Tangible Schizophrenia



Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: NC-17
Pairing: Arthur/Lancelot, implied Gawain/Galahad
Feedback: Typos, character discussions, etc.
Disclaimer: Not mine.
Notes: Loosely related to In Season and Horse-Breaker but can be read alone. Lancelot’s around twenty and Arthur a few years older.
Summary: War for the body, mind and spirit.



“There used to be a veteran who’d settled in the town who thought himself a bit of a sorcerer. He died about a year before you came, but before that the knights would send their children to him rather than let the Roman doctors look at them.” Sawdust and hay motes rise in a golden cloud around Arthur, a bright stifling mist that halos him and chokes Lancelot’s lungs at the same time.

He blows out his nose, noisily enough to attract a stern glance, and heaves again so this time the saddle lands straight on its rack. Then he smiles away Arthur’s disapproval and wipes at his face, turning the back of his hand from Arthur’s view. The disgusting stickiness that seems to be a constant and unwanted adornment to his nose gleams faintly green in the dim winter light, making his hand look as if it’d been dipped in ghastly foxfire. He hastily rubs it off against a bale of hay, then dips to take the next saddle by its front.

Arthur huffs away the dust and takes the back, and together they swing it to the rack. The task doesn’t need their teamed strengths, but this is their natural rhythm. And though it shouldn’t be, this is the faster rhythm than competing against one another. “One of the few memories I’ve got of my father is the year I came down with the ague. He wanted me to see the sorcerer, but my mother didn’t. They argued the whole night.”

“Good taste, your mother. There was one of those in the next village over to mine and I caught him having a close examination of a young lady who claimed she was ill. Never liked them since.” The saddle swoops up, its weight briefly vanishing and then coming down hard so the pole shakes and scatters more dust. Some of it gets into Lancelot’s nose and throat and he coughs but what comes out is a rattling hack. He covers his mouth with his hand and swiftly bends so his chest muscles draw too tight for such nonsense. “So who did she want to see you? A Roman butcher?”

“They’re not butchers but skilled surgeons that’ve saved more than one knight.” It is always Arthur’s answer and Lancelot’s reply is always a snort. They have come to expect it so that Lancelot finds his lip curling in anticipation and Arthur twists away his shoulder before he’s even finished speaking.

The snort comes, but it catches something deep and painful behind Lancelot’s ribs and nearly doubles him again. His hand digs hard into the worn leather of the saddle as his vision fills with unkind stars and he looks quickly at Arthur, but the other man is still facing away so his back will take the brunt of Lancelot’s disbelief. He swallows hard, swallows past the hurt so his throat burns and pushes out the snort. Arthur doesn’t seem to notice it coming a moment late, for he turns around as usual and slides his hands beneath the next saddle.

“She wanted me to see a Briton wisewoman from the north.” More dust whirls up into the air as the saddle thumps down with straps swinging, a horde of vengeful ghosts come to prick Lancelot to death. But then his fancy goes, well-beaten cripple that it is by now, and all he see is Arthur shrouded in stale yellow bits of straw and grey dirt. “Back then she wasn’t a Christian yet. That came after my father died, when only Pelagius and my father’s old commander would stand by us.”

Arthur rarely talks of his parents. They both lie dead but neither has a grave near the garrison, though his father had been commander here for a while and all his predecessors had chosen to have at least a stone erected in the cemetery. There’s none for him, and only chance comments by the older knights, the ones too crippled to straggle home after their discharge, have let Lancelot know that that is not a sign of honor but of deepest respect. Trust a man of Arthur’s blood to bend tradition. But it is odd that his father would value Britain so much that he would want to leave remnants only on his estate and that his son would hate it so much that he would turn to the fat spider queen of cities instead.

Some old quarrel rests there, in between the clipped, clumsy way Arthur avoids his father’s name and the proud jut of Excalibur from Arthur’s back. Lancelot guesses it lies wherever the mother’s grave does, but years of careful questioning on his part has revealed nothing about Arthur’s mother. Some say she went mad and killed herself, some that she went native once again and fights her own blood. But no one knows for sure; all they can tell is that one night young Arthur appeared at the garrison gates, dirty and small and wilting beneath the weight of his father’s sword, and pleaded his way into the Roman army then and there. And he says nothing, and of all that Lancelot dares, he does not dare bait the man on this.

