chapter five

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

On timeline: early to mid-1990s, ten to fifteen years before the events of the books
Spoilers for: oh, God, who knows
Warnings: still kicking myself for making Jeremy English




      Come Christmas proper the house was all over lights. The music was already playing, filling the house with the soft sounds of choirs and orchestras to go with the overall smell of pine. In the back, in the kitchen, the hired cooks clattered and cat-called back and forth, banging about and producing some interesting smells of their own. Occasionally the roar of laughter rose from out of the drawing room where Ethan was holding court, him and a few of his closest mates enjoying their private pre-party... Bran sat at the foot of his bed, kicking his stocking foot against the carpet and putting off the moment when he'd have to put on his dinner jacket and tie his tie.

      His trousers were on, anyway, and he'd grudgingly put on the shirt and put in most of the studs. The last two were still in their little box, because Bran didn't much care for the moment when the shirt closed tight about his throat. Like strangling. Here in a minute or so he'd probably put on his waistcoat, although he wouldn't do it up just yet.

      The suit was nice enough, in Bran's opinion, and he looked all right in it. He'd got his hair cut week before last and it was just the right length, gelled up into smooth spikes. He still had a pair of spots at the corner of his mouth, pink and sore, but most of the others had faded—he'd put on more muscle this year, to boot, and his shoulders felt broader. Not bad at all, in the main. Still and all Bran dreaded the mortifying hours to come, when he'd hear half a hundred times about how much he'd grown and what a handsome lad he'd become—what a likely lad, God, how he hated the word. It wasn't even as if they meant it, they only said it to be polite. Some day he'd be grown and maybe then the compliments they threw at him would be honest ones.

      Reluctantly Bran picked up the tie and slung it loosely about his neck, like a muffler. The effort didn't kill him, and a glance at the clock confirmed that it was a quarter past six—Bran slid into his waistcoat, although he left it unfastened for now. He'd just picked the last stud out of its box and closed the collar about his throat when someone thumped on his door. "Bran?" Jeremiah said, his voice cracking and nervous.

      "God's sake," Bran said, rolling his eyes at his reflection. "What?"

      "I need your help," Jeremiah called back, through the closed door. "I can't remember how the tie goes!"

      Bran sighed heavily. Should have seen that coming. "Awright, awright, just a tick," he said. Out of pure spite he made Jeremiah wait while he buttoned up his waistcoat, getting it settled neatly across his stomach. Even with his tie still loose about his throat he was starting to look sharpish—Bran tried on a smile in the mirror, then sighed and went out into the main room to open his door. "Best," he said, and then his throat closed down before he could finish that thought with make it quick.

      All unsuspecting Jeremiah half-cringed half-smiled at Bran, his puppyish eyes wide with worry. He was carrying his jacket on its hanger in one hand but he had everything else on, down to the tie hanging around his neck, just like Bran's. His own hair was slicked straight back to expose the high plane of his forehead and the fine bones of his narrow face—Jeremiah didn't suffer from spots, the little bastard. God, it isn't fair, Bran thought, choking down the lump of resentment in his throat. Give my right arm to look like that...

      "You look good, like," Jeremiah said diffidently. "All fancy."

      Bran shook his head to clear it. "S'pose I ought," he said. "S'an expensive suit."

      "I feel right foolish in this stuff, you want to know the truth." Jeremiah took advantage of Bran's momentary dismay and sidled on in, toting his jacket. "Like I'm wearing someone else's clothes."

      "Who said you weren't? Ethan paid for them, right?"

      Jeremiah snickered. "Like to see him try and fit into my suit, I would."

      "I wouldn't!" Bran looked Jeremiah up and down. "You've got the bits hooked together inside your trousers, right? With the loops and buttons and all?"

      Jeremiah looked down at himself, brushing one hand over his immaculate shirt-front. "Think so," he said. "It's not half complicated."

      "Huh," Bran said, half in agreement. He circled around behind Jeremiah and checked to make certain that he hadn't got the waistcoat caught on the shirt's collar—he hadn't—then completed the circle and picked up Jeremiah's tie from where it lay. "Chin up."

      Jeremiah tilted his head back, still watching Bran from out of the corners of his eyes. Bran bit the inside of his cheek and pulled Jeremiah's tie flat across the back of his neck, trying to touch him as little as possible at the same time. Jeremiah was giving off heat like a radiator with only the thin cloth of his shirt between them, and a slip brushed Bran's fingers along the side of Jeremiah's throat, which was lightly rough with freshly-shaved stubble (and that wasn't fair at all). Bran fumbled the tie through its loops and wasn't surprised when the knot degenerated into a useless tangle of fabric and fingers. "Damn it," he muttered, pulling the tie loose again.

