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hearts and bones

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You take two bodies and you twirl them into one
their hearts and their bones
and they won't come undone
Hearts and Bones, Paul Simon

 

It used to be a perfectly innocent activity. Well, not perfectly innocent. Few things with Loras have ever been perfectly innocent, fewer still since he came of age. But certainly it was less fraught with awareness. Renly would have thought someone holding a well-honed blade to his throat would always be the most harrowing aspect of being shaved, but Loras, as he does so often, has proven him wrong.

It’s not as if Loras hasn’t always been a flirt. Even when he’d first come to Storm’s End as barely more than a child, he’d had the whole household wrapped about one finger within a matter of weeks, Renly being little exception. From the start, he’d been irrepressible, a boy with more ideas than years, one whose tongue was as quick as his mind. Renly frequently had cause to lament the fact, given the number of feathers Loras had ruffled, but he’d always been loathe to quash Loras’s irreverence. In some ways, Loras had been Renly’s conduit, someone to voice what he couldn’t and risk what he daren’t. Loras was the freedom Renly never let himself truly have, as much companion as he was squire.

The change had been subtle enough that Renly only really noticed it after the fact. Loras’s flirtation with him had become suggestion, his charm had taken on a seductive air. Renly would love to proclaim himself immune, to steadfastly maintain that Loras is still a boy, still almost his ward, and that his feelings are nothing more than paternal and friendly. He’s just never been a very good liar.

The whole thing has made his morning ablutions something akin to torture. It’s entirely too much casual intimacy for Renly’s system to handle. Loras may no longer act as a true squire, the rigors of training taking over most of his time, but this one vestige has remained. They’d never explicitly discussed it, both simply continuing as if this one thing should remain unchanged, something that Renly probably should have examined more carefully. Maybe it’s just the vulnerability of it, the implicit trust with which Renly gives himself over to Loras’s care that affects him so. But no, Renly’s had this done by someone other than Loras before, and while there was a definite intimacy, there was never such painful awareness. Only Loras makes Renly’s pulse speed, his smallest movement catching Renly’s attention like a rabbit in a snare. Inwardly, Renly curses himself for opening the gate in the first place, for allowing himself to become aware of Loras as a man grown, however young a man he may be.

Things are particularly bad this morning. Renly doesn’t know what it is – Loras looks more handsome than normal, he stands closer than usual, he smells better, Renly is lonelier, something, nothing, anything. Renly couldn’t give it a name if he tried. Whatever it is, it’s driving him beyond mad.

“You’re fidgeting,” Loras remarks mildly.

“Am not,” Renly counters, surly at being caught out. At least Loras thinks it merely restlessness, rather than a bone-deep awareness of Loras’s proximity on Renly’s part.

“You’re going to get that lovely throat of yours cut, if you don’t hold still.”

“We both know you’ve never cut me,” Renly says. Loras has never so much as nicked him. Renly’s never even had half a notion he might, honestly. Reflecting overlong on his instinctive trust in Loras is too unsettling, though, so he pushes the thought aside.

Loras is gliding the razor carefully over his chin now. Renly hates this part; Loras is too close for too long, concentrating on his task with a focus that makes it too easy to stare at him. And Renly has done far too much staring. He could probably provide a tally of Loras’s eyelashes by now (a staggering lot), or identify which side of his lower lip Loras bites when he’s concentrating (the left), or number the tawny flecks in his eyes (eight in one eye, five in the other). He could probably even find the freckle just under Loras’s eyebrow in the dark. With his tongue. Gods.

Renly is halfway to hard already when Loras makes an absent humming sound and steps closer, casually insinuating a knee between Renly’s thighs. Renly’s breath dries up in his lungs. He tries to hold as still as possible, but Loras moves again and brushes right against Renly’s crotch, the sweet ache of it followed immediately by the sharp bite of the razor against his jaw when he jerks involuntarily. So much for never cutting him, and it’s his own bloody fault.

“Fuck,” Renly hisses. Loras looks at him, eyes wide.

“Sorry,” he says. “I told you to hold still.”

“It’s fine,” Renly snaps. “Keep going.” The pain has cleared his head, at least, dissipating the tension that had been gathering low in his belly. He takes a deep breath, sure that now he’ll be able to control himself, only to be hit twice over when Loras leans close enough that Renly would be able to hide nothing and swipes his thumb over the nick on Renly’s jaw, popping his thumb unthinkingly into his mouth to suck the blood off. Every other drop of blood in Renly’s body feels like it’s rushed straight to his crotch as he watches the purse of Loras’s lips, watches them slide over the pad of his thumb in a way that wouldn’t seem amiss to anyone else, but which to Renly in his current state is practically obscene.

“On second thought, maybe that’s enough,” Renly rasps – somewhat desperately, really, he can’t pretend otherwise. He’s trying to back away, to pull his knees together and put some space between them, but the chair won’t budge and neither will Loras, bloody infuriating Loras, who’s standing there watching Renly, looking nonplussed and faintly amused and really far too smug. “Thank you, Loras,” Renly says when he’s finally managed to stand and disentangle himself. “Well done,” he adds inanely. He tries to convince himself that Loras didn’t feel his arousal, that Renly’s escaped with a tiny shred of dignity. That comforting illusion is shattered when Loras’s eyes flicker downward, punctuated by the mischievous cock of an eyebrow. Seven fucking hells.

Somehow he manages to walk from his solar into his bedchamber like a normal person, rather than bolting as his instincts demand. There’s a maid there, tending the fire, and she startles at his entrance, then again once she looks at his face. It’s not until she’s bobbed an apologetic curtsey and fled from the room that he realizes he still has shaving cream around his mouth and chin and must look like a dog gone mad. Irritably, he swipes a sleeve over his chin and curses himself again. Himself and bloody fucking maddening, far too appealing Loras. Renly doesn’t know what he did to deserve such torment, but it must have been awful indeed.

*****

It itches. Loras knows it too, that’s the most irritating part. Renly never knew how itchy growing a beard could be. Every time he moves to scratch, Loras gives him the most infuriating smirk and he has to stop himself, even though it’s driving him half mad.

“You could always rub up against a tree like a horse,” Loras says after Renly’s started to raise and then immediately lowered his hand for the third time that afternoon. “Or you could just let me shave you again.”

“I’m growing a beard,” Renly repeats firmly. He’s growing a beard if it bloody well kills him, because the alternative most definitely will.

“So, I was doing some reading earlier,” Loras says, changing tacks. Renly is immediately suspicious; he knows that the more innocent Loras’s tone, the less innocent the content of his thoughts.

“How enriching for you,” Renly says, resolving that whatever Loras is up to this time, he’ll ignore it.

“Indeed,” Loras agrees. “Educational, really.” Renly won’t ask. He will not ask, he will not ask.

“Oh?” he asks. Seven hells.

“The illustrations in particular were quite illuminating.” Renly chances a look over to where Loras stands. He hadn’t noticed the book in his hands before, but now he recognizes it with a sinking feeling. He thought he’d squirreled that securely away, safe from prying eyes and nosy squires. Seven bloody buggering hells.

“I’m not sure that’s the sort of enrichment you need,” he mutters.

“Nonsense,” Loras says. “Why, the things I’ve learned! I thought this sort of thing was only for farm animals.” He holds the book up, open to the page in question to show Renly the illustration, as if he hasn’t seen it half a hundred times before. As if he didn’t pour over that book when he was younger than Loras, reading the words and studying the pictures with a giddy sense of shame that only increased when he touched himself alone in his chambers remembering them. He wonders if Loras did the same when he found the book and heat floods him, making his cheeks burn, guilt mingling with unwanted need.

“Loras, be a good boy and put that back where you found it.”

“I’m not good,” Loras says, the look on his face proving it. “And I’m not a boy.” He isn’t, Renly knows, not anymore. Thinking of Loras as a boy makes it easier to push aside this awareness, these thoughts and feelings that never go away for long no matter how Renly tries. But Renly has to admit that Loras hasn’t been a boy for years now, even if he only admits it to himself.

“Put it back,” he repeats.

“Shall I read aloud to you?” Oh, gods.

“Loras, no-”

“’He stroked my manhood, each touch like a bolt of lightning through my loins.’”

“Oh, gods.”

“I know, and it only gets better. ‘I swelled in his grasp, rigid and tumescent, my turgid shaft cradled in his calloused palm.’ Look at all these big words I’m learning!”

“This is ridiculous,” Renly says weakly.

“Not yet,” Loras says, and Renly can see he’s trying to hide his grin, “but I see both ‘engorged’ and ‘pulsating’ in the next paragraph. And it looks like there’s an illustration on the next page.”

Renly remembers that particular illustration vividly. Somehow it’s not just the memory of his own youthful curiosities that has color rising to his cheeks, but also the idea of Loras looking at it as well. Renly wonders if Loras will feel the same ache Renly always did, if he’ll be alternately embarrassed and fascinated by the pictures showing things he hadn’t even known to imagine. If he would want to try them. All at once, Renly is very glad he’s seated at his writing table with a heavy plank of oak between his crotch and Loras’s eyes.

“Don’t you have other things to be doing?” Renly asks, trying to keep the desperate edge out of his voice. Loras looks at him over the top of the book and cocks an eyebrow.

“Now that you’re growing a beard, I have more free time on my hands,” he says pointedly. “Now where was I? Oh yes, the pulsating.”

It should be ludicrous. Comical. The last thing it should be is arousing. The edge of the table bites into Renly’s palm, his grip is so tight. He’s right on the verge of getting a hold of himself when Loras flips the page and his eyes widen in genuine surprise and interest as they take in the picture before him. He makes a low sound, and Renly’s pulse gives a dull throb in response. So much for his great scheme of avoiding inappropriate situations by growing a beard. Renly would order Loras from the room but he knows his voice would come out as a squeak, and he’s hardly keen to add yet another indignity to the mounting tally.

“I'd no idea human bodies could achieve that position,” Loras says once he’s recovered himself. There’s a complete lack of artifice on his face, an almost innocent wonder, and somehow that’s all the more stirring than his mischievous teasing, so much so that Renly has to bite back a groan. “We should try it,” Loras continues, his eyes flicking up to Renly’s, and Renly does groan at that. Loras smiles. If Renly hadn’t already wondered if Loras was teasing him on purpose, the smug satisfaction on his face now would cinch it.

“You’re late for your…” Renly gropes for some pretext to send Loras out of the room, some innocent activity that doesn’t involve lances or swords or anything even remotely suggestive, and comes up short, “…thing. The thing. You’re late for it. You should go.”

“To the thing,” Loras echoes, lips pursed in amusement.

“Yes, the thing.”

“That I’m late for.”

“Mmhmm.” If he’d thought Loras might leave quietly and leave him unscathed, he’d been painfully naïve. Loras takes a few casual steps towards Renly’s writing desk, dropping the book before him and planting his palms on the surface, leaning over until his face is close enough that Renly can feel the puff of his breath and count those tawny flecks in his eyes again, eight and five.

“Sure you wouldn’t rather I stayed to read the next chapter?” he asks, a world of suggestion in his tone. Then he licks his lips, the bloody bastard, he actually licks his fucking lips.

“The thing,” Renly repeats, his voice definitely verging on a squeak that time. He bends his head to his parchment and dunks his quill vigorously in ink, stopping only when he realizes even that is laden with suggestion and that Loras is probably smirking at him this very moment. He chances a glance. Smirking, sure enough. Fuck.

“Wouldn’t do to be late for the thing,” Loras says. “I’ll just leave this here for you, shall I?” He slides the book under Renly’s nose, almost upsetting the inkwell. He hums to himself as he walks through the door, casual and carefree. Renly can hear him chuckling all the way down the stair. He takes a deep breath and expels it through his nose. If he’d thought he was in trouble before, he knows now that he’d had no idea of it.

*****

Loras is wearing the shirt. The shirt Renly hates – for good reason, as it’s a truly ridiculous shirt, all laced up the front with leather cords, as if Loras is some sort of pirate or brigand, standing on the prow of a Lyseni ship with a great curved blade and an eyepatch. It’s beyond horrible, is the point, and Renly has always hated it. He’s frequently suggested that Loras burn it, even, which Loras always ignored. So it seems quite unfair that, lately, the shirt has been making Renly feel flustered and overly aware and as if he might jump from his skin. It’s just that all he can imagine when Loras wears it is hooking his finger under those laces, tugging them free loop by loop, touching the golden skin beneath, tasting every bit of it with his tongue…

“You’ve an odd look on your face.” Loras’s voice jolts Renly to attention.

“Nothing,” Renly blurts nonsensically. “I mean, what? That is…it’s nothing.” Then he cringes at himself. Loras looks at him, his face a mix of confusion and amusement. Renly can only be grateful for the small mercy that Loras has no idea what that idiotic shirt is doing to him. If he must make a fool of himself, at least he can be spared the knowing smirk that Loras seems to have so at the ready of late. The one that Renly can’t seem to stop giving him reason to use.

“I see you haven’t burned that shirt yet,” he says, in a weak attempt to dispel the fantasy that still plays in his head, an endless loop that ends with Renly’s hands beneath the shirt, with Loras beneath him, with… Gods, Renly, get a hold of yourself, he thinks. But then, maybe the fantasy is easier to handle than the feelings that simmer below it, like water on the brink of boiling. It would be so easy to surrender, to take what Loras promises and give what he asks, but in his weaker moments when he allows himself to examine it, Renly knows that easy isn’t what he’s after with Loras. Easy would never be enough.

“And deny you the very thing you love to complain of most?” Loras asks. “What sort of monster do you take me for?” Renly’s lips twitch in amusement, despite himself.

“It is a favored part of my routine,” Renly admits. “Though perhaps I shouldn’t be so dependent on a single article. Have you no other ugly clothing for me to hate? For variety.” Loras laughs, a cheery happiness in it that Renly realizes has been missing from Loras for quite some time. He hadn’t realized it was gone until he heard it again.

"There's the Renly I know,” Loras says. “You've been so unlike yourself lately."

"Have I?" At Loras's nod, Renly frowns. "How?"

"You've been...I don't know. Surly. Rather distant. Just...not you." Loras shrugs sheepishly, as if he regrets even saying it, and guilt floods Renly. The fault of this whole mess doesn’t lie with Loras, not truly. Were Renly the kindly, almost paternal lord he pretends to be, Loras’s flirtation would be nothing more than an endearing sort of flattery, something to be appreciated and deflected until it dissipated, not brooded over until it’s got Renly twisted in knots and snapping at everything like a mistreated hound.

“I haven’t meant to be,” he says quietly, studying the toes of his boots as if a safe explanation might be scribbled upon them. To his surprise, Loras traces a tentative fingertip from the hinge of Renly’s jaw to his chin, lifting his face to Loras’s soft, searching gaze.

“I know,” he says gently. “I just worry.” There’s no suggestion in Loras’s touch, no warm seduction. His fingers are careful, his expression affectionate. Familiar. Comforting. Without his mind’s leave, Renly feels his body leaning into Loras’s touch instinctively, his eyes dropping closed as if weighted. A sweet ache starts in his ribcage and spreads, curling through his body like smoke. It leaves a trembling need in its wake, a hollow feeling in Renly’s breast that could only be soothed by Loras, by everything he could give. This is so much more dangerous than any fantasy. This is all too real and all too frightening.

The stricken look on Loras’s face when Renly stands abruptly is enough to stop his breath, enough to turn buried need into panic. Loras’s hand hangs uselessly in the air until he remembers himself and lowers it awkwardly, more awkwardly than Renly has ever seen him do anything. He wants to explain. He wants Loras to understand. But how could he make Loras understand when Renly doesn’t understand himself? So instead he leaves, keeping his head down as he moves past Loras to the door, so as not to see that wrenching look on his face again. It doesn’t matter. He sees it in his mind long after he’s left the room. Indeed, he might never be able to erase it.

*****

There’s something craven about it. Renly’s basically fled in the middle of the night, with no word to Loras, only instructions to the household to tell him Renly is in King’s Landing and will be back in a fortnight. Renly’s never thought himself especially brave, but he’s never thought himself so cowardly either. But somehow he couldn’t tell Loras he was leaving. Mostly, he thinks he’s afraid of how easily Loras would have been able to talk him out of it. And he needed to leave, he needed some space to collect himself. Some space to make him stop thinking of Loras, as if distance could break the imaginary bones and skin and sinew that seem to bind them together.

The distance hasn’t helped, though. He’s missed Loras, is the bugger of it. Here he is with Robert badgering him at every turn, telling him he wants Renly on his small council, discussing truly important matters of rule and realm, and all Renly can do is moon about like a lovesick sot and wish Loras were with him.

Of course, being in King’s Landing with Robert comes with its own trials, whether Loras is present or not; Cersei has always been the least appealing thing about seeing his brother. It’s a mark of how disconcerted Renly is by everything that he would willingly subject himself to her presence.

“She’s a delight,” he says drily after suffering through yet another encounter with her sharp tongue. She's never cared for Renly overmuch.

“Aye,” Robert sighs with a weary chuckle. “Wedded bliss. Something it’s quite time you joined me in, you know.”

“You do make it seem so appealing.”

“You might as well be a Septon, Renly. I can’t recall the last time I saw you with a woman.” A frown creases Robert’s forehead. “Come to think on it, I may have never seen you with a woman.” He levels an accusing finger at Renly. “It’s not healthy. Baelor the Blessed you’re not.”

“Robert,” Renly says with a roll of his eyes.

