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Between the Hour and the Age

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fourth year of the anarchy (reign of steven)

“This can’t go on,” Arthur says.

Freya, her eyes horribly distant, murmurs, “They say their Christ and all the saints are sleeping,” and then draws a sharp breath and focuses on Arthur again. He watches her pupils contract, her face soften, and then she is herself, less Avalon’s and more his. “They say the whole land is cursed and damned, and the war a judgment on them, but—”

“But I’m still here.” The grass of Avalon is a dazzling gem-bright green beneath his feet, the sky a hotter blue than larkspur. There are no ravens’ calls, no screams of agony and stink of rot, nothing but a perpetual dew dampening the grass; Avalon is a perfect dream he wishes he could wake from into nightmare. “What’s keeping me?”

“I don’t know.” Freya’s hands close hard around his. There is an unbearable strength in her slim fingers, as if she can hold two worlds together with them alone while Arthur—Arthur can’t hold anything. Arthur is trapped in Avalon while armies gather to tear the kingdom he’d gained and lost and lost again into shreds, while people die fighting over whether a new-minted king or a dead king’s daughter has more right to the throne, and it’s suddenly so wretchedly familiar that the weight of every death that bought his crown crashes in on him anew. “I don’t know.”

“And Merlin?” he asks. It’s habit now. He hates that it’s become habit, that it’s had a chance to become habit. He would protect Albion from all this if he could. He had always protected Merlin, until he died.

She steps back and the tree shimmers to life between them, with smoke hazing the horizon beyond it and blood rusting the ground beneath it but the tree itself somehow pristine, as if Albion is carrying out the wish Arthur can’t. “Still safe,” Freya says. She can see more than he can, into the heart where Merlin stands in endless dreamless sleep, and he believes her, he does, because she loves Merlin too, but— “Look,” she says, and takes two quick steps forward through her vision and pulls him to her.

In the first heartbeat after their mouths press together Arthur sees year after year unfolding in veils of light and shadow, and Merlin beyond them, still looking as young as Arthur does now and younger yet with all worry swept from his face. Then the tree is gone, taking Merlin with it. Nothing is left but the perfect unmarred springtime of Avalon that never ripens into summer and Freya’s arms tight around him.

She kisses him so fiercely he forgets how small she is, and how fragile she looks, and remembers only Freya the gatekeeper, Freya the mage-Lady, Freya who walks between the living and the dead to pull lost souls ashore however hard they fight. Freya who treats every kiss like the last and every touch like she’ll never have another, and he’s promised to bring her back to Albion when he goes but Merlin made her promises too and never got to keep them. Arthur kisses her back and tastes blood in it, hers or his or both or neither, a hot vulnerable taste that has no place in Avalon, and he welcomes that as much as the sting.

Freya is the only thing about Avalon that has ever been real.

She drags her mouth away from his, along his jaw, licking against the grain of his stubble, and he shivers with the heat of it and still sees over her shoulder the slow slow unfurling of battle, time outside Avalon crawling past as if someone wants him to suffer through as much of this war as possible even in his safe prison. Holy buildings burn with the same fires as farmers’ cottages, as—

“Arthur,” Freya says, low and strained, “we can’t stop it,” and Arthur looks down at her, where she fits so easily and lightly into the circle of his arms, and thinks of how few souls still come looking for Avalon. “Can I help you forget?” she asks. “Tell me what I can do.”

Behind her Albion—England—falls faster into war, and around her Avalon holds a breath it never had, and Arthur…Arthur can’t ask Freya to comfort him through this, not when he’s led armies into battle and she has only ever welcomed them afterward. It isn’t hers to bear, it isn’t her kingdom lost and broken without her, it isn’t her memory of a war fought in her name that makes this so much worse than it could have been, and he won’t ask her to make it hers to bear by finding gentle words to give him.

“There is,” he starts, and then hesitates, because—he could lie and say it’s because it’s a lot to ask, or because he feels it’s profaning the deaths outside, or even because he doesn’t think she’d be interested, but it’s none of those, it’s an old shame that has no place in Avalon. Freya pulls away to look at his face clearly and it’s her own expression, as helpless and useless as he feels, that decides him. “If you wanted to,” he tries again, “if it—”

“I do,” she says, clear and certain as dawn.

