Chapter eighteen: Hilary ending
Term came to an end. "It all went so fast," Bran observed, as they strolled through Radcliffe Square, their coats flapping in the early March wind. "But at the same time the start of term seems like years ago. We weren't together. I wasn't even talking to you. I didn't know anything about… well, you know."
"No," Will agreed. He saw a girl coming that he recognised from College, and he deliberately smiled at her. She smiled back, calling him by name. It felt like a promise. In a small and special way, it was.
"Next term will be different," Bran said. "I've got exams at the end of them. There's punting, May Morning… Have you ever gone punting, Will?"
"Once, years ago," Will said. "Not in Oxford."
"Then we'll go punting together." Bran slipped his hand through Will's arm, so they were twined at the elbow.
Will thought of the spirit of the river Cherwell, bound by him and always close to him. He did not think that he wanted to take to a punt in that river. But Bran would be there, and he did not always have to be an Old One. All things could be faced.
Enjoy every moment, the spirit whispered gleefully. You will not see the summer end, the two of you together.
"It looks far too easy to fall in." Will's voice sounded distant, not like himself. "My brother James fell in last time. I suppose he was showing off, though."
The tall stranger, lord of the fairies, watched then from the shadows of a doorway. Will moved his body subtly so that Bran would not see him. He could feel the stranger's eyes like knives boring into his back. Soon, the spirit promised. Soon.
They crossed the High Street, and headed down the lane. Things stirred in the shadows. Whenever he blinked, he saw flashes of ruin. He saw the buildings crumbling to rubble. He saw beautiful statues strangled by twisted roots, and men in rags running in packs through the wreckage, baying like wolves.
"What are you going to do over Easter?" Bran asked.
Will tried not to blink at all. "Go home. Spend time with my parents. Maybe visit some old friends." It was time to say it. "I think you were right, Bran. A lot of what you said that night, anyway. I don't know how much I can do it, but I'm going to try."
They reached Merton Street. Will felt the stranger's gaze slowly withdraw. He dared to blink again, and saw nothing but the tower of Merton Chapel, serene in the fading light.
Bran squeezed his arm. "You were right, too. Jane… I hope you don't mind, but I told Jane some of it, and she agreed with you. I'm going to try… It's just hard, when I love you so."
He feels it, the spirit whispered, even though he does not remember it. The old connection is there. How much does he love Will Stanton, the withdrawn student who only causes him pain, and how much is he remembering the boy who doesn't even exist any more?
It spoke in his own voice now. Or, maybe, he now spoke in its voice. He did not know.
And how much do I love him merely because of who he once was, and the things that we shared then?
Bran gave a nervous chuckle. "It all seems so obvious now. I've thought about it for several days. I couldn't sleep that first night."
"Neither could I." They passed through the lodge, and Will let his fingers brush against the stone, feeling its whisper of strength and stability.
"But we're together now." Bran's hand snaked down to his, tangling Will's fingers in his own. "Any minute now, you're going to call me a love-sick fool again, but I don't care. It's the last day of term – our last evening together. Let's make the most of it."
Make the most of it, the spirit echoed. Make the most of it. You will have so little time after this.
They climbed the stairs, Bran leading and Will following, their linked hands stretching between them like bonds of gold. Bran kissed him as soon as the door was closed, and this time Will made no attempt to pull away. It was soft at first, then fierce, then soft again. Bran's hands pushed beneath Will's coat, driving it apart, wrapping around his waist. Yes, sighed the spirit, and the Wild Magic, and everything inside him that was not of the Light. Yes…
"Take your coat off," Bran whispered hoarsely, breaking the kiss. Will did, because he is your lord, the Pendragon, your master, the only man an Old One should owe allegiance to. Then he pulled Bran's coat off, because Bran was none of those things, and in this Will was just a man, and there was nothing of the Light about this, just love and fondness - two people together in the dark.