      "Sorry," Jeremiah said faintly.

      "Shut up." Bran jerked the tie against the back of Jeremiah's neck, making Jeremiah stumble forward half a step and nearly shoulder straight into him. Scowling now Bran ran through the knot again, but everything was backwards and the knot fell apart again. "Christing thing!"


      "Shut your face!" Catching at the back of Jeremiah's neck Bran hauled him into the bedroom and pushed him in front of the mirror. "Stand there and bloody well hold still."

      Obligingly Jeremiah froze, his chin still lifted to bare his throat. Trying not to look at their reflection in the mirror Bran got up behind him, reaching over Jeremiah's shoulders to grab at the ends of the tie again. This time, at least, the tie was the right way around, but having to put his arms around Jeremiah to tie it smacked Bran in the face with the smell of all that clean and soapy skin. Jeremiah's shoulders settled back against his chest, and Bran yanked the tie into its knot as fast as he could go. "There! Christ."

      "Is that how it's supposed to go?" Jeremiah asked, leaning forward to inspect himself in the mirror. Frowning, he touched two fingers to his tie, nudging it back into place.

      "Yes! Here, watch—" and Bran snatched up his own tie, knotting it about his neck. He was strangling on any number of things and it was a relief to blame the tie, as Jeremiah stared at him in the mirror with his eyes wide—"Got to get into the rest," Bran said, tearing his eyes away from Jeremiah's. "People always turn up early. They don't know any bloody better, Ethan always says." He ducked away and went in search of his shoes, standing together beside the dresser.

      Cautiously Jeremiah edged the jacket off its hanger and shrugged into it, tugging at the collar before fussing with his cuffs. He looked a bit like a kid in his father's things, but he looked good for all that—for a moment Bran envied him with all his heart. "I'll just... go on down, like," he said. "... ta for the help."

      "Aye, whatever," said Bran, and he didn't look up again until the door had shut behind the perfect spectre of Jeremiah.


      The bell rang first at a quarter to seven, summoning Ethan and his laughing old coterie from the drawing room even as Bran jumped to answer the door. By seven-thirty the party was in full swing, the old house filled from end to end with the roar of party-goers. The door-bell was going constantly, and try as he might Bran couldn't help but be grateful for having a little help this year. Of course, there were drawbacks. "You're never Bran!" said the startled woman at the door. In the coat-room Bran rolled his eyes, dropping his latest load of coats and heading back out at a decent clip.

      "No, ma'am, I'm Jeremy," Jeremiah was saying as Bran rounded the corner. "Bran's about, though—"

      The woman he was speaking to had one be-ringed hand fluttering about her mouth in consternation. "Missus Margotine," Bran said.

      Landry Margotine looked from Jeremiah to Bran and back, then burst out laughing. "Ethan's picked up another one, then? Good gracious, is he starting a collection?"

      "Much to my benefit, I'm sure," Jeremiah said. The sheer Ethan-ness of the words was enough to put a hitch in Bran's step, forcing him to shake it off before Landry engulfed him in a dry and powdery old-lady embrace. At least she wasn't pinching his cheeks any more—she let Bran go and considered Jeremiah for a moment before laughing again and catching him up in a hug of his own. The pop of Jeremiah's eyes over her shoulder did a lot to restore Bran's good spirits. Jeremiah eased himself free as quickly as he could. "... may I take your coat?"

      "Oh, of course, thank you..."


      By eight-fifteen the party was a full-on riot, the old house jammed to the rafters with guests all braying and booming and howling without a care for their dignity. It embarrassed Bran just to watch them make fools of themselves with each other. How could adults carry on so and not be embarrassed by it? For his part he'd found a place against one wall, self-consciously nursing a wine-glass full of water and watching the revellers while he waited for supper to start. The food was always good, if nothing else.

      Ethan sifted out of the roaring crowd, still laughing at something that someone else had said. By the time Bran realised that Ethan was heading his way, it was too late to dodge him. "Bran," Ethan said, putting his hand on Bran's shoulder. "Could you do me a favour and find Jeremy? He isn't anywhere about that I can find and I wouldn't like to start supper without him."

      Bran hadn't been doing much of anything but he bristled anyway, putting his glass down on the windowsill. "It's his own fault if he misses supper, Ethan!"

