The devil you know

 

Rain lashed down in torrents, and the wind shrieked like a predator, eager for blood. The storm lashed at Will's skin like tendrils of barbed wire, and tore at his clothes, making them lash against his flesh like whips.

 

Moaning, he fell to his knees. Tiny stones on the ground grated against his knee-caps, and he howled in pure agony of body and soul. Tears cascaded down his face, scalding in contrast to the icy rain.

 

"Dead," he rasped. "All dead." He raised both hands to the uncaring heavens. "It should have been me!" His strength gave out, and he slumped sideways. "I couldn't save you," he whispered brokenly. "I'm immortal and powerful and magical, and exciting things like that, but I cannot save the things I love."

 

He raked his hands across the ground, scraping earth up with his fingers. Agony sheeted through him as mud got into his wound, and he howled, blood gouting in tiny trickles down his finger. "The pain!" he sobbed. "Why is there always so much pain?"

 

"Will!" Someone shook his shoulder. Will groaned, and tried to shrink away. He would shun all human company for ever more. He only let people down. He only hurt them, or else they hurt him, and there was blood everywhere, and pain… So much pain…

 

"Will!" It was more insistent. Bran, registered the distant part of Will's mind that could still think human thoughts, even though, strictly speaking, he was not human… and oh, the pain and isolation of it! He was not human in a world full of humans, and…

 

"Will! What is it? What's happened? Has yet another of your amazingly-large family had a tragic accident while celebrating a happy family event?" Bran hauled him round onto his back, and tried to help him up. "Oh! You're bleeding! Oh, Will! Is it another of those inexplicable internal injuries that you keep getting whenever you go to the shops, or even try to make a cup of tea?"

 

"Paper cut," Will sobbed. "And on junk mail too. It said I'd won a million pounds, but I used my magic and I could tell that were lying to me. Why does everyone lie, Bran?" he howled. "Why is the Darkness everywhere, Darkness all around?"

 

"Oh, Will! I can't bear to see you bleeding." Bran started to sob, and his warm tears splashed onto Will's nose. "Everything hurts so much. That robin I was feeding… Today… Today…" He struggled for control. "Today it… went to next-door's bird-table." He pressed his fist to his mouth. "It abandoned me like my mother did."

 

The rain sheeted down, cold, merciless. "It torments me so!" Will wailed. "The rain… Water… That was what they needed. Water! It's like exquisite torture, to be out here in the rain, surrounded by what they lacked. I deserve no less." Will struck himself in the chest. "I killed them."

 

"What?" Bran gasped, through his sobs.

 

"The chrysanthemums," Will whispered. "I forgot to water them, and now they're dead. They're dead, Bran. Dead!"

 

******

 

Later, when they were drinking cocoa on the couch, and still sniffling occasionally with barely-healed angst, Bran said, "I cannot live like this any longer."

 

"You can kill yourself and escape it." Will eyed the cheese knife hungrily. "I can't. Believe me, I've tried."

 

"The constant soul-wrenching agony," Bran said. His voice was still hoarse from the two solid days of screaming he had done the week before. "The pain. The misunderstandings. All the times I suddenly hate you for no real reason."

 

Will whimpered, remembering. The look on Bran's face when he had… No, he couldn't bear to remember. Blood on a knife, and poison in chocolate... Bran screaming, You killed my goldfish! An empty room, an empty heart, a…

 

"Will!" Bran snapped. "Concentrate. We can't let her distract us with these constant angsty flashbacks. If we do, she's won."

 

"She?" Will blinked. Had he missed something? Was I day-dreaming, and missed something important, and now the world will suffer because I got distracted just for a moment, betraying Merriman's trust in me when he called me Watcher, and…

 

"Will!" Bran shouted. "I told you. I was doing some research in the library, and I think I know… I think I know who's doing this to us."

 

"The Dark?" Will gripped the edges of his chair.

 

Bran shook his head. "Worse than the Dark. An author." He lowered his voice, and looked round desperately, plainly terrified that this "author" would hear. "Calls herself an angst writer. You see, Will, something went terribly, horribly wrong. Once, we were watched over by a Lady of High Magic called Susan Cooper, but this dark angst writer stole us and has locked us in a world gone mad. This isn't the real world, Will. We need to escape." He threw himself from his chair and grabbed Will by both shoulders. "Help me escape, Will, please. I can't take it any more."

 

Will slowly raised his head, as he gathered his magic. "I will," he promised. "I couldn't save my chrysanthemums, or Jane, or my family, or Owen, or the Queen, or Elvis, or next-door's kitten, or my favourite trousers, but I'll save us. I'll save you, Bran."

 

He bought his hands up, and spoke a word of power, and the world crumbled.

