Everyone looked at Uther.
Vortigern hated it. He'd hated it when they were boys, with a child's pure and unbridled resentment. And he didn't stop hating it as they grew through gangly youth—as everyone's eyes were drawn to their beloved crown prince not simply for his presence but for his height, his commanding gaze, the promise of future strength that had begun to show itself in the muscled lines of arm and shoulder.
Vortigern discovered gradually that his hatred, too, was following in Uther's footsteps: acquiring new breadth, previously undiscovered intensity; in every facet of itself, increasingly and relentlessly unignorable.
Because he hated it when everyone looked at Uther. But he hated it more when Uther looked back at them.
At them, and not at Vortigern.
When they were boys, it had been simpler. He'd been Uther's companion, and no one had questioned it. They'd played together, near every day; gone adventuring in the gardens, safe within the castle walls, or ridden out to swim in the river; wrestled and skinned their knees and fought each other with sticks for swords.
And there had been no reason why it should not stay that way—or at least Vortigern had thought as much at the time, with a child's unquestioning confidence.
But everything had begun to change, as they grew older. Uther had begun to change, and his duties had begun to change likewise, and the less time he spent with Vortigern, the greater the shadow of the thought began to loom: perhaps someday he would have no time for Vortigern at all. Perhaps this wasn't aberration, but the true shape of the rest of Vortigern's life revealing itself: Uther would be king, and everyone would look at him, and Vortigern would watch from some distant corner, only one among those many, looking too and hating it.
He could not escape it, that shadow. It darkened all his days, cast itself blackly across his mind; it chilled him and yet it burned, too, low in his gut, as if he'd swallowed a hot coal, dim and steady and consuming.
He grasped after Uther's attention by every means he could think of, and his many failures only lent his rare successes greater sweetness—only made him hungrier still to achieve them. So when at last he discovered a solution, his joy was great, and filled him with self-satisfaction.
Because it turned out that it was as easy as this: he had to touch Uther too much.
Too much—more than Uther was expecting, that was all. It was not too much for Vortigern, who could not decide whether he liked doing it, feeling the lean hard warmth of Uther's thigh or arm beneath his hand, gripping the back of Uther's neck, more or less than he liked the way it made Uther's eyes widen, made him wet his lips and swallow and dart his gaze toward Vortigern uncertainly.
Everyone looked at Uther. But Vortigern learned how to make Uther look only at him, and was content.
And then, the winter Vortigern was fifteen, he caught Uther kissing some servant girl in a corridor, and the victory that had been so close within his grasp was all at once turned to ash.
He didn't want to see it; he stayed where he was and looked anyway, and the longer it went on, the hotter the frustration. He crept away while Uther's eyes were still closed, lips brushing a line of gentle kisses along the girl's flushed cheek, and he wanted—
—what? To kill her, he thought, in a brief sharp blaze of rage; except that wasn't it. He wanted her gone, that was all, and how it was accomplished mattered less than to have it done. A day ago he'd have said he wanted Uther to look at him, except with the girl, Uther's eyes had fallen shut. He was left with a needing he had no word for, that he couldn't articulate even to himself—unable to name it, he was helpless against it, nothing to be done with it but feel its searing and ache.
He lay in the cold dark that night and burned with it, filled with waking dreams of Uther's mouth: the way it softened with startlement when Vortigern's hand crept high upon his thigh—the way it moved when Uther damped it absently with his tongue, or bit it in distress or uncertainty. The way it had looked when he had lifted it at last away from that girl's, red and wet and sore. The way it would feel. Vortigern had not kissed anyone, had never been much inclined to try; but all that night he could think of nothing else. And then in the dim gray dawn, as he tossed and turned and bit his own fist trying to soothe his frustration, it occurred to him that perhaps there was a solution here, too, and no more complex than the last.
Other people would want to kiss Uther, no doubt. But it wouldn't matter, as long as Vortigern could make Uther kiss him instead.
