Cuckoo's Egg

Shadow of the Templar: Cuckoo's Egg, Extended Edition: Chapter Two

On timeline: early to mid-1990s, ten to fifteen years before the events of the books
Spoilers for: an oddly large amount?
Warnings: completely faking it, England-wise




      "Again," said Ethan, and Jeremiah swiped one hand over his damp forehead, nodded, and struck at Ethan's open hand. It wasn't there, of course. It never was. By the time Jeremiah's strike reached the place where Ethan's hand had been, Ethan's hand was already blurring towards his cheek. The resulting smack was loud and clear.

      Bran, dawdling on the barre in order to watch this in the mirror, snorted. He was supposed to be practising his climbing, or at least working on the rings, but instead he kept one ankle hooked over the barre, ostensibly stretching out muscles that were long since loose and ready.

      "Aow," Jeremiah said, oddly matter-of-fact about it. He ducked his head to scrub his pink cheek against his shoulder, rucking up folds of t-shirt in the process.

      "All right?" Ethan asked, watching this.


      "All right," Ethan prompted, softly.

      Jeremiah hiccupped out a startled sound, then nodded. "All right," he said, carefully separating the two words. Bran let that leg drop and brought up the other. Jeremiah ran one hand over the bristles of his hair, just long enough to shift under his palm; in another week or so it'd be long enough to flop over again. "I'm all right," he repeated, still enunciating.

      "Good," said Ethan. He held up his open palm. "Again."

      Jeremiah struck for it with his left hand, this time. It still wasn't there—it never was—but this time there was no following smack: Ethan's wrist had collided with Jeremiah's right hand instead, not three inches from his face. Ethan raised both eyebrows. "Oh, well done," he said.

      The flushed pride on Jeremiah's face was so damned obvious that Bran was embarrassed to be a witness to it. He let his leg drop and headed for the back wall, where a little pile of Ethan's climbing gear waited for him; Bran bent most of his attention to strapping on the knee cups, listening to the training session behind him with half an ear. "Again," Ethan said, and there were a few more smacking sounds, and then Jeremiah said "Aow" again, like he thought he ought to. Bran snorted, picked up the hand cups, and attacked the back wall.

      The thumping noise of basic sparring faded into the background as Bran concentrated. The suction cups were difficult to use under the best of circumstances: driving the cups against the wall hard enough to press out the air inside hurt his shoulders, working the thumb-release buttons made his forearms ache, and once the long muscles on the fronts of his thighs got tight enough to quiver, Bran would be forced to stop and hang until they calmed, which weakened his grip and put more stress on his forearms. The complicated series of motions was an intense workout in its own right, but Bran had the strength by now, and he had the rhythm down; what he didn't have was the speed. Ethan could swing up this wall to the ceiling in just over a minute, even now, in his fifties. It took Bran closer to three. Bran gritted his teeth and inched up the wall, more aware of the soft whock-thop-whock-thop sound of the cups attaching and releasing than he was of the thudding behind (and, increasingly, below) him.

      Whock-thop-whock-thop , whock-thop-whock-thop, whock-thop-whock-thop and suddenly the ceiling was so close that Bran could touch it, if he were willing to let go of the cup. "Two and forty, Bran, nicely done," Ethan called from behind him. "If you feel up to it—" a smack and a perfunctory "Aow" from Jeremiah "—go ahead and practise moving along the ceiling."

      "Aye, right," Bran said, only slightly out of breath. He eyed the ceiling with suspicion. He'd have to inch up half a step in order to get the hand cups attached, and there'd be that nasty moment where he was stretched thin between wall and ceiling, with no way to recover if he didn't get his legs up proper on the first try—no point just hanging about worrying about it, he thought, and shifted up the half-step, carefully settling the knee cups.

      One hand cup came off the wall with the usual thop. Bran stole a moment to shake some of the stiffness from his arm, then reached as far out along the ceiling as his arm would go and drove the cup against the plaster. Gritting his teeth he got a good grip, then released the second hand cup; thop and Bran fell away from the wall all the way down to his knees, strung diagonally between wall and ceiling. Inside his shoes his toes clenched, as if he could keep himself aloft through sheer grit. Bran shook that arm out and drove the second cup against the plaster alongside the first.

      Bringing his legs up would be the trick, it always was. It required every bit of either strength or flexibility than Bran possessed, depending on how he chose to rise, and already his arms and legs were starting to ache; he paused to hang and recover for a few moments. The sound of thumping caught his attention again, now that it could. Bran let his head fall back to take in an upside-down view of the sparring.

