|The Castle III: Hunt
Author: Guede Mazaka
Arthur looked around the room, noting each face, and told himself that for once, he knew what he was doing, and why he was doing it. Therefore, his nerves shouldn't be twitching in the least.
On the other hand, for the first time in eleven years, he had a very clear idea of exactly what he was risking, and that understandably made him even more anxious than he normally would be. He rested his hands on the desk in front of him and leaned down on them, trying to reassure himself with that simple pressure.
Fingers slid across his and closed over his hand, and he looked down at Guinevere, who was seated at the desk. She calmly gazed back at him and rubbed her thumb over his hand, which somehow soothed his qualms long enough for him to collect his thoughts. Behind Arthur and slouched against the window, Lancelot shuffled his feet against the carpet, which Arthur supposed meant he needed to stop stalling.
"Cerdic's hiding in the city, but on the other side of the gates," Arthur said. He saw the question form on Gawain's face and held up a hand. "I know, they're all supposed to have been sealed or be linked to warning systems. But London's old; it seems like he's found one that we missed."
Merlin rocked forward and put his elbows on his knees, nodding. "Clever of him. He's got a much better chance of killing you if he meets you in there."
"Cold bastard," Lancelot muttered. He edged up behind Arthur and pressed his hands against the small of Arthur's back, creating a comforting spot of warmth there. Though his chin dug rather painfully into Arthur's shoulder, the simple contact did too much to quiet the jitters for Arthur to protest.
"We'll have to drive him and Cynric out." Arthur pulled a map of London across the table, then moved back to let everyone see. He briefly turned his cheek to let it graze against Lancelot's face, but looked forward again when the other man attempted to make it into something more. The queasiness inside Arthur surged again, and he cursed himself for giving in to old habits. "Cynric appears to be near Highgate, and Cerdic seems to lurk most often around Spitalfields. So there'll be two groups, each aiming to force the two of them to the Tower."
Cloth rustled as Dagonet pulled back the curtains, letting the moonlight slip into the room. His profile was outlined in eerie silver as he contemplated the night sky. "You're going to use the full moon that's coming in three days."
"There's a reason they call it the Hunter's," Guinevere replied, somewhat tartly.
Arthur looked at her till she dropped her gaze, then turned back to the rest of the room. "Tristan and Guinevere will be at Highgate, and Lancelot's going to Battle Bridge. Merlin and Gawain are staying here to hold the house. As for the rest of you, I'll assign you when it's nearer to the full moon; we still don't know where most of Cerdic's men are."
Gawain looked rather unhappy about his position, but thankfully, that seemed more due to being separated from Tristan than from having to work with Merlin. As much as Arthur wished he could send Merlin out of the city, the other man was experienced and still fairly powerful, even after Uther's death. And Guinevere seemed to have retained some kind of relation with him, and as strained as that obviously was, it didn't have the kind of tension to it that presaged a true estrangement. Therefore Arthur not only didn't need to intervene, but he also didn't have the right to intervene.
Separations Arthur was an expert on, but connections were still a new field for him, and to judge by the look on Lancelot's face as the other man saw everyone out, his discomfort was quite visible. With a sigh, Arthur sat in the nearest chair and tipped back his head, rubbing at his nose. Then he snapped his chin down when a weight unexpectedly settled on his thighs.
Guinevere was watching him as closely as a cat tracking a mouse behind the wall. "I first thought it was because you were tired, but you've had two days to recover and you're still flinching."
"I'm sorry. I…" Arthur hesitantly lifted his hands to her waist and lightly settled them there. Then she lurched and he instinctively grabbed for her, only to glimpse a tiny bit of triumph lurking in her eyes. He was irritated enough to stroke his palms firmly down her hips, but when she trembled his mind cleared enough for him to understand what she was doing.
Amusement, however bitter, was a better relaxant than anger was. And Guinevere's breath staggered in an oddly adorable way when Arthur laid his head against her breasts.
"The night before I enlisted, Uther made it very clear that if I were to show any preference for one of you, the other one would be-killed." Soft flesh rose and fell against Arthur's lips, soothing him with its slow rhythm. Fingers drifted into his hair, slowly combing it out of its rigid style and into something more natural. "So for eleven years, I was very careful."
"We're grown now," Guinevere murmured, kissing his temple. Her nails scored light as the breeze down the back of his neck and loosened his tie, drawing that away with a languid motion that lured Arthur into looking up again. "We won't break. And your father's dead."
Dead, yes, but gone was a different story. "This still feels like his house."
The hands easing off Arthur's shirt paused, then smoothed the fabric off his shoulders. Guinevere rose up on her knees and began to undo the many various layers of clothing that sheathed her. Thin cotton and linen and silk slipped past Arthur's arms, changing degrees of softness electrifying the hairs on his skin as he watched, fascinated by the revelation of flesh. It was a far, far cry from Rome, where everything was so old that it was ageless. London had its history layered deep as well, but it convoluted itself to hide some things, bring others out, and so it had a sense of mystery that Rome, with its brazenness in everything, didn't.
"And there are locks on the doors for a reason," said Lancelot, strolling back in. He cast an amused eye over Guinevere and a shyly appreciative one over Arthur as he perched on the chair arm. "You know how Galahad gets about accidental walk-ins."
Guinevere rolled her eyes. "And I also know how you get about being left out. Though one would think that you would've learned to wait for your turn by now. Even eight-year-olds are-" The chair nearly fell over as Lancelot lunged and Guinevere ducked.
For his part, Arthur found himself suppressing a surprising surge of humor as he shifted himself to the floor. When the clothes stopped flapping and the bodies settled down, Lancelot was half-sprawled across Arthur, belly-down with his arm stretched out by a tie knotted around his wrist. Holding the other end, Guinevere wore an impish smile on her face. "I think the best solution would be to do what you never could imagine your parents doing in every room. Then you'll have proved that you live here."
