Word count: 5001
Pairing: This story is set in the context of an adult Will and Bran having a long-term, loving relationship, which has existed for years before the story starts. However, nothing at all happens "on camera", and someone who normally hates slash has read it and liked it a lot.
Summary: Instead of a summary, I will just say that this is an expansion and continuation of a drabble I posted on the darkisrising100 community some weeks ago, in response to a challenge entitled "Forgiveness." The original drabble is here. The first scene of this story is an expanded version of said drabble. The rest is what happens in the years that follow.
"You were never going to tell me."
There was a stillness at the heart of fury, more terrible than screaming. Coldness seeped through Will's veins, but the sun was scorching, scorching him to ashes.
"You would have lied forever."
He wanted to reach out, but he knew that any touch would be received with revulsion. Just half an hour ago, the day had been glorious. A summer walk on a pleasant mountain, and the valley spread beneath them like a kingdom. Moments of quiet confidences, and moments of reckless laughter. Then a smell, brought by the treacherous breeze, had triggered a forgotten memory, and that memory, haltingly confessed, had forced Will to nod, and nod again. It's all true, his hollow eyes had said. All of it, and more.
"Our life. Everything. It's all a lie. You're a… thing." Bran shoved Will onto the stony ground. "I will never forgive you."
It was true. Will watched Bran walk away. He saw happiness disappearing, and breath, and life. He saw nothing left in the world but bleakness and emptiness, for the hatred in this man's face was more terrible than all the Dark.
He made up his mind. He closed his eyes, crafted a lie, and spoke a word.
Bran stopped walking. When he turned round, the expression on his face was concerned and sweet and dreadful. Will trembled. The sun turned black, with shadows beneath it. "Forgive me," he whispered.
"Bit dramatic, isn't it?" Bran chuckled. "Anyone can fall."
Smiling, he came back to Will's side, and offered him his hand. Will could not take it. Darkness was in him now, like worms in a pure white shroud.
Anyone can fall, but some must not.
He was a child again, lost and alone on a dark road. He had strayed from the path, and night had come early. The trees laughed at him, cackling with their cold branches, and dirty snow hid all the signs of home.
A yew tree cast a shadow like a man, stumpy and short. Will edged towards it, heart fluttering with nascent terror. Heavy red berries clung to the dark branches, pulsing with poison. When the shadow reared up and shambled towards him, he was not surprised. It felt inevitable. He was small and young, and the nights were so very long, and there were shadows of darkness even in the brightest day.
"You are mine, Old One," the shadow hissed.
Its arm reached out, dry sticks wrapped in shadow. A cold wind blew, stirring the snow into shards of ice that drew blood when they touched his cheek, and the shadow-arm bled specks of darkness that fell onto his skin like rain.
"You are ours, little one," the shadow purred. "You will endure in this place for ever more."
Its touch was an icy flame of panic. Will wrenched his gaze away, and saw a tall figure at the end of the lane, watching them. He knew that figure, and relief surged in him like sunlight. "Merriman," he called. "Merriman!
Slowly, slowly, Merriman turned his back.
"Merriman!" Will cried. "Help me! Please, help me!"
Merriman walked away, and left him there.
"Merriman!" he screamed. "Merriman!"
Merriman did not come back. The creature of shadow hissed with delight, and fed on Will's tears as if they were wine.
He toyed with his breakfast, swirling the coffee in his mug until it was cold. Sometimes he saw his face reflected in the dark liquid, as distorted and ugly as a heart full of lies.
I'll tell him, he thought. I'll tell him, and face what comes after.
Bran was whistling as he busied himself at the stove. A lance of sunlight thrust through a chink in the curtains, and slashed across his back. It was almost bright enough to hurt Will's eyes.
"There you are." Bran placed a plate of bacon and sausages on the table in front of Will. "Your favourite. I will, of course, expect you to be very grateful later tonight."
Will's smile was wan. His hand closed on his fork, and he gripped it, tight enough to hurt. The steel was icy cold.
"You look awful," Bran told him cheerfully.
