Green grows the holly.
So does the ivy.
Though winter's blasts blow never so high,
Green grows the holly.
As the holly grows green
And never changes hue,
So I am - ever have been -
unto my lady true.
A cold breeze swept through the chapel courtyard, tossing a light dusting of snow across the Green Knight's boots. It was cold, almost unseasonably so, or at least it seemed colder than the last time he'd ventured beyond castle walls. Perhaps it was the time spent in Bertilak's warm home that made it so. The chapel felt like a wintery hell in comparison. Colder still had been the Green Knight's silent gaze as they'd met, scant moments earlier. He knew he should look up, should face his end like a knight but Gawain couldn't bring himself to meet the eyes of his executioner. Shame twisted in his gut, roiling and burning like a snake gnawing through his belly. He wasn't ashamed of their arrangement. He'd kept his honor in that.
Damn his honor and the things it drove him to do.
If he closed his eyes, he could see it, the source of his shame. In his mind's eye, he pictured Lord Bertilak, his humble and generous host for the last two weeks, whose kindness he had unwillingly betrayed. He could still see the look on Lord Bertilak's face as Gawain had passed on his "catch" of the day, first amusement as three kisses – not quite chaste, but also not nearing the passion that he wanted to express, the kind of passion that two men should not share and yet he couldn't help himself. Then the amusement had faded, turning to confusion then anger then cold betrayal as Gawain had held Bertilak's wife's green girdle between them. It was just a thin slip of cloth, far too sheer and delicate to cause the kind of harm it did, and yet it rent them, as sharp and malicious as the Green Knight's ax.
It was almost a blessing that his life was to be so brief, for he knew he would not be free of that look for the rest of his days. It was burned into his mind, a brand of shame that he would never be rid of. He'd tried to explain but his words had fallen on deaf ears. Perhaps it was better that Bertilak had not heard him, for in his desperate words a confession had started to form, and that truly would have been the end of him, to see the betrayal turn to disgust.
He should have lied. He should have damned his honor and kept the lady's gift a secret. At least then he could have gone to his grave knowing that Bertilak still thought him an honorable man. Instead, he'd lost the illicit nothingness that had been burgeoning between them, lost it all, all for the sake of his honor.
He felt, now more than ever, that he had made a grave mistake and the world had turned out wrong, like he'd stepped off the path meant for him and lost himself in the darkening wood.
Shadows played across the snow as the Green Knight hefted his ax. This was it then, the end of all things. He would face it with honor, as honor was all that was left of him. As he looked up into the face of the Green Knight, he couldn't help but notice a faint trace of remorse and regret in the Knight's expression. It seemed strange to see it there, even though the Knight was the cause of all of this, the catalyst that brought him so close to ruin. His lips parted but no words escaped. The one he would speak to was not here. As the ax descended, he imagined he saw a flash of Bertilak's wood-brown eyes in the Green Knight's face but he told himself it was just his fancy, just the last wish of a dying man.
As the ax bit through his flesh, agony making way for dark nothing, he had the last, blinding thought that this was all terribly, terribly wrong.
A commotion up ahead brought the flow of traffic to a halt. Lord Bertilak de Hautdesert pulled his horse up short, rising in his seat in hopes of catching a glimpse of the obstruction. Too many people blocked the way, all crowding around a single stone gate. One of his guards detached from Bertilak's retinue and pushed his way forward, likely intent on clearing the matter before it delayed them too long. It was rare that he had cause to travel into the city. His advisors had counseled against it, what with the plague eating its way through the streets, but business was business and Bertilak could hardly ignore a summons from King Edward. Still, he had to admit some curiosity. The streets were thinner than years before, the press of people less than it once was, though the press of traffic in this spot gave an impression otherwise. He could imagine more damage yet to be done, more loss of life. They were blissfully spared such strife in the country and as he looked closer, looked deeper into the throngs, he was glad.
There were bodies on the streets. Dead bodies, shoved aside like refuse, gathering in dark corners and piled on waiting carts. Men with thickly wrapped faces piled them on the carts and hauled them away, disappearing down dark alleys to who knew where. As he watched, one of the bodies propped against a nearby building moved and he realized then that they weren't all dead. Green eyes opened, catching his gaze for but a moment. It was a moment long enough. That gaze, strangely familiar and yet foreign to him, struck a spark in his memory. He felt like he should know that boy, that poor, dying boy with black marked skin and sad, tired eyes. There was nothing familiar about him and yet there was, some hint of a once known face.
