Life at the Branch's Whim
by volta arovet
Ianto Bevan was destined for great things
Ianto Bevan was destined for great things. He was a twin, Gran said, whose sister had died at birth, and that meant he had two lives' worth of destiny to meet. He had a fantastic halfmoon scar on his left calf from where a dog had bit him when he was five, and it was so awesomely gross he'd charge his schoolmates five pence to look at it. Now, at the mere age of twelve, he had earned glory and admiration from his mates by catching over twenty frogs in one afternoon just by standing still and snatching them when they leapt.
He was prepared for his destiny, whatever it might be when it decided to show itself. His Gran had taught him the old charms—how to predict a change in the weather, how to pass your bad fortune on to the crows, how to find something you had lost. How to curse someone who had wronged you. His mother hadn't liked it when he talked about that last one, so he had only tried it once when Professor Hier had given him low marks on his History exam.
And so, on this day and in these woods, Ianto decided that it was time for his destiny to begin. There had been seven crows sitting in the tree outside his house that afternoon and he had seen a cloud that was distinctly in the shape of a lopsided star, so clearly great things were in order today. He was sure of it, this time.
Ianto hefted his satchel over his shoulder and switched his walking stick to his left hand, the smooth, worn grooves feeling odd in his off hand. These woods were both familiar and mysterious to him at unpredictable turns. On some paths, he could close his eyes, run at top speed, and not hit a single tree. On others, particularly those deep in the woods where the thin, heady soil turned black and thick, he could walk a familiar trail dozens of times, only to find a full-grown tree where none had been before, or a pricker bush, heavy with fruit, blocking the way.
The woods held few such mysteries that day, and the journey from the wood's edge to its river held no greater question than if he should eat his sandwiches now or wait until later, and perhaps if it might have been a good idea to change out of his uniform before leaving, as Mum was probably going to throw a fit when she saw the mud stains on his trousers.
He made a half-hearted attempt to beat the dirt off of his knees and only succeeded in moving it around a bit. Ianto shrugged and consoled himself with the thought that at least his tie was still clean, as he'd spilled curry on his other one and he hadn't any spares left.
He always heard the river before he saw it, and felt it before he heard it, mud squelching beneath his trainers, air heavy and wet. He followed the river downstream until it split, and a frog sat there, eyes bulging, wondering which way the boy would go.
Ianto fetched a stick from the river's side and, spitting between his fingers and turning once anticlockwise, threw it into the air. He studied how it had landed, and (with perhaps a slight nudge or two when the frog was not looking) determined that it pointed more towards the left branch. That was an excellent sign—that way lead into the deeper parts of the woods, and there was a clearing that resembled the faerie circles he had read about in books. Branwen had said that they were caused by when the glaciers left large deposits of rocks under the ground so the trees couldn't take root, but Branwen thought spells and fairies were stupid, so clearly her opinion didn't count.
Ianto tossed his satchel against one of the trees by the clearing and rooted about in it until he found his prized possessions. With a towel wrapped about his head and Mum's second-best velvet curtains slung about his shoulders he was Swami Futuro, Master of the Stars and Seer of All Things. He was Magic.
"Halt, ye dragons, ye dreadful winged wyrms," Ianto cried with arms outstretched, making his vowels as tall and posh as those on the radio. Presentation was important. "What fools you are to challenge me in my place of power! I call upon the four corners of the earth: end me your power so that I might smite mine enemy!"
He reached out with his mind, like flexing a phantom limb, and tried to draw on the energies around him. He felt a little tingle on the back of his neck and thought that maybe, maybe this time it would work.
"Fire!" Ianto shouted, thrusting his hands in front of him and pushing with all his might.
Somewhere, a woman laughed.
An instant later, he had tugged the towel from his head and was looking wildly into the circle's outskirts. "Who's there?"
"Don't be afraid," the woman's voice said.
"I'm not," Ianto huffed, and his eyes finally locked onto a shape in the trees that didn't belong. If not for the creature's red headscarf and skirt, it would have blended perfectly into the woods. "What...?"
The creature hopped forward, and Ianto boggled at the sight. It was like an overlarge rabbit, or perhaps a rabbit crossed with a kangaroo, with long, soft ears, sleek caramel fur, and dark, sad eyes.
"My name is Velvet," she said, demurely placing a paw on her chest. "I'm a Pooka."
