Chapter eight: Christmas apart

 

December passed slowly.

 

Will's mother chatted to him as she made mince pies, telling him a thousand different bits of news. He nodded when he had to, and buried his hands in flour and butter, helping her to make pastry.

 

Barbara had her baby, and Will's parents rushed to be at her side, leaving Will alone in the house. A few days later, they returned, smiling and chattering. "You'll see her at Christmas," they said. "She's beautiful, Will. Frances, she's calling her." Will looked at the photographs, and smiled. I will live to see you die, he thought.

 

James came back from university, and headed straight out to meet his old school friends in the pub. When Will went into town to buy presents, he saw familiar faces from his own school days. They had once even been friends. His old friends had gradually fallen away when Will had moved up a year at school, and he had never made friends in his new year group. While James vanished almost every evening, Will stayed at home.

 

Paul came home, and Mary. The day before Will's birthday, Barbara came, and the house echoed with the sound of a baby crying. "Just like old times," Will's mother said, smiling fondly. "We haven't had a baby here since Will."

 

"He's still our baby," James teased, but Will looked away.

 

On Will's birthday, there were presents and a cake. He blew out nineteen candles, but did not make a wish. Most of them got him book tokens. "I don't know what you're interested in any more," Barbara confessed.

 

Once, they had always known instinctively. Once, the presents had all been perfect and right. Once, he had known what to give, too. His Christmas presents to them were silly things – tokens and chocolates, and blank cards without a message.

 

His mother did not know that anything was wrong.

 

The night of the solstice passed without incident. He stayed vigil during the darkest night, but the Wild Magic was silent, and the Dark had long gone. The morning afterwards was beautiful, every leaf gleaming in the sun. He walked into the lane and looked at the empty manor, where Miss Greythorne had once protected the Sign of Wood. No-one lived there now; a developer's sign announced that there were plans to turn it into flats. The trees in its garden loomed like giants, the leaves whispering secrets and threats.

 

Robin returned the day after Will's birthday, apologising heartily for being late. With him came his girlfriend, a slip of a thing who seemed overwhelmed by the large family, and wanted to shrink into the wall and become invisible. Will smiled at her once, over dinner, and she smiled back, but they never had time to talk.

 

When Gwen turned up, she bustled her mother out of the kitchen, ordering her to put her feet up and let someone else do the cooking for once. Smells of baking and spices seeped through the house, but, "it looks like we men-folk are banished, eh, Will?" said Robin, passing Will on the stairs. "Care for a drink with your big brothers, now you're legal?"

 

Will went, drank, thought of Bran, and stared into the fire. Talk and laughter washed over him. He felt as if he was a stone at the bottom of a lake, powerless to reach the sunlight that sparkled so far above.

 

Stephen was to come on Christmas Eve, and Max only on Boxing Day, for he was spending Christmas at his fiancée's house. The night before Stephen came, most of the family went carol-singing. For the first time in years, there was mulled wine, and Will's father reminded him jokingly of the time he had tried to drink it as a child. Will tried to smile, but could not. The smell of spices made him unutterably sorrowful, and he knew he could not drink it.

 

They sang through the village, wrapped in coats and scarves, and replete with mince pies. James took the lead in the singing now, his voice as good as Merriman had known it would be. Will sang a quiet harmony in the background. When they passed the empty manor, he missed Merriman desperately, but he did not show it on his face.

 

He saw the stranger then, in the shadows – the first and only time he saw him that Christmas. The stranger smiled, raising his empty hand. I could, the gesture said,  but I choose not to. Have this Christmas, such as it is. I will come again in the mortals' New Year, and then will battle be joined.

 

Or maybe that was not in the gesture, but in the voices that whispered to him all night, keeping him from sleep. Wrapped in a blanket, he sat in the window seat until Christmas Eve morning, only returning to his room at dawn. Stephen came with laughter, and there were songs and games after dinner, and then another sleepless night, listening to the others stealing around in the dark, preserving the fiction of Father Christmas that none of them believed in, but none would ever deny.

 

There was a new youngest child to open presents for first, and baby things to coo over and admire. Will opened more tokens, and occasional books, some of which he already had. "I wasn't sure what to get you," they said. Robin laughed over Paul's gift to him, and said, "How did you know? It's perfect!" James' gift made Mary blush. Their mother beamed over Barbara's, and said, "I'll treasure it forever."

 

There was no gift from Bran, no phone call, no card.

 

After Christmas, the year limped to its cloudy end. Lights blazed in the house until well after New Year, and the room were packed with neighbours, as well as family. As the clock struck the final hour, and glasses were raised, Will crept slowly, invisibly, to bed. They sang "Auld Lang Syne" downstairs, longing for other times. "Should auld acquaintance be forgot," Will murmured in time with them, and sought the doors of Time, for a glimpse of Merriman, and for the sight of himself and Bran, smiling on the hillside, when they were thirteen and thought the whole world lay spread at their feet.

 

January came. One by one, the family left, until there was just Will and his parents, alone in a house that suddenly seemed far too big. "Are you sure you're alright?" Will's mother asked him, as she handed him a mug of tea.

 

"Of course I am," Will lied.

 

The following morning, he returned to Oxford.

