"I'm glad you could have him for Christmas," Owen said. There was a rather harried, embarrassed look on his face. "He's a good lad -- he'll be no trouble. I hope it won't feel like an intrusion, though. I never thought -- "
"It's alright," Mrs Stanton said, beaming. She appeared to be relishing the extra company, rather than taking it as an intrusion. "They're both sixteen year olds, I'm sure they'll be able to occupy themselves. They're hardly the age to be underfoot all the time."
"Still -- "
"Come on," Will whispered to Bran, ignoring what Owen was saying to his mother. "Let's go. Mum will keep him talking for hours, and you've said goodbye already. You'll have to come and meet the tribe sometime if you're going to spend Christmas with us, you know."
Bran snorted softly. "Are you accusing me of being shy, Stanton?"
"I wouldn't blame you, with my family," Will muttered. He grabbed Bran by the wrist when he still seemed reluctant, tugging him along. "Come on. Mum'll call you back when he's going, I bet, and you can say a proper goodbye. You can meet the twins right now, though -- Max hasn't arrived yet and the girls are all out shopping... And James has a girlfriend, and will be terribly busy trying to feel her up with a box of books blocking the door. It's the only use he gets out of them."
"That accounts for four brothers," Bran said, glancing at Will. "How about the fifth?"
"Stephen?" Will shrugged, trying for nonchalance. "He might not be able to come home for this after all."
There was a brief moment of silence, as Bran searched Will's face: trying to figure out whether he should probe further or simply go on as normal. After a minute, he shrugged too. "So. The twins?"
"Robin's probably lazing around listening to Paul play," Will said, leading the way upstairs. "Paul's got a big concert coming up. I think Robin's as nervous about it as he is. Here, this room."
Will pushed the door open, grinning already. Bran felt almost like an intruder, hovering at the door as Will said something to his brothers. Paul lowered his flute, glancing up at Bran, his pale blue eyes friendly, almost mischievous. "Ah, so you're the one Will never shuts up about. I'm Paul."
"The good twin," Robin said, sitting up. They weren't identical twins, Bran realised, but they were very alike: Robin perhaps a little taller, a little broader, his eyes darker. Neither of them looked much like Will, somehow -- Paul's face was solemn, but not in the same way, and his eyes didn't hold the depths that Will's did. Bran suspected, all at once, that none of Will's family would be quite like him, even allowing for the age differences.
But then, he'd found that there was no one quite like Will, in general.
"Play the flute for him, Paul," Will said, coaxing, making Bran doubt his previous thought with the ordinariness of it. Will included him all of a sudden in the warm circle of family, pushing him to sit beside Paul as he himself sat almost on Robin's feet on the bed opposite. "He plays the harp, you know. Don't you, Bran?"
Paul's glance was interested. "I've never got on well with stringed instruments," he said, somewhat ruefully. "But I'd like to hear you play, some day."
"Good thing I brought my new harp with me, then," Bran said, finding himself grinning at Paul. He surprised himself with that: even now he still didn't have quite that ease with other people his own age, other people in Tywyn -- not even Rhys. There was something strange about a family so quick to accept -- so quick that he hadn't caught any trace of the usual dismay or surprise when they saw his white skin, his white hair, his strange eyes.
"Then we'll have to have you play for us as soon as possible. But for now..." Paul lifted his flute, starting to play again, softly. The notes were plaintive, longing, making Bran think of his father, somehow, of his home. He glanced up, surprised by the look on Will's face, a yearning sort of look. Even Robin had a wistful sort of look in his eyes as he regarded his twin brother, but it was Will's expression that caught at Bran's heart, made something flutter there.
Will's mother calling up the stairs seemed to break a spell. Will leapt to his feet, a smile on his face, as if the sad moment had never been. "Come on," he said, to Bran. "Your dad will be going now. Paul -- apart from that mistake in the third bar, that was great."
"Mistake?" Paul asked, startled, concerned, and then realising -- "You little scamp."
Will laughed aloud as he dragged Bran out of his brothers' bedroom, the spell somehow completely broken. But Bran didn't forget that look -- it was the kind of look you couldn't forget, he thought.
It had been snowing all afternoon, all evening, fat thick flakes stirred in flurries by the breeze. The world outside -- still green, in places, incongruously glittering with Christmas lights -- had been quickly muffled in white, like winter had to come in a hurry to make up for a long autumn. Will looked out through the window at the snow on their way up to his attic room, a strange look in his eyes. "I can't believe the snow is like this."
