August 17, 2000
Many thanks go to Jintian for a lovely and thorough reading of this, and for her insights and suggestions.
This story is based on Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising series. It should still make sense without reading those first, but go read them anyway.
The characters here belong to the aforementioned Susan Cooper and not to me.
We summer boys in this four-winded
Green of the seaweeds' iron,
Hold up the noisy sea and drop her birds,
Pick the world's ball of wave and froth
To choke the deserts with her tides,
And comb the country gardens for a wreath.
~ "I see the Boys of Summer," Dylan Thomas (1934)
"Stay still," Will said
softly. "Don't hurt them. Stay still."
Stephen paused, one arm raised apprehensively before his face.
Over and around him the tiny moths flurried, round and around, wheeling, floating, never settling, drifting down. They were like infinitely small birds fashioned of snowflakes; silent, ghostly, each tiny wing a filigree of five delicate feathers, all white.
Stephen stood still, dazed, shielding his face with one hand. "They're beautiful! But so many...what are they?"
"Plume moths," Will said, looking at him with a strange loving regret, like a farewell. "White plume moths. There's an old saying, that they carry memories away."
~Silver on the Tree, Susan Cooper
A breeze was blowing westward off the lake, and Will thought that he could taste the salt air of the sea. The green of the hills was the green that he remembered, though the town itself had grown. Strange how a place clung so close in memory. It had been years since he'd been back to this part of Wales. Eight years, or very nearly. But as he went down the road that wound like a coiled snake from the center of town, it was as if the wheels of time had slowed and shifted back.
The house was a familiar sight as well. Bran had kept it in good repair. He'd written once to tell him of his father's death, and Will had written back. He'd been in London visiting friends, and Owen Davies was long in the ground by the time the letter had reached him. So he sent a note of condolence and thought of the silver-haired boy he had known, and wondered at his own reluctance to do more than send a letter.
Yet, months later, he found himself here, walking down the road to a familiar house, nestled in the shadow of Cadair Idris.
"Will." His name was spoken in a gentle lilt that always sounded to him like it contained a question. He turned and there was Bran, closing the sheep gate behind him---like and not like how he remembered. He was taller, but so was Will. Thin, with the tell-tale crop of white hair grown longer now, falling untidily down over the curve of his forehead. Bran brushed it back in a gesture Will remembered, his pale eyes searching out Wills in mild query.
"I wrote to tell you I was coming," Will said.
"I know. It's just startling to see you." Bran hesitated, then came forward, reaching around him to hug him tight. Will felt soft wool under his hands; he could smell it and the faint scent of sheep and dog and soap that had settled in the weave of cloth.
There were several things that he could say--"you look well," "Im sorry about your father"--but they were not things that he would ever say to Bran. Instead he knelt down to where a rust-red sheepdog crouched calmly and curiously by Brans feet.
"You got another dog."
"Lloegr." The dog looked up at the sound of his name, and Bran smiled with only the faintest trace of grief. He cleared his throat. "'England,'" he translated, and his smile grew into a grin. "It seemed fitting."
"Ah," said Will. "So I am not completely forgotten." He said it lightly, but there was an undercurrent to the words that he had not been aware of when he spoke.
"Come on, then." Bran turned away, and Will felt the world shift gently back again. "Ill put the pot on."
The interior of the house seemed lighter and bigger than he remembered, as if the spirit of Owen Davies had faded to make room for his son. Will noted the things that marked the house as Bran's: the small harp by the door; a shelf of books that he hadnt remembered from before; new-looking pictures on the walls of the main room. He wandered the room and picked out a book at random from the shelf. "The Sea, the Sea." There were creases on the spine. He replaced it between a John LeCarre novel and a collection of Dylan Thomas poems. He pulled out the latter and flipped it open. "'The shades of girls, all flavoured from their shrouds,'" he read aloud.