“My father’s commander finally intervened. Ordered his own doctor to see me, to stop his best officer from fretting, or so he said. And I recovered, and my father went back to campaigning.” After they hang the third saddle, Arthur rests his arms on it and wipes at his brow. Outside it is cold enough to freeze the sap in the trees, and sometimes the bark explodes outward from the pressure so even the forests seem to fight against them.

Inside it is hot enough to strip their clothes from them till they are bared to the waist and Lancelot can watch, if he chooses, how the sweat runs from Arthur’s neck to the first scar across his back and there diverts. He does for a moment, and then he laughs at himself, thick and slow and beneath his breath. It is funny, and pathetic, and his tongue tastes like salt pork. When he runs it over his lips, he can almost feel them shrivel beneath the touch. His vision blurs and clears, but his head remains muzzy as if he’s already gone through a night’s merry-making.

“Sometimes I wonder if it would have been better to stay ill,” Arthur says, quiet as cat’s steps. “Orders are fine and well on the battlefield, but with domestic issues they receive no welcome and breed only resentment.”

“Funny how you understand and still can’t apply the principle.” Lancelot straightens himself and has the next saddle on the rack before Arthur can stop him. He is dizzy now, and almost cannot see, but he makes himself smile anyway. “It’s a touch of the cold, Arthur. Nothing more. Be so good as to give me a day off from these chores and I’ll make myself well again.”

In the haze is a lighter spot, small at first but growing. But despite the smile, Arthur persists. “I would if I knew you would actually rest. Bothering the women doesn’t count.”

“Ready when you are,” Lancelot tells him, hands on the next saddle. He has to wait a moment, but soon Arthur bends down and with a sigh, takes it up.

* * *


In Britain the weather is too harsh and capricious in fall and spring to gamble on much effective campaigning, but at least it is still possible to go out under the rain or sleet. Snow is a different matter.

Winter locks men inside the walls, cocoons them in with their summer-born nightmares and their grievances and then gives them little to distract them from it. Every year Lancelot spends the whole gory, endlessly exhausting hot season wishing for the first snowfall. And every year he relearns how to regret it.

“I don’t care who tells it first. But someone had better start,” he snarls, hand over face. His head is swimming and he cannot help but wonder once whether it’s best for them to die here, exiled from their homeland. The plains and sky of his childhood do not deserve this kind of pettiness.

A chicken.

Two grown men, bloodied and bruised and baleful, before him in the grips of their fellows. Lancelot has seen them all diving to shield each other’s backs without a second thought, raging and weeping by each other’s bedsides in the sick tents, and now they stand before him ready to kill one another for the sake of a half-grown, weedy fowl that would possibly make enough soup for one man. If the cook were clever enough.

“It’s my girl’s bird. Her pet, so I should know it well enough.”

“What, she take it to bed too? Bet she liked that cock bet—”

“You mangy thieving—”

“Shut your mouths!” Lancelot roars, and they do. But no silence follows because his head fills it with a low, dull beating that aches beneath his temples and presses in the space deep behind his nose. His hearing has grown sharper and sharper so now his rasping seems louder than the horns and drums of the army, and his sight has fallen victim to a creeping haze. Just as well, for at the moment he does not wish to look on his so-called comrades. He points without looking. “You. Start. Anyone besides me interrupts and I’ll take you over my knee like the damned brats you are.”

This inanity is what the Romans have brought them to: no longer the great warriors of the songs but little better than hired thugs. The pain in Lancelot’s head pulses harder. Perhaps there is a pain in his chest as well, but he cannot tell because of the heavy numbness that is weighing down his body.

* * *


It will snow tomorrow. Tristan has come down from his perch in the loft and pronounced the sentence, therefore it must be so.

The lightheadedness recedes just long enough for Lancelot to roll his eyes at the amazed look Galahad is badly trying to hide. Of course it’ll snow. Anyone with eyes can look at the sky and see the clouds piling up, staining darker and darker so the night dimmed the land an hour before it rightfully should have. Maybe the skinny fool has a way with horses, but a few weeks hanging around Gawain has done nothing for his sense of credulity.

Nevertheless Galahad usually can be depended on for enough entertainment as it takes for Lancelot to flirt his way around, choose a likely girl and find himself an unused stall. But tonight he grates overmuch and Lancelot leaves early, stifling a cough and stumbling his way down the narrow roads of the camp. Because there is still dust in his lungs from the stables and because it is darker than Lancelot is used to for this time.

Arthur is where he always is this day of the week, closeted in his office with the accounts. Every other officer waits till either the end or the beginning of campaigning season to do them all in one fell swoop, but conscientious Arthur cannot let it go that long. A little work a week may save him a few days of frantic accounting twice a year, but no good deed goes unpunished in Britain.