"It'll probably be snowing worse than this back home," Bran said, cheerfully. He joined Will at the window, bumping their shoulders, as if he knew that sudden warm human contact would help. Will spared a smile for him, even as he looked out at the dark sky and the white snow.
"It's only snowed like this here once before."
"I remember that year." Bran breathed on the window, tracing an idle pattern in the condensation left behind. He didn't seem to catch the significance -- but then, that was how things were supposed to be. "The south of England was frozen solid. Virtually no travel, little villages cut off..."
"We were cut off, too."
Bran elbowed him gently. "Well, if that happens again, the worst that'll happen is that you'll have to put up with me for longer. Though... I suppose your big brother definitely can't come, if we get snowed in."
"That winter was bad. What does this mean...? It shouldn't..." Will breathed the words, so that Bran almost didn't catch them, but then he quickly straightened up, a different look in his eyes. "I didn't think about Stephen. I hope he gets through. Then he'll be trapped with us."
And he offered Bran a grin so blatantly false Bran almost wanted to slap him. He grabbed Will by the shoulder. "I don't know what you're muttering about, but I do know that this winter doesn't mean anything. Except maybe that we're going to have a great time. We can go sledding, or build snowmen, or whatever it is you do when you can play in the snow with friends. And then when it's done we can get back in here and I know your mam well enough by now to know that she'll force hot drinks and as many snacks as she can find down us. And then we can laze around and -- Will, don't act like this is going to be terrible. Let's just... be normal."
There was something in Bran's words, Will thought. A kind of command. As if he thought that by saying a thing, he could make it true.
"Normal," he echoed, and then grinned -- a real grin, this time. "You?"
"I'll get you for that, Stanton," Bran said, solemnly. "At a time when you least expect it. You turn your back and..."
"I'd like to see you try," Will said, and he took off up to his loft room, haring up the stairs with Bran hot on his heels. Bran pushed Will when he reached him, so they tumbled breathlessly onto Will's bed. Triumphantly, Bran pinned him.
"Just you wait," he promised. "I'll get you."
Will looked up at him, his eyes deep and dark -- enough to drown in, Bran thought, and pulled back hastily, letting Will up. It was as if something had passed between them in the touch -- something electric -- and it hung the air between them now, like the charge in the atmosphere before a storm. But Will only smiled, as he always had, comfortable and familiar, like he didn't feel it.
When he stopped fearing the Dark, like Bran's words really could hold it at bay, the world looked beautiful in the snow. The snow had stopped in the night, leaving the world shining bright and crisp like an early morning, even at something more like lunchtime. Will pulled his gloves on as he looked round at it, taking in the familiar-strange landscape. Bran was right, somehow. It was normal. The winter everyone longs for, the winter from the front of a traditional Christmas card. He, for now, could be normal. As much as Bran was ever normal, at least. Not less or more than he could be, but simply on a different level.
Still, when someone caught at his shoulders suddenly, he startled, swinging round quickly. Bran just grinned at him. "Got you."
"You nearly gave me a heart attack," Will said, making a face. He looked Bran over, smirking a little. "You look like a beach ball with a scarf."
Bran pushed him. "It was your mother's fault, insisting I wear multiple layers. Can't have me catching a cold and my da thinking I've been ill treated, or somesuch."
"That's Mum," Will said, grinning a little. He adjusted his gloves again, stretching a little. Bran looked paler than ever somehow, against the white background. If it weren't for his dark coat and bright scarf, he'd have excellent camouflage, he thought. He looked somehow translucent, and the tip of nose and his cheeks were already pink from the cold. He'd had never seen Bran like that before, he realised: he felt a sudden surge of affection as he looked at him. He shook it off, bending to take a handful of snow, carefully shaping it. "It's good snow for snowballs," he said, stooping for more snow.
Bran stooped quickly, taking some into his hands. Will caught the evil glint in his eyes and backed away quickly.
"Don't you dare."
"How're you gonna stop me?"
Will backed away, but Bran followed with his handful of snow. They were grinning, eyes locked -- Bran didn't think then of that strange tension, the charge, but it was there again in the meeting of their eyes, a sudden spark. Will backed right up until he had his back against a tree.
"You know if you do it, I'll only do it back to you."
Bran shrugged. "That's why I'm wrapped up all warm like this. Bet you couldn't get the snow in for all these layers. Like armour, it is."
Will stooped quickly for more snow, quickly making a ball of it. "A snowball in the face wouldn't be so nice."