The tea kettle whistled sharply from the kitchen, and he looked up. "How is Jane?" he called into the kitchen, when the sound of the kettle had subsided. A few moments, and Bran appeared in the doorway, looking at the book in Wills hands with perfunctory curiosity, then raising his eyes to meet Wills own. His smile was a crooked line drawn quickly and roughly across his face.
"Oh, Jane." He glanced away. "Jane is well. She started university this year. Somewhere in the Lake District."
Will nodded as if he'd known that, though he hadnt spoken with Jane in over four years.
Bran ducked back through the doorway and called over his shoulder, "The tea is on. Do you want milk?" Will put the collection of poems on the table by the shelf and went into the kitchen.
The tea was too hot, even with milk to cool it, so he fiddled with the handle of the cup, tracing it with an outstretched finger. Lloegr had followed them into the house and lay patiently by the door, his dark eyes flicking back and forth between them as they sat at the kitchen table, a long, low wooden piece with benches worn smooth with use.
"Have you been to see your aunt and uncle?"
Will nodded. "This morning, before I went into town." He smiled. "Aunt Jen wasn't pleased that it's taken me so long to visit. Rhys has gone off to London for a year, and I think she's lonely."
Bran nodded. "I went to see her a few days ago."
"She said. I think she would have liked to have kept you there." A pause. "She worries about you."
Bran shrugged, and Will saw the awkward movement of a boy chafing under a mother's protection--strange, he thought, for a boy whod never had a mother. Then Bran smiled ruefully. "She's kind." He made a vague, half-sweeping motion with his hand. "Everyone has been kind."
Bran shifted on the bench in sudden restlessness, and Will could see that his thoughts had gone elsewhere. He started to speak, then stopped, his eyes searching out Will's with a tentative question. Will looked back gravely. Bran blinked and glanced away. "I dream, sometimes." The words were spoken just loud enough to hear. "About you--about the last time you were here."
Will took a sip from his cup that burned his mouth. There were many things that weighed on him, but this--the weight of memories that no one else would have--was heavier than the rest. He replaced the cup quickly on the table. "Of what?"
The lines around Bran's mouth creased, the frustration of trying to pin down an inchoate word or image. "Just memories, thoughts. Nothing coherent." He shrugged and grinned, looking suddenly like the boy Will remembered, his difference shouldered off behind dark glasses and a self-mocking smile. "Nothing, really."
"Dreams, Bran," Will said. "Only dreams."
"Yes, but---" For a moment the light glanced off Brans eyes and seemed to ignite them from within. Then the glow faded. "I should feed the dogs," he said abruptly and stood up from the table. Will watched him leave, Lloegr rising obediently from the floor and following his master out.
Alone, he stared down at the cup in his hands, still more than half full with tea. He frowned, rubbed the bridge of his nose and wished suddenly that he were someone else, someone who was just visiting an old friend, reminiscing.
He had abandoned the tea at the table and had risen to look out the window above the sink when Bran returned. Dusk was gone as if had never come, leaving an ink-blue sky. A strand of cool air crept in through the open door before it was shut quickly.
"All right?" Will asked lightly, turning to the side and leaning against the counter.
Bran nodded and took off his coat, hanging it back on the hook beside the door.
"I should go." Will brushed the palms of his hands on his jeans. "Aunt Jen will be holding supper." He reached over for the cup on the table, dumping the remaining tea in the sink.
Bran came up behind him and took the cup from his hand, placing it down next to them. "Will---"
"Bran," he countered gently. He turned, and his arm brushed up against Bran's wool-covered one. Bran was taller by an inch or two, and Will looked up steadily, feeling a familiar ache. He wondered what Bran saw when he looked at him, if he sensed anything beyond the rather ordinary exterior, brown hair and eyes set into a broad, round face. A pleasant smile free of guile.
Bran took a half-step back, as if he could sense the unspoken barrier. "Im bringing the sheep down from the upper pasture tomorrow," he finished, stumbling a little over the words.
Will nodded, his gaze steady. "Ill come by around eight?"
