I'm posting two chapters today, since it's Sunday, but the second one might not be for a few hours. I've got a few things to do first. (I've only just got up now, at 1 o'clock in the afternoon. Been reading in bed since 7.)
Chapter seventeen: Dependence
Friday came. Bran left his room before the party started below. The day before, in the lunch queue, he had muttered something vague about not being able to go after all. There had been some half-hearted attempts to persuade him. "Maybe later," he had told them, knowing that the party would be going on late into the night. "After I get back."
He headed into town, passing the place where he had fallen and almost died. He had not intended to head towards Will's room, but his feet found their way there anyway. There was no point, though. Although he knocked on the door several times, there was no answer. He went outside and looked up, counting the windows carefully until he was sure he had the right one, but the light was off, and the curtains were still open. A girl whose face Bran vaguely recognised came out of the doorway, and he considered asking her if she knew where Will was, but did not. Will did not have friends in College. No-one knew how Will spent his days, not even Bran.
Back to the High Street. He looked down towards the bridge, and considered seeking out Jane, but she would doubtless be out with Jamie. Even if she was not, he didn't think he wanted to explain to her why he was out alone and aimless on a Friday night. He didn't truly know the answer himself. All he knew was that normal, human company held no appeal to him. How could he drink and chat and gossip, when he had seen what he had seen, and knew what he now knew?
The bookshop was open until eight, and he made his way there, and wandered from shelf to shelf, his eyes running over the pages of book after book, not really reading any of them. When the announcement came that the shop was closing, he left without buying anything. There were few other people in the shop, for Friday night was the time for parties.
He wondered if Will was down in the meadows. He had checked Merton gardens, of course, on his way to Will's room. There had been no still figure, swathed in a dark coat. Will could be anywhere, maybe not even in this world. He could be hundreds of years in the past, or striding through the future. Like light, he could be moving through the stars, or locked in combat with his enemy, in a place beneath the earth.
I can't…he thought. I don't want to… He wanted warmth and peace and normality. He couldn't laugh at a party as if nothing had happened, but he wanted to be in a world in which nothing had changed. The library would offer that, he thought. That was order and quiet, where normal people submerged themselves in the words that other normal men had written.
As he approached the library entrance, someone else was coming out. As he stepped to one side to let them pass, he realised that it was Will.
Bran stopped. Will saw him. "Can I come back with you?" Bran asked. "I don't really have anything to do in there. I was just… bored, I suppose." Will was just looking at him, saying nothing. "I tried your room, but you weren't in."
Will's eyes were unreadable, but, "Of course you can," was all he said.
They started walking. "I wondered if you were…" Bran was not sure how to finish.
Will seemed to understand. "No. I was just working. I've reached James I. I might get as far as the Civil War by the end of term. It'll be sixteenth century Europe after Easter."
"Everyone's dying of the Black Death, with me." Bran gave a little shiver. The subject disturbed him a lot more than it would have only a week before.
The crossed High Street, and headed down the dark lane. "I thought you were going to a party tonight," Will said, when they were in the dark patch between two lights.
"I didn't feel like it."
Back in the light, Will pressed his lips together. Bran knew him well enough now to recognise that look. There were no words, though. The words would come afterwards, once they were in Will's room, and no-one else could overhear.
They said nothing for a while. Bran could think of many things to say, but none of them were appropriate for outside. "We could go to the pub later," he said hopefully.
Will shook his head. "I can't drink. Not now."
There was absolute finality in this voice. "Why not?" Bran decided to hazard the question.
They turned left onto Merton Street, crossing the cobbles to the pavement on the far side. "It weakens… defences that I cannot afford to have weakened."
Into the Lodge, then, and through the front quad, and past the bar with its smell of stale beer. There was a party in the Junior Common Room, though it was as yet only sparsely attended. The garden was empty and cold. There were few lights on in the new buildings where Will had his room. From the moment they entered the garden, to the moment they entered Will's room, they did not see another person.
For the final two dozen steps, Bran reached out and twined his fingers into Will's. Will squeezed his hand once, but he pulled away when they reached the stairs.
There were no kisses when they reached Will's room. Will put his books on the desk, and sat down heavily in the armchair. He looks tired, Bran thought. "You should have gone to the party," Will said. "Why didn't you go to the party?"
"I didn't want to." Bran sat on the bed. "I don't have to, do I? I bet you've turned down lots of party invitations in your time." In his own ears, his voice sounded defensive and unpleasant.
Will raised his head, looking Bran full in the face. "Don't do this, Bran, please."
"What?" Bran pretended not to understand.
"Push everyone else away." Will's hands were clasped together, the knuckles white. "You had friends at school, you told me. You had friends here, last term. Please don't push them all away because of me."
"It's up to me who I spend my time with." Bran scraped his fingers through his hair.