"I could deal." He grinned. "Besides, you couldn't hit an elephant with that from where you're stood."
"I'll have you know I'm pretty good at cricket."
"Cricket." Bran made a derisive sound. "I'll have you know I play rugby."
There was an evil look in Bran's eyes. Will darted away from the tree, guessing what might be coming. Bran caught up to him quickly, tackling him so they fell, as before, into a breathless heap -- this time in the snow rather than onto the bed. Their eyes met again and this time Bran didn't move. He meant to say something, but somehow the words got lost. Slowly Will reached up, his gloved fingers brushing Bran's cheek.
Whatever either of them meant to do or say next, though, was forgotten when Mary called to them from the back door. "Will! Bran! Max and Robin are trying to clear the other door. You should go and help. Earn your keep!"
Bran scrambled up off Will, offering him a hand and hauling him to his feet too. Their eyes met again, and this time Will looked away.
"Come on. Let's go. Shouldn't take long, with four of us. I'll find us a shovel or two."
"Christmas has never been like this, back at home," Bran said, standing on his tiptoes to hook an ornament on a branch.
"What's it like for you at home?" James asked. He was standing on a chair, arranging tinsel. "You're an only child, right? Man, I couldn't imagine that. There's always someone underfoot here."
"Says the midget," Robin said. He was trying to untangle the fairy lights. Will privately suspected that some life form akin to a monkey climbed into the boxes and played with the decorations while they were hidden away for the remainder of the year, so that things that were put away so neatly one Christmas would be a hopeless tangle the next.
Bran was looking pensive. "Less joy," he said, in answer to James' question. "More praying. And singing of hymns. Lots of cold walks down to church, and cold services in the church, and cold walks back."
"Sounds cheerful," James said, dryly. "Me and Will sing, in the choir, but... It's a nice little church. We've even got decent heaters nowadays."
Will handed another ornament to Bran, pushing back paper and packing to find the precious lopsided offerings, the things contributed to the tree by each Stanton over the years. "Don't say that. You'll jinx it, and they'll pack in just when we need them most."
Bran hung the ornament on the tree, on a branch that was looking quite bare. The thoughtful look hadn't left his face. Will, watching him, was suddenly intensely glad he'd be with them for Christmas -- with them, to feel the warmth and security of family, of little rituals that meant everything and nothing. It was like a physical pain in his chest to realise how much Bran had missed by being who he was, by being brought forward and away from his real family.
And yet, Will thought, with a wry smile -- and yet, he couldn't be too sad. After all, he'd probably have never met Bran if it wasn't for that.
"Hey, dreamy," Bran said, nudging him. "Got any more?"
"Oh. Yeah. Here, look at this one." Will grinned, showing him one he'd just found. "This was one of Stephen's."
"It's a little... lopsided," Bran said, with an amused smile.
"I was only six when I made it," someone said, mildly but unexpectedly, making everyone jump. Will was the first to move, leaping to his feet and running across the room as he always did, every time Stephen came home, as if he were still tiny.
"Steve!" he cried, gladly, and Stephen pulled him into a tight hug straight away, squeezing. Will sounded breathless when he pulled back. "We thought you wouldn't get here in time."
"I missed your birthday, but hell if I was going to miss Christmas with you too." Stephen reached up to ruffle Will's hair, then looked around at everyone as if just noticing. "Where're the girls? And Paul?"
"The girls are in the kitchen. Paul's practicing. Got time to help us with this? We could do with someone tall, not a midget on a stool."
"Hey!" James said, indignantly, jumping down as if to attack Robin. Stephen laughed.
"Still haven't learnt that Robin always wins? Tsk. And who's this?"
Bran looked like a deer caught in the headlights for a moment. But then Will was beside him again, shoving lightly at his shoulder, grinning again at Stephen. "This is my friend, Bran. I've told you about him, right? Well, his Da had to be elsewhere for Christmas, so he's staying here. Getting a taste of civilisation.
"Ah, the Welsh lad." Stephen smiled slightly, holding a hand out to him to shake. "I've met you before."
"I stayed with the Evanses before. You were, oh, two years old or so. You've grown up a good bit since then, obviously. It's good to see you again."
Will grinned -- at Bran, at Stephen, at the tree, at Robin, who had just finished putting James firmly in his place. "Shall we finish up the decorating now? The paper chains are in the other room. I'll get them."
The snow had started again. Will perched on a chair, to watch it, his arms resting on the back and his chin on his arms. The snowflakes swirled and fluttered in maddening circles, like a dance, and Will reminded himself again that this was normal.
