Note: Since it's the weekend, I plan to post two chapters today, and two tomorrow. However, despite it being the weekend, I'm working today, so don't have time to post both of today's chapters now. Chapter 7 will follow tonight, and then 8 and 9 tomorrow.
Chapter six: After the first death
He assumed it was Jane at the door. It could have been one of his casual friends in College, but he had distanced himself from them over the past few days. It hurt terribly when someone died, it seemed, even if you barely knew them. It was best to limit friendships to those people who really mattered.
"Come in," Bran called, not bothering to smooth his clothing, or check to see if the room was tidy. Jane would not care, and nor would anyone who was likely to come visiting. The only person he wanted to come never came.
He had come now.
"Oh." Everything accelerated – his heart, his breathing, the pace of the world around him. "Will." He stood up, forcing himself to calm down, to resist the urge to rush round the room like a hurricane, making everything just so.
"Are you…?" Will's hand half rose to the red poppy on his lapel. He looked lost, as if he was unsure of how to deal with the very human emotion of grief. Not that Bran was grieving, not really. He had caught a glimpse of Rob's parents and sisters, escorted through the College for one last pilgrimage to his room. That was what true grief looked like. What Bran felt was, to that, like a puddle to an ocean.
"I'm fine," Bran said, repeating the lie that Will had so often made to him. "Tired of this essay, though."
"Maybe we could…" Will raked his hand through his hair. "I mean, if it's not insensitive…"
Poor thing, Bran thought, almost detached. He really doesn't know what to say. He had heard Will floundering before, stammering and hesitating over speech, but he had never seemed so completely at sea before. Everyone was like that, of course, in the face of grief, but with Will it seemed even more extreme.
Yet he had come. He had come to see Bran for the first time ever, even feeling as he did, and that had to mean something.
"Life goes on." Bran uttered the platitude. "After all, I didn't really know him well. We hadn't spoken for weeks. Other people have far more right than me to feel sad."
"It's not a case of right," Will told him. "You feel what you feel. Human emotions are some of the most powerful forces that there are."
"It's just…" Bran sighed, sitting down on the bed. "He was missing for five days – did you know that? They pieced it together afterwards. He went missing on Halloween, and no-one knew. Everyone assumed he was with someone else, or even that he'd gone home. They talk about the Fifth Week blues, after all, and… and…"
Will sat down beside him. "It wasn't your fault, Bran."
Hold me, Will, Bran thought. I won't ask for anything else, just that. But the gap between them remained huge, no less than was demanded by propriety.
"I know it wasn't my fault." Bran gave a harsh laugh, closer to tears. "But he wanted us to be friends. We didn't have much in common, but I could at least have stayed in touch, then I'd have known days ago that he was missing. Perhaps they could have saved him."
"No," Will said. "Nothing could have saved him."
"No." Will's voice was firm. His grey eyes spoke of utter truth, impossible to deny, impossible even to doubt. "Nothing could have saved him. None of this is your fault."
"The doctor said he had a weak heart," Bran admitted. "They think he ran away for a few days, because he was finding the work hard, or maybe to be with this girl he kept on talking about. They're still trying to trace her, by the way. They say his heart gave out, and would have done so wherever he was. But…"
"Then that is how it was," Will said, "if the doctor says so, and the police, and everyone who knows."
"And moping over it won't help." Sighing, Bran stood up. "Let's go… somewhere. I feel like pottering in a book shop, then having a disgustingly unhealthy cream cake somewhere."
They headed down the stairs, out into the quad, and almost to the porters' lodge. "I've forgotten my wallet," Bran exclaimed suddenly.
"No." Bran shook his head. "I need to get some money out of the bank, anyway. Wait for me."
"I'll wait outside."
Bran hurried back, fumbled with his key, and grabbed his wallet. He bounded down the stairs, and was back at the gate barely two minutes after leaving it. He could not see Will at first, then saw him a few paces down the road, apparently lost in thought.