The crowd parted, carrying him onward. He watched as the boy's eyes closed, his chest rising faintly and then stilling. One of the veiled men stepped between them, obscuring his vision. Bertilak was pulled forward with his retinue, drawn away from the sight by the press of his guards. As they passed under the stone archway, he turned back, hoping for one last glimpse of the boy but the boy was gone. All that remained was a creaking cart of bodies, moving off to be disposed of.
The memory of those green eyes haunted him for the rest of his days.
Gawain was afraid of the darkness. It had been with him his entire life, hanging over him from the moment of his birth and cutting him off from the world around him. He should be used to it, but the he wasn't. It terrified him and no matter how long his days stretched, the fear never quite went away, not ever. He had nothing to compare his lack of sight to, nothing to miss, and yet he knew that he was missing so much. He could hear and he could taste and he could touch and smell, but they only served to remind him how much of the world moved beyond his perception. He feared the things he could not see. He feared the imagined terrors lurking in the darkness around him, monsters of myth and man.
He knew he should count himself lucky. His life would have been far worse if not for the station of his birth. He wouldn't have lasted long outside the gilded walls of aristocracy. Here he was but a curiosity, a poor soul to be pitied and cared for as a sign of charity. Outside he would have been worthless, unable to work and a burden on any family unfortunate enough to have him.
Sometimes he wished he had the chance to prove himself more than a burden. He dreamed of doing something worthy with his life. Out there, he could have tried. Here, he wasn't even granted that. He was like Rapunzel, locked in a gilded cage and kept away from the rest of the world.
His door opened. He stiffened in his seat, breath catching in his chest as he waited, frozen in place, ears straining for some sign of who had entered.
"Brother." The voice was as familiar as his own. A wash of emotions flooded him and he looked away, hoping none of it showed on his face.
Gawain fumbled at the window, tracing the edge of the window pane until he caught the latch. The window clicked shut, cutting off the sounds of the outside world. He schooled his face into a polite mask before he dared turn. "Bertilak."
Booted feet thudded across the room, the sound only faintly muted by the thick carpet. Gawain stood and pulled the curtains shut. There was no change in light for him, but he knew the absence of it would throw his brother slightly off guard. It only made the hand that landed on his shoulder grip even harder, hard enough to leave a bruise, much like the many others already layered there.
"Lancelot was asking after you." Bertilak's tone brought forth a shiver. It was never a good sign when Bertilak invoked Lancelot's name. "He asked if you were coming to Guinevere's ball. As if your presence mattered." Bertilak's fingers brushed across Gawain's cheek, his touch far gentler than his words. He would have almost preferred violence. At least it would be honest. "I declined, of course. We hardly need to parade around the family spectacle any more than we have to."
Gawain swallowed. He wanted to see Lancelot. He always felt better around Lancelot, like he was a real person instead of a burden, like he mattered.
Thick fingers framed his chin, tilting his face up into a bruising kiss. He resisted for less than a second, more of a token than an actual act of defiance.
"I can't believe he wants to fuck you," Bertilak whispered, his breath hot and heavy across Gawain's chin. He could feel the words clinging to his skin, like a thin film of loathing stretched between them.
He thought about fighting. He thought about not giving in, not this time. He thought about standing up for himself, in having some semblance of pride in his existence, some thin shred of honor. It was only a thought, and a fleeting one. Never more than a thought. There was no honor in this life.
He let Bertilak pull him away from the window. Rough hands shed his clothes for him. People were always doing things for him, and in this aspect, this brutal aspect, it was strange to take small comfort in that familiarity. He thought he heard something tear but he couldn't be certain, not without feeling for it but his hands were shoved up and out of the way as he was spread, naked and helpless, across the thick covers of his bed. Bertilak's hands were on him, rough and pulling, fingers digging in and leaving marks for the servants to see. He wondered what they said, if they spoke at all of it or if fear of his brother's wrath stilled their tongue.