"Didn't sleep," Will mumbled. "Bad dreams."
"Well, eat up." Bran gestured to the plate. "It's not often that I make anyone breakfast. That's how special you are, Will."
He said it like a joke, but he meant it, and that was the most terrible thing of all. Will ate a mouthful, but it tasted of nothing, and it stuck in his throat like ashes.
"Don't," he gasped, when Bran went to the window. "Don't open the curtains."
"He seemed as permanent as the mountains." Bran was sitting on the edge of his father's bed, knees up, and hands clasped around them. "I think part of me expected him to live forever."
Will had no idea what to say. He was wise in so many things, but people were often beyond him. He tried to remember what Bran had said when Will's own father had died, but all he remembered from that time was arms that held him whenever he needed them to, and the sense of home that came from being with someone who loved you.
"First John, and now him." Bran turned towards the window, where the grey mountain was always visible, with its secrets hidden beneath. "Everything's changing. It doesn't feel like home any more, now they're gone. It sounds silly, but everywhere feels big and…and scary."
"I won't change," Will assured him. He moved forward tentatively, and touched Bran on the shoulder. Bran reached up and clasped his hand tightly between both of his own. "I'll be here for you always."
"I know." Bran leant his cheek against Will's arm. "And it means everything to me, really, but…"
"I understand," Will said. I could make you forget, he thought. Not forget the man, but forget the worst of your grief. I could make you heal and smile again. He dug his nails into his palms, and fought the darkness. Five years since he had first fallen. He had tried to claw his way back up again, but a seed of darkness, once planted, could not be rooted up.
Bran extricated himself and reached for the small metal box they had discovered while clearing out Owen's wardrobe. "Can't put it off forever."
He opened the lid, and looked down at the few things within it. Will saw a scrap of old fabric that he knew came from Bran's mother's dress, and a dried flower from about the same time. There were two letters, one clearly addressed to Bran.
Will swallowed. "Would you rather I…?"
"No. Stay." Bran sounded distracted. He picked up the letter and unfolded it with trembling fingers, and started to read.
Will walked to the window. The sky was darkening in the east, above the mountain. Strands of light bled from the sunset, and walkers were hurrying home for the night. He blinked, and when he opened his eyes again, the world seemed darker. In a dead man's bedroom, Will shivered, and knew suddenly that he would never feel warm again.
Before Bran had even started speaking, Will was turning around, ready to greet the ending.
"Is this true?" The paper fell to the floor, like a dying thing. "He wrote this years ago. He wrote it… He said things, as if I was supposed to know them already. Things about me. About my mother. About you. Are they true?"
Will pressed his hand against the icy wall behind him, all coarse, unpainted stone. His nod took a supreme effort of will, and it hurt.
"Then why…?" Bran's hand fluttered to his brow. "Why don't I…?"
"You were made to forget." His voice sounded as if it was coming from a very long way away.
"Made?" Bran laughed harshly. "Forced? By you?"
Will nodded. His throat was very thick, and he could not see for the icy tears in his eyes. He was on the edge of a precipice. Ahead was a roiling cloud of darkness, but behind was hatred, and a land of bland summer where he was alone forever more. If he stepped back from the edge, then Bran would… Then he would…
He raised his hand, and spoke the word, and was lost.
He stood on the tallest pinnacle in the mountains, where men had gone so often to speak to their gods. Sweet winds buffeted his body, and all the birds in the land were singing with jubilation.
As Will clasped his hands behind his back, the sunlight parted, and there was the faintest, briefest glimpse of a land beyond the skies, beautiful and heartbreaking beyond the furthest limits of his dreams.
"Will Stanton," said Merriman, striding from the rift. "Have you watched well, Old One?"
Will was quivering with expectation. The world had nothing in it for him. Centuries had past in ageless waiting, and he had never loved since Bran had died, as all mortals do. Countries had risen and fallen, and Will had gone from face to face, and name to name. He had endured wars and battles and emptiness beyond measure, and had almost stopped hoping that this moment would come.