He barely waited a day. They were tutored together, still, and then Uther was taken away to train with the knights; they weren't alone until the evening. That was all right. Vortigern wanted it like that anyway. He was careful to come upon Uther in a corridor, not the same one but very like, and when Uther turned and smiled at him, to close him in against the stone. He wanted the memories to overlap, to blur; he wanted Uther to be unable to think of the girl without thinking of Vortigern.
Of the two of them Uther was the taller, of course. But when Vortigern crowded him back toward the wall, he went, though a certain wariness had begun to steal across his face—and Vortigern could not decide whether that pleased or angered him, that Uther could so easily have pushed him away but let him instead.
"Vortigern," he said quietly, and Vortigern looked up at him and then reached out and gripped his hip. Uther tensed beneath his hand and caught him by the wrist, and his eyes were wide and suddenly dark. "Vortigern—"
"Yes, Uther?" Vortigern murmured, and watched Uther's throat move as he swallowed, felt a prickle sweep his skin and thought: oh.
"You mustn't," Uther said, so low he was almost whispering now. "You—you don't mean it, I know that; but you mustn't touch me like this," and Vortigern couldn't decide whether to laugh or strike him. He spoke as if Vortigern were a child, as if it had not all been deliberate from the first moment Vortigern had realized how to bring Uther's gaze to rest upon him and him alone.
"Don't I?" Vortigern said instead, almost against Uther's jaw; and he shoved a thigh between Uther's and pressed their lips clumsily together in the same moment, felt Uther jerk and shudder against him and gasp into his mouth, and oh, oh. He'd discovered what his cock was for, yes, but it had never felt like this—
Uther broke away, twisting his head so sharply he nearly struck the wall, and squeezed his eyes shut, and the next breath that escaped him was ragged as a sob. "We can't," he said; "Vortigern, don't," but he hadn't quite moved away, and Vortigern pressed up into Uther's grip—on both his wrists, now—and kissed Uther again, and Uther's trembling mouth against his was the sweetest victory yet.
Vortigern was to go to the mages.
He didn't want to, but of course that didn't matter. Father was king, and he willed it, and what the king willed might as well have been written in stone for all Vortigern's power to alter it.
For the sake of peace—as if there were such a thing, Vortigern thought, or ever could be. If it existed, he'd never seen it, never felt it; there was always something in him that was dissatisfied, that burned like a fire and when fed only grew larger, only demanded more fuel be put to its flames. Mages, for all their powers, were still human in the end. Surely they were the same as he. Surely everyone was.
No, there was another reason for this, and Vortigern wasn't an idiot. He understood. He was eighteen, a man by any measure, and Father had had brothers; he knew well their perils. Uther was his heir. And he might have sent Vortigern to war, or to the church, except at war Vortigern might win some respect, and in the church what use was he to anyone? Better the mages: there, Vortigern would earn himself knowledge, hidden power, that could be put to use in Uther's service—and yet no man at court would look at him except a little askance, and whispers would follow him wherever he went, and only mages would seek to have a mage or mage-learner ascend the throne. And if the mages took it as a gesture of goodwill, that King Custennin himself sent one of his sons to them as a foster-student, that was hardly to be rued.
Yes, Vortigern understood. When Father told him, he stared at Father with hard eyes and didn't answer except to incline his head, so Father would know he couldn't be fooled.
As if it were even necessary, he thought after, darkly, clenching his fists and pressing them to the stone walls of his chamber. As if there were any danger that he might find himself better-loved than Uther—Uther, Uther, who was tall and strong and beautiful, who had trained with Father's knights and bested them all and only won their loyalty by it instead of making them bitter and resentful of his skill; who attended meetings of the king's council, these days, and was thoughtful, diligent, not yet wise but poised to become so in time.
Who would not go to the mages with Vortigern; who would stay here, and surely it would be years, years, before Vortigern would be allowed to return—
Vortigern closed his eyes, and let his mouth twist, and dug his knuckles further still into the stone. So Father had told him, then.