Ianto's mind raced. Pooka, yes, he vaguely remembered them. Rabbit creatures, shape changers, (weren't they supposed to be invisible most of the time, or something, or was that something they just sometimes chose to do?), like to scare people because they think it's funny, but generally harmless. Mainly found in Ireland and sometimes Wales—but the Pooka's accent was almost American, which was strange in itself.
"Are you lost?" Ianto asked.
The creature—Velvet—laughed, and it was beautiful. "No, boy. I have been looking for you. I need your help."
"My help?" Ianto blinked and caught at his cloak as it slipped off a shoulder.
"To save the world," she said, and Ianto's heart swelled. "It will be painful, and there are other ways I can try. You do not have to—"
"I'll do it," Ianto said without hesitation. He could feel his face heating up, and his pulse beat hard in his ears. What was a little pain compared to the opportunity for glory and magic? "Really. Yes. I'll help you."
"If that is your choice," Velvet said, and turned. "Follow me. It isn't far from here." She hopped out of the clearing and onto a path Ianto had never seen before. He quickly followed, his curtain cloak slipping off to lie forgotten by the side of his towel and satchel.
"Where are we going?" Ianto asked.
"To see a friend, of sorts," Velvet said, moving smoothly down the dark path. Ianto paused to untangle a branch from his mop of dark curls, and had to scramble to catch up to the Pooka.
"One of yours, not mine. I regret that I met the Fairy Queen under less-than-friendly circumstances," she said.
"I know the Fairy Queen?" Ianto asked, frowning slightly. Who could it have been?
"You did, many, many years ago, long before the world was reborn. You were quite close, in a way," and Velvet's voice had a strange note in it that Ianto couldn't exactly place. "But that was in a different life."
"Past lives?" Ianto grinned. "I always knew I was someone important. Who was I back then?"
"My brother," Velvet said, and glanced over her shoulder to measure Ianto's reaction.
"I'm a Pooka?"
Velvet laughed. "No. I was human, back then. You were a prince of a broken kingdom, and a powerful sorcerer, and, for a short but happy time, a frog." Ianto snorted. "I'm being serious. It was a strange word, back then. I'll help you remember."
"No, I believe you," Ianto said. "All my life I had the feeling I was meant for important things. Once I remember how to do magic, I can save the world and go on adventures and—"
"We're here," Velvet said as they reached a clearing—or rather, not a clearing, but the bare earth caused by the thick overhanging branches of an enormous tree.
Ianto's jaw dropped as his eyes followed the tree up, up, up, and he nearly fell over backwards before he could crane his neck far enough to see the top. "What is that?"
"Yggdrasil. The World Tree," Velvet said. "She gives life to the world, but sometimes she grows tired of sleep and wishes to walk the earth again, but the world is still too fragile to continue on without her. Will you convince her to continue her slumber?"
"Come here," Velvet said, placing a silky paw on either side of the boy's head, tilting his head up to face hers. He met her eyes, unflinching and so very young, and she hesitated. "What is your name, boy?"
"Ianto," he said. "Ianto Bevan."
"How old are you?"
"Twelve-and-five-months," Ianto said. The five months was important.
"What...what do you like to do?" Velvet asked.
Ianto frowned. "What do you mean?"
"You're so young. I...you can say no. There are other ways."
Ianto stuck out his jaw. "I'm not afraid."
"You might regret your decision," Velvet said. "You, you have regretted your decision. Before," she said, but she saw the desperation in the boy's eyes, how he was determined to not let this one extraordinary thing slip away, and she knew that he had made his choice. "Very well. Hold still. This part will not hurt."
Ianto held his breath, closed his eyes, and a moment later, Ingway opened them.
"Damn it, Velvet," he said, round Welsh vowels replaced by the cultured whispers of Valentinian libraries. "Must you be so cruel? Couldn't you give me a few more years of peace before you reminded me of my past crimes?"
Velvet drew her paws back from Ingway's face. "It was time, and I always give you a choice."
Ingway snorted. "You know what I will always choose, more the fool I. Asking for my choice is just another cruelty." He sighed and shrugged off his protest, an oddly mature gesture for such slim shoulders. "You look well, though it still pains me to see you in that shape. I see you've finally loosed yourself from the fop."
Velvet's bright white whiskers twitched. "Cornelius decided to stay at a safe distance this time, seeing as what happened last time we woke you."
Ingway smirked. "You have to admit, that was a magnificent right hook." Velvet rolled her eyes, which was a wonderfully expressive gesture on a Pooka.
