|Hand to Hand
Author: Guede Mazaka
The first time, and Gawain’s knees feel like running wax, softening and melting under the weight of his burning-hot cheeks, of the hands pushing at his back, of the girl—woman smiling before him. Her hand is on his shoulder and she pulls him along, moving him over the stumbles and the rocks and the catcalls that wrap around his feet and neck and try to pull them together. Then he remembers he’s supposed to be a man soon, never mind the tree-knob knees and the body that’s too unwieldy for his mind that is crackling with feelings that aren’t…really new, but that are so much more intense that they might as well be.
Someone slips in beside him—falls, more like, but Tristan never seems to fall even when his fingers are catching knuckle-deep in Gawain’s arm, eyes wider than Gawain’s ever seen them before. And that breath for Gawain is a little easier, and he even manages to smile back at the hands pushing when he steadies Tristan. Who pushes him off, polite but firm, and eyes the men behind them as if it were they that were going to owe him the money, come morning. But of course the youngest get paid the least, not even able to afford their own separate pairs of hands drawing them down to the hay.
Still, Gawain feels better to be tackling this strange world of skirts rustling to show creamy skin higher than he’s ever seen, or dared peek at when the women were bathing in the river, with someone he knows. And he knows Tristan well enough to not take offense at Tristan’s standing on his own, walking and kneeling on his own. It’s just a little pride, maybe a little embarrassment and frankly, seeing that on Tristan is so rare that Gawain almost doesn’t want to look at it, because he doesn’t know whether it’ll hurt one way or make him laugh and then hurt things a different way.
But the woman is taking his hands and drawing them up her thighs, so smooth under his hard-worn palms, and Gawain finds himself distracted anyway. He forgets the linger of voices outside the door, the scratching hay beneath them, even Tristan suddenly catching his breath beside him, because there is moist warm flesh moving beneath his fingers—a slip and then around his finger. Gawain’s gut liquefies and he makes a little bleating noise, like a terrified lamb. She laughs.
She’s still laughing when, his own pride rearing up, he lunges down and presses their mouths together. He’s at least had some practice at this, chasing town and village girls behind rude wooden houses, but not much. It’s clear that she knows more, and then it’s not so clear because Gawain is overstretched between mouth melting into mouth and fingers sluggishly stroking flesh that clenches in ways that make his knees even more unsteady, make them slide on the hay so he is tilting and he’s got no hands to right himself, and he falls.
He falls against Tristan and makes him grunt, push back but gently, and Gawain would thank him but the woman won’t let go of Gawain’s tongue for long enough. So he tries to signal it by some combination of shoulder lifting and hip sliding, only that throws him off-balance so Tristan’s hands have to curl down and hold his waist. Which confuses Gawain, because her hands are on his chest and unlacing his clothes, and the hot sweet blindness her mouth feeds him blurs the world till he almost mistakes her fingers wrapping around his cock for Tristan’s spasming against his sides. Gawain thinks he should think about that, but he can’t because oh sky crashing down and it’s good he’s inside the woman and her body is a smile burning around him, and it’s all he can do to just remember to think about it later. Then she is kissing his neck where the pulse is running so high he can taste it, feel its beat in his mouth, and his hands are grabbing too roughly against her pale skin.
Once every three breaths, Gawain whips out of his body and floats up, hits the low ceiling so he’s got nowhere to look but at how he’s floundering, how he can’t keep up with her, how he should—but then her legs brush his hip or her teeth rasp over the week’s growth on his chin—he’s hoping it’ll make beard this time and not just a tavern joke—and Gawain is back in himself. Then he sees why he can’t do this, why he can’t keep up because the slip-glide-catch of flesh isn’t decorous, isn’t nice and peaceful and lovely like the songs. It’s rough with her nails on his back, it’s hard with his prick wanting further and further inside though his hips won’t fit, it’s tumbling scorching head-spinning.
His mind loops, droops because his back wants to arch and he can’t stop it, though somewhere he knows that it hasn’t been long enough, that he’s going to embarrass himself with this, too. And deep inside that knowledge churns, turns upside-down and seizes him from behind like a wolf taking down a deer by the hindquarters; Gawain jerks and feels his muscles clamp so only his come moves into her, his head dropping to seek some kind of support from her mouth.