 

******

 

Bran found the start of the holidays impossibly quiet. Instead of a bustling city, he had a silent mountain. Instead of a crowded College, in which someone was almost moving around at all hours of the day and night, he had a little cottage, and only his father for company. His father was a man of few words. The dogs bounded around him, welcoming him home, but they did not help pass the hours.

 

The first day was aching in its solitude. The second day, though, he decided that he liked it. He had started life alone. For years of his childhood, there had been no-one he could call friend. He had learnt how to pass time by himself, and he had haunts on the mountain that were unchanged, even after all these years.

 

His father would not ask; his father never did. His father would not ask him when his friends were getting back, and if they had any plans to meet up. His father would not ask him about his time in Oxford, though he would listen if Bran chose to share anything.

 

Bran did not. He spent the first week alone, and told himself that he liked it.

 

He thought of Will often – of course he did. He hoped that he was adult enough, and honest enough, not to pretend that he was over him. He was still angry with him, though, although he had not repeated the mistakes of the drunken party. Will had made ridiculous, overbearing assumptions about their relationship, and had walked away from Bran three years ago, and lied about the reason. Now, three years on, he was doing the same, but worse. Bran had offered Will everything, and Will had only given back some nonsense about not being capable of love.

 

Not being capable of loving me, Bran thought. Not wanting to love me.

 

Solitude was better, he thought, as rain lashed at the window one mid-December night. If you did not get to love someone, then they could not reject you. Then he thought of Rob, and the pain that came from his death. Even just talking to people was dangerous. They died, they hurt you, they teased and laughed. No, it was better to be alone. Solitude had served him well throughout his early childhood.

 

But, in the morning, everything had felt different. The rain had cleared, and sunlight bathed the mountaintop. "What an idiot you are, Bran Davies," he chided himself, leaning in the windowsill with both elbows. "So Will doesn't want you? That doesn't mean you have to give up."

 

Will had taught him well, and the lesson still stood, even though Will had now betrayed him. Not that the lesson had ever been overt. By coming, holiday after holiday, and by apparently liking him, Will had taught Bran that he was worthy of friends. Will likes me, Bran reminded himself, when people tried to taunt him at school. That caused him to greet their taunts with his head high, and soon such taunting ceased. He had helped in other ways, too – listening when Bran confided his fears, and making suggestions in his calm and reasonable way. Bran at fifteen was a very different person from Bran at eleven, and Will Stanton could take the credit for that.

 

And that hasn't changed. With a wry chuckle, Bran thought of babies and bathwater. And that night he put on his coat, and caught the bus into town, and met with a group of his school friends in the pub.

 

The next night, he went to a party. A red-haired girl, the English cousin of one of his friends, clearly wanted to get him alone under the mistletoe. Flattered, he considered giving her what she wanted, but he could not forget Will. No matter how it had ended, their kiss had been special. Perhaps he could not get Will, but he would not throw himself at the first person who asked. The thought of kissing her coral-red lips left him cold.

 

John Rowlands brought round a Yule log. Bran's father pursed his lips, and muttered something about pagan ungodliness, but let it stand. There were stories that night, and songs. After Bran's father went to bed, John lingered for a while, and Bran had him tell stories of wizards, just like he had told when Bran had been a child. Now, so many years on, the stories filled him with a vague and intense longing for things that he did not know. For past days and childhood, he presumed. Why, then, did he see Will, when he closed his eyes on the stories?

 

Midwinter's day was cold and crisp. As night fell, Bran took out the present he had carefully selected for Will's birthday, looked at it, and put it back in the drawer beside his bed. Will's Christmas present rested there, too. Maybe there was still time, if he rushed down to the Post Office in the morning… But in the morning, his father wanted him on the farm. That's fate's way of deciding, he told himself, and tried to think nothing more of it.

 

He wrote to Jane, though, and sent her a present. His letter ran to four pages, and was full of all the things he had done in the holidays, but none of the things he had been feeling. Her own letter back to him was equally newsy, yet restrained. There was talk of Simon and Barney, of Jamie, and her parents. There were parties and dinner and far too much work, but there was no talk of Will, and no mention of the things they had talked about, the night of the party, and the day that followed.

 

Because we've met in person now, Bran thought. Letters are no substitute. We've lost what we used to have.

 

His Christmas was quiet, with few presents, and lamb, rather than turkey. There was no present from Will, but what had Bran expected? Jane phoned in the middle of the afternoon, and a school friend phoned saying he was being driven to distraction by his relatives, and could they go out to the pub on Boxing Day, please, for the sake of his sanity. Bran said yes, and then, a week later, went with the same friend to a New Year's party, where the friend dropped him entirely when a pretty girl came by.

 

As midnight struck, Bran sat alone. Perhaps I over-reacted, he thought. Perhaps I should have given him longer to explain. The New Year dawned, and everyone around him started hugging and kissing, and Bran realised that there was only one person he wanted at his side at this moment, and that he had parted from him in anger. Even if we can't be together in that way, he never said he didn't want to be friends. Maybe that can be enough.

 

Early January was cold and damp, and he stared out of the window, struggling with a letter to Will. Perhaps he really believes what he said – that he isn't worthy of love. I should have stayed to help him, but instead I stormed off in a fury.

 

He scrapped that letter, as he had scrapped a dozen letters before. In a few days' time, he would be back at Oxford, where he would seek out Will, and this time he would really listen.

 

******

 

End of chapter eight


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