      "I know," said Ethan, his earlier laughter dwindling away to a tight and unhappy smile. "But it isn't like him, and I'm worried, and I've got enough to worry about as it is."

      "Awright, awright..." Bran pushed himself off the wall and tugged down the tails of his jacket. "Little brat's always got to be trouble."

      Ethan closed his eyes and opened them again. "Thank you, Bran." He patted Bran's shoulder and drifted away, pausing only to share a quick word with a little knot of free-traders.

      Bran huffed out a breath and made his way through the crowds towards the back hallway. Stupid Jeremiah had probably just got bored and wandered off to do something else, and now everyone was going to have to wait dinner on him just because he didn't know how to behave at a fancy party. Bran would have been all in favour of letting Jeremiah starve, but Ethan had a soft spot where Jeremiah was concerned.

      Just to be on the safe side Bran made a lazy loop around the first floor, making sure that Jeremiah wasn't stashed away in any of the public areas. When that failed to turn him up Bran checked the kitchen, dodging the hired waiters left and right. No Jeremiah. Bran sighed hugely. In his room, then.

      The amazing din was a little less so, up here away from the party. The odd bit of conversation carried clearly to Bran's ears, but for the most part it was just a dull roar. Bran thumped on the door to Jeremiah's suite. "Here! S'time for supper, come out of there! Ethan's cross enough with you as it is!"

      No answer. Bran scowled, then popped the door open. Jeremiah's rooms were dark and felt empty. Still, just to be safe Bran checked all the rooms, going so far as to check under Jeremiah's bed (although what Jeremiah would be doing under there Bran had no idea). Nothing. Bran frowned.

      Jeremiah wasn't in Bran's rooms—and a damned good thing at that—nor was he in Ethan's. The workshop was dark and silent, as was the monstrous solarium. By this time Bran was starting to run out of ideas. Unless Jeremiah was off in the guest cottage or some such, Bran had no idea where the idiot would be.

      Deep in thought Bran thumped back down the back stairs. He made another slow pass through the party, just in case Jeremiah had turned up—he hadn't—then slipped back into the back hallway. Was Jeremiah in the guest cottage? He knew how to get in, right enough, but Bran couldn't see why he would—if Jeremiah just wanted to get away from the party there were closer places to do it. But he'd already looked most everywhere, and he couldn't see why Jeremiah would be in any of the places he hadn't looked...

      Not expecting much to come of it Bran pushed on into the secondary back hallway. The suction cups had all been taken up for the holiday, at least, but this hallway led to nowhere but the storage closets and the laundry room, and Bran couldn't imagine why Jeremiah would be lurking in either of those places. Still, best to check them first before he went to the trouble of going out in the cold.

      He pushed open the door to the laundry room and knew immediately that he was not alone. The room was dark and silent, but some sixth sense made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up—someone was in here. Someone was hiding in here. "Here," Bran said, trying not to make of it a croak. "That you?"

      "Bran," Jeremiah said from somewhere, his voice thick and uncertain.

      Still unnerved Bran stepped into the room and let the door swing shut behind him, plunging them both into darkness. Something kept him from flicking on the lights, some fear of what he'd see—there was a tiny window set high in one wall, just large enough to let in the moonlight, and once Bran's eyes adjusted he found that he could make out the room, more or less. He picked his way along, nerves prickling.

      Jeremiah was huddled between the monstrous washer and the equally monstrous dryer, back against the wall with his arms crossed protectively over his chest. In his black dinner jacket he was almost invisible, only the pristine white of his shirt-front giving him away. The pinpoints of light that were his eyes flicked to Bran's, then away.

      "Ethan sent me to find you," Bran said, now thoroughly rattled. "Almost time for supper and he doesn't want to start without you—don't ask me why."

      "I can't," Jeremiah said, rubbing his upper arms like he was cold. His palms whispered over the fabric of his jacket.

      "What d'you mean, you can't? Course you can. You go out there, you sit down, and you eat—no one's going to bloody well care if you use the wrong fork."

      "I can't," Jeremiah said again. His eyes squeezed shut, the twin pinpricks of light blinking out. "Tell Ethan that I'm sorry, I'm not feeling well—"

      "Like hell!" Bran stepped forward and grabbed Jeremiah's sleeve. It was like catching hold of an explosion just as it starts: at the touch Jeremiah jerked away from the wall to slap haplessly at Bran with both hands, his breath coming in little fits. Bran fell back a step, almost shocked, twisting his rejected hands together. "If I have to put up with this stupid party, so do you," he said. It came out a bit more uncertain than he'd have liked.