Bran's steps slowed. In the narrow road, the high buildings blocked out most of the light, but enough remained, illuminating Will's hair so that it shone like gold. The paper poppy, worn for remembrance, stood out on his dark, old-fashioned coat.
I do love him, Bran thought. No matter how much they faltered in their steps towards true friendship, he did love Will. He wasn't truly whole without him.
A motorbike was heading down the street, defying the signs that prohibited motor vehicles. Bran watched it come; Will was oblivious.
He never truly understood what happened next. The bike swerved, speeding up. Will's head snapped round. Bran shouted out his name, the sound wrenched painfully from his throat, and light blazed, sunlight flaring on the motorcyclist's helmet. Bran blinked, and when he could see again, Will was down, hurled backwards against the wall, and the bike was on its side, wheel still spinning. The rider was struggling to his feet, but Will just sprawled there, back against the wall, legs stretched in front of him, the poppy lying across his hand like blood.
"Will!" Bran was at his side in an instant, hands fluttering over Will's body. "Will!"
Will opened his eyes. "I'm fine."
"You always say that," Bran all but sobbed. "You were hit by a bike. You…"
"I'm fine." Will tried to stand up, but Bran would not let him, pushing him down bodily with a gentle hand on his shoulder. He could hear other people crowding around, and talk of ambulances. Someone else was saying that it was the sun, he couldn't see, and he skidded, and he lost control, and…
Bran wanted to scream at them all to go away. All that mattered was Will, and he could have lost him, he could have lost him.
"Really," Will said, "I'm fine." His grey eyes found Bran's. "I jumped out of the way. I landed a bit badly, and was winded, but it's only bruises, nothing more." His body moved beneath Bran's touch. "Let me stand up, Bran. Please?"
Bran withdrew his restraining hand. His own hands were trembling, he saw; Will's, on the other hand, were not. "Are you hurt?" Will asked the motorcyclist, and the young man said that he was not. He was profuse in his apologies, white-faced with shock, but Will was asking him about his bike. That, too, was undamaged, it seemed.
It seemed so shockingly civilised. "You could have killed him!" Bran raged. "Didn't you see the signs? You shouldn't have been here in the first place."
"Hush," Will said. "There's no harm done." To the crowd, he said, "I hope no-one called an ambulance. I don't need one, and neither does this gentleman here. There is nothing further to see. You should go about your business." The amazing thing was that they did, barely even muttering, but Bran hardly saw it. The motorcyclist walked sheepishly away, pushing his bike. Soon the two of them were alone, but still Bran's hands would not stop shaking.
"Are you sure you're alright? I thought… I was sure it hit you."
"Bran." Will took Bran's trembling hands and clasped them together. Then he touched Bran's face, cupping his cheek with a cool hand. "I am fine, Bran, I assure you."
It was too much. First Rob, and now this. Bran leant into the touch, needing it. Will's thumb stroked his cheekbone, then withdrew. Bran felt as if it had been wrenched away from him, and the air was cold as ice on his exposed cheek.
"Nothing happened, Bran," Will said, but Bran moved closer to him. He could not let another person be snatched away from life, not without knowing how Bran felt about him.
"Will." He touched Will's cheek, as Will had touched his own. He looked down into Will's grey eyes, barely an inch below his own. "I couldn't bear to lose you, Will."
He leant closer, breath against breath, lips seeking lips, but Will turned his head slightly to one side, his skin stroking against Bran's palm. "Someone's watching, Bran."
So what? Bran wanted to say, but he looked in the direction Will was looking, and saw a tall man in medieval costume, gold glittering at his ears, and a bow in his hand.
"I think we should go where there are people," Will said quite firmly.
Bran hugged his hand to his chest, cherishing the memory of touch, and followed Will wherever he would lead.
"I must go backstage," Bran said, when the last of the applause had died down.