There was a time once when Bertilak was gentle, when they were boys and Bertilak was new to the house, an illicit child needed in the face of Gawain's disability, in the knowledge that he would never be fit to inherit. There had been a spark of recognition then, of familiarity beyond this life, but it had soured since then, too weak to stand against the weight of their responsibilities.
Bertilak settled over him, a familiar weight, almost comforting. He wished, not for the first time, that he could see his brother's face. Would there be anguish written there, mad glee, or bitter regret? Would the harshness of his touch be reflected on his face or would there be something different, something more?
Hands moved over his body, pressing his face into the mattress, turning him, pulling him, pushing his legs apart, sliding into him. That touch – intimate and invasive – had long ago ceased to be shocking. Instead, he opened up for it, spread his legs just a little bit wider, not too much, not enough for Bertilak to think he wanted it, but just enough. He wrapped his arms around his brother's thick shoulders, felt the muscles bunch under his hands as Bertilak shifted. Bertilak's body rolled forward, hips pressing against him, aligning, shoving in. He buried his face in his brother's neck to stifle his gasp.
It shouldn't feel as good as it did. It shouldn't, but it did and he wanted it. He always wanted it at first. It would have been enough if Bertilak had stopped there, just the press of skin on skin, the almost gentle invasion. The first time they'd done this, the first time they'd come together, he'd wanted it. Now he wasn't sure what he wanted but this was as close as he was ever going to get.
Society called the bond between them wrong. He knew it was. He could feel it, the wrongness of it, of everything. It echoed in his bones, a faint ache of not right. This wasn't how they should be. This wasn't how brothers acted, and yet here they were, joined in body if not in mind. It felt deeper than that, like two old souls calling to each other.
His comfort, as always, was fleeting. Bertilak's fingers curled in his hair, pulling his head back, separating them save for where Bertilak's flesh made its home in Gawain's body. He whimpered as he was pushed once more down into the subtle give of the mattress. Bertilak shifted, hiking Gawain's thighs higher as Bertilak moved back, his warmth pulling away, separating from him. Bertilak's pace grew harder, more frantic. Gentleness wasn't enough. It had never been enough and Bertilak needed more.
Strong hands closed around Gawain's throat. He didn't cry out, though he knew he should. A gasp tried to escape from his throat as Bertilak thrust too hard, too fast, but the sound was trapped inside of him. His chest burned. His head ached. He grasped at the sheets, fingers clawing but it never did any good.
He couldn't breathe. Panic filled him, as it always did, but with a stronger edge this time. He was certain that Bertilak would go too far this time, that he wouldn't be careful enough, that something would go wrong. The pace was off. Not fast enough. He could feel Bertilak's release approaching, following the same progression as always, the same jumble of force and pressure and pain that would mean air, breath, life, but it was off. It wouldn't come fast enough and Bertilak wouldn't let him go until it did.
He gripped Bertilak's arms, trying to push him off, trying to warn him, but it just made Bertilak squeeze harder. His chest was a giant knot of pain. This was the end of it, the end of them and he knew it wasn't the first time they'd ended this way. His life – lives – stretched out behind him, a long string of failed connections. He'd missed. He could try again.
The darkness shifted. It was different now, different than what he'd known his whole life – peaceful, quiet, still. He wasn't afraid.
Bertilak fumbled with his notecards. They weren't right. Nothing he wrote felt right. There were words boiling in the back of his mind, important words but he just couldn't get them to come out right. There was something missing and with it, a sense of urgency, a sense that he was running out of time.
"...Senator Bertilak of the Green Party."
He looked up as the announcer's voice boomed over the loudspeaker. That was his cue. No more hesitation. He pasted a smile on his face, gave a quick nod to his campaign manager as he stepped up the stairs and past the curtain. The stage was a tiny affair, most likely used to holding up school bands and state fair competitions than young, upstart politicians, but it would work. A ring of police kept the crowd back. There was a murmur of dissent in the gathered throng and for a moment he considered walking out, disappearing back into the curtains and the shadows.
He wouldn't. He was here to show people that he would stand for his beliefs, even if they were unpopular. He wasn't a coward. He'd face his opponents with honor and dignity.
Bertilak cleared his throat and forced his smile a fraction wider. "Thank you all for joining me here today. It's an honor to see so many people gathered, and I hope that you'll give what I have to say the careful consideration it deserves. A change is coming..."