Comprehension took a moment to flicker over Lancelot's face, but once it had, he rolled his eyes. "Besides the fact that Guin's always wanted revenge for the time I locked her in the linen closet so she couldn't come kite-flying with us, and this presents the perfect opportunity to do that."
"You two were completely ridiculous sometimes," Arthur recalled, laughing. But then Guinevere, face set in utmost concentration, used the tie to pull Lancelot into a kiss, and the amusement melted in Arthur's throat.
When the two of them drew back, they both had rather startled expressions on their faces. "That was better than I thought," Lancelot muttered.
Guinevere thoughtfully ran her tongue over her lips and settled against Arthur's side, still fingering the tie. She tugged on it, which made Lancelot flinch a little and move restlessly on Arthur's legs. "Still bruised?"
Lancelot wordlessly undid his cuffs and held up his wrists to show the dark splotches ringing them, but before Arthur could do more than begin to feel guilty, Guinevere had wrapped the tie around the offending marks and pulled it tight. That triggered a low hiss from Lancelot, but this time, Arthur noticed that the other man wasn't precisely squirming in pain.
"I thought so." A few more moments of experimentation on Guinevere's part with degrees of pressure had Lancelot curling around Arthur's knee, rubbing a fast-stiffening cock against it. She smirked into Arthur's neck, then licked the skin there as she slipped the end of the tie into his hand and showed him how much tension to maintain in order to tease a moan out of Lancelot.
The uncertainty still had pins through Arthur's nerves, but eyes bright under half-lowered lashes and lazy nuzzling as Lancelot worked his way up Arthur's chest did a good deal to unfasten those. Although their present surroundings were still imbued with the restrictions of the past, this slow heat was reminding Arthur that beneath history lay still older, deeper, more primal things.
His back went cold and stiff, with the realization of why only following a moment later. "Wait…"
Two sets of lips drifted over his collarbones, stroking out the tension. "Arthur. We'll hold you," Lancelot murmured, palms dragging over Arthur's stomach as Guinevere petted Arthur's spine. "I'm not about to spend the evening wrestling you away from London again."
"And I've waited too damned long to have this taken away by something else." Guinevere curled around Arthur's side and slipped beneath Lancelot to squeeze against Arthur; when Lancelot started to complain, she bit his ear. "I have to put up with you. I don't have to put up with some other fey bitch."
"That's not a nice way to talk about your birthplace." Lancelot attempted to snap back at her, but Arthur wound the tie around his hand and yanked the other man aside.
Naturally, that received a cold welcome, but a little nibbling on Lancelot's lip soon had the other man warming back up to Arthur, turning the kiss into a messy, frantic mismatch of teeth and lips that was strangely pleasing all the time. Arthur felt Guinevere pulling at his pants and worked himself onto his knees to make it easier for her; he laid a hand on her waist to help balance her, but those fingers soon found their way to soft, full breasts that rubbed silken heat over his skin. Still licking at the inside of Lancelot's mouth, he caught one of her nipples between his fingers and experimentally pinched.
She stiffened, then went liquid and purring against him, sucking at the edge of his jaw and dancing her mouth down his throat. "I always wondered what you did in Rome."
"Besides business? That's all I ever saw him do." As Arthur had teeth firmly fixed in Lancelot's lower lip, the other man had to mumble the words. Lancelot shrugged, and in doing so, he managed to slip one of his wrists from the tie.
Before Arthur could react, Lancelot had twisted around and rewrapped the bit of silk around both his wrists, only so that they were trapped behind him. The man threw a half-coy, half-nervous look over his shoulder, which made his shirt slip off. "Anyway, it doesn't matter. We weren't waiting for that."
Perhaps not, but they had been waiting for a great deal, and the last thing Arthur wanted to do now was disappoint them. He'd thrown away over a decade of his life in order to protect them, but now he understood that their lives had always been his, even before Uther had made that into an issue of power. To be truthful, he'd been raised under the assumption of that fact, but it was one thing to expect, and quite another to know. And a vastly different third to want.
He was thinking about all of those things as he slowly pulled the tie tight and knotted it off, but then he finally, deliberately, began to explore what he had, and thinking ceased to be the best way of comprehending. Instead, Arthur felt--and it, and not anything that had come before, was his real homecoming.
For once, Lancelot backed down and let Guinevere climb onto Arthur's lap while he sprawled on the side, eyes watching her nearly as intently as Arthur's. She wasn't too concerned with his staring, but the unfamiliar intensity in Arthur's eyes flushed the heat up in her face and dropped the angle of her gaze so that she focused on his chin. Even then, she could still feel his eyes, like so many tendrils of fire coiling around her body, and the way they hooked the breath out of her.
When he tipped her back onto the floor, she had to close her eyes because she was losing too much air. That was a mistake; when everything was dark, then she could do nothing but imagine brilliant colors and dazzling sunbursts that corresponded to each caress of fingers over her breasts, stomach, hips. It made her a little drunk, so she had to grab onto Arthur's shoulders for support, and then that somehow led to kissing, which he did almost too sweetly. As she wasn't a pretty mantelpiece of porcelain and crystal, Guinevere roughened things a little with her teeth.
"I have a feeling you did far more with your time than I did mine," Arthur whispered, a chuckle lacing its way through his slightly-short breath. He stretched out above her and reached for something-Lancelot cursed his way through a moan-while his prick dragged itself up the inside of Guinevere's thigh. "Rome was a beautiful, exciting city, and for some reason I didn't want to enjoy any of it."
"I want to go sometime." A ripple of heat went up Guinevere's back, bending her upward, and when she came back down she had her legs firmly wrapped around Arthur's waist. One short slide, and he was startled back to paying attention to her. At the question that colored his expression, she felt a brief flash of regret. "I…you were gone, and I-we-didn't know when you were coming back-so I didn't wait for you for that--"
He drew fingers down her face and covered her lips so she couldn't say any more, then kissed her around them. "It really doesn't matter. And I'll take you to Rome. I want to see you next to Botticelli's angels."