      The first thing he caught was yet another smack, followed by an exercised "Waow!" from Jeremiah, who dropped back half a step and rubbed frantically at his ear. "Are you all right?" Ethan asked. "I apologise. I didn't quite mean to get your ear." Bran didn't quite snicker—too preoccupied for that—but he'd have liked to.

      "I'm..." Jeremiah hesitated for a fraction of a second. "I'm all right," he said, carefully, making sure it came out as three words.




      "Yes," Jeremiah said, flushing. "Yes. Again. ... please."

      With a little flicker of smile Ethan held up his open hand again. "When you're ready, then: again."

      Bran released and resettled one of his hand cups, as a precaution. Jeremiah squared his meagre shoulders, then stepped forward and struck for Ethan's open hand. His wiry little biceps flexed (where had those come from when they hadn't been about two weeks ago, that's what Bran would have liked to know) but his fist was, as always, a heartbeat too late. Ethan's hand was already blurring for his cheek—Jeremiah blocked it with his left hand, but now Ethan's other hand was darting in—Jeremiah blocked it with his right hand, then drove his left hand straight down, intercepting Ethan's third blow before it could dig a knuckle into his stomach, then threw his right arm diagonally across his face to take the fourth, blocked the fifth, knocked aside the sixth—even though Ethan was obviously holding back it suddenly resembled actual sparring, like the stuff Bran caught glimpses of in the huge mirrors—and just as suddenly, it was over. The heel of Ethan's hand struck Jeremiah square in the chest, sitting him abruptly on his skinny little arse on the mats. "Whoof," he said, tentatively, blinking; then his face exploded into a grin and Jeremiah bounced back to his feet. "Brilliant!"

      "Indeed, nicely done," Ethan said, gravely. "Bran? Are you all right?"

      "Aye! Fine!" Bran said, jerking his attention back to his own matters.


      Jeremiah's room was dark and empty by the time Bran got out of the bath that evening, the hallway door gaping open an inch or so. Running his fingers through his damp hair Bran considered the gap and the darkness beyond. Technically, if Bran wanted in, it wouldn't matter if Jeremiah's door was closed, locked, and barred... but the ajar door seemed to beg for Bran's attention in a way that no amount of locks could, some trick or punishment or something to teach Jeremiah to keep his door shut and his things tidied away out of Bran's sight.

      Bran scowled at the door for a moment longer, then reached in to punch the button lock before pulling the door shut. There. Let Jeremiah explain to Ethan that he'd locked himself out. Feeling obscurely better, Bran thudded down the back stairs two and three at a time, his stomach rumbling as he anticipated dinner.

      He could hear the drone of voices underneath the clatter and scrape of cooking even before he got there. Bran paused in the hallway, what little joy he'd taken in foxing Jeremiah fading away; still, hunger trumped all, and he pushed on into the kitchen, preparing to be sullen.

      Jeremiah was leaning on the counter, watching in some fascination as Ethan shook the pan. Now that he was inside Bran could smell potatoes and onions frying, which meant a roast and whatever disgusting green stuff Ethan wanted to press on them this time. Even as Bran skirted the edge of the counters and headed for the table Jeremiah snatched a sizzling cube of potato right out of the skillet, yelping and tossing it rapidly from hand to hand. "Hot! Hot! Hot!" Jeremiah said under his breath, finally popping the bit of potato into his mouth and grinning like he'd won something.

      "Dinner will be ready in five more minutes," Ethan pointed out, calmly enough.

      "Yeah, but I'm—yes, but I'm bloody starving!"


      "Bloody hungry," Jeremiah corrected himself, half-sheepishly. Bran snorted and dropped into his usual seat.

      "Terribly, you mean?" Ethan prompted.

      "Terribly," Jeremiah repeated, laughing now. He dropped his voice half an octave and poshed up his accent into a mockery of Ethan's that made the hairs on the back of Bran's neck stand up: "I do beg your pardon," said Jeremiah, "but I'm terribly hungry!"

      Ethan raised one eyebrow. "You may think you're only mimicking me, but still, well done."

      "Now quit talking with your bloody mouth full," Bran muttered.

      "Aaw," said Jeremiah, wrinkling his nose at Bran. "How come he gets to say 'bloody' and I don't?"

      "A good question," Ethan said, pulling the potatoes off the hob, "and if you can phrase it properly, I might even answer."