“Someday some disgruntled supply-master is going to stab you to death with his pen, and then I’ll have no competition whatsoever for the women.” Lancelot’s fingers fumble at the last moment on the door knob so his entrance isn’t quite as startling as he’d meant it to be, but nonetheless he gets a satisfying jerk of shoulders and hitch of breath.

There is one candle lit, which is barely enough for Lancelot to make out Arthur’s face and the line of his back, let alone enough for reading endless tiny columns of numbers. More candlesticks are scattered about, lacking flames not because Arthur is that much of a penny-pincher but because he’d simply forgotten. A month’s pay Lancelot would wager that Arthur had started when daylight alone was sufficient and had become too engrossed to notice when it no longer was.

“I’d think they would be happy to have someone take their duties off their shoulders.” Arthur sets down his reed-pen and raises his arms up and behind his head, stretching out cramps that he probably hadn’t noticed till Lancelot had walked in. From the gaunt look of him, he’s let dinner slip out of his mind as well.

A look at the sideboard confirms Lancelot’s suspicions, for there he finds a full dinner set out on a tray and nearly as stiff with cold as a corpse. Poor Jols, devotedly slaving away only to have his chosen god choose household math over appreciation for his efforts. “They’d be happier if you gave them a few chances to pop some coins in their pockets. Haven’t you ever wondered why they keep transferring out of here?”

Lancelot lights two candles without any problems, but when he tries to light the brazier, his hands shake when he wants them to be steady and go limply still when he wishes them to move. Eventually the coals catch afire, but not before he glimpses Arthur’s gaze on him in the highly-polished bronze of the cup. He squares his shoulders and pretends nothing is wrong as he sets the food near the brazier to warm up.

“And what would you prefer: a happy supply-master or all your pay promptly appearing?” Arthur dryly asks. His fingers are stained black with ink, but what Lancelot can see of his face is slightly bluish with cold.

And no wonder, what with the darkness and the open window. After throwing the shutters, Lancelot strikes the flint against another wick. But his hand spasms and flashes through the flame. The skin is warm then hot then scorched and painful, but for a brief, brief moment he felt summer again. He bites back on his hiss and puts his fingers to his mouth where he tastes blood.

Yes, summer. Summer and it’s no better than winter, only it eats at him in different ways. “Does it matter what I prefer? I’m sure they’re all listed as sins somewhere in your great book.” Maybe the blood fogs his mind, turns him savage. “I know this one is.”

The other man is already trying to come up behind him, doubtless to ease him to bed where he can face horrors asleep and degraded humanity upon waking, but Lancelot is faster. The door isn’t shut when their mouths meet and Lancelot can feel that niggling worry trying to free itself from Arthur’s throat so he claws an arm around Arthur’s neck. Humps himself against the other man like a whore. The comparison isn’t so far, after all.

Arthur shuts the door with Lancelot’s body, and then he has him up against it so the rough wood threatens to splinter in Lancelot’s buttocks and thighs. If it does, it doesn’t matter—Lancelot is used to being split open and raked till the blood comes.

Later, when their foreheads press together in a parody of peace, Arthur strokes the back of his knuckles across Lancelot’s cheek. “You’re burning beneath.”

“I’m angry. You haven’t worn me out enough yet,” Lancelot snaps back. He forces his legs to clench around Arthur’s waist and he licks lewdly at the frustration that engraves deep brutal lines in Arthur’s face.

Of course Arthur doesn’t believe him, but Lancelot is asking with teeth and knees and nails. And Arthur’s breathing is too rough still, his eyes too lit with the dark, to be rude enough to refuse.

* * *


Lancelot feels better on the morrow, even though he steals from Arthur’s room early enough to see the snow begin to fall and know that whatever activities were planned for the day are ruined if they happen to take place outside. His bones have been aching in the cold for days and days, but on this morning the bitter gusts that sweep through the cracks are barely a shiver on his skin. And his cough, though it still gets away from him on occasion, sounds to him a little more shallow, a little less worrying.

“You look like a demon,” Gawain tells him. Behind the man Galahad is sleepy-eyed, rubbing tousled hair out of his face and glowering at anyone who tries to cut before them in the meal line.

“You don’t look a bit like a wolf that would ravish the lambs of the flock, but appearances can be deceiving,” Lancelot cheerfully retorts. For once the light approaches something like the strength of spring sun instead of being merely a more pallid shadow than the rest, and the flush that creeps up the back of Galahad’s neck is as vivid as a flower in a woman’s hair.