"She's not going to be prettier. Too bony," Lancelot snickered, his hip suddenly bumping against Guinevere's head. She raised herself up, biting her lip against how that shift puddled her insides, and elbowed him as hard as she could. "Bitch!"
"Stop that," Arthur sighed. A moment later, he pushed all the way in and thus made certain that Guinevere couldn't continue her side; from the abrupt way Lancelot twitched and groaned above her, Arthur had decided to distract him in a similar fashion.
Then Lancelot fell back, and Guinevere was stretched full of shaking, her skin wanting to jerk off her bones and leave the rest of her spilling out into mindlessness. She dug her nails into Arthur's shoulders and felt hot droplets well out, threw back her head and moaned as the sweat trickled into her mouth. Every nerve seemed so sensitized that she could track the progression of a single drop of sweat, yet the collective sensations of a gesture as simple as a mouth nestling in the crook of her neck were so overwhelming that she could barely register the fact that she was reacting to it. When she responded to a graze of fingertips, a sharp nip, a rolling thrust, the realization that she'd done so only hit several seconds later. The delay made it seem as if everything had already happened, and Guinevere was watching it from some point in the future, detached from this intimate history.
Having that thought did rouse her a little, because now that Arthur was permitting it, she had every intention of being as involved as possible. She was not a bystander in someone else's war any more, and if she didn't have to suffer the frustration and pain of the helplessly observant, she certainly wasn't going to.
Guinevere pried her nails from Arthur's back and forced herself to start moving, to meet his rises and to try and break his falls. His eyes were squeezed shut now, face twisted in an open-mouthed grimace, and his mouth was lipping around an endless stream of soundless words. For a wild, confused moment, she thought he might be praying. "Arthur?"
"That's not what he looks like when the city takes him," Lancelot murmured, unexpectedly crawling up to kiss at her throat. He grinned against the skin there and nibbled at her ear. "Just shut up and let him, all right? I want my turn."
She would've made a scathing reply to that if she'd been able. Arthur, however, wasn't as nearly withdrawn into himself as she'd thought; his eyes snapped open and pinned her down while the rest of him drove her back into that state of stupor where time bent in odd ways. Except now white streaks yanked tight between them, reassuring her as to her security where Arthur was concerned, and she knew that when she caught up with her screaming body, he would still be there.
When her conscious returned, the rawness in her throat raked pain into her ragged breathing, but the hurt wasn't entirely bad. While Guinevere didn't need a physical reminder so much as an understanding of minds, she suddenly could see why Lancelot was so sensitive about the marks Arthur left on him. There was a kind of attractive solidity about their definite, undeniable presence.
She rolled over and folded her hands beneath her chin, smiling a little as she felt the soreness between her legs spread into an easy warm burn, and watched Arthur deal with Lancelot with a surprising lack of jealousy. It would've been ridiculously idealistic to say that no, neither of them had been concerned with this part of their relations with Arthur, but Lancelot was right in saying that it hadn't been the part that made the wait worth it.
Besides, for all his faults, Lancelot was a devastatingly beautiful man. Though for Guinevere's money, he looked best when he'd dropped the arrogant show, like now: straddling Arthur's lap, hands clenched at the small of his back around what was a thoroughly ruined tie, and head bowed as Arthur's mouth seemed to devour part of his shoulder. He had an annoying tendency to ask more than he answered, but at the moment, it was clear that he'd do whatever was demanded of him.
"And he's quiet," she muttered, reaching out one hand to drag her fingertips down his buttock. He twisted around to reply, but Arthur trapped the incipient insult between their mouths and Lancelot's outraged stance quickly melted back into helpless writhing.
Arthur seemed almost bemused as his palms rumpled the sweat-soaked fabric of Lancelot's clothing off-as much as he could, given that Lancelot's wrist bonds prevented the shirt from coming fully off. It was as if he still wasn't convinced that he was there, with them.
Lancelot apparently noticed, because he was licking and biting and rubbing at whatever he could reach, as if to persuade Arthur by sheer accumulated sensation of the veracity of their situation. When Arthur tried to tip him back and pin him down, he persisted in the near-frantic caresses to the point that Arthur finally lost patience and dropped his weight on top of the other man, trapping Lancelot mostly on his stomach. The cloudiness in his eyes receded a little as he regarded the one eye of Lancelot's that he could see. Then he leaned down and ran his tongue very slowly along the length of Lancelot's neck, manner purposeful and possessive in a way that Guinevere hadn't quite seen before.
It wasn't just Arthur they were dealing with, she suddenly realized. At least, not the Arthur that had gone to Rome; he'd left some of himself in Britain, and only now was he restoring that to its former place.
She humped herself to the pile of Lancelot's clothes and dug around till she found what she knew she'd find there, then eeled over to Arthur and passed him the tin of salve. He glanced at Lancelot and raised his eyebrow, whereupon the other man looked defensive. "There's nothing wrong with experience."
"True," Arthur acknowledged, calmly slathering up his fingers before dropping his hand between them. He continued to suck at the edges of Lancelot's delicious little whimpers as his fingers did…Guinevere craned her head and avidly watched, having never actually seen this act before. "But I…don't think you need any more-honestly, I don't want you to go looking now. I spent too much of my life giving you up to my father's idea of a proper heir."
"So I had a point?" With pointed laziness, Guinevere nuzzled the side of Arthur's face. She sneaked a look at Lancelot's strained expression, then took her time meeting Arthur's kiss. Beneath them, Lancelot whined and wriggled with impatience; Guinevere grabbed for his wrists, but found that Arthur had already taken them and was using them to keep Lancelot from shoving himself back onto Arthur's fingers.
The inside of Arthur's bottom lip tasted salty, and the hollows beneath his tongue were sweet. Although those tastes should have clashed horribly, they actually made for a wonderful contrast, which deepened when Arthur fed words into Guinevere's mouth. "Yes, I suppose you did. This…is my house now, and I should act like it." A bit of deprecating humor still remained in his eyes, and Guinevere made a note to address that later. "If only to improve my leadership."