      Jeremiah wailed out an annoyed "Waaw!" sound, dropping his head to the counter. Patient as ever, Ethan set the potatoes aside and pulled the roast out of the oven while he waited. "Just a tick," Jeremiah muttered.

      "A moment, I think you'll find," Ethan said, pulling the carving knife and fork from the wood block. Bran snickered.

      "Augh! Aw—all right. Ah..." Jeremiah's brow wrinkled in thought. Slowly, bit by bit, he said, "Why is Bran allowed to say 'bloody' when I'm not?"

      "Well done," Ethan said, sawing into the roast as he spoke. "Your answer, then. While, technically, you are allowed to use the word, I'd prefer it if you used it less like punctuation."


      Ethan held up a finger, silencing Jeremiah before going back to his carving. "The reason Bran is allowed to use it as he sees fit is because I know very well that he's capable of proper English. Furthermore, Bran's speech is his own affair. I have only the raising and training of Bran; I have the moulding of you."

      Jeremiah's face scrunched up as he considered this. "Don't know that I like the sound of that," he finally said.

      "Really? Well, think on it," Ethan said, putting down the carving knife. He rapidly divided the sliced roast between the three plates, then added potatoes and... asparagus, looked like. Bran made a face.


      Dinner went the same way it always went, these days: Ethan attending to Jeremiah's manners and grammar while Bran ate, silent and disregarded, on the other side of the table. Never any actual conversation or even the cool dissection of Bran's progress, these days. As little as Bran had liked it when it went on, he liked being a ghost in his own home even less.

      He escaped as soon as he could, pointedly asking to be excused before carrying his dishes to the sink. It was Jeremiah's turn to help Ethan with the dishes, at least. Bran thumped upstairs, still belching a little, to finish off his maths. Less than a year to go before his mathematics GCSE; Ethan had promised that Bran could stop with his schooling once he had five, a goal which Bran was working towards with manic anticipation.

      It took him fifteen minutes or so to finish off his maths. Bran had barely dropped into bed with Hamlet when someone thumped on his door. It opened before Bran could even call out permission to enter, and Jeremiah stuck his head in. "Need t' borrow your window for a tick," he said cheerfully.

      He was halfway across Bran's office before Bran rallied. "Get out of my room!" Bran cried, incensed. Scrambling off his bed he ran out into the outer room, catching Jeremiah by the back of his oversized shirt. "Nobody said you could come in!"

      "Here!" Jeremiah flailed, caught.

      Something flashed black in his hand—Bran froze. "That's one of Ethan's climbing cups!" he said, horrified. "Those aren't for you—give it over!" Using his grip on the back of Jeremiah's shirt Bran yanked Jeremiah stumbling backwards, grabbing for the suction cup with his other hand. It would have worked nicely if Jeremiah hadn't reeled back into him and knocked them both sprawling.

      They crashed to the ground in a clumsy heap, the squabble already well under way. Forgetting everything he'd ever learned about fighting Bran grabbed for anything he could catch, trying to wrestle Jeremiah into submission in preparation to pitch him the hell out; Jeremiah yelled and struggled and kicked, nailing Bran in both shins before the suction cup came sailing up in a black arc and clouted Bran on the side of the head. Bran coughed out a startled sound and lurched back, whacking his head on the leg of his desk. His skull sang with high-pitched pain. He collapsed to the rug, seeing stars.

      Jeremiah immediately landed on him in an infuriated, yelling tangle of limbs, not so much pinning Bran to the floor as keeping him down through an unrelenting ridiculous assault. It didn't really hurt, but Bran jerked up in a protective huddle anyway, just to avoid getting a flailing fist in his eye or his balls. "I just wanna use your window, I'd've been gone ages ago if you hadn't been such a cunt, whyn't you just let me," Jeremiah wailed, breathless and outraged, while Bran screamed, "Get out of my room, you don't bloody belong here, why don't you go back where you came from and leave us th' fuck alone?"

      They both ran out of breath and energy at once. For a moment Jeremiah flopped out across the tight ball of Bran, just long enough to whoop in a breath, then he planted one hand on Bran's shoulder and scrambled over him. Feet and knees hit Bran everywhere; still wheezing Bran gasped out curses and threw elbows, neither of which had much effect. His head ached.

      Jeremiah stumbled, once, as his feet hit the ground on the far side of Bran, and then he was at the window, unlocking it and prying it open. "What d'you want with that, anyway?" Bran said, painfully uncurling and sitting up.

