Author: Guede Mazaka
“Yes, I grieve for them.” Arthur paced another turn about the aisle, then wheeled and smacked the heel of his hand against the nearest wood post. Then he breathed out a snarl and bent his head, pressing both palms against the wall. “I grieve because they were my men and my friends and what, exactly, is wrong with that?”
Startled by the loud thumps, she was ruffling her wings and making distressed sounds. Tristan did his best to soothe her, but the sharp timbre of Arthur’s voice continued to rattle her nerves. A few times she even snapped at Tristan, so excited that she no longer recognized him.
“He criticizes the other officers for not caring whether the knights under them live or die, and then he criticizes me for mourning. It’s a contradiction!” For unnecessary emphasis, Arthur hit the wall again.
Tristan gave up and took her outside, where the stiff cold breeze soon had her spreading her wings and bending eagerly into the wind. With a sigh, he let her loose and stared after her for a moment, wondering what it would be like to live so, with only the air and the sky and none of the frustrations on the ground.
But only for a moment. His sense reasserted itself and, ruefully shaking his head, he girded up his patience for the conversation.
When he re-entered the stable, Arthur was seated among the piles of unmended tack that Tristan had been meaning to see to. The other man had his elbows propped up on his knees and his hands rubbing hard at his face, while his shoulders hunched and stooped beneath more than the weight of his armor. He glanced up at Tristan’s approach, and his expression was unsurprisingly apologetic. “I’m sorry. Did I scare her badly?”
“She’s heard worst from Bors.” Slight annoyance touched Tristan’s mouth. “From his brats, too.”
That brought a fleeting smile to Arthur’s mouth, but worry and confusion soon flattened out the curve of his lips. He parted them to say something, then apparently thought the better of it and instead reached for Tristan’s hands. Those he pulled to his mouth, gently bringing Tristan to his knees before the other man. Though it wasn’t an act of submission, or even of any distant, rarefied virtue, to do that for Arthur. It was a way to put Tristan where he could press his warm palms against the cold skin of Arthur’s face; the other man had been out riding since early morning, and probably hadn’t stopped for a meal or even a quick pass by a brazier. The stables were filled with the earthy heat of the horses, but Arthur hadn’t calmed down long enough to have any chance of absorbing that.
“Sometimes I think you should be made the first Sarmatian saint,” Arthur eventually muttered, tugging Tristan closer.
“If that happened, then you wouldn’t have me anymore,” Tristan snorted, but not too mockingly because the sentiment beneath the jest was too solemn. His fingers slid from Arthur’s neck down to the buckles that the other man had yanked too tightly, then worked under them and loosened them. They were tucked into a far corner of the stables, and he had been careful to shut the door.
A long, low breath slipped from Arthur, and very slowly, his shoulders began to untense into a less beaten pose. He tucked his fingers beneath the hem of Tristan’s jerkin, which was half-undone, and stroked small circles from Tristan’s back to his hips. Then Arthur turned his head, twisting them both downwards as he did so he trapped Tristan between his mouth and the bench.
They’d grown used to wearing armor as second skins, but once in a while, even that experience wasn’t quite enough to avoid bruises. And after their tongues found each other, they couldn’t slow down long enough to fully undress themselves. Once Arthur had had a taste of warmth, he seemed determined to seek out the rest, and Tristan found himself more than eager to help. Chainmail scratched and slid past the leather, scraping painfully through his undershirt, but in its wake came smoothing palms that carefully bent and molded him into a hoarse shout that he had to muffle by biting into Arthur’s collarbone. Tristan saw sky on the ceiling.
He closed his eyes, concentrating, and then opened them to see Arthur’s straining face. There was too much hurt in those deep, ever-shifting lines. So Tristan wrapped his arm around the other man and reached down for Arthur’s cock. Three long, steady strokes and Arthur was snapping loose, breath ripping off his teeth as he stiffened above Tristan.