      Still gasping a bit Jeremiah fell back into his huddle, staring down at the floor between his feet. "I can't go back out there!" He rubbed his arms. "That's all."

      "That's all? That's all? Up and decided that instead of eating supper you'll just keep the washing machine company all night, did you?" Bran studied the unresponsive huddle of Jeremiah. "I'm not lettin' you hide away in here," he concluded.

      "Bran..." It wasn't quite a wail, but there weren't any better words for what it was.

      "If you can't handle a single fancy party I don't know what Ethan thinks he can do with you!" Bran said, sneering it as hard as he could. "Fuckin' useless—"

      "—it isn't the party!—"

      "Then what is it? Christ's sake! People are waiting supper on us! Out with it!"

      For a long moment Jeremiah was silent, arms crossed over his chest, fingers knotted tightly about the fabric of his sleeves. He didn't snuffle or anything, but his voice was oddly choked when he spoke again, making Bran's heart cringe. "I," he tried, and again, "I..." and then he swallowed. "It's—d'you know that fellow, big round fellow with the sticky black hair, you can tell it's dyed, and he's got on the red plaid waistcoat and the little glasses that make his eyes look all funny?"

      "Aye? George something, innit. Don't know what he does, but he must do something odd to get invited to Ethan's do." Bran frowned. All unthinking he eased a little closer to Jeremiah. "What, did he say something t' you?"

      "No! No, but—"

      "But what? Christ's sake!"

      "He used to hire me, all right?" Jeremiah sucked in a breath that sounded like a sob. Unaware of Bran's stomach flipping over, Jeremiah snuffled and added, "He drives this nasty little blue car, like, and he comes down to the embankments once a week or so, picks up a boy—he's not the worst of them, right, but if he recognises me—"

      "What d'you mean, hire you?" Bran said. His own voice sounded thick and slow to his ears, and really it wasn't like he didn't know—

      The look Jeremiah gave him was half pity and half disbelief, the sparks of his eyes a bit damp. "Hire me," he repeated, spreading one hand over the front of his trousers in a horribly suggestive way.

      "Yeah, awright, I know," said Bran hurriedly.

      "I'm out of that now," Jeremiah said, his eyes dropping again. "If he recognises me now it'll be awful and maybe he'll say something to Ethan and I couldn't stand it, so..." He flicked a hand at the laundry room. "I ran, like. Figured maybe he wouldn't see me." With another little strangled sound Jeremiah clamped a hand over his eyes and bared his teeth, swaying towards Bran as his head dipped and his shoulders came away from the wall.

      Bran almost lunged to catch him and lurched back at the last moment. He could barely hear over the rising roar of his own blood in his ears. It was so dark, and Jeremiah so close—Bran scrubbed the back of his hand over his mouth and rocked forward half a step, trapping Jeremiah in the little space between the washer and the dryer. Jeremiah didn't seem to notice, even though Bran was so close that he could feel the heat of Jeremiah on his skin. The tide of blood in Bran's ears rose to flood his mind, and he froze, his nerves all afire as he pictured how the next few minutes might could go if he just got up the nerve, how if he just leaned forward a bit they'd be pressed together in the little space between the machines, and how Jeremiah might welcome a bit of comfort in his defenceless state... Bran wheezed out a horrible sound and fell back again, shuddering. "Don't be daft," he said, his voice sounding queer to his own ears. "He's not going to recognise you."

      "He might—"

      "He won't," Bran insisted, forcing himself to look at Jeremiah out of the corners of his eyes, wincing away from what he was seeing. The street rat was long gone, washed clean away. Jeremiah was taller and heavier, and clean to boot. With an effort Bran called up his memories of the grimy and ragged urchin that he'd first met and set them next to the current Jeremiah—he couldn't even see the resemblance, save in the sharp chin and narrow face, and even those weren't the same any more, not quite. "You don't look a thing like you used to," Bran said, swallowing the thickness in his throat. "There's no way that he could look at you in that fancy suit and recognise the old you, awright?"


      "He won't even be looking. He wouldn't know to." Bran glanced at the door. "And... and you can tell Ethan, like, and Ethan'll make certain that he's not invited again, you know Ethan'd do that for you."

      Jeremiah didn't answer. He rubbed his arms instead.

      Bran blew out a breath and took another step back. With every step it got easier to take the next, to head back to the party where everything was ordinary and nothing held this much charge. "Come on," Bran said, his voice almost normal again. "He's not seated anywhere near the high table, and Ethan won't let anybody eat until you show, and I'm bloody hungry even if you aren't."

