The flat was redolent with the fragrance of pine and holly, baking smells wafting heavenly drifts of nutmeg, vanilla, and spice from the kitchen. Bran Davies paused at the base of the beribboned tree, fingers smoothing over the silver-blue foil of a wrapped present, then he resumed shoveling the clustered gifts into his canvas sack. "Almost done, then?" he called out, chafing his hands and looking to the window.
A scene of Christmas card beauty had unfolded overnight, snow flurries burying their quarter of Cambridge in a fine thick dusting of white powder. Waking on the morning of Christmas eve with his arm slung closely about the one he loved, it had been sore temptation to pull the duvet tight over them both and laze abed to their hearts' content.
"You can't rush a pie," Will Stanton called back to him and appeared in the kitchen doorway, arms akimbo.
Bran grinned in spite of himself, brief flash of white teeth in the pale oval of his colorless face. "An' that's why you do the baking and not me," he finished for his lover. Will wore a scarlet apron he fished out of the closet only round the Yuletide season, green embroidery cheekily inviting him to shag Santa's helper; elves needed loving too.
He cocked his head -- observing, admiring even -- and his eyes dipped the length of Will's body and back again. He had changed since Bran first knew him, sprouted unexpected height and muscle and his thick dark hair fell in his eyes; his mouth was full and everything Bran desired. This man, his dewin, had been his for what seemed for ever, his first everything: first friend, first adventure, first love. Now and ever after. Will had done the impossible, after all: gotten him out of Wales and into the wider world.
Bran had rediscovered him in subtle ways many times over; the most memorable had been the summer of shy confessions, years after their first meeting. Not more than a year later, a wrenching illness had given Bran back what Will had expected to be sealed forever: his real memories of the events during those summer visits that had first bound them together. The knowledge that he was not Bran Davies but Bran ap Arthur, Pendragon. It was a destiny that lay upon him yet like an hourglass half emptied, its sands still sifting the measure of time.
"What is it?" Will said, tilting his head in turn, catching that look.
"Nothing," Bran returned. He shrugged, smile lingering. "Come on. The snow won't last much longer in these parts, but out on the roads it's already clogging the way for travel."
Will wagged a finger at him. "You pack the car," he rejoined. "I'll finish here. Unless you want to ring my parents and claim we've been snowed in?" His accompanying smile was boyish, almost sly.
Bran pondered the merits of a Christmas passed by in the snug chill of their flat, crowding together for warmth, needing no mistletoe to kiss as they might. "I wouldn't want to be antisocial," he replied at length, tawny eyes flickering.
"I think my mother would understand if you, if we wanted to stay home," Will said, and caught his breath as if willing the words back in his mouth.
It was their first Christmas since Bran had shared news with Owen Davies of the relationship between he and Will. Now it seemed as if Will had gotten him out of Wales for good, and he would never be returning.
"What are holidays for?" Bran said, crossing the space between, looping an arm over Will's waist and pressing close, two male bodies angled together in the doorway. He could not bring himself to regret something as inevitable as destiny. He woke to Will and drowsy kisses and his days were strung together with ardent declarations from a skilled wizard tongue and he knew they had forever, if they wanted.
They also had the simple things, scent of baking on a snowy winter morning and knees pressed together as they slaved over textbooks and the domestic banter at farmer's market, picking produce together, knocking about in their small flat and arguing over whose turn it was to clear out the rubbish bins. Which was never very much of an argument at all. This cemented Bran to Will more firmly than the sweeping destiny that had enfolded him.
The world was in Will Stanton's eyes, and the moment encompassing they two.
"Holidays are for family," Bran answered himself, suppressing the pang he knew would fade, given the distance of years.
"Which you are, you know, according to my mother," Will returned, leaning against him for a moment, combing pale hair from Bran's eyes with a tentative touch.
"I know." Bran paused. But, he wanted to say, but...
"But it's not the same," Will finished for him, sensitive to the nuances of his expression.