“It’s not something I’ve ever,” asked for, he’s going to say, but that isn’t true. Had to ask for, maybe. Had to arrange.

“Done?” She looks a little worried now, but still steady; Arthur thinks if he told her he'd never done something and then asked for it she would make it happen anyway, exactly as he needed, somehow. She’s always been able to do the extraordinary, from before the minute he first set eyes on her.

He shakes his head, answering her question and drawing himself back all at once. “If—” No, approach it sideways, let her realize what he’s asking before he does ask it, so at least he won’t have to explain after. “I once visited a brothel”—Freya’s eyebrow lifts a little but she doesn’t show any other signs of surprise, good—”where two of the women…one of them had a, um.” He looks away, at the terrible unearthly green of the grass at their feet, and tries not to notice what’s happening in England beyond. “It was a—there was a leather harness that went around her waist and legs, and a cock made out of polished wood.”

He hears Freya draw a long breath, but she stays silent other than that. He still doesn’t dare look at her.

“You asked how to make me forget,” Arthur says, and what he’s asking her for is nothing like what they’ve already done, simple and expected, too fond for a dalliance and too free for a marriage but nearly all the kind of thing that Arthur might have been supposed to do. Asking for this is terrifying, because he knows he wasn’t imagining the look on her face those—decades?—ago, but that was different, that had been nothing to do with her, that was…

(“D’you want to try it the other way around sometime?” Merlin had asked, flushed and exhausted and glowing with heat, and Arthur had thought yes and said, “I don’t know, Merlin, convince me.”)

Through the perfect cloud-bright haze of Avalon Arthur sees the south of England rise up against itself, and he looks at Freya now because whatever she’s thinking must be better than watching that. She’s holding as still as if he’s a nervous horse she doesn’t want to startle, her eyes wide and dark, her lips flushed and a little parted, and she’s waiting for him to finish. He wishes she wouldn’t, he wishes she’d take this out of his hands like Merlin had, but that isn’t Freya. Freya has never spared him the decisions he needs to make or the truths he needs to face, and as much as he thinks he’ll come to love her for that and more than that given a little longer he wishes she’d save it for Arthur the king, and have a little more pity for Arthur the man.

Except he doesn’t want her pity, really—maybe if he did, she would, now that they’re not enemies. But he doesn’t, and she won’t give it to him.

So he finishes the request himself. “If that—if fucking me—is something you’d be willing to do, I think you might manage to make me miss the rest of this war.”

“Yes,” Freya says, and her voice is calm but the bright color in her face isn’t. “I’d like that, if you would.”

Please, Arthur thinks, only half because of the armies breaking against each other that he still can’t quite ignore. Half of it is just because of Freya, standing there waiting for him to tell her she can have something she must know they both want, brave as any of his knights and regal as any queen he’s ever met, even barefoot in the most dream-sweet and unthreatening meadow imaginable. “I would,” he tells her, and if it’s harder to say than I don’t know, convince me it’s at least more honest.

He isn’t sure what he’s expecting, but when she says something long and liquid in the language of the Old Religion and her eyes burn gold it shocks him down to the core, because all the magic he’s ever seen Freya do is Avalon’s magic, not her own. Chasing the shock comes a thrill of heat, familiar and strange all at once, and he barely even notices the tangle of straps Freya’s holding as she sets it down on the ground.

She straightens and says, “Then kiss me,” and he does, lost in it, dizzy with how much he wants her already, and her fingers curl around his arms and she presses up against him—she must be standing on her toes, he thinks, and then she slides her tongue against his and he forgets to think entirely. She tastes like springtime, impossibly, like air and nothingness, but the longer they kiss the warmer and more human she tastes, and she sighs contentedly and leans further into him.

There’s the faintest trace of salt on the skin of Freya's throat when he kisses her there, gently, because even if the marks won’t stay the idea of leaving any on her horrifies him. She’s alive under his hands, against his body, and when he moves one hand from her waist to her breast she makes a pleased little noise deep in her throat and arches back to let him reach better, supported just by her hands on his arms and his hand on her waist, and her hips push against his and he forgets for a minute that he could be holding her better, where she’s still balanced on her toes, and then he remembers and moves the hand still on her waist to the small of her back and pulls her even closer. Her grip barely even tightens as she bends where Arthur guides her, and it goes to his head like spirit-of-wine to have her this yielding even as he knows, he knows, that slight and delicate as she seems this entire realm bows to her command, and that goes straight to his cock instead.