"Vortigern, please—open the door," Uther said, a little more quietly; and oh, Vortigern hated him for asking, for the softness in that steady voice—for the knowledge that he would open the door, because Uther wanted him to. And Uther must know it too, and only pretended not to, pleading with him like that, hollow and obvious and irresistible.
Vortigern opened the door, and Uther was through it immediately, as if he feared Vortigern might otherwise have shut it again before he could pass. He crowded Vortigern back into the room, hands reaching to settle tentatively on Vortigern's shoulders, gaze cautious and searching on Vortigern's face, and Vortigern loathed him for it desperately, wanted to knock him away and spit on him.
"He told you," Vortigern said instead, and was distantly pleased by how cool and sharp the words sounded.
"And of course you didn't argue," Vortigern spat.
Which was unjust, for Uther hadn't any more grounds to do it than Vortigern had; and Uther had to know it but still flinched as if pained, as if the accusation struck him with weight. "I thought," he said, and then stopped and wet his lips, and suddenly drew his hands away so they weren't touching anymore. "I thought it might be—better."
Vortigern stared at him. "So you could get free of me at last," he heard himself say, very soft and cold. "I understand, brother—"
"No!" Uther said, and then looked as if he wished he hadn't, face twisting and crumpling, turning away a little and putting a hand to his eyes. "So you could," he murmured after a moment, and the words came out cracked and scraping. "God, I should—I should never have touched you. You must know that. I should be glad you're going; if I were a better man, I would be." He looked up again, and his eyes were wet. "Vortigern, please—"
"But you aren't," Vortigern said—and it came out almost gently, though his heart was pounding, a fierce wild satisfaction stealing through him and setting him alight. He wanted to cry out with it, to throw open the door again and drag Uther to the audience hall and make him say it again. Except there was a part of him that did like it secret so very well, seeing everyone fawn and scrape in blithe ignorance of what Vortigern had known for years: that their dear king-to-be loved his own brother better than any of them, and liked to fuck him too.
Uther stared at him, jaw tight, and bit his lip. "No," he said at last.
"And you have touched me," Vortigern murmured.
Uther's eyes fell shut; he looked almost in pain. "Yes," he whispered.
"And when I've gone to the mages," Vortigern said, and moved closer—not quite touching, but close enough that Uther could surely feel the heat of him—yes, his throat moved, he swallowed hard; he knew Vortigern was nearer. "When I've gone, you will long for me."
He expected Uther to flinch again, perhaps, from this unpleasant truth. To back away, or feebly deny. He expected some fresh-gathered kindling for his anger.
But instead, Uther only opened his eyes and looked at Vortigern, sad and sweet and wanting, and said, "Yes, God help me. I will."
He lifted his hand and touched Vortigern's jaw, his cheek; and Vortigern sucked in an unsteady breath and then caught himself, pushed Uther's hand away and said sharply, "Prove it."
Uther stood there uncertainly.
Vortigern made his mouth flat and looked pointedly at the floor, and then at Uther, and raised his eyebrow.
He didn't even know which he wanted more: for Uther to take his meaning and grow red with anger, to shout at him and say it was beneath the dignity of a man who would be king, or—
Or to stare at him with wide eyes and wet his lips, and drop with slow unsteady motions to his knees. Vortigern had already been half-hard in his trousers, as he so often was in any room alone with Uther, and he had to press a hand to himself at once to keep in control, looking down at Uther like this.
And yet even as it made him ache, even as he reached to wind his hand into Uther's hair and stepped forward, it was—well.
It was no surprise, perhaps, that Uther should be the sort of man who, getting on his knees to suck a cock, could make you feel like the one debased for having bid him do it.
Vortigern hissed in irritation, clasped one hand round the back of Uther's head and shoved his trousers roughly down with the other, and of course Uther only helped him do it—and then caught his bare hips in those broad strong hands, and went without protest when Vortigern dragged him forward.