      "S'pose," Jeremiah said. "Here... are you sure?"

      "Course! God, come on already." It was almost easy.

      Jeremiah dropped his head. This time it looked more like agreement. "Awright," he said. "You go on. Tell Ethan I'll be out in a bit. I'll just get my head on straight, like."

      "Best do," said Bran. "Don't want to have to come looking for you again, do I?"


      The party had taken on an odd waiting edge by the time that Bran rejoined it, all the guests expecting the announcement of dinner at any time. People had put down their cocktail glasses, abandoned the hors d'oeuvres, broken out of their little conversational groups—eddies in the crowd kept breaking hopefully against the entrance to the dining room, drawn by the good smells from the kitchen. Heads kept turning, watching for any sign that dinner was about to be announced. Bran sidled through the expectant crowd, dodging thoughtful glances, until he found Ethan. "Ethan," he said, catching at Ethan's sleeve, "he'll be out in a tick."

      "Thank you, Bran." Ethan sighed out a long breath, then dug up a smile from somewhere and moved towards the head table. A moment later the clear ringing of a champagne glass being struck with a fork cut across the desultory din—"Ladies and gentlemen," Ethan called, "if you'd just step this way!"

      The anticipatory hush broke upon the instant. The din redoubled. Scowling a little Bran pressed himself against the wall, easing past the crush until he too reached the head table and his customary seat at Ethan's right. He dropped into his chair with relief and sat back, staring up at the ceiling. It was bright and cheery in here, the whole place flooded with the Christmas-y smells of roasting goose and pine, but most of Bran's mind was still stuck in that low and dark little room with its odour of damp concrete and floating lint, recalling a pair of eyes like two sparks in the dimness—he'd rather known that Jeremiah used to be... like that, but he he hadn't really known, had he? Now, though, the maddening idea that once upon a time Jeremiah would have done anything for money had him tightly in its grip—give him a tenner and he'd know just what to do for it, without any fumbling about—the thought of what Jeremiah might know how to do was enough to bring the blood flaming to Bran's cheeks.

      All around him people found their places and sat down, shuffling, laughing, joking with one another. Bran came back to himself with a jerk and looked about—his eyes flicked across George's magnified ones and Bran realised, with a low, sick jolt, that George had been looking in this direction, maybe looking at him. He'd already looked away before Bran realised what he'd just seen. Suddenly Bran had no appetite for anything. How could Jeremiah—with that—the foul mental images that resulted made Bran sick to his stomach and hard inside his trousers all at once. He slumped down in his chair and tried desperately to think of something, anything else.

      A flicker of movement beside him caught his eyes. Jeremiah slid into his seat on the other side of Ethan, murmuring some soft apology. He glanced at Bran, his expression all bravado and nerves, then looked away.

      Hating himself, hating Jeremiah, hating everything, Bran clasped his hands on the table and waited for Ethan to propose the toast.


      The immediacy of his memories had largely faded by the time dinner was over, at least. Jeremiah had regained something of his equilibrium, although he kept his eyes resolutely away from the far table where George had been seated. Bran, however, had been seated closer to the centre of the room, where he could see most everyone and most everyone could see him; he'd caught George's eyes flicking in their direction on several occasions, not with anything like recognition, just looking at the youngest boys here—augh! How he'd made it through dinner and managed to keep up with the conversation he'd never know.

      When dinner broke up and the party shifted, Bran caught Ethan's sleeve. "Ethan," he whispered, trying not to whine. "Ethan, that George fellow, with the glasses—can't you make him go?"

      The look that Ethan turned on him was more bemused than confused, but all the same he took Bran aside. "What's wrong?"

      "I don't want—" Bran broke off there and looked around, certain that all eyes were on them and startled to find that they weren't. "I can't say! Just... can't you make him go?"

      Ethan looked at him for a long, long moment. "It's important?" he finally said.

      "Honest," Bran said, awash in relief. "I'll tell you about it later."

      "I'll see that it's done," said Ethan. His face set. "I trust you have a good reason."

      Bran nodded, caught himself, nodded again. "Aye," he said, his voice gone rusty. "Think so."

      With a touch on Bran's shoulder Ethan moved off. Bran watched him go. He'd feel better—he looked around just as Jeremiah slipped off through the door into the back hallway. Bran snorted and followed. "Here!"

      Jeremiah jerked like Bran had slipped up behind and punched him in the back of the head. He ducked, his shoulders snapping straight, and when he finally turned around it was hesitant and defensive, like Bran still might decide to punch him. "What?"