But it didn't feel it, somehow. Not since Bran had pushed him down into the snow. Or maybe the normality had started bleeding away before that, in the brief electric moment when Bran had pushed him down on his bed. Either way... he realised how easy it was to be normal with Bran, to be only a boy, and yet there was a danger in that, too. In forgetting that there was another level, however sweet the thought might be. It wasn't just that he'd go on, long after Bran died -- he thought that might be worth it -- but because Bran had another level too, one that couldn't be touched. Shouldn't be touched.
"What's bitten you?"
It didn't make Will jump this time. He looked over his shoulder, smiling ruefully at Stephen. "Should've known I couldn't hide anything from you."
"You're my little brother. I have special powers, when it comes to you." Stephen smiled back, dragging a chair up to sit beside him. "So what is it?"
"I -- "
"And don't tell me you can't tell me," Stephen said, firmly. Will twisted in his seat, turning away from the window. He studied Stephen's face for a minute, and then cursed himself for hesitation.
"It's Bran," he said, before he could convince himself not to. "Me and him, we're -- I think he's -- I -- " He broke off, taking a deep breath. Stephen's expression hadn't changed at all. Will tried again. "It's me and Bran. I think we're... I kind of... fancy him. And I think he might... Steve, I..."
Stephen stretched his legs out, looking down at his feet. When he spoke, his tone was thoughtful, patient. "If you and Bran have something, I don't see what the problem is. James might mock you a bit for it, and maybe even feel uncomfortable, but... you're not the only member of the family who's strange. It doesn't trouble me and I don't think it'll bother anyone for long. We're... that kind of family."
"I suppose we are," Will said, softly, and not without a smile. "But..."
"I don't know why else you think you shouldn't, but..." Stephen shook his head. "If he's worth it, he's worth it. If he's not, he's not. You obviously think he's worth it, so..."
"Is it worth any risk?"
Stephen stayed quiet for a moment, and then he shrugged. "I would think so, but... that's me. If it were me -- and it's not, I know, but if it was -- I'd think it worth anything. If it was real."
"It's real," Will said, quickly. He found himself smiling. "Stephen..."
Stephen leaned over and gave him a quick, one-armed hug. "Think about it."
"I will," he promised. "Thanks, Steve."
"No problem," Stephen said, smiling crookedly.
"I can't believe Mum is still going to do stockings."
"Probably only because I'm here," Bran said, with a tiny smile. "Ever since she heard I don't have anything like that at home..."
"You're going to get ruthlessly spoiled for the rest of your time here," Will said, grinning a little. He lay the stocking reverently over the end of his bed. "Normally I'd be down with James, sharing his room again. But since you're here..."
"Disrupting your family's traditions," he said, a trifle bitterly. Will frowned, shaking his head.
"I like having you here. I think everyone does."
"I just feel, well, out of place."
"You're welcome here," Will said, moving closer. "I think everyone likes you. James thinks you're cool, Robin likes you, you and Paul could talk for hours... Stephen definitely approves of you."
"Approves of me?"
"Yeah," Will said, and gathering all his courage -- how could it take more of that to do this than to face the Rider? -- he reached up, brushing his fingers, bare now, over Bran's cheek. Their eyes locked again, and he suddenly felt as breathless as before. He moved a little closer, tilting his head up. Bran looked stunned, frozen, but he didn't pull back, not even when Will kissed him -- carefully light, allowing for retreat. His voice shook a little. "Bran? Do you -- "
"Yes," Bran said, suddenly. His hand came up, touching Will's cheek in return, fingertips skimming his neck, hand settling on his shoulder to draw him closer again. The second kiss was a little firmer, surer. Reaching up, Will caught hold of a handful of Bran's shirt, pulling him down over him as he lay down. Bran gave him a serious look, his eyes dark, thoughtful. "This is what it was, then?"
"Before. That night, and -- and in the snow." Bran bit his lip. Will knew, immediately, what he meant.
"Oh. Yeah. That was -- I hadn't decided, then. You can thank Steve for that."
Bran grinned, suddenly made more sure. Maybe it was the look in Will's eyes -- eyes that he could drown in. Whatever it was, he placed his hand on Will's stomach, slowly pushing his shirt up. Will grinned back at him, feeling suddenly giddy.
"It's only Christmas Eve, you know. Shouldn't be unwrapping your presents yet."
Bran smirked, lowering his head to kiss Will again. "I've never been a patient kind of guy. Best not pay attention to should and shouldn't."