Will looked down at his hands, then up at Bran again. "You're going to hate me for saying this… You're going to tell me that I don't know anything about relationships, but I have got brothers and sisters. Mary, my sister… The first boyfriend she had, she put him before everything. She started ignoring all her friends. Then, when she split up with her boyfriend, she almost had nobody at all."
Bran swallowed. "Are you saying you're going to split up with me?"
Will shook his head. Bran thought he looked irritated, but he had never learnt how to read Will properly, so he could have been wrong. "I'm just saying that you shouldn't push everyone else away."
"But no-one else understands," Bran found himself saying. "I saw all that… all that… stuff. I know things nobody else would believe. How can I talk to them about normal things, when all the time I know this?"
Will's expression did not waver. "That is why Merriman made you forget, Bran. If that's what you truly believe, I will have to make you forget all of this now. You will leave me with no choice."
"You can't." Bran slid to his knees on the floor. Pure panic lanced through his heart. "Please don't."
Will looked at him with brutal sympathy. "I don't want you to plead, either. I don't ever want you to plead to me."
Bran clambered back onto the bed, knowing that all dignity was lost. "Would you really do it? Make me forget, I mean? Make all of this go away as if it had never happened? Make us be strangers to each other?"
"If I had to, yes." Will's voice was level and emotionless, but his hands were clasping the arms of the chair so tightly that the fingers were as white as bone.
He could not be angry. Instead, he just wanted to cry with pity for this man that he loved, who could bring himself to do a thing like this.
"You were so strong when you came to Oxford," Will continued mercilessly. "I was in awe of you. You had conquered everything that stood against you, and come out on top, the sort of man who could become a leader of men. But now you're pushing everyone away. You're…"
"Don't say it," Bran said bitterly. "You're going to tell me that I've become needy and clinging. I'm in awe of you. Sometimes I'm even afraid of you. I love you. I wish I could make you happy. I dream about you. I think about you when I should be working. I'm not strong and alone and solitary, but that's because I love you. It would be like this no matter who you were."
"No, it wouldn’t," Will said quietly. "I saw how you looked at me the other night."
"When you saved me." Bran stared at his hands.
"You saw me for what I am," Will said. "I've told you from the start that, whatever happens between us, that part of me has to come first. You can never be the only thing in my life, so it is wrong if you make me the only thing in yours."
Bran raised his head bitterly. "Are you trying to drive me away?"
"No." Will shook his head. "I am merely telling the truth."
"And if you did make me forget…" Bran took hold of a fistful of the blanket and slowly tightened his hand on it. "Would you still remember?"
"I would still remember." Will repeated it like a vow. "I would still love you… Because I do, Bran. It's mixed up with many things. Everything's so complicated now. There are… forces. Everything I feel is stronger than it should be. Maybe they're acting on you, too, because you were there that night, too. Maybe that's why you're… But, no, none of that matters. I would still love you, but I would make you forget me, if that was best for you, or best for the cause that I am fighting for."
Bran blinked hard to avoid shedding tears. He thought dimly that he ought to be angry, but it seemed that pity and grief lay on the far side of anger, though all were less strong than love. "Then I pity you," he said.
"Don't," Will said. "Please go to your party. I know it will be hard at first, but try to forget all this for a few hours. You're a normal human being, Bran – nineteen, and at the start of your life. Don't throw it all away just because of me."
Bran gave a bitter, sorrowing laugh. "You're a fine one to talk."
Will froze, arrested in the middle of some movement. Then the movement continued. His head turned, his hand moved, and he was composed again.
"Don't push people away, you keep telling me. Forget all of this for a moment, and just be normal." Bran sighed. "Why don't you practice what you preach, Will? You've been here for nearly five terms, and you don't know anybody. Last term, before I knew the truth about you, I told you what I felt about you, and you said you couldn't possibly get close to anyone, because of your secret."
Will was a statue. His eyes gave nothing away. He's gone, Bran thought. He's not even listening to me. But he had said too much, now, to stop.
"You want me to spend the night watching ancient horrors walking the streets of Oxford, and then go from that to banter with teenage boys about who went to bed with whom, and how much everyone can drink? Fine. Then do it yourself. Practice what you preach."
Will seemed to move his head with difficulty. "It's different for me, Bran. You're normal; you've just glimpsed all this. I am different. You saw that the other night. I know you did. I saw the realisation in your eyes."
"Nonsense." The blanket was screwed tight in his hand now. If he said it loud enough, it would be true. Oh, please, let it be true. "You're human as well, Will."
Bran did not let him speak. He could not bear to hear the final, crushing confirmation of all his fears. "I knew you as a child, Will. I remember you falling over on the mountain and grazing your knee. You cried, even though you tried not to. I remember you helpless with laughter after… I can't even remember why we were laughing, but we were. We had to hold on to each other to stop ourselves from falling over. I remember how nervous you were going into a new year at school, because the form tutor was supposed to be horrible. You were normal, Will. You were my friend."
