Chapter seven

At the station

___

 

Bran was complaining again. "How can I look for a man when I don't know what he looks like? I don't know why I'm here."

 

Jane tried to hush him, with an anxious glance at Paul, but Paul had heard Bran anyway. "I expect Will thought that I shouldn't be alone." His voice was mild, uncannily like his brother's. "He probably thought that you shouldn't be, either, Bran."

 

Bran snapped his head away, his lips pressed shut. Jane looked from him, to Paul, and back to Bran again. She wanted to say something, but did not know what. Both men were strangers to her, really, yet here she was, caught up in their deep, raw pain. Paul's at least she understood. Bran confused her. She wanted to comfort him, but she wanted to shout at him, too. Instead of either, she did nothing.

 

"But, really, is this getting us anywhere?" Bran found his words first. He sounded as if he was at least trying to be polite. "We've walked aimlessly for, what, four hours now?"

 

Paul nodded. He was pale, with dark shadows beneath his eyes. "But better to try," he said, "than sit still and wait."

 

"Just twiddling our thumbs until Will magics himself back with all the answers," Bran sneered. "He told us to run along and get on with this pathetic little task, humouring us like little children who need to feel that they're helping."

 

"Stop it!" Jane heard herself shout. "Bran, please!"

 

"Maybe that is the way of it, yes," Paul said, still mild, though his eyes told another story. "But now I know what he is, I can accept that."

 

"And children's sometimes do help," Jane told Bran. "Sometimes you give them little tasks to make them feel important, but they end up doing something good that you'd never have thought to yourself. And they feel good about it, and you feel good about it, because they've asked to help. Where's the harm in that?"

 

"Of course you would defend him," Bran muttered.

 

Jane felt herself blushing. She did not dare ask him what he meant. She still felt too much for Will, and not enough for Bran.

 

Earlier, Paul had taken her to one side, and whispered to her about Bran. "Is he always like this, or is this…? This enemy Will talks about… Makes people act out of character. Makes them angry. Is this…?"

 

"I don't know," Jane had answered honestly. "I don't really know him. Will says… Will said that Bran received some terrible news last night, and he's lashing out because he's…"

 

"Yes," Paul had said. "I understand." Since then he had been mild with Bran, and patient, but such treatment only seemed to make Bran worse.

 

With Paul, they had walked through the city, talking to anyone and everyone that he and Jon had interacted with during their stay. The hotel had not seen Jon. The bookshops did not remember him. Paul had phoned Jon's family again, and his neighbours from home, but there was still no sign.

 

"I need to find Jon," Paul said, now. "That is my priority. I am nothing without him. Nothing. Just a sack filled with music. He makes me human."

 

Tears pricked Jane's eyes. She saw Bran freeze, as if physically struck by Paul's words.

 

"I will look for him in any way I can," Paul said. "I will accept help from Will, and from you, and from anyone who can give it. I will face what I need to face, and I will do it alone if I have to. Better alone than plagued with this… bickering. I never asked you to come with me. If you would rather go, Bran, then go. Please, go."

 

Bran looked away, his lips pressed together, his shoulders stiff and hunched. I think he's just lonely, Jane thought, remembering a boy she had once taught, and the way he had looked. Lonely, but he doesn't know how to do anything about it.

 

"Bran," she said gently. "I'm staying with Paul. I would like you to…"

 

"Money!" Paul cried. "I've been so stupid! He didn't have his wallet, no, but he liked to keep spare notes in his back pocket. He did have money with him!"

 

Jane did not want to turn away from Bran, but she had to. "What does that mean?"

 

"The station!" Paul exclaimed. "I've been assuming that he stayed in Oxford because he couldn't afford to go anywhere else, but what if he hasn't? People at the station might remember him. We've got to go there. Now."

 

It was beginning to grow dark, and the streets were emptying of shoppers and tourists. As they hurried through town, they passed groups dressed up for the evening, drinking and shouting and fighting. Jane saw three broken windows, and could smell distant smoke on the air. Paul hurried through without seeing, and Bran walked hunched up, seeing nothing that was not inside his head. Jane saw it all, though, and wondered. Was this the enemy, at work in Jon's body? His effects were felt everywhere, Will had told them, but far greater where he took physical form. If the enemy was here in the flesh, soon the dead would rise, and murders would play out beneath the towers and spires.