He let the words pour from his mouth. His eyes scanned the crowd. Some people nodded in thought. Some just looked bored. He didn't have a chance in hell, no third party candidate did, but that wouldn't stop him from trying. The world needed to change or he would go insane. Bits of memory flashed through his head – sad green eyes and a raised ax – part of a dream he always had, a dream that meant nothing and everything at the same time. He needed the world to change so that dream would go away and take the guilt eating him with it.
A flash of blue at the corner of his eye made him falter. The carefully practiced words died on his lips as one of the police officers ran onto the stage. Bertilak looked up into frantic, familiar green eyes. It happened in a blur. Someone in the crowd screamed. A crack split the air. The green eyed police officer knocked into him. Blood. Blood everywhere. More police officers filled the stage, pulling him back towards the curtain. He tried to stop them. He reached out, arm extended but the flesh he touched was already cooling. Green eyes stared at nothing as he was pulled off the stage, away from the rapidly growing pool of blood.
He had another image to add to his nightmares, another way he'd gotten it wrong.
"Gawain, you have a visitor."
He turned as best he could, rolling his gaze away from the window towards the door. The impression of thick curtains hit him so hard his fingers curled, grasping for cloth that wasn't there. They told him it was the cancer, eating away at his brain and making him feel more than what was real. He knew better than that. Once upon a time, he'd sat on a windowsill, staring out at a world he could not see.
The nurse smiled at someone out of sight, nodding and dropping into an almost curtsey as she backed away, letting the visitor into the room. The man nodded back at her and pulled an old-style fedora off of an unruly head of gray hair.
"Give us some privacy, please."
The nurse smiled a bit wider and disappeared with a faint giggle, the door clicking shut behind her. Gawain stared at the man, a stranger really in all ways but the one that mattered. He knew the man's name without asking. The TV told him that, if nothing else. He didn't need to TV to recognize Bertilak.
A faint smile stretched across a weathered and weary face. He reminded Gawain of an old tree, bark knotted and scratched up, aged and eternal. His face wasn't quite right, wasn't the way Gawain remembered it being the first time they'd met – the very first time – but it was close enough.
Bertilak sat in the chair next to Gawain's bed. Parents that weren't really his parents had been there earlier today, then a sister and a brother. Gawain felt sorry for them. They didn't understand and they wouldn't believe him, but now maybe someone would. He hoped it wasn't just the cancer making him think he'd lived other lives. He wanted it to be real, because if it was real it meant this wasn't the end.
Bertilak's eyes roved the room, taking in the tubing and monitors. The faint beating of Gawain's heart monitor provided a steady backdrop of noise when combined with the subtle, soft thud of his oxygen. "Gawain." There was a world of emotion wrapped up in that one word – regret and loss and hope and shame.
He smiled. It was nice to be recognized at last. His fingers twitched against the bedspread, barely moving more than an inch but it was all he could manage. Even that fraction of movement made him tired. Everything made him tired.
Bertilak's hand curled around his, warm and inviting. There was humor in their situation – one old with decades left before him, one barely in his teens with no future at all.
"I'm sorry it took so long." Bertilak's thumb stroked over the back of his hand.
Gawain smiled, the expression showing more in his eyes than in the limp line of his mouth. He shook his head faintly. "Don't be. You found me. That means enough."
"It's not enough." Bertilak stared at him for a long moment, more words than could ever be said playing across his face in the span of a heartbeat. "It'll never be enough. You saved my life."
He chuckled, or at least tried to. It died in a fit of coughing that made his monitors scream around him. Bertilak's hand brushed over his brow and his chest eased. The monitors calmed just as the door opened. The nurse poked her head in, gave him one long, lingering look, and then retreated.
"It was just the once. Hardly anything, in the grand scheme of things."
Bertilak's hand squeezed Gawain's tight enough to remind him of ancient pain and hands holding too tight. There was anguish on Bertilak's face, real anguish. He couldn't remember ever seeing Bertilak look so distraught, not once over countless lifetimes. It made Gawain pause, words frozen on his lips.
"Why is it, every time we meet, you keep dying?" Bertilak chocked on the last word, his eyes squeezing shut and for a brief, confusing moment Gawain thought Bertilak was going to cry.