He’d spent an entire winter once not too long ago—she’d know the year—on her breasts, mapping them with hands and mouth and both at once, learning how lightly to stroke or how hard to suck to bring her from encouragement to demand to plea, until finally when England beyond them was frozen in the darkest month before spring she’d cried out as much in surprise as release, coming just from that. It was a peacetime indulgence, an exploration, nothing either of them have the patience or the calm to repeat now, but he remembers it anyway as he cups her breast in his hand, dragging the cloth of her robe over her nipple with his thumb, and she catches her breath and says, “More.”

Her heartbeat is drums against his palm, wings against his lips where they linger under her jaw, a shock of vitality in the middle of Avalon that he’ll never get over. Arthur gives her more, trailing kisses down her throat to the neckline of her robe, still gentle, and—he doesn’t have enough hands for this.

Freya twists against him, pulling away, and he’s missing her warmth even as he lets her go and then not missing it anywhere near as much when she unlaces his shirt with what feels like a single quick motion and then tugs her robe over her head. He makes the mistake of watching her, stretched out and open with her breasts pushed forward by the angle of her shoulders, and so he’s looking when the veil between worlds thins again and—that’s Camelot, that’s where Camelot was, he recognizes it still and it’s burning, the king of England, the man on Arthur’s throne, has turned his men against Camelot itself and—

Arthur,” Freya says, taking his jaw in her hands, drawing his gaze back to her face. “Don’t look.”

“I have to.”

“Don’t,” she says again, imperious and unbending, “look.” He closes his eyes, and her voice is softer when she says, “Do you want me to stop?”

Arthur thinks of everything he could see, won’t be able to help seeing, and says, “No.”

It’s cowardice. He knows it is, but Freya won’t care, won’t even think to judge him for it.

Her hands move from his jaw to his shoulders, a slow, soothing caress. They’re warm and steady and he still doesn’t look away from her eyes, even once he can. “Take off your clothes and lie down,” she says, still softly, and he does, staring up into the clear merciless sky, unable to make himself turn away from it just yet. The grass is softer than velvet under him.

“All right,” Freya says, almost to herself, and suddenly she’s blotting out the sky, settling herself over him and bending down so her hair falls around their faces. In the half-twilight of the shadow she casts he sees her more strangely than he has in centuries, vulnerable in a way the lady of Avalon in its perpetual daytime never is, and it frightens him. He kisses her to stop thinking and keeps kissing her as she folds herself down against him, her breasts squashing against his chest and her legs tucked up at his sides, and he doesn’t know what she’s waiting for but he wishes she’d stop.

Maybe she’s waiting for him to ask? “Whenever you’re ready,” he tells her, and tries to sound bored instead of breathless, indifferent instead of—well. He doesn’t think he succeeds, either way, not when the look she gives him is heated and tender and a little wry all at once.

She swings her leg back so she’s kneeling at his side instead of over him and looks him thoughtfully up and down, her eyes lingering on his cock, which isn’t as hard as it ought to be by now between nerves and his too-present awareness of what’s happening right now in England. Her gaze stays even longer on his face, which he hopes doesn’t betray him. “You’re not just doing this because you wish I were—” she starts, and Arthur says “No!” so violently it startles them both.

“No,” he says again, more gentle and more firm. “Freya, I’m not trying to replace him, I’d never do that.” He swallows and makes himself add, “To either of you,” feeling raw and bare. “I…like this. What I asked of you. That’s why. Because I want it and I…trust you enough to ask you for it.”

She takes that trust as he’d meant it, as a truth and a gift in itself, and doesn’t pick at his hesitation. Instead she takes his hand in hers and kisses it, the backs of his fingers where a royal ring would be, and then his palm, and then his wrist where he feels his pulse quicken again against her mouth. “Tell me,” she says, her breath hot on his skin, “what would make this easier for you?”