And of course he was good at this, too. Of course his mouth was wet and hot; of course he took Vortigern's cock in it as if it were a pleasure, as if he wanted nothing more. Of course he closed his eyes and flattened his tongue against Vortigern's length and made a soft desperate sound in his throat. Vortigern gasped and fucked in hard without even meaning to, but Uther only gripped his hips and followed the motion, letting Vortigern press almost into his throat without ever quite choking.
But Vortigern couldn't resent him properly for it, not when it felt like this. He clenched his fingers in Uther's hair and let his own head fall back, and God, God, it was spectacular. And he tried to cling to all his half-formed thoughts of—of spending in Uther's mouth or on his face, shoving Uther off with a sneer when he was finished and watching the dull bewildered pain in Uther's eyes, like a kicked animal, that welled up whenever Vortigern was cruel to him.
But they melted away, passed through his hands and came apart like smoke. And instead suddenly he couldn't bear it. He squeezed his eyes shut and tightened his hands, held Uther still and pulled himself back out of Uther's mouth, and fell to his knees.
And Uther caught him and drew him close, even as he said, "Vortigern? Was I—didn't you want me to—" in a gentle puzzled way.
"Shut up," Vortigern said, and kissed him, and—
And that was almost as good anyway. Tasting himself in Uther's mouth, and grappling down to work a hand into Uther's trousers and tease him with two fingers so that he panted and swore against Vortigern's lips, and pushing his own cock up into Uther's fist. He came like that, and wasn't sorry.
Not until Uther had his breath back, and caught Vortigern's face in his free hand and kissed him, slow and deep and careful. "I hate that you're leaving me," he murmured against Vortigern's cheek when he pulled back, "and if I could keep you always—brother, I would."
Then Vortigern wished he had kept his cock in Uther's mouth after all, so he wouldn't have had to hear it said; and so he wouldn't have had to hate himself for wanting to believe it.
Vortigern waited until dark.
It didn't please him, but it was necessary. And in truth, it had brought him no small satisfaction, to return in such state and be welcomed, to let his eyes fall upon Uther and to bow with all the respect due from a man to his king—and then to turn away, and greet other familiar faces, and talk of how glad he was to return home, and not linger over Uther in particular at all. At the feast that followed after, for once the whole high table had been attentive to Vortigern and Vortigern alone, with all manner of questions asked about the mages and their ways.
And Vortigern had basked in it, smiling, and even demonstrated some minor tricks, to gasps and laughter and general astonishment. Nothing that drew on real power, for of course he wasn't a mage born, no matter how hard he'd studied; but it didn't take real power to make candle-flame blow blue sparks for a moment, or to turn a stray bit of straw into a fresh blooming flower on its stem. And through it all, he had barely spared a glance for Uther, except what might be expected over the course of a meal with Uther at the head of the table. Looking easily away again without pausing, as if he had not been parched for the sight of Uther, as if it mattered to him not at all—yes, that had been satisfying. But now—
Now he felt he must have another sort of satisfaction entirely.
It was gratifying to discover that Uther's habits were still predictable to him: he went to the chamber near the council hall where Uther had already begun poring over tax records, even before Vortigern had left. And yes, there was someone there, candles lit, the dim gold warmth of them pouring out into the corridor. Father hadn't cared for that sort of work, had left it to his advisors, and when there were no audiences to hear, had liked to shut himself away in one of the towers—where anyone who wished to speak with him would have to climb many stairs to do it.
But Father was dead; and Uther was king, and ruled in the way that suited him.
Vortigern hadn't heard the news until it had all been over, the interment and coronation both already complete. But when word had reached the mages, he'd smiled, and wished harder than he had in at least a year to have been there: to have seen Father's crown taken from him, while he lay there cold and unknowing.
Vortigern stepped carefully nearer, and peered through the doorway. Uther wasn't wearing the crown now. Pity. That would have made this even better.
But never mind. It was more than enough, the way Uther glanced up as if expecting someone else and then looked again, head snapping up, suddenly intent, realizing all at once that it was Vortigern. "Brother," he said at once, and stood, rounding the table and reaching out—but there was, Vortigern thought, some unsteadiness in his hand, some wary held-breath look about him.
