Tangible Schizophrenia


Reversals III: Bloodlines

Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: NC-17
Pairing: Arthur/Guinevere, Arthur/Lancelot, Tristan/Galahad.
Feedback: Good lines, bad ones, etc.
Disclaimer: These versions aren't mine.
Notes: AU. Instead of the Sarmatians being transplanted to Britain, the Britons were transplanted to Sarmatia. Of necessity I have to mess up history, but will try to keep as much accuracy as I can.
Summary: Tempers finally snap.


When Merlin didn't speak, Arthur finally abandoned his attempts at making sense of the newest scouting reports and turned around to face the other man. "I know you have an opinion on this. You're the most experienced officer I have, and I have complete faith in your judgment."

"This isn't a military matter." Standing on the other side of the table, Merlin continued to mark out the latest maneuvers of the Goths-though 'latest' was really a misnomer. Any news they had of their enemies was several days old, despite all attempts to quicken transmission time.

It was a simple matter of geography: the Goths were separated from Sarmatia by a mountain range that was largely impassable even in high summer. Only one pass was wide enough to permit the quick passage of an army big enough to subdue the entire province, and a river ran through it to flow past Arthur's garrison, which was at the base of said pass, to the west. Therefore, as long as Arthur guarded the river, he held Sarmatia. Conversely, as long as the Goths stayed to the other side of it, he could do little to find out what they were doing.

Then again, it was currently difficult enough to simply keep abreast of what was going on in his own camp. Two more Sarmatian tribes had arrived in the two and a half weeks that had passed since the massacre of their leaders, bringing the total to four, and with them came more and more intrigues; though they all detested the Romans as a matter of course, they weren't guaranteed to be friendly to each other. It was fortunate that the new leaders seemed to have forged strong bonds during their recovery together and thus managed to keep that friction to a workable minimum.

Would that Arthur could do as well with his own staff. Eight years in Sarmatia spent painfully gaining the trust of the Britons, and in less than a month..."Merlin, it's a military matter if it affects the morale and loyalty of my soldiers. And we both know that it does."

"They don't blame you." Merlin scratched the last mark, then put his palms against the table and arched his back to work out the cramps, as they'd been planning for quite a while. He briefly raised concerned eyes to Arthur before reaching for the oil lamp and adjusting its wick. "And they...don't entirely blame Guinevere either. To be truthful, a good many of them are relieved. They're looking forward to seeing her in Britain, and when she was with you...you've always been fair and just to us, Arthur, but you've renounced your Briton heritage."

"I don't see how I couldn't have. That land's taken too much from me to try and love it. And I've never pretended not to be what I think I am most: a Roman." Though sometimes, when he woke to a cold bed and a colder absence in the air, Arthur wished that he could have seen things Guinevere's way. He wasn't yet dead, but he could feel himself teetering on the edge of the deep hole that had been torn out of him. If he didn't find something to fill that soon, his foot would slip and then that would be the end of him.

As if sensing Arthur's thoughts, Merlin quietly poured them some water and forced the cup into Arthur's hand. "I don't attack your decision to do so, but I do wonder about your use of the phrase 'what I think I am.' A man needs to know where he comes from before he can arrive at where he's going."

"I learned to lead troops in Britain, you know. With the Sarmatian cavalry that was stationed there at the time." While it wasn't a politic idea to take this approach, it was the honest one. What with the way things were going, Arthur wanted to get out everything into the open. He'd decided that he much rather preferred facing something before him than worrying about tripping over it in the dark. "The Woads are still fighting the Romans, and I fought the Woads."

Merlin nodded without a single ripple of emotion disturbing his serenity. "I know. Our people taught you war and hatred and grief, and then you came here and taught us compassion and forgiveness."

Arthur had to laugh at that, even though the hollowness of it pained him. His knees and back were aching from standing so long, so he sat down and rested his head in his hands. "Don't make me out to be a saint, Merlin. You've seen me fail too many times for that."

"I'm not. I'm telling you that this world of ours is complicated enough that I don't find fault in you for doing what you think you must." In the yellow light, Merlin's features were darker on dark, seeming to be stained with burgundy and gray and umber. It was as easy to transplant his menacing phantom to the forests that timbered Arthur's memory as it was to simply see an older, wiser subordinate, who was far more faithful than Arthur deserved. "You know that when we return home, we plan to take up the fight of our ancestors."

"Yes. Though I do regret that I haven't managed to change your minds about that." Other commandants beat the fear of Rome into their soldiers, which was a practice that Arthur had always seen as doing more harm than good. Now, he had to acknowledge that brute force had its effect on men-but he still rejected its methods. If there'd been a failure, then the blame laid with Arthur; come to think of it, Lancelot had said something about ideas and the quality of the men that executed them.

Merlin finally showed a trace of emotion, his sigh heavy with frustration. "But you have, Arthur. When we return to fight in our homeland, we will not be fighting Rome. We will be fighting men. For better or for worse, you have shown us that Romans are still human, and that they come in as many colors as nature can produce."

"Then tell that to Guinevere," Arthur growled, suddenly choking as the cinders of his angry confusion flared up. "She seems to think that my lack of affection for Britain somehow equals a lack of affection for her. But if it's as you say and the land and the man are not one and the same-"

"I tell nothing to either of you, despite your misunderstanding of that point." The staff appeared from nowhere to Merlin's hand, and he used it to shut the shutters of the window over the table with a little more than the necessary force. Then he jabbed the tip down a handspan from Arthur's toes and leaned against it, taking up the role of the sage. "You are grown adults, and you are perfectly capable of walking your own paths, wherever those lead."

Startled by Merlin's uncharacteristic sharpness, Arthur absorbed the words in silence. Guinevere was firm on the point that they had grown to the point where they couldn't continue as they were, but Arthur was beginning to believe that things weren't as fixed as she thought. On the other hand, the changes he was noticing did nothing to diminish the separation between them.