“Just do it,” he says, “I’m not a bloody virgin,” and she laughs and lets his hand go and he realizes he’s almost forgotten England and remembers again, too sharp, suddenly seeing fleets taking sail from the Continent to fight Albion’s battles in the blue blue depths of the sky overhead. Then Freya catches him, her hands closing around his hips almost tight enough to bruise, and he’s startled away from the war by the wet heat of her mouth against the tender skin between his leg and his body. He can feel the edges of her teeth, and she probably won’t bite him but just the threat of it anchors him, sends the warships scattering away into the mist over the trees. She leaves a line of open-mouthed kisses down the join of leg and body—tendons, arteries, and Arthur wonders if she can feel his heart racing when she stops and looks up at him. Her eyes are dark and deep, hazy with lust but still knowing, still careful, even kneeling before him she never forgets that he and all the rest of Avalon are hers, and he closes his eyes and says “Please” because her mouth is right there and he wants this, too, he wants anything she wants to give him.

Freya lifts her head enough that he can see her smile, sweet and real, and then takes his cock into her mouth and even the sky blurs for a moment as he hardens the rest of the way against the press of her lips and the slide of her tongue. She sucks him too firmly to be a tease, not quite enough to get him there, and he lets his hand settle on her hair—not holding her down, he has better manners than that, he knows better, just holding himself in place as pleasure sparks under his skin. It’s almost no time at all before she pulls away, her lips dark and swollen and shining-wet, and he hears himself make a wordless sound of protest and then she says, barely more than a whisper, “Turn over.”

He feels his breath go. “You can do it like this,” he says, without meaning to say it until he already has.

“Not easily.” The corners of her red, red mouth quirk up. “I’ve never done this before.”

Maybe that should alarm Arthur, at least a little, but it’s not like she can hurt him, not here in Avalon. He turns as she asked, settling himself on hands and knees, and catches another flash of the war as he does—a sudden shocking glimpse of what had been Camelot fallen to the woman who would be queen as well as empress, and this time he does close his eyes, remembering Morgana, remembering long seasons spent driven out of his own kingdom, drowning in remembrance.

Freya catches him again, resting a hand lightly on the small of his back, and he feels a little of the new tension drain out of his muscles under her touch. “Stop watching,” she says, commands, and Arthur thinks about telling her he already stopped and doesn’t because it’s all, all of it, too much and too close—bad enough that Albion is shattering in a war, worse that it’s something he can’t stop, worst of all that it’s a war that might easily be being fought by the ghosts of everyone he’s lost. He doesn’t know how to bear it. But Freya’s still there, warm and unshakeable at his side, her voice steady as she says, “Look at me, Arthur.”

He has to turn his head at an awkward angle to be able to see her, even though she is next to him rather than behind him, and she must be able to feel the uncomfortable twist of it all down his back because she exhales in what’s almost a laugh and says, “All right, your way, then. And stop me if I do hurt you.”

With his eyes open still as he moves he sees more armies, flooding the soft peaceful green of meadows that he’d wanted to never become feasting-grounds for ravens again, but then he’s settled again and it’s only the sky, almost easy enough to ignore, especially with Freya’s hand steady on his hip, her thumb smoothing back and forth over the arch of bone.

“Look at me,” she says again, and he does, and once she has his focus she says something in that long-dead language and the midnight of her eyes goes gold as dawn around the edges. She’s holding a bowl in her free hand now, still refusing to let Avalon do the work for her, and Arthur feels a slow rush of heat down his spine. He pulls his legs up to his chest and holds them there and refuses to close his eyes, even though he feels more than naked like this—naked is all right, naked is unavoidable sometimes and necessary other times, but this is raw vulnerability, like walking onto a tourney field without his armor or accidentally drinking a truth serum—and then Freya’s hand moves from his hip to cover his on the back of his thigh, right where thigh becomes arse, and Freya knows worse of him than this, knows everything else of him, and it’s not so bad, anymore, even though it’s all new again.

If he were as prone to wallowing in feelings as some people (he would have said girls, once, to tease Merlin, but Freya who takes in all feelings and moves past them as through a storm has trained almost the thought of that away) he might ask her for some kind of reassurance. He doesn’t, because the only thing worse than needing it would be asking for it, but between the war he can’t block out and the way he’s exposed to Freya now the thought is in his head anyway, unbidden.

She kisses the inside of his knee, startling and tender, and then says, “Ready?”

The thin washes of cloud overhead suggest nothing at all of whatever’s happening in England now, but Arthur’s mind is nowhere near as merciful, trapped between desire and reality. “Please,” he says, and all he means yet is make everything else stop, but suddenly there’s a new edge to Freya’s smile and the bottom drops out of the world on a heart-pounding rush of arousal and a little bit of alarm.