“Hells, you can have one of mine,” Robert says, waving his hand expansively.

“Is this your clever way of pawning Cersei off on me?”

“Ha, that would be a trick, wouldn’t it?” Robert laughs. “Nay, I’ll save her for my enemies.” They both laugh at that, though Renly suspects it’s for different reasons. He’s always thought Cersei would be brilliant unleashed on the enemies of the realm. If someone had given her a sword instead of a gown, there might never have been war or unrest again.

“There is…someone,” he says at last, hesitantly. This is far from the sort of thing he and Robert usually discuss and it feels strange and foreign. Delicate.

“Someone,” Robert grunts, and something in it makes Renly think maybe Robert knows more about him than he lets on. “How very specific. Have you bedded this someone?”

“No.”

“Do you want to bed this someone?”

“I…” Renly hesitates, then decides to put a name to it, which is far more discomfiting than just knowing. “Yes,” he says, ignoring the color staining his cheeks.

“Does this someone want to bed you?”

“Yes, I think so.” Robert grunts again, in confusion this time, and Renly frowns defensively. “It’s complicated.”

“Forgive me if I don’t see the complication, little brother.”

Renly tries to imagine telling his brother all that’s in his heart – how it’s no simple matter of bedding or desire. He’d thought leaving Loras behind would make things better, but it’s only made it worse. It’s been a shock to realize how much he’s come to depend on Loras’s presence. Without Loras everything feels precarious, like Renly’s trying to walk over quicksand. It’s a glimpse of what will be when Loras moves on, Renly supposes, as he inevitably will. The thought is somehow terrifying. Maybe that’s why he resists so, to limit the damages.

None of which could he ever articulate to his brother. The very idea of telling Robert he has feelings for someone, let alone for his former squire, is far too undignified to consider. Robert, who consumes only food and drink in greater quantity than he consumes lovers. He'd not understand that Renly couldn't bear being just one in a line to Loras. An unwelcome pang of sympathy for Cersei hits Renly all of a sudden. To be the one waiting, wanting, feeling too much and having too little... It makes Renly's insides feel tied in knots.

“Where is that squire of yours anyway?” Robert asks. It hits too close to Renly’s thoughts, gives him the uncomfortable notion that Robert is listening in on his mind. “What was his name, Larad, Lorcan…?”

“Loras,” Renly supplies reluctantly. “He stayed at Storm’s End. And he’s not my squire, not anymore. He’s training to be a knight. He’ll be a bloody good one too,” Renly can’t resist adding, a note of pride in his voice.

“Aye, a bloody good one, is it?” Robert asks skeptically. “And is he taking lessons in bridling that impudent tongue of his?” Renly sighs. Robert will tolerate cheek from some, and downright enjoy it from others – though as far as Renly can tell, only Ned Stark falls into that second group – but impertinence from an untried boy like Loras is quite another thing altogether.

“I like that he doesn’t bridle that impudent tongue of his,” Renly says, and it’s entirely true, he does. No matter how infuriating it may sometimes be.

“You should have trained that out of him,” Robert growls.

“Whatever you say, Robert.” All at once, Renly feels trapped and restless. A wave of longing for home hits him and he has to fight the sudden urge to call for his horse and head back to Storm’s End this instant. It’s nothing to do with Loras, he tells himself. He just wants to be home. That’s all it is.

He stays another day anyway. Just to prove to himself that he still governs his own mind.

*****

They’re all staring at him, every single one of them, including Loras. Renly knows he must make quite a sight to have them all goggling so. He hadn’t been thinking when he’d charged from his bath, too panicked at hearing Loras was wounded during the day’s training to worry about making a more appropriate entrance. After all, seeing him there wouldn’t have been anything to bat a lash over in ordinary circumstances. But seeing him there frantic and damp and disheveled, baying Loras’s name like a frenzied hound…Well, that must be quite unexpected indeed.

“Gods,” he’d breathed the second he threw open the door and saw Loras, pale and shirtless, blood streaking from the joint of his shoulder like a child had painted it on with his fingers. He could hear the shakiness in his own voice, the faint whine of nerves and fear. That, more than his presence in the room, was what had brought all eyes to him. They were fighters, after all, blooded and battle-worn, hardly prone to hysterics over what they no doubt saw as a scratch, even though to Renly, it was so horrendous a wound as to be unthinkable. But then, it was Loras who was wounded; deep in his hidden heart, Renly knew that even the barest splinter would seem unthinkable to him were it Loras who suffered it.

“Out,” he says now, sharply, imperiously, hitching his high birth up like a mantle to ward off the embarrassment. “All of you, out.” Quietly, unquestioningly, they file out, leaving only Loras, slouched low in a chair with a wet cloth on his shoulder, watching Renly with curious, cautious eyes. Renly drops his eyes to Loras’s shoulder, his usually golden skin now alarmingly pallid against the bright pattern of blood. Too late he realizes he’ll have to tend that wound, the maester tasked with it before now somewhere beyond the confines of the room on Renly’s own order. “Bugger,” he mutters under his breath.

“Didn’t really think that through, did you?” Loras asks with a wry quirk of lip.

“It was a bit off the cuff,” Renly admits. He can see it in Loras’s eyes, how much he wants to ask the question of why, what was so urgent, what’s Renly about, charging in like this. But he holds his tongue – for once, Renly might add – and it’s a relief. Dealing with his wound will be trouble enough without Loras’s usual provocation.

Warily, tentatively, he moves to Loras’s side and reaches for the cloth to peel it away from Loras’s blood-streaked shoulder. To his dismay, a fresh well of blood bubbles up where the cloth had been, forcing him to clap it back down with a yelp.

“You’re a natural maester, my lord,” Loras says, a barely-suppressed chuckle in his voice.

“That’s enough out of you,” Renly returns. Steeling himself, he eases the cloth off again, this time ready with a dry bandage to press over the wound. “Hold that,” he instructs, and Loras dutifully holds it in place with his other arm, seeming to feel little pain. Or at least be little bothered by what he does feel.

Renly can feel Loras’s eyes on him as he works, carefully swiping the now-dried blood from around the bandage, from Loras’s shoulder and chest and arm. For a moment, he convinces himself that the shakiness of his hands isn’t noticeable. A very short moment. The softness in Loras’s eyes when he sees the telltale tremor is more than Renly can handle. Then Loras lifts a hand to Renly’s throat, traces the path of a water droplet from jaw to throat to collarbone with one questioning fingertip, and Renly holds no illusion of that tremor escaping Loras’s notice either.

“Did they roust you from your bath?” he asks, low and soft. Renly flicks his eyes to Loras’s and immediately regrets it; that familiar spark is there, and Renly feels too vulnerable to withstand it, too laid-bare in his worry. He wants too much for it to be sincere and specific, rather than Loras being Loras. He's missed Loras too much.

“You weren’t supposed to notice that,” is all Renly says.

“I wasn’t supposed to notice you skidding in on your heels, flushed and breathless, shirt only half tucked and clinging damp to you, after you’ve been gone over a fortnight?” Loras asks, disbelief plain. Frustrated, Renly makes an impatient noise.

“If I ordered you to stop noticing it, would you?” he asks. Loras looks thoughtful and then shrugs.

“I could try, but I doubt it would be effective.”

“You’re incorrigible,” Renly mutters darkly. Loras only gifts him with that sly-fox smile of his.

“So you say.”

No fresh blood wells this time when Renly lifts the bandage to apply ointment. Even in his irritation, his fingers are gentle on Loras, delicate in smoothing the salve over his skin in circles. Carefully, he wraps the wound, circling the binding strip about Loras’s shoulder and arm snugly.

“When did you return?” Loras asks quietly, after a long silence.

“Just now. I was bathing the dust of the road away when…” Renly trails off. Surely he’s imagining the pained look on Loras’s face. Surely Loras wasn’t hurt to find Renly gone. Surely he hadn’t missed Renly the way Renly missed him. He braces himself for some sort of comment from Loras, but none comes, so Renly just tucks the end of the bandage in place and gives it a pat.

When he steps back to survey his work, he’s satisfied, and perversely proud. The bandage is clean and neat. Loras has even lost some of that sickly pallor that had made Renly’s stomach drop so when he first barged into the tent. A job well done, he thinks to himself. He’s cleaned his hands from a ewer of water and made to move away from Loras when a hand catching the untucked tail of his shirt arrests him in place.

“Is that all?” Loras asks. It seems that every bit of Renly’s body freezes at the fluid invitation in Loras’s voice, even his blood slowing in his veins and his breath stopping motionless in his lungs.

“What else did you have in mind?” Renly asks, forcing evenness to his voice, feigning a lightness he doesn’t feel.

“I could do with soothing,” Loras says, silky and inviting. “After my ordeal.”

“Soothing,” Renly echoes, even while cursing himself for his weakness, for playing Loras’s game.

“Mmm,” Loras purrs, “some cosseting, perhaps. Some soft touches.” He walks his fingertips up beneath Renly’s shirt to feather along the bare skin above the line of his breeches. It’s too much, too intimate by half, a fresh shock of sensation that he’d only had opportunity to dream at before, and Renly catches Loras’s hand instinctively, defensively.

“None of your games, Loras,” Renly orders, but it comes out thin, breathy, weaker than a day-old kitten.

“And if it isn’t a game?” Loras asks, and under the teasing lilt in his voice, there’s a disarming intensity. Renly closes his eyes against the ache in his gut. Loras keeps his hand motionless in Renly’s suddenly tighter grip, but Renly can feel the warmth of it, can imagine all too well letting that hand roam where it may, over all the places Loras’s tone promises so easily. But that’s the trouble of it; Renly can’t bear so easy a promise from him, not from Loras of all of them. Not when Renly’s heart feels anything but easy.

“You should survive, so I believe I’m done here,” he says briskly, dropping Loras’s hand and stepping away, as far and as quickly as he dares without making a fool of himself. The disappointment in Loras’s eyes, the hurt on his face – surely they’re only play. Renly can’t afford to let himself believe otherwise. No matter how that face haunts him all the rest of the day and well into the night, and each night after that, until Renly can hardly bear to be in the same room as Loras at all. He knows the household must think it curious, that Renly would disappear to King’s Landing without Loras, then spend a handful of days bolting from the room whenever Loras appears, and the unhappiness on Loras’s face every time it happens is too wrenching to allow himself to think on. It’s all entirely foolish, Renly knows, but as with many things concerning Loras, Renly can’t seem to stop himself.

*****

The whistling is what wakes him, discordant and sporadic as it is. Renly has learned to sleep through many things, but the sour, shrill notes he’s currently hearing might be enough to wake the dead. He pushes himself up on his elbows, peers across his bedchamber towards the door; the whistling echoes around the solar, punctuated now by a thud and the scrape of furniture along the floor. Renly would be nervous, but then he hears Loras’s voice, the unmistakable sound of his cursing.

“Fantastic,” Renly mutters. He scrubs a hand over his eyes and debates with himself on whether he should go out there. Well. On whether he will go out there, as he knows full well he shouldn’t. The sound of something falling to the floor with a great crash makes up his mind for him. With a heavy sigh, he pushes himself up from the bed and searches for a pair of breeches. After a moment’s hesitation, he reaches for a shirt as well. Normally he wouldn’t, but…well, best not to give Loras any ground before he’s even started.

He finds Loras standing in the solar, staring in dismay at the vial of ink he’s managed to upend all over Renly’s writing table. Even steeling himself for it does nothing to dissipate the impact of seeing Loras. He should be used to that feeling by now, the pull in his gut that happens every time he sees him or hears his voice or even thinks of him. But he isn’t used to it. He might never be. He’d thought staying away might help, but it only seems to have made it worse, to make everything heightened and all the more painful.

“Problem?” he asks, and Loras jerks his head up at Renly’s voice, then wobbles a bit to the side. A claxon goes off in Renly’s head when he realizes Loras is drunk – not just drunk, but well and truly foxed.

“I spilled it,” he says, waving broadly at the ink still puddled on the table. “I should fix it. But I don’t want to get inky.” At that he raises his hand and waggles his fingers, and there’s something so endearing about it that Renly feels an alarming lurch in his ribs. It’s mostly to distract himself that he walks to the table and rights the bottle, throwing a blank sheet of parchment over the ink to absorb it.

“All fixed,” he says.

“Brilliant,” Loras beams. He leans towards Renly, grinning like a sot, smelling of drink and that spicy scent he always seems to carry and…sugar, curiously. Renly weighs his interest in knowing where the sugar factored in against the pleasing mystery of it and decides not to ask.

“You’re in a merry mood,” he says instead, unable to keep the fondness out of his voice. It seems safer, somehow, than it would if Loras were sober. Like no harm will come of it if Renly gives in to the things he fights. The keep is quiet around them. The room is barely lit from the embers of the fire, sleep still clouds Renly's mind, and none of it seems real. None of it will count.

“I’ve gotten quite drunk,” Loras tells him conspiratorially. “Very, very drunk. Don’t tell Renly.” Then he grins and giggles, taps Renly on the nose with one fingertip.

“It’ll be our secret,” Renly assures him. “Who let you have so much wine?”

“It wasn’t wine. It was yellow stuff. Amber, really. A nice, deep amber color. Very pretty. Would look smashing with your coloring, you should have something made.”

“Indeed,” Renly agrees as he ducks under Loras’s arm to steady him, guiding him towards his own room off the solar. “And who let you have that?” Loras is warm and solid along Renly’s side. Every step has his hip bumping against Renly’s, his ribs pressing almost sharply into Renly’s shoulder. He’s so slight; strange how much power there is in him.

“I don’t know, but he should be punished. Or rewarded. Possibly a little of both.”

“I’m sure tomorrow morning will help you decide,” Renly says. “Probably on the former.”

“Will you spank him on my behalf, my lord?”

“Mm,” Renly hums noncommittally.

“I can think of others who need a spanking.” Loras draws the last word out, sibilant and suggestive. His weight against Renly now is no stumble; it’s deliberate, a mute request. Renly groans. He’d thought he could escape from this unscathed. More the fool he, then.

“Down you go,” he says, lowering Loras to his bed a bit more hastily than he should. Loras flops onto the mattress with a heavy sound, giggling when his arm slides off Renly’s shoulder and lands on his own face. His shoulder can't be fully healed yet, surely it must still hurt, but he seems to take no notice of it.

“I’ve never been this drunk before,” he says conversationally, his voice trailing off into a soft mumble.

“Is that so.” Renly pays him little attention, trying to decide if he should attempt to make Loras at least a bit comfortable or if he should leave him as he is to sleep it off. The boots are easy. Renly pries them off one by one, gently placing Loras’s feet back on the mattress before dropping each boot to the floor with a soft thump. Loras’s feet are paler than the rest of him, strangely vulnerable looking. Renly wants to loop his hand around Loras’s ankle, see if his fingertips will touch, but he curls his hand into a fist to stop himself. The shirt and the breeches Loras can sleep in. The knife at his waist is another story. Cautiously, Renly glances up at Loras’s face. He seems to have fallen asleep; small surprise given how drunk he is. For a moment, Renly just watches him, watches how the breath from his slack mouth stirs the curls tumbling down his cheek. He looks back at the belt. It’s gotten twisted all around, the buckle somewhere beneath Loras, and Renly inhales deeply.

“It’s fine,” he mutters to himself as he levers Loras’s shoulders up enough to get at the buckle and slide the belt from underneath his body. “Nothing untoward about this.”

“How disappointing,” Loras murmurs, and Renly jumps at his voice, the knife belt clattering to the floor.

“I thought you were asleep,” he accuses.

“Luckily, no. Care to take off anything else?”

“Stop,” Renly warns.

“Do you truly wish me to stop?” Loras catches Renly’s wrist with insistent fingers, quite serious now. Renly doesn’t pretend to misunderstand. He would have thought it was the easiest question to answer in the world, but now that it’s before him, he’s struck mute. “If you ask me to stop, I will,” Loras whispers, as if it pains him to say it, and for some reason – for no good bloody reason – a jolt of sheer panic shoots through Renly at the idea that he really might.

“It’s nothing,” he dissembles, the tightness in his throat giving lie to his indifferent shrug. “I don’t think of you that way.” It’s an evasion, he knows, and no real answer to the question at all. It’s just all he can manage. He can’t bring himself to lower the blade somehow.

“Oh?”

“Yes.” If he says it firmly enough, he can convince himself it’s true.

“Then you wouldn’t mind giving me a goodnight kiss.”

“A what?”

“A kiss,” Loras repeats. “For sweet dreams.” Loras says it as if it’s an eminently reasonable suggestion. Parts of Renly agree. Too bad and thank goodness they’re governed by the parts that don’t.

“Loras.”

“You don’t think of me that way,” Loras reminds him. “It’s nothing.” Renly’s been painted quite neatly into a corner, he realizes. Still, he shouldn’t kiss Loras, he can’t. Loras is drunk and just flirting and oh gods, what a bloody mess. Loras seems to have no such reservations. The fingers looped about Renly’s wrist give a sharp tug that has him tumbling down onto the bed, half atop Loras.

It’s the closest Renly’s ever been to him. His body is hot under Renly’s, as warm as the stones before a hearth and twice as inviting. Loras’s eyes focus on Renly’s and he smiles. “Hello,” he says, and gods, it’s soft and warm and more seductive than Renly can bear. He doesn’t know if he gives in or if Loras grows impatient, or possibly some of both, but Loras’s lips are on his, his breath is feathering into Renly’s mouth now as he pushes himself up on his elbows, and every bit of the control Renly’s been holding on to for ages snaps.