 

*****

 

They had wandered for hours in a place of mist, where everything was grey and without form.

 

"The place between worlds," Will told Bran. "The place where all worlds meet."

 

Bran frowned. "How do we know which world is the right one?"

 

Will peered into the nothingness, and concentrated, struggling to see something, anything, that would be a sign. Just as he was about to give up, he saw it. "There's a sign," he told Bran. "Outside every world, there's a sign. They must have been there by others who wander between the worlds. The equivalent of 'Beware of the dog,' or something like that."

 

They stopped walking. "What does it say on the nearest sign?" Bran asked.

 

Will had been struggling to make it out even before Bran asked. "I'm not sure," he confessed. "It's not a word, just a line… Goes diagonally, like a slash."

 

"A slash?" Bran said. "Sounds harmless. Let's try it."

 

******

 

"This is more like it." Will spread his arms and whirled around, grinning. "This is how the world used to be back before it all started to go wrong, back before the soul-wrenching agony etc. etc."

 

Bran said nothing.

 

Will ran laughing to the nearest bank of flowers. A twinge seized his heart when he saw the chrysanthemums, but he shook it off. How could he feel miserable when they were in such a beautiful garden, where the turf was soft and springy, just like a bed, and flowers and branches shaded fragrant corners, so no-one would see them, even if they took off all their…

 

"Isn't it wonderful?" he cried.

 

Bran made a strangled noise.

 

Will sank to his knees, and buried his face in a cluster of blossom, exactly the same colour and intensity as Bran's eyes, or, at least, as Bran's eyes would have been if they had been purple. The pollen made him think of Bran's hair, and…

 

"Will," Bran rasped hoarsely. He had come up behind Will and was trying to grab him round the waist.

 

"What?" Will tried to turn round, but a snake, that had been basking in the romantic sunlight, darted out and bit him on the hand, sharp pointy bits sinking into the yielding, throbbing flesh. "Oh!" He snatched his hand to his mouth, sucking the bite. Agony almost coursed through his veins.  Pain and despair almost rended him, until he remembered that the nightmare was over. The dread angst writer had been defeated, and they would never know shadow again.

 

"Oh no!" Bran declared. "Oh, Will, my love, you're dying. A snake-bite! Oh! To think I went all these years without realising that I loved you, and am only now realising it when it's too late, and you're on the point of death!"

 

There were many, many things wrong with what Bran had just said. Still sucking his hand, Will struggled to decide which one to mention first. "Um…" He took his hand out of his mouth, and tried not to react when Bran snatched it and covered it with kisses. "It's alright, Bran. Snap out of it. We're not in the angst world any more. I know old habits die hard, but…"

 

"Oh, talk not of dying, Will my love!" Bran cried. He started sucking at Will's finger. It tickled, and it made Will feel… No, he reminded himself. I'm an Old One. I'm too wise and serious to feel such things.

 

"Oh, Will." Bran started pawing at Will, trying to get him to lie down on the grass that, really, was so like a bed, that it was almost as if it was intentional, but that would just be silly. "I love you, Will! If I say it loud enough, will it be enough to cheat death? Oh, please, let me love you with my body. I know you're dying, but ecstasy can…"

 

"I'm not dying!" Will managed to say, through the… interesting sensations that Bran's hands were making him feel. "I'm immortal, remember? 'If you poison us, we do not die.' It has been rather obvious, these last few years."

 

"But it's Valentine's Day!" Bran cried. "I was looking at cards, thinking of sending one to the girl next door, but suddenly I realised that the only person I want to send a card to is… is you, my Will."

 

"Um…" Will swallowed. He wished he had a spell to emulate the action of a cold shower, but such a thing had not been in the Book of Gramarye. "It's not Valentine's Day. It's May."

 

"May was made for lovers," Bran whispered, his mouth against Will's ear. "You complete me, Will. There's been a hole inside me for so long. Please fill my hole, Will. You are the thrusting tower in the ruined Welsh castle of my heart. You are the pinnacle on my mountain. You are the fountain in my courtyard. I think I have loved you forever, even though I didn't know it. I loved you even in those years when I didn't remember that you existed. I…"

 

Will closed his eyes. Bran's breath was warm on his chest. I seem to have lost my shirt, he thought. And hands! Hands! My belt… Ohh…

 

"Will," Bran purred.

 

With a supreme effort of self-control, Will brought up his hand, and everything went grey.

 

******

 

"Where's this, then?" Bran mumbled. His usually pale skin was flushed.

 

Will looked at him, then looked away, then looked at him, and away again. He knew that he was blushing, too. He concentrated on fastening his shirt, and using magic to conceal any physical evidence of his reaction to what had just happened… If there had been any such evidence, of course, which there was not. No, of course there was not.