Freya bites her lip, maybe concentrating, just before he feels the light brush of her oiled fingertips across his hole, not even in yet but it sends sparks flying under his skin, focuses him until Avalon blurs around him into a faded haze. “So I just—in?” she asks, nudging at him carefully with fingers Arthur knows are slim even for a woman’s, and he nods and then she pushes a finger into him with no more hesitation at all, her eyes steady on his face as she opens him up, and it’s barely a stretch at all, barely anything, but it still starts another wave of heat uncurling through him, and he catches his breath and says, “That’s the best you can do?” instead of more.

She grins and lets her other fingertips settle on his arse, little dots of oiled warmth just wasted, and says, “It is not.” The smile is too clear, too bright, and he regrets not having gotten her closer before she decided it was time to do this so she’d be less inclined to tease, but maybe he’s giving her too much credit, maybe she’s hesitant because she’s afraid—no, not Freya.

“Well?” he asks, and her grin goes both thoughtful and wider, and she crooks the finger she has inside him, a faint searching pressure until it’s fire running up his spine instead and he breathes through it open-mouthed, gasping around the pleasure of it, and then she stops. “Freya,” he protests, and instead of going back to the spot she gives him another finger, and now he can feel it, stretch and fullness both, and then she’s back where he wanted her at the beginning and this time he can’t help making noise.

“Am I doing it right?” Freya asks, and she can’t be serious, she really can’t, even without the telling roughness of her voice and the flush to her skin and the darkness of her eyes still steady on him she isn’t stupid, and part of Arthur thinks about not even dignifying that with a response but the rest of him says, “Yes.”

“Good,” she says, and rewards him with a third finger, not quite what he wants, and he wonders how long she’s going to hold him here going through preparation he doesn’t need and then forgets to wonder anything in another long flare of heat as she, he doesn’t even know, rolls her fingers over the spot.

I begged for it, he suddenly remembers saying, and oh, oh, is that what she’s waiting for?

She’s still watching him, still careful, gentle and implacable as ever, and there’s nothing but affection and want in her face—Freya who thinks even kings should be humble, he remembers blurrily, Freya who the most powerful men of the land have asked for help—and she says, very quietly, to whatever struggle she sees on his face, “Let go, Arthur.”

“I’ve forgotten how,” he says. She flexes her fingers inside him and presses her thumb against the rim, just the suggestion of more without pushing him too far, and the world goes white around the edges, overbright, and he hears himself say, “That, do that again.”

There you are,” she says on a sigh, relaxing, bending to kiss him again but never so far she can’t see his face—his knee again, his thigh, and sometime later when she’s more used to this maybe he’ll ask her to suck him while she takes him apart from the inside out but right now he’s grateful even while he isn’t that she’s reading him with such attention. His cock is aching-hard, dripping a little more onto his stomach every time she moves her hand, and when she says, “Is this enough?,” her words soft against his skin, he really can’t help the look he gives her or his tone when he says, “No it is not.”

He feels her laugh more than he hears it, a wry little burst of air. “I mean, is this good? Or do you need more?”

Arthur is barely even sure what she’s asking, with the world vanished to the places where she’s touching him, to the weight of her gaze and the heavy beat of his pulse in his throat and temples and cock. But he knows the answer, anyway, and “yes,” he says, yes to both, yes to the way his bones have gone to liquid fire and there’s nothing but Freya and what she’s doing to him. She must know what he means because she very carefully takes her free hand off him—he feels unbalanced without it—and he hears through the rushing of his blood the sound of her fumbling with the harness she’d made earlier.

When she pulls her other hand out of him the world cools enough to let him think, though he still doesn’t want to, and he shivers at the loss and she says, “Can you hold your legs a little closer to your chest?” He does, and he’s still waiting, as she adjusts the harness, barely touching him at all, and it’s colder now, springtime in Avalon instead of—

“Arthur. Where are you?” Freya asks, steadying them both with a touch as she guides the wooden phallus nearly into place.

“Here,” he says, and it’s almost true.