Only her mouth’s occupied, and he tastes stubble and a delicate thumb and the movement of what he realizes a moment later is Tristan’s surprise trying to work itself out from three pairs of lips. And a moment later is when Gawain’s body is nothing but limp dead weight, dragging him aside in obedience to her shaping hand. She runs fingers through Gawain’s hair, throws him a smile. “Not the time to be jealous, soldier. Your friend did pay his coin, too.”
Gawain actually is not, or if he is, he wouldn’t know because he can’t feel anything beneath the dulling cloud of exhaustion, shock—they aren’t that different when the only parts of his body that can still move are his eyes. And they’re moving because the woman hasn’t let go of Tristan’s jaw, because she’s pulling Tristan onto her sprawled-wide thighs. He comes but his lashes flutter open-shut-open and his hands are suddenly not the sure, deft tools and weapons Gawain has seen them be, but are hesitant jumping things touching her hair and her hip and never quite landing. Not even when her long, long legs go around him and Gawain can see the dirt crusted on her heels that flakes off with every coming-together of their bodies—Tristan’s knees find some purchase in the hay but his hands are splayed on top and constantly sliding, threatening to drop him down on top of her.
It’s a tricky balance, and that was why Gawain’s head was spinning—it was with the effort of staying righted. But he’s used to having to do that most of the time, and maybe Tristan isn’t because he learned so long ago how to do it one way that, now when he needs to learn it again, he can’t remember how to learn. In between kisses, Tristan’s eyes clear for a moment and they look like those of a hawk, wings half-raised, still deciding between flight or fight.
For that matter, Gawain is still trying to decide what to do himself when he shoves himself up on one elbow and finds how slippery hay is. He’s tripped up by his and her sweat and slides in a fragrant steam so his nose reburies itself into the itching straws and his hand slams against Tristan’s. It hurts him, it wrenches alarm in his gut because he thinks by the time his nose is snorted clear of the hay and his head is up, the hawk would’ve stooped and—but fingers snatch at his hand, lock tight around it. And when Gawain looks up, pulling the straw from sneezing nose and messy hair, Tristan is steady and moving with the woman, eyes squeezed shut and mouth open around the end that Gawain can see driving out of him.
He comes with his head thrown up and his eyes suddenly open wide and shining as coins, all the usual obscuring hair tossed out of the way, and Gawain has the idle thought that he never knew Tristan could be beautiful.
Then they’re boys again, rumpled and panting and watching her casually pull her dress back on her shoulders, her skirt back over her knees. Gawain needs a long drink of water, he thinks, so he can say something. He should say something, he knows, but he can’t think of anything and can only stare.
In the end she smiles again, but softer than the sharp welcome she’d given them before, and kisses their cheeks. “Got nothing to be ashamed of, you two. I’ll be looking for you in the future.”
She swings out, hips moving in the same rhythm that only a little while ago had had Gawain frozen while the others cut her out for him, but now it only makes him look a bit before he glances at Tristan. Who’s staring first at him, then at their still-joined hands, and slowly, awkwardly, they remember how to untangle fingers.
It’s Gawain that laughs first, relieved and nervous, knees still bad and tingling hand regaining its feeling slow as daylight penetrating a mist. But Tristan doesn’t take too long to join in—rare. He laughs low and whispering, but it’s a rich sound that fills out beneath Gawain’s cracked-voice titter and it makes Gawain’s cheeks feel a little less flushed.
“Finally,” says Lancelot, leaning in the door with a lofty grin that Gawain’s tempted to smack down. “It was beginning to get tiresome, waiting on you two—Arthur!”
And Arthur is nineteen, but sometimes he seems old as their fathers would have been. That can coat Gawain’s tongue in regretful ashes, or it can clear his throat for a fuller, honest laugh. As it does now, when Arthur has Lancelot by the back of the neck, wolf carrying away over-inquisitive pup, and Lancelot is just shy enough of his full growth to make the comparison shine.
“And what’ll you do when I’m too old for that?” Lancelot snorts. Gawain and Tristan, mindful of how long even Arthur can distract Lancelot, hurry to tidy their clothes.