Will went with him, but hanging back. Backstage meant a small room next to the hall where the play had been performed, crowded with excited people in all manner of fancy dress. Will saw Jane through the crowd, and watched as Bran cleverly wove through the people to reach her. Will followed, but more slowly. He was not entirely comfortable around Jane, and very aware that he remembered things that she did not. It was the same with Bran, of course, but Bran was different. Bran was Bran.
"Of course, it was only a small part," Jane was saying, when Will arrived. "A place in the chorus, and nothing else. I've only been here for six weeks, after all, though I wouldn't want a starring role, anyway. All those people, staring… I'm not extrovert enough for that."
"Nonsense, girl," Bran chided her. "You were great."
Someone else was tugging at Jane's hand. There was talk of a party, and people were clearly eager to get their costumes off and set about the serious business of drinking. "I'll see you tomorrow?" Jane said to Bran. Will looked away, feeling a little unnecessary. When he turned back, he caught the tail end of a glance passing between Jane and Bran. Jane had been grinning, conveying something with her eyes.
"We're just in the way here, Will," Bran said. "We'd better leave these thespians to their partying."
Will followed Bran out of the hall, and to the front gate. They walked back towards Merton, talking about the play. Bran started to sing one of the songs, though not loud enough for anyone else to hear. When they crossed the river, Will stiffened, but there was nothing there. He had not seen the stranger since the incident with the motorcycle, a week before. Bran had not asked him about the man, so Will had not had to lie.
They paused at the gate. Will took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. I shouldn't, he thought. I really shouldn't. "Do you want to come in?" he asked.
Bran nodded, grinning. They walked towards Will's room in sudden silence, pausing only for Bran to grab some chocolate from the vending machine en route. Wind stirred in the garden, but nothing else moved. Will felt no threat, but he knew it was there, waiting for its time. He did not know what to do. There was no-one left who could advise him, and no-one to ally with, and fight this thing together. So he did what he could. He worked in the library, and wrote his essays, and did well. And in between all that, like beams of light in the gloaming, were his times with Bran.
Will unlocked his door, Bran close behind him. The curtains were still open, so Will shut them, shutting out the world outside, though no curtains could hold back the threat. "Coffee?" After filling the kettle, he sat in the armchair. Bran sat on the bed, but did not make himself comfortable. He was leaning forward, forearms resting on his thighs, hands clasped together. His eyes were fixed on Will's face.
"I don't want coffee," Bran said, in a tortured voice. "I want…"
Will thought he knew what was coming. Don't, he thought. Please don't ruin it. Let us keep things as they are. Let me keep that much. He closed his eyes, but still felt the force of Bran's tawny gaze.
"Tea?" he asked brightly. I could make him forget all this. "I'm out of biscuits, I'm afraid."
"You know," Bran said, his voice low. "You know what I want to say, and you're trying to put me off. Of course you know. Jane knew, after all. She knew immediately. I'm a fool. I thought you didn't know."
"Bran…" Will had to look at him. He owed him that much. He had looked into the heart of evil; how, then, could it be that he feared a single man so?
"But I will say it anyway," Bran said, braver than Will. "I… I don't know if I'm gay, but what I feel for you is far more than friendship. I'm falling in love with you. I want to touch you. I want to be with you. I'm nothing when you're gone, and when we're together, but you look away like you did just now, then I'm nothing again – less than nothing."
Will felt as if he was dying inside. Oh, Bran, listen to yourself. You can't feel like this. I can't let you feel like this. That's why…
Bran slid off the bed, kneeling on the floor. "I didn't know… I didn't dare… But sometimes… You touched me that day. Sometimes you look at me. So I thought… We could keep going on in silence, neither of us daring to say anything to the other, or I could take the plunge. Was I wrong? Have I made a terrible mistake? A man confessing love to another man… Do you hate me now?"
"Hate you?" Will burst out. "Of course I don't hate you."
Will Stanton, the human, had just been given his wildest dream. Bran Davies, the boy he loved, claimed to love him back. He did not have to be alone ever again. But Will could never just be human again. Even before the joy, there was pain, because this could never happen. He could not let it happen.