Bran nodded and stepped back further, and Will slid past him toward the door. "It's good to see you, Will," he said quietly, sincerely, as Will leaned down for a farewell pat to Lloegr. Will straightened up and smiled.
"And you, Bran," he said.
"It won't be the same. He isn't the same," Will had said to Merriman, three months earlier. They were in the city market square near the university, working their way purposelessly through the cluttered alleys made by tilting, makeshift stalls. He paused at a corner stall with used books stacked on shelves made of wooden planks, on top of one another, spilling out into the edges of the throughway.
"Of course he isn't the same," Merriman said, with a vague irritability. "Neither are you." He was looking bemusedly at the random tides of people flowing by and around them. He had, in his own words, "stopped by" to "look in on his young watchman." Will, pleased enough with this rare appearance, hadnt pressed.
"That isn't what I meant." Will stooped down to scan a row of books, not really registering any of the titles. "Even if we were back there, back *then*, he wouldn't be the same." Merriman made a dismissive gesture that Will caught from the corner of his eye. He stood up and turned. "I'm surprised. Do you think that I would risk compromising his choice?" Merriman was silent, and Will stilled, thinking back. "You said once that no power of the Dark or the Light can make a man more than a man; and that they couldn't take away his rights as a man, either."
The corner of Merrimans mouth quirked into a smile. "Ungrateful child. But I am not suggesting what you are thinking." He paused, then added gently, "Returning to the past is not always a step backward."
"Yes," said Will, "but are we talking about my past or your past?" And stopped, immediately ashamed.
But Merriman's expression held no hint of reproach. "You'll find that the pasts of men are often indistinguishable."
"I suppose," said Will, not sure if he agreed. "But Bran is a rather unique case."
"Yes," Merriman agreed. "He is Arthur's son. And who could not help but love the son of such a king?"
Will raised his eyebrow, vaguely forbidding.
Merriman laughed. "Such a scowl, young man."
But he changed the subject to more casual conversation as they continued down the rows of market stalls, inquiring about university life, the appalling state of contemporary education (Will just smiled and nodded agreeably), and other, simple things that had nothing to do with the Light or the Old Ones.
It was when Merriman was about to leave that Will said suddenly, "'My lion.' That is what he calls you. What Arthur calls you."
Merriman smiled; it lit his face with a soft, joyful warmth that Will had never seen in him before. "Goodbye, Will. Watch well."
The day was unseasonably warm, the blue cloudless sky an aberration in a land perpetually swathed in grey. Will felt almost cheated as he stripped down to a dark blue tee, tying the sweater loosely around his waist as they emerged from the trees onto the main path. It wound, chalk white, through a soft carpet of grey-green of a consistency somewhere between moss and grass, fading far above them into sheer black rock.
Cadair Idris. He had not thought to ever come back here--it was not that the memories were too painful, though they were that; painful like a healing limb, or the pain of loss that promises greater sweetness on return.
The path was uneven, with the occasional dip and outcropping of grey rock. He looked down, concentrating on his footing. Diog was up ahead, Lloegr trotting comfortably by Brans side. The brown and white Haf appeared reluctant to leave Will, who was obviously the straggling sheep of the small herd.
"Go on," he said fondly. Haf just waved her tail.
He glanced up again. Bran had slowed a few yards ahead and was chatting amiably with a sturdy, dark-haired girl in her late teens trailing a group of ten or so pale gangly children. Will could hear the soft pitch of Welsh as he overtook them.
"Hallo," he said. Bran flashed him a quick, bright smile, and the young woman smiled as well, looking him over curiously.
"Hallo yourself," she said cheerfully, shifting smoothly into English. "You're Jen Evans' nephew."
Will smiled with friendly neutrality, resigned to his role as the token foreign relative.
"Will was here, oh, eight years ago," Bran said, pausing briefly and pulling off his dark glasses to wipe them clean on the edge of his sweater, blinking in the brightness. The angle of the sun gave the pale eyes more texture and color, and Will thought he caught a flash of sky-blue reflection at the edges of his pupils. "Terrors, we were. Or so John Rowlands reminded me afterward." The last was spoken with unguarded affection.