 

Paul walked faster and faster, consumed by his certainty that now, at last, he was close. Perhaps hope, too, was a form of wild emotion, Jane thought. Hope could lead to madness, and that, too, could be the hand of the enemy. Stop, she wanted to call to him. Slow down. Think. But how could she? She had seen Paul lost in despair the night before, so how could she be so cruel as to deny his hope?

 

A police car screamed up when they were near the station. Paul stopped his wild dash for a moment, panic etched on his features, but the policemen rushed into a pub. Sounds of violence issued from its windows, and there was broken glass, and some blood, on the pavement in front of it. Another scuffle was taking place across the road, and half a dozen sirens were wailing nearby, criss-crossing in wild cacophony.

 

There was a fight outside the station, too. Two men in suits were fighting beside a car with a bash on its bumper. A train had just come in, and crowds were pouring through the barrier. A few flinched away from the fight, but most smiled, and started to egg the participants on, or shout out bets. One fat man carefully placed his briefcase on the floor, before turning casually to the man beside him and planting a fist in his belly. A member of staff shouted uselessly for everyone to stop. "Stop!" he screamed, punching one watcher in the face. "Stop this!" He felled another, before being grappled to the ground by the crowd.

 

"It's going to be a riot," Jane breathed. Her hand rose to her mouth. In horror, she told herself. In fear. But she could feel her lips started to curve into a smile. She could feel the heady pounding of blood in her veins, and the itching of excitement in her palms. This is exciting! her blood whispered. Join in! Who hasn't longed to strike a blow at all those rude people, those selfish people, those people who push in on queues, those people who park in disabled bays, those people who go to make their money in the city and think they're so much better than lowly teachers like you.

 

"No," she whispered. "No." But the fight was all around them now, and they were caught up in it. Bran had waded in gleefully, and she saw him strike someone to the ground, and laugh. Then he chased down an older man, grappled him to the ground, and kicked him again, and again, and again.

 

Even turning away was hard. The siren call in her head was too loud, too impossible to resist. "Bran," her lips said. "Paul." Paul at least was still beside her. His face was drained of colour, and he was singing to himself, the same wordless line over and over, sweet and beautiful.

 

"Got to," she gasped, "resist it." She fumbled for Paul's arm, and found it. She began to drag him away, or maybe it was him dragging her. "But Bran," she worried. "What about Bran?"

 

People were still coming out of the station. She gazed desperately at them, hoping for the police, for the army, for someone, anyone, who could stop all this from happening. "We need Will," she whispered. Then she felt Paul slip away from her. Her head snapped round. "Paul!"

 

"Jon." He said the name as if it was everything in the world to him.

 

Jane blinked. A man alone was trudging into the station from the road. When he saw the fight, he stopped, his arms limp at his side. His head moved from side to side, and then he smiled. His lips moved.

 

Jane let Paul go, and now she was alone. She heard police cars come, but the fighting only grew more fierce. She caught a glimpse of Bran with blood on his face, still smiling. A hand fell on her shoulder. "Jane?"

 

She whirled round, ready to strike. She sobbed, and snatched her fist back, but the whispering in her blood was too strong. She struck Simon in the jaw, but he only smiled grimly. "What a place to find you, Jane."

 

"Simon." She was crying now, unable to stop. "What are you…?"

 

And then Barney was there, too, standing beside Simon, but there was no smiles in his eyes at all. "Simon came to see me," he said, "and we thought…"

 

"You're here!" Despite everything, she was laughing, even as she cried, even as people fell all around her, even as Bran was screaming with rage and hatred, the most terrible of them all. "You came!"

 

"We came," Simon said, "and now…"

 

"Stop!" It was a voice of absolute command. As it spoke, the entire seething courtyard froze, as it everyone in it had been turned to ice. Statues of people stood in fight, droplets of blood hanging in the air. Jane blinked. Above them, the clouds still drifted, and birds still flew. Only them, she thought. Her thoughts were sluggish, as if she, too, had been half-touched by the spell.