Galahad snarls and starts to turn, but Gawain seizes his elbow and swings him so they switch places. Then he is toe-to-toe with Lancelot, fingers curling and uncurling against his thigh while his eyes scour Lancelot’s face. It’s a mystery what he looks for there, but at last he is satisfied and he leans back. “Go back to bed. I’ll cover for you for the morning drills, and I can find—”

As annoying as it is when directed at him, the clucking sound of old women is a pleasing noise to make at Gawain. Sometimes he is almost as bad as Arthur, what with how he assumes a little bit of attention and a shared joke can heal anything. “Gawain, Gawain, better stop before Arthur hears of this. What would he think of officers conspiring to evade duties?”

“You would know better than us,” Tristan remarks. The glare Lancelot sends him does not ruffle him in the least; in fact, it does not even seem to reach him, as if he can reflect back the look before it ever crosses the space between them. “Do something about your eyes, if you won’t rest. You look like a Druid about to go into a frenzy.”

And he passes on, having dispensed his little pearl of wisdom and not even valuing it enough to see if it is taken up. It sets Lancelot’s teeth on edge. A cough seeds and sprouts in his chest, but irritation alone lets him crush it back. “What happened to him out there?”

“What, are you upset you can’t even get a rise out of him now? Maybe he just learned a lesson about himself.” When eyes turns towards him, Galahad stiffens but he does not retract his words. His face says he’d rather withdraw to the wordless sullenness that used to be his habit, but his pride—or probably Gawain—won’t allow it.

“You weren’t around to see that, so what would you know about it?” Stupid brat with his stupid little flashes of bravery. He would think that a week or two in Gawain’s bed would give him leave to comment on what years and years had done to the knights that had survived. As if such pettiness…

Ahead of them is one of the men who’d been brought before Lancelot yesterday, curious stare added to the rest though they can hardly hear what is being said. When Lancelot had ruled on the dispute, the man had had a cut still bleeding fresh across his lip, but now it is scabbed over and Lancelot can see the half-frozen clots in it. Lancelot’s appetite vanishes as abruptly as his earlier euphoria, and now all that fills him is a dull throbbing want to lie down.

Galahad is trying to say something hot and blistering but Gawain is shushing him and shoving him towards the moving line, and there is a quarrel brewing between them if Lancelot has ever seen one. “…bastard thinks the rumors are all in his favor,” Galahad hisses.

“A bastard is someone that tries to kick a sick man,” Gawain mutters, turning a shoulder to Galahad. And the pain that cracks across Galahad’s face is very like the open sore that now is Lancelot’s stomach.

But long habit steels the man soon enough, and he turns his back on Gawain, who’s forgotten Lancelot in favor of wincing under his own headache.

Sick man, indeed. If Lancelot is ill, then they all might as well make for the sick quarters. It’s not the men, but the conditions.

* * *


“I’ll do whatever you want in an hour, Arthur. But not now, so you might as well go.” The first words are the most dangerous thing Lancelot could possibly say to a Roman, but saying them to Arthur is safer than being in the grave. Because the only thing more certain than death in Britain is that Arthur will never take an offered advantage. If he did, then he’d never have a reason to go to confession.

Occasionally Lancelot wonders if everyone has it wrong. Perhaps Arthur is no saint, no exemplary man but the sum of an amount of sins so staggering everyone’s mistook it for good. His capacity for self-guilt certainly supports that view.

Arthur rattles the door again and the racket reverberates in Lancelot’s head, growing louder and pressing harder against the inside of his skull till he thinks it should burst. “Lancelot. Open the door. This can’t wait.”

“I’m indisposed,” Lancelot calls back. He grinds his forehead against the frame of his cot and tries not to laugh because the more he uses his throat the more likely he is to start coughing. And the last time he coughed was when he stalked back to his room to retrieve his cloak and tried to snarl at his flawed company and instead ended up vomiting on his sheets.

“This is not a joking matter.” Even through the thick wood of the door the slow straining of Arthur’s temper can be heard. He probably has one palm flat on the planks as if he could draw Lancelot to him by sheer will, and the other curled into a fist so he can strike the relentless beat of duty. As he does indeed do, sending up such a tumult that Lancelot cannot take it and lets a moan slip from his mouth. The small sound is completely drowned out by Arthur’s beating.