It was going to be a mess to clean. But instead of getting started on that, Tristan leaned up and licked the sweat off of Arthur’s face. Scraped their cheeks against each other as he dipped into Arthur’s neck. One hand came up to cradle Tristan’s head, and then Arthur laughed to himself. Caressed Tristan’s side, feathering fingers beneath clothes to find the spots that would make Tristan gasp and squirm.
“I wish I had your composure.” Arthur nuzzled off half his smile in the join of Tristan’s shoulder and neck, then sat them up. After catching his breath, he got out a rag and started to wipe clean both of them.
Tristan leaned into him, but reluctantly began to refasten Arthur’s clothes. He was, however, careful to not do it nearly as tightly as the other man had. When his hand brushed over one of the red marks left by the straps, Arthur winced a little. “You do, except for him. What happened this time?”
The other man blinked. “I just told—”
“What you both said. I want to know what happened.” Sometimes it amused Tristan how two men so reliant on the power of words could render those so meaningless by their actions and true feelings. Sometimes.
Most of the time, it irritated him and made him rather happy he generally needed to pay attention only to concrete clues. Unfortunately, that clearly wasn’t going to work here. He would have to track Lancelot down later and needle the other side of the story out of him, then compare the two versions. Usually that was Arthur’s specialty, but Arthur’s objectivity never managed to survive Lancelot.
A clear example of that was how blank Arthur’s current expression was. Resisting his incipient headache, Tristan tried to think of the right words. If it was bad enough that Arthur was losing his temper in front of Tristan…“Where were you when the argument started?”
“In my room. We’d just received new orders, and I was going over them with him.” The mystification on Arthur’s face increased, but so did the trace of thoughtfulness that never quite left his eyes. He was beginning to follow Tristan’s line of thought. “Since the campaign season’s over, we’re dispersing the squadrons to their garrisons, like we do every year. But we’re short officers, so I’m being temporarily reassigned to escort one group back to Londinium.”
“How long will you be gone?” Tristan asked, now paying much closer attention. For some reason, his hands were throbbing with a low pain, but he ignored that.
Arthur grimaced and sank back against the wall, casting a dejected, frustrated look at Tristan. It was obvious, however, that the emotions in that glance weren’t actually meant for Tristan, but for someone that wasn’t currently present. “A month.” He spoke rapidly, as if that would force the sting to fade faster. “Then I mentioned that the graveyard needed repairs, and…the conversation went downhill from there.”
That conclusion didn’t surprise Tristan in the least, but what did was how strongly he suddenly wanted to hit Arthur. To distract himself, he looked down and only then noticed that he was digging his nails into the bench so hard one of his fingers was bleeding. On closer examination, he discovered that he’d shoved a splinter into the pad of the tip.
Tristan grimly set his jaw and squeezed out the little bit of wood, as if eliminating all difficulties were that easily done.
After a few breaths, Arthur bent forward and picked up Excalibur from where he’d set it on the floor. “I think I see your point.”
“So none of us are going with you.” And the Woads were by no means pacified, and one of their favorite strategies was to attack columns on the road, Tristan wanted to add. His reason knew well enough that if Arthur had cavalry he could use, the other man would be able to deal with any situation that arose, but nevertheless Tristan would have felt much better if it was him riding beside Arthur. Or Lancelot, or one of the others. It wasn’t a slur against the skills of the other cavalry squadrons; it was simply that Arthur was…who Tristan wanted to follow. And if he couldn’t, it hurt.
“No. I…” Fingers grazed the side of Tristan’s face, then knotted in his hair. “I’m sorry,” Arthur whispered just before kissing him hard enough to draw blood.
* * *
After that revelation, a day of wrestling with voiceless leather seemed like as good a diversion as any, so Tristan stayed in the stables instead of going to look for Lancelot. He still planned to, if only to ensure they’d have a reasonably civil farewell, but at the moment he wasn’t quite inclined to helping Arthur.
It was an irrational feeling and would pass soon enough, because Tristan was intelligent and could understand that Arthur’s duties demanded he do whatever his superiors told him to do. He knew being angry was pointless, and that the best he could do was to give Arthur something to hurry back to. And eventually, he’d remember that.
But until then, his needle was going to jab a little too far through the strap and stab him in the thumb. “Damn it.”