"Is it time?" he begged his master. "Is it time for me to leave?"
"It is time." Merriman smiled, and moved towards him, tender as a father, but then he faltered, then he recoiled in disgust.
Will fell to his knees. "Merriman. No…"
Merriman drew back towards the rift, as stately as a king. "But you have fallen, Will." His voice was gentle, almost sing-song. "You can never join us now. Never."
The rift snapped shut, and Will was trapped in time, a gaping eternity without any hope of surcease, and none at all of love.
He sat on the mountain, as darkness swirled around him like the ocean in winter. The grass beneath him was blackened and dead, still not healed from a summer fire. The stars above him were eyes of judgement, Old Ones peering down on him from beyond Time.
War had been declared today, after weeks of negotiations that should have worked. At the last minute, tempers had frayed. Delegates had walked out, and bombs had been dropped. People had died, and more would die, in their thousands, in their millions, if the worst happened.
Is it me? Will wondered.
The Dark had been defeated. Only one of the Light remained, to watch, to let mankind make his own decisions. But that one had fallen. He had interfered with one man's memories and forced him down a path he did not want to go, and he had done so not in service of the Light, but for his own gratification.
By such small things could a man be damned. By such small things could a world be altered.
Moaning, he threw himself onto his back, spread as if naked beneath the merciless stars. And I would do the same again, he thought, remembering how Bran had smiled in the frost that morning. He was lost to the darkness forever, for he would do the same again, to keep hold of that.
"Will?" Bran was calling him, more breathless on the mountain than he once had been.
Will was not yet enough of a coward that he could hide from him. He sat up, but did not speak. He was not capable of it.
"Will…" Bran sat down beside him, but further away from him than normal. The gap between them was tangible, and it hurt. "Why do you keep running away from me?"
"I'm not." Will shook his head. I'm running away from myself. I'm running away from the light that burns me. I'm running away from the mirror of your eyes.
"You've seemed so unhappy these last few years." Bran almost touched his arm, but did not. "Is it me?"
"Never think that," Will said fiercely.
"But why?" This time Bran did touch him, cold fingers on colder hand. "Why are you so unhappy?"
"Because I've fallen." He had not meant to say it. "I'm darkness now."
Bran's hand was very still.
"Darkness," Will said bitterly. "And I did it so I could stay with you, and I'd do it again, even though everything's poisoned now. I've poisoned everything."
"I don't understand." Bran shook his head. "What are you trying to say?"
Will passed his hands across his face, then lowered them, palms uppermost. One hand he turned over, then the other, fingers slowly spreading apart.
Will whispered the word, and this time he did not even close his eyes.
"How beautiful the stars are," Bran said beside him. "I used to look at them when I was young. It's much better to be looking at them with you."
"Yes." A thousand silver eyes looked down on him in condemnation. "Yes," Will said. "They are lovely."
Forty years had fallen away. He stood before the Midsummer Tree, and Bran beside him, young and slim, with the crystal sword held proudly in his hand. The Drew children were there, old friends he had almost forgotten. Each held a Sign of Light clasped in their right hand. They were scared, but determined, ready to resist the Dark in all its forms.
"Now," Merriman said. "The time is now."
The Dark came Rising, filling earth and sky. Will staggered and almost fell. His right hand was hurting, stinging, burning. Bran raised the sword, and the blossom on the tree hung trembling.
"Now," Merriman said again, but this time his voice was dreadful. He turned on Will, his face a carved statue of judgement. "But what's this? One among us has betrayed us."
"Not me," Will pleaded. "Please, not me."
Darkness chittered behind him like insects, and roared like a monster in a child's nightmare, and was as silent as a life without love. The Circle of Old Ones had eyes like silver stars, and Light could be as terrible as Darkness, because it did not allow a place to hide.
"See how the Sign itself rejects you." Merriman pointed at Will's hand, where the flesh was blackened and burning. Moaning with pain, Will dropped the Sign. A deep burn marked his palm, a circle quartered with a cross. "You have undone us," Merriman told him. "All falls now, because of you."