He let Bran drag him urgently to the bed. But once there, Bran grew gentle, almost shy. "Are you sure you want this?"
"This," Will had to tell him, "but not everything, not yet." Because I have only just started on this journey towards humanity, and too much ecstasy would tear down all my barriers, and there would be nothing between me and the full might of the Wild Magic, and… and… He tried to say some of that to Bran, but Bran just caught his hand softly, and said, "I understand." Then a faint smile, and, "I don't think I can cope with everything at once, either, Will. I've never done this before."
"You're good at it," Will said, blushing like a child. He kissed Bran, but he could not muster fierceness, only tenderness, soft and exploring. He was a man kissing a man, but he felt like a child, poised on the cusp of a new world, awakening to feelings he had never dreamed of.
Bran's hands were at Will's waist, teasing his shirt from the waist of his trousers. A tendril of apprehension, almost of fear, snaked across Will's spine, like the touch of the Dark. Then Bran's hand strayed upwards, stroking across Will's side, up to his back. His other hand was at Will's neck, his thumb stroking his jaw.
"I want your shirt to be off." Bran twisted his face to one side, his words hot on Will's cheek. "Is that going too far?"
"As long as yours comes off, too."
Will took his own shirt off, his fingers trembling. If Bran had done it before him, he thought his barriers would have crashed down forever, and he would have been lost. His vision blurred with the emotions of the Wild. He was tremulous and scared; hopeful and quivering with promise.
"We lie down." Bran's voice was hot. He, too, was shirtless, his perfect skin almost translucent in the light. He bore Will down, and came down with him, his weight on the bed beside Will, but most of his body covering Will's. For the first time in his life, Will felt the bare skin of another human being against the skin of his chest. Blood pounded in his head. He hurt, and he wanted more.
"I do love you." Bran kissed the hollow of Will's collarbone, and the side of his throat, and the angle of his jaw. He fluttered feather-light kisses over his lips, over his cheeks, at the side of each eye, on his brow. Then he withdrew for a moment, and Will saw how his eyes were swimming with unshed tears, and saw how he had pulled his lower lip in with his teeth, and was worrying it.
He's nervous, Will thought. He's as afraid as I am. He reached up with his hand, to do something, to say something, to reassure him, to stop this, but Bran was suddenly smiling. "Even if we stop now, I have never been so happy." And Will could not say anything to contradict this, because it was true. He felt it, too. He would always be of the Light, but he was also human, and he could have love. He could have love.
And Bran's hands were on his chest, stroking, teasing, coaxing. Will arched towards him, needing more. Then Bran's lips were where his hands had been, and Will was almost lost in the Wild. "I've never done this before," Bran breathed into Will's flesh, "but it feels right. It feels so right."
They had been together forever. When memory had returned to him in Wales, Bran had been the first person he had seen. They had been through Time together, and helped each other through the terrors of the Lost Land. Had they been born in a different time, Will would have loved and served Bran for life, as his master had served Bran's father. Bran no longer remembered all this, but Will was still a man. They could be together as men, even if one of them was no longer part of the pattern of Light.
But Bran saw his sudden abstraction. His hand froze. "You're not here with me."
"I am." Will smiled up at him, and twisted one leg around Bran's, holding them as close below as they had been above.
Bran's hand closed, fingers withdrawing from touch. "But I lied, Will. Now we've done this, I want more. We should stop. Talk. Go to dinner. Read stories… I can't… Will, I understand. You want to take this slowly, but if we go on like this…"
Your only chance, the spirit whispered. The last night of the world…But he could not listen to that. A wrong was still a wrong, no matter what came after. Then there were his barriers against the Wild Magic… But he had shown it all the love in his heart, and he had still won. He had shown it grief and fear, and he had still won. Every night, countless men surrendered themselves to lust, and were still men the morning after, their feelings in check. Nothing could touch his core of Light. The worst that could happen was that his feelings would be ragged, and his heart torn.