But they don’t need to hear each other, of course. In fact, that’s half their problem.

Arthur slams his hand against the door, his open one so Lancelot winces in sympathy for the pain that that must have engendered in Arthur’s palm. Something cracks in the distance. “Lancelot? Are you all right?”

“And who are you to ask me that?” Lancelot mutters, his lips making parched, chapped spiritless love to the wood of the bedframe. “You can’t even say your own father’s name because he bought you your home and lands and education with blood and blood and blood, and you kill your mother’s people, and you think Rome is best.”

He says it aloud before he realizes and then before he can close his mouth there is coughing, and coughing and his guts feel like they want to spill out of him, turn inside and at this point he’d gladly let them because they hurt where they are and he’s not numb now. Not now, and by all gods he wishes he was.

Lancelot. Open the door.

So Lancelot is ordered, finally, after pleas and appeals fail. He obeys. Or he tries to, but his legs give out as his fingers graze the latch and he falls. His nose nearly cracks against Arthur’s boots and his feet slide through newly-splintered wood before arms jerk him upwards. Idiot has broken his door, he thinks.

And other things as well, but Lancelot is into the dark before he can remember what those are.

* * *


He is twelve again and in his village but there are holes missing and in the gaps lurk glowing eyes topped by menacing high plumes—Roman heads. His tent is a trap, and no one can see it but him. For a while he keeps the soldiers at bay by pulling memories out and patching the holes, but there are too many and he cannot remember enough. He’s lost the memory of his mother’s hair, his girl-cousin’s favorite lullaby, how he got the small crooked scar on his right foot.

“…bring it in here—no, here. Yes. Start melting it all…”

There is no it here, but a boy and he hates you all. He hates you for defeating his grandfathers and for preying on generations after and for thinking your one city is worth more than the rest of the world combined. Because he has never seen your city, but he has seen the men that come from it and they are no better and often much worse than all other men.

“…shock from cold might kill him, but the fever will. Do it. What? No. No--do you understand what quarantine means? Well, they might be Greek methods but they’ve worked before and to my knowledge, that hasn’t. And those are my orders.”

Most of all he hates you because you couldn’t stop at being wicked and cruel. You had to give him something good so he can’t hate you without thinking about it.

He’s scared and he wishes you’d just leave him alone. Haven’t you done enough? He wants you to go and he wants you to stay and he hates you for both of those. Where’s his—where did you put it? Where? That was his, his and with everything else that you’ve taken you have no right, no right to take him—

“…there. Is that it?”

--it’s the charm his great-grandfather gave his grandfather gave his father and it kept them all alive. He holds it and the heads vanish from the gaps and the gaps don’t go, but that doesn’t matter because he’s safe anyway. He snuggles into whoever is lifting him and curls around his hope. “Father?”

“What’d he say?”

“No—nothing. He’s babbling. Is that ready yet?”

No, not him but the arms are still steady and they aren’t hurting him and he thinks maybe he likes them better anyway. “Stay till father comes, please.”

“All right,” says whoever has him. “Hurry up. You—go get another bucketful.”

* * *


Blurry room that isn’t his. He knows whose it is but he can’t put the thoughts together and even just bringing the fragments to where he can prod at them hurts. So he lets them drop.

Someone is trying to put something in his mouth. It tastes like metal and it is very cold so he doesn’t like it and he keeps spitting it out, but they keep putting it in. Finally it’s warm so he lets it stay. It still tastes like metal but also of something else, something that dribbles if he doesn’t close his lips right away. There’s a soft thing that meticulously wipes away the mess. His stomach slowly stops aching but his head doesn’t, and soon he moans, pushes the metal-tasting thing away and tries to melt into the bed. “Bastard. Done.”

Whoever it is laughs. It sounds painful. “No, we’re not. God, I should kill you. Kill you or smuggle you out of here so I can’t drive you into this anymore.”

He isn’t thinking. His lips and tongue move, and the muscles of his throat constrict around the air pushing past them—that’s all. He doesn’t think about it. “Arthur, shut up.”

Now the sound made is like a sob, cracked and unpitying like the wind dragging over a dried-up riverbed. It’s familiar, somehow, and it lulls him to sleep.

* * *


“…be merciful and stay your hand a little longer, Lord God. This life cannot possibly have run its course. He is too young, he has too much ahead of him, and—”

“…he’s a pagan, so he couldn’t give a piece of horseshit about you and there’s no point in collecting his soul.” Lancelot—it’s amazing how much effort it takes to merely remember who one is—has woken slowly to the sound of Arthur mumbling by the bed. The prayers had been in Latin at first, a better Latin than Lancelot knew, but now they are in the dog-Latin of the garrison and Arthur’s voice is shuddering with exhaustion.