John Rowlands. Will looked at him sharply, but Brans face was relaxed in casual conversation. He had almost forgotten John, and wondered how much John himself had forgotten.
Dont be an idiot, Will reminded himself coldly. Hes forgotten everything.
"Ah," the girl was saying, giving Will a strange, sharp look. "Well." She let out a small sigh. "Id best be going, then." She glared up the path, to the small, brightly-clothed creatures disappearing from view. She muttered something under her breath, but then smiled and waved gaily enough at them before setting up the path once again.
"Mara Howell," Bran offered, as they started off again. "She brings the kids up here as a guide. They're London kids, mostly. Some kind of program." He grinned suddenly. "She tried to kiss me once when we were eight."
"The horror," said Will drily. But he couldnt help but tease, "You were almost civil back there. Dont tell me youve given up setting the evil eye on unsuspecting villagers."
Bran looked back over his shoulder, raising a white eyebrow and pulling the rim of his glasses down the bridge of his nose, peering over them with a quelling glare. Will laughed and brought his hands to his face in mock defense.
"Never mind. You havent changed a bit."
"Spot on, English," Bran replied easily, and Will could see the edges of a grin before he turned his back completely and leaned forward up the path. He broke from the main trail soon afterward, cutting up a sloping hill that rose opposite the peaks. Will sighed a little, shifted the small pack more comfortably across his shoulders, and followed him.
It was easier not to speak as they worked their way up slantwise to the crest. But with Bran there was no real need for speech. Silent, he savored the all-too-infrequent exercise, feeling muscles he hadnt used in years stretching and pulling with the upward climb. The land was growing more familiar to him with each yard they covered, like stepping back into the strides of an earlier age.
"Not much further," Bran called over his shoulder.
Will laughed. "Good. Its been a while since I've had to hike anything steeper than a flight of stairs."
Bran was right, it wasnt much further. The sun had just passed its height when they reached the shared grazing land, spotted white with roaming sheep. It was as if the world had up-ended itself, leaving a clear blue lake above and a pale green sky with miniature, clustered clouds all around them. Diog and Haf ran forward, weaving through the small bodies with happy abandon until Bran called them back. Will picked out a comfortable slope of hill and threw himself back on it, blinking up at the sky and releasing a long, eloquent sigh.
Bran laughed at him and settled down more composedly. He handed Will a plastic container of water then lay back on the grass, sighing a little himself.
Will propped himself up on his elbows and gave the bottle in his hand a dubious look. "Evian?"
"Dont be such a prat," Bran said, grinning up at the sky.
"I thought you Welshmen were supposed to be the last stronghold of the rough and natural life. Wood burning stoves. Sacks for shoes."
Bran snorted, and Will raised the water to him in grinning salute. He drank deeply, then placed the recapped bottle between them before leaning back again contentedly. The sun, unobstructed by trees or earth, shone on his closed eyelids like the muted glory of sunset. He couldnt remember the last time he felt such ease, such absolute disinclination to do anything but lay still. Far above the bright weave and rhythm of mortal life, he could almost forget for the moment his own less-than-mortal existence.
"What will you do next?" he found himself asking, unaware until then that he had been wondering.
There was a brief pause. "What do you mean?"
Will opened his eyes, shifting on his side to study him, though Brans expression was veiled by the glasses. His white hair made a startling contrast to the green of the hill. "With your father gone. I thought I thought perhaps you might be leaving here."
Bran turned his head his direction, and Will wondered what those eyes, uncovered, would reveal. "No," Bran said quietly. "It isn't likely."
"Hm." He began picking at the grass between them, pulling up stems and rubbing them absently between his fingers. "Have you thought about it?" he said, not sure why he was pressing.
To his surprise, Bran laughed. "Even better. I did leave. Two years ago, down to Bristol to work in a music shop. Took some courses at the university."