Bran stepped up to his side, his tawny eyes terrible. "Shall I kill him, Merlin?" He raised the crystal sword.
Merriman shook his head. "Only an Old One can kill another Old One. It has never been done. It has never needed to be done."
Bran offered Merriman the sword, but Merriman took a small dagger from his belt, made of bone. "There is no other way," he said, as he stepped towards Will.
"No." Will fell to his knees. "I'm sorry, Merriman. I'll undo it. I'll change it back. Please…"
"But you won't." Merriman's voice was gentle as he took Will's hair and pulled his head back. "You would do it again. That's what you said."
It felt like a caress, when he pulled the bone blade across Will's throat. It did not hurt. Will sank slowly to the ground, and stared with dimming eyes at the spreading pool of blood around his face. He reached out one hand, and Merriman's fingers found it. Merriman too had fallen, an identical wound on his own throat.
I don't understand, Will thought, for his throat was cut too deeply for speaking. He turned his hand around, and saw the blood that covered it. It was not his blood.
You destroyed us, when you fell, Merriman's voice spoke in his mind. The Circle needs to be whole. It only needs one to fall, and all of us are broken.
Merriman's eyes slid shut. Merriman! Will tried to scream. Merriman…
"Will." Someone was trying to hold him by the shoulders. "Will!"
"Merriman," he moaned. He tried to bring his hands up to his face, but something held them trapped. They felt hot and damp, and he knew that they were covered with his master's blood.
"No," the voice said patiently. "I'm Bran, the man you've lived with for twenty-five years. Remember me?"
Light and darkness danced on the ceiling. Will blinked, and tried to clear his vision. "Hands… What's on my hands?"
"Blankets," Bran said. The bed shifted as he stood up, and Will felt a sudden blast of air, cold enough to set his teeth chattering. He felt Bran extract his arm, and then warmth again, as the blanket was tucked in around him.
It felt impossibly hard to move his hand up to his face, but he managed it. He saw no blood.
"You were dreaming." Bran touched his cheek. "Fever dreams can be horrible."
"Fever?" His throat hurt, and it felt as if all the oceans in the world were rushing in his ears.
"That's right." Bran spoke to him with amused condescension. "You're ill. Don't you remember?"
He dimly remembered. The dream was nearer. Not a dream, he thought, but how it should have been, how it would have been, how it will be.
"I think you're getting better." Bran looked rumpled and exhausted, and the last trace of a smile left his eyes. "I was really worried, Will. I almost called an ambulance."
Will closed his eyes. The bed turned into a ship, and the room was an endless ocean, taking him far away from anything bad. The sun beat down on him, filling his veins with fire, burning away the last shreds of darkness.
"But I can't die," he told the sunlight. "I'm immortal. I'm an Old One. You used to call me a dewin, a wizard."
The waves grew very still. Will opened his eyes. Did I really say that? Bran's face was very still. Please, Will thought. Please believe it. Please accept it this time, so I can step back from the brink and find the light again. Please save me.
Bran let out a shaky breath. "You're delirious." He brushed a chaste kiss on his cheek. "Go to sleep, Will."
Darkness swallowed him in his dreams.
"Why don't you smile any more?"
Will placed Bran's coffee down on the table. He tidied up a book, and brushed some cat hairs from a cushion.
"You never used to smile much, I admit," Bran said. "You were always serious. But when you did smile… It was such a beautiful smile. I used to think it was just for me, though I saw you smile at other people sometimes, so I knew it wasn't. Still, a man can't fool himself when he's in love, when can he?"
"There isn't," Will said carefully, "much to smile about at the moment."
"Before I got sick, I mean," Bran said. "It started years ago. I thought it might be because you didn't love me any more, but…"
"Oh no," Will assured him. "Never that."
It's because I love you too much. I love you more than duty, more than Light, more than everything I am and was born to. I love you enough to lose my soul for it.