“Damn it!” echoed through the stables. The fury in the voice startled Tristan into poking himself again, as well as scaring some of the horses nearby into high piercing whinnies.
A moment later, the source of the disturbance stalked around the corner and nearly surprised Tristan into falling off the bench.
The man stopped and stared at Tristan, then shook his head. “Didn’t know anyone was in here. Sorry.”
He turned to go, then paused. After another thought, Gawain flung himself onto the bench and glared at the far wall, fists grinding into his thighs. “Why do I put up with him?”
Normally Tristan would have been more than happy to listen to Gawain and see if he could help, but at the moment, he wasn’t feeling fit for company. But it was his friend, so he willed himself to be silent and apparently sympathetic. With any luck, Gawain would talk himself through it and then leave Tristan alone.
“He actually thinks I’d—and I say nothing about the whores he brings back sometimes. I don’t actually mind them, but you know, if I had a choice, I’d rather they not be there. And then it’s been four years, and he sees me have one friendly conversation with Percival and—I should have punched him.” Gawain kicked his legs straight and folded his arms across his chest, then put his head back so he could be angry at the rafters. “He’s old enough for that, even if he’s too immature to be sensible.”
And so was Lancelot, Tristan savagely thought. Then he had to stop and jeer at himself for the same flaw. If anything, he should have been thankful the other man had lashed out at Arthur, or else Arthur probably wouldn’t have mentioned his trip for a few days. It made no sense to be upset at Lancelot for provoking Arthur into revealing information that aggravated Tristan.
“That little shit.” The words burst off Gawain’s tongue like a bolt from a crossbow. But almost immediately after, the man’s rage burnt out into more characteristic fault-finding in himself. “Maybe I should have said something earlier. But it’s…hard to. It feels worse than being upset with him.”
That about summed Tristan’s difficulty with Arthur. Even though he was used to prodding the other man and advising him, it was usually about how to handle Lancelot. Or how to deal with the Woads. When it came to discussing himself with Arthur, Tristan’s tongue never seemed to be able to spit out its self-imposed curb. If he was a saint, he was certainly an unwilling one.
The man sitting beside him let out a sarcastic laugh that perfectly expressed Tristan’s mood. “This is so ridiculous. I can’t put up with it any longer.”
“I know.” Tristan dropped the mess he was making of the bridle in his lap and put away his needle and thread, then looked at his friend. “I don’t think laughing will do anything.”
“No…” Gawain started to say, and then he froze, glancing at the end of the aisle.
Framed in the doorway was a nervous, irked Galahad, who glared at Tristan as he came in as if his eyes alone would make Tristan disappear. Then he looked at Gawain and made a vague waving gesture towards the rest of the stable. “Can we go—”
Gawain glanced at Tristan, who resettled himself on the bench and pointedly braced his feet on the floor. Guilt was starting to creep into him for wanting Gawain to leave only a few moments before, when after all, it’d been his friend that had—albeit unknowingly—clarified some important matters for him. So he would stay and offer what support he could.
Galahad slowly leaned against the far wall, fists clenched to his sides and expression remarkably controlled. “Gawain…”
“No. We can’t. You started in front of Percival and Dagonet, so it seems only right that we finish in front of Tristan.” Of course it wasn’t, but Gawain didn’t look as if he was in the mood to be considerate. While he didn’t anger often or easily, when he did he was equally slow to calm down.
Naked shock was an interesting emotion to see on Galahad. But characteristically, he recovered quickly and adjusted his chin to point a little higher. “Fine.”
“Fine? Fine?” Gawain abruptly shoved himself off the bench, hard enough to not only rock him onto his feet, but nearly into falling forward as well. He threw up his hands and his voice, thundering till the horses started battering at their stalls once more. “Fine? What’s fine? Don’t you have any sense whatsoever?”
“Wait—what—but that’s what you want!” Galahad protested, stepping towards the other man. He reached for Gawain, but missed when Gawain yanked back a few feet.