Will paused in his restless fidgeting. "I didnt know."
"No reason for you to," Bran replied dispassionately.
Will was silent a moment, knowing it was the truth. Their correspondence had been infrequent and cursory the last few years, for many reasons. "But you didn't like it," he said finally, more to himself than to Bran.
Bran shook his head. "I did like it. Until one day I realized that the air didn't have the same smell to it. The sky was the wrong shade of blue." He shrugged. "It just didnt have the right feel. So I found myself on the train back. Dont get me wrong," he added quickly. "It was nice enough. But it wasn't here."
He shifted on the ground, as if to shelve away that particular line of questioning, and studied Will with equal curiosity. "And what about you, Will Stanton? Do you ever think about leaving university and settling down somewhere like this?"
Will thought about it, considering the idea as more than just idle conversation. "I don't know," he said honestly. "Sometimes. More so, being here now." Then he grinned, looking around at the silence of the hill, its near-desolation. Barren of anything but scattered sheep and the occasional outcropping of grey rock. He tried to imagine it as more than just a holiday spot, a brief respite from the pleasant chaos of his own life. "Perhaps."
He looked for his pack laying a few feet away, thrown carelessly aside in the first moments of bliss at not having to walk any further. Rummaging, he unearthed two squashed packets of sandwiches and tossed one to Bran, who picked it neatly out of the air as he sat up.
"Courtesy of Aunt Jen," Will said, peeling away the plastic.
They ate silently and companionably, passing the water between them at frequent, unsolicited intervals. It was colder at this altitude, and Will untangled the sweater from his waist and pulled it on, running a hand through tousled brown hair in an effort to tame it.
Bran stretched and balled up the now-empty plastic, tossing it back in Wills pack. "We should be off if we want to make it back before sun-down." He stood up and called the dogs over. Will stood up more slowly, trying not to groan at the pain of stiffened, misused muscles.
Watching Bran, he decided quickly that he would be most helpful not helping at all. Between Bran and the dogs, the sheep were herded together with remarkable efficiency, with precision and something close to elegance. Will stood to the side, looking around him, and tried to ignore the nagging feeling that a particularly brisk wind would pluck him from the heights and send him drifting down the slope.
By the time they left the sheep munching comfortably in a pasture thick with newer growth, afernoon had faded into early evening. Will was flooded by a physical exhaustion so deep he deemed it permanently settled in his bones. They still had at least two hours walk to the foot of the mountains, and each step was made with leaden automation, until he felt that he had spent his entire life walking up then down these hills. Bran, used to such exertion, walked more briskly, but Will thought he detected a similar exhaustion in him: in the relaxed, unfettered muscles of his face and the clear, tranquil light of his eyes, now uncovered. Even the dogs showed signs of fatigue, as if it took more effort now to maintain that easy trot. They made the final stretch through shadowed woods in unconscious rhythm, Bran ahead and Will a few steps behind. It was nearly dark by the time they reached the bottom.
He realized that he was wildly, inexpressibly happy.
The feeling stayed with him until they came up on Bran's house. Bran took Haf and Diog around back without a word, and Will found himself lingering outside the front door, the days spell abruptly broken. He was once again an interloper unsure where the lines of a long-ago friendship and shared past were drawn and where they intersected.
"I'll be in in a moment," Bran called from the side of the house, oblivious to Wills hesitation.
To his surprise, Will saw that Lloegr had remained with him. He trailed Will into the house and went immediately to the woven rug in front of the hearth, stretching out on his stomach with deliberate, methodical grace. His head lowered slowly to the curve of his forelegs, round dark eyes open and alert to Wills movements, as if in a heartbeat he could be up and ready to protect the house and Bran from this potential intruder.
"No need," Will said softly to him, and wondered if it was a lie. Lloegr blinked and remained.
"Im famished," Bran said behind him, closing the door.