 

Will appeared from the empty air, both hands outstretched. He spared not a glance for Paul and Jon, who were edging around each other in a nervous reunion, seemingly oblivious to all else. He did not acknowledge Jane, or Simon, or Barney, though all three he had exempted from his spell, so he knew they were there.

 

Bran was the only one he had any words for. Of all of them, Bran was the only one who was still moving, blindly striking out at people who stood frozen like statues, screaming, a blur of movement against a tableau so impossibly still.

 

"Bran Davies." Will's voice was soft, but deadly. "This cannot continue. You are coming with me."

 

He took Bran's resisting arm, and then they were gone.

 

******

 

It felt like waking up. "Will…" Even her voice felt strange. She raised her hand to her brow, and it felt sluggish, hardly moving at all.

 

"Was that…?" Simon rasped.

 

"It can't be…" Barney sounded horrified, personally wounded by what he had seen. Of course, he was. That, too, was something that had to be faced.

 

"It happened," Jane said wearily. She was their mentor now, leading them in the ways of something she did not understand herself.

 

She looked at the crowd of strangers in the station yard, each of them frozen in their postures of hatred. Will had frozen everyone except the people he knew. Did that mean…?

 

"We have to help them," Simon said. He sounded more brisk now, more like his usual self. "Unless they're…"

 

Jane shook her head, frowning. "They're not dead. Will wouldn't."

 

"Are you sure?" Simon asked sharply. "You said yourself that you barely know him, and someone who can do something like this… That's not human, Jane. That's not someone bound by our rules of right and wrong."

 

So like Simon, she thought wearily, to be arguing, even when faced by something that would send most people screaming, sure that they were insane. "He's just frozen them for a while, Simon," she said quietly. "It was to save us." She looked round, located Paul and the man who was surely Jon. "It was to give us time to get away, so when they… thaw again, we won't be caught up in it."

 

She tried to say it with conviction. She replayed the memory of Will's brief appearance, and tried to find any messages for her in his look, or any commands. But Will had seemed utterly oblivious to all of them. There had been nothing but Bran. If it wasn't that he had left them out of his spell, she would have had to conclude that he had forgotten them entirely.

 

"That seems heartless," Simon said. "We should…"

 

"No." She clenched her fists at her side. It was time to forget Will. She had to stop wondering what Will would have wanted them to do. He had taken Bran, and gone. Of those who were left, she was the one who knew the most. It was time for her to make her own decisions. "We're going," she said. "All of us. Now."

 

To her amazement, neither of them argued. Barney looked more than half in a daze, trapped in a nightmare he could not wake up from. She knew she had to talk to him, and soon. He had come here with Simon, so surely he had at least part way accepted the truth, but accepted it in theory was a world away from seeing magic performed in reality. All she could do now, though, was touch his arm. He did not pull away, but he did not respond.

 

And then there was Paul. Paul was with Jon, not quite touching, not quite speaking. "We need to go, Paul," she called, preferring to call to him, than to break into that awkward circle of intimacy. "Before they all… wake up."

 

Paul was slow to hear her. He seemed reluctant to turn round, and when he did, he blinked in confusion, as if he had not even noticed what had happened to the people fighting in front of the station. "Go?" his lips shaped, but no sound came out.

 

She moved towards him. Her legs felt stiff, as if she had just climbed out of bed. "Not far," she said. "Just so we're not in the thick of it."

 

He nodded, but in a way that made her wonder if he understood her at all. "This is Jon," he said, and smiled.

 

"Yes, and he needs to go, too."

 

She started walking, and trusted that they were following her. When she had gone a dozen steps, she turned round and saw that they were. Only Simon seemed fully awake, and he was leading Barney by the arm. Paul and Jon were not touching, but seemed aware of little but each other. Not far, she thought. Not far before I need to… do what I need to do. They just needed to be far enough away to be out of the fight.

 

Of course, she thought, if Jon was really the enemy, then fights and danger would follow them no matter where they fled, as long as he was with them.