Because he hoped it had been long enough—years, now, since they'd seen each other. He hoped the things they had done, the wanting to do it, had gone.
Vortigern swallowed down the sudden surge of spite that woke in him so it wouldn't show on his face, and looked at Uther and then away, casting his eyes respectfully down. "My lord," he murmured, and behind his back he moved two fingertips in a little pattern, and watched the small spark of red light that had dropped from them crawl across the floor toward Uther.
Uther didn't see it, and a moment later had trod upon it; and there was a tiny pop, the barest reddish flash from under his boot, and he faltered and shook himself. He'd been smiling, but wasn't any longer, and his jaw had gone tense.
It wasn't so big a thing: the spark had only been to make his mood sour, that he might therefore be easier to goad a little, and thus inclined to do something unwise. If Vortigern had been a mage born, no doubt he could've had anything he liked of Uther for the asking, and made him heel like a dog—but never mind. This would be enough. Uther was king, he would marry soon; but he hadn't yet, and knowing him he had fucked no one in all the time Vortigern was away. He had to want it at least a little, still, and if he were angry enough surely he would take it.
"You needn't call me that," Uther said at last, and clapped him on the shoulder.
"Surely anything else would be disrespectful," Vortigern said, and watched what might otherwise have been brief frustration cross Uther's face, pinpoints of red light flickering to life in Uther's eyes.
"You are my brother," Uther said, a bit sharply.
"Does that matter?" Vortigern murmured, and was rewarded: the twin red lights flared brighter.
"Of course it matters—"
"You are glad to have me back, then," Vortigern pressed. "I could hardly tell, earlier; you barely spoke to me—"
"You barely spoke to—"
"—and you must know if you don't want me here, you need only say the word," and this he spat like venom; he couldn't help it, because it was true, horribly true, and if Uther didn't want him anymore then perhaps this argument was all it would take to prompt that word to be spoken. "You are king, and I am only a mage-scholar, and if you wish, you'll never see me again—"
"Enough!" Uther cried, and caught him, shoved at him, so that he toppled sideways and had to catch himself against the table. "Why are you saying these things? You came back—you came back. You think I wanted to sit there like a lump while you smiled at everyone but me?"
He'd leaned in, crowded Vortigern against the table, but his tone had gone from hot to—to plaintive, low and ragged, and the red light in his eyes was dimming, almost snuffed out. Vortigern saw this with a spasm that he didn't wish to name panic, and moved his fingers again, even spoke a low word; and suddenly Uther's eyes were like coals, and all Vortigern had to do then was spit curses at him to make Uther grab him by the throat and shove him down, tip him back against the table and press in between his thighs.
The better to strangle him, at first. But Vortigern shuddered and jerked beneath him and pressed a hand between Uther's legs, and Uther growled with frustration and thrust against that hand, and surely Vortigern had him now.
"Is this what you want?" Uther was saying, biting the words out against Vortigern's ear. "You came back, after all this time—not to speak to me or be glad with me, not to serve me as your king or mourn with me as your brother, but because none of the mages know how to fuck you the way you like—"
Yes, Vortigern thought. Yes, that's exactly it. Choke me, push me, fuck me, and make it hurt a little; and when you've come to your senses again, when the magic's worn off, you'll be horrified and you'll feel dirty and you'll hate yourself, and I'll have won again, and that's all that matters to me.
"Uther," his traitor mouth gasped instead. Uther had already been tugging him closer, one hand still at his throat and the other catching him round the small of the back, the better to press the line of Uther's cock to Vortigern's ass even though they were both still dressed—but at this it all changed. Suddenly Uther's thumb was no longer pressing into Vortigern's throat, but stroking along the line of it; and the tension that had been drawn taut in the muscles of Uther's arm softened, so that he wasn't lifting Vortigern but holding him.
"Vortigern," Uther murmured, sounding startled and a little wondering. "You—what was that? What did you do?"