Will turned. "I need a shower." It was true. He felt bruised, thick with sweat and the microscopic grime of outdoor air.
"Next to the bedroom." Bran nodded to the open archway across the living room. "Grab anything you need, and Ill put something on the stove."
So Bran assumed that he was staying. He wasnt sure if it left him relieved or apprehensive.
He crossed the living room, through the archway that revealed three doors in the shadowed hall, one of which was closed. Brans fathers, he guessed. He leaned cautiously into the threshold of the door opposite, but all he could make out was a low, wide desk, faintly illuminated by a strip of light from the window.
Some impulse made him enter the room; he crossed to the desk, flipping on the small, slender lamp looming from the corner. Its light spread out in a warm, circular glow over the dark wood. Bran was tidier than he. Pens were held in place by a green and white ceramic vase that had the rough edges and artless grace of a childhood school project. There was a fresh, legal-sized pad of paper lined neatly along the left edge of the desk, and next to it a sheaf of cream notepaper that looked as if it hadnt been touched in a while. A small clock and three pictures in simple, wooden frames were lined up on the windowsill above the desk. He leaned in to look at them.
The one on the far left was of Bran's father--he recognized the stern, gruff lines immediately, though it was an older picture, from twenty years ago or more, he guessed. Owen Davies' attention was caught by something outside the camera's range, and his face was more profile and shadow than portrait. Younger, but very much the man he remembered.
The one next to it was smaller, the photo of a young woman. Will picked it up and held it under the light of the lamp. It was Jane. It appeared to have been taken recently; she was staring straight at the camera, her face relaxed in laughter as if the photographer had taken her by surprise. She had grown quite beautiful, Will realized, the soft features of childhood hardened into elegant lines, her dark eyes still bright with a quiet, contained joy that always came to mind when he thought of Jane. He returned the picture to its perch, and picked up the one next to it.
It was of him. Startled, he almost didnt recognize himself, and wondered when the photo had been taken. He looked about twelve, so it had likely been sometime that summer. The expression on his younger self was too serious, the black and white print accentuating the shadows around his eyes. Like Owen Davies, he was looking away from the camera to some abstract point, his head tilted slightly to the side in a habit he still found himself doing sometimes. He held the photograph closer. Even turned away from the camera, it was as if some band of light picked up a gleam at the corner of his eye, redirecting it to the photographer in a kind of knowing, intimate greeting.
Wills hand tightened on the frame, and he felt a sudden wrench in his stomach. The boy in the photo had the clear, still presence of an Old One; he recognized that expression, as if his twelve-year-old self was looking into something more than the ordinary eye could see. Yet shadowing him were the lines of all-too human need, a bare hint of longing he knew he had never quite grasped then, and was only beginning to realize now.
He should leave. Complete his condolences to Bran and take the train back to England.
"Did you find something to wear?"
Startled, Will turned and cursed himself for the inattention. He still had the photograph in his hand, and he replaced it slowly on the windowsill.
Bran moved from the doorway further into the room, closer until Will thought his breath would stop, and then passing him. He reached over to the bed, pulling out a thick cotton shirt from the neat piles of fresh laundry folded there. He tossed it to Will, who caught it reflexively.
"I don't think I have any jeans that will fit you," he said, giving Will a measuring look.
"That's fine," Will managed, his hands full of blue cotton. "This is enough."
Bran nodded. "Take your shower, then." He grinned. "I'm hungry." He left the room, leaving Will staring at the place where he had just been.
He should go. He was more certain of that than even before, his rational self insisting that he had been right and Merriman was wrong, that it was not always wise to revisit the past. Yet he found that he was equally reluctant to leave. Holding the cotton shirt lightly in his hands, he found himself heading for the shower, listening to the comfortable, muffled sounds from the kitchen: the ring of pots, running water, the creak of a cabinet closing.
Bran was dishing out mountains of pasta onto blue ceramic plates when he emerged twenty minutes later, slightly soggy, skin still tingling from water set as hot as could bear it without flinching. Bran's shirt was a little tight, but the cotton felt good against his skin. Soft and warm, like a familiar touch.