“You already are,” Arthur mutters, almost too low to be heard. “I’m waiting for you to realize that. And then…I’ll just have to stop, won’t I?” He glances at Gawain and Tristan, smiles and genuinely so, but nevertheless it looks as if he’s lost something. “Congratulations.”
Something about how he says that and how Lancelot stills, stares at Arthur makes Gawain want to stay and see, but the hand pulling at him keeps him moving. When Gawain turns to object, Tristan merely meets him with raised brow. And maybe Tristan’s expression is back to calm again, but his face is still red and his breath staggers a little, and Gawain snickers. Forgets about Arthur and Lancelot, forgets about being awkward, forgets even about being comfortable because he’s running his finger over Tristan’s cheek before he knows his hand wants to, feeling the warmth.
Tristan’s skin warms more, then turns away. And Tristan is smiling, much to Gawain’s relief, but he’s not laughing when they rejoin the others.
* * *
The second time’s more accidental than anything else: they’re still young, still short of money, and the one time Gawain tried sharing with Galahad, the whore ended up too worn-out after Galahad for anything. She’d been sorry and tried to return Gawain’s money, but he had just shoved her hand around it and gone to substitute a hard, long ride instead—he’d stopped to cuff Galahad on the side of the head first, and that had satisfied his temper long enough for him to think about why he shouldn’t be angry.
Along with that had come a resolution not to make the same mistake again, and already Gawain had known the outline of what he was going to do, but he didn’t know how to ask and there were battles and wounds and grumbling and companionship in between, and so when he and Tristan are standing in front of the door, he still doesn’t know how. He tries, moving his hands around and stammering till Tristan’s composure wears down to show the blank confusion.
It’s the woman that saves Gawain’s dignity, if not his words. She’s twenty, maybe, and that’s old enough to be used to soldiers standing at the door, to want to cut past the negotiations because she knows exactly what she’s worth and what the men want. So she knocks open the door and pulls them both in, smile bright and stale while her fingers slip the coins from them. Tristan suddenly seems to understand, starts to say something about a loan but she’s already kissing him against the door, hiking her skirts up to show thin hard buttocks to Gawain.
She looks like a man from behind, and that makes Gawain blink. And then she glances over a shoulder and asks if he wants it on the bed instead, and that makes him blink again because he has no idea how it would work standing.
Tristan mutters something and then she grins, real amusement in her face this time. Grabs him, which he wasn’t expecting, and ignores his struggling while she grabs Gawain as well and then they are on the bed, and any further discussion is a little pointless. Because it is a hard life, and Gawain is still not quite a man, and so his pleasures rise quick and he seizes them by reflex because he never knows when the next will come. He can’t stop himself.
Neither can Tristan, once her mouth is trailing down his chest, and his hands are just as eager on her breasts as Gawain’s are. Their fingers overlap a few times and Gawain flinches because he somehow thinks he’s supposed to mind that when he doesn’t, and so he doesn’t know whether to go forward or back. But the woman doesn’t care, bends into it and strokes them both, and the bed is narrow. This is no stable stall with its room for flailing limbs and space to breathe; if Gawain wants to stay on the bed he has to grasp and cling and almost fight for every inch. So his legs rasp against Tristan’s, and sometimes their hands cross and grip for a moment before they figure out it’s each other, and once Gawain’s mouth slips from her nipple to the back of Tristan’s hand. Once Tristan reaches for her hip and takes hold of Gawain’s instead.
Amused or not, she’s brisk about getting rid of them afterward, and so Gawain and Tristan end up standing on the doorstep, still trying to uncrumple their clothing from where it’s bunched around shoulders and hips. Gawain thinks to make a joke, dispel the uncertain air between them, but he forgets the words as soon as they’re put in order and ends up only laughing without putting a meaning to it. Like an idiot.
The harsh, breathless noise makes Tristan flinch, lift his head and stare hard at Gawain, who wants to duck head and watch his feet till the world makes sense. But Tristan can see something of what Gawain truly meant and the side of Tristan’s mouth pulls up. He grabs Gawain’s elbow, squeezes, straightens a twisted sleeve, and before he lets go Gawain takes him by the elbow and does the same. And they’re both laughing, hoping it’ll be enough to carry them from the door.