"Your house, your city, your what-have-you," gasped Lancelot, who was now bucking rather violently. "But would you please be kind enough to satisfy me so that I don't feel like looking elsewhere?"
Guinevere snorted and sat back to let Arthur answer that. As Lancelot's head dropped to the floor, she slipped her hand beneath his chin and rubbed a thumb over his lips. "Someday, your mouth's going to get you killed."
His eyes were rolling back into his head, and the most sound he could manage was a tiny croaking hiss. When Arthur tried to lift Lancelot by the hips, the other man's knees sprawled limply apart and refused to support his weight.
In the end, Arthur ended up fisting one hand in the shirt and tie knotted around Lancelot's arms and clamping his other hand around Lancelot's thigh while Guinevere steadied the moaning end. She swirled idle patterns on Lancelot's back and enjoyed the view while Arthur did his best to fuck Lancelot quiet.
It was awkward in places, with its share of bumping limbs and harsh breaths, but overall the effect was one of startling grace. The roughness was tempered with odd moments of tenderness-Arthur seemed to have a fondness for the nape of Lancelot's neck-and the trust was something strange and rare and almost shining. Life under Uther had taught both Lancelot and Guinevere to watch their step, to never risk exposing anything they weren't ready to lose, and yet here they were, giving up everything without hesitation to Uther's son.
But Arthur wasn't that any more-he was simply Arthur. And perhaps that was why, Guinevere thought.
When he came, it was with a raw, hoarse shout that wrung the air into snapping, loosing waves of electricity that momentarily misted over Guinevere's vision. She distantly registered the soft, ragged cry that Lancelot let out, and then the thumping of two bodies snapped her mind back to the present. Things, however, were irreversibly different.
She curled up around Arthur's side and allowed herself to sink into the haze that seemed to spin out of the three of them, then dragged herself out just to make sure that that was still possible. When she relaxed again, the world briefly stretched into horizons and wet stones standing at the very edge of her sight, but when she concentrated, the familiar surroundings of the room returned.
"So this is what you felt?" Lancelot asked Arthur as the other man untied him. "It's…large. And…well…old. But mostly…enormous."
Arthur laughed low in his throat and pulled Lancelot's wrists around so he could taste the bruises. "It's London. What were you expecting?"
"God knows. Anyway, I don't really care, except that this means you can't shut yourself off anymore." Lancelot burrowed into Arthur's front, thus shoving his hair into Guinevere's nose. When she poked him, he merely grunted and tucked himself further beneath Arthur's chin.
In contrast to Lancelot's insouciance, worry was beginning to find its way back onto Arthur's face. Guinevere bit down on her irritation and rested her cheek against Arthur's shoulder, waiting.
"I could never separate myself," he finally muttered, brushing lips over the top of her head.
"So don't." She rose and put all her determination into her kiss, then leaned back to look at the result. "Work on taking back your city. With us."
After a few seconds of steady, pensive regard, a reluctant smile chased away the shadows from Arthur's face. "One room down?"
Both Guinevere and Lancelot laughed at that, and for a while, they all forgot about the rest of the world.
"So is it really worth it?"
Tristan resisted the urge to check the time; he knew very well that his hawk would return when it should, and no sooner. He also knew that his anxiety had more to do needing a distraction than from wanting to know the details of her last reconnaissance. With the full moon only hours away from reaching its zenith, little time was left for last-minute changes. Whatever side they were on, everyone involved had passed the point of reversing their commitment.
Galahad shuffled his feet and fidgeted with his sleeve. "Tristan, I said-"
"I heard you. And I don't understand your question." Upstairs, doors creaked and slammed with increasing rapidity as everyone else wrapped up the last bits of business before they left for the hunt. Lancelot's distinctive fast step seemed to be all over the upper floor, but as Tristan listened, it became obvious that the man was circling between Guinevere and Arthur, who was methodically meeting up with all the others. "Is what worth what?"
Normally, a question like that would have sent Galahad into a sulk, but tonight the other man was jittery enough to forget to mistake Tristan's lack of understanding for contempt. "Is-well, you know-we don't exactly have the safest lives in the world. And attachments are sort of a weakness-I mean, I don't know all the details, but it's obvious that all Cerdic has to do to really take out Arthur is to kill Lancelot or Guinevere. Or even maybe just seriously hurt them."
Gawain was still favoring his injured side, which resulted in a gait that wasn't quite a limp, but was still considerably handicapped. He hadn't been happy in the least about having to stay home, but he'd seen the sense in not arguing the point. Surprisingly enough, Tristan found himself also disliking that decision, because it meant he couldn't keep an eye on Gawain. If-though it was unlikely, given the centuries of work put into building protections around the land the house occupied-Cerdic were to send men against here, then Tristan wouldn't be able to return in time to do anything.
"Why do you and Gawain-well, wouldn't it be easier if you didn't have to worry about each other?" Galahad continued, checking his pistol and rifle for the third time in the past fifteen minutes.
Tristan opened his mouth to say something dismissive and curt, then shut it when he realized that he couldn't. Not about what Galahad was asking about. "It…would, in some ways. But things aren't always about fighting. And when there's no danger, then living without Gawain is harder."
"And you think that's worth more than how nervous you are right now?" When Tristan gave him a sharp look, Galahad shrugged one shoulder and stared up the staircase. "I know it's bad when I can tell you're actually worried."
Above them, the footsteps were still hurrying about, but they were gradually congregating near the stairs. Gawain's head unexpectedly popped out from around the corner, and when he saw Tristan, a tiny wave of relief passed across his face. He held up a finger to signify one minute, then disappeared.
"I worry because it is worth it. Does that answer your question?" Tristan finally said. He heard a high, thin cry in his head and crossed to the window to let in his hawk.
