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Winter Follows

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3.

 

Jane knitted in the playground while her students played games. She'd never found a speck of talent within herself for drawing or painting, but she loved colour as much as her mother and Barney did, and she'd finally found her own way of working with it. Colour could capture a moment, a place, a message, a feeling - colour didn't need words. Today she had a hank of chunky black wool shot through with streaks of silvery grey, and a second hank of dark red. Big loops on big needles; this scarf couldn't wait.

"Better put that away, Jane," said Rebecca, who taught in the classroom next door. Her Year Threes shared the play period with Jane's. "Here comes your visitor."

Jane shoved the yarn and needles down in her bag, and cinched the drawstring tight. She turned toward the school building, a smile breaking out as she caught sight of Will, coming towards her with a badge reading VISITOR pinned to his dark wool coat.

It was Jobs Week. All the classes had seen firemen, doctors, policemen, veterinarians; only Jane's got an archaeologist as well.

Will smiled when he greeted her, calling her "Miss Drew" in a voice that was still a little too low and hoarse. Jane's fingers itched for her needles. To hell with it being a surprise, a gift to be given in a quiet moment, with a kiss; she could finish by the afternoon if she knitted while he talked. She could wrap it warm around his neck, that red thread a bright reminder of all the protection Jane Drew could give.

Will looked ever so slightly shaky in the face of his soon-to-be audience, running wild in their natural habitat. It was an uncharacteristic look on him, and Jane grinned. "I should warn you," she said. "I've gone through the questions they've prepared for you, and more than half of them are about mummies."

"I expect, if I were seven, mine would be too," Will said. He looked round Jane to Rebecca, who had just returned from settling a dispute over a ball. "Hello," he said. "Will Stanton. I brought some actual Roman coins, what do you suppose my chances are of getting the children interested in them?"

"Hm," Rebecca said, looking amused. She clearly liked him already; that was Will Stanton for you. "I'd say -"

A sharp wind sliced through the playground, and Will began to cough. It turned long and nasty, causing him to bend double, face reddening. Jane put a hand to his back, saying, "Line up my class for me, Rebecca?", as she steered him into the school.

There was a water fountain just inside the door. Will drank, and Jane watched with her arms folded. When he straightened, Jane moved closer, her spine rod-straight and her shoes making sharp clicks against the tile. She had authority in this place, and she didn't think about whether she wished to express it or not; it was just there, in her body, in her voice.

Jane said, "Still got the cough, then."

Will didn't say I'm fine or It was just the wind. "It's only been a couple of weeks," he said quietly. "Rivers are cold places in December."

"Three weeks," Jane said. "And yes. They are."

She'd had reason to try and use her emergency training that day, for the first time ever. She and Bran had pulled Will from the water, and Jane had put her hands in position, so scared for Will, and so afraid she would do this wrong. She'd had the training at the beginning of every school year, but that was one thing, putting it into practise was another. Will hadn't been breathing - she'd been sure of it, Bran had been sure of it - but she hadn't done anything yet when Will had suddenly rolled over, cheek pressed in the cold mud, and smiled at her.

The door opened, letting in a blast of winter air and the busy excited noise of small children. Jane led her students and Will back to the classroom.

Will did manage to get them interested in Roman coins. They sat in front of him on the rug in a semicircle, hanging on his every word - no small feat, when they'd just come in from the excitement of the playground. Jane thought that Will was an uncle several times over by now, and perhaps that was part of his success, but certainly not all of it. He had exactly what it took to keep a class engaged, a way with his voice and his manner that suggested it would be a singularly bad idea to mess him about. Her children were not simply afraid of what might happen if they were disobedient; their true fear was that they might miss out on something wonderful. Because even they had that sense that Will could tell them anything, unlock the whole world for them, if only he wanted; and if they were good, very good, maybe he would want.

Jane watched her class, watched Will, and tried not to feel in the least way bitter.

 

2.

 

Bran passed through the black wrought-iron gate, latching it closed behind him. The house was a mock Tudor semi-detached with a tiny garden comprised mostly of hedges, just like all the others on the road. It didn't look like a magician's house, not that Bran thought words like magician or dewin when he thought about Will. Power, though. He thought about that.

Christmas had passed, but Twelfth Night had not, and there were still bundles of holly fixed to the windows and the white front door. Signs of the season, to be sure, but they didn't feel like decoration. And Bran knew with a deep sort of knowing that it would be wrong to make jokes about how many kisses Will must be planning to steal, considering the size of the mistletoe bough pinned to the lintel. Still, he might end up teasing Will about it anyway, just because.