      "Can't get into my bloody room, can I?" Jeremiah said, scowling. Shoving Bran's window all the way up Jeremiah ducked out—

      "Here!" Bran squawked, jumping to his feet and hurrying over. "Where the hell d'you think you're going, it's been raining, you'll bloody well fall—"

      "Won't," said Jeremiah, crouching awkwardly on the sloping roof of the veranda. "I come out here loads! It's nice!" His progress along the roof was slow, scrambling and hopping like a wounded crow, his trainers squeaking on the shingles as he went; Bran leaned out to watch Jeremiah's progress with horrified eyes. If he fell Ethan would never forgive either of them—Jeremiah achieved the window to his room, eventually. Bracing his feet against the roof Jeremiah pressed the suction cup gingerly against the window-glass.

      "You'll break it," Bran predicted, darkly.

      "Won't," Jeremiah said again. The suction cup belched out a little air—not a full-fledged whock but an apologetic blup—and Jeremiah stopped pushing, grabbed the handle, and pulled up, instead. His window jerked up an inch or so. "See?"

      Bran scowled. "You left it unlocked?"

      "Yeah? Who's going to break in, smart-arse?" Jeremiah worked the suction cup's release button. The little thop echoed. Jeremiah pushed the suction cup into his room through the little gap, then eased his window the rest of the way up and slipped inside.

      Bran spun around and ran for the door of his room. He got there just as Jeremiah opened the door to his, flushed and triumphant. "You didn't bloody well have to do that, it's just a button lock!" Bran said, aggravated. He jabbed his finger at the door knob. "Look, here, this little hole by the knob? All you have to do is push something in there, like a toothpick or a stick or a straight pick, and it'll pop right up!"

      "Yeah?" Jeremiah looked askance at the little hole. Without warning, his grin bloomed. "Have to remember that, won't I?"


      They both looked up, caught with identical guilty, wide-eyed faces. At the end of the hall Ethan stood in the doorway to his room, his expression politely questioning. "Everything's all right, I trust."

      "Aye," said Bran, after a moment's frozen hesitation. They'd both been yelling and thumping around, Ethan couldn't have not heard it—

      "Yes? That's good," said Ethan, and he disappeared into his room.

      They both stared after him nervously. "You'd best go put that back right now," Bran hissed. "Right where you found it, mind."

      "I was gonna," Jeremiah muttered.


      Retreating into his room Bran slammed the door. He pushed in the button lock (even though it wasn't of much use any more) and turned the thumb-bolt (which still was, as far as he knew). A skirl of cool air blew in from the open window, ruffling the papers on the desk. Bran stalked over there and shut that, too, the window sash thudding home. The little lock on the window wasn't much of a deterrent, but Bran turned it anyway.

      He stood in the middle of his office scowling and rubbing the back of his head. It still ached, but only slightly. Hamlet still stood open on his bed, but Bran was in no mood to read about someone else's problems right now; instead he flopped out in his desk chair and scowled blackly at the wall.

      The door to Jeremiah's room eventually banged shut again, Jeremiah returning from his errand. Bran, now listening for it, clearly heard the stealthy scrape of feet on the porch roof a minute or so later, followed by an odd scrabbling sound. The sounds were weirdly familiar—he'd heard them loads of times over the past couple of weeks and he hadn't realised what they were. "Sneaky little brat!" Bran said, tiredly outraged.

      He found himself on his feet and drifting over to the window, almost against his will, like he was being pulled. Easing open the window let in more of that cool, damp air; Bran eyed the wet shingles distrustfully, then straddled the windowsill and put one foot out on the roof. The shingles had more tooth than he'd expected. Bran swung his other leg up and over the windowsill and rose carefully to his feet, standing on the veranda roof with one hand on the wall for balance.

      Standing alone on the roof, for that matter. Jeremiah's window was open to the night, but his room was dark and seemed untenanted. Bran knew Jeremiah had come out here, and hadn't heard a shout as he fell, so... Bran braced himself and looked up.

      The house's roof was steep and uncompromising, but not that far a climb from the secondary roof of the veranda; the jutting half-cylinders of dormer windows ranged along the front of the house. Jeremiah sat straddling one of these, grubby trainers propped against the roof to either side, looking down at Bran with an expression that was half amused and half quizzical. "You coming up or what?" Jeremiah said.