"I think so." Galahad stared down at the floor, abruptly wistful. "If this doesn't end badly, maybe I should start…I don't know…"
Tristan tried not to laugh as he spoke with his hawk and rewarded it; he busied himself with settling it on a side-table. "Vanora's dying to match one of us up with her cousins."
"And then I'd have to see Bors that much more." The grimace the other man made sorely tried Tristan's composure. "No, thank you. I think I'll try consoling some of the many broken hearts Lancelot's left around the city."
"Broken, I doubt. Disappointed…maybe. I understand that he was always a good time," Gawain snickered, coming down the steps. He draped an arm around Tristan's waist and snaked his palm beneath Tristan's jacket to warm up the cool linen of the shirt beneath, then reached out and petted the hawk. "Anything new?"
Tristan rubbed his cheek along Gawain's, letting the stubble there rasp into his skin as a reminder. "No. Are they ready?"
"Yes." Arthur stood on the stairwell landing, while everyone else was arranged on the stairs below him. His eyes had traces of uncertainty lingering in them, but his stance was firm and he showed no other signs of wavering. "And I want you all to know that this isn't a war. War implies that both sides have a valid reason for resorting to violence, which isn't the case here."
"You've never even said more than two sentences to Cerdic. How the hell could there be a reason?" Lancelot muttered.
Ignoring the other man, Arthur shifted his hold on his hat and continued. "This is a hunt. We're going out tonight to eradicate the elements that threaten the stability of the city-there is no glory here, only necessity. So I don't want to see any heroics. Carry out your tasks, do that well, and then retire. I ask nothing more of you."
Bors was nodding in agreement, while Dagonet didn't seem inclined to object. Guinevere did, but before she could give voice to her protests, Arthur had stepped down and blocked her mouth with his own. It was brief, but the kiss' force swelled the room.
At that, Tristan raised an eyebrow and exchanged a look with Gawain, who was equally surprised. Even when they were children, Arthur had never been very demonstrative in public. Of course, the current company could hardly be called public, yet he'd never been this unreserved in all the time that Tristan had known him.
Not consciously, Tristan amended as he recalled a few nights ago. He watched much more closely than before as Arthur pulled Lancelot to him and breathed deeply in the crook of the other man's neck, then stepped back. Without looking back, Arthur walked down the rest of the stairs and went out the door. He would wait at the Tower by himself for Cerdic, though Tristan doubted that that meeting would only consist of those two. To judge by the expressions on their faces, Lancelot and Guinevere were set on making sure that that wasn't so.
"It's more serious in here than it was for the funeral," Galahad finally snapped, stalking for the door. "Can we go and get this over with?"
"Good thing he's driving you," Guinevere muttered to Lancelot as they followed. "I'd probably break his neck."
Lancelot gave her a skeptical look as he held the door for her. "And you think I'd be less likely to?"
"God. I'm almost glad I don't have to put up with that tonight," Gawain said, fingers squeezing Tristan's sides. The humor died fast from his eyes and he looked at Tristan as if he could see all the way through him. Then he leaned in and pecked the corner of Tristan's mouth; if he'd done any more, it wasn't certain that Tristan would have been able to let go. And Gawain knew that. "Do not make me call the doctor. Or I'll make Galahad play nurse to you."
Tristan smiled, but he didn't say anything as he forced himself to draw away. His hawk ruffled her feathers and Gawain went over to calm her, so the last thing Tristan saw was the gentle movement of Gawain's hand over empty space.
While Lancelot normally didn't mind wandering around behind the gates, he was currently wishing that he was anywhere else.
Well, not anywhere else. Morning had seen Guinevere flopped face-down in her pillow, gracelessly tangled into the blankets, and Arthur sitting up against the headboard while his fingertips wandered over the sore spots on Lancelot's neck. As was usual for him, he hadn't seemed to have gotten much sleep, but he had looked calmer. More at ease and less tense, and he had stopped glancing at the door as if he thought that any minute, Uther was going to walk through. And when Lancelot had shoved his head into the other man's lap, Arthur had stayed relaxed.
"You're yawning a lot. I thought you spent the night in." Galahad was visible in strips due to the mist swirling around all of them, and all his assorted pieces conveyed jumpy nerves. Slightly beyond him was Bors, who had preoccupied himself with greeting the hounds as they appeared, and who was now…greeting the horses, much to Galahad's dismay. "Oh, fuck. I haven't ridden in at least a year."
"Well, it's not something you forget," Lancelot snapped, pretending that he knew better. As tense as the other two was, it wouldn't help matters for him to lose his head as well. They were watching, and they looked as if he was the only dependable thing in the entire shifting fog-land.
Lancelot suppressed the bubble of hysterical laughter that expanded in his throat and grimly mounted the nearest horse. He briefly wondered if this pressure of reliance was why Arthur was surprisingly unsure for someone with his resources, then shook off that thought. With everything that they had to do, he didn't have the time for the kind of brooding ideas like that required. The moon was high here as well, and it tinted the flowing mists mercury so that the land seemed to churn impatiently about them. One by one, the hounds lifted their noses to the air and whuffed out their own white clouds before sounding.
The weight on Lancelot's back turned physical as he curled his arms over his head and let his pistols slide into swords. It took a moment to secure those, and then there was no more waiting. To be truthful, the strange atmosphere had begun to settle within him, and he was starting to feel the charged strain beneath the languid disorder of the mists.
"We going?" Bors asked, normally jocular eyes sheened over with the same dark eagerness as in the dogs' gazes.
"We're going." With that, Lancelot clucked at the dogs and sent them into the mists. A moment later, he and the others followed.
It didn't take long for the first howls to bell through the thick, moist air. The eerie calls skittered over Lancelot's skin and brushed in whenever he was straying too far in the wrong direction. They seemed to pull his horse along, urging it faster and faster till he could feel the sweat lathering up against his legs. He vaguely noted that he couldn't hear the hoofbeats, or even the horse's breathing, though he could hear his own breath perfectly well.