Bran looked up as he paused in the doorway of the kitchen and grimaced apologetically. "My father did most of the cooking."
"You're forgiven if you give me enough of it," Will said, leaving the doorframe and crossing the room to the table. "Can I help?"
Bran shook his head. "Oh--get the wine, won't you? It's below the cupboard there."
Will followed Brans waving hand, squatting down to pull out one of the bottles from a wooden rack. He studied the label. "Welsh wine?"
"It's a growing industry," Bran said, in a grinning voice that dared Will to comment further.
"Ah." Will hefted the bottle and stood up. "Now there's a thing."
Bran gave him a quick look. "You're sounding like a proper Welshman, now."
"If I were, you know, it could only be but proper."
"Oh, yes," Bran agreed. He put the plates of marinara-doused pasta on the table, and handed Will two wine glasses. The wine was almost colorless, catching the dim light of the overhead fixtures as he poured it.
Bran held his up in salute. "One glass and I'll be done in," he said ruefully.
Will nodded his agreement. There was a soft clang as he touched the rim of his glass to Bran's. "Cheers."
The wine did make him sleepy, though it could have been the accumulated effect of an exhausting day and the astonishing amount of pasta he managed to consume. Intent on the food, they made only passing conversation ("...bread...I forgot---do I have to get up to get it?"; "I think we should take a Welsh winery tour"; "I think you should be quiet."). An indefinite period of time later, they sat back from the table, sated, Will drifting in a pleasant cloud of drowsy warmth that flushed his cheeks and heated the air around him.
Bran sighed, and Will studied him with new-found serenity. Brans face was a little flushed as well, his eyes a blurred brushstroke of cream and gold, slightly unfocused. His attention shifting with his thoughts, though he hadnt been aware that hed been thinking it, Will looked over at the lap harp by the door.
"Do you still play?"
Bran shrugged, his eyelids drooping in a way that reminded Will of a sleepy, Persian cat. "Sometimes. Not often, these days."
"Play something," Will suggested impulsively. His mood had lightened with the wine and food; he knew he was mildly drunk but didnt care.
"Now?" Brans eyes were still half-lidded; lazily watchful, laughing beneath the glaze.
"Well." Bran stretched and stood up slowly. "All right."
He took the harp from its rest; pausing, looking around the room; finally settling down on the edge of an olive-colored chair in the living room. Will drew his legs up over the bench, stretching them out and leaning back against the edge of the table. The dark-finished spruce of the harp made a warm contrast to Brans hands; Will found himself focused on those fingers, the way they crooked above the strings, the length and latent strength of them.
A soft, tinkling sound filled the room, then faded. Lloegr, who had remained at his station on the rug throughout the meal, raised his head to look over at Bran curiously.
"What shall I play?"
Will shrugged, and Bran tilted his head to the side, thinking. Then he lowered his fingers to the harp once again; tentative at first, then more sure as the song picked up a natural rhythm, notes settling gently into place.
Will didn't recognize the melody. It was simple, lyrical. He thought it must be an older song, a classic, but as it progressed he was no longer so sure. Bran was intent on his work, the fringe of white hair hanging suspended from his tilted forehead as he bent over the harp.
Will sank further on the bench, caught up in Brans playing, until he realized there was something else. Slowly, gradually, it burrowed, cutting through the wine-daze of his head with sharp, clear notes; the simple melody was no longer so simple. It was as if another strand had entered into it, making its way in and among the primary score that had now become deceptive, a screen for its harmonizing double that gained further strength as the piece developed.
It was power, and the last vestiges of an identity lost forever; yet it was still there, integral to the man in front of him. Will could feel it gathering in the air, streaming from the rapid movement of Brans fingers and hovering above him. And even though he knew it was faint, the kind of power humans were able to conjure all the time without even realizing it, it hammered home the truth hed been trying to forget. This was wrong. It was wrong to come back here, and he had slipped so far down the slope of simple need that he did not think he could make his way back up again.