      Bran shuffled out of the way of the hustling waiters. "Ethan's going to make George go."

      "What?" Jeremiah said again, as if he hadn't heard, but even as Bran opened his mouth to say it again Jeremiah's face slammed shut like a door. "You told him?"

      "I told him to make George go!" Bran said, rolling his eyes. "That's all! Fuck's sake!"

      "Just like that?"

      "Just like that!" Bran scrubbed a hand over his face. "Awright, so I'll have to explain at some point, but it's Ethan, innit."

      Jeremiah hunched his shoulders. "All right," he said. "I... that's... well, ta for the help."

      "Wasn't for you anyway," Bran said tartly. "He kept looking at me, like. Wouldn't have noticed but after you said..."

      Jeremiah nodded. "Be good to have him gone," he said, all in a breath. "It'll just be dull, then."

      "So dull," Bran agreed. "No one to bloody well talk to."

      "No." Jeremiah made an unhappy laughing sound. "No one, I suppose."


      Whatever Ethan did, it worked a treat. George left ten minutes later, looking mildly frightened, slipping out the back door in the company of half a dozen hired waiters popping out for a smoke after dinner; Bran felt tons better afterward and Jeremiah stood up straight for the first time all evening.

      An hour later, when Bran was leaning against the wall watching the dancers and scheming to snitch an extra glass of champagne—who would notice? Ethan would, that's who—things were almost back to normal. All right, so Jeremiah was over in one corner of the ballroom managing to look both amused and uncomfortable while a lightly-sozzled Landry Margotine insisted on teaching him to dance, but everything else was the same as ever: dull, dull, dull. Pretty, though. And frankly Bran thought that Landry deserved to get her feet stepped on a few times.

      A few minutes later Jeremiah and Landry went spinning gingerly by and Bran watched them go.


      By the time Bran reeled up to his bedroom it was somewhere beyond late and into early. Champagne buzzed in his mind like a cloud of flies. Underneath the last of his energy his exhaustion was a physical thing, an ache around his heart. Bran stripped out of the bits of his suit and left them strewn across the carpet in his wake, his shirt studs collecting in one hand like coins; he poured them into their little box and abandoned them there, scratching at his shoulder, relieved beyond all measure to be down to his pants and out of his fancy things.

      He could hear thumping from the next room over as Jeremiah settled himself in. Little fool was probably putting his suit in the hamper, not knowing any better, but Bran didn't care a bit, not just now. He just stood there and listened to the little sounds, tracking Jeremiah from one end of the room to the other.

      The water in Jeremiah's bathroom went on, then off. The toilet flushed. Unthinking Bran drifted across the room, still listening. Jeremiah thumped back across his room and threw himself into the bed hard enough to make the springs whine, groaning in relief—the low hum of sound carried clearly to Bran where he stood. The bed whined and squeaked some more as Jeremiah settled in, and Bran put his hand on the wall and closed his eyes.

      The drink had papered over his memories of earlier and splintered them into vague and fractured things. Still, closing his eyes summoned them up from the depths, and Bran thought disjointedly of the sparks of Jeremiah's eyes rising and falling in the dark, and of a half-dressed Jeremiah sheepish at his door, and of the little hole in Jeremiah's fleece trousers late last night when there'd been no one about to see but him—

      He'd never been much for prayer, Bran hadn't, not when mass once a week was almost more God than he could stand, but tonight he flung himself away from the wall and thumped onto his knees by the side of the bed. His hands he knotted into a clumsy, shaking, white-knuckled double fist on the bed in front of him. It wasn't prayer that burst from him, not exactly. Bran flung his mind outwards, into the void, chanting a strangled "No, no, no" under his breath to banish the dark and somehow glutinous thoughts that twined obscenely at the edges of his consciousness. They proved hard to force away but Bran squeezed his eyes shut and kept trying, until pure physical exhaustion drained him of all but the idea of his exhaustion. He dropped to one hip with a great gasping outrush of breath.

      All was silent from next door as Bran climbed wearily into his own bed. His mind simmered blankly along, aware of little besides the cool sheets and the sheer relief of relaxing at last. Turning his back on the wall that he shared with Jeremiah Bran curled up into a little ball on the bed and shut his eyes, hoping that he'd fall asleep before he could start thinking again—but he didn't, and when he eventually gave in and thrust his hand into his pants it was more out of anger than anything else, his quick and joyless orgasm a sullen 'so there' to God.