Arthur is too tired to do more than flop a hand on Lancelot’s head and lift his eyes to look, but his fingers twine so tightly in Lancelot’s hair that tears sting Lancelot’s eyes and the emotion on his face shines too brilliantly for Lancelot to identify all of what it is. Then Arthur closes his eyes, loosens his grip. “Your fever still hasn’t come down far enough.”

“I noticed.” It’s Arthur’s bed and Arthur’s room. Scrolls and maps and books, so precious to him, have been swept from the desk and piled haphazardly in the corner so pitchers and empty bowls can heap high in their place. There’s a half-melted bucket of snow on Arthur’s chair. “What are you doing?”

All Lancelot receives in answer is a dull, uncomprehending stare. There is a couple days’ growth of stubble on Arthur’s face that cannot cover up the waxen color of his skin. Beneath his eyes the skin has puffed up so it looks as if he’s gone several rounds with a bull and his eyes themselves are pale, pale shadows of what they usually are, the only real color being the red that webs the whites thick as the snowfall of a British winter.

It still hurts to think, let alone put together words, but Arthur always manages to propel Lancelot into feats of which he barely knew himself capable. “You look worse than I do. What are you doing? Get in bed—I feel too damned awful to drag you and no one else would.”

“You can’t see yourself,” Arthur says softly, but not softly enough for Lancelot to miss the tremor.

Lancelot closes his eyes at that point. “Then at least don’t waste your energy praying for me. No point in risking collapse and damnation for my sake. Not to mention I wouldn’t appreciate it.”

Arthur sucks in a breath. His hand is still on the back of Lancelot’s neck, a pleasant weight, and his thumb rubs endless circles into the aching muscle around the spot where Lancelot’s jaw joints skull. “Why, exactly, would praying for you be a grievous sin? And don’t try to quote the Bible at me—I know what it says. The Bible was written by men, who were created by God, and God wouldn’t have given us free will and reason if he didn’t expect us to use them instead of merely relying on what we are told and read.”

“The majority opinion seems to be that men lying with men can’t reasonably expected to be considered a virtue,” Lancelot mutters. He wonders how long he has been here, and what he has said in the moments where the fever has eaten out his memories.

Opinion is not judgment.” The bed rocks as Arthur leans his head against it. “I should know—I’ve made that mistake too many times. Especially with you.” He chuckles. “Did you want to stop?”

Lancelot winces. Fortunate Arthur, he chooses a time to say that when Lancelot’s muscles are as weak as a kitten’s and thus in no condition to slam the fool into the wall. “Why do you pray for me? Why do you bother? I’m not Roman, I’m not—I’m not even a good knight. Well, I’m the best at killing, but I whore too much, piss on everyone whenever I open my mouth—I don’t give a damn who dies as long as it’s not me, I don’t have faith, I don’t—I don’t—”

Arthur abruptly rises as if there’s been a knife buried in his back and now he is being pulled up by it. His eyes could be daggers. “Are you saying you want to?”

“I’m not saying anything! I’m asking you a question!” And Lancelot rises as well, and for all the good that does his body, his bones might as well be swords cutting him from inside-out. He sways and his head sways and he is going to be sick in a few moments, but he swallows back the bile for as long as it takes to prick forth Arthur’s. Because he needs to know. Otherwise it doesn’t matter whether he gets well or not, for he’ll still be in the sickbed. “Why?”

He can see that Arthur wants to reply—Arthur goes as far to seize him by the shoulders—but there the other man stops. And he looks at Lancelot and his gaze goes into him and through him. It hurts, but Lancelot would sooner have Arthur do it than be rewarded with all the gold in the world and his freedom.

“Are you asking if you’re good enough?” Arthur finally says, disbelieving.

Lancelot smiles crookedly at him, for they’ve both lived too long for straight to mean much. “I know I’m more than good enough. For me, for my life. But I don’t understand why you think I’m good enough for more than that. You have this idea of perfection and I know—don’t interrupt—I know I’m not it. I don’t fit, Arthur. It grates.”

They stare at each other. When Lancelot’s eyes grow too dry, he does not blink but instead closes them because he knows when he does, Arthur will kiss him and raw as he is, he wants that too much.