He frowned and squeezed Bertilak's hand as hard as he could. It wasn't much. He stared up at the white ceiling. Fragments of memories that weren't from this lifetime flicked through his head. He could still remember that first betrayal as if he were still there, kneeling in the New Year's snow. This is what his honor had won him – a string of incomplete lives, never quite completing, never ending up where he was supposed to be. At least they were getting closer. At least they remembered.
"Don't die," Bertilak pleaded, sounding young and healthy again, the lord of an ancient castle.
Gawain smiled. He brushed his thumb against the back of Bertilak's hand, mirroring Bertilak's earlier gesture. "I'm afraid it's far too late for that now. I'm sorry." He packed as many meanings as he could into that single apology. He hoped Bertilak understood.
There were tears in Bertilak's eyes. Gawain didn't want that. He didn't like it when people cried over him. His family, this family, the one in this lifetime, had been doing enough of that and he couldn't bear to add one more person to the list of his soon-to-be mourners. He supposed it was too late for that.
"I don't want you to die," Bertilak whispered, voice low as if imparting some great secret.
"It's okay. We'll get it right next time." One secret deserved another. He closed his eyes as a wave of exhaustion washed over him. It wouldn't be long now. He could feel the darkness coming for him once more. It felt like greeting an old, familiar friend. "You should know... I've always loved you. No matter what. In every life."
Machines screamed all around him, cutting off Bertilak's response. Voices filled the room but they were a distant concern. Too late. It was time. Bertilak held his hand as the darkness took him. He was looking forward to their next meeting.
They set their guns on the desk, barrels perfectly parallel, inches between them. Knives followed next, a set of brass knuckles from Bertilak's side, and a pair of grenades from Gawain's. On top of all that went Gawain's sword in its sheath, crossed by Bertilak's huge double-bladed ax. Spare clips filled in the edges, trailing outwards until they were down to just wallets and keys.
"Lord Bertilak." Gawain inclined his head just the right amount for propriety's sake, the cheeky grin on his face spoiling the effect.
Bertilak snorted and shook his head. "Sir Gawain."
"How's your wife?" Gawain asked as he sat on the edge of the hotel bed and unlaced his combat boots.
"Jealous. She sends her regards and the usual invitation to join us for the Christmas season." Bertilak pulled his shirt over his head, revealing an expanse of well-muscled abs that he knew drove Gawain absolutely mad. He smirked as he caught Gawain staring. "How's your king?"
"Accommodating. He is looking forward to meeting next month to renew the Hautdesert-Camelot treaty."
Bertilak grinned. "Are your rooms still off in the west tower or did he move you again?"
Gawain flushed, far too prettily, especially when their kingdoms were so far away. "It was only the once and that was because we were being... ah, well, far too loud for the Lady Guinevere's liking. Something about waking the babies up."
Bertilak chuckled. "Perhaps I should just bring a gag then, at least until I can woo you away to my castle walls." He brushed a hand down Gawain's cheek, pleased, as he always was, that Gawain didn't flinch away, despite their checkered history.
"Hardly necessary, I assure you."
Bertilak pulled Gawain towards him, his fingers gently tangled in Gawain's hair. Their lips met, the simple touch sending fire to Bertilak's groin. Gawain moaned into the kiss, as wanton in his pleasure as he was reserved in every other aspect of his life. It pleased Bertilak to know that he was the only one who could stoke that kind of passion in Gawain, the only one that Gawain allowed himself to relax around. It should be the opposite. After all the pain he had caused, Gawain should fear his touch and yet he never had. Bertilak counted it a blessing, one of the many he had in this life.
Their clothes fell away like leaves from a Fall tree, littering the floor in greens and blacks and browns. The trappings of combat were stripped away, the conflicts of the outside world pushed to the side for the moment. Gawain was soft and pliant as he pushed him to the bed, eager in a way that was unique to this life. It amazed him that Gawain was always so willing to give. He let Bertilak spread him, let Bertilak's fingers – fingers that had once, long ago bruised him, harmed him, killed him – into his body and writhed at the touch, as if all the old hurts had been forgotten. Maybe they had. Bertilak was not going to let this forgiveness, undeserved as it was, go wasted.
