SEA AND HAWTHORNE

The blue stone was his first gift to her. It was an impulse, no more. He stuck his hand in his pocket, felt the smoothness of it, the slightly irregular shape and offered it to her. "You want it, Jenny-oh?" She said yes and he dropped it into her palm. Their fingers brushed against each other and something shifted.

They were there, on the hilltop in Wales, and yet they were not. His hands were not his own, because he could not have been so bold as to close her fingers around the stone. The nod of acceptance she gave him was not hers either, being much too regal and solemn for the occasion.

He was aware of her in a way he had not been before; the set of her mouth, the arc of her jawline, her long graceful neck. He thought of a young queen when he saw her and if she was a queen, he would be her faitful knight -- was that not the proper ending to the story?

But Will's eyes were dark, unfathomable and there was a tightness around his mouth that might have been pain or something else entirely. And before Bran could ask him what had changed and why it hurt him so, he said something about how they had a long way to go and turned away.

==

The next time he saw her, she wore the blue stone on a leather thong around her neck. Her hair was streaked with golden highlights from sun and saltwater. Like her brothers, she enjoyed sailing, unlike her brothers, she had taken up scuba diving and was studying marine biology in Edinburgh. She was looking for a flatmate, since she only spent a couple of nights a week in town.

She mentioned in passing that she had run into their old childhood friend, Will Stanton, and that she'd invited him to the flatwarming party. She looked slyly at Bran and it was his turn to say yes. Or rather, that well, he had been looking for a flat too. The dorm was quite noisy and perhaps if she didn't get a better offer?

He was both touched and flattered at how eagerly she accepted. Walking back to the apartment with her felt like the natural thing to do after that and his arm fit perfectly around her shoulders.

As it turned out, Will did not show up for the party and Bran thought that maybe Will hadn't wanted to see her with him.

==

Barney was the artist of the family, but it was Simon who took the photograph that made Bran break it off. Afterwards, he could not remember why Will had come to visit or how they had ended up at the docks, but there they were, all five of them in the fading sunlight. They had brought a case of Belgian beer with them; even if Barney was not old enough to drink legally, no-one minded.

Jane had kicked off her shoes and dangled bare, strong feet just above the lapping waves. She had shown off her new tattoo, black and indelible against her tanned shoulder and Bran had put his arm around her. Will had raised his bottle in a toast and they had all joined it. To Bran and Jenny. To Dr. Stanton. To Simon's new digs and to the portfolio Barney was putting together.

What Bran had not noticed, not until he saw the picture Simon sent them, was Jane and Will together. The way she leaned, no, gravitated, towards Will. The way the two dark blond heads came together and Will's smile. Will's face had lost its roundness as he had grown up and sometimes when Bran looked at him it was like looking at a stranger, but his smile was just as Bran remembered it. Jane seemed to remember, too.

Since he had no wish to be Arthur to her Guinevere, he told her that they should see other people. She said okay. She left the necklace on the mantlepiece and started going out at night. He put the picture in his top drawer to look at whenever he would feel weak and tried to convince himself that he had never cared much for the sea or what it did anyway.

==

Bran took over the flat once Jane had finished her degree, but she would still come stay with him and sleep in the other bedroom. He would help her soak her diving gear in the rain water barrel in the backyard and afterwards they'd split a bottle of wine and talk. Sometimes she brought a friend and he would lie awake, listening to them and wondering why he had ever pushed her away. She had been lovely in her early twenties and she became even more lovely and brilliant every year.

He worked so hard, while trying not to think of her, that he was offered a faculty position and had to tell his father to start looking for a tenant. That winter, he began dreaming about Mari Llwyd again, the way he hadn't done since he was a boy.

==

Will came in spring. He looked thin and tired and Bran thought he might have been ill. They ordered Thai and Bran opened the Portuguese red Jane had left on her last visit.

"I'm fine," Will said. "It's just... I'm having a, a crisis of faith."

Bran said nothing. There had been a time when he had looked to Will for guidance. He had listened to Will talking, watched his body language and tried to make the words and mannerisms his own. Will was normal and acted it; maybe the albino freak could learn to act normal too. Looking back, he could see how wrong he had been. Will had been as lonely and alien as he, perhaps more. And while Bran had closed in on humankind, Will had lost ground, retreating into solitude and silence.

Jane had said as much the last time she had gotten wasted with him, only she had called it Will's self-imposed exile and drunk to it. Then she had started crying and Bran had held her, hating himself and hating Will. But it had passed and Jane's last words before he tucked her into bed had been: "Bring him back, Bran, won't you?"

Bran had known she had not been asking for herself, but still had no answer for her. He was the son of Owen Davies, what did he know about bringing anyone back? Only that love wasn't enough and that faith and hope would fail as well. So he waited, just like his father had done. Anyone could wait.

"Iif someone you really trusted, who had no reason to lie to you, someone you knew loved you or why else would he..." Will's voice cracked and he had to clear his throat before continuing. "If he told you something would happen and it didn't, wouldn't it make you wonder what else he might have been wrong about?"

"Who?"

"Merriman Lyon," Will said, swallowing, and Bran saw that saying the name cost him, like a betrayal. "He was great-uncle to the Drews. John Rowlands saw him riding on the wind."

Bran knew. John Rowlands had told him and Barney had painted it in his "Roof of Wales" series. Five on a hilltop and one above.

"What did he tell you?"

"He said," Will frowned and twisted the wine glass stem between his fingers, "that I would be a baritone, pleasant but nothing special. But I'm not. I've been a tenor since I broke and I've been waiting and waiting to become a baritone, but Bran, it just isn't going to happen."

"I don't know," Bran said, leaning back in his chair.

He thought of Jane and how she kept returning to the deep sea, drawn there for reasons she could not remember. He thought of the blue stone and of how he had become her flatmate. He thought of how Barney tried to paint and how Simon tried to capture on film what wasn't there anymore except in dreams.

"If someone I really trusted," he said slowly, "someone who had no reason to lie to me, someone I knew loved me...if he told me something hadn't happened and it had, well, he'd be wrong. And I'd be angry for a long, long time. But since he had loved me while being wrong, I might keep him anyway. Perhaps take him home and introduce him to my father."

"Bran," Will said, and Bran had never seen him look so utterly vulnerable before, "I'm that sorry."

For Cafall and Caradog Pritchard in a psychiatric ward and John Rowlands weeping for his Blodwen. For a boy who never knew his mother and turned away first one father's love, then another. For Jane, Simon, Barney and all the long years of silence. But Bran had once wielded Eirias, the tomb of every hope. If there was blame for serving the Light, some of it was his as well.

"I'm not," he said. "I'm just glad you're here with me, my dewin. My lion. Look, the hawthorne tree is in full flower."

And it was.

FIN