They still managed to work together well enough, but when the time came to fight, they would need more than that. Either the wound had to be stitched together, messy as the job would be now that the injury'd had time to fester, or it had to be burned clean.

"Why did you choose to come here?" Merlin was interested enough to look interested. "Or did you have a choice?"

"No, I did." Arthur smiled at the other man, feeling the sardonic irony behind that, and then leaned back in the chair. He let his hands dangle limply from his knees. "When my mother died, I went to Rome. Then I went back to Britain, hoping to recover something, but only learned that I hated the very ground I walked on. Sarmatia...the only things that made Britain a little tolerable were the Sarmatian knights I commanded-some of them remembered my father."

The other man made a low, thoughtful noise in his throat, but didn't comment.

"But in the end, they weren't enough. Still, they'd told me stories about here...and then I found out that this was where the British legion was sent." And having failed once at trying to transmute his idealism into reality, Arthur had foolishly thought he could try again. His youthful dreams made him feel a strange mixture of cynical amusement, shame and nostalgia that twisted his gut in nauseating ways. "I volunteered to come, and then I volunteered to stay."


Arthur shrugged, not quite knowing himself. "Because...because the Britons here are different-they gave me a chance. Because I fell in love with Guinevere. Because sometimes this land is beautiful."

A draft softly rattled through the room, ruffling the maps and causing Merlin to draw his furs more closely around himself. For a moment, he looked old, and then the light flickered him back to his customary agelessness. "And now that you don't have her?"

"Now I have a duty to the Sarmatians. They asked for help, and I am able to give it." It was late and Arthur needed to eat something, then do his last tour of the day. If he stretched it out long enough, he might be able to sneak into his rooms after Lancelot was asleep; the fort was too crowded and the man still too hurt to be shifted elsewhere.

Or so Arthur told himself. It seemed that lately he'd developed a habit of wanting things that were just out of reach, though in this case that was by Arthur's choice rather than Lancelot's. Still, with Guinevere more gone than not to Arthur, it made a perverse kind of logic to keep the possibility-which he was determinedly not even considering-near.

Consequently, here Arthur was, plotting ways to creep into his own rooms because of an awkward set of circumstances that he himself had created. He was starting to wonder whether he was in a war or in a farce.

"I hope you find something else," Merlin said. When Arthur jerked around to stare questioningly at him, he merely stared back. "I would have liked to see you with Guinevere, it's true, but I love you enough to wish you happiness. Wherever that might be."

For a moment, Arthur thought he'd heard whomever that might be; the oddity about Merlin was that he could be just as practical and hardheaded as any grizzled old centurion, but then he could turn around and bend reality through the lenses of his eerie gaze. "What are you saying?"

"Do what you need to do, both for the soldiers and for yourself. And do not forget the second half of my statement; you have a responsibility for your own health, Arthur." Then the other man nodded and drew himself up straight, effortlessly slipping back into the role of the subordinate. "Is that it for the night?"

"Yes, thank you." Of course, it wasn't for Arthur, but he saw no point in entangling Merlin any further into his own mess.

He saw the other man to the door, and then he returned to his seat, thinking till his mind threatened to collapse with the effort. At that point, Arthur went out and did his rounds, a corner of himself still going through everything.


"You still haven't told him?" Tristan didn't precisely look shocked, but he certainly wasn't approving, or anything resembling happy. "We know he has Excalibur. Your tribe will be here in two days."

Since the fingers of both his hands were preoccupied with messing up his hair, Lancelot couldn't grab the other man and shake him. Given that Galahad was busy filling one corner of the stall with a miniature thunderstorm, that was probably a good thing; Lancelot had swords now and could take both men at once, but he was still aching too much to come away unscathed. "I know, all right? I'm not oblivious."

Gawain rolled his eyes. "Just extremely stupid. Arthur's not going to appreciate it if you spring this on him at the last possible moment."

"And I know that too, but if you haven't noticed, it's been rather difficult for me to get near Arthur." Lancelot dug his nails into his scalp, using the pain to clear his head, then reached for stall wall and dragged himself upright. "He's very good at not being found when he doesn't want to be."

Patently confused, Bors was randomly checking each of their faces for a clue. After a few minutes of that, he finally asked: "What the fuck have you been doing?"

Galahad and Tristan glanced at each other, then joined Gawain in staring at Lancelot, who was seriously regretting his decision to call this meeting. And it didn't help that he was hungry and both Dagonet and Bors reeked of a good dinner eaten somewhere.

Just before Bors asked again, Tristan gave a succinct, annoyingly accurate answer. "Arthur and Guinevere separated for some reason. Then she walked in on Lancelot and Arthur. Nine days later, all three are still avoiding each other."

"I'm not avoiding Arthur. He's avoiding me." Lancelot glared at the other man in hopes that Tristan would miraculously disintegrate. Unfortunately, not only did that not happen, but it also had the annoying effect of getting Galahad to glower back, as if Tristan needed the defense. Considering how much time Galahad still had to spend snapping at Tristan before anything started, he was in no position to act superior.

Bors had his head in his hands and was emitting a sound that was the bastard cross of an avalanche's rumble and a colicky horse. "You and the Roman?"

"The Pendragon," Galahad muttered. "Frankly, I think that's worse."

"It'd help ease relations with...ah, what am I saying?" Politics had never been Lancelot's favorite fact of life, and for good reason: it was a dark, dangerously slippery slope that was capable of sending men careening into paths they'd never consider in broad daylight. What it was, he thought, was the excuse for everything, which permitted entirely too much.

And he was developing a sense of caution only now, when it was far, far too late. The irony was bad enough, but the feeling of inevitability was even worse because Lancelot had always believed that a man made his own way in the world. Gods and demons might have their plotting and powers, but until he actually saw that with his own eyes, he wasn't going to believe that they held sole responsibility. In the span of his life, he'd seen men do things that were unimaginably good and bad.

Gawain leaned out the stall, then glanced at Lancelot. "Does it matter that he is a Pendragon, or does it matter that he's Arthur?"