Galahad abruptly peeled away and went after a flash of white and black; a second later, there was a wet thump and gurgling. Somewhere nearby, a dog yipped in triumph.
"Well, did promise the wife to give a good account of myself," Bors snorted, swerving after another glimmer of color. He plunged through the fog with enough force that it didn't immediately close after him, and so Lancelot could just glimpse a pale face and a raised sword.
Lancelot's own horse was still moving, trailing the pack, and he let it have its head while he reached out for the others. Guinevere still hadn't passed through a gate, but Arthur was a solid presence in the distance, a landmark that Lancelot could use to ground himself.
"Right, Tower there. Bridge should be…" He twisted in the saddle and thus was in a perfect position to see the end posts tearing up from the fog. The horse reared and shrieked, then lunged onto the bridge. Cursing, Lancelot threw back his weight and sawed on the reins.
A whining sound from the left sent him sideways in a move he barely remembered learning, and then reflexes that weren't entirely his set him upright after he'd dodged the sword. When he pulled on the reins this time, the horse instantly responded and turned around to face Cerdic.
"Well…your clothes are better. But I think I liked it better when I could tell the difference between you and a haystack." The wind was whispering in Lancelot's ear, and his vision was layering itself with shadows of things he half-remembered from history books. He gritted his teeth and made himself focus till there was only one Cerdic before him.
"I see Arthur hasn't managed to improve you." The other man hefted his sword and laid a broad hand against his charger's neck, watching Lancelot out of small, considering eyes. He conducted himself as if he knew exactly what he was doing, which was rather worrying: Cerdic wasn't supposed to have had much experience with this sort of thing. "No matter. I don't need you."
Lancelot's palms itched for hilts, but he willed his fingers to stay loose and uncurled. It was plain, unchangeable fact that if this was to end cleanly, Cerdic and Arthur had to settle the matter themselves. Moreover, Arthur had made it very clear that he didn't want anyone endangering themselves for him, and Lancelot had learned enough about the cracks beneath Arthur's façade to know that that wasn't simple worry, or a lack of belief in Lancelot's abilities. That was how the man was, no matter how annoying Lancelot found it.
"No, I suppose Cynric thinks he could limp about as Scepter." All around them, the air was shivering, snapping itself inches from Lancelot's skin. If he ceased concentrating for a single moment, his view of Cerdic was instantly obscured by a bluish haze. "Don't know what you'll do for a Crown, though…any woman in their right mind would cut their throat before crawling into bed with you."
Cerdic's mouth moved in what might have been an ironic smile, if it'd been less hairy. "I think it's been proven that only two are necessary." He swung his sword to the ready position and braced himself in the stirrups. "Arthur…you know, I've been hearing that name for years. Never understood why you were all so loyal to a mere word."
"If you think that's all it is, then I don't think I could make you understand." As he spoke, Lancelot kept an eye on the rippling of the air. The moment it flattened away, he let himself open up to the old currents and dropped forward to crouch over his horse's neck as it sprang forward.
He closed his eyes and let the horse do the work, feeling the shift of its muscles merge with the movements of his and with the ebb-flow of the city's great lines of transportation that were still moving thousands of people somewhere in the layers that made up this place. Because this was London in its essence, and the form itself didn't matter so much as the understanding of it. Cerdic thought it was a possession to be taken; Arthur treated it as a part of life. And Lancelot much preferred Arthur's way, because when it came down to it, London was Arthur. Growing, sometimes uncertain, moving in ways that mostly reacted to the present instead of anticipating the future, but firm in the core.
The sword zinged over Lancelot's head, and the air displaced by its passing slashed his cheek. He would've rubbed away the burn, but he was too busy urging his horse onwards.
Behind him, Cerdic gave a shout and came after him. Dirt clods pelted up from beneath galloping hooves, then arced back to vanish in the roiling mists, which were so thick that if the bits of earth hadn't appeared, Lancelot wouldn't have been able to tell whether he was on land or water.
A hand bearing a sword suddenly lunged from the mist; he yanked out his own sword and cut it off at the wrist, but the blade had already darted in to slice open his sleeve. It was a shallow wound, but the air quickly leached the heat from its trickle of blood and infused it with a chill that shocked down Lancelot's marrow.
Ahead, the Tower suddenly bulged up as a monolithic darkness, and Lancelot could feel Arthur's rising edginess making the stones waver, could hear Guinevere whooping as she came in from the opposite direction. Grinning, he slapped the reins against his horse's flanks and listened in delight as hooves abruptly clattered on rock instead of soft turf. Before him, he could see Guinevere's horse jumping a low stone wall, then take a sharp turn towards him as she twisted around to yell an insult at a furious Cynric. When she looked at him, her smile was as wild as the excitement pounding in his head. It was so easy--
Guinevere's face suddenly paled, just as Lancelot looked past her and saw Cynric lift a crossbow. He jerked his horse into a pin-turn along a wall and was about to throw his sword at the man when the air twanged.
Lancelot threw himself sideways and crashed through a window. He threw up his arms to protect his face and hit the glass shards on the floor rolling so pain sliced all over him. But it wasn't incapacitating, and the world hadn't started to break, so he assumed Guinevere had also dodged.
Then he tried to stand and nearly passed out from the brutal fire clawing up his leg.
Gawain skidded through the door and threw open the window just as streaks of blood were beginning to appear on the glass. As he clutched his injured side and caught his breath, wings slapped past his shoulder and soared somewhere outside.
"Something's gone wrong," Merlin said from the doorway.
"It's not serious yet. The city isn't shaking." Nevertheless, Gawain gripped the windowsill and prayed to all the powers he knew of.
When Guinevere burst through the doors, the first thing she saw was the bloody arrow shaft lying in the aisle. Then her eyes lighted on the red trail and followed it to Lancelot, curled in on himself a few yards from the broken window. He was struggling to wrap his torn-off sleeve around his leg.