But he was like that already, so close to Bran, and yet without him.
"You're thinking about it," Bran said bitterly. "Weighing it up. I can tell."
"I am," Will told him, and for a moment, just a moment, he was entirely Old One. "I cannot do anything else – I told you that." He smiled, and reached for Bran's face, cushioning his cheek in his hand, his thumb gentle and silencing on his lips. "Part of me wants this very much, but there's too much happening. I can't risk losing control. I love you, but I can't do more than this."
Bran kissed him chastely on the lips, and prepared to withdraw, but Will would not let him. He pulled Bran down, so Bran was beside him on the bed, his head nestled against his shoulder. "But we can still be together," he whispered. "We can still share everything that matters, even if not… like that."
"Yes," Bran murmured, his breath warm on Will's neck. And, after a while, they slept.
It felt so simple, back in Wales. Bran had expected to miss Will with a wrenching agony, but he did not. He missed him – oh how he missed him! – but life on the farm was the same as it had been throughout his life, and there was a comfort in that. This was home. Standing on the mountainside was like being enfolded in the arms of a gentle lover, who would always protect him, and always bring him peace.
They wrote, but by mutual, unspoken consent, their letters said little about the things that really mattered. Bran accepted that Will had to use this holiday to draw closer to his family, and lessen the gulf that had arisen between them. Will had not suggested a visit, and so Bran had not done so either. Will had called him too dependant. If Bran flourished for over a month without Will, perhaps Will would realise that he, too, had grown.
He dreamed of Will, though. For three nights in a row, he woke from a dream of touch and ecstasy, the sheets tangled around his sweat-drenched limbs. In his dreams, they did everything together that two men in love could do, but there was less love in his dreams than there had been on that last night together, when they had slept chastely in each other's arms, and he had woken to see Will's sleepy smile.
"You look tired," Owen remarked over breakfast, after the third night of dreams. "You've forgotten what it is to get up early in the morning."
"I was up late, working." Bran had been given an impressively long reading list to get through before the new term started, and it was plain that Owen did not approve. He had never entirely approved of Bran going to Oxford. Honest Welshmen worked on the land. Welshmen who went away to England to fill their heads with book learning were just asking for trouble.
The night after that, he dreamed of Will again, but this time Will was wrapped in his long coat, and far, far away. Bran reached out a pleading hand towards him, but Will dwindled until he was only a dark speck in the air. "Come back," Bran sobbed, and the dark speck became a bead of light, and the light swelled and grew, until all the world was cold, white Light, and Bran was consumed by it, lost.
He phoned Will the following evening, but Will was out with his brother. Bran told himself that this was a good thing. "Is that Bran?" Mrs Stanton asked, as Bran wondered what message to leave. When he admitted that it was, the polite questions came. It was clear that Mrs Stanton knew Bran only as an old childhood friend of Will's, and did not know that they had met in Oxford. It hurt him more than it should have done. Conscious that Owen, too, was listening to every word, he left a vague message, and hung up.
By morning, he had convinced himself that it didn't matter that Will hadn't told his family about their relationship. Bran hadn't told anybody, either. Owen and John Rowlands would remember Will only as the English boy who had once come visiting, and the boys from school did not know about him at all.
He decided to tell. Will phoned back the next night, but there were too many people listening at both ends for either of them to say anything important. The following day, Bran followed John Rowlands into the high pastures.
"Well?" John said, when they stopped for a drink. "Say what you need to say."
Bran moistened his lips. "How do you know…?"
John chuckled. "I've known you since you were a baby, my boy. I can tell the look of a boy with a secret he is burning to tell."
"But I'm afraid to tell it, too," Bran admitted. "Terrified. It will change how people think of me. It might even make people hate me."
John took a swig of the drink from the thermos lid, refilled it, and passed it to Bran. "Have you murdered somebody, Bran? Stolen something? Cheated? Told lies?"