Shaking his head, Gawain furiously paced toward the other end of the aisle, then spun around and came back to grab Galahad’s shoulders. With every word he said, he gave the other man a little shake. “What do you know about what I want? You think I want to bother with that jackass Percival—well, maybe I’d want to now.”
“But you did—” Clearly, it wasn’t Galahad’s day for complete sentences. And Gawain was well and truly worked up now; Tristan surreptitiously got to his feet and walked around so he could tackle his friend if necessary.
It wasn’t, because somehow Gawain managed to get his temper under control. He leaned back so his head went down between him and Galahad, fingers flexing and clenching on Galahad’s shoulders. For the other man’s part, Galahad looked too stunned to even speak, let alone move.
“That was four years ago, when you were dancing in and out of every whore’s bed in this garrison and I finally got tired of waiting for you to grow out of your damned idiocy,” Gawain gritted out. He exhaled as if he were spitting vitriol.
A little frightened, but rather more shamed, Galahad hesitantly lifted a hand and put it on Gawain’s head. When the other man didn’t object, he wound his fingers around one of Gawain’s braids and whispered so fast his words clipped off each other’s ends. “I…I’m…I can’t tell whether you’re staying because you feel like you have to, or because you want to. You try to take care of me—I’m twenty, Gawain.”
“Hard to tell from your brains and mouth.” But when the other man lifted his head, he seemed to be mulling over what Galahad had said. “From where I stand, I’d say I put up with you. And no one’s making me do that, so it must be because I want to.”
Galahad looked unhappier with that, but he was pulling Gawain closer, and the two of them were slowly backing up to the wall. It suddenly occurred to Tristan that there was only one doorway and the other two men were between him and it.
“I don’t want you to do that, either,” Galahad was mumbling, hand curling around the back of Gawain’s neck. Then his heel hit the wall, resulting in a hollow thump.
Apparently, Gawain took that for a signal, because then his hands were dropping from shoulders to hips, clawing and fisting in Galahad’s clothes along the way. And his mouth slammed against Galahad’s, driving the other man’s head back into the wall. He shoved a knee between Galahad’s legs, which forced the other man to stand on his toes. It didn’t make Galahad have to wrap one leg around Gawain, but that seemed to improve their position enough to make Galahad gasp and bury his face in Gawain’s neck.
“Want—you to—like it.” For a moment, it looked like Galahad was going to fall, but then Gawain did something to boost the other man up the wall. Galahad’s lack of trousers had to make that a little easier. “Gawain—please—”
Tristan realized he was staring. Embarrassed, he looked down at the ground and concentrated on trying to sneak past them to the door.
“If you ever accuse me of that again…” The rest of Gawain’s words were lost in a tangle of teeth and tongue and lips that looked to be awkward, but was obviously enjoyable to the men actually participating in it. The hands on Gawain’s back yanked at his collar hard enough for something to rip. “Does this feel like I’m treating you too carefully?”
The ‘no’ Galahad gurgled out was nevertheless fierce and demanding, and the way he yanked at Gawain’s hair left no doubt as to his meaning. And on that note, Tristan finally managed to sidle all the way around them and through the half of the door that wasn’t blocked by flailing arms.
* * *
He went out and fed his hawk, then settled her in her corner of the stables. While she cooed and preened herself into a nap, he rested in an empty stall and wrapped a rag around his thumb.
Though Arthur had many upstanding qualities, he wasn’t a mindreader, and Tristan had been teased often enough about his cool deadpan to know that it wasn’t merely a joke. He’d thought Arthur had been able to see through that—it always seemed like Tristan’s composure melted away around the other man—but apparently, that wasn’t true. On the other hand, Lancelot’s way of communicating his dissent on a matter wasn’t terribly productive.
Lancelot was walking by the stall, throwing furtive glances over one shoulder. Tristan didn’t think twice about kicking out the half-door so it caught the other man in the stomach.
Then Tristan crawled out and grabbed Lancelot’s wrist, dragging the other man in before Lancelot could recover. A fist just missed his ear, and he ducked the headbutt, but then a knee slammed hard into his stomach. Cursing now, Tristan breathed through the black infringing on his sight, pretended he didn’t desperately want to curl up, and cracked his elbow on Lancelot’s breastbone.