"It..." Lancelot slumped against the wall and stared at his hands. A vision of larger, bloodier ones briefly overlaid them, and he tasted the ghost of sweet metallic blood in his mouth. "He won't press his claim anyway. From what I've gotten to know of him...he wouldn't be here if he didn't think it was his duty."

"So it's because he's Arthur." The hawk on Tristan's arm half-stretched its wings, then resettled them, easily making itself comfortable where it was. Likewise, the man holding it didn't seem to have any trouble at all fitting himself against Galahad's irritability; just this morning, Lancelot had caught them dozing together in Galahad's sister's tent.

The sight had aggravated his already raw feelings in odd ways, because even if he wasn't particularly fond of Galahad, all three of them had gone through too much for Lancelot not to wish the other two the best. Galahad had been lucky that his one remaining sister had taken to Tristan on sight, otherwise they would've had to add intertribal quarreling as soon as Tristan's people arrived. It was so easy for them, even with the way they still traded insults...

If Lancelot was jealous of Galahad, then something was seriously wrong in the world.

"You think you can get Arthur for Sarmatia?" That startled all of them, because not only did Dagonet rarely speak, but he also was generally uninterested in this kind of strategizing to the point of determined ignorance.

"That has nothing to do with it." Anger propelled the words from Lancelot before he quite knew what he was saying, but once he'd spoken, he couldn't take them back. Not since they were truthful. "I wouldn't even care if he were still just Arthur of the Britons, pain in our asses. I want him to stay here, but-"

But having once touched Arthur, tasted his flesh and blood and spirit and then seen the desire in the other man's eyes to do the same to Lancelot...having to tolerate the agony of only a few short, curt conversations and a handful of fleeting glimpses...no, land and previous allegiances had little to do with it. Arthur had no problem giving up his life for a people that detested everything he stood for, and while Lancelot couldn't really understand the reasoning behind that, he could understand the feeling. "I'm actually thinking of leaving if he does. You know, the Romans really are beginning to get beneath our skins."

"You can't leave," Galahad said, the surprise finally jerking him out of his sulk. His eyes were round as eggs, as if Lancelot were some curiosity that he'd never seen before. "This is your homeland! And if there's not you-"

"-or Arthur-" Tristan added.

"-then who's going to lead?"

With a grace that was surprising for a man of his size, Dagonet shifted himself and made for the stall door. He clapped a hand to Lancelot's shoulder in passing, then nodded to a puzzled Bors. "A land means nothing without the people in it. Better to be honest to them than false to the soil."

All of them stared after his departing form, each with their own thoughts muddying the clarity of their gaze. Lancelot absently glanced down the other end of the aisle, then looked again. That moving speck that had caught his eye resolved into a shoulder-guard, which was pathetically well-known to him.

"Well, I've no idea what he meant, but Dag's usually got his head on right." Bors pushed himself out of the stall and ambled after his friend.

One by one, the other knights did the same, until it was only Lancelot in the stable with his perfect view of Arthur, now kneeling on the ground with head bowed in prayer. He'd seen the man at that several times, but never outside.

Lancelot still had no idea what he was doing, but he did know that if he didn't act in some way soon, he wouldn't be able to stand the tension. Something had to give.

His foot edged out the stall, and then his other one took its step towards Arthur. Contrary to what everyone said, it didn't get any easier the closer he came, but he kept moving.


Tristan settled his hawk on its perch, then sat down on the nearest pile of furs with a bowl of Merlin's disgusting but effective herb-water and a fistful of bandages. He stripped himself to the waist and started tending to his wounds, patiently waiting for the conversation outside the tent to finish.

Faint giggle in a voice that was unusually deep for a woman. "Lovely one, brother."

"Shut up." Galahad still sounded tense from the earlier meeting.

"Oh, calm down. You know well enough that I'm happy with mine." The shadows on the tent wall briefly merged in an elbow jabbing. "Besides, it looks as if you'll be needing my womb, so I suggest you be nice to me."

Embarrassed grunting, and then a strangled whine: "Do we have to talk about that?"

"Eventually. You're lucky that we don't have any grudges between us and his tribe-well, there was the one thing with...but she's dead now." The humor suddenly turned flat, and the shadows stiff.

"I won't lie," Galahad finally said, voice so soft that even Tristan had trouble hearing it. "None of them had easy deaths. It was...it was..."

They suddenly flowed together, dark wrapping into dark, and then just as suddenly stepped apart. But afterward, the shadows were a little more solid, a little more straight against the rippling of the fabric.

"You know, even I didn't think you'd amount to too much. But I should've known better-you're my brother, anyway. Stupid and hot-tempered, but still blood."

It sounded like Galahad was snorting through a glass of water. When he spoke, his voice was still a little choked. "You're a bitch, you know. But you do have good taste."

"Well, so do you. At least with Sarmatians...this whole working with the Britons business has me a little worried. I'm hearing the strangest rumors about Arthur."

Tristan's fingers slipped and shoved a bit too hard against a sore spot. He barely managed to trap his hiss of pain against the roof of his mouth, then sat very still and kept listening. Damn it, he'd thought Lancelot had made it clear they weren't going to discuss that twist outside of themselves; the sheer potential a few loose words on that subject had for producing gory mayhem should've been obvious even to the greatest of fools.

"Don't believe them," Galahad muttered. "He's nothing like what all the old gossip said, and I doubt that these new rumors are any better."

Though Tristan couldn't detect any telltale hesitations or odd inflections in the other man's voice, he wasn't Galahad's sister. Moreover, he couldn't see what Galahad's expression was doing.

Maybe it was too dark for anything to be seen. And maybe Tristan was turning into a hopeful idiot.

"And what about Lancelot? Actually, I'm not sure which worries me more-Arthur's left proofs of his strength all over this land, but Lancelot...well, we know him. You say that he's taking over the leadership?"

"As much as he annoys me, he seems to know what he's doing." Galahad's shadow shrugged. "Anyway, he couldn't have pissed off that many people and still be living if he didn't know how to fight."