"God, you idiot. If you took that out the wrong way, you'll be limping for months," she muttered, hurrying over and helping to drag him away from the window. "Where's your other sword?"
"He dropped it," sneered Cynric from the door. Guinevere whirled around, dagger in hand, but the man already had his crossbow up. "Don't move."
Snarling, she didn't. The shadow on the balcony that ran around the edge of the hall, however, flitted into full view. For a moment, Guinevere wondered how Tristan had managed to arrive so quickly, but then she caught herself and looked away before Cynric could notice.
"Which to do first…" Cynric fingered the trigger of his crossbow, slowly shifting his aim from Guinevere to Lancelot and then back. He apparently made up his mind on Guinevere, and was just beginning to squeeze when a nothing attacked his face, screeching like the banshee winds. She dropped down and shoved Lancelot behind a bench just as the singing of Tristan's bowstring exploded the tension in the room.
Something long and dark blurred at Guinevere. She instinctively threw up her arm and then came very close to biting off her tongue as hurt ripped across it. The arrow failed to stick in her arm and deflected into the wall, but the resulting wash of blood almost immediately sent her into a daze.
"You were saying something about arrows?" Lancelot rasped as he crawled over. He helped her up, then drew out his second sword and went over to Cynric, who had collapsed face-down so that the arrow in the back of his head pointed directly upward. One chop sent the other man's head rolling across the stones, which Guinevere now noticed were absorbing the blood.
She glanced up at Tristan, who was holding out his arm for his hawk. He looked back at her, then behind her. His face stiffened and he yanked up his bow, but too late to block the shaft that ripped into his shoulder; the translucent hawk shrieked as it dove after its crumpling master.
Lancelot quietly shifted to stand between Guinevere and the window as they both turned to face Cerdic. "You've lost your son. No matter what you do now, you won't be able to take the city," he said.
"I never intended to take the city. London ate Uther alive-why would I want that?" Cerdic stood outside the window, still holding Lancelot and Guinevere at bay with his drawn bow. At this range, he could fire twice before they could do anything. "No, Arthur can keep London."
"But then-" Guinevere hissed and curled her nails into her palms as she slotted the pieces together. She held her wounded arm against her, but hooked her other one around Lancelot's and tried to pull him back. "That's why you went for us. You wanted him alive, but mad. And then you think you can control him?"
Something black and old flitted through Cerdic's eyes as he pulled back the arrow that last inch. "I did well enough with his father. It's hard to believe that the son could be any better."
Then the hall fractured.
The moment Arthur felt their approach, he hurried down from his watchpoint, nearly tripping over the stairs. When he put a hand against the wall for balance, the stones sank in and then bulged out, turning malleable in response to the coming conflict. That irritated his already raw nerves, because it seemed as if even the city was in doubt of the ending. For his part, Arthur had never been more sure of himself.
Lancelot and Guinevere were tied to him by more than familiarity and friendship and lust-Arthur still couldn't quite say love-and if he fell even a fraction of an inch, they would suffer. He couldn't bring himself to cut them off any longer, and so they wouldn't be able to survive him as Merlin had Uther. Therefore, if he wanted them to live, he had to win.
Halfway down the stairs, pain tried to buckle his leg out from under him. Arthur ignored it, and ignored what it meant, and pushed himself on, boxing up the hurt into the deepest parts of him. He was nearly at the end when fire seemed to lance through his arm; he forced that away as well and concentrated on what the stones and the air and the damp were telling him about Cerdic.
Desperate. Angry. Disappointed and sad about a death-about Cynric-but thinking that a triumph would make up for that. And very certain of himself.
If Arthur had anything to say about that, Cerdic would soon see the error in his judgment. However reluctant Arthur had been before, he wasn't hesitating now to use everything he had. London was his, murmured the echoes. His, with all that that claim entailed, and he wasn't going to give it up a second time.
He came out into the courtyard and saw Cerdic's back first. Then Arthur saw the people behind the arrow and he reacted.
Sky and ground fell to pieces to reveal another set of walls, another heaven and earth, another world. Arthur dimly heard shouts in voices he recognized as the stones went up around him and Cerdic, but he paid them no mind. His sword was in his hand now, its weight a reassuring balance to the restless energy surging about inside him. The blood was so close to the surface that he could taste it, that his blade and his land were begging for it.
Cerdic seemed to understand, because he dropped his bow and arrow and produced his own sword. His shoulders slumped a little as he came forward and readied himself, but his chin stayed up and his eyes never strayed from Arthur's face. "Who am I fighting?"
The words seemed to make themselves in Arthur's throat, which became no more than a vessel for them. "Who you always were. London."
"And why the Pendragons?" Far from sounding upset, Cerdic appeared to be genuinely curious. "Why continue to favor them, when you know their capacity for failure?"
"Because that is known, and understood, and wanted." Arthur swung up his sword, idly reading the runes that named it Excalibur. "They never failed from lack of loyalty, however peculiar their expression of their faith. And they love. You only lust."
One slow nod, and then Cerdic's eyes hardened. "Fair enough."
Their swords clashed twice before the sound caught up, and then Arthur was immersed in a frantic whirl of singing metal and clinging mist. He stepped back and slashed low, then spun in the same movement to block the oncoming blow. It was a dance, older than them and yet made anew with every step they took. It was an ancient pattern, one that had been bred into Arthur's line long before his birth, and Cerdic was not the one that would break it. This Arthur knew.
This he made so.
The blood flew from both blades, chasing away the mist to splatter heavy and red on the stone that subsequently appeared beneath their feet. Cerdic looked at Arthur one last time, and while he did they both fell to their knees. But it was Cerdic who gave that twisted, ironic smile, and it was Cerdic who continued to fall.
Arthur gasped, and the pain shocked him back into himself. He breathed again, tasting the air as if he'd just woken from a very, very long dream, and then he grabbed at his side to staunch the bleeding. He needed to leave, but he'd broken the gate in separating Cerdic from Lancelot and Guinevere and he wasn't sure if he could build another one.