Vortigern squeezed his eyes shut. If he looked, he knew, he would see that the red light had gone out of Uther's eyes, that only candlelight remained; and surely any moment Uther would push him away and demand to know what working he'd tried, make him swear never to do it again—
"You didn't need to," Uther whispered after a moment, almost gently. "You must know you didn't need to. I—I wish you had, I wish I weren't so easily swayed; but you must know that you've always been—"
Vortigern pushed himself up off the table and hooked an arm round Uther's shoulders, and dragged him down to kiss him; and he should have been proud, triumphant, to know Uther wasn't lost to him after all, but instead he only felt sickeningly, shamefully grateful.
The sword wouldn't come free for him.
He'd tried. Of course he had. And every now and then, when he was particularly drunk, particularly angry, or both, he went down to the stone and tried again—as if it might only have been a mistake, as if this time the damn thing would relent.
Uther had, he recalled, refused him nothing. Even things for which he'd never been able to bring himself to ask. Why was this so different? Just because he'd—just because Uther was—
It didn't matter. None of it mattered, Vortigern thought, and tipped back the cup he had brought with him until mead spilled down his chin.
When it was empty, he threw it at the stone, and it didn't even have the decency to break; it rattled off with a hollow sound and tumbled away into the dirt, where there should have been water but wasn't.
He meandered closer, ignoring the guards—who knew, by now, to ignore him in turn. Vortigern didn't care to be interrupted, at times like this.
"This is your fault, you know," Vortigern told the stone, and then shouted it: "This is your fault!"
The stone, of course, didn't flinch. Uther rarely had.
Vortigern stumbled a little, the ground uneven beneath his feet. It was all a mess of rock and stinking dirt, bared soil where nothing would grow, and the stone jutting high in the middle of it. But it wasn't so hard to clamber up onto a level with it, not really—even like this, he could manage well enough, and didn't fall.
The stone was smooth under his hands, and cool. Somehow he always expected it to be warmer than it was.
He squinted at it, and then crouched awkwardly beside it. Sometimes, depending on the angle, he could see Uther in it so clearly—one knee to the ground, the other raised; the extended arm and the bent, and the bowed head. Even the closed eyes, knowing what was coming, waiting for the sword to fall.
And sometimes it just looked like a fucking stone.
"This is your fault," Vortigern murmured, touching Uther's stone shoulder. "Just give me the fucking sword, brother. Is that so much to ask? That's all I want. All this can stop, you know. It's up to you."
He reached up and touched the hilt—and wanted to be sick at the thought of trying, only to fail again. No. No, not this time.
"I'll give you some time to think about it," he told the stone instead. "You'll see this is the only way, and you'll give it to me. You must." He leaned closer. "I know you will. You always did eventually, didn't you?"
The stone was slick against his mouth, when he pressed his lips to Uther's stone cheek. Slick, and very cold, and Vortigern lingered there a moment with his wet face tipped against Uther's stone head and wondered dimly why he felt so tired.
Father's crown was so heavy. That was probably it. It had never looked like a burden, when Uther wore it; but Vortigern remembered the moment Uther had handed it to him, just before he'd gone and slain Mordred at last. He'd been surprised then, too, by the weight of it.
Perhaps he'd commission a new one tomorrow. Victorious kings did that, didn't they? One that was finer, grander in its look, but in some less dense metal. That would do the trick.
Arthur escaped, and the sword with him.
It occurred to Vortigern, somewhere in the haze of rage and bitterness and even more drink than usual, to fear that perhaps the stone was gone, too—but when he went to look it was still there.
He stared at it for a time. And then he went back inside the castle and broke everything he could lay his hands on, and then dragged himself exhaustedly to the king's chambers and lay there and did not sleep, while all the world unmercifully kept turning around him.
The sound wasn't real, but that didn't mean he didn't hear it. A distant cracking, as of stone, and deep heavy footsteps. Very few and far between, at first, and so far away—of course they weren't real. Vortigern couldn't have heard them, but did. Far away, drawing closer; and they grew lighter, faster, winding up toward the castle by a way few men dared pass: upward from where there had once been water, the secret way by which Uther had meant to escape with his beloved goddamned wife and son. Lighter, and faster, so that by the time they reached the king's door they sounded like the footsteps of any ordinary man.