The kiss is wild, animal. Too much pent-up need, too many ignored emotions. Too much feeling with nowhere to go but Renly’s mouth and hands. He snakes his fingers around Loras’s neck to tilt his head up for a better angle, kissing him more roughly than he should. Loras doesn’t seem to care. He’s straining against Renly, meeting Renly’s tongue with his own, hot and hungry and welcoming. Only the way Loras quivers beneath him like a bowstring about to snap brings Renly back to himself. It takes everything he has to stop, but somehow he manages, pulling away to suck in unsteady breaths.

“Why did you leave me?” Loras asks shakily.

“Loras-”

“You left without a word. Not even a bloody fucking note. And now you flee from me like I’m diseased.”

“I didn’t leave you,” Renly says, but he knows it’s a poor defense. The words sound lame and useless to his own ears, so they must sound even worse to Loras. “I went to King’s Landing, that’s all.”

“I missed you. I still miss you.” It’s plaintive enough to destroy him. Renly closes his eyes, dropping his forehead to Loras’s shoulder for a brief moment until he can collect himself against the ache spreading beneath his skin. He wants to apologize, to tell Loras he missed him as well – the words are right there on his tongue – but he can’t. “Tell me you want me to stop and I will,” Loras says.

“I,” Renly begins, but he doesn’t know what he wants to say. Doesn’t know what he even feels anymore.

“Stay with me,” Loras whispers. Renly’s desire to stay is almost as desperate as his indefinable terror at the idea. All his doubts and reservations shout in his head until it’s ringing with them. Loras clings when he eases away, trying to hold him but still fumbling and slowed by drink.

“You need to sleep.” When Loras opens his mouth, Renly speaks quickly to stay the words he knows are coming. “Alone, Loras.” He won’t remember any of it tomorrow, Renly thinks. He's counting on it.

Loras looks at him for several long moments, one emotion chasing another across his face until Renly feels Loras is as confused as he himself is. For once. Then he drops his eyes in resignation and turns to face the wall, effectively dismissing Renly. It makes no sense; Renly was the one who pulled away, he was the one who told Loras to sleep, so there’s no good reason for it to feel like a rejection. But that’s exactly how it feels.

*****

Morrow dawns far too soon and far too bright. Renly winces and throws a wrist over his eyes. One would think he’d been the one who was drunk last night given his aching head and bleary eyes today. And then it hits him like a physical blow; he kissed Loras last night. Not just some friendly peck on the cheek or a chaste press of lips, either. He well and truly kissed him. And it was even better than you imagined, a small, traitorous voice whispers in Renly’s head.

“I am a bloody fool,” Renly says aloud to himself, and then cringes at the pounding it starts up in his head. It’s going to be a long fucking day. He thinks about getting up. It's a decidedly unappealing idea. Well, is he lord of Storm's End, or not? He rolls over, pulls a pillow up over his head to block out the light and falls back into a restless sleep.

Loras is in his solar when Renly finally forces himself to face the world, well into the afternoon. He hadn’t expected it, so he has no defenses up, he hasn’t braced himself for the encounter in the slightest. Seeing Loras feels like being unhorsed, the breath leaving Renly’s lungs in a whoosh, everything becoming an alarming blur. He has to steady himself in the doorframe, he feels so shaky.

Loras is looking far too hale. He’s even wearing that bloody laced shirt, which should have been too complicated for someone who was drunk to the point of idiocy last night. It feels insulting, somehow, that Renly is suffering all the after-effects when Loras was the one who indulged. Renly straightens, walks stiffly into the room, his annoyance overriding his chagrin at the past night’s events temporarily. Irritably, he sits to pick over the plate of food Loras has had brought up.

“I suppose it’s too much to ask for you to have a blinding headache,” he says when he’s eaten as much as he’s going to. Gods, he sounds like a surly adolescent. “What are you doing in here anyway? I’d have thought you’d be off retching and cursing your existence.”

“I thought…” Loras starts. “That is, after…” He trails off, darts his eyes towards Renly and then away, and a sickening realization steals over Renly.

“Tell me you don’t remember last night,” he begs. The look on Loras’s face confirms it. Renly’s heart drops precipitously into his stomach. “You remember last night.”

“I remember everything to do with you,” Loras says. There’s something wary in it, something cautious. As if he’s afraid to say too much. It’s not something Renly is accustomed to from Loras. Normally such a statement from him would be flirtatious, suggestive. Normally it would make Renly's chest feel tight and crowded. Instead it puts him wrong-footed, unsure what to think. He sighs and circles his fingertips over the knit of his forehead.

“Not sure it was all that worth remembering,” he says, thinking on how rough he was, lacking all skill or control. It certainly wasn't his best performance. He’s surprised to see the change that comes over Loras’s face instantly at his words; Renly has never seen him look so wounded.

“It was to me,” he says quietly. “But I suppose I have no comparison.”

“Well, you-” Renly stops short as the meaning of Loras’s words hits him. “Wait. What? What do you mean?”

“I mean I’ve no other kisses to compare it to. Nor anything else.” Loras’s chin comes up stubbornly, but the hurt is still there.

“No other kisses,” Renly repeats, stunned. “You…none?”

“None.”

Renly feels like he’s just learned that up is down. It’s as if he’d been looking at things all wrong but now that he's cocked his head to the side, everything has shifted and reassembled itself, showing him things he never realized were there. Loras is an innocent. Despite all his flirting, all his suggestion and invitation. That flirting seems entirely different now, possessed of a different weight and tenor than Renly had always thought. His heart begins to pound with it, with the feeling of sliding headlong and unchecked into some new circumstance. A tiny spark flares into existence deep in Renly’s breast and he catches his breath against it, forces himself to speak to Loras evenly.

“You never said.”

“You never asked,” Loras points out – not entirely unreasonably, Renly has to admit.

“I suppose I just assumed,” he says. “Loras, if I’d known-”

“If you’d known, you wouldn’t have done it.” And there it is again under the defiance, that horrible hurt, clear on his face, making him look as young as he really is.

“You give me far too much credit,” Renly says mildly, sounding far steadier than he feels. The flummoxed look on Loras’s face when he realizes Renly’s meaning is staggeringly satisfying, even in the face of Renly’s regret. But the regret has changed. Instead of regretting the kiss, now he regrets his haste, his lack of care. Gods, Loras was an innocent, and Renly attacked him like a sex-starved sailor. With a pang, Renly realizes he doesn’t regret it merely on Loras’s behalf, but also on his own, for the lost opportunity of knowingly being his first and all that would have entailed had Renly only known the weight of his role. “I would have… Loras, your first kiss should have been a bit gentler than that.”

“And yours was roses and starlight,” Loras scoffs and Renly has to laugh.

“No,” he admits. The first was horrendously awkward and inept, and the handful after brought little improvement. “I suppose the second wasn’t either. Nor the third…” He trails off, realizing he’s stepped all over his own point.

"Have you much experience?" Loras asks - lightly, like the answer doesn't matter overmuch to him, but Renly doesn't miss how he keeps his eyes downcast, how the toe of his boot twists in the pile of the rug. Renly thinks back on all he's done. The women first, when he'd wanted to believe that was where his interest lay. Then the men, furtive and secretive in the beginning, sometimes even unknown, strangers he'd found in places he didn't admit to going then and would rather not remember going now. Maybe it’s the dimming of years gone past – maybe it’s stupid, bloody, romantic idiocy – but somehow he can't quite remember even the most intense experience among them as being half of what he felt when he'd finally allowed himself to touch Loras with intent, to taste the mouth that had tortured his dreams for what seemed forever.

"Enough, I suppose," is all he says.

“Was I so terrible in comparison to your others?” It’s said with as much bravado as Loras seems able to muster, but Renly can sense the hurt still lingering beneath, increasing with every ill-thought thing Renly says, and he could kick himself.

“No,” he says as firmly as he can. “It was me who was lacking. I regret not making it better for you.”

“It was exactly what I wanted,” Loras says.

“Only because you didn’t know what to want,” Renly counters immediately.

“So show me what to want,” Loras fires back at him, and Renly has to admire his daring. He certainly wasn’t so capable of asserting himself at Loras’s age. Hells, he’s probably not so capable of it now. He knows it should only reinforce his reserve, but somehow it has the opposite effect. The thought of all the awful uncertainty he felt when he was younger than Loras and figuring everything out, all the fumbling and disappointment and anguish… It’s the last thing Loras should go through. Renly couldn’t bear to see his confidence dimmed, his certainty tarnished. Renly may not be good for him, but he can certainly be good for this.

“All right,” he says finally, and has the sheer pleasure of watching Loras jerk in surprise.

“All right?” Loras echoes faintly. Even more satisfying is the way Loras retreats in step, backing before Renly as Renly walks towards him, shepherding Loras into his chambers. Nerves are plain on his face, but need is as well, need and longing and hope. The click of the latch as Renly locks the door makes Loras swallow visibly, his eyes growing dark and unfocused.

“So I’ll show you what to want,” Renly says. Loras’s eyelids flutter, only the whites showing beneath them before Loras gains control of himself.

“Right here?” he whispers, making a weak gesture at the floor between their feet. Renly fights a smile.

“I could,” Renly allows, “but my bed would probably be more suitable.”

“Right,” Loras says. “The bed.” Tentatively, he turns towards the mattress, but Renly stops him.

“What are you doing?”

“I,” Loras starts. “The bed. I thought-” Renly steps close to him, all but touching him, and Loras’s voice dries up.

“I intend to put you there myself,” Renly tells him, low and full of promise, and he’s glad of all his experience when Loras shivers and closes his eyes, swaying towards Renly with a needy moan. It’s all too heady, too intoxicating. Renly never wants it to stop. He lifts one hand, catches the end of one of the laces on Loras’s shirt and gives it a gentle tug. A whimper sounds in response from Loras’s chest.

“If you knew,” Renly says, pulling the lace slowly and deliberately, until the tie comes loose, “how many times I’ve imagined doing this with these laces…” He lets his voice trail off as he hooks one finger under the criss-cross of lacing at the top and pulls, the leather cords sliding free with a soft hiss. “All these bloody…maddening…laces,” each word punctuated with another tug, another slide and hiss, another inch of Loras’s skin appearing in the widening vee of his shirt. Loras’s breathing is uneven. A flush creeps up his chest and over his cheeks, a pink stain that somehow manages to make him even lovelier. Suddenly Renly loses his desire to play. He ghosts his fingers over that golden skin he’s revealed, wanting nothing more than to touch but still holding back.

“Tell me to touch you,” Renly whispers.

“Renly, please,” Loras gasps.

“Tell me,” Renly insists softly, every part of him screaming to touch Loras, every part but one that bids him wait, that needs this to be what Loras wants, beyond the reach of any doubt.

“Touch me,” Loras says. “Please, Renly, I want you to, I’ve always wanted you to.”

The knotted skein of Renly’s control breaks, and he’s stepping flush against Loras, dropping his hands to Loras’s arse and lifting him up as if he weighs nothing. He’s lighter than Renly expects, easy to hold, easy to maneuver to the bed where they topple like felled trees, Renly’s body settling so easily atop Loras’s that it’s as if he belongs there.

“Eight and five,” he says softly as he looks down at Loras, counting the flecks in his eyes as he’s done so often in the past. Confusion flits across Loras’s face.

“What does that mean?” he asks. But Renly doesn’t want to say, not yet, so he only answers with the barest of kisses, keeping his eyes open to see those flecks – even if it makes him almost cross-eyed – until Loras’s eyes flutter closed and Renly lets his own follow suit.

It’s the complete opposite of their last kiss. There’s no rush, no haste. Renly draws everything out, lingers, tastes every bit of Loras’s mouth until they’re both trembling and straining against each other. Everything seems heightened, more intense: Loras’s hands clenched into fists in Renly’s shirt. His throat working in a swallow under the hand Renly has banded from ear to ear. The smoothness of his teeth, the sweet tang of his mouth, the smell of him. Renly kisses Loras until Loras is writhing beneath him, arching up into the pressure of Renly’s body on his, as shaky and keen as a colt taking its first steps. Renly remembers this, remembers the sweet thrill of exploration, the sure feeling that you were discovering something new and dangerous and exciting. He opens his mouth on Loras’s neck and palms him through his breeches, smiling at the choked noise Loras makes in response, at the surge of his hips into Renly’s hand.

“Renly,” Loras gasps, head thrown back into the mattress.

“Mm?” Renly purrs. The motion of his hand ensures that Loras has no words to respond, only a shaky slide of sound managing to escape his lips. Ruthlessly, he works his hand over Loras, knowing it won’t be long. There’s so much more to show him, so much more Renly could do and wants to do, but this is all he’ll allow himself. At least for now.

Loras’s fingers clutch at Renly hard enough to bruise when he finds his release. Renly holds him through it, allows himself to push his hips against Loras’s side, knowing he’ll have to take care of himself later. For now, he only buries his nose behind Loras’s ear and listens to his breathing even out, tongues the pulse under his skin as it steadies and slows.

“So,” he says after they’ve lain together long enough for Loras to relax and curl into Renly’s hold with such comfort and familiarity that Renly could almost forget they’ve never done this before. “Have you a better idea on what to want now?”

Loras props himself on his elbow to look at Renly. Something in his gaze unsettles Renly, makes him feel like the roles have been flipped once more and he's no longer in easy control. “Seems I want precisely the same thing I did before,” he says meaningfully. He leans up to touch his mouth to Renly’s, so gently it makes Renly’s breath snag in his throat. He feels like a great chasm has opened up beneath him and he can do nothing but fall. It should be terrifying. It should be, but somehow it isn’t, and that’s what’s so terrifying about it.

*****

Loras has always been striking. He’d gone from pretty child, to prettier youth, to handsome man, years only adding to his appeal. He's always been aware of his appeal as well, something that should have been off-putting but in Loras managed to be only charming, flirting as he did with everyone, youthful and aged, comely and plain, high and low alike. It seems fitting, Renly supposes, for someone so pleasing in manner to be just as pleasing in appearance. So Loras has always been forgiven his vanities, his rich garb – too rich for a mere squire, even a son of Highgarden in service to the King’s brother – and his extravagances, his fastidiousness.

All that fastidiousness is gone now; Loras’s hair is in complete disarray, his jaw and neck are marked red from Renly’s beard. His lips are bruised-looking. He’s turned towards Renly, one hand curled under his cheek, pushing creases into his skin in his sleep. Renly’s never found him lovelier.

The skin on his shoulder is pink and new where he’d been wounded, a thin scab twisting down the center, small enough now that it's almost gone. Renly ghosts his fingertips over it, remembering how grievous it had seemed at the time. Hard to imagine it’s nothing more than a trace and a tender spot now, soon to disappear entirely. Loras’s shoulder shifts under his hand and Renly looks up to find Loras watching him.

“I wasn’t very gentle with this last night,” Renly says, covering the spot with his palm.

“I didn’t care,” Loras says.

“You should have.”

Loras shakes his head. "I know you wouldn't hurt me." The words pierce Renly, as moving as they are false. He’s already hurt Loras. The idea that he might hurt him again – that he’s almost guaranteed to hurt him, that he’ll only hurt them both – has a chill settling deep in his ribcage. Loras is so young. He’s young and innocent and Renly could not feel any more like a depraved old man at the moment.

He’d never taken off his breeches the night before, a small measure of self-preservation in the face of temptation, and he’s glad of it now as he slides shakily from the bed and paces the steps to the window and back. Loras had not kept his breeches on – indeed, most of the things Renly had done to him would have been difficult if not impossible if he had – which is not lost on Renly when Loras slips from the bed to stand bare before him. Gods, he’s beautiful. Renly closes his eyes and swallows hard, need and fear and disgust with himself warring so fiercely within him that he feels paralyzed.

“Perhaps we should take a couple of days,” he says. “Some time to ourselves.” Loras looks as if Renly slapped him.

“Don’t you want me?” he asks, small and beseeching, and already Renly is making lie of Loras’s words, already he’s hurting him.

“You know that I do,” he says roughly, every bit of his longing in the words, so much so that he feels vulnerable and exposed, a crab without a shell.

“Then why are you saying this?” Loras asks. Renly grapples with what’s in his head and heart, searches for words to encompass things he doesn’t fully understand himself.

“I don’t...” he starts. “You shouldn’t feel obligated… Seven hells, Loras, this is not exactly a typical situation. You’ve trusted me, and now…” Disgust at himself overtakes the need and the fear, and Renly pushes a hand into his hair, clenches it so tightly that his scalp aches. “Gods, I am a wretched, horrible old man.”

“Oh, you’re positively ancient,” Loras says drily.

“I’m taking advantage.”

“You’re not taking advantage!” Loras cries. “How can it be taking advantage when I’m throwing myself at you?”

“You’ve practically been my ward for years.”

“But I’m not your ward. And I’m no longer a boy. I know what I want.” His face is blazing and sure, but still Renly holds back. There’s so much at stake, for both of them. There’s so much that would be risked.

“This isn’t some bizarre case of hero worship?”

The snort Loras gives is genuine. “If it were, I might have picked a less unlikely hero.” Renly is torn between being reassured and being mildly affronted. He’s about to argue when it strikes him how absurd it would be, and he shakes his head.

“Are you sure?” he asks Loras.

“Sure enough for the both of us.” Even hearing Loras’s certainty, Renly hesitates. “How many times must I tell you?” Loras demands, almost on a laugh and Renly meets it with an almost-laugh of his own.