* * *
The third time might have been deliberate, or might not. Gawain hasn’t figured it out by now, and he never will unless Tristan one day decides to sit down and talk at length about two boys groping in the dark. Possibly he wouldn’t know even then, because sometimes it seems as if even Tristan didn’t know, while it was happening.
There’s not always a house. When the army’s on the march, when they are moving fast through the countryside to crush some rebellious flame, they bivouac in camps and the whores go with the baggage train until the tents are set.
Sometimes there’s not even a tent, if the weather is passable. In Sarmatia, the horse-thieving was bad but it was a custom, a tradition, an understanding. In Britain it is a war and a drain and so no knight likes leaving his horses out by themselves in the dark. So someone gets left behind in the tent with all the extra gear and Gawain smoothes out his bedroll besides Tristan’s, on the edge of the space where all their horses are picketed. Maybe the camp wall goes all the way around it, but stranger things than horses seemingly vanishing through solid log walls have happened in Britain before. Gawain would rather not take any chances.
Tristan has second watch and so he is dozing with his head bare inches from Gawain’s knee, hair a black veil over the shadowy outline of his face and the edges of his hands sketched out in silvery moonlight. He has long fingers that always seem to be where no one looks, working apparent magic with them, but now they’re relaxed and still and where Gawain can look at them all he likes. They’ve scars, little nicks around the knuckles that Gawain can barely see and he’d like to extend a finger and feel for the raised flesh, confirm what his eyes tell him, but the thought of that makes him bite his lip. He looks away, and that is why he sees the dark shape creeping towards them.
Gawain has his one hand on his ax and his other on Tristan’s shoulder, ready to shake him awake, but then the silhouette turns and shows breasts. Gestures, and Gawain relaxes for it’s just a whore plying her trade. She’s either very young, or fairly old for this, since she’s bothering to go out and seek beds in the moist grass and not in the drier, softer tent cots.
She needs it, too, because Gawain hasn’t made a return gesture for yes or no and she comes anyway to lay a hand on his thigh. He barely would have the coin for it and he’s been saving for new reins, but her dress is so thin he can feel her shivering. His palm is against her side, feeling it and he has a thought about his cloak but she’s already assumed and is kissing him, winding around so tight he can hardly breathe, much less refuse.
The wind is rising, though the sky stays clear as still water, and the chill is starting to bite. It nips him hard when her fingers pull down his clothes, peel away the worn stained soft leather that sheathes him from the weather, and he shivers as well, pulls her nearer because now he’s thinking more of warmth and of comfort and of a moment when he doesn’t need to watch. When there’s something besides the smell of horse and steel and dried blood, when there’s that trace of freshness caught in her hair, like she’s somehow found flowers to crush into it. The rest of her smells like him, like the march, like the ache in his bones that never really goes away when they’re campaigning. Too much like him, so he buries his face in her hair and lets go of his ax and they fall over because he forgets about Tristan, somehow.
It’s quick and fast and it’s not about fucking, about fumbling his way inside to some brief clenching moment of detachment. It’s too damned cold. And the bedrolls are narrow. Gawain curls and twines to keep on them and so he’s got no room to move his fingers, no room to do anything except rub and clutch till it’s over and done with.
She lingers, attracted to the warmth between two men and suddenly Gawain sees the hand feeling carefully along the in-curve of the whore’s waist, the head half-raised behind her shoulder to look at him. He looks guilty, then remembers the dark and how he can barely see Tristan’s eyes so that—but maybe Tristan has cat’s eyes, because he makes a noise that’s forgiveness and amusement, and he lies back down. Gawain slips the coins into the woman’s hand, paying her not for the half-hearted fuck but for the company afterward.
They had come out to keep watch and so that is what Gawain should be doing, but some lassitude of unwound muscles and snapped tension has caught him tight and his eyes won’t stay open, his body won’t sit up. He excuses it by thinking that whores have better instincts than even soldiers and that they wouldn’t come out if there was danger. And then he’s asleep.