 

She had to talk to Paul. It had to be her, now. At least until… Unless Will…

 

They crossed the road, in strung-out line. Headlights hung in the air, from a car not moving. There was no sound from the city at all, but slowly she thought she heard a high wail, fading in from the silence. Then it was definite. The siren of a police car approached, and the lights were moving again. Sound erupted from the station, but they were too far away now to see the movement.

 

"So that's that, then," said Simon. "Interesting.

 

"Come on," she hurried them. She still had a key to Will's house, and it was not too far from the station. Would Will be there, with Bran, or had they gone somewhere else? She felt cold with worry, wondering what was happening, what they were doing. Will had looked so… implacable, her mind supplied. He had come upon Bran like an avenging king, dragging a wrong-doer off for terrible punishment. But Will wouldn't do that, she thought, unless… Unless…

 

She pressed her hand to her mouth. Perhaps Will had proof. Perhaps he had found out for certain that the enemy was not Jon after all, but Bran. He had dragged him away to some place other, and was fighting him, the two of them alone, while Jane and the others just…

 

"No." She shook her head. She could not speculate. She could not assume. "Paul," she said. Clenching her fists at her side, she went towards him. "Can I have a word?"

 

He did not argue, as he might have done. He did not make things hard for her, by refusing to leave Jon. "Carry on," he said to Jon. "I'll catch up." Barney and Simon passed her, too, when she waved them on, and soon she was able to talk to Paul alone.

 

"Has he told you…?"

 

"Where he was?" Paul interrupted. "No. Not yet." His gaze was placidly defiant.

 

She knew what was coming next. "And you're not going to…?"

 

He shook his head. "Not yet. Not until we're settled."

 

"But you're… But he's…" She took a deep breath, trying to order her words. "Paul, what if he…?"

 

"If he's Will's enemy," he finished for her. "Perhaps he is. I am completely aware of that risk, Jane. Believe me, no-one feels it more than I do. No-one fears it more than I do. But I also know the importance of trust. If I act as if he's the enemy, and he isn't, then I could lose him."

 

"But if he is?" Jane had to say.

 

Paul gave a mirthless smile. "If he is, then I don't think it will make any difference how I act, so I might as well be kind, and remember that we were in love."

 

He hurried after Jon, leaving Jane standing there, suddenly in tears.

 

******

 

It was fully dark when they reached their destination, but specks of light were everywhere around them. Cars passed on the distant road, and an orange haze clung to the horizon, where a town lay hidden. The stars were faint, for even here, in the countryside, there was too much of the light of modern living for it to be truly dark.

 

"We're here," Will said. He touched the back of Bran's hand, then snatched his own hand back again, as if caught in a guilty act that he should not be doing.

 

Bran said nothing, of course.

 

"We need to get out of the car," Will told him quietly. He raised a hand, pointed his fingers, and Bran obeyed him, moving without a word.

 

Will closed the door and locked it. He moved round the car to where Bran was standing, but he did not touch him, not this time.

 

"And now…" he said.

 

He stopped, wondering once again if this was the right thing to do. Merriman had trusted him. Merriman had said… But Merriman could not have known that this would happen. Bran had found out half the truth, and it was destroying him. He was becoming something hateful, a vessel half-full of anger, just waiting for the enemy to pour itself in and fill him to the brim with hatred. He was not himself. He was ruining everything, putting the whole struggle at risk just when it was reaching its most dangerous part. For the sake of the world, Bran had to be…

 

"No," Will murmured, though Bran could not hear him. Bran had been unable to hear him since Will had plucked him from the station yard in Oxford. "I'm not doing it for the world. I'm doing it for you. You need to find yourself again. You need to be Bran again."

 

He had wrapped Bran in magic from that moment in front of the station, leaving Bran unable to talk, to protest, to react. Will did not think it was cruel. Bran was like one asleep, and he would remember none of it. If Will had left him aware, they would have fought and argued for the whole journey, and things would have been broken beyond repair. It was better this way - better for Bran, and better for me, Will admitted. He did not think he could bear to have things broken forever between them. As long as things clung on by a thread, there was still hope.

 

He took a deep breath, and took Bran firmly by the arm. He did not say a word as he took them back through time, to a place where there were no lights at all.

 

******

 

end of chapter seven