“Always once more,” he says.

“I’m sure,” Loras says, stepping close, hands on Renly's ribs. Then he says it again, and again, the words turning into a chant, “I’m sure, I’m sure, I’m sure,” until Renly silences him with a shaking hand against his mouth. Loras bites at the edge of Renly’s palm, strains towards him, and Renly can hardly bear it, can hardly bear the distance when he presses his lips to the back of his own hand and then pulls it away so he can kiss Loras’s mouth. He can feel himself turning a corner; giving in to this is giving in to all of it and never looking back, refusing all doubt or question. It’s giving himself over to Loras, wherever it may go and however it may end. All Renly can hope is that it never does end.

*****

Renly's relationship with Loras has always been intimate; hard to say otherwise of any man and his squire, as distance makes for an uneasy partnership. Renly could easily list what Loras likes, what he doesn’t. What he thinks and what he feels. He could give all manner of information about Loras’s past and his future, about everything Loras has ever been. And still being with him like this is like meeting someone new, seeing something familiar from a different angle and barely recognizing it. Everything is a fresh surprise, even the things already well-known. It's a heady feeling. Renly feels drunk on it, addicted to it. Addicted to Loras, who seems to feel much the same. They haven’t managed to be apart yet.

Tonight they’re sleeping in their own rooms. It had been Renly’s idea. Loras, predictably, hadn’t cared for it, but Renly had insisted. He needs to prove to himself that he still has boundaries. That he can still control himself. That he isn’t entirely at the mercy of his heart and his cock. The illusion lasts all while he readies himself for sleep, telling himself he’ll see Loras on the morrow, that he isn’t some child who can’t be away from his favorite toy. He’s a grown man, for fuck’s sake. Then he finds himself at Loras’s door, pushing it open without even knocking, and the illusion burns up like fog in sunlight.

Loras looks up with sated, sleepy eyes at the sound of the door opening. When he sees Renly, he smiles. “Took you long enough.”

Renly is across the room and on to Loras’s bed before he’s even entirely aware of what he’s doing. The mattress dips under his knees and they’re kissing, straining against each other as if Renly hadn’t left only an hour before. Renly bears Loras down beneath him, struggles with the furs over his body, groaning when he finally wrestles them away only to find more cloth between him and Loras’s skin. He supposes he's been spoiled. Always before, clothing hadn't been an issue when he and Loras had gotten around to sleeping, every piece of it having long since been removed, some of it less than gently. Now the delay seems unbearable.

“Why don’t you sleep naked?” he growls in frustration, wondering why the bloody thing doesn’t seem to have a hem.

“Usually I do,” Loras supplies helpfully. That only fires Renly’s imagination and makes his hands all the more graceless and urgent. Finally, finally he gets his hands on Loras’s skin, slides his palms up thighs and over hips, across the shallow dip of Loras’s waist and the ridges and grooves of his ribcage until the shirt is gathered beneath Loras’s arms.

“Off,” he says. For once, Loras is obedient, immediately wriggling the shirt over his head with movements that test Renly’s control. Renly wastes no time. He touches his tongue to the places Loras’s blood beats hot and fast under the skin – his neck, his wrists, the crooks of his elbows. When his tongue drags a wet line along the thin, soft skin where thigh meets stomach, Loras makes an incoherent sound and bucks his hips up in an unsubtle request. Renly lifts his head to look at him. Loras’s hands are fisted in the linens, his face is flushed as he bites at the left side of his lower lip, always the left.

“Was there something you wanted?” Renly asks, all innocence. Loras’s cheeks redden yet more, but he keeps Renly’s gaze.

“You could, er,” he breathes, trailing off and moving his hips again in suggestion. “That is, I liked it when you did it before.”

“Did what?” Renly asks, deliberately moving his head to the side just to see Loras shift his hips automatically to follow.

“You know,” Loras insists. Renly does know, but it charms him to no end to see Loras grow so shy at such unpredictable times. He grins and decides to amuse himself a bit.

“This?” he asks, before lowering his head to set his tongue to the skin just below Loras’s navel. Loras shivers and gasps out a no. “This?” Renly bites gently at the soft flesh on the inside of his thigh, close enough to Loras’s cock to make him jump.

“No,” Loras gasps again, even more shivery this time.

“Maybe this,” Renly suggests mildly, as he slips his fingers low and presses his knuckles in a place that has Loras crying out and twisting halfway off the bed.

“I didn’t even know that was something to want,” he says on a choked laugh, and Renly can feel his pulse racing even faster, hottest under the skin that’s now just a breath away from Renly’s mouth.

“I’ve no more ideas, I’m afraid,” he says, allowing his lips the barest brush over Loras’s cock as he says the words.

“You are the worst sort of tease,” Loras pants, straining and reaching and wanting.

“I’m trying to be more like you,” Renly answers. One more moment, he decides. One more moment before he takes pity and ends Loras’s torment. When he finally takes Loras into his mouth, Loras sighs as if he’s been waiting for this his whole life.

Loras’s stamina has definitely increased. The first time Renly had done this, Loras lasted barely more than a handful of moments before spilling in Renly’s mouth and turning bright scarlet in embarrassment. Now Renly can go about it more leisurely, teasing and exploring and doing all the things to Loras that he’d tried so hard not to imagine before. Drunk on the freedom of it, he pulls back to work his tongue at the head and then drops down to take Loras in entirely, Loras’s moan vibrating through both of their bodies. Renly’s jaw is aching by the time Loras stiffens and jerks up against him, spending in hot pulses against the back of Renly’s throat.

“I take it back,” Loras mumbles in a daze after Renly’s licked him clean. Renly rests an arm over Loras’s stomach, props his chin on it to watch him and make a questioning noise. “I apologize for calling you the worst sort of tease, when clearly you’re the best sort there is.” He tangles his fingers in Renly’s hair, stroking through the mass of it and making Renly’s scalp tingle. Everything feels so drowsy, so comfortable.

“Tell me how it is you managed to still be an innocent up until now,” Renly says. It occurs to him after the words pass his lips that Loras may find it an uncomfortable subject, that he might be embarrassed to discuss it. But Loras watches him with soft eyes and smiles.

“It’s not as if that’s a difficult thing to accomplish,” he points out, and Renly understands what he means, but still thinks it’s far more difficult than Loras is admitting. He remembers the state of his own urges when he was younger and he would have found resisting those urges a daunting task indeed.

“Had you no desire to experiment?” he persists. “Was there no one you ever wanted?” Loras is silent for a long moment. His hand tightens briefly in Renly’s hair before relaxing.

“No one but you,” he says at length. The emotion that crashes through Renly at the words takes him off guard, so much so that he has to press his face against Loras’s stomach and struggle for composure. Loras strokes his hair, as if comforting Renly, almost. It takes more than one shuddering breath for Renly to trust himself, to have his emotions under control. Suddenly he needs to kiss Loras; his chest is tight from wanting it, his throat crowded with everything he can’t say. He pulls himself up the bed, dragging his half-clothed body over Loras’s bare one to take his mouth, sweeping his tongue past Loras’s lips to taste him from the inside. They kiss and explore until Renly’s cock aches so much he thinks he might fly apart into pieces and he can’t stop himself from rocking against Loras’s hipbone.

“I could…you know,” Loras breathes against his mouth. “I could do, er. That. For you.”

“Do what?” Renly says, laughing breathlessly. He knows precisely what Loras is saying. He simply can’t resist the urge to tease, even as he aches at the thought of Loras’s doing to him what he’d done to Loras. Loras rolls his eyes. His hands on Renly’s shoulders are surprisingly forceful when he pushes at Renly, flipping him and bearing him down to the mattress. Renly always forgets how strong Loras is. Then Loras’s strong fingers are deftly unlacing Renly’s breeches and freeing his cock, holding him still for the expectedly skillful exploration of Loras’s tongue, and Renly forgets his own name.

“Is that all right?” Loras asks, pausing to look up. Renly misses the touch of his mouth, even for such a brief moment.

“Gods, yes,” he rasps, stroking Loras’s upturned face with a shaking hand. “It’s bloody fucking perfect.” Loras smiles and lowers his head again, exploring with the tip of his tongue. Just the sight of it might be enough to reduce Renly to ash even without the feel of it. Loras takes him deep, works over him a while before pulling back to flick his tongue just right along the underside, returning to slide his tongue over the spot more firmly when Renly jerks. The desperate moan that escapes Renly would be embarrassing if he had the presence of mind to care about such things at the moment.

“You like that,” Loras says, no question in it, only satisfaction and a bit of wonder. His smile is knowing, filled with the power of having Renly twisting and shaking beneath him, on the cusp of release. Then uncertainty creeps onto his face, a startling contrast. “Wait, now what? Should I swallow as you did, or…”

“Only if you want to,” Renly manages, his gut nothing but a great knot of need.

“I want to,” Loras says. “I’m just not sure how.” It’s almost painful, how much Loras’s desire to please Renly touches him, how it strips him of his already tenuous control, until he knows the whole conversation will be rendered moot in very short order. So instead Renly fumbles for Loras’s hand, wraps it around his cock and guides it from tip to base in a slow, twisting stroke. Loras picks up the rhythm quickly, easily, his hand moving only a few times before Renly spills, Loras’s hand wringing his release from him to stripe his stomach.

He thinks he dozes off. It’s hard to tell when the world feels so unraveled, when Loras is curled warm against him. But he can’t muster himself to get up, and when Loras moves to wrestle Renly’s undone breeches down his legs and tug the furs over the both of them, Renly doesn’t protest.

“We were supposed to sleep in our own beds tonight,” he says sleepily. Loras’s head settles on Renly’s shoulder as if it belongs there.

“Would you like me to wake you in the middle of the night so we can go sleep in your bed for a while?” Loras asks. “After all, we didn’t say we’d sleep in our own beds alone.”

“Maybe tomorrow night,” Renly laughs, and Loras laughs with him, the sound of it vibrating through Renly’s side.

“Maybe tomorrow I can figure the, er. The swallowing bit out.”

“You didn’t have to do it,” Renly says. “You don’t.”

“I know.”

“You don’t,” Renly repeats, insistently, despite the weight of his tongue, despite the sleep stealing over him. He means all of it, any of it. He wants Loras to understand. “You never do. If you don’t want to.”

“Renly,” Loras says, and gods, the warmth of his voice could drive away the chill of the Wall even, Renly thinks. His arms tighten on Renly’s ribs, his legs tangling with Renly’s to bind them together. “I know.”

Renly wants to answer, wants to say something as good as Loras deserves. But sleep is claiming him and he can only hold Loras fast.

*****

He’s gotten much better. So very much better. That’s all Renly can think as Loras sprawls down low on the bed, his arms curled under Renly’s thighs, hands pressing over the jut of Renly’s hipbones to hold him steady. And his tongue, oh gods, his tongue, it’s doing such wonderful, wicked things.

“Clever boy,” Renly breathes, sliding his heels along the linens, levering his toes against the waist of Loras’s breeches, feeling the delicate shape of Loras’s ears under his palms. “Oh, my clever, filthy, lovely boy.”

It shouldn’t feel so surprising. After all, Renly has given him more than enough practice. But even though this is the third time today, and probably the hundredth time this month, each time still feels like the first, each one is new and shocking and wonderfully unbearable. So wonderfully unbearable that Renly’s brain is slow to work, taking too long a moment to realize that Loras has stilled his movements and has lifted his head. The air seems chill after the heat of Loras’s mouth, the moisture from his tongue, and Renly’s response to it, drying into coolness.

“Loras, what-”

“Tell me what eight and five means,” Loras demands. Unwilling laughter explodes from Renly’s throat. Loras has chosen his timing well. Renly might pay all his fortune, commit treason, might promise his own life just to have Loras continue.

“Loras!” Renly moans.

“No,” Loras tells him firmly, authoritatively – so authoritatively that Renly finds it intensely appealing, even though it’s working against his own interests at the moment. “You always say that and I want to know. I refuse to do any more until you tell me what eight and five means.”

“Then we are at an impasse.” Renly’s quite proud of himself for managing that so evenly, under the circumstances. He’s impressed, actually. He would have expected to dissolve into a begging mess at Loras’s hand. He likes the authoritativeness far too much, clearly.

“Oh ho, resistance!” Loras crows in delight. “We shall see who crumbles first.” He leans down, ghosts his mouth over Renly’s cock so he’s as close as he could be without touching. Renly can feel his breath, can feel the slow, maddening rub of Loras’s thumbs over the points of his hipbones. Loras’s lips purse as he blows gently, the rush of air on such sensitive skin making Renly shiver uncontrollably. He gasps, then draws hitching breaths in through his still-open mouth.

“Do your worst,” he pants. Please, please, do your worst, he thinks.

“What does it mean?” Loras demands again. “Tell me.” Renly shakes his head and Loras's tone takes on a distinctly whining quality. "Tell me!"

“Death first,” Renly says and grins. Loras crawls up his body, plants his hands on either side of Renly’s head. He keeps Renly’s gaze as he moves his hips, the cloth of his breeches rough on Renly’s cock in the best way. Renly sets his hands at Loras’s waist, hitches his legs up to press his heels into the backs of Loras’s thighs and increase the pressure until they’re both panting and Loras’s elbows shake with the effort of holding himself up. With a moan, Loras drops fully onto Renly, his forearms a loose cage about Renly’s head.

“Tell me,” he whispers, sweetly this time, soft and entreating. Renly slides his face against the smooth plane of Loras’s cheek, then looks into Loras’s eyes, numbers the golden streaks.

“Eight and five,” he whispers back, and smiles when Loras groans, smiles when Loras captures his mouth like a man starving for it.

“I’ll find out someday, see if I don’t,” Loras says, the threat of it blunted by the way he licks sweetly at Renly’s lips, the way his hands tangle gently in Renly’s hair, spreading it out on the pillow like a corona.

“I’ll enjoy the attempts,” Renly tells him before he kisses him back.

*****

Every single bit of Renly's body hurts. Muscles he wasn't even aware he possessed are sore. Gods, he'd thought himself reasonably close to fit, not all so far from fighting shape, but one day of training with Loras and he's dragging up the stairs like an old man. It's a fight to continue up the stairs to his chambers without pausing, but he manages it. Loras has already made countless jokes at Renly's expense, Renly doesn't want to provide him opportunity to make yet one more.

“I can barely move," he says when he's finally gained the door of his chambers. "That’s the last time I try to train with you.” Why he'd even attempted it, he's not sure. Loras has got him so humming with energy, full to the brim with vigor and vitality, that it's probably only natural for his body and his brain to seek ways to direct it, but really. He couldn't have taken up something sedate like cyvasse instead? Stupid body. Bloody stupid brain.

“You’re out of practice,” Loras says. “And your armor is in dire need of care. I could hear it creaking from across the yard.”

“That wasn’t my armor,” Renly moans, lowering himself gingerly into a chair. “That was my bones.”

“Come on, old man, I’ll rub the knots out.” Loras helps him pull his shirt over his head, tugging it down his arms and over his hands with practiced movements. He moves behind Renly and digs firm fingers into Renly’s shoulders, wringing a new sort of moan out of Renly with little effort.

“I forgot how good at this you are,” Renly sighs in contentment as Loras works over his shoulders and arms. He feels quite like clay under Loras’s hands, soft and malleable. Loras smiles every time he hits a tender spot and Renly makes an inarticulate sound of pleasure. He focuses his attention on each spot until Renly’s body is somehow humming with energy again, even as it relaxes completely.

“I haven’t done this for you in a long time,” Loras says after a while. He moves to stand before Renly, lacing their fingers together and rotating Renly's hand at the wrist, then squeezing their palms together in a way that seems altogether different than it used to when Renly still allowed this, before the intimacy became too dangerous. As if reading his thoughts, Loras fixes him in a searching gaze. “Why did we stop?”

Renly looks up at Loras, sure his every emotion is plain on his face. Unbidden, his eyes flicker down to his crotch, then away and back up, and realization dawns in Loras’s eyes. Something about it seems to catch him off guard; he forgets his task, his hands growing still, and he can only look at Renly in surprise.

"And here I thought I seduced you past the point of control against your will," Loras says, and despite the teasing tone, Renly can tell there’s an element of truth in it. That Loras had no idea Renly had resisted him for so long.

"Not quite," he mumbles.

“You’re a fool for not giving in earlier,” Loras tells him, lightly, though his hand grips Renly’s almost too tightly for a moment before he controls it.

Renly looks at Loras, surrendering to the urge to reach up and brush the hair from Loras’s eyes with his free hand, to run a careful fingertip over his eyelashes and down the slope of his nose. “You know, I think you’re right,” he says quietly.

“It’s been known to happen,” Loras says, ducking his head, trying desperately to conceal the emotions that skim over his face like cream over milk. Renly permits himself a smile. It’s not often that he’s the one discomfiting Loras with emotional honesty rather than the other way around. Loras clears his throat and shakes his fringe out of his eyes. “Lie down,” he commands. “And take off your breeches.”

"Oh, the number of times I've heard that," Renly says, lips twitching in amusement as does as requested, kicking his discarded breeches into the corner before climbing atop the bed in his smallclothes and laying his head on his crossed arms near the foot of the mattress. He hears rather than sees Loras fetching a vial of oil, can smell it musky and sharp when Loras pours a bit into his palm and rubs his hands together to warm it. It warms further, smelling even more strongly, when Loras stands at the foot of the bed, his stomach warm and solid where it presses against Renly’s head and forearms as he smoothes his hands over Renly’s skin to rub the knots from his back. It feels crowded and intimate, familiar, reminding Renly of Loras’s days as his squire, when they lacked any boundary between them.