“Tristan, what the fuck—” Lancelot gasped and twisted sideways, then snapped his forearm into the side of Tristan’s neck.
That hurt. It also knocked Tristan off enough for Lancelot to squirm out, but the other man wasn’t quite free. Tristan hung onto Lancelot’s wrist with one hand and grabbed for the stall doorframe with the other.
“Tristan? What’s going on?” A flushed, disheveled Gawain came skidding around the corner, followed closely by an equally rumpled Galahad. They both produced egg-sized eyes upon seeing what was causing all the noise.
“Get his legs!” Tristan hissed, pulling as hard as he could while dodging Lancelot’s kicking. At that, the other man paused and stared at Tristan as if he’d lost his mind. So did Galahad, but Gawain—good trusting friend that he was—promptly dove for Lancelot’s right foot.
After he’d gone, Galahad couldn’t very well hold back. Between the three of them, they bundled a snarling, furious Lancelot back into the stall and held him down long enough for Tristan to get Lancelot’s hands tied together. Then Gawain and Galahad dodged back, leaving Tristan to deal with the still-dangerous man alone. Not that Tristan blamed them; Lancelot had left a fair number of bruises and cuts on them all, and it was probably only because the man didn’t have his swords that they’d even managed it.
One last heave, and then Lancelot collapsed on top of Tristan, who tiredly locked his legs and arms around the other man. “Gawain, do me one last favor and get Arthur,” Tristan called.
That brought Lancelot’s head back up to show eyes nearly exploding with rage. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
“What were you doing? Running from him?” Then Tristan had to jerk aside to avoid gnashing teeth. Occasionally Lancelot bore more than a slight resemblance to a mad dog.
“What does that—do you know what he’s doing? Do you?” Lancelot reared up an impressive amount and wrestled about so he could crack their foreheads together. Then he flopped down and groaned, dropping his face into the hay just above Tristan’s shoulder. Sniffed. “You two fucked.”
Tristan resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “Yes, we do that. We’ve done that for the past four years. You were there for most of it.”
“I hate you. You’re almost as sanctimonious as he is.” Teeth nipped at Tristan’s shoulder, but half-heartedly. “A month. A month. And this time, he can’t use the excuse that we aren’t old enough.”
But Tristan did give into the urge to smack Lancelot on the side of the head. That got him another bout of wrestling that rolled them across the stall and whacked his shoulders into the walls, but it was still deeply satisfying.
Once Lancelot had stopped again, Tristan made an effort to be rational. “He can’t use an excuse at all. That’s why they’re called orders.”
“Well, he could’ve told us as soon as he’d gotten them. He could’ve done it last night.” The other man sighed his frustration and depression into Tristan’s ear. “No wonder he was so frantic.”
“I agree,” Tristan said. When Lancelot stiffened and stared at him, Tristan stared right back. “I don’t always take his side. He’s human, and he’s an idiot sometimes.”
A slow grin slowly edged onto Lancelot’s face. Bemused, he wriggled his hands till he could prop himself up on Tristan. “Then again, you have your good points.”
Making a rejoinder to that would’ve been too easy, so Tristan laid back and let his eyes speak for him.
After a moment, the other man slumped back and mashed his mouth into his hands, mumbling. “All right, I was running. Because he was going to try and apologize to me, and I would’ve had to forgive him then, and—yes, I know. It’s stupid. But I didn’t want to give in yet, and all he really has to do is look at me to have that.”
“Maybe we’re all idiots. He came to me, and…I think he was expecting me to be accepting, at least.” Tristan bit his lip and stared past Lancelot at the motes of dust dancing in the slants of light. “I don’t know if he could tell otherwise. I was trying to hide it because it was him and I hate disappointing him.”
There was straw in Lancelot’s hair, and when the other man nuzzled into Tristan’s jaw, it scratched very badly. So Tristan picked it out while Lancelot’s mouth happened to wander around and up to Tristan’s cheekbone, which invariably made Tristan shiver. He tried to push Lancelot off, but the moment his hand landed on the other man’s shoulder, clever fingers rasped past his already-disarranged clothes. Instead, he ended up jerking Lancelot closer.
