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Kingship

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The king is drunk. Arthur's never seen him like this, slouched in his chair with all the steel gone out of him. He looks strange.

He looks ordinary. A tired man with firelight glinting red off his grey hair.

The king pours himself another goblet of wine, having long ago sent the servants away. "Don't you think you've had enough?" Arthur asks, and only then does he realize that he's half-drunk himself, on watered wine and the last traces of fever.

"Celebrating," the king answers after gulping half of it down. "You're alive." He reaches across the low table between them and grasps Arthur's hand. Arthur wonders when he took his gloves off; the king prefers to touch the world through leather. "C'mere so I can see you."

Arthur obeys the tug on his arm and stands. The candle is guttering, the light dim, but the king stares into his face. "Father - "

"Never thought you'd wake. It would've - come here, boy." And somehow Arthur is sitting on the king's knee, which is not a place he's ever been. "The end." His father's hand, rough with thirty years of kingship, touches Arthur's face. Arthur's own hands bear calluses from every kind of weapon, but they're boy's hands yet, compared to this. "The end of me if I'd lost you. Arthur."

Under the king's silk surcoat there is chain mail. He almost never takes it off. Arthur lets himself be held close, although it hurts his wounded shoulder. His father's hands stroke his hair and the back of his neck in awkward, hesitant little jabs. It's the touch of a man who's almost forgotten hands can be anything but fists.

Arthur wraps his arms around his father's neck, leaning hard into him, into the steel that covers him. "I'm here," he says, face pressed to his father's cheek, and Uther turns his head to kiss him in a way that is not fatherly.

It's too late for them to be father and son. It always eluded them, the ease that even the lowest peasant family seems to have together. But Uther, who trusts no one, trusts Arthur. Even with this most secret need. For twenty widowed years the king has been alone. He has servants, knights, counsellors, and a son; all, high and low, are his subjects. It amounts to a crowded loneliness.

But although Arthur's a subject, he'll be a king some day. He's the closest thing to an equal, a friend, that his father will ever possess. And he's not a child anymore but a man, with a man's response flaring in him as he's kissed.

As he kisses back, urgent welcoming kisses that he thinks surprise them both. Arthur doesn't want to permit this, he wants to meet it halfway. He helps Uther out of surcoat and mail, shirt and breeches, and at the first touch of the king's bare, defenseless body he almost cries. There's a terrible scar on the king's right shoulder that Arthur kisses and licks, working the flat of his tongue across white-ridged flesh. In return, the king moves his mouth over the barely-healed wound on Arthur's left shoulder. Mirrors, Arthur thinks. In thirty years will he look at himself and see Uther?

The wine makes Uther slow to rouse, but at last he takes Arthur with the gentleness a man might give a virgin bride. Arthur's had pleasure with other boys, as boys do, but never this. The pleasure of this is so racking it's close to pain, and Uther pushes and strokes him to the height of it with a deliberation Arthur could almost mistake for cruelty. The habit of power stays with Uther even here, like a second coat of chain mail under the skin.

When Arthur's seed spills onto Uther's fingers, he bites his lip so as not to call out Father. Uther spasms against him soon after, saying his name.

Arthur has a minute to wonder if the king will turn cold and angry now that it's over. But he's kissed again tenderly, his skin caressed. Holding each other, they lie in the center of the bed. It's probably the same bed the king shared with Igraine once.

He settles his head into the hollow of his father's shoulder. The feel of his skin is becoming familiar now. "I'm here," Arthur says again, making it a promise against a hundred nameless griefs. "We're here together."