“How does that feel?” Loras asks after his hands have covered every bit of Renly from neck to breeches. He punctuates the words with the firm sweep of his palms along the muscles flanking Renly’s spine. Renly’s only answer is an inarticulate sound wrung up from the bottom of his lungs. He could swear he can feel Loras smirking through his fingertips. He knows just how it feels, the smug bastard. It’s all Renly can do to keep from pushing his hips into the mattress like a randy boy with no control over himself.

“Roll over,” Loras says.

“No,” Renly mumbles into his crossed forearms, his cheeks growing hot. Loras’s laughter peals out bright and delighted.

“You’re allowed to let me do something about that now, if you’ll recall.” He raps Renly’s skull gently with his knuckles.

“I didn’t want to presume.” Renly’s still surprised that he’s allowed this, sometimes, that he’s allowed to want Loras and moreover allowed to do something about it, no matter that the only one disallowing him before was Renly himself. It’s the best sort of a surprise.

“Oh, how I long for you to presume,” Loras sighs dramatically. “But I suppose if this is what I have to work with…”

Before Renly can even begin to wonder what Loras has in mind, Loras is stripping down to his own smallclothes and climbing atop the mattress, climbing atop him, first straddling the backs of his thighs and then stretching out over him, the oil still on Renly’s skin making him slide interestingly.

He’s never thought to wonder if the oil tastes pleasant. He supposes it must, or at least not unpleasant, as Loras kisses and licks every bit of Renly’s skin, bites at the back of his neck, rubs his face against Renly’s shoulder blades like a cat. It leaves Renly pliant and helpless, thoroughly seduced. At least until Loras snakes his hand low and gooses Renly, making him jump and twist partway off the bed, letting Loras see for himself precisely how stirring all of it is.

“Loras!” Renly barks.

“Mercy is for the weak,” Loras breathes, just before he claims Renly’s mouth over his shoulder.

Renly rolls to his back, allowing Loras to cover him with his body, quite thoroughly outmaneuvered. Loras kisses his way down Renly’s body, still rubbing Renly’s muscles with his fingertips, though the tension in them is of an entirely different character now. The tug of the drawstring at Renly’s waist feels strangely evocative. Once Loras has gotten Renly’s smallclothes worked down his legs and thrown onto the floor to join his own, he crawls back up Renly’s body and straddles him, settles his arse squarely on Renly’s cock. He spreads his knees and shifts, gasps at the feeling when Renly’s cock pushes against him.

“Will you?” Loras asks, grinding his arse against Renly’s cock to leave no mystery in his meaning.

“Oh,” Renly says faintly. The feel of Loras against him is making him dizzy and light-headed. Unbidden, his hips surge a bit, and he has to catch his breath against the pleasure of it. His palms stroke over the fine furring of Loras’s thighs, the flesh there yielding perfectly against Renly’s fingers when tightens them.

“I want you to,” Loras says. Renly can tell quite well that Loras wants him to from his angle.

“Are you sure?”

“We’ve been over this,” Loras reminds him. Renly’s lips twitch into half a smirk.

“Always once more,” he reminds Loras. “Besides, this isn’t quite the same thing.”

“You’ve already done it with…” Loras pauses delicately, then catches Renly’s index and middle fingers by the tips to give them a wiggle, “with other bits. This is just a different bit.” Renly snorts at Loras’s phrasing, and Loras gives him a saucy grin. “Just one tiny difference.” Before Renly has time to even consider taking affront, Loras squirms against Renly’s crotch. “All right, one really quite sizeable difference.”

“It’ll probably still hurt some, even with the…other bits.” Renly feels his brow knit at the idea of hurting Loras at all. “It’s…Loras, it’s really quite different.” Loras shrugs.

“If it’s awful, we won’t do it again,” he says. Still Renly is hesitant. A sly look crosses Loras’s face. “Perhaps you’re worried you won’t be strong enough,” he posits. “After such a strenuous day and at your advanced age…” Renly laughs, knowing he’s been painted into a corner yet again.

“I’ll show you strong enough, you little wretch,” he mock-snarls, though honestly, he does have his doubts.

“Is that a yes?” Loras asks, grinning. He holds up the vial of oil, gives it a tempting wave. Renly sighs. It’s all so obvious, almost pathetically so – the firelight, the oil, the massage. It could almost make Renly hate himself.

“Gods, this could not be any more predictable.”

“Definitely taking that as a yes,” Loras decides. He immediately slides off Renly to sit on the mattress, so quickly Renly thinks he must be trying to keep Renly from changing his mind. Then he scoots back against the headboard only to seem at a loss, trying his legs a few different ways, seeming to debate the correct position. “Do I… Should I… How…?” Renly smiles, sitting up to watch him. Loras always seems to know how to start the sentence when he wants to try something new, but rarely how to finish it. It’s bizarrely endearing. And too stirring by half.

“Here,” Renly says. He catches Loras behind the knees, hauls him down the bed a bit so one leg is thrown over Renly’s thighs and the other is behind his back. Loras catches his breath at the rough handling, a little hitch in the back of his throat that Renly knows he only makes when he’s especially aroused. Interesting. Renly will have to remember that. He holds out a hand and Loras wordlessly gives him the vial of oil, biting that left side of his lip again as he watches Renly coax the stopper free and pour oil into his palm.

Slowly, deliberately, Renly slides one palm over the other. Loras follows every movement with his eyes as Renly coats his fingers, the oil warming against his skin. He can’t resist drawing it out, smiling when Loras swallows hard, even as it makes warmth unfurl low in his gut. The oil leaves a glistening path in the wake of his finger as he trails it down Loras’s ribs, his belly, the soft skin on the inside of his thigh. Loras twists under his touch, drops his knees to the sides to make himself vulnerable to Renly. Still, Renly waits, traces his fingers everywhere but where Loras is now desperate for them.

“I’m supposed to be the tease, you prick, get on with it,” Loras hisses, gripping the furs and arching his back until it’s curved off the mattress like a bridge.

“Bossy little thing, aren’t you?” Renly chuckles, but he obligingly circles and presses, smiling at Loras’s sharp intake of breath. He works over Loras deftly, until he’s squirming, limbs moving restlessly. “Another,” Loras gasps, and Renly pushes one more finger in, waits for Loras to adjust before moving again. When Loras seems as ready as he’ll ever be, Renly withdraws and moves to kneel between Loras’s thighs. He reaches for the oil again, but Loras stays his hand.

“Let me,” he whispers. Renly closes his eyes against the violent tremor that pushes through him. Wordlessly, he sits back on his haunches, barely able to keep still as Loras sits up and smoothes the oil over his cock with deliberate, painfully arousing motions. It takes Renly a moment to collect himself when Loras is done. He needs his control. He won’t take Loras like some wild animal.

“Are you ready?” he asks. Loras swallows visibly and nods, swallowing again when Renly slowly, carefully pushes against him, easing into Loras and gritting his teeth against the heat and the tightness, wanting nothing more than to push into him completely all at once. It seems to take forever, he moves so slowly. Finally, he’s entirely sheathed in Loras and he exhales shakily, holding himself still to allow Loras to adjust again. The expression on Loras’s face could be pain or pleasure; Renly isn’t able to tell which for several heart-stopping seconds until Loras makes a high, thin sound and presses his heels alongside Renly’s spine.

“Renly,” Loras says in hazy wonder. “D’y’know, I think you’re strong enough.” Renly would laugh if it weren’t taking every shred of control he has to hold still, to go easy for Loras’s sake.

He won’t last long enough to give Loras his release without help, Renly knows. Loras’s hand is still slick with oil when Renly finds it, sliding easily as Renly wraps it around Loras’s cock and guides him for a moment, until Loras gets the idea and does it himself. They manage a mismatched rhythm, one that increases in speed as they both get closer.

“Come on, Loras,” Renly rasps, balancing on one hand to reach down with the other, helping Loras along with the touch of his fingers in sensitive places, his hand bumping against Loras’s as they both move. “Come on. There’s a boy. There’s my lovely boy, come on.” He feels Loras’s whole body tense when his release hits him. Renly waits it out, keeps his control as Loras tightens around him, as the spill of his release coats both of their hands and stomachs. He waits until Loras is boneless and relaxed before he pushes into him once, twice, then a third time to find his own release. It’s a long time before they stop quivering, before Renly feels even halfway capable of moving. He knows he’s heavy on Loras, so he pulls out, shifts his weight to the side to lie half atop him.

“Are you all right?” he asks.

“I’ve no idea,” Loras says in a daze. Renly chuckles, presses a kiss over Loras’s heart before settling his chin on Loras’s breastbone to look up at his face. The skin on the underside of Loras’s arm is unimaginably soft and Renly strokes his knuckles over it, gently, soothingly, Loras moving his arm to the side to give Renly better access. “It’s not quite how I expected it from your book.”

“That bad?” Renly teases, knowing full well that’s not what Loras means.

“Don’t be smug,” Loras tells him, fighting a smile. “You’re ruining this beautiful moment.” His hair hangs in his eyes and Renly catches it over his knuckles, runs his fingertips behind Loras’s ear to tuck it out of the way. One piece immediately springs back, one particular curl that always refuses to stay tucked behind Loras’s ear, no matter how many times Renly pushes it there. That’s what he likes about it.

“I’m sorry. Perhaps I can make it up to you by showing you a few more things you can’t learn from books?”

“That would be lovely,” Loras agrees, then gives a massive yawn, so big that Renly can practically see down his throat. There’s no vanity in it. Renly’s surprised by how glad he is of that fact, of all it implies. “Remember to do that right after this nap we’re going to take.” Then he’s asleep, so fast that Renly doesn’t even bother to answer. He’s always envied Loras his ease in falling asleep.

It’s not until he’s almost asleep himself, his mind relaxed and muzzy, that it occurs to him he’s fallen in love to quite a staggering degree. Maybe if he were fully awake, he’d be terrified by the idea. But then again, maybe not.

*****

Loras is in a mood.

Renly doesn’t know what’s gotten into him, but he’s been quiet and irritable all day. It’s all the more marked in contrast to his usual easy demeanor. At first Renly wondered if he wasn’t enjoying their travels. He’d thought the journey would appeal to Loras, a chance to visit the bannermen of Storm’s End and explore the Stormlands. But Loras’s curtness had increased with each new place until now he’s almost surly, something that hasn’t especially pleased the lords and ladies who’ve been their hosts. Renly can’t make sense of it.

"If I have to dance with one more daughter, I might scream," he says when they’re back in the apartments offered to them for the night by Lord Buckler. He’d hoped to jolly Loras out of his black mood, but Loras seems determined to resist any such attempts.

“At least you know how to dance,” he says sourly. “I’ve never learned.” Renly sighs and studies Loras, as if some clue to his mood might be written on his face, but there’s nothing on Loras’s face but a foul temper.

“If you learn, you’ll have to dance with all those daughters as well,” Renly points out. It seems every unwed daughter in the whole of the south has been trotted out to dance with him wherever they’ve gone, their families watching with sharp eyes, ready to negotiate marriage at the slightest encouragement. “I’d as soon skip that part.”

“You seemed pleased enough to dance with that…girl in Tarth,” Loras points out, wrinkling his nose at the memory and Renly frowns at him, surprised.

“Don’t be unkind.” Loras averts his eyes and scowls. It occurs to Renly that somehow Loras is jealous of the girl, a strange idea indeed, especially given that particular girl, an almost pitiful creature at the mercy of the cruelties of those around her. Renly had only thought to shield her from derision, to offer her some softness in what was most likely a very hard life. It had never occurred to him Loras might think anything of it. “Loras, you must know I wanted nothing of her. She was in need of kindness, that’s all.” Then he laughs a bit, tries to leaven the air around them. “You’re quite enough for me to handle.” Loras doesn’t laugh, he doesn’t even smile.

“Yet you would dance with her and not with me.”

“Loras,” Renly says, frowning. “You know I couldn’t have, all those people-”

“Have you danced with many girls?” Loras says, speaking over Renly’s excuses. The wistfulness in it lying beneath the impatience brings Renly up short. Loras’s ill temper is starting to make much more sense.

“None as pretty as you,” he says softly. Some of Loras’s spark shows through and he plays at a pout.

“How dare you,” he says. “I’m ruggedly handsome.” Renly smiles, flicks one finger through that tumble-down lock of hair perpetually on Loras’s cheek.

“With those curls? Hardly.”

“How many girls?” Loras persists, and Renly’s smile fades.

“You want to learn to dance so much?” he asks, choosing his words carefully, knowing there are some questions he daren’t put into words, not yet.

“I want to dance with you,” Loras answers equally carefully, sounding far smaller than Loras ever should. It makes Renly’s heart feel as if it’s cracking, like a boulder breaking apart from water freezing within it. Silently, carefully, Renly reaches for Loras’s hand. Then he easily pulls him into a dance.

Loras is an apt pupil. His body has always been his tool, instinctive and reliable in a way that Renly’s own body was never able to manage, and he uses it now to follow Renly’s lead, carefully mimicking him as he steps and dips and turns. It’s only when Renly pulls Loras into his arms to guide him in mannered arcs that Loras stumbles, and not from the steps, Renly doesn’t think.

“Look at me,” he says, “not at your feet.” Loras looks into Renly’s eyes and immediately stumbles again, but Renly catches him, holds him steady.

Their feet slow, until they’re barely shuffling, swaying back and forth together in the middle of the room. Loras ducks his head, burrows against Renly’s shoulder. That curl is on his cheek again and Renly tucks it back even as he holds on to Loras’s hand, smiling when it only falls forward immediately.

“How are you always so good at everything?” Renly asks, tucking Loras’s hand to his chest and holding it there.

“I’ve always had good teachers,” Loras says. He bumps his nose meaningfully against Renly’s jaw. Then his feet grow still, pulling Renly to a halt along with him before he steps back, eyes cast down to the floor.

“Loras?” Renly asks.

“We’ve no music.” Renly hears what he doesn’t say in the wistfulness of it, in the sweet sadness of his voice.

“So I’ll make music,” Renly says, pulling Loras back into his arms and turning them in slow circles as he hums the first song that comes to mind. He rubs his cheek over Loras’s hair, knowing it’s a poor sort of an apology for how things aren’t what Loras would wish them to be. How the world outside the walls of Storm’s End will never be quite as safe and easy as the world they’ve created within. How there will always be obligations and dances and lords with daughters.

“But the song will end and we’ll have to stop,” Loras says.

“Don’t worry,” Renly tells him. “I know a lot of songs.”

*****

He isn’t the only person who’s been here. Renly knows that. He isn’t naïve enough to think that no one in the entire history of Storm’s End ever found this spot, that no boy ever claimed it as his own, much as Renly did. That doesn’t stop him from feeling like he discovered it himself, that it’s his alone, that no one but him could ever find it. No one but him and now Loras as well.

Bringing Loras here was a surprisingly easy decision. Renly would have thought he’d agonize over it, debate on whether to share this part of himself with Loras. But once it had occurred to him, it had been as good as done. Of course, when he thinks about it, he realizes he’s been deciding on whether to bring Loras here for years, almost as long as Loras has been at Storm’s End.

He finds he’s holding his breath as Loras looks around. When Loras smiles and looks at Renly, happiness in his eyes, Renly exhales, relief curling through him like smoke. He couldn’t say why it was so important for Loras to like this particular place, but it was.

Loras’s head appears in Renly’s lap immediately after he sits. He’s all gold in the sunlight, lazy and happy, and he nudges his head against Renly's hand encouragingly. Obediently, Renly combs through Loras’s hair with his fingers, finding and rubbing the spots on Loras’s scalp that Renly knows he likes best.

“Why did you never bring me here before?” Loras asks, closing his eyes under Renly’s ministrations. Before Renly can even attempt to answer, Loras cracks an eye open, gives Renly a pointed look. “Ah, yes, because you thought I was an indiscriminate flirt and were reluctant to open your life to me.”

“Is that what I thought?” Renly laughs, surprised, like he’s just been reminded that he wanted to become a sorcerer or a dragon tamer when he was a little boy.

“You’re not going to pretend you didn’t, are you?” Loras asks, squinting up at Renly in disbelief.

“No,” Renly shakes his head. “I’d just…I’d forgotten, honestly.” It seems so distant, so foreign. So completely and totally implausible.

“You forgot?”

“It just.” Renly laughs again, he can’t seem to stop. “It seems so ridiculous now. I can’t believe I ever thought such a thing of you.”

“Shall I take that as a compliment?”

“No, you’ll only become even more insufferable,” Renly says. Loras slants him a knowing look.

“You like it when I’m insufferable,” he says.

“I like it when you’re tractable,” Renly counters, but Loras will have none of it.

“Liar,” he says, brash and bold, not the slightest hint of uncertainty in it, and Renly smiles.

“It’s fortunate you’ll make such a good knight,” Renly says. “With that demeanor, you could hardly be anything else.”

“I’m not a knight yet,” he says, but there’s no hint that he thinks he’ll be anything but. Loras has never been one prone to doubt.

“Will you…” Renly starts, and then hesitates. “Have you thought about what you’ll do? After you’re knighted. Will you return to Highgarden?” Just saying the words aloud makes Renly feel ill. Giving voice the questions that have plagued him more and more of late feels like it will make the fears behind them too real, but he knows he could never stop the path of the future simply by remaining silent.