      If Jeremiah could get up there—"Aye," Bran said, his voice carefully casual (or it would have been, if it hadn't caught and cracked at the beginning). He looked around. The signs of Jeremiah's passage were clear enough to Bran's eye: the ancient dirt of one rain gutter swiped clean in hand-sized patches, streaks on the wet shingles from Jeremiah's mad scramble from gutter to dormer. Disdaining Jeremiah's methods, Bran grabbed the edge of the roof in both hands and jumped for it. Here, at least, his training stood him in good stead. He got a leg up on the roof immediately and hauled himself the rest of the way up, pushing at the shingles for only a moment before pulling himself over the dormer next to Jeremiah's.

      Jeremiah's lips parted, honest admiration shining in his eyes. "Cor," he said. "That wasn't half brilliant."

      "Wasn't anything," Bran said, preening a little despite himself. The shingles were wet and cool under his arse, but not so bad for all that; Bran sat sidesaddle on the dormer for a moment, then allowed how Jeremiah's method was probably the most comfortable and swung astride, nearly squashing his balls in the process. He shifted, hastily, before things could get much worse.

      Jeremiah had gone back to looking up at the night sky. It was still mostly overcast, clouds bulking low and silent overhead, but a few gaps in the cloud cover showed Bran the stars. The moon was nothing but a patch of glowing cloud. "It's nicest when the breeze is up," Jeremiah said, leaning back against the pitch of the roof and tucking both hands behind his head.

      Bran only grunted, shifting uncomfortably. Straddling the dormer was more comfortable, yes, but it wasn't the most modest of positions. He was growing the beginnings of a useless hard-on just from the stray pressure—quickly, before it could become obvious, Bran flopped forward and propped himself up on his crossed arms. The pressure got worse (or better, a lot better) and Bran found himself having to fight against the impulse to squirm 'just a little', but his sins were hidden and that was the most important thing.

      Beside him Jeremiah was silent, and abruptly Bran couldn't shake the feeling that Jeremiah knew exactly what he was doing. He risked a glance: Jeremiah was still flopped out, gazing up at the stars, the front of his trousers annoyingly flat. Bran looked away again. "You ought to tell Ethan you climb up here," he said, his voice a little rough. "He wouldn't give a toss, but he likes to know things like that."

      "Yeah?" Jeremiah said. "Wish I could use those cup things like you. Nowhere I couldn't go, then."

      "Ha! Not that bloody easy, I'm telling you!" Bran rocked upright again (silently blessing the long roll of his crotch against the shingles) and pawed at the air in front of him. "You think it's all 'clop-clop-clop up you get' and it isn't, not at all. It's bloody hard."

      Jeremiah's voice went positively wistful. "Still and all, I'd like to try!"

      "Eh, some day you'll get to use them and then you'll be sorry you ever wanted to," Bran said, flopping back down. He risked a quick, slight squirm to resettle himself, which made things better for a second and then worse.

      "Maybe." Jeremiah hesitated. "Ethan's not your real da, is he."

      Bran scowled at him. "None of your business, is it?"

      "I'm only askin'!" Jeremiah sat up, hands falling to the dormer in front of him. "You call him by his first name an' you don't look a thing like him, not at all! An' he hasn't got a wife, either, 'cos I asked." Jeremiah hunched his shoulders. "He laughed at me, like." Bran gave Jeremiah a narrow-eyed stare, considering. Jeremiah looked back, his expression pleading at first, then embarrassed. "Well, s'pose you don't have to say."

      "Don't have to at all," Bran said, nodding. "Legally he's my da in any case, so it doesn't matter, aye?"

      "And you've got that funny accent," Jeremiah said, bolstered by Bran's answer. "Just a bit."

      "It's not funny!" Bran said, aggravated.

      Jeremiah ducked his head. "No, no, it's pretty, like."

      Bran hesitated, chewing that over. He didn't want to feel flattered but he was, a little, all the same. "I'm Irish," he said, not without some pride. "My real ma an' da were great friends of Ethan's once, despite him bein' a Brit and all."

      "Cor, Irish," said Jeremiah, mildly impressed. "That's wicked."

      Despite his lingering resentment Bran puffed up in the face of that admiration. "Catholic, too," he said. "Not so bloody easy, I'll tell you that much."

      Jeremiah's eyes shone in the dark as he stared at Bran, idly scuffing his heels against the roof. "That why you go off every Sunday, then?"

      "Aye," Bran said, nodding. "Liam and Paula, they take me t' mass because they promised my da they would. Liam says—" Bran faltered "—well, Liam says that it's his job to remind me how to be Irish now that my da's gone. He's got a deadly accent, mind."