"During the war," Bran said, "you used to watch the news as if you had a personal stake in it. I thought it was because of your nephews, but it seemed more than that. But then the war finished, and things aren't good, but they're not as bad as they could be, but you still don't smile."
"You…" Will blinked back tears. "I…"
"I've been given only weeks to live, Will," Bran said. "I want to remember that life was good. I want to remember that you loved me."
He could not smile. His muscles did not remember how to. He left the house only in darkness, and closed the curtains whenever Bran left him alone. His sleep was never without dreams, and waves of darkness spread out from him into the world around him. When people hated nearby, he thought it was him. When people killed, he knew it was him. He exuded darkness like a bulb exuded light. A lord of darkness could creep into people's mind and turn them to madness and fury.
But still he stayed. Every day, he just fell further, for still he stayed, wrapped in his lies.
"Please, Will." Bran raised a frail hand. "Tell me what went wrong. Please let me in before I die."
Will breathed in, and out again. You can make him forget, the darkness told him, if it all goes wrong again.
He walked to the window and looked out, one hand resting on the glass. "I am not fully human," he said. A faint patch of condensation appeared on the glass, a picture of the truth he spoke. It faded away, but the words did not. The truth could not. "I am an immortal. An Old One. Wizard, you might call it. I served the Light, but when the Dark was defeated, everyone else of the Light departed. I was left to… to watch, alone."
Bran gave a nervous laugh. "You said that when you were ill, a few years ago."
He traced a pattern in the condensation. "I wasn't delirious. It's true. Three times, you have known it. Once your memories were removed for your own protection, and not by me. Twice, I removed them. That's why I can't smile any more. Because I fell to the darkness."
"I…" The blankets rustled. "You… Is it…?"
Will knew Bran would believe him. He always had. The memories were not entirely forgotten, and when he heard the truth, it chimed too deeply with things a hidden part of him remembered.
"I made you forget." Will dared to turn round. He deserved nothing less than to see the hatred in Bran's eyes. "Twice, I interfered with your memory."
"Why?" Bran asked. Will could not read his tawny eyes.
Will clasped his hands in front of him. "Because I love you," he confessed. "I didn't want to lose you. You were so angry when you found out. You said you'd never forgive me."
"And you believed that?" Bran's voice was quiet.
"You meant it," Will said. "And I couldn't bear it. I couldn't bear the thought of a world in which you hated me. I made you forget, not for your own sake, but for mine. It was selfish. You've spent twenty years with me that shouldn't have happened."
"Twenty years." Bran reached for the coffee, took a sip, lowered it. His hand was steady, but Will's hands were trembling more than they had ever trembled. "Twenty years with the man I love. Is that so terrible a thing?"
"It was," Will said. "I used my power for selfish reasons. I interfered with free choice. Both of those are against everything an Old One stands for. Both of them are incompatible with the Light." His knees gave way and he dropped to the floor. "I've fallen to the dark. I'm damned forever."
"You shouldn't have done it." Bran threw his blanket aside, and rose from the couch. When he reached Will's side, he knelt down beside him. "Idiot," he said softly. "Do you know me so little?"
Will blinked. He was drowning in darkness. He did not think he could ever stand again.
"I might have said I'd never forgive you," Bran said, "but I would have, in time. I always do."
"You wouldn't have," Will whispered.
"Then I was a fool," Bran spat. "When I look back, I think I was often a fool when I was young. It teaches you what's important, dying. It makes things look different, and I say to you, Will, that it was such a little thing that you did, and you did it through love."
"I did it for myself," Will moaned.
Bran touched his cheek. "No, Will. You did it for love. You did it because you loved me. You thought you were damning yourself, but still you did it, because you loved me. And because you did it, I got to spend a lifetime with you, and to die with you at my side. What can possibly be wrong with that?"
Will started to cry, tears he had not shed since he was a child. "I wish…"
"No," Bran said. "I wish. I wish you hadn't done it, but only because it clearly torments you so. I've spent a lifetime with you, and I thought we told each other everything. Now I find out that I told you everything, but you…" He pressed his finger to Will's lips to stop his outburst. "No, Will. You'll get no reproaches from me, just regret. Because it felt good to tell you everything. I kept so many secrets when I was young, so I know what loneliness feels like. To think you've spent your life unable to tell me all these things…"
"I'm sorry," Will whispered.