He needed air. He was already up and heading for the door when the realization hit him, that the air in the house had grown too thick to breathe. He didnt remember opening the door, only the sudden wave of coolness on his face, soothing his flushed skin but failing to clear his head as he'd hoped; it was too jumbled, too strained by conflicting emotions and the image of *him*, sitting hunched over the harp, ice-white.
He halted just beyond the circle of ambient light from the house. The night was full-on, the moon a mere slice in the distance, and he could make out nothing around him.
He couldn't move. He heard the faint sounds of Bran approaching, but it wasnt until Brans hand touched his shoulder, lightly, that he allowed himself to be turned. Close up, he could see Brans face clearly; he looked concerned, a little frightened, even. "Will, I---"
Will stepped forward and put his hand to the nape of Brans neck, lowering it gently to touch his lips to his; lightly; a faint brush of skin that was barely a kiss. Then he released him, checking himself with near-painful constraint. He opened his eyes, and Bran was staring at him. "Will---"
A sharp intake of breath, then Bran laughed without mirth; hard and sharp. Will saw the boy he had once been very clearly in his face. "I see."
Will just looked at him. There was nothing he could say.
"Why did you come back?"
Slowly, Will brought his hand up to his own neck, rubbing at the knots of tension that were already beginning to form. He'd known this would happen, and he'd done it anyway. "I don't know."
Bran sighed, his earlier flare of anger fading. "Will, youre the " he shrugged almost diffidently, "Well, youre the wisest person I know. And I doubt youve ever done anything without purpose."
"Im beginning to wonder about that," Will said. "The wise thing, that is."
Bran gave him a speculative look. "Yes, perhaps you are. Wondering." He said it as if it surprised him. Then he leaned forward before Will could back away, misjudging the distance so that their mouths met abruptly, awkwardly. Startled, Will breathed in sharply, and was suddenly overwhelmed by Brans unique scent and taste; it caught his breath and tightened the vise around his stomach, until all he could think of was 'stop' and 'please dont stop.'
Then Bran broke away, breathing as rapidly as he, his pale eyes grown dark. Will wet his lips, wondering when this thing had grown so entirely out of his control, and decided that it had probably been when he first saw Bran at the sheep gate. He wondered if it had been that way for Merriman as well, seeing Arthur for the first time as a grown man.
"This feels strange," Bran said. Will heard him from far away, then his attention snapped quickly back as the words sank in.
"Well, yes," he replied, with a sudden urge to laugh.
"No, I mean it," Bran insisted. He grinned. "It's strange, me reassuring you. You were always the steady one."
Will tilted his head, musing. "Was I? I suppose."
"Yes, you were." Then Bran shivered, and Will realized himself that he was shaking, an uncontrollable twitch and shudder throughout his body that had nothing to do with the cold.
Bran raised his hand as if to touch his face, then lowered it slowly so that it was poised, uncertain, between them. "It's cold. Will you come back in?"
"Yes." Will brushed the tips of his fingers against the back of Bran's hand, just once. "All right."
It was like he thought it would be, and completely different. He found himself fascinated by simple things; by the way Bran's arms, thin but tightly muscled, looked in the light coming into the living room from the kitchen; his almost translucent skin; the joint of his hips where they met his waist. Bran seemed to find this vaguely irritating, and would just kiss him again when he pointed out such interesting findings. So he felt no need to stop commenting.
And better: the way the ache in his heart and stomach eased then sprung forth again in other places; Bran's hands on him, easing and shifting the mad rush, letting him return in kind until he thought that he would be perfectly content just to listen to the laughing intakes of breath, the discovered, mutual need. The broken, breathless conversation: "Do you want...?"; "there"; "Will...."; and "please." Simple words and sounds that had new meaning when Bran spoke them, and he to him.
It had nothing to do with what he was as an Old One. And yet, it was everything.