“What?” Loras looks entirely puzzled.

“I just wondered if you’ve thought about…” The words stick in Renly’s throat and he has to clear it to continue. “If you’ve thought about your plans. What your future will be.” It pains Renly to even consider the idea that Loras might leave. But it pains him more to think that he might limit Loras, that he would keep Loras like a bird in a cage. Loras sits up abruptly, twisting to look at Renly.

“My future is with you,” he says with a quizzical air, as if the answer is so obvious as to make the question unnecessary. Warmth floods Renly's chest, rising in his cheeks to make him blush.

"I didn't want to presume," he says, aiming for casual but landing on overwhelmed. His relief feels as real and palpable as the sun on their faces, the soft grass beneath their bare feet.

"Again with the presumption. My future is with you," Loras repeats, and this time it's firm, certain. The relief that fills Renly makes him feel almost as ill as asking the question did in the first place, but it’s a feeling he’ll gladly suffer through. If his smile is wobbly, if his hand shakes as he turns Loras's face into his kiss, Loras is kind enough to pretend not to notice.

*****

“What on earth have you done with your hair?” Renly asks. He supposes he shouldn’t be surprised. Loras has spent the whole day blowing his fringe from his eyes irritably. It’s grown quite shaggy lately. Renly likes to think that it’s for his benefit, that Loras knows just how much Renly loves it long. But now it’s at an awkward length and it seems Loras has reached the end of his patience with it.

“I’ve tied it back,” he says.

“I see that,” Renly answers. It’s pulled away from his face and into a ludicrous sort of topknot that’s got a wild tangle of curls springing away from his head at strange angles. The soft, shorter hairs at his nape have already escaped their confines. “It’s… You look ridiculous, honestly.”

“It was being a bloody nuisance,” Loras says with a shrug. “It’s either this or shave the whole mess clean off.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

“See if I wouldn’t,” Loras counters, but Renly can see his tiny smile. He wouldn’t, not knowing how much Renly likes it. Renly's sure of it. Unfortunately, that leaves him looking like...this.

“I cannot take you seriously like that,” Renly says on a sigh.

“Oh?” Loras asks, moving towards Renly with predatory grace. “Not even when I do this?” His tongue is warm on Renly’s neck, on the sensitive spot behind his ear. Renly shudders, his hands come up unbidden to cup Loras's elbows loosely, but he manages to keep his voice even.

“Not even then.”

Loras leans back and gives him an appraising look. A spark of mischief fires in his eyes. He reaches up and pulls the leather strap free, his hair tumbling about his face. He holds each end of the strap between his fingertips, pulls them in opposite directions swiftly enough that the leather makes a snapping sound, and then twirls the leather strap with one hand.

“Loras,” Renly warns, “what are you up to?” Loras only catches his hands, holds them in his own as he wraps his arms about Renly. Then he kisses him, pressed full against him, their hands entwined behind Renly’s back, and Renly forgets to be suspicious, forgets everything entirely. It isn’t until Loras pulls away and Renly tries to follow – tries but can’t – that Renly feels the leather strap binding his wrists behind his back.

“Loras, what?” Renly pulls against the strap. It’s looped around the bedpost, he thinks. Whatever it’s tied to, Renly can’t move more than a few inches. Loras looks at him in satisfaction.

“Oh, I do like this,” he says, tracing his finger over Renly from shoulder to waist, the drag of his touch along the cloth almost tickling.

“You little bastard,” Renly says, but the only heat in the words comes from the sudden surge of arousal he’s feeling. The leather binds just enough to hold him; if he truly wanted to be free, he could wriggle loose or snap the binding. But knowing he could makes him not want to. He's surprised to find he rather likes being at Loras's mercy. He wouldn’t have expected to enjoy such a thing. It occurs to him that they probably should have discussed it beforehand, but he feels no nervousness, no fear. His trust in Loras is so deep as to be unthinking, he’s realizing, which should probably frighten him all on its own, but it doesn’t.

“So much potential,” Loras singsongs, walking his fingers back up Renly’s chest. Instinctively, he brushes the hair from Renly’s face before it can bother him, reaches back to adjust the strap where he seems to know it bites a bit uncomfortably into Renly's skin. Then he’s flicking the looped buttons at the neck of Renly’s shirt open, running his hands under the cloth to touch him, setting his mouth to Renly’s neck to lick and suck at him until Renly is quivering from his need to touch Loras back.

“I hate you,” Renly moans. Loras closes his teeth over the lobe of Renly’s ear at the same time as he pulls Renly's shirt free from his breeches and feathers his fingers over the skin there. Renly's moan skitters up into a whimper. “I hate you,” he pants. The crook of Loras’s shoulder where it curves into his neck is warm, and Renly tucks his face there, inhales the spicy scent of Loras’s skin.

He protests when Loras steps away, just farther than Renly can reach. The strap bites into his wrists when he strains forward, only making him feel wilder. Loras steps a bit further and gives Renly a knowing smile, slides his hand down his stomach and rubs it over the placket of his own breeches.

“That’s my job,” Renly says, voice rough with need. Loras merely cocks his eyebrow and slides his fingers beneath the waist of his breeches. He moves his hand beneath the cloth, his eyes flutter and narrow in pleasure as he touches himself, and Renly’s whole body aches to the point of pain. “Loras, untie me,” he begs. “Let me do that.”

“What will you give me in return?” Loras asks, his breathing uneven.

“Anything,” Renly promises. “Just untie me.”

“Will you give me my very own castle?” Loras smiles dreamily, withdrawing his hand and sliding it over the front of Renly’s own breeches.

“Done.”

“A hunting hound that I can name Loras the Lesser?”

Renly laughs, despite the need making his gut clench like a fist. “Name him Renly the Greater, if you like.” Loras gives a boyish giggle. It only makes Renly want to touch him all the more, and he strains against his bonds until Loras relents a bit, stepping close enough for Renly to slide his lips across Loras’s temple, his cheek and his jaw, down to his neck to suck a dark bloom on his skin.

“A golden suit of armor worked in emeralds?” Loras asks.

“Two,” Renly answers against his throat. “One to wear when you ride east, one for when you ride west.”

“Your cloak?”

“Are you cold?” Renly laughs. "I could warm you if only you'd untie me."

“You know what I mean,” Loras says, softly. Seriously. Renly pulls back to look at him, to see the intensity in his eyes. To read the real meaning of the question. “I know you can’t,” Loras continues, ducking away from Renly’s searching eyes for a moment. “But if you could. If that were something that were done. Would you?” The question is entirely unexpected. It feels as if a carpet has been yanked from under Renly’s feet, leaving him dizzy and disoriented. He tries to imagine his wedding, tries to see anyone beside him but Loras, tries to picture his hands fastening his cloak about any woman’s shoulders. But he can’t.

“Surely you know it’s already yours,” he says when he can speak, his voice sounding rough and unused. Loras’s mouth drops open wordlessly, his face looks almost stricken. He kisses Renly urgently, desperately, snaking his arms around Renly’s back and pressing so close it’s as if he’s trying to climb inside him.

“Merciful gods, Loras, un-fucking-tie me,” Renly rasps when he lifts his head. The leather strap is pulled so tightly that it snaps at Loras’s tug. Renly surges against him, pulls him up into a bruising embrace, one that he’d fear it would crack Loras’s ribs if he were in any state to think of such rational concerns.

“So I can’t quite tell,” Loras says impishly, craning his head back to look up at Renly. “Did you like the tying up bit?” Renly laughs so hard it almost hurts. Even after Loras has walked him back to the bed, even after they’ve fallen atop the mattress, even as Loras pushes all their clothing aside to let them be skin to skin, he can’t stop laughing. It’s as if something has broken loose inside him, something free and floating and wonderful. It feels better than anything.

*****

Loras’s question comes out of nowhere. There they are, lazing away an afternoon on Renly’s bed, Renly stretched on his side with his head propped on one hand to face Loras as he sits cross-legged in the middle of the mattress, when suddenly Loras fixes Renly with a look that makes Renly feel like he’s the fox and Loras is the hound.

“Have you ever been the one receiving?” he asks. Renly blinks at the question. He’s on the verge of asking Loras where that came from, when Loras, clearly thinking Renly confused, decides to clarify. “I mean have you ever been fucked.”

“Loras, a bit of delicacy, if you please,” Renly chastises mildly, smiling at the tremendous roll of his eyes Loras gives. “I understood the first time.”

“Answer the question, my lord.”

“Once.”

“And?”

“And what?” Renly asks. “Did I enjoy it?” Loras gives a shrug, as if to indicate that’s as good a place to start as any. Renly thinks on the answer. A simple yes seems inadequate for a situation that wasn’t entirely simple. “I did,” he finally allows. “It wasn’t… I had no…” He makes a helpless gesture.

“Who was he?”

“Never learned his name,” Renly says with a dry laugh. Gods, it sounds terrible now. “It was very early on, and that part wasn’t my idea.”

“You didn’t want it to happen?”

“It wasn’t my preference,” Renly corrects.

“Why didn’t you say so?” Loras asks, a certain amount of dismay lacing the question.

“I don’t know,” Renly says. “It seemed impolite?”

“Impol- Renly!”

“I was figuring everything out,” Renly shrugs. “I had no idea what I truly liked or didn’t without trying.”

“And that ended up on the no list.”

“Not necessarily.” Loras raises an inquisitive eyebrow, silently prompting Renly to elaborate. “It wasn’t my preference with him, that doesn’t mean I might not enjoy a time or two with someone else.” Loras’s mouth drops into a small oh as he mulls that over, before some of his typical mischief creeps over his face.

“Would you let me fuck you?” he asks. Renly laughs out loud at that. He nudges Loras’s knee with his thigh playfully.

“You make it sound ever so romantic,” he says.

“Would you?” Loras persists, the mischief still there, but an unexpected sincerity lurking beneath it.

“Would you want to?” Renly asks. He can’t pretend he’s not a bit surprised. Loras has never quite seemed the type.

“I should figure everything out too, don’t you think?” Loras tries for casual with his shrug, but Renly knows him well enough to hear what he’s not saying.

“Do you want to, Loras?” he asks again. Loras meets his eyes, watching him for a long moment.

“Yes,” he answers. “I want to do everything there is to do with you.” Renly lets out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. Loras looks at him expectantly, almost nervously. It’s so strange to think him even capable of being nervous. Renly’s never met anyone less prone to anxiety than Loras. Renly’s chest aches at knowing that he’s the cause, that he’s one of the few things in the world to matter so much to Loras.

“What are you waiting for?” he says, the casual words belied by the roughness of his voice. Loras needs little prompting. He’s got Renly onto his back in the blink of an eye, and he kisses him, long and drugging and deep.

It’s much the same as it was before, the first time Renly did this to Loras, but inverted, like looking at something reflected in a mirror. The pieces are all familiar – Loras’s exploring hands, the gentle pressure of his fingers, Renly guiding him and helping him – but they’re not put together quite the same way. When Loras tentatively pushes into Renly, it feels new and thrilling, a strange sort of surrender, like holding on and letting go all at once. The first time Renly had done this, he’d been nervous, unsure. His partner had been the skilled one, he’d been the one to tell Renly what to do and how to move. Now Renly is the one instructing Loras, telling him slower, faster, harder, yes, that’s right, that’s just perfect, don’t stop, never stop. It comes as little surprise that Loras applies himself with the same attention and diligence he brings to training, and it would make Renly laugh, if his body were capable of such a thing at the moment.

“No wonder you’re such a good knight,” he pants out when Loras follows his direction and hits a spot that has Renly seeing stars behind his closed eyelids.

“Renly,” Loras gasps. “I can’t… I’m going to…”

“It’s fine,” Renly tells him. “It’s all right, it’s all right.” Loras looks so distressed that Renly pushes up on his elbows, strokes his face with a reassuring hand as Loras shakes out his release, the changed angle almost getting Renly close enough himself, but not quite. Loras collapses on him. Renly’s still-hard cock is trapped between them and the feel of Loras’s heavy breathing is just stirring enough to be completely maddening.

“I’m sorry,” Loras manages after a moment.

“Don’t be sorry,” Renly whispers. “Never be sorry.” Loras lifts his head and takes Renly’s mouth in a searing kiss, one that only makes his cock ache all the more. Then Loras gives him a wicked grin and slides down his body, and Renly can only brace himself while Loras brings him off with his mouth, the crook of his fingers inside Renly the final impetus for his release.

“Was it at least a bit of an improvement?” Loras asks, when he’s moved up to lay his head beside Renly’s on the pillow. Renly smiles, eyes closed.

“I will ignore your blatant habit of fishing for praise this one time, in light of the unusual situation, and tell you that it was a vast improvement.”

“Is that so,” Loras says with false humility.

“Mm, yes. I might even be interested in repeating it from time to time.”

“Is that so,” Loras repeats, but with far more satisfaction this time. “Well. We’ll just see, won’t we?” Renly chuckles, and wraps Loras up in his arms, rolling them over on the bed until Loras is atop him.

“You’ll just have to let me know when you’re willing.”

“I suppose I have it lucky,” Loras muses. Renly makes a questioning sound. “I feel perfectly free to be…how did you put it? Impolite with you.” He grins, but Renly understands the weight of what he’s saying.

“Maybe we’re both lucky,” Renly says after a while. Loras’s grin softens, becomes something infinitely sweeter.

“Maybe so,” he agrees.

*****

Usually Renly enjoys Loras’s adventurous nature, his eagerness to explore and try new things. There’s a certain charm to his enthusiasm, his boundless affinity for the new and exciting. And there’s been more than charm in the results, for the most part, at least for Renly. Indeed, much, much more than charm. He’d just never thought to wonder what might happen when Loras had gone through all the traditional options and began to grow curious about activities ranging farther afield, so to speak. And now he wonders if he should have been all so encouraging of Loras’s adventurous spirit.

“You want to do what with what?” he asks, eyeing Loras dubiously.

“I want to use wax,” Loras repeats. “Hot wax, specifically. And I’d like to drip it on you. Haven’t you ever heard of that?”

“I might have a time or two, but where on earth did you get the idea?”

“Tyrion Lannister told me about it,” Loras answers with a blithe wave of his fingers. Fingers that up until a moment ago had been deftly sneaking beneath the placket of Renly’s breeches to tease him into hardness and clearly coax him into a willing state. He feels tricked.

“You’re no longer allowed to speak to him,” Renly says. Good gods, they couldn’t speak of the weather like normal people? "Or any other Lannisters, for that matter."

“Being in King’s Landing is really providing me with all sorts of opportunities,” Loras marvels, as if Renly hadn’t spoken.

“I should have been suspicious when you insisted on so many candles,” Renly grumbles.

“So will you let me?” Loras asks, giving Renly an impossibly eager smile, like he’s a great hound begging a treat under the table.

“Gods, why do I let you talk me into these things?” Renly says by way of agreement, and Loras’s smile turns giddy.

“What color would you like?” he asks, turning to look at the candles he’s arrayed on the bedside table.

“Color?” Renly asks in disbelief. “What possible difference could that make?”

“I thought I’d let you choose,” Loras shrugs.

“Whichever color is least painful,” Renly quips, and Loras looks at him reprovingly.

“There’s no need to be cheeky,” he says, and the irony of that statement coming from Loras of all people ties Renly’s tongue entirely until Loras has taken up a fat scarlet candle and carefully dribbled a bit of wax over the hairless skin at Renly’s ribs.

“A little more preamble!” Renly yelps at the touch of the wax, even though it’s not too bad, if he’s honest.

“You’d like me to work up to pouring wax on you?” Loras snorts, tipping the candle again and catching the rivulet of wax with his finger before it hits Renly’s nipple, for which Renly is grateful. He’d held the candle closer that time and it was definitely hotter. The next drip is from closer yet and it downright stings.

“Loras, that is rather painful, you know.”

“Hold still.” Loras moves the candle lower, positioning it over Renly’s belly, and the slide of the wax on the sensitive skin around his navel has Renly squirming and jerking away.

“Ow. Ow! Gods, is this the sort of thing you like?”

“Well, I wouldn’t know since I’ve never done it, but that’s no reason for you to be such a baby about it, Renly.”

“Here, you try it if you’re so tough,” Renly fires back, sitting up to grab the candle and tip a bit of the wax onto Loras’s chest. Loras takes it in far more stride than Renly did.

“Not bad,” he says. “Stings a bit. Blow on it.”

“What?”

“Blow on it! By the Maiden, Renly, you can be daft sometimes.” Renly does as requested, feeling not unlike a fool as he purses his lips and blows over the hardening surface of the wax. Loras makes a thoughtful face, and takes the candle back. He holds it aloft, cocks a questioning brow at Renly. With a roll of his eyes, Renly consents, settling back onto the pillows behind him. This time, Loras blows on the wax immediately after it hits Renly’s skin, peeling it off when it’s still soft and soothing the spot with his tongue.

“Oh,” Renly says, voice gone a bit soft around the edges. “That’s definitely better.” Loras repeats the process, this time sucking at the spot hard enough that Renly feels an answering pull in his crotch.

“Do that again,” he says. “Without the wax this time.” Loras shakes his head, his eyes rolling a wide arc full of fond disgust. But he complies nonetheless and Renly’s breath whistles from his lips on a content sigh. Much better.