"It's always a surprise how easily you can make me forget how I miss you when you've gone," Velvet said. Ingway preened, then contemplated if he should be insulted.
He was halfway to a protest when a shiver ran through the branches of the World Tree. He held up a hand; there was no breeze. The leaves rustled, and a thick, heavy fruit fell to the ground.
"Already?" Velvet asked.
Ingway's hands twitched. "She always was the impatient type," he said, a quaver in his voice betraying his casual tone. "If you'll excuse us."
"Yes. Pardon me," Velvet said, and vanished into the brush.
Ingway waved his hands and in a glitter of light gained half a meter in height and a shock of cornhusk hair to replace his brown curls. "Better," Ingway said, rolling his shoulders, pleased at the familiar weight of his cloak on his old-new body. He heard a soft gasp from the base of the tree, and there, only half visible and nestled in the tree's great roots, was a girl.
"Mercedes," he whispered.
Ingway winced, then put on his most endearing smile. "Good morning, Lazybones," he said, strolling over to kneel at her side.
She blinked once, twice, forest green eyes barely visible under sleep-heavy eyelids. "Ingway? Is that you?"
"Did you have a nice rest?" Ingway asked, and brushed a stray hair off her forehead.
She smiled and turned towards his hand. "Had the strangest dream."
"Was it a good one?"
"Hm." Mercedes thought for a moment. "There was a lot of fire, I remember, but also a lot of trees, so that was nice. I think I was mad at you for some reason."
Ingway chuckled. "I probably deserved it."
"You totally did," Mercedes said, and he laughed again. "Where are we? I don't—"
Ingway hushed her. "It doesn't matter."
"But you died, didn't you?" Mercedes asked, and her voice was a little clearer. "Or was that me? Was that in the dream, or is this the dream?"
Ingway brushed his fingers through her hair again, tendrils of the sleep spell winding their spidersilk path through her mind. "I promised we'd meet again, didn't I? And you're far too headstrong to let me escape my promise for something as silly as death."
"Sure you're," she yawned, "you're not talking about yourself?"
"Sleepy thing," Ingway said, still stroking her hair. "Barely awake and you still manage to insult me."
"It's a talent," Mercedes said, her eyes drifting shut. "Not fair. I don't want to sleep. I have so much I want to tell you about, so much we have to do together."
Always, always, Ingway was ready to let the world go hang itself, to grab the fairy and shake her awake and hide her away someplace safe, where they could live, together. It wasn't fair. It wasn't fair. It wasn't fair.
Instead, he brushed her cheek and said, "You can tell me when you're rested. I'll be right here when you wake."
Mercedes frowned a little, her mouth curling into a perfect little moue. Her eyes half opened, unfocused and searching. "I remember—didn't you say that to me before? When did you—"
Ingway silenced her with a kiss. She sighed happily, her eyelashes tickling his cheek as they fluttered shut. "Not fair," she whispered, and "frog breath."
"Sleep," Ingway said. "Save your complaints for the morrow."
"Mm," Mercedes said, as she started to fade back into the tree. "Lots and lots of complaints."
"A whole lifetime of complaints," she murmured. She was only a faint outline.
And she was gone.
Ingway knelt by the tree, arms empty, eyes dry, breathing hard.
"You can come out, Velvet. I know you're watching."
With a slight rustle of leaves, Velvet reentered the clearing. "You did well. It should be many years until she tries to wake again."
"Yes, well, I always did have a talent for cursing people, didn't I?" He crossed his arms and looked up at the small shafts of light trickling through the tree's leaves.
"I think she likes when it's you," Velvet said.
"A small comfort, that." Ingway sighed, and leaned into the tree. "I would prefer it if you would leave me be, so I may wait here until she wakes." When Ingway looked over, Velvet hadn't moved. "Please, Velvet."
Ingway blinked. "What?"
"Ianto Bevan. Age twelve-and-five months." Ingway looked blank. "He listens to the old charms and wears a towel and curtains when he thinks no one is looking." He shook his head. "He has a family who loves him and is probably very worried about him right now."
Ingway grimaced. "Velvet, I can't—"
Velvet put her paws on her hips.
Slowly, Ingway stood and let the glamour slip away. "And now what?"
Velvet was gone.
Ingway closed his eyes and tried to remember what it was like to not remember. Twelve was so far away.
He fetched a stick of the World Tree, tossed it into the air, spit between his fingers, turned once anticlockwise, and saw how it landed.
He walked in the opposite direction.