"No." Bran took him by the hands and raised him up, for there was a strength in him still, or perhaps it was just that Will had gone beyond resisting. "Make my last weeks count, Will. No guilt. No reproaches. No darkness. Just us, without secrets." He smiled. "Just us."
Darkness raced over the mountain. Night was come, and the tiny light on the table trembled. "But I can't take it back," Will whispered. "I did it. I will never be of the Light."
Bran took his hand, infinitely tender. "How can you be of the Darkness," he said gently, "if I say you did not wrong me, and that I am glad?"
He lay beneath the stars, far from the fragile lights of his empty home. Bran is here, he told himself. He had scattered Bran's ashes on the mountain, and he tried to believe that Bran was still here with him, but it did not work. Bran was gone forever, and Will had gone for two months without talking to a single living soul.
Bran had absolved him. "Smile for me, Will," he had said, when the end had come. And Will had smiled, but not with his eyes. Bran had known, but he had lied. "I'm glad," he had whispered, as he died.
"Will." He heard someone speak his name, but it was not Bran, and so he did not move.
The stars hung suspended above him. They did not look down on him in judgement any more. He thought they did not look at him at all. Even his dreams were empty.
He rolled onto his side, away from the voice. He could not speak, to tell it to go away. His mouth had forgotten how to shape sounds, and his throat how to speak. He had forgotten how to move his face to form expressions, or how to read someone's eyes. In time, he would forget English.
"It is time, Will."
He recognised the voice. Merriman, my master. He remembered Merriman walking away from him and leaving him with the shadow that lurked in a yew. He remembered Merriman denying him in a rift of light, and killing him and being killed by him, both of them together.
Dreaming, he thought. The dreams of Merriman had always seemed more real than reality.
"No, Will." A hand touched his shoulder. "Your time has come. I have come back for you."
But I was supposed to watch, he thought. Watch for the darkness, but instead I became it.
"Not to watch," Merriman said, "but to live. You were left behind to live. It was deemed cruel beyond measure to snatch a boy from his life. You cannot endure outside Time unless you have lived a lifetime within it."
But I fell, he sobbed. I fell to darkness. I betrayed…
All humans fall, Merriman said into his mind, and part of every Old One is human. You have paid a hundred-fold, in a life lost.
Merriman shook his head. No, not Bran's. Yours.
Will wept. For the first time in years, the night's coldness on his cheeks did not hurt him.
"Our existence outside Time is different for every one of us," Merriman told him, when the weeping was past, and the stars hung tremulous in the sky. "How would you have yours?"
Will pushed himself slowly to his feet. "I would have this life again," he said, and his voice was clear.
Later, he stood on a cliff above the ocean. He had said his goodbyes to his surviving brothers and sisters, saying merely, "I am going away. Please do not look for me, but know that I am well." He had invested it with power, so they believed it, and would not mourn. The world had seen too much mourning.
The sun was setting in the west, streaking orange across the grey sea. Will closed his eyes, and opened them again. "It is time," he said, as, far beyond time, he heard Merriman say the same. It is time.
He spread out both arms, and threw himself from the cliff. He could fly on wings of magic, but this time he did not. Instead, he plummeted to the ocean, and hit it hard, sinking deep into the cold…
And there, beyond the ocean, was a beach, shining and golden. A blue sky faded into sunset, and gentle waves lapped the sand.
A slim figure was standing on the top of the dunes, with pale skin and white hair. When he saw Will, he raised one hand, and shouted. Will ran forward, splashing through the waves, but the other boy was already slithering down the dune towards him.
"Hello, Bran," Will said, when they stood before each other once again.
"You're smiling at last." Bran's own smile was as magical as the sunset. He held out his hand. "Come on, Will. We've got a whole world ahead."
And all the world ahead of them was made of Light.