He’s not sure where the candle ends up. It should probably be more of a concern. He’d hate to set the place alight and have to run naked into the streets, but Loras is using that clever tongue of his, sliding it over all the places he knows Renly likes best, and honestly, a little fire seems inconsequential at the moment.

"Loras," Renly chokes out, his hands gently gripping Loras's hair as Loras licks a line from one hip to the other. He draws it out, teasing Renly with his tongue everywhere other than where Renly wants it, until his name is all Renly can say, “Loras, Loras, Loras,” and Loras finally takes him deep enough that his nose is pressed to Renly's abdomen. He hums and swallows, his throat working, and that’s all it takes.

“That wasn’t all terrible,” Renly admits, once he’s stopped shaking and Loras has crawled up to lean against the headboard at his side, their heads tilted together.

“Remember that next time I suggest something and you’re such an old man about it,” Loras tells him tartly.

“Next time, remind me about those last bits you did and promise more of the same,” Renly counters. “Then maybe I won’t be such an old man.”

“Bribery,” Loras sighs. “How inelegant.” He picks at a spot of wax on the linens, dried now, well and stuck to the cloth. “This will take some getting out.”

“Breda will hate her job even more than usual,” Renly groans. “Come to think on it, we might need to get a new head of house altogether. You should have seen the look she gave me this morning. I think your, er…your volume last night unnerved her.” Loras has the good grace to blush, ducking his head to pry up another bit of wax with his fingernail.

“Only just set up house in King’s Landing and already we’ve scandalized someone,” he says. “We’ll have to look for someone harder to shock.”

Much harder,” Renly agrees, laughing, and Loras shoots him a look.

“I’ll give you much harder,” he threatens, and there’s no more talk of housekeepers, not for a good long while.

*****

“This is entirely your fault.”

It’s not the best looking glass in the Seven Kingdoms, but it shows Renly’s jaw and neck plain enough, and the paler skin on his chest where he’s unbuttoned his shirt to examine himself. The one right below his collarbone is the worst, a purple-red bloom marring his skin, darker than any of the others. It’ll be black tomorrow.

“Hm?” Loras thrums absently, not seeming especially interested from where he lounges on Renly’s bed.

“These bloody marks you gifted me with,” Renly grumbles, making a quick inventory. “One on my jaw, three on my neck, two on my chest…not to mention that my lower lip looks like it’s been stung by a bee.” He makes a pout into the glass and reassesses. “An entire hive of bees.”

“Suits you,” Loras says on a languorous yawn. Renly refuses to notice him back there, stretched over the bed like a lazy cat. He certainly refuses to do any petting, not when Loras won’t play by the rules.

“Not one of them took me seriously looking like this.”

“Oh, pfft,” Loras shrugs. “Bunch of wilting flowers, they are. They could do with some biting themselves. Might loosen them up. As it is, they’re no fun at all.”

“Even Varys made jokes at my expense,” Renly says, turning from the mirror to glare at Loras. “A eunuch. No more.”

Loras makes a face. “Am I to have no fun either?”

“No more bites, Loras.” He follows it up with an admonishing finger and then feels a fool, like a child pretending at authority. As if Loras has ever followed a direction he wasn’t already inclined to follow. Loras pushes up from the bed and stands in front of him. He presses a careful fingertip to the worst mark, watching with glittering eyes as Renly’s mouth falls open and he sways on the spot.

“I thought you liked them.”

“I do,” and gods, does he, “but-”

“You would live your life by their rules?” It’s a serious question now, even as Loras plays his fingers over the bruises.

“Loras.”

“Are you ashamed of what we do?” It’s their one argument, the one they return to time and again, worrying at it like hounds at a bone. It’s one of the few times Renly truly feels the difference in their ages, the deceptively narrow gap in years suddenly widening into a chasm. But then perhaps that’s not fair; Renly thinks maybe Loras will be this brash, this impulsive and heedless his entire life.

“You know that I’m not,” he says softly, and he isn’t. He never could be.

“Yet you hide,” Loras answers. Renly counts himself lucky that there’s no condemnation in it, no anger or blame. He hesitates.

“It’s not that simple,” he says at last. Loras watches him, and for the hundredth time, Renly wishes he were something other than what he is, that they were nameless men in another place who could live and do as they pleased. Loras seems to think they can live and do as they please, but Renly knows differently. He traces gentle fingertips over Loras’s face in an inadequate apology. Loras leans into them, pushes his face against Renly’s hand like a cat wanting to be pet, and then moves fully into Renly’s arms, insinuating himself under Renly’s chin. Renly can only marvel at his whole-heartedness, at his lack of censor or reserve. He envies it. But he knows he can’t afford it.

“Very well,” Loras finally concedes with only the barest ill-grace. “No more bites for them to see.”

“Thank you,” Renly says. Funny. He’d expected to be relieved. And he is, to some point, but there’s a sadness in it. A disappointment. It takes him a moment to realize that sometimes he relies on Loras not to give in. His disappointment is shattered, though, when Loras pushes one hand into his open shirt, sliding it down to set his teeth at Renly’s shoulder and nip.

"Loras!" Renly gasps, Loras's hair wild and curling around Renly’s suddenly clenched fingers. The look Loras gives him is hot enough to curl his own hair.

“I said there wouldn’t be any for them to see, not that you wouldn’t have any,” Loras points out slyly, and Renly laughs, he can’t help it. He couldn’t help it even if he tried.

“You’re too clever for your own good,” he sighs, his own voice sounding hazy and far off as Loras returns to his task, his mouth hot and insistent on Renly’s skin. “But not so clever that you’ve realized you’d have an easier time of it if I were lying on the bed.” Loras smiles at the hint. His hands shove at Renly’s shoulders and the bed comes up to meet him, his sudden weight on the mattress sending tiny white feathers flying about on invisible currents of air. Loras hovers over him, arms braced on either side of his head, grinning and happy and bright as the sun. Renly pushes his hands over Loras’s face in an affectionate fumble, wishing there were words to say everything he feels. But then, words seem pointless when Loras is lowering his body onto Renly’s, the movement of his hips frankly sexual. Too clever indeed, and not the slightest bit shy.

Loras opens his mouth over Renly’s skin through the cloth of his shirt, his tongue hot and wet, the feel of it barely blunted by the fabric separating them. He tests Renly’s nipple through the shirt with his teeth. Strange, Renly thinks distantly, how something can be violently exciting and somehow comforting all at once. Everything around him is different, his life has gone in a whole new direction, but with Loras he’s who he always was.

“Enough of this,” Loras decides. He pulls Renly up, yanks the shirt over his head with little ceremony, and pushes him back down only to apply with teeth with no barrier this time.

Gods,” Renly chokes out. Loras peeks up from beneath his fringe, gives Renly a sly smirk.

“And what do they have to do with it?” he asks, affecting a note of mock-petulance. “I do all the work and they get all the credit.” Renly grins, despite himself.

“Blasphemer.”

“I suppose we’re lucky, though,” Loras continues, ignoring him. “Something nice and short to call out when consumed by lust. Just consider the alternatives.” He punctuates the words with a firm bite on the underside of Renly's arm, just above the elbow, coupled with the steady pressure of his thigh between Renly's. He laves the mark with his tongue, sucks on the skin with soothing pressure, and Renly has to work at concentrating enough to understand. He’s mindless and Loras is practically giving a speech. Bloody unfair.

“Alternatives?” Renly manages. He has cause to regret it when Loras pulls away and looks thoughtful, leaving the spot on Renly’s arm throbbing and tingling and far too distracting for conversation.

“Can you imagine calling out to the Drowned God in the throes of passion? Dreadful. No wonder the ironmen are so dour. And Rh'llor?" He gives a delicate shudder. "Now that's just ungainly." Renly laughs, but it comes out sounding like he’s dying or in pain – neither of which seem too far off the mark, actually.

“Here I thought we were in my chambers, only to find we’re in the Citadel making comparative religious studies.”

“I have a lot of thoughts,” Loras shrugs.

“Yes, and that tongue you voice them with is too quick by half.” It’s going to get you into a lot of trouble someday, Renly thinks but refuses to voice. This is not the place for worry.

“I thought you enjoyed my quick tongue,” Loras says, his shrug replaced by suggestion, the quirk of his mouth positively wicked.

“Gods help me but I do,” Renly sighs, then gasps as Loras nips at the skin just beside his navel.

“Rh’llor help you, you mean,” he says. He grins, and it’s bright and boyish, like to turn Renly’s heart upside down. “I know, I know, I’m incorrigible.” He moves lower, trades teeth for tongue and lips, and all Renly can do is drop his head back and grip the furs in his fists.

“At least you’re self-aware,” is the last thing he manages to say that’s actual words.

******

It’s a lazy afternoon, something that’s grown short in supply since Renly joined Robert’s small council. There’s always some pressing discussion, some problem to solve, some bit of Robert’s life that wants sorting out. Loras makes no secret of his impatience with the demands on Renly’s time. Renly suspects he puts on some of it, though. He certainly seems to enjoy Renly’s efforts to pull him out of his sulks.

Today’s sulk has been more difficult to soothe than most. Renly can’t blame Loras. Robert has really been in a state lately, returning again and again to his least favorite and most favored topic of Targaryens and what’s to be done about them. Renly’s had to spend most of the previous night and all of the morning practically being Loras’s slave to make up for it. A willing slave, but nonetheless.

“Better?” he asks, once he’s coaxed Loras into a warm bath with him. Loras lies back against Renly’s chest, idly twines his fingers with Renly’s along the rim of the tub.

“I suppose,” Loras says, affecting a sullen tone that Renly knows he doesn’t quite mean. Loras’s body has always betrayed his mood and right now he’s far too languid to truly be put out. “But Robert really needs to find himself a nursemaid of some sort and leave you be.”

“If you’ve any ideas on how to accomplish such a thing, I’d be glad to hear.”

“What we should do is marry him off to Margaery,” Loras says. “She would have him sorted in a second.”

“Margaery!” Renly exclaims. “That is daft.”

“Why?”

“First of all, he’s already married, in case you’d forgotten.”

“She’d be a far sight better as Queen than Cersei,” Loras says.

“And second,” Renly continues, “she might not be so much better than Cersei after Robert got a hold of her, with all his eating and swilling and whoring. That’s bound to turn any maid sour. Your poor sister.”

“She’d be more than a match for him,” Loras says.

“She’s not a bloody magician,” Renly counters, and Loras gives a snort and shakes his head.

“Honestly,” he says, “you would think the man wasn’t your brother.”

“Do you disagree?”

“No,” Loras sighs. “But it does make sense. It’d be advantageous for the family. And for you. And thus for me. You should think on it.” There’s a certain kind of sense to it, Renly knows. But the last thing he wants to be considering at the moment is Robert.

“Right, that’s enough talk of politics,” he decides. “Dunk.” Obediently, Loras slides beneath the water’s surface and comes up, shaking his head like a dog, drops spattering Renly’s face. “Loras, good grief.”

“You love it,” Loras tells him. Renly lathers his hands and pushes his fingers into Loras’s hair, massaging at his scalp. Loras makes a pleased sound, tilts his head back into the pressure of Renly’s hands. “I’m the squire,” he says at length, his voice sounding heavy and content. “Shouldn’t I be doing this?”

“You haven’t been my squire for some time, in case you’ve forgotten. Rinse.” Again Loras obeys, refraining this time from soaking Renly when he surfaces.

“I’ll always be your faithful squire, my lord.” Loras’s words fill Renly with some indefinable emotion. The feeling that fills him when Loras reaches behind him to run a mischievous palm over Renly’s abdomen, however, is much more definable. Loras’s fingertips skim a teasing line along Renly’s cock before retreating entirely and Renly groans.

“Why must you always tease me so?” Renly asks.

“Because it’s the secret to my power over you,” Loras answers impishly, and Renly laughs.

“And people would say I’m taking advantage of you.” That stops Loras short and he twists a bit to look at Renly over his shoulder in surprise.

“They would?”

“I… Well, I suppose so. That’s how it would probably look if they knew.” If some of them don’t already know, that is. Jaime Lannister has made more suggestive comments than Renly is entirely comfortable with.

“That’s absurd,” Loras says, turning back around and settling more comfortably against Renly’s chest. “If anything, it’s the other way around. What is it they call it in the Iron Islands? A thrall. You’re clearly my thrall.” Loras pauses, and considers. “Or my saltwife.”

“I think I prefer thrall,” Renly half laughs and half groans, glad of a reason to laugh. Loras’s immediate dismissal of the idea has left him feeling far shakier than he would have expected. Deep down, he supposes, he’d worried about it, constantly, even after he decided he wouldn’t worry. He doesn’t know what to call this emotion that’s welling in his chest – some combination of relief, gratitude, need, fear, love – but it leaves him feeling unsteady.

“Don’t ever ask me to do anything truly terrible,” Renly says suddenly, his voice breaking the silence that had settled over them comfortably. Loras stirs the tiniest bit in his arms, a lazy cat resettling into another nap.

“Would you think less of me?” he asks, his voice languid and almost bored, as if he barely even believes the notion of it possible. Renly swallows against the knot in his throat, against the unbearable pressure of everything he feels pushing out from his chest and into the world.

“I would do it,” he says, “whatever it was,” and the seriousness of it breaks through Loras’s laziness. He cranes his head around to peer up at Renly over his shoulder, water rippling around him at the movement. The intensity of his gaze is too much. It’s all too much. Renly can’t bear it and he knows he’ll never be able to live without it and he knows that’s in his kiss, all of it, every bit of power he could give another. It’s right there, leaving him raw and vulnerable, and he gives it to Loras anyway and doesn’t care, doesn’t regret it for a single second.

Water sloshes over the rim of the bath and onto the floor when Loras turns to face him, his kiss becoming insistent, growing drugging and deep. Renly tilts his head back, not caring at the water everywhere, not caring that the bath grows cold. All he cares is that Loras doesn’t stop, that he never, ever stops. Their hips slide and slip together in the water, the contact all too teasing until Loras catches hold of Renly’s hand and wraps it firmly around his cock before taking Renly’s in his own hand. The rhythms don’t quite match, one fast and one steady, but rather meet and then depart, only to meet again, as if intertwined in a dance. Loras goes first – Loras always goes first – and he moves and twists his hand even as he’s spilling into Renly’s, as he’s shaking and dropping his forehead to Renly’s shoulder, until Renly follows. Renly always follows.

They slump against the lip of the bath, Loras pliant against Renly’s chest. Renly feels equally relaxed. He might not be entirely surprised to find that he has no bones at all at the moment, that he’s nothing but skin and flesh and nerves. His head lolls back to rest on the rim of the tub and he smiles at the ceiling. It isn’t until Loras shivers against him, the tremor relaying through Renly’s body, that he realizes how cold the water has become. Reluctant as he is for Loras to move, he knows they should at least rise and dry off. But then Loras shifts his hips and the water doesn’t seem quite as cold as it did only a moment ago.

"Hold still, you minx,” Renly groans. “Have mercy on an old man."

“Shall I move away?” Loras asks, the look on his face pure cheek, nothing but teasing and insincerity. Renly wraps his arms about Loras tighter, though. Just in case.

“You’re the only thing keeping me from slipping under the water and drowning at the moment,” he says. Satisfied, Loras tucks himself into the crook of Renly’s shoulder again, tracing idle patterns on his chest before reaching up to touch Renly’s beard.

“You're getting shaggy again,” he notes, rubbing the tips of his fingers over the coarse hair, pressing them against Renly’s jaw.

“I’ve rather grown to like it,” Renly says. "The beard, I mean, not the shagginess."

“So have I,” Loras admits, and Renly knows him well enough to know a “but” when he hears it.

“But?” he prompts. Loras’s eyes flick up to his and there’s something wistful in them, something small and just a bit sad.

“I miss shaving you.” It’s a simple enough sentence. It shouldn’t make Renly’s throat feel tight. He wouldn’t trade what he has now with Loras for anything in the Seven Kingdoms or beyond. But still. It’s easy to forget his agony from those early days and remember only the heady thrill, the feeling of potential.

“Of course,” Loras continues, quite a different tone to his words, “that’s not the only place I could shave you…” He lets it trail off suggestively before twining his fingers in the hair on Renly’s chest and giving it a sharp tug, one Renly feels deep in his gut.

“Is,” Renly starts, then catches his breath. “Is that something you might be interested in?” Loras doesn’t answer. He just gives Renly that sly smile, the one that Renly knows means trouble or bliss or frequently both. Renly laughs, bright and open. "Rh'llor help us both," he says, and Loras laughs with him, laughs into his mouth even as he kisses him, laughs and renders him whole.

*****

“You’re in a disgustingly good mood today.”

“Am I?” Renly asks in surprise.

“You’re walking around with a soppy grin on your face, humming and singing and being a general ray of bloody sunshine,” Loras points out, smiling almost to match that soppy grin. “I’d say you’re happy.”

“I suppose I am.”

“And what’s got you so happy?” Loras asks. Renly tilts his head and thinks on it. He looks up at the blue of the sky, looks around them at the life of the household, looks down at his feet where they’re tapping with happy energy on the cobbles in the yard. Looks at Loras’s face, the face he’s truly allowed himself to believe he’ll see every day for the rest of his life.

“Nothing,” he says, shrugging. “Everything. Just happy, I suppose.” It’s a strange impulse that seizes him, to pull Loras into a dance. Renly’s never been one to surrender to impulse. But today is different. Loras is shocked when Renly catches his wrist, swings him into his arms. He stumbles along, watching Renly with bemusement.