The subject change didn't bring any relief to Tristan, who was extremely aware of the dangers of ambivalent feelings. Personally, he was for Arthur because the evidence indicated that the man was the best there was. He was also for Lancelot's advances on the Roman because then there'd be some concrete support of Arthur's claim to want to help the Sarmatians...and because frankly, the pairing worked out in his head. The one balanced the other in respect to Sarmatia, whereas Guinevere probably balanced Arthur against Sarmatia.

On the other hand, the difficulties regarding a rapport between a Sarmatian and a Roman Briton formed a garden of traps as far as the inner eye could see. Most of those would go away if Arthur wholeheartedly embraced his Sarmatian heritage, but that was about the least likely of the possible outcomes.

"True," Elayne said, slow and thoughtful. "Well, we'll see. In the meantime, I'd best leave you to-"

"Don't even finish that," Galahad snapped. His shadow whirled away, and a moment later, he flapped through the tent entrance just as his sister's shadow had diminished to nothing. "Oh. You were listening again, weren't you?"

Tristan shrugged and rolled the last bandage around himself; Merlin had impressed on all of them the need to change dressings once a day, and while he wasn't afraid of the Briton, he also didn't underestimate Merlin's abilities. Better not to risk...whatever it was that lurked in the man's eyes. "That's what I do."

"Spy?" Fingers brushed away Tristan's and tied off the bandage for him, then slid down to settle on his waist. Their calloused tips rasp-rubbed languid prickles of heat into Tristan's skin, while Galahad's mouth attached itself to his neck. "Anyone just meeting you would think you the most untrustworthy person here."

In the moment that it took Tristan to get the water bowl out of the way with one hand, his other hand had already half-skinned Galahad out of the intervening clothing. He grabbed the other man by the hair and forced Galahad to look him in the eye. "And do you trust me?"

"I wouldn't be letting you sleep here if I didn't, would I? You're so damned annoying-that's how I know. If you were trying to fool me, you'd be nicer." Galahad's hands suddenly dodged in between Tristan's legs, and the resulting jumble of groans and grabbing and twisting saw them both flat on the bed. A laugh tickled Tristan's shoulder just before stubble nuzzled it. "Fuck. Boots. Elayne will kill me if we mess up the furs and blankets-what the..."

Tristan finished wrenching their foot-gear off with his knees and toes, then rolled them over and took his time swiping the traces of the evening meal from Galahad's mouth. He peeled away their remaining clothes, then rumpled up some of the furs so they wouldn't freeze to death in the cold air. "You never learned to do that?"

"Now I have." The hands were sliding around Tristan's buttocks and cupping his prick to his thigh, then squeezing slowly down its length. Galahad was grinning, and for once, it was free of any petulance. He took advantage of Tristan's distraction to flip them over yet again and kept Tristan too busy biting down on moans to think much on the scrabbling for some tiny jar, and then the fingers spreading something sticky inside him.

Then the fingers moved in certain ways, and Tristan clamped his knees around Galahad's sides. The other man shoved at them, but Tristan was no longer in control of those parts of his body and so couldn't do anything.

"You don't relax enough," Galahad mumbled, bending down to suckle at Tristan's nipples till the resultant thrashing pried the knees off of him. He sank his teeth into Tristan's shoulder, then somehow used Tristan's bucking to slide out fingers and slide in cock, which was only half-hard at first and so seemed to grow as Tristan's muscles got accustomed to the way it stretched him. "Ow. Damn it, if you keep hitting me I'll start to think you want me to stop-"

In answer, Tristan pushed himself up and savagely kissed the other man, chewing on Galahad's lip till he was shoved back down. Except for his hips, which were jerked upwards when Galahad moved. He arched into it and grabbed at Galahad's shoulders, then at Galahad's hips, scratching at them to hurry up and deal with the frantic rush of his blood through his body. Heartbeats were thudding in his ears, almost loudly enough to drown out the other man.

"Calm down." Galahad tugged off Tristan's hands and pinned them to the side. They stared at each other, watching the breath cloud the air between them.

Through that man-made fog, Tristan saw the blurry outline of the other man rise and bend, but he felt the rocking. It drove deep and levered open and impressed him with the traces of fire. Shadows and shades, so different in the way they receded or advanced, sometimes-like now-coming so close that they went farther than any solid thing could. But still...he threw his head back and, just above the edge of the haze, glimpsed the sweat on Galahad's forehead. A drop fell and burned reality back into him.

The other man's face dropped near, ripping through the warm mists to rub against Tristan's own while Tristan went boneless into Galahad's ministrations. "You didn't just have one of those fits, did you?"

"No." Tristan wanted that word to have more weight than it did. He would've liked to have given it the measure of the mountains, which ruled both sky and land, but he couldn't and so he simply pulled up Galahad's fingers to twine with his own. "Nothing like that."

And then, so the other man's head wouldn't swell too much, he flexed. Watched Galahad seize up and frantically begin moving again. "Never mind...tricky son of a bitch...Lancelot's easier to understand than you, even-even if he's stupid enough to say he'd-"

"I'll leave my tribe." The words hit Galahad squarely in the face, then raked down his back as he half-broke his scream in the blankets beside Tristan's head.

When the other man had recovered a little, he shoved himself up on his arms and looked down at Tristan, expression wary with understanding. "Tell me I didn't hear that."

"You better have, because someone has to switch. Our territories are too far apart." Tristan would have lifted his hands and buried them in Galahad's hair, toying with the crisp sweat-melted curls, but his wrists were still being held down. Instead, he lifted his head and licked at the saltiness along Galahad's chin, watching as eyelashes briefly fluttered shut above him. "I've a male cousin that could take my place."

Galahad glared through eyes that were rapidly becoming wet and red. "Shut up until after we get everything else sorted out."

Then he dragged himself out of Tristan and tangled them so thoroughly in the blankets that it was impossible to do anything except lie there and listen to Galahad breathe. There were matters that needed to be dealt with and decisions to be made, but for the first time in a long while, Tristan wanted to do something else first.

