Oblivious to seasonal clichés, Tywyn greeted Will Stanton first with thin drizzle and then, in half-hearted apology, weak, wintry sunlight that barely sparkled off wet cobbles and failed entirely to brighten drab grey houses. Still, Will felt as if something was inflating inside him with every step along the deserted roads, making him lighter, afraid to burst. It kept him moving, trudging through the nostalgic, unfamiliar rush of time and space until, with sudden focus, Will caught a familiar voice amidst the murmurs of carols from an oncoming church. Five steps, four, three, two -- he was there.
"Bran," Will breathed.
Age had settled gracefully on Bran, that arrogant silver-haired boy on the hillside replaced with a man mostly grown easy in his skin. He grinned now, a little lopsided but warm, tawny eyes bright, saying, "Sure and you know Will, Da," to Owen, who nodded, silent but not quite grim.
The echoes of the singing were still settling into the church. The buzzing crowd pushing out around them, parting and joining like a river around an implacable mountain. Bran grinned. Will smiled back.
"It's lovely to see you, sir," Will said to Owen.
His eyes didn't move. Bran's smile widened.
The farm was small. They shared Bran's bed, carefully distanced. Bran slept prone. Will tried not to move, twitch, breathe too hard. Cader Idris sneaked outside the window. The peak was clear. Everything felt fragile -- no: supercooled. Like you had one only chance before it, disturbed, set solid, crystal, fixed.
"The mist came down like curtains on a play," Bran said, startlingly, sleepily. "Do you remember? Our first mad October."
Will remembered foxes. Maybe Bran remembered only a crazed, sad old farmer.
"Go to sleep, Will," Bran ordered.
With Bran's fingertips resting on his hip like a benediction, Will did.
Half finished melodies tinkled around the kitchen. Bran was built like a rugby player and a little famous for his harp playing. Will, bed-stumbled and half-present, felt dusty, academic. He edged around Bran to steal eggs, bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms, a frying pan, a stove top.
"Breakfast fit for a king," Bran said approvingly. Will hid his face in sweet smoke. "We'll go into town later, see the festivities. Maybe pick you something to make up for your birthday and Christmas and this getting all rolled into one this year."
You're my present, Will didn't say.
Bran smiled like he had.
Simon's baby had come early, making chaos and congratulations of all their holiday plans. Jane had gone up. Barney was painting at some Cornish retreat. John Rowlands, his aunt, uncle, Welsh cousins, brothers, sisters, parents; Will told Bran of all of them. Bran told him about sheep, dogs, hills, farmers and lads and these kids he taught, sometimes, and saw to the eisteddfodau. They talked themselves out and walked in companionable silence instead. Bran positioned himself so their shoulders brushed, their fingers. Will looked down, cheeks hot, hair falling in his eyes. Bran smirked at the corner of his eyes.
They turned into sudden procession; holly; mistletoe; wassail; ribbons; bells; sheet; bleached horse skull spring-trap, snap-snapping at them amidst jeers.
Will thrust forward, cold, furious. Fingers caught in his own, held fast. Bran said something harsh and Welsh. The pole man chuckled. The skull dipped drunkenly, ribbons tangled. The group went on, fighting in rhymes for entrance to the tavern.
"Didn't--" Will swallowed. "Isn't the Grey Mare southern tradition?"
"Welsh culture revivalists. Keep telling them we're not Cardiff." Bran shrugged idly, still holding Will's hand.
Will's heart pounded. "Scary."
"Once," Bran allowed. "Not with you here."
He squeezed Will's hand.
The whole village came to party. Bran introduced Will around. Will smiled politely, answered questions, didn't remember names, faces, conversation. He couldn't settle. It turned purple-pink out, navy, black. A perfectly natural dark. Will couldn't settle, had forgotten how to be a person, live in just one time, one place, the tip of a straight line from boy to professor, all poorly defined degree and papers in a dozen semi-related disciplines, boring and normal. Everything whirled, round and round, everything whirled, everything but Bran and Bran's hand in his, dragging them both through ersatz apologies to sudden, unexpected, glorious escape.
Bran's hand was warm, dry, sure. Will breathed in crisp cool, breathed out steam. There were no street lights, only a fingernail of moon amidst the stars. Bran lead him, sure footed, along the hedgerows, down lanes and up into the hills. With each step, more of the world fell away, until it was only the two of them, touching, alone under the infinite sky. Will felt inflated again, full of Light, anchored by Bran so he wouldn't just drift away. Damp grasses, rocks slipped under his feet as they climbed. Bran held him tighter, safer. Will breathed. They walked.
Their hands parted in the shadow of the Rowan. Will's breath caught. A lighter rasped. Light erased Bran, stars, moon. Will blinked through shadows, sudden tears. Glass jar candles outlined the grotto's stones, glimmered between branches. Gold on the tree. Bran glowed.
"What do you remember?" Will asked desperately.
Bran shrugged artlessly. "The important parts."
"You're always smiling at me."
"Are you complaining?" Bran drawled, challenging.
Will shook his head, hard, fast. Bran smiled, holding out a hand. Will rushed to him, to kneel, to press Bran's hand to his cheek.
"I have been waiting for you," Bran whispered.
Hazy morning sun found Will, warm, secure, tangled in Bran. His heart beat steadily. Bran breathed. A sheep bleated. Distant children laughed.
"Callenig," Bran mumbled. Will made an inquisitive noise. "Another of those old traditions."
"More skulls?" Will asked dryly.
Bran chuckled. "You're supposed to gift me something now, boyo."
Will sat up a little, automatically reaching to brush his hair back. Bran's hand, already there, did it first, dipped to rest against Will's neck.
"Money. Fruit." His smile was soft, still somehow salacious. "Nuts."
Will felt his own smile widen. "I'll try to think of something appropriate."