Bran set his jaw. "You're all I ever wanted, Will, dewin," he said thickly, wishing that it hadn't come down to it. The choice. "He made his decision, not me." There were some things too painful to share especially with those best beloved. Owen's final words cast in his teeth, that he was a changeling -- the implication that perhaps he hadn't been meant to live -- that, he could never ease by sharing.
Will nodded, the motion absent, then he sniffed at the air. "It's going to burn," he exclaimed, and broke away.
Bran chuckled and moved to gather the sack of gifts for transport to their battered sleigh, an aging Volvo with more character than vigor. "Now, why couldn't we have done the baking there, instead of delaying by a few hours while the snow piles deeper in the country lanes?"
"I think I already said," Will replied patiently, peering into the oven with an expert eye. Who would have suspected the Pendragon's wizard to be a born hand at baking? He was more particular than an alchemist, banning all Bran's attempts to help. "By the time we arrive, Mum and the girls will have everything in full swing. Under those conditions we're not merely unwelcome in the kitchen, we're seen as intruders."
"Ah...I think I remember the year I tried to pilfer a handful of chestnuts," Bran recalled with a wince. Alice Stanton wielded a mean spoon, making his knuckles smart for hours. She'd done it with her back turned, too, and called him by name as she exorcised him from her kitchen.
The memory made him smile.
Family was Will, and Will's family was part and parcel of that. It was something to be grateful for.
"Be back," Bran told him, shrugging into his tough sheepskin-lined winter coat, hefting the sack of gifts over one shoulder.
Will's distracted voice reached him from the kitchen. "Right," he responded, sounding far away and vague.
Outside was fairy tale country, snow settling in a thick veil over sidewalks and buildings, flakes prickling over Bran's face and exposed hands. The old Volvo took a bit of unearthing, and once he found it he stowed the gifts in the boot and turned the engine over. It coughed at first, pained, then sputtered reluctantly at him before its drowsy purr started up, reassuring Bran that it would be warm and ready to spring into action by the time they set out.
Bran rubbed his hands together and considered the drive before them. It was nothing to the distance that separated him from his old home and the man who had functioned as father for the first half of his life. He stood for a moment, fixed in place, transported by the memory that still had power to hurt.
"You think you can stay here still, me knowing what I know?"
"I'm not your Da. It's clear I never have been. You going against nature, now, I guess I should have expected it given what you are."
His nose was numb. Bran stirred himself and returned to the baking-rich smells of a warm flat, one long-fingered hand passing over his mussed hair and melting snowflakes in its wake.
There was movement in the doorway at the edge of vision. "Hold it right there," Will commanded, his voice low, his eyes holding a touch of dazzle. For a moment their sporadic connection flared up and Bran saw what he saw:
A silvery-pale young man, fey, beautiful, the mantle of the king stretched hovering over his shoulders just beyond visibility. Bits of snow glittered in his hair and his eyes were fierce and proud.
Fragments of time, present and past, whorled around him, skeins of possibility unraveled from a place that might have been. He saw a hundred different Brans. In another flat in a distant place one kissed the throat of Jane Drew. Removed from that, a Bran sat beneath a blank canvas, charcoal between his fingers, an island alone. Turn ninety degrees, and Bran hunched, sealed and solitary, ties broken from the people beloved for reasons he could not recall. Worlds without Will.
"Stop that," Bran said, breath catching in his throat, and with a wrench it was gone.
"I'm sorry," Will murmured, and busied himself untying his apron. His eyes dropped, stricken. "I-I didn't..."
"I know," Bran said, gentle as he was able. The thought of his otherselves was uneasy at best, especially to know there was a place where his own choices had defined something so bleak. Will didn't mean to, nor would he want to show him if he had any say, but there were some tricks of time and space even an Old One had not mastered.
