Chapter seven: Michaelmas ending
"Fresh air." Bran pawed unsuccessfully at the shoulder of his friend. "I'm going out for fresh air."
Pete nodded, giving Bran a discreet thumbs up behind his back. Pete had been talking to the same girl on and off all evening. She had blonde hair, and a red top, low cut and showing everything. Bran had decided to pursue her friend, who was wearing black and had startling blue eyes. Wine had come first, though, and then a bit more. He had only had two or three glasses, or maybe more. When he had finished getting some fresh air, he would try to kiss the girl in black.
What was her name? Pretty, he told himself. He nudged a random student in passing. "She's pretty."
"Someone's had a bit too much," someone laughed. "Good on you, mate."
"Haven't," Bran protested.
He headed for the door, wondering why people kept blundering into his path. Music blared from the speakers, making him want to join in and sing along. "Shut up!" someone chided him good-naturedly. "That sounds awful."
"It doesn't," Bran objected. "I'm Welsh, you know – the land of song. We sing like nightingales."
Hands found his back, pushing him towards the door. Someone thrust him a glass of water. "Water?" he cried, outraged. "Why should I want water? Wine, that's what I want. Or beer. Beer's good."
He drank the water, though, because it was there, and it was easier to drink it than to work out how to get rid of it. Some of it dribbled down his chin. The door seemed no closer, with hordes of people between him and it, and the floor pulsing and heaving. Then the floor jerked unfairly beneath him, and he almost fell. Hands held him up, and pushed him towards a place where cool air blew into his face. Another door, he thought, as he spilled out into a stone-covered quad, where the cold made him shiver. There were no stairs to trip him up. He found a wall to lean on, the stone harsh beneath his palm. He bowed his head, suddenly feeling quite sick. Deep breaths, he told himself. I can't be drunk.
"Bran?" a voice said.
He turned round too quickly, and fell over, sitting down too heavily on his bottom. "Jane?" There were lights behind her, painful, hurting his eyes. "What you doing here?"
"Coming to the party," Jane said. "Jamie knows someone here. Though it doesn't really look like my sort of thing." She crouched down beside him, blessedly saving him from the lights. "I didn't think it was your sort of thing, either."
"It is," he proclaimed. He leant closer, confiding secrets. "I was going to kiss a girl. That'll show him." He tried to stand up, heading back in. "Watch. I'll show you."
"No, Bran. Stay here." Jane turned to another figure, dark and faceless against the lights, and whispered something. He nodded, and went into the party without her, squeezing her hand once before he did so. Something twisted inside Bran's heart, and he wanted the wine and the girl very much indeed, but Jane was already turning back to him. "Is there anywhere we can go?"
"If there's wine," Bran said.
Jane was cruel and merciless, shaking her head. "No wine. Water, maybe. Your room? No, I think you need air. Is there a garden?"
She took him by the sleeve, and dragged him along as if he was a child, asking other people for directions, not him. As he walked, he looked up at the sky, and told her about the stars. When he almost stumbled, he told her about the history of the quads and statues that they passed, but it was dark in the garden, and he couldn't think of anything to talk about, so sat down on the first bench they came to, pulling his sleeve out of Jane's grip.
Jane sat down beside him. "Oh, Bran."
"Don't look at me like that," Bran said, fighting the words a bit. It was too dark to see how she was looking at him, but he could tell from her voice.
"What happened, Bran?" She took his hand. He didn't want her to take his hand – not Jane. "Last time I saw you, after the play, you were…"
"Nothing happened," he told her, pulling his hand away. "So I had a few drinks. What gives you the right to lecture me? I'm not doing anything wrong."
"No," Jane agreed. "You're not doing anything that thousands of students haven't done before, but I'm your friend, Bran. This isn't like you. I'm worried about you."
"Don't be," Bran said, but he turned away, his mood suddenly changing. The night pressed around him, cold and black, and the taste of wine in his mouth was bitter.