“People can see,” Loras reminds him, eyeing Renly warily even as he instinctively moves with him in the steps Renly’s taught him. Renly hums absently and Loras picks up the rhythm, moving expertly to the sound of Renly's voice.

“I know,” Renly says. The answer flummoxes Loras quite thoroughly. Renly would be lying if he said he didn’t enjoy it. He swings them in a long-striding arc, Loras’s chest flattening to his from the pressure of Renly’s arm, the walls of the yard spinning about them until Renly feels a bit dizzy.

“I don’t know what’s gotten into you,” Loras says, breathless. Dazed. Maybe even happy himself.

“Just enjoy it while it lasts,” Renly tells him with a grin.

“Oh, I plan to.” Loras moves his hips suggestively, his face full of mischief, but Renly can see the softness on his face as well, the fragile hope. It makes him want to protect that hope. To nurture it like the spark of a flame. To build a fortress around it and keep it always safe, to construct a life for them out of mortar and stone and a roof to keep out the rain. The fact that Renly feels like he can do such a thing, can and will…well, there are few things more worth being happy about.

“What am I to do with you, Loras Tyrell?” he says, and the words are stupidly affectionate, so fond and admiring that Loras flushes, ducking his head in embarrassed pleasure.

“Shall I give you the list in alphabetical order or ranked by preference?” he mumbles.

“Surprise me,” Renly decides. “You know, I have something very important to tell you.”

“What’s that?”

"Eight,” Renly says, leaning close, pressing their foreheads together and staring into Loras’s eyes, “and five." The words don’t mean the same thing that they did the first time Renly said them to Loras, but rather much more. They encompass everything Renly feels for him, all the love he has in the world. But then, maybe that gives them precisely the same meaning they’ve always had.

"You bastard,” Loras laughs. “You're never going to tell me the meaning of that, are you?"

"Someday," Renly tells him with a smile, tugging Loras just a bit closer. "Someday I will."

*****

“He’s not supposed to be human.”

It’s all Renly can think, all he can say. When he’d been a boy, he’d always thought of Robert as invincible He’d been aware of the danger, he’d known Robert rode off to war, to blood and death and destruction, but the idea had never occurred to him that Robert might not return, alive and well. Robert had been too strong, too vital, even after he’d traded battle for wine, armor for supper and dessert, his battleaxe for willing women and handsomely paid whores. It was still impossible to think him capable of dying. Renly had watched the boar tear into him, he’d seen Robert’s blood and guts laid out in the afternoon sun, the red obscenely bright and festive, and still he’d had difficulty comprehending the idea that Robert was anything but immortal.

His chamber in the Red Keep had always seemed spacious before, but now it feels tiny, cramped, too small a space to hold him in his agitation as he paces, from table to window and back to table. Loras hovers near him, his face stricken, as unsure what to say now as he was when he’d found Renly on the hunting party’s return, already having heard of Robert’s injury as news of it swept through the household like wildfire.

“It just… It cut right through him,” Renly says, his voice sounding strange and foreign. “Like he was made of paper.”

“Ren…”

“Like he was nothing.”

“Renly, please.” Loras looks so helpless. He looks as helpless as Renly feels. Renly reaches out, catches handfuls of Loras’s shirt and pulls Loras to him, their foreheads colliding uncomfortably.

“He’s not supposed to die,” Renly whispers. Then he’s kissing Loras, if such a punishing act could be described as a kiss. Their lips and teeth clash together, the metallic tang of blood spreading on Renly’s tongue, though he couldn’t say which of them it came from. Loras doesn’t shrink or shy from the contact; he grapples at Renly, fighting closer to him, taking all of Renly’s fear and anger and leaving him only need as Renly bears them down to the floor, fumbling at their clothing.

It isn’t gentle, not in the slightest. The floor must be hard under Loras’s shoulders; it bruises Renly’s knees, leaves his body feeling as battered as his soul. But Loras makes no protest; he only curls and clings to Renly, holding him with strong arms, kissing Renly as if he could draw his anguish from him.

“Loras,” Renly gasps, desperate and overcome, gripped by the greatest fear he can imagine, the most staggering loss he could ever suffer. “If I ever lost you-”

“I’m alive,” Loras says against Renly’s mouth. “I’m alive, it’s all right.”

It’s a release only in the barest sense of the word. Renly stiffens, spills into Loras, but it feels shallow and wrong. Loras combs Renly’s hair with gentle fingers, bats Renly’s hand away when Renly would have brought him to completion. It’s a relief, in a way, since Renly isn’t sure he’s capable of making anything good for anyone at the moment, but it feels wrong as well. He rocks back onto his haunches, takes in their state as Loras sits up beside him. They’re disheveled, clothing askew and pushed aside. Renly can’t meet Loras’s eyes as they right themselves, tucking and lacing and smoothing. Loras gingerly rotates his shoulder and it hits Renly like a fist. He hasn’t been ashamed of anything with Loras for a very long time.

“I hurt you,” Renly says quietly.

“I’m not complaining,” Loras points out. Renly can’t tell him that only makes it worse. A stinging sets up behind his eyes and he squeezes them shut, covers his face with his hands. “Renly,” Loras says, and it’s full of pain and compassion, love and sorrow and too much feeling for Renly to bear. He allows Loras to cup the back of his neck, to tug Renly down to lay his head in Loras’s lap. He allows Loras to soothe him. Indeed, Loras is the only person who could.

“What will happen now?” Loras asks. Renly’s on his side, his ear pressed to Loras’s thigh, the cloth of his breeches rough and scratchy beneath him. The feel of Loras’s hand over his hair is comforting, familiar, a piece of normalcy in a world gone topsy-turvy.

“I don’t know. If Robert dies…” Renly’s voice dries up at the still impossible idea. He has to clear his throat and swallow to continue. “I’ll have to talk to Ned. Surely he knows we can’t leave Joffrey to the throne. Perhaps he’ll stand with us.”

“Do you think that likely?”

“No,” Renly says ruefully. “Ned Stark and his blasted honor. And I suppose we won't be getting Robert married off to Margaery anymore," he says, an almost hysterical urge to laugh bubbling in his throat and making him feel sick.

“You could marry her,” Loras says, even and quiet. Like he means it. But he couldn’t mean such a thing.

“Be serious,” Renly tells him.

“I am,” Loras says. “With my family’s support, you could declare yourself.”

Renly sits up to stare at Loras. There’s not a trace of jest or jape in his face. Loras truly means for Renly to marry his sister. The idea is as impossible as the idea of Robert dying. “Loras,” is all Renly can say, no words seeming adequate.

“You should be King. Not any of them. You.” Certainty blazes in Loras’s eyes, the set of his lips is grim.

“But you and I…”

“That wouldn’t change. That would never change.” Loras says it fiercely, so fiercely that Renly could believe it. It’s that fierceness that Renly clings to, as the rest of the life he thought he would have slips through his fingers like sand that can’t be held.

“Promise me,” he says to Loras, holding the nape of his neck with insistent fingers, pulling him close and setting their cheeks together. “Promise me we will never change, no matter who dies, marriage or no marriage, no matter what. Promise.” It’s all too urgent, too desperate and raw and vulnerable, but Renly just watched the beginning of his brother’s death. He can probably be excused.

“I promise you,” Loras says, just as urgent, just as desperate and raw and vulnerable.

“No matter what,” Renly says, his throat feeling thick and crowded.

“No matter what.” Renly kisses Loras then, kisses him like to fall into him and never come back. Kisses him and trusts him and believes his words like he’s never believed anything, because that’s all Renly can do.

*****

He’d met Margaery before, when she was just a slip of a thing, hovering shyly at her father’s side to welcome them to Highgarden. They hadn’t gone often, only a handful of times over the course of the years before Loras began to travel on his own, and Loras would always slip off immediately with his sister, not to be seen the rest of the day. Renly had known they were close, had heard the deep and true affection in Loras’s voice when he spoke of her, but seeing it for himself left a bittersweet ache in his chest, envy at Loras’s closeness with his sister something he’d not thought to anticipate; his relationship with his own brothers had always been cordial at best, after all. Brother, he thinks with a start, I only have one brother now, and the dull clutch inside his chest has almost become familiar.

She’s little more than a slip of a girl still, grown as she is. But there’s a strength in her, a steely core under her soft façade. Renly hears it in her voice when she asks Loras to leave them, feels it in the steadiness of her gaze as she looks at him. This is one person there’s no need to dissemble with, Renly knows.

“Is this marriage what you wish?” he asks, not bothering with niceties or preamble. The barest warming of her expression tells him he read her correctly.

“I am happy to do what’s best for the realm, my lord,” she says, as obeisant and demure as any Septa could hope for, the steel only returning to her voice when she adds, “and what’s best for my family.” Suddenly Renly’s tired, overwhelmingly so. He slumps into a chair, scrubbing his hand over his face as if to clear it of the weight of reality so he can smile again.

“That makes one of us,” he mutters. “Happy, that is. Please, sit.” Gracefully, she sits, hands folded at her knees. Her face betrays no clue to how she’s taking his reaction, staying smooth and placid, like a lake on a windless day. She would make a good Queen, he thinks. Steely. Calm. Inscrutable. All the things Renly’s not.

“Have you no suitors? No…” He gropes for a delicate word. “No interests? Surely this can’t be what you’ve wanted for yourself.”

“I want what all girls want,” she counters coolly. “A good and advantageous marriage.” Only the barest twitch of her serene smile says what she truly thinks of her words, of the underlying sentiment that young girls from noble houses doubtlessly have hammered into their hearts until they believe it, all those little pawns moved about by the whims and politics of men. Renly wonders if Margaery was ever so young as those girls. He imagines she seems a pawn to those around her, but something about her suggests to him that she’s as much a knight as her brother in this arena. Yes, a good Queen indeed.

“As for interests,” she continues. “Well. We both have our secrets, my lord.”

“Yes,” he says after looking at her in silence for a long time. “Yes, I suppose we do. And I suppose we also have a wedding to plan.” She permits a small smile at that, and rises to leave. At least that’s what Renly expects her to do. Instead she steps beside his chair and places a single fingertip under his chin to bring his eyes to hers.

“I love my brother, Lord Renly,” she says. “And my brother loves you. He always has.” It’s the most honest thing she’s said yet, and there are a thousand meanings in it Renly couldn’t hope to decipher. He closes his eyes against them all and when he looks again she’s gone.

*****

Nothing feels right. Renly plays the smiling lord in the days leading up to the wedding, the happy groom eager to be wed, but it weighs heavily on his shoulders, an uncomfortable mantle. If his somber mood shows through, no one has the ill grace to mention it. They carry on in their celebrations and their festivities, making a riotous swirl around him and Loras and Margaery, little noticing or caring if Loras’s face is drawn, if Margaery is far too serene, if Renly can’t meet anyone’s eyes, staring instead over shoulders at indeterminate points in the distance when he speaks. And why should they notice? Marriage has seldom been about love, after all.

Renly begs off early the night before the ceremony. Tomorrow will be enough to endure without subjecting himself to more this eve. When he finally extricates himself, his face sore from the false smile he’d worn for what seemed hours, Loras is there in his chambers. He seems at a loss, for one of the few times Renly has ever seen him so. Silently, Loras unties Renly’s cloak, tugs his boots from his feet, helps him shed the finery that tonight seems little more than a shell concealing his true self, until Renly stands before him in only his smallclothes. Loras says nothing, but his hand shakes when he sets it over the beat of Renly’s heart, until he presses his cheek there instead, listening to the steady drumming.

“This seems wrong.” Loras’s quiet words cut Renly to the quick.

“It was your idea,” he says gently. His hands come up to tangle in Loras’s hair, spearing through the mass of it to cradle his head like something precious and fragile.

“I know,” Loras says. He looks up at Renly, anguish plain in his eyes. That tumbledown lock of hair is on his cheek again, and Renly tucks it back to watch it spring forward, eyes stinging so that he has to blink against the dampness in them.

“I told you never to ask me to do something truly terrible,” Renly whispers. Loras looks at him miserably. Renly can’t hold him tightly enough, can’t kiss him deeply enough. Nothing will be different, he tells himself, nothing will change. But already their touches are strained, Loras’s hands are heartbreakingly tentative.

“Tomorrow-” Loras starts, but his voice cracks, and he makes a soft, sad sound without words.

“We promised each other,” Renly tells him fiercely. “You and I will never change. No matter what.”

“No matter what,” Loras echoes.

“I’m yours, Loras.”

“Renly…”

“I’m yours,” Renly says again, as if he could present himself to Loras as a gift, body and mind and soul, “I’m yours, I’m yours, I’m yours,” with every kiss, as if the repetition could make it true, true entire and not just in Renly’s heart. True enough that nothing and no one could ever keep them from one another. Truer than anything in the whole of the world and beyond.

 


*****
*****

 


It doesn’t fit. No matter how hard Loras tries, no matter how he pushes or pulls or contorts himself. He can see the look on Garlan’s face, that half-sad, half-cautious look he wears whenever he’s around Loras now. It makes Loras want to rip something apart with his bare hands.

“Loras,” Garlan says, his voice as half-sad, half-cautious as his face. Loras ignores him. Another inch of padding and he’ll have it. Another inch and Renly’s breastplate will cinch over Loras’s chest perfectly and Renly will be a little in the world again and maybe this horrible, gaping hole in Loras’s heart won’t feel so awful and overwhelming, if only for a handful of moments.

“Loras, you’re hurting yourself,” Garlan says, reaching for his hand when Loras’s fingers slip and he bashes his knuckles on the edge of the metal, blood showing bright around the broken skin. He snatches his hand away from Garlan, too raw still for the touch of another person. For the touch of the wrong person. Trouble is, they’re all the wrong person now, and they always will be.

The breastplate still hangs wrong despite all the padding, pinching where it should be loose, loose where it should be fitted. His hands swim in Renly’s gauntlets, the greaves rattle about his ankles and reach far past his knees, so he couldn’t bend them if he tried. It seems inconceivable, that something belonging to Renly could be so wrong on Loras. He’s seized by a brief, irrational urge to destroy the armor, to kick it into pieces as small and broken as he feels. Instead he tries even harder. If he can only make the breastplate fit, some desperate part of his mind thinks, then everything else will be fine. The metal binds strangely over his chest, making it hard to breathe, every inhalation a struggle. But then, every inhalation has been a struggle since Renly fell, since Loras saw his face dead and lifeless, the light gone out of his eyes for good. At least now the armor gives the struggle a corporeal reason. Something physical, some way to direct and disperse the rage and sorrow within him, is what Loras needs more than anything right now. Other than Renly. The rage and the sorrow only intensify at the thought, unfamiliar and agonizing, a poison in his veins.

When his hand slips again and a gash opens up on his palm, Loras has to accept the inevitable. He can’t fight if he can’t breathe, can’t face enemies if he can’t even handle a sword. And he wants to fight. He needs to. If only to keep the emptiness from consuming him.

“You’ll have to wear it,” he tells Garlan dully, knowing he sounds as dead as he feels. Dismay crosses Garlan’s face, along with uncertainty. He has no idea what to say, Loras knows, hasn’t since Renly died and Loras was changed forever. He’d never fully understood what was between Loras and Renly, though he’d done his best. Love and desire come and go so easily for Garlan, always simple and uncomplicated and brief. He’d no idea what Loras had with Renly, and he’s no idea what Loras has lost without him.

Garlan takes the armor from Loras, grimly begins to put it on. Loras should help him, should fit the pieces and secure them as any squire would. As he once had for Renly. But the memories are too painful; they leave no room for him in the tent. He startles the boy standing just outside the flap of the tent when he bursts through, gulping down air like a man drowning. Loras orders the boy inside to assist Garlan with a perfunctory jerk of his head. Quick as a thought, the boy obeys and Loras is left alone for the moment. Alone to think, alone to remember, alone to curse his heart for beating yet when Renly’s is still.

“I never did learn what eight and five meant,” he says aloud, the sudden realization so incongruous and unexpected that it almost makes him laugh. Almost.

It’s like seeing a ghost when Garlan appears outside the tent in Renly’s armor, if only for a heartbeat. The illusion is ruined when Garlan moves – he doesn’t hold himself as Renly did, doesn’t have Renly’s same casual grace and easy manner, and worst of all, he’s not attuned to Loras the way Renly always was, like there was a current between them that bound them inexorably together – but for just one moment, Loras can pretend all is well. They’re just training together, or Renly is riding tourney, or they’re going into battle with one another the way it should have been, and it was all just the most awful sort of nightmare; Loras didn't bury Renly with his own hands, didn't lower him into the cold, hard ground where he didn't belong. Then Garlan moves, flips the visor of his helm up to reveal the wrong face – oh, they're all the wrong face! – and everything shatters all over again. Loras stumbles away to retch painfully onto the grass.

“Will you be all right?” Garlan asks when they’ve moved to the head of the column and are preparing to ride, lords and knights and bannermen all around them. “Will you be able to fight?” He has no way of knowing how absurd the question is. Loras had never once in his life expected to be without Renly. He’d made no plans for a life without him, had no thoughts of ever leaving his side. They’d never said it aloud, but he knows they both only worried it might be the other way around, that Loras might be slain, leaving Renly to a life alone. But this… This is worse than anything he’d imagined because he’d never thought to imagine it. He’d known he would fight for Renly, but he never dreamed it would be like this. And now it’s all he has.

But all he says to Garlan is, “I will.” For Renly, he will. “And I’ll win.”