. "Don't you think that nature is far more beautiful than anything that man can make?"
"I am altogether too surrounded by nature in Wales," Bran stated. "Yes, it has its moments, but these man-made things are far more comfortable. Why else do you think I chose to come to study in a city?"
Will thought of the Wild Magic, pulsing in the wilder parts of the world, trying to topple the world of men. He thought of mankind reduced to wild men in the woods, struggling to scrape a living out of the soil, as the spirits of the earth tyrannised over them for their own amusement. The buildings and works of men were not of the High Magic, but neither were the world and the grass and the fire. All things were transient; only Time and the High Magic endured.
"I'm joking, of course," Bran said. "I don't like too much city. That's why I like these gardens of yours. I can enjoy the city for two months at a time, but I'm going to rush out onto that mountain when I get home, and rejoice in some good Welsh fresh air."
There was nothing in Bran's voice to show that he had noticed Will edging away from him. Perhaps he had not noticed. Perhaps it had meant nothing at all, and Will had misread him. Perhaps he was dying inside, but was as accustomed as Will was to hiding behind masks.
Perhaps he was going to try it again. Perhaps he was going to move closer in the darkness, let their hands brush as if by accident, then grasp Will's fingers in his own. Maybe he was going to lean forward in the darkness and… and… Will moistened his lips. He could feel his heart fluttering in his throat.
"Will," Bran murmured, as a firework tore the sky apart above them, showering them with red and gold.
As the sound died away, Will became aware of voices, shouting urgently across the meadow. "Call an ambulance!" they shouted. "There's a man… I think he's dead."
Bran took a step back. "Go!" Will commanded him. "There's a phone next to the bar. Use it. Push somebody out if you need to. Tell them it's an emergency."
"Go!" Will commanded, and Bran went, feet skittering in the gravel. As soon as he was gone, Will jumped from the wall, landing silently on the ground twenty feet below.
He moved through the darkness on silent wings, hidden by the night. He passed a sobbing couple, fleeing the other way. Two brave figures hunched over the dead man, keeping vigil until the police and ambulance came. One held a torch, shining it up in the air like a beacon. The other had a bundle of unlit sparklers sticking out of his coat pocket.
Unseen, Will crouched beside them. Unseen, he reached out to the dead man, fingers fluttering over his face, though not quite touching. It was a young man, clad in ancient clothes. He was clean and well-groomed, and there was no visible injury on him at all.
It was only much later, when Bran arrived in the wake of the useless ambulance, that Will learned who the dead man was.
His name was Rob.
End of chapter five
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