Jane took his hand again, and this time would not let him snatch it away. "What happened with Will, Bran?"
"Nothing," Bran snapped, but there were tears in his eyes – treacherous tears that turned his voice hoarse and made his chest hurt. "I told him; he said no. That's all that happened. Not that I care. I was an idiot. I didn't know what I was doing. I'm all for girls now. I'll show him."
"Oh, Bran." She released his hand, and instead put an arm around his shoulders, pulling him tight. "I'm so sorry."
"Don't be." But his head was on her shoulder, and the stupid tears were still coming, dragged out by the wine. "I don't care."
She held him as he scraped at the tears with the heel of his hand, drying his eyes. Perhaps he was drunk, he realised. Certainly he had never felt like this before. "I don't feel well," he whispered.
"Let me take you to your room," Jane said, a pillar of strength. "I'll come round tomorrow afternoon and you can tell me anything you want to tell me, or tell me nothing, if you prefer. Because this isn't the way, Bran. I won't let you do this to yourself."
It was good to be led, Bran thought, through the lurching haze that had descended on him. It was good to have someone to look after you. It was good to have someone who was willing to step in and say, Enough.
"But I still don't care," he told her solemnly, when they had reached his door. She had to help him find the keyhole, because it kept dancing away whenever he tried. "I never want to see Will ever again."
He almost meant it, too.
Will kept his hands thrust deeply in his pockets, and his scarf wrapped twice around his neck. He watched from afar, just one of the crowd. No-one saw him. Except for his tutor, he had barely exchanged a sentence with a single living soul for over a week.
Bran had not come. Will missed him even more than he had missed him three years before, when he had made his excuses and left him forever. Then, he had been walking away from a friendship, never dreaming that Bran might want more. Now, he had ruined something that could have been marvellous… "No," he murmured out loud. It could never have been marvellous. It could never have been anything but a shadow, and that was not fair on Bran.
The workmen scratched their heads. A man in a suit came out of a van, and listened to what they had to say. Scaffolding had already been unloaded. It would soon be erected, but it was clear that the workmen did not know what had caused the ancient wall to suddenly start to collapse. "Not that we're paid to know," one of them was grumbling to his work mate. "Get the experts in to do that. We just do the job."
Will thought he knew. It matched too closely with his visions in the garden, of a world ruled by the Wild Magic, in which roads and walls and straight lines crumbled. Beneath the wall, he thought, the workmen would find tree roots, grown impossibly strong. Stone had cracked and mortar turned to dust. The ancient walls of Oxford, symbol of man's dominion for so many hundred years, were falling. The towers would fall next, then libraries and governments and the civilised commerce of men.
The Wild Magic was vast – a force that the High Magic had never tried to master. Even Merriman had been subject to the rules of Tethys in her own domain. The Wild Magic had been bound to neither help nor hinder Light and Dark in their struggle, but after the Light and Dark had gone, it remained, stronger than Will, and older than man.
If the Wild Magic had declared war on the world of men, what could Will do about it? No, he told himself, a thing so vast, so impossible, could not happen. It was more likely that a capricious being of the Wild Magic had chosen to sport with Will for amusement. There were no signs of attack anywhere else but Oxford. The stranger had known Will, and the voices called his name.
But if not, he thought. If the world of men really is under attack…
Dusk was falling. He turned and headed away, for nothing could be gained from staying. Although it was only late November, the Saturday afternoon streets were packed. Christmas music chimed in the shops, and Father Christmas sat beneath the tower at Carfax, while cold-looking carol singers sang into the twilight.
As he headed down High Street, Jane emerged from a shop, and he was unable to avoid her. "Will." She blushed, plainly embarrassed to have to talk to him. Of course she was. Bran was her friend, not his. Will wondered what Bran had told her, if anything. As a child, Bran had been proud and reluctant to admit when he was hurting, but he had changed over the years. This new Bran might have told Jane everything.