Bran shook his head. He placed the thermos lid on the ground, leaving the drink untouched. A slim blade of grass was pinned beneath it, but managed to spring free. "I have… met somebody," he said. "In Oxford."
"Somebody?" John said slowly. "Somebody you think you could love?"
"Somebody I do love," Bran said. "And it's a… he's a man."
John picked up the lid, and took a short drink, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "An older man, Bran? I have to ask this. You read such things in the papers."
"He's my age," Bran said, "almost exactly. I didn't… I mean, I never… I didn't think I was like that. I never thought about boys before, not in that way. But then there was him, and… it was as if the whole world fell apart, and got reshaped in a different way."
John seemed to be thinking for a while. "I thought so," he said at last, "or I thought it might be. When we picked you up from the station last week, there was a light in you that put me in mind of… Forgive me, Bran, but it made me think of Owen Davies, those few days he spent with your mother."
A kestrel hovered high above the moorland. A car was a silver flash of light on the valley road. The sunlight blurred and glittered. "Do you disapprove?" Bran asked.
John stretched his legs before him, sucking in a breath as his old muscles protested. "I come from a different generation, Bran. These things are not easy for us, but…" He was looking not at Bran, but into the distance, his face creased with a sudden and inexplicable longing. "Love is such a rare and precious thing, Bran. It can bring such happiness, and no man should be alone. What sort of a man would I be to begrudge you your happiness? What right do I have to say that you should not love the person who makes your world whole?"
Bran blinked, and in the March wind, the tears were instantly cold on his cheeks. "I haven't told Owen."
"Don't," John said instantly.
"I don't want to keep secrets," Bran protested. "There have been enough of those in this family." The revelation, made too late, about Bran's mother could have torn him and Owen apart, he knew that.
"What I mean is, don't tell him yet," John said. "He has certain…views, from Chapel. He will not take it well. Leave it until the summer, Bran. I will prepare him for it, and ease the way for the telling."
"Thank you," Bran said.
But it was only later, as they were walking back to the farm, that John said, "That light in your eyes… It didn't only remind me of Owen, Bran. I have seen it in you before, too."
"When?" Bran asked, but he thought he knew the answer already. He did not know if he wanted to grin like an idiot, or hide his face in embarrassment.
"Four years ago," John said, "when Will Stanton last came to visit." He paused to open a gate, his back to Bran as he spoke. "Jen Evans tells me that Will is at Oxford, too."
Bran could not persuade his feet to move. Even his voice sounded frozen. "How did you guess it was him?"
John stopped, the gate half open. "He always seemed different, young Will. There was something about him, and I feel… sometimes I feel as if I once knew what it was. Maybe it was just because he was able to make you smile, back at a time in your childhood when you were more lonely than you wanted us to know. I used to watch you together on the mountain, and something felt right. Where one of you went, the other would be. I thought of you as the boys. Bran and Will. Will and Bran." He turned to face Bran at last. "If it had been a stranger, perhaps I would have reacted in the way you feared I would react, but if it is Will…" His eyes were bright with emotion. "I trust him with your heart."
And there was nothing Bran could say to answer that, nothing he could say that would express the awe and gratitude he felt inside. "I don't think Will's family knows about us yet," was all he said. "Please don't say anything to Mrs Evans."
"I won't," John said, and they walked back to the farm as if nothing had happened. Owen certainly said no word about it, as he watched them come in.
On his first day back from Oxford, Will sat up late, talking to his parents. On his second day, he went with his mother into the village, and let the local ladies question him about his life and his studies and his friends. On the third day, he spoke to Gwen on the phone. On the fourth day, he did some reading, and he wrote to Bran.
James came home a week after Will, and this time Will was the one to suggest that they went out to the pub. They stayed out late. Will did not drink, but he bought James drinks, and they talked as they had seldom talked since they were children. Will learned about the two girls James liked, and his increasingly desperate attempts to decide which one he liked more. He heard about his brother's fears that he was failing, and of the uncomplicated escape that was the choir. He heard about parties and adventures, mishaps and jokes.