Bran had grown up with old stories, and perhaps that was why, in his mind, there were so many well-worn roads of belief. That there was power in old things and old ways, that was an easy trail to tread; but where did the circle begin? Did such things give Will power, or did they draw it from him? Because there was certainly power in Will as well. Rare to see it out in public, but here in his home, impossible to ignore.

Jane said she always caught her breath when she walked in Will's front door. For Bran, it wasn't something he felt in his chest, but something that sank into his bones, settled against his spine.

Junior Policy Advisor Bran Davies was supposed to work in the corridors of power, but he could count on one hand the number of times he'd felt anything like this there. But the fact that he had felt it, and in response to something he'd said and done - that was how he knew there was nowhere he'd rather be.

Bran found Will in the library. Every house on the road had the same layout, and Bran thought that in every other house this room - close to the kitchen, large picture window - was a dining room. Will had built floor-to-ceiling shelves, put a desk in front of the window, and placed a sofa in the middle of the room, directly underneath the chandelier fixture, where a table was clearly meant to go.

He was asleep. There was a legal pad on the floor by the settee, face down where it must have fallen, and a biro loose on the blanket near his fingers. Bran stood in the doorway, swallowing. He had such a long-standing aversion to seeing Will unwell - if he could just see a little life in Will's face, a little movement - but Will didn't need Bran to wake him. He needed -

Will's forehead was warm under Bran's lips. Bran pulled away as gently as he could.

Will opened his eyes. "I'm glad you did that," Will said, a quiet smile spreading. "I'd much rather be awake while you're here than awake later on when you're not."

"And that is precisely how it should be," Bran said. Will was starting to struggle up to make room for Bran on the sofa, but Bran put a stop to that by dropping down to sit on the floor.

A certain amount of guilt could be covered over with banter. Waking someone up from sleep, say, when they probably shouldn't have been woken. But when Will's body shook and jerked and he coughed like he would lose a lung, there was nothing that Bran could say. He didn't even know why it clawed at him so; he couldn't have moved any faster, couldn't have stopped the earth from shaking, couldn't have stopped Will from falling.

He should feel sick with worry over how close he came to losing Will, not sick with guilt over how he could've done something more, as if at some point he had made the choice not to do so.

 

1.

 

It was a holiday with a purpose. Will had been on a number of those in his life, but this was the first one he'd ever arranged. He thought wistfully of Merriman as he called round to sort the lodgings; surely the first of the Old Ones had never had to hear so many "No Vacancy's"?

Will was enough a creature of the Light not to wonder whether it was quite fair or kind to bring Jane and Bran here, when the reason for the trip was not solely an after-Christmas holiday for the three of them together. He was enough a boy from Buckinghamshire to relish the time they would spend together in the little rental cottage, cuddling warm in front of the fire, cooking vaguely horrible meals in the kitchen, curling up on the bed.

The Durham Dales were beautiful in winter, the moors and hills dusted with a fresh fall of snow. In their heaviest boots and thickest coats and gloves, Will and Jane and Bran tromped the hiking paths, laughing and flinging loose-packed snowballs. And if Will led them to a certain hill by a certain bit of the river - well.

"Did -" Jane shook her head. "That was the wind I heard, I suppose."

"What a screech!" Bran said, stamping his feet against the earth. Will watched the boots coming down, one-two-three. Was it instinct, or merely an attempt to keep warm?

Will said, "It'll get worse the higher we go," because it was true.

There was a wyrm in the hill, and there was a new road coming. There was nothing Will could truly do; the wyrm - a dragon without wings, a serpent that had grown for a thousand years and never intended to stop growing - was a thing of Wild Magic, and beyond his control. Perhaps Jane would make a peace with it, perhaps Bran would banish it, perhaps it would be so angered by Will's presence that it would shake the mountain and suddenly a highway would no longer seem a good idea. However this ended, it would be an interesting day.

The fear that ran through Will was quiet, and cold, and a little bit intoxicating.

It was not one reserved for dragons or mountaintops, but one that could and did show itself other times, other places, like when Jane looked at him a certain way, or Bran said something so close to truth that it stole Will's breath. It was the red-apple fear of his own temptation, it was the memory of Hawkin, dying in the melting snow; that one day - and that day would be so much closer if they knew - that one day he would try and keep them.