"Things were different…" Will's voice sounded choked.
"No." With immense difficulty, Bran moved to Will's side, and took his ice-cold hand. "I've seen glimpses of it in Oxford – only glimpses, but enough. When we were talking about Winnie-the-Pooh. Sitting in the bar and remembering the past. You even got a bit drunk once."
Will's hand stirred, as if he was trying to escape. Bran would not let him. "And how sad and miserable you were when you thought I was going out with Jane. Even Jane noticed that, and she doesn't know you. How you don't often show your feelings on your face, but I'm learning how to read them, anyway, in your eyes and your hands and the way you hold your head. And the fact that you said you loved me. And the fact that you said you would make me forget, if you thought it was best for me, even though you loved me."
Will made a strangled noise that was nothing like speech. Tenderly, firmly, Bran touched his cheek. "Pure, bright Light cannot feel love. Only humans can feel love. You are human, Will. I thought you weren't. After I asked you all those questions, and then when you saved me, I… I was afraid that you weren't. I only saw the differences between us. But whatever you say, whatever you think now, you're human. Perhaps you'll outlive us all, but for now you've got a family, and you've got friends, and you've got me. Live with us, Will. Don't make yourself more different than you need to be."
"I can't…" Will looked defeated. "I have no words."
"You don't need words," Bran whispered. But, instinctively, he knew he had gone as far as he could go. He touched Will's lips with his fingers, but he did not try to take a kiss. He thought Will might yield if he tried for one, but he thought, too, that Will might flinch away, and be lost to Bran forever.
Will rested his head against the back of the armchair, as if he lacked the strength to do anything else.
"But I will go to the party," Bran said, standing.
Will's eyes were shadowed, but he smiled.
It was thirst that roused him in the end. Will stirred, and wandered sluggishly to the sink. He thrust the kettle underneath the flow of cold water, but much of it missed, splashing over his hands. Wandering back towards his chair, he crouched to plug the kettle in, and blindly grabbed a biscuit from the near-empty tin.
Five minutes later, the kettle had boiled, and was silent again. The biscuit was uneaten in his hand.
Bran… Thought came with difficulty, words rasping like a rusty gate. Bran said…
Bran had said many things, and his own thoughts were churning. Feelings that he should not have ever known were battling inside him. He thought he knew the reason, but that did not make it any less terrible. He had come too close to the Wild Magic. To bind the creature of the Wild Magic, he had had to open himself to feelings that were not proper for an Old One. For as long as he kept the creature bound, he would be confused and conflicted, buffeted by thoughts and feelings that did not come from the Light.
It was best to ignore them. He would feel them – he could not help but feel them – but he would act purely as the Light dictated. If there was laughter in his heart, it would not show on his face. If doubts kept him awake at night, he would not let them make him deviate from the course he had to take. He could not let this destroy him. If he started acting on emotion now, he was lost.
And yet… And yet…
He shook some coffee into a mug, splashed water on top of it, and began to drink it before it had started to cool down. It hurt his lips. He willed his hands to stop trembling, and it became better after that. Someone shouted from outside the window, very loud and clear. Bound to him, already almost part of him, the Wild Magic creature stirred, then lay still again. Then, in the silence that followed, came a faint and whispering voice: Bran was right.
He placed the mug down, and wondered. He truly did not know if the voice came from the Light, or from the Wild Magic; from his hopes or from his fears; from the mouth of an enemy who wanted to destroy him. Think, he willed himself. Bran had said… Bran had said…
That I am human. That I can think and feel and love as a human does. That I do not need to be separate.
Once, that had been true. How distant, how strange it felt to remember those early years after his eleventh birthday. He had immersed himself in books, and played with friends. He had lived a rich and happy life in his large family, basking in warmth and laughter. He had wrestled with boredom and hopes, with anxieties about school tests and bullies, and with ordinary, human fears. There had been months on end when he had seldom had a single thought that was not the thought of an ordinary boy, heading towards his teens.
When had that changed? As he headed towards adulthood, his powers had grown and become more difficult to ignore, but that was not the real reason, was it? Bran was the cause. Love was the trigger. Slowly, painfully, he had grown to realise that he wanted his future to contain Bran. Suddenly the knowledge of his true nature, never an obstacle when it came to innocent games with friends, assumed an immense importance. He had broken with Bran, and in doing so, he had broken with his own humanity. He had never intended it to happen, but the decision to walk away from Bran had led him to draw away from all other human contact. If he could not have the person he wanted, he would have no-one at all, and he would call it good.