Alone during the hours of a white night as he held Will and counted seconds until morning, sometimes Bran thought it was because he remembered. With that much knowledge awake inside him, the pieces of other possibilities were drawn to his awareness.
"A-At any rate, I think the pie is ready for transport," Will told him, fussing over the folding of the apron, not quite meeting his eyes. The Old One within him had withdrawn, leaving again the boy Will Stanton, floundering without answers.
"Oh, come here," Bran murmured, but he was the one to cross the flat.
They stood for a moment in silence, breath mingling. "My place is with you," Bran told him, taking Will's face between his hands. "Never doubt that. The snatches of otherself that you see are just that...some other place's Bran."
Will huffed softly. "I know," he answered, eyes steady, but the Old One within was unsure.
Bran kissed him, brief but unhurried. "Now let's go," he said, and gave him a small smile. "Or we'll be late."
"There is no 'late' in the Stanton family, only when you get there," Will returned with a snort. "Oh, look, mistletoe!"
Bran blinked and looked. "Where?"
Will was already drawing him in close once more, kissing him shamelessly with a hand at the back of his neck. "Must have imagined it," he breathed against Bran's lips, kissed him once more for good measure, then went to collect his coat.
Duffels packed and piled by the door, the only thing left for Bran to do was stick his hands in his pockets and admire the tree. It was a tiny spruce, felled between he and Will on a muddy afternoon and brought home to bristle with tiny starlike lights and glassy baubles. There would be a big one, later, down at the Stantons' where they would spread out the dozen little gifts gotten for friends and family.
The places he moved in now were the places that he belonged. Bran believed because he had to.
"Ready?" Will asked him, zipping up his jacket, surveying the common room, disappearing into the kitchen for his pies.
Bran held the door for him, a gallant gesture. "Yes. Let's get going."
At that moment, though, the phone began to shrill. They exchanged a glance. "Take the pies," Bran told him. "The car door is open, I'll get the phone."
"Ah, yes, I'll open the car door with my foot," Will retorted, smile wry, but he was moving down the hall with self-reliant strides.
It would be Jane, Bran thought with a brief unsettled skew to his stomach, or perhaps Barney to wish them happy Christmas before their drive to join family. "Hullo?"
Silence pressed against his ear for a moment, then the rasp of a familiar voice. "Bran, boy."
Bran stood riveted for a moment, feeling as if he had wandered into the path of an otherself. Time moved not in a solid stream but broken in many rivulets. "D--Owen," he corrected himself, feeling stiff, thick with unreality.
"Happy Christmas," Owen said, his voice hollow. "I suppose you're going to the Stantons'."
"We are," Bran said, a trifle coldly. Alice and John will have us, he wanted to say, while you made it clear I wasn't to darken your door again.
Owen sighed. "I'm old, Bran," he began, wielding it as if it were an apology. Do you understand? his tone asked. "There's a great deal that's happened in the world I don't ken, nor ever will. But you're a grown man. You make your own decisions. You live with them."
Bran thawed somewhat. It was an apology if he ever heard one, though he heard the undercurrent as well: things would never be the same. Owen might never approve, but he could let it go. "I have made my own decision," he said, soft. "Am I still unwelcome?"
"I don't know about that," Owen replied, sounding uncomfortable. "There...there's not much room here for three..."
Bran shook his head, forgetting that the man he called father couldn't see. "I think other arrangements could be made," he said wryly. "Perhaps some other Christmas."
"All right," Owen said awkwardly. "All right."
They fell silent for a moment, spent of things to say. "Happy Christmas," Bran said, quiet, feeling still and peaceable.
"Happy Christmas," Owen returned.
When Will appeared in the door of the flat, breathless and red-cheeked, Bran was still clutching the phone. "Who was it?" he asked, assuming a look of mild alarm.
Bran hung up and joined him by the door, shouldering his duffel, giving Will a reassuring expression to dispel his anxieties. "Are you ready? We've a bit of a drive ahead of us."
They closed the door behind them.