When he drifts awake minutes, hours later it is still dark, but the horizon is brushed with palest purple and the woman’s gone. But his hands are still tangled in hair and his breath mingles with someone else’s, and the warmth he has, that is keeping him loose-jointed and calm and content, is not solely his own. Tristan’s eyes are looking past Gawain, watching the horses, but when Gawain stirs they flick to him. And for a long time, they stare through the dark at each other and Gawain tastes his tongue drying up, sour and sweet at the same time. His stomach hurts and his throat is hot all along its length, burning with every breath.
Tristan smells like the woman, a little. He smells like the grass and earth. Beneath all the war and work, he smells free.
Eventually a horse nickers, sleepy greeting to the blue and orange stroking over the sky, and Tristan sits up. He rakes the hair out of his face while looking away from Gawain, head held at a tilt like—like a wary bird. They’re always cocking their heads and once Gawain asked Tristan why, and Tristan had said it was to see better, because their eyes are on the side and that’s how they look directly at something. But there’s no beak on Tristan’s face for him to have to look around, and there’s a wide space of nothing between them where the whore had laid.
* * *
The fourth and fifth and sixth times Gawain barely remembers, because by then he’d either lived long enough and fought well enough, or enough senior knights had been killed, for him to be promoted and then he could afford not to share. But after the sixth time, after walking away once again with the hunger between his legs satisfied and the hunger in his chest more ravenous than ever, he stopped going.
He and Tristan still talk and sometimes laugh, only a thinness like a sword stood edgewise between them. But sometimes that thinness is sharp enough to cut Gawain’s knuckles and tongue, and sometimes Gawain thinks he sees new scars on the backs of Tristan’s hands that don’t come from battle.
What Gawain really thinks is that he has an idea burning away in his mind to which he can’t put a shape, to which he can’t put any knowledge or plan or order. It just sits there, sometimes flaring up so his palms curl in to rub his sweat into his skin, and he has no idea what to do.
Oh, sometimes it’s joked about around the campfires. Sometimes the men will kid and grin and make lewd gestures, but Gawain’s not the kind who can take a crude working of hands and fingers and understand how that translates to his arms and Tristan’s shoulders or legs. He stares often, watching for the glimpses of Tristan’s spine curving against leather when he bends over, or the brief outline of calf when he twists to mount. And it dries out Gawain’s mouth and confuses his mind, and it doesn’t help that he passes by those women and can see a shadow of Tristan’s side in the graceful bending of theirs, a reflection of Tristan’s eyes in those of the whores.
Once he tried to sit down and take away the shapes of the women, to understand what was going on, but all he managed was making his head hurt and not being able to meet Tristan’s gaze for the next week. Maybe he could ask someone, but who? And how, when he can’t even think on it without feeling the heat rise in his face? It’s like standing at that doorway again, hands shoving and hands pulling him into that unknown, unfamiliar welcome, only this time there’s no one he knows to stand beside him and walk with him into it.
* * *
And then there’s the first time again. It’s been a month and a month of nothing but ducking and hiding and not-talking, and Gawain is sick of it. That isn’t him, that isn’t the him he wants to be and likes to be and it makes him angry that that’s the only him he apparently can be right now.
In the morning, he thinks as he walks into the stable. He’ll ride now and tire out the need for the night, and in the morning he’ll talk. Somehow. It’ll be babbling and fragmented and not poetic or beautiful, but Tristan’s always understood his nonsense before and hopefully he will now. Hopefully Gawain won’t lose a good friend.
But he’s going to say it, no matter what. Because he’s been standing on the threshold too long and maybe he doesn’t know whether inside is cold or not, but he knows very well that the outside is.
His hand is on the door and he’s opening it when someone pushes it shut again, when there’s a high panicked voice and a sudden scrambling rustle on the other door. It’s more like a slap than a choice bit of irony, but Gawain isn’t naturally an angry man and so he only has the energy to be furious at one thing at a time. So he sighs, rolls his eyes, and gives them a few moments.