"Maybe you're afraid." Bran came closer to him, moving on his knees. He stopped when he was at Will's feet, and reached up oh so gently, cupping Will's face with one hand. His touch was cool and smooth.
Someone ran past on the stairs. The kettle came to the boil, roaring violently for a moment, then switched itself off. In the silence that followed, Will could hear Bran's breathing.
"Tell me to stop," Bran whispered, "and I'll do so." He brought Will's face downwards, with both hands on the back of his neck. His thumbs caressed Will's lips, and then his lips were there, too, in the softest of possible kisses, like gossamer on his skin. When he pulled away, he was smiling. Will thought he was falling out of his body, floating away into some place beyond Time.
"I've never kissed someone before," Bran said, shy and beautiful. He touched his lips with two fingers, as if hoarding the memory of their kiss. "Did you like that?"
"I did." Will could not lie.
"Then shall we do it again?"
It was the hardest thing Will had ever done, to shake his head. It was harder still than walking away from Bran, three years before. "I can't."
"Why not?" said Bran, not wailing, not complaining, just asking, with quiet voice.
"I can't…" Will began. "I shouldn't… I'm not…" He tried to gather in his words. Faced with evil and dangers, he could hide his fears and speak with authority and calm. Why, then, was he so helpless before Bran, reduced to someone who could not speak? "I can't give you what you need," he said.
"What?" Bran frowned. "And how do you know what I need?"
"You need…" Will tried to explain. "Everyone needs someone who understands and trusts them completely, someone who can share everything with them. I can't be that person, not to anyone. I'm… separate. You told me that yourself."
"No, I didn't," Bran protested.
"On Bonfire Night," Will said. "And you were right. I can't love, not like normal people. I can't give away the most important part of me."
"You don't have to," Bran cried, not understanding. "It doesn't have to be love. I shouldn't have used that word. I said too much, too soon. We can just get to know each other better, maybe… touch a bit – holding hands, kisses, and the like." He was blushing, a faint glow on his fair skin. "It doesn't have to be everything."
"But I'd want it to be everything," Will said quietly, "and it wouldn't work, because it couldn't be. I don't want trivial things. I want a perfect union with someone who understands me utterly, but that will never happen, and neither should it, because others things are far more important."
"So you're throwing away any chance of happiness, just because you can't have a grand passion like they have in fairy stories?"
Will shook his head wearily. "You don't understand."
"Then make me," Bran urged, but Will shook his head again, and said, "I can't."
Bran retreated back to the bed, where he sat, as stiff and awkward as a stranger. "I shouldn't have said anything."
No, Will thought, I shouldn't have spoken to you at all that first day. I should have taken better care to avoid you. I should have kept my distance after you lost your memory, like I did with the others.
"I'm sorry," Will said, but Bran laughed scornfully. Will persisted. "I knew I was falling in love with you when I was fifteen," Will said quietly. "That's why I left. I didn't think you'd ever feel the same. I thought you might find out, and that would ruin what we had. But then, at the same time, I was afraid you might end up feeling the same. I'm not worth anyone breaking their heart over."
Bran stood up, his shadow tall and dark against the wall. "You walked away from me because you loved me? You made those ridiculous excuses, and had me thinking that you didn't like me any more, because you liked me too much?"
"I can't love properly," Will cried. "I thought you’d find someone better, someone who could give you what you needed. And I wanted… I couldn't bear being so close to you, knowing that there could never be anything between us except lies."
"Lies?" Bran echoed. His shadow was as terrible as his father's had ever been, and he raised one hand in judgement. "You're strange and twisted, Will Stanton. To make such a decision without even telling me…! And now, in some ridiculous way, to make out you did it for my own good… I can't believe I thought I loved you. I don't even want to see you again." He went to the door, and slammed it behind him, without even saying a goodbye.
After he had gone, Will sat in his chair while night deepened around him. He was still in his chair when dawn came, tears long-since dried on his stone-carved face.
End of chapter six