The moor spread out around them like an endless carpet of green, pierced here and their by muddy eyes reflecting the sky as it faded from grey to blue in the chill early morning. There was nothing out here except for them. Maybe it was the sheer size of the place, being able to see for miles and miles in every direction, but Bryan felt very small. Not that he didn't usually feel small, with his family towering over him like giants.
Shivering, he pulled his jacket more tightly about him and stamped a hoof in impatience, or perhaps that was just to seem impatient rather than overwhelmed.
"Are we going to do it or what?" If he sounded surly, it was no fault of his. They should have known better than to haul him all the way out here for one of their stupid family get-together things.
"Be patient. We're just waiting for the sun to peek over the horizon. This is something for the daylight, not for the darkness of night." Colleen gave her nephew a gentle smile, the smooth warmth of her voice seeming to pool in the space between them like honey, or maybe like caramel - sweet and warm and golden.
"Why, though? Why is this so important?"
"Because your cousin is turning sixteen today."
"We didn't do anything like this for my sixteenth birthday."
"You were in Dublin on your sixteenth birthday. As I recall, when I got up to wake you that day, you had left a note on your pillow telling us not to worry and that you would be back in a few days."
There was a slight break in the conversation as the two of them looked at one another. There was grey in her hair, and the along her once-glossy brown back, a speckled grey stripe had developed over the last couple years. She wasn't as young as she had been. Thinking about it made Bryan uncomfortable, so he looked away.
"Lian wouldn't care if we both did it together," he muttered, feeling guilty suddenly for having skipped out on whatever they had planned for his birthday last year.
Before she answered, a shaft of sunlight touched them, warming their skin and bringing with it the salty smell of the distant ocean. Colleen smiled and breathed deep, turning to look at her husband even as she flicked her nephew with her ragged red tail.
"No, he won't mind when we do that. Come along."
"It's time!" Thomas grinned at his family, flicking his tail excitedly to and fro. He, like his wife, looked older than he had in the past, going grey about the withers and legs even though his mane was as black as ever. What bothered Bryan more than that was the sight of the sagging skin on his once-thick arms. He had been ill for the last several months, and he didn't look like the centaur Bryan had grown up respecting. It didn't matter that he was still as buoyant and cheerful as ever. The fact was that when Bryan looked at him, he hardly recognized his uncle, and that scared him.
"Take them away, Connor!" Thomas slapped his eldest son on the hindquarters and whooped his enthusiasm as Connor, as huge and brawny as his father had been in his prime, leapt forward.
"Come on, boys!" Connor boomed, laughing. Lian, still gangly and uncoordinated, surged forward after his brother, and a heartbeat later Bryan was galloping after him, not wanting to be left out. But even as he fell in beside Lian, the difference between them felt enormous. Bryan was 10 months Lian's senior, but Lian towered over him by a good seven inches, and that difference would only continue to increase as Lian shot up and Bryan stayed put. Stretching his legs to their fullest, Bryan kept up with the larger taurs through sheer force of will. There was no way he was going to let them leave him in their dust.
It didn't occur to him that if they had wanted to do that, it would have been a matter of jumping over the ponds that were too wide for him.
The three of them thundered over the moor, throwing up clods of earth, splashing through the shallows of this pond or that, racing toward the rising sun like four-legged arrows loosed from the same bow. Connor let them as straight as he could until they reached a stand of dark trees that threw monstrous shadows across the moor like a dark pointing finger.
"This is it," grunted Connor, his wind coming in short gasps. "Get under the trees, just like that, and face me."
Lian glanced nervously at his cousin, and Bryan gave him a challenging grin. "Scared?" he asked, and Lian flushed pink.
"No. Just checking to see if you were."
"Of course I'm not. That's your job."
"Shut up you two, and listen to me. Dad would'a done this himself, but it looks like it's my job now."
"We're doomed," muttered Bryan, chuckling to himself over his own stupid joke. Connor reached out and dealt his cousin a sharp slap across the back of his dark head.
"I said shut it. Now, you two know that when you turn 16, that's when you become a real stallion, right?"
"You better leave Lian out of the birds and the bees talk," quipped Bryan with a grin. "I don't think he's ready."
Taking each of them by the hair, Connor knocked their heads together with a frown. "Listen up. I'm only gonna say this once. We're family and that's something that's gonna change about as much as the seasons. We'll be mad or annoyed or happy - but just like the seasons it'll never really change. Summer always comes after Spring, and Fall comes after that. It's different all the time, but it's always the same. Now that you two are done with coltish nonsense, you need to understand one really important thing."
Connor paused, looking intently into their faces to make sure they were listening. Not even Bryan was making stupid jokes anymore. He looked apprehensive, watching his cousin to see what would come next.
"Dad won't be around forever. Neither will we. But while we're here - while we can - it's our job to look out for each other. There's nothing in the world bigger or more important than that. God made us to run as a herd, and that means that we keep each other safe. Turn around."
Lian turned obediently, but Bryan hesitated, seeming worried about something. Connor twirled his finger in the air, telling him to turn around, and reluctantly, Bryan did. Through the dark trunks and thick woody growth, the gleam of the sunrise flashed on the other side of the grove.
"Some days are going to be dark. Sometimes we won't be able to see our way forward. It's going to be rough, and there will be times when nothing makes sense and we wonder why God put us here at all. But that gleam - that brightness on the far side - that's something we have to hold onto. And I promise that as long as we're family, I'll be here for you. Alright?" Connor looped a thick arm around their shoulders and pulled them both close.
"That's both the scariest and sappiest thing I've ever heard," said Bryan, and gave Connor a shove.
"I mean it, though," said Connor with a grin, leaning on his brother so Lian's hooves sank into the soft turf. "You two mean the world to me, and I'll never leave you high and dry. I'll be counting on you to back me up when we need each other, alright?"
Lian struggled out from under his brother's arm, then looked from him to Bryan and back. He seemed to be thinking very hard about that before he sighed and nodded. "Yeah, I get it. We've got a responsibility to each other. But... I mean, I don't want to sound selfish or anything but... is that all?"
Connor let out a booming laugh. "You think I would just leave it at that? No. You two are coming into town with me tomorrow. We're getting tattoos!"
Bryan brightened even as Lian blanched. "Alright! I've always wanted a tattoo!"
"I thought you already had one, Bryan. You were telling everyone over Christmas that you had one under the fur on your butt."
"I lied," he said with a shrug, and grinned. "It would have been hilarious if I did, though."
Connor shook his head, smiling crookedly. "Eventually you'll catch up to yourself, cousin. You're gonna realize that what God wanted from you all this time was just to be the sort of stallion you'd be proud to remember."
"So serious. Come on, I bet I can beat you back to the farm!" Bryan grinned and took off before the others could respond, laughing as they chased after him. There was nothing they could do to bring him down on a day like this. Not talk about responsibility or pride or any of that junk. It was spring, he was young and fast and reckless, and he was happy to just be himself. Why was that so bad? He liked being himself. Why did he need to live up to someone else's standards?
There were pancakes waiting for them back at the farm, and Colleen greeted them all with smiles and kisses, saying she was so proud of her grown-up boys.
And Bryan couldn't help but wonder, as he sat down to eat his belated birthday breakfast... what it really meant to be one of "her boys."