* * *


The sheets are fouled with Lancelot’s sweat and spit, and to them cling also the faint stale stench of vomit, piss, shit. All that’s missing is blood and come, and both of those should be produced in due time because when everything else is stripped away, what is at the core of Lancelot is not a patchy memory of Sarmatia nor lush hips of a Briton woman, but a hand resting so lightly on the back of his neck that he never minds the yoke.

His skin burns from beneath from the fever and his head is already dizzy but he struggles to stay aware because these are Arthur’s hands, Arthur’s arms and legs and mouth, his body and his breath heating Lancelot from the outside till he twists in the sheets, caught between one fire and another. He wishes he could lift his hands to meet the other man, could bury his fingers in Arthur’s hair and stroke the shaking from his shoulders, could yank him along when he lingers too long on Lancelot’s throat. But he cannot, his muscles are too unstrung, and he can only cry out as Arthur descends hungrily, lovingly, brutally on his lips and chest and belly and thighs.

He watches in between moments of blackened blurriness as Arthur claws off his clothes, as the man shreds the sheets that stick to Lancelot. When his vision gives way then he has to rely on hearing and touch. Rasp of Arthur’s gasping, whisper of hot breath over just-sucked skin. Blunt pressure of fingers, narrow edged pressure of nail, creaking of the bed as the skin stretched over his ribs is burnt from the attentions of Arthur’s mouth and palms, from the dig of nails into his side and the ringing of lips around his nipple. His fingers wring out the sheets so they can soak up more of the endless things that spill from Arthur to him and back and that are never held so they can settle into peace. Words—the fragments of three languages that Arthur licks into the scoop of Lancelot’s shoulder, bites into the top of Lancelot’s hip and that never unite into a binding sentence. Breath that Arthur wastes nuzzling up the inside of Lancelot’s thigh, that collects in the delicate skin against which Arthur ruthlessly applies tongue and lips, holding Lancelot’s knees apart with his hands that crush so hard Lancelot could scream from that if his voice weren’t already broken from how Arthur invades his flesh so sweetly. Breath that could be and never will be used to live through some idyllic retirement at Lancelot’s side.

Blood from Lancelot’s lip, drawn both by Arthur’s mouth and Lancelot’s own teeth. Red droplets smeared on Arthur’s mouth from hairs his attentions between Lancelot’s thighs have yanked out, red flush from Arthur’s stubble scraping Lancelot from collarbone to navel and knee to balls. The red lacing the whites of Arthur’s eyes, painting the inside of his mouth as he takes every inch of Lancelot that he can into it, the red that his mouth leaves behind on Lancelot’s skin, the red of Lancelot’s vision when Arthur finally pushes up his legs and guts him so he tries to splay himself further around Arthur’s prick, so he whines and writhes and fucks Arthur just as much as Arthur fucks him. It’s all blood that they spill for each other and that they can truly never accept from each other, whether it’s from guilt or love or pride.

Joy. The fierce white that tears itself through Lancelot and that he wants to tear through him and that he wants Arthur to tear through him so his body breaks and his sight explodes and the world ends. The green of Arthur’s eyes that only appears, and only sometimes at that, afterward when Lancelot first wakes and Arthur is waiting for him to do that with their bodies still knotted in and around each other. It’s what they take from each other after dark, in delirium, whenever they’ve fought to the point that everything else disappears, and then disavow in the morning because it’s a thing that cannot survive in the light and the cold hard practicality of survival. But if they want to have it ever, they have to keep living.

Misery. It’s always what brings them back. No stronger chains were ever forged, for neither of them can bear to leave the other behind.

* * *


“I’m not perfect,” Arthur mutters. “I’m at most three years older than you and I know so little that I cannot believe what people trust me with sometimes.”

“But you want things to be perfect.” A relapse is crouching at Lancelot’s left shoulder, and on his right lurks the resumption of commonsense, of cynicism, of knowledge. He cringes from both and tries to fold himself into Arthur, but that only lasts so long.

* * *


Arthur is shaved and washed and dressed, every inch the Roman commander. And yet he still stays by his mangled bed, tending to the man who could mangle him most. Who does mangle him most, and nearly so regularly that they should set up a schedule. A laugh rakes up Lancelot’s throat and tries to rip open his chest; a following bout of coughing almost has Arthur reaching for that poisonous excuse for medicine.

“I didn’t want to order you into seeing a doctor, but next time I will. Damn you, I thought you might die.” The hand that wipes a rag around Lancelot’s mouth is shaking. Still, though Lancelot’s fever had broken a day before and he has every expectation of being out and harassing in another week.