But when he opens the door, there’s no girl and there’s Tristan half-stripped to the waist, staring at the coin in his hand. He looks at Gawain, looks away and flips the thing into his clothing lying at the side, eyes watching the glittering arc and not Gawain coming in. His smile is only half-way, and it’s laughing at himself. “She wouldn’t take it. Not if we didn’t—”
And maybe Gawain can be angry at more than one thing at once, because suddenly he wants to take that coin and what it implies and bury it miles deep in the earth. Suddenly he wants to take Tristan by the shoulders and—
--he does take Tristan by the shoulders, but then Gawain doesn’t remember and instead they’re smashed up against the wall, Tristan’s tongue in his mouth and Tristan’s body beneath his hands and this is not confusing. This is not a memory split in two, where Gawain looks back and thinks that there were too many and that his hands were sliding over the wrong curves, trying to roll over and move past but not quite daring. This is Tristan, and Tristan’s mouth is kissing back under his, and Tristan has hands hooked into Gawain’s hair to pull him closer.
Gawain remembers the hay and yet he doesn’t, because now when he draws back his fingers from its scratching, when his clothing comes off and bares him to it and he curls away, there’s not soft breasts yielding away from him and soft body curling from his hands but lean chest and thighs pressing into him. There’s not glancing half-touches but whole ones, running from neck to hip to neck again, and when his hands bump and graze and clutch at Tristan’s, it isn’t an accident or a mistake. It’s deliberate and if it leaves a hot ghost-print on his skin, if it makes him want to bend into it, then he can. He can and there’s nothing in the way.
And he still has no idea what he’s doing. His head is full and so are his hands and mouth, and so all he can do is touch and touch and touch until something happens, until Tristan clamps around him with face in Gawain’s neck and knees cradling Gawain’s hips and comes. Until the hot fog in Gawain’s head suddenly rips away to leave his mind clear, and he blinks to find himself relaxing from his own grip on Tristan, their bellies sticky from each other.
“I—” Gawain says, and it comes out unsteady because that was what he wanted. That was what he got, and now he thinks he wanted it differently.
Tristan slowly uncurls to look at him, face shuttering, and Gawain curses himself for being an incoherent idiot again. “Did you want the girl back?” Tristan asks, moving a hand between them, sinuous like the flow of waist into hips.
“No. Not—not that.” There’s got to be some way of explaining it, but Gawain can’t find it right now and so what he does is grab Tristan’s wrist, pull it down. So until he does find the words, the man can’t leave. “I—it’s better without one in the middle. But I don’t—know how to—without one, I’ve never—”
The exhaustion makes Gawain breathe in then, sharp low, and the world hangs on the edge of a sword. Then he breathes out and tugs on Tristan’s wrist, and the blankness in Tristan’s eyes breaks apart to show a boy going to a man, seventeen and sometimes seventy and sometimes seven, with fear and uncertainty wrapped up in his want but also courage and determination and friendship.
Tristan grins. It’s a fragile smile, not like the ones he shows everyone else, and it makes Gawain want to feather his fingers over its edges. “Neither do I. I thought you did. That you knew what you were…doing.”
That’s when Gawain really knows that he can touch Tristan’s smile now, and so he does, laughing. It’s stupid and foolish. They’re stupid and foolish, and that way they match so it doesn’t matter.
* * *
The second fourth time, Gawain thinks it is. He sits and he looks at the hand he has lying on Tristan’s bare shoulder, at how his skin is lighter and how his scars are darker. Then he leans over and smells all the scents Tristan’s trapped in his hair, gathered while scouting, and his throat suddenly closes on him.
They’re still working it out with each other, trying to understand how one thing dovetails into another, and it’s the best thing Gawain’s ever had. But also it’s the most delicate and complicated, and there’s no longer anything to cushion the blow, if a blow should fall. That is what he gave up in return for sitting next to Tristan and listening to him breathe, and for knowing what every change in breath means.
Arthur makes more sense now. But so does this.
Gawain spreads his fingers and matches them to Tristan’s upturned palm, feeling the transference of warmth and sensation and knowing. There’s still things to learn, and he thinks that he’s willing to learn them even though it means leaving behind before and risking that dark space beyond the door. No, he knows it, and that is why his fingers slide to wrap around Tristan’s wrist.
And that is why Tristan wraps his own around Gawain’s hand, showing that he too was awake and thinking, and that is why Gawain can lie down beside Tristan without anything between them.