Will was the one who kept them all together at first, patiently writing letters and making telephone calls, spinning a web of friendship and habit to replace the lost connections of magic and memory. He was the one who remembered birthdays and anniversaries, who lent an open ear and a steady shoulder in times of trouble, who had a gift for making the worst problems seem manageable.
"Our rock," Bran called him once, edging toward the cheerful side of drunk one Christmas Eve while he and the Drews were still young and convinced they were all immortal. "Ought to call you Peter, shouldn't we then? Upon this most doormat-like of men, we shall build our friendship, for he will do all the bloody work when the rest of us can't be arsed."
"We're in your house," Will pointed out, mildly.
"Details," said Bran, with an overly grand wave of his arm. "It's only that I have the space. You lot have no consideration, shutting yourselves up in tiny city flats. Getting you out to the country once a year is the least I can do to save your health and sanity."
"And very grateful we are," Jane put in, her cheeks pink with a mixture of laughter and mulled wine. "Look up, you two."
Will glanced overhead and groaned. Simon and Barney had made it their holiday mission to set their sister up with either him or Bran -- "the two best men we know who aren't related to her by blood," as Barney had put it with an impish grin -- and sprigs of mistletoe still lurked about in odd corners, despite Bran's best efforts to tear them down and stuff them in the waste bin.
"Go on, it's a rule," Jane said, a wicked glint in her eyes. "You'd better hurry, though, unless you want my brothers to watch."
"Well then?" said Bran, stepping forward -- apparently he was in the mood for accepting challenges rather than glaring them down with gold-eyed scorn.
"As you like," Will said, and put one hand on Bran's shoulder to hold him still while he pressed their mouths together for a single breath, just enough contact and pressure to satisfy Jane and leave a ghost of sensation on his lips when he stepped back and picked up his glass. "There."
Jane applauded. "Bravo! Now come help me and Barney convince Simon there's no sense hauling out a cassette player when we can sing our own carols." She whirled out of the kitchen into the main room of Bran's house, where his harp held pride of place and her brothers were bickering amiably over a handful of cassettes and a stack of sheet music.
"Will the peacekeeper, never shaken, never surprised. Nothing touches you," Bran murmured as he reached up to tear the mistletoe down. "No wonder I think you're made of stone sometimes." He smiled, but Will knew he meant the words to cut.
"Somebody needs to be the anchor," Will said. "If that's what I'm best suited for, that's what I'll do."
"And if we asked you to stop?" asked Bran, his pale fingers wrapped loosely around the wilted sprig of leaves and berries. "If I told you to stop?"
"I would," said Will. He took the mistletoe from Bran's grip and tossed it into the waste bin. "It's nearly midnight. Come welcome light back for another year."
He strode into the main room and plucked the cassettes from Simon's hands, setting off a new round of cheerful remonstrations. After a minute, Bran joined them and they gradually organized themselves into a makeshift choir accompanied by slightly ragged harmony on the harp. By the time the clock stuck one and Will excused himself to sleep, Bran seemed to have forgotten his darker turn.
Next year Will didn't ask him to host the holiday gathering, and instead tried to jam everyone into his shoebox flat in Cambridge. Simon promptly took hotel rooms for himself and his siblings. "He's showing off his new position," Jane said, half in jest. "He'll go back to being thrifty soon enough so Barney and I might as well take advantage while we can."
Bran laughed off Simon's rather awkward offer of another hotel room. "Will and I will fight it out like men to decide who gets the bed and who the sofa," he said when he turned up at Will's door with a single suitcase in tow, interrupting the other four in the middle of supper.
"Or I can be polite and give you the bed like a proper host," Will said, moving to take Bran's suitcase and close the door.
"You never offer your bed to me," Barney said, pouting as if he were still a child instead of nearly done with university. "I feel neglected. Where's the love, Will?"
"He does for me," Jane said, and ducked her younger brother's attempt to muss her hair. "Clearly Bran and I are just superior beings. Special. Not like you and your brilliant art career just waiting to take off."
Bran raised his eyebrows at Will, who pretended not to notice and busied himself carrying the suitcase to his bedroom. He wasted time getting an extra blanket from the linen chest, until he saw between the hinges of the door that Bran had sat down and started to eat.
"What is it with you?" Bran asked later that night, as they fell into the companionable rhythm of washing up, Bran with his hands in a basin of soapy water and Will putting his pots and dishes away in their makeshift homes. "I understand favoring Jenny. She's our lady fair, whose attention and tokens of esteem we long for from afar and all that chivalrous nonsense Barney likes so much. But what do you see in me? If I asked you to throw away your career in Cambridge, to come to Clwyd and spend your life as a farmer, I think you would. Why?"
'Because you're my king,' Will didn't say. 'Because once we saved the universe together. Because you gave up immortality to share this world with the people you love, and I hope one of those people is me.'
Instead, he leaned over and pressed another kiss to Bran's quizzical mouth, as quick and light as the year before but without the excuse of mistletoe and wine.
"I can't just want to?" he said, meeting Bran's startled golden gaze, waiting to learn his liege lord's will.
Bran blinked. Then he laughed and flicked a handful of suds at Will's nose. "Not so untouchable after all, nor half such a doormat," he said. "You couldn't have said sooner?"
Will shrugged, taking another bowl from the drying rack and wiping it down with his dishtowel. "We have time."
"A lifetime," Bran agreed.
This time, he kissed Will.