He closed his eyes and went to sleep.


The relief that Arthur's prayers brought had been diminishing for quite some time, but this was the first night that they'd failed even to give him a moment of serenity. He could kneel and fold his hands together, but his mind remained in other places, on other things that were very far from piety.

He wanted to run his fingers through Guinevere's hair, and feel her breasts spill out of their loosened bindings into his palms. He wanted to watch her sleep and kiss that little furrow that sometimes appeared between her eyebrows.

But he wanted to know whether Lancelot's mouth was sweet or spicy or some delicious combination of the two, and he wanted to know whether the man slept restlessly or still. He remembered the suppleness of Lancelot's body against him, and the startling softness of Lancelot's skin, and it tangled together so closely with Guinevere's leanness and surprising vulnerability beneath the many-layered armor she wore that Arthur was hard put to distinguish the two. He saw long brown hair on his pillow curl short and black, felt smooth chest turn to swelling softness against him, and in his mind he twisted away only to fall into a black morass where flickering light danced just out of reach, teasing him with brushes and glimpses and quiet laughter.

The frustrated rage was almost a relief, because it at least was only Arthur's, and not a piece of someone else that had taken root inside of himself. He let it rise to a growl in his throat and wrenched himself to his feet.

Lancelot was little more than a moonlight-edged blot on the night, but Arthur nevertheless recognized the man so quickly that he didn't even reach for his sword.

"You pray often?" Lancelot asked.

"I did. Now, not so much." Anger turned to lust, and lust to guilt, and guilt to an inebriation of resignation that made Arthur unusually reckless with his words. What did it matter, if everything that he did was destined to turn out wrong? "You've the honor of seeing my last time, I think."

The silhouette went so still that it gave the impression of trembling. Then Lancelot took another step forward, moving him out of the stables' shadows and into the slightly brighter area where Arthur was. "I can't say that I'm upset about that."

"I remember your words on Christianity." Arthur should have made his farewells then and left, as he'd done for the past nine days, but he found that he couldn't. Here, in the dark where all the reminders of his duty were shapeless phantoms, it seemed as if they'd stepped into another world. Here, he felt as if he could do as he pleased for once, and not as he must.

"When a man goes on his knees in Sarmatia, he only does so because he's surrendering. I don't understand why an all-powerful God would need a reminder of his strength. It smacks of arrogance to me." Lancelot didn't halt until he was less than a foot from Arthur, close enough to see the firmness in the man's face. And the youth-he and Guinevere both had far less years than Arthur, yet they seemed to have found the faith Arthur still lacked. "What happened between us-"

Somehow, Arthur's hand stole to Lancelot's cheek, cupping it so the formation of each word could be felt. The other man stopped and swallowed, then began again with a shakier voice. "I don't regret it."

"I have the feeling that you don't do much of that in any case." Arthur lifted his other hand and drew the back of it down the side of Lancelot's face. In a daze that was very much like drunkenness, he'd shuffled near enough to see the gleam of white teeth peeking from behind half-parted lips.

"You don't-" Lancelot almost pulled himself back, but at the last moment couldn't and so only came nearer. His eyes were very wide and very dark and very bruised, as if Arthur was hurting him from the inside out. "People say that I'm a conceited bastard, and they're right. I hate being second, and being crossed, and being forced to acknowledge any kind of authority. But I would let you command me on the battlefield, and I would accept your faith and your Romanness, and I would tolerate seeing the memory of Guinevere in your eyes...if you would only look at me like you are now."

Every time Arthur thought the pain couldn't be worse, it intensified and spread into particles of him that he hadn't even known he'd had. He stared at the damnation in his hands, and he called for his religion and his beliefs and his loyalty. But God didn't speak here in the pagan steppes, Pelagius was woefully underinformed about the compromises necessary to balance discipline and compassion, and Guinevere had told him herself that his fidelity to her was worthless. Damnation too seemed to be an empty phrase now, scoured clean of any meaning by the same winds that were devastating Arthur's life, and in this new landscape he could see no landmarks he recognized.

He saw nothing except the way Lancelot watched him lean down, fearful like the man thought he would stop at any moment. Except Arthur couldn't do that now, because everything behind him was gone, and he could do nothing but move forward.

Lancelot tasted like air and water-no, like the essence of those. Refreshing and cool and then warming up much, much faster than expected. Liquid fire sweeping into Arthur's mouth, sluicing down his front as the other man pressed in and wrapped his arms around Arthur. He moaned and tilted his head back, letting it hang in Arthur's hands while he opened up to the ravaging kiss.

Fingers hooked into Arthur's shoulders as if to pry off his cloak, then clutched at that garment when he smoothed one palm down Lancelot's back. His hand dawdled where spine dwindled in between well-shaped buttocks, brushing the top of the swells, then swept around to curve with Lancelot's waist and feel the vibrations of shifting muscle. The other man lolled in the hold, lipping at Arthur's jaw, cheek, nose-seemingly anything he could reach.

"Seventeen days," Arthur breathed, chasing his words with his tongue over Lancelot's neck, down the arteries to the hollows that peeked from the collar. His breath wreathed the other man in white moist clouds, trying to make a heavenly apparition of a very earthly delight; it only took a moment to run his lips back up the elegant throat to replace that illusion with shivering flesh. "Seventeen days and you've made me forget so much. God-I almost don't know where this is, what country-"

The hands on his back clenched, then weaved their way down. They froze on Arthur's waist when he slid his thumb very softly across the back of Lancelot's neck, but soon were moving again, pressing up between them and forcing a little space. Even in the dark, it was easy to see how bruised Lancelot's mouth was. "Arthur...there's something you need to know. Because your father was-"

"Arthur!" Someone was galloping towards them. "Arthur!"

One of Guinevere's soldiers. Arthur stepped back from Lancelot and hurried into the light of the nearest torch to wave down the rider. "Here! What's happened?"