"I knew this," he said out loud. "I knew this already." What was new was the doubt. Never before had he questioned whether it had been the right thing to do.
Merriman had loved; he remembered that suddenly, fiercely. Merriman had loved his land, his lord, and his liegeman, and maybe many others over the centuries. In the lives he had crafted for himself over the years, he had not always been alone. And some Old Ones had even married. Frank Dawson had married a human woman, and lived a long and happy life with her.
Being an Old One did not mean that you could not love. An Old One felt all the emotions that a human did, and these emotions were just as real. They could never be the most important thing in his life, but they were real, and they mattered. He had been wrong to push them aside. He could not protect mankind unless he lived among men, and felt the pity and the love that drove them.
He walked to the window, where he pressed his brow to the glass, gazing outside with eyes that swam with unshed tears. Perhaps everything he was thinking came from the Wild Magic, but it felt right. He had chosen the wrong course for himself. In future, he would endeavour to feel like a man, even though he would never - could never – act as anything other than an Old One.
It felt as if he was standing on the edge of a cliff, with everything beneath it hidden in fog.
"Bran." He thought there was a shadow of reserve in her smiling greeting. "Come in."
He hesitated. "Not if you're busy."
She laid down her pen. "It's nothing urgent. I've got three more days to do this." She nodded towards the armchair. "Sit down. Let's have a good gossip."
There was still that reserve there. He wondered if she had split up with her boyfriend. Desperately he searched his memories, wondering if she had still been with him last time they had met. It was four weeks, he realised. He hadn't seen her for four weeks, and even then he had struggled to find things to say to her.
"How's Will?" she asked. There was nothing frosty in her smile. He realised suddenly that he was only aware of the slight reserve because his time with Will had made him accustomed to seeing the emotions that lurked beneath a façade.
"I… don't know," he admitted. "We had a… Well, not quite an argument, last night. To cut a long story short, he told me I was neglecting my other friends in favour of him, and that he didn't want me to do it any more. He said I shouldn't want to spend every evening with him, and that I was to…" He faltered a little. "Dependent," he admitted.
"Good for him," Jane said coldly.
Bran looked at her, blinking. "You…"
"Bran." Jane's coldness vanished in a smile, soft with gentleness. "That came out too harshly, but he has a point. I'm very glad he said it, because I don't think I'd have dared say it myself. I really must meet him properly one day."
He tried again. "You…"
"I'm sorry." She sighed, pushing her hair back from her face. "I probably sound jealous. Maybe I am, a bit, though I don't have any right to. But last term, when I met Jamie, I was happy to spend evenings with you. Since you and Will got together, I've barely seen you, and when I have, your mind's been miles away. You haven't been you, Bran."
"You should have said…"
"You need to see someone before you can say something to them," Jane said, "and besides, you wouldn't have listened." She pushed her hair back again, a nervous gesture that reminded him suddenly and intensely of Will. "I'm just glad he said it. I hope you're going to forgive him."
"Forgive him?" He hadn't thought of it was something as simple as a case of right and wrong, requiring forgiveness. He hadn't been angry when he had left Will's room. If anything, he had been sorrowing, because for the first time it was brutally clear to him that Will had been desperately alone for years. He had gone to the party, and had moderately enjoyed it, although he had not stayed long. After that, he had spent most of the night awake, thinking about what Will had said, and about what he had said to Will. He had no conclusions. He still had no conclusions.
"You don't have to be together all the time to be in love," Jane said. "And, no, I'm not an expert, but… I've missed you, Bran. You've been so different this term – different from how you were last term, and different from how you were in your letters. I liked you better how you used to be. You seemed happier then, too. I'm sure Will only has your best interests at heart."
"Of course he has," said Bran, surprised by sudden bitterness. "He always has. Contrary to appearances, though, he isn't always right about everything. He's messed his own life up good and proper. I told him as much. He told me to get out and spend time other people, but he sits in his room as if it's a fortress. Yes, I know he's different, and nothing can change that, but part of the difference is because he's made himself different, and…" He stopped, snatching back the words that wanted to come flooding out – words that would reveal all secrets to Jane, who had once known them all, but had been made to forget.
Jane was looking at him strangely. "I don't understand…" She shook her head. "No. I won't ask. I won't pry. Unless you want me to. Talking can help, but sometimes…" She shrugged, spreading her hands.
Bran considered it. "No," he said at last, heavily. "I can't talk about it any more. For what it's worth, I think he was probably right. I'm going to try to change. That's why I went to the party last night, and came to see you today. All I hope is that… The thing that really scares me is that he won't. And if I change, and he doesn't…"
"Then you try again," Jane said gently, "because you love him."
"Yes," he said, subsiding into the chair with a smile. "I love him."
But he could not say that this was all that mattered, but he now knew that it was not.
End of chapter seventeen