But that was not what they were, Vortigern thought, and when the door opened he looked, and somehow he wasn't surprised that it was Uther.
Uther, still dressed in his—his tunic and chain-mail, just as he had been on the day—
"What is this?" Uther said, hushed. "What has happened? Vortigern—oh, God. I told you it was too high a price—"
"I don't answer to you," Vortigern said, and let his eyes drop shut again. "I am king, I don't answer to anyone, and you aren't real anyway."
"Am I not," Uther said.
He didn't sound as though he were asking, but Vortigern answered him anyway. "No. You are a dream, I think. If you were real, you'd already have killed me."
The shade of Uther was silent for a long moment. "Brother," it said at last, softly, "I cannot. If I could have, I would have done it then."
"Oh, come now," Vortigern said, huffing out half a laugh even though it wasn't amusing in the least. "I killed Igraine. I killed you—or I might have, if you hadn't done it first. You are a stone now, you know. I'm still not sure how you did that, and I certainly can't imagine how it could have been undone—"
"There is an older magic even than yours," the shade of Uther said slowly. "Older even—a little—than that with which you paid the witches. Sorrow and regret, self-deprivation, self-abasement, are its coin," and then he stopped his pointless nattering, and Vortigern cracked an eye to see him looking carefully about the room. "How long have you been like this?"
Vortigern considered the question. He ached, though whether it was from the exertion of tearing half the king's chambers apart or from lying on a stone floor without moving, he couldn't guess; he couldn't recall when last he might have eaten.
It struck him suddenly, how ludicrous it would be if the shade of Uther were right, and after all that he had tried, every trick and pressure and power he had brought to bear against the fucking sword, this was all he'd ever have needed to change Uther back, to—
To pull the sword from his flesh instead, where it had impaled him, and let him fall bleeding against the rocks, dying; to be victorious at last.
Vortigern laughed, except it didn't sound like a laugh, and shuddered, and then couldn't stop. And suddenly there were hands against him, arms around him, much warmer than the floor.
"You're a stone," he said. "You should be cold."
"Ah," Uther murmured to him gently, "but you said it yourself: this is a dream."
"Yes," Vortigern agreed. "Yes, that's right. So it is." He paused a moment. "I found Arthur."
Uther went still, but didn't let go. "You did," he said, very even.
"Yes. He looks like you," Vortigern added, because there was no one else he could have said it to. "Something about the eyes, I think. The way he stares at me. As if he expected better; as if he's disappointed not to get it." He laughed again, ragged. "He's gone now, but I'll find him. I'll find him, and I'll kill him, too. I'll win. I'll win, and it will all have been worth it." Because it had to be. Uther had been wrong, all those years ago: the price had been high, but not higher than Vortigern had expected. High enough to purchase a victory worth that price, that was all. That was the only way it made sense.
"Oh, Vortigern," Uther murmured, very softly. "God, I wish I had had the strength to love you less."
Vortigern frowned up at him. "What do you mean?" he said, touching the shade's cheek. "That isn't why I hated you, in the end. I hated you because you didn't love me enough," and the shade closed its eyes as if in pain and bowed its head, and clutched Vortigern to it more tightly still.
"Never mind," it said, low. "Hush. Hush, brother. All will be well," and it wiped the wetness from Vortigern's cheeks, trailed a careful hand along his jaw to the corner of his mouth—and when he leaned up and let himself catch its mouth in a kiss, it didn't pull away. "I do love you," it whispered against Vortigern's lips, "I do; I know what you've done, and still, still, I cannot stop," and it sounded so like Uther, so very like, that in hearing it speak such words, Vortigern felt almost forgiven.
He clutched the shade with sudden strength and kissed it again—kissed him, kissed Uther, and was, for a moment, content.