"You're needed at the-" The man stopped, squinting at something behind Arthur. "You're both needed. Sir, Lancelot's tribe arrived early. They're at the south gate now, and Guinevere's-there's an argument going on-"

"I need your horse." As soon as the man was off, Arthur was on. He started to raise the reins to whip the horse on, then remembered. He twisted around and grabbed the surprised Lancelot by the arm, hauling him into the saddle. Fortunately, the man's reflexes kicked in and so it wasn't too awkward a mounting. "What were you saying?"

They were clattering down one of the few paved roads in the garrison, but hoofs striking rock alone couldn't account for the odd cracked sound he was hearing. After a moment, he identified it as Lancelot laughing, but not in happiness. "I left it too long...Arthur, I'm sorry. I'm sorry-I never meant to keep this from you, but you wouldn't even stay in the same room with me for the past-do you have Exca-you do. Good."

"What? What are you talking about?" But then they were heading down to the gate and Arthur could already see the ominous flash of metal in torchlight.


As far as Guinevere could tell, she had acquitted herself rather well in the nine days since her world had lurched to a stop. She had to determine this by the observation that the garrison was still intact and that the graveyards weren't heaped high with new mounds of dirt, because in all honesty, it was difficult for her to remember exactly what she had done. Not when she was doing it; as soon as someone came to her with a problem she could remember precedence and procedure and judgment, but when that problem disappeared, so did her conscious rationality.

She wanted to kill him. A good deal of the time, she wasn't sure which him she meant.

It'd been a good idea to do a spell of gate duty, she decided. Standing out in the cold night kept her body awake, and having to make conversation with the other guards made sure her sanity stayed intact as well. She hadn't been so lucid in days-at least, not inwardly so. Even she found herself surprised at the ease with which she took to acting.

That thought linked to the last real conversation Arthur and she had had, and then she discovered just how easily composure was wrecked. Had they always been faking with each other? Was the hot burning in her chest and her eyes merely an illusion? Was Arthur?

After a moment, even her vengefulness said no. He couldn't lie about something he didn't know, and he truly didn't understand what it meant to love a land. For an idealist, he had a surprisingly bad grasp of certain abstract concepts. But he did love her. That she knew beyond any doubt.

But then Guinevere had to wonder whether the land was so important, after all, and whether she had instigated their separation over a mere trifle. And again, all of her said that yes, it was because a land was not simply soil and plants and animals, but a collection of emotions and memories and truths that shaped the people that passed through it. Though she'd never seen Britain, it had carved her into what she was.

Rome had made an attempt at molding Arthur, and it was probably the greatest joke that he didn't realize what set him apart from other men was not the parts of Rome that he used to shield himself, but the other pieces that were decidedly not Roman. But they weren't Briton, either. Which left only Sarmatian; Merlin had been making a point when he'd mentioned that Arthur had gone from Britain to Rome to Sarmatia, only Guinevere had been too blind at the time to understand. Now she did, but she was too furious to accept it.

Eight days. Eight days had been all Arthur needed to consider a life beyond Guinevere. Of course, she had told him not to wait, and she had wanted him to find happiness somewhere else, but-eight days. Damned men. He might as well have told her that their relationship had always been doomed.

Except if Guinevere was to be fair, she had to remind herself that it'd been for that very reason that she'd broken things off. She didn't want to be fair, but too many years with Arthur had ingrained that too deeply into her to be ignored.

She wanted him to live and be hers, but it was clear that she couldn't have both, and it was a brutal choice between them.

"Sir, there's a rider coming." One of the other guards suddenly straightened and pointed his finger to a slight flicker in the darkness.

Guinevere swallowed her smoldering uncertainty and nodded, gesturing for the archers above to make ready. Then she drew her sword, but kept it beneath her cloak, and waited for the blot to resolve itself into a problem.

As it turned out, there were actually three riders, and they all bore the marks of Lancelot's tribe. They also had the safe-conduct passes the Briton messenger had left before returning to the garrison.

The nearest, a broad-shouldered swarthy man with only one working eye, fidgeted until Guinevere handed back to the passes before leaning down and opening his mouth to speak. Then he paused. "A woman? Guinevere herself's come to meet us, then?"

"That is my name. I see my reputation's spread far indeed. You're an advance party, I take it?" She turned towards the field where the other Sarmatians had been temporarily quartered and gestured. "You're two days early so everything isn't quite ready, but that will be immediately seen to. Your area is staked out there, and if you'll wait for a torch to be brought, a guide will-"

"We are an advance party, but we're also a delegation, lady." The man sketched an obeisance that faintly smacked of sarcasm; it was obvious what had made Lancelot the insolent prick he was. "Name's Ector, and that's Kay and Ban. We need to speak with Arthur."

Guinevere raised her eyebrow and casually fluttered the edge of her cloak in such a way that it was nearly indistinguishable from the vagaries of the breeze. One of the Britons went off for Arthur, so quietly that only another Briton could've spotted him. "Artorius is a very busy man. As you can see from the size of the garrison."

That took Ector aback for several long moments. He sank back in the saddle and regarded her through narrowed eyes while his two companions abruptly started walking their horses backward, scanning the walls before them for drawn weapons.


"Guinevere," she sweetly corrected.

Ector stiffly nodded. "Guinevere. It's a matter of some urgency-this involves the question of our participation in the proposed alliance."

"Proposed?" she repeated, hissing out the word. The three knights flinched back from her glower, which she'd been told could rival a basilisk's on occasion. "You've already agreed to it, else we wouldn't have permitted you to come this close."

"You cannot permit anything, lady," sneered Ban. "This isn't your land. You don't have the right."

On Ector's other side, Kay started to reach for his sword, but before it was half-out of the sheath, an arrow had whistled past his ear. All three knights backed up then, looks of betrayal gracing their arrogant faces. "If this is the kind of welcome a small delegation has-"

"A delegation that wasn't asked for by me!" shouted Lancelot's voice over rapidly-approaching hoofbeats.