He let Gawain's moans wash over him like the waves of the ocean, rising and falling as Bertilak played Gawain's body. He kissed his way down Gawain's chest, stroked his fingers soft and gentle in the deep caverns of Gawain's flesh. He let his fingertips brush along Gawain's sides, just shy of tickling, just enough to make Gawain's breath catch. Gawain writhed on the sheets, his skin flushed pink, his eyes never straying from Bertilak's face.
Release was a distant star that he never quite allowed Gawain to catch. He knew every way to play him, every way to bring him to the brink, and he used that knowledge, pushing Gawain to the edge with his lips and his tongue and his hands before pulling back, gentling Gawain with soft touches and quiet kisses while Gawain panted and moaned and begged. It drove Gawain insane in the best kind of way, made him forget his inhibitions and scream his need.
His fingers twisted and coiled inside of Gawain's body, brushing over his prostate and then away, circling the rim of Gawain's entrance first with fingers, then with the hint of tongue until Gawain was crying out, begging for Bertilak to take him. Bertilak's hand closed around the base of Gawain's erection, holding tight as he shifted, sliding up along Gawain's body in a move that made Gawain shiver from head to toe. His erection, thick and untouched, pressed against Gawain's entrance. Gawain lifted his hips, inviting, begging with his body as words failed him.
Bertilak teased him. He let his erection rub over Gawain's flesh, loving the needy moans it drove from Gawain. All the while, his hand held tight, not letting Gawain have the release that coiled inside of him. Gawain's face was flush as he screamed into the pillow, his hands fisted in the cloth, knuckles white.
"Tell me what you want," he breathed into Gawain's ear.
"Fuck me," Gawain shouted, loud enough for the whole building to hear. "Dear God and all that is holy, fuck me, please."
Bertilak pressed a kiss to the tense knot of muscle between Gawain's shoulders and pressed in. Gawain sobbed in relief, though he didn't release his white-knuckled hold on the pillow. He knew better. Bertilak slid in, slow as the wash of the tide over the shore, and pulled out just as slow. Gawain moaned. His back arched as he tried to push back, to quicken the pace, but Bertilak moved with him, matching him and keeping their bodies aligned. He focused on his breathing, relaxing into the steady press of their bodies even as it drove Gawain mad. Rise and fall. Rise and fall. Calm. Steady. The slow roll of his hips pushed Gawain's voice higher, his cries louder, his moans needier.
He could feel his own release building, pressing against the wall of control that he used to keep his passion in check. Otherwise he would have come in seconds, just from the sight of Gawain naked and spread for him, and that would have been far too soon. No, their time together was limited, which meant he had to hold back, prolong their release for as long as he could.
It had been long enough. Gawain was sobbing into the pillow, his breath hitching each time Bertilak slid home inside of him. He was thoroughly undone and so Bertilak let him go, his grip relaxing, switching to a gentle hold as he stroked Gawain's release out of him. Gawain screamed, bucking his hips back hard, forcing Bertilak deeper inside of him. He shuddered, his body trembling like a leaf caught in a tornado as release washed over him.
Bertilak held out for as long as he could, watching, savoring the way Gawain fell apart beneath him before finally letting himself go. He closed his eyes, just for a moment, and let out a soft sigh as he spilled into Gawain's welcoming flesh.
Gawain was boneless beneath him as Bertilak pulled out. He made a soft sound of happiness as Bertilak pulled the sheets over them and repositioned them, pulling Gawain tight to him so that Gawain's head was nestled on Bertilak's broad chest. Gawain's eyes were closed, his breathing evening out into the quiet pattern of sleep. Bertilak stayed awake far longer, his eyes never straying from Gawain's relaxed features.
In the morning they'd have to leave, to return to their separate castles, their separate kingdoms and the duties waiting for them there. There would be battles, fights both mundane and magical. The new world was a dangerous place, full of people who had yet to come to grips with the way things had changed. But it wouldn't be that way for long. Bertilak had hope – hope in Arthur, born anew, and his knights and Gawain. It wouldn't be long until the fighting ended and the world settled back into peace.
When the world calmed down, he had a ring waiting to grace Gawain's finger, and with the ring, a girdle, the symbol of their beginning and their end, complete at last.