He told some tales of his own, too. He missed Bran, and the voice of the river was never far away, but he felt warm, and at times he even felt happy.
Paul was the first to comment on the difference. "You've changed," he said, home for the weekend in between concerts in far-away cities.
"Oh?" Will toyed with the silky ears of Floss, latest successor to the collies of his childhood.
"You'd grown quite distant," Paul said. "Now you're with us again. Mum looks really happy. You do, too."
Floss placed her chin trustingly on Will's knee. "I didn't think they'd noticed," Will said faintly.
Paul frowned. "Of course they did. Even in big families like ours, people notice if someone they love is unhappy. They notice when only one person doesn't join in the chat over Christmas dinner. They notice when they bring their new baby, and only one person doesn't smile with his eyes."
"I didn't know," Will said. "I didn't mean it."
Paul looked at him strangely. "Want to go for a walk, Will?"
They headed outside – "but not down to the river," Will said. "I don't want to go near the river." They passed the church, that once had hidden the Sign of Stone, and passed the farm, now being brought into the modern age by owners who were not the Dawsons. The spring air was pleasant. The Wild Magic was whispering, but he was used to that, now.
"The thing is," Will said, "I've always felt different. For the last few years, I've been more and more aware of how different I am. It made it hard to relate to people. There were things inside me that I couldn't share. But someone made me realise that this doesn't matter. Oh, it matters, but not as much as all those things that I have in common with you all."
"I don't understand," Paul said, "but at the same time… I do." He was walking slowly, choosing his words with care. "I often felt different when I was your age. Music can be very isolating. You can communicate in music to other people, but the relationship between you and the piece of music is such an intensely personal thing. I would practice alone in my room when you were all outside, having fun. I knew none of you completely understood."
Music was close kin to magic. If there was anyone in his family that Will could confide in, it would be Paul. "I never knew," he murmured.
"I expect every one of us feels the same," Paul continued. "Who can ever truly know what is going on inside someone else's head? I expect that every one of us sometimes feels as if no-one else understands us, or that we are so different from everyone we know that we will never truly be happy."
It sounded so unutterably sad. He had never really thought about it before. He saw humankind linked by all the things they had in common, while he was on the outside. But of course each human being was isolated from those around them. Love and friendship and family bound them together, but in their own minds, they were alone. Different, he thought. Not just me, but everyone. How could an Old One of the Light be so unwise?
"You will find people who understand you one day," Paul said. "I have, in the orchestra. I came to learn that my family might not understand that most essential part of me, but in other ways, they know me better than anyone. I'm one person with my friends, and another person here, but they're both equally me. I wouldn't be Paul Stanton without either of them."
Paul should have been the Old One, Will thought, for he saw things so much more clearly than Will did. Paul would not have lost four years of his life to coldness and lack of love.
"I wish…" Will said, and suddenly he wanted to cement this moment of closeness Paul had given him, and trust his brother, as he had been trusted. "I've already started to realise some of this," he said, looking into the distance, across the fields. "And I have made a friend. More than a friend. I love him."
Paul did not gasp in horror. He did not squirm awkwardly, or pretend to misunderstand. "So that was why you felt you were different," he said. "Of course." He took hold of Will's shoulder. "I remember you being born, Will. I watched you grow up. You were always a bit different from everyone else, but I recognised that, because I was, too. Neither of us seemed to find it as easy to smile as the rest of them. But now… If you've found out what you want… If this boy makes you happy… and I can see that he does…" He smiled. "I can't be anything other than happy for you, Will."
Will could not confess his true secret, but with this, he almost felt as if he had. He could almost pretend that he had told Paul everything, and Paul was happy for him. In a way, he supposed he had, for Bran was important, and he would not hide him.