Guinevere didn't turn around, but she heard him dismount while the horse was still slowing. The rise of bile in her mouth informed her as to when he walked up to stand beside her, face set in tightly wound fury. "Ector, what the fuck do you think you're doing?" he snapped.

"Well, good to see you've recovered." The other knight wasn't behaving at all like a subordinate to a leader, and the worry started to overcome Guinevere's annoyance. "And-" Ector looked past Lancelot to the newly-arrived rider, who walked his horse past Guinevere "-Artorius. It's an honor."

"Not when you maltreat my officer." Arthur's back was stiff, his words were ground out from a clenched jaw, and the anger rolling off of him was palpable. He'd launched straight into Sarmatian and so his voice thundered over the suddenly cringing knights. "My messenger was under orders to provide safe-conduct only if you agreed then to a preliminary allegiance agreement, with final terms to be settled once you arrived. Your behavior doesn't reflect that."

Ector stammered a bit, then noticed Guinevere's pleased look. His face reddened and he pointed at the archers. "And what of those?"

For an indescribably tense moment, Arthur matched gazes with the man. Then Ector dropped his eyes and Arthur turned around to wave the archers away. In that split second, steel suddenly glinted in Ector's hand.

"Don't, you damned ass-" Lancelot shouted, lunging forward.

But the swords were already out and slivering sound with their clash, and Guinevere was already making for Kay, aiming to cut him off. However, the other man didn't even notice her approach because his eyes were fixed on something else. When she was near enough, Guinevere could see that his face had gone deathly pale and his mouth was soundlessly working.

Then he abruptly slid out of his saddle and dropped to the ground on his knees, lowering his head to someone. Confused, Guinevere stopped and stared at him, but for all that he was concerned, she might as well not have been there. Only then did she notice that everything had gone still as death, as if waiting for some fool to shatter the tension and loose the storm.

Guinevere slowly turned around to see the other two knights in similar positions to Kay's. They were all kneeling towards Arthur and Lancelot, but while she watched, Lancelot gave Arthur an anguished, pleading look before slowly sinking down in the same gesture of obeisance.

"What is this?" Arthur asked, voice as raspy as Excalibur was smooth, flowing silver in the night. "What in God's name are you doing?"


Everything was deadly serious now, but it was also only a few hours from dawn. Galahad yawned, and then he stared down Gawain's glare. "What? If you have to, you have to."

"Then try to make it so you don't have to. Simple solution." Tristan was sitting beside Galahad and was therefore well within jabbing range, but something about the gleam in his eyes warned off all tricks of that nature.

The door opened, making them all snap to attention just in time to watch a stone-faced Ector walk out, closely followed by a hotly whispering Lancelot. When the two of them had reached the other door, Ector turned about for a quick conversation that sent him off with an expression of relief and left Lancelot looking sicker than Galahad had ever seen him. Including directly after Arthur had brought them back from the massacre site.

"So?" Gawain was so nervous he was bouncing on the balls of his feet.

"So," came from the first door. "As the first Pendragon to return to this land in two hundred years, I thank Lancelot and his family for their stewardship of my tribe, and I excuse them from further responsibility."

A straight line could have been drawn from Arthur's eyes to Lancelot's as Arthur spoke, but it would have only connected angry, betrayed bitterness to miserable, despairing regret.

"I can't believe you're doing this," Guinevere snarled. She stepped out from behind Arthur and folded her arms across her chest, glaring at Lancelot. "Arthur, this binds you to Sarmatia! You'll never make it back to Rome."

"I knew that before I knew about this." Arthur suddenly dropped the failing mask of cold formality and stood revealed as a man that had been pushed to the very brink, and was now capable of nearly anything. His gaze swept around the room, and even Tristan flinched a little from it. Only Lancelot stood firm, though even more color drained from his face. Perhaps because of that, it was on him that Arthur's eyes finally settled. "This was what you were trying to tell me."

Lancelot slumped against the side of the door and spread limp hands in a useless gesture. "I thought I had two more days...Arthur, I'm sorry."

"Sorry that your damned trap worked? Sorry that you've won?" Guinevere's fists beat a furious rhythm against her legs, and Galahad started thinking about how fast he might be able to trip her rush.

Surprisingly enough, it was Arthur who pivoted before her and blocked her way. "I am not a prize to be...furthermore-what do you care? You'll be going to Britain, so what does it matter to you whether I stay here or in Rome?"

"Because it's easier to lose you to a principle than it is to a face!" Taken by surprise, Guinevere wasn't able to hide the raw hurt that suffused her face.

"You didn't lose me-you rejected me!" Arthur twitched towards Guinevere, then yanked himself away to stare at the wall. His heaving shoulders slowly settled down, and when he next spoke, it was in a controlled, flat tone that fairly dripped with resignation. "It's done and can't be undone, Guinevere. Live your life and leave mine alone."

Tristan nudged Galahad in the ribs, then cast a significant glance towards the door. Well, leaving as soon as possible seemed like a good idea, but Galahad didn't see how it could be done without coming too close for comfort to Lancelot. He fluttered his fingers in a signal to wait; Tristan nodded and returned to keeping an eye on the mess unraveling itself before them.

Slack-jawed, Guinevere simply looked at Arthur as if she didn't understand, though it was very clear that she did. On the other hand, he wasn't yet done.

"Lancelot?" Arthur turned just enough to pinion the other man in his gaze. "Was this why? You wanted a leader?"

"I didn't say what I did earlier for the sake of my tribe." Lancelot closed his eyes, then sluggishly opened them, every movement slowed by the wretchedness that permeated him. "I told you, I'm selfish."

Guinevere flicked daggers with her eyes. "That's obvious."

"Guinevere, don't." Still facing Lancelot, Arthur started to ask something else, then apparently changed his mind. He pursed his lips for a few seconds, formulating his new thought. "Then why?"