When they came up for air, Tristan had somehow gotten Lancelot’s jerkin over his head and around his arms, and Lancelot had his hands busily working Tristan’s trousers down to his knees. “We should go talk to Arthur,” Tristan muttered, sucking on Lancelot’s lower lip.
“If this goes anything like all our other fights, he’s been standing at the door listening to us and piling up more guilt,” Lancelot replied, rubbing himself against Tristan like a cat looking for a petting. He ducked down to tug at Tristan’s earlobe with his teeth. “If he had a brick for every fault he found in himself, he’d be able to build himself a damn cathedral. Idiot…I’d be less nasty if he didn’t try to make everything only his burden.”
Tristan was looking over Lancelot’s shoulder and feeling a very red flush seeping into his face.
After a little more licking, Lancelot noticed that the hands half in his trousers had stopped moving and looked down at Tristan. “What—oh. Oh, wonderful. You had to send Gawain to get him.”
Arthur didn’t say anything as he knelt down behind Lancelot and disappeared from view. But Tristan didn’t need to sit up to know what happened next, because he could feel it: Arthur’s hands brushing against his as Lancelot’s trousers were pulled all the way off, Lancelot’s choking shudder and sudden clutching at Tristan. The hands around Tristan’s prick abruptly tightened, nearly painfully, and then relaxed to knead Tristan’s stomach while a knee pressed up to grind his cock into the straw.
Itching—maybe he should’ve dragged Lancelot into the tack room, where there were spare blankets. But then Lancelot dove down and latched onto Tristan’s nipple, feverishly nursing it, and it became a moot point. Tristan arched and lifted his hips, then let them fall. Arthur’s hands caught them, splayed out fingers over them and stroked and teased every sensitive spot into burning.
“See? He’s apologizing, and—and—” Lancelot shoved his hips back and bit at Tristan’s ribs in between emitting small whines. “Arthur, please…I can’t…I need you to…please…”
“Not too bad an idea to get him,” Tristan murmured, just coherent enough to do that. He twitched when Lancelot, moaning and squirming like the best whore in the garrison, came onto his belly. And then he went rigid himself as Lancelot’s thigh squeezed his prick against his leg, as fingers swept through the sticky mess between him and Lancelot and then slipped beneath him.
Arthur had barely gotten the second finger in when Tristan came, unable to control himself any longer. And while the other man slid out the fingers, ran them over Tristan and Lancelot’s tangled bodies instead, Tristan still couldn’t catch himself. He trembled and twisted till he could swirl his tongue over the pulse in Arthur’s wrist.
“Don’t even think of saying it,” Lancelot tiredly said, turning to kiss the corner of Arthur’s mouth. “The apology makes me feel better, but it doesn’t actually solve anything.”
Tristan blinked and looked up. “I thought I was supposed to say that.”
“It’d be boring if we always did everything the same way.” Expression mock-superior, Lancelot slouched back so Arthur could stroke a knuckle down his spine. But when he glanced at Arthur, his face was somber.
Arthur squeezed his eyes shut, the way a man would when dazzled by the sun. Then he opened them, but the pain wasn’t entirely gone. “I still don’t understand why you two come back.”
“Do you have to? All I know is that I’m staying.” Tristan struggled out from under Lancelot and reached for Arthur, but the other man intercepted his wrists and pulled them together to kiss Tristan’s fingertips. “All I want you to do is act like you know that as well.”
“I—am trying. But I don’t understand…” Arthur said, holding Tristan’s hands to him as if in prayer.
Lancelot and Tristan exchanged a look that held resentment, resignation, hope and fear. Then Lancelot flopped across Arthur’s knees and draped his bound wrists around Arthur’s neck. “Remember that you’re coming back to us.” A smug smile tried to drag itself onto Lancelot’s face. “We’ll nag you into believing the rest.”
And with eyes open and hands clenched around Arthur’s, Tristan put his faith in that.