      "They dead, then, your parents?"

      Bran searched the statement for malice, found only curiosity, and hunkered down. "Aye, automobile accident," he said.

      "Ooer." Jeremiah seemed impressed with that, too. "How old were you?"

      "Four." Bran looked down at his crossed arms. A bit of one shingle near his hand was broken away, and he picked at it. "Don't really remember much."

      Jeremiah didn't respond to that right away, only poked out his lower lip and thought about it. "Wouldn't mind too much if it'd been mine," he finally offered.

      "Well, I bloody well mind," Bran said, affronted all over again.

      "Trade mine for Ethan in a heartbeat, I would." Jeremiah was apparently deaf to Bran's irritation. "... s'pose I did, at that."

      "Still, you shouldn't ought to say that," said Bran. A chunk of shingle came off in his hand, startling him, and he flicked the loose bit away.

      "Still true," Jeremiah said, developing that stubborn look again. Bran couldn't think of anything to say to that, so he pulled off another chunk of the rotting shingle and chucked it at Jeremiah, lazily and overhand. Sniggering, Jeremiah batted it away.

      Again, the conversation faltered. It was pleasant enough up on the roof, despite the wet shingles under Bran's arse and the chill breeze that eddied about them both. After a minute or two Bran grudgingly allowed as to how Jeremiah wasn't so bad, as long as he was being quiet and leaving Bran alone. And not monopolising Ethan's time. And not nicking stuff—not that nicking stuff was necessarily a bad thing, Bran hastened to mentally add, except when it was Bran's stuff, not that Jeremiah had nicked anything of Bran's that Bran knew of. Only a matter of time. Breeding will out, as Liam often said, ruffling Bran's hair, much to Bran's embarrassment.

      "Here, what time is it?" Jeremiah said, knocking Bran out of his grumpy reverie.

      Bran checked his watch. "On about eight-thirty," he said.

      "Aaaaw," Jeremiah said, rolling his eyes hugely. "Got to go and take my meds—" and he slid off his dormer. On all fours he scrambled back towards the gutter, his trainers making ugly sounds as they skidded against the shingles. Catching the gutter he slid down onto the veranda roof, landing lightly enough. He ducked in through his open window. A moment later, a square of yellowish light spilled out across the roof below Bran.

      Listening to Jeremiah's thumping with half an ear, Bran looked back off into the distance. The trees were rolling in the breeze, their leaves too soggy to rustle much. A car hissed by on the road, its lights flickering. It was nice up here, wet roof and all. Bran shifted, sucked air, then shifted again. The weight of his body pressed his erection down against the wet shingles, almost hard enough to hurt—before Bran knew it he'd settled into a lazy rocking motion, rolling up against the wet shingles and catching his breath at the pressure of it, trying very hard not to realise just what it was that he was doing. Inside the house Jeremiah slammed the door of the medicine cabinet, ran water into a glass, and rattled capsules in their bottles, and Bran paid a little attention to that, a little attention to the trees fluttering like waves, and a lot of attention to the promising burn starting to mount in his balls.

      His eyes had drifted about halfway shut in appreciation when the light winked out below. Bran froze, his eyes flicking back open. Two soft thumps and the squeal of Jeremiah's trainers against the veranda roof announced his exit, and abruptly Bran couldn't stand being out here any more, hated Jeremiah for intruding on what had rapidly become a personal moment. "I'm goin' in," Bran announced, swinging off the dormer even as Jeremiah grabbed the gutter.

      "Aaw, you don't have to," Jeremiah said, hurt, but Bran dropped onto the veranda roof and scrambled inside as fast as he could, the climb made awkward by his sodden jeans and pointless hard-on.


      The church was still, quiet except for the low shifting hum of people trying to be quiet. Paula still had her head bent over her rosary, murmuring to herself, and Liam was perfectly still on Bran's other side. The sick feeling in Bran's belly wouldn't go away—all right, so wanting Jeremiah to fuck off wasn't Christian charity, was it, Bran couldn't help what he wanted—and in a last-ditch effort to regain some heavenly goodwill, he bent his head back over his knotted hands. All right, if you won't make him go away, at least make him stop being such a wet end, Bran silently compromised. All I ask.

      That sounded reasonable. More Christly, perhaps. Bran ran the words back again, then nodded to himself. Amen, he thought, momentarily at peace.

      "Through Christ our Lord," the priest intoned.