"You know how the story goes? Your great-grandfather entrusted the tribe to his closest friend, who was lucky enough to have been crippled and so escaped conscription. That friend, of course, was my ancestor. We held everything safe for the promised Pendragon who'd return bearing the sword Excalibur." With sudden sharpness, Lancelot banged his head against the wall. Then he slid down and let his hands flop into his lap, his gaze fall from Arthur's. "Honestly, I didn't give a shit. And I wasn't the eldest, so I didn't have to. Then I met you, and I saw the chains you'd draped yourself in, and I didn't want to add to them. I truly didn't."

Arthur blinked, then twisted to fully face Lancelot. "But-"

"But what? But an old pact gets surrounded by stories through the years, and so the Pendragon from Briton goes from exile to returning hero that'll save us all from-" Lancelot wildly waved a hand "-from everything fucking wrong under the sun. And you know, when you're dragged out of death's teeth, you start taking a second look at that nonsense. First I wanted to see my people safe from the Goths. Then...it wasn't until after I sent the message off that I found out what kind of man you were. You don't deserve the burden."

"I've had no choice but to take it. I gave my word to protect this land, and I'll do whatever it takes to fulfill that vow," Arthur said, harsh as the winter wind. He spared one last glance at Guinevere, who was looking at Lancelot as if she were mentally taking him apart, then strode out of the room with his eyes fixed solely on what was before him.

Lancelot turned and watched Arthur leave, his gaze so desperately hungry and hot and wanting that Galahad wondered when Arthur didn't vaporize on the spot. Then he lurched to his feet and stared around the room with terrifyingly dull eyes. "So you see, Guinevere, I've won nothing at all."

She crossed the room in less time than it took to breathe and punched Lancelot in the jaw. When he only staggered and didn't immediately go down, she punched him again, and then she grabbed his shoulders, probably so she could shove his face into a knee. Before that could happen, he smacked an elbow into her belly and then lunged for her throat when she doubled over, gasping.

"Fuck, fuck, fuck. What we end up doing-" Galahad got to Lancelot at the same time that Gawain and Dagonet got to Guinevere. They managed to keep the pair of them from doing any serious damage, but it took the addition of Tristan on Guinevere and Bors on Lancelot to get the two separated. Which they protested in at least two languages. "Shut the fuck up! Damn it-do you want to lose the war or don't you?"

"You stupid, stupid, stupid son of a bitch," Guinevere hissed, completely ignoring Galahad. "Didn't you hear him?"

Lancelot snarled through a mouthful of blood, which he tried and failed to spit at her. Over his head, Bors rolled his eyes before wrenching Lancelot's arms a little further up his back. "Hear what? Hear that we've both lost him?"

"Yes!" She was almost howling now, face streaked with blood and spit and what looked like tears. "Yes! That, you miserable idiot! He's never said he would protect land before-only people. He thinks he's got nothing but his damned duty and that he's going to die here!"

For the space of a heartbeat, Lancelot didn't speak. Then he went limp so quickly that Galahad barely grabbed him in time. "So go to him. Talk to him. He loves you, anyway," he mumbled.

"I can't. I can't." Guinevere was sobbing; embarrassed, the three men on her let go so she staggered under her own power. "You fucking moron, you still don't-did you mean what you said about not wanting to pile more on him?"

"Of course I did," Lancelot replied, tone sharpening a little. He shook off Galahad and Bors, still locking gazes with Guinevere. Something seemed to pass between them, and Lancelot stumbled backward a little.

With a last ragged breath, she drew herself up to her full height, and suddenly Guinevere the woman was completely subsumed beneath Guinevere the persona. Even her voice was as smooth and pure as the flat of a fine blade. "Then get out of here and go to him. Keep him alive. And if I ever hear that you've hurt him, then it won't matter whether I'm alive or dead. I will find a way to come after you."

Lancelot wavered. "Why?"

"Because I love him more than I hate you." Before she'd even finished speaking, she was turning and going back into the other room. The door shut and the bolts slammed home at the same time that Lancelot finally made for the end of the room.

His first steps were as slow and lopsided as a drunkard's, but by the time Galahad got into the hallway, Lancelot was running.

"So much for a strategy meeting," Gawain commented. The dryness in his voice was more likely due to lingering shock than any true black humor. "You think we're going to lose?"

"I don't have the slightest idea. I don't even know what we'd be winning or losing now," Galahad replied.

Tristan snorted and tapped Galahad on the shoulder. "We might as well go back to bed. And-we're not going to lose."

For the sake of more than survival, Galahad hoped Tristan knew something he didn't.


Exhausted by the effort of finally giving up on Guinevere, Arthur had just touched the edges of a foul slumber when he sensed someone enter his room, but even in his semiconscious state it didn't take long for him to recognize who it was.

Lancelot stopped at the side of his bed and drew a sharp breath, as if to speak. But he didn't, and a moment later he was silently crawling up beside Arthur, close enough for his body heat to singe through the blankets wrapped about Arthur. The man didn't touch Arthur at any place, though his breath stained Arthur's cheek when he leaned over, probably to see if Arthur was asleep.

Grimly curious, Arthur kept his eyes shut and feigned that state. After what seemed like an endless span of time, the other man laid back and shivered there, not even reaching for any of the blankets.

He would wait for Arthur to acknowledge his presence, and in doing so he would surrender to Arthur's will, just as he'd said he would. If Arthur could figure out what part of his flawed self was responsible for doing this to people that deserved so much more, he would cut it out without delay.

But he couldn't. He could barely understand everything that had transpired in between now and Lancelot's arrival in his life, save for the fact that he had changed enough to want Lancelot somewhere in the chaos that was his life. And he wanted that enough to forgive Lancelot anything, without even a word being said.

Arthur rolled over and retangled the blankets around Lancelot, settling the other man beneath his chin. The body in his arms trembled one last time, then pressed up against him and melted. Lips brushed Arthur's shoulder and neck before falling away with a sigh.

Only then did Arthur sleep, and though it still was not peaceful, it afforded him some rest.


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