"Does anyone else know?" Paul asked.
Will shook his head. "You're the first. I hadn't intended to tell anyone. It just… happened."
Paul frowned, considering the issue in his slow and careful way. "I think you should tell the others. Mum will be relieved to find out the reason why you've been acting the way you have. I know she's been worried."
"I didn't mean to worry anyone," Will murmured. He truly had had no idea. He had slowly come to the point at which other people could no longer touch him. Perhaps this had made him forget that he could still touch other people.
But they talked of other things on the way back to the house. The following day, after Paul had gone, Will told his mother. She cried, but said she had half expected it. "I've raised five other boys, you know. They all went through their phase of discovering girls, except for you." She dabbed her eyes, and hugged him. "I'm just glad you're happy. I was so worried at Christmas."
The others he told one by one. They all accepted him, and reassured him that they loved him, though Barbara and Mary seemed to treat him as if he was something of an invalid, who needed special nurturing. Everyone made a visible effort to draw him into their conversations, and he made a special effort to join in.
By the end of the holidays, it was hardly an effort at all.
So now Bran had a secret from Owen.
It was strange how it affected him, during those last weeks of the Easter holidays. He had not expected to feel the way he did. If anything, he had expected to spend the time missing Will. He had never expected to spend the time missing his mother, too.
John had started it, he supposed, by talking about how happy Owen had been during those short days he had spent with Bran's mother. The knowledge of having a secret was what made it worse. Owen had kept his secret from Bran for so long, and now Bran had a secret of his own. Both involved love. In the eyes of Owen's church, both involved shame. Now I have a secret that I'm scared to tell you, Bran thought, in case you reject me. Now I know what it is to love someone so much you lie about them.
He could not speak to Owen about Will. Instead, he tried to talk to him about his mother. Owen gave little. John gave a little more, but not enough.
Can Will take me back in time to see her? The thought came again, growing from the seed that had been planted in Oxford, weeks before. Then he would be whole. Will had refused to let Bran love him until Bran knew everything about him. Now that Bran was in love, he wanted to be able to love in full knowledge of who he was. He knew his own heart, but he knew little about his mother, and nothing at all about his father. He wanted to come to Will with everything known.
He said nothing of this in his letters to Will. He questioned John a little about his mother, but for the most part, he talked about Will. John was not entirely comfortable with this, Bran thought, but it was too delicious simply to say Will's name. He did not speak about love, or about any of the times they had touched. The things he said would not have aroused Owen's suspicions if they were overheard. But he spoke, and John listened, and sometimes Bran laughed aloud with the sheer joy of it.
Owen said nothing. If he wondered why Bran sought time alone with John, he did not ask. If he noticed that Bran looked happier than he had looked for years, he did not comment. Bran snatched up Will's letters before Owen could see them, and took to phoning Will from the phone box in Tywyn. Sometimes he stared dreamily out of the window, but Owen was a silent man, and used to passing hours without speaking.
"I've told you all I can, boy," he said once, when Bran asked him once again about his mother. "Surely you've got all you need here."
Bran breathed in, and out again. "One day, there might be something else. I might meet someone at Oxford."
Owen raised his head. "Have you met a girl?"
This was the time to say it, if it was going to be said. John had told him not to. But if he told his secret, maybe Owen would tell his. Maybe Owen would tell him who his father was. Bran knitted his fingers together, clasping his hands on his lap. But maybe Owen didn't know. And maybe John was right. John usually was. "No," he said, shaking his head. "But I will meet somebody," he said. "One day. And then…"
Owen said nothing, but Bran noticed suddenly how old he looked.
Secrets were dreadful, he thought. They just tore you apart.
But he said nothing. The following day, Owen drove him to the station, and they parted with a quick clasp of arms around the shoulders. As the train pulled out of the station, Bran waved goodbye, but Owen only nodded once.
End of chapter eighteen