They fell into step, both heading the same way. He could have pretended to her that he had business in the opposite direction, but he had no more heart for lying. He lied about the most important things of all, but he could not lie merely to avoid an awkward situation, or a friend of Bran telling him how badly he had behaved.
"You're probably wondering," Jane said, after they had parted briefly to pass a large group of people who were blocking the pavement. "Bran did tell me everything, yes."
"Oh." Will pressed his lips together. It didn't matter, he told himself. If Bran hated him, if Jane hated him… What did it matter? They would all drift away from him, like feathers in the wind, and he would remain, long after they had gone.
"Or maybe not everything." Jane gave a wry smile. "And, before you ask, he wasn't vindictive. The first night he was, but the next day… He's hurt. He misses you."
"I'm sorry." Useless words. Stupid words.
They reached the lane where Will would turn off the main road, but Jane stopped him, an arm on his wrist. "I thought I'd hate you, when he first told me. He was so… heartbroken. He did some stupid things, like drinking too much. He said things he shouldn't have, but the next day he told me what he'd said, and what you'd said…"
Standing in the shadows of the lane was the stranger, a half smile on his face, hearing everything. Like fluttering wings, the Wild Magic brushed around Will's face. Shadows lapped on the ground, teasingly reaching towards Jane's feet.
"How can I blame you?" Jane said. "You were honest, that's all you were. So many people enter into relationships speaking nothing but lies. 'Yes, I will love you forever,' 'No, there will never be anyone but you.' You were honest. You said you couldn't love him the way he wanted to be loved. Bran doesn't understand why you said it, and it's not my place to try to understand, but you spoke the truth, or what you thought was the truth."
No, Will pleaded. The stranger smiled. Will turned his back on him, protecting himself from the glamour of his smile. The shadows surged and retreated, and people passed by on the street, oblivious.
"In fact," Jane said gently, "you're the one I feel sorry for. You really believe it, don't you – that you cannot love; that you aren't worthy of love. It must be so sad to live like that."
The stranger laughed, his voice in Will's head. Chattering, someone walked straight at him, and the stranger transformed into a hawk, perching on the rooftops with jewel-tipped talons, watching everything with yellow eyes.
"But for your sake, for Bran's sake… I know I'm interfering and probably shouldn't, but why not give Bran a chance? I saw how you looked at him, that day in my room. I can see how you look now, now you're without him. Please, Will, just go and see him. He's too proud now to come to see you. Just talk to him."
The yellow eyes gazed down, unblinking. They would gaze down on Bran, too. Not for the first time, Will wondered what had killed Rob in the Meadows, clothing him in the costume of the past. Had it been a warning to Will – a blow struck at Bran's friend, when next time it would be struck at Bran?
"I can't," Will said, as the bird spread his wings, so that feathers rained down on Will's hair. "I'm sorry, Jane, but I can't."
And, wrapping his coat around him against the frost, he headed down the shadowed lane towards his room.
On the final day of term, Bran was leaving the history faculty library just as Will was going in.
Their eyes met for the briefest moment, just outside the door.
Will's hand tightened on his books. "Are you…?"
Bran almost dropped his own. "Perhaps I will see you next term," he said coldly, "or maybe the term after that."
He headed out into the dark, and the day after that, caught a train back to Wales. Will loaded his cases into his father's car, and let himself be driven back to Buckinghamshire, where his mother kissed him on the cheek, and wanted to stay up late, listening to his news.
End of chapter seven
Note: A short chapter, but you did at least get two today. Chapter 8 is also short, so I'll post it along with 9 tomorrow.
Regarding the chapter title, Michaelmas is the Oxford name for the autumn term. Spring term is Hilary, and summer term is Trinity. Terms are only 8 weeks long. Undergraduates are generally expected to "come up" near the end of "Noughth Week", and "go down" at the end of Eighth Week. Weeks start on Sunday, and end on Saturday.