 

"I don't know," he confessed, when he was in control again. "I didn't take time to check. I think…"

 

Bran was no longer listening to him. "That's odd." He gestured with his chin towards a beefeater who was strolling down the mountain, drinking a cup of tea. A double-decker red bus trundled along the track, driving on the wrong side. In a field nearby, someone loudly cried, "Crikey!" in a voice like the Queen's.

 

"Gor blimey!" Will exclaimed. "Stone the crows."

 

"What did you say?" Bran turned to him, eyebrows raised.

 

"Oi'm English, mate." Will shrugged. "Cor, love a duck." Something was pushing in his mind, telling him that all English people spoke like this, and it seemed right. It seemed so right.

 

Bran opened his mouth to reply, then snapped his mouth tightly shut. A girl was approaching, of dazzling beauty rare. Her tresses were flaxen, which means red, and her eyes were the colour of blue emeralds. Will's heart skipped a beat when he saw her. All the physical evidence he had just managed to subdue sprung into evidence again. He blushed, and thought of roses and pillows and fluffy kittens, all wrapped around with love.

 

"Hi," the girl giggled. "I'm Candy. I'm a really cool and powerful Old One, even more powerful than you. I'm going to save your life next time you almost die, and I'm going to save you when you get tied up and comfort you when bad, horrible men kidnap you and torture you and violate you, all naked-like, and you can't bear to be touched, but after ages of comforting – like, about three hours, and half a page – you will fall into my arms and you'll be cured by my great power and my love."

 

Will gaped. He wanted to say something, but love had seized hold of him, possessing him like a bad, horrible spirit that had possessed him and wanted to make him do horrible things. Also, he knew that if he opened his mouth, it would come out sounding slightly Cockney.

 

"I can speak to horses," Candy said, tossing her auburn cascades of hair.

 

"Only horses?" Bran's voice was tetchy. Why, why, why did he hate her so? Will decided Bran was probably jealous. He thought he would probably have to kill Bran for love of Candy, but there would be no soul-rending pain etc. because he was free from the angst writer… and, oh! Candy was the one who had freed him! He realised that now. It was all Candy.

 

"… and rabbits," Candy was replying. Will thought he had missed a long list. "Newts, earwigs and chinchillas." She pressed her mouth to Will's ear. She seemed to be chewing gum. What an adorable thing to do! Will thought. "We'll cut school after math class," she whispered. "My parents are out and…"

 

"You don't even go to school, Will," Bran said harshly. "You're thirty-two years old. And we call it 'maths' over here, anyway."

 

"Why?" Will wailed at him. "Why don't you want me to be happy?" He thought for a moment, and added, "Gor blimey."

 

Bran took his arm. "I think," he said firmly, "that we need to go now. Don't you?"

 

His touch was like the faintest beacon of light in the confusing stew that was Will's mind. "Yes." Will forced the words out. They physically hurt him. "I think we do…" He turned to Candy. "I love you, but this will never be. It will tear my heart asunder to part, but the lot of an Old One is always to deny his own heart, and…"

 

He raised his hand while she was still wailing, and everything went grey.

 

*****

 

Will fell to his knees, trembling. He felt violated. He wanted to rip his heart out of his chest and trample on it, punishing it for daring to think such thoughts about a girl like Candy.

 

"Will?" Bran touched him on the shoulder. "Where are we now, Will?"

 

Will raked his hands across his face. "It just said Ooc," he said. "In capitals."

 

"Ook?" Bran echoed, frowning. "Something to do with orang-utans?"

 

"Hey, Will!" a voice called.

 

Merriman! Will surged to his feet, beaming, and Merriman was there! His shoulders sagged. Merriman was there.

 

"Um…" Bran nudged Will in the side. "Does Merriman normally wear a miniskirt?"

 

Will raised his hand, and dragged them free.

 

******

 

Rain lashed down in torrents, and the wind shrieked like a predator, eager for blood. The storm lashed at Will's skin like tendrils of barbed wire, and tore at his clothes, making them lash against his flesh like whips.

 

Will fell to his knees, sobbing. He had spilled some milk. Whiteness, surging across the kitchen floor… Glass, cruel shards of glass… And, oh! The dinner ruined! The macaroni cheese ruined because there was no longer enough milk, and the shops were shut, and it was too late to get any more… Too late, oh, too late!

 

"Really, it's not too bad here," Bran said, crouching softly beside him in the storm. "It could be worse. Come on. Like old times, eh?"

 

And there, beneath the rain-drenched sky, they sobbed together contentedly until the dismal morning.

 

__

 

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