The phallus presses against his skin, slick with oil but not quite warm, and slides a little until Freya has it in the right place. Arthur thinks he forgets how to breathe at the blunt pressure of it against his hole, promising, and it’s not what he’s been used to but it’s not bad, either, and it’s Freya, and this is the only way Freya can give this to him. He lifts his hands to her shoulders, holding her as she’s been holding him. She moves her hips then, as if she was just waiting for that, and the head pushes into him, stretching him open around it, solid and absolutely unyielding, and that thought really does steal Arthur’s breath entirely in a prickling rush of want brightened by fear. “Still all right?” Freya asks, her voice gone rough, and Arthur says “please” and means it, knows it’s not an answer and doesn’t know what else to say, he’s all right, he’s better than right, and Freya pushes closer, leaning down over him, the phallus sliding all the way into him on one long unforgiving glide, and he’s burning from the inside out, shaking apart under her and babbling gods know what, everything shrinking down to the pure raw feeling of it, shocking him back to breathing, leaving him more alive than he’s been since he died.

Freya’s eyes are midnight-huge in the deep flush of her face as she pulls back, a little clumsy, and then in again, trying to find a rhythm and missing half the time but it doesn’t even matter, not when even her off-beat thrusts have him opened and filled and naked under her, not when she’s almost as good at finding that little knot of nerves with the phallus as she was with her fingers, not when just doing this to him is leaving her half-stunned with pleasure too, and it won’t last much longer, he can’t, everything is brightdark and shattering and so incredibly real, Freya’s gift to him—to both of them—and when he comes he could swear it is real and it leaves him as tired as if he’s just been born.

He lets it ebb, bliss fading to weariness and weariness in its turn fading too. Licks his lips. Manages most of a sentence. “You can move, if you need.”

She pulls out, and he winces at the loss and then tries to hide it because she’s rubbing the muscles of her thighs as if they ache and he hadn’t even thought of her, how unused she was to moving like that or how little pleasure she could have gotten fucking him with a cock that wasn’t even hers.

“Thank you,” he says, and maybe it’s strange to be thanking someone for this but it feels right, too, right enough that it’d be wrong not to. Freya sits back and stretches her legs out in front of her, wiggling a little as she makes herself comfortable. The phallus still sticks up from between her legs, and the straps still cut darkly across her skin.

Arthur reaches for her. The harness, he finds, closes together with buckles. It’s almost like taking off armor, except Freya’s skin is bare and soft underneath and she shivers whenever he brushes against it. “Lie back,” he says, when the angle gets to be too difficult, and she does, tilting her hips first to one side and then the other so he can get it loose. There are marks on her where the straps had dug in, and he mouths gentle apologetic kisses across them, nudging her legs apart with his hand so he can get to the marks curving up her inner thighs, and gods she’s wet, and he’d meant to take it slower after how slowly she’d gone but he can’t resist.

He licks into her and then up, flicking his tongue across her clit, and she actually arches off the ground, hands curling into fists at her sides and tearing the perfect grass there out in bunches. “Harder,” she gasps, and he obeys, closing his lips gently around her and sucking. She’s trembling, radiating heat against him, and when he eases a finger into her she lets out a high thin cry and clenches hard around him, not there yet but so much closer than he’d expected that his cock twitches painfully.

“What was it like?” he asks, pulling away just enough that he can form words and feeling each brush of his lips against her through her whole body.

Freya’s breath is nothing more than rags. “In-incredible,” she says, “it—don’t stop—it was, you were so—” Even those words vanish on a long shaky moan, and he can feel her trying to hold herself together. “That I could,” she says, clearer, too clear, and loses it again as he curls his tongue against her. She’s tearing up more handfuls of grass, and he’s so grateful that she didn’t clutch this hard when she was touching him earlier, didn’t rest her hands in his hair when he got between her legs, and he wants to bring her further, now, wants to see whether she’d tear Avalon apart if he pushed her to it, but she’s past words now and he doesn’t have the time.

When she comes she tears a fistful of grass up by the roots, holds it while her breathing slows. She’s still holding it as Arthur lies down at her side.

He takes Freya’s hand and tugs gently at the blades of grass. She looks down to see what she’s holding and laughs, tired but at ease, and lets go, the little shards of eternal springtime blowing away on the breeze. Her hand turns over in his, settling palm to palm.

“Someday,” he promises her, again, a word he’s said so many times it would lose all meaning if it weren’t so important, and seals the promise for the dozenth hundredth time with another kiss.