“You have a charming bedside manner, you know.” The sheets are clean—were clean, about two hours ago. They’ve since soaked up Lancelot’s sweat and tangled around his ankles and so he cannot drag himself the handspan he needs in order to hit Arthur. He settles for wrapping his fingers around Arthur’s wrist. “Why didn’t you?”

It shouldn’t be a difficult question to answer, but with Arthur that is never a given. And he does seem to have trouble with it, choosing to stall by running his thumb over Lancelot’s lower lip.

“You think I’m going to die all the time. Every time we step onto a battlefield, I know you think it.” Because Lancelot thinks the same about Arthur. Sometimes he thinks he learned to kill so well purely so Arthur would have less excuses to throw himself at death.

“And it’s nearly as bad, but at least then I can do—” Arthur presses his lips together. “At least then I might be able to do something. What—can you understand what it’s like to watch and be helpless?”

Lancelot laughs again. He must be recovering, for he’s already trying to do things detrimental to his health in spite of himself. “Can’t I?”

It’s obvious Arthur isn’t going to give him the answer he wants. Not now. Of course Lancelot is used to letting Arthur flee to work, but that makes it no easier to let the man pry away his fingers and do it.

* * *


Arthur finishes his prayer and gets up from his knees. He absently rearranges the bedroll he’s spread on the floor and hasn’t used in days, and then he puts one hand on the bed.

“Why?” Lancelot asks.

Yes, he’s planned the ambush, but he plans many things knowing that they will never work and that he does so only to keep from feeling completely powerless. He does not live without fighting and thus that is always what he expects.

It’s typical of Arthur that he would surprise Lancelot with surrender. “Because I want you. You. Whatever you believe I want—believe first that that is the truth.”

He stares at Lancelot as if he wishes to bare his soul through his eyes. And perhaps that is in fact what he does, but Lancelot has known Arthur for years and years and still does not know enough to begin to fathom everything the man is. “And the others?” he finds himself startled into saying.

“I…do want those as well. Rome and the Church. And you.” Now Arthur sits on the bed and takes Lancelot’s face in his hands, and for a moment his touch and his gaze make Lancelot blind to everything but him. “I don’t want you by way of Rome or the Church—that’s why I kept from ordering you.”

It’s an odd little thing, but even after Lancelot moves past Arthur to Arthur’s words and to the meaning in them, even after his mind has pushed aside his fancies for the reality…he still has trouble seeing. He has to blink several times to clear his eyes.

“It’s a pretty ideal,” he finally says.

“I know.” Arthur closes his eyes. Lancelot does not see this, for he’s already shut his, but he knows Arthur does. And the weight of Arthur’s brow settles on Lancelot’s own, and Arthur’s fingers softly run across the planes of Lancelot’s face. “I know. I wish…I’m sorry I can’t do better by you.”

Lancelot bites his lip. “Someday you’ll not be able to separate us at all.”

“I know,” Arthur says, and for that moment he sounds very young and very frightened. But his sigh is the sigh of an old man.

* * *


Out in the courtyard beyond Arthur’s window, Gawain is giving a pair of would-be brawlers a tongue-lashing. In another day that will be Lancelot out there with his bitterness setting his mouth afire, and Arthur in here, bent over with his responsibilities.

It’s petty in the grand scheme of things. Two men—how could they possibly put their quarrels on a footing with the machinations of empires and nations, with the battles of old faith against new?

But Arthur thinks of Lancelot as being on equal terms on Rome and the Church. Lancelot wonders if Arthur really understands how blasphemous and treasonous that is, or if only a pagan lout could have enough distance to see it. Certainly only a pagan lout could even contemplate fighting as if he and those two powers really were on equal terms.

“Always war,” Lancelot murmurs.

He grins anyway. Because he is imperfect, and lacking virtue, and foolish enough to appreciate the ridiculousness even as he progresses to decision. Whether he fails or wins, at least it will be on his terms and not theirs.

* * *


“Better or the same?” Tristan asks. For once, he looks as if there is no secret joke lurking behind his words, and as if he wants a serious answer.

Lancelot continues tacking up his horse, but watches the other man out of the corner of his eye. “Better. You?”

“I met something worth death. That’s what happened to me out there.” Tristan swings himself into the saddle and looks out through the stable doors. “Winter’s almost over.”

“And aren’t we finally ready for it, fools that we all are?” Lancelot says, laughing.