No, that wasn't an option. If he was stuck here, then none of them would ever be free. And-and freedom was choosing what to live with, and not what to live without.
He chose them.
Tristan had just managed to drag himself down the stairwell to the first floor when he heard Guinevere's yell. His vision went black as he stumbled and jarred his wounded shoulder, but his hawk swooped down to nip his ear; the tiny pain cleared the darkness.
Both Guinevere and Lancelot had rushed up to the broken window, which appeared to have had some kind of opaque sheet shoved into it. White-faced, Lancelot had braced himself against the sill and was trying to stab through the blockage with his sword. When that failed, he slumped back and clutched at his bloody leg while Guinevere shoved a hand wreathed in flames against the sheet. She didn't even manage to scorch it.
"Arthur took Cerdic somewhere," Lancelot told Tristan. "He just…you look horrible."
"I know." Shock had set in, so Tristan wasn't actually feeling much pain, but his body was still reacting as if he was. He gingerly worked his way over the broken glass that still littered the floor and laid a hand against the obstruction. It most resembled a flat pane of stone, but when he pressed, it did give a little. "And you know he has to do this."
Guinevere growled at him, then smacked the sill with her hand. "Yes, but he's deeper in London than I've ever seen anyone go. What if he doesn't come back out?"
"Can you still feel him?" Tristan asked.
Lancelot opened his mouth, then shut it and bowed his head, concentration taking over his entire body. After a moment, Guinevere leaned against him and did the same.
As could have been expected, there was no warning. One moment the two of them were propped up against the stony pane, and the next they were falling through. Tristan didn't hesitate in leaping after them.
He tucked his feet under him, but his shoulder still screamed at the suddenness of the landing, and his sight went brutally white. But then it was blessedly dark, and his hawk was cooing at his side while familiar hands helped him stand.
"Christ. You took your time," Galahad said. "And getting shot by an arrow in the twentieth century-I don't know whether Gawain will laugh or kill you."
Blinking brought back colors and shapes, and Tristan recognized the familiar outlines of the Tower of London as it appeared to everyone. "Worry about finding a doctor that won't ask questions. And-"
Arthur was a few yards away, half-crumpled to the ground. Pain distorted his face, but the way he held onto Lancelot and Guinevere showed that he was far from dead. In fact, he looked the most alive that Tristan had ever remembered seeing, and that included all the memories of childhood. In the past, there'd always been an element of restraint to Arthur's happiness, but that was wholly absent here.
"Stop doing that," Lancelot finally muttered. He tried to stand and promptly fell back, which caused Arthur to wince as the other man hit him. "Sorry."
"Idiot." Guinevere levered herself up and looked around, taking in everything. She nodded to Bors, who offered Arthur a hand up. "Home?"
He nodded and steadied Lancelot against him, then let go of Bors and leaned against her. "Yes…home."
When Merlin had left the house, most life had just begun to stir in the gray light of dawn. Of course, there were exceptions-he'd met Tristan in the kitchen, and Arthur had briefly appeared to ask where Merlin was going before returning to bed-but for the most part, the city was at its most silent.
As it'd fallen to him to prepare the way, he'd taken this journey several times before in the desire to ensure that everything was perfect. Though his life had twisted itself into something he deeply regretted, that still didn't nullify the goodness of the parts he had treasured, and it was for the sake of those moments that he worked so hard now.
"For that and for a little girl that's grown past me," he told himself. "And for the son that might have been mine as well, if I'd been less blind."
The gate creaked just as badly as it had done on the day of Igraine's funeral, and but the earth heaped up before the grave was still freshly dark, and damp with the dew. Threads of mist wove a loose frame about the headstone, and if Merlin strained his imagination, he could almost see clasped hands.
"Well, Uther. Your son's continued to defy you, and I think it's well that he does." Merlin gripped his cane a little tighter and bent down to lay the single flower he'd brought on the headstone. "And this isn't for you, you inflexible tyrant. It's for Igraine. Again, I'm sorry, my lady. But if it reassures you, your son's grown up very well."
It hurt to stand again, and the pain lingered a little longer than usual, telling Merlin that age had noticed his lack of support now that both his others were gone. Far more draining, however, was the expectation of so many years alone among a new generation that had been taught to close him out. He wasn't angry so much as resignedly admiring, for he truly was amazed at how loyal they'd proved to each other in spite of everything, but the bleakness of his future pricked rather deeply at him.
"He's taken the best parts of both of you-though that isn't to say he's without fault. And I still reserve judgment on that rogue you found him for his Scepter, Uther, but…" Merlin shrugged and traced symbols in the grass with his stick, the curves and swirls dark against the shining dewed blades. "London's in good hands. I think you came very close to breaking everything, but Arthur's much stronger than any of us thought."
The light was turning yellow now, too bright for Merlin's tastes. He made a slight bow and turned his feet back to the car he'd parked at the curb, then paused. "Yes, I still love you. Believe it or not, Uther, you never lost that."
A light breeze sprang into Merlin's face, making his eyes burn and forcing him to squint against the wind. His vision blurred, then slid elsewhere, and for a moment, he thought he saw a golden doorway outlined before him. Beloved voices chimed in his ears.
He was sorely, sorely tempted, but too many years had taught him the value of patience, and the danger of leaping before he was ready. And he wasn't now. "Give me a year. I want to see this all through before I take leave of Guinevere…and then we'll see whether you've learned about forgiveness."
When Merlin opened his eyes, the dull reality he saw around him was a blow to the gut, but he kept himself upright, and his walk back was without tremble. Still, the last trace of laughter in the air was a comfort, and the warmth of the house to which he was returning, even if not directed at him, was still something to look forward to.
Castles rise stone by stone, nail by nail, bound together with mortar and blood and sweat. Lives wear down their steps, deaths fill their corridors, and past and present stack on top of each other